Location: Ice Tunnel – Solarian Colony ‘Azure Block’
‘Was this reality? Was this all there is to it!? I will do anything to find the truth to that question.’
The golden metal replacement of my right hand gripped Farewell’s handle tightly as I held the young woman’s hand with my left. What was happening to me seemed eerily familiar, though I had never done this before in my life. While I could feel the cold in my hand and my heart pumping rapidly, it was impossible to escape from the feeling of this being vaguely dream-like of having seen it before.
The two of us pressed forward into the complete darkness, driven by each of our likely-delusional ethereal desires. I was wondering if my grasp on reality had finally broken and I had fallen into a ghost-memory right now. The only thing I could ‘see’ with the thermal overlay across my eyes was the recollection of my last sword slash of the bright, warm blood spray in front of me before its heat was lost to the snow, along with the bright red steam of my rapid breaths diffusing in front of me.
Behind me I felt the gentle caress of her feminine hand slip for a moment before desperately grasping my hand again. Our fingers wrapped around the other’s, with me holding on forcefully from fear of losing her to the darkness and the dreams. Her grip was strong as she held me so tightly, indicative of her AGEd creation history like so many of our race; I only hoped she still possessed what we came here for.
“Why are you helping me?” she asked. I think it was about the third time and I still did not answer her.
Star Priestess Arianna’s question of my assistance was natural considering she knew my overt actions, but not my motivation for them. It was pointless to tell her any of my reasons of why I had done it. Like so many members of my race, she was indoctrinated in a system rife with rationalizations of the subordination of us as a species to our ‘saviors’ the Aelisha. They saved us from our own extinction and uplifted us, that was undeniable, but the result was far from egalitarian in nature. I felt like we were sold out, but that was a ‘fringe’ opinion.
A few steps further and I felt a cold breeze gaining a little strength. I remembered there were a few side tunnels here, and one of them apparently was preferred by the wind as we were now rushing through a very light snow.
“Why?” Her repeated question stopped dead in the odd hallway, mirroring the muffled footfalls of our hurried steps in the soft snow of this tunnel that I could not see, only feel.
I continued forward, letting the non-edged part of my blade drag on the wall to guide me through the hallway. My eyes continued to cycle between the various nanite filters overlaying thin layers onto my retinas. Low light did not help when there was none, and thermal was useless as everything had this cold, faraway chill except my dissipating hurried breaths which only distracted me.
Only some recent blood splatters on Farewell that had dripped down to the large rectangle hilt where the rest had frozen, and the girl I was helping had any warmth at all. Someone would have to look closely at my combat armor’s articulated joints between the chest plating to see radiated signs of a living being underneath, as my exposed arms had edged closer to freezing and where much darker thermally. At this stage of heat loss, the scars on my toned forearms stuck out as they were darker slashes; testaments to memories long gone unless locked in a ghost somewhere. My alloy hand had lost all residual heat from my connecting wrist as it was never meaningfully sustained by my life blood.
I eventually answered Arianna, “To find the truth about reality.” It was all I had ever been after as painful as it has been. I long vowed to myself that a harsh truth was better than a happy delusion, and that conviction has carried me into – and through – much pain. Helping her as a person rated low on my priorities, it was only the means she offered to my end that led to our current situation.
“It might be more malleable than you expect,” she responded before we tripped again in the dark and she fell on me. Her hands shuffled through my shorter, unkempt hair more than might have seemed normal for the act of pressing herself off me. Little actions like this of hers hardly seemed coincidental anymore, but I kept that part of my heart guarded from a long time ago.
I toggled the thermal view as I saw her hands now touching the handle of Farewell, her warmth illuminated behind the blackness of both the handle and a small piece of cloth dangling from the bottom.
She moved to get up, and in the motion, her hand brushed across the ribbon. I jerked Farewell away quickly, “Don’t touch that.” As soon as I said it, I knew it was an over-reaction.
She withdrew her hand quickly; likely she did not understand what she had done. We struggled up, and were re-orientated against the wall to continue our escape.
“Sorry.” Her voice was lower as if she was a kid caught doing something bad, despite the fact she was a woman of fair renown.
“Don’t apologize,” I recited as I tried to not think about why the ribbon was there. Our journey into the cold wind continued.
