Chapter 10 – An Old Life’s Dusk

Chapter 10 – An Old Life’s Dusk

Two Days Later

— Sunday, October 23, 2129 AD —

“Oof… agh.”

Austin winced as he gingerly rubbed his left shoulder, and the bandages that covered it. The skin remained tender and sore after having been pricked by a handful of different needles — and that was far from the only part of his body that felt uncomfortably off. His eyes and ears both, while perfectly functional, felt vaguely puffier than normal; Austin couldn’t tell if the sensation was real or a concoction of his mind, and could only hope that it would subside soon.

He glanced to the side as he slowly walked down a metal hallway, with the entire right wall occupied by a holographic view of the Earth below. Once more, he now stood within the space station Opportunity, where he had been for almost a day. After packing everything up in their apartments and fully moving out, Austin and his friends had returned to the space station alongside Luke, Mark, and Danielle, where they were immediately put through preparations for off-world travel — specifically, the Installation, Immunization, and Disinfection Process, commonly referred to as IID Process for short. This process initially involved short surgeries through which two sets of cybernetic implants were installed: a set of ocular Real-Time Video, or RTV, translation implants as well as a set of cochlear Real-Time Audio, or RTA, translation implants. Together, the implants would allow Austin and his friends to understand the written and spoken words of many languages throughout the galaxy, a convenience that Austin openly welcomed. He simply hoped that the uncomfortable sensation in this eyes and ears would soon subside.

Following the installation of the implants was the Immunization step, wherein Austin and his friends were vaccinated against a variety of common or dangerous diseases that were present throughout the galaxy. The full list of diseases that he was now vaccinated against had flown completely over his head; he hadn’t even considered the fact that unique diseases would exist beyond the bounds of Earth until a nurse walked in with a handful of syringes. Austin had no fear of needles, but the surprise set of vaccinations annoyed him nonetheless, and his sore shoulder simply irritated him even further. Well, at least I shouldn’t have to worry about getting sick while I’m out there, I hope, he thought to himself. Man, I’m gonna be mad if I DO get sick…

Thinking about sickness then led Austin to briefly wonder about the third step of the IID Process: Disinfection. As it was explained to him, the Disinfection process actually needed to be repeated every time someone traveled to a different planet, so as to prevent the spread of non-native pathogens. A reasonable precaution, Austin thought, if annoying — but what amazed him more was the one exception: travel by Interstellar Gate. Apparently, through currently unknown means, the Interstellar Gates were capable of detecting and destroying unwanted or uncontained pathogens during transit. The fact that no one knew how the Gates were capable of doing this astounded Austin; he knew that they were technological devices left over by the ancient Aldredas, but he figured that thousands of years would surely be long enough to figure out all of the intricacies of the Interstellar Gates. That there were still unknowns seemed rather odd.

“Yo, Austin!”

Snapped out of his thoughts, Austin glanced to his left, where Spike had just emerged from another hallway. “Oh, hey.” Austin nodded at his friend as Spike approached and then fell into step beside him. “You got all your shots?”

“Yep.” Spike rolled his left shoulder multiple times and then began massaging it with his right hand. “They had to turn on a CENT field just so the needles could get through my skin. That was a weird feelin’.”

“Oh… well, that makes sense. Without a CENT field, your skin is harder than steel. Can’t really pierce it with a needle.”

“Guess not. Makes me worry about if I ever need some kinda first aid, and there’s no CENT field around…”

“Sure, but you’re also way less likely to even need first aid than a normal person. Hell, if you end up in a situation where you need first aid, then whether or not a needle can pierce your skin is probably the last thing you’d need to worry about!”

“…I guess so…” Spike sighed and shrugged. “I guess we’ll see. How about those translation implants, though? That’s some neat stuff.”

“No kidding!” Austin remarked, “we really do live in the future! When they gave me that little example brochure, with the Nimalian writing on it — it looked like perfect English to me. The translation was super fluid, like it was written that way in the first place.”

“That’s alien tech for ya,” Spike replied. “Now we don’t need those annoyin’ headsets just to understand the Nimalians, either. Damn, this is so convenient.”

“When you have a big, interconnected galaxy like ours, it’s probably necessary. One less thing you have to worry about when crossing borders.”

