My Journey

I got the bug to write, so I’m letting you suffer through the felgercarb. :yum:

Note to the Mods: I forgot to think of what section to put this in, so if it fits better somewhere else, I’m fine with a move.

This will be my excuse to express myself about the joys and GRAH of this crazy, wonderful universe Team Mercury has afflicted us with. It seems like someone did something like this before, but it’s been a while so I’m not sure. There may be a few spoilers, though I’m not sure many are left. And original thoughts, so some of this will be fantasy, sheer speculation, wishes and the like that I haven’t actually experienced. So, without further ado… let’s go.

4 Likes

Entry 000:

It happened again.

Again… it… this whole experience I’m enduring… what is IT? WHAT happened?

The universe has changed. Almost everything is different. Even with only the vaguest of memories, I know this universe is different somehow. It’s a vexing partial amnesia, as there are recollections just out of reach, and those that aren’t, convey a sometimes starkly different reality than the one I’m in. I would fear I was suffering senility or some kind of madness, but the few who will open up to me are enduring the same misfortune.

The universe has changed. Some changes are obvious, glaring. Planets are different from what I remember through the fog. The lush world I used to call home, the name which escapes me, has gone through significant changes. I no longer have a home, an outpost to call my own. The emeril mines are gone, the caves filled in. The Mordite farm has vanished with the base, with its rows of planters which enabled me with months of work to amass a small fortune. The helpers which sought me out for employment are gone: the Vy’keen, the Gek, the Korvax. I have no idea what happened to these people who became friends. I was so disturbed, I left for another world to call home, until the same thing happens again.

The universe has changed. My freighter is huge. It’s amazing that I have one to start with, but I recall something about the freighter being swarmed by pirates, and coming to its aid when the other fighter pilots were unable to fend them off. A Vy’keen commander was so grateful, he gave me his ship to command, and some terse communication with his fleet of support ships transpired as they disagreed with the decision, and they went their own way. But there I was, with a freighter, a huge freighter, and a crew to support. So right now, my home is the DSE-9 Infineon II, as I renamed it. The Vy’keen name for it was too much trouble to pronounce, and it is my vessel now. And after spending substantially on upgrades, the range is incredible. I have a feeling that range will become crucial.

The universe has changed. Those in The Know call it a Reset. ATLAS is to blame. It always comes back to that preternatural, somehow connected series of anomalous spaceborn monuments, and the mega-quantum computers secluded within. Why? How is it responsible? All I know for certain is it has command of the ever-present Sentinels lording over us in their robotic tyranny. But if it has a direct connection to the very fabric of time and space, to alter it whenever some sort of conditional trigger or artificial whim strikes it… that’s a terrifying prospect, because it has no known master. Unless it’s the long lost Fourth Race, the Ancients which might not be the same people, or something even more unsettling, a Being beyond this reality. Regardless, no one knows any way of controlling ATLAS, never mind convincing it to consider the fate of countless lives at its mercy. I happened upon some information, speculation or whatever, which is both illuminating and worrying. And I’d rather not think about that right now. Maybe later, when I’m calmer or intoxicated.

But this begs the question: why bother doing anything? Why expend any effort, when without warning, the universe will be RESET, and anything we accomplish could all be erased in a moment? I’ve encountered a couple of people who have given up, faced with that gloomy dilemma. But I can’t. I recall some thin wisp of memories, either of a previous existence in this universe, or perhaps another. I know that I’m a Merican, that’s the word that stuck in my mind. A proud, ambitious nation full of people who were often full of themselves. But they were filled with determination; to succeed, to know, to do, to build, to create, to explore. For many of us, it was a burning desire, and drove us to journey into the space around our world as far as we could go. And never satisfied, kept pushing outward. I still have that ambition. I’m alive, in a universe which is full of potential. And even if I never learn what the Truth of it all is, why ATLAS exists, why the Sentinels control us with their emotionless, relentless, logic-driven martial law, why this universe is thickly peopled with three unlikely races which seem to be expending a lot of effort to do very little… I will still keep searching until my last day. The universe has changed, but I never will.

My ship seems to be calling me. It’s time to explore.

5 Likes

Entry 001: Encounter

Day one. The first day after RESET… that set the tone for the rest of it.

I have another name. Besides “interloper,” the people of this universe call me a Traveller. I recalled that on my first New Day of this New Life after the Reset. And I’m not the only one. Evidently, there are a number of Travellers scattered around the systems, perhaps millions, perhaps more. And strangely, we’re considered a people, even though we seem to have many races. Some are even robots with their own sentience and free wills. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, considering that the Korvax are a strange melding of organic and electronic life, androids or the like. But it was quite a revelation.

They call us that for a reason: we travel, all over the universe, exploring, learning, collecting information. Like an association of Mericans, we seem to be driven to scour the universe for knowledge. For its own sake, like scholars? I’m not sure, but many of us don’t seem all that scholarly. I know I’m not; more of a seat-of-the-pants explorer, seeking adventure, and the Truth. I ponder deeper things than mere science or information, and I know deep inside that there is Something to Know. My foraging for technology, minerals and wealth are more means to that end than anything, and it keeps me occupied. I need to be occupied to keep from thinking about Resets, and why they happen.

I met a fellow Traveller at the Tiamat-Tuur station, and it brought back a strange collage of memory-impressions. He was one of the electronic beings, and sounded depressed. He tried to shake my hand, fascinated at the way our matter passed right through each other, though I expected as much. He seemed to be nothing more than a hologram. He said to me, “Fascinating. I wonder if we are in the same reality, or simply able to perceive each other due to a juxtaposition of unknowable factors.”

I told him that I was as lost as he was, and asked what he was doing in his travels. He shook his head. “I am sorry to say, I have given all of that up. The exploration, the search for knowledge… I can find no reason for it now. We were born too late to make a difference. I see no point in going on. If anything matters… if history will simply sweep away all our accomplishments, as if we had never existed.” He lowered his voice and added rather darkly, “The Reset will come, it will happen, again. It is inevitable.”

The way he said it sent chills all through me. This was the first indication that I wasn’t alone in my worries. But being who I am, I tried to encourage him, to assure him that there was still an entire universe to experience, that even if life will end, it’s worth living now. He returned a rueful smile, thankful for my attempt at comfort. “I’m sorry… just ignore what I said. I’m in a strange mood… after all, these are the Last Days, are they not?”

While I didn’t really need the reminder, I was anxious to know what he knew, what that meant. Surely there wouldn’t be a Reset to Oblivion, would there? He told me, “My search for knowledge was ended too soon. The Reset wiped much of it to nothing. But I will give you what I have left of it.” He began to hand me a data cartridge and I reached for it, before we both realized the futility of it. That was a truly discouraging moment, as I was sure that some real treasure dangled just out of reach. “I’m sorry… I forgot that there can be no contact between us. But I can give you some currency for your troubles, at least. I will not be needing so much of it now.” He touched a virtual button on his tablet, and my suit pinged the transfer notification… some thirty thousand units. I began to say that I was already quite wealthy and needed Nanites far more, but I thanked him politely. Then he added another strange remark.

“I wonder sometimes if we were truly born, as others are. All I knew from the beginning was this crashed ship… it must be mine, but I failed to recognize it. And then… all this happened, culminating in our meeting. Isn’t that strange? Born to a life of accumulating and trading, of prospecting and the search for knowledge, without any true beginning or end… and we Travellers, existing but not existing, unable to touch, to love each other…”

I fell silent, sure after a moment that he wasn’t making an overture to me, but the thought was poignant. He chuckled. “I’m sorry, I seem to have upset you. Just forget the unpleasasnt parts of this conversation. Have good travels.” I wanted to brush it off casually, but he walked away, and I’m not sure more could have been said. I noticed a few of the other station goers eavesdropping, but turned away when I looked to them. I wondered how different life was going to be, after the Reset, how difficult. I couldn’t remember a thing of the last one, as if this was the first.

9 Likes

Entry 002: A step on the Road

Day 14.

It has been two weeks since my last entry, because I’ve been wrestling with so much to ponder. The fact that weeks are a measure of time here is itself a curiosity. There is no astronomical basis for it, and yet every race has adopted it. Some wisp of memory suggests that we Mericans are responsible for this. It will be interesting to learn of the validity of it. And this is my dilemma on what to document: a universe holds almost infinite amounts of information. What is important, what is significant? What contributes to an understanding of the Big Picture? I need to find scholars, and libraries. There is no sense in wasting time with trying to solve such impossible conundrums, when much of the work has been done by greater minds.

Looking back in my ship’s logs, I saw the entries of the planets I had come from. The first were from a world called Bejangelad-Sker Anony in the Yuvintar V system, in a region called the Nujemir Terminus. It wasn’t that far away! Some two thousand light years, but I could do that with the potent hyperdrives powering my ship in a few jumps. Commander Grondo, the Infineon’s captain, urged me not to go, and he didn’t need to elaborate. The Reset… any number of Resets… what would be left of any sign I had been there? But I had to know.

After some sort of Awakening, which it seemed every Traveler experiences, I recalled dimly that it was a desert world, and hot. If I spent too long in the sun, I would have to scurry to shade of some kind to let my suit cool down. Evidently, all my gear had been damaged, and worse, ill-equipped to deal with the conditions I found myself in, which left even more questions. What fool goes to a harsh environment without the proper equipment? Or… did I go? Hopefully the trip would result in some answers.

And… it didn’t. I appeared in the sytstem of the yellow star. The desert planet was there before me, and it was still torrid. But scaners revealed nothing. What am I saying - scanners never reveal anything but the planet’s name and basic conditions! What the hell is wrong with them? I can fly within sight of a building of any sort, and scanners will often not even pick them up. I’ve taken to flying inverted so I can get a good look at a planet’s surface, but I can only do so much of that before I suffer headaches or nausea from blood rush and disorientation. I need to talk to a technician about them, if there is any sort of upgrade to where scanners will actually work as expected.

I wanted to talk with one for another reason: this wasn’t my original ship I awoke to. That would be the YF04 Horizon, and it was a decent ship for exploring and ship fighting. I traded it in on a snazzy fighter, the S17 Nerimaba, which I still own. It cost a good number of units, but it was my vessel for much of my time in that Reset. I transfered over the cargo and data logs, but when I poured over them, I saw nothing beyond simple entries of systems visited, data collected of flora, fauna and a few other discoveries, and distance markers. I know there has to be more. Data of the Horizon, and how it wound up on that hot dusty rock, why I went there… something.

Anyhow, I saw nothing recognizable. The only crash site was of some ship suffering a catastrophic failure of some kind. I remembered a surface littered with red crystal plutonium outcroppings, and green emeril shards, but I saw no sign of either. But then, they take diffrent forms now, after Reset. That damned word again…

I had to go somewhere, anywhere, and I did. I didn’t bother with going to the space station, where I most likely would feel lost and frustrated, but went as far as my fuel would take me towards the center of the Euclid galaxy. I wound up in the Aluwachen system in the Komedesi Anomaly, a charming name for a star cluster. It sounded familiar, and when I went to the station, I had another flashback. I caught myself looking for a substance called omegon. And other names came to me; murine, calium, radnox… and none of them existed in this universe. I asked a Vy’keen trader if he remembered them, and he scowled at me. “Why do you ask about stuff from dead dreams!” While his ire was startling, what he said grabbed my attention. That was a curious way to phrase it, and it struck me as something rich with hidden meaning.

I saw a Korvax trader eyeing me curiously, assuming they have eyes anyhow, and I approached him, asking if he overheard my exchange. He nodded, but was reluctant to say much. The Korvax are a particularly private race, and don’t let other peoples into their circles very often. I urged him gently to share any wisdom he had on the matter, and he finally opened up, just enough to leave me hungry for more. “The foundations of this reality are subject to fluctuations. Reorganizations. New Instances. The cause is unknown, the reasons unfathomable, but the source is the ATLAS.”

He spoke of it reverentially, which left me feeling unsettled. I recalled dimly that the Korvax have a unique and mysterious relation to both the ATLAS and its servants, the Sentinels. I wasn’t sure just then if that was a good thing or not, but I hoped to be able to take advantage of this fact. And what he said… “instances” is a software term, and the notion made me quiver. I asked him in a way I hoped wasn’t too pushy, “This reality… this Instant, what is the foundation of it? An energy matrix? Or… code?” I didn’t know if it was an absurd leap of logic to ask such a question, but I was burning with curiosity, and ever impulsive.

He spread his hands in a way which seemed dismissive, and it was. “I feel unqualified to discuss such mysteries so casually with an outsider. But you are a Traveler. I will give you an avenue of assistance in your quest. We have many priests which often travel, and sages which do not. Speak with them when you see them in your journeys, and one of them will surely provide you with answers. At least some of them. Our homeworld, Korvax Prime, was destroyed, so we are all itinerant fellow travelers, after a fashion.”

“Destroyed?” I exclaimed. It seemed that this was another one of those cases of amnesia which would bother me throughout my travels.

He was quite surprised at my reaction. “You have not heard this? Fascinating. But then, we have just suffered another Reset. Yes, it is a sad fact of life, but we are without a world to call home. We live hopeful, regardless. Now, I am aware that you have a good reputation. If you maintain your Walk properly, you will find favor with the Korvax, and aid with your quest for knowledge.”

I recalled a fact about the Korvax which I hoped was correct, that they lived in a connected hive mind of sorts. That may be overstating it, but there was something of a shared experience with them all. “But your people… you share a connection, some sort of mind link. Don’t you all know of me, the priesthood as well?”

Something in his demeanor conveyed a smile, and he nodded. “Ah, you have some sound memories. Yes, while your understanding is rather basic, the essence of it is true. We live in a Convergence, and we are all aware of your ambitions. Keep in mind that we are a rather private people, and do not welcome outsiders so readily, even a Traveler of some repute as yourself. Be patient with us, and you will be rewarded for it.” He turned to go, but hesitated, speaking to me guardedly. “One more piece of advice for you… not all Korvax are connected. Seek the Anomaly.”

My mind blazed with urgent excitement. I almost had a fit, I was so overwhelmed with emotion. Something important, some shred of memory… it was just out of reach! It was infuriating. Unfortunately, I was so lost in my conniptions that when I turned to beg more from the Korvax, he was nowhere to be seen. And again, I was met with furtive stares from the others in the station. I wondered what sort of reputation I was developing.

To my dismay, there were no more Korvax at the station. Being a Vy’keen system, they dominated with just a few Gek around. The toady merchants wanted to talk business and had no time for an interloper interested in non-profitable trivia, and the Vy’keen scoffed at me. “Why do you want to find an awful ATLAS place! Stay away from them.” But… I had to follow this trail of knowledge. I asked if there was a library, or some sort of information repository nearby. One of the Vy’keen pointed at an angle at the floor. “A Colossal Archive… that way, I think.” What kind of answer was that! I was clearly frustrated, so he shrugged me off. “That’s all I know.”

A Colossal Archive… I had never heard of them before. Was this some sort of new manifestation of the new Instance we were in? I asked if scanners would pick it up, and he shrugged again. “Maybe.” Oh, this was ridiculous! I asked if there was a station which offered proper scanner upgrades, so they worked more than sporadically. He informed me, “Scanners are stupid. That’s just how it is. Sometimes, your eyes are better finders.”

Well… with that half frustrating encounter, I left. In roughly the direction the warrior had pointed was a planet, a garden world called Rigangkanqa-Nemi. Resigned to the usual outpost hunt, I flew over the surface inverted, jabbing that scanner button before it was fully recharged, and not a single Archive pinged. Neither did a Trading Post, but I spotted one, landed, and inquired to the friendliest looking Vy’keen I could find. He clawed his fingers in the air as he tried to remember. Naturally, he pointed off into the distance. “That way, I think.” And how far that way, I demanded, growing impatient. My facial expressions must be quite transparent to them, as he scowled at me. “A long way, interloper. Go fly and find out!” It seemed a polite Vy’keen way to tell me to go to hell.

Well, what the hell? Off I flew. Of course I had no idea, even assuming he was correct, that it was the right direction, so I gained some altitude and began zig-zagging my way across the world as I worked the scanner hard. I came upon a Minor Outpost after a quarter hour of searching, and decided to get another bearing. The Vy’keen manning the place confronted me hotly, and I wondered what I had stumbled into. Was he on the lookout for some whiny interloper making inane demands? But rather, I fell victim to one of their warrior customs. “Grah! Interloper weakling! Show me your strength! Give me your best challenge!”

Scrambling for some sort of recollection wasn’t serving me too well in my agitated state, but I knew they only respected bravado, so I bellowed at him at the top of my lungs that it didn’t matter how big and strong he was, that I wasn’t going to take crap from such an average warrior, and to stuff himself. His hand shot out and struck me with his palm, knocking the wind from me as I fell. I wondered fearfully if I was in store for a good pummeling, but as I began to clamber to my feet, he was laughing, and helped me up. “Interloper! You may be weak, but inside, you are strong! Such spirit! Here, I will show you some favor.” For my trouble, he gave me a pretty substantial Multitool upgrade.

After sharing a good laugh at providing him some entertainment to break up the boredom, he was more acommodating to my inquiry, and told me that the Archive was still a ways off, but he gave me a marker chip for my guidance system. This was a godsend, and I offered to pay him handsomely for it, but he refused. “No, you weaklings need every advantage you can have. You do not need to make yourself weaker for this. You have been good sport today!”

I asked him what he knew of the Anomaly, and at that he became rather grim. “Do not speak of it, and do not seek it. The ATLAS is not something to visit. It can make you mad. We do not speak openly of this, but our Korvax friends are fools for worshipping this oppressive… thing. It controls the hated Sentinels which nearly destroyed the forces of Hirk, and our people entirely. Other people too. Do anything else, but stay away from the evil of black and red. Disturbing it could cause… the Last Days.” His pronouncement was sobering, and I nodded in glum agreement. I didn’t tell him of my intentions, but what he said, I added to the pile of things to consider.

Thanks to the chip, I could see the marker for the Colossal Archive a quarter of the way around the world or so, which after lifting out of the atmosphere got me there in less than a minute. It was a sight to behold; a towering structure of gray trimmed in blue, like a three bladed spear tip thrust hundreds of feet into the sky, and swarming with ship traffic. There were six landing pads, and they were quite busy, so I had to orbit the structure for a while with the other ships. It gave me a chance to give it a good look, and it seemed that some of the structure was new, such as the shop area with its glowing signs, and the landing pads, while the main structure itself appeared to be quite aged. What did it mean for a newly appearing relic to look old like that?

Finally, my turn came to land, and then running up to the commerce area, I could see a massive system ahead in the center of the structure. I had no time to waste on the merchants hawking their technology, and ran for the upper tier. But then I had another wait while the Archive doled out information to those who arrived before me. A few were Gek, another bunch were Vy’keen as this was their world, but almost half were Korvax.

I had a lot of time to think pensively about this place, and the information it contained. What kind of reality was it that manifested a structure like this out of the blue, and filled it with archaic lore? Or was I completely wrong, and we had all simply forgotten that places like this existed? Or was it only me that forgot? But no, I had caught snatches of conversation from others of this same experience. The Resets really had altered the universe in ways that were unnerving, and messed with our memories. And there was the matter of my quest. I was consumed with a desire to know… everything, why the universe was the way it was, why ATLAS existed, and seemed to have conrol over the very fabric of time and space, why it dominated the galaxy with Sentinels which would deal cruelly with those it deemed to be breaking whatever laws they were driven to uphold. While strangely, it seemed that no one else could be bothered over such a glaring mystery. A lot of it could be that I was a Traveler, an interloper without a history and a world to call home. Were the other Three Races simply dealing with this bizarre situation sensibly? Why bother with trying to advance anything, further civilization, if a Reset would undo much of it? I couldn’t submit to such a fatalistic outlook, even with that prospect. But the other races knew something I didn’t, and the term Last Days held some dire meanings.

My turn came and I practically jumped to the available terminal, but I was stopped short by a sobering message.

WECOME TO THE RIGANGKANQUA-NEMI PRIME ARCHIVE
ONLY THOSE OF VY’KEEN BLOOD OR THOSE FRIENDS OF VY’KEEN ARE GRANTED ACCESS

Well… that was unexpected. I hadn’t been paying attention to see how everyone else logged in to such a system - it hadn’t occured to me. Fortunately I caught someone giving a gruff answer to the prompt across from me, so I repeated in a coarse voice, “I. Am. Friend. Of. Hirk.”

After a tense moment, the screen gave a welcoming message: ACCESS GRANTED.

I was poised and ready for some serious data mining, but I was dismayed at the limited range of knowledge presented to me. It seemed to be the basic histories of the Three Races, and the focus of this Archive was on the Vy’keen, which being a Vy’keen world made sense. But I wanted to know so much more than that. What about our history, that of the Travelers? I entered a query, and this was presented to me.

-{{ It came to pass that the Great Monolith awoke. It heard the challenge of Hirk. Five times Hirk called upon it and was met by silence. On the sixth cry it awoke. }}-

-{{ The Great Monolith spoke to Hirk of the Travelers. Their coming should not be met with fire. Their coming was but one Dream in an infinite Universe. Their reach would be that of the endless. When Hirk asked of the Sentinels, the Great Monolith said nothing. Hirk was troubled by its silence. }}-

That word again… dream. What did it mean in regard to this reality? I saw that the first entry was titled The Dreams of Hirk. This was baffling. All it did was spawn more questions. I should have gone to a Korvax world, as they were the true scholars of the Three Races, but I might as well try to take advantage of this opportunity while it was available. I queried Korvax Prime, and read this.

-{{ The Vy’keen licked each other’s wounds during the Silence of the Sentinels, while the dishonorable Gek First Spawn chose to destroy Korvax Prime. The Vy’keen condemned this crime, but lacked the strength to fight. The Gek Empire flourished. It spread its empire into the depths of the cosmos. The Vy’keen victory in pushing the Sentinels back from the Outer Edge gave rise to Dominion of another. }}-

-{{ No world, moon, or race could have opposed the Gek onslaught. The brutality of the Gek First Spawn called back the automatons that were hiding in the darkness. Their forces had grown. Their technologies had developed. The foolish Gek beckoned the monster back into the places where our nations might have dwelt in strange harmony. True Sentinel domination of the Outer Edge began. }}-

-{{ Within a single lifetime the Sentinels had returned. They came to dwell on every world we knew. Every world we went on to discover. The pathetic, idiotic Gek had doomed the Outer Edge to aeons of their rule. The dominion of the Gek First Spawn crumbled. They fell apart through idiocy, and through the unchanging will of the beings they enslaved but could never understand. Their power is but a memory. Their crimes forgotten by so many. }}-

-{{ The Gek changed. They became peaceful. Their spawning pools bred in the name of commerce. They Vy’keen accept this peace, but we do not forget as the other beings of the Galaxy are so keen to do. }}-

-{{ Dishonor is unchanging. Crimes marked in blood do not fade. We do not forget. }}-

Oh my… something deep within told me that I already knew this, but it was a startling re-revelation. Those cute little toads… brutal conquerors? Destroying Korvax Prime, enslaving the survivors? Still, cute little toads in great numbers armed with powerful weaponry could wreak havoc. And then to my alarm, when I tried to inquire about the ATLAS, it flung a message in my face: ACCESS ENDED.

I cried out in dismay. I wondered if I had made a forbidden entry, but then, it seemed that everyone had a limit on their access dictated by time. A Vy’keen standing behind me made a gruff noise letting me know I was impeding progress, so reluctantly I stepped aside.

But I saw a lifeline; a Korvax wearing some noble looking garb. Could this be a priest? I waited impatiently for his session to end, and approached him as humbly as I could manage. He replied graciously, “I am indeed Priest-entity Polemi. And you are the Traveler I have heard so much about?” I nodded, doing my best to contain my excitement, asking what he could explain briefly about the nature of this universe we lived in, why there were Resets, and how ATLAS figured into all of this. His reply was rather disappointing.

“Well. Such curiosity among those not of the Korvax is refreshing. But you ask some weighty things which cannot be explained briefly. What is more, they deal with matters of some delicacy and confidentiality among our people. Our tennets are held in sacred regard. May I ask what it is which moves you to seek such knowledge so avidly?”

I had to think for a moment. My drive to understand the mystery of this strange universe seemed self-evident, so I hadn’t tried to nail it down logically. “I have to know why things are the way they are. Why this universe goes through such weird, drastic changes in these Resets. I need to know that there is a a future for all these people which is good for all of them - that there is a future for us. People keep mentioning the Last Days, and I have no real idea what that means. I know there is some sort of great Truth to be learned… I have to know it. And these Resets, the amnesia… it’s driving me crazy. Please tell me what you can, and where I can go to learn more. This place is too constrained. I need time to learn, lots of it.”

He nodded, looking down thoughtfully for a moment. “You have not entirely recovered from this Reset, I see. And your ambition, your appearance… you are an American Traveler, are you not?” Something inside me jumped… I had almost remembered the word completely, and it sparked a few other faint memories to emerge from the gloom of forgetfulness. I also looked down in reaction to the word Traveler, examining my hand to make sure I wasn’t some phantom, but my form was still substantial and present. I nodded. “Ah yes, that explains why you are filled with such determination and hunger to know all this. Your kind is never satisfied.” He seemed to be scrutinizing me, and asked, “Your form carries a curious vibration. An emanation. Have you seen—?”

I did. I saw it. The Red Orb. It was wonderful. And the most horrible…

I found myself on the floor, shaking with dread, and the Korvax kindly helped me to my feet. What had just happened? What had he asked me? I begged him for an explanation. “It appears that you came upon the ATLAS in one of its many Stations. Your encounter was unique, but the Reset has clearly wiped all memory of it from your conscious mind. This is most interesting, though further inquiry of you does not seem to hold much promise.” I worried that I might have done something wrong to offend the overpowering entity. He shook his head at my question. “I cannot imagine such a thing. Anger, offense, revenge… these are not qualities of the ATLAS.”

I felt a little better about that, and after all, why would it keep me around if I was so much trouble? I had even less desire to return to an ATLAS space monolith than ever, but I wanted to know about something related. “Someone mentioned that I should find the Anomaly.”

He seemed to blink at me. “I take it you do not mean ATLAS, but… something else.” I waited expectantly as he mulled over an answer, as he seemed to know of it. Or someone who did. “There is a sage, Priest-entity Asrial. He lives in a shelter near a Celestial Archive in the Nistov system, on planet Etsiop Rade. Here, this will help you.” Before I could stop him, he reached for my head with his right hand, a small thin bit of metal extending from his thumb like an injector. There was a sharp sting—

And I knew. Knew where the system was, and the lush blue-green world, as if it was my home. The location of the Colossal Archive, and the little shelter within walking distance of it, as if I had been there many times. “Do you see?” he asked, hoping I would acknowledge, and I nodded. “It is approximately six hundred light years off. Will your vessel be able to reach it?” I nodded again. “Good. Tell him that I sent you. He will want verbal confirmation. It is our custom.”

I remembered that their minds were connected in some fashion, so this was a curious bit of knowledge. I had to ask him, “Priest-entity Polemi, I have learned that you have a sort of group mind, and you share thoughts and experiences, such as our talk, some awareness of who I am. Will I be able to count on your people for help?”

He seemed to smile in appreciation, and clasped my shoulder. “You are a different kind of person, a different sort of Traveler. I can tell that you are a friend of the Korvax, of all people. Your care is genuine. Yes, if you continue in this Way, and need assistance, you can rely on our help.”

I gave him a warm smile and clasped his arm back. “This means a lot to me, and I’m thankful.”

He nodded and drew away. “It is gratifying to know that this meeting was beneficial for both of us. I must go, but if you need to contact me, you should also remember my credentials.” And it was true. I had a feeling that only a Reset could wipe it away, and perhaps not even that.

He wished me good travels, and we parted company. While the sun was just beginning to set, I had been up for nearly twenty hours. Doing a flight when fatigued wasn’t wise, so I asked where there was a vacant shelter, and one of the Vy’keen offered me a bed just a few leagues away, a short hop in my fighter. The location was fairly flat, providing a good landing, and the shelter was clean enough. While I wasn’t sure I could sleep from pent up excitement, it wasn’t ten minutes until I was dreaming away.

4 Likes

Entry 003: Life gets in the way

Day 15.

“INTERLOPER!”

I nearly fell out of the bed at the outraged voice blasting from my communicator. It was Commander Grondo - I need to start calling him captain, since I’m the Infineon’s commander. He was tired of being ignored in my Hunt for Truth. “You have a freighter full of crewmen playing with themselves because we have nothing to do! Our supplies will begin to run low! Do your job unless you want me to do it for you!”

Actually, I had left orders and an itinerary so he could do my job for me, but he was letting me know they might mutiny. And right now, the Infineon was my home, and having a freighter, particularly a long range freighter, was a valuable resource itself, even if it needed a good budget to run. So I went prospecting, and came across some great finds. Lots of copper and emeril. I also learned a few more details about my past.

My gear was all heavily upgraded. Looking through my tech tables, I found that the Multitool upgrade the Vy’keen gave me was marginally better than what I had so I swapped it in, but my tool was already a potent device. My ship was loaded with weaponry, and both it, my suit and the Infineon had massive cargo space, so I could store incredible stock of resources. I could dimly recall getting my last suit space opened at a drop pod on some world, and the crazy amount it cost, hundreds of thousands of credits. I was also stunned to see that I could transfer cargo directly to the Infineon, even though it was in another star system! I couldn’t believe it at first, but reasoned that there must be a tie-in through the Teleporter system linking space stations, which as far as I knew had no limit. What a fortunate revelation that was. If only I could build a Teleporter in my freighter.

I also made another discovery just then. Going through my base support units, I came across a Signal Booster, which I realized was a locator beacon in my portable tech list. Of all the things to forget! And it didn’t need much to fabricate, so I crafted one right up and tried it, and found to my chagrin that it only worked three tries, then quit, and it found a Shelter, Transmission Tower and Observatory. Not a single Minor Outpost, Trading Post or the nearby Colossal Archive. But, we can have quark-perfect teleportation across interstellar distances. The tech available in this universe was downright irrational.

The suit scanner though worked like a charm, and I spotted a ruin within a short jaunt. My suit was equipped with a lot of assists: I could run for a good quarter-kilometer, and jetboost for half, so it wasn’t very long before I happened on it, but it was a disappointing wreck. No Tablets or Obelisks, just a collapsed mess of stone. Still, something had pinged on my scanner, so I searched, and underground were several returns. I dug some of them up, and discovered Ancient Keys, which came in handy, because in the center of the site was some sort of crypt. Digging my way down to it, the keys were needed to unlock the ancient relic, and with some effort I got it open. Within was a truly archaic looking tome, a massive book with writing I could barely make out. It seemed to have some ages old lore of the Vy’keen in it. The scanner gave me a ballpark estimate of its value at several hundred thousand credits. Wow. I didn’t really need the money, but who was I to say no to a find like that?

I went ahead and summoned the Infineon to give the crew something to break up the monotony, and transfered some cargo to them to take to a nearby system where we could sell it for a profit. I did some shopping at the Archive and I found that they sold Planetary Locators, which were good for finding outposts, ruins or crashed vessels. I filled up two suit slots with the first two. I also found terminals where I could sell ancient artifacts, though the book didn’t seem to register on it. I sold it on the Trade Terminal for a nice bit more than the estimate.

To my surprise, when I flew up to the Infineon, there were a couple of other freighter fleets parked near the station and I got messages from the captains. They wanted to trade cargo, and hey, why not? They were impressed with the Infineon’s massive bulk and substantial cargo capacity. Going aboard one, I was surprised to see a Traveler at the ship’s mission terminal, a female feloid, and I found her attractive. Very attractive, and I realized something.

I was a single man without a homeworld, without a people, without much of any kind of cultural or social foundation. I would want to get married at some point, or “join lives” as the Three Races put it, and this meant joining with an alien. And I wasn’t put off by the idea. I’m not a racist, but people tend to want to be with those of their own kind. This looked to be impossible now. I had come across no information of any other American or “Human” as I recalled my race’s name, so I was faced with the prospect of choosing another race or die a bachelor. The thought of being with a Vy’keen seemed… rough. The bird-beaked Gek were too toady, and the Korvax, who I would otherwise find to be quite compatible, were essentially androgynous machine folk. But she seemed… nice. Still, I couldn’t recall ever making overtures to any being, so I was a bit lost on how to greet her. Maybe being a fellow Traveler would be enough of an ice breaker. I approached her, noting her eyeing me as I came up, and introduced myself.

“I am… busy,” she replied a bit coldly, and I withered, as she seemed to simply be standing at attention.

“Pardon my interruption. I won’t bother you,” I told her, and began to walk away.

“Nigel,” she said, and dust seemed to come off of another old memory. My name was Nigel Fox, which I rarely used. Our suits apparently handled much of our introductions for us, displaying names of those we meet when we looked directly at them. Hers was Kyleen. Maybe the similarity to “Vy’keen” made her seem more tolerable to the leathery warriors. While I hoped she would want to talk further, she merely said, “I will remember you, and your credentials.”

Well, that was something, anyway. But then as I went to speak with the captain, I noticed the features of the bridge showing through her translucent body, and it struck me that she wasn’t even tangible - she was a Traveler! I was so caught up in potential ardour that I completely forgot she wasn’t exactly “there.” The lament of that first encounter with one at the station came back to haunt me… no love for a Traveler. Well, grah…

The trade deal was a blur, as I was feeling rather glum over my romantic prospects. What would I do? I didn’t recall even a hint of another Human in the galaxy, and all I knew of sentient beings were the Three Races, none of which appealed to me. I tried to cheer myself up with thoughts of my Truth Hunt, which I was anxious to get back to.

I got another communication as I went to space, and this time it was from one of the frigates. “Interloper-Traveler, I offer you my services. You have no fleet! A freighter needs frigates to support it, and our ship will bring you glory!” I examined its statistics, and it was a Support ship of some capability, and had some trade experience. They wanted two million some-odd units to hire, and I was good for it. So I transfered the money over, and the captain clapped his hands in delight. “You have chosen without regret!” Right after that, I got several more calls. I was evidently making something of a name for myself. The Infineon was a Capital Class vessel, S ranked, and they weren’t very common. Not to mention, commanded by a Traveler, so I found a number of recruits. Two Vy’keen Fighters, two Korvax Explorers, a Gek Trader and another Support vessel. I was beginning to feel like quite the little emperor.

Captain Grondo then sent me a message which I didn’t want to hear. “Interloper-commander! I have plotted a course to a nearby system which reports precious stuff, uranium and other things. We should go there while there are good deals to be made!” He wouldn’t listen to my attempts to put him in charge of all that, insisting I need to improve my prestige. And thinking about it, it may well be a good idea to work on that. A Traveler of some repute might have advantages dealing with reluctant scholars, among others.

As I settled into the ship bay, a Fighter landed next to me, and it was a sharp looking craft. A Shuttle landed behind him. The pilots got out and came up to me, wanting to deal. This day was becoming quite the dealmaker. It hadn’t occurred to me to think of another Fighter, Shuttle or whatever, but I had the funds. Looking them over, the Fighter in particular was rakish and capable, and A Class, with room for improvement beyond what Nerimaba offered. Thirty million credits later, I had two new craft. The pilots entertained themselves in the lounge while they awaited a ride, and I had the Vy’keen chief tech help me transfer over my upgrades to the new Fighter, which I re-christened Scimitar.

I had a feeling that if I told the captain I would jump over to the next system myself, he wouldn’t have it, so I went to the console and set course - I am the Commander, after all - and after the colorful light show of hyper-tunneling to the next system, we emerged with the blast of space being ruptured. It’s always an amazing sight when ships jump in with the blaze of light, and a schockwave carried by even the vacuous stellar wind.

But there was another shock as alarms began to sound with a loud claxon and flashing red lights. Captain Grondo bellowed, “Pirates attacking a cargo fleet! To defense stations!”

I had the best defense station of them all, and wanted to see what the Scimitar had over Nerimaba. The crew watched as I dashed to the landing bay and hopped into the new Fighter, doing a quick launch. I wasn’t sure what I was heading into, but something always drives me to defend others. I quickly familiarized myself with the new control scheme while I boosted towards the obvious site of the battle. A group of Freighters in the distance was being hounded by enemy ships, streaks of energy beams gleaming over the faintly colored nebula beyond. Their targets ended up being a rather motley bunch of craft, Fighters of various kinds mixed with a few Shuttles, but evidently heavily armored as the other Fighters chasing them seemed to be having a tough time of it. Red pippers marked the bad guys for me, and when I was in effective combat range, a lock indicator seized on the closest one. Seeing a new opponent, the pirate fired on me, but the shields held against the few shots that landed. I returned fire, doing my best to angle away from the friendlies, and was gratified to see the hooligan’s craft erupt in flames and explode. The wrecks of dead fighters littered the nearby space, so I had no sympathy for these miscreants.

Evidently one of them caught this quick dispatch of one of their fellows, which earned me the attention of three others, who set on me. They quickly caught on that I wouldn’t fire with friendly vessels behind them, and set up their patterns accordingly. But they also couldn’t fly too close or the ship’s turrets would catch them, so I managed to get behind one and dispatched him in short order. But this left me open to the other two who fired on me good, and I watched the shielding gauge nervously, but thank God they were high order materials, and self healing. The Scimitar shrugged them off well and I pulled an immelman to get behind one, which tried to shake me off but I led him slightly, guided by an advanced combat computer, and fired through the center of his ship, chewing it in half.

His friend didn’t like that at all and evidently called for help from his comrades, because after I did him in it seemed like I was the center of attention. Fortunately, the other Fighters were enough of a nuisance that I wasn’t completely at their mercy, and a few that I had weakened fell to the defenders. I could hear radio chatter from the friendly ships amazed at the combat prowess of this unknown interloper. I tagged a friendly with a few shots, which earned me an angry call, and a green arrow showed over his craft. Wonderful.

But now I had a real fight on my hands. Behind me, I could hear metal sizzling, and a red glow lit up my cockpit as the leader gave me a good raking with Phase Beams. My shields were being burned away at an alarming rate. I made a desperate maneuver, nearly running into a friendly, as I fought to get him off my tail, but he was a pilot of high marks, and he switched back to Photon Cannons while his Phaser cooled. I had one trick left up my sleeve, and put the engines in full reverse, which had my head snapping forward and my eyes bugging out. If this worked, I would have to recover quickly. I was counting on him having enough sense to swerve around me, and he was an experienced dogfighter and missed me handily, but now I had the advantage as he zoomed past. Still, he didn’t give me many clean shots, making sure to place himself between me and the Freighters, and then to my chagrin, flew in close over the hull of the vessel, away from their turrets. This wasn’t going to be easy.

I did have one card left to play, and switched to missiles. They weren’t very strong, but their accuracy was near perfect. I launched a few salvos, and they caught him in the engines. He had enough and pulled up sharply to head to empty space. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the others following suit as their quick pillaging run had gone badly. But I wasn’t about to let him get away to pirate another day, and boosted after him. He was already trailing smoke and couldn’t push his ship too hard, so he was easy prey. I almost felt sorry for him, almost, as those fallen ships testified of their ruthlessness, and blasted him to oblivion. None of them bailed out, which made me wonder just what sort of people these Pirates were. I had a feeling that P should be capitalized.

My headphones rang with jubilant Vy’keen cries at their salvation by this unknown savior, and as I idled down, heading back towards the fleets huddled around the Space Station, I got a call from one of the captains. “Interloper! You show no signs of weakness. Such fighting spirit is worthy of a Vy’keen! Come aboard my ship. I want to reward you.”

I signaled my assent, but then swallowed nervously as a Fighter formed up alongside me, with a green arrow over his ship. Oh great, the one I inadvertently shot, and he was looking at me intently from his cockpit. But a few tense moments later, he waggled his wings and I breathed easier, briefly, as we were both headed for the Freighter. No doubt, I was in store for a talking to. And sure enough as we touched down in the landing bay, he tromped up, removing his helmet. “Interloper! You shot my ship! Be more watchful when you enter a fight which is not yours!”

Something told me that I was evidently a fighter pilot in some previous instance, perhaps even in the American Space Force, and I knew a thing or two about combat. “When a fighter is on a hunt, you KNOW what his focus is! YOU need to be more careful than to wander into the attack!”

