PERIL OF THE LAMPEROSA by Michael Dority
 
Part Two
 
XII
 
The trail wound around a large tree and ended abruptly in a small clearing on the far side. As they rounded the corner, Kate and Harlan gasped. There, embedded so tightly in the tree trunk it appeared to be growing out of the bark, was a large, dark crystalline object. 
 
Kate warily approached the object. “The embryo?”
 
“William and I think it’s a chrysalis,” replied the Captain, “…or the Lamperosa equivalent of one.”
 
A closer inspection revealed a faint, luminescent shimmer emanating from deep within the crystal. It reminded Kate of the shimmering forms of the adult Lamperosa. 
 
They watched the glow wax and wane with no particular regularity.
 
Kate to William: Should I reach out to this thing?
 
It’s not a THING. Yes, it’s safe.
 
Kate opened her mind and focused her mental acuities on the crystal. Impressions flowed slowly, even gently, through her mind: pleasant naturalistic scenes from various ecosystems on the planet, from deep under the oceans, the peaks of mountaintops and above. She swam… ran… flew. Probing further, she saw two indistinct forms and one other. Warm emotions welled inside her, swelling up, spilling over. Feelings so exquisitely blissful they ached. She wanted to cry. No… she was crying. 
 
The Captain stepped forward, put his hand on Kate’s shoulder. 
 
“She’s all right, Dad,” William reassured her.
 
Kate broke the psychic link.
 
She sat down on the ground to compose herself. The Captain sat next to her with his arm wrapped tightly around her shoulder. “It’s so… beautiful,” she sobbed. “I wish you could experience it.”
 
He is… through you.
 
Kate glanced at William, then looked at the Captain. 
 
Why, he is, isn’t he? She reached up and, very carefully, wiped a tear from his eye.
 
 
 
XIII
 
Harlan was fascinated by the crystalline object protruding from the tree. Upon closer examination, thin vine-like tendrils could be seen sprouting from the tree, penetrating the surface of the crystal and vanishing into its murky, softly shimmering depths. It looked as if the tendrils pulsed almost imperceptibly to the same erratic rhythm of the shimmering light from within the crystal.
 
Harlan stood back from the tree and caught his breath. “How did it get here?”
 
“The crystal remained in my father’s care until he died,” replied Ariel. “That was twenty years ago. The day after, it disappeared. It was his last wish that I should take custody of the embryo. I searched for days, but it wasn’t in my father’s home or at his office. Finally, I gave up.”
 
“Then about six months later,” the Captain continued, “the Lamperosa paid us a visit. The next morning, Ariel found a map in Doctor Wald’s office where he used to keep the crystal. The map led us here.”
 
“It’s bigger now,” Ariel said, “…and it wasn’t so deeply recessed into the tree. Those vines or arteries or whatever they are developed over time.”
 
“My best educated guess is that they’re a source of nourishment for the embryo,” the Captain said. “We’ve attempted to identify the substance within, but without success.”
 
“My guess is you’re right,” Harlan said. “What kind of tree is this?”
 
“It’s called a Trillin,” the Captain answered. “Like the Lamperosa, it’s unique to this planet. Its roots burrow down hundreds of metres into the soil. You’ll find them wherever there are Lamperosa.”
 
“So, they’re symbiotic life forms, then?” asked Harlan.
 
“The trees flourish when hosting an embryo; the benefit to the embryo is clear. Based on that, I would tentatively answer ‘Yes’,” said the Captain.
 
Harlan turned to William. “You say you’ve been coming to this place regularly for the past nineteen years?”
 
“Religiously,” William said. “Ariel and I, both of us.”
 
Harlan glanced at Ariel, then tore his eyes away from her before it became a stare of open admiration. 
 
Kate laughed, and William joined her. 
 
“Relax, bro,” Kate chortled. “You didn’t think you could keep a secret like this from your little sister for very long, did you?” 
 
Harlan was mortified.
 
William chimed in, “It was great fun, watching you two try to conceal it.”
 
Ariel blushed.
 
“Really now,” William said, “this is great news. Congratulations!”
 
“Yes, it is,” Kate added. “I wish you both the very best. Take good care of him, Ariel. God knows I’m tired of looking out for him.”
 
“And I for her,” William agreed.
 
“Well, I’ll be damned,” the Captain said, shaking Harlan’s hand. “You seem a decent type. Better treat her well; she’s my goddaughter you know.”
 
