Copyright© 2013 by Refusenik
He'd fallen asleep on the couch again. Jobe was licking his face.
"Okay, okay! I'm awake," Scott laughed pushing the dog away. He stopped. He was in the old garage apartment. Surrounding him was the right furniture, the stereo, the rug exactly as he remembered. He dropped his hand to Jobe's head. The big shepherd licked his hand.
Jobe was real, the couch he was sitting on was real, but the flat screen TV hung suspended in midair. Where there should have been walls and a ceiling was nothing but pale-blue light.
"What's going on?" he asked. The sound was flat, as if it hadn't traveled very far.
Jobe turned in a circle.
Scott stood and walked to where there should have been a wall. His hand passed through the space. Jobe followed as he explored the apartment. Scott turned on the faucet in the kitchen. Water poured from the fixture. It felt real.
He walked to the deck. The stairs descended into the blue. For a moment he wondered what would happen if he threw himself off the deck into the void. He went back to the couch and sat. The dog jumped next to him and rested his head on Scott's knee.
"What have you gotten me into?" Scott asked.
Jobe's head popped up. He licked his chops and settled back on Scott's leg.
A man walked into the room, from where Scott couldn't say. The perfectly average man sat in Scott's favorite leather recliner.
"Am I dead?" Scott asked.
"No," the man said, "You are – alive."
"You're not human."
The thing that looked like a man tilted its head and Jobe barked at it.
"Ah," the thing said, its mouth moved for the first time. "My apologies. You are not distressed."
"I've been looking for answers my entire life. Are you the answer?" Scott said.
His mind went blank. What was he supposed to do now?
"We appreciate your – flexibility," the man thing said. "Others of your kind would not be so – predisposed – to our existence."
"Why am I here?"
Jobe butted Scott's hand, demanding attention.
"We are," the thing said, "as you surmise, alien to this world. We do not perceive existence as you do. This interface will allow us to communicate."
Scott scratched Jobe's head.
"Are you responsible for what I am?"
"We study life," the thing said. "Life is not unique in the universe as your kind is only beginning to understand. Rarely, does life evolve past the confines its origin point. We wish to understand why."
"I don't understand."
"Nor do we," the thing said. "Explorers are the universal rarity. Your species has made small steps from its gravity well and seems similarly inclined."
"Exploration," the creature said, "is often a solitary pursuit. Near the end of the previous team's time on this planet, a unique event was monitored – the disposal of your family unit."
"You did something to me?"
"The law was broken. The team justified their actions as a rare opportunity to monitor the maturation and socialization of a human adolescent."
"Yes," the thing said. "A similar attempt made many cycles earlier reached an unfortunate conclusion and the practice was discontinued."
"The subject of the attempt was thought to be possessed by spirits. A cure was affected with an awl and a bladed instrument. The surgery was an impressive achievement for your stone tool using ancestors, but the subject's usefulness was significantly diminished."
"You've been here before?" Scott asked.
"Can you restore my memories?"
The fake man looked at Jobe and Jobe shook his head.
"You were severely damaged before the experiment began. Like many young, the body was able to recover from the trauma, with a push, but the darkened parts of the brain were unrecoverable."
"Unviable, damaged due to the subject's biological death."
"A subjective term."
"What was done to me?"
"The damage was repaired and a research aid grafted to your – brain."
"I used to think I was a freak."
"The intentions of the team were honorable, but the experiment went awry. The team departed the planetary system, unaware that the control platform had failed to maintain contact."
"Jobe, as you have named the platform, was intended to maintain proximity to you for the duration of the experiment."
Jobe whined and licked Scott's hand. Scott rubbed Jobe's muzzle in response.
"The platform was to manage the research aid as you matured and forward collected data to our relay picket. Unfortunately, the platform was detained by your world authorities and incarcerated."
"He was picked up by animal control and put in the pound."
"As I have explained," the creature said. "The error was further compounded by this separation. Without the expected maintenance commands, the research aid reset to baseline parameters. As a result, the subject became aware of certain – abilities – that it should never have been allowed to access."
Jobe made a small growl and pawed at an ear with his hind leg.
Scott wanted to get up and pace, but he had no strength.
"Are you distressed?" the thing asked.
"What are you here to do, punish us?"
The thing's head did the tilting move again.
"The platform will be returned to our primary research facility. It possesses a unique dataset, and an unanticipated ability to adapt to adverse circumstances. It must be studied."
"You're going to take Jobe?"
"It will return with us."
"There's nothing I can do to stop you?"
Jobe sat up and Scott wrapped his arms around big shepherd. The smell of dog shampoo tickled his nose when he pressed into his neck.
"The platform will not be harmed," the man said. "The platform will be valued."
If they didn't intend to hurt Jobe, what the hell did they plan to do with him?
"We wish to enlist your assistance."
That didn't pass the bullshit test. "Why would you possibly need my help?"
Jobe's tail began to beat a rhythm on the couch's cushions.
"Another incident has occurred that if uncorrected will mean the end of our observations on your planet."
"What are you saying?"
"One objective," the thing said, "of our mission is to monitor technical developments of the subject species. This is to ensure when certain technological milestones are achieved, that our observations will remain undetected."
Scott looked at Jobe, still wondering if he were actually having the conversation or suffering some sort of brain seizure. Jobe's cold, wet nose brushed against his ear. It felt real.
"You don't want to be detected," Scott said. "I get that."
"One of your government's test aircraft crashed near its primary support facility. This was not of our doing. Regrettably, when the crash debris was retrieved – a stationary observation unit was also collected. We believe it was damaged in the accident."
"Go do the white light thing and take it back."
"We cannot violate the law," the thing said. "Use of such technology in proximity to your world's governmental power would risk our mission and the program."
"You'd rather humans find your technology than risk being discovered retrieving it? That's crazy."
"Taken in isolation, the discovery of unusual technology would be alarming to your authorities. If such an event happened, we would withdraw from this world and never return. The impact of the discovery would remain an open question. With no supporting data, what conclusion would your authorities reach?"
Scott blew out a breath, "I don't know."
"Neither do we. However, if our presence was discovered during retrieval, there would be no question of our existence. We would still withdraw, but leave having altered your civilization in unimaginable ways."
"And you think I can help?"