Diving into the Fire

  • SHAOYAN HU

The third day into the fire, we saw miraculous scenes.

Having left the planet of Tau Ceti for more than thirty standard days, The Explorer was now in the atmosphere of the sun. The large displays in the bridge was showing images the detectors mounted outside the ship captured. They Were the results of computer processing because the frequencies out there ranged from far infra to vacuum ultraviolet, most of which were not visible to human eyes. At first, everyone looked up at the displays from time to time, hoping to find something interesting. But the mess of colors told nothing but the currents of the particles surrounding the ship.

In the afternoon of the third standard day, I no longer cared about the displays, but focused on the data instead. The lights might confuse your eyes, but the data would not lie. At least the ones painstakingly collected by myself would not.

“Jesus!” Cried Grace. Everyone stopped working and looked up. She was staring into the largest display surface in the bridge, and now, so were all the others.

Among the frenziedly shuffling particles, the computer had rendered a patch of fuzzy cloud with the color of lavender. It was difficult to tell its shape. Depending on its motion and the angle of view, it might look like a cuttlefish, or a jellyfish, or just a sphere sporting different shades of pink.While we were gasping for air, more of its kins appeared.

Grace Cooper, our biologist, still looked excited, her face flushed with a rosy tone. Michael Davidson, the linguist in the expedition, was typing on his keyboard while watching the display, probably writing some journal. Jason Wu was our military consultant and the captain of the diver. His face was as placid as always, but I could see his palms pressing on the top of the console heavily, as if to prevent trembling.

As a physicist, I had learned to observe, which was the most precious gift my mother had given me. She had been a biologist, and it was under her influence that I had become interested in the plasma life forms. If she were alive……

No. I told myself to stop.

The Explorer was an expedition ship designed to dive into the chromosphere of the stars. Given the similarity between Tau Ceti and Earth’s sun and its relative proximity–merely 12 light-years away–the space centre had long before created a base on one of its planets, to investigate the feasibility of a colony. The scientists working at the base had found something strange in the star. The evidences had pointed to one possibility: plasma life forms.

“Look, they are beautiful.” Grace could hardly hide her fervour. She was always eager to find out the unknown. Too eager, perhaps.

“Jason, is it possible to see the nearby area? I’d like to look for similar……entities. “I asked the captain.

“Alright. But as you know, the radius of effective detection is fifty metres only.” Jason answered and switched the display into 3-dimentional imagery.

I knew the environment in the chromosphere was too complicated for any long range scanning, but I had my reasons to ask for that. At the research base on the planet, we had been listening carefully to the electron-magnetic signals, most of which were random waves and radiations from the star. However, the results of intensive data analysis had shown traces of coded information, more like communication channels than natural noises. Without any background knowledge, it was difficult enough to extract those signals, let alone understanding them. Nevertheless, these had been our evidences submitted to the management to get the permission for the expedition.

Based on the ratio of display, the actual radius of those jellyfish/spheres on the screen was around one metre–enough volume to have intricate internal anatomy. So the next question–were they intelligent? Plasma life forms might have the same degree of diversity as the carbon-based life forms on Earth, which ranged from single-cell bacteria to apex predators such as homosapiens.

The display showed numerous similar entities within the effective detection radius. It looked almost like The Explorer had inadvertently barged into a ‘herd’.

“I think we should capture a sample.” Grace said, “I already have something on my mind, to test their characteristics and reactions.”

Of course she had something on her mind. She was always quick to think, ready to act. Her enthusiasm and her quick mind helped her become a member of the expedition. If there was anything similar between her and myself, it must be the strong will to find our quarry. But……

“But that was not the plan,” Before I could find my words, Jason spoke up against her. “We should not interfere without a good reason.”

“Oh, Jason, if they don’t allow us to capture the plasma creatures, why would they add the sampling module to the ship and allocate lab space onboard?” Grace replied.

As it was, the design of The Explorer had been the result of a long and winding debate. There were different opinions regarding how to carry out the expedition. Professor Mckenny, who had been the supervisor of Grace during her time as a PhD candidate, claimed that it was imperative to understand the creatures’ basic biological functions first and applying direct stimulation to a sample entity was the most efficient way to achieve it.Others believed that the study of social behaviors was more critical than learning the physical properties.

