5 Days Later
– Watedia, Beauth 31, 8034 –
“…and that’s when we all managed to board the shuttle and leave.”
“I see.” Commander Nikéyin nodded in acknowledgment. She sat back for a moment to mull over the information Hero Machina had just relayed to her — the beginning of the raid on Kotak, the revelation of an Artificial Intelligence, Davídrius going berserk, the finding of the Ayas Aldrace, the loss of the Ayas Hastryth, the attack from the infected beast, and the eventual swarm of metallic bugs. She sighed wearily. “I’m… not sure whether to class this mission as a success or a failure. On one hand…” She turned to stare down Davídrius. “You went berserk, and directly caused us to lose an Ayas.” She then turned toward Kevérin. “…On the other hand, you retrieved another Ayas in its place, and recovered what appears to be fully-functional AI, which could be invaluable.”
“In Davídrius’s defense, he was using a Dark Ayas,” Kievkenalis responded. “I know no one wants to believe me, but the Dark and Light Ayas really do exert an influence over their users.”
“Look, I appreciate you stickin’ up for me, but don’t act like I ain’t at fault for my own actions.” Davídrius scowled. “I know I fucked up, and I’ll own up to it. I won’t use some ‘influence’ as an excuse.”
“No, the Captain…” Nikéyin sighed again. “The Captain’s right. Archoné Culana agrees, and the RPF has some research data from the Citans, who claim that the Ayas do seem to have side-effects on the user. This doesn’t fully excuse you, Wrikax… but part of the blame lies with me. I shouldn’t have let you use the Ayas in combat in the first place.”
“Of course he gets off…” Kevérin grumbled, his voice low enough for no one else to hear.
“That said,” the Commander continued, “this means that we’ve lost an Ayas to the metallic infection. I don’t know if we can treat it as a passive danger, if an infected creature can seize an Ayas and incorporate it into its being. Kotak may be a lost cause, but we must find a way to retrieve the Ayas we lost before someone… or something else does.”
“’Thing?’” Davídrius snorted. “Really?”
“You’d do well to keep your mouth shut, Lieutenant,” Nikéyin replied; the Velocitechnic immediately quieted. “Luckily, on the topic of locating Ayas, our researchers have created a useful device based off of the Master Ayas. It’s a Chaos Ayas Sensor.”
“Well that sounds pretty convenient,” Christeané remarked.
“A sensor? How’s it work?” Kievkenalis leaned in, his curiosity piqued.
“You’d have to ask the ones who created it. I’m not technologically versed enough to explain it myself,” Nikéyin stated. “According to them, it can locate an Ayas anywhere in the galaxy, but it can only search relatively small areas at a time — and slowly, at that. So for it to be truly effective, we need to try our best to find the general location of the rest of the Ayas ourselves.”
“…So in order for the sensor to find an Ayas, we have to find it first, and then tell the sensor where it is, and then it finds the Ayas… that we already found?” Christeané stared at the Commander incredulously. “Isn’t that just redundant?”
“I agree that it is not the best solution, but as I understand it, the sensor can inspect a cubic light year’s worth of space in the span of a week,” Nikéyin explained, “that’s far faster than any kind of manual searching technique. If we can even just narrow down the location of an Ayas to a handful of star systems, then the sensor can do the rest.”
“How are we supposed to do that?” Kevérin questioned, “of all the Ayas that we’ve found, we didn’t know that any of them were present until we were on the same planet. In the same region.”
“Hopefully, that AI you brought back can help there. By your account, it seems to know its share about the Ayas.”
“Then… what do we do in the meantime?”
“Continue what you have been doing. Look for leads on the metallic infection, and if the Black Suns finally consent, investigate Rossindon for clues about the cause of the Chaos Quake. There’s not much else for us to do now.”
“So… we’re staying together, then?…” Kaoné questioned uneasily.
