When did I first believe it? During my first visit to the Human
Extinction Agency. Sure, I heard the news reports, same as anybody
else, but I wasn't paying attention more than half. I thought
it was an ad campaign for some new movie, maybe something like
a remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still. So I decided to drop
in on the local "HEA office", where I figured I'd score some loot,
free tickets or whatever, you know?
Then I saw my first Nacalite...
It was well done. Very well done. And if it was a movie, I would've thought ILM had outdone themselves. So alien a species -- I mean, they aren't even the same phase of matter as us, okay? An honest-to-God gaseous life-form, like something out of Star Trek... But it wasn't -- couldn't possibly have been -- special effects. It was real life, right there in front of my face, and it scared the hell out of me.
My memories of that first visit are pretty indistinct -- I think I was in shock during most of it -- but I'm pretty sure I talked to a few of the Nacalites (I remember wondering how does a living cloud generate sound, anyway?)... and I sort of remember walking out of the place, dazed, carrying a thick file folder of HEA propaganda and such under one arm.
Took me a couple of weeks to fully accept the reality of the situation: that an extra-terrestrial species had appointed themselves caretakers of my homeworld, that they'd had enough of human-caused disruptions to Earth's biosphere, and that they were going to dispose of my species via a five-year program of transforming every last one of us from human to animal. But once I got my head straight on it, I did what I usually do when something terrible happens -- I got mad.
You could call it the secret of my success: my inexhaustible, inextinguishable, eternal rage. It was rage that kept the local bullies too afraid of me to pick on me in third grade; rage that made me one of the most valuable linebackers on the high school varsity team; rage that I choose to feed into my sculpture and flat artworks, instead of firing randomly into the crowd.
Oh yeah, I was angry. Rat bastard hypocrites, passing judgement on an entire sentient species as if none of their oh-so-fucking-perfect kind had ever caused any harm to anything! And they condemned all human beings for the sins of some -- "guilt by association" raised to its logical extreme, never mind such inconvenient obstacles as ethics and justice and morality. Worse, how dare they presume to punish us for violating a batch of their goddamn laws that we had no goddamn way of knowing about, exactly and precisely because they went so goddamn far out of their goddamn way to ensure our goddamn ignorance!
Somewhere along the way, I swore to myself that I'd make those stinking gasbags pay for everything they'd ever done, and ever would do, to my species. They'd pay through their nonexistent noses, at a compound interest rate no loan shark would ever have the balls to charge. But... how? Nothing human could affect them, at least not in any way that interested me; then again, I'd bet my life that their own toys could mess them up real good. Yeah, what I needed was to get my hands on some of their technology, preferably while I still had hands. Okay, the gasbags didn't seem to actually have anything I could recognize as machinery, but they had to have something, damnit -- they were extraterrestrials, for cryin' out loud! They had an interstellar culture! They had to have something, and I had to be able to figure out how I could grab and abuse whatever-it-was; there had to be something I could do about it... had to be. Because if there wasn't, I might as well volunteer for the total makeover right here and now, on the spot. Had to be something. And then... and then...
Well, I'd just have to raze that bridge after I crossed it.
I spent a fair chunk of time in and around the HEA over the
next few weeks, ostensibly to familiarize myself with every aspect
of the damned extinction process that affected me. I also had
a hidden agenda, that being to observe the gasbags up, close,
and personal. Whoever it was who first said "know your enemy",
he surely knew what he was talking about! I was courteous and
polite, at least on the surface -- I kept my rage hidden down
underneath, where it would not be noticeable from the outside.
I've had a lot of practice doing that. My facade didn't make any
My studies (that phase of 'em, anyway) ended when they kicked me out, forbade me from returning to any HEA office. Seems that the gasbags are some kind of racial empaths -- something to do with not having solid bodies, hence being more vulnerable to non-material influences -- and golly gee whiz, it turns out that a few of the local gasbags had been... let me see if I can remember the exact quote... "adversely affected by protracted exposure to the human's peculiarly raw and intense emanations of hostility". I was glad to hear it; hating is something else I'm good at, and I found it a comfort to know that my temper could do what no bullet was capable of. Of course, the gasbags weren't stupid. Too bad they wouldn't allow me to rage at a large enough group of them, for a long enough time, to make any significant difference...
The five days immediately following my "eviction" were the most productive of my career, bar none. Not that it should come as a surprise, but art is what I do instead of mass murder when I'm really torqued off, okay? I hadn't learned anywhere near enough about the gasbags to base any plans around, and the fuckers had just stomped out of existence any hopes I had of learning enough to make any difference while it still could make any difference, and so I drained off my rage into finishing a half-done hardwood plaque, a thick sheaf of detailed studies for a larger sculpture, 15 pencil roughs, 7 acrylics of varying sizes, the final 6 masks for a 10-color silkscreen, and the preliminary wax form of a brass pendant.
Late in the fifth afternoon, I was putting my tools away when a visitor interrupted me: "Andrew Aikens Tesla?"
Surprised me, it did. All the more so because "it" was exactly right -- my unexpected guest was a gasbag, which I knew because I'd learned to recognize the subtly inhuman overtones of their voices. I didn't allow myself to show any sign of surprise; my years of experience concealing molten rage beneath a cordial mask paid off. I kept my face neutral as I methodically emptied my hands and turned to face the alien. Some momentary disturbance passed over/through it when my eyes locked onto its gaseous form, something that went by too quickly for me to do more than note its passage.
I kept my voice level, almost toneless. "What do you want?" I asked it.
"Andrew Aikens Tesla, my name is *?. I am a scholar in a field whose designation may be rendered in your language as 'high-energy psychistry'. My specialty is the biological effects that are engendered by highly intense emotional energies. I am here because we have observed a remarkably intense focus of emotion, whose emanations can be detected at a distance of 42 kilometers, and --"
"You're here to study me," I interrupted. It wasn't a question, not when the gasbags had already let me know that my emotions were pretty damned hot stuff by their standards.
"Yes," it said. I didn't let it get any further.
"And if I don't want to be studied?"
"In that case..." It paused, as though collecting its thoughts, for a moment. "You would not see me again. It would be unethical for me to act otherwise."
I laughed, good and loud and cynical. "So you gasbags are gonna wipe us out, but at least we can rest assured that all of our ethical prerogatives will be fully intact all the way down the line, is that it? Gosh-a-rootie, I am so amazingly grateful for that!" Something like a slow whirlpool formed and dissipated in the gasbag's substance as I spoke.
"I... see," it said; if I was interpreting its tone correctly, it was puzzled, unsure what to say or do. Like I cared what it did, after its buddies in the HEA had... forbidden...
"On the other hand, suppose I do agree to let you do your thing. What's in it for me?" Let's see how much I really know about gasbag thinking -- can I get him to believe it's his idea?
"You ask what benefit you may derive from my actions?"
"Damn right. You're going to acquire all kinds of data from studying me, in return for which I get the pleasure of seeing my species go extinct at your hands, or at least whatever you use in place of hands. Not exactly a fair exchange. So you want to study me before I cease to exist? Okay, fine. Like I said: What's in it for me?"