“We can’t know the result of our interference. They might turn hostile.” The captain insisted.

Grace shrugged and turned to me. “Jessica, what’s your call? I know you must be fascinated by those creatures. Don’t you want to have a closer look?”

Oh? Are you asking support from me? In the narrow space of the bridge, our consoles were arranged in a curving line, facing the large display in the centre. At the moment, Grace was looking at me intensely.

“Jason, would you mind switch the display back to the scene we saw just now?” I did not answer her immediately.

The ‘jellyfish’ appeared on the screen again. I typed in a few commands into the console. They were no longer lavender, but showing a variety of colors, which were shifting constantly.

“We all know that those images are the results of computer processing, to allow human eyes identify the shapes of those entities easily. The computer chooses to render it with different shades of a single color because the environment is full of noises.  Now, let’s see their original spectrum. It is not so clearin such turmoil background, but it shows what they really are.” I explained calmly.

“See? That’s why we need a sample! The images rendered by computer are not reliable.” Grace said.

Don’t jump to the conclusion.

“No, Grace, what I really mean is that they are communicating with each other. Look carefully, their colors are shifting in aniterative manner, cycling through the spectrum and back again. But there are small deviations and undulations, which probably was a way of sending out signals to one another. ”

“Are you saying they are intelligent?” Michael asked while operating on his own console.

“They may or may not be intelligent. But that is enough reason for us to be more cautious. After all, the data does not lie.” I smiled to Grace, as a way of apology.

She looked disappointed, but said no more.

*****

I sat alone in the galley. Due to the limit of space, the galley also served as the lounge for the crew. The soft lights herehad a tranquil quality. I took a moment to relax before going to the bed, indulging myself with a glass of wine.

I let the gravity push me into the soft cushions. Although the ship jolted violently in the atmosphere of the star, the damping system created a stable gravity within the shell.

As the age grew, I was no longer as energetic as before. I felt tired after a long day of intense work.

My mother had been a biologist. She brought me up by herself, alone. But that did not prevent her from becoming a successful scientist. I still had the memory of being a little girl, spending time in her laboratory every day. She would read a story for me before starting the work of the day.Then, my mother would bury herself in the research and experiments. I did not mind. Because I had my books, and as long as I could see her when I looked up, it would be enough to make me feel reassured. Thinking back now, that probably had been the most comfortable and carefree time between my mother and me. Later, when I went to school and had my own life, my schedule was too tight for a visit to her lab. The only time I saw her in the day was in the early morning, when I enjoyed the breakfasts she made, which were as delicious as I could imagine.

About eight years ago, the research station on the planet of Tau Ceti detected the unusual signals from the sun. Both my mother and I were sent here by the space centre since our research had been closely related to plasma life forms. Having arrived on this remote station, both of us worked around our own schedules, trying hard to reveal the secrets inside that mysterious star. But then, an unfortunate accident in the plasma lab took my mother’s life. I was not prepared for that. I had hoped to spend more time with my mother in future. When the accident happened, the Fire Diving project had already started and the construction of The Explorer was underway. As it was, I felt a weight on me, as if the expedition was not just a research project, but also a way to remember my mother, to finish what we started together.

Now that the expedition was on its way, the data collected by the diver ship seemed wrong, not as predicted when we had been on the planet base. It felt like we had missed something important. That was part of the reason why I was so tired today – I had spent too much time and efforts to compare the data, trying to figure out the reason of discrepancy.

Aside from the data, I had another worry. Grace was a brilliant mind. An honoured degree, and then PhD, which she received in the planet research station. It was not surprising that, aged thirty-three, in the prime of her life, she was selected as a member of the expedition. But there was something about her made me uncomfortable. Yes, she was enthusiastic and hardworking. She enjoyed the company of people and had a pleasant personality. However, sometimes, I was not quite sure about her motives. A smile too bright, a hail too cheerful. In those moments, she looked a bit too eager. Rumour even had it that she had been seen visiting Professor Mckenny’s room at odd hours……

“Hey, are you okay?” Michael’s words broke the train of my thoughts.

