Chapter 1 - The Arc of Old Earth
Solaris Denukas, Black Market Outpost
(Edge of the GRID)
From a secret position on the edge of space a pair of ancient eyes looked on with delight. All was going as planned. Cronus II, with its engines hot and cannons live, was eager to accept the massive crowds. The first arrivals, with their elegant apparel, sparkling jewellery and shiny boots were now on the final approach, the landing-pads of their small shuttles touching down ahead of schedule.
Docked in low orbit far in the distance the massive ship resembled a dark, crystal-shard glinting against the violet oceans of Solaris Denukas instead of what it truly was: a monster. A country-sized space beast built to destroy worlds. At six-hundred-kilometres bow-to-stern the sheer, gargantuan nature of it was bewildering. Epic in scope and dimension it rattled the very senses of all who gazed upon it. With its kilometre-long cannons, countless turrets and Vorbius energy-shield alive and active, it truly was a breathtaking sight to behold.
Existing in a state of acute awareness Cronus II spent one-hundred-percent of its time actively scanning the stars for signs of danger. A new age sentient-machine of both war and peace, to gaze upon it was to look into the dreams and ambitions of an ancient time—back when desire itself was not governed and taxed by The GRID.
For the millions sailing straight up to its massive ports, seeking to escape the powerful clutches of The GRID, Cronus II inspired both wonder and hope. It stood for freedom—the promise of a new start in a most pleasant environment completely independent of The GRID. It meant safety and steady economic growth behind three-hundred feet of living-steel. It meant a lifetime of relative comfort, boasting vast potential for a purpose-driven life. It was these ideals which drew such massive crowds.
A long line of both small and large vessels stretching out from its massive hull for thousands of kilometres gave it the appearance of a titanic space-squid reaching out into the darkness with mechanical tentacles. Travelling along strict highways far beyond sight the wealthiest ships arrived first. Kings, queens and emperors—people of great wealth, influence and power gathered for tonight’s grand spectacle, their tiny shuttles twinkling like thick swarms of fireflies all about the massive space-ports.
Don Goda, The Ancient One—a frail, withered, half-robot, half-human—made the tiniest smile, his cracked lips and grey teeth offering the subtlest of emotions. It was the first true feeling of joy he had felt in ages. He could not remember the last time he felt so complete, so alive, so...put together.
A dozen tiny droids hovered about his floating chair, their thin wires dangling down, feeding directly into his veins. Tiny machines blasted jolts of cold-fusion through his bionic-heart while pumping vitamins, proteins and amino acids into his stomach, nourishing him. All this to keep him alive just long enough to see his final plan through to the end!
Resting a moment he leaned far back in his chair, the tiny, levitating droids pumping oxygen-filled-blood through his old lungs, forcing him to breathe when his own strength was not enough. Microscopic machines buzzed about his grey, sagging skin, tending to a landscape of open wounds and pus-filled sores. Legions of micro-robots worked day and night rebuilding tissues and performing maintenance on his ancient body, keeping him alive far past his natural course.
Today, all that would stop. In a few short hours the tiny robots, micro-droids and nanobots would shut down forever, finally halting their endless toil. His old bones would ease back their incessant ache, forcing his old body to cease and desist its maddened drive to bring him misery. After a thousand years of blood, sweat and toil he would find peace. He had but a few hours left. He was ready. He looked on with eager anticipation. Today all his dreams would come true. All his sacrifices would gleam brightly in the eyes of a thousand nations. This day would be a day to remember.
The shiny ships seemed to call to him, their brilliant colours and wild shapes taking him back to the days when he was a young, hungry lion—a brazen space pirate on the hunt for priceless loot. That one final score that would take him back to sanity and peace. The one that would let him rest, finally. The one that would close all wounds and heal all transgressions—The Big One. The only score that truly mattered: ‘The Arc of Old Earth.’ The mission.