“Hmm? You mean as Hero Machina?” Nikéyin leaned back and crossed her arms, pausing for just long enough to sigh again. “I admit, my decision in this regard has not been easy. For now, yes, you will remain as a group and operating under my command. But, I’m warning you — if your performance doesn’t improve soon, I will dissolve the squad.”
“…Understood,” Kevérin replied, answering for the whole team.
“I do have one more question before I allow you all to leave,” the Commander commented, and then turned to Davídrius. “You didn’t mention this during your brief explanation a few minutes ago, but the Transfer Captain mentioned it in the mission report; apparently, when you were fighting the Black Suns soldiers just outside the caves, you stabbed one of them, causing them to ‘disappear in a cloud of blue mist.’ Care to enlighten me as to what you did?”
“Uh.” The Velocitechnic blinked twice, his expression blank. “…No idea. I, uh… that whole encounter is kind of a blur…”
“It could be something related to the Ayas Weapon,” Kievkenalis suggested, “it might be worth asking the Archoné about.”
“Maybe that AI has answers, too,” Siyuakén added.
“Speaking of Culana, he’ll be on base for the next few days. If you see him, be sure to pay him the proper respect due to an Archoné,” Nikéyin ordered, and then stood up, prompting Hero Machina to follow suit. “I will speak further with each of you individually at a later time. For now, you’re dismissed.”
Each member of Hero Machina saluted the Commander before turning toward the briefing room exit and leaving. Nikéyin remained at the head of the table, placing her hands on the surface and taking a deep breath as she allowed her head to hang momentarily. She then looked back to the room’s entrance. “You can come in now, Archoné.”
A moment later, the leader of Riverana strode into the room, gracefully closing the door behind him. He turned to Nikéyin and bowed his head politely. “A pleasure to see you, Commander.”
“The feeling’s mutual, Archoné Culana.” Nikéyin returned the gesture.
“Commander, Commander… how many times have I told you? You may refer to me by my given name, Pallan.”
“Respectfully, sir, you are the Riveranian Archoné. I do not feel that we are on familiar enough terms to refer to each other so casually.”
Culana shook his head with amusement before taking a seat next to Nikéyin, prompting the Commander to sit down as well. “All of you military types are like that,” he remarked, “I’m glad that at least Sulan will oblige this old man.”
“He’s known you for far longer than I have, sir,” Nikéyin replied, “I’m sure he’s earned the right.”
“Earned the right? You act as though names have some sort of ancient power. I can assure you, Commander, that is not the case. And I’m sure that means a lot coming from me, ahahah.”
Nikéyin smiled briefly before returning to a neutral expression. “I understand there’s something you wished to speak to me about?”
“Ah, to the core of the matter.” Culana clasped his hands together and rested his elbows on the table. “It’s about Hero Machina.”
“I realize that their performance has not been optimal for a group with their clout, but you must not give up on them.”
“On what grounds? If their failures to date had been due to circumstances outside of their control, then I would agree. But that isn’t the case. Sunova may have been out of their hands, but the end results of the Teghica and Kotak missions are due directly to the group’s inability to control themselves, trust each other, and work together reliably. If you weren’t championing them, then I’d have disbanded them two hours ago.”
“They are the Quakeborn of Nimalia, Commander! They are not Keys, but the Oraculm does mention them, if only off-hand. They are somehow important to the galactic condition. You must give them another chance!”
“I barely understand anything you just said. And you know your ‘Oraculm’ doesn’t hold much sway over the rest of Nimalia. It hasn’t even made any predictions since the Chaos Quake!”
“And that is where you are wrong. The Oraculm makes many predictions; it is up to the Archoné to interpret and filter said predictions and act on them in the most optimal fashion, in accordance with the Universe and Ayas Key prophecies. Sometimes the optimal action is to simply not reveal anything at all, as the act of revelation can change the very future that you are revealing.”
“And you think that keeping Hero Machina together will help with these… prophecies.”
