Chapter 1: Into the Unknown
Into the Unknown
Anomaly detected. Systems coming online.
Black greeted him. A split moment later his night vision engaged and made out the contours of the darkened cargo hold with startling clarity. One by one, every sense flicked on out of hibernation mode in silence. The only other sound was the hum of the engines of the transport craft, that and the imperceptible heartbeats of the occupants of the craft.
A look around the cargo hold yielded nothing of interest aside from the only other living lifeform in the hold with him, Agent Gray. Her vitals scrolled to the side in his left eye. Human female, thirty-seven years old, agent of H.O.S.T for the last decade, based out of The Manhattan biosphere ship, currently assigned to watch over the safe transport of himself and one other techno-organic lifeform - an assignment which she had expressed irritation over. Below her paygrade, or something similar is what he recalled her saying in hushed tones with her superior.
Right now, she appeared fast asleep in the jumpseat with her head kinked at an awkward angle.
He brushed her off and accessed the flight plan remotely. They were four hours into a six hour flight from Attaraxia to The Epitome. The craft’s instruments also showed no signs of any anomalies. Unless thoroughly cloaked, there were no other craft in the area, nor were there any debris or gravitational irregularities registering on the craft’s instruments, only on his.
The copper strips along his wings lit up as he scanned the surrounding area. The three antennae on the ridge of his skull stood up to receive the incoming information. A blip appeared on his scans, right smack dab in the middle of the cargo hold where the naked eye could behold nothing.
He craned his neck around and tugged the safety straps loose off his back with his elegant beak. The flesh and bone and mechanics in his legs groaned in unison at being stretched and flexed and used to bear weight again after being unused for several hours.
“Synth, what’re you doing?”
Nikola looked down at Agent Gray. Her head was inclined toward him and she held her arms snugly across her chest. His glowing bits cast orange and teal hues across her pale face and blonde hair and flashed in her gray eyes.
“An anomaly has been detected by my scanners,” he said.
“Is it dangerous?” she asked, though to his receptors it sounded like she wasn’t really that interested in the specifics and sounded distinctly tired.
He paused. “Uncertain.”
“Then sit down and strap up. We’ve still got a couple of hours left,” she said and pointed at the platform he had been perched on.
Echoes of programming tugged at his brain to acquiesce to her request. Other Synths wouldn’t question a senior agent such as Agent Gray, despite there being an anomalous reading. But they had engineered him with too much on the organic side when it came to techno-organic beings, and curiosity won out.
He stepped into the center of the hold in defiance. Agent Gray sighed and struggled out of her harness and approached him, barely coming up halfway to his shin, even though all of his senses were acutely aware of her presence. Small, warm, living. Easy to kill, on accident or on purpose. The thought of harming her sent an uncomfortable rumble through his insides, so he ignored her and the feeling and focused on the readings popping up on his HUD.
An electrical tingle raised the feathers around his neck a second before internal warning systems went off.
The hold was suddenly illuminated by a blinding white light. Agent Gray cursed and threw her hands over her face. His eyes watered and his ocular senses washed out with the intensity of the light until his systems could get a rein on it and adjust accordingly. Pupils narrowing into pinpricks, he squinted at the anomaly. It hung in the air like a bolt of lightning frozen in time, slowly widening at the middle and changing color.
“The hell is that?”
He felt Agent Gray touch his leg and looked down at her. She held her hand in front of her eyes and peeped through a tiny crack in her fingers with the other hand braced against his sturdy frame.
“That would be the anomaly,” he said.
Warning. Second anomaly detected.
Light flooded in from behind them before he could even turn around to check the second blip. Magnetics, gravity, time, lightwaves, radio signals, electrical pulses, and everything but the kitchen sink overwhelmed his HUD. Forcibly, he lowered the input of his early detection defense systems and just looked with his eyes.
A shadow blasted out of the secondary anomaly, nothing more than a blur of feathers and a hastily yelled out, “Our bad, coming through! Make a hole!”
Nikola stepped aside to let it pass.
