For some reason later on, I was unable to remain asleep, probably out of paranoia - I can't exactly remember. Whatever it was, it was quickly forgotten when I woke up to a harsh light. Something was certainly off.
It was a relatively dark room, the only sources of light coming from the dome structure up top and the strings of blue lights that lined the wall panels. I quickly found out that I was restrained, my arms spread-eagle and legs pinned, yet it didn't feel like anything solid was pressing against my backside. As it turned out, there was indeed nothing but air between my body and the floor.
Merely adding to the unnerving environment in that room was a monotonous, genderless voice that came out of no particular location in the room - more like over a PA system without the static distortion. "Remain calm."
As if I could do anything but remain calm, my adrenaline was running and I was looking around frantically. There was no way I wanted to be a victim of an alien abduction; I've seen far too many movies and played too many games to know what's likely going to happen.
I then looked up, noticing a dark shadow against the light coming closer. This is not good...
The shadowed object revealed to be a small floating disk, perhaps no larger than a baseball hat, with three tube-like arms dangling underneath, one ending in a syringe hooked up to a transparent container of some kind containing some blue liquid.
The immediate feeling of being punctured with a needle quickly drew my attention towards the automated syringe that was sunk into a vein on the inside of my right elbow. A faint humming sound, which I presume was from some sort of continuous pump, began cycling the liquid into the main chamber of the syringe before being injected into my bloodstream. The needle pulled back before the entry hole was cauterized by a laser, and then the Imperial probe droid lookalike drifted back up to the hidden spot behind the dome where it came from.
The burn stung - no doubt about it - but it was nothing; what I felt a little while afterwards was that same scorching sensation throughout my entire body. I couldn't see a thing, there was nothing I could do to make the pain go away, and to top it all off, for the better of what felt like eternity, I was unintelligible and incoherent. This is not even considering something in my mind that wanted out. Something ancient and predatory.
When I finally came to my senses, the pain having died down as quickly as it came, I found myself lying on the floor. In the whole confusion, I never realized that the restraints had released me and whatever force was keeping me floating had vanished.
The first thing I noticed were not the forming bruises from me hitting the floor - the bruises that lacked any form of sensitivity somehow - but a discomfort that kind of crept across my torso, starting with my chest. It felt a bit like a mild itch. Breathing heavily, reached in underneath my shirt to see what was causing it, only to feel something soft. I lifted the front of the collar to see what the hell was going on, and I was shocked. Was my hair turning into feathers? This can't be... the sudden tearing of fabric coming from my rear let loose what quickly became a four-foot tail with some dagger-stripe plumage. This has got to be a really bad dream if I'm turning into a dinosaur...
A mixture of different feathers, producing the same distinctive pattern, had already crept down my still-human arms. Let me guess... I'm going to have my fingernails replaced by claws soon. I thought a little too soon, once again hearing the ripping of fabric from below. This time, it was my socks - nice, four-inch sickle claws in place of my innermost toes had pierced through the cotton and gingerly curved back in a retracted position, further turning my socks into little more than tubes of fabric. Like my arms, my legs remained like those of your typical human being, which in all honesty was starting to creep me out by that point.
The claws that followed the last joints in my fingers made for an interesting set of dexterous talons, but by then, it felt like my face was being pushed out from the rest of my skull, jaw included. It didn't take long, roughly ten seconds or so, before what had been my face for the past nearly-17 years became the snout of a small carnivorous dinosaur. The shape of it, long and low with a bit of an upwards curve, even underneath the plumage, was unmistakeable - Velociraptor mongoliensis.
Getting up was a little more difficult than what it had usually been. Then again, falling flat on your back is not exactly fun, and I'm not getting started with my tail which forced me to roll to one side before I could attempt anything. And no shit did the shock set in when all was said and done, all hyped up on adrenaline and all. "What the bloody hell just happened?" As soon as the words left my mouth, I was even more stunned. Okay, so I'm still able to talk somehow. Great...
I didn't expect to get a response to my rhetorical question, least of all from creepy PA voice again who was by then starting to remind me of a certain AI character from an old movie. "Interesting... This was not simulated."
"Explain." My spine tingled along its length as I spoke. Even down the length of my tail, which subconsciously flexed... into a vertical curve? This had to be a joke - I shouldn't have been able to do that naturally without broken tail bones.
"This experiment was designed to test a physical means by which to prolong life through nanotechnology."
Great... technobabble on immortality... "How does achieving immortality relate to turning me into something that's been extinct for 65 million years?" It really didn't make any sense to me.
"As your species has already found proof of, there is no such thing as a perfect universe. Errors in matter programming, or misuse of tools, can lead to... unforeseen consequences."
Please tell me that's not G-Man talking through a computerized speech program... "As is becoming too complacent with an increasingly obsolete, yet potentially destructive, piece of technology."
"You have learned well from your species' past mistake."
"And there will be many more to come, I'm sure. I probably shouldn't even ask how you know all of this. Or even how you can talk to me."
"We are not able to articulate your languages. Our anatomy does not allow it." Okay, so that voice could also merely be a synthesized translator. Perfect. Does the alien behind it like cat food as well? Or cats, for that matter?
Silly thoughts aside, I kept a straight face during the exchange. "Why us?"
"Your species is genetically diverse. There are many variables that can be tested."
Spoken like a true Mordin Solus. Shame I was the test subject. "How much have I been changed because of this?"
"Preliminary and secondary DNA scans confirm no mutation. Your appearance is superficial."
"So why select a human to experiment on if there's no change in our DNA?"
"As we said, multiple variables. In addition, your species' culture appears to be fascinated by the idea of abduction."
I couldn't help but chuckle. "You're picking up old radio signals from seventy years back. That kind of mentality is now only seen in the mentally insane."
"We see. We did pick up a weak radio transmission that detailed a failed invasion of your world and sought it was best to avoid direct contact in such a manner." Oh wow, I didn't expect that supposed Halloween hoax on the radio be that big of a deterrent, probably with a bigger reaction than what most of us gave when it was broadcast. They probably never got to hear the disclaimer at the end.
