The Signal

The Signal

By

Ryan F. Gassien

Spacetime started as no bigger than an atom. Everything within our universe – from the largest galaxy to the tiniest of particles – once fit in an area so small that it could only be observed with a powerful microscope. Then 13.82 billion years ago spacetime expanded. No one knows why. Maybe it was the work of a god, or maybe it was just happenstance. Regardless, it stretched outward in all directions and at a rate greater than the speed of light.

Gluons, among the smallest of particles, appeared and disappeared at random, and sometimes smashed together to form quarks. These quarks collided with anti-quarks. A titanic battle was being fought, matter versus antimatter, and the universe became so hot that matter and energy were the same. Ultimately, matter unnumbered antimatter and won.

After the universe had expanded to about a billion kilometers, it cooled to a point where quarks stopped reverting back to energy. No more matter would be created, and it might shock you to learn that the universe was still less than a second old.

Shortly after, hydrogen atoms came into being. Spacetime eventually slowed down. Millions of years would pass before it became the frigid vacuum we know today, when gravity forced matter to coalesce, forging increasingly larger structures until stars were born. These stars were short lived but would give rise to new ones that could shelter planets.

On these worlds, life evolved, from simple cell organisms to beings intelligent enough that they could deduce the nature of spacetime. With this understanding, they built ships capable of tunneling through higher dimensions, thus enabling them to travel between stars.

One such vessel was the Ul-ta-ka, a craft designed to ferry cargo from colonies to more established systems. It raced towards the edge of a solar system, a risky maneuver, even suicidal, with the hope of using its star’s gravity well to give itself a boost. Instead, something gave way. Smoke bellowed from its engines. Hyperspace collapsed, forcing it to transition back into normal space, and it came to a stop seven light hours from the sun.

On its bridge, sparks erupted from consoles, coolant vented, and wiring fell from the ceiling. The captain, an At-ka-ti, a race of centipede-like creatures living within Rettikkee-controlled space, scuttled forward on sixteen legs and weaved around the hazards. “Of all the undisciplined, reckless… You’re lucky you didn’t scatter our atoms across this sector.”

“My maneuver should have worked,” the helmsmen objected. His talons tapped the controls. “I don’t know why. A gravitational anomaly perhaps?”

The captain pursed his mandibles together. “Chief mechanic, what is the damage to my ship?”

“Ultramatter/antimatter reactor is venting coolant, but repairable,” the At-ka-ti said from his station. “Tachyon transmitter is operational. Broadcasting standard S.O.S on all frequencies. One of our main graviton engines is offline. It will need a complete overhaul.”

The captain reached the star chart and manipulated the controls. A yellow star with eight planets materialized in front of him, but no warpgate accompanied it.

The captain sighed. He knew he shouldn’t be surprised. The Retikkee-built warpgate network might number in the hundreds of thousands and span the breath of the Milky Way Galaxy, but the Milky Way had over four hundred billion stars. If that wasn’t the case, there would be no need to equipped ships with much slower hyperdrive cores.

“No warpgate,” he said. “Please tell me that our hyperdrive isn’t beyond repair.”

“No,” the chief mechanic said. “I should be able to get it working in three days.”

“Well, at least we have that going for us.” The captain fiddled with the sensors and did a passive scan of each of the planets. “That can’t be right.”

The ship’s helmsman approached him. “What’s the matter, boss?”

“The ship’s sensors are detecting only one inhabitable world,” the captain said.

“Why is that odd?”

“Well, according to the star chart, this system should have three.”

The helmsmen cocked his head. “Maybe they were both hit by asteroids.”

The captain’s antennas vibrated, signaling to the crew his skepticism. “Hum. When was the last survey of this system done?” He inputted a command. “Thirty-two thousand years ago? No. It’s doubtful such a cataclysm could happen twice in such a short timeframe.”

“Well, if it wasn’t the result of asteroid strikes, then the only alternative is sabotage,” the helmsman said. “Possibly by a quantum phase cannon.”

“A quantum phase cannon would have obliterated the worlds. No, they are still here. One looks like its suffered a runaway greenhouse effect, while the other—”

“Captain,” the coms officer screamed. “I’m picking up a transmission!”

The captain’s heart fluttered. Had someone already answered their S.O.S? He made his way to the coms officer’s terminal and asked, “What’s the source of the transmission?”

“The third planet from the star. Captain, it’s coming in the form of radio waves.”

“Radio waves? Who would use such a primitive… Play it. I want to hear this transmission.”

A series of sounds exited the ship’s speakers, a language of some kind. The computer analyzed the speech pattern and translated it into their own. “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and if, which I do not for a moment believe—”

The communication officer deactivated the speaker. “It keeps on like that for a while.”

The captain nodded and made his way to the forward viewing window. Somewhere in this system a civilization was on the verge of reaching adulthood.

“Contact the Retikkees,” the captain said. “They must be informed of this at once.”

***

Seven years later, Engineer Un made his way down a hallway, gliding through the air by the power of his thoughts. He reached a doorway and stepped out onto a balcony. Before him was Retikkee Prime’s capital, a majestic city that floated among the clouds. His homeworld, long ago reclaimed by Mother Nature, was visible below, a palette of blues, greens and purples.

Lightning crackled, and Un glanced left to see electricity dancing along the tower’s surface, ribbons of blue and white that always managed to catch his fascination. He knew what caused them. That they were simply excess energy venting from the neutron stars that rested at the core of every Retikkee building. Still, he found their glow soothing.

Un watched them until a flying saucer crossed his field of vision. It corkscrewed, then headed upwards towards the Greater Ring World. Its diameter equal to their planet’s orbit around their star, the megastructure dominated much of the sky. Mountains, rivers, oceans, forests, deserts and grassy planes, along with wisps of clouds, stretched across its sun-facing side.

Un’s gave turned to the hole that punctured the ring and recalled his role in calibrating Retikkee Prime’s orbit, so it would thread through it whenever their paths converged. A difficult feat of planetary engineering. The slightest error would have resulted in both the destruction of his homeworld and the megastructure. Still, it was worth it, the alternative being to destroy the planet to make way for the much larger ring world, which could house quintillions of Retikkees.

Un sighed. He missed those days, when all he had to worry about was ensuring its stability. He turned and headed for another section of the tower.

Un only got a few yards when he spotted his father, Communicator Yu. The other Retikkee hovered there, his expression neutral, yet below the surface, Un sensed fury.

Un drew closer and, with his telepathy, said, “I take it that the Collective Will has deliberated.”

“That’s one way of putting it,” Yu said. “I’m very disappointed in you, Son. If you only knew the effort I went to, trying to convince the Collective Will not to exile you.”

“Exile me? For what? If not for my actions, those colonists would’ve died.”

“That’s irrelevant. Your modifications went against procedures,” Yu said.

“The planetary shield we were installing was of a radically new design,” Un explained. “Had I gone with standard procedures, the shield would most likely have collapsed, crushing the moon and killing everyone on it. Frankly, I should be given a medal.”

“Again, that’s not the point. This isn’t the first time you’ve deviated from protocol, and you’re not as good an engineer as you make yourself out to be.”

Un sent a psionic ripple through the ether, the telepathic equivalent of snorting. “My modifications worked this time. Isn’t that all that matters?”

“No. We are Retikkees. We don’t deviate from established procedures. Ever.”

“Even when those procedures no longer make sense?”

“You aren’t a member of the Scientist Caste. Devising new protocols is their mandate.”

“So, until they stumble upon the problem and correct it, I have to continue making the error, even when I know it will get me and others killed.”

His father came to a halt and gazed at his son with large, black, oval-shaped eyes. His lips twitched. “A collective is only as strong as its weakest link. When you disregarded procedures, you become that weak link and endanger us all. Is that understood?”

Un twirled away. “We Retikkees are wedded to rules like a star caught in a black hole’s event horizon. Maybe that’s why we can’t vanquish the Vijics.”

His father branded teeth. “Long have we sheltered the younger races from the Vijics.”

“And a great job we’re doing, Dad. How many species went extinct during the last war?”

