Another beam shot out from the device, much thinner than the first and concentrated in a single line. They're going into my brain. It was a horror you don't get from bodily harm, to know your consciousness will be another's to open, to shape. I could only scrunch my eyes shut, and groan, as the beam sizzled its way through my skull. The feeling wasn't painful. I don't know how deep it went before I passed out.
If you've ever been unconscious, you'll know that the lapse of mind is instantaneous. The darkness comes and goes like a blink. But for me it crawled on forever, and flashes filled its duration, these like turbid dreams that couldn't have been a human's. The language, the paradigm of the Harrowers, filtered through those flashes till my mind was filled with their presence. I couldn't see their civilization with any real clarity, not their buildings nor their crowds on other worlds, but I could attune to their logic now. The genetic baseline of their ethics, worries, fears, and dreams entwined with my own. It was as if they were braiding our DNA together. Then the input stopped, the flashes gave to dark again, and I awoke to find my captors huddled around me.
The bonds of energy had disappeared, but the Harrowers didn't need them now. Whatever they had done to my brain, it had racked me of vigor, left me only capable of blinking and curling my toes. The cattle-skull Harrower peeled back my eyelids, then felt my throat and chest. After trilling to its fellow beings, each of whom trilled back, it started swabbing my forehead with a spongy green organism. My muscles loosened. I found the will to lift a hand and look at it. You might wonder how I felt at that moment, freshly woken from alien brain surgery. I can tell you I didn't feel horror, or disgust, or rage, though I'd be forgiven for feeling all three. No. I felt only an icy numbness, as if I'd just stepped out of a barracks shower.
I had understood the trilling.
It wasn't a complete understanding; the lower, idiomatic notes were lost on me. But the basic ideas came through: See how the eggling assimilated, the Harrower had said, in spite of its few cycles, to which the others responded, smart eggling and outer-brain. Eggling--meaning recently hatched, craving to feed on its thousand stillborn kin, and driven to grow in deep rivers. I couldn't see an image of their egglings in my mind, but I intuited the concept. So I was--eggling--yet also bright, an outer-brain. Was I a threat to them now? No, I knew, because their paradigm does not allow for eggling threats, in the same way we view infants as innocuous
When their words sank into my mind, I sought out my own to respond. In a sound I knew they'd find bizarre, as it came from human lips, I trilled: "Where do you come from and what do you want with me?"
They looked to each other in silence. "It knows the waters of our speech already," said the cattle-skull Harrower. "Its mind has soaked them in better than the corn-man's."
"Should we answer the eggling?" said another.
The third Harrower clicked its mandibles together, which I knew to be a yes.
They called themselves the Complete. "We are the outer-brain yield of a system called Blue Mantle, a thousand days from here. The Complete have watched your world for several cycles. I am Scoria, the one who gave you the waters by which to know us." It gestured to the others. The cattle-skull one was Arkose, and the last was Shale. "You ask what we want from you, eggling, yet you are the one who came to us."
They had a point. "I had heard of your visits," I said. "And so I came to see if they were true."
"The corn-man could not hold his waters," said Arkose. This meant he couldn't keep a secret, not that he was incontinent. "Thus he must be reworked."
"You'll tinker with his mind again, like you did mine? You have no right going in one's head against his will." As the numbness ebbed away, I found the strength to pull myself upright, a feat they didn't challenge.
"Will?" Shale asked. It looked to Scoria. "Do we have the drop of will?" In human terms: can we comprehend that word?
"It is only a word of this world's race," said Scoria to Shale. "It refers to an act without Direction." Direction--an authority caste relegated to its own world and by which the Complete are bound to obey; it is so entrenched in Complete psyches that the Complete can't conceive of existing without that caste. Think of a system of government orders of magnitude more potent than any human autocracy, so potent it's a part of their genetics. "I thought the word was purely conceptual. Lower beasts can have will. How can a human have will?"
"Not possible!" trilled Arkose. "Eggling, is your kind truly without Direction as the lower beasts? We have seen governance all around you, subsuming and completing you as it completes us. How can it fail to Direct you?"
"We have governments here," I told them, and slid my feet off the dais. "But they are not our only force of being. Many of us can behave within our own parameters, as free from those governments as we are capable. You are neurologically prostrate to your governing caste. You cannot exist without it."
"Then we were wrong!" Arkose trilled much louder now, and started snapping its mandibles in rage. "A thousand days to come here, two thousand more to study--all for a lower beast that speaks as a higher!"
My muscles tensed up immediately. I didn't like what I was hearing.
"Perhaps we misunderstand," said Shale. "Are you sure of what you say, eggling? That you are without direction like the microbes on your flesh or the cells themselves that bind you? Speak. Speak truthfully, with pure waters, and tell us whether we can trust you, lest we must end you."
I had come upon the chasm between our paradigms too late. Harrowers, I now realized, and should have realized sooner, do not regard as sapient any creature without an autocratic head. To them, free beasts are low beasts. And to give a low beast their speech and logic meant something akin to blasphemy. Harrower treason at a genetic level--surely worth obliteration, of them, of me, perhaps even of Earth. That is, unless I did something fast.