“Yeah, speakin’ of things to worry about…” Spike eyed an open door near the end of the hallway, and Luke standing just outside of it. “…What’s this thing we’re goin’ to now, exactly? Some kinda primer on… somethin’?”

“It’s just a bunch of information SERRCom wants us to know before we leave Earth and potentially embarrass them abroad,” Austin replied as he rolled his eyes. “Probably nothin’ too important.”

“Hey now, don’t be sayin’ that just yet,” Luke remarked as the two fell into earshot. He gave them a casual wave as he continued, “the stuff you’ll hear here is actually pretty important.”

Austin and Spike stopped next to Luke and glanced through the open door. Inside was a small meeting room, with a whiteboard on one end and nearly a dozen chairs situated around a large table in the center. Already present in the room were Twy and Sky, as well as Pierce, Phoenix, Kestrel, Conrad, and Mark, all of them engaged in various levels of idle chit-chat with each other.

“…Looks like a classroom,” Spike observed, with a tinge of disappointment in his voice.

“…I guess it does, huh,” Luke replied after briefly surveying the room himself. “Though I guess meetings are a lot like classes, huh? Long and boring.”

“I’m surprised to hear that from a military officer,” Austin commented. “Don’t y’all have all kinds of briefings and debriefings and rebriefings or whatever?”

“Hey, just ‘cause we have a lot of meetings doesn’t mean that we like having meetings,” Luke countered. “They’re important, I understand why we have ‘em. But I don’t think I know of a single officer or soldier who thinks briefings aren’t boring.”

“Already speaking on the behalf of all of SERRCom, are we, Captain?”

“Huh?” Luke, Austin, and Spike all turned to look down the hallway, where they saw Colonel Saito approaching — alongside Kievkenalis, dressed in the same green uniform with black trimming that he wore the last time Austin saw him.

“Oh, sir!” Luke offered a quick salute as Saito stopped in front of him. “Ah… you heard that, huh?”

“I feel like it’s my official duty to impress upon you the importance of briefings,” Saito replied, and then smirked. “But, that would be just as boring as the meetings themselves.”

“Heh… good one, sir.”

“Do most Earthians not like meetings…?” Kievkenalis questioned as he glanced between the two SERRCom officers. “I actually find them rather fascinating! Most of the time, at least.”

Saito and Luke simply responded with blank stares, but Austin and Spike regarded the Nimalian with awe.

“Wow, they really do work!” Austin exclaimed, “I could understand everything you just said!”

“…What?” Kievkenalis passed Austin a clueless glance, only for his eyes to briefly widen in realization. “Ah, you just received RTA implants, is that it?”

“Yeah! Shit, I didn’t actually expect them to work this well. It’s like you’re actually speaking our language!”

“They really are an incredible piece of technology, but keep in mind that not everyone has them. That’s actually one of the things we’ll be going over.” Kievkenalis glanced at each of the four men standing in front of him, and then gestured toward the open room. “Well, if you all really dislike meetings that much, then we should probably go ahead and get started. After all, the sooner we start, the sooner we can be done.”

“Can’t argue with that. C’mon, Austin, Spike.” Luke nodded toward his nephew and his friend and then sauntered into the room. The rest quickly followed, with Luke, Austin, and Spike claiming seats next to Twy and Sky while Saito closed the door to the room and Kievkenalis walked up to the front.

“Someone finally shows up, huh?” Pierce remarked, his feet propped up on the table and his hands clasped behind his head. “Just how much more time are we going to have to burn, here?”

“Pierce, cut the attitude,” Phoenix quickly admonished, only for Kievkenalis to hold his hand up and shake his head.

“He’s right, we are a bit late,” the Nimalian stated, and then looked over everyone in the room. “Apologies. But allow me to properly introduce myself, as I don’t think I’ve spoken directly to most of you… I am Kievkenalis Yumach, a Chaostechnic. Most people know me as the Dean of the Yumach Chaotic University of Riverana.” He briefly bowed his head. “A pleasure to meet you.”

“…You named your school after yourself?” Conrad questioned.

“Well, yes. It’s common for Nimalians to place their name on anything that they create.” Kievkenalis passed Conrad a curious glance. “I take it Earth isn’t the same?”

