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Chapter 2


The Quarx

He couldn't tell if the feeling came directly from the object or not. Something made him feel that he was being watched from behind. He turned partway around, but saw nothing except the spinning ice walls and their rocky protrusions. He shuffled awkwardly back around to stare at the alien object, and shivered.

This time the feeling came purely from within. He felt as if something had blown open in his mind, like a shutter in a strong wind. The wind was sighing through his head now, rustling his inner order like so many fluttering leaves. It reminded him of the feeling of silence-fugue, but this was different. This was something from the outside touching him—and yet touching him within, intimately and profoundly. He had a feeling of a great door swinging silently open somewhere in his mind, and slamming shut again behind him as he passed over some invisible threshold.

He let out a startled breath. The curious inner feeling faded away, and was replaced by cold, outward reality. He was trapped in an underground cavern, with no idea how to get out. And he was standing in front of...the discovery of the century. An alien machine! It was what the Neptune/Triton explorers had looked for in vain, for years—an intact, and possibly functioning, artifact of the long-vanished alien race, the slag of whose technology laced the crust of this moon. This could be a discovery beyond price or measure, a discovery that could make him famous, possibly even rich. A discovery that could redeem him for his idiocy in falling into this cavern in the first place.

If, that is, he lived to tell anyone about it.

He was breathing fast again, thinking about it, wondering what knowledge was contained in that machine, what history, what capabilities. What power. And even, perhaps...what consciousness. Though he no longer felt the tangible sensation, an awareness that he was not alone continued to bubble inside him. He exhaled, flexing his hands in his gloves, trying to relax, trying to maintain an edge of alertness.

He was keenly aware that this machine, whatever its purpose or nature, could well be dangerous—despite the fact that it undoubtedly had been here for millennia. He had to assume that it was dangerous. He was in enough peril already, trapped here underground, without compounding his danger by triggering some ancient defense mechanism. Unless, of course, he already had triggered it.

He tried to think.

First: don't move any closer until you know what you're doing. Your antenna's free of the ice. Call for help again. Don't try to handle this alone.

Of course, he was still deep underground, and for that matter he might well have broken his antenna in his fall. But there was only one way to find out. "Suit," he said. "Comm—"

Before he could finish saying "on," he felt a sharp poke in the center of his forehead. It was followed immediately by a startling sensation, almost like being connected to a datanet... in a flickering, tenuous way, as if a single, remote voice had caught him in midaction, and out of the vast darkness had whispered, Don't.

What the hell? he thought. Was he hallucinating again?


Had this thing just spoken to him?

He shivered with a sudden chill, and stared at the object with a mixture of fear and fascination. Had it just told him not to call for help?

"Is that it?" He spoke aloud, his voice reverberating in his helmet. "Are you telling me not to call?" There was no answer.

If he didn't call, he could be stuck here forever. Survive first, ask questions later.

"Suit," he muttered again, a little more determinedly. "Comm on, trans—"


The jab was sharper this time. He tried to keep speaking anyway, to overcome the resistance—and found that he couldn't. He could exhale and inhale, but was mute, as if stricken by a physical impediment. His breath hissed loudly in his helmet as he struggled to regain his voice.

"What do you want?" he thought—and heard his voice again, croaking the words aloud. Startled, he continued, "Are you keeping me here for some reason?"

There was no audible answer. But he had a strong sense that there was an answer, just as he had a sense that he was not alone here. "Can you talk?" he asked.


He sighed and turned, playing his headlight around the cavern. The light danced back from the blue, translucent ice, glimmering as though it were alive. As the beam strayed outward, it picked up the spinning effect again. Clearly this machine was doing something, and whatever the hell it was, he would probably be smart to get out of its physical sphere of influence, and then worry about communicating with it afterward. Or better yet, let someone else worry about it.

He felt a vaguely disquieting sense of disapproval, but no physical resistance, as he took a few unsteady steps away from the device. He approached the boundary where the spinning seemed to begin, and found he had trouble focusing his eyes. He hesitated, then stepped forward. A wave of nausea flushed through him. He staggered, fell—and as he fell, a strange twisting force seized him, spun him, and set him gently down on his hands and knees.

