There’s no way to know how long it has been since the rest of your team shipped retrieval. In this realm of permanent dusk, time seems to be measurable only in breaths and heartbeats. As soon as you arrived, your Portarray started acting as though it had a weak charge. What then seemed to be a dismissible minor oversight became catastrophe when everyone else powered up and headed home and you were left here with a sputtering, barely functioning device, all alone. Now, it feels like an eternity since even its basic chronometer started slowing noticeably, then pulsing weaker, slower and weaker, and eventually falling silent.
Silent, just like the rest of this frag of a Verse, where not even your intentionally primitive compass, embedded in your wrist guard for just such an energy-short situation, hears the faintest whisper of an electromagnetic field. Watching its needle float aimlessly, propelled only by the whims of inertia instead of addressed toward the pull of an invisible but omnipresent power, stopped being fascinating and started being something for you to not think about as soon as you realized the metaphorical implications.
Silent, too, rotationally; the very worst of the tidally locked planets you’ve had the displeasure to meet nevertheless waxed and waned in regular cycles of radiation and visibility, providing basic cues for your body to crave rest or sustenance. Even now, in what feels like it surely must have been a buildcycle, or is it two, five, even ten… in this neverending, suspicious dark, you feel no desire to eat or to sleep. You only feel the malaise in the top of your gut that goes along with low fever, as if from recent vaccination or overindulgence in mild solvent, and the bleariness of overuse in your eyes that comes from staring too long into a vidscreen full of neverending tasks.
Still, you know you’ve made some headway. You’ve learned to be quiet, as this place demands, to move only with purpose, and purpose deeply hushed. You’ve realized that panic is the enemy, maybe even a response engineered by this antagonistic environment to drive those who would become prey to bolt, to lose control, to make themselves known. You’ve even begun to pick out patterns of illumination, despite their wild irregularity, against the constant, sickly glow of the persistent greenish-red tinge in the sky that provides the barest level of visibility in a nightmare parody of the beautiful Auroras of many planets’ polar regions.
One such irregular pattern has been your quarry since you noticed it from your position near the edge of the swampy fens that tried to swallow your boot. The color and intensity of the glow, in high blue and purplish-white tones suggest, dare you think it, lightning, electricity. Where there is electricity, there is a chance that you might be able to power up your device and ship out. You’ve done your best not to allow your hope to distract you from the hard-earned task at hand, however. You move toward the light as soon as it appears after what feels like an interminable wait, keeping cover as you go, and only continuing to pursue what you believe is the right direction for a short while after the illumination inevitably fades, before you go back to the boredom and monotony of another long downtime.
The painfully slow method seems to have worked, however, and as you perch among a rocky outcropping that you would swear must be close to the source, you feel the swirling rise of what is unmistakably a wind of charged ions that makes your hair begin to tingle and stand on end. A quick check of the compass shows its own excitement as well, pointing strongly in the direction you’ve been following, though rapidly twitching with the unstable and intermittent pattern of the current. You break from hiding to move the final couple hundred meters, dodging unusually regularly shaped and spaced stones as you go, taking a final perch behind one of them as the luminous display sparks into existence, revealing that you are tucked behind... a tombstone...?
As the electrical barrage mounts in intensity, you can see clearly that you are indeed in a graveyard. Near its center, suspended in midair by what you assume to be some function of the EM radiation, floats the source of the power. A feminine humanoid, but certainly not human, skin a dull metallic grey, eyes and fingertips crackling with wild discharge, and a set of long iron terminals protruding from either side of her neck appears to be directing the lightning, controlling its direction and intensity, and using it to... lift the tombstones out from the ground?!
With a gut-wrenching squelch, the stone that serves as your hiding place begins to shudder and rise, rrrrrripping out from the moist earth and patchy moss. Before you have time to react, you are exposed, and in an instant, the unearthly woman’s gaze snaps to you. She blinks in surprise, and far more quickly than they arose, all of the levitating stones fall back to the earth with a wet series of thuds. You manage to roll out of the way, springing back to your feet to face her in the returning dark.
“An observer,” she begins, her voice not unpleasant nor unkind, but tinged with an oscillating frequency, a distorted chord of static that distinguishes it from the purely human, “few between are those who would bear witness to the fulfillment of the agreement. What are you doing in this far-flung and melancholy place, pet?”
Pet? Hardly the sort of honorific you’d expect from a denizen of this realm, but registering it as friendly, if a bit archaic, you decide to tell her the truth. “I.. I am part of a team of explorers. We came to this place to investigate an... unusual signal, and unfortunately, when it was time to return, my... device malfunctioned. Short of power is my leading theory. So, I followed the signs of electrical discharge in the sky to this place, where I saw you doing... well... what exactly ARE you doing with these...” you ask, motioning toward the haphazardly strewn markers.
“Memorials,” she says, “these memorials patch the walls of the Crumbling Keep, as it was written long ago. Its lord and master upholds his end of the bargain by filling this yard, and I uphold mine by using the stones to fortify his collapsing sanctum. Trapped in a never-ending cycle, we are, much as you are, trapped. This perilous plane itself revels in such quandaries. But, what of this... device? Short on power it may be, but, my pet, short on power I am not.”
You produce your Portarray and hold it up for her to examine. Her illuminated gaze passes over it gently, and over you as well, flickering subtly with the promise of truth to her claim of power. “Two of a kind, you pair,” she says, then chuckles, a haunting sound coupled with the staticky timbre of her voice, “not of this world, finely wrought, and ever so delicate. A fraction too much current would cause... irreparable damage."
