I dare you to fall
My hoverboard hums to life under my feet as I shoot out the decorative gap in the Welcome Center laser-carved sculpture of a dozen galactic leaders holding their hands out in friendship. My Aerodynamic Inversion Wings catch the subtle currents in the air, allowing me to execute a 180-degree loop around a florb who raises his spider-like arms in a rude gesture.
Port #489B is nothing special. It's just one of the thousands of entry points to a single world connected to the Intergalactic Trade Network. You've got your families looking for a quick bite at the roadside diner, your business-minded stiffs trying to establish a long-distance satellite connection and your scholarly types perusing the lending library that tends to have more hastily abandoned Xyreebian Dance Girl magazines than genuine books of academic interest.
It's the kind of place I'd typically avoid, if I had a choice. I'm what you might call a reluctant scholar. Send me into an ancient tomb full of hidden traps and poisonous creatures and I'll feel right at home. Stick me in a crowd of civilians with no more respect for precious artifacts than Murgle Hogs have for Tiffle Truffles and you'll have me wishing I could throw myself off a cliff.
Which would be moot, since my hoverboard has an auto-pilot feature that'd never allow me to touch the ground.
A warning beep has me slapping my rear right leg down on the anti-gravity controller, allowing for a gut-grabbing plunge that shoots me behind a metal structure that's currently under construction. A pig-faced construction worker looks at me questioningly as I do my best to remain absolutely still. A finger to my lips gets me a disinterested shrug. A youth in a shabby space suit just isn't as interesting as his squirming sandwich made of what I can only describe as aqua and hot pink tentacles.
I can hear the bubbly putter of the thermite chair as Dr. Crumbsley brings his custom-built wheelchair level with a beam three over from the one providing me cover.
"Aldebaran, you little sneegrok! You've pushed my patience too far this time. Give up the stone and I might let you go crawling back to that lab assistant with the big hair and the little brain."
To us field historians, secrets of the past are a far greater treasure than any mound of gold. The metal sphere currently bulging in my pocket is more significant than anything I've ever unrooted in my many journeys to reveal hidden lore and restore artifacts of significance to peoples that in many cases don't know their own rich cultural histories.
Spoils go to the conqueror. Crumbsley is the worst of that sort. A former professor of great renown, he's fallen from grace to become the sort of moral-lacking desperado that parents use to scare their children into being good. I've dealt with a few of his associates but the good doctor is usually too busy floating above his impenetrable fortress and scoffing at us mere mortals to do his own dirty work.
Not this time. Not with a Portal Stone involved.
The origin world Xenica is one of those great mysteries of history that's had more than its share of films, books and hour-long documentaries dedicated to its lost population. Their cities sit abandoned as if the inhabitants packed up and left a day or two ago...despite the fact that careful scientific study has revealed the buildings there to be over three thousand years old.
That would be reason enough to take an interest, to say nothing of the sylvite.
It's a metal found on no other world, stronger than diamond yet more pliable than gold. Only space moguls with a few zillion coins to spare can afford a piece the size of a square on a checkerboard. It's just that rare. There are stashes of the stuff running in massive veins deep below the planet's surface but ancient defense mechanisms have blown up anyone who tries to dig more than a shallow pit on Xenica's surface.
As if that weren't enough, pictographs on Xenica hint at a super-weapon capable of altering the climate of entire planets. It's exactly the kind of thing Crumbsley would drool over. As far as I'm concerned, every last speck of the metal could disappear and the galaxy would be better for it.
I'm in this for the Hull.
It's a hollow supposedly built around the core of the planet that can be accessed only with the sphere I currently hold. It's a holding vault for thousands of artifacts looted by an ancient civilization that for the longest time had no opponent strong enough to oppose their planet-to-planet looting.
It's three thousand years of lost secrets that I intend to reveal.
I wait until the opportune moment to punch my accelerator. Crumbsley's laser leaves a nice little hole in the metal of the sculpture, earning him a few indignant squeals as I shoot past him into open space.
