Dr. Adam Dane is stranded on a desolate world inhabited by an energy creature with incredible powers. With only his wits and the help of a young Pandori boy, Adam must stop this powerful creature before it completes its horrifying plans for the crew of the Confederation research vessel Appomattox. Featuring characters from The Once and Future Queen.
Colonel Valerian Grant leaned forward in his command chair. “Nothing? Not a clue?”
“Except for the unusual power signature outside of the science department, nothing.” His Pandori first officer Smith gave a simian chitter of annoyance. “One of Adam’s people even did a bioscan of the ship’s air. He wasn’t vaporized, he simply vanished.”
“How do you make a man as big as Adam vanish?”
Smith gave a surprisingly human shrug.
With a quick glance at the Appomattox's bridge crew who were doing their best imitation of not listening to every word, Val asked, “Could it be another N’videri?”
“They don’t leave a power signature when they appear and disappear.”
“And you heard and saw nothing but a high-pitched hum? Just a few feet away?”
As if understanding the questions had been more expressions of frustration than a reprimand, Smith laid her hand on Val’s and squeezed. “If only I could have turned around faster.”
“If, would, and could, the three most emotionally self-abusive words in human Basic. And none of them make a damn bit of difference in the outcome.”
“Adam’s protocol for situations like this has been put into place. If someone else disappears, we’ll find them both soon enough.”
A vague sense of wrongness woke Adam Dane. The floor beneath him was lumpy, and the blanket that barely covered his chest smelled of an unfamiliar herb. The air was real instead of the bland processed oxygen aboard a spacecraft. The gravity also felt slightly heavier than Appomattox's.
He opened one eye slightly and glanced around cautiously. Natural light filtered in through a nearby window. The room’s walls were built of stacked shale rock, the window a lexite derivative often used within small spacecraft. A nearby bed and table were of roughly made wood and a chair from a civilian spacecraft’s bridge sat beside the table.
A young space colony would scavenge ship parts for other ships, not use them in their houses. Survivors of a ship crash must have built this house.
More than one person lived here -- the elaborate room and building technique suggested more than one person. The permanence of the surroundings suggested inhabitancy of long standing. Many years probably.
The furnishings were so tiny that the survivors must be Pandori-sized or smaller, but the ceiling was high enough that even a very tall human like himself could walk upright. The only small race with a fondness for such open space that he was aware of were the Pandori.
What was he doing here? He’d been outside of Science with Smith. They’d been talking about ship business. She’d turned and walked away, then a horrible buzzing and humming began around him, and the corridor had become blurry and white then....
Val and Smith must be frantic.
Adam sat up. Every synapse in his brain seemed to explode with pain, and the room darkened and spun. Groaning, he clutched his throbbing head.
“Hello,” a young male voice said politely in Basic. “Do you feel bad?”
As Adam jerked his head toward the speaker, a wave of blackness forced him to close his eyes and sag back down.
“Do not move. I come to you.”
Adam opened his eyes gingerly and stared up at the Pandori youth who now knelt beside him. From the fairness of the fluff around the boy’s face and simian ridge, he would guess him to be around twelve or thirteen.
“My name in Basic is Ari.” The Pandori boy smiled bashfully. “Actually, it is Aristotle, but that is too... pretentious, so I prefer Ari.”
“I’m Adam Dane.”
“Are you a human?”
“Terrific. I have always wanted to meet one.” Ari held up a cup of liquid. “Drink this. It helps me on similar occasions.”
Adam lifted slightly and took the cup. He sniffed at the herbal mixture, shrugged mentally when he couldn’t identify it, then gulped down the vile-tasting liquid.
“You wear a uniform. You are a soldier for the Confederation?”
“Yes, I’m in the military, but I’m a scientist and a physician, not a soldier. My ship, the Appomattox, is full of scientists and scholars. We are first on scene for planetary disasters. Plagues and things like that as well as scientific mysteries and first contact with new species. It isn’t a fighting vessel.”
