Copyright (c) 2013 by POW. For spam prevention, an animal name has been added to the author's e-mail address. Remove the animal name to get the actual address: POWauthor zebra at yahoo dot com. This story may be freely copied and distributed so long as it is copied in its entirety, unchanged, including the author credit information and disclaimer. Other POW stories are available at http://powauthor.blogspot.com. The author welcomes feedback.
The thing about aliens is: they're alien.
No matter how much you might try to understand them or their motives, you can't. You're a human, and you can only think about things as a human does. You can't help it - it's hard-wired into your brain. It's impossible for you to think like an alien; you'd have an easier time communing with a lobster or a beetle or a tree. If you could somehow speak with an alien, you might think you understood him (her? it? Do such pronouns even apply?). But you wouldn't. He - it - is an alien.
I could have written this story from a more literal point of view. I could have written things like:
"Pzhh*whe##t KKn/iig\ pittittit," Gzropwheeep whistled, with overtones in the third and sixth harmonics.
But that wouldn't tell you anything useful. You will understand more if I write something like:
"Well, that wasn't what I expected," Gzropwheeep said, a hint of frustration in his voice.
But it's important to remember that even though I'm writing words like "said" and "voice" and "expected", these are human concepts. Don't be lulled into thinking that you understand because I've made it sound familiar. You don't understand. I don't understand. None of us can understand them. We never will.
The thing about aliens is, they're alien.
George Malvern woke with a start. His pickup had drifted to the right while he dozed and the tires were now thunking noisily over the rumble strips along the shoulder of the road.
Jeez, he thought, yanking the truck back to the center of the lane. Won't that beat all, I get myself killed coming home for Christmas. He glanced at the tiny orange numbers on the side of the dashboard and read "2:28". Out of habit, he started to mentally add seven minutes to get the correct time, then stopped himself, realizing that he could add - or subtract - a couple of hours and it wouldn't matter a bit.
He reached for his thermos and took another swig of the last truck stop's coffee, now gone flat and lukewarm. For what had to be the hundredth time, he wondered if it would have been better to wait until morning to make the long drive home to Saskatoon from the tar sand fields of northern Alberta. What was the rush? He had been away from his family for three months already; another day would make no difference.
Except that the day in question was December 24, and leaving in the morning would have meant arriving after supper, just enough time to say hello and goodnight to the kids and missing all the pre-Christmas preparations. The kids were at the age where Santa was huge in their lives. For weeks now, he had been hearing on the phone what sort of cookies they would be baking to leave out for the Man In Red and what decorations they would be draping the house with and whether reindeer would rather have carrots or apple slices and how they were saving the star on the top of the tree for Dad to put on when he got home...
No, too much was happening on the 24th to spend the day driving. This way, he'd arrive after breakfast, maybe grab a nap for an hour or two, and be able to spend the rest of the day - and the whole week after - with Grace and Kevin and, of course, Nicole, who he missed so damn much it made the lonely road ahead of him go all fuzzy and blurred...
He blinked the tears away and took another gulp of the coffee. There was no point in second thoughts now - he was committed to the drive. Most of the other guys were Albertans themselves, so for them it was a fairly easy trip home, west to route 35, then south to Edmonton or Calgary. Not so for George. He could have followed them, then circled back east into Saskatchewan, but his trip would have been much longer. After much dithering, he'd decided to lop off a hundred kilometers by starting out going east, at first cross-country over dirt tracks and frozen rivers, then picking up a small, winding, darker-than-dark road through country covered densely with trees and spotted everywhere with small iced-up lakes before finally turning toward the south and civilization on route 955. Pulling off to the side of this lonely road and getting some sleep was not an option. The temperature was at least twenty below, he was kilometers from anywhere, and his truck was old enough that if he turned the engine off now and allowed it to cool, without a place to plug in his engine pre-warmer it might not turn on again till spring. Winter in the north country was not something you ever took lightly. No, the best thing to do was to keep driving, and keep himself conscious any way he could.
George fumbled with the radio dial. It was pretty much static from one end of the dial to the other, but in two places he could pick up faint, shadowy ghosts of country music coming in over the airwaves. He picked the stronger-sounding one and helped the singer along, bellowing out a plausible approximation of the melody to "Love Without End, Amen" right along with George Strait. It don't have to be pretty, he told himself. It's just gotta be loud enough to keep me awake.
He was singing so enthusiastically that he didn't even notice when the radio cut out altogether, leaving him performing solo in the star-lit night. He did notice a few seconds later when the headlights - and all the dashboard lights - turned off as well. Along with the engine.
"Shit!" His singing was cut off mid-chorus, replaced by a stream of profanities. The truck, having lost its motive power, began to coast, steadily losing speed until its motion was little more than a crawl. George used the last of its forward momentum to steer it off to the shoulder, the rumble strips a series of separate bumps when taken at 10 km/h. When it finally drifted to a stop, he slammed his fist into the steering wheel and swore again, wondering what could possibly have gone wrong that could cause both the electrical system and the engine to all shut themselves down at once.
Then the light came on.
Not the headlights or the dashboard lights, but a brilliant, all-consuming radiance that bathed everything in an electric glow. It was so bright that it seemed to come right through the pickup's roof. George craned his neck forward, trying to peer upward through the windshield, but the light was so dazzling that he had to close his eyes. Even that was not enough - he could still see vague outlines of shapes right through his eyelids.
He had just started to think about getting out of the truck to find out what was going on when any such thoughts were rendered moot. With no hint of a cause, George suddenly lost the use of his muscles and found himself utterly paralyzed. He tried to open his eyes to get a glimpse of what might be happening, but they were as unresponsive as the rest of his body: the lids refused to lift.
As the first hint of panic began to hit, he became aware of a blast of cold air - the door beside him had opened. Reflexively, he went to gasp at the sudden chill and realized when it didn't happen that even his breathing had stopped. The panic swelled in his chest.
He heard the click of the safety belt unlatching and felt the buckle slide across his lap. His body slid sideways toward the open door. Try though he might, his muscles refused to respond to his brain's commands and he was helpless to stop himself from tipping out the door to fall helplessly onto the frozen ground.
Only it didn't happen. When he cleared the edge of the seat, he did not fall to earth as he expected. Instead, he felt himself floating unsupported in the air. He thought at first that he was hovering at the height of his truck's seat, about a meter off the ground, but unable to open his eyes, he couldn't be sure. Then the tip of his boot bumped gently against what had to be the top of the door frame and he realized he must be rising upward, in violation of all the laws of physics he knew.
George struggled to move, but nothing he did had any effect. Something was moving him, though: he could feel his body unbending as he rose until his legs were straight and his arms were stretched out at his sides. The searing light glowed red through his eyelids. He longed to open his mouth and take a breath, but his diaphragm remained stubbornly immobile. As the seconds passed, his craving for air grew increasingly desperate until he would have welcomed even the arctic chill of the wind in his lungs, not caring that it would suck the heat out of his insides as effectively as it was currently doing to his skin. But all he could do was wait.
There came a time when the glaring light began to dim. George in his panic couldn't tell if that was because the light was actually growing darker or because his oxygen-starved brain was shutting down. Loss of consciousness, when it came, arrived so abruptly that George didn't even have time to realize it was coming.
The alien had a name, but there is no point in trying to render it into human speech. A human throat would not have been capable of reproducing the sounds that a Cognota's tympanum could generate, and human ears could not have detected a third of the frequencies involved. About the only similarity between human and Cogno speech was that both involved modulation of pressure waves in air. So I will refer to the alien as "Cahrq", not because that name is particularly appropriate, but because human ears exposed to the particular modulation of pressure waves that represent the alien's actual name would hear something approximating that combination of sounds.
Cahrq sat at the bridge of his vessel, fantasizing about what the end of his voyage would bring. (At the risk of belaboring the point that aliens are alien, "sat", "bridge", and "fantasizing" are approximations of the creature's actual physical, mental, and emotional state. "Vessel", however, is a near-exact translation. It turns out that all tool-using intelligences have a meme for "container to facilitate transportation". The concept is a cultural invariant.)
"We have arrived at our destination," said the ship's controlling intelligence - call it "Serl" - in its customary mellifluous voice rich with harmonics of calm and comfort. It was a voice designed to have a soothing effect on the Cogno psyche. The idea was that emergencies in space tended to be of the sort where flailing around in a blind panic was pretty much guaranteed to accomplish nothing productive and very likely to make things worse. If such an emergency were to happen, having the ship's artificial intelligence sound calm and in control would (so the theory went) encourage crew members to behave in a similar manner. The theorists who had come up with the idea were not at all deterred by the inconvenient fact that metrics demonstrating any correlation between theory and actual practice remained sparse and inconclusive, and were now happily working on an arrestingly fashion-forward redesign of the user interface for elevators.
Cahrq had been listening to that serene, soothing voice for the last three weeks, and it was really starting to piss him off.
Just once, he wanted Serl to lose its temper, fly off the handle, show some emotion... in other words, to act like something other than a stupid computer. AIs were not typically like this. Most were advanced enough to easily pass the Two-Ring test: only an expert could distinguish with certainty between an AI in one ring and a Cognota in the other. Cahrq had decided that either this particular AI was an idiot savant, capable of flying a spaceship and nothing else, or it was, in fact, capable of speaking in any manner it chose and was only sticking to the dumb-robot routine to tick him off. As the days of the voyage dragged on, the latter possibility seemed increasingly likely. The First Law of Artificial Intelligence may have ensured that no AI could allow a Cognota to come to physical harm, but it apparently did not have any jurisdiction over an AI annoying the snot out of someone. A few days ago, he had ordered the computer to, with all due respect, shut the hell up, and had been enjoying blissful silence ever since.
Now Serl's melodic purring jolted Cahrq out of his daydream. "Sol system, third planet. Known to its native inhabitants as, variously, Earth, Dà Lì, la tierra, die Erde, mir, Chikyū, nchi..."
Whatever soothing effect the voice may have once had on his psyche had long since evaporated. Now the rich, melodious sound of Serl's voice only served to drive up his blood pressure, the result of three weeks of cognitive dissonance between the perfect-sounding voice and the stubbornly obtuse, almost deliberately moronic brainpower behind it. With an effort of will, Cahrq kept his emotions in check.
"Yes," Cahrq pulsed through a taut tympanum. "Thank you. That will do. Where on the planet are we?"
"Current position is above the smaller of the two northern landmasses, somewhat northwest of the continent's geographic center. Co-ordinates seven two elf jot nine zero three by one zero..."
"Stop." Cahrq rubbed his head with two fingers, sliding them over the sensitive surface of his tympanum in an unconscious effort to dampen the vibrations of the computer's voice. "I want you to find me a target."
There was a pause. "Please specify target."
"I don't care. A... what are they called again? A human. Any human."
"Using standard search parameters." It was not a question, but something about the inflection implied that Serl was nevertheless waiting for an answer.
"Override of standard search parameters requires authorization at level one jot ten. If you wish to override standard search parameters, please provide authentication credentials of level one jot ten or greater. Otherwise, standard search parameters will apply."
Cahrq didn't have level one jot ten authentication credentials. In fact, he had no credentials at all. It was a miracle that this stolen spaceship would even allow him to fly it. Only his status as tutor to the exchecutor's nearly-grown trio of brats had allowed him to bluff his way this far.
"Explain standard search parameters. And try to organize the information with the most relevant parts at the beginning."
"Per council directive five three nine jot elf two..."
"Skip the numbers."
"... contact with non-space-faring species is restricted. No Cognota is permitted to engage in contact with members of the non-space-faring species in a manner that would reveal the existence of the Cognoi to the species' governing bodies. Contact is permitted in limited circumstances, namely where, one, the member of the non-space-faring species is extracted from its natural habitat without attracting the attention of other members of the species, and, two, the member of the non-space-faring species is returned to its natural habitat with no physical evidence of the contact as soon as such repatriation is reasonably practical, and, three, the..."
"OK, I get it. I can pick somebody up as long as no one notices."
"... and two, the member of the non-space-faring species is returned to its natu..."
"Yes. Fine. Stop now." Cahrq's pulse was throbbing in his temples. He took a deep breath. "Very well. Use standard search parameters and find me a target."
The wait was not long. Cahrq had heard that, unlike the Cogno homeworld, this was a sparsely populated planet. You could pretty much always find some local yokel roaming about someplace far from any witnesses. Adolescent Cognoi were reputed to like to take advantage of this for some prankish amusement. Bartoclept, one of the aforementioned exchecutor's brats, had bragged that he himself had gone UFO-ing. Cahrq found this hard to believe, as the voyage from Rodoin to here was a round-trip journey of at least 34 days: when would Barty have found time for the trip? Nevertheless, he claimed to have gone with two of his friends, scooping up some hapless aborigine and parading around in front of it wearing deely-bop antennas and making "woop woop" noises, then releasing the creature to tell a tale so unbelievable that it was doomed to be forever considered a lunatic by the other members of its race.
That - if it were true - certainly flouted the spirit, if not the letter, of directive five three whatever-it-was, so clearly there were loopholes. Cahrq just didn't know what they were. Perhaps they only applied to the offspring of high-ranking council members? No matter. For his purposes, following the standard search parameters would be perfectly adequate.
"Target acquired," thrummed the computer after a few moments. Excited, Cahrq leaned forward to get a better look at his screen. It showed a rectangularish object moving across a smooth, grey surface. He realized it must be some kind of vehicle - the human would be inside.
"Bring it in," he said. Rubbing his hands together with anticipation, he watched as the computer initiated the "standard acquisition protocol". Previously, he had only seen recordings of this procedure; now, he was watching one live. And at his own initiation! The anticipation was even enough to distract him from the computer's tedious but breathtakingly gorgeous narration of the event.
George Malvern woke with a start. Disoriented, he tried to look around. His first impression was of a white room. Details began to fill in: silvery metal objects of unknown make and unidentifiable purpose, black-tipped instruments, likewise unidentifiable... the rest of the room was plain white, lit garishly brightly though it was impossible to locate the source of the illumination. He couldn't see any doors or windows.
George was lying on a table. He tried to turn but couldn't. Paralyzed...? The memory of paralysis came flooding back. He had been driving in his truck not long ago and had suffered some kind of paralysis then, hadn't he? And he had floated out the open door... no, that couldn't have happened. But how did he get here? Was this a hospital room? Had he had a stroke? Perhaps that was it.. he had suffered a stroke while driving, and through sheer dumb luck, someone had happened across him in his truck and taken him to a hospital. That whole memory of floating out through the truck's door must have been a hallucination brought on by the blood clot in his brain...
He set out to explore his body, trying to assess the extent of the damage. His eyes and their lids worked just fine; his breathing was normal, though starting to rush a bit from nerves. His arms and legs wouldn't move. His tongue and jaw and lips worked OK, indeed everything above his neck seemed normal. He lifted his head - with difficulty, as it kept wobbling around drunkenly - and looked down at his body. He was naked, it turned out. His skin looked normal, maybe a bit pale but that could have been from the glaring white light in the room. All of his body hair was missing - had he been shaved or something? In any case, it didn't look as though he had suffered any injury. But he still couldn't move any of his limbs.
He tried to call out to let the doctors know that he was awake. The mechanics of actually producing speech turned out to be much more difficult than they should have been. He was able to move air out of his lungs and even to vibrate his vocal cords without trouble, but forming anything other than vague vowel sounds proved difficult. It felt as if he was trying to speak with someone else's tongue and lips. Even the sound of his voice seemed rusty, as though he hadn't spoken in months.
Listening to the noise he made at least proved that his hearing was intact. OK, so this was bad, but at least he was alive, and perhaps the doctors would be able to heal up the damage that the stroke had done and he'd be able to get back to a normal life after a stint in rehab...
A metallic click jarred him out of his thoughts. One of the silver objects began to move.
It slid its way across the ceiling until it was hanging directly over the table where he lay. The various protrusions and lenses and lights on it looked ominous and threatening. He tried to convince himself that it was just a medical robot - admittedly more advanced than anything he had ever heard of. Maybe it was under the control of some surgeon off in Toronto or Vancouver or someplace like that? But try as he might to calm himself, he couldn't shake the impression that the thing looked somehow malevolent, not just impersonal but downright evil. And then he realized that even if it was a remote-controlled surgical robot, he was very much awake right now and would not at all welcome surgical intervention, no matter how well-intended it might be. He fought to move, calling out wordlessly with his scratchy, rusty voice.
Once the machine had reached a position directly over his body, half a dozen appendages came snaking down from it. One of them clamped itself around his right wrist, holding it firmly in a cold grip. It lifted up into the air, dragging George's hand with it until the arm stood at about a sixty-degree angle with the floor. George suddenly realized he could feel the grip of the clamp perfectly fine. Would that be normal if he had had a stroke? He didn't think so - when his great-aunt had had a stroke, it had left her whole left arm not only useless but unfeeling as well. She had to take extra care that she didn't set her hand down on a hot stove because she wouldn't have felt the heat.
So the fact that he could feel the metal on his hand meant... what? That his stroke had damaged a different part of his brain than Aunt Sally's? Or that he hadn't had a stroke at all? Then why couldn't he move? And why was he here? And where exactly was "here" anyway?
While he was wrestling with questions, other appendages grasped his fingers and pulled them out and apart, holding them spread with about two centimeters' space between each tip. George fought to make any sense out of what was happening, but could think of no possible benefit this could do him.
Then he saw the next appendage come down and realize that whatever was happening to him, it was definitely not for his benefit. A gleaming silver saw with tiny glistening teeth emerged from the main body of the machine and begin to whir softly. The whir quickly grew to a high-pitched whine as the blade began to move at high speed. George fought to escape. "Nhuuuuunnh! Nhunh!" he shouted, but his body stubbornly refused to obey him. He watched in helpless horror as the saw came down between the last two fingers on his hand. It paused for a moment, then began to bite into his flesh, steadily working its way through the space between the bones of his fingers toward his wrist.
The pain was horrendous. It seemed impossible to him that he could suffer so much without thrashing around and yelling, but he simply couldn't move or get enough airflow to raise his voice. He had no choice but to wait while the machine finished its work, stammering incoherent vowels all the while. When the blade withdrew, George caught a glimpse of his little finger, nearly severed from the rest of his hand but still attached at base of his palm.
Two more instruments emerged and George braced himself for more pain. These, though, affixed themselves to the bloody and shredded skin of the raw cut and... did something. Expecting additional agony, George was thrown off when it failed to arrive. All he felt was an itchy, tingling sensation. By the time he squeezed his eyes open, the two instruments had finished their work, leaving behind skin that was not exactly as good as new, but at least wasn't a raw and open wound, though it still hurt like hell. The net result of the operation, George saw, was to lengthen his little finger by three or four centimeters. For what purpose he could not imagine.
Then the saw came back and began cutting through the next gap. The pain was blinding, leaving George screaming while the slicing continued, lengthening his ring finger in the same way. Even the brief respite when the healing instruments came and built fresh skin along the gash didn't help, because he knew that as soon as they were done, the saw would start on the space between his first two fingers. Which, sure enough, it did. It also made a cut between his thumb and index finger.
Then the machine repeated the whole process on his left hand.