I opened my eyes and sat up slightly. “I’m fine. Just to ease off a little.”

“Well, I come to make some coffee.” He was on the first watch tonight. “But you looked worried.” He smiled. His slight accent and tanned skin were from his mother, whowas born in India.

“Thank you, Michael. Maybe I just need some rest. By the way, those entities out there, do you think theirway of communication a kind of language?” I tried to ask his opinionsbecause he was a linguistic.

“You mean the change in frequency? I cannot say for sure yet. But it seemed too simple to me. Not enough componentsfor a working language like ours.” He answered.

“Maybe I’m expecting too much.” I shook my head. “I should know better.” Maybe Grace was right. Taking samples was an effective way to get information, too. Maybe I should not judge her.

“Don’t worry, Jessica. According to the plan, we have seven more days. If there are intelligent life forms, that will be great. I will have new subjects to study. If not…… so be it. This is the very first expedition, after all.” He shrugged, as if we were not navigating the fiery turbulence inside a star, but having a holiday at some breezy beach.

I wish I had his easiness when it came to the research work.

You are always trying too hard, not satisfied with anything less than perfection, I told myself. Perhaps you are nobetter than Grace.

“Sometimes, you are way too into it,” Michael continued with his singsong accent. “You’ve got to loosen up a bit.”

“Thank you,” I said appreciatively. I knew what he meant. It reminded me of my mother’s words. “Sometimes, you have to stop your pace to keep balance, and step back to see the big picture.”She had been talking about body-mind balance in Yoga practices. I was grateful for all the wisdoms she had shared with me.

*****

When I was on the way to my cabin, in the narrow corridor of the living quarters, there was a click. I looked up and saw Grace coming out of the captain’s room. From the look on her face, whatever she had planned, it was not successful. But when her eyes fell on me, she recovered quickly. “Jessica, you look tired. Is everything okay?” She said with a smile.

Maybe I do need some rest.Everyone could see that now.

“Yes, I’m going to sleep now.” I said. “You’ve……said something to the captain?”

“Oh, just wanted to know the navigation route.” She said lightly.

It did not sound convincing, but I decided let it pass. Sometimes, you have to stop your pace to keep balance, and step back to see the big picture.

“Alright, I’d better go to bed now. Good night!” I slid open the door of my own cabin and stepped in.

Once inside, I set the light to the lowest level. The furniture in the room were barely visible: a small table, a storage chest and a cot, all fixed to the floor or the bulkhead. The door to the bathroom was a black rectangle. I lay down on my side in the little cot, putting my right hand under the right cheek and my left hand on the left thigh – a comfortable and steady position. The ten days of expedition would take its toll on me. I should try to get as much sleep as possible. However, the excitement of seeing the plasma creatures, the frustration due to the discrepancy of data, and the worry over Grace’s behaviors denied me any peace.

As time went by, I felt that I was at the funeral of my mother, staring into the coffin, seeing the pale face of my mother. The chaplain of the research station was praying in a low voice, his words buzzing in my ears, but I had no idea of their meaning. I had only one thought in my mind: I would find the plasma life forms, which had been my mother’s lifelong pursue until her death. My colleague Monica came to hold me, in case I passed out. I did not pass out. The real pain would hit later, when the shock was over. For now, there was only numbness in me. I still couldn’t believe that a moment’s fault of the instruments had killed my mother. I was aware of others’ expressions as well. Most of the attendants were staffs in the research base, solemn and melancholy. Many were shedding tears silently, even Grace had lowered her head, weeping.

The next moment, I was jarred awake by the sudden quivering of the ship.I quickly get off the bed and turned on my portable com. Without further instructions, the com reported the problem automatically: the protection shield of the ship was under stress. Since the shield had the highest priority for energy consumption, the gravity damping system was underpowered when the shield was in great need of charging power. But what was attacking the shield? While the ship was trembling, I stumbled toward the bridge. There was something wrong with the dream just now, but I could not put my finger on it. I did not have time to mull it over either because the bridge was already in my sight.

