“The Encephalons are a friendly race of aliens,” the General said.
“Oh? You’ve dealt with them?” the computer nerd asked, biting his nails.
“They are talkative, polite and have not threatened us with their superior technology. So, yes, that places them in my ‘friends list,’ as much as an alien can be considered that.”
“Right. And they offered to show us their technology?” the nerd asked, wanting to be anywhere but there.
“They have approved a single person to receive a tour of their spaceship and, well to pop the hood, in a manner of speaking.” The General poured some whiskey from his drawer. “I shouldn’t be drinking while in the midst of giving orders, even to a specialist such as you, but you’ll excuse me under the circumstances.”
“Of course, sir. Drink away.”
“You need one as well.” The General poured one for the specialist as well.
He drank it, the nasty bite down his throat letting him calm down a little. The buzz was almost instantaneous, it was some of the good stuff. “Thank you, sir. Please, continue.”
“Since they’re letting only one person on board, we considered sending someone that could absorb as much information as possible in the small amount of time he’d be up there.”
The specialist opened his mouth, then shut it. Then opened it again. “But why me? Surely an engineer or-”
The General raised his palm. “We’ve put much thought into it already. An engineer would be unable to see anything about their FTL technology, it’s all exotic matter and other crazy things as I’ve been told. A doctor was our second choice, in case they turn hostile, she might notice some weakness in their physiology while they have their guard down. A weapons specialist would have the same issues as the engineer. That leaves us computers.”
The computer specialist gulped. “Of course, sir.”
“The objective is to remain friendly and diplomatic. You are to do nothing that would endanger our relations with the alien race. Even if they somehow take you hostage, I’m ordering you to remain calm and surrender peacefully. We will negotiate your release via diplomatic means. You are not to defend yourself unless your very life is on the line. Got it, specialist Barnes?”
“Yes, sir!” the nerd said, snapping at attention and saluting.
“Good. Now report at the helipad on the double!”
Barnes forcibly stopped himself from gulping so much. He was sure he’d strain a neck muscle or swallow something important that wasn’t meant to be swallowed.
“Please, follow me,” the Encephalon said. He could easily pass off as a human, having no hair, slightly enlarged eyes and big thumbs. But that was what evolution experts said would happen to humans as well, so that didn’t really bother Barnes at all. What did bother him was that they were aliens from across the stars, visiting Earth as if it was a tourist destination. He spoke in his language in the communicator in his hand, similar to a cellphone.
Barnes followed. “Um, my name is Barnes.”
“I’m Volo, nice to meet you,” he said, shaking his hand. He led Barnes up the stairs and into the alien spaceship.
Barnes looked around like an idiot, of course, jaw hanging. Everything looked cool and futuristic, but since it was all made for humanoids, things were exactly how you’d expect. As in door heights, corridor sizes, steps. The ship even followed the same layout as humans, with hatch doors that could isolate parts of the ship in case of a hull breach. “Everything looks familiar, somehow,” Barnes smiled.
“How’s so?” Volo asked.
“Don’t get me wrong, it all looks frickin’ cool,” he chuckled. “But at the same time, it makes sense. It’s not alien to me, you know?”
“Same shit, different solar system,” Volo shrugged. The Encephalons had gotten a reputation in the First Contact team about how easily they picked up slang. It was like talking to a mate from England, it only took them like five minutes to get the hang of it.
Barnes laughed. “Exactly! I mean, this could have been an Earth vessel, for all I know.”
“I get your point. Your First Contact team has been gracious enough to send us schematics of your non-classified vessels, and we’ve also seen remarkable similarities.”
Barnes felt a lot calmer. Sure, they were alien. Sure, they came from the stars. But they were friendly and in the end, not at all dissimilar to humans. He even liked Volo, no wonder they sent him to do the tour. “We could both help each other if you did the same.”
Volo stopped and turned to him.
Barnes thought for a second that he’d blown it.
Volo smiled warmly. “We can do that. Please, follow me,” he said again.
Barnes followed, this time with a pep in his step. Were they gonna just show him advanced tech, just like that? He pinched the soft flesh of his hand, making it bleed. He needed the adrenaline, needed to be alert. Observe everything, forget nothing. This could be the only chance they Encephalons would ever give them.
Volo brought him to a clean room, or rather the prep room for cleaning up.
“I recognise this. It’s a negative pressure clean room, just like where we make integrated circuits.” Barnes looked aroud.
Volo smiled. “Then you are familiar with the procedure. Please, scrub down and put on the suits with me, the mainframe room needs to be absolutely clean of contaminants.”
Barnes was now absolutely giddy with excitement. He was gonna be the first computer guy to lay eyes on their computers. He stripped down to his underwear and put on the suit. Volo did the same, glancing at him to see if he needed any help. Barnes didn’t need any, he was an actual computer specialist, having worked a clean room before at DARPA. He put on the part on the head and inspected the seals. Everything was well-made, snapping in place, feeling firm and durable. “I think I’m good to go.” As soon as the words left his mouth, he realised that this might be the hostage situation the General warned him about. But, he realised, that he was willing to risk it.
What would it be? A quantum computer, certainly. Nah, humans had already built a crude version of that, and they were nowhere near space-travel at this scale. It must be something even bigger and faster that quantum.
Volo finished suiting up. “With your permission,” he said, and when he got an affirmative nod he put his hands around the seals of Barnes’ suit. Satisfied, he smiled again. “Follow me, please.”
Barnes followed into the clean room.
Volo opened his arms in a presentation and said, “This is the mainframe.”
Barnes ran his gaze slowly from bottom to top. His breathing became frantic, his hands trembled. The suit felt like a million degrees, and he wasn’t taking enough air through the filter. There were three other Encephalons working around the mainframe, wearing suits like them.
And, in the middle of the room, was a giant brain floating inside a transparent box.
There was an eerie red light, and the brain looked squishy and pink. Barnes could swear he could see the signals firing in the synapses.
“This can’t be the mainframe,” Barnes wheezed after a long while. He thought his eyesight was getting blurry.
“I assure you, it is,” Volo said proudly. “It’s the way we calculate spacetime travel. It’s impossible to navigate otherwise.”
Barnes gulped. Get yourself together, man. This is a unique opportunity, don’t waste it. “O-Okay,” he stuttered. “And the computers link up to the brain?”
Volo turned to him, frowning. “What do you mean? That is the computer.”
“No, I mean the electronics, the ones in your machines.”
Volo kept looking as if he wasn’t understanding his words. Which was weird, because they even picked up pop references and slang. “That’s what’s in our machines, specialist Barnes, I assure you.”
Barnes was frustrated now. He stepped closer to Volo pointed at his pocket. “No, your electronics. The integrated circuits. What are they made of?”
Volo brought out his communicator. Every Encephalon had one, it was like carrying a phone around. “This one?”
“Yeah, that. Can you crack that open?”
Volo offered it to him. “Be my guest.”
Barnes accepted the phone and spun it around. He found a notch, just like a phone from Earth. It was hard to dig his nails into it with the gloves on but he managed it somehow, and popped the lid open, expecting to see the familiar block of integrated electronics.
What he saw, would haunt him until the end of his days.
The being, was squished, rectangular, thin. It breathed. It hooked up to the screen and the buttons, and in his shock, Barnes pulled the screen apart, making it separate with a disgusting squish.
Barnes looked up at Volo, then at the giant brain in the box. “These are your electronics?”
“Of course,” Volo said helpfully. “What else would we use?”
The cellphone’s eye blinked and followed Barnes’ face straight into his nightmares.