One of the first unusual signals that was ever detected by the Parafocal Array’s sophisticated system of optical warp-curve measurement remained on the list of known anomalies for a long time. It kept being pushed down the list of priority missions because it never showed signs of changing position, nor changing intensity. Fresh hot flashes, especially ones which are in motion, are always considered most pressing because their fleeting temporal nature makes them a ‘now or never’ proposition.
A stationary, medium-intensity reading is certainly of interest, and given its early date of detection, coupled with a relative dearth of new activity during the current build, the time has finally arrived for you and your team to go investigate the consistent Fantasian blip just a short hop beyond the Underground Library. Unfortunately, your contacts in the Verse don’t have any specific information to provide about the source of the signal, though they have confirmed that the region in question is an undeveloped wilderness, with little in the way of outposts or civilization. Fortunately, the Sieve can deposit you within short range of the anomaly, so there is no need to procure local lodgings or food, especially considering the fact that it doesn’t move. A quick in and out with some of the Knowledge Corps’ most sophisticated tech is the plan, with the hope of returning home promptly with some easily acquired data.
The aquamarine tones of a Sieve power-up for Fantasia travel are one of your personal favorites, evoking the idea of envelopment by both land and sea as the beams wash over you just before you feel the long, glitchy translation that you’ve heard best described as a slow-motion tunnel of light and sound. On the other side of the mathematical reorientation, you find yourself in a landscape that is filled with very little blue.
Your surroundings are counterintuitive in their color palette. The bright yellow greens of fresh growth abound, but they are often interspersed with rusty autumnal oranges and reds. You’ve seen these colors during visits to low-tech worlds across the outer valences of Synthex, but never as part of a single season in any environment. Even equatorial zones that teem with life year-round, but contain many species on different timings of their individual life cycles, are most often characterized by a deep, rich green, even approaching loamy black, as a constant backdrop to patches of newly emergent high tones, or the occasional withering leaves or petals that are in the process of falling away to make room for the next generation.
This place, on the other hand, feels like a battleground between spring and autumn with no summer in between. The ambient temperature could pass for either, so mild that it is almost unnoticeable, and the humidity is the same, so nearly exactly 50% that it conjures unbidden thoughts of those few perfect days out of each year just before the rise or after the end of the hot rainy season. Life here seems to be neither nascent nor in descent, but rather both at one time; a world of no adults, only children and seniors. Still, you detect no immediate threat and resort to standard protocol.
You look to your lead KC representative, who is a step ahead of you, having checked their Portarray on arrival, as is habit among the Corps. A nonchalant nod and a two-fingered gesture forward and slightly to the left eliminates the need for verbal communication. You and the rest of the team act on the cue and proceed for a few hundred meters in the indicated direction over the gently rolling terrain. As the pings of the Portarray grow in frequency and intensity, you are able to discern their source: a statue, roughly twice as tall as a standard human, stands among a copse of brush, thicket, and the occasional tree.
A typical homage to a nature goddess at first glance, the verdigris-covered casting is predictably female in form, and green enough from oxidation that it would not stand out in an environment that was more normal in color. However, the matte seafoam tone is quite distinct among the disparate palette of young and old growth that frames it, and the features of the figure suggest middle age, a noticeable distinction among its surroundings.
Further, a tree, bereft of leaves, has seemingly grown along, or maybe even inside the statue, and its many-segmented branches appear to sprout from the motherly figure’s head as a pair of antlers might. You think to yourself that it is a strange detail, as your knowledge of biology suggests that males are typically the members of species which participate in ritual combat as a determinant for reproductive worthiness, and are therefore the ones most inclined to develop weaponized appendages. An apparent set of horns on an otherwise matronly personage makes for a striking visual, at the very least.
The most outstanding feature, however, is the gleaming figure cradled in the mother’s arms, shaped in the likeness of a baby ruminant, and boldly distinct from the rest of the sculpture because of its apparent immunity to the ravages of time. Dead, or at least unconscious, it lays draped in a position that seems to suggest loss, sacrifice, or inevitability, but its brilliant coppery shine implies perpetual renewal and permanence. Even the glossy black of its obsidian hooves is imbued with a lustre that should have surely dulled with age or collected dust over the ages it took for the statue to oxidize.