“Enough!” The two passed a doorway. Below was a flying saucer, at the center of which illuminated a micro neutron star, the ship’s power source. A particle fountain ejected from both its north and south poles. His father gestured to it. “This ship will take you to your next assignment. Your team will be observing the natives of a planet called Earth.”

“Earth?” Un recalled the last time he’d visited that world. “I thought the Zelturians declared the Sol system off limits, even to we Retikkees.”

“That proclamation was made five million years ago. It no longer applies.”

“Even so, when have we Retikkees ever gone against the Lords of Time?”

“When they refused to take sides in our war with the Vijics.”

“Well, they have been in seclusion for the last million and a half years, and they do see both us and the Vijics as their children. You can hardly blame them.”

His father huffed. “We Retikkees fight for law and order. They should side with us.”

Un shook his head, realizing that his father was beyond persuading, and eyed the Retikkee vessel. An older design from the looks of it, probably by a few decades, maybe even more, but still space worthy. Not his first choice. Did it have self-replicating nanoparticles?

Un frowned. “Why do I have the feeling that this is a less than glamorous assignment?”

“Be grateful that I was able to get you this,” his father said. They descended to the lower deck and approached the vessel. “Now, seven years ago, an At-ka-ti freighter briefly jumped into the Sol system. They intercepted a transmission, one sent from Earth.”

Un turned. “The Orrorins have developed long range communications?”

“Humans. They refer to themselves as humans these days, but yes, they have.”

“And this happened seven years ago. Why are we only now investigating it?”

“It was deemed a low priority, and you know how the protocol works—”

“In situations like this,” Un finished. “Yes, yes. We mustn’t deviate from protocol.”

“Sarcasm is unbecoming of a Retikkee, Son. I advise that you reframe from using it.”

***

His father gave Engineer Un a tour of the four-deck vessel before leaving. The thing was even more antiquated than Un originally assumed. He thought about refusing the assignment, but then remembered that the alternative was being exiled to a penal colony.

He brought his stuff to his cabin and got himself settled in before heading to the bridge. By the time he reached it, the crew was doing final pre-flight checks.

Navigator Zi sat at the helm. Un had already served two tours with the self-righteous jackass and was again considering declining the assignment.

He manned the console beside him. “Am I the only one troubled by the state of this death trap?” Un asked. “You do realize there’s no warpgate where we’re going. If we crash on Earth, and if somehow, we get captured by the humans and if the Collective Will decides to send a starcruiser to negotiate for our return, it will take two years to reach us?”

Zi waved a hand over his console. “Humanity doesn’t even rate a Type One Civilization. It can get away with sending an escort ship, which can arrive in seven days.”

“Yay, seven days at the mercy of the humans. That’s going to be fun.”

“The Collective Will shelters all. You’ve spent too much time among aliens, Un. They’ve twisted your sense of our collectivist identity.”

“Forgive me if I attach a value to my life.” Un brought up the ship’s directory and performed a diagnostic on the ship’s micro neutron star. What he saw greatly disturbed him. “A sixty-petawatt core? I thought those were decommissioned ages ago.”

“She’s old, but she can still go four thousand times the speed of light. Communicator Tu, traffic control has given us permission to depart.”

“Navigator, you may depart when ready,” Tu said.

“Exiting the hanger and accelerating to maximum atmospheric velocities,” Zi said.

Un gazed up at the main viewing screen. The flying saucer climbed into orbit and headed for one of the warpgates at the edge of the solar system.

Hours passed before Un caught his first glimpse of the moon-size structure. The warpgate pulsated with energy. Lightning webbed towards its center, forming a tear in spacetime, a ten-dimensional singularity or wormhole. Formless, its surface became a reflection of the cosmos itself, which came to mirror them as they neared its event horizon.

Un closed his eyes. He hated this part. The transition was supposed to be instantaneous, but because of a wormhole’s nature, which existed partly outside our universe, the brain was tricked into believing that there was a time delay, and the experience was most unpleasant. It started with a numbing sensation, followed by a feeling of vertigo. Un’s stomach churned, and he fought to keep it from spilling its contents over his dashboard. Eventually, it subsided.

Un opened his eyes and checked his console. They’d reappeared twenty-one light years from their starting point. Another wave of the hand informed him that the negative mass bubble had expanded, thus propelling their craft forward at near relativistic speeds.

“We’ve left the warpgate and have achieved 99.2% light speed,” Un said. “Core is optimal. The structural integrity field and negative mass bubble are at 100%.”

“I can confirm that,” Zi said. “Calculating a hyperjump to the Sol system.”

“At cruising speed, we should reach the Sol system in seventy-two hours,” Un said.

Zi made a gesture. “Is that frustration I hear in your thoughts?”

“I’m not eager to get there, but neither do I like waiting in hyperspace.”.

“Well, again, we could be taking a two-year long trip on a starcruiser.”

“At least it has amenities, not to mention a space time distortion field.”

“Our particle shields are more than sufficient.”

Un made a hand signal and brought up the shield’s schematics. Again, he didn’t like what he saw. “So long as the humans don’t have nuclear missiles.”

“No missile the humans can build can catch this ship.”

“I rather not risk it. Not in this death trap. We should’ve built a warpgate long ago.”

“Humanity doesn’t warrant a warpgate at this time,” Tu said.

“Yes, but what about Un’s overinflated sense of importance?” Zi asked. “The Collective Will forbid if he has to be inconvenienced, even in the slightest.”

Un gazed at the navigator. “You do know sarcasm is unbecoming of a Retikkee?”

Zi sent the telepathic equivalent of a chuckle. “Engaging hyperdrive in five… four… three... two…” He gestured. “And one.”

The flying saucer transitioned from normal space to the swirling ether of hyperspace.

***

A few hours later, after making unsanctioned modifications to the ship’s engines – Engineer Un saw no reason why he couldn’t apply some of the more advanced engineering techniques to get them to Earth a little sooner – he headed for the mess hall.

Like the exterior of the vessel, the hallways were in a constant state of change. Not only did sections of the walls hover but moved, revealing the innerworkings underneath. Doors formed using a similar mechanism, and Un passed through one.

“Three centuries,” Un mumbled. “I’m going to spend the next three centuries observing a bunch of hairless primates scratch their asses.”

“Three centuries is the average time it takes for a species to go from developing radio-based communications to becoming a Type One Civilization.” A female Retikkee floated towards him. “Personally, I can’t wait to watch them from a far, as well as analyze Mars’ and Venus’ atmosphere and soil to determine why they became uninhabitable.”

“Only a member of the Scientist Caste could find digging up dead worlds interesting.”

The Retikkee female glided past him. “Well, we need to know exactly why they became barren before we can activate the terraformation array satellite.”

Un stopped in his tracks. “We have a terraformation array?”

The Retikkee female headed for the food replicator. With her mind, she caused water to exit a nozzle, loop several times in the air and fly into her mouth. “Yep, we have a terraformation array.” She extended her hand. “By the way, I’m Scientist Li.”

Un grimaced. “What in the Collective Will are you doing?”

“I’m greeting you,” she explained. “According to the data files the At-ka-ti vessel supplied us with, this is how humans greet each other for the first time.”

Un eyed her hand. “Yeah… I’m not doing that. Ever.”

“You’re choice.” Li grabbed several larva-like creatures and placed them in her bowl.

Un examined her, noting how her enlarged cranium pulsated with a pinkish glow, as well as the sharpness of her jawbone and the softness of her eyes, the latter being as dark as black holes and just as hypnotic. Un cursed himself for his stupidity.

He grabbed a bowl and joined her. “Look, that came off wrong. I didn’t mean to be rude. Okay, maybe I did. Anyways, I’m Engineer Un.”

“Nice to meet you, Engineer Un.” She reached for some fruit.

Un plopped some grubs into his bowl and followed her to the table. “So, were you joking about us having a terraformation array satellite?”

Li blinked. “You know Retikkees cannot tell a lie.”

“No, we can’t answer a direct question with a falsehood. Sarcasm is a form of open lying.”

“My father told me that sarcasm, and humor in general, is only used by those with low IQs and that I should never ever date such men.”

Un cringed. “He told you that, did he?

