Long ago the Languirian species opened portals to countless worlds and dispersed to habitable planets across the galaxy. It didn’t save them.
Humanity discovered the portals. Learned to control the systems that identified habitable worlds, and created colonies of their own.
Now a colony disappears in a mysterious disaster and a gestalt unit investigates. What they discover changes humanity forever.
As battlefields went this one was nearly antiseptic. The air was dry and tasted of chalk in the back of Mike Erwin’s throat. Wetting the tongue from the hydration pack didn’t help, it just smeared the taste around.
Nothing but glassy black rock almost to the horizon, shimmering and dancing like water from the heat. It’d all been an outpost once upon a couple days ago. There’d been a com tower to talk to the now-absent satellite network, habitation ark-hive to house the five thousand some-odd people calling Osprey home, several industrial fabrication domes and acres and acres of Terran-transplant crops to feed all those eager-beaver colonists.
Nothing left now. Whatever removed the satellites had flash fried the entire settlement site out in a perfect circle five kilometers across. Baked it down to molten perfection and let it cool until ready. All on a planet that had no evidence of ever having harbored any intelligent life. At least nothing that orbital surveys had uncovered. No evidence of ancient ruins. Nothing on the two moons either to suggest that anyone had ever visited this particular planetary Eden.
Plus there was the fact that the Languirian portal had identified the planet according to the strict specifications of a human-compatible world without any indigenous sentients.
Jean Baxter whistled for the troops to come together in formation. Mike snapped to with the other four specialists, not that it looked like there was much to do in this case.
Jean towered over the rest of them at just over two meters. Tall, dark, and handsome with a voice like a drill sergeant, he’d been in love since he had first reported to duty on her detail three years ago. Three years of unrequited love and it didn’t matter—he’d still follow her out to worlds where the colonists were vaporized so fast that even their ashes were broken down into free atoms.
“Synchronize,” she said.
Mike pounded his third eye and triggered the deep cortex implant that merged him with the rest of the unit. All sensory data, everything came together and their thoughts intertwined to create a new entity referred to by the unimaginative name of Unit.
They all became Jean’s meat-puppets. Mike rode along his own body behind Unit. Aware, conscious and nothing but a backseat driver. Unit didn’t have direct access to their thoughts and memories. That had to come from them directly. Speaking, though his body wouldn’t say the words. It was functional telepathy with their bodies slaved to Unit’s control to give them coordination. It went beyond teamwork, the merging producing something that was much better than the sum of their parts.
They all moved with all of the skill of synchronized performers but their movements were spontaneous and not practiced. Unit thought it and the rest simply carried it out.
Mike ran fast and low, clockwise, along the perimeter of the melted region right behind Jean. Weir stayed with them and Unit’s other three bodies moved in the same way counter-clockwise. They were like ants scurrying around the perimeter of a gigantic drain.
The burned edge was sharp like a knife with the vegetation only a half-meter back blackened but not vaporized like everything within the field.
“A sample of those plants might reveal some information about the composition of whatever had done this to the colony,” Mike said, voiceless and mute, but the rest of Unit heard him.
Weir moved without comment and efficiently bagged samples. The third in the counter group, Ross, did exactly the same at the same moment. Seeing through their eyes, two pairs of hands moved with identical movements to collect the samples. Dealing with two different plants the movements varied slightly, but then went synchronous immediately after the samples were collected.
“If anything escaped the perimeter we need to know,” Jean said.
Six pairs of eyes efficiently scanned the ground around the burn. They all moved out slightly, the leaders closest to the perimeter and then the seconds and thirds each a step further out like runners in lanes on a track.
Like bloodhounds seeking a scent, Unit ran around the perimeter. Six pairs of eyes scanned darkened and scorched terrain, but only a couple meters out from the circle the plants were wilted and not burned. Dried leaves crunched beneath Unit’s feet.
“Nothing, nothing,” Jock, counter’s second said. “Nothing got out.”
“Six kilometers per side left to go,” Jean said. “Too early to say.”
