Alan squinted as he watched the sky rider glide through the sky. It was a large creature, light brown in color and almost three meters in length. Its wingspan almost spread twice that measurement. He could almost hear its gas-filled organs lifting it into the air. It swooped down to eat the stem-like plants that resembled the sagebrush from Earth’s past. He wondered how such a creature could evolve in this harsh environment.
A wind swept through the mostly desert, partly steppe environment. After all this time, his home world still puzzled him. Danube was a funny name for the planet, named for a large river on one of the northern continents of Earth. Alan remembered that his first thought on learning that fact was this world would have greatly appreciated rivers. The teachers gave a straightforward explanation. The astronomers who first found it named it Danube because it marked the boundary between the Republic and the Ramanujan Expanse, like the original Danube separated ancient Rome from the barbarians. The story now resonated with Alan, because now he knew something lurked out there in the Expanse. He prayed that it would not act like those barbarians from so long ago.
They were near the southern polar caps, but the heat made him think of the equator. He watched Nalia take a sip of water from a canteen. For now, their ice-lined clothes protected them from the elements. A small lake, conducive to human settlement, appeared in their view. The local wildlife congregated in these areas, taking advantage of one of the rare sources of water. He remembered watching the dune striders, creatures that covered in a mix of bark and skin, walking in herds throughout the arid valleys. Biologists found that they partially gained energy through photosynthesis, making them one of the unique creatures in the galaxy. However, the war forestalled any further scientific investigation as funding shifted to military matters. They knew little else about them.
Alan wiped the sweat off his brow as they entered Tanisi. Barely worth calling a town, it consisted of a few fabricated trailers and the surrounding moisture farms. The desert wind whistled again as they passed a small metal sign announcing the town’s name. No one was around. He smelled the dew from the moisture evaporators. All was silent except the air.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Nalia reach for her pistol. “Careful,” she said. “Those marines could still be looking for us.”
Alan turned his head and nodded at her. His hand reached for his own pistol. “The lab is here. There should be workers all over the place,” he answered. His eyes swept through the town again, detecting no movement. “Perhaps they haven’t gotten the clear order yet.”
A boot slamming on metal caught their attention, its echo piercing the silence. When Alan turned toward the noise, he faced the multiple barrels of a burst rifle, or a “shotgun” as the locals called them.
“Don’t move! Who are you?” A figure wrapped tightly in grey desert clothing and a respirator mask yelled at them in a heavy accent. Nalia quickly aimed her pistol at it. He recognized the voice.
“Waya?” he called out. “It’s me, Alan!”
The figure regarded them for a moment, and then lowered its shotgun. Nalia kept her pistol aimed. The figure removed its mask to reveal a middle-aged brown-faced man. Alan motioned toward Nalia and gave her the all-clear sign. She lowered her pistol. The man broke into a wide grin and ran toward Alan. They embraced, and the crush of the bear hug almost suffocated him. After a few seconds of pain, Waya let him go.
“How are you doing, Alan? How long has it been? It must have been at least a decade!” The man laughed aloud. Waya looked him over. “Oh man, you look way different than I remember you. You’re almost skeletal. What’d they do to you at the Academy?”
Alan chuckled. “It’s a long story. I’ll tell it all when we get to the boss.” He looked around. “What’s happening around the homestead?”
Waya’s grin vanished. He shook his hand. “Alan, my man. Some weird shit’s going down. We had a platoon of Pubbie marines scattering around like dung beetles. Said they were looking for a man and a woman.” He looked at them both with suspicion.
Alan spread his arms with palms open-faced. “Guilty as charged. We’re fugitives.” Nalia looked at him in alarm. “Waya’s a friend. I trust him,” he said before she could comment.
“Well, it’s your lucky day. The Pubbies just got recalled this morning. Looked like very important business. You guys mustn’t have been that important.” Waya mouth curled up in a half smile. Alan and Nalia glanced at each other. “Yeah, not SOP for those types. Pure sloppiness. Almost like they were messing around on purpose. But enough about that. Who’s your girlfriend?”
Alan felt a flush of heat creep up his neck. “Oh! Uh, this is Nalia. We know each other from the Academy. Nalia, this is Waya, co-chief of the Tanisi settlement.”
Nalia stepped forward and extended her hand. “Pleased to meet you, Waya.” She grimaced as he crushed her hand with his handshake.
“So when’s the wedding?” Waya slapped Alan’s shoulder.
“We’re just friends,” he said. Nalia stood stone-faced. “By the way, where’s Mohe?”
