Part 2: Collection
Hajia kicked a metal plate off of herself, as she stood up and looked around at the chaotic landscape. The world around her was barren of life, but filled with fragments from the other worlds. Half-demolished cars and crumbling building walls strewn the landscape. Around them were components from all the ages and worlds they could imagine, broken propellers sliced into medieval robes, and suits of armor rolled off of flickering control panels. "Where is this?" she said, "is anyone else out there?"
Coughing a bit, and getting off of a large stuffed animal, James said, "yes, I seem to be okay."
Opening the door of a nearby wrecked car, Dani stepped out, and said, "good thing that had airbags."
"I'm okay! Although this place looks super messy!" Aika said, climbing down from a broken boulder.
"Here you are," Nadezhda said, appearing in front of them with a quiet pop, "I thought we had lost you all."
Rounding the corner of a ruined stadium, Maria, Kelva, and Harold appeared.
"Glad to see you made it okay," Harold said, "seems like you picked up a few newcomers, too."
"Something like that," James said, "where are we now?"
"Looks like to me this is the place where everything is ending up," Nadezhda said, "the final trash bin for all the worlds that have been destroyed."
"Have you found any others?" Hajia said.
"Only us so far," Maria said, "and there was that looney-bin guy from before, but we couldn't get him to budge."
"We've been splitting up to cover more ground, and try to find everyone we can," Nadezhda said.
"And see if there's a way out of this place," Harold said.
A streak of red light cut across the sky and impacted the stadium, crushing its side.
"Oh, and watch for the meteors," Kelva said, "don't want to get hit by one of those."
"Alright, we'll look too," Hajia said, as Dani nodded in agreement.
"As good of a plan as any," James said, "lead on Empress."
"Alright, you two," Nadezhda said, pointing at Hajia and Dani, "and James, you search to the north."
"Harold and Aika, you go together," Nadezhda said, "search to the west."
"Maria and Kelva, you go to the east," Nadezhda said, "and I'll cover the south."
James looked into the sky, and saw only a bright light emanating from everywhere, with no visible sun. "Which way is north again?"
"The meteors come from the north," Nadezhda said, as another one crashed in the distance, "so same way that building is pointing." She motioned to a half-demolished building, leaning on top of a pile of lumber.
Off to the North, James walked with Hajia and Dani.
"So," James said timidly, "I guess now is as good of a time as any, if you don't mind a personal question?"
"Ask away," Hajia said, "I wouldn't mind some conversation to distract from the desolation of this place."
"What do you want to know?" Dani said.
"Oh, it's a silly question, really," James said, "but it seems like to me you two are a bit backwards? You know, taller/shorter, male/female. Apologies in advance, as I don't mean to offend."
"It's no offense at all, we've noticed that you seemed a bit unusual as well," Hajia said.
"You almost look like you're cross-dressing what with that historical outfit," Dani said, "ah, no offense intended either."
"Of course," James said, "so your world is backwards of mine. Gender roles and all that, I suppose. I can't help but feel a bit old-fashioned when I see things like that."
"Does your world not have equal rights or something?" Hajia said, "we've been working on trying to balance out leadership gender balances, but it's still mostly women."
"Or do you mean your world is the other way around, like men were historically dominant? That would be strange," Dani said.
"Something like that, Dani," James said, looking at another meteor crashing nearby, "but we try to have equal rights too. I'd like to say we've done a good job, what with the Empress of Earth being a woman, and for the last seven hundred years, too."
"So it's an ongoing matriarchy?" Hajia said.
"No, no, just Nadezhda," James said, "she conquered the world back in the 1200s, and hasn't let go since."
"That would make her ancient!" Dani said, "she looked so young."
"Oh, right, I guess your world doesn't have any, but in ours, us Ennai don't age as soon as our powers manifest," James said, "I've been doing this for over a hundred years already."
"Wow. I hope I look that good when I'm over a hundred," Dani said.
"Same," Hajia said, "but if you don't mind me asking, what do you do exactly?"
"Fix things, mostly," James said, looking around for any suitable wreckage, "sometimes things broken by rebels, sometimes by accidents, sometimes even by Nadezhda herself." Seeing something that might be of use, James walked up to a partially-shattered hover-scooter. "Like this, for example."
"That looks like something out of a sci-fi movie," Hajia said, "and it's broken in half. You can fix that?"