I held back from laughing to keep that facade up and felt a change of topic was needed. "I can't be the only test subject, am I?"
"There are twelve members of your species from your geographical area. You and one female are the controls to this experiment."
"Show me." That tingling sensation came back.
A holographic screen flashed to life on the far end of the room, well-illuminated in contrast to the dark wall in behind. It was a similar room to the one I was confined in, the only difference being a Caucasian female with dark brown hair, in a light t-shirt and pyjama bottoms, instead. Looking closer, my jaw dropped. "Mad?"
"I assume you know this individual."
"Is this live?"
"This was concurrent with your injection."
I ignored the voice, my eyes still glued to the screen watching that needle go into her arm. If she was barely awake then, she was screaming... no, it was harsher than a scream. It wasn't like anything I've heard before but somehow I could recognize it - even understand. I continued to watch after she had finished, which the voice gladly confirmed to be twenty seconds after injection, during which she had dropped to the floor.
From there, Mad pushed herself up, quickly feeling across her chest. Of course, I didn't expect her to take off her t-shirt to see what was wrong, inverting the article of clothing while doing so, but I quickly saw a lining of feathers spreading underneath her clothing, and did it ever spread fast. This time, I saw the layer of feathers wrap around her backside, revealing a faded dagger-stripe pattern. And this is before she even saw anything.
"No fucking way..."
I could barely handle watching what was happening to Madelena. At first she was speechless, but once that tail tore out of her pyjamas she was freaking out, trying to get away from it. Cue the claws and her snout, and she was whimpering in the corner.
Immediately after the video ended, I could hear Mad's voice echoing. "Eric..." It didn't sound like it was on the PA system, and she was definitely not in my cell of a room.
She responded, "Where are you?"
Then it finally clicked in: she's reading my mind.
Still unsure on how she was doing this, I continued speaking out loud. "I'm in a similar room to yours, and I just watched the whole thing."
"Just a sec. HAL, you mind showing her what happened in this room?"
The screen flashed to Madelena getting off the floor. She appeared to be looking into whatever was watching her, but that may have been the screen in that direction.
The sequence played for about a minute, her expression going from wide-eyed to a jaw drop, before she finally responded. "Oh my god... Eric?"
I nodded, looking down. Aren't we a couple of ugly birds...
She tilted her head with the closest thing I could see to a smile. Once again, her voice rang out in my ears with that echo again. "You look kind of hot now, actually." She never moved her jaw once and her blue eyes, the colouring of their irises extended over the rest of the visible eye, gave off a slight glow.
If I saw her like this before I would have probably ran for the hills, but something was turning me on. She was... "Wait, we weren't just thinking that, were we?" Either this was really good for our relationship or really bad for our sanity - I really hoped it was just the former.
"We were." She grazed her hair with her claws... Did I just recognize a blush on her face? Oh man, whatever we were injected with was also tampering with our heads. "Let's be thankful we're in separate rooms."
HAL, as I had previously dubbed, then interrupted. "We apologize, but we do not know what you are discussing with this individual."
"One of us is telepathic."
"The ability to communicate by thinking."
"We have detected electromagnetic anomalies around both you and this female since she has finished her change. This may be a possible explanation."
Electromagnetic anomalies, huh? A better explanation than magic I guess. "Thanks for the update." I then turned back to face the screen. "Mad. Who's all here? HAL's pretty much told me that there's twelve of us."
"Give me a minute..." Watching her touch where her temple would have been as a human almost seemed cliché as far as psychic abilities go, but there may have been a reason, considering her eyes were much brighter than while she was talking telepathically and her hand was glowing. It didn't take long before the eyes and her hand stopped glowing shortly after she started. "Eric, you're not going to believe this."
"It's everyone in our band of friends... Wait, Dan's here."
You've got to be kidding me... "Show us everything, HAL. We have to see this."
The holographic screen split into three columns with the center column containing Madelena's image, the columns on each side further split into five rows. It was the exact same layout of room in each, but with a different person undergoing the exact same painful sequence that Mad and I went through up to checking under the shirt. I made note of who was who. It appeared that the five remaining girls from our group - Jessica, Sara, Patricia, Vanessa, and Rebecca - were on the left and the rest of the guys - Brendan, Vance, Drake, Carlos, and of course Daniel - were on the right, in order from top to bottom.
From the reveal under the collar, only the pattern of the change remained, each individual developing features of different species of animal.
"Your presumption of becoming extinct animals appears moot."
"While we are familiar with your language, we are not familiar with some of its usage. Could you elaborate?"
I have to give some alien - if it is even an alien - that I haven't even seen yet a lecture on how to use profanity? Give me a break... "I thought profanity was the first thing someone learns in another language. That was for pointing out exactly what we see and know, thank you very much."
"We have a name for people who do that. We call them Captain Obvious, and it's considered an insult."
"We will refrain from making such comments."
I focused my attention back towards the screens, finally seeing what everyone finished off as.
"Drake and Pat are kind of made for each other."
That in itself was enough to make me roll my eyes. Great, just what we need... two creatures from a role-playing game. Drake, you would end up as the thing you like collecting as a joke to your namesake...
"Try three - Rebecca's a griffon."
Are you sure that's not merely a bird of prey?
"Since when can you see claws on hawk's wings?"
Since when can animals stand upright and talk?
Given the quick retort, I was laughing for a bit. Looking at the screen featuring Daniel quickly changed my expression however. His transformation took an abrupt change as not only did the tail set in, but everything below his ribcage just went dino. Oh my God...
"No kidding. He's gotten it pretty badly."
You're telling me. Somehow, Dan wasn't quite upset over what was taking place. Even as his lower body forced him to lean over and stand on the balls of his feet, he seemed quite up-beat. And yet he's enjoying that...
"If you began living a fantasy of yours, wouldn't you be happy?"
