The only thing Specimen Collection Officer 2658 hated more than his life assignment was the silent, empty void that filled his head when no one else was speaking.
He watched the liquid-covered planet grow closer on his monitor for a few more moments before turning toward his partner. “Sometimes I would rather be on the receiving end of an exploratory probe than spend another day performing these functions,” he telepathically announced, trying anything to break the silence.
“Who asked your opinion?” Specimen Collection Officer 3201 replied without shifting his focus from the screen in front of him.
“Not you, I guess,” Officer 2658 said. He lifted his frail thin arms in the air, showing an outward sign of disgust. “What we do would just be a lot more bearable if I understood why we do it.”
“We do what we do in order to help the Doctors perform their duties.” Officer 3201 said obviously, missing the point. He placed both of his six-fingered hands on the control panel. “Now drop it. We are approaching the destination I will require your complete concentration.”
“You have my full concentration, as always.” He put on a control helmet to help focus his thoughts into the navigation of the craft, and then joined Officer 3201, placing his hands onto the panel as well. “The shield is active. We’ll be entering the atmosphere soon.”
“Indeed,” Officer 3201 said. He abruptly disconnected his mental channel to Officer 2658.
The final part of the flight occurred in complete silence, with each Collection Officer directing all concentration toward landing the craft. Monitoring the weather conditions on the surface was a task nearly as vital as the actual landing. They learned to avoid the planet’s electric storms several decades ago when another pair of Collection Officers was lost over a dehydrated section of ground in the middle of one of the larger land masses.
After safely entering the atmosphere, the Collection Officers cloaked the craft and landed near the target’s lair in an area surrounded by large oak trees.
Officer 3201 fully opened his eyes, scanning the occupants. “Our target’s resting location is on the upper level of the residence. Of the three other life forms present, one of the opposite gender is lying with the target, apparently her mate, and two of their offspring lie on the lower level in separate quarters. All four are in a state of suspended animation.”
Officer 2658 gazed at the residence. “These structures they build are so unnecessarily large. This species continues to fascinate me. Ah, if only we could learn more about them.”
“Why would we want to?” Officer 3201 asked. “Besides, what else is left to learn about the living incubators that we don’t already know?”
“You’re not the least bit curious about their habits? Or the peculiar way in which they reproduce? Don’t you wonder how their empire manages to maintain control over a planet with such violent weather conditions?”
“No. And your interminable badgering is tiresome,” Officer 3201 said. Without waiting for Officer 2658, he ascended up along the wall outside of the house.
Officer 2658 quickly followed. In a matter of seconds the two were hovering next to glass window, staring at their target, which was lying on the other side. Another lesson learned from past Collection Officers was that penetrating through glass was much easier than it was through the solid walls. Several humans were inadvertently terminated in the early expeditions before that discovery was made.
After passing through the glass, Officer 2658 swiftly floated to the side of the bed where the female rested. Officer 3201 used a mental link to induce a paralysis command on the male in the bed next to her.
“I will return after remainder of the household has been subdued,” Officer 3201 said, leaving the room.
“Affirmative. I will tend to the female,” Officer 2658 said.
One could not induce full paralysis on the female without risking damage to the miniature life-form growing inside of her. Instead, Officer 2658 was to employ simple hypnosis on the female and wait by her; ready to offer comfort if she awoke prematurely. Anyone who had ever dealt with humans greatly disliked the drawn out shriek they emit when awakening in the presence of a Collection Officer.
As Officer 2658 began the process of hypnosis, the female started rolling slightly from side to side. Her body gently shook for a moment, then relaxed and was completely still. Standard protocol forbids Collection Officers from initiating direct contact with a specimen at that point, but Officer 2658 took a small pleasure in disobeying standard protocol. He placed his hand on her shoulder.
“Be still, female,” he projected into her head.
She opened her eyes and looked directly at the Collection Officer, but remained motionless. “Is this a dream?”
The sound from her lips made it difficult for him to understand her thoughts. He cupped his hand over her mouth and projected, “Speak without your mouth.”
“What’s happening to me?”
He felt her terror and begin broadcasting calmness to her. “Don’t worry. I am…a friend.”
“You’re my friend?”
“I am. We’re not here to harm you.” He initiated what the humans might call “small talk,” a tactic that often calmed his targets. “So what is your life assignment?”
