It takes almost thirty seconds for anyone at HQ to realize what the alarm is even for. It used to be the Closed Zones, the Dead Zones, then the Ruined Zones before people kept trying to enter them. A void is space where everything that could go wrong with war went even worse. No one knows what the wars were about. Who fought, who died, who lost: all of it has been buried in ruin and twisted space. No hyperlanes work, not even wormholes pass through the Zones. We don’t know how big they are. Just that a war happened, and the scars have never healed.
It has been five year since anyone even approached them. The last one was a tour of certain problematics. Generals. Rulers. The kind of people all too eager to fire weapons but never be in wars. Seeing reality bleed into space changed them. A few killed themselves, so the tour never happened again. Before then was the same as now: scavengers. Idiots thinking they can find something famous or amazing.
I slip into the shiftsuit and take off, data trilling through my senses. No one is certain how long the new model will survive. I have an hour, at last count. Get in, try to save fools, get out. If they past the first zone, extraction isn’t even possible to attempt. The suit projects images to approximate what is around me as I dive in; actually trying to perceive the ruins of space and time isn’t something anyone survives. Which means the craft is flying in blind, attempting to extract anything and bring it out.
That no one has succeeded never stops the attempts. And people wonder why the Zones ever happened.
The shiftsuit bucks and twists forms around me. Holding steady against what feels like the remains of a black hole. Also a white one, gravitational and chronal distortions making anything else impossible to even guess at. I make it through that. The shiftsuit can make it through the first layer intact. No idea who bankrolls the Zone Watch, but it cost more than I ever want to know to even make the suits. The suit twists; I move with it.
I don’t know many other species that could even survive being inside this model; I make a note to let HQ know, then pause as the shiftsuits datafeeds blink out. Flick back on. The onboard AI is as primitive as it can be, since normal AI would have their minds destroyed by this place as well. The shiftsuit has gone white about me, when I didn’t even know they changed colour. I move slowly, trying to find the source of disturbance, and – air. Actual air. Gravity within accepted norms. A pocket of reality, which shouldn’t be remotely possible.
I fall into it, and there is a young man. Human, 14, just standing in the air and looking out at the zones.
This is so far past bad. I order the suit to disengage five times before it agrees and lets me breathe the air. Breathable air, a field of real in the middle of – this. And the human who registers entirely as human.
I say my name in my native tongue, which I haven’t spoken in several centuries.
The human smiles and responds in the name. Then offers his name. “You are not surprised?”
“You are Jay, who is Jayseltosche. No one – nothing else could be in here, the way you are. You didn’t trigger the alarm.”
“No. It will be triggered shortly. Even Time is broken here,” he says softly. “The Powers that govern the universe have no sway in this place. Neither can anything from Outside enter. It will take thousands of years to heal, if it ever does at all.”
“It has improved. The first zone –.”
“My bindings hold there to an extent. In the rest –.” He sighs. “There have been wars here.”
“I know. We Hingari began many of them,” I admit.
“And others. A galaxy was carved in half once. I was in a hurry, it was in my way. Several attempts to kill me formed part of the Zones. I thought containing it in one place would be safer. Instead it led to a different kind of war.”
“Wars have been fought against you; you have power unlike anything else. That is known. That’s not the same as you fighting though,” I say slowly.
“An argument got out of hand.”
No boast, no laugh. Just a fact so alien I can barely grasp it. “You can fix this?”
“I have begun so. And finding your HQ as part of that end. Destruction is so much easier than creation for me right now. But it has not always been so.” And he holds out a hand.
And Jay is standing there. Shorter, eleven, and looking rather exited. “You wanted help with an adventure?”
“I do. I require energy to fix – things.”
“Oooh.” And the younger Jay turns and looks about. A slight frown touches his forehead like something alien. “Wow. That’s a really hugey oops you know!
“And some of it wasn’t even an oops. But I can always do helpings!” And Jay grins. Jaysel – no, Jay, at eleven, grins.
The shiftsuit actually whimpers.
Joy. Kindness. Innocent. Wonder. Power without corruption spills out, and the ruined zones shake in response.
“You need to go now,” Jayseltosche says.
Jay turns to him. “But I’m confusled because that felt like unbindings a Jay would never do!”
“And a Jay would not. But you spent a lot of energy, and you need to return.”
And Jay waves to me and vanishes between moments.
Jayseltosche touches energy, and weaves it. Like lace spiralling through the entire ruined zones. A wrapper that slowly turns a ruin into a present. “That helps. It will still be centuries, but it helps.”
“Jay set the alarms off?”
“He is – not subtle, so yes. I am no longer what he is, so some of what he can do was – necessary.” And Jayseltosche’s voice cracks a little.
I turn slowly, toward a being so far beyond gods that we have no words for it. “You are crying.”
“I am.” His smile has an echo of the past. “It is – very hard to...”
“We have a bar at HQ. And drinks. We could share drinks and food.”
“I did not wish you as a witness for that. Hingari can live a long time, you can take many forms. I’d like the HQ to be run by you, and we can meet for drinks when it is no longer needed and the Zones healed.”
“We can, but you need a drink now.”
Jayseltosche blinks. It takes everything I have not to activate the shiftsuit and bolt. I almost yelled at him. The laugh he lets out a moment later is soft and sad. “I imagine I do. Very well.”
I return to HQ, report it as an anomaly – trusting Jay will make sure my shiftsuit agrees – and join him in one of the bars. He looks tired, and younger than he is.
“I have heard it said that nothing can be forgiven.” He glances over at me without a word. “And I think there is some truth in that. The living can be forgiven; the dead merely remain dead. I think there is no forgiveness, but there can be redemption.”
I don’t ask who he argued with, or fought against. If it was himself or something else. We share a drink in silence, each remembering different wars. There are so many reasons the hingari hide now. I’d like to think I understand Jayseltosche a little. And perhaps I do. But I think I understand Jay not at all.