Yeah, and then it would get boring after a while.
"Well, he's going to carry on that fantasy for a long while."
"He's gone schizophrenic with his animal side."
When Dan's snout finally set in, I quickly noticed that it wasn't the low and narrow snout that Mad and I had, but arched with a straight jaw. Wait... He's no Velociraptor. His skull is that of a Deinonychus.
"Is there another difference?"
Somewhere, a palaeontologist is crying because of that, Mad. Velociraptors are turkey-sized, Deinonychi are the size of a large dog. Given the trend we're following however, I don't think that will matter. Not surprisingly, I wasn't expecting Daniel to accept and adapt to his new anatomy that quickly. Still, he was going to have more problems later on - an extensive list that goes out the door actually, and one that I'm in no mood to start talking about.
"I feel so sorry for Jessica right now." Shifting my attention to her screen, it was to no surprise that Jess, given her past, was balled up against the wall. Black-furred arms did their best to cover her face, but the panda eyespots still showed.
Same... Sure, karma can be a bitch, but Jessica hardly deserved it - hell, none of us did. It was a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and it could just as well have been someone else. Could've been better, could've been worse; what can you do?
I began hoping that Brendan would be able to help Jess out of her newfound source of depression when we got out of this, but I quickly found myself playing matchmaker again instead. Brendan and Jess, tiger and panda... symbolism much?
"What's Sara doing..." Mad's notice brought my attention to Sara's screen. She was checking the wall, almost looking right at our viewpoint. While I kind of understood how Mad and I could have hair and get away with it (and to a lesser extent Drake and Pat, who pretty much resembled imaginary animals), seeing black hair on a brown snake head with a cream-coloured underside barely made sense to me. It was even a little disturbing. "Clever. She's looking in on all of us right now."
I guess we'd better smile for the camera. I waved. "Hey, Sara."
"What the hell just happened?" Déjà vu, Sara...
"We've all been experimented on." Immediately afterwards, I remembered how blatantly obvious that was, but what could I do...
Sara gave a delayed response. "Nevermind. I just found that footage."
"Did HAL show you?"
Sara recoiled in her image - most likely out of confusion - the action being exaggerated with a slightly longer neck. "Who's HAL? The only thing I recall doing is touch a wall and think about how to get out of here."
"You just thought?"
"It sounds completely absurd, I know."
"Not as absurd as telepathy," Mad quickly pointed out. Not surprising, considering that she was the telepath.
"That's not absurd; that's freaky - especially with the whole glowing eyes thing going on." So Sara actually saw our little 'meeting of minds' conversation. That confirmed my recollection of the glowing eyes that I've been starting to grow a little fond of... I shouldn't drift off like that.
"Hey Mad, didn't HAL say something about an electromagnetic anomaly?"
"Again, who's this... Don't tell me it's that creepy voice that was telling me to stay calm when that probe droid injected something into me."
"It is. I think we all got that message... right, Mad?"
"Anyways, something about an anomaly? Let me check..." Sara's eyes then lit up like Mad's did earlier, glowing with a tint of her coppery-brown eye colour.
"And you said something about glowing eyes?" Mad certainly looked amused.
Sara made a forced chuckle. "Very funny, Mad."
Mad's eyes lit up again. "I've noticed you do it too when you were making requests to HAL."
"It's probably a Godsend for you too. I mean, you always had the desire to be a leader."
Wait... you wanted to go into psychology...
"Yeah? Why... You're kidding, right?"
These aliens have made something that even they probably don't understand.
"Done..." Sara paused as if doing a double-take. "Uh, Mad? Your eyes are glowing again."
"What have you got?"
"These." Underneath the main image two smaller images appeared, light-coded with a 3D silhouette outlined in red. The one on the right had much brighter spots around the head, chest and hands than the one on the left. "Based on what I was able to glean, these are electromagnetic spectral images. The image on the left was taken before the injection, and the image on the right was taken during your little psychic chat. Unfortunately, I'm no expert on this, so I can't tell you much further than that."
"This is perhaps not the best place to be considering doing this study anyways. Got anything specific on what's got us?"
"Ship schematics, mission logs, medical files... you name it, we got it."
I smirked. "Nicely done."
"Hey, I'm just an amateur software programmer."
"All the more points for you." I glanced around at the other screens. "Could you rig up a vid network among all twelve of us, opening up with what we just went through?"
While I would have preferred to have done one at a time, I doubt we really had that kind of time. It would have been repetitive on our end - watch a video, reintroduction... Watch a video, reintroduction... That would have taken too long.
Anyways, a minute later, with more than a few slack jaws, I tried to act as casual as our situation permitted. "Hey."
"Holy crap... I know something was off, but I didn't expect this."
"No kidding. At least we know who's who though."
Despite not being a proper Latino, any features of which long gone to those of some seal, Carlos still had an annoying habit of milking on a heavy Hispanic accent that only served to make him sound a bit like Speedy Gonzales on a mild depressant. How I've put up with it for that long, I don't know. "Oh great, three raptors. Where are the door locks?"
"Wise-ass." Make sure you're not the fricking gatekeeper if that blows over.
"Just kidding, Eric." It sounded like he had half a mind to not milk it on so heavily after that.
"Anyways, make of it what you will. We've just been experimented on, and the aliens that did this don't really understand why this happened either. Sara, could you check the audio logs for anything behind why this was done?"
Sara nodded as she got to work. "Got it, Kane."
"Wait... Did you just call me Kane?"
"Given that you're now capable of being a magnificent bastard with a cult-like following I felt it kind of fit, minus the glowing eyes."
Yeah, so long as I don't hear anything about 'peace through power' or not being able to kill the Messiah, I'll be happy. "We'll see." I could sense Mad chuckling to herself at the thought.
"Anyways, I got it. Playing right now."
It turned out to be an audio log from my conversation with HAL. I half-listened to the conversation, some of it being a rekindling of memory and what not, still thinking about what HAL told me. Immortality through - what was it? Nanotechnology? Mad already caught on subtly, her eyes just barely glowing.
