Fardune hesitated. A single misstep when navigating the unmarked pathways of The Warden’s ancient ship could lead to instant death. It wasn’t just the nameless creatures that scurried about the dark, murky depths which could rise to strike, nor the eerie bots that scampered about repairing damaged sections, it was the ship itself.
It was alive.
Even now he could feel the immense pressure of being within its belly, bearing down upon him. Sometimes he was unlucky enough to walk past an old jouramine miner from centuries past, ensnared in the ships exposed crystal wires. Their carcasses never decomposing; they were just gradually being absorbed into the ship itself as crystals formed around them. He had to wonder what the old miners had thought, all those centuries ago, when they had first burst through the metal walls and disturbed the sleeping god within. Had they known they’d ensnared themselves within a terrifying, primordial world from wherein their ancestors had crawled and clawed free from? Or had they been oblivious to the dangers, foolhardily seeking the energy source that lay within.
Fardune sighed. Jouramine had always been power hungry. That had not changed. He doubted it ever would. Their entire society was built around securing energy to survive, and through such desperation had been birthed the unquenchable desire to be powerful to survive.
Carefully he climbed his way down a creaky ladder, following the sound of loud clangs and irritated shouts. The Warden must not have been in a good mood, but then, it never was. He landed in a large hanger. The area had been stripped, its walls torn apart, either due to the bots manically trying to find resources for other areas of the slowly decaying ship, or the crash itself had obliterated whole sections. Attentively he walked his way over the rickety high planks, keeping to the middle of the metal beams.
This was the engine. At least, that was what he had figured out over the long years. It was the heart of everything that went on within The Crack, and it was also the source of the Time Dilation Field that held The Warden prisoner. It was why someone, such as himself, who had fought during the Cakrei Wars, had become nothing more than a myth, reduced to ferrying slaves and escapees.
He had once been a mighty, glorious warrior—
He dodged a thrown spanner, wincing as it clattered over the torn, ruptured hull of the ship to plummet down into the depths of The Crack.
“I can’t take much more of this! Everything is dying!” The Warden shrieked.
Fardune leapt onto the raised platform where The Warden worked, tending to its precious star-core. The source of All-Power. It had seeded their world by its intervention. Without its grace, he would not exist, for The Warden would never have cared for such a world as far-gone as theirs seemed to be. Perhaps he should have been on his knees in its presence. He resisted the urge to reach out his hand and rest it upon the surface of the glass that encased the figure inside the long cylinder. It appeared to be peacefully sleeping, but he had to wonder if it was a peaceful sleep at all. Would it awaken to this nightmare that The Warden cursed about each and every day?
Would it be ashamed of the results of its power? What would it think of them, the beings it had given life too?
“Is she one of them?” Fardune asked. “That creature you had me take to the prince, is she like your star-core?”
Slumped over its floating chair, The Warden wearily lifted an arm off its eyes. There was an eternalness about The Warden, akin to a mountain, holy and unmatched in age and stagnation, and yet within that eternity was weariness and pain. “Heh, you noticed that.”
Fardune nodded. “They look similar.”
The Warden peered through its tangled mess of frazzled hair. “Let’s just say the potential is there, somewhere, in the distant future.”
“Do we even have a future?” Fardune murmured.
“Oh, wow.” The Warden’s red pupils narrowed into thin lines. “How unusual for you to be so melancholy, Fardune. Did your wife leave you, did she finally realise she’ll only see you two, maybe…three…more times before she gets old and dies.”
“I have a son.”
“I suppose I should congratulate you.” The Warden slouched forward, staring despondently into an unseen distance.
“I missed the first four years of his life, and now, I’ll miss the next four…”
“I’m afraid it may be worse than that.” The Warden scratched a long nail against its chin.
Fardune’s stomach clenched as an uneasiness spiked the dense fur around his neck. Perhaps The Warden had been throwing a fit for a viable reason after all. It was difficult to tell, with how truly detestable their subterrain habitat had become, though, on his short trips to the Above World, he was reminded that things weren’t much better. The glorious Empire he had once fought for, that he had bequeathed his life too, was decaying. Worse still, was that he was forced to watch it play out, forever remembering what had once been and clinging to the past that was naught but legends.
“You haven’t managed to fix the power modular then?” Fardune asked.
