Original Content Rogue Fleet Equinox - Chapter 49 (Finale)

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Sten grabbed at Tek’s hand like the child he sometimes remembered he was, even though Sten was in a body that was more bulky and muscular. Mr. Borad, Sten realized he had never known as a real human, was judging them, and something was going to be over soon.

“Trapped in patterns,” said Water, spreading Mr. Borad’s arms wide. “Even so close to Phosphorus, Tek, and half-protected by his minuscule aura, you cannot help but be what you are. Remember when I said I would make your brother unrecognizable? That happened so early, at Installation Ulysses. When we first met, you thought I was speaking in more metaphor than I actually was. I did shape him. Or at least Argon did. Hah. Let’s get over the last of this, shall we?”

Mr. Borad clapped his hands, and Nith appeared, on a sort of stage with Jane, and Jane’s general great-uncle. There was a sort of fog around them, and they didn’t seem much aware of anyone else.

“Is it okay?” Jane asked her great-uncle. “That I wound up putting blood on my hands? To keep up?”

“No,” said the general. “But we do it for others. And we do it to those who did it first.”

“Maybe it all meant something,” said Jane, slowly at first, then gaining confidence. “And even if it didn’t, if we’ll all lose in the end, and always would have, at least we’re proving that people can fight.”

Nith put her metal hand on Jane’s shoulder. It had been covered by a sort of flesh patina, but that was tattered now, and, as best Sten could see, Nith didn’t care. “I wondered if I was protecting my family by coming here,” said Nith. “But we’re all family. I know so people will think we’re all stupid for saying that. I, for one, don’t care.”

“There,” said Mr. Borad. “You made people believe in you, Tek.” He snapped his fingers,and Jane and Nith and Jane’s great-uncle realized where they were. Backed towards Tek. Towards some of the other allied fighters. Jane took Tek’s hand.

Mr. Borad, or rather, Water, smiled. “Sten, do you want to say anything to Tek? Before I give you all your rewards?”

Sten looked at Tek’s face,which was more distant than ever. Twitching strangely, as if there was something unusual going on with his neurology.

“I wanted you to be proud of me Tek,” said Sten. “And I wanted you to be someone I could be proud of. In the end, I had to be on your side, I think. Sphaler never understood that sometimes it’s important to put yourself out for people who might not do the same in return.”

Sten wondered if his gentle critique was going too far, and if he should have avoided reminding Tek that Tek had a tendency to stare into the future, as opposed to the people around him.

But Tek wasn’t doing that now.

Tek hugged Sten. Sten tried to understand the twitch. Something had happened to Tek in the VR, and even with Phosphorus’ recovery of Tek’s legs, it seemed as if there was something at that was going to be different about Tek, forever.

It didn’t matter.

Everyone was always different. Compared to other people. And compared to themselves. Sten knew the research about time discounting, and how it was hard for people to value their future selves as much as their current ones. He loved Tek anyway. As well as the idea of what Tek was trying to do.

“Now then,” said Water, as Mr. Borad. “I grant your request, Tek of Zhadir’. The Home Fleet, the Alliance of Ba’am from Aeonium, from the Lower Seas, from Ard, and from the Place of Endless Tracks, whatever you want to call it--your people can wander the sky in peace from mine. This I grant as a lord of the stars. I cannot promise Region J will be completely divorced from Progenitor interest in the future, but I can promise it will not be our intention to bother it, and, as many universes as there are, what we do not have interest in, we often ignore. Sten and Jane Lee and all the rest can stay on Earth, or go to the Home Fleet, as they so desire. In return, you will be my servant in the next stage. There are competitions, you see. Grand tournaments where the prized fighters belonging to Progenitors, fighters like yourself, compete in arenas like humanity’s ancient colosseum, or perhaps like a sports stadium. The victors get trophies and much applause. This is what Mace Bloodclaw was after, in case you were wondering. He wanted to be a fighter for one of my counterparts, and he had almost, almost, secured himself a birth. You took it from him. Are you happy, Tek of Zhadir’? He would not have done so well anyway, as well you can imagine.”