"So you actually talked with the thing, Eric?"
I shrugged my shoulders. "Yeah, so? I recall HAL saying something akin to needing a translator."
Drake chuckled, his nostrils flaring. "HAL... what a novel name."
"Immortality through nanotechnology..." Rebecca rested her beak on her thumb while crossing her arms, tapping her beak gently with her index finger. "Where have I heard that before?" Given the oddities that we were beginning to display by that point, the fact that Rebecca, despite sporting a beak, was able to speak as well as she used to hardly phased me.
"I don't know, Eric, but that almost reminded me of G-Man."
"déjà vu, Brendan."
"Okay, so what's the plan?"
"First, get back home. If my previous conversations with HAL have been fruitful so far, he might be reasoned with to allow us. Still, be prepared to use force."
"Just a sec, Kane. Let me get the comm. link back." Sara's eyes lit up again, bring out a few double-takes from the others.
Perhaps the biggest surprise for the others was when I responded without being bothered by the visual distraction. "You know, that could have likely been suspicious." I recall a few underbreath WTFs being mouthed.
"My apologies, Eric. Connection online."
Sara did a fine job in not only getting the connection back up, but also a line of video feed. Can't say I was too pleased to see an amoebic mass of what looked like a worm colony, but at least it helped clear up why HAL was referring to itself in plural the whole time. Everyone must have seen it because I recall Drake mentioning something about a hovercraft or something similar. Could this get any more bizarre?
"HAL, what exactly do you do to test subjects of failed experiments?"
The mass then transitioned between multitudes of different colours. "Should such a case become apparent, it is imperative that the vessel returns to the nearest research facility for further analysis with all evidence. With biological agents however, we cannot risk environmental contamination and must exterminate all likely hosts when finished with data collection."
"And where does that place us?"
"The primary goal of this experiment is ongoing. Aside from the unfortunate side-effect, the test is worth continuing to study."
"Is the nanotech infectious?"
"Only if programmed to be. However, the nanomachines used in this experiment were programmed to integrate completely into their hosts with zero chance of virulent transfer."
"So it's benign."
"In a manner of speaking, yes."
"And how many people did you abduct to get to this point?"
There was a long pause before HAL responded, almost as if unsure what to say. "We see this affects you greatly."
"It does. Twelve thousand people from both Earth and the lunar colonies have gone missing over the past ten years for no apparent reason, and I doubt any one of us wants to contribute to that number."
"We admit to two hundred test subjects of your species. Of the remaining eleven thousand eight-hundred, we do not know."
"What happened to the ones that you abducted?"
"Unfortunately, the experiments yielded... destructive results. You twelve are the first to succeed."
"So that explains why you had us suspended in midair then." That didn't make me feel any easier about this.
Time to get this plan in motion. "Why don't we strike a deal. You return us planetside, and when our species make official contact, if it is possible, we will add to your preliminary findings with our own."
"We see some merit in your offer."
"Are you able to do that?"
HAL's colour changes switched to a paler palette, if that's the right way to say it. "Negative. The Overseer has a clear directive in its programming that can override deviations to protocol such as what you propose."
"The Overseer? This ship is piloted by an AI?"
"That is correct."
"Isn't what we're doing a deviation to protocol? The talking, I mean."
"Negative. Unless stated in the protocol, the Overseer will initiate override."
"Is it connected to the rest of the system?"
Sara quickly piped up, "If it was, Eric, I would have been able to access it by now."
"So how does this Overseer monitor everything?"
"The Overseer operates on input from all systems of this ship, analyzing received data alongside protocol. If data received does not match protocol, then the Overseer engages actively."
"That's easy to fool," Sara blatantly remarked. "Just set the input to what the Overseer wants to see, and the AI won't do anything."
"While the input data of one source can be fooled, you would require a wide-scale cascading overload to render the Overseer temporarily inoperable for your purpose. We warn you that such action is hazardous, however."
"Will the AI resort to countermeasures?"
"The Overseer is only programmed to engage up to nonlethal countermeasures for the protection of itself and its charges."
"So what does that mean?"
"Eric, have you ever heard of the Three Laws of Robotics?"
"Asimov's Laws of Robotics. A sentient machine shall assist its creators in any way it can and survive at all costs, all without bringing harm upon its creators."
"We were unaware your species has ethical insight to sentient programming."
"It was theorized about a century ago," Drake stepped in, his deep, booming voice sounding clearly. "Recently, our species developed our own AIs, most of which are entering medical professions as androids."
"Gee, Drake. I didn't exactly have you pinned as that much of a scholar, despite your personal library."
"Feel free to start calling me Bookwyrm from now on." Clever bastard. The only jock I've known to also be a bibliophile...
"I didn't mean you, HAL."
"Our apologies." Again, more colour changes from HAL as the translator continued to speak. "We do not understand why you insist on calling us HAL, however."
"Cultural reference from a movie with an AI by that name. Just a mere resemblance."
"Understood. There appears to be a common theme."
"Not right now. Our priority is in getting off this ship and back home. If communications can remain ongoing, send everything you can about the Overseer's actions to Sara as they happen."
"That is allowable within protocol. We will do so."
"We're in a hundred-metre wide centrifuge with twelve modular compartments. We're currently in twelve of those compartments as we speak, about ten metres below a set of doors opening into the main ring. I can work the doors and keep them open."
"Drake, Patricia, Rebecca. Think you three are able to book flight time?"
"It's disturbingly natural."
"When I give the word, you guys are going to be the first ones out of your compartments. Once you're up in the ring, help everyone else out. Sara, relay any new info to them on open channel when their up. The next course of action will come once that's complete. Understood?"
"Then let's get moving. Now."
Drake was the first off the floor, followed by Reb and Pat, leaving their rooms empty.
Give or take about a minute afterwards Drake dropped down, his membranous wings attempting to ease his difficult-looking fall. Still, he managed to give what passed for a smile when he landed. "Heyo! Having trouble opening doors?"
