“I said I was done with this place,” Nicolas Valentinez barked as he walked through the main gate of the Voidworks. Sylus standing not far behind him.
“I swore,” he spat as he made his way out into the tram depot, “That once I walked out that door that last time, I would NEVER even look at this place again,” he slammed a button on the side of the engine car’s door, “I chose my family over my trade and I want nothing to do with ANYTHING that would ever jeopardize my place with them,” after a long moment, the door to the engine car slid open. Nico stepped inside before turning to Sylus and leaning out the door, “She’ll take him, you know… Ezzy’ll take Matteo and leave me… She’ll never let me see him again…” he turned to the control panel inside the cabin, “And she has every right to do that… And yet…” Nico sighed as he wiped some dust off the main console, “Here I am,” he turned to Sylus, “I hope you’re fucking happy.”
Sylus gave a weak smile.
“The biggest problem I have is that Q’taxia is no longer on the other side of a tear… It’s in the Void. Or at least it should be. Can’t be 100% certain about that. And, as you know, oh wisest of lords, mortals can’t survive in the Void. The tram offers temporary protection, but without it… We would disintegrate.”
“Technically you would be absorbed by the very essence of the void and used to create spawns for invasion purposes,” Qaitax was certain to make that clear.
“Yeah. That.” Nico spat, “And I don’t want that. I have a family!” He grunted as he pulled a stuck lever in the engine’s cabin, “I want to live…”
“Nico…” Sylus approached him at the tram’s helm, “Just show me what I need to do. You can go after that.”
“And let you fatfinger your way into destroying my life’s work? One misplaced sausage and all of these coordinates are bust!” Nico slammed the palm of his hand into the edge of the front console. “I need to get up into the control tower…”
The tower was the highest point of the works. It overlooked the tram station and the tear with large glass windows. Sylus escorted Nico up inside. Quip had joined them, much to Nico’s distress. Sylus was certain to assure him that Quip was a domestic voidspawn who wouldn’t lay a tendril on anyone Sylus called a friend. Eyes peered at them from almost every crack in the wall or door left slightly ajar. Quip had caught the scent of something he wanted to chase. With a howl and a sharp shriek, Quip bolted down the hall and disappeared. The sound of scattering claws and paws could be heard echoing throughout the halls.
“Two goddamn years and look what these monsters have done to this…” Nico groaned.
All of the panels in the control tower were in a state of great disrepair. Sylus could see exposed wiring and missing buttons all over the room. Nico approached one specific panel. Blowing the dust off he gave a half-hearted sigh.
“It’s not destroyed… at least…”
Nico sat down heavily into an old computer chair. Dust burst from inside of it. He turned the panel on and waited for it to come online. He keyed in his passcode which, after all this time, still worked.
“Alright, Sylus. Here’s the deal,” he turned to the man hovering mere inches behind him, “There are supposed to be two Void Techs on site for any excursion. There are four known technicians. Two have gone missing, one cannot be moved to come back. I’m the only one you have,” He stood up in an attempt to look Sylus directly in the eyes, but he still had to crane his neck up to really lock gazes, “The cabin is relatively simple to operate. I’ll try to show you how. I, on the other hand, will remain here, at the tower.”
“With all the wild voidspawns?” Sylus was honestly concerned with this plan.
“Lend me yours,” Nico motioned his head toward the window.
Down in the tram station were Saari, Daniel, Cassidy, and…
“Quip?” Sylus replied incredulously.
“You said he was domesticated.”
“H-He is… But Quip is a coward… He…” Sylus sighed, “Let me go talk to him.”
Nico nodded as Sylus left the tower.
“Quip!” he called, his voice echoing in the gigantic chamber. Even without a roof, the room was massive. There was no flooring either, though it had never had any. The tram was on a series of tracks built directly onto the ground. Those who built the Voidworks realised that the closer they got to the tear, the less effective common building materials were and they had very limited supplies on the materials that were resistant to the tear’s corrosive energy. Those materials were for the tracks and the tram itself.
Quip came from within the Voidworks carrying the remains of some unfortunate voidspawn. Sylus knelt down and patted him on the head.
“Good boy, Quip! I have a job for you!”
Quip sat up at attention, dropping the carcass from his jaws. A small tendril came out of his mouth and bobbed around like a tongue.
“Nico is going to stay here up in the tower,” Sylus pointed up to the glass windows. You couldn’t see into them from the outside, but they both knew Nico was still up there, “I need you to protect him while Saari and I take a little trip back to Q’taxia.”
Quip looked up toward the tower. He started patting the ground nervously with his paws.