“That would be wonderful! To travel, see new species, to learn new things.”
“Yeah, mainly it is.”
“I wish I could do that. Be there.”
Adam’s unhappy tone brought the boy back to the present. “You are curious about what happened to you?”
“My father knew One would do this eventually. It was inevitable.” The boy held up a hand to stop Adam’s next question. “Let me explain. One is a congregate energy creature. Or to put it another way, One is a colony of individual energy creatures that form a single consciousness. Do you understand?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“Good, you will understand better when you meet it. One kidnapped you from your ship almost a day ago. It can phase in and out of locations in space probably to a distance of several light years. It tends to stay here on this planet, though, because this is its home.”
“Why did it kidnap me?”
The Pandori chittered with embarrassment. “It was because of me. It wanted to find me a mate.”
“I’m definitely not a young Pandori female,” Adam said with a chuckle then added hastily in case the boy was confused by species differences, “I’m not even female. Why does One want a wife for you?”
“Why does it want children?”
“I had better start at the beginning. My father said that is the best way to explain yourself. ‘Once upon a time.’” Ari laughed. “I love human fairy tales. Twelve years ago, my parents left our home world on a scientific expedition. I was just a baby.
“About six months into our journey, we traveled near here. Our ship broke. We drifted for a long time. One found us and brought us here.”
“So you’ve been held prisoner all these years.”
“You must understand about One,” Ari said defensively. “It is not mean or cruel on purpose. It is just that it has always been alone. Until my parents and I came, it believed itself the only intelligent life in the universe. It has trouble conceiving of other intelligent life or anyone else besides itself. It is selfish like a child, not vindictive like an adult.
“My father said that the creation of a system of ethics first requires two or more people of equal or near equal power. One never had that. Before us it was all by itself. It did not know how to act or react in an ethical or civilized manner with sentient life.”
“Your father is an intelligent man.”
“He was.” Ari beamed. “At first One treated us as pets. It is gentle and good to other life forms, or it ignores them entirely. We were well-cared-for dogs to it. My parents could not communicate with One to tell it otherwise. One communicates telepathically.”
“But Pandori are Scale Three telepaths.”
“They tried, but they could not, but being very young and pliant mentally, I began to communicate with One. My parents and One were very excited. As I got older and had something to say, it was even better. I learned how to translate for One and my father.
“One was deeply shaken. You can imagine how it felt. It discovered the concept of otherness which fascinates it. Unfortunately, it could not understand separate will and desire in others. What it wants is all that matters.
“My father begged it to free us and to help us get home. It refused us. We were too incredible a toy.
“My father was afraid of One’s fascination for us. He feared that it would capture others or travel to other worlds to observe. One has dangerous powers. It can destroy a civilization. It should not be around other intelligent life forms. It is too immature and powerful.”
“Since it captured me so easily, I can agree with your father.”
“Yes. My father salvaged part of the ship’s computer. It has a wonderful library of history, film, and literature from our planet and others. I especially like human literature and history.
“He erased all astronomical information. He removed other information as well. One could not read the tapes, but I could, and One can read me. It has easy access to me. I can hold back things with effort, but sooner or later things slip out.
“I was never told the location of my home world. I know a lot about my people and others, but I am ignorant of so much. I know I am ignorant, but I do not know what I am ignorant of.”
“That would be frustrating to someone as intelligent as you are.”
“A compliment.” The boy smiled shyly. “Thank you.”
“What happened to your parents?”
“They are dead.”
Ari timidly offered his hand, and Adam squeezed it in comfort.
“This planet is harsh and dangerous,” Ari explained. “The mountains are very crumbly. My mother was killed in a rock slide about seven years ago. My father became ill four years ago, I don’t know why, and died.”
“Did One read my mind? Is that why I have such a headache.”
