3 Hours Later
“Alright, the comms and light systems are up and running… we’re good to go.”
“Testing connection,” Kevérin announced as he held a hand to his ear. “Command: contact Frigate Frasis. …Transfer Captain to Frasis, come in.”
“I hear you loud and clear, Captain,” Krost replied over the connection. “Continue as you were.”
“Alright then.” The Pyrotechnic turned his attention back to the metal pillar standing in the center of the room. “Now that we can relay everything directly to the Frasis… let’s start asking questions.”
“We could’ve started that three hours ago,” Davídrius responded flatly.
“THREE HOURS IS BUT A DROP IN THE FLOW OF TIME… YET, IT MAY POSSIBLY BE A SIGNIFICANT PERIOD IN THE PRESENT.”
Rebehka eyed the metallic column in the middle of the room. “So we found another AI?”
“WE PRIORS PREFER TO BE CALLED AS SUCH: PRIORS.”
“…Yeah, we found another one.” Kevérin nodded. “This one calls itself Mystryth.”
“That’s the name of the White Ayas,” Kievkenalis commented.
“I SEE THAT THE NAMES OF THE AYAS HAVE NOT BEEN LOST TO HISTORY.”
“Alright, let’s start there.” Kevérin crossed his arms. “What exactly is the connection between you… Priors… and the Ayas?”
“WE HAVE MORE THAN A MERE CONNECTION; WE DEFINE EACH OTHER. THE AYAS HAVE NO PURPOSE WITHOUT THE PRIORS, AND THE PRIORS HAVE NO POWER WITHOUT THE AYAS.”
“That’s exactly what the other one said,” Davídrius deadpanned. “Are all Priors this damned vague?”
“INFORMATION IS THE MOST VALUABLE COMMODITY; IT CANNOT BE PASSED OUT FREELY. FIRST, I MUST UNDERSTAND THAT YOU TRULY DO NOT POSSESS ILL INTENTIONS, THOUGH I BELIEVE I HAVE ALREADY DETERMINED THE ANSWER TO THIS; SECOND, I MUST BE SURE THAT YOU ARE EVEN CAPABLE OF UNDERSTANDING MY STATEMENTS. YOUR LANGUAGE IS ALREADY PRIMITIVE ENOUGH TO RESTRICT THE EXPLANATION OF CERTAIN TOPICS.”
“…I think I’m seeing a trend here,” Christeané responded impatiently.
“YOU CONTINUALLY SPEAK AS THOUGH YOU HAVE ENCOUNTERED ANOTHER PRIOR.”
“We have,” Kevérin stated, “we found Arcán almost a month ago.”
“ARCÁN! YOU FOUND AN AEGIS PRIOR—? …HAS HE NOT PROVIDED YOU WITH THE INFORMATION YOU WISH TO KNOW?”
“’He?’” Davídrius echoed incredulously.
“No, he— …no, it didn’t,” Kevérin responded.
“PRIORS ARE NOT OBJECTS. WE DO POSSESS WHAT YOU ALDREDANOIDS KNOW AS GENDER. ARCÁN IS MALE. I, FEMALE.”
“AI have gender identity?” Siyuakén questioned.
“We are not discussing this, not here, not now.” Kevérin sighed impatiently. “Alright, uh, Mystryth, um…”
“Wait,” Kievkenalis spoke up, “you just called us ‘Aldredanoids?’”
“As in… the Aldredas?”
“SO THIS AGE INDEED KNOWS OF THE ALDREDAS? THEN HOW HAVE YOU NO KNOWLEDGE OF THE PRIORS, OR SUCH LIMITED KNOWLEDGE OF THE AYAS?”
“The Aldredas are long gone,” Rebehka replied, “we’ll find relics and artifacts here and there, but as far as we can tell, it’s been a hundred thousand years since they were around. At least.”
“We would always appreciate learning more, though,” Kievkenalis quickly added. “What do you know about them? Did they really create the Interstellar Gates? The Transpaces?”
“YOU… TRULY DO NOT KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT THE ALDREDAS…”
“I think we’re getting a little far from the main topic here,” Christeané pointed out.
“I’m surprised you’re the one pointing out a tangent,” Rebehka remarked.
“No, he’s right. Come on, guys, focus,” Kevérin ordered.
“What are we even focusing on?” Davídrius questioned.
“How about the location of the Ayas?”
The members of Hero Machina glanced back to the cave room’s entrance, where Commander Krydonin had just appeared. She stepped forward to stand next to Kevérin as she looked the metal pillar up and down. “…This is that AI you were talking about?”
