|This story, Across the Universe, is written with the intent to preserve and respect the official Dragon Ball canon, and to fit perfectly into the established Dragon Ball universe, per this policy.|
Across the Universe is a collaborative story written by TeamUnitedNerds and KidVegeta, detailing the origin and adventures of the Yardrat Soba.
"Across the Universe is a wonderful little yarn spun by the late, great George Harrison, my favorite modernist writer from Ireland! I give it three bags of popcorn and two and a half extra large sodas."
"hi this is mato"
"I can't understand a word of this shit"
"The fuck's a Soba"
"There's nothing I want to read about more than some random half-assed character who appeared briefly in one video game. What a hallmark of human achievement!"
"This is some real autistic shit here filthy"
"needs more frotting"
"The prose is horrendous. I have not found even one description of St. Sebastian in the story yet. What are they waiting for? Disgusting."
"As Gohan changed and became a good guy, he and Videl plan to make another child, thus making Pan an older sister"
"every ppl find me hot as the sun haha what can I say my booty poppin"
Chapter 1: Burning, ManEdit
"...Udon's Exotically Extravagant Menagerie is aptly
named, and truly a perfect destination
for children an adults alike. This author gives
a resounding recommendation to the
nearby reef as well! Next on our list is the coliseum
on planet Altarin VII, an ideal outing for those who..."
-From Top 10 Must-See Destinations In YOUR Solar System That You Probably
Didn't Know About from issue #567 of the Genoa Journal.
Soba looked up at the unchanging yellow Yardrat sky, with the knowledge that it would no longer be the barrier between himself and the end of the universe, that this planet would no longer be all he knew. The Yardrats were a productive people, due to their natural ability to slip into a pocket dimension, and reappear wherever they wanted. However, this remarkable ability and all the benefits that came with it lead to a sort of slow self-destruction. Yardrat society had become too perfect, as any need could be met in an instant, there was no strife, and interpersonal relationships were almost nonexistent, as the only key to a Yardrat’s survival was to keep moving to wherever they needed to go next without stopping or slowing down. With self-preservation no longer an issue, the Yardrats became consumed by hobbyism, most typically in the form of collection. Yardrats rarely ventured outside their homeworld, despite the fact that they could very easily, but when they did, it was to collect some sort of trinket from the other planets in their solar system. Sometimes it was samples of fungus, sometimes it was eggs, sometimes it was coins from one of the more civilized planets. Every Yardrat had his own dragon’s horde, that mattered to nobody but themselves.
Soba considered himself an exception to the stagnant, self-indulgent hedonism that consumed his species. Once a young Yardrat reached a certain age, they would be taught the Instant Transmission technique by an elder, and the world, and the universe would be opened up to them, although most limited the scope of their travels to their home planet or the worlds nearby. Not Soba, though, he intended to use his ability to reach the furthest stars, so he could return to his people and show them that there was more to life than collection, that there was value to the universe beyond simply supplying them with whatever trivial baubles they wanted to surround themselves with. Soba was also greatly looking forward to escaping the tyranny of his caregivers. Since young Yardrat are unable to teleport themselves and receive whatever they need in the blink of an eye, they needed to be watched over by caregivers, who supplied them with food until they were ready for independance. Soba loathed his caregivers, even though his only contact with them was the brief moments they would appear before him, before teleporting away, to return with food. Then, they would sit and stare at Soba and the other Yardrat children, doing and saying nothing, before vanishing again the moment their working hours came to an end.
“Well Soba, you look terrible.”
He had hardly noticed Udon appear beside him; even so, Soba wasn’t yet used to the suddenness of Instant Transmission. “Do I?”
A thin smile wriggled onto the older boy’s bulbous face. “Are you scared? I wasn’t scared.” The taller Yardrat paced around the younger, restless as a flicker of light. “Well?”
“No way. I want to get this over with. Besides, you--”
Wind trampled through the desolate, rocky spires. Udon had teleported away again. He should have expected as much. Down the road, two Yardrats materialized from a hovering, coloring gash of light. Peering around, the girls giggled and raised their discordant voices, and disappeared again in another throb of whiteness.
Far above the sun, where the xanthus haze reached towards oblivion, his homeworld’s only moon awaited patiently for nightfall. Its acute crescent was noticeable even at this hour. By the end of the day, he would be able to go there, if he so desired.
The air was bitterly cold--the sun’s light shone falsely. Soba was wondering if Udon would return when his friend appeared suddenly before his eyes.
Soba jumped up in shock. “Stop doing that!”
“Look at this, Soba,” Udon mused, revealing a tiny, timid puffball. Its feathers were the same color as Udon’s scalp spots. “It’s a male five-tailed Malevion,” he said carelessly, presenting the alien creature for Soba to admire. “Beautiful and elegant, and rare in the wild.”
“Is it yours?” There was awe in Soba’s voice.
“Just so,” he said as he crushed it between his gloves.
“Udon, what are you--”
“It bored me.” The Yardrat shook his hand dry and turned away from Soba. “This frigid old place bores me. If I’m bored, why bother? And if I bother, how can I be bored, eh?” There was nothing Soba could say to that, though he quite found the words to be charming in their luster. “There’s a lot better places than this, Soba, trust me. I’m out of here.”
Udon’s words were rather apt, as after that statement, which sent a buzz of excitement through his body, Udon was gone. Soba wondered if he hadn’t slipped into hyperspace during their conversation, as he was almost certain that he wasn’t this close to the dome where the elders resided. Soba casually waved one of his hands at a nearby building, bringing up a holographic display of a clock. The softly glowing blue hands showed that he was exactly on time for the session with the elders.
He stepped briskly into the long hallway that lead into the structure, wondering if this would be the last time his legs got any use.
The tunnel lead into the center of the dome. The elders, short, ancient-looking Yardrats with wrinkled, crimson faces like dried cranberries, and shriveled, vestigial legs, were seated along the far wall of the spherical structure. They looked down at the young Soba with curious glares, before leaning down to read the digits on their holographic wrist watches.
“So, the young one has come to learn the secret technique of our people?” one of the elders, a Yardrat with particularly bold red skin and heavy, sagging eyelids.
“Yes,” Soba said, nodding rapidly, not sure how else to reply.
“Very good,” another said. This one was a pale red, an almost pinkish color, with a thin body, so his clothes were more draped on him than being worn by him. His eyes were round, and bulged out of his skull, and darted around, from the faces of his elders, to Soba, back to his watch.
“You already have the power inside of you, as all Yardrat do,” a third elder said. He appeared to be the youngest of the bunch, and the only one with green skin like Soba’s.
“It is merely a matter of refining it, and unleashing it,” he continued.
“The entirety of the universe is simply a reflection of our own perceptions. Therefore, all of reality is contained within our own minds,” said the eldest of the group, whose skin had lost almost all of its color, and whose face was frozen into a permanent half-smile.
“The instant transmission technique requires that you focus on a particular part of that vast universe within your head. You must lock onto it, and then force yourself between dimensions. Beware of using the technique without a clear destination in mind, as if you lose your way, you may be lost between spaces forever.”
“We placed a beacon on a nearby moon hundreds of years ago, where it remains to this day. It projects a constant energy signal. You will use that signal as a market for your destination. Once you have transported yourself to the energy beacon, return here, and give the beacon to us, as proof of your success.” “You stand now in the same place that your father once stood, and where his father stood as well. You will follow in their path, and become a true member of the Yardrat race.”
The elder’s remark about Soba’s family was meaningless. Perhaps the speech they gave was from an earlier time, when young Yardrats were actually raised by their parents, but it was irrelevant now. Soba wasn’t here to continue his family’s legacy. He was here because he was tired of being tied to the ground, and because a Yardrat who didn’t learn the technique was one that couldn’t survive in their society. He had heard tales of Yardrats who refused to learn instant transmission, and were dead within weeks, because nothing in Yardrat society was designed with walking in mind, and they would starve to death from being unable to get food. In fact, many buildings didn’t even have doors, besides the ones built in the previous era, presumably an era when parenthood still had meaning.
Regardless, Soba had doubts, even with his task clearly outlined. He thought that the elders would walk him through the steps of the technique, rather than giving him a task and some vague spiritual guidance.
He tried to focus on the beacon’s signal first, as that task didn’t carry the risk of being lost in hyperspace for eternity.
He shut his eyes, and envisioned the universe as a bubble in his head, a vast sphere full of stars and galaxies. He zoomed in, focusing on the solar system, and then closer, to Yardrat and its nearby moon. He could feel the energies of both. Planet Yardrat had a sort of flowing warmth to its energy, like the feeling he got when his head was half-submerged in bathwater by one of his caretakers attempting to wash him. The nearby moon had a signal of its own, but one that was clearly artificial, a kind of cold, metallic buzz that was distinct enough from the other energy to hone in on.
“I found the beacon,” Soba said, opening his eyes, discovering that he had subconsciously placed his two fingers to his forehead.
He paused, not sure how the elders would react to his next question. “How do I get there, exactly? You’ve told me about a space between spaces, but how do I enter such a place?”
“How do you breath, or move your arms, or smile?” the eldest asked. “You must simply tell yourself that you are able, and then command yourself to do so. The power already lies within you, it is a matter of realizing that you can.”
Soba focused on the energy signal once more. Sensing energy was still new to him, and the sensation was still unusual. It was a bit like hearing a sound, but with his whole body, or touching something so thoroughly that he absorbed it into his skin, so he could feel it throughout himself, both outside and in.
He did what the elder said, and convinced himself that slipping into hyperspace was something he was naturally able to do, something he could call upon as easing as moving a finger.
His eyes remained firmly shut, but the subtle warmth of his home planet was gone, and the slight distant humming that the beacon gave off had become the rapid thudding of a hammer against stone.
When he opened his eyes, he was greeted by the lifeless surface of his planet’s moon. The horizon was empty, just an endless expanse of rock, with the occasional small crater to break up the monotony. He could see the vastness of space beyond the horizon, though, a great blackness peppered with shining stars, each one a beacon of life to someone, somewhere in the universe. He could even see his own planet in the distance, a green marble with a great yellow streak. He could see, now more than ever, how small it really was.
Alo-Alo was the premier relaxation destination for the galactic everyman. For a substantial fee, one could be pampered and waited upon and pleasured in any way imaginable. What kinds of things go on at Alo-Alo? That’s a secret only paying customers know about.
He preferred the desires of the senses, of sight and taste and smell, of sound and touch and emotional connections. He liked more than anything to be fancied. And yet, above all, boredom loomed, an amorphous, unconscious presence, deep and vast and cold, that is only perceptible the moment before sleep. He feared that more than anything.
“How long will you be staying, Mr. Udon?” The artificial ring in her voice annoyed him.
“One night,” he muttered, gazing around, soaking in the color of the reception hall. There were frilled pillars and elegant paintings and exquisite multicolored flowers climbing up the walls. The fragrance of this world was delightful. He sucked and gasped and sucked in filtered air again, and then it was gone--the pleasure was over.
Last time, the colors had been brighter. The hovering hostess handed him a warm towel and a tiny bottle of perfume, its sloshing liquid the balmiest blue color.
The movement almost astonished him--Udon perceived only dimly that he was leaping faster than light. He was so enraptured with the strong, clean smell of his new perfume that he had barely noticed the power of impulse. The hostess had been beautifully generous. Soba would be most impressed, he was sure of it.
“Oh, what is that stench?!” Soba could be a real whiner sometimes.
“I just got back from my stay at Alo-alo. Oh, it was wonderful, Soba, you should have been there. The very air was dripped with the fragrance of serenity. It was utterly restful. And the wildlife… oh, I shall return for samples, no doubt. The colors… the reds, the blues, the yellows… the blacks mixed with the aquamarines… my goodness, Soba, it was breathtaking. That is what it means to live: to be immersed in the most sublime beauty in the universe. To live is to experience; to experience is to seek beauty. The great Yardratian philosophers of our past--Muka the Elder, Ramei Fingerbones, Deacon Gorgoro, and all the rest--believed in beauty for beauty’s sake alone--for life alone, for life is beauty and a beautiful life is more precious than even the most radiant of jewels. You have not truly lived until you have lived in beauty, Soba, with beauty, amongst beauty… to be base is the natural state of us Yardratians. To be poor and miserable and petty and ugly… that is what we are best at, I fear. The universe is pure and gentle and…” The older Yardrat froze for a moment as his voice quivered to silence. He was either lost in thought or milking his speech for dramatic effect. “All the color, Soba. By the gods… can’t you see? Won’t you? We are the exceptions. We are ugliness, unless we follow the light. I don’t want to look at anything ugly ever again. I won’t, if I can help it. I won’t, Soba. I’m too refined!”
The boy was distracted; he half-raised an eyebrow at Udon, but showed little care in his sullen eyes. “You’re refined?”
“I am, as you would say, a gentleman.” Udon was very serious. “A purveyor of the most wonderful sensory experiences.”
“That’s easy for you to say. Your father was loaded. He ran the most popular space lemonade stand in the universe! I mean, come on, Udon! You couldn’t even blow through your inheritance if you tried.”
“Now now, Soba,” Udon snapped, spinning away from the younger Yardrat, “your bitterness will pollute the air. Be more reasonable. Settle down and appreciate the strong, sophisticated aroma of my Alo-Alo Verde. It’s in.”
“What does that mean?”
Udon sprayed himself again. “To live is to experience raw beauty. I hope to experience as much beauty as possible, to see as much as there is to see, to taste as much as there is to taste… to be on a hundred different worlds on the very same day, soaking in their ancient myriad heat. That is life, Soba, nothing else. Don’t let them fool you. There is no purpose to being if you cannot appreciate beauty. It is the purest of all feelings, to admire something beautiful. It requires no thought--only the senses can experience what life truly is. They are not biased, my friend. The only truth we can know comes from our senses, for they would never lie to us. True beauty cannot be faked.”
The boy looked half-dozed now, as if the words had, for but a moment, ensnared him and coated him in ice before melting away. He wasn’t very aware, Udon supposed. Soba had a tendency to look at life as a sprint down a race track, not a pleasant walk through a garden. Even so, the boy hung on his words, and Udon knew it. He played up to it, acted the part, made himself grander than normal. This was all an extension of his own beauty.
They were outside Udon’s apartment, which was on the fifty-seventh floor of a rather unassuming stone spire in the city of Yudori. Soba had waited outside politely, and asked to stay a while. He had nowhere else to go, and it wouldn’t be for long. This bemused Udon. He held out his arm for Soba to latch on, but the younger Yardrat shook his head.
“I found the beacon.”
“It has the most annoying ring to it, doesn’t it? Unpleasant old machine.”
They went up together. Soba knew which floor. Generally, one does not teleport into the house of another, although such occurrences cannot be prevented. The government did have laws against teleporting into other Yardrats’ homes, but sometimes, there was no way to report it, or know. It was an impossibility, a wretched thing, really. For that reason, many rich Yardrats had off-world homes where they spent much of their private time.
Udon had barely had time to flick on the lights when Soba asked him, “Do you have any maps of planets I can go to?”
There was hope in the boy’s voice, like a healthy spoonful of naarbug excretion. “Of course, maps. Maps are for the brain, like numbers and paradoxes. They aren’t real; they can’t be experienced.” He pulled out a dusty, rolled-up one from behind a desk and unraveled it on the table for Soba to behold.
“Wow, they’re everywhere.”
“Each one has its own signal, its own energy. I tell you, Soba, it’s as if you’re sampling a variety of exotic delicacies, popping in and out. Alo-Alo is my guilty pleasure, I must admit… the girl I can’t let go. I suppose she’s the only girl for me. You will have to experience to know.”
Soba’s eyes were fixed on the yellowing paper. “Are these all the worlds we can go to? All the habitable planets out there?”
“Oh, don’t be silly. These are the Open Worlds Soba. The government allows free travel to these places.”
“Why not anywhere else?” Soba’s finger ran down the map, from lighted planetoid to lighted planetoid. There were many dots. It was a large map and printed small. But it was not the whole universe, and indeed, of what was shown, large dark patches covered the map, as did smaller black dots. These were worlds a Yardat was never to go to, never to visit, unless they wished to suffocate or be attacked, or worse.
His apartment was so dreadfully dirty. Pots and pans dominated his sink, and the kitchen was no less a glutton's wasteland. He would need to buy a new Maid-BOT 3000 to clean this at once. The sight of his ugly kitchen brought upon Udon a quiet, but underrated terror--a descending flush of nervous excitement sprung from his fingertips and climbed up his forearms before dulling out, the energy utterly spent. “Dangers. Some planets are uninhabitable. Others are hostile.”
“Aren’t there any planets out there that we could visit that aren’t on these maps? Some place the government doesn’t want us to go?”
“No.” The word came suddenly and coldly. “There are no such places, Soba. The only planets we can’t visit are unsafe. Go to any of the Dark Worlds and see, but you won’t return, and that would make me sad, and you wouldn’t want to make me sad, now would you, Soba?”
Soba could feel his eye twitching. Something about the way Udon said that made him particularly angry. Maybe it was the fact that he was making Soba’s desire to break free of the dead orbit he was imprisoned in about him, or the fact that he was right. If anything would prevent Soba from hurling himself into the furthest reaches of space, it was Udon. Soba didn’t care much about his survival, not in the face of adventure, but clearly Udon did.
“Fine, can we at least go to the government approved planets, then?” Soba said, making no attempt to conceal his frustration. This wasn’t the independance he wanted. The bars of his cage weren’t broken, they were merely widened. It wasn’t fair, Soba thought. The laws and limitations of his society were written to protect the cowardly, spineless Yardrat who were content to search a handful of planets for commemorative stamps or something like that, not bold risk-takers like himself, for which death was just one of the many exciting endings a glorious adventure could have.
“I knew you’d come to your senses,” Udon said, although he was keenly aware that Soba was, at best, compromising.
“Where do you want to go first?” Udon said, hoping that giving him the final say on their destination would help appease his intrepid friend.
Soba huffed; none of the destinations presented to him were of any interest. He figured he should pick the one that Udon would like the most, so he pointed to the smallest planet, a watery sphere with plentiful beaches, a comfortable climate and an abundance of friendly wildlife.
“How about here?” Soba said, pointing to the bluish sphere.
“Sounds good!” Udon said, placing his two fingers to his forehead and vanishing between dimensions. Soba wished that Udon had let him go second, as Soba didn’t want to be the type of person to make his friend wait on him for something.
He focused on Udon’s energy specifically, using it to catapult himself through spacetime and next to his friend. When he arrived, Udon was already exploring the planet’s surface, lowering his hand into the cool water by the shore. With perfect timing, he snatched a fish from below, a small, wriggling thing with shining greenish scales and a black eye that was comically tiny, even for its body.
“Catch,” Udon said, tossing the squirming fish towards Soba. Soba made a token attempt to catch it, but it just bounced off of his chest, and landed in the sand, while Udon shoved his hand back into the brine, trying to catch something more interesting.
Soba let his disinterest waver a bit, as he squatted down next to Udon, dipping his hand in along with him. Occasionally, he’d feel something slimy quickly brush against his palm, but he could never seem to close his hand in time to catch anything.
“Is there some ancient Yardrat technique for catching fish that I’m not aware of?” Soba said, watching his friend snatch up fish after fish with ease, every single one belonging to the same species at the diminutive fish he had caught before.
“Nope, you’re just really bad at it,” Soba said, finally catching a larger fish, big enough that it barely fit inside his fist, but apparently it wasn’t of much interest to him either, as Udon threw it back with a sigh.
“What are you planning to do with those fish, exactly?” Soba asked.
“I collect them, of course. But I can’t seem to find any that I don’t already have today,” Udon replied. “Maybe I’ve found all the unique species on this planet already. There might be some new ones on another planet, though!” Udon teleported away as soon as the thought that he could occurred to him.
“That’s fine,” Soba said to no one, as his friend was already gone. He chose to stay behind, letting his three-toed feet sink into the sand, as he watched the fish in the water dart by. He knew he could never catch them, and frankly, he didn’t want to.
The fallen fish caked itself in flakes of gold as it squirmed and flexed its toothless mouth. Sailing through the air, spinning wildly, its eyes ever open, looking but not seeing, the useless animal passed in front of the sun for but a moment, a blackened sliver of fateless life.
When a distant and moderate splash broke the monotonous ambience, Soba’s fingers found his forehead, and he was away, rushing through light and time all at once. He glanced one way, blindly feeling for the energy scent of his friend. What he felt was only coldness, tugging at him, as if from behind his eyes, then from under his chin, and then pulling down the rungs of his spine. The sensation passed through Soba in less than a second, yet it felt like time had slowed for that second, and in it, Soba had lived an entire life in a flash of light.
Disoriented, Soba flung himself wildly from Instant Transmission and came crashing to a planet he had not expected to visit. Glancing around, he didn’t feel Udon anywhere nearby. He knew immediately that he was lost, and that if he were to use Instant Transmission again, he would be returned to that nameless presence in the void that he had felt for only the briefest of moments.
This planet was a temperate world with squat, indigo-furred creatures with four eyes and bowed legs, tail-less and with wrinkled, grey faces. The outskirts of some town was nearby, and he could see a few of them moving in lines, holding packages on their heads as they moved with sentient purpose. Soba wondered quietly to himself if these creatures had ever met an alien before. He hoped not. He wanted to be their first.
Striding into town with a grin on his face and his chest puffed out, Soba was preparing to make his grandiose introduction when a burst of light and sound rocked the sky above the town. The Yardrat boy shrieked and ran behind a tree, gaining cover. The aliens didn’t mind; they hardly even reacted. Only a child, straddling her mother’s shoulders, dared look up at the twisted, yellow-white sky.
Another explosion boomed, echoing three times before Soba poked his head out in curiosity to see what was the matter. It was only then the boy realized his folly--those were not explosions, but fireworks. He jumped into the air, rising above the treeline (no natives beheld him in all his grandeur, unfortunately--the treeline was too thick). And there, in the distance, situated on the other side of a wide lake, was a spacious, icosagonal ampitheatre--no, a coliseum! Blood rushed to his face. The fireworks were positioned over that building.
The remainder of the town was stretched along the hilly expanses surrounding the large structure; they were made of wood and dried grass, tiny, squalid things compared to the massive stone-carved, oily-black coliseum that seemed to rise out of the jungle like a monument to some ancient and forgotten species long-since reduced to dust.
He had become annoyed with flying. It was so much slower than Instant Transmission. A coward’s worry gnawed at the back of his brain. He tried to forget and was off.
He landed at the mouth of the coliseum, behind a mercifully short line of creatures. These creatures clearly belonged to the same species as the one he had seen before, but they were more, well, muscular wasn’t the right word, but their limbs all looked like elastic bands ready to snap, and with eyes that were livelier than those of their counterparts, filled with an unmistakable fighting spirit.