Its substance roiled slowly, looking much like a lab demonstration of convection cells in boiling water, for a while; I figured it was lost in deep thought. I put away the remainder of my tools. It finally said, "Your desire for reciprocity is both interesting and valid. Inasmuch as the benefit I will derive from you is information regarding the human species, I believe an equitable item of exchange for me to provide would be information regarding my species. Would you regard this as acceptible?"
I looked ceilingward. "'This' being a mutual exchange of information about our two species, just between you and me..?" I paused, as if thinking about it myself. "Yeah, I agree."
We spent the next few minutes working out details of the agreement -- *? would show up once a week, I'd get at least an hour to ask it questions, blah blah blah -- after which the gasbag left.
The next week passed in the usual way; delivering finished products
to clients, drumming up new commissions, replenishing expended
supplies, and so on. My routine was an indicator of normalcy that
I was damn well going to hold onto for as long as I damn well
could. Within the next five years, the gasbags' program of genocide
would wipe every specimen of homo sapiens off the planet -- and our social structures, monetary systems
included, were scheduled for dismantling a couple years before
the ultimate deadline -- but this was only couple months into
the first stage, early enough that human society was still mostly
intact. Thank God for small favors.
*? appeared on my doorstep, accompanied by a subtle, shimmery visual effect, at the appointed time. What the heck, that would do for my first question... "Nice entrance, there. What's the secret?"
It demonstrated convection cells for a moment -- I hoped I'd caught it off guard. "I greet you, Andrew Aikens Tesla. In response to your query: I cannot tell you the answer."
"Really? Well, isn't that special. Great way to start off the exchange of knowledge there, friend."
Alternating bands of yellow and yellowish orange appeared in its substance -- embarrassment, perhaps? "Your observation is correct. I... regret that I am forbidden to provide you with certain classes of information, one such class being modes of transport unavailable to humanity."
I nodded. "Sure -- if any of us humans actually got the means to escape your program of extermination, I'm sure it would just ruin your whole day." A short pause, which I cut short before *? could respond. At least he didn't make up some bogus false "answer"... "Anyway, I've got another question for you: Just how long have you gasbags been lording it over this planet?"
"We have had observers stationed here for approximately 6,000 Tellurian years, as nearly as I know." It sounded puzzled. "Was this not documented in the data we have distributed through the Human Extinction Agency offices?"
I smiled a nasty smile. "Sort of. You guys claim you've been around since just before humans existed, which means tens of millenia if you're talking the emergence of homo sapiens, or else a few million years if you're counting our earliest proto-human ancestors. Oh, and you also kind of implied that you're reponsible for wiping out the dinosaurs, which would mean you've been hanging around here for tens of megayears. So you can see where I might get confused."
*? floated there, its substance calm, as I spoke, then it replied: "Yes, I can see that, perhaps more clearly than you might expect. It would appear that the methods your people have developed for determining the age of ancient events are less accurate than one might desire."
"Less acc -- hold it," I replied, and it was my turn to be confused. "Are you telling me that all of those events took place less than 6,000 years ago?"
"I had not explicitly stated so, but yes, your inference is a valid one. May I ask --"
"You may not," I interrupted, learning exactly what a reeling mind felt like. "You... so you gasbags have lurked around here for longer than the human species has existed?"
"That is correct."
"And for all we know, you could've been messing with us all along, right from the word 'Go'."
"We Nacalites would never 'mess with you', as you put it! It is our highest goal to live in harmony, never to interfere, with other lifeforms!"
"Of course I believe you," I said with deep sarcasm. "After all, it's not like you gasbags wiped out the dinosaurs or anything, right?"
"That was... a regrettable necessity," *? said. Thin, pastel lines weaved through its cloud-like substance as it spoke. "The reptilian forms had attained a dominance which threatened to distort your world's biospheric relationships for all Time to come; such imbalance demanded correction."
I frowned. "Hold it again -- what 'distortion'? What 'imbalance'? I thought the dinosaurs were part of that Balance of Nature you guys go on about..."
We spent the next couple of hours discussing gasbag philosophy. No doubt I didn't grasp a lot of the subtleties, but as far as I could tell, the Nacalites believe that Nature is intrinsically unstable, and that the purpose of sentient life is to provide active guidance to Nature, doing whatever is necessary to shove Nature back into place any time it gets out of whack for any reason. Basically, they see themselves as cosmic overseers, caretakers. Something about that concept bothered me, for some reason I couldn't put my finger on.
After I called a halt to the proceedings, *? said its goodbyes and vanished, its exit as cleanly mysterious as its entrance. It'd given me quite a bit of food for thought...
Time passed. It usually does.
I lost one of my clients in the next week. Seems that the gasbags reserve the right to finish you off at any time, if they think you've been a naughty boy. Cutting to the chase, as it were. They call it "forfeiture", a conveniently sanitized term for an act that's not so very different from murder, and the gasbags caught Harry posting a whole lot of rather persuasive anti-gasbag essays to USENET. Freedom of speech? Kiss it goodbye, and maybe you were expecting different from a gang of aliens who'd made it their business to erase the entire human species?
Can't say Harry's fate surprised me; he was outspoken, almost to a fault, and in my view he'd always depended on his wealth to shield himself from the consequences of his truth-telling.
Not this time, poor bastard...
Partially-transformed victims were becoming more common. At this stage of the game, the alterations were basically cosmetic stuff like patches of fur and reshaped ears, really nothing that would look out of place on the set of a sci-fi TV show. Seems that the gasbags, in their infinite mercy, had given us ten whole months to choose the form in which we'd spend the rest of our abbreviated lives; they certainly didn't discourage people from making that choice prematurely, however, and a small (but growing) fraction of the populace at large had already taken the first step. Not me! The gasbags might be able to turn me into God knows what, but they sure as Hell couldn't make me like it, and I'd be damned if I were going to give up while there was still any possibility of beating the gasbags.
*? surprised me, the next time we met, by asking about just this point. "May I inquire as to whether you have selected your final form?"
"Nope," I lied. "According to you guys, I can choose any critter on the face of the planet, and maybe even some of the ones that're currently extinct, too -- and that's one Hell of a lot of options. You got any idea how many thousand species there are of beetles alone?" This was a lie, because really, there's only one species I'd ever seriously considered: Wolverine. We're talking about a predator whose only natural enemy is homo sapiens, okay? No other beast hunts them, and nothing walks away happy after messing with a wolverine.
"Given what I know of your psyche, it strikes me as improbable that you would select any insect species," the gasbag replied. "I suspect a large carnivore of some type would be more to your liking. In any case, your point is well taken. Even now, a more than adequate selection of Earthly species have not yet succumbed to human depredations, and I applaud the care with which you approach this most important of the choices in your life."
"Gee, thanks. Why do you care what I decide, anyway?"
"Because I have asked for, and been granted, the responsibility of performing your metamorphoses. It will be an unprecedented opportunity to gain knowledge of your psychodynamics, and I would be grateful to know how much time you will give me to make the relevant preparations."