“No, I didn’t. You’ll have no worries there, Captain,” Harlan assured him.
 
“So, what keeps bringing the two of you back here so often?” asked Harlan. “It seems an odd way for two youngsters to pass the time.”
 
“First and foremost, I’m here for the mission,” said William. “I am, after all, the Earth Ambassador to Kolasi. I’ve always taken my job seriously, even when I was just a boy. Ariel promised her father she’d look after the embryo.”
 
Harland regarded William quizzically, patiently waiting for him to continue his explanation.
 
“—But of course, it isn’t just a question of duty. We come here to meditate. Sometimes we sit for only a few minutes, other times for hours on end.”
 
“What do you get from all this meditation?” asked Kate.
 
“Well, I’m pretty sure I learned… no, more like acquired my telepathy from the embryo. I’m unaware of any cognitive learning process associated with it. It began almost twenty years ago and came on gradually. I also suspect Ariel acquired another mental faculty from the embryo in similar fashion.”
 
Harlan leaned forward with great concern. “What would that be?”
 
“I believe if she were tested by the psionics corps,” said William, “they’d discover she’s received the gift of empathy.”
 
“That wouldn’t surprise me at all,” said Harlan.
 
“Nor I,” agreed Kate.
 
“There’s more…” William continued. “Over the years, I’ve noticed certain subtle changes in my personality. I have a much milder temperament now, and I get the same compelling sense of well-being every time I visit this place. What’s more, I feel I belong here. I don’t fear being elsewhere; I’m completely at peace with myself wherever I am. But when I’m away from here, my heart keeps urging me to come back. On other occasions, it’s almost like…”
 
“Go on,” Kate said.
 
“Sometimes I could swear that… I’m being enticed to return.”
 
Kate looked at the embryo. “It’s likely you and Ariel acquired your psychic powers subliminally. Somehow, the embryo used your subconscious minds to plant them in your psyches. But what you just said,” she added, “now that’s interesting…”
 
“In what way, Kate?”
 
“I’m not exactly sure. I’ll have to sleep on it.”
 
 
XIV
 
The team returned to the Meeting Place the following morning. They carried with them a variety of sophisticated monitoring and measuring devices sent to them the night before by eager Earth scientists. All of the tests and measurements had been performed before on the embryo, but this was the very latest equipment available and it was hoped more detailed and precise data would provide further insight into the impenetrable mysteries of the Lamperosa. Each device was equipped with its own subspace transceiver so that the scientists back home would receive a steady stream of real-time data to analyse and could also focus, tune and adjust the sensitive equipment remotely. 
 
“I have little hope these gadgets will yield significant results,” said William, sceptically.
 
“So do I, son,” said the Captain, “but you have to choose your battles. I’d have an unnecessary political fight on my hands from the scientists at Earth Command if I refused. Besides, I can’t see it’ll do any harm.”
 
William shrugged. “I guess that’s why you’re in charge, Pop.”
 
“Hrrumpf!” the Captain retorted, fidgeting with a large optical device on a tripod. “This stupid transponder won’t zero.”
 
“Yes, it will,” said Harlan, “but it’s a tricky adjustment. We had constant trouble with it back at the university. We could never convince the egg-headed engineers to redesign it. Here, let me take a look at it… Ahh, you see, there’s the trouble.”
 
“Thanks,” said the Captain. “Now I just need to run the self-diagnostics program and we’re through.”
 
The Captain navigated through a series of touch-screen menus on the equipment and initiated the onboard self-checks. Gyros hummed, lenses moved in their tubes and transmit/receive lights flashed. After a few seconds, the touch-screen illuminated green and the menu displayed “Ready…” in bold letters. 
 
“That should do it,” said the Captain. “If we leave now, we can get back to camp in time for lunch. Who’s with me?”
 
“I am,” said Harlan.
 
“So am I,” Ariel responded.
 
Kate to William: If you don’t mind, I’d like you to stay. I think we should talk.
 
Sure, I’m not that hungry anyway.
 
“Kate and I will catch up with you. See you all back at the compound.”
 
“Okay,” said the Captain, “just don’t be late for dinner.”
 
Harlan, Ariel and the Captain rounded the turn in the path and disappeared into the underbrush. 
 
What’s on your mind, Kate?
 
You and Ariel. She lowered her eyes and shifted her weight from one foot to the other, signalling her discomfort. It’s a private subject. Are you willing and able to discuss it with me?
 