“Fix it?” The Warden scoffed. “There is no fixing this nightmare. As I was this world’s beginning, I may also be its end.”
“I had rather hoped to return to good news.” Fardune sighed.
“The time between recalibrations is continuing to decrease each cycle.” The Warden slumped forward, dragging fingers through its hair. Static energy buzzed up its antennae.
Fardune closed his eyes. “When do you expect the next shutdown.”
“About four months, Crack-Time. So…oh…whoops…that’s right on your Above World holiday date, sorry, guess you’ll need to reschedule.”
Fardune hissed. “So soon! We only just had a recalibration! The denizens wiped out half the towns along the Border. The Crack almost extends all the way up to Kyu! If it…if it keeps…if continues…”
“What will be, will be.” The Warden shrugged wearily. “I cannot stop the terraforming process, I’ve only stalled it, and look at the mess that’s made.” A hand was flipped out, motioning to him. “You’re all a bunch of biohazards.”
“Warden, the devastation was…incomprehensible…if the Time Dilation Field fails, and the denizens are freed to roam amongst a land they can inhabit, nothing will survive.”
“You think I don’t know that.” The Warden snapped. “You think I haven’t seen it.”
Fardune lifted his chin. “You keep insisting you do not care for this world—”
“I don’t! I am disgusted and furious at everything I see on my screens. For thousands of years I have fed propaganda throughout this world that a catastrophe is coming from below to bring them wrath and ruin, and they haven’t done anything! Nothing! Fardune! Nothing! Not even a single watch tower!” The Warden made a strangling motion with its hands. “Thousands of years, Fardune, they’ve known about The Crack, and what’s within it, but what have they done? Sent their poor, their desolate, their unwanted to me. What am I? Some kind of evil deity that needs appeasing, so they throw scraps at me.”
The Warden floated up, resting its hands against the glass surface of the cylinder encasing the slumbering star-core. It was rare that the Warden’s expression turned soft, but every so often, in the presence of the star-core, the manic creature almost appeared kind as the harsh, sharp lines of its features tempered. “But you cannot keep filling a hole and expect it to never overflow.”
“Are you insinuating this is our fault?” Fardune crossed his arms. He wasn’t decked out in his heavy plates of armour. They were rather cumbersome to wear in the depths of The Warden’s ship, but his environmental stabilising pack still hissed steam as it burned fuel and his movements jostled the device strapped to his back.
The Warden cocked its head to one side. “Let me see, should I blame the asteroid that slammed into me mid-warp and caused me to crash into this forsaken planet? Or should I blame myself for getting knocked unconscious, making it impossible for me to stop the terraforming process from beginning? Or how about I blame my siblings for sending me on this mission in the first place!” It ended with a shriek.
Fardune closed his eyes. “I apologise.”
“You should!” The Warden hissed. “You’re standing in front of me today because I bothered to nurture that which was deemed uninhabitable.” The creature punctuated its words by slamming a fist against the star-cores cylinder. “I said, screw it! I’ll give these abominations a fighting chance, instead of just blowing everything to smithereens and ending my misery.”
Fardune glanced back at the star-core. Sometimes The Warden threatened to still do so, but it fought so hard for their survival, despite all its huffing and puffing about loathing their existence, loathing its own existence. He’d given up believing there was any truth behind the threat.
“Your ancestors climbed out of The Crack. They took the risk. So many died. I watched them suffer, horrifically under the Time Dilation Field.” The Warden lifted away from the star-core, drifting to a table, snatching up a cola can. It threw one to him and Fardune caught it. They were an acquired taste. Many of his men had become just as addicted as The Warden was to the strange beverage that always seemed to be in abundance within their barracks. It was another mystery of The Crack as to where it came from, and how The Warden even acquired them.
“But those who managed to climb out during those rare times when recalibration forced a shutdown…” The Warden breathed out deeply, its long ears flipping rearward. “They’d proven they were worthy to become dominant. I think…I might have actually been proud. Then you all had to go and ruin it, with corrupt empires and useless xenophobic wars and mass genocide.” Crushing the cola can, The Warden ditched it hard against a wall. “Why! Why! Why! Every time! You mindless little mites. Even on a planet that wants to crush you, you all start fighting.”
Fardune sipped his drink. His ears flattened low, knowing it was best to show at least some sign of being chastised. He’d heard this before. It was a repeated lecture, and it was always best to let it run its course.
