Paps felt free. Freer than he had felt since he first left for deep space. There was no longer a voice whispering in his ear, telling him what to do, controlling his actions and the actions of his ship. Hal was gone for good, the only evidence of his existence was the constant dull throb at the base of his skull. He lightly skipped around the ship, patting consoles to happily verify that they once again responded to his commands.
The rest of the crew did not feel free, and judging by the available evidence, they were correct. They had all been captured by a Remote ship rather easily. Engineer Polk had managed to get a shot at it with the positron gun, but the blast veered away from the ship as if it had more important things to do. The giant ship casually opened its bay doors and reeled them in without a struggle. The crew’s misery was only compounded by their captain’s bliss.
“I liked him better when he was grumpy all the time.” Polk was having an especially hard time with their new circumstance.
The Worm was still working full time to gain control of the ship. She was learning how to process all of the streams of data coming at her. “His puppet masters are gone now. They’ve been inside his head for years. I can sympathize with the relief he must be feeling.”
Polk was trying to get the weapons on line again. Or anything that could break them out of this ship that was hauling them back to the Remotes’ home… whatever it was. “Well, he won’t feel relieved when we get to wherever we’re going, and the Remotes start interrogating us.”
Polk kept fiddling with the power levels. He couldn’t get it above two percent, almost enough power to boil water. “By the way, that bit of information about his Duner pals controlling him via that thing in his head would have been useful to know before they all got killed.”
The Worm was concentrating. She was receiving a data stream from the scanners. “Unidentified material. Power at one point three percent.” She blinked several times. Blinking was something she was unable to do when fully engaged with the computer. “I tried to tell you, but every time I even thought about it, the computer overrode the speech center of my brain. For what it’s worth, I don’t think it would have made a difference.”
Polk nodded gravely. “There must be some kind of dampening field suppressing our power output. That’s the only explanation I can think of.”
Captain Paps’ voice bubbled over the intercom. “How are my two technical geniuses doing down there? You need any snacks? I’ve got some… umm… let’s see… vaguely flavored Space Crackers!”
Polk rubbed his temples. “He’s completely lost it. I didn’t think he had any marbles left to lose, but damn if he didn’t prove me wrong. He’s probably making Harvey wear a party hat.”
The Worm was receiving another data stream. “Gravity levels fluctuating… compensating.”
Polk started chewing on his least chewed fingernail. “I guess that means we’re almost there. I’m starting to think Paps is onto something with his insane happiness.”
The ship had landed. The bay doors holding in the human ship Zeno slowly opened, and a blinding white light poured into it. Polk and The Worm watched from a screen in the engine room. Paps and Harvey watched it on the bridge’s main viewer. As their eyes adjusted, the blinding white light faded to a greener shade. Just outside the bay doors was an endless field of grass.
Harvey gasped at it in awe. “It’s beautiful!” Having been raised in a bio-dome on a planet with centuries of terraforming left, he had never seen a well manicured lawn before, much less an endless grassy field.
Paps sighed. His elation at being free from Hal started to tone down a bit. He had learned from experience to expect the absolute worst.
The walls of the ship began to rattle. Objects that weren’t secured fell to the floor. The rattling resolved itself into a deep booming voice. “Please exit your vehicle.”
Paps hit the intercom button. “You hear that?”
Polk responded quickly. “Yea, I heard it. If you can talk back to them could you let them know that one of us is physically attached to the ship and can’t exit?”
The booming voice returned. “Fine, you two in the command center, exit the vehicle. The other two can stay. Someone will be on their way shortly to detach you.”
Polk waited until his bones stopped rattling to reply. “Um, thanks?”
Paps motioned for Harvey to come along. “Let’s go, Harvey. Time for first contact.” They walked to the nearest hatch, opened it and climbed down to the ground. The grey interior of the hangar they now stood in seemed to go on for miles. It was completely featureless, in stark contrast to the rolling hills and green fields just outside of it.