Her garbled response nearly left him speechless. Finally, he asked, “And this is how you serve your empire?”
“We don’t have empires. We…” Her thoughts were mostly unintelligible, but Officer 2658 was able to conclude that the occupants of the planet had no central empire. Instead, they divided the land masses among themselves based on the color of their skin and the languages they use to communicate.
He felt Officer 3201 laughing behind him. “This is the reason we speak with our minds and not our mouths. The incubators’ practices make no sense.”
Officer 2658 was startled. “I hadn’t realized you returned.
“Is it ready for transport?”
“She is,” Officer 2658 replied.
During the return to their research lab on the planet’s tiny moon, Officer 2658 found his thoughts drifting to his home world, which had a similar surface composition to this moon. He fondly remembered being a child there, mastering his telepathy and learning how to pilot a ship. He knew that, as a Collection Officer, he would never be able to return, but hoped that someday one of the Doctors would be kind enough to share a story of one of their regular visits to the home world.
The Collection Officers met two Doctors and a pair Helper Drones in the landing bay near the entrance of the lab. Collection Officers are not allowed beyond that point.
Doctor 1542 crouched down low enough to look both Collection Officers in the eyes. “Thank you, Collection Officers. We will be kind to the female.” He then stood up and instructed his Helper Drones to remove her from the craft.
The female remained in her dreamlike trance and glanced at Officer 2658. “Why are you doing this to me?”
“What else would you have us do?” he asked.
As the Helper Drones carried her away, she began shrieking and speaking gibberish with her lips. “No! I don’t even have a baby!” Officer 2658 wondered if the Doctors could interpret the strange sounds the humans create with their mouths.
The Collection Officers returned to their craft, where they would wait until the hybrid was extracted and the female was ready to be returned to her planet.
“Why are you so fascinated with these creatures?” Officer 3201 asked.
Extending his neck, Officer 2658 said, “They are so strange in a way. They are not created with a life assignment. Instead, the creatures decide for themselves at birth which social hierarchy they wish to belong to. Upon that decision, they chose a proper life assignment and spend the remainder of their existence fighting, or even killing, to preserve the chosen hierarchy.
“For example, the female subject we are waiting for is more than just a breeder. She claims to be a Carpenter as well.”
“What is a Carpenter?” Officer 3201 asked.
Officer 2658 said, “She spends her time killing the perennial species on the planet and using their corpses to build tools and decorations for other humans.”
“Why would these creatures do such a thing?”
“I’m unable to guess what motivates them,” Officer 2658 said.
“It’s good that we don’t concern ourselves with such practices as this. With such a system, we too might be speaking with our tongues and dividing our worlds out among ourselves as the humans and Carpenters do.”
Officer 2658 stood defiantly. “I believe the system has merit. In fact there are times I would prefer it. If I could choose my life assignment, I would choose to be a Doctor.”
“You don’t have the proper genetic makeup to be a Doctor.” Officer 3201 said.
“This isn’t about my genetic makeup. It’s about the fact that a primitive species such as this one has the ability to choose how they live their lives, while we are unable to do so.”
“Perhaps the chaos in their social order is very the reason they remain such a primitive species. Without order, an empire cannot grow or learn.” He paused to laugh for a moment. “They don’t even have an empire. These are the reasons why they have heads the size of infants and must use their limbs to move along the ground.”
Officer 2658 remained silent. Perhaps Officer 3201 was right and forming an understanding of this species should remain a task designated to the Doctors. Nonetheless, he allowed himself to feel a small admiration for the strange human practices.
“It would be best for us to rest in preparation for our return to the planet,” Officer 3201 said. “Would you care to join me in the suspended animation chamber?”
“No,” Officer 2658 said. “I think I’ll just wait here for a little while.”
“As you wish,” Officer 3201 said and left the control room.
Officer 2658 leaned back in his chair. He closed his almond-shaped eyes and dreamt about what life might be like had he been born a Carpenter on the planet Earth.
Bio: Jason Bougger is an IT professional who has been an avid reader of science fiction, fantasy and horror throughout his life. He grew up in Brainard, Nebraska and currently lives in Omaha with his wife and son. He has recently had work appear in the Children of the Moon anthology published by Misanthrope Press.