Though I was positive I had never done this before in this life, this entire set of circumstances seemed eerily familiar, which contributed to the feeling this was maybe a ghost-memory. I hoped it was ‘just’ that. It felt like a dream I had, that the random firing of neurons gave me a circumstantial similarity to something resembling life lived.
Leading an eccentric girl through the darkness, pressing on more due to an unknown duty to something I hoped was real compared to anything logically based. The deepest sense of my familiarity stemming from the subconscious warning that the person I was with, at its truest level, was in fact the one protecting me. I squeezed her hand tightly once and she responded, reminding me I was not utterly alone in this dark hallway. Not alone in reality, at least.
“If I am ever caught I will be executed. Maybe you could use your reputation and get me out,” I joked, but it fell flat more because of our location than any merit of the words. “Who would guess someone like you was involved in this?” On the other hand, it was completely predictable someone like me was involved in a crime of this caliber. We were both wanted by nearly everyone; only her ‘want’ was not desires of bullets riddled through the head to collect a bounty.
“Of course I would save you. I would do everything I could to pay you back for this. Your actions put you at the apotheosis of valor.” Now, it was only darkness that was speaking to me; earlier I was amazed at the feeling of déjà vu of seeing the way she looked. The elaborate Priestess garb was tight-fitting, successive layers of white cloth trimmed by a bold blue and gold thread on the seams. Her eyes of nearly the same hue were noted by my subconscious for a reason I had yet to figure out.
Of course her lithe young body held my eyes, but there was something divine in her aura. I knew she was just a girl, but I could not escape from this unconscious certainty. To think I was with a legendary Star Priestess. And to think we were now running for our lives through a frozen tunnel.
In a darker tone I told her, “You better try to save me from execution. I have too much to live for to return to the Line already.”
Her voice had become excited at the subject of the Line, essentially the pinnacle of her group’s teachings; she asked hurriedly, “Do you truly believe that? You believe in the Line?”
“I…don’t know. Not meaningfully.” It was true, but it was not the answer someone like her wanted. “When I die, it might be it, there is nothing more. I have never seen anything rational to the contrary as much as I would like to believe otherwise.”
“Merely the inability to see does not preclude something’s existence. Maybe in time your belief will become altered.”
I wanted to tell her ‘I doubt it’ but it was pointless; she was not changing and I probably was not either. How much easier to think there was something after death, but I was after truth. I had felt what I would call spiritual energies before, but being rationale at my core it was something I never fully integrated. Or accepted…
Something felt like it was watching me, hunting me, waiting to strike. I turned, but of course it was only dark and pressed on. There was something pressing down on me, but it might have just been an increasing manifestation of mental issues I had been experiencing, so I ignored the sensations.
She continued, “Life is a blessing against all odds. You must not be so dark about being granted it in the first place, regardless of an end you may doubt.”
I said nothing because her statement hit oddly deep. It reminded me of a belief I once held. As I drug us forward, the rhythmic scrape of Farewell on the wall stopped along with my forward movement as she had ceased motion.
“Priestess Arianna?” I jerked at the silence. I still held her hand, but I could not see anything. I toggled back to thermal and saw her head was lowered, further blocked by the red ribbons she insisted she be allowed to wear in her hair; they were dark in my view as they had long ago lost their heat.
Lifting her face, I could see the blackness of her nose that had started to spread. We had been in this tunnel for a long time and I wondered briefly about how good nanites were at staving off frostbite.
Her voice had a quiver in it I had never heard before in the short time I had known her. “It’s coming.” Her hand started softly shaking. “It is coming… The Line fracture is so strong…”
We were not moving.
“Hey!” I jerked her hand again matching my harsh whisper. “Come on, we need to keep going.” I had not known her for that long, but she seemed pretty mentally stable. She was the one who had taught me some intense focus exercises; it was alarming she was losing it so close to the end. In her reality, if a ‘Line fracture’ causes paralysis maybe she should change what she believes.
We were suddenly illuminated from behind, the darkness in front of us lit up with a long shadow of our forms. The cloak I had on obscured most of my armored body in the shadow, my silhouette a giant blob aside from the large blade and my slightly spiked hair; she did not have anything obstructing and her shadow was easily recognizable as a very beautiful female.
