Niko frowned over her report. That doesn't make any sense, she thought for the fourth or fifth time as she read through her last sentences. She dropped her light pen. I've got to find out!
"Is your report complete?" Captain Fox asked when she suddenly got up and headed for the door.
"Not yet, Zach," she said, turning toward him. "Do you know where Goose is right now?"
"No idea. He got his two free days immediately after he left the lab. I thought he should rest before he writes his report." He smirked. "Maybe he'll produce a readable one at that point. Why do you ask?"
"I'm stuck. There's something I've got to figure out before I can continue with my report." She let the door slide open. "I'll look for him."
Niko finally found Gooseman at the upper promenade. He sat on the balustrade with one leg pulled up to rest his chin on it. The other one dangled above the abyss. A still-steaming coffee mug stood beside him on the stones. He was staring across the wide plains between the foot of the mountain and Phoenix at the horizon.
It was a fantastic view from up here, near the peak, but somehow she felt he wasn't paying attention to it. It was something else he needed from this place, something he seemed to need desperately.
It told her a lot about his trust in her that he didn't whirl round to watch her approach in spite of his exposed position on the wall above the steep face.
"Hm?" he asked wordlessly.
"I've got a problem with my report regarding the psionic message I received from you."
"It worked. I reached you."
She smiled at his terse summary, so typical of him. "Yes, you reached me – and I have to explain how."
He shrugged. "I used the implant to form psi receptors. Seems I discharged it down to the bottom by doing it. I sent the message... then everything went mad. The next thing I can remember clearly as myself is waking up in that damn glass coffin."
Niko heard the slight tremor in his last words. Old wounds, but the bleeding is new. "Shane..." He patted the stones next to him, offering a seat. With a slight shudder at the height she took it, but kept her legs safely on the promenade side of the wall. "There's something about this whole thing that I don't get," she began carefully. "You reached me telepathically."
"I suppose so. Don't know if it is what I did."
She smiled at his confusion. "It was. Definitely." Growing earnest again: "But that's my problem. How was it possible for you? I'm sure you can form psi receptors within your brain tissue using your powers. But you could also use them. And that's almost impossible. Even strong telepaths who are naturally talented at using their receptors take years to learn how to send understandable messages. And I received clear images from you."
"Images?" He looked at her over his shoulder.
"Mental impressions can't be divided clearly into vision and hearing. So whatever it mainly is usually we just call it," she added a soft, vibrating word in Xanad and shrugged. "I believe 'image' is an acceptable translation for it."
Staring out in the sky again, he asked faintly, "So it's abnormal, isn't it?"
"I think so, yes."
"Could it be the reason for the way my nucleotide sequences destabilized?" Again his voice trembled, stronger than before.
What's chewing at you so much, Shane? "I don't know how it could be. Why are you worried about that?"
"I've been exhausted before. Nothing like that happened. Remember the entropy slide."
"You were in bad shape after that, too," she told him softly.
"That was an implant malfunction. But my bio defenses were at least as stressed by the continual use back then as they were at Deltoid, and my nucleotides were okay afterwards."
"QBall has restabilized them," she reminded him, noticing his tension.
"This time." He took a deep, clearly audible breath. "Next time, the coffin could get cold."
Her eyes widened as she suddenly understood. The cryocrypt! He's talking about the cryocrypt. That must be as bad for him as it would be for us if we had to fear being put in the psychocrypt all day long... Hasn't anybody noticed the cruel parallels between the two systems? No wonder he's out here. The most open space on the base. She put a hand on his sleeve, trying to offer some comfort. "We won't allow that, Shane," she assured him.
"There are fights you can't win." His voice was hoarse. "I've got to find out what caused it. It can't happen again." The fingers of his right hand clawed at he rough stones of the wall as he added: "But I have no idea of where to search." After a moment soft fingertips touched his cheekbone.
"May I?" Niko asked.
He closed his eyes in acceptance. They had touched each other far more deeply than this. A faint whisper like silk flowing in water appeared in his mind and was gone almost before he noticed.
"There's a kind of shield."
His eyes flew open. "There's what?"
"A shield. Very thin, doesn't reach out of your body as a psionic shield should do and somehow," she searched for a matching description, "passive. I've never felt anything like it before."
"You've touched my mind before. Why didn't you notice it back then?"
"I wasn't sending and reading as I am know. I wasn't searching for psionics, Shane."
Her hand was lying in her lap again. He felt his skin tingling where she'd touched him.
"Strange. I can't feel it now." She frowned and reached up to his face again, reestablishing the physical connection through the main psi points. "But it's there." She took his hands instead of touching his cheek. "It's almost imperceptible this way." Her frown deepened. "Could it...?" He wasn't sure if she really said the words or if he felt them. "Shane, can you perform a transformation?"
"Now?" He was clearly embarrassed.
"Only a small one... an easy one. Just... something." She touched his cheek again, intensified the connection with direct eye contact. "I've got a strong suspicion."
He smirked and reached for his recharged badge. "Okay then, claws for the lady..."
It almost blew her off the wall. He had to catch her around the waist to prevent her from falling.
"Are you okay? What happened?" Gooseman asked, worried, once she sat safely next to him on the stone wall again.
Niko looked up, breathless for a moment. "Confirmed," she panted. "Shane... How do... you transform?"
He didn't get her point. "What do you mean, how?"
Her breathing gradually slowed. "How do you perform a transformation?" When he just stared at her, she tried another approach. "How does a metamorph do it?"
"Their bodies react on a cellular level to their surroundings and their mental status," he answered without hesitation. "I'm no metamorph!"
"Definitely not," she agreed. "How are you different?"
"I need a clear idea of what has to be done before I transform. That's why I had intensive training in the sciences. My body adapts to the conditions around me but I need to know at least the average parameters of my environment."
"Like the temperature of lava, the pressure ten kilometers below the ocean's surface, something like that?"
"Exactly. A metamorph doesn't need that kind of knowledge, but he can't use a transformation on his own will again like I can do, either. He also can't refine it to adapt better the next time."
"Shane, I don't think you formed psi receptors at Deltoid."
He frowned. "But I–"
Niko laid two fingertips on his lips, silencing him. "You didn't form psi receptors, Shane, you set them free to send a message to me," she set softly. "You've got a full set of psionic receptors, at least as many as I have, and when you transform they are all active at once in an incredible blast within your body. That's what nearly blew me off the wall. The controls for your powers are based on psi receptors," she explained earnestly, "or at least on receptors very close to them. And the shield I noticed is the connection layer that synchronizes them."
He was still staring at her in disbelief. "You mean... when I sent the message to you I gave up the controls on my–?"
She nodded. "I think so. And exhausted as you already were–"
"The nucleotide sequences lost their stability when the controls on them got too thin," he said flatly.
She took a deep breath. "That explains why you were disciplined enough to actually send an understandable image. Your bio defenses must need strong controls on them, right?"
"You bet!" He smiled grimly and took a sip of his coffee. "Brrr. Cold."
She looked down on his mug. "From the cafeteria? They don't allow their mugs out of the hall."
His smile turned into one of his cynical half grins. "The only advantage of being an ST: nobody gets in your way if you do it anyway." With a short wink: "As long as the mug is back before their shift ends."