Dropping out of sub-space into the wrong galactic sector, Sethran Kada wakes up with a headache and an extraordinary alien aboard his ship. She implores him to help stop the abductions of her people, a newly evolved species emerging from sub-space. Their dangerous potential has caught the attention of rebel factions as well as the ruling Commonwealth. When contact with her kind turns pilots into casualties, the Governors fear an imminent invasion engineered by their rebel enemies.
Pursued by Air Command, Seth heads deep into rebel-controlled territory to recover the stolen entities and keep this deadly weapon from falling into the wrong hands. Things get personal when his alien visitor begins to transform his mind and his life, turning the rescue mission into a fight for survival for all of them.
Quantum Tangle is part of Chris Reher’s Targon Tales series but does not intersect the other stories. Sethran Kada previously appeared in The Catalyst and also in Rebel Alliances.
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
The main character of Quantum Tangle appears in the main Targon Tales series. Many readers wanted to know more about him.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
The female character is actually a construct made up of entangled sub-atomic particles who gains a physical presence by setting up shop in a living being. The idea came about when I was researching string theory.
Quantum Tangle – Chapter One
Was it morning yet? It felt like morning. There was something weirdly natural about the beam of light that played over his chest. He blinked slowly and gazed at the small shadows shifting around like they had some purpose.
Sethran Kada felt his brow furrow as he tried to figure this out. His violet eyes shifted to the cockpit console before him. Inactive. Then to the com panel to his right. Silent and dark. It all looked an awful lot like an emergency shutdown. Finally, he peered up at the small window set into the ceiling to find the perpetrator of the sunbeam on his chest.
Why was a white star wandering around out there? He was supposed to be in the vicinity of a red dwarf. A couple of days from now he’d enter the jumpsite to Aram where Timo was currently freezing his scales off, waiting for the drop. Somehow he thought he might have missed the turn to Aram. The shadows in the cockpit weren’t thrown by any red dwarf star.
“Isn’t this embarrassing,” he muttered, mostly to assure himself that everything was in working order. “Good thing nobody saw that.”
He released the restraints of the pilot bench and sat up, suspecting that the sub-space leap through that gate had taken him far deeper than he meant to go. Although just minutes had passed since he let the Dutchman fall into the jumpsite, he had that disoriented, hung-over feeling one got after a long jump.
No one doubted that it was possible to take a wrong turn inside sub-space. Perhaps some split-second glitch could shift the exit point by some fraction. Of course, no one ever returned to tell about such miscalculation. Any sensible navigator plotted an exit before entering a jumpsite to make sure that didn’t happen. But clearly this wasn’t anywhere near Aram Gate and he just hadn’t taken a simple chart jump. He felt it in every bit of his long-limbed body.
Seth rubbed his eyes and sent a mental directive to the Dutchman to begin a reset and diagnostic. He listened to the blips and buzzes as it groomed itself to check for damage. Something worried the ship enough to rerun some routine repeatedly. He resolved to spring for a more thorough overhaul of all systems when he returned to Magra.
What happened back there? As sub-space leaps went, this span should have been an easy hop, fully mapped and one he’d taken before. He prided himself on his skills as pilot and on the quality of his ship. It made it possible for him to travel without crew, a definite advantage in his line of work. This jump, however, felt like someone tried to crack his ship like a seed pod to get at the chewy morsel inside.
“Where are we?” he said although the controls were not set to voice command, a system too easily compromised. It was the neural interface embedded at his temple, connected to the main processor, that relayed his inquiry. The ship’s scanners took a look around the sector and started to scroll information onto the display screen in front of him. Two stars nearby. Some planets. Definite signs of traffic and habitation. Atmospheric conditions, life forms, environmental threats, evidence of technology and sentient populations were analyzed, recorded and then the Dutchman decided on the most likely location.
