— Monday, August 29, 2129 AD —
(Mondia, Beauth 20, 8054)
Pierce awoke with a start. He stared at the ceiling for a few moments before pulling himself up into a sitting position and rubbing his eyes. The morning sun shone through his room’s open window, brightly illuminating the small space and demonstrating just how long Pierce had slept in.
Must be a few hours past sunrise, he thought wearily. Damn… I really overslept.
A yawn soon overcame him, at which point he vigorously shook his head and jumped to his feet in an attempt to fully awaken himself. As he did so, an intense feeling of unease washed over him, as though he had forgotten something important. He paused for a moment, holding a hand to his head as he attempted to recall whatever it was that he was missing, but it felt like trying to see through a fog.
“…Damn. Did I come down with something?…” Pierce muttered. “Shit… figures I’d get sick on the second to last day. Really need to get back to Earth…”
He sighed wearily and approached his bedroom door, throwing it open to begin his morning hygiene routine. Brushing his teeth, washing his face, fixing his hair — he went about his business quietly and sluggishly, spending half of his effort the entire time trying to puzzle out the cause for his unease. Still nothing came to mind as he dressed himself for the day, though in so doing he discovered that his belt was missing.
What the…? Where the hell did I put it? He began searching his room for the missing article. The room wasn’t large, so it didn’t take long for him to determine that the belt was no where to be found. Damn. How the hell did I manage to lose a fucking belt? Maybe Phoenix knows where it is…
With that, he stepped up to his bedroom door once more and threw it open. This time, however, he noticed that the door to Phoenix’s room was also open, and the room itself was empty. At the same time, the distinct smell of coffee reached his nostrils, prompting him to conclude that his friend had already awoken. Must’ve been before me… that’s a first.
Pierce glanced down the hall toward the living room, where Phoenix was standing with a cup in hand. He nodded toward her, though she didn’t respond in kind.
“…Did you not sleep well?” she questioned as he moved into the living room and then walked around her to enter the kitchen.
“I slept fine,” he responded flatly. “Why?”
“It’s not often that you get up so late. I was just… worried.”
“Ha! No need to worry about me. I’m perfectly fine.”
“What…?” Phoenix’s expression clouded. “Are you sure…?”
“The hell are you on about?” Pierce passed her an annoyed glance. “Why are you being so weird this morning? This doesn’t have anything to do with where my damn belt went, does it?”
In that moment, realization rushed across Phoenix’s face, followed by troubled concern. “Pierce… do you remember what happened last night?”
“Last night?” Pierce echoed irately, “what are you…?” He stopped mid-sentence as a dull throb drew his attention down to his right torso, followed immediately by a sharp pain in his head. And then — as if the fog cleared all at once — the memories of the previous night rushed to the forefront of his mind. The memories of Chaotics going berserk, the memories of several blocks of the city getting trashed, the memories of the start of another Chaos Energy Quake, and…
“If… if you ever see Liask… tell her… tell her that I… …that I…”
…the memories of Trenon’s death.
Pierce found himself staring down at the kitchen counter in confusion. Now several hours and a night’s sleep removed from these events, they hardly seemed real. The sun outside shone as brightly as it had yesterday morning, the skies were clear, the air was crisp, and the world outside was as green as ever. Could such an apocalypse have truly befallen this idyllic scene? And beyond that — Pierce suddenly recalled the odd vision he had had shortly after Trenon died. None of the images made any sense to him, though one in particular stood out: the image of a beast, covered in silvery, metallic rashes. What was it that he saw? And why did he see it then?
“Ah—!” Pierce’s attention dropped back into the present, where he found himself staring, wide-eyed, straight at Phoenix. “…Oh… ah ha…” He quickly tore his gaze away and chuckled uneasily, at which point he realized that he was tightly grasping his right torso, where he had suffered a minor wound the previous night. In one motion, he withdrew his hand and turned back toward the kitchen, doing his level best to distract himself by preparing a quick breakfast.
“Hey, if you want to talk…”
Pierce cast a sideward glance toward Phoenix, who herself was watching him with concern. He simply snorted in response. “I said I’m fine, didn’t I? I’m fine.”