"How much time I'm going to give you?" I asked in disbelief. "Buy a clue, pal! In case you weren't aware, I like being human. I don't want to be changed into anything else. And I fully intend to take advantage of every loophole I can find, to delay my transformation for as long as your bureaucracy can be manipulated into allowing. Does that answer your question?"
"It... does," *? said slowly, after a short pause. I tried to read its color shifts, its "body language" if you will; it was... I don't know, disappointed? Regretful?
"Wonderful. Now I've got some questions for you, starting with: What sort of government do you guys have?"
"Nacalite society handles its affairs..."
As a matter of fact, I do have friends. Sure, professional relationships are all well and
good, but I've always found that I need more than that in the
way of human contact. That's why I eat at Joe's -- and yes, damnit,
that is what the place is called, and the proprietor's name is Joe. I like his sense of humor, and the sandwiches aren't half
Anyway, lunch at Joe's is an important part of my daily routine. Just imagine my surprise when I walked in for my usual, waved to Joe at his grill, and did a triple-take when I noticed where his ears weren't any more.
"Oh, shit..." I said, louder than I'd intended.
"They got me, Andy," Joe said in his best John Wayne impression without even turning his head in my direction. Then, in his normal voice: "Siddown, your garlicburger's almost done." Like I said: Daily routine. Except...
"So... ah... what's the deal? I wouldn't have expected you to..."
Joe smiled at me. His eyes had shrunk, the fu -- hair on his head looked very much like an all-over buzz-cut, and his ears weren't visible at all. "I didn't. And if you want details, stick around; I figure the rest of the crew'll appreciate the story, and I'm only gonna tell it once, thanks."
I took the hint. It was a lot more enjoyable to focus on my double cheeseburger with a quarter-clove of crushed garlic kneaded into each patty. As usual, the cola, fries, and milkshake were pretty good, too.
"Still trying to repel vampires?" I didn't need to look; it was Harriet Adams, another of Joe's regulars, assistant manager for a local bank and a devout fan of horror movies.
"Hey, don't knock it --"
"Joe!" she cried in dismay, no need to ask why.
I held up a hand and spoke before Joe could: "Yeah, I know. He's not talking 'til the gang's all here. But in the meantime, lunch awaits, hm?"
"Damn right it does," Joe said. "What d' you like today, Ms. Adams?"
We -- Joe's regulars, I mean -- weren't the only hungry people in the diner, of course, just the only ones who cared worth a damn about the guy behind the apron. By the time the lunch rush ended, and Joe could safely put up his CLOSED sign, it was me, Harriet, a truly geeky computer jock named Gordon Holst, and a plainclothes cop by name of Alice Forben, in there with Joe.
"I suppose you're all wondering why I called you here --" Joe began, interrupted by my razzing. "I love you, too, Andy. Anyway: Yes, they got me. This is what they call first stage," here he gestured to indicate his newly-acquired non-human features, "and they insisted on doing it first thing this morning, soon as the HEA office opened."
"So the Nacalites do, at times, ignore their victims' wishes when they schedule a session of transformation."
"Gosh, who'd'a thunk it?" I muttered, sarcasm dripping from every syllable.
Joe shrugged. "Guess so, Gordy. Me, I figure they're just embarrassed about how close they came to falling for my first choice. And zapping me now is just their way of letting me know they're not happy."
"Wait -- first choice?" Alice asked; she's usually quiet, but cuts through the bullshit when she does talk. "This is your backup?"
"Yer damn right," Joe said with a shit-eating grin. "I told 'em I wanted to be a Pernese dragon."
Alice and Gordon were practically on the floor laughing when they heard that sentence. And once Joe explained to me and Harriet that a "Pernese dragon" was an oversized, teleporting, mind-reading, time-traveling lizard from a series of novels, we joined them in helpless merriment.
"It's not like they ever actually said that fictional creatures were off-limits, right?" Joe observed, which set off another gale of laughter. After we sobered up enough for him to speak normally, Joe continued, "At first they bought it, hook, line and sinker, swear to God they did! The teleporting threw 'em, but hell, they seem to be able to do it, so they couldn't just reject it out of hand, ya know? And for a couple hours, I actually thought I might just pull it off. I dunno, maybe the time-travel is what queered the deal. They got real inquisitive after I dropped that little bombshell on 'em, let me tell you! So I kept feeding 'em info out of McCaffrey's books, always being cautious with my phrasing so's to dance around the fact that my chosen breed was imaginary. I was doing pretty good for a while there... but they finally asked me, point blank, whether or not there really ever had been any such thing as a Pernese dragon."
"And then..?" Adams asked.
"And then I was stuck. I'd been real careful with my words all along, but I never actually said anything that was flatly untrue, y'know? So when they finally got around to asking me directly... like I said, I was stuck."
"Interesting," said Holst. "And that was, hm, when you were closed on the tenth of last month?"
Joe nodded. "Yep. They kicked me out, I got a notice in the mail a week later, and here I am today: an up and coming duck-billed platypus."
We all broke up again. I mean, really... a platypus, for the love of God? A creature that looked like it was assembled from spare parts by a Creator who must've been drunk or stoned? Crazy! But also practical, because the platypus is a poisonous beast, with little spurs to inject its venom...
We spent the next while discussing the pro's and con's of various animals. By the gasbags' rules, anybody who didn't choose for themself would have an alternate form assigned them at random, and none of us thought much of that option...
Later: I dreamed of fire, a migratory inferno that left destroyed
cities in its wake. My gasbag buddy, *?, flew lead position in
a squadron of blimps that dropped gasoline in front of the blaze.
I rode shotgun next to him. We are caretakers, he assured me, and this destruction is needful. We are overseers; we oversee
the perturbation of your biosphere in order to safeguard it from
At that point, I woke up sweating. Caretakers who acted against their avowed purpose...
That's when it hit me, puzzle pieces finally assembling in my mind's eye: The gasbags were the United States Forest Service, written to a larger scale. See, the Forest Service used to have a long-running PR campaign about Smokey the Bear, "only you can prevent forest fires" and all that, because they'd decided that no forest should ever burn, end of discussion. So nothing burned... and the forests filled with dead, dried-up plant material... and the longer they spent Protecting The Forests this way, the more of this tinder accumulated. And so, whenever a blaze did manage to start, it would be increasingly likely to grow into an unstoppable firestorm. Thus were public lands mangled by a policy we'd created to protect them from damage.
The gasbags'd been playing Forest Service for longer than humans had existed. Therefore, no human being had ever seen the true ecological consequences of his actions -- not with the gasbags around, self-appointed "invisible hands" who generously worked to correct all ecological imbalances as and when they occured. End result, whether intended or not: We humans never realized how much of an impact our actions truly had on Earth's biosphere. Good Lord, how could we, when the gasbags' constant efforts ensured that we would never be able to see more than a fraction of the ecological distortions our actions produced? Sure, we messed around like nothing we did would ever make a difference... and why not? Thanks to the gasbags, our actions never did make any difference!