While looking in those eyes, Soba imagined a lifetime of brave feats worthy of admiration.
Between the comparatively athletic appearance of these creatures, and the fact that they were queued up to enter a coliseum, and the celebratory fireworks, whose roar had just begun to die down, it was obvious that there was some kind of tournament going on.
Soba had obviously put a lot of consideration into the life of an adventurer, but he hadn’t thought much about being a warrior. But, once the idea of battle entered his mind, he fell in love with it with the same sort of instantaneous spark that began the vapid marriages back on Yardrat. It was the opposite of everything that his people represented, brief and temporary instead of permanent and unchanging, brutal and dangerous instead of safe and comfortable.
It was the purpose behind battle that appealed to him the most. Fighting wasn’t done for pleasure, at least not primarily, but as a show of power, and the admittance of the fragility that plagued all living things.
While Soba was soliloquizing in his head about the nature of battle, he failed to see that the line had emptied.
Seeing, now, that there was nothing between him and the alien with the trembling hands who was taking entrants, he walked right up to him, looking fairly short, even compared to the hunched-over creature. Soba had trouble locating his eyes behind his sagging, wrinkled flesh and overgrown hair, and his species apparently had four of them.
“I’d like to enter, if you allow entrants from other worlds. My name is Soba, in case you need to write it down.”
“Mhm,” the alien said flatly, writing down Soba’s name, gesturing weakly to the entrance beside him.
“So, do I just go inside the arena? Or is there a place I need to go to prepare first, or-”
“Mhm,” the alien said, in the exact same tone of voice as he had before, which struck Soba as mildly impressive.
Soba entered, but not before giving the alien a puzzled look, wondering if he even realized that Soba was very clearly from another planet. Perhaps he wasn’t the first alien who had been here, or perhaps, the natives of this world were less adventurous than that of his own.
The hallway that led into the coliseum didn’t seem to have any doors, besides the one that led into the arena itself. Would he be thrust directly into a fight the moment he walked through that door, then?
He shrugged, figuring there was only one way to find out.
He pushed open the door, and was met with rows upon rows of packed seats, aliens spilling all over each other in an attempt to fit, their uproarious cries forming a cacophony that was more beautiful than any music Soba had ever heard.
Looking down from those stands, he saw who he would be challenging, and the flesh of the entrants in the line in front of him between its teeth.
It took a few moments for Soba to fully comprehend the monster that would apparently be his opponent. It was a quadruped, that walked low to the ground, with a narrow body, and a narrower pointed face, with a triangular mouth lined with teeth and the aforementioned carnage. It had a long tail that swept back and forth, kicking up dust. It had cold, dead eyes, which reminded Soba of the handful of corpses he had seen as a child. He viewed them through the haze of memory that came with time, but the eyes of the corpses, and the expressions on their faces, like their souls had suddenly left their bodies without warning, were still vivid in his mind’s eye.
Soba realized, in this moment, that he didn’t know how to fight. He knew how to fly, and use rudimentary ki blasts, and, before his chilling encounter, he had use of the instant transmission technique too. He figured that, upon seeing his opponent, the spirit of battle would overtake him, and turn him from an ordinary young Yardrat to an indomitable god of war.
Instead, he felt as though someone had replaced the blood in his legs with icy water, and then, with lead, as he fell to his knees, as if in reverence to this ungodly beast which he had just volunteered to fight. Looking at the crowd, and the way they cheered after seeing their kin ripped apart by this animal, Soba figured they wouldn’t let him forfeit and walk away unharmed.
Since Soba’s legs wouldn’t respond, he placed his hand on the ground, and pushed himself back to his feet, which felt like a victory by itself. The creature sniffed the air with its nostrils, a pair of vacant holes on its triangular snout.
Thick globs of reddish drool, tainted with blood, dripped from its maw. Whatever this thing was, it had now acquired a taste for Yardrat.
Soba felt simultaneously empty-headed and full of dread. As fear flooded his veins, his body reacted. It was not a thought, but an instinct. The predatory alien lunged at him; one moment he was in its path, and the next...he stood on the other side of the dusty arena, his ears ringing. The crowd let out a collective roar. Looking around in disbelief, the boy noticed the vicious animal had lunged into a wall, dazing itself. Its tail wriggled in the air with more force than he could have hoped.
Hissing, the nimble creature spun around and tried to run down Soba again. This time he remembered teleporting away. As it skidded into another wall, Soba shot a few misshapen ki blasts at its flank. More broken cheers pierced the air. The stench of burning fur filled the coliseum.
The beast came at him a third time; he used Instant Transmission to evade. It was easy...almost too easy. This shouldn’t be happening. He shouldn’t be winning. The crowd chanted. Streams of hot saliva leaked from between the animal’s oversized teeth. When this time the beast charged, Soba fired a ball of ki at it. The predator cried out in pain, but it refused to to go down. His attacks only seemed to make it angrier. He realized with sudden horror that he had misjudged how fast it was. As he desperately tried to teleport away, Soba felt the gentle paw-strokes of his starved admirer give his chest a goodbye tug.
The burning raked across his upper torso as he fell to his knees gasping. They loved it, every one of those useless aliens. When the other entrants had died, he hadn’t cared one iota. But now he did; he wanted them to love him as they loved their own. He could see the poison in their eyes, hear the venom in their jeers. They wanted blood, his blood, and only then would they be satisfied. The thought chilled him to the core. His blood dripped to the sand three times, in dark, blooming circles, and he clutched his wound tight, for all the good that did.
It was coming for him, and he was too tired to teleport away.
“Good day, Soba,” Udon said breathlessly, spinning out of the wind in front of the boy. “How in Yardrat’s gnorc-infested hills did you end up here?”
“Udon, look out!” Soba cried, throwing his hand up.
His unperturbed friend stepped aside as casual as a water dancer, dodging the approaching beast as if it were a falling leaf. The creature let out a surprised howl as it came to a screeching stop, being suspended where it stood, unable to move. “So uncivil. My goodness, Soba, look, he’s got dust on my coat,” Udon complained, brushing his black overcoat back into a clean, cool, gentlemanly-looking bit of style. “You, my friend, are a most fantastical beast,” he said in a low, professional voice, approaching the monster. It either didn’t have any eyes or it had six. Soba couldn’t tell. The thing was leaking spit again, breathing hard, snapping and growling at Udon. “You will learn how to act like a gentleman, my good furry beast. Oh, you will.” He reached over, scratching it behind one ear. The alien predator screamed wildly, though it remained paralyzed in place. “Soon. It will take time, I fear.” He turned to Soba, smiling widely. “You’ve done it again, my friend. Now this is a specimen worthy of Udon’s Exotically Extravagant Menagerie!”
He almost appeared to be purring to himself in his self-appreciation of his own gentlemanliness. Soba could hardly say a word as he crouch there and bled, the thousands of onlookers’ cheers only growing louder with every drop.
Udon placed one hand to his temple, and the second against the heaving torso of the beast.
“You’re bringing that monster with you?” Soba said, not sure why he bothered to ask as Udon had just stated his intentions to do just that mere seconds ago.
“And what’s with the, uh,” Soba paused, trying to find the right words to describe Udon’s sudden gentlemanly affectation. “Nevermind,” Soba said, placing his fingers to his forehead, locking onto the signature of his friend, and the beast that accompanied him, just to be safe, and transported himself to wherever Udon planned on ending up.
Soba found himself back on the sandy planet, just in time to witness Udon tracing his finger along the sand with a very purposeful look.
“You may want to stand back, my good fellow,” Udon said. Soba did as he was told, taking a few paces back, and then a few more, as he felt the ground rumble beneath him.
About a dozen or so glassy spheres emerged from the sand. It was hard to see what was inside at first with the glare of the sun in Soba’s eyes as the spheres rose higher towards the sky.
He could see that there was a small, contained environment within each sphere, with plants, and indeed animals, elegant but subtly fierce beasts like the one still at Udon’s side. Certain spheres had darkened glass, presumably to dim the sunlight for beasts who preferred a darker setting.
He watched his friend in silence, as he lowered a single finger, bringing one of the spheres towards him, and showing that they were fairly sizable and would probably be just roomy enough for any beast contained within. Udon seemed dissatisfied with this one, and sent it up into the sky with the others with another flick.
He brought another sphere, this one with a reddish tint, and a bottom full of coarse, dry sand.
“Ah, perfect. Never has there been a more perfect zoosphere than this.”
Udon made another distinct gesture, opening a small door in what was apparently called a zoosphere.
“Go on, go inside, you beautiful beast.”
The Nexu was slightly hesitant at first, walking a few inches away from Udon before backing up to its original position. Udon sighed, placing his thumb inside his mouth, and biting down hard, hard enough to draw blood from the tip of his finger.
“I bet you’ve built up quite a taste for Yardrat blood, haven’t, , you, you glorious creature of the Supreme Kai’s creation?
Udon sucked up the blood that pooled on the tip of his thumb, swirled it around in his mouth, mixing it with his notoriously thick Yardrat saliva, before spitting it out as a red-tinted projectile into the sand of the empty zoosphere. The creature was enthralled by the scent of fresh blood, and charged into the sphere, long enough for Udon to flick his finger upwards and close the door behind him. The creature roared, pressing its great talons against the sphere’s edge.
“Don’t despair, you’ll come to love your new abode eventually,” Udon said, making a closed-fist gesture at the sphere, causing a thick pink mist to emerge, that made the beast sway back and forth sleepily for a few seconds before falling over on its side with a .
“What’s…this?” Soba asked, visibly befuddled.
“This is how I make my money, my good chap,” Udon said. “I typically charge visitors to view my array of exotic beasts. In fact, I shouldn’t make an exception just because you’re my friend. Pay up, please.”
“You know I don’t have any money,” Soba replied.
“Well, you should get a job of your own, then.” Udon said, which Soba couldn’t disagree with. Despite all his posturing about being a free-spirited adventurer, he had never really evaluated the financial viability of being one.
“That was in, , jest,” Udon said, although he wasn’t laughing, and his face didn’t show the slightest hint of humor, just a dreary tiredness.
“This isn’t the extent of my bestiary, however. I own a reef for more aquatically-inclined creatures, would you like to see? It’s just a quick boat ride from here.”
Soba was about to remind his friend that they could both teleport, but he assumed that Udon had some kind of reason for taking a boat, however nonsensical, and he didn’t feel like debating his friend in whatever state he was in.
“Alright, let’s go,” Soba said.
Bleeding though he still was from the Nexu’s wound, Soba sat politely on Udon’s silver-and-indigo little boat that looked as if it had been purchased from a toy factory.
“We’ve got everything you need,” Udon said pleasantly to his friend, standing like a chivalrous Yardrat pioneer of yesteryear on the prow of his plastic little boat. “Satisfaction’s guaranteed. I spared no expense, Soba. Watch this, old fellow.” The taller Yardrat, with skin the color of faded jade, took a slab of bloody meat out of his pocket and held it in the air. Soba wondered why the Nexu hadn’t gone for Udon’s pocket before, but he suspected it was because Udon was a rather proper gentleman. “Hyaaa, woo!” Udon bellowed as he tossed the meat into the air over the dark, foaming waters of the ocean. Before even a drop of red from that bloody raw thing touched the water, a monstrous split-necked, grey-backed creature sprung from the deep. The hungry, clicking noises it made tickled Soba’s ears. Its snout was as thick as the boat, its eyes large and sunken and the color of curdled cream. For a moment it glanced at Soba, and he knew it had perceived him, who he was, what he was, if but for an instant.
Seawater sprayed the air. Udon was reciting poetry he had no doubt written himself from the helm of the ship. It was ten minutes before they arrived. “This is it?” Soba asked, looking around. This stretch of darkening water looked remarkably unremarkable to him.
Udon chuckled and patted his well-natured, oblivious friend on the shoulder. Soba barely hid his wince. “There’s something I’ve forgotten,” he said, smacking his lips. “I’ll be right back. Don’t go in yet.”
“G-go in?” Soba gasped as Udon disappeared. Then, to no one in particular, he let loose his voice. “There’s no way I’m jumping in this ocean, are you crazy?!” He suspected Udon was not, but intended only to get a rise out of his friend for his own pleasure. Such was often the case in this friendship of theirs. He wouldn’t take the bait. Soba stood up, feeling his burning wound close to his chest. He swayed back and forth on the tiny boat, unsure why he had stood at all.
A crisp seawind salted his lips. He looked down into the murky water, noticing something pink and green looming far beneath the waves. It didn’t move and didn’t appear to be alive, so he took it for the reef. Then doubt crept into his mind again. If there really was a reef down there, was Udon lying?
“I won’t do it!” he found himself saying. “I’m not crazy!”
A fat, reaching, oval-shaped shadow passed over the reef. His heart grew urgent in his ear, and he knew the despicable, starved beast had come again, slithering under the cold waves to split the boat beneath him and snatch him down with it. With his free hand, Soba crafted a tiny flickering yellow-white ball of ki between his fingers. Waiting a moment to see if the beast would turn away from the boat, Soba began to shiver. His mind swam rhythmically against his skull, empty as a foreign ocean; his head was spinning, and his eyes stung.
He didn’t remember letting go of the energy. It disappeared beneath the depths without a sound, swallowed whole. Still the ravenous leviathan drew near, though it had not risen towards the surface. His hand spasmed and three more balls appeared in front of it, each being flung one after the other without thought or care. The underwater predator easily swam around them. Soba let out a squeal and created another ki ball--this one larger and hotter than the others. It took all his strength to hold onto it.
The air changed. A brisk odor of Alo-Alo Verde swept across his face, from his eyes to his mouth.
“I do say, Soba, what are you doing over there?!”
“I…” Soba lurched around, his eyes bright and wet, his cheeks fevered, his ears throbbing. “It’s coming for us! We have to…!”
The explosion was felt first, rippling up from underwater in sudden spires of of foam and bubbles. The very planet itself seemed to rock suddenly, and as it did, both of them were thrown into the water. Shrieking and bleeding, Soba flung himself onto the side of the boat in terror while spires of water shot up around him. Then came the smoke, then the salt, then the trickling gasps of blue-green flame.
He fell into the boat, wet and bloody and as tired as he had ever felt. Soba looked for Udon but didn’t see him anywhere. Something was on fire down there, beneath the water. The reef was burning, glowing with lambent fire, fire that was as unnatural as it was beautiful. And there was Udon now, floating above the water, thirty feet in the air, watching too. Soba didn’t understand. What had happened? How was something underwater even on fire to begin with? He hadn’t meant for anything of that sort to happen at all.
The beast was gone; Udon remained. Finding Soba, his eyes and mouth shadow-masked, the other Yardrat shouted something indistinct, and vanished.
Fleeting sunlight cast a forlorn sliver of light over the ocean. It smoked and danced with underwater flames. He caught his breath and followed Udon wherever he had gone, yet as Soba chased after his friend, he sensed nothing but the gentle, knowing cold behind his eyes, its breath spreading a paralyzing chill through his mind. He saw for a moment, soundlessly, a light growing white and blue and black.
Chapter 2: But If You Close Your Eyes…Edit
Nuuuuooooo Yardrat Yardrat nuaaaahah
Yardrat Yardrat Yardrat nuuuaaah
Yardrat Yardrat uuhh Yardrat
Ngghahaoo Yardrat Yardrat whooaa
Nauauauh Yardrat nuahahah
Yardrat Yardrat nauauahahah
Yardrat nuuaaooli Yardrat
Well my momma was an only son
What the Yardrat ya'll doin
Yardrat Yardrat, that's the question
When I was a baby Yardrat, my momma told me son
Always be a good Yardrat, don't ever pull a slimy one
But I made my nuuuahahaha Yardrat Yardrat chili
Just to Ieeeooli-oli nuaaakko maul my hubby dear
And if you love your momma Yardrat Yardrat
Don't be jumping in that stank, nuahaha Yardrat whoa
I wanna be one of those horrible squid monsters at the bottom of the sea
Yardrat, Yardrat, my momma was an only son
My Momma Was An Only Son, traditional Yardrat folk song.
When Soba awoke, he was on a strange planet, or perhaps a moon. There was no life, just an endless, grey, stony expanse, peppered with craters, and no atmosphere as well, since there was no barrier between him and the unfamiliar stars above. Even though he didn’t know where he was, he could tell that he was far from home.
After checking his body for wounds, he looked around, to see if Udon was nearby. Udon was nearby, unconscious, and not from the copious amounts of space drink he had ingested, as their previous experience had left him painfully sober. Soba felt as though his legs had been hollowed out, and filled with saltwater, as he sluggishly ambled toward his friend.
He knew that Udon wasn’t dead, at least. He could still sense his energy. In fact, Udon’s energy was the only one he could detect; the planet seemed to be barren. It made sense that there was nothing living here, as the Yardrats’ natural ability to survive in a vacuum or on a planet with no atmosphere was a very rare ability in the universe indeed.
He fell over once he reached Udon. He prodded his arm with his finger. “U-don. Uuuuuuudon,” he said, his voice slurred. The familiar syllables felt strange and alien against his numb, gently tingling tongue. He felt for a moment like there was something large and unpleasant in his mouth, like a space slug, so he spit on the ground, but nothing came out. It was just his mind playing tricks on him, another result of the vertigo that had stricken him.
Udon finally awoke. He looked wide-eyed at Soba, as if he had never seen him before, and then he promptly proceeded to vomit a glob of crimson-purple spittle all over Soba’s torso that smelled strongly of alcohol.
Wet, dripping waves, rising higher than mountains, foaming, tyrian, vigorous and stable, gaining and spreading and fading black, not as a breath of flame, but in the cool spreading of a hunter’s wings, as an adult Nidrazi scourge (of which Udon desired to own no less than three) might take to flight, starved and driven, and everything near now turned to black, yet those far-flung eyesores, pulsingly mad, so very mad that Soba found he could not scorn them in his usual impetuosity, they would leer and sneer and rage on without a whisper, ushering this miserable affair to its inevitable conclusion. That is to say this grey, barren place had no atmosphere, which has already been said–Udon’s vomit dripped upwards from Soba’s shirt delicately and melted into starlight.
“Udon, I-I…” Soba began, trying to stammer out an apology for blowing up his best friend’s reef. He had been a horrible friend so he hadn’t even bothered to yell at Udon for throwing up on him. It’s a very intimate thing, throwing up on someone. You can never come back from that; Soba knew this well. He also knew Udon was distraught and not in his right mind, so he decided to approach this situation carefully.
“Soba, my dear fellow,” Udon interrupted, wiping his mouth, his tone high and withering, “do you know where we are?”
“I haven’t got a clue.” He scanned the surroundings, but the grey expanse looked the same as it looked two seconds ago. This was a cold, empty place, bereft of light and life. He hadn’t expected this. Udon loved color and warmth and vibrancy…this place was none of those things.
“Two years ago, the Planet Trade Organization glassed this planet. It had been a refueling depot for some officer-turned-pirate. There were a million fools like him, and a million backwater worlds like this place.”
“What’s the Planet Trade Organization, Udon?” Soba asked, catching his own breath. His friend was remarkably sober, remarkably vibrant. Soba found he still had not recovered his energy from the last jump–and he didn’t know if that was normal or not, but apparently not. Had Udon even been affected? Had the jump not rendered him unconscious?
“They were the big gang in town, once upon a time.” He kicked the dust, sending those hapless particles screaming forever into the black. “There used to be a pond here, did you know that, Soba?”
“That’s how it goes sometimes. The pirates never even knew when I came around, did you know that, Soba? I was too good. I was absolutely brilliant. I knew how to evade them, how to keep quiet, how to get what I wanted,” he turned sideways, grinning slightly. “They never knew.” He paused, his energy once again fading, drifting up and up and up, Soba imagined, away from his body, and for once, Soba thought his friend was as lightless as the stars. “They died, and never knew.”
“Do you know how far we are from home?” Soba asked. He tried his best not to think of the former inhabitants of this planet. The idea of so many living things being wiped out so thoroughly made his head spin.
“Not exactly,” Udon said. “But we’re very, very far from Yardrat.” Udon looked up at the dizzying vastness of the unfamiliar sky. “We might not even be in the same galaxy.”
Soba panicked almost immediately. He touched his fingers to his forehead, conjuring up his mental map of the universe. The map was a hazy, distorted blob, and neither his current location, nor the location of Yardrat were depicted with any clarity. All of the energy signals were unfamiliar, and there was nothing he could mentally anchor himself to.
Even if he could, however, he didn’t want to re-enter hyperspace, not after the last time.
“There’s no way out,” Udon said. “No easy way, anyways. I checked.”
Soba took a deep breath. He wasn’t sure if he should take the fact that he and Udon were talking so freely as a sign that he had forgiven him about the reef. Still, he felt as though he needed to apologize again, as he still felt some sort of unbreakable tension whenever they spoke.
“Really, I’m sorry about the Reef, I–”
“I know,” Udon said coldly. “I know that you’re sorry. And I choose not to forgive you.”
Soba snapped, almost immediately. How dare Udon still be hung up over his stupid reef, when they had just been hurled countless light-years away from their home with no conceivable way back. It was just like a Yardrat to be concerned only with their self-indulgent personal interests and property, even in the most dire of situations.
His bitterness was so immediate and overwhelming that he could hardly put it into words. Instead, he sputtered for a moment, before blurting out “go to hell!” in the most vicious way his young vocal chords could muster.
“So you weren’t really sorry, right?” Udon said.
Soba wanted to respond, but his declaration had left him winded, more exhausted than any energy blast had ever left him.
Udon huffed, and let a terrible silence form between them.
“I found an energy signal on a nearby planet. We’ll try flying there, it’ll take a while, but it’s not too far. Let’s go,” Udon finally said, cutting through the terrible nothingness.
The tension was thicker than his fear. His throat was burning. Soba wondered why they didn’t simply teleport to the planet instead of flying. He held his tongue, following Udon through the darkness of space. Several times, a welling of emotion nearly burst itself from his chest. He felt as if he had to say something to Udon, to explain himself, to apologize, to make Udon understand. But he wasn’t confident that he could succeed, and the price of failure was worse than saying nothing at all.
Guilt was like hunger in that it tore at his insides and made Soba unable to focus on anything else. Had Udon chosen to fly to the planet because he wanted to talk? The young Yardrat’s cowardice never allowed him to find out.
They touched down softly on the swampy, foggy world, their backs to one another. The low rumblings of bug choirs peppered the air. Ahead, something fell from a crooked red-barked tree into the swamp, its splash splitting the monotony to pieces.
“There it is,” Udon said, his voice quickening with anticipation.
Audibly, the other Yardrat took a deep breath. “The energy signal?”
“I think so.” Udon would not look at Soba. He walked off suddenly into the mist. “It’s big, whatever it is. A predator, I think.”
