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Chapter 3



Remembering the flight out...

In the crystal clarity of the neuro, the planet Neptune floated in deep space with the kind of majesty that only heavenly bodies seemed to possess. She was ghostly and beautiful, a pale blue orb streaked with white storm systems and ringed with faint circles of dust that glinted into visibility only when his thoughts stroked the augmentation driver and brightened the scene to an astral glow. He recalled how the planet looked through the unamped porthole of the ship, cerulean and dim, almost sepulchral, floating like a phantom against the stars; and he felt a powerful rush of gratitude for the vision of the neuro, for the union with the ship's AI that let him experience the approaching planet as a vision of beauty, of wonder.

Bandicut was practically the only person on the shuttle who'd actually enjoyed the long haul out from Ceres Base. While everyone else counted the weeks and months, slowly going stir-crazy as they crossed the endless billions of kilometers, Bandicut had spent hours viewing the approaching planet through neuro-enhanced imagery, and exploring various threads of related information from the datanet.

At this point, near the end of the flight, they were starting to get fairly clear realtime images of their actual destination—the moon Triton, in its crazy, backwards, interloper's orbit around Neptune, well outside the ring system. By fiddling with the image mag, he could enlarge Triton from the small disk that the naked eye saw to a full-sized, three-dimensional body. It was about the same size as Earth's Moon, but there the resemblance ended. Triton was covered with a brownish pink coloration from the darkened methane that coated much of its surface ice. Its countenance bore the scars and craters of a face with a complexion problem. Bandicut could not yet resolve the MINEXFO encampment in the realtime imaging, but he'd glimpsed a few puffs of haze above the areas where he knew the great mining lasers were vaporizing swaths of the surface, exposing veins of metals that lay beneath...veins of alien metals, exotic alloys that had melted and refrozen eons ago.

It was an exciting prize, those alien alloys that offered the promise of revolutionizing everything from nano-optronics to armored weaponry. And that of course was why human miners were here, at vast expense, with the multinational/multiworld consortium of the Mining Expeditionary Force. Triton had once been a wandering orphan, possibly originating in the solar system, but more likely straying in from the interstellar void. Uncounted millions of years ago, it had passed close to the gas giant Neptune and been captured for eternity. Triton was a moon with an obscure history, but one thing was known for certain: it had hosted a nonhuman civilization at some point in its past. And even if no live aliens (or even dead aliens) had been found, it nevertheless bore a treasure lode of metallic compounds that to date had confounded the ability of human science to reproduce.

As a place to live and work, however, Triton was ranked near the bottom of the list for creature comforts, somewhere between Mercury and Arctic offshore oil platforms on Earth. Triton's surface was one of the coldest naturally occurring spots in the solar system, the mercury hovering at around two hundred forty below zero on the Celsius scale, at midday. The sun was four and a half billion kilometers away, and at its height during Triton's six-Earth-day diurnal period, cast a pallid glow about as bright as a moonlit night on Earth. From the Neptune neighborhood, Earth was over four hours away, even at the lightspeed of laser and maser transmission beams.

Triton in short was a cold, dangerous, and lonely place to be. Bandicut already knew, even before he got there, that he was likely to be asking himself, repeatedly, over the next two years, what the hell he was doing in such a godforsaken corner of the solar system. At the moment, the answer was self evident, and he hoped he would remember it when the going got difficult. It was a job—and a good chance to use his piloting skills at a time when good spacing jobs were few and far between. Plus it was deep space, which held a special fascination for him, God knew why. And it was a chance, maybe one in a thousand but a chance nevertheless, to be the one to find a real artifact of alien technology, not just metallic slag, and maybe even make himself rich with the bonuses.

One other thing he knew: he was going to save up a goodly pile of earnings between now and the year 2166. There weren't too many places to spend it on Triton. So confident was he of his accumulating earnings that he had arranged to channel a full third of it into a trust fund for his only living relative, his niece Dakota Bandicut—nine years old, an orphan, and his favorite person on Earth. The remainder of his earnings, if he lived to collect it, would give him more than enough money for any easily foreseeable needs of his own.

It would be lonely on Triton. But unlike some of his grumbling shipmates, he didn't think he was going to mind the loneliness too much. He was pretty much of a loner anyway, and whenever he got fed up with the work, he could always just immerse himself in the neurolink, which was where he found most of his pleasure anyway....