Of course, we might still have realized how our actions affected the biosphere, if only we'd been taught by some other species with a clue about ecology, right? Too bad the only such species around was the gasbags, who went out of their way to ensure that humans would never even recognize their existence, let alone learn anything from them.
But somehow -- in spite of everything the gasbags could do to keep us ignorant -- we were discovering just how massive an impact we could have on this Earth of ours. We were learning not to shit where we sleep. And now... now that we were finally getting a clue... now the gasbags chose to reveal themseves, now they decided they'd better take us out of the game completely.
Now the gasbags punished all humans for the crime of being what they'd made us.
I was too keyed-up to go back to sleep; I picked up the phone instead.
"Hello -- Gordon? Yeah, it's me, Andy. I just had an idea I wanted to discuss with you, and it couldn't wait..."
If Holst had been unconscious when I called, he did a damn fine job of pretending otherwise. Neither of us got any more sleep that night.
Sometimes people like Holst make me nervous. I swear, he's the
next best thing to omniscient; I'd never even heard of the phrase "cursorial hunter", and he tied it in to human
evolutionary history and why the gasbags did it and God knows
what else. And between the two of us, we got it all to hang together
pretty damn well, if I do say so myself...
My gasbag buddy had just arrived -- showtime.
"I greet you, Andrew Aikens Tesla."
"Sure thing. How does it feel to know that we humans are being wiped out for the sins of you Nacalites?"
Russet uncertainty in *?'s body. "Excuse me?"
"Oh -- you want the long version? Right..." I told it about my initial insight, unintended consequences and so on, with four-part harmony and a rising level of anger. It listened in fascination, perhaps horrified, until I finished: "-- nuking us out of existence. Real smooth. So... what d' you think?"
"I, am..." *? said haltingly, then it started over. "I find your theory to be... profoundly disturbing." This was a world-class piece of understatement, if I was reading its evident agitation right. "It would -- if you were correct -- our actions..." Its voice trailed off, fading into incomprehensible Nacalite speech.
"But wait, there's more!" I cried, parodying any number of late-night commercials. *? shut up instantly, and I continued: "Yes, we humans have made a sorry mess of things at times. Killing out of greed or stupidity or shortsightedness or whatever other stupid reason. But still... there's only one species we've ever eliminated on purpose. Only one species that ever became extinct because we deliberately set out to make it so: Smallpox. And don't you dare try to make me feel guilty about it, either. Y' see, smallpox is a -- was a -- pathogenic bacteria. It was a disease that had already killed God knows how many million humans, and would continue to kill God knows how many more. And that, you high-and-mighty alien, is exactly why we wiped out smallpox. It wasn't murder -- it was self-defense!
"But you gasbags, you're not 'extincting' us in self-defense, are you? No, you sure aren't. Care to tell me exactly why the great Nacalite culture has appointed itself judge, jury, and executioner for my species?" Hmmm... interesting. I'd never seen that shade of burnt orange in a gasbag before now. It matched my mood; I was well and truly on an emotional roll now.
"You know our reason --" *? replied, its voice wavering like an old tape recorder with an off-centered reel. I cut him off fast.
"Bullshit! Sure, I know the spiel you gasbags've been giving out. But if you really thought we were so damned guilty, why bother with a Human Extinction Agency? If you really believed we needed to be extinct, why not just kill us and be done with it? All you'd have to do is whip up a human-specific disease germ we got no defense against. We die, the germ dies after its only host goes away, everything else lives happily ever after, end of story. But noooo-ooo-ooooo, you guys would rather set up a convoluted five-year plan which lets you delude yourselves that you're not really committing genocide.
"No, I don't think your kind believes in what you're doing to us. I think you gasbags know exactly what you're doing, and you know exactly how wrong it is. You disagree? Fine -- convince me."
The burnt orange was more intense. The wavering of its voice was faster: "We do not kill without provocation, without reason. That is what you humans do, it is the reason for your impending extinction."
"Ri-iii-iiggghhhht," I said, drawing the sarcastic syllable out like corn syrup. "That's why you're going to agonize over it for the next few years, instead of just goddamn doing the dirty deed. Y' know, that is just the kind of stupid mistake a rookie assassin would make -- giving the victim time to maybe work up a defense, I mean." Without warning, I shifted to a tone of friendly inquiry: "So tell me... exactly how many other sentient species have you Nacalites wiped out already, hm?"
*? was silent. As for me, my mind was racing in several directions at once. Part of me was memorizing the exact hue of its supersaturated burnt orange for use in later paintings; another part was pondering what I knew of the gasbags' history on Earth; and somewhere in there was a part that wondered how and why I'd gotten this irritated, this quickly...
*?'s voice (now fully controlled again) broke into my reverie: "Of all the alien species we Nacalites have yet encountered, yours is the third known to possess intelligence. The other two have long been accepted as valued partners in the larger community of sentient life; what we do to you humans... is an act without precedent."
"Really. And I suppose those other two species are just as... ecologically correct... as you gasbags are?"
"Your supposition is incorrect. One species... was and is inorganic, and devoted to the eradication of conventional life. They sterilized several planets, for which offense we declared war upon them."
The fire inside me cooled. "Sterilized... an entire planet? My God..." Then I thought about the gasbag's words just previous. Confused, I continued: "Hold it -- you declared war on these guys. But you just said they were one of two species..." I felt the blood vessels in the back of my head stiffen. That's not common, but it's a definite sign that my temper is warming up for something big. "Planets. More than one. Sterile. Lifeless. No biosphere left. At all. And you made peace with the things that did it." Oh yeah, the adrenaline rush was in full swing now; it felt like my skin had just shrunk half a size. "Meanwhile, here we are, humans, we're only in the process of destroying our own biosphere... and us, you decide... to wipe out."
My whole body was vibrating slightly, hyper-intense anger plucking at my nerves like Pete Townsend windmilling a guitar. "You're killing every last human being on the face of the Earth. For crimes just a fraction of what you let those other bastards get away with. Just a coincidence that we don't have starships, right? Pure chance that we can't hit you back where it hurts? And you dare... you dare... to make noise about how you gasbags are so -- fucking -- righteous and clean. You DARE to pass judgement on ANYTHING ELSE IN THE GODDAMN UNIVERSE!!"
If *? replied, I didn't hear it -- the rhythmic battering of my heart and blood took precedence over any merely physical sound. At some point, I found a lit blowtorch in my hands. I normally used it for my sculpture, but not now. It spewed high-temperature, high-velocity flame into the air, and I wore a serial killer's grin when I realized that the gasbag was actually afraid of the damn thing. Oh yeah! But... being reduced to an animal right here and now would spoil all my plans, some part of my rage-soaked mind pointed out, much though I didn't want to hear it.
My vision kind of grayed out around the edges, a visual effect not unlike painting a target ring around the gasbag I was staring at. My jaws were so tight that I was mildly surprised to discover that I could force words out of my mouth: first, barely audible, "Get out." And then much louder, "Get out -- or BURN!"