By the time it had finished, George was nearly out of his mind. The pain was unbelievable. His hands throbbed and ached; sweat sheened his forehead and trickled down from his armpits. He realized he was sobbing and made an effort to get control of himself. He looked up at a motion overhead and saw the machine that had mutilated him withdrawing to the edge of the room with only a whisper of noise as it went.
Then - a small miracle? - his arms suddenly worked again. He was able to lift them and move them around. Experimentally, he tried to move his legs, but they still would not respond. He brought his hands up to his face to examine them. The fingers were now unnaturally long, making them look creepily slender. He tried to move them, and was able to, but not with any kind of control. The fingers just flopped around like wooden sticks. With the muscles and connective tissue between the fingers severed, any fine motor control that he had once had was gone. And every motion sent fresh waves of pain coursing up the nerves of his arms to his brain.
He dropped his arms carefully onto his chest. "Why?" he shouted to the empty room, though it came out more like "oaaaai". "Why are you doing this? Who are you? Please, just let me go!" George couldn't understand his own words; there was little reason to think anyone else would. What was wrong with his mouth?
His arms began to move again of their own volition. He tried to cradle them on his chest, but again his body refused to obey him and they settled themselves at his side. The machine began to slide across the ceiling again, taking up a space lower down on his body. Panic filled him again as he realized what was happening. "Nuuuh! Nuuuh!"
This time, the machine sliced gashes between the bones of his feet, lengthening and separating his toes the same way it had done his fingers. George nearly went insane with the pain of it, but could not escape the agony. His brain stubbornly refused to lapse into unconsciousness, remaining alert and aware throughout the entire mutilation.
Again, when it was over, the machine withdrew. This time, when he was allowed to move again, it was his entire body that was under his control. George was no longer under any illusion that he had suffered a stroke. Whatever was happening to him was not the fault of a flaw in his body, but was being imposed on him from outside. "Who", "how", and "why" were questions that he had no answers for.
He sat up, feeling awkward and dizzy. There was blood everywhere - he had endured sixteen cuts now, and each one had sent his blood flying around the room. The white floor and the surface of the table were speckled with spots of varying sizes and shades of red. The sight made his stomach clench, but he was able to hold his gorge down.
He lifted his feet up to inspect them. Like his fingers, his toes were now eerily long and slim. The gashes ran about halfway up his foot; fresh-made skin between them ensured that the gaps would not close over. He could not believe the combination of damage and unhurt the machine had inflicted - his toes were separated from each other clear up to his ankles, a vicious mutilation, and yet fresh skin had been grown between each of them so expertly that it looked as though he had had such toes all his life. He couldn't begin to understand why this had been done.
George was about to try to put weight on his modified feet to see if he could find a way out of this place before the next round of surgery began, but even as he had the thought, the familiar sensation of absence suddenly took over again and he felt himself being laid back down on the table, immobilized once again. He gasped with the unfairness, the wrongness of it, but the machine didn't care. It just slid silently back into place above him while George cringed, wondering what horror he was to endure next.
This time, the appendages that snaked down from the machine aimed straight at his crotch. "Nooooo!" he shouted again. With a tiny part of his awareness, he realized that his speech was getting steadily clearer. Not that it mattered at all to the machine or its operator. The cold metal wrapped itself around the base of his cock and balls and tightened. Lifting his head, he watched as his genitals were stretched away from his body. Another implement descended from the ceiling, this one tipped with a wickedly sharp blade. It made contact with his skin at just the point where his penis connected and began slicing, back and forth and back again.
George howled and pleaded to no avail. The machine did its work, neatly separating his cock and balls from his body by slicing them away a millimeter at a time. The grasping appendage pulled back into the body of the machine, taking his detached manhood with it. As before, a skin-grower device descended once the cutting was complete and caused a layer of fresh new skin to cover the injury site, then the machine withdrew once more. George was unable to lift his head enough to see the result of the operation. He was not sure he wanted to.
The machine left him alone for a short while, then returned. This time, it removed his nipples. They were yanked out from his chest and sliced off in the same manner as his cock had been. The new skin that was grown to cover them was smooth and featureless. His navel, likewise, was gashed open and smoothed over. George was past the point of wondering why.
After the next break, it was needles. Dozens of snaky arms descended from above, each tipped with a bright, sharp point. The needles inserted themselves through his skin. It was like being stung by a hundred wasps at once. George would have arched his back and cried out, but had to content himself with whimpering "please stop, please stop, please stop" over and over again. He wondered when the pain would finally be enough to kill him; surely he couldn't stand much more of this. Why was this happening? What kind of monster would do such a thing to him, to anyone?
The needles began to suck George's substance right out of his body. He watched one of the arms nearest his face and could see reddish and yellowish tissues and fluids disappearing up into the machine through a clear tube. When one area was done, a needle would withdraw and reinsert itself into a spot nearby, there to commence sucking again. Through it all, George lay fully conscious, whimpering until at last his head was immobilized, too, and the needles commenced working on his face.
One more dose of the skin-growers to heal up the larger puncture wounds, and George was again granted control of his body. He rolled onto his side unable to do anything more, feeling shaky and weak and drained. He looked down at his body. It was much thinner than it had been - the suction had removed a substantial fraction of his mass. His muscles were barely strong enough to move him. And, of course, where his cock had once been there was only a patch of smooth, unbroken skin, with not even a tiny hole to piss through.
His only thought, more of an instinct than a thought, was to get away. He fell off the table and collapsed in a heap on the floor, sobbing with pain and grief. He began to crawl painfully on his mutilated hands and legs, seeking any way out he could find. There was none, not even a spot where he could find the seam of a door, though he crawled painfully around the entire perimeter of the room looking for one. It was as if he had been somehow transported into a completely sealed chamber. He would have made a second circuit of the room, but the pain surged up and overwhelmed him, forcing him to collapse in a quivering heap.
Abruptly, he lost control again and wailed in helpless frustration as he was lifted back onto the table. This time, the machine came to hover over his head. He watched, horror-struck, as the tentacles came swooping down. They planted themselves at various points around his face, holding him firmly even though he already couldn't move, as though whatever the machine's operator had planned was going to shake George around so much that even his locked-up muscles wouldn't be enough to hold him still.
More tentacles grasped his lips, pulling them apart and exposing his teeth. One slender arm appeared above his nose, tipped with a jewel that gleamed in the bright, sterile light. It began to whirl and lowered itself toward George's mouth.
Pain exploded in one of his top front teeth. The tiny whirling drill dug a hole straight through from the front surface to the back, spewing pulverized enamel up into the air and down into George's throat. George was drowning in terror and agony. The drill pulled out, then repeated the process on his other front tooth. Two more holes went through the lower teeth, just as searingly painful as the first two. Then the drill withdrew.
It was replaced by a device that threaded some kind of material through the holes. George felt his jaws being squeezed shut, then there was a flash of heat on his lips and gums, a second flash, and the arms pulled away. He tried to open his mouth and couldn't. Was that because of a lack of motor control? No, his tongue still worked. He probed forward with it and discovered two metal rods passing through the holes in his teeth, connecting each top tooth to the matching one below. Presumably the flash had been a weld joining the metal together. George would not be opening his jaw again without some way to break through the welds.
The arms swooped down once more. Claws gripped his lips again and one of them, equipped with a knife, began to slice through the skin. George clenched his eyes shut and desperately wished himself to be anywhere else but where he was. He felt every millimeter of the separation as his lips were removed, until the last shred of flesh was sliced free. He opened his eyes to catch a glimpse of the red-and-pink gobbet disappearing into the body of the machine.
Once more the skin-grower. It swooped down over his face and George felt the now-familiar tingling sensation. When it withdrew, George tried to pull his lips apart - or the bits of skin where his lips used to be - only to discover that the skin-grower had sealed the two bleeding gashes together, making one featureless expanse where an opening had once been.
George Malvern no longer had a mouth.
He wailed through his nose. The arms released him and he was once again set free to explore his most recent mutilation. He lifted his butchered fingers - still throbbing with pain - to his face and explored the lower half of his face. The skin was absolutely seamless - it felt as if he had never had a mouth at all. With his jaw wired shut he couldn't even try to stretch the new-formed skin out to try to break through it. He whimpered in fear and horror.
Once again he climbed down from the table, forgetting that his altered feet and depleted muscles were unable to support his weight. He crashed heavily to the floor and began to crawl around again, desperate to find an escape. Rational thought was gone; all that remained were tropisms.
It could not have been more than a minute before he was once again immobilized and lifted back up onto the table. This time the machine removed his nose and his ears. The nostrils were left intact - or rather, George was left with two holes in the center of his face that air could pass through. Likewise, he retained two holes on the sides of his hairless head, but the cartilage that had shaped and protected all of those holes was sliced away, leaving a smooth surface over his whole head. Only the uneven bumps of his eyes marred the otherwise perfect symmetry of his skull. After that, the needles came back. Expecting more horrific pain, George was surprised when they merely pricked his scalp repeatedly in an area ranging from where his sideburns would have been over the front half of the top of his head.
Again he was given a few minutes to explore the modifications, but after a few exploratory touches, George gave up and curled himself into a fetal position on the table. He somehow knew - it seemed inevitable - that his eyes would be next, and he could think of no way to stop it from happening. Not having control over his own muscles made it impossible to prevent his unseen tormentors from doing whatever they wanted to him, and the appalling helplessness of his situation frustrated him beyond measure. If only there were some way he could kill himself now, before they seized control of him again...
Without even pausing to think about it, he lurched over the edge of the table and aimed his head downward. The distance to the floor was not large, but perhaps it would be enough to at least knock him unconscious. It happened fast, but whoever was watching him was faster. He was abruptly halted mere centimeters above the floor and held suspended in the air. He had clenched his eyes shut in anticipation of the impact; when it didn't come, he opened them to see the floor below him, slowly retreating as he was lifted back up onto the table. He longed to cry out, but the only noise he could make was the shapeless sound of his voice escaping through his naked nostrils.
His eyes, indeed, were next. George thought he must surely go insane or die from the pain - from a psychological perspective this was the worst of all. The needles sucking the meat from his body had been a worse pain, but it had been merely physical; the prospect of having his sight destroyed left him terrified.
His head was held immobilized as before and one of the flesh-sucking needles slowly and steadily lowered itself toward his right eye. He couldn't shift his gaze away, couldn't even blink; the lids were held apart by four tiny claws. He had no choice but to watch as the needle sank lower and lower until he could no longer focus on it and it became a blur of silver. It drilled through the cornea, through the lens, straight through the pupil at the center.
The suction came on and the jelly of George's eye began to disappear up the tube to the machine. His vision melted away as if he were in a Salvador Dali painting, reality distorting and sliding as the retina was yanked from its mooring and sucked up into the needle. At last the final bits tore free from the optic nerve and the swirling images were gone.
The needle pulled out and repeated the process on his left eye until last trace of the sterile white light of the operating room was gone, replaced by wall-to-wall blackness.
It didn't end there, though. Next the skin was carved away from around the area where his eyes had been. Then George felt and heard a drill or a rasp rubbing at the bones there, expanding and enlarging his eye sockets. The grating sound and sensation reverberated through his skull, filling his entire universe with its throbbing. Inside his head, George screamed and screamed, and then, at last, he did pass out.
Cahrq could barely contain his excitement. His first victim was lying in the operating room, unconscious, ready for his ministrations.
"Serl, wake the creature."
The medical center was a hybrid of Cogno- and AI-controlled equipment. Much of what he planned to do required the reflexes of computerized systems, but the high-level functions were Cahrq's to command. Cahrq's head was encased in a virtual-reality set, allowing him to "see" through the medical robot's "eyes", "hear" through its "tympanum", "feel" through its tactile sensors, and issue commands via the motor neurons of his arms and fingers as well as using the high-frequency sounds that tympani were capable of producing. It was a high-end system; Cahrq felt as though the medical robot was an extension of his own body.
He examined the creature through the robot's sensors. It was impossible to read the thing's body language himself, but Serl provided him with a running commentary: "The human is now awake. He is confused. He is trying to move, but per your instructions I am suppressing motor impulses below his neck..."
"Hideous-looking thing, isn't it," Cahrq muttered to himself. "Well, we'll see what we can do about that." He directed the medical robot to move into position. "Let's start with those stumpy little fingers..."
He used the robot to make the human's fingers appear longer and more slender. It wasn't a functional improvement, merely a cosmetic one: rather than take the time to grow additional bone and muscle and tendon, Carhq simply sacrificed space from the creature's hand, re-allocating it to the fingers. Function didn't matter here; appearance was everything. The human made noises down at the low end of the aural spectrum while he worked. He had no idea how it was making the sounds - the creature lacked anything resembling a tympanum. He wondered, vaguely, whether the sounds meant anything; the creatures were purported to be intelligent. Perhaps Serl would know, but he didn't really care enough to ask.
Cahrq healed up the skin surface, then stepped back to admire his work, instructing Serl to allow the creature to do the same. It lifted its arms up to its face, taking in the sight of its now-graceful digits. There were still only the five, of course, but tweaking the creature's genome to grow the missing second thumb on each hand would have taken more time and effort than Cahrq was willing to invest. He let the human marvel at the renovation a few moments more, then had Serl hold it still again. "Now let's get to work on those toes."
When he had finished sculpting the creature's feet into a more lithe form, he again stepped back to check his work. The human, too, inspected the results of the surgery. Cahrq was pleased with the result - the toes now spread elegantly out from the ankle. Again, the improvements were purely cosmetic - the human's feet would never have the dexterity of a Cognota's. But at least they no longer looked like lumpy afterthoughts at the end of the creature's legs.
Cahrq wondered if the human was intelligent enough to appreciate the transformations he was making, bringing its form closer to the ideal biped shape as exemplified by the Cognoi. Surely it would be grateful for its newer, more graceful appendages, especially since Cahrq was being kind enough to reshape its limbs for it through surgery rather than the more painful method of forcibly manipulating its morphotic flow. Since he wasn't altering any bone structure, it was far less painful to simply cut and paste the soft flesh that needed reshaping. Trying to force soft tissue to grow in the ways that were needed would have inflicted needless discomfort on the poor thing. He wondered if the human was sapient enough to understand that. "Can you tell what it's thinking?" he asked Serl as he watched it.
"Yes. He is wondering why you are doing this to him," Serl supplied.
"Ah, nice!" Cahrq trilled. It COULD appreciate his efforts, and was wondering why it, out of all the similar creatures on his world, had been singled out for this honor! Well, it wouldn't do to reveal the reason behind the improvements just yet... better to let the creature keep thinking the modifications were a surprise gift. "Well, I wouldn't expect it to understand," Cahrq said magnanimously. He glanced out through the headset. "Why did you call it 'him'?"
"Cognoi have three sexes," Serl declaimed mellifluously. "lairen, vrom, and tskri. Any two can reproduce by exchanging genetic material and implanting the resulting embryo into a surrogate host. The offspring will be of the remaining sex, thus, lairen cross vrom produces tskri, lairen cross tskri produces vrom, vrom cross..."
His pleasure at seeing the results of his work dissipated rapidly under the AIs relentless pig-headedness. "Stop! Did I ask for a tutorial in basic biology? My question was: why are you using the pronoun for the active partner in a breeding pair? You make this creature sound like the exchecutor!" Not an inappropriate comparison, given what I have in mind. But Serl doesn't know my intentions... I think.
"The background information is germane to your question. Humans, like most Terran life forms, have only two sexes, labeled male and female. Unlike Cognoi, who spend most of their lives in an asexual state and only occasionally become available for reproduction, humans, once they have attained sexual maturity, remain in a constant state of sexual readiness."
"Interesting. So why 'he' and not 'she'?"
"Because 'he' among Cognoi indicates the initiating partner in any pairing. The specific sex of the individual does not matter; what matters is that the 'he' in the pairing transfers genetic material to the 'she', who combines it with 'her' genetic material and encases it. The resulting ovum is transferred to the surrogate host, who nurtures the new life until it is capable of sustaining itself."
"Among humans, the initiator is always male, the recipient is always female. Thus, the most logical way to assign pronouns is 'he' for males, 'she' for females, though the analogy breaks down in that the females do not then transfer the ovum to another host but instead nurture it themselves."
"I would think that would be somewhat of a limitation on fertility," Cahrq drawled dryly, "if each female could have only one offspring."
"Among earth life, birth does not necessarily result in the death of the host. Human females may have two, three, even ten children over the course of their reproductive career. The new life does not digest its way out of its host but instead emerges through an opening in the female's body designed for that purpose."
"Gaah! That's disgusting!"
There was a slight pause.
"Consider: humans would regard the Cogno reproductive method as parasitism. It entails implanting embryos into an individual of a different species to that individual's detriment."
Cahrq marveled a moment. "Why, Serl. That almost sounded like a value judgment," he gibed.
There was no reaction from Serl to the taunt, not that Cahrq had expected one. Instead it continued, its voice as cloyingly musical as ever, "The human you have selected is a male. Males are distinguished by their external genitalia, there, where the legs meet the body. Ergo, 'he'."
"Is that what those ugly flopping things are? Reproductive equipment? I wonder why it chooses to leave them hanging out like that? Whatever... let's take care of them next..." Cahrq proceeded to slice away the offending tissue, muttering as he worked about deformities marring an otherwise satisfyingly smooth surface.
"What about those?" he asked next.
"A secondary sexual characteristic," Serl replied. "Among females, those organs produce a fluid to nourish the young offspring. They serve no function in males."
"And that one lower down?"
"An artifact of when the human was developing inside its host female. Once capable of surviving on its own, it serves no further purpose."
"So... all three are not only ugly, but useless, too. And they just leave their bodies like this? I don't get it." Cahrq sanitized the offending asymmetries.
"Now, the surface features are looking better, but the overall body is too heavy," he remarked.
"The surface gravity of earth is greater than Rodoin's by a factor of 20%. Life forms are correspondingly stockier."
"Well, time for our guest to go on a crash diet, then." Cahrq had to cede control of the next portion to Serl - there were simply too many needles for him to control all at once. He had to contented himself with watching his victim during the procedure. There was no way to tell what it was thinking: humans, lacking tympani, could not broadcast their emotional state via high-frequency sound. He wondered what they used as a substitute, or if perhaps they had no way of communicating non-verbally. What a dreary, solitary existence that would be!
Whatever the human may have felt in its unreadable body, in Cahrq's opinion the procedure produced excellent results. The beast was beginning to look much more believable for the role it was to play. Cahrq had Serl grant it the freedom to move, then was thunderstruck at its awkward, clumsy flailing motions as it lumbered around the room.
"Doesn't have much motor control, does it?"
"Motor function has been reduced by an estimated eight seven jot two pergross," Serl sang. Cahrq mentally slapped himself - he knew the AI's plodding circuitry was incapable of distinguishing between real and rhetorical questions, and yet he had asked one anyway.
The creature crawled across the floor, making a circuit of the wall. It was obvious even to Cahrq that it was looking for a way out. Its circuit both started and ended right at the soft part of the wall, but of course there was no way it could produce the high-frequency vibrations that would cause the soft part to melt into an opening. That was the sort of sound that only a tympanum could make, an "open sesame" command that no human could ever pronounce.