Why not? It’s been on my mind lately anyhow. Do you think she and Harlan will get along well together?
 
Yes, I do. But I don’t want to talk about Harlan and Ariel. I want to discuss YOU and Ariel.
 
What’s there to discuss? We’re divorced.
 
William, please don’t make me contend with you over this. It’s awkward enough already. Look, I’m more than qualified to psychoanalyze you. I promise you, there’s a good reason why you should permit me to continue.
 
All right then, go on….
 
Why did you and Ariel divorce?
 
It wasn’t any one thing, or anything all that dramatic. Ultimately, I think we just got tired of each other.
 
Don’t you mean you got tired of her?
 
Saying it that way doesn’t exactly cast me in a favourable light. Yes, I suppose so. I ended the relationship and it broke her heart. I wish I could have spared her.
 
William, you don’t need to make a good impression on me or convince me you’re a paragon of virtue. It will only get in the way. I just need you to tell me the truth, plain and unvarnished. I believe, in essence, you got tired of her. At least, that’s close enough to reality for the moment. Let’s move on…. Yesterday at the Meeting Place, you mentioned how you’d grown weary of looking out for Ariel—
 
—It was a joke. It was only meant to lighten the mood.
 
I’m not sure that was your intent, William. But it rang hollow. There was no truth in it.
 
Maybe not, but I still care about her. She’s a fine woman.
 
She’s quite a remarkable young woman, William. I don’t think you realize how good a woman she is. The fact of the matter is, you haven’t been looking out for her; she’s been looking out for you. Even after you rejected Ariel as a woman and divorced her, she’s stood by you… probably to her own detriment. 
 
She doesn’t need to do that—I’m all right.
 
No, William, you are most certainly NOT all right. You still need her and she knows it. She won’t leave you until she’s sure it’s safe. She’s an empath. You can’t hide your emotions from her.
 
…Then what would you have me do?
 
Release her—free her up to fully devote herself to her new relationship. You’ve got to let her go, William. You owe it to her and to yourself. But you can’t let go until we’ve addressed the root of your problem… And you have one, believe me. Think carefully about it, William. When you’re ready, we’ll continue this conversation…
 
Kate turned and strode quietly along the trail back to the compound. 
 
William sat down in front of the embryo, closed his eyes and slipped into a trance. 
 
 
XV
 
That night, shortly after William returned to the comfort of the base ship, the Lamperosa came to the Meeting Place. They poked, prodded and examined the new equipment they discovered. Before they left, they removed a subspace transceiver from one of the devices. Nothing was damaged in the process.
 
 
XVI
 
William slept fitfully that night. He was unaware that anything was seriously wrong with him and thought it was only human nature that he should react unfavourably to the news. Part of him resented Kate for broaching the topic. But he knew she was sincere. Telepaths can’t lie to each other—not unless they believe their own lies. He wondered what lies he might be telling himself, what delusions he could be entertaining.
 
He dreamed he was back in the woods where he’d gone on many occasions to commune with the Lamperosa. They were agitated, almost frantic. There was something they needed to tell him, something they desperately wanted him to know. They were all screaming it at once—but he couldn’t understand them.
 
He woke up in a cold sweat and anxiously paced the floor for the rest of the night.
 
 
XVII
 
The next morning after breakfast, William set out for the Meeting Place, intending to replace the subspace transceiver the Lamperosa had appropriated the night before. When he arrived, he was only half surprised to find Kate waiting for him. He quickly snapped the new module into place and turned to face her.
 
You’re right. The status quo isn’t fair to either Ariel or me. Things just can’t go on this way.
 
I’m glad you understand. This part’s going to hurt, William. Are you ready?
 
I don’t have any other choice, Kate. Not really.
 
Very well. Let’s resume, then. Tell me, William, why do you think you lost interest in Ariel? She’s not a tiresome person. In a sense, she’s every man’s dream: sensitive, bright, vivacious and very pleasing to the eye. She’s at an ideal age to marry and have children. What’s not to like about her?
 
Nothing specifically, I suppose. It’s just that… well, people in general don’t much interest me.
 
Why is that?
 
Because... like you, I’m a telepath. I can read minds. I know first-hand the kind of shallow existence most people lead. The cravenness, depravity and cruelty that lie just behind the masks of normalcy we all wear. I don’t have much respect for humanity. 
 
