Chapter Three: Dottie

“We have a big day ahead of us today,” I announced as I settled into a comfortable sitting position inside the tunnel.

“You say that every time,” the Puppet Master replied telepathically.

“Because it’s true every time,” I countered. “Almost every experiment we run is groundbreaking, simply because my people have never even imagined something like you.”

And that excitement was part of what pulled me out of camp every morning, hurrying down into the tunnels.

Who could resist being a part of making scientific history?

Sitting on the dirt with my back against one of the Puppet Master’s vines, I started setting up my equipment. I carefully attached tiny neuro-monitors to the flesh of the vine.

“Did that hurt?”

“Did what hurt?” The Puppet Master replied.

“Never mind.”

My equipment was acceptable, but it wasn’t top of the line. I only got the top of the line stuff if I checked it out from the Nyhiem lab.

I knew that some of the aliens traveled through what seemed like essentially portals, but that method of travel wasn’t available to the average scientist yet.

If I wanted to go to Nyhiem, I’d have to go the old-fashioned way and wait for a ride on a shuttle.

That wasn’t something I really wanted to do. It’d cut into my time with the Puppet Master.

So I just hadn’t bothered to go.

“A wise choice,” the Puppet Master whispered to my consciousness.

“You can read my thoughts even if I’m not attempting to directly commune with you?”

“You’ve made physical contact.” A tendril tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to the vine I leaned up against. “Once direct contact is made, a link between our minds is forged forever. As long as you are in my vicinity, I’m listening and can reply.”

“Is that how you commune with the living trees?” I asked.

“No,” he sighed. “They don’t possess enough sentience to forge a stable connection.”

“Then how did you direct them before?” No one had ever come up with a viable theory for that, and we still speculated wildly back at the lab.

What can I say? Scientists are as easily amused as anyone else.

“I,” the Puppet Master started to explain, then halted. “I do not know how to answer that. It is similar to if I asked you how you breathe or how you think. I perform the action without conscious effort.”

“Interesting.” I tapped my chin with a stylus. “I have an idea.”

“What’s that?”

“We’re going to do a different kind of experiment.”

I pushed myself up from the ground and brushed the dirt off the seat of my pants.

Motioning for the Puppet Master to follow me, in whatever way he was capable of doing so, I walked out of the tunnel. The earth around my feet shifted as I walked as the Puppet Master’s vines extended out.

I climbed out of the crater.

Halfway up, I lost my footing. It wasn’t a far fall but the Puppet Master burrowed up vines to catch me anyway.

“Thanks,” I gave the vine a pat.

Once out of the crater, I headed to a copse of trees deeper into the forest. Since the Xathi invasion, the creature populations dropped considerably.

Walking through the forest was a death wish before. Now, it was just highly unrecommended.

Which didn’t seem like a bad idea to most people, but I knew it was a sign that our ecosystem had been badly disrupted.

I stopped in a small clearing. Thanks to the Puppet Master and the efforts of dedicated citizens, the forest had begun to grow back.

It wasn’t what it used to be. I could still see chunks of sky through the canopy and most of the trees still had tinges of brown death on their trunks.

It was progress, though. The forest would be in top shape in no time.

The Puppet Master’s vines rose out of the earth beside me. I reached out and pressed my palm against one.

“It’s my duty to advise you that being here is unwise,” the Puppet Master warned. “The creatures of the forest have begun to return to this area.”

“Why? I have the ultimate protection.” I gave the vines another pat.

“What sort of experiment are you trying to perform?”

“I’m going to attract one of the sentient trees. You’re going to stop it from attacking me. While you do that, you’re going to tell me everything you’re thinking and feeling.”

“Thinking is an inaccurate term for what I do.”

“I know but I’m human, remember? Limited understanding of beings and brains bigger than my own. Now, will you do this?”

The Puppet Master went silent for a few moments. “A Durindium is already on your scent,” he stated.

“A what?”

That was far faster than I expected, and I jumped to switch gears from the theoretical to the very, very immediate.

Before the Puppet Master could respond, a creature leaped down from the canopy above.

Its body was long, lean, and feline in proportions. Sharp obsidian talons dug into the earth as it landed. Its face looked avian with a sharp, bony beak. Around its neck was a fan of growths that looked like thick flower petals.

It reminded me of a lion’s mane in the old vids from Earth.

It eyed me with its split pupil stare and let out a shriek that made my ears ring.

“Find a way to stop it from attacking me.” My voice shook as I spoke. “And let me know how you’re doing it.”

Whose idea was this?

“Its willpower is substantial,” the Puppet Master replied.

The Durindium slowly circled me.

I pivoted, keeping my body square with its body. It was looking for a weak point, a good place to pounce.