You move closer, and see that the statue is standing on a pedestal with a plaque, overgrown with fresh shoots. You brush the dirt away and realize that the inscription appears to be in the form of a poem. You can’t be sure, as your aptitude with written Fantasian language is limited to what you have been able to develop over the scarce number of builds since the Initiative gained access to Omni and Scribs’ library, but it seems as though the opening line is a wide address, something that approximately translates to “Dear People.”
As you turn to check on your KC lead, to see if they have mined any significant data with the scientific equipment at their disposal, you notice that they seem... younger. The lines under their eyes are less pronounced, and the greying fringe at their temples is instead the rich brown tones of the rest of their coiffure. They also seem a bit... blurry, as do the rest of the party, half of whom appear to be beginning to suffer from something, leaning forward, putting hands to their backs, almost as if they were feeling the infirmities of age.
The other half look as though they are swelling with pride and renewed vigor, chests puffing out, and the verve on their faces suggesting that they feel better than ever. You cock a quizzical eyebrow and tilt your head, registering the look of surprise that has come across the KC lead’s face as their eyes widen at the sight of your countenance.
“Captain! Captain!” they begin to shout, their tone growing higher in register as they are gripped with panic, “what’s happening to you? You look... you look...”
“I look what?” you say, and are shocked at the gravelly, hardly recognizable tone of your own voice as you speak.
“You look,” they exclaim, voice almost childlike, “old!” You shake your head in disbelief and check the back of your hands. They are wrinkled and spotted, but still unmistakably your own, a vision of what they might look like in another forty revolutions.
Just beyond them, you see your lead transforming before your eyes. Their face is gaining fat in the cheeks, their overall proportions are shrinking, and you realize that they are regressing in age, just as you seem to be accelerating.
In a frantic prepubescent squeal, they cry out, “Do something! Do something!”
There is little recourse ahead of you as you begin to succumb to whatever strange time dilation is taking place. Your team is all turning into toddlers in ill-fitting uniforms, or geriatrics in equally ill-fitting uniforms. You have one chance to try and solve this strange riddle. Will you:
A: Reach for the verdigris-covered figure? It is the only normal adult in this entire bizarre situation.
B: Reach for the brilliant calf? It seems to be unaffected by the strange passage of time that’s taking place here.
C: Reach for the branches that form the statue’s antlers? They represent a weapon and you are willing to fight for yourself and your people.
D: Reach for the inscribed plaque? You may have not had time to translate it all, but you’re sure it addresses whatever group is facing it.
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[Archive: Temporal Flux Biome Mission- The members of the Initiative were widely split on the vote; 4 wanted to touch the inscribed plaque and won with a small plurality. 3 each wanted to touch the verdigris-covered figure or the antler-like branches growing from the statue’s head. 1 vote was cast for touching the untarnished calf.]
You know there are potential reasons to reach out to each part of the statue, but the most pressing is that you are doubling over as your age rapidly progresses. Reaching the antlers might not even be possible without climbing the tall figure itself, and some unconsciously foreboding detail about the calf makes it seem like the worst option. You know that magic here is often recorded in texts from your dealings with Oystersand’s Illustrated and other works you have heard about from the Underground Scholars. Another point in its favor: the plaque is close!
You reach out with a knobby-knuckled, gnarled hand that you barely recognize to the inscription and press your fingertips to the raised Fantasian letters, running your index along the first line that you translated to “Dear People.” As you do, the corroded green of oxidized copper slowly begins to recede, not as though you are removing it physically, but as if it is being rewound, returning to its original burnished state. Your body, as well, begins to revert from its unnatural aging, your skin suffusing with a glow of vigor and your structure filling out in the places where the rapid onset of time had reduced it to skin and bones.
You venture a look around to your team, and see that the activation of whatever energies were contained within the inscription has apparently alleviated their conditions as well. Your relief is interrupted by the sounds of motion from above, and you look up to see the metallic yearling starting to flail about in the grasp of the female form, who herself swivels her antlered head to bring her gaze to bear upon you.