He eased down on a rickety bench. “Blue-Eyes is back.”
The Warden gave a long, high-pitched groan, flopping back and forth in the air. “That atrocious brat!”
“He is persistent. I do believe this is his fourth capture. The brat’s practically grown up half in The Crack, half Above World.”
The Warden winced. “Ouch. That’s some awkward time distortion. I should probably give him a look over, don’t want him randomly destabilizing.”
“Well, he is asking to see you again.”
The Warden hauled open a crate, searching around inside, almost vanishing into it before emerging with packet of something it called chips. It poured the snack into a bowl and slumped back into its floating chair.
“It’s been over four-hundred years since the Fall of Riogan.” The Warden sighed. “I don’t know what that brat wants from me.”
“You made him a promise, Warden.” Fardune arched an eyebrow. “For each climb, you’d give him a clue to the whereabouts of his family.”
“I didn’t actually think he’d keep coming back!” The Warden whined. “I’m not actually omniscient you know.”
“Oh, I know.” Fardune dodged a thrown tool.
The Warden sunk deeper into its seat, every so often nibbling on its chips. Fardune sipped his drink. The silence drew on. Fardune stole another cola can, cracking it open, listening to the hiss. If he remained here, in this ancient, decaying ruin, it almost felt like nothing else outside mattered. He could pretend, for just awhile, that his fur wasn’t soaked in blood. He could ignore the ever-watchful eyes of the children he had slaughtered.
“Fardune, I have decided something.” The Warden finally broke the tableau. “I, in my infinite wisdom, am going to kill two birds with one stone. Yes. Yes. Indeed, this is quite brilliant.” The Warden steepled its fingers, its eyes narrowing into thin red pricks. “The Blue-Eyed brat wants answers, then I shall provide him with answers, but I also want something.” A leer spread across the manic imp’s features. Fardune’s fur spiked as an uneasy trickle spread down his spine. “I want my game of Civilization to advance to the next phase, therefore, I have decided that The Prince shall also make The Climb in four months.”
Fardune choked on his mouthful of cola. The bubbly liquid squirted out of his nose, hissing, stinging the sensitive skin inside. He slapped his chest as his eyes watered. The Warden stared at him with detached amusement.
“He is never to be released.” Fardune wheezed out. “The Emperor made that very clear.”
The Warden glanced around mockingly. “What Emperor, oh you mean the one who died several hundred years ago and left his empire to collapse into an absolute trash pile of squabbling Strongholds, fighting over pieces of viable land, while they maintain dominion over the energy grid their serfs die to keep running. You mean that Emperor? The one who sent you to practically genocide a country and enslave the survivors? That Emperor?”
Fardune’s claws pricked the sides of the can he held, cold liquid bled out, seeping into his fur.
“I was the one who slaughtered the Prince’s family, not the Emperor.”
“Hm. No.” The Warden pointed to him. “You were the one who carried out the order. You were the sword that took off the heads, not the arm that made the strike.”
“That’s a technicality.” Fardune breathed in sharply.
“I like technicalities.” The Warden’s grin was wide, showing thin, sharp teeth.
Fardune hissed. “The Emperor’s will passed on into the Jouramine Conglomerate, and now I am a sworn representative of the Strongholds, thus it is my duty to keep The Prince contained—”
The Warden blew a long, mocking hoot with its tongue.
Fardune sighed at its childishness. He’d honestly had more respect when facing his son, and he’d only met the child once. “It is my duty as a sworn representative—”
Another mocking raspberry cut him short. The Warden smirked sardonically, its long ears twitching. In the eerie light of the star-core, the manic little imp looked hauntingly evil as it playfully kicked its legs back and forth from its perch on its floating chair.
“The Conglomerate doesn’t care about you, or your men. You are a forgotten relic of the past, a piece of ancient history, practically a myth. I guarantee if you walked into one of the Strongholds, they’d have you executed for treason.”
Fardune breathed in, steadying his uneasy feet.
“The Cakrei Wars are almost mythology, Fardune, which makes you neither a monster nor a hero. Whatever glory you think there was, it is long gone. It is so far gone, no one even remembers that they locked up a Cakrei Prince.” The Warden said.
