W A R N I N G
rated R for
violence


refers to

Beyond the Frontier

Bewilderment

by
A Kniggendorf
[Frontispiece by Caro von Totth]


Time

: 2086-07-05


     Eyes closed, she hovered cross-legged about a meter above her bed, concentrating on talking with her mentor in the distance...

     ...Ariel, it's not that I'm frightened of them. Not at all. We risked our lives together out there and we made it – together! But...
     ...Child, you're used to our world of psi, and now you have to face a world mostly of phi. It's natural that that change disturbs you. Especially after an incident in which you were at the mercy of phi... The silence lasted until Ariel took the opportunity to confront her student with the hidden messages behind Niko's own words. ...Niko, it's not the mostly physical world you're living in now that confuses you. What's bewildering you is one of its inhabitants. Am I right?...
     ...Yes...
     Her protegee's mental image carried a strong signal of discomfort. Ariel hid her smile inside a crystal ball she sent dancing around her psychic image. ...Tell me about him...
     ...How do you know that–...
     ...That it's a man? Oh, girl! I'm old enough to know the games!... Ariel had to strengthen the crystal ball to prevent the full-fledged grin she was hiding in it from breaking out.
     ...It's not that...
     She sounds really annoyed with me. Ariel let her shrug take up residence next to the hidden grin. What a pity. ...What is it, then?...
     ...You told me the cosmi of emotions of phi persons are mostly like ours...
     ...That's correct, child. Usually their emotional cosmi are more rough than ours since phi persons aren't able to feel mental wounds as keenly as we do. But that's all...
     ...No, he's totally different...
     ...Is he an alien?...
     ...No, he seems to be a human. At least as much a human as I am. But his emotions are strange. Sometimes they seem almost not to exist and then they erupt in a flame cascade...
     ...You mean he can't control them?...
     ...No, and that's the frightening aspect. He can control them. I've felt the control he used on his emotions almost instantaneously when they were appearing and how it smothered them. The only sensation I got afterwards was irritation. I don't understand what happened...
     ...Strange, child. I can't say anything for sure. Can you show me the whole event in detail?...
     ...You want to sense my memories of it?...
     ...Yes, if it's all right with you. But give me the background first...
     ...It was on our second mission. We were assigned to retrieve a datacrystal from a ship that crashed into the Pacific Ocean on Terra. BETA would usually have used deep sea rescue droids but the owner of the ship – and, of course, of the datacrystal – is a big shot on the Board and he feared that someone could hack into the droids' control centers to steal the crystal. To make a long story short: He insisted on human personnel to do the job and our commander couldn't refuse the order. So we–...
     ...Who is we, child?...
     ...The whole Series-5 team, Ariel. Zachary, Doc, Goose, and I...
     ...Tell on...
     ...So we went down into the Marianas Trench with one of the new deep sea vehicles. It had been a nasty crash. The ship was balanced on the edge of a cliff, and some rocks had torn open its whole left side. The crew was dead. I could sense it...
     Ariel noticed the slight shiver in her student's mental voice. She still can't cope with death emanations very well. ...Go on...
     ...We had to rescue the datacrystal. Because of the senator's paranoia it was kept in the cockpit in a small safe. Doc stayed in our sub while Zach, Gooseman and I entered the wreck. Zach had to return prematurely – his high-pressure cocoon gave a malfunction warning after he scraped along one of the torn walls. Gooseman and I continued the search. It was pretty strange to...
     ...What was strange?...
     ...To be down there, almost ten kilometers below the ocean's surface with someone wearing a pressure cocoon but no wetsuit or breathing apparatus...
     ...How did he breathe, then?...
     ...He can transform his body. He created gills...
     ...He was a fish at that moment?...
     ...No, he only grew gills on his face and webbing on his hands and feet. The pressure cocoon he used ensured that his form – one made for normal pressures – worked at that depth...
     ...Fascinating. Go on...
     ...We reached the cockpit and he tore off the storage box seal. I took the datacrystal out and turned for the lock. Then everything happened so fast...
     Niko began to transmit her memories...