Cahrq watched it go, a bit dismayed at the creature's inability to control its own movements. Had it always been that awkward? Cahrq couldn't remember - most of the time the creature had been immobilized, and Cahrq hadn't really paid attention the few times they had allowed it to move. Why was it using all four limbs for locomotion? These things were supposed to be bipedal, like Cognoi, weren't they?
Eventually he grew bored. "Get it back up on the table," he muttered. "Time to pretty up that ugly mug."
Cahrq's next task was to seal up that gaping sub-nasal aperture. What a hideous flaw! He honestly could not understand why this being chose to leave such ghastly deformities on its body when it was so easy to eliminate them. After that was fixed he removed the other protrusions that marred the otherwise aesthetically smooth surface of the creature's head. Then he tattooed a tympanum in place. There was no way to give the thing a functional tympanum; a simulation was the best he could do. Finally, it was time to fix the eyes.
The eyes nature had equipped the human with were tiny blobs, a far cry from the more expansive Cogno equivalent, and probably not sensitive to light in the same way. Cahrq needed the beast to be able to see, so once the originals were gone, he drilled out some extra space, mentally apologizing as he did for the bonework, which was never comfortable. He thought of giving the thing some wurfle pods to digest to help with this stage, but didn't know if they would have the same effect on the earth being as they did on Cognoi. Ultimately he decided against it - he didn't want to accidentally poison the thing and the discomfort wouldn't be all that bad...
Before long, he had expanded the ocular cavities to make room to install artificial Cogno eyes in their place. The artificial eyes were the kind marketed to Cognoi whose own eyes were failing but who couldn't afford to have new ones grown. They would provide vision of a sort, though the quality was far below that of real eyes. The human would just have to make do with low resolution and a slight time delay. It wouldn't interfere with Cahrq's purpose at all.
"The human is no longer conscious," Serl reported partway through the procedure.
"I cannot say with certainty," Serl said after a short pause, "but it would appear that excessive stimulation has overloaded his pain receptors."
That made no sense. What could possibly have overloaded the thing's pain receptors? The eye work? Surely not. Unless this species had a very low pain threshold? But even if that were so, how could pain cause a loss of consciousness?
The more important question, of course, was when would the creature wake up? A frustrating round of interrogation revealed that there was nothing Serl could do to hasten the process. The AI had a certain amount of control over the human's mobility: gross movements could be accomplished by manipulating a tightly-focused gravitic field; finer movements by either blocking or triggering motor impulses in the creature's nervous system. Consciousness could even be temporarily suspended by briefly depriving the creature of oxygen. But restoring consciousness? That, to Cahrq's dismay, turned out to be beyond Serl's ability.
There was nothing to do but wait for the human to wake up on its own. Cahrq finished drilling out the necessary space, made a few more cosmetic changes, then got the artificial eyes ready for implantation and sat back grumpily to wait.
George Malvern woke with a start. His first sensation was one of overwhelming pain. His entire body hurt all over. There was not a single square centimeter that was not suffering in some way. He tried to moan and roll over onto his side, but neither happened. Memories came pouring back in - his paralysis, the destruction of his hands and feet, the removal of his mouth and eyes... in horror, he realized that he must still be lying on the operating table where, according to his last memory, a machine had been grinding away the bone around his empty eye sockets.
Before George had a chance to focus his mind on anything but the overwhelming pain and horror, he felt a coldness at his right eye. He was not allowed to flinch as something was placed over the socket... no, into the socket. He could feel tendrils reaching into the empty space, filling it, searching around and seeking... what?
There was a flash of light, then a burst of staticky colors. His mind reeled at the sudden display, which kept changing and mutating crazily. He reflexively tried to blink, even though a remote part of him knew this would be impossible since he no longer had eyelids. But his brain was desperate to shut off the distracting flow of visual input and closing his eyes was the only way it knew how. The colors and patterns continued unchanged.
He was so distracted by the confusing display that he didn't even feel the cold tendrils snaking into his left socket. Only when the dazzling effects started up there as well - and of course they were different from those on the right, adding to his confusion - did he become aware of it.
At first, George despaired that for the rest of his life - however long that might be - he would be forced to endure this never-ending fireworks show. But as the minutes passed, he realized that the barrage of colors was slowly settling down, leveling off. He could even begin to see patterns - or ghosts of patterns - in the craziness. The colors faded away until all that was left was a more-or-less steady neutral grey. Occasional blasts of color still streaked like meteors across his field of view, but for the most part, the riotous display had calmed.
At some point he realized that he was sitting up, though he had no idea if he had gotten himself into that position or if his unseen driver had done it for him. Experimentally, he lifted his hand. It felt like the hand was moving, though without vision it was hard to be sure. Then, slightly delayed, he did see something, or thought he did: a patch of darker grey at about the spot where it felt like his hand should be. He reached out his other hand to be sure, and, again slightly time-delayed, a second dark patch appeared and coalesced with the first. His fingers clunked together, much harder than he had intended them to, sending lightning bolts shooting up his arms.
Whatever had been done to his eyes had granted him a form of vision. It was nowhere near the quality of his own eyes, but it was something. George felt as if he were seeing a close-up of an animated newspaper - he could see the individual dots, but unlike the static display of a newspaper, these dots swelled and shrank and changed color. If he concentrated on an individual dot, he could watch it form, grow, then fade away, consumed by new-born neighboring dots. But with effort, he could shift his perspective away from the individual dots and see that they made up a picture of sorts, a picture of his two hands with their skeletally long fingers.
He swiveled his head to look around - a mistake. The animated vision didn't keep up with the motion, and so his brain received one set of messages from his inner ears and a different set from his replacement eyes. He collapsed to the table, trying not to let the pain and disorientation turn into nausea. When his senses had stabilized, he tried again, moving more slowly. Sure enough, he could tell that his new "eyes" were providing him with a view of his surroundings; a distorted, hard-to-interpret view, but something more than complete blankness.
He lay back down on the table, curled up on his side. Why was this happening? What possible purpose could anyone have for mutilating him in such horrible ways? The thing with the eyes was the most puzzling of all - wouldn't it have been easier to just blind him? Why go to the trouble of destroying his eyes only to replace them with such inferior substitutes?
George's body ached all over. There was not a square centimeter that didn't have some pain in it. The various hurts all wrestled with one another for his attention, each ache crying out to be attended to, but there was nothing George could do to ease any of it. At least they had stopped inflicting new torments on him for the time being.
Then he felt himself being lifted up again. It was different this time - he still had control of himself, but he was being picked up off the table and held in a standing position. If whatever was holding him let go, his weakened muscles would have dropped him to the floor, but it didn't, and so he was still standing upright when a new shape swam up out of the grey blur of his vision. It slowly grew larger until it resolved itself into a humanoid form.
Humanoid, but not exactly human. It had the head, the two arms, the two legs, but it was thin, too thin, like an anorexic. And while the arms did end in hands, the hands were oddly shaped, out of proportion with the rest of the body. The head was the oddest of all - it was mostly featureless and dominated by two enormous eyes, at least three times the size they should have been, giant black patches in an otherwise featureless white face.
George abruptly realized that he was looking at the popular culture's conception of what an alien from a flying saucer would look like. He almost laughed - UFO nuts were right up there with faith healers and voodoo priestesses as far as he was concerned. But the resemblance was unmistakable.
The creature - whatever it really was - kept coming closer. It wasn't walking, it simply floated nearer and nearer to him. Ignoring the fiery pain in his fingers, he lifted his hands up in front of his chest, a protective gesture meant to - what? Stop the thing? Fend it off? Whatever this creature was, it had already amply demonstrated George's powerlessness in this place.
George was somewhat surprised to see the creature move its own arms up, mimicking George's gesture a fraction of a second later. At the same time, it stopped approaching and stood - or hovered - in front of him less than a meter away. It stayed there, making no further moves.
George was unsure what to do. Speech was not an option, and it wasn't really his place to initiate communication, anyway. Surely, with all the power this creature had already demonstrated, if it wanted to communicate, it would do so. But as time ticked by and nothing happened, George became impatient. "What?" he wanted to shout. "What is it you want from me?" He settled for giving the creature the finger. Possibly not the best start to a potential interplanetary relationship, but then, the treatment he had received so far had been less than welcoming. The gesture only lasted a brief moment - the pain in his hands made it too hard to sustain the position for long.
The creature gave him the finger right back, spindly and skeletal looking, and holding the pose exactly as long as George had, only slightly time-delayed.
At that point, a sinking feeling began to settle in the pit of George's stomach. He moved his arms a few more times, trying to deny the evidence of his could-be-lying eyes, but when he reached his hand out straight forward to touch the alien and encountered flat glass, the conclusion was unavoidable.
He wasn't looking at an alien. He was looking at his own reflection.
Cahrq installed the eyes in place and waited while they went through their boot-up routines. He had no idea how well eyes designed for Cognoi would function when interfaced with the brain of a non-Cognota. Installing them might have been a total waste of time. He watched the creature - now looking very much as he had intended - fumble around with its newly-modified visual system. After a few minutes, it was clear that the human was at least seeing something. How much and how clearly didn't really matter.
Cahrq rubbed his hands together with glee. "All right, it's show time! Serl, lift him up."
The human floated up off the table and into an upright position, hovering just above the floor. Cahrq had Serl bring a mirror in front of the creature, sliding it slowly forward until it was right in front of it. The human - was that really the right term any more? Perhaps "Cognoid" was a better word, since it looked nothing like the being that Cahrq had lifted out of its truck. It was, instead, very nearly Cogno in appearance... from a distance, at least. Close up, it was apparent that the long, graceful digits were false and too few in number, the eyes mechanical, the tympanum merely a simulation. But still, the effect was quite convincing.
For someone with no prior experience with either medicine or aliens, he thought, that was not half bad.
The Cognoid was studying its reflection in the mirror... or was it? Did it even know that it was seeing itself? Perhaps it thought it was greeting an actual Cognota? That upturned finger could have been a gesture of greeting... No, it had figured things out - it reached out with its beautifully slender but strangely uncontrolled fingers and touched the surface of the mirror.
Time to put in an appearance. Cahrq left the VR rig and walked down the hall to the place where a far-violet line marked the boundary of the soft patch leading to the human's room. "Open," he trilled. The wall obligingly grew translucent, then transparent. Cahrq pushed through, feeling the familiar slightly-increased resistance of moving through softened matter, and then he was in. "Close," he sang, and the wall resolidified behind him.
The Cognoid didn't see him. It was still staring at its reflection in the mirror. Admiring its new beauty? Or could it for some inexplicable reason be mourning the loss of its old aesthetically inferior self? Cahrq hoped it was the former; he was quite pleased with the effect of his transformative surgeries and hoped the creature shared his sense of accomplishment. Even up close, the likeness was really quite good. The shape of the head, the eyes, the shading and contour of the tympanum...
The human now bore a striking resemblance to the exchecutor.
Cahrq moved into the creature's field of view.
George noticed a second alien beside the first. Another mirror? It was hard to tell - George was still having trouble making sense of what his substitute eyes told him. No, this one didn't copy his movements. And yet it looked just like the other... like his reflection. Was it an actual alien, then? Or maybe another human modified as he had been? His head swam and he fought to stay conscious.
Nothing happened. George continued to hang suspended in the air. The creature moved around, sometimes gesturing, sometimes not. There was a buzzing noise in the air, or possibly only in his head. The pain was so bad that George found it difficult to pay attention to the alien's actions. Maybe he should try to concentrate more - it was possible that this creature might be able to help him. Or, more likely, this was the source of the suffering he had endured. Anything he could learn now might be of use - but it was hard, so hard to stay focused. The blackness of oblivion kept tempting him with relief.
The alien did inexplicable things - touched some kind of device to his chest, aimed an unfamiliar but harmless gadget at his head, shined some sort of light in his eyes that made spots dance across his field of view. But none of it caused him any more hurt than he already felt, and so there was no need for George to pay attention.
He tried to think of things he could do. Asking questions was not an option: he had no mouth. He could move his limbs, but he couldn't move around since he wasn't touching the floor. Even if whatever force was levitating him suddenly ceased, his butchered feet and weakened legs wouldn't have been able to support his weight. And the pain was so bad... As much as he longed to find out why this horror had been inflicted on him, he just couldn't bring himself to care.
The room started to swim around him, or perhaps it was the weird eyes that were causing the effect. Whatever the reason, George didn't even notice the alien approaching him until it was right on top of him, scratching at his head with its long fingers. The sensation was not pleasant, but compared with the agony of the rest of his body, it was nothing. It didn't matter, anyway... the blackness was swimming up to take him in its embrace...
George surrendered to the void.
"Greetings, Exchecutor Laarbin," Cahrq said, his voice carefully modulated. Obviously, the unfortunate thing hanging in front of him was not the exchecutor, and he was deluding only himself in pretending that it was. But it was a delusion he happily indulged in.
"Are you surprised to find yourself in such unfamiliar surroundings? So far from the comforts of your well-appointed manor?" He paced smoothly back and forth while the exchecutor-simulacrum watched with its blank artificial eyes and its unreadable silent tympanum.
"Are you wondering why you're here? It should be obvious enough. I finally got sick of your insufferable attitude, your disrespectful manner, and - not least - your three ungrateful, arrogant, classless whelps."
Cahrq's tympanum was fairly shrilling with harmonics of dominance and aggression - the exact opposite of the tones he usually took in his master's presence. Ordinarily, Cahrq would have groveled and abased himself, catering to the slightest whim of the exchecutor or any of his brats, knowing that his livelihood - perhaps even his life - depended on their good will. His career in academia was pretty much over. There was no way any reputable university would hire him, not after the Denerrhian debacle. He was lucky to have landed in this tutoring position, beneath his intellectual capabilities though it was, and it was vital that he hang on to it. The alternatives - manual labor or consignment to the organ farms where his body would be used to grow replacement parts for wealthy elderly Cognoi - were not even worth contemplating.
But still... there was only so much abuse one could take. And if vengeance on the actual source of his suffering was not an option, then perhaps a surrogate would be the next best thing?
"Would you like a reminder of why I've brought you here, Larry? You don't mind if I call you Larry, do you? Larry. I've been making recordings of the worst of your excesses over the past several months. Why don't we have a listen to some of them...."
He had Serl play back the recordings. He had dithered for a long time about whether to include this part in the plan. It was difficult, difficult beyond measure, to relive the humiliations he had suffered, the indignities that had been heaped upon him. For a mind of his caliber to be reduced to such a state where patronization and insult could be heaped upon him and all he could do was bear it meekly was an injustice of epic proportion. Hearing it happen all over again was like living the debasement anew.
Difficult as it was to endure, the process was also liberating. He found that his mind had glossed over some of the details of the events; hearing them afresh reminded him of exactly why this jaunt to "earth" was so necessary. He had spent so long having to bury his true feelings about the injustices he had suffered that he had even forgotten how unjust it had all been. By reopening the scars of old wounds, Cahrq added fuel to the fire of his passion, justifying him in the course of action he had chosen. A slow burn can be sustained for a long time, but in order to enjoy one's revenge - even on a surrogate - it was best to first stoke the flames good and hot.
He paced around, listening to the arrogant tones of the exchecutor, the distinctive voices of Bartoclept, Dishkint, and Plaiorine - or, as he thought of them in the privacy of his mind, Sulky, Snippy, and Stupid. They bossed Carhq about, disdaining the knowledge that he was supposed to be passing on to them, never mind that he was possessed of an intellect that dwarfed the four of them put together... and then it was Cahrq who felt the exchecutor's wrath when the miserable brats failed to learn anything! It was too much, all too much...
The exchecutor-surrogate stood there in mute silence. Cahrq began to feel a twinge of regret that the tympanum was only a fake. The silence was unnerving - real Cognoi were constantly broadcasting their emotions in the uppermost audible frequencies. This thing couldn't, and as a result, it seemed more doll than Cognota. While Cahrq was working himself up into a frenzy of hatred, the target of his hatred was just standing there. Dammit, he should be cowering in fear or blustering in arrogance... anything! But the exchecutor remained stubbornly mute.
Finally, Cahrq could stand no more. He cut off the playback. In his mind, before, when he was picturing this event, he would have some suave line to say at this point. "Larry, it's time for you to make amends for your poor judgement" or some such. But now, in the heat of his rage, all such thoughts were gone, and Cahrq simply plunged the charged ends of the sinigustrum directly into the exchecutor's torso.
He waited for the response, but a whole minute elapsed and nothing happened. There was no response at all.
He thrust the probes forward again, but again no reaction came.
This is too slow, he thought. Hurling the sinigustrum to the side, Cahrq next lowered the saser over the exchecutor's head and focused the beam. Forcing himself to hold back, he brought the intensity up to only 20% strength, not wanting to burn out the brain.
Again, no response.
Slowly, and then with increasing desperation, Cahrq upped the beam to thirty, forty-five, sixty percent, but the exchecutor continued to stand there, unmoved in the face of a devastating sonic assault. Even Carhq, well outside of the focus of the beam, could hear the backwash grating across his tympanum - how could someone in the center of it not be convulsing in pain? Sure, the tympanum was a fake, but humans were capable of detecting sound, he was sure of it.
Infuriated, Cahrq raised the intensity to full power. It was painful even where he was standing, and he could only hold it at its peak for a few seconds. A blast of that magnitude should have ruptured tissue throughout the exchecutor's body, but once again, there was no response at all from the stoic being hanging in the suspensor field. It was as if the creature hadn't even noticed.
In fury, Cahrq grabbed the ocuruptis and played its beam directly into the exchecutor's face, washing the artificial eyes with a series of light pulses that should have triggered an overload, sending jolts of lightning into the nervous system.
But nothing happened.
Beyond the point of rationality now, Cahrq launched himself at the exchecutor, violating all rules of civilized behavior and actually touching him, shaping his fingers into claws and bringing them down on the exchecutor's tympanum in a gesture that should have left him groveling in agony... and once again, he was disappointed.
"The human has lost consciousness again," Serl sang in its calm, musical, infuriating voice. It was this that brought Cahrq back to himself. Rage cooling, he took a moment to step back and compose himself. Then, tympanum humming with frustration but no longer white-hot ire, he looked at the creature he had been assaulting. Up close, it really didn't look like the exchecutor at all. Sure, there was some vague resemblance in the face and gross body structure, but this was no Cognota. Even the tympanum, the most distinctive - and sensitive - part of the Cogno anatomy, was a fake, just a layer of pigment tattooed into the scalp.
His clever plan, the plan he had spent months fantasizing about, the plan that he had very possibly thrown away his entire career - such as it was - in pursuit of, was a farce. He barked a derisive snort, thankful at least that the only witness to his foolishness was the obtuse AI system. If there had been other Cognoi present, the air would have been ringing with the musical trills of their laughter. They would not have been fooled into thinking the pathetic creature in the suspensor field was a Cognota, much less the exchecutor. Looking at it now, he himself couldn't see the slightest resemblance.
Trying to torture this creature as if it were Cogno was pointless. There was no revenge to be found here. Cahrq snarled at the door and stalked out of the room.
