Categories > Original > Sci-Fi

Across the Universe

by Shmitz 1 review

One man carries a secret with him that could challenge the social order of the entire Galaxy, but at a terrible cost.

Category: Sci-Fi - Rating: PG - Genres: Action/Adventure, Humor, Sci-fi - Published: 2005-05-09 - Updated: 2005-05-09 - 15500 words - Complete

The alien looked at me. I looked at it.
We went on this way for quite some time. I was locked into a staring contest with a creature that probably didn't even have eyelids, and I couldn't be exactly sure what I was looking into were it's eyes, either. He was waiting for me to say something. I was waiting for him to say something. The hum of the fan grew louder. The small vibrations beneath the floor grew like tremors. I swallowed. He did something. Ripples flowed down the side of his face briefly. I wanted to look at the ceiling, stare at my shoes, fidget with my case, but my eyes were frozen.
I blinked.
He didn't.
Someone entered into the room, walked over to him, and muttered something into his ear, or maybe it was his mouth. It could have been both.
He blinked. The other person left the room.
"Mr. Peters," he said slowly, and the spell broke. I quickly glanced at the ceiling, checked my shoes, flicked the handle on my case, and then returned my attention to the alien sitting (or possible standing) in front of me.
"Yes," I said, smiling weakly.
"I must apologize for the misunderstanding. Having never dealt with your type before I was unaware of the difficulties this meeting might present."
"I quite understand, sir."
"So what brings you to Arakkatok Incorporated?"
"I've heard many great things about the future of this company, and have always been impressed by the quality of the products you create." I hadn't even heard of them until two days previous.
"And what is it you think you can bring to this company, Mr. Peters?"
"I have extensive experience with communications, micronics, galnet operations, and x-ware troubleshooting."
One of his eyes closed, assuming they were eyes. Even so, he still had five to view me with. "Your resume indicates that you have not yet finished formal training."
"I'm afraid current circumstances prevent me from completing that chapter of my life. But I'm a fast learner." I smiled.
"Well." He paused, slowly. "Normally Mr. Peters we do require some certification of qualification." He paused again, slowly. A small part of my mind registered that I had never met anyone before in my life who could do that. The rest of my mind was desperately hanging on to that "normally", and waiting. "You do, however, seem to have some primitive grasp for the kind of work we do here. I think we may have a spot for you to fill here."
He rippled. I brightened. "What kind of position would you have me in?" I asked.
"Entry level support. Nothing too difficult. You are in luck, as that department declared an opening just an hour ago."
"Someone get reassigned?"
"No, some poor fellow electrocuted himself."
"Nothing to worry about for you. Only the smart ones usually commit suicide."
I swallowed. It would be money, at least. "When would you like me to start?"
"Well, we need to study your brain, first. As I mentioned earlier, we've never encountered your species before, so to accommodate you better we need to know what we are hiring."
"Oh." Which meant maybe a few days to pull down human specs off the galnet and study them.
"We figure put your body in cold storage and send your brain to the labs for a week. That should be plenty of time for them to do what they need to. After they send it back we would like you to start immediately."
I stared at that one.
"Um, I'm sorry, but in those conditions I think I'll decline your job offer." I stood up.
Two other aliens entered the door.
"I'm sorry Mr. Peters, but we can't take no for an answer. We are constantly seeking new information, and new species to design products for. Your brain presents quite an asset to us. I assure you, even if afterwards you decide not to take the job, we will compensate you for the help, and the time taken." The two aliens blocked the door. I swallowed. One stepped forward.
I cued my case to switch to the appropriate contents.
The other made a move, and I opened my case towards them. Only open a couple seconds, the black hole inside swallowed them both and knocked the interviewer to his feet. I ran out the room, down the hallway from which I had been led. I hit the button for the elevator and stood there waiting, trying to look inconspicuous. The elevator chimed, the doors opened, and I almost ran right into what looked like building security. I turned around, ducked into a side office (fortunately vacant, and windowed), sat down in the chair, fumbling with my case. Security broke down the door as I was opening it up, but I had accidentally cued the wrong contents. Still, I grabbed the electric shaver out and pointed it in their direction.
"Don't move!" I shouted. They immediately froze, eyeing me cautiously. I slowly stood up, doing my best to look threateningly. Shaver still pointed at them I edged towards the window. Setting my case down for a brief moment, I grabbed a chair and shoved it through the window, clearing something of an escape route. I picked the case back up and backed out the window.
Unfortunately there was no ledge.
Fortunately there was a car.
Unfortunately the driver did not like me standing on his roof. He pitched back and forth, upsetting traffic, and I lost my balance, falling twenty feet into the top of a covered walkway. Stunned for a minute, and hurting, a lot, I tested my bones. Nothing seemed broken. Hopefully nothing cracked. I glanced around. I had made it a good bit down the road from the building where they wanted my brain. They would not come looking for me. Slowly, wary of any sign of being seriously injured, I got up and began my search for a way down.

My interview the next day met much better luck, despite the limp that I had acquired the day earlier. I was offered a job, not contingent on my donating my brain for a week, and left the building in good spirits. Unfortunately, I had no sooner left the building than it collapsed in on itself, disappearing with a pop. Disgruntled customer or aggressive competition, I assumed. I scratched another name off my list, and trudged back home.

I looked at the alien. The alien looked at my resume.
It looked up at me. "we believe you may fit in here quite nicely, mr. peters. however, because you have not completed formal education, we require a preliminary company test of you."
"This test doesn't involve separating my brain from my body, does it?"
The alien swiveled an eyeball. "no mr. peters."
I smiled. "I have no problems taking this test."
"follow me then." I stood to follow, trying to put my finger on what bothered me about the way the alien talked. He led me down a long corridor, past some odd looking potted plants, and through a large set of double doors. The room was dark. I couldn't see but five meters in from the doorway.
The door clicked shut behind me, removing my only light source. "Excuse me? Hello?". I turned around, reaching out in front of me, searching for the door. Suddenly the lights came on, accompanied by a loud high pitched scream somewhere behind me.
"mr. peters," came a voice, as the screaming died down, "meet jogoboul, head of our sales and marketing division."
I looked around at the room, much larger than I had thought. Steel walls rose up several meters, ending at a rail behind which I could see a handful of aliens sitting, holding notebooks. On the opposite end of the pit I was in stood a very large, very scary looking alien with a very small head. It snarled once, and beat the floor on either side of it's clawed feet with a heavy tail.
"as part of the test you agreed you would take, you must defeat jogoboul in a duel to the death."
I blinked, several times.
Jogoboul began screaming again, and charged. I turned quickly and went for the door behind me. It wouldn't budge. Jogoboul's screaming got louder, and I turned in time to see something long, white, and shiny hurled in my direction. I leaped to the side, and the javelin passed me by and stuck itself in the door. I jumped up on it, hoping to use it as leverage to use the rail at the top of the wall, but it gave way as I jumped a second time, and found myself with barely a few fingers around the rail, and not a very good grip at all. Something grabbed my foot and the rail slipped out of my fingers. Jogoboul flung me into the center of the pit. Beyond his bean of a skull I could see the other aliens scribbling in their notebooks.
I scrambled to my feet, but Jogoboul obviously didn't like me in that position. He lunged, somehow twisting in midair, and his tail caught me across the chest, sending me flying across the floor. I felt my ankle starting to act up again. Jogoboul's tail suddenly filled my view, and I rolled to avoid the impact. I kicked at his leg, knocking him off balance, and scrambled away before he could lash back at me. I cursed myself for not bringing my case on this interview.
He swung at me with his left arm, which I dodged, but the follow through with his right arm connected, stunning me. Then he crouched low and hit me in the belly with that thick skull. I landed near the doors I had come through.
I saw the javelin laying within reach, and snatched it up, waving it at the approaching beast. He slowed, circling. I swung the sharp pole a few times, giving him a few snarls of my own. He turned, swinging that massive tail. One swing, and the javelin was gone. Two swings, and I was sent in the opposite direction. My head met steel, and my vision swam.
Jogoboul stood over me, and screamed.
"Please!" I said, "I don't even want this job anymore. Can't I just go?"
Jogoboul stopped screaming. "mercy is for the weak!" he yelled, and advanced. The screaming started again.
And stopped again.
I breathed. Jogoboul swayed slightly, and then collapsed, almost on top of me. I looked around, baffled. The aliens that had been sitting above the pit were now slumped over. I heard footsteps approaching to my left.
I looked up into the barrel of a rifle. "Erk," I vocalized.
"FREEZE!" the man behind it shouted. His uniform and helmet bore the Nanocom insignia. He looked like corporate militia.
"Uh, please don't shoot me, I don't work here," I said, weakly. The man paused for a second, then muttered something into his headset. After a moment his stance relaxed and his gun came up.
"Sorry about that sir, corporate takeover. I had to verify that you weren't in the company records."
Standing, I asked, "Removing competition?"
"No sir, just didn't like the way they talked. If you would be kind enough to leave the premises now sir, it would make our job easier. Otherwise you may be shot accidentally."
I nodded. "Certainly. Good luck." I limped out, mentally crossing out another employment possibility.