"Yes. How did you know?"
Drake simply laughed, his deep voice only adding to his draconic appearance.
"What's it feel like, anyhow?"
Glancing back at his wings, which he gingerly folded across one another across his backside, Drake's smile turned into unsatisfied smirk. "I don't know what can describe the feeling of having a third set of limbs. It comes naturally somehow, but it's awkward to think about. The tail's no different, and that you should know."
"True." He had a point. I simply can't describe what it's like to have any of these animalistic features, and extra appendages such as a tail top the list - they just can't be described; only experienced.
"Man, it would be easier to use rope than to try to fly in these rooms."
"The spinning of the wheel is good and all for when you're standing, but we're still in zero G - nothing's pulling you back down once you're off the floor."
"So we could just jump our way out?"
Drake shook his head. "It's not that simple. The floor down here moves faster than the floor up there. I had enough trouble as it was trying not to hit a wall on the way up, and it was worse getting down."
Seeing as physics wasn't my strong point, I had to agree. "Point taken."
"Pat's got something in mind." Sara's voice was audible from above, and taking a glance at the empty compartment she was in... logic should solve the rest.
"Let me hear it."
"Turns out those probe droids can also be..."
Pat quickly interjected. "Will be used for heavy lifting."
"What Pat just said."
I swore I could have heard alarm bells ringing in my ears then. "Wait, when did she learn how to jerry-rig alien technology?"
"Better yet, when did we magically gain this knowledge?"
"I blame whatever crap they injected into us for that." Knowing Pat, I would have expected her to say something to that extent. Doesn't help that her appearance now fits that personality of hers.
Drake simply shook his head, quietly muttering, "This is goddamn comic book material."
"Let's stop thinking about that. Less talk, more action. Still keep me informed, Sara."
Drake held on to me from behind getting me out of that room, my arms locked at the shoulder. He was right - no gravity, and the room was beginning to make my head spin as what I assumed to be the trailing wall tilting away from our perceived notion of vertical. Once we got into the main ring, Drake tossed me down on the floor where the simulated gravity kicked in. I took a rolling tumble, ignoring that stupid oddity of my tail as it followed my movement.
It took a while to get my bearings in the main ring. Compared to the dark compartments, the ring interior was well-lit with a continuous illuminating ceiling and dark blue circuit-panel-like walls. It was surprisingly spacious when it came to floor space, but it still gave a bit of the same claustrophobic feeling that you'd see in a space horror movie set on board a ship or a space station.
Not that far up-spin, Pat and Sara had set up a makeshift workbench. Sara had her hand next to where her ear would have been as if she was using a headset. Like what I saw on Mad earlier, her eyes and her hand were glowing.
That fast? "Jesus..."
"Don't think you're the only one surprised. Pat tweaked whatever enabled the things to float, and I'm currently running them remotely."
As if the whole injection wasn't enough, trying to take in the fact that we were now pulling off stuff only seen in movies and games is overwhelming. "I swear someone back home will be shitting their pants when they find out we can do this shit."
"If that does happen, it will be too soon."
"Anything in mind for after this?"
"One problem at a time. We'll get to it when we're finished here."
"Anyways, hauling six more up."
"Everyone else except Daniel."
"You don't have him?"
"His compartment was empty."
"Then where did..." I was then forced down onto my back by an unseen force. The action happened so fast I was barely aware of how I wound up on the floor. A transparent silhouette that distorted what was behind it was on me, holding me down. Gee, we seem to be carrying the slew of sci-fi horrors tonight...
The kid was scary enough as it was. Now he's the fricking Predator! "Dan, get the hell off me."
Dan's features crept quickly into view as he jumped off. "Just wanted to do that. This is cool!" Getting up, the best I could do for a legit facepalm was by slapping my right hand over top of my snout, up near my brows. Wait until you're back home.
"Like I said, a fantasy he's going to keep up for a long time."
Oh god... Mad, I'm seriously contemplating biting my own tongue here - if I can. "That still doesn't change the fact that we're a couple of ugly birds."
"Sounds like denial, Eric."
"Don't think I wasn't playing matchmaker either." I caught Drake shaking his head with a knowing smile. "Don't get me started, Drake."
Drake merely shrugged his shoulders. "You're the lucky ones. That's all I'm going to say."
Mad nodded. "You know, he is kind of right."
"Can we actually get something done and worry about this at a later time?"
All set to go and carry on, we were about to move when Brendan quickly called out, "Contact!"
I barely had time to register hovering objects racing in our direction when Vance received the blasts of multiple beams of light across his backside, keeled over onto his knees, arching his back and then dropping further onto all fours, grimacing painfully with teeth bared. Sara froze up crying out to him when she saw him fall. Up until then, I had not seen Sara be more concerned about Vance.
I thought I had seen everything by then, but what happened next certainly proved me wrong.
Vance was no longer in pain, but rather a fit of rage - watching Vance's eyes light up as they did to the point of appearing as featureless lights was scary. The stunning measures weren't affecting him as they should, only serving to piss him off further. He pivoted on the spot, rising to his feet while doing so, forcing his palm out towards the drones. A sudden burst of light from his hand flashed and sparks showered from the drones as they fluttered in vain to stay stationary, finally drifting due to the rotation of the ring. Sections of lit panelling also flickered, leaving large shadows on the ceiling. Vance fell to one knee shortly afterwards, my best guess at the time being that he used a lot of energy to do that.
Sara was quick to rush to his side, draping an arm over his shoulder. Apart from a seared shirt, there was no real evidence that he was a target.
"Congrats, Neo. You've won a nickname."
I rolled my eyes. Too soon, Carlos... "Can we stop clowning around?"
"I'm going to have to agree with Eric. Work now, jokes later. And I will get you back for calling me Balto earlier, Carl."
