• hcmills

Chapter 161: Major Tom to Ground Control

I find myself—predictably—in a small hexagonal room. The only feature of interest, aside from the door I just walked through, is a large stone pod.

I step into the pod unprompted, impatient.

[Congratulations, Emma,] Suri chimes. [That was quite a show you put on.]

I clear my throat awkwardly as the stone lid begins to grind close behind me, hoping she’s not about to ask where I learnt how to do that, since I was liberally copying the methods of Goddess. “Thanks. I figured he’d fold easily. Kinda feel bad for the kid, though.”

[Well, it was smart of you to decide to keep your methods hidden for as long as possible.]

That’s… an interesting way of phrasing it. I’m picking up on a strong hint here. “Yeah. Thanks.”

[Now, would you like to visit the Final Hub or rather return to your suite for some post-battle reflection and proper—]

“Final Hub!” I cry out, my heartbeat accelerating. “Definitely the Final Hub!”

Suri sighs. [Very well.]

She’s barely expressed the sentiment before a cocoon of Spatial Energy whisks me away.

I appear in a large open space, and brace myself for Gravity to kick in and drop me on my head or something.

It doesn’t.

Floating in place, I blink.

[Please vacate the portal ring,] Suri chimes.

I find an opaque surface behind me and push off, floating out of the stone ring and into the void.

At least, that's what it seems like, at first. It takes a moment for me to parse that the Final Hub does, in fact, have walls. And Aether.

Then again, Aether is supposed to be omnipresent in this Realm.

The Hub is shaped like a huge hexagonal prism—which I am inside of—and its only opaque surface is the hexagonal base behind the portal rings that I just pushed off of. Both the other hexagonal base and the six walls connecting the two are entirely transparent and look out into the vastness of space.

Inside the oversized prism, there’s are six floating discs, like islands without a sea.

Except that islands don’t float, so I guess they’re more like ships? They are landmasses though... Suri’s right. I suck at analogies.

Either way, three of them are lit by the Twinstar, which shines in on one side, and three are lit by Big Bortha on the other.

In the centre of the Hub, there’s a relatively small structure of unknown purpose, shaped like a ribbed cone, which points at the transparent, hexagonal front wall.

I dub the opaque wall behind me the back wall, for convenience.

The remaining shapes floating about are, well, other participants. Some cruise around comfortably with the use of Qi-based Skill like Increase Momentum or Boreum Manipulation. Others move… less easily.

I see one poor guy in a suit of Greysteel armour using the breaststroke. He’s not getting anywhere fast. His furry, fox-like tail doesn’t appear to be helping.

A nearby woman with a long, snake-like lower body seems to be doing better, using sinuous movements to displace herself through the Aether.

Must be one of those high-grade Power-Ups... it’s a bold choice, I’ll give her that.

I wouldn’t want to get caught in that tail; I feel like it could easily squeeze the life out of someone.

“Emma!” a voice calls out.

My eye falls on a blue-haired, horned, Astreum-jet-driven comet on a collision course.

I spread my arms as wide as my grin, and smoothly activate a field of Negative Inertial Energy.

Kaitlynn smashes into my arms, but the only thing that hurts is my heart as I hold her at long last.

To think it’s been nearly a month—actually, make that several, considering the time we spent as frozen dinners—since I last got to do this…

Her momentum sends us spinning in a dizzying manner, but under the effects of my Negative Inertial Energy, the Aether’s drag quickly slows us down.

I lean back a little, and stare at the face that’s been haunting my dreams. She hasn’t changed a bit.

I don’t get long to study her, however, as she quickly pulls me into a searing kiss.

“Hey you,” she mumbles against my lips.

I smile into the kiss and mumble back. “Hey you. Missed me?”

She pulls back. “You have no idea.” Then she bites her lower lip, and glances around. “Oh, ehm, was that okay? I know you had some issues with PDA before—”

I cut her off by pulling her into another kiss. She squeaks, then promptly melts into it.

I lean back. “It’s more than okay.”

“Cool,” she replies with a grin.

I pull her into another tight hug, feeling like I just can’t get close enough to her, like I just want to merge with her into a single blob and become One.

Okay no, that’s kinda creepy.

I settle for just hugging her as tight as I dare with my improved Strength. She doesn’t complain.

And that’s how Jacob finds us.

“Ladies,” he grunts. “It’s good to see you.”

“Oh my god, Jacob!” Kaitlynn squeaks, releasing me and hurtling at him with a flash of yellow.

I chuckle and study him as I wait my turn. His skin is a sickly grey, and there’s a small amount of fuzzy black hair covering his head above the triple horn on his forehead. It takes me a moment to parse what’s wrong with this picture. “Hey, you got rid of the Hoig Skinsuit!”

Jacob catches my eye and smiles wryly. “Yeah... you can only have one External Power-Up.”

My brows rise as I note the weird, prosthetic arm folded over Kaitlynn’s back. Ah! I think I read about that one... Some kind of symbiotic creature that wraps around the torso and provides an extra set of arms below your own. I guess Jacob bought the cheaper, one-armed variant and got it attached diagonally to replace his missing limb.

Its interlocking, chitinous plates wave sinuously with the pulsing of his Lavi flows, and the whole thing moves surprisingly smoothly when Jacob pulls me into a hug next. But why is his hair so short? Wait, did the skinsuit... eat it?!

Before I can ask, Dave comes floating over, looking a little worse for the wear but relieved to see us, and the hugfest continues.

“Any sign of Alec?” he asks immediately after our heartfelt greetings.

“Not yet,” Kaitlynn replies, “but we only just got here too, so…”

Shit. That’s right, they don’t know.

