My Journey

DAY TEN

I looked up in surprise to see K’tarsgh standing there, gazing at me with a sour look on his face, encased in what looked to be machine armor… an augmented exosuit? He still used makeshift crutches to walk, and aimed one at my face. “Friend Nijol… I tried to warn you. It’s to my shame that I didn’t. Now look at you. Eaten alive with k’neth. Why such transgression? How do you think you can help us against this Challenge when I find you like this? You who speak so highly of your Walk… you fall!”

I looked at my hands, and I was shocked to see my body was rotting like a cadaver. My clothing was ancient and eaten up in tatters, my skin peeled away, decaying, and oozed with putrid fluids and pus. I began to shake, my mind reeling with panic - how had this happened! And then I jumped as an arm reached for me to draw me back down, and it wasn’t Seri’s, it wasn’t Adjaha’s as K’tarsgh reprimanded me, but it was a woman’s voice I heard. “Ni! Gel! Fox! How could you!” He threw his right crutch at me which caught me smartly across the forehead, the jolt of it jarring me awake—

I jerked in the bed, blinking, and tried to fathom why my cabin looked like a rustic old manor, with sunlight streaming through the window to my left, when the memory of what happened yesterday came slowly back into focus with my vision. “I don’t like these alarm clocks,” I muttered, wanting to pull the covers over my eyes, but then I remembered something else which happened last night. Outside was the sound of Vy’keen gathering for some definite purpose, which I definitely need to see about.

I made to peel out of the girls’ embraces, which caused them to moan and whine in protest. “Go back to sleep… I’m just a dream,” I murmured as I gingerly, and awkwardly, tried to climb over Adjaha who stroked at my leg. They both snuggled together as I drew the blanket over them, both of them mumbling some thanks. I had to admire them for a moment, as they were both such beauties, and in a rare moment of quiet peace. The quiet peace was broken by a gentle knock on the door which sounded rather loud in the relative silence, making me jump.

“Sir Nijol?” It was Resh, who went on, “Grabas is about to face his Challenge.”

“Yeah, I’m just getting up,” I replied with as much volume as I thought would make it through the door as I fumbled into my suit. The tension of what was about to happen had me waking up pretty quick. I still needed a cup of energy to fuel a bit more of that, and to possibly soothe an empty stomach as there was no time for food. Thankfully there was a pot of that chickory stuff downstairs.

It wasn’t hard to find the location, between a few stragglers coming to watch, and quite a hubbub from those already gathered. It was in an open area near K’tarsgh’s home in the center of the village. There was a small hill the crowd had surrounded, seeming to have separated into groups. I was surprised, thinking that they were of one clan, but clearly not. It made it easier to make my way to the front as they stood apart from each other. Atop the hill stood Grabas who bellowed, “Pirates! Many gerark! I have ruled in the stead of K’tarsgh as his trusted aid! And now that rule has been challenged! This one!” He pointed at Grn’deth, standing with his troop off to one side. “Has laid claim to it! He finds fault with our pact with the Interloper-Pirate who gave us his own generous riches to buy it! All have benefitted, even Grn’deth! But he wants more!” There was a rumble of contention from all of them. I couldn’t tell how many favored it, but a few leader types fixed me in what looked to be disapproval. And I thought every Pirate lived for money. He continued, “He wants to rule you himself, when K’tarsgh couldn’t rise up! A Vy’keen the likes of which we haven’t seen for many cycles! He presumes a lot of greatness! But the Challenge has been made! I will not back down! I only yield to give him his say!”

A roar of approval went up from the crowd as Grabas left the peak, and the ruffian strode atop it with his boots chanting his name loudly with each step. And damn it, he looked bigger than I remembered. Had he huffed grah grah, did that have an effect on him? Or was fear working on my perception?

He lifted his fists high as if in triumph already, which irked me. “Hirk’s blood and flesh! Yes, I want to rule! K’tarsgh himself grew weak as years went by! He even sent an Interloper to do his work for him in that derelict! One Interloper! Who did what K’tarsgh and eleven good boots couldn’t! One Interloper! What kind of leader is that! And we’re supposed to respect his lesser? Bah bah bah! Baby talk! No! I don’t! And that one!” He pointed right at me. “That Interloper is trying to tame us! Hands us money like we’re cubs to be pampered! Wants to slap our blades from our hands! Make us into workers serving others! And keep the Great Beasts for himself, like he took our pochwa! For what? Pets? And here she comes now!”

I turned with the mob in bewilderment as Seri and Adjaha came running up to me in their suits, armed in case of trouble. “Honey, what are you doing here?” The sight of thousands of Vy’keen looking at us with disdain and a frightening bit of hunger was most discomforting to us. I wished they had their helmets on, as I didn’t want to deal with the mystery of another Human around, and a pretty girl.

Seri pressed herself to me hard, murmuring in a tense voice, “I want to know this fate.”

Grn’deth gave us a derisive laugh, overhearing that. “Fate! A good word for today! The fate that took our pochwa may give us another! If I win, I’ll be taking that one as my own!” My blood boiled as he was looking at Adjaha.

If mine was boiling, she blew a valve as she screamed at him with a savagery I’d never seen except in her Dragon form. It not only stunned me, but silenced everyone there, including him. And then even more, as she spoke. “I’ll kick your ass till you’re shitting yourself, you asshole!”

That caused quite a long silence, and when I found my voice, I was both proud of her and afraid for her safety. “Adj, hon, remember, you’re not a Dragon, just a Traveler in training.”

“I know how to fight them,” she growled, which left me speechless. How the hell did she have a clue, when she hadn’t been a Human for little more than a week! I popped a lozenge as my stomach was churning from nerves. Seri touched my hand, wanting one for herself.

Grn’deth finally found his tongue again, beginning to chuckle, then to laugh. “Spirit which even the brave Interloper doesn’t have! But a spirit I can break! And two females to bed at once! Yes, Fate is a great word! It’s time that Fate decide who leads us! A strong leader, a real Pirate, like me? Or a lap dog to a foolish rich Interloper, a second to a sleeping corpse like Grabas!”

Both leaders and their people began shouting, though Grabas and his cohort were outraged at the insults leveled at them. I felt bad for him because in essence, everything that bastard said was true. I wanted to neuter the Pirates, turn them into workers, craftsmen… good people, civilized people, following some sort of Walk that would lead them to Heaven, not Hell. And that very thing was what caused Hirk to break off a huge group from the other Vy’keen so many centuries ago, centuries that evidently hadn’t dulled that thirst for combat one bit. I began to despair of these people ever truly being anything but warriors at heart, save for a precious few.

Grabas came to me, saying in amazement, “Your woman - friend,” he amended quickly at a look from Adjaha and myself, “she has the spirit of a Vy’keen! Thank you for only speaking for yourself, young woman. I had to say this… if I should fall.” He turned to my mate, looking very contrite. “And you, Seri, freed from our abuse… I don’t deserve anything but hate and spit for how we treated you. But… would you please pray to your God for my victory? It will mean nothing but evil if I fall.”

She swallowed down a moan, saying to him, “I will… I will pray as hard as I did for my man.”

That satisfied him. As he went back to his men, beginning to strip out of his armor, I crossed myself . I had a feeling it wasn’t particularly connected to whatever creed I had adhered to in that other life so far removed from this mad world, but it felt pious and I needed spiritual strength and encouragement badly. I caught Adjaha repeating the motion, and I brushed her arm as we shared a smile.

Those smiles died quickly as the two combatants faced each other, armed only with their blades and clothing for protection. They stood about twenty feet apart, smacking their blade-weilding fists to their chests, took a few breaths, crying, “Blade to blade! Let only the right strength, the true strength stand!” And then they ran headlong for each other with loud cries, falling on each other with brutal fury.

A small part of me was captivated with the display of raw ferocity in these two seasoned warriors as their knives flashed and clashed, ringing with the song of steel. The rest of me was scared to death. I was heartened as Grabas seemed to have the upper hand early, drawing first blood and landing hard blows, but wounds began to appear on both as those blades found their way to flesh, and blood began to flow down those tight, well muscled bodies. Grn’deth wasn’t about to yield to him though, and being thrown down a few times only seemed to make him angrier, more determined, and Grabas was unable to deal a decisive blow. I heard Seri beside me, whimpering with eyes squeezed shut and hands clasped tight, almost sobbing out words I had never heard before, and I felt her spirit around me strong, like a shield. I prayed that shield would extend around my new friend. Please… for the sake of a semblance of peace with these misguided folk, Father, please

Grabas made a desperate attempt to end the contest once and for all, making a broad slash that Grn’deth blocked, and my heart nearly stopped as that brute delivered a hard puch to his face, staggering him. My voice joined with his cohort as I had to watch him on the defensive, struggling in vain to recover enough to go back on offense, but it was all he could do to fend off strike after strike with that deadly blade. I wilted as the scoundrel landed ever deadlier cuts across his chest, his stomach, and then another fist drove him to the ground in a daze.

No!” I cried, and lost all reason, running to the scene of the fight amidst shouts of shock and outrage, and the girls both screaming for me to stop. But I just couldn’t stand by and let Grabas be killed. Grn’deth had a gloating look on his face as he plunged that awful short sword they called a knife down at the helpless opponent at his feet. And then blinked in surprise as I dashed into view, blocking his strike with the flat of my blade braced with both hands. I cringed as that strike could well mean my death too, and it took everything I had to stop it, but the blade was made super strong, not brittle as other metals could be, and it held up to the blow. I ducked as the tip of Grn’deth’s shortsword snapped off, spinning over my head. He gaped at me in confusion and outrage, as did all the other Vy’keen, and then they began to howl in protest.

I began speaking, hoping my mouth would rescue me, as well as my two girls which had to draw their weapons to hold the angry mob near them at bay. “Listen! Listen to a mere Interloper! But I’m not! I’m one of you now! Grn’deth has won! I can’t deny that!”

“Then let him finish!” one of his men shouted hotly.

I continued, heedless of the great outcry that followed. “But he has insulted me, and my mate, and my friend! A brave warrior, threatening females weaker than him! My companions, right in front of me! Threatening me! He thinks he knows so much! He doesn’t know that K’tarsgh and his men ran from a devil god straight from gautakht! With more power than entire fleets of ships! Than a whole planet! I was nearly destroyed! Devoured like prey!” My voice became shrill, full of the terror of that awful moment. I must have looked as horrific because they all gaped at me in shock and a little fear themselves. I didn’t dare look at the girls, I needed to stay resolute. Still sounding unhinged, I kept screaming. “This one would have been a treat! Not even a mouthful! Not even I could kill such a monster! We had to drop a bomb while its mere spawn attacked us, killed some! A bomb which would have left nothing of this village but a smoking hole thousands of units across! And this one has the shit to mock me! Mock my friends! To mock K’tarsgh, who led you without challenge because this dog knew he couldn’t beat him! K’tarsgh, who faced death and took it without hesitation for me!” Tears of outrage and pain began to flow down my cheek. “There is no greater courage or strength! And this one doesn’t have it!

One by one, they looked impressed, and then became vocal about it, the area beginning to ring with battle cries mingled with my name. Grn’deth began to look concerned as he saw his support being whittled back to his own boots. I must be one hell of a speaker to them. One of his aids tried to rescue him. “Great words, great deeds! But we have laws!”

I am my own law!” I bellowed over him. “Who can say they faced a demon from gautakht! Who of you! Only K’tarsgh! His boots! And me! Twice! I declare The Challenge against Grn’deth by right of deeds no one else can match! Not even Hirk! And especially not him!

This caused no small uproar among them, but even then, I heard Seri scream my name clearly. It was hard to see the look of stark fear on her face, reaching for me in tears as Adjaha held her back, with her own expression of worry and pain clear on her face. What the hell was I doing! I said all that without half a thought behind it, and now I was risking my life against a monster that could possibly tear me to bits with his bare hands. But I was caught in my own half-clever trap now, waiting to see how it played out.

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First, there was the consternation of what I’d cried out so boldly, the entire mob torn one way or the other. But then Grn’deth began to gloat about it. “The Interloper who says he faced a Big Scary Bug wants to Challenge me! Why not! I want to see what such a Human foe is made of!” He faced me head on, making a fist with his blade in hand at me. “I accept! Now, get out of that suit and face me, pochwa keeper!”

“You’re gonna regret that,” I snarled, just as Seri gave an anguished howl. I had to face her as I began to strip out of my suit, the one gear I needed more than anything in this contest, had to deal with her tears of agony as I handed it to them, and Adjaha too, who was on the verge of bawling. My poor babies, what I made them suffer though. But I needed their strength, her strength, her faith, as I told her quietly, “Pray. Pray as hard as you did just a moment ago, as hard as you did when I went to that derelict. It must have saved me. Pray, both of you.”

“Ohh… Nijol,” she sobbed out, all she could say to me, then grabbed me in a fierce hug, giving me the most desperate kiss of her life. As she clutched me to her protectively, she blubbered out, “You… brave fool. By Tanri’s hand… be untouchable.”

“Thank you,” I whimpered back, and had to push away from her, had to endure the anguished sobs and cries from both of them as I strode with legs of wood to the hill where that Goliath awaited his David. Now, if Father, the True Father, would just give me the same outcome. I clasped my Puncher grip on my left hand, my one bit of insurance. But other than that small comfort, I felt like I was naked before that beast of a warrior. I tried to remember how Grabas stood as I faced off against the behemoth, smacking my blade-bearing fist on my chest with him, and managed to bellow out properly that dumb declaration of theirs, with volume to match that murderous brute. And then, my stomach in a knot, I gave a wild cry as that imposing mass of sheer muscle and death stormed at me. I rolled aside rather than collide head on as that would have gone badly, too low for a blade to cut me. I tried to slash at his leg but only managed to nick his calf.

I scrambled to my feet as he barked out a laugh. “Tricky! But tricks only work once!” He slashed at me, thrust, swiped, every move that Grondo taught me a Vy’keen used in combat, and I prayed that the ass before me wasn’t a particularly clever improviser as I was. I tried to look for an opportunity to either use my Puncher or my one takedown, but even as winded as he was, as injured, he wasn’t about to make it easy for me. I don’t know if he was too cut up or half-spent from his contest with Grabas, or even toying with me to give me a false sense of assurance, but he was just a bit slow. Even slow, a fearsome swing had me flinching away time and again, and one by one, I was tagged by that deadly blade with slight cuts, while I was yet to do more than nick him. The contest eventually settled into a rhythm of him attacking, me having to back off as I tried to exploit an opening that really wasn’t there. It didn’t seem to be winding down at all, but it would if it went much longer because I was growing tired, and that would be the death of me.

One of his swipes went too wide and I made to stab for his side, but he caught me with his knee and all I could do was cut his belt slightly before I had to jump back from a counter slice. If only I could switch the Puncher easily, it might give me a chance to stun him. I could fight left handed, but that was his blade side, and I risked a life-ending stab if my ploy didn’t work. So I found myself crouching low as he fixed me in blood-red eyes. A killing rage was a fearsome thing, but if I could just stay on my game and be careful, it would leave him open to something. He grew frustrated at being unable to land any real cuts on me, though I was nicked a few places, blood seeping into my uniform. His crotch… if he would just give me a shot at it! But that would require him to be half dead or half crazy from the looks of things, and if I was going to make it out alive, I had to try something desperate. He just missed my head by a whisker, and I felt I’d lost a few hairs from it, which had him bellowing in frustration.

I feared it was now or never. I held my blade in my left hand with the Puncher, and jumped with everything I had left for his head, right at that fearsome mug twisted in mad fury, his crimson eyes fixed on me like some animal. He had the presence of mind to swing for me, and I reached out to block it, trying to ignore any taste of steel in my flesh. He cut my arm and I feared it was bad, but I had to focus on one thrust with my hand. His mouth was open with a deafening cry, which was just what I was hoping for, and thrust with my fingers out rigid to jab him in back of the throat. He gagged, staggering, his eyes squeezed shut as I shoved my hand hard into that mouth, at one of two glands just behind his jaws. He made a choking sound rather like a garbage disposal backing up, his jaws going slack, his body falling limp as my hand slickened with his saliva. I rode him all the way to the ground, focused on nothing but pressure on that vulnerable tissue.

We both landed hard, and I bounced off of his chest, the wind knocked from my lungs by that hard Vy’keen body, and it took a moment to recover. Seri and Adjaha both screamed for me to get up, and gave me the incentive and determination to win. I rose sluggishly to my knees but faster than he did, and drove that Puncher across his jaw hard, still holding the knife with a death grip. He gave an anguished howl as the energy shot through his skull and lay still. I fell across that barrel of a chest and fought to get away from him, not wanting to be anywhere near such a dangerous foe. I fell back, scooting away, finally able to catch my breath, and grabbed the knife I’d dropped in the confusion.

I finally became aware that everyone was clamoring for me to finish the brute off in wild cries of jubilation and anger. Even my two girls were calling for his death. Their bloodlust disgusted me. I hated killing anything if I could possibly help it. I specifically attacked him like that rather than with my blade to keep from killing him, and Grn’deth was incapacitated. It seemed cowardly and brutal. As I awkwardly got to my feet, I shouted through lungs hungry to gulp air, “Shut up… enough!” As I stood there panting for breath, I gazed at my two beautiful girls, so glad to be able to see them. Alive… it was such a good word. “I… am my own… law!” I shouted brokenly around deep breaths. “Enough! I… among all… of you… have the right… to decide my fate! And his! And… you have lost… enough boots! Learn… a new way! My way!” They all stared at me in confusion, and a lot of contempt. This was going to be a hard sell to people used to decisions made in portions of only life or death. “I acted… to spare Grabas… a worthy blade. Please… damn it… I won’t make… a different choice… just because… this one… is so stubborn! Respect my—”

Everyone gaped at me in alarm, especially the two girls who were horrified, and that could only mean I was about to die. Just as I turned to defend myself, I felt a blade cut deep into my right leg. I lost all stength in it from the dreadful wound, and fell on top of the wretch. Out of reflex, I dropped with the blade poised to cut something vital, and drove it with what strength I had left into his throat. I could see his eyes, staring at me balefully as I fell on him with the mindless intent to end his life, to accept whatever fate I gave him. I gaped at him in the few fractions of a second that stretched into an hour as I fell, my wounded left arm unwilling to hold me up, and I slumped across him. I couldn’t handle his strangled choking as the vessels in his throat severed, the blade cutting him through to stay lodged in his throat, his death throes right there in my ears, and I gave an agonized wail of horror as I pushed off of him. He was trying vainly to grab for the hilt, but he couldn’t control his muscles well and his arm flailed around feebly. Some inner voice told me that he was going to die, and would do so in slow agony unless I did something swifter and more merciful. Against every instinct in my being, shaking all through, I drew the knife from him with a painful gurgle in my ears, and plunged it into his heart with a scream of bitter outrage. He stiffened, arching his back briefly, then lay dead.

People gathered around me, helping me to unsteady legs, most of them congratulating me. A couple of them were crying, blubbering to me in anguished female voices, and those were the only two that mattered. The rest disgusted me. How could they be so cruel? Seri was nearly incoherent, the poor girl, and Adjaha wasn’t doing much better. There was blood on them, likely my blood… crap, I had to tend to that, and mumbled for one of them to get my suit. “I will,” Adjaha told me, leaving me in the hands of my wife and someone else, who I saw was Grabas. He gave me a thin smile. “That was amazing. Perhaps we should all fight like you,” he told me, handing me my knife.

I stared at it with disdain for a moment, a murder weapon, even if used in self-defense. But I was being emotional, so I took it in a feeble hand and sheathed it. It didn’t go in smoothly, and I groaned to myself that I’d have to clean it and the scabbard good of Vy’keen blood. As the shock and adrenaline of combat dwindled, pain began to flare in my wounds, and it was cruel.

Seri was too overcome with anguish and relief to do much more than cry bitterly as she held me. I tried not to bleed on her as I cradled her against me, murmuring, “Honey… I’m sorry I put you through this—”

Shut up!” she wailed, shoving her face into my throat.

One of the Vy’keen overheard and took offense at that, but I waved him off. “I’ll deal with her my way,” I told him, hugging my angel close.

Adjaha came up by then, holding my suit out to me, not sure whether to help me into it or not. Her tanned face was wet with streaks of tears, her eyes full of pain and sympathy. I thanked her, asking her to hold it for me while I fished out the first aid kit. I couldn’t stand yet, too wounded and exhausted, so I had them help me to a sitting position while I got out some flesh glue to close the gashes, disinfectant for the surface of the cuts, and gave some bandages to the girls to wrap around my wounds. And it all stung like hell.

Adjaha blubbered through her tears, “Why… do you have anything to do with these… monsters?”

I shook my head in bewilderment, muttering, “Honey, I’m beginning to wonder myself.”

Then I noticed that all the shouting was my name, interspersed with Interloper and grah! I supposed it was time to make a speech, so when the girls were done tending to my wounds, I had them help me to my feet. “Grah!” I shouted weakly with them, but really couldn’t muster much strength to shout over them. And then I was absolutely floored when I realized that I was now the head of this band of Pirates! I now truly was the dread Pirate Nigel. Holy God in Space… what a bizarre life.

I asked Seri and Grabas to hold me up again as Adjaha stayed close to me. “Hear me!” I shouted, but the fight left me weak, and it took a few tries to get their attention. “Listen! You have your blood! Your death! Just like you wanted! And now, you have a stranger for a leader! I will rely on Grabas to guide my hand! Because I am an Interloper, and a Traveler! I still have much to learn of your ways! But I want to show you a different way! My Way! If you will learn it, I think you will benefit more than you did from my money! There are riches greater than money in this world! There is Truth. I seek that Truth, a truth which will benefit all of you! So I must leave for a time! I must find this Truth! I trust you will give Grabas the trust you have in me! The choice of Fate! Now, I must lick my wounds! I will go rest! Enjoy your day,” I finished tiredly as that speech just about spent me.

Even wounded and tired from his own fight, Grabas insisted on carrying me to my room, the faithful lout, and followed by his troop. Seri and Adjaha were on either side, and I could see that they wanted to hold their fool of a man. He told me, “You have a tongue like flowers and steel. I have never heard such speech from any being.”

“Yeah, I have my moments,” I replied with a faint smile, remembering someone else saying something like that. “But listen… I really don’t want to be a Pirate Lord. I’m counting on you to rule in my stead as always.”

His reaction surprised me, as he looked mad. “What? You fool!” He backed down from that, slightly, but he was still hot over it, and went on guardedly. “I know that you are an Interloper, and a Traveler, and a Human. But you treat such an honor so lightly! That is a… doldorol!” I was afraid that was a word that meant a grave insult, and seeing my expression, he explained, “A… prank, a trick, like a cub would do! Friend Nijol, never speak of this. From now on, until a new Challenger comes, you are our Lord. I will reign in your stead, but only as your Second. I have failed. Fate chose you. You must live with that choice.”

That new Challenge bit worried me, but if I never came back, hopefully it would never be an issue. “What about K’tarsgh?”

He snorted a laugh. “He is too proud to ever be a second again. He will be happy to roll around in his wealth till the end of his days, and it is unglorious, but he has earned that right.”

“Oh, look at you!” came a familiar voice from the side, and I saw Gweth trotting up. I hoped my step-mother-in-law was kind to me. “All cut up like that! I cannot believe you made a Challenge of your own! And your pretty uniform! You need a master clothier to mend it.”

“And my underwear too,” I chuckled, which reminded me that I would be without any clothes till they were mended. That poor brute had cut me all over.

Seri collapsed in the woman’s arms, sobbing out, “Oh bibi… please hold me! I am still so… afraid for him!”

As she began to cry, so did Adjaha. “Me too!” she wailed, and the woman gathered both of them in a motherly embrace.

“You poor babies! Nijol is hard on everyone near him, I see. And who is this pretty thing!” She looked between us curiously. “A Human too?”

“Yeah, Adjaha, a Traveler,” I replied, always putting a pause in-between to conceal a gray lie. “In training. And she would like a wardrobe of her own.”

“Oh, will she!” she said with delight. “As much money as I have been blessed with by you, there will be only a small charge.” She leaned close, murmuring, “Nothing, for such a benevolent Traveler.”

“Well, thank you for that,” I said gratefully, but I intended for there to at least be a tip for her work.