Tek stared at Water, or Borad. “I will do what is required. I am grateful I get a chance to let the others go.”

“Are you grateful you will be fighting for yourself?” asked Water. “And not humanity? I think you are. I know you are. I know this is so painful for you, because you want to fight, and yet you are so tired. Not physically. Emotionally. You don’t want to be the lynchpin. You think you can be, but you hate what the role makes you do. Become. turn others into. Come, Tek, it will be over in a moment. Meanwhile, humanity will have a refuge in Region J. From there, perhaps your former subjects will save the curated worlds, or the old worlds of the Union. I can promise there will be less Progenitor resistance on that front than you would think. We have cleaned up this area once. I am one of the chief custodians. In exchange for your cooperation, I can simply state that we will not be so much trouble again, Tek. Not for many human lifetimes.

“The hybrids, and our other collaborators and curios? We don’t care about them at all. If humanity can set themselves free, we will let them. And you won’t even have to lead the charge. Other humans will do it all without you. Other humans will lead all of human space. Meanwhile, you will be on the outside. You will become a sportsman, and saying goodbye to everything and everyone is what makes it all possible. You will defeat aliens and robots and intelligences and challenges in an endless cycle, and I will make some…” Water paused. “...I think the best word in your language is money. I will be like a colonialist coming back from my time in the boonies with a pet tiger. If tigers were also ants, of course. Are you excited, Tek? All you have done, and I give humanity a chance to save itself purely because I have some interest in allowing you to continue to entertain me?”

Tek looked at Sten. At Jane. At everyone close he knew. “Goodby--”

***

Water lay on a bed of tach. Water called to Argon. Argon was one of the only other Progenitors who had any real interest in the human universe, if you didn’t count Phosphorus, and it was hard to count Phosphorus. Argon had more domain over the actively managed human worlds, just as Water had run the outskirts. The academy set up on Earth had not been the first in Argon’s name.

Argon had a different approach to human affairs than Water. Argon prefered to present the name Argon in such a way that humans could speak it, in reverential tones, without ever knowing what it meant. Knowing it was an entity. Water, in contrast, prefered to stay in shadows with less hinting. Let people hate each other without knowing Water had given a push at all. Because, after all, if humans were better sort of creatures, they wouldn’t fall so far after being given tiny pushes, now would they?

It wasn’t as if Argon never bothered to manifest. Argon had been the woman smuggler who had helped get a message of Sten’s to Tek. Had been an Arrowhead pirate observing Jane Lee when she had confronted Prometheus the Unchained. Had even sponsored Mace Bloodclaw, pushed him along, and given him vision over Tek’s fleet. Tek vs. Mace had been a little game Water and Argon had been playing. Much more interesting than setting the different subgroupings in the Argon’s academies against each other in tiny competitions. Though it was funny that Sten had fought Julie and Artz back in Installation Ulysses, wearing bodies as masks in such a way that they didn’t recognize each other.

Some people were just doomed to be enemies, doomed into patterns. Julie and Artz had sincerely wanted to be Sten’s friends. They wanted him to change his behavior, he wouldn’t do it, even after they enlisted Mace’s help, and in the end…

They weren’t dead. But their precious school was smoldering now. And it didn’t matter at all.

Water knew that humans, and even many creatures more advanced, had a hard time comprehending the sheer scale on which the Progenitors operated. The entire universe where humans lived was equivalent, in their terms approximately, to a pleasant but fairly small park, mostly notable for a galactic collision spa that had acquired just enough popularity for Water and Argon to be put on pest control. Again, in human terms, the pest control work was more of a part-time job for Water and Argon than anything else. The various stratagems they had bothered with, like curated worlds and hybrids and Ikalic Doah and creatures like Seeker, were a handful out of a trillion trillion ways of dealing with the problem. Dealing with humans that were creative enough that they would eventually reach the spa, if given the chance.

