The first thing the colonel noticed was that the pain in his hand was gone. The ache had been there in his bones ever since the accident that claimed the nerves in his fourth and fifth fingers. He opened his hand and closed it again into a strong fist. It was exhilarating. It made him feel alive. No longer was he weakened by a lack of dexterity. Even his vision was sharper. The colors in the rocky charred ground were a wonder to behold. The clash of radioactive particles made the minerals in the cold lava-like surface sparkle gently.

“You’ve achieved a heightened state, sir. It’s difficult to explain, but suffice to say your mind and brain have adapted to a frequency that makes it possible for you to project your essence to this place.”

“Where is the facility?”

“We are only a mile from the complex. The obelisk is bearing two three nine.”

Sure enough, the ominous shape of the alien structure was just close enough to be visible in the noxious mist that rose over the dark side of the planet’s surface. During the day, visibility was excellent unless there was a weather event. Raleo Two was now infamous for its radioactive ammonia lightning storms. The ionization was enough to disrupt even beamed communications using secured and reinforced high-power microwave transmitters.

Colonel Zachariah Atwell looked at his feet and body. He was dressed in what appeared to be a standard utility tunic and leggings. It was a clean uniform similar to what technicians might wear aboard Skywatch ships. His was gray with cobalt blue sleeves and legs indicating a life support or environmental controls rating.

At the same time, the colonel could tell he wasn’t all there. His body felt weightless, even though he moved as if he were on the surface of a planet with comparable terran gravity.

The procedure necessary to get his mind to cooperate with the quasi-illusory experience of “existing” in a place distant from his body was both complicated and obscure. The colonel had already been forced to send almost half of his technical team away to put a stop to the arguments over whether the equipment they had found represented a breakthrough in organic telepathy or a mechanical means of breaching the dimensional barriers between what some of the colonel’s scientists called “matter frequencies.” Two of his best researchers had already paid the ultimate price for their knowledge. One was driven mad by the complete loss of his mental identity. He was brutally killed after putting three trained combat specialists in the hospital and permanently crippling a fourth.

The second experimented on himself with the alien mind mechanism. A power surge transported part of his being to some other plane of existence, leaving behind only an afterimage of his body, which experienced unimaginable torment as it faded into nothingness over the course of several minutes. One of the witnesses to that incident killed nine more people when they attempted to flee through a pressure door into the open atmosphere to escape the screaming. The resulting implosion almost destroyed the facility.

After weeks of study and careful experimentation, Doctor Han’s team finally discovered how to reach the human mind with the machines. They built enormous couches in which the subjects were restrained so their heads would not move. As it turned out, it was the involuntary muscle spasms common to humans that caused the mechanisms to scar the minds of the victims and cause immense physiological damage. Ithis brains were able to handle the twisting of the mental effects. Humans could not.

“Your mind is providing the self-projection. You are seeing what you expect to see, even though your biological body is still in the experimental section of the forward base.”

“Doctor, you may yet turn these secrets to our side.”

“I tend to doubt that, colonel,” Doctor Han replied. “It took us almost a year just to figure out how to connect these devices to the proper power supplies. It may take several lifetimes to make heads or tails of what we’ve discovered since. The chamber of glyphs under the obelisk is a fine example. My assistant estimates there is enough information encoded on the walls and floors to fill several hundred volumes. So far our best language experts have deciphered perhaps two or three percent of it, even with the assistance of our lexical and optical analysis equipment.”

Atwell examined the sky. The star arrangement looked similar to what he had seen before from the Raleo Two surface. That was his first confirmation he was not out for an evening stroll. Had he been standing in his body at the location his senses told him he currently occupied, he would have been burned alive by radiation and suffocated by a lack of breathable air. Either would have ended his life in moments. It was what he saw around what his mind projected was his current location that caught his attention.

To someone unfamiliar with the Ithis, they resembled pools of crystal clear water. Inside each one was an object roughly the size of a tangerine giving off light in varying intensities and colors. As the light refracted through the “water,” images became visible. Some of Atwell’s technicians had been recording the images for analysis for weeks.

“What have you discovered?”

“There are over a thousand of these pools, colonel. Each one acts as a multi-dimensional vision of events apparently occurring elsewhere. Some of them have so many different sequences of “playback” happening it is difficult even for our computers to interpret them in any intelligible way. We’ve found that depending on where you stand and at what angle you view the light sources at the center of each pool, you see different imagery. Some is even visible in different light wavelengths. The liquid is not water, even though to our minds it looks very much like what we would expect in a shallow tidepool. It is a very complex organic molecule that is much heavier than the compounds familiar to our science, but it is not based on carbon. We believe they are polyatomic molecules, but they are made up of elements that are not familiar to us.”

