– Sunday, August 28, AD 2129 –
A young man awoke with a start. He stared at the ceiling for a couple moments before squinting and turning his head to the side. A dim holographic display against the wall read out “9:56 AM,” as well as some extra gibberish that he could barely read from his bed. He considered going back to sleep — it was the weekend, after all — but eventually he decided against it. With a groan, he sat up and rubbed his eyes, and then turned toward the window. The curtains were utterly defeated by the sunlight outside; as such his room was lit rather brightly for having no lights on.
Looks like a bright day today… he thought to himself, and then shook his head vigorously. “C’mon, Austin.” He slapped himself lightly on the cheeks. “Outta bed already…”
He rolled off of the bed and trudged toward his room’s door, opening it as he yawned again. The rest of his apartment was lit with only the natural brightness of the sun, indicating that he was the first one up. He wasn’t surprised; there was about a 50/50 chance of him waking up before his flatmate on any given day.
Austin moved through the morning quiet to the bathroom, where he didn’t bother to turn on the light as he glanced toward the mirror. His tousled black hair was the epitome of bed head, and only stood out further against his pale skin. He simply sighed and reached for his toothbrush, on which he dumped a dab of toothpaste and then shoved in his mouth.
Yay for electric toothbrushes, he thought to himself as he flipped the device on.
While he was busy staring himself in the mirror and brushing his teeth, the doorbell rang.
“Oi, Spike!” he called out around the toothbrush, “get the door, will ya?”
He then continued lazily moving the toothbrush around his mouth until a few moments later, when he realized that he hadn’t heard any movement. He poked his head out of the bathroom and looked toward his flatmate’s room — where the door was still shut, and the light inside apparently still off. Bastard’s still sleeping this late in the morning, Austin thought to himself, seemingly forgetting that he himself had been asleep not even ten minutes ago.
His thoughts were interrupted as the doorbell rang again — and again and again, as though being mashed by an impatient child. He sighed, removed his toothbrush, spit into the sink and then called out, “coming!”
Of course, Austin made no actual motions toward the front door until after rinsing his mouth under the faucet and replacing his toothbrush on the charging stand. He then sauntered over to the door, stretching and yawning simultaneously before grabbing the handle and opening it.
The first thing he noticed was how incredibly bright it was outside. It made the dimly-lit apartment look as dark as an overcast night under the new moon, with his eyes conveying the difference through pain. He reflexively recoiled away from the sunlight, at this point noticing how obscenely hot the air was that now entered through the open door. It must have been nearly a hundred degrees out, which was a distinctly ill omen considering that the clocks read only a little past ten in the morning.
“Well are you gonna let me in, or what?”
Austin forced his eyes open into a squint and glanced down. In front of him stood a short light-skinned girl, her wavy shoulder-length black hair resting as still as a statue — apparently there wasn’t any wind. On top of that, she appeared to be sweating, even though she wore a red spaghetti strap shirt, short shorts, and flip flops.
Today’s gonna be a fuckin’ terrible day, Austin thought miserably.
“Mm,” he grunted in response, and then shook his head to clear his thoughts. “Sorry. Just woke up.”
“You don’t say,” the girl drawled as she glanced down. It was only at that moment that Austin realized that he had answered the door in nothing but an undershirt and boxer briefs.
“Hmph,” the girl responded with a snort as she pushed past Austin into the apartment. “Is Spike awake? He isn’t, is he?”
“I wonder,” Austin replied as he hastily shut the door behind her. He then shouted, “oi, Spike! Sky’s here!”
He smirked to himself as rustling noises emerged from the closed bedroom. If there was anything that could rouse Spike in the morning, it was his girlfriend coming over. Austin’s smirk deepened as he realized the double meaning behind his previous thought, and immediately made to address it. “Remember,” he called after Sky, who was already making for the other bedroom, “these walls ain’t exactly soundproof. Keep it down, alright?”
Sky simply turned back and made a face at him before barging into the closed bedroom and shutting the door behind her.