It took time to get around beyond the main ring. The Overseer... perhaps HAL was mistaken by calling it an AI - it was predictable at best, acting only on directives as opposed to some instinct-logic base by what I recall Sara mentioning. I may be mistaken however. Anyways, Pat finally got hold of several of those drones and toyed with them. By whatever fortune we were landed, she was able to repurpose them into powerful firearms, if a little crude and rudimentary. Purpose before form I suppose; we were using them with impunity on drones and point-defence turrets, which were still laser-based by any means. At the end of it all, we passed through about 15 bulkheads. Four of them contained ramped segments, the first and third going to our perceived 'up' and the other two going the opposite direction. All the while, the drones were popping down from holes in the ceiling that were too small to climb through.
The weapons pretty much grew with every little adjustment Pat made, to the point where she turned the large pistols into submachine guns and rifles, and she was kind enough to customize them to our tastes. To be honest, it reminded me too much of a number of videogames that use special ops groups like there's nothing else, with tricked-out equipment and shit. Not that I'd mention that to Pat though - She's a gear head and, thanks to Drake, a gun nut. Decked with reverse-engineered alien weaponry, a few of us couldn't help but mention that it was a lethal version of laser tag by that point.
I was still perplexed by why a worm colony would bother to use large, circular shutter doors when all it needed were small gaps, but that question wasn't at the top of my head. At the time, I was more concerned with the supposed dead-end with four circular plates in the ceiling, set equally along the ceiling of the ring - which could more accurately be a hollow cylinder if anything.
"What's up here?"
"Quarantine access tubes into the hub."
"Nice thinking on their part."
"Unfortunately, we're locked in." Sara brought her hands up for airquotes. "There's a supposed 'outbreak' that the Overseer wants to keep contained."
"Will this be a problem?"
Sara was able to make subtle changes to make the smirk on her face authentic. "Please, remember who you're talking to." You've been wanting to use that line, haven't you? Barely a second later, we heard a brief hiss as the circular plate above us rotated a full ninety degrees.
"Quarantine unlocked. The doors should be opening in 3... 2... 1... now."
Smoothly, the plate pushed in and slid open in four layers to reveal a tunnel roughly three metres across, with a pillar of light shining along its length.
"A gravity lift in zero G?"
"I've heard of more absurd things."
Mad glanced at Sara, recalling what she said earlier. "Haven't we all?"
"Anyways, we're going to end up in zero G anyways."
Drake, Pat and Rebecca shook their heads after what they had to do earlier. "Oh hell."
"Look on the bright side. No walls to hit you in the tail this time."
"I still don't like it. But if that's the only way up, then so be it."
The whole thing went by in rapid succession, and there was little resistance up top, if you call eight turrets and 36 drones 'light'. Whatever, it was dealt with in short order.
I took my bearings while braced against a wall to keep me steady, one of my footholds being the husk of a turret that Drake fried like a tesla coil from the Red Alert series. As it was, the room resembled the elongated interior of a junction module on the ISS on a much larger scale - cigar-shaped with six perpendicular openings. It was fairly clear which doors were down to the lab and which weren't - two shutter doors appeared to turn on the spot - but that was as far as my sense of direction went. "Okay, so where are we?"
"We're between Engineering and the mainframe."
"Which door to the mainframe?"
"The one that's opening." Sara pointed down towards the door that appeared to rotate counter-clockwise.
"Good. Let's move in."
Drake and Pat quickly did as ordered, training their rifles on the floating, pulsating sphere suspended within what looked like a spinning gyroscope. The rest of us, save for Dan and Jess as our sole non-combatants, followed suite.
Seriously, it didn't look like much if it was an AI housing. "Is this it?"
"What?" Sara looked over. "Were you expecting Shodan?"
Sara merely shook her head. "Never mind."
"You're the best qualified for this, Sara. Do your magic."
"Just keep an eye out for me." A brief push off the wall later and she was with arms reach of the AI.
I thought I heard her quietly say that it was going to be fun before she touched the housing's outer rings. Both her hands and eyes glowed to the point of drowning out the blue glow of the sphere for the better part of five minutes before she let go. Nothing else really happened as she did her thing with the AI, which was not helping with the amount of adrenaline that was still pumping, expecting more of the damn riot drones to pop out to annoy the shit out of us.
By the end of it, Sara physically looked exhausted, even more so than Vance was after his stunt of copyright infringement earlier. Speaking of Vance, it came as no surprise that he'd be reciprocating her outward concern by pulling her out of her tumble in microgravity and holding her in close with one arm.
"Twelve minutes... Damn, do I feel dizzy..."
"That tough of a fight?"
Sara nodded, breaking a stifled chuckle. "Never play 81-slot tic-tac-toe with an AI on full focus while tricking it to play against itself over and over..."
"You did what?"
"I'll have to show you guys WarGames."
"You did good, Sara."
"HAL, how was it that you got us onboard?"
"We brought you onboard using a wormhole fabricator, which can be found in Engineering."
"Think of Stargate, Eric."
Oh God, the show I haven't seen reruns of in ages.
"I wouldn't be surprised if it looked like a stargate."
"May we inquire as to what this stargate is?"
"Another cultural reference. There is no such thing as far as we know." And if it looks anything like one, I'll be nicking off points for originality.
"Eric, eleven minutes left."
I may have only been emergency first aid qualified, but I could definitely see that Sara was semiconscious. Damn... Sara's nearly spent. Can't work off a broken crutch if we need her again.
Mad's voice echoed in my head, "We certainly can't use her directly, but I can relay whatever schematics she's managed to download into her head."
No magic touch though.
We're going to need an alternative if we can't get the thing running in time.
"We're thinking ahead of the game here. Let's first see the gate before we do."
You're really pushing the whole Stargate thing, aren't you?
"And you said something about lack of originality."
I could have sworn I heard Mad briefly laughing in a friendly manner. "Actually, I am. I'll point it out when we get to it."