“Astonishing.” It was yet another facet of the technology the colonel had deployed hundreds of people to study. His avarice had become a near-obsession. He had to control it. He had to find a way to harness it. Interference with his work simply could not be permitted. He placed his ghostly fingers in one of the pools. They reacted with the surface tension and caused ripples to form. The light shifted subtly and the images changed yet again. He was looking at a planet with a triple sun. Its surface was molten metal. Although Atwell was certain he was looking at billions of tons of incredibly hot minerals on the verge of boiling away, the slow methodical waves looked so peaceful. It was as if the metal tides were part of a universe-spanning clock ticking so slowly no human would ever hear it strike the hour.

“I could stand here, doctor, and witness all creation. I have the kind of vantage point every man dreams about, yet none have ever known.” Atwell rose, looking out over the hundreds of pools, each with a glowing stone submerged in it. “What is this technology? How is all this possible? What are they using to communicate? How can a simple stone do this? We read no mechanisms here. There are no electronics or power sources to speak of out here on the surface. And yet behold all this.”

“It is beyond our science.”

“Nothing is beyond our science, doctor. If it exists, it must have a rational explanation. It only takes study and an open mind to unlock its secrets.”

“Colonel, if I try to explain fluid dynamics to a five-year-old, they will never understand it. Their failure has nothing to do with their intelligence, nor does it have to do with the effectiveness of my teaching methods. It is simply beyond their ability, much like professional sports are beyond the physical capabilities of most high school students. It is only human arrogance that persuades us to believe we can master all knowledge. Clearly there are some things in this universe and on this very planet we simply cannot understand. We can study them and perhaps learn more about their nature. But to harness technology created by a species with a ten billion year head start is absurd.”

“Careful doctor. There are some in the scientific community who consider such viewpoints heresy.”

“It was only a few hundred years ago our species was still living in filth because we were unable to build and maintain adequate water and sewage systems,” Han replied. “We had leaders who believed there were higher priorities than avoiding disease and famine caused by humanity’s inability to properly dispose of excrement. We fought those battles for a thousand years before we could even begin to reach beyond our atmosphere. To these beings, we are a bacterial infection at best with a similar capacity for understanding.”

“The men who impede us and who forbid us from our work here are exactly the kind of people you describe.” Atwell said. “They beat their beasts and plow horses and shout ‘dig deeper! dig faster!’ instead of allowing someone to create a shovel. One wonders how many died to make agriculture possible in the face of the tyrant who insisted more gatherers were the answer to prosperity.”

“Indeed, Han said, dipping his own fingers into one of the pools. “One of the greatest epiphanies of your ancient Earth history was the discovery that academic performance was being held back by a lack of breakfast.”

Atwell grinned. “Don’t tell me you’ve been reading those old propaganda rags again. Is that what you do for recreation?”

“I studied the subject on my own,” Han replied. “Humanity’s leaders could not understand why their students were so rebellious and intransigent when it came to learning. It never occurred to them their parents were rushing them out of the house in the morning to avoid what they called ‘traffic.’ Their children sometimes went 12 to 15 hours with barely any food when the overnight interval was taken into account. It was no surprise their brains were impatient and unwilling to perform energy-intensive tasks like concentrating on linear algebra and Mesopotamian history. They were sitting there in their seats starving! Naturally every classroom had rules against eating, because what better path to academic excellence than to fill a room with people who haven’t eaten in half a day and then criticize and blame them for not being interested in hours of lectures?”

Atwell looked over at his chief researcher. “That really got to you? Humanity’s failures of centuries past?”

“It is sobering to consider just how wrong people can be while they convince themselves they are nearly perfect.” “I can’t say I disagree,” Atwell replied. “How much further could humanity have reached were those men subdued and the illegitimate power wrested from their grasping hands? We mustn’t let ourselves be dissuaded, doctor. We must not be distracted. There is a connection here. What these creatures have wrought on this planet and beneath the defense base must be examined and understood, even if it takes us billions of years in equal measure. Humanity’s destiny is to wield this power. To take up the tools of the gods and hammer the universe back into the paradise it once was.”

Doctor Han watched as Colonel Atwell wandered off, picking his way past the shining pools, repeating his ambitions as if they were a mantra.

“I will lead us back to paradise.”

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