The voice in his head sounded desperate. But.
‘Who are you?’ Chuck asked. ‘What are you doing in my head?’ His mind was trying to convince him that everything was fine. But it wasn’t fine. He’d been shot at. His head was killing him. So was the radiation. And now he had voices in his head. And nobody ever thought that was a good sign.
Friend, his head told him. Here to help. Dying. Stop. Stop radiation.
‘Are you a min-min?’ he asked. He still didn’t quite trust the energy blobs. His only response was a sense of puzzlement. He felt puzzled. ‘I mean, one of the energy balls.’ And comprehension dawned on him.
Yes. Min-min. Dying!
Chuck felt a sense of urgency during that last statement. He realised with shock that Caitlin was right: the radiation was dispersing the energy balls. And the energy balls were alive. They were killing his guides. Had killed them, for all he knew.
Yes! Stop it!
‘Is it working? I can-’
‘Turn it off! Quickly! We made a mistake!’
‘You made a mistake!’ Caitlin retorted. ‘No, no, never mind,’ she continued as he tried to repeat his plea, ‘I am a professional. I turned it off as soon as you told me. Your skin won’t stop burning until we get you treated. And that should be soon. Get back to the ship.’
‘I’m coming,’ Chuck said. ‘You won’t believe this. I’m hearing voices.’
‘What won’t I believe?’ Cait asked.
‘Ha, ha. I’m on my way.’ Chuck signed out and prepared to run.
Go now, the voice said. Plenty of time.
The laser beam burned a hole in the back of his left boot as he hit the stairs running.
Back in the sunlight, Chuck slowed.
‘Who are you?’ he asked. There was a long pause. ‘Well?’
Wait, came the voice. Difficult. Looking for speech. Ah, there it is.
The change in his passenger’s language was immediate and obvious.
We are human, said the voice. It was female, from its cadence. It was like a voice remembered, one that had spoken only moments before, but it bypassed his ears. When your ancestors left the planet – I am assuming you are from Earth originally?
Chuck went to nod, realised that might be completely useless, and said ‘Yes.’
When your ancestors left, she continued, many stayed behind. Some were mad. Most were useless. A very few were brilliant. We fought the machines and subjugated them. We concentrated on restoring the planet. The main obstacle to that was humanity itself. And then we realised that we could live forever without our bodies. It seemed like a fair trade. Immortality and a planet restored for the simple price of our flesh.
‘I don’t know,’ Chuck said. ‘I kind of enjoy my flesh.’ He looked back over his shoulder, remembering. ‘Wait! Your friends, the min-min. Did they survive?’
The moment these words formed in his mind to be spoken, a great wave of sadness hit him. Tears welled up in his eyes.
No, she said. They were dispersed.
‘You were close to them?’ he asked.
No. But emotions are always experienced strongly within the host. I cannot help it. I am sorry. The loss of the team is unfortunate. We rarely reproduce, especially with the machines being so belligerent. But no, I was not close to them. There is your ship!
Chuck’s eyes were drawn to the ship. It was a lot further away than he should have been able to recognise it. A pleasant side effect. Pleasant.
‘You’re female?’ he asked.
Yes, she said. Apologies. My name is Flip. Philipa Nias. I grew up in Melbourne – the city you are in now – and was lucky enough to be involved in the last conversions. I don’t honestly know why we bothered to keep our gender-alignments. I think it is just a part of who I am. And you can stop thinking whatever you’re thinking. I can feel your hormone levels rising.
‘We’re almost there,’ he said. ‘What are you going to do? I need to go back to the ship for radiation treatment. I’ll need to make a proper report about my experiences since arriving, including the existence of a new life form or three. Are you coming with?’
Flip considered this. Off the planet? The radiation would disperse me.
‘I’ll ask Cait, but I think that we are shielded enough for you to come aboard safely.’
Something new to ride, Flip mused. Chuck felt himself being persuaded, which was an unusual sensation. They arrived at the ship. I think I should. Yes, that would indeed be an experience.
Feeling unusually happy, Chuck whistled as he ran through the pre-launch activities that would get him and his invisible passenger off the planet. As he was packing away the last of the supplies he had removed from the ship, his eye caught the corpse of a small bird. He tried to look away, but his gaze was fixed.
Wait, Flip said. Please. We need to bury him.
Chuck thought: ?
I owe him, Flip said. As I owe you. Please.
Nodding, Chuck dug a small hole in the soft earth and placed the sparrow gently into it. He covered the bird with soil and replaced the grass divot.
Do you still have religion? Flip asked him. The Bible? God?
‘Well,’ Chuck said. ‘Gods. There are a good number of them. But there is The One God. Not that anybody believes He’s the only one any more. He had a Bible.’
Not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing, it says. That’s what makes a Rider. Take care of the individuals and the world will be fine.
‘That sounds like a plan,’ Chuck said. ‘Who knows what will come from this meeting of two individuals?’
All thanks to that little guy, said Flip. Oh dear. I’m starting to sound like you now. Before we go, I think there’s one person that should come with us. She established a link and gave her friend the invitation. Chuck caught the gist of it through their shared thoughts.
‘Hang on, Captain who?’
Space: The final frontier.