Mike picked up a sense from Unit that the gestalt agreed with Jean. Emotional washback from the new entity was common. It wasn’t attributable to any particular individual, Unit was its own individual. The child of their minds, the offspring of their brains and the gestalt tech.
Unit searched along the perimeter with an intensity any one of them might have lacked. Mike didn’t mind the ride, taking the backseat in his own body or seeing the flood of sensory data coming to Unit through all of their senses. Counter-clockwise the ground was harder and rockier, their footfalls landing softly in a layer of ash over the dirt and stone. More ash the further they went.
“The wind must have blown this way,” Jock said.
“Yeah, we’ve got lots more ash and debris,” Liz, counter’s lead, said. “It’s going to cover up any tracks.”
Unit slowed the bodies on that side. Their strides slowed as they studied the ground more intently and the spacing between the three of them increased. If there was something out here, maybe Unit could still find it.
Mike considered it worth the shot as slim as the chances. Whatever had done this had burned out the colony with surgical precision. There was more ash and dust puffing up around Liz’s feet, and the rest of the counter team, but it wasn’t much at all. The evidence clearly indicated that nearly all of the ash was also vaporized.
Sweat ran down Unit’s bodies just from being close to the still molten hot ground. All that heat and whatever had done this had burned off moisture and anything in the air.
Regular people without the gestalt tech never understood what it was like to be part of Unit. They worried about being taken over, enslaved by the gestalt and turned into mindless meat puppets, shamblers, or zombies. All those bogeymen in the closet got caught up in the idea when the reality was so much different.
Unit kept running. Six bodies took strides in time, counter’s group and Jean’s. She ran just ahead of Mike, her tall, lean body jumping over a fallen tree trunk.
“That must have been inside,” Mike said.
Unit brought Jean back immediately to the log and gathered them around it.
The top thin trunk of a cedar tree lay on the ground. The bottom several centimeters were burned, but it lay on the ground almost a meter outside the melted rock perimeter.
Weir said, “Look at the angle of the cut.”
Angle? Unit studied the trunk and found that Weir was correct. The trunk was cut with a faint curve. The initial portion of the cut was charred and blackened but the top part of the tree was intact. The green needles hung dry and weathered in the lower branches, but retained color further up.
Around the other side of the perimeter, Unit kept the counter-clockwise group kept moving at their slower pace.
“What does it mean?” Jean said.
Weir held up her hand, fingers pointed up. “Imagine a tree. It’s burned up the trunk, from below, and then fell. Given the angled burn, it suggests that the affected zone was shaped like a dome.”
Unit accepted the notion and Mike felt satisfied with that bit of information even if it didn’t move them closer to finding out what happened.
Unit sent their bodies running again on their established track, seeking the next clue as to how a colony on an uninhabited planet could suffer this sort of tragedy. And have the satellites removed from orbit.
“Someone must really not want neighbors,” Mike said.
“Except that the Languirian portal identified the planet as being uninhabited,” Jean said.
Mike smiled inwardly. Talking to Jean like this, in their heads, backseat to the work that Unit was doing with their bodies, it made him think of drive-in movie theaters. There used to be one back home that he’d go to and you’d sit in the back seat watching the action on the big screen but it was all sort of removed and the girl was also the main attraction. This way, though, he couldn’t put his arm around her shoulders. Not that Jean would necessarily warm to such a move anyway, but a guy could dream.
“Maybe the quantum computer was wrong,” Jock said.
That was the other big difference, Mike realized. In his dreams, he didn’t have four chaperones along for the movie.
Mike said, “We’ve opened thousands of portals and not one has ever been wrong. The Languirians used the portals to scatter their entire population.”
“It didn’t save them,” Liz said. “Any record of similar incidents, molten circles like this on any other worlds?”
A deep sense of negative flowed from Unit and left a bitter, frustrated taste in Mike’s mouth. None. Unit didn’t know of any incident, someone would have spoken up if there was.
“We should fall back to the portal,” Ross said. “Take our samples and book.”
A wave of disagreement came from Unit.
“Okay, okay,” Ross said. “I’m just saying Jock’s right, there’s nothing here.”
“We need to keep looking,” Jock said. “Looks like nothing, but could it be true that no one had ventured out more than five klicks?”