“Oh, yes. He was very explicit.”

“And do you always listen to your father?”

“Always. Anyways, no, I wasn’t joking. We have a terraformation array satellite.”

“Why would we have one of those? This isn’t a battlecruiser.”

“Protocol only requires that they be transported in battlecruisers when being moved outside of Retikkee space. Mars and Venus, however, resides deep within our territory.”

Un took a seat at the table and started to toy with his food. “Still, had I known we had one on board, I would have opted for exile.”

Li gave him a look. “Don’t you want Mars and Venus to be habitable again?”

“Sure, I just want to be far away when the thing goes off.”

“They’re perfectly safe when handled properly. You have nothing to fear.”

Li plucked a larva out of her bowl with two fingers. She bit down and tore the critter in two, its blood splashing against her lips, a light yellow.

Mesmerized by her beauty, Un goggled at her every act, his heart pumping rapidly.

“Are you going to consume your grub?” Li asked.

Un’s eyes glazed over. “Say what now?”

“Well, are you just going to sit there and stare or are you going to eat as well.”

“Oh, of course.” He shoved a handful of grubs into his mouth. “Um, yummy.”

Li gave him a look of disgust, then went back to enjoying her meal. Un pondered on how he could salvage the situation and win her over.

Li slurped from her juice box. “I’ve been reading up on the humans, or what they were like during the War of the Ancients. Very primitive. Bipedal and with dexterous hands but lacked the cognitive faculties to make tools. Of course, that’s no longer the case.”

Un shrugged. “Well, I hear they’ve finally gotten rid of the body hair and that nasty habit of eating whatever they pick off each other’s backs. That’s something I guess.”

“Okay. Anyways, the records also mentioned an Engineer Un. Said that he played a pivotal role in saving mankind from extinction. Was that you?”

Un beamed her a grin. “Yeah. I was part of Princess Shakti’s unit during the war.”

Li’s eyes widened. “You fought alongside Princess Shakti?”

Un nodded.

“Wow. I’m jealous. Really.”

Sensing that this was his opportunity to impress her, he said, “Yeah, Princess Shakti and I were tight. I also met her father, King Brumah. We were cool.”

Li giggled. “I’ve always wanted to meet a Zelturian, especially the King of Time. The Collective Will must hold a lot of confidence in you.”

“The Collective Will probably regrets letting me join her unit. I know my father does.”

Li leaned in. “What was it like… well, you know… fighting ‘them’?”

“Most hate saying their name, as if speaking it aloud will make them return and resume their war. The Zelturians just call them the Evil Ones.”

“The Evil Ones? Not as sinister sounding, but still, very descriptive. So, what was it like?”

“The Evil Ones were a horror beyond imagination. Their leviathans ate stars. Literally. And even with quantum phase cannons, they were almost impossible to kill, and in truth, you couldn’t. You could only destroy the shell that contained their psionic essence. Eventually, they would return, just as powerful as before. As for their ground forces—”

“I always wondered why the Evil Ones needed ground forces.”

“Leviathans couldn’t be everywhere at once, and they were defenseless in their larva state. And there were times when they couldn’t near a world, as was the case with Earth… Earth…”

Un stopped and relived the Battle of Earth: the mad dash to gather the humans and lead them to safety, the Leviathan taunting them, her voice the wind itself, her dark servants, winged demons consumed in an undying fire and the death of a close friend. It had taken place five million years ago, and yet still it felt like it happened only yesterday.

Un shuddered and said, “We Elder Races drove them from the Earth, and later into a black hole, but at a heavy price. The Vijics were still our allies back then.”

“It’s hard to believe that we were ever allied with those lizards,” Li said

Un frowned. “The Vijics? How old are you?”

“Oh, I’m only seventeen thousand. I don’t know if I could have faced the Evil Ones.”

Un smiled. She thought him brave. Good. He might have a chance with her. “Well, I wasn’t always the confident and charming Retikkee you see today. Once, I was quite timid and unsure of myself, but fighting the Evil Ones toughened me up. You would have done well. Just believe in yourself, and don’t care what other people say or think of you.”

Li angled her head slightly. “That’s a very unretikkee thing to say.”

Un grinned. “I guess I’m not your run-of-the-mill Retikkee. I’m unique.”

Li sipped her drink. “I prefer run-of-the-mill Retikkees.”

Un slouched and thought, good going, Un. You just turned off the only female on this ship. Now you’ve got to spend another three hundred years a virgin.

***

Two days later, a Vijic sat on a jagged throne. He eyed the bridge he lorded over and the world that hovered beyond it. Minions toiled on the lower decks, piloting the great dreadnaught, which firepower could reduce the planet to atoms. He sometimes toyed with the idea of ordering its seven quantum phase cannons to fire on the Earth and annihilate it.

With a goblet of human blood in one hand, he surveyed the world, whose citizens he manipulated for the betterment of his people and to the detriment of theirs.

“Royal Advisor,” a minion said, “I’m detecting a Retikkee ship on an inbound vector.”

Royal Advisor Kamru Mazdah’s right eyebrows cocked. A fork tongue escaped his mouth, a mouth full of razor sharp teeth. He hissed. “Activate the cloaking device.”

“The ship is phasing into dark space,” a minion said. “We’re cloaked.”

“Good.” Kamru Mazdah turned. “Are you sure the vessel is of Retikkee origin?”

“Yes, its trajectory will bring it towards the Earth,” the first minion said.

He chuckled and took a sip of his drink. “Seven years. Just as I predicted.” He got out of his throne. “Engage the gravity projectors. Cripple, but don’t destroy it.”

“Understood, Royal Advisor. Warming up gravity projectors.”

Kamru Mazdah sat down. “Now, the next phase of my plan for humanity can begin.”

***

Engineer Un floated at his work station. He glanced forward, the blue ether of hyperspace taking up the entire view screen, which was hypnotic in its beauty. He performed a last-minute system check before they reverted into normal space, his hands a blur.

Beside him, Navigator Zi worked his controls. “Exiting hyperspace in fifteen—”

The swirling blue ether of hyperspace vanished, and normal space took up the monitor. The stars spun, or so Un thought until he realized that it was they who were spinning. Sparks leapt from control panels, and inertial dampers went offline.

Un flew backwards and hit the bulkhead, his personal energy shield flashing across his face. His suit screamed and told him that his shields had been depleted.

“Negative mass/vacuum drive is offline,” Zi said, who held onto his console for dear life. “We’re in an uncontrolled spin. Unable to compensate.”

“Tell us something we don’t know.” Un used his telekinesis to push himself forward. He reached his terminal and inputted a command. A humming sound roared beneath them. The room stopped spinning, and the inertial dampers came back online.

Un took a breather and examined the console. “Navigator Zi, what did you do? Half the ship’s systems have burned out. Life support is dying.”

Zi turned. “Me? Why are you blaming this on me?”

“Well, we were in hyperspace. That’s your department. Put two and two together.”

“And maintaining the ship is yours. Maybe you neglected a procedure. Again.”

“Enough,” Communicator Tu screamed. “Finger pointing isn’t going to improve our situation.” He glanced to the right. “What do the sensors say?”

“The sensors are out,” Scientist Xee said. “All we have is the main viewer.”

“So, we have no idea what just happened,” Tu said.

“I can eventually reconstruct the incident using the data stored in the black box,” Un said, “but the connectors were severed. I’ll have to rig a bypass.”

Tu gripped his console. “How long will that take?”

“A few hours, but that’s the least of our worries,” Un said. “Life support is dying. I give it less than three hours and our cloaks seventeen. Then we’re dead.”

“Doesn’t this ship have self-regenerative nanoparticles?” Zi asked.

“No, this ship is older than you. Why do you think I declared it a flying death trap?”

“Then we’ll have to land and make repairs,” Tu said.

“I don’t recommend a planetary re-entry given the ship’s current condition,” Un said.

“We have no choice,” Tu said. “We must make repairs.”

“This is a collective,” Un said. “I say we put it to a vote.”

Tu agreed, and the eight members of the crew melded their minds. In the collective consciousness, nothing could be truly hidden. Secrets would be revealed so long as you knew the right question to ask and emotions were shared. That scared Un. A lot. There were things about what he’d done to the ship he didn’t want the others to know.

