|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 he 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 purple, 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 4: The Violent BlueEdit
Chapter 5: Nothing's Gonna Change My WorldEdit
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