Austin made a face back, even though there was no way she could see it. He then retreated into his own room, where he began looking through his closet. He grabbed the nearest blue t-shirt and then yanked a pair of jean shorts out of a nearby dresser, rapidly exchanging them for his sleeping garb. After ensuring that he was publicly presentable, he returned to the bathroom, where he spent a few minutes battling with the mess that was his hair.
A few minutes later — after a surprising period of quiet — the door to Spike’s bedroom opened again. Austin casually poked his head out of the bathroom to see a huge, incredibly fit man with a dark complexion yawn and lazily nod at him. Austin returned the nod. “Finally awake, huh?”
“Mm,” Spike grunted in response, his mind yet to catch up with his body. He trundled into the kitchen and began rooting around in the cabinets as Sky came out and flopped down on the living room couch.
“Hey Austin, are you busy today?”
He glanced down at Sky, who looked up at him expectantly. She may have been 20 years old — just as he and Spike were — but her childish demeanor made her seem several years younger than that.
“Not really,” Austin eventually replied, tossing his brush onto the bathroom counter top and then coming to lean against the living room wall across from Sky. “Probably just stay inside and game. Way too hot to go outside.”
“Oh come on,” Sky responded with a scowl, “this is hardly your first Texas summer. If anything, this is kinda cool for August.”
“’Kinda cool’ my ass, a hundred degrees is still a hundred degrees. I ain’t goin’ out there even if you paid me.”
“Hmph. What if I said Spike and I were going to see my sister, hmm?”
“…You mean Twy?”
“No, I meant Clarice,” Sky drawled. “Of course I meant Twy, dumbass. I don’t even know where Clarice is right now.”
“…Where y’all goin’?”
Sky smirked slyly in response to Austin’s sudden interest. “We’re going to the Nature and Science Center,” she explained, “there’s a new Chaos Energy exhibit that sounds pretty interesting. They’ve even got footage of those big battles from the Nanocreature War!”
“There’s plenty of stuff about Chaos Energy and the Nanocreature War on the Relaynet. Why d’ya needa go to a museum, of all places, to learn about it?”
“Ah, don’t be a stick in the mud,” Spike responded from the kitchen, from where he emerged with a bowl of cereal in hand. “I heard they got exclusive access to some recently declassified footage from the Battle of Neticen.”
“Really,” Austin drawled, “a museum in dinky little Austin, Texas? Exclusive access? To footage not even from SERRCom, but the CSA?”
Spike simply shrugged in response. “Just what I heard.”
“They also have replicas of the Chaos Ayas!” Sky added, “they’re the same size and shape as the real things!”
“Nobody cares about replicas,” Austin rebuked, “get me access to a real ones and I’ll consider going.”
“Not even if Twy will be there?”
“We’ve been friends for over a decade, it’s not as though she’ll disappear just ‘cause I didn’t see her this one time.”
“Oh, well that’s a shame.” Sky shrugged and sighed loftily. “She said she was looking forward to having you around, you know. Guess I’ll just have to pass along the bad news.”
“W-wait, she did?” Austin responded impulsively, spluttering the first part of his sentence. In his distraction, he failed to catch the wink that Sky passed to Spike. “W-well, I…” He sighed wearily. “I guess I can come along, then. Couldn’t hurt.”
“I knew you’d come around!” Sky grinned broadly, popping off of the couch and moving to the kitchen herself. “We’ll leave in half an hour, then! You hear that, Spike? Hurry up and get ready!”
Spike merely grunted in response as he continued eating his cereal. Austin smirked and then retreated into his room for the time being, hoping that he wouldn’t regret agreeing to go out.
* * *
“Well, here we are.”
“About time,” Austin grumbled as he climbed out of the car’s backseat. He squinted through the midday sunlight as he took a moment to stretch, and then glanced back at the car. “Oi, hurry up.”
“Calm down.” Sky rolled her eyes as she and Spike walked around the car to Austin’s side. She then flashed her wrist at a sensor on the side of the car, at which point it sped off on its own to service other travelers in the city. Turning back to Austin, she commented, “what are you in a rush for, anyways? Are you that eager to see Twy?”
“No, I just wanna get out of this god damn heat,” he countered as he turned away from his two friends to approach the entrance to the museum. “Shoulda gone to the pool or somethin’, not some museum…”
“Well it’s too late for that,” Sky retorted as she bounced past Austin. “But if you hate the heat that much, then race you to the front doors!”