Setting his cola can aside Fardune wiped the sticky liquid on his under-armour. “What is so special about that prince. I never understood why the Emperor spared him.”
“Spared him. Hmp.” The Warden snorted. “I hardly think he was spared.”
“He is not dead.” Fardune spat out.
“Quick death. Slow death.” The Warden murmured. “I know which one I’d choose.” It’s fingers briefly brushed against the loose shirt it wore. Fardune glanced aside. He’d only seen the wounds once, but once had been enough to know the damage the crash-landing had inflicted upon the creature was corrosive and irreparable.
“I would have killed him.” Fardune huffed. “He is far too dangerous alive.”
“Which is why your Emperor kept him alive, for insurance.”
“Yes. Your Emperor wasn’t an idiot, all for being a mass-murdering genocidal moron, he did actually understand one thing. He saw the signs that his Empire would fall.” The Warden sat back on its work bench, tapping the metal surface idly. “And perhaps that is what drove him mad in the end, his fear. Thus, he had no choice but to hide away the one thing that could save his Empire, for insurance.” The Warden flapped out its hands.
“Yes. I established that, right?”
Fardune pinched his nose. “I understand that he is a powerful synthesiser, but so is the Blue Eyed brat. What difference does it make?”
“Hm?” The Warden scratched its chin. “I suppose it goes back to the reason why this planet was unsuitable for life and was rejected from the seeding program.” The imp reached for a cola can, spinning it on a fingertip before letting it float in the air. It added several more empty cans, making them spin around the first. “Humans are soft, squishy creatures. They need a planet inside something called a Goldilocks Zone to survive. Aburu is not inside a Goldilocks Zone, it is way out here, on the outskirts of a solar system.” The Warden pointed to one of the spinning cans. “At least, I think it is.”
Fardune tapped the workbench he leant against. When he’d first arrived within The Crack, none of The Warden’s strange, alien words had made sense to him, but gradually, over the years, and with considerable patience, he’d come to appreciate the knowelage the ancient being had to share. He only wished he could impart the wonders to his son, but now it seemed he’d never get that chance.
He sighed. He had been cursed. His life was unsuitable for fatherhood, no matter how much he longed for such a fate.
The Warden was still contemplating its little diorama of floating cans.
“Since I was unable to halt the automatic seeding program when I crashed, and I knew I couldn’t rely solely on the terraforming turrets to create a sustainable environment for human life, I was compelled to fulfill my function another way.” It tipped back, rolling about in the air. “I gave you all a little bit of me.” The Warden’s grin was disturbing. “Creating within each race the ability to morph and adapt to the horrifying environments of this disgusting world. Hence, why you’ve all…” The Warden gestured at him, making a look of disgust. “Turned out like…well…like that.”
Fardune frowned. “Should we not then be able to assimilate to the terraforming that is seeping out from The Crack?”
The Warden flinched. “Fardune, it took your ancestors hundreds of thousands of years to climb out of The Crack. What you are now, is not what your ancestors were. I gave you the ability to adapt over time, not alter immediately. Still, even what I did…I’d be executed for it, you know, if my people ever found out.”
“You’d deserve it.” Fardune huffed.
“Haha, you’re hilarious Fardune. This is why I keep you around.” The Warden grabbed a handful of chips from the bowl on its workbench. It waggled a finger at him. “The Cakrei royal family though,” it pointed to the star-core. “I got bored and fused just the tiniest drop of star-core fluid into them as well.”
Fardune’s fur hackled. “So, basically, they’ve had the privilege of a head start from the beginning. Let me guess, they made it out of The Crack first, that’s why their society was far more advanced than ours.”
“Oh, you think so?” The Warden’s tone had slipped into something unusual, almost sinister. “What if I told you all the races of Aburu have a single bloodline with exactly the same experiment performed. Because, you should know me, Fardune…I’m curious like that.”
“So then the Jouramine Emperor—” His voice broke. No. Those red eyes were mocking him, daring him to hope in something he had long placed his faith in for centuries. He could not presume that just because the cakrei royal line had gained status, that the same had been for whomever it was that carried the star-core in his own people.
“You deliberately gave a certain group a higher chance of survival than others.”