There were other ways. Ways that would require Water or Argon to exert actual, mild effort. Ways beyond the capacity of a cripple like Phosphorous, who had already been booted out of the human universe, left to wander around until Phosphorus found somewhere else to ease pain. Water and Argon had been nice to Phosphorus, and Phosphorus had repaid them by meddling just enough in affairs related to Sten and Tek to slightly distort Water’s predictive abilities. For the first time, Water had a less than perfect image of all of Tek’s, and humanity’s, possible fates. In metaphor, and vast simplification, Phosphorus had made some effort to scatter a line of ants marching towards a food source.

Not that it mattered very much. A slight kink. Nothing more.

Argon acknowledged Water’s call, chose an activity, and next called Water, and then they were transposing and interposing between different planets and solar systems and novas and galaxies. Like two humans having fun on a park’s grassy hill. There were some fun things that could be done with black holes and tachyons that Water and Argon liked to do to each other, and finding a champion ant like Tek was as good an excuse as any to get in recreation.

A desire for recreation was something Progenitors and humans, despite their vast difference in scale, had in common. After all, what was recreation? Just any activity completed with true volition for reasons other than strict enhancement of reproductive fitness.

In a moment, Water was going to perform a job that would involve mild exertion. Water had wanted a treat to work up for it.

Water summoned Tek from the little pocket dimension where he had been left for the duration of the romp, and placed Tek in the middle of a starfield, leaving enough tachyon cords attached that Tek would easily be able to breathe in the void.

“Are you ready, my fighter?” Water asked. “For Stage Two? And are you happy? That your sacrifice has given humanity a chance to recover?”

“Yes.”

Water could sense all the relief behind that word. From Tek’s perspective. He had already won. He had escaped being a martyr. Escaped the responsibility that led his personality to brutality. Left room for other martyrs. The relief was only tempered by a confusion as to why Water had said that, essentially, all of human space was now humanity’s to retake.

“Ready for the catch?” asked Water.

Tek didn’t respond.

Water offered a smile with the face he had made out of stars. Water looked back on the expanse of human space, all the thousands of planets inhabited by people. From Earth to Region J and beyond, and everywhere around. Encompassed the Ikalic Doah planets in thought, for good measure.

Miniaturized that entire fraction of the universe. Packed all of human space into a knife. Placed the knife on a pendant around Tek’s throat.

“You lose too badly in any of the sporting events I put you in,” said Water, “and they die. Humanity entire. Every habitable planet, and all the space between. Ba’am and Earth and billions more. You wanted to escape what feeling responsible makes you do, but... I like you better on the edge, Tek of Zhadir’.”

Tek was an animal. Helped in chorus by the mind-echoes squatting in his neural implants...echoes Tek had wanted to unload…

His scream was incredible.

***

It was a million years later. Or maybe only ten, from the perspective of many in the worlds on Tek’s mind pendant. It was all so relative.

Even Tek’s name.

In many ways, he wasn’t really Tek anymore, though it was still a convenient label. He’d lived those hundreds of thousands of years. Found a way to assimilate pit fighters, and Progenitors' player servants, and, after some time, acquired enough power to see the Progenitors on their own terms, if not touch them.

The stories of how he’d done it didn’t feel relevant. He won. That was what he did. Because…

That was the question, wasn’t it? The anthropic one. Why did he get to succeed, and not someone else? Maybe, because if he failed, his tale would not have been written at all, and it would be someone else’s story. Or maybe because Water wanted him too. Protected him along the way.

After all, Tek had known from the start that Water had never been particularly opposed to his plans. Maybe even now, now that he could sing tachyon currents, that he could think faster than Alpha, who he had never forgotten, ever had, he was still a plaything of Water. Perhaps promoted from ant to dog.

With a bauble containing all of human space around his neck, his only constant, Tek entered a fixture many light-years wide, that could be best described as Phosphorus’ house.

“I saw you at the Crashing of Stars!” Phosphorus declared in essence, communicating more in mind-meld than in words.

“How long before I can be emancipated?” asked Tek. “In your estimation? Choose your words carefully. You are the only Progenitor I can begin to trust.”

“Never,” said Phosphorus. “You’re so young. Keep your good thing. Water bought full rights to humanity and its proceeds from Argon. Those rights cannot be sold.”