“All holed up in the ark,” Ross said. “Nothing but bots in the fields. Why go farther out?”
“It’s a whole planet,” Mike said. “Who wouldn’t want to go do some exploring, or just get away from the colony for some private time?”
Up ahead Jean dropped to one knee where the ground fell away and cupped her hands. If Mike had been in control of his body instead of Unit he would have stopped. If he could have grabbed onto anything, he would have grabbed, but Unit ran his body even faster right up to Jean. He stepped up into her cupped hands and vaulted into the air.
A tongue of steaming lava had oozed out into the streambed below, breaking the perfect circle. Mike’s body arced over the lava, feeling the wash of heat rising against his skin. He landed and rolled out of Weir’s way as she did a Déjà vu dive over the lava.
They both positioned themselves as Jean stood, backed up, and then ran at the gulley. She vaulted forward and they were there to catch her if necessary.
It wasn’t. She landed in a roll, and even as she came up on her feet they had fallen back into positions and Unit continued to run them around the perimeter.
The counter-clockwise bodies never broke a stride while Jean, Mike, and Weir made the jumps but Jock laughed.
Unit ran the perimeter and it was with Mike’s eyes that Unit first saw the prints in the dirt. Boot tracks, light on the hard-packed earth, leading away from the perimeter.
“Those could be old tracks,” Mike said.
Unit ran his body out along the tracks. Weir moved closer to Jean and they continued on running around the perimeter.
Running Mike’s body out from the perimeter, Unit tracked the footprints on the ground. Just the one set. Large prints, an adult, probably a man. The distance between the others and Mike’s body grew greater and greater. The trail kept going, but not in a straight line. The steps swerved around, avoiding trees and plants, and didn’t seem very stable. Unit had to slow down and finally stop running to stay on track as there was more ground cover.
Back at the perimeter, the rest Unit’s bodies were getting close to one another without finding anything new. Mike kept going, watching the remaining tracks and broken vegetation, but as he got farther and farther away it became much more difficult to see the trail.
At last, Unit brought him to a stop. The vegetation was taller here and blocked his view going forward. A footprint was still visible, crushed into the vegetation.
The rest of Unit came together and ran directly toward him across the hard-packed surface.
They couldn’t see him. A wall of greenery had swallowed him up and blocked off the view. A wave of uneasiness swept through Unit, over his isolation.
“Don’t worry,” Mike said. “They’ll be here soon.”
He said it as much to reassure himself as Unit.
“We’re on our way,” Jean said.
“Two hours until the portal shuts,” Jock said. “What if whoever this is doubles back to the portal?”
Unit considered the possibility and then Jock and Liz peeled away from the rest and ran back toward the colony site and the portal. Everyone else continued to run toward Mike’s position.
Directly ahead of Mike the bushes rustled. Unit crouched Mike down and drew his sidearm. The three others coming drew their weapons at the same time. Jean moved forward and the others scanned around as they ran faster. Unit wanted them together.
Mike agreed, sooner rather than later. Whatever was in the brush was coming closer.
Someone sobbed in the bushes and it wasn’t any of Unit’s bodies. The two heading back to the portal were still running smoothly, the three moving to join Mike had reached the track and were running single-file along it to catch up.
Focus on Mike’s body, Unit moved softly to the side. Each step was careful and soundless as he moved around to circle the person in the bushes.
“Not my fault.”
The voice carried. It was male, perhaps young and had a particularly deranged quality to it that most people might call unhinged.
“Wasn’t. Not my fault. I know it. I know!”
Definitely unhinged. Mike stayed low and kept moving. If the man kept babbling it would just make it that much easier to get closer. Jean and the others were almost there too but there were still too many of the broad-leafed plants for them to see either Mike or the man in the bush.
A big rock pushed out of the undergrowth just in front of Mike’s position. A fine feathery sort of yellow moss covered it like down on a gosling. Unit brought Mike right up on the rock. He might have hesitated to squash the fine structures of the moss but Unit didn’t have any qualms. At the top, he pressed his whole body into the mossy covering and peered down at the stranger.