“It is, and it isn’t,” Phoenix replied. “But we can talk about that later. I’m sorry for my friend’s interruption; please, continue.”

“Everyone here really is in a rush, huh? I’m not sure why, but okay. I can accommodate.” Kievkenalis placed a small device on the table and then stepped away as he began again to address the room. “Broadly, there are two purposes of this meeting: to inform you of some of the details of your stay on Nimalia, and to tell you a couple things about Nimalian culture that would be important to know when interacting with Nimalians. We Nimalians and you Earthians may look the same, and even have largely similar organ systems, but we are still different, and it’s important to know how.”

“Oh, boy, a history lesson…” Austin muttered under his breath.

“As far as the administrative details go,” Saito started as he walked up next to Kievkenalis and turned to face the room, “SERRCom will be granting each of you a monthly living allowance during your stay on Nimalia. Nothing extravagant, but it should be enough to have a little fun every now and then. Food and board should already be covered.”

Kievkenalis nodded. “That’s correct. Pallan is handling that part.”

“…Right.” Saito side-eyed the Nimalian for a moment before clearing his throat and continuing. “Captain Travis and Lieutenant Cox, here, will be joining you on Nimalia. They’ll be your points of contact if you need to talk to SERRCom or someone on Earth for whatever reason. And if you misbehave, it’s their job to tattle on you, so watch out.”

“Aw, c’mon, Colonel, don’t turn ‘em against me this early,” Luke complained, albeit with an amused smirk.

“Wait, you’re coming with us?” Austin turned toward his uncle in surprise. “Why didn’t you say so earlier?!”

“Oh… I thought I did. Oops,” Luke replied sheepishly.

“It’ll be nice to have a familiar face around, though,” Twy commented.

“For you guys, maybe,” Pierce interjected, and then gestured to himself and his friends as he glared at Luke. “To us, though, you’re just another SERRCom Officer.”

“Yeah… I know.” Luke sighed and casually leaned back in his chair. “Don’t worry, I promise not to be too hard on you.”

“Anyways…” Saito spoke up again, drawing the room’s attention back to him, at which point he looked over at Kievkenalis. “Our guest here should be able to explain the rest.”

“Ah, yes.” Kievkenalis nodded once, and then scratched his head. “Well… as for which school you’ll actually be attending, it’ll mostly likely be either the Densalin School for Chaotics, or Wrikax Chaos University. They’re both… fairly different, so I’m going to leave it to the others to show off their own campuses whenever you arrive.”

“Aren’t we supposed to arrive tomorrow?!” Sky questioned incredulously. “How do you not know where we’re going?!”

“It’ll be fine, it’ll be fine.” Kievkenalis waved her off. “I’m sure Kaoné and Kevérin already figured it out. They’re always on top of things like this. Anyways…” He glanced down at the device he had set on the table earlier and began fiddling with it, just in time to miss the wary glances that Twy and Sky shared. “Now, to the main point of this meeting—”

“Hey, Teach!” Spike rasied his hand for a moment, stopping just long enough for Kievkenalis to look his way before continuing, “you’re one of the members of Hero Machina, right?”

“Uh…” The Nimalian stared back at him in mild surprise. “…Well, yes, I used to be. Ten years ago, that is. I don’t think anyone’s left on the team anymore.”

“Sure, y’all quit the military,” Austin interjected, “but you’re still Hero Machina, the saviors of the galaxy, right?”

“Saviors? Ah ha… that’s a bit much…”

“Are the stories not true?” Conrad questioned.

“You’ll have to be more specific…” Kievkenalis scratched his head again. “If you’re talking about the Nanocreature War… then, yes, we did participate, but a lot of the tales about us are pretty exaggerated…”

“What about the Battle of Neticen? Where a whole planet got destroyed?!” Austin exclaimed, “that’s real, right? I’ve seen the pictures!”

“Uh… well, yes, but those were very unique circumstances. Christeané can’t normally do that kind of thing—”

“Are we gonna get a chance to learn from Christeané?”

“Uh… …maybe?” Kievkenalis shrugged. “You’re more likely to learn from one of the others… and this is all beside the point, anyways. We can talk about 20-year-old history some other time.”


