Bensu could not tell how much time had passed since they had made first contact with the subspace aliens via their shared mind link. He couldn’t be sure if it had been minutes, hours, or days, all he could tell for certain was that he had no idea where exactly he found himself now.
He seemed to be standing on solid ground but that was as much as he could tell with any kind of confidence.
His surroundings were another matter altogether. The best way he could describe the experience to himself was to say that he was looking through a large cracked glass window, damaged so badly that it rendered anything beyond it in a bizarre mess, blurry and out of focus it was almost impossible to make out any clear shapes and the longer he tried to make sense of anything, the more the effort caused him physical discomfort.
He attempted a few careful steps and although the ground remained steady underneath his feet, his surreal surroundings refused to change into anything even closely resembling natural shapes.
He felt the other presence before he heard him speak and turned around, immediately grateful to see something, anything he recognized. “Gary Seven.”
He nodded absentmindedly, clearly more preoccupied with his thoughts than his surroundings, including him.
“What happened? Where are we?”
“Did you sense it?”
He knew immediately what he was referring to and nodded. “Yes. And not for the first time. It was there before, when we first attempted the mind link in the Ring. Where are the others?”
“It is astonishingly powerful,” Seven said, still deep in thought. They call it the--“
“Beholder,” Bensu said.
At that Seven perked up, looking straight at the other man. “Yes. But who or what is it?”
Bensu shook his head. “I don’t know. But I’ve heard that name before.”
He had his full attention now as Seven took a step closer to him. “Where?”
“The subspace alien we captured uttered that same name when it was questioned on Eagle.”
“So it might be the name of another of their people? Their leader perhaps?”
“Honesty, I don’t know. We thought it may be the name of their species.”
“No,” said Seven as he turned away again, ruminating once more. “The subspace aliens do not refer to themselves by that name. They are known by many names but they don’t truly have one they use themselves. The Aegis has known about them for a very long time. For most of it, they were content to remain within the subspace domains that separate quantum-reality.”
“The branes,” said Bensu, remembering Xylion mentioning this theory previously. “That is how they were able to destroy other universes. By weakening the branes that separate them.”
Seven nodded again but without paying him too much attention, clearly, this part didn’t come as any great news to him. “We need to locate this Beholder. He is the key to all of this, I’m sure.”
Bensu crossed his arms defiantly. “First I want to know where we are and what happened to my friends. I deserve that much.”
Seven looked up again and regarded him with a subtle smile. “Of course, you do,” he said and then raised his arms dramatically as if to demonstrate all that surrounded them. “Think of this like a nexus. A place where space, time, and dimensions meet.”
“It’s giving me a headache.”
He looked around, frowning. “We have to thank our subspace friends for this. Their Ring is causing chaos in the space-time continuum. Or rather, in the interdimensional space that connects all of it. There is a delicate balance in the quantum-verse and their actions have caused serious damage to it.”
“Not to mention destruction.”
He nodded. “As for your friends, I assure you they are quite safe. At least, as safe as any of us can be. When the link was shattered, I was able to channel their minds back into their bodies. All five of them are currently unconscious but will no doubt wake again soon.”
“And why am I here?”
Seven stepped up closer to him, regarding him carefully. “Because you are not like them, are you?”
He didn’t respond to that.
“We’ve already established that you are, most likely, unique in quantum-reality, which already makes you incredibly special.”
He shook his head. “I don’t feel special.”
Seven looked him right in the eye as if he was trying to gleam a hidden truth there. “No, there is something else about you that doesn’t quite fit. And I cannot put my finger on it. Your race, for example, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered it before.”
“We are not native to the Milky Way. In fact, I am most likely the last of my kind anywhere,” he said, unable to quite keep the sadness and frustration out of his voice.
“That might explain it. Allow me to delve deeper, to see for myself who you are and where you come from,” he said as he held out a hand.
Bensu regarded it skeptically for a moment before meeting his gaze. “Why? Those memories are not the kind I wish to relieve. I’ve tried very hard to forget them ever since I’ve managed to unlock them.”
He nodded slowly. “They are painful to you?”
“I’m the last of my kind, what do you think?”
“I understand that this cannot be easy. But sometimes, in order to heal, we have to face our darkest pain. Our most inner demons. You cannot move forward without first coming to terms with what you left behind.”
Bensu uttered a little laugh devoid of humor. “Your interest isn’t in healing my pain. You are trying to satisfy your own curiosity.”
His proffered hand didn’t waver. “I am not pretending that I am doing this to help you. But knowing more about you may help me understand how you might fit into all this. Don’t tell me that you aren’t curious yourself. That you haven’t wondered why you have been feeling such peculiar thoughts lately, why you have known things you shouldn’t be able to know?”
Bensu couldn’t deny that all that had been playing on his mind quite a bit. That it had, in fact, disturbed him a great deal. “And you think you can give me answers to these questions?”