“AS STATED BEFORE, WE PREFER THE TERM ‘PRIOR.’ BUT YES.”
“Well…” The Commander turned to Kevérin. “We’re here for the Ayas, and we’re here to learn about the Chaos Quake. Why not start with that?”
“Uh, right.” The Transfer Captain nodded before turning back to the pillar. “So, what do you—?”
“I HEARD THE COMMANDER PERFECTLY FINE. I UNDERSTAND THE QUERY.”
“Commander?” Krydonin interrupted, her eyes narrowed in suspicion. “How do you know my rank?”
“YOU STAND IN THE PRESENCE OF A PRIOR EQUIPPED WITH FULL OUTPOST EQUIPMENT. ACCESSING YOUR TECHNOLOGY AND COMMUNICATION SYSTEMS IS A TRIVIAL TASK.”
“I guess that’s how you knew our language,” Kaoné mused.
“THAT IS CORRECT.”
“That’s… unsettling.” Krydonin frowned before turning toward the room’s exit. “I’m going to investigate this. Watch what you tell that thing, Nimalians.”
“…HER MISTRUST IS WARRANTED, BUT ULTIMATELY UNNECESSARY,” the Prior remarked as the Black Suns Commander disappeared down the cave. “MY INTENTIONS ARE NOT MALEVOLENT.”
“That’s easy to say,” Davídrius responded defensively.
“Can we get back to the important things, now?” Kevérin interjected in exasperation, “like the Ayas? And the Quake?”
“I CAN INDEED CONFIRM THE PRESENCE OF AN AYAS WITHIN THESE CAVES.”
“Oh, that’s great,” Kievkenalis replied, “where is it?”
“I DO NOT KNOW.”
“Well that’s fantastic,” Davídrius deadpanned.
“What do you mean, you don’t know?” Kevérin questioned, “you know one’s here, but you don’t know where it is?”
“PRIORS AND AYAS MAY BE DEFINED IN RELATION TO EACH OTHER, BUT EACH PRIOR ONLY POSSESSES A DIRECT LINK WITH THEIR RESPECTIVE AYAS. THE AYAS IN THESE CAVES IS NOT THE AYAS MYSTRYTH, OR ELSE I WOULD BE ABLE TO PINPOINT ITS EXACT LOCATION. SINCE IT IS NOT, I AM INCAPABLE OF OBTAINING A MORE PRECISE LOCATION THAN THE FACT THAT IT LIES WITHIN A KILOMETER OF THIS ROOM.”
“Looks like it’s time for more spelunking, then,” Christeané remarked.
“More rock exploration, yay,” Davídrius replied flatly.
Kevérin scowled. “Enough complaining. Christeané, Davídrius, you two check out the unexplored cave on the left. Rebehka, Siyuakén, check out the one on the right.”
“And you’re just gonna sit here and do nothing?”
“We’re going to sit here and continue getting information from the Prior,” Kevérin corrected. “Don’t make this hard.”
“Come on, Davídrius.” Christeané grabbed the Velocitechnic by his arm and began dragging him toward the left cave as Rebehka and Siyuakén willingly approached the right.
“Hey, hey, wait a minute.” Davídrius shook Christeané off before flash-stepping to the side of the room and picking up one of the flashlights the Black Suns had left behind. He then turned back to the cave. “Alright, now that we won’t get lost, let’s go.”
Kevérin shook his head wearily as he watched the two Introtechnics leave the room. He then turned back to the metal pillar, his hand on his chin in thought. “Hmm… well, what else can you tell us about the Ayas?…”
20 Minutes Later
“Do you think we’ll actually learn anything about the Chaos Quake here?”
“Who knows.” Rebehka shrugged as she casually swept the cave back and forth with her flashlight beam. “Even if this planet is actually the center of the Quake, and if that actually means anything… we still have no idea what could have caused the Quake, you know? Talking to that Prior is probably our best bet.”
Siyuakén sighed impatiently. “I hope it’s more cooperative than the one we got from Kotak.”
“They both seem pretty high and mighty, that’s for sure.” Rebehka rolled her eyes. “This one might be able to actually tell us something, though. The Kotak Prior seemed like it forgot everything after the damage its core suffered.”
“Here’s to hoping Kevérin can get something out of it, then.”
“I think Kevken is more likely to, actually. The Priors seem… more amiable toward him, I guess because he knows so much more about the Ayas than any of us. And apparently the Aldredas, as well.”