"Of course," James said, putting his hands on the scooter. A soft blue light emanated from his hands, and enveloped the scooter. In a matter of seconds it reformed into its former glory and began hovering above the ground. "My power is to revert things to the state they were in the past. Comes in handy from time to time."
"I'll say! That's cool!" Dani said.
"Shall we ride?" James said.
"I don't really drive. I just take the subway," Hajia said, "but I could ride on the passenger seat?"
"Me neither, but I can hold on to Hajia," Dani said.
"Alright. I'm driving then," James said, as the three boarded, and took off hovering over the chaotic landscape.
After a moment, James said, "apologies if I offended, I guess I get a bit old fashioned at times."
"No worries," Hajia said, "you've been doing amazingly well in such an unusual situation."
"Yeah, especially for someone of your age," Dani said.
"Thanks, and if we ever do make it back, after all this is over," James said, "maybe I could visit sometime?"
"Of course," Hajia said.
"We'd love to see you," Dani said, "you're always welcome."
To the west, Harold and Aika searched over the rubble, occasionally calling out to see if anyone else was there.
"This place is such a mess!" Aika said, kicking a rock.
"It sure is," Harold said, "looks like all the discarded rubble of a war, tossed into one giant soup can."
"So... I never got to ask why you're in black-and-white?" Aika said.
"To be honest, I'm starting to figure out what everyone means by that," Harold said, "these other worlds. They have more colors, don't they? I've been starting to see them ever since I left, and thought I was crazy."
"You're not crazy detective! I like you!" Aika said.
"Thanks Aika," Harold said, "you haven't a care in the world, have you?"
"Nope!" Aika said, skipping over a few pipes.
"Whole world, probably whole universe is collapsing in front of our eyes, and it just can't get you down," Harold said.
"Yep!" Aika said, picking up a can and throwing it.
"I wish I had your optimism, Aika," Harold said, "my world isn't like yours. We don't have it so good. Sometimes all a man can do is try to solve a few cases, and hope there's justice out there waiting."
"Sounds like fun, though?" Aika said.
"Yeah, it is fun, in a way," Harold said, "I guess so."
"Cool! I wonder who we'll find first?" Aika said.
"Looks like this place is pretty barren," Harold said, as they walked along further.
A few minutes later, they rounded a discarded ocean liner, and heard the brief musical crying of a young girl.
"Are you okay?" Harold said into the wreckage.
"Is anyone over there?" Aika said, jumping over the rubble of a broken city street.
"Hello? Yes? I'm here?" said a confused and distraught girl's voice.
The approached her across the broken pavement, and saw that she was the girl from the music land, Jania.
"There, there, it's all right, Jania," Harold said, "we can stick together."
"Thank you!" Jania said, hugging Harold briefly, "I was lost, then it seemed like no-one else was around. And I can't see my score or the level or anything. What's happening?"
"We're exploring!" Aika said.
"And trying to figure out what's going on, and if there's a way home, do you want to come along?" Harold said.
"Of course!" Jania said, "and I have my guitar, so it'll be okay." She picked up her guitar, which snapped into place in her hands. "Let's go."
"Sounds good, that's the spirit," Harold said, "let's keep heading west, see if anyone else made it out."
"Thanks again," Jania said, "and I'm not sure I properly introduced myself, I'm Jania of the Twelve Chords, playable character."
"Pleasure to meet you, Jania, I'm Harold F. Jones, Private Eye, or detective, if you know what that means," Harold said.
"And I'm Aika!" Aika said, "currently explorer of ruined worlds!"
"That's very convenient," Jania said, "lead on."
Maria and Kelva walked to the east, mostly silently, with the odd notice of a falling meteor.
"So... I guess we haven't had too much time to talk," Maria said. That sounded lame.
"Not really, no," Kelva said, shrugging his shoulders.
They walked a bit further.
"What's your world like?" Maria said, "sorry I'm such a terrible conversationalist."
"No worries, I am too," Kelva said, "but my world? Well, it's a lot darker, rarely gets even this bright, much less as bright as a lot of the other worlds we've seen. Plenty of tall mountains, pretty spiky, great for hunting."
"So, you're a hunter?" Maria said.
"Yeah, you could say," Kelva said, "I'm still mostly an apprentice, but I've been practicing to be a full hunter of the third tribe."
"Sounds cool," Maria said.
"So uh, how about you?" Kelva said, "I saw your world briefly, but don't really know much about it."
"It's pretty standard, you know, buildings, cars, news, TV, the works," Maria said.