I was an aching mass on the workshop floor when the world returned to me; the torch was cool. The gasbag must have left while I was... I don't know what I was, unconscious? An out-of-body experience? I couldn't remember dousing the flame, lying down, or anything else between threatening the gasbag and waking up. I had a headache the size of Rhode Island, and the rest of me felt like I'd spent 8 solid hours slamming every part of my body into a brick wall. Repeatedly. Bone-deep exhaustion plus massive pain, not an enjoyable combination. What in God's name just happened here? I asked myself. No answers, until I recalled something *? said when we first met: He's studying "biological effects of highly intense emotion". I hope he's getting his money's worth...
Eating at Joe's the day after, my friends were worried when
I gave 'em the story. I was kind of concerned myself, for that
"Maybe you're finally losing it," Alice observed dispassionately. "You wouldn't be the first to crack since the cloud boys showed up; we're getting a lot more domestic violence, jumpers, crazy shit in general." And Alice was a beat cop... I didn't want to think about what kind of nastiness she'd collected under the label "crazy shit in general".
"That's to be expected, really," Holst said. "Any change carries with it some degree of stress, and changes that strike at the fundamental basis of one's identity are the most stressful of all."
"I suppose different people can tolerate different levels of stress before they snap..." Harriet mused.
"Exactly. Now, I believe the Nacalites want the transition to be as painless as possible. But no matter what they do to make things run smoothly, the simple fact that there is a transition will necessarily cause a lot of --"
"Enough!" I interrupted. "What's that got to do with me freaking out yesterday?"
"Ah... nothing," Holst said, blinking in surprise as he shifted mental gears. "It's a matter of individual tolerance levels, and I would judge yours to be very high indeed." Unsure where he was going, I gestured for him to continue: "Anger is your coping mechanism, Andrew. While I can't say I've ever approved, I must admit that on you it looks good -- I've never seen you hit with anything you couldn't handle by turning up the heat a little more, so to speak. As to your apparent loss of control, it wouldn't surprise me to learn that your Nacalite friend was behind it. In order for you to study him, you agreed to let him study you, right?"
My brain hurt when I saw what he was driving at. "You mean... the son of a bitch played with my head as some kind of test?"
"Sure, to a first approximation. He's a specialist in 'high-energy psychistry', I think you said? Okay, then. My guess would be that he wanted to see how humans would respond to some psionic technique to heighten emotional intensity. Want to bet that your friend had some way of insulating himself from super-hot emotions?"
I stared at him. "Have I told you lately how much you scare me when you're like this?"
Holst shrugged. "No big deal; it's just an educated guess. Mind you, I do think..."
I got *?'s message to reschedule, and three days later, there
were two (count 'em, two) gasbags on my doorstep. One I could
just recognize as my old buddy, and the other was news to me. *? was
doing a poor job of hiding distress; I wondered what was bothering
"You're early," I stated in a neutral tone. "Who's the new kid, and to what do I owe the pleasure?"
"I come to resume our interrupted colloquy," said the gasbag I knew. No formal greeting for me? Yep, *? definitely had something on its mind. "My companion is ^#. In human terms, we are mentor and student." So *? was a teacher as well as a scholar, then. "He shall assist me today and... perhaps on other days as well."
I nodded to acknowledge ^#'s presence, then addressed *?: "What now, Coach?"
Something I couldn't quite catch -- too fast -- rushed through my buddy's substance, and I'm pretty sure the other one had something similar, too. "Now I would recommend that you locate a chair you enjoy sitting in."
That was interesting. "Really," I said with raised eyebrows. "In that case, let's go around back." They followed me to the postmodern gazebo -- my share of a 7-sided commission I'll have to explain some time -- in my back yard, where my most comfortable lawn chair was.
I sat down, adjusted the back support, and relaxed with my hands behind my head. "Next?" I inquired.
"Next we shall attempt mental fusion of the lowest degree," *? replied. "In order to minimize disorientation, it would be advisable for you to close your eyes while it is being established."
I frowned. "Mental fusion," I stated uncertainly. "As in, put two mutually alien minds into a blender and press for 'pureé'."
A momentary pause, broken when *? said, "Your concern is largely misplaced. The lowest degree of mental fusion is merely a means for achieving direct communication between unlike minds."
So they were going for a form of telepathy, then. But -- "'Largely misplaced', you said?"
"As you stated, our minds are mutually alien. There is a non-zero possibility of complications, but we feel that the risk is worth taking in this case."
"Do you really?" Mental fusion... For a moment, I thought about that antiseptic word, complications, and I shuddered at what it could mean. Then again, maybe I might be able to pick up something interesting from *? in the process? But what if -- aah, the Hell with it. Omelettes and eggshells. "Alright, let's rock. But I'm warning you now: If I end up a drooling psychotic freak, I'm going to be very unhappy with you."
"The danger is not yours alone. All participants in a mental fusion are potentially at risk," *? said quietly. A phrase leaped into my mind: You'd walk naked into a blast furnace if you thought you could learn something new. My respect for *? went up a couple of notches. He continued: "Again, it would be advisable for you to close your eyes --"
"-- in order to minimize disorientation. No prob." I closed my eyes. "Bring da noize."
Nothing happened for moment... then... fusion. Look, it's not like much of anything else, alright? I don't think I have the words for it -- don't think anybody does, to be honest. Try describing 'green' to a person who's never seen colors. Anyway, if it's ever happened to you, you don't need a description; if you're still a virgin, words won't tell you a damn thing.
So: Fusion. The sensation didn't end, but it soon faded out to a low background level. Not bad, exactly, just... odd. I let myself grow accustomed to it, then asked, "Alright, when can I open my eyes?"
I heard *?s voice, the tone different from what I was used to: "You may do so now. We were exercising caution, as is both prudent and appropriate in connection with a sentient's first mental fusion."
I looked around as soon as I heard the word "now": I wasn't in my gazebo any more, and I wasn't alone. From the looks of things, I was at a sidewalk bistro or some such, sharing my table with a young Japanese man dressed in business casual (white long-sleeved shirt, black high-water trousers, narrow black tie, white socks and black leather shoes) and someone who looked like Joel Grey made up as a venerable Oriental -- no gasbags in sight. Both of these humans observed me with great interest. The younger man spoke with *?'s voice, for some reason.
When the young man finished, I asked, "Alright, what's going on here?"
Not-Joel Grey spoke, his deep voice not much like that of the character he resembled: "Describe the environment, youth."
Must have been ^# talking? I did what he asked, noting something odd about my voice, something I couldn't put a finger on. After I finished, Not-Grey replied, "This is mental fusion; your mind percieves it directly, not through the intermediary of your sensory organs. As is common among novices, your mind clothes the direct perceptions in a symbology of personal significance."
I thought about that for a moment. "Okay... and why do you look human?" The younger man quickly stifled a smile; Not-Grey only raised one eyebrow.
"You percieve our self-images, filtered through the lens of your personal symbology."
Oh... Never mind, on to business. "So you want I should pick up where we left off?"
The younger man, presumably *?, opened his mouth to respond, but Not-Grey stopped him with a gesture, inhumanly swift. "I would have the information from your mind directly," it said. "With your permission, please."