He follows with a roar of annoyance. I put a little weave in my pattern, the tips of my wings giving me a maneuvering advantage he can't hope to match, never giving him a clear shot. Even so, the heat of one beam has the left side of my face smarting.
My bubble rises as soon as I clear the planet's atmosphere. I built this board myself, putting aside my rare spare coins whenever Mom gave them to me to buy this or that part. The space shield had to wait until I had an income of my own and I won't even tell Ayeena what I paid for it. She may be my best friend and trusted assistant but even she would box my ears if she knew.
She might outright call the Intergalactic Mental Health Review Board if she got word of what I paid for the wings.
My upgrades are well worth it. Crumbsley has to re-connect with his ship to get a float tank. His chair can handle the demands of space, but it's not designed for rapid atmospheric exits like my board. Though the pause in pursuit is only a few seconds, it gives me time to scout and come up with my strategy.
I fly right along the edge of a cosmic storm. Crumbsley doesn't dare fire at me for fear he'll attract a super-charged bolt and blow himself right out of the sky. My target comes up on my right. I show my teeth in a fierce grin and gun my engine, sending myself plunging right into the heart of a black hole.
My whole world is broken into a million microscopic pieces. The circuits of my tail snap apart and reassemble, protecting me from the disorientation that drives most life forms mad. My paw reaches for a particular dot in that endless cosmic stretch, feeling the familiarity of a place I've spent half my life.
Reality snaps back into place, leaving me hovering just over the small asteroid that's my home and the base for my secret lab.
Ayeena is in the main terminal, sweeping the already spotless floor. She rolls her eyes as half a dozen sensors pick up cosmic contamination and I get treated to a scrub-down that nearly has me drowning in soap bubbles.
"Baran, you dolt. Can't you ever just once follow proper hygiene protocol?"
She's two years younger than me but somehow she always manages to make me feel like a little boy. I duck my head and offer her my sheepish grin. "Sorry, Yee. I just couldn't wait to get back with this one."
As soon as she sees the sphere, she's all business. She has a connection to the computer terminal I'll never be able to match. I swear, she can actually talk to that thing. Within five minutes she's got me several leads on potential access points to the Heart of Xenica.
The chemical compounds of the metal are my playground. The source metal is more like seven thousand years old and there's an element here like nothing I've ever seen before.
It takes a while for the "whoop-whoop" of the alarm to trigger any reaction in my brain. It's the ultimate fail-safe I had built on this place, the countdown to destruction. It means somebody unauthorized has broken my security and gained access to the lab.
It also means I have less than sixty seconds to get out.
I grab the orb, rev the board and shoot through the hidden tunnel that even Yee doesn't know about. She's been drilled in this eventuality. She'll be alright.
A voice booms down the passageway, reaching me just as I'm about to break through to open sky.
"Aldebaran! I have the girl! Shut down this infernal sequence and surrender the orb immediately and maybe I'll let her live."
It feels like a comet has punched through my chest and taken my heart out. I can't turn around now. Even if I could get back to Yee, there just isn't enough time to bring this to a happy solution.
I watch through tears as the asteroid is reduced to rubble then turn and fly away.
I have no specific destination. I float until I spot a strip of lights on a small, forgotten planet that doesn't even have a welcome kiosk. You can tell at a glance by the cheap fueling station and mini-mall that it's the sort of tourist trap that used to get a lot more business before the Star Highway was completed.
It's a place for anonymity where nobody cares where you came from or where you're going. It's the perfect place for me.
My stomach growls at the universal food symbol on a rusted sign. How many hours has it been since I last ate? The money I have on me is no large amount but it should be enough for a meal.
The burger is more grease than food but at least it's filling. I walk out, finding my board where i hid it in the fake bushes. I'm about to make the leap back into space when a clatter to my rear makes me spin around in alarm.