Yes, I guessed that. What you’re saying is, because of your telepathic powers you don’t fit in. A sense of separation from humanity isn’t uncommon among espers like us. But that’s only part of the truth. Let’s get at the rest of it. Why else don’t you fit neatly into society? Take your time….
 
…Maybe because I wasn’t raised that way.
 
You mean your mission? To exchange the ancestral mental engrams of your own species for the alien ones of the Lamperosa?
 
Yes, that’s the gist of it.
 
Who are your people, then? Where do you belong?
 
I don’t know.
 
Where do you think you belong?
 
Nowhere.
 
Now we’re getting someplace. Tell me, where do you feel at home? With your father, your ex-wife? Among the Lamperosa or your own kind? 
 
‘Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.’
 
‘No place,’ William?
 
I am not the Messiah.
 
Nor can you heal your own brokenness by faith or force of will alone.
 
N-no, no….
 
 
XVIII
 
When the group returned to the tree at the end of the trail the following afternoon, they were mystified to discover some of the equipment taken from the compound four days ago scattered here and there across the small clearing. Some of the parts were disassembled (including the subspace transceiver that disappeared from the scientific equipment two nights before) while others appeared whole. 
 
“What the...?” the Captain exclaimed. “I see our little pixies have been busy confounding us again.”
 
Harlan and Ariel stooped to more closely examine the parts strewn on the ground. 
 
“Captain,” said Harlan, “do you know what these parts are for?”
 
“They’re tagged as spare parts. I assume they’re among those recently taken from the supply auxiliary. The equipment is inventoried according to government regulations. The RFI encoding on the tags is keyed to a provisioning database in the camp’s main computer network. We need only scan the tags—which the Lamperosa conveniently left intact—to determine what they are and to which of our camp’s system(s) they pertain.
 
“Harlan, Ariel…” the Captain summoned, “help me take this stuff back to the compound. Our engineers need to examine it ASAP. Leave all the piece-parts here; just take what’s in one piece. It’s all that’s tagged, anyway. We’ll come back for the rest.”
 
The three quickly gathered up the spare modules and headed toward the compound.
 
Kate to William: Who will establish a link with the embryo, you or me?
 
Both of us.
 
Their minds reached out to the embryo. Suddenly, they were hit with the same sense of excitement and urgency that had accosted William in his dream two nights earlier.
 
William: This is disturbing. I’ve never sensed impressions like this from the embryo. Something’s wrong.
 
“Clearly,” Kate replied, “but what’s it so upset about?”
 
Why did you speak?
 
“Because I know everything I need to know about you in order to succeed in your therapy,” said Kate. “I’m not comfortable probing your mind any further. It isn’t necessary. Besides, there are things about each other we shouldn’t know, given our present relationship. I feel like a peeping Tom.”
 
“Talking is so crude and slow,” said William. “But if you insist.”
 
“I do, and I think our friend here is trying to tell us something. Something important.”
 
William told her about his dream.
 
“Oh, well why didn’t you say so?” said Kate. “That confirms it. Trouble is, I can’t decipher anything intelligible from the barrage of the embryo’s unsettled thoughts and emotions. Can you?”
 
“No, nothing.”
 
The outer surface of the crystal (or chrysalis?) slowly began to undulate. Inside, the glowing nucleus grew brighter, larger. Suddenly, fissures appeared in the crystal. Deposits of a viscous green fluid began to leak from the cracks.
 
“Do you sense pain?” asked Kate.
 
“Yes… and panic.”
 
“William…” Kate whispered, “I think the embryo is undergoing a metamorphosis. The chrysalis is disintegrating.”
 
“What should we do?”
 
“Stay calm,” Kate intoned flatly. “My intuition tells me we should do nothing but observe.”
 
As they watched, a large crack appeared in the upper left-hand corner of the chrysalis. There was a sharp popping noise as the crack descended its surface. Without warning, the chrysalis fractured outward and shattered to pieces along the fault. Green, syrupy fluid gushed onto the ground at the base of the tree. It blotched their clothing, splattered their faces, ran down their cheeks. 
 
Kate screamed, but her cry was muffled by an alien presence impressing itself on her consciousness:… Harmless….
 
Kate fought the urge to run and consciously curbed her accompanying adrenaline rush. ‘NO, damn you!’ she yelled at herself. ‘Stand your ground!’
 