* * *

Unfortunately, following his actual arrival on Triton, it hadn't quite worked out that way....

* * *









>>>>>>>>>>>—<full-neural link>—>>>>>>>>>>>





—<mode shift>— the neuro, it was as though he had wings and could change pitch and yaw and roll just by thinking it, maneuvering like a bird with wondrous freedom. It was a skill he'd finely honed; it was the way he'd piloted back in-system, in the Mars and Luna jobs. It was flying the way he loved to fly. But there were certain differences in the equipment and the situation out here, and that was why he was working through the full simulations, to get problems straightened out while he was still on the Triton surface. Except the problems seemed to be getting worse, not better...

It was a low, fast surface pass in a light survey ship, the ochre body of Triton filling his view to one side, the full piloting readout directly before him, the scanning-instrument readings to the other side, Neptune a blue reference point behind him at five o'clock. His altitude was reeling down, and he needed to make these course adjustments to a fine degree of accuracy...and every maneuver he made seemed to just miss, always a fraction of a second late, and now he had to fire his course outward again to keep from plowing a groove into the moon with his ship, and it was driving him crazy.

/Krackey, is this image-cruncher lagging half a hiccup behind my movements?/

/What's that, Bandie?/ The voice of his coworker and simulation instructor seemed to vibrate in his head, like a bad acoustic speaker. That wasn't right, either; it felt as if there was a bad connection in the neurolink.

/I said, the image processor seems to be lagging. Is that lag going to to be real in the survey runs, or is the damn sim computer screwing up?/

Krackey's voice rasped back, /Lagging, you say? Naw, it shouldn't be. Hang on a sec', I'll check. They had a system malfie yesterday, and maybe they didn't get it all flushed out./

/Great./ Bandicut hesitated, half tempted to just dive into the moon. It was only a sim, after all. Still...

/Hang on a sec' longer, Bandie—/

He hung on, orbiting at a safe distance, thinking maybe he ought to just unplug from the thing until this was straightened out. The whole point of running the sim in neuro was to make it totally realistic, just like flying around the rock in realtime. The last thing he wanted to do was rehearse under misleading conditions and practice wrong habits. If they'd put these sims on the shuttle out, he wouldn't have had to be wasting everyone's time with it now that he was on Triton.

There was a crackle of static in his head. He almost grabbed for the abort-cutoff, but then he heard Krackey's voice through the static, saying, /Bandie, the sim-ops guy is on it, he says for you to just hold tight for another minute or two. You want some muzak or something?/

/Shit no, I don't want no muzak, I hate that—/

And then the pain hit him, like a flash of fire across the top of his skull, like a blazing poker—

/ okaaaaay...?/

—and he wanted to scream, but he couldn't even breathe—

/Bandicooooot, what's wroooonng—?/

—and then the voice fled, and Triton and all of the readouts with it, and the only escape from the pain was by diving into the silence and blackness of unconsciousness







>>>>>>>>>>>—<loss of signal>—>>>>>>>>>>>>>







—<mode shift>—

—<mode shift>—

—<mode shift>—

—<mode shift>—

—<mode shift>— . . .

* * *

For the second time that day, Bandicut awoke from a faint. It took him a few moments to focus his eyes on the icy ground and realize where he was—on Triton, on the surface. Not in a neurosim.

Of course it was not a neurosim. There were no more neurosims. There was no more neuro. He had been having a terrible nightmare, a dream-memory of something he desperately wanted to forget—the accident, the system malfunction that had fried his neuronal connectors beyond repair, had put him in the hands of incompetent company doctors, ended his piloting career, and left him with recurring silence-fugue. It made him tremble to remember it.

/// Forgive me.

It me to see that. ///

/Aaa—!/ He gasped in shock at the voice inside his head. His heart pounded as he remembered who, or what, was speaking to him. An alien. A quarx.

/// Are you injured? ///

He sat up, clutching his helmet. He wanted desperately to rub at his forehead. He wanted to rub at that presence in his mind, peering out through his eyes, taking in the landscape with infuriating eagerness. /You! You're still with me!/ he thought, almost numbly.

/// Yes, of course. ///

He shuddered. Yes, of course. The events of the last hour were slowly coming back to him. /What the hell just happened?/ He'd been trapped underground...before all those dreams.