“Hey, Udon, wait up!”
“Quiet!” The sound of footsteps dragging through mud puddles. A cool breeze pushed them onwards. “Don’t talk. You don’t want to frighten it.”
Something cried out in the distance–a small animal. The reaction it produced in Soba made him realize it could only be a death cry. Udon paused in front of a tree, crouching down. “There!” he whispered. “I saw it, I saw it!” He became suddenly giddy, stamping his foot in the mud and daring to raise his voice. “It’s a flyer! Real big! Like a Khorul Dragon, Soba…I must catch it!”
Something fast and black shot itself into Soba’s field of view. Knocking Soba flat on his face, covering him in a thick layer of greenish mud, the blur stopped and gave Soba a menacing look. It all happened too fast for him to feel scared; he merely watched Udon’s fall like one would watch gladiators fighting for their lives from the stands. While his detachment was threatened by her gaze, his body for some reason didn’t feel the need to release fear into his bloodstream.
“Make another sound, and I’ll put you both down.” She was tall and slender, standing more than a head taller than either of the Yardrat men, clothed in black, scaled armor that shimmered with a dark purple when she shifted her weight. “I’ve been hunting this Nidrazi for more than a fortnight, and you two aren’t going to screw it up for me.”
Soba nodded impotently. Udon was moaning softly in the dirt; he was absolutely filthy.
“Stay back, and I won’t hurt you. You can watch if you want.” There was an awkward pause. “I’m Linessi by the way.” She grinned slyly. “Ever heard of me before?”
“N-n…” Soba choked pathetically. Thankfully, she had disappeared into the mist already.
Udon sat up, fingering mud from his chin. “I’ve heard of her before! She used to fight in the Galactrix Arena…Linessi, my word, Soba. She was exquisite!”
Soba wasn’t sure how to reply, he wasn’t used to seeing his friend like this, and was reminded of the age gap between them. Still, it was nice to see Udon happy again. As long as there was no bitterly ambiguous silence, Soba was fine.
“We have to follow her,” Udon said. While Soba wasn’t enraptured with her in the same way that his friend was, she was their best bet for finding out more information about this planet, and the region of space they were in, so he didn’t debate him.
Soba placed his fingers against his forehead, trying to lock onto the energy signal that he had now familiarized himself with. As he searched through his mental cosmic map, he felt a warm pressure against his back. It wasn’t an energy signal, whatever this was, it had no traceable energy, but it wasn’t physical either, as when Soba reached his other hand against the back of his neck to swat it away, there was nothing there.
The warmth persisted, and then grew into a great heat, that morphed into a bitter cold that gnawed against every inch of his body like a swarm of insects. Finally, his vision began to blur, and Soba used all of his strength to force his fingers away from his head. The dark presence ceased, and as his vision returned, he saw that he was on the ground, and that Udon was standing over him.
“Are you okay?” Udon said, offering his hand.
“I’m fine,” Soba said, as he stood back up, his knees still trembling slightly. “My Instant Transmission won’t work. When I went in there, there was…there was something with me.”
Udon’s eyes widened. “It must be the humidity. Or something in the atmosphere here. We’ll find my beloved Linessi, get some rest, and go from there.”
“Yeah,” Udon said, his breathing still ragged and heavy.
“Do you remember which way she went?” Soba said, looking into the indistinguishable mist that surrounded them.
“Of course. Do you really think I’d take my eyes off of her for a moment?”
Udon marched confidently into the fog, and with no other options, Soba followed behind. The ground softened as they went further, and before long they were knee-deep in a black-brown sludge with a suspicious odor.
“What is a Nidrazi, exactly?”
“A Nidrazi scourge is a large, winged creature, typically hunted for sport. They are one of the few non-sapient beings capable of producing ki attacks, and are extremely dangerous. It is rumored that Lord Frieza himself has one as a personal pet,” Udon said, as if reciting directly from an encyclopedia. “They can only be found in the most distant parts of the galaxy, so there is an upside to being lost in this part of space,” Udon continued.
Udon and Soba had apparently inadvertently stumbled upon Udon’s paradise, filled with exotic creatures and the location of the target of his infatuation. Soba wondered if they would visit some planet that happened to cater to as many of his personal interests as this one did to Udon’s.
Finally, the two came out on the other side of the foggy expanse, and Soba felt bad for assuming that Udon had no idea where he was going.
A grey-faced lake spread out before them, and from the muddy bank, the two Yardrats could see the Nidrazi in the distance, its serpentine, armored body gliding through the sky like water. Its underbelly glowed with orange, radiant energy. As they came into view, the leviathan arched its spine and dove into the middle of the lake.
“Look, Soba, look!” Udon was giddy as a schoolgirl, pointing to the sky. “It’s a proper Nidrazi scourge! I’ve always wanted three of them, Soba, oh my, look at the power in its form!”
Soba sensed her; he could not see her. The sensation induced mild vertigo in his brain. She was descending rapidly from above the clouds, down towards the lake. Udon was jumping with excitement, his boots making a shuddering, squelching sound as they fought against the mud.
“She’s got him, she’s got him! Right where she wants him! Ooh, what a magnificent hunter! She’s the best there is! The best there ever has been…possibly the best there ever will be! Look at her agility, man! O-oh…” he shuddered.
Soba didn’t know what Udon was talking about. He couldn’t see anything, so he just nodded and pretended that Udon was acting normal. He vastly preferred infatuated Udon to apathetic Udon. “Yeah, she’s great.”
“You have no idea, Soba!” Udon’s tone rose, and he became almost irritable with his grandeur. “She smoked through so many dudes, you have no idea.”
The Nidrazi surfaced; jeweled water droplets fell from its hulking mass as it roared and rose to the sky. The sound the creature produced was enough to make the surface of the lake ripple. Then descending from the heavens, her aura a deep crimson, Linessi burst into view. The animal saw her, perceived her threat, and bubbling orange energy foamed at its mouth. As it flew to meet her, Linessi increased her speed, slipping left, then right, then bursting forth with even greater speed; as she glided through the air, the Nidrazi became confused; it belched its energy, rolling like a tide of fire, and snapped its jaws left. Linessi for a moment drifted left, right into the creature’s path, and Soba was sure she was going to be eaten. Then, she sprung with unheralded awareness to the right, and a welling of emotion formed once more in Soba’s throat.
He didn’t find her attractive–not at this distance. It was her form that was beautiful, and not in the way that Udon experienced beauty, either–Soba wanted to be able to do what Linessi was doing. He wanted her speed; he craved her boldness in challenging such a fearsome beast. Udon was moaning beside Soba. His mouth twitched; he studied the hunter’s movements, hoping desperately that he could pick up on some trick or tactic she used that proved she was actually no better than him, save for her cleverness.
Firing a blue wave of energy, she hit the creature’s left flank. The blast clung to the predator, emitting what looked like raw electricity. It bellowed slowly and turned and charged her again. This time she simply outsped it, reaching the Nidrazi scourge before it had readied its next attack. As she lunged towards its mouth, the creature swallowed its energy and spread its maw wide, rather preferring to consume her than incinerate her.
The afterimage fooled even Soba. Linessi appeared behind the beast, overhead, shooting more of those blue balls over it. Udon was breathing hard. The electricity covered the beast, and though it struggled against its cage, the energy would not relent.
A moment later, the Nidrazi scourge crashed onto the shore just to their right, sliding into the swamps behind, felling trees and scattering animals. For a time, even the insects refused to continue their music.
Linessi touched down gracefully behind her catch. Whimpering, the Nidrazi attempted only two or three half-hearted thrashes, none of which came close to breaking through the hunter’s impressive electrical field.
Since the creature was felled, and Linessi’s threat of death no longer hung over them, Soba immediately went up to her to congratulate her for the successful hunt. Unfortunately, he made the mistake of opening his mouth before he had thought of anything to say, so he just wheezed out a barely-audible “Wow,” to a slightly perplexed Linessi. Soba was immediately ashamed, as Udon, the one with the shameless crush on her, seemed to be doing a better job of keeping his composure than him.
Soba bit his tongue, and wracked his brain for an intelligent, relevant question he could ask her to counteract his stupid utterance.
“How did you learn to fight like that? Did you get training, or were you self-taught?”
“Self-taught, mostly. I had to learn survival skills and combat when I was younger. Did you two come all the way out here just to ask me that?”
Udon shook his head. “No. We’re stranded in this region of space, far away from our homeworld. This planet happened to be nearby, so we flew here to see if there was anyone who could help us. We didn’t expect to run into you, truthfully. But, since you’re here, are there any space stations or points of contact nearby?”
Linessi thought for a moment. “There aren’t any PTO or Galactic Patrol stations in this part of space, not anymore. But there is a small station nearby, mostly used as a rest stop for smugglers or scientists exploring this part of the region. You should probably start there. I think there was a cartographer who stopped by there, he could help you find your way home.”
“Thank you,” Udon said, and the two departed, as Linessi stood over the great body of the beast. She stroked its snout, and disabled the electric field, letting the creature fly off into the mist.
“Until next time,” she said.
Soba and Udon broke through the atmosphere, and there was indeed a rather shoddy, spherical space station that didn’t look like it could hold more than small group of occupants at one time.
“Why didn’t you say anything else to her?” Soba asked, surprised that Udon didn’t say…well, whatever it is that people said to those they lusted after.
“You’re still pretty young, Soba. There will come a day when you realize that sometimes, you just have to let go of the things that you really care about. And sometimes, those things are people.”
The journey was a black and white blur. They heard the sounds of the cartographer’s voice long before they reached him, drifting out from the rusty, misshapen space platform like the cries of an enraptured lover. At the top of his lungs, he was shouting, “He’s done it again! Magisterial again from Pukcoläsic! Astonishing skill!”
“I guess this guy isn’t a silent cartographer, is he?”
“Huh? Why would you ask me something like that?”
“Ahh…!” Udon waved his poor friend off. Some things were better left unsaid.
“Oh, look out! There he goes again! Three fighters inside a telephone box and he don’t care. Astounding, jaw-dropping skill from Pukcoläsic!”
The station’s outer room, which encompassed almost half of the entire orbital platform, was free to enter through a blue shield wall. Inside, everything was slate grey metal–even the chairs. In little pots spread around the huge waiting room, various colorful and predator-looking plants from the planet below had been gathered.
Soba noticed a smuggler or three playing sniraak in a corner. A being all dressed up in a spacesuit fit for barbarians sat on a seat in the middle of the room looking around blankly. Two huge pin-headed aliens were knocking each other’s teeth out near the entrance. Seeing them and being revolted by them, Soba and Udon broke out into walking sprints in order to get to the check-in station as fast as they could without using Instant Transmission for the millionth time.
A green, gizka-looking animal was seated behind the desk of the very official check-in station reserved for the corner of the room. “We’d like to see the Cartographer.” Udon looked mighty pleased with himself for getting that out before Soba.
The animal looked around blankly and jumped off the chair only to hop away slowly. Udon leaned in over the desk. “Hey, what do you say we just go find him? It doesn’t look like things are run very efficiently around here.”
“Yeah,” Soba replied, keeping his eyes on those sniraak players in the corner. They were, every one of them, amateurs. He felt a sudden craving to punish them, to show them his own skill and flaunt his superiority in their faces. He had won the regional sniraak championships ten years ago back in his hometown of Yachebo, and though he scant remembered how it was played, as he watched the cards being dealt, everything came back to him in waves, and he knew he’d be able to smoke those plebs like raw kekkodian meat.
Udon jumped over the desk. Soba followed him into the dark.
“Oh, he’s done it! He’s done it! Who is the best warrior in the universe?! Ahahaha, in Pukcoläsic’s world, where the insane becomes the predictable…”
The voice coming from seemingly the heart of the outpost was mechnical, Soba realized–it was a robot making all these absurd, screaming proclamations. They followed the voice down an unlit hall of metal and hanging chains into an inner sanctum of sorts–a quaint, tucked away little lounge, full of cushy beanbag chairs and hanging video screens. There were no lights save for the video screens, so the entire room was bathed in blue.
“And here he is again…here he is again…” the voice started up. It was coming from what looked like a mannequin doll being smothered in one of the beanbag chairs. On the video screen, the crowd roared. “It’s astonishing! It’s absolutely universe-class!” the robot sang passionately, his voice quavering with emotion.
“Hi.” Udon waved. Soba didn’t feel the need.
The robot sat up hastily, looking around in embarrassment. The video screen was playing old re-runs from the glory days of the Galactrix Arena. On screen, the nine-time champion of the universe, Pukcoläsic, was weaving his way through a hundred mercs like it was nothing. Soba could tell that even though he was now in public and therefore putting on his public mask, the robot was yet eyeing the video screen with an enthralling intensity of spirit.
“Hey, are you the cartographer?” Udon asked again, this time with more force.
The robot, a gangly, rust-worn model, opened its mouth and closed it again, as if it were sucking in breaths. “Why, yes I am,” it admitted finally, after it realized that Udon and Soba weren’t going anywhere.
“We’re in need of a star map,” Udon said. “The larger and more thorough, the better. We’re very far from home, and we need a way back.
“Of course!” the robot said soulfully, as it regurgitated a large and detailed map from a printer on its torso. It came pre-folded, so it would fit neatly into the recipient’s pocket.
“Thanks,” Udon said, laying the map out on a table.
“Alright, it looks like we’re…here,” Udon said, pointing to the eastmost corner of the map. He felt a hollow sensation in the pit of his stomach as he truly began to comprehend the staggering distance between himself and his homeworld.
“And Yardrat should be here,” he said, pointing to the appropriate quadrant in North Galaxy. “It’s pretty far from here, but as long as we know where it is, we should be able to lock onto an energy signal.”
“Are you sure?” Soba said. “I mean, when I tried to use it before…”
“You were just tired, Soba, that’s all it was. Put your hand on my shoulder, and I’ll take us both there.”
Soba placed his hand upon his friend’s narrow shoulder, hoping deeply that what he said was true.
Udon opened up his mental map of the universe, which was now overlaid with the accurate physical map that the cartographer had provided. He was able to bring his mind across the universe, from the spot where he stood, all the way to his home world of Yardrat. The planet radiated with familiar energy. Now all that was left to do was–
Something wasn’t right. Udon opened a portal into the Teleportation Zone, but before he could enter it with Soba in tow, something else slipped out first. Udon sealed the portal immediately, trapping whatever was inside, but a small bit of something very powerful had managed to escape.
This thing was invisible in all but presence; it could not be seen or heard, but it could be felt. It rushed around the room, formless, before it finally found a host. It entered one of the smugglers, a lanky creature with dark grey skin and a pointed face. The sniraak cards fell from his hand and fluttered onto the ground, as he was pushed forward as if struck forcefully in the back.
“Hey, are you okay?” the alien who he was playing against said. He was a great, fleshy thing, with yellowed skin.
The spindly alien rose up. His eyes had reddened, and his neck was surrounded by an ethereal ring of energy. Without so much of a word, he plunged his taloned hands into the alien’s stomach, pulling out a fistful of pinkish entrails, which he discarded casually onto the counter.
“What the hell?” a short, cat-like, black-furred smuggler said. He drew his blaster, and fired a shot, that missed the gaunt creature by a considerable distance. The possessed alien whipped around, swinging its arm like a blade that cleaved the feline’s head off, coating the walls with fresh crimson blood.
Udon folded the map into his pocket, and grabbed Soba’s arm.
“I don’t know what’s happening, but we need to get out of here, now,” Udon said.
Soba refused to move. “We can’t just let them die, can we?”
“Well, you’re better at fighting than me. Do you think you could take him?”
Soba looked at the out-of-control creature, who was preoccupied with dismembering the other surrounding aliens.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“Then we’re leaving,” Udon yanked on his arm again.
Soba didn’t move, but this time, he wasn’t putting up intentional resistance. Instead, he was stunned by the sight of the cartographer sprinting towards the grey being, letting out a great mechanical battle-cry. Udon let go of his arm, as he was curious to see where this was going too.
The robot grabbed the creature’s long arms, pinning them to its sides. The robot wasn’t designed for combat, but it was still fairly strong, strong enough to hold it in place.
The alien’s arms may have been restrained, but its head was still free. The robot tightened its grip, hoping to crush it, but all the while, it was repeatedly smashing its head against the robot’s, denting the robot’s shell and smashing its delicate processor.
With a crunch, the creature’s spine was snapped, and it drooped limply in the robot’s grasp. The robot released it, and its body fell uselessly to the ground. The halo, and its radiating eyes dissipated. Despite its apparent victory, the cartographer was irreparably damaged.
His injured circuitry caused an incomprehensible wave of mixed emotions to run through him, a sea of contradictory sensations that he had never experienced before. If he could cry, his eyes would be welling up.
He crawled over to Soba and Udon, as they were the only ones left in the station who hadn’t fled or lost several extremely vital body parts during the ordeal.
“I have spent all of my life idolizing the great Pukcoläsic, watching idly the courage of another. But now, I have shown that I can match, nay, surpass the bravery of the universe’s premiere champion. I was built to be a simple cartographer, but I will perish a giant.”
The cartographer reached out to touch Udon’s face, but he fell short, and his systems shut off, permanently, before he could touch him.
“Robots are weird,” Udon said. “Anyways, I still have the star map, but it looks like using Instant Transmission is a really, really bad idea, for whatever reason. There’s something in the Teleportation Zone, something dark that desperately wants to come out, and I’m stupid for not realizing it earlier. We can still get back to Yardrat, but we’re going to have to go there the normal way. There’s a larger spaceport, and it’s pretty far from here, but we could purchase a ship so we can get there faster.”
“Yeah…” Soba looked away from the bodies to stop himself from trembling. “Let’s get out of here.”
They flew and flew and flew through space, some more space, and additional space. One time there was a space rock that went hurtling by. In the distance, a comet burned its long trail against a sea of ancient eyes. Soba said, as they were flying, “So, Udon, how’s uh…” He was about to ask about the zoo, but then he remembered. But at the same time, there wasn’t really anything else for them to talk about.
“That’s a pretty star, isn’t it,” Soba asked, pointing to one of the millions of stars in the distance that he didn’t find very beautiful at all.
“Oh Soba, you really don’t understand, do you?”
“That’s no star, that’s a hypo–”
Suddenly, Udon was jerked down. Soba, flying absentmindedly beside him, didn’t realize what had happened until he too was falling. They fell for a while, until they had fallen enough. Udon landed head-first in the ground, which was entirely made of dusty-rocky orangeness, stretched out in all directions. There was no sign of elevation anywhere–everything was perfectly smooth. The planet itself was not very large; he could see it curling around the horizon only a few hundred feet away.
The weight of living crushed down upon Soba. He had felt it the whole way down, but now that his feet were firmly planted on the ground, he was having trouble remaining upright. Sweat ran into his eyes. Udon struggled, his head stuck in the ground, his body positioned upright like an unplucked vegetable.
“H-hey…don’t worry, I’ll getcha outta there!” Soba panted. He struggled to walk over to Udon, who was–conveniently, or not conveniently, Soba could not tell - only a few steps away. Every step he took seemed to cause the wind to pick up and howl as if with voices of anguish. That he recognized he was hearing symbolism in the wind annoyed Soba, so he droned it out by singing to himself the song of his people.
“Nuuuuooooo Yardrat Yardrat nuaaaahaha!!” he sang pleasantly. “Yardrat Yardrat Yardrat nuuuaaah!”
It was an excellent song from his childhood, reminding him of the days when Soba had been someone with a dream, hope, and promise. But here he was, out in the middle of nowhere, marooned on a little tiny nothing planet, and he didn’t know how he’d gotten here or how he could get out. Sometimes being an adventurer was harder than it seemed, and right about now, Soba wanted to retire.
“Yardrat Yardrat nauauahahah!” he sang as he reached Udon, who was kicking his feet in rhythm with Soba’s singing. When he reached Udon, Soba gripped his foot and tugged hard, but the older Yardrat wouldn’t budge. He was rather exhausted now, thinking he needed at least a seventeen minute break. But Udon had begun to thrash much like that Nidrazi scourge, and as Soba thought of that, he thought Linessi and her persistence and strength and felt only shame in comparison.
He gripped both of Udon’s ankles, his burning sense of shame briefly being overcome by the pain in his weary muscles. But that was good. Focusing on the pain allowed him to embrace it, to lose his fear of it. He grit his teeth, sweat stinging his lips, and pulled again.
“Woooooo, Yardrat, Yardrat, my momma was an only son!” Udon sang as he came flying out of the crater. The crater was large, much larger than it would have been had Soba been the one stuck instead. Udon had a massive skull, and it was no surprise to Soba that, despite the fall they had both just taken, Udon didn’t seemed to be phased in the slightest. “Hey, what’s that sound?”
Udon had landed a few feet away from Soba. Sitting up, he was looking around slowly and sharply like a hunter on the prowl. “What is it, Udon? What is it?!” Soba asked like one would ask their favorite space dog.
“Th-there’s… someone here.” Udon looked around, but there was no one there. The whole little planet was, for lack of a better term, polished like a ball. There were neither hills nor buildings nor trees. It was all endlessly smooth desolation. Udon screamed.
Beneath Udon’s feet was something that was unmistakably alive, and yet, like no life that Udon had ever known. The creature was, essentially, a perfectly flat disc of veiny flesh, with a mouth and eyes that faced straight up. The ground was littered with these flat creatures, which explained the pained sobs they heard with every step they took.
Udon immediately stepped off of the creature, and onto one of the few uncovered patches of ground. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t see you there.” Udon said. Speaking was immensely difficult, as his jaw felt like it weighed twenty pounds, at least.
“It’s okay!” the creature said cheerfully. “We don’t get many visitors. It’d be nice if you tried to avoid stepping on us from now on, though.”
“We will, I promise,” Soba said.
Udon was deeply disappointed that these creatures were apparently sentient; he would’ve loved to take one home with him as an addition to his zoo. That didn’t mean that he wasn’t still zoologically curious about them, however.
“What’s the name of your race?” Udon said, kneeling down so he could be closer to the creature, a move that he immediately regretted once he remembered the planet’s brutal gravity. “And, if it’s not impolite to ask, why are you so…flat?”
“We’re the Pannies, from Planet Pancake,” he said. “And it’s not impolite at all! We evolved to become perfectly flat. All of our organs are completely two-dimensional, so we can withstand this planet’s intense gravity!”
“Ah, that makes sense,” Udon said, wincing as he attempted to escape from his kneeling position. “Do you know how we could get off of this planet?” he asked.
“You should probably ask our leader, Torilla the Hun. His palace is just north of here.”
“Thank you,” Udon said, his mind fascinated with the idea of what a palace would look like to a flat creature.
“Let’s go, Soba,” he said. “And do try to avoid stepping on them in the future. They’re so polite, it’d be a terrible shame to hurt them.”