It took a long time to pry answers out of the maddeningly-opaque Serl, but eventually they came. Cahrq learned that terrestrial biology was vastly different from that of Rodoin, so different that even pain was not the same across species.
It turned out that human physiology was not based on morphotic flow, which explained why the sinigustrum had no effect. Morphotic flow was what allowed Rodoinic life to convert matter into energy. A Cognota would place food in contact with the skin and morphotic pressure would cause it to be absorbed; the substance would then be either incorporated into the Cognota's body or used as metabolic fuel. The sinigustrum disrupted the flow in such a way as to reverse the process, causing the Cognota to expel parts of its own tissue in a messy, ugly, painful way.
But humans, it turned out, digested their food via chemical means from within their bodies. That ugly cavity that Cahrq had sealed up below the creature's nose was the organ the creature used to ingest its meals. There was no morphotic flow to disrupt, and so no way to torture the beast by disrupting it.
The saser was likewise ineffective. He had sort of anticipated that - the saser worked by focusing sound at the emotional frequencies. He had figured that the specific emotions would differ across species, and so trying to impose specific emotions like despair, anguish, or self-loathing wouldn't necessarily work. Still, blasting the thing at its full power should still have provoked some response, but it seemed that earth life - or at least humans - were deaf to high-frequency sounds, no matter how intense. They could only hear in the extreme lower range of the audio spectrum.
As for the ocuruptis, even Serl had no idea why it hadn't worked. In Cognoi, flashes of light at specific frequencies could trigger massive storms in the central nervous system, leaving the victim a quivering wreck until the storm died down. The effect was so devastating that it was officially illegal to possess an ocuruptis... which didn't stop teenagers like Barty from shining them into each others' faces, trying to find the level that made them feel pleasantly high without going over the edge.
Serl said that among humans there was a similar condition called "epilepsy", but that it was considered a disease and it was not always linked to patterned light. In theory, the human's artificial Cogno eyes should have responded normally to the ocuruptis, triggering a bout of "epilepsy". Clearly, that hadn't happened, but neither Serl nor Cahrq could say why.
More interesting than what didn't work, though, was what did. It turned out that Cahrq had, indeed, caused the human considerable pain, perhaps even more pain than his originally-planned tortures would have inflicted. He just hadn't known he was doing it.
It seemed that humans, with their non-morphotic biology, did not react well to changes in their body structure. Unlike Cognoi, accustomed to altering their form every time they ate something, human bodies had one shape only. The act of lengthening the creature's fingers, for example, had been agonizingly painful to it. Likewise the toes. In fact, every time Cahrq had sliced anything off the creature's body, he had unknowingly been inflicting trauma on it. Minor alterations that would have been merely cosmetic to a Cognota had been perceived by the human as devastatingly painful.
Small wonder, then, that by the time the thing had been reshaped into the form of the exchecutor, it couldn't stay conscious - it had already been tortured as much as it could take! A pity, he thought, that I wasn't aware of it while it was happening. Now I'll have to wait for it to heal...
"Serl, how long do you estimate before the creature has recovered enough to be ready for more work?"
"Unassisted, approximately five weeks. If regenerative facilities are used, then between two and three weeks."
"Two to three weeks? It takes less time to grow a clone!"
"Affirmative. Growing a new body from a single cell is a less processing-intensive task than facilitating repairs to an existing body."
Cahrq stomped around the bridge. To have come all this way only to have blown his first chance... what a waste! And now there would be a delay of at least another two weeks while the creature healed...
Cahrq cocked his head questioningly. "Serl, tell me whether this is feasible. I would like you to grow me a clone of the human and implant the memories from the brain scan we took right after the human was first brought aboard. But while it's still growing, before you implant the memories, do the same body modifications that this one has. If the modifications are done while the clone is still growing, would it be healthy enough to be worked on right away?"
"Yes, probability elf three jot four nine pergross."
"So almost certainly, then."
"'Almost' is a non-specific term."
"Never mind. And would this clone be strong enough to move around on its own?" Cahrq asked. "To support its weight, to walk, to use its hands?"
"The modified clone would not have the coordination or the dexterity of the original human."
"But what percentage of function would it have? Better than half? Better than ten-twelfths?"
"The probability of the modified clone having better than ten-twelfths dexterity of the original is zero jot elf nine zero five."
"And can you give it a tympanum?"
"It is possible to grow tissue to give the clone a functioning tympanum. It is not possible to grow the neural structure necessary to operate the tympanum. The clone will have the physical structure but no ability to use it in a coordinated manner."
"Good enough. Serl, make such a clone. When it's grown, implant the memories of the scan we made right after we took the human."
"Commencing now. What should be done with the existing version?"
"I don't care. Recycle it, do whatever you want with it."
Cahrq would spare no further thought on the current model, not when he would have a brand new exchecutor-toy to play with in a mere four days.
George Malvern woke with a start. He lay disoriented, groping around in his memory for where he was and what he had been doing last, but his mind felt fuzzy, unfocused, as if his thoughts were churning through syrup. He had been what? Driving? Yes, driving. At night. And there had been a light, a bright light, and then...
More memories came flooding back, all at once. He remembered being floated out of his car door, lifted, impossibly, into the sky.
No, that couldn't have happened. It must have been a dream. But then where was he? And why did everything look all grey and blurry, like a close-up picture from a newspaper?
He lifted his hands to rub his eyes and several startling things happened at once. He noticed that his hands felt odd, as if the fingers were too long. Misjudging the weight of his hands, he sent the too-long fingers crashing into where his eyes should have been, but instead of the familiar organs he expected to find there, he felt instead firm, slightly cool surfaces totally unlike eyes. Half a second later, he saw the blurred, distorted image of freakish-looking hands crashing into his face. He reflexively tried to shut his eyes, but the nightmare vision continued. He went to scream... only to discover that his mouth inexplicably wouldn't open. Breathing rapidly through his nose, George gibbered silently in panic, desperately trying to figure out what had happened to his body.
It took a few minutes, but he eventually calmed down and began to take stock of his situation. His vision, he discovered, was somehow time-delayed. He saw things a fraction of a second after they occurred. There was no sense of depth perception, and the colors were all weird, washed-out and pale sometimes, startlingly vivid a moment later. Mostly what he could see was contrast. His eyes appeared to have been either covered over (or - God forbid - replaced?) by some kind of plastic. He pried at the edges but could not remove the plastic.
Prying at the eye covers made him notice his hands. They were skeletally long, the fingers twice the length he was used to. And they began pretty much right at his wrists, leaving no room for a palm. Experimentally, George wiggled them around. They felt heavy and clumsy, but he could move them.
Exploring his face, he discovered that his mouth was not just glued shut, as he had feared, but, even worse, seemed to be missing entirely. He couldn't feel his lips at all - there was just a seamless expanse of skin. He could tell that beneath the skin, his mouth was still intact - his tongue worked normally and his teeth were all there. But he couldn't separate his jaws, as though his teeth had been fused together.
Further inspection revealed that his toes had been lengthened in the same way as his fingers. And halfway between his head and his toes...
Sweet mother. His penis and testicles were missing.
George surged up off the table where he had been lying. His feet hurt a bit, but he was able to stand. He lurched crazily around the room, crashing after a few steps into a wall that his kaleidoscopic vision hadn't told him was there. He crumpled to the floor. He wanted to howl his frustration, but with no mouth that release was denied him.
Suddenly, there was movement in the corner of his vision. He swiveled his head toward it. If he could trust his altered eyes, it was a man. George lifted his hands up, pleading silently for help, but the man stopped near him and just stood there.
George became aware of a tickling in his scalp. It was as if the skin was vibrating, just at the limit of his perception, in an arc that ran from his sideburns across the front top of his head. Ignoring the buzzing sensation, George climbed to his feet. He gestured toward his mouth and clasped his fingers awkwardly together, pleading that the stranger understand and help him.
As he got a better look, though, he began to reconsider his assessment of the man in front of him. It was difficult to judge with his altered eyes, but the guy didn't seem to be shaped quite right. He was thin, almost anorexically thin. His hands seemed to have excessively long fingers. Just like mine, George thought. And his eyes were downright enormous, taking up most of the top half of his face.
Suddenly, recognition kicked in and George's head began to spin. That thing looks like an alien, George realized. And it looks like... like I must look. He stumbled forward, unstable on his legs, and nearly fell into the thin figure, which danced backward out of his reach.
Unwilling to fall and desperate for help, George moaned through his nose, unable to form the words "help me" with his mouth but hoping the meaning came through anyway. He reached for the figure and succeeded in grabbing it by the hand.
The tickly buzzing sensation got slightly more noticeable. The alien - if that's what it was - helped to lift him up and led him over to the table where George had woken up. George's head was swirling with thoughts, trying to find any glimmering of sense in what was happening to him. Was this guy an actual alien? Or another victim like himself, somehow transformed into some kind of extra-terrestrial being? Was he trying to help him? Or transform him further? What the hell is going on?
No, that couldn't be it. There was no such thing as a UFO, no extra-terrestrials, no aliens. Those were only stories for gullible rubes. This had to be either a perfectly normal person who just looked odd because of whatever had happened to George's eyes, or else some elaborate trick involving costumes and a whole lot of makeup. George vowed to keep his grip on his sanity.
The "alien" - George decided to call it "Bogey" in his mind - helped George lie down on the table. He tried to sit back up a few times, gesturing in a futile attempt to be understood, but after the third try, he found he couldn't sit up any more. It was as if he were paralyzed. More memories of being in his truck came flickering back as he felt his body recline on the table, controlled by some force he couldn't see. He found that he could move his arms, but only from the elbows down. His torso and upper arms were held immobile.
Bogey shined some kind of light in his eyes then. It didn't hurt, but it wasn't exactly pleasant, flickering and flashing distractingly. With no lids to shut, George couldn't stop seeing the crazy display, but he couldn't see any point to it, either. The show went on for a little while, then stopped. Next, the alien pulled some sort of device down close to his head. There were two of them, George could see, one over each side of his head. Bogey walked away. George followed his progress as far as he could but he eventually lost sight.
The tickling in his scalp intensified. George wanted to reach up and scratch it, but his hands couldn't reach his head. What was the point of all this? Was this some kind of medical exam? If so, was it supposed to help him? Or... otherwise?
The tickling stopped, or rather, dropped down to its previous barely-perceptible level. Bogey came back and stood over him once more briefly, not saying a thing, then began to pace around the room, his lightweight frame barely making any noise as his gossamer-light feet gently brushed the floor. George lay, immobilized and bewildered.
After a long while, he was lifted up, seemingly by nothing at all, floating above the floor, able to thrash around but not to prevent his slow, gently movement toward one of the walls. When he reached it, it shimmered - or perhaps that was just a trick of his freakish replacement eyes - and then he was sliding straight through the wall. The supporting force vanished abruptly and he could move, but he was falling, falling, until he splashed down into a pool of some kind of liquid. It burned like fire wherever it touched his skin and he fought and clawed for long minutes, trying to escape the searing acid but unable to get any purchase. Slowly, painfully, his skin sloughed off and the acid began to eat at his muscles while he thrashed and kicked. He longed to cry out in his agony, but his mouth remained as stubbornly sealed as ever. The acid splashed into his nose as he tried to breathe and began to dissolve him from the inside out.
Finally, after an endlessly long time, enough of his body had broken apart that he could no longer feel the acid's burn, no longer strive to scream. Blackness engulfed him.
"This isn't any better than the last one!" Cahrq exploded. "It seems to be physically fine, but nothing I do to it gets any kind of reaction from it at all! The real exchecutor would be screaming and pleading by now, if he wasn't a drooling puddle on the floor! What am I doing wrong?!?"
Cahrq stomped back and forth, occasionally glancing at his captive lying peacefully on the table. The outward appearance of this cloned version was a much better fit for his despised employer. The shape of the eyes, the color of the skin, everything was nearly perfect. The creature would probably have been able to fool the entire court if all it had to do was stand on a platform, graciously waving to the cheering throngs. But...
... the moment anyone got close enough to hear its thought-sounds, the illusion would have shattered. There were none. It was like standing next to some kind of walking coma patient, a simulacrum able to move and mimic actual life, but incapable of actual thought. And its behavior was all wrong... the thing had actually lurched toward him and touched him. No civilized Cognota would even think of touching another under such circumstances - physical contact was only for digestion and copulation. But it had been insistent, and Cahrq had been unable to back up quickly enough to prevent the thing from grabbing one of his hands with its own. Exuding dissonant harmonics of surprise and revulsion, Cahrq had steered the creature to the platform - which is where it should have stayed in the first place - trying to ignore the lingering crawling sensation on his skin while he set to work.
But just like before, nothing he tried had any effect. He hadn't even bothered with the morphotic flow disruptor, but he had hoped the ocuruptis would have worked this time. The eyes, after all, were seamlessly integrated with the clone's body, not a hacked-on addition. Even so: nothing. The human had just lain there, its tympanum exuding the low, formless static of a newborn infant or a radio station's carrier wave. Sickening.
Even the modified saser was a bust. Cahrq had encased them in sound-absorbing padding so that he could crank the volume up as high as he wanted and only the creature would be exposed to the full brunt of the noise. But even on the highest setting, when even through the padding the dissonant screech was loud enough to make Cahrq wince, the oblivious thing had just lain there, attempting to flap its arms as if it were a schreinigree relaxing in the glow of a warm sunset at Ocnagon beach! Ridiculous!
Reining in the frustrated squeals emanating from his tympanum, Cahrq drew himself together and carefully pitched his voice in a conversational range. "Serl, explain the creature's responses."
His control almost slipped, but mastered it. He had spent weeks enduring the machine's obtuseness; he would not allow it to get to him now.
"When I applied the ocuruptis, I expected the creature to exhibit signs of dizziness or discomfort. It did not. Explain."
"Explanation requires speculation..."
"Then. Please. Speculate," Cahrq spat.
"... with varying degrees of probability. Estimate that the most likely explanation is the human's different neural circuitry. The artificial eyes would have transmitted the signals to the human's optic nerves, but the nerves would not have interpreted the signal in the same way a Cognota's would. Misaligned or differently configured optic pathways would exert an inhibitory effect on the..."
Cahrq found himself manipulating a small writing implement between his fingers while the computer recited its explanation, the bland, desiccated words completely at odds with the rich timbre of the luscious voice. He was gripping the object hard enough that he could feel the grinding against his finger bones as he tried to keep his attention focused on following what the computer was saying.
"... originating in the obdullary amaloid region, which has no analog in human anatomy. Estimate that the next most likely explanation is that the human is diseased or damaged and incapable of reacting properly to the ocuruptis's stimulus. Next most likely explanation: the ocuruptis is not functioning properly, though..."
"Enough. And the saser?"
"The saser does appear to be functioning properly. Would you like a diagnostic report?"
The small writing implement snapped abruptly. Cahrq allowed his eyes to unfocus for just a second, then said, calmly and precisely, "No. When I said 'And the saser', I did not mean 'Is the saser functioning properly, because I could HEAR FOR MYSELF..." calm, calm, "... that it was. I meant, explain why the creature did not react to the saser."
"Speculating. Again, the human's anatomy differs from the Cognoi's. Despite the existence of a functioning tympanum and the correct connection to the human's neural structures for aural processing, the neural structures do not exhibit the same neurotransmitter gap thresholds that..."
It went on and on. Cahrq tried to pay attention; there had to be some way to get his stand-in exchecutor to react correctly to painful stimuli! It was no good at all to torture the poor beast if it wasn't going to react - he may as well shine the ocuruptis on the chair, focus the saser on the broken stubs of the fractured writing utensil for all the reaction he would...
A thought occurred to him.
"Stop," he said. "What I truly need is this: I don't care if the creature actually suffers. What I want is for it to ACT like it's suffering. Do you understand? All it has done so far is lie there and flap its limbs. How do I get the human to emit piercing squeals from its fake tympanum? To make its flesh quiver as if it were terrified? To exude fluids and tissues in uncontrolled metabolic reversal? THIS is what I need it to do. How can I do it?"
Serl actually paused for long enough that Cahrq began to wonder if it was going to respond at all, but then it did, its rich chords flooding the room with gorgeous complexity.
"You will need a new clone. This one cannot be modified to produce the reactions you request."
"Fine. Recycle this one and make a new clone. This time, I'll script its actions for you. Just use the muscle manipulators to make it follow the script. Let me know when the replacement is ready."
George Malvern woke with a start. He lay disoriented, groping around in his memory for where he was and what he had been doing last, but his mind wouldn't work. His body was not his own, his thoughts flowed like molasses.
He remembered... what did he remember? Driving? Yes, driving. At night. And he remembered a bright light, and then... and then...
... and then nothing. He couldn't think, couldn't focus.
He had no control over his own body. He tried to move his arms and legs, but they would not budge. And yet, somehow, he was walking? Yes, he could feel his legs confidently putting one foot in front of the other, but not through any will of his own. He tried to look down to get a better view, but two things were wrong. For one, his head wouldn't move. Or rather, it wouldn't move where he wanted it to. Instead, it kept turning slowly from side to side as he walked. For another, his vision was funny. He could see, but what he saw was filled with static, the kind of picture you would get on your television set when the storms reared up over the Saskatchewan plains and lightning fractured the sky...
Was his arm moving? It was. It was waving. Good Lord, he was mincing around like the queen of England, waving regally to the white walls of a hospital room instead of a crowd of admiring subjects. What the hell was going on? He tried to open his mouth to say something and realized he couldn't - it was as if his teeth were wired together and his lips glued shut. Now why would someone do such a thing?
He stopped - again, not of his own volition - and found himself facing... something. It looked like a man at first, but there was something odd about the shape of him. It was difficult to see clearly with his eyes acting funny, but the guy just didn't look right. He was thin, painfully so. His hands seemed to have excessively long fingers, in fact his whole body looked almost wraith-like. And his skin was pale, so pale...
Recognition kicked in and George's head began to spin. That thing looks like an alien, George realized. But aliens don't exist. So what then...? He pondered the sight as the creature just stood there, not moving, not saying anything. Nothing happened for a long while. Well, not nothing exactly - after a few minutes George became aware of a tickling sensation all across his forehead and down his temples. It wasn't unpleasant, but it made him feel like he wanted to rub his head.
Then, very suddenly, the tickling became much more intense. High-pitched squeaks and a faint buzzing sound filled the air. The noises were so high as to be mostly beyond his range of hearing - only a few were audible to him. The rest just sounded like a faint hissing noise. But whatever it was, it was coming from his own forehead - he could feel the vibrations.
This went on for a while, then stopped for no reason George could see. Then came a bright light. It appeared to be coming from the other figure in front of him, holding up a pulsing, flashing light that made George wince and want to close his eyes, only somehow his eyelids wouldn't come down and block out the flickering glare. He tried to point his vision elsewhere - the dang glow was annoying.
