“There's nothing we can do—all systems are jammed! Prepare for emergency landing!”
As Captain Navasi's frantic voice echoed throughout the Sunrise Maiden's bridge, a sinking feeling settled into the pit of Zemir's stomach.
There were many realities in which the Maiden was an unreliable starship, but this wasn't one of them. Something wasn't right.
But that didn't change the fact that the ship was quickly plummeting into the atmosphere of an uncharted planet in the Vast. If the crew didn't act quickly, that desolate rock would be their grave.
Pushing aside his fear, Zemir leaned back in his chair and cleared his mind. In an instant he sorted through a thousand iterations of this crash landing and clung to just one—the one where everyone survived.
“Hard to starboard!” Zemir boomed. “Aim for that plateau—it's our only shot!”
“You heard him!” Navasi shouted, cutting in the ship's retro-thrusters to try to slow its descent. “All hands! Starboard side!”
Obozaya and Quig scrambled to the captain's terminal, the bulky vesk's eyes wide with adrenaline and the scraggly ysoki shrieking profanities. They forced their weight onto the controls, pulling the levers far past their safety points, desperately hoping the ship could find the landing spot Zemir had seemingly pulled from thin air.
“That's it,” Zemir encouraged them, clinging to the single survival scenario he foresaw. “We're going to make it!”
The Maiden's proximity sensor screamed a warning. The ship slammed three times into the hard ground. But sure enough, thanks to the reality Zemir had plucked like a grain of sand from an infinite beach, they crashed in one piece.
Once Navasi caught her breath, the captain stumbled over to Zemir and clapped him on the back.
“Another day, another of your mysterious magic tricks,” she said, grinning with relief. “I don't suppose the universe told you why we all just nearly died in a fiery crash, did it?”
Obozaya strode up behind Navasi, glowering with anger now that the danger had passed. “If there is an enemy here, Zemir, tell us. It is dishonorable to sabotage the ship,” she growled.
Zemir forced a characteristic chuckle and shook his head. His companions knew his powers didn't work that way.
“Look, I don't have all the answers,” Zemir said. He grinned impishly. “Where we are, and why we're here—well, I'll need some help figuring that out.”
Just then, a telltale pinging rang out from the Maiden's comms. Quig slid over to examine the readout.
“Hey,” the gruff ysoki barked. “While you three are over there solvin' the world's mysteries, somebody near us on this rock needs help. Distress signal incoming.”
Hesitating, Navasi turned toward Quig. “But the ship—how damaged are we?”
“Structural damage minimal. I'll reset our systems and we'll be peachy again in an hour. Seems we just hit an electronics-jamming field.”
Obozaya hefted her doshko and looked at the captain, who nodded.
“If someone else hit that field and didn't have someone with Zemir's talents aboard, it's possible there's another crew outside lying on death's door,” Navasi said. “Obo, Quig—you up for a search and rescue? Zemir and I'll watch the systems.”
The vesk and ysoki nodded, saluted their captain, and headed toward the ship's airlock.
Zemir's eyes narrowed. Again, the subtlest of ripples tickled his senses. Something was not right, but without any sense of what or why, Zemir did the only thing he could.
“I'll join the rescue,” he said, winking to Navasi and striding purposefully to catch up with his companions. “You saw that green sky? Seems like a view I can't miss.”
The captain nodded, and the three set off for the source of the distress signal. Despite the rocky planet's abandoned desolation, its atmosphere was surprisingly friendly. Helmets off, the crew sauntered past chalky rock formations, skirting steep valleys and stagnant pools of dark liquid. Knowing Zemir's love of culture and cuisine, Quig joked about making the witchwarper a “sludge soufflé,” while Obozaya missed the jest and offered to share traditional vesk baking recipes.
It was strangely like any other friendly stroll—until the twinge in the back of Zemir's mind became a nauseating wave. Gritting his teeth through the mental assault, Zemir saw dozens of beady eyes and vicious tusks beginning to rise from crevices in the surrounding rock.
The creatures' hulking, scaled forms and snake-like tongues were unmistakable.
“Riveners!” Zemir shouted. “It's an ambush!”
The tines of her doshko roaring to life, Obozaya gave a fearsome battle cry and lunged toward the nearest riveners—powerful and nearly mindlessly aggressive lizard-like monsters often used as shock troops. Not to be outdone, Quig snatched his flamethrower from his back and braced himself to unleash a gout of flaming petrol.
But Zemir stood back, the wisdom of infinite possibilities settling on his shoulders.
The odds, he noted, were not in the companions' favor. Zemir counted a dozen riveners rushing toward him and his friends, who were already beginning to falter. And Zemir was certain he saw a different humanoid form scuttle away from the battlefield.
The twinges he felt made sense now. There was another witchwarper at hand—that's why everything from the moment the Maiden's systems jammed until now felt like it existed in the reality next door. Someone was out to destroy Zemir and his friends, and it seemed they were willing to change existence itself to do it.
Not if Zemir could help it, he thought, as he scrambled atop a rock formation high above the fray.
Gritting his teeth and stretching out his arms, Zemir focused his mind and began to call just a taste of a terrible world into their own. Hellfire rained down from the sky, the ground boiled into lava, and grasping hands sprang from the rocky earth to clutch at the slavering riveners' feet.
Of course, much of it was an illusion. Zemir's friends knew that; they had witnessed his raw power unleashed before. Still, Obozaya and Quig turned to stare at Zemir in terrified, respectful awe.
The riveners, on the other hand, screamed with horror as the spectral hands grabbed at them and the hellfire burned through their skin and flesh.
“Finish them off!” Zemir shouted. He leapt off the rock formation to pursue the opposing witchwarper. “Do not follow me!”
Purple robes billowing behind him, Zemir dashed to the ravine where he'd seen the mysterious humanoid figure disappear. But when he vaulted down, a different sight stole his breath.
Instead of a person, there was merely a metal hatch set into the ground. It was partially ajar, revealing a passage that led deep below. And on the hatch was a familiar crest: a stylized “IEM.”
The crest of the Institute for Extraordinary Minds.
An academy for witchwarpers.
Specifically, Zemir's alma mater—and one whose masters held a fierce vendetta against the fugitive who abandoned three of his classmates in an alternate reality many years ago.
Reflexively, Zemir lifted his comm unit to his mouth to warn Navasi back on the Maiden. His past had come to call, and now they were all in danger.
“Captain, they've found me,” he said.
A scream, and then nothing but static.
Iconic Encounter: The Reality Next Door
Thursday, October 10, 2019