He could scarcely remember a time when his life revolved around anything other than The Arc of Old Earth—the double-edged sword that had become his ‘life’s mission.’ To most The Arc of Old Earth was nothing more than a myth clinging to the ages. A legend passed down through the generations from father to son and mother to daughter—a fairy tale that grandfather’s tell their grandchildren before bed.
Most believed it to be a loosely fabricated story created so humans could hold onto a tiny piece of their original heritage. After six-thousand years and no evidence of it having ever existed save stories that simply would not die there were few believers left. Scattered all across The GRID there were but a handful of people who kept to their belief like old shamans. Don Goda, an ancient shell of long withered values and lost dreams, was one of those believers.
An ancient treasure hunter and infamous space pirate in his younger days he scoured The GRID top to bottom to no avail. But his old heart clung to his dreams. His old mind refused to believe that it was just a myth conjured by computers in the days of yore. His old soul would never let it go. Not ever. It was the dream of one day finding it that gave him hope when the whole of life had become wrought with death and despair. When glittering diamonds and gold statues failed to shimmer in the sunlight.
Don Goda, with cold steely eyes and the horrific features of a ghoul, still held onto his faith. His old heart drove through the wreckage of his dying shell as ship after ship sailed straight on into the ports. He missed the old pirate days. The days of freedom, the days of swashbuckling and high adventure across the stars. He missed the grandeur, the mystique and the power that vast wealth offered up on golden platters. He missed the throngs of young, beautiful women, their twinkling eyes and bright smiles eagerly awaiting his company.
He let out a strained whisper, the crackling in his ancient lungs toiling and gurgling, “A thousand years ago, perhaps...back when I was young...back when I was more human than machine... Perhaps then I felt the tender kiss of true delight. Those were the days.”
The viewing deck—the size of a city block—was empty save for the tiny droids and one other: his faithful servant Jenerous Aleed, a slender, well-fitted Butler Robot who had been with him for hundreds of years. “Of, course they were, master.” The servant robot beamed like a young boy, his hands coming together out of pure excitement. “I’ll never tire of your gripping tales of the old days.”
In the days of his youth—those wondrous nights of carnal pleasures...the mission entered his thoughts like a young girl wet from desire, an off-planet harlot in the throes of passion, a tickling maiden, luring and wonderful. It invaded his world like a thick waft of fresh cherry pie, stealing him up off the bed like a thief in the night. An obsessed fool he spent centuries scouring map after map, dealing with race after race across a great number of sentient species.’ He searched high and low, to dark places and lost places—anywhere there was but a whisper of it. All to no avail.
He went in search of ancient seers, great pirates and tough gangsters. His incredible charm and smooth way with people did not go unnoticed. He was a man capable of tremendous love and fantastic endowments of friendship. Sincere and very respectful his manners were impeccable and his generosity genuine. He was very respected and well liked by many. He made many friends and few enemies all across the GRID. Always discreet, in fair company, he let loose a quiet whisper, ever careful to be cautious, “The Arc of Old Earth...I was led to believe that you know something. What can you tell me about it?”
His travels in search of The Arc took him to far off worlds and lost zones. He hunted wild Borok on the plains of Paro Piska. He walked on the blue beaches of Jerviz Cov in the middle of winter, when the great six-kilometre whales breached the surface. He ate dinner with strange species’ at wild, animalistic-functions. He dined with magistrates and knights, lords and queens. He shared pleasant company with the old GRID Police Captain Carloz Reevuz, toasting a classic of Old Earth: fresh, cold beer brewed from an eight-thousand year old recipe. Mouth-watering-beautiful. He had midnight tea with the famous Queen of Polus Strigoi, The Concubine of Waverly Stars Point herself, Visa Stargazer.
Together they knew bits, or had heard of old clues that might be worth a dive. No one, it seemed, knew anything concrete. Mostly it was a collection of old stories, false rumours and loose conjecture put together like a puzzle with lost pieces. Even his own core system Brutus could not make any real sense from the piles of information gathered throughout the centuries. There was simply not enough facts to make a true calculation of where or how. The mission, it seemed, was more myth than reality.
