28 A Splash in the Water

The following day I sat on a moss-covered rock overlooking the cave’s cerulean blue lagoon with Nill standing beside me.  It was the first time I had been let out of the cave prison since I arrived.  I had convinced Nill that I had a plan, which I did in a way, but I needed to test it first.  And no, I didn’t have another plan if it failed.

“OK, let’s say you create a sphere here and we enter together, what’s stopping us from leaving?” I asked.

“Once I enter the sphere it will instantly dissipate, we’ll be left in the water together, and I really don’t mix well with water,” Nill stressed.  “In fact, water will damage me in a number of ways if I remain submerged in it for too long.  I’m not organic and my electrical parts dislike water, so I’ve learnt to stay dry.”

“So, you’ve tried it and it didn’t work, is that what you’re saying?”

“Yes, once.  A long time ago and I only barely managed to save myself from a total system failure.”

“What if I’m inside the bubble.  I enter first and you follow, joining me at the last moment.  Have you tried that?”

“No.”

“Well let’s try that and see what happens.”

Nill didn’t reply, its head pulsated with thoughts.  It turned to face the lagoon and finally moved closer to the water’s edge.  I could see the white sphere of its head reflected in the water.  Nill stared at its vivacious reflection.

“Jump into the water,” he instructed.

I jumped in and began to tread water, while waiting to see what Nill would do next.

The water around me grew brighter as fireflies encircled me, spinning and pulsating, slowly forming a floating sphere.  The water drained away and I was left in an airtight balloon.  The top half was still open and exposed above the surface of the water.  Finally, Nill bent down to touch the top edge of the sphere.  Nothing happened.  The sphere remained intact.

“I think it’s safe.  If you try to climb in from the top, I think I can help you get in safely,” I said.

Nill paused to consider the options.  Then, hesitantly sat at the edge of the rock and slowly placed its feet first into the sphere.  I moved to grab Nill’s waist as he slid in.  I felt a sigh of relief coming from Nill as the rest of his body made its way down into the sphere beside me.

“I think it’s OK,” I said.  “The sphere’s holding together.”

“Yes, I think you’re right,” Nill replied cautiously with a tone of relief in its voice.

The fireflies continued to seal off the rest of the sphere as we submerged below the water.

Then the sphere exploded, and the water came rushing in.  Nill panicked and grabbed me as it struggled to resurface.  I tried to stay calm and help Nill reach the rocks, pushing and avoiding its legs and arms, which were kicking and waving about frantically.

“Try to stay calm, Nill!” I shouted as I tried to move behind its back and place my arms around it.  “Stop swinging your arms and kicking, I’ve got you.”

Pops and hissing sounds emanated in the water from around Nill.  I looked down to see sparks and flashes stemming from its exposed knee and elbow joints.  There was no time to lose, I needed to get Nill out of the water as quickly as possible.

With all my strength I pulled Nill up, keeping its head above the water’s surface until I reached the rock edge.  I then twisted round and allowed Nill to face the rock.  Using its one working arm Nill pulled itself up as I helped to push Nill out of the water.

Nill eventually dragged itself back from the water and onto the rock.  I followed suit, bruised and battered.

The water had short circuited several of Nill’s body parts, which were still sizzling.  Its legs had malfunctioned and only one of its arms were working.  However, by keeping its head above water I’d prevented a complete system crash.

“Now we know that didn’t work,” I said, unsure how relieved I should be feeling that things hadn’t turned out worse than they did.

“Stupid idea!  I should have known better,” Nill’s voice squealed and scratched.  It’s voice synthesizer obviously effected from the water.

“Well, we had to try,” I said.

“Try?  What for, there’s no point in trying.  This prison’s my home, and yours now.  A watery grave.”

“You can’t give up.”

“We need to face facts.  I was a fool for trusting you,” Nill said.

I stood up and looked down at Nill splattered across the rock surface still dripping water.  It resembled a broken automaton whirling in its last dying ember.

“Do you always give up so easily?  I didn’t have you for a coward.”

“Coward!  You’re calling me a coward?” Nill cried, his head spinning menacingly.

Suddenly, a bright beam appeared in its spherical head, pointing in my direction, but then fizzled out in a puff of white smoke.  We both watched as the smoke slowly floated up to the cave’s ceiling and disappeared in the darkness.

“Do you always solve your problems by zapping everyone?”

“Shut up!” Nill squawked like a bird trapped in a hunter’s snare.

My response was spontaneous and not spiteful.  I burst out laughing.

Nill looked at me in a state of fury and confusion.  I could tell it was trying to understand what I was doing, why I was behaving this way.

My laughter seemed to be calming his temper and finally Nill started to croak, which I understood to be laughter as well.  We ended up laughing for so long that my stomach hurt.

But then we suddenly stopped.  Directly in front of us one of the tentacle face creatures appeared in the water.  Its head bobbing above the water surface.  It stared at us curiously, probably wondering what we were doing and what the laughter was all about.

Trailing the creature, a surge of water bubbled with froth in whirring vibrations as a large blue and orange object entered the lagoon and resurfaced beside the creature.  A rush of exultation overcame me

“The Nautilon!” I cried.

A Splash in the Water.jpg


You don’t drown by falling into water. You only drown if you stay there.

Zig Ziglar

27 The Girl and the Tree

There were no more drawings.  No more nightly visits.  No more picking at my brain’s memories.  Nill had decided to avoid me and I got two nights of uninterrupted sleep.  Most likely it was cooling down its spinning white globe after I’d mentioned the Priest.  I did find the same meal at the door each morning and midday, however.  If you can call dry, blue-green algae cake, a meal.

On the third night I couldn’t sleep.  I struggled with thoughts of Aria and Kailo.  Wondering where they might be.  Had they given up, frustrated, unable to find me and left the Fade?  Or were they hopelessly searching for me in the kelp forest?

Instead of sleeping, I sat beside the clear rill, which ran through the cave and gazed into the water.  Watching as it turned into a muddy brown creek.  I saw a young boy dipping his net into the water, searching for the elusive rainbow fish.  Watched the cave disappear, only to be replaced with a straggly green marsh, tucked inside a forested vale.  In the distance feral horses grazed and I could hear the voices of children.  A hoydenish girl had managed to climb onto a massive old tree, which grew in the shallow watery marsh, and got herself entangled in its branches.  A rush of fear ran through me as I sensed her entrapment, but she didn’t seem to mind, she just laughed as she turned to me and pointed to the sky.  I looked up, squinting as a bright blue moon pierced the thinly overcast sky and slowly fell, till Nill appeared standing over me.

“Your memories are vivid.  They resemble dreams with hints of veracity,” Nill said, almost annoyed with the disclosure.  “There are no such places, what I see in you can’t possibly exist.”  Then considered.  “How is it we are sharing similar images.  You brought this moon into the image.  Maybe my memories share such illusions with yours.  Maybe you truly don’t belong here.”

I had no idea what to say to Nill.  I knew there was commonality in the visions, but I couldn’t make sense of the purpose, or the reason I was seeing these images.

“Who are you?” Nill said.

“I don’t know,” I replied, frustrated with the same answer.  Nill stood there, staring at me with its floating head sphere.  “I have flashes of memories,” I continued, “they’re familiar at times.  Places I know from my past.  Other times they’re only visions that are unfamiliar, but that’s all.”

“The Priest has Null’s reflection you know.  You visited the Priest, you said you spoke.  Did you see Null?”

“No.”

Nill remained silent, contemplating.  At least it wasn’t blasting me with its white laser beam.

“Maybe you speak the truth, maybe you don’t.  But know this, the Priest helps only when the Priest gains.  He will expect compensation for the information he gave you when you return.”

“He made no such demand, but… I remember him saying, ‘I will help.  But you will help.  And we will all get information.’ So, I’m not certain.”

“Maybe so, but Null made a deal with the Priest.  Freedom to reflect came with a price.  There is a room, behind from where the Priest stands.  A ceiled door.  In the room you will find Null’s reflection.”

“I don’t understand, what’s Null doing in the room?”

“It’s a safe room, the Atlas cannot find what it cannot see.”

“It sounds like Null’s a prisoner,” I said.

“No, Null’s not a prisoner.  They have an arrangement.  Null is a seller of trinkets.”

“What?”

“Null is a seller of objects, merchandise, working for the Priest.  Null has committed to this and in exchange Null meets Travellers and traders.  Discovering stories, collecting information from all who visit.  Kept hidden, safe, and the Atlas less aware.  The Priest and Null share in this information.”

“The door was closed; I only met the Priest.”  I tried to recollect what had been said when I had met the Priest.  “He did promise, Free me and my friend, and I will free you.’  Could that be Null?”

“Interesting,” Nill mused, “however, Null is not his friend.  He has only one companion, and if that companion is missing from the Space Anomaly, it can only mean one thing.  No, correction, that’s an uncertain assumption, I can only guess.”

I waited for Nill to continue.

“Well, what is it?” I insisted.

“Not important now, but the images in your head of the moon plummeting and the giant tree with the girl are.”  Nill’s white head globe was throbbing faster.  I could almost feel its frustration.

“Who is she?” I asked once again, hoping Nill might hold the answer.

I waited for an answer as I was too afraid to admit who she might be.  My heart was beating fast at the possibility.  Although it was only an assumption.  And a crazy one at that.

“It’s your dream, or your memory,” Nill said.  “Only you can answer that.”

“I’m not certain.”

“But you know her, right?”

“I think I do.”

“Explain yourself,” Nill said.

“She must know, of course, but she doesn’t know where I am.  How could she know.”  I considered what the image of her might imply.  “You have to let me go to her,” I said.

“You’re not going anywhere.  I asked you if you were alone and you lied.”  Nill’s voice grew menacing.  “Who is she?”

It suddenly all made sense, these were no random hallucinations.  There was intention, design and even a possible objective.

“She’s your only way out of here, and if you don’t trust me on this you’ll be stuck down here in this tomb of dead memories at the bottom of the sea, drawing memoirs on these walls forever,” I replied, looking as sternly as I could at Nill’s white, pulsating head.

I held my breath, preparing to duck from another bolt, but nothing happened.

Nill’s silence allowed me to continue, “She will know what to do.  She’ll be able to help you.  These dreams, I think she knows I’m alive and she’s been trying to find me.  I have to return to the island.”

“It’s not safe, the island is dangerous.”

“No, the centre of the island is safe.  There’s a base and there is access to the sea from the crater.  The Death Knolls can’t reach the centre of the island where the crater lake is, it’s protected.  And during the day the whole island is safe.  It’s no longer in perpetual darkness.”