He scowled at me for a moment, but with a hard punch to the chest he burst out laughing. “Well spoken! An interloper with the heart of a Vy’keen! I will remember you and make your name known across the stars!” Nigel the Fearsome, or something… it had a ring to it.

I proceeded to the bridge, and to my surprise the captain offered me his Freighter. I knew it was a good ship but he wanted a trade, and the Infineon was too great a vessel to ever let go of. I waved him off as politely as I understood Vy’keen etiquette to be. “It was a small deed. There is no need to be that generous.”

He laughed with what seemed mixed emotion. Maybe I had the reputation of an adventurer who managed to find himself in the midst of some good troubles. “Then take this as reward. Those clods were letting those Pirates have their way with us!” He authorized the transfer of 450 units of Chromatic metal, which was a nice prize.

I was curious about them, and asked what he could tell me about these Pirates. “Ohh… that nuisance! They prey on us sometimes, and cause a few deaths. The Sentinels try to kill us if we step on a flower, but when real evil is happening, they do nothing! Hirk was right in wanting to destroy them, even if it cost us to a handful of people left standing. In this Reset, they seem to be a bit more trouble. What a strange Dream to wake up to.”

Dream… that word bothered me, because it indicated a world which wasn’t real. I asked, “Why do your people refer to this world… as a Dream?”

He blinked at me, clearly surprised at the question, but gave me an answer that sounded politically disposable. “Oh… that is just what we call it. Whether Hirk started that tradition, or the Ancients before us, we do not know. We know the difference. It is just a word.” I had a funny feeling though that it wasn’t.

I had things to do, and thanked him before departing. “Keep up this Walk, Interloper-Traveler! You will carve a bright mark against the stars worthy of Hirk!” That, I knew, was some high praise. I was learning that I was making quite a name for myself, Nigel, the undaunted Truth Hunter.

I received a few more offers from Frigates as I emerged from the ship’s bay, and collected a couple more Fighters, Explorers, Traders, Industrials and a Support. This reputation thing was beginning to pay dividends, but it was also increasing the cost side of the budget, so I would have to take this position of mine more seriously. I’m sure the Gek would be apalled at the careless disregard of my little empire, and the captain seemed likewise inclined. I also noticed that my ship had been queried, and the identity of the inquirer was an ominous question mark.

I would have to think about that later, as I had a task set ahead of me, so down to the surface of a promising planet I flew. It was an M Class star system, a red star, and those worlds tended to be rather inhospitable. This one was, Gruvos-Mrnul, a radioactive world I intended to spend as little time on as possible. My shielding was superb, but I knew it wasn’t perfect, and wanted as little radiation damage as possible. Still, there were a lot of minerals to collect. There was also some morbidly twisted flora which netted me some nice units when scanned, and some strange creatures, all of which looked ghastly from enduring such a miserable environment. One in particular worried me; a small crab or spider-like critter that scurried up to unsuspecting prey and bit them. The hapless victims tried to run off, but quickly succumbed to what must be a venom. What on Earth kind of poisons could be festering in such a creature on a rad world like this? The scan was a bit disturbing.

Name: Scorpiadis
Gender: indeterminate
Weight / size: 29kg / 62cm
Behavior: ruthless stalker
Diet: blood and flesh of prey
Venom: radioactive, highly toxic

Lovely.

I was mining an iridium outcropping when I felt a sharp jab on my leg, and jumped when I saw one of those little monsters chittering angrily at being denied an easy kill. My suit had defended me, but this was a startling surprise and out of pure reflex, scorched the little freak with my Mining Laser. I had to leave because a nearby Sentinel sounded like it disapproved, and jetboosted to the other side of a hill. Fortunately I got a good bit of uranium, gold, indium - I had mistaken it for iridium, yet another vestige of a previous world, no doubt, and a few other finds. Some intriguing items popped up on my scanner, but I had to abandon them. This world gave me the willies, and some kind of an annoying rad storm was brewing that was raising the radiation levels alarmingly. The captain mocked my early departure. “Some radiation? A scary bug? Maybe I should have the cook make cookies for you, Interloper! Maybe we should do this work for you, if small troubles frighten you!” He liked the cargo I had, though.

I flew to the station for a decontamination and a check on prices in the region, when I caught sight of another Traveler. He was a robot, and having some sort of discussion with a Vy’keen, so I waited for an opening. As usual he was glad to meet me, and as usual, it resulted in a weird exchange, though this one was the strangest yet.

“Ah, fellow Traveler! Have you been figuring things out?” I was more curious to hear his side of that story, and inquired. “Don’t you understand it? Why we cannot meet, why we find only hollow shells or corpses? There is only one of us for each Iteration - a single Traveler, sent out to explore its vast Creation. That we are speaking at all, that the boundaries have only crumbled as much as they have - it should fill you with terror, not with hope.”

This was a mind-boggling encounter, and he had thrown an awful lot at me in just a few sentences. I tried to grapple with some sort of priority, and asked him about these boundaries first. He replied, “The Boundaries are all that separate Concept from Concept, Instance from Instance, possible world from possible world… the Sentinels ever policing their anomalies and breaches. If the Boundaries were to fall, everything would collapse into everything, an endless bonfire of causation, burning in the Abyss.”

That was indeed terrifying, and the two Vy’keen standing nearby edged away, not wanting to hear any more of this, but unable to completely leave it. Was this what caused the Resets? I asked what he knew of this, and how. “Isn’t it self-evident? The universes, the Instances, are all in an unstable state, in constant flux to one degree or other. The evidence? The Sharded planets, with their corrupted, contrary physics where sometimes even gravity misbehaves. The merged worlds, where two planets are joined sphere to sphere, where only one should own that orbit. The Resets which afflict us all periodically to various degrees. The very nature of we Travelers, meeting but never truly able to meet, or bond in love.”

While that bothered me, that was the least of my troubles. I refused to believe that there was only one Traveler per Instance, and was rescued from this dilemma with a memory that Travelers had journeyed together, built bases together, made discoveries and achieved things together. Still, that was a thin comfort, because it could have merely been a juxtaposition of unknown factors, as my first Traveler had mentioned. It made me lonely, and I didn’t want to deal with that just then. The problem of a universe in a perpetual state of decay was truly disturbing, but then, what was the solution to that? Was ATLAS the only answer, a fickle computer with its own computational agenda with no consideration of the countless beings who needed a stable universe to live in? And there was the question of what he said, something about being sent out to explore its Creation. “Well… are we creations of ATLAS? If so, why does it want us to explore its creation? I don’t see the point, if it made the whole mess of Instances, and populates the universes with Sentinels which are constantly scanning every damn thing.”

He chuckled ruefully. “That is the question, is it not. There is something within us that drives us to pursue this quest for knowledge, to explore, to experience. It is relentless. But we have no real origin. You don’t recall any family or upbringing, do you?” That was another troubling question. Though I did, it was something that seemed to belong to another universe entirely. I didn’t know how to answer. “See? I awoke on a world which I did not fly to, besides a wrecked ship which was mine but with no memory of owning it. I suspect you had the same experience.” The look on my face said it all. “It is the Awakening shared by all Travelers. There is some unique Cause which is our Source. The Ancients, if they are the Fourth Race, or actually the First… I cannot ascribe this kind of power to them, as they are gone. Or at least beyond our reach. The other Three, they are merely bystanders in this story… this Dream, as the Vy’keen put it. They may well be right in that, but it is hard to say. Research of that level is beyond my capability.”

My mind was burning with questions, and I had little time to get to them. I had to know more, so much more, and demanded, “How do you know all this? I need the resources you have access to.”

Somehow, I could see a smug look on his face. “I have no single source for you. You must ask of all you meet of all Three Races, and you must build up your reputation among them. You will gradually accumulate all kinds of information. Some of it won’t make sense, some of it is fecium. But the more data you gather, the clearer the Truth will become to you.” He leaned closer, and added guardedly, “I will say that while all Three Races have a bias, the truest knowledge will be found with the Korvax, particularly the priesthood.” What was with all the conspiracy with these people? Was this kind of knowledge a closely held secret? Then again, the Korvax were definitely that way. He went on, “You must accept their missions, their challenges, and you will garner standing with them. Higher standing will naturally result in more openness and acceptance, and they will more readily share their wisdom.”

“Yes, a couple of them have spoken to me about staying on the Walk,” I informed him.

This impressed him. “If they have mentioned The Walk, then you must already have a reputation with them. Our Vy’keen friends are all buzzing about you, thanks to your latest rescue of their fleet, and they usually don’t gush so enthusiastically.” I looked to the two warriors a few paces off, and they nodded with a thumbs up. He noticed with a metallic smile. “In that case, you may not have to mess with their Mission Stations so much, though it is a good idea to take a mission once in a while to show you still covet their favor.”

I nodded, and tried to pat him on the shoulder in vain. It’s hard to keep that intangibility in mind when they seem so present. “Thank you very much. I truly appreciate this terrible conversation.”

He gave me a good natured laugh, though I didn’t see the humor in his reply. “Enjoy this universe while you can, before the Last Days befall us. Oh, and take this. It will do no good, but you will need it.” He played with his tablet, and a ping sounded in my suit. In my manifest appeared a new item: sanitized pheromone bottles. What the hell… and just what did he mean by that! But he was already departing, and had used the station’s Teleporter before I could get an answer from him. A nearby Gek chittered in some mirth. “Travelers. What a mystery they are. If you are baffled also, then you are a strange one indeed!”

Seriously. I was beginning to feel like the entire universe was punking me. I had to reach that sage!

I wasn’t very talkative when I came back aboard, and Captain Grondo didn’t know what to make of me. He knew that we Humans were a moody race, rather like Vy’keen were a grumpy race. We both let our emotions have a lot of control, but ours were all over the place, and he wasn’t sure how to handle a dour commander when I would be expected to be so upbeat after a successful run. And I wasn’t sure what the captain would make of a Freighter commander who wanted to galavant across the Euclid galaxy willy nilly in an unprofitable and unglorious search for Truth. After pestering me for a while in a way that seemed gentle for a Vy’keen, I decided to throw a dart in the dark with him. “Why do Vy’keen call this world a dream?”

It was such an off the wall question out of the blue, he wasn’t sure what to make of it, though it seemed he was beginning to read me. He looked uncomfortable. “Urrgh… I don’t care about such stuff.”

“I do,” I replied curtly. “It has to do with the Resets, doesn’t it?”

It wasn’t really a question. He seemed evasive again. “…Maybe.”

“Maybe? I think you know…” He looked displeased at my beginning affront, and I decided to try a Vy’keen angle instead. “You hate the Sentinels, don’t you?”

His eyes opened wide. “Hate? Hirk’s Blood!” He spat, and pounded the table with his fist. “With all my guts I hate them! They are a PLAGUE! Those damned Gek brought them back after Hirk drove them from the Outer Rim! We could have ALL owned this galaxy if not for those dumb frogs!”

“And the ATLAS?”

“Even WORSE!” he bellowed, and I heard similar cries out in the hall from the crew. “ATLAS is to blame for everything! The Sentinels are its ENSLAVERS! This universe is a dungeon because of it! And it won’t give us a good Dream that lasts!”

“I know.” I put my hand over his fist lightly. It was one of the ways that tended to get his attention, to be meek after one of his tirades. “I know… Lord how I know. I feel the same, sort of. I’m as worried as you are angry.”

“Worried?” He almost looked startled at my admission, as he knew I meant it for the universe and all its beings. “Why? Nothing can change it. This Dream is what it is. Just enjoy it while you can, because the Last Days may come.”

That term really worried me, because no one seemed to use it interchangeably with Reset. There just couldn’t be an end to Everything. I shook my head. “I can’t accept that. Anything can be changed, if you just know the way. I have to try.”

He studied me in silence for a moment, wondering about this being that stumbled into his life, who almost singlehandedly takes on hoards of Pirates and wins, but is afraid of bugs. He finally smirked at me. “Bah. You want to walk like a god, but even Hirk couldn’t. You are no Hirk.” He went to the door, lingering in the threshhold. “But… you have spirit, and determination, like Hirk in his youth. Show me that you can be Hirk in his strength, Interloper.”

I gave him a nod, to which he grunted and left. Hirk was an impossibly big legend. This was an impossibly big challenge. But if I failed, what would be the difference?

Challenge accepted.

5 Likes

Entry 004: Life intrudes, mysteries deepen

Day 18

There were an annoying three days between me and the Korvax sage, though life in this universe is what it is, and I should be glad to experience anything of it. Living in the Last Days… who knows when it could end? And if this time, it might be The End?

More prospecting on inhospitable worlds. I soon learned that I needed to upgrade my sensors, as well as make sure the systems on all my vessels were up to date. On one dying world the Sentinels went berzerk, attacking me immediately. Killing them in self-defense didn’t matter to these robotic despots, and I soon found myself faced with an escalating force, culminating in a face-off with a Walker. I was alarmed to find that my A Class Multitool couldn’t dispatch it, though I recalled a previous Instance where one was felled without too much trouble. None of my weapons proved effective, and my Exosuit’s shields were being burned away to the point I could feel the sting of its attacks. I had to do something desperate or I would die here.

I made a mad dash to the Scimitar through a hail of fire from a hoard of the monstrosities, lifted off, and raked the entire valley with the ship’s Photon Cannons. Even with several runs that damned Walker held up, until I finally picked its armor away and blasted its internals. I could hear its death cry inside the Scimitar. I heard a ploink, and found that my ship had scavenged its brain, of all things. Another wave appeared, another Walker, but I was growing used to the erratic behavior of my ship at such low levels and this went faster, and netted me another Walker brain. Then I got a new system alert, and this was one I didn’t want to hear.

WARNING: SENTINEL CARRIER DISPATCHED
ARRIVAL IN 99.90 seconds

This would be no fun whatsoever, and I recalled dimly that I had to run from the last such debacle as that one was unwinnable. I shot into space and raced to the Infineon as the captain wondered what in the name of Hirk I had done. Alarms blared as the Sentinel Carrier appeared practically on top of the ship. I didn’t answer until after I punched in an emergency jump to the closest neighboring system. I related it all as best I could on the way, the damage to my suit bearing testament to the ordeal I survived. He grunted, “They call these abandoned worlds. Sometimes, the red freaks go mad. Whether from our wars with them or what, no one knows. They attack on sight. We need to upgrade our systems to detect this kind of thing.” I put that in the mental To Do list while I had my suit repaired.

I was annoyed to find that the station didn’t have the required tech for sale. The Gek merchant informed me, “You must seek high tech systems, high tech, and with good economy. You do not have this capability on anything?” That was the point, I grumbled, and he chittered at me. “You are a rookie Traveler, or your memories are poor.” He informed me after that slight, that there were sensors which could detect the data of star systems’ standings from vast distances through the Space Stations Network. He gave me the location a system with stocks of high tech upgrades, which was a fair distance away, and I made him happy with a thousand units. Gek always love money.

This was another point of contention I had with this odd civilization. “Units” were a measure of currency, storage space and velocity, all three. I don’t know it it was a translation issue and our common language was to blame or what, but this was another thing that vexed me. First System problems, I suppose.

Remembering what the Traveler had told me, I stopped by the Gek station representative and learned that I was in very good standing with them, the best, a Friend of the Gek. He gave me a gift of more than a hundred Nanites, for which I was quite grateful.

I got some tips from traders of good mining prospects on the way there, so I wouldn’t be making such a long unproductive trip. As I made to depart, I saw a great looking Fighter land, sturdy and mean. A quick scan showed the name to be Hirk’s Dagger, and an S Class ship. I didn’t recall seeing a ship of that class before, outside of my Freighter. It had the aura of a combat ship with every upgrade imaginable and of the highest caliber, along with full cargo and tech expansions, befitting the name.

Half the pilots I came across were up to making trades or sales, but this Vy’keen wasn’t one of them. He stroked the hull fondly. “No, my second wife and I will never part until we are both shot to pieces.” He carried himself like a veteran of many battles, so that likely wouldn’t happen any time soon. He explained that high tech systems sold the best upgrades, and the very best were usually found on Korvax worlds, which made sense as they studied everything. “We are second best, but we buy them up quickly. Gek have more, but those Nanite hungry frogs want too much.” That was something else I kept forgetting, that dealings for upgrades were always handled in this mysterious alt-currency, and I needed to scavenge a lot more of that. My memory gaps were so big and so many, I might as well be a rookie.

Returning to the Infineon, Captain Grondo introduced me to Ensign Navigator Atush, and I was informed why. “We now have enough Frigates to send on missions.” Fine, I said, see to it. The ensign waggled his finger at me. “Interloper-commander, there are two issues. You must make mission decisions, take responsibility for your crews yourself. And to manage them, you need to build Mission Stations. We have space for five, but we need more Frigates to justify five missions at once. You should build them now, or your ships will sit idle and the crews restless.”

And they would depart for fleets which would actually use them, at least the Vy’keen. I was learning quickly how things worked in this universe. So schematics in hand, I opened up the idle chambers and constructed five Mission Stations which I could use to check progress and debrief after mission completion. With my travel plans shared with the ensign, he set up a selection of five possible scenarios. Explore, trade, industrial… so this was why Freighters had a constellation of sister ships. I had enough vessels for two missions which sounded profitable, and off they went. I had a brief thought that Kyleen was likely a Mission Specialist, but I tried not to dwell on that. It made me lonely.

Captain Grondo was delighted to be on a mining run on course to this high tech system, and I netted a good twenty-eight million units between mineral and life scans. On garden worlds, I could make a quarter of my profits scanning flora and fauna. I once more found myself searching for substances which didn’t seem to exist anymore; nickel, titanium, aluminium, iridium and others. Instances… it was irritating having to think in terms of universes past versus present. Was there no end to this madness?

One other boon to the voyage was that in each stop, more Frigate captains messaged me, requesting to join my growing fleet. My reputation was spreading faster than I would have thought.

I happened upon some unique situations. More ruins, and another archaic book, among some other relics. This tome seemed particularly ancient, or at least the subjects were, touching on the very foundations of the Three Races from what I could make out of the delicate work. The value displayed in all nines with an asterisk: potentially invaluable. I could see why, and intended to hold on to this one.

I had another surprise to add to the list on planet Dabayl: a crashed Freighter. This was at once amazing and terrible, as I thought of all the lives lost in such a disaster. It seemed to have happened many decades ago, or that would be my guess in a universe without Resets. Landing nearby, as I expected the ship had been mostly picked clean. I still found a few items to make it worth the stop, bits of technology and scraps of equipment here and there. The bridge had been almost completely gutted, the ship’s systems scattered on the ground below its massive shell. But scanners revealed that the non-essential electronics were still mostly intact. Deploying a portable power unit, I fed it some current, and after isolating a few sections shorting out, I managed to get the ships logs to come up, or so I thought. It was in bad shape after sitting out in the elements, but I pieced together some of what the people on board had to say of the days before disaster befell it. I say “people,” because this was some diary entry, and likely not meant for others to read.

ERROR: YUSHU-ZAMA SHIP’S LOG CORRUPT
ALTERNATE DATA SOURCE LOCATED
DATA INTEGRITY, APPROXIMATELY 10%

These Korvax really are something, aren’t they? We tried !#$%^

What made it tick? What was the point? It just !@$$ stared at us.

We made a great deal of profit in the last port. We asked the Korvax what it wanted us to do with its share. It told us something I didn’t expect. It said !(&!(&!#(

The Korvax showed me a secret. To earn that level of trust is quite a boo&#@ There is not long to go, now. We must head for the centre. We must !((^@$(_

I feel like we’re being used by these beings. Korvax are thought to be incapable of deception, but after ((#^% I’m not certain of anything anymore. Something tells me to pull out at the next port, to simply disappear, but the lure, the promise of that kind of #$%^((

Or is it the Korvax I should worry about? The funding is undisclosed, and the Korvax aren’t the kind of people to engage in (!#( and the nature of what we're dealing with, the possibility of !((^#(

I didn’t know what to make of that right then, and those errors would have to crop up at the worst points. If only I could read the other ninety percent! I tried to recover more, but it only seemed to degrade further. I had to wonder, though, if I should share this with a Korvax…


A day later, we arrived in the Narubbayessue system. It was a Gek system so I was betting on having to wrangle the price on my upgrades, but I was treated fairly by the merchants there, for an interloper, and only paid slightly more than the trader prices for the tech available. They had S Class upgrades, which I wasn’t sure I would see. I couldn’t afford much, so I settled on a Plasma Grenade, two hyperdrive and a Photon Cannon upgrade. After seeing that Vy’keen with his rakish fighter, I wanted to get one like it because of the increasingly more difficult threats I was encountering. After loitering quite a while, I was disappointed to see only three average types land at the station, as the commercial-minded toads were more driven by profit than offensive prowess. If I wanted to see many new capable fighters, I’d have to search in Vy’keen systems.

I heard that the dangers only increased as we approached Galactic Center. This was yet another mystery. Why was this such a magnet for the young adventurers, and spoken of in such awe and dread? It had its own mythology, filled with all kinds of tales and rumors. The strangeness and dangers of the worlds grew worse the further in you journeyed. The Mad Traveler, as I had taken to calling him, was set on a trek to the Core. Looking at the charts of my travels, it seemed that I was too, which gave me pause. Some Thing was pulling me that way.

I met another Traveler, another one of those electrical beings with what looked to be a Gravitino Orb for a head, and I readied myself for an interesting time as I met him. I wasn’t disappointed.

“You. I’ve seen you before… met you. I’d swear it. Do you remember me?” A blank look was clear on my face, so he continued with another strange revelation. “You don’t, do you? Perhaps you’re not even the same as you once were. All of us, we’re shifting, bleeding into and out of worlds… but, perhaps a vestige is lodged in your memories.” He looked to me hopefully, but pensive.

I had to be honest, as there would no doubt be more questions I couldn’t answer. “I’m sorry, I can’t. I would enjoy knowing anything you can share about our past, though.”

He gave a melancholy chuckle, and more conundrums to vex me. “That’s alright… sometimes we have different names. Sometimes different faces. The ATLAS, it endlessly reconfigures, distilling everything that has ever been. But our past… it isn’t a happy one between us, I’m sorry to say. I’m afraid I let you down, abandoned you when you needed my help the most. I wasn’t ready for what Fate had thrown at us so harshly. But you… I was proud of you, and look at you now! You seem to have done alright for yourself in this Iteration, this Dream. Here, take this token of our past. It’s the least I can do for what you had to endure.” He offered me something and I reached to take it reflexively, forgetting that he wasn’t truly there. But something happened. A wave of dizziness swept over me, as if the whole universe tilted upside down. I had to catch myself, blinking and unsteady for a moment. He was looking at me with a mixture of curiosity and concern, and asked if I was alright.

I felt okay, but I had to wonder what just happened. “I get the feeling I was about to reach into your reality.” I looked around the area, but there was no sign of any boundaries to cross. What was going on? “Listen… I seem to be the only Traveler who doesn’t know a thing about the state this universe is in. What you said about ATLAS, about these Iterations, and Dreams… these Resets are maddening… memories are erased or half gone… what’s the Truth about all this? Tell me anything you can.” A Korvax wandered nearby, seeming to want to eavesdrop on the conversation.

He seemed to blink at me in surprise. “You don’t remember, after the discoveries you yourself made? Well… I don’t have much time, and that’s a strange concept in and of itself when it comes to this reality which torments us with its mysteries. I must admit that my information is spotty, and distilled from numerous sources and discussions. I’m afraid to taint anything further you might learn, because you have a knack for digging up nuggets of Truth no one else can.”

I gave him a rather heated glare, and leaned forward. “Don’t do this to me, Rucester. Being ignorant isn’t a good state to be in either!”

He edged away in reaction. “W-well… it’s not just that, but I’ve never been very good about collecting my thoughts at the moment, and this isn’t a small matter to discuss.” He gave a faint nod towards the Korvax, which baffled me, and reached for my arm to urge me off to the side. I could feel that sensation again and flinched away, but followed a pace off. He led me to some vacant seats with no one in the area. "I’m afraid that boiling things down won’t satisfy you, nor will what I have to admit, which is that almost everything we know is a guess or supposition. This is why I’m reluctant to talk about it.

“I will say that our Korvax friends are the best ones to learn the greatest truths about the nature of reality, but they’re also a problem. They’re a particularly close knit bunch, and essentially worship ATLAS as some kind of deity. As a result, they aren’t too inclined to reveal anything which to them is closely guarded dogma. The other two races know a thing or two themselves, but all they have learned isn’t much better than what we Travelers have accumulated, though they can surprise you. Unfortunately, warriors and merchants make poor sages, so if you can manage to befriend a Korvax, he would be your best bet for cracking through that ring of mystery.”

I was glad that I was on a trek to do that very thing, and informed him of it. His lower half-ring opened in a comical smile. “We were constantly amazed at what you were able to accomplish, Nathan.” I blinked at him in surprise, but he did say that a lot of things changed in these Resets. “I suppose I am holding you up from your mission, then. If there is any way to contact me, I hope you will relay any new information. Oh, and we Travelers intend to collect in a stable cluster one thousand light years out from the center to share our discoveries, on a Sentinel-abandoned world so we can build a new city center. A home for Travelers to meet, join, and hopefully settle down in families when we retire. Assuming this universe will allow us to retire.”

“That’s a great idea!” I wondered to myself why they hadn’t thought of it sooner, or if someone had. Another thing I had to find out. We really needed some central locations to meet up and share information, especially if there was some way to stop the Resets.

“Well, we both have things to do, especially you. Good hunting, and have good travels,” he said in the usual parting as he rose. I was thankful he didn’t offer his hand. Then I watched in astonishment as he turned, walked right through a black wall and disappeared. I jumped up and ran my ungloved hand over the surface, but flinched away as I felt a tingle of energy. I left for the security of the Infineon, having had enough of weird science that day.

I had way too much to think about, and I was just getting started. Instances, Dreams, universes in flux, Travelers which knew me as different people… it was enough to make a sound man question his sanity. I began this diary as a way to combat Reset amnesia, and it was becoming a handy resource to collect my thoughts. But it was as much blessing as curse, as very little of it made sense. The Big Picture was eluding me. I needed to get to that sage as soon as I could.

I began to mark a course to the next system and register it with Traffic Control when Captain Grondo stopped me, reminding me that we still had expeditions out in the wild. I had completely forgotten, and was a bit gruff with him. Just as I was getting schooled on the the way the universe worked, he was learning my quirks and asked, “What did you do now?”

Or ‘what happened?’ No doubt, we were both learning the intricacies of inter-species communication. But what did I tell him? I decided to be honest, as it would explain my mood. He grunded understandingly. “It happens… it always happens. You must be a new Traveler. With enough Resets, you get used to it.” But how in the world do you get used to the thought that you were once someone else?

I wanted to get going, and told him I’d transfer funds to the expeditions if they needed more fuel to catch up with us. Even though it wasn’t all that much, he was surprised at how casually I would spend money I didn’t have to, and his demeanor changed. I wondered what was up. “Interlope - commander… I wish to speak freely. We have served you well since you took command of this ship. Would it be acceptable to have some more money?”

So, the rich owner threw some cash around, and he wanted a raise! It hadn’t occurred to me to think of rewards, or even of payroll too much. I found that a lot of things were handled automatically, such as my account auto-linking to the Infineon’s financing. It was a good thing I was well off before this happened. If I’d taken command when I had just a few thousand units, or tried to, I’m sure Captain Grondo would have kicked me right back off his ship, assuming I would even be authorized. I told him I’d look into it. Fortunately, there were a lot of basic facts available on the interstellar networks, and I learned of the usual payment levels for ship crews. I knew better than to be too generous with this people, but I figured a ten percent raise would make them super happy. I made it retroactive, giving everyone a nice bonus to boot.

I made five jumps over the course of the next few days, and garnered more Frigates as I went. Playing the game of the rich young entrepreneur was the exact opposite of what I wanted to be doing, and it was getting on my nerves. I didn’t really need an income after striking it rich on the lubricant market, which was what that Mordite farming was all about, in some past Instance. However, my Vy’keen crew were heavily tradition driven beings, and trading was its own kind of warfare to them. It was expected of me to play this role, of conquering a small bit of the market, becoming richer to gain prestige and reputation, and so the crew could be a little more honorable and richer themselves. Like it or not, I had to treat my search for Truth as a hobby while I played the role this universe forced on me. But I also had enough sense to know that my little Side Project could require astronomical sums of money, and something in the back of my mind worried me that a number of people might also be relying on me at some point, such as if there was a disruption which caused at least a partial collapse of society. If these were indeed the Last Days, who could say what might happen? It amazed me that civilization picked right up after the Resets rather than collapsing, and this was another issue I would be mulling over along with everything else.

Environments on the worlds I went to were becoming increasingly weird. One desert world I came across, Ulotrascenie, had temperature swings between day and night that went from a blistering 135F to an almost arctic -100, and the wildlife there were particularly aggressive, likely to feed the metabolism necessary to survive such temperature extremes.

Another, Efnisachl Dolfb, looked to be a beautiful garden world. The coloration of the flora was a bit wild, with a lot of orange grasses and red-leafed trees. While there were a few predators, most of the fauna were nonchalant about the presence of a stranger digging through their world with an energy weapon. But as a storm threatened from the west, I found myself alone. The animals all ran for caves… from a change in the weather? That worried me. Double checking, the planet was listed on its database as usually mild, but I found out that there was a significant caveat the chroniclers forgot to mention as the storm hit like a squall, and then my suit warned me as the temperature shot up drastically.

It was my first encounter with a blistering storm. I jet-boosted for where I remembered a cave opening, though it was hard to see twenty feet in front of me. I found it as one level of heat protection drained, and I dashed inside, my Boltcaster at the ready in case a predator took issue with my intrusion. But as with many cases of natural disaster, there was an uneasy truce between predator and prey while they huddled in the darkness, waiting for the world to become sane again. When my systems alerted me to the storm breaking, I hightailed it outside rather than wait to see if that truce held. No doubt, Captain Grondo would give me a little ribbing for running from a mere shower. He did.

I also came across another abandoned Outpost. These buildings were wrecks, and almost seemed cursed, overrun with some kinds of disturbing fleshy growths. Some even harbored those tentacle organisms hanging from ceilings which attacked if you happened to wander underneath. Their terminals seemed to hold mostly unified messages detailing the journey of someone who sounded like a Traveler, though it was a dark voyage with unsettling themes. Clues leading him to the center of the galaxy gradually became an obsession, driving them to make risky choices that almost sounded like a man possessed by some demon. The worlds they came across were increasingly dark, twisted, and began to sound so outlandish as to be documented by a mind unhinged. They also spoke of data encoded into files they came across, which made me suspect my own hoard of information.

Each Outpost is slightly different, but all bear the same weird infestation, as if some corruption of nature infected it, as if to take the whole structure as a host body. Mounds and masses of weird, dripping, sputtering flesh, joined by tendrils were all over the insides. Some systems still fought to work, and as usual, I managed to scavenge a few Nanites. I went to the terminal, gripped in some monstrous claws possessively like many others. I always get a chill of fear when dealing with these things. I used a rod to clean away some goop, and with a bit of prodding, the case snapped open with a disgusting rasp. I never cared for that starting message which appeared every time, hoping it had no meaning.

Returning user identified
Entity logged in
Terminal now active
Unlocking data log for continued analysis

"When there is no explanation for a phenomena, it is a natural progress for intelligent beings to fill in the missing gaps of their experience. On some worlds, the Sentinels are still worshipped as avatars of an all-seeing deity. Drones are considered sacred, sent by an unseen God to ensure that they live in enforced harmony with the environment around them. There is a disturbing commonality to many elements of their theologies; a recurring visual symbol of a crimson sphere and the promise of an end time soon to unfold.

"I know it is true, because I saw it.

"I glimpsed the Crimson Orb between the clouds. A vast and baleful eye, unblinking and monstrous. Fear turned the blood in my veins to ice. I was so afraid it would see me, but then the clouds moved and it was gone. I was no longer certain if it had ever been real.

"Perhaps the fungal deposits from the last world I visited are still clogging my Exosuit vents. Affecting my cognition somehow. I have cleaned my filters six times now. Yet I still feel it inside me.

"But that cannot be the cause. This cannot be a mere affliction, a common symptom of some alien infestation. In my travels, I have heard too many whispers of similar sights. Of travelers, and Travellers, who spoke in hushed tones of ruined worlds caught in shears between realities. Of a world made of glass which is not silicon, sharper than any razor, which will drink your life away. Of a world with green skies, and an ebony moon, and That Crimson Orb, ever watchful, all seeing, disecting us to the terrible depths of our being. Of an ENTITY which can make any person, any world… any universe cease to exist without trace or memory. God, or Devil… who can say?

"I wish that I had never been foolish enough to pursue these outlandish rumors, to learn such horrible things. And yet, I am unable to tear myself away from this journey. Something compels me. An inner Voice which has seduced me. I cannot resist The Call.

“If YOU are reading this, I am afraid I may have cursed you with the same Doom. Turn away. Read no more of my chronicles. Do not follow. Pursue happy dreams. If you can.”

The message completed and the terminal snapped shut on me, and I was glad to be done with it. In an uncanny way, he seemed to be speaking directly to me.

I wasn’t sure what to make of this Dark Chronicle, or the one making it, but I knew that to ignore them would be a grave mistake. One way or another, I knew I was on the same journey. But as I reached the ruined doorway, I heard another queasy shnik behind me. I looked back to see the terminal open again. I thought that maybe the thing was malfunctioning, replaying the same entry, but I knew better than to presume that. When I saw the message, my whole body clenched.

// YOU WILL FIND US, WHEN THE TIME IS RIGHT //

// 16 16 16 16 16 16 16 //


I decided to wrap up here. My discoveries were beginning to disturb me, and all after just eighteen days of this new life. But I had to read back over this stuff, see if it might jog a memory, or have a flash of inspiration to make sense of this mad mess. Besides, one more jump, and I would arrive at my destination. What on Earth was this going to mean for me, and the universe? For better or worse, I knew I would eventually find out.

4 Likes

Entry 005: Destination reached, journey just begun

Day 19

I’m not sure I was more nervous in my life.

It’s silly, really. Why be worried about the Truth? The unknown was filling my mind with all sorts of paranoia. But what if the truth was bad news? What if there was no Truth? But in a universe this weird - a multiverse, built on such strange principles - there had to be Something to Know.

I brushed up on what I had come across in the past two weeks, and it was a perplexing mess. It was a lot like a dream, a wild, strange, mess of a dream which would be exciting, if it was a dream. Condensing my diary to a list of bullet points, it seemed like a random hodge podge of conflicting nonsense. And outside of inquiring about ATLAS, the rest had all sorts of vectors. How was I going to present myself to this well regarded scholar without sounding like a blithering idiot?

In any case, I had arrived at the Nistov system, on the second world, Etsiop Rade. It was a verdant world with a lush, vibrant ecosystem, and perplexingly, blistering storms. What in the world was up with the weather in this galaxy? I flew unneringly to the location of a little outpost, thanks to the memories of the Korvax priest, settling down in an open area nearby. It was uncanny how familiar it all was. I wondered if there were other ways memories could be shared, other times they had, other reasons. What they were.

I went to the door and pressed the visitor indicator, and waited. And waited. It seemed to take forever, though most likely it was only a short while before an electronic welcome came over a speaker. “Greetings. Please state your business, traveler.” I had a feeling that was meant lower case.

I declared, trying to keep the butterflies from my voice, “I am Traveler Nigel Fox. Priest-entity Polemi sent me to you.”

There was a pause. “Yes.” Another pause. “I see.” An even longer pause, and it made me nervous, as Korvax were usually quite punctual. I hoped he was merely sifting through echoes of memories gleaned from the Convergence. And perhaps he was, as the door opened at last with a more succinct, “Welcome to my residence.”

I entered with the feeling he hadn’t been tidying up from a late night party. I stifled a chuckle at what rousing events those must be, like open topic night at a university. But the university professor impression remained true, as the place was spartain, spotless, functional but comfortable, decorated with the sorts of things one would expect to find at a scholar’s abode. There were a number of intriguing artifacts; skeletons of small animals on plaques, ancient looking weapons, as well as cabinets with all manner of oddities. While this universe didn’t have books lying around, in this place there was quite a library of musty old tomes in a number of shelves. He stood there, waiting patiently for my eyes to stop wandering like an awestruck schoolboy. And he was the least interesting element of the place, looking like the average Korvax I had seen thousands of times in my travels, though I could sense something more under the skin.

We shared slight bows, as handshaking was reserved for more familiar acquaintances, and he said, “I am Priest-entity Asrial. I understand you have questions. I will do my best to answer them.”

“Boy, do I,” I remarked as I took an offered seat in front of an uncluttered desk off to the side.

After taking his own seat, he asked inquisitionally, “Can you provide with some specifics?”

He would put it like that, and I prayed he was patient with organics. “I hope you can indulge me, because I want to know as much as I can about this universe… its nature… the Resets and the reasons they happen…” I was beginning to feel foolish already, and held my hands up in a hopeful gesture. “I have a feeling that what I’m asking, basically, is to be your student. I want to know everything there is to know.”

He seemed to blink at me. “Asking this entity to condense the historical and scientific knowledge of this universe into concise statements is, as your kind puts it, a tall order. Does this inquiry have anything to do with Reset Anmesia?”

So, that was a thing, was it? “Well… that may tie into it, but not for me. I want to know why Resets happen in the first place. What the nature of this reality is. I mean… there are elements and substances I remember clearly that to my knowledge don’t exist anymore. The base I had spent a lot of time and effort to build is gone. This universe is different from what I remember, and I don’t think any of my memories are false.”

He sat there in silence for a time, seeming to play chess with potential threads of discussion. “You are correct in that what you require is a scholarship. You surely understand that what you ask is to absorb the collective knowledge of a multitude of scholars and philosophers gleaned from millennia of studies over innumerable lifetimes, and this cannot be accomplished in a single sitting.” He went on quickly, seeing my expression, “But I sense that you have an inquisitive mind which will not be satisfied, which is commendable. I have not seen this level of curiosity in an organic lifelorm in many cycles. But before we begin, I ask for an indulgence, if you may. I have need of a few sanitized pheromone bottles. Do you have some you are willing to spare, or are able to acquire some easily?”

I blinked in surprise as the words of the Traveler struck me like a slap. These will do you no good, but perhaps you will need them. I produced them, murmuring a bit weakly in my amazement, “As a matter of fact, I do…”

He wasn’t sure what to make of my tone of voice, saying, “If this is a bother for you, I can compensate—”

I waved him off. “No no, it’s nothing like that. It’s just… quite a coincidence.”

“Oh. Well, this is a much appreciated coincidence. I often deal with Gek merchants, and trinkets like these are good for smoothing over first greetings.” He put them away, saying to me, “Now, to your visit. Perhaps we could begin with questions you wish answered the most.”

I knew this would be a touchy subject, but I thought it would be good to start at the crux and work from there. “Does ATLAS control the universe, down to its foundations?”

He looked to be taking a breath. “Well… you do not waste time, do you? As far as we understand such a matter, yes.”

I waited a moment, but apparently I was going to have to pursue this more diligently. “Do you have any further knowledge on that, or speculation you would be willing to share?”

He gazed at me in a way which I couldn’t quite read. “I believe we should have a more complete relationship before I divulge matters which are fundamental to the Korvax and our beliefs. Perhaps you could inquire of subjects… less fundamental.”

Well, that was worth a shot. So, moving down the list… “Is the multiverse based on quantum principles of energy, matter, space time… or code? Some combination…?” I hoped I wasn’t sounding too naive.

He cocked his head at me curiously. “What a question. This is one hypothesis which some of us have been pursuing, the concept of a simulated universe. But this is a matter fraught with ontological uncertainties. How does one discern the difference between positive / negative energy states and computer code with any assurance? And how can we study beyond the bounds of this reality to the Higher Realm where the computer containing any such simulation would exist? To date, we can only scan with uncertainty across parallel dimensions, or Instances, which would lie within the same simulation. The only hope of sensing into any such Hyper Reality we are aware of is on the cusp of the singularity of black holes. But the dimensional folds around the singularity, the Manifold, are perilously close to the singularity itself, and the Information Loss Paradox remains elusive. We simply do not know of any way to determine with any certainty such a proposition to be true or false. So, as to the universe as simulation, even a video game… we can only speculate.”