Soba and Udon tried their best to dance around the Pannies that littered the planet’s surface, like children attempting to avoid stepping on cracks as they went down a sidewalk. Unfortunately, jumping was extremely difficult given the planet’s pull, and they would occasionally be hurled down towards the planet’s surface, right on top of a poor Pannie. Fortunately, they seemed to be rather durable, but that didn’t stop their pained shrieks from grating on the Yardrat’s ears.
“Sorry, sorry, sorry!” Soba said, every time he treaded on one.
Finally, the duo reached the being who was unmistakably Torilla the Hun. He was wider than his kin, blanketing a large section of the planet’s surface. At either side was a pair of female Pannies, who were both about an inch thick, which was exceptional compared to the other ones they had seen. Udon imagined that this thickness was the Pannie equivalent of a bodacious rear to a bipedal creature, and Soba had no such lewd thoughts about the matter.
“Are you Torilla the Hut?” Udon asked. All this talking at increased gravity had left his jaw as sore as an Arlian whore’s.
“Of course I am,” the monarch gurgled. “Could you not tell by my superior size?”
“Of course,” Udon said. “I meant no disrespect. We are strangers to this planet, and to this region of the universe.”
Soba remained silent. He figured that Udon was more fit to converse with royalty.
“We were told that you could help us leave this planet, your majesty.” Udon knew that he should’ve probably bowed to Torilla, but he was afraid that he would break his knees trying to get back up if he did.
“I could, yes, but why are you so desperate to leave this world?”
“We’re Yardrats, our bodies weren’t built to handle gravity this intense. Plus, we’re far away from home, and we need to get to a space station as soon as possible, otherwise we have no chance of getting back.”
His consorts whispered something in his ear.
“Fine, I will help you,” Torilla said.
“Thank you, your majesty.”
“Stand upon my body.” Torilla said. Soba and Udon both stood upon his vast surface, and unlike the other Pannies, the king did not even flinch.
“I am king, because I alone was gifted with the ability to expand my body into the third dimension. Doing so will kill me, but I have lived a long, happy life, and it is about time that my heir took his rightful place.”
“Oh, no, you really don’t have to–” Udon said, but it was already too late. The king’s body expanded and contorted, morphing from a flat disc to a sphere, that pushed the Yardrat duo towards the planet’s atmosphere. The king’s flat organs were stretched unnaturally, until they tore, rupting and filling his body with life-giving fluids. The king screamed in agony, but he continued to push himself further, and Soba and Udon with him, until they were broken free of the planet’s grip. They could just barely see the king’s stretched, bloated corpse from the atmosphere, as his consorts surrounded him, hoping to give him comfort in his final, agonizing moments.
“I promise, this won’t happen at the space station,” Udon said.
There were more merchants than princes in the swarm-hole that was Boson Station. A sprawling, hierophantical city spread before the two Yardrats. As sprawling as it was, they couldn’t see any of the other three walls–it looked like a city one would find on a planet. The ceiling wasn’t visible, either. Dirty, urban clouds made sure of that.
Above the ground, floating advertisement boards flashed with bright neon purples and blues, begging for travelers to visit a variety of shops and restaurants. There were ships at dock in the distance too - hulking, rectangular freighters, and pointed single-pilot fighters that surely had to be the travel skiffs of space pirates.
Smoke was rising from a set of buildings to the left. Soba felt his mouth watering. Those were the restaurants. He felt himself being drawn in that direction, his primal hunger moving his feet without his permission. “Soba, where are you going?” Udon said in a high, cold voice.
“Oh…” Udon was walking in the other direction, towards the port with all the ships. “Sorry, I thought we could–”
“No. We have to get home, Soba. We’ll get someone to eat later.”
He was disappointed because he wasn’t used to feeling hungry. Nevertheless, he followed Udon across the street towards the dusty, oil-smelling shipyards. A space-badger darted across the road on all fours. He felt simultaneously entranced and terrified as they approached the docking station. There were hundreds of aliens, dozens of different species, and Soba felt lost in the awareness that so many intelligent, well-developed races could exist without his knowledge. There were three eyed aliens, green-skinned aliens, some the size of spacecraft, others as tiny, darting and quick, as bugs. Most were bipeds, but not all were. One mass of bones and tiny arms walked like a rocking chair in motion on three crooked feet. He felt that old familiar feeling again and found himself short of breath.
“Yes, we would like passage back to Planet Yardrat please,” Udon said when it was their turn to walk up to the counter. An alien behind Soba was shrieking with laughter. He tasted the dust in the air, and with it came the tiredness one often senses in the late hours of a far-distant port such as this one.
“My name’s Moko the Ligilius. I will be your station agent today,” Moko the Ligilius said from behind the counter unhelpfully. Tall as he was, Moko’s form filled out in his shoulders and belly. A furry, sharp-toothed man with golden eyes and striped gold-and-grey fur, he utterly intimidated them.
“I…” Udon stammered. That was the first time Soba ever saw his best friend in the whole wild universe so visibly shaken.
“Do you mind if we hitch a ride back to our homeworld on one of these ships?” Soba interjected. “We don’t need much space or–”
“No,” boomed Moko, his claws tightening around the edge of the metal counter he stood behind. Udon shivered. “If you want a ride, you’ll have to pay.”
Still crying with laughter, the lanky tan-shelled alien behind them stepped forward. His blue-white whiskers bounced up and down with every heaving breath he took. “Come on, Soba,” Udon muttered, blushing, his head pulled down, “let’s just go…”
“Udon, no!” Soba stood his ground. “We can’t use Instant Transmission…especially not here. There are way too many people! What if something like on that last station happens again?”
Udon shrugged. “Then they’ll die. I don’t care.” He looked around glumly. “It’s not like any of these bastards would care if we died, Soba.”
“Still…” Soba’s eyes turned back to Moko. “We don’t have any money,” he said. “Do you know anywhere we can go to make some?”
Moko growled, and the shelled, fifty-armed bipedal crustacean hooted even louder, his wrinkly snout shaking like a wind-whipped sock. They were running then, towards the restaurants now, and Soba couldn’t tell if his friend was really hungry or not.
Udon practically shoved Soba into a seat once they got there. They had no money, so they obviously couldn’t buy any food, but at least they could sit and rest until someone kicked them out.
“Everything’s going to be alright,” Udon said. Soba wasn’t sure who he was talking to. “We’re really close to getting home. All we need to do is get some money, and how hard could it be to find someone looking for work in a space station like this?”
“Yeah,” Soba said.
They sat there, for a while. Udon craned his head, to make sure that nobody realized that they were squatting there without paying.
Suddenly, a creature took the seat next to them, and neither Soba or Udon saw him approach; he seemed to just appear out of nowhere.
“Hey,” he said, gruffly. He was humanoid, with round, black eyes, thin lips, red skin, and a wide-brimmed hat. “You two were looking for a job, right? I might have something that needs doing.”
“What kind of thing?” Udon said, fully prepared to smuggle drugs or perform some unspeakable sex act if it meant getting him and Soba back to Yardrat.
“Well, there’s a planet nearby. Space pirates orbitally bombarded it a few months back, and no one’s been to the surface since. I’m a biologist, and I was wondering if you could take some samples for me, to see if anything survived.”
Udon’s eyes lit up. “Of course!” he said almost immediately.
“Great. Don’t worry, I’m good for my money, and I can offer you enough to get your own spaceship, plus a little more for the road.”
“You’re a saint,” Udon said, taking his hand and shaking it. The alien tilted his head quizzically at the gesture.
“It’s a shame that we’ll be leaving this part of the universe for good. It’s always a pleasure to talk with a fellow biologist.”
“Yeah, well, I get around. Maybe we’ll meet again someday. Name’s Kage, so you know who to look for.”
The alien reached into his pocket, and handed Udon several thin glass cylinders, each lined with delicate wiring. Stick these in the soil, and by the water. Leave them there for an hour each, then bring them back to me. It’s that simple.”
“Understood,” Udon said. “Come on Soba, we’re almost home!”
The planet was ravaged and burnt, craters and blackened crust spreading in all directions like bone-dust. Udon knelt down in the crater just ahead, placing one of Kage’s cylinders in the dirt.
In his peripheral vision, Soba felt the wind. That wasn’t right–he gasped, the mixing of senses producing a near incomprehensible reaction in the young Yardrat. Trying to stagger to his feet again, Soba fell to his knees. “Udon…did you…did you see–”
His fellow, his friend, gazed down upon him with terrible, knowing pity. “You’ve gone mad, haven’t you, Soba? That’s it. That explains it all. By the gods…” His voice had gone hoarse, almost breaking.
“There!” Soba gasped again, pointing to the wind, and he knew not how he could tell.
“Here,” Udon countered, clicking his tongue, and moving on. Now Soba could see the remains of an ocean - a muddy, ash-laden heap of slosh that looked more like a mud puddle than anything else.
A single indomitable cloud swallowed the distant yellow star behind it. The sky hung motionless, radiating coolly, patiently; it was an unfamiliar and comforting light green. Soba found he couldn’t look away. The borders of the cloud bubbled with molten gold, and its rolling center, polished silver, was beautiful beyond anything even Udon could have dreamt up. It was beauty, Soba realized. A chill befell the boy; the cloud radiated light majestically; in the far distance, on the edge of the world, a few wispy-white phantoms gathered and schemed. But there were no others in the otherwise empty green sky. The cloud’s isolation made it somehow grander in Soba’s eyes, even more alluring. But why? He didn’t understand–for the boy himself had no beauty in him and had never known it but as a stranger.
Udon bent over as he grasped the sea creature from the sloshing shore-edge, a bit of ki in his hand to help him pull it up from the depths.
The creature was brown and wet, its skin aglow with a dull, dusty yellow tinge that made Soba retch uncontrollably. He watched without speaking as Udon cut a piece of flesh from the side of the finless, legless, three-eyed, serpentine beast. It was ugly. Blood spurted with vigor; in arcs, the alien painted the grey-white sea with its tears of crimson, never making a sound. A biting wind blew bleakly across the rock-struck shore.
There was less of it than Soba would have thought. Udon took the feral, bloody piece, vaporized it in his palm, and threw the creature back into the sea. He knelt and placed a second capsule in the ground.
The weary green dunes rose in hillocks and in the distance, blackened, branch-less forests braced them in. Where the shore met the waves falling in and crashing out, a person was standing, watching them. It was short and frail, leaning forward, vaguely blue-skinned or wearing blue clothes–Soba could not tell at this distance.
Soba felt himself drawn towards the creature, stumbling over to him as if in a trance. There was a kind of magnetism between him and it, a sort of inevitability to their meeting, a strange, unstoppable energy that drew him ever closer.
Once he was near enough, he could see that the humanoid had blue skin and was also wearing blue robes of a shade just similar enough to that of his flesh to blend in from a distance. He had a sharp chin; his face was peppered with liver spots and thoroughly wrinkled.
“Where are you going?” Udon said, his eyes focused on the blood puddle that was quickly dissolving from the water’s surface. Udon looked up, and in that moment, he too perceived. And although he didn’t feel the same kind of pull as Soba, now he too was transfixed. He didn’t know if he should follow Soba, or wait to make sure that the creature was harmless first.
Once Soba was finally within a few feet of the blue thing, he felt a sudden rush of clarity, as if he had just woken up.
“Come,” he said to Soba, before he could ask any of the many questions he had. “And bring your friend as well.”
Udon was close enough to hear their conversation, so he darted behind Soba, following him as he did the strange blue man.
The blue man didn’t venture far before stopping. “Here, here is fine,” he said, pointing his hand towards the ground. The ground trembled, but not as a planet’s surface typically does. Instead, it rippled like liquid, before opening up like a creature’s maw, emitting a soft orange light. The alien hopped into the rippling ground, and invited Soba and Udon to follow. They shrugged their shoulders, and plunged into the shifting glow.
They found themselves in a small, quaint tea room, where the blue-skinned man was waiting for them. He was seated at a small table carved from a light wood, with three steaming cups of tea.
“Sit, drink,” he said affably.
They sat. “What kind of tea is this, anyways?” Udon snapped, sniffing at his cup haughtily.
“What kind would you like?” the old man replied enthusiastically.
“Loru Qir! The finest tea in all the universe, the tea of a true gentleman!”
“Well, I don’t have any of that.” The old man cleared his throat, leaned back in his chair, and sipped his sweet-smelling tea noisily and for an extended period of time. Soba joined in, and after a time, Udon did too. Once they had all finished their first cups, the old blue man poured them a second round. “I don’t believe we’ve introduced ourselves yet. I am Master Xutol, traveling ambassador of the Venyi Academy.”
“Venyi?” Udon interrupted, leaning forward casually, blocking the view between Xutol and Soba. “What on Yardrat is that? Is it some kind of space pros–”
“We train those whom we deem worthy of mastering our knowledge and techniques.”
Udon scoffed. “What does that mean? What kind of training do you give?”
“I cannot go into specifics with you.”
“What?! Why not?”
“You are not the one I am here for.” Xutol nodded gently in Soba’s direction. “I’m here to offer you admission to the Venyi Academy.”
Soba was perplexed, his head spinning, but he didn’t have time to focus on his body’s protests. “We-well…what exactly do you do? What kind of training would I get at such a place?”
Udon stood up, sipping his tea like a gentleman and pacing around the cramped-in room. His synthetic perfume, clean and clear and irritable, intoxicated Soba’s nostrils.
“We will train you to unlock your fullest potential, to unleash the power that resides within you. When properly nurtured, you may become a great warrior or scientist or even artist if you so choose. A path of your choosing lies before you, young one.”
“Scam!” Udon threw his tea across the room, shattering the tea cup. Soba jumped; the old man didn’t move. In fact, he began to smile widely.
“Is it dangerous?!” Soba rose to his feet, his voice going high, as Udon tugged at his shoulder. Emotion clawed at the back of his throat, and he thought only of Linessi, her grace slicing a scar of beauty through the cloud-infested skies.
“Let’s go, Soba. He’s a charlatan, a scammer. We’ll just get ourselves into trouble if we listen to another word he has to say. He might have even laced the tea–”
“Your training will take you to dozens, perhaps hundreds of worlds. Some of your tasks may be dangerous, others may not. We judge our pupils on intuition first, and that is why I am holding back so much information. I want to see if you are willing to risk much for more, young one.”
“Soba…” Udon said, lowering his voice, “let’s go. We have to get home, remember?”
“Hang on,” he said, brushing his friend away. “Why did you come for me just now?”
“You showed the quality of your character recently, and that piqued our interest.”
Xutol’s smile was beginning to irritate Soba. “In the very recent past.”
Soba’s mind buzzed as he remembered. He grasped onto the memory of the Moko, Linessi, the coliseum…Blood, sweat, straining muscles…tumbling through all of it, he reached no conclusion, no understanding. What had they seen in him? Nothing he’d done recently had been very impressive. And then there was the reef…and from that memory, he plucked out only the memory of shame. “I’ll go,” he said suddenly. “I’d like to enroll.”
“Very good,” the man said cleanly. “Your name is Soba, isn’t it?” The Yardrat nodded. “…Ah, yes, very good. That makes four pupils, including you. You should be thrilled, Soba. We rarely have more than one or two at any given time. It can be so dreadfully boring for them when they don’t have any other companions, but such is life. We can never predict when quality will be born into the universe.”
“Soba…!” Udon seethed, looking at him as if he’d betrayed Udon to death.
“I-I’m sorry, Udon, but I want to go…” Soba said hopefully. “I’ll get you a new reef, Udon. Or I’ll fix it…We’ll find a way, I’ll find a way…”
Scowling, Udon straightened his jacket and teleported away. The guilt in Soba did not die even as he grew more excited of the prospect of adventuring a hundred distant worlds in the services of an ancient and powerful master. He felt for Udon, and he knew he would have to make things right.
“Come now, let’s go,” Xutol said, standing up. “We’ll go with your technique. I want to experience it firsthand.”
The thought for an instant scared Soba, thinking back to the Cartographer and the others. But there was something about this man, something about his calm, ancient aura that gave Soba peace of mind. Whatever was lurking in the Teleportation Zone no longer frightened him. He perceived dimly that Udon had just used Instant Transmission too, and nothing bad had come of that. So why should he have anything to fear? “Where are we going, Mast–”
As Xutol placed his hand upon Soba’s shoulder, a rush of heat filled his veins, golden and rushing beneath his eyelids, and he knew where they had to go.
Chapter 3: The Violent BlueEdit
Soba was hurled through the Teleportion Zone, and was reminded of how long it had been since he’d used the technique without incident. Gone was the familiar itch of darkness within the realm, and he was free to transport Xutol and himself into the desired location.
He was teleported into a large, spacious temple, sparsely lit with ancient-looking crimson lanterns. The walls were withered from age, and carved with red stone. Soba was immediately struck with a sense of awe, as he imagined all of the great warriors who no doubt occupied this temple before him.
“This is the Venyi Academy,” Xutol said. “Your transmission technique is impressive, and I sense great untapped potential within you. You will fit in perfectly with our other trainees.”
Soba became even more excited, as he was introduced to the possibility of other strong combatants to train with.
“We typically have students train in groups of four. Would you like me to introduce you to your fellow students?”
“Yes, thank you,” Soba said. His voice was excited, but there was a snag in his throat, a hot, prickly feeling of guilt that persisted even while he wasn’t actively thinking about his friend.
Xutol led him through a hallway, and then, into a smaller chamber, where the three other students resided, lounging about as they waited for their instructor to return.
First among them was a blue-skinned woman, who seemed to be sizing up Soba with her icy blue eyes the moment he walked into the room. She wore a light garb, not dissimilar to what Soba had seen the space pirates aboard the station wearing.
Second was a young humanoid man, around Soba’s age, with pointed ears and a bright red mohawk. He was hunched over in his seat, eyes fixated on a silver sword as he polished it with a moist rag.
And, lastly was a female, humanoid in form, with purple skin. She lacked hair, but her head had several tendrils that closely resembled them. She wore a vest that immediately identified her as a Metamoran. Soba was sure that Udon had lectured him on their culture and biology once, but he hadn’t absorbed anything besides their species’ very specific choice in attire.
“This is Audacci, Rakae, and Anso,” he said, gesturing to the blue-skinned woman, the swordsman and the Metamoran respectively.
“They will be training with you for the coming months and years.” He turned to Audacci. “Would you like to spar with Soba? So you can get an idea of each other’s powers?”
She was sizing him up with her eyes; Soba felt those cold blue spheres, like burning flames, feeling over his every inch of being. Audacci never stopped frowning at him. Her hair was dyed white, but he could see roots of orange near her scalp. She was taller than him. “I won’t hold back,” she said, almost in boredom. “I assume that you are a skilled fighter, if Master Xutol brought you here. Don’t underestimate me, either. I’m not against hurting you.”
Those last words sent a shiver down Soba’s spine. He didn’t know what to say; he was so taken aback by her suddenness, her forwardness, her form, that he had lost the ability to talk. Weakly, he raised his shaking fists, wide-eyed, his mind racing, full of nothing but whirling wind.
Audacci smirked arrogantly as she looked him over again. What had she seen in him? The panic that rose from that unanswerable question transitioned into pain as the woman lunged forward in a two-foot flying tackle. Soba was completely taken aback by her speed and force. His block shattered like a greenhouse in a hurricane. The young Yardrat was thrown into a wall, and did not move again.
Gasping and spitting up blood, Soba tried to stand, but he couldn’t. His limbs had turned to water, and he could barely keep his head from drooping and slamming against the floor. She was walking towards him, an angel encased in light, and though her form terrified him, Soba found something strangely alluring about her now that he’d felt her power. His chest heaved. He felt no less than three of his ribs scream in broken agony in response.
Anso the Metamoran teleported in between Soba and Audacci. “Audacci… stop. You’re going too far. He’s a new recruit and–”
“I wanted to see what he was capable of,” the blue-skinned Hera replied. “Evidently, it wasn’t much.”
That burning smirk came again, worse than any wound. Soba leaned forward hard, wincing in pain. He had never felt this much pain before, never known he could survive this level of torment. “How did the temple acolytes treat you when you joined?” the Metamoran asked. “I’m sure they didn’t do anything as violent to you as this.”
“You were there.” There came a flash of blue from her eyes, and a flash of blue in her hands, moving like falling rain in a wind current. “You should remember, Anso.”
“I remember them having more compassion for you.”
“I was strong enough to defend myself when I joined. I expected the same of this…this…” she trailed off, searching for an insult she never found. “Anyways, how can someone so weak join the Venyi Academy? This is an affront to my honor!”
“Enough!” Xutol stepped forward, laces of purplish energy spreading from his body and ensnaring Audacci. The girl fell to her knees, struggling, unable to say a word as the energy wrapped around her mouth. She could not overcome the energy of Master Xutol. “Every acolyte is different, and every acolyte deserves your respect. We are a family here, Audacci. This is not a competition. Every one of us has room for growth. Whether you start out as weak as a bug or mighty as a warlord is irrelevant. We are all here to learn, to get better.”
Still she struggled, though her attempts were becoming less forceful and more prideful by the second. Blood dripped from Soba’s lips onto the dusty rock floor.
“I’ll treat his wounds, Master Xutol,” Anso said.
Xutol nodded, releasing Audacci as Anso scooped up Soba and headed for the adjacent room. Audacci simply scowled wordlessly at her master.
Soba awoke to the sight of Anso diligently tending to his wounds. A dull pain still throbbed in his chest, and his mind still danced with images of Audacci’s radiance. There was something inherently surreal about her existence, that she had an endless capacity to harm him, and he could do nothing in return. He felt a sort of admiration and fear simultaneously, mixed with an unfamiliar lust that made his head swim. But, over all of those was a desire to hurt her back, to win her respect.
“There,” Anso said, as she finished wrapping a bandage around his injured chest.
“That’ll hold everything in place, and prevent any internal bleeding. You won’t be fully healed for a while, though, so try not to get into any more fights. At least, don’t fight Audacci again, alright?” Soba nodded dizzily. “I’m really sorry about that. Her parents were space pirates, I think, so she probably got the bad attitude from them. We’re not all like that, though. Rakae seems pretty nice, and I’m a Metamoran, we’re all about unity.”
Soba rose back to his feet, prodding his injured chest with his fingers. Anso had indeed done an excellent job; the pain had subsided to a manageable level.
“Thanks,” he said weakly, still trying to find his voice.
“I’m sure she’ll come around eventually. And you’ll definitely get more powerful, too.”
“Right,” Soba said, as he walked past her, trying to rejoin his classmates.
“You know, you don’t need to go back there if you don’t want to. If you need some more time to recover, I’m willing to stay with you, to make sure that you’re not–”
“I’m fine,” Soba said.
“Alright. As long as you’re sure,” she said, resting her hand against his chest. “I just don’t want to see you hurt again.”