“Wha…?” Austin stared after her, dumbfounded, as she ran off. He then glanced over as Spike shuffled up to his side, apparently still tired. Neither of them were morning people, but Spike took mornings the worst.
“For what it’s worth, I agree with you,” he muttered to Austin. “…No point in complainin’ now, though. Let’s go.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Austin shrugged in response as the two men neared the front doors. Sky had already disappeared inside by the time they arrived, so they wordlessly entered through the double doors. Austin sighed of relief the moment the cool indoor air washed over him, thankful above all else for the existence of air conditioning.
“Not a lotta people here,” Spike remarked as he glanced around. Sure enough, there were only a handful of people in the foyer — a nearly pitiful scene, given the grandiose sign situated in the center front. Austin’s attention lingered on it only long enough to tell that it was related to the Chaos Energy exhibit Sky had mentioned; it was evident that the museum hoped to increase the visitor count with the exhibit, but it was also evident that the attempt wasn’t all that successful.
“For someone who was so impatient just a few minutes ago, you sure are taking your damn time.”
“Yeah, yeah…” Austin waved off Sky’s statement as he and Spike approached her. “So where’s Twy? She’s meeting us here, right?”
“She’s already inside,” Sky replied, and then gave Austin an impatient look. “Apparently she got tired of waiting.”
“…Oi, help me out here.” Austin elbowed Spike, but his friend simply responded with a resigned smile and a shrug.
Sky shook her head and exhaled warily. “If the two of you are done dragging your asses, then let’s check in.”
She then turned around and approached the front desk, as did Spike and Austin. Despite implant identification being widespread, the facility didn’t seem to have any automated scanners around and had to make due with handheld ones. As Austin held out his wrist for the staffer to scan his ID implant, he couldn’t help but feel annoyed — museum visits weren’t free, after all, so where exactly did the money go, if not to upgrade their equipment? He shook his head of the thoughts as soon as he entered the museum proper; the low visitor count was more than enough to explain the state of affairs anyways. Museums in general were faring poorly in modern times, as Virtual and Augmented Reality technology had become so advanced as to make museums practically obsolete. Why bother going to a special building to look at things when you can do so from your own home, or so Austin thought.
As Austin turned his attention away from his internal thoughts, he realized that he had been abandoned — Spike and Sky had already gone on ahead. He sighed in annoyance and began meandering his way through the building, casually taking in the exhibits. Front and center was a generic holographic display of the solar system. To the left of that, on the way to the Chaos Energy exhibit, was a separate display that showed the Milky Way galaxy. Thanks to the denizens of Earth stumbling onto the galactic stage and trading information with alien races, the galaxy was confirmed to have four arms, and its shape was no longer in question. In fact, the vast majority of mysteries involving the Milky Way were resolved by simply asking the other space-faring races, who had already surveyed much of the galaxy. Many people were disappointed to find that aliens had so soundly beat Earth to countless discoveries around and regarding the galaxy, but most astronomers were chomping at the bit to travel to other planets and observe the universe from angles thought before to be impossible.
After taking in the galactic display, Austin finally moved on to the entrance of the Chaos Energy exhibit. He paused for a moment to look up at the poster stationed next to the entrance. “’Chaos Energy — The Mysterious Resource That Flipped Physics On Its Head,’” he read aloud, and then glanced around. He was actually rather surprised at the size of the exhibit; everyone knew that Chaos Energy was integral to modern life in the galaxy, as it allowed for all manner of physics-defying feats — particularly faster-than-light travel and communication — but there still wasn’t much actually known about Chaos Energy. No one knew how it came to be, or even what it actually is, despite the fact that the other races in the galaxy had studied the resource for thousands of years. The exhibit reflected this lack of knowledge rather well, as only a small minority of the displays were dedicated to theories about what Chaos Energy actually is, or how it came to be. The majority of the displays were about its effects or how it’s used in technology, rather than about Chaos Energy itself.
