Hours after he left for Kenzenken space, Kenichi Miyashiro contemplated the dull yellow crystalline object in his hands while sitting cross-legged on the floor. He peered at it, trying to discern some hidden meaning or answer buried in its crevices. His fingers felt the rough surface of the jutted out protrusions. It was cool to the touch, offering nothing to him. He could make out the tiny fiber optic cables weaving throughout its structure. Someone had placed quantum computers at the picometer level along those strands. He knew a little bit about the artifact’s creation. Coalition technology helped build it and its sister near the end of the war, but the schematics for it came from somewhere else, some place far away. He didn’t know who built it, that information was classified even beyond his security level. Cursory scans revealed that 99.8% of its material was composed of common elements in the known universe. The computers failed in identifying the remaining 0.2%. That little fraction made all the difference, it seemed. He could not help but feel a cold sensation creep up his spine.
The sound of a soft whirring filled his quarters as the ship lowered the nitrogen levels by a small amount as part of its regular environmental calibrations. Kenichi turned his attention away from the sound and closed his eyes. His breath matched the rhythmic hum of the ship’s engine. The cold sensation turned into a maelstrom of fear and anxiety that rushed his mind. He observed them, their push and pull, their mass and weight, and their return to the depths of his consciousness. He allowed the calm to gather around him for a few minutes more. Then, he began thinking.
They were trapped. All known grid lanes led into the maws of the invading armadas. The Kenzenken fleet, perhaps the last one, hid in deep space, far from home and safety. Far from Nalia. Kenichi let his thoughts of her float away. They could not reach the homelands. Fortunately, a handful of escaping refugee and military vessels joined them, adding a few more ships to the stretched fleet. Too few, though. Kenichi considered all their options. The captains would follow whatever he decided, out of either desperation or loyalty. The most obvious and risky move would be to wait, but for what, Kenichi did not know. They could fight; have one glorious and futile battle. He could not do that to all the civilians. There was one other option. His mind returned to the Gate key in front of him.
As he concentrated, he thought he saw a pulsing on its surface. He questioned if it was real. He gazed at it again and confirmed it. The faint light blinked in and out at regular intervals. It triggered a memory of a lighthouse near a seaside village.
He felt the pull of a warm reminiscence fill his breast. He now saw the thin, tall building, once a stalwart for fishermen who once roamed the sea. They left when Phase Two colonization began, and the lighthouse spent the rest of its days as a lonely beacon. It still worked, though. Every night, its light flashed in ten-second intervals. No one thought to remove it, not even the automated village AI.
He found himself on the beach. His hand led a girl as they walked along the sea. She had a light complexion, dark hair, and high cheekbones. She wore a yellow summer dress. They stopped and stared out into the water. The waves moved in rhythmic fashion, mesmerizing them.
“Are you happy with your work?” she asked after a while.
“Happy? I’ve never thought of it that way. I can’t complain. It’s prestigious, sure. And honorable.” He rubbed his thin beard.
“But are you happy?” she persisted.
Kenichi wracked his mind for an answer, but none came.
“I want you… I want us to be happy. But we can’t go on like this.”
“What do you mean?” he asked, not out of curiosity but to untie the knot in his stomach. He already knew the answer.
“Every year, you go off to some faraway place and then come back for only a few weeks. I wake up every morning dreading my inbox. We’re both twenty years old. We can’t live like this forever.” Her thin lips quivered as she uttered the final sentence.
He grabbed her delicate hands with his own. She winced. “I can’t quit. The Coalition needs me. This will only be for a little while longer.” Both knew that he was lying.
“Will you not reconsider?”
“I can’t. Just wait, and everything will be alright,” he said. Her eyes filled with tears. She let go of his hands and turned away from him. The holo of the tranquil sea ended. They were now in a dome, protected from an unbreathable atmosphere. The nitrogen sea lay still under a thin layer of smooth water ice. Out in the distance stood a small mountain range covered by frozen carbon monoxide. The lighthouse beacon flashed. That was the image ingrained in his mind as she walked without a word back to the village. They never saw each other again.
His eyes opened and he found himself back in his room. He wondered why this particular memory resurfaced. Did the Gate key have something to do with it? For what purpose?
The intercom trilled, causing him to jump. His eyes opened. “Not now,” he growled. “Meditating. No interruptions.”
No one answered. Only static replied to his query. Before Kenichi could inquire further, a loud bang rang from the metal door to his quarters. It slid open, and in stepped Zhang, alive and healthy.
Kenichi did not stand up. “I should have known I could not be rid of you.” His eyes narrowed. “Tell me why I should not kill you now,” he said in his most menacing tone.
Zhang’s expression stayed neutral. “No need for such rudeness. Our relationship has been so long and so fruitful that I deserve some consideration. Besides, I should be the offended party, since you placed that bomb on my ship.” If Kenichi didn’t know better, Zhang actually sounded hurt.
The colonel lowered his head and stood up, feeling the muscles stretch in his legs. He took in Zhang’s appearance: the shock of grey hair, the lines on his face, the austere Takawan black and gold suit. It was hard to believe that this creature could live, breathe, and act so much like a human. He considered activating his emergency signal, but Zhang would be long gone before the guards arrived. Or worse, he would retaliate.
“Are you really going to rebuke me for that?” Kenichi asked. “I figured out what you are and what you’ve been trying to do. I looked through the top-secret files. The agent that gave Batu the key. That was yours. Sure, you hid it well, but the chains of aliases and front organizations led to you. When you freed Batu to be killed by that assassin, it confirmed my suspicions.” His breathing slowed. “You could not be allowed to live.”
A small smile fixed itself on Zhang’s face. “Ah, you are much more willing now to express your true feelings. You should do it more often. This forced politeness among we Kenzenkens is a bad habit we picked up from our founders.”