“I thought the Aldredas were just a legend?”
“A lot of their stories are fictional, but the civilization itself definitely existed at some point in the past,” Rebehka remarked as the two women came across another fork. Siyuakén quickly scarred the left wall with an arrow pointing back the way they came before they both stepped down the right path and continued walking. “Even if the Aldredas specifically didn’t actually exist, well… someone had to have created the Interstellar Gates and the Transpaces, and the only other race that’s been around long enough are the Drakkars, as far as we can tell…”
Siyuakén snorted. “I bet the Drakkars already know everything that we don’t.”
Rebehka glanced at her friend inquisitively. “What are you so curious about?”
“…Do you think the Quake and the infection are related?”
“Oh…” The Cryotechnic glanced down at Siyuakén’s arm, which was currently covered by her Chaos Armor. “…I really don’t know. We both know the only ‘connection’ so far is that there’s no recorded infection incidents before 20 years ago, but… if there is a connection, we’ll get to the bottom of it, I’m sure. We’ll find a cure.”
“You keep saying that…”
“I keep saying that because it’s why I’m here,” Rebehka declared. “Isn’t that why you joined Hero Machina, too? To investigate the metallic infection?”
“…That’s true,” Siyuakén admitted, “Relédiaka doesn’t seem very interested in learning about where it came from, only how to slow it down or subdue it. Though I’m not really sure we’ve learned much more from our time with Hero Machina than we would have at home, to be honest.”
“Now, that’s false and you know it,” Rebehka replied adamantly. “We’ve learned what the infection escalates to. Between Sunova, the Hazard Islands, and Kotak — it’s not pretty. So we at least know what everything’s spiraling towards. And, thanks to you, we know that it is possible to slow down.”
“Only because I’m an Electrotechnic, though. The shocks I have to give myself would paralyze or kill anyone else.”
“That’s still something.”
“…Alright, yeah, we’ve learned things. But… is it really worth it? I mean, just think — if we hadn’t joined Hero Machina, then I never would have been infected, and we still would have learned about the critical infection when we responded to your distress signal on the islands.”
“But we’ve also had the chance to actually go off-world — several times! — and had many experiences that we never would have gotten had we stayed on Relédiaka. Not to mention we avoided getting dragged into the Drakkar or Taizen conflicts, even if only for a while, and even now we’re discovering things like the Priors and the Ayas that we never would have had we not joined! …Now, I’ll admit, if you had asked me this three, four weeks ago, then yeah, I think I’d have been all for leaving the group. Especially right after Kotak. But I think we’re all getting along fine, now. Davídrius seems to have mostly gotten over himself, Kevérin isn’t trying to be quite so bossy, you and Kaoné worked out your issues—”
“What? How did you…?”
“I almost walked in on the argument,” Rebehka admitted. “…I thought it’d be best to leave you two to yourselves. And you seemed friendly afterward, so I figured that the two of you had arrived at an understanding. …Was I wrong?”
Siyuakén sighed wearily. “No… no, you weren’t. You aren’t wrong about everything else you’ve said, either… you know, it’s almost annoying how right you are all the time.”
Rebehka grinned in response. “Well, you can count on me—!”
She was interrupted as a deafening roar echoed down the caves from the direction they were heading. Both women instinctively clasped their hands over their ears as the Cryotechnic dropped her flashlight, its light beam coming to rest on a three-legged monster in the distance as it charged forwards — and then stumbled to a stop a mere couple meters in front of the Chaotics, where it rapidly dissolved into dust.
Rebehka and Siyuakén stared at the resultant pile of dust, both stunned and frozen in place. A moment later Rebehka covered the pile and all the surrounding ground in a thick layer of ice while Siyuakén flushed the rest of the cave with fierce streams and currents of electricity.
“The hell was that…?” Siyuakén muttered afterward.
“I… I don’t know.” Rebehka frowned warily. “It— …I think it was infected.”
“I’ve never seen something just turn into dust like that, though…”
The two women glanced at each other uneasily.
“…Let’s head back?”
Siyuakén nodded resolutely. “Let’s head back.”
“It’s always caves. Why is it caves? I hate caves.”
“Oh, be quiet,” Christeané replied flatly, not even bothering to glance over at Davídrius. “I’m not a big fan of closed spaces either, but you don’t see me complaining.”
“Hah. We both know you’d be complainin’ if I weren’t here to do it all.”