I clear my throat. “Actually… Alec’s not coming. He stayed behind in the Ninth Trial.”

They all turn to stare at me. I lower my eye. “Dominique managed to detain me for a bit, then Calyx grabbed a Darksteel door, and there was only one door left and he got to it first, but he... he said you guys would need me more than him.”

There’s a pregnant pause. “Shit,” Jacob mutters.

Kaitlynn hugs me from the side, wordlessly burying her face into my neck.

Dave sighs, suddenly looking a lot older. “He practically pushed me through the last Greysteel door, said I needed to get home for my daughter.”

We’re all quiet for a bit. “Well, we can’t be sure what’s happened to him,” Jacob finally says. “They’ve made it pretty clear that, barring any accidental deaths in this competition, we at least have all earned a place on Peilinor. Perhaps the ones left behind have as well, just as slaves or something.”

“Perhaps,” Dave agrees softly.

I share a look with him. We’ve gotten good at subtle communication, and I can tell at a glance he shares my concerns.

‘Not here. Not now,’ his eye seems to say.

I turn away and let out a sigh. “I guess we’ll know soon enough.”

Which reminds me, we don’t actually know when the next—

A window pops up in front of me.

Ah. Never mind.

Next, thirty-two hexagonal screens come to life on the front wall, simultaneously playing back thirty-two matches.

Suri’s earlier remark about keeping my abilities hidden suddenly makes a lot more sense.

My gaze trails over the various screens. I quickly find Jacob’s match against a bald guy whose skin is covered in tattooed lines with a large scorpionesque tail—clearly another Power-Up, one that I recall clings around the waist—sprouting from his back. At first glance, they look quite evenly matched.

Next, I find Dave’s, catching the moment he uses a beam with a familiar violet hue to strike a feathered woman in the shoulder.

“Was that Necrotizing Radiation?” I blurt out.

Dave glances over. “Are you talking about me? I haven’t found my—ah. Yes, that was the Necrotizing Purpose. You know it?”

“Intimately,” I retort dryly. “I only just regrew my foot. Speaking of, how’d you lose the arm, Jacob?”

“Tag-team fight,” he replies in a curt tone of voice, staring up intently. “I’m only at Regeneration level 1, so replacing it was cheaper and easier. Wow, you got scary, Kaitlynn.”

I follow his gaze to the screen that shows Kaitlynn in the centre of a massive conflagration of Astreum in the shape of some giant winged creature, effortlessly forcing her hoofed opponent to forfeit.

“Thank you,” she answers primly, with a small smile. Then her smile drops. “Aww, Emma. I wanted to see you fight!”

“The kid was like sixteen!” I protest. A thought strikes me. “Hey, how’d the others from our batch fare?”

A beat of silence follows as we all start searching the screens.

“Well, looks like Dominique made it through,” Kaitlynn says with a hint of irritation as she points out a screen that shows the Lightning Bitch blasting her opponent into submission with bolts of lightning.

“So did Calyx,” Jacob adds.

I don’t check out the screen he indicates, as I just found Onni’s. On it, he wears a Darksteel mesh armour and seems to be holding his own against a much bigger opponent with skin covered in strange bony ridges. As I watch, Onni manages to trap his foe’s foot in a puddle of Boreum.

“Oh, I think Onni might also have made...” I wince and trail off as the bony guy blasts the Boreum apart with Vibrations at the last second, and scores a solid hit on Onni’s temple with his mace. “Never mind. That looked painful.” I hope he’s okay...

“Lily appears to have forfeited,” Dave muses. “I can’t say I blame her.”

I follow his gaze to find Lily squared off against a voluptuous, feather-haired woman who’s firing magenta-glowing arrows at her. Arrows infused with Toxic Energy, yikes!

I frown and take a closer look. Actually, the feather-haired woman doesn’t appear to have a quiver. Instead, she forms her arrows right at the bowstring. How is she doing that?!

A minor flash of blue before the shape of her arrow stabilises provides the answer.

Ah. She Infuses a small amount of Aether with a high dose of Toxic Energy, then adds a flash of Cold to solidify it into Boreum. Clever! These people have some odd looks though...

Glancing around at some more of the screens—and the participants floating around—I quickly start to see patterns in their appearances. It looks like the levelling affected the participants from each of the different portal events differently.

Even the ‘bald head covered in black lines’ is apparently a look shared by several participants. Sucks to be them.

Anyway, the whole thing is odd, but at least makes it easy to figure out who belongs with whom. When I spot a threesome of participants covered in scales of different hues in the distance, I know they’re who I’m looking for.

“That reminds me,” I start soberly. “I need to go visit Ken’s friends and pass on some messages.”

The screens don’t come with sound, after all.

Dave hums. “We should probably all explore and socialise a bit, see what we can learn. But maybe in twosomes, I’m not sure how well-enforced our safety here is.”

To be honest, I’m not too concerned, but I wasn’t about to let Kaitlynn out of my sight anyway.

I make to hold out my hand for her, then pause halfway. “Oh, ehm, right. So, there’s something you guys should know. Or, well, that I want you to know.”

Jacob glances at me curiously. Dave raises a brow.

I finally hold out my hand completely, and Kaitlynn shyly grasps it. “I finally managed to pull my head out of my ass. And officially asked Kaitlynn to be mine. And, well, she said yes.”

Kaitlynn meets my eye, looking touched and far too sappy.

Dave smiles warmly. “Congratulations.”

Jacob snorts, folding his arms across his chest. “About time.”

I can feel the blood rushing to my face, so I clear my throat, and start forming a tail of Aether. “So anyway, gotta go, but first round’s on me tonight!”

And I swim off, pulling a laughing Kaitlynn along.

Author's note:

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