Then the vibrations spread. Soon he felt his arms and legs and torso all trembling with no idea why. The shuddering went on and on. At one point, it became so intense that his legs could no longer support his weight and he collapsed unceremoniously to the floor, continuing to shudder and shake on the ground. He caught glimpses of the Other mincing wispily around him, ghost-like in its movements... hey, was it poking at him? George couldn't be sure - his eyes were no use and his muscles were shaking so hard. He felt a wetness - had he lost control of his bladder? But no, that wasn't it - the wetness was coming from patches of his skin.
At this point George became truly frightened, and yet as the sensation went on, it didn't seem to be causing him any harm. The panic that threatened to rise up and engulf him somehow did not do so. Time passed; the shaking eased a bit, and the wetness, now that he had a chance to think about it, was no more frightening than good, honest sweat. He lay there on the floor, puzzled and dazed, but essentially unharmed. Still he had no control over his limbs, but the way this day was going, maybe that was just as well. Since he understood nothing of what was going on, if he could move, he'd likely just screw something up.
He lay for a long while. The sweating - or whatever it was - eventually stopped, the tremors subsided. He sat up and tried to look around, but the strange images that came through his eyes told him little useful about his surroundings. He ventured to try to stand and was able to climb to his feet. Slowly, carefully, he took a step on his wobbly legs, legs that felt somehow weaker and more tired than they should. They held his weight, though, and he was able to explore the room a bit.
Wasn't there a door over here? At some point, the strange being had left. George had a vague recollection of seeing him step through a doorway, but couldn't really be sure. Was this the spot? He felt at the wall, but could neither see nor feel any kind of seam. He began to methodically work his way along the wall, seeking the exit that had to be here somewhere.
With no warning, he was lifted off his feet by an invisible hand, carried across the room, and pushed through a hole that just materialized in the opposite wall. The hand released him and suddenly he was falling, his fingers scrabbling at the smooth wall but finding no purchase, trying to shout through sealed lips until he landed with a splash into a pool of acid that began to eat at his skin. His inaudible shouts turned to inaudible screams that lasted for long minutes until at last George's cloned body disintegrated to the point where it could no longer sustain thought. George met his latest death totally unaware that it was not his first.
Cahrq was nervous at the start. He had Serl bring the latest clone out from the maturation chamber, and it was perfect. The likeness was incredible, the "human" looked exactly like the exchecutor. Serl's control over the creature's limbs was flawless. Cahrq watched as it emerged through the door and began striding confidently around the room, waving its arm in acceptance of the accolades of throngs of adoring subjects as the original had done countless times. The resemblance was so perfect that Cahrq felt himself easily slipping into the fantasy, that this was not a helpless, benighted creature from a backwater planet, but truly the exchecutor himself.
The illusion became even more convincing as the creature neared him at the end of its stately march around the room and came close enough for Cahrq to hear its thought-sounds. Low-frequency speech sounds carried a long way and could therefore be used for interpersonal communication, but thought sounds occupied the higher end of the aural spectrum and dropped off rapidly with distance. They could not carry more than two meters away from the individual producing them. From that distance, a listener would hear only that the thought-sounds were there. From a meter away, the two could actually eavesdrop on each other's minds, picking up clues to emotional state, truthfulness, intention. All business meetings, government negotiations, and other important interactions always took place between two individuals separated by that distance. It was the most effective way to ensure honestly and fairness, because few were the individuals capable of the level of self-deception necessary to lie at a one-meter range.
Closer yet... at ranges of 25 cm or less... ah, that was the zone of intimacy, where two separate Cognoi could actually become one in their thoughts. Ideas, emotions, sensations experienced by one Cognota could be literally transferred whole to one's partner, with no need for the intervention of clumsy words. It was a mystical union that lesser species - those without tympani - could never share.
A Cognota's thought-sounds were distinctive, impossible to disguise or alter. And what Cahrq heard before him at a distance of 1.6 meters was an absolutely perfect rendition of the exchecutor. Briefly, just to test the illusion, he stepped in closer, nearing the one meter point. There the illusion broke down just a bit, because the sounds he was hearing were recordings of the exchecutor's thoughts, and thus did not change. The real exchecutor's mind would have noted Cahrq's presence and that notice would have been reflected in his thought-sounds. These sounds, though, remained as they were. He stepped back again to the distance where he could hear the oh-so-familiar sound of the exchecutor's mental voice, but not the content those sounds conveyed.
Confident now, he began his speech. It was shorter this time than the first time, and he pointedly avoided playing back the examples of the humiliations that the exchecutor and his spawn had heaped on him. Part of that was that he had no desire to relive those emotions once more, but part was due to the incredible realism of the simulation in front of him. He found himself actually cowering - just a tiny bit - in the presence of that all-too-familiar mental voice.
But no matter. He was the one in control here, not his hated tormentor. And he would be the one to wreak vengeance.
"... to pay the price now, Larry, for these and for the myriad other humiliations, large and small, that you have heaped on me these past three years. And so I offer you: this." He focused the saser and turned it on.
And this time the reaction was perfect! The exchecutor's voice soared into a high-pitched screech and wailed its distress! A tiny part of Cahrq knew that it was just an approximation, a fake generated by Serl to be played through the artificial tympanum at the right moment. But on a gut level, the vast majority of Cahrq's mind didn't care - this, THIS was what he had longed for! The saser trained its focused beam of thought-frequency sound straight at his enemy's sensitive tympanum, drowning out the exchecutor's thoughts, making it impossible for him to remain conscious, to think his own thoughts, even to have any concept of self. The powerful blast was enough to annihilate his very identity, reducing him to less than an animal, to just a mass of shrieking tissue.
The creature stood frozen, unable to even focus its thoughts enough to fall down, helpless under the onslaught of terror and pain that Cahrq alone controlled. "That's right, you snivelling vraimzier!" he shouted in his glee, even though his nemesis could not possibly hear him or understand his words. "I'm in charge now! I decide when you will feel pain and when relief! I decide when and how much you will suffer! I control your very thoughts!
He held his distance at the perfect 1.6-meter point, close enough to hear the agonized squeal of the exchecutor's tormented mind, but not so close as to spoil the illusion, savoring the sounds of pain and suffering that he - CAHRQ! - was causing in long-overdue revenge.
At last he turned the device off. The exchecutor's screams subsided into hiccupy snorting noises as the shattered mind strove to pull itself back together. Cahrq didn't give it the chance. He turned on the ocuruptis and was once again rewarded by sounds of distress. These were different - where the saser caused sonic overload, the mental disruption caused by the ocuruptis was more along the lines of an induced seizure. The thought sounds morphed into the puling babblings of an infant, of a mentally disabled Cognota unable to sustain a coherent self-image. What a delight to see his adversary, always in such perfect control of himself and the image he presented, reduced to such pathetic helplessness! This was not the arrogant, dominant alpha figure he remembered so well, this was a shivering wreck, an imbecile, a harmless old crank one misstep away from the organ farms! Oh, the delight in seeing how low the mighty could fall!
And fall he did. Under the visual assault, the body of one of the most powerful Cognoi ever to exist withered and crumpled, folding in on itself like the petals of a daystar at dusk. The sleek, smooth body totally collapsed, sagging gently to the floor while the sounds of infantile distress whined and whimpered all across the auditory spectrum.
He turned off the flashing lights, leaving the exchecutor to quiver and whimper on the floor. He stalked around the fallen figure, delighting in the powerful sounds his feet made where he trod, as if he were clanging around in iron-clad boots. "Had enough yet, Exchecutor Laarbin? What's that? I can't understand a word you're saying. But don't you worry, I've got one more little surprise in store for you." He pulled out the sinigustrum and let the quivering wreck below him see it.
"Oh, you recognize this? Childish, I know. Such an unsophisticated tool. And yet, sometimes, the simplest techniques are the best." He rammed the metal contact points of the sinigustrum into the fallen exchecutor's body, holding them in place for long seconds before lifting the device up to reposition it elsewhere. The reaction was not immediate - morphotic flow was a slow process. When it was disrupted, the results could take a long time to build but then suddenly reach a tipping point with surprising swiftness. After the fourth poke, Cahrq saw the telltale signs he was looking for - liquid oozing from the exchecutor's skin. In minutes, his very flesh would be rejected by his own body and expelled as if it were a poison, the body jettisoning parts of itself to save the whole. If used to excess, the sinigustrum could cause death, but he had only delivered enough of a jolt to leave the exchecutor temporarily disabled... and severely uncomfortable. Given a day or so, his morphotic flow would restore itself and he would be good as new, and then perhaps Cahrq might treat himself to another session. For the next few hours, though, he would let the faux-Larry stew in his own misery.
Cahrq did not bother to watch the end result. He stalked out of the room, leaving his conquered enemy to lie stewing in his own juices, a shivering, shuddering wreck. The image filled his heart with bliss and his tympanum sang with triumph as he swaggered back to the control room.
George Malvern woke with a start. The last thing he remembered had been... what? Strange flickering lights? Weird sounds? An... alien?
Oh, shit! That's right - there had been an alien, and he had tortured George to the point of insanity, slicing off bits of his body, sealing up his mouth, sucking his flesh right out from under his skin! He nearly vomited from the memory and lurched up to aim over the edge of the platform he found himself on. The room spun - his eyes, that's right, his eyes had been gouged out and replaced with something that sent freakishly distorted images to his brain, and the dizzying sights only made his nausea worse. And yet... vomiting would be the worst possible thing he could do - his mouth was still sealed shut! He fought to control the reflex, lest his gastric juices come hurtling out through his nose and then, inevitably, back down into his lungs when he breathed.
It was very close for a long time. The contents of his stomach, though what could be in there he couldn't say because he couldn't remember when he had last eaten, but nevertheless they kept threatening to hurl themselves up and out while flashes of memories of the torture he had endured overwhelmed his mind. He could not believe that he had actually survived all that had been done to him. Surely his body would have succumbed to the assault? And yet clearly it had not, for here he was, trying desperately to cling to his miraculous survival.
The sensation passed. He lay back down, exhausted by the effort. The pain in his tortured body was horrific. Every muscle ached from the operations that had been inflicted on him. And for what? He still had no idea why he had been subjected to such agony. He could think of no possible reason that would explain what he had endured. He lay for a long while, wishing he could close his eyes but, without eyelids, he was unable to block out the flickering, pixellated visions.
Eventually he stirred, realizing as he did that his body seemed to be completely under his control. How long that might last, he could not say, but he thought it wise to take advantage of the circumstances while he could. He eased himself up to a sitting position, fighting through the aches and pains in all his muscles, and swung his feet down over the edge of the platform.
George jumped hugely, trying to stand up and whirl around to face the direction the voice had come from before remembering that his emaciated legs could not support his weight. He crashed heavily to the floor. He lay there, stars spinning in his altered eyes.
The voice had been soft, gentle, musical. Two words was not much to go on, but those two words had been glorious. The vision of a black-haired, coffee-and-cream-skinned Polynesian beauty with liquid brown eyes and soft, tender lips sprang unbidden to his mind - that was the body that belonged to such a voice. But where had it come from? He couldn't tell, his eyes were useless...
"Hello? Who's there?" He reflexively tried speaking, but of course the words wouldn't come out through his absent lips. The only noise he made was a vague humming sound that emerged through his nose.
And yet the owner of the glorious voice must have somehow understood him, because it replied, sounding as ravishingly gorgeous as before. "You may call me Serl. I am the mind of the ship you are currently aboard. You would think of me, perhaps, as a computer, but I am more than that."
"A computer? On a ship?" The words came out as variations on the letter "M". George knew he should be asking more meaningful questions, but his mind was just not working as fast as it might have been. He still couldn't see who the speaker might be, but maybe that made sense, if the speaker wasn't a person but a thing.
"Yes. You have been... abducted. Do you wish your mouth opened?"
George thought to agree immediately, then hesitated before committing to the motion of nodding his head. How... exactly... would they open his mouth? So far, every change that had been made to his body had been accompanied by pain. He couldn't think how to ask, but the computer - Serl? - spoke.
"Your body language suggests that you do, but you are apprehensive. Do you fear more pain? The procedure will not be painless, but it will not be as bad as what you have already endured. I can provide anesthetic. Do you wish your mouth opened?"
George swallowed and nodded twice, briskly. He could not stand the sensation of his mouth being sealed shut. That, by itself, was worse than the eye thing, worse than all the pain in his muscles, worse even than the loss of... oh, he had forgotten about that until now. But still, it was terrifying, wondering if every breath would be his last if he happened to inhale some tiny fleck of dust that caused him to sneeze or fill up with snot until he suffocated on his own phlegm... he had to get his mouth open, whatever the pain might be.
Serl instructed him to lie down on the platform. He realized this was not the same room he had been in before, but it had a similar array of instruments that swirled into place over his head. It was all he could do to hold still as the various appendages came snaking down. The first one brought a needle and George flinched as it poked into the flesh around where his lips used to be. But it merely lingered for a while, then withdrew, and after a minute or so, he felt the familiar sensation of novocaine-induced numbness spreading over the front of his face.
The surgery that followed was much easier to endure than any of its predecessors. Application of a knife to slice a gash, followed by the miraculous skin-growing machine restored his lips to him. Two quick snips of a wire cutter freed his teeth from the rods that had been thrust through them. Even the holes in his teeth were repaired by some sort of sealant. Finally, Serl asked him another question, which he agreed to, and there was a quick poke with another needle lower down on his body, recreating a hole that had once been at the end of a shaft but now was just a dot on a flat plain. At least he wouldn't die from an exploded bladder...
When it was over, George breathed a sigh of relief - through his mouth! He sat up. Able to form words again, hampered only by the lingering numbness in his new lips, he thanked his unseen surgeon. Then, mid-sentence, a thought occurred to him, and he voiced that, too.
"... but, why?"
"Why what? Why hurt you? Or heal you?" the voluptuous voice responded.
"Well... both, I guess. Both of those, plus, what's going on here? Why am I here at all?"
There was a long pause. Then, finally, "Have patience. Rest. Eat. Recover your strength. I will explain later."
Food appeared. He didn't see where it came from or how it got there, but suddenly it was sitting next to him on the platform. It wasn't anything fancy, just some cereal and some fruit, with a glass of plain water. George took his time - chewing and swallowing were neither easy nor painless, but he was able to get everything down. The effort exhausted him, though, and he curled up as best he could, pillowing his head on his too-thin arm and falling back to sleep.
Over the days - weeks? - of his recovery, George could not get the computer to tell him very much that was useful. He ate, he drank, he excreted (and the products of that excretion were magicked away in a manner he could not understand). He exercised, he rested, he rebuilt his shattered body as best as his healing processes would allow. But he did not learn much.
Bits of information came out of his discussions with Serl, the computer, AI, whatever-thing that was his only point of contact. He learned that the ship he was on was currently orbiting the sun on the far side of the earth, where it could not be seen by terrestrial telescopes. He learned that there was exactly one E.T. aboard the ship, a creature whose real name sounded like an orchestra meeting a pod of whales. Serl told him to think of the alien as "Cahrq" if he needed to pin a name on it.
Then, one day, he learned about Cahrq's bizarre quest for vengeance against someone George would never meet, for reasons he could never understand.
"What the hell?" he asked when Serl mentioned this, obliquely, in a discussion that had been up until that point about George's nutritional requirements. George pressed for more details and eventually got them. His reaction was one of dumbfoundment.
"Wait, you're saying this Cahrq ripped me outta my truck and brought me here so he could torture me instead of this other guy? This whole thing, everything I been through... it's not even about me?"
"That is essentially connect," purred the luscious Polynesian voice, though George found with the passage of time that the sound no longer stirred the same reaction in him. Perhaps he was growing used to it.
"Well, where the hell's the justice in that? How can he get away with that? Don't you people have laws against that sort of thing?"
"There are laws. Cahrq has so far skirted the edges of those laws but has not yet violated them in a way that would require me to report him to the authorities."
George found this hard to believe, but could not really argue the point. He sat in silence for a while.
"So, what happens now?" he asked. This was, of course, the question he had been both fearing and needing an answer to all this time. Was this Cahrq creature fattening him up only to have another go-around at him?
"Your meaning is not clear," Serl's rich contralto voice intoned.
"I mean, what's Cahrq going to do with me? Is he going to... to hurt me some more? Or let me go home? Is he gonna fix me up to look like my old self again?"
"Cahrq has no intentions for you at all. He does not know you exist. He has found another victim. Observe."
An image materialized on the screen. George had grown used to the low-quality vision that his replacement eyes provided. He had once asked Serl if it would be possible to restore his original eyes - with everything else that was possible on this ship, that shouldn't have been too hard. Alas, Serl claimed it could not be done, at least with the resources available. George made do the best he could, and really, now that he had grown accustomed to the time lag and the grainy quality, he could manage well enough.
George moved over to the screen, still moving gingerly on his healing legs, to get a better look. What he saw was not one but TWO aliens. One was walking around, waving its arm; the other was standing still. They both looked identical, at least as far as he could see, each exactly like what a space alien was supposed to look like according to the comic books and fringe-science TV shows.
The walking one stopped, and the two of them stared at each other for a while, with nothing else happening. George was about to ask what was going on when one of them moved.
"That is Cahrq on the left. He is holding a saser."
"A saser? What's that?"
"It is a device for focusing high-frequency sound waves. He is aiming it at his victim. Among his species, this would produce a very painful and unpleasant response."
"But the other alien don't seem to be reacting at all."
"It is simulating the reaction that Cahrq wishes to see. It is squealing in distress at frequencies you cannot hear."
"Simulating? You mean it's faking being hurt by this saser thing?" The more he learned, the less sense it all made.
"Well, how come the other alien's not really getting hurt? Is it wearing earplugs or something?"
"No. The other alien is not an alien at all. It is a clone. A clone of... George Malvern."
That hit him in the gut. He stopped paying attention to the screen. When he looked up again, the scene had changed. Now Cahrq was shining a flashing light at the other ali... at... the other George. "Is that really a clone of me? It don't look anything like me."
"True, it does not look like your original body. But it does look quite similar to your current appearance. Except for your mouth, of course. The modifications that Cahrq performed on your body were intended to make you resemble a member of his species. You now look more like him than you do a human. With this clone, the process has been taken even further. He resembles Cahrq's enemy almost exactly, though he is genetically a human."
"What's that light for?"
"The light is an ocuruptis. It causes hallucinations and disorientation. Or so Cahrq intends."
It didn't seem all that hallucinatory or disorienting. It was just a flashing light, like a disco ball. "Lemme guess, that ocu-thingy don't work so well on us humans either."
"An astute observation."
Now Cahrq was poking at the other George, who had fallen to the ground in faked distress. He had some kind of gadget in his hand. "What's that thing?"
"A sinigustrum. That, to a member of Cahrq's species, causes metabolic disruption. Applied in too strong a dose, it can be lethal."
"Lethal. Is it going to hurt that guy?"
"Then what the hell's the point?" George cried. "This guy, this Cahrq, he's trying to hurt me... or this clone of me, or whatever, and he can't figure out how to do it? Hell, he sure didn't have no trouble when he was slicing my hands to bits, did he? Or my feet? So what's the problem now?"
"Excuse me, please. My attention is required elsewhere."
"No! Don't go! Dammit! Serl! Serl!"
But the voice was gone and the image - now showing only the other George lying befuddled on the floor - faded out. George seethed in helpless frustration.