“If we may leave you, our Lord could use his bed rest,” Grabas said to them, and undoubtedly, his arms could use a break too.

“Yes, yes, go tend to your wounds,” she replied with a wave. Seri and Adjaha looked to me pensively, but I murmured to them that I’d be fine and they knew where the room was.

Grabas settled me onto the bed, and promised to return if anything came up, which was unlikely. Everything had come to a halt over Challenge Day, and the pact over the Great Beasts was still in place, which no Vy’keen was likely to broach now. Resh and Alish both came up to see if I had any needs, which was so nice of them. And then came the ordeal of trying to placate two very upset girls, who made known in no uncertain terms what they thought of my bravado. It involved a lot of words like fool, stupid, and Adjaha’s favorite term, “You idiot!” I had no idea what to tell them, and accepted it all in a stinging humility, or cowardice. It felt more like the latter.

Seri sat beside me in the bed, blubbering as she mothered and browbeat me. “And you… want me to leave you to your foolish Quest… when you do stupid things like this, which hurt the ones you love?”

“Yeah,” Adjaha agreed in a hurt tone, sitting on the other side. Fortunately she had the presence of mind to be less affectionate, though I could feel the tug of her heart on mine. “Nijol, how could you be such an idiot? You had to know what could happen!”

I finally had to address that. “I know, I know, but… you heard what Grabas said. Pirating and looting would commence again, and he would likely force everyone to hand over everything I’d given to them, enabling him to build an even bigger Pirate clan. Plus, the hunt for your people would be back on, and… I just couldn’t let that happen. Besides, this just proves that God is on my side. I escaped death yet again.”

I felt jubilant for a moment, but it had the opposite effect I wanted, as Seri’s ears lay back and she glared at me in hot anger. “How many times!”

“Oh, just… lots,” I mumbled out, which had Adjaha using her pet phrase, “You idiot!

“I agree,” Seri grumbled. “Now, you are restricted to this bed until you need to relieve your foolish self.”

“Yeah!” Adjaha shouted.

“But… honey,” I said to Seri, which had her glaring at me for using a certain word to deflect her. I amended, “Sweetness, my suit can regenerate me, heal my wounds. I just need to put it on—”

“Tomorrow!” she barked at me. “Today, you will suffer a lesson from what you put both of us through! Not just yourself! If you had… ohh, Tanri… eger hayatini itirmish olsaydin… oh ey axmaq! If you had… ohh, your stupid, foolhardy deeds you’re so proud of… you wound my heart!” She fell on me, bawling again, Adjaha too, both of them hugging me and each other as I tried to caress them feebly. I had to take them more seriously, but… what would this mean for my Quest? I had a feeling that things worse than this would befall me. I just couldn’t subject them to it too, or risk their lives… but what was fair? What was the answer?

I had none, so I’d have to ponder this later. Maybe a kindly Voice would guide me, if It spoke to me again. For now, I let them pamper me, with a bit of snark on the side to remind me why I was being pampered. Seri undressed me, and let Adjaha take the clothes to Gweth for mending, and to be measured for her own outfits. They fed me my meals, which was sweet of them though I was fully capable of feeding myself, and helped me to the dreaded Place of Relief, which made me glad I was properly bandaged from the stink and threat of infection, and thank heaven my right arm was unwounded. As the seemingly endless day wound to a close, they both undressed for bed, and Seri seemed not to mind Adjaha’s presence on one side, as this was a rather unique day. While it made me a bit uncomfortable to see the girl like that, her presence and love mingled with my wife’s was particularly sweet and soothing, and I was soon asleep.

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DAY ELEVEN

I awoke a bit early, but not much before Seri did. I had hoped to sneak out of bed and don my suit to regenerate, but she held me fast, almost daring me to try, and I had enough sense not to. It was a sweet time of togetherness with the two, and not the least bit awkward. The love for them welled up in me strong, as thoughts of a very possible death in my foolish Challenge nagged at me, and what this world truly was.

That fight seemed mortally real to me. As far as every sense and awareness was concerned, it was real. Every soul, every being, including the Vy’keen I killed seemed real. The two angels in my embrace felt real, smelled real, tasted real… they had to be real. As real as I was. I couldn’t stand the thought of my babies being anything else than real flesh and blood. Even if this was all code, some mad, senseless simulation, their souls had to be eternal. Andonai saw beyond every reality, I was sure of it, to perceive directly and in person some grand Realm where everything, every being, dwelt in a state of purity and peace. That had to be real too, and my angels had to have a place there beside me. If the opposite was true, I’d just as soon have amnesia again and live in ignorance, to wake after death to whatever Truth awaited me.

I had to endure another day of the girls fawning over me, which was pleasant enough in some ways, but my wounds began to ache. I asked Seri a number of times if I could please get into my suit and heal up, to which she replied, “Not yet.” At the last, she got rather snippy about it. “You lie there and suffer a while longer. Then, you might have some small idea of what you put us through.”

It was magnanimous of her to include Adjaha in there, but I tried to find some sympathy with the girl. “Don’t you want to see a happy, healthy Nijol?”

“Hey, I agree with Seri,” she replied with a gesture. “I know you meant well, but what you did was super stupid. You… you scared me to death!” She looked to be on the verge of tears, and was, and fell on me with a hug around my neck, which I returned gingerly, as I was very sore. Sadly, her sobs and tears on me hurt worse.

“You see?” Seri asked in a forlorn tone as she stroked her hand lovingly over the both of us. “Your foolish adventure… is it really worth all this pain you inflict on us?” Once more, I had no answer for anyone. It was worth the risk, it really was, if I could just manage to pull a rabbit out of my hat as I did in yersterday’s Challenge, without getting anyone killed, not the least of all me. But unless some foolhardy fool risked foolish decisions to make it happen, it wouldn’t. And the only way to know was to accept that Unknown Challenge, and likely put my darlings through that hell of not knowing till the end. Life was so unfair.

So I endured this velvet torture of theirs through breakfast, lunch and supper, though I did manage to get them to let me feed myself, and I had to agree with Seri that there was something a bit more delicious in these meals Gronk whipped up for us. At the end of it, with the girls running the dishes downstairs, I was tempted, my God was I tempted, but I had a feeling it would result in something dire if they caught me in my own damn suit without permission. So I bided my time till they returned and asked Seri plaintively, “Now, may I please put my suit on?

“Mmm… maybe,” she teased, going to it and looked it over. “You were wise enough not to sneak into it without permission, which would not have been to your benefit. But what is it like in such a manly suit?” she wondered, and began to put it on.

“Uhh… honey? You’re not the one cut to ribbons - for a good cause,” I added quickly at a look from her. “And don’t shed in it.”

That may not have been the wisest thing to say, as she replied coldly, “You make me seem like a beast, or a pet. You insensitive bireh. Now let me be while I try this thing.” She closed it up as it was basically the same design as theirs, and looked at her hands in my gloves as she flexed them. Adjaha had to urge her on, clapping in delight, and she made a few elegant poses in it. “My… it is a bit heavier, but I feel so much stronger in this! I want a suit like this one.”

“Oh! Me too!” Adjaha looked to me pleadingly. “Can we pleeease, Uncle Nijol?”

I looked to the ceiling in dismay. “I have no idea how I got mine! Maybe the Anom…ynous Traveler Groups can help with that.” I had no idea if they knew a thing about the Anomaly, unsure if Seri had read to that point yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised. And I forgot that Adjaha had some polished thought sniffing abilities, as she gave me a puzzled look, but if she dug it up, oh well. It wasn’t like she could spread her wings and fly there.

Seri was too busy enjoying my suit to notice, and then I protested as she picked up the helmet and tried to put it on. “Honey, wait, your nose your nose…” I groaned at her as she managed to get it on over her snout, but her nose rubbed on the clear glass, smearing it. They both had a good laugh at my expression of dismay. I pointed to her, muttering, “Har har har… you’re cleaning that.”

“Oh, I will clean your silly suit, you big child,” she said scoldingly over the speaker. “Let me enjoy this delightful thing for a moment!”

“Well, but I need to enjoy that delightful thing because it’s mine, and I huuurt!

“Yes, and you may think a while longer on why that is,” she muttered, brushing me off. “And it surrounds me with your manly aroma! I want to wear this for a while and enjoy that.” Then she had some sort of brief powwow with Adjaha. It was amazing how well jealous girls got along when it was to gang up on the mean insensitive male. Finally she sauntered over and sat beside me, laying her gloved hand on my chest. “I don’t suppose this marvelous thing will heal you if I’m close.”

“No, it will just make me tempted to remove you forcibly and give you a spanking,” I grumbled in mock ire, which had her barking at me in outrage. “Hon, don’t bark against my vision shield like that.”

“You had better watch who you are threatening, mister poor diplomat,” she warned me, “while there are two girls to oppose you, and one in your incredible suit.” She gave me a little punch in the shoulder that managed to make my arm throb, and Adjaha got into a fighting stance which looked surprisingly threatening.

“Okay okay,” I said gingerly. “Just… hurry up and have your fun with me so I can get on with getting better and being a better husband for you, please?

“Well… since you ask me so nicely,” she said, half smirking, “I suppose I have had my fun with your toy. And what a marvelous… oh dear.” She was having a bit of trouble removing the helmet, and gave a tender yip as she mashed her nose a bit in the process.

“Oh, honey! Here… never mind,” I muttered as she managed to remove it with only a bit of tender muzzle for her trouble. I tried to look sympathetic as I murmured, “Kiss your nose?”

“No kissing my poor nose!” she snapped, then leaned closer, nuzzling my cheek. “But… you may kiss anything else.”

Aaanything?” I asked in jest, which had her and Adjaha laughing.

She gave my shoulder a playful swat, giggling. “Not with our aughter-day in the oom-ray.” That had the girl laughing even harder.

I blinked in surprise. “You learned Pig Latin?” I looked to the only one who could have done such a feat.

She admitted coyly, “Yeah, I kind of schooled her on it a few days ago when you forgot about it.”

“Well, I had things on my mind—”

“Like how many ways you could get yourself killed?” she asked chidingly.

“No, not how many ways I could get myself killed,” I muttered. “Now can I have my suit so these aches and pains will stop killing me?”

“Ohh… I suppose this has been a long enough lesson for you to suffer through,” Seri told me in a motherly tone, and stripped out of the suit.

As she helped me get into it, still nude except for my few bandages, I was inspired to ask, “Hey, how long will it take for me to get my things back?”

“Oh!” Adjaha blurted out, looking apologetic. “They’re done, I just… forgot to bring them back.”

“Oh I bet you forgot to bring them ba - ow! Ouch,” I whined as I made to tickle-assault the forgetful girl, and my body let me know I had forgotten some painful wounds. They helped the poor frail fool back to the bed, where they watched uncertainly as I endured a time of additional pains and twinges from the suit mending my injuries. But as serious as they felt, they were fairly localized and in ten minutes or so I felt as good as new. I stripped out and unwrapped, showing the amazed pair the faint scars of the two deep cuts in my arm and leg, and where I had suffered a few tender slices in my skin.

And then, even though I had spent more than a day and a half in bed, I was worn out so back to bed we went, with two girls on either side of me, almost as unclothed as I was. I feared that Adjaha was getting too used to this, and I was afraid I was too, while Seri… I had a feeling had other feelings on the matter. But in spite of any misgivings from my wife, we settled into another night together which felt as sweet as ever, and free of pain. It was tempered with more ponderings on the nature of this reality. Code couldn’t laugh like that. Code couldn’t feel joy like that. Code couldn’t love like this. It just couldn’t.

Couldn’t it? Mwahaha, said the Code.

That had me jerking awake… I had already drifted off that quick, and my stupid fears had to bother me like that. Meh. Seri snuggled into me, murmuring as Adjaha clasped me more from the other side, “Mmm… Nijol… not a bad dream already… mamaresh… peace.”

I hugged my wife to me as I tried to force that worry from my mind, but it followed me into slumber. They had to be real, they just had to

K’tarsgh stood over us, saying to me quietly, “I will guard your sleep, my strange foolhardy friend. You, guard your heart, your faith. Or you will stumble.” I promised him I would, to which he would only grunt.

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DAY TWELVE

I woke a bit late, the sun already up, and my two beauties still slumbering on either side of me. Lord, getting back to the Infineon soon was going to be another ordeal of adjustment all over again. Would I be able to avoid that issue in my Quest, where on most planets I could pick the time of day? Not necessarily.

When I heard the faint sounds downstairs of Resh and Alish cleaning, I figured they had slept long enough, and my tummy agreed, so I gave two rumps good morning slaps. “Okay you two, it’s very morning now, and one of us doesn’t have any clothes. I want some breakfast.” Both of them groaned in protest, especially Adjaha, and I worried that she still had Dragon sleep habits, or if they had bad dreams. When I asked, both of them mumbled something evasive, though Adjaha mentioned snoring. “Ohh… I’m sorry,” I apologized, hoping it was well received. She pointed discreetly at Seri, but I had a feeling the Human was to blame. To encourage them a tiny bit, I murmured, “Love you both.”

Adjaha flashed me a warm smile as she gathered her things from the floor, but that was a bit too tempting a sight, so I focused on my wife who muttered sarcastically, “Thank you for not calling me honey.” When I began to placate her, she giggled, leaning down for a kiss. “I am jesting, ma sharim.”

I clasped her behind the head, pressing her lips to mine, and made sure it was a good long, deep kiss. She licked my lips when I released her, murmuring, “Mmm… someone seems hungry indeed.”

“It has been a few days,” I murmured, and enjoyed a lusty twinkle in her eyes.

“Perhaps… our daughter might enjoy some time with Gweth this morning,” she purred in a husky voice.

“What?” she blurted out, then seeing us like that, she huffed a sigh and groaned, “Aaaugh… oookaay. I’ll be the good daughter and… stay gone for a couple of hours. Or so. Gah, I want a boyfriend, I’m so jealous…”

I thought she could use a little lift and told her, “Hey, no dating until you’re at least two hundred fifty.” That had her bursting out with laughter, both of them, and that was such a sweet sound.

Breakfast was delicious, but I had another treat on my mind, as did Seri as we made googoo eyes at each other all through it. Adjaha had to endure the lack of attention, and I could sympathize, but darn it, I missed intimacy with my wife. After they collected the dishes, Seri went down with her, and a few moments later I could just hear them talking outside the door. “Shirin biri… sweet one, we haven’t… been together for days for your sake, and we have just been joined a short while before meeting you.”

“Oh… I know, but it feels… you know…” Adjaha sounded so disappointed. “Oh no, now, don’t give me that look. I’m okay, just… a little teenage sulky, that’s all. I’ll go see if Gweth has any juicy gossip about you two. That might keep me occupied for a while,” she laughed.

Seri giggled, “Please… have a good time. And be sure to knock first, or listen close. Thank you so much, love.” She came in a moment later, saying to me, “Adjaha has blessed us with some time, mamaresh.” She sauntered over to me, undressing as she did so, her tail swaying to and fro in a sultry manner.

“Oh, that rotten Ishadi,” I purred as I clasped hands with her. “Whatever will I do with you?”

She gave me a musical laugh as she drew the covers back to expose my form to her, stroking over my muscles lovingly with a soft touch. “I may need… a reminder. Ohh, my love… luften, meni sonsuza qedar sev, melayim.” She lay alongside me, settling against me, her leg draped across mine as she nuzzled my cheek. “Please… love me forever, my angel.”

I kissed her softly as I wrapped her up in my arms, stroking my foot on hers, and murmured into her lips, “I’m not the angel. But I know a very special one.” I took her lips again, drawing on them needfully…

After more than an hour of getting reacquainted, Seri lay on top of me, both of us luxuriating in the sensations of the afterglow that gleamed in our hearts. But in spite of this wonderful bliss, thoughts of my life situations intruded on me, and bit by bit I picked them up to ponder. Particularly one bit named Adjaha.

What a handful. Close friend, surrogate daughter, and I feared, a would-be lover. And such a bundle of emotions which could go out of control without warning. Boy crazy, and the only boy known within light years, if not quadrants, if not the whole freaking galaxy, was me. We were both infatuated with each other because we were both such fresh new personalities, emotionally and intellectually stimulating, even exciting. But I was afraid she might still be a little too infatuated, and still too stimulated. If I wasn’t married, there would be no problem whatsoever, except Father. But I was married, and neither Seri or I were into sharing like that.

Her fingers stroked among the hairs on my chest, and she asked curiously, “What are you thinking?”

“I’m thinking…” I chuckled, “Adjaha wants a boyfriend.”

She was surprised and enjoyed a laugh at that. “When did you notice?”

I laughed with her. She was picking up on my sense of humor, although this really wasn’t a laughing matter. “Seri, there are no boys out there that I’m aware of. I don’t know what to do for her, besides scour Poop Hole for a nice young Dragon. There isn’t exactly a dating service listing obscure races no one has heard of for centuries.”

She sighed herself, muttering, “Blasted ATLAS and its insane rule over us.” She hummed, as an idea came to her. “Another Traveler?”

At first I had a eureka moment, but that passed quickly. “Well, one problem with that is, no baby Dragons. At least till he… well, dies, and she’s free to find one of her own kind. Another is that the one time a Traveler was in the same dimension as me, he was looking for someone, like a detective or law officer. Otherwise, almost all of them are like holograms… ghosts, just images you can walk through like air.” I didn’t bother mentioning my first blush of romance was for one of those ghosts.

She looked at me in amazement. “Really? Why are you real? Hmm… not that I will complain.” She giggled and stroked her nails along some tender areas.

I flinched, still feeling quite sensitive after making love. “Aheh… actually, I have no idea. There is a special place called the Anomaly. A number of Travelers are there, but they’re old and retired. That’s where… uhm… my unworthy ex-lover lives.”

Now she was stunned. “Nijol! You loved some old woman? How desperate are you!”

That had me laughing, and her looking miffed. “Well… she was cute, and the only girl I’d seen who wasn’t Vy’keen, wasn’t Gek or Korvax. Many of them don’t act old at all. And… I can’t remember how long I’ve been traveling, only to see the same three races over and over, except for the Traveler ghosts.” I gave her a shrug. “Travelers are supposed to visit there, but I’ve never seen one, and they act like visits are uncommon. And I don’t think they would just let us drop off a former Dragon looking for a boyfriend.”

“Nijol! How mean of you.” She gave my shoulder a weak slap, settling more into me. “Even joking, that sounds cruel. We are friends. I just wish… she would stay friends. And quit being naked around you. And you!” She jabbed me with her nail, making me flinch. “Put on your things as soon as she comes back.”

“But darling,” I crooned, “how will I feel your wonderful fur against my skin?”

She giggled at that, giving me a warm kiss. “I mean… mmm… later. I want to feel some more of your warm skin against my fur… my meaty feast of a man.” She began kissing me intimately, and grabbed my rump, and I was already feeling amorous again…

There was a knock at the door. I groaned, looking at the window, then to her, sharing a disappointed look. “It has been a couple of hours or so.” Feeling ornery, I shouted, “We have space herpes! Highly contageous! Go away!”

Of course it was Adjaha, and she and Seri both burst out laughing. “Oh my! Maybe I should bring up some soup to leave outside,” she said through the door. “Uhm… are you decent?”

I said as I drew the covers over us, “No. But come in anyway.”

“You can’t be serious,” she giggled, opening the door a crack for a peek. Then she looked apologetic as she came in. “Hey… there was a fire, and… your clothes all burned up.”

What?” I nearly jumped out of bed from the shock, as if she would have minded, and ran my fingers through my hair in dismay. “Oh, this has to be a joke… I’ll have to fly back in that suit to get more clothes, naked, and that’s not comfy.”

She couldn’t hold back a laugh, saying, “Okay, okay… it’s a joke, your things are right out here—”

I jumped out of bed with a pillow across my crotch, bellowing as they burst out laughing, “You little scamp! I should spank you good!” Adjaha fled, squealing, and I’m sure that caused quite a few looks from those downstairs, with gossip to follow.

When I was properly dressed, though in need of a cold shower, I asked Adjaha, “Would you like to pay Father a visit?”

She withered at that, making both Seri and me curious. “Ohh… no, I’d rather not.”

My wife and I shared looks, and I asked leadingly, “Would he disapprove of your full body makeover?”

“Oh… this?” she asked, indicating herself. “I… would rather not know. I mean… transformation is something we do, but… I was supposed to wait till I was older, and guided through it.”

I frowned at her. “How many centuries is that?” And then another thought struck me, and I drew a sharp breath. “Wait, you mean… there could have been problems? You might have harmed yourself?

“Oh, Adjaha…” Seri murmured worriedly.

“No! No,” she said unconvincingly. “Maybe. I mean, it almost never happens.”

“Alright,” I grumbled, pointing a finger at her. “No more lectures from you on how I nearly kill myself. That’s Seri’s job.” At least Adjaha laughed at it.

My wife was still concerned. “But… Adjaha, love, you should know what you’re doing before you… do them. Right, my husband?”

I coughed, “We’ll… discuss my brushes with death later. But… Adj, honey, are you feeling good? No problems?”

She shook her head. “No, not a bit. And this Human form feels great!” She beamed a smile, raising her arms happily. The twerp had adjusted to her new form right off, though she might have had a good peek of me to help with that. And then it occurred to me that she had a physical aboard the Infineon, and checked out as close to me as they could figure.

I was with Seri on this though, feeling parental over our young Dragon. “So… how easy is it to change back?”

At that, she looked awkward. “Uhh… I dunno. I think… I’m stuck like this for a while. But I don’t wanna change anyhow.”

I gazed at her in perplexion, unsure of what to make of her. “Not even for a nice studly young Dragon?

She waved my question off, which wasn’t convincing to me until she replied. “Ohh… no, I don’t really want to get into all that serious romance yet. It’s that time of the month, or something. I want to go traveling with you! Two,” she amended quickly. Nice recovery, almost.

“Yes, and driving my wife and me crazy,” I muttered. “So… no weird sudden changes back and nearly dying from it? And only unserious romance?”

She burst out laughing at that. “No! No no no. And transforming… that’s a process, and I have to do it deliberately.”

I pursed my lips at her, hoping she would be completely above board with me. “Okay, anything else Dragony I should know about? Any more surprises?”

She shrugged in a way that seemed sincere. “No, not really. I mean, there are things off in the future… Father guiding me through my special abilities and helping to develop them, my choosing a mate which had better darn well make them happy, and a ceremony of my being welcomed into the levels of the mature, mighty, venerable Dragonkin,” she said with elaborate sarcasm. “But all that’s after we’re done adventuring.”

That adventuring thing would keep coming up, and I didn’t know for sure what my decision would be on the matter, so I brushed it aside rather than have her ferreting out my thoughts on it.

The only other thing of any consequence that happened that day was Grabas coming to the room to have me judge disputes, and I hated judging disputes. But this time, I had a legitimate way out, at least partly. I accompanied him to a sort of Judgment Hall where some of them assembled on benches. I addressed them, saying that I was an Interloper and a Pirate Lord in training, so I’d listen with Grabas and take his advice so they could be satisfied. At least that was the game plan. And it was the same malarkey I had dealt with on the Infineon: someone lied, someone insulted, someone double-crossed, someone cheated… and fortunately, most Pirates seemed to settle disputes themselves so there were only those few. Grabas made his recomendations and I adhered to them, with my own spin which I made sure to tell him first. They seemed happy with our decisions, as Pirates. Hopefully. It was good to see Grabas looking fairly well after his Challenge, while he was stunned at how fit I was. Secret Traveler healing techniques, I explained.

Then I was free to enjoy myself. I went to visit K’tarsgh, but he was in his recovering coma that passed for sleep, and after all, he had a gaping hole right through his body to mend. I was still amazed that the demon hadn’t torn up a vital organ. I clasped his hand, murmuring, “Keep dreaming, old warrior. Dream yourself to health, and visit me a few more times in my own sleep.” He might have heard me, as I felt his hand try to clasp mine.

It made me moody again, so to aleviate it, I went for a walk with the girls to enjoy the sunset, or starset, with the glorious panorama of Earthlike splendor across the sky. Then the usual tasty supper, and bedtime with my angels, and as usual, Adjaha slept opposite Seri with me sandwiched between. And I had to admit that I loved being close to my surrogate daughter. But one more day down meant one more day closer to traveling, and the decision I doubted would make anyone happy.