All the others had gathered there, and the captain was busy with the piloting system. Michael and Grace were focusing on their own consoles.

“No, I don’t have time for you.” Obviously, the captain had seen me. “Michael, would you mind explaining to Jessica?”

“We captured a plasma creature.” Michael followed the captain’s order.

“You what?” I could not believe my ears.

“Well, Grace and …… I captured a plasma creature. The rest of the herd are not happy. They are knocking against the shield. The captain is trying to break away, and he’s almost there. Am I right, captain?”

“Perhaps, but I would not be too relaxed when we are still in the atmosphere of the sun.” The captain said stiffly.

“No, no, what I want to know is, why did you do that?” I tried to keep my voice down, but not so successful.

“Jessica, this was so great a chance.” Grace said yearningly. “They were so close to us. I didn’t know if there would be another time like that. For years, we had worked hard to prove its existence, hadn’t we? If we capture one of them, and bring it back to the research station, all the world will know our achievement. Isn’t that what you want?”

No, you don’t understand. This was too reckless. I sighed. On The Explorer, the mechanism to capture plasma creatures was a bubble, except that the wall of the bubble was the same kind of field shield as the ship. It could be pushed out to harness the creature and brought it back into a sampling tank, which would then be drawn into the lab. Since the manoeuvre involved the change of the field shield, it had to be extremely careful as the energy in the chromosphere of a star would evaporate the ship in a fraction of a second if the shield had any fault. To activate this operation,the security tokens of two crew members must be presented to the computer. Michael must have been cajoled into doing this by Grace.

The trembling of the ship eased. Now that the captain seemed in control of the defence system again, he looked up at Grace in irritation. “I warned you when you came to my cabin.  It was lucky that this herd of creatures does not amount to too much energy. For all I know, we might have become particles floating in the atmosphere of the star. I’ll file a report once we are back on the planet. I believe Jessica can act as a witness.”

“This is not fair. I had estimated the total energy of the herd. The level of threat had not been critical.” Grace tried to defend herself. “It turned out my estimation was correct. We are still alive.”

“The energy charge of the shield reduced forty percent. Wouldn’t you call that a critical threat? The ship shook like hell, its shell on the verge of disintegration. Wouldn’t you call that a critical threat?  I had to use the backup power to charge the shield and boost our speed.  The level of fuel storage is running low. We had to go back.” The captain said with a decisive voice.

On the display, a single plasma creature shone brightly, and before the computer could dim the display for the comfort of our eyes, the creature had moved away and disappeared in the chaos environment. This behaviour reminded me of something. When I had been a little girl, my mother once told me, in the depth of the sea on Earth, there was a kind of jellyfish, which would become illuminous when encountering a predator, in the hope of attracting even bigger predators. The captain had noticed the behavior as well. I did not know what memory he possessed, but he swore under his breath and returned to the pilot console with a rigid frown.

*****

Back in my dimly lit cabin, I lay down on the cot again.

Well, so much for the journey. We no longer had seven more days. Maybe I should not take this too seriously. Maybe I should be as light-hearted as Michael.

I had led Michael to the corridor and asked him about his role in this folly. He just shrugged, “She’s right for one thing. It’s more effective to measure a captured sample. Some questions cannot be answered by passive observation. Besides……it was difficult to refuse her, if you know my meaning. She was …… kind of charming.” I knew his meaning. It seemed that the rumours about her were not just rumours.

Afterwards, we had gone to see the captured creature. The sampling tank had been automatically retrieved and stationed in the lab. The creature was rotating slowly in the glass tank, which was almost sphere-shaped except for the flat bottom. It looked like a ball of slightly glowing gas, not as active as when it had been out there. When I suggested sending it out, the captain said that it was too risky to change the configuration of the shield field again.

Tiredness finally took over and I fell in sleep despite the worries. In my dreams, I saw the fiery surface of the star, swirling with dark red colors, as if a pool of lava. There were dazzling sparkles here and there. They looked tiny, but I knew that many of them were larger than Earth. These were the scenes captured by the unmanned probers in earlier years, which I had viewed innumerable times in the research station.