Anyways, as I was saying…” The Nimalian nodded toward Saito, who dimmed the lights in the room. Kievkenalis then pushed a button on the device on the table, at which point it projected a hologram of a planet into the air. On the surface of the planet appeared six continents — three of them forming a large, upside-down ‘L’ sort of shape in the north and west and connected by small land bridges, while the other three were separated by ocean and spread off to the south and east. “This… is Nimalia, the Homeworld of the Nimalian Union,” Kievkenalis explained. “I won’t go over our entire history, that’s a lesson for another time. But it is important to know the six Continent-Nations. Here,” he pointed at the three continents connected by land bridges, “is Nimaliaka, East Nimaliaka, and Relédiaka. Nimaliaka is home to Nimalia’s Interstellar Gate, located in Nimaliaka Central. Here.” He pointed at a dot located near the northeastern coast on the continent in the middle of the other two, north of Relédiaka and west of East Nimaliaka.

“What? That isn’t central at all,” Pierce remarked.

“Yes, well…” Kievkenalis shrugged. “You’d have to ask a Nimaliakian why it’s named that way.”

“Where are you from, then?” Phoenix asked.

“Here.” The Nimalian pointed at the landmass to the east of the rest, which stretched a significant distance both north and south of the planet’s equator. “Riverana. That’s my home.”

“Wait, I’ve heard that name before…” Twy cocked her head and furrowed her brow as she attempted to recall. “…Oh! Isn’t Pallan from there?”

“Yes, that’s right.” Kievkenalis nodded. “Archoné Pallan Culana is the leader of Riverana, in fact.”

“What does ‘Archoné’ mean?”

“Ah… I guess that wouldn’t translate, since it’s a political title. Hmm… Archoné is an inherited title, typically passed down through children.”

“What, like a king?” Sky questioned.

“Sure, we’ll go with that,” Kievkenalis replied. “The concept of hereditary leadership is a little outdated by most galactic standards, I know, but Archonés typically don’t possess that much actual power.”

“Sounds kinda like the UK, then,” Twy suggested.

“Still, you guys really still have kings and shit?” Pierce scowled. “Don’t tell me every country is like that.”

“The system works well enough. There hasn’t been any political upheaval in hundreds of years,” Kievkenalis remarked. “Riverana, Nimaliaka, East Nimaliaka, and Relédiaka all have Archonés, with varying levels of power. Only Tekdecé, here…” He pointed at the continent in between East Nimaliaka and Riverana. “…And Treséd, here…” He then pointed at a southern continent, nestled in between Relédiaka and southern Tekdecé. “…Don’t have Archonés. Tekdecé is a democracy, in fact. There isn’t a single inherited position in its entire government.”

“What an amazing feat,” Austin drawled.

“What about Treséd?” Conrad questioned.

“Ah… they, uh…” Kievkenalis stared uneasily at the hologram of Treséd for a moment — notably, unlike the lush green that covered most of the other continents, Treséd appeared to be a solid block of sandy beige. “…Well, there’s no national government, there. Treséd is instead split up into a bunch of different ‘Compounds’, as they’re called. They’re basically a disparate and very loosely connected network of city-states.”

“‘Compound’?” Austin echoed incredulously, “that doesn’t sound very impressive.”

“Yes, well… it is what it is.”

“I heard from another Nimalian that one of the continents is a lawless wasteland,” Pierce remarked. “That’s Treséd, isn’t it?”

“It’s… not not Treséd.”

Sky crossed her arms and eyed Kievkenalis warily. “Why are you being so cagey about this?”

The Nimalian sighed. “…I’m sorry. It’s just that I’m not from Treséd, and I don’t want to incorrectly characterize them. Davídrius has been working hard to improve the place, and he’s made a lot of progress. Calling Treséd ‘lawless’ is a little too careless, anyways…”

“Davídrius…?” Pierce echoed.

“Yes, Davídrius Wrikax. He’s the Dean of Wrikax Chaos University.” Kievkenalis passed Pierce a curious glance. “Is something wrong?”