Un struggled to keep those emotions partitioned, aware that if they asked he would have to answer truthfully. He used the knowledge he’d learned during his time spent among the Zelturians and the Vijics and focused on the task at hand. He casted his vote, waited for the others to make theirs and hid his disappointment when he lost.

Everyone opened their eyes, and Tu declared, “It has been deliberated. Navigator Zi, plot us a course to the Earth. We’re making landfall.”

***

At four-tenths the speed of light, the best they could manage under the circumstances, it took their flying saucer fourteen hours to reach Earth’s orbit.

Engineer Un stared out at the planet. Earth hadn’t changed much in the last five million years. The biggest difference was the large concentration of lights on the planet’s dark side, a sign that humanity had finally built cities and mastered electricity.

He checked his terminal again. “Despite my repairs, we continue to lose systems. Shields are down, and structural integrity is at 11%. Again, I’d advise against planetary re-entry.”

“What about the teleporters?” Communicator Tu asked. “Can we beam down to the planet?”

Un shrugged. “That depends. Do you mind rematerializing inside-out?”

Tu huffed. “Is everything a joke to you?”

“No, but given our situation, we need a little humor,” Un grumbled. “Do all of you realize that we’re carrying a terraformation array satellite?”

“The machine has been deactivated,” Scientist Xee said.

“Fine, but if Earth is transformed into a volcano world, just remember I told you so.”

Zi turned. “We Retikkees can fly. Why not park this ship in orbit and descend to the surface?”

“We need gravity to fly, at least a quarter g,” Un said. “We would have to bring the ship within Earth’s gravity before we could depart.”

Zi snorted. “I don’t see the problem with that.”

“Well, for a time, the negative mass bubble would keep the ship from being pulled downed Earth’s gravity well, but when it fails…” Un slammed his fist against his console.

“We have telekinesis. We can just lower the ship to the ground with our thoughts.” Un slapped his forehead. “The ship we could manage, but the neutron star at its core weighs over 8 trillion kilograms! Do you have any idea how much damage that would cause if it hit the Earth at terminal velocities? Let me paint you a picture. Death of the Dinosaurs, Part Two.”

“Engineer Un, you know the ship’s safeguards would never permit that,” Xee said.

Un turned and snapped. “Do you want to risk it with this death trap? Besides, if that happens, then we would be without power. How do you suggest we get back into space?”

Tu straightened his cloak and faced forward. “This discussion is irrelevant. The collective has already deliberated. Our course is set. Navigator Zi, take us down.”

Un sighed and cursed his people’s collective stubbornness. If only he was born a Zelturian…

Zi worked his controls. “Reducing to atmospheric velocities.”

They banked towards the Earth, their trajectory bringing them over North America. The bridge wobbled. Lights flickered overhead, but no sparks blew.

“So far, so good,” Un said. “Maybe I was wrong. Maybe we’ll—”

A light on his console blinked. According to the readout, the negative mass bubble surrounding the flying saucer was disintegrating. He typed away on the control, a desperate attempt to reinitialize the engines, but nothing seemed to work.

The ship shook. Un looked up and gasped. On the forward viewing screen, friction built up on the vessel’s edges, and parts began to burn and fly off.

“Negative mass/vacuum drive down,” Zi cried from his terminal. “Engaging emergency thrusters, maximum forward power. Attempting to reduce our descent.”

“I’m heading for main engineering,” Un said and floated off the bridge and down a corridor. He was met by Scientist Li. She escorted him to main engineering, which through a canopy, looked out at the neutron star that rested at the vessel’s core.

“The neutron star is beginning to destabilize,” Un said. “Scientist Li, get to the other console. I’m going to bombard it with vorlon particles.”

Li got behind the terminal. “What do you need me to do?”

“Just monitor the power output,” he said. “And tell me if the neutron star fluctuates below thirty-five petawatts and above sixty-seven petawatts.”

Un began injecting vorlon particles into the core, hoping that would increase the neutron degeneracy pressure. It was this pressure that determined the rate of decay within the pulsar. When neutrons decayed, they converted about 0.08% of their mass into energy according to the equation E=MC square. Only a minuscule amount was needed to power the ship.

The trick was maintaining the right pressure. Too little pressure and more neutrons would decay than the emitters could handle, damaging them and triggering a chain reaction. The safety systems would funnel the decaying neutrons into another dimension, otherwise the explosion would boil Earth’s oceans away, but it would also tear the ship apart. Too much pressure would be worse. It would turn the star into a black hole, and then they would be crushed.

Mindful of this, Un carefully adjusted the flow. “I think we’ve done it. We just got to—”

Explosions detonated throughout engineering. His cloak’s energy shields took the brunt, flaring dark blue, blue and finally light blue before flickering out.

A greenish mist erupted from a conduit above and flooded the compartment with yeta gas!

Un extended a psionic barrier. He fought to filter out the harmful particles but couldn’t separate them from life-sustaining oxygen. He coughed, the gas attacking the regions of his brain related to his psionic abilities, and he could feel his power waning.

He placed a hand over his mouth and wheezed. “Shields, reinitialize. Reinitialize damn it.”

Another explosion rocked the room. Un turned to see a fireball fling Li across main engineering. He caught her with his telekinesis but lost his grip. She continued on her original trajectory and flew through several glass panels before hitting a wall.

More explosions bellowed. Un managed to block them with a psionic barrier. Then the neutron star collapsed. The rapidly decaying neutrons were shunted into an extradimensional portal, saving the Earth from certain destruction, but the portal’s gravitational eddies battered the hull. The metal began to distort, and fractures formed.

A breach appeared, and Un found himself sucked out of it. As he tumbled to the Earth, a piece of debris hit his head and his world went black.

***

Thirty minutes later, Kamru Mazdah made a hand gesture and a liquid monitor formed before him. An image of a cornfield appeared over it, and it was blurred by smoke. The picture also shook, indicating that the camera was in motion. Clawed hands sometimes appeared on the edge of the display, each big enough to encompass a man’s torso.

“I’ve reached the crash site,” his agent said. The smoke peeled away to reveal a flying saucer at the heart of the cornfield, with a Retikkee corpse laying a few yards off.

“Odd. You’d think a Retikkee could survive a planetary re-entry.” His agent’s nostrils flared. “Wait. I smell something. A gas. Looks to be coming from the core.”

“Yeta gas,” Kamru Mazdah explained. “Needed for cooling their negative mass/vacuum drives, but it does have the known side effect of weakening their psionic powers when inhaled. Their version of Kryptonite. That’s why they didn’t survive the crash.”

“It weakens them? If that’s true, why haven’t we turned it into a weapon?”

“We have. We’re in the process of devising an effective delivery system. Now proceed.”

His agent nodded, then ripped open a section of the ship and peeked inside. Several Retikkees rested in the bridge, most dead, though two were in critical condition. His agent ignored them, reached for a terminal and a device materialized in his hand.

The sphere glowed, and parts of the console lit up. A holographic display formed overhead.

“I’ve gained access. Bringing up the ship’s manifest,” his agent said.

Retikkee glyphs scrolled right to left on the holographic monitor.

“A terraformation array satellite?” Kamru Mazdah asked. “No doubt they intended to restore Mars and Venus. We could make use of it. Show me the crew.”

His agent inputted a command, and the crew’s profiles appeared.

“Stop,” Kamru Mazdah said. “Go back to the second last portrait.”

The agent did, revealing Engineer Un’s repugnant face. The sight of him made Kamru Mazdah’s anger boil, and his fists tightened. “Un, my old nemesis.”

“Royal Advisor, are you familiar with this Retikkee?”

“Oh, yes. Very much so. You could say that we go way back. Is he among the dead?”

The agent accessed the mainframe. It displayed a schematic of the ship. “No, my lord. A piece of the ship broke off. I believe he and another were in it.”

“Good.” Kamru Mazdah clasped his claws together. “Retrieve the tachyon transceiver, the black box and the terraformation array satellite. We can repair the transceiver and send Retikkee Prime a fake message saying the crew has arrived safely.”