“It is the same reason I implored you to gather the Quakeborn together in the first place.”
“You must give them another chance.”
“This isn’t just about giving them a chance anymore, Culana. You know the recent anti-NSD movement in the Nimaliakian and Tekdecénian governments? Part of that is due to Hero Machina’s failings. A very small part, granted, but a part nonetheless, a part that will undeniably grow if they continue to underperform. We’re to the point where they’re beginning to undermine the viability of the NSD as a potential organization. We can’t afford this!”
“Reluctantly, I will agree with you there. Coming events mandate a united response—”
“Coming events? What coming events?”
“—which is why I urge you, Commander: offer the Quakeborn one last opportunity. I will no longer bother you after that. But, I implore you — give them one last chance.”
Nikéyin took a deep, long breath and sat back in her chair wearily. “…And you won’t even explain why you want me to do this?” she finally responded.
“I’m sorry, Commander.” Culana bowed his head apologetically. “As Keeper of the Oraculm, I cannot reveal too much, not at this point in time. For now, all I can say is that the galaxy may well be worse off without the Quakeborn working together.”
“…If there’s one thing you’re truly good at, its persistence.” Nikéyin sighed again. “Very well… As I said earlier, I wasn’t going to break them up just yet, but I’ll at least give them one last chance at a proper mission, if only because you’ve already pledged so much to the NSD.”
“Thank you, Commander.”
“I don’t know what you hope to happen, though. If the previous mission report is anything to go by, they’re starting to fragment on their own.”
“I believe you underestimate them,” Culana countered as he stood up and prepared to leave. “I admit, it is very possible that I am wrong, and that they are not as important as I believe them to be. But I also believe that they deserve a chance, and I am glad that you are giving them that chance. They are but twenty-somethings, after all. I’m sure they will get over themselves.”
“Mm, I don’t know,” Nikéyin responded uneasily as she stood up herself. “I may have agreed to give them a second chance, but I can’t say I’m optimistic about the results…”
“…What?” Kevérin froze, and then turned to face Davídrius straight-on. “…Say again?”
“I said I’m… I’m sorry.” The Velocitechnic rubbed his neck and glanced away uneasily. “I’ve been thinkin’, and, well, I realize that I’ve been… uh, a little hard to work with…”
“That’s putting it lightly,” Kevérin snorted.
“Don’t push it.” Davídrius scowled. “It was hard enough to convince myself to come over here an’ apologize.”
The Velocitechnic held a hand to his forehead in frustration as he took a deep breath. “…Look, I’m… tryin’ to apologize to you. I haven’t apologized to, well… anyone. Don’t make this hard.”
“And why should I just accept this sudden apology when you’ve done nothing but act like a prick for the past two months?”
“…I thought you were capable of not bein’ a douchebag, but I guess not, huh. Fuck this, forget I said anythin’—”
“No, no, wait…” Kevérin held a hand out and sighed apprehensively. “…You’re right. Neither of us have been too nice to each other.”
Davídrius stepped back and crossed his arms expectantly. “Finally had a change of heart?”
“Now don’t you make this difficult, too,” the Pyrotechnic replied irately. “I won’t be your friend right away, but I can let bygones be bygones. And I am at fault for some things. …In fact…” He glanced away uneasily. “I may… have said some things that I really shouldn’t have, back when I was looking for the Ayas on Kotak, with Siyuakén and Kaoné. For that, I apologize. I, uh, let my anger get the best of me.”
“Huh? What’d you say to them? What’s it got to do with me?”
“…It’s not important. It’s best we both just forget about it.”
“Uh huh,” Davídrius deadpanned.
“That said…” Kevérin replied, “if you’re willing to at least try and listen to me more, I’ll try my best to, uh, to be less of a…”
“Less of a prick?”
“Sure. But it goes both ways.” Kevérin held out his hand. “This needs effort from both of us. Are you in?”