“No, the name just sounds familiar. From where, though…” Pierce crossed his arms and pursed his lips in thought, only for realization to cross his face a moment later — followed immediately by his brow furrowing. “Oh… right. Trenon talked about him…”

“Oh yeah, that’s right…” Phoenix nodded, and then looked down. “Trenon…”

Kievkenalis glanced between the two in confusion. “I’m sorry, who…?”

“It’s nothing.” Pierce shook his head and sunk back into his chair. “…Don’t worry about it.”

“…Alright, then.” The Nimalian shrugged and then pressed a button on the device, at which point the holographic planet was replaced by a calendar of sorts. “Now, Nimalia’s day is the same length as Earth’s — in fact, all of the galactic Homeworlds have the same day length, but we can talk about that later. The year lengths are what’s different. In particular, Nimalia has 360 days in a year, split into ten months of 36 days each: Maliath, Nimath, Winth, Beauth, Solith, Skydiath, Aldredath, Colyath, Ranth, and Monoth. Each of those months are further split into four weeks of nine days each. The first six days, Sundia, Mondia, Grudia, Watedia, Windia, and Skydia, are considered workdays — while the next three, Isdia, Firdia, and Ligdia, are the weekend. For reference, today’s date on the Nimalian calendar is Skydiath 3, in the year 8054.”

“A six day workweek? Aw, man…” Conrad groaned.

“At least we get a three-day weekend, every week,” Twy pointed out.

“Yes… it will probably take some adjustment, but personally, I find that it works out well,” Kievkenalis replied. “Though I’ve seen some suggestions of turning Watedia into an off day, and Isdia into a workday, so the workweek is a little more spread out, or even just shifting the workday balance to 5-4 instead of the 6-3 that we have now… but you don’t see many people follow either of those schedules.”

Everyone in the room responded with blank stares. Upon seeing this, the Nimalian chuckled uneasily. “Ah… right, sorry. I guess it’d be hard to understand that when you only just heard about our calendar.”

“It’s fine, don’t worry about it,” Luke remarked. “What about holidays, though? Y’all have those, right?”

“We have holidays that we celebrate, yes, but we don’t always get off of work for them,” Kievkenalis replied. “Since you’ll be students, the most relevant holidays to you are the seasonal breaks. There are two-week breaks spread throughout the year, each of them a week after a solstice or equinox. We just had the summer break a couple weeks ago… which reminds me. You all will be coming into the system on the third week of the semester, and given your, uh… unique circumstances, you’ll be placed in your own, special class.”

“Taught by someone from Hero Machina, right?” Austin questioned.

“Yes. Should be the Dean of whatever school you end up at.”

“What a fucking answer…” Pierce muttered.

Still, we appreciate the information, Mark commented, briefly passing Pierce a side glance before turning back to Kievkenalis. “Is there anything else we should know? Perhaps about social faux pas or anything of the like?”

“Ah! Yes, of course.” Kievkenalis gestured toward Saito, who brought the lights in the room back up to their normal level as the Nimalian turned off the hologram device. “There aren’t many faux pas, per se, in Nimalian culture,” Kievkenalis began, “but the biggest one would probably be blatant disrespect or disregard for nature. Nimalians usually highly value their environment, and the natural beauty of it. Doing anything to ruin that is… not good, we’ll say.”

“So don’t litter? That’s easy,” Sky remarked.

“It goes a little beyond just not littering,” Kievkenalis corrected. “Leaving tracks, or just signs of human activity in general, is frowned upon. When you go out into the wildnerness, you respect it, and leave it alone as much as you can.”

“That sounds like a bit much,” Pierce countered. “Do you guys just never hunt? Or build cities?”

“Well, yes, there is some level of encroaching that occurs… but we try to minimize it whenever possible. Hunting, aside from the rare culling of an overpopulated species, is largely a thing of the past, anyways. The vast majority of Nimalian animal products is synthetic.”


“That could explain a few things…” Phoenix mused.

“It really shouldn’t. Our meat, in particular, is indistinguishable from real animal meat,” Kievkenalis asserted. “Sometimes, it’s better, even! Both taste-wise, and health-wise! Ah, the wonders of modern technology…”

“Is that really it, then?” Conrad questioned, “just… don’t mess with nature?”