The girl behind the counter was smiling, as always. I often wondered if the cafe employees ended up with facial cramps, or if their faces froze like that. Her eyes were bright and wide behind the translucent visor. She might have been attractive, except for the red helmet with the massive cord stretching up into the ceiling.
Despite the recent bout of failures, I decided to treat myself, even if only just to relieve some stress.
"Water," I ordered.
"Certainly, sir," she said, her smile growing a smile of it's own. I paid her out of my slowly dwindling cash reserves and took my water to a booth, passing a few other regulars staring out into nothing, happily immersed in the galnet. I slumped into a seat and jacked in myself. I had no messages waiting, despite my hopes. I called up my usual haunts.
"Hey Lloyd," Jenner said as I entered. No one else said anything.
"Hey Jen. Pretty dead in here, huh?"
"Heh, yeah. Frank was here a bit ago," he said, nodding at Frank's placid image, "I think his girlfriend came over and he forgot to terminate."
"That sounds like Frank. So how's things up in your part of the galaxy?"
"Slow. Not much going on here, though there's been a little fighting a couple sectors over. Nothing ever happens on this planet. Why do you think I spend so much time on galnet?" Jenner smiled his usual cynical smile. "So how's the job hunt?"
"Not good. Been flat out rejected four times, narrowly escaped with my life twice, and gotten a job once only to have the company go under five minutes later."
"Ouch. Well, job hunting is risky business."
"Yeah. Funds are getting low too, and the bills will be coming in soon. I don't know what I'm gonna do." I frowned.
"I've always said I'd give you a job anytime if you wanted to move up this way."
"Yeah, problem with that is getting the money to get a Gate ticket to some place several hundred thousand light-years away."
"Pawn your case."
I gave him the Eye. "No." Jenner didn't know the real value of my case. It had saved my life more than once, and made my recent nomadic life infinitely easier. And there were other, more complicated reasons why I couldn't just get rid of it. I sighed.
"Your problem is you're going after all the volatile companies. You need to find something that is either solidly local, and well entrenched, or get a job with one of the big companies."
"I've been looking for the former, believe me. As for the latter, none would hire me with no certification, unless I knew someone on the inside. Of the few people I know who do work for the big ones, none are really what I would call good friends who would or could swing something for me."
"So get a loan and finish that education."
"I know. It's crossed my mind a lot, but with the current wars going on, chances are I'm gonna get called up for bank duty a week after I take out a loan, and some joe from another bank is gonna blow my brains out." Or vice versa, which was an almost equally unpleasant thought. It reminded me I still had a couple people trapped in my black hole that I needed to release. Fortunately I didn't need to worry about feeding them, since somehow time gets all shifty in that hole. When I finally do pull them out (never mind that this is supposedly impossible; the case will do it), what will be days for me will be less than an instant for them.
Frank suddenly came to life.
"Woah, hey guys. Catch ya later, forgot to disconnect." He winked out.
"True," Jenner said, continuing the conversation, "I think the skirmish I mentioned might be involved with those bank disputes."
"Doesn't seem like there's much of a place in this universe for a free agent."
Jenner laughed. "Everyone's owned by someone, man. Choose your master."
I nodded to that one. I'd had my share of masters. Unfortunately I was not currently in a position to be picky about future ones.
Kerridy walked through the door of our little hideout and plopped into the couch. "Boy have I had a day," she said glumly, glancing up at the rest of us in the room.
"What happened?" Jenner and I both inquired simultaneously.
"Some idiot knocked out half the com systems on Fingius IV, don't ask me how, and I spent most of the day dealing with all the people calling in trying to figure out why the heck they couldn't get reliable connections to galnet. Some old guy actually sat there for ten minutes demanding that I transport over to the planet and fix the problem myself. As if I could somehow snap my fingers and cause all the overloaded receivers to spontaneously work again. Don't these people ever check the news?" I decided not to mention that most people checked the news through galnet, which would have been somewhat difficult under the circumstances. "It was a bloodbath today, I tell you. I really need a new job." Her face changed gears suddenly. She leaned forward and turned to me. "So Lloyd, any luck on the job front?"
"Jen and I were just talking about that. No luck, yet."
"Bummer. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for ya." She slumped back into the depths of the deceptively real cushions.
"You know," Jenner said, "I still think you should try to get a job making places like this for people." He was referring to the hideout, which I had created, in all its three dimensional splendor. The actual location was in a public network, but the "building" was hosted by Frank, who fortunately for us worked at one of the major relay stations in the galnet and could keep this little place running at no cost to anyone.
"It's what I would like to do, but it doesn't seem like anyone is hiring." And even if they were, there were plenty out there better than me at 3d space, at least my proven work. I generally found myself rather limited by what equipment I had to work with, so I had nothing of any high quality to call my own (at least, nothing I could show anyone). There was also the ever present hitch of my lack of certifications. I only had a couple dozen modules left, but those cost money, which I didn't have. Selling myself to a bank for a few years was starting to look particularly tempting.
"You do make good cushions," Kerridy said with a quirky smile.
I laughed. "Oh come on now, none of us would be any less comfortable just drifting in an empty void."
"Not true!" she protested. "Psychological comfort is every bit as important as physical comfort."
"Besides," Jenner quipped, smiling mischievously, "some of us do go for the fully immersive experience."
Kerridy threw a pillow at him. "Stop teasing Jen. You're never going to let me live that one down."
Chuckling, "Never in your life."
"Oh, name calling now, are we?" Jenner said, not relenting.
I missed Kerridy's retort, however, because at that moment Real Life nudged it's way into the picture. A corner of my vision recognized the girl from behind the cafe counter standing next to my booth.
"Sir," she said, "Cafe's closing. Please finish up what you're doing in the next five minutes." Helmetless, she wore a dour expression. It wasn't a frown though, just the look of someone who wanted to go home.
"Guys," I said, tuning back into the galnet, "I have to run, café's closing."
"Aw, man. You really need to get a hookup at your pad."
"I know Jen, but as everything else, that costs money." I frowned.
"Well, see ya tomorrow man."
"See ya," I said, and left.
There were two others still in their booths, so I didn't feel too guilty about my part in causing the girl a few extra minutes at work. I walked out into a warm and muggy corridor, and began making my way back to my apartment.