The mess of silver and tan feathers streaked from one end of the hold to the other, beak angled toward the primary anomaly where familiar objects that looked strangely like trees were beginning to take shape. It shot through into the bright light. The trailing feet of the creature clipped Agent Gray in the shoulder and she went tumbling headfirst into light.
Her reading disappeared from his sensors.
The light behind him snapped out of existence and the hold was left in an eerie stillness. The powerful thrum of the anomaly rattled through his muscles and fibers and bones and into his very thoughts.
He edged closer to the anomaly.
Warning. Actions inadvisable. Anomaly may cut off communication with the Hub.
“But Agent Gray fell through to…wherever it leads,” he said aloud.
A rain scented breeze ruffled his feathers and the song of foreign creatures filled the hold. It truly was another world through there.
“Agent Gray is a valuable asset,” he objected.
“She’s a living, breathing agent that may have been injured in the line of duty.”
He huffed at the program’s insensitivity. “No such thing.”
And pushed through the anomaly before it, too, snapped closed, leaving the hold dark, silent, and empty.
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Agent Gray lifted her head slowly. She blinked against the natural lighting that was neither the darkness of the hold nor the searing light of the so-called anomaly. Her hands sank into soft dirt and dew dripped down her neck as she pushed herself upright into a sitting position on her knees.
The two footfalls behind her let her know the Synth hadn’t followed protocol to remain on the transport craft and had followed her through whatever had opened up in the hold.
She twisted at the waist to look up at the techno-organic creature. Her eyes drifted to the tear through the fabric of reality behind him right as it snapped closed, shearing off the edges of his tail feathers as it did. Good thing no one had been trapped in the middle of that thing.
“Agent Gray,” the Synth greeted hesitantly.
With a grunt, she got to her feet and wiped her hands off on her once black pants. “What happened to staying in the hold no matter what?”
The Synth pointedly avoided meeting her eyes. “You vanished from my sensors and I grew concerned.”
She lifted a brow. “And your systems didn’t warn you that following me was inadvisable and I was an acceptable loss?”
His failure to answer spoke volumes.
“Briggs is going to have a stroke when he hears about this,” she muttered under her breath.
She turned in a circle. The anomaly had dumped them out into the middle of a dense jungle. Trees with girths the size of the support pillars of the Brooklyn Bridge 2.0 took up residence around them in every direction. Moss clung to the sides of the towering monsters in a patchwork of greens and browns. The fungus growing in shelves along the smooth gray bark were more like platforms due to their sheer size.
Experimentally, she hopped.
It took a fraction of a second longer to come down.
“The gravity is less here than on the ships,” the Synth said.
She glanced at her phone. No signal. Even with the augments that H.O.S.T. did with their agents’ tech, it was showing there was no way to get a call out.
“Well since you decided to come with me, maybe you can be of some use,” she said and shoved the phone back in her pocket. “Where is here?”
The Synth stilled for a moment. She put her back to him while he sorted through his internal readings that remained invisible to the outside world and cast a wary eye to the unfamiliar jungle. Animal calls rang out, whooping and chirping and humming. Lighter gravity meant things could get bigger compared to what humans were comfortable dealing with - much bigger.
“Unknown planet. Unknown time.”
She whipped around. “What?”
The Synth looked down at her. “It appears the anomaly not only led to another world, but another time altogether. I don’t know where - or when - we are.”
“But I do have a lock on the creature and Attaraxian that emerged from the secondary anomaly and passed through the primary one before us.”
She frowned. “There was an Attaraxian with the other thing?”
“That is what my sensors are telling me,” the Synth said.
“Well then this is definitely their fault,” she said. She wiped a bead of sweat from her forehead and craned her head back to peer through the canopy of leaves far above them. She held up three fingers and marked them to the horizon, or at least where she guessed the horizon was. “Roughly three hours before lights out. Better get a move on, because I don’t want to see what kind of nightlife this place has.”
“Affirmative,” the Synth agreed. “The pair are directly south of our current position.”
She nodded and checked the compass on the cuff strapped to her left wrist. The magnetic poles seemed to be similar to the ones she had trained with, unlike that one planet the team had been on. That had been a nightmare.