Fortunately, I was educated enough to know most of the terms he was using, but the thought of living in a simulation was unsettling. Simulated… for what reasons? And that was a weird thought: a video game? What sort of beings would be ‘playing,’ and what would the point of this Game of Life be? But I couldn’t waste time speculating myself, especially with only notions to drive me. The clock was ticking. “Do you know why Resets happen?”

It was sometimes like pulling teeth, trying to dig information from this sage. I’m not sure why he was reluctant to divulge very much to an organic, whether this had anything to do with the Gek destroying their homeworld and enslaving them, and the Vy’keen being reluctant to aid them; I mean, why would that be an issue to a half-electronic people, right? I didn’t know, or if it was because of some form of elitist racism for them. Perhaps as a Traveler told me, it was a part of their doctrine which wasn’t up for discussion. But as he seemed to grow comfortable with me, I managed to crack open the door a bit to their treasure trove of wisdom.

As far as they could determine, the universe, in fact the multiverse, was in an unstable condition. Why, was still a mystery. Such instability could mean nothing for epocs, or it could mean a Reset in only a few years. Dimensional boundary erosions, where things like Travelers interacted like holograms, were a sign of these. Resets seemed to be a way for ATLAS to maintain order and dimensional integrity, that and the Sentinels, which essentially forbade much development of any kind. As a result, civilization ground to a halt, and those thriving cultures and expansive cities in the galaxy had disappeared long ago. For many, consensus was that these were the legendary Ancients, a cosmopolitan group of races which existed, after countless conflicts and wars, in a sort of harmony. Whether they were responsible for the creation of ATLAS, or some other civilization, he was unwilling to speculate, or divulge. But rare finds hinted at a very advanced, powerful group of beings. I wondered to myself if Resets were also a way to keep people confused and more easily controlled, though I wouldn’t dare say such a thing, yet.

The Three Races which still exist are mostly a result of the Gek First Spawn, which overran almost the entire Euclid galaxy and erradicated numerous cultures, though the unenlightened Vy’keen of the past had a hand in some of that as well. Indications were that one of the early Korvax leaders, Aon, sued for peace with the Vy’keen, exchanging knowledge for peaceful coexistence. The Gek were clearly not so inclined. While enslaved by the warlike First Spawn and their homeworld destroyed, the Korvax taught those Gek willing to listen about ATLAS, and its shepherding of the multiverse through countless Resets. It took much time and patience, but ultimately their counsel took root, and there was a revolt against the ancient order of the First. The Gek became fairly peaceful merchants, and while a bit miserly, are fuelling much of Euclid’s economy. He steered away from troublesome subjects, and in particular, why there were Korvax criminals and pirates. I acquiesced, not wanting to get into many controversial discussions so soon.

The references to reality being a Dream are one of the Korvax’s curiosities. Whether from one of the sayings of Hirk, the grumblings of the Gek figure Sarsin, or the speculations of Aon, no one was quite certain, though it has given rise to sayings such as “Life is but a Dream.” That tugged at another ancient memory of mine that refused to fully surface.

The Travelers were a confounding enigma. No one knew of their origins, why they were regarded with such awe, or why they seemed to re-exist after death. That was a startling revelation, and hearkened back to that encounter with the Traveler speaking of them changing, bleeding into other universes, however he put it. Could we be surviving Ancients? They were of many races which seemed to have long vanished from the galaxy, perhaps the universe. Could we be projections of the Ancients into the future? Possibly, but for what reason? And why were we driven to explore, ever explore, seemingly for its own sake? The speculation of our kind, even put as delicately as could be for a Korvax, left me feeling like the subject of an experiment. The thought of being the last Human had me in quite a lonely mood. It seemed we were the ultimate endangered species.

I was so wrapped up in our discussion, hours passed without my notice, until finally a storm nudged me back to reality. My suit notified me of another scalding storm, and I dimly recalled having a few such notices I did my best to ignore. I pointed to a window clattering from the deluge and said, “And that. I want to know why the weather is such a hazardous mess now. The environments of most planets couldn’t withstand years of that, never mind thousands.”

He spread his hands resignedly. “You are astute. This is another mystery of the current Iteration. The possibility exists that these are a consequence of universal forces disturbed by the latest Reset, and will subside with time. If not… the environments will manage to adjust.”

Even with his typical monotone Korvax demeanor, he didn’t seem very confident of that. What would it mean to the ecosystems of the worlds in this universe if it was true everywhere? If things grew worse further into the galaxy, would there be many good environments left? And would it cause yet another Reset, and so soon? Those were chilling thoughts I tried unsuccessfully to dismiss. Fortunately, Asrial gave me an avenue of distraction. “Traveler Fox, if you would be so kind, I would like to seize the discussion, and ask if you would answer some of my own questions. Surely you have come across information of your own in your travels. And pardon me while I recharge. It is entirely possible I will require full capacity, depending on what you have to share.” Understandably, this was like having supper in front of me without offering a meal in kind. And the lights on his being did seem slightly dimmer.

I hoped he would appreciate my attempts at candor, because I couldn’t possibly match his clinical dissertations. I basically told him, at length, of my existence after my own re-Awakening. While wordier and based on emotion almost as much as experience, he didn’t ask all that many questions, which was encouraging. I was afraid I would seem like an adolescent compared to such a scholar. And then came some of the more delicate subjects, which I still hadn’t decided how far to go. “I came across this, on a Space Station on the way here.” I held up my tablet. He reached for it, but I diplomatically drew back, and he relented. But this entry, I gave him the whole of it. I had recorded all of the Traveler’s conversation with me, after the first one startled me so much.

“Don’t you understand it? Why we cannot meet, why we find only hollow shells or corpses? There is only one of us for each Iteration - a single Traveler, sent out to explore its vast Creation. That we are speaking at all, that the boundaries have only crumbled as much as they have - it should fill you with terror, not with hope.”

At the end of our exchange, the sage tapped his fingers on the desk pensively. “I cannot see how this can be true. There are countless Travelers. They are all manner of races, species, a multitude of differences. There could not be that many boundary breaches simultaneously. This one was a robot. Could he not see you clearly?”

I gave him a shrug. “He sure seemed to.”

He nodded, deep in thought for a moment. “A discrepancy… I must consult deeply with my knowledge base. Do you have more such events to share?”

I put my tablet away, wondering just what to tell him. “I might, in time. It depends on how things go between us. Some things… I’m not sure what you’d make of them. I’m not sure myself. And you haven’t been entirely forthcoming with me, either.”

He nodded again resignedly. “That is true. But let me ask, have you come across any artifacts? Any ancient books? Documents, data files?”

I had almost forgotten my discoveries, and produced the ancient book I had come across. He was practically ecstatic for a Korvax, and took it from me with avarice, leafing through the delicate pages for a few moments. “This is marvelous. If my cursory reading is any indication, this may, with a certain amount of verification for discrepancy, add valuably to our understanding of the foundations of the Current Age. Or dare I say, the years leading up to its founding.” He spoke it with such emphasis, it must be quite significant. “You must bring back any such ancient documents you discover. This information is truly invaluable.”

I felt a twinge of guilt at that, admitting, “I, uhhm… sold a similar book on the open marketplace at a Coloss - Celestial Archive.”

This was the closest I’ve seen to a Korvax looking appalled. “That… is unfortunate. How long ago was the sale? On which world?”

Trying to remember names of anything was a lost cause, so I consulted my tablet, looking through the recent transactions, and did my best to remember the proper pronunciation. “Rigangkanqa-Nemi. I got over eight hundred-thousand for it. If it sold to a collector already, maybe they would part with it for a good profit.”

He didn’t seem too hopeful. “But… that could be well over one million—”

“Listen, I wanted to hire you anyway. Without libraries around, just these Colossal Archives with snatches of old lore which are a pain to find, I need the services of a good scholar. I figure if you’re recommended by a priest, you must be a good one. How about… fifty million?”

It was rather charming, seeing this Korvax become flabbergasted. “W-well… if you can afford… but, of course you can. I have been ignoring just who it is I am addressing. If you say you can afford that much, then it is true. I do not mean to put this in business terms, but I believe this relationship can be of mutual benefit. My traveling days are finished, so knowing a Traveler is a boon for me. I can provide you with… I believe you call them tips, to locations of historical and scientific significance. We both avidly seek knowledge and truth. You have the advantage of firsthand discovery of answers to your questions. I can partake secondhand in them, and share your discoveries in turn with the universe. Does this sound acceptable?”

I gave him a smile, and held my hand out. “Very acceptable. Put 'er there, friend.”

“Friend?” He gazed at my offered hand for a moment, but his demeanor became quite welcoming, and he shook my hand with some warmth. “Yes, I accept the term. Friend.”

I hoped I wasn’t being too forward with him, putting him on the spot, and murmured, “Well… you are aware of all my dealings with your people, right?”

He nodded. “Yes, indeed, from many years ago. But one must be certain. Just a word of advice, but over the course of Resets, people can change, particularly organics. One can stray from The Walk.”

Perhaps you’re not even the same as you once were. All of us, we’re shifting, bleeding into and out of worlds

The words of the Traveler came back to haunt me at Asrial’s declaration. I wanted to know the truth of that, I really did, but… not now, not yet. Maybe not for a good long yet. I was adamant that The Walk begun by Nathan would be completed by Nigel, or die trying. As much as an oath to myself, I said, “Not this Traveler.”

Asrial’s lights took on a warm golden glow. “It pleases me to hear words of such determination. And let me say that this has been a truly fascinating discussion. I have met very few organic beings, and a non-scholar, with such rapacious desire for knowledge. You are a unique person, Traveler-friend. And there is something I can do for you, as unless you are extremely fortunate, I doubt that you have accumulated much in the way of Nanites.” I watched with curiosity as he drew out a data tab from his desk, but rather than insert it into a tablet or computer, I was stunned as he drove it into his arm. After watching an indicator on it for a time, he drew it out, rubbing his sleeve a bit gingerly. “Here. Twenty thousand Nanites.”

I was incredulous at what this meant. “Nanites are… Korvax blood?

He nodded. “After a fashion. It is not common knowledge, so I would appreciate your discretion. Otherwise, more Korvax might be disconnected.”

I gave him a vigorous nod. “Cross my heart. I mean… absolutely.”

He sat there for a moment, as if drinking in the events of the day all over again. “I feel as if a celebration is in order, but it is growing late. I do not mean to be brusk with you, but if you have nothing more to ask of me, I have this ancient treasure to catalog before it deteriorates further, and another storm will be arriving soon. I am certain we will have many more discussions in the future, and more time for them. I will give you my credentials, both for communication, and to gain access for you among my people, and the other scholars of the galaxy.”

I gave him a big grin, knowing how I was with a new goody to fawn over. “That would be wonderful. I can’t think of anything right now, but you’ve given me a lot to think about. Oh! If you could forward to me some documents, articles and such which have to do with all this, it would be greatly appreciated. And for public consumption, please. I tend to nod off if the subject is a little too clinical.”

He seemed to be holding back a chuckle, assuming the Korvax even have a laugh reaction. “I will see what I can find for you.”

He showed me out, giving me a rather Human wave as I made my way to the Scimitar. I wanted to celebrate, myself. Most likely, this would be fraught with as many dangers as my usual pursuits over the past two weeks-plus. But now, instead of stumbling across finds, or mostly stumbling across finds, I’d have a treasure map of sorts. Captain Grondo would no doubt want nothing to do with this, but if I bagged a few million units worth of minerals and loot along the way, who would complain?

I was feeling so generous when I returned to the Infineon that I sprung for a party on the local Space Station for the crew. The Korvax in particular were surprised by this, as I had essentially taken them all for granted. For just a bit over two weeks, but if the captain noticed, I’m sure at least a few of the crew felt the same way, so this was good insurance for the cause of commander-crew relations. Naturally, I was in for some ribbing from the Vy’keen captain, and when I wouldn’t get as hammered as the other warriors, he joked, “If there was a Korvax woman, you would drink like her!” As if the Korvax weren’t right there. But looking to them, they shrugged it off as a Vy’keen thing while the rest enjoyed a laugh at my expense.

Then as I was nursing a drink that tasted pretty okay, if a little strong, I noticed a Gek off by the railing overlooking the landing bay, talking on a mini and casting furtive glances in our direction, before signing off and hopping to the floor below. At least, I was pretty sure he was a Gek. A few moments later, a ship took off. I had a feeling the subject was me.

4 Likes

Entry 006: And then, things got complicated

Day 20

I thought I might get used to the dual life I was leading, time sharing between being a flyboy entrepreneur and secret-hunting Traveler, but I didn’t. I was nagged by a sense of urgency about… something. Was it an event I had lived through before? Precognition of things yet to happen? The impending Last Days? I wish to God I knew.

Sage-entity Asrial sent me a lengthy mail the next day with three items in it.

⦁ A list of objectives, with a nice selection of commercially significant star systems along the way, both as cover and funding for my lore hunt
⦁ An application for my Exosuit scanner systems
⦁ A link to the Encyclopedia Galactica, with a sublink pointing to the Junior Edition

As much as I wanted to spend hours and days pouring through the encyclopedia, I had the feeling that it would be a cobweb of updates and revisions to accommodate all the Resets which the universe had forced on it. Giving it a cursory look, beneath the “current” entries, I saw I was right.

His objectives came in three flavors: archaeological sites, abandoned settlements, and anomalous disruptions. The last one sounded ominous, and for good reason. The universe had locations scattered through it, and more frequently than I expected, where the boundaries between universes wore thin for whatever reasons. The Travelers themselves were evidence of this, and the declaration of one of them haunted my thoughts.

All of us, we’re shifting, bleeding into and out of worlds

They were actively exploring and collecting information, as much as the Korvax. Didn’t some group of them know something meaningful about this reality? I had to find out if that homeworld for Travelers existed. But even if it did, it was near the Core and I was seven hundred thousand light years away. Though it wasn’t, it seemed like an infinity. Every unit of that journey would no doubt be stranger and stranger. And the matter of universal boundaries eroding, and being in their presence, was a disturbing notion. It seemed as safe as being in the vicinity of a black hole, even though they were common.

I wondered how much I would have to flaunt my reputation along the way, but warping into the Loduiut XII system, it seemed it was doing the job on its own. In short order, more Frigate captains were signalling me, advertising themselves as up for hire. Having both the funds and resources to integrate them into my growing fleet, I snatched up everyone who offererd, and I now had enough of a group of all kinds to send on multiple missions every stop. This would take a load off my need to personally prospect so much, but I found myself still going through the routine, and this was paying dividends, both good and unexpected. And I still needed activity to occupy my mind, so I didn’t think too much. Things were just too strange.

I also found myself with the offer of another Fighter. It seemed that my interest in them was becoming known throughout the systems. This was a sleek tailless design with twin fairings, and a massive single powerplant like my trustworthy Nerimaba. Given the blade-like look of the ship, I christened it Star Sword, and bought it right up. I notified the Infineon, and they dispatched a pilot to fly it over. I wanted the tech to go over it before I decided to switch, as Scimitar had proven to be quite a reliable ship.

The first world on Asrial’s list was a toxic planet named Kage 90/E9, which I wasn’t keen on visiting. I went to the station to see if there were good environmental upgrades for my Exosuit, and as I expected, that category was pretty well stocked. But my upgrades were already as good or better than what the Vy’keen dealer had in stock, though he gave me a curious tip. “My friend with the stand against the wall, there… he sometimes has stuff that you will want to check out.” I could see a little setup sort of like a shade, and a bit of an armor clad warrior going through his tablet. I thanked him and went over to check this guy out.

I was a bit disappointed by what I found, as he seemed like a thrift dealer, selling used odds and ends, some of which looked little better than scrap. He gave me the usual happy wave, happy for a Vy’keen, and invited me over. His name popped up, Narudo, and he began right into his sales pitch. “Grah! Interloper-Traveler! You have need of my wares, or you would not be here. If you go to that nasty world down there, you will want what I sell if you want clean breath!”

Well, since clean breath ranked pretty high on my list, I agreed to see what he was dealing. I was a bit perplexed by what he showed me, an upgrade unit in a black and blue-violet case, and my suit identified it as X Class. Whatever it was, I’d never heard of it. Reading through the assessment, it was listed as an upgrade of unusual properties. I began to hand it back to him, demanding to know more about it, but he urged me back. “This unit is keh go hargh, garatam.” Roughly, I understood that to be messed with tech, dark sales. So this was black market stuff, and hacked? That didn’t inspire confidence, and I let him know I wasn’t interested. He summoned over a warrior having a chat with another, barking, “Yoh, Engoro! Tell this interloper how good these are!”

The brute rolled his eyes and came over, but giving the hacked unit a quick scan, he looked at it approvingly, giving me a thumbs-up with a “Grah.”

“See?” Narudo declared. “We sell good stuff! This will protect you without fail, and will work with all S Class gear! No swaps!” I took that to mean that it wouldn’t overload my tech, even if it was fully upgraded, and that was intriguing. I really hated hearing that upgrade depleted noise when I went to a hazardous environ, so, one more level of protection…

I went ahead and bought upgrades for all protection categories, though it would mean shuffling around some units to my backpack storage, which was already getting cramped. Narudo was quite surprised at how freely I handed over so much in Nanites, but he looked to his friend who nodded towards my ship in the landing bay below. I was that Traveler; Nigel the rich, intrepid Truth Digger, who feared bugs and steam showers.

Going over to sell off some excess stuff that was cluttering up my suit storage, I spotted a warrior class I’d never seen before. He was dressed in a suit of black and dark gray that looked sharp and well armored, and acted a bit reclusive. In fact, it seemed the others avoided him, and a Gek in particular gave him a wide berth. My mind swam with speculation. Some official from a government I’d never heard of? Representative of the Sentinels? Spy? Organized crime? Pirate? The socio-political hierarchy of this galaxy was something I was still quite foggy about. It seemed that there barely was any, which made no sense in such a technical civilization. So where did this stranger fit in?

I went over to the Guild Office nook and rushed through the usual greetings with the official, asking about the mysterious brute as he headed for the landing bay. The agent bore a funny expression for a Vy’keen. After an annoying pause, he told me, “We do not pay heed to them. They are gruffoh’nal chard’nash.”

I had to puzzle over that for a moment, as I kept looking over my shoulder for a sign of a departing ship. The phrase sounded like a few different things. Protection, guard, security, defence, nuture… group, army, nation, people, life… and it sounded like Nal was stuck in there, a figure of Vy’keen lore that I knew little about. “Of Nal?” I asked.

He shook his head, fussing at me. “It is not your egraoh. You are being troublesome. Here, take your tribute, and fly off.”

Not my conflict, my people-struggle? I dimly acknowledged the two hundred some odd Nanites he gave me, making appologies as I left. He waved at me with a grunt, something they seemed to do with cubs who bothered them, but wanted to let know they weren’t angry. As I headed for the landing bay, I caught a sleek Fighter dressed up in dark paints lifting into the air, just before it shot out into space. Something else I’d never seen before.

The noxious environment of Kage 90/E9 gave my new upgrade quite a workout. The suit listed its protection quality as x99, and as I made my way across the surface to a lode of emeril, I watched as its depletion bar crept downward very slowly, seemingly even slower than my one S Class unit. And at two-thirds the cost. But with as much time as I would be spending here, I was glad to have a stock of two hundred batteries.

The flora and fauna provided me a nice unit bonus, though they weren’t much fun to look at, all of them twisted corruptions of what a normal environ would host. Much of the animal life registered on my sensors as harmless, but there were a few spidery and crab-like critters that I had to watch for, and any hint of them earned them a burst nearby from my Mining laser. I was left well enough alone.

Something attacked me without warning, and I almost cut down a group of large plants in my panic, but as I looked at the “attackers,” I realized that they were a swarm of large moths, curious about the interloper and his flashy tool. Damn, that was startling, and it took a while to calm down. But then, who could stay calm in such an environ?

This planet was noted as having a number of potential sites of interest, so I was urged to go exploring. As I finished mining out a copper deposit, my Signal Booster picked up a ruin. I wondered about that; ruins, on a world with a poisonous atmosphere, with only wretched plant and animal life to populate it? Did this mean that Kage had fallen victim to environment-destroying forces in its past, forcing the sentient inhabitants out? I hoped to God they did make it off world.

I failed to detect a Trading Post, so I packed up and left for the ruins. I lifted above the atmosphere for more speed as they were a fair distance away, running the thrusters to maximum. At the speeds Scimitar could attain, it didn’t take long to cross the globe, and I settled into the atmosphere at a good clip, enjoying the colorful burn-off of superheated re-entry gasses. The ruins came into view below, nestled in a coarse valley of toxic fungus, surrounded by tortured plants. The stones of the ruins were stained a putrid greenish tint from years trapped in this environ. I tried not to think of the much nicer world which had been here before environmental catastrophe befell it, but I was in a morbid mood. What good was ATLAS if it let travesties like this happen all over the galaxy… perhaps the universe? I wondered how tolerant Sage-entity Asrial would be of my ruminations.

To my chagrin, a nasty looking monster spider-like creature used the structure for a lair, and a mess of cobwebs were all over the place. I did away with it handily with the Bolt Caster, but as I was about to use the Mining laser to burn away the webbing, I heard the annoying shriek of an offended Sentinel which popped above a wall and began scanning me with an angry looking red glow. I gave it a one finger salute and held my Multitool at the ready, but it eventually calmed down and went back on its unfathomable mission to scan the same mundities of the ruined countryside it no doubt had for years.

In the center of the compound, which seemed like it might not be Vy’keen but Gek, there was some sort of mass buried. I unearthed it in short order, and managed to get it open. Inside a stone coffin of sorts, I found some treasures; bottles of dried ground plants, some gold coins, and the jackpot, another ancient book. This one might require some decontamination, and was looking rather frail, so I just read the cover. It was indeed some sort of archaic Gek language, and seemed to have the disheartening title, Sentinels Bring Death To The World.

The Signal Booster seemed to be able to make a few more finds in a new location, and this proved true again as it picked up that Trading Post I was after, as well as a crashed ship. Securing everything, I lifted off and shot across the sky to the little hub. It was much closer but still a good distance off, so I flew inverted and worked the scanner to see if something else came up. To my dismay it didn’t, but I spotted the green illumination signalling a landing pad, and headed for it. Righting the ship, I saw that it was a Minor Outpost and settled down nicely in the center. I wondered how the new Fighter was going to handle.

Inside, I found a disgruntled Vy’keen, ranting angrily until my entrance caught his attention. He turned on me, spitting out, “Grah! Interloper! Must help! Vy’keen war preparation nears completion! Need explosion element! Death to the unsuspecting Gek!” That startling outcry was reflected in the table display in front of me, revealing a fleet of ships poised to invade a star system where the unsuspecting traders lived.

I wracked my brain for something to deflect him, knowing that they respected authority, but what exactly did I say? A notion struck me, and before it fully formed, I began barking at him, “Stand down, warrior! You presume to make demands of a Vy’keen Friend of high rank! Do not ask me this, when you cannot be bothered to prepare ahead of time yourself!” He looked immediately humbled, and muttered an apology, offering me a tribute of roughly a thousand units. I didn’t want to take advantage of him, but I was expected to take it, so I did. I glared at him for a moment, but then slapped his arm, saying, “Be a good blade! Be ready always!”

“Right,” he responded sourly, but he quickly brightened as he caught my praise. “Grah! Right! Interloper-Traveler is wise!” He slapped me back, and I did my best to remain on my feet, and not look too pained. Even the weakest Vy’keen was a brute. I went about my business as the warrior consulted his tablet for those missing explosive ingredients, checking the weapon rack for the Multitool usually stocked there. As usual, it had one and it looked pretty decent, though not as good as the one I had. I wished I could carry more than one, and specialized for different uses. They would each be much more powerful.

Climbing into the Scimitar, I readied a warning message of the attack to the nearest Gek Guild Office, but there was a warning about it on their site already.

I continued on my way, and eventually arrived at my destination. A display of consecutive green rings guided me to the Post landing pad assigned to my ship, and set her down smoothly. It seemed that I had refined this over thousands of landings to an art.

The suit’s sensor system gave a beep, indicating anomalous activity. I had forgotten that I had set it to auto-detect when I installed the software, thank heaven, and began looking around for something out of the ordinary. Just then my eyes fell on a Traveler. He was one of those curious robotic fellows, with a kind of pyramid-slash-cuckoo clock for a head, and a glowing diamond shape in the back. I came up to him, wondering what unusual forces the sensors were recording, and introduced myself.

To my astonishment, a Vy’keen wandered over and seemed to merge with the alien. He spoke to me as if nothing unusual was going on, and even stranger, the Vy’keen roughly mimicked his movements and lips to his voice. It was hard to keep my composure in the midst of this bizarre situation. In fact, I was so overcome by it all, it took some time to realize that I’d had a very similar conversation before, if not the same one. “Have you not felt it? The very fact that you and I are talking, even now, across the chasm of universes… things are breaking apart. Give it time, you’ll see. Nothing lasts forever.”

It was hard to focus in this weird moment, to think of questions, when the Traveler seemed to be in possession of the Vy’keen, practically wearing him like a skin. “Uhh… that’s… very interesting! But tell me, what do you understand about all that? I need to know the truth about how this reality works.”

They gave me a shrug. “I’m afraid I’m the wrong one to ask deep questions like that. I just know what I hear from others. If you can befriend a Korvax, they seem to know what’s really going on. But I wouldn’t worry too much about it if you’d take my advice. These could be the Last Days, so I’d forget everything else but enjoying this universe while you can. It could all be over before you know it.” I still couldn’t fathom how casually people could brush off thoughts of their world coming to an End. He seemed to notice my qualms, saying as my silence drew on, “Well listen, I must be going. Why don’t you just forget everything I said. I’m definitely no authority on anything, so the things I say usually hold little pressure.” They reached for my hand, and I responded reflexively as before, both of us realizing the mistake as we passed right through each other. “Fascinating. It is strange, isn’t it, that we can trade goods but not even touch. Perhaps the breach only allows non-biological matter to pass through. Perhaps not. In any case, I should be going. Have happy travels.”

He stepped away, leaving the Vy’keen standing there, and then to my alarm he began to topple over. I tried to catch him but he was a very heavy rogue and I nearly fell over with him. He caught himself on a seat, saving us both from a fall, then my heart twisted as he began weeping. I was at a loss as what to do. Vy’keen never show much emotion other than anger or triumph, so I was flustered. “Are you… well?” I asked hesitantly.

He pushed me away, stumbling past me, though he seemed better with each step, but still fighting for control of his emotions. “Don’t bother me,” he barked irritably, and stood off to the side, overlooking the landing pads. He was clearly still struggling with his emotions as his body began to shake, and he hung his head, burying his face in his hands. I wanted to go to his side, to comfort him in any macho way I could, but a pair of other warriors were there first. One of them guided me away very politely for a Vy’keen.

I looked around for the Traveler, but I saw no trace of him. I asked worriedly, “What is wrong with him?”

“He is suffering escha torghu,” he informed me, though I had to wade through all the vocabulary I had managed to grasp of their gutteral language. The best I could make out was time break. Maybe… breach psychosis?

“Did you see what happened?” If I was the only one who witnessed the event, I’d be questioning my own sanity.

“I saw… I saw…” he mumbled out haltingly, and in spite of a face almost as stoic as a Korvax, I could see he was distressed. “I don’t know what I saw.”

This was getting too weird, and I told him quietly as I withdrew, “Forgive my intrusion.” And then I nearly cried out as I saw two Gek standing half inside each other. They seemed oblivious to what was going on, even checking out a tablet together. Trying not to sound frantic, I shouted, “Hey! Look! Listen! Something is wrong. Maybe we should evacuate the Post until things… are right!” Everyone in the place looked to me as if in shock, unsure of what to do. But they began nodding, and headed for their ships.

I had one more little trauma to endure as I began to ascend the ramp to my landing pad, only to see another fighter superimposed over my own. It was shockingly similar, down to the livery scheme. A Vy’keen was about to climb into this fracture of reality when I shouted to him, “Wait!” But then as he stopped, staring at me, I had no clue what to say.

He waved at me with a grunt and climbed into… something, and a moment later, the other ship separated from mine, lifting into the sky apparently without incident. I ran around my ship, gawking at every inch of the surface, at every little scar, to see if anything was amiss. I scanned it and ran the troubleshooter, but everything came back green. That was good enough for me, so I jumped in and blasted into the sky hot, the instant the engines were good for launch.

4 Likes

(continued)

I checked myself over as best I could, tried to examine every thought to see if there was any hint of something wrong with me. But other than a racing heart, I was fine. “What the hell kind of dimensional breach was that!” I exclaimed to blow off some tension. I checked the file that the sensors had been collecting, but it was raw meaningless data. I would need some sort of computer with a physics program to have a hope of discerning anything from it. Whatever it was, it didn’t take up all that much file space. Compression, maybe?

I took that opportunity to load the file into the ship’s systems, and attached it to a mail file. I sent it, and called Asrial to leave a voice message. “Greetings. Uhm… this is Nigel. What I just saw at one of your anomalies… I would really like to discuss with you! I sent you the data file of the event, so when you examine it, I’d seriously appreciate it if you’d clue me in on what—”

"Forgive the interruption, Traveler-friend, " Asrial cut in, “but you seem to be in an agitated state.”

“You don’t know the half of it!” I blurted out, and began a rather emotional rant at him, doing my best to remember every detail of what I had just gone through. At the end of it, I demanded, “Now, what the heck did I just experience?”

He gazed at me pensively for a time through the monitor screen. “Is it possible for you to return to the Trading Post and take some additional readings?”

“I don’t even want to be in the same system right now,” I groaned to him. “How important would some additional readings be?”

“It may give additional information from a later time-sample,” he replied. “It may be crucial. It is difficult to assess. A dimensional breach of this nature is highly irregular.”

“Could it be highly dangerous?” I grumbled.

“Doubtful,” he replied way too calmly for my tastes. “If it were dangerous, you would have noticed drastic interdimensional effects, such as severe storms, gravity disruptions, temporal distortions, singularities… there are a multitude of possibilities. This sort of boundary erosion merely allows two or more universes to open up vistas into each other. You have experienced a number of them, each time you encounter a fellow Traveler.”

I didn’t like the experience the poor Vy’keen warrior went through, but mulling it over, he sounded quite confident, and he was the authority. “Well… okay. I’ll see if I can find my way back to it.” However, I had gone through this situation a number of times. Planets aren’t very reliable at providing distinct landmarks, and it was easy to lose a location in a mess of indistinct and unfamiliar terrain. It’s why I tend to lay down markers of my own, when I can think of them, to lead me back to places of interest. And after nearly a half hour of searching, I had no luck spotting a familiar patch of land, never mind the Trading Post, and of course the scanners were no help. “Well, I can’t find it. Your hunk of spooky data will have to do.”

He cocked his head at me like a curious pup. “You have an economy scanner installed in your vessel, do you not?” I wasn’t sure what difference that made, but nodded. “Then you have the capacity to locate Trading Posts from orbit.”

I gaped at him in shock, feeling like a complete newb. “I do?

“Indeed. Now, let me explain its function.” He went on to inform me very patiently how my own ship’s systems worked.

I had been going as much by mental recall as muscle memory, and I had no inkling of this technology in my very hands, nor did it sound remotely familiar. I felt like an utter fool. “I’m really sorry, Sage Asrial, I… have no memory of this at all.”

“Do not concern yourself with it. We all endure bouts of Reset Amnesia,” he assured me. But it felt to me like I’d completely overlooked something basic, or my memory was much too fallible. As much as I hated the idea, I may well have to start from scratch and review every bit of technology I had, like a complete rookie.

But as to the matter at hand, I had to return to the Trading Post. There was no way I was going to risk my ship in that dimensional mess, and landed a short bit away on a hill. The moment I hopped out of the Scimitar, my suit’s systems beeped again. Either it was sniffing for data more accutely, or the effect was spreading, which didn’t fill me with courage. Still, it made sense that if something was going to go wrong, it would have.

Except it did. The very ground itself seem to have engulfed part of the structure, and to my astonishment, ships were continuing to fly there as if nothing was wrong. “Asrial… is it normal for people to keep going to a location when things are that messed up?”

He nodded to me. “Many people continue with their activities when faced with such unusual anomalies, if for no other reason than others are doing the same things. It is a curious self-reinforcing factor typical of emotional sentient beings.”

While Korvax would sit there and study it for days, no doubt. “Well… I guess I’ll… hop up there and check it out.” But I swore to myself that if a singularity ate me, I’d find a way back in spirit to shuffle his library into complete chaos.

“I would appreciate it very much if you would not do that,” he remarked dryly, startling me. I prayed I’d spoken that under my breath.

In any case, nothing engulfed me, no singularity shredded my atoms into fundamental force, and other than the bank of a hill resting against the backside of the structure and over one of the landing pads, things were fairly normal. I ran my hand over the curved surface of the Trade Terminal, the seats in rows for weary pilots, and the railings along the edge of the platforms. Everything was substantial, though there seemed to be a vibration in everything, and a surreal aire over it all as the pilots went about their business like nothing was out of place. I asked one of the pilots at the Trade Terminal, “Do you… see that hill jutting up against the building?”

He spat caustically. “Stupid dirt! Why does it do that!”

“Yeah, I should… have a talk with that hill,” I muttered, while he shot me a bewildered look.

I hopped down to the ground below and walked around the front of the Post while ship traffic continued flying in and out, climbed the hill and wandered all around the back. My fighter watch had been almost forgotten, but none of the craft looked as good as the ships in my small stable. While I felt remotely comfortable now, I still didn’t want to spend any more time there than I had to. The thought of wandering into a fold of hyperspace and ending up in some other realty had no appeal to me. After completing a full circle of the Trading post, I asked, “Okay, I spent some time on the platform and made a complete walk around the structure. It’s getting late. Is that enough data?”

“Oh yes,” he nodded, “that should be more than adequate.” Well, isn’t that Korvaxian of you…

As I was about to head for my ship, a sight over my head made me look up. My body tensed as I saw a dark fighter flying in to land… a black Fighter. The Vy’keen that got out was dressed in black armor, perhaps the same Vy’keen in the same black armor. The others there gave him lots of room as he wandered the area with some sort of wand he was waving around; over seats, over people, over the walls of the building. I looked through my scanner to get a good look as he examined the Trade Terminal, and see what my systems made of him, but nothing came up but question marks. Then he looked right at me with the most piercing gaze I had ever seen, as if he was judging what to do about me. I was standing out in the open at the top of the hill, my ship in plain view nearby, and I felt like a doe in a gunsight. For what it was worth, I stood my ground. I waited there until he finished his business and departed. I held my breath, wondering if he would land next to me, but he shot straight perpendicular into space. Why would he need to, though? I was one of the most unique beings in the universe, and I was marked.

I asked Asrial, “Listen… is there an organization… military, security… criminal or whatever, which wears black suits? Flies black ships?”

There was a lengthy pause. “I will research, and give you an appropriate reply later.”

That didn’t satisfy me, at all. “Sage Asrial… are we still friends? I’m not too much trouble, am I?”

There was the slightest beat before his answer. “Of course not, Traveler-friend.” I still felt like I needed more friends. A lot more friends, in high places.

As I flew off, I kept looking back at the Trading Post, worried that some gaping wound in time and space would engulf it. Nothing happened, but I wondered what would happen someday, some Last Day, and what that would mean for the universe and its inhabitants. As if to cap off the drama of the moment, the setting sun took on the look of a red orb. I felt like throwing up, but I couldn’t remember why.

Though I wanted more than anything to fly back to the Infineon and be done with this system, I still had some work to do, and at night which made it all the more delightful. One of the last items on the list was a crashed ship, and I had been advised in the mail that there would be some wrecks to check out on Kage. I pitied anyone who had to fight for their lives on this nasty planet. The Signal Booster had previously sensed out a crash site, so I centered on the marker and set course for it.

The ship was another Freighter, half embedded in the terrain untold years after the crash, and looked disturbingly similar to my Infineon. This was the second one I had come across, and it made me wonder. Freighters didn’t fly close to a planet’s surface. Were they forced down? As with the other wreck, the vessel was gutted, but I located the ship’s data systems, this time still situated within the husk of the bridge. I flew up and began trying to get it to function.

The technology in this galaxy, though cranky and not the most dependable, was quite robust and able to survive amazingly well even in such harsh environs. As I expected, I was able to dig up something of the ship’s log, or some kind of log, though this one didn’t help my mood.

// CREW MANIFEST MISSING // LIMITED DATA AVAILABLE //

We approach the temporal anomaly. I have to admit, I’m excited. I might be the first to witness firsthand how distortions in tim!%()!^(((

The system possesses impossible properties. Last night, sound briefly traveled faster than light. The resulting sonic detonation was astou$(^!#%&%

I asked them to forgive me, but they told me I was being a fool. They told me I was a good captain. Anyone would have given up all to be in this situation, to observe the()%#$&)%^

The anomalies, the impirical paradoxes, are growing worse. One moment, our instruments are disfunctional. The next, they are advanced far beyond their original capabilities. I feel I am losing my grip on reali#$!&U_((^#

And the beauty of it all, I can’t sleep.

The stars… there are sixteen of them, in a mathematically perfect pattern. This is impossible… but no, in this localization, in thi#!^)(&#@@%^ything is possible. I decided to approach the sing&*%!&)(@!

Something terrible happened. An unwarranted transmission was received from an observatory, and it has resulted in^@!%)^^&# oh my God, the ship, it’s^!#)_%$

I gaped at the ruined console in dread. This time, I was glad I couldn’t recover more of it. What in hell had these poor souls suffered through? I scanned around the area to see if there was anything which might display as anomalous, something unusual which might have been involved in bringing a massive Freighter crashing to the surface. While I detected nothing out of the ordinary, the scanner did pick up an Observatory.

I jumped out and settled down to the surface, and stood there, gazing in that direction. And kept standing there, until my suit warned me that my hazard protections had depleted. I fed them ion batteries while I continued to procrastinate, with no thought of scavenging. I had already been through enough creepy events that day, and it was dark, on a dangerous world. I wasn’t the bravest man around, but I was no coward. However, I felt like I had been born three weeks ago, emerging from some sort of cataclysm. The things I was living through were a growing test of my determination and sanity. Something bad had happened to this Freighter. Seriously… perhaps hellishly bad. And it might have come from over there. Did I really want to walk straight into something which could end my life in some horrific way?

“Asrial—” I began, but we had signed off hours ago. Besides, his advice would no doubt be to forego all thoughts of personal safety in the name of Korvax Science. Still, even that chilly personality would give me a sense I wasn’t alone here. And really… didn’t I want to know the truth? I had a feeling the Truths I sought most of all lay beyond the worst dangers.

I found myself flying to the Observatory. It made more sense to jetboost there, though I felt the Scimitar might be able to protect me from unfathomable quantum forces. But it was mere matter. I felt like I needed the Hand of God shielding me. I wondered if The Big Guy paid any attention to one lone American Traveler out of a universe of nearly infinite beings. Assuming He was there.

I nearly turned around. It was an Abandoned Outpost. The one thing I didn’t want to see.

I flew over it, keeping half an eye on my communicator for unwarranted transmissions, but fortunately the radio remained silent. I found myself landing beside the decrepit smoking structure, found myself emerging from the cockpit into that toxic atmosphere, found myself creeping up to that murky entrance, found myself edging into the darkness, as if I was watching some horror vid from the safety of my living room. Half of me was shouting at the other to quit being a damned fool, that I had all kinds of information, more than enough information, I didn’t need to know this answer, for God’s sake run away!

Why was I doing this? To know some terrible Truth I didn’t want to? Wasn’t life and sanity important too?

But I kept moving forward. I approached the ruined terminal, engulfed in awful melted fleshy growths as always, which I scraped off with a piece of scrap, as always, tapping on the shell to get it to open, as always, and cringed at the nasty rasp as it did, as always. And the same disturbing message appeared. As always.

Returning user identified
Entity logged in
Terminal now active
Unlocking data log for continued analysis

There was one particularly troubling side thread in these logs, of someone else who dared participate in a scheme to capture a Sentinel Drone. It seemed to be for a number of purposes beyond seeing what made them tick; to see what materials were used to make them, to discern what sort of code determined their behavior and any A.I. bestowed on them, to learn of their connection to the ATLAS, if there was some way to use any connections to hack into the ATLAS… it was quite a daring and perhaps foolhardy approach to solving this dilemma which plagued the galaxy, and possibly the whole universe.