     A deep crunching noise thundered through her ears just as the wrecked vessel tipped and rolled over. A wall caved in and she pushed herself off it, but she was too slow to escape the denting ceiling. A brace slammed down and cut her air cylinder. The compressed gas blew explosively out. It pushed her forward and she heard her HPC collapsing. She activated her badge, saved herself from being crushed by the pressure of a thousand atmospheres with the strongest psi field she could generate. But she couldn't replace the lost oxygen...
     The lights had gone off when the ship had tumbled over.
The makeshift powerlines must have been cut. She had been almost at the lock when the ceiling collapsed. She realized that the way out must be closed by the plates that had come crashing down. She was trapped. Invisible walls closed in on her. Darkness choked her. She had to reach the surface. She–
     Something grabbed her ankle, pulled her close. Barbed claws cut through her wetsuit, dug into her leg. She twisted, struggled to free herself. Another hand clawed at her hip. She punched at it to no effect, her powers occupied with defeating the pressure. The psi field started to glow slightly as it adjusted to her physical struggle. In its dim light she saw what had grabbed her – a creature. Reinforcing metal bulges ran all over its body between dark iron scales. Metal struts held two gauze-like gill fans on either side of the head open against the deadly pressure. It moved too fast, far too fast... The next grab caught her arms, pressed them to her body while the creature leaped higher, clawed for her face. Its legs embraced her lower body, squeezed her thighs, stopped her desperate kicking. It pulled her arms down behind her and bent back her body. It ripped off her helmet. Salt water burned in her eyes, streamed in her nostrils. She felt claws scraping over her face, trying to open her mouth. The creature's face closed in, showed sharp silvery fangs between iron-scaled lips. The claws cut into her cheeks, forced her jaws open. Her muscles gave way and water rushed in. She smelled salt and the blood from her tortured face, felt the creature's fangs between her teeth, penetrating her, shattering the last trace of her strength. More blood from her torn lips, ripped open by the metallic scales, filled her mouth, and...
     Oxygen. A precious bubble of oxygen was blown into her throat, easing her panic. The used air bubbled out of her nostrils. The gill fans next to her face flapped hastily in the dark water. A new bubble of oxygen appeared in her mouth...
     She tried to sense something besides the pain, but there was only coldness, icy coldness both in temperature and emotions, a self-control as hard as the limbs that enclosed her, as the fangs that held open her mouth as metal scales cut her lips. She concentrated on the psi field, avoided thinking about the pain, the decreasing energy supply of her badge and the deep sea creature that – Gooseman. That must be–
     Laser fire cut through the upper wall, lit up the wrecked cockpit. Her heart pounded in relief. Another oxygen bubble. And as Zachary wrapped them in a new high-pressure cocoon with an oxygen bottle inside, a cascade of emotions rushed suddenly through her mind – fury, rage, fear, determination, desire, bewilderment, lust, bewilderment – and was erased, replaced by the cold, leaving only a slight tremor of irritation behind.

     ...Ariel, what I don't understand is why he had these intense feelings after staying that cold when he injured me...
     ...You said there was a shiver of irritation after the emotional eruption. Maybe he isn't used to sudden emotional outbreaks like that. You mentioned bewilderment twice...
     ...I thought it was because he had wounded me...
     ...There were sexual feelings, right?...
     ...Yes – now that you mention it – strange. Do you think he's one of those who become aroused by hurting others?...
     ...The bewilderment argues against that. Did you discuss the incident later?...
     ...Yes, of course. Zach wanted a report...

     "She was going to drown, Sir. I saw that she was able to protect herself from the pressure but it was obvious that she couldn't generate oxygen to breathe. I had to help her. So I activated my implant and destroyed my HPC. My body adjusted to the environmental conditions and I altered the transformation so that I was able to collect the oxygen my gills took in from the water and pass it to Niko."
     "Gooseman. You have injured her. Her cheeks and mouth need intensive medical treatment to prevent scars. And the marks on her arms and legs indicate near-brutality. I can't overlook that."
     "Captain. The deep sea is a new territory for me. Before the accident I had adjusted only to standard aquatic conditions – that's the transformation I used inside my pressure cocoon. I call an emergency reaction like the one I used in the wreck an 'ad hoc-adaption,' and those are never smooth and elegant. The body simply used the first adequate form it could muster, since there was no time to search for a better or softer one. – Sir, I'm sorry that she suffered wounds, but if I hadn't done it, she would be dead now."
     "Your body adapts to every possible environment that way?"
     "No, Sir. It will take a form that's capable of surviving in the current environment, preferably a form I've been trained in. If no such form exists my bio defenses create a new one, but that's a rough adaption which often needs to be refined later. But I didn't have the time to do that. Drowning kills quickly."
     At that moment Niko shoved a short handwritten note across the table; her mouth hurt too much to speak. "Zach: He wouldn't have held me that hard if I hadn't fought against him. I panicked. – Goose: Thank you."
     Fox frowned at the note, thought about it and added it to his file.