“He’s afraid he can’t do it,” Daniel stood in the doorway to the depot.
Sylus turned to Daniel, “Of course he can!”
Daniel kicked the dirt, “He doesn’t want to mess up and you eat him.”
Sylus thought a moment. He had really forgotten about the threat he held over Quip’s head. It wasn’t as though the creature was some feral spawn. He had come to live at their house. He slept on their porch and on their furniture… Sylus had thought his words were distant and empty by now.
“Are you afraid I’m going to eat you?” he turned to Quip.
Quip lowered his head. Sylus sighed.
“Well I’m not. You’ve earned your keep. Please don’t be afraid,” Sylus scratched Quip’s head between his twisted stalks. Quip slowly lifted his head, “Unless you kill Nico, which I know you won’t, you don’t have to be afraid of me. You’re a good hunter!” Quip’s stumpy tail wagged a bit, “A very good hunter! And I need you to protect my friend. Will you help me with that?”
Quip sat a moment in still silence. Clearly considering the situation. A long moment passed before Quip finally gave a slow yet steady nod.
“Thank you, Quip,” Sylus wrapped his arms around him and drew him in for a hug, “You’re a good boy.”
Quip’s tendril-tongue licked the side of Sylus’ face while his stump of a tail wagged intensely.
Once Sylus released him, Quip did a little bouncing dance before bolting into the Voidworks and making his way up into the tower.
“You’re good at reading voidspawns, Dan,” Sylus turned to his son.
Sylus nodded, “Their body language. It’s hard to make sense of it sometimes…”
“Um… Noooo… He was talking… You couldn’t hear him?”
Sylus balked a bit, “Hear him? He didn’t say a word…”
“Yes he did!” Daniel shouted, “He kept saying things about being scared and not wanting you to kill him… That he loves us and doesn’t want to die…”
“Daniel…” Sylus approached him slowly, “Not a word came out of Quips mout. He can’t speak! Voidspawns can’t use language,” Sylus laughed gently before crouching down in front of his son, “You saw that he was nervous and understood why. That says a lot about how much you care,” Sylus smiled as he gently placed a hand on Daniel’s cheek.
“But I heard words…” Daniel’s voice was starting to shake, “I heard real words. Not just grunts and growls…”
Sylus tried to follow his son’s wandering gaze, “Quip is very smart. In fact, besides one other species and not including Voidlords, he’s the smartest voidspawn there is!” Sylus smiled trying to get his son to look at him, “He understands what we say, but Daniel…” Sylus sighed, “He can’t talk. His mouth isn’t made for talking…”
“But I heard him… He said he was scared…”
Sylus’ smile sank into a concerned grimace, “Can you hear anything else?”
“There are lots of hushed whispers coming from inside the building,” Daniel pointed back into the Voidworks, “They’re scared of you.”
“Of course they are,” Sylus laughed, “This is like fish in a barrel for me. Easy hunting and they know that…”
“Some of the voices say mean things…”
Sylus laughed, “Like what?”
Daniel shook his head, “I don’t want to say them.”
“But… you hear them? You hear words? Coming from things inside the building?”
Daniel nodded confidently.
“Huh…” Sylus’ gaze shifted into the building, “And here all I hear is the sound of the buzzing lights and the whirring of the rift…”
“They know I can hear them now…” Daniel’s voice was shaking, “They’re telling me to say things…”
“Say them, Dan. It’s okay…”
“They said you’re ‘an… unholy… marriage of’,” Daniel paused a moment, parsing the voices, “‘mortal failings and void prowess’ and that ‘you’re lucky you don’t have…or they’d…’ I’m not saying it,” Daniel said firmly.
Sylus sighed. He understood the missing words. “Like they’d get anywhere near me to bite anything off,” he scoffed.
Daniel slowly nodded his head.
“They’re that basic and unintelligent?” Sylus thought for a brief moment, “I have no idea why I’m even the least bit surprised.”
“You’re not mad at me, are you?” Daniel’s voice was shaking.
Sylus smiled at him gently, “Of course I’m not mad at you! Why would I be?”
“I… I can hear the void thingies… And they’re being mean…”
“Ignore them. Nothing they say is worth hearing, Dan. Don’t let them get to you…”
“I’ve never been able to hear them this clearly before…” the shaking in Daniel’s voice became an unsteady waver.
Sylus turned to the rift, “You’ve never been this close to the source before, have you?”
Daniel shook his head slowly.
“How very interesting,” Sylus turned back to his son, “And where, pray tell, is dear Cassidy?”
“She’s with Saari at the Diner,” Daniel pointed in their general direction.
“And you ran away?”