"Huh," Kelva said, not entirely understanding all of those terms.
"Wait, maybe I should mention what some of those things are," Maria said, "if you don't have them in your place?"
"I've seen buildings, and cars," Kelva said, pointing to a nearby wreck, "even if we don't have them."
"Well, TV is a picture box where people talk about all sorts of inane things," Maria said, "you're not missing much by not having it."
"Sounds like it," Kelva said.
"And I'll tell you one thing," Maria said, "even if your world is darker in light, other worlds are dark in other ways. Try having your world ruled by a crazy teenager for centuries."
"That must be something else," Kelva said.
"It's something, all right," Maria said, "wait, do you see that?" She motioned over to a metal plate that was moving slightly. "There's no wind here - it must be someone, come on!"
They ran over to the plate, and each grabbing one side, lifted it off of a dresser, where Dr. Ashana was lying down, in place of the drawers.
"Thanks for lifting that off!" she said, "I've been trying forever, it was just too heavy."
"Are you okay?" Maria said.
"Apparently unhurt," Dr. Ashana said, "have you found any others?"
"We have a few groups searching the area," Maria said, "and hopefully they've found most everyone."
"Have you seen Kailan?" Dr. Ashana said.
"Not yet, sorry," Kelva said, "maybe he's around here somewhere?"
"I certainly hope so," Dr. Ashana said, getting up, "let's start searching."
They looked around the rubble, passing by a few discarded jumbo jets, until they heard the sounds of sparks and saw a flash of light. Dr. Ashana ran around the corner, and found Kailan working on connecting an old car battery to a half-bent antenna.
"Kailan! I'm so relieved you're all right!" she said.
"Thanks Biony," he said, "I was... just trying to see if I could send a signal."
"Good work trying to wire something up," Dr. Ashana, "but I don't think there's anyone out here to pick it up."
"Sorry Doctor," he said.
"No worries," Maria said, "we could use that kind of spunk."
"We're searching for any other survivors, do you want to come along?" Kelva said.
"Of course!" Kailan said.
To the south, a small dot of a person echoed across the landscape. Nadezhda teleported effortlessly across the tops of buildings and supertankers alike, scouting the area for any signs of activity. She spotted a blue flash coming from the other side of a truck carrying water bottles. Teleporting on top of it, she saw Lian and Kira, as the latter was practicing transforming the spilled water into ice.
"Ah!" Kira said, "I didn't see you there!"
"Apologies for startling you," Nadezhda said, "and I see you two made it here as well."
"Yeah, what is this place?" Lian said, "it's like nowhere I've ever seen."
"Looks like a terrible trash dump to me," Kira said, "all the waste in the world in one place."
"It's more than that," Nadezhda said, "it's the fragments of all the worlds that have collapsed. These fragments appear to be all that is left of them."
"So our world too..." Lian said.
"Yes," Nadezhda said, "now stay on task. Can you still fly, Lian?"
"Sure, if I had a broom," he said, opening his hands wide indicating the absence of said implement.
"I saw one a few sectors back," Nadezhda said, "one moment." She popped out of their sight.
"Well," Kira said, "how about that."
Nadezhda appeared a moment later, holding an old wooden broom. "Will this work?"
"Uh, that broom doesn't look very magical," Lian said, walking up to her.
"Will it work or not?" Nadezhda said flatly.
Kira gave Lian a look, and Lian said, "all right, all right. I'll try." He stepped over it, and hovered off the ground by a few feet. "Not the easiest to fly," he said, wobbling slightly, "but it'll do."
"Excellent," Nadezhda said, "we're looking for survivors, if you can scout the air as well, we can cover more ground quickly."
"Sure," Lian said, "nothing else really to do."
"I'll look around too," Kira said, "I'm almost done absorbing this water anyways." She motioned her hands over the water bottles as they burst and froze in midair. The ice crystals hovered and melted into blue energy, which was absorbed into her hands.
"Impressive," Nadezhda said, "follow me."
Hovering surprisingly gracefully over the wreckage, James, Hajia, and Dani scouted the area for any others they could find.
"Wait, that doesn't look like a building," Hajia said, pointing to a large metal structure. It had a central truss, and large cylinders visible near the top.
"Now I've never seen one from the outside, but that sure looks like a spaceship if I ever saw one," James said, as they scooted closer to the strange construction. Once they approached it, they could see sparks flying and flickering lights within, a few discarded glass control panels littering the ground nearby.