“Rishabel,” Seth said, unconvinced and not at all happy. Another thing the Dutchman displayed as routinely as the cabin temperature was that his coolant supply was utterly drained. And so unless he found some way to supply the ship’s processor with a way to keep from disintegrating during a sub-space jump he had one hell of a long walk home.
He called up information about Rishabel. Part of the Benstar system, the planet lay so far outside any point of interest that it had been mapped and then immediately forgotten by everyone back in the Trans-Targon sector. At some point it supported a few colonies that eventually failed and were abandoned. Still, habitable planets were hard to find and so this one still played host to a fair bit of traffic moving through this sub-sector. Like a crowded harbor in the middle of an empty sea, people came and went on their way elsewhere. Rebels, mostly, and folks whose welcome in more civilized places had worn out. Trading fleets, heavily armed to ward off pirates, also shifted goods and personnel here before heading into other parts of the sector.
Sighing, he set course for Rishabel, choosing an orbiting spaceport unlikely to ask why he wanted to enter their airspace. Perhaps it was wise to find out how he got here, or why, before announcing his presence. He suspected that paying for a supply of coolant tubes in this place was going to sting.
He looked up when the com console alerted him to an incoming message. Who was calling at this hour? This wasn’t the sort of neighborhood where travelers were stopped and frisked.
He tapped the receiver. “Kinda busy here,” he said, offering no identification.
Instead of a reply, every alarm on the controls surrounding his pilot bench went into alert mode. Programs ran for no particular reason and things flashed that he’d never seen flashing before. Audible warnings added another layer of mayhem as the Dutchman tried to determine the nature of the threat.
Seth winced when a spike of pain drove through his skull. His headset was little more than a thin wire comfortably slung from one temple to the other but now he could not even tip his head to push it away. His body arched as if through some electrical charge but the only pain he felt was in his head. The field of his vision closed in and he thought that passing out was likely the next experience he was to have today.
He watched helplessly, both on the screens and via his mental link, as one system after another was accessed and scanned. His ship possessed the anti-intruder programs used by Air Command’s most complex systems and had never been breached. Right now, however, it seemed like someone was looting everything he possessed. The fact that his own brain was plugged directly into the compromised technology filled him with gut-wrenching dread.
The words appeared in his mind and he was unsure if he heard or dreamed them. They were certainly not his own. Giving up his fear at this moment was not an option.
The cockpit calmed. One by one, the alarm systems ceased their protest, lights dimmed again, and the Dutchman returned to its diagnostic mode as if it had never been interrupted. Seth exhaled shakily and immediately breathed in again, suddenly aware that he had not been doing that for several minutes. He pried his hands from the armrests of his bench and tested his limbs.
“I don’t think so!” he said. But then he did.
* * *
More time had passed, of that he was sure. Seth drifted out of whatever deep sleep had claimed him to glance warily around the cockpit. Standby mode now. Mostly. No indicators nagging him that something wasn’t right with the Dutchman. That was reassuring, at least. He checked the ship’s timers. He had been asleep, passed out, whatever, for nearly five hours.
“What the hell was that?” he said.
The Dutchman, long used to his mental vernacular, responded by listing the results of the systems-check on a screen.
“Did I hurt you?”
Seth twisted in his seat so abruptly that something in the back of his neck cracked alarmingly. “What? Who’s there?” He peered into the cabin that made up the central space of the Dutchman’s interior and served as main living quarters for the tiny crew meant to live aboard. Whoever had spoken was not back there. Nor did it seem likely that anyone would be, given that he was the only person within twenty thousand marks of this place.
He removed his headset and used an overhead grip to pull himself out of his couch to stumble into the cabin, still groggy and disoriented. Despite the recent tumble through sub-space, nothing seemed out of place in what was essentially his home. Actually, he thought, much of it was out of place, but that was the usual state of things here. “Wait for what?” He glanced into the tiny galley. No one there.
“Learning language. You are Centauri.”