Turned out finding the thing was easier said than done, at least from the point of view of someone without the schematics of the ship. It was collapsible, made up of a series of sixteen pointed rods that slid inwards and locked at 45 degrees. Needless to say it was pretty bare as far as technology went, but it certainly wasn't a solid ring. Still, without the means to activate it - and let's face it, I wasn't willing to push Sara any further than she could before giving out - we were hard-pressed for time. I also recall Pat wanting to tweak the device like MacGuyver for a little bit, but I didn't want to risk it; we'd already damaged enough of the vessel already, and Sara, through Mad, noted that the gate was the only way on and off ship.
It took some thinking for a minute, but I remembered something: Rebecca once said that she was interested in the work done by the late Stephen Hawking. Just a hunch based on what Mad and I noticed earlier, mind you, but it was certainly worth a shot. "Reb, you still interested in astrophysics?"
"Yeah, but what does that have to do with anything?"
"We managed to get this far using supposedly farfetched abilities that relate to what we want to do." I began pointing to individuals. "Sara, computer programmer. Vance, electronic warfare specialist. Mad, psychologist... I can go on if you wish, but the point still stands - we all have some ability or another, regardless of how mundane or exotic it is.
"Based on what I've seen, and what I currently know about you, you may very well be our ticket back to Earth. At the very least, think about getting something open between here and back home."
"Great, so now I can joke about being a navigator from Dune."
"Whatever it takes, Reb. Just try. It'll feel a little weird the first time."
Rebecca closed her eyes as she bowed her head forward, lifting her hand as she arced her back slightly. A few inches from her palm, a spherical object slowly appeared from a point, and from there on in, watching her attempt to make this dark, featureless, floating object in her hands larger was like watching Luke Skywalker attempt to Force-lift his X-Wing out of a swamp for a while.
Once she opened her green glowing eyes, Rebecca had almost lost it. The sphere was roughly large enough to fit a man standing, and holding. "This is the most awesome and terrifying thing I've ever done in my life."
"I'd be scared too if I was in your shoes."
"What is this anyhow?"
"What, you were expecting something else?"
Should I place two and two together? "So this is a wormhole."
"You know where it leads?"
"My basement." I recall seeing a bunch of nervous stares from most of us. Reb's parents weren't the best people to deal with when we were uninvited. "Don't worry, my parents aren't home this week."
"Good enough for now. We can sort ourselves out once we're back on Earth."
Rebecca nodded. "I suggest we make this quick though."
"Agreed. Vance, you mind being point?"
He nodded. "Just say the word, Eric."
"Take Sara with you. There's little else to do here."
"Understood." Promptly, Vance brought Sara in close as he entered the sphere, the surface smoothly melting over him and Sara as they disappeared across the event horizon.
"Carlos. Vanessa. Head on through. I don't care which order." Much like Vance and Sara, the same thing happened with them as well.
"Rebecca, will it remain stable if you go through it yourself?"
"Yes, it should."
As Rebecca went through, I quickly turned to Brendan and Jessica, the latter barely holding together emotionally. I closed my eyes, breathing deeply, trying to relieve what stress I had built up by then. It's got to happen. "Ready, Jess?"
Jess didn't give a response, being mostly concerned with what she now resembled. She was definitely in tears, I can tell you that much.
"Jess, snap out of it. The least of your worries right now are what you look like and what people will think of you."
"Are you sure?"
"If it means having to be a... furry... for the rest of my life..."
Brendan tightened his embrace on her, bringing her in close. "No one's calling you a furry or implying it, Jess."
I nodded, and Brendan escorted Jess through.
Mad piped up as the tiger-panda couple disappeared behind the event horizon. "I'll head through with her, Eric. She's been through enough emotional trauma as it is."
"Eric?" Being a little wrapped up in the drama, I was thankful Drake snapped me out of the trance I fell into.
I shook my head to refocus. "Yes, Drake?"
"The flying spaghetti monster is here."
As I looked back over to the shutter door, HAL was indeed floating into Engineering, likely wrapped around some gravity device or something. Quite frankly, I can't find the words to best describe its gestures of colour and movement, if they can be interpreted as such. Alien is the best I can come up with, but that's rather vague - anything can be alien. Drake, by fluke of luck, was able to pick up on it though, and I am thankful that he and I were among the last ones to leave.
With HAL only able to communicate using colour and no synthesizer, Drake served as an interpreter. "He's now interested in human behaviour."
I took a while to collect my thoughts. Human psychology is something I practice subconsciously, not study. I sighed. Here goes... "Every social vertebrate we've seen follows some sort of inbred hierarchy to ensure survival as a whole, almost always with one individual functioning as the leader or alpha dominant. We humans do the same, seeking out strong figureheads to protect us in times of danger.
"Unfortunately, I can only talk about leadership here, and I am no expert in psychology. We will learn more about each other once we make official contact."
HAL flashed blue twice, to which Drake nodded. "He agrees."
I then held out my hand out of habit. HAL certainly looked unsure as to what I was doing. "When people meet or agree on something, it is customary amongst my people to shake hands."
I can't exactly call it shaking hands, for the obvious reasons. A pseudopod mimicking a human hand was an easy substitute however, and despite not having any skeletal structure, HAL's composition as a colony of worms proved to give a strong, solid grip, something that caught me off guard at first. On top of that, it wasn't wet or slimy either - the worms themselves felt like they were encased in tough, flexible leather, despite being entirely featureless.
HAL flashed colours a few times in quick succession.
"He's saying we can keep the rifles. A farewell gift."
As HAL drifted back to his station somewhere else on the ship, I looked at who else was around. Daniel, Drake and Patricia were all that was left onboard.
"Drake. Pat. You go on through." Without a word, the draconic couple went through, leaving Dan and I alone.
"When we get home, I want to get a few things clarified between you and I. Alright?"
The transition from the ship to the recreation room in Rebecca's basement was not immediate, but sudden. Dan nearly face-planted into the sofa when we came out of the wormhole after tripping on his feet. A brief laugh came out of it before Rebecca "closed" the wormhole, shrinking it down gradually into nothing.