The posters were almost hypnotizing. The only reason they weren't had something to do with the special contacts I was wearing. The audio tracks were hitting my brain unfiltered though, and it was hard to keep my thoughts objective. I tried humming a little tune to myself and staring at the dark walls and floor, and it seemed to work. Still, I was relieved when someone came to get me, though I wondered if I wasn't now simply leaving the proverbial frying pan and heading into the fire.
"Mr. Peters," said the man in the dark suit, "please come this way."
I followed him along a carpet of hunter green woven with stripes of royal purple, the colors of the Bank of the Spiral. The wide hallway was pleasantly illuminated, lights being set into the floor at regular intervals. I couldn't tell for sure, but the paneling on the walls looked like real wood. I suspected it probably was.
We came to an office door and the man I was following showed me in. The man behind the desk stood and we shook hands. He seemed almost human, but there was something odd about his eyes.
"Hello Mr. Peters. My name is Jagan. Gregory Jagan. Won't you sit down?"
I selected a chair and sat. He resumed his position behind the desk. He blinked, his eyelids rising from the bottom of the eye, rather than the top.
"So you are interested in a loan, Mr. Peters..." he left the sentence trailing.
I swallowed, putting out of mind the sight of that forked tongue that brought forth some primal human instinct. "Yes, I am looking to complete my education, but am currently lacking the funds to do so."
"Are you employed, Mr. Peters?"
"No, I'm between jobs at the moment."
"So you are not affiliated with any organization?"
"No," I said, and what he did next really made my skin crawl.
He smiled.
"We will have to run a credit check, Mr. Peters. This will only take a moment." He turned to his console and pushed a couple keys. "While we are waiting, do you have an estimate on how much you will be wanting to borrow?"
I reached into my case and pulled out a datacard, handing it to him. He inserted it into a reader and began looking it over. The computer beeped. He glanced at the screen and turned back to me.
"Your credit seems fine, Mr. Peters. And looking over your information, I see no reason why we should refuse you a loan."
"Well, um..."
"We'll just ask you to fill out and sign a few forms first, of course. Do you have time now, or would you like to take them home with you?" He took a datacard from a drawer and handed it to me.
"I think I'll take them home," I said, turning the card over in my fingers. "I just came today to talk it over. I didn't really expect things to go this quickly."
His smile wavered slightly, taking a more artificial shape, which, somehow, was a lot less frightening. "Well, Mr. Peters, we will be eagerly waiting for you to come back with those forms filled out, and signed. No rush, Mr. Peters, but I might add that the sooner you finish your education, the sooner you will find a much more open job market." He blinked again. It was a disconcerting sight.
"Thank you for the help," I said, standing.
"Not a problem," he said, rising as well. "Glad to be of service."
He came around the desk and gestured me towards the door. "Please, think about things, take your time, and get back to us whenever you're ready for that loan." He opened the door. "It was nice meeting you Mr. Peters, have a nice day," he said, shaking my hand.
"Thanks, you too." The door closed behind me, and I took a moment to try to relax my breathing. I put the datacard in my case, and nervously walked out, wondering vaguely if this particular bank was involved in any serious conflicts anywhere.

Think of real life as the top of a table or desk that you are sitting at. Then think of galnet as being the papers stacked in the corner, the newspaper you have folded in front of you, the bills strewn carelessly on the side, the pencil holder, the calculator, the datacard reader, the dictionary, the vidphone, the clock, and all the little personal knickknacks you have lined up at the far edge. Generally speaking, from a cafe connection, at least, you will always be able to see parts of the desk, and you will definitely know it's there, because of its very solid presence, but you won't notice it really because your attention will almost always be on that newspaper, or those bills, or whatever else you happen to be dealing with.
So even though I had a cafe table on front of me, a lamp over my head, a window to my side, and a good view of half a dozen other customers, when I connected to the galnet, all those things may not have been out of sight, but they were definitely out of mind. Instead my view was flooded with dataspaces, coming to focus and fading from recognition as my mind hopped from one to another, checking messages, looking for news, and of course, visiting friends.
I was greeted warmly as I entered the main room of our little corner of galnet. The crowd was a little more lively today. Kerridy, Tag, and Gettle were looking pretty happy. It was the weekend in their quadrant. Frank and Jenner were talking, less enthused, and Jenner looked a little nervous. Frank's clothes indicated he was still at work. Tye and Venus were sitting on the couch, laughing at some joke I had missed. Frank's girlfriend was standing in the corner, but she didn't seem to have the room in focus. She was probably doing something in another dataspace, oblivious to what was going on here.
I turned to Tye and Venus. "Hey guys, missed you yesterday. Where were ya? Off on some secret romantic rendezvous?"
Tye gave me a look. "No." Everyone knew they had been good friends since they were kids, but given the name Venus had taken for herself, everyone chided them about their friendship.
Venus smiled, taking it in good humor. "We had to work late at the firm," she explained.
"Ooh, anything dangerous?"
"Not really, just a last minute case that had to be taken care of ASAP. Some poor guy's wife went in for a job interview and almost lost her brain."
I chuckled. "Sounds all too familiar to me."
"We got her out though before any irreparable damage had been done. Had to use up the last of our J-87 ammo, and lost a good set of impact armor. The client paid for a replacement set, of course, but it's still a pain to break them in." In an age where the law depended on who owned the ground you were standing on, "lawyer" was often a synonym for "mercenary".
Jenner flickered.
"Woah, guys, everything just went all fuzzy for a second. Did you guys all get that, or was it just me?"
"Just you," was heard in triplicate.
"Not good. I wonder if there's something wrong with my connection." He flickered again.
"Hold on," Frank said, "Let me see if I can trace you."
"I don't see anything wrong with," he got out, and then disappeared.
"Oh dear," I said.
"It's not just him," Tag said, "Same thing just happened to a few other people I know, different space."
"I can't pick up anything even close to his planet," Frank said, "It's like a couple dozen sectors just vanished from galnet."
I did a quick search on the news nets. I didn't like the answers I got.
"Hooo, crap. That little skirmish that was going on up there between the banks has blown up into a full scale war."
"Yeah, I just saw that," Kerridy said, frowning. The others were staring out into space, probably off making searches of their own.
The Bank of the Spiral and Triple M (Milky-way Money Management) had got into a tiff over something up near where Jenner lived. Then suddenly, after two weeks of minor battles, both banks had decided to put just about everything they had into that little area of space. Details were sketchy, but speculation was quite abundant. Most people hadn't ever heard of a twenty-five quadrant communications blackout.
In retrospect it explained why the Bank of the Spiral was so interested in getting me to sign for that loan. With no job, I wasn't also tied to another organization, which meant if I died in battle for them, they wouldn't have to pay anyone for the potential years I would have been a productive worker. It also meant they wouldn't have had to wait for the weekend to chuck me into the fray. In peacetime it wasn't usually a problem, but the current state of affairs made signing oneself over to anyone quite risky. The unemployed and the self-employed had to be especially careful when banks were involved.
Jenner was self-employed.
I groaned. "Jenner's in real danger if those banks decide to start scouring his planet for fresh cannon fodder."
"They can't do that! You have to owe money before they can do that," Gettle protested.
"It's been done," Frank said, looking unhappy.
Gettle stared at Frank, mouth opening, shutting, trying to find something to say that would make everything OK. Eventually he just sat down in a chair, a forlorn expression painted across his face.
I had a lot to think about. So did everyone else, I imagined, but I don't think anyone here had the slightest clue what was going through my head in those moments. "All's fair in lust and war," as the old saying went. Jenner would be in trouble. Most of my friends, and his friends, here in this room, were probably thinking there wasn't a thing they could do about it either. In reality, there was, but the consequences of playing that card could be huge. On the other hand, if the war up there was over what I thought it might be, the consequences would be coming anyway. Damned if I did, and damned if I didn't.
Frank and his girlfriend began to flicker.
"Frank?" Kerridy said, concerned.
"Hmm, hold on guys," he replied.
"His station is getting attacked," Tye said.
"Here," Venus said, and patched in a feed from her own monitoring. Numbers came in, projected off to Venus's side. They detailed connections, links between relay stations, traffic, signal strengths, and the like.
Tag scratched his head. "Um," he began.
"Hang on a sec," Venus said, interrupting him. A second later the river of numbers was replaced by a diagram, a web if lines forming a complex lattice.
"We're back," Frank said as his image took on some stability. Shenn, his girlfriend, looked around, brow furrowed. "That was Triple M trying to shut us down, I think," Frank continued. "I'll have to check though to make sure."
As he spoke, Venus worked on her display, and the view of the latticework zoomed into one particular area. One node was highlighted, and various paths were shown to and from it in red and blue.
"It looks like the closest area headquarters for Triple M initiated an attack," Tye said, "though there was enough action coming in through other lines that it can't have been an isolated effort. The whole bank was trying to shut that node down."
Frank swore. "They couldn't shut us down, and they knew that, but they did manage to knock out our link to Jenner's area of space. We're blind to what's going on out there."
"Looks like you guys weren't the only relay attacked," Venus said. "Three others got hit. If they were all as effective, the whole galaxy is now oblivious to what's going on in there."
Except for the banks involved, that is. There were still links to that region of space, of course. They just weren't public access. The region of the galaxy in question was somewhat towards the outer rim. Galactic population was less dense than average, and only a handful of relay stations kept watch. However, that didn't stop private companies from establishing their own smaller, more expensive stations to further their own networks. With four connections severed, and the main station that served that sector presumably captured in all the fighting (or destroyed), Jenner's home had just become an information black hole.
I turned to Venus and Tye. "You guys still have all your equipment for galnet warfare?"
"Well, yes," Tye said, "But both of these banks involved far outclass what we're capable of."
"I know. Still can you have it set up by tomorrow? Just in case we need it?"
I was starting to get more than a couple strange looks. "What do you mean?" Venus asked. "What have you got cooking in that head of yours? I'm telling you, short of a miracle there's nothing we can do for Jenner."
I shook my head. "I can't say anything right now, I have to check on something first. It's probably nothing, but trust me, there's a possibility that it would be a very good thing for you to have that equipment set up tomorrow."
"You're not planning on hijacking a Gate, are you?" Frank asked.
It was one possibility. It depended on what I found out when I got home. But messing around with something that big could bring heavy guns down on anyone involved. But if that was all that had to be done, I could do it on my own. One way or another I would be playing my card tomorrow. Just at the moment, I had no clue what kind of hand I was holding.
"No Frank. I really can't say anything right now."
I looked around at the faces in the room. Everyone was upset about this war. Not everyone had really let it soak in yet. It was something far removed from their personal realities, and yet it was directly threatening friends. And it was making me act quite odd in their eyes. I said goodbye to the room full of confusion, and disconnected. The tabletop clutter vaporized and I sat for a moment, staring at my empty world.