"Sure looks like the ship we were in before," Hajia said.
Stopping the scooter, James said, "if that's the case, I wonder if anyone is nearby?"
They walked around the vicinity, until Dani stumbled upon an unconscious Fari. "She looks okay, just asleep," he said.
"Should we wake her up?" Hajia said.
"I think we should," James said, as he touched his right hand on her left arm.
Fari groaned briefly, then woke up suddenly. "Whoa what the-" she said, "you three? What happened?"
"The world collapsed," Hajia said, "again."
"And now we're in some sort of collection bin for all the stuff from the other worlds," Dani said.
"Oh, that's not good," Fari said, getting up. Then looking over to her right, she saw her ship, crashed into the ground. "My ship!"
"That's what we thought," James said.
"I know it's the Intrepid alright, just what happened to it?" she said, "my mother will kill me for crashing my first command."
"Not your fault, clearly," Hajia said.
"Thanks," Fari said, "but have you found any others?"
"A few," James said, "we'd split up and have been looking around."
"Wait," Fari said, noticing the distinctive colors of a uniform of the Earth Exploratory Force, "over there!"
The four of them ran over to find an unconscious Lishia, who Fari briefly tapped.
"Oh, Captain!" Lishia said, waking up, "I've failed you, haven't I?"
"No, the blame rests upon me," Fari said, "I should have been more prepared."
"Can't imagine how you could have," James said, "no one
saw this coming."
"I suppose not," Fari said, "either way, we have to salvage what we can, see if we can get off this... place."
"At your service, Captain," Lishia said, standing up, "although not sure how much use I can be without a ship."
Fari looked at her wrecked ship, and said, "the aft docking bay still looks intact, maybe we can find something flyable."
Walking up to the crashed Hashiwa Intrepid, they entered cautiously through a broken glass wall. Finding a suitably stable catwalk, they climbed up the main spine of the ship, and entered the aft docking bay, crashed cargo containers and smashed ships greeting them.
"Even with a full crew this damage is extensive," Fari said, "I don't know if we even have the spare parts onboard. It could take days or weeks to get any of these shuttles spaceworthy."
"I might be able to help with that, just show me your best one," James said.
"He's super impressive," Dani said.
"I have to admit it, he knows how to fix things like no man I've ever seen," Hajia said.
"Alright James, if you can handle it, how about the star-skimmer?" Lishia said, pointing to a large shuttle resting against the port wall. "It's a custom ship, made just for the Intrepid."
It was about the size of a mini-bus, and had swept-back glass windows, many of which were smashed by other wreckage. It was made out of a similar metal to the Intrepid, but had a more blue and red exterior, in contrast to the Intrepid's more utilitarian look. It also had a few small winglets near the back, next to its five small engines, but many of these were bent and damaged.
"I'll see what I can do," James said, smiling as he walked up to the ship. Laying his hands upon its metal shell, a light blue glow enveloped the shuttle, as the glass repaired itself, the metal unbent, and the lights turned themselves on. "How about that?" he said, turning around.
"Consider yourself promoted," Fari said, "Chief Engineer James."
"Thank you Captain, an honor to be a part of your crew," he said.
"My crew," she said, "that's right, may their souls rest in peace. They deserve better than this."
"You're right, but let's get out of here before a meteor smashes this ship," Hajia said.
"Agreed," Fari said, "all aboard the star-skimmer."
"Wait, if you can fix that up so well," Lishia said, "what about the Intrepid herself?"
"I'm afraid I do have limitations my dear," James said, "a bus is about a big as I can go, and I'd need most of the ship to be intact."
"Yeah, she is pretty smashed up," Lishia said, "the bridge is nothing but rubble at this point."
A meteor impact outside reminded them of their limited time.
"Star-skimmer it is!" Lishia said, as the five of them boarded the shuttle.
"Two space-ships in one day, amazing!" Dani said.
A blast of plasma fire tore the starboard side of the docking bay clean off, as the star-skimmer flew gracefully into the sky.
"Sensors operational," Lishia said, operating the scanning station on the starboard side.
"Engines at full," Fari said, in the center navigational station. "Just like she's new."
They flew over the wreckage at great speed, seeing the group of Harold, Aika, and Jania first. Landing to pick them up, they headed off to the east, finding the group of Maria, Kelva, Dr. Ashana, and Kailan. Heading to the south, they were visible above the group of Nadezhda, Lian, and Kira. Nadezhda stood atop a building, waving at the approaching ship, as Lian flew up next to her.