Then she let go, and the alien penetrated her mind. Its telepathic powers flooded over, into and through her like a violent rainstorm. It wasn’t anything like her first encounter with the Lamperosa. 
 
The psychic emanations from the alien creature were more organized, and conformed, at least in part, to the human archetype of reality. They projected a sequence of events in symbolic form that told a story—an experiential flow with distinct beginning and end points and a meaningful journey connecting them. 
 
The product of the metamorphosis they’d just witnessed slipped quietly out of the broken fragments of the chrysalis, shimmering like an adult Lamperosa as it approached them. It stopped within centimetres of Kate’s face.
 
Kate was not afraid. She was in this to the end, she realized. There was no turning back as she often had when the incline of life’s path grew too steep or her relationships became too much work to maintain. This was her epiphany coming to its fruition, standing on an alien world in a small clearing thousands of light years from Earth with green ooze trickling down her face. Then and there, as absurd as it may seem, her life changed forever. It had to.
 
Throwing caution (and established psionics corps policy) to the wind, she let the little Lamperosa all the way in. There it told her what she needed to know. No more, no less. The communication was mostly in symbols. Kate recognized only four words, and they came first. Then, after what seemed an eternity, the Lamperosa broke the psychic link and quickly disappeared into the underbrush.
 
“How long was I under?” Kate asked.
 
“Only a few seconds,” replied William.
 
“We must return to the compound. Now.”
 
 
XIX
 
They all assembled in the Captain’s ready room. The equipment they had recovered was strewn across the large conference table in the centre of the room. The plant engineers were just leaving when William and Kate arrived.
 
“Captain,” said Kate, “I have urgent news.”
 
The Captain regarded her with growing concern. “You look a mess. Here, let me get you a cup of tea. You’re overwrought.”
 
“It can’t wait… but I’ll take the tea.”
 
William and Kate recounted the story of the strange metamorphosis they’d been party to at the Meeting Place. 
 
“Where did the little Lamperosa go?” Ariel asked with concern.
 
“We’re not sure,” replied William. “It disappeared into the brush headed in the general direction of the large clearing occupied by the other Lamperosa. Whether that was its intended destination, I couldn’t say for sure.”
 
“That’s likely,” said Kate, now seated and shakily lifting a cup of tea to her lips.
 
“Listen,” Kate continued, “It spoke to me. It prefers symbols to words, but the words came first. They were: ‘USE NOW FIX BEAM’.”
 
“That’s significant in itself, as it turns out,” said the Captain. “Do you know what these spare parts are for?”
 
“No, Dad. We’re not engineers,” William said testily.
 
“They’re replacement modules for the mass converter. And, according to the engineers who just left, they’ve been modified.”
 
“By the Lamperosa?” asked William.
 
Now it was the Captain’s turn to be terse, “Who else, son?”
 
“Okay,” Kate hastened to interrupt, “So we know the Lamperosa think the mass converter is broken. They want us to replace the original parts with these modified spares. Evidently, they believe this will fix the problem.”
 
“But what’s the nature of the problem they want to correct?” asked Ariel. “What sort of ‘beam’ are they talking about?”
 
“Are you familiar with the theory behind the operation of a mass converter?” Harlan asked her.
 
Harlan explained how a subspace beam was used in a mass converter to alter the mass of its contents before they were transported to another location.
 
“That may explain some of the symbols I received from the little Lamperosa,” Kate said. “I got the image of an adult Lamperosa, then the impression of unexpected weightlessness. The Lamperosa morphed itself into the shape of a bird, and careened dangerously out of control, finally crashing into tree branches and other foliage as it plummeted in a mad free-fall to the ground below. Then a sensation of pain and utter darkness, like a void.
 
“Hmm,” said the Captain. “The Lamperosa have always been curious creatures. When we first set up this compound, they took the liberty of exploring our settlement. As I’m sure you noticed the other night, they can cause quite a commotion when they’re of a mind to, loudly skittering and sliding around on the roofs of our facilities. But they never damage anything. It’s almost as if they—”
 
“As if they’re light as a feather?” asked Harlan.
 
“Why, yes,” the Captain said.
 
“Perhaps they are,” Harlan added. “It’s curious...”
 
“Captain,” Harlan inquired, “What exactly are we looking at on the table?” 
 
“They’re subspace field accumulators and dissipaters,” the Captain replied. “…Well, I’ll be a…”
 
“Do you see it, then?” asked Harlan.
 