But The Arc of Old Earth...it would never let him rest. In his younger days his obsession could easily be mistaken for the powerful hunger of an ambitious space pirate—the natural greed and curiosity of a young treasure hunter. The mission, it bit, gnawed and chewed at him all through the ages. It teased, mocked and drove him to long, sleepless nights in and out of weeks and months. It drove him across the stars, from one galaxy to the next, through vast cities and bewildering space ships. An entity all its own, it taunted, tempted and enticed.
Now an ancient, a respected elder clinging to his sanity...his enduring obsession could rightly be called madness. The mission, it still brushed up against his skin like a young dame, stirring his blood, conjuring images of youth, wealth, power and adventure. These days, when the ambitions of a young and hungry space pirate could not fair as an excuse, he had only to come to terms with the grim reality that he was far too old to be striking out on an expedition to locate a chunk of prophetic nonsense. It had cost him much more than he dreamed possible. The truth was that far too few knew way too little. The harder he looked and the deeper he dug the farther from The Arc of Old Earth he ended up.
Despite the devastating fact that he would not in this lifetime fulfill his dream of finding The Arc of Old Earth—which he considered the greatest treasure of all time—he went forth guided solely by faith.
Devoted to the verses of The Blue Sparrow Tome he held true to the words of Jul Artana, the last Human Prophet who had perished more than three-thousand years ago. Nothing would stop him from fulfilling his part. For the better part of eight-hundred years it had been that way. For more than eight centuries he followed a set path, never veering too far to one side for fear of losing sight. For eight-hundred years he followed the mission. The mission to find The Arc of Old Earth.
The mission was in itself a battle-hungry menace. A wild, unstoppable force that stripped countless treasure hunters of their flesh and bones, sending them to their graves empty and diminished. The mission...it had a way of drawing the most pain from his weary soul. It ached deep down in every bone that he was so very close but still so far away. Any ill will he felt about the mission was drowned out by the sheer magnificence that loomed before him. Never in the history of The GRID had such a secret gathering taken place. Millions of tiny shuttles twinkled like pixie dust far in the distance.
In these last hours his old heart was heavy, his ancient mind burdened with grave concern. Alive and well, at home inside the deepest parts of his psyche, lie the cold, evil sting of failure. Deep down in his heart he felt that perhaps he had wasted the last few centuries on a fool’s errand. A non-existent thing. A nonsensical series of ancient clues that did not amount to anything solid.
True, the ancient words of The Blue Sparrow Jul Artana spoke of Twins—‘two separate bodies working alone, so far apart but so very close. Together, and only together, their efforts would spark a new change in a time of tyranny and shape the landscape of all.’ So far, none of that was apparent, which is why he chose to walk in faith. Faith...it was also why he made up his mind about tonight.
Of all the bad choices that he had made over the centuries it was faith that led him here, to this moment. Still, deep down, he wondered if it was all for naught. With so little in return and so much time spent searching he could not help but to think himself a failure. Tonight, if all went according to plan, one-half of the mission would be completed. In just a few hours he would have that, at the very least.
The other half...he could not say for certain. What he knew for sure, however, was that both halves of the mission were extremely difficult, requiring incredible skills, immovable patience and peerless tenacity. Most importantly it required a partner who was built for such a task. A rogue agent that existed outside The GRID. Someone who could not be tracked. A partner equally determined to see it through. The mission required that partner to walk in faith. Faith, however, was scarce these days. In the days of concrete facts and indisputable proof faith was considered ignorant bliss.
Don Goda’s lungs, aided by mechanical pumps, trudged along like an old locomotive rolling and creaking down the tracks. The horrific close to death sounds he made echoed eerily in the massive viewing chamber like the groan of fate itself. Looking on, the incredible gathering in the distance seemed like a brilliant dream—a figment of his imagination; too good to be true. But it was, in fact, as real as the stars that shone down upon his lonely little world.