Too many familiar names had been dropped in the last few days. It could be coincidences, but I would have a hard time believing it. More and more I had the feeling that what I was about to do wouldn't matter much, because events were coming to a close that would make activation a moot point.
I entered my apartment, locking the door behind me. It was a small place, more of a glorified closet than anything else. The lights came up automatically. I left them on. I walked to my locker and pulled out the case. I folded the bed down from the wall and sat, place the case next to me. Opening it to it's secondary compartment, I pulled out the stunner and set it aside. I then queued it to a compartment that hadn't been opened in six years, and if all had gone well, would have stayed closed for a lot longer.
I lifted a stasis chamber out of the case, large but surprisingly light. It came up to my chest as I set it down on the floor. Then I activated the release sequence, and the door opened.
A small little creature stood inside, strapped in. It blinked it's eyes drowsily as I unfastened his restraints. I took it's little hand in mine, green, rubbery skin contrasting to my own, pale and porous. It stepped down cautiously to the floor, coming up to my waist. It was hard not to think of it as a child. It looked up at me and blinked.
"Hi." I said.
It is time? No words, no sounds. After so many years it amazed me all over again.
"No," I said, frowning. "Something has come up. I have to know, is there danger?"
The creature paused, staring into space. Yes, came the reply.
"What kind of danger?"
Ships. Men. Guns. We are hidden now, but there is much fighting anyway. We are afraid.
"Then we failed."
Things will change now. It is not failure.
I shook my head. I knew he couldn't read my mind, not unless I practically popped a blood vessel trying to think at him. But I almost wished he could. I could not put into words how much seemed to be lost now, how much I feared we could not gain back tomorrow.
Supposedly the only place that the coordinates for their planet existed was my case. The case. But it was inevitable. If someone had stumbled across the planet once, it could happen a second time. But who would have thought there would only be a short time between the events?
I looked down at the sad creature standing in front of me. It looks forlorn, lost, and lonely. Yet, I knew, as a handful of others did, that he could instantly communicate with any member of his species, regardless of distance between them. He could broadcast a message to every living relative from billions of light years away, and they would receive it the moment he thought it.
In a universe where communication was power, these creatures were gold.
I and several others had studied them, worked with them, scanned every micron of their brains in an effort to learn how they did it. But the mysteries of their biology remained locked within them. We could not replicate their miracle.
Oh, and how I now wish we could.
The company we worked for wanted us to do things to them, chop them up, wire them, plug their brains directly into a controlling network. They wanted us to turn them into living broadcast antennae. In essence they wanted us to kill the creature but leave the brain alive. None of us could even begin to imagine the torture that would be for any living being.
So we blew up the base, erased our work, and wiped the very existence of the planet from every record. Using a computer I had designed, I similarly erased myself, and the computer and I disappeared from the parent company for good. The others stayed. They were too valuable to kill, or to ruin mentally, and none of them knew where the planet was. Most probably ended up getting memory wipes. I often wish I could have that luxury, but I was the keeper of the case, the very expensive piece of technology that contained, among other things, the computer that held the coordinates of the planet.
Unfortunately I could not activate that computer without the company that built it knowing exactly where it was. Tomorrow was going to be an interesting day.

I walked into the cafe the next morning, one hand carrying my case, the other one holding the hand of a creature that very well could signal a dramatic change in civilization as we knew it.
I seated the little guy at a booth, setting my case down on the table. With half my remaining funds in my hand I approached the café for a couple waters. The girls behind the counter was smiling, muscles controlled by the monstrosity on her head, but her eyes were red and a trail of wetness ran down her cheeks. I stepped out of character and lifted her helmet from her head.
"No!" she cried, face suddenly contorting, scrunching up, her eyes squinting, her mouth frowning, nose crinkling. "You'll get me in trouble," she said, fumbling with the helmet. I held onto it.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
Through the tears she said, "Just give me the helmet back." I let go. She turned it over in her hand, but hesitated putting it on. "My brother got sent up to that big war last night. He owed Triple M a lot of money. They'll probably bump him into the front lines." She sobbed, and put the helmet back on.
I stared at her for a moment. "Don't worry, that war is about to end."
Smiling, she presented me with two waters. "Here are your waters, sir. That will be ten eighty-two."
I paid her, forcing myself to smile back. It was a short conversation, and I was tempted to repeat my performance to talk to her some more, but I thought better of it and just carried my waters back to the booth where my friend was waiting.
My own personal name for him was Roy. This wasn't because he looked like a Roy, or because his name in his language sounded like Roy. In fact, he didn't even have a name, as most people in this galaxy would consider it. A name is just a thing, a tool of communication. It's a way of putting all the nuances of a person  their looks, their personality, that embarrassing accident that happened to them when they were a kid  into one short verbal burst. Roy's species didn't need that tool. When they needed to refer to someone, that very idea, the soul of that someone, the essence of "who", is transmitted with one single, unique thought.
When Roy thought himself to me (said "I"), it reminded me very much of an uncle I had named Roy. So, to compensate for that human need to put a tag on everything, that's what I called him.
I plugged myself in. Roy didn't have any of the standard implants, but if he wished to know what was going on I had no doubts that he could take a peek at the gearworks in my head to find out. That also had the advantage of not having to explain an additional presence to my friends.
Venus and Tye had a few odd blurs of color floating about their heads when I entered. Their clothing was dark, not in color, but as if it was literally soaking up any light that hit it. In this world, that analogy probably wasn't far off the mark.
The others looked at me expectantly. Most had been going about as normal. Some had worried expressions on their faces. But all seemed to be waiting for me to fill them in on the mystery I had left them with yesterday.
"We are going to find Jenner today. And we're going to stop that war," I said. I doubt anyone quite believed those words, but they knew I had something up my sleeve. "Yes, we can do this. I haven't been entirely honest with everyone here about myself. I've never lied, but I've left a lot of stuff out."
"What's that got to do with anything?" asked Gettle, probably trying to say that it was all right with him, but that wasn't the point I was trying to make.
"I know of a few things we can do to stop this mess. Unfortunately, on the larger scale of things we'll be jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. But in the end Jenner will be safe, and a whole lot of other people, and the banks will be gone from that part of space." I hesitated to mention the fact that in the process I would be getting myself into seriously hot water and could potentially be putting the balance of the galaxy into the blender.
"Spit it out," Kerridy said.
"We'll be using Nanocom's private net to get into that part of space, and disable all communications of the banks in that sector."
Venus was speechless. Tye was incredulous. "What? You have any idea what they'll DO to us when they find out? And they WILL find out! We'll never even be able to get halfway through their net before they catch on and we'll NEVER get through to Jenner. The average response time of Nanocom security is just a few minutes. I know you mean well, Lloyd, but that's crazy."
"Tye, they won't do a thing to you. They'll have me. I used to work for them, friends. In fact, I put a thing or two into that network while I was there that I will guarantee will get us in and give us about half an hour before anyone catches on." Of course, they would probably know something was up as soon as they saw the alert when I turned my computer on. I was figuring another five to ten minutes before they got to me here, in this café. It was no accident that Nanocom had attacked that company I had interviewed at. They were checking likely places I might be working. If I had been in the company databases, they probably would have had me, but without any information I had just been another face caught in the crossfire. I had gotten lucky in more ways than one that day. But it did mean they were near. Maybe they had even found something to track me to this planet. In any event, they were close enough to catch me physically in a very short time, without even having to put in the expenses of sending troops in through a Gate.
In the meantime, I had again caught everyone off guard. Nanocom wasn't just a company. It was the company. It made 85% of the wetware used in the galaxy today for connecting to the galnet. It also owned roughly 15% of the Gates in existence, the largest quantity owned by any one organization. They were big. They were ruthless. But they didn't own the galaxy, yet.
"What, exactly, did you do at Nanocom?" Frank asked.
"Um, well, you probably aren't going to believe this, long story and all, but I was director of Communications and Networks."
Tag started to snicker. "I see what this is. Good joke man. You really had us all goin..."
"Jenner could be dying at this moment!" I screamed at him. "I am NOT fooling around."
Tag blinked, a bit shocked at my sudden outburst. "Ok man, chill."
"I have a computer here, Nanocom property... as soon as I turn this sucker on I'd say I have about forty minutes before Nanocom agents show up and take me away to whatever cage they plan on putting me in. This is /serious/."
But they weren't paying attention to me. Everyone was staring, but not directly at me. Rather, it seemed to be something just to my left. I turned to see what everyone was now looking at.
An image of Roy was floating there, suspended beside me. How he had done it I don't know. He looked a bit disoriented, unsure of his surroundings, but still calm, as if it were simply some puzzle to solve.
My friends began to mutter a couple questions, but they never quite found the words before Roy spoke. "Please help Lloyd." It was a voice I had never heard, and one I have never been able to remember. His mouth did not move. Of course, in that world it didn't have to, but it still boggled my mind how he managed to communicate his thoughts to people halfway across the universe. Yes, it was definitely something he could do with his own kind, but I had never seen one of them communicate with another species except when they were in the same room.
"Lloyd," Venus said softly, "What is this?"
"Everyone, meet Roy." Roy smiled and waved, which was uncanny because his race didn't have the muscles to smile, not like he was doing here. I had gotten so used to the attempts of the Galaxy to make things in the galnet behave much like the real world that it actually surprised me when things acted differently from how they were supposed to.
"Hello Roy," Kerridy said, waving back.
"So," I said, smiling, "are we ready to do this?"
And in front of me, on the café table, I opened my case.

