I boarded my freighter, loaded in the coordinates that Polo had provided, and told the navigator to engage when ready. The data insertions began in that very first system. At every jump, I was being fed both a portal glyph and the coordinates for the next system, leading ever-closer to the center of the galaxy. Who was sending me that data? Who would be able to? Was it something about being a Traveler that triggered all of this? Was someone watching me and my crew? No, they were bread crumbs, left by the Atlas itself.
I followed them, and they led to another Atlas interface, like the one I’d found when searching for Artemis. Metal that was not metal, lights that held words like the Knowledge Stones, and a smell like rotting faecium and burning silicon strong enough to coat the mouth. As I approached the massive, pulsating red orb, I felt… too many things. What it wanted me to do, in a desperate attempt to keep its experiment going, was unthinkable. Its need, its magnitude, and its pain sent me reeling. I could not contain any of it. I lashed out, told it no, and staggered backwards. It was not angry; it didn’t attack or threaten. It spoke to me, in words, and said it would be waiting for my return.
I found myself on the surface of an uncharted planet. I stumbled back to my ship, only to find it showering sparks and in need of repair. Inside the cockpit, I tried to ignore the burnt-hair smoke and begin repairs, but my mind raced. The pull to the center of the galaxy had been manufactured. Apollo and the strange base Overseer were planted to ready me for this. My memory-less existence as an anomalous Traveler, alone even among others of my kind, was purpose-built as a safety valve in the Atlas’ great machine. Its grand, multiverse-spanning simulation.
When I returned, I told Nada and Polo. Time was finite, and would run out. There was no way of knowing how long we had, but I had cursed us to that end, because the alternative was worse. I would not do what Null had done. They took it as well as they could, and I returned to Akrodne X, doing my best to ignore what had happened.
As far as I can determine, the painful discorporation I experienced when attempting to enter Nada and Polo’s station was just another symptom of the simulation breaking down. The broken freighters, drifting between planets, infested with dangerous… something… is more evidence to throw on the pile.
And yet, Polo’s hope may not be unfounded. I’ve seen an entirely new type of ship, one that seems to be alive. It pulses with a kind of inner light, and is made of an organic material like nothing I’ve ever seen. I’ve also heard stories of a new kind of exocraft – a mechanized suit for operating with more dexterity in extreme environments. Elearu has even mentioned new Travelers building bases, right here on Akrodne X.
Is this some sort of desperate, creative spasm by the Atlas? Some last-ditch attempt at changing the inevitable course of its experiment? Or has something truly changed for the better?
I guess I’ll find out for myself.