[Editor’s Note: Read the entire story from the beginning!]
Running through the framework that had finally manifested itself in Gerd’s back room was a network of the thinnest components that were linked together in chains. Once again, the reddish-brown sphere seemed to beckon. Based on nothing else but gut instinct, Tucky twisted the sphere’s top half a full three turns until the entire super structure glowed with a holographic depiction of a tight-fitting skin, built up from a mesh of impossibly dense microfibers. He cocked his head to one side.
“Now what?” he asked. “Where am I going to find that … that shell?”
Once again Olga’s voice broke in on his consciousness, sounding distant and strangely ethereal. Tucky turned his head to see her stand, or rather float over him.
“The ship will find what it needs,” she said. “It will construct its own skin from all available resources.”
Instantly, a small section of the rear half of the framework began to glow and a silver serving tray hanging on the opposite wall began to vaporize, its molecules streaming across the room to the exact spot on the framework that had begun glowing. Before long, the tray had vanished, its silver deposited precisely along one tightly-woven stretch of the structure. Out of the corner of his eye, Tucky saw two more sections of the framework begin to glow. First a glass vase and then the copper wire lying next to it, were also gradually vaporized and assimilated into the framework. Olga floated down to floor level and gave him a powerful shove toward the shop’s door.
“Get out!” she said.
“But I want to see,” said Tucky.
The lovely young woman fixed his eyes in a searing gaze, until he wondered if they would actually catch fire. She shoved him toward the door again, even harder than before.
“You didn’t hear me,” she said. “All available resources. That includes you.”
Tucky’s eyes opened wide, and he turned to rush out of the shop, but not before grabbing the tablet off the workbench.
“Leave that,” shouted Olga, “it’s of no use to you!”
Tucky ignored her, and ran out to the sidewalk, the tablet clenched in a white-knuckle grip.
“Drop it!” he heard Olga shout again, from the shop’s threshold.
“You don’t understand,” he shouted back. “If I lose this device, I’ll have no proof! Nothing to prove what I’ve accomplished.”
And in that moment, as he heard himself call the tablet a “device,” Inga’s words finally made sense. With astonishing speed, Olga ran up to him and tugged at the tablet with both hands.
“We can go anywhere together, my sweet baby,” she said. “Once the ship is complete, we can fly to the farthest reaches of the universe, but I need that to make a few minor adjustments before….”
Tucky’s torso shuddered as he felt her influence growing stronger. Even so, the sight of the alien ship assimilating material from Gerd’s shop at a faster and faster pace spurred him to action. In spite of his unmitigated lust for Olga, he growled fiercely, pushed her aside with all his strength and ran down the sidewalk toward the Ohio River. He stabbed at his Samsung Galaxy until he found one of Inga’s messages, then held the cracked screen up to his ear, as it replayed her voicemail. He hoped, the farther he got from Olga, that Inga’s voice would help him summon the will to…
“… smash it with a blunt object….” Inge’s voice rang out of his phone. “Smash it….”
Despite the intensity of Olga’s presence in his mind, which grew more irresistible by the second, he forced himself down the slope to the water, his eyes searching this way and that for a stone large enough to….
There! There! There!
He smashed the tablet into the side of a large metal oil drum, probably rolled there by a pack of bored teenagers looking for another pointless rite of passage. A rite of passage leading to this, he realized, as he stood there, a so-called adult, fleeing for his life from a woman who may or may not even exist.
Now as the tablet lay smashed, twisted and drained of power at his feet, he felt his mind clear for the first time since … since … he opened that first Kroger box back at Wrangel Repair & Thrift a week earlier. His jaw clenched, he stomped the tablet’s cracked fragments down into the mud, then shuffled as many dead leaves as he could find over their remains. His breath ragged, he gazed out over the river and tried to remember what he’d been thinking on Monday morning, before Drew Flaherty had inadvertently turned his life upside down. As soon as his breathing settled, he crept back to the sidewalk and peered along the street at Gerd’s shop.
Seconds later it was gone, imploded by Olga’s ship in its final phase of assimilation. What would the people of Carrollton say to that, he wondered? But as he made his way slowly along the sidewalk, he could see the destruction of Wrangel Repair & Thrift had gone unnoticed. There in its place stood the graceful outlines of the ship, gradually camouflaging itself until it was now a perfect replica of the shop it had just absorbed.
As he stared, slack-jawed, Tucky’s point-blank astonishment was interrupted by his Samsung’s ringtone. When he picked up, Inga Gestirn’s voice on the other end sounded calm and confident. As if from a distance, he heard himself answer.
“Yeah, ” he said, “Sure, I can meet you there.”