The little creature is the color of the starry sky on a clear night. Its luminous eyes are locked on mine. It moves with a speed few life-forms can match, crawling up and down my body and making inquisitive little snuffling noises. It's cute...up until the moment when it snatches my sphere in its jaws and takes off running.
"Hey! Get back here with that!"
The chase is on! I find myself dodging piles of garbage and the rubble of an old motel that gave in to the elements a long time ago. I find my little nemesis huddled under a moldy mound of couch cushions, curled protectively around my orb. It growls and buzzes, falling silent when I toss a strip of beef jerky to the side. Apparently hoarding doesn't outweigh the importance of eating to the greedy little pest. It lunges for the jerky as I'm lunging for the sphere.
I realize then what I'm looking at. The image was on Yee's screen, a small creature of Xenican origin sitting at the feet of a native of Xenica as he opened a portal to the stars.
Could this really be an original animal of Xenica?
I'm not taking a chance on losing the only lead I have. The loss of a few jerky strips will be well worth the potential reward. I'll call the creature Moon, since her eyes look like a couple of small moons in her thick planet-shaped head.
Moon follows me readily enough. As soon as she's shut in the room I rented, she systematically destroys everything in sight, shredding cushions, crashing into furniture and flooding the bathroom when she figures out how to turn on the tap without help. Smart and destructive...I'll really need to find something to keep her occupied or all the money in my GalaBank account won't be enough to cover the damage she causes.
A hastily scribbled note of apology is what the maid will find when she goes to place my mint. I tuck a sleepy Moon under my arm and go seeking a ship for hire. The last thing I need is her panicking on the board and breaking my shield. I have no idea what effect cosmic radiation will have on my new companion but I have no desire to die a horrible death in space.
The cheapest ship I can find is owned by an entomologist named Kassidee. She has a collection of over seven thousand unique insect species from all sorts of different worlds. I dutifully listen to the current debate over whether the Garganucan Glow Worm is a true insect or not until I'm ready to smash every last one into a pulp just to end the debate.
I guess I should've known better than to assume a quiet Moon is a well-behaved Moon. My new pet is quite the eater. We find her in the ant room, gleefully working her way through one tray after another of crunchy six-legged treats. I pick up Moon who isn't upset in the least by a lady screaming in her face. She burps a lacy wing and wags her stub of a tail, well content after her mid-morning snack.
After that, we can't reach Xenica quickly enough. Kassidee makes it abundantly clear that we can find another source of transportation for the return trip.
Moon takes to the hoverboard readily enough but when I try to fly for the heart of the city, she starts to fidget and growl. I dart behind a building that looks like an inverted tear drop.
A small fire is burning in the central square. Seated around it are Dr. Crumbsley and a few of his more notorious associates.
Ayeena is seated to his right, feeding him bits of shellfish that she fishes from a bright green shell with her fingertips. He says something to her in a low voice and she laughs.
I trusted her with some of my greatest secrets, told her things about my past that my own brother knows nothing about. I thought our friendship meant something to her. She's been playing me for a sucker for years, waiting for me to finally unearth the sphere.
Moon uses my distraction to root the sphere out of my pocket but this time she doesn't simply run with it. She holds it in her nose-trunk and tilts her head to the side, inviting me to follow her.
She takes me to a set of ruins unlike anything I've ever seen. I have to get down on my belly and crawl through a thick tangle of vines to even get a glimpse at the thick slab door that was built partially under the ground. A round keyhole is just the right size for the sphere to slide into.
A smooth metal chute deposits me in a chamber made of pure sylvite. All around me are distorted shapes wrapped in paper-thin layers of the metal. I slit the binding strings on one, revealing a six-headed statue native to a world nearly six star-hops away. My heart leaps up to the back of my throat.
I've done it! I've discovered the legendary Hoard of Artifacts, the most significant historical find of any age.
The sound of slow, sarcastic clapping brings me out of the dreamland in my head where the invisible crowd is chanting my name.
"Very good, boy. You've brought us right where we want to be."