I gave it a crooked smile. "And if I don't feel like letting you?"
Its face held an expression of dispassionate curiosity, as though it were pondering an intellectual puzzle. "In that case, I believe you would be in violation of the agreement between you and *?, would you not?"
Oh, yeah. That. "Alright... just curious. Go for it. Anything I should do?"
Its expression shifted, became slightly unfocused, as it said, "It would be helpful if you could adopt an unguarded frame of mind..."
"Unguarded, huh?" Not-Grey, I mean ^#, was one of those sanctimonious bastard gasbags who wanted to erase my species from the Universe; opening my mind to him was about as appealing as a dinner date with Jeffrey Dahmer. That's nice. You knew the job was dangerous when you took it, I told myself. "I'm not sure I can do that, but I'll try," I promised. Personal symbology... I shut my eyes and imagined my mind as a pipeline, its inside diameter large enough for a man to stand up in with room to spare, and a massive swarm of bright sparkles -- my symbol for pure, raw information -- flowing freely through it in both directions.
I felt... it was sort of a variant form of the "mental fusion" sensation. If it wasn't so damned alien, I think it might have been something I could learn to enjoy; as it was, my brain trembled badly enough to shatter the pipeline-image I was trying to hold onto. However much "unguarded" I'd managed to accumulate, all of it vanished on the spot.
Not-Grey wasn't particularly concerned. Or unhappy. "My compliments. Training you lack, yet strong you are in the Force." Yes, it was a Yoda accent; I almost laughed -- but how did the gasbag know about Star Wars -- how much information had ^# retrieved from my brain -- was my agenda still hidden -- but if it was my personal symbology -- My thoughts whirled like an fuel-injected centrifuge.
The bistro vanished. So did the feeling of mental fusion. I was back in the real world, panting lightly, two gasbags within arm's reach. "What the Hell was that?" I asked insistently.
Not-Grey pondered a moment. "Feedback loop," it said at length, clearing up absolutely nothing. "One of the lesser hazards of mental fusion, easily contained. So: Until interrupted by a seizure of overintense emotion, you were explaining your species' inability to live in biospheric harmony as a consequence of Nacalite activities on your world. Had you any thoughts to add?"
"Now, just a --" I began, then stopped. My first thought was to demand that ^# tell me how much info it'd ripped out of my brain, but what difference would it make? As if asking the gasbag would make it forget anything it'd taken from my mind. "Um... yeah. I think..." I swallowed; what I intended to say had seemed so right and sensible when Holst and I discussed it that night, but here and now, I couldn't help but think it was crazy. "I... think..." Spit it out, man! "You created us. You, Nacalites. Did your stuff. Primate. Just add sentience. Do it yourself kit..."
The gasbags floated there, silent and unmoving, as I babbled on. After my words sputtered down to nothing, *? asked, "Your theory is interesting. Upon what evidence is it based?"
Deep breath. Calm down, fool. "Evidence." Another deep breath. "Okay. I don't really have any evidence, as such; just, some facts and guesses that seem to hang together pretty damned well." I started ticking off points on my fingers. "First, I've been studying you guys for a while now" -- something passed between the gasbags, inhumanly fast, when I spoke these words -- "and as far as I can tell, you think a lot like us humans. A whole lot like us. Amazingly like us, considering how little our two species have in common. That's astronomically unlikely if gasbags and humans were completely independent of each other, but only to be expected if, say, you created us.
"Second, up until the HEA, you guys never communicated with humans. As in, 6,000 years' worth of never. And all that time, you always went way the hell out of your way to ensure that we'd never notice your actions. What, you gasbags figured contact with two other sentient species was enough? No point in talking to a third? Yeah, right. But if we were some kind of experiment, if you'd granted us sentience in the first place, that would just mean you were being careful not to contaminate the results of your experiment, right?" Assuming they've told us the truth, I couldn't help but think to myself. Granted, I thought the gasbags were pathological truth-tellers, but what if I'd gotten them wrong?
"And third... You gasbags are so damned arrogant; you think God himself commissioned you to fix all the mistakes of Nature. But there aren't enough of you to play caretaker on every planet in the entire Universe, are there? I'll bet there's not enough of you to make game wardens for a small fraction of this Galaxy, not even when you add in those two other sentient races of yours. So three intelligent lifeforms wasn't enough... and that's why you decided to make your own: homo sapiens."
Another fast exchange (or whatever it was) between the gasbags. What were they thinking, doing?
"We were the prototype, weren't we? The first attempt. Since a caretaker species is what you were aiming for, you wanted a critter with an inborn affinity for long-term, 'big picture' thinking. Something with a major built-in attention span, whose 'time horizon' covered more than the next 15 minutes. That's why you chose a cursorial hunter. A predator that chases after its prey for hours on end, until the prey drops from exhaustion. Something that was halfway to the kind of thinking you wanted, even before you gave it sentience. What was it, Neanderthal man? Homo habilis? One of those guys, I don't know. So you plucked your magic twangers, and alikazam! It's homo sapiens time."
An awkward pause followed -- well, it was awkward for me, anyway. As for the gasbags, I felt sure that whatever was going on inside them, it would be something I could understand. Too bad I wasn't familiar with the body language they were using now -- no clue to their inner selves. Then *? asked me about my profession, and the next... god, it was a half-hour... was nothing but wall-to-wall artistic exposition...
After the gasbags left... I went to my workshop. Absently picked up a fist-sized chunk of wax, shaved random slices off of it. No real plan or subject in mind, just something to do with my hands while my brain was preoccupied. Thinking back... they hadn't agreed, hadn't disagreed, hadn't offered much of any kind of reaction. Was it really anything more than a plausible idea? Could the gasbags really have jumpstarted human sentience? If so, what would they do to keep a lid on that secret? If not, would they regard my theory as a major hunk of bad publicity that needed to be stomped, preferably right at the source, i.e. me? Would they think I'd gone mad, and if so, what might they do to... cure me? I asked myself a lot of questions, and I didn't care for a lot of the possible answers...
I slept poorly that night.
I threw myself into my work, big time, for the seven days following. Didn't want to think about my immediate future. Not that my long-term future was much more enticing, mind you.
"You're going to what?" I asked, a lot more shocked than actually surprised. *? was
back on schedule; it was our next regular meeting, same Bat-time,
same Bat-channel, except that ^# was with him. It. Anyway, there
were two gasbags on my property, and one had just read me my death
sentence -- forfeiture. "No, don't tell me again, I heard you
the first time. Shit... right now, huh?"
Rose-and-gold sympathy from *?: "It must begin today, yes. If it was a matter of your theory alone, I believe I could have positively influenced the judgement; but there was also your continuing purpose."
"Your purpose" -- so ^# did get a little something extra from me, I realized. But -- "Wait a second, you said 'it must begin today'? Does that mean you're not gonna end it just yet?"