The door in front of us was not large. Kerridy, Frank, and I stood front and center, with Tye and Venus flanking us. Tag and Gettle brought up the rear. Shenn had stayed behind to monitor traffic from Frank's post.
I put the correct key in the door and it melted open. We stepped through and it came closed behind us. We were in a short, curved corridor, and there wasn't even a seam in the wall to show where we had come in. This was a good thing. We could always follow our trails back to it and find it, but if it were visible someone else may pass by and notice it without even having to search for it with special sniffers.
I turned right and led the way down. Quickly we came to an opening into another corridor... this one about a hundred times larger in width and height, and it was long enough that our wetware had to fog out the data at a certain distance to keep it from overloading our senses.
Beams of light flashed intermittently down the shaft. Huge globes passed back and forth at incredible speeds. If we disturbed anything in this hall, Nanocom would know immediately. Nothing that was traveling this pathway had any visual senses, however.
Timing was tricky here. We had to launch ourselves from this small tube into one just across but about thirty yards to the left, without touching any of the data flying by. I knew the algorithms for all that data. It was pretty routine stuff. But still, getting seven people across that stream was going to take patience.
Soon a small gap on our side approached. I launched myself across. It looked like I might hit one train of globes, but by the time I got to that part of the corridor it had passed. I dashed through that new gap and into the far tunnel.
I counted to fifteen and told Kerridy to come. The same gaps appeared and she made it through fine. Fifteen more seconds and Tye had joined us. Now we had to wait about a minute.
Now came Tag. Venus was about ready to launch herself next when something felt wrong. Venus was just making her lunge when I shouted "Wait!" Frank and Gettle both reached out as one and yanked her back into the tube on their side. A loud sound rumbled across the corridor, and huge blue globes, each barely less than the diameter of the tunnel, came streaking by. They actually felt hot, which in this place meant they were cleaners. Any stray data that may have gotten lost in the corridor would get cleaned up, burned and disintegrated to improve flow. But it was something that was only supposed to be needed every month or so. Either we were having rotten luck or someone had stepped up the schedule since I'd left. It was a good thing Venus had missed that. Not only would we have been discovered, but she would have certainly had her connection severed and might have even had a wetware overload. They aren't fatal and rarely cause permanent brain damage, but they sure do hurt.
Two minutes later it stopped. We were losing time. The normal data flow resumed, and shortly everyone was across the gap. I led the gang further down the smaller tunnel to a point in the wall that my sensors told me was the right place. I took out another key and waved it over the wall. It wriggled for a moment, went out of focus, and then parted to let us through.
We were in a small gray room, featureless except for a little round symbol on the far wall. I took out one last key and placed it in the center. The room shimmered, shifted, and suddenly we seemed to be standing in front of the entrance we had originally come through.
"We're back where we started," said Tag. But Frank, Tye, and Venus seemed to have some idea what had just happened.
"You split the network," said Venus.
"Yeah," I replied.
"Won't they detect that?" asked Frank.
"They will, but it's a small enough division it won't get noticed for about a quarter hour." What I had done was isolate a tiny section of the network. Think of a huge road, a thousand lanes across. I had just taken one of those lanes and cut if off so that only we would be able to travel along it. We would be going the same route as everything else traveling on that road, could get to all the same places, but we wouldn't run into any traffic. It would slightly decrease the efficiency of the data flow, which is why it would get noticed. But we would have time to do what we needed to do.
We entered the network once again, but this time when we got to the huge corridor, there was no data at all traveling down it. "Welcome to my backdoor," I said.
We all launched off into the center of the chamber, and then at a command, we all began to travel down the shaft at an incredible speed. The walls became a blur, then a streak, and then just one solid indistinct color. As suddenly as we had started, we stopped. We were at an intersection. One smaller tunnel jutted off to the right. We floated down to it and then took off again. Shortly the color of the surrounding tunnel began to change, and when we stopped again its diameter was considerably smaller. One small hole greeted us beneath our feet. As we traveled down it, it twisted and changed directions as we went.
But in no time at all we had stopped again, and this time a small flashing light blinked at us on one of the walls. I touched it, and suddenly we were in a different chamber, small, square, but filled with terminals and data displays.
Tye whistled. "Nice equipment," he said.
Venus walked up to one of the displays. "We're definitely in the right sector. This station is showing a LOT of transmissions from both the banks we're after, plus a handful of miscellaneous local broadcasts. It's not showing any galnet transmissions at all, which can only mean we've gotten through the blackout. I guess the rumors are true. Nancom is everywhere."
Gettle's expression went dead.
"Gettle?" I asked. I got no reply. Frank nudged him. Still nothing.
"Uh oh," said Kerridy.
Suddenly he came back to life. "Sorry guys, I had forgotten to turn off something. It just forced me out of this space for a moment. I killed it as fast as I could."
"You had us worried," said Tag.
Tye looked around seriously. "Is everyone sure they have everything else shut down? We can't risk anyone getting booted out while we're doing this."
A couple people went blank for a second as they checked their systems. "Yeah," was everyone's answer.
"Good. Now how do we bust this fight up?"
"Ok," I said, "as soon as we use this station to tap into the banks' networks Nanocom will definitely know what's going on. So we will have very little time to do this. We have to get in, and shut down all communications pronto. If you can find Jenner, send him a message to get out. But don't waste time doing that if it looks like we're getting shut down, of if things get to heated. The banks are probably not going to like us intruding. Shutting down their network will save Jenner, and everyone else the banks have sent out there. Sending a message would just be an added help. Now, me, Tye, and Kerridy will take out Tripple M. Venus, you take Frank, Tag, and Gettle and shut down Spiral."
I materialized a few weapons and handed them out. My computer was probably much better at sending attacks than those of most here. Tye and Venus probably had their own tricks, but I had never known Kerridy or the others to go in for galnet warfare.
I pressed a few buttons and two portals opened up.