“Are you sure? I saw your torso wound last night—”
“I said, I’m fine.”
“…If you say so.” Phoenix sighed and took a seat at the small table just outside the kitchen.
A heavy silence befell the apartment as Phoenix continued nursing her coffee, and Pierce hastily poured himself a bowl of cereal. He took a seat at the table across from Phoenix and began eating quietly, not once looking up to make eye-contact with her.
Another minute passed before Phoenix cleared her throat, drawing Pierce’s attention. “…We need to talk about what we’re going to do, now,” she stated uneasily.
“What we’re going to do?” Pierce echoed incredulously, “the hell do you mean? We just go home tomorrow, that’s what we’re going to do.”
She shook her head. “Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. This… ‘Chaos Quake’ has caused a lot of, well, chaos.”
“What’s that mean?”
“According to the news feeds, everything is shut down. The Gate Network’s been restricted to military and emergency use, and all spacecraft currently docked in the spaceport have been grounded until further notice. All the spacecraft up in space have been forced into perpetual holding orbits, as well. There’s no way for us to leave Ainminthalus.”
“What? Why the hell is that?!”
“You know how most FTL tech is based on Chaos Energy. This new Quake — it’s made it impossible for us to access Chaos Energy. That means no Chaos Drives, no anti-gravity. Even the Relaynet is down. The Interstellar Gate still seems to work, but now it’s Ainminthalus’s only connection to the rest of the galaxy — the only source of information from beyond this solar system. The NSD has declared a state of emergency and commandeered use of the Gate, so they can stay as up-to-date as possible.”
“Well, shit. You’re telling me we can’t even contact Earth? Not even by Relaynet?”
Phoenix shook her head. “The Data Relays use Chaos Energy. No Chaos Energy, no FTL communications.”
“Shit… does it get any worse than this?”
“Yeah… everyone is panicking. The last Quake the galaxy had lasted for a year. All kinds of Chaos Energy-based infrastructure collapsed during that time, space stations included, and people are afraid it’ll happen again. You know those space stations up in orbit? Normally they can use their anti-grav to adjust their orbits to avoid debris from the rings, but they can’t do that now. They have to rely on conventional fuel for station-keeping, and as far as I know, they only have enough of that to last them a couple months. That’s an incredible eminent danger right there, and the NSD isn’t taking any chances. They’re already evacuating the stations… but that’s several million people that suddenly need room on the planet’s surface.”
“Damn. And people thought the homeless problem in San Fran was bad…”
“…About that…” Phoenix frowned uneasily.
Pierce looked up at her, his eyes narrowed. “What?”
“You know how the lease for this apartment was supposed to expire tomorrow?”
“Yeah, but we can get that extended, can’t we? These are clearly extenuating circumstances, the landlord has to see that.”
“But they don’t. I talked to them, and they aren’t willing to give us an extension.”
“What?!” Pierce scowled. “You have to be kidding! Why the hell not?”
“The reason they gave me was that they’ll need the space to house evacuees from the space station.”
“And they’re willing to kick us out onto the street to do it? Bullshit. Sounds like an excuse to cover up the real reason.”
“That we’re Earthian?” Phoenix sighed. “Yes, I thought of that, too. But even if that is what’s happening, there isn’t much we can do about it right now.”
“What?! C’mon! This is the difference between having a roof over our heads and being homeless on an alien fucking planet, this isn’t the time to be passive!” Pierce threw up his hands and leaned back in his chair in annoyance. “There has to be something we can do. There’s someone we can contact about this, right?”
“You think I haven’t already checked?” Phoenix bristled irately. “There’s no embassy or anything of the sort here. The Gate and the Relaynet were supposed to be how we’d contact Earth, because they were supposed to always work. No one expected that a one-time freak incident like the Chaos Quake would happen again!”
“What about someone in the local government? That’s supposed to be our second line of contact, right?”
“Yeah, but our liaison there was…” Phoenix pursed her lips and glanced away.
Pierce stared at her impatiently for a moment before realization dawned on him: Trenon had been their Nimalian liaison. He exhaled warily and began rubbing his eyes in an attempt to work out his stress — and to ignore the dull throb in the side of his torso. “Well, fuck.” He then looked back to Phoenix. “Is there really no one else we can talk to?”