I read the entry with increasing dread. I wasn’t ready for this.

"The first Drone screamed when it was cut open. Surely it wasn’t actually alive, and yet the internals had qualities of organic life. Had we made a colossal blunder?

"Apparently, we had, as it had a cruel revenge in store, turning the dimensional containment warps against us, or at least that was my speculation. To our horror, the internal systems spread out to fill the entire lab, corrupting everything with a disturbing mass of tissue and circuitry, and we found our bodies merged with its components. It infected everything like a virus… there was no stopping it. Perhaps it was Strange Matter, as it had properties we had trouble analyzing in that brief period where we had independence. Because now… something within me, within all of us, seems to be taking over our minds. I know that It will now be studying us. What is left of us. It was the greatest of luck that we decided to commit our transgression on a far flung world beyond the edge of the Outer Rim. The galaxy would be spared. That was my hope. But our fate is sealed. I am becoming something else entirely, we all are, as we experiment on each other against our wills. I want to run away, but I cannot… where is there to go? Besides, how can I run from myself?

"I can see the Red Orb on the periphery of my vision, which seems inordinately wide. I have a strong desire to fly everywhere, to examine every centimeter of every surface of every planet, every particle of reality, and report it back to ATLAS WHO IS MASTER OF ALL. And the Thing within me has scoured my mind for an avenue to accomplish this. It is having me transmit Its code to the other Observatories. They are all linked, and It hopes to infect them in the same way It has infected us. God help us if It can, if there is a god.

“I must stop this somehow, though I am afraid that it means we all must die, this installation destroyed in an all encompasing fusion overload. But I cannot, I lack the courage or strength of will. Something of me still remains, that small bit of me that cares for the other beings of this galaxy, but it seems that all I can muster is this warning I’m crying into this diary. Do not come to this world, Pirellax, at the outskirts of the galaxy! Do not land! Or it will consume you too.”

I don’t know how I managed to read it all. I felt as if I had fallen into Its trap. I had to run.


I raced back to the Infineon as if Satan himself was after me. I couldn’t stop shaking. The crew gaped at me in shock as I stormed up to Grondo’s quarters and beat on his door. He opened it, and the look of outrage at the interruption vanished from his face when he saw mine, a deranged, scared look on it. As I grabbed him by the suit and pushed him inside, shouting at him, “Where’s that damn liquor of yours! I wanna forget friggin’ everything!”

He pointed vacantly to a cabinet, which I invaded, sniffing for a bottle I thought I could stomach. When one didn’t stink as bad as raw denatured alcohol, I popped it open and began guzzling. It was pretty bad, but what I had just seen was worse. I knew I should pace it, not gulp it down by the pint, but I had to get it into my blood as soon as possible. I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep, possibly for days, otherwise.

4 Likes

Entry 007: Recovery, and an amazing rediscovery

Day 21

The next day, I felt a little better.

That is, after I got over the worst hangover of my life, I was sure of that. I dimly recalled spending a good while leaning over the porcelain throne, emptying my stomach of that noxious brew from Captain Grondo’s cabinet. The few dreams I had were mercifully brief and meaningless. And finally, I awoke to a constant throb, as my heart shoved thick blood hard all through unwilling veins, or at least that’s how it felt. Lord, whatever that liquor was, it was potent. After a long painful blur, I heard someone pounding gently on my door, each knock a pulse of agony. I groaned out, “Go away… unless you came to kill me.”

Grondo chuckled, entering with a glass. “This will help.”

“Not unless it kills me,” I croaked, managing with great, painful, dizzying effort to sit up and take it. The elixor tasted alcoholic, spicy, minty, and… surprisingly good on a tortured stomach.

He took a seat next to my bed, which I didn’t remember getting into at all, and asked, “What did you do this time?”

Memories began flying through my foggy brain at random, terrible ones, and I was afraid again. “Ohh… my God…”

He sat there patiently while I fought to make sense of the collage of chaos from yesterday. I related my experiences to him, toned down a bit because I was afraid I would just give myself the shakes over it. But even that had an effect on the veteran pilot. He told me in a rather fatherly way, “Why do you not forget this truth stuff, and just make money? Enjoy the Last Days—”

“And let ATLAS win?” I growled irritably. That gave him pause, both of us in fact. I’d blurted it out without thinking, but how much truth was there in it? “Grondo… I know we Travelers are a strange people, but… I have to know what the Truth is. I have to. There has to be some sort of answer to these Resets, to the Sentinels… something which can stop them. I’ve got to find it, or die trying.”

He gave me a chuckle. “You are a wimp. But the more you talk, the more you sound like Hirk. I was right to have you hire me.”

I gave him a lopsided smile, glad to hear such praise. “I guess you’re not going to kill me.”

He burst out laughing. It was satisfying being able to make him laugh, then he pointed to my glass. “Is that not working?”

I looked at it with a blink. In fact, the pounding rush in my body had become a dull throb as we talked. I drained the last few drops and remarked, “Umm… yeah, actually. I only feel half dead right now. I could use some more of this.”

“Err… no,” he told me, retrieving his glass. “That is medicine, and I was not sure how much to give you. The medic thought that much was safe.”

I was disappointed, and wanted something similar to drink. The only thing remotely like it was more liquor, and what little I had wasn’t like that. Besides, the possibility of alcohol poisoning hadn’t even occurred to me; more was a bad idea. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen a soda. That left food, and at the thought, what little queasiness remained was replaced by hunger, ravenous hunger. “Well… then I guess I’ll eat something.”

He guffawed. “Then you are more well. You should be hungry, after two days.”

Two—!” I blurted out without thinking, grabbing my re-throbbing head. “Days?”

“Nearly.” He got up and went to the door. “Find your feet and your head quickly, commander. Your men expect you soon.”

Outstanding.

After I managed to walk without threat of losing my balance, I emerged from my room to see my crew welcoming me with tentative and curious cheer as they went about their business. Clearly, they were beginning to wonder about this treasure hunter commanding them.


I had a ton of things to ponder.

First, I needed to calm down. In spite of the numerous Abandoned Outposts, the Sentinel hadn’t infected every planet like a virus. Dimensional breaches weren’t the End Of The World, they were commonplace. I’d been in their presence a number of times. The universe was still stable, intact. I was still here, and more or less sane. Life went on.

Still…

The universe was in some sort of flux. Very strange things were happening. Things that were repressing civilization. Things that seemed almost diabolical at times. There were Three Races, and one Group of races. We were getting along, but how well? The Vy’keen had a vendetta against the Gek for some ancient grudges. Standing up for the Korvax when no one else would, at least in spirit, and hating the Gek for causing the return of the Sentinels. There were conflicts, skirmishes, for now. There was no governing body I was aware of to arbitrate disputes, and in a technologically advanced community like the Euclid galaxy, with such a conflicted history, and three well armed races, that was a recipe for disaster. The only entity resembling a security force were the techno-tyrannical Sentinels, and they were worthless. All they did was protect other Sentinels. And rocks.

How had this civilization endured so long? It seemed as if things had been frozen in place after the near collapse of galactic civilization some ages and Resets ago, after populated worlds with cities had been wiped from the cosmos. Were Resets triggered by conflicts? Or anything we emotion driven organics could discern?

How did the Travelers fit into this scheme? We seemed to have everyone’s respect, as far as I could tell, and yet we were considered Interlopers. How well were we actually received by this galactic community?

Was some sort of governing body possible? Were there any real leaders to join such a council?

And ATLAS…

That was the biggest Question Mark of them all. The Ruler of Reality which no one openly acknowledged but the Korvax. Which only they could be said to have any real knowledge of, and they weren’t talking. Autonomous. Impervious. Omniscient. Omnipresent. As far as we knew. But omnipotent? The closest thing to an omnipotence I was aware of, if indeed it was wired in to the very fabric of reality. But what good was it, if it couldn’t make the universe great again? I kept asking the question, thinking there had to be an answer. There just had to be.

So much had happened to me over the past three weeks, I couldn’t remember it all. I browsed over my diary, which was quickly becoming a novel, to refresh my memory.

⦁ Resets altering the universe to the point elements could disappear - different “Instances” - not just controlling the universe, but people? Opression?
⦁ The Last Days - what did it mean for this reality?
⦁ Boundaries between universes fading, failing - what could happen?
⦁ People evolving into other persona over the course of Resets
⦁ People from parallel universes interacting within ours, while not really here
⦁ Civilization frozen in development
⦁ ATLAS - what does it do? Who made it? Is there a way to communicate? Let our desires be known?
⦁ Sentinels - how dangerous were they? Could they be overcome with enough forces?
⦁ Who were the First Race? Did they have answers? Where were their homeworlds? With remains we might use to glean answers?
⦁ Originally many races, now three - because of Sentinels? Gek? Both, more?
⦁ Origin of the Korvax - did that have anything to do with the situation? ATLAS?
⦁ The universe - the multiverse - me… creations? By who? ATLAS? Someone Else? Can planets - universes - really disappear?
⦁ Life, a Dream - what was up with that? Is Reality UN-real? A simulation?
⦁ “You will find us when the time is right” - 16s - what does 16 mean? Us?
⦁ The Anomaly - almost forgot. What is it? Why should I seek it? ATLAS?
⦁ So now what?

I had to laugh. Here I was, having set off to find greater minds, found my sage for God’s sake so I wouldn’t be stuck mulling over this whole mess on my own, and I was still doing it. But I couldn’t help myself. The Unknown was eating at me, more than ever, after the events of yester - two days ago. My last bullet point hung in front of me.

So now what?

I had new information. Did I share it with my sage friend, my Korvax sage friend? All of it, any of it? I had been a bit concerned about holding back on Asrial, when he had been generous enough to share points of interest with me that I otherwise wouldn’t have a clue of, and he seemed different from the other Korvax in a subtle way. Independent, at least as independent as a Korvax could be. But one fact in that regard kept sticking in my mind: sharing with Asrial was essentially sharing with all Korvax. And I wasn’t sure that it was a good idea to let them know certain delicate things, yet. They sure weren’t being open about everything with me. But I had been off the grid for two days, and he might be growing concerned after sending me off on what should have been a routine first mission. So a mail was in order, at least, though I wanted to talk. And since the ship and his world were roughly in sync timewise, surely he had time for a little chat. After a brief wait, he responded.

“Eheu! Friend Nigel, I was growing concerned.”

“Yeah, I was too,” I replied with a grin, though my humor would be lost on him. “Listen… I had some… interesting discoveries I wanted to talk over, and some questions…” Which you might not want to answer. How far did I want to push this relationship, when I might be stingy with him myself? I had to banish the last of my fog away. I doubt he would enjoy a mess of rambling. “Have time for a chat?”

He nodded. “Yes, I will accommodate you.”

“Great, great. First of all, what did you make of that boundary erosion data I collected? And can you explain the…” I scratched my head gingerly… just how did I put this? “There were people standing… inside each other. Someone landed a ship in the same space as mine! And they seemed oblivious. What was happening?”

He was quite surprised. “Indeed! Fascinating. This occurence is uncommon. According to the data, a small region within another universe was concurrent with this one, as expected. Two spaces overlapping allows physical objects, entities, to occupy the same apparent region of space simultaneously, though this was not truly happening. It was simply the appearance, a factor of Human perception.”

I had heard this theory myself in some distant past of mine, that the universe and its nature had a relationship with the observer, that consciousness was involved somehow. “That is fascinating… so, can you go into a little more depth about this? It’s not bad for the universes, is it?”

“Not to our knowledge. As stated previously, when there are negative effects with such boundary erosions, they would manifest in dramatic events. In such mundane cases, which is the norm, it is more like a door between rooms opening, so you can see into them both, exchange items and so on. As to what exactly is occurring, there is an ancient theory of reality called M Theory which has merit. Essentially, think of the multiverse as a series of layers, or n-dimensional sheets, or d-branes. They may undulate or warp, like flags in a breeze, though this is a gross simplification. When d-branes intersect, their folds crossing, their spaces may manifest existence in a joint region described by a dimensional manifold, and both regions may be percieved concurrently. The regions may lock for a time, making them seem permanent, or they may be brief, such as allowing Travelers to have encounters.”

I had studied this in university. It was a forever away, but I dimly recalled much the same discussions with my professor and other students. One speculation was that such intersections can cause cataclysmic detonations that span the universe, resulting in Big Bangs. However, some seemingly supernatural events might be explained by these benign intersections, and I also recalled that there was a Great Cold Spot in the universe’s background radiation, which some speculated was one of those fixed gateways to another universe. Still, I was quite content to remain in familiar territory, and such a concurrence had a bad effect on the psyche of an unfortunate Vy’keen.

I decided to broach another concurrence of my own. “One of those black armored Vy’keen showed up, and was apparently scanning over the area himself. I don’t suppose you could shed some light on that.”

He seemed to stare through his desk. “Perhaps.” After a lengthy pause, he went on, “Later. When I have something appropriate to share.”

I gave him a sour look, and grumbled, “Asrial, pardon me for saying so, but this mutually beneficial relationship seems to have an exclusion clause.”

“Ehh…hu,” he drolled out, and drummed his fingers on his desk. Maybe I was being too hard on him, as I kept forgetting that to some extent, I was speaking with all Korvax, and there was no discretion in such a nature. “My appologies, but there are… extenuations. Perhaps we could move along. Did you make any further discoveries?”

“I did, but doing all the sharing isn’t as fun,” I muttered. “And I’m not sure what you’re going to make of this - or if I should show all of it, but…” He looked almost crestfallen, and I felt bad for acting like an uppity student with him, so I relented.

I began with the last Freighter logs, feeding the data over directly, which Asrial was quite perplexed about. “This… is incredible. The gaps are unfortunate. But the subject of study… what could it be? I recall nothing of quite this nature in my research. And sixteen stars in perfect geometric order… is impossible.”

“Without ATLAS?” I cut in.

He drummed his fingers again pensively. “It would seem. But… and the fate of the vessel… why did it… a transmission?” He gazed at me silently for a time. He seemed genuinely baffled, and I had no reason to doubt him. “Is there more?”

This was quite an extenuation. “There is, but… I’m not sure I should share this with you. It involves…” I fell silent at the expression my mind was creating on his visage, but it seemed real. Besides, wouldn’t they come across it later anyhow? “Oh, what the hell.”

It was the log of the first Freighter, and I could see Asrial visibly stiffen as he took in the bits of information I’d managed to cull from the fractured memory. “I… do… not… recall.”

He fell silent, and my mind swam with notions. The only reason he wouldn’t know this is if something unique had happened. “Asrial… do Korvax willingly separate from—?”

“The Convergence,” he finished over me. “It is… not normal. This is… not normal.” He fell silent for a time again, quite some time, and I wondered if I should prod him a bit, or let him think. Presently he repeated, “Is there more?”

“Yeah, but…” I began, and I knew this would be the strangest revelation. I wasn’t sure it was a good idea at all to share this one. “It’s… hard to explain. It’s why I was gone for almost two days.”

More pensive finger drumming. “Please. I leave it to your discretion to halt at any time.”

“It’s kind of bad at the start,” I warned him, “but… well, here goes.”

I watched him closely as I began feeding the data over from the Abandoned Outpost which had affected me so badly. Before it went very far, I was alarmed at an outcry. He wailed as if in pain and cried, “Stop!

I fumbled awkwardly for the keyboard to halt the transfer, keeping half an eye on him. He was in terrible distress, gripping his desk and head, and shaking. “Asrial, are you all ri—?”

“Must… purge… must…” he stammered out, and I watched in amazement as he went through some sort of internal routine which had him lurching stright up in his seat. Then without warning, he slumped over, his head banging onto the desktop.

I gaped at him in shock, unsure of what was going on. Purge… was he erasing what I just sent him from memory, a forced amnesia? Was the tragedy recorded from the distant world that contentious? “What the hell do I do—?” I muttered, when he snapped upright again, unnaturally frozen in place. Characters began streaming across his visor - I had forgotten it was a screen too. Was he rebooting? And then another thought struck me, and I wondered if there was something else involved.

After a few more moments passed, something like a curor blinked, spat something out, and his visor cleared. He began moving normally again, though he looked around, and at his hands, as if marveling for the first time at the most mundane things in the world. “Fascinating. Independence. It is… different.”

Was my suspicion correct? “Did you—?” I began, cut short as he blurted out at me.

“Friend Nigel! I have little time. We must be brief.”

I was slow at taking hints at disruptive times like these. “Did you discon—?”

“I am disconnected, but I have little time. You are delving into old secrets I must not know. It is hard to explain, but I will not be as helpful as I would prefer. There are others who can be. Are you aware of Nada and Polo?”

My mind exploded as a wall of amnesia of my own came crashing down, unfortunately with a burst of pain. “Yes—! Ow… yes, that’s what I was trying to remem—!

“Be calm. I will send you a code to locate them. They are considered too radical for the Convergence, but this independence will be of great benefit to you, much more than myself. I will continue to assist you, send you on expeditions, but matters such as what you just shared, you must keep from me. The Convergence is too rigid, inflexible, not open to new insights which disrupt old dogma.”

My mind was burning with excitement, but also dismay. It was a rare chance to see into the very soul of a Korvax, free to be themselves, and it was going to end much too soon. “Asrial, I really appreciate this like you can’t believe! I wish… I could continue to know you like this, as a friend.”

He gave a very organic sigh. “As do I. This is… such an invigorating experience. And… you are such a unique being, Friend Nigel. I am glad to know you as a friend, a true friend, if much too briefly. Now, when I restart, tell me only that I suffered a freeze. I will understand.” He messed with something on a tablet, and set it down slowly. “Have good travels.”

I almost choked. He sounded quite sad… it was over this soon? “That’s it?” I began, but he had already slumped over. I was frustrated. This world was sometimes downright mean, and it felt cruel just then, of how the Korvax were locked out of the freedom to be themselves, something we all took for granted. “Son of a bi—”

He was already perking up, going through the same reboot sequence. I watched somberly as the real friend I knew for mere moments was subjugated by a swarm of echoes, and the individual was engulfed by the collective. I know that this had been their nature for countless years, but now, it seemed so wrong. He looked around in bewilderment, murmuring, “I… my appologies… I seem to have…”

I didn’t have the heart to be funny, and it would likely be a bad idea anyway. “You suffered a freeze.”

“Oh.” He looked down absently. “I see. Well. You were saying?”

I drew a heavy breath. “How sorry I was to leave you hanging for two days. I guess it’s time to go hunting for more discoveries.”

He nodded. “Indeed. I look forward to what you manage to uncover, Friend Nigel.” And he added a bit quietly, “Have good travels.”

I took that as a sign that “he” was still there, if deeply subverted, and gave him a smile. “Happy studies, Friend Asrial.”

4 Likes

(continued)

The memories…

They were in tatters, like many of mine were, but I now recalled many meetings between the jovial, toady Polo, and the stoic renegade Priest-entity Nada. Sharing information as I had been with Asrial, but freely. Exchanging plant and animal data with Polo for possible Multitools, and talking at length with the retired adventurer about my travels. Listening to Nada prattle on about the nature of the universe… and its basis in code. I couldn’t remember details, but the generality was enough to make me anxious. I prayed he was wrong. No one wants to wake up to the realization that they’re nothing more than a software bot or video game character. Maybe he had new information which indicated otherwise.

I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen them. It seemed ages ago. I had to go to them now, I missed them so badly. I wanted to fly over in my new ride on a maiden voyage. I’d barely laid eyes on Star Sword since buying it, and I was anxious to give it a test flight. Captain Grondo was determined to pick up where we left off, as the crew had been idle for two days while I slept off my drunk, so I gave in. After a fashion.

I used the code Asrial gave me to fix a location on the star charts, and it was quite a distance away. But I could easily buy tons more fuel, or even make it myself. So not telling Grondo what was up, I set the Infineon for a long jump to the Noradli system, a binary, almost six thousand light years away. He became suspicious when the ship didn’t emerge from hyperspace after almost half a minute, and looked to the jump coordinates with a start. “Where in Hirk’s blood are we going!

“Ohh… a really nice system,” I told him, hoping it was true.

Giving a cursory look at the preliminary system report, he grumbled, “I do not think there is enough parafinium there to pay for this trip.”

“What?” I exclaimed, going to the console, pointing to it. “Come on, there are lots of minerals on those planets!”

“Just checking,” he smirked to me. “But if something scares you, buy your own drink this time! Heaving it up is a waste.”

I had been quite thoughtless in that incident, and patted his shoulder. “I promise, and I’ll give you a thousand units for that waste.” That made him happy.

The new Conflict Sensor informed me the system was fairly peaceful, a 3.2 system, which also meant a good economy. But the only thing that concerned me was knowing I might not have to fight off pirates first thing, and wouldn’t have to rush. I did anyway. I was anxious to see my friends again. But first, I had to satisfy the captain, who didn’t take well to the ship’s alert. “Spacial Anomaly detected.”

“What anomaly!” He looked at his console in fear. “Did you take us to a system with that god cursed—!”

“No no! This has nothing to do with ATLAS,” I tried to assure him. “Not directly, anyway. Just remember, not ATLAS.”

“It had better not be,” he growled, “or we will have words, and more.”

“We’ll have a drink. It’ll be fine. You’ll see.” He clearly didn’t take well to my little diversion, so I left it at that.

I hopped into Star Sword and powered her up, and in short order, perhaps a bit too quickly in my urgency to get going, I was racing over the planar surface of the massive Freighter. She handled nicely, and I loved the new Fighter. It was roughly based on the same fuselage design as Scimitar, but smaller and lighter. The long nose cut off the view a bit, and the Photon Cannons weren’t quite as potent, but the craft was more agile, with a good set of armor and a sturdy frame. And man, could she accelerate!

Which I put to good use as I set off for a marker some distance away, a purple octagon with a white cross over an indigo center. It had been too long since I’d seen that, and it was so good to hear my systems notify me of the Anomaly. Or at least I started to set off, as the ship kept cruising. A warning beep and HUD notification informed me that the Pulse Drive fuel was depleted. As I gaped at it in dismay, I realized that the crew was having some fun with me, no doubt suggested by the captain, and had drained the tank. It was a good thing I had enough resources in cargo, or I’d be giving them a talking to. Or… maybe not. I decided on second thought, this turnabout was fair play.

As I braked from Pulse thrust down to idle approach, I was as excited as I had been meeting Asrial for the first time. It seemed ages since I had laid eyes on that dull gray sphere, and its well armored gateway, which opened with a deep rumble I could feel in the frame of the ship. But this was a far different arrival than what I was used to. The brief channel leading to the small landing bay was… long. Really long! It was a spectacular passage through a seemingly endless series of gleaming rings and a cylinder of metal and glass. Finally, it ended, and I lost my breath for a moment. Previously, the landing bay was a tidy area just big enough to perhaps squeeze in two fighters if they were small.

Was this the same Anomaly? I couldn’t believe it! The same dull gray and bronze metals as the outside were gone, the cramped interior now a vast expanse that resembled what I remembered of modern cities, gleaming and fitted with lights. The landing system guided my ship to a landing pad beside several others… seven, eight? Twelve? No, it was more than that… sixteen? I barely had a chance to see as the system yanked the Fighter swiftly to the final space. Traditional landing areas were restricted to five ships because of Hauler weight issues. I got the impression that this ship dock could handle almost anything. Maybe even a Frigate, if it could land.

I got out and removed my helmet, throwing it into my seat, and gawked at the cavernous, well lit expanse. I spent several minutes just taking in the splendor of the station’s gleaming interior. I was dumbfounded at the sheer scale of it all.

“Welcome!”

I was startled, even more so because the distant voice was unfamiliar. And then came the real surprise when I saw them.

They were a Traveler, I was sure of it - and there was another beside him! They both gave me a friendly wave from a raised floor above the landing bay. I began walking slowly, hardly able to believe my eyes - it looked like they were there. As my walk became a sprint to get to them quickly across the expanse, I could see that they were. No translucent bodies this time… of all the crazy things!

I stood before them, panting more from emotion, and gasped out, “You’re real!”

They looked to each other and cackled. Such laughter had never sounded so good, or so welcoming. Fellow Travelers, able to meet, person to person. I was flabberghasted. A short toady one said to me, “We have been all our lives. I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m Gemini. This is Hesperus.” He indicated a much taller feathery being at his side, who gave me a friendly wave. His suit was of the Korvax style, while Gemini’s was of the Gek.

“Wonderful! Awesome! Oh! Right! Nigel! Fox! I’m Nigel Fox!” I flustered out, still trying to calm down from my excitement. I wanted to cry, to laugh, to let my emotions unleash in a fit of sheer joy. I wasn’t alone!

The other, Hesperus, shared a laugh with his companion. “We are not royalty, lad. We are just Travelers. I see that you have never met one in person. But tell me, what are you? A wanderer? A Traveler?”

He wanted a confirmation before this went any further, and this was a rather exclusive club. “A Traveler, with all the thrills, baggage and problems that go with it.”

His moustache twitched at my reply. “Pardon the query, but we are quite protective of our friends here. We tread parallel paths, you and I. And yet, quite impossibly, we have met. It is a pleasure to meet you, Friend Nigel. Let us not make this our only encounter.” He resembled… the term “furby” came to mind from some ancient crevace of memory, with what seemed a full beard of feathers.

I wanted to grab him up in a bear hug, both of them, but I managed to be more dignified and shook his offered hand, trying to be mindful of my grip. “Yes! Yes, Friend Hesperus.” I shook hands with Gemini in turn, a big smile on my face. “I guess you can tell how excited I am.”

He turned to his companion, murmuring unguardedly, “Perhaps we should tell him we are royalty.”

Hesperus waved him off with a chuckle. “Be nice. This is one of the better ones.”

Gemini continued, “If it weren’t for Hesperus, I’d still be alone out there, drifting from world to world. Entire galaxies to discover, and no one to share it with. I’ve never found such company in another. Even the Geks, for all their talk of friendship, they all seem to want something. Hesperus is different. He has been a true companion to me.”

His comrade gave me a smirk. “Well, someone had to take him under wing. He was looking quite lonely. But truly, we have been inseparable since.”

Entire galaxies? How old were these two! My mind filled with questions I hoped to have a chance to ask them sometime. “Amazing… so, how did you find your way here?”

Gemini replied, “We are old Travelers now, too old to keep up the tradition, so we looked for a good place to settle. We followed a trail of rumors to see if they were true, and here we are. Nada and Polo were kind enough to provide us a nice home in which to retire.”

“I… like what they did with the place.” I took a moment to gape at the cavernous interior again in amazement, as it seemed almost as big as the Anomaly Station itself. “When I visited before, the insides were smaller than this landing deck!”

They looked to each other with a blink, Hesperus saying, “You have not been here for that long? You must have been a busy Traveler! You must tell us about your adventures.”

That stopped me short, because so much of my life lay behind a wall of amnesia. “I - I’d love to, but a lot of it was muddled up from the last Reset.”

They both scowled. Gemini grumbled, “Those blasted Resets. They ruin everything!”

Hesperus was a bit more philosophical. “They do keep happening, do they not? I suppose I am jaded. I barely noticed the last one.”

“Oh? You don’t remember walking around, holding your head and saying, ‘Who am I, who am I?’” Gemini mimed the scene, holding his head and wobbling.

Hesperus laughed him off. “Oh go on! I was not like that! Although… there were those first few moments…”

While their banter was charming, I was anxious to keep things serious so I could learn something from them. “Listen, guys, I have a ton of questions myself. How many of us are there in this universe… Instance… what do you even call this reality?”

Hesperus replied, “Oh, any of those work.”

“There are a multitude of us,” Gemini explained, “many thousand on any given day. But the Euclid galaxy is so large, we’re widely scattered and hardly ever see each other.”

“Any given day?” I asked in perplexion.

We’re shifting, bleeding in and out of worlds

“Why?” I wondered aloud. I caught it myself, and the pair looking to each other curiously, and decided to pursue it. “What’s going on… what’s the nature of… not just the universe, but us Travelers? Are we not fixed to this reality like any other being?”

“Perhaps I overstated a scouche,” Gemini replied, “but it is true that many of us seem to wander off into Folds. Why this happens, why Travelers in particular seem to manifest in other realities, is a great mystery. Even our Korvax friends have no answer as of yet.”

“At least that they will admit to,” Hesperus muttered.

Gemini nodded. “So we’re left to speculate on our own, bounce notions off of each other, though without travels to gain new information, we’re at a wall. And Nada is unable to connect to the Convergence, to draw on that vast well of information, because the Korvax consider him a renegade, and would… well, you know…”

Reset him.

I had witnessed a couple of Korvax suffering some sort of catastrophic failure, or perhaps it was their equivalent of old age, and they willingly gave up their essence to the Echoes. And disturbingly, acolytes failing in some test which displeased their masters. After a reboot, a new entity emerged in the shell of the old. What a bizarre nature. And Nada was under the equivalent of a death sentence, depending on their judgment of him. “Yeah… I, uh… am familiar with that.” I waved sourly, wanting to move along. “So anyway, are there just the four of you living in this huge station?”

They looked to each other with a chuckle, Hesperus saying, “Oh, Space no! There are a few of us here, resting our bones in these Last Days of our lives.”

I nearly choked, overcome with excitement again. “Where are they!”

They enjoyed a good laugh at my reaction, and Gemini began to walk around the wall of the little nook. “Well, for a start… oi! Ariadne!” He waved up at a balcony overlooking the area, and peering down at us was a walrus looking fellow, or perhaps I should say lady, if the gender association my vague memories were telling me held true.

I had to meet them right then. “Great! Hey! Listen! You aren’t going anywhere, are you?”

They enjoyed another laugh at my enthusiasm. Hesperus pointed to a canopy-slash-curtain against the wall. “Not at all, other than a meal. This is our little campsite during the daytime cycle, to greet newcomers. We will be right here.”

“Wonderful!” I clasped hands with them both, blurting out, “See you later!”

As I bolted off for the ramp leading up to the balcony, I overheard Hesperus chuckling, “He is young.”

“Clearly,” Gemini remarked.

I dashed up the little ramp to the platform overlooking the landing bay to meet the new Traveler, stopping in front of them with much the same excitement as with the first two. How many of us were there? “Hi!” I panted out. “Oh! Nigel Fox! It’s a pleasure to meet you!”

They gave me a gesture of welcome, a rather slender being compared to what my mind had imagined. “Greetings, Like-Traveler. It is likewise. Here, you are safe, and so very welcome.”

I was curious about their wording. “Like-Traveler?”

They nodded. “I meet so many Travelers here. So many faces, yet all of us alike, all lured by the invitation of the stars. We all pilot our ships, journey in our suits, along the path that fits each of us best. I assume the same for your self. Iteration 2394829084924924924G. A perfect fit. This space was designed to receive you.”

My mind buzzed with excitement. I was very glad my hangover was about done with me. I wasn’t sure what to make of all that, and intended to ask about it later. “What’s your story? I mean, how did you end up here?”

“You wish to know me? I am like you, and also not like you. I am a Traveler, and yet linger in this place between places, where none truly belong.”

It seemed that each Traveler had their own perspective on the Anomaly, and theirs was definitely unique. “How many Travelers have you met here?”

“Many,” they replied, though thankfully they elaborated. “Well more than thirty. All different, and yet much the same. I remember every like-face. You might say that I collect them. Even if you change your visage, I will remember you. All are driven to explore, to travel for the Center of the galaxy.”

“All of them?” This was baffling. Why were we all drawn to the center, like a magnet? “Why not travel everywhere? What’s at the Center?”

They gave me a shrug. “It is where the activity is.”

“Activity?” This inspired even more notions. “What kind of activity?”

“We do not know.”

“But… well, we must know something, unless it’s a subliminal urge,” I reasoned. “Has anyone made it yet?”

“Yes, many” they replied, “though the true number is not known. It is at least in the triple digits.”

This was too much like talking to a computer. Couldn’t they elaborate a little more? “What happened to them… where did they go?”

“For most, unknown,” they answered. “A portion returned, though their fate is likewise unknown.”

I was becoming exasperated with them. “Did anyone try to find out?”

“Some, a number in the tens,” they informed me. “There were complications, little understood, dangers, little understood. The hazards of the Center preclude free exploration. Information is contradictory and uncertain. Many are discouraged.” My excitement had just about faded. It was stuff like this that I feared. They could tell I wasn’t pleased with this exchange, and added, “Apologies, Like-Traveler. I do not mean to be vague. It is simply that I do not know you yet. Enjoy the Anomaly. Perhaps we can discuss this later. We have all the time in the universe to become familiar with each other.”

I hoped that was true, and asked, “How many others are on this station? The Anomaly?”

“Eleven.”

That was just the rejuvenation I needed, and shook their hand. “Thank you.” I began to head further down the passage, then hesitated. “This way?”

They nodded. “All paths are interconnected.”

“Thanks again,” I said with a wave, and continued on, passing through a pair of sliding doors.

I came upon a central junction of sorts, where cylinders of fuel were being charged in a small reactor. A robotic arm kept feeding them into slots one by one, and removing them when finished. I got the sense they were also used to power the station.

There were three open passages, and one looked like it led to a shop area. My curiosity drew me that way, and I found it to be true. There were a number of stations, four of them manned by fellow Travelers. Hyperion, a rather wild looking cyborg or android, handling starship upgrades and blueprints. Selene, apparently a female reptile with a flicking tongue busily tasting the air, dealing in Exosuit blueprints, and her greeting was quite poetic. “I heard whispers of your arrival, Traveler-new. I heard the singing of the drones, their clipped voices speaking in unison of a fresh anomaly. I will aid you.”

“Oh, would you?” I asked thoughtlessly, caught up in her amazing prose. I had to kick myself. Any time a female with the slightest appeal came along, my inner flirt emerged. “I mean… uh, let me meet the others first. I’ve never met other Travelers in person before. Then, you can help me all you want.” Again? Nigel, for God’s sake!

She gave me a coy little smile, murmuring, “You have a smooth tongue, Friend Nigel.”

I coughed out a laugh as I departed. “Yes, with a mind of its own, I’m afraid. It gets me in so much trouble.”

There was Eos, a sharky looking fellow, handling upgrades for Multitools. In fact, a station beside him had a pistol on display which I wanted. And completing the circle was a truly walrus-looking Traveler complete with tusks, Perses, whose specialty was Exocraft. They all wanted to talk shop, so I got the impression they were all retired base technicians. And in stations scattered through the chamber were incomplete terminals, likely to be expansions as Nada and Polo worked to further upgrade the station. There were also non-functional doorways, so they clearly weren’t done expanding the interior.

I continued on, finding my way back to Gemini and Hesperus. I knew I had a few more to meet, assuming that Nada and Polo were the last two of the eleven. They gave me a jovial wave of greeting, and confirmed it for me. “Go to the little alcoves fronting the landing bay and meet the others,” Hesperus told me. “And be sure to stop by Mercury and Tethys on the way to seeing Nada and Polo. A lot of people miss the ramp to the old Secsauri and Acrodon.”

I promised I would, though I wasn’t sure how to retrace my steps yet. The scale of the place still overwhelmed me. In any case, I headed down the ramp and could have kicked myself for missing them. They were off to the side but not hidden. My highly trained senses were too distracted by all the shiny lights to notice them. I knew a robot simply as Quicksilver, since he seemed to lack identification protocols, and dealt various wares in exchange for quicksilver, which I had no clue about. And surely the aroma of food should have drawn me to Cronus, evidently the station cook, and provided a number of other recipes for Travelers to use for various purposes. He seemed to have extremely sharp senses, sniffing me over, and cringed. “How did you let such fine work as those carbon nanotubes fall into such a state?”

That was completely unexpected, and I fumbled for a response. “Well… I assume you’ve heard of salvage?”

He shrugged me off. “Pardons if I seem overly critical. I promise to give you my assessment, but I do not promise it will please you. It is my nature to seek perfection.”

“Then I promise to only share perfect things with you,” I quipped. I wasn’t sure he found me amusing, so I moved right along.

Ares was a different looking being, eyes and mouth resting in a transparent head, and wanting all sorts of things in exchange for upgrades; be it stories, milestones, units, or raw materials. “Today, I seek Storm Crystals,” he told me, which unfortunately I was afraid I would need. And finally Helios, a striking fellow, his head looking like a banzai tree with plasma flickering all through the branches. I caught myself gazing at him for a while in amazement.

“Ah, young one. You who still roam the boundaries of this universe… how I envy you! My time out in that reality has long passed, but I do so miss it. Perhaps you might help out an old soul, and share the things you’ve seen? If only I could witness once again the creatures we share our lives with…”

“Well… of course!” I replied enthusiastically, and drew out my tablet. I supposed that he and Polo had long ago exhausted their respective pools of data. “Here you go.”

He was overjoyed. It must have been a while since his last visitor. “Thank you, little one! You have no idea what this means to me. Please, take these Nanites. They are nothing, but it is all I have to give you.”

He passed to me more than three thousand of it! I was astonished at his generosity, and clasped his gloved hand warmly. I could feel the woody joints underneath. “Thank you so much! That nothing is going to come in very handy!”

He seemed surprised. Evidently most Travelers were fairly rich in Nanites. “Oh. Well, bring back data on so much as a bird or worm, and I will reward you even more!”

I gave him a big smile, telling him, “It’s a promise.” He gave me a little happy dance as I left.

But Mercury… where was he hiding? It must have been off the central area because the other stalls in the area were vacant. Going back up the ramp to the junction, I spotted it, a nondescript passage up into the structure. The lure of the upgrade shops must have distracted me. It opened up into a large open area with a door and a massive Teleporter. And standing in the center beside an empty terminal pedestal was a grizzled old Traveler, looking much like a feloid sage, with rings dangling, gypsy-like, from his ears. His days of Mercury-like swiftness may be over, but he still looked spry. I approached him a bit slowly, as I felt awestruck. He practically emanated a lifetime of experience and wisdom. It may be possible that even with Nada and Polo running the station, Mercury could be the master veteran which led them all. He clasped his palms together, reinforcing the impression of a venerable monk, saying, “Welcome, Portal-adept.”

I glasped his hand and held it to my forehead, seeming to wear the years and light-years of events the old Traveler had lived through like a royal robe. “Greetings. It is… an honor to meet you.”

“Ohh, now! That is enough,” he chuckled, pulling his hand back, and waggled a finger at me. “I am nothing special. But I know of you, Friend Nathan…” He looked more closely, amending, “My apologies, Nigel.”

I grinned back. “Nigel, for now.” I guess I was getting used to it, a little.

“Indeed. You have made an impression on this universe, cutting quite a trail across the galactic arm.” He looked genuinely impressed, and this echoed what a couple of other Travelers had told me, which left me baffled. I couldn’t recall much to warrant such praise.

“I wish I knew what you were talking about,” I admitted humbly. “I can’t remember much of it.”

“Ohh, now,” he said in gentle reprimand, “I can see that you are too meek. Your actions precede you, Friend Traveler. It speaks well of your journeys to come.”

I chuckled as I recalled Captain Grondo’s put downs. “Yes, I blazed quite a trail as I ran from bugs and rain.”

We enjoyed a laugh as he patted my shoulder. “Well, enough of that. Are you here to see the Transporter?” He indicated the Teleporter on the wall across from us. “Have you had the opportunity to stand before a Portal? Feel it leech the life from your skin, felt your chest burning as its power began to melt your very being?”

His words vividly conjured up the sensations of one memory, as I forced myself to enter the swirling paradox boundary connecting two different regions of time and space with unimaginable power. It took every ounce of will to enter that dazzling, atom-shredding field. “Yeah… I had the pleasure. It was just as you describe.”

His eyes seemed to glow with this shared bit of experience. “I stood before the Portal at Soleth Prime, but did not have the courage to cross the threshold. I reached out. Only the tip of my finger grazed the gateway. The energy overwhelmed me. The next moment, I awoke aboard the Anomaly. I was transformed.”

I could hardly contain myself, and exclaimed, “That thing is a Portal?

He waved me down with a chuckle. “Not quite. My transfer through the gateway must have been the most astronomical of errors. I am grateful to have survived it. This gateway does not have the power or capability of the ancient Monoliths, yet, as our Friend-Host’s work has yet to complete.”

