Chapter 31: The Bluff
Caleb turned his attention to the aliens, determination cloaking him like a shroud. There was nothing more he could do for his family, friends, or Earth. His task boiled down to preparing the stage for the arrival of the reinforcements. He needed to eject this ship from the solar system without loss of more life, while buying humanity a couple hundred years of breathing space.
They could kill the ship and crew, but more aliens would come. Earth was not prepared to thwart the military might of a millennium old civilization. Simply kicking the aliens out of the solar system wouldn’t work either. They would come back with reinforcements. A little Texas-style bluffing was in order! The trouble was, the lives of billions of humans were at stake.
“We have much to discuss, but not until the Captain has been freed of the Companion that violated him!” he angrily informed the alien Companions. “Have you been trained as the Captain’s alternate?” he shot the question at the Alternate.
“Y ... yes, Sir!” the Executive Officer blurted aloud, shocked at hearing the voice in his head.
“Do you know why the Captain is rejecting his Companion?” Caleb demanded.
“Yes, Sir!” the Alternate answered, mentally this time.
“Why would you accept a Companion that has so violated the host/Companion pact?” Caleb quizzed curiously, playing for time and determined to keep the aliens and Companions off balance.
“I never believed I would have a chance to be a host,” the XO replied after a brief hesitation. “Being an alternate was an honor, but being a host is a dream come true. This is a one in a million chance for me, and I won’t miss it. Companions don’t stay with one host many years, as you know. When my Companion leaves, another may desire me as a host. It happens often because the host is already prepared, and requires less effort for the new Companion. Besides, the physical and mental advantages of being a host continue after the Companion leaves. That will give me a very long career and will be good for my clan.”
“The humans have a saying, ‘Be careful what you wish for,’ meaning that what you think it is, can be very different that what it actually is. My advice is, don’t forget that you are in charge,” Caleb answered grimly.
“Captain, is this still your desire?” Caleb asked.
“It is,” the Captain replied resolutely, but also with a note of sadness.
Caleb nodded before saying, “Before you proceed, please order the ship to reverse course. While your Companion is moving to the Alternate, I need to recover as many of our young as I am able.”
“Are you saying we have been battling hatchlings?” the Science Officer’s Companion blurted with equal parts astonishment and horror in his thoughts.
“Not hatchlings, but not fully matured humans, either,” Caleb corrected, his thoughts laced with burning anger. “They are in training. You have fought the equivalent of a hatchlings first foray on clan business. You will meet their Guardians soon enough. The Guardians are not happy about your unprovoked attack. I will attempt to quell their anger, and rescuing the young ones will certainly help!”
“Bridge,” the Captain promptly ordered aloud. “Return to the scene of the battle. Rescue any humans found.”
“What of their dead?” the Science Officer’s Companion inquired sarcastically.
“I hope there are none,” Caleb answered dryly. “Even using practice armor and weapons, these human are remarkably resilient. Dead humans will complicate negotiations for your freedom! You had better hope no humans died because of your actions! Convincing the Guardians to release you would become very difficult!”
“Bring the injured humans to me,” Caleb continued after a moment of thought. “I will attempt to repair them, before their Guardians arrive.”
“Karen, gather the squadron around the hangar door,” Caleb said as a private aside. “Bring anyone that is injured to me. I can help them. Other than that, pass the word to follow my lead. We’re going to kick these aliens out of our solar system, and put the fear of God in them. Hopefully, they will avoid this section of the galaxy like the plague when we’re through.”
“Will do,” Karen answered briskly. “Just take care of Blake,” she ordered back. “He and I have some unfinished business
,” she added before blasting orders to the squadron.
“Begin your transfer,” Caleb ordered the Captain’s Companion. “The Alternate is trained, so it shouldn’t take long for the two of you to be functional. You must hurry! We must be finished before their Guardians arrive! It is the only way to save your ship and prevent war between the species! War would be a very bad idea for your host’s species!”