“That’s just number one,” Kievkenalis replied. “Nimalians are typically peaceful, loyal, and honest. We don’t like to fight unless we really have to… so getting overly angry, violent, or confrontational is especially bad. Watch out for that.”

“Can’t you basically say the same thing about most cultures?” Pierce questioned.

“Ah ha, I suppose so!” Kievkenalis remarked. “Do keep in mind that I’m trying to summarize an entire planet’s worth of people, here. Cultural norms vary within each of the Continent-Nations, so there aren’t a lot of blanket statements I can make… you’ll just have to go there and see for yourself.”

“Wow. Fantastic advice.”

Yes, it actually is,” Phoenix stated as she passed Pierce an impatient glare, only for him to respond with a dismissive shrug. She then turned back to Kievkenalis. “Is there anything else we should know?”

“Hmm… I think I’ve covered most everything…” Kievkenalis stopped to think for a moment. “…You should be fine on the food front. Earthian and Nimalian dietary needs are pretty similar. Hmm… ah, right!” He clapped his hands together and looked at everyone in the room. “If Earthians are anything like Nimalians, then… well, let’s just lay it out. As I said earlier, Nimalians and Earthians have very similar organ systems. That includes sexual organs. Same for the other races in the galaxy, actually. I guess a common ancestor will do that for you…”

“Uh… what?” Twy stared at the Nimalian in disbelief. “What… what does that have to do with anything?”

“Do young, college-aged Earthians not have relatively higher sex drives?”

“Wha… well, that—”

“That’s a yes, chief,” Luke commented with a smirk.

“I suspected as much,” Kievkenalis stated. “Anyways, my point is that, while Nimalians and Earthians can engage in the physical act of sex with each other, they still aren’t sexually compatible. That is, a Nimalian and an Earthian can’t have a child together — in fact, none of the different races of the galaxy can interbreed. However, don’t take that to mean that you can have unprotected sex all you want! You’ve just received the standard suite of galactic vaccinations, which is good, but they don’t protect against everything. I’ve seen a couple people make that mistake, and it isn’t pretty.”

“So just keep on doing what I’ve been doing, then? No problem,” Pierce casually replied.

“That’s, uh… th-thanks for telling us…?” Austin responded uneasily.

“You’re welcome!” Kievkenalis smiled. “Just wanted to do right by my students!”

“And on that note…” Saito stepped up to the front of the room next to Kievkenalis. “…I believe we’re just about done, here. Any final remarks, Dean Yumach?”

“Thanks for allowing me to stay on your space station for this week,” he replied cheerfully, and then looked back to the rest of the room. “And I look forward to teaching you all! Uh, not personally, but still. There’s a lot that we can learn from each other!”

Sky regarded him with confusion. “There is? What could you learn from us?”

“Oh, more than you might think. But that’s a discussion for a later day!”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Saito declared, just before Sky could attempt to ask another question. “This has been a long day for most of you, between the implant surgeries and the vaccinations, and now this meeting. And tomorrow is going to be even longer, as you all finally set out for Nimalia. I highly encourage you all to get a good night’s sleep… as you will head out tomorrow morning!”

The Next Morning

“Yo Conrad, it’s about time you got here!”

“Yeah, yeah…” Conrad replied dismissively, and then yawned as he stepped up next to Pierce, Phoenix, and Kestrel. “Man, it’s too early for this…”

“It’s almost ten,” Pierce countered incredulously.

“Which is too early.”

“Ever the sleep-seeker, I see,” Phoenix remarked.

Conrad merely grunted in response before taking a seat next to Kestrel. The four friends were currently waiting in a small side room aboard Opportunity, with all of their packed bags in tow. Each of them had two suitcases packed to full with clothing and other personal affects in preparation for over a year away from Earth, as did Austin, Spike, Sky, Twy, Luke, and Mark, who were all standing or sitting in various locations around the room.

“…Still.” Phoenix glanced back at the others, watching Austin and Spike show off and compare their new weapons; Sky and Twy checking their bags to make sure they hadn’t forgotten anything; and Luke and Mark quietly discussing work-related matters. “…To be the last one here,” Phoenix continued, turning back to face Conrad, “you were really cutting it close.”

“Ah, I knew they were never gonna leave without me,” Conrad replied. “‘Sides, that Pallan guy isn’t even here yet.”