Soba rejoined the class. Audacci was released, and based on her expression, Xutol had probably given her another stern talking to after Soba left. Rakae was lying on his side, disinterestedly.
“Finally you’re back,” he said, yawning. “Can we get back to training, now?”
“Of course,” Xutol said. “Assuming that there are no more interruptions. Rakae, would you like to spar with someone?”
“Yeah. Anso, you’re up.”
“No,” Soba interrupted. “I want to fight.”
“I mean, it’s pretty admirable that you want to fight right after breaking your ribs and all, but like, do you really think that’s a good idea?”
“Yes,” Soba said. “I need to fight again. I’m not going to be defeated so easily.”
“Well, that’s pretty admirable,” Rakae said. “But how do you know I’m not even stronger and more ruthless than Audacci?”
“Wow, alright. What do you say, Master Xutol?”
“I will allow it, but keep in mind, Soba is already injured.”
“Yeah, obviously. I’m not going to hurt him, unlike some people.”
Rakae stood up, leaving his sword on the ground. He held out his hand, as Xutol summoned another blade for him. This one was heavier, with a dull edge, designed for sparring rather than actual combat.
“Alright, let’s see what you’ve got,” Rakae said, lowering his stance, with his sword held in front of him.
Soba mimicked Rakae’s combat stance, showing his inexperience, as the position wasn’t meant for unarmed combat.
Rakae smirked. He lunged at Soba, swinging his sword in a wide, arcing motion. It struck Soba in the shoulder. The blade wasn’t strong enough to cut into him, but the force was still enough to render his entire arm completely numb.
Soba fired back with a formless ball of yellow energy from his other arm. Rakae effortlessly deflected the blast, swatting it away with his sword.
“Come on, you can do better than that.”
Soba took a deep breath, placing his fingers against his temple. Rakae assumed that he was charging some sword of energy blast, and he prepared himself for another deflection.
Soba appeared behind him, putting all of his energy into a clumsy punch aimed at the back of Rakae’s head. Rakae flew forward with an embarrassing grunt, and his sword went flying out of his hand.
“That’s a pretty advanced technique for an amatuer,” he said, bending down to pick his sword back up. “I mean, teleportation is fine and all, but can you compete with raw speed?”
Rakae charged towards Soba, and once again, he placed his fingers to his forehead. Before he could lock onto an energy signal, however, he swatted away Soba’s finger with his sword. Being knocked forcefully out of his energy search left him dazed, and open to attack. Rakae took advantage of this, releasing a flurry of blows, slamming his sword against every part of Soba’s body that wasn’t his injured ribs.
He struck both of Soba’s legs, forcing him to his knees, and then, he placed the tip of the sword against Soba’s throat.
“That means I win, right?”
Xutol shook his head. “You still have much to learn, Rakae. This is not about winning or losing. We are allies in a united effort, not enemies fighting against one another.”
“Yeah, I know, but I still won, right?”
Soba got back up, simply grateful that none of his bones were broken this time. It was reassuring to see that he could at least put up a fight against Rakae, but, if it had been a real fight, Soba also would’ve been completely dismembered.
“That’s enough sparring for today, Soba,” Master Xutol said gently. “If you keep going at this pace, you’re going to destroy your body. Rakae, why don’t you take Soba to Master Levion?”
“Aw, come on, why me?” Rakae complained. “It’s my turn to fight Audacci!” He pointed his sword at the Hera, who had remained kneeling where she had fallen.
“Anso will fight Audacci, not you,” Xutol whispered, ushering the boys out. “Now go. I will not ask you again.”
“Come on, Yardrat,” Rakae muttered, sheathing his sword on his back.
Soba followed him out without a word. As they left the room, Rakae closing the huge stone door behind them with his psychic abilities, Soba perceived for a moment, the flame-blue aura of Audacci coming into form as she stood up. Anso was against her, her own aura bright and purple. There was something in Audacci’s form that told him she would win. She would always win. She was far stronger than the Metamoran – he could feel her power vibrating through the air.
“So what did Xutol tell you about us?” Rakae asked.
They made their way through decrepit, barely-lit halls on raised stone bridges, the sides awash in falling blackness. Soba would have to be careful – one wrong step and he’d be falling for an eternity. “He didn’t say much… I mean, he said he wanted to train me to learn his techniques and knowledge, but I don’t know what any of that means.”
“Xutol’s like that all the time. Man, he’s cryptic for no reason, you know? I think he does it just to keep us guessing.”
They came to a black-rock door inscribed with ancient runes. Rakae tapped three of them. Milky-blue energy sprung up from the rock, surging in falling rivers around the runes. “He said he intuition mattered the most.”
“He always says stupid stuff like that. Intuition is overrated. I mean, what does that even mean? What does it mean to have amazing intuition? It’s made-up shit.”
“I guess he means people who can make good decisions quickly.”
“At our level, you don’t make decisions,” Rakae retorted. “We move too fast to think… when we really try. It’s all about instinct, not intuition. Keep that in mind. All the Masters think like Xutol.”
They came into a room that looked like a tucked-away cozy little torture chamber. A man with sharp features and grey-green eyes looked up. He was wearing the same robes as Xutol. His face was greenish, but blackened with age. Soba inhaled quickly – he knew this species. The man was a Jolean, one of the few photosynthesizing species in the universe. The blackness around his eyes could drink in the light, consuming it to keep his body alive.
The room smelled a bit moldy, and more than a little synthetic. There was an artificiality in the air, spiced and brown and carefully-cultivated as the stone walls, that roared with unfamiliarity in his nostrils.
“Master Levion,” Rakae said, bowing formally (Soba bowed too, a half-second out of pace). “I have brought the new acolyte to you for training.”
“Soba,” Levion replied, not looking at him, but yawning and cleaning his fingernails.
“That’s me,” replied the Yardrat.
“How did your sparring match with Audacci go?”
“I… well, she broke my ribs,” Soba admitted, gesturing to his bandages. “I-I guess I wasn’t prepared for that level of power.”
“Nonsense,” the man replied in a lionish tone. “Do you truly believe that?”
“Yes, Master. She was faster… stronger… tougher… everything.”
“She has trained,” Levion replied, his voice rising. “Have you trained with us before, Soba?”
“That alone is the difference between the two of you.”
He didn’t believe it. To believe such words… no, to go there would hurt too much. Soba wasn’t going to get his expectations up. Scam! Scam! Scam! echoed in his head over and over until it became a familiar, regular sensation. “How long will it take me to reach that level?” he asked, trying to stop his voice from quavering.
“It is different for everyone. Dedication and strong will are required, of course, but Xutol would not have brought you here if you lacked those traits. What is more important is the internal drive to great, to never give up, to always want to be the best. Such a mindset is meaningless to those who do not inherently feel it. It is everything for those who do. Now watch, Soba. And you too, Rakae.”
“What…?” the Konatsian whined. “I mastered that technique years ago!”
“Mastered?” Levion’s lips curled in a smile. Soba was shocked to see the man act so unprofessionally. “Step forward then. Soba, watch carefully. This is the technique.”
There was no explanation beyond that. The Jolean raised a dry, emerald palm, where a sliver of white-purple energy, swirling with light, appeared above it. The sliver split into fractured blocks of energy that disappeared at once. Rakae moved, tensing into another stance Soba didn’t recognize.
The energy appeared suddenly around Rakae’s body, covering him like a set of clothes almost, not more than an inch from his body. The Konatsian remained tensed, grunting like a warrior would when one is trying to fill a twenty minute episode.
“Do you remember how to dodge, Rakae?” Master Levion asked lightly.
Rakae didn’t respond. He was sweating pretty bad, his eyes moving about, scanning the little blocks of purple-white energy as if he could will them away from his body with simply his mind. Even the slightest of movement, however, and they would touch him and explode – Soba understood that much.
“You’ve never done it this close, Master!” Rakae complained. “How’m I supposed to get out of this?”
Master Levion shrugged.
“Fine, whatever,” he said, clutching the handle of his sword. With dodging rendered completely impossible, there was still something else he could try.
He drew his sword, and unleashed a flurry of slashes, as was apparently his signature move. His blade struck each of the energy blocks, with the intention to deflect them, but unfortunately, things did not go as he wanted them to. The impact of his sword caused the energy blocks to explode. The individual energy blasts weren’t enough to kill him, of course, they weren’t meant to, but each burst that struck against his skin was extremely painful, and left his skin raw and scratched.
“Fuck!” The Konatsian exclaimed, dropping his sword as it clattered to the floor.
Soba was surprised that Master Levion said nothing, he expected a prestigious martial arts academy to have stricter rules about swearing.
“I did tell you to dodge,” Master Levion said.
“That wouldn’t have worked and you know it,” he spat back.
“How can you know that for sure?”
Rakae conceded weakly.
“Now it’s your turn, Soba. Since you’re still recovering from your injuries, I think it’d be best for you to focus on practicing offensive techniques rather than defensive ones. Can you use ki blasts?”
Soba nodded half-heartedly, and Levion noticed his lack of conviction.
“Fire the strongest ki blast you can produce at me. Don’t worry about my safety, I’ll be fine.”
Soba took a deep breath, and extended his palm. Whenever he produced a ki blast, it was usually as a quick, impulsive thing, and they usually came out as clumsy and malformed. This time, since he had time to prepare, and there was no pressure, he was able to focus his energy into a relatively compact ball of energy that grew until it was larger than the hand itself. Soba couldn’t help but be impressed with himself, although, he was somewhat frightened by the intensity with which his energy burned. The sphere trembled, and began to lose its shape, as Soba’s focus wavered. Finally, he just released the thing, figuring it was best to let it go before he lost control of it.
Levion deflected the blast effortlessly, as it exploded harmlessly against the side of his hand.
“Not bad for someone with no formal combat training,” he said. “And, if I’m not mistaken, you’re already able to use a teleportation technique, correct?”
“Yes, all of my people are able to use Instant Transmission,” Soba said. For a single moment, it almost sounded as though he was proud of the Yardrat race.
“Excellent. Do you think you’d be able to teleport one of your own ki blasts?”
Soba shook his head. “No, I wouldn’t know how.”
“Nonsense, you already know how. It’s simply a matter of applying what you are already able to do.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Well, you’re already able to move your body through the Teleportation Zone by locking onto an energy signal, correct? It’s the same process with a ki blast, except with the ki blast, instead of your physical body, of course. Ki is an extension of your energy, it is a part of you, and as such, there is no difference between teleporting it and yourself. ”
Soba wasn’t sure if he believed him, but it was worth a try. He generated another sphere in his palm. This one was more stable, as Soba was now more comfortable gathering energy.
Soba concentrated on Master Levion’s energy signal. It was especially easy to lock on to, since his power was so distinct, and he was so nearby. The mental energy map in his head was extremely vivid, but the real problem was transporting the ki blast itself.
He did as Levion suggested, and viewed the hissing ball of yellow light not as an object, but an extension of his own energy. He needed to view it as something that was both part of him, and separate from him, to avoid teleporting the rest of his body along with it.
The blast flew from his palm, and then, he closed his eyes. He had already fired the ki blast, so it was already too late to hesitate. He had no choice but to give his best effort.
The ki blast was a part of him, but not a whole. An aspect of his energy, and not his body, connected to him, yet separate.
The orb snapped out of reality in midair. After a brief detour through the Teleportation Zone, it appeared directly in front of Master Levion’s face, erupting into a cloud of smoke.
For a moment, Soba was afraid that he actually hurt his Master, but Levion’s hearty chuckling soon put those fears to rest.
“You learn incredibly fast,” he said. “It’s no wonder Master Xutol selected you. Your love of battle, your willingness to learn, your species’ natural connection to the Teleportation Zone… you really are the ideal candidate for this academy.”
“Thank you, Master,” Soba said, bowing his head. Rakae scoffed.
“You’re tired,” the Master said. It was not a question. “Both of you have done enough for today. You are excused for the rest of the night.”
Embarrassment colored Rakae’s cheeks lightly, but they bowed together and thanked Levion all the same. As they walked out, Soba noticed that Rakae was moving with a slight limp. “Wow…” Soba said as Rakae led them to their sleeping quarters, “I didn’t think it would be this intense. Is it like this everyday?”
“No,” said the Konatsian, not looking at Soba. “You’re lucky that Audacci broke your ribs. If she hadn’t… I don’t know what Levion would have tried.” The smile that then formed on his face was laced with gleeful malice. “There’s always tomorrow, though.”
“Tomorrow? I don’t think my bones will be healed by then…”
“That’s why we have Master Hotal, Soba. Yeah, you’ll be seeing him every night…” Rakae winced, rubbing his thigh. “Usually, we don’t need healing unless one of the masters is being an asshole like Levion…”
“Maybe he was just trying to make a point,” Soba offered.
Rakae was walking down the hall, not listening, Soba’s voice echoing uselessly after him. Briefly, the fears and jealousies he experienced in comparison to the abilities of the other students vanished, and he perceived in its nakedness Rakae’s selfishness. And Soba knew in that moment that were their bodies were switched, if he were the experienced warrior and Rakae the scared, weak newcomer, he would hardly put in the effort, minimal as it was, that Rakae had to comfort him.
The acolytes’ training quarters were quite cramped, as usually no more than one or two pupils were in active training at any given time. The room itself was barely larger than a meat closet, and their bed, now made four, were pressed against one another against the back wall. On the right side was Audacci, Soba made sure to note. Rakae’s bed came next, then Anso’s, and then Soba’s. There was no other furniture in the room aside from the beds; only a raised indentation in the ground, which Rakae had told Soba was a place for meditation, made any point of difference in the stony, yellowish place.
There was a red moon that night, its light slanting in from the window hanging high on the back wall. Soba had been staring up at the blood-drench light of the ceiling when the young Metamoran woman rolled sleepily from her bed onto his. The gap between them didn’t seem to affect her. She glided over it like a street magician performing very professional and very impressive camera tricks.
Her arm found itself on his shoulder, and then with another jerk, this one coming only after a pause that indicated to Soba that Anso was indeed sleeping, her hand slid across his chest, rubbing him so lightly, he wasn’t sure he would have felt it if his eyes hadn’t been opened.
A few moments later, her weight carried her onto his bed, and she rolled up against him. There was an errancy in her breathing that startled him. She was awake after all. He could feel her heat, smell the freshness of her skin. Her fingers on his chest glided downwards…
He sat up sharply and wrenched himself from the bed, mumbling something sleepily about needing to go to the bathroom. Anso never moved; she would play this role to the end, it appeared. Glancing carefully over to Audacci’s bed, Soba noticed that it too was empty. A burning feeling exploded behind his eyes. His breath caught in his throat, and she was suddenly all he could think about. Wherever she had gone, whatever she was doing… he had to find her, had to explain himself. Soba had been unable to sleep, but that hadn’t meant he wasn’t tired – quite the contrary. But he found that when he was tired, it was much harder for him to fight his feelings.
Closing his eyes, he sensed the night. Anso’s scent was on his lips. He ignored the sensations, flinging them to the furthest reaches of his consciousness. As he did, the Yardrat’s mind locked on Audacci’s energy signal. He didn’t know the Venyi Academy’s grounds by heart yet, but that didn’t stop him from teleporting over to her.
The stillness in the air was sporadically interrupted by lazy-hovering bugs that flashed in lonely echoes of green and blue every now and again. She was standing on a bridge made of crimson wood, leaning against a railing, the moonlight in her hair. A soft-flowing creek lay beneath the bridge. Wide-leafed trees and armies of flowers were growing in abundance in the water gardens.
“What are you doing here?” Her tone was not inviting.
He walked over to her cautiously, like one would approach a sleeping Nidrazi scourge. She was a paralyzed blue flame, quivering with tenseness, begging to be touched. “Couldn’t sleep,” he lied clumsily.
Her expression was all the more withering in the moonlight. “You expect me to believe that?”
“It’s a nice night tonight, isn’t it?” Soba said quickly, trying to gain control of their conversation. He was at her side now. Though her form was loose, she was still leaning up against the railing, not looking at Soba. Across the bridge, the wind whistled through the wide-branched trees, scattering bluish white flower petals into the air. “Is it always this beautiful?”
“If you came here for the beauty, egg-head, you’re not going to last long.”
Silence grew. Gushing petals fragranced the night.
Though Master Hotal had done good work on his ribs, Soba still felt a lingering breathlessness fermenting in the the deep of his chest. “I want to get stronger!” he said adamantly. “I want my name to be known throughout the universe! I’ll be–”
“That’s your ambition?” Eyes rolling, Audacci whispered, her sticky foreign accent becoming more pronounced in the lowered tone, “Why is it always idealistic morons like you who end up here?”
“Well, why did you come here, Audacci?” he asked her gently.
“I’ve come to Venyi so I could learn Master Jabo’s technique,” she said simply. “Only acolytes who have mastered all of the lower forms of combat training in the temple will be granted permission to train under him.”
A bird looking like a mix of Arcosian crab and wet paper fluttered by beneath the moonlight, red as sands of Yardrat. “How many styles is that?”
She was loosening. He drew closer, nearly touching her. Her body had no reaction. “And how many have you mastered already?”
“One.” The way she looked away and lowered her head made the shame of that admission grow even heavier. “I’ve been here for six years,” she told him. “Longer than the other two. In that time I’ve managed to quadruple my power at least, but…”
She bit her lip as the words trailed off. Wet pain clouded her eyes. “B-but that’s okay, right? The stronger you get, the easier it should be for you to get stronger, right?” He jumped up onto the edge of the bridge’s railing suddenly, his voice going deeper and his breaths peppered with nervous laughs. “And besides, quadrupling your power isn’t that impressive, I’ve already tripled mine and I’ve only been here one day!” Soba boasted recklessly, wobbling a bit on the wooden railing, impatience daring him on.
“Why are you talking to me?”
Flummoxed, Soba felt a searing heatwave of sweat wash down his forehead. “I… I just…”
Audacci left him, striding away down the bridge. In her hand was an orange-skinned fruit, half-chewed, glistening with moisture. She held it up as she turned back to look at him. There were flower petals in her dyed white hair. “I was once engaged to the crown prince of the Faerin Empire. I was Captain Nuan Tal’s first mate before I took his fleet as my own. I defeated Cerraxin, Scar-Artist with my bare hands after he attempted to rip me in half in his unleashed form – that was what brought Xutol to me. All I seek is power, kid, and when I look at you, I don’t see any. You’re not worthy of my respect,” she said. “No one as weak as you could be.”
Those were cold words on this cold night where everything was bathed in red. The flower petals floating on by were drinking in the color of the sky, darkening to gore, and the stillness in the air, punctured only by the occasional whipping breeze, had become irritably severe to the young Yardrat’s ears.
Soba had made a lot of mistakes in his short life, but what he said next was easily the stupidest: “Hey, gorgeous,” Soba began awkwardly.
“What was that?!” She had teleported back over to him, her breasts bouncing lightly from the movement. His hand was reaching; she slapped him to the ground. “Grow up,” the Hera exhaled forcefully, “or you never will.”
Carried by like a shadow drowned in a river, Audacci’s form melted like smoky tentacles and vanished in forking, separate-shooting arcs around Soba’s body. He lost track of her power level for only a moment before it reappeared in their sleeping quarters not far away. Soba could taste blood. He tried to stand, his hand pressed firmly against the stinging raw wound left on his cheek. He wondered how Audacci had done that, if her move was similar to Instant Transmission. The thought that it could be roused a deep fearful jealousy in the boy, briefly overcoming his lust for her, but falling back again in the next moment, like the shrinking, foaming wreck of a tidal wave.
Spitting blood, Soba concentrated on Audacci’s power level as he teleported himself back into the room. Anso was still half-rolled on the boy’s bed. The flurry in his hear turned ice cold seeing the Metamoran invading his space like that. His cheek was burning. Why had she hit him so hard?
He wanted to go over to her, to stand over her sleeping body, to reach out and touch and pull and and slip his hand under. The feelings came as sudden and raw as a knife-cut, and, unprepared for such thoughts, confused and light-chested, and seeking something - anything, really – Soba stumbled to his bed instead and fell face-first against his one meager, yellow-stained pillow.
The Metamoran girl was creeping into his personal space, her heat leading the way. Soba pushed her back gently onto her bed, across the gap, and settled down again. His cheek was on fire. Gingerly he touched it with the cold side of his pillow, hoping to quench so that he could later smash, but that hardly made a difference at all.
Soba trained feverishly over the next few months. He showed remarkable progress. His fighting style was no longer tainted with the clumsiness of an amateur. He learned how to give each move a purpose, to see each strike as a piece of a larger whole. His ki blasts became more refined, forming into perfectly rounded spheres of explosive power. He could now fire them off in rapid succession with ease, and transmitting multiple blasts at a time was just as easy as teleporting his body had been before.
Still, he was woefully behind his peers in terms of raw power. Rakae and Anso still held back whenever they sparred, and Audacci was still forbidden from fighting him. Soba almost wanted to fight her again, to have his bones shattered and his breath forced out of his lungs, simply because he deserved it, for being so weak. The reassuring words of his masters did little to quell him. He still wasn’t powerful, after all this time, proving that all of their promises were empty.
Soba laid inches away from Anso. The distance between them felt like lightyears. Soba was more familiar with the academy grounds, and knew how to slip out of his chambers undetected. He walked up the spiraling staircase, that lead up to the roof of the academy. It was a still night, it always was here. Bright, heatless starlight illuminated his green skin.
He gazed up at the stars. They were within his reach, all of them. As long as there was life, he could get there.
He fired a ki blast impotently into the night. It roared through the peaceful sky, before vanishing into a cloud of smoke.
He wondered where Udon was. He wondered if he was among those stars, and if he hated him. He considered diving into the energy field around him, to see if he could still sense his friends unforgettable presence. He didn’t. He couldn’t leave. He had already made his choice.
“Hey, Soba?” Anso said, as she came up the winding stairs.
“Yeah, hey,” Soba said, as if he had been caught doing something wrong.
“You should rest. You’ll need your sleep if you want to train.”
“What’s the point?” Soba said. “All this time, all this training, and I still haven’t gotten stronger.”
“But you have gotten stronger, Soba.”
“And I’m still not strong enough.”
“Strong enough for what?”
Soba paused. He sat himself down, as his legs were getting tired. Anso did the same.
“Strong enough to make this all worth it. I left everything behind to come here.”
Anso placed her hand gently against Soba’s cheek. She couldn’t help but toy with his whisker between her fingers.
“Do you know anything about Metamorans, Soba?”
Soba shook his head. Some of Udon’s zoological knowledge had rubbed off on him,but that was mostly the stuff about animalistic, non-sapient life.
“Metamoran culture is based around unity. More specifically, the unity between two individuals. A Metamoran can only become themselves by surrendering themselves completely to another. A lone Metamoran is without value, incomplete, broken.”