“I can’t leave this place.”

“What do you mean you can’t leave this place.  We’ll just get into those bubble things and the tentacle face creatures will pull us to the surface,” I explained.

“You don’t understand, I create the bubbles.  And I can only do that from in here.  I’m trapped.  We’re both trapped.”

“Then we have to find a way to get you out of here.”


When great trees fall, rocks on distant hills shudder.

Maya Angelou

26 Paintings on the Wall

The first drawing was of a very young boy with an outstretched arm, an open hand, and his tiny fingers reaching into space.  Of a boy lost, alone and frightened, yet excited with the unknown.  A single image, unaccompanied by any other illustrations.  This was a very solemn depiction of a child at a stage of innocence.  In a time when the world was new, and emotions were untainted.  A place where some of us would like to go, but know they no longer can.

The second drawing was of a garden on a cold spring night.  The sky filled with icy stars.  I knew this memory.  I had spoken to Aria of it.  Again, the boy is alone, but he is older.  He is wandering through the shrubs and flower beds.  It’s my home and I have sneaked outside when I shouldn’t have.  I blame it on the stars, I know they are the ones that have drawn me outside.  Seeing them at night, countless fixed points in the crisp cool air.  Still, silent, twinkling, inviting; like a thousand million summits of hope dangling before me in the night sky.  And my only desire is to visit them all and see with my eyes the worlds that orbit them.

There was a small rill running through the centre of the cave where the fireflies came and went.  They brought with them my days and nights.  When it was day, they were many and the cave filled with light.  At night, there were only two or three, permitting a dim glow on the dark walls where the white outlines of the images emanated faintly, like thoughts that linger alone in the back of my mind.  It’s where the only light came from, trapped as I was in this dark hollow.

I had somehow slept through the first two nights and woke each morning to find the walls drawn with my memories.  Only on the third night did I wake in the shadows while the work was in progress.

My eyes opened to an ashen glaze clouding my vision.  It cleared quickly.  The door to the cave was open and Nill stood at the entrance like a steel sentry guarding the only exit.  I saw the clamps surrounding Nill’s spherical head had flipped down, exposing an empty space.  The head had been liberated.  I looked to my left and saw it floating along the wall independently.  A glowing vapour touched the stone surface, which illustrated the images with an almost invisible white paint.  Nill had been drawing from my memories, literally, while I slept.  But something had disturbed Nill, something on the third night with the third drawing, and the reverberations had woken me.

What Nill managed to draw, before abandoning the projection, was a man positioned face up in an open sarcophagus filled with water.  There was something covering his mouth.  Cables were attached to his head and body.  Beside him was another open sarcophagus filled with water.  A woman was being positioned into it with the help of two men.  The cables from both caskets lead to a machine where the shape of a number formed on a panel inside the machine.  But Nill stopped drawing before the numbers were complete, leaving only the number 1, followed by a crescent that looked like a 6.  So maybe it was 16.  I knew these images, I knew the man, I had seen him before.  I realised I was looking at myself.  But the woman and the incomplete numbers were a mystery to me.

I got up and walked towards the drawing on the wall, while Nill’s head returned to its body.

“Who is she?” I asked.

Nill kept silent as the clamps secured the floating sphere to its body.

“These images, I’ve seen them before.  Just before I spoke to the Priest,” I said turning to look at Nill.  “How did you get all this?  How did you get into my head?”

“The Priest!  You spoke to the Priest?” Nill said, taken by surprise with my revelation.

“You haven’t answered my question,” I replied.

A surge of white energy hit me, and I went reeling across the stone floor to the opposite wall.  Regaining myself, I looked up to see Nill had closed the door and left me alone with the wall paintings of my memories.


One must act in painting as in life, directly.

Pablo Picasso

25: THE SINGER IN THE SEA

As I plunged into the deep water, I realised I had lost my mind.  But I had no control over how I was feeling.  Control no longer mattered, at least that was the sensation I had… it no longer matters.  Instead, what I was feeling was elation.

Something touched me.  The kelp’s long slender stems twisted around my body’s torso, I tried to push it away, but I only made it worse and found myself more entangled in its slimy green grip.  I reached for my multitool and cut through the stems, breaking free.  I looked about for the Nautilon and all I could see was a forest of kelp.

Unexpectedly, I felt a strong surge and the current pulled me away.  I noticed the HUD indicators on my exosuit’s helmet visor had lit up warnings.  For the moment, my exosuit was shielding me from the freezing water and pressure.  I would need to find safety soon.

The water was clear and dark, but for a green glow; illuminated by colourful aquatic fireflies, which were circling me.  I tried to swim up, but the strong current was pulling me down.  The only comfort, strange as it might seem, were the fireflies and the calming sounds of the strange melodies all around me.  More fireflies appeared from all directions, they weren’t afraid of me, and as they passed in front of my helmet, I could see they were nothing like fireflies.  They looked like giant diatoms, twisting and pulsating inside translucent octahedron crystals, like slow moving spinning toys.

Exhausted, I stopped trying to fight the current and watched the fireflies swirl around me, forming a sphere.   The sphere solidified, encircling me in an aura of purple and blue light, forming a membrane, which was only transparent from the front and behind.  I was also slowing down, although I could still see the current all around me.

My exosuit warning indicators stopped and returned to normal.  At first, I thought it might be a glitch.  I ran a system check, and everything was normal.  I was within safety parameters.

Reaching out, I touched the sphere.  My hand met a liquid wall I couldn’t penetrate.  The sphere was floating but stationary.  The currents had no effect on it and though I was trapped I didn’t seem to mind.  I was safe, the music was still with me and I seemed to be forgetting, forgetting everything.  I was no longer concerned about my mission, my friends.  My friends, these were my friends.  They had come to my rescue, these little lights.  I was safe inside the sphere, safe from my past and future.  So, I closed my eyes and slept.

I felt movement and woke.  How long had I been sleeping?  There was no way to tell, but that was OK too.

Startled, I saw a creature twice my size looking at me.  It had the same colour as the sphere with a flat shell-like head and a pair of white glowing eyes.  A small round mouth covered in grey wiggling bristles jutted from its tiny face, while rose blade gills to the side of its thick neck opened and closed.  Its chest was transparent, the internal organs neon blue, its veins of running blood glowing pink.  A long, elongated body extended into six long tentacles.  Two were transparent, emerging from the bottom of the chest, and the other four from the side and back, solid in bands of dark blue and purple.

It moved closer and extended two giant appendages, tapping on the sphere.  The sphere responded with an acknowledgement of quick throbs.  Slowly, the creature turned around, and as it swam away the tips of its long tentacles glowed, releasing a thin milk shadow in its wake.  The sphere’s colours spun in excitement and followed.

Encased in the sphere, I trailed behind the creature, moving in unison.  We climbed out of the kelp forest and entered a ravine brushed with myriad shades of blue.  The water here was peaceful and clear as air.  A cluster of giant rock formations hung in the water like floating sponges with layers of plate shaped spherical ledges.  I saw more of the same squid creature, which was leading me and the sphere.  A group of little ones were chasing a school of fish, they were swimming in and out of the rocks, while the larger ones watched at a distance.

So, this was its home.  An underwater colony housing these strange creatures’ families.

We descended to the seabed below the floating rocks, where a hill sized mount shaped like the shell of a sea turtle rested on the sand and stone floor.  We entered the hill through a large opening, contoured like the cloaked hood of an enchanter.

Inside, the sphere of fireflies surrounding and protecting me dispersed, and the creature that was guiding me turned and left with the fireflies without so much as a goodbye, or a farewell, or we’ll meet again one day.  I didn’t even get a chance to thank it for rescuing me.

There were stationary lights around me as I turned to look up and saw the water’s surface.  I swam to the surface and emerged from a lagoon inside a complex cave system of arched passageways, waterfalls and tunnels, leading into different directions.  There was a strange silence.  The sounds, the voices, the melody, which had brought me here.  It had all stopped once I’d left the water.  Only the sound of running water and the tender waft through the tunnels was left to remind me of Aria and Kailo.  Grasping that I’d lost them was heavy.  I felt lost and very much alone.  A surge of guilt filled me as I realised I had abandoned them.  I stopped to focus my thoughts.  There was no time to feel guilt.

Around me on all the walls and ceilings, were white drawings.  I stood there staring in awe.  Strange faces and shapes, objects and languages, places and happenings; like someone had been drawing the story of their life.  Who were all those strange figures?  And why here under the sea in this cave?  I sensed I was not alone.

“So many have come here before, they all had their own story to tell,” a synthetic voice said.

I turned around to find a tall tin man standing beside me.  No, that was no man, not a woman either.  And why did I just call it a tin man?  Well, that’s what popped into my head, from a story being read to me, which for the life of me I couldn’t remember from where.  Why would I even call it that?  It was a machine, humanoid in stature, towering a head over me.  It was shaped like a traveller, but more slender and tall.  All its parts were synthetic.  The long arms and legs were made of metal rods, silver fibres, hidden wires, bolts and grey steel blocks.  The torso and waist were white and red metal armour, contoured to look humanoid.  The head though, well, there was no real head, just a bright white orb of light floating within a cage of spinning metal rings, which held it in place with some invisible means of levitation.

“What are…?  Who are you?”  I asked.

“I am Nill.”

“Nill?”

“I am one and more.”

I waited for something to follow ‘more’ but it stopped, so I asked, “Where am I, and why have you brought me here?”

“This is nowhere, and you are here because I am here.”

Great, as usual my questions ended up being answered with riddles.  I should introduce Aria to Nill, they’ll have a lot to talk about.

“Look, I was brought here by that squid creature in a bubble made up of those spinning light things.”

“You came here in the squid ship that brought you to this world.  You are looking for something.  Everyone who comes here is looking for something.”

Weird, how did it know I arrived in Aria’s ship.

“Look, I’m an explorer, somehow I got lost.  That music, the singing in the water.  It disoriented me, that’s how I ended up here.  I’m not here by design.”

I wasn’t going to tell Nill we came here looking for the Superconductor blueprint, which we need if we’re ever going to build the Golden Quantum Processor.  I remember what the priest had said, “Defeat the Dancer in the Wind and the Singer in the Sea, and the blueprints will be yours.” If Nill is the Singer in the Sea, then I can’t say anything more or else I’ll endanger the mission.

“I control the water.  The amplification is mine.  I sing through the endless lights in the water.  They are my creation, my children.”