“I tried calling in to one of the government hotlines, but the hold times are ridiculous. The local government has its hands full dealing with all of the people who actually live here.”
“Yeah. So there’s really only one other person we can go to, now…”
“Yeah. But I tried getting into contact with her this morning, and couldn’t.”
“She’s never told us where she lives, either…”
“So we’re back to square one.” Phoenix stared down into her cup before looking up at Pierce again, worry wrought across her features. “What do we do?”
Pierce shook his head. “Your guess is as good as mine.” He then stood up and carried his now-empty bowl back to the kitchen, where he quickly washed it out and dropped it on the drying rack. “…Damn…” he eventually muttered as he returned to the table, where he simply stood behind the chair with his arms crossed. “Why did this have to happen now?”
“It’s just our luck,” Phoenix responded with a bitter smile. “We were lucky enough to get to spend our summer away from Earth, I guess it’s only fair that we’d also be unlucky enough to find ourselves in this situation.”
“‘Luck’ my fucking ass…” Pierce grumbled. “I’m not just going to sit around and let this happen to us.”
“And you think I want to? The only reason I’m still sitting here is because there isn’t anything for us to do!”
“Hmph… we just need to reach Brikén somehow, right?”
“That would be ideal, but like I said, I’ve already tried.”
“And we don’t know where she lives… but we do at least know somewhere she frequents.”
“…The spaceport?” Phoenix regarded Pierce with a doubtful expression. “Why would she be there? All spacecraft are grounded.”
“It’s still our best bet,” Pierce insisted. “If it’s a choice between trying to find her at the spaceport and just sitting around at home, hoping she’ll reach out to us, then I’d rather pick the former.”
Phoenix sighed. “…You’re right. I suppose it really is our only option.”
“I’m glad you agree.” Pierce moved over to the front door and began putting on his shoes. “Now let’s get going. The sooner we resolve this, the better.”
* * *
30 Minutes Later
“…Didn’t you say that spacecraft were grounded?”
“I did, and they are,” Phoenix replied, her tone filled with a mixture of annoyance and bewilderment. “I didn’t expect this, though…”
“You don’t say,” Pierce muttered as he beheld the scene before him. The Alus spaceport, from the outside, looked much like an airport from Earth. The terminals were built up to two or three stories and extended horizontally for long distances, making enough room for dozens of airliner-sized spacecraft to dock simultaneously. Normally, spacecraft would be frequently landing, docking, being ferried to the launch zones, or launching, though today the air above the spaceport remained eerily empty, and the grounds all around the port were covered in grounded spacecraft. Essentially, the spaceport appeared to have been completely frozen — except for the massive crowds that gathered around each of the terminal entrances. A sea of people collected around the port, consisting of angry and panicking citizens who wanted either access to their own spacecraft or to otherwise find some way off of the planet’s surface. Occasionally the crowd would surge forward as groups of people attempted to rush into the terminals, only to be stopped by groups of NSD soldiers who had been charged with keeping all of the spacecraft grounded.
From Pierce’s position across the street from the terminal entrance and the crowds, the idea of making it into the spaceport seemed to be a complete nonstarter. He may have been taller than average by both Earthian and Nimalian standards, but he was still no where near large enough to force his way through such a massive crowd.
“This could be a problem,” Phoenix eventually commented, speaking aloud Pierce’s own thoughts.
“Yeah, this is fucking ridiculous,” Pierce remarked. “Just what the hell do all these people hope to achieve?”
“You can’t really blame them for acting in desperation. Everyone here was caught off-guard by the Quake, just as we were. Hell, we’re here. Why do we get to complain about other people doing the same thing?”
“…Doesn’t change the fact that we need to find Brikén.” Pierce jumped onto a nearby bench and began scanning the crowd from across the street. “With that bright red hair of hers… she shouldn’t be too hard to find, right?”
Phoenix glanced up at him incredulously. “You don’t really think that she’s the only redhead around, do you?”
“Alright, what’s your genius idea?”