But the moment the call ended, his stomach clenched at the thought of returning to what used to be an ordinary store front. Would Olga be there, ready to cast him into a universe of unimaginable torment?
Yet the memory of Inga’s voice egged him on, soothing his frayed nerves, until he stood at the driver’s side of his slate blue Honda Civic. Though he dared not enter the shop, he had the distinct impression that Olga was gone. Dazed, he stared transfixed at his car through normal eyes, for the first time in a week — unabashedly grateful for the buoyant, fluffy clouds reflected in its windshield.
A few hours later, Tucky winced as he squeezed himself out of the Civic, his back muscles complaining from his long hours hunched over the tablet. Out in the cool autumn air at twilight, however, the pain began to fade. The rustling of dry leaves to his left, made him turn his head. He saw Inga Gestirn leaning casually against a blue Toyota Prius, her frail body tucked into a wrinkled, fleece-lined safari jacket, and a pair of worn khakis, tucked incongruously into a pair of snake-skin cowboy boots. From her broad leather belt dangled two narrow LED flashlights.
Never big on social skills, Tucky wasted no time in greetings or a show of gratitude.
“Why here?” he asked.
Without saying a word, Inga took him by the hand and led him to the nearby opening of a deserted grotto. She stopped short and searched his eyes for understanding.
“Before we go any farther,” she said, “I have to apologize. I should have warned you.”
Tucky looked away.
“You tried,” he said. “I was just too far gone.”
Inga hung her head, then looked up at him, shading her eyes against the sunset at his back.
“The device,” she said. “You have no idea the trouble you’ve caused.”
Tucky felt a lump in his throat as he followed her into the mouth of the nearest cave.
“Didn’t mean to,” he said. “Never got so interested in anything before. Most things kinda bore me. Probably why I’ve never amounted to much.”
The elderly woman sat herself down on one of the smoother boulders that lay near the cave opening.
“Listen to me,” she said softly, “The animus can only build on what it finds in its victim. Somewhere in there is a brilliant engineer.”
She stood up and handed him one of the two LED flashlights clipped to her belt and pushed him gently into the cave. Inside, the shimmering effect of its phosphorescent walls almost made him lose his balance. Inga led him slowly down a long, narrow passageway, then into a much larger chamber, whose ceiling arched up nearly twenty-five feet. Once his eyes adjusted to the chamber, his attention was riveted on the gracefully curving rock formation just off to his right.
“Reveal,” said Inga.
Tucky’s eyes widened as the rock formation blurred and rearranged itself into a perfect likeness of the ship he had inadvertently built with Olga.
“This is the original of the one the animus helped you build out of my poor Olga’s spare parts,” said Inga, wistfully.
“You knew her?” asked Tucky.
“She was my daughter. And my prisoner,” said Inga. “Except I didn’t have the heart to strand her here with that thing. Come on, I’ll show you what you built.”
As Inga waved her other hand over a contact in the side of her ship, a curved panel opened, revealing an interior jammed with instrumentation and a short row of passenger seats. As they stepped inside, a glow of milky white light suffused the ship’s cabin. Tucky stared, open mouthed while Inga described her original mission: To deliver a deadly prisoner into exile, her only child, who had become the victim of a parasitical mentality.
“What you experienced was only Stage One,” she explained. “If you’d followed the creature into space, it would have merged with you completely.”
Once they realized the imminent danger posed by the animus, Inga’s team had captured Olga. Surgeons acted quickly, limiting the parasite’s access to key areas of Olga’s brain. The operation, they reasoned, would leave the young woman slow-witted, but functional enough for life on a simpler world. Inga was to transport her to Earth and leave her to her fate, with the animus trapped in a mind it could no longer control. To disguise Inge and her daughter as human, they both received multiple transgenomic therapies
“But the plan didn’t work,” said Tucky softly.
“We underestimated the animus,” said Inga. “While it couldn’t operate with complete freedom, it persisted, and eventually led Olga to discover where I’d hidden my ship. Before I realized what had happened, the animus also forced Olga to steal a large portion of my spare parts supply. When my Olga retrieved the quantum integration system, the animus saw its chance.”
“It hid inside … the device … as Olga,” said Tucky.
“You’re referring to a mentallic persona the animus must have adopted,” said Inga. “She was all in your head.”
Tucky’s throat tightened.
“And the … the real Olga?” he asked
“Soon after we arrived, I took a job at the University,” said Inge. “Falsifying the necessary documentation was nothing to my ship’s AI. I purchased a home in Louisville and enabled my prisoner to lead a more or less normal human life, until the strain of harboring the animus killed her.”
“She even married Drew Flaherty,” said Tucky.
Inga’s anguished look surprised him.