Soba blinked. She was still flicking unconsciously at his right whisker.
“I left my planet behind to come here. There was someone, back on Metamor. We were close, not fully together, but close. He found someone else, though. Someone he could be closer to, I guess. That’s why I came here, I had nothing to lose. I was left an incomplete half, forever.”
Soba’s chest tightened, as he thought about Udon. He still had plenty to lose, but he gave it all up anyways.
“I could sense the same feeling in you, right from the beginning. I know that there’s a big piece of you missing, too. That’s why I want to help you. That’s why I love you.”
She put her hand to Soba’s chest.
“Metamorans don’t just became one with each other spiritually, they merge physically, too.”
Anso broke away from Soba, and demonstrated the fusion dance. Her form was perfect.
“If we both perform this dance at the same time, we’ll fuse into one. Our new, fused body will be able to sustain more training than you can on your own. You can get stronger that way.”
Soba stood up, and positioned himself across from her, ready to do the dance she demonstrated.
“Just make sure to do it exactly right, ok? Especially the part at the end where our fingers touch. If they’re off just slightly, it won’t work.”
Soba took a deep breath. If these months at the academy did anything for him, they gave him precision, and he was sure that he could mimic the dance from memory.
And they danced, their bodies in sync, their fingers perfectly aligned.
They became a single creature, a tall, androgynous being with a green torso, and red limbs. Soba and Anso were both copilots in the mind of this creature, floating around bodiless in an ill-defined psychic void where there was only each other.
Ansoba took several steps forward, and neither of the fusees were entirely sure who was in control of the movement. Ansoba placed a pair of fingers upon their temples, and selected one of the distant planets, using the barely-there energy signals given off by microbacteria as a guide.
The planet was predictably barren, making it an ideal training environment. The gravity was extremely high too, despite its small size. Those sorts of planets seemed to be very prevalent in this universe.
Ansoba charged up to full power with an explosive crimson aura. The power this body supplied was far greater than anything either of its components could’ve possibly achieved. While the impact of the gravity was unchallenging to this fused being, it would still enhance any training they did.
Ansoba began the training, dropping on all fours, doing push-ups with alternating hands. The gravity was like a great invisible hand pulling them towards the center, but the grasp was easily broken free of.
Their combined actions were effortless, as their minds were united in the single goal of becoming stronger.
Ansoba stopped the push-ups, and opted to fire a tremendous beam of orange energy into space.
Their combined mind and body was an asset, but it was also a problem. Soba and Anso floated together in a nebulous psychic space, where all of their memories and thoughts were completely accessible to one another.
Soba could feel Anso prodding against the edges around his most shameful, intimate memories. She seemed to know so much about him already, but he couldn’t let her know the details of his life, how he had abandoned his friend. But, most importantly, he needed to conceal his thoughts about Audacci. He couldn’t let Anso penetrate the thick, confusing cloud of admiration, fear, and lust that made up his thoughts towards her. He couldn’t let her know that.
Despite how loving and warm she had been, he still wanted Audacci more.
Soba could feel the edges of a great secret within Anso’s psychic space, too, covered by the same mental barriers that he put around his. Soba made no effort to look within them, though, as he was too busy nudging Anso away from his own secrets to invade into hers. Plus, he wasn’t even sure if he wanted to know.
He could feel her in his psyche, now, like fingers sinking into soft dirt. Mercifully, they defused. Soba put his hand on her shoulder and teleported them back to the academy immediately, before the planet’s gravity proved too intense for them.
“Thank you,” Soba whispered to her. He could feel that his body was stronger, brimming with a newfound energy for him to wield. The floor had raised, and the stars were that much closer.
His shoulders ached. “Hey, Rakae.”
The Konatsian was sitting under an old, gnarled tree, the wind gusting its flowering petals, glimmering sea blue, into the sky. Rakae was cleaning his sword when Soba found him. “Oh, Soba. Hi there.” He returned to cleaning his sword. “What’s up? Did you finish your training with Anso?”
“Yeah…” he sighed, rubbing his shoulder. “I never would have imagined someone could be as strong as her. I have a long ways to go…” He looked out over the rolling hills and fields of flowers taking up the majority of the Academy’s outer perimeter. Sometimes he liked to walk through these garden paths at night, across the bridges, and just let his mind go. There was something peaceful in this place, but at the same time, the indifference of nature, that still, but pressing feeling, like someone pushing down on his shoulders, left him forever in a mild state of unease.
“Heh.” Rakae found his feet and sheathed the sword. There were tree blossoms in his hair, sparkling with an alien luster. “She’s the newest member here, aside from you. Both Dacci and I could defeat her, I think, if we really tried. But that’s probably because she hasn’t mastered any of the Masters’ forms yet.”
“Yeah. That guy’s a real asshole.”
“Always making me clean up after him…” Rakae mumbled like a child. “I didn’t come here to be that old man’s slave, ya know?”
“But you learned his technique, didn’t you?” They began to walk, fat sand pebbles beneath their boots crunching in a pleasing tone. The wind was thick with the aroma of tree blossoms, and it wasn’t all that cold. “You mastered it!”
“Yeah, I did. But he’s the easiest guy here. No question about that.” Rakae shuddered. “But the guy I’m under now… Qono… he’s something else entirely, Soba.” Soba, stopped. For a moment, he heard Udon’s voice, the older Yardrat’s casual sense of superiority, the way he flicked his head down and offered only a hint of a grin. “What? Is somebody there?” Rakae’s eyes narrowed, and his voice lowered.
“N-no… sorry, I just blanked out.”
Rakae looked at him strangely. “Anyways, Qono’s the guy who can teach you how to teleport anywhere you want. That’s a bitch of a technique,” he complained harshly. “I’ve been at it for six months, and I’m no closer to being able to do it than when I started.”
“Teleporting? That’s all? I can do that right now.”
“That’s because you’re a Yardrat.”
“Psh, whatever,” Rakae replied. “It’s not as easy as you think.”
Behind his eyes, the memories of a beacon, of elders looking down on him, of a moon he had dreamt of reaching, came to him simultaneously. He blinked. “Hey, what a minute, Rakae, doesn’t that mean I’ve already mastered Qono’s technique?”
He rolled his eyes. “No way. You can’t have. It will take you years before you’re ready.”
He was a bit of a whiner, insecure and jealous, and in that jealousy, Sorbet found familiarity. He perceived, as his memories changed, a flash of light behind his eyes, this one lighting in the same expulsory manner as that one beneath the waves. Soba said nothing.
They came to a room on the opposite corner of the Academy, to a place Ledas had never been before. The starless sky stretched on, and he could hear the sound of a rushing stream. A roundish door was angled at the ground, with steps leading down below ground level. Rakae opened it and looked back.
“You coming?” There was coldness in his voice meant to turn Soba away.
The Konatsian held his mask. “Alright, follow me.”
They descended for a while, until the air had grown wet and moldy and old. There was only the low light of a pink ki blast in Rakae’s hand leading them on for what seemed like quite a long way. Soba would have much preferred just teleporting to the power he sensed coming from ahead – a smoky, slimy power that curled upon itself with enough restraint that Soba could tell it belonged to someone whose skills were beyond measuring.
A sudden boldness seized Soba’s heart. He grabbed Rakae’s shoulder and closed his eyes.
“S-soba… what the hell?!” Rakae shouted, his voice dampened by the sound of falling water around them. They were in the room with Master Qono now. “O-oh… Master, ahh! I didn’t see you there” Rakae screamed, noticing the tall man standing on the other side of the circular room. He bowed extensively. Soba noticed that Rakae had never done such a thing for Levion.
“Greetings, my student,” the man replied in a squelching tone. He had a squid-like face with mandibles and bright golden eyes. His skin was the same color as the stones, his robes black and plain. He was bald and his ears and nose were just slits dug into his oily skin. “And greetings to you, Soba.”
Soba bowed formally. “It is an honor to meet you, Master Qono.”
They were in a stone, circular room, with falling water on all sides, springing from the darkness above, which seemed to stretch on forever. “You’re a Yardrat, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, that’s right…”
Qono clicked his mandibles together. “So you already have the ability to do that which I am teaching.”
“Well, I don’t know,” he said, his voice rising. Soba glanced at Rakae, whose face was as peaceful as an undisturbed pond, his eyes focused on his master. “I was hoping you could tell me, Master.”
“I can’t tell you anything, Soba,” Qono replied dryly. “You will show me what you can do.”
“B-but… Master… I came here to do training today!” Rakae whined.
“Continue your meditation. The falls always help.” Qono’s voice was deepening. “In the meantime, Soba will show me what he is capable of.” He clasped his hands together, exhaling emphatically. “Follow me for as long as you can,” he instructed Soba, and then he was gone, like a shadow curling in upon itself.
Soba immediately searched for the master’s energy. He located it almost immediately, the master's signal was distinct, and nearby as well.
Soba teleported himself to his location, and found himself on the academy’s roof. Qono turned back to him, and chuckled lightly, before vanishing again. Soba followed him through the Teleportation Zone once again.
He found himself on a more distant planet, light-years away from the academy. This planet was volcanic. The air was thick with heat and ash, and Soba could barely make out the shadow of the master through his watering eyes. He didn’t need to, as his connection to the energy field was stronger than ever. His master teleported in a flash, with Soba after him.
The next location was underwater. Soba was submerged countless miles beneath this planet’s surface, and surrounded by darkness and unimaginable pressure. He could feel a beast swirling beneath his toes, something of unfathomable size and a terrifyingly intelligent power. He could feel it watching him with its countless eyes. Soba couldn’t lose focus. He stuck to his master, and teleported again.
The next planet was far more mild than the previous two. The grass was soft underneath Soba’s feet. The air was warm, and sweet. He was surrounded by tree branches, each one bearing a ripe, blue fruit. Master Qono snatched one from a branch, and vanished.
Finally, Soba found himself on the rooftop of a skyscraper, overlooking a bustling city of vibrant, multicolored lights. Qono bit into the fruit.
“Close your eyes, and feel their energy.” Qono’s tone was stern, but guiding. “Can you tell them apart? Can you go to any of them?”
Soba plunged his mind into the energy field. He could make out the signals of each and every being in the city beneath him. Each signature, no matter how faint their energy, was equally clear. He could teleport to any one of them with ease.
He opened his eyes and nodded. “Show me.”
Soba did, whisking himself to the other side of the planet, homing in on a native woman (he could tell by the energy signature). This time, it was Master Qono’s turn to follow. He sensed a woman cooking in her house not as far away as the last, and he went to her. Qono followed again; the woman screamed seeing two aliens appear before her. They were gone before she stopped. The third one Soba teleported to was a man standing on a street corner sucking greedily on a dirty, half-empty stick of nil.
When Soba reached him, he felt Qono’s hand upon his shoulder, jerking him back. Rain was falling with some tempo, and the gliding, flying cars were cutting noise from pockets of air overhead. The man crossed the street, his rising nil smoke dampened to goldust under the nearest streetlight.
“They are all confined to this city, or at most, this planet. But not you. You are unbound. The cosmos and everything within it are at your disposal. Follow me back to the academy. You have mastered your first art.”
It had taken her four years to master her first art. Xutol’s pocket dimensions were rated as the easiest of the seven skills to master, so she’d done that first. Neither Rakae nor Anso had bothered to learn it yet. Come to think of it, the fool hadn’t either.
That fucking Yardrat had even managed to master a technique, though she had raised a petition against the legitimacy of his test. The masters had not listened. She had been training under Master Caktir back then, but after that, she had to start training with Qono too. She could not believe that such a simple fool could master a technique before her. If he could do it, so could she.
Qono had proven to be one of the more severe masters. She went to him for four years; twice as long as Rakae managed before he gave up. It was in that fourth year that she finally gained control over instantaneous movement. It took her another two to succeed in Caktir’s tests as well.
She was the strongest of them all by a wide margin, and the only with three disciplines mastered. Only Rakae had two, and the others had only a single technique mastered apiece. Rakae was her only threat. She had always thought herself better than that Konatsian, and it annoyed her that he was closing in on his third art – mastering dimensional agility under Master Sharu-Kan. He couldn’t do it, she knew. He didn’t have it in him.
The others had aged over the years to the point where she hardly remembered what they used to look like. Soba especially had grown, and now he stood taller than Rakae. As his body had grown, so had his powers, and that look in his eyes, that feeble, glancing one, had never changed since he had gotten here.
Her body ached; her muscles were constricting against her bones, begging for reprieve. Sharu-Kan’s would not beat her either. Anso had already mastered that nine-tailed Inari’s dimensional agility technique, and it was not like Anso was better than her. There was no doubt. If that Metamoran could do it, so could she.
She was mulling an expansion proposal recently submitted to her by her agent from the Corvos League. This one, like all the rest, came from Arlo Ve. Her wrist-pad flashed with lights, method proposals, ten year projections, even a potential war with the Planet Trade Organization. Her reply was terse and lacking in the usual honorifics one would use when addressing an envoy of the Corvos League: I need more time.
She was just sending this message off when Rakae appeared, his skin bruised and worn flaming red in spots where blood had sprouted and dried. His hair was disheveled; his sword was missing. He stumbled over a wooden bridge, underneath tree shade, still breathing hard.
“I did it!” he called out to her.
Her eyes narrowed; her cheeks flushed. The cool air tempered her fury. “Did what, Rakae?”
“Landed the hit! I’ve mastered Caktir’s technique!”
Her heartbeat quickened. He was dripping with sweat, some of his wounds still bleeding. “Is that so? You look like you were lucky to have gotten out of there alive.”
“What the… Audacci?? Aren’t you happy for me?”
“If you’ve mastered her precision strikes, show me.”
He gave her an unwilling look. “I’m exhausted, Dacci. We’ll spar later.”
“Running, are you?” She didn’t say the word. It lingered on her lip, on her gaze, on the wind that carried from her to him.
The Konatsian looked up at her with a mixture of anger and resolve. He was the easiest of the three to manipulate.
He vanished; she jumped back, flinging herself behind a tree, its fresh spring leaves just beginning to bud on curled peach branches. The air wrenched against her. She slipped down; Rakae’s leg passed soundlessly over her torso, crashing against the tree. The wood shattered, sending the top half of the tree spinning wildly over to the other side of the garden.
The feeling rising now, her body lurching against gravity, was not unlike rising lust. She teleported around him, dodging a few pathetic attempts by the confused man. Landing behind him as he gained his feet again, Audacci slapped Rakae on the back of the neck.
He stumbled forward, coughing up spit-lustering blood. “If you’ve mastered it, hit me one time. Show me, Rakae. Can’t you do that, at least?” Her tone was without malice, without warmth.
He had collapsed halfway in the stream, blood still dribbling from his split jaw onto the blue moss that covered most of this garden. “I told you I’m tired,” he spat angrily. “We’ll finish this later.”
“No we won’t.”
He mistook her defiance for playfulness. She could see it in those dumb brown eyes of his. “Fine.”
She would give him one more pass. He made a war cry and charged to the right, flinging his arms behind his back, lowering to the ground, leading with energy in his mouth. Audacci had not encountered this technique before. Perchance Master Caktir taught each of her students different styles of combat. Audacci wouldn’t doubt it. There was no way in hell he had passed the same tests she had, those same grueling sparring sessions with Caktir that had nearly killed her no less than eight or nine times.
As he approached her, he vanished, and she couldn’t detect him at all. The air moved one way. She didn’t feel him. The air around her twitched again. She waited. There wasn’t enough weight behind it, not enough conviction. When his punch came, she spun about, lowering to a knee to catch it. His eyes wide, Rakae struggled against her grip, but Audacci just crushed it between her palm. She felt his little bones break beneath her grip, and there was energy already forming in his free hand even as the man screamed in earnest.
She disappeared, spinning up into the air and coming down upon his head with the back of her elbow savagely. Holding the blow for a second, she dropped to the ground, spinning around him. He coughed, a half-choked gasp of pain. His eyes exploded in bloody tendrils as they fell from their sockets, the force of her blow still reverberating through his body. She struck him three more times, once on the collarbone, once at the base of his spin, and once over his heart.
Jumping back, she rose to her feet even as he fell to his knees, blood rushing out of his empty eye sockets, his breathing coming fast and scared. He coughed hollowly, and his body exploded in a fleshy red slop of gore, staining the moss savagely.
Audacci’s head was spinning. She liked that. Without pausing, she burned the moss, vaporizing the evidence.
Soba felt something leave the field of life energy within his mind. There was a life force, strong and vibrant, that was suddenly and violently yanked out, into the void. Soba’s ability to sense had reached its pinnacle, and the sensation of death was unmistakable to him now. The energy was a familiar one too. It was Rakae’s,. Even more frightening than Rakae’s death was the energy signal that stood next to his right as he vanished.
Soba briefly flirted with the idea of doing nothing, of simply letting this go. Something within him compelled him to do the opposite. He had retreated into the comfort of cowardice and inaction so many times, he figured that he should try courage for once, just to see what it felt like.
He appeared next to Audacci. Her hand was still raised, and the place where Rakae’s remains once stood was gently steaming. She could erase his body, but the smell remained. The air reeked of viscera.
There was no doubt in Audacci’s mind that Soba knew what she had done.
“Well,” she said, trying her best to appear like she wasn’t out of breath, “is it safe to assume that you won’t tell anyone about this?”
Audacci could’ve killed Soba too. But she didn’t. Keeping him alive was far more advantageous for her at the moment. Killing one student, that she could get away with. But killing two? That would be impossible to cover up. It’d be much easier for her to get away with the murder of Rakae, too, if she had Soba back up her alibi.
Soba was shaken by the certainty in her voice, how she seemed so confident in his ability to keep her secret. Why did she seem so certain that he’d bend to her will?
Soba said nothing, so she continued.
“If anyone asks, Rakae was about to leave the academy. I tried to stop him, but he simply vanished. He was frustrated with the structure here, and with authority in general. It’s not too much of a stretch that he’d want to simply leave.”
Soba was struck once again by the casual way in which she commanded him. And then, with the shameful realization that she was right to treat him this way. He was perfectly willing to do anything to please her, why would she ever think otherwise? The worst part was that Rakae’s murder aroused an even deeper sense of shameful admiration within him. Her cruelty, her power, and her willingness to abuse it, only made her more alluring. He wasn’t in love with her, he was in love with her power. Or rather, power as a concept. Or perhaps, this whole time, he had assumed that power and love were one and the same.
He agreed weakly. Regardless of whether or not he truly intended to keep her secret, agreeing with her was the best thing to do at the moment.
“Excellent. Repeat it back to me, to make sure that we’re both on the same page.”
Soba repeated her alibi back to her. It was a simple enough story; it would be easy to keep consistent.
Audacci smiled. “Just remember, I’ve already proven myself willing to murder my fellow students in cold blood. There’s no reason to believe that I’m unable to do it again.”
Soba was frozen in place.
“You can leave if you want,” Audacci said.
Soba did just that. He left the room, opting to walk to his destination, instead of teleporting. Rakae’s death was still fresh, and he could still feel the icy void where he had once been in the energy field.
He walked to the chambers, where Anso was resting. She looked like she had just fallen asleep, or was perhaps attempting to do so. Soba knelt down, prodding her lightly on the cheek. Her eyes fluttered awake.
“Oh, hey Soba,” she said. “What’s up?”
Soba bit his tongue. Should he just tell the truth, make his intentions clear? Would she understand?
He needed to tell her. He would tell her. He just didn’t want to, not right now. His heart was pounding, his mind felt like it was submerged in fog.
“I want to fuse,” he said. Fusing with Anso had become an emotional crutch for him. Whenever his thoughts were too much to bear, he would merge with her. She had stopped trying to probe into his secrets, or at least, she had become more furtive with her attempts. Regardless, it always made him feel better. It was easier to deal with his problems when there were two minds to share the burden.
They didn’t have to speak. They had performed this technique so many times already. It was instinct for Soba to fall on the right, Anso on the left, the two didn’t even look at each other. Anso did her usual intake of breath, alerting them to begin. Soba’s eyes glazed over as he felt his body move, neglecting his sight as he maintained perfect symmetry with Anso’s movements.
Sobanso was united again. Their fused form was brimming with power, but they made no use of it. Instead, they laid their fused body on the floor, and enjoyed the company of one another within their psychic bubble.
Without needing to probe, Anso could feel Soba’s guilt and confusion. So she lightened the load, taking some of it on for herself. This was nothing new – the sensation of Soba’s anxieties were very familiar to her now. And Soba did the same for her, although his burden was far less substantial. Anso’s fear of isolation was almost completely gone now. She had him, after all.
In fact, the dread of loneliness had been mostly supplanted by the joy of unity. And so, Soba leeched on to that feeling, of peace and oneness. It was intoxicating, and Soba let himself drift away in it, all the way to the deepest, most secretive corners of Anso’s psyche.
And what he found was love. But not a good, soft, caring sort of love. This kind of affection was familiar; it was the sort of love he felt towards Audacci. It was a hot, heavy infatuation, one that felt like a disease. It was love, for a concept, and the person who embodies it, but not for the person themselves.
The person Anso was in love with was Soba. And the concept that she was truly drawn to was brokenness. He was overwhelmed by her adoration for weakness, the profundity with which she lusted after those with incomplete souls.
But she was no different. She had a hole in her heart, too, just like all Metamorans. Between Soba and herself, their two broken hearts formed into one whole. If Soba was complete, if he was happier, she’d have no use for him. She had no room for someone who wasn’t incomplete like her. If he wasn’t broken, she wouldn’t love him. And if someone else came along, more wracked with a sense of longing and loneliness than him, she would love them more.
Soba was ejected from her body, as the timer on their fusion ran out. Anso knew that Soba had merged with that part of her mind, and she didn’t seem ashamed either.
“You shouldn’t be surprised,” she said. “That’s what love is to a Metamoran. I thought that you loved in the same way. I thought you’d understand. I know I felt the same kind of love in you.”
She was right.
Soba recalled a conversation he’d had with Udon, many years ago. He had pushed it to the back of his mind. He was rambling off about biology, as he tended to do back then. He always seemed so excited to share his curiosity with Soba, even if he didn’t share his enthusiasm.
“Ah, and the Metamorans,” he said. “They’re…well, generally you’re not supposed to refer to sapient begins as parasites, but there’s really no other way to put it. They latch onto a host, fusing with them physically, while also merging minds. They feed off of them emotionally, filling in their insecurities, and having their insecurities filled in return. Eventually, the host becomes dependent on the Metamoran emotionally, and sometimes physically as well. Generally, Metamorans only fuse within their own species, but there are plenty of examples of them fusing with other races as well. It’s quite a fascinating process, Soba. I can even loan you a few books on the subject, if you wish. Perhaps you’d be interested in An Exploration of Sapience and Parasitism by Xeva Rul?”