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Entry 015: Truth and Consequences
Day 66

Our time on Poop Hole finally wound down, which left us all with mixed feelings. Besides giving me a chance to gamble my life, that damned Challenge reopened my eyes to who these beings were. The Vy’keen are, and might be forever, dyed in the wool warriors to the core. And Pirates? Even more so. I might have to accept them for what they are, though that didn’t mean I had to like it. But this begged a serious question: how in the world were these three races ever going to get along, when one of them held so tightly to a warlike attitude and an eternal grudge?

Seri was melancholy, but she saw now how easy it was to return, relatively speaking, so that eased her mood. On the other hand, Adjaha was more than happy to leave this world of monsters behind. She enjoyed it a lot when she went on walks, far from the village, though she looked at avian creatures wisfully as they flitted about. She clearly missed flying, but insisted that being Human was its own delight, and she had taken amazingly well to her new form. However, she had no desire to see Father and the other Dragons. I had a feeling at his parting with me that he suspected she would pull some stunt to force traveling with us, with me. But if so, she likely wanted to put off that revelation to him for the far future, whenever that was. I guess I couldn’t blame her, as Father seemed rather strict, a huge surprise. What father wasn’t overprotective of their daughter?

That “us” thing, though, that troubled me, a lot. My Walk was not a safe one. I had already endured quite a few events which had tortured me physically, emotionally, even spiritually. One such calamity would normally be a once in a lifetime experience to scare grandkids with, and I had many, with a feeling I was just getting started. Then there were the fates of my friends. Andonai had nearly died. K’tarsgh, that rascal, had nearly died, and still could. Grabas had faced death, and only survived when I intervened. My dreams of the girls’ fates horrified me, and there was the one on the Anomaly of a girl perhaps on her death bed, someone I loved, and I had no desire to give that a chance of coming true. Still, leaving them… how could I manage that without an epic scene?

I waited to leave till after an early supper, in order to arrive at the Infineon hopefully tired enough for a nap before Standard Time caught us in its evil grip. Perhaps a long nap. We made the circuit of our few friends there, discreetly letting them know we were leaving for a good while, though I promised to return someday. And it might even be to set up a home there, as it was an amazingly perfect world, Pirates aside. The absence of Sentinels was a big selling point for all three of us, and being able to visit Father, with a proper invite, was a huge lure. Perhaps with a home nearby. Gweth had finished up a few goodies for Adjaha, and Seri too, though Adja didn’t share them with me. I had to make sure she never did. Grabas had wanted more advice on the Walk, so I wrote up something like Golden Rules which I had gleaned from what I could remember of my distant original life, and transfered them over to his tablet. He seemed impressed. “I don’t know how well these will be received by the others, but I will share with all, and try to live by them,” he promised. I couldn’t ask for more than that, though hopefully a few more Andonais might wake up from time to time.

I had to pay one last visit to K’tarsgh who was still in his deep slumber, which was understandable as his body had a lot to mend in order to live. Seri felt led to pray over him in that musical tongue of hers, and I felt her spirit flood the place, or a spirit. Was she invoking Tanri for his sake? It sure felt very somber and numinous just then, and it was humbling. When she finished, I was surprised as the Pirate croaked out through tears, “Seri… my pain, my shame… so great… what I did to you… but it got you a rather good man.” I had to smirk at that, a backhanded compliment to the end. But then he said to me, “And you… my pain, nothing compared to yours… guard yourself, my friend… I will try… find you…” But that was all he could manage before he slipped back into his life restoring coma. What the heck did he know?

Seri clasped her hand over his before we left, murmuring, “Oh, K’tarsgh… you poor, infuriating thing… find your peace with Tanri’s guide, and be well.”

So, we snuck off, telling everyone we were going for a walk to to watch the sunset, which was almost true. I regretted not being able to take Seri up on her invite for one night alone in our “honeymoon suite,” but there wasn’t anyplace to stick Adjaha for the night, and I had little doubt she would resent it. I lingered for a bit on a hilltop with them on either side as I admired the world for one last time, in case it was a long while till we returned - if ever, but I tried not to think that way. What an amazing, troubling world.

I had to lighten the mood in my usual ornery way, telling Adjaha, “One last chance to see your dad…”

“Oh no! No no no no,” she replied just that promptly, making me laugh, which earned me a sharp punch in the arm.

She asked me if she could ride shotgun on the way back, and I thought, why not? Especially if I abandoned them, this might be her one chance for a front row seat to see starflight, though I tried my best to muddle those thoughts. Which, how well did that work? So I rode in the kiddie seat as the girls took to the front, and Seri was quite confident now, running through startup without any help, and took to space as if she was a seasoned cadet. I had to get up and lurk over their shoulders to enjoy the experience of Adjaha’s delight at the spectacle, which naturally she was quite vocal about. I enjoyed mooning over them because they were my angels, and Seri was my life. A life I was going to abandon for a time, but… would I, really? Every instinct told me I should.

Two festive jumps later, we arrived at the Infineon, and Seri landed without incident. I watched as we settled down next to Adjaha’s would-be home, with the expansive mattress and sahara of litter. And to my delight, there was a new large pool, so we should go for a swim the next day.

And then one last hurdle as we went up to our rooms, which I hoped wasn’t a big one. I went to Adjaha’s room as she was unsuiting, with Seri lingering behind me for moral support. “Hey, listen…” I began a bit hesitantly, and it seemed she was sifting my thoughts at the hint of reluctance in my demeanor. “Why don’t you… sleep in here tonight?” Seri handed me Porsuk, which was overjoyed to see us after so many days away, and tried his darndest to lick my face. “You could cuddle up with Sucky, here.” Seri gave a snort at my nickname for him. I couldn’t imagine a better teddy bear for a girl, besides a kitten or puppy, but those were in short supply.

She made a face at that, but relented as I handed over the wriggling furry face menace, and she allowed it to give her a nice little cheek bath. “Ohh… I guess I have been a little clingy lately… you’re right, and I’m taking alone time from both of you.”

That surprised me, but having a telepath around, it really shouldn’t have. “Well… yeah. I mean, it hasn’t been all that inconvenient with you around, though it was…”

I was glad that she saw the humor in it, giving us a welcome laugh. “Okay, okay, I get it,” she muttered, then said to the wriggling ball of fur, “Wanna sleep with me tonight?” He gave her what I took for a willing growl, and set him down as Seri brought his litter box into the bathroom.

“Thank you so much, mənim eziz dostum,” she said, the two sharing a warm embrace. “I love you dearly, but… my man…” she murmured, giving me a fond look.

“I know, I know… I’ve been a bitlemek to both of you, and I’m sorry.” She gave Seri a rather passionate kiss, which reminded me that she truly was alien, and extremely expressive in her passions to both of us. Maybe I should let her be that way, be her Dragon self… some. Just some.

I gave her hand a squeeze. “Goodnight, sweet heart.” I added discreetly, “And thanks, you’re a dear.” She snuck in one last kiss before I departed.

And now… oh my Lord, how I wanted my wife, and she was feeling just as amorous, giving my cheek a good tongue bath herself. “Ohh, my love… menim perestizhim… ohh, how I need you…”

I was afraid we would spend some time to express ourselves to each other, a bit too much time, but we found ourselves lulled to sleep before it got too early. Sleep in, a little, I told myself, and let her sleep in a bit more.

I lurched awake sometime later though, as I felt someone settle next to me under the covers, and that could only be one Dragon. “Sorry… but… I can’t sleep,” she whispered to me in a way that sounded almost sincere. “It’s still kinda scary, and… you’re so darn… comfy.”

Yeah, but this was way too Dragony, and way too teenagery, and I had no idea how to respond. “Aaah-djahaaahh… come on,” I grumbled out, meaning to scold her, but I was just too tired to deal with it, and I had to admit that I missed her warm presence on my other side. That wasn’t too convenient, was it? I reached over and gave her bottom a little pat, and cringed as she had nothing on, and for crying out loud, couldn’t I feel that she had nothing on? Maybe I was being a little too free with those butt pats.

You think?

That wasn’t her, and I decided I’d pay attention to that Voice tomorrow, when I was more awake and being less typically male. She giggled as I stroked her skin lightly, feeling my way to her hand to clasp it, and whispered to her, “Okay… one more night, but… we have to work out of this, hon, be a proper friend. It’s… you know.”

I know, she thought to me, squeezing my hand fondly. Just… not tonight. It’s too hard all at once, and I’ll always love you.

I sighed as we’d have to all at once sometime, but… what the heck. I gave a brief thought of affection back, hoping this didn’t awaken Seri. And just as I thought it, my wife wormed her fingers into mine, easing Adjaha’s hand away. I heaved another sigh as the girl settled into me, laying her arm over my side. Why in the name of Heaven and Gautakht was my life so fraught with complications? One, a cute, bratty complication…

Someone was there

I lurched wide awake, clenching in alarm at the sight of a black robed figure gazing at us dispassionately from across the room, and to my horror, the face beneath the hood was nothing but a red orb. glowing in a way that seemed malevolent. I clutched my two girls to me in fear for their lives as I struggled through a tight throat to shout hoarsely, “Go away… go away! Leave us alone!

There is no away with ME
There is no avoiding ME
There is no place I do not EXIST
You will LEARN
Learn to RESPECT
Learn to SUBMIT
Learn to FEAR
Now, I RESET
You will SUBMIT
Or I will RESET
YOU

That proclamation was menacing, and I shivered as we clung to each other tightly. How could I escape - we escape - such an omnipresent horror! We couldn’t speak, could do nothing more than quake with dread as it pointed a long, black gloved arm at me, and exclaimed

RESET

It seemed to originate right at that poised, accusing finger, sweeping out faster than light to jolt through me like a bomb blast, to reorder all of reality with whatever alterations to our world that damned demigod saw fit to afflict on us. I jumped as Seri began to whimper, jarring in that awful silence, “Nijol… w-what is that! What is… happening…”

I looked to her and screamed as nothing was left of her head but a skull, with only two eyes gaping at me in a horrible mockery of her face, but then the rest of her withered away, with only her skeleton to lie against me, and I couldn’t stop screaming—

I lurched awake, hopefully this time, and jerked again at the sensation of some evil monster clinging to my head. But as I reached up instinctively, I could feel a familiar badger-otter pelt and heard a disgruntled snarl in my ears. As I settled back down to sleep, hopefully, I grumbled, “Sucky, who invited you to the party?” And then a presence to my left reminded me that she had, and I muttered to myself that I seriously needed to have some assertiveness training, and a family chat with our adoptive daughter, who still seemed to want to be a little more than a daughter…

“Commander.”

I groaned in consternation, “For crying out loud… I need a do not disturb sign that’s disturbing enough to scare him off.” Then I was reminded of three beings sleeping with me, and decided to have mercy on them, assuming I could manage to keep from disturbing them. Which I couldn’t, all three of them protesting. I stroked Adjaha’s hair and gave her a good morning peck on the cheek, whispering, “This is what you get for sleeping with daddy.” She giggled so the message didn’t take, but it was the wrong time for that. I fumbled into some shorts, nearly falling over in my half-awake state as the Captain called over the speaker for me again. What the hell was it this time? I lunged through the door to grumble at him, “Yes? And this had better not be a surprise breakfast.”

My chutzpah faded quickly as he looked serious. “Commander, your ships are making warning sounds.”

Oh crap! Seriously? I began to run to the landing bay, but then recalled that the suit handled the management of all my gear, and I groaned as I turned to go back inside. “I’ll see right to it - just a bit.”

I dragged my gear as quietly as I could to Adjaha’s room, the room she was supposed to be sleeping in, the adorable brat, to spare them the noise and curses as I donned my suit. And then it struck me what I had just dreamed, and… no, it couldn’t be… but what else could it be! I faced towards the nose of the ship and exclaimed, “ATLAS, you asshole!”

As I secured my helmet and headed for the landing bay, I called up the displays on the ships, and sure enough, most of the tech was overloaded. But… why? I soon realized it was all the black market upgrades. And that brought me up short as I peeked at my suit and Multitool, and they were in the same overloaded state. I’d forgotten that I’d been a busy shopper. Only a couple were superior to my S Class units, but all had lost their ability to sit in cozy harmony with the other upgrades. Damn it all to gautakht! Well, the girls would probably enjoy a few free upgrades. And that reminded me of something else I’d completely forgotten; the unique E Class upgrade I’d crafted on Teskyevinde’s doomed Freighter. Checking the Infineon’s tech screen, it had more than enough headroom for even the most extreme upgrade, which I hoped this one was. But, first things first…

1 Like

(Ch 14 continued)

Most of the keh go hargh upgrades could go to the other Fighters, with Twin Blades getting the most love. As I was toiling away, I saw a welcome sight as Seri came down in a bathrobe to see what I was doing, and that cursed dream left me in a needy mood. I’d already stripped out of my Exosuit to work so I was quite ready for such a distraction, and I grabbed her up, giving her a big, long kiss, laden with need and worry. I didn’t give her a chance to speak as I kept kissing her for quite a long minute. Oh, my dear, sweet, living treasure…

She purred as she eased me away at the last, “Someone is eager! But, I know that there is something to ask of it. What is wrong?”

“Ohh… ATLAS - sorry, that Thing again,” I told her, remembering her forbidden word, and related to her my dream, and the Reset which had happened at about the same time.

That concept perplexed her. “Resets… what does it mean? What are those things?”

I explained that the damned Monster would occasionally reorganize the universe for whatever reason. Things could be slightly different, or radically. A few planets could be completely different, elements could vanish, new ones appear, extreme weathers spring up, and I feared, people, planets… entire universes could vanish. And I was startled to realize, perhaps even memories with it. If I had another bout of partial amnesia, would I even be aware of it? And what was different this time… what else? Had ATLAS erased something crucial to my Quest? Oh, please, no. My wife jarred me out of my vacancy. “Nijol, what… is there more?”

I huffed a resigned breath. “Things are different now for sure… probably a lot of things.” I pointed to Star Sword. “My upgrades that used to work together, now don’t, which means I get to share a few things with you girls. But it also means I’m weaker. And that’s just one of the differences.”

The first part pleased her, the second part didn’t, and she clung to me possessively. “I want you to be stronger than anything. But, not so strong you don’t need me.”

That was a welcome opportunity to smile, and I closed in on her lips. “I’ll never be that strong.” Though as I kissed her again, I was glad she wasn’t a telepath because I was determined all the more to exclude her and Adjaha from my dangerous Quest.

She hummed into the kiss, running her fingers through my hair. “You shall need me to travel with you, remember? And Adjaha too.” Holy Tanri, was she mildly telepathic? I tried not to remember it, but that mention was an issue I’d have to consider. She added with some snark, “I also noticed that she is sleeping in our bed once more. Naked. I was hoping that I had dreamed it.”

“Yeaahh…” I drawled out, stroking her back, “she insisted she couldn’t sleep, even with a Sucky bear for company.”

She gave me a sour look at my nickname. “He is not sucky. But, why don’t you have a talk with her?”

“Honey, I did, but she’s as stubborn and disobedient as you are. Maybe we should both have a talk with her, together.”

She didn’t look pleased at that. “But you are the master. Make her listen… lock the door next time.”

That was an idea, but on second thought, not a very nice one. “I would, but we’ve all been having nightmares, and I hate the thought of her being locked out when she’s scared out of her wits.” I nuzzled along her snout fondly. “You like it when I’m there to comfort you, and Tanri knows I need you badly when I wake from one. I just had another one, you know.”

She gave a withering sigh. “That sounds like an excuse, mister diplomat. But… you are right, and I would go mad myself if I couldn’t be with you.”

I curled my fingers through her copper-brown locks. “Besides, you knew her longer than I did, and you want to be alone as much as I do.”

“She does not want to sleep with me - naked, and I fear she knows you much too deep,” she muttered slyly. “But… you are right once more. You are much too persuasive a diplomat.” I grinned into some more kisses before she pushed out of my arms. “Go, do your important work, so we can continue from where we were last night.”

That was a sweet notion, and I drew on those lips with one last hungry kiss. “That sounds fine with me, and… oh my goodness,” I muttered as Adjaha was stumbling down the stairs, barefoot with a robe barely on, and my heart twisted as she wailed out naively, “Where were you!” I tried to position Seri between us but she insisted on grabbing hold of me too, and I couldn’t deny her some comfort. As Porsuk waddled in a circle around us, wondering what was wrong, I thought out into space, ATLAS, you asshole! Leave them out of this! But that was a vain thought.

That ended any thought of a privacy talk, but she dragged it right into my Quest, imploring to me, “Please take me with you… I don’t wanna die with you gone.” Seri gave me one of those wifey looks which said pointedly, And don’t you even think of leaving me behind either. I felt stuck like Chuck. What was I supposed to say to that? I chose not to say anything definitive, just hugged them both to me tightly. At some point though, I wouldn’t be able to hug this away, and it would be soon.

The point of this day was clearly to make it a fun escape from reality, so after a slightly late breakfast I suggested some video games as that was easy and the most mindless, engaging fun I could think of. And then after a well digested lunch, something athletical in the landing bay and things I could peel away from after a while to chat with Teskyevinde - and I had to watch my spelling because I’d periodically get that wrong. I wanted that swim so I could see Seri in some sweetly revealing swimwear, but that also meant a daughter-cousin in nicely revealing swimwear, and that would be fraught with danger, so no swim today. I settled for a family selfie with them, including Sucky, a memento I could take with me if I left them behind.

Naturally the girls resisted my run upstairs, but I really did need to get back to the ancient Korvax friend, as I was anxious to have as many gaps of knowledge filled in as possible, and still had a lot of data to transfer to the ship’s storage drives. I also should be neighborly and give Ertosi of the Grand Conjunction of Aligned Systems a reply, as I’d been putting one off for a while. So, giving Adjaha a warm if unromantic peck on the cheek, and my wife a much more appropriate kiss, I tore myself away from their company, literally, as Adja in particular wanted me to hang around. Her nightmare must have been rather like mine, poor girl. Was there a best answer to my dilemma?

So first, that message.

From: traveller-fox@DSC9-infineonII
To: ertosi@sol-eng.FC6E7007

Most excellent Ertosi, First Servant of the Grand Conjunction,

Pardon the late reply, but I have been traveling, among other things. Life in Euclid is quite an adventure sometimes. I have a few questions I hope you can answer, at least in part. Pardon the length of the mail, but I suffer a voracious appetite for knowledge.

The Chronoproject: the very title stirs my imagination. I was wondering if you have made any efforts to travel back in time to periods before the first Reset, before the arrival of ATLAS, perhaps to explore the previous Age, which I have been nostalgically calling the Civilized Age? I don’t know if there are any answers to our respective quests to be learned in such a journey, but I can’t imagine anything more scientifically, historically, culturally or emotionally fascinating. Within Resets, have your folk made any significant discoveries concerning ATLAS, or the Sentinels? I understand the Traveller groups are giving the Resets names, and it seems we’ve recently had another one. Has it been named yet, and how are those names determined?

Subspace Systems Research: is this a study of the star systems along the extreme edge of the Euclid Galaxy known as The Fade? This region bordering the rim of the galaxy sounds exactly like what you’re referring to. Have you gleaned any knowledge as to the physical characteristics of this spacial oddity? If I have that wrong, what are you referring to? Also, is there any method of traveling to other stars than by Hyperjump drive? It’s my understanding that directly jumping to the systems in The Fade doesn’t work. What method do you use?

Derelicts: I encountered a singularly unique Entity, to say the least, aboard a wrecked Freighter, the SV Ambax IX. It was a threat the likes of which I had never seen before, in fact quite terrifying. It seemed to have corrupted the minds of the crew, turning them to a level of insanity that was downright depraved and brutal to each other. I was given an application which makes scientific records of various characteristics of anomalies, and the gist of this demonic being is as follows:

Entity discovered: aboard Freighter SV Ambax IX
Entity level classification: Psi level being
Entity form classification: naked lifeforce, variable physical form
Entity energy state: ~10^18 Joules
Entity intellect class: unknown
Entity motivations: unknown
Entity behavior patterns: irrational, hostile, violent, predatory
Entity assessment: demi-lifeform, extremely dangerous, lifeforce hazard
Additional details: subject to data analysis by X000 Class computer system

I’ll make the data files available if you so desire. I’ll get into one of the reasons for mentioning this presently.

ATLAS: are you privy to any knowledge as to its origin? So far, I’ve been unable to glean anything in regard to this. I’m particularly curious of an association with the appearance of us Travellers. Are you aware of any indications as to its motivations or goals? Has it indeed erased entire planets, star systems - even universes?

Resets: does anyone have a clue why they happen? Even with my Reset amnesia I’m struggling with, I recall that this universe was once very different, and I really should explore your findings of The Chronoproject. I recall that extreme weathers are a fairly recent phenomenon, and many of these have to be threatening the environments of garden worlds. Has anyone cataloged the changes between Resets? Seen any patterns to them?

Travellers: we are many different races, all very distinctive. Are you aware of any concept of our origins? All I’ve been able to come across are vague mentions in the sagas of Hirk and Nal. Does anyone suspect we come from the previous Age? I have had dreams which indicate my origin is from another universe entirely. I was wondering if anyone had similar intuitions or discoveries.

This universe: I’m trying to wrap my head around everything I know of it, and a lot of it makes no sense to me. I’ve encountered lore in old documents, Planetary Archives, and shared by Korvax sages which indicates this universe is a simulation. I’m aware of the theory, but unsettled by the implications. I suppose I should just admit, I’m concerned that my friends and loved ones are real, living beings. That I’m conversing over mail with a person, not just an entity which is a bundle of code programmed with certain parametric responses to its environment. Has anyone wrestled with this kind of existential angst? Resolved it?

The galaxies themselves are another huge puzzle. I’m fairly certain that in my early days as a Traveller, Euclid was much smaller, and I recall a radius of about 120,000 light years or so. Now, it’s something around 800,000, which is gigantic. And from the information I came across, it seems that all galaxies have the same dimensions - and vaguely similar histories! Is it really true that on all galaxies, there are only the Three Races of Gek, Korvax and Vy’keen, and no others? And that there are only 255 galaxies, reachable only by some means afforded by ATLAS? I recall in dreams of my possible previous life in another universe, that it was far larger than this one, with essentially infinite galaxies in massive superclusters, strewn through vast expanses of space like cobwebs, and some of them visible without need of far-ranging instruments. Are these 255 galaxies roughly mirrors of each other with subtle differences, instances of one template galaxy, Euclid? Are they separate micro-universes? Is this confirmation of a simulated universe?

Abandoned Outposts: I’ve come across a number of these, and each one bears an increasingly disturbing message from one or more Travellers. They had encounters of unsettling natures, coming across ever more weird and mentally challenging things. They mentioned highly unusual worlds in their quest to the center of the galaxy, which I’m assuming is Euclid. Among these unsettling elements, they spoke of a Voice, guiding them, calling to them, urging them on. I myself have been sensing Voices in my head, one of which was from that horror I stumbled into on the Ambax IX. Are you aware of anyone having similar experiences? Have they gone so far as to try to communicate with them?

This / these Travellers spoke of singularly unusual worlds tied to some sort of revelation. There was one mention of The Haze Zone, located near the galactic anterior, and that they reached a star system using a unique hyperdrive. Also, I’ve heard mentions in my travels of people speaking ominously of The Last Days. There doesn’t seem to be any consensus as to what that phrase means. Is there anything definite you can offer on that, or unusual worlds with highly significant ties to ATLAS or some other revelation? Any hint of the location of a Haze Zone?

Other races: are Euclid and the other galaxies home to any other races to your knowledge? Is there the slightest chance that some vestiges of peoples escaped the ravages of the Gek First Spawn in their genocidal conquest of Euclid? I know that it could be a needle in a haystack chance of an encounter, but it just seems plausible that with a near infinite number of inhabitable worlds, a vestige of races from the Civilized Age still exist. I may have come across a couple of unique sentient races myself, and I wondered if others have. I ask this because I managed to wrangle some good relations with a clan of Vy’keen pirates, who’s leader saved my life by the way, and they lived in villages unbothered by Sentinels because that particular region of uncharted space was somehow Sentinel free. Are there any other such worlds where some vestige of civilization exists? Any ruins of the previous Age?