He smiled weakly as the vast of night caressed his wrinkled hands like the cold breath of death waiting in the wings. In these final hours he wished for another century of life. Another day even, to simply reminisce of a life lived to the fullest. A life of both beauty and magic. He whispered a little piece of prophetic nonsense to the night itself if to no one else, “From the moment of birth we are cursed with the inevitability of the grave.”
“Pardon me, master?”
“Forget it, Jenerous Aleed,” he wheezed. “Just an old man rambling to his self. Mind me not.”
He continued in his ramblings, his breath weary, commiserating about the mission—The Arc of Old Earth still imposing its mighty will, “To most, its no more than a lost tale, a foregone conclusion, a story based not in fact, but the imagination of machines. But I know better. Its real, and its out there somewhere. It has to be. The Prophecy of Jul Artana spoke of it.” He groaned as though in pain, his entire body writhing uncontrollably. “Sadly, I’ll never know for certain. But I have my faith. Sometimes that is all you can rely on. Sometimes...that is all you have.”
“Of course, master,” replied his old servant with a soft white glove upon his frail shoulder. “If you walk in faith...so shall I.”
“That is good, Jenerous Aleed. Now turn up the heat, and get an old man another blanket.”
Don Goda’s heart, mind and soul were brittle in these last hours—a battlefield of conflict, a wasteland of old dreams and a landscape of unfinished business. In these final hours he could not take his mind off The Arc of Old Earth. And though he did not know precisely what it was he often dreamed of finding it. Whatever it was it would far outshine all his discoveries put together: The Blue Moon of The Druid Santolalla, The Archaic Prism of the People of Westgate and even The Gold Coins of the Winged-Centaur Archemedes, all which made him a marked man with powerful, but cautious enemies. It was those very treasures that made him a sought after name in the space pirate economy which.
He continued hoarsely, his ancient body struggling to catch his breath, “Jul Artana... She said it herself in verse thirty-three of The Blue Sparrow Tome...” he struggled to breathe, “’Behold, the greatest treasure of the human race: The Arc of Old Earth, hidden in the stars.” He coughed and sputtered violently in his chair, his will never giving up on his life’s mission. “It’s out there. I know it. I would bet my life on it.”
His old servant Jenerous Aleed took a deep breath, a trembling fist to his mouth, “Please, master, this sombre talk is bringing me to tears.” He stood beside his dying master the same as ever, looking on the once powerful man with pity and grief, seeing that he was now simply an ancient shell clinging to old wounds. You already, have waged your life on it, master. What more can you give? Please, spare me the heartbreak. He did not say it, but his old mind prayed for the old man to stop, I don’t know how much more I can handle.
But truly, it was all that Don Goda had left. It was the only thing that made any sense at all. Even now, the mission chewed and gnawed incessantly at his brain. And though he did not truly know or understand just how valuable The Arc was he pondered long and deep its vast wealth.
And though he had not come into contact with its overwhelming significance he could well imagine, and often did, the vastness of its riches, the far-reaching span of its wealth. He spent centuries imagining.
His mind conjured images of a powerful alien technology that would change the landscape of the entire GRID to something divine perhaps, that would return him to his youth. Whatever it was, all other scores would pale in comparison. Oh, how his mind toyed with him in these moments of brilliant distraction, conjuring fantastic images of wealth and potential—a vault filled with Shadel Platinum or Voltron Sapphire. Or maybe it was an entire landscape full of ancient gold relics from Old Earth—a valley of diamonds, rubies and emeralds stretching over the horizon.
“What does it matter?” he huffed coarsely. “I’ll be long dead before it is ever found.” And still his old demons would not let him rest. That old pirate blood still flowed hot in his veins.
A gentle, robotic hand touched his shoulder, bringing him back to this moment of frailty and irrationality. “Please, just rest your weary mind, master.” The pleasant voice of Jenerous Aleed eased him back from the brink of madness. “Soon, you’ll be scouring the heavens in your search for the jewels of eternity.” The Robot Butler, careful not to stain his white gloves, wiped his eyes quickly.