Then, the dream scene changed. I saw my mother fiddling with an instrument, probably some kind of ionization source – the one that had caused the lethal accident. She was setting the parameters through its screen and tried to adjust its internal parts with her hands. In a flash of electronic sparks, my mother fell onto the floor.

That was strange, because I had not seen the accident by myself although the police report did tell me what had happened. It must be a dream constructed by my subconscious.

The dream changed again. Grace was in front of the instrument. She was connecting some device to a port on the instrument. I had never seen this kind of device before but somehow I knew that it could update the internal programs of the instrument.

Why was I seeing this? Perhaps I was so tired that my subconscious had taken over the control of my mind. But had I really suspected anything, even in my subconscious? Most of my mother’s research materials had become open resources after her death. There were nothing too valuable in them. Given that her important discoveries had already been published in the academic journals, it was hard to believe anyone would want to kill her for the remaining documents. Unless……

Stop your pace to keep balance, and step back to see the big picture.    

The research station had found signals that might be from intelligent life forms. However, during this journey, the ship received too much noise and some of the data seemed incoherent, which was the problem that had bothered me all along. When we were approaching the surface of the star, the signals should have been stronger and clearer. Either the sender was going silent on us, or someone had sabotaged the system.  Thinking of what Grace had been doing in my dream…… I had to go to the lab.

*****

As I walked into the dark corridors, my thoughts were racing. Previously, I had seen my mother’s funeral in the dream, but there had been some false scene. Now I remembered, at the time of the funeral, Grace had been with the police for investigation.It was impossible for her to attend the funeral. Later, my other dreams had also been a mix of memories either real or fictional.

The lab computers and the bridge consoles were two different systems, without any interlinks between them. At least I could compare the data on the lab computers with what I had collected from my console.

I reached the lab in just a minute as the ship was quite small. In the dull lights, the creature was still shifting its shape slowly with a weak illuminance, looking ever so vulnerable, like a malnourished animal.

“Are you giving me hints?” I muttered under my breath.

“No, not by this one.” I was startled by a voice in my head. At first, I thought there was someone else in the room. But I realized soon that the voice had not been heard by my ears, but felt in my brain. It was a strange sensation, not very comfortable, as if hit by a low flux of electric current.

“Who is it?” I whispered with a little panic.

“I am what you are looking for.” The voice answered. “We were surprised to discover that we could read your minds and memories if you were within a certain distance. On the other hand, it seemed that you were not hearing us. So I tried to manipulate your dreams to drop some hints, encouraged you to open up to us. It worked.”

“Why me? Why did you choose me?” I realized with a shock that they must be the plasma intelligent life forms we were after. They could read my minds …… That was terrible.

“Sometimes, there seems to beso many choices, but at the end of the day, there are only that many we can choose. Jason and Michael do not really believe you can find us, and Grace …… let’s just say she’s not stable. But there is another reason, an agreement between your mother and us.”

“I …… don’t understand.” What did that mean? My mother had had contacts with them?

“I’m willing to explain. But there is something you have to take care at the moment. What you have captured, is part of my body. In other words, your ship is within the boundary of my volume.” Step back to see the big picture. “Due to the magnetic field and gravity of the star, both you and I could not change the orbits too much inshort order. It might take some time for you to get out of my body. Much as you cannot control your own blood cells, I cannot control those …… organisms. The problem is, you have activated the defensive mechanism in my body. The system will see you as an intruder and try to destroy you.” As if to prove the words, the ship began to shake again.

“I’m not able to call off the defence, but I have a way to help you out, with a little of your cooperation.” The voice continued.

I felt dizzy, perhaps because of the quivering of the ship, or the overwhelming information. I bit my teeth and replied, “Tell me what to do.”

“You need to activate the receiving channel of the lab computers. I will upload some data, which you can use to reconfigure the shield of your ship, allow it reflect certain frequencies, as a way to communicate with the defence organisms.”

Yes, the shifting lights.

“Okay, right away.” I sat down at a terminal.

Soon, the data began to stream in.