The image of a man wearing a fur suit appeared in front of them. It was a hologram, but an extremely realistic one. The only evidence that it was, in fact, a hologram was that it appeared instantly in front of them. Large insects hovered around Paps and Harvey, appearing to observe them.
The hologram spoke. “I have not seen wild humans in quite some time. Tell me, how did you find our home? We have taken great care to remain hidden, you know.”
Paps hesitated before he spoke. Strategic military thoughts ran through his mind. Clearly this was a race humans would not want to make war with. The Remotes had the ability to obliterate humanity without blinking an eye. He had to convince them that they weren’t a threat, and came to the conclusion that the truth was the best way to do that. Minus the part about him blowing up one of their space stations.
So Paps told the truth. He told the furry hologram man about how his ship crashed on the Duners’ homeworld. How his first crew died. How the Duners rebuilt and upgraded his ship and ultimately controlled it.
Harvey butted in and told him how he came to discover this system. He was overjoyed that someone would actually listen to a technical description of his revolutionary parallax computation methods.
The furry hologram man listened intently as both men recounted their stories. “Fascinating. I’ll have to look up these ‘Duners,’ as you call them. I assume that they are the ones who brought the fleet.”
Paps nodded. This was definitely the most casual interrogation he had ever heard of. He decided to try his luck with a question of his own. “And who are you, exactly?”
The furry hologram man let out an embarrassed laugh. “My apologies. You may call me Bill. Our society doesn’t have much use for names. And even if we did, translating a proper noun from an infrared pulse to low frequency atmospheric disturbances would be rather pointless, wouldn’t you say? So Bill will do just fine.”
At least this Remote had a command of human language. Paps had no desire to repeat the experience of his last encounter. “That’s not exactly what I meant, um, Bill. I meant why have you brought us here? Are we prisoners?”
“Prisoners? Not at all! Well… maybe a little. I am a scientist. What you would probably call a xenobiologist. My specialty is your species. I have been granted the use of one of the continents on this planet to conduct my research. I think you should find it quite comfortable here.”
The feeling of freedom that had buoyed Paps’ mood for the last few hours was officially gone. “Research? What sort of research? I’m tired of being someone’s experiment.”
Furry Hologram Bill kept his cheerful demeanor. “Well, you don’t exactly have a choice in the matter. But if it makes you feel better, the research is extremely non-invasive. I’ll require blood and tissue samples from you every once in a while, and you can enjoy yourself the rest of the time. There’s plenty of food around that will meet all of your dietary requirements, you can live in any kind of climate that you like, and you can meet and mingle with the other humans living here. You can think of it as a nice place to retire.”
This guy was good. He had found Paps’ soft spot quickly. Retirement. The ability to stop running, to relax, to have no responsibilities, to be able to let the universe go on without him. These ideas occupied Paps’ mind constantly. They were his one sliver of hope in a universe that seemed determined to make him miserable. Which was why he couldn’t believe a word of it.
Furry Hologram Bill continued. “Of course, every so often the military boys will come down for a training exercise and attempt to capture you. But don’t worry. It’s all catch and release.”
Paps still felt like he wasn’t being told the whole story. “So let me get this straight. I get to retire here, build a cabin on a lake and relax for the rest of my life? Other than the occasional human hunt, that sounds a little too good to be true.”
Furry Hologram Bill seemed puzzled by this response. “Ah, yes. I forgot how much wild humans value their freedom. I assure you, my motives are for your benefit. I have found that your species is easier to study when left alone as much as possible. All I ask is that you don’t leave this continent. You’ll interfere with experiments on other species.”
Paps didn’t want to accept this, tempting as it was. But like Furry Hologram Bill said, he didn’t have a choice. He could accept retirement gracefully and ignore the fact of his captivity, or stubbornly hold on to what was left of his free will.
“I don’t suppose you’ve got a map of this place, do you?”
Harvey raised his hand as high as he could, swatting one of the large insects accidentally. “Can I have a telescope?”
Some Remote technicians hopped on top of Paps’ ship and began to dismantle it.