"Do you think they're friendly?" Lian said.
"I certainly hope so," Nadezhda said.
"Could you teleport and find out?" Lian said.
"I could, but I don't want to hit a bulkhead, since I don't know the structure of that ship," Nadezhda said.
"Oh yeah, that could be painful," Lian said.
"For them," Nadezhda said, "I replace and explode any matter that I come into contact with when teleporting."
"Wow! That's like an S Rank power, at least," Lian said, even more impressed than before, "I can't even imagine what you could do with that!"
"Hmm, rule the world, perhaps?" Nadezhda said with a smile. She teleported down to the ground near Kira, as the ship landed to pick them up as well.
With all aboard the star-skimmer, Fari said, "those are all the life-signs we detected."
"This ship is rather crowded," Nadezhda said, "did you not have anything bigger?"
"This is the largest shuttle we had," Lishia said, "and James said he couldn't handle much bigger anyways."
James nervously smiled and shrugged his shoulders.
"Fine," Nadezhda said.
"At least everyone made it!" Aika said.
"Yes," Nadezhda said, "but where to now?"
"Space, of course," Fari said, "we have to find out where those meteors are coming from."
"Not to mention how this world gets its light without a sun," Lishia said.
• • •
The star-skimmer soared into the sky, until the rubble below faded into a dull texture. Red streaks of light arced across their view, as they headed towards the unknown source. Suddenly the light of day gave way to an inky blackness, a void like none had seen before.
"Sensors?" Fari said.
"Nothing, Captain," Lishia said, "not even a star out here. I don't see any obvious source for the meteors or light from that ruined world either, seems like they all just came out of nowhere."
Behind them only a faint gray plane could be seen, an echo of the world they had left behind.
"Course, Captain?" Lishia said.
"I guess continue on this bearing, heading forward," Fari said. Give me a star to steer by, universe,
she thought, I know there can't truly be nothing out here.
As if to answer her thought, a huge ship appeared in front of them. It was chevron-shaped and bore a dark gold exterior.
"What is that?
" Lishia said, "that thing is huge!
"It's the Continuity Enforcer," Nadezhda said.
"Looks like they made it out alive too," Harold said, "what with them turning tail at the last moment."
"Unknown Vessel," a booming voice said echoing off their hull.
"Sound in space?" Lishia said, "how?"
"You are in violation of the master protocol, you must return to your origin location at once!" the voice said.
"Can you open a communication or something?" Nadezhda said, "I've talked with this person before."
"It's a person?
" Fari said, "but alright, here goes nothing." She pressed a few buttons on the holographic control panel, indicating to broadcast on all frequencies.
"Continuity Enforcer," Nadezhda said, "you have already asked us to return. And we have already agreed. Our origin locations no longer exist, and your maintenance has failed."
"Insufficient Response," the voice said.
"You know this to be true, we are here together in this starless space," Nadezhda said, "and we ask you to help us. To help us get home, to find what is left, if anything."
"Insufficient Response," the voice said.
"You cannot resist fate," Nadezhda said, "if you have one ounce of humanity in you, you will help us."
"Did it work?" Kelva said quietly.
"Understood," the voice said, "but. I cannot help. Violation of protocol is forbidden."
"I know as well as any other that rules are rules," Nadezhda said, "but every once in a while they have to bent, even broken. No-one can resist the force of the greater good forever."
Maria smiled a bit at these remarks.
"Understood," the voice said, "but. But. I cannot, I cannot, help. You must find the system source, you must save everything..." It trailed off.
A different voice sounded throughout space, and said, "Fatal Error: Violation of protocol by the Continuity Enforcer. Deletion engaged."
The ship in front of them burst into flames, the sides of it exploding outward with terrifying force.
"How?" Fari said, amazed.
"A bit of logic," Nadezhda said, "and a bit of emotion. One doesn't rule the world for hundreds of years without learning both."
"It just... self-destructed," Lishia said, staring at the explosion.
The ship in front of them disintegrated into nothingness, the fragments melting into the inky blackness.
"What now?" Lian said.
"This 'system source' he referred to," Nadezhda said, "do you see anything on your sensors now?
"Oh," Lishia said, looking at the readout, "yes, I do. Dead ahead, a faint energy signature."
"Setting course," Fari said.