Soba sighed. He was tired of that kind of love. He was sick of being manipulated, and he was sick with himself for manipulating the people around him.
But there was a difference between him and Anso. He could feel another type of love, and he had before.
He never should’ve abandoned Udon. His ambitions of being a great warrior and exploring space…none of them should’ve been enough to make him leave his friend behind. At the very least, he owed Udon an apology.
“I’m sorry, and thank you,” he said to Anso, placing his fingers to his temple. Before he left, he owed her the truth, at least.
“Audacci killed Rakae. You need to tell the Masters about it immediately. Don’t try to confront her yourself. She’ll kill you too if she has nothing left to lose.”
Soba was relieved to find that Udon’s energy signal was still present somewhere within the universe. Surprisingly, he wasn’t on Yardrat, or any of the planets approved for travel nearby. Still, Soba banished, following the signal through a teleportation zone clogged with unmistakable darkness.
Silk-blue flower petals drifted through the garden, carried by lazy winds. It was a night without clouds, and the stars were out, bright and pulsing pools of light wriggling in the overreaching darkness. Her mind felt numb, and her throat burned with a pain akin to hunger, though not quite.
She had never been to see Master Jabo before. His lair was at the far side of the garden, protected by an ancient hieroglyphic stone door that had seemingly never been opened before.
A frost wind blew. In summer, the Venyi Academy was rarely a cold place, even at night. Chilled, she felt something cold on the back of her neck. Desperately, she spun around, dodging with Master Sharu-Kan’s agility technique. Anso regained her footing on the far side of the garden.
Her mind swam with terror and jealousy and loss, and it was indeed Audaccci who stood before her, pulling her hood back, her white-dyed hair spilling out, her eyes cool as evening. “So he told you, did he, before leaving? Shame.” She drooped her hand, twirling a torn flower petal between her fingers, stepping forward. “You should have gone with him, Anso.”
Chapter 4: Nothing's Gonna Change My WorldEdit
...the usual, nothing invasive.
Sending a second engineer.
Rabbaroubuet injected a little...
Kiepen isn't likely lethal, even raw.
Still, everyone needs Dauphorzin pads urgently.
remote access to the sola...
locked to the inf...
-Last radio signal that escaped from Universe 17 before its destruction
The day when Universe 17 was destroyed had begun like any other.
Jeinu hovered in space, arms folded, staring down at the dying planet. From space, molten cracks formed in the surface of the planet’s desert-like continents, boiling the oceans.
“It’s the third planet this week,” Vodek murmured in her ear, pointing his staff. The attendant directed Jeinu to focus on the northern pole of the world. “There. He hasn’t left yet.”
Jeinu’s face betrayed no emotion. There was no nose, no mouth, just two wide black eyes, seeing everything and nothing. The God’s features had always startled him slightly. In a flash they were at the northern pole. The planet was lost.
“This is why our mortal level was so low,” the God of Destruction observed. “Pity. We could have used more like him.”
The words cut through Vodek like a knife. Jeinu had not attempted to hide her true meaning. “It was my fault,” he said as apologetically as he could. “I should have allowed you to do your job, to keep our mortal level-”
“You’ve sensed why he’s done it, haven’t you?”
“How long do we have?”
“I don’t know.”
He sensed Jeinu’s energy fluctuate. That was the first time her attendant had ever said those words to her. “Hey, you!” she shouted at the creature. The animal was small, bent over a dead native, tearing through the carcass, its black wings folded around its shoulders. When it stood to look at her, the glow in its teeth and eyes shone like that of the dead native’s energy. “What’s your big idea…” she began, communicating with the creature telepathically.
The demon had dark curling horns above its forehead, surrounded by bushy black hair that hung in feral strands. The face of it was demonic, its skin a light blue, arms unnaturally long, his claws sharp. The boy did not look very old to Jeinu, but it was always so difficult to tell with mortals.
Seeing the two of them, it let out a wordless scream, turned, and vanished into a widening blue portal.
Jeinu rushed forward, attempting to reach the portal before it shut, but just before she did, a pulse of pure energy vibrated through the universe, and everything turned white. Vodek beheld as Universe 17 - the dying planet, his God of Destruction, the portal, and everything beyond… everything was bleeding white, vanishing without pause.
Vodek couldn’t simply do nothing while his universe was on the verge of oblivion. And yet, there was nothing he could do. Or, perhaps there was. Vodek was granted access to every corner of his own universe. It was his right, as an Angel Attendant. He scoured his dimension, until he came upon a faint signal of mortal life. There was nothing special about it - it could’ve belonged to anything. But, this was the one he chose to teleport to, appearing in a column of blue light, out of simple chance.
The creature was plant-based, but in a humanoid shape. It seemed to live alone, in a wooden cabin in the middle of a large swamp.
Vodek placed the creature’s hand in his, smiling faintly.
“I’m sorry, you don’t deserve any of this,” he said softly. He could’ve said the same thing to any of the creatures within his domain. But there was simply no time. The creature’s face was inhuman and unreadable, but Vodek hoped he had provided it with at least a moment of comfort.
And then, in a moment, the universe faded away. Vodek had seen death before. He had seen complete destruction as well. Neither of them prepared him for this.
Everything vanished at once. There was no pain, no noise, no sensation. There was nothing in the place where a moment ago there had been everything. Vodek was left alone in the unfeeling void.
There was an unimaginable rage burning away inside of him. It was a kind of anger that no mortal could experience. Only an angel, who had witnessed the growth of this universe, and who understood what had been lost, could feel this kind of anguish.
Vodek was single-minded now. There was no universe left for him to protect and preserve. But he still had a purpose: the thing that did this needed to die by his hand.
Of course, Vodek’s assassination attempt was unsuccessful. He was stopped before he could even make it to the Omni-King’s chambers. His father, the Grand Priest, defeated him easily. He took pity on his son, so he didn’t erase him. Instead, he condemned him to the Teleportation Zone, a hyper-speed dimension that existed outside of the Multiverse itself.
He was still conscious within the Teleportation Zone, but his physical form was torn apart. The hatred within his mind was allowed to fester. His rage boiled over, and he became more fiercely determined than ever to avenge his dead universe. He was no longer Vodek. Now, he was Xiros.
But, there was nothing he could do besides float formlessly inside the between-space. There were legends among those who could access the Teleportation Zone, such as the Yardrat, that a dark creature lurked within their realm. Apparently, those who were touched by this darkness while inside the Teleportation Zone would end up possessed.
These legends were true, of course. The possessions were the result of Xiros desperately trying to connect to something physical. He needed a body in order to return to the physical world. Unfortunately, these possessions were always temporary. And, worse still, mortal bodies and minds could not withstand the sheer amount of hate that came with Xiros’s mind, and they would inevitably go on violent, uncontrollable rampages.
That was the case, until he found Udon.
It was two years since Soba and Udon parted ways, and Udon had mostly come to terms with the fact that he’d never see his friend again. At first, he probed the energy signals of the universe for his friend every day. Then, every week. Then, sporadically over random intervals of time. And, finally, he gave up.
Udon’s interest in his zoo was reinvigorated several times over. He was more determined than ever to lose himself in his hobby. He doubled the amount of public showings that he did, and made himself a nice bit of money in the process too.
Currently, he was showing off an insectoid creature with a tendency to spontaneously combust and reform instantaneously to a crowd of fascinated Yardrats.
“Now, if you think that’s interesting,” Udon said theatrically. “Just wait until you see what the Ziller Beetle can do.”
Udon summoned another orb, only to find it empty. How could he have forgotten? He had needed to clean out the Ziller Beetle habitat months ago after they had all come down with a mysterious infection.
“Sorry, I need to excuse myself. The show will go on in just one moment.” Udon set his sights on a nearby planet. He had made the trip to this world numerous times, and the 30-foot wide Ziller Beetles were surprisingly easy to subdue. It was just a simple, quick teleportation.
When he entered the Teleportation Zone, he found that he was not alone. The darkness had reached him again, but this time, it was stronger. It surrounded him, enveloped him, consumed him completely. His body was merely a vessel for Xiros’s unstoppable anger.
Xiros was unsure of why this Yardrat was able to sustain his possession when others failed. Perhaps it was because he was a cipher, a veneer of politeness pulled over an ultimately empty soul. The reasons were irrelevant, however. All that mattered was that he now possessed a mortal body - but that was still not enough. He would need an immortal body once again if he were to succeed in his mission.
Xiros brought his new body to the literal edge of the universe, a planet next to the physical wall of light between the 6th and 7th universe. It was a well of boundless power, perfect for crafting himself a new body to inhabit.
He dipped his hand into the wall’s glow. The energy scalded his fingertips. An unfortunate side-effect of mortality was pain, but that would soon be relieved.
He spent years crafting his body. An angelic form was a frightfully strong thing, and even with an energy source as potent as the Universal Wall, it would take a considerable amount of time. Even now, the form was still incomplete. He didn’t neglect to improve his mortal body, though. Udon was now brimming with newfound power. Xiros had granted him the energy of a God of Destruction, in case anyone tried to stop him.
And then, Soba appeared, to face his friend at the End of the Universe.
“Hey Udon, is that you?”
The man looked up, jerking his head in an odd manner. The motion was uncomfortable upon Soba’s eyes. There was a tensionless fluidity to his movements, and it was almost as if Soba was staring into the eyes of someone who had taken his old friend’s face. Udon’s eyes were two stone-set gashes of rich purple that faded to black around the edges. He was changed. But so am I, Soba thought.
“Soba,” he said in a deep voice bereft of his usual hollow dignity.
“What are you doing all the way out here, Udon? It took me forever to find you… are you feeling alright?”
They were standing on the side of a rocky mountaintop, above two hooded figures carved into the rock-face, their faces lowered and worn by time, crouching over a partially collapsed cave entrance. In the wine-red sky and behind Udon, a speck of impossibly bright light flickered and shone so blindingly white, Soba could not keep his eyes on it.
Through the air, oddly-proportioned beasts floated, the gas sacks clustered around their fish-like belly fins glowing faintly blue, darkened almost to purple in the dying light. They were unnatural-looking, no doubt fine specimens, and rare too - but Udon’s attention was not presently focused on them. His eyes were fixed upon Soba.
“Leave.” The word was forced out gruffly as Udon sneered at him.
“Udon, please, don’t be like that… I-I…” Soba’s foot slipped on the rock, and he nearly fell. “I’ve felt so much guilt for leaving you like I did… It’s been years… I shouldn’t have abandoned you like. It wasn’t right of me. I was your friend. You were mine… please…”
The other Yardrat’s expression never changed. He raised his left hand, and there, clutched within it, was swirling purple energy, just like in his eyes. Confused, Soba went to speak, but Udon threw the attack at him. It came so quick, Soba barely dodged to the left left as the spiked spiral of a blast went whizzing by, nicking him in the side. The explosion rattled the mountainside - where Udon’s energy touched the rock, everything melted away, wrapped in pure light. One of the natives, a gnarled, three-jawed predator, likewise went up in the explosion, vaporizing without a sound.
Rocks cascaded down the mountainside in a slow trickle. Udon’s posture twisted, his fists lowered, and his knees spread. Remaining light on his toes, he bounced on the balls of his feet impatiently.
“Udon… what the hell!? What’s happened to you?”
His friend fired spiral of dark energy. Soba took a breath, focused his thoughts, and teleported behind Udon, dodging the attack just in time. Landing cautiously, he tried again to approach Udon, but this time, the older Yardrat fired eye beams at him, forcing Soba to dodge left. He dove off the side of the mountain, tumbling without support for the briefest, most terrifying moment, before he caught himself in the air.
Udon was unimpressed. Raising his hand again, a sliver of purple ki formed wetly before his palm. Letting out a low grunt, Udon flared his aura, which throbbed like fire as long tendrils of ki, hot as death, came whirling towards him with so much ferocity that Soba was forced to use Instant Transmission if he didn’t want to end up like that Yakisoba guy he knew back in high school.
I don’t get it, Soba thought to himself, teleporting around Udon effortlessly, even as the attacks continued racing the air hopelessly trying to catch him. It was no use. Soba had completed Master Qono’s training. And yet, whenever he thought of Qono, immediately, his mind conjured up thoughts of failure, of his inability to master the teachings of the other Venyi instructors, and then those thoughts once again turned to Udon, and his guilt choked in his throat.
Another feeling crept into his mind, leaking like warm water into an empty basin. He knew he had to ignore it, had to let it go. But when Udon attacked again, this time with a storm of rapid-fire energy blasts, which decimated the landscape, he knew he had no choice but to fight. There was no telling how Udon had gotten this power, or why he was so stubbornly unyielding; yet, Soba could tell that had his attacks hit home (as even being grazed stung severely), Udon would have severely wounded Soba.
This was neither a game nor a joke. The hatred burning in Udon’s eyes had not cooled since Soba had arrived.
He’s furious at me, Soba thought. I shouldn’t be surprised. Maybe I should just let him wear himself out…
That was when Udon charged. His speed took Soba aback; the force behind his punches were enough to physically push him back. He remained on the defensive, calling out to his friend, but Udon pressed on, staring him down with his vicious gaze, punching, kicking, teleporting, throwing energy. Every attack Soba dodged - some only just - and he soon found that he had to put some effort into evading Udon’s attacks.
They teleported around the world, the darkness spreading around them as day turned to night. The way Udon used Instant Transmission was wrong - everything was wrong about his movements. Soba’s throat felt raw. He held back, never attempting to hurt his friend. But it was no use. Udon never relented; he never even tried to explain himself.
A crater spread below them, wrought by the sonic wave of pressure released by Udon’s fist connecting with Soba’s cheek. They were gone in a flash; again, Udon’s fist found its way through Soba’s defenses. Tasting blood, Soba jumped again, but he felt Udon there, chasing him through the void, and it was no use. He couldn’t outrun his friend. He had to fight.
They appeared on the other side of the planet in the middle of a dead a river. Over the mountains, the first hint of morning was creeping like an infernal tide; Udon’s punches split the air, sending deep fissures through the rocks. His palms stung; Soba was pushed up against a wall of water-worn rock, Udon pummeling at him mercilessly. He could teleport again, but what good would that do?
His fists didn’t even hurt half as hard as Audacci’s had.
Light formed around Soba’s body. He jerked his body to the left again, shifting his weight, his aura sucking away, and for the briefest of moments, Udon paused, tracking the fleeing energy. That was when Soba came from the right, appearing from nothing, his spinning back kick hitting the other Yardrat square in the chest.
Udon’s arms flew up. Spittle flew from his mouth. Soundlessly, his eyes widening, the other Yardrat looked upon Soba as if were a particularly oil-rich repossessed tropical atoll. “Nice trick, eh?” Soba said. “I learned it at the Academy.”
Udon studied him intently, cracking his neck, and was gone. Appearing above Soba, the Yardrat had moon-shaped mass of ki held in one hand above his head. He shouted something Soba didn’t hear and threw it. Soba kicked off into the air, using Instant Transmission, but as he did, Udon pounced upon him. Soba had expected that. He leapt through the air, and again Udon was on him.
The heat of Udon’s falling energy warmed against their bodies. Fists connecting, the two continued to teleport around the big ball of ki, each daring the other to move just a little closer. Soba’s movements were more refined, more natural. Udon moved with great skill, but there was some lingering unfamiliarity in his attacks. His agility hampered just a fraction by awkwardness, his weakness was clear to Soba. But his speed held the younger Yardrat in check. He still couldn’t believe Udon had become this powerful. It wasn’t fair, and it made all of his memories of those years in the Academy wither to dust. What was the point of going there if he’s surpassed me somehow while I was gone?
Heat was on his face, in his cheeks, stinging and burning and making his head feel light. He knew this wasn’t a good idea, but he did it anyways. When Udon’s lunging uppercut connected, Soba’s vision burst with popping light; he grit his teeth, blinking rapidly to stay conscious. Udon was pulling back when Soba hit him in the gut. The elbow hurt him, but he didn’t make a sound. He bent forward in pain and teleported away. Soba followed.
They were on the ground again, right before the incoming blast. Udon limped away from Soba, towards the blast, beckoning his friend forward. Soba stepped back and shot a finger beam at Udon. Before it got to him, the attack disappeared, reappearing below him, shooting up into his back, piercing through his skin.
The Yardrat screamed. Soba threw up his arms. He had carefully aimed this attack so that it wouldn’t hit any vital organs. Not fatal. It’ll hurt like Gorvian Boulsucker, but he’ll live. Maybe that’ll get him off my back. But indeed, Udon appeared on Soba’s back at that very moment, his teleportation happening so fast, Soba hadn’t been able to track it. Striking Soba’s neck with what felt like a foot, Udon proceeded to batter him from behind with a blinding series of punches. Stumbling forward, Soba tried to spin around but was kicked across the face, feeling a rush of heat.
They were teleporting too fast now to see; instinct had taken over completely. Soba’s neck was burning. He closed his eyes, feeling Soba’s energy. The more he focused on it, the less familiar it was to him. No action he performed was random. The teachings of Master Qono reverberated in his mind. No movement in excess, no strike without purpose.
Crashing around the attack, striking each other simultaneously, the Yardrats moved fast enough as if to appear to be moving through Udon’s falling ball of energy. They were both aware that if it impacted against the surface, it would instantly destroy the planet. Circling around it, Soba maintained a more defensive position than Udon, waiting for the other Yardrat to make a mistake, allowing him another opening, but that opening never seemed to come. As they used their Instant Transmisison more and more, it became like boasting. Soba had passed Qono’s training. He would not believe Udon was better than him. The implications of if he was were too much for him to think about in that moment.
Udon’s spinning kick was easily dodged as Soba teleported behind him and flung a blind fist forward, but Udon was already gone. So their dance went, Udon leading with reckless, unpredictable moves, showing fighting knowledge that exceeded Soba in some ways, but were not entirely unmanageable. His friend’s power was amazing. But it didn’t compare to what Soba could do at full strength. He picked up speed, the air screaming around his body, engaging Udon like a Mrovian Snapping Turtle, probing with harassing, but punishing strikes, and it was all Udon could do to hold him back.
His hands were full of energy, every drop teleporting away to exactly where it needed to go. He charged at Udon, forcing him to dodge. Then came the attacks, even as Soba was teleporting again, anticipating where Udon would go next. But Udon was more than prepared for this complex attack; ignoring Soba’s energy blasts, he teleported around at great speed, all around Soba, bringing the energy his way. It was a simple counter, but effective.
Soba teleported back to the ground, abandoning his plan. Udon followed, appearing in front of Soba. The sweat on his forehead reflected the sun brightly. “You’re tenacious. I haven’t met a Yardrat like you in a long time.”
He was blanketed with ki, energy that materialized against his body, popping like bubbles. He never saw Udon create the energy, never sensed it. The explosion blew Soba back, up into the air, his body approaching the incoming energy blast.
Udon vanished. Soba let out a scream as he used all of his energy to stop his momentum, catch his breath, and thrust himself blindly in a backwards flying kick. Udon appeared exactly where Soba expected him to. The attack connected hard, and Soba thought he felt something break inside Udon as the older Yardrat was flung soundlessly into the heart of his falling energy attack.
But Soba was already gone. He didn’t want to see. He tried not to feel it when Udon’s energy vanished entirely, but that was impossible. Again, Soba was running, the whiteness surrounding him, the emptiness of the void surrounding him.
Soba forced himself awake. Udon’s faded energy erupted to life again, as the older Yardrat stood over Soba’s aching body.
He couldn’t let himself pass out. Yet, there was a part of him that wanted to surrender. He didn’t want to fight his friend anymore, not after he had already betrayed him. It’d be so easy to simply give up.
Even through Soba’s hazy vision, he could see that something about Udon had changed. His posture was different, his gaze was more focused, and he carried himself with more certainty than before. It was like there was another being lurking just below his skin, puppeting him from the inside, forcing him to use their mannerisms.
And then, Udon spoke. He had the same voice as Soba’s friend, but it was certainly not Udon speaking.
“Hmm, this is interesting. I should’ve tried fighting in this body before. These few minutes of combat have acclimated me to this body more than the entirety of the past few years I’ve spent in it.”
Soba was silent. He was appalled that the thing he was fighting had taken his friend’s body, but mostly, he was angry at himself. He should’ve known that Udon would never attack him from the start.
“I’m sorry, Udon,” Soba said weakly. “You don’t deserve any of this.”
“There’s no point in addressing your friend,” he replied. “Now that I have full control over his body and mind, I suspect that your friend is gone completely. However, I will give you an opportunity. I don’t expect you to understand, but what I’m doing is for the benefit of all mortal life. I understand if you hate me, but if you choose to continue fighting me, I will have no choice but to destroy you.” Before now, Soba had only fought for the thrill of battle, to survive, and to get stronger. But now, his need to fight was no longer driven by purely selfish desires. It was simple, really. This thing, the thing that stood above him, puppeting his friend’s former corpse, was evil. And he was going to destroy it, not as a response to a want, but a need. The death of his friend could not go unpunished.
And it was in that moment that he finally understood what being a warrior truly meant.
Soba’s righteous fighting spirit erupted inside of him. He clenched his fist. Every individual cell in his body felt like a blazing supernova. Arcs of electricity burst across his body, filling the air with a burning smell. Soba launched himself off of the ground, his fist smashed into [NAME]’s face with a thunderous crack. An arc of spit and blood splattered from his mouth and onto the planet’s surface. It was a reminder to Xiros of the fragile mortality of the body he occupied.
Soba jumped to his feet and took a deep breath. He was still visibly hurt from the battle, but his injuries simply didn’t register to him anymore. He was filled with more vitality than he had been at the beginning of the battle.
Xiros pawed at his cheek in disbelief. He had existed for millennia, seen an entire universe crumble in front of him, and yet, this was the first time he ever felt true, physical pain.
Xiros had a brief moment of doubt. His ultimate goal may have been the salvation of all mortal life in the Multiverse, but he had still taken the life of an innocent creature. He still felt it was in service of the greater good, but he could never again claim that he was entirely free of guilt.
This momentary distraction served as a perfect opening for Soba. He threw his fist forward again, smashing into his chest with another forceful blow. He no longer felt the need to hold back now that he knew that his friend was dead.
Soba scolded himself for using such brutish techniques on his opponent. He was enraged, sure, but he was a student of the Venyi Academy. He knew that fighting with nothing but sheer force and anger was reckless.
Soba hadn’t fully mastered her techniques, but he had received some training under Master Caktir. He was familiar enough with the concept of strike positioning, and what attacks would do the most damage to which parts of his opponent’s body.
He launched a flurry of pointed jabs all over Xiros’s body, hitting any point he even vaguely recalled from Caktir’s lessons, in hopes of causing as much damage as possible.