In the constant vibration of the ship, the captain was speaking through PA: “The Explorer is under attack.  All crew report to the bridge. I repeat, all crew report to the bridge.”

I stared at the progress of the data transfer, considering how to persuade the captain to use these data to reconfigure the shield. Do I trust this voice? If I was not completely sure, how can I convince the captain? But if I do not take the voice seriously, the ship might be torn into pieces soon.

“Well, well, you are playing with your data here, out of the sight of everyone.” This time it was not the voice in my head. It was Grace, who had come into the lab without my notice. She was standing behind me, watching the screen of the terminal. “Like mother, like daughter. You are trying to take all the credit, too.”

I breathed deeply. “Grace, I have no idea what you are talking about. But I need your help urgently. Do you have your security token with you?” First things first.

“Oh? Now you want my help? But what are you doing here? I was worrying about the sample. It may not be safe to leave it in the lab. And now you are doing something fishy.” She said, narrowing her eyes.

I calmed myself and looked into her eyes. “Grace, this ship is in immediate danger. I need your security token to reconfigure the shield. I will explain the rest later.”

Grace seemed not listening, and continued her harangue, “Tell me.What the hell are you doing? Don’t try to fool me. I’m sure this is the interface for data transfer.” She pointed at the terminal. “You are like your mother, hoarding research materials like a greedy dragon protecting its treasure. Your mother left nothing valuable. I have a hunch. She had already passed the things that mattered to you, hadn’t she? And now you are hiding things from us, too. I will not allow it!”

Suddenly, an alloyed screw spanner appeared in her hand. She must have taken it from the maintenance toolbox. Grace came at me, wielding the screw spanner. I was not prepared for that but moved as quickly as I could. The metal bar scrapped the side of my head. There was an intense pain. When I touched the wound, my hand came off with sticky blood.

The ship seemed to be vibrating even more violently. The captain’s voice was in the PA again: “All crew report to the bridge. The ship is under attack. Your cooperation is required.”

Grace ignored the captain, chasing me around in the small lab room. For years, I had learned from my mother to practice Yoga, maintaining a healthy and strong body. Even in the lurching ship, my steps were steady. I tried to open the hatch, but before my hand could reach the button, I had to spin away from the screw spanner. The metal bar hit the bulkhead with a deafening noise.

The voice in my head chose that moment to speak to me. “Data transfer is completed. You have to start the reconfiguration now.”

“Sorry, too busy,” I blurted out.

Grace thought the words were meant for her. “Sorry? Now you are sorry?” She shouted. “If you and your mother have not been hiding the decryption algorithm all these years, the secret of the plasma life forms would have been solved already. It is the time to change!”

I turned around, leaning my back against the sample tank, my eyes following Grace’s movement closely. Meanwhile, her eyes were full of rage, as if a smouldering fire had finally erupted out, trying to consume me once and for all. She rushed toward me. I ducked and moved out under her arms. The ship trembled again. This time, it was hard enough to throw Grace off balance. She toppled forward, the screw spanner hitting the glass wall of the sampling tank.

The tank crashed and the plasmas within touched the metal bar with sizzling sparks. Grace fell down and stopped moving. The plasma creature disappeared after discharging its energy.

Grace had lost conscious, but was still breathing. I searched her pockets and found her security token.

“Alright, now, you’d better explain, about the agreement with my mother.” Once the program was started, it did not need much attention from me. I decided to have some more chit-chat with that voice in my head.

“That’s right. I should do that.” It heard me. “In fact, it was Teresa who had been the first one to find us. Or more precisely, to find our communication signals. Sorry about the first name, butTeresa and we had come to trust each other. We try to follow your traditions.”

Teresa? Why, mother? You had never mentioned them to me.

The voice continued after a pause. “But we were not prepared to deal with the humans at that time. We knew nothing about you. If not for Teresa, no one would have shown us your languages and I would not have been able to have this conversation with you now.Speaking in approximate terms of the humans, our …… communities might be equivalent to your nomads. We have no centralized authority, no consolidated planning. We can do things with ionized materials, but cannot manipulate liquids and solids. The differences between us and humans were too significant. We did not know how to cope with that if we were to live side-by-side with your people.