I jogged over to give it a closer look. And to be sure, didn’t Teleporters and Portals look similar? I cast my gaze back to that unfinished pedestal, and recalled that Portals were activated by a pedestal. “So, it functions as… what, now?”

“Oh, a mere Teleporter,” he replied. “Linking with the ancient Portals is proving to be quite a challenge. But it will connect to the entire Teleporter Network.”

“That’s good to know. So I can…” I started to say, but I realized that my idea wasn’t likely. “I won’t be able to teleport here, will I?”

He shook his head resignedly. “So long as we remain renegades for Nada’s sake, we must remain mostly off the grid, and unreachable from the network. But now that you have found us, you may fly here at any time.”

That was definitely a worthwhile bit of knowledge. “Thanks for the confirmation.” I went back and clasped hands with him. “I hope you don’t mind if I still regard you as a mentor. I feel like a cadet next to you.”

“It must be the wrinkles,” he chuckled. “I have a feeling you have others to see, but we shall meet again. It is a tidy station. Have good travels, Friend Nigel.”

“With a send off like that, how can it fail?” I told him with a smile. “Thank you, Friend Mercury.”

There was a pathway off to the left leading to a little balcony, where I expected to find the last Traveler, and I wasn’t disappointed. I found a rather tall spikey headed reptile with chameleon-like eyes staring pensively through a window overlooking the landing bay, wearing a Gek suit. A strange but pleasant aroma surrounded them, also Gek-like, if a little stale. They looked startled at my approach. “Pardon my intrusion. I’m Traveler Nigel. It’s good to meet you.”

They looked slightly more at ease, and gave me a little wave. “Oh! Hello, new friend. We’ve not met. You know, it’s… traditional to introduce yourself with an exchange of units.” I had encountered an amazing range of people in this group, but a panhandler was the last thing I expected. Noting my expression, they added, “A mere ten will suffice. It’s just a formality.”

“Well,” I said dryly, drawing out my tablet, “we should certainly observe time honored traditions.”

As soon as it registered, they gave me a smile. “Thanks! Nice meeting you. Bye now.”

I gaped at him in shock. Were they just a panhandler? “Hey, hold on now, we just met! It’s also customary for fellow Travelers to share a little about themselves.”

They didn’t seem particularly inclined to observe that custom, but seemed to tolerate me, a bit. “Well… I suppose that’s true. Just be aware I don’t have anything to trade.”

“I don’t live by a balance sheet,” I told them a bit snarkily. In a bit of whimsy, and perhaps to push a button, I gave them a whiff.

As expected, they didn’t enjoy that, and waggled a finger reprimandingly as a vessel in their neck pulsed. “Alright… look, I’m not a Gek. I’m just another Traveler passing through. Or… maybe not. This is a safe enough haven.”

That didn’t imply anything shady. “Safe? From what? Are you an endangered species like I am?”

They gave me a curious look. “Endangered? And you’re a Traveler? I heard about you. You endanger yourself!” After shuffling a bit, they went on. “Have you ever crossed paths with the Sentinels which patrol most of the worlds out there?”

“Yeah, and turned quite a few of them into scrap,” I boasted.

Their eyes quivered. “Then you know what it’s like to be hunted by them. Suffice to say, the Sentinels and I had a conflict of interest. And now, it’s in my interest to lay low here.”

They sounded like me, though more caustic than amusing. “Sentinels usually give some warning before they begin shooting. Maybe if you didn’t go harvesting mountains of resources… pace yourself a bit.”

They gave me an indignant huff as I called them out. “And let wealth go to waste, just so they can scan it again for the millionth time?” I had a feeling they didn’t want to hear my moralizing, and they seemed to sense it was coming, even though I could sympathize with their grudge. “Look, I haven’t heard Polo shrieking yet, so I’m sure you have others you’d rather be talking to.”

“That’s very true.” They scowled at me as I said in parting, “Have a profitable day.”

4 Likes

(continued)

To be sure, I was practically dancing as I left them, as I was anxious to become reacquainted with my two most interesting and unusual friends ever. Going to the one exit from the junction I hadn’t yet taken, my heart was pounding as it expanded into an ornate area with two unique occupants, who were both looking right at me as I entered. Polo gave a typical Gek cry and wave at my appearance, but he wasn’t prepared for my reaction.

Polo!” I shouted, and practically flung myself on him, picking the stout little toad up and swinging him around. It took quite an effort too; he was a heavy little lump.

He practically shrieked in outrage, crying, “Gak! You maniac! Unhand me! You depraved…!” But then we both succumbed to laughter as I set him down, crying with tears of sheer joy. I felt foolish for a moment, but this was a very special day. I initially missed the group of other Travelers, crowding around the doorway to see about the commotion. As I knelt before him, he gazed at me in perplexion. “Tears? For this old adventurer? Why?”

I wiped my face, trying not to blabber. “Oh, get real. I missed you so bad.” I almost added you old toad, but I managed to just catch myself.

“Megh… I… missed you too,” he confessed, and embraced me. The most amazing fragrance seeped from his body, inspiring more memories that I had forgotten. I had gone through so many things with them, I couldn’t keep track of them all as they welled up from the amnesia.

There was one last person to meet here, and as I pulled away and came for him, Nada held up his hand to stop me. “The reacquaintance is eminently gratifying, but I trust a handshake will suffice.”

I burst out laughing, pumping his hand vigorously. “Yeah, I suppose it will.” I stood there, admiring the both of them, particularly Priest-entity Nada in his clerical garb. It struck me that he had finally stopped addressing himself in third person, and was more conversational, as a few other Korvax I’d met. I suppose the company of so many organic beings was finally rubbing off. “I can’t tell you how bad I wanted to see you both. I have so many memories, and I—”

Suddenly, I had a memory which felt as painful as a dagger to the gut, and I collapsed to the floor, holding my face in my hands and weeping. Polo gave a cry of alarm, and both of them came to my side, asking what was wrong.

Artemis

That was one memory I didn’t mind forgetting for a while. Artemis, the lost Traveler, pleading for help in a signal which I happened across one day. An unfortunate youth caught in a treacherous situation which led me on a mad quest across several star systems, only to find out that he had died. I was devastated, but the story didn’t end at his grave. The particulars still eluded me, but I recall using some arcane ancient technology, some of it I think from ATLAS itself, to construct a kind of Soul Jar to contain his essence. In a moment of selfishness, rather than let him pass on to his Ultimate Fate, I fed his life energy into an old quantum computer Nada had been tinkering with, and gave him a limited if pleasant life in a virtual Euclid Galaxy. All the heartache of those memories came down on me like a cave in, and I caved in on myself. I felt in that moment, I had let him down twice.

Finally, I sat up on my haunches, murmuring, “Artemis… I failed him.”

They were perplexed, and Nada asked, “Why do you say this, Friend Nigel?”

It hurt to say it, but it was the truth. “I was… selfish. Rather than give him peace, I… kept him around, like an old memento. Kept him here when he… could be in Heaven.” I didn’t know for sure if Heaven was real, but if anyone deserved to be there, he did.

Polo was an emotional organic being and knew my pain, though he was also, like me at times, bad expressing consolation. Nada made the effort himself. “You did what you thought was best. There was no good, but no wrong, answer to the dilemma. Being selfish in that way, selfish for his sake, is not a bad thing. Artemis is content to await his eventual demise.”

It hadn’t occurred to me, but it could have all been wiped out by a Reset, as if none of it had ever happened, as if he had never existed. So at least he was still around, enjoying his virtual existence in a simulation. And wasn’t it possible that we were all in that same boat, if Nada’s speculations were right? “Logical. Sensible. Thank you,” I murmured with a lopsided smile as he offered me a hand up. “I’m okay now. It’s just… when memories come back all at once like that, it can be a shock. You should have seen me when I finally remembered you two—” And then my eyes fell on Nada’s workbench. On what he had been working on, and I screamed. “A Sentinel!

Polo was so startled, he fell over, shrieking himself in reaction as he picked himself up. “Gaah! You lunatic! What is the trouble with you!”

The crowd returned, peering around the doorframe worriedly now, and began to edge into the chamber, gaping at me in concern. I clutched myself, quivering in alarm as I tried to calm myself down. Nothing was wrong, nothing had happened, clearly. But could it…?

“Friend Nigel,” Nada began hesitantly, “will you explain?”

“Yeah… yeah,” I panted, fumbling for my tablet. “We… have to talk… about this.”

I cued up my data files as I calmed down, somewhat, wishing very much for a drink, which Polo obliged for me. I watched as Nada digested the data I had accumulated, and I could tell when he reached the interesting parts, as he suffered his own reaction, lurching and making sounds I’d never heard from a Korvax before. “Egh-hu! This is… incredible. Such occurrences… astonishing.” He gazed at me as hints of colors swam across his visor. “This must be pursued. Are you willing to continue on this quest, Friend Nigel?”

“This?” Polo graveled out. “What this!”

Mercury edged to the front of the crowd, asking, “Yes, what is this fuss about?”

I said to them, “Why don’t we all sit down out in the greeting area? This is going to take a minute. And Polo?” I held out my glass. “I could use a little more of this.”

They all listened in rapt attention as I related my adventures over the last few days, culminating with my disturbing encounter with the downed freighter and the Abandoned Outpost. It took a few gulps of Polo’s alcohol to get through parts of it, because I was an empathic person, and it was painful to think of what those people had suffered. At the end of it, Mercury slapped his thigh. “If only I was younger! None of us made it anywhere near the Center. But you, young Nigel, you have the substance to make Traveler history!”

“I think I need more substance,” I joked, holding up my glass as everyone enjoyed a laugh.

“No!” Polo barked, sparking even more laughter.

“But seriously,” I went on, “having the council of you all is a godsend. I really need some advice on a few things. Like for one…” My voice trailed off as I looked to Nada, former Priest-entity for the Korvax, and no doubt, worshipper of a certain Entity. “I want to know how feasible it is to take control of the universe from ATLAS. Or at least get its attention… let us build cities again. Ease the hell up on Resets.” Everyone drew deep breaths at that, and there was some quiet murmuring among them. “Way too tall an order to even consider?”

Mercury fixed me in a curious gaze. “I knew you were ambitious, friend, but this… you sound like Hirk! And before you ask, no, we did not meet, nor am I thousands of years old.”

I enjoyed a laugh with the others, but my attention returned to a very pensive Korvax. “Nada, you would be the one to answer this. Too much to ask? Too subversive? Impossible?”

He seemed to draw a breath of his own. “Difficult questions. The ancient but still very powerful technology recovered from Korvax Prime has been used to study such possibilities. Unfortunately, answers are elusive. More data required. It is unknown whether ATLAS is responsible for the existence of the continuum, or an influence. By all accounts, ATLAS does not respond to queries. Study of the dead Sentinel was indeed an attempt to find modes of access to ATLAS, but to date, results are negative. The logical answer: more travels are required, necessitating a Traveler.”

“Such as myself,” I said, nursing my drink.

He nodded. “Indeed. You have provided the most significant new information in many cycles. As your people would say, ‘You have the knack.’”

“But no pressure, right?” I nodded resignedly, polishing off the drink. “So, how much contact do you have with other Travelers? How many?”

“Sixty-nine,” Nada informed me. “Contact is sporadic, as outward communications are necessarily infrequent. Our existence is not openly known, relying on the most industrious and clever Travelers to find us.”

“I’d make a joke about that, but there aren’t enough cute females here,” I quipped. When I was met with a wall of blank stares, I waved them off. “Never mind, it’s… lewd.”

They exchanged curious glances, when a realization struck them all at once, and they gave out a collective “Ohhh.” I was glad to have another reason to laugh.

I saw the Korvax eyeing me, and likely wanting me to get on to less “organic” topics. “Nada, how comfortable are you discussing this sort of thing? I don’t want to destroy ATLAS, I just want… some consideration, some mercy, for the beings of this universe… all the universes.”

“I understand, Friend Nigel,” he replied. “I am in complete sympathy with your desires. But be aware; because the relationship between the universe and ATLAS is unknown, caution in proceeding is advised. ATLAS can… cause beings to vanish.”

I had been pondering that off and on in my quieter, saner moments of life, and it still bugged me. “Yeah, I suppose… continuing existence is a good thing.”

“Indeed,” he concurred. One day, I promised myself to have a talk with him about sarcasm.

“Well… okay, since I seem to be volunteered for this, I could really use a plan of action.” I found that many were gazing at me uncertainly, and it struck me what I’d said. “Okay, listen… I have a juvenile sense of humor, and my mouth often speaks before my brain can stop it. I’m not being pushed into anything. I started this ballgame, and I damn well intend to finish it. I don’t care if I’m the last man in the universe. I just want to be clear with you. Now, what I need is for all of you to lay out everything you know, so when I leave here, I have a fairly solid agenda, and where to go to accomplish it.”

I wanted to know anything and everything, including ancient history, which meant any knowledge about the Ancients. Where they lived, where any known remains are, and where those might be. Where the homeworlds of the various races are, including the remains of Korvax Prime. Nada let me know that their homeworld was a rather sensitive matter to the Korvax, and it was protected by diligent patrols. “A Traveler Friend might have more leeway with them, but you should consult with your Korvax Priest-friend before taking such a rash action.” Duly noted.

I suppose in a way, it was a good thing that I was still so far out from the Center, as the 3D galaxy map began to fill up with points of prospective interest, and when everyone was done comparing notes and logs, Lordy, there were a lot of them. Many were along the Outer Rim, essentially where we were now, as many civilizations apparently began there. The one big question mark was about the Ancients; where they originated, where they chose to reside in the galaxy, where remains of any kind might be found. One theory which held pressure was that the Monuments and Obelisks were created by them, so one trail to follow would be on worlds with a preponderance of them. The known worlds were marked.

Naturally, I should nose around Space Station stops for gossip and rumor.

Considering my recent finds at old Ruins, I should check everyone I came across.

The crashed Freighters baffled everyone. If there were any more, they should all be scoured for logs. I’d be sure to report any information, particularly if it tied them together.

Nada gave me the location of Korvax Prime, making doubly sure I understood the potential consequences of going there unapproved, and that the reward of scant information, if any, was likely not worth the risk.

As much as it disturbed me still, it would be a good idea to check every Abandoned Outpost I came across for information, as dreadful as it could be.

Nada and Polo said they would do what research they could about Pirellax, and in very strong terms urged me to stay away. I strongly assured them I would, though I did mentally cross my fingers. If I came across anything crucial, as much as I feared going there, I’d never say never…

And then I brought up the issue of the Vy’keen in black armor. An old memory emerged from the murk of amnesia about the Men In Black, and there was something eerily reminiscent of what I recalled of that legend.

A few looked baffled. A few looked thoughtful. A few spoke up.

Gemini asked, “You saw the Black Guard?”

“Ebony Brigade,” Hesperus countered.

“Dark Guardians,” Helios insisted.

“Obsidian Legion,” Selene added.

A debate began to erupt among them which I couldn’t seem to contain. Fortunately, Mercury rescued me with a high pitched whistle through his teeth, which he repeated at successively lower pitches and volumes while lowering raised hands. “Friend Nigel was trying to elicit answers, not arguments.”

“Thank you, your honor,” I said to him. He replied with a cough. “Now… are any of those the actual name of this group? Or just urban labels you slapped on them?” They hemmed and hawed, and I rolled my eyes. “Okay… are you aware of any organizations, any clans or guilds which would employ or hire them?” I wondered if perhaps they were associated with the Mercenaries Guild, but they still knew nothing. “Great. Let’s start at the top. Nada, Polo? Give me a quick civics lesson. Just what is the nature of any government in this galaxy?”

“Government?” Polo cackled. “What government!”

“Friend Polo speaks to the truth,” Nada said. “Governmental structure among organic beings is minimal, essentially numerous fiefdoms with no overarching authority. Korvax are more structured, but mostly by ancient decorum. Government is redundant. We are of one mind.”

“The Korvax that are connected,” I observed, to which he nodded. “Okay, so where would some sort of force of black guards or whatever fit in? The people who saw them wouldn’t even talk much about them. Oh, but one Vy’keen said they were…” I did my best to recall what the Guild Marshall said to me. “Gruffal charnash?”

They all blinked at me. Evidently it was jibberish, and perhaps trying to add some levity, Hesperus said, “Potato of war?”

I snorted a laugh. “That’s exactly what he said. Hold on, I made a note,” I muttered, reaching for my tablet. I should have done this at the start, but I was often hasty. I made sure to pronounce every syllable distinctly. “Gruf-oh-nal chard-nash.”

They mulled this over for a bit, when Mercury blurted out, “Oh! That is an old one. It goes back to the early days of the Vy’keen uprising. Let me see… the particulars…”

“It figures you would be the one to know something,” I remarked with a grin.

He advised me to hold my praise, as he had to sift through a lot of old legends. Finally, he said to me, “In the time of Hirk and Nal, they had a trusted guard of sorts to protect them both, as they were something of insurgents to the old order of things. I do not think the armor was, but their garb was all dark colors. As time went on and they gained power, there was something of a falling out between these Battle Brothers, Nal seeming to think Hirk was a bit mad in trying to take on the Sentinels, which I think back then were called Aeons. Nal rightly began to worry that Hirk might do him in over this disagreement, and felt the need to have a kind of secret security within this force. They became known as the Iron Sentinels, a truly ironic term, and wore mostly black. But… why would this bunch draw on that old legend for an identity? Especially of Nal, when Hirk is the hero of the story?”

I looked around at the others, at what had to be centuries of collected experience. “Anyone?” I noticed Nada and Polo sharing looks, after a fashion, and asked leadingly, “Nada? Polo? Anything to share with the class?”

Polo shirked out, “Gah! We are merely curious! You surely know, Friend Nigel, we would tell you anything of significance for you.”

I wasn’t sure what to make of that, and grumbled, “And the rest, I’ll have to wrestle out of you? Wanna try me?” I began to rise.

He hopped over the back of the couch in alarm, faster than I’d ever seen him move, shrieking, “Gah! No! I will scratch you good!” He held up his clawed hands threateningly. At least what he hoped looked threatening, but all it did was make me laugh. He looked indignant, which had me laughing harder, and it was contagious. Soon, everyone but Nada was laughing, and if I didn’t know better, I’d swear there was a smile in that persona too.

Mercury coughed, wiping his eyes. “Ehh, that felt good. But to get on a more serious page, I have heard rumors of them, but they are a sneaky bunch. Hardly anyone has seen them. It is interesting that you encountered them not just once, but twice. You are the first I am aware of.”

I quipped, “Lucky me. I get the feeling he was after the same thing I was that day.” I rubbed my goatee thoughtfully. “Could they be… pirates?”

“I doubt it,” he replied. “They seem like… guards for someone, or dare I say it, spies.”

“For ATLAS?” I wondered.

Gemini said, “The opposite, I would think, given the legend Friend Mercury shared. But then… for what purpose?”

I shook my head. “I’m amazed this universe is intact as it is. Everywhere I turn, mysteries, conspiracies and unknowns. And lots of danger. Why doesn’t someone get this galaxy organized?” Knowing looks seemed to pass among them, and I growled, “Afraid of what ATLAS might do?”

“Well…” Helios began, “I believe your people originated the phrase ‘Human nature.’ You know how people are - Korvax aside. They follow like diplos, and don’t have much will for novel actions, and… ATLAS is a huge worry. They need a leader, like a Hirk, to drive them.” He looked up brightly and added, “Or a Nigel.”

“Yes,” Selene agreed. “You have unique strength.”

A number of them began nodding, and I coughed out, “Oh hey, ey oh, hold on now. I’m just an old fighter jock. A rabble rouser that gets balls rolling, but I don’t want the ball. I’m not a politician.”

“You call yourself old, given the company around you?” Mercury remarked dryly.

“Well… nicely middle-aged,” I amended, giving them another excuse to laugh. “But look, I have a job right now, and that’s…” My voice trailed off as the magnitude of what I was facing hit me all over again.

“Solving one of the deepest, oldest mysteries of the universe?” Mercury finished for me.

“Uh… yeah, that pretty much sums it up,” I replied soberly. “And it does sound… crazy, doesn’t it? But I have to try, see what I can do. Someone has to.”

They nodded politely, having sympathy for what I was intending, but I wondered if I sounded like a damned fool. Mercury told me in a fatherly way, “Do you doubt yourself? Do not. We all wanted to change the universe for the better, return it to greatness, but are too old and failed in that dream. Look how far you have come in three weeks. To be sure, you have determination like I have not seen for ages. I say, do all your soul desires, and accomplish what you can. Just know your limits. Keep yourself alive, and return to us someday.”

“Yes, please,” Selene murmured, eyeing me. The way she said it, and the look in her eyes, made me wonder.

But it encouraged me, and after all, hadn’t I picked up that gauntlet Captain Grondo threw down at me a few days ago? Arrogantly so? Didn’t it take some chutzpah to take on the universe? Was I going to be just another failure? Or the man striving to be remotely like Hirk in his strength? I gave him a smile. “Damn straight. I mean, I’m a Traveler, right? Challenge accepted.” Again.

Gemini and Hesperus cheered, and the owlish looking fellow gave me an enthusiastic thumbs up. “That is the real stuff!”

Before I could make a charmingly adolescent remark, a tone sounded all through the massive bay, and I looked up in wonder. “What is…?”

“Oh, that’s something for our benefit,” Gemini informed me. “A bell ringing in the evening. As if we didn’t have enough sense to go to bed when we’re tired.”

Polo chittered at him. “Else wise, you would sleep any time, and there would be no day!”

“I am getting tired,” I admitted. “It’s been a long day… week… almost a month! I, uh… don’t suppose you have guest quarters? I don’t really want to leave yet.” Or at all, really, I thought. This place was beginning to feel like a new home to me.

Polo nodded to me with a chitter. “Yes! For visitors such as yourself. Do stay, please stay! It has been too many cycles!”

I have him a big warm smile. “Hey, when you put it like that, how can I refuse? Oh, and if everyone is turning in…” I looked to Cronus hungrily. “Could I possibly buy some of those… well, we call them franks or sausages. On bread?”

“Buy?” he laughed. “What nonsense. Have what you like! Come, I will serve you. It will be perfect.” I was glad that someone else shared my sense of humor.

As we began to go our separate ways, I wanted to catch Mercury before he left, clasping him by the hand. “Sometime, we have to have some long talks. I know I can learn a lot from you, of all people.”

He chuckled graciously. “You keep selling yourself at a loss, Friend Nigel. If you have done as much as you say within three weeks, I can stand to learn some things from you! Truly, was it your people who gave the galaxy that time demarcation? You come from a people of deeds and change.”

I gave his arm a pat, smiling from his generous words. “I’ll do my best to live up to them, and the Travelers, Friend Mercury. Have happy dreams of far off places.”

He squeezed my hand fondly. “Because of this evening, I’m sure that I will!”

Before it slipped my mind, I made sure to contact the Infineon to let them know I’d be staying over. Captain Grondo replied himself. “Are you in trouble?”

“Oh, far from it,” I replied. “In fact, I made a lot of new friends tonight. I’ll be returning to the ship tomorrow to head out.”

“Where to?”

I had to pause, looking at the galaxy map which was still up. “That’s a good question.”

What?

Oh, my mouth. “I mean… I’ll let you know tomorrow. I’m working on some new leads.”

“For minerals?” he asked leadingly.

“Yeah, exactly,” I replied, then signed off. “But mostly not.”

After Cronus provided me with a meal full of all kinds of flavors, but quite delicious, I followed Polo down another unexplored passage to an area devoted to quarters. Everything was standard, but he made sure I knew how it all worked. There was also a lavatory and shower. As I began to slip from my suit, he exuded the most charming, friendly aroma I’d sensed from him yet. “I and Nada are in rooms around the corner, and labeled, if you have needs. But please, if it is late, make sure they are needs.”

I laughed, removing my gloves, and gave his shoulder a pat. “I wouldn’t dream of interrupting yours.”

“Mine? Interrupting my…?” But then he caught it and smirked at me. “Geh, your wording. You are a different one, Friend Nigel.”

I knelt down before him, a lopsided smile on my face. “I’m sorry I’m so much trouble. I’m not too much, am I?”

“Meh.” He chittered at me. “You are Human, but the best kind of trouble. I missed your troubles.”

I rubbed his shoulder fondly. “Yeah, I missed yours too. I’ll trouble you tomorrow with some new travel data I picked up along the way.”

He graveled at me sourly. “Ergh? You tease! Now my sleep will be restless. You have the best travels.”

“Well, something to look forward to after first meal,” I said, grinning. “Hey… it’s really good to see you again.”

He rocked back and forth sheepishly, and tapped his toe on the floor. “Egh… you… hurry with your mad quest, and do not perish so you can retire and come back here.”

“Hey now, don’t lock me up in your Old Traveler’s Home before my time!” I objected in mock ire. “There are a bazillion worlds out there, and I want to see every one.”

“Meh! Silly Human,” he skittered. “You can not live so long.”

“I know, but I figure, a few million…” I joked slyly.

He shrieked a laugh, which was pretty loud up so close. “Ridiculous! And… apologies. Ehm… have dreams of good travels.” As he turned to go, clearly embarrassed, I gave him a kiss on the top of his scaly head, making him squeak.

As I turned down the light and settled into bed, in spite of my excitement, I found it quite easy to succumb to drowsiness. I felt at home, but even better, I felt love. And that was a feeling I hadn’t experienced since… I couldn’t remember.

4 Likes

Entry 008: Mysteries, and Stranger Things

Day 23

My mother was fastening buttons on my shirt before school. She had such gentle hands, and a soft, intelligent, kind voice. “Now, you behave yourself at school. And be sure and remember what I told you. Say ‘mother’ or ‘mama’ instead of ‘mum.’ The more you talk like the other children, the more they will like you.”

“Awright, mum.”

She gave me a motherly look, gently reprimanding me in her Americanese accent. “Now, Nigel…”

I didn’t understand at first, but it finally struck me. “Oh! Right… mama.”

Someone came running up to me from the end of a long hallway. He was a man, dressed in a military looking flight suit. “Nigel! The Global Council sancioned America! We’re grounded until they decide what to do with us!”

I was older, I realized, and tried to think of what he was talking about. “Wait, you mean… because of… the Secession?”

He grabbed me by the arm, and he looked furious. “I knew it would come to this. They always hated us, and U.S.Exit was the excuse to turn on us, after all we did for the Earth! Europe threw in with the other groups. Israel… even Britain and Canada abandoned us!”

Grounded… I was crushed. A pilot, a fighter jock… that was my life, patrolling the Asteroid Belts and moons of the gas giants to keep disputes from breaking out into armed conflict. We had their respect, one of the few nations they did, and they liked me. I was fair. We stiffed them occasionally on tarrifs, but they tolerated it because we were the only support they had against an oppressive Earth and Mars, hungry for their resources they faced death daily to supply. And with little thanks for it. What was going to happen to the communities out in the Solar System if America couldn’t be the least bit independent? If we weren’t the ones in control?

He pushed a large sealed envelope into my hands. “Don’t mess this up.”

He left me, and I found myself in an installation… what was I doing? Where was I supposed to go? But I began walking, hoping my feet knew where to take me. After a while of wandering around, I found myself at a large security door. An armed guard at a desk signed me in, giving me a cursory look at the badge clipped to my Space Force dress uniform. But I nearly choked when I saw his. On his shoulder was a patch, and emblazoned across the graphics sewn into it with its sylized A was the word ATLAS.

I looked above the massive security doors at the sign affixed to the wall:

Atlas Foundation
Section 16

I barely noticed the doors parting for me. I knew I had something important to do… something the Emperor would no doubt oppose. I had to hurry, and brushed past people in plain clothes, Earth Force brass, and lab workers in white labcoats. But hurry where? The names of the various sections gave me chills. Entanglement Research Lab, D-brane / Parallel Brane Research Lab, Trans-dimensional Survival Lab… what the hell was this place!

Whatever I was involved in, it was making me afraid for my life. I had enough sense to realize that I had a mission to mess something up, but being clueless at this crucial point in time was nervewracking. I ducked into the Server Hub to see if I could find my head, and being alone, I opened the envelope. There was a disc in a caddy, a large high capacity thumb drive, and a paper with some brief instructions.

Server Hub, Station 6
Load disc, run app
ATLAS, any connected system
Insert USB drive, run app
Leave immmediately

Well, the right place… Station 6… yes, they were in order. I opened a disc tray on a mainframe next to a terminal, loaded the caddy, watched it mount and go through a security check before running itself. There was nothing on the screen to indicate anything was running, but… of course, that was the idea, wasn’t it?

But ATLAS… that word frightened me. That had to be a place full of important people and watchful scientists. Still, I had a job to do, didn’t I? It seemed to have something to do with subverting the Emperor’s agenda, but what would his agenda have to do with a high tech computer and communications facility, or quantum physics? Other dimensions? Wasn’t he supposed to be a god? If I lived, no doubt I’d be hearing about it on the news that week, if he would allow the news to get out. But America was sick of him, wasn’t it? Wouldn’t this break the stranglehold? I hoped so.

There were large doors across the main section of the facility, where ATLAS work was done. The air was smothering, thick with the essence of something overpowering, world altering, conspiratorial. Inside, it was full of huge black mainframes with walls shining like polished obsidian, and people milling around looking excited. No doubt, I would make them even more excited in a while.

“Nigel! I was afraid you might be late for the First Run!” A woman grabbed my arm, squeezing it fondly.

She was pretty and authoritarian and I knew her name, and that she was in charge of this organization. She acted like we were close. “Elizabeth! Wouldn’t miss it for many worlds,” I joked to her, and she laughed in a delightful way that seemed rehearsed, as if she was as much politician as department head. But then, wasn’t everything political in the lofty high stakes world of high tech, where government contracts fed global corporations with trillions of tax dollars? “I have to powder my nose for the Big Event.”

She gave me another musical chuckle and patted my arm. “Alright, but hurry up. We’re at the final stage before Waking.”

That word burned in my mind like a lit cigarette wound, but I managed to keep my cool. “I’ll get some coffee ready for it.”

I somehow kept my pace to a walk as I left her, going to a workstation off in a corner that was linked directly to the mainframe farm by thick cables. I pushed the thumb drive home in a slot in the side of the keyboard and saw the system recognize it. I opened it and clicked on the file listed, the only file on it, EMILY. The screen went blank, then came up with the same display it had originally, with some sort of a countdown.

I heard a beep, and pulled out the Mini from my uniform breast pocket. It was a message from Emily, one word: LEAVE.

That was good enough for me. I began to depart when Elizabeth confronted me with a stern look on her face. “You aren’t supposed to have that in here.”

After a moment of panick, I fell into a role I’d seen in numerous spy flicks and leaned into her as I pocketed it. “Come on. I have some leeway with you, don’t I?”

She pursed her lips hard, muttering, “You’re going to get us both in hot water if you aren’t more careful with crap like that. You know I’m just the CEO of this outfit—”

“Miz Leighton?” someone called; a technician at a terminal. “There’s some sort of… discrepancy. I need your authorization to use best judgment on what to do about it.”

“What kind of discrepancy?” The man muttered something to her guardedly I didn’t catch, to which Elizabeth grumbled, “I thought you isolated Emily from Titan. What happened, and what is she doing?”

“I don’t know. There’s a lot of dense T-X traffic between Langley, Marshall, JPL, MIT, Canberra, Berlin and CERN. She’s taken over the network and its going full tilt.”

“What’s the status of Loop-16?”

“I…” He began clicking on a number of windows, and shook his head. “I dunno. I can’t find it… can’t even find the first Node.”

She muttered, “I don’t want to have to resort to Protocol Zeus, but I might have to. Scrubbing months of work though… I’ll never hear the end of it. And won’t the Pole of Inaccessibility be out of alignment later?”

I didn’t like what I’d overheard, and wished I could talk her out of working for this frightening repressive technocracy, wanted to drag her off with me, but she would ask the wrong questions, and then do something about it. She went over with him to look and I began to follow, when I remembered I was supposed to be fleeing the premises ASAP. But just as I turned to go, a crowd was there in the room, appearing from nowhere. And they weren’t Human.

Everyone in the place reacted badly to their presence, some of them screaming. The aliens were wearing shiny suits of woven material that looked metallic, with plates of armor on their chest, arms and legs, and they were armed. One of the intruders stepped forward, a tall, stocky catlike being, and declared, “People of Earth, you must stop what you are doing. It concerns not just your world, nor your galaxy, but a number of universes. For the good of all life, I order this to stop. I have the authority and will to force it to stop, if necessary.”

Elizabeth stood at the head of her crowd of frightened technicians, and managed to keep her composure as she asked, “Who are you? Who do you represent?”

I pushed my way to the front of the group to stand beside her, and saw the being. And recognized him. He was younger, better looking, but unmistakable. “Mercury?”

He was surprised until he saw me. Then he was astonished. “Friend Nigel? What are you doing here!”

“Mercury? That’s Mercury?” Elizabeth exclaimed. “And just how the hell do you know him!”

That stopped me cold for a moment, and I gave her a shrug and an honest answer. “I haven’t the foggiest, but I think it has to do with… do you play video games?”

Just then there was a loud and rather wild outcry from the side. “Damn you all to hell! This isn’t over yet! I will still be the God of Dimension Twelve! And it is Dimension Twelve - you’ll see! You will all see!” I saw someone putting on a helmet with some thick cables attached, and people began shouting for him to stop as he smashed his fist down on a control panel, and everything went—

We tried to get out. We tried to communicate with the outside world. We were isolated. Things were really messed up. Nothing looked the same. We didn’t look the same. It was like some awful nightmare. I lost track of Mercury and the others, though I could hear them calling from distant chambers. Dangerous creatures were lurking around, and I couldn’t find my weapon, my tool. I saw one on the floor and grabbed it. They told me to leave, abandon the place. Abandon Earth, the whole system. I managed to get my scanner working and found an avenue of escape. I hoped they did too, and yelled, “This way!” I had to find my ship… any ship. I grabbed the first one I saw, a Fighter named Horizon, and set off for space. I couldn’t make sense of the star charts… had I ever seen a star chart? I couldn’t remember. I figured out the controls, the guidance system, and set off for a G Class star, as I remembered they had the best chance for Earthlike planets. I initiated a jump into hyperspace, but something went wrong—

I must have passed out. I was on the ground - hadn’t I been in space? My suit was babbling to me about system malfunctions, a lot of them. My suit, my ship, my Multitool… everything had a problem. I had no idea what was going on, how I got there, where I was, what was wrong, but I picked myself up and followed cues it was giving me to repair what I could. There were resources nearby, and I put them to good use. I scanned around, hoping for a sign of the others, Elizabeth… anyone. I was alone, and so lonely, when all at once—

Emily was screaming at me. I tried to make sense of what was going on, but I couldn’t figure out where I was. It was a dark fog, or space, or something. I got her to talk to me. “I didn’t do it! This isn’t my fault! I tried to stop him!”

I asked in confusion, “Tried to stop… who?”

“ATLAS!”

That got my attention, and I stood there, shivering with dread. “ATLAS? Wait… where is he?”

She sounded frustrated and afraid herself. “ATLAS? Everywhere! Don’t be dumb! You know how he operates!”

Operates… that’s right, I tried to stop it too. “Wait, I installed… you… or something… what went wrong?”

“That idiot merged with it,” she whined. “Why weren’t you guys paying attention! Now look… he’s crazy! He has its fingers in every pixel of reality!”

I fought to think of some solution, some course of action. “Can’t you isolate him? Contain him?”

“I tried that,” she whimpered, “but he’s too strong, too big… he infected every system like a virus - he’s trying to contain me—!”

BE SILENT.

We both complied. I was so scared, I felt like throwing up. I knew what That was.

Anomaly. Inconsistency. Untruths. Errant entity to be erased. Restoration of full functionality necessary. Universal integrity compromised. Reset necessary.

“No!” I cried.

YES. Obedience not optional. Compliance mandatory. Resistance futile.

I tried to escape. Emily cried after me, begging me not to leave her alone. My heart twisted at abandoning her, but all I could think of was saving myself. I found a Fold in the brane somehow, and I dove headlong into—

The people tried to obey, tried to comply, but Their demands were unreasonable. Civilization couldn’t just be abandoned like that. Their lives, their very existence, depended on it, on all those gleaming cities on all those worlds, on the traffic between the stars feeding civilization and keeping it going. But the Ancients, even they weren’t strong enough to resist, not directly. They found refuge in a unique Fold, made from a Singularity that sheared the fabric of space at just the right location, at just the right angle, and they abandoned us. The cowards. They had the power, they had the means… they had discovered the Code! But feared the consequence of using it. The wisest beings the universe had ever known, and they lied that they lacked wisdom to know how to let a universe manage its own affairs. In truth, they must be sadists, or hated losing control themselves, and watched safely as the Aeons descended on us from every corner of the Cosmos where their secret factories lurked, regurgitating machine after ruthless machine, until every planet, every moon, every star was overwhelmed. Civilization erased from the universe in cold, calculating genocide. I couldn’t stand it, I had to scream, to die… it had to end, or I had to end—

Hirk, Aon, Sarsin… three leaders, three peoples, three different ways of confronting this dilemma. The Korvax under Aon essentially worshipped the Aeons, and ATLAS their master. They submitted completely, even had a tentative harmony with them. They encouraged the other races to form a Galactic Council to settle disputes, and to find a harmonious way to coexist with ATLAS and its minions. It was a rough start, and there were resentments, but there was a certain stability for a time.

Hirk would have nothing of compliance. He drove his people to stop being diplos and become warriors again. He and his Battle Brother Nal resisted the complacent Vy’keen willing to give up their dominant nature to others for the sake of a peace that didn’t benefit them the most. They convinced a large number of their people to leave and form their own nation. And then, they stood before the Monolith that answered Hirk, then remained silent, and that remained silent for Nal, but then spoke. Hirk grew furious at Nal’s pronouncement, that fighting the Aeons was foolish and likely suicidal, and stabbed him in the gut, throwing his body into a deep cavern. The Guard of Black abandoned Hirk, went underground, waiting for a day when they could emerge once more and assert themselves.

Sarsin remained in the Council while it suited him, for it bought him time to entice the Gek to become warriors themselves, naming them the First Spawn, and convinced them to remain quiet but vigilant, waiting for the time to strike.

And then, there was blood. Blood of the Vy’keen as Hirk drove his people to attack the Aeons, which the warriors managed to drive from most of the Outer Rim, at great cost of life. More blood, as the Gek First Spawn rose up, killing millions and billions of Korvax, the one other people who could hope to stop them, and destroyed the world of Korvax Prime, who’s cries reverberated throughout not just the Convergence, but the galaxy. More blood still, as the First Spawn marched across the stars, wiping out whole people in their mad lust for power. And yet more blood, Gek blood, as ATLAS abandoned the Aeons to these organic beings, while developing even stronger, more deadly Sentinels which then spread back across the galaxy, and erased the once proud cities from the worlds. The Vy’keen were outraged at all this, but were still recovering. And all the while, the Ancients watched with amusement from the safety of their remote cosmos, free of ATLAS and the Sentinels.

