This short story is part of Galactic Chronicles, an ongoing space opera based on our multiplayer campaign in Paradox’s space grand strategy game, Stellaris. Events and characters, while embellished heavily in some cases, are based on actual events and characters encountered during gameplay. These entries do not have to be experienced in a specific order, but the “Earth Standardized Solar Date” header will indicate where in the galactic timeline a particular entry falls.
This story concerns the Athirova, a race of spiritualist, warrior monk-ruled Avian aliens from the planet Ayaal. Learn more about them here.
[EARTH STANDARDIZED SOLAR DATE 2207.10.10]
First Seeker Xaka was adrift in a sea of distilled gloom. Much like being aboard a starship with the gravity generators switched off, he felt no particular pull in any direction to indicate up or down, and thus was hopelessly separated from his bearings. Everything in this place felt and tasted of dull, anesthetic numbness. It was a great, unknowable nowhere, and he couldn’t even discern how long he had been its seemingly sole resident.
The only features that broke up the unbeing he suffered in were diffuse, indistinct whispers. They fluctuated and spiraled around, refusing to allow him to suss out their point of origin. For a moment, they would boom loud as if from right beside him. The next, they would recede into the near distance and increase in pitch to almost a hiss. He struggled to decide whether they amounted to nonsense noise, or if he could pick out the telltale patterns and intonations of some unknown, alien language.
Now and then, a fear would grip his core that eternities were passing while he was trapped here. He would be overcome with the thought that everyone he knew and cared about had passed on as he failed to find a way out, and if he did ever emerge, it would be into a world totally unfamiliar to him. He had undergone treatment for such panicked episodes under the tutelage of Athirova monks and healers in his youth. Here, he had only his inner well of calm and the reassuring words of Sa-Athnava to quell the disquiet.
“Harmony was at the beginning of everything, and it is the natural state to which the universe seeks to return. You, too, are a being of Harmony. In times of strife, remember this, and let your inner self drift peacefully back to Harmony, as it will tend to lest you let your own Disharmony obstruct it.”
This verse had long been a touchstone for Xaka, though its words rang partially hollow to one of the Yasha caste. The Yasha carried Disharmony with them, so the Sa-Raaya claimed, and were therefore lesser than other Athirova. Dangerous, even. Perhaps this was the reason Xaka had been ever prone to fits of panic.
He took a moment to find his center, extending his limbs to cease his aimless spinning through the dusky fluid. He choose a direction he would recognize as “up” as a point of reference to remain stable, and exerted the mental effort to convince his center of equilibrium to play along. A training technique the monks often used with their students was to have them lay flat on their backs and relax until they lost their sense of orientation. It was an exercise in discipline for one to learn to control this sense, redefining their inner belief about which way they were facing in relation to gravity, all while not moving a single muscle in their prone state. It had the unintended consequence of being very useful for maneuvering zero gravity environments once spaceflight became commonplace.
As Xaka oriented himself, he was struck by an odd feeling. It was akin to seeing an open door leading out of a dark room, or the fog breaking on one of the highways running across the Great Veldt to reveal a vast, open expanse off to the horizon. A wave of euphoria came over him for but a moment, and he had the sense that doors in his own mind once closed were beginning to creak open. He was aware of the currents and eddies around him as if they were phantom limbs, extensions of his own being. The techniques he had been taught by the monks on Ayaal to control his internal self now seemed to reach out to a diffuse area of space around him, as if they comprised a continuation, an external self.
His first efforts to exert his will on this new sphere of influence strained his mind, making the veins in his head pulse painfully and nearly causing him to pass out with exertion. A peer of his many years ago had fallen from a precipice during their training and had to be rehabilitated, re-learning to use his own legs. He felt that he understood that struggle and frustration now, but he was trying to learn to use limbs he’d never known he had.
In time, his mind began to catch on to how to effectively send signals to the external self, and he found that he could direct the currents to make himself spin slowly in place. Once he became comfortable with that, he began exerting his thoughts on propelling himself in the direction he had decided was “up”. It was slow going at first, but his small successes seemed to unlock greater power still. Soon, he was cutting through the murk at an almost disconcerting speed, and it occurred to him that he wasn’t confident in his ability to arrest his motion quickly if he needed to. And he had begun to glow.
The blue-violet light that now encompassed the field of manipulation for his external self ended up being more troubling than his significant momentum, as it seemed to drive the whispers he’d been hearing into a frenzy. Void black shapes began to emerge and swirl around him, like thousands of sea beasts from folklore and nightmare composed of starless midnight. Claws and tendrils raked at his luminous aura, attempting to penetrate its protective light and strike at him. It was all he could do to will them away, to strengthen the repulsion encircling him. But it was hopeless. In a moment of distraction, a harpoon-like talon pierced his back and made everything go limp. The light faded, and he could no longer feel his external self.
“THERE IS NO HOPE. OBLIVION IS THE DESTINY OF EVERYTHING.”
Xaka was out of body now, looking down on a vision of Ayaal. Fledglings with withered frames starved in the streets, huddling close to burning piles of scrap to stay warm. Sickly adults fought talon-to-talon over scraps of a small animal that had not even been cooked. Then, a warning siren sounded and they all scrambled for cover. A crackling energy grew in the near distance, and Xaka was bathed in terror as he felt the presence of a relentless, malign intelligence. He was witnessing the end of his people.