“I think so,” said the Captain. He took a deep breath and continued. “So, the Lamperosa have a built-in technology that allows them to vary their internal mass. They use this inborn technology at will to reduce their mass and play on our rooftops without damaging them, or to levitate themselves up into the branches of trees where they often perch. It’s the equivalent of an object that’s been rendered weightless by catalysing its God particles with a ninety degree phase-shifted subspace wave.
 
“But the Lamperosa can’t be using that. It’s not a naturally occurring phenomenon. At least, not according to known science.”
 
“So, they have some way, natural or artificial, of affecting the God particles inside their bodies to achieve weightlessness?” asked Harlan.
 
“They must have. But that’s not the pressing issue at hand, is it?”
 
“No, but it’s still fascinating. I must stay on a while and perform some further experiments. Would you mind, Captain?”
 
The Captain glanced at Ariel and smiled. “I think we can arrange that.”
 
“What’s important at the moment,” continued Harlan, “is that we are interfering with their physiology. Even though the mass under transport never enters subspace, it rides on a subspace beam. The subspace accumulator and dissipater are used to generate and collapse a subspace field within which the beam can instantaneously travel. A certain amount of leakage is emitted from those modules each time a transport is successfully completed. It’s negligible, dispels almost immediately and has no effect on human physiology.”
 
“But Lamperosa physiology is different,” the Captain continued. “Even residual traces of the phase-shifted beam affect the Lamperosa in unanticipated ways. It impairs their movement, causing them to become weightless at unexpected times. Imagine if, without warning, you were to become weightless… unable to reverse the effect until you found yourself suspended forty metres in the air? Could you survive the fall when the oversaturated God particles in your body folded out of the fourth dimension and back into normal space? Or, disoriented and confused, would you plunge to your death?”
 
“There remains only one question that urgently begs an answer,” said the Captain. “Do we install the new equipment now?”
 
“Why not?” asked Harlan.
 
“It can’t have been tested… at least not fully once it’s been integrated into the rest of the system. What if it has bugs or doesn’t work as intended to suppress residual leakage from the subspace beam? The damned thing could blow up in our faces.”
 
“But how can you test it fully assembled without putting the Lamperosa in peril?” asked Ariel.
 
“I sensed no malice in the little Lamperosa’s thoughts, Captain,” Kate said. “Fear and urgency were both present.”
 
“Yes, but these new parts could still be defective,” replied the Captain.
 
“Clearly something must be done about this situation,” said William. “Why don’t we just take the mass converter offline until we’ve had a chance to complete a series of remote tests on the new equipment?”
 
“We shouldn’t use the mass converter we have as a test bed,” the Captain said. “It’s too risky. The camp relies heavily on it to replenish our supplies. We’re due for a transport of essential items in two days.”
 
“What about using another mass converter for the testing?” Harlan asked.
 
“No good,” said the Captain, shaking his head. “We don’t have another one on Kolasi. Nor do we have enough spare parts in stock to build one. We’d have to provision one from Earth and beam it in. That would entail activating the mass converter again.
 
“Most of the variables have been removed from the equation,” the Captain said. “Looks like it’s going to be a long, sleepless night for the engineers. 
 
“We’re done here.”
 
 
XX
 
The engineers worked tirelessly through the night. First, they tested the new modules independently. When it was confirmed they met all the technical specifications (the new components exceeded them), they were installed on the mass converter for further testing. Without energizing the subspace beam, the engineers performed a full set of system-level diagnostics. All indications were GO.
 
The tension was thick when, at last, the lead engineer activated the intercom in the Captain’s quarters. The Captain donned a uniform (something he rarely bothered with after being stationed for so long on Kolasi) and walked the fifty or so metres to the mass converter and the waiting engineers.
 
“Ready, boys?” he quipped.
 
“Yes, sir,” the Chief Engineer responded. “You do realize the real risk of explosion or equipment damage, don’t you, sir?”
 
“It’s why I’m here. If necks are going to be risked, one of them is going to be mine.”
 
“Are you sure about this, Captain?”
 
“I’m certain this is our most tenable course of action, given the circumstances. We might fry the mass converter and endure some hardship until a starship delivers a new one, but if the Lamperosa are right, they’ll be safe—no more deaths.”
 
The Chief Engineer shifted uneasily in his boots. “Then I volunteer to assist you. May I dismiss the rest of my people?”
 