“Well, assuming that she even is here, she’d probably be trying to access her own ship, right? So if we can find her ship, then we should be able to find her. Hopefully. Although…” Phoenix frowned. “I don’t remember where she docked at last night…”
“It was somewhere in the Northern Block. Dock 3, berth 9, I’m pretty sure.”
“I’ll take your word for it. But how do we get there? It looks like they’re not even letting people into the terminals, there’s no way we can get access to the docking bays…”
“We’ll just have to get as close as we can.” Pierce jumped down from the bench and began jogging east. “There’s a back entrance to the docks that Brikén used once. It looked pretty small and unheard of; with any luck, there won’t be as large a crowd around there.”
Phoenix ran to catch up before falling into pace beside Pierce. “And you remember where this is?”
“Of course I do. As if I could forget anything even slightly important.”
Phoenix opened her mouth, as if to respond, but then made a face and glanced away without saying anything.
The two continued jogging around the block, following the high barrier walls that surrounded the spaceport until the walls finally turned northward. The streets around the spaceport were far emptier and quieter than Pierce was used to; it seemed that the crowds were limited to the spaceport entrances themselves. A disturbing stillness had befallen the rest of the city, and even the trees and greenery that were incorporated into building structures seemed to lie completely still.
Before long, the two found themselves approaching the back entrance that Pierce had mentioned. Sure enough, the area was significantly less crowded, with only a few dozen individuals arguing with a couple NSD soldiers standing guard in front of the entrance. And at the front of the crowd…
“Why the hell can’t I access my ship? It’s practically unaffected by the Quake!”
“Ma’am, all spacecraft currently docked at this spaceport are models that would be affected by the Quake.”
“That’s not my point, you dolt. My ship is small enough to not need the anti-grav for takeoff or piloting. I can still use it!”
“That still does not change the fact that your craft is grounded until further notice.”
“Damn it, leave it to the NSD to lay down a blanket ban that doesn’t make any sense. You fucking idiots…”
Phoenix sighed warily as she watched the red-headed woman continue to argue with the NSD soldier. “That’s Brikén for you…”
“At least we found her,” Pierce pointed out, and then began approaching. “Hey! Brikén!”
“Huh?” The red-headed pilot whipped around and began scanning the crowd; the moment she laid eyes on Pierce and Phoenix, she waved them over. “Finally! Some people who actually know something about spacecraft! Tell these idiots here that my ship doesn’t actually need Chaos Energy to function.”
The NSD soldier standing in front of her sighed and rolled his eyes as Pierce and Phoenix approached. “Once again,” he replied flatly, “the grounding is not only due to Chaos Energy being unusable. Evacuations for the space stations are starting up, and we need to keep the airspace clear. Any crashes would be made significantly worse without Chaos Energy-based technology.”
Pierce stared up into the sky, where he found nothing but blue, sunlight, and white rings. “Doesn’t seem like evacuations have started to me,” he remarked.
“The cleared airspace extends all the way up into actual space,” the soldier countered, as though his statement should have been obvious. “In-atmosphere collisions are not all the NSD is worried about.”
“Apparently, they think that the risk of collisions with the rings is much higher without anti-grav tech, and that those collisions could cause a debris cascade,” Brikén drawled. “I say the risk isn’t as big as people think; ring debris burns up in Ainminthalus’s atmosphere all the damn time. Besides, I’ve actually practiced flying my ship without the Chaos Energy systems. If anyone can handle this situation, it’s me!”
“Wait, a debris cascade?” Phoenix questioned incredulously, “what, like a Kessler Syndrome thing?”
The NSD soldier regarded Phoenix with confusion. “What’s a ‘Kessler’?”
“Oh… right. You wouldn’t know. It’s an Earth name.”
“An Earth name? …Wait a minute…” The soldier narrowed his eyes and took a closer look at Phoenix and Pierce. “…The two of you are Earthians, aren’t you?”
“Uh…” Phoenix glanced uneasily at Pierce. “I don’t like where this is going…”
“Yeah, we’re Earthians,” Pierce declared, drawing a few odd looks from the crowd. “So fucking what?”
“You two… you’re the ones who are here on that outreach program, aren’t you?” The soldier’s expression flared with anger as he glared at Pierce. “I heard about what happened last night. If not for you, Rakos would still be alive!”
