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FROM THE TALES OF MOON MOUNTAIN • VAPOR TRAIL

Rocks never settled on this planet. Not due to any water flow or wind, as the planet lacked both, but rather due to an indeterminable magnetic phenomenon unseen anywhere else in the known galaxy. The Traveler had heard of this phenom countless times, but seeing it with his own eyes was an experience that bordered on the religious. The planet’s rocks and boulders hovered meters above head and danced around one another, a weak magnetic field creating a microcosm of the gravitational interplay of the forces of the galaxy. The Traveler assumed heavy metals in the surface rock had been ionized by a local quasar, but he allowed himself to become transfixed by the scene playing out before him anyway, if only momentarily. He pressed on toward a different pilgrimage.

The planet, known only by its centuries old scientific notation C-Luz (b) wasn’t particularly well-explored. Scientific crews had made surveys of the planet throughout history and found only the novel magnetic phenomena of the planet to be of note. However, the planet had recently gained itself a reputation reminiscent of the Bermuda Triangle in the ancient myths of the home world. An entire smuggler ring had disappeared while holed up on C-Luz and subsequent crews sent by the Syndicate were left similarly missing, with one notable exception: a nearly comatose young smuggler had returned with her a small bottle containing vapor that transfixed the minds of all who were exposed to it.

Her name was Vila. The Traveler managed to get at least that out of her in the hours spent interrogating her. Having been contracted by the Syndicate for the excursion to C-Luz, he had stopped by the young smuggler’s dwelling on the lawless Kepler System’s Crim Station to investigate this lone survivor. She had holed herself into the corner of the darkened room of her run-down tenement, clutching the now empty bottle. The Traveler’s efforts to get any actionable information out of her were consistently frustrated by her catatonia. It wasn’t until he tried to remove the bottle from her possession that a feral rage overcame her.

The Traveler was knocked back by a series of blows and animalistic screams as Vila beat him back. A swift kick from the Traveler sent her scurrying into the corner of the room. At wit’s end, the Traveler went to take his leave when Vila stood up. He turned back, expecting her to resume her feral assault only to see Vila’s eyes glazed over, her head twitching in a staccato motion that defied any pretense of humanity. Her voice began to utter something faint, resulting in the Traveler checking his audio systems to make sure they were functioning correctly. Her words carried softly, “ …Trail… On… the Vapor… Trail… find that on the Vapor Trail.” With that, she collapsed into a lifeless heap.

The Traveler scanned every square inch of where he intended to step. After watching that girl back on Crim die he wasn’t about to take any unnecessary chances. These Syndicate jobs had always been dangerous, but the feeling couldn’t be shook that this was something different. Each step only solidified the Traveler’s suspicions as he made his way into a small canyon – the last known position of Vila’s crew. A faint pink mist seemed to emanate from the canyon walls that settled onto the canyon floor. The Traveler instinctively switched his life-support systems away from his suit’s and onto his own body’s bionics, using his suit’s life-support apparatus as a makeshift hermetic seal. This instinct had saved him countless times from undocumented galactic strata and anomalies, but he didn’t feel the usual sense of comfort from being sealed inside himself. This unease was foreign – uncomfortable.

The Traveler pressed deeper into the mist. He suspected the mist was giving way to a miasma. The suit was showing no signs of corruption, but the life-support systems appeared to be losing pressure at a rate that would’ve bordered on the imperceptible to a group of smugglers. The Traveler had only seen this once before, saying a silent prayer that the depressurization was due to some undiscovered chemical in the mist and not that he had just walked into the domain of a Protector. The ancient beings were only known as having been an intelligent race that likely originated in the Andromeda Galaxy. What became of them is unknown, as most of their neutrino communications had been lost to the disorder of time. All that was known with any degree of certainty is that they achieved a level of advancement that might as well have been magic to even the most robust Artificial Intelligences concepted by humanity, machine and cyborg alike.

It was long thought a species that achieved that level of advancement would attempt some novel feat like attempting to slow the heat-death of the Universe or at least attempt to escape the known Universe into a younger, more stable Universe with similar physics to preserve the existence of the species. But the Protectors seemed to have instead taken on the specter of the Ancient Gods of Greco-Roman mythos. Those unfortunate enough to stumble upon their installations throughout the Milky Way had been subjected to obscene manners of trickery, hallucination, manipulation and torture employed to protect the installations from the unwanted intrusion of species of the Universe they had seemingly deemed ‘lesser’.

The Traveler’s last experience with them had been an anomalous asteroid field just outside the Roche limit of the Milky Way’s wormhole Sagittarius A*. Back in the Traveler’s younger days contracting for the research and exploration arm of the American wing of the Sol Nations, he had been sent to examine why ships couldn’t approach the Sgr A* wormhole. An anomaly seemed to be originating from a small asteroid field that was orbiting in a bewildering retrograde orbit near Sgr-A*’s apogee. Every approach to the field had resulted in the Traveler’s ship being curved across space time to return in the direction of the approach vector. The feeling of nausea he had experienced on those trips was burned permanently in his memory, along with the mess it made. That familiar feeling had begun to course through him, though in a much different manner given he had long-since replaced his organic stomach.

The miasma had become a thick pink and even the floor at the Traveler’s feet was nearly imperceptible. A soft strum of strings had begun to ring out. The Traveler stopped instantly. Harmonic ringing from gale force winds was something he had been forced to get used to on the battered station he grew up on over Jupiter. The Traveler stopped a single step away from a vertical drop into gigantic gorge. He figured this is where the majority of those Smugglers had met their end. He breathed some small sigh of relief. He’d take local natural phenomena over a Protector any day. But that still didn’t explain Vila.