"Contrary to popular belief, our regulations do not explicitly mandate any specific period of time to impose a judgement of forfeiture," *? replied. "What is mandated, is that forfeiture occur with all practicable speed. As I have stated earlier, the responsibility for performing your metamorphoses is mine; I have chosen to perform them in a sequence, and at a tempo, which will not unduly impinge upon my study of you."
I blinked as I parsed that sentence. Damn my traitorous emotions -- I couldn't stop myself feeling a surge of joy when I realized *? was giving me a stay of execution, even if it was only a temporary one. Damn me for being relieved that the alien who would remake me into an animal, just wasn't going to do it today. And as ever, damn the gasbags for what they were inflicting on my species in the first place. I couldn't afford to feel indebted to any gasbag, I had to stomp on any positive sentiment that I might otherwise feel for the ET sons of bitches. Fortunately for me, their actions made that stomping easy...
"You are not pleased? I would have thought that such exploitation of rules and regulations, particularly for the purpose in question, would be a thing you approve of."
Except I can't allow myself to. "Hip, hip, hooray," I stated flatly. "Instead of dying at dawn, I'm going to be killed next month. You have worked such an incredible change in my fate. Imagine my gratitude."
"I... see." I think *? was embarrassed. For that matter, so was I -- there he goes bending the rules to give you more time, and you spit in his face? Idiot! -- but what I'd just done was done. Unfortunately. After a short, tense pause, *? went on: "This session will again involve mental fusion. It would be best for you to be --"
"-- seated in a comfortable chair," I said, finishing *?'s sentence in unison with him. "Got it. 'Round in back, just like last time."
As before, they followed me to the gazebo.
My second mental fusion went down as easily as the first. Or maybe easier, now that I had an idea of what it was about. But this time, I opened my eyes to different scenery: Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory. In glorious black and white, yet. And I was strapped to an operating table, while the Doctor himself (played by ^#, I could somehow tell) and the hunchback Igor (had to be *?) busied themselves with various bits of arcane pseudo-scientific equipment.
Personal symbology, huh? I thought to myself. Okay, then the straps aren't real, and I should be able to get up... Damn! I couldn't move. "Hey, people -- can I get some help over here?"
Igor (*?) looked up at me. "Excuse me?"
"I'm stuck here. I can't move."
Igor looked at the Doctor, and vice versa. I could almost hear them chattering to each other. The Doc said, "You misinterpret a thing that was implemented for our mutual protection. I have emplaced barriers around your mind, that you cannot forcibly acquire any information from us."
I gave them a quirky smile. "Yeah, right -- like that's going to happen. This is only my second time here, remember?"
^# didn't smile. "You possess a high degree of unskilled native talent. You could do it. And since you lack training, it is highly probable that you would damage the mind you extract information from. The barriers will prevent that from happening."
I can do that? Since when? "And I suppose I might also burn my own brain, too?"
"Yes. Self-inflicted damage is not unheard-of among novices. In most cases, the damage is not irreparably great."
I pondered. Alright... call it the moral equivalent of a padded cell, I guess. Not to imprison me, but to protect me and others. And suddenly, I wasn't strapped down; I was still lying on the table, which was now surrounded by a giant glass box. "Great. I think I'm getting the hang of this 'personal symbology' deal."
"You are." The Doctor again, still not smiling. Didn't he have any sense of humor?
"Thanks, Doc," I replied with a smile, sitting up with my legs hanging off the side of the table. "So. Where do we go from here? What's on the agenda?"
*? spoke. "We shall begin with your first stage. Have you selected your final form?"
Oh, joy. That killed my mood. I looked into *?/Igor's eyes, searching for any clue that would tell me whether he'd already known, whether or not the question was more than a polite formality. No such luck. Then again, given ^#'s barriers, it was stupid of me to think I might actually have a chance to find anything. I sighed.
"Yes... I have. Wolverine."
Igor nodded. "Thank you, Andrew. Please, lie down and compose yourself. There is no need for any more discomfort than that unavoidable minimum which is intrinsic to the first stage."
You were right, Holst. They want their genocide to run nice and smooth, like a goddamned Swiss clock. I obeyed, what choice did I have? Even closed my eyes, for good measure.
I didn't feel it happening. For all my intellectual awareness that my body was being remodeled, maybe down to the level of my DNA, I can't say that I noticed any physical sensations much out of the ordinary while the dirty deed was being done. Mind you, mental sensations were another matter entirely -- it started with the "mental fusion" feeling, and went on to many others I'd never imagined I could percieve. I don't know, maybe the fusion is why I didn't feel it happen. It was all pretty wierd, but this time, I kept it together; this time, the fusion didn't break.
When it felt like they'd finished, I gave myself a once-over, and was surprised to find no changes in my form. Huh? What gives?
The gasbags had been eavesdropping on my private thoughts. Of course. *? gave me the answer: "We altered your body, not your mind. Until your self-image changes, this is how you will percieve yourself in mental fusion."
Oh. Obvious, in hindsight. "Gotcha. Since that's over and done with, now what?"
"A question, if I may." As if I had any choice but to answer him. *? went on, "You have set yourself the task of visiting ruin upon us Nacalites. In your eyes, is this a goal you have a non-trivial chance of achieving, or is it, instead, merely wishful thinking?"
The gasbag might as well have slammed a baseball bat into my gut. I felt a supercooled ice cube worming its way down my spine. "I'm not sure what you mean," I said, my voice slow and unsteady. Oh sure, they'll buy that. It's not like they can read your mind or anything, right?
The bastards didn't even pretend they were interested in my response. They just chatted between themselves, damn it. Finally the Doctor, played by ^#, began, "I am unsure of the methods you intended to employ in achieving your goal. Was it your belief that --"
"What gave it away?" I interrupted, my voice sounding dead even to my own ears.
"Basic principles of psychistry," *? responded. "It was obvious that normally, you would never have even proposed, let alone assented to, any form of long-term association with a Nacalite -- not without an eventual payoff of great value. And your anger towards us was intense enough that any payoff you valued would necessarily involve destruction. The only question was whether you wished the destruction to be limited to just those Nacalites on Earth, or all Nacalites throughout the Universe. Had you believed we would remain unaware of this goal indefinitely?"
So... *? had known. He'd always known. I felt like a skydiver with a shredded parachute; my spirits didn't just fall, they plummeted. And I'd actually believed I understood the gasbags well enough to be able to manipulate them -- hah! What a joke. I slumped against one wall of the glass box that surrounded me, or at least it sure felt like that, and I ignored the world for a while...
"Huh?" I looked around, blinking. While I was lost in my funk, the mental fusion went away -- I was back in the real world. And one of the gasbags had asked me something..? "What was that?"
*? spoke: "As I said, I would like to know when you have recovered your equilibrium sufficiently to re-establish mental fusion. Having already collected data on the emotional intensities you were capable of as a pure human, I now desire to accumulate the analogous data for you now that you are a first stage transformee. In particular, I would like to probe your upper limit of intensity for anger and certain other emotions."
I stared at *?. I'd thought I was too numb to feel shocked. I was wrong. "Let me see if I've got this straight," I said carefully. "You want me to get angry. You want me to try for the most intense rage I'm physically capable of. Because you want to see how close I can get to some theoretical upper limit."