"So, now what?"
It'll never end... "One thing at a time, Vance. Adapt and overcome."
"You do realize that this will shit the bed as time goes on."
"I'm familiar with Murphy's Law, Vanessa. I'm not going to lie; it's going to be difficult. Quite frankly, the sooner we prove that we're still human, the better."
"We'll also need to make adjustments to photo ID as well." Mad quickly pointed out. Evidently not the last thing on our to-do list to say the least, since we no longer had human faces anymore.
Brendan interjected. "And let's not forget about something else."
"How the hell are we going to explain this?"
I simply said quite bluntly, "Keep it vague, but truthful. Just make sure the person asking doesn't egg you on."
"And furries, if we come across any?"
Furries again? Of all people, I least expected Drake to even bring that up. Then I thought about Ian. Crap... "Don't be a dick. If they start talking about sex or any fetishes they have however, ignore them."
A brief glance around the room told me that sleep was going to start becoming a priority soon. Hell, even I wouldn't mind some shut eye then. All the more reason to wrap up this impromptu O group.
"My parents are going to be so pissed."
"So will mine. Again, one thing at a time."
"Easy enough for you to say, Kane."
"Don't even go there, Carlos. If you have to, full out tell the whole goddamn truth. If they don't believe you, convince them. It's not going to be easy for me either and I also have to cover for someone else." I then looked towards everyone else in the room. "Anything else?"
Pat cradled her rifle in her arms, finger off of the makeshift trigger. "I suppose we'll have to stash the rifles somewhere?"
Shit... Yeah, I was that tired to forget what we dragged with us. However, I didn't want to start contemplating what was restricted or forbidden. "We will. Find a spot where you know it won't be found by someone else for now." I noticed Sara stirring impatiently. "Have something to say, Sara?"
She nodded weakly. "Abilities. Keep them under control for now?"
Ah yes, the dollar-store powers we received. Forgot about that. "Yes, definitely. Use them only in emergency situations."
After about ten seconds, Vance piped up. "I think that's about everything."
"Good." I looked over to Rebecca who, despite being tired, still looked capable of what I had in mind. "Reb, we're going to need your wormhole ability again. Don't want to scare the crap out of neighbours at this ungodly hour."
"Here we go..." Once again, Rebecca did her work, this time with greater proficiency and in little more than half the time. "One at a time. Carlos, you're the first."
"Hope this plan works."
"Don't press your luck. The simple plans are always the best ones."
Vanessa went next. Vance and Sara exchanged a long embrace before going at their separate times, as did Drake and Pat. Brendan made his intentions clear that he'd be staying with Jess for a while longer, which left the three raptors in line to go. Mad caught me by surprise with a hug before nuzzling my snout with hers, sending a shiver down my spine. "Thanks for getting us out of there."
"I couldn't have done it alone, Mad."
"But you made it happen."
Her tail made a slight curl around mine near the floor as we continued to nuzzle. The scent of her pheromones was pungent and it was tempting to simply let loose right then and there, but I still remembered that Dan was likely watching. Close enough to an awkward moment having your kid brother watch you get a hard on with your girlfriend, and other details that I do not want to get into.
Let's first think about what we're doing.
"Sorry, Eric. I don't know what came over me."
Shit happens. Let's save this for some other time.
Mad nodded, grinning devilishly as she turned to walk into the wormhole. I wasn't sure whether I should have been blushing or acting all starry-eyed because of what she did, but she made quite the appearance. Beautiful thing...
Anyways, Dan and I went through, popping up in the living room at home before the sphere shrunk down to nothing.
I took Dan over to the stairs before taking a knee in front of him. "Alright, first thing. Don't go invisible when Mom and dad are home. They'll freak out and call the cops if you do and they can't find you."
Dan gave a short nod of acknowledgement. "Okay."
"Second. Madelena already told me that you now have two personalities, one of which is not human. Tame it. None of us are looking forward to having a six-year-old cannibal if your other half gets hungry."
"Eric, Ghostclaw doesn't have those intentions."
Well, at least he knows about his other side. Even given it a name. "How do you know that?"
With a blink, Dan's eyes had completely changed from green to yellow. He then started using hissing and reptilian barking in lieu of actual speech, not unlike Spielberg's raptors in the third movie. Unlike with HAL, I caught on exactly to what was being said. "His mind is also mine."
Playing Doolittle with a deinonychus... Great... "You're willing to eat prepared food on a plate with cutlery?"
"If needs be, pack leader." Ghostclaw, as I presumed to really be Dan's alter ego, then switched to actual English, using Dan's voice. "I know everything your brother knows and how to do the things he has learned to do. However, his instincts are not mine and vice versa."
"Just promise me that you won't get him into too much trouble."
"Understood, pack leader." Ghostclaw blinked, and Dan's eyes returned to their original colour. I was beginning to wonder just how much has been done to my brother's head to warrant induced schizophrenia.
Casually, I shot a glance over at the digital clock on the stove. Damn, it's late... "Anyways, it's nearly 2 o'clock in the morning, and I'm sure you need your sleep as much as I do."
"Looks like I'll be making a nest on my bed then."
I watched Dan navigate his way to his room with lithe strides, the light clacking of his clawed toes striking the floor. It's going to be like having a large dog in the house again. About five minutes later, I went to check, and he was indeed curled up on his bed with the blanket and pillows surrounding him. He may have gotten the physical transformation the worst, but he's long since adapted perfectly, as if he was born that way. I could only hope that the rest of us would have such a smooth transition. In the end, I laughed to myself; it's going to get rough, and it may be sooner than we thought.
I went back downstairs to my room to crash. Lying on my back, tail between my legs, I looked out the small window overlooking the room thinking to myself, This is only the start... So much more to come.
I quickly found solace when Mad's voice echoed in my head. "And we're all in this together."
I smiled, shortly before fatigue made my eyelids heavy, making me fall into comforting blackness.