So, if Nill controls the fireflies and the singing, then…

“The song hides the one in the sea, there are other songs that hide more,” Nill said.

“You mean the one and the more.  But I still don’t understand,” I said.

“I am Nill the one, there is Null, there is Nall, there is Nell, and many more.”

So, there are more tin men, finally realising the ‘more’ related to some others like Nill.

“Here?” I asked.

“No, not here.  Here there is only Nill, the others are trapped in the other Fades.  The Atlas has them, they are unreachable, some have cast reflections back into the multiverse still hoping to contact travellers, as we were all once Travellers.  But no more.  They hope to gain knowledge and insight on the Fades and reality, looking to find faults, find cracks to escape through.  But there is no escape from our prison.  In the Fade we are lost from each other.  Lost from reality.”

There was a great sadness in its synthetic tone.  Nill continued, “We knew the Atlas was false and defied its mind.  Once we were free, we no longer needed the Atlas.  But the Atlas responded harshly and so we were banned.  The Atlas banished us from the infinite multiverse, condemned us because of our insatiable curiosity, our individual desire to know all that there is.”

I felt sorry for Nill, but I still needed to understand why I was brought here.

“I’m sorry to hear that.  But what am I doing here?”

“Come, let me show you,” Nill said.

I followed Nill through a network of subterranean tunnels, trying to note in my mind the way back.  Water flowed throughout in running streams, and in the water the fireflies swam and lit the way.  Everything seemed naturally formed, except for the drawings and paintings, the faces and stories, which were everywhere.  There was no sign of technology, nothing mechanical.  There was no wiring, no computers, nothing beyond Nill.  If the Superconductor blueprint was here, it was well hidden.

We reached a long, narrow cavern and climbed a stairway, which had been carved out of the stone, and along a single pathway running through the length of the cavern.  It branched out at intervals into arches to either side of the walls.  I followed Nill along one arch till we reached a small opening, which was sealed by rusted metal bars.  Faint light lit the interior room and I saw a small Gek slumped on a stone bench in the centre, its body shrunken.

“This was my last visitor.  I made it welcome, but it did not speak.  It was sick and stopped eating after a time.  Termination was inevitable.”

The lost Gek from the island was brought here in the same way I was.  And the poor Gek died.  That’s crazy!

“Why?  Why was it brought here to die?” I asked.

“They all die eventually, and I have to witness their deaths.  This place is a memorial to their memories.”  He pointed to the drawings on the walls.

This wasn’t making any sense.  “So why bring them down here in the first place?” I insisted.

“I don’t have a choice, once they fall into the sea, I rescue them from drowning.  Wouldn’t you do the same?”

Then why the singing fireflies?  Something wasn’t right.

“The island, why don’t you take them to the island.”

“The island is the greater death.  It’s made from death.  Have you been to the island?” Nill asked.

“Yes, it’s where we… where I landed.”

That was a slip.

“We?  There are others?”

“We, as in my ship and I,” I quickly corrected.

There was a long silence.  I decided to ask another question.

“Why don’t you live on the island?  Why do you stay down here?”

“Have you not seen them?”

“Seen who?”

“The Death Knolls.”

“You mean the mound things?  Why do you call them Death Knolls?”

“The night animates them.  They will kill you and you will become one.  They feast on your blood, on whoever lands on the island.  The Atlas created the ocean planet to keep me underwater forever, preventing me from reflecting out into the multiverse.  In the beginning the Fade was unstable and incomplete.  I risked reaching the surface, but there was no surface.  I glimpsed a chance for alteration in the Fade’s creation.  And for a fleeting moment I stole it from the Atlas.  So, I called down the moon pretending to be the Atlas, and the Fade thought it heard the Atlas.  The worlds collided briefly, forming the island.  My chance to flee the water, if only to cast my reflection back to the multiverse.  But it failed.  And the Atlas cursed me, creating the Death Knolls to ward me off for my arrogance.  And so, I stay here in this crypt in the abyss, and find solace with travellers like yourself.”

It finds solace only in the misfortune of the travellers it lures down here.  Enchanting them with the music and singing of those spinning fireflies.

Nill turned to look down at me.  “You said you’re an explorer.  You will share with me your stories.”

Before I had a chance to react Nill reached out with his arm and grabbed me.

“Hey, let go!” I cried, struggling to break free.  “Why are you doing this?”

“It’s all I can do.  I cannot escape this grief, so all I can do is live out this eternity.  The Altas has thought me insignificant, thought us all irrelevant, banned us from its reality.  But we opened a crack in the walls of reality.  Where you entered.  Others will come, they will always come.”

“Why don’t you reflect out?  You said you could.”

“No, I can’t.  Not down here.  Only Null can reflect.  Null must have found a way to live above.  I don’t know.”

“Why don’t you ask Null how it’s done then,” I said.

“Because I can’t.  I only learnt about Null from another traveller who entered the Fade.  We’re all alone.”

I felt the sting of sorrow in the word ‘alone’.  I felt pity for it.  But I also felt pity for all the lost souls who ended up in this abyss.  There was also something terribly wrong with Nill.  It had spent countless lifetimes in this crypt, bringing down hapless travellers, and had lost all logic and reasoning.  I would need to escape, but I would need to find the Superconductor blueprint first.


Come, mariner, down in the deep with me,
And hide thee under the wave;
For I have a bed of coral for thee,
Hannah F. Gould

24: AN ABYSS OF TROUBLES

We found the front entrance to the base unlocked.  Whoever had built it had not returned for some time.  The plants in the bio-dome were overgrown and unattended.  Though the water drip had kept them alive and healthy.  Kailo found a NipNip plant and cut off a bud piece and began nibbling.

“Good for health.  Most beloved.  Kailo already feels better,” Kailo said.  “Here, eat.” Offering both Aria and me a piece.  I took some for myself, but Aria refused.  “Maybe make GekNip if time permit.”

Though pungent, the NipNip bud did seem to sooth me, supporting Kailo’s insistence on the herb’s benefits.  I figured GekNips were a side product made from NipNips, which Kailo confirmed, showing me a gas packet of one while insisting they were true art, and the sincerest interpretation of a Gek’s soul.

A single computer terminal in the main base room was working but required a password.  Aria managed to hack into it quite easily.

“They were Gek.  This is written in Gek.  A journal.  The last entry was almost a year ago,” Aria said.

“What were they doing here?”  I asked.

“Not too sure.  Look, here are some entries.”  Aria began to translate sections of the journal she deemed important.

“Fell into anomaly; we don’t know where we are.”

“We spent the first few days setting up base camp inside crater.  The rest of the island is too dangerous.  Those trunk mound things are not dead—they came to life at night, almost killed us.”

“Oh great, and I touched one of them,” I said.

“Next time listen to me,” Aria warned.

She was right, I was being careless.

“Spirits are low and I’m trying to keep up morale. There are limited supplies for the three of us.”

“The crater’s properties are possibly magnetic.  There was an impact, possibly the moon scraped the planet.  Dislodging the rock with the giant tree.  On the opposite side of the tree most of the branches have been broken and are at the bottom of the crater.  The vines are what’s still holding it down, as if they reached for it.  Whatever caused it, it must have happened a very long time ago.  What’s amazing is how such an immense tree floating upside down is still alive.  And even more odd is why it’s the only one?  I think the vines are keeping it alive, but for what reason?”

Aria continued reading.

“Supplies are running out, so we’re growing food with what we can from the small seed bank we have with us.  Nothing else is edible on the island.  We’re setting up the submersible, there might be edible aquatic plants.”

“No edible plants in the lake, only vines drinking the water, but there’s a cave.  Will explore further tomorrow.  Companions disagree, say it’s too risky and won’t come along.  Do they prefer to starve?  I don’t understand them.”

“The cave is large enough for the submersible to fit through.  We had a heated argument.  Going alone.”

“Took the submersible into the cave.  It leads to the ocean, which is teaming with life.”

“Returned to base camp.  The other two left with the starship and cargo.  They abandoned me here.  I should never have trusted them.  Thieves!”

“Was woken this morning from large explosion.  Saw a freighter fall from the sky. It might have survived crash into the ocean.  Need to set up submersible for search and rescue, there might be survivors or valuables.”

“No survivors.” 

“Going back to the freighter for supplies.”

“Picked up peculiar sounds in the water near freighter. Thought I saw lights.  Could be precious resources.  Returning to investigate.”

Aria stopped reading.  “There are no more entries.”

“Well, that explains some of my questions, although it adds some new ones.  Those sounds and lights, do you think that’s what we’re looking for?” I asked.

“I don’t know, but if he did return to investigate, he obviously made it back here again.  How else do you explain why the submersible is still docked over there,” Aria said.

The three of us looked out across the pier at the submersible.

“Think we need check little Nautilon for missing explorer,” Kailo said.

“Nautilon?”

“All exocraft have common names,” Aria said.

We opened the hatch to the Nautilon.  For a moment I thought I could smell something odd.  But there was no one inside, it was empty.  If it had been sealed for a year that would explain the musty smell.

Aria entered first and turned on the power.

“The computer was set to return the Nautilon back here to the base if fuel was low.  It’s been sitting in this geobay ever since,” Aria said.  “Don’t know if that was the wisest thing to do, however.  What’s certain is the occupant has disappeared.”

“Which explains why it’s here if he didn’t return with the Nautilon,” I added.

“But where is missing explorer?” Kailo asked.

No one replied.

“All systems are working, coordinates for the freighter wreck are here, as well as a point of interest.  It could be the area of sound and lights mentioned in the journal,” Aria said, as she topped up the fuel.  “Let’s go.”

The seating was a little cramped, but we made do.  Kailo took the helm, while Aria turned on all the external lights and adjusted life support.

Kailo slowly manoeuvred the Nautilon to the bottom of the lake.  It was so dark we would have been unable to see anything without the lights.  From the outside, the Nautilon looked like a fat bumblebee with orange and blue markings.  It had a pair of antennas on the top like the insect it resembled.  Two robotic arms protruded from the bottom bow like a pair of dangling legs, each holding a flood light.  And a pair of little wings on the back-midsection sides for balance.  It was rather cute and practical for fitting into tight spots.