Caleb began to turn away when the Medical Officer’s Companion asked, his tone imperious, “Why do we need to wait until his transfer is complete? If we must understand something critical, then you should explain it now.”
Caleb whirled back to face the Medical Officer, snarling, “Because the Triad made the decision to attack Earth; NOT JUST THE PAIR OF YOU! Should he avoid the consequences simply because the Captain has rejected him?” he demanded. “I agree with the Captain’s decision, but I don’t know if it should be on grounds of stupidity, or incompetence! That applies to your whole Triad! Your Triad needs to understand the ramifications of what you have done! Then, your Triad needs to prevent a war! This backward little planet of ‘semi-sentient’ entities, as you called them, would destroy your host’s species, ending an empire that has lasted thousands of years! You have no idea what you have done. War is a religion to humans! They named their nearest planetary neighbor, the fourth planet from the sun, after a god of war! Are you willing to risk your host’s entire species, and their civilization? Do you have more questions?”
“No!” the Medical Officer’s Companion mentally whispered, his tone cringing in horror at the imagery included in Caleb’s outburst.
“Good!” Caleb replied sarcastically. “Make yourself useful! Get the shield up and these hangar doors open. I have wounded younglings to heal! Did your ship’s personnel take any casualties?”
The Medical Officer straightened slightly, reporting aloud. Caleb plucked the words from his mind. “Two died in engineering. Fifty-two were injured, ten of them critically. Three of the ten will not live another cycle. We can influence the injuries of the remaining seven, to an extent. I don’t know if our efforts to overcome the trauma they have experienced will be successful.”
“Move your ten critical to the hangar,” Caleb instructed, “I can heal them while I’m healing ours.”
“Why would you do that?“ the Medical officer asked.
“Because I believe I can save them,” Caleb answered gravely. “My manner of saving them will demonstrate to your Companion, and his Triad, how badly they have erred.”
“We will bring the most injured that have a chance for survival,” the Medical Officer’s Companion conceded arrogantly, trying to take command of the situation again.
“No!” Caleb corrected. “I especially want the injured with no chance for survival. In fact, if more than ten slide into that ‘no chance’ category, bring them! Get it done before the transfer is complete! Alternatively, if you prefer, we could evacuate our younglings. That would leave the ship and crew to the mercies of their Guardians.”
“Why don’t you?” the Science Officers Companion asked, confusion permeating his thoughts.
“I still believe all life is precious,” Caleb replied caustically, channeling his impersonation of Al, perfectly ... or maybe it was Al speaking. “I haven’t completely adopted the human attitude that some entities are too stupid to live, although your Triad has swayed me towards acceptance of that stance. Bring your most injured to the hangar before the Captain has finished expelling the Companion! No more questions! I’m losing patience! Push me, and I’ll leave you to your fate!”
“Caleb!” JJ called while squadron members were arriving. “Are you sure there’s no way to undo this?”
“Pretty sure, Hon,” Caleb replied, his thoughts suddenly brimming with regret. “I can’t think of a way to get the same results without the full meld. Honey, don’t feel like you need to...”
“Don’t start that bull!” JJ interrupted warningly. “Where you go, I go! Where I go, Noah goes! He’s with me now! The only reason he hasn’t gone into the full meld is I specifically told him not to. The only reason I asked you that question, was to ensure I had all the facts before I did it. Noah will meld after me. That way, if he has a problem, I’ll be here to help him. You know he would do it anyway ... not for an anti-social reason, but for good reasons of his own. I’ve talked to him about it. He convinced me! We have a pretty smart kid!”
Noah chimed in.
“Hi, Kid,” Caleb answered back. “We’ve talked about eavesdropping. Were you eavesdropping?”