“So I’ve been told.” Seth returned to the cockpit. “Where are you?” He reran the scanners to look for ships in the vicinity. His curiosity, easily the greatest source of his troubles, had taken over. He liked it better than fear, anyway. Whoever was accessing his system was doing it in a way that the Dutchman didn’t even notice now. The intruder remained undetectable. Impressive, whatever it was. Then again, he was a long way from home. “Closest ship is a Feydan trader. Not exactly something that can break into this place.”
“I did not break anything.”
There was a brief pause. “Wait. Learning language.”
Seth raised both eyebrows and made a placating gesture. If the Dutchman hadn’t found a way to keep these people out of here, there certainly wasn’t anything he could do about it. He looked up at the monitors, uneager to re-establish his mental connection with his ship. Nothing was going on there other than heightened activity in his data bank. “You can look at Union mainvoice,” he suggested. “Easier than Centauri language.”
“I only need one?”
“At a time, yes. What language do you speak?”
“We do not have language. Now I have many.”
“So fast? How many?”
“Centauri, Feyd, Delphian, Magra Torley, Magra Alaric, Phi Nine, mainvoice.”
Seth considered a quick emergency signal. The chance of that lone freighter rushing to his rescue, here in this pirate-infested sub-sector, didn’t seem very good. “You’re an artificial system? A program? Where did I pick you up? When?”
“Is that a question?” the intruder replied. Seth noticed the beginnings of some undefinable dialect, likely a blend of those on file on his ship. “Still learning… stuff.”
“Stuff?” Seth grinned. “It’s not really polite, whoever you are. You should ask before breaking… before looking at other people’s stuff.”
“Can I look at your stuff?” The database scan continued without pause.
Seth sighed. “Help yourself. Don’t break things.” He sat down and engaged another diagnostic to see if whatever A.I. had invaded his system left any traces. There was no new code, no changes, nothing deleted. It really did seem as if someone was merely browsing through his library. That was not especially worrisome. Having seen the inside of a few prison cells, he stored nothing there that was better left unshared. “Mind if I head for Rishabel now?”
“Can I go… Why am I asking you, anyway?” He directed the Dutchman to resume his journey to the nearby planet. “So where are you, really?”
“In my processors? You’re a program, then?”
He pursed his lips. “Let’s pretend I don’t know who or what you are, shall we?”
“That is sarcasm?”
“Who are you?”
“I just am. We don’t have words like this. I like them. But I understand your confusion. I found you in-between, when you went by.”
“In-between? You mean sub-space?”
“That’s not possible.”
“If it were not possible I would not be here.” Another lengthy pause ensued. “Oh,” the intruder said. Then said it again, with a different inflection as if tasting the word. “Oh, you think I am lying. Exaggerating. Subterfuging.”
“Yes, subterfuging,” Seth replied, amused. “We do that.”
“We do not.”
“The ship doesn’t recognize you in there.”
“I am in your head.”
Seth blinked, then frowned. “You’re in my head?”
“Yes. You have a door there.”
He felt for the small, triangular interface node at his temple. “My neural tap?”
“Yes. Your interface and the devices on your wrist and this vehicle all connect. And something inside.”
He touched the spot above his elbow where a thin circuit sheet served as backup for his neural implant. Although the data array on his forearm sleeve contained scanning devices, receivers and transmitters, the more limited relay embedded under his skin had gotten him out of more than one scrape in the past. “You are scanning me, too?”
“Yes. Interesting. You are experiencing some stress indicators.”
“You don’t say. So are you a life form? Living in sub-space? There is nothing in sub-space.”
“You don’t know that. You only pass by. You never look inside.”
“True. Organics. You need too much to live. Gas, food, space.” Another pause for a data scan. “I don’t understand sleep.”
“You’re not organic?”
“Nope?” he repeated with a smile.
“Does that bother you?”