"Correct on all counts. I must warn you, however, that theory indicates --"
"-- Like I care what the theory says," I interrupted. *? shut up. He was probably going to make some noise about harmful biological effects, possibility of dying, blah blah blah, nothing new there. "Alright. I'll do it. Just one thing: Be careful what you wish for, because you might get it."
The gasbags busied themselves with preparations that I ignored. Except for re-establishment of the mental link and ^#'s protective barriers, that is, since I couldn't not notice those. I had my own prep work, all of it variations on the theme "stoking the psychic furnace". You can work yourself up to a towering rage, and you can even control how long it takes to hit the peak. Or at least I can do it, but then I've had decades of practice. So don't try this at home, kiddies! *? wanted to see just how intense my anger can be? I'd be happy to oblige, and if the gasbags got burned, even a little bit, I'd be satisfied.
It wasn't long before everyone's preparations were over. Showtime. This one's for all the money, Andy-boy.
I felt something in my mind, yet another fusion variant, a peculiar sensation not unlike the turning of a key in a lock. That's when I opened the floodgates, unleashing every last iota of repressed emotional force I could coax from my psyche. And so *? knew, to the exacting precision it brought to all its investigations, the absolute magnitude of my fury; it saw its kind as I, in my innermost heart, saw them. From the UV-hot crucible of my mind poured a cascade of images, feelings, psychodrama vignettes, all of them intricately linked and synchronized into one sharp-edged whole, an impossibly intense patchwork quilt whose pieces were different aspects of unadulterated, isotopically-pure rage...
Die, *?, die!
Vent high-temperature plasma into the volume of *?'s nebular body. Die hot!
Freeze *? solid, liquid-helium-cold, and drive a steamroller over the Nacalite-cube. Die cold!
Trap *? inside an impermeable container until it smothers in its own waste products. Die easy!
Transfer *?'s consciousness into the body of a broken deer, trapped at the bottom of a crevass, unable to move itself and unreachable by any outside agency that might deliver the merciful final stroke. Die in pain!
A multi-megawatt lightning bolt passing through the exact center of *?, immediately followed by several more in quick succession. Die fast!
Dissociate *?'s gaseous substance into its component atoms, one molecule at a time, over a period of weeks. Die slow!
Dissolve *? in a tanker of peroxide, shake well, then pour it down a sewer. Die alone, alien!
Carpet-bomb the Nacalite homeworld with nuclear warheads until Terra runs dry. Die en masse!
DIE, you sanctimonious bastards! Suffer and
I must be alive; dead wouldn't hurt this much...
My Nacalite buddies were inert when I woke up, aside from an occasional semi-random ripple in their substance. As for me, I had a headache that rated 7.9 on the Richter Scale, and my whole body felt like it'd been assembled from ill-matched parts by the lowest bidder. *? had been right, there was an ultimate upper limit to emotional intensity, and getting too near that limit had real physical consequences.
^# had been the weak link; overconfident in its mastery of psionics, it underestimated how strong a shield it would need to protect itself and *? from my rage. The gasbags' own damn fault, of course, for adding a dash of wolverine blood to a human whose emotions started out dangerously intense to begin with. So the shield just wasn't strong enough, and when it cracked... ^#'s mind must have evaporated instantly, burned away like dry ice under a blowtorch, and *? got caught in the blast radius of a psionic firestorm that burned hotter than the Sun's core.
I discovered that the mind-link was still active, how or why I couldn't say, and whatever had just happened, NONE of ^#'s barriers had survived it. How long -- never mind that, just get to work before Lady Luck quits smiling!
The fusion had a smoking crater where ^# ought to have been. As for *?, I examined its mind like the Visigoths examined Rome. I couldn't help but be aware of the psychic damage I was doing to *?'s mind as I ransacked his memories. "Aware", yes, but I didn't give a tinker's damn. It was a pleasant emotional undercurrent as I focused on more useful things. Like sucking in every bit of information *? knew about gasbag science, technology, and engineering.
I really shouldn't have been surprised at how little time it took for me to acquire the totality of *?'s memories. Although the absolute quantity of data was quite large, there was no physical process getting in the way; it was purely mental, direct mind-to-mind transfer. And as such, the only relevant limiting factors were the intelligence levels of the minds involved.
*?'s work was pretty interesting, especially on a personal level -- *? did a lot of things to manipulate my mind and emotions for his studies; Holst had been more right than he knew -- but it was a distraction I put aside for later. I had work to do and more important things to think about, such as telekinesis on a sub-molecular scale. This just happened to be the trick which allowed Nacalites to remodel living creatures with a stray thought... and *? knew how to do it, which meant that I could now do it, too.
Just for practice, I tried it out on a pebble, exploiting the memories I'd imported from *? for the training and experience I needed to make it work. I wasted a precious few seconds shifting the pebble from stone to diamond to aluminum to cherrywood, and then to glowing neon gas, holding the energized atoms in place by a simple act of will.
Finally, the atoms of the former pebble dispersed in all directions as I focused my attention on the question of what the heck do I do now? According to the knowledge I'd forcibly extracted from my alien friend, I had little time to decide. The Nacalites here would remain insensible until they got medical treatment, but others of their kind would quickly investigate the massive eruption of lethal emotion that'd taken them down. And -- no time left, damnit! I sensed the approach of several Nacalites, moving in a conventional fashion rather than risk teleporting into a deadly empathic mindstorm. Seconds to decide and act, maybe a minute or so if I were lucky... I made my choice.
I snatched *?'s body, transferring into it my mind, my persona, everything that made Andrew Aikens Tesla a unique entity unto himself. This left my body untenanted; I burned off whatever residual memories yet remained in that form, ensuring that no Nacalite would be able to use that information to reconstruct what I'd just done. *? did not oppose me. His mind was shattered, totally incoherent, and I would ensure that it remained so indefinitely, even as "he" resumed "his" place in Nacalite society. I didn't shuffle *?'s mind into my former body, and wouldn't have done so even if I'd had the time. Let's just say that keeping *? around would make it a lot easier for me to take over his life. With total access to his memories and personality engrams, I had a fighting chance to pull off a flawless impersonation -- and any mistakes I made would be ascribed to lingering after-effects of the horrific psychic misadventure *? had suffered this day, especially after I laid the proper groundwork for that misconception. And all the while, I would be doing everything I could, first, to restore the human species, and second, to give the Nacalites a good-sized megadose of the medicine they'd been so eager to force on us.
Time's up -- they're here now, just starting their examination of the wreckage of what they will never realize was *?'s final experiment. Whatever comes next, I swear that all you stinking, genocidal hypocrites are toast, I promised myself. You Nacalites could have taught us; instead, you kept us in ignorance. You could have helped humans build a culture in harmony with Nature; instead, you're wiping human civilization off the face of the planet. If you never knew that actions have consequences, you're damn well going to learn it now -- by your actions, your species has forged your own doom.
Beware the killer ape, you goddamn sons of bitches! Beware Man!