“Of course, my lord. I will bring you the device. What of the rest?”

Kamru Mazdah waved a hand. “Doesn’t matter. Leave it for the humans to find and begin your search for Engineer Un. But don’t harm him. Is that understood?”

“Did I hear you correctly? You don’t want me to terminate him or his friend?”

“Yes, just make sure they don’t contact their people or uncover our operation.”

“I understand, Royal Advisor, and I will obey. Alo Dinta out.”

The transmission ended, and Kamru Mazdah reclined in his throne. “Imagine the irony. The last time we saw each other was on this very world five million years ago, our respective people engaged in a foolish quest to save the humans.”

Kamru Mazdah closed his eyes and recalled the battle with the Evil Ones. His back sail vibrated, his breathing quickened, which drove his tail to thrash about. “You left my beloved to die, Un. You left her to die. Now I’m going to take everything from you.”

***

Engineer Un awoke to a darken sky, his body hurting all over. He tried to levitate in the air, but remained earth bound. Unsure why he couldn’t float, let alone fly high among the clouds, he pushed his limbs and forced himself to his feet. His muscles ached.

Once standing, Un scanned his environment. A section of the ship rested against a large tree, bent sideways and on fire, and beside it was Scientist Li.

Both mental and vocal cries echoed in the distance, a warning that they would soon have company. Un lumbered towards Li and picked her up. He sent a mental command to the nanobots in his body. He could feel them going to work, enhancing his strength and giving him the endurance needed to haul her across the landscape.

Hours ticked by before he was certain it was safe to put her down and make camp. He gathered twigs to build a campfire. Then he struggled to cause the air molecules around them to twirl, but no flame emerged. He tried again. Nothing. Damn.

Frustrated, Un grabbed two sticks and started rubbing them together.

“Why aren’t you using your pyrokinesis to produce a flame?” Li asked.

Un turned. “I hit my head in the fall, not to mentioned I inhaled large amounts of yeta gas. My psionic powers aren’t all there.”

“Do you think the damage is permanent?”

Un closed his eyes and scanned his body with his telepathy. He could visualize the damaged parts of his brain. Nanobots were already making repairs. “No, but it will take my nanobots time to undo the damage. Until then, I’m grounded.”

“I’ve never flown on a planet with this level of gravity before,” Li said.

“Then you shouldn’t try, especially if I’m not able to catch you. How bad are your wounds?”

“My nanobots are malfunctioning, and I have several ruptured organs. I’m currently using my telekinesis to prevent myself from bleeding out.”

Un pondered her words. “You cannot keep that up indefinitely.”

Li squinted. “I have little choice. If I die, so do you.”

Un recollected their race’s unique biology. “Yes, well, it might not come to that. Some of the others might still be alive, but in an unconscious state.”

“Still, until we know for sure, I am your only hope of survival.”

“You’re not going to die. Okay? And not just because of my account. You’re too young to die. Besides, if anyone should die, it should be me.”

Un resumed rubbing the sticks together. A fire burst into existence. He turned to Li and said, “Don’t. You need to conserve your strength.”

“I just wanted to see if my fire powers work.” Blood dripped from her nose.

“Yeah, and you’re bleeding out. Stop.” Un put some leaves on the fire and then started scavenging for food and maybe some herbs to help Li. He found earthworms that looked tasty and some plant life that might have medicinal properties. He brought them back and treated his colleague’s wounds as best he could before he stopped to eat.

He handed Li an earthworm and slurped one down himself. “Um. Good. Kind of reminds me of the gugu larva my mother would feed me as a kid.”

“Yes, yummy. It’s good to know we won’t be starving anytime soon.”

Resting beside her, Un examined his cloak. It was in tatters, and the metal crest totaled. “My personal energy shield is a bust. What about yours?”

“The same is true with mine. We’re in bad shape, aren’t we?”

“Well, let me put it this way: a human could probably take us both on right about now.”

“Please, we’re an Elder Race. We could level their armies with but a wave of our hands.”

“If we had our powers, sure, but mine are at minimal, and yours… well…” Un looked up at the stars. “I’ll get us home. I don’t know how yet, but I will. I promise.”

Li reached for his hand and grabbed it. “I know you will. You’re a good man.”

Un took a deep breath and exhaled. Minutes passed before fatigue set in. His eyelids grew heavy, his breathing shallowed and he fell to sleep.

***

Days later, General Jeffery di Conti drove alongside a runway, the largest in America, maybe the world, as he made his way to a hangar on the opposite side of Area 51, a top-secret airfield located near Groom Lake, New Mexico. Experimental aircrafts ran down the runway, some of which were equipped with those fancy new jet engines. They blasted his ears.

Di Conti brought his jeep to a stop and got out. He entered the hanger to find wreckage laid neatly in rows, all made of a strange silver metal. He noticed complex patterns etched into it and that sometimes, electricity rolled across it.

He took out his pipe and lit it. “What on God’s Green Earth am I looking at?”

His assistant came up behind him. “A farmer found it in his cornfield near the city of Roswell. Personally, I think it’s some kind of Soviet spy plane.”

“I’ve never seen the Soviets or even the Nazis build anything like this. Are you sure?”

“The scientists… well, they have their own theory about what it is?”

Di Conti snorted. “Scientists. They are all goddam commies.”

“They do think they know more than we God-fearing Christians.”

“Have you heard Senator Joe McCarthy speak?”

“Yes. He has a way with words. Almost poetic.”

“He’s right,” di Conti said. “America is a Christian nation, and anyone who doesn’t bend a knee to Jesus is a traitor. And yet we allow ‘them’ to fill up our universities. Einstein. Oppenheimer. They hide behind their Jewish ancestry, but they’re no good atheists. We should pass a law requiring people to pledge allegiance to God and hang those that don’t.”

Di Conti walked away and got back in his jeep. He headed for the medical facility. Additional guards stood at its entrance. They saluted him.

One escorted di Conti to a special room. A glass window took up the northern side, and beyond it was a surgical theater. A body bag laid on the operation table.

A doctor appeared and unzipped the body bag, revealing a creature. Only the head was visible, which was much larger than a human’s. The rest was concealed beneath a cloak held up by a highly ornamental metal crest, made of that same supernatural material, and covered the being’s neck, upper chest, and shoulders. It curled up at the back to create a frill and ended in what looked like stylized wings. A levitating crown completed the getup.

The doctor began doing measurements. “Height is about three feet and seven inches. All the other corpses we’ve recovered were observed to be roughly the same height, so unless they’re all children, we can assume that this is the average height for their species.”

The doctor parted the creature’s eyelids. “The eyes are completely black and lacking any notable pupils. The structure makes me think of a squid.”

The man dug into a break in the cloak’s fabric and pulled out a slender arm. “The entity’s hand ends in three digits and with no opposable thumbs. Interesting.”

Di Conti leaned towards the microphone. “What have you found?”

The man looked up. “Well, general, it appears that its fingers end with tiny suction cups. That would explain for the lack of opposable thumbs.”

Di Conti gripped his chin, deeply disturbed. “So, what are we dealing with here, doctor? Deformed Russians or butt ugly Chinese?”

The doctor stared at him, confused. “Sir, I think this is an extraterrestrial.”

Di Conti huffed. “There is no such thing. Could this be a demon?”

The man frowned. “Beg your pardon, sir?”

“You heard me. I asked you if it was a servant of Lucifer. A child of the pitt. A fallen angel.”

“No disrespect, general, but no. The most likely explanation is that it’s a Martian. An E.T.”

“Are you a God-fearing man, son? How often do you go to church?”

“What does my church attendance have to do with my work?”

Di Conti snarled. “Which church do you belong to?”

“None. I’m an atheist.”

Di Conti cut the mic and looked at his assistant. “Escort this godless commie out of my base and never let him back in, do I make myself clear?”

His assistant nodded, and a minute later, military police entered the surgical theater and escorted the doctor out. Di Conti watched, a smile creeping on his face.

He departed and strolled down a hallway. His assistant struggled to catch up. “Sir, we have two living specimens in critical condition. What should we do with them?”