• • •
The star-skimmer effortlessly coasted through the void, until they came upon a small space-station, no bigger than an office building. It had a central dome, with three landing pads arranged circularly around. It was made of what looked like blue-tinted metal, and had small lights along the circumference of the central dome, as well as ringing the edges of the landing pads.
Bringing the ship down on one of the landing pads, Fari said, "it looks like there's normal atmosphere out there."
The side hatch opened up, as Fari and Nadezhda walked out first.
"I'll watch the ship," Lishia said, "be careful out there."
Fari nodded, as they walked towards the main dome, followed by Harold, Dr. Ashana, and Kailan. On its side was a futuristic door, which opened vertically when approached.
"I suppose this kind of thing is commonplace in your world," Harold said.
"To be honest, atmospheric forcefields are way beyond our tech," Fari said.
The five of them walked inside the complex, the door closing behind them. They walked up a short staircase, and entering through another automatic door, found themselves in a large control room. Screens covered the central wall to their right, each projecting a view of a different world, although all but a few had gone dark. A variety of chairs were present, in a raked formation, each with its own control panel, although all these panels were dark as well. Another door was across from them, likely to another landing pad or hallway, and a glass wall was on their left.
"This must be an observation station for all the worlds," Nadezhda said, "although it looks like there are only four left active."
"Yes, and none of those look like mine," Fari said, "if only we knew how this technology worked."
"This must be a mission control," Dr. Ashana said, "I saw a place like this on TV once." She motioned towards the rows of seats, with dark screens in front of them. "The controllers sit here, and they monitor the progress of the space program. Or worlds, in this case."
"All these pads are dark," Harold said, pointing to the dark screens, "and there's no-one home."
"If only we could find the original creators of this place, they would know what to do," Nadezhda said, resting her hand on a chair.
"What if they left a message?" Kailan said, "maybe in case anyone found this place. Maybe we just have to figure out how to turn it on." He placed his hand on one of the dark screens, which suddenly lit up with a cyan light.
"Iz. Himin Yinita, energy signature recognized," a female voice said from the panel, "welcome back."
"Whoa, was not expecting that to happen," Kailan said, taking his hand away.
His panel and slowly all the others lit up with a variety of messages, many encoded in cryptic red text.
"What does this all say?" Dr. Ashana said, reading some of the text that had appeared.
"It looks like a computer program," Fari said, "although not one I'm familiar with."
"I'm more interested in the other name it gave," Nadezhda said, placing her hand down on another panel.
"Princess Fioa Ulania, energy signature recognized," the female computer voice said, "welcome back."
"Hmmm, only a princess?" Nadezhda said, "a bit of a step down, if you ask me."
Harold placed his hand on a panel, as the female voice said, "Hr. Jens Silo, energy signature recognized, welcome back."
"That name," Harold said, "it's familiar, as if someone I'd known, from a long time ago. From a life long past."
Dr. Ashana placed her hand on a panel, as the voice said, "Iz. Sana Frenzca, energy signature recognized, welcome back."
"I agree, is Sana someone I know?" Dr. Ashana said.
"Wait. Everyone, look at this," Kailan said, pointing to the glass wall behind them. It said in clear text, 'Ventari Systems: Singularly Simulated Worlds'
"Ventari Systems," Nadezhda said, "is here?"
"Is everywhere," Fari said, having read more of the text, "it's the name of these programs. The ones that run all our worlds, and all of us."
"But who are these other people, then?" Dr. Ashana said.
"I don't know," Fari said, placing her hand on a panel as well.
"O. Grina Jones, energy signature recognized, welcome back," the voice said.
"Maybe we were once outside these worlds," Fari said, "and went inside them, took on these identities."
"That makes sense," Nadezhda said, "but then why is there no-one out here? I know I never would have left to play a game without someone watching the house."
"Yes, that makes no sense," Dr. Ashana said.
"Maybe something happened to them," Harold said, "maybe they didn't make it."
Kailan read the text on his screen, and saw mentions of recordings.
"I think this might be something - now how to get it to play?" he said, pressing on the screen where the word recording was displayed.
The main view in front of them went white, and displayed a video from an unknown man.
"The assault does not go well. All personnel, I repeat all personnel are to report to battle-stations immediately. Place all stations on automated maintenance, this is the final announcement."
The screen changed back to its mostly-black display.
"Can you show any other recordings?" Nadezhda said.
"Sure," Kailan said, as Dr. Ashana walked over to him and looked over his shoulder.
The main view changed again, to a recording of a person inside a small space-ship.