“I can try.”
Bensu took a deep breath and then grabbed his hand.
As soon as he made contact, he felt himself being sucked into a bottomless hole. He felt like he was being pulled by an invisible force at incredible speeds and yet, at the same time, it seemed that he was completely rooted to the spot where he stood, still holding on to Seven’s hand who also remained steadfast in place before him.
This strange whirlwind changed as suddenly as it had begun and when he looked up again he could see he was back home.
They stood in a city. It wasn’t the capital. Bensu didn’t know its name but it looked like so many other production centers that had existed on his world, bland and filled with factories that pumped out the one commodity most valued by his people.
The city stood empty now, entirely deserted thanks to the unbearable heat radiating down from a sky that had long since turned perpetually rust-colored. Although he couldn’t feel the temperature, the shimmer of the heat waves and the dried and shriveled vegetation all around him made it difficult to ignore the ecological disaster that was still unfolding here.
Bensu and Seven walked down a wide an isolated road that had already fallen into disrepair from the unrelenting heat and lack of maintenance.
“Celerias,” Bensu said. “Northern hemisphere, I venture.”
“Those who are still alive now dwell in makeshift underground cities,” he said and looked up at the sky, using a hand to shield his eyes from the massive sun hanging overhead. “We’re maybe a year or two away from the star going supernova and wiping out this entire system.”
“Anyone make it off the planet?” Seven asked.
Bensu spotted an overturned transport skimmer at the side of the road and headed for it. The vehicle had carried a full load of its cargo when it had been abandoned and much of it had spilled out on the side of the road.
It was a gruesome scene of broken and partly-molten body parts, appearing like lifeless mannequins at first sight but upon closer inspection, it became clear that these bodies had once been as real as his own. Their synthetical nature was apparent only where they had broken apart.
Bensu took a knee and picked up what was left of a head that had come detached from the rest of the body. It was entirely hairless, empty sockets where the eyes were supposed to be and the skin was shriveled and peeling off. “No. A few decades earlier there were plans to commission a space program but it was mostly shelved in favor of pursuing the lure of immortality.”
Seven seemed to understand. “Synthetic bodies,” he said and looked around. “That’s what was being made here.”
Bensu nodded slowly as he kept looking at the lifeless skull, thankful at least that these bodies had not yet been in use when they had been destroyed. “My entire world committed itself to the idea of living forever by transferring our essence into new bodies when the old ones wore out. After some time, it had become so commonplace, switching bodies became as fashionable as choosing a new outfit to wear,” he said and let the head fall onto the road again where it slowly rolled back towards the remaining heap of shattered bodies. “It marked the undoing of our people.”
He stood back up and faced Seven. “And I played part in those decisions as well. I could have fought to pursue other sciences that could have given us a chance at saving our race. Instead, I was just as happy to go along with this insanity as most of the rest of the planet. Pray tell me, how does any of that make me special? How does this fit into your notion of a unique being?”
“I don’t know. But then again, there is no straightforward explanation why unique beings exist in the first place. For all we know, there might be no master plan at work at all.”
“Comforting,” he said and took a last look around his dying world. “Are we done here? Can we leave this place to rest in peace?”
“How did you survive?”
Bensu had no response to this. It was, of course, a question he had asked himself ever since he had managed to unlock these memories a few weeks earlier and with the help of Xylion and a journey back to the Vulcan’s Forge where he had first arrived in this galaxy. Or rather, where a young Vulcan boy had come across his disembodied self and subsequently merged with his mind.
He shook his head. “Not all my memories of this time have been restored to me. I suppose my artificial body somehow managed to protect me.”
“Just yours? While billions of others perished? One hell of a coincidence, don’t you think?”
Bensu shot the other man a glare. “Do you have a better theory?”
“Tell me, what do you remember of living on this world?”
Bensu turned his back to the other man and walked away.
Seven followed him, not willing to give up just yet. “If you want to find answers, you must be willing to ask difficult questions, no matter how painful they might be.”
“What else is there to say? We lived here, they died, I survived.”
“How long did you live here, Bensu? How many bodies did you inhabit? What was your childhood like? What was the name of your father? What was your mother like?”
Bensu stopped and considered this for a brief moment “I … can’t remember.”
“Isn’t that curious?”
He turned around. “No. Up until a few weeks ago, I had no memory at all of this place. Some of it was restored but much more is still hidden from me. By all indications, all this happened hundreds of years ago and afterward I quite possibly floated through space for a few more decades until I ended up on Vulcan. Considering all that, some holes in my memory are hardly surprising, don’t you think?”
He nodded slowly. “It is certainly plausible.”
Bensu considered him cautiously. “But you don’t believe it. Then please, enlighten me as to what you think all this means.”
“I want you to consider the possibility that it didn’t start here.”