“No, but I could tell from Mom’s expression that she was at a break in the conversation. I didn’t want to interrupt, earlier. We don’t always need thoughts to know things,” Noah replied, not troubled by the question, or by needing to answer. “Thought is the sum of communication, but that doesn’t mean we can’t respond to some parts of that sum. People without a Companion do it all the time,” he pointed out. “All they can react to is partial information, like speech, or expressions, or body language. We really shouldn’t lose those skills, just because we have a Companion.”
“Help!” Caleb mock yelled. “Somebody stole my little boy!”
“DAA-aad,” Noah complained. “Just because I’m little doesn’t mean I have to be stupid!”
“I love you, Kid,”
Caleb added softly.
“I love you too, Dad,” Noah answered sincerely.
“What do you think of all this?” Caleb asked.
“Shandi Walcott thinks this is a natural progression. I think she’s right,” Noah promptly answered.
“I don’t understand! What progression? What does she think?” Caleb stammered, astonished and confused by the answer.
“Humans are tool users,” Noah explained patiently. “The first thing we did, as humans, when we got Companions, was find ways to use our new abilities to enhance our use of tools. Specifically, we have used our enhanced abilities to manage our nanites, and our nanites are nothing more than tools. Shandi said, ‘Fully merging Companion, human and our tools is a natural progression,’ and I agree with her. Humans without Companions are attempting to do it now with brain-computer interfaces. It only makes sense that humans and Companions do the same things.”
“When did she say this?” Caleb asked, stunned.
“Ummmmm ... She was seven, so that would make it ... eighteen months ago,” Noah answered thoughtfully.
“She’s only six months younger than you, so that would have made you nine or ten!” Caleb mentally sputtered, like a tire spinning in deep mud. Not as effective, but throwing disconnected thoughts, the way the spinning tire throws mud. “What were you doing talking about ... humans ... progression ... never mind!” he said, mentally surrendering and shaking his head to clear it. “Ah! You kids might be better prepared, mentally, than the grownups. I’ll talk to you, later. Mind your mom!” he concluded, once again questioning his ability to keep up with his son, mentally.
“I will, Dad,” Noah promised.
“It doesn’t take long to get here, after melding. I’ll see you when you get here, honey,” Caleb told JJ. “I love you.”
“I love you, too. Stay safe,” she ordered softly.
“No problem,” he answered. “All I’m doing is helping some of the injured, and waiting for a Companion to complete a transfer. Speaking of which, I need to go. It looks like he’s done,” and then they exchanged some private thoughts that were more intimate than coitus and hotter than the hottest kiss.
Caleb encapsulated his love for JJ and stored it in hardware, permanent memory, close to his central core processing. He studied the contents of the memory junction thoughtfully, and then he purposefully linked that junction to his decision-making matrix. That memory location would be the filter through which he viewed the world. It amazed him how love, added to the human psyche, stabilized and rationalized thoughts. Caleb considered hiding that part of the human condition from the aliens. They might mistake it for weakness, but Caleb thought it might be humanity’s greatest strength. He deliberately focused his attention on the Captain and considered the differences in how he viewed the alien.
“How do you feel about not being a host?” he asked.
“It will take time to become accustomed to being ... alone,” the alien Captain hesitantly replied aloud. “Beyond that...” He moved his body in the alien equivalent of a shrug before saying, “I’m sad that we had to end our agreement the way we did.”
“You are not responsible for your Companion’s honor,” Caleb said, consoling the Captain. “Ideally, the presence of a Companion should make the host a better individual. I’m not referring to physical improvements, though Companions also benefit the host in that way. A Companion should enhance a host’s character, as well as his body!”
“That is not always the case,” the Captain admitted sadly.
“I believe that is because traditionally, hosts and Companions are not exactly matched,” Caleb said. “Would you be willing to accept another Companion?”
“I would,” the Captain replied sadly. “There is small chance another Companion would choose me as a host, after this incident.”