Struggling for breath, he looked up and realized that he was facing the alien device again. Gasping, he got back to his feet. Had that really happened? Or had he just been amazingly clumsy?

"Mind if I try again?" he muttered. This time, as he approached the boundary, he closed his eyes to slits—hoping to avoid dizziness. He felt himself falling, and twisting, and landed on his hands and knees again, lightheaded and indignant, facing the machine. He rose, panting, squinting at the object. It showed no reaction. He swept the area again with his light. There had to be some way to get away from it. Everywhere he swung the beam, cavern walls gleamed back at him, moving by in carousel fashion. He turned back to the alien device and hissed, "What do you want with me? Am I your prisoner?"

Not prisoner, he thought. Guest.

Where had that thought come from? Stunned, he walked toward the artifact. "Can you talk?" The thing squirmed, black and iridescent in his helmet light. "Can you my thoughts?" he asked. There was no response. But he felt certain that it was aware of him. Perhaps it would react if he touched it.

Perhaps it would kill him if he touched it.

Perhaps he could find something to throw at it. That ought to get its attention.

Glancing around, he found a loose chunk of ice, and with a gentle underhand toss, lobbed it toward the machine. It sparkled as it passed through his headlight beam, then dropped toward one of the black globes—and would have hit it, except that it vanished in midair. No flash, no sound. It was just there, then gone.

He decided that it was a good thing that he hadn't touched the machine. On the other hand, he had to get through to it somehow. He picked up another small piece of ice and lobbed it like the first one, this time toward one of the iridescent sections. He missed the machine altogether. One last try: a chunk of ice twirled and tumbled in an arc toward one of the iridescent bubbles...and turned to glittering dust before being sucked into the sphere like an indrawn breath.

He waited for something more to happen. Nothing did.

"All right," he muttered. "I guess you don't want to talk."

The wind rose again in his thoughts and whispered: We're learning. We want to talk.

He swallowed nervously, fear clamping around his throat. Was that his imagination? He didn't think so. Please, he thought, let me get out of this alive. I will never never let the fugue carry me away like that again! Just let me get out alive.

We want you to stay alive, he heard the wind say.

He choked, and instinctively reached out with his mind to catch the wind, to make the connection hold, to make it real, like the datanet—and at that moment something erupted from within, not in audible words, but in thoughts that seemed to turn into words:

/// Help me—I'm trying— ///

"Jesus!" he cried, grabbing the sides of his helmet. "Who is it? Who is this?"

/// I am— ///

whispered the voice from within.

"What?" he croaked. "You are what? The machine? The alien? Is that you talking to me?"

There was a short silence, and a sense of puzzlement. Then:

/// Alien...? ///

"Yes!" he hissed. "Alien. Jesus Christ—what's happening to me?"

/// It's...already...happened. ///

Already happened? he thought dumbly. He barked, not quite cursing, "You're that thing. What are you? What are you here for?"

/// I am...quarx. ///


The words were starting to form more clearly in his thoughts:

/// I am trying...

to talk with you. ///

"Well, I—I can't stay here much longer. Can you understand that? I need to get back to the surface. I'll come back later. To talk. I only have enough power—"

/// I know, ///

whispered the voice.

/// I ///

"What? How?" Bandicut was panting. He was hyperventilating again; he had to slow down. God, it was terrifying, and yet...exhilarating! A living alien, talking to him, as if through a neuro! He wondered if he could talk back to it the way he could the datanet. /Can you...hear me when I do this?/ he thought, forming the words in his mind with careful deliberation.

/// Yes.

I've been hearing you...all along.

It's talking that's...difficult. ///

He blinked. /How do you talk to me...from way over there? Do you use some kind of...transmitter...that reaches directly into my brain?/

The answering thought seemed startled.

/// "Over there?"

I'm not, I'm right here. ///

He swallowed. /Where?/

/// In your mind. ///

Well, yes, he thought. But...