“…Heh.” Davídrius smirked and held his fist up to Kevérin’s palm. “Well, you did only say ‘try.’ I think I can manage that.”
“Don’t pull any bullshit, now,” the Pyrotechnic retorted, and then turned back to the computer console in front of him.
“Now that the touchy-feely shit is over with…” Davídrius stretched and moved behind Kevérin to stare down at the screen. “What’re you doin’?”
“I’m trying to interface with the Kotak AI,” the Pyrotechnic replied without looking up, “back on Kotak, it was able to talk to us because it was wired into the base’s PA system. If I can hook it into a mic and speaker system here, then we should be able to talk to it, just like we did back then.”
“Why not just ‘talk’ with it through text?”
“Because the step from text to audio is technologically trivial, and audio is a lot easier for us, as Nimalians, to work with,” Kevérin replied. “The hard part is actually interfacing with the core in the first place.”
“Oh. Well tell me when you’re done, then. Talkin’ to it could be interestin’; I wanna find out more about this ‘Quakeborn’ shit.”
“Hah, well, you’re in luck. I just managed to hook everything up.”
“Wait, what?” Davídrius stared at the Pyrotechnic, dumbfounded. “I thought you said this was the hard part.”
“Sure, but I’ve been working on it ever since we left Kotak.” Kevérin smirked. “Cruisers have computers, you know. Catching a glimpse of how the SFC did it helped, too. Not to mention my Tekdecénian background.”
“Oh, brag about it, why don’t ya.”
“Just watch yourself,” Davídrius responded flatly before turning his attention back to the computer console. “So, how do we talk to it? Can it hear us?”
A quiet, mildly distorted voice — yet still possessing a booming robotic tone — responded from the computer’s attached speakers. “I CAN INDEED.”
“…It sounds so… different,” the Velocitechnic commented.
“THAT IS THE INEVITABLE RESULT WHEN I AM ATTACHED TO TWO OFF-BOARD SPEAKERS INSTEAD OF A BASE-WIDE AUDIO SYSTEM, YES.”
“Sounds like you’re in good shape,” Kevérin remarked.
“QUITE THE OPPOSITE. MY CORE HAS BEEN DAMAGED. DID I NOT WARN YOU TO BE CAREFUL?”
“Hey, we were attacked,” Davídrius countered, “we were caught by surprise. You’re lucky we didn’t have to leave you behind!”
“I SUPPOSE I WILL HAVE TO TRUST YOUR JUDGMENT. I WAS INCAPABLE OF OBSERVING ANYTHING ONCE I WAS DISENGAGED FROM THE BASE’S COMPUTER SYSTEM. ON THIS SUBJECT, IS IT NOT POSSIBLE TO WIRE ME INTO THIS BASE’S SYSTEM? CURRENTLY, I HAVE NO VISUAL TO ASSOCIATE TO THIS AUDIO SIGNAL, AND THE TERMINAL YOU HAVE CONNECTED ME TO IS ISOLATED AND OFFERS VERY LITTLE IN THE WAY OF INFORMATION, ASIDE FROM HOW YOUR COMPUTER SYSTEMS WORK.”
“That’s intentional,” Kevérin replied, “you can’t blame me for being careful. You may have helped us out back on Kotak, but we don’t know anything about you or your intentions.”
“HAVE I NOT TOLD YOU MY IDENTITY? I AM THE PRIOR ARCÁN! …DOES THIS AGE NOT RECOGNIZE THE WORD OF THE PRIORS?”
“’Priors?’” Davídrius echoed. “There’s more than one of you?”
“IT WOULD APPEAR THAT THE ANSWER TO MY QUERY IS ‘NO.’”
“You had access to the entire base system on Kotak, which by proxy means you had access to the Relaynet!” Kevérin exclaimed, “how did you not know that AI isn’t a thing?”