“Dude, what?” Pierce scowled. “You mean Trenon? What the hell are you talking about? I didn’t kill him!”
“If he hadn’t been forced to protect you, then he would’ve been at a hundred percent for the final strike. There’s no way he would have died otherwise!”
“You’re blaming me for that shit? Like I asked to be attacked by some feral wolf monster!”
“I can’t help but notice that you didn’t have a problem until they came around,” Brikén remarked, her arms crossed. “Trenon and I were working together, as well.”
The soldier turned toward her in surprise. “Y-yes, well… you still weren’t the one Rakos had to sacrifice himself for!”
“Bullshit. If you’re trying to pin blame, then I’m the one who suggested we visit that bar in the first place. I’m just as responsible for Trenon’s death as anyone else,” Brikén countered, her voice low. “But instead, you decide to pick on the two Earthians. I wonder why?”
“Th-that…!” The soldier’s face contorted in anger and confusion. His attention momentarily shifted away from Brikén and Pierce, at which point he cleared his throat and straightened up his posture. “Ma’am, sir, if you’re going to continue causing a disturbance then we will have to arrest you.”
“Dude, what the fuck?!” Pierce growled in fury. “You can’t just—!”
“Pierce,” Phoenix interjected quietly, “I think we should leave…”
“Huh?” He turned to face her, at which point his attention drifted to the crowd behind her — the crowd of people who had distanced themselves from Pierce and Phoenix, and were looking on with varying degrees of confusion and annoyance.
“Why am I not surprised,” Brikén deadpanned. She glared at the crowd before turning back to the NSD soldier. “Fine. Have things your way. But this won’t be the last you see of us.” She then whipped around and stomped off, gesturing for Pierce and Phoenix to follow. “Come on. We’re leaving.”
Pierce stared after her incredulously without taking a step. He looked over at the crowd again, and then turned back toward the soldier.
“Pierce…” Phoenix muttered again.
“…Hmph…” Pierce snorted before turning around and taking off after Brikén, with Phoenix hot on his heels.
The red-headed pilot glanced back at them as they caught up. “Sorry you had to sit through that,” she said, her voice low.
“It’s not your fault,” Phoenix refuted. “If anything, we’re sorry for getting in your way.”
“Ah, that’s not your fault either.” Brikén sighed. “I doubt they would’ve let me see my ship even if you hadn’t shown up.”
“That was hella fucking weird, though,” Pierce said, “I thought Nimalians were supposed to be all buddy-buddy with Earthians. That’s what led to this damn outreach program, wasn’t it?”
“That’s what the government would want you to believe,” Brikén remarked cynically. “But when disaster strikes and it’s every man or woman for themselves, that’s when the truth comes out. And I find that it’s very rarely pretty.”
“So it would seem…” Phoenix responded quietly.
“But enough about this.” Brikén finally stopped walking and turned to face the two Earthians directly. “What are the two of you doing around here? Trying to find a way off this planet, like everyone else?”
“No, but it’s related,” Pierce replied. “Apparently, our asshole of a landlord won’t extend our lease, and there’s no way for us to contact or return to Earth, so we need a place to stay.”
“Ah. And you wanted to crash at my place?”
“That’s what we were hoping,” Phoenix said.
“Well, it’ll be a little crowded… but it should be fine.” Brikén nodded.
Phoenix smiled with relief. “Thanks a lot, Brikén. You don’t know how much this means to us.”
“You might be surprised. Though we’ll need to look into a better long-term solution, just in case we’re in this for the long haul.”
“No arguments here,” Pierce commented. “Just give us your address and we’ll bring our shit.”
“Yeah, I’ll message you. Do you need any help carrying your things?”
“Nah, we should be fine.”
“Alright. I’ll see the two of you back at my place, then.” Brikén waved as she began walking east.
Once Brikén disappeared around a street corner, Phoenix sighed in relief. “I’m glad something worked out.”
“Yeah, no kidding.” Pierce scowled as he recalled their brief encounter with the NSD soldier, but then he shook his head to clear his thoughts and began walking. “Anyways, let’s go pack our shit. The sooner we’ve got this done, the better…”