“You alone consistently argued to protect my younglings and the planet,” Caleb reminded the Captain. “If anyone deserves a Companion, it is you. I will conduct an experiment with your most gravely wounded,” Caleb continued, seemingly on a different subject. “They will not be harmed, and may be healed,” he added, sensing the Captain’s protective alarm for his crewmembers. “I will include you in the experiment. If I am successful, then you will receive a Companion.”
“You would be my Companion?” the Captain asked, surprised.
“No,” Caleb replied, allowing humor to bleed through his thoughts. “I would be a poor match for you, Captain. Besides, I have bonded with this human until the end of our days. If my experiment is successful, you will receive a Companion matched to you. It is an attribute of the human genus that works for humans, but I have not attempted to use it with another species.”
“I do not want another member of the ship’s Triad for a Companion,” the Captain said bluntly. “The only Companions available are the ship’s Triad and you.”
“You are mistaken, Captain,” Caleb replied warmly. “Each of the younglings has a Companion. Each of their Guardians has a Companion. Rather than try to explain it, why don’t we continue with the experiment.”
He turned to the Medical Officer and asked, “Why did you only bring nine injured? You said you had ten!”
“One of the critically injured died as we moved him to the hangar,” the Medical Officer’s Companion accused, his thoughts blaming Caleb for the death.
“Your actions have claimed another life,” Caleb shot back, his thoughts bristling with accusation. “The ship’s Triad has failed the ship, and jeopardized the continued existence of your host species! You are responsible! Your Triad’s permanent dissolution is the only acceptable outcome! After your debacle, you will be lucky to secure a position as Companion on a lifeboat!”
“You can’t do that!” the Captain’s former Companion objected heatedly. “A ruling to dissolve a Triad can only be made by a Triad of Triads!” he scoffed. “When was the last time nine Companions were co-located to form a Triad of Triads? You do not have the authority or the means to reach such a ruling!”
“Open your mind, Companion,” Caleb ordered with equal heat. “You would not do it during the battle, but now you have no option. Open your mind and experience Companions new to this universe! Companions surround you! Their Guardians are on their way, and each of them is a host/Companion pair! Furthermore, your Triad is responsible for purposefully attacking and possibly killing host/Companion pairs!”
Caleb turned away in disgust saying, “Captain, let us save some lives, and discover if this human attribute will work across species! Please move all healthy crewmembers away, except for those with Companions. Blake, move our wounded closer to the injured aliens. They’ll be healed, and we’ll see what happens with the aliens.”
“He is no longer the Captain,” the Executive Officer proclaimed with prompting from his new Companion. “The ship’s senior officers must be hosts.”
“Should we allow more crew members to die, while we discuss the chain-of-command?” Caleb asked sarcastically.
“No! Care for the wounded, first!” the Executive Officer blurted before his Companion could respond.
The Captain ordered the guards and medical crewmembers back, away from the wounded.
“Blake! Karen!” He considered for a moment before amending, “All humans and their Companions: please join me in a meld.” Caleb publicly broadcast, reaching every host/Companion pair outside the Van Allen Belt. “Our goal is to open a portal. We can heal our wounded. If the portal affects the aliens the same way, their critically wounded will also heal. I’m hoping the aliens without Companions receive one through the portal. If it works, ten new Companions will go out into the universe! Meld!” he ordered.
One hundred twenty-one enhanced humans joined Caleb in the meld. The ‘normal’ humans were awed when they merged with the enhanced humans. This meld wasn’t the accustomed merging of equals, of human/Companion pairs. The convoluted wrinkles and folds on the surface of the human brain produced the individualized identifier of human/Companion pairs in conjunction with the human/Companion experiences. Those folds were normally finite in scope. The enhanced humans possessed the same identifiers, so they truly knew Caleb and Al were leading the meld, after some study. They focused on where the fold limit should be, but the limit wasn’t there! The folds twisted, and continued in directions that didn’t ... couldn’t ... that shouldn’t exist!