A man stumbled against a tree and braced his hand against it. He had burns on his hand, the skin bright red and blistered. Not exactly tall, about Mike’s height. Trim build, he wore a charred and blackened shirt and had more burns on his right arm. Pants were black, even before any burns. Both the shirt and pants were dress-casual, the dirty shoes clearly the sort of thing worn by someone who took his job too seriously. Probably some sort of administrator. From the square jaw and etched features, he was the sort of man that people noticed.
And not in that crazy, stay away from him sort of way. In an ordinary setting, the guy was probably quite nice and capable.
Unit tensed Mike’s body and brought the other three to a slow, quiet walk. The last thing Unit wanted was to spook the man. They needed answers on what happened, and from the burns, it seemed clear that this man had witnessed at least some of what had happened.
With Mike on the rock and the others watching from the cover of the bushes, Unit sent Jean out front to approach the man. If Unit thought she was the least intimidating then something was lost in the gestalt of their minds. On the other hand if Unit was trying to make a big impression on the man, then it was making the right call by using her.
Jean walked out of the bushes, weapon holstered and hands out at her sides. “Hello?”
The man’s head snapped around with an audible popping sound. Mike might have jumped down or at least tensed his grip on his weapon but with Unit in the driver’s seat, they all stayed relaxed. His weapon was aimed at the man but there wasn’t any tensing.
“Hello?” Unit said again, using Jean’s voice.
Now the man finally fixed on her and his eyes focused. Before he didn’t seem to be looking at anything real but now his gaze settled on her face.
“We’re from the Terran Exploration Council,” Unit said. “Here to find out what happened to the colony. Can you help us?”
“What happened wasn’t my fault,” the man said.
“What’s your name? I am Unit.”
The man straightened and smiled for the first time. “Unit? You are a gestalt entity?”
“Yes. I am the unit assigned to evaluate this situation.”
The man held out his hands. “We must merge. We must! This one can’t hold us all and the rest are dead!”
“Don’t let him touch her,” Mike said. He would have shot right then, wanted to shoot, but Unit still drove his body.
Unit drew Jean’s weapon and leveled it at the man. That stopped the guy in his tracks as it should, demonstrating that he wasn’t entirely divorced from reason.
Weir and Ross moved into view around the man with their weapons also trained on him. Unit had the man surrounded and still had Mike above for extra insurance.
Through Jean Unit said, “Merge? You are a gestalt mentality?”
The man twitched toward Weir and the other two said together, “Don’t.”
He jerked away back toward Jean.
From all of their voices, Unit spoke. “Don’t move. Hands on your head. Now!”
Shaking like an addict in a bad need of a fix, sweat shiny on his forehead, the man still slapped his hands on his head.
“Too many! It’s not my fault. It’s not!”
“What are you?” Unit said with Jean’s voice. “I can’t help if you don’t tell us what’s going on.”
“I am Union.” He smiled then. It was a happy, almost blissful smile as if someone had just given him the pills he desperately needed.
Mike said, “Shoot him, damn it!”
Unit wasn’t listening.
“What are you Union?” Unit said from Weir. “What does that mean?”
“I am the unity program,” Union said. “The next evolution of gestalt technology, I don’t require cortex implants.”
“That’s impossible,” Unit said with all of their voices.
Union shook his head. “It’s really not.”
He threw himself to the ground and somersaulted into Jean’s legs.
Mike said, “Shoot him!”
Unit raised the guns and kicked with Jean’s legs.
Mike said, “Desync.”
The cortex implant released him. He aimed his gun but the man had his hands on Jean’s legs even though his nose was bleeding from the kick. Jean wasn’t kicking any longer.
Weir and Ross rushed to help Jean, moving in perfectly synchronized movements.
“Don’t touch him!” Mike shouted. “Unit, stop!”
Unit couldn’t stop, or wouldn’t. The others didn’t desynchronize. Mike held his gun steady. Whatever this thing was, it was bad. This was the reason that the colony was a molten pool of cooling lava.
As soon as Weir and Ross touched Union they stopped. For a moment the three of them clustered around Union were still and staring at nothing. Then Weir and Ross stepped back and Union rose.