/// We left the cavern. ///

/Yeah. I can see that./ Bandicut peered out toward the horizon and tilted his head back to look at the black Triton sky and the great blue crescent of Neptune. He felt the dreams begin to resurface momentarily, and he shook, waiting for the feeling to pass. He felt bruised and beaten and exhausted. Turning his head, he saw the grounded buggy. He remembered his fall, and thought that it seemed a hundred years ago...if indeed it had really happened.

/// It happened. ///

He grunted. At least he was breathing, and apparently unhurt from his fall...

If he didn't count the presence of an alien in his mind.

He felt faint as he wondered, ridiculously, how he was going to report this back at base. Somehow that made him tremble again; there was something wrong in that thought.

He grunted again and got up to walk toward the buggy. Just over the horizon, he glimpsed a small recon robot scooting in his direction. It appeared that he had been located. /We aren't going to have privacy for very much longer. Will you tell me how we got out of there?/ He watched the robot bob over a hillock and thought he recognized it.

/// How did it seem to you

that we got out? ///

/What the hell—if I knew, would I have asked? I'm sure I didn't sprout wings and fly!/ He touched the buggy's front fender. The solidity of it was oddly reassuring.

/// I didn't intend...sarcasm.

I wondered about your perceptions.

Anyway, it was the translation device

that put us out here. ///

/Translation device?/ His memory flickered like a bad holo. Of course. He had found not just this alien being that was occupying his thoughts; he had found an intact artifact—an alien machine. How could he have forgotten? And the machine itself lay underground, in a cavern just beneath his feet. And as quickly as he thought that, he felt a sharp pang in his thoughts—and remembered when the quarx had stopped him from calling for help. /You're not going to let me report this, are you?/

There was a nervous stirring in his thoughts.

/// I'm sorry. I wish I could.

But it's just not...possible, yet. ///

/Not possible. Right./ He thought he sensed the quarx about to speak again, but there was only silence. He thought about prompting the alien to talk, to explain the secrecy—then decided to drop the subject for the moment. He'd look for his opening to tell someone, when the time was right.

He surveyed the area in front of the buggy, trying to find the spot where he had broken through the ice. There was no indication of any flaw in the surface.

/// You won't find the break. ///

/No,/ he admitted. /So how'd your translator lift me out of there?/ He was starting to feel like a pawn, and he didn't like it. It was one thing to be an agent of first contact; it was quite another to be a puppet on a string.

The alien seemed puzzled.

/// I won't force you to do anything,

if that's your concern. ///

/It's one of my concerns,/ he answered curtly.

/// I hope to...reassure you.

And to answer your question:

we weren't lifted.

We were translated...spatially.

Do you understand the concept at all? ///

He blinked, eyes unfocused.

/// Your Einsteinian relativity— ///

Bandicut interrupted, /You're going to try to explain that by relativity?/

/// No, that's what I...

it's not covered by your relativity,

is what I meant.

In your terms, I'm not sure how to... ///

As the quarx's words trailed off, Bandicut shook his head and scowled at the patch of ice where the hole had briefly existed. He was thinking about the coincidence of that weakness in the ice being there just long enough for him to fall through—then disappearing again. Grunting softly, he turned to see how difficult it would be to free his buggy from the sinkhole that had started this whole episode. He knelt to inspect the undercarriage, and found that the bubble-topped rover was no longer sunk in any sort of slush, but was in fact sitting on top of a nice, hard surface of ice.

He could almost have sworn that he heard the alien clearing its throat.

/// Um, yes—it did that, too. ///

Whatever he might have answered was driven from his thoughts by the bounding arrival, over a hummock, of the robot he had seen a few minutes earlier. It was a gangling but speedy machine, an all-purpose recon-assist unit. It moved like a cross between a grasshopper and a roadrunner.

Its synthesized voice rasped in his helmet comm. "Unit Echo—John Bandicut! Are you unharmed?"

"Suit—comm on," Bandicut grunted. He felt resistance from within, and snapped, /I have to talk to it, damn it!/

/// Uh—okay.

But don't tell it— ///

/Yeah, yeah, yeah./ He frowned, remembering that the robot was undoubtedly here to find out why he had violated the boundaries of the survey zone. He hadn't yet figured out how to explain that away. "Hi there, uh, Napoleon. Er—yeah, I'm okay. I just...uh, had a little bit of—" What the hell could he say? Silence-fugue? No way. "—er, navigational trouble. I think I'm all right now. But I'm glad you found me." As the robot stepped closer, seeming to examine him with its gleaming holocam eyes, he felt ridiculously embarrassed. It wasn't as if he had to answer to a stupid robot for his excursion across the STOP HERE line. Did he? Of course, this might be an opportunity to tip someone off to what had happened—

/// Don't. ///

He exhaled in annoyance. /Why the hell not?/

/// Because we have something very important

to do. ///

/Like what?/ he snarled. /Conquer homeworld?/ It sounded ridiculous, but that was what had popped into his head.