Di Conti turned to his assistant. “Put a bullet between their eyes.”

His assistant gulped. “Sir, President Truman would not approve of such—”

“I don’t care. This is my base, and I’m not wasting money trying to save the lives of demons.”

Di Conti exited the building and headed for his jeep. He was intercepted halfway. The soldier saluted and said, “General, we found another crash site and tracks leading away.”

Di Conti sighed. “So, there are more survivors. Send your troops to scour the countryside. I want those demons found and killed. Is that clear?”

***

Engineer Un and Scientists Li had spent the week hiding in the wilderness. They had received no word from the others, and at this point, assumed the worst.

They went in search for the crash site, which brought them to what they concluded was a human farm. Warriors dressed in green uniforms and armed with primitive rifles were all over it. They waited until it was dark before sneaking past them.

Other than a few scraps of metal, they found no trace of their ship or their friends, though lingering psionic echoes told them several had died here, including Communicator Tu, Navigator Zi and Scientist Xee. Realizing that the humans had hauled their flying saucer to some undisclosed location, the two departed the farm and returned to their campsite.

Un rested by the campfire and brooded. He did not think the humans capable of reverse engineering the technologies contained within their ship. It might be old and obsolete by Retikkee standards, but it was still millions of years ahead of human science.

No, it was the equipment they had been transporting that concerned him, particularly the terraformation array satellite. If the humans somehow managed to turn it on…

Un shivered and swore to himself that he would find and destroy that thing.

He spent his time watching over Li. Her breathing was steady and calculated. She had taken complete control over her autonomic functions, regulating how fast her heart pumped blood to how much oxygen her blood cells circulated to even which parts of her body would receive blood. Her lower limbs were already showing signs of bad circulation, her toes pale and dry, even purple as the cells started to die from a lack of oxygen.

She was trying to limit the bleeding, but also the extent to which she had to use her telekinesis, but in doing so, she was sapping herself of her strength.

On the eighth night, Un decided that he could no longer stand by and watch her suffer. Risky or not, he was going to get her medical attention.

He carried Li several miles until they arrived at a small city. He tapped her on the cheeks. “Wake up. Hey, wake up. I have need of your assistance.”

Her eyelids retracted. “Where are we? Why did you bring me to a human settlement? I thought we both agreed that it was too dangerous to go near them.”

“You weren’t getting better, but we can’t go around looking as we do.” He scanned the horizon, the cybernetic implants in his eyes converting the low-level light into high resolution images. He spotted a billboard off in the distance. He pointed to it. “Do you see that married couple on the large sign over there? I think we should go as them.”

“Do you think you can manage projecting a mental illusion?”

“Well, my telepathy still works so yeah. It’s more my psionic powers that are a bust.”

Un shut his eyes and imagined himself the handsome man on the billboard. He sent that image in all directions as a telepathic wave, which would be picked up by the human’s primary visual cortex, the part of their brain that processed visual stimuli.

He turned and noted that Li had done the same, though she had taken on the likeness of the woman, her shirt covered with red human blood.

Un sent his thoughts as soundwaves. “So, did it work?”

Li turned and said, “Yeah. What about me? Am I beautiful?”

“With humans, it’s hard to say, but I imagine you will turn a few heads.”

She gave him a scowl. “You really know how to make a lady feel special.”

“Sorry if I don’t find hairless apes attractive. I do think you’re quite stunning as yourself.”

Un carried Li through the deserted streets. He examined the words on the shops. Using his knowledge of alien languages, he looked for patterns in the letters. It appeared that the humans used a phonics-based system and that each letter represented a sound. He quickly built up a vocabulary. Now he just needed to give them meaning.

Un expanded the range of his telepathy. It hurt like hell, and he discovered that his range was a tiny fraction of what it should be, but he could pick up several sleeping minds. He delved in and gave the words sounds and meaning. Now he could speak and read English.

Un translated the signs on the stores, looking for a hospital or some kind of medical center. His eyes fell on one that read Roswell Animal Shelter.

He brought Li to the front door and tried to turn the nob. It wouldn’t budge.

“Scientist Li, just this once, can you please use your powers and burn the lock for me?”

“Wait,” she said. “What happens if we get caught and the humans ask us questions? You know we Retikkees are incapable of lying. Our telepathic link prevents it.”

“True, we cannot tell a falsehood, but we can mislead.”

“I don’t understand.”

“For example, we can say that we are from out of town. That doesn’t reveal our extraterrestrial nature while still being technically true.”

“Interesting. How did you come to learn this unique skill?”

“Angra Manta taught me, back when Vijics and Retikkees were still friends.”

“Well, I should have known that it had something to do with the Vijics. Deceit is their specialty, and befriending one? You should be a shame of yourself.”

“This was before the war. Besides, Angra Manta isn’t your typical Vijic.”

“How would you… Have you been staying in contact with him?”

Un looked the other way.

“Engineer Un, by the Collective Will, answer the question.”

Un sighed. “Yes. Yes, I have.”

“You know that communicating with the enemy is a treasonous offense.”

“Yeah, well, this war of ours has been going on for a million years with no end in sight. Someone needs to talk, or it’ll go on for another million years.”

“You’ve put me in a very difficult position. You realize that, right?”

“I know. Won’t blame you if you rat me out. It is the Retikkee thing to do.”

“Yes, that’s true.” Li rested her head on his shoulder. “But for now, I’ll pretend that we never had this conversation.”

“You do realize that you cannot tell a lie.”

“True, but if they never ask…” Li waved a hand, and the lock burned, and the nob turned. The door opened on its own, as if it was moved by the wind.

Un walked through it. “Now, let’s see if we can get you fixed up.”

***

It was very early in the morning, the sun not having fully risen over the horizon, when veterinarian Hannah Marshall drove up to the Roswell Animal Shelter in her red convertible. She got out and made her way to the front door. When she reached for the handle—

“Ouch!” She examined the nob. Something or someone had melted through the lock. It was still hot, and she had to wrap a cloth around it before she could turn it.

Hannah peeked through the doorway. The lights were off, the room filled with unwelcoming shadows. She crept in and grabbed a nearby stool and raised it like it was a baseball bat. She headed for the rear of the animal shelter, where the medicine was kept.

There she found a man and a woman. The woman rested on the metal table where Hannah performed surgery on dogs and cats, while the man rummaged through the medical cabinet. “I’ve seen Kilta hospitals with more sophisticated tools. At least the catmen have the excuse of being too preoccupied with dying a warrior’s death to care much for medicine.”

“Well, that’s not a fair comparison,” the woman said. “Kiltas are tens of thousands of—”

Hannah stepped into view, her stool raised. “Excuse me. What are you two doing here? Answer quickly, or I swear to God I’ll call the police.”

The man held up his hands. “Wait. Don’t call the cops. We mean you no harm?”

“We’re from out of town,” the woman said.

“Don’t tell her that now,” the man said. “Wait until after she’s asked the question.”

“Well, this misdirection thing is hard.”

“And don’t tell her you’re misdirecting her. That defeats the whole purpose.”

Hannah eyed the two individuals, wondering if they were on psychedelic drugs. Defensively, she readied her stool to strike. “Who are you and what do you want?”.

“Look, my friend is hurt,” the man said. “I just need some medicine and a table to operate on. I promise you we’ll leave right after I fix her up.”

Hannah gazed at the blood covering the woman’s shirt. “I can see that. Look, I’m not indifferent, but this is a vet. Your friend should seek a real doctor.”

“I understand that, but we don’t have any money. Please, just let us do it here.”

“Let me use my mind powers on her,” the woman said.

“No, in your state, you could do irreparable harm,” the man replied.

“Irreparable harm?” Hannah backed up to the phone on the west wall. The man noticed, lunged towards it and said, “Please, don’t. Again, we mean you no harm. I promise.”

“We cannot tell a lie,” the woman said. “It’s kind of our Achilles heel. That and yeta gas.”

“You cannot lie?” Hannah asked. “You just said you’re trying to misdirect me. That’s lying.”

The man turned. “She’s got you there, Li. Still, we meant it when we said we come in peace.”