“I didn’t want you to leave without saying goodbye…”
“Daniel…” Sylus breathed. Back when he was serving, it was rare that he got to see his family, much less bid them farewell before any deployments. Being a returning combatant, he eventually became quarantined in case he’d caught some kind of disease or madness from Q’taxia. His freedom from the Works was slowly stripped the longer he served until no one could even visit him. He didn’t feel compromised or ill, but it was the law. He was half certain that had things not gone the way they had, he would have either died on Q’taxia during the last Incursion or he would have returned into the sights of a firing squad. No one had been as steeped in the Void as much as Sylus had been. Yet rather than assuming an immunity had been developed, it was assumed he had been irreparably corrupted. There were no tests for such a thing, just isolation and removal from society. In fact, it was after his fourth Incursion that he was marked dead even though he didn’t technically die until the fifth. He laughed morosely to himself.
“I’m not ready to leave yet,” he chuckled, “I need to get you back to the Diner and swap you for Saari.”
Sylus stood up and offered Daniel his hand. His son looked up at him expectantly. With a smile, Sylus knelt down and lifted the boy into his arms. Daniel wrapped his arms around his neck.
“You’re coming back, right?” he whispered next to Sylus’ ear.
He nodded, “Of course I am, kiddo. Of course I am.” He kissed his son on the cheek.
“Promise?” Daniels grip around his neck tightened.
“I promise,” Sylus kissed him on the cheek again.
“Cross your heart?” Daniel leaned away a bit.
Sylus waited to feel a heartbeat. When one eventually came he smiled and said, “I suppose I’m lucky I still have one!” They both laughed.
Daniel knew his father wasn’t entirely alive anymore. He had noticed when he first returned home, but he loved him just the same.
“You don’t breathe anymore?”
“Hm?” Sylus turned to him.
“Breathe…” Daniel repeated, “You don’t breathe anymore… You used to, but you don’t now…”
“Breathe? Oh…” Sylus put a hand to his chest, “Ah… I forget sometimes…” he took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, “It’s weird, huh?”
Daniel nodded, “It’s weird, but it’s okay. You don’t have to breathe if you don’t need to.”
Sylus smiled, “I’ll try not to forget again.”
And he didn’t. From that day on, Sylus breathed like any normal person would. He also managed to muster a rather regular heartbeat. It was a bit slow to be normal, but it was better than nothing. More importantly, he and Qaitax had worked out body heat. Hugging his father wasn’t the same when he was a cold as ice. Now he was warm. A bit warmer than he should have been, but like his heartbeat, it was close enough. Daniel loved his father no matter how strange he was.
The Diner wasn’t far from the Works which was what made it such a hotspot back in its heyday. Everyone ate at the Diner at some point. It was close and convenient and the food was outstanding. Sylus couldn’t help but reminisce about Jer’s father offering him plates of scrambled eggs and bacon when he couldn’t afford to eat otherwise. The man was a saint and Jeron was right there with him.
As he entered the Diner, he noticed only Cassidy sitting at the counter.
“Hello, love,” he smiled as he put Daniel on the floor.
“Hey, Fatman,” her tone was a bit lacking in its usual gust of energy.
“Where’s Saari gone?”
“She went out looking for Daniel with Jer,” Cassidy explained as she kept her gaze fixated on a glass of orange juice she spun around with her fingers. A second unattended orange juice beside her.
“Ah. One moment,” he replied.
Sylus wasn’t a fan of his telepathic connection to Saari. He hated using it, but it was part of his inheritance from Qaitax. Back in the day, Qaitax would say things to her and it was her job to relay it to her people. Hence her title of The Voice. She was the one person who could hear him no matter where she was in the Halls. Technically she could respond or call out to him in the same fashion, yet Sylus felt like using it himself was a violation of her privacy and time was of the essence.
You can come back now. I have Daniel. We’re at the Diner.
It didn’t take long for Saari and Jeron to return from their search. Sylus smiled weakly at them as they entered.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered to Saari as he kissed her on the cheek.
“Do not be. I do not mind the sound of your voice in my mind,” she smiled at him.
“Alright!” Jeron barked, “No more running off! Either of you!” His voice playfully stern.
“I’m sorry…” Daniel sat on the stool in front of the lone orange juice, “I just wanted to make sure I said bye to Dad…”
“I wasn’t going to leave without saying anything, Dan,” Sylus sighed.
Daniel started spinning his glass of orange juice, much like Cassidy was doing. They were both nervous for their own reasons.