The Warden shrugged. “And how has that worked out for the prince, heh, or his entire family? Frankly, how did it work out for the cakrei? Heh? Heh? The jouramine purged them, and enslaved them.” The Warden suddenly screeched. “For what, Fardune? The fact that they were a little bit better at navigating this planet’s weather, or because your mad Emperor was terrified they held the secret to surviving the end and he didn’t? So, what, just annihilate them, problem solved, future sorted.”
“Don’t you put yourself on a pedestal in front of me.” The Warden spat. “I have seen everything that has ever happened on this planet!”
Fardune’s ears flattened. “Warden, you make it sound as though…to be someone of great importance, you must first have something of great importance within you.” Fardune glanced hesitantly at the star-core. “Not everyone is a prince.”
His son, growing up on the dark streets of Kyu, beneath one of the great Monolithic Strongholds. How was his son supposed to ever reach greater heights if the whole world was against him.
“Ohhhhh, blehhh.” The Warden dragged its nails over its face. “Of course everyone has something of great importance within them, you giant old lump.”
His ears perked up. “We do?”
Fardune’s nose was flicked, enough that he staggered back in alarm.
“Yourself. You idiot. Isn’t that obvious. That is all anyone ever needs.” Another cola can was handed to him.
Fardune popped it open, giving it a long drink. “You’re a horrible god,” he grumbled.
The Warden licked clean its fingers. “I am not a god, Fardune. To consider me thus is foolish. I am nothing but a seed, blown waywardly into a crack in the concrete, and now, I struggle against an invasion of weeds threatening my concrete garden.”
“Do you truly believe the prince could halt the terraforming?”
“Right now, I have no other plan.” The Warden clapped its hands. “All I want is to leave this forsaken planet, find my people, my partner, my children.” It sipped its cola. “But apparently I can’t have what I want, so, instead, I’ll see what wrath and ruin does when it is unleashed.”
“He will destroy Middrift.”
“Oh no.” The Warden mocked. “The horror.”
“You are disgusting.”
“Pot. Kettle.” The Warden picked up a tool. “Also, for the next four months, I want you to train the prince and the human.”
“No.” Fardune smashed his paw down on the workbench, shaking the devices scattered across it.
The Warden slowly looked up at him, its crazed eyes thinning into small red dots. “I’m sorry, did I just hear the word no, come out of your mouth, Fardune?”
“You cannot possibly expect me to train the enemy I locked up down here, for the purpose of him climbing free and slaughtering my people.”
“Don’t think of it as slaughtering your people, think of it as saving them from an even worst fate. You’ve seen it yourself. You know your people are not prepared for what is coming.”
“How dare you.”
“Oh, I dare.”
“He does not need training.” Fardune spat. “He singlehandedly took out half my platoon. Have you any idea what it took for me to subdue him?”
“You threw his brother’s severed head at him and then poured all the blood of his family over him. I’m pretty sure it is something he won’t forget. The fact that you spent the time draining blood from bodies is impressive in its brutality.” The Warden floated around him, clicking its tongue.
“Does it haunt you, Fardune, that little prince you killed so easily? That little princess you butchered.”
“Does it wake you up at night when you think…oh…my own son…he’s about that age now…what if I just snapped his neck.”
“I would never harm my own son!”
The Warden cracked a laugh. “Spare me your pathetic attempt at justifying your actions.”
“Then why make me do this,” Fardune whispered. “Obviously I will never redeem myself in your eyes.” His tail flopped wearily over the floor.
“Because the human girl needs a trainer, and you’re, frankly, the best.” The Warden shrugged. “That’s just how it is.”
Fardune’s gaze shifted to the star-core, lingering on the soft glowing features of the trapped being behind the glass. His will had never been his own. First he had belonged wholly to the Emperor, then he had become a dweller of The Crack, deemed too dangerous in the new regime, thus worthy only for the dark depths.
That—he supposed—the prince and he had in common.
The only thing he had ever achieved for himself was his son, but he doubted the boy would grow to be impressed to learn of his father’s identity.
“Fine,” he murmured. “I will do as you wish.”
“My good man!” The Warden clapped him on the shoulder. “I knew you’d come around.”
It wasn’t as though he ever had a choice. He had been born to follow orders. It was all someone like him knew, and it was all he would ever do. He simply had to hope, that somehow, his actions would meagrely make up for the blood he’d shed. Was it at all possible, that someone as tainted as he was, could aid an annoying little god in saving their world.