“What strange travelers now traipse this domain,” she intones, her voice rich and throaty, “and bearing no wards to fend off the presbymancy. Hurry then, for we bear you no ill will, but this reprieve is temporary. You’ve only until the passage is complete until you will wither or regress again, and this time with no recourse to stave it off.” She casts a meaningful glance down at the inscription, the second line of which is completing its return to metallic shine even as the third begins the surreal process of deoxidation.
“Team, get ready to ship, we need to get out of here before the poem finishes transforming,” you shout. Confident that they will follow your orders, you turn your focus to gaining what information you can in the short time you have in this place. You meet the verdant woman’s gaze and ask, “What is this place? And what are you? Some kind of deity?”
She laughs, a full, natural laugh that you can tell is genuine, as she gently maneuvers to maintain control of the young creature cradled in her arms. “So curious! And bold! You seek answers even as your short time continues to lapse. Very well, then.”
“This place is The Non-Between. And as for myself,” she shakes her head and smiles, “I am no deity. An avatar, perhaps, but more than anything, a reminder. What else would you know, and quickly now, the poem’s winding waits for nothing and none.”
“The Non-Between? A reminder? Not between what, and a reminder of what?”
“Not between the past and the future, my inquisitive interloper. It’s said that ‘there’s no time like the present.’ And where you now stand IS no time like the present. And I, and my young companion here, are reminders of that. There are some in this realm who would use their connection to the Source to attempt to revert to the past, or to escape the consequences of the future. But the realm itself, in the form we take, resists those workings which would tamper with time, preferring instead for natural cycles to proceed as they do in their own due course.”
At her mention of the baby she holds, your eyes are drawn to it, and you recognize the detail that had subconsciously unnerved you earlier– where its front paws should be, there are hands instead. Shocked, you ask, “Why does your little ward there have human hands instead of hooves?”
“Why, to hold me when I am once again a baby, of course, and her antlers have grown in like mine. But it will require many passages through the verse before we come to that, and rare indeed is even the occasional traveler that activates it these days. Time itself may wear threadbare before the cycle begins anew.”
You glance at the poem, and realize you only have about five lines left before it will be completely rust-free, and quickly say, “I think I understand what you’re saying, but I’d like to learn more. Can you do something to prevent the magic from affecting me if I stay after my people go home? Or is there somewhere I can learn more, some document or history of how this place came to be?”
She tilts her antlered head back with a mirthful expression, “You seek knowledge til the penultimate grain of sand passes through the glass. Unfortunately, I cannot act against the magic, and the plate will not become charged again until it is covered with tarnish. You must take your dear people and go, or you will face the consequences. As for a history, I know of none, nor have a memory to share of how we came to be. A document, though, you’ve already seen. All that need be said even now winds its way before your very eyes. Take what you can from it, and go!”
Of course! The plate itself surely holds some clues! You realize the last line is starting to change, and shout the order, “Everyone, GO!” You quickly vidcapture several stills of the engraving with your Portarray, and start to power up your retrieval. You look to the living statue once again, and say, “Thank you. We will learn from this, and we may see you again.” The last word of the poem shimmers into brilliant bronze as you feel the squeeze of return through the Sieve begin. “Goodbye!”
* * * * * * *
Poring over the poem for translation will occupy several cycles at the very least; some sources in Fantasia have determined that it is a rare and extremely old dialect, though your interpretation of the opening words was correct. Using your linguistic expertise and some borrowed reference materials will see you deep in your element, which you sometimes prefer to the field. As you wash up and prepare to go tackle an archaic, extraversal text, your eye is drawn in the mirror to a few grey hairs that you’d swear weren’t there before the mission.
[SHK-E Analysis: Your choice of the plaque and the information it contains demonstrates your commitment to expanding the Initiative’s KNOWLEDGE. The size of your team and the distance you traveled consumed a normal amount of ENERGY. Other agents of the Initiative learn from your quick thinking on this mission.
ENERGY: Very Poor
Para Initiative Reputations: Interventionist
Para Initiative Inventory:
Oystersand’s Illustrated Arcana
Notes on Xavi and 1086
Untranslated Copy of Dear People