“Is willpower a key factor in determining how you control another creature?” I kept my voice steady.

Focusing on the experiment would help keep my fear under control. I had a feeling the Durindium could smell fear.

“Yes. Right now, I’m negotiating with the Durindium’s essence, it’s soul if you will,” he explained.

The Durindium snapped it’s beak and hissed.

“It doesn’t look like it’s going well.”

“It’s not.”

“Why would you tell me that,” I whimpered.

“Did you not wish to know?”

The Durindium swiveled to face me head on. It lowered its haunches in preparation to spring forward right at me.

“Now would be a good time to wrap up negotiations,” I pleaded.

The Puppet Master didn’t answer.

A wave of doubt washed over me. What if the Puppet Master wasn’t my friend at all? What if he was still an enemy of the humans at heart?

The Durindium leaped forward. I closed my eyes and curled myself downward as if that would protect me from its slashing talons.

I heard its feet land on the forest floor but no impact came. Its hot breath whipped through my hair.

Against my better judgment, I peeked up.

I was face to face with the Durindium, my nose less than an inch from its protruding beak.

I raised a shaking hand and touched the Puppet Master’s vines, curling around my feet.

“So,” I gulped. “The negotiations went well?”

“I convinced the creature that eating you will bring on my wrath,” the Puppet Master supplied.

Guilt hit me. I shouldn’t have doubted him.

Slowly my stomach began to unknot.

“Can you walk me through your process? I was too busy being terrified the first time.”

“Certainly.”

The Puppet Master must’ve done something else to the Durindium because it suddenly let out a yelp and darted back into the forest.

I released the breath I didn’t realize I’d been holding.

At the Puppet Master’s insistence, I agreed to go back to the safety of the crater. Once I was seated with my equipment once more, the Puppet Master began his explanation.

“What occurs between myself and another lifeform cannot be accurately put into your human vernacular,” he started. “However, I’ll do my best. My lifeforce pulses through this planet like a network of rivers. All lifeforms on this planet drink from my rivers. Parts of me are parts of them. Do you understand?”

“Partially.” I recorded a few notes in my field datapad and nodded for the Puppet Master to keep going.

“I control my lifeforce, even the parts that are in other lifeforms. My lifeforce becomes their lifeforce. When I take control of another creature, I’m simply taking control of my own life force.”

“Why was it harder to control the Durindium than it is to control the sentient trees?” I asked.

“The Durindium is an active hunter, a strategist. Its intelligence is greater than that of the sentient trees. It’s clever enough to detect an outside force in its mind and fight against it. The one that attacked you was also desperate. Its natural prey populations are far too small.”

“I understand.” I took down more notes. “Could you’ve used vines to directly manipulate the Durindium?”

“If I’d planted one of my seeds within the Durindium, I could have. However, it’s more likely that would’ve killed it. The sentient trees make excellent hosts since they are closer to plants than animals. They are infinitely simpler than creatures like the Durindium, who are more like animals than plants.”

“Is that why you can’t control humans or aliens?”

“I never said I can’t control them.”

Wait. What?

“If I were to try, it would take a great deal of energy and it would be a lengthy battle for control. You humans and your alien friends have my lifeforce within you. You take it in every time you eat a plant or an animal from the forest.”

“I appreciate that you’ve never tried to take over my brain,” I chuckled.

“Brain is inaccurate,” the Puppet Master corrected. “But since I can’t draw a more apt parallel, you’re welcome for not taking over your brain.”

With a laugh, I checked the neuro-monitors I had hooked up earlier. The monitors recorded great spikes of energy during the time of my ill-planned experiment.

My field equipment couldn’t fully analyze the spikes so I send them over to my lab back in Kaster.

If I couldn’t complete a satisfactory analysis there, I’d have to send it to the lab in Nyhiem.

“If a creature came from somewhere else, but took in your life force, would you be able to exert control over it?” I asked.

“Yes, with one exception.”

That didn’t sound good. Not at all.

“Which is?”

“My race doesn’t have a proper name for them. Millennia ago, when there were more of us and we were able to communicate, we called them the Ancient Enemies. They were older than us, more powerful than us, and capable of siphoning out lifeforce until there was nothing left.”

“How awful.” I made note of this new, unsettling information. “What else can you tell me about them?”

“Nothing.” The Puppet Master sounded mournful. “That’s all I know. My race never learned how to combat them. We never discovered where they were from or what their purpose was, other than stealing our lives.”

“Is that something we should be worried about?”

“They haven’t been active for thousands of years. I suspect they’ve moved on to a more plentiful galaxy.”

I entered this new information into my notes.

Somehow, the Puppet Master’s words didn’t bring me any comfort.

Jalok goes live October 31!

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