Marsa couldn’t be sure how far they’d walked. As long as they were aboard that ship, she couldn’t be sure of anything. Here, an inch could be to a mile what a mile was to an inch. Everything seemed off, as if reality was being distorted and made to appear different to how it truly was. She knew she wasn’t seeing the full extent of her environment. What’s more, whatever was causing this seemed to be affecting her also. She felt sluggish, like the gravity here was stronger than what she was used to, every step heavier than usual. Even breathing was harder, Marsa forced to exert even more effort just to draw air into her lungs. Her chest and shoulders felt like ton weights had been laid upon them. There was also a faint buzzing that seemed to accompany her wherever she went, like static but far away. It was quiet, and she could only hear it when she focused, but it was always there.
As she followed the hulking being, Marsa was paranoid she might trip and fall at any moment. The material they were walking on didn’t feel suited for high-heels, and the darkness wasn’t helping either. She had no idea where they were. There’d been no changes in their environment from what she could tell. Just the same doors and dark corners, like a grim and endless maze. These halls possessed an ominous feeling, and it wasn’t just the darkness. Something told Marsa this was a place no human was ever meant to set foot. At least she had a guide, a silent and menacing guide, but a guide nonetheless. Determining the passage of time had been difficult. It was almost like time didn’t exist here. It had to have been a couple days since the captain agreed to take them to his home planet. There couldn’t be that much longer to go. The Captain made it clear there would be no contact between the members of the Rimor’s crew before they arrived though, after much deliberation, he relented, and Marsa was allowed to see some of her people to make sure they were in good condition. She’d just finished speaking with Captain Aventius. She seemed to be in good spirits, if a little weary of their current surroundings. Marsa had wanted to talk to her again after what happened on the bridge. She could hardly believe her eyes when she was brought in only to see the Captain on her knees, and what their captors were about to do to her. What’s more, she was going to let them do it too, no protests or resistance. All she had to do was tell the truth. Maybe she was trying to protect the mission, but Marsa couldn’t help but feel there was more to it than that. There was something about the Captain. Back on the Rimor, she’d overheard some of the crew whispering about her as she was led to her quarters. The things Marsa heard were troubling to say the least, but something told her she didn’t know the full story. She sensed something inside Captain Aventius, something deep and hidden. She wanted to know more though it would have to wait. Marsa was more than a little nervous about seeing Toma. She just wanted to make sure he was OK but he would almost certainly see it as something more. A few times, she almost gave in to the urge to ask to be taken back to her cell.,
The escort came to a halt, so suddenly Marsa might have walked into it were she not paying attention. It was just another indistinct corridor they were standing in, identical to all that came before. It turned to her, face obscured behind its mask. “The one you seek is here”. The creature brushed its hand over a seemingly random spot on the wall and the door opened. Marsa shuddered at the sound despite having heard it several times now.
“Thank you”. The escort only stared at her. Interacting with the Aq Quhn Ran Asten had to be one of the most awkward experiences of Marsa’s life. They were some of the strangest beings she’d ever encountered. Even the Chelk were easier to communicate with.
She found Toma exactly as she’d expected, lounging on his back in the middle of his cell. “Well, look who decided to show up”.
“I came as soon as I could. You’ve no idea what it took to convince them to let me see you”.
“My heart bleeds for you”.
“Watch your mouth, Toma. I’m still your boss, remember”? Marsa meant it more as a joke than a warning. She couldn’t blame him for being bitter. “How are you holding up”?
“Oh, just fine. Thanks for asking. I’ve never been so fucking bored in all my life”!
Marsa knelt beside him. “Well, if it’s any consolation, I haven’t exactly been living it up either”.
“But at least you’ve been doing something. What the fucks going on anyway? They won’t tell me anything. They got me out of those fucking binders, and they bring food and drink, but that’s it. I’m guessing you had something do with that. But they never say a word. I don’t even know how long we’ve been here”.
“A few days… I think. They’ve agreed to take us to their homeworld. I’m going to speak with their Emperor”.
“How’d you swing that”?
“It’s a long story”.
“And it took you this long to come and see me”?
“They don’t trust us, Toma. The captain’s not taking any chances. It took a lot to convince him to take us to their homeworld, and even more to let me speak with anyone”.
“That’s bullshit. They attacked us, and they’re the ones worried about trust”?
“Well, actually they apprehended us. And we were in their territory without their permission”.
Toma sighed. “So how much longer are we gonna be stuck in this hell for”? He could be such a bitch when he wanted to be.
“I’m not sure. But I doubt it’ll be much longer. Just hang in there for a while. It’ll be over soon”.
“You’re not going yet, are you”?
“I need to check in with some of the others. I’ll try and come back later”.
“Oh come on, you just got here. Stay a little longer”.