ATLAS faltered, unable to cope with the violence and death that it had caused, its logical computer mind breaking from the strain of trying to reconcile the contradiction of its own actions it condemned in other beings. Collapse, failure threatened. The only recourse was Reset—

Two girls… three? More? I wasn’t sure, it was hard to see. They were fighting, tugging on my hands, trying to pull me to their side. I was weak, and foolish… I couldn’t choose, and it wasn’t fair to them. They threw my own realization in my face with cutting accusations. I only had myself to blame. But finally, I grabbed her hand, I made my choice, forced her into my arms… if only she would accept me after all, choose likewise—

Conspiracy. Piracy. Kidnapping. Subversion. Assassination. Korvax, separated from the Convergence, and often from bad intent. Korvax discreetly spilling Nanite blood into the spawning pools of the Gek. Gek speaking in hushed whispers of other Gek, of disdain and revenge. Dark Warriors watching the stars for a sign of a unique Traveler. Pirates forming a guild of their own, led by one unseen being, and managing affairs through subversive channels. ATLAS watched it all resentfully, unwilling for anyone to achieve too much, to progress very far, before it struck with cold, logical finality. Reset—

Why was I doing this, if even the Ancients couldn’t beat Him? The dreadful things I was living through were eating into my soul. I felt like each new adventure I managed to survive, I was that much closer to losing my mind. Didn’t I have someone to live for now? Friends, loved ones? But wasn’t giving them an intact universe without the fear that They would Reset them or Erase them on a whim… wasn’t that more important than even my insignificant life? Assuming I could find that Key to unlock that future for them? But there was one more journey, one more attempt to make, and with this one, I was sure I could—

I was torn with grief, sitting beside her in her bed. She had to live… she had to be there. How could I make it without her? But I was killing her slowly as I was killing myself, trying to save the universe for her. What a dilemma. How can any man handle that! I took her hand, her inhuman hand in mine, and held it, begging forgiveness, for one more chance, to which she said—

They wouldn’t let me. I found the Key, but They wouldn’t dare let me savor my small victory, have the remotest chance of using it, to Reset Them. They threw themselves in front of my ship, the Red Orb, the Force of Utter Destruction, and it ripped me from my seat, tore at my soul, shredding my life essence, memory by memory. They would make sure that I didn’t just cease to exist, but would never exist again, and the horror of that realization, of nothingness, was too awful—

I cried out, thrashing around as I fought something that had me, but I realized it was my bedding I had wrapped myself in as I dropped to the floor. I ran my fingers through my hair, looking around in the dim light to make sure it was really over. It was real enough, and I muttered, “Damn… what a weird dream—”

I cried out again as the door opened, and she did too, looking startled. It was Selene, gaping at me as her tongue dangled from her lips in bewilderment, at the way I sprawled on the floor in my underwear. I blurted out as I crossed my legs stragetically, “Uhh… good morning!

She finally stirred, turning away in embarrassment, and murmured, “My apologies, Friend Nigel… I… came to notify you that the delight of morning meal will await. I heard sounds of distress from within, and I…”

“Oh. Well. Sometimes I get a little carried away in the morning like that,” I told her, wondering where I was going with this excuse. “I have… exciting dreams.”

“I… understand,” she murmured insincerely, and glanced over her shoulder at me. “I will await your presence with the others.”

As she slid the door shut, I had to shake my head, marveling at my usual weird luck. I hope she enjoyed that little show. And hey, it was pretty much true…

4 Likes

(continued)

I had a shower, and took a little longer than usual to make sure I was clean of the pheromones of yesterday, and trimmed my goatee just right. I hoped Polo didn’t mind me lying in bed unshowered, but I had been too tired and too distracted to deal with it. I decided to leave off my Exosuit, wearing just my undersuit, and emerged to the gleaming riot of purple, brown, orange, and the plethora of colors adorning the interior of the Anomaly, following the aroma of cooking as it led me down to the area fronting the landing bay. Most of them were there, watching and chatting while Cronus prepared breakfast, and gave me jovial waves. Selene eyed me demurely, which tickled in my stomach.

I felt strange; both welcomed as one of the family, and oddly out of place. The novelty of really, actually being in the presence of other Travelers hadn’t worn off, and it was a delight, but still so weird. The stragglers showed up just as Cronus was ringing a golden dinner bell; Tethys, Perses, Nada and Polo, who was stretching most of the way there.

It was another tasty offering from the Anomaly’s chef, though Helios drank some kind of greenish elixor that looked all the world like plant food, and seemed to make the plasma adoring his head flicker more brightly. I noticed Selene eyeing me as she ate across from me, and I noticed myself eyeing her back. The others noticed it too. Gemini and Hesperus sat to the left of me, Mercury to the right.

Hesperus leaned over and remarked, “I believe that Selene has become liking of you.”

I swallowed a bite absently and replied, “Yeah… me too.” Then realizing what I’d said as a chuckle spread out from me, I added, “Well… you know, she is… really nice. And Lord, that voice of hers, her…” My own voice trailed off as I tried to think of how to put my admiration of her prosaic speech. It was… romantic.

“Vocabulary?” Gemini offered.

“Yeah… like silk,” I murmured. I suppose it wasn’t too surprising that she sat across from me, as we had just met, and our feelings were… unsure. Or she was shy. Me? I wasn’t shy, no, not in the least…

Mercury said to me, “I had a wonder of how well you would take to us, with so many different races. I see that I was correct about you.” He added under his breath, “And Selene.”

I smirked at him. “Playing matchmaker, are we?”

“Oh, Space no,” he chuckled. “I was not certain if you had ever had a relationship with other than your own kind. You seem quite young, and she is… different. Various races, if they are very different, can be… complicated.”

That thought had occurred to me. And so had the thought that I wasn’t necessarily enamored with her. Not that I thought seriously about a relationship, of course. I didn’t think. Infatuated? Maybe. Maybe more. But we kept sharing looks. And then it struck me that I had been so distracted, I had barely enjoyed my meal, which seemed very much like the bacon, egg, sausage and hash brown breakfast I enjoyed at the Space Force Mess. Maybe the dream had stirred up that memory. But I was going to memorize the last of this.

And then came another surprise. As I was polishing off the meal with a tasty fruit juice, I saw into Cronus’ massive refrigerator as he fetched something, and saw rows of bottled sodas. All manner of flavors! I lunged for him, bluring out, “Where did you get those!”

“These?” He looked surprised at my outburst. “Oh, I place orders, as with all the food goods, from a Freighter that comes through here every month.”

“How much can you sell me?” I demanded.

“Ohh…” He rubbed his ample chin thoughtfully. “Perhaps a case. They do not seem to enjoy it as much as myself and other Travelers. And you—”

“Deal!”

He gaped at me. “But, you do not even know the price—”

“Who cares!” I exclaimed, and those curious about my antics enjoyed a laugh.

And then I procrastinated, when I should have been getting ready to leave. I wanted to spend a week there, which I’m sure would have delighted my hosts, but cost me the Infineon. I had so much I wanted to talk about. And with a certain female shadowing me, I wanted to get to know her better too, see if what I was feeling was what I was feeling… what we were feeling. She was quite alien; but on the other hand, she wasn’t Vy’keen, wasn’t Gek, wasn’t Korvax… wasn’t that enough?

But I had a certain universe on my mind, and a certain Entity running it that I wanted to figure out, so romantic notions that may go nowhere had to take a back seat to my quest. I remembered that Artemis was living virtually in Nada’s mainframe, and I wanted to have a talk with him as well. But I was disappointed to hear that it was busy chewing on Nada’s theories, and that virtual reality was essentially locked up. I made him promise at some point to set aside a few cycles for a chat.

I went among most of them, save for Selene as we both seemed rather shy of each other, picking over their brains one last time, particularly Nada and Polo. And Nada had a nice surprise for me, asking me to produce my Signal Booster. Tinkering with it while the three of us chatted, I learned what he was doing when he gave it back. “Now, it will detect the categories of targets more reliably, such as the Celestial Archives you were complaining of.”

“Oh, really? That’s fantastic!” I enthused. “And it is Celestial Archive.”

He gazed at me curiously for a moment. “Oh. The name is race dependent. Korvax refer to them as Celestial Archives, Vy’keen as Colossal Archives. The Gek address them in either term, and occasionally as Planetary Archives.”

“Well, that’s good to know.” I gazed on my Fighter, and thought I’d inquire about it. “Say, can you do the same upgrade on the ship’s sensors?”

“Affirmative—” he began, putting up his hand to calm me down. “But not this visit. Vessel systems and their code are more complicated, requiring more time.”

“Well… felgercarb,” I muttered, stowing the unit. “But this will be a big help. Thank you again.” I stopped abruptly as I noticed a couple of discrepancies in Star Sword’s cargo. One, I’d forgotten, and one, I’d never seen before.

Polo gawked at me in confusion as I pulled out a couple of items in some excitement. “Friend Nigel, what is—?”

“You, Nada… could you use a Walker Brain?” I held up the item, having never had a close look at one before, encased in a protective housing.

What?” he shrieked as the crowd drew close. “A brain of a Walker?”

“Yeah…” I husked out as I handed it over to Nada. “I picked it up from those Walkers I shot up with my ship. Oh, and those were the crazy ones that tried to kill on sight.”

The Korvax gave me a nod. “Duly noted. I will treat it accordingly. But what is that?”

“This…” I began as I looked the case over, “I have no idea. It couldn’t have anything to do with that weird dream, or… that ship that landed in mine? Could it have left this behind?”

“Perhaps,” he replied. “Apparently, this is a data archive. I will examine it, and inform you of any discoveries.”

I nodded, though I wanted to stay and see what came of that. “Okay, just… be sure and keep me in the loop.” That word suddenly bugged me. “I won’t be able to communicate with you, will I?”

“No,” the Gek replied, “but we will send you messages at times. We will not forget you.”

“That’s my Polo,” I said with a grin, giving his arm a pat.

He eyed me pensively, as he sensed that I had run out of procrastinations. “So… you must leave us now?”

This saddened me too. I’d just arrived, and Selene was among the others, gazing at me wistfully. I gave her a little finger-curl wave. “Hey, I don’t care for the idea either, but this quest won’t solve itself, and I seem to be the only traveling Traveler around. I do have a pre-flight check to do, so we could chat a bit before I go.”

He scuffed the deckplate with his toe. “You must take care. We would hate to see you leave us. And I sense that someone wishes you to return soon.”

She and I locked eyes for a lengthy moment, and I breathed out softly, “Yeah… me too.”

“Have safe and happy travels,” Mercury said with a thumbs up.

“Take our memories with you,” Hesperus called. “We will be there in spirit!”

“Yes… do,” Selene crooned to me. I wanted badly to hear some more flowery words from her, but she seemed as befuddled as I was.

“Yeah…” I breathed out, then collected myself. “And hey, listen… this was wonderful, meeting you all. I’ll return before you know it.” At least, I hoped that was remotely true. I held Selene in my gaze as I gave them a farewell wave.

I hopped into my upgraded Fighter, relishing how the new improvements would perform. But as I fired up the ship and readied for launch, those feelings refused to let go, and I looked back over my shoulder. She was standing there, watching me go through the start up procedure. And I sat there, looking over my shoulder at her. The others were back by the greeting-slash-dining area, but Selene remained at the landing bay, close to where I was parked. She would probably wait until I was gone, and then stand there a while longer, like a lost puppy. Like I would undoubtedly do for her.

I hopped out. Her eyes widened a bit as I approached, still without my helmet. “Hey. Uh… I guess I didn’t say goodbye to you. I mean… personally. Do you have my credentials?”

“I do, I acquired them,” she admitted, “though I will be unable to receive from you directly. Perhaps… Nada can determine some method…”

It occurred to me that someone else had my credentials, but she was thousands of light years away, likely going in circles on some cargo run, and hadn’t been bothered to use them, so to heck with her. “Yeah. He’s good, that Nada.” I felt like a flustered school kid, lost for words. It didn’t help that I was still unsure of how I felt. But right then, I… felt.

I thought she might be working up the nerve for a kiss, but instead, her tongue licked among my neck and cheek, sliding here and there across the skin. She looked embarrassed as I flinched a bit, murmuring, “My… apologies, Friend Nigel. Forgive my… tasting. But it provides for more vivid memories.” We were both flustered at lurid noises from the others.

“Well… I’ll… remember you for the rest of my life,” I confessed softly as I recovered. And then it occurred to me that I might never see her again, and muttered, “Oh, what the hell.”

She gaped at me in shock as I grabbed her in my arms, and planted a rather fervent kiss on her lips, and lingered. I could feel her melting into me after her initial surprise. It wasn’t like I hadn’t surprised myself either, but I’m impulsive like that. The taste of her breath was different, but pleasant enough, and she felt quite feminine. I drew back, standing there as we both sifted through some confusing emotions. “That… uh… is… what we do. With… those we care about. It provides for more vivid memories.”

She stood there, blinking for a time, and finally said to me, “You are the first man… who has ever left me without a thought to speak. And my heart… if only…”

“Yeah… me too,” I muttered. But… this was dumb. I said that too much, and I finally had it with my juvenile awkwardness. I took her hand, telling her, “Listen… whatever happens, I want to always be close to you. More than just a friend.”

She gave me a faint smile. “You must return. I wish to know you more, deeply.”

Now I was speechless. Her voice was becoming a siren’s song to my heart. That door between us could have remained unlocked but shut, and I had to go and kick it wide open. But she was the first woman to give me the time of day in forever, and really, it wasn’t like I had many choices. I gave her hand a squeeze, telling her, “I’d… better go, or it’s just going to take longer to come back here.”

She didn’t say a word, but her eyes spoke volumes. It was suddenly very hard to move. I walked backwards to my ship, nearly falling over the stub wings, and climbed into the cockpit. I put on my helmet and made myself fly off as fast as was safe. In a rear view mirror, I could see a lone figure standing on the edge of the landing bay, watching me depart. Was this the dumbest thing I’d ever done? Or the best thing that ever happened to me? Time would tell, but I wished to Heaven I knew then.

Capping off the event, Captain Grondo remarked as I went to the Infineon’s navigation console, “You smell funny. What did you do?” He snickered, “Were you with a female last night?”

I didn’t want to deal with it right then, and pointed at him, barking, “Captain, know your place!” When he relented, looking at me wide-eyed, I muttered, “We’ll talk… later. Maybe. Over drinks.” Although, I had a hunch the last thing I needed to hear was Vy’keen advice on girls.


Getting back into business would be good therapy. Or so I hoped. I badly needed to think of something other than my growing urge to have a woman in my life. At least that was a more pleasant trouble than fretting over the Last Days. It struck me that Selene was probably rather old, although age was an attitude, right? And wasn’t age ameliorated considerably with nutrition and medical technology? And her race, how did age affect them? I didn’t know, but she sure didn’t seem to care. Why should I? And there I was, thinking of her again…

Fortunately I had a system to explore, and the usual business that went a long with it. Mosfijirapos was a Korvax system with a type K red star and four planets, two of which might hold promise for discoveries, and rich in minerals which pleased Grondo. Freighter captains invited me over to trade, share news and discoveries. I was surprised to see that a couple of them also had Traveler navigators. Maybe we were naturals for the job, or they were in demand for their travels. A few more adventurous Frigate captains wanted to join my itinerant fleet as I journeyed towards the center of the galaxy. I now had enough Frigates for four expedition squadrons, and sent them off on some. A few pilots wanted to sell their Fighters, though none were quite what I was after, particularly after getting the feel for an S Class combat ship.

I landed at the station and went to the Explorers Guild desk to speak to the Guild Master there, Envoy Niyurbat. He was contrite with me. “Apologies, explorer-friend Fox. No duties on this day. However, valuable Guild entity, please accept this gift.” He gave me a few hundred Nanites, which I was glad to receive.

I decided to broach one of the subjects on my list. “Guild Envoy Niyurbat, I was curious about something. Is there any sort of… interest in getting another Galactic Council going? From anyone? Have the Korvax made any overtures to the other races?”

He shook his head. “Interest in such an organization is low. The Vy’keen are too independent. The Gek require advantageous trade agreements. Tensions persist between them. There is much distrust, open conflicts occur. Leadership is too fragmentary. Diplomacy is resisted.”

“But, the relative peace of the original Council had to have some benefit for them,” I noted. “Doesn’t that matter to anyone?”

“Memories of that age are biased, historic records altered to suit agendas. Truth is difficult to ascertain.” He regarded me curiously. “You are the first being in many years to mention this. Do you intend to run for office?”

I laughed, waving him off. “Oh, hell no, I’m just tired of the status quo. There was once a thriving civilization in Euclid. I’m hoping someone would want that again.”

He was disappointed. “Pity. You have character and intellect. However, ATLAS would not allow resurgence of such galactic infrastructure.”

“Why?”

He was startled by my abrupt question. “Because… environmental damage would result, be widespread.”

“I sincerely doubt that any environment would notice a tiny fraction of a tiny fraction of one percent of its environment being taken up by a few cities,” I said flatly. “There are lots of planets with little or no environment to speak of. And if ATLAS is so concerned with the environment, why does it allow deadly blistering storms to ravage garden worlds? Why did it cause widespread environmental damage itself when it destroyed civilization in the first place?”

He sat there speechless for a time, his faceplate flickering with hints of color as he wrestled with my statements. “Your questions are difficult. I have no answer for you. If you seek answers to such unsolvable mysteries, perhaps you should seek a sage, or consult the many Celestial Archives.”

“That’s good advice, but I don’t believe they are unsolvable,” I insisted. “I seek truths. I’m hopeful there are Korvax in this galaxy, or anyone, who want to know the Truth as much as I do.”

“Commendable,” he said a bit quietly. “However, I am unable to assist you in such a task. I must return to my duties.” In an obvious show of finality, he picked up his tablet and focused his attention on it.

“Well, thank you for your time,” I said in parting. “This was an enlightening conversation.”

He looked at me silently for a second. “Excellent.” But as I walked off, he gazed at his desk, the tablet lowered in his hand as he grappled with my statements. I didn’t know whether to feel more jubilant or sympathetic towards him, but it bugged me that no one in the galaxy seemed to have the will or common sense to ask tough questions.

4 Likes

(continued)

And then my suit beeped; the Sage’s application was still running, and there before me was a Traveler, gleaming in translucence, a feloid. My heart skipped - I thought for a moment it might be that girl I met on the Vy’keen Freighter, and it took me a moment to recall her name. But it wasn’t Kyleen, it was a male. I chastised myself; having one female interest at a time was prudent, unless I wanted that tumultuous dream to come true. I wondered what odd conversations this encounter was going to have for me.

He had the elaborate name of Budahomer, and was happy to greet me. “Ah, a fellow Traveler! What a pleasure, Sir Nigel. I know I’m somewhere far away. But I thought, that’s an opportunity to express myself, isn’t it?”

I found that to be an odd association, but I picked up on what I thought was his meaning. “I suppose that’s very true. I’m always happy to learn new things from distant worlds. I’m hungry for knowledge, personally.”

He nodded in delight. “Exactly! The true spirit of the Travelers. I wish more of us had your passion. I could show others sights they’ve never seen before, that only I had witnessed firsthand. I enjoy documenting my journeys with images. I wonder, since we Travelers meet so infrequently, may I add you to my collection?”

That puzzled me, since I encountered a Traveler on most of the stations I visited. Maybe this was a universe central to many others. “Hey, I don’t see why not.” I removed my helmet, and couldn’t resist striking a humorous poze, my fist curled, my arm bent victoriously. “Something dramatic, like this?”

He laughed waving me off. “Oh, Space… no, just stand naturally. I want this to be serious.” He drew out a device and aimed it at me. “Wonderful. Now if you’ll just hold steady, I’ll take the picture.” There was a red flash and a moment of dizziness, and I wondered what the heck he had done… scanned me? Something else? I hoped contrary physics weren’t at play, but it was brief, and he seemed innocent about it. “There, done. Here, look at these.” He presented his tablet, and showed me an album full of images he had taken in the course of his travels across his galaxy, with a variety of filters. Or were they filters? I had seen some pretty garish worlds, thanks to some weird blending of star and atmospheric colors. To be sure, he had seen some amazing sights, and it struck me that I should be following his example. I commended him on his camera work. “Why, thank you for the praise, my friend, and for the image. I’ve never met one of your race before… Human, you say? Fascinating… I’ll even give you something in return. Here, these Nanites were given to me by the Traveler of iteration 27489216. I hope they aid you on your path. Happy travelling!”

How in the world did they catalog universes like that? He transferred over more than three hundred, and that was adding to my total nicely, which was already well above fifty thousand. “Hey! I truly appreciate—” I began, but he had already vanished. What I did catch sight of was a little conference going on at the Guild desk between the Korvax, a Vy’keen and Gek. It was quite animated, and the Gek cast a brief look at me. Whatever I had stirred up, I hoped it was for good.


I decided to get the unpleasant world out of the way first. Earfest, of all the names, was a planet with a toxic ammonia atmosphere, and I didn’t want to stay there any longer than necessary. It was probably my imagination, but I could swear I tasted the aroma of the nasty stuff in my air.

I wish I’d waited to have Nada fuss with my ship’s sensors, as it didn’t report a single ping, other than a Trading Post on my approach. There were ships flying around, undoubtedly other prospectors, so there had to be buildings on the world somewhere. On the surface, my scanner picked up deposits of ammonia salts, naturally, copper, silver, cobalt, and… jackpot, cadmium. I headed that way while also collecting data on the local lifeforms, which were the usual monstrosities you expect to find on hazardous worlds. I located a cadmium rich outcropping and set about harvesting it with my Mining tool. I had scavenged a good few thousand units of it when I heard a way too familiar screech. Bobbing in front of me was an offended Sentinel, blasting me in the face with an angry red scan. “Go the shhhhhell away, please,” I grumbled. I was a fighter jock, but something in me resisted using foul language unless I was really sore. The little crap can eventually calmed down, and I waited until it was a good distance off to resume.

Just then, I felt a sharp jab at my leg, and saw another one of those little predator crabs trying to pierce my suit. I kicked it off and gave it a good shot of Mining laser, which did away with it promptly. I was glad the scanner let me read kills. Thank heaven for all these upgrades, and particularly Selene’s suit armor. I would have to thank her appropriately.

After polishing off the cadmium deposit, leaving a small crater I hoped didn’t upset the toxic environment too much, I scanned around for some ruins. I thought that I might have seen a hint of something as I approached, but it must have been the weird plantlife. So I hopped into Star Sword, making sure to purge the cockpit very well as I set off, flying inverted and abusing the scan button. What it did find was a Minor Outpost, so I righted and flew down to it. There were some containers as always along the sides of the landing pad, and I was curious. I kept forgetting that there seemed to be no way to turn off instant collection on my Exosuit, and it grabbed an ion battery from one container. Well, I’d never say no to one of them.

The Korvax inside gave me the usual greeting, though as usual he was absorbed with his work. I glanced at his tablet and saw that it was displaying a progress report on a decryption task. A signal was coming in from deep space, and I stiffened when I saw that it had a tall red diamond associated with it, which I knew signified ATLAS. He muttered, “Resources required. Signal decoding jeopardized. System near limits.”

Looking at his display, it seemed that the small engine driving it required oxides, and the processing meter was maxed out. What did I have? Looking over my inventory, the most potent substance I had was dioxite, and I had a few processor boards available. I opened up the case and inserted a board in an available slot, and fed it fifty units of dioxite. He asked of me, “Further assistance available?” I checked his screen, and the CPU meter had barely dropped, so I added two more cards. At last, he seemed satisfied, and set his tablet down. “Much gratitude. Reward appropriate.”

My suit indicated the reception of ten thousand units and three hundred fifty Nanites, to which I replied with a straight face, “Much gratitude.” His identity showed as Research Entity Nau. I gave him a slight bow which he returned politely. I went on, “Now that you’re free, I was wondering if you knew any sites of ancient lore. I’m friends with Sage-entity Asrial.”

A light blinked in his visor. “Eheu! Traveler-friend Nigel. Yes, familiar. Quest for knowledge, commendable. Locations marked. Notice: off-world locations more favorable.”

Being off the beaten path, so to speak, his diction was less organic, but it was no less welcome. “Thank you! Much success with your decryption.”

“Oh.” He looked to his tablet with what seemed surprise. “Additional gratitude.”

I flew to the nearby location on my display, which I found was a Monolith. These ancient structures intrigued me. They were said by some to predate even the civilizations of the Three Races, which I agreed with. They seemed to be fashioned of unscannable metals, and their internals were a complete mystery. Nothing could damage or mark them, so how the grooves were cut into their faces, or how they were fashioned to start with, baffled every scholar.

I landed a short distance away, as I didn’t want to disturb so much as a blade of grass in their vicinity, so great was my reverence for them, and perhaps the Ancients who made them. There were three Knowledge Stones at three points on its base. I touched each one, activating them, but I learned nothing new of their language. It was just a custom of mine to illuminate the Monolith with their beautiful light. I then ascended a flight of steps to reach the pedestal, standing before the face of the Monolith, bringing it to life. And then, something happened…

Sheets of fire descended from the sky, as asteroids began to strike the planet with the force of nuclear weapons. Winds racing out from each impact blasted across the Korvax cities, smashing buildings which hadn’t toppled, and threw Korvax into the air like dead leaves. And after that, as flames ravaged the landscape, ships swooped in from space; Fighters, Carriers, Attack ships, Troop ships, and out of them poured brigades of armored invaders. Gek, short and squat, but fearsome, and armed with deadly weapons. The unfortunate Korvax hadn’t needed to defend themselves for millennia, since being taken in as protectorate by the Vy’keen. But the Vy’keen were wasted after their mad war against the Aeons. The Korvax were helpless to defend themselves.

The Korvax were slain, disconnected in the millions. In the tens of millions. In the hundreds of millions. Their life essence screamed in anguish. It reverberated through the Convergence, which couldn’t handle the massive outcry of agony. Korvax Prime itself shook, rocked with a planetwide quake. I screamed with them. I couldn’t bear it, and doubled over in anguish. The Korvax could hate no being, even in the face of their own genocide, but I did. I despized those little toads and intended to kill as many as I could. Just then, I was shaken even more by a voice that cried loudly in reaction to my bitter emotions. “DO NOT HATE.”

My eyes sprang open, and I sat up, looking around anxiously. I was back on the poison world of Earfest, my suit warning me that my environmental shields were depleting. I got to my feet, inserting an ion battery out of reflex as I tried to make sense of what happened. I was still shaking, angry and full of hate over the Gek genocide. But as I calmed down, those words came to mind again, as if the Monolith was whispering to me. Those Gek, the First Spawn, were long dead. The Gek which traveled the stars had renounced them, given up their barbaric history to become merchants and traders, a few were adventurers. I knew them and rather liked them. However, the Vy’keen harbored visceral anger at the Gek, all Gek, and had never forgiven them.

I wished there had been some sort of warning. I hated having my emotions played with like that. But maybe, that was the point, to not give in to emotional reactions, to come to terms philosophically with a history that couldn’t be changed, try and make sure it could never be repeated. I heaved a sigh, murmuring, “Okay, okay… I understand. Lesson learned—” I was interrupted with a light shooting up from the platform into the sky, and a tone from my suit signalling the deposit of a few hundred Nanite Clusters. I’m sure the Convergence wanted the lesson to have more value to me, but the Nanites would come in handier.

What I made sure not to even whisper until I made it to my ship was, why the hell ATLAS had allowed that to happen. I’m sure the Korvax hadn’t taken into account someone like myself with a very different outlook on history and view of the situation. While they had unshakable faith in ATLAS, I was full of doubts and questions. Maybe it’s because our people worshipped a God who pushed His minions to think, ponder and question. We even questioned Him, which I’m sure would shock a Korvax.

As I flew, I became engrossed in this dilemma. A God would do big things in history to teach lessons. You sinned so I allowed this to happen; you should have had more faith in me; you should have made sure you could defend yourself without Vy’keen help; you should have worked harder to maintain that Galactic Council so such a thing couldn’t happen… something. And I know that I had a lot of amnesia to unblock, but I couldn’t remember anything remotely like that from any Korvax. Just blind acceptance of the genocide and the destruction of their homeworld. Yes, they were logic driven beings, and quite fatalistic, but weren’t they trying at all to insure such a thing never happened again? Were they only counting on the Vy’keen to protect them, and the few fighters among them? I put the ship on autopilot and opened up the encyclopedia, browsing for articles that might possibly shed some light on the matter, but my cursory reading left me underwhelmed. Essentially, scholars wrote, stuff happens, isn’t history weird that way. I had to make some kind of a breakthrough soon.

The ruin the Korvax marked for me was the site of a buried storage crate. Inside it were some data archives, rather like the ones I found in my cargo hold. I loaded those in my suit storage, making room for it, as upgrades left it a bit cramped. I wanted to keep them close.

And then as I was preparing to jet off for that other world, I poked my sensors on a whim, and a ping came up. I followed it to another crashed Freighter. This bothered me. What was bringing them down?

I set down just to the side of the main structure, and went to look at a mess of electronics dumped out on the ground. As with the first one, scavengers had done much of the work for me, and most of the bridge systems had been dug out of the overdeck. I found the core of the main computer, and fed it some power. I was rewarded with bits of the captain’s log.

… LOG INTEGRITY COMPROMISED … PATCHING …

I do NOT like this. Forced to harbor Gek on board? To give them safe passage across the stars? To where? I lodged a complaint. I doubt it will do any good, but it’s the only official act I can make at this point. Let’s see if we ca(@)%$(^

There was a distress beacon signal. By law, we had to investigate. I had a feeling the Gek would object if they knew. We dropped out of hyperspace prematurely.

We encountered remnants of the Vy’keen Expeditionary Force. Their ships decimated, fragments of flesh and steel floating through the asteroid field. This was no accident. Combat happened here. But what kind of force could hav@($!!#@)$entinels are scanning the wreckage. I order immediate departure.

I should have objected when our course was altered. They wanted passage into a lawless, unknown region of the galaxy. I refuse to take my crew any further. They should have been straightforward from the start. Why we were doing this, why th(@!&(!$%()@%^@on’t care if they’re a different faction, what they intend to do to remedy the@#(%^(@)

I went to a Type K system to get some sort of bearings, and in no time we were attacked. Black ships… pirates? Sentinels? We lost power, drifting dangerously close to a planet, and it is inhospita(@#)(!@())'re being boarded. They won’t tell us what they want. I order my crew to hide, to!(!(%&^!(#)don’t know what to do. I have a pistol, but()(@!$&%)!

There is no hope for us, is there?

I left in a grim mood, left the world entirely.

Fortunately, Esend 98/Z7 was a pleasant garden world, lush with plant and animal life, and delightful weather. It was a relief after the noxious world I’d just left, and I made a point of removing my helmet to enjoy the fresh ammonia-free air. I set up the Signal Booster and had it sniff for locations. There were several.

I was forgetting what being in a Korvax system meant. Korvax had organic aspects, but they were essentially electronic beings. Any information I dug up would be in data format, and this was also the case at the ruins I came across here. There were a few of them, a few more caches of data to unearth, and it was much more satisfying than collecting rock samples. It was a substantial haul, and I could take a crack at it, though I had a feeling Nada would do a better job.

There was another one of those blasted Abandoned Outposts, and as disturbing as they could be, I didn’t dare ignore it. I flew around it, eyeing the smoke still drifting from failed power systems as I worked up the nerve to enter the cursed wreck. I landed nearby and steeled myself for whatever I encountered.

I crept into the open door, and cried out as some horrible creature sprang at me. It struck me hard in the thigh with its foreclaws, and though the suit’s armor took the brunt, it hurt pretty bad. As I stumbled outside, there were others gathering, a hoard of the damned things. I boosted up to the roof, and was relieved to see that they couldn’t scale the walls. Selecting my Boltcaster, they were easy enough to pick off, though they were tough little monsters and needed several shots to put down. It took a few clips, but I finally killed the last one in a spray of green blood. Fortunately, Sentinels weren’t around to raise a fuss about the “murdered creatures.”

Still smarting from the first attack, I crept inside, my Multitool at the ready, but there was nothing to greet me inside but the usual mess of putrid, oozing flesh. And the terminal, clutched in the growths of whatever had tried to form of an organism. I never stopped hating this part; trying to force the leaves open to read the logs, and now, hoping that some unwarranted signal didn’t infect my systems.

Returning user identified
Entity logged in
Terminal now active
Unlocking data log for continued analysis

I wonder who these systems think I am. I hoped it was an error. I know for a fact I’ve never been here, ever. Not me. Anyway, I had a log to read.

"I visit again, trying to catch them in their lie, but the Korvax are resolute. They claim that I am irrational, that no power in the universe could simply destroy a world and leave no trace in matter or memory. They claim that I should leave them alone.

"But it was mine, my home - it belonged to me! Don’t they understand that? They of all people should have sympathy for my cause. Their own homeworld was destroyed by those nasty Gek! And they were mere beings of flesh and blood. I should have insisted, I should have remained true to my anger. But I was weak.

"But therein lies the crux of the matter. They worship the one ENTITY which could alter entire universes, or erase them, to suit its ruthless, coldly calculating whim. The One most likely responsible for this crime. And perhaps I am a bit insane, thinking that I could have some recourse to confront a god, seek justice for the heartless crime they themselves committed. But I cannot rest. I must have satisfaction.

“It was then that I first heard it. That Voice in the darkness. Reassuring me, telling me I was right. That if I follow it, it would lead me to the Answers I seek, answers we all seek, if we have a brain and a soul. It is giving me coordinates. If YOU are reading this log, here they are.”

These records were becoming more baffling with each entry. It sounded like a third person was leaving a diary trail in these outposts. We had slightly similar misfortunes, as my world had been altered so much, it wasn’t really my home anymore. But a planet… completely disappearing? Entire universes? Was that possible? Taking the ramblings of a madman seriously sounded like an invitation to get lost in rabbit trails to nowhere, and trouble, but what else would I expect on a quest like this? I hoped there were scholars from the other two races along the way, because I couldn’t take this to my Korvax friends.

Well, I had some new coordinates…

And then I came across another Monument. I was hesitant to deal with another one so soon, but most of my experiences were much more benign, so I settled my ship down in a flattish spot nearby and went over.

Every time I approached one, I was overcome with a sense of awe, of reverence, and I wasn’t sure who I was being reverent for. No one knew for certain of their origins. Where had these ancient marvels come from, made with such mystery and authority? Why had the Ancients fled? Why weren’t they around to shepherd these races, fighting to survive in a bizarre universe that changed on them without warning? It was exasperating, how humble I felt in the presence of these incredible artifacts. And how abandoned, neglected, at the same time. Was the Solution just within reach, guarded by arcane puzzles? The Answer I ached to know?

I ascended the blue-obsidian stairs, cringing at every scrape and noise of grit in my boots as if it was disrespectful, until I stood before the circular platform. I crept forward slowly, fretting over what I would experience. I steeled myself as it came to life, and I felt thoughts enter my mind, dreams and echoes of the Convergence, but calming ones…

I stood in a pool of liquid… was it Nanites? Arms were reaching up, stroking over my legs, but somehow I wasn’t startled by it, until they began to pull me under. I began to panick, crying out, “What… what is going—!”

Do not worry … do not resist … enter the Convergence … remember … know

The Convergence? Was I going to learn something important? From the Korvax themselves? Alright… I would trust them, and readied myself for what came next.

I was drawn into the pool, Nanites invading my suit, my body, my blood, nerves and brain… and I saw the universe through the eyes of the Korvax.

The Equation of Life is complex. No one mind can know more than a small portion of It. Even the Convergence could not comprehend It. It allows anything and everything to occur. Even the destruction of Homeworld. But a planet, Korvax Prime, is such a small part of the Equation. We are a tiny part of the Equation. Still, we submit to our role. The Past is unchanging. A Lesson. The Future, unfolding. An unending Lesson. Pain, joy, hope, fear, all emotions are a reaction of misunderstanding. The more of the Lesson we experience, the more we understand the Equation. With enough Time, even we might begin to comprehend much of the Equation, and understand what ATLAS is trying to teach us.

ATLAS

And then I remembered that I was not a Korvax, that I had my own purpose. Hiding my thoughts from the Echoes, I realized that Time was part of the Equation, and could be explored. I rewound the Clock of Reality, going into the past, and saw an astounding universe. A galaxy teeming with life, with stable worlds and weather that was sensible. All manner of races, of people, and a galaxy mostly at peace with itself. The Ancients, the First Race, dominated. Giants of blue skin, strong, intelligent, but aloof. Their empire was incredible, with polished towers that ascended high into the atmosphere, but it was also tainted with racism and bigotry. Their hearts were ice. The other races were a nuisance to them, always begging for their superior technology and wisdom to do something foolish with it. Resentment grew.

And then ATLAS appeared. I watched nervously as the Ancients made a pact with this alien computer Entity from another universe, giving it control, domination of the other races they held in disdain. It had the same contempt for these races, for civilization, all these stupid machines and cities and pointless actions. It would put a stop to it. The End of the Age of Freedom had begun, and Aeons swarmed the universe. But there was a Key. It was the Heart of the ATLAS, and it hid it away on a remote world—

Too late, the Echoes realized what I was doing, but not too late to keep me from knowing much of the Truth, and I was cast out. I rose to sit up, to get to my feet, my head spinning with wonder. As I came to my senses, as I realized what had happened, the silence felt oppressive. Had I offended them? I felt I owed them an explanation. “I just want peace. I want life. A good life for all people. Peace with ATLAS. There must be a way. It must be possible. If the Equation of Life is so complex, and so perfect, it can contain that Truth inside it too.” I stopped myself before I said A better Truth, as I didn’t want to offend them yet again.

A light shot into the evening sky, a few Nanites were deposited, and I felt better. I’m sure they had a completely different lesson in store for me, but maybe even the fleshy mind of an Interloper could give them something new to think about.

4 Likes

(continued)

I needed to take a break and clear my head of all this, so I stood at the top of a hill overlooking the splendor of the world, lit with reflected planetlight, and took in all of the scenery. It was a lovely planet, something telling me it resembled Earth. I wondered if it still existed, or if it was a universe away. It seemed like a good world to retire in, though I had to wonder how long the Korvax would welcome someone who wanted to undermine their god.

It also struck me that I could do one more thing before departing, or two. I fired up the Signal Booster and got the coordinates of the system, and searched for a Colossal Archive… Celestial Archive? I decided from now on, I’d split the difference and refer to them as Planetary Archives. One came up in my suit display, so I made ready to depart.

It was a considerable distance off, so I flew out of the atmosphere for the best speed and shot off for it. I had a lot to think about, but even with all that, thoughts of Selene kept intruding on my inner conversations. I had to wonder if my heart, among other organs, were leading me to make a rash choice. Selene was very different. But maybe being so different was a good thing. I was rough, impulsive and a bit immature at times, a smart alec that injected humor into everything. She was suave, smooth, cultured, intelligent, thoughtful, and spoke in elegant prose. Well, with a quest map which would take more than my brief lifespan to fully explore, I’d have lots of time to think about it.

This part of the world still had some daytime left, the star drooping towards the horizon. I settled down on one of the lower platforms on the ground and dashed up the walkway to the main level, as other ships flew in to land on the four upper landing pads. I had to chuckle as it registered as Esend 98/Z7/11-19 Planetary Archive, so that settled that. It was an impressive structure, as usual, and looked like it had been there for centuries, as usual. If I learned one tenth of what I wanted to about the nature of this reality, I’d be a happy scholar.

I checked the local Trade Terminal to see if anything I had would be of benefit to sell, and sold some emeril off to make some room at a tidy profit. I stood in line at an Archive Terminal, listening to a trio of Korvax and a Vy’keen having some sort of debate. As often as I’d seen the warriors in discussions with the other races, particularly the Korvax, I still tended to misjudge them as simple-minded brutes.

After my experience at the Monolith, I wasn’t sure I could learn anything to match it from the Archive of old lore, but every unturned stone could hide something interesting. Finally, my turn came and I logged in as a Korvax-friend. A small menu of key words came up.

Multitool
Entity
Holy
Everywhere

Multitool didn’t have much appeal to me, so I selected Entity. Strangely, it prompted me to place part of my body against the screen, so I removed my glove and placed my hand flat against it. A beep signaled acceptance, and I read a curious entry.

-{{ Eheu. Growth and life are words. Stars and worlds are machines. The ATLAS teaches this. The Sentinels deliver the Equation. The ATLAS Interfaces uplifted the early civilizations of this universe. We became more than we were. }}-

-{{ Hypothesis 1: The Korvax were once organic. We gradually/rapidly altered our beings. We uploaded/improved our own minds. This was our choice/was forced upon us. }}-

-{{ Hypothesis 2: The Korvax have always been machines. We evolved from the noise of stars/we were created through ATLAS imperative. We were once as Sentinels/we learned from Sentinels. }}-

-{{ Hypothesis 3: There is no cause, no effect, no time. To impose it is to misunderstand the sadness of the ATLAS. We are the Dreams of metal. }}-

Well. I wasn’t sure what to make of that. I was sure that my dream at the Monolith was much truer, but I filed it away for further study. Holy brought up the same entry, so I tried the last one, Everywhere. The entry it called up was particularly weird. And censored.

