Ingress IV-2 wasn’t much of a moon, being little more than a refuelling station circling a gas giant at the edges of the Duvellin Cluster. It wasn’t where I expected to find him, but I knew enough of my target to know that expecting anything was dangerous at the best of times. Even so, if there was a place that wasn’t important Ingress IV-2 wouldn’t even be in the running for that.
He was sitting at the only bar the station had. There were a half-dozen pirates, smugglers and traders scattered about the crude interior, all sitting at a collection of cheap tables and talking or making bets in the tones of people who had nothing else to do with their time at all. No one that would be missed if worse came to worse. Some looked up as I entered, a few looked wary. He didn’t look back at the door at all. He was twenty-one, and it was strange how I simply knew that, as though it were some sort of warning.
“I go by Jay.” He didn’t turn around. “I believe you go by Lady Vestra.”
“Sometimes. In some places.”
He turned. He looked young and human, but there was a calmness to him. “Are you going to try and kill me now or later?” he asked as if that was a minor thing. A few people began scrambling for windows or the back door. Jay just waited in silence, pale eyes steady and unafraid.
“I serve two masters,” I said evenly. “Only one of them wishes you dead.”
“Three.” He smiled then, and despite everything I’d seen and been told, the kindness of it staggered me almost physically. “You are also a master of yourself, I think?”
“You know of me?”
“We just met. But I am pretty jaysome at bindings,” Jay said. “You thought your name loudly enough for me to sense, and everything about you screams killer.” He paused. “And protector.”
“And if it did not?”
“We wouldn’t be here talking,” he said evenly.
The bar had emptied save for the bartender; she remained, as bartenders always do. “I have this,” I said from within my own calm, and unsheathed the Verkonis blade. Translucent metal hummed like a hungry thing, the air about the blade twisting with strange colours. There were, to my knowledge, less than twenty Verkonis blades in circulation. They cut through dimension as easily as through energy, which made them dangerous enough, but when used on a vessel in hyperspace a Verkonis blade slices through the hyperspace membrane and drops the ship back into real space. Few spacecraft or crew survive the experience, so the blades were illegal most everywhere.
I never saw Jay move. One moment I was holding the blade, the next it was sheathed in his lap as he continued to drink his beer. “I knew you did; I was stabbed with a Verkonis blade once. I would rather it never happened again, so I was aware of it.” His voice was soft, almost calm still.
“When was that?” I asked, trying to buy myself time. It’s one thing to be told how dangerous a target is, another to see them in action. Or not see them at all, in this case.
“Two days before Verkonis itself vanished from the universe.” Jay paused a beat. “In Galchwar.”
I didn’t freeze, but it was a near thing. I walked to the bar, bought a drink, gulped half of it back without tasting it. The Galchwar Cluster had been destroyed a century ago: four star systems obliterated in an instant, cause unknown. The strangest part, historically, was that none of the neighbouring systems had gone to war over who might have done that and trying to find secret weapons the other systems might have had.
“You stopped wars from happening because of it?”
“It seemed the right thing to do.” The words were still calm, but there was a coldness in his manner that made me very glad I hadn’t intended to try and use the weapon at all. “May I ask why you are here?”
“You don’t know?”
That won a grin. “It would be rude to.”
“I am here as a Protector on behalf of the world of Aldemayer in the Qwa Conglomerate,” I said.
“A single planet can afford your services?” he asked.
“This one can. A seer on the planet – Chielin – found a way to combat the bloating plague in the Conglomerate, but it requires medicines found only in the Great Maelstrom. It is said that you can make barriers that cannot be breached; I am more than adequate as a pilot, so together we’d enter the Maelstrom, find what Chielin needs, and depart.”
“A historian, in point of fact. She learns things in old records and others take it as proof of prophetic powers, which irks her to no end.”
“Would you object if I asked to meet this Chielin?” he asked.
“There is a plague in Qwa. Taking the time to return would be –.”
I felt a breeze behind me, turned as my hairs rippled in the wind. I resisted base urges with an effort as I stared into the great library of Aldemayar.
“Is that the right place?” Jay asked.
I nodded. The bartender chose that moment to faint dead away as we stepped through a portal from one world to another as easily as walking out of any doorway. The Great Archives were Chielin’s domain, so I was unsurprised when she came striding through the crystal fields toward us with a weapon in hand and a look of fury on her face.