The Ancients: I might be a source of controversy on this. According to majority of scholarly opinion, the Ancients were either a cosmopolitan group of races in the Civilized Age, or perhaps all the races of this Age combined. But I’ve come across some information which indicates strongly that the Ancients were a unique race of beings from this period, and fled this universe sometime before ATLAS put a kibosh on organized civilization. They once had their own worlds, and major cities strewn through Euclid. Is there any indication that remains of these cities still exist?

Is there any attempt to bring about another Galactic Council? Or are the Three Races too ethnocentric to attempt another one? Or afraid of ATLAS?

Am I asking too many questions? I beg your pardon if I am, but as one Korvax sage put it, I’m driven by a unique and ravenous hunger for knowledge. I have a feeling there are many things which depend on answers to my insistent quest for Truth. In any case, I think this is enough for you to digest at your leisure.

Thank you again for your time and fellowship, if over a mail.

Your friend and fellow questor for Truth,

~ Nigel Fox

(Ch 14 continued)

Before I sent it, I invited Teskyevinde in on my letterly pursuit, asking him, “What do you think of that?”

“It’s very interesting, a reflection of my own inquiries, and I share in your frustrations. There seems to be a sort of Reset-wall isolating this universe from its past quite starkly. Almost nothing remains of that Civilized Age. It is quite a twist of Fate that you were able to encounter not one, but two sapient living survivors in such a vast sea of stars.”

“Yes, but why… why is the past erased like that?” I asked reflexively. “At least, what you have managed to deduce of that?”

“Sadly, I have nothing conclusive to offer, yet. It may simply be a consequence of numerous Resets sweeping remains of the past away in entropic erasure. It may be purposeful. Both seem equally possible. But without certain crucial data to digest, all we have at this point are speculations. And unfortunately, Korvax scholars are too limited by their adherence to ATLAS, and The Equation Of Life which defines their worldview, and my people provide the majority of both information and speculation. Scholars of the other two races are subject to their own biases.” So I was still mostly on my own? Wonderful.

My dreams bugged me, a lot, and I asked him pointedly, “Tesky, if you’ll pardon my nickname, how sure are you of your own self-existence?”

“‘Tesky’ is fine. This still troubles you, I see, and I cannot blame you for your worry. I believe you would say, ‘I think, I feel, therefore I am.’ You have concluded this yourself with such an argument, as your diary states, as well as your notion of originating from another reality. You may also draw some comfort from the telepathic experiences of Adjaha and her fascinating kin.”

“Oh, that’s right!” I blurted out excitedly. “Thank you for that! This worry was driving me crazy!”

“However,” he added in a way I was sure I didn’t want to hear, “while I am certain that I have a Korvax soul, I also consist of raw, naked information, which would be simple enough to emulate in a well designed simulation. Telepathy with another being would be no different than any of your other senses engaging to experience the physical nature of a planet, the flavor of foods and so on, as all are stimuli fed to your brain, which would itself be simulated. All you can truly know is that you exist, alone, insofar as any being can be assured of that.”

I muttered to him a bit sourly, though half in jest, “Well, aren’t you a lot of help, Mr Know It All.”

“I’m sorry, but it’s the Korvax nature to be honest, even if such honesty is uncomfortable,” he replied in faint consolation. “If the Truth is our goal, tough questions must be asked, and difficult answers accepted. And there is nothing more discomforting than the suspicion that our intrusive deity may be irrational or insane.”

I refused to accept that my wife and adoptive daughter were nothing more than clusters of software, like bots from a video game. Or the chilling notion that a broken or insane ATLAS had made every being, planet, star and universe. And that it had utter and complete control of every being, planet, star and universe to molest or erase according to its digital whims, though I didn’t want to dig into that disturbing hole. “I suppose you’re right, but let’s talk about some related stuff. How possible is it that the other two hundred fifty four galaxies are rough mirrors of this one? Wouldn’t that at least partly explain having vaguely similar histories, similar states, the same Three Races in control? The existence of Travelers as ghostly images in Euclid?”

“It may well indeed, though confirmation of the latter may require a flight to another galaxy, and your arrival there is apparently at a random location on the edge of that galaxy. Thus, any way of making contact with some acquaintance from Euclid in a coincident location may well require much more trial and error than your brief lifespan would allow. It’s possible that the Instrumentality has made such efforts in the past, and I cannot imagine they haven’t, but there is no discernable information of such.”

That name stirred notions in me… had I heard or read of them in the past? My short term memory was too cluttered with experience and information. “The Instrumentality?”

Tesky paused for half a beat, which made me wonder more. “An inner circle of elite Korvax which govern the entirety of our people, with associates.”

That struck me as a bit ominous. “With an iron glove? Listen, if you’re taking risks, serious personal risks, with your searches for information, I wish you wouldn’t do that. If you won’t accept your value as a friend, then think of what an invaluable asset you are.”

I could discern a smile in his reply. “Fair enough, Friend Nigel, but I’m sure you’d agree, some risks are worth taking.”

“I guess I can’t ask you to do what I won’t either,” I murmured. “Fair enough yourself. Another topic then. Do you have any significant locations in memory that I should seek out? Major planets of various races from the Civilized Age? The Ancients? I have a feeling I should try my hardest to find some abandoned city of that people.”

“I’m afraid the locations are so numerous that, again, you wouldn’t live long enough to have visited the tiniest fraction of them. Most of the other races were located around the outer half of the galaxy, while the Ancients dwelt nearer the core, so there is that. And as you may have noticed, the scattering of the Three Races is almost random, though equal, throughout the star systems of Euclid, with Korvax widely dispersed among them. And in this somewhat peaceful time, relations are reasonably good between them, with notable exceptions as you have found. As a result, information is fairly widely shared, particularly of a scholarly nature, though some of that is bartered at high expense on, of all things, the antiquities market, and other channels. To date, most of the unique finds I’m aware of were made by you, particularly that tome of Nal’s, Questions, which apparently contradicts some of the lore attributed to him. In particular, he’s much more suspicious of ATLAS, much as you or I are. And I have come across… hints of conspiracies, some of which may possibly be fed by such ancient discoveries. I have nothing substantial to offer, and I can make no educated guesses, so it would be best to leave that alone for now. Please resist any tendencies towards suspicion. I will withhold nothing of substance from you, my friend.”

“Oh, great, pique my curiosity and then slam the door in my face,” I grumbled in mock ire, somewhat.

“Now, Friend Nigel, you have mentioned yourself the perils of wild goose chases and endless rabbit holes - such colorful terms you use. It would be best to focus on what is most credible and actionable for now, and leave it to you to make discoveries based on your intuitions and whims. After all, as has been said, you have the knack.”

“Yeah, and I really need to get back to that knack thing, too,” I murmured. “I just have to get away from the girls. I can’t drag them into that hazardous mess.”

“Pardon a bit of Korvaxian advice,” he offered, “but I believe you are selling them short. I suspect they are much more capable than you give them credit for.”

“Not you too,” I groaned. “Look… you know what kinds of dangers I’ve run into, particularly that devilgod terror on board your own ship… you lived through that!” I cried, and had to stop myself as I was growing emotional from those horrific memories. “Just… learning what happened to your crew… it hurt me deeply, and each new revelation was torture. I barely made it out alive by the skin of my teeth, and I was driven a little crazy from it myself. If either one of those girls had been there…” That thought was too awful to finish.

Teskyevinde rescued me from my angst. “Friend Nigel… I do understand, believe me… my own pain, as tangible as yours. Your burden is a selfish but noble sentiment, and I cast no aspersion on the choice you must make, either way. I merely… suggest.”

I pounced on that thought. “See? I don’t know if your kind are capable of any emotions resembling love, but if one of them… died…” I drew a heavy breath. “Oh, Lord… I’d be devastated.”

“I know,” he replied soberly. “You are a singular man. Strong, but fragile, logical but passionate, with many qualities of both genders.”

“A girly man?” I cut in with a chuckle. I was glad of an opportunity to lighten the mood. To my surprise, he laughed, and I was glad to hear it.

“Ohh, Nigel… my friend, humor is such… a novel experience, and surprisingly enriching to me. I have you to thank for what my people would consider a corruption. I was about to say that we Korvax pride ourselves on our aloof intellectualism, free of the burdens of emotion, but that is a facade. To some small degree, we still experience emotions… attachments, friendships, if subtly. We dare not give in to such urges openly, express them, or we are seen as flawed, corrupted. But disconnected from what I now understand as the tyranny of the Convergence, I am… free, to be myself, express myself. To have emotions, to feel friendships. To laugh, and enjoy the curious emotion of humor. It is… amazing, how liberating this unfettered existence is. I am, to turn a phrase, falling in love with all three of you in your impromptu family, as I have indeed loved people I have had the pleasure to know in my previous life, and wish no harm to come to your loved ones either.”

That was an amazing confession from the old Korvax, and it struck me all over again that this fellow could be more than four thousand years old. My inner jester reared his funny head again, and I asked, “I don’t suppose you have any advice on handling teenage girls.”

At that, he burst out with laughter. “Oh, my… no. Affairs of the heart, perhaps? Or knowing how to satisfactorily deny that they accompany you on your Quest? On either count, I’m afraid you are on your own with them. But in a more serious vein, I would say that I am in complete agreement with the urgency you feel in regard to your journey. I am as hungry as are you to know, to understand the mysteries of this strange universe, and the ATLAS entity which rules it all with such unkind supremacy.”

Yes, and I needed to quit procrastinating and get on it, though I thought I owed it to the girls, especially Serineh, to give them some good times in case I abandoned them for some unknown length of time. Tears from either one might cause a change of plans on that. But in a happier vein, hopefully, I decided to broach something else with my friend, and linked the game system to the network, starting it up. “I was curious about one other thing. There’s this videogame my wife and I are caught up in, and it has a number of races in its world. I was wondering if any of them were from the Civilized Age, or resembled them. Can you make out the images?”

“Yes, perfectly. This looks to be an interesting game.” I wondered if he was just humoring me. As I scrolled through the many races Seri had unlocked in her adventures, he sounded increasingly moody as he named many of them off. “Pelanagi, Alenari, Barbi’leh, Keidran, Qaparasi, Kanvanari, Keret’nkeleh, Tulkun, Sergal, Chak’kali, Keschen… yes… nearly all of them, in fact.”

It struck me that I could be reminding him of friends that had been massacred in the genocidal First Spawn War, and stopped. “Uhm… I’m sorry if I’m bringing back painful memories. I just wanted to have some idea of the people from that Civilized—”

“No… no, no, that is quite all right, and it is actually… good to be reminded of that mostly pleasant time, and former acquaintances, which would be long dead regardless. In fact… I was wondering if, perhaps, I would be allowed to play this game myself, and other such games. It would be… enjoyable, experiencing a version of life in an alternate reality with these people, even if they are virtual and unreal, and life choices limited.”

That was perhaps the biggest surprise yet from my friend. But then, he had taken on so many other aspects of organic beings, like nostalgia, why not entertainment and fun? And if he could immerse himself in them, experience a sort of virtual life, wouldn’t that be like Heaven, a break from his digital prison? “Well… sure! I can’t imagine there would be a problem with that. Just start a new game and enter any credentials you want, and you can play anytime it’s available. And I’ll load in some other games you might enjoy.”

“That would be wonderful… thank you. Speaking of loading, are there more of those files of yours yet to upload to the ship’s servers?”

“Oh! Yes, darn it, and I meant to do that while we talked, but you’re such a fascinating person, I lost track.”

As I busied myself with the multitude of discs I still had to load in, he said, “That is quite all right. I would say the same of you, although forgetfulness isn’t something I need worry about—”

There was a knock on the door, which opened to my two favorite girls peeking on us. “Nijol?” Seri asked, followed by Adjaha. “Can we barge in?”

I thanked my lucky stars, likely sixteen of them, that their timing was almost perfect and overheard nothing conspiratorial or unpleasant. “Sure, come on in. Tesky was asking if he could play your game.”

At first she was worried. “You don’t mean my… save, do you?” I explained that he would be making his own, and that pleased her. “Of course! You are my friend, and I would be happy to share this with you.”

“That would be wonderful,” the Korvax said gratefully. “Thank you for such generosity, and I will keep my play to those times you aren’t using it.”

I installed a lot more games on the system for all three of my friends, including some romance games for Adjaha. I didn’t know if that would satisfy her romantic inclinations or stoke them, but it shouldn’t hurt to try. While the two girls began chatting away with Teskyevinde, I busied myself with the data discs I had accumulated in my Quest, and there were a lot more left than I thought. Some of the truly old ones required my adapter.

(Ch 14 continued)

Then after I had uploaded a good chunk of the information, I drew Adjaha aside and asked her, “Hey, do you think we could do that… memory thing you talked about? It might come in handy to know a lot more of my past.”

That clearly delighted her. “Sure! I was thinking of asking you about that, but we should go someplace quiet. I have a feeling any noise from those two might break your concentration. And this is the first time I’ve done this with… well, anyone else but Dragons, and you’re an amnesiac to boot.”

That sounded sensible. “Alright, lead the way, guru.” I wasn’t sure what that meant, but it sounded mystically apropos.

Naturally, she took me to her room, as options were rather limited, but my defenses came up as she urged me onto her unmade bed. I cocked a brow at her, asking dubiously, “And… why is that, my dear?”

She waved me off with a smirk. “It’s comfortable! And you need to feel comfy because distractions will mess with the link I need to make with you.”

That seemed right too, somewhat, so I gave her a shrug. “Alright, you’re the guru.” At least she didn’t ask me to take off my clothes.

“Oh, and take off your clothes,” she added, beginning to undress. I yelped in shock, slapping her hands down. I felt a little better as she burst out laughing at me. Barely. “Oh, Nijol… that look on your face!”

I huffed a grumpy breath at her. Good grief, and just after getting over some of that romantic tension? “Girl, I’d spank you, but I’m afraid you might like it.”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry… bad teenage humor, I know. Just… calm down. You need to be calm too. This is a lot like meditation… well, it kind of is.”

“Great start, Adj. I’m having second thoughts now,” I muttered, but she urged me onto the bed, and I relented.

She sat facing me, cross legged, and I followed her example, resting my hands on my legs. She scooched closer, taking them in hers, and our knees touched. It made me a bit warm as this felt rather intimate for someone who was so infatuated with me. It was hard not to think of certain things when I try not to, especially in situations like this, with her aroma tickling my senses, and it all made me feel conflicted and nervous.

Nijol, calm down! I’m sorry I teased you, but you’ve got to try to empty your head of all… that, or this won’t work.

Well, who’s fault is that? I snarked at her. To my chagrin, she laughed at me.

I know, I’m sorry… bad Dragon. Just relax. Focus on your breathing and your heart rate. I know you can slow them down, but if you can’t, I can help.

No, no… I think I got it now.

Good, just keep relaxing and it should be just fine.

Gradually, I began to find some calm in this situation, and she began, finally, to feel like a mentor, a being centuries old if young at heart. Lack of sleep helped with this. In fact, I could feel myself beginning to doze off, and I wondered faintly if that was a good thing…

Great… now I’ve got you.

What?

I barely had a chance to react as I felt myself slipping into a shared dream with the girl, though this was a strange place, a dark void but with images of my life streaming down through it, like a column of an ever morphing hologram running into unimaginable black depths. And she was there before me, suspended in space, wearing that forbidden overly revealing bit of almost-clothing, and looking more beautiful than ever. She couldn’t resist posing seductively before me, saying, “I hope you don’t mind. I mean… this isn’t real, and you must want it as much as I do or it wouldn’t happen.”

I really didn’t need to be seeing this, and hearing that, and I was stunned at what she told me. But… damn it, she was right, and as if responding to the call of my soul, she drifted closer. The more she drew near, the more intense was the look in her eyes, and while it was wrong, so very wrong to want her, it was hard to care. “Well… I’m not complaining.” I found myself reaching for her hand as she came close, and… hey, this was a dream, after all, why not enjoy it? I felt warm as she clasped it, and I murmured, “Damn, girl, you’re… too pretty for words.”

I shivered at how she responded. “Hey… you’re stealing my lines,” she crooned, drawing near, dangerously near. So close, I could feel tangibly the warmth of her soul in mine. Gradually though, her mood shifted and she looked reluctant… why? “Buuut… this isn’t why we came here. We have a job to do and we really… should.” She leaned up to steal a quick kiss which made me feel even more disappointed.

“Hey, why stop there?” I asked leadingly, to which she just laughed.

“Easy there, tiger. You don’t know who you’re saying that to.” She ran a fingernail along my arm, murmuring, “You know… I look Human, but I am an alien… a Dragon, and I’m used to getting what I want. And I still… you know, and the way you’re feeling… those yummy thoughts you keep thinking… you make it really hard to resist, especially the way you’re not dressed, you naughty bastard. So… you should stop it.”

I realized then that I was naked, and I flushed with embarrassment as I covered my privates. I half expected to find us in a high school or university hallway. “Woah, uhhm… sorry, I… don’t seem to have a wardrobe handy.”

“Hey, I don’t mind the view. Just keep those thoughts to yourself,” she giggled in a sweet way which made me wish she would give in to my wayward notions. As if I could contain them, the way one of us was almost dressed. “Now, come on. I’ve been waiting to dig into those memories of yours.”

“Oh, that’s right, I have amnesia,” I realized, which made her laugh again, a sound I loved to hear.

“Well duh,” she quipped, taking my hand. “Come on, let’s go look at your life.”

With that she drew me after her, flying downwards, as that seemed to be the direction of my past. It was hard to resist sneaking looks at her, as she was a gorgeous girl, and half naked herself. But my attention became more drawn to this holographic display of my life, every moment on full display, and it was quite a re-experience. All those moments I had lived through, and many of them forgotten. Some of them I wished remained forgotten, as it annoyed me at what an idiot I could be, seeing so many things I wish I could do over, like my recent indiscretion with Adjaha. It was so obvious after the fact - why was it so hard to see in the moment? I was embarrassed at what she must think of me, the centuries old Dragon I held in high esteem, but she knew my thoughts and gave my hand a squeeze. “You’re very Human… impulsive, but that can be a good thing too.” she remarked and flashed me a comforting smile, though the folly that was on full display still vexed me.

As we continued on down this channel-like record of my life, she looked it over in amazement. “You lived through all this in just a few weeks? You’ve been a busy Nijol!” As I gazed at it myself, I had an epiphany. All these events and the choices I had made were wandering steps on the Walk that led me to my two beauties. If I had followed my original plan, or some semblance of it, I would have never met them, ever known they existed. And she kept mentioning Father, which was an ominous thought. Was my Walk being guided by Providence? “See?” she said over her shoulder to me in a gloat. “Trust your instincts, Knack Man.”

“Okay, my swami, okay,” I quipped to her, and saw a twinkle in her eyes in response. Well, when the master was right, she was right.

I tried to ignore the moments of intimacy with Seri, and I could sense some jealousy from my adorable Dragon, but that choice had been sealed for eternity. And then I saw something coming up I didn’t want her to see - two somethings, and I flew on ahead of her, pulling on her hard. “Why are you—?” she began, but there was no way to keep her from perceiving my two encounters with the devil-god, and she screamed in terror. I gathered her to me, covering her eyes with my hand, but I found that she beat me to it though it didn’t matter. “Nijol, you… maniac! Why did you do something so stupid!” I had nothing to say to that, so I remained silent as I rushed along with her.

She pushed away from me and stopped us, quivering with fear and outrage. "You… idiot! Don’t you ever take a risk like that again! If you… had… " She quivered and squeezed her eyes shut as her emotions overwhelmed her. She looked on the verge of tears, and I couldn’t speak to her, as much as I wanted to, but then, through grit teeth, she huffed a breath at me. “Holy Space… you freak. What the heck drives you to do stupid things like that! And then Father has to rescue you from your idiot actions. Please, Nijol… you mean too much to me… to us.” She gave me a lopsided smirk, reaching for my hand again. “I guess… for better or worse, that’s just you. You really need us with you to help keep you safe, you dumb, reckless, loveable clod.”

I still felt embarrassed from the revelation and looked away and upward, when it struck me that this temporal column stretched up into the abyss further than it did down. Just like that, my qualms were forgotten. “Hey! To heck with memories, I want to see my future!”

I began to fly up there, but she resisted, tried to pull me back which irritated me - why? “Hey wait, no, no… Nijol! Stop!” She wrapped herself around me, and I was shocked; for a moment it felt like a being of scale and claw and leathery wings had enveloped me, but when I stopped, dumbfounded at the experience, there was the sensation of soft teenage skin again. I wondered briefly what a cute little humanoid Dragon would look like. She turned me to look at her, the same pretty young girl as always, and told me, “I’m sorry but… you just can’t.”

“Why not!” I exclaimed, always the impulsive, rebellious youth. I could keep from making the same dumb mistakes if I just knew what was coming - and my goals! Weeks of searching reduced to days.

“Because it will probably mess something up,” she explained in a lecturely voice. “It’s… potential, and there’s no way you could follow it perfectly. You could even end up getting yourself… killed, or someone else. The future… you just have to trust yourself and Father to get you through it.” Don’t jinx it popped into my head, though it wasn’t her. Thank Heaven she didn’t get into a lecture about the consequences of Free Will. She tussled my hair, making her breasts jiggle, and I forced myself to avert my eyes. She blushed as she caught that. “You big goofy kid. Now… let’s find those lost marbles of yours.” It all made sense, but I cast a glance upward in regret, wishing I could know at least some of my future. What would be so bad about a peek, or two, or…?

In little time, I saw that we were coming up to an immense wall of black fog which swallowed up the hologram-like living record, and we slowed in our approach. “Wow… this is thick,” she remarked. “I wonder how easy it is to cut through.”

“Are you saying I’m thick-headed?” I joked, and she burst out in pretty laughter which was good to hear in this overly serious situation. Unfortunately, it stirred up those damned urges which teased me again.

“You jester,” she mimicked in a semblance of Seri’s accent, drawing close, but it reminded both of us who I belonged to, and she pulled away with a sigh. “Hey… at least, I can be like this with you for a while… be myself, and enjoy those eyes on me.”

I laced fingers with hers, making her blush as I kissed the back of her hand. “Well, it’s a lot of help with you barely dressed at all. But, I can love you this much, and… it is a little hard to keep my eyes from you when we’re awake. I am a typical male, after all.”

“Yeah… though way more than typical,” she sighed, coming close enough to stroke my cheek, then flitted away like a pixie, teasing me. “But… I promised myself I wouldn’t be like that, and we have marbles to find. Come on.” As she drew me along behind her, something caught her eye, an image revealed by a gap in the blackness. “Hey, what’s that?”

As she began to make for it, pulling me along, something about it terrified me. It looked like a scene from my previous life, one that might have dreadful implications, and I resisted, crying, “No, Adja - stop!” I jerked her to a halt, and she flailed around at the end of my hand, a sight that would have thrilled me otherwise, gaping back at me in bewilderment.

Then she was irritated and confused herself, demanding, “What!” She was shocked as I gathered her in my arms, holding on to her firmly, shivering with dread. “Nijol, what is it? You’re scaring me!”

My fluster was vexing, but it was hard to be calm. “It looked like… maybe… back there, at the start… in my world. I don’t wanna know… if you’re…”

She sifted through my thoughts, then was alarmed herself, mouthing, not real. She wrapped her arms between mine, hugging herself to me, laying her head on my chest for comfort as we shared a moment together. No one could handle well the notion that they might not exist, not really, and it hurt me deeply too. “Yeah, m-maybe… we don’t need to know… everything, just yet.”

As we both calmed down and I stroked her hair, I caught myself enjoying the touch of her body on mine, her warmth and youthful aroma, wanting to kiss her, love her… and I was doing it again, wanting her. But in that tender moment, it was hard to think of anything else… hard to care, to think at all, but have those forbidden urges as they welled up in me. And after all, this was a dream, right? Why not enjoy this?