“There they are!” Far behind us someone shouted near the light. A projectile exploded off the wall, finally urging her forward as we continued running, faster this time now that we had the help of illumination. We had a substantial lead over our pursuers, but that meant little when ranged weapons were in the picture. Was this mere pursuit party what made the Priestess so scared? She seemed tougher than that.
‘Dodge’. The subconscious encouragement confused me for a moment as to why I would think to dodge something I didn’t know was coming. I leaned to the right looking to the left for perhaps the source of the voice.
I felt something tearing into my shoulder with a sharp pain as I recoiled from both the light and the injury, only narrowly missing much more vital areas.
“There!” A group of two emerged from an adjoining tunnel on the side as I was blinded from the new light flashing into my eyes. One of them had slashed at me, the surprise causing me to not fully process initially that he had hit me. In the thermal view, a splash of my blood was like a flare spilling out of my body.
I pulled hard on the strange girl’s hand and then turned the pull into a forward push. “Start running.” I shoved her forward and turned to fight the light in one smooth move.
I turned towards the two beacons blinding my eyes, fire suddenly erupting above the lights as a different explosion of light came from adjacent to me. The staccato of the automatic weapons was stronger as sound waves falling on my skin compared to the filtered sound reaching my susceptible inner ears.
Their weapons, which normally would rip my vulnerable body apart nearly instantly, were stopped by the brilliant display of light emanating from barely in front of me, the result of my shield being activated at the last second. Using little time I dashed at them, easily seeing them from their lights, the explosions out of the rifles, and my own shield radiating from the impacts of the rounds. I knew not what path I was on, but I was committed to seeing its end; they would not stop me.
‘No one will stop me,’ I thought definitively to myself.
Whatever knife or bayonet I had been hit by was nothing to my weapon. The large blade of Farewell looked like a slab of metal attached to a handle. Rectangular in shape, Farewell had the primary advantage of modern melee weapons of generating counter frequency fields. These would render any protective shields, like I possessed, nullified.
Beyond its genuinely sharp edge, Farewell was a repulsion blade possessing technology that was unstoppable. With even the lightest of swings, it would cleave through most matter as it forced the molecular lattice of solid objects apart.
I felt the power locked within Farewell begging to be alive, burning in its power to be once again awoken. A stoic part of my mind merely stated ‘never’ as always, the small red ribbon tied around the bottom handle showing the motion of the swing the only indication of a deeper mode Farewell was capable of. It was a mode I never turned on any more.
To their credit the attackers continued firing bravely at me as the blade was swinging in. I easily could have killed the two of them in a single slash, but I was opposed to killing. I had lost the heart for it. If heart was what it took to kill, that is.
It would be so much easier to just leave them as bloody sprays against the wall. Alas, I was not taking the easy path through life in this, or many other things.
I turned my blade slightly so the fat part connected with the first man, clubbing him down. Arcing the blade I brought it down onto the second. Both of the lights on the rifles went out. I bent down, fumbling around on the weapons, hoping I could get lucky and find the switch for the light. I could not believe my bad luck that they were pressure-triggered flashlights, something that would be completely useless to me in my haste. After only a quick search I gave up to go back to running down the tunnel.
I held my weapon far to the side as I stumbled forward. I switched back to thermal just in time to see Arianna right as I hit her, crashing hard with both of us almost going down.
“Arianna!?” I whispered. “Why didn’t you keep running?”
“Are you okay? I am not going to leave you behind with such grand things at stake.” I felt two warm hands rub my face and hair, lingering longer than they should have, and for a moment on the deep scar across my cheek. A shiver penetrated my body which wasn’t from the cold, but the soft touch. She had always been fascinated with it. Her hands found my cut shoulder; in thermal view the warm red was clearly visible pulsing out of my flesh and over my battle armor before freezing. Her warm fingers pulled back as a red drop fell off of them to the black snow below. The weapon must have been an advanced knife if it managed to cut through my armor.
“I’m good for now. We have to keep going. I’m not leaving you behind either.” Our hands found each other again and we were off, an errant round from behind us occasionally catching the field of my shield and giving us a burst of light in the thin, snowy, tunnel. She whispered ‘thank you’ but I only kept running.
This escape was going about as well as I could have expected. The lack of communication I had with the rest of my team was problematic. We might come running out of this tunnel, ready to board our ship, only to find it destroyed, my team dead, and us surrounded. We pressed on with the desperate hope that the silence from my team was because of something other than their death.