     ...That isn't what I meant, student. I meant, did you discuss the emotional aspect of the incident later with Gooseman?...
     ...After our return to BETA, when my injuries were treated and gone...
     ...What did he say? Especially about the feelings that caused his bewilderment?...
     ...He denied them. When I pressed him on it, naming the feelings in order of appearance, he interrupted me...

     "I know what fear is, Niko, and panic. How intense it is, how scary, how confusing." He nearly spat the words at her, and she took a frightened step back. "How do you think these abilities," he ran his fingers in a circular motion while changing the nails into silvery claws, "are trained? In a classroom?"
     "You mean you nearly drowned in forcing your body to adapt to underwater conditions?" she said flatly. "What would have happened if your body didn't react fast or well enough?"
     "I'd be dead." His voice was emotionless and cold again. "Who can't adapt sufficiently, dies."
     "That can't be–"
     "It can be!" he snapped. "It's always that simple – make it or die."
     "If that's your philosophy, then why did you help me?"
     "Never accept a loss of lives." A cynical grin flashed over one corner of his mouth. "That's my fundamental weakness."
     He was gone before she could answer.

     ...He must have lived in a very cruel world before he joined your team, Niko. How old is he?...
     ...According to his file he's seventeen. But he seems older to me...
     ...That fits. I think you should be very careful when dealing with him. He's fairly far from having usual human emotions...
     ...Is that your advice, mentor?...
     Ariel smiled. Whatever I say, she won't listen. A lip twitch of fatalism joined smile, grin, and shrug in the crystal ball the mentor used to hide the expressions her student was not to notice. ...What I told you about the emotional cosmi of phi people is true. But your teammate Gooseman seems to have been altered. I can't say why, but the reasons must lie in his past. If he doesn't want to share it, none of us can force him to do it. And student...
     ...Yes, mentor?...
     ...I don't believe that he had any influence on what happened to him. I know quite a bit about what the Terran military did to telepaths to use them for their purposes... Especially to your mother. The image of Niko's mother blurred by sorrow and guilt, joined the expressions Ariel hid from her protegee inside the dancing ball. Niko must never know that I didn't simply find her there but rather that I arrived too late to save her mother. ...After what you've told me about his abilities I wouldn't wonder if the government 'worked' on him in the same way...
     ...What do you mean?...
     ...Training, tests, drugs...
     ...Drugs?...
     ...For a long time telepaths on Earth were forced to take drugs to make them more obedient or to erase their abilities if they refused to obey... Your mother couldn't stand the loss of her powers. But she wasn't obedient enough either. When they threatened to separate you from her she took her baby girl and fled. ...It's likely that they have drugs for other aspects of behavior, too...
     ...He's a Galaxy Ranger. We aren't allowed to use drugs. We are even tested every month during our routine medical examination...
     ...But if he was given them as a child it's possible that there are emotional structures he now has but which he isn't used to. So be careful. I think he could easily harm you – not only physically – without intending or even noticing it...
     ...But he can be harmed himself as easily... Niko's mental image carried a soft vibration of sympathy ...and he doesn't even know it...
     ...Be careful, student. He seems to be a man who will defend himself very aggressively if he feels attacked. Be careful...
     ...I will be, mentor...

     ...she opened her eyes in her apartment at BETA and lowered herself onto her bed. She lay back, arms under her head, and gazed at the ceiling. The pain from her wounds was gone, and the medical treatment had left no marks behind. But the memories of darkness, pain, and something she couldn't quite name danced in her mind. And her bewilderment was still there.

END

Just an amused note by the author:

The first exploration of the Marianas Trench was done on January 23, 1960 by a U.S. Navy officer named Donald Walsh (!) and Jacques Piccard (a deep sea explorer from Switzerland), who dived down to 10,893 meters in a specially built deep-sea vehicle, performing the top event in manned deep sea exploration (still unbeaten today).

A branch from a certain commander's family tree? Maybe his great-grandfather?

Note:

According to his papers, 1643453-BDC Shane Gooseman is 17 years old at the time of this story – but the dates are based on y.o.v. ( = years of viability) dates. His physical age is 19 y.a.d. ( = years after decant).


Glossary


HPC: High-Pressure Cocoon, an electromagnetic field generator that creates a bubble of about 1.5 meters radius with standard one-atmosphere pressure wherever it's used, even in deep sea with hundreds of atmospheres pressure.

phi: Greek letter, used to describe the physical world.

psi: Greek letter, used to describe the psionic world.


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Psi Receptors


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