"If anyone is out there, this is a message for any survivors. The monster has devoured everything, the whole universe, all the galaxies, it's all gone, there's nothing left but void. It's chasing the last few ships we have, we've been fleeing for our lives for days already, there's no way to escape it, it can't be stopped. If there's anyone else out there, run away and don't look back-"
The recording suddenly ended and the black views returned.
"A creature that could devour an entire universe?" Fari said, "that's pure fantasy. Nothing like that could exist."
"And yet," Nadezhda said, "here we all are."
"You know you don't have to watch the ship with me," Lishia said, swiveling around in her chair to face Lian and Kira.
"Yeah, we know, but it's not often you get to see the inside of an actual space-ship!" Kira said, "I mean I know the Magistrant practically has a whole fleet of transport ships, but they don't let us students on board."
"There was that ship docked for touring last week," Lian said.
"Which was not flying
," Kira said, "and... I may have forgotten to study for a quiz and wasn't able to go." She frowned a bit at this memory.
"Hope it works out next time!" Aika said.
"So do I," Kira said.
"Good to see you again, James," Maria said.
"Likewise, Maria," James said, "almost thought I'd lost you back there."
"Yes, getting split up was no fun," Maria said, "although it did help us recruit some newcomers. Like Jania here."
"Hello?" Jania said, stopping in the middle of tuning her guitar.
"Pleasure to meet you, Jania, I'm James J. Hinself," James said, tipping his hat.
"Likewise, James," Jania said, "I just don't know what to do with all this. Without an objective I just feel lost. I sure hope one appears soon."
"You and me both," Maria said.
Over the intercom, Fari's voice could be heard, and said, "you all might want to come see what we've found."
The others had joined them, and scanned their hands into the computer as well. They explored the rest of the complex, but found little other than an abandoned cafeteria, some bathrooms, and a few small computer rooms, likely for conferencing. The last room was an observation hall, with a few tables, and an expansive view of the black void outside.
Fari and Lishia were studying a diagram of the universe-devourer projected on a table, while Nadezhda and Maria looked out the window.
"Sure is a lot of black," Maria said, "far too much for my taste."
"Agreed," Nadezhda said.
"I still don't see how this thing could be real," Lishia said, "I know there's plenty of recordings on it, and the files are pretty explicit about its size, but this thing would break the lightspeed barrier just by blinking!"
"I agree, and yet, once you remove all that is impossible," Fari said, "what remains must be real, no matter how fanciful it all sounds."
"But if this thing really existed," Lishia said, "why are we
"I know I said I was hungry, but now that I look at the options, I'm not so sure anymore," Dani said, in the cafeteria with Hajia.
"To be honest," James said, sitting at a nearby table and eating a strange dark substance, "this kzrchakic is pretty similar to my Mom's cornmeal."
"Is that a compliment?" Hajia said, chuckling slightly.
"Either way, I still can't believe we're the only ones left," Dani said.
still not sure what it means that the person who came up for me was a female scientist," Kelva said, sitting at the table with James.
"My person was a guy programmer, so I guess it's not necessarily correlated?" Jania said, hovering on her guitar nearby, "he does seem familiar for sure. And for some reason I know he really liked games."
"Enough to live in one?" James said, taking another bite.
"Maybe," Jania said, "oh! I could play a song to cheer you up, Dani?"
"Sure, what do you know?" Dani said, "any jazz, or maybe techno?"
"I only know rock, metal, and heavy metal," Jania said.
In the control room, Kira sculpted an ice crystal in the air, and handed it to Aika.
"Cool!" Aika said, "it's so pretty!"
"Just be careful," Kira said, "it might be a bit sharp. And don't forget it'll melt eventually, so enjoy it while it lasts!"
"I will!" Aika said, staring at it intently.
"I still can't believe the magic power that it would take to run this station," Lian said, "I mean, the amount of energy it uses, spying on other worlds, and creating food from thin air. It's truly spectacular to see a magical creation this advanced."
"I agree!" Kira said, "even if the others keep calling it 'technology' - no technology could alter the rules of the universe this much."
"This is seriously advanced technology," Dr. Ashana said, who was studying more readouts from the panels. "At this point it might be fair to say any sufficiently advanced technology and magic would be indistinguishable."
"It sure feels the same to me," Harold said, watching over the room.
"Fair enough," Kira said, shrugging her shoulders.
"I think this might be interesting," Kailan said, who was studying another display, "this is apparently a program involved in the automatic maintenance of the worlds."
