Aris Forcer sensed it in every cell in his human body.
Ever since their ordeal with the tesseract, having survived the gatekeeper, nothing had been the same. Not physics. Not biology. Not logic. Everything was upside down, inside out. But he felt alive, and as much as things were different, many aspects of this world were the same.
Another city of scoundrels.
Another tavern of thieves.
His partner in crime, Owis Coop, didn't seem too disorientated. A mechanoid with a badly short-circuited empathy complex, Owis appeared to revel in the new chaos. It drank its beverage of nanomide... or Psieshe as it was known... and...
How can this be? thought Aris. How could mechanoid technology exist here?
He looked over at his other companion, the Brinnerian. The slave had proven its loyalty time and again, with its magical time-sword, which fit right in this science-defying realm.
"I'm guessing our quest is over," said Aris. "A bit of an anticlimax, I must say."
"Anticlimax?" asked Owis. "Are you kidding me? We're in another realm. We've transcended spacetime. This is heaven. We're living in the afterlife. We're immortal."
"For a robot," said Aris. "You're kinda obsessive over your nonsensical spirituality."
The notorious bounty hunter looked back at Aris and said, "For a human, your kind of stupid."
"You are both wrong," spoke the Brinnerian, something it rarely did. "This is no heaven." It then turned to Aris. "And the climax is far from this moment."
"What are you talking about? We've found the citadel," said Aris. "And its treasure containing a whole new universe, which basically means we can't profit from it. We can't go back. We're stuck here forever."
"You are still wrong," said the Brinnerian.
"What is your story, slave?" asked Owis, who seemed intent on clinging onto his investment.
The Brinnerian sat with the two outlaws, and while the ultra-alien world continued on around them, it explained, "Once upon an age, a demigod called Dyzan and his disciples ventured to the Tomb Moon of Dacos in search of a sage known as Kule, a long-dead sorcerer who may be the key to overthrowing his rival, the Zenthian god Brinner, whose domain of Riathe was the richest in the Realm. Using one of Kule's worshippers to awaken him, Dyzan convinced the sage to join his cause. With the sorcerer's black magic at his command, Dyzan easily laid waste to Brinner's formidable army."
"Are you this god, Brinner?" asked Aris.
"Let me finish my story."
"Let the slave finish," said Owis.
The Brinnerian continued," Eventually, Dyzan became eager to be rid of Kule, fearing that the sorcerer could well turn against him. During the battle against Brinner, Dyzan attempted to kill the sage by feeding him to his disciples, but Kule, half eaten, escaped by conjuring up a lightning storm. With the last remains of his once powerful army, the god Brinner prepared to battle it out against Dyzan in a last-ditch effort to save Riathe. He ordered his family to evacuate to the nearest moon, and entrusted his youngest offspring with his time sword, instructing the boy to avenge his death should it occur."
"You're the son," exclaimed Aris.
"Yes," said the Brinnerian.
"What happened to your father?" asked Owis.
"With the army of Riathe destroyed, the god Brinner was captured and executed personally by Dyzan. I witnessed this, having gone back to the corpse-littered battlefield. I saw it happen."
"How does one kill a god?" interrupted Owis.
"I'm not sure," said the Brinnerian. "Somehow, Dyzan knew how to accomplish such a thing. Afterwards, I and what few brethren that were left, fled to the moon of Niridon, where the sage Kule had taken refuge. The ancient sorcerer conjured up a way to escape our world, into yours, where we spent the next several aeons surviving as best we could."
"So this old sage created the tesseract?" asked Owis.
"Not exactly, the denizens of Niridon built that."
Aris put his hand up. "Wait up. Wizards. Gods. Inter-dimensional travel. This is too much."
"Relax. It's the under-universe," said Owis, then turned to the Brinnerian. "You must like our company. Any reason you're sticking around? I'm guessing, you're not bonded to slavery here."
"I admit, I'm fond of you," said the Brinnerian. "But, in all truth, I'm compelled to seek vengeance for my people and..."
"And you want us to help you," said Aris. "I don't know about that."
Owis grabbed his accomplice by the shoulder. "Hang on a millisecond. Since this place ain't no heaven, maybe we should earn our keep around here. It's obviously more dangerous than from where we came. A petty human like you won't survive much. I say we help this demigod warrior. It pays to pick a side, right?"