“Is your shield…?” she asked as I looked down at the bracelet on my wrist, the tiny display showing the condition still in excellent shape. I had armor on, but if my shield failed, her life was much more vulnerable.
“We’re good. It was only small weapons fire, but we don’t know what we are going to face on the outside.” I adjusted it very slightly, making the field wider to ensure she was within it at all times. At each stage going in we left part of my team to secure it, so if my team was still alive, as soon we emerged we should be at successively safer locations. “We should be protected from death for a while, so don’t worry.”
“I am not worried,” she quickly responded. “There are things far worse than dying normally.”
“When you’re dead, you’re dead,” I said to her.
“No, there are events much more dire that can occur to you beyond just the end state of death, regardless of how you get there.”
This was partly why I liked Priestesses, they seemed to be on a different wavelength. I myself felt like I was on one, but there was little chance it was the same one. Half of her statements did not make apparent sense, and only later would I come to find a deep truth within them. The other half, I was sure she was just crazy.
With nothing to look at and the tunnel a long way from being over, my mind cycled on the gloomy topic of death, a topic scarred deeply on my mind. “So, you aren’t scared of dying?”
“Not of dying normally.”
‘Dying normally…’ I repeated in my mind. Whatever that meant.
I tripped over a large rock and nearly drug her down with me, feeling my armor plates slowly morph to accommodate my movements. I staggered a bit and we were off running again. The tunnel was no longer smooth which made our run even harder.
I understood her wearing normal Priestess clothes, but considering what we were trying to do, why did she not take at least a ballistic reinforcement plate? With her current selection she was entirely at the mercy of my shield protecting us both.
Supposedly their clothing was actually advanced protective equipment. For all intents it was possible her clothes were tougher than my armor – the Aelisha would not let the beloved Priestesses die so easily. If that was the case, why was she asking about my shield?
The armored knight, helping the princess…what a joke. It had been a dream of mine once. Ruined too many times by truth I was forced to accept. I had never wanted to be this way. I had grown colder and more jaded, with only the dimmest light in my heart still flickering softly.
“Why are you helping me?” she asked again. Why would she not let the questioning go?
“We needed the shields and weapons you paid us,” I said, dodging the true intent.
“You risked your life because of that simple payment?” She sounded doubtful.
“I needed to use you, do you like that answer better?” I left it at that, maybe she would accept that answer. I was not going to elucidate any of the reasons. My own motivations were simply stated, but more complex than they seemed. I doubted Arianna would get it; she was among the least likely. “Go right.” The wall took a sharp right that we followed, thrust back into complete darkness as the chasing team was still some distance behind us.
“I know you do not mean those words, Gauge. However, if you only knew the truth…” Her hand gripped mine firmer as if the truth was something she had to chain me to. Maybe her truth was enslaving, mine was painful but liberating. I had lost nearly everything on my quest for truth, but maybe I had gained something more important. Maybe.
“If I knew, would I have not helped you?” I glanced behind us, the light on the corner was growing stronger, and they would be able to shoot at us again very soon. I tried moving a little faster in the darkness.
“Quite the opposite.” I could imagine her sure eyes looking at me as she nodded assent to the question had we been in more normal circumstances.
“You lied?” I asked. The scraping of the blade was oddly comforting given the chase we were in. Why was she telling me all this now?
Priestess Arianna continued, “No. Everything I had stated was indeed true. But it is likewise true I did not tell you everything.” Well good, that made two of us who felt the need to keep secrets.
Again she halted my forward motion. I was usually patient, but the interruption had finally broken a level of my defenses; maybe that and her insisting on these insinuations instead of telling me what she needed to say.
I jerked her. “Come on! Don’t stop, we are almost out.”
If feelings were palatable, which supposedly they were according to some of the latest research I had been seeing, I sensed a very dark, scared feeling from this girl, and I could not even see her.
“Hey, what’s wrong?”
Her voice came in a quick, panicked tone, “They are not supposed to be here, it is such a late sign. The fracture progression is much more severe than I thought…no. No!” She shrieked, her form falling to the ground, nearly dragging me with her. I could tell by her soft hair falling on my real hand that she held both her hands over her face or ears. The reason we were here was softly glowing now, radiating from a pocket on her outer jacket. I was glad she still had it, but why was it illuminated? “We are going to die…” she whimpered out. She had become a liability I never expected her to be.