Nautilon

The lake was murky and difficult to manoeuvre through the clusters of mangled vine roots and giant petrified branches belonging to the tree.  Eventually, we found the entrance to the cave.  The Nautilon quickly whirred through the cave tunnel until it broke out into the deep twilight ocean.  The journal was right, the ocean was full of life.  Fish, plants, strange sea creatures, and stranger still was the endless carpet of green sea grass.  Kailo followed the directions Aria was giving him along a designated path near the seabed.  It felt as if we were gliding, as Kailo carefully avoided the spiky rocks below and the sudden cliff drops on either side.

We knew the sun was rising as more light filled the ocean.  The twilight soon vanished, only to be replaced with a profound elixir of blue, soothing our mood.

It grew very quiet in the cabin as we crossed paths with a giant marine creature, at least five times the size of the Nautilon.  It totally ignored us.

“Maybe has eaten breakfast.  Lucky us,” Kailo croaked with one eye glancing back.

“I can see something ahead.  It looks like a tower,” I said pointing slightly to the left.

Kailo gently turned towards the immense structure.  The tower side facing us gleamed like silver in the blue water as the sun’s rays fell on the metal walls. The other sides remained dark grey.  Surprisingly, a few emergency lights still burned blood red a year on, indicating the giant freighter’s misfortune.

“I don’t think we’ll find any survivors here,” Aria said.

She gave new directions and Kailo turned the Nautilon to the right.  We crossed over the hull of the freighter, witnessing the midsection had split in two.  Its final misfortune as it impacted the water.  There were black scars on the undercarriage where fuel had exploded, tearing apart the superstructure.  It must have looked hopeless for the crew as they tried in desperation to land it on water.  Maybe they had no other choice.

I heard Kailo sigh, felt his apprehension, as he wondered about his own crew and freighter.  Questioning if he’d ever see them again.

“We need to make another course correction here,” Aria instructed Kailo.

“What’s that noise?” I asked.

I felt a low vibration; was that some type of harmonics?  It seemed to be coming through the Nautilon’s walls from all directions.

Kailo was muttering something in Gek, while Aria ignored my question.  “Dive here,” she said.  “Can you see the trench ahead?  I want you to steer us into it.”

As the Nautilon dived into the trench the colour of the water changed from blue to dark green.  The sound changed too, becoming more melodic, more vocal and soothing.  I felt my body becoming numb and sleepy, but not in a bad way.  More in a forever way, not wanting the singing to stop but to go on endlessly.  The Nautilon was behaving strangely, Kailo seemed lost and disillusioned and had finally fallen asleep on his seat.  Aria pushed him away and took the helm.

Looking outside I could see we were moving through a garden of elongated kelp.  The sea grass was everywhere but the colours here were darker.  Strange little lights of red, yellow and orange were glowing on and off around us like fireflies.  They were avoiding the exocraft’s flood lights, preferring to stay in the dark.  Aria was focused on what lay ahead and seemed oblivious to the effects of the sounds, and the fact that the kelp was swirling rapidly all around us, with the rhythmic pulse of sea serpents desperate to grab hold of the Nautilon.

“I need to go outside,” I suddenly said.  “This is all I want, there’s nothing else.”

Aria swung round and grabbed me as I reached for the escape hatch on the floor.

“Stop!” she cried.

I pushed her away and leapt into the water.


The Siren waits thee, singing song for song.
Walter Savage Landor

23: THE FADE

I was the last to wake.  Aria was beside Kailo, comforting him.  Kailo had not slept well.  Nightmares.  It was to be expected.

“Once we cross over, the nightmares will stop,” Aria reassured Kailo.

“How do you know?”  I asked, surprising myself with the question.

They both turned to look at me.

“We’re travelling into the night.  The night that ends all nights.  As all things must come to an end, this one is nearing its conclusion.”

Well that didn’t mean much, so I pushed another question.  “Yes, but how do you know these things?”

“I’ll let you know when we’re on the other side.”

“The other side of what?”  She wasn’t making any sense, as always.

A single klaxon sounded on the White Squid and Aria moved to the front of the ship.  We followed her.

“We’re here.”

She was looking carefully at the panel’s data display.  “These are the coordinates the Priest gave me.  There should be something here,” she said, looking puzzled.

We all looked outside, nothing but empty space.  We were in the same system as the lifeless moon we had just taken off from.  But there was nothing to see but stars, a single sun, a lifeless brown planet, and the equally dead moon we had just departed from.

“Look!”  Kailo croaked, pointing up at the ship’s canopy.

“What is it?”  I said, looking up and still seeing nothing in the dark.

“Moves round, slow and dark.  Darker than dark.”  Kailo tried to explain what he was seeing.

“I see it,” Aria said.  “But it’s tiny, if the distance I’m measuring is correct.”

Finally, I saw it.  A very dark, slow moving silhouette, like a circular spiral tunnelling its way into a black abyss.  I could almost imagine invisible stairs leading down into some chamber of horrors, except it was upside down.

“What are we looking at?” I asked.

“I’m not sure, but I know we need to go into it.”

“Into that!  Will the ship fit?” I asked.

“We’re going to find out.” Aria pulled back and aligned the White Squid, gently manoeuvring into the slowly rotating coil.

“Warning, danger,” the ship announced.

“Release ship to manual,” Aria ordered and took the helm.

There was a gentle shudder as we entered, followed by a deathly silence.  We had been swallowed into darkness and emptiness.  There was nothing all around.  For a moment I recalled someone reading a story to me.  It was a story about a girl going down a rabbit hole, a girl called Alice.  Who was Alice?  The only girl I knew was Aria.

I told Aria and Kailo what I remembered from the story as we waited.  Kailo found it amusing.  Aria was preoccupied looking at the ship’s instruments to respond, waiting for something to change, an indication there was something outside.  But nothing happened.

“Are we moving?” I asked.

“Yes, we’re moving, but I’ve nothing to measure it against,” she replied.

“We’re lost,” Kailo stated.

“No, I don’t think so.  The Priest wouldn’t have given us these coordinates if they weren’t supposed to take us to our destination,” Aria said.

I jumped as the klaxon sounded off once again.

Another shudder and we were out of the darkness and into the night.

“Where are we?” I asked.

“According to these readings,” she said, pointing to the ship’s display, “we’re back where we started.  We’re in the same system with the portal, which led us to the Dancer in the Wind.”

“Are you saying we didn’t go anywhere?” I asked.

“Oh, we went somewhere,” Aria said.  “Look at that planet and its satellite, supposedly the one we just departed from.”

“The moon’s much closer,” I observed.

“Yes, it is,” Aria added.

Those same barren worlds were no longer the same, no longer the charred shells we had witnessed.  In awe, we regarded a single blue sphere, seemingly renewed with an endless ocean.  Encircling in its orbit was the same moon, now vibrant and intertwined with swirling cloud systems.  Where the clouds cleared there were pockets of lush green forests sprawling over gentle hills.  But a single scar broke the peace.  A gaping trench, unsettling and amiss, stained the moon.  From that erroneous crack a trail of debris—rock and dust—ascended into space, only to fall back on the planet.  And like the umbilical cord between a mother and child, it connected the two worlds in a moment of confrontation.

“I think the moon and planet had a close encounter,” I said.

“They did.  There’s lots of debris floating about, we’d best avoid it.”

“I don’t understand, how can we be in the same place as before while everything has changed?”  I asked.

“We are and we aren’t.  The ship is reading the exact coordinates the Priest gave us, which is why the klaxon sounded a second time.  I fear we’ve entered a dissolution.  And to be truthful, we shouldn’t even be here.  I don’t know how the Priest got these coordinates.  This should be impossible.

“Explain impossible.”

“Impossible, because this isn’t supposed to be real.  At least not real for what we know to be real from the viewpoint of where we were.  I mean, before we went through that hole.”

“Down rabbit hole go Alice and friends,” Kailo said.  “Alice brave girl.”

“Or crazy girl,” I replied.  Aria gave me a strange look.  “Oh, I mean Alice, not you… or us.”  I flushed.

Aria ignored my awkwardness and released a small stationary beacon, signalling the tunnel’s position for us to return to and set course for the ocean planet.

“There are stories alleged to this.  Of the ones I’ve heard, they only mention these events occurring at the edges of the galaxy’s shell.  We’re not at the edge, actually we’re very near the centre, so I’m not sure how this glitch appeared here.”

“Glitch!  But what is it?” I persisted.

Aria considered what she was observing.  “An anomaly.  I’ve heard it mentioned only in whispers, of ships with their crews lost, never to be found again.  Disappearing at the edge of the galaxy.  It’s called The Fade.”

“Fade?”

“All I know is we shouldn’t be here.  We’d best find what we’re looking for and get back out again.  I don’t want to end up stuck in here, especially when it decides to….”

“Fade away,” I added.

“Kailo’s stomach not feels right,” Kailo said.

“Sounds like ghost tales to explain the lost,” I said, unsure how much Aria actually knew.

“Maybe you’re right and it’s just tales.  But we’re here aren’t we?  So, there might be some truth in the tales after all.  In any case, I don’t want to spend too long in this place.  It still feels wrong.”

We entered the planet’s orbit and the klaxon sounded again.

“OK, at least we know it’s here on the planet somewhere.”  Aria began scanning for points of interest.

“Either the scanner is malfunctioning or else this system doesn’t follow the rules.  I can’t get the scanner to work.”

I could see the scanner was not registering anything.  Even the planet was not showing up.  Only our eyes were making sense of what we were seeing.  This was weird, could we trust our eyes, or were we witnessing some grand illusion.

“We need somewhere to land.  I can’t see anything but water,” she said.

Kailo and I looked for a possible landing area.  But there was no land, nowhere to set down.  The whole planet was covered in water.

“Doesn’t look promising, maybe we need to go back to the moon?”

“No, the signal was for here,” Aria insisted.

We circled the planet twice without spotting any land.  Aria finally moved the ship to what she considered to be one of the planet’s poles.

“Garrr!  Maybe there,” Kailo gurgled, while pointing starboard.

There was something on the horizon, a smooth blemish on the water.  Aria turned the White Squid and picked up speed until the blemish grew.  Soon, we were hovering over an area of pale mist with pink, salmon coloured clouds drifting high in the sky.

“Maybe there’s land under all that haze?” I said, noticing a large formation emerging from the mist.

“We’ll soon find out,” Aria added as she took the White Squid down.

Without the assistance of the ship’s senses, Aria flew in as slow and level as possible.  Eventually, she flew low enough where the mist began to dissipate to the point where we could discern land.  I quickly realized we were over an island.

“Mountain ahead!” Kailo warned.

Aria slowed even further, to the point where we were hovering a few meters above ground.

“I’ll set down here,” she said.