“COLD SILENCE IS THE NATURAL STATE OF THINGS, AND JUST AS ALL THOSE BEFORE YOU, YOU TOO SHALL BE CONSUMED BY SILENCE. ABANDON FALSE SALVATION, AND YOU MAY YET SEE TRUTH BEFORE THE END.”
This voice was somehow different than the one he had heard aboard the Kasnave. It had the same, echoing vibrance, but it felt more sinister. He centered himself to block out its words and focused on the vision before him. On one of the small fledgelings, quaking and cowering beneath the rusted ruin of a motor vehicle. Not able to stand the sight of such suffering, he reached out into the vision with is external self. He could feel his warm aura trying to encompass the young victim, but the darkness impaling him twisted and forced him to lose his concentration.
A being of pure energy at least three meters tall approached the child’s hiding place, and Xaka could hear him begin to whimper and cry. Arcs of bluish energy flicked from the creature to ground out on any metal surface he passed. His advance was unassuming and undeterrable. The young one seemed doomed.
But Xaka refused to resign himself to watching the horrible sight. He clenched his talons around the spike protruding from his abdomen, and with a great, physical effort, forced it out his back. He began bleeding profusely, but by refocusing on his external self, he was able to apply pressure to his torso and psychokinetically staunch the wound. He split his focus with some difficulty and reached out into the vision with his mind again. Rather than intervene, he chose to banish the reality being presented by the dark voice and impose his own wish for Ayaal’s future. Fertile. Prosperous. Peaceful. It was as if his connection to the place, his desire to see it thrive, overcame the unfeeling portrayal crafted by his attacker. He knew his homeworld intimately, and that fact placed this cerebral struggle on his home turf.
Decay and fear were banished from the scene, and a warm, summer day in a verdant, bustling town took their place. Fledgelings were happily cooing and whistling while their elders looked on with approval. A procession of monks in colorful festival robes processed down the street, calling out in joyful, harmonious birdsong. A calm wind blew over the scene and set the trees to a quiet rustling that complemented the music.
The endless, murky ocean was gone, and Xaka was now floating in light that emanated from his own being. He had resumed rising at a rapid pace, and at last, felt the feeling of breaking through the surface…
“It’s going critical! We can’t stay any longer! Pull him out!”
The shouting sounded as if it was coming from somewhere far off at first, but when Xaka blinked his eyes open, he saw that he was inside an unfamiliar structure of alien make, surrounded by members of Iyara’s science team and several armored monks. He was being bombarded by streams of energy from three, angular arms that protruded from some manner of generator in the ceiling, several meters above him.
“He’s waking up! We just need more time!” It was Iyara this time, to be sure, and she was very close.
“We’re all going to die here! It’s not worth it!” The first voice had been the First Stormguide. It was she who was advocating for their exit. And Xaka could now determine why. The device they had seemingly been using to heal him was beginning to hum at increasing pitch and flare out of control with electricity, much like the terrifying being he had seen in his vision. A sharp crack sent a bolt of lightning into one of the walls, and rubble tumbled down into the chamber. One of the monks barely rolled to safety in time. A less well-trained individual would have surely been crushed.
The First Stormguide rushed forward and tried to yank Xaka off of the slab on which he lay, to Iyara’s protests. Their scuffle was put to an end when a burst of energy knocked them both to the ground. The energy from the three arms started to coalesce into a star-bright orb that was expanding quickly and causing the very ground to quake beneath them.
Xaka’s eyes opened wide, shimmering with blue-violet light. He leapt from the platform, and called on his external self to surround and contain the growing energy. It was a massive exertion, and black encroached on the corners of his vision. He was so light-headed that it was all he could do to remain upright and focused. But then, with an effort of will, he caused his aura to contract in a sharp, decisive clenching motion… and the destructive orb winked out of existence. He stumbled and fell backwards. Sleep overtook him, but it was a peaceful and natural sleep. He had woken in time to save his crew, and with that, he was content. The dark hopelessness he had confronted would not find him again.
“Just passed out this time. Brain wave activity is normal,” Iyara stated with relief after the team had managed to dig their way out of the partially-collapsed temple. “Whatever that machine was, I think it did its job. He’ll be awake again in time.”
They were sheltering from the wind in the lee of the ancient structure, on a barren, ice-coated world several jumps from Ayaal. The Kasnave waited in orbit for the storm to break before they could be safely recovered.
“Can we talk about what exactly happened back there?” the First Stormguide insisted. “We still don’t know what this facility is, or why we’re not all dead right now.”
The monk who had nearly avoided the rubble answered in a calm, unassuming tone, “It was the First Seeker. He stopped the surging energy before it reached critical mass. How, I do not know. But I sensed a great inner Harmony in him. A oneness of being, and a oneness with his surroundings. Athanivxi spoke of a state in which the self and the environment became one. It is one of the steps on the path to true Harmony.”
“Do you think this has anything to do with the rogue energy signature in Nahic?” the First Stormguide asked. “With the coma?”
“I have a feeling it has everything to do with that,” Iyara responded. “But there’s only one person who can give us answers now, and he won’t be able to if he goes hypothermic. Hand me that warming blanket…”
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