Hannah eyed the two. They really did seem harmless. She lowered her guard. “Maybe,” she said, “but you can’t stay here. We’ve got to get you to a real hospital.”

“No,” the man said. “Look, we can’t go to a hospital. Can we please do it here?”

“Why not?” Hannah asked. “There’s a clinic a few blocks up the road.”

“Well, for starters, your doctors don’t treat aliens,” the woman said.

The man slapped his forehead. “Why did you tell her that?”

“Aliens? You two don’t look like Mexicans to me. Which nation do you hail from?”

“Not illegal aliens,” the woman said. “Space aliens. As in extraterrestrials. E.Ts.”

Hannah snorted. “What do you mean? Like little green men?”

“More like little grey men,” the man said.

Hannah’s giggles turned to chuckles. “Yeah right, and I’m Gene Tierney.”

The man vanished, as did the woman, and little grey persons did take their place, one of which was covered in a yellow liquid, most likely her blood.

Hannah’s mouth dropped. “Lord Almighty, you are space aliens.”

“Please,” the standing alien said with his thoughts. “Our spaceship crash landed on your world, and my friend needs immediate medical attention.”

“Well, I guess I’m as qualified as any doctor when it comes to space aliens.” Hannah dropped the stool and approached the extraterrestrial on the table. She wore a cloak over her body, one that had been shredded and stained in the yellow liquid. Hannah pushed it aside and noted several gashes, some of which went deep. “How is your friend still alive?”

“We have special abilities,” the standing alien said, “but they do have limits.”

“I have no idea how your biology works, but I guess I could sew up the wounds.”

“I will guide you as best I can,” the standing alien said.

Hannah grabbed her surgical gown, as well as latex gloves and ready herself. Then she dug into the alien’s inner and began getting to work.

***

Kamru Mazdah sat in his throne. The liquid monitor in front of him once again showed the world from his agent’s perspective. The agent held a device that allowed them to see through the concrete walls of the animal shelter. Both watched the human perform surgery on the female Retikkee, trying her best to stitch what should be life-ending injuries.

“Stopping herself from bleeding out must take most of her concentration,” Kamru Mazdah noted aloud. “I doubt she would be much use in a fight.”

“Other than projecting illusions, the other Retikkee has displayed no psionic feats,” the agent said. “He even seems confined to walking. I didn’t know they could.”

“Retikkees didn’t develop the ability to fly until after they became an Elder Race. Un must have suffered a brain injury. Only his telepathic powers work.”

“Why doesn’t he hijack the human’s brain and control her directly?”

“Mind control is both psionic and telepathic. Still, be careful around him.”

“I’m Vijic. I could take them both on even if they were at full strength.

“It’s them reading your mind and uncovering our operation that concerns me.”

His agent snorted. “I know how to hide my true thoughts from a Retikkee.”

“Maybe, but the risk isn’t worth it. Also, don’t let your ego blind you. If you get between me and my revenge, know that you’ll suffer for it. Avoid direct contact.”

“Of course, my lord. I meant no offense and I will comply. Trust me, no harm will—”

“Groveling won’t improve your situation. Now be silent.” Kamru Mazdah’s tail thrashed against the floor as he considered his options. Part of him yearned to descend to Earth and squeeze the life out of Un but facing him in his current state would hardly be sporting. Besides, he had plans for Un, plans that couldn’t be realized if he were dead.

Kamru Mazdah’s eyes lingered on the human female. “What motivates you, human? They are not your kind. They are strangers, who for all you know could be part of an invasion force. Are you altruistic or just stupid? It’s altruism, isn’t it? How repulsive.”

An idea bubbled up into his twin brains. He cackled. “I think the time has come to begin our little game. Alo Dinta, listen carefully. This is what I want you to do.”

***

Engineer Un directed Hannah as best he could. He was no member of the Medical Caste, but having fought in the War of the Ancients, his knowledge of Retikkee medicine rivaled that of the Warrior Caste, who were often required to perform surgery on the battlefield.

He thought about doing it himself, but he had never worked with such primitive tools before. Instead, he labelled the various organs and explained their functions, as well as told Hannah about nanobots and how they replaced the Retikkee immune system long ago.

“Is there any chance of her catching a virus?” Hannah asked as she removed shrapnel.

“Not on Earth. Your DNA and RNA are too different from ours for that to happen.”

“DNA? RNA? What are they?”

“You humans haven’t discovered the double helix?”

“I guess not. You said your nanobots work. Can you not give her some of yours?”

“Yes, but I would need specialized tools to recalibrate them to her unique physiology.”

Hannah continued her work. Another hour passed before she finished and cleaned herself up. They left Scientist Li to rest on the table while they headed into the other room. Hannah made herself a cup of coffee and sat down beside him. “I’ve removed what shrapnel I could and stitched those wounds big enough, but I’m afraid there is still internal bleeding. All we can do now is wait. Maybe those nanobots of hers will start working again.”

“Doubtful. Them malfunctioning is partly why she can’t heal properly.”

“I’m still unsure how she’s even alive. No human could survive such injuries.”

“Her will is strong, and she’s pushing herself because she knows that if she dies, so will I.”

Hannah drew closer. “Why would you die if she does?”

Un considered his next words carefully. “We Retikkees evolved on a different world, one were all life is telepathic. We don’t have a hypothalamus like you humans do, which regulates your metabolism and other bodily functions. We rely on a telepathic link instead. If two Retikkees are within a light year of each other, it continues to function.”

Hannah turned and gazed at Li. “And you will die when the link is broken.”

Un sighed. “I have lived a long life, but she is still quite young. She would also be the second friend I’ve lost while visiting your planet.”

Hannah frowned. “You’ve visited Earth before?”

“Yes. Long ago, before your recorded history, my people and others drove a terrible evil from your world that meant to destroy your ancestors.”

“Why did they want to wipe my people out?”

“I cannot answer that. We never figured out what their motives were.”

Hannah took a sip of her coffee. “So, who was this friend of yours?”

“Princess Mithra? She was a Vijic. We and our unit were under siege by the enemy. I left to get reinforcements, but by the time I returned—”

“She was already dead,” Hannah finished.

“Yes. Her husband is convinced that I’d purposefully left her to die. He is a member of the Vijic royal house, which my people are currently at war with.”

“Why are your two species at war?”

Un leaned back in his chair. “How do I explain this? We have diametrically opposing views on how best to create Elder Races.”

Hannah scrunched her lips. “What’s an Elder Race?”

“That’s what my people and the Vijics are. Immortal beings with fantastic abilities.”

“And you and the Vijics both want to create more Elder Races?”

Un bobbed his head. “Very much so. But we Retikkees favor working with what we’ve already got: namely sentient species like you, though we typically wait until after you’ve become a Type One Civilization before intervening and beginning the process.

“Understand, it takes millions of years from start to finish. Self-directed evolution cannot be rushed, otherwise the results could be catastrophic. Your powers might become unstable, or you might not be psychologically equipped for immortality or your new abilities. This galaxy is littered with dead worlds belonging to those who couldn’t wait.”

“So, if you weren’t here to meet with us, what were you doing here?” Hannah asked.

“Observing you humans until you became a Type One Civilization and then make first contact. We also came to restore Venus and Mars to their original states.”

“Restore Mars and Venus… Wait. Are you saying that they once had oceans and forests?”

“Yes. When I was last in this system, Mars and Venus looked very much like Earth.”

Hannah gasped. “But we always assumed... Do you know what happen to them?”

Un shook his head. “No. That was one of the mysteries we were hoping to solve.”

Hannah nodded. “Okay, so that’s how your people do it. How do you differ from the Vijics?”

“The Vijics? Think of them as galactic gardeners. They go around the galaxy exterminating sentient species they believe don’t have the potential to become Elder Races, so to allow species that do a chance to evolve. This policy brings them into conflict with us.”

Hannah lowered her coffee and gave Engineer Un a puzzled look. “But if these Vijics are trying to help the galaxy, why do they go to such extremes?”

Un tapped his fingers on the table. He noticed a newspaper lying beside him. An article caught his fancy. He grabbed it and showed it to Hannah.

“Read this. It says here that you humans are testing nuclear bombs.”