Don Goda, quite irritated suddenly, shook his head, “Quit being so melodramatic, Jenerous Aleed! It is painfully annoying.”
“Be silent and let me have this moment unfettered by your incessant emotions.”
Don Goda fought off those haunting illusions of The Arc before they delivered him completely over the edge into the arms of madness. Instead he chose to concentrate on the only truth he knew—that which he could see directly ahead in Cronus II. He looked at it the same way a man looks at his only son, with admiration and pride. Massive beyond anything he had ever seen Cronus II was indeed a Titan. A destroyer of worlds. A conqueror and a slayer. The massive war ship shimmered like a Prince of the Heavens, immovable and righteous calling forth its most decorated followers.
He imagined himself there this very moment, amidst massive, floating barges, cruising down the Central Highway toward The Crystal City. The image up in his brain was spectacular! He was young, vibrant and powerful, blending happily amidst wealth and power. He was filled with laughter, the music lighting his eyes like dark emeralds twinkling by starlight. He was schmoozing with the rich and famous, bubbly drink in hand, red cape flowing behind every step while powerful legs carried him through the fervent hum of fantastic crowds! It was moments like these that reminded him in no easy terms that he too, was once young. Once passionate. Once filled with dreams.
Those listless tides of fast ships and powerful guns echoed in the farthest reaches of his mind. One of his favourite pastimes was spending entire weeks reliving the old days up in his mind. Back when he wore gold-studded diamonds on his fingers and suits made of the finest, blackest silk. Back when his very aura dripped of finely tuned madness. Back when the very whisper of his name inspired fear and awe. “Can you imagine it, Jenerous Aleed? The magnitude...the sheer buzz of tens of millions...? Why it is no less than the party of a lifetime!”
Jenerous Aleed smiled, “Indeed, I can imagine it, master!” His slick black hair and bright blue eyes complimented his immaculate three-piece suit. Together, master and servant watched as a long line of beautiful ships sailed forth to their destiny beneath the stars.
Don Goda could not help but to marvel at the epic grandeur of Cronus II. It was his life’s masterpiece, his baby—his heart and his soul combined into an immovable juggernaut of the stars. With unequalled destructive capabilities it was designed for one thing: conquest. And yet, despite this moment of glee his heart was gripped in a terrible sorrow. In this moment of sour tides his mind was filled with both worry and unease. It ate at him that that he might just become a ghost riddled in madness. A ghost caught up in a web of eternal searching for a lost cause.
Sensing his master’s angst, Jenerous Aleed offered some kind and fruitful words, “You’ll get there, Master. You will get there.”
“Where, exactly, is ‘there,’ Jenerous Aleed? Tell me before I leave this godforsaken bag of bones rotting in this forgotten corner of the galaxy. Tell me before I forget what this is all about. Before I forget why I was born to begin with.”
“’There,’ is...” the robot-servant chose his next words very carefully, so there was no mistaking it, “What I mean by ‘there,’ master...is the fulfillment of your destiny: The Arc of Old Earth.” He placed a gentle hand on the old man’s shoulder, the gesture once again calming his old master. “Have you forgotten that you have a most capable and most determined ally out there? An ally who will never stop? An ally who is most calculating and most shrewd? An ally that is fixed to your very motive? Your most prized motive?”
“Ah yes...the unnamed ally. The one who shan’t be named.” The old man leaned deep into his floating chair, “Let us speak no more on it, my old friend. Instead, let us indulge in this moment of simple enjoyment as two old friends ought to.”
The old, immaculately dressed servant hit the nail-on-the-head. Cronus II was precisely one half of Don Goda’s life-mission. Both a nightmare and a fantasy rolled up into one devilish scheme. It seemed, before Cronus II there was nothing but whispers—a mere inkling of a dream. A thing so fragile that anything more than a whisper would shatter it completely. And as always the echoes of its legend reverberated through every cell and every fibre of his being. And still the name itself haunted him, its relentless power singing of humanity, down to its very core: The Arc of Old Earth.