Caleb explained in the meld, “I have been changed, and I don’t know if the changes impact my ability to open a portal. I know the rest of you can: at least the Squadron members can. This must work the first time we try, if it will work at all.”
“You are still you, but more,” Blake noted in awe.
“Maybe,” Caleb conceded hesitantly. “I haven’t had time to study the changes. I’ll worry about that after we’re finished with the aliens.”
“You will meld and link with me,” Caleb informed the former ship’s Triad, allowing them to hear his thoughts. “Or you may link with me individually,” he ordered. “I require you to witness a true accounting of these events! If you survive the arrival of the Guardians, then you have a chance of leaving this solar system alive! You will relay a true accounting to all Companions you meet, and this ship will carry proof of your accounting.”
“What do you mean?” the Science Officer’s Companion demanded.
“We don’t have time for explanations,” Caleb angrily retorted. “Link, witness, and carry the true memories to Companions throughout this universe!” he ordered, as his meld reached out and PULLED the three Companions into a link.
“This is not possible!” the Executive Officer’s Companion blurted into the link in shock. “We can’t be pulled into a link, and there can’t be this many Companions here!”
“You have been pulled into a link, so it must be possible!” Caleb’s mesh replied. “Observe, and remember! You will learn how so many Companions can be here!” he commanded again.
The alien Companions were stunned by the action of pulling them into a link. Their minds froze in terror, when they witnessed all the new Companions in the meld. The fact their human hosts were included in the meld left the alien Companions numb.
“Will we have enough people up here to do what Caleb wants?” Kylee, Singer and Gabi’s girl, asked Noah. She was a few months younger than Noah. The two were doing loops and rolls with the other kids, reveling in the joy of true flight.
The meld with the computers had gone as expected. JJ and Noah, as well as the rest of the host/Companion pairs were ecstatic with the upgrade. They were anxious about Caleb and the squadron, though.
“I don’t know,” Noah answered, his concern clear in his thoughts. “We can’t get people up here faster than the launchers can launch.”
“Why are we waiting for the launchers?” Kylee wondered. “The upgrade is powerful enough to reach orbit without the launchers. It would take longer to reach orbit, but we’d still get a lot more people to help. Depending on the launchers is taking too much time!”
“We can’t send the detailed instructions on how to meld from orbit, and we can’t explain it well enough over the radios,” JJ answered for Noah.
“We know that, Mom,” Noah replied with the exaggerated patience that only a kid could project.
“Why doesn’t someone land, or at least drop below the Van Allen Belt, and explain what to do?” Kylee asked, frustrated that the adults couldn’t see the obvious solution. “Then everyone willing to accept the full meld can launch at once!”
“Out of the mouth of babes,” Ryan commented, astonishment and frustration at missing the obvious warring in his thoughts.
“I’m not a babe,” Kylee complained angrily.
“No, but you will be in a few years,” Singer answered cryptically. “I’ll have to get my shotgun out to keep the guys away.”
“Isn’t an automatic rifle better than a shotgun?” Kylee asked, confused at the direction the conversation turned.
“I’ll explain it later, honey,” Gabi interjected, sending warning thoughts to her husband.
“Good idea,” Singer answered with humor in his thoughts. “I can go down and pass the information,” he volunteered.
“I have more flight experience,” Ryan objected. “I think that I can get down and back up quicker. We’re trying to shave time!”
Ryan tilted his nanite wings, and dived towards earth like a stooping falcon.
“I think Dad just wanted an excuse to try that,” Mike commented to Noah and Kylee on a very tight channel.
“Adults are so childish,” Kylee agreed. “Should we try that, too?” she asked excitedly.
“If you kids aren’t careful, we’ll send all of you back earth-side!” Bailey, Briana’s mom, said testily. “This is all new, and a mistake costing one of you is not acceptable!”
“Yes, Mom,” Briana answered, pulling out of the tight barrel roll she was doing.