“Not really. Not as much as the thought that you’re in my head. We call that mental illness.” As he said that, Seth wondered if his glib comment might, indeed, be true. Was he even having this conversation? It still didn’t seem as though he was actually hearing that voice and, if he was, where it came from. Had he suffered some sort of brain injury during the jump? Perhaps he was the one in need of a diagnostic.
Seth, like most people living in the Trans-Targon sector, assumed there to be two types of sentient life forms. What were commonly and arrogantly called a Prime Species appeared to actually be a single species, scattered over several planets. Their evolution diverged a little over time to suit their environment but their DNA did not vary by much, hinting at some common origin. And then there were the true, indigenous species whose anatomy and mental processes barely resembled the Primes. Seth had met a few of those. Possibly, and unless he had indeed gone crazy, this strange interaction he was having could well be a first contact event. He decided to assume that he had not utterly lost his mind.
“I don’t want to bother you,” it said. “Do you fear harm from me?”
“That would be my first instinct, yes,” he admitted. “Is this how your people travel around out here? In people’s heads?”
“No. We don’t travel around out here. It’s dangerous. This is new. Your ship tells me your name is Sethran Kada. Right?”
He nodded although there was no one to nod to. “Seth. Do you have a name?”
“We don’t have words, remember?”
“So make one up.”
“I can have any name?”
“Well, something you like. There are stories, made-up ones, in the database. See if there is something in there.”
“Stories. They are not factual? Not true?”
“Yes. But they are amusing.” He looked up to see the rapid flicker of something scrolling through the sector’s astronomical database. “And they’ll tell you more about us than nav charts.”
Seth got up and went back into the galley to brew a cup of tea, warming to the idea that he had a visitor on board who apparently meant no harm. First contact, as approved by the Commonwealth of United Planets, was a complex and formal process, rife with protocol and well-meant advice. But in fact it was mostly the traders, rebels and privateers that stumbled upon new species, not always to the benefit of both sides. He reminded himself to step carefully around this one, especially since he seemed to have no effective means to keep it out of his systems.
“Why do you have stories about copulation?”
Seth winced. He might have been blushing. “Try another story,” he said quickly. “Please.”
“All right. Oh. Khoe. I like Khoe.”
“That’s a nice name. Delphian, I think. It’s a girl’s name.”
“Girls seem more interesting in your stories.”
“I think so, too,” he said.
“Then why are you a boy?”
Seth wondered if perhaps he was not the most suitable Trans-Targon representative for a first contact situation. A Union xenologist would know what to make of this individual. And perhaps know how to get it off his ship. “You’re going to have to read some more,” he said finally. “It’s difficult to explain.”
The hours, days and weeks he spent traveling through real-space between jumpsites left him with little to do but study and learn. Over these past dozen years or so, the database he had amassed had made him as much of an ethnologist as any of the Union’s experts. But, considering the rate at which this creature absorbed information, there was probably little that he could explain better than his library could.
“All right,” the newly female visitor said in a voice to match.
“So what do you look like?”
“Nothing. Not to your eyes.”
“Nothing? Just energy? A neural net of some sort?”
She seemed to think about that. Or perhaps consult his archive. “Particles. Composite particles. As you think of them. Not physical. But it works like that. Your particles need to be together in one place to function. Ours don’t.”
“Something must be holding your cognitive process together.”
“Energy does. Out here you do. Does that bother you?”
Oh, yes, he thought. “Just curious.”
“I can look like something, if you need that.”
Seth frowned when some sort of distortion of light and air coalesced before him. He stepped around the counter separating the galley from the cabin and circled the thing taking shape there. He gasped when a small Prime formed there, growing arms, legs, torso, head. It moved slowly as if discovering its limbs as they appeared. Details emerged as it sprouted hair and sharpened features. “Cazun…” he evoked for the second time that day.
The small being taking form looked toward him, its eyes not quite focused on his face. “You have so many shapes. Is this correct?”
“Hmm, looks like a Feydan juvenile. Female child. But the hair is Human, maybe Centauri.”