“You don’t have to do this…” Cassidy muttered weakly without turning to face them, “You don’t have to go back there because of me…”
Sylus and Saari looked to each other before Sylus replied, “In all fairness, Cassidy, it would behoove us to at least understand that thing on your back and whoever may be behind it. Hey,” he shrugged, “This might bring us a step closer to figuring out who your parents are. Or were…”
“I hope ‘were’… I don’t want them coming back…”
Daniel turned to her. “If they do show up, Dad won’t let them take you away. He wouldn’t let Mom take me so he won’t let them take you,” he said with confidence.
Cassidy smiled weakly.
“Cassidy, love,” Sylus approached her, “Everything is going to be okay. I promised Daniel and I’ll promise you, too. It’s just a quick trip. Saari and I both know what we’re doing and where we’re going so it’ll be in and out,” he snapped his fingers, “Just like that.” He smiled as confidently as he could. Honestly he had no idea what the state of Q’taxia was or what they would find upon their return. There was an ounce of uneasiness resting at the back of his mind.
“Promise?” Cassidy finally turned to face him. There were dried tear stains on her cheeks.
Sylus crossed his heart with his finger, “Promise.”
“My lord, we should not keep Nico waiting. The quicker we move, the sooner this will all be over and we will hopefully have the answers we seek,” Saari spoke as gently as she could.
“You’re right!” he turned to her, “Let’s get this show on the road! Take care of them til we return, yeah Jer?”
Jeron nodded, “You go it, bud.”
With a smile, Sylus offered Saari his elbow. She took it as the walked out of the Diner.
“PANCAKES FOR EVERYONE!” they could here Jeron bellow from inside. The kids cheering in reply.
“I know you are concerned, my lord, but we must do this,” Saari tightened her grip on his arm, “I hate to be overly practical, but helping Cassidy helps us learn more about the Void itself. It is necessary to know as much as we can if we have any hopes of fighting it. This endeavor is about far more than her well-being.”
Sylus sighed, “Last time I was there…”
Saari stepped in front of him.
“The collapse of the Halls was inevitable. Time was running out for us. Time we had done nothing to actually prevent, merely bought and paid for with our arrogance and the arrogance of our forefathers,” Saari sighed, “Our end was coming long before humans ever set foot on Q’taxia. Others can blame humanity or even you specifically, but that is an oversimplification of our own faults. We have no one to truly blame but ourselves.”
“Yeah…” Sylus breathed, “I didn’t exactly help… Plus… I mean… I…”
“We do not need to revisit that,” Saari put a finger to his lips, “You did what you had to.”
“Did I really have to though?”
Yes. Yes you did.
“I wasn’t asking you…” he tapped the side of his head with the base of his palm.
“Whether or not it had to be done does not matter. It happened. As far as I am concerned it was just and deserved,” She could hear him getting ready to deal in morals, “He was going to die anyway. You saw none of them made it through.”
“He technically did,” Sylus laughed nervously, “I could have made room for another person on the tram…”
Saari laughed sharply followed by a scoff, “You? You were not the one hoarding books and useless relics in place of mortal lives,” she smacked him gently on his belly, “One seat wouldn’t have saved anyone.”
Sylus smiled weakly as they continued on their way. Nico and Quip stood outside the tram’s engine car. Quip was looking up at Nico as he muttered about measurements and coordinates. The voidspawn seemed genuinely interested. Nico was just happy to have someone listening. Being a one-of-a-kind professional was difficult sometimes. No one to talk to about your passion.
“We all set?” Sylus called from across the tram yard.
Nico turned to him slowly, “I think I have everything in order… Did I fix the pressurization issue?” he asked no one.
Quip nodded his head.
“I did, didn’t I… Thanks, boy,” he patted the voidspawn on the head, “Should we detach the other cars?” Nico’s gaze ran along the length of the four accompanying cargo cars. They served no real purpose now that soldiers and refugees weren’t being carried in them. “That’s extra matter we’d have to plan for… but the calculations already plan for them…” Nico put a hand to his chin as he thought a moment.
Quip, ever observant, pulled the lever that detached the carrier cars from the engine.
“AH NO!” Nico called out before his mind snapped into realizing that was a good thing, “Ah yes… The stabilizer… There was something wrong with that wasn’t there?”
Nico entered the engine, “Yes, yes there was. Less cars is better. Once again, thank you, Quip.”
Quip sat outside wagging his stumpy tail.
“Your pet is incredibly intelligent,” Nico called across the room to Sylus.
“He’s a bit more than a pet at this point,” Sylus approached them, “He’s pretty much a full member of the family.” Quip did a little bouncy dance before sitting at Sylus’ feet. “I mean he and I eat the same shit,” he chuckled as he scratched between Quips ears.