Aris knew the mechanoid with the faulty cyberbrain spoke the truth. Regardless of the amazing world he found himself in, Aris longed to return to his own reality. At least there he was an interstellar policeman, albeit a corrupt one that's wanted across four galaxies. Still, he had allies there, connections, hideaways he knew. Here, in this exaggerated simulacrum, where monsters were monsters and physics wasn't quite physics, he knew next to nothing. "Can you help me return to my world?"
"I can," answered the Brinnerian.
Owis grinned. "We're in. What's the plan?"
The tall slender Brinnerian turned and exited the tavern. Aris and Owis rushed after their new employer, venturing out into the narrow streets of Riathe. The crowds reminded Aris of the diverse population of Polaris on Gemini Beta and Old Earth cities like Greater Tripolis. He spotted many Brinnerian lookalikes and wondered how did all these races evolve. Looking at the former slave he realises something. "Do you have a name?"
The Brinnerian didn't look back. "Bit late for that. Besides, we've gotten on well without such niceties."
"Can I ask another question," asked Aris. "I swear, It'll be the last. I'm getting boring asking them myself."
"The Citadel?" asked the Brinnerian.
"Riathe means fortress."
Aris looked up at the cityscape, and beyond the skyscrapers, the swarms of rocket cars and blimps floating in the haze, he could see spires, buttresses and glimpses of a great dome. The Brinnerian kept walking, and they followed until they came upon a precinct with narrower and darker streets. Under neon lights they passed by a conglomeration of shopfronts, all providing services unrecognisable to Aris; unlike Owis, who seemed excited by everything it saw.
The Brinnerian entered a nondescript store, and both outlaws followed, trusting it to be safe. Inside, they met up with a group of yellow-coloured Brinnerians. At first, these aliens seemed confused, then shocked, gasping as if the world had cracked open, then they fell over themselves as they rushed in to hug the Brinnerian. One in particular, blue-skinned, less-slender looking, and female fought her way to the Brinnerian and grabbed him. Aris never knew, always considering the Brinner slaves as sexless beings.
The two spoke in a language far removed from what the human could understand. Aris heard the word, 'Aquelles', over and over. Then the Brinnerian spoke in General Galactic, "It has been a long time. I have aged yet you, Nova, all of you, look the same as I remember."
Aris noticed the weathered skin compared to the silky texture of the others.
"Aquelles," said the girl Brinnerian, who appeared more humanoid, more human-like, than the surrounding males. "What's important is that you have returned, and your timing couldn't be more divine. A great rebellion has begun within the city of Riathe..." she then spoke in her native language.
Owis leaned over and said, "Did I hear the word rebellion?"
"Great," said Aris. "Another war, as if being caught between three galactic superpowers fighting it out in the normal universe wasn't enough. What is this hangout?" Aris noticed more females, scantily clad, but yellow-skinned.
"It's a brothel," confirmed Owis. "What's the matter? Got some kinda human hangup over that as well?"
The ceiling grumbled, and the walls shook. The crowds dispersed in a clamorous uproar. The street outside lit up as laser beams burnt through pedestrians. Death screams echoed by the thousand.
Aquelles yelled, "Dyzan's monstrous disciples."
"We go up," said Nova and her group launched towards the lifters.
Aris considered making a stand, but when he saw Owis running for it; crazy, fearless, Owis with the malfunctioning positronic brain that made him prone to ultraviolence; Aris decided he best follow the rebels.
They crammed into one of many lifters and launched, slowly. "This lifter is taking its time," said Aris. "Owis, can you hack into it and set it to 'Life or Death' speed?"
"The roof is docked with rocket cycles," said Nova, "maybe a balloon ferry."
"They will be expecting us," said Aquelles.
Owis huffed and said, "They won't be expecting me."
Aris counted the seconds, then the minutes. Holy shit, he thought. How high is this thing? He heard rumbling beyond the steel and plastic walls of the lifter, reminding him to take the safety off on his two Deemsters.