And then he understood what it was saying to him. /Do you mean...are you my.../

/// Yes. ///

He froze, trying not to jump to conclusions. /You don't mean in my actual...brain, do you? You don't mean you're actually in my head, do you? Not just connecting, but—?/

/// Living there?


Not physically, as you think of it, but...

close enough... ///

Bandicut was suddenly dizzy, too dizzy to hear the voice complete its thought. Not physically, he thought. And suddenly he knew. It had taken him a while to catch on, but now he understood...oh yes, it was like the neurolink, and yes, he was connected; it was like having a memory-resident program alive in his skull, only it was an alien mem-res. Not physically there, maybe, alien voice in his head. It was different from the neuro, and yet strangely familiar at the same time.

/// Am I—

causing you difficulty? ///

Sarcasm? he thought. But no, it wouldn't understand human sarcasm, would it? It was alien. He let his breath hiss out, not knowing how to answer. "What exactly...did you say you were?" he asked suddenly, speaking aloud.

The answer felt muted, almost tentative.

/// Quarx. ///

"Quarx." He swallowed. /Quarx./ He felt like pacing. He paced mentally, framing his words. /We...we always wondered... who you were. We just knew you before us. Here on Triton. A long time ago. Quarx, you say./

/// Yes. ///

/I...there's a lot I...should ask you. That I want to ask you./ He felt clumsy and stupid. What should he be asking?

/// There will be time enough

for all of that. ///

He shook his head. /No, I—I mean I—look, tell me please—/ He drew a breath and asked, almost plaintively, /How the hell did you get into my mind like this?/

The voice seemed to stumble.

/// Well, I...

it would be difficult to explain physically.

It was the translator that did it. ///

The translator. He sensed that the voice was referring to the machine in front of him. /This thing?/ He felt an affirmative response. /Is this thing a part of you? Are you a part of it?/ he asked, groping for understanding.

/// No.

The translator is...a machine.

I was...occupying its space-time, before.

Now I you. ///

With you.


Bandicut shivered. /I—/ He'd thought he had understood before; he'd thought he alien enhancement program, like the neurolink; he'd thought he could accept that all right. It was terrifying, yes, but exciting. An alien program. Information. Datapoints. Not...


In my mind.

/// I am alive, yes. ///

He felt himself beginning to hyperventilate again. He couldn't make himself stop. His faceplate began to fog up. He heard the voice whisper,

/// I've been waiting such a LONG time. ///

and somehow that stopped his hyperventilation short. He felt a strange rustling sensation, as if someone were riffling through the pages of his mind, trying to find a connection that was missing. He recalled that he needed to be getting out of this cavern, but the outside world seemed a million miles away now.

/// I'm sorry if this is...

startling to you. ///

He erupted with a cackle of near-hysterical laughter. /Startling? at all./ He gulped. /You aren' with me to stay, are you?/ He clenched his fists, closing his eyes, swallowing, trying not to scream, WHAT DO YOU WANT WITH ME?

/// I—

for a while, yes. ///

Bandicut reeled silently.

// What do I want?

I—to get to know you better—

to begin with. ///

/Get to know me,/ he whispered. /Get to know me? Would you mind...telling me what the hell you are—?/

/// Quarx. ///

/Quarx,/ he repeated. /WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?/

The alien device suddenly flickered, and something appeared in the air off to one side. It looked almost like a hologram—but that wasn't quite right. It was more like a pocket of darkness, and within the darkness, something bright and coruscating and very hard to look at. It was ghostly and frightening, like a glimpse into the heart of a nuclear reaction. He stared at it dumbly for a second, then blinked and yelled, "Suit!"


"Analyze the image in front of me."

Boop. "Specify image."

"The one right in front of me, damn it! Record it—full spectrum!" At that moment, the image vanished. Whatever it was, he had scared it away.

Beep. "Recording. Analysis indicates nitrogen and methane ice at a distance of four and one-half meters."

"Not the wall! Didn't you get that other thing, that—"

The quarx interrupted him.