Kenichi’s back stiffened. “What do you want?” he asked.
Zhang bowed, perhaps out of mockery. “You are still considering my offer,” he said, glancing at the Gate crystal. “I would like to help you make your decision.”
Kenichi picked up the key and placed it on a nearby desk. He considered Zhang’s words. Fighting the urge to shrug, he bowed back. They both straightened their backs, completing the greeting. Although his mind rebelled at this ridiculous farce, part of him believed the old man, and he was too conscientious to break tradition, even with an enemy. Besides, if the old man wanted, he would be nothing but subatomic particles by now. “Forgive me,” Kenichi said. “We shall talk. Let me offer you some tea.”
Zhang’s eyes probed his own. “Of course,” he answered. “I will take whatever you offer. Although I am partial to hibiscus.”
Kenichi went to a nearby closet and pulled out a small table. He set it on a synthetic tatami lying in the middle of an anteroom attached to his quarters. He gestured towards Zhang, who came and kneeled down on the mat. The room’s synthesizer lighted up as he inputted the command for two cups of hibiscus tea. In microseconds, a ring signaled the completion of its task. Kenichi set the two cups on the table and kneeled at the table.
Silent, they brought the warm cups to their mouths and sipped the almost-real flavors of the tea. Kenichi fought the urge to throw the tea in Zhang’s face. This halfway point between comedy and tragedy was almost too much to bear. He averted his gaze, concentrating on the swirling liquid as he placed his cup back on the table. He did feel an odd comfort from this ritual, however. It allowed him to make a brief connection with Zhang, even if they were acting. Perhaps the old man felt the same way.
“Ah,” the representative said. “Delicious. As good as the flowers grown back home. Amazing technology.”
Kenichi did not reply. His eyes still focused on the tea.
Zhang bent his head towards the main room. “I noticed your miniatures collection. A curious habit you have there, but impressive nonetheless.”
The admiral looked at his display of treaded vehicles, hover tanks, and other archaic land-based means of locomotion. “It connects me to the past, of how we used to fight. Simple tools, but effective in their times.”
“Yet, they are gone,” Zhang said. “Rendered obsolete by high-speed aircraft, pinpoint orbital strikes, kiloton-level personnel weaponry, and ultra-maneuverable power armor. Not unlike that game you like so much. I always found it odd how you eschewed VR.”
“Perhaps I have a sentimental side for the things we leave behind.” His mouth grew dry. “May I ask you a question?”
The other man nodded.
“Why do you care?”
Zhang tapped the finger of his cup. “Forgive me, when you have lived as long as I have, you tend to get stuck in the memories of the past. The haze of remembering distorts the meaning of long-ago things. It is good to have symbols of what once was.”
His words piqued Kenichi’s curiosity. Something in the man’s tone revealed a depth of presence that the young man had not known before. “How long have you been watching us?” he asked.
“A fair question. Let us say that it was long before the grid was a stray thought in Archim Pham’s imagination. Long enough to get the measure of you. Long enough to see you leap out of your cradle.”
“Long enough for you to decide to slaughter us, you mean,” Kenichi replied, his anger returning in force.
Zhang sipped his cup. “Regrettably, a significant portion desired that outcome. It was not entirely unreasonable of course, given mankind’s history. We could use your resources with much greater efficiency, for instance. If it gives you any consolation, not all agreed. Our arguments continued right until the end. Until the balance tipped towards consensus.”
Kenichi almost laughed. “So your… people voted for genocide. Just like that. Wipe out an entire species for your vile designs.” He started to find it hard to breathe. In fury, he slammed his hand upon the table. The cups shook with a small rattle. “Tell me the truth. What do you really want?”
The other man glanced at his outstretched hand. “I did not come here to taunt you,” he replied. “Let me explain myself. My answer comes in two parts.” Zhang’s voice softened, in the same tone as it always was when he gave advice. “First, we are driven by our fears, just like you. Even the Valkyries get this wrong. There are no masterminds. No factions. There are only compulsions, impulses, and obsessions, which stem from an anxiety wrought by an uncaring universe. Just as Nature gave men life, she gave the gods power. And just as she can easily take life, so does she take power. We journeyed through the grid to flee that fate.” Zhang paused, as if considering his next words.
“And the second component?”
“We know you. We tasted your food, heard your children’s cries, and wept as you destroyed Earth. We commiserated with your anger and pitied your terror. We need you. You need us. Yet, there are even things beyond our control. That is why I provided you with a way out. All you have to do is open the door.”
Kenichi licked his dry lips. A million questions spun in his mind. But he knew that in all their years together that the old man answered things in his own way. He needed to choose his next words with care. The colonel drew his hands back to his lap. “You talk as if this is a gift given freely. It is not. There is always a price, which you have neglected to mention.”
Zhang lifted his head. “I did, didn’t I? Forgive a doddering old man.” He sighed. “We ask little. Just that you allow a small part of us to follow you towards freedom. It will not interfere. It will only observe.” He took another sip from his cup.
“What do you mean?”
“That is all I can tell you. The choice is now yours. My time is running short.”
“I will consider your words.” Kenichi’s eyes narrowed. “One more question. Why?”
“You are imperfect. That is a valuable trait. Without perfection, you have far more room to develop. Take it from me: never grow complacent.” Zhang stared at his chronometer as it beeped. “The time they have allowed me is up. You will not see me again. Goodbye.” He stood and walked out.
Kenichi stayed silent, sitting while he listened to the entrance door hiss as Zhang exited. A drop of sweat rolled down the side of his face. He glanced again at the Gate key, and saw the flashing beacon again. A presence observed him.