“By all means,” replied the Captain. “Get them all out of danger. Send half of them to bed and keep the other half on call in case we need them.”
 
“A wise precaution,” said the lead engineer. “You heard the Captain, folks. Scoot!”
 
The Chief Engineer watched the engineering staff file into the base ship and shook his head. “A fine crew, Captain,” he said, “I hope I live to see them again.”
 
“As do I,” the Captain agreed. “Now let’s get to work…”
 
The Chief Engineer placed the first test object on the grid. The Captain reached a steady hand up to the control panel and activated the subspace beam. The object promptly disappeared. There was no explosion.
 
They both exhaled sharply, then contacted Earth Command via subspace radio. Test Object #1 had travelled to its destination in one piece. Its molecular and subatomic structures were scanned and found to be normal.
 
Two hours later, the remaining nineteen test objects—representing the different elements and organic compounds commonly transported across the subspace beam—were sent to Earth Command and their physical properties verified to be within tolerance.
 
It was daybreak when the final test was performed. 
 
“Is there no other way, Captain?” 
 
“I wish there was. Can you tell me what it might be?”
 
…Silence…
 
“We may be on a quiet little rim world most people haven’t even heard of, but this is a military base. We didn’t come out here to rest on our laurels and wait for our pensions to kick in. Most military operations require a certain amount of calculated risk. This is one of them.”
 
The Captain stepped into the mass converter and the Chief Engineer nervously flipped the switch. The Captain appeared in the mass converter at Earth Command with one head, two arms, two legs and all his internal organs intact. He stopped by the local commissary to purchase a box of fine Cuban cigars and drink a cup of espresso, then transported back to Kolasi to discover an anxious but weary Chief Engineer and—
 
—A hysterical woman.
 
“What’s wrong with you, Nathan?” Kate screamed. “You could’ve killed yourself!”
 
The Captain was about to protest when Kate flung her arms around his neck and whispered sharply in his ear, “Don’t you ever do something like this to me again, you idiot!”
 
‘Dammit!’ he thought. He was as good as gotten and he knew it.
 
 
XXI
 
William was back at the Meeting Place waiting for the little Lamperosa to return. He needed to know if they had experienced any problems with the mass converter the previous night.
 
He sat on a tree stump absently regarding the tree that had held the little Lamperosa’s chrysalis. Tiny, four-legged insects were making short work of its remnants. Where the crystal once resided there remained only a large knot in the tree.
 
He stiffened as Kate turned the corner in the small clearing. “What else did the little Lamperosa tell you?”
 
“You haven’t been probing my mind without my permission, have you?”
 
“No,” said William. “I just knew.” 
 
“Remember the first time I entered the little Lamperosa’s mind?” Kate told him about the images of the three figures she’d seen.
 
“Two of the figures were Lamperosa—maternal and paternal, presumably its parents. The third… it was you, William.
 
“…I’ve never experienced the kind of deep, abiding compassion she has for you. It’s the sort of unconditional love everyone secretly hopes to find. I wish someone felt that way about me.”
 
“How do you know they don’t?” William asked, grinning wryly.
 
Kate raised a hand in warning. “That’s another subject entirely, and not one I’m prepared to discuss with you.”
 
“Fine. So, it’s female?”
 
“Its psychic signature is definitely female.”
 
“I didn’t know that.”
 
“I fail to see how you could not have known it, William. Gender is a basic footprint on any psychic signature. How could you miss it?”
 
Kate paused before continuing. “…You must’ve known it. You’ve been suppressing that knowledge. Why?”
 
“Because I don’t know what else to do with her. It’s not as if we can marry in the chapel, settle down and raise two or three larvae. All our family photos would be blurry and we’d have a heck of a time finding suitable bridge partners on a Saturday night. Hell, up until now, I haven’t even been able to talk to her. You’re the first one to do that…”
 
“But you know how you feel when you’re around her. I experienced it myself and it was wonderful. And I’m not even the object of her affection. My experience was purely vicarious. That’s the kind of emotional intimacy no normal human will ever share with another. Because he’s not a telepath, I can’t have that kind of relationship with your father.”
 
“But you can,” she said. “It’s a rare gift. Why don’t you accept it?”
 
William shook his head, “No, it’s hopeless. What’s the point?”
 
“I’m starting to think we might be dealing with a certain degree of xenophobia here.” 
 