“Yeah…” Pierce looked over at the room’s empty entrance. “…Fuckin’ pain in the ass, making us wait this long…”

“Don’t you always arrive early to stuff, anyways?”

“Hmph. My ‘early’ is on-time. I can’t help it if other people suffer from chronic tardiness.”

“So what, do you just show up awkwardly early to parties all the time?” Phoenix questioned with an amused smirk.

“It wouldn’t be awkward if people didn’t collectively hide behind the shield of ‘fashionably late’,” Pierce countered. “I can work around fashionable lateness — I am a fashionable dude, after all — but it’s still a hella stupid concept. I have places to be, things to do! People being late just wastes my time!”

“Uh huh, if you say so.”

“Figures you’d say that. I bet you—”

“He’s here,” Kestrel interjected, nodding toward the entryway.

Pierce, Phoenix, and Conrad all followed her gaze, spotting the gray-haired, goatee-sporting figure of Archoné Pallan Culana. Just behind him was Kievkenalis, and then after him, Colonel Saito.

“Alright, looks like everyone’s here,” Saito remarked as Pallan and Kievkenalis stood off to the side. “…Well, this is it. The big day! Anyone have anything they want to say before you all get going?”

“Is being ‘fashionably late’ a thing on Nimalia?” Pierce immediately questioned, prompting a quiet facepalm from Phoenix.

“Fashionably late?” Kievkenalis echoed cluelessly. “I haven’t heard that phrase before…”

“Ah ha ha!” Pallan let out a brief chuckle before responding, “how much tardiness is acceptable depends on where you go and who you talk to, Omni Key.”

“…Not the answer I was looking for,” Pierce muttered to himself, and then passed Pallan a confused glance. “Wait, Omni Key?”

The Archoné responded with a knowing smile. “Now is not the time. I will explain better at a later date.”

“Speaking of later…” Saito glanced up at a clock on the wall that currently read ten o’clock in the morning. “…Looks like any further questions or statements will have to wait. Your Gate Window is now.” He stepped back out of the room as he offered Luke and Mark a wave. “Keep an eye on them for me, Captain, Lieutenant!”

“Yessir!” Luke replied with a quick salute — just as a bright flash of light briefly engulfed the small waiting room. A moment later, the light subsided, revealing that the group was now standing in a massive, metal room. Skylights ran the length of the ceiling, allowing sunlight to fall onto a pair of railway tracks that ran into the room from a dark tunnel nearly a hundred meters back. Flanking the rails on both sides were a series of trees, planted in special planters and bathed in light from the skylights as well as the glass walls on both sides of the room. Through the glass walls, the busy skyline of New York City could be seen, as well as the SERRCom Planetside Headquarters across the street, and the United Nations Headquarters down the block. And yet, of all of the sights, none of it could compare to the strange ring planted partway in the ground against the far wall.

At eleven meters in diameter from outer edge to outer edge, and ten meters between inner edges, the giant ring towered over everything present. Ornate royal blue, silver, and white geometric designs wreathed the entirety of the ring, though of a softer and more curved nature than the harsh angular designs on Mote’s Aldredian armor or Raenaros. Near the base of the ring, around where it was anchored vertically in the ground, was a small panel of sorts — a panel that a man was currently punching some kind of code into. A second later, the man stepped back, at which point a translucent black film manifested in the ring’s interior, as though it were an old tube television turning on for the first time in a while. After manifesting, the black film shimmered slightly and darkened, and gold lines all around the ring began to softly glow.

“…Whoa,” Austin muttered in amazement. “Is this… the Interstellar Gate?”

“It is, indeed,” Pallan replied, stepping forward and looking up at the massive device before turning around to face everyone present. “Some of you have experienced Gate travel before, but for those of you who have not, well. It’s simple.” He then picked up his lone bag and marched off toward the Gate. “Follow me!”

“Wha-what?!” Austin spluttered, watching the Archoné walk off without a care in the world. “That’s…! There has to be more to it than that!”

“Don’t worry, you’ll be fine,” Kievkenalis remarked. “I’ve used the Gates countless times, and I’m no worse for wear!”