“Yes, it tried to talk to you and failed. Even I have trouble. When it communicates too swiftly or too eagerly, it causes horrible headaches.”
“I hope it failed.”
“How have you managed by yourself?”
“The loneliness is hardest. When I have to talk, I go to One or speak to the computer. I fear I will go mad or am mad sometimes. Am I insane?”
“No, I don’t think so. You are remarkably well-adjusted.”
“Always I plead for my freedom. I tell it that it destroys me. I will go mad or die from loneliness. It does not understand this. It only wants more and more from me. It demands other conversations now. That is why it stole you.”
“Infants to train from birth in its communication.”
“Yes. My father hoped that One would not understand about sexual reproduction. It replaces worn energy beings asexually. I was left ignorant of reproduction for fear that One would understand and do what it does now. I am ignorant but not stupid. I figured things out for myself, and One acted. Unfortunately for you, it misunderstood. It is good at general understanding, but the specific frequently confuses it.”
“What will happen to me?”
“I will explain its mistake. It will return you.”
“Thank you. How can I help you?”
“You cannot. I am here for life.”
“One will try to find you another mate.”
“We have to stop it. There isn’t a breeding age, unmated female of your race for many, many light years. The Pandori don’t often travel away from their planet, and when they do, they take their mate or have lost their mate.”
As a thought hit him, Adam paused. He’s been just a few feet away from a Pandori female when the creature had grabbed him. Maybe Smith had been the intended target. It had felt her Pandori brain patterns and found their ship that way. As a widow from a race that took only one mate, she was as useless for breeding purposes as he was, but would that stop a creature as clueless as One?
Tilting his head as if hearing something, Ari said, “A piece of One is coming. It is a loose conglomerate. It can scatter itself over the planet with ease. That does not affect its thought or communication. Look at that corner of the room.”
Adam stared mesmerized as a white light glowed and shaped and formed into an amorphous balloon made of light. Fluttering, it shifted from a child’s balloon to a man-sized glob then back again as it glowed, twittered, and hummed before them.
The sounds made his head ache even more.
“Hello, Fluffy. What do you want?” Ari walked to the energy balloon. “No, it will not work. You made a mistake.”
Adam could hear Ari, who was now speaking in Pandori, but felt that he was missing most of what the boy said. Instead of the whole conversation, he was hearing Ari's unconscious verbalizations of pieces of the conversation.
“I told you. It will not work. You made a mistake. Return him. No, you cannot do that. It is wrong. We will try. Give us a chance. We will give you children. Give us some time.
“I will not speak again. Leave me. You sicken me.”
Fear streaked through Adam. Realizing its mistake, did the balloon creature intend to kill him?
After the balloon disappeared, Adam asked, “Why did you call it Fluffy?”
With a sigh, Ari knelt beside him. “I do it to annoy One. I gave the individual energy creatures names. They are all a little different. It is rather like me naming your thumb Fred and holding conversations with it.” He grinned mischievously. “It is very annoying.”
“It would be. Is it going to kill me?”
“No. It would never do that, but it refuses to free you. It intends to try again to find me a wife.”
“There are no suitable females of your people within range.”
“If not, it will try something else. Something horrible. One came up with this idea while probing your mind. It touched your memory and found your childhood.”
“What does that mean?”
“It cannot do this with you. You are unreachable to it now because it tried contact and failed. It burnt you out. It plans to capture someone else and force mental age regression to a pliable mental age. It will create instant communicators without waiting for an infant to age.”
“I’ve seen that done in hypnosis. Returning your memory to your fifth birthday and then going back to normal. It does no harm.”
“One will destroy the adult personality in the attempt. It is murder of the memory, experience, and maturity.”
Adam shuddered. Such an invasion would be the worst rape imaginable, a rape and murder of the soul and memory. Death would not touch the inviolate soul. This act of possession would. “What can we do to stop it?”