As she lingered in my arms, her head laying on my chest, breathing softly, I felt my resolve dwindling, my embrace growing possessive. I could fight it if I wanted to, but I didn’t, and it seemed that she didn’t either. I wanted to feel her like this forever, the soft warm touch of her skin on mine, hear her voice singing in my mind, and she seemed to hear the lure of my soul. She began kissing my chest, and as I tensed from her affections, she gazed up at me, her eyes glistening, wondering… inviting? I took it as an invitation and leaned down to her, drew her up in my arms, and admired her for the briefest moment before I took her lips with mine. She seemed reluctant for as brief a moment, her hands pressed to my bosom, before they slipped around me again, clasping my own hair, and she melted into me as she returned my kisses with ever more warmth. I wanted to know her, her thoughts, and in answer to my bidding, she spoke in my mind.

Oh, Nijol… I can’t stand it… you irresistible rascal… and I want… one last moment of… you… of us… of… ohh…

I had slipped past the point of being responsible, and she was likely held captive to my urges. The sinner, toying with the girl’s impressionable, tender young heart, toying with both of us. She caught me off guard and clutched my head with a fistful of hair and mashed our lips together fervently, with teenage hunger. Her passions were intense, and I couldn’t deny them, as I couldn’t stand it either. I gave in to her need, our need, and hugged her to me tight, clasping her firmly, and enjoyed every aspect of her soft, tender form as she clung to me in return. It was a poignant moment as we surrendered to each other, and something within me realized, this was real, she was real… her love, her soul. It was so vivid, she just had to be real. My beautiful, real, living Dragon.

Nijol… my darling, precious, treasure of a man… you’re real, and so am I. Don’t worry, don’t… ohh, Nijol…

Both of us were swooning, our minds spinning thoughtlessly as we were caught up in our passions, and there was no way I could resist this adorable girl. We melted into each other, every mound, curve and hollow, and a thrill ran through me as she moaned into my mouth, like a serenade of desire and longing. I could taste every kiss, taste the flavor of her love flooding into my heart. While her mind was mostly closed off to me, I could experience her emotions, her passions, her essence, as she shared just a bit of her soul within me, both of us blazing with color and light. But as I was on the verge of losing myself completely, I sensed reluctance from her, as she moaned into me again, though this time from uncertainty, regret, and her worry overshadowed us like a cloud. She was reluctant… now? But… damn it, this was just a dream. I was determined to savor it, enjoy her, every bit of her, and there was no way I could restrain myself.

1 Like

(Ch 14 still continued)

But as my passions began to truly rage, I sensed a door that hadn’t been there before, closed off to me, and she spoke from the other side.

Nijol… please, stop… I’m a Dragon, but inside, I’m just a girl, as weak as you are. I need help, your help, to… not want you. I’m afraid I’ll… give in and ruin everything. You really are something. I’m caught up in your whole dream thing too, but this is real, and I’m about to really lose my heart to you, and that would hurt all three of us very bad. And… there you go, holding on even tighter. Nijol, you can’t… darling… this is so hard! It’s killing me! But I love you so much… oh, so very, very much… I’m going to try something desperate to save us both. I’m going to risk something with you… me.

I didn’t know what she meant, but then, that door opened, and I was astonished—

She drew me into her mind, her essence, the very core of her being, and we knew each other intimately, completely. Every strength, every weakness, every joy, every sorrow, every delight, every shame, every emotion and passion. And every strange, alien, wonderful aspect of being a Dragon. The sheer joy of flying, the warmth and deep bond with the Dragonkin, and the soul-touching awe of being alive for centuries. The angst and tension melted away in our union of souls, and we understood each other, knew each other, almost as if one mind, one spirit. We were Dragon, and we were Human… it was beauty, it was harmony, it was an eternity, and it was utter bliss. And she knew, we knew, how to love each other properly. But it wasn’t truly an eternity, and eventually, to my regret, she had to end this blessed union.

Thank you, thank you, so much… I’m forever grateful, Nigel… you really are too nice to me… for me. I let you go, and I’m sorry, really truly sorry, but I must let you go now, close that door on you, and let Serineh have you. You imperfect rascal of a perfect love. I do love you still, and will, forever and always, my precious, beautiful Human.

Just as with meeting Father, it was over much too soon, and I felt crushing sorrow. Already? I’ll miss you.

I know. But we have our lives to live, and you have an ATLAS to tilt.

I stood there, blinking, disoriented, as I found myself in my own head again, with that beautiful girl in my embrace. I cupped her cheeks in my hands, brushed them with my thumbs, feeling lonely and isolated for a moment. “Adjaha… I…” My voice fell silent as words seemed so inadequate compared to the heavenly union I’d just experienced, an amazing dream within a dream, of an amazing, adorable Dragon girl.

“I know… you’re so sweet,” she murmured with a melancholy smile, caressing my cheek in return, and sniffed back a tear. Eventually we both calmed down, and she drew away from me with a withering sigh. “Ohh… wow… I hope we have some more bad dreams like this.”

That was so like my humor, and it had us both laughing, our nerves fading away. I gazed into her eyes, those beautiful amber irises flecked with turquoise. I was probably going to be like this for a while, and tried to say something funny to clear the air. “You little twerp. You would see something cute in this crazy predicament.”

She gave me a lopsided smile, murmuring, “Hey… a girl will take what she can get, and right after giving up someone special.”

She reached up and stroked her fingers through my hair, her affections clear in her touch. She was probably going to be like this for a while too. I kissed the skin of her arm, wishing I had words to express my feelings without sounding romantic, but I couldn’t find anything else to say, repeating, “Adjaha… I…”

My voice trailed to silence, and she murmured, “I know… I love you too. I always will, forever. But now, I can love you right.” Then she blinked as something occurred to her, and she pointed at me. “And look at you! You learned some stuff from me.”

I looked down at myself, and was amazed to find that I was wearing a garb of silken blue bordered with gold. I think it was called a tunic. I was further surprised to see her wearing something similar in tawny gold with silver trimming. How strange that I hadn’t noticed till now. Whatever I’d learned from her was deeply interwoven in my nature, as I could barely remember any true details of our union. “I… guess I did. I wish I knew all of it.”

“I think it only works right now, but that’s fine. Maybe from now on, you’ll have a little more sense!” she giggled.

“Okay now… I bet I can spank you in here,” I chided.

She laughed teasingly, “Just you try!” I could sense that there was no chance of that happening, as in spite of whatever I had gleaned from her, I was the novice and she was the master of this domain.

I returned my attention to that black void with trepidation. Did I really want to know that truth that bad? Not really. “So… now what do we do? Just… cuddle?” We both laughed again in relief.

Still smiling, she hovered teasingly just out of reach. “Okay now, you are supposed to be over that, but… I could think of worse ways to pass the time.”

As she drifted close and I reached for her, I was disappointed to realize I was reopening a can of romantic worms, still had those feelings for her, those urges - again? - and I pushed her back with a rough sigh. I was disgusted with myself, and after what I had just experienced with her! She was surprised, and a bit hurt from my reaction. I tried to sound nonchalant as I told her, “Onnn second thought… maybe… it’s a little too soon.”

Clearly disappointed, she murmured, “But… I thought you really liked to…” She fell silent as I couldn’t restrain my embarrassment and turned away from her, my cheeks burning with shame as I realized I was still the same old letch, and there was no way to hide my inner being from the curious girl. As she sifted through my mind, I could hear her hands half cover her mouth in her realization. “Ohh… my…”

I clenched my fist in exasperation, feeling like an utter fool, unable to face her. “Adja… this is messed up. I thought I was done with that, but I can’t stop myself… it’s so hard… am I rotten to the core? What’s wrong with me!” I felt like a corpse, and as I looked at my hand, I looked like a cadaver, with withered, rotting, stinking flesh. Sin… it was all too real, and I was a sinner. An epic sinner, and a lousy saint.

I flinched as I felt her touch, and I wanted to fly off from her, far from her, but she clasped me from behind, laid her head on my shoulder - with me, like this? I was revolting! “Nigel, stop it. You’re not bad. You’re a good man, flawed, but good. I think it’s just being in here with me, like this. When we’re done, I think you’ll be fine. I guess I’m no help, still teasing and flirting with you. It’s just that it… feels so good to love you, and I want to be close to you. Maybe… we should stop this, for your sake, but… darn it, I don’t want to.”

I lay my arms along hers, and to my relief, they felt normal again, whole and smooth as I caressed her hands. “I know honey… neither do I. Maybe… you’re right, and when I wake from this crazy dream, I’ll be back to normal. I sure hope so, because I need to love you too.”

To my surprise, she groaned and turned me to face her. “Nigel, I let you carry on with that way too long. Look, this isn’t a dream. I merged minds with you, remember? This is some sort of local… I mean, it’s kind of like a dream, but we’re awake, lucid. You have to realize this because it’s really going to hurt if I can’t be myself around you.”

I was astonished when the memory of what she was doing with me came rushing back, and I nearly awoke from our union. I could sense vividly in that moment that I was still in my head, but in a sort of shared mental space with her, and dimly, the sensation of her bed under me, her physical hands still clasping mine. I had to close myself off from that rather than risk breaking this incredible spell she wove between us. “Yeah… you’re right, I just forgot. But… I think I can deal with it now.” The realization quashed my amorous feelings and I began to think more sensibly.

She gave me a wistful look. “So… no cuddling, no going into… that,” she murmured, looking down to the black murk of my amnesiac wall. “Damn it, I want to! A guy from another universe? What girl would pass up a chance to explore all that? But…”

Her voice trailed to silence from the obvious consequences of breaking through that gloom. What if none of this was real? She wasn’t real? I couldn’t bear the thought of that either, and refused to consider it. I gazed down at the darkness close beneath us, with little gaps opening on occasion with tantalizing hints of my past. It really was a wasted opportunity, but I had no desire whatsoever to know anything about that reality which threatened the existence of this one, of my friends and loved ones, two in particular. Besides, I wanted to enjoy this. It was such a unique experience, but the question remained of what to do now. “I wish I knew what caused this amnesia… Resets, or what? Why? Or should I be glad this happened?”

“I know, but… now I wonder. If ATLAS did this to you on purpose, would something happen if I took you into that?”

I heaved a nervous sigh. “Gee, that’s an unpleasant thought.” And then a similar notion came to me; what if I had done this to myself? Learned that this was an un-reality, and I couldn’t handle the realization? I didn’t want to consider that, it just couldn’t be true. But even as I wrestled with my conflicted emotions, something caught my eye in the distance. In fact, a lot of somethings all around; lights gleaming in the darkness like stars, and a similar multitude of them. Had they been there all along? What a welcome distraction. She asked curiously, “Nigel, what is it?” Then she saw them herself.

“You see them too? What are they?” I asked, holding her against me in case they were something unpleasant. Why did dreams have to get so weird? But no, I was already forgetting about this mental union.

“Oh! That’s the universe,” she realized. “The world outside where we came from.”

“But… those aren’t stars, are they? What could they be?” I peered at them harder, and I could see that they were all sparkling faintly. Then a thought came to me, a frightening one. “Are those… Entities?”

We clutched each other protectively. “I… well… I don’t know.” She looked puzzled, curious, evidently trying to discern them herself. “You know what? I don’t think so… at least, not most of them. They definitely aren’t stars, and they’re something significant. Portals?” And then she brightened as something occurred to her. “What if they’re ancient stuff? Artifacts? Something to do with your quest? Or survivors? More people like Serineh and me?”

I wanted to lighten the mood and joked to her, “Maybe those are prospective boyfriends.” We enjoyed a little laugh at that, and we began to feel more comfortable about this unusual sight. I was excited over the potential. I released her, tugging on her hand, pulling us away from my vexing amnesia. “We can fly out there, can’t we? Why don’t we go look!” It didn’t occur to me that there were unimaginable distances involved. This was still too much like a dream.

“Nigel, wait,” she cautioned, and it was my turn again to get yanked back. “Maybe we shouldn’t. I mean, I’ve never gone out there because of… those Entities.”

That quelled some of my enthusiasm for a new adventure. The Entities… they were definitely out there, and who knew what else? But it was so hard, so incredibly hard to get anywhere with my Quest, I was feeling desperate to take another gamble myself. “Well… you’ll protect me though, right?”

She thought about it a moment, then gave me a lopsided smile. “Your faithful guardian Dragon… you know I will. And see? I’m flying with you! No problem, right?”

Maybe I was being overprotective, and nothing ventured, nothing gained. “All right, let’s go find something out.”

The moment we headed off, away from the boundaries of what was likely my mind, half-resting comfortably in the Infineon, we found ourselves assaulted from all directions by buzzy noise and stray chatter, lots of it, as if we were in a crowd. We clung to each other in alarm at the racket, and I tried to fathom what was going on. “What the hell? Is that… radio transmission? Data streaming?”

“I think you must be right,” she replied, then seeing how we were so close, she pushed me away, snarking, “Oh, look at you, afraid of a little noise!”

“Gee, thanks, my brave, protective Dragon,” I grumbled back, giving her a poke in her tummy that had her giggling. I tried to make something out, but it was hard to isolate anything with it all clamoring at once. I feared I was missing some important stuff, and then I made out something that caught my ear as Adjaha began to tug me along.

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(Ch 14 - still more)

“Come on, let’s—”

“Wait,” I said as I held in place, trying to focus on a voice… a girl.

“…Not sure where he went… into some void? Contacts lost him some weeks ago.” A conversation - but which voice was the reply?

“…Significance of this cannot be underestimated. The trouble which could result…”

“…Assistance with a new settlement. Sentinels are not yet a problem, but not sure how long this will be so.”

“…Continue on with your mission, and discreet, discreet! Discovery would upset all plans!” That was clearly a Gek.

“… Enough of him, what of your friend?”

“…I am not sure.” It was her again. “I believe he was following a trail of messages. The Entity… still trying to determine what and who he meant.”

“…That again… why do you insist on pursuing such unproductive matters?”

“…Keep us apprised of your findings. Do not divide your focus to the detriment of your primary goal.”

“Is a move expected soon?”

“…If you want results, you must take risks and trust your instincts.”

“Understood.” Her again. “I will make contact once I have something solid in either case. By your leave.”

“The Instrumentality has authorized this, so these are your new…”

“Too soon, we fear.”

“You would say such a thing.”

“Good hunting.”

“…Deployment of the new asset. Results will take time to bear fruit, but it is expected that significant intelligence will be acquired in time.”

“What do you make of that?”

“…Hard to say. Our eyes in the field seem to have divided loyalties and resources, her own agenda.”

“…It will not be enough. The onset of action seems unavoidable. It must be accounted for in the agenda.” That sounded rather serious.

“…Then it is suggested that… wait, I sense a detection.”

“Postpone. Closing.”

“So are you saying - oh, space, I missed that.”

“Closing.”

“…I’m saying that it will be a problem, but surmountable. We will simply deal with it when it develops.”

“Closing.”

“Closing.” There were a few more of those.

“I believe nothing more can be said on the matter, and the others seem to be ready for what comes next.”

“I agree… till next time?”

“Yes. Off.”

“Off.”

“Off.” There were a few more of those too.

“Hirk’s blood! Do none of you care out there?”

“I wouldn’t say it like that.”

“…Gave out the coordinates. I will see you all there.”

I listened a bit more, but that one discussion had apparently ended. In fact, I had no doubt listened in on a few exchanges at once, but what I overheard left me conflicted, to say the least. Some of it sounded quite ominous.

“Nigel?” Her sudden voice in that moment made me jerk, and I saw her looking to me uncertainly. “What is it?”

“Did you hear much of that?”

She gave me a shrug. “I heard a lot of stuff. Did something bother you?”

“Maybe.” I draped an arm around her, asking, “You think you could help me remember that when we wake up?”

She made a face at me. “Oh… I’ll try, but there were like a few dozen chats in that mess, and they’re still going.”

“Just the last minute or so.” I let her go and took her hand. “Let’s ignore the noise and go find some stuff.”

She was happy to get back to something less serious, or potentially so, and set off with me. And we found that there were lulls and gaps in the racket, making more of a fun journey through the ether, rather like what I faintly remembered of her Dragon flights as she sought out the quiet gaps. But it struck me as we were making some progress that I had no idea where we were. If we did go somewhere and find something, how would I know where it was in real life? The thought frustrated me, and I shouted in a fit, “Ohh, darn it… show me Euclid!”

While I didn’t really expect anything to come of it, to our amazement, something like a black veil was lifted, and the galaxy spread out all around us in all its splendor. “Wow! Nigel, you really are amazing! Teaching an old Dragon new tricks.”

“Oh, now, you’re not old,” I told her jokingly.

“I’m forty or fifty Nigels,” she chuckled, giving me a caress and a Dragony lick, which was sweet of her.

As I gazed around me in wonder at the starfield, there was the question of what I should do; hunt for something big or something close? And what would something big look like, bigger sparkles? And then as Adjaha began to urge me on, I stopped her again as I began to discern that some of these glimmers were out in empty space. “Look,” I said, pointing a few of them out to her. “They aren’t near stars. Maybe we should try them first.”

She gave me a shrug. “We could try that. But… is there a way to warp to them?”

I was about to kid her about it when I realized she had a point, remembering that I used the galactic map to warp around the galaxy, which I had forgotten. I gazed at one in disappointment, but I refused to be denied. “There has to be some way to get there. Come on, let’s see what’s so special about that thing, and if we don’t get anywhere with it, we’ll try a star system. Just be a faithful Dragon and keep me safe,” I said with a wink.

She had to laugh at that, then blurted out, “Race you there!” And like a bullet, she zoomed away.

“Why you—” I snarked back, then sped after her. I could just make out her tiny form ahead of me as stars drifted past, but to my delight, I began to gain on her. She looked back to me in amazement, and I was pretty sure she wasn’t slowing for my sake. Being a competitive snot I wanted to race ahead, but we arrived close to our goal at about the same time. We both came up short as something bothered me about it. We had traveled towards the center of the galaxy, and the memory of what was said of it made me nervous. She embraced me as she was feeling as unsettled, and I put an arm around her myself. “And here, I was kidding about your protection. Do you sense anything?”

It took her a few moments to respond. “Space is… weird here. I’m not sure why, but it’s not normal. And there’s… a presence…”

She shivered from the unknown, we both did… an Entity? And then I became aware of something else, an emotion. Proud, pretentious, disdainful… downright hateful, but old, stale, faded… from long ago? Was this some remnant of the Ancients, one of their Space Stations or Freighters out in the middle of nowhere? And whatever the source of the sparkles was, it seemed tantalizingly close, yet still very far away.

As typical of my impulsive nature, I grew impatient, and I didn’t want to linger there for long anyway in case something unfriendly became aware of us. “I’m gonna go see,” I told her, and shot off towards whatever that source was. I caught her warning me but it was a little late to turn back, or so I told myself. Then all at once, I crossed some kind of strange threshold, and I found myself zooming right at a planet circling a red star - a star system hidden from the rest of the galaxy? It wasn’t secluded by a nebula, at least not a normal one… what was this weird void!

I had no time to think, barely any to react, as it all happened in an instant. Something was there, in a place underground, and I flew through a barrier with an impact which stunned me. It was an installation of some kind, and in my brief glimpse of it I could tell that it was incredibly advanced, and big. And the sparkling object which had attracted me was right there. I knew somehow that I had better damn well leave that instant, but not before I learned something, took something… that thing, it was just within reach. Something else frightened me, a sense of something dreadful, diabolical, hidden behind formidable barriers and from long ago, but also a treasure, as dear as life itself. The fear was becoming unbearable, as if an Entity had spotted me, readying to spring some horrific trap.

In spite of the fear, something terribly, crucially important was there. I had to have something to lead me back here, to let me know anything, and that thing, it gleamed at me almost teasingly. Adjaha was there with me, telling me to go, just leave, almost frantic, but not before - I grabbed into that cloud of glimmers, felt something, pulled on it as she tugged on me hard, trying to take me back - oh, not now not now—!

There was an incredible wrenching sensation, and I plunged back into myself hard as I fell over backwards, a loud bang right in my face mingled with a bark of surprise - what the hell!

I was completely lost for a moment, unsure of where I was or what was going on, and got to my knees with fists clenched, readying for a fight, when I realized I was in Adjaha’s room, on her bed. As she climbed back up, rubbing her head with a groan, it all came flooding back, or much of it, until Seri interrupted me. “Nijol, what were you doing!

I saw that she had fallen over as we all had, in the chair she pulled up beside the bed - worried over what I was doing away from her? Jealous? That’s right, Adjaha drew me off into her bedroom to… and then my mind blazed with excitement as I remembered more of the experience. We had been meditating - and what an experience! It was like waking from a dream, as it unfolded in layers and it was amazing. Adjaha interrupted me next as she exclaimed, echoing my thought, “Wow… you got that thing - brought it back too! What an adventure!”

Adventure?” Seri asked dubiously.

She was looking between us, but I was drawn to an object on the bed, some sort of piece of technology, like a data cartridge or processor or something, in a black case… what the flaming black hole hell? That memory unfolded next, and I shivered as the significance of it overwhelmed me. I was practically dizzy from it. I had been… somewhere, in a cloaked star system, at an installation of some kind, and I had just pilfered this from it! “Oh, my God… Adjaha, what did I do… how! Where did we go?”

Go?” Seri grumbled again, though I was still a little slow on the uptake.

Adjaha shook her head in wonder. “I dunno. This is the first time I did this with anyone else… I have no idea. But as usual, you’re amazing!”

Mr Amazing was derailed just then as Seri interrupted. “This? What were you doing? Together?” She sounded accusing, and I withered a bit as I recalled that some of it was embarrassing. Very embarrassing, and I realized that I had a lot of careful explaining to do. Very careful.

Fortunately, Adjaha rescued us. “Oh now, Seri, take it easy. I was just trying to help Nigel get over his amnesia. We didn’t get anywhere with that, but he did help me get over him.” I wasn’t sure how accurate that was - but no, for her it probably was. And I did feel different myself, recalling dimly what it was like to immerse myself in her mind, her very essence.

Seri asked probingly, “Get over him?” She didn’t sound too sure about that.

Adjaha waved her off. “Oh, you know… asiliq.” That seemed to satisfy her, at least a bit. The girl continued excitedly, “Then, we went somewhere in a kind of spooky adventure, and Nigel… did something, and this thing appeared! That’s when we came out of it.”

I picked up the item in question. It felt warm but was cooling as I held it. There was a casing of very hard plastic, and embedded in the material were glyphs of a language I hadn’t seen before. I had no idea what I had in my possession, though the potential had me quivering with excitement. But how in the world could I find out what it was?

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(Ch 14 - get used to it)

“You… took my man… out there?” Seri wasn’t amused by the girl’s story, and her expression was one of outrage. “You cursed fools… are you both insane? There are… devils out there! Nijol, you saw one - could have died from it!” She looked ready to explode, raising her hand to the girl who cringed back. But she turned on me, delivering a hard slap to my face. As I blinked the stars away, she growled, “You! You are always to blame for such foolishness! Always taking mad risks for the sake of your cursed Quest! With no thought of the one who loves you! And you!” She turned on poor Adjaha again who cringed back, afraid she was going to be punished likewise. “Helping him do foolish things like that… oh you… you… neka kesaret edirsan!

She looked close to tears, so I thought it was about time for some Nijol therapy. I reached for her, saying in a soft tone, “Honey, come on, let’s—”

“Do not honey me! This is not a honey thing!” she exclaimed, standing firm. Thank heaven I didn’t laugh.

“Darling,” I murmured, reaching for her hand, and after a moment of resistance she gave it to me, though she was still seething. “Listen… we weren’t in that much danger. Even I could sense that. And Adjaha is a very powerful being… a Dragon. She would have done whatever it took to keep me safe.”

“Y-you… idiot,” she grumbled, beginning to quiver, and the sight of her in this state crushed me. “Dragging her into such… much dangers. The risks you both took… made her take, I’m sure of it… you treat us like children… saying things, making promises… then do what you want anyway… without thinking of how much it hurts us… hurts me… oh, Nijol…” I gathered her in my arms, though I feared I was pushing it as she growled at me. Then she embraced me in return, pressing her hands into my back. “You wonderful… terrible husband… how am I going to survive you, when you won’t listen to me?”