Marsa was starting to regret her coming here. “I’m sorry, Toma. I have to go”.
“But you only just got here”. Marsa fluttered when she felt his fingers brush her upper thigh. “And I bet you’ve been real lonely too”.
“Are you serious”?
“You said we’ve been here a few days. Don’t you remember how you were the last time you went that long without me”?
“Yes, but I’ve got more important things than that on my mind right now”.
Toma’s grip tightened as his hand travelled under her skirt. “Come on. It won’t take long”.
“They’re watching us”.
“What? You’ve never had an audience before”?
Marsa pushed his hand away and stood up. “No, and I don’t intend to now either. I need to go and check on some of the others. I’m sure you can take care of yourself for now. You don’t mind having an audience, right”?
With a groan, Toma went back to staring at the ceiling. Marsa returned to the corridor where the escort waited. She was about to ask to be taken to see Ravim and Dexus when another member of the alien crew materialized from the darkness. “You will come with me”.
“What for”? The voice only repeated itself. Marsa saw no point in arguing and they embarked on another slog. This was getting ridiculous. She didn’t see the point in not telling her what was going on though she suspected it was her escorts’ way of showing their contempt. Despite having agreed to take them where they wanted to go, Marsa doubted they were very happy about it.
Time was little more than a blur here, corridor after corridor, door after door, everything the same. Marsa wondered if they were going anywhere at all. Her feet ached so badly in her high-heels she had to stop and remove them altogether. There’d still been no indication of how far they were from wherever it was they were going. It didn’t take long for her mind to wander. She thought about Tobiah and Alenna, as she had done for most of the time since she set foot on the Rimor. Many things had terrified Marsa on their journey so far: the unknown, the possibility of death at the hands of their alien captors, or some other danger they’d yet to encounter, and the consequences for the Confederacy should they fail in their endeavour. But, by far the thing that terrified Marsa the most was the thought of never seeing them again. It followed her like the buzzing, another weight on her shoulders though far heavier than all the others combined. She wondered what they were doing right now. It could be midday or midnight on Valarayan for all she knew. They could just as easily be arriving at school as they could be sleeping in their beds. She would have given anything to be with them. Children need their mother. The father was useless. He’d never been interested in them, far more concerned with banging some secretary or bar girl than taking care of his children. She couldn’t bear to think how her absence might be affecting them. They needed her; but the Confederacy needed her just as much, if not even more. Her children or the lives of trillions; Marsa wouldn’t wish such a choice on anyone, not even her worst enemy.
They came to another stop and Marsa was surprised to find herself at the bridge again. More than ever, she felt like something was messing with her head. The trip from the bridge felt completely different to the trip back. She wasn’t given much time to think about it before she was led to the captain waiting at the end.
“What’s going on”?
The Captain’s helmet melted away. “We have arrived”.
Marsa wasn’t sure if she heard correctly. She was about to ask the creature to repeat itself when it turned and waved its hand at the wall. Her eyes widened as it faded, leaving nothing to hide the view of the planet before them.
“Welcome to Terrasellasia. Home of the Aq Quhn Ran Asten.
Marsa couldn’t help but be underwhelmed. This wasn’t what she expected to see when she first laid eyes upon their destination. It looked like a gas giant, most of the surface obscured by turquoise fog. The only part not hidden was the north pole where, beneath the thinning mist, Marsa spied what looked like smatterings of bright orange landmasses, hardly the gleaming jewel she’d been expecting. Were it not for its size, she would have thought the Aq Quhn Ran Asten homeworld to be totally unremarkable. But where the world itself was rather mediocre, the structure around it was anything but. Out of the fog, the grey disk rose, like a giant washer with a turquoise marble at its centre, reaching far past the atmosphere and stretching right around the planet’s circumference. It was obviously artificial. The metallic surface was covered with row upon row of luminescent sapphires, so numerous and bright their combined glow bathed most of the planet and turned the blackness around it a beautiful blue.
“What is that”? Marsa pointed to the disk.
“That is Hutreeva”.
“The Sky Cradle”.
“It’s magnificent. What’s it for”?
“We must all be connected to the mother world”.
“The mother world”?
The Captain gestured to the planet. “The world that birthed us all. The world that gave us life. There was not enough room on the surface for all of us. So we built Hutreeva, so that we may never have to leave”.
His explanation left Marsa with more questions than answers. “You mean every one of your people is on your homeworld right now”?
“Then who inhabits the rest of your worlds”?
With every word, Marsa’s head spun even more. “I don’t understand. How can you all live on this world and all your other worlds at the same time”?
“Hutreeva holds the bodies of those who inhabit the lesser worlds. They lay sleeping like the ones you see here”. The Captain gestured to crew members in the pods behind them. “Their minds are projected to vessels that live throughout the realm. We must manage and protect the lesser worlds but we cannot leave the mother world. This was the only solution”.