Eight people were in the war room. Most were too engrossed in what they were doing, but one notices our entrance.
"Hey..." he got out, and then a bolt from Kerridy's gun silenced him. His head lolled and he fell to the floor.
A bright orange light burst forth from besides me, and Tye rushed to the nearest person, slicing through her with his sword. She disappeared, her connection severed. A bolt from my weapon sent another person reeling to the floor.
By this time someone had the sense to call for security, and another had pulled a weapon. They aimed at Tye (as he caused a second person to vanish), but I engaged my shield and stepped between them. He fired, and it scattered across my vision for a moment. I fired back, but he too apparently had a shield. He charged me, kicking out when he got close enough to land a blow. I phased, and his foot passed right through me. He paused for a moment, trying to figure out what happened. "Reality sucks," I said, and punched him with the force of ten men. He flew across the room and fell to the floor, blank expression across his face.
The other three were dealt with in short order. Tye took up guard by the door. If security was wise they would simply use sniffers to find our entrance trail and cut off our connections there, but Tye wanted to make sure no one came in to disturb us in the meantime.
Kerridy and I got busy shutting things down. I searched for Jenner.
Suddenly Tye vanished.
"Oh crap," said Kerridy.
I sent a quick message to all the fighter pilots, "Get as far away from this place as you possibly can." I hoped Jenner was among them. Then I stepped back and blanketed the panel with gunfire. It melted and vanished. Little yellow icons popped up around where it had been, to show repair crews where the problems were.
"Got it!" Kerridy yelled, and then disappeared.
I pictured all the fighter pilots and soldiers out there, possibly in the middle of battle, suddenly free of the control of their neural helmets, now able to save their own lives, rather than get shot down in somebody else's dispute. I smiled.
The room faded away, and I found myself back at the hangout with the others. Tag was missing, but everyone else seemed all right.
"How'd it go?" I asked.
"Good," said Frank. "Tag got knocked out, but we think he'll be OK. We got all communications shut down. We had time to do a search for Jenner, but nothing turned up."
"Mission accomplished then. I just hope Jenner made it out of there."
They're here.
I put galnet out of focus and glanced around. Through the window, I saw a few men in uniform moving in the darkness. Roy was looking up at me.
"Goodbye," I said to my friends.

Lights, blistering the sky. The stars shook and the heavens flashed. And then a new star, an old star, a familiar star, a nightmare star. The other stars fled before it, and fire rained down from above. Oh father, hide us! Protect us! The fight has ended, but the battle has begun.

I woke.
My bunk was still hard. My clothes still smelled. The light was still dim. I was still in my cell. I was still alive.
The door beeped. Light spilled into the cell, and I blinked.
I rose and stepped out into the hall. Two men with guns followed behind me. The man in charge led the way.
We stopped at an airlock.
"So you're going to blow me out the airlock now, huh?" I said. They just looked at me. It was the kind of look that made me want to keep my mouth shut.
The airlock opened, and we stepped into it. The outer hatch rolled open, and sunlight came through. I could see green grass, blue skies, and white clouds. So we had landed somewhere. It looked vaguely familiar.
They marched me along a worn path through the undergrowth. The smells were really what got to me. It evoked memories of feelings, memories of wonder, joy, fear, and apprehension. That flower, that was friendship. And that minty leaf was determination.
I knew where I was.
"Hello world," I thought.
/Hello Lloyd/, it replied.
When we entered the old facility I was smiling. The vice president of research and development was there in the main hall, and he didn't seem to like the look on my face at all.
"Where are they, Peters?" he barked.
"It's nice to see you too, Ben," I said.
"I'm not going to play any games with you, Lloyd. Where are they? I know they didn't all just commit suicide. And your friend escaped somehow the second we got him on this planet. I want answers, Peters."
"You won't see them unless they want you to, Ben. They know what you're up to now. You won't be able to capture them like you did last time."
"Not good enough, Lloyd. I'm a hologram. I'm seeing things through the eyes of mindless cameras. I'm not even on the planet. They can't affect me from this distance. Even if they were fooling the people here with their mind tricks, I should still be able to see them."
I just smiled, the smile of someone who knows something he won't tell.
"Lloyd, what do I have to do to get your help on this? I can get you just about whatever you want. Heck, I could even make you a partner if that's what you wanted. It would certainly have the most lasting benefits."
"You have no idea how much of a good thing we have here, Lloyd. I'm not just talking money here, but this is the kind of thing that could finally give Nanocom the edge we need to really make it big."
"Aren't you big enough already?"
"The galaxy could still survive without us, Lloyd. No, I wouldn't call that big enough." He smiled. It made my stomach churn.
"So you're thinking that money and power is going to make me think that it's all right to kill thousands of innocent people?"
"You know as well as I do that they don't have the brain capacity to even be sentient, much less be considered valuable assets as workers. They're not people. They're biological freaks, freaks that we can capitalize on."
But I knew different. "There was a time I may have fallen for your arguments, or given in to your bribery, or been scared by the threats you're likely to use next. But not now. There are things I know that could never let me be a part of your 'research.'"
"I'm not going to threaten you, Lloyd. I'm just going to kill you. If you won't help, you can do nothing but get in the way."
At that moment the building shook. The armed guards behind me looked around. Ben's image flickered. The far wall suddenly shattered to bits, and men dashed through the hole. I ran towards them, shots being exchanged both ways, but somehow I knew these new attackers were friends.
The man nearest to me went down, shot in the leg by an energy bolt. I ran to his side and helped him back to the wall where they had come in. "Thanks," he muttered, and then others were there, taking him away and rushing me out. A signal went up and those still in the building began making their retreat. We made our way through the thick forest, still dodging shots from the structure behind us.
Eventually the Nanocom soldiers stopped firing, or gave up pursuit, and we marched on to the west. I don't know how long we walked. I was starting to go into shock. I felt numb inside. I was barely even paying attention to putting one foot in front of the other. My own mortality was suddenly staring me in the face. The blur of the attack replayed itself, and I started seeing every moment where something could have happened, where something could have gone wrong, where I could have died. I couldn't believe my own bravado in the confrontation with Ben. It seemed like that had been a whole different person. I shook my head, fighting back some nausea.
We came to a small camp. At first I hardly even realized it as such, due to the camouflage. The man who had been marching in front of me turned around suddenly. He threw off his mask and gave me a huge hug. It was Jenner.
"Man, I am so glad we got you out of there," he said, staring at me with a wide grin.
"Yeah," I said, still not really registering what was going on. "What are you doing here?"
"I was stationed on the planet as a foot soldier when suddenly a message came through to everyone to get the heck away. And then the helmets stopped controlling us. It wasn't later till I discovered it was you. Thank you." A tear began to well up in his eye.
"Hey man, I had to."
A touch of fear crept into Jenner's voice. "What's going on here, Lloyd?"
"What do you mean?"
"Last night, I woke up, and I knew you were coming, and I knew you had set us free. I don't know how, I just knew. And today, I don't know how we did it. None of us here are professional soldiers. The banks use the helmets to turn us into fighting machines, but without them we're just ordinary guys. Leetonn, over there," Jenner pointed towards a tall, three eyed thing forlornly munching on some rations, "owns a grocery shop down the street from me. And Sal, she's a galnet cosmetics salesperson. But somehow today, when we were rescuing you, we did everything right. It was almost instinct."
Things began to piece together in my mind, pushing my fear and disorientation aside. "We have help, Jenner. We're not alone on this planet. In fact, it's the natives here that Nanocom is after, that the banks were after."
"They're telepathic. That's how you knew, and that's how this group knew, and why no one panicked and why I knew you were friends. They can communicate their thoughts to anyone instantaneously, no matter how far away they are. That's why the banks were fighting. These people here can be turned into the most powerful communications devices the galaxy has ever known. But they have to die for it to happen. Which is why we have to protect them."
"Then why did you bring Nanocom into this? Wouldn't it have been better to let the banks fight it out, give this planet time? Besides, the banks would probably be far less ruthless than Nanocom."
"This is not my first time on this planet, Jenner. I worked for Nanocom long ago, and I destroyed everything, I hid the planet from them, taking the only surviving records with me in my case. As soon as they found out that this is what the banks were fighting over, they would have been here anyway. It was better to end the battle before it had begun, preventing pointless deaths. Saving you."
"So where are they?"
"Hiding. No mind will be able to see them unless they want it to. Still, it's only a matter of time before Ben figures out a way to find them."
"Ben... that the man you were talking to?"
"Yeah. Nanocom's head of research and development."
"Sounds like a fun job."
"I suppose it is, until you start talking about genocide." I described the various plans I had seen involving setting up stations around the galaxy, each with it's own brain wired into the central transmitter. I thought about the girl at the café. What if she had to live every day, all day, under her helmet, never able to think freely, never able to express herself, never able to reach out, or cry out. And a neural helmet like that handled a negligible amount of data when compared to what a galnet transmitter had to deal with.
"So you were director of Networks and Communication?" Jenner was saying. "And you still couldn't get a decent job after leaving Nanocom?"
"I didn't just leave, I ran. I had nothing except the case, and that was barely any use to me because I couldn't use the computer without Nanocom tracking me down through it. I had to start over from scratch. I had no money, so I couldn't get the equipment I needed to create any kind of portfolio, and I couldn't use my real credentials because I couldn't risk Nanocom finding me."
"Well then why didn't you take it to the authorities? I'm sure some federation or empire or kingdom or organization would have come to the aid of this planet."
"Bacause! Because I didn't, ok? What's with the twenty questions?"
"Sorry, sorry. I just... it's just that everything that's happened, I finally feel like I might get some answers. The last few days all I've had were questions. I forgot that it's probably been rough on you too," he said, lowering his voice and frowning.
"No, don't worry about it," I shook my head, "I just didn't think that anyone in their right mind would want to go up against something as big as Nanocom. I only did because at one point I was part of Nanocom, and so I didn't really view them in the same way. I was hoping, praying that no one would ever find this planet again, that no one would ever find me, that I could just live my life, and these beings could live theirs, and I wouldn't ever have to worry about someone pointing a gun in my face again. I did what I thought was all I could do, and then the coward in me took over."
Jenner patted me on the back. "Hey man, at least you did something. It bought these guys time, for one thing."
A touch of a smile appeared at the corner of my mouth. "Thanks, Jenner."
"Let's go get something to eat, you can fill me in on what the guys have been up to."
"Sure," I said, smiling, and he led the way to the mess tent.