Dr. Crumbsley fires a binding net directly at me, tying me up in snaking cords that will zap me at the slightest movement. With a squall of dismay, Moon snatches the sphere and disappears amid the columns of statues and other artifacts. Dr. Crumbsley sends three of his men after her while Ayeena stands over me, smirking.
"You were always such a trusting soul, Aldebaran. Now do you see how futile your bygone dreams are? Wasting all that energy on a bunch of useless old decorations when you could've had more zillions than the most connected mogul. Such a waste of talent."
I try to mutter what I think of her double-crossing ways, earning myself a good jolt from the net. Crumbsley's trio of goons reappears, panting and red in the face.
"We can't find it, Sir. This place is huge and there's a nest of some kind of bats that keep swooping at our lights. Maybe if we had a thermal reader..."
Dr. Crumbsley snarls. "You incompetent fools! Must I do everything? You!" He jabs a finger at Ayeena. "Keep an eye on the prisoner. It will take me some time to assemble the proper equipment for an underground thermal search."
She seats herself cross-legged and proceeds to tell me all the ways she found me lacking as an employer. Her stream of chatter is cut short by the reappearance of Moon. My little monster is just a few feet away, the sphere still firmly clutched in her trunk-nose.
"Hold still, little beast. I've got a treat for you."
Moon's tail wags slightly and I inwardly groan. Ayeena is just about close enough to wrap a hand around Moon when the floor disappears beneath her. Moon trots around the hole and proudly deposits the sphere at my feet. Her clever trunk knows right where to press the button for the net's release.
"What are you, Moon?"
She fishes the last strip of jerky out of my pocket, crunching it with gusto. If she understands my question, she has no desire to answer it.
I walk the chamber with great care, keeping an eye on Moon. She growls every time I get too close to one of the faulty tiles. The further we walk, the more I come to realize that the seemingly decorative holes in the wall are in fact slots for the Portal Sphere.
The walls of this place are a map of the entire universe, ours for the taking.
Moon guides me back to the chute that let us in. When she realizes I'm trying to block the entrance, she puts her small, dense body to work, sending a pillar crashing down directly in front of the opening.
I'm all for checking out the portals one at a time but Moon insists on taking me to a certain place in the room. A number of small skeletons litter the floor. They are all shaped exactly like Moon. She trumpets her dismay on finding the last of her kin in such a state.
"Moon...will you take me home?"
She gives off a sound much like a sigh and points her trunk at one hole in particular. The image I see through the opened portal makes my heart soar. Green grass, blue sky and a total lack of virtual billboards.
The artifacts are being categorized and sorted by members of the Intergalactic Historical Society. Dr. Crumbsley was investigated by the United Space Squad but so far, they haven't been able to make any charges stick. There's no evidence, other than my word, that he was in any way involved in the incident. He bought off a full dozen witnesses to place him elsewhere.
I'm not going to lie. For a while, I thought this was it. What else could there be in the universe for a historian that made a find so significant that it could never be topped?
Then Moon started acting up again.
Her intelligence and eagerness to devour anything meaty worked in my favor when I was training her to live among civilized folk. It had been months since she'd had an accident of any kind. I left home for fifteen minutes to pick us up some nice steaks for supper.
When I got home, every piece of clothing, book, and furniture item I owned was scattered on the floor. I had to stare at the arrangement for a while before I saw it for what it was.
It was a map to a world in an unexplored quadrant.
Could Moon really have some distant connection to the Xenicans that so mysteriously vanished thousands of years ago?
Only one way to find out. I smile and lift my hoverboard away from the wall.
"What do you say, girl? Up for a flight?"
Her stubby tail waves so hard it looks like there are three growing out her back. She sinks her claws into the custom platform I added for her benefit as we shoot out into the open reaches of space.
credits :loosely based on Jim Hawkins from Treasure Planet.
profile and coding by kenny.
story by Pureflower.
overlay by Charlie.
profile art by voo.
pixel by dune.
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