The Traveler began his return back through the miasma but was again met by the ringing. He bent down near the floor and gazed once again over the gorge. Only one thought shot through his head – No. He turned again, fleeing this time toward the East. Gorge. Again to the West. Gorge. South. Gorge. North. Gorge. On some level, he knew it was too good to be true. Of course he had wandered headfirst into a Protector installation. He knew what he was being told: into the gorge to move forward. The Traveler jumped.

Immediately, the Traveler landed on his heels, suspended over the gorge on an invisible floor and collapsed under his own weight. He picked himself up with a twinge of indignity. He felt the miasma around him pulse – in a way that could almost be interpreted as laughter as it cleared – revealing a light vapor under his feet that suspended him as well as any steel floor. He followed the trail laid out before him… a vapor trail.

As the Traveler walked across the trail, he began to fiddle with the broadcaster on his suit. Growing up on Jupiter, one of the most important things to learn was how to counter-program the aural signatures from the roaring trumpets of Jupiter’s clouds. The Traveler couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if he did the same here on C-Luz. A pink light reflected off the Traveler’s visor, catching his eye. Near the end of the vapor trail was a small pedestal illuminated by ethereal pink light from an indeterminate source.

The traveler approached the pedestal cautiously, stepping off the vapor trail and onto a small rotunda that supported the pedestal. Displayed on the pedestal was a small bottle, enough for roughly 60 milliliters of liquid – it looked almost identical to the bottle held by Vila, with one notable exception – it read ‘Vapor Trail’. As the Traveler approached the pedestal, he could feel the miasma that had retreated away begin to vibrate. In the miasma he could see humanoid shadows jumping up and down and cheering. Most likely the other members of the smuggler crew, but now transfixed and under the control of the miasma. Everything suddenly became clear.

It was a game. The Traveler understood the situation instantly on a primal level. Get the bottle, escape and you win. Get the bottle, fail to escape and I control your fate. I inhabit you. I bring more people to play. Refuse to play and you become part of my cheering gallery. The Traveler began to shake. A smile crept across his face. A game. A child’s game with one of the Universe’s oldest species. It unearthed countless questions about the Protectors that the Traveler was shaking with anticipation to uncover. No. To discover. But discovery would only be possible if the game was won. The Traveler had a singular thought. Game. On.

He swiped the bottle off the pedestal as the miasma exploded toward him. He bounded down the vapor trail as he felt his footing start to loosen. The vapor trail had begun to disintegrate, not entirely unpredicted by the Traveler, but a problem nonetheless. The Traveler rerouted his suit’s life support functions to the suit’s boosters, creating a make shift jetpack that roared to life and shot him toward the rocks floating overhead. Using the boosters and the floating rocks, he began jumping back and forth as the miasma slamming into the rocks behind him, coming within inches of his last foothold. The miasma caught up with the Traveler and flew in front of him to block his way.

The Traveler smiled.

He threw the bottle straight down, the miasma shifted from its pink hue to a feral red as it chased down after the bottle to save it. The miasma formed a scoop-like shape and reached out to grab the bottle before it came crashing down to its canyon floor. As it snatched the bottle, it returned to its pink state. A giant boulder crashed down on the miasma, sending the bottle flying into the Traveler’s hand and dispersing the cloud into a light pink mess of confusion.

The Traveler had known he was dealing with a singularly focused entity. It wanted fun, but it needed the bottle to make it happen. Throwing away the bottle allowed the distraction he needed. As the miasma chased after it, he planted himself upside down on the floating rock and used his booster to turn the rock into a makeshift cannonball. With bottle now in hand, the Traveler jettisoned himself toward the exit out of the miasma’s canyon.

The miasma reconstituted itself and turned black. The harmonics it blared out turned to trumpets of war that filled and reverberated around the canyon. The miasma shot out like a spear in chase of the Traveler. The Traveler dodged and maneuvered himself to avoid the spear-like black miasma. His evasions resulted in the miasma redoubling its fury as lightning began shooting from the cloud with loud serpentine hisses and deafening bullwhip cracks. The vibrations from the miasma rattled the bones, bionics and vision of the Traveler, so much so that he wasn’t able to avoid the fiercest lightning strike from the miasmatic diety.

The Traveler’s body landed with a sickening thud on a floating rock perched right above the entrance. He lied motionless as the miasma hovered over him and stopped. The miasma surveyed the Traveler, waiting for his next move, but he laid motionless. The cloud gradually changed from black, to grey, to red, to pink, to white. It slowly peered closer to the Traveler and began shifting, as if looking back and forth in a manner that pantomimed its own little version of concern.

The miasma nudged the lifeless Traveler’s body. Nothing. The cloud retreated away and began to harmonize in a low wail. As it settled back over the Traveler. It extended a cloudy appendage that grabbed the bottle of Vapor Trail and connected it to the Traveler’s life support system. It fiddled with the Traveler’s computer interface on his arm and turned the life support system back on, pressurizing it and causing the liquid to turn into a vapor. It then pushed the rock back over the canyon edge, toward the Traveler’s ship.

The Traveler gasped as he shot to life. His ship was above him and a dull thud was heard as the rock he was on drifted against his ship. He looked back out toward the white miasma. As he stood up, the miasma turned pink again and disappeared into the canyon. The Traveler stood up and noticed the bottle connected to his life support, removing it and resuming his on-body systems. The Traveler looked back toward the canyon then boarded his ship and placed the Vapor Trail on his ship’s command console. As he departed the planet, he took one last look at the canyon and waved a small goodbye. The pink clouds oscillated back and forth in the distance below, seemingly as if they were returning the Traveler’s small gesture.

 

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