Even at rest, a Tellurian mental probe is a disturbing device. Aside from the web of sensors attached with adhesive to the subject’s shaved scalp, it features a nasty-looking prod, which is partially inserted into the base of a subject’s skull. Both the net and the prod connect to a blinking, quantum server. At nearly three meters tall, its hulking contours are more than enough to remind a terrified human of a giant, predatory bird.
Strapped to a gurney, his face a red, puffy parody of its former self, Captain Topeka looked up at the daunting monstrosity and shivered. Lieutenant-Colonel Loodral nodded to a petite medical technician.
“Begin,” he said.
“Excuse me, Sir,” said the technician. “The subject’s physical condition may skew the probe’s output.”
Loodral’s condescending smile made her wince.
“I appreciate your dedication to Science, Technician Rafnola,” he said. “However, I remind you that interfering with a military investigation carries its own medical risks.”
“Yes, Colonel,” said Rafnola.
Topeka’s eyes widened as she reached for a large razor to shave his head. Thankfully, the Tellurian female was exceptionally dexterous — and removed Topeka’s blonde buzz-cut without even scratching his scalp.
“You see, Captain,” said Loodral. “We’re not barbarians here. Like Rafnola, I also believe in the search for Scientific Truth. I’m sure you can appreciate that.”
“Whatever,” said Topeka.
“Stoicism?” said Loodral. “Appealing, but somewhat misguided. Maybe you think Rafnola’s mental probe will kill you and you’ll be done with us. If so, you’re wrong. When the process is complete, you’ll be quite alive for several cycles — unless I’m mistaken?”
Rafnola nodded, her face grim.
“Yes,” said the tall Tellurian officer. “You’ll linger on in a semi-conscious state. On those rare occasions when you remember your name, you’ll have just enough awareness left to know how much agony you’re in.”
Loodral’s pursed lips sent Rafnola scrambling to place the sensor net on the human’s head. Topeka flinched at the relentless tingle of the electrified contacts. Rafnola summoned a nurse and an orderly to his gurney.
“Forty units,” she told the nurse. The Captain felt the muscular orderly’s powerful hands release his restraints, flip him on his side and hold him steady, while the nurse administered an anesthetic into his spine. Waves of unspeakable pain crashed against his every nerve ending. Yet, soon after, he felt as if he were floating on a sea of gently wafting, viscous fluid. From then on, nothing seemed to matter.
Now his consciousness was flooded by a swirling montage of memory. Fragmented images from the entire course of his life came into view and faded again, merging into surreal patterns. He saw a much younger version of himself playing ball with other children, dressed in a pressure suit.
His field of vision shifted and he now saw himself in his early twenties, back at Fleet Academy. As before, he wracked his brains over landing vectors and weapon specs. Except, why were all his classmates Tellurian?
He wanted to call out, to warn everyone, but was overwhelmed with a feeling of futility. The Tellurians were everywhere and … and … he was one of them. When the class bell rang, the room emptied, except for the instructor, a dull blue android of entirely functional design. In contrast, its soothing voice sounded as natural as that of any sentient organic lifeform.
“Cadet Topeka,” it said. “You appear agitated this morning.”
“Yes, Instructor,” said the former human. “Sometimes I don’t feel like I know who I am.”
“Is it fair to say your frame of reference has shifted?” asked the android.
“I guess,” said Topeka. “But do parallel universes even exist?”
As if in answer, the confused Tellurian cadet saw his surroundings blur. When his vision cleared, he was back in the lab — but was no longer on the gurney. An insistent female voice called out to him.
“Lieutenant-Colonel … Sir!” the voice said. “Shall I begin?”
Human again, Topeka looked down at the battered Tellurian male who was lying prone on a gurney in front of him.
“Yes,” he said, without knowing why. Immediately, the female, a human lab technician, instructed an attending nurse to inject the Tellurian with an anesthetic.
“Revered Entity,” he called out in his mind.
“In a complex universe, Fragile One,” the Setrillren replied, “we must strive to understand each side of an equation. It is the burden of sentient life. Accordingly, I have shown you many alternatives. Which do you prefer?”
“Stop!” Topeka yelled to the technician. “Stop the probe or I’ll have you court-martialed.”
“A wise choice,” he heard the Setrillren say. “It will, of course, have … consequences.”
(To be continued)
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