The lifter stopped and the doors open. True to form; not wanting any competition to cramp its style, Owis jumped out with his mini-canon blazing. Outside, a horde of Dyzan's winged disciples hovered above the rooftop, each unleashing streams of burning blue light at the rebels bursting out of the building's four lifters. Aquelles, time-sword swinging, leapt and swiped at the low-flying target's, appearing at multiple points in the air at the same instant. Nova cajoled her brethren to charge using the cover provided by a relentless Owis. The firefight escalated when more disciples descended.
Aris rushed to the transport platform and secured the position, killing several warrior-disciples. He turned to wave the rebel over but saw Aquelles being overwhelmed by the enemy. The sword in the Brinnerian's hand vanished as soon as a dozen disciples restrained Aquelles, zapping him into unconsciousness. Aris glimpsed the time-sword as it flashed in and out of existence as it fell down into the void.
Acknowledging the situation, Owis stepped forward to confront the disciples, but Nova grabbed and pulled it towards the platform. Aris hopped on a rocket-cycle and waited for the rebels to do the same. When Nova climbed on behind him, Aris launched the T-shaped vehicle over the edge. They fell, picking up speed until they reached terminal velocity.
"Up," yelled Nova.
"The sword is down there."
Nova patted him on the shoulder and braced tighter against his torso. As they approached one of the street bridges, she reached out and pointed to a flashing light surrounded by sparks. Aris, having never ridden a Riathian rocket-cycle, treated it like a standard glider, pulling back on the two hand-pedals to raise the front. They titled up but their speed became a deadly problem. Nova reached over and slid back the large pad between his knees, slowing the rocket-cycle to a hover. She jumped off and retrieved the half-visible, slightly intangible weapon.
"Head to the Mistralis," she said as she climbed back on.
Aris followed her directions until they arrived over a stone tower, jutting out of an elevated precinct overlooking an urban valley. They landed among a ragtag of damaged multi-shaped rocket-cycles. Inside, Aris found the rebels arguing amongst themselves. He spotted Owis nursing a wound. "That went well," he said.
Owis declined to respond, instead, focussed on bypassing fused ribocircuitry.
"The revolution begins," cried Nova. The Brinnerians greeted her with a unified roar.
The rally continued in local-speak, so Aris sat with his telluric comrade. The feeling, that he was in over his head, finally sank in. "What is this place, Owis?"
"Are you asking for real, this time?"
"I've listened to your explanation, but I do not understand your explanation."
Owis said, "We are in the same universe which has several sub-layers. We are in one such place."
"Explain it to me," insisted Aris. "Scientifically."
"We are in a sub-universe of a hyper-universe which is part of a wider universe."
"Not helping," said Aris.
Owis persevered, "The prime state is kaos, it is nothing and everything at once. It is a cylindrical vortex of infinity. It has no mind, conscience or divinity. Yet, it exists and doesn't exist, a duality of sorts. Infinite nothing means finite something, so something is created out of nothing, and nothing acts as the end of something, so something is always finite, right. Are you following this?"
"This finite something is the wider universe. A thin layer that is wrapped around the vortex of kaos, slowly being destroyed by kaos. The wider universe spawns hyper-universes either by design or mathematical accident, and most of these have one or more, depending on the design or accident, sub-universes. So 'we're' in such a place. This is the legendary Chthon, the genesis of all myth."
The hours passed as Aris let the words sink into his human mind. In this timeless realm, he could only judge time by how tired he became. Eventually, the rally ended, and Nova approached them.
"We are storming the great hall of Brinstar," she said. "My brother is imprisoned there."
"Brother?" asked Aris, suddenly feeling somewhat differently about this rebel.
"Seriously," said Owis. "Can homo-sapiens not view everything they experience in such a biological manner?"
Nova seemed unperplexed, "Dyzan has also invited five lords of Zenthia to the citadel. He plans on killing them."
"Who are these lords?" asked Aris.
"They are my aunts and uncles," she replied.
"That's quite a family," said Aris.
Owis stated, "Her father was a god. That means, these lords are gods."
"How does a mortal kill a god?" mused Owis. "Can a god murder another god? Is that possible?"
"These things are not known," she said. "What is known, Dyzan has lured the Zenthians to the citadel by offering them a chance to save my brother, whom he plans on executing. The first to offer Dyson godhood will secure Aquelles's life. Then Dyzan intends on attacking the Zenthians."
"How do you know all this?" asked Owis. "Such plans would be military grade secrets."