/// That's the best I can— ///

He shifted his attention angrily to the interior of his mind. /What?/ If it had really been the datanet, he would have issued a freeze command, so that he could get a grip on what was happening.

/// You asked...what I was.

I tried...

I exist in a partial,

you might say...

a fractal displacement

from your physical continuum.

But I require an anchor point

a merger

in this space-time

for coherent survival— ///

/What the hell are you talking about?/ Bandicut whispered, incomprehensible images flickering in his mind.

The voice became more subdued.

/// Sorry.

It is difficult—

the words.

I was trying to show you—

not clear. ///

He struggled to follow, but the images were lost now. Too much was happening, too much all at once. Maybe if you don't think of it as an alien, he thought desperately; think of it as a mem-res, and you'll be able to handle it.

The quarx reacted to his thought.

/// Don't think that I'm just... ///

and it hesitated for a moment, apparently sensing his unease.

/// Still...

if it helps... ///

Bandicut hesitated. What the hell was he supposed to do now, or think? He might have made humanity's first contact with a living alien, but that didn't mean he wanted a goddamn alien living in his mind. At least not for very long. On the other hand, it was an inner voice again, even if it was different from the neuro. Perhaps while it was here it would help keep the silence-fugue at bay.

/// I'll try.

I am aware of your...difficulty. ///

His thoughts were spinning onward; he didn't respond to that. There was, of course, the discovery of the alien machine, which he had to report...

/// NO!!! ///

He felt a barrier slam down in his mind, as he envisioned reporting his find. He growled indignantly, "Why shouldn't I report it?"

/// Because—

of what we have to do. ///

Bandicut's thoughts narrowed. "We—?"

/// For your world, yes.

It's...critically important.

I need time to explain to you.

Please. ///

Bandicut grunted. Critically important? He wondered what that was supposed to mean. At the moment, he seemed to have no choice, anyway. He hesitated. /Do you have a name?/ he muttered. /Besides "quarx"?/

The alien seemed to want to say something.


A low, rising squeal began in the front of his head. The sound shot backward, reverberating in his skull. Abruptly, it rose to a horrifying shriek, like the sound of a transmission belt shredding. His teeth vibrated. He could not breathe, or think, or cry out for it to stop. He could only endure. And suddenly it ceased, leaving him shuddering in silence. /What... the hell...was that?/ he gasped, barely able to form the words.

The voice sounded puzzled.

/// My name.

Do you wish to hear it again? ///

/Christ, no!/ He shuddered one more time. Before he could recover, he felt a renewed riffling sensation in his mind.

/// You could call me..."Charrleeee." ///

"Charlie!" he grunted aloud. Jesus. He snapped inwardly: /Are you making fun of me now?/

/// Fun?

It's the closest...approximation I could find.

That you could pronounce. ///

"Great," he whispered. "Charlie. Right?"

/// Charrleeee. ///

He sighed. It could be worse. Better than that horrible shriek. He turned around, clumping in his awkward boots. Hadn't this...Charlie...told him that it could help him get out of here? They had better get moving, if he was to get out alive.

/// You mean,

if WE are to get out alive. ///

He froze. Yes, he supposed that was what he meant. He blinked suddenly, realizing that something had just changed in his headlight beam. The walls were no longer revolving around him. There was a strange sensation of stillness about the cavern, and he stepped toward the wall for a better look. Maybe now he could try to climb out. Or jump. He might be able to jump high enough in this gravity to reach a handhold near the ceiling.

/// You don't want to do that.

Too risky. ///

/I have to get out of here, damn it!/

/// Yes, but wait. ///

/For what?/

/// A better way. ///

/What's that supposed to mean?/

There was no immediate answer. But something made him turn back to the alien device, and his heart thumped. The thing was glowing, and the movement of the spherical sections had become quicker and more frantic, or erratic. He felt a chill of uncertainty. /Is that thing going to blow? Christ, I do have to get out of here!/

/// Wait. ///

/But I—/

Before he could complete his thought, he felt a sudden rush of warmth and light, and a spinning wooziness. Then his vision went cottony and white, and he floated up into a dreamy unconsciousness.

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