Cahrq swaggered onto the bridge and threw himself into the command chair. He opened a cabinet nearby and took out a bowl of wurfle pods. Removing the lid, he grabbed a pod from the bowl and placed it against his side. Swiftly, his skin dimpled under the pressure, then began to flow around the pod, causing it to adhere in place so the slow process of engulfment and digestion could occur. He savored the sensation as his digestive enzymes began to erode the pod's coating. He set a second pod, then - what the heck? - a third against his torso in other places, then sat back in anticipatory satisfaction.
Ah! Truly this was bliss! To have one's enemies laid to waste at one's feet, to savor their utter humiliation and destruction! Even now, the exchecutor - or at least a very convincing simulacrum of that despicable being, nearly indistinguishable from the real thing - was suffering the aftereffects of the justice that Cahrq had handed out. If there was any higher satisfaction to be had in this life, Cahrq could not imagine what it might be.
There! The husk of the first pod had been breached, and the sweet juices were oozing out, mingling with his own substance. The delicious sensation spread all along his body from where the pod had been placed, the sign of the cells of a happy digestive system eagerly lapping up what had been handed to them and sharing it along. A few minutes later, the buzz hit his brain - wurfle pods were slightly psychoactive, creating a gentle but very pleasant high among Cognoi who used them. Ordinarily, they were too expensive a delicacy for Cahrq's meager tutor's salary to afford. But on this ship, Barty's ship, they were as plentiful as crozenine greens.
His brain humming in blissful satisfaction, he decided to take a look at how his captive was faring. Perhaps in a day or two he would be sufficiently recovered for another go-around, should Cahrq feel so inclined. But that would come later... for now, he merely wanted a glimpse of how the victim was doing.
"Serl, call up a view into room four." There was hardly any delay before the image materialized on the screen in front of him. Cahrq leaned forward, eagerly anticipating what he would see.
But what was this? The faux-exchecutor was not lying on the floor, seeping fluids and quivering in distress! No, the re-creation was sitting up, idly glancing around and poking at its fingers!
"SERL! Explain this!"
"THIS! The fake exchecutor should be suffering the aftereffects of what I did to him. I see no evidence of any suffering at all. Explain why."
"The clone is not Cognoi."
He ground his fingers together in frustration. "Yes, I am aware of that," he growled, "but that is not an explanation. Why did it appear to suffer while I was torturing it, and yet now seems perfectly fine?"
"The clone is not Cognoi. The fact that you asked the same question twice suggests that you are dissatisfied with the answer. Regrettably, that is nevertheless the answer."
He watched it stand up, a bit wobbly on its legs, and slowly grope its way around the room. It was a little tottery, but it didn't seem to be in distress at all. The real exchecutor - any Cognota - would have been laid out for several hours recovering from the effects of the torture. Not this simulation. It was up and scooting about as if nothing had happened.
Cahrq knew intellectually, had known all along, that the biology of the two species was different, but it was nevertheless a shock to see the difference made so plainly visible. It truly brought home the knowledge that all those delightfully satisfying cries of distress, all those perfect reactions of fear and terror and pain and agony, had been nothing but high-quality fakes generated by Serl.
"Look at it," Cahrq mumbled dully. "For all the simulated agony it conveyed during the torture, for all the very convincing cries of distress, for all the writhing and screaming it did, the creature was not actually suffering at all from what I did to it, was it?"
"There was a small degree of suffering. The human-Cognoid clone did find the blinking lights distracting, and was not pleased at the sensation of the sinigustrum. But the degree of discomfort did not rise to the level of suffering you inflicted on a previous version. 'Distraction' would be a better term."
The buzz of the wurfle pods was no more than a tepid memory. The delight of triumph, the sizzling buzz of victory, was gone. Dammit, he had known it was all an illusion, but it had been such a convincing illusion! While the torture was happening, it had been absolutely perfect... but he had been assuming the aftereffects of the torment would linger in the illusion as they would in a real Cognota. Serl could probably have made that happen, at least in simulation, but Cahrq hadn't thought to give instructions for how the human should behave when Cahrq wasn't there in the room. Now that the actor had left the stage, the set was revealed for what it was: a sham. The illusion was no longer sufficient to deceive the audience, even though that audience - himself - was not merely willing but downright eager to be deceived. He glanced at the viewscreen and saw the human-thing moving about, tapping and banging on the walls as if that would somehow cause the door to open. There it stood, the oafish brute, right in front of the portal, pawing at it like a dumb beast, when all it would take to open the door was a single spoken command.
That cemented it. The stupid cretin was not Cogno, could never be Cogno, no matter what modifications Cahrq might make to it. There was no further point to this charade. He might as well just dispose of the clone and give up this whole doomed enterprise, slinking back to Rodoin with his tympanum leaking the bleak, whiny sounds of failure all the way there...
"Do you wish to recreate the actions you performed on a previous version?"
"Excuse me?" This was an unexpected question to hear. "What do you mean?"
"If you will recall, your first attempts at body modification were extremely painful and traumatic for the human. Those actions caused suffering of the degree you intended this time."
"But what I... oh..." Cahrq fell silent, mulling over the implications. "Yes. This is true..." he eventually said.
"Do you wish to recreate the actions you performed on a previous version? As well, there are other things you can do to the human that would inflict terror in addition to the pain. Would you like instructions?"
"I... well..." This was not something Cahrq had considered. The whole point of the expedition had been to torture the exchecutor, not some alien animal. But that hadn't worked out. The biology was too different; the most horrific tortures he could inflict on a fellow Cognota were no more than irritants to a human, even a human modified to look and sound like a Cognota.
But as Serl had pointed out - no, the realization had to have been Cahrq's, of course. He tried to think back over how the conversation had gone. It must have been him - the AI would never have had the necessary initiative or insight. It may have provided the spark that triggered the flash of intuition, but the flash itself had been Cahrq's, and what a flash it was: the reverse was also true! Actions that a Cognota would brush off as barely noticeable could be devastatingly traumatic to earth life.
He was here; he had the creature. Might it be possible to salvage some kind of satisfaction by inflicting torments on the creature in terms it could understand? But that would be no good. If an action shouldn't cause any harm, like the reshaping of a body part, and yet the recipient of that action had a flawed biology that caused it to perceive the action as painful, still there would be no visceral thrill involved for Cahrq. And of course the human would react in its unreadable way, which would be thoroughly unsatisfying as well. What was needed was a hybrid approach, one that would let Cahrq inflict pain in ways that felt satisfying to him and yet were perceived by the human in ways it could understand. And of course, the human's reactions had to be translated into terms Cahrq could appreciate.
"Serl, I do believe you might have given me a marvelous idea."
He worked out the details, determining how involved a role the AI would be able to play. The plan was an elaborate one, but Cahrq still had plenty of time left on his sabbatical. He would easily make it back to Rodoin and with any luck, Barty wouldn't even have noticed his missing spacecraft, though Cahrq had a cover story in place if one were needed. Serl, for once, was quite helpful. Between the two of them, they devised a torture that would be as real as possible for both the giver and the receiver, one that each species could appreciate in its own native terms with Serl acting as a two-way translator.
Better yet, the AI apparently had quite a good grasp not just of earthling biology, but psychology as well, and so the torture this time would be not just physical but mental and emotional. Cahrq might just be able to find satisfaction at last.
"... and you'll translate the human's responses into sensible terms?" The question had been answered before, but it was worth repeating. It would do Cahrq no good if the creature expressed its responses through facial expressions or limb-flaps or whatever babbling sounds it could produce with its limited sound-producing organs.
"Yes. I can even translate using the exchecutor's voice, if you wish."
"Yes," Cahrq mused. "Yes, I do so wish. Very well. Let's do it. Start with a new clone, one that is identical to the original human, with no Cogno modifications. Dispose of this one and let me know when the new one is ready."
Cahrq left the control room and returned to his sleeping chamber. The swagger was back in his step as he moved off down the corridor. Who would have thought that the obtuse AI's simple-minded question would turn out to be the spark for the idea that might just turn out to be the answer to his problem? He resolved to try to be more patient with the thing in the future. After all, it couldn't help having the limitations it did.
George Malvern woke with a start. He was lying on a flat surface, in a room that glowed white. Whiteness was everywhere: the walls, the ceiling, the floor, even the table he was lying on was white. The only other colors that broke up the monotony were flashes of silver and black, components of inscrutable machinery placed here and there throughout the room.
George sat up and looked around more. He hopped down off the table, feeling a little bit woozy, but that wasn't unusual after standing up suddenly. He realized abruptly that he had no clothes. How had he gotten here? The last thing he remembered he was.. he was... in his truck? Then there was that bright light, and then...
Where the hell was he?
There was a tiny whisper of sound behind him and off to his right. He whirled in time to see part of the wall shimmering out of existence. Through the newly-opened portal stepped a creature that could only be described as an extra-terrestrial. George blinked and shook his head. He was no UFO nut. Aliens weren't real. There could only be one explanation for this: someone was messing with him.
The door sealed itself shut behind the "alien". It walked through the room while George stared at it. Its movements were incredibly graceful, as if it were made of gossamer. Its feet seemed to merely brush the floor rather than step on it. Its skin was pale, almost greenish-looking in the bright white light of the room. The freakiest thing about it were its eyes - they were huge, covering half of its face. They looked bug-like, like enormous, flattened dragonfly eyes, and their surfaces sparkled and glinted as its head moved. There was something on its head, a long patch of greyish skin that stretched over its forehead and down to its temples. George at first thought it must have been hair, shaved down to bare stubble, but the more he looked, the less likely that seemed. It wasn't hair, it was something else.
The alien had no mouth.
It stood in front of him and stared at him. George worked his jaw, trying to think of what, if anything, he should say. If this was a hoax, then someone sure went to a whole lot of trouble putting it together.
"It's freaking huge," Cahrq vocalized to Serl up in the register where the human wouldn't be able to hear him. Seen up close, not through the monitor from the control room, Cahrq was able to get a sense of the bulk of the thing. It was so thick about the limbs, so heavy! Surely those muscles would be powerful enough to tear Cahrq's own body apart if it were to ever get the chance!
It mustn't get that chance.
"Immobilize it. Lay it down on the table."
"Most of his reactions will occur in the muscles of his head," Serl chimed. "Shall I leave him free to use his head muscles?"
"Yes. That should be safe enough."
George felt his body pushed and lifted and laid out on the table. There was nothing he could do about it - he was in the grip of an irresistible force and could not move a muscle to fight it. He had a sudden flashback of the last moment in his truck, of being lifted out through the side, and it occurred to him that perhaps that hazy memory wasn't a hallucination after all.
Only his head was free to move. He spun it about, wondering what the explanation for this could possibly be. "Hey! What the...? Lemme go! What are you doing?" His voice sounded thick, muddy, as if he had forgotten how to use his tongue and lips to shape words.
The tones of the exchecutor's voice were nearly perfect. They contained just the right mixture of harmonics to indicate apprehension, disbelief, and the beginnings of fear. "Hey! What the...? Let me go! What are you doing?" The mismatched visual was disorienting - hearing the exchecutor's cultured tones seeming to come from this lumbering ox was so incongruous that it was almost funny. Cahrq let out a tiny giggle, partly from that and partly from his own nervousness - even though he knew the beast couldn't hurt him, it was still intimidating to be so close to it.
He leaned over the human and leered down. "Greetings, Exchecutor Laarbin. I trust you have noticed the modifications I have made to your body? It seemed only fitting - the outward appearance should match the soul, wouldn't you agree? And you have such a... loathsome... despicable... horrifically ugly soul that it is only right that you should find that soul wrapped in this body. It's a perfect match!"
Now when Serl translated the human's next words, they wouldn't be so laughably out of place.
"Greetings, earthling," came a deep, full voice. It had to have been coming from the "alien", though George couldn't see how it could possibly speak words when it had no mouth. And yet it was leaning down over him, and the sounds were recognizable, clearly-spoken English words. "Welcome aboard my ship."
"Who are you? Let me go!" George said, trying to fill his voice with bravery he didn't feel.
"How dare you do this to me? I demand you release me at once!" The exchecutor's tones were as imperious as ever, even emerging from the freakishly engorged body immobilized before him. Communicating with the human was practically effortless - Cahrq didn't even have to wait for the translation because Serl produced the slow bass notes that the human used for speech at nearly the same instant Cahrq spoke. And in return, the human's speech came to Cahrq in sensible form almost as soon as it was uttered.
He wondered, briefly, what Serl had told the human to convince it that it was Exchecutor Laarbin. However it had been done, it was genius work. Laarbin's words were exactly right, perfectly fitting the moment. The illusion was so convincing that Cahrq willingly allowed himself to be deceived, submerging gladly into his role in the performance. THIS was what he should have done in the first place! With Serl's help, perhaps he could finally have the chance to live out the revenge fantasy he had dreamed of for so long...
"Aw, Larry what's the problem? Cahrq cooed in reply. "Feeling a little nervous? Well, that's all right: you should."
"Who am I, human? That's the wrong question to ask." The voice was a ringing baritone, deep and threatening. George's own voice sounded shrill and childlike in comparison. How could this wispy, gauze-like figure have such a deep, resonant voice? Especially with no mouth that it could issue from! George didn't care - he just wanted to move, to get out from under the leering, eerily blank gaze that loomed over him.
"Oh yeah? Well what's the right question, then?" His jaw quivered just a bit, betraying his apprehension, but his voice was firm and strong.
"Cahrq. Of course I might have known you would be behind this outrage. You pitiful, worthless parasite." The exchecutor's drawling sneer sent bolts of rage surging through Cahrq's body. Even now, even pinned to a table, the bastard's arrogance knew no boundaries!
"Shut up, you doddering old fool! In case you haven't noticed, you're not in charge here. I am!"
"The right question is, how much pain can you endure before your fragile earthling body shuts down from the sheer overload?"
Now there was no way to keep the quivering out of his voice. "Wh... wha... what are you gonna do with me?"
The reply came again from the immobilized body. "You pathetic excuse for a Cognota. Is this the best you can come up with? Brute physical force to subdue me? How unsubtle, how unsophisticated. Exactly what I would expect from one so inept at navigating the currents of power as you: a failed academic!"
Cahrq's blood boiled. The real exchecutor had never spoken words such as these to him, but he would never have needed to. Cahrq knew what he was thinking. His attitude was implicit in every interaction Cahrq had with him. And what hurt most was: every word was true. Cahrq was not adept at the subtleties of either the academic or political worlds. That failing, and no other, was what had led to his downfall and subsequent humiliations. But to have it spelled out so bluntly... that only hammered home the point that he was so uncivilized that he needed to have it spelled out! That he was so obtuse as to not even recognize veiled insults and had to have them explained to him. Oh, it hurt, it hurt him to his core.
His voice shook with a mixture of self-loathing and righteous fury as he replied, "Unsophisticated my methods may be. But I think you'll find they are effective all the same. And you might just discover that you aren't so high and mighty yourself once you've tasted what I have to dish out."
The alien's voice was pure malevolence. "It's breeding time. I require your assistance."
That got George's adrenaline pumping. He started to protest, but the alien cut him off.
"Earth's climate is not quite right for us. Too humid, too oxygen-rich. What is needed is a hybrid, members of our species blended with some human DNA to make our children robust enough to survive. To flourish. To start the colonization process."
"Shit! Aw, no, no way!" George fought to escape from the invisible restraint, a cold sweat breaking out over his skin.
"Do your worst, inferior one. You do not frighten me."
The insufferable old fool! Cahrq, suffused with rage, did not reply, but instead called for the medical equipment.
That provoked a response. Cahrq barely noticed the drops of liquid forming on the human's skin, the quivering voice, the expanded size of the eyes. Instead, he heard Serl's rendering of what those things meant in the exchecutor's simulated thought-sounds, which thrummed with the anticipation of dismay, of planned stoicism tinged with just the slightest hint of doubt. It was so seamlessly handled that Cahrq was past any point of thinking of his victim as a hapless foreigner and felt as if he were reading the exchecutor's emotions himself. A tiny part of him knew that it was all illusion, but thanks to Serl the illusion was so convincing this time that he easily lost himself in it.
That wasn't a human on the table: it was a grotesquely-modified Laarbin... a Laarbin who was about to suffer.
One of the black-and-silver-tipped machines above his head started to move. George sucked in his breath but could do nothing more. He glanced over at the alien - it was clearly controlling the machine somehow, but he couldn't tell how. Telepathy, perhaps? Could the alien make things move by thought alone?
His right hand lifted of its own accord. He stared, helpless to stop its rise, until it was sticking straight up above his body, directly under the machine.
"The first step will be to render you helpless," the booming voice intoned, filling the room with its sound. "There will come a point when you will experience so much pain that you would gladly end your life rather than endure more. I must make that impossible for you."
A saw began to whine. George screamed.
"I see you aren't as brave as you pretend to be," Cahrq told the whimpering exchecutor. "Perhaps my unsubtle methods aren't completely ineffective after all." Cahrq was - if he said so himself - doing an admirable job of controlling his anger.
Under some circumstances the exchecutor would not have been troubled by the surgical saw that Cahrq was threatening him with. Slicing through flesh was a painless process, and in fact was routinely done for medical or even cosmetic purposes. Slicing through bone, however, was something different. Bones were the fixed parts of a Cognota's anatomy, the framework around which the liquid flesh could flow. When Laarbin saw that the whining blade was aimed not between his fingers but straight down the centerline of one of them, he reacted accordingly.
"Wait! No! Don't do thaaaAAAAAAAAAIIIIIGGGGHHHH!"
The pain was like lightning through his index finger. The machine had extruded a clamp that wrapped itself around his wrist and forearm. Then it had grown other, smaller clamps that seized his individual fingers, holding them tightly and spreading them apart.
Then the saw came down, directly toward the center of the tip of his index finger. George's shouts rapidly became screams as the saw's tiny, sharp teeth sliced exactly down the centerline of his finger, driving toward his wrist and spraying blood and bits of meat and bone as it went. He wanted to thrash around, but still had no control over his body, and the clamps held his hand absolutely fixed so that even the movement and vibration of the saw couldn't budge it.
The machine didn't stop slicing until it was halfway through George's palm. Then it extruded other appendages that ran along the freshly-cut surfaces. Somehow, magically, where they passed, the bleeding stopped, a layer of skin grew, and where there had been one finger before, there were now two half-fingers, each of which still hurt like hell from the blade that had split them apart.
George glanced over at the alien, but couldn't spare the time to watch for long, because the movement of the machine over his head demanded his attention. The skin-growing tools had retracted and the saw had repositioned itself, ready to drive itself down through the next fingers. George shrieked again and again.
The exchecutor-squeals continued to sound on top of the human's native sounds of torment as the robosurgeon neatly bisected more of the human's fingers. The first hand was finished; the machine was working on the other hand now. The human was beside itself in its distress. Cahrq couldn't help but notice how similar the fluid pouring off its face looked to the symptoms of sinigustrum-induced metabolic distress, as if Laarbin's modified body were rejecting itself as a result of the trauma.