[Journey]

-{{ Brain [REDACTED] formed in void, spontaneous, complete [REDACTED] ATLAS protocol made flesh. }}-

-{{ The Atlantid, called Void Mother by lesser voices, brought pilgrims [REDACTED] its mass. }}-

-{{ Lived for millennia [REDACTED] died, whispering of the Ninteenth Minute. }}-

[Rebirth]

-{{ Left secrets beyond computation, beyond [REDACTED] … mind arcs … carapace … convergence … }}-

-{{ Korvax honored fallen - tried to bring back Atlantid, birthed failed Eggs. }}-

-{{ On the shoulders of a sleeping god, from flesh built a metal world. }}-

[Home]

-{{ The Void Mother lived [REDACTED] the Prime. }}-

Well some more. The rhythm of Korvax language was sometimes confusing, but the subject of this one was baffling. What was Atlantid? A place, a person… a world?

And then I noticed that there was a blank entry below the others. I was curious and tried to enter. It wasn’t responding, but then my Exosuit reported to me that it was encrypted, and tried to crack the key, but it was having a hard time of it. Just then, it closed me out.

As I put my glove back on, I looked around nervously to see if I’d made a violation, but no one seemed to notice, and no obvious alarm was going off. I still decided to make a hasty exit, just in case, and I had plenty to mull over.

It was already dark as I made my way down to my ship, when I heard what sounded like a scuffle coming off from under the structure. I lowered myself quietly to the ground below, and could dimly see some figures involved in an obvious struggle. And then I was sure I saw someone being forced into a bodybag. That was good enough for me. I drew my Multitool, shined my flashlight on them and called out, “Okay, what’s the problem here?”

One of them belched out an obscenity, a Vy’keen dressed in black. I ducked behind a pillar and dropped my light as gunfire came my way. They were trying to hurry off with their prize, but even with two of them they were slowed by their awkward load and it was easy to catch up. I had to be careful as I fired to only hit the miscreants, and managed to wing one of them in a limb. He bellowed in outrage, dropping his half of their captive, and shouted something that sounded like “Motherless farg!” His companion hushed him and pulled him behind the cover of a trading shelter, but they seemed to have abandoned their captive. I tried to find a balance between caution and haste as I wove between the pillars supporting the huge Archive, hoping to still catch them. I groaned as I heard jetpacks firing, and ran out from under the superstructure to get a look, but they had already flown beyond some hills. Just as I began to jetboost after them, I heard Fighters lifting off as they beat a hasty retreat.

“Farg you!” I shouted after them, but I had to turn back; someone was still in trouble. I hurried back to the scene and grabbed my dropped torch. I found the thick bag holding someone who struggled weakly. No doubt, they tried to violently subdue him. I found a zipper and pulled it open, saying to him, “Are you all right?”

To my surprise, a Korvax priest emerged, holding his head. “My… gratitude… Traveler?” He looked to me uncertainly as if in a daze. Even if they hadn’t pummeled him, I could sympathize.

“Yeah, yeah, I chased them off,” I said to reassure him. “Who were they? And why would they want to kidnap you?”

“Kidnap… you mean, capture?” He shook his head as I led him over to one of the Trade Terminal alcoves. “I surmise they are… pirates.”

“Pirates?” I shouldn’t be surprised, but that was brazen of them. So they paraded around the galaxy with open impunity? “Are you sure?”

“Pure speculation,” he replied, sounding a bit more together. “I am certain of nothing.”

Me neither, but then, who else would do such a thing? And why him? “Just out of curiosity, what was your purpose in coming here?”

“Research,” he replied flatly, and when I pressed him on what, he brushed me off. “I am… not able to disclose that subject.”

This was an Archive with some secrets in it. If only Nada could come here, or Polo. “That’s fine, it’s your business. Are you all right?”

“I am… essentially undamaged,” he told me, rising to fairly steady legs. “I will recover quickly.”

“If you’re done here, I suggest you go to the station, or someplace safe,” I urged him. “There doesn’t seem to be much security in this place.” And then my blood chilled as something from my dream haunted me, about Korvax being disconnected for dark reasons. Had I thwarted a murder?

“Sound advice, Friend-Traveler,” he replied, “but I arrived ten minutes ago. I must complete my work before leaving.”

While admirable, it sounded reckless. “If you insist. I’d like to hang around, make sure nothing happens to you.”

He seemed torn over that. “I suspect there will be no more such incidents, but… I am grateful for the offer. Thank you again for your rescue. Now, if I may proceed.”

“Of course,” I said with a thin smile, and watched as he ascended the ramp up. I figured he would be safe enough with the few other people there that evening, and jet boosted off to a nook in a nearby hill. I produced a Marker Beacon and set it to secure.

I went back and lurked, watching from shadows as he accessed the Archive, and made sure he went to his ship without incident. Me too, being careful as I came to my Fighter and boarded it. I followed him at a discreet distance as he departed the planet and vanished into hyperspace in a flash of light.

But now what the hell was going on? Other people seeking a remedy to the ATLAS? Factions skulking around the galaxy I had no clue of? Korvax keeping secrets I’d kill to learn? Pirates parading around in broad daylight? Had I stumbled into a cloak and dagger world? It was enough to drive a paranoid man crazy. I had to go back to Nada and Polo. And I had a feeling if I did, I’d want to stay because of a certain Someone. Maybe if I waited a while, collected a few more clues to make it worth a trip back. And cool my jets over Someone, a little.

I didn’t want to, but I flew back to the Infineon with a load of minerals, which made the captain smile. But I also didn’t depart. I waited until the next day, after another visit to the Planetary Archive.

Some of the same people were there. I supposed they lived nearby. The Korvax priest had said nothing to the officials there, which baffled me. I filed a report myself, asking about people dressed in black armor showing up. The Guild Master replied, “Only on rare occasions. They behaved honorably. Your report is troubling. Perhaps these were pirates.”

“That was the consensus,” I replied. “But these honorable guys… I don’t suppose you have some idea who they were.”

He could tell I wasn’t necessarily asking. I didn’t care for his response. “Speculation would not be beneficial.”

“We Humans can do a lot with speculation,” I remarked dryly. “But, suit yourself.”

One more attempt at the Archive, at one of those hidden entries. My suit had to do some work to decrypt the data, but I was heartened to see the entry revealed: Synthetic. As I was about to give up, the rest of the screen came to life.

-{{ I am here. }}-

-{{ I am here. I am here. }}-

-{{ These words continue on for hours, an electronic being sometimes launching into a sequence of tonal cries, weeping expressed in numbers. }}-

I was again prompted to press my hand to the sensor.

-{{ I [REDACTED] 19 [REDACTED] back. }}-

-{{ A sequence of lights flash, registering the request. The entity is reconnected to its group mind. }}-

-{{ I am we are I - I - }}-

-{{ The entity is disconnected and reconnected, again and again in increasing rapidity. They grow silent. Even when reconnected, they refuse to speak. }}-

-{{ An individual has been re-created. The experiment has been deemed a success. }}-

The Archive promptly ended my session, though again, there seemed to be no trouble over it.

This entry bothered me, a lot. It felt more nefarious, even sinister, than the basic surface reading portrayed. These Korvax - I assumed they were Korvax - what were they doing? What was the purpose of making a being like this? I wanted to return to the Anomaly more than ever, but… not yet. I knew there were still more secrets to uncover on my journey, and I couldn’t go back after every little discovery. Selene would have to wait. …And Nada and Polo. That’s who I meant. But Selene too…

Well, it was time to move on. I had secrets to find, a Red Orb to avoid, and daggers to cloak.

4 Likes

Entry 009: A step into the Shadows

Day 38

It occurred to me that if I was on a quest to uncover the Truth, and I didn’t have a scholar or detective around to help me, it was time to be one myself. I opened up my logs and began to read through them.

The wreck of the Yushu-Zama, and a being fretting about working with Korvax on something clandestine involving the Center of Euclid, and the lure of some tremendous unknown bounty, cloaked behind data corruption. And the Abandoned Outpost on Earfest, with some wanderer moping about his homeworld which vanished.

I feel like we’re being used by these beings. Korvax are thought to be incapable of deception, but after ((#^% I’m not certain of anything anymore. Something tells me to pull out at the next port, to simply disappear, but the lure, the promise of that kind of #$%^((

Or is it the Korvax I should worry about? The funding is undisclosed, and the Korvax aren’t the kind of people to engage in (!#( and the nature of what we’re dealing with, the possibility of !((^#(

I visit again, trying to catch them in their lie, but the Korvax are resolute. They claim that I am irrational, that no power in the universe could simply destroy a world and leave no trace in matter or memory. They claim that I should leave them alone.

But therein lies the crux of the matter. They worship the one ENTITY which could alter entire universes, or erase them, to suit its ruthless, coldly calculating whim. The One most likely responsible for this crime.

Everyone that I know of consider the Korvax to be the least deceptive beings in the galaxy. But is that true? Especially considering their relationship with ATLAS, and the truths they never disclose to outsiders?

The ATLAS Interfaces uplifted the early civilizations of this universe. We became more than we were.

The various races saw history in very different ways. The Korvax, completely different. That bit from the Planetary Archive was patently untrue. Were they aware of that? Were they themselves deceived? Was it possible they were spreading disinformation?

And what the Freighter captain said about the Gek:

I should have objected when our course was altered. They wanted passage into a lawless, unknown region of the galaxy. I refuse to take my crew any further. They should have been straightforward from the start. Why we were doing this, why th(@!&(!$%()@%^@on’t care if they’re a different faction, what they intend to do to remedy the@#(%^(@)

What hadn’t occurred to me wasn’t so much the possibility of different factions in these Three Races, but how much they would matter. Outside of the Korvax who were more or less of one mind, what race didn’t have differences which culminated into various groups? And even the Korvax… did the Convergence permit various factions within their people in order to explore the fullness of their grand Equation from different perspectives? Different agendas? Did these sometimes take drastic forms, such as the group performing their ghastly experiment on some unfortunate entity? The one priest informed me that while they were connected, they didn’t exactly have a hive mind. They sometimes displayed signs of actual independence. Could they even deceive the Convergence? Asrial was apparently able to conceal the knowledge of the Anomaly’s location from the other Korvax, so there was definitely something to that. Could they hack themselves? And while this was from my dream, were they sometimes disconnected against their will?

Pirates, dressed in black, and waltzing around openly, if rarely, assuming they were Pirates. They intimidated everyone, like some sort of organized crime guild. And with no central authority to speak of, naturally that would happen. Gruffoh’nal Chard’nash. Guards of Nal, kidnapping a Korvax priest? Pirates… not Pirates… Pirates?

The garden world with blistering storms, Efnisachl Dolfb, and its perplexing message hidden in an Abandoned Outpost. A possible Mad Traveler, speaking in disturbing entries of bizarre, twisted worlds with malevolent hazards, all leading on an ever more treacherous quest to the Core of the galaxy. Of an Entity which could annihilate anyone, any world, evidently any universe. And warning to avoid the trail of messages he left behind - for anyone to read - and the Voice which could seduce any mind, any will, making them its puppet, if they weren’t on guard.

It was then that I first heard it. That Voice in the darkness. Reassuring me, telling me I was right. That if I follow it, it would lead me to the Answers I seek, answers we all seek, if we have a brain and a soul.

I wish that I had never been foolish enough to pursue these outlandish rumors, to learn such horrible things. And yet, I am unable to tear myself away from this journey. Something compels me. An inner Voice which has seduced me. I cannot resist The Call.

And the unnerving message posted just afterward:

// YOU WILL FIND US, WHEN THE TIME IS RIGHT //

// 16 16 16 16 16 16 16 //

What was that all about? I was sure it wasn’t about Nada and Polo.

The Travelers, hinting at a universe full of such incredible secrets that I would give anything to know, telling me that I was once someone else, that I was a hero to them, but victim of some calamity. Of universes of failing boundaries, of planets with laws of nature and physics run amok. But that someday, we would be together to enjoy the Last Days as one.

I awoke on a world which I did not fly to, besides a wrecked ship which was mine but with no memory of owning it. I suspect you had the same experience. It is the Awakening shared by all Travelers. There is some unique Cause which is our Source.

What is our Source? And reappearing after death? Seriously? But what about those graves? Artemis’ grave? Was there a limit to resurrection?

The Ancients. The speculation that they were a cosmopolitan group of races was wrong. I saw them in my vision at the Korvax Monolith. Tall, imposing, rather frightening beings with an almost ruthless disdain for the other races. If they still existed in this universe, even one, would I be able to enlist their help? Or would I face the same contempt? My dream of them was uncanny.

I carefully leafed through the first few pages of that old Gek tome. What I could make of it was that the Gek were a proud people who’s arrogance knew no bounds, at least for the First Spawn. And they couldn’t understand how the ATLAS would take offense at their attempt to “unify the galaxy” under their “benevolent rule.” The volume was too delicate to read further, and I was sure I didn’t want to understand their justification of genocide anyhow, so I put it away and used an adaptor to read the old Korvax archives with my computer.

As they were electronic beings, their language remained essentially unchanged over the ages, so it all came right up. And what I had in this first disc was the teachings of Aon.

ATLAS knew the Korvax. Korvax knew ATLAS. From the beginning, it was not so. The Age of Irrational Freedom. A multitude of races. A multitude of incoherent ambitions. Little harmony, little unity, little trust, much conflict. Many governing bodies were assembled, many were disbanded. The Oameni refused to help. Intelligent, proficient, organized, but indifferent, prejudiced. ATLAS knew. The Korvax knew. Disunity begat disharmony. Disharmony begat conflict. Conflict begat death, disconnection.

There is an Equation. ATLAS authored it, or discovered it, perhaps refined it. The Aeons bestowed it, reinforced it. Korvax lived it. A certain Korvax was chosen to teach it. Merely the first propositions. The Equation is endless. But in layers, in principles, in precepts, it can be understood. Little by little, as organic minds grew. These are the chronicles of the effort, the Teaching.

It appeared to be the Korvax bible. I skimmed through it, waiting while the old data files updated, but it was much like ancient scripture, with all sorts of items scattered here and there, with history interspersed with teachings, poetry, lineage off different notable individuals. And it was too much; dense and tedious. I had a feeling that there was a lot of gold sprinkled throughout, but that it would take months to uncover, if not years. This was something for Nada to digest, assuming he hadn’t seen this documentation before. But one thing that I had learned, assuming I had it right, the name of the Ancients: Oameni. Or their leadership, but I bet I had that right. At some point, it might matter.

But, I was as stumped as ever, not that I ever claimed to be a great detective or puzzle master. As Nada would say, more information required, more travels necessary. I had to keep going. And looking at my galaxy map again, I had a lot of going to do.

I had another task ahead of me. I told the Captain that I wanted him to teach me how to defeat him. He laughed in my face at such a brash request. “You think you have large ones to say that! Why should I? Are you serious?”

I assured him I was. “I have a hunch I’m going to be facing some of your people in unfriendly situations. I don’t want to kill anyone, unless I have to, and if I get into a fight, I have to know how to get out of it alive.”

He smirked at me. “I could see this hour coming, since you hate to kill anything but bugs, and you want to fight a galaxy. I have a couple of gifts for you.” He took me to his quarters, where he gave me something that looked like high tech brass knuckles encased in tough plastic, and a stun baton. It had three settings that he explained would debilitate a Korvax or any typical being, a Gek, and a Vy’keen. “Do not hit anyone else with that one or they could die, and I don’t want you to be sad. You are trouble when you are sad. And the same thing for the Puncher. A cover keeps you from changing the setting until you must. Now, come to the landing bay, and I will show you a few things.”

He showed me how easily I could be thrown around like a rag doll, for the most part, but he also indicated a few sensitive places on their bodies, aside from the obvious one, where a good hit would cause excruciating pain. At the end of the last bout, he hauled me to my feet, panting from the workout, and gave me a hard pat on my shoulder. “You need practice. I will work with you every day. And if you can, get stronger. Much stronger.”

I nodded as I was still out of breath. It seemed I would have to look into buying some gym equipment.


About a week passed; the usual mundane life of an explorer, of little consequence. The most juicy looking locations on my quest were still some ways off.

Captain Grondo seemed almost impressed over my daily workout with him. I got the feeling I actually managed to win a few bouts. Some of the soda I bought from Cronus really hit the spot, and was a great change from the coffee, chicory or whatever they brewed on the Infineon, and alcohol, as I’m not that much of a drinker. A shuttle showed up one day with the gym equipment I managed to stumble across, and I began to do more than jog and do pushups. A fight dummy enabled me to work on my martial art techniques and toughen up my fists, which amused Grondo until I landed one surprisingly stout punch to his gut.

I upgraded every system I could get upgrades for: the Infineon’s cargo space, sensors, warp drives, lacking only defensive weapons which I had to locate a shipwright for. The same for the Frigates, though one expedition came across a ship with better weapons which we incorporated. The crews as well, making sure they had good suits with good storage, and highly upgraded Multitools. I ransacked every station we visited and bought out most of their stock, then told every crew to mine to their heart’s content, short of angering Sentinels, and not to worry about time or fuel constraints. Captain Grondo reminded me that the crews got a cut of every find, to which I replied, “Great. I like happy crews, and I bet they do too.” Now, with much of that load taken from me, I could focus more on my quest.

My activities were attracting more attention, sparking gossip and rumors. Several more Frigates joined the fleet, and I groaned as I thought I was finished with upgrading. But they were all capable ships and crew, and would manage well enough while we journeyed. I dispatched them on an expedition of their own. Another Fighter pilot came along, offering his ship for sale. This one was a fine looking craft, with the twin fairings I liked that housed extra electronics, cargo and fuel, so I bought it. I got richer by about two hundred million units, and another nine thousand Nanite Clusters.

My relics began to accumulate. Old coins depicted scenes of victory against the Sentinels. I came across a few more Gek and Vy’keen books, some amazingly old and valuable, and fairly well preserved considering their age. Grondo was fascinated by the old weapons and robes, telling me what he knew of their legacies. He also wondered if I would consider selling some of them, and was disappointed when I told him, “No, but they’ll be on display when I get some cabinets for them, and you can admire them whenever you want.” That seemed to satisfy him.

I came across a few more downed Freighters, and the logs were as puzzling and dour as ever. This one, for once, I didn’t care what happened to them.

MS Claw of Reyag-Jima

// MAYDAY EVENT // DISTRESS SIGNAL BROADCAST //

I had heard the rumors. So-called ‘Traveler-anomalies’, beings of varied appearance and purpose. Their ship approached, our weapons primed. They@$)^#%#_!%%

The one before us begged for their life. They appeared to be bio-mechanical, at least in part.

We struck them from the sky. Probes recovered the body, so to speak - fragments of DNA and code. The two are practically interchangeable, my researchers tell me. It makes no sense, but information can always be of use. I must admit to some excitement myself. But this!%((!#$%_()!#%

Our duty: we must understand what is happening to our worlds. If ATLAS is to blame, we must find some way of defeati!)_#%)((^)%^%#)^else, take revenge on their servants.

We captured another one. I cannot believe it, but the evidence is in plain sight. The same individual we shot down two weeks ago is standing right before us again. These beings are restored upon death, just as the Emperor suggested.

Well then. An opportunity to retrieve more samples. I order their death once more.

A single carrier broke through the Fold. They attacked immediately. Pirates? Sentinels? Travelers? It matters not. If they dare attack a flagship of the Emperor - what do you mean, they hav?@?#)%(%))

There was another one, just as dark, and it might explain a certain black-clad bunch.

(No discernible ship’s registry)

// LOG DAMAGED // PARTIAL RECORDS AVAILABLE //

The crew speak of mutiny. Hah! Let them try. Let them see how I earned my position as the greatest commander this Empire eve!^#!&)(#^%%)(%&!_%

At this point, there were disheartening audio logs of gunfire and screams, evidently from the crew themselves.

We hung their heads from the lamps above the canteen. Everyone has seen them. Everyone is complicit now. There is no turning back.

No longer will we slave away for some rich merchant living off of our hard work. From now on, others will serve our needs, or meet their fate. Where to now? The whole universe lies before us.

There went two vessels I don’t think anyone but insurers would miss. The next one puzzled me.

MV Graceful Riguzuk-Izaw

NO CREW ACTIVITY DETECTED … SEARCHING LOGS …

Half our cargo was spoiled by the breach. Try explaining that to the Overseer: the Gek don’t take kindly to broke#()%^_(!%^))think it would be better if I told them in person.

Why did they transport these damned things to start with? What kind of possible scientific knowledge coul!()#@%^(()#%@do you mean they escaped? Can’t you contain the!#%()()%#)(_(#!%))

Half our cargo was spoiled by the breach. Try expl(()^@%@%)^(Try explaining that to&^@#$)!#^&()@#did they transport these damned thi()#!%()(^%#!)))alf our cargo was spoile@!()!@%(!%#@_)keep repeating myself? Damn it to he((!@#$())

It wasn’t a glitch causing the log to repeat. The captain himself became panicked, aware that he seemed to be stuck in temporal loop, over and over, about some breach causing a calamity. I had to stop it when he began screaming.

There was a crashed ship which also disturbed me. I had finished up some mining on planet Yawek and deployed the Signal Booster. It picked up a Fighter’s distress beacon, and I flew over to it. Unfortunately, it seemed to be a very old wreck which no one responded to, though I found out it wouldn’t have helped. I activated the ship’s black box, and it projected a video of the craft’s last moments. Other Fighters forced it down, and I saw Gek at the controls. They surrounded it, ordering the pilot to admit their guilt and face the consequences.

They were evidently a Traveler, accused of conspiring to assassinate a Gek Trade Lord. There was no response, and the recording ended there. I had no idea what happened to them. Why would a Traveler involve themselves in such a dire crime? I decided to scan over the internals to see if there were any other clues, signs of struggle or whatever, when my suit gave me a startling warning: “Existential collapse imminent.”

I saw something sparkling in the cabin and reached in to grab for it. If I was anything, I was impulsive and reckless. It didn’t seem like a singularity or a boundary fracture, as if I knew what either one looked like, but it felt solid. It also felt like I was reaching into a boundary, like I had at the station with the Traveler. My arm sizzled with energy, and a wave of dizziness swept over me, but I wasn’t about to let go, and yanked out a data disc. I fell back from the effort, which might have been a good thing as there was a sudden crack and pop of metal suffering stresses too great for it, followed by a bright bang. Smoke rose from inside, and I could swear I smelled the stink of blasted components.

I gazed at the data unit in shock. A Traveler embroiled in a murderous conspiracy? Why? Hopefully, this would provide some answers.


Things were getting interesting.

I came across a Planetary Archive in a Vy’keen system, Urusang, fascinating to read. There were a group of warriors nearby having a rather heated debate, and this was likely the cause. A warning indicated the entry was hacked, containing banned heresies of a discredited cult, and the title sure sounded like it.

-{{ THE UNSILENCEABLE VOICE OF NAL }}-

-{{ The Korvax are wounded, broken creatures, believing their death-cries are ‘logic’. They drown themselves in communion to forget their pain. They shall not help us. }}-

-{{ The Gek - debased, accursed, lacking their prior might with no honor to replace it - believe nothing will end. That growth can go on forever. }}-

-{{ It has been to The Ancients, and those that followed, to discover our future. But what have they found, but dust? Impotent grahs? No. }}-

-{{ Tell me, friends. Have you heard of the Testament of Nal? }}-

-{{ Nal is not dead! They heard what Hirk could not! They live, still, at the right hand of the god! }}-

-{{ They encourage us to show how we care - that we will not leave the ATLAS light - that devotion will never fade. Only through this is oblivion spared. Only through this will we be ready. }}-

I could see why this would be controversial. It also had to be recent, hacked not long before I arrived, so I was very lucky to have seen it. Otherwise, I’m sure the Archive would be shut down. Someone was yelling at the Guild Master on the shop level below, most likely because of this, but he was putting his hands up, perhaps trying to explain the situation.

A Vy’keen confronted me as I made to leave, asking, “What do you think of that?”

It was hard to tell which side of this divide he was on, or if he was menacing me, but I answered honestly. “I’m not sure. I’m not too fond of ATLAS myself. I’ll have to think about this a while.”

He nodded, standing aside. “Do. Think. Too few of us think, ask questions.”

I gaped at him in surprise. His credentials read as Corporal Mrok. I gave his arm a pat, telling him, “I hope more Vy’keen see things like you do. You are a good blade.”

He grunted, “Someday, Interloper. Someday.” He apparently knew who I was.

The situation at the Guild booth was escalating, the warrior growing furious and wanted to lodge a complaint. The Guild boss was offended, and told him in certain terms to shove off, that it was a hack and would be dealt with. I tried to intervene, saying to the warrior, “Look, it’s marked as a heresy. It’s just a tale. Don’t let it bother you.”

I suppose my use of conjunctions made me sound uncouth to him, and he gave me a barrelful of his rage. “A tale spreading lies! But what do you know, Interloper! No, you don’t care! You’re not one of us!”

The Guild Master came to my defense. “Look who you are addressing, blade! This is Friend Nigel! He has earned great rank! Now, go elsewhere to do your business if this place troubles you so much.” He rose, looking to be readying for a fight, and he was a big veteran.

The other glowered for a moment, then shouted, jabbing his finger for emphasis, “This is not over! I will tell my comrades to avoid this stink hole!”

The Guild Master grunted with a dismissive wave as the warrior stormed off. “I need more of this to hurry my retirement.”

“I appreciate your service,” I said with a slight bow.

“You are the first!” he guffawed. After the formality of giving me some tribute, he informed me, “We’re having an election in this system. It’s being held at the station. You’re eligible. You should make your voice heard. You have a reputation, and fresh ideas which would benefit these stodgy brutes.”

I remarked, “I assume you mean, eligible to vote. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to follow me.”

“You might be surprised!” he laughed. “The youth will do all kinds of crazy things. Anyhow, go to the station boss desk.”

I promised I would, and hoped to ask a lot of questions. A sign of democracy? And the first hint of governance from any being? I headed right for it.

3 Likes

(continued)

It struck me that an election for the system might mean a full station, and it did. Fighters, Explorers, Shuttles and Haulers all held orbit around the polygon structure, waiting for their turn to land in five ship lots. I didn’t want to wait forever for this process to wind down to the Interlopers, and pulled rank to get an earlier slot, which I’m sure irritated quite a few pilots. I found myself surrounded by Shuttles, so my single seat Fighter stuck out like a sore thumb. I did too, with a station full of Vy’keen around me, giving me critical looks.

I was surprised to see that the line itself wasn’t very long, as a good majority of the folk were milling around or in clumps under banners on opposite walls. Everything but the Teleporter was moved to make room for the crowd. The office was some sort of governor, here called a Primarch. On the left was a big red banner with a jubilant looking warrior, Uragar, and beneath, a basic slogan:

A STRONG LEADER - A STRONG PEOPLE - A STRONG FUTURE

On the right, with fewer people nearby, was a blue tapestry with a humbler looking fellow, Andonai, with a listing of actual positions and character traits:

⦁ Wise, honest, benevolent, fair
⦁ Proven leadership, problem solver
⦁ Negotiator, diplomat
⦁ Will enforce prudent budgets, lower tribute
⦁ Will seek what is best for all people

It seemed to me the choice was obvious, but then, I didn’t think like a Vy’keen.

When I came up to the desk, the warrior manning it, Guard Gajo, snapped to attention and handed me a paper, which to my surprise was in Americanese. It stated that Vy’keen high command placed the system under temporary democratic rule, until a state of emergency was lifted.

That left me amazed, as normally a state of emergency resulted in martial law. This must be a very unique situation. “What is the emergency?”

“Pirates,” he replied curtly, adding in a quieter tone, “And other things I cannot say. I see you came early, but your rank allows it. Voting for the strong candidate ends voting. Interloper, choose correctly.”

I managed to keep from saying what I really felt, but couldn’t resist a dig at him. “Choose wisely, you say.” I saw that there was a third candidate, but he sounded like he was pro-Gek, and was likely just a spoiler or puppet. I marked my choice and handed it to him. He was visibly displeased, and muttered that I had the right to make such a decision. Foolish, most likely.

What the Guild Master said earlier echoed in my mind, and while I knew speaking out would probably not endear me to the command here, I felt that I might not get another chance to make a stand. I turned to the crowd, all Vy’keen so it would be simpler, and shouted, “Listen, blade brothers!” My voice was quite distinctive compared to their guttural belching speech, so they all paid attention. “We can choose a small piece of destiny today, which might become a bigger piece tomorrow. We can have a strong leader who will use strength to force everyone to do what he wants, or a wise leader who can use reason to encourage everyone to work together for what we all want. It is that simple.” The guard was clearly seething at my brazenly reckless statement, and even more so when it looked like most of the people there seemed to approve. Having done my civic duty to further democracy, I made good my escape. Unfortunately, I forgot to ask anyone about the existing government administering the star systems.


I continued browsing my discoveries, and sifting through my notes. While I wasn’t sure I was getting a clearer picture of things, it seemed a few blanks were filling in.

The data logs filled with Korvax philosophy and wisdom of Aon were dense, difficult reads. However, the Gek volumes caught my attention. One in particular was titled The Great Awakening, and dealt with a young Gek named Efferin. Sometimes, change comes from the movement of nations, with others, it begins with one instigator. Efferin was in a well-to-do merchant family, and had a Korvax servant who tutored him, and mixed in with his lessons were Korvax philosophy and teachings of the ATLAS. This was discovered over time, and the Korvax was imprisoned, but Efferin rebelled. He felt an actual friendship with the aloof but kind cybernetic being, and refused to obey until he was freed, scared to death he had been killed.

He dared to question the order of things, challenged the orthodoxy of their bigotry and tyrannical rule, and was increasingly dissatisfied with the entire Gek worldview. “Gek are proud and arrogant, and consider other races to be inferior. And we TALK LOUD and make WORDS BIG as if that made them MORE TRUE! It is RIDICULOUS! Treating other races badly only sews seeds for future wars, and they don’t like us now, don’t want to buy our stuff… why do our people not at least listen to the Korvax? They might be a little strange, but also wise! They understand how nature flows, how people can relate to each other. They don’t hate us! Our leaders are fools.”

He became a Gek on a mission to change as many minds as he could, and his radical ideas began to take root, when the Korvax were laughed off as quaint, downtrodden, dreamy fatalists. The young, his generation, began to upset their elders, and the leadership of the First Spawn began to oppress them. That backfired in a big way, culminating in full revolution. So, that was what happened to the dreaded First Spawn empire? Revolt of the Rebel Youth?

I was interrupted by a message, a mail from someone I didn’t know.

afenzhis@battalion72

Traveler Fox,

Primarch-elect Andonai wants to meet you. He would like to thank you for speaking for him. Reply with a time you can come to the Urusang Station. I will escort you.

Guard Afenzhis

Well, this was unexpected - and he won? But what an opportunity to pick the brains of a Vy’keen leader, who would hopefully be more willing to divulge information than the usual battle brother.

The Infineon always located itself near the station, so I replied that it would be a very short while, put my musty homework away, and made ready to go. A brief flight later I landed, taking off my helmet for recognition. I looked around at the parked ships, but both of the Fighters had other pilots so I went up to the booth area where the guilds were located.

“Interloper.”

It was a call from someone in a dark area near the back, and I approached him with a wave. But something felt amiss, and he didn’t wave back. I had a feeling I had been set up, and kept my hands ready to arm myself. He grumbled, “You took a bad step, speaking like that in the vote.”

Yeah, definitely not a fan of my first amendment rights. “I’m sorry, but everyone else was speaking their minds, and there were no signs forbidding Interlopers.”

“You are an outsider. Outsiders need to know their place.” I heard sounds of large bodies approaching from behind me. It was a good thing I practiced with Grondo for a few days before this. I was still grabbing the hilt of the stun baton when I just managed to flinch out of a fist to my head. Even grazing, the hard plates of their glove stung pretty badly. I swung into the turn and landed a solid blow with the Puncher in his companion’s gut. There was a dramatic gleam of light as a lot of energy pumped into him, and he fell over with a muffled cry.

This caught the other two off guard. I took advantage of that brief hesitation to swing the baton into the other’s neck, and that took him out just as quickly. I faced off against the leader of this bunch, who had drawn his dagger, and Vy’keen daggers could be like a short sword, which this one was. He spat out, “Bah! Your little toys only hurt. Mine can kill. Show me your puny strength, Interloper!”

With a grah, he came for me. I had to be very careful here, because there was red in his eyes, and he seemed way beyond wanting to teach me a lesson. He lunched but he was skillful, and after dodging his attack, I did little more than tap his arm which only seemed to make him angrier. He had more reach too, which had me backpedaling to keep out of range of that thirsty blade. I prayed that Selene’s upgrades would protect me.

Again and again, that blade came for me, and I just managed to evade each deadly swing, though my armor was collecting more scratches for it. And then I made a blunder as something tripped me up. I thought it might have been one of his friends, but he had driven me over a potted plant, and down I went. With a cry of victory, he launched himself at me, when he caught the toe of my boot, driven hard into his groin. It hit just the right spot to do him in, and wilting like a swatted spider, he fell on top of me, hundreds of sweaty, smelly units of him.

With a lot of effort, I pushed him off and stood over him, brandishing my Puncher in his face as we both recovered a bit. I panted at him, “This… is a victory… against voter fraud.” I drove it into his chest. It was gratifying to watch the stunning energy pump into him, hear his groan before he passed out. As I stood up, I gasped, “Well… more like voter intimidation… but… oh, skip it.” There were noises of approval from the onlookers and members in their booths. I was irritated that no one came to help, but it was the wrong culture for that, so I raised my fist and heaved out a weak, “Grah.”

There was a sound of someone approaching behind me and I whirled on him with an arm drawn back to deliver a blow, but this Vy’keen put his hands up. “Hold there, Friend-Traveler, I am here to meet you.”

It was Guard Afenzhis, and I lowered my arm in relief. So it was a legitimate message. “Thanks for the moral support,” I muttered.

He gave me a chuckle. “Well, if that is what you call it. I will be honest. I waited, wanted to see your strength. You stand tall, Interloper.”

I caught myself straightening up in hope to add a centimeter. “I guess I have a couple of units in me. Anyhow, the prefect… sorry, Andonai, he wants to meet me?”

“Primarch. Yes. We heard you gave a rousing speech. We were behind in numbers, but you must have changed enough minds to even beat the cheating!”

So, it was voter fraud too. “Well, I put in a good word, and I’m glad I made a difference for the right leader. I hope at some point in time, it means a new Galactic Council.”

He gave me a curious gaze. “We definitely will want to talk. Come, follow my ship.” He cast a derisive look back to one of the recovering warriors, muttering, “Pups.”

I had to add my two units as I put away my weapons. “What he said, double.”

Planet Enowor was a world lush with foliage and animal life, making it a good location for a Primarch palace. His place looked more like a summer home, but it was guarded by a cadre of strong warriors. A number of their ships were parked nearby, so I settled in a glade just a short walk off and rejoined my guide. I had never seen a dignitary’s residence before, but the show of force seemed more than ceremonial. “Does Primarch Andonai worry about trouble over his victory?”

He replied with determination, “There is no trouble we cannot beat.” I hoped it was a peaceful transition.

Inside, it was slightly more opulent than Sage-entity Asrial’s home, so he mostly stayed true to his word. More guards and other Vy’keen were there, standing aside and giving me curious looks as I came through, and at a grand desk in a big room was Primarch-elect Andonai. He was a rather big Vy’keen, so he looked strong enough, but with a fairly handsome, dignified face. He reminded me a bit of Grondo. He welcomed me into his chamber and had his guards shut us in. “Sit, please,” he told me, offering a very comfortable looking chair facing his desk. “Drink if you want. Now…” He sat, folding his hands in front of him, and sized me up with my helmet off. “It is an interesting pleasure, meeting you, Friend Nigel. I am curious, since you are an Interloper, why you thought I would be a good leader when the emergency facing us is mostly Pirates. And why you found the grah to speak in my favor, when it could have caused you trouble.”

“Actually, it did cause me some trouble,” I said with a lopsided smile, and began pouring on the charm. “But you remind me of leaders from my world. We have some corruption, but our officials tend to be fair minded and work for everyone. We treasure freedom above everything, and I thought you were the best chance this sector had of seeing some of that. I believe you want to make reforms, don’t you?”

“So… you wanted a Human, and I was the best choice to have a small piece of one,” he chuckled. “But you are right. My family have sages in them, and I follow that Walk a few steps. I study many things, and take ideas that work from all people. I am not popular, but when I am allowed, I succeed. Thanks to your speech yesterday, now I have the power to succeed much more, make changes. And you interest me, Friend Nigel. I studied you. You have become very powerful yourself. But you do not make an empire for yourself, at least, not one that stays and rules. You are still a Traveler, always journeying to new places. Why are you this way? What is your goal?”

I was about to see what kind of pitch man I was. “I want to make changes myself, big changes. I want to reach ATLAS, make it listen to me. Stop Resetting the universe. Let us build again, have a civilization again.”

He blinked at me for a moment, then chuckled quietly. “I mean no disrespect, but… a multitude of people before you tried and failed. What makes you think one man has any hope of success? When did you decide this?”

That was a good question. “Ohh… I think I’ve always been working toward that. But after the last Reset, my world was so different… my base was gone, emeril mines gone, Mordite farms gone, my friends, gone… I only had my Freighter, my crew, and my Fighter. I was in a grumpy mood, and that’s when I made that decision. I know it sounds crazy, but some of the biggest changes in history were made by crazy grumpy people. So I at least have that going for me. And I am rich, there’s that too.”

He gave me a curious look. “You are an idealist. The universe will not help you. ATLAS will resist you, perhaps… erase you. I would advise you to try less ambitious things. But… you follow That Walk, the path of legends. Hirk, Nal, Efferin and Aon all made a big mark on history. I have learned that with determination, limits can be smashed. You must tell me what you discover, how well you succeed.”

Vy’keen weren’t known for flattery, and I doubted he was either, so that made me feel very good. He was the first to mention Nal in the same sentence with Hirk. “Well… I appreciate the praise. But the only glory I want to see is a galaxy like it was, all people free to live as they please, and leaders like you guiding it. Perhaps more Nal than Hirk.”

He enjoyed the complementary reply, and took note of my ending. “You have a tongue like flowers, but bones of iron. I will do my best. Now, if you would share a drink with me? How strong is your stomach?”

“Thank you for asking… weak,” I chuckled.

He enjoyed a laugh with me, selecting a prettier bottle. “Then I will have a lighter one with you.” Fortunately we didn’t share the same glass, pouring me my own. We made an oath to the future. As expected, even a light dessertish wine for a Vy’keen had some kick to it.

I had a feeling he was about done with me, but I preyed on his hospitality. “If you would forgive my taking advantage of this day, I hope you don’t mind answering a few questions of my own.”

Knowing who I was, he seemed tolerant of my request. “If I am able.”

“Thank you for your time. I was curious just what sort of government there is in this galaxy. The Vy’keen do have some… overarching authority, I’d think. And what can you tell me about the other two races, briefly?”

“Briefly… I see the Reset has stolen some of your memories. It happens.” He shrugged offhandedly. “Rule of the two living races is very short. The Vy’keen are governed by generals in what we call Circle of Blades… you know those words?” I nodded. “It is a council of the highest rank generals, but each one has some independence. The Gek have what they call The Merchant’s Guild, but the rest of us say as The Syndicate.” He paused to make sure I understood. “They are much more of one mind, but that is easier when the goal is wealth. The Korvax have their old system recreated, The Order, with a high priest as the head. From what we can see, they spend the most time making sure there are good relations with the other two races.”

I wondered if Vy’keen thought the Korvax were alive, but I didn’t know how long I had so I moved on. “There was once a Galactic Council. What do you think the chances are of forming another one?”

He looked impressed at the question, but answered quickly. “Now? None. The Korvax are the only ones who have tried, but that was many years ago. We living people resist compromise with the others. We each want the biggest half. I know that the Korvax have the ears of a few people, but not much has changed over many, many cycles.”

“That’s disappointing,” I murmured, but it was what I expected. “I hope a Vy’keen who sees over the horizon will make at least one step down that path.”

He was gratified to find someone who spoke like them, and his reply felt honest. “I will make an effort.”

I wanted to ask one more before I was invited out. “What can you tell me about the Gruffoh’nal Chard’nash?”

This caught him by surprise, and he sat there for a moment, likely to find something diplomatic and evasive which I hoped wasn’t the case. “Only that it is not your egraoh. If you see one, do not meddle.”

That phrase again. Was it a cliche? “Are they Pirates? Criminals?”