“What, are you scared?” Pierce taunted as he grabbed both his bags. He then eyed Austin with a smirk. “Feel free to stay behind, loser! C’mon, Phoenix, Conrad, Kestrel! Let’s go see the other side!” A cloud of dust quickly replaced him, and the black film that filled the Gate’s interior rippled softly as he disappeared through it just after Pallan.

“That foolhardy… ugh.” Phoenix shook her head and sighed before grabbing her bags and walking toward the massive ring. “One of these days, you’ll really get in trouble…”

“…So this thing is supposed to take us to another planet, huh?” Spike questioned as he watched Conrad and Kestrel follow Phoenix toward the Gate.

“Yup,” Luke answered casually. “Don’t worry, you don’t even feel anything. You just step through, and suddenly, you’re in a whole new place!”

“Good enough for me!” Sky exclaimed as she grabbed her suitcases firmly in hand and then blasted forward with a small explosion of flame. “Let’s go! Another planet, here we come!!”

“That’s…” Twy watched, dumbfounded, as her sister disappeared through the Interstellar Gate’s event horizon after Kestrel. “…This is still…”

“Yeah, it’s weird, but it’s clearly fine, so…” Spike shrugged, at which point he heaved one of his bags over his shoulder and began marching toward the Gate himself. “C’mon, y’all! This is a big day!”

“That’s easy to say,” Austin muttered as he watched Spike and Mark disappear through the Gate, leaving only himself, Twy, and Luke behind. He then looked over at his uncle once more. “You’re sure it doesn’t feel weird, or anything? How does this even work? It’s not tearin’ our molecules apart and reassemblin’ us at the destination or anything, is it?”

Luke picked up his bags, passed Austin a glance, and then shrugged. “Beats me.”

“What? Hey, wait—!” Austin started, but Luke had already set off for the Gate. “…Aw, c’mon!”

“It… should be fine,” Twy commented uneasily. “I mean… billions of people use the Gate Network every day, right? It has to be fine.”

“Man, I just wanna know if walkin’ through this thing is gonna zap me apart,” Austin replied. “It’s that whole teleportation issue thing, you know? What if the me who walks out the other side of the Gate isn’t me?”

“Why are you asking now? You never complained about any of the times we were beamed around.”

“…Aw, fuck… am I not even the original Austin anymore?!”

Twy rolled her eyes and leaned over to pick up her bags. “Of all the things to worry about, I guess I should’ve expected this to be the one you got stuck on.”

“I haven’t even gotten a straight answer, yet,” Austin countered. “Do you know?”

“Well, I did look into how the Gates worked last night, to try and prepare myself for this…” Twy looked up at the black event horizon that filled the softly glowing ring. “Based on what I read, the Gates work in a very similar manner to beaming technology, and stepping through one feels the same as being beamed around. Which is to say… it doesn’t really feel like anything.”

“Yeah, but how does it work?”

Twy looked up at Austin, back at the Gate, and then back at Austin. She then smiled and giggled briefly before setting off toward the Gate. “I’ll tell you on the other side!” she shouted over her shoulder.

“Aw, what?!” Austin stared after her in exasperation, only for her to disappear through the event horizon a second later. “…Man, this is dumb,” he muttered to himself, and then shook his head rapidly to clear his thoughts. “Okay, c’mon, Austin. It’ll be fine. Right? It’ll be fine. If Twy’s okay with it, then it’s fine. You’ll still be you.” With pursed lips, he grabbed his suitcases and began to approach the Gate himself, though he stopped again just in front of the event horizon. From this close distance, the black film appeared dark and featureless, as though it were a massive plane of tinted glass — and the ring itself stretched high into the air, standing well over five times his height. “…Okay. Okay.” He took a deep breath in an attempt to steel himself for stepping through the Gate, at which point he glanced to the side, at the windows that showcased the skyline of New York. This is the last of Earth that I’ll see for a while, isn’t it… well… the Nimalians don’t look so different from us. So their planet can’t look much different, either, right? C’mon, Austin. Stop stalling! Here we go!

And with that, he finally stepped forward, moving through the black event horizon — to the world beyond the bounds of Earth.

Author’s Note: For your viewing pleasure, here is a detailed geographical map of the planet of Nimalia.