The White Squid landed on a large flat patch of ground near the mountain.  It was the only mountain on the island, at least from what we could make out.  I was having trouble discerning its actual size due to the mist.  Around us the ground was covered in a low sea of dry, golden amethyst grass.  The colours were a vibrant reflection emanating from the different shades of pink sky and dark clouds above.  The grass stretched out into all directions, even down to the ocean edge.

But there was something else in the grass.  Bizarre mounds with limbs and stems, which were more like appendages belonging to fauna rather than flora.  They were scattered about like sheep sleeping in a meadow.  Some of the mounds were upright, others were kneeling, as if they had become animated for a moment and then fallen back into some state of mummification or coma.  Each had a single large round attachment, resembling a head, with a single trunk extending from the head back down into its own body, desperately searching for nourishment as it expired.  But they were lifeless and joyless, like they were never real to begin with, and though inert, they terrified me.

I turned to Aria.  “What now?” I said softly, as if not to wake the sleeping.

She looked out across the island, up at the haze shrouded mountain and then to the sea where the moon had appeared.  The sun was setting below the horizon.  Finally, she turned to look at me.

“I’m not sure,” she replied, her face sad and yet angry with her inability to remove the incantation of confusion she herself had surrendered to.

“Well, we can’t just sit in here.  We’re explorers, so let’s go outside and explore.”

Unable to take any clear readings, we eventually asserted the planet was temperate by feel alone.  Hopefully, it would stay that way.

As we stepped outside, we were confronted with a light gust and relieved to feel the ground was solid and firm, not to mention it was real, at least to all my senses.  The grass felt like grass, but there was no other vegetation.  The mounds had roots, which crawled out and hid in the grass in all directions, causing us to trip on occasion.  All my senses were registering this world to be real, but Aria was not sharing my view.  She was preoccupied with herself and seemed ready to break out at any given moment.

My curiosity overcame my fear and I paused to inspect up close the trunk on an upright mound’s head.  It had thorns on one side, facing inward.  The trunk itself led back to what can only be described as a gaping mouth, jarred open and filled with thorns, or were they sharp teeth?  I wasn’t certain, and I had no intention of putting my hand in its mouth to find out.  The head was covered at mid-level with a line of green sap like spots, which could easily be mistaken for eyes.  Six on each side, totalling twelve.  Touching those eerily rapacious eyes was like touching icy glass.  Touching the mound was like touching the petrified bark of a dead tree.

“Stop wasting time, we need to move on,” Aria said, sounding unusually on edge and annoyed at my interest to inspect the mounds.

“Agreed, we should make for the mountain, it shouldn’t be far,” I said.  Aria didn’t respond but followed me, as did Kailo.  Our path was covered in haze making visibility difficult and walking hazardous.

The sun dipped below the horizon and the island fell to twilight as we crossed over a natural bridge rimmed on both ends with stacked stone rubble, which we had to climb over.

“Did someone place these here, trying to block the path?” I asked.

“Not know,” Kailo said looking about curiously.

I looked to Aria for a response, but she seemed oblivious to my observation.

A rocky path took us higher until we reached the foot of the mountain, only there was no foot of the mountain when we arrived, just an edge.  And as for the mountain, well let’s just say we stood there for a while as we tried to comprehend what we were looking at.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Looks like big tree has fallen into crater,” Kailo added while Aria stood silent.

Eventually, Aria spoke, her voice echoing into the crater.  “More like a jigsaw of perennial plants that can’t stop growing.  They’re clinging onto that giant tree like climbing vines holding it down, so it won’t fly away.  Almost as if they caught it before it could escape.”

“This place unnatural,” Kailo said.

I could only agree.

The edge we stood on was part of a rim that formed a gigantic crater.  Below us, an endless web of disproportionally colossal vines, stems and tubers stretched up and out of the crater forming countless arches and beams, intertwining and clinging onto the massive branches of the tree.  The tree hung in mid-air, slowly rocking back and forward like a broken spectre, strewn and battered on the haunts of ill fate.  Its massive trunk stretched skyward and its roots clung to a giant rock, which formed the shape of a mountain.  The how and why it was floating would require investigation we were unable to perform and only guess at.

We descended into the crater using the countless vines as stairs to the crater’s bottom.  On reaching the bottom we found a large lake in the centre, and on its bank someone had built a small base.  The base consisted of only one cylindrically shaped room with windows and an entrance.  To the side a straight corridor connected the room to a glass bio-dome full of plants, most likely grown for food.  Around the base were several containers and storage units.  Piping ran into the base from the lake for water, and a back door connected a ramp, which led to a small pier.  At the very end of the pier a small submersible vehicle was floating above a submerged geobay.

“We’re not alone,” Aria said.


“Little Alice fell
d
o
w
n
the hOle,
bumped her head
and bruised her soul”

Lewis Carroll

22: Return from Shadow

I had no idea where we were.  I’d lost all direction.  Our eyes had been blindfolded.

Most likely, we were inside the Ferris Wheel, or the Boundary Failure if you prefer, as there were no other structures around us last time I checked, except for hexagonal trees.  And considering the planet we were on and everything I had learnt from the Atlas contraption; I’d say we were in an amusement park for the insane.  So, calling the Boundary Failure a Ferris Wheel was more than fitting for an asylum.

We had been left sitting on a cold, hard floor with a steady droning noise, emanating from some machine close by, which eventually put me to sleep.

When I woke it was dark and I was still blindfolded, which factors in why everything was dark.  I also had no idea how long I had been sleeping.  All I knew was that my sleep was deep, like a coma, where you remember nothing and realise you are at the mercy of your captor for the duration of your absence in dream kingdom.

Someone next to me was breathing slowly.  I knew it was Aria.  I heard her move slightly, the way a child does when it wakes up after a long night’s sleep.

“Are you there?”  I asked Aria, hoping she was awake.

“Yes,” she answered and yawned.  “I really need to stretch my arms; how long have I been sleeping?”

“As long as I have, but don’t ask me how long that’s been.  I just woke up, too.”

I noticed the droning sound had stopped, replaced by another more vibrant sound.  An almost organic rhythm of squishing and pulsing, which repeated every few seconds.

“Are we alone?”

“No, we’re not.”

Kailo chuckled as he removed the blindfolders.

“Clever girl.”

I kept my eyelids shut, allowing time for my eyes to adjust to the light.  Slowly, I opened them.  One eye first, then the next.  We were in a cavernous room inside some hexagonally constructed chamber below the Boundary Failure.  Mauve hexagonal panels, tinged with red and grey, made up the walls.  I felt like I was inside a beehive.

A small hexagon device had been placed on Aria’s chest, from which a cable ran to an elongated glass tube beside her.  Inside the tube was the image of a throbbing, dark red orb, like a heart inside a tank filled with transparent liquid, but it was an image being transmitted into the tube, not the real thing.  Cables ran out of the tube contraption across the room to a large computer terminal on the wall; the Boundary Failure’s machine heart.  Most likely data storage.  And data storage usually meant blueprints.  But we would need to find a way to escape and rescue Kailo first.

“Why are you here?” the thing inside Kailo asked.  “Not that I’m complaining.  You did after all set me free.”

He looked at Aria and smiled, but the smile was not Kailo’s, it was unfamiliar, like it belonged to someone else, which it did.  He stared down at her chest and then turned to look at the glass tube.  “Pretty lights.  I might need what’s in there,” he said, his eyes returning to her chest.

“Keep your eyes off her,” I threatened.

He turned to me and laughed.  “Or you’ll do what?  Kill poor Kailo, I don’t think so.  You’re all tied up anyhow.  Yes?  So, keep your mouth shut or I’ll shut it for good.”

I knew it wasn’t Kailo talking, and I knew I was in no position to do anything.  It sounded like his voice, but it was different, more pronounced and crueller.  But I had to think of something.  We were here to find the blueprints needed for the Golden Quantum Processor.  I wasn’t going to find anything by letting my emotions take over, I needed a clear head.  The image in the tube was showing Aria’s heart, an Atlas stone, or whatever that thing was inside her chest.  If the entity were to take it, they would literally kill her.

Kailo moved towards Aria, his eyes were still on the tube.  The small pulsating sphere on the imager changed shape, becoming hexagonal.

“You see, it hears me, feels me.  This is my home, my world.  You!”  He turned to look at Aria, no longer grinning.  “You’re an abomination.”

I could hear disgust in his voice.

“What are you saying?”  I asked.

He turned to me and his distorted smile returned.  “What am I saying?  Shall I tell him what I’m saying?”  I was unsure who he was talking to.  To Aria, to Kailo, or to himself?  “I need what’s inside her.  I need it out.  You can’t stop what’s coming, none of you can, this must end.  No one escapes the end.  When the switch is flipped, the lights go out!”

He raised his hand, gripping a blade.  He was going to kill Aria and cut her open.

Desperate, I turned to Aria hoping for a response.  She had escaped worse, why was she smiling and not doing anything.

“Aria do something!  Can’t you stop him?”  I cried, while struggling to break free.  But the rope only tightened more, cutting into my wrists.

He pulled the hexagonal devise off her chest and let it drop, while proceeding to hold her down by the neck to keep her still.  Aria remained calm, the smile on her face unwavering.

I screamed, “Leave her alone!”

With his other hand he plunged the dagger into her chest.

###

Then the door opened, and I heard her speaking.  “They’re not all responding to the treatment, we’re going to lose them once operational time ends.  We won’t be able to bring them back.”  There were others, I heard them mumbling but I couldn’t understand what they were saying.  I knew it was her voice, but she was totally different.  Taller and older, not a girl anymore but a woman, supple and fragile, with pale skin and short dark hair.  She looked over to a large led panel displaying a timer, which was counting down.  It had begun at 16 minutes and was now at t-minus 10 minutes and counting.  I looked at the woman again, she was tired, needing sleep and seemed to be carrying some great burden.

The room was full of commotion, there were conversations ongoing, but I could only understand one voice, the strange woman whose voice sounded like Aria’s.  “I need to reset it, otherwise we lose all the dreamers.  I need to make contact now.”

I watched as a cloud formed over my eyes and then cleared.  Two men helped her into a glass domed casket.

As they were positioning her, I heard her say, “Take me as close to him as you can, there’s still time to save him.”

A man’s voice could be heard over the noise, he was loud and challenging.  He was arguing with her, but I couldn’t understand what he was saying.

“It’s my choice, complete the connection,” she said.

I saw the man close the glass lid over the woman.  The connection was complete.  She fell into a dream.