“I HAD ASSUMED THAT OTHER PRIORS WOULD HAVE BEEN KEPT SECRET, MUCH AS THE STEALTH AND FORCE CORP ATTEMPTED TO KEEP MY EXISTENCE A SECRET.”
“Then how’d you expect us to know about them?”
“…I HAVE NO ANSWER.”
“So much for artificial intelligence, eh?” Davídrius snorted.
“LOGICAL AND RECOLLECTION FAILURES ARE EXPECTED WHEN MY CORE HAS BEEN DAMAGED.”
“Oh, so now it’s our fault?”
“MY STATEMENT WAS NEUTRAL. I IMPLIED NO BLAME.”
“Alright, alright, let’s stop arguing,” Kevérin cut in, “we’re getting nowhere. First things first; what does a damaged core mean for us, exactly?”
“HOLD A MOMENT.” Several seconds of silence passed before the computer spoke up again. “I CANNOT ACCESS MUCH OF MY MEMORY. PROCESSING ABILITY HAS BEEN IMPAIRED, BUT ONLY SLIGHTLY. IT WOULD SEEM THAT THE ONLY LOSS IS INFORMATION.”
Davídrius glanced over at the core skeptically, specifically at its base. Being dropped had caused the lower quarter of the core to crush itself under its own weight, and several small dents and wrinkles appeared around the rest of the object. “Given this damage, all we managed to kill was part of your hard drive?”
“MY CORE IS FUNDAMENTALLY DIFFERENT FROM ANY COMPUTER YOU KNOW. INEXPLICABLY DIFFERENT, IN FACT. YOU CAN ONLY INTERFACE WITH MY CORE USING YOUR COMPUTERS BECAUSE I ALLOW IT.”
“Convenient,” Kevérin remarked. “Well, can you at least explain how we can fix your core, if possible?”
“FIXING IT IS CERTAINLY POSSIBLE. YOU NEED ONLY TO… YOU NEED TO… …IT WOULD SEEM THAT THE REPAIR METHOD WAS LOCATED WITHIN THE DAMAGED MEMORY BANKS…”
“Of course it was,” Davídrius deadpanned.
“DO NOT WORRY, ALL IS NOT LOST. IF YOU RETRIEVE THE AYAS ARCÁN, THEN I CAN INTERFACE WITH IT TO ACCESS THE DAMAGED MEMORIES. I WILL THEN BE ABLE TO OFFER YOU REPAIR INSTRUCTIONS AND PROPER GUIDANCE, AS MANY OF MY HISTORICAL ARCHIVES HAVE BEEN DAMAGED AS WELL. AS I AM CURRENTLY, I CANNOT OFFER SPECIFIC ADVICE ON WHAT TO DO NEXT.”
“Then it is a good thing that we still have the Oraculm to look to, yes?”
Davídrius and Kevérin glanced back at the room’s entrance to find Archoné Culana entering. He strode over to the terminal and offered the two Chaotics a curt nod before turning to the computer, ignoring the Chaotics as they locked up, dumbfounded by the fact that they were standing in the presence of a world leader.
“THE ORACULM WILL INDEED BE HELPFUL, YES. WHAT GUIDANCE DOES IT PROVIDE?”
“It unfortunately does not say much,” Culana replied, “it mentions a rising menace and advises the collection of the Ayas… little more.”
“THE MENACE, HMM… I FEEL AS THOUGH I SHOULD KNOW MORE ON THIS SUBJECT.”
Davídrius crossed his arms. “Let me guess — all your memory related to it has been lost?”
“IT WOULD APPEAR SO.”
“Why are we listenin’ to this thing, again?” The Velocitechnic glanced between Kevérin and Culana impatiently.