As Austin surveyed the room, his eyes fell on a prominent display in the center, dedicated to the most well-known users of Chaos Energy: Chaotics. Chaotics were people who could manipulate Chaos Energy in order to produce all kinds of supernatural effects, ranging from simple super speed or super strength to the ability to manipulate reality itself. I wish I was a Chaotic… Austin thought to himself as he stepped up to the display and took stock of the many images of people performing superhuman feats, but a note in the center of the display explained exactly why Austin’s dream could never be realized: Chaotic ability was innate, not learned, and far less than one percent of the entire galactic population had any kind of superhuman ability. And Earthians had no Chaotic potential at all.
Except for those four… Austin glanced to the side of the display, where an image of four people featured prominently under a title in large, bold letters: “Eximius Vir.” All four of the individuals looked to be little older than Austin, with tan skin and inexplicably generic facial features that almost seemed to be a mixture of every ethnicity. Despite their unremarkable appearances, however, they were famous across Earth for one fact alone: they were the only known Earthian Chaotics. “Lucky bastards,” Austin muttered to himself as he skimmed the information the display provided on them. The pool of public knowledge regarding the Eximius Vir wasn’t large; everyone knew that they worked for SERRCom — Earth’s interstellar military — and they would often show up around the globe to perform standard heroic actions, like saving civilians from natural disasters, or putting a stop to terrorist activity. But sometimes, they would just disappear without a trace for weeks, or even months on end, and then suddenly reappear later on as though nothing had happened. They worked for SERRCom, after all, so it wasn’t difficult to imagine that they were off on some secret mission during those times. But what could those missions possibly entail?
“Probably a bunch of cool spy-movie stuff… heh.” Austin snorted and shook his head. “Wonder if I’ll ever get a chance to meet them… hope they live up to the hero image.”
Eventually, Austin decided that he’d had enough of marveling at the Eximius Vir and began looking around the exhibit for other interesting displays. He already knew most of the information present at the exhibit, and as he spent more time inspecting the displays, it became evident that the rumor Spike had heard wasn’t true. So much for getting to see some space battle footage, he thought forlornly, but it would figure. There’s gotta be something interesting here, though, right…?
Just as he finished his thought, his attention fell on a massive display set up in the center back, dedicated entirely to the Chaos Energy Quake of AD 2088, a year-long event during which Chaos Energy all across the galaxy became inert and unusable. And standing directly in front of that display was a young woman with a black ponytail, dressed in a pale blue t-shirt and jeans.
Ah, so that’s where Twy went… Austin thought to himself, finally found her. ‘Bout time. He shook his head wearily as he stepped up beside her and looked up at the display. “So. Chaos Energy Quake, huh?”
“…Oh, you actually came.” She glanced his way. “I’m actually kind of surprised.”
“Wait, you are?” Austin’s eyes widened slightly. “But, Sky said—…”
“…She said what?”
“…Nothing.” Austin sighed and looked away, realizing that he’d been had. He was already at the museum, though, so complaining would do no good. Chastising Sky for her white lie could come later.
“You know, I’ve read about the Chaos Quake many times, but every time… it still manages to amaze me.”
“…Yeah?” Austin turned his attention up to the display in front of them. “Why’s that?”
“You have to ask?” Twy frowned as she gestured toward a display of Earth to the side. “The natural disasters that occurred during the Quake killed nearly a billion people around the globe! That level of devastation is… unprecedented. I don’t think there has ever been an event in recent history that wiped out over a tenth of the human race.”
“Sure, but in the grand scheme of things it ain’t much,” Austin countered. “Like, during the Nanocreature War, an entire fucking planet was destroyed! That’s a lot worse than a billion people dying.”
“It would be if that planet was a population center, but it wasn’t. Neticen was a Fortress World, and by all accounts it was fully evacuated before it was destroyed. It’s hardly the same.”
“…How do you know all this stuff?”
“Unlike you, I actually paid attention in history class.”
“Meh, history is boring.”
“’Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.’”
Austin scowled in response to Twy’s quip. “What’s to learn from natural disasters? It ain’t like that kind of freak accident is ever gonna happen again, and even if it did, what the hell would we do about it?”
“We could learn from the circumstances leading right up to it,” Twy suggested. “After all, were it not for the Quake, World War 3 probably would’ve happened.”