The sweat covered my forehead, and my heart raced. At first I didn't know where I was, and then the sight of the two moons filtering through the tent fabric reminded me. Fear and panic swept through my gut, but then abruptly were gone.
I looked around, and through the tent flaps I could see one of them.
"Roy?" I thought.
Yes. Come out, Lloyd. You do not need to be afraid.
Except that there were no words, not even inside my head. I just knew, felt these sentiments. I felt affirmation to my question, that yes, it was Roy out there. Then I knew what he wanted, that he wanted me to come out and go with him. And I felt reassured, that he felt that there was nothing for me to fear.
I slipped off the cot and crept around the two people I was sharing the tent with. I stepped out into the open air. The ground was moist, and the darkness made it hard to see where I was going. But somehow I found my way around the larger bushes, and Roy led me through the forest, away from the camp.
The forest felt so much more alive. I could hear things moving in the night, something small off to my right, some type of bird beating it's wings high above. I felt the vibrations coming off a blade of grass that was springing back into place after an insect had just leapt from it. As we walked the light seemed to get brighter, as if someone was turning up the volume on the stars overhead. Or, to be more precise, someone had just turned up the sensitivity of all my senses. I knew who it was, too. I just didn't know how. Things were happening that these creatures had not been capable of six years before.
We came to a clearing, and noon decided to arrive a little sooner than it should have. I blinked, and saw that the clearing was now full of a few hundred variations of my friend Roy. I could see them all as if in broad daylight, and yet when I looked up I could still see the two moons sailing by overhead.
I started to say... no, I started to think "Hello", and barely had the word formed in my mind than I was receiving a barrage of replies. It should have been more than my brain could handle, but somehow I knew exactly which of the people standing around this clearing had greeted me. I smiled, and everyone smiled back.
And then it began.
At first I didn't know what had hit me. I felt like I had just had my brain put in front of an afterburner. Then I started finding that I could sift through the noises, the ideas, the carnage that was going on in my consciousness.
I was listening to hundreds of conversations. Not conversations of words, but of thoughts, feelings, concepts. There was one between a chubby little fellow standing by the huge tree on the far side of the clearing and a slightly taller, slightly thinner friend (who had a bad habit of biting his lip) a quarter of the way around the perimeter. They were discussing the fact that Nanocom was back, and what options were available, but not in so many words. It was more along the lines of images of Nanocom soldiers, the Nanocom shuttle, the star overhead that was the Nanocom main ship, the concept of their race as a whole, feelings of fear, of uncertainty, of reassurance, of anger, of worry. And all this in about the same amount of time two humans would take to introduce themselves.
I was drawn to that one because that was foremost on my own mind, but there were others. Some involved the flavor of the various fruits that grew here, and which were best. Others were about the influx of a certain kind of insect into this area of the forest. In a short time I could hop about, picking up and participating in which conversations interested me just by thinking about the subject. And I could filter out everything else that was flying around.
Roy had seen my network. Now he was showing me his.
"But how?" I thought, "Last time I was here you were only able to communicate with us by tapping into our vocal centers, by picking through our vocabulary and choosing the most fitting associations. You couldn't read our thoughts. We had to speak to you to communicate. Now you're picking up my thoughts before they've even formed into words in my own head." This, of course, was just what I was thinking, or feeling. I never really had a chance to form the sentences together before the reply came.
We have grown. We have learned. We continue to grow. We continue to learn. Before, you were closed boxes. The only way to tell what was on the inside was to decipher what was written on the outside. Now you are open to us, and we can see, we can hear. We can talk.
Now everyone's attention was back on me, and now I could handle it. All at once everyone was talking, asking questions, reassuring me, telling me their life story. And somehow, whether from inner abilities I hadn't known existed or with help from others, I was able to talk to them all. And we talked.
And we talked.

