Dead. He was dead, wasn’t he?
Indrani moaned, teeth bared as his bruises throbbed awake in unison with him. He blinked and knuckled his bleary eyes, peering off to the side with a squint. A wall with shelves. A tiny sink. The door to a compact shower. Hadn’t he been on that gurney transport just a few seconds ago? He must have passed out cold. The curate felt up his arms, legs, tried to flex them, and was rewarded with a terrible stiffness. So, maybe he’d been out a few hours then. Maybe longer? He’d never been injured to this extent before. Well, he’d never been injured ever.
“Screaming Paragons…I’m alive.” He slid his legs off the cot he was on, tested his feet against the floor. He snorted out a laugh, a nasty grin curling the edges of his mouth. “Mithraiya’s going to be pissed.”
A polite chime sounded in the room before the voice came over the intercom again. “Hey there,” they started cheerfully. “How’re we doing today? Can you walk?”
Gloating interrupted, Indrani straightened up, turning his quiet snickering into a cough to clear his throat. “Yes, hello! I’m…mostly well? Let me see…”
He stood up slowly, waiting with a twisted frown to feel the horrific pang of agony from a shattered femur, a snapped tibia… nothing. The curate huffed a little, prodded at his ribs, his arms. He bounced lightly on his feet. He was sore, beaten, but nothing worse. “Yes, it seems the Paragons have seen to me this day! Not a thing broken I believe! And you, are you well?” A pause, another little cough. “Did you…find anyone else?”
Here we go. “I’ll tell you what,” Sun said, keeping their tone amiable. “Why don