“Oh, he’s in the bunker with the others. Those Zenk ships and the Pubbie soldiers got them all rattled. Been too long since anything’s unusual happened here. Now they’re all too afraid to do anything.” Holstering his shotgun, the big man motioned for them to follow. They went deeper into the town, past the empty metal buildings. Alan looked at the sky. It was clear and blue without a trace of any space craft. After walking a few hundred meters, they stopped at a large metal trailer, indistinct from the rest around town. Waya led them around to the back. He leaned down and pulled at a metal plate on the ground. He moved it aside, revealing a trapdoor underground. Putting his hand on the scanner next to it, he waited until a buzzer sounded. “Hey, open up! It’s me! Alan’s back, and he’s brought a guest with him!” he bellowed. The trapdoor opened with a bang. Alan heard the sound of sand sliding into the darkness below.
They climbed down into a tunnel. The air smelled stale and with a trace of sweat. They followed the tunnel down for a few minutes into a well-lit large metal room. Around them, men, women, and children in dirty clothing sat on sleeping bags and rusty metal chairs, murmuring among themselves. No one paid attention to them. They were about as lifeless as their environment.
“Don’t worry about them. We’ll get them back to the surface soon,” Waya said.
They walked through more metal tunnels. The air cooled as they continued. Waya took them to a sealed bulkhead and slammed his fist against it. Alan jumped at the loud noise. The bulkhead opened, revealing a tactical room with fully working holos. Nothing could be more different from the shelter outside. Technicians walked back and forth, passing notes and orders. Some stood at stations, reporting system telemetry data. Lights flashed from every direction.
A large, heavily tattooed man in a gray jumpsuit stood in front of a holo overlooking the room. It showed the movement of multiple icons moving deeper into the Ramanujan Expanse. He turned toward them with a grave look on his face. “Welcome back, Alan,” he said in a hoarse voice. He turned toward Nalia. “And this would be?”
“Captain Nalia Sargire,” she said. They shook hands.
“Mohe,” Waya sighed. “No need to be so formal.” Nalia released her hand. “Any friend of Alan is a friend of ours!”
“Nalia,” Alan said. “This is Mohe, the other chief of the settlement, and Waya’s husband. He’s the most capable person I know.”
“And he’s also pretty good with his mou—” Before Waya could continue, Mohe shot him a look that mixed murder and disgust. The other quieted down, but not before giving Alan and Nalia a wink.
Mohe cleared his throat. “Normally, we would be more welcoming, but as you can see, things have gotten tense around here. That battle in space was quite unnerving. I kept on picturing what would happen if we got hit with a stray missile or railgun shot.” He shook his head. “Now we get word of some sort of takeover. What sort of game is the Republic playing?”
“Yes, I should explain that,” Alan said as he stepped forward. He told them about the encounter with the refugee ship, the pursuit of the Kenzenken fleet, the last words of the warlord and his possession of the gridspace key, Admiral Vendrian’s coup, and their escape. Nalia interjected at times with her own thoughts.
Mohe whistled. “Things are quite serious indeed. A lot of it makes a lot of sense. Although, I don’t know this business about some entity planning something nefarious in the shadows. It sounds like something from a fantasy holo.”
“We don’t know much about it ourselves,” Nalia said. “But if Admiral Vendrian is involved, this must be serious. And if it affected him, it could reach straight to every corner of the Republic.”
“That’s another thing that puzzles me. How could a war hero turn traitor just like that? Just what is he planning?” Mohe stroked his chin.
Alan looked at the floor. “Who knows.” He looked up. “Regardless, we need to stop him.”
Mohe regarded him a moment. He then beckoned the rest of them to the tactical holo. “Look at this. We’ve been observing the movement of Republic ships for the last few days.” He pointed at one group of indicators. “This fleet has been heading somewhere into deep space, to who knows where.” He pointed to another group at the other edge of the map. “This one is following, but has kept its distance. The strange thing is that every once in a while, the entire fleet disappears and then reappears in a completely different location.”
“Stealth device,” Nalia interrupted. “That must be Atranas and Kenichi. Then the other fleet is Vendrian’s.”
Mohe stared at her with a raised eyebrow. “We suspect that activity has something to do with the recent instabilities in gridspace. If what you say about this entity is correct, then somewhere out there is where Vendrian will…” He paused, searching for a word. “Meet it.”
“Before we move on,” Nalia said. “Just what is it that you all do here? This is clearly not a regular physics lab.”
“Yes, well. Our primary job here is to… was to observe the patterns of gridspace in the Ramanujan Expanse. There’s something about this region of space… like the grid and the real almost touch each other. Utterly fascinating. But dangerous, too. You must respect the grid, or it may overwhelm you. We learned that the hard way. You see, a long time ago, there was an accident. Do you want to hear the story?” He looked to Alan, then Nalia.
Alan shook his head. “I’ll tell her later.” Nalia gave him a puzzled look.
Mohe nodded. “All right, I’ll leave you to it. Now that we have a better idea about what’s going on, we need to contact your leaders through the communicator. Once we do that, you’ll need to get back. Do you have transportation?” Mohe asked.
“We came on a Hawking ship.” Alan said. “We can make it back.”