Her embrace became tighter, possessive, and I hugged her as warmly, patting her back. “Sweet heart, I’ll try to listen to you more, but… I have to do these dangerous things that drive you crazy, or nothing will ever change, and people like you that are still out there are going to suffer and… and…” I couldn’t bring myself to say it, heaving an anguished sigh. What a predicament, and I felt overwhelmed. “I just can’t let that happen to them… anymore Seris, suffering like that.”

She gave me a melancholy sigh, pressing her muzzle into my neck. “You mad… huneri… the courage of a king, but the heart of a child, and as foolish.” She held me tightly for a moment as she swallowed down her angst. “And your words… how I hate them sometimes, but… they are so true, Mr Diplomat. If you would only let me be there, with you… help you… my precious, childish warrior…”

I still didn’t know what I would decide on that, if I could bring myself to let them accompany me. Another dreadful predicament. I stroked her hair softly, murmuring, “We’ll see, we’ll see.”

She gave a faint growl at that. “You terrible diplomat… one hand gives to me, then the other takes away. You make me so crazy. I fear I will see nothing.”

“Nijol… Seri?” Adjaha was giving us a forlorn look, her cheeks wet with tears, and reached for us. “Hey… I… need a hug too…” I just began to reach for her when she threw her arms around us both, crying piteously. “Seri… menim gozal sevgim… chox teassuf ediram!” I really needed to schedule some Ishadi lessons sometime, so I at least had a clue what they were saying, though in this case I had an inkling.

Seri giggled in surprise as she embraced the poor girl. “Adjaha, why are you crying?”

“I don’t know! I’m just so sorry!” she wailed. That had us both laughing, and eventually, she did too.

After a lengthy group hug, we peeled off of each other. Adjaha wanted to be with us from the looks of it, and while I did too, we both knew that Seri deserved some alone time with me. And she really wanted to be alone, grabbing me by the free hand, and dragged me to our room. She slammed the door shut, which I don’t think she meant to, but she did mean to throw me against the wall, planting her hands on either side of me. I reached over to set my loot down on the computer desk in case things got more… vigorous. Then much to my surprise, she took my earlobe in a tender bite, saying through it, “Sho… jusht what did she mean by getching over you?”

“Now honey - darling,” I hissed gingerly, “I kind of use that… sometimes.”

“I am uzhing it now,” she remarked dryly. “Tchell me.”

This would have to be done delicately with my excitable wife, as her bites could be formidable. So giving it my best shot, I danced around a few incriminating scenes to explain how she took me into her psyche to explore my lost memories, and along the way, how we felt rather close. And me carrying on as if it was a dream, I toyed with her which she was more responsible about, and it helped that she knew fully that this was all real - and yes, it was about this awkward. You try explaining a situation this embarrassing to a jealous and somewhat feral spouse. It was much too easy to feel how tense some of this made her, but at the end of it, when I finally told her how Adjaha took me into her very soul and we sorted things out, she released her bite and glared at me. “So… now you both are finally done with all this… zehlatoken? Teasing of me?”

That sounded promising, considering how she looked. “Well, honey, that’s the idea.”

Honey, again,” she growled, and pushed me back against the wall. Seeing my computer in the corner of my eye, I hoped Tesky was giving us a moment of privacy because this could be a sensitive moment, particularly for me if I wasn’t careful. I began to offer her something but she cut me off. “Silent.” She took my earlobe in her teeth again, and I wondered just how I was going to diffuse any lingering anger from her, but presently, I withered as she began to suckle it. This was definitely a welcome sign, and felt way too good, my arms slipping between hers as we embraced. In time, she released my lobe, saying with a husky voice in my ear, “Please… ma shirin… stop using that word as a shield. I want it to be a sweet word… I want to be your honey, only.”

She giggled as I gave her ear a nibble. “I’ll try, darling… honey… but I promise, you’ll always be my sweet one.” It felt like Adjaha might be outside at the door, but if she was, she had enough sense to leave us alone. If she peeked me, this time I didn’t mind.

As my wife dozed afterwards, I rose from her, making her squirm and moan. I stood at the bedside and gazed at her longingly for a time. So alien, and yet so beautiful, down to her soul. If I left her, left them, I would be desperately lonely, and it would hurt. Well… now for why I rose.

I went to the computer desk, waking it, and whispered with some excitement, “Tesky, come in!”

He chuckled quietly, “I read you, Nijol.” I was still adjusting to that sense of humor.

I held up my prize to the camera. “Do you see this?”

I didn’t even get to the explanation as he said, “Oh! So that is the object you retrieved during your astral projection? I beg your pardon for eavesdropping on the conversation, but it piqued my curiosity. That is… fascinating, as is the fact that the entire event is possible at all.”

“What do you make of it?” I hoped he had an answer for me.

“A data cartridge, a processor, a subsystem perhaps? I suspect you have concluded the same.”

“Yeah… I just hoped you had something more definite,” I moped.

“I would know for certain, if I had an interface board made for it, and/or a scanner…” he said leadingly.

“I’ll get right on that,” I told him, and went on a quick jog in my briefs to the ship’s Engineer, which raised a few Vy’keen brow, not the least of which was his. “Ensign Hafhar, I need an interface made for this.” I handed over the cartridge.

He turned it over in his hands, giving it a close look. The glyphs on the casing puzzled him, and the edge connector made him frown. “What is it? What are the specs?”

I was afraid he would ask that, and I drawled out, “I… dunno.”

He handed it back. “Too hazardous for it. For old tech, you should consult a Korvax—” He gave a meaningful pause.

“Then I need a portable scanner with an interface to my computer,” I told him.

He replied, turning to his terminal, “I was about to suggest.”

Within a half hour, Tesky was scanning happily away. “I will let you know when I know something definite.”

“I can’t ask for more than that,” I replied with a grin, then turned back to my wife, still drowsing on the bed. I slipped out of my clothes, murmuring, “And a little privacy, please?” I saw that he was ahead of me and the screen was off. Such an adroit friend. I just wanted to rest with her, but intimacy was intimate, and if I left her, this would be all I had of her for a while. Perhaps many whiles.


Had I lost my mind? I was beginning to wonder. I gave in, and took them with me. Lord, what an adventure…

I couldn’t refuse them. I tried sneaking off, but they caught sight of me, or Adjaha peeked me when I wasn’t around to admire her, darn that teenage curiosity, and they both pounced me before I could get away. They grabbed me and cried something awful, then alternated between tears and angry tirades - good girl, bad girl? Needless to say, they quickly wore me out, which immediately changed their mood like a switch had been thrown. If only I could have had some assertiveness lessons, but did any exist dealing with manipulative teenagers? Was such a thing even possible? Considering how the First Spawn Empire fell, I somehow doubted it.

So, suited up and course plotted for a distant star system, we set off. I had no idea whether this would bear fruit or not, but how was this different from any other time? I was counting on that knack thing working in my favor.

I can’t even remember the name of the star system we arrived in as it was the typical jumble of syllables, but we went to the station and landed after two slots opened up for us. Despite the fact there were only four other ships there, the place was surprisingly full of the Three Races going about their business. As usual, there were Travelers too, and one which looked rather like Artemis began hitting on Adjaha, which irritated me at first. But I had to check myself; wasn’t that what we both wanted? I was surprised through when she remarked, “No, I’m with Nijol, there.” Seri huffed irritably, muttering something in Ishadi which was no doubt rude and hurried me along. Then a Traveler girl caught my eye who looked surprisingly ravishing in a flowing irridescent gown, which earned me a tender ear bite from my wife, who grumbled hotly, “Can I not take you anywhere, you letch?” That was much too embarrassing, and troubled me. Was I a chronic sinner?

I tried to distract myself with something safer and went to the Guild stations, where I was amazed to find that they were all staffed with one of the Three Races. I had to make note of this system as it was the first sign of true cooperation among the three peoples. Were things finally improving in Euclid?

I went to the Merchant desk staffed with a Gek, of course, where I was immediately chastised. “What have you been doing for months? Nothing… shameful, shiftless! You must work more to earn favor.” I wasn’t sure that informing him that I was busy hunting ancient treasures and lore would please him, so I scrambled to think of some deflection. As I was doing my best to schmooze, there was a commotion at the Multitool booth, where to my chagrin I saw Adjaha making a fuss, and Seri beside her, both surrounded by a few grumpy bystanders. I was beginning to regret taking them with me at this point, wondering what trouble she was stirring up. “He won’t give me a discount!” she cried, which had half of them laughing, the others deriding her. Where on Earth had she come up with that notion? My online shopping? Well, that’s not how things worked here, and I began to go over to disarm the situation, when I noticed little clumps of bystanders giving us wary looks. I did my best to listen discreetly to what they were discussing, and it wasn’t easy, but it had nothing to do with Adjaha’s disturbance. Evidently they were treasure hunters too, and seemed to be afraid that I was going to beat them to some unique find.

That was all I needed to overhear, and grabbed Adjaha by the hand, pulling her and Seri away from the mess with a brief half-hearted apology cast after us. She protested, “But I didn’t get my discount!”

“They don’t give discounts, and you don’t have any money anyhow,” I muttered, which silenced her. “Now come on, we have to beat all these people to a discovery.”

A discovery?” she exclaimed, which I tried to caution down.

Yes, and it must be something big to have all these people chasing after it. And we won’t have a chance to beat anyone if you don’t keep quiet about it,” I told her in a hushed but stern voice she clearly didn’t like. Teenagers… I thought they were well versed in keeping secrets. I guess it was their secrets…

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(Ch 14 - still going strong)

So I hurried but didn’t to our ships and set off for the nearest world that looked remotely suitable for treasure hunting. It was named something like Pleasant Valleys, which sounded dubious to me as it looked rather barren from this distance, and listed a number of deposits which sounded more suitable for an unpleasant environ. But as we drew closer, flecks of green became aparent under the clouds, and large bodies of water to boot, so maybe this would be a pleasant world after all. On the way though, there was a bump against the side of my ship, and I was irritated to see the Shuttle headed towards me for another friendly collision. I swerved aside and radioed them to knock it off, but the two girls merely laughed at me. “What is the matter, brave Traveler?” Seri chided. “Are you having the troubles handling a mere girl?

“I’m going to handle you,” I replied in a warning tone. “Now quit it and fly right! And replenish your shields in case of real trouble.”

“My shields… replenish?” she asked uncertainly. Good grief, had I forgotten to teach her about that? I thought I had, but maybe it slipped my mind. In any case, I gave them a quick lesson on restoring ship’s systems. Thank heaven I had enough sense to stock the ships with essential resources.

We settled down in one of Pleasant Valley’s namesake hollows and disembarked, and the world proved to be quite lovely, if gaudy, with lots of red and orange foliage among the blue flora. It seemed safe enough, so I permitted taking off our helmets. To my dismay, Adjaha began brandishing her Multitool all around, and darn if Seri had to follow suit. “Girls… for pete’s sake,” I groaned, “don’t go around threatening and shooting everything in sight. The Sentinels don’t like it when—” As if on cue, one of the orange Drones shined its scanner cone in my face, and uncomfortably close. I swatted it spinning away and grumbled, “Buzz off!” The girls laughed as it whined indignantly at me, and I brandished my own Multitool at it, muttering, “Don’t try my patience, pal. This is turning out to be a weird day, and I’m in a mood.” I doubted what I said meant anything to it, but it calmed down and whirred off to examine the same mundane things it had for the zillionth time.

I scanned over the area, trying to ignore the usual clutter of insignificant items. Sentinels - quite a few Sentinels, darn it; salt, lots of salt deposits, copper and ferrous outcroppings, radioactives; Knowledge Stones, and I wondered what race had called Pleasant home… it was the usual stuff I usually filtered out. I was disappointed that nothing of interest jumped out at me. But then as I continued turning slowly, Unknown Building popped up in the display and I thought eureka, at least I hoped. Maybe this would be a quick run for some loot, and we could make a clean getaway before some Vy’keen or Gek thought about going Pirate on us, or the rare Korvax. “Wait here—” I began, then chafed as I saw I was alone. I hadn’t specifically ordered the girls to stay close, but I assumed that on a strange planet, it was common sense to be within range of the one with the firepower to keep us all safe. Silly me. “Uhh… girls,” I radioed, “where are you?”

“We have just gone a short ways,” Seri replied. “We saw some beautiful flowers, and wanted to see them, perhaps collect a few.”

I prayed that allergies didn’t result, but my luck had been good on that point so far. “Fine, just stay out of trouble.” I cut myself short before I mentioned heading for a point of interest in case it proved dangerous, which had happened more than a few times. There was no way in hell I was going to chance one of my bad dreams of the girls coming true.

I jet-boosted to the top of a hill overlooking a neighboring valley, and felt a chill at the sight through the trees; from this distance it resembled one of the Abandoned Outposts. Still I urged myself to head for it, as knowing my knack for making discoveries, there might be something there meant to be found by a certain intrepid would-be hero. I felt much better as it resolved in my approach to be a simple decrepit building. I presumed that it must be a dwelling rather than something more significant because it lacked the usual adornments of such, like Knowledge Stones. There was smoke wafting from within which made me mistake it for an Outpost. Peeking inside, I saw a central fire pit, but what was smoldering was a stove which smelled of burned dinner. Great, someone couldn’t stand the stink of their own cooking and abandoned it, some discovery. I called around, but there was no answer. I noticed that in the chamber was also one of the green locked crates which was easy enough to open. Inside, I found some books, a few articles of clothing which seemed to be Gek sized, and some parchments. Looking them over curiously, I became interested as the top one listed off a number of crafting items.

5 units of athekla meat - whatever that was
3 tranis bulbs
2 spoons of pleasure spice… what the heck was this?

Skimming down the list, it struck me that I was reading a cooking recipe! Great, some solo explorer’s cook notes, and if the stink coming from the stove was any indication, they weren’t much of a cook. I wondered idly what pleasure steak was like. But then I caught a notation at the bottom of the page:

Taken from “Cooking recipes of the Ancients” - hard to find these days, but head to system

I had to stop reading because my hands were shaking from excitement. My first clue to an Oameni homeworld! Ohh, my God, this was incredible! I could hardly contain myself.

I didn’t have much time to celebrate as a frantic voice called out in my speakers. “What is that!”

“I don’t know, but it’s angr - OW!

“We should deal with this ourselves, prove that - but more are coming!”

Great, the girls were in trouble from something bad, my worst fear. Thank God their mics were set to trigger on loud voices. I cast a look back over my shoulder at the insignificant stash which was now so significant, promising to return, and jet-boosted to the top of the hill to scan for them. I put my helmet back on and called to them, “Where are you!”

“Nijol? We can deal with this - ow, it hurts!

I was growing frantic, but I spotted their indicators - seven hundred units away? How the hell did they get so far! - but never mind that. I launched myself up in the air and leaned forward till almost all my thrust was pushing me towards them. Below me, my progress seemed an agonizing crawl. Fortunately I had the presence of mind to watch my boost gauge and landed before I had another painful drop to the ground. Upon landing I dashed forward, and with my upgrades I was quite fast, but not fast enough to give me any comfort. “What the hell did you do—? Never mind! Get to shelter and hide! I’m coming!”

Whatever they were dealing with, they were much too busy with it, and they sounded like they were really suffering. I ran as fast as I possibly could, and then jet-boosted again the moment the juice bar was full. It took way too long to reach them, but in my last boost I caught sight of the wayward pair. If I wasn’t frantic before, I was now as they were in the midst of some kind of swarm, fighting back desperately. As I flew within range, my heart nearly failed me as they resembled Earth’s hornets, but much, much larger. I tried to get a lock on some of them to fire as I came in to land, but called that off as I feared I would inadvertently hit one of the girls, and my Multitools were deadly. The best bug zapper I had was the Scatter Blaster, which I began to fire on the ones buzzing around further out from the pair. Thank heaven they splattered to pieces, and as I landed I kept firing relentlessly on them. Damn, there were a lot of these bastards, and they were causing grievous wounds to the girls who didn’t have the protections offered by a Traveler suit. Why oh why couldn’t I safeguard the ones I loved!

One of the beasts landed on Seri, seizing her with it’s sharp spiny legs, and she gave a squeal of terror. I smashed into it with my pistol, dislodging it, and shot it to pieces. Adjaha was in a similar plight, trying to swat a trio of them away. I warned her, managing to get clear shots on them, and did away with the pests. I screamed at the top of my lungs, “Get down, get down! Between my legs if you can!” I was nearly as frazzled as when attacking the demon-god’s minions, and had a moment of fear that they might be as well. The girls did just as they were ordered, thank God, and I began pumping round after round of lethal pellets into the swarm of giant bugs without mercy. My suit afforded me good protection, but damn if their attacks weren’t wearing it down!

I reloaded more than once as the magazine emptied, and had to fend them off as the ammo refilled. And then to my dismay, I inadvertently shot a Sentinel Drone drifting up to investigate the carnage. Oh, this was just perfect! And no way to apologize for the incident, so it began firing indiscriminately at me. It did in a few of the giant hornets itself, but that was no comfort compared to what would come of it. I focused on the bugs first, letting the Drone whittle down a few more of them, and managed to finish them off quickly with the little bot’s help. The poor girls had to endure all this as they cowered on the ground, whimpering and squealing in fear. Then after an agonizingly long reload in which I took a number of shots, I blasted the orange devil to scrap, ignoring the tumbling cylinder which popped out of the remains.

I reached down to help the suffering girls to their feet, hugging Seri tight. Adjaha wasn’t about to be left out of that and embraced me too. I told them as I pushed out of their embrace, “Come on girls, we have to leave. Right now.”

My heart withered as Seri looked badly wounded, but what she said left me aghast. “Leave? But, Nijol… we just arrived, and you have treasure to—”

“No no no, that Sentinel called others, and they’ll be here really soon - and they won’t be happy,” I interrupted. “Now get your helmets on and—”

“They’re here, they’re here!” Adjaha cried, pointing, and I cringed as it was a big troop, including those doglike Rovers with much deadlier weapons. Their misplaced priorities infuriated me, putting monster bugs over sentient life.

“Helmets on, behind the trees! Now now now!” I exclaimed, as they responded much too slowly. Hadn’t I warned them about Sentinels? What else had I forgotten! Before the squad of Drones got within range, I began firing on them with the Boltcaster, and with its expanded magazine I was able to dispatch them one after the other. But this allowed the trio of “hounds” to get in range to begin raking me with their deadly beams, and they hurt. The two girls were growing frantic as the fiery energy tagged me again and again. I had no intention of wasting time with them and switched to Plasma Grenades, launching one at a pair that were together, and then another to the third. The explosions were loud and sharp and quite gratifying, the armor and internal systems of the Rovers blasted to shreds. As they crumpled to the ground and I worked to replenish my systems, panting from all this effort, I called to the girls, “Come on… we’re going.” But there was an ominous weird beeping coming from one of the bots, and I didn’t like it. I could almost swear it sounded like aid, assistance. “Go, now!” I shouted, as they were still slow, or wounded. I winced in sympathy, but I knew we had to leave and right then. As I was grabbing Adjaha by the hand, she pointed with the other, exclaiming, “What’s that!

I looked and nearly faltered. It was the biggest Walker I had ever seen, and in the sky above, a Sentinel Cruiser was just visible, lurking over the area with its dreadful mass. ATLAS had been busy with upgrades, most likely due to my previous victories. “Back to the trees! Go!” I ordered urgently, and ran forward to deal with this goliath. I felt like a tiny David before it, as there was no cover between us, as if that would have been any help. It wasted no time to face its puny opponent, training its own orange death ray along the ground toward me, and when it swept me over it hurt like hell. The girls could see this plainly, and began screaming at me. I really didn’t need the distraction, switching from the Boltcaster as it was no use against that thick armor, but what was! I tried the Blaze Javelin, but I wasn’t sure it was any more effective than my Mining Beam. The deadliest upgrade at my disposal was the Plasma Grenade, but I had to get a lot closer to have a hope of reaching the behemoth. Then as I began to dash forward, I felt someone holding me back - Seri? What the hell!

“No, no! Please my love, just run!” she wailed, and to make things even worse, Adjaha held me fast herself, bawling over my wife.

Just as I began to fight my way out of their grasp, I watched in horror as the massive Walker extended a launch tube in our direction. There was a dreadful reverberant thuum from the barrel, and a large glowing orb arced towards us. Oh my God, we were all going to die and there would be nothing left… no no no… God please, NO!

I could only watch in helpless shock as that terrible sphere came directly at us. The blast was deafening, and painful, and final, and I lurched up in my bed… and I lay back down, my heart pounding. What a terrible dream. As I lay there, gradually calming myself, I wondered if it was a warning. Could it merely be the culmination of my fears? Right then, it didn’t seem like it.

It was night time and everyone was in bed with me, again, though in that moment I was grateful. Even Sucky rested at our feet. My precious babies… could I somehow make them understand that I needed them back here, where it was as safe as anywhere in the universe? Except for the Anomaly, which was a thought. But I didn’t want to think right then, I wanted to love my girls in a quiet, safe moment. I wanted to love my wife, really wanted to love her, though that wasn’t happening tonight with Adjaha there. Besides she was sleeping soundly, and I wanted her to enjoy that blessing.

I draped my arm around Adja on my left, and she stirred against me. I really should lay down the law on her soon about this, but right then, I was happy to enjoy the moment. “Whatsamatter?” she mumbled sweetly.

“Just bugging you for taking advantage of your adopted dad - again,” I replied, giving her forehead a kiss. She giggled and snuggled more against me. Teenagers… a Dragon teenager at that. Centuries old Dragon teenager who really should know better. What was an adoptive father to do? One which was more like an older cousin? Sleep eluded me, for a while…

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(Ch 14 - a bit more)

And I only slept for a short while. I was too restless from my previous dream debacle. As I stared at the inside of my eyeballs, the dark blur resolved itself into an image of the girls hugging me in desperation as a deadly mortar plummeted towards us. And I resolved something myself, peeling out of the bed carefully, but there was no way to be careful enough to avoid rousing the trio slumbering with me. I managed to rise, awkwardly, doing my best to not disturb Adjaha too much, and she reached for me, brushing her hand across my belly. The touch of her fingers was much too sweet. My heart withered as I cursed my fate, presenting me with a difficult choice. I leaned down as she began to mumble something and kissed her cheek, then gave it a lick which made her giggle. “Hush, dear, I’m just going to the bathroom.”

“Go for me too,” she murmured with a smile, such a pretty smile. I shouldn’t look at it too long.

I came around the bed and paused beside my wife. My precious wife, my beautiful wife, my treasure. Knowing that she was likely still partly awake, I leaned down and gave her a kiss too, stroking her hair softly. She licked into my mouth as I began to say something, and I couldn’t resist a much deeper kiss, both of us moaning into it. When I broke it, she murmured in a darling, breathy voice, “Sevgilim, sevgilim… xahish ediram, məni hech vax tərk etmeh… please, my love… my precious one… be with me, always…”

I wanted to cry, replying haltingly, “Honey… I’m in your soul, forever.”

She smiled faintly, mumbling something in Ishadi, finishing with, “…Within you, where you belong… within me, and at my side.”

I nodded, though she wouldn’t see it. “Forever and always.”

I went to the restroom because I did need to relieve myself, and when my business was done, I went to my computer and whispered as softly as I could, “Tesky, I have to go. I leave you in charge of things, to do as you see fit.”

He replied almost instantly, softly. “I understand your decision. Take care, extra care. You have loved ones to return to, as well as myself, and adventures you must share.”

“Yeah, I definitely do.” I stroked the frame of the screen fondly. “I’ll miss you. If only I could take you with me.”

“As long as your vessel is in contact with the Infineon, I will be with you, in essence.”

That had me blinking in surprise. Sometimes, I truly was a clod. “Wow, that’s true… and listen, explain this to the girls as best you can.”

He was less than receptive to the idea. “I… may, though that sort of thing is best handled by you.”

“Yeah, I suppose you’re right. Pardon me if I still try to punt.”

He chuckled softly, which was still amazing to hear. “Your humor is… something else. I will miss it, though only in part. Again, take care, and may the God be with you.”

I gave him a melancholy smile. “Thanks, that means a lot to me. Till next.”

“Till next, my dear friend.”

It saddened me that I hadn’t said something similar to him, and whispered, “One of my best friends in the universe.” He responded with a little thumbs up icon. Typing as softly as I could, I left a brief parting message.