Nova looked behind her, at an older-looking Brinnerian, who limped towards them and spoke gravely. "I know of these plans because I was the one who conjured them up. I am Gaprice, Chief Adviser to the Emperor. Once Dyzan becomes a god, he will plunge our universe into chaos. Dyzan's paranoia knows no boundary. He fears the gods and is willing to challenge them all."
Aris responded, "This is not just a petty revolutionary war, this is a tussle of cosmic proportions." His appetite for adventure had suddenly waned.
"What's the counter plan?" said Owis.
With that, Gaprice revealed the plan and soon after, Aris found himself among the insertion team on its way to the epicentre of the citadel, via the underground route. Beneath the sprawling city, a sprawling network of sewers brought them to the dungeons directly underneath the great hall of Brinstar. The lower levels presented little to no security hurdles, so part of the team set upon freeing the thousands of prisoners, but Aris pushed ahead with a small group. They reached the palace grounds finding the guard detail lacking.
"This is too easy," said Owis.
"The palace staff are busy servicing the banquet," said Nova, carrying her sibling's time-sword wrapped in a Sequillium rug they purchased off a local Mistrali alchemist. "The vast majority of Dyzan's warrior-disciples are preparing for war."
The telluric outlaws followed Nova and three other rebels deeper into the palace, arriving at a chamber with an oval arena surrounded by vast arches. In the centre, a circular dining table boasted over a hundred guests and servants, mostly the entourage of the five eminences distinguishable by their stature and an air of importance. At the apex, sat an imposing figure. Pompously uniformed and pontifical, Dyzan appeared poised to make a speech, constantly looking upward.
Aris looked up and saw a biomechanical form hanging from the dome, and spread-eagled within its five tremendous tentacles, a humanoid.
"That's Dyzan's secret weapon," said Nova. "A Gigathon."
Aris stepped forward. "I'll go up and attempt to free your brother. Nova, take Owis as close as you can to this Dyzan dude. The rest of you, take up positions near the lords, get the word out of Dyzan's treachery."
Owis grabbed him by the shoulder. "This doesn't feel right. It a set up. We're being used to distract these Zenthian beings."
"Either way," said Aris. "Once we free our Brinnerian friend, all chthonic hell will break loose. Nova, pass me the time-sword."
Nova did so, nodded and then pulled Owis away, towards the crowd. The other rebels scattered, leaving Aris to wonder the colonnades alone. He discovered a grand spiral of stone stairs and climbed them, all the way until he ascended to the top of the great arches.
"Behold the son of Brinner," bellowed a voice below.
Aris made his way to the edge and for the first time could measure the true vastness of the monstrous, majestic Gigathon. When two giant tendrils parted, he spotted Aquelles, embedded onto the Gigathon's spiky skin. Every inch of its epidermis grew thousands of black crystalline needles, each stabbing out at anything that came into contact with it. Aquelles bled but was still alive, and conscious.
"Isn't slavery so much better," called out Aris.
Aquelles looked at him with bloodshot eyes and smiled. Uncloaking the time-sword, Aris held it out to him.
"All I ask," echoed Dyzan's voice. "Is to be your equal."
"Come on," said Aris. He heard a commotion below. He saw palace guard swarm in and capture Nova. Aquelles saw it too and struggled against the tendrils. Aris wondered why Owis had not unleashed yet.
The Gigathon became more active.
"This selfishness will be your doom," shouted Dyzan. "Be stubborn. Let the children of Brinner perish. Your fate awaits you."
Aquelles growled, his pain visible as every muscle in his body rippled.
Below, Aris could see the Zenthian lords prepare to square off with a horde of warrior-disciples, who were already under attack by a ragtag of armed rebels and freed prisoners. Above him, two more Gigathons emerged. With the time-sword growing heavy in his hand, Aris wondered where in the multiverse had Owis gone to.
Aquelles pulled his bloodied arm free from the Gigathon's grasp and reached out. Aris swung and tossed the ancient weapon forward. It was a weak throw; it began to tumble... but Aquelles snatched it out of the air, stabbing the Gigathon with it, puncturing its tough, bristly flesh a hundred times in the same second.
Thunder erupted beneath Aris.
He recognised the signature blast.
Owis had finally come out to play.
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