The quarx sounded weary as it answered,

/// John Bandicut,

I have no designs on your homeworld—

none whatsoever. ///

/Then what? Seize control of the base here? Throw us off Triton?/ He wasn't sure where he was getting these ideas, but he really couldn't think of anything else that an alien might want to do that would require secrecy.

/// Not even that.

My mission here is to be helpful, if I can. ///

Bandicut squinted at the robot, thinking that he must be making this robot wonder if something really was wrong. /Well, I have to tell the robot something. If you don't want me to tell it the truth, what excuse do you want me to use? I'm open to suggestions. I'm in enough trouble for being here already./

The alien seemed puzzled.

/// Must you answer

to this simple device? ///

/No, but it's going to send a report back to someone I will have to answer to./

/// Then tell it...

you had an electrical malfunction. ///

/Are you serious?/ Bandicut snorted. /I can't lie about that! They're going to notice that there's nothing wrong with the buggy, when I get back./ As he spoke to the quarx, he was aware of the robot staring back at him, and for an instant he had the humiliating thought that he was moving his lips as he subvocalized to the alien.

/// You won't...lie.

Tell it

you had an electrical malfunction. ///

He grumbled to himself for a moment, then spoke aloud. "Napoleon, I'm glad you came along. I had a bit of an... electrical problem. Maybe you can help." Wincing at the transparent phoniness of his statement, he cleared his throat.

/// You already fixed the problem. ///

"What?" /I mean, what?/

The robot eased forward, a small display of red lights winking behind its eyes. "John Bandicut, are you certain that you are all right?"

"Uh, yeah. Why do you ask?" He coughed and moved nervously toward the driver's seat of the buggy.

The synthesized voice sounded almost chiding. "You sound... anxious. Have you had any unusual...physiological symptoms? Pehaps I should drive the rover in for you."

"What physiological symptoms? What the hell are you talking about, Nappy?" He felt his voice quavering.

The robot extended a slender tool-arm toward him, as though in empathy. He knew it was just programming, but for an instant, he felt as if the robot really did want to reach out to him. He'd worked with Napoleon from time to time, and the robots did maintain memories of individual human workers. "John Bandicut," it said, "may I suggest that you allow me to check your suit and rover for proper function?"

Bandicut drew a breath. /Well?/

/// I have no objection. ///

He shrugged. "Okay, Nappy. But my reserves are getting a little low, so snap it up."

The robot inserted a small probe into a jack located at belly-button level on Bandicut's suit. "You have a damaged antenna, and your power reserves are below twenty percent," it remarked. "But your life support is within acceptable limits."

/// Put your hand on the robot, ///

the alien said urgently.


/// Please. ///

Bandicut shrugged and placed his right palm on the top of the robot's vision module. He felt a slight warmth in his hand, and Napoleon quivered a little and froze in place. Bandicut was aware of something passing between him and the robot, something like...thought...or perhaps it was just fleeting electrical impulses.

/// That's fine.

You can take your hand away. ///

He did so, and Napoleon suddenly resumed its activity.

It withdrew its probe from the navel of Bandicut's suit, and turned to the rover. Lifting the cowling with a quick, smooth movement (something that Bandicut himself never could seem to do), it visually inspected the rover's electrical and mechanical components. Jacking in its probe, it said, "The rover's drive systems test satisfactory. Although..." The robot hesitated.

"Although what?" Bandicut said suspiciously.

"There appear to be certain anomalies in the system. I am unsure of their nature." The robot extended its tool-arm into the power compartment. Bandicut couldn't quite see what it was doing, but he thought he glimpsed some electrical-arc flashes. Before he could move to look, Napoleon unplugged its probe and closed the cowling. "I will recommend a thorough check when we return to base. With your permission, I will ride along and monitor."

Bandicut squinted at the robot, wondering what had just happened. Finally he shrugged. "Okay—hop aboard."