“Chielin.” I bowed. “I have brought the one who asked for to this place.”
“The famous Jay, and this soon?” she asked, not lowering the weapon.
Jay was still beside me. I glanced over; his eyes were wide, and he looked about to speak before catching himself. “I made a doorway to this place,” he sayd in the careful way people speak when concealing pain.
“I have heard of that.” Chielin studied him openly, lowering her weapon. “Can you make a door right into the Great Maelstrom?”
I bit back a curse word at not thinking of that option myself.
“I made one to this place because Lady Vestra resonated with it; I would need to know something about the Maelstrom to make one connected to it.”
Chielin gestured, and information spilled into the air in front of Jay. I almost jumped; she never opened an archive casually to anyone. “Most of this is speculation.”
Jay nodded, gestured at the air in front of him. He grunted, gestures again. “Huh.”
Something about the ‘huh’ made my ears twitch.
“It is closed to me,” Jay said quietly. “And there was very few entities in the universe who can close a place to me. The ones I know of at present would not do so.” He held out a hand to the air in front of him. His voice didn’t deepen, didn’t change in any way I could discern, but every crystal in the archive rang discordantly when he spoke to the air in front of him. “Holder of the Great Maelstrom, speak. I invoke the Cone and Grave.” Jay paused, and his voice roughened. “I invoke them in the name of Honcho that you speak.”
Jay blinked, then dropped his hand. “You have made me speak the name of the wandering magician,” he said, and his voice was terribly gentle as he stared at something only he could see. “That was not a safe thing to do at all.”
Chielin made a sound, and Jay seemed to recall himself and turned, looking at me with a flatness that almost made me step back. Almost.
“When do we leave?” he asked.
“We will need a craft, yes?”
“It might be safest,” he said, and followed me out of the Archive to the spaceport without a single look back. I think he wanted to, though I had no idea why.
“What do you mean, you have no idea how to fly a spacecraft?” I screamed as the hull shuddered under stresses.
“Well, I’ve never had to learn how to, now have I?” Jay said crossly.
“I can’t use flight and guidance systems and keep us on course,” I snarled as system alerts flared and screamed. “The Maelstrom is disrupting the hyperspace pathway itself from over four systems away, so do something!”
Metal screamed throughout the ship and every alarm went burgundy to my eyes before shutting down entirely, as if the very alarm system had been overloaded past capacity. Every sensor on the ship died, then shuddered back on as if our craft was waking from a dream. I turned on the long-range scanners, blinked. We’d traversed six star systems in a moment and the hull was covered in multiple fractures and what looked for all the world like vast claw marks.
I turned and stared at Jay, who actually blushed.
“We might have gone through underspace. It’s shorter than hyperspace but loads more dangerous. Mostly because of the risk of creatures in it getting out every time it is used.”
“And there was no risk of that?” I asked slowly.
“No.” He said it with a simply finality, and nothing else at all as we drifted toward the Great Maelstrom proper.
Alien energies surged in the air in front of us. Even a craft built by the finest Qwa engineers could barely make out a third of what we were witnesses, but then again the craft’s scanners claimed Jay was entirely a normal human. I picked up black holes, two supernovas, a quasar, one grey hole, at least two white holes and three aendar variables that were entirely off any scale. “Hyperspace isn’t active at all,” I said.
“Neither is underspace, which is curious,” Jay said. He didn’t move, but out craft ceased rocking and most of the warning lights went away as a shield flowed into existence over us in a shimmer of golden hues. Darkness seemed to leap out of the maelstrom, slamming into the shield like hungry blades. The shield held, though Jay took a step back.
“That shouldn’t be possible,” he said in a tone of shock that almost had me looking for a place to hide. Entities like Jay shouldn’t sound shocked. “There are almost no magicians left in the universe, and none capable of working on a scale like this.”
“It was a long time ago and the universe was different then.” Jay smiled without humour. “It may not be wise for you to continue down this path, Lady Vestra.” For a moment, I almost thought he was going to call me by a name I hadn’t used in over thirty years. “I cannot guarantee your safety; I am not entirely certain of my own.”
“I have my duties.”
“I am certain that you do.” Jay glanced toward the maelstrom; the craft rocked, then hurled forward on a straight course even as stray energies crackled against whatever shield he had made. Jay said nothing, his lips a thin line, silence a weight of its own as we finally spotted a structure.