"Fascinating," Dr. Ashana said, getting up and looking at what he saw. Dr. Ashana and Kailan studied these computer readouts, hoping for clues on what could be done.
• • •
A half-hour later, everyone had gathered in the control room again.
"Attention everyone," Dr. Ashana said, "I called you all here to discuss a matter of utmost importance. My assistant Kailan may have found a solution to this situation, but everyone needs to agree."
"Thanks Dr. Ashana," Kailan said, getting up from his chair. "I recently discovered a few interesting facts," he said, pressing a button on a control panel. A display appeared on the main view of red and black squares, with tiny text in each, and most of the squares red. "First, the automatic maintenance system was designed very well, and could compensate for numerous problems. That's why we didn't notice anything in our worlds until very recently. But it wasn't designed to operate forever," he said, pointing to the wall, "these red squares are corrupted regions. Areas of space that accumulated too many inaccuracies and had to be shut down. Now a few would be fine, as our worlds can run across many sectors, and a new one can be replaced for one that has failed." He took a deep breath. "But too many failures, and the whole system begins to shut down. There's no longer room for worlds to run, and they deactivate. That's what those curtains of white light were, the system shutting down our worlds. All that extra matter and energy accumulates in these failed sectors, an example of which is the world with all the rubble we were in before. The meteors we saw were more parts of rubble crashing down, extra bits overflowing into the failed regions. Now the most important fact is that these sectors are not irreparably damaged. There's another program that can wipe all this corrupted information away, and restore the worlds to a clean state. They can then be re-started on top of the clean sectors, and function normally."
"Will that cause the cycle to begin again?" Nadezhda said, "until we end up here once more?"
"Not necessarily," Kailan said, "these worlds were designed to be shut down and restarted every once in a while. The interruption should be almost unnoticeable, when the correct program is used. However, since no-one has been in this control room for hundreds of years, that never happened. So the emergency shutdown program generated the curtains of light, which in my opinion were far too dramatic."
"So we just have to clean the sectors, then our worlds can come back?" Jania said.
"Something like that," Kailan said, "but the tricky part is, since we're from
those worlds... I don't know what happens to us if we activate the restart sequence. We could reappear in our worlds like nothing had happened, or we might cease to exist since we're not in the correct place when everything is deactivated."
A pause fell over the room.
"That Continuity Enforcer fellow sure seemed intent on keeping us in our right places," Harold said, "although I don't know if it was for our own good, or the good of someone else."
"We just don't know what will happen," Dr. Ashana said, "and if this will even work. These Ventari Systems have been operating without supervision far longer than they ever had before, based on the records we could find. For all we know, this might simply erase everything from existence."
"But if we don't, there's no other way to repair those sectors," Kailan said, "and all our worlds will be gone forever. I guess we could live here. But I'm not sure what kind of a life that would be."
Another pause fell over the room, as everyone thought upon what had been said.
"I hope I speak for everyone here," Nadezhda said, "when I say that as much as it has been an honor to meet you all, an existence in this black void, without the others, without our worlds, is not much of an existence at all. People are meant to see color, and the light of day. To feel the breeze of a morning wind, and to taste the scent of flowers in a field. Without a world, we are nothing more than lost souls."
"Well said, Nadezhda," Harold said, nodding his head in agreement, "well said."
"I agree," Dr. Ashana said, "are there any objections, or does everyone else agree?"
"Absolutely!" Jania said.
"My friends are more important than me!" Aika said.
"Why not?" Kira said, "it means no more studying either way."
"Count me in too," Lian said.
"If there's no other way," Kelva said, "I took an oath to give my life for my tribe, and I can't think of a better opportunity than this."
"You bet," Maria said, "worlds of darkness or not, anything is better than this oblivion."
"I've lived a good life already," James said, "if I can help fix the universe, just point me in the right direction."
"There's no way I'd live it down if I chose anything else," Hajia said, "so count me in too."
"Absolutely," Dani said, "let's bring them back."
"A Captain's first duty is to her crew, so reset away," Fari said.
"And a First Lieutenant always follows her Captain," Lishia said, "so sign me up."
"It was my plan, so you know I'm on-board, Doctor," Kailan said.
"Then you should do the honors," Dr. Ashana said, "I've always known you were capable of greatness, just never knew how. Until now." She motioned to Kailan.
Kailan stepped up to the control panel, and hovered his finger over the button that said, 'Reboot Systems'. "Well, here goes nothing."