Tek had patience. Tek waited. He found friends. Much, much later, he found Water. In a place that, to his senses, had the aesthetics of an alleyway.

Water gave the equivalent of a smile. His face was not so big anymore. “You never asked about Uk,” he said. “The man who helped create you. How much of him did I control? How much of me was present at your conception?”

“None,” said Tek. “Stop it. You encouraged his behavior, but never directly controlled him. Not like Borad.”

Water gave the equivalent of a laugh. “What a name to waste your time remembering! That old costume?”

“I remember everything,” said Tek.

“Eidetic memory,” said Water. “Old hat. Not worth it. For a long time, you were barely worth it either. Maybe now, you are worth it a little more. After all, you’ve succeeded in fights, and preserved the tiny human universe, for all these aeons! The friends you remember are so long dead some of their planets are buried. Come! Let’s celebrate. You’re still dominating the Orion Cup! I know a few different milky ways that we can try out to drink.”

“No,” said Tek.

“You are my slave,” said Water. “Even now. It had been so long, perhaps you wouldn’t mind if I broke that bauble? You were supposed to keep it on a knife. I think you ruined our arrangement first. I will be merciful. All you have to do is let some strangers get hurt, and your insolence can be forgiven.”

He reached out the equivalent of a hand.

“There can always be a pretext,” said Tek. “If you want one.”

“I’ll even emancipate you,” said Water. “Your life, in exchange for whatever successors of humanity are hobbling about in that little pocket universe. And when I break it, not even all of those might die. Determined little buggers, I sense. Like cockroaches. Life and death. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.”

“I want to apologize for something,” said Tek.

“What?”

“When I was younger, I kept a Mork as a pet. Mork had started as a compliance shadow you used to keep your hybrids in line. He was named after a Morok, a proud spider who was killed by someone I loved because Morok wanted to defend the memory of someone we both loved. Mork is a diminutive. I liked Morok as a underling, so, after Morok died, I defaced his memory by attaching it to something that had little of his courage, because I flattered myself to think that in their contours, they were the same. But they weren’t. Morok wasn’t my toy. And I’m not yours.”

“You say that to my face?”

“Careful,” said Tek. “You can’t predict everything I do, anymore. Phosphorus saw to that a long time ago. And it’s only gotten worse. Once, I thought the old Home Fleet, the Great Wall of Earth, was the vehicle I was going to use to bring you down. But it was never the right rogue. I had to be fleet of foot, through time and space, always persevering. All to come to an equinox. A balance where I can finally talk to you.”

“Don’t give the game away before you pounce!” cried Water, lunging at him.

Tek backpedaled through galaxies.

“I still love her,” he said. “I still love them all.”

“You are insane!” said Water. “I give you everything, and you repay me with treason!”

“You’re a has-been among your own kind,” said Tek. “A gambler living in a ratty house, taking whatever work other Progenitors want to leave you. A deadbeat. Skimming off of my earnings, and always thinking you’re entitled, because I’m the younger, and the lesser, and I, supposedly, don’t know anything. But I do. Argon hasn’t been around in a long time, right?”

“You’ll never get your revenge on Argon,” said Water. Water ‘tripped’ Tek, nailing him against a tachyon cord.

“Revenge?” asked Tek. “You were in my head for so many years, and that’s what you think I care about?” He was wheezing, sending matter concentrations flying everywhere.

“What else could this be?” asked Water.

“The oldest trick in the book,” said Tek, as Water felt the knife go through Water’s equivalent to a back. An expansion of the knife made by Water so long ago. Shaped by exploiting contagion principles to deal Water a grievous blow. Held by…

Tek was deep in Water’s psyche. Felt the surprise just as the Progenitor did.

The knife was held by Jane. Now, a vast being like Tek or Water, but her psychic imprint was unmistakable.

“You’re dead!” the Progenitor babbled. “Millions of years ago!”

Tek didn’t bother to explain the tactics. Instead, he distracted Water by explaining parts that could no longer be undone.