The tower floated in a void, a metallic collection of rooms and corridors interwoven together to form a mesh that tried to hide anything important under a multitude of bland designs; it was a fashion that had gone out of of style over a century ago as scanners made it obsolete. I managed to find a docking bay out craft could fit in; the atmosphere wasn’t breathable but I had a pressure suit. Jay needed nothing at all. It was cold despite the energies that hummed in the air and I couldn’t shake a feeling that the structure itself was alive somehow, aware of us in a way that was more than just scanning us.
“Hello?” Jay called out as we walked down a narrow corridor.
“This is my home,” a voice spoke, coming from all about us.
“I know, but I thought it must be lonely here at least sometimes? We could be friends you know.”
“I have no need of that weakness,” the voice roared.
“Oh.” Jay let out a sigh. “I used to be a lot better at making friends than I am these days. I am Jayseltosche.”
“That name means nothing to me.”
“It can: you are a machine intelligence,” Jay said. “I knew the core Val in the first terran system, and your archives should contain something of that. Probably filed under jaysome, I imagine. I know you are a magician, and I know what that means. I can help you.”
“No! I will not be tricked,” the voice roared, and the corridor about us shrunk inward, though only for a moment.
“Don’t do this.” Jay didn’t move, his voice softer. “I could destroy you: depend upon it that such a thing is within my power. But also depend upon knowing that I don’t want to. You can think, friend – that means you can make another choice than this.”
“You cannot destroy this creature,” I said to Jay.
“Unchecked, it could damage the universe more deeply than even it knows. Madness in magicians is a very bad thing,” Jay said.
“You misunderstand me.” And I fired the Verkonis dart that had been hidden within my right palm. The containment field it would make it hold Jay gave me a small chance of surviving; I suspected the maelstrom would survive just fine.
The dart vanished.
Jay didn’t even look over at me. “There are dimensions of me a Verkonis blade cannot reach at all. That is where I stored the blade, and now the dart as well.” He must have done something, because the maelstrom let out a roar of thwarted fury about us. “I am jaysome, and I have quite a few skills: you could have asked me to look into this plague, but you did not. Because, I imagine, I would discover that Qwa made it themselves.” He turned toward me, looking tired. “What did they hope to gain here, Lady Vestra?”
“A weapon. An edge over our enemies.”
“A better edge would be making friends rather than enemies.”
I was going to say that might be easier for him when the Great Maelstrom manifested all its energy at once as a burning ball that obliterated much of the structure as it came into existence before us. Jay made some shield about me, though I had no idea why, before he turned to face the heart of the maelstrom.
“Please,” he said, his voice breaking. “We don’t have to do this. Fear doesn’t have to be stronger.”
The core of the maelstrom collapsed inward toward us, the entire great maelstrom itself becoming a crushing weight as though to reduce us to nothing. The shield about me shuddered, and I had no words for the energies that flared up in a moment that might have been a moment, a minute, an hour or even an eternity.
Jay did not move at all, as still and distant as some terrible force far outside even this. There was a silence and then the maelstrom was unmade. The machine intelligence, whatever it had become, the core, the place it had created to hide itself from the universe – all of that was gone, unbound like a thread pulled apart with no effort at all.
I think I blinked, because a moment later we were back on the Qwa craft, and it was floating in empty space, reading no unusual energies at all.
Jay just stood, shoulders slumped. He spoke as if words were being pulled from him. “All this power, all that I am, and sometimes all I can do is destroy. Which is not jaysome, not right, not the proper thing to do at all. But forcing someone to be a friend is worse. I know this, and yet, and yet...” He trailed off.
I froze in the pressure suit, all my hair and membranes still.
“I aged a week doing that,” Jay said as he turned toward me. “Some actions make me older. Ones I am forced to, not as much. Ones done to me, not at all.”
“Galchwar didn’t,” I managed.
“It did not.” He straightened. “Where do we go from here, Lady Vestra?”
“Pardon?” I asked.
“I could use a Protector, I think. And I imagine you cannot return to Qwa since neither of your masters will be happy with you.”
“Oh,” I said, and wisely, wisely, nothing else at all as I set a course for a random galaxy. I had funds, and could easily get another ship. And if I was very lucky, I might someday atone for what I’d forced Jay to do here.