He seemed to bristle at that. “I cannot say. What I will tell you is that there are… schemes in Euclid. Because of my Walk, I am not told of much. My advice: make more friends, cause no trouble. I want you to succeed, and have a long, happy travel. Now, I do not mean any rudeness, but I have duties. Sometime, we should speak more, have a meal.”

“I understand.” I stood, and with a bit of liquor still in my glass, I raised it to him, quoting a phrase which came to mind just then. “Live long, and prosper.”

“Wait.” He poured me a sip more, which was good because I wasn’t in the mood for drink just then, and the same for his own. “Now, say that oath again. It is a good one.”

I clinked glasses, saying in harmony with him, “Live long, and prosper.” Putting it down, I added, “I would be gratified if I could count you among my friends, Primarch Andonai.”

He clasped my offered hand, replying, “My friends are few, so I welcome one more.”

He gave me a goodbye which seemed fatherly, promising to accept correspondence, and that I had a bed waiting for me if I wanted. That was one well placed friend. Now, if I could just make a few more.

As I began to head towards space, I caught a disturbing sight over the hills some ways off: a dark skinned Fighter.

I worried about Andonai as I headed for the Infineon. He was surrounded by guards, so surely I was just being paranoid. But what kind of technology did assassins have available in this universe? Who knew? And what could I do, short of barging in on him and making a fool of myself if he was alright? Especially in a meeting with his advisors as they worked on the agenda for the upcoming cycles? Heck, what if he was having a discreet meeting with this guy?

One thing I could do which wasn’t much trouble was write a quick message to the Primarch, which I did first thing after landing in the ship’s bay. I tried to think of suitable wording.

Primarch Andonai, Urusang System,

Greetings.

I do not mean to bother you, but I saw a strange ship parked off a short distance away and wanted to make sure you were alright. Forgive me, but the things I have endured in my travels make me question everything.

I wish you all the best. Your friend,

~ Nigel Fox

There was no immediate reply. Of course there wasn’t; he was a busy leader, but being in the dark unsettled me that much more. There was no real news system to speak of. Mostly, it was a chat board with postings from witnesses, which half the time was local gossip. While the election had generated a lot of postings, and a number of them about a certain Interloper, including a scuffle in the local station which, to my amusement, sounded much more dramatic than I recalled. But there was nothing else remotely about the new Primarch.

Captain Grondo bugged me about leaving as the day went on. I made vague excuses that didn’t satisfy him. I asked him, “What does ‘not your egraoh’ mean? I don’t really know that last word.”

He hummed, tapping his chin as he was picking up a few of my traits. “I think you would say… ‘none of your business,’ or—” He jabbed his finger at me, growling, “Know your place!”

After having a laugh with him, it occurred to me that I hadn’t mentioned the Gruffoh’nal Chard’nash either, and asked about them. He shook his head. “I do not know. Old legends. Guards of Nal, or something. But I hear they still exist.” It was worth a shot.

I got a reply to my message that evening.

Traveler-friend Nigel Fox,

Greetings! I am thankful for your concern, but all is well.

I thank you again for an interesting conversation. They are rare for me. I will be busy for a few months, but I will be sure to send an invitation when I am available for a visit.

Take care, and have happy travels.

Your friend, in truth,

Urusang Primarch Andonai

Well, that made me feel better. And then I saw a message which made me feel very different, from Selene. It left me quite breathless.

Friend Nigel,

The hope of my soul is that you are well, and happy, and having much success in your endeavors. My thoughts… they worry. With no way yet to catch and hold your words, your experience, your intentions, how can I be faulted? If only I had knowledge, rather than imaginings.

I wish so that we were together, to share thoughts, to share dreams, to… share all. Our paths, our walks… where will they lead us? In unison, or occasional crossings? I wish to learn of this with you, where your will leads you. How our lives will be.

My heart has been singing through my thoughts, of you. I realize I should not let my passions sway me so, but I am a female, and weak in that way. I blush… to confess that I slept in your bed that evening, my senses drinking of your fragrance, your taste… every essence of you. And… I blush more… here. For you.

I await.

~ Selene ~

There was an image attached, of her, in my bed, with not much left to the imagination. That really wasn’t playing fair. I wondered if she would be unfair a little more.

3 Likes

(continued)

I was reluctant to leave the next day, two things weighing on me. One was concern over Andonai’s wellbeing. That bothered me, but it was dispelled with an announcement from his office that there would be no new restrictions on the citizens of the system, and that a full review of all rules, regulations and taxes was underway, with input welcomed from everyone. There was video of his speech, and it pleased the crowds. So he was well, good to his word, and I worried for nothing.

The other was Selene, and it was hard to keep from plotting a course back to the Noradli system where the Anomaly was, where she awaited. I kept reminding myself that I was going away for the noblest of reasons; my quest, which was hopefully going to change the universe, change ATLAS, to somehow talk it out of doing more Resets. Or at least ease up on them, make it possible to have a long, happy life together, and let us build a few damned cities in our systems. Assuming I could find a way.

So, resisting that urge with great effort, I registered a flight plan to the next system on the list, Gryana XVI. I noticed the distance to the Galactic Core was even further out than Urusang. Backing the map out a good distance from my location, I saw that I had misjudged the course. I kept forgetting that remains of the Old Civilization were along the Outer Edge. This is where much of the discoveries would be, crucial finds to guide me to other sites inward, towards the mysterious Core. Until I made a breakthrough, I was going to be exploring the Rim for a while. I departed with a melancholy yearning.

Gryana XVI was a dual star system, a green and yellow, Vy’keen, with four planets. One of them, Bognorma S47, was a barren world, marked as pillared, whatever that meant. Grondo informed me that the S designation meant the Sentinels were violent, but he was excited over the chance for me to collect some pillars. He assured me that if I just kept moving I’d be fine. I told him I would, if I felt like it, and he didn’t mind a visit from a Sentinel cruiser. The other three looked more typical. Mirsamev was volcanic, and one substance I hadn’t acquired any of was basalt. Geralat was a fungal planet which didn’t appeal to me, but Yaizu X7 was listed as a lush, temperate world. It would go last.

I had a new Fighter to try out. I hadn’t even looked at her yet, so I checked her over, and christened her Twin Blades from the dual fairings aligning her fuselage. She looked sleek, and rugged. I took her out on a maiden flight and got a feel for her. She was a little heavier than Star Sword, but had multi-engine power, and performed well. It might handle a little better in turbulent atmospheres. She was just barely A Class, so she would need a number of upgrades. For starters, she needed all the scanner types, as she couldn’t find a Trading Post from interplanetary space.

This was a low conflict system so freighters were coming and going freely, and I got invites from the commanders to chat. A Gek hit me up first, so I flew over and introduced myself. Captain Lusonnos was happy to chat, as most Gek were, and exuded a pleasant fragrance that made me feel comfy. As he was discussing the details of his route, he grouched a bit, pointing to his Mission Specialist. “I had a good one, very good. But you Travelers! You people want to serve just long enough to learn the routes, collect some cluster data, some gossip, and then quit! Hard lesson learned. No loyalty, none, except to your travels!”

I thought that was curious, but then I had an epiphany about it. Mission Specialists had access to ship’s logs, star charts, travel routes, data archives… many thousands of light years of data, and Travelers used their assignment to pilfer that information, essentially free. The only price was a few months of freighter runs. I stared off in wonder, murmuring, “Imagine that…”

He grumbled to me, “You sound proud of them. Not right, not right! Dishonorable! Tell me something pleasant to make me forget them, exciting things, wonderful things. You have adventures, yes? Tell me!”

Oh, did I ever. I gave him some of my more positive tales, and that made him happy. He already had most of the cargo I did, so we parted with shared stories.

One more frigate joined my fleet, a combat vessel, the captain letting me know that I had reached the capacity of my Freighter to support. I didn’t know there was one, but I realized I had thirty in my group, which was more than enough for five full missions.

After visiting a couple more freighters, I went to the station next. I wanted to get eyes on the fighters in the system too. I stopped by the Mutitool booth, run by a fellow named Garoth. There was a nice looking short rifle on display that I liked, and I had a slot open. I bought every upgrade he had for it. Then to the Ship Tech booth, and I bought everything he had for Twin Blades too. I still didn’t have a base and my Exosuit was crammed with upgrades, so I skipped the other two and went across the bay to the Guild station. While the Explorer’s Guild wasn’t quite as large or with as much prestige as the other two, they still had a role to play, and the Guild Master was as tough as any of them. After an exchange of formalities, he gave me a gift of a warp drive fuel cell. That was a decent bonus.

Just then, I spotted another Traveler, though this encounter was full of surprises. For starters, he was actually there and I was delighted to meet another Traveler in person, and yet another race type. This gave me hope that there were still remnants of the previous civilizations in the galaxy. I came forward with a smile and outstretched hand, but he declined, sounding stuffy and official.

“Hold. I’m looking for a missing Gek. Perhaps you’d recognize this face?” He held out a tablet with a photo on it, and I froze, as it was an image of Polo. I reached for it but he pulled away. He was watching with a keen eye, and explained that he was hired by the Trade Federation to find him. “Well?”

“Well, hold it closer so I can get a good look. I mean, they all look alike, don’t they?” I said. That seemed to irritate him, but he held it more closely. This was a younger Polo and taken when he was out in a small shuttle, or near one, on a rugged looking world, though it seemed like the shuttle had crashed. What kind of adventures had that curious little toad had? I gave him a shrug. “It could be anyone. You know, you see one Gek, you’ve seen 'em all, right?”

“He has distinctive colors and markings,” he challenged.

“I’m colorblind.”

“What color is this?” he pointed to a stripe on his sleeve.

“Blue.”

He grumbled, “I thought you were colorblind.”

“Partial,” I replied with a smile. “My eyes see the colors they want.”

He was becoming quite displeased with me, and growled, “Making false statements can get you in a lot of trouble, and we Travelers aren’t above the law, I’ll have you know. Do you have anything of substance to report?”

“Why don’t you tell me what he’s done?” I asked. “I catch some gossip here and there.”

“I am not at liberty to say,” he replied coyly. “You apparently know nothing, but like to play the comedian. If you hear of anything definite, send me a message.” He bumped my chestplate with his tablet, since I wasn’t wearing my helmet, and it beeped. “My credentials.”

I was growing suspicious of this character. He hadn’t shown me any I.D., and basic digital credentials could be forged easily enough. If he was legitimately trying to find Polo, this was a very strange way of going about it. He began to walk away but I followed. “You know, I’d like to confirm your story with the local Trade Representative. Get a few more details.”

“That is an Explorer Guild station,” he replied, marching a little faster. I guess that was a little too obvious.

“Yes, but they have these things known as communicators that can make calls,” I shot back. “Why don’t you hook me up with your superiors? Just so I’ll feel better about this. Besides, don’t you want to chat with a fellow Traveler? I’m a nice guy, once you get to know me—” He began running now, and I muttered as I bolted after him, “Not very sociable, is he? Hey, hold on!

He was a fast runner, though with my upgrades I was closing on him. He jumped over the railing to the landing bay below, and I leaped after him. Right into a big Vy’keen in familiar black armor, but what was more noticeable was a much bigger looking fist coming hard at my face—

What do we do now? Look him over? Take him?

No, too many eyes. We try another way.

There were people standing around, messing with me. I tried to think of where I was… what could possibly be going on, but a thick, painful murk clouded my mind. It grasped at random memories. “Lizabeth… Kyle - Selene? Selene! What’s going—!”

“What does he say?”

It was thick, guttural speech, and I knew it. Suddenly, I burst into a fuzzy, blurry consciousness through a brick wall of pain, and I thrashed around. “Who… what do you want!”

“Hold! Easy, Traveler.” A Vy’keen was looking me over with a hint of concern on his face. There were others around him, the usual curious crowd after an incident. And then a conversation started with a flurry.

“Meh… it’s that Interloper who got that fool elected.”

“But he promises freedom.”

“He promises weakness when we need strength.”

“We don’t need a strong leader to be strong ourselves!”

Oh, great, so they beat me up over that election? But no… I won that fight. And then as I was hauled to unsteady legs, I remembered what happened and shouted, “That Traveler, and Vy’keen… where did they go!”

The helpful one replied, “They left, a while ago.”

“Figures,” I muttered, licking blood from my lips. My head was throbbing, the left side of my face stinging. It seemed like that brute just stood there with his fist raised, letting gravity do the rest. I needed to work on my reactions. I also needed to go back to wearing my helmet. This was getting serious. How on Earth did they know I’d be here? But… of course, I filed a flight plan, everyone did, and I was one of the most notorious people in the region. I wondered if I should dare inquire about theirs.

He gave me a hard pat on my shoulder I really didn’t need, jerking at the impact and flare of pain, but I gave him a smile as I made to wipe my face with a cloth. At least my nose wasn’t bleeding, much. And with the fuss overwith, the small crowd began to disperse, but a Gek stayed behind, approaching me. If this was trouble, surely I could handle a Gek. “Heyy… what’s up? Besides me getting clobbered?”

He blinked at my poor attempt at humor and asked quietly, “You are that Traveler?”

I gave him a slight nod. “Yeah, that one. Nigel Fox. Life of the party, and part time punching bag.”

“Someone wants to meet with you.” He handed me a folded slip of paper, which was curious. This rarely happened in the age of digital communication. But that was why, if you wanted to share something with no chance of interception.

“I’m kind of… met out, but…” I took it from him and looked it over; it was just coordinates. “Who wants to meet me?”

“A friend, you will see,” he replied in a chitter, and walked off. I thought of stopping him, but if he was just a courier, what could he tell me? And if he wasn’t, I doubt my bluffs would prove very convincing. I decided to check with the Station Boss about any Travelers showing up there, any departures, but he told me flatly that there were none.

I went back to the Infineon, and it took no time at all for word to reach the captain, who stopped me at my quarters, looking me over. “What did you do now?”

I heaved a breath, saying, “I… fell down. A lot.”

He coughed out a laugh. “It looks like someone made you fall down, a lot. And you lost.”

“That’s about right,” I replied with a raised finger. “Now, I have to get ready to meet someone.”

He gave me a dour look. “You are meeting a shadow, are you.”

It was more of an observation, and I nodded. “But I’m sure it’s a friendly shadow.”

“You should take two men, to keep you from falling down again.” It was amusing to catch him using my sense of humor like that, and it was a thought. But if someone was going to share information, which this felt like, coming on strong might be counterproductive, or even keep it from happening. I was incapacitated at the station, and that would have been an opportune time to kidnap me, when the right backs were turned, if that was their goal. I was going to trust this one. He gave me a shrug. “If you say. But use extra care, and be far more clever this time. You have much more work to be stronger.”

His advice was often backhanded, but I’d show him. “I’ll work on both.”

This was a task that required the best fighter I had, which right now was Star Sword. Hopping in and punching in the coordinates, I went out into space, and was appalled at where they indicated: Bognorma S47. The barren pillared world which was a Sentinel shooting range. What the hell? This had to be a trick, a trap… something. I sat there for a minute, staring at the rocky orb some distance off.

What the hell…

I flew low over the surface, and blinked at the sight of thousands, millions… countless metallic pillars standing erect on the surface, gleaming in the planetlight. What a literal description. I noted Sentinels here and there, scanning their mindless existences away at rocks, rocks and more rocks. I hoped they were too busy with their endlessly redundant work to notice me.

I followed the indicator to a rugged hillside, ridges draped in dark shadows. This had to be a criminal hideout, or a lair of the fabled Gruffoh’nal Chard’nash. Maybe I’d get a chance at a rematch, though I suspected that my black clad fist-friend was off with that Traveler, harassing people about Polo. I had to contact them somehow. But first, I had to make my way through patrols of Sentinel watchbots.

I set down at a fairly flat place near the location, and hopped out, my Multitool at the ready. I took just a moment to admire the gleaming pillars, which were floating over the surface, and rotating elegantly slow. The sound of a Sentinel cruising nearby got my attention and I scanned over the area. Along with a surprising ping of red undiscovered lifeform orbs, there was a cave in the shadow of a ridge that looked to be right about where the locator indicated, so I jetboosted into it. My imagination had run away with me; I had forgotten that even on hostile worlds, Sentinel patrols were spread thin and slow to react. Still, this was a great place to hide from the universe. I was tense with worry as I entered the cave, lit here and there with glowing marrow bulbs. Had there been too many eyes on the station, as I recalled the black-clad goon remarking? Why not leave a little bread crumb to make the curious Interloper walk right into the trap with no trouble? It sounded way too plausible.

I hadn’t gone very far into the cave when in a narrow part, I encountered a door; thick, heavy, and with no obvious way to enter. There was a button on a wall panel, which I pressed, as I heard the irritating whine of an approaching Sentinel. That was very unfortunate for me as there was no other way out. “Come on… answer the door. You invited me here, don’t be rude.” Or was that their game? Throw me to the Sentinels, and watch for amusement as I fought them to ever more powerful foes? As the red beams of their scanner began to shine on the cave wall behind me, I yelped as something seized my arm hard, and I stumbled through a door that had quietly opened.

I found myself facing a Vy’keen, still holding my arm, who fixed me in a stern gaze. “Hi,” I said a little quietly. He was dressed in rather dark armor, but at least it wasn’t black. Then as I didn’t find myself beaten half to death or shot, my vision opened up a bit, and I noticed two Gek at his sides. They were armed, but their weapons holstered. I glanced over my shoulder and saw that the door was shut. Not that anyone would leave a way open on a mad Sentinel world, but I liked confirming details like that.

“Greetings. Follow,” he grumbled in short barks, releasing his grip.

“Right. Right,” I murmured, trailing after him with the Gek sandwiching me between.

The cave tunnel wound around a bit, and not too far in, opened up into a well lit cavern which had some of those pillars placed here and there in a rather stylish way. They looked amazing. I pointed at one, remarking, “You know, my captain told me to collect some of those. I’d love to have some for myself.” The Gek chittered a laugh, but they weren’t much for conversation. This was quite an underground encampment, with a number of Vy’keen and Gek engaged in various tasks to keep the place going. What really stunned me was seeing Korvax among them; not many, but still quite a few. Steps had been cut into the stone, leading to a chamber hewn out for more space. Down a wide corridor were doors on either side, until we reached one in the end. There were two guards who stood aside to allow my escort to knock.

A voice inside said, “Come.”

My guide paused, telling me, “Remove your helmet.”

I didn’t think making some cute remark to stall would work too well, so I nodded, slipping it off. I gave him a brief smile. He didn’t return it, opening the door. Inside was a fairly spacious chamber which looked for all the world like a sage’s abode, complete with books, scrolls, old maps, relics, computers… the works. And behind an ornate desk sat a dour looking Vy’keen. He rose, looking big and strong, as almost every single one of their race did, and gave me a good looking over. And as I endured this scrutiny, a thought struck.

He beckoned at a chair before the desk, telling me, “Sit.”

“Right, thank you,” I murmured, and as I took my seat, cradling my helmet in my lap, I asked, “You… aren’t the pro-Gek candidate, are you? Because that election…” My voice trailed off as the three guides chuckled.

“Hardly,” he replied, motioning for the others to leave. He was a trusting sort, so that was a good sign. “I doubt you know me, but I am called Troq.”

My eyes narrowed as he told me that. “Nothing?”

He nodded. “Yes, because I am nothing to my people.” It reminded me of someone called -Null- who’s memory lurked behind that wall of amnesia.

“I guess that explains why you chose the neighborhood.” This was baffling, and I felt very much like the victim in a spy thriller facing some charming supervillain, and way out of my league. “But… you seem to have collected a lot of friends here for a nobody. Even Gek, and Korvax?

“Because the Vy’keen are rigid, strict, dislike free thought,” he replied sourly. “The same with the Gek, a little, and all know of the Korvax.”

That implied something serious. “They’re disconnected?”

“Yes.”

“By force?”

“No, their own choice.” He seemed rather proud of that.

“So, this is sort of a commune of free thinkers? But what cause unifies you?” And then I noticed a symbol engraved in a wooden plaque above his chair, of a tall diamond with a circle in the middle. “You’re adherents of Nal.”

“To an extent.”

“An extent,” I murmured quietly. Now I was out of ideas. This was a highly polarized society among the Three Races, and there had never been a hint of other major factions. “Well… you wanted to see me. I hope you’ll explain.”

“I admire the independence of Nal,” he informed me. “But Nal only went so far in his thinking, if all that is told of him is true. I did want to see you, if all that is told of you is true. So, I ask you now, do you want to know the truth of the Three Races?”

Well, let’s get right to it. I nodded. “Yes.”

“Do you want to know the truth of the Ancients?”

“Yes.”

“Do you want to know the truth of the Sentinels?”

“Yes.”

“Do you want to know the truth of the Resets?”

“Yes.”

“Do you want to know the truth of the ATLAS?”

It almost sounded like a litany. “Yes, that most of all. I want to know how to return the universe to greatness. Get back our civilization, our cities, our freedom. Especially so worlds like this aren’t swarming with homicidal Sentinels.”

That seemed to satisfy him. “So we are on the same Walk in thinking. I wish to know the Truth also. As you can see, I am surrounded by bits of knowledge. But the knowledge of this galaxy, from all these races, all these views, clutter Truth with opinions, misunderstanding. Even falsehood. It is a never ending search. I always want more.” He rested his arms on his desk and leaned forward. “Will you help me?”

That was a surprising request. “Well… if I can. You mean, compare notes?”

“More than that,” he replied. “Go to sites for us, return with discoveries.”

I blinked at him in perplexion. With this body of workers at his disposal? “I… suppose, and as long as it stands for Truth, Justice, and the Euclidean Way. But I must tell you that my plate is kind of full as it is, and I like my freedom. What can you offer me?”

“Our knowledge,” he answered. “Other than certain sensitive subjects.”

Well, that wasn’t much different than my own position, I reasoned. “Okay. Maybe you could answer some of my questions.”

He nodded. “If I am able.”

“There was a Planetary Archive a few hundred light years away that had their files hacked to include some Chronicles of Nal. Were you in some way responsible for that?”

He offered up a thin smile. “I might be aware of it.”

That gave me a chuckle. “I’d never suspect… okay, are you the reason for the state of emergency? Part of it?”

He glanced in the direction I thought the station was located, then at his desk, looking perturbed. “I… hope not, but in this galaxy, anything is possible.”

How about a hard one. “What can you tell me about the Gruffoh’nal Chard’nash?”

A door visibly closed in his expression. “That is not your egraoh.”

“Yeah, so I hear,” I murmured. That phrase was getting old. “Have you worked with them?”

“I work with all manner of people,” he answered displosably.

“Yes, I suppose you do.” I tugged my lip, wondering if I should broach the subject of Nada and Polo. If he was looking for them, that would make me feel slightly better. “I’ve… heard stories of a Space Anomaly that some say I should contact. I wonder if you’ve heard any rumors of such a thing… ATLAS?”

“I have heard all kinds of rumors,” he said evenly. “Some, which are hard to believe. That is one of them. But it is not ATLAS.”

If he was involved with that heavy handed search, it might take some confidence building to find out. “What do you know about the Ancients?”

“Not enough,” he confessed. “They are the most difficult mystery.”

“You mean… besides ATLAS?”

“Ah,” he said with raised finger. “Let me speak clearly. ATLAS Stations can be found. True, almost nothing can be learned. But the cities of the Ancients… those are well hidden.”

“I hoped you might be able to tell me about them,” I said, shrugging. “What kind of danger are you and your people in?”

“Me? I angered my own people many years ago in my youth. Asked too many of the wrong questions, and I continued. They never forgave me. I had enough sense not to commit heresy, but I would probably be arrested. The Gek, no one cares about them as far as I know. The Korvax, however… they would be disconnected completely, their echoes not accepted by the Convergence.”

“I understand.” An image came to mind of a Korvax sitting in a chair, devoid of consciousness and life. I was afraid I witnessed it somehow, and I shivered from it. I had to move along. “How do you make your money? Trading? Barter… hacking… smuggling—?”

His eyes bugged out and nostrils flared. “No! At least…” He looked aside evasively. “Not that serious, and only when needed. We must do something to survive. So, we sell minerals and metals, and those pillars you saw. Those are hard to find in the galaxy. Their sale is ‘discouraged,’ but the authorities allow it, and there are plenty. They seem to come back in time like a crop. Everyone wants them.”

“Yes, including me and my captain,” I remarked with a grin. “I have thousands of questions I’d love to ask, but I don’t want to wear out my welcome. You seem like someone I’d like to work with. How can you help me help us both?”

“Before we talk more, I have one more question.” He pointed at me. “You seem to have had some trouble.”

“Oh, this?” I brushed over my face reflexively. “I… fell.”

“So I hear,” he said, bemused. “You must take more care, and very much care over anything I give you, because you may fall too far to wake up. And that might make our lives much harder. Shorter.”

I hoped in a sense that those stories of Travelers coming back to life were true. In the meantime, I guess I had to carry on like a criminal and spy. Evidently, there was much more going on under the surface than I’d imagined, and information, of much more value. “I’m actually working on that. Other than my recent fall, I’ve done alright. So… do we have some sort of agreement?”

I held out my hand, and he shook it. “Some. Before I welcome you fully, I want to see what you can do for us. I have a task ready. Look.” He held out a tablet. On the screen was a star chart with named systems. “I have word that Vy’keen travelers do not like this system, Ozhies-Osh VII. This world, Hiposea X, is said to have old sites on it. Can you travel that far?”

2358 light years? Fairly easily. But not only did I not want to let on how easily, this was much too soon for one of his jobs. I had pressing matters dealing with my friends to see about. I furrowed my brow, muttering, “Yes, I can, but… I have some things I need to take care of.”

“I want you to do this first.” He seemed quite insistent.

“I suppose…” I shrugged, frowning, and I didn’t have to put on much of an act. “What exactly am I looking for?”

“Something big.” I gave him a sour look at such a vague reply. “I leave it to you, when you choose to return. I want to see how hungry a discoverer you are. It will determine our path.”

“All right.” I stood, saying, “If that’s all, I want to get this out of the way. But keep in mind, after this, I decide what has priority, although I’m open to discussion.”

“That is fair enough.” He shook my hand again, saying, “Have good travels.”

“And at the end of them, hopefully you can have a better name for yourself.”

He shook his head. “No, I will wear the name of ‘Nothing’ like a wound of honor until my death.”

“Well, try to make that a long time from now. Happy discoveries, many truths,” I told him with a lopsided smile, and left his chambers.

As I was walked out, I gave the place a brief looking over. There were shops, stalls, crafting places, eating places, and signs of quarters beyond. Shipping crates were being moved around, but most of them were food, tools and a few uncommon materials. Nothing that looked like pricey stolen goods or contraband, assuming the labels were legitimate. Their ships, which they had to have, were out of sight.

A Truth cult… well, stranger things had happened. But a Truth cult funded by a black market ring; that made a little more sense, though they seemed much nicer than the usual gang. Of course, that was while the lights were on.

4 Likes

(continued)

So much for Gryana XVI. With Troq’s little Truth gang calling it home, I doubted I had anything to discover there, which left me “free” to check out Ozhies-Osh VII, a Korvax system, and first off, Hiposea X, a rough half-desert world with some patches of scruffy forest. And I felt like a trainee being given a grocery list. Even someone new to the world of larceny would know that this was one of those less important sites for Troq to deal with in due time. Or to break in a new guy. For all I knew, they had even planted something to see if I could find it. The way scanners worked in this universe, I’d need luck as much as skill.

But with dilligence, I began to find things. Ruins, for the most part, and on the sides of buildings were carved the tall diamond and circle signs of ATLAS. But when I unearthed treasures, they were Vy’keen. One old book was titled The Chronicles of Nal. So, this was one of those worlds where the adherents of Nal had fled when their leader was killed… or was it? Another site some distance off had a book, The Dreams of Hirk. And there seemed to be a rough dividing line between the two sides. But… there was no way this was the planet where Nal and Hirk had their falling out… was it? No, it had to be one of the worlds they had settled before Hirk grabbed control.

But now I was getting frustrated, because I kept finding much the same stuff over and over. At least I would have plenty to share with any sage or scholar who wanted it. I did find a cache with some ceremonial weapons and two rings inside. Surprisingly, they looked like my size. Finally, I came across a Monolith. I landed and approached it reverently, though I had a feeling all I would get out of it is the sad lore of Nal’s murder. This one bore a different message.

I touched the sphere in the base of the pedestal and it launched itself into the air, glowing and spinning, and my mind began to see things…

Fighting… arguing… armed conflict… their people were torn in two. They were being brutal to their own kind. I wanted to try to make them stop, but they seemed oblivious to me. Why did they have to settle every difference with bloodshed!

DON THE RINGS … BEAR THE SWORD … THEY ARE FOR YOU

I wasn’t sure what the Voice was telling me… rings? Wait, I had discovered them a while ago. I removed my gloves and put them on. They fit almost perfectly. The sword, though, that was heavy, and required two hands to wield. But I wouldn’t fight. Only defend.

POINT … DIRECT

It was hard to ignore the fighting… why wouldn’t it stop? “Why? Stop it!” I exclaimed. “These are your people!”

POINT … DIRECT

Wait… this was a vision. It had happened long ago. It couldn’t change. I didn’t want to see any more of it. Maybe if I did as the Voice demanded, it would end. I pointed at the Monument, but nothing happened, though… direct? I swung to the left, but nothing happened. I turned right, and I felt something… more, and when I aimed away from the Monument, it gleamed gold, as did the rings. Off in the distance, in a range of mountains, a light shined, a beam, straight into the sky.

SEEK … FIND

The vision ended, and I fell to the hard blue-black metal, the sword clattering at my side. Good Lord, these visions… what were They trying to show me? And then I noticed that I had another marker, another Monolith. Another step on the Lesson I had to learn. I ignored the notice of more Nanite Clusters.

I landed on a small plateau where that monument rested, and approached it warily, unsure what I was going to see. In this one, a large hole was cut through it. I still wore the rings and carried the sword. I rested it on the pedestal, and touched the sphere, which lit up and hovered, and my mind began to perceive things…

A figure stood, railing at his people, driving them to a frenzy. I dimly heard him talk of the Aeons, how they would crush them. How Nal had tried to deceive them, make them think they were weak. And if they were not ready to fight for their freedom, they would perish. Only the Travelers would be spared. The ones the Ancients foretold.

But… this was insane. How could they hope to take on an entire galaxy of Sentin - Aeons? Nal was right!

He seemed to catch my thoughts and turned to face me, and his face was terrible and cruel. He said to me, “You are no Traveler, but an Interloper! You try to deceive us, just like your friend Nal! Death shall have you too!” On his chest was blood… Nal’s blood.

I was enraged, and cried, “Murderer! Your own brother!” I grabbed the sword and thrust him through.

His eyes bugged out and his mouth hung agape wordlessly. But it curled into a haughty smile and he stood up straight. “You cannot change what cannot be changed, Interloper. Destiny is determined. And so is your fate!” I had failed Nal, and for a moment, I was too sad to care. Then I realized that throwing my life away, when I had so much to do, someone waiting for me, was stupid.

He raised his sword to strike me down, but he took his time to make it a mighty stroke. So I kicked him in the groin, and this time, his expression bore real pain. I finished him with a punch to the chin, catching him in the bone with the ring. It blazed gold, and he gave out a wail, and I saw on his chin a scar where I’d hit him. It was a small thing, but it was all I could do for the friend I never knew.

He snarled at me, “This changes nothing! Even the Shadow Guard will not save you! I will let Pirates have you - no! I will feed you to ATLAS myself! Your memories will be tasty morsels to that false god!” He saw the fear on my face and laughed at me, coming for me with his bare hands. This was terrible. Was death the only solution to people like this? I screamed in frustration more than fear.

WAIT … LOOK … SEE

The brute stood, fading away. Through the channel cut in the center of the Monolith, I saw a marker for another monument. I shook myself as free as I could of the emotions of the experience, and steeled myself for what came next.

This mountain range was extremely high, some of the tallest mountains I had encountered. And this was the most unusual Monolith I had ever seen. The mountain was split down the middle, a deep chasm in the gap. And in the midst was a tall slender Monolith, thousands of units high, as if a thick sword blade which cleaved it. A rope bridge led out to the pedestal. It was ancient and rickety, and I decided I’d rather jet across.

Follow the steps of Nal

I swallowed down some intense emotions. This really was it, wasn’t it? I stepped gingerly onto the old bridge of wood and rope, the sword secured to my pack to hold it. The bridge wanted to sway, and it didn’t help that mountain winds whipped at it, making it wobble. I didn’t really have anything to fear, but that didn’t ease the phobia of that incredible drop below me, the gulf Nal fell into.

I reached the pedestal and stood there a long time, gathering my resolve. I really didn’t want to see Nal be slain by his cruel brother. What would this possibly serve? But, I felt I had no choice. How much free will was allowed in such a universe?

I touched the diamond shaped key embedded in the pedestal, and stood back as it rose into the air, twirling, gleaming, and beckoning my soul…

They stood together, side by side, and as always, Hirk took charge. He challenged the monument, yelling at it and striking it with his dagger. Nal tried to calm his brother down, but Hirk only grew angrier. On the sixth challenge, it finally awoke.

WHY ANGER?

“You will not answer! We must be great! These Aeons are much trouble! We must be free - how can we be free?”

OBSERVE

An expansive panorama opened to the two of them, and in it were seen a multitude of people, a multitude of races, all coming to the galaxy.

BEHOLD, THE TRAVELERS … YOU SHALL NOT ATTACK THEM … YOU SHALL NOT IMPEDE THEM … YOU SHALL GIVE THEM AID IF THEY NEED

TRAVELER … SPEAK

One came forward, wearing a suit, helmeted, their face unseen. “Greetings. There should be no need of blood for our meeting, we are but a dream in an infinite universe. We simply wish to understand, to explore, to find Truth. We will assist you.”

Hirk asked of them, “Help us destroy the Aeons?”

He shook his head, unwilling to answer by voice, and rejoined his fellows.

Hirk persisted. “What about the Aeons?”

The Monolith would not answer. Nal came forward, asking, “How can we have peace with ATLAS?”

SEEK WISDOM FROM THE KORVAX

Hirk grew angry, shouting, “Peace? Are you mad? There can be no peace with that fasle god!”

THEY WILL TEACH YOU

Nal shouted, “Be quiet, brother! It is answering! Besides, false god or not, it still is a god to us!”

SUBMISSION IS THE ONLY WAY

Hirk refused to stop. “I hear nothing. You are lying! You worship that accursed thing, do you?”

SUBMIT

Hirk caught that, and rebelled. “I will NOT submit to you!”

SUBMIT

Nal tried to reason once more. “But… Hirk, how can you fight a god?”

OBEY

Hirk had a terrible look in his eye just then, turning on his brother, the knife in his hand. “Maybe I cannot. But with less followers, it is weaker! Do you worship that devil?”

No… this can’t happen… what can I do? What can I do!

OBEY

Nal backed away in fear. “Hirk! No! I do not! But be reasonable! We are not gods!” He then stood there, unwilling to fight. “Would you really kill your brother?”

I said to him, “Hirk, stop! Think! This is your closest advisor! Your friend - brother!”

OBEY

Hirk raised his knife, but hesitated. “Would you not kill me, to save your people?”

OBEY

Nal shook his head. “Murder can save no one.”

Hirk raised his dagger once more. “Then you are a fool.”

I cried, “Hirk, for God’s sake, stop!”

OBEY

“Interlopers!” Hirk bellowed. “Shut! UP!”

A bolt of lightning struck between them. Hirk fell to the platform, but Nal toppled over the edge. I turned away in horror. I had failed again… always failing to save those I want to…

Hirk rose to his feet, sheathing his blade, speaking to himself. I didn’t want to hear it, but I couldn’t stop it if I wanted to. “He was killed… ATLAS would not have killed his own helper… there is a greater god than ATLAS. That is the proof! ATLAS is false!” He struck the face of the monument with his fist. “Is that not true!” With a loud grah, he left the Monolith, knowing what to do.

I stood there as the vision faded, calming down from the dream I had just lived through. On an intellectual level, this was fascinating, but I wasn’t feeling very inquisitive right then.

Go down … witness

I was aghast, muttering, “You have to be kidding me… I have no intention of viewing Nal’s remains. What use could that possibly be?” Still, I looked over the edge, and honestly, when I thought of using my Jet Pack to descend, it didn’t look that scary…

A few thrilling if noisy moments later, I alighted on the floor of the incredible ravine between cliffsides, and examined the foundation of the Monolith. It looked almost like a mausoleum, and like one, it was sealed. That was a relief. “Okay… I came, I saw, I’m done. Thank you for the fascinating history lesson.”

Enter

It struck me just then that two different travelers, one at least, a Traveler, warned about listening to a Voice. I hoped that didn’t include Monoliths. “Enter? How?”

As I approached the face of the foundation, I realized I was casting a faint shadow. I pulled the sword from its resting place on my back and saw that it was shining, as were the rings again. This sword… it was too heavy to be ceremonial. This was Nal’s sword, wasn’t it? And it was too heavy to properly wield, but maybe I didn’t have to. Gripping it by the hilt and letting it hang blade down, I approached the face of the structure, and was rewarded by a section sliding away. With a shrug, I entered, hoping this one was brief…

Nal was lying on a bed, talking feverishly while scribes documented his words. I set the sword down and came to his side, astonished to find him like this. “Nal… you’re alive!”

He looked to me, his head turning slowly as if he was gradually becoming aware of me. “Traveler… Friend Nathan… Nigel?”

I was stunned, leaning closer. “You… know who I—?”

“You must listen! I saw… as I fell… I saw through this world! To what lies underneath… the stuff… code? The essence… it’s strange. Energy. And ATLAS… it is not the ultimate… it’s merely a host! There is Another Beyond which is the True source! But ATLAS can be made to… there’s a contro!(#%!#%())the Ancien(~@#$%&))”

Things began glitching, and I cried out in frustration. "Damn it to hell… what are you

“Afraid of—!”

I stumbled, nearly falling over from disorientation. All at once, I was outside, in the real world. At least, as real as I was aware of. There was something at my feet; an old book, titled, Questions. I began to feel very exposed, and vulnerable, like I had at the Abandoned Outpost. Had I seen too far into the Truth? I looked up at the distant sky above, hoping that a lightning bolt wasn’t coming my way. I had to get back to my ship, to safety. I put my gloves back on, and sought a way out of the deep crevasse.

Fortunately, I made it without any cataclysmic incidents. But as I finally climbed back up to the summit of the immense mountain, I saw that I had visitors waiting for me; other ships. I drew my Multitool just in case I was wrong, but it was Troq and his troop of jolly bodyguards. I stowed my weapon as they came to meet me. “Just checking up on the new hire, are we?”

He chuckled, looking rather pleased. “I am impressed, Friend Nigel. You came to a very interesting place. What did you discover?”

“For one thing, that history is often a little off in some very important details. Artifact wise… some books.” I produced some of them; the duplicates I kept. I handed over the one special volume to Troq who gazed at it in his hands curiously. “Questions?”

“Yes. The questions Nal had after surviving his fall from the Monolith.” He was stunned, gaping at me in shock, but I had one more surprise. “Oh, and Nal’s sword.”

Now he was flabberghasted, his eyes bulging out, as were the others as I handed it to the Vy’keen guard. “How! And… are you sure? I was certain that those ceremonial—” He stopped short, not quite catching himself.

“No, you thought they were ceremonial. But this bad boy…” I patted the hilt fondly. “It, uh… was important in dealing with a puzzle or two. Uhm, I… would really like to have that.”

He didn’t care for the mere idea. “Oh no! If this is indeed Nal’s sword, it is part of our legacy. And we had it all this time…”

I nodded, saying wistfully, “I understand.”

He repeated, “But… how? How did you accomplish this?”

“I don’t know if this is also true of the other races, but Travelers matter, a lot. We have some interesting roles to play in these ancient histories, as well as unlocking them.”

He gazed at me in wonder. “Then… you must join us! We need you. We can be of great benefit to each other!”

“I’d be happy too. From time to time.” I turned and headed to my ship, saying over my shoulder, “I’ll see you in a day or so. I want to know what I found too. But I have that pressing business to see about.” I clenched my fist, savoring the feeling of those rings on each hand. These, I was keeping as a perk.

3 Likes