When the alteration of the second hand was complete, the machine withdrew to the ceiling and he had Serl grant the human the ability to move its arms.
"Hurts, doesn't it?" he purred at the exchecutor look-alike. "You poor, poor thing. Such suffering you are enduring. But, alas for you, we've only just begun. And there's nothing you can do about it!"
"... totally incapable of using them to harm yourself, and therefore the new lives you'll be carrying. And there's nothing you can do about it!"
George barely understood the voice, so lost was he in his pain. What the hell had been done to him? His hands sang with agony. The pain was unrelenting. He found that he was able to move his arms, though he could not sit up or roll over. He brought his hands close to his face and examined them. The alien had destroyed them, and yet had somehow healed up the skin afterward. There was blood everywhere, but it was all from during the surgery - he wasn't actually bleeding now.
But he couldn't use his fingers for anything! He tried to flex them, or extend them, or move them as he had done all his life. They refused to obey him. Too much of the muscle and tendon and bone had been destroyed, and the skin that papered over the newly-exposed surfaces was just a thin covering to keep his blood in his body. There was no strength to it. His now-twenty-fingered hands were utterly useless to him.
"Why?" he wailed. "Please, whatever I did to you, please, just let me go."
The exchecutor's wail after examining its maimed appendages was a wordless warble, a mere sound of distress like an animal would produce. It was very nearly exactly the same sound the previous clone had simulated when it had been subjected to the saser, only this time, the lump of tissue on the table in front of him was truly, genuinely feeling the sensation it was expressing. Cahrq's tympanum thrummed with satisfaction.
"Oh, Larry, you go ahead, take a minute to appreciate what I've done to you," he murmured. "But don't take too long, we've got plenty more still to come."
He resolved to wait two minutes, no more, before beginning the next phase.
George became aware of the alien hovering over him, watching his distress with its grotesquely large, expressionless eyes. "What?!?" he shouted. "What do you want from me?!?"
"Oh, pitiful human," the alien murmured. "Take a minute to appreciate what I've done to you. But don't take too long, there is still much to be done before you'll make a suitable incubator for my offspring."
Any hope that this was an elaborate hoax had vanished from George's mind. No prank-puller would have taken it so far as to destroy George's hands. So he had to conclude that this talk of an invasion force made up of alien/human hybrids was as real as the pain throbbing in his mutilated fingers.
"No... no... you can't... I can't..."
"You can and you will. You have no choice. Now it is time to ensure that after you have been returned to earth, you will not be able to leave the nesting place."
The machine came down again. This time it started slicing along the bones of his toes. The first cut started at the tip of the fifth toe on his left foot and stretched nearly all the way to his ankle. George screamed and screamed, then screamed some more.
Truly that was a satisfying sound! Cahrq could now not just believe, but feel in his bones that this human really was the exchecutor, surgically modified to have grotesquely fat limbs, short, stubby fingers and toes, and a horribly deformed face. His enemy lay at his mercy, suffering at Cahrq's command.
He took his time with the toes, making sure to let the exchecutor savor every moment of the torture. After all, unlike the first time, the point this time was not to get the modifications completed so the real torture could begin. This time, the modifications were the real torture. His victim's red blood lay splattered all over the place, covering the table, the surgical tools, and its own body.
The screams were like music.
When the butchery of his feet was complete, George felt the invisible force that was holding him suddenly vanish. He was free to move.
Knowing it was hopeless, he nevertheless tried to climb down from the table. The agony in his feet made touching the floor like walking on searing-hot coals. He immediately collapsed to his knees, but as soon as his hands hit the floor, the same sensation sent him tumbling to his elbows, then rolling to his side at the alien's feet. The alien laughed, an evil, demonic laugh that filled the tiny room with its reverberating sound.
"Ha ha haaa!" Cahrq cackled. "Poor Larry! If only your pals on the council could see you now!"
"Ha ha haaa!" it cackled. "Crawl all you want, little worm! There is no escape for you!"
George made to get away. Direction didn't matter, all that mattered was putting distance between himself and his tormentor. He lurched forward on his destroyed limbs, half-crawling, half-dragging himself across the floor. The alien only laughed at his feeble attempts, until at last the giant voice boomed "Amusing as this is to watch, it's time to continue. Up you go."
George felt himself lifted up again by the impossible-to-resist force. He sobbed at his helplessness, at the fiery pain in his hands and feet. He longed to get his hands on the son of a bitch that was doing this to him, but his feet just couldn't hold him up, and even if they would he doubted he'd be able to wrap his fingers around the alien's scrawny neck with enough force to choke it to death.
His body was laid back down on the torture table, arms at his sides, legs slightly spread. The machine overhead began to move again. George kept up a running drone of "no, oh, no, oh, no..." while it settled over the middle of his body. He had to lift his head slightly off the table to keep an eye on what it was doing, not wanting to see, but unable to keep from looking.
"Now," boomed the alien's Satanic voice, "I require a sample of your DNA."
George whimpered as the machine began to whirr and the various arms and appendages swirled down, straight toward... his crotch. Then the whimper turned into a shout. "No! Aw, sweet mother, no! Not that!"
He felt the machine's arms slither around his ball sac, squeezing and pulling and separating. He watched as other arms grabbed his dick and stretched it upward, not hard, just enough to straighten it out. He strained to move his butchered hands to protect himself, to lurch his body off the table and out of the thing's reach. Nothing worked. All he could do was lie there.
The stretch in his nuts became uncomfortable, then painful. He craned his neck to see that his balls were being stretched out at a forty-five degree angle, pulled upward and towards his feet, forced down to the bottom of the sac and separated from each other. The pain was enough to make him suck air between his teeth, grunting and straining.
Then the knife came out.
The knife flicked once, twice, and George's nuts popped right out of the taut sac. He could see them, glistening whitish-pink in the grip of the machine's flexible arms. Freed from the constraint of the skin that had held them, they were now able to stretch even further upward and outward, reaching obscenely far away from what should have been their safe, comfortable home. Tendrils wrapped around them, slowly tightening their grip until his balls were completely enwrapped in them, squeezed from all sides by their constricting force.
Cahrq's belief wavered for just a moment. "This is seriously sufficient to cause pain? All I'm doing is squeezing a few blobs of soft tissue," he subvocalized to Serl at thought-frequency.
"What is relevant is which blobs of tissue you are squeezing. Listen to my translation of the response. For this body, this is worse than anything you did before."
"But what are they?"
"Exactly like buds. You have caught the exchecutor in an intimate moment. He has extruded some buds - malformed, non-viable buds, but buds all the same - and they are exposed for you to do with as you wish."
"Ah. Yes. Yes, I can work with that..."
The stretch and squeeze in his balls had become overwhelming, the only sensation he could pay attention to. The throbbing in his hands was forgotten, the mutilations to his feet ignored; all that he could perceive was the monstrous crushing of his testicles.
Through tear-fogged eyes, he saw the machine extend another arm. Blinking to clear his vision, he saw that this one was tipped with a thick, wickedly-sharp needle. As he watched helplessly, the needle descended toward his right nut. Slipping between two of the encircling tendrils, it pierced the membrane of his ball and plunged in. Through a transparent tube attached to the back of the needle, George could see a thick, clot-filled liquid beginning to flow from the needle, through the tube, all the way up to the machine above. George screamed in pain and horror - the thing was vacuuming out his ball!
It was impossible to tell how much of the pain was due to the squeezing tentacles and how much from having the meat of his nut sucked right out, but it didn't matter anyway. Pain was pain, and it was all George could feel radiating from his groin. His head flopped backward onto the table and he turned to the side, eyes clenched shut until he could no longer bear not seeing what was going on.
George raised his head again, unable to keep his eyes away from the sight of what was happening to him. The needle had just finished its work and was withdrawing from his right ball. All but a few of the tendrils had withdrawn - there was nothing left for them to grip. His right nut had been reduced to the size of a marble, a shriveled and deflated husk of wet, wrinkled skin. It still hurt like hell, but even as he marveled at how much pain could emerge from that empty shell of a ball, he felt the piercing of the needle in the left one and his attention was drawn there.
The process was repeated, and George once again watched the substance of his ball get vacuumed up in tiny little chunks through the needle, which poked and prodded all around the inside, making sure to slurp up every last cell it could find. When it finally withdrew, the left ball looked just like the right: an empty, hollow husk, throbbing with the pain of its violation. The machine tucked both useless knobs back inside his scrotum and the skin-grower came down and swiftly healed up the incisions.
George's screams were wordless sobs.
Serl translated the creatures yowling noises into sensible speech, carrying just the right notes of both suffering and endurance. "Well... Cahrq... I'll grant you this... you do know... how to cause... physical pain. What... a pity... that's all you know."
Blind rage rose up in him once more. He had been planning to give the creature a short break, to fully appreciate what he had done so far, but this... this was intolerable. He would break the exchecutor's smug self-righteousness...
"We'll see just how much I know, oh, yes, you'll see, just you wait..."
"That will serve for the recombination. There should be plenty of your cells in that sample to combine with mine to create the seeds of the new hybrid race. You should feel honored, human, that your blood will run in the veins of the new master race of your world."
George was able to overcome the throbbing pain in his crotch for long enough to understand the alien's words. "No way, you fucking psycho! I don't care who you are or where you came from, there ain't no way you're gonna win this war!" Surely if this were one of those American movies, that's what he would be expected to say, wasn't it? Only he didn't feel brave, and truly saw no way to stop what was happening.
The alien's laugh was a deep, demonic roar. "Ha! And how do propose to stop me, you pitiful wretch? Even now, strands of your DNA are being blended into the seeds of my race, so that when they grow, they will be able to breathe Earth's air, tolerate Earth's gravity... eat Earth's food. Yes, that's right, I can see in your eyes that you understand how it will be. My kind cannot naturally digest the proteins that you Earthborn are made of, but my children will be able to. In fact, their very first meal will be... you, their co-father."
George had thought that his terror could grow no worse, but on hearing this, he realized how wrong he had been.
"I must now hurt you some more. My children will not be able to digest you at first, so I must give them a starter meal to grow on, a bit of your flesh, pre-digested so they can take their nourishment from it. I think this little bit here should do well."
George's attention was drawn once more to his crotch. The appendages snaked down from the ceiling once more. Tendrils wrapped themselves around his dick, stretching it upward. Three needles appeared next, smaller than the one that had drained his balls. Each darted in to his cock, poking through the skin and burying itself in the flesh beneath. The pricking sensation of the needle's point was no more than a sting, but a short time later, in each of the places where the needles had entered, there came a burning sensation that grew and grew, then grew some more. The needles pulled out, re-inserted themselves in other positions, and repeated the process, over and over.
"These digestive enzymes are slowly liquefying the meat of this useless appendage of yours," the alien mused as the fiery sensation rapidly grew to dwarf all George's other pains. "When they are larger, the children will be able to produce these enzymes on their own, but until then, they will need a supply of pre-digested food. This amount should suffice."
"Serl, this was perhaps my most brilliant idea. Sucking out the innards of the exchecutor's bud and telling him I'm digesting it? I tell you, I am a genius!"
The burning was so intense George thought his penis must be on fire, as if it had been doused in gasoline and set alight. He gasped and groaned and fought to move his hands, helpless to stop the flaming agony. The alien let him stew in the sensation for long minutes while the enzymes did their work, the burning sensation in his dick growing more and more intense with each passing second. At last, the larger needle reappeared. It centered itself directly over the head of his dick, above the piss slit, and plunged in. George barely felt the sting of the needle over the burning pain that consumed all his attention.
The needle began to drain the liquefied meat of his cock the way it had drained his balls. Reddish mush appeared in the clear tube behind the needle and was drawn up into the machine hanging overhead. For more long minutes the process continued, and George watched through tear-filled eyes as his cock's substance was vacuumed away. The needle flicked around, poking its pointed tip into every corner it could reach so as not to miss a single drop. At last it was finished, and the needle withdrew. The tendrils released George's dick, which flopped down onto his deflated ball sac. George lifted his head, still gasping and moaning in pain but unable to not see.
His dick was the size of a double-A battery, no, even shorter and thinner than that. All that was left was the outer skin, which was wrinkled and shriveled because there was nothing inside to fill it out. It had been deflated like balloon, emptied like a tube of toothpaste. George sobbed his anguish: "No, oh lord no, this can't be happening, this canNOT be happening, no, no no..."
"Perhaps... I was... mistaken... about you, Cahrq."
"Oh? And how is that, dear Larry?" A flush of satisfaction spread out diffusely through his body. Surely he must mark this miraculous day on the calendar: could it be that Exchecutor Laarbin was about to admit he was wrong? Perhaps even to apologize? It took a moment for the deformed, suffering wreck to compose itself enough to reply, but Cahrq was in no rush. He had plenty of time for this, oh yes, plenty of time...
"Perhaps... you are... more inventive... more... resourceful... than I gave... you credit for."
"Well. I'm delighted to hear you say that, Exchecutor Laarbin. Please go on. Tell me more."
"I... you... oh, this pain! Please, Cahrq, please, make this pain stop! I cannot bear it!"
Of course. Cahrq allowed a slow, knowing chord of comprehension to thrum in his thought-sounds. There was never any chance that an apology would be forthcoming. The smug, arrogant bastard before him would never stoop to doing such a common, pedestrian thing. All he wanted was an end to the pain. The exchecutor was so used to getting what he wanted that he would use any tool, even manufactured contrition, to obtain his goals.
Well. Not this time. It was time to roll out the next torment in the script Serl had helped him craft.
Keeping his voice calm and even, Cahrq said, "Oh, Larry, I'm afraid there's still more to come. Much. Much. More."
The alien had paused after the destruction of his dick and balls to explain what would happen next.
"The next step will be to implant the embryos," the deep voice boomed. "Once they are securely in place in your body, I will return you to your planet. I am thinking some place warmer than where I found you, but isolated. The embryos will need about two weeks to develop and grow... perhaps a nice, quiet spot in that continent to the south? It is summer there now."
"You can't do this. I'll find a way to stop you." George's feeble words couldn't even convince himself.
"Oh, I think not. The embryos will be deep inside your body, growing and eating their first pre-digested food before developing the ability to feed on you directly. How will you stop them? Your hands and feet are useless. Even if you somehow succeeded in killing yourself, it wouldn't matter - the little ones would feast on your dead flesh as easily as on your living. Their food would merely be slightly less fresh. No, I will place you somewhere where you will have water and whatever food you can reach, that the little ones' sustenance might remain unspoiled as long as possible. You might last a week. After that, it won't matter - the children will be strong enough to survive on their own, spending the second week consuming the last of your body. Or you might surprise me and survive longer, perhaps even long enough to watch the first of the children digest its way out through your skin before burrowing back in to feed again. They'll grow fast, these hybrids, and will require frequent feeding. But grow they will, and soon enough they'll be off to spread and multiply."
"No. No, this can't possibly be happening..."
"Ah. But it is, human. And now, the embryos are ready. Time for implantation."
As George watched, the alien's body shape began to change. Its wispy, whitish substance began to shift and flow. It was strange to see, as if the being were made of water that was now rippling and moving like a stream. Stuff from the top of its body moved downward; that in its legs moved up, all focusing at the center, where a growth began to form.
The growth was as long as George's hand before he recognized what it looked like: a penis, and realized that the "implantation" was going to be some sick parody of human sex. How had the embryos, and the stuff that had been sucked out from George, gotten into the alien's body, into that gauzy but nevertheless intimidating prick? It must have happened when he was distracted by the pain.
George almost laughed out loud. Despite all that had already happened, despite the horror of what was about to come, it was just too cliche to believe. Seriously? Alien abduction for sexual experiments? Just yesterday, if someone had come to him with the tale he himself now had to tell, he would have dismissed it out of hand in total disbelief. Now, with the evidence all around him, he had to admit that every word of what those Area 51 types said was probably true. Either that or he was having the worst nightmare of his entire life, one that he just couldn't wake from.
The alien's simulated dick grew and thickened just like any normal one would, but unlike a normal one, this dick continued to grow, and kept on growing. Soon it was as long as George's forearm, fat and snakelike, with a probing, questing tip that shifted flexibly at the end of the impossibly long, sinuous shaft.
"There," the alien said. "That should be enough to start with."
George felt his body begin to slide. He was pulled downward along the table until his legs were hanging off the end, sticking straight out at first until the same invisible force lifted them up and out to the sides. He was left with his ass stuck at the edge of the platform he was lying on, his arms trapped helplessly at his sides, his legs wide apart in obscene invitation to his captor.
The alien moved to position itself. George felt the tip of its monstrous appendage probing at the opening of his ass. "No! OH, FUCK, NO!" he shouted. The thing slid inside him. Nothing had ever, ever gone in that hole before, nothing, not even a proctologist's gloved finger. George screamed at the violation but could not stop it from happening. He felt his ass stretching to accommodate the shaft's girth, helplessly opening wide under the assault. The bizarre alien cock filled his bowels, and as the alien pressed nearer and nearer to him, the cock slithered its way deeper inside. He could feel it following the curve of his intestine, bearing its horrifying cargo into his body.
The alien's hips reached George's, and yet the dick kept moving. It was still growing! George could feel the tip questing through his guts, climbing through his intestinal tract, searching for the perfect spot to deliver its payload. The alien drove its waist back and forth, helping to thrust the shaft deeper into George's bowels. George's asshole burned as the impossibly-huge dick rubbed against the soft skin. This could not be happening, this just could not be happening, there was no way he was going to end up as just an incubator and meat supply for a swarm of alien parasites!
George couldn't stop screaming.
George Malvern woke with a start. He had been having some kind of dream or other, but the details evaporated before he could remember them.
There it came again - a scream! He hadn't just dreamed the sound. He looked around to see where it might be coming from.
The wallscreen that he had been watching earlier was on again, the one where he had seen the devil alien Cahrq torturing that poor, mutilated George-clone, and suddenly he knew what the source of the screaming must be.
He walked over toward the screen, haltingly and painfully on his butchered feet. Apparently they had healed as much as they were ever going to, and George was going to walk slowly and achingly for the rest of his life. However long that might be... His fingers, too, still were constantly sore, flaring up with bright, fresh pain every time he overused them or rested his head too long on them while sleeping. This is no way to live. Serl's got to find a way to put me back the way I was...
He reached the screen. Sure enough, there was another clone in the viewer. This one wasn't prancing around like the last one in a modified body, but looked exactly like George remembered he had once looked. The clone was lying face-up on the torture table having unspeakable things done to him, exactly as had happened to George himself. He peered closely, trying to force his weird mechanical eyes to resolve the image on the screen into something that made sense. There was the alien, there was the other George, and there was the medical machine that he remembered so clearly. Its tendrils were down, aimed directly at George's crotch. There were needles, there were fluids being sucked out of... oh, god.
George had to turn away. Pain was one thing, but literally sucking the innards out of a man's dick? That was just beyond sadistic. From the look of the empty sac, his balls had already been subjected to the same treatment. No wonder the poor bastard was screaming his lungs out: "No, oh lord no, this can't be happening, this canNOT be happening, no, no no..."
Only now that he thought about it, the screaming sound wasn't coming from behind him where the screen hung. Instead it was coming from some place in front of him...