I awoke the next morning to blue skies.
I felt alone, empty. But I also felt great. I felt like something inside me would never be the same again.
I didn't waste time dwelling on those thoughts, though.
I sought out Jenner.
"What's up?" he asked.
"We have to move, now."
"Why? We in danger? The sentries haven't reported anyone out there."
"Nanocom's sent robots after the natives. We have to stop them."
"How do you know this?"
"I just know, OK? How soon can you get everyone together?"
"I thought you said the natives were hiding?"
"They can't hide from machines. They can only hide from living minds. Now how soon?"
"Give me five minutes. Are you sure about this?"
"Absolutely positive."
Despite that no one here was a trained professional soldier, there's nothing like being stranded on a wild planet with no certain way home to get people to start acting like one. Granted, the other end of the spectrum, complete and total despair, was a definite possibility, but I had a feeling we were getting a little bit of help keeping people from going that route mentally.
True to his word, Jenner had everyone lined up in five minutes. Everyone had a certain look in their eyes. It said to me that they would be happier going out and doing something rather than just sitting around on their rears all day. It wasn't really a concept that could be put into one human word, but it was a feeling I had encountered a lot last night.
We walked through the woods for a time, heading southeast. Everyone carried their weapons at ready, expecting the robots to come bounding out of the trees at any moment. But I knew they wouldn't find the monstrosities for some time.
At last I saw what I was looking for. I turned to Jenner.
"Keep going this direction for about five minutes. Then the robots should show up on your tracking sensors."
"What about you?" asked Jenner, worriedly.
"I'm going to see Ben."
"You can't go back there!"
"Trust me Jenner. I'll be fine this time. You just worry about getting to those robots before the robots get to those natives. Please? They need you Jenner."
"You be careful Lloyd."
"I will."
Smiling, we parted, him leading the rest southeast, and me following my guide northward.
"A nice walk in the woods, just like the old days," I said.
/Yes/, commented Roy, /but not quite like the old days/.
"No," I said, "not quite."
We walked in silence for a while, each buried in our own thoughts. I didn't think he was listening to mine. I think that when thoughts were intentionally private, they stayed that way.
/We will be leaving today/, Roy said at last.
This took me by surprise. "What? Where are you going? Everyone's leaving the planet?"
We are going out. We will not see each other again, Lloyd.
I almost stopped in my tracks. "What do you mean?"
I wanted to tell you last night, but it was agreed you couldn't know yet. I probably should not even be telling you now, but I thought it was a good time.
"I don't understand. Why today? Why not yesterday? Why not when the banks first showed up? Or are you planning on using Nanocom shuttles? They can control those remotely. You wouldn't be able to escape in them. Why not stay another year? It's beautiful here." I didn't know what had possessed me, but I felt a surge of worry, maybe even anger. I had put my life on the line to save this planet's inhabitants, and now they were just going to up and leave.
Today is our Trial.
"Trial? What trial?" But he refused to answer me.
We walked on until finally the facility came into view. There was a crowd of natives gathered near the entrance. The guards at the door didn't seem to notice them at all. They noticed me, however.
"Stop right there!" they barked, raising their weapons.
"Excuse me..." I started to say, but then they both collapsed in front of me.
/Asleep/, Roy said to the question forming in my head.
I resisted the urge to kick them as I walked past. I led the group into the building. The wall at the far end of the hall looked like it had been patched up fairly well. I opened the door a short way down and held it open for the natives. It led into a short hallway which opened up into an operations room. Huge displays flickered on the walls, showing locations. I assumed they were showing the robots. Red blobs darted about here and there around a massive blue grid. A gang of small red ones were retreating from the blue robot blips. Another group of red blobs were approaching from the side. Flashes of white and blue appeared among the two groups, and one or two of the blue dots went yellow.
Ben, standing with his back to us, swore. "Kirkson, switch the robot's weapon from stun to kill."
An aide to his left did nothing. He was slouched in his chair, snoring.
"Kirkson!" Ben yelled. Nothing happened. Then he glanced around at the other assistants. They were all sound asleep. "What's going on here?" He then turned around and saw me.
"What did you do? And how did you get in here?" he said, oblivious to the natives circling around him.
"And I quote," I said, "'You know as well as I do that they don't have the brain capacity to even be sentient.' End quote. I have to say Ben, you really botched that one. You told us it was impossible, that their brains didn't even come close to a squirrel's. But you didn't live here with them, Ben. It's equally impossible that they can communicate with each other instantaneously over incredible distances, isn't it? Yet they do. And today, today my friend, you are going to stop your attempts to harvest these people once and for all, do you hear?"
He had that look on his face that said I had been talking to a brick wall. I fully expected him to come back with some pre-rehearsed retort in defense of his plans for genocide.
I did not get what I expected.
He laughed. His eyes betrayed his voice, however. He seemed every bit as surprised as I was. Then he laughed again. He doubled over, howling. He looked up at me, tears in his squinting eyes. The room filled with the roar of his laughter. He fell to the floor, curled up, bawling like a baby.
"Stop it!" he managed between laughs. He was hysterical now. I had to cover my ears his laughter was so loud. "Stop it!" He swatted at his feet and clawed at his stomach. "STOP IT!"
Suddenly I realized what was happening.
"Stop it guys," I said.
He continued laughing.
"Guys, /please/."
He stopped laughing.
"Oh god," he said, looking around him, seeing the natives there for the first time, "what kind of animals are you?"
A little burst of laughter escaped his lips and he curled up again.
"Ok! I'm sorry. Really. I'm sorry. I thought absolutely for sure it was no worse than killing a rat."
"You're really not making yourself sound any more the friend, Ben."
"You have no idea, Lloyd."
"No idea about what?"
"This is my whole career. This is everything I've been doing for the last ten years!"
"That's your excuse?"
"No, no, not an excuse. It's just the thought of all this time, all this time I spent doing this, and now, now these creatures around me, now I see they can't be what I thought they were, it's like I've just had my entire life flushed down the drain." Tears appeared in his eyes again.
The earth shifted.
"What was that?" he asked.
"I don't know. Guys?" But they didn't answer me. Then I noticed they were starting to turn blue in color.
The rumbling subsided. Ben sat up. The natives did not look too happy.
"I suppose you're going to kill me now," muttered Ben.
"No Ben, they're not like you."
He looked up at me. "Listen you, I've had just about enough of your high and mighty act. Get down off your high horse and look at it from my perspective for a change."
"You seem to be forgetting what I put myself through for six years to protect these people. And you know what? I would have gone fifty years like that if I had to, just to keep them out of your self-serving paws. Take your own advice, Ben."
Ben stood up suddenly, grabbing me by the throat. "That's it, Lloyd, tell your friends to back off or I will twist your head off like a cork."
I gurgled a reply.
The earth shifted again. Sparks flew out of several nearby terminals. There was a bright light, and suddenly Ben was in the air, hovering a few feet above the ground.
Roy stood before him, glowing with an ethereal white aura.
"You freaks! Put me down!"
I slumped against the wall. "Roy?"
"Tell them to put me down, Lloyd. Maybe I won't prosecute you for the computer you stole.. aaaaaagh!" He screamed, clutching his head.
"Roy!" I shouted.
The others had begun to glow as well. On the overhead display, all the blue blips suddenly winked out at once. Ben continued screaming.
"Roy! Stop it!"
Ben suddenly stopped screaming. He loosened, his head lolling forward. He hung limp in the air, unconscious.
The glow got brighter. Ben dropped to the floor with a thud. I started to feel a bit light headed and dizzy.
Sparks began to fly from most of the screens, and a terminal caught on fire.
"Roy? What's going on?"
Goodbye, Lloyd. Maybe they will let me talk to you again some day.
"Roy? Who?"
Our parents.
"Your parents?"
Thank you for helping me, helping us, Lloyd. Our beginning may have been a sad one if not for you. We will remember you.
I had to shut my eyes the light was so bright. An earthquake began to shake the whole place apart. The floor refused to let me stand up any longer.
"Wait! Where are you going?"
We're going home, Lloyd. Goodbye.
There was a flash that practically blinded me through my eyelids, and suddenly the ground was still.
I opened my eyes.
Jenner and the group were laying on the ground before me. I stood up and looked around.
"We're on the Nanocom mother ship."
"Look!" someone said. She was pointing at the observation window.
The entire planet seemed to be glowing. The equator seemed to stretch and then collapse. Pockets of red formed around the globe. The whole thing turned bright yellow, with scribbles of black arcing across the visible hemisphere. It was like watching a miniature sun.
Abruptly, wells appeared in the white mass. Quickly, the planet shrunk, and then with a flare, vanished into the black void.
I blinked, trying to see past the afterimage of all that light.
The Nanocom guards and technicians began to stir out of their sleep. I looked around.
"Where's Ben?" Jenner said.
"I don't know."
"Is he dead?"
I stared out the viewport at the stars now peeking through where the planet had once existed. "No, no I don't think so.
"If he's not here, he must have been left on the planet, right?"
"No, if they had killed him, I don't think they would have passed the trial. He's out there, somewhere. If we ever see him again I have a feeling he'll be a changed man."
Jenner just looked at me as if I was speaking gibberish.
"And how, exactly, do you know this?"
"I think," I said, "that Roy told me."
I stared out at the stars, forever sending their light across the universe.

Later, I went back to get my things. I didn't have anything particularly valuable, but all my clothes and software were still in that one apartment, and I needed to close out my utilities accounts.
It felt good not to have a price on my head anymore. I had never really thought much about it during my exile, but it was still always hugging the back walls of my mind. Now I was totally free of that, Nanocom having removed their bounty after they realized what was going on, and, more to the point, after the object of their desire had vanished into whatever dimension it came from.
Using my real name and my real credentials, I had gotten a job creating galnet shopping centers. It wasn't the most fantastic job in the galaxy, but it was a pretty good start. Nanocom may or may not have rehired me, but I still had a bad taste in my mouth for that company, so I didn't bother asking.
I stopped by that galnet café that I frequented. I needed to check with Jenner and Frank about some things before I left this planet for good.
The same girl was still working there. I didn't think she would recognize me, but even if she did I wouldn't be able to tell with her face locked in that perpetual smile.
I walked up to the counter and ordered some fruit juice.
"That'll be six fifty, sir."
I paid her, adding, "Did your brother make it back all right from that war a few months ago?"
She continued smiling at me. "Here is your juice, sir. Thank you for your patronage."
"Offer me a food bar if he did."
"Would you like one of our variety of snack bars?" she asked.
I smiled. "I'm glad. That wasn't something anyone should have died for." I turned to go find a booth, but I felt a grip on my arm. I turned back around.
"Thank you," she said, no longer smiling, even though her helmet was on. Her voice was soft and low. "I don't know what you did, but somehow I know it was you, especially after those Nanocom goons came and drug you away."
"You're welcome. But how?" I asked, pointing at her helmet.
She paused, looking up. A confused look flashed across her face for a moment, but then she stared back at me and smiled a true smile.
"Roy says hi. And thanks. And his parents say thanks. And good-bye."
I blinked. It shouldn't have surprised me, after all I'd seen, but I had figured they were long gone. Maybe where they had gone was a lot closer than I thought.
"You're welcome," I said softly, "and bye, Roy." I felt my eyes getting watery.
The blank smile returned, and I knew they were gone. I turned and picked a booth to sit down in. I sat there and sipped my juice for a while, and then I plugged into the galaxy.
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