The robot clamped four of its appendages to the side of the rover and hoisted itself off the ground, pivoting its center of gravity in close to the cowling. It plugged into another jack and adjusted its position like a strange monkey perched on the side of the rover's power compartment. "Whenever you're ready, John Bandicut. Shall I call in for you?"

Bandicut scowled and climbed back aboard. "Never mind. I'll do it from here." He reconnected himself to the rover's life support, then settled into position to drive. /Mind if I take a nav fix?/ he asked the quarx. /So we can locate this spot again?/

/// Not necessary, ///

the quarx answered calmly.

/// Your nav's out, anyway. ///

Bandicut nodded slowly. /If you say so./ He switched on the power. The nav, as promised, was indeed out. He shrugged, nudged the joystick, and drove off in a sweeping turn, the robot bobbing gently up and down on the fender.

* * *

As they approached the STOP HERE line, from the wrong side, Bandicut realized that the quarx had been quiet for a time. He found himself wondering something: why didn't he feel more upset, or at least more peculiar, about the presence of the alien being in his mind? Any ordinary human would be nearly insane with fear, indignation, and bewilderment. He was plenty confused, and indignant—but he was not yet over the edge into madness, and he wondered why. He felt that sensation of a wind in his thoughts for a moment, and then the alien stirred and spoke.

/// I had hopes

that you would be able to... presence better than most.

I sensed a certain...readiness. ///

Bandicut recalled his mental state when he had driven out here, just before he had fallen into the cavern. The silence-fugue. It was caused, not by any fundamental disorder in his psychological makeup—at least he didn't think so, not that he really trusted the doctors here on Triton to know—but by the damage to his neuroconnectors, coupled with the absence of the link, which he had grown to require, like oxygen or fuel.

The alien had seen that vacancy and taken advantage of it.

/// Let's say rather that

your need made you a more capable candidate

for my presence. ///

/You make it sound like an honor that I was out of my mind with silence-fugue./

/// Not the silence-fugue.

But your desire and need for

this kind of connection. ///

He drove thoughtfully for another few moments. /What will happen if I flip off into fugue-state again? Will it be as crazy for you as it is for me?/

The alien was silent, apparently thinking.

/// I don't know, ///

it said at last.

/// But if I can help you out of it,

I will. ///

Huh, he thought, but not directly to the alien. He wanted to come back with some sort of snappish response, but the alien's answer actually seemed reasonable, and possibly even honest.

The quarx offered,

/// You know,

it might make things more comfortable

if you would think of me as "Charlie"

—instead of "the alien." ///

Bandicut grunted and expelled his breath.

/// Just a suggestion. ///

He grunted again. He was driving faster now; he was coming into an area that he knew well. The robot was bobbing in silence on the side of the buggy, apparently content to listen to the motors and whatnot, and leave him alone. /Charlie,/ he thought, trying it out for feel. To his surprise, it felt okay.

A short time later, he said, /Charlie. Seeing as how we're going to be so all-fired familiar with each other—/

/// Yes? ///

/—would you mind telling me, in thirty words or less, where you're from and what it is you want with me?/

There was a brief hesitation; he thought he sensed words at the tip of his mental tongue.

/// There's no...short either question,

unfortunately. ///

the quarx murmured at last.

/All right, then—give me the long answer./

The wind riffled in his thoughts.

/// I'll try.

Can you listen and drive at the same time? ///

/I'll try,/ he said sarcastically, steering along a winding path that climbed a low ridge.

/// Okay. ///

There was a pause. Then the quarx began,

/// As for where I'm from,

that's a long story

and I sense that it is not uppermost

in your thoughts.

With your permission, I will begin with

the second question— ///

/Yes, yes, go on./

/// Thank you.

First I must tell you that I am, in truth,

as much at the mercy of fate,


external direction,

whatever you wish to call it,

as you. ///

/Mm./ Bandicut squinted, steering around a tight curve at a trifle too high a speed.

/// The translator and I work together.

Much of what I do comes from its knowledge.

Its direction, if you will. ///

/Mm?/ Bandicut frowned, slowing a little. He didn't want Napoleon to record that he was operating at unsafe speeds.

/// And it is the translator that informs me

of the need for action

—possibly drastic action—

for which I will need human assistance. ///

/Yeah? Assistance to do what?/

/// Assistance to, er— ///

/What?/ Bandicut demanded. /For God's sake, just spit it out!/ He sped up again in irritation.

/// Okay.

Assistance your Earth

from destruction. ///

Bandicut veered off the edge of the path.

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