“You mean you can project consciousness across space”?
Marsa didn’t bother asking how such a thing was possible, confident she wouldn’t understand even if told. “Why can’t you leave your homeworld”?
“The mother world was left to us by the Creators. We are its lifeblood, and we must protect it. It would be sacrilege to abandon it. It is written so in the scriptures”.
“Who are the creators”?
“They gave us life. They made us as we are now so that we could watch over their empire when they left for the next plain and ensure that it is safe for when they return to the Celeste”.
“It is the closest word in your tongue to our name for this galaxy. The Sea of Spirits as your kinds call it”.
“And you believe that these creators will return to the galaxy someday”?
“Of course. It is written in the scriptures, so it must be so. Otherwise, it would not have been written”.
It all seemed rather far-fetched to her though Marsa knew better than to admit it. She changed the subject. “Why is your kind so hostile towards the rest of the galaxy”?
“The Creators made our worlds for us only. Your kinds would try to take them for yourselves”.
Marsa felt a shot of annoyance. “That’s not true. We wish only for peaceful cooperation with your kind”.
“You cannot speak for your entire species, nor can you speak for the species you call allies. Others came here and tried to take what was not theirs to take. They desecrated our holy lands with their impurity and destruction. We know now your kinds are not to be trusted. We did not come from whatever created you, and you behave in a manner that is incompatible with what is written in the scriptures”.
“You do not respect that which gave you life, the worlds that play host to your kinds. You take what you want with no thought for anything but yourselves and your own growth. You do not care for any species other than your own -”
“We do care for our worlds and the life on them. We have extensive environmental and conservation efforts and -“
“Your kinds are greedy, selfish, and irresponsible. Such values and attitudes are toxic and cannot be allowed to mix with our own. I am sorry, human. That is simply the way it is”. It pained Marsa to hear a member of such an advanced civilization speak of hers in such ways but, despite her attempts to refute him, she couldn’t help but the feel the captain was somewhat correct.
She didn’t feel like discussing the Aq Quhn Ran Asten’s views on her kind any longer. “How long before we land”?
“This vessel cannot land on the mother world. A smaller craft with take you to the surface”.
“What will happen then”?
“I cannot say. The Emperor has been informed that you seek an audience but has yet to agree to meet with you. You will be held under guard until the decision is made”.
“And if he doesn’t agree to meet”? Marsa was suddenly nervous. She’d been under the impression a meeting with the Emperor was all but guaranteed.
“I am not sure. That is for the Emperor to decide”. She didn’t like the sound of that either. She twiddled her signet ring. She’d been doing that a lot lately, more than usual. She needed to be careful she didn’t turn it all the way.
“What will be done with the rest of my people”?
“They are being retrieved from their cells as we speak. They will join you on the Mother World and most likely be held in internment until your business with the Emperor is concluded”. Marsa supposed that was the best she could hope for. “You will not get to see much of our homeworld during your stay. The air on the Mother World is toxic to your kind and the gravity is far stronger than what you are able to withstand. You will be dead within seconds if you step outside without protection”. From the look of it, that wasn’t all that surprising. “Our time together is at an end, Human. You will be escorted to the hangar along with your people”.
Marsa got a fright when the escort appeared at her side. Figuring there was nothing left to be said, she began her way to the exit. “Before you leave, I must warn you”, the Captain said, staring out the window. “You may have convinced me of the value of your mission but I still do not trust you or your Confederacy, and neither do the rest of my kind. If the Emperor does agree to meet you, it would be wise not to be too hopeful of getting what you want”.
“I’ll keep that in mind, thanks”. Marsa was about halfway to the exit when another question popped into her head. “Captain”?
“You said you all have to be connected to your homeworld. Does that include you and your crew”?
“Of course. Mine and my crew’s bodies all rest on Hutreeva. What you see before you are merely vessels”.
Marsa expected as much. “Thank you for everything you’ve done for us”.
The Captain returned to the window. What followed was yet another (but thankfully the last) trek through the alien ship. Marsa stayed as close to the escort as she could. She’d had enough of this ship to last a lifetime. But despite her eagerness to escape the dark rooms and corridors and the buzzing in her ears, she didn’t feel all that enthusiastic about their impending arrival on the planet below, especially after everything she’d heard from the Captain. If that was what his kind thought of hers and the rest of the Confederacy, it certainly didn’t bode well for their chances of success. That is, if the Emperor even did her the courtesy of granting an audience. Even after coming so far, so much was still up in the air, much more than she would ever be comfortable with back home. Whatever came next, there was really only one thing she could be certain of. The hard part was yet to begin.
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