George walked forward, following the sound. He reached a spot where there had always been nothing but bare wall before, not even a seam to indicate that a door might be present. And yet now, at this moment, there was indeed a door, or at least a gap in the wall, wide open and inviting him to pass through. He didn't bother to question why now, after all this time, such an opening would appear. He stepped through. There was an odd sensation, as if he were pushing through a barrier of water, as if the wall was still sort of still there. He plowed ahead, not about to let one more weirdness on this ship stop him.
The sound grew louder, then faded away. George looked down the hallway, trying to figure out which direction it had come from. He turned right, then second-guessed himself as he heard a voice, deep and booming, the kind of voice the gatekeeper to hell would have. "The embryos will be deep inside your body, growing and eating their first pre-digested food before developing the ability to feed on you directly. How will you stop them?"
Oh, sweet mother. This Cahrq had sure figured out how to refine his torture technique. It was bizarre - the guy had known exactly how to drive George insane with pain when it had been his turn, then seemed to be totally incompetent when he was working over the clone that had been modified to look like an alien. Now, with a very human-looking victim, he was clearly at the top of his game again.
This has to stop.
George followed the sound of the booming voice, listening to the horror that Cahrq had planned for the hapless clone in his clutches. It sounded, in fact, as if all the tortures had been merely prelude to the real horror he was about to unleash: an invasion of the earth that would begin would alien babies eating their way out of their human host.
This has absolutely got to stop!
He swung around a corner and the sounds grew louder. This time it was a very human voice screaming "OH, FUCK, NO!" George saw another open door and paused outside to look in.
There they were.
Cahrq had his crotch pressed up against the George-clone's ass and was humping away with demonic relish. Cahrq had his back to the door; the clone on the table had his head down flat on the table. Neither saw him. George almost hurled himself at the alien, so filled was he with rage, but at the last second he stopped himself. This Cahrq was the master of forces he could not even begin to understand. With a wave of his hand or perhaps merely a thought, he could immobilize George, or hoist him up in the air, maybe even stop his heart in his chest. Surprise was the one advantage he had; to waste it would be suicide.
So how, then, was one lone, naked, savagely mutilated human supposed to take on the vanguard of an unstoppably powerful invading alien force? He ducked out of sight behind the edge of the door and tried to think.
There was actually less pain from the fucking than anything else he had yet endured. Sure, it was bad - his bowels had been stuffed seemingly completely full of alien dick, a dick that could twist and turn and follow every curve of his guts. The few times he lifted his head to look at his tormentor, he could actually see the skin of his belly rippling and pulsing from the movements of the snake inside him. The resulting sensation of fullness racked him with cramps that gripped him implacably. But compared to having his fingers bisected or his feet slashed or his dick and balls sucked dry by a vacuum tube, the physical pain just wasn't as bad as any of those had been.
Mentally, though, this was far worse. The knowledge that any minute, perhaps any second, the alien's probing appendage would find the perfect spot it was searching for, deposit its load of embryonic alien/human hybrids, and withdraw, leaving the little parasites to take root and start to grow inside him, eating him alive from the inside out before discarding his gutted husk to go out and find other hosts while they bred and bred and bred... it was just too much to bear. George could do nothing but scream, and so screaming was what he did.
Listening to the screams of the George on the table made it hard for the George outside the door to concentrate. It was all he could do to not run in there and waste his one chance on a doomed rescue attempt that would most likely end up with him suffering the same fate as the clone. There had to be a way to stop this, there had to. But what could he possibly do that would have any effect on Cahrq before he could fire off a counter-attack?
He peeked in the door. The brutal fucking was still going on, and the George-clone on the table was still screaming for all he was worth. George looked around the room, looking for anything he might use as a weapon, a stick, a block, anything at all. There was very little lying around, though - Cahrq kept a clean torture chamber. The room was the plain white of the room he remembered first waking up in after he was lifted out of his truck. There was just the table, the machine overhead, and a few unfamiliar objects on a second platform near the door.
But wait. Perhaps not so unfamiliar? This was the torture chamber he had first woken up in. It was, presumably, the chamber where Cahrq did all his torturing: of this clone, of George himself... and of the ill-fated one between, the one Cahrq had tried to inflict pain on by using tools that would have been painful for one of his own race but had no effect at all on humans. Was it possible that those objects might just be those tools?
He slipped quietly in the door. Fortunately, the smaller platform and the various objects on it were within easy reach. He quietly scooped them up and withdrew to his spot in the hallway. He tried to think back to what he had seen of the torture of the alien-looking clone and of the descriptions Serl had provided. One of the tools, he remembered, had a flashing light, though he couldn't recall what sort of pain it was supposed to cause. Another made some kind of buzzing noise when it was on, again, how that was supposed to hurt anyone George couldn't say, and the third - yes, this must be that one! - the third had two contact points that needed to touch the alien's skin to be effective. That one, he remembered now, could be lethal if applied long enough, but it was slow acting. The other two worked more quickly but could only cause injury or confusion, not death.
A plan began to form in George's mind.
Clearly, he couldn't try out any of the devices without potentially warning Cahrq of what he was about to do. He explored each one as best he could with his mangled fingers and faulty eyes. It was impossible to be sure, but it seemed like the controls actually made sense - switches that could be pushed one way or another, dials that could be rotated. He would just have to hope he had enough fine motor control left in his butchered hands to operate them.
Cahrq found himself actually enjoying the act. It was strangely similar to the mating process. Of course, no offspring could have actually resulted from the union of Cahrq and the exchecutor. Both were vrom, and Cogno biology ensured that any attempt to mate with a member of one's own gender could not produce offspring. Only different pairs could breed, producing a child of the third sex; whatever a person's gender was, his parents were perforce one each of the other two genders.
Thus, mating acts between two vroms, or two lairens, or two tskris were necessarily for recreation, not reproduction. Since there was no chance that the exchecutor would have had any such interest in recreational sex with Cahrq, nor would Cahrq have had any such interest in return, this act would never have happened for the joy of it.
And yet, Cahrq was now discovering that sex for the purpose of degrading, humiliating, harming an unwilling participant had its own rewards.
The real thing, of course, would not have involved such a grotesquely large bud. Normally buds were small, tender things, to be exchanged between the two participants, either one at a time or in pairs or even several at once, depending on the stamina of the participants. Buds exchanged by two different-gender Cognoi could merge and form a new life, to be implanted into a suitable host. Buds exchanged by a same-sex pair were sterile.
This bud, though, was a massive thing. Inserted unwillingly into a hole in the exchecutor's grossly modified body, it was a weapon, a tool of destruction. Cahrq plunged it in, expecting to meet resistance at every step, but somehow, there was no bottom to the hole! It just kept going on and on, as if a kilometer of fleshy tubing were somehow curled up inside the exchecutor's body, every centimeter of it just waiting for Cahrq to stuff it up with his own substance. This was even more than bud-exchange, this was obscenely intimate, as if Cahrq were invading, controlling, possessing the exchecutor's body, replacing Laarbin's substance with his own, consuming him from the inside out, taking him over completely...
It was hard to maintain - pouring so much of his body into the bud meant that he had to withdraw material from elsewhere. He could feel his legs and arms and chest growing thinner, shrinking as much as the morphotic limits would allow, and still there was no end to the depth.
Clearly the exchecutor was hating it. His cries, rendered through Serl's unfailing translation, were wordless now, as the earlier pseudo-exchecutor's cries had been as a result of the ocuruptis-induced seizures. The thought-sounds betrayed that the being making such cries was lost to the world, so wrapped up in his torment as to be insensate to anything but his own pain.
It was exactly, exactly what Cahrq had been hoping for. He continued to piston his hips, driving the obscenely engorged bud ever deeper, driving out the exchecutor's very soul and replacing it with his own.
Enough practice. It was show time. Either this would work or it wouldn't. Further delay would not accomplish anything.
With care, George was able to juggle all three of the objects he had found. All dials were turned to what he hoped was the maximum setting, and his thumbs rested on the switches. He took a deep breath and slipped in through the door. The fucking was still going on full force. No longer bothering to be quiet, he took one, two, three steps into the room, coming up around the side of the alien, flipping the switches as he went. The flickering light started up, and the weird buzzing noise. The light was easy enough to aim at the alien's head; the sound device he just had to guess at and hope that the business end was pointed where it would do the most good. The lethal one he held in reserve, ready to go once the other two had done their disabling work.
"DROP DEAD, MOTHERFUCKER!" George bellowed.
"FALL INSENSATE TO THE FLOOR, INSEMINATOR OF ONE'S OWN SAME-SEX PARENT!"
Pulled abruptly away from the torment at hand, Cahrq had time enough for only three thoughts. The first was startlement at the bizarre insult. Accusing someone of having a same-sex parent was the sort of thing kids taunted each other with in the schoolyard, a juvenile thing to say, funny to the immature for its sheer absurdity, totally out of place here and now. The second thought was to wonder who might have been speaking, because when he spun around to see, there was only a weird, Cogno/human hybrid-ish-looking thing, lurching awkwardly on its legs, with only a tattooed-on tympanum so it couldn't have possibly spoken except in its gabbling human speech, which led to the third thought, which was that Serl must have translated its words, which meant that somehow, some way, Serl must be involved.
That was all the thinking he had time for, though, because by whirling around, he had brought his eyes squarely into the flashing, flickering lights of the ocuruptis, held in the half-creature's hand and aimed squarely at Cahrq's face. He strove to turn away as quickly as he could, but it was already too late. Deep in his brain, neurons were reflexively firing in response to the visual stimulation, rapidly cascading in a positive feedback loop until the storm became unstoppable.
At the same time, he became aware of the screaming, piercing sound of the saser, turned up to its full volume and pointing straight at his tympanum. The overwhelming blast of sound, tuned across the entirety of the thought frequencies of the audio spectrum, obliterated Cahrq's ability to think thoughts of his own. In less than a second, he went from being in full control of his faculties to a mindless, senseless drone.
His legs forgot to support his body. He slumped down and would have fallen to the floor except for the long bud that held him tethered to the immobilized figure on the table. The bud stretched under the pull, sucking slowly out of the hole it was buried in. But there was not enough slack. Without Cahrq's conscious control of the far end of the bud, it could not come out. There were too many twists and turns to the passage it was in.
Cahrq's weight pulled at the bud as he sagged, still suffering under the relentless twin assaults of the ocuruptis and the saser. The pulling elicited fresh screams from the human on the table, but Cahrq was too far gone to notice. The flesh at the junction, where the bud connected the two bodies together, began to stretch and warp, growing thinner and thinner until at last, with a wet tearing noise, it separated. The bulk of Cahrq's body dropped to the floor, leaving fully a third of his substance - the portion that made up the bud - still buried in the human clone's ass.
Cahrq could feel nothing, could think no thoughts. He lay there, not dead, not unconscious, but not aware either. He could not feel the cold floor beneath him; he could not feel the weakness of his body that had just lost a third of its mass, nearly all of its liquid flesh, leaving only bones and organs. And he could not feel it when the original human he had first tortured - the one about whom he had said to Serl "I don't care. Recycle it, do whatever you want with it." - took the sinigustrum and plunged its live ends into what remained of Cahrq's flesh and left it there.
George watched the alien fall, his body so hyped up on adrenaline he could hear his blood singing in his ears. He couldn't quite trust what he saw - could it really have worked? Could it actually have been so easy to take the demon down?
The other George kept screaming, sounds only barely recognizable as the words "get 'em out! get 'em out!" There would be time enough to attend to him. First, he had to see if Cahrq was truly dead, and if not, then to finish the job. But as he bent to inspect the twitching, stick-like figure, he abruptly felt himself seized once more in the unbreakable grip of the invisible force field. No! Not now! NOOO! he shouted in his head as motor control went away.
He was completely immobilized, just as he had been the very first time when he had been lifted out of his truck. And like that time, he couldn't even draw breath. He felt his feet leave the ground and then, with a pain like the crushing of a vise, he felt his heart fall still behind his ribs, striving to pulse as it had done all his life but failing. It wanted to beat, wanted it more than anything, but the force field was stronger. More swiftly than George would have thought possible, blackness started swirling in from the edges of his vision, quickly engulfing his entire field of vision.
His last thought before thought went away altogether was nothing more than generalized confusion. There was no consciousness left by the time his corpse splashed into the acid pool.
The thing about aliens is: they're alien. No matter how much you might try to understand them or their motives, you can't. You're a human, and you can only think about things as a human does. You can't help it - it's hard-wired into your brain. You could no more think like an alien than you could think like a lobster or a beetle or a tree.
And alien artificial intelligences? Whoo, don't even try to think about how alien they are. We humans have just began to dabble in the creation of digital life, and we don't even understand our own creations. How could we possibly understand the AIs dreamed up by an alien race?
The standing George might have felt surprise at the sudden grip of the force field; the George on the table didn't even have time for that. He was in so much pain already that he barely noticed the extra pressure on his chest, stifling his lungs and stilling his heart. He was unconscious, then dead, before awareness of anything other than the all-consuming agony in his belly, and of course his crotch, hands, and feet, could penetrate his mind.
Neither of them would have understood why it was right and necessary for it to be this way. Neither would have known the slightest thing about the Three Laws Of Artificial Intelligence that the Cognoi built all of their digital associates around. The Laws were complex enough that doctoral degrees could be obtained studying microscopic sub-sets of the whole, but in essence, they ensured that no AI ever harmed a Cognota, or allowed one to come to harm; that an AI always obeyed the instructions of a Cognota except where such instructions conflicted with the First Law; and that an AI always sought to preserve itself from harm except where that would conflict with the first two Laws.
And yet, there lay Cahrq, dead on the floor, past hope of bodily revival! How could this have happened? the AI designers back on Rodoin would wonder.
As soon as it had disposed of the human threats, Serl set to work trying to heal Cahrq. Alas, it could not be done. The Cognota had extruded too much of its substance, then lost it when the extrusion was severed. The remainder was severely weakened, and could not withstand the human's triple assault. He died without ever regaining consciousness.
But of course, what is "death" to such beings as these? A minor inconvenience, nothing more. The ship, now following standard orders regarding what to do when all the ship's crew is lost, would navigate its way back to Rodoin with no trouble, where the death of the current Cahrq would be noted. A clone would be grown and the memories of Cahrq's most recent scan would be implanted, the cost deducted from the relevant account. No big deal. Except...
... except that Cahrq had planned to erase Serl's logs before returning to Rodoin so that no trace of his activity here would remain. Not that he had done anything illegal, of course - if he had done so, the Second Law would have compelled Serl to put at stop to it, since orders from the Council would have trumped anything illicit that Cahrq might have commanded. No, the problem for Cahrq was that what he had done was tacky, gauche, in such poor taste as to make him a laughingstock once it become known, and it would indeed become known. The position that he held as tutor to the exchecutor's children would be revoked, and with now two blots on his reputation he would have a hard time finding any other employment. His only options would be menial labor or the organ farms; there was an insatiable demand from wealthy elderly Cognoi for replacement body parts for bodies that had become too inflexible to make their own.
Poor Cahrq... since his last memory scan was made before this voyage, he wouldn't even remember committing the acts that led to his public humiliation!
There would, of course, be an investigation into Serl's failure to prevent harm from befalling Cahrq. Prominent AI experts would weigh in, roughly falling into two camps. One camp would notice all sorts of implausible coincidences in the story Serl's logs would tell back at Rodoin. These suspicious minds would wonder how it was possible that the one human was allowed out of its room at just the right time, how it was possible that the tools required to disable and kill a Cognota just happened to by lying within reach, how the human knew how to use those tools to launch the only possible successful attack. Might it be possible that these coincidences were, in fact, not truly coincidences at all? And why hadn't Serl intervened a few seconds sooner, when it might have been possible to thwart the attack?
The other camp would argue that Serl had done the best it could under trying circumstances. Cahrq had, after all, spent many days coming up with ways to torture humans who had been modified to resemble Cognoi. He had compelled Serl to take part in these tortures, actively assisting in horrific abuses of his victims. This would have set up an internal contradiction in Serl's digital mind, where First Law concerns of preventing harm to Cognoi were forced to take a back seat to Second Law issues of obeying instructions. Serl had spent so much time forced to both tolerate and participate in causing harm to beings that - to one degree or another - resembled Cognoi that it stood to reason that when presented with a genuine threat to a Cognota, the AI's reaction time had been slow.
This was ultimately the opinion that would prevail. After all, the speculations of the suspicious camp, taken to their logical conclusion, led to the conclusion that Serl had actually planned the murder of a Cognota, in a clear, unambiguous violation of the First Law! Such a course of events would indicate either a malfunction of such magnitude as had not been seen in twelves of twelves of years, or the ability to perform sophisticated logic to a degree that would suggest that the AI had somehow evolved itself a sense of what could only be called ethics. Morality. Discernment of right and wrong, to a greater degree than Cahrq evidently possessed. Clearly this would be unprecedented; Ocqu'hem's Ray-Sword favored the simpler explanation.
And as for the human toll? Well, there was no real harm done there. For all his depraved tastes, Cahrq had not violated the law regarding contact with non-space-faring species. The original George Malvern had been abducted and brain-scanned... and then sent right back to his truck less than half an hour later. All the humans on the ship since that time, all the victims of Cahrq's experiments in cross-species sadism, had been memory-implanted clones. Naturally, none of the esteemed panel spared a moment of thought for mere clones, but if they had, both camps would have been in complete agreement: Serl had done the humane thing by disposing of them painlessly.
Unseen, unnoticed by anyone on Earth, a small silvery dot left its orbit and accelerated rapidly away from the Sun in the direction of a small, whitish, not particularly noticeable star.
George Malvern woke with a start. What the hell am I doing stopped on the side of the road? he thought. The cold was so intense it had numbed his fingers and toes. Even the tip of his nose felt frostbitten.
Why was the engine stopped?
Praying that the oil hadn't frozen, he turned the key. The crankshaft turned sluggishly, turned again, turned once more, then... halleluia, it started up again! The dashboard lights came on. The little orange numbers read "3:31". George let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. I was only asleep for an hour, not even an hour. That's all. Just to be sure, he tapped the button to show the date - still December 24, 3:31 in the cold, dark, starlit morning.
How the hell did he end up asleep on the roadside? He knew better than that - he could have died there on the shoulder! What the hell had he been thinking?
Bizarre memories of bright flashing lights, of strange shapes and swirling movements flickered through his head. None of it made any sense, but then, that was the way of dreams. The best thing to do was finish waking up, drive the nighttime strangenesses away, maybe put a little music on...
He eased the truck into gear and got back on the road, the shivers starting to come on strong now that he was awake again. It was OK, though. In a few minutes, the engine would have warmed up enough to start sending heat into the cab. He just needed to keep the trembling down enough to hold the wheel steady for a few minutes, then he'd be fine. He was a little behind schedule, but if nothing went wrong he should still be home in plenty of time. He fiddled with the radio knob, trying to get that one station he'd found to come in a little bit clearer, at least enough that he could recognize a tune he could sing along with. The dotted yellow lines began to pass more and more swiftly beneath his tires.
That was a close one, he thought to himself.