“Be sensible, Kate,” William replied, laughing. “How would I even begin to express my love to her? It’s impossible!”
 
Kate rolled her eyes. “Okay, so the little Lamperosa doesn’t have the warm, soft folds of human tissue needed for you to consummate the act of coitus. There are many different ways to express love. Why do a man’s thoughts never stray far from the act of copulation?”
 
William laughed. “I catch your meaning, but I assume the question is purely rhetorical?”
 
“Yes,” Kate said smiling, “but I do think it’s rather like saying ‘The Lamperosa are a decent lot, but I’d never marry one.’”
 
William lowered his head in dejection. “I suppose you’re right. You have to be right. It’s not as if I have any other offers on the table. I’m as out of place in human society as a fish out of water. Though I’ve trained myself to be content living among my own kind, I’ll never be truly happy there.”
 
Kate nodded, “You have only one chance at happiness, William. No matter how much of a long shot it might seem, you’re choosing death over life if you don’t take it. You’ll never forgive yourself, and neither will she.”
 
William looked up to see what he had already sensed in his mind. The little Lamperosa stood at the other end of the clearing, moving slowly toward him. Her actions were tentative, halting—as if she was unsure of what she was doing. She halted a few centimetres away from William’s face and waited. She did not enter his mind, but he felt a familiar tug like the subtle enticements she’d projected onto his subconscious mind in the past, when he’d strayed from her for too long. 
 
It had all come down to this moment of decision. It was now or never. If he wanted her, he would enter her mind, she would enter his and they would always be together. If he didn’t, all he needed to do was nothing. She’d retreat into the underbrush and he’d never see her again.
 
“Yes, I asked her to come,” said Kate. “She’s like you, William. She’s a loner and doesn’t fit into either culture, human or Lamperosa. She is profoundly lonely, and there’s a longing inside her that can’t be quenched without you. You must choose, now…”
 
William hesitated for only a moment before his mind reached out to the little Lamperosa, bonding with her for life. Now, they would always be aware of each other’s presence. Even when they were alone, they would not be lonely. Not anymore…
 
Tears streamed down William’s cheeks. “What do I do now?”
 
“You’re as good as married,” Kate replied. “What’s been done here can’t be undone. You can’t kiss the bride, but you can give her a name and love her the best way you know how.”
 
“I’ll call her Gem.”
 
This time it was Kate’s turn to cry. “It’s a beautiful name.”
 
“I suppose we should return to the compound and tell them the experiment was a success.”
 
“Which one?” asked Kate, coyly.
 
“Both of them.”
 
 
XXII
 
Two days later, they all stood in front of the mass converter, saying their goodbyes to Kate. She hugged everyone present, including her brother. 
 
“I can honestly say,” she remarked, “this has been one of the greatest adventures of my life. I’ll never forget it.”
 
“Why be in such a blasted hurry?” Nathan barked. “Surely you can talk some sense into that bloody psionics corps of yours. They can’t just ride you hard like this and put you up wet. You could use some much-deserved R&R.”
 
“Thanks for the acknowledgement, Nathan, but I really must be going. It’s a matter of the utmost importance, now that my business here has been concluded.”
 
She turned to William. “What will you and Gem do?”
 
“Dad’s going to build me a small cabin at the Meeting Place. Between the tree and the cabin, we’ll be as snug as two misfits in a rug.”
 
“Since he still holds the official title of Ambassador to Kolasi,” said Nathan, “I can get the Space Administration to pay for it.”
 
“Excellent,” Kate replied. “I’ll be returning to Kolasi when my next assignment is completed. But I can’t promise you I’ll rest, Nathan. I feel it’s imperative to closely monitor William’s mental and emotional state. He’s been through a lot of stress lately, you know.”
 
“I’d be delighted to have you back, regardless of the purpose of your visit,” said Nathan, beaming.
 
“So would I,” said William, “but don’t worry about me.”
 
“Trust me, William,” said Kate. “Proper precautions must be taken in cases like these…”
 
Kate stepped into the mass converter and waited for the transport beam to be activated. “Are you sure this thing is safe?”
 
“If it wasn’t,” Nathan replied, “I wouldn’t let you near it.”
 
William mounted a final mocking protest. “No, really, I’ll be fine, Kate. There’s no need to put yourself to any inconvenience on my account.”
 
Just before Nathan flipped the activation switch on the control panel, a single word pierced William’s mind: Hush!
 
William smiled. 


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