“Moreover, we had not been agreed with each other among ourselves, either. If the millions of individuals could not have some kind of consensus, there would be disastrous chaos. On the ground of those concerns, we asked your mother to keep silent, for a time at least. The rendezvous of two civilizations had to be carefully guided, otherwise, the result would be full of conflicts and tragedy.  It had been proved many times in both our history and yours. We did not wish to repeat the mistake. So, what Teresa had published were much less that what she had known.”

But that had incurred enough jealous of others. For example, Grace’s.

“Of course, we also understood the complexity of the matter. Frankly speaking, Teresa had been lucky to find us, with the right algorithm, and the right data. As long as she held the information, others were unlikely to discover the same algorithm in short time. She was sensitive enough to feel that some of the people around her were dangerous. They might try anything to steal her work. As a kind of insurance, she had sent us all her observations and data, which were meant for you in case she fell to victim of any misdeeds. She was confident about you. She believed that you could find us, too.”

Thinking back on those times, my mother had been elusive of her research works. While we occasionally had meals together, she scarcely talked about her progress. She had been protecting me. My mother had been my role model all along. Whenever there were difficulties in my work, I would consider, if I were my mother, what would I have done? Whenever I ran into some friction with other people, I would imagine how my mother might resolve the predicament. I always tried to think as my mother did, because, to me, she was the incarnation of wisdom and strength, like lights in the darkness, pillars in a hall. It turned out that she was more than that. Parents were guardian angels of their children, and my mother had been the same. All of a sudden, my eyes were blurred by tears.

When all the trivial official formalities in the wake of my mother’s death had been completed, I felt so tired that there was an emptiness in my heart. Like a tongue that might keep licking a hole left by a fallen tooth, my thoughts kept poking into that emptiness in my heart and every time I did that, the sense of depression was overwhelming. But now, I had a new hope: I might have a chance to complete what my mother had dreamed of.

However, I had to understand one thing first. “Is that true? The scene you’ve shown me, where Grace tempering with the user interface of the machine?” I asked.

“Yes, that was what I had found out from her memory. She did something to your ship, too. That’s why you are not getting data properly. On the upside, security camera has recorded her outburst just now. She will face some inquisition once your ship returns to the planet. With Grace fully occupied, it will be a chance for you to bridge the knowledge of our existence.”

“So you’ve decided to talk to the human race now?” An excitement had been slowly building up inside me.

“Yes, after some discussion or negotiation or whatever means we have – It is difficult to explain to you due to all the differences between us– we decided to start an official conversation with the humans. We had been waiting for Teresa to give the signal. But only when your ship came close, did we find out what had happened by searching your minds. We would like to invite you as our advocator, to tell the others everything about us. It will be a slow and progressive process. We reckon you are the one that befits the role.”

“Do you …… trust me?” My voice was quivering.

“Oh, we trusted Teresa. We trusted her intelligence, her steadiness, and her sense of responsibility. She recommended you. According to Teresa, if there was anyone who could understand us as she did, it would have to be you. Because, she had seen herself in you.”

*****

During the return journey, I sat in my own cabin, thinking over all that had happened, with a mixed feeling of sadness and joy. The Explorer could only observe a limited area outside the ship, but the plasma creature was so huge, with kilometres in length, that we could not see its overall image. But with the experience of this encounter, the work would be easier next time. They asked me to be their advocator, which was not an easy role to play. For one thing, how would I speak to the others of an alien race that have the ability of mindreading? Besides, there was no evidence to the murder of my mother. Only when the public recognized the plasma creatures as an intelligent and trustworthy race, would it be possible for them to make a statement of witness. Patience was what I needed and I would have to keep that in mind. Nevertheless, all things considered, it was not a bad start.

Oh, mother, I will complete what you started, diving into that fiery surface of the star and finding herds of the mysterious plasma creatures, initiating a communication with extra-terrestrial life forms that no one else had known of before. It will bethe fruit of your efforts …… and mine. It is a combined endeavour by both of us. I will not let you down.

 

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