The results were exactly what he hoped for, and exactly what he featured.
His blows had all landed perfectly, destroying Xiros’s vital organs. Soba knew that the thing he was fighting wasn’t actually his friend. But that did little to soothe him, as he saw his organs swell up sickeningly before rupturing with an incomparable sound.
“Impressive,” Xiros said. His voice was hazy, and guttural, as his lungs were injured beyond repair. “You managed to catch me by surprise. You accomplished very little, however. This body is merely a vessel. It is already a corpse, and I can continue to occupy it, even without use of any of its organs. All you’ve done is caused me pain. Fairly severe pain, yes, but nothing compared to what I’ve already lost. Now that I know that you won’t comply peacefully, however, I’ll have no more qualms about destroying you.”
Soba was silent.
Xiros raised his hands above his head, surrounding his body in a sphere of explosive purple energy. Soba was caught inside, and launched back into a nearby rock. The move did little damage, but it wasn’t intended to hurt him, just to put distance between his opponent and him.
Xiros flew towards Soba, fist raised, as he attempted to pick himself up from the rubble. Xiros was too fast, and by the time Soba got up, he was already in his face, ready to strike.
He didn’t, however. Xiros vanished right as he swung his fist, appearing behind Soba, his arm still in motion.
Soba was almost disappointed. It was a basic, predictable technique, and one that Soba was prepared for.
He quickly teleported a ki blast, so it struck Xiros from the side, sending him flying away from Soba and interrupting his punch.
“You’re using my friend’s body, but you have no idea how to fight like a Yardrat,” Soba said.
“You’re right,” Xiros replied. “I shouldn’t rely on the techniques that I appropriated from this body. Instead…”
Xiros snapped his fingers, and an enormous violet explosion appeared underneath Soba’s feet, too fast for him to react. The blast hit him directly, scorching his skin. Small bits of debris were hurled into the air, and embedded themselves in his arms as he attempted to shield himself with them. Thin streams of purple blood fell from his forearms, and puddled beneath his feet.
Soba was in pain. The rocks dug deeper into his flesh, and his burnt skin stung persistently. And yet, the pain did nothing to impede him. He lowered his arms, as the smoke around him cleared.
Xiros was impressed by Soba’s persistence. He hurled a wild volley of energy spheres at Soba, each filled with raw, destructive energy. They came from all directions, some traveling along the ground, atomizing the earth they touched, and leaving trenches in the ground behind. Others flew through the air, vaporizing the oxygen they passed through with a hiss.
Soba placed his fingers to his head. This would be easy to dodge with a simple teleportation.
However, when Soba dipped into the energy field, Xiros’s signal was nowhere to be found. He could see his foe right in front of him, and yet, according to his lack of energy signal, he was nonexistent. Xiros was using some kind of foreign, undetectable ki, and Soba had just wasted precious seconds trying to lock onto a signal that was not there. It was too late for him to teleport to something farther away, and the boundlessly destructive spheres were now a few feet away from him.
Soba threw his arms out, and, in desperation, used a technique that Qono had taught him.
The spheres slowed down greatly. They were still moving, but they now crawled along at a negligible pace, allowing Soba to sidestep them endlessly. Then, when Soba was completely clear of their trajectory, they resumed their furious speed, crashing into and thoroughly obliterating the rock formation behind him.
Xiros was stunned. In all his years, he had never seen a technique like this, at least, not from a mortal.
“There are three layers of space,” Master Qono said. His voice was not patronizing like a teacher’s. In this moment, he spoke to Soba as an equal. “We both occupy the first layer, as does all matter in the universe. Next is the second layer: the Teleportation Zone. In the Teleportation Zone, space is extremely compressed. Slipping into the Teleportation Zone allows extremely quick, almost instantaneous movement, since everything is much closer together there.”
Soba nodded, although he was already familiar with the concept. That was how Instant Transmission worked, after all.
“However, there exists a third layer. It remains unnamed, but, in essence, it is the opposite of the Teleportation Zone. In this plane, space is expanded to a remarkable degree, and everything is farther apart. Whereas moving into the Teleportation Zone makes it look like you’re teleporting in our layer of space, moving into this third layer makes it look as though you’re moving extremely slowly. You would be moving at the same speed, however. The distance between you and your destination has simply increased. Of course, this is extremely impractical, which is why the third plane has gone mostly unexplored. However, I’ve been experimenting with a new technique, to move other objects, and even entire other beings, into the third plane, to freeze them in place. Of course, this is an experimental technique, more dangerous and new than anything else taught at the academy...with exceptions granted to the teachings of Grandmaster Jabo himself, of course. This technique isn’t part of the course, and I don’t plan on showing any of my other students, but, if you are willing, I can teach it to you.”
“Clever,” Xiros said. “Moving my projectiles into another plane to temporarily slow them down. Creative, and much harder to counter than standard projectile-slowing techniques. However, I don’t need projectiles to defeat you. And, if you can’t detect my energy for Instant Transmission, as you’ve already shown, you cannot use your slowing technique on my physical body either.”
Xiros was blindingly fast as he charged towards Soba, releasing a flurry of punches. Soba cursed himself for being so unprepared, as he took almost all of the strikes full-force.
He was launched backwards, and the pain, which he had managed to ignore up to now, erupted within him once again.
Soba clutched his injured torso with one hand, and fired a large ball of yellow ki with his other. Xiros knocked his half-hearted blast to the side with a casual strike, walking towards Soba uninterrupted. He shambled towards Soba like a puppet with tangled strings. Udon’s body was a limp, necrotic mockery of his friend’s form, but despite its deathly appearance, it was still brimming with power. He struck Soba again, this time with a single, targeted strike, right to his stomach, making him cough up violet blood.
“I already told you. The more I fight, the more accustomed to this body I become, and the more power my body can contain. I’ll only get stronger as your stamina dwindles.”
He was right. Soba needed to end this soon. Udon’s body erupted, now surrounded by a permanent halo of purpleish aura. A small, shelled, insectoid creature fluttered into Xiros’s aura, and was instantly reduced to particles.
“Ah, yes,” Xiros said. “You’ve only seen a fraction of my power so far. And even now, I am not as powerful as I could be. You fought admirably, but now, your defeat is a certainty.”
Xiros smashed Soba into the ground with a brutal overhead attack. Then, he smashed his fists into the incapacitated Yardrat over and over, pushing him deeper beneath the fractured ground.
“It’s a shame that you won’t be alive to enjoy the universe, once it is free from chaos. Your friend was an unfortunate, but necessary sacrifice. He was a hero, really. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for you. Your ignorance is pitiable.”
Xiros fired an energy sphere into the ground that erupted into a pillar of light. A crater was left behind in its destructive wake, with Soba’s twitching, steaming body in the middle.
“You’re resilient,” Xiros said. “It’s a tragedy, really. If you were a less gifted warrior, your death would be far less painful. I apologize, deeply and truly. I owe you a swift demise. It’s the least I can do.”
Xiros raised his hand and concentrated his Energy of Destruction through it.
His palm began to glow, as Soba lay on the ground, paralyzed.
Soba couldn’t defeat Xiros; he was too powerful for him now. It was an unfortunate truth. No matter how much righteous rage filled his veins, he only had a limited amount of power, and Xiros had managed to surpass it. But he still wasn’t done fighting. If his own power wasn’t enough, he would just have to borrow some from somewhere else.
Soba and Xiros were still near the Universal Wall, a seemingly endless barrier of near-infinite energy. Soba already knew how to teleport energy, so perhaps, he could extend that ability to…
An enormous torrent of energy erupted in front of Soba, pouring out like water from a broken dam.
“Shit!” Xiros said, as he swiftly teleported himself out of the path of the titanic ki blast before it could touch him.
“You’re resourceful,” Xiros said. “But a technique like that is useless against a mobile opponent.”
Xiros resumed, raising his hand, and charging his energy once again.
Soba went over his options in his head. He thought of every possible application of every technique he knew, but there was nothing that could get him out of this situation. Xiros’s ki was impossible to detect, and his body was completely broken. Soba didn’t want to accept his death, but there was nothing left for him to do besides lying face-down on the ground and awaiting his destruction.
Suddenly, Soba felt an enormous burst of energy, but it was not his own, nor was it Xiros’. This was not a warrior’s energy, but a gentleman’s, full of love for the idea of life itself. It felt like ages since Soba had last felt it, and a part of him hoped it would never leave him again.
Xiros roared. His purple aura vanished momentarily, leaving behind a soft, pinkish glow.
Unlike the energy that had previously surged through Xiros, this energy was detectable, and Soba could easily lock onto it.
Soba forced himself to his feet. His wounds were still fresh, and blood ran into his eyes, but he had reached a point where physical pain was an afterthought once again.
“Udon, I’m sorry,” Soba said.
Xiros tried to move towards Soba, but he was frozen in place. The distance between him and the Yardrat stretched out in front of him, until he was a mere speck in the distance. The space continued to expand, until the yards that had once been between them extended into lightyears. Xiros charged down this seemingly endless path, but from Soba’s perspective, his movement was slowed down to near nonexistence.
Soba teleported the energy of the Universal Wall once again, this time, concentrating it into the palm of his hand. The energy swelled into a large sphere that Soba held above his head, dwarfing him and casting a brilliant blue light across the planet’s surface.
Soba hurled the moon-sized orb of unfathomable energy towards Xiros. It tore across the planet’s surface, sending huge chunks of stone flying in every direction. Xiros was in its path, and despite his futile attempts to escape, he was consumed by the energy. His body, or rather, the body he had stolen, was scorched into nothingness, torn apart by a swirling vortex of interdimensional light. When Soba was sure that there was nothing left, he banished the sphere with a wave of his hand.
A wave of exhaustion surged through Soba’s body. He used Instant Transmission quickly, teleporting himself to the nearest planet with a life signal. He couldn’t stand to be on the same world where his friend had died.
The Transmission took him to a planet of exotic pink flowers and fluttering creatures that looked like cotton balls. Udon would’ve been fascinated.
Soba took a deep breath, and then, he collapsed with the soft flowers beneath him.
The only two constants in the universe were light and lightlessness - heat and cold. Xiros had only ever known the former in his days as Jeinu’s attendant. All warmth fades, eventually, his father had told him once. The Grand Priest had stood before Xiros, smiling lightly, knowing things that his son never would. Xiros remembered that memory as if it had been yesterday, his father’s hand raised, the pool of amaranthine energy boiling harmlessly within it, swallowed by and encased in a pocket void. It persisted, boiling with increased strength, and then faded utterly. When it ran out of power to resist the void any longer, the energy vanished in an anticlimactic collapse, and the void was restored.
The fragmented memory had had a point - something he had forgotten, something he had once lived his life by. Darkness overwhelmed his senses. Without a body, his being was spreading like freezing water. Little beacons of light poked through the darkness. One was brighter than most. It was this heat that drew Xiros near.
His judgement failed him. Xiros knew not whether to feel ashamed or angry, so he banished all thoughts from his mind save for one - that single thought that had kept him going all this time and which would keep him going until he succeeded in his task. I will succeed, he told himself over and over again, approaching the light. I will bring justice to the universe. Only I can. I cannot fail. My duty has not changed. I will not fail!
Desperation wished to creep in, but he wasn’t feeling it. The light was approaching, and as soon as he felt it, what had become of Xiros melted away. Life was a most unnatural state of being: only in little pockets such as this one did it coalesce as if to mock reality.
A flashing, burning sensation pulsed three times, and then was gone, and the universe was returned to his vision. Xiros floated in the midst of an asteroid field, letting his momentum carry him as it would. Bits of space junk drifted by at higher speeds. A surge of adrenaline spiked through his veins - he felt, once again, and this time, it wasn’t feeling as if through gloves like with that Yardrat, but clean and real and unhindered.
Xiros looked down at his hands. These were his hands, not Udon’s - blue and soft and thin, longer than most. These were not the hands of an attendant, but those of a child. His body was restored, but it was not fully grown. He would have to wait for that, have to grow again.
Annoyance pressed itself through his consciousness, and he discarded it. Such thoughts were little more than a hindrance to him in his current state of mind. He had to remain focused on his task. Nothing has changed, he told himself. But if I ever find that Yardrat again, he will not get away alive.
Xiros’ weaknesses had all burned away. He floated like a starchild, watching the nearest planet (an aquamarine world rich in liquid oxygen) shake with atmospheric explosions. One after another, violent bursts of light rattled the upper atmosphere, and then there was silence as more space junk flew by Xiros like a violent release of waste. The nearest moon, which he knew was called Sirkac, lit up with explosions of its own. Like parasites, the mortals were crashing against each other, one side overwhelming the other with pure numbers.
A ship came into view, wrought in the Planet Trade Organization’s style, casting a shadow over the moon. Explosions followed, mostly golden yellow and wine red, spreading across the surface without a pattern. The moon cracked sharply and the ship retreated. A pillar of crimson energy rushed up from the crack in the moon, shooting silently past Xiros and off into the void.
Detonations continued on into space, leaving behind the split moon, its two halves cut out like crescent fists. Fi Mann, Peregari’s fifth moon, was overwhelmed now. He watched numbly, drifting. It was almost boiling within him, his energy. But his body wasn’t mature enough to handle this much power yet. A double plasma explosion rocked Fi Mann. Xiros watched with detached focus and drifted on through nothingness, the feeling inside him tickling now, ever so slightly.
Soba awoke, and shook the flowers off of his skin. They had apparently formed a seal around him while he rested, and sucked the blood out of his wounds, as his bleeding had subsided completely. He was numb, not physically, his body was still wracked with pain. But his friend was dead, and he felt nothing.
No, he felt something. It was a foggy, barely perceptible feeling that seemed to dart away whenever he got close to identifying it. Tears welled up in his eyes, but he wiped them away. He didn’t have time to cry. He had to…
He didn’t know what he wanted to do now. Udon was dead, and he couldn’t return to Venyi. The only thing left to do was go home.
Soba brought up the energy field, and located his home planet of Yardrat. It had been so long, he’d forgotten what it felt like.
Yardrat’s signal was quickly overpowered by another. There was a blaring, radiating presence that seemed designed specifically to draw attention to itself. It was an artificial signal, like the beacon on Yardrat’s moon. It was probably some kind of distress signal. Soba figured that it was worth investigating. Maybe it could even help take his mind off of things. His thoughts were still a jumbled cloud of mixed, incomprehensible emotions, as he vanished and reappeared in the middle of space.
There were no planets or even space stations nearby, just bits of metal debris floating around aimlessly.
Soba tried to fixate on the signal; it was somewhere in the mass of scrap metal surrounding him. He locked onto the signal and grabbed the thing that was producing it.
It was a fairly small metal box, warm to the touch. It stopped broadcasting its signal when Soba touched it, but the energy lingered just long enough for Soba to realize that he had felt it before.
“Hello…” the box said. Its voice was faint, processed and just barely audible. “I am the memory core of Cartographer Unit 5790...and I believe we’ve met before.”
“Yeah,” Soba said, clutching the box as he floated. “You were on that space station, right? I’m Soba, the Yardrat. I thought you died when that alien…”
“I did too. Perhaps I was dead, at least for a while, but it seems that my memory core generated just enough energy to send out a distress signal. It’s fortunate that you managed to find me, otherwise my archived knowledge would have been lost forever.”
“Yeah. I was going back to Yardrat, I’m sure there’s someone with some extra parts who could fix you up there.”
“Yes, thank you. Say, whatever happened to that Yardrat who accompanied you?”
Soba’s numb, distant emotions came to the forefront of his mind. He felt like there was an enormous hole in his world that would be there forever, that pieces of himself would keep falling into. At Venyi, he could comfort himself with the knowledge that Udon was probably still out there, somewhere. But now he was gone, lost forever. Soba could go anywhere in all of space, but he could never turn back time.
“He died,” Soba said.
“Oh, dear. My condolences.”
Soba didn’t know why he had chosen to vent his feelings to a half-functioning memory box. He needed to tell someone how he felt, and nobody on Yardrat would understand. Nobody there made any connections, so none of them understood loss.
“He’s dead, and I’m at least partially responsible. I abandoned him for years, and I hardly even told him why. And now he’s dead, and I’ll never see him again. If I had known when I left...if I’d known that it’d be the last time I ever saw him...I wouldn’t have…I don’t know. It’s just that...I’ll never talk to him again. He’s always been there for me. I just...don’t know how to live in a world that he’s not a part of.”
The box rattled in his hand, projecting a hologram above itself. The hologram was a familiar image; a map of the universe, albeit a partially incomplete one.
“The majority of the known universe is empty space. And out of the countless planets in this universe, only 0.00000359% are capable of supporting life. Only 0.0002 of that life is sapient. Out of that fraction of a fraction of an anomaly, how many perish without finding someone they truly care about. Despite all of the vast nothingness that exists, the fact that you were able to find someone to connect to, to love, even for a little while is a mathematical miracle. Your time together may have been brief, but all things are temporary when compared to the endlessness of the universe itself. Even I, a robot, will one day decay and fade away. But the knowledge I have collected, and the things I have done, will live on for eternity. And so will your friend.”
He didn’t have a particularly good reason for teleporting to Udon’s street corner before teleporting inside. He watched a woman do the same, pausing next to him just for a moment, her focus never shifting in his direction, and she gone again. A couple followed. He closed his eyes and made the jump.
Udon’s apartment was messier than it had been the last time Soba had been here. In fact, he’d never seen the place so out of sorts. It was remarkably ungentlemanly of Udon. A weak, clean smelling synthetic perfume, or perhaps a mixture of several, lingered tenuously in the air. A furry layer of dust coated everything in Udon’s house. He inhaled sharply, his nose stinging.
He didn’t know why he had come here. Walking through the rooms, Soba was surprised to see how unremarkable Udon’s house appeared without him in it. With the dirtiness extending to all room, the apartment would look to an outsider to be little more than the abode of a common merchant or banker, the kinds of professions Udon most certainly had detested.
He came to Udon’s study, which was full of bowls and plates of old food, all covered in mould and dust, crumbled or gone bright orange with overripeness. His desk was empty, the drawers empty, save for clean paper and a case of writing tools.
He kept no records, no reminders, no memories, no thoughts. Soba stood up, sighing. He’d have to notify someone about the apartment. He looked around, seeing if there was anything he should take with him. Udon’s furniture was all space mahogany, the finest strain in the universe, each piece worth more than a year’s salary at a good job - the true mark of a gentleman. Soba didn’t want them. Abstract paintings, some of which Soba had always thought Udon had made himself, were placed liberally almost almost every wall. He didn’t want those either. Soba had never been much of a gentleman himself.
For some reason, his eyes turned back to Udon’s desk. It was only when he scanned its contents once again that he realized the wooden painted globe was tilted almost ninety degrees. That was not a globe of Yardrat - rather, that was Perduan, the planet Udon had rented for his one true passion: Udon's Exotically Extravagant Menagerie. He would need to take care of that.
It had never been so silent as it was at that moment in Udon’s apartment. Part of Soba felt like he was erasing Udon’s memory from existence, but he couldn’t stay in that place any longer.
It took only three days for a buyer to show interest. The little paperwork that Udon had kept in his house, in a strongbox underneath the bathroom squelching station, was the deed to Perduan and the official paperwork for his business. Soba had both with him when the buyer arrived. He would sell it all and leave nothing behind. But he would make sure whoever was buying this place would be able to take care of Udon’s animals too. He had already been approached by what Soba knew were space pirates and other shifty individuals asking about mining the underwater fuel deposits. Those were the kind Soba would not deal with.
The first real customer arrived at the break of dawn, just like she said she would. Her ship was a tad large the guest’s landing pad, so she parked on the beach. It was there Soba met her. He was prepared to take pretty much any offer. As Udon’s zoo complex had automated feeding, watering, and pen cleaning bots and services, the vast majority of his captive population had survived up until now, despite Udon having been taken by that parasite years ago. A lot of them needed bigger cages, though, and Soba was not skilled in this sort of work.
“Hey, I remember you,” Linessi said. “You were lost on Jiqe with that other Yardrat.”
“Oh - yeah, that’s right!”
“I was chasing a Nidrazi scourge that day,” the woman with the avian face replied. “Do you remember”
“Yeah, Udon said he always wanted one of those.”
“They don’t do so well cooped up in places like this. But not many animals do.”
“Are you going to release all these ones back into the wild?” Soba gestured to the floating pens with smaller, stranger, floaty, fluffy creatures inside.
“No, they’re too acclimated to this life to go back. I can make sure they have better living conditions. This ‘zoo’ is not exactly first class, do you understand me?”
“So why are you selling it now?”
“It was my friend’s, but now it’s mine, and I don’t have the same passion he did.”
“I see. I could offer you a single space woolong and you’d take it, wouldn’t you?”
“N-no… no way! A h-hundred! Hundred million!”
“That’s your asking price?”
“I’ll give you two.”
Soba didn’t know what to say. She was smiling at his awkwardness. He wanted to die. “C-can’t you be reasonable?”
She pulled a little pouch out of her armor’s belt hold, tossing it to Udon. “Here.” She clicked her beak. “Count it if you want. I can tell you’re out of your element here. Sometimes that’s easiest to tell what kind of person anyone is.”
He opened the pouch awkwardly, running his fingers through the mess of galactic woolongs, each little triangular chip being no less than a 100,000₩ denomination. “A-and what kind of person am I?”
She shrugged, walking over, taking the case of paperwork from Soba’s trembling hand. “You’re well-meaning, Soba,” she said sternly. “Are we good?”
Soba nodded, and did not linger. The sunrise over the ocean where once a reef had glowed with fantastic life was dull, and he didn’t like the smell of this world’s sand. Linessi and him exchanged a few more words, and then he was gone, knowing fully that he would never be back.
“So, why are we here exactly, dad?” Somen said, as he gazed at Planet Yardrat. It was a distant, greenish marble from the craggy surface of its moon where he stood.
“It looks pretty small from up here, right?” Soba said, as he watched the clouds crawl along over the planet’s surface.
“Yeah,” Somen said noncommittally. He turned his gaze away from his home planet, choosing to instead focus on the starry sky above him.
“Well, before you know it, you’ll be old enough, and you’ll be able to leave Yardrat and go anywhere in the universe.”
“I know, dad.”
“I just wanted you to know. There’s a lot of emptiness out there, and I won’t be around forever. You should…”
Somen felt a sudden chill, and his eyes and his head felt heavy.
“Dad, please, don’t…”
“You’re going to have to live in a world without me one day. And when that day comes, I want you to find your own way out in the universe. And I want you to know that I love you. Last time I left someone...I didn’t get a chance to tell them before I did.”
Somen looked up at the swirling stars above him. Some day they’d all be within his grasp.
He singled out a particular star, pointing to it with his tiny green finger.
“Hey, dad, what do you think that one’s like?”
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