She slapped a bug on her neck and started forward. Clouds of gnats and mosquitoes hung in various spots along the way, thankfully most of them were far above her head. She’d probably been inoculated against every disease out there, but something vectored by pests from the past - or the future? - might do her in.
It didn’t matter. She figured some strange occurrence would snuff her out. Might as well be death by mosquito-turned-bird on an unknown planet during an unknown time period.
Two hundred steps into their journey and the Synth had already stopped.
“This is inefficient,” he said. “You should allow me to carry you.”
“I’m not getting snatched up like a piece of prey, Synth. Been there, done that, got the scars to prove it,” she said and continued walking without breaking her stride.
“I would never,” he gasped.
She rolled her eyes. For such a technically advanced creature engineered in a lab and born in a test tube, he was a little too dramatic.
“I meant you should ride on my shoulders while I walk, until we find a break in the trees. Then I can take flight.”
She stopped and pivoted. He crouched low, his breastbone touching the ground and his heterochromatic eyes looking at her imploringly.
“How far away are the other two?” she asked.
The golden left eye unfocused briefly. “Three kilometers. At our current pace, we’ll fail to catch up to them.”
She scanned the jungle again. The roots erupting out of the ground made it slow going as did the slick patches of moss and tangles of ferns as tall as her. In the near distance she could see the shape of a fallen tree that she might need climbing gear to scale.
She exhaled and shook her head.
It wasn’t that she had never ridden a Synth before, it was the fact she had never ridden a Synth as big as this one. Whatever creature the lab had tinkered with to create him must have been downright massive. The only things larger than him that she had seen with her own two eyes swam in the oceans of alien planets and moons.
His thick scruff of feathers nearly consumed her. They were fine and various shades of dark teal, gray, and black, very soft to the touch. She grasped a handful of them as he stood up and they marched on. She kept a lookout from her newfound height, taking in the flora and bright flashes of native fauna. Nothing seemed to want to approach them.
His smooth steps made for a much more enjoyable ride than she thought, and he was able to simply step on top of the fallen tree once they got to it.
A glint caught her eye.
“There’s something to our nine o’clock,” she said.
The Synth turned his head that way and deviated from their path. She huffed in exasperation. This Synth was far more curious about his surroundings than the others she had interacted with. But then again, she was more curious than she let on.
The object that had caught her eye seemed to be a structure of some sort, carved from large gray stones and inlaid with gold. Vines obscured a large portion of it, and even a young tree sprouted from halfway up its sloped side, its trunk already a dozen feet thick. The Synth paused, going rigid as he scanned.
“Looks like a pyramid,” she said. “Like the ancient Mesoamerican ones back on Earth.”
The Synth broke his trance and hummed in agreement. “Initial readings suggest it goes underground quite a ways. And look at this.”
He pulled a curtain of vines away with his wing claw. Etchings that had been weathered to the point they were almost unreadable were on the stone face.
“I wonder what these meant to the people who constructed it,” the Synth pondered aloud.
She cast her eyes up to the peak of the pyramid that was buried in the canopy. “A lot of places like these were built to accommodate royalty, sacrifices, or gods. Or all three."
The Synth gently let the vines drop and stepped back. His head swept side to side, taking in the whole of the long abandoned and overgrown pyramid.
“These gods are dead now, it appears,” he said quietly. “Their house lies in ruin.”
“You think they ever existed in the first place?” she asked, genuinely curious about what thoughts a creature made in a lab had on things such as gods.
“I think someone thought they did, at some point,” he murmured.
She nodded. Interesting. A Synth normally wouldn’t hold such conversations like this with someone.
She tugged on his feathers. “Come on, let’s catch up to those two numbskulls.”
“Perhaps we’ll find more sites like this for me to catalog along the way,” he said as he turned and headed south again.
She glanced upward as a shadow eclipsed the dappled sunlight for a moment. “Hopefully everyone here is dead and gone.”
The bird with the bloody red feathers soaring above the canopy wasn’t very dead or gone.
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