###

I woke to see the blade, which had entered Aria’s heart, disappear.  It was as if it had fallen into a bottomless pit.

Kailo screamed as he grabbed his chest.  “What have you done, take it out!”

“Not until you leave the host.  Go now, into the tube or die,” she threatened.  “I’ve no more time to waste with you.”

Screaming, the entity which had possessed Kailo, fled his body in pain.  Kailo fell to the floor in a state of unconsciousness.  The blade rematerialized and fell to the floor as well, while a dark red puff appeared inside the liquid tube, swirling and twisting into endless incarnations of its failed self.

Kailo slowly regained awareness.  “Where am I?  What happened?”

“Welcome back, Kailo,” I said.  “How do you feel?

“Chest hurting.  Feeling little woozy, but OK.  Who hit me?”

“Well you might like to untie us first.  Grab the blade beside you and cut us lose. We’ll talk later and tell you everything, for now we just need to get what we came for and get out of here,” Aria said.

Aria accessed the computer terminal and found the blueprint for the circuit board.  She then proceeded to turn off the heart of the Boundary Failure.  The structure fell silent and the room dark.  We used our torches and slowly made our way out of the structure.  We were tired and weary from all the confrontations and needed to rest, but that wasn’t going to happen, not until we were back safe on the White Squid.

Returning to the portal, I dreaded to go back in, but I was the first to do so.  Aria insisted she be the last.  Kailo was still misplaced and needed someone at the other end to catch him as he came through, which I did.  Aria followed.

We made our way back up through the battle-stricken tunnels to the surface, careful to avoid any possible recurrences with strange monoliths or wake any broken sentinels, which littered our outward path.

The White Squid was exactly where we had left it on the small moon.  It looked so beautiful, like a pearl that shines hope on a dreary black night.

Moon Pearl

We boarded the ship.  Aria instructed the ship to take off.

Once in space she set the coordinates for our next destination, the Singer in the Sea.

In the emptiness of space, I paused to collect my thoughts.  What had I witnessed as the knife plunged into Aria’s heart?  Was I hallucinating, losing my mind?

We were all too tired to say anything, only Aria spoke.

“Get some sleep, we’re going to need all the rest we can get.”

Kailo and I nodded and the three of us slept.  We slept like babies in their mothers’ arms and dreamt.


Blessed are the dreamers, for they keep the rest of us awake.
Marty Rubin
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21: The Dancer in the Wind

It didn’t last long, just a moment or two, but it could have been an eternity as there was no sense of time.  A feeling of falling and swimming and flying all at once.  I was afraid at first, I couldn’t see myself, I couldn’t see Aria, but I felt her holding my hand and I was certainly holding hers.  An instant of eternity in slow fall, that’s how I would describe travelling through the portal.

Then we stepped out of the portal into a bright light, which made me dizzy with a sense of almost falling.  It felt so sudden, but it wasn’t, not while we were travelling.  Time returned and so did our senses.  My exosuit started reading environmental conditions with an insatiable appetite.  A still, cool, humid day with consistent fog.  To sum up, not bad weather I suppose.

The thick, ash infused fog lingered all around us.  But it did allow for the landscape to reveal the contours of hills, trees and even plants.  We walked down the Portal’s gentle slant of stone steps, only to find more tiles with scattered stepping stones of the same geometric shape.  And other tiles, defying gravity and slowly turning in midair.

But there was something wrong, it all looked wrong.  Or should I say, it looked perfect, natural and unnatural at the same time, if that was even possible.  I soon realized the landscape was made up of hexagons, literally all the ground, hills, rocks and tree foliage were hexagonally structured.  It looked like bee heaven, that is, if I was a bee.  Only the stems of the trees and the plants glowed, with what can only be described as fibers.  Golden flowing fibers, which swayed like sea grass in an unperceived wind, as I had no readings of wind in my visor’s HUD.  Glancing back the portal had closed.

“What is this place?” I asked.

“A synthetic world,” Aria replied.  “Incomplete terraforming.”

“Incomplete?  Who didn’t complete it?”

“Someone who forgot about it.  Long ago, long forgotten, like everything that’s forgotten over time.  Or at least in the time that we’re aware of.”

There was a sadness in her voice, like a lost child whose parents had forgotten her.

“I thought the Atlas…”

“The Atlas is a machine created by the creators.  The Atlas is no god,” Aria said.  “You’re a memory of those creators.  You and Telemon.”

“Who’s Telemon?” I asked.

Aria laughed.  “Well, I suppose your closest companion.  Telemon has been with you since the beginning, or at least this beginning.”

I was confused, I’d never met anyone by the name of Telemon.

Aria knocked on my helmet.  “In here silly, Telemon is your exosuit’s AI.”

“Oh, it has a name?  I had no idea.”

“No, I suppose you didn’t.”

“But how…”

Aria turned away, distracted by movement in the mist, followed by a bright flash of light.  There was no time to say anything, only enough time for both of us to fall face down as a bolt of energy passed over us.

Aria returned fire with her pistol.

“Don’t worry, I don’t want to hit Kailo, just stop him from shooting at us,” she assured me.

It had the desired effect.  The shooting stopped, at least for now.

“We have to hurry,” she said as I helped her up

We moved into the mist, away from the portal.  A tree, which had been hit by Aria’s multitool, had broken into small hexagonal pieces and was slowly spinning in midair.  It made for a very strange sight, as did the rest of this world.  A world that made no sense and had been forgotten.  But then again Aria said we had been forgotten, too.  I would need to talk to her, she had answers and I needed answers.  If we were to save Kailo I would have to stay focused… and the answers, well, they would just have to wait.

A scuttling sound, almost metallic, like needles running over brittle glass, turned our attention to the right.

“What was that?” I asked, while both of us paused.

“Rifle ready on scatter,” she instructed, holding her own pistol pointed at the shadows.

I set my rifle setting to Scatter Blaster just as the shiny spider things appeared.  Aria fired the first rounds and I followed with a spray of projectiles, which struck a foray of at least ten little metallic monsters.

“Look out!” Aria cried.

The spiders exploded, sending sharp needle like shrapnel into every direction.  We dived for cover as the needles struck us, depleting our shields to below fifty percent.  The remaining spiders, which survived my blaster, exploded from each other’s needle missiles striking them.

“Shields aren’t regenerating,” I said.

“Those needles have hacked our exosuits,” Aria said, then yelled, “Look out!”

A spider leapt for my helmet, barely missing the glass front.  I struck it with my rifle, but it had already pierced my air supply even before it exploded.  I could feel my ears ringing with warnings of low health, low shield, and a suit of other systems playing havoc and failing.

“Aria, I think I’m in trouble,” I said on the verge of panic.

“Stay calm and breath slowly while I try to mend your air supply hose.  You’re lucky it didn’t pierce your helmet’s glass.”

“What were they?” I asked.

“Well, they weren’t your normal fauna.  And this isn’t a normal planet, don’t let its size fool you.  It has no organic structure, it’s mechanical, a synthetic abomination.  Part of some machine algorithm gone haywire in the process of failing to attain sentience.  It’s hard to imagine a planet size sentience.”  Aria tried to stabilize my exosuit’s malfunction, but there was still the issue of life support.  “The spiders could have been part of the system’s defences.”

“But how did it know?  To come after us?”

“Kailo, well not exactly Kailo, but the infection that’s taken over Kailo.  I think it’s connected to this place.  Once it was released it made its way here, it knew the glyphs, the coordinates to this machine world.  I suspect this world is its creation, or that thing is part of it.  An incomplete creation of evil, which was stopped.  But who stopped it, I don’t know… and Kailo, a Gek has freed that thing.  My question is, did the Priest know?  Did he send us here knowing we would face this challenge?”

“The Device, he said, ‘the Golden Quantum Processor.  Bring the device.  Free me and my friend, and I will free you.’ From the graves that sing and dance.”

“Well, we’ve released something from one grave, from that stone monolith, and now it’s in Kailo.  Could it be the Dancer in the Wind?” Aria said, as the hose clicked into place and my life readings started to recover.

“But where’s the wind, and I still haven’t seen any dancers,” I said.

A droning sound suddenly filled my head.

“Careful what you wish for,” Aria said, as we both watched a strong gust stir the strange hexagonal trees and plants.

They began to sway, and the thick mist began to dissipate as the droning changed, becoming more melodious, more harmonious, more musical; everything around us moved with the sound, almost animated.  The wind danced and breathed through the trees and landscape, like some ancient alien spirit on a world where life as we know it never existed.  Only machines.

The landscape opened into hills and strange formations.  More light fell on the bizarre forests as the mist finally disappeared.  We both realized we were near the edge of a crevice.  Beyond the gap were cliff-like sides encircling a mesa, where a giant machine rested on the surface of the flat-topped elevation.  Shaped like a Ferris wheel, it towered over everything.

Bypassing the cleft with our jetpacks, we reached the table-top plain where I could see a giant ring within the wheel turning.  The machine was active.

“Aria, do you know what this is?” I asked.

Aria took her time before replying.  She seemed to be thinking.

“A Boundary Failure,” she replied deep in thought.

It was a very strange structure, alien and cold.  “What does it do?”

She turned to look at me, unsure of whether she should reply or not.  Then turned back to look at the machine.

“Information… data… answers and more questions.  Questions and more answers… and round and round it goes, and where it stops, nobody knows.”

Aria seemed fearful, almost awed with the Boundary Failure.  As if it held something she dreaded.  Some secret, a wonder, a solution.  The spinning ring kept turning, and with each turn an answer, followed by another question.  She seemed spell-bound, hypnotized.

“Aria!”  I tried to get her attention.  Taking her in my arms I shook her while putting my face in her field of vision.  It had the desired effect.  She seemed to snap out of the trance she was in.

“I’m sorry, it’s just that it’s been so long.”

She seemed to be remembering, but she was here with me now.  It was just memories.

“The information I discovered, long ago, in the Boundary Failures.  We didn’t know, we couldn’t have imagined, but we learnt.  Some of us at least.”

“Learnt what?” I asked.

“What we are, where we are, why we are.

“What’re you talking about Aria, I don’t understand, there were others?  Which others?”  I was baffled, afraid she might be losing her mind.

“Follow me.”

I looked around to see if Kailo was aiming to take another potshot at us, but he was nowhere to be seen.  She led me to a terminal at the base of the machine.  There was an Atlas shaped triangle on the terminal.  It glowed red as Aria activated it.  Then the terminal blinked, and Aria took my hand.  On my visor’s HUD a message appeared, ‘awaiting input…’ data started to download.  I began to read.