“I can control One a little. I refuse to talk when it does something I disapprove of. Usually, that works unless it is really determined. Sometimes it forces communication on me. It has nearly killed me like that several times. I tried ostracism. I even told it that you and I would give them children. No luck.”
“You do understand that children are impossible?”
“Of course. I stall for time. What does One know? It could not tell whether we were or were not trying to have children.”
“True. What do we do now?”
“Do you understand communications equipment?”
“The equipment in my parents’ ship is broken. If I brought it to you, could you fix it? It is portable.”
“I guess so. If it can be fixed. I’ll go with you.”
“No. It will be faster if I go alone. You will not have the strength for several days. I can be back in that time. I may even talk Fluffy or Glow into transporting me there. That would save time. I dare not ask them to bring me back here with the equipment. One is not stupid. With the equipment repaired, we can send out a warning to others. It is all that I can think of doing.”
By the afternoon of the next day, Adam felt strong enough to explore Ari's house and the area around it. Finally, he settled down on the ground by the small, trickling stream that irrigated the vegetable garden near the stone house. No other greenery was in sight except for a few scraggly desert trees and bushes among the scattered rocks beyond.
It was the most abysmally drab world he’d ever seen. Nothing but gray dirt, rocks, sand, and a dirty brown sky as far as the eye could see. Even the flaccid green plants looked beautiful in comparison.
He could almost forgive One for kidnapping him. Even a deaf and silent human would be a vast improvement over this landscape.
The boy was incredibly strong to have survived emotionally in this sterile, empty world. Most people would go mad within the month.
If he had to be marooned for the rest of his life on a desolate dying boulder like this, he could do a lot worse for companionship than Ari who was so starved for family love.
Ever since his sister Astrid had died so suddenly, he’d become more aware of the emotional hole in his own life that his scientific work and his friendship with Val and Smith didn’t completely fill. Fate seemed to be giving him a student to mentor and perhaps a son of the heart as well.
A hum and twitter began and grew louder behind him. His head twinged like an old wound.
One was materializing in the house behind him. More than one of the balloons from the noise being made. Something about the sound seemed triumphant.
Adam scrunched his eyes and listened harder, but nothing but that emotional resonance was understandable to him. Why triumphant?
A sick fear at several possible reasons forced him to his feet and into the house.
The twittering and humming of the energy creatures was fading away as he reached his bedroom. Smith sprawled unconscious on the bed.
Slamming his fist against the door frame, Adam swore violently. He’d hoped that Appomattox would be out of One’s range by now, but knowing Val and Smith, they’d stay however long it took and do whatever needed to be done to get him back. Damn and bless them.
He sat down on the bed by Smith, checked her vital signs, then straightened her into a more comfortable position, removed the energy pistol and communicator he’d hoped to find, and tucked them into his own uniform out of sight.
So far, so good. Val was following his protocol for kidnapped crew. Smith would have a transponder embedded under her skin with a signal which might be strong enough to reach Appomattox. That is if One hadn’t removed it.
His team would have also put up enough energy sensors around the ship to have a better idea of what, or in this case, who they were dealing with, and they’d already be working on a way to neutralize or block the energy.
He turned on the communicator and hailed the ship, but silence answered him. They were definitely out of range. With a shrug, he set the communicator on emergency beacon and tucked it back out of sight in his uniform jacket.
If nothing else, this second beacon would tell the ship that at least one of them was alive and had some freedom of movement. That would keep Val from arriving with blazing guns.
If One didn’t have a way to stop communications and if the Appomattox circled close enough to read either signal, Val would come for them, and knowing Val, not even an all powerful collection of energy balloons would stop him from getting them off this planet.
What his captain lacked in scientific knowledge, he more than made up in charm, negotiating skill, and sheer human cussedness.
Yeah right, and soon the whole crew of the Appomattox would be sharing this dismal world with him. Even Val’s negotiating charms couldn’t stop One’s obsession with Ari and its need for more conversations.