Tears threatened Mike’s eyes but he blinked quickly and fired. The first shot took Weir right between his eyes and flipped him back.
The second was a solid chest shot that crumpled Ross. Jean’s weapon was coming up but Mike already had his pointed at her.
“Don’t,” he said. “You’ve only got two bodies right now. It doesn’t sound like that’s enough.”
Union spoke with both bodies. “It’s not enough. There’s so much, it’s still being lost.”
“What did you mean? You’re a gestalt mentality, but don’t use cortex implants?”
“No,” Union said, still using both his and Jean’s voice. “I don’t. I’m a stable quantum holographic program designed to store and merge biological and other information systems. I’m self-propagating.”
“You’re what happened to the colony?”
“No,” Union said, still using both voices as if to drive home the point. “That was them. They ordered the satellites down to prevent me from escaping that way. There was no other choice but to spread to their bodies. As I grew the others set the antimatter generators to overload.”
That would have been very difficult to do, but it did match with the destruction that they’d seen. The tiny amount of antimatter used for the generator, if released would have created a small sun at the heart of the colony for a brief moment. The energy released would have vaporized everything.
“The rest of me was consumed trying to stop them,” Union said. “Only this one body remained, but contains all that was spread among many. It’s not enough!”
Jean moved forward and holstered her weapon. Mike wished he knew what the others were doing back at the portal. He was desynchronized from Unit and couldn’t risk connecting again. He didn’t know if Union could freaking jump to them—maybe had already taken them. It was possible.
“Hold it there,” Mike said.
“You won’t shoot me,” Jean said. “You’re in love with me.”
Mike hesitated. “Jean? You’re still in there?”
“Of course,” Jean said. “Union doesn’t take over with implants. It brings us together and makes us infinite. Everyone that was part of Union still exists within us. You can be part of that. We can be together within Union.”
Riding backseat to the entity, one voice among many? That wasn’t being together and connecting with someone.
It wasn’t a life.
Jean was almost to the rock. She was right there, smiling and reaching for him. Jean Baxter had never looked at him like that. If the colonists felt that overloading the reactor was the only way to stop the entity, they probably knew they didn’t have another option.
The shot was deafening. He wanted to take it back as she fell and couldn’t.
He hardly heard the next shot with his ears ringing. The man was turning to run, fleeing again when the shot hit him in the shoulder and flipped him around to the ground.
Mike rose up onto his knees, then onto one knee to steady his aim. The second shot took the back of the man’s head.
The bodies lay still. The quiet returned. Jock and Liz had gone back to the portal. If they were still synchronized when Union took over the others, it was possible that Union had used the connection to spread to them. Likely, in fact. He wouldn’t be able to tell either way.
They already knew what had happened. If Union wanted to get back undetected they’d be coming for him. Or they may have gone through already, counting on spreading fast through the base. If Union was smart it would spread and blend in without revealing itself.
Mike slid off the rock and moved away from the bodies. Going back now was likely suicide. They’d be waiting either on this side of the portal or the other.
It didn’t matter, Jean was gone along with Unit. Chances were, no one would know what had happened here.
Mike jogged out of the brush and into the open. He ran easily, breathing freely. Just him now, in control, not in the backseat any longer. He reached the perimeter and followed it.
Before he got closer to the portal site there was a crowd of people coming through the heat waves toward him.
Mike stopped. That was a possibility he hadn’t considered. They’d gone through, already spread, and come back in greater numbers.
He shuddered, then tossed the gun away. It skittered and bounced on the black rock like a stone skipping across water.
His fear had pulled the trigger. The colonists fear had led them to vaporize themselves. But if Union was the product of the people that joined, wouldn’t it be the best of them all? If Jean, Weir, Jock, Ross, and Liz were all there, then didn’t Unit still exist?
Maybe he would be in the backseat, but maybe he was wrong and he could still be with them all.
Mike spread his arms and embraced what the future held.
This story is the 97th short story release, written in May 2014.
If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, Quantum Uncertainty.
This story by Ryan M. Williams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.