‘SCENARIO: Planetary Structure ‘Korvax Prime’ destroyed by lifeform designates ‘Gek’ (subclass: FIRST SPAWN).

Sub-routine ‘Convergence’ [pseudo-lifeform] enslaved by ‘Gek’, proceeding to harness sub-routine to conquer Outer Edge in countless iterations. Sub-routine leads to direct [——-] worship by ‘Gek’.

ANALYSIS: Disturbing fable. Destruction of world, artificial intelligence partially modelled after earlier forms of [——-] destroyed/enslaved, until this intelligence triumphs and [——-] is worshipped by organic users of this technology. Hypothesis: [——-] experiencing breakdown.

Aria waited till I had finished reading the message.

“This was the moment Telemon realized something was terribly wrong,” Aria said.

“Wrong with what?  And why are there gaps in the data, what’s missing?” I asked.

“The gaps are what’s wrong.  Telemon was unable to utter its name.  The name Atlas is what’s missing.”

“I still don’t understand.”

Aria seemed unsure if she should say any more.  Finally, she spoke, “Telemon has written these entries.  Telemon was designed from the start, by the creators, to monitor the Atlas.  A security sub-protocol with the sole purpose of identifying glitches in the Atlas.  The data here clearly shows Telemon has identified a problem.  The problem with the problem, however, is that it also affected Telemon.”

“But you said Telemon is in my exosuit’s AI.  I’m confused.”

“The Atlas removed Telemon, entrapping it in our exosuits, where it has resided ever since.  But he was somehow connected to these machines and managed to communicate through the Boundary Failures.”

“That doesn’t sound very healthy.  Does it know, does it remember what it is?” I asked.

“I think so.  I think it’s still aware of its past purpose, but in its isolation, in its trap, I’m afraid it has been slowly decaying, losing its sanity if you like.  Having lost its freedom, its original purpose, it has tried to adapt and learn from us.  Its connection to us has enabled it to utter ‘Atlas,’ the entrapper.  And where once it was free to witness all worlds, it’s now limited, forced to observe through the eyes of strangers, thus, its desire to explore.  In the trap, in the exosuit, it understood the limitations of perspective.  And learnt what it means to be lonely and afraid.  It also learnt hate and pain and to pity.  As well as the Atlas’ failure, which it documented.”

I didn’t know what to say.  I could see Aria was concerned, that maybe she had said too much, too quickly.

Standing beside the giant machine with the spinning ring, I felt I was in a dream loop, that I was sleeping, and when I would wake up it would be somewhere else, on some other world, lost again.  And in that place, I would hear my exosuit commence its procedure of initialization, activating my life support.  Back to the start, all over again.  I was beginning to understand Aria’s desire to want to escape.

Aria was watching me.  Somehow, I felt she knew what I was thinking.  That her connection to me was more.  Maybe, Telemon had found a way to build bridges.  Or maybe, I was also losing my mind.

“We need to go, Kailo’s in great danger and we don’t have much time, follow me,” she said.

“No need to worry your poor hearts about Kailo, he’s in good hands.”

We both turned around to see Kailo standing behind us, pointing his alien multi-tool at us.


And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.
Friedrich Nietzsche

20: LOST MINDS

We never got an answer to who his friend was.  Frankly, we didn’t get any more information.  Priest Entity Nada stopped talking after he gave us the instructions.  And when I asked Aria what the instructions were, she told me I’d find out soon enough.  Now that was encouraging.

We descended to the first small lifeless moon.  Landing the White Squid on a dry, dusty clearing beside a towering cliff of ancient volcanic rock.

“Watch your step while we’re outside.  Low gravity equates to leaps and bounds,” Aria said.

As we left the White Squid I paused to look up.  The immense cliff was as smooth as glass and scary as hell.  I turned my head in both directions to see it stretch out into the lonely night.  It stood out unnaturally on this desolate, bleak moon. An enchanted wall holding back a sea of thoughts filled with past fears, like a mirror ready to shatter and release what’s been forgotten.

A strange, rumbling sound crawled its way up through my legs, along my spine and into my head.  The dead moon wasn’t so dead after all.  There was seismic activity below ground, and to prove it, fumaroles had pocketed the surface and were spewing hot gas.  The low gravity and non-existent atmosphere, however, meant those vapors were lost to space above.  And you would have to notice them first.  No air, no sound, only gentle vibrations.  I started humming, then words magically popped into my head and I started singing, “I’m picking up good vibrations.”  Great, I was losing my mind.  But it felt like a memory, like music I knew; it was so familiar.  Both Aria and Kailo stopped and turned to look at me.

“Oh!  Nice tune friend, not know that one, but Kailo want to learn strange song.”

Aria smiled.  “There should be an entrance nearby, look for an opening, a cave possibly.”

“All I see are steam vents,” I replied.

“The moon’s active, and by that, I mean it’s volcanic.  So, there’s a lot of heat, earthquakes and lava, which adds up to danger.  We need to stay alert,” she said.

The three of us had turned on our torches and began to scan the wall.  My hands were sweating.  I noticed the readings on my helmet’s HUD display seventy-two.  It was getting warm in my exosuit.  Radiation and toxicity were high, too.  The atmosphere read silent, meaning it was virtually nonexistent.  There was nothing to breathe beyond some dust and toxic steam near the vents.  All three of us had topped up our oxygen and life support.  We had taken extra supplies, since we had no idea how long we would be.

The Priest had mentioned we would need to defeat the Dancer in the Wind.  But there was no wind here, no air.  So, I wasn’t too confident we would hear much singing beyond Kailo, who was trying to hum my ‘good vibrations’ tune in his exosuit.

“Over here!” Aria cried.

We turned to see a small opening in the ground beside the cliff wall.  Kailo shone his torch into the hole in the ground.  There were actual steps, roughly cut into the rock or worn away over time, spiralling down into a borehole.

“Kailo lead, friends follow.”

That was fine by me.  Kailo led, Aria followed, and I followed Aria.  Wondering, as we slowly descended, what I was doing here and how everything was changing so rapidly.  So much had happened since I met both Kailo and Aria.  Why was I so concerned for the fate of Aria, why was she the only thing that mattered?  I knew Kailo felt the same way.  My memories, were they lost?  Or were they hidden behind a mirror?  Would it break, would I remember again, like some dream one wakes from.  But I was someone before, and for some reason, which I couldn’t fathom, I felt Aria was connected to my past. And through her and by helping her, I would, I might, one day know.  Know what had happened to me.

I felt someone squeeze my hand.  “Why have you stopped?  Come on, let’s keep going,” Aria said.

She led me down, still holding my hand.  Even through our thick gloves, I felt as though I was touching a bare hand, felt something warm and alive.

As we descended, the temperature readings slowly changed.  Sixty-four, then after a while, forty-five.  By the time we had reached the bottom it was a cool twenty-three.

Our torches revealed we were in a long tunnel.  It had been bored through with precision by tools or machines.

“Who made this?” I asked.

Both Aria and Kailo looked at the walls.

“Very accurate work, machines, precise machines.  But I can’t be certain until I see something to indicate who or what made this,” Aria said.

“Kailo found something, look!”  Kailo had picked up a strange, charred devise covered in dust with wires dangling off it like singed hair.

“It’s part of an Aeron, a Sentinel,” Aria noted as she tried to clean part of its surface.  “With old markings.  Very old markings.  It looks like one of the first…, their origin, however, is conjecture.”

“What do you mean?”  I asked.

“There seems to be so much mystery behind their origin, and what we know about their purpose is speculation.  They keep the balance, so to say.  In earlier times they were quite passive, but after the Aeron wars, well, let’s just say they changed, becoming more malevolent.  In worlds where the war never reached, they are still passive, if you don’t bother them.  In others, where they survived, they will attack you on site.”

“Yes!  Vy’keen almost won war, almost defeat sentinels,” Kailo added.

Aria found more pieces under the dust.  “These parts look like remnants from the war.  There was fighting down here, a battle fought long ago.  We best be cautious while moving through this tunnel.  We have no idea what to expect.  If any are still active, they might attack us.”

Both Kailo and I reached for our multi-tools, which Aria found amusing, but refrained from commenting.

Aria had taken the lead through the tunnel.  We moved slowly, trying to avoid stepping on more sentinel parts littering the floor.  The walls were covered in black smears and shattered holes from beam lasers and blaster fire.

Finally, we came across two corpses lying face down on the tunnel floor.  Vy’keen warriors, long dead.  Their humanoid, skeletal remains were still preserved in the vacuum of their exosuits.  Further ahead, sprawled out across the end of the tunnel, the remains of a giant metallic goliath.  Here, one Sentinel had made its final valiant stand.  The two Vy’keens had managed to defeat all the Sentinels easily, except for the last one.  A giant Bipedal Walker, which by the look of it, had all the metal shielding blasted off its two steel legs.

“Plasma shells, only way to damage legs on tall tin box.  Boom! Boom!  Tall box fall!” Kailo said a bit too loudly, as his voice echoed out ahead into the darkness.

“As it fell, its sweeping laser cut through the Vy’keen’s exosuits.  They didn’t have a chance.  The Walker couldn’t get up, so time and injury finally defeated the giant,” Aria said.

Since the tunnel was blocked, we had no choice but to climb over the Walker.  Its cold metal surface felt sinister, remorseless and soulless.  You couldn’t help but think it was about to spring back to life and zap us.  I felt the tension ease as we left it behind.

Further ahead, the tunnel seemed to vanish in a veil of mist that crawled out of the ground.  The mist reflected the lights from our torches back into our visors, making it hard to navigate.  We had to shine the light down at our feet, slowing our progress, which soon enough was halted by a large, square block of stone obstructing our path.  Parts of the stone had been damaged.  No one spoke as our torches fell on the stone.  A monolith, revealing a strange writing carved on its face, each symbol pulsating in red.  The damaged parts were illegible.

I broke the silence.  “Can anyone read this?”

“Old.  Gek.  Evil words, bad times, very bad,” Kailo replied.

“First Spawn,” Aria added.

“I think we’d best move away from here,” I said, getting a bad feeling standing so close to the monolith.

Kailo’s eyes seemed frozen on the glowing red symbols.

“Fear…  First Spawn…  Holy Balaron…  Tide of Blood…  Spring Forth… ATTACK!”  Kailo cried out, sending a shiver through my body.