“Ain’t no way another world war is ever gonna happen. Not while SERRCom is still around and in charge, at least.”
“I guess so. I only hope SERRCom remains as the ‘good guys’ forever.”
“That’s incredibly optimistic of you.”
“Not all of us can afford to be a cynic, you know. Someone has to keep their spirits up.”
“Says the person who brought up the Chaos Quake death count.”
Twy made a face and punched Austin lightly on the arm. He simply responded with a self-amused grin before glancing around the exhibit.
“Bored already?” Twy questioned flatly.
“…Not at all, no, I’ve no idea why you’d say that.”
Twy simply sighed and began looking around the exhibit herself. “Is there anything you wanted to see?”
“Most of this stuff you can find on the Relaynet, so… no, not particularly.”
“Then why did you even come here?”
Austin remained conspicuously silent for several moments before eventually responding, “…’cause I was bored?”
“Uh huh.” Twy nodded patronizingly as she began walking around the room. Austin quickly fell into step beside her as they idly investigated the exhibit.
“…I wish I were a Chaotic.”
“Don’t we all,” Twy replied wistfully. “The dream of superpowers… denied because of where we were born. It’s a damn shame.”
“What, are you tryin’ to say that the universe is racist?”
“Funny to hear that from a white guy.”
“Oh, is it time to check my privilege already? I thought that wasn’t for another two hours.”
“Heh,” Twy stifled an amused chuckle as the two stopped in front of another display. On it were nine gemstone-like objects, and above them was a sign that read “Chaos Ayas.” “The universe really is a lot different than what we expected, though,” Twy pointed out, “especially Chaos Energy… that alone changes everything.”
“Yeah, poor physics. Used to be that huge guy on the block that no one messed with, then suddenly Chaos Energy swings in and rips him a new one.”
“I challenge you to come up with something better.”
Twy made an exaggerated show of rolling her eyes. “I’ll think about it.”
“…Chaos Energy really is weird, though.” Austin crossed his arms as he looked over the display in front of him. “Apparently, it’s ever-present, except when it’s not? And the Chaos Ayas are the only things that actually generate Chaos Energy? …Is it really energy?”
“In the colloquial sense I’d say yes, but in a technical sense, it seems to exist outside of the normal matter-energy definitions,” Twy answered. “You’re right that it’s weird, but that’s hardly news.”
“Heh, true.” Austin nodded absentmindedly, his eyes falling to the replicas of the nine Chaos Ayas. A light blue and a dark blue stone, both cut like diamonds; a light green and a dark green stone, both cut like emeralds; a light red and a dark red stone, both shaped like quartz; a white and a black stone, both with a triangle cut; and one silver sphere: those were the Chaos Ayas. They were all approximately the size of baseballs, the perfect size for securely holding them in one hand. That said… “The Ayas are a bit smaller than you’d think.”
“No kidding,” Twy remarked. “For stones so powerful as those, you’d think they’d be big and difficult to move. Instead, the Master Ayas looks fit for a game of catch.”
“Ha! Imagine, tryin’ to use one of the most powerful objects in the galaxy in a game of fuckin’ catch. It’d be like playin’ football with a nuclear bomb.”
Twy smirked. “Brings a whole new meaning to ‘nuclear football,’ doesn’t it?”
Austin snorted in amusement. “Welp, don’t think I can top that one.”
“Heh, of course you can’t! I bet Sky could, though. Speaking of…” Twy then glanced around the room. “…Where’d Sky and Spike go?”
“Probably found a dark closet to make out in,” Austin quipped with a roll of his eyes, but nevertheless began surveying the room himself. A couple seconds later, he felt something bump against his foot; looking down, he found a silver sphere, nearly the size of a baseball, rolling on the ground. “Oh…” he muttered as he stooped to pick it up, “did it fall from the display…?”
—ON WHAT GROUNDS DO YOU THINK YOU CAN DEFEAT ME?!
