The light on the door pad blinked from red to green.
“Okay, you’re in.” Even though she was holed up in the data center, hacking the locks remotely, tension made Raia whisper. “The tracker chip I planted says Averly is in there. We need to get to him before they do... whatever it is they do to people.”
“Understood.” Keskodai stood from his place in the shadows. “I’m headed in.”
“Good hunting, Keskodai.”
Keskodai reached down to the child at his belt. “Ready, Chk Chk?”
Safe inside his canister, Chk Chk tapped his larval beak-tooth against the transparent polycarbon, treating Keskodai to a blast of confidence and enthusiasm.
Of course Chk Chk was confident. As far as he knew, his father was invincible. As was Chk Chk himself, for that matter. After all, hadn’t they survived one hundred percent of their adventures so far?
Keskodai knew better, yet some part of him still stood a little straighter at his child’s vision of him. Wasn’t that what drove every parent? A desire to be the person their child imagined them to be?
He stepped forward and keyed the door.
It swept aside, revealing a room full of strange equipment. Pumps whirred and hissed, spotlights stabbing down through the gloom to illuminate a shaved human lying nude on the central table. That was their contact, all right. Robotic arms like something out of Keskodai’s medical bay prodded at the inert body, injecting fluids or implanting subdermal machinery. And standing over it all—
The gray jerked upright, its movements an eerie, strobe-light stutter. It stretched a hand toward Keskodai, and he felt the sudden press of its mind—an overwhelming impulse to freeze, to sleep. It tugged at his synapses, seeking to reshape them with the force of its will.
But shirren already escaped such slavery once. Keskodai raised his pistol and fired.
The shot was dead-on: straight to the heart, the sort of merciful deathblow Keskodai thought of as the Lady’s Grace. Yet it passed through the gray like it was a hologram, the creature’s flesh seeming to ripple out of phase with reality. For a nanosecond, it was gone, and then it was there again, the bullet ricocheting harmlessly off the wall behind it.
Keskodai, on the other hand, had no such protections. He dove sideways behind a bank of machinery as the thing sighted its own weapon and fired, needles driving deep into the doorjamb.
So be it, Keskodai thought. If mercy wasn’t an option...
He stood, one hand out for focus, and shoved his way inside the gray’s head.
The creature’s mind was truly alien. In some ways, the neural pathways were structurally similar to Keskodai’s own, but without shared context or a known starting point, the thought processes that ran along them were nearly impossible to decipher. He’d heard Raia speak of different types of computer encryption, and this was like that—he could see the shapes of ideas, gliding past him like leviathans in a darkened sea, without having any idea what they meant.
But you didn’t need to know how something worked to smash it. Keskodai focused his magic and pushed.
The gray doubled over, screaming soundlessly as Keskodai’s spell surged through its neurons, scrambling synapses. Keskodai felt a momentary pang of regret—then plastered over it with the memory of what these creatures had done on Thersius 4. He pushed again, expanding his mental presence inside the creature’s skull, inflating until there was no room for anything else.
The creature gave a final twitch and collapsed to the ground.
Keskodai gasped and let the magic drop, grabbing the console for support as his mind dizzily readjusted to being back in his own body. He put one hand to Chk Chk’s canister—safely intact.
“I’m sorry you had to see that,” Keskodai said.
Chk Chk responded with a wave of fierce pride.
Keskodai tapped the canister in negation. “No, Chk Chk. That wasn’t good. Necessary, perhaps, but never good. Minds are sacred—they’re what make each of us unique. To shatter one like that, even in self-defense, is to take a sledgehammer to a cathedral.”
Chk Chk’s response was dubious, the telepathic sentiment accompanied by a rare image flash: Pharasma’s spiral, glowing in the air above Keskodai’s head.
The message was clear: if the Lady of Graves was content to let Keskodai take lives, then so was Chk Chk.
Keskodai’s antennae drooped in a sigh. He’d been worrying about this more and more, lately. Had his faith in Pharasma made Chk Chk too cavalier about death? Of course he couldn’t expect a larva to understand when it was acceptable to cut short a life, the differences between a death that furthered Pharasma’s plan and one that furthered your own. All the child saw was a father grown comfortable with killing.
Keskodai had never wanted to indoctrinate the child. Show him the galaxy, yes, and teach him as best he could, but it was crucial that Chk Chk feel free to walk his own path.
And one day, no doubt, he would. He’d leave Keskodai behind, the same way Keskodai had left his own parents. After years of constant company, Keskodai would be truly alone once more.
But there was no time to worry about that now. Keskodai hurried to the operating table. With the gray’s death, the robotic arms had gone limp—psychically driven, perhaps? That could be useful in Keskodai’s own medical bay. But he yanked them free, casting his senses down into the man’s flesh and letting the healing magic flow.
Except that it wasn’t needed. The man—their contact, who had called himself Averly—seemed perfectly healthy. Whatever the gray had implanted in him, it didn’t seem to be harming him. He didn’t even seem to be sedated, by any conventional or magical means.
Yet he didn’t wake at Keskodai’s touch. Keskodai shook him harder, slapping him gently on the cheeks, then less gently. He even spat on a battery and pressed its contact points to the man’s skin, shocking him. Yet still the man slept.
And now, Keskodai thought to himself, we set another bad example...
“Chk Chk,” he said. “Remember what I said about minds being sacred? That’s why you should normally never invade a friend’s without their consent. But sometimes, we must hurt to heal.”
And with that, he dove once again into the mind of another.
This intrusion was gentler—an attempt to read a book, not tear out its pages. The comatose man’s thoughts were a familiar human structure, yet in some ways that made the content stranger. The man wasn’t quite asleep, but neither was he awake. His thoughts routed around the edges of strange, artificial holes. Yet certain images recurred. A face... a ship...
A warning. Keskodai broke contact and cued his coms. “Raia?”
“Keskodai! Did it work? Is our contact okay?”
Keskodai looked down at the comatose man, locked inside his alien dreams.
“After a fashion,” he said. “But listen—we need to get back to Navasi and the others. Immediately.”
He could feel her come alert. “Why?”
Keskodai lifted the unconscious man in his arms and turned toward the door.
“Because I know who they’re going after next.”
About the Author
James L. Sutter is a former Starfinder Creative Director and Executive Editor of the Pathfinder Tales novels. In addition to foundational work on both Pathfinder and Starfinder, he’s also written award-winning novels, comics, video games, and short stories. You can find him at jameslsutter.com or on Twitter at @jameslsutter. His Pathfinder Tales novels, Death’s Heretic and The Redemption Engine, are available now.
About Iconic Encounters
Iconic Encounters is a series of web-based flash fiction set in the worlds of Pathfinder and Starfinder. Each short story provides a glimpse into the life and personality of one of the games’ iconic characters, showing the myriad stories of adventure and excitement players can tell with the Pathfinder and Starfinder roleplaying games.
Iconic Encounter: Cathedrals of the Mind
Thursday, August 22, 2019