“I arranged that,” said the elderly woman. “It was a mistake. With Olga out of my sight, the animus was free to spring into action. It made Olga steal my equipment and through her, it gradually uploaded itself to the tablet device. At the time, though, I thought marriage might help quiet my daughter’s restless spirit. You see, it was right after … after the incident.”
Olga, just out of her teens, was mentally unstable and even more unfamiliar with human customs than she was with her new human body. Small wonder if, late at night, she sneaked out of the house as often as possible to “socialize” — with predictable results. Inga was indignant.
“Some idiot got her pregnant,” she said, “as if a woman like that could have ever cared for a child. Besides, such a child would be unable to function well, with a mind attuned to an utterly different environment.”
Tucky ran his hands through his bright red hair, now streaked with dirt and grease from a week of neglect.
“Did the child live?” he asked
“He did,” said Inga. “And that’s when I did a terrible thing.”
Because she feared that the parasitical intellect would prey on the half-breed child and escape back into the larger universe, Inga gathered up the boy in a towel, stuffed him in a gym bag and dropped him miles away in a decrepit gas station bathroom.
“I was too ashamed to tell you when I should have,” said Inga.
Her eyes misted over. Exhausted, the two of them sat in the silence of the night, ignoring the evening chill in the swirl of emotion and memory that engulfed them.
“Think you’ll go home again,” asked Tucky, “I mean, back to your … your planet, now that the animus is dead?”
“I infected your planet with a murderous parasite,” said Inga. “The least I can do is stick around to deal with the consequences.”
“But if it’s…. ” said Tucky.
“Multi-dimensional creatures don’t die so easily,” rasped the disguised alien. “You’ve just cut off the part that protruded into this universe. Now that I’ve effectively given its central nervous system your spatio-temporal coordinates, it could come back at any time.”
“How can you fight a thing like that all on your own?” asked Tucky.
“I was hoping,” said Inga, “for some help from my grandson.”
“Really?” asked Tucky. “After all the … the trouble?”
Inga reached up and put a hand on his right shoulder.
“Right now,” she said. “You’re the only one on this world I can talk to about this menace. And you’ve even learned how to read your mother tongue, haven’t you?”
“Guess so.” said Tucky. “Kinda think there’s no going back from that.”
“Tell me honestly,” said Inga. “Do you really want to go back?”
“Maybe not,” said Tucky. “Except for Carla. Loved that girl.”
Inga put her hand on his cheek.
“I can’t help you with that,” she said. “But come on, get in the ship. If we’re going to defeat the animus, we need a better base of operation.”
“Louisville?” asked Tucky.
“Andromeda,” said Inga. “And that’s just for starters.”
His heart racing, Tucky followed her into the ship, whose main hatch she’d opened with a wave of her hand. Moments later, she’d strapped him into one of the three acceleration chairs that dominated the ship’s main chamber. Then, fists clenched, he watched as she donned a blue visor and entered a series of commands into the shimmering console before them.
At once, the ship’s hatch closed and, with a slight nudge from its inertial dampeners, it rose slightly above the floor of the cave and zoomed up and out through the grotto’s large top vent. Soon they were streaking across the sky and up into the upper atmosphere.
“Won’t the, like, the Air Force spot us?” asked Tucky.
“Oh, my dear boy,” said Inga, “I engaged the ship’s cloaking device the moment we strapped in. Human tech doesn’t stand a chance against it.”
Tucky sighed, as relief washed over his tattered consciousness.
“Guess you’re not human, then,” he said. “And me, I’m only half human. So … sorry for asking … but what do you really look like?”
“There’s time for that later, Dear,” she said. “I’ll get our genomes restored. In your case, it will be slightly more complicated, but still necessary. It’s the only way you’ll be able to fit in with the others.”
“Sounds weird,” said Tucky, “but also kinda nice.”
“Well, to be honest, ‘nice’ isn’t how I’d describe it,” said Inga. “The process will be somewhat painful.”
“Maybe,” said Tucky. “But it sure would feel good to fit in for a change.”
Inga’s lander banked up and left, relative to Earth, and Tucky had his first glimpse of an interstellar transport. In the pale light of the moon, still visible from that distance, the compact ship bristled with sensors, transmitters and a broad, parabolic scoop. It was all the proof he needed of what he “could be.”
Mark Laporta is the author of Probability Shadow and Entropy Refraction, the first two novels in the science fiction series, Against the Glare of Darkness, which are available at a bookstore near you, on Amazon and at Barnes & Noble. He is also the author of Orbitals: Journeys to Future Worlds, a collection of short science fiction, which is available as an ebook.
Image design by Steven S. Drachman, from a photo by Michael Dziedzic / Unsplash