“What—!?” Austin reflexively clutched his head and squeezed his eyes shut as a voice echoed through his ears. Before he could think any further, his vision blurred and was replaced by a field of deep red. Just in front of him stood a tall brown creature decked out in black and golden robes as it used a massive scythe to fend off attacks from all sides. Some distance away from it stood a tall red-haired swordswoman with a beautiful blue and golden claymore; she then raised her hand into the air, mouthed words that Austin couldn’t hear, and with a flash of light—
YOU BELIEVE YOU CAN DEFEAT ME?! ME — A GOD?!
—the scene changed, the creature replaced with a tan-skinned, multi-tailed monster of a person who rapidly exchanged blows with seven other individuals, one of whom was dressed in blue and golden robing and wielded the same sword as the swordswoman from before as she fired off electric blast after electric blast—
C’MON FAKIE, YOU CAN DO BETTER THAN THAT!
—then he saw himself, wearing what looked to be some kind of powered armor as he lunged forward and attacked another version of himself, this one with a metallic arm—
I WILL REMEMBER WHAT NO ONE ELSE CAN!!
—then the second Austin was replaced with a blond-haired man with a deranged look on his face and blood on his clothes as he whipped a massive chain weapon through the air toward Austin—
—who was suddenly standing in front of a massive army of metallic creatures, his own face raked with metallic rashes—
—replaced with the visage of a short, stern, pale man with short black hair and an emblem of a darkened sun on his shoulder—
—followed by a tall, mouthless humanoid with four knees, dressed in black robing—
—then a similar creature with red markings on their skin and two spheres of purplish energy around their hands—
—then the creature from the first scene, except facing Austin and glaring at him—
—then a tan-skinned humanoid with green eyes, short black hair, and a maroon trench-coat—
—and then the Earth itself, seemingly under attack from a massive hostile fleet as its surface burned, before his vision faded to black…
…and for a brief second flashed a blue sphere of energy, with tendrils of blue and cyan racing along its outer and inner surface.
Once Austin was able to regain his bearings, he realized that his ears were ringing. He shook his head fiercely in an attempt to re-orient himself and opened his eyes, only to find a concerned Twy staring back at him. The ringing in his ears still dominated his hearing, so he couldn’t hear what she was saying — but he could tell that at some point he had dropped to his knees, and she was kneeling beside him.
“…tin? Austin? Can you hear me?!”
“Ngh…” he groaned warily as his hearing returned. With what felt like tremendous effort, he rocked back on his legs to sit on his bottom proper, at which point he shook his head again. “Ugh, what the… what the fuck just happened…?”
“I was about to ask the same thing.” Twy sighed of relief now that Austin seemed to be fine. “You just suddenly collapsed. Do you need a drink?”
“Couldn’t hurt…” he croaked. Twy turned and nodded to someone off to the side; it was at this point that Austin realized that he had drawn the attention of everyone at the exhibit, and at some point Sky and Spike had come to his side. His face immediately flushed red with embarrassment.
“Really, just collapsing like that…” Twy shook her head wearily. “…You really need to look out for yourself better.”
Austin was about to respond when the lights in the exhibit flickered. Shortly afterward, two museum employees entered and began gesturing toward the exit.
“…What’s going on?” he questioned.
“I’m not sure…” Twy’s expression darkened. “…Whatever it is, it’s not good.”
“And they’re kicking us all out?”
“Looks like it.” Twy sighed, and then turned back to Austin and offered him her hand. “Here.”
He grabbed her hand and let her pull him up; his head immediately began spinning, but it stabilized after a couple seconds.
“Don’t fall over again, now.”
“Yeah, yeah…” he grumbled in response and began trudging toward the exit. “…Oh! Did you put the Master Ayas replica back? It fell off the display…”
“…What?” Twy gave him an odd look before glancing back at the Chaos Ayas display, where all nine gemstone replicas were sitting, undisturbed. “The replicas are in a glass box. They’ve been there the whole time.”
Austin’s eyes widened in disbelief. “What? But… I could’ve sworn…”
“You probably imagined it. A fall like that… you really do need water, don’t you? Go ahead without me, I’ll go see what’s taking Spike so long.”
“Yeah…” Austin muttered as Twy rushed off. He glanced back at the Ayas display once more before turning toward the exit. “…What the hell just happened…”