Your eyes widen a bit at this overt declaration of your fragility as she continues, “But it can be fixed, pet. A trifle. Alas, I cannot give this power freely, though I would but I could. You have earned your return home with the cunning and persistence that somehow saw you through the dusks to me, but there is one more price to pay if you would avail yourself of my aid.”
“Hah, pet, is it not obvious?” She motions toward the fallen monuments and narrows her gaze on you as her tone subtly shifts in depth and takes on the barest hint of malice. “A memory, of course. One of import, nothing more, of your own choosing. It is the only currency that matters in this gloomy land. Now, choose, and pay, pet, and be on your way. Unless you’d rather try your luck elsewhere?”
You have no choice, it seems, and angering this extremely powerful being is certainly very low on your list of things to do. Even if she DID let you go on your way, you’d be back to square one, and you don’t believe that you would have much more success elsewhere. A single memory seems comparatively cheap next to eternal wandering and eventual death in the ‘gloomy lands,’ as she called them.
“Deal,” you say, “and thank you.”
Which important memory will you choose for her to take?
A: Your graduation. Your diploma will serve as a reminder; the biggest loss will be the pride you felt in the moment after working hard to get through in spite of many obstacles.
B: Your grandmother’s funeral. You laughed at all the loving stories told of her, and had a cathartic cry as you bid her goodbye. There’s some comfort that you’ll retain all of your memories of time you spent with her when she was alive. Though, you know you might never feel a sense of closure about her loss again.
C: Your first mission with the Initiative. It was a learning experience that crystalized how to perform proper protocols crisply and efficiently. Hopefully you won't forget anything that will put you at risk in the future.
D: Your uncanny survival through this place. You know you should preserve your recollection to debrief the Initiative, and it's likely rude to suggest forgetting the woman who has offered to help you, but if there’s anything you wish to erase, it’s your time in this waking nightmare.
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[Gloom Personnel Emergency Report Summary: Confronted with the choice of a memory to lose, the stranded agent opted to surrender their graduation. Voting on its appropriateness showed The Initiative agreed, with 10 in favor, 3 preferring a grandmother’s funeral, 2 preferring their first Initiative mission, and 4 suggesting forgetting the emergency itself.]
“I’ve made my decision. Take the moment of pride I felt at the celebration of accomplishment of my graduate studies.”
The eldritch woman looks surprised. “You’d surrender a happy memory willingly, rather than one that was sad or trying? You surprise me, pet, though it is a testament to your character.”
She closes her eyes, and static crackles around her head for a moment. She nods as she opens them again and beholds you intently. “It is done. Now, let us see to your device.”
You offer her your Portarray, and as she takes it from your hand gently, you feel the warm buzz of a living field of charge emanating from her grasp. She regards the device with a sense of amusement. “Hmm. Yes, yes, I see. A clever series of gateways to produce a wide variety of effects. And one that has fallen off its hinges and allowed the flow to spill through recklessly is the root of your dilemma, pet. Your kind is more impressive than might be expected by appearance alone. Still, this harness for the spark is but a child’s drawing of a glove to one who could produce an actual, living hand.” A small arc of blue jumps from her slender index finger to your unit, and it powers up as though there had never been an issue to begin with.
“I’ve even taken the opportunity to make an improvement. A small part of my living essence now imbues the flow that resides within this circuit. So long as I live, it will, as well, and will never overload or cause deterioration of the gateways either. Now, be on your way, for I have promises to keep, and even this hallowed ground can be deadly serious when my light is elsewhere. But do stop by, my pet, if you have the poor fortune to tread this dusky path again.”
“I don’t know how to thank you,” you say, taking the Portarray from her extended hand, “and there is a chance that my team may wish to reconnoiter more information about this place. I consider myself very lucky to have found a friend like you here. We will surely visit you if we return.”
She smiles through closed lips as you power up and ship through retrieval.
The gravity hits you like a ton of bricks as you materialize on the floor of the Sieve pad. So does the hunger, and the fatigue that had somehow been allayed by the strange mechanics of the gloomy lands. The technicians spring into action immediately, shouting for help as they rush to your side. The lead kneels next to you and stares wide-eyed, as he asks, “Doctor, Doctor, what happened? Are you okay? We thought you were… gone. It’s been six and a half builds since the rest of your team returned, and none of the search parties we sent through could find a trace of you.”
“I… I’m fine,” you manage to say, though less than convincingly, “Food. I need food, and water and a bed. And Para, get Para, she needs to hear this directly.”
“Of course, Doctor. We were all so worried! Your work is so important to The Initiative, and we didn’t know what we would do without you.” He motions to the other techs to hurry up and bring sustenance and a gurney.
“Thank you, thank you for saying so. But I have one question for you, Agent.”
“Yes, what is it, Doctor?”
“Why do you keep calling me Doctor?”
[SHK-E Evaluation: You decided that a celebration of your KNOWLEDGE was the most reasonable sacrifice when confronted with a dilemma. In exchange, however, you received a permanent, moderately powerful source of ENERGY in the upgraded Portarray. Other agents of the Para Initiative learn from and emulate the strategies of this successful mission. The now-extremely-reliable Portarray, powered by weird energies, is the talk of the Knowledge Corps for weeks.
SAFETY: Very Poor
HEART: Very Good
Para Initiative Inventory:
Oystersands’ Illustrated Arcana