Maybe, unwilling to wait for a baby, the damned creature had already ripped away the Pandori’s adult memory.
Smith moaned deeply and opened her eyes.
“Do you know who I am?”
Her muzzle quivered with surprise, but she answered immediately, “You are Doctor Adam Dane. Where are we?”
When she started to sit up, Adam pushed her back down. “Don’t get up, or your head will feel like it’s falling off. Let me get you something for your headache.”
Adam picked up the clay jar Ari had left by the bed and handed it to Smith. “The liquid tastes disgusting, but it helps.”
Smith gulped the contents then grimaced and handed the jar back to him. “Why are we here?”
“You’re to be the blushing bride of a very lonely, young man. Don’t look so shocked. I’m not insane.” Adam told her about Ari and his history, and of One.
“Apparently One’s physical presence is enough to give us these headaches and the weakness,” Adam added. “I don’t think they probed your mind. I guess they’re waiting for later when you’re rested and Ari’s back.”
“I am eager to meet the boy. Perhaps I can learn enough to discover who his parents were. Not that many Pandori have disappeared in recent history.” As she spoke, her voice was matter-of-fact, but her eyes and face glowed with joy like she’d been adrift for years and had finally spotted land. Smith who had lost her children in a brutal accident and Ari who needed a mother so desperately were a perfect match. She yawned.
“The vile concoction makes you sleepy. Don’t fight it. Sleep will finish the cure. I’ll be in the living room if you need me.”
Smith slept the evening away so Adam settled down on the living room floor for the night.
A little after dawn, One’s hum and twitter filled the house like the roar of a hive of great bees. Considerably more than one balloon had materialized.
Groaning with pain, he placed his hands over his ears, stood up, and walked toward Smith’s bedroom.
It was filled with energy balloons.
“No, stop, don’t do this. It’s wrong.” he screamed and tried to force his way through the balloons. A wave of nausea and dizziness hit him, he fell to his knees, and the room went black.
Hours later, bright daylight shining through the window on him, Adam regained consciousness. He lurched to his feet and staggered to Smith who lay much as she’d been earlier. Her breathing was natural, and, resting his ear against her chest, he could hear the steady thump of her heart.
At least the damn things hadn’t killed her in the process.
He sipped some of the herbal concoction then sat down on the bed with his back against the wall, picked up the Pandori, and cuddled her against his chest to give her the physical contact needed to fight off shock.
Snuggling into him, she sighed.
Adam stroked her head. At times like this, it was easy to forget that his friend, though no bigger than the average ten-year-old human child, had one of the finest minds and the wickedest tongue in the Confederation and was strong enough to rip him apart with her bare hands.
Closing his eyes, he let himself drift into sleep.
Whimpering, Smith twisted against his chest. He jerked awake with a start and gazed down at her. Tears streaked her cheeks, and she sniffed and complained in Pandori, “My head hurts.”
Blessing the six months he’d spent on the Pandori home world as science liaison for the Confederation, he replied in the same language, “I’m sorry.” He picked up the jar he’d refilled the day before and opened it. “Drink this. It will help.”
Smith sipped then made a face. “Bad.”
“Terrible,” Adam agreed. “But it will help. Drink.”
Obediently, she took several more sips. “Who are you?”
“I’m Adam. A doctor. A friend.”
“You speak funny. Bad.”
“I’m human, not Pandori. Can’t make the correct sounds all the time. Do the best I can.”
The very young Smith was just as big a prig about language as her older version. “Do you understand Basic?”
“I’ll speak Basic then.”
“Better.” Her arms tightened around his chest. “Head hurts. Want my mommy. Where’s Mommy?”
“Mommy’s not here. I’m sorry.” As she began to cry, Adam rocked her gently, tears streaking his own cheeks at the loss of his adult friend and her past, and murmured the soft “chook chook” of a mother Pandori giving comfort.