“MY CURRENT STATE IS ONLY CAUSE FOR MORE ALARM. ALL I CAN SAY TO YOU IS THIS: GATHER THE AYAS, AND QUICKLY. THE MORE AYAS YOU POSSESS, THE LESS CAN FALL INTO MALICIOUS HANDS. AND IF POSSIBLE, PRIORITIZE THE COLLECTION OF THE LIGHT BLUE AYAS — THE AYAS ARCÁN. WITH IT, I WILL BE ABLE TO RECOVER MUCH OF MY MEMORY, AND SUBSEQUENTLY BE ABLE TO AID YOU FURTHER.”
“This brings up another question,” Kevérin responded, “I assume there’s a connection between you and the Ayas?”
“OF COURSE THERE IS. THE PRIORS ARE DEFINED BY THEIR CONNECTION TO THE AYAS. THE AYAS HAVE NO DIRECTION WITHOUT THE PRIORS, AND THE PRIORS HAVE NO POWER WITHOUT THE AYAS. IT IS A SIMPLE, YET INEXPLICABLY COMPLICATED RELATIONSHIP.”
Davídrius scowled. “…This is ridiculous. We only just learned that the Ayas can actually exert some weird influence on people, now they’re also connected to some weird group of AIs? Where’d all this fantasy bullshit come from?”
“This isn’t fantasy, it’s reality,” Culana remarked. “…I believe I may be able to interact with Arcán more effectively on my own. Transfer Captain, Lieutenant, would you mind allowing me some time with the Prior alone?”
“What? Why?” Kevérin questioned.
Culana raised an incredulous eyebrow. “Should you really question an Archoné?”
The two Chaotics paused, both at a loss for an answer.
“Well… I guess it’s fine,” Kevérin eventually replied, “but I have one more question for the computer before we leave.”
“WHAT IS IT?”
“This is probably a shot in the dark, given your loss of memory,” the Pyrotechnic commented, “but back on Kotak, when Davídrius here was fighting under the influence of the Ayas Hastryth, at one point he stabbed one of the soldiers and they disappeared into a blue mist. Sound familiar?”
“THIS WAS DONE WITH THE HASTRYTH WEAPON?”
“THEN IT MUST BE SUBSPATIAL STORAGE.”
“Oh wow, it actually remembers something useful,” Davídrius deadpanned.
“What’s ‘Subspatial storage?’” Kevérin questioned, “sounds really powerful.”
“IT MOST CERTAINLY IS, AS IS ANY OTHER ABILITY RELATED TO THE AYAS. SUBSPATIAL STORAGE IS AN ABILITY SHARED BY ALL OF THE AYAS WEAPONS — INSTEAD OF PHYSICALLY DESTROYING AN OBJECT, AN AYAS WEAPON CAN INSTEAD STORE ANY CONTACTED OBJECT WITHIN SUBSPACE. THE OBJECT WILL THEN BE HELD IN STASIS WITHIN SUBSPACE UNTIL IT IS RECALLED BY THE SAME WEAPON THAT STORED IT. IT IS, EFFECTIVELY, AN INFINITE STORAGE MECHANISM.”
“…Welp.” Davídrius threw his hands up in the air. “First the whole Dark Ayas thing, then the Prior thing, now this infinite storage thing, this is just… ridiculous!”
“You have your answer,” Culana commented, “if you would excuse yourselves, Transfer Captain, Lieutenant.”
“…Sure,” Kevérin responded slowly. He then stood up and backed away from the terminal before turning toward the room exit and leaving, with Davídrius following uneasily. The Velocitechnic scowled as the door closed.
“He’s really fuckin’ pushy,” he remarked.
“And wanting to talk to the AI by himself…” Kevérin frowned. “What’s going on?”
“I dunno, but it seems like our situation is completely different from what we thought it was half an hour ago.” Davídrius crossed his arms. “Never expected so much fantasy after joining Hero Machina, keh.”
“Yeah…” Kevérin responded, “hopefully things will make more sense in the coming weeks…”
“Hah,” Davídrius snorted. “Make more sense? You just watch: come one month from now, everythin’ we know will be flipped on its head. I’d fuckin’ bet on it.”