“Well he was far more useful than just a bodyguard,” Nico smiled.
“Who’s the best gaunt?” Sylus crouched down to pet the underside of Quip’s head, “Who’s the best?” Quip chirped a bit before bumping his head with Sylus’. “Yes you are!”
“Alright,” Nico announced as Saari approached them, “Chances are pretty good you’ll land on Q’taxia. Not 100% due to not being able to predict the actual state of the planet, but assuming it’s in the same general direction, and the landing pad is still in tact, you should get there in one piece. Sylus!”
“Yes sir,” Sylus stood up straight with an instinctive salute.
“When’s the last time you wore a goddamned uniform?” Nico laughed at him.
“Two years,” Sylus chuckled, “Not that it ever fit me… Too big one day, too small the next… It’s still in the closet actually…”
Nico shrugged in dismay, “Just come here and let me show you what you need to do on your end.”
“Listen closely, Qai, just in case I forget,” Sylus teased the Voidlord.
“I will observe. You will sit back. I will not allow us to be consumed by the Void and I do not trust your memory, nor your accuracy,” Qaitax forced his way to the surface, “Inform me, Void Technician.”
Qaitax followed Nico into the cabin. Saari remained outside with Quip.
“You take good care of Nico, okay?” she patted the voidspawn on the head.
Quip sat beside her wagging his tail.
“Simple enough,” Qaitax said as he stepped back out.
“You understood everything?” Nico asked hesitantly.
“It is a series of motions I can easily replicate. Nothing overly complicated,” Qaitax replied confidently.
“Well okay then. All aboard!”
Saari gave Quip a quick pat before approaching the tram.
“Take care, you two. I’ll be here hopefully making sure you get back okay,” Nico laughed a bit too nervously for Sylus’ liking. He cleared his throat, “I know you can do it!” he added as a last attempt at mustering positivity.
Sylus, back in control, gave a small grimace before turning to Saari, “Ladies first.”
With a curt bow, Saari boarded the tram.
“Thanks, Nico,” Sylus patted the Void Technician on the shoulder, “This means a lot.”
“Just hope it doesn’t ruin my already ruined marriage…” Nico sighed, “Don’t ever let Ezzy know this happened…”
“I promise this’ll never come up again,” he put a hand over his heart.
“She has her ways…” he breathed.
“Nothing I can’t handle,” Sylus put his hands on his hips.
Nico laughed weakly.
“Get on there. Get your book or whatever and get back so I can go home,” he had to reach up to pat Sylus on his shoulder, “Did you have to come back so tall?”
“I-I’m the same height I was before…”
“I was afraid you’d say that… I’m just short… Aren’t I?” Nico sighed, “Maybe that’s part of why she left me…”
“Some people can pull short off. I think you do it just fine,” Sylus smiled half mockingly.
“You bastard… Get out of here!”
Sylus gave Nico a smile and a nod before boarding the tram himself.
With a heavy sigh, Nico made his way up into the control tower. This was never his place, but there was no way she’d ever come back. Even in the end, they were running on the steam of her programming. She was lucky she got out when she did and Nico had been a fool to stay as long as he did… But he had to. There were only four people in the world and he didn’t even know the other two… Someone had to stay. Someone had to run the tram until the very end. He turned to Quip who sat beside him in the control tower.
“Here goes nothing,” he groaned as he leaned into the console and began his end of the release mechanism. He held down a button beside a microphone on a curved stalk, “Beginning release sequence.”
“Understood,” the Voidlord replied.
“Tram will engage the Rift in 3, 2, 1… Contact…”
The tram slowly pressed itself into the hissing opening that lead into the void.
“Once you’re in all the way there will be a delay in all communication until you reach Q’taxia. Or… Somewhere… Hopefully Q’taxia…” Nico cringed a bit as his own uncertainty was laid bare.
“I thought you figured everything ou-” Sylus’ voice was cut off as the entirety of the tram car entered the rift.
“Hold your breath, boy, this might not go well,” Nico’s voice shook a bit as he turned to Quip.
Though he lacked eyes or a visible mouth, it was clear Quip shared his concern.
“He’s a Voidlord. What can possibly go wrong?” Nico laughed nervously until he couldn’t force it anymore. “So… So much can go wrong…” he groaned, “What the fuck am I doing here!?”
Quip rested his head on the armrest of the chair. Nico absently placed his hand on the voidspawn’s head.
“Hope for the best, hm?”
Quip gave a small chirp in reply.
“Good boy,” Nico sighed as he leaned back in the dusty old chair, “Good boy…”