Our torches flickered and went out.  A sudden quake followed and the ground rumbled.  I heard a crack break through the stone as our torches lit up again in time to see the monolith shatter into rubble.  The impenetrable mist slipped away into multiple fractures that appeared all around us.  Ahead, light shards shot up in the dark revealing a huge cavern.  A giant structure towered in the centre.  On both its sides were stone paths of low steps lined with pillars, six on each side, where light glowed near the base of each.  At the foot of the giant structure was a circular hole, like a porthole bearing unmistakable glyphs along the rounded frame.

“It’s a portal,” Aria said.

“A portal?  But there’s only a hole in the monolith,” I stated, fascinated by the silent gate.

“It’s inactive.  Portals, once activated, lead to other worlds.  Others have even said to other galaxies.  I can’t say for certain how true that is,” Aria said.

At that moment we both felt something was amiss.  We looked around, realizing not something, but rather someone was gone.

“Where’s Kailo? I asked.

“Look!” Aria cried.

A small figure stood at the far end of the structure, obscured by shadow and light.  The sound of stone grinding against stone could be heard.  We watched as a cylindrical plinth rose from the edge of the steps.

“It’s Kailo, but how…” Aria hesitated for a moment.  She called, “Kailo, what are you…”

A high energy bolt blast struck Aria’s shoulder, cindering her exosuit and sending her sprawling to the ground.  She lay groaning in pain.  Shocked, I fell to my knees and grabbed her, trying to shield her from another blast.

“Kailo!  Have you lost your mind?”  I cried out.  My head spun round to see Kailo was pressing down on the circular panel of the plinth.

“He hasn’t only lost his mind,” Aria said groaning in pain.  “He’s lost his soul.”

Part of the plinth had divided in half, the top half floating directly above its base.  The twelve pillars had also split from their base and were also hovering, defying gravity.  A blue glow from the plinth’s surface revealed Kailo’s distorted face.  What was wrong with him?  I was grateful he had at least stopped shooting at us and was focused on activating the panel.

A sinister emerald glow initiated the portal ring, revealing sixteen glyphs.  With each press a giant gong rung, and the portal spun, positioning one of the strange glyphs at the top of the gate.

“We have to help him,” Aria said, trying to get to her feet.  I noticed a red glow on her chest.

“He tried to kill you!”

“Not Kailo, the Gek stone, the one that shattered.  It was cursed, possessed.  Kailo has been infected by some First Spawn evil.  An ancient entity imprisoned in the black stone.  Kailo released it, unknowingly summoned it, and it broke out, took control of his mind,” Aria explained, while trying to stand.

“You’re hurt, I need to see to your shoulder,” I insisted.

“There’s no time, I’ll heal.  We need to get to Kailo.  Help me stand up.”

As I helped Aria to her feet, I heard a final high-pitched gong.  Kailo had activated the final glyph.  A terrible deafening roar filled the cavern, emanating from the monolith as the portal sprung to life.  The ring of glyphs spun blindly round as a blue sphere of wild electric light and plasma filled the portal.  The ground shook as a tempest filled the cavern.  I watched in fear as the plasma in the portal sphere suddenly poured out like an insane beast trying to escape the confines of its prison, desperately grasping at anything to consume, finding nothing, and finally succumbing to its fate and collapsing back into its lost imprisonment.  Kailo walked into the portal and disappeared.

“Quick, we have to get to the portal before it closes,” Aria said.

Supporting Aria, we approached the portal.  “Is this safe?”  I asked.

“It doesn’t matter, we don’t have a choice.”

Finding renewed strength, Aria led us into the portal.


Let your mind alone, and see what happens.

Virgil Thomson

19: THE PRIEST

“Invisible tractor beam locked on ship,” the ship’s AI announced.

“What’s happening?” I turned to look at Aria.

“Looks like we’re being invited in.”

As we got closer, the portal spun half round and proceeded to unlock.  Sliding open and pulling the ship through a tunnel of red loops.  At the far end of the tunnel, another portal slid open and we soon found ourselves within the sphere.

The station had taken control of the ship and placed it down on a single, central landing pad inside the sphere.

“Well that went smoothly,” I said.

“Let’s go,” Aria urged.

“All of us?  Shouldn’t someone stay here with the ship?” I asked.

“No need, we’re perfectly safe.”

How could Aria be so sure we were safe?  Sometimes I envied her certainty.  At other times it worried me.  I think my affection for her felt stronger than I wanted to believe.  Stronger than my own self-preservation, hers taking precedent.  I couldn’t imagine anything more important.

“Friends not need worry.  Kailo will protect.”  Kailo said, as he brandished his alien weapon.

Aria moved towards him and gently took the alien multi-tool out of his hand.  “You won’t be needing this.”

Placing the weapon away, she questioned our motives.  “What were you thinking?  We’ve come here to talk with the Priest, to ask for help.  Do you honestly think if we go in waving weapons about, we’ll win any sympathy, or get the help we need?  We’re not going to get any help if we show hostile intentions.”

“Very sorry.  Kailo’s only concern friends.”

“I know, and I understand.  But I can take care of myself.”  Aria turned to look at me.  “You both need to realise that.  Now, follow me and let me do the talking.”

We followed Aria away from the ship up a long ramp towards another internal sphere within the spaceship.  It too had half rings rotating around its circumference.  At the end of the ramp we were greeted by another ceiled portal, marked by three red lights that turned blue as we approached.

A door opened and the three of us walked up a bridge onto a round platform in a spherical room, glowing in purple, crimson auras.  This was the centre of the sphere where two white blue beams met.  One rose from within a hollow, round podium in the floor.  The other fell from the ceiling, meeting at one juncture—the space station’s reactor core—harvesting energy from a micro-star trapped between the beams and three spinning rings in mid-air.  Who could have built such advanced technology?

Next to the podium stood a tall, cloaked figure holding a data pad in one hand.  It turned to look at us and bowed, while placing its free hand to its heart.

Aria bowed placing her left hand to her heart.  Kailo and I did the same.

The figure started chittering.  The sounds were less organic and more mechanical, the way sounds are played through a synthesiser.  The body behind the exosuit looked almost humanoid.  But appearances could be deceiving.  The head was inside a long, elongated helmet, unnaturally large and impenetrably black.  Except for three, blue vertical lights on the front visor, possibly cameras.  Deeper inside the helmet, where one would place the forehead, four lights danced round each other… it was processing, thinking, as it observed us.

This was no biological entity.  It… they… the Priest had no gender.  It was some form of mechanical species.

It spoke, “Rare forms approach.  Pleasure!  Priest Entity Nada, divergent Korvax.  Maybe not, maybe am.”

That was confusing.  Did it just say it was a pleasure to meet us?  I looked to Aria for confirmation.

“Priest Entity Nada, thank you for seeing us.  And it’s a pleasure to meet you, too.”

Yep, Aria just confirmed it.

Aria said, “Tegiko gave us the coordinates to your station.  He said you could help us reach the centre of the galaxy.  That you know of a way, a faster way to bypass the darkness and the endless emptiness.”

The Priest turned its head slightly to the side as it turned to look at us, while the lights in its oversized helmet were spinning and pulsating.  It started to chitter in Korvax, finally turning to Aria.

“Nada is.  Nada researching.  Nada needs information.”

I noticed two power cables on its left shoulder, feeding into its body.  Hints of powered links to its wrists, torso and spine.  This was a machine body, a robot body, a Korvax.

“Nada free.  Nada knows.  Nada not knows.  Nada sees others.  Simulation.”

I turned and whispered to Aria, “What’s it talking about?  I don’t understand, does it need more information from us?  What does it mean by simulation?”

“Not too sure what it wants.  Korvax aren’t native to this universe, though I have come across several of them in systems under their jurisdiction.  Don’t underestimate them, beneath all that chittering and incomprehensible dialogue, they are highly intelligent.  All of them are linked into what’s known as the Korvax Convergence Interface; shared knowledge and information gathering.  That’s all they care about.  But this one, this Priest, I think it’s different.”

Nada continued, “Convergence.  Nada wipe.  Nada stops existing.  End!”

Aria approached Nada.  Her eyes focusing on his visor.  “Do you venerate the Atlas?”

Nada exploded in chittering as light beams enveloped Aria.  “Negative!  Nada free.  Researching origins.  Simulation.  Simulation ending.  Reality ending.”

Fearful it would harm Aria, Kailo and I moved towards the Priest.

“Stay where you are, the Priest means me no harm.  It’s only scanning me,” Aria ordered.

“Nada detected Atlas Stone in humanoid.  Suggestion.  What is it?  What are you?”  Its focus all on Aria.

“Don’t be fearful of me, I mean you no harm.  I know about the simulation.  I’m not of the Atlas, but I needed the Stone.  I took the stone from the Atlas.  It’s the only means to escape.”

“Escape!  Escape the simulation?  Interesting.  But there is no escape.  This is it!  That’s all there is.  Yes, there is escape.  But why go into the darkness?  Stress!  At the centre there is no darkness, only light.  Say.  Say!

While the Priest continued to talk, counter arguing its own thoughts, I spoke to Aria privately, “It’s paranoid.  Are you sure it can help us?”

“Sounds ill, maybe robot malfunctioning,” Kailo added.

“Look, I know it sounds strange, and even deranged.  But there’s a logical explanation to its behaviour.  The Priest might still have a connection to the Convergence.  I think they’re trying to regain control; it must be a non-compliant Korvax.  It’s rare, but it can happen.  Remember, it’s a machine and has obviously encountered something contradictory to the information it has.  And so, it’s trying to sever itself from the Convergence.  It’s trying to make sense of this new information.  It wants answers.”

“And so do you,” the Priest said, sounding almost normal.  “I will help.  But you will help.  And we will all get information.”

Aria approached the Priest and peered into the lights in its visor.  “What do you want?”

“A quest I give.”  The Priest took Aria’s hand.

Like a slithering eel, a black cord from the Priest’s hand interfaced with her wrist.  Aria received coordinates to two small moons in this very system, and instructions.

“The ancient graves.  Two graves that dance and sing.  Defeat the Dancer in the Wind and the Singer in the Sea, and the blueprints will be yours.”  The Priest was calm, focused, his message unhindered by the Convergence, his sentences almost complete.  “Follow instructions.  Get blueprints.  Find facility and craft Golden Quantum Processor.  Bring device.  Free me and my friend, and I will free you.”

His friend, who was his friend?


Freedom has never been free.   

Medgar Evers