“…I’ll give you that.” The Forcetechnic smirked. “You do complain enough for the whole group.”
Davídrius scowled. “Shut it. I can easily just dash back to the computer room and leave you in the dark.”
“As if you’d do that.”
“…Meh. Try me.”
Christeané crossed his arms as the duo rounded a turn and continued walking down the caves. “You really do seem to complain all the time, you know. If you really hate it so much, then why stick around with the group?”
“I never said I hated bein’ here,” Davídrius countered. “Look, if I don’t like somethin’, I don’t do it. That’s how I work. That’s how Tresédians work, for better or for worse. So, alright, I complain a lot, but it won’t be ‘til I actually leave that you know things are goin’ to shit. ‘Cause, well, if I ever prefer goin’ back to Treséd over adventurin’ off-world and gettin’ into fights an’ shit, well…”
“Yeah, I get your point.” Christeané nodded in acknowledgment. “I’ve… heard stories about Treséd.”
“No doubt either under- or over-exaggerated.” Davídrius rolled his eyes. “No one ever gets the straight story. And that’s if anyone talks about Treséd at all. But enough about that shithole, what about East Nimaliaka? I hear it’s supposed to be an Introtechnic’s dream home or some shit like that.”
“Hell yeah it is. Whole place is practically built for Introtechnics. There’s Introtechnic-specific transit that accelerates crazy fast, for one thing. Not to mention how the cities are sprawling and the entire continent is plains; Introtechnics are the only ones who can appreciate it all.”
“I thought sprawlin’ cities was a sign of bad urban plannin’.”
“You’re from Treséd, what do you know?”
“…Yeah, heh… sorry,” Christeané responded sheepishly. “But really, East Nimaliaka’s a great place. Tell you what, when we get back to Nimalia, I’ll show you around.”
“…Guess I’ll take you up on that. Not like you’ll take ‘no’ for an answer.”
“Alright! This is gonna be great. We should see if Siyuakén and Rebehka are up for it, too.”
“Yeah huh,” Davídrius deadpanned. “You sure seem to appreciate the group.”
“Unlike you, I don’t have the need to run around and make an asshole out of myself,” Christeané remarked with a smirk. “I get along with everyone just fine. Better than my boring outpost back home, too, though if I stuck around there I might’ve been sent on the Tyrnaus back-up fleet… eh, probably for the best. That whole situation sounds unnecessarily dangerous.”
“I thought you liked fights.”
“Chaotic fights, sure. But Chaotics have no place in space battles, and those are the only kind of battles in Taizen space. Getting sent out there is either super dangerous or super boring. Sometimes both.”
“Don’t say that, before you know it we’ll end up in Taizen space ourselves.”
“Are you always like that?” Christeané questioned, “you always act like saying something will make the opposite true.”
“That’s how it always goes,” Davídrius quipped, “the moment you say somethin’ is impossible or would never happen, it happens.”
Christeané snorted. “Quite the optimist, aren’t we?”
“Tch. Well, don’t say I didn’t tell you so if the galaxy starts goin’ to shit in a few months.”
“I’ll be sure to keep that in mind.” The Forcetechnic stopped himself mid-step and stumbled to the side to avoid running into Davídrius, who had just come to a sudden stop. “Hey, what’s the—? …Oh. Well look at that.”
“…Yep,” Davídrius muttered as he cautiously stepped toward a bare stone pedestal with a light red quartz-shaped gemstone sitting on top. “It’s the Ayas.”
“Light red, too,” Christeané remarked as he approached the pedestal from the opposite side as Davídrius. “That makes it a Light Ayas then, right? Does that make it safe to touch?”
“Well, even the Dark Ayas didn’t have an immediate influence… I don’t think…” Davídrius frowned. “It should probably be fine to take it back to the others, as long as we remember where the pedestal is…”
“I’ll take it, then!” Christeané exclaimed as he swiped the object from the pedestal. He tossed it back and forth between his hands for a few moments before finally grasping it. “I wonder what kind of weapon this one has—?”
A loud roar echoed down the caves, interrupting his sentence. Both Introtechnics reflexively cupped their hands over their ears before turning their attention down the caves… only for nothing to appear.
“The hell was that?!” Davídrius exclaimed apprehensively as he quickly swept the caves with his flashlight beam.
“Hell if I know,” Christeané muttered. “…We have the Ayas. Let’s get the fuck out of here.”
“Ha, I’m all for that,” Davídrius replied, turning back after Christeané warily. “…Shit, this better not be another Sunova…”