“I wondered why you were so cruel,” said Tek, pulling Water’s focus back to him. “And why you yet maintained me. Then I realized that you couldn’t quit. That you were trapped. That you’d classified me as an amusing trinket so long ago, and you were too stubborn to change your thoughts. Inertia. Instinct. Human historians always said we fight the same battles again and again, in different generations, and some people never learn. Guess what?”

“How?” screamed Water.

“Why,” said Tek, doing the equivalent of kneeling over Water. “That’s the better question. You wouldn’t let me go. You wouldn’t let the universe of humanity go, and remove your Sword of Damocles. That’s all I wanted. I’m not in this for revenge. Even though, to remind you, as you may have forgotten, I saw my first planet buried at your hands when I was less than two decades.”

He stepped on Water’s throat. Or the closest equivalent. As he’d promised, so many years ago.

Progenitors didn’t die so much as disperse, or assimilate into neighboring constructions of similar styles. That was one of the reasons Tek had wanted Jane to come. So they could share the monster, and prevent it from reconstituting.

But Water was shared between more than just two. Sten was here, as well. As were certain others. Like Andrei Constantin, once a marine on the Gyrfalcon. Nith. Nith’s brother and sister. The Ikalic Doah once known as Cubit, now more proud of heritage, with a name pronounced like Vugggdth if one converted the standard tone to human-range hearing.

And Oakley Ketta. And Alpha. And Tek’s grandfather Aratan. And Morok. These last four were facsimiles reconstructed and enhanced over many centuries, their cores coming from the simulation Mace Bloodclaw had put in place to taunt Tek. Were they the same as the people who had died? Probably not. But they had still helped. And they had worn their names far longer than the originals. Not everything was black and white, even now.

Tek looked at Sten, the physically smallest member of his pantheon. “How many years have passed inside the bauble for the Home Fleet?” he asked. He hadn’t been able to check in a while.

“Fifty. We dilated time as best we could.”

The original purpose of this effort, for which Tek had used smuggled Progenitor tools, was to check to see if Water still had omniscience over humanity. If Water had known Tek was dilating, he surely would have commented.

But he did not. Had not. And after a hundred other steps…

They were here. The universe that contained Earth was no longer subject to being smashed one day, at Water’s whim. And by Progenitor law, Tek could quit the tournaments. Go home. Sten and Jane and the rest had alternate bodies inside the human universe, and when they stepped inside, they lost most of the mantle that made them able to fight or hide from Progenitors. Tek could do that too. Go back to the Home Fleet. The restored Union. Unlike the others, who sometimes needed to, so they could more completely disappear, Tek, who’d had appearances to keep up for so long, had never gone inside the bubble.

So long outside, and almost no time had passed, within. Just a bunch of gray beards. Trivial, compared to the timeline Tek remembered.

A smile half-froze on what might have been his face. “We jumped someone in an alley,” he said. “Everything we did, and that’s where it ends.”

“Feels so random,” Jane agreed. “I thought there’s be a sign, or something, to let us know we’re done, we made it. But there’s nothing. Like we have to decide ourselves what this means. If we were lucky, or good. We have so much power... We can be monsters by accident. Monsters by tripping. I wonder what I’d say to myself, if I met her, back in the jungle on Ard. If I’d even know how, in the state I’m in right now.”

Others like them hadn’t won. Some of the people Tek had faced in the pits, especially in the early days… They’d be fighting for their universes too. Water hadn’t been especially creative. Water had mostly just been a demon.

“We’re not done,” said Sten.

Tek blinked at him.

“We saved one universe,” said Sten. “There are other Progenitors out there like Water. And now maybe we can help the people they’re hurting. There’s a Progenitor legal process. I don’t know how much this means for our tactics, but with Water gone, we have standing.”

“I’m tired,” said Tek.

“It’s fine,” said Nith. “It’s not your burden alone. It never was. Together, checking each other, we can take it from here.”

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***
Rebels Can't Go Home, the prequel to Rogue Fleet Equinox, is available on the title link. I also have a Twitter @ThisStoryNow, a Patreon, and a fantasy web serial, Dynasty's Ghost, where a sheltered princess and an arrogant swordsman must escape the unraveling of an empire.
 
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