Seri, my love, I had to leave. I had to. I just had a bad dream, and they can come true. Please don’t be mad. Understand that your safety is the most important thing in the universe to me, and Adjaha’s. You are both my treasures. So is Sucky. ;D

You have my love and devotion, now and forever. Your husband, if you still desire me,

~ Nigel

I hoped it didn’t sound inadvertently snarky to her. I saved it in case, and shut the computer down, not knowing what they would make of that note, or when they would see it. They would know soon enough. I collected my uniform and suit, pausing to gaze at the trio asleep in my bed. Sucky seemed to know something was up with his more-or-less owner, looking at me with a little growl. I gave him a smirk, coming close to rub his somewhat pointed head. “Yeah, I’ll miss you too, you furry freak. Be good.” He gave me a contented yawn and curled back up, letting me know it was enough of a goodbye. I lingered at the door, gazing at my singularly unusual family. I loved them more than I could say. When would I see them again? This room? How would I be welcomed back? This hurt. Really, truly hurt.

Damn. Damn it to Hell.

The rest of it was an unhappy blur. I set up another few layers of missions for the Frigates. I told the watch that I was going on an exploration trip of indeterminate duration, which they accepted out of habit. I dumped all the unnecessary cargo from Star Sword and took on everything I would need to keep it running indefinitely, including a good load of fuel. I debated installing that E Class upgrade in the Infineon, which I kept forgetting, but something held me back. Its range was already incredible, and I still had no idea what this was. Maybe it wasn’t meant for this Freighter. I knew I would find out, in time.

With a heart that felt like lead, I embarked, watching the massive flat bulk of the Infineon with its few ships in tow as it receded into the distance, until I was far enough away to jump. I felt like a damned traitor. I hadn’t cried so much in a while. Damn… damn it to Hell.


I had an itinerary, after a fashion. It was highly dependent on how this first trip worked out, and I knew it was going to be a crap shoot, so I had no shortage of contingencies. With as wide open a mission as exploring everything I could in the Euclid Galaxy in a desperate hunt for clues, that was a given. The one thing I dreaded was the first message from Seri, and that was a constant ache in my gut. But, choices have consequences…

I arrived in the Matsial-Toig system and stopped at the station to settle myself, as I still felt like an outlaw. Ascending to the shop level, I meant to check out the upgrade booths to see what was on offer, as well as the junk dealer. Who knew what I might find? What I didn’t expect to see took a few seconds to register. There was the usual sparse crowd of the Three Races going about their business, chatting in small groups or consulting trade terminals for deals. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a flash of bright whitish fabric, and when it occurred to me to look, I was astonished. It was a Traveler - specifically, that very Traveler woman I encountered in my dream, dressed in a gown of flowing silken fabrics, with hair cascading quite seductively over her right shoulder. She noticed I was gawking at her and approached me with a smile, and spoke in a voice as smooth as her dressing. “Greetings, fellow Traveler. We have not met, but I now remedy that. What is your name?”

“Nate-Nigh-Noh—” I fumbled out, making me feel like an idiot. I cleared my throat but was still a bit flustered. “Fox… Nigel Fox. And you are, my lady?”

“I am called Eliseth,” she replied in that cultured voice with a polite smile at my fluster. “But you may call me Elise. My good man.” She gave me a gracious bow, and I returned it as it occurred to me she must be a bit embarrassed at my focused attention, with a tinge of color in her cheeks.

“The name is as lovely as the girl bearing it,” I said to her, bringing for a bit more color and a musical laugh.

“Oh my… you flatterer,” she murmured shyly. “You sound as if a man on the hunt for a mate.”

“Well… sort of,” I replied in a stiff voice, an inner one accusing me, but I didn’t want to spoil the mood with technicalities. Besides, what could result from a brief encounter with dimensional boundaries to separate us? “I have to wonder about you. I’ve never seen a Traveler damsel out of uniform like this, and certainly, not so lovely. Are you… similarly inclined?”

“Goodness, you speak as a spinner of prose, luring women into your web,” she observed with a smile which warmed my heart. “You have the advantage, my man. And… you may be correct on that. I am… open, and wish to find someone on my current plane. Are you… able to trans-jump to universe 186138765404?”

That left me blinking, and feeling a bit hollow. How in the world do these beings identify their dimensions so precisely! And what was trans-jumping? Those were something else I needed to find out, as well as just what those digits signified. Oh, but she asked me a question. “Uhmm… I am afraid not, my lady, and that thought saddens me.”

She gave a disappointed hum as her eyes wandered me over. “Such a pity. It would bring me much satisfaction to… know you more fully. Even if I meet one like you, I know that all are singular, and there will never be another Nigel Fox. But, perhaps as with all things, this is meant to be, and you are destined for another…” She added with a sigh, “Pity.”

Considering the number of Travelers I had met somewhat like her, it surprised me how she was gushing over me, though it felt good. Really Good. Then again, she was a rare girl to me too. What a shame, to be isolated from each other like this…

It struck me as she gave me a giggle that I’d said that out loud, and it made me blush. “Truly, friend Nigel. Come, though… let us share credentials. Perhaps this boundary will not separate us entirely before the Last Days.” Goodness, what an ominous thought.

She drew forth a tablet as I was lost in my head, and then it hit me what she was doing. “Oh! Yes, right…” I muttered as I gave her my own.

“An American… you are a singular man, friend Nigel.” Stowing her tablet, she gave me a wistful look. “Singular, to a fault. But… I fear I am keeping you from your business here, and you have quite a reputation from what I have discovered.”

That wasn’t true, but just as I was about to say so, I had to check myself. “Yesss… I am afraid so, my lady, but… perhaps we will meet again. Perhaps soon.”

“Perhaps,” she murmured, sliding a finger along her cheek. Then she reached out her hand, holding her palm up to me. “Could we, perhaps… touch, in spirit?”

I nodded with a smile, removing my right glove, and held my hand up to her image, just crossing that plane. She blinked, as did I, as I felt a sensation on my palm. She smiled from it, letting her hand drift through my torso, which gave me a similar thrill. “Fare well, dear Nigel… you delightful scoundrel.” With that, she turned to go, her eyes lingering on me as she departed.

I wasn’t sure what to make of that, but it sounded wonderful. As I began to move away, I ran right into a large, sturdy frame; a Vykeen, who turned from his friends to face me. Seeing the Traveler drifting off, her eyes still on me, he slapped me away from him. “If you want to stare at a skinny woman, do it where you stand!” he growled.

“My apologies,” I said meekly, backing away from them. And thanks to my offense, the spell was broken, and a lot of things hit me at once, and hit hard. I wasn’t just an idiot, I was a damned fool, a letcherous fool, and there was a lot more. I wanted to get back to my business here to get that encounter out of my system. But the guilt of it wouldn’t let me go, particularly when I kept looking at Elise, deliberately. A lot.

I went through the upgrade shops, but nothing caught my eye, though I barely paid them any attention. My mind was still mulling a lot of things over, and my heart. The junk dealer managed to pull me out of my daze, as he offered a ship’s scanner upgrade that I didn’t quite grasp for a moment, until I focused. “Wait, wait… so this upgrade enables my ship to… scan and retain significant locations?”

“Yes! That! Big ones, small ones!” the Vy’keen exclaimed. “You want it?”

“Hell yes I want it!” I blurted out. “How much?”

“One thousand tainted metal.”

That stopped me dead. What the hell was tainted metal? When was it ever a currency? Was it unique to this sector? I wracked my brain for any hint of a memory of the phrase, but I came up blank. He was waiting expectantly for the transaction I couldn’t make. “I, uhh… don’t want to sound like a cub, but what is tainted metal?”

He stared at me harder, as if I was being stupid. “You… find it on derelicts, Freighters. You have none?” He sounded incredulous.

I was completely lost over this, and confessed, “I never saw any.” But this begged a question which suddenly sprang to mind. “When did we start trading with it?”

When? Uhh…” The question caught him off guard, and as I suspected, he shifted from condescension to confusion, looking as bewildered as I felt. “We just… do.”

That damned Reset! I thought to myself. I wondered what else was different, what other obstacles and hurdles would I be facing. I really wanted that upgrade, but tried not to sound desperate. “Look… I really have to get going. I don’t have time to hunt down a derelict to raid. How many units would it take to buy that?”

“Units?” He made a face at me as if I was offering him a handful of gravel, but he mulled it over more seriously, seeing that I was serious myself. “Two hundred big ones.”

Two hundred thousand. While I could afford that easily, I knew this game had to be played. “Two hundred… thousand?

He folded his arms at me, the case of the upgrade held in his fingers teasingly. “You have no tainted metal. That stuff costs. But… wait, I want a nice lunch too. One hundred more.” He gave me a quizzical look.

It was a good thing he mentioned a meal, because three hundred big ones would have been presumptuous, even if I could easily pay it. I huffed a breath, rubbed my face, and looked a bit put off for a moment, then told him, “Good.”

As I traveled over to the other side of the bay where the Guild Stations were, I mulled the unit over in its black casing, as well as what this mini-adventure implied. At the beginning of this mad diary, I wrote, the universe has changed. It changed again in some very drastic ways. Upgrades failing to work as they used to. A whole new barter currency written into the fabric of society, apparently without anyone’s awareness, especially not mine. What else had changed, and were any for the better?

I went to the Merchant’s Guild station, initially receiving a warm greeting. But then he looked my account over. “Hmm… you have been idle, Traveler friend.”

“What have you been doing? Nothing? Shameful, egreblad! You must work more to earn favor!”

I nearly jumped out of my skin, staring at the indignant Gek beside me as if he were a ghost. That was two elements from my dream within minutes of each other, as literal as could be! I gaped at the other stations, half expecting to see other races manning them, but they were all Vy’keen. However, the universe had changed. Was there a place where they all got along as equals? Something else to find out.

The Vy’keen waved him off. “It is a small matter, though we would like to see you more engaged. Still, you are due a bonus for your status and past deeds.” He transferred over two thousand nanites, which was greatly appreciated, and gave me a thumbs up.

I wondered if the new currency might be a part of that bounty at some point, and something else along those lines. “How do I get tainted metal?”

He puffed a breath at me. “That stuff? Found in derelicts, and likely you must fight for it. But sometimes it is a reward from some hire in payment. Not that often, though.” I expressed my gratitude and hurried to my ship to try fitting my new upgrade. While it installed without incident, it required a surprising amount of chromatic metal that would need to be replaced. At the terminal it wasn’t cheap, but I could afford any amount of it.

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(Ch 14 - getting there)

Planet Irfeld was my next target, and it was currently on the other side of the system. I decided to follow K’tarsgh’s lead in hopes of getting some insight on my Walk, and what steps I should take. My dreams were sometimes spot on, but often infuriatingly vague, and much too erratic. But there was one particular subject heavy on my mind as I pulsed across the star system: me.

What the flaming Hell was wrong with me!

I couldn’t believe how I had behaved in the past, even just a short hour ago. How I had been with Adjaha. Yes, she was adorable, as sweet as could be. Yes, she was gorgeous, and the very image of Elizabeth, my love interest from a long gone previous existence. Yes, she flirted blatantly with me, downright seductively at times. But damn it to fracking Hell, I was married! Happily! Right? Right?

How I had been with Elise back at the station. My dream of that night had been much too prophetic, and only hinted at how I flirted with her. And in the heat of the moment, my cautionary dream had been utterly forgotten. And just hours after I was nearly in tears over leaving Seri behind! To whom I was happily married! Right?

How I had been with Selene at the Anomaly, after just meeting her. In fact, how I was with every female I came across. What the Hell was wrong with me! Was I a craven, reprobate womanizer?

From time to time, I had reflected on that murky past life mostly hidden from me, and now with this shame hanging over me, I tried hard to think of anything which could shed light on who I was, as it would inform me of who I am. And one thing that was most clear to me, thanks to that dream on the Anomaly, assuming it was true, was that I was in a relationship with Elizabeth Leighton, as I recalled of her name; a very important figure in the organization which may well have given birth to ATLAS. How that had come about, I had no clue. That trail was buried deep in my amnesia. But had it all been arranged? Was I tasked with seducing her by some shadowy group, to gain entrance to the very core of the installation in hopes of thwarting some monumental, diabolical scheme of truly cosmic consequence? Was it because I was such a damned good seducer? A gigolo? The perfect sinner?

Life lessons were meant to be learning experiences, which we use to make sure we don’t keep doing the same dumb mistakes over and over. But was this habit one I just couldn’t break? That love line in my hand… did it portend some unavoidable fate because my libido spurned all restraint?

Dear God, no, no no no… please don’t let that be true…

Fortunately I had a task at hand to end this uncomfortable self-inquisition. Arriving at Irfeld, I tried my new keh go hargh scanner above the world, and was delighted to see a number of sites pop up, including Trading Posts and Outposts. And they stayed visible for quite some time. Oh my Lord, what a godsend! This was a scrubby world, so flora and fauna were a bit more sparse. But just as I was about to fly down to a Trading Post to get my bearings, a message popped up in my communicator. As I began to answer, my stomach lurched in fear it was Seri calling to scold me good, but it was from the planet. Curious, I opened the channel.

“Assistance! Any who would answer! We are attacked! Sentinels! Please help!”

Sentinels? Wonderful, a never ending fight. But if I was a letcherous seducer, I was just as much a would-be hero who answered every call for help, so fixing on their location, I boosted across the world to the site of the trouble. As I entered the atmosphere and slowed just enough to keep my hull temperature within limits, I saw that the pipper was at the base of some low mountains. To my surprise, some buildings gradually came into view around it. Was this an ancient site? Or dare I think it, an Ancients site? First things first though, deal with the attack.

As I landed beside other ships, the structures caught my eye and I was further surprised to see that they looked newish if a bit spartan. This was something different, and I would have to inquire of the inhabitants about it. The people in question, Vy’keen, seemed to have their hands full with this battle, scurrying from building to building to avoid an attacking Drone, Rover, or a damned Walker tromping around with impunity. I saw a body and I cringed, hoping there were no more casualties.

Drawing forth my rifle, I fired on a Drone giving a pair of the fighters a hard time, and dispatched it with a few rounds of Boltcaster. One of them gave me a welcoming wave, and I shouted to him, “When I kill those nearby, gather yourselves together!” He nodded in understanding and I left him to pass the message along to the others.

Scanning the area over, I saw just where the Sentinels were, and made my way around the building to pick off another Drone. But as I shot it to pieces, my dream hit me like a gut punch; in it, we all died. No, that damn well wasn’t happening. I was determined that not one more would perish. I’d use my ship and blast every Walker that showed up, and if a Sentinel ship came too, I’d send it to the same fate.

I rounded a corner and found myself facing a Rover, which immediately seared me with its lethal orange ray. Instinctively holding up one arm to shield myself, I shot it with the Boltcaster, but it took a good bit of the clip to finish it off. When it was dead, I switched to the Pulse Spitter, which was a bit weaker but the clip was large. I was gratified to see that the other Sentinels were moving towards the main problem, which was me. Good, the others would be mostly left alone, and I replenished my shields and ammo in preparation. A nasty orange beam tagged my head just then; I’d forgotten about the Walker, and that’s a rookie mistake. Hurt like hell too. I ducked behind a building and scanned around for the other Vy’keen, who were beginning to group up away from the action. I had to work up some quick strategy with them, and dashed my way through the haphazardly placed structures to where they were hiding. One of them said to me, “Why do you—?”

“Listen!” I cut in. “I’m going to take them on, but you need to all fire on them when I stop shooting to distract them for me. Just enough to get their attention, then take cover. Got it?” When he just began to nod, I bolted off and fired at an approaching Drone to let the invaders know who the real threat was and lure them away. Sure enough, the remaining bots focused on me with single-minded intent. I fired a stream of rounds into the Drone, busting it, and made sure the others saw it to keep their attention on me. Unfortunately, that included the Walker which tromped relentlessly for me, so I would have to keep it in mind. I overheard the troop of Vy’keen firing on the bots. It was a little soon yet, but they followed orders like true soldiers. I made sure to spray all the ones in range with bursts from my rifle, killing one Drone, and that kept them following me.

I drew the threats in the opposite direction, making sure to keep firing long enough that the Vy’keen held theirs till I had clearly paused. I had taken them down to three Drones and two Hounds yet, and the Walker which was carelessly tromping over everything in front of it. Fortunately it didn’t have the sense to climb buildings or things would be a lot dicier. The Drones were so slow that they were easy pickings, at least the third one was. When I worked around a structure to take on the second, the Rovers had grown wise to my tactics and were supporting them with covering fire, while the Walker was keeping a watchful sensor on them from above. Well, great, nice time for them to develop tactics of their own. There was the sound of other blasters firing, so my own strategy was still working, and I peeked to see the group turning to face the Vy’keen shooting from their cover. The bots were clustered and heading for an open area near the center of this small complex, so I decided to try taking most of them out at once with minimal collateral damage, launching a Plasma Grenade in their midst. I was pleased to see the lot of them blown all to scrap, and the leg armor of the Walker damaged too.

Now this was more like it, and I felt that the battle was in hand, until I heard a dreadful sound of a thoom which could only mean one terrible, fatal thing. Making a mad dash, and then having the presence of mind to jet-boost, I just escaped most of the blast from the Walker’s mortar. I was still rattled good, stunned from the detonation, and was thrown a full five meters out into the open. As I struggled through a cloud of stars to get up, shaking my head to clear it, that damned monster blasted me with its lethal orange beam. Yelping in pain I tried to evade it, but it wasn’t till it stopped firing that I escaped. Through buzzing ears, I heard the others unloading with everything they had to get the behemoth’s attention, and fortunately it worked.

Running for cover while its focus was off me, I launched another grenade at its feet, ducking from the concussion. Rounding the corner of a building, I was discouraged to see that its legs were still working. I’d forgotten how tough they were. I had dispatched the last one some time ago using my ship, which was something I’d rather use as a last resort as it was erratic in hover, and there was no telling how much damage I might do to this place. Rounding the structure, I gave it another grenade to the feet. It was in the midst of the buildings but I dared not hold back for fear my dream might come true for me. Fortunately, the structures survived but the Walker’s armor suffered damage, pieces of it blasted off. I decided to chance something risky, and ran up close underfoot, unloading on it with my Scatter Blaster, the deadliest close range weapon I had. It whined in outrage, tromping around as it tried in vain to get a clear shot on me, or failing that to stomp me. I made damned sure it didn’t, and watched its footfalls closely to keep from under them as I unloaded a magazine into the legs, then another. Sparks began to fly, and I prayed that it was almost finished. That cursed Goliath refused to go down though, holding on as I emptied that magazine into it and began on a third. This was terrible. What the hell would it take!

“Help! Help kill it!” I cried, and thank God the others heard it and began firing in support, making sure to shoot it in the legs above me. Finally, finally, I could see the internal systems being damaged beyond their ability to work, and fired on it as fast as I could, starting on a fourth magazine. Die, you damned shit, die!

Then without warning, a strut in its leg fractured and down it tumbled. I jet-boosted out of the way, and did it again as the monster unloaded a salvo of grenade clusters which began detonating all around it, screaming in its death throes. Its body draped across a structure, but it had done itself in with the last of its own firepower, blasting itself as much as the area around it. We all ran up to look it over, but I cautioned the others to close in with caution until I saw for sure it was finished. It wasn’t, as I could see an optical unit trying to focus on its victorious prey. Maybe it was just a vestige of automatic function, but I damn well made sure of it, giving it several rounds to its internals, until at last it lay silent and unmoving.

I jumped as they all began shouting Grah! Interloper! Grah! in a cycle, and I quivered in relief that it was all over. But was it? In my dream, a Sentinel Capital Ship had appeared in the sky above. I gave a quick look to my sensors. On the display was a threat meter which kept track of Sentinel warrant levels, which was very convenient. But on it, the red diamonds, four of them - which was bad - were beginning to pulse more feebly, and a counter rapidly dropped to zero. The sky was also devoid of any sign of a Sentinel ship, so I removed my helmet to breathe some air clear of the pheromones of battle. Four of them came up and gave me a fist of salute and a grah for leading them to victory, then headed off for their ships. So others had responded to the SOS. Still, if I hadn’t shown up, I had my doubts they would have won on their own.

Then I found myself to be the center of attention as they stared at me in silence. What was up with this? Was my Human appearance strange to them? One of them, the biggest of the group of perhaps two dozen, said to me, “You saved us from those tin cans.” Tin, huh? He told me that all the loot was mine in payment for my selfless deed, and I’d have to accept it even if I didn’t need it. I did want that Walker brain though. I was most gracious to them, and thanked them in glowing terms for their brave support of me, and for the bounty I would collect. Then he said something completely unexpected. “Would you be our Overseer, and help us rebuild? Grow this settlement?”

He wanted me to be their… mayor? Oh Lord, no, I had neither the time or desire to shepherd a burgeoning new community—

And then it struck me just what was going on here. This was the first sign of any new communities, other than the outlaw Pirate villages in that system free of Sentinels, where they could do whatever they wanted. There were installations but other than those, all I had ever come across were tiny clumps of a few sheds, and almost all abandoned at that. Andonai’s compound was the closest thing, but he was a magistrate, and it was just a few buildings. In this new Reset, was the galaxy gradually, finally, beginning to get back on its feet? This was an exciting development! But no, I had an ATLAS to tilt. And this honor was something I had never heard of before, particularly in regard to an Interloper. “Hey… I am deeply grateful for your offer, but it is too great an honor for this simple Traveler. And I am not one of you.”

“But… we need your help. Our leader was slain.” Wonderful. Overhead, a fighter appeared, then whirled around to head back from where it came when they saw the fight was over. Darn, and there I thought I could pawn off this wonderful oppotunity to someone much more deserving. Was that why the others left so soon after victory? Well, I could just leave too. Then I saw that the entire group was kneeling before me with the most pleading expression I had ever seen among Vy’keen, ever. “Please, help us with this task,” he implored with all the desperation he could muster. Ohh, Lordy Lordy Lordy

The next thing I knew, I was the interim mayor, utility company director, chief architect and farm manager, and I had a lot of OJT to teach myself right quick. And it was confusing, almost baffling at times. What was the village terminal good for? What the hell was a power node? How did I provide potable water? I had to figure it all out, and of course the new settlers had no clue. And the crafting system boggled my mind. I had to refine substances, and then refine many products into more substances, and then more! Damn, it was frustrating. As much as I chafed at all this impromptu responsibility, some deep bit of knowledge informed me that the first settlers to my own nation had taken off on their great adventure to a new land, and could have all died from a similar plight if not for the help of kindly local natives. Of course, those natives knew what the heck they were doing. I tried to console myself that this was good practice for when I built my own Traveler home down the road, but that idea seemed less appealing just now.

At the end of a very long, tiring, frustrating, trial-and-error day, the village had damaged buildings restored, and power, and water, and some crops, and some reasonably capable defenses in case Sentinels returned, and a windmill for auxiliary purposes - on a planet with almost no wind. Until a dust gale blew through, and then we had all kinds of auxiliary. And I was pooped. When they offered me a place to stay for the night, it sounded way too good to refuse, though I made clear to them that I was leaving to go about my travel the next day. When one of the ladies offered to keep me company for the night, that was easy to refuse. She did look okay for a Vy’keen, I had to admit, but she really needed to work on attracting the admirations of one of the males, and raise some cubs among them. Good lord, they would need a school… but that was their problem.

1 Like

(Ch 14 - just one more)

As I settled into my gifted bed for the night, I had to scold myself. If that woman had been Elise, would I have refused her? That was a difficult question, but… yes, of course I would! Most certainly. I hoped…

But that night, I had a visitor. Something told me that I wasn’t alone, and I blinked in surprise to see a form drifting towards me, a female form. She murmured to me in a soft, sweet voice, “Nigel… I felt your vital essence being expended in deeds of courage and chivalry. I followed it, and crossed many boundaries to find you.” I could hardly believe my eyes - it was Eliseth, and I could make out every curve and lock of hair clearly, as well as her captivating expression. The pull on my soul from her was tangible, and strong. “Now… to answer the call of your heart to mine…” She knelt down beside my bed, her clothes slipping away like silk, as she leaned down for a kiss I couldn’t deny…

I arched upward, my chest heaving and heart racing, then I lay back down with a sigh. Damn it, another dream. A dream that should be a bad one, and I dared myself to enjoy it. Which, thankfully, I found difficult. It was saying a lot about my character, as if I needed a reminder in that regard. What the fff… ell? I murmured into the ether, “Elise, I’m not calling your heart, I’m just not. Sorry, wrong number.” I hoped we both got the message. And then as I gradually grew comfortable with the notion of sleep again, it struck me that her name was similar to Elizabeth’s. Great, I so needed to realize that…


Commander!