“Yes. It was the A-bomb that won us the war with the Japs.”

“Did you know that if you detonate enough of them at once you’ll trigger a nuclear winter?”

“A nuclear winter? Never heard of it. What’s that?”

“It’s a global cooling event that would end most life on the Earth,” Un explained. “This is just one of the many ways you humans are capable of making your world uninhabitable. The cars you drive for example. They pump carbon dioxide into the air. If you don’t switch to alternatives like solar or wind, those gases will change your atmosphere, triggering not a cooling event, but a rapid warming that would make the Earth too hot to live on. Many races have done this, some even aware that doing so would condemn future generations to death.”

He laid the newspaper back down. “The Vijics argue that it’s better to kill a species off that’s unlikely to become an Elder Race before it can destroy its world, which would prevent others that could make the climb from doing so. It’s cruel and inhumane, but logical.”

Hannah paused, then began to stir her coffee. “There’s just one thing I don’t get. Why are you and the Vijics so obsessed with making us immortal?”

“You remember that great evil that tried to wipe out humanity, but which we drove off?”

“Yeah, what about them?”

“Before the Evil Ones showed up, there were hundreds of Elder Races. When the war ended, there were only three: my people, the Vijics and the Zelturians.

Hannah’s eyes widened. “You’re recruiting others to fight the next big bad.”

***

A few weeks later, Engineer Un joined Hannah shopping. He had been hesitant to leave Scientist Li’s side, but after much reassurance, he agreed to go. Besides, if he was going to live on this world for any length of time – and knowing the Collective Will as well as he did, that could be a very long time – he should acclimate to his new environment.

In his human disguise, Un escorted Hannah down main street. It was Saturday, and everyone was outside enjoying the summer breeze. Kids accompanied their parents, some carrying lollipops in their hands, as the adults goggled the wares and haggled prices.

Un eyed them and wondered if he would ever be a dad. Sure, he was only seven million years old and immortal, but still, he should have had one by now.

Un approached a pamphlet advertising a sports car. “So, you humans are materialists. You value acquiring wealth and property above all else.”

“We Americans do I guess,” Hannah said. “What about your people?”

“We Retikkees find beauty in material objects but feel no need to horde them. You said you Americans value wealth. I take it that not all humans do.”

“Well, we Americans are capitalists. We believe you should keep what you make, but there are also communists and they believe that the state should own everything.”

Un nodded. “Ah, a very Retikkee way of looking at the world.”

Hannah eyed him with suspicion. “Are you saying that you Retikkees are communists?”

“We Retikkees have always been collectivists, but few Elder Races are materialists.”

“You’re joking, right?”

Un shook his head.

“Why would that be the case?”

“Materialism derives from an evolutionary instinct that most intelligent species develop,” Un explained. “On any given world, resources are finite. Only so much food can be harvested from a plot of land, and how much can be manufactured is limited by your level of technology. Hording allows younger races to develop faster and support larger populations.

“Such thinking becomes superfluous as a species nears Elder Race status. By then, they’ll have learned how to build from the subatomic up. They’ll be able to turn hydrogen into gold or into elements that you humans have never dreamed of, and even pull matter from the quantum foam. That’s how we are able to create the neutron stars that power our starships.”

Hannah paused. “So, if we Americans were as advanced as your people, there would be no need for accumulating wealth. Everyone would already be millionaires.”

Un picked up two clothing irons and compared their price tags. “Yes, though the Tan remained materialists even after becoming an Elder Race. Of course, they were a particularly self-absorbed species. Among the first to fall to the Evil Ones.”

Un turned to her. “Other than the Zelturians, none wanted to come to their defense.”

“Well, at least they had the Zelturians as friends.”

“Not really. Zelturians would save cockroaches from being eaten by a black hole.”

Un followed Hannah out of the home appliance store and into one that sold clothing, where his friend tried on outfits and often inquired if he liked them.

Un answered honestly, which sometimes angered the woman. Soon, Hannah stopped asking for his opinion and departed for another part of the store.

Un watched her leave and thought, I’m not even good with human females.

He turned and spotted a kid, a seven-year-old in a red dress. She waved at him, and Un waved back. As she walked away, he imagined himself having a daughter of his very own and escorting her around dressed in such a getup but laughed at the idea.

The thought led to another, one more sobering, but also depressing. He was an outcaste among his people, destined to be exiled, and no Retikkee female would ever bare him offspring, including Li, even though he was the only other Retikkee on Earth.

He was alone. Completely and utterly alone, and it would be that way until the end of time.

Un pushed the thought away, knowing that it would only drive him to madness.

Hannah returned, a shopping bag dangling from her right arm, and they headed outside. “So, you said you Retikkees have always been collectivists. Why is that?”

“Our minds are telepathically linked. Once we had almost no sense of self.”

“What changed?”

“Trade and alliances with non-hive mind species forced us Retikkees to evolve. Those who could think independently could better interact with them.”

“And I take it that most of the species out there are like us humans.”

“If you mean individualistic, yes. I was the offspring of two communicators, whose job it was to converse with other species. I represent the accumulation of this long trend.”

Hannah stopped and grimaced. “So, you are more humanlike than most Retikkees.”

“I’m not a true individual such as yourself, but I’m also nothing like my Retikkee ancestors, who evolved from creatures not that different from your honey bees.”

Hannah eyed him. “I would have imagined you coming from primates.”

“Given how insects evolved on your world, I can see why, but on mine, they never developed mandibles and shed their exoskeletons long ago.”

“Well, if you came from honey bees, it would make sense that you would be collectivists.”

“We are no longer a true hive mind, but we still act in tandem with each other, and we hold many of the social hierarchies common in such species.”

Hannah nodded. “Why did you become an engineer if you were raised by diplomats.”

Un sighed. “We Retikkees don’t get to choose our occupation. We are assigned to a caste at birth and are expected to remain there until we die.”

“But didn’t you once tell me you fought as a member of the Warrior Caste?”

“The war with the Evil Ones required more soldiers then we had. Those who weren’t consider ‘competent’ at their job were temporally reassigned to the frontlines.”

Un recalled those dark times: battling under red lit skies, hellfire falling from the heavens, while Zelturian casters commanded the elements to retaliate with hurricanes, tornadoes and lightning storms. Vijics and the even bigger rock giants, the Enju, barreled head first into an endless horde of winged demons, relying on their god-like strength and super dense hides to weather the onslaught, while flying Elder Races like himself fought overhead.

“In space,” Un said aloud, “our warships blasted away at the Leviathans with quantum phase cannons: relativistic weapons capable of obliterating planets like Earth with a single strike, yet they were but pinpricks as far as the enemy was concern. The strategy against them was simple: just keep throwing ships at them, as many as was necessary.”

Un’s hands started to quiver. “For ten thousand years, we battled them. Untold number of star systems were destroyed, and… and… I was talking aloud, wasn’t I?”

Hannah cupped his trembling hands. “It’s okay. The War of the Ancient must have been a traumatic ordeal for you. You can talk about it all you want.”

Un blushed. “Still, I was rambling. I shouldn’t have troubled you—”

“Don’t say sorry. Obviously, these Evil Ones harmed you and your people.”

Un withdrew. “They harmed all they touched. Even close proximity with them could, in time, fundamentally alter a world: turning tropical paradises into hellish landscapes, harmless critters into snarling beasts, and gentle primitives into savage cannibals.”

“That sounds dreadful. I’m just glad that they are gone, and that your people survived.”

But were they gone, Un wondered before shaking his head. “Yes. Yes, they are.”

He and Hannah entered a park. Children ran across its lawns and threw freebies. He daydreamed playing the game with his son. His daughter would join them, as would his wife, and they would all laugh and be marry, and Un would no longer be alone.

The daydreaming morphed into a nightmare. The sky became red. The park burst into flames, its trees smoldering black smoke, and his family burned to ashes in his arms.

The Evil Ones came. Winged Horrors sprinted across the grounds. Their chests were furnaces, and more smoke billowed from their bat-like wings. Others flew overhead, tossing hellfire or swooping down for the kill, while Hellhounds ran ahead