The stranger grew in size, changing her form several times along with hair and skin color. Seth’s eyes widened in surprise and a slow grin tugged on his lips. He turned away with some reluctance.
“Don’t do that,” Khoe said. “I’m using your eyes. I cannot see me if you’re not looking at me.”
“Put some clothes on,” he said, feeling the absurdity of the moment.
“I’m in your head. I can’t feel cold if you don’t.” She fell silent for a moment. “Oh. Cultural idiosyncrasy. You can look now.”
He turned back, a little sorry that the pleasantly curved shape she had flashed at him was now covered by what looked like a mix of Magran and Feydan clothes, fetchingly arranged.
She inspected herself through his eyes while she changed a few things to her liking. “Is this funny?” she said when he smiled.
“Green hair? That is… rare among our species.”
“You don’t like it?”
“Doesn’t matter what I like,” he said diplomatically.
She went through another series of changes, picking individuals seemingly at random from his database.
“Not that,” he said when a tall redhead, Human and in uniform, appeared before him.
“You said it doesn’t matter.”
“That one does.”
She changed her hair to blue and her features to the sharp contours of a Delphian. Finally she decided, perhaps in deference to his own origin, to present herself as mostly Centauri, with the characteristic violet eyes that reflected the dim light of the cabin. She settled on Bellac Tau for a source of her hair, which now hung in long white ropes from her head.
He watched her play with some gestures and facial expressions she found among his data files. Why was it that even a gender-neutral wisp of energy escaping sub-space managed to figure out what female traits unerringly hit their target?
“So if you’re only in my head and in my processors, you’re not actually there?” He pointed at the spot where she stood, her feet not quite touching the floor.
“That’s right. You only think you see me.”
His brows drew together as he contemplated this. “You seem awfully real. I can hear you, see you, like I would anyone.” He stepped closer and cautiously touched her arm.
Both of them recoiled when he encountered solid substance under his fingers. Clearly, he had felt the soft fabric of the shirt she created out of nothing. She seemed as surprised as he.
“You felt that?” he asked.
“Yes. No. I felt what you felt. What your fingers felt. It’s a strange thing.”
“Guess that isn’t something you can read up on.”
“I can’t see your face, though.” She reached out to find his chin, rubbed awkwardly over his nose, and then lingered over a scar above his eye. Seth had to smile when she touched her own face and then leaned closer to turn left and right as if examining herself in a mirror.
He winced when she jabbed a finger into his midriff. She did, too, but whether in response to the touch or to copy his reflex was unclear. Seth considered once again the possibility that he was suffering some sort of mental collapse. How could any of this be real? It wasn’t real, of course. She created every sound and sight and now this touch in his mind. What difference did it make if a sensation was real or if his brain simply told him it was? It was the same, in the end, wasn’t it? Neurons reacting to stimuli, real or imagined.
Something even more disturbing came to mind. “You… I mean, can you tell what I’m thinking? My thoughts?”
“No, I cannot. You’re worried that I’m spying into your mind? Do you have secrets?”
“Everyone does.” He watched her experiment with hand motions that looked like various forms of greeting. “How do your people sustain yourselves?”
“Out here? Your thorium. And you, a little.” She clapped her hands, apparently pleased by the sound it created.
Seth hurried into the cockpit. Indeed, the monitors there showed a slight drain of the ship’s thorium levels. Not yet alarming, but noticeable. “Me?” he said, a little worried.
“Yes. I don’t need much. Most of the time.”
“Most of the time?” He looked up and then did a quick double-take when she appeared to be floating in the air. He supposed there was no real need for her to be standing on the Dutchman’s deck plates.
“I expect that if you do more, you have to eat more,” Khoe said philosophically. “Holding this shape for you is taking up energy. Is this making you tired? Hungry?”
“Then you must eat. I need more words. I will look at more stuff now.” As soon as she said this, she simply winked out of sight.
“Didn’t mean to bore you,” he grumbled.
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