I lurched up in bed, moaning as I rubbed bleary eyes, “How the hell did you find me all the way out here, you bully of an alarm…?” And then my eyes popped open - was I back on the Infineon? Had all of that day been a dream? But no, I saw that I was in a guest bed in the finest building in a makeshift village that I had rescued from a Sentinel attack. Yeah… all of that made sense, it really happened, and dawn was still an hour away, so why not enjoy a little more shut-eye?

Then a disturbing thought struck me; and wake up as the new mayor? Oh Lord, no, no no no…

But as I began to rise, I realized that it was encumbent on me to apply some of that assertiveness stuff and lay down the law. And if all else failed, just leave. However, I still had to find out what had driven these people to strike out on their own for the first time in millennia. What in the name of Plymouth Rock was different now? I was so busy yesterday, as were we all with restoring the village, I didn’t have much time for conversation. And I also might need their help to find… whatsizname. And finally, I didn’t remember a decent dream, so I was due. Just a little nap, or a long one…

“Ni - Jol - Fox… where are you!

“Seri, I can explain,” I blurted out, sitting bolt upright, though as I rubbed my eyes clear, I didn’t think I could. Wait, was I still on the Infineon? Was there anything to explain? As I came to myself yet again, I realized where I was, but I also fell under a withering emotion. I had abandoned my wife and adopted daughter-cousin. Had flirted shamelessly with a cute Traveler girl. Could have gotten myself killed fighting someone else’s battle with Sentinels. Almost became a mayor, and still might if I wasn’t careful. What a wonderful life.

This time, I did get up as the sun was well up and I was hungry, and thirsty for something remotely stimulating. I hoped they had a beverage like chikory. Then again, maybe I should feed myself, as accepting breakfast was something a mayor would do…

As I was heading for my fighter on the outskirts of the village, their de facto leader, a blade named Grast, followed me. “Overseer—”

I stopped him with a raised finger. “Not-overseer. I have not accepted your offer.”

“But you have already done so much for us,” he said hopefully. “And we have food for you prepared.”

I stopped before turning away, feeling a gilded cage being assembled around me. But, offered hospitality was meant to be honored. I just wasn’t sure when a crossed boundary would determine that I had signed on their dotted line. I shrugged, but then tried to look more grateful. “You honor me too much for a man who isn’t your Overseer.”

He said to me quietly as he came alongside, “We had hoped you would reconsider…”

I kept the conversation going as I went to dine with him, while I avoided the job opening. “Why did your group set up a village out here, knowing that Sentinels might attack you over it?”

He gave me a shrug. “We have had our fill of them. For more than thousands of years, we have not been allowed to build where we want, farm where we want, hunt where we want, mine where we want, as much as we want. The tyranny of ATLAS has filled us to vomiting.” That was a pleasant image to mention over breakfast. “I decided to go out one day, and this group of us agreed, to live as we always had, as Hirk and Nal had, as free people.”

That was much better than failing at piracy, settling on being settlers. “So… is this the first settlement in thousands of years? Or have you heard of any others?”

“Oh, yes, this has been discussed for a long time,” he enthused, seeming proud of their determination. “There are many settlements, many places in Euclid, and the other galaxies. The Gek, and even the Korvax are beginning to spread. We seek planets where there are few of the cursed Sentinels, but some worlds are good as they are, and we fight for them.”

This was a good world? “Like Irfeld? It seems a little rough.”

He shrugged. “We lived on many like worlds. Hirk’s first conquest was on such a world. We are used to it. This one is now ours.” Well, as long as you like the digs, any place to hang a shingle…

But this puzzled me, and had me pondering the nature of this reality. Like my upgrades suddenly not working together, like the junk dealer who suddenly began dealing in… tainted metal? Like they all had, no doubt. Like untold numbers of fed up would-be settlers all at once setting out to found villages. The quantum shifts in all manner of things with each Reset… what was the purpose? And what would the ultimate result be? A universe of 255 galaxies in the image ATLAS envisioned? Maybe with all universes consolidated into one? With a good life for all? Or a chilling thought, devoid of life at all? What did that damned omnipotent hypercomputer actually want?

Grast noticed that I had been silent, waiting for me to say something. “This universe… we had a Reset. Have you noticed?”

He looked puzzled for a second. “Ahh, you are a Traveler. You are strange ones.”

“Yes, and I am a very strange one,” I replied with a nod. “I want to understand it all.”

“You will hurt your head with it. Best to let such big questions die,” he advised me.

Yeah, it might be, but that wasn’t my Way. I was going to work that knack of mine till I got somewhere, found some sort of answer. “Till my head hurts too much, I am going to try, and I have to leave soon. You have all you need right now.” He didn’t seem happy at that, but I didn’t want to just wander off on them. I had another question. “Have you heard of a Vy’keen named Romat?”

He frowned for a moment. “No… does he live near here?”

“I don’t know,” I said between bites. “I just know he’s on this world somewhere.”

“There are many somewheres on here. But maybe some other knows. Or, fly to a Trading post.”

“Thanks for the advice,” I told him as sincerely as I could.

After the meal, I gathered the settlers together in the open plaza. It was quite a village, I had to admit, though the building placement was a bit too random. Still, they had no pattern to follow, and our own first settlements were probably as haphazard. They were all looking to me with as much hope as curiosity, particularly Grast, no doubt praying for the announcement that I had a change of heart and a new career with them. If this had been a paradise, I might have considered it, though I’d prefer Korvax as neighbors.

“Friends, I must tell you all that it is time for me to go.” This caused a quiet murmur, as expected. “I know it is sad, but I did much work to enable you to thrive. May the God watch over you, and help you to grow into a city someday.”

Grast spoke up. “But, we need a leader, an Overseer. Can you not consider it?”

“I have, but I have a great Walk ahead of me which I must follow.” I hoped such a definite, heavy statement would satisfy them, and it seemed to for some of them. “I know you need a leader, and I am going to tell you how my people lived. We followed a rule known as < democracy >.” They listened patiently as I spelled out the basic concepts of free autonomous living within certain bounds, and the notion of one man one vote. A leader would be elected, not imposed, someone who they would all agree was the best for the job. I advised them to choose wisdom and intellect over strength, as strength should lie within the people. This was the exact opposite of what they were used to, so I wondered what they would do with that. But, surely one of them would make a good leader, whatever they made of this life. “If one of you is wise, and can see over the horizon, your village should never fail. If you can’t settle on one male among you, go find someone who you can agree on.” The whole thing was a novel concept, and I was afraid they would think it foolish, but they at least seemed to be mulling it over. Or at least, honored me with the pretense.

“We will try your… demo-krasy,” Grast told me. “It is an interesting idea, and we are all free minded.”

Well, that was what I hoped against hope to hear. “Excellent, and you might consider running for Overseer yourself.” That seemed to make him happy. “Now, I have a question for you all. Has anyone heard of a Vy’keen named Romat?” They began to murmur among each other, looking dubious, which is about what I expected. But then to my surprise, someone spoke up.

“I have.” It was a younger blade who stepped forward. “I come from here. He lives near a lake, a small flight from a Trading Post. I used to catch fish with him. Why do you seek him?”

Well! Ask and you may receive, and that sounded right. “He is supposed to know someone I’m trying to find. Uhh…” How had my Pirate friend put it? Would they know about this? It wouldn’t hurt to ask. “A weird sage? Someone named K’tarsgh told me of them. Have any of you heard of one on Irfeld?”

There was another round of head scratching among them. The Vy’keen spoke up again. “That one is a Pirate lord. If you ran with Pirates, you are a strange Traveler indeed.”

That he knew of K’tarsgh surprised me, but I had to move this along and gave him a shrug. “This Walk I’m on is a very strange one itself, and I don’t understand it, but it has led me here to you. I feel like every step is guided by God, at least that’s my hope.” I realized I was letting a lot of conjunctions slip in, but no one seemed to mind, and they appeared to take my declaration seriously.

“We have heard of no sage here,” Grast told me. “A weird one? That must be quite a sage.”

“I hope so,” I said with a thin smile. “I need a lot of help on this Walk, so I hope they can. Now, if there is nothing else, I must get back to it.”

Grast looked to me regretfully, but said, “Then, may he and the God guide you. We will remember you beyond the Last Days.” They all nodded, and there was a quiet chorus of grahs and fist salutes from them.

I held up my fist as well, giving them a grah of my own, and headed for my ship. Before I left, I fashioned a marker so I could find my way back here, as I felt a certain attachment to the settlement I helped secure, and the first of its kind I’d ever seen. Then I produced my Signal Booster to see if I could locate some significant installations, like a Planetary Archive or that Trading Post. I was dismayed to see that it only had three options, and neither one was what I wanted. The entry I needed the most was Portal, and that absence really hurt. Yet another unhelpful Reset factor to deal with. Hopefully my hacked scanner would make up for that.

So I stowed my Booster with a grumble and hopped in Star Sword, running through the start up procedure - and then froze. In my main display was a new message, from Seri, and the title was, Where? Are? You? Maybe that mayor gig wasn’t such a bad idea after all…

As I often did, I punted and ignored it, for now. I could only put it off for so long, I knew. There was a chance she would cool down from whatever temper flares she and Adja were going through, but at some point they would roar back up, and then into hysteria. But… just not now, no, no no no…

1 Like

(Ch 14 - okay I lied, the finale)

With some altitude and a good view of the planet curving below me, I hit my scanner again, and was gratified with a bunch of sites of interest. While there weren’t an overwhelming number on such a scrubby world, there were still quite a few, and sorting through the icons to find a Trading Post took a bit. I saw one and headed for it. I had to fly below cloud cover to survey the terrain, and spotted a few bodies of water not all that far from it. Circling over one, there was no sign of shacks nearby. Another did, the usual pair, and I settled down in the open spot nearby, but it was abandoned. I scavenged a few nanites from a data pod in the vicinity for my trouble. The third one had a pair of shacks, and this one was occupied, as the Vy’keen came out to meet me when I landed. I waved to him, asking, “Are you Romat?”

He gave me a dull look. “No.”

Felgercarb, but I thought I’d press him. “Have you heard of a weird sage around here?”

“No,” he replied with a headshake. “Weird? None, and no Korvax at all.”

That brought me up short. It hadn’t occurred to me to think of a Korvax. Had one gone rogue and disconnected, or been “corrupted”? “No Gek or Vy’keen?”

“No,” he replied flatly. “Only ones flying in. None stay. This world has no questions.”

Well, that pretty much settled that. “Thank you for your time,” I said to him.

Before I had turned, he asked, “Have any chromatic metal?”

I did, but that stuff was a bit rare. “Yes… you need some? How much?”

“Ten,” he said. He was a blade of few words.

Oh well, I could spare that and prepared to produce it, but I felt generous. “Twenty? Fifty?”

He shook his head. “Ten.”

I was curious now over such a small amount. “Why?”

“Just to have.”

That was quite an admission and had me chuckling. “Alright… here you go, and my thanks.”

He gave me a fist, admiring the iridescent material, and it was pretty.

So, back to my Romat hunt, though as I took off, I noticed that my launch thrusters were down to twenty-five percent. Huh… hadn’t it gone in twenties before? I went to replenish them and was in for another surprise. “Uranium?” Hadn’t it been… plutonium or something? I wasn’t sure, and a distant memory suggested they had been something else before that. Thorium? General radioactives? What the hell was ATLAS doing with “its” universe? Tesky’s proposal of an insane ATLAS gave me the chills just then.

I felt better as I focused on my task, heading for the vicinity of another Trading Post as dusk crept near to this part of the globe. The moon would help illuminate the planet well enough at night, but I’d rather not have to deal with the lack of starlight. Visibility was better so I flew at a greater altitude to see as much terrain as possible, and four more bodies of water were in the general area. I spotted a pair of shelters near one and settled down close by, but as usual they were vacant. I gathered a few more nanites from a data pod and relaunched. It was a good thing I had a full store of uranium. I flew to the second one but this lake had nothing around it. As I began to fly off for the third, something caught my eye and I brought my Fighter around for a second look. A scan showed nothing but as I cruised by, it resolved into a shack at the crest of the hollow, half surrounded by trees and bushes. And it was an actual shack, built from wood. Now this was something I hadn’t seen since Poop Hole, and sounded promising.

I brought the ship in for a landing nearby, took off my helmet, and began walking towards the ramshackle hut. It wasn’t that small, rather like one of the homes back at K’tarsgh’s village, very much so, and my heart quickened. And then it jumped as the door banged open and a shot rang out. Dirt kicked up as pellets tore into the ground, the clods striking my legs. I jumped back as a big brute appeared in the doorway, looking stern and holding a rifle on me, set on a Scatter Blaster. “What you want!”

Oh boy… evidently not the neighborly type. I collected myself, knowing my suit would protect me well enough if there was trouble. Assuming I got my helmet back on in time. “Fox, Nigel Fox. Traveler. Are you Romat?”

“Until you talk, I’m nobody!” he barked. “Why’re you here?”

That sounded like more than a maybe. “K’tarsgh sent me. He said—”

K’tarsgh?” he interrupted, eyeing me either less suspiciously or more; it was hard to tell. “Go on.”

“He said you knew where a strange - I mean, weird sage lived,” I quickly amended. It might matter.

“Hunh,” he huffed out roughly. He still didn’t seem too sure about this. I decided to offer a little more in the silence.

“I was at the village for a while, stayed with them. I got to know K’tarsgh.”

“Hunh,” he grunted again. I hoped this meant progress. “You don’t look the type to stay with that kind. And they don’t welcome guests.”

“It’s a long story,” I said to him. “But I beat him in a fighter duel. Just barely, but I won.”

“K’tarsgh never lost.” He sounded absolutely sure of it, and I believed him.

“He did once,” I insisted, and realized I’d better add one crucial detail. “I let him live, and he welcomed me into his village.”

“And you went, hamtash?” He was back to looking dubious. As near as I could figure, he was calling me a cute teenager, someone too delicate to be a warrior. And fighting a Pirate like K’tarsgh essentially to a draw and claiming victory, that was a mighty tall claim. “How can I know that?”

“I was at the village for a while, stayed with them.” I pointed to his shack. “Your house looks the same as theirs. I got to know K’tarsgh. I stayed at Resh’s place, and Gronk made his best meals for me. In exchange for letting him live, I took his…” Oh Lord, what was that damn term they used for their former slave? “I took Seri, and I gave him fifty thousand units to make sure he was satisfied.”

What?” he cried, incredulous. “That was his best u’prwat! I really liked Seri.”

I didn’t like the sound of that, but I kept in mind it was all done and gone. To seal the matter, I told him, “She’s my mate now.”

He only seemed mildly surprised at that. “She would be grateful, and she is very good, and pretty, isn’t she?”

I insisted on moving this conversation along. “So you’re a Pirate? Or used to be?”

He gave me the thinnest of smiles. “Maybe.”

“Are you maybe Romat?” I asked, deciding to try some trademark Nigel humor.

It worked, and he barked out laughing. “Maybe!” He tossed the rifle inside and tromped out into the yard as I came up. “How is that old bastard K’tarsgh doing?”

That was another sore point with me, and my reply was rather quiet. “He’s… recovering. He took an attack meant for me, and it nearly killed him.”

He looked solemn as he remarked in wonder, “So… you’re the one.”

It was my turn to be surprised. “He mentioned his dream to you?”

“He had a few. In some he lived, in some, he died,” Romat told me. “It bothered him, and he was different with each one, less Pirate. Facing devils… I understand why.”

I’m glad I met the less Pirate version. “Why did you quit being a Pirate?”

He made a face and held out his right arm, which bore withered flesh. “Too dangerous. With K’tarsgh telling me his dreams whether I wanted to hear them or not… I felt… damned. I couldn’t defeat the fear after a while, it defeated me. I tried to change. Sorry about the greeting, but some folk won’t let Pirates quit, other than in The Deep Black.”

“No need to apologize,” I said with a slap to his shoulder. “I can sure understand.”

“So, I doubt you want me to brag about times at the pub or… other things,” he artfully dodged. “Why did you hunt down this old dog?”

“The weird—” I began.

“Oh! Right, that weird sage,” he cut in, looking thoughtful. “She is… something strange, all right. Spooky as Hell. But she saved my life. K’tarsgh, that bastard, he made us crawl through a derelict full of devil bugs. It got to be too dangerous - even for him, who knew he couldn’t die until that day he saved you. The rest of us, we suffered for it, and I could have died, poisoned. Someone knew about the koldunkha, and I had to go far to find her. Terrible journey, I got very sick. But she knows stuff, she healed me.” She? That meant no Korvax.

I nodded in sympathy. I realized that he could have had his arm severed to save him, which might have been prudent. But we are rather attached to our body parts. I confessed, “He tricked me into exploring that derelict myself, and I saw…” I shuddered from the memories. Somehow they seemed fresher with someone who had suffered the same trauma. “I saw what was lurking deep inside, and it was a devil.”

He gaped at me in shock. “You did… you saw the fakat Mother?” He shivered himself, his voice thick with fear. “It whispered awful things in our minds - I saw things! We couldn’t get close, even as K’tarsgh threatened us. He knew better, since he left us alone when we ran. That big dumb ass. I still respected him, still do now, some, but what he made us go through… well, when she saved me from death, I was full up of it, and didn’t go back. Went to this dusty rock… who would find me? Only K’tarsgh! But he let me alone, just wanted to know what happened. This life is good enough. Fishing is much safer. Even for devil fish!” He laughed and gave me a K’tarsgh-like punch in the arm. It was funny how such a wicked Vy’keen who could be so hard on his boots, was somehow still likeable. For the most part.

“Yeah… fortunately, he changed. I guess nearly dying can have an effect on a Pirate. The others, though…” I huffed an unhappy breath. “I’m afraid only his boots will ever try to be better.”

“You can’t Walk for people. They must go their own Way, for good or bad,” he advised me, and damn if that wasn’t true. “Enough of small old hells. Why do you want to see her?”

I wondered what to tell him, and then what he would think. “I want the galaxy to be great again.”

He blinked at me in amazement. “You don’t ask for a small plate, you want the whole beast!” After he took a breath, he added, “I know she has powers, but you should ask this of the God. ATLAS, curse that thing, won’t stop meddling, controlling everything.”

“That’s definitely true. But what I mean is, I need guidance. I want to find the cities of the Ancients. Information, knowledge… something, so I can hope to change things, make life different, negotiate with ATLAS, talk with it somehow, convince it so civilization can rise up again.”

He still looked amazed. “Cities of the Ancients? They don’t exist. And talk with ATLAS?” He shook his head at me. “I’m afrait it will just erase you to silence such a pest. You might have better luck with that devil Mother.”

That was certainly both possible and discouraging. “But I have to try. They just have to exist somewhere in a galaxy of quintillions of planets. Other people too, like Seri’s folk. There must be some other people, and secrets out there no one has discovered yet. And something has changed. I just came from a settlement, the first one I’d ever seen besides your Pirate village. This kind of thing hasn’t happened for thousands of years. There must be a reason for it. I want to find out what it is, what’s going on, and see if I can… help it, guide it. Influence it in any way possible.”

He managed to look surprised again. This was evidently a day of revelations for him. “You’re serious? I mean… I’ve heard stories from traders at the Post off that way…” He motioned sourly with his arm. “Geh, such a long walk. But I thought that was just silly talk to make this boring life more interesting. New villages, though…” He looked off in thought for a moment, then said, “Well, I hold you down. Let me get my tablet, one who dares to face devils and god computers. Who knows what you might do?”

As he left me alone, I sat at a table and mulled over my Walk for the umpteenth time. It really was a fool’s errand. My dreams of it were as much trouble as comfort, if not worse. But this fool of a sinner had to try, for the sake of countless souls. And unlike that dream of… Led Zeppelin? I was determined not to let them down.

After a time, he emerged holding his tablet. “It took some digging to find it. Here.” He handed it over, and I saw the details of the system. Orgiye-Pek, a double system with a superior G Class star, likely Orgiye, and the planet of interest was Wers XIII, another hot scrubby world like Irfeld. I hoped this was a lucky thirteen. I backed out of the map till it showed this system at the edge, turning it a bit to get the sense of the proper distance. It wasn’t terribly far from here, several hundred light years, but it was a hell of a flight from Poop Hole, and I doubt Romat had near my jump range. The fact that anyone had heard of the sage was a miracle, but I was learning that life was filled with them. He took it back and expanded the planet, pointing to a specific location in some mountains, near a pool. How apropos for a seer. “This spot, in a tent. You might have a lot of searching to find her.”

“Okay, thanks.” I bumped my tablet to his and saved the data. I had a question about her, maybe two. “What is she like? Easy to deal with, or strange and difficult?”

“Ohh… I was in a bad way,” he admitted, “but I remember, mostly she fussed over me, and told me I was a fool for keeping on my Path. I would have a bad end if I stayed on it. I knew that well enough by then.”

“Did she want anything? Or does it depend on the request?”

He gave me a shrug. “Don’t know for sure. You have a mighty big ask, so you’ll find out. Mine wasn’t much.”

“What was it?”

He smirked to me. “Dinner.”

“Really? Well, that’s not bad at all.”

“I did have to kill it first, and it didn’t want to die easily,” he advised me. “So be ready for whatever she wants.”

He looked like he wanted to ask something of me, and compensation was certainly in order. “So, what would you like for your help?”

“Ohh… some uranium?” He looked like he was balancing his request in his head. “Two hundred units?”

“I think I can manage that,” I told him, calling up my inventory. “Is your launch fuel dry?”

“Exactly that!” he laughed.

I looked around, but hadn’t seen a hint of it. “Where is your ship?”

“Hidden in the brush behind me,” he replied. “The trees and bushes like the water here, and they grew right around it. Aaand… I was wondering… I also looked you up in the registry. I know you are rich to the high heavens. Could you give me…” He drew his mouth to the side in a very Human way. “Two hundred big?”

Two hundred thousand? I gave him a lopsided smile and opened my account, making a transfer I would no doubt have to confirm. “If you insist.”

I bumped tablets again, and he was in for quite a surprise. “Seven hundred?

“Seven fifty,” I told him. “I gave the Pirates on Faecium a reward for taking care of me, and other things. That should give you a nice retirement fund, with some expense money besides.”

“Your generosity is so great!” he exclaimed. “And my thanks so small beside it.”

“Oh now, she sounds like a pretty big deal, between what you and K’tarsgh said of her,” I reminded him. “If she can help me at all, I’ll owe you more than that.”

“Well… if you insist!” he laughed. “But this is more than enough.” He gazed at me almost wistfully. I guess I was a very different person from the typical denizen of Euclid, and seemed to uniquely touch everyone I met. “I can see you will be leaving.”

“Yes, it does seem that almost every one I meet, it’s hello, I must be going,” I joked. “But if I need a break sometime, maybe I could fly over for some fishing.”

“That would be good,” he said with a grin, bumping my arm in a light tap for a Vy’keen, which my arm appreciated. “Take care, and may the God guide your Walk to safe happenings.” That was a very welcome benediction.

As I marched off with a wave to him, it struck me that I had forgotten to ask one significant question. “Oh, hey! I completely forgot… what is her name?”

He was standing there, watching me depart. “Isvelda,” he shouted back. My, what an appropriate name for a cosmic gypsy. I fashioned another beacon, setting it in the midst of some nearby bushes as I left, making certain, like the others, it was set on secure.

As I lifted Star Sword into the air, I did my best to remember a certain dream I had recently, of a rock concert and how it began. I looked up the lyrics I took down in my tablet, and they filled me with excitement and trepidation.

I feel the suns beat down upon my face
Chase a pilgrimage of dreams
I am a Traveler of both time and space
To be where I have been
Sit with elder of an ancient race
So long unknown, unseen
Advise of Days for which they long await
When all will be revealed

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