“No we aren’t!” I yelled at her, dragging her back to her feet. I was about to turn back forward and drag her out of here if I had to when I saw it. I knew in my heart this was the thing this girl feared all along.
With a bone-rending screech that completely bypassed my nanites, the object was emerging out of what I was sure was the wall. The soft neon colors now gave a definition to the blackness all around us.
I was looking at what appeared to be an energy outline of a larger, humanoid, flying creature. I was frozen looking at the side profile of its feminine face on a dark angelic body. The face looked soft, mournful, as if she was after something she likely would never get, but would be forced to endlessly pursue. Its outline looked almost like an Aelisha, with perhaps a fox ear coming up from the side of her face. The body appeared to have some sort of lattice or wings of energy behind its body
It turned, wisps of what looked like hair occasionally moved across the eye that was now looking right at me…more like right through me. Strange beauty derailed my mental process. The juxtaposition of the blackness with these neon outlines looked so strangely familiar. Maybe this was the dream I thought I had. My mind was happy to submit to this beautiful, grand power in front of me, submit to my own destruction. Part of me saw my death at its hands, and it was happy to be plowed under by such a superior being.
My existence was wrong. Its existence was right, and would summarily correct mine.
Location: Sand Dunes – Prison Planet ‘174x’
A sword may stay sharp in the sheath, but that’s not what a sword is built for. That’s not what I was built for.
The dust blew ferociously around the shrouded figure, long tendrils of the cloak whipping out far behind, instantly changing directions with each different gust of wind. The figure marched ever upward against the crumbling sand dune. Its legs were tremendously strained as they pressed against the falling sand. Stepping up, over and over, trying to not get buried under the cascading sand.
There was an easier path around the dune, but going straight over it was what had to be accomplished here. Destiny would rather this creature go around, but some things were better accomplished by going straight through. Sometimes, in the creature’s mind, destiny was better forced, not to question it, but to clarify the path truly laid.
There was something getting closer. This creature could feel that, but what, it could not tell.
The head of the creature methodically bobbed up and down, forward and backward; it changed less than the shape of the shifting sands swirling around it.
It was a generally lifeless planet. The planet’s axis of rotation was nearly parallel to that of its path around its rather unremarkable dual sun system. As a result, for nearly half of its solar cycle one pole of the planet was in perpetual sun, everlasting desert, and endless, painful, light.
As if it was any respite from this fate, the second half of the cycle was never-ending night and forever-stretching frozen winter wasteland.
Survival was as much luck as it was ignoring constant streams of pain and hunger. Dizziness was tolerable; the nausea was likewise tolerable in its pain, but potentially more dangerous as it evacuated otherwise extremely valuable liquid and food. Maybe the worst part was that this pain would seem so long in its duration, only to be revealed later that hardly any time had passed at all.
The bottoms of dunes were the only interesting part to the monotony, if only for it reflecting the harshness that was largely manifested through the uncaring, slowly shifting waves of sand consuming and revealing these areas. Even the deepest revealed pits were still far away from showing what was occurring underneath the sands.
The figure was unlike most of the creatures that actually lived on this fickle planet in that it was crossing the top of the sands. It did not have a choice, but regardless this difference was still marked. Still, the law of this planet was simple: nothing stayed on the surface for long; everything ended up under the sand dead, or alive but probably soon dead. Under the sand, that’s where the life occurred, and where it was evolved to handle the tribulations.
The cloaked creature, at the bottom of a particularly high hill of sand, dropped down and began digging hurriedly. It was pushing the sand away rapidly, hoping it was making progress against the ever-sliding mass replacing the hole it was attempting to make.
It leaned back, its cloak moving enough to let the unceasing light pour down into the hole, seeing if any change was there yet. The answer was no. Moisture was not so easy to come by in this world; it was much harder to get to than this pitiful little attempt. One had to be much more built for survival to stay alive for long on this planet. The volatility in extremes blasted any natural life off the surface from ever evolving to withstand it. It was a primary reason all creatures trapped on the surface was regulated to a painful, dry and certain death. It was the law of the planet.