The tattooed man nodded. “Good, then we can proceed.” He traced his fingers through the holo. “There’s one thing I need to tell you, and I know it sounds nuts. If what you tell me about the artifact is correct, then Vendrian holds immense power. To control the energies of gridspace directly, it would be a terrifying weapon. Direct it anywhere into realspace, the destabilization could wipe out worlds, star systems, maybe a significant portion of the galaxy.”
Nalia’s eyes opened wide. “You can’t be serious.”
Mohe shook his head. “I’m a physicist. I’m entirely serious. We’ve seen enough of the grid to know what it’s capable of. And if it’s hostile to us… It’s too horrifying to think about.”
Alan took a deep breath. “Then all the more reason to get moving.”
“Yes,” Nalia said “We should get in touch with Atranas.”
For the next few hours they discussed their plans for the coming days. They also reminisced about the past. Waya enjoyed telling Nalia stories of sand dune hover races and binary sunrises. They talked of airships flitting about in fierce sandstorms and of failed terraforming attempts that ended in withered trees and dried pond beds. Alan described times that he flew with Mohe in near-orbital aircraft, gazing at the stars up above and the landscapes down below. He told of how gravity’s absence taught you the experience of full freedom. He realized that he never shared this part of his life with her. Nalia looked at him a little differently after that talk.
The couple asked little about Alan’s time at the Academy. Nor did they mention much about his parents.
Mohe sent an FTL message to the Third Fleet. He showed Nalia around the complex describing the various gridspace experiments they conducted. Alan followed behind, saying nothing. A message from the fleet came back 30 minutes later. He and Nalia read it carefully. Once they finished, he stepped out into the large room. He rubbed his forehead, wishing he still had that Earth whiskey. Mohe, Waya, and Nalia soon followed him out after.
“I think it’s time for you to go. The admiral’s message seemed quite urgent,” Mohe said. He shook hands with both Alan and Nalia. “You really should visit more often, Alan.” He sighed, “I must get back to my work. Godspeed.” He turned and headed back towards the holo.
“C’mon,” Waya said. “I’ll take you out.”
Once they were outside, the twin suns had entered their evening phase. Waya shielded his eyes and took a swig of water from a canteen on his belt.
“Will you and Mohe and everyone else be alright here?” Alan asked.
“Of course we’ll be. You think we’re afraid of some substructure of the universe farting on us?” He winked at Alan, who couldn’t help but laugh. “Now don’t leave for so long like last time, you hear?”
“I won’t,” said Alan. He hugged Waya with the same strength the older man showed earlier.
“It was nice to meet you and Mohe,” Nalia stated. They shook hands.
Waya cocked his head. “Treat Alan well, alright?”
“Of course,” said Nalia. Waya climbed down back into the bunker. The trapdoor slid shut with a small thud.
They stood for a few seconds staring at the horizon. The wind was still. “Alan…” He felt her reach for him.
Alan turned toward her. “I need to show you something.”
They walked to the outskirts of the town. It had been too long since he had been last here. The firm ground grew steeper. Alan led Nalia on a path over a bare hill. After a mile, they reached the top, overlooking a small valley. Placed all over it were upright black monoliths which stood as silent sentinels. Nalia gasped behind him. He led her down the hill to two of the structures that were a little further in. At the base of both monoliths lay metal plates. He brushed away the sand and dust that covered them. Inscribed were the names HAN VUONG and THU VUONG. They stood there as the names sunk into his mind again.
“Alan, I’m so sorry,” Nalia whispered.
“Don’t be. Years before I went to the Academy, my parents were working at the accelerator. There was an accident, some sort of meltdown that caused it to explode.” Alan said, staring off into the distance. The wind picked up again. “I will never forget seeing the endless fire raging over the hills. After they ended, we looked through the rubble. No bodies were found. Not even a trace of DNA. This is all that’s left of them.” He felt a strange peace within himself, now that he could tell her. “Waya and Mohe took care of me after that. I poked and prodded and needled Mohe about what happened, but, in the end, it was far beyond what we could know.”
Nalia dropped her hands to her side. “That’s so horrible,” she said.
“I still think about them from time to time,” Alan continued. “I felt like they sacrificed themselves for me. I’ve tried so hard to make them proud. And yet, maybe, like Mihaela, it’s time to let them go.” He felt Nalia grab hold of his arm, felt her body heat at his side. The memory of the accelerator fire and the presence within it became clear to him now. It had looked at him, its light rising to the heavens. It had penetrated his consciousness and permeated throughout the cells of his brain. He remembered its offer to free him, now that his parents no longer chained him. He remembered the horror and revulsion, but also the longing. The longing to no longer have this limited existence moor him. At the edge of his conscious, he heard a faint whisper. He blinked. The sound disappeared, but he knew what it said. That offer was still there. He decided not to tell Nalia.