Reasons like these made this planet, normally so forgettable, was even used at all. Concepts far removed from the planet such as ‘imprisonment’ and ‘crime’ often resulted in exiles to this planet. It didn’t care; it appreciated the influx of new nutrients. It was a strange thing that the law of the planet, and a much more fickle law of creatures, was so often used in conjunction, but the facts were undeniable.
The creature crawled into the hole; any sort of personal comfort, or sense of cleanliness had long ago been abandoned. The sand poured down the cracks of the creature’s clothes, grinding its already tender skin.
It still strove again and again at the sand, gradually getting deeper. It was inspired onwards by the cooler temperature, a huge welcome relief from the unchanging star’s light above. It wasn’t necessary though; unless the temperature was actually causing disablement, any discomfort, or even mild injuries, it could be ignored.
The creature continued to systematically wiggle its body deeper down into the sand while simultaneously digging; finally hitting the lifeline it had been searching for: moisture. The water, though sticking to the deeply worn and cracked appendages, was well welcome.
Instantly, it felt the soft, moving vibrations within this moisture. Despite the lifeless world above, and the harsh, dual season of the system cycle, there was life here, small as it may be in its complexity.
The planet, not blessed in regards to its angle of its axial rotation, nevertheless was still fortunate in its mineral deposition. The little water the desert side of the cycle saw readily leeched out the elements and minerals out of the sands, leeching them to a ready and desperately waiting pseudo single-cellular system of creatures.
If there ever were scientists that would come here, fully equipped with outside means to survive the planet, they would debate on the nature of these creatures. The organisms collectively formed a sponge-like net across the desert. Whether it was technically a collection of trillions and trillions of individuals, or one huge connected creature was a debate for weak academy professors that would have died a long time ago, their bodies feeding this life form. From the spongy material, there were larger and larger creatures, feeding either on the sponge, or on creatures eating the spongy material.
The cloaked figure thrust its appendage down through the wetter sand, grabbing the first squirming object it touched before gripping it tightly and plucking it out of its world of pursuit and evasion. The figure pulled rapidly up and outwards of the deeper sand while also crushing the worm-like body in its hand.
The carapace of the worm was extremely tough, but then its killer was likewise rather tenacious in its undying capacity for survival. Not wanting to waste anything, it rapidly threw the mess of chitin, fluid, and miscellaneous pieces in its mouth, forcing the unused organ to action, despite the lack of fluid it had itself. In spite of being crushed, the worm still clawed and thrashed rapidly in the cloaked life form’s mouth.
Tenacious. The chewing life form could respect that. Flailing, cutting, and spilling some blood inside the mouth of the killer actually helped matters in terms of the moisture department that was lacking within the mouth cavity.
‘Thank you, planet. I will honor your gift and attempt retribution for my continued life at this expense,’ the creature thought in its foreign language, closing its eyes and nodding in reverence to the planet. It would try to avoid doing this again, if it could.
The bright green eyes, marred by a single flaw of brown down one eye, looked out from squinted eyelids and cloths wrapped around its head. They looked straight ahead, not scanning, not looking; it had seen it all before. The desert was as endless and the same as it had been. It had known how to survive in them for as long as was possible, but that still did nothing to change the monotonous landscape. Only the rocky plateau that it was approaching that was composed of a harder mineral that had not been worn away yet offered any change.
The creature, a knowing part of a much larger machine set in play gave little thought to its purpose in things. It had been told a lot, but even more was kept hidden from it. Would a single individual be able to comprehend such things that could affect a whole race? Some individuals did strive to such levels, but really they amounted to nothing more than exercises in vanity. Yet, what about individuals brought to such levels by forces outside their own control?
It didn’t bother thinking on such things. Not because it didn’t matter, but because that thought avenue had long ago been exhausted.
A flash of movement, higher and to the left, disrupted this otherwise quiet scene of one tenacious life hanging onto its small remaining thread as it was trying to climb this endless rise.
Something else was out on the sands above it. From here it was impossible to tell the details, but two creatures that were barely visible were moving towards each other and in an instant one of them had stopped moving.
The figure moving up the dune ever so slightly adjusted its stance to watch for more danger. It felt the presence of another of its race, not in an overtly conscious sense, but a very real capacity that knew it was not alone. Maybe it could best be described in the way of recalling something that happened previously.
The creature continued on its path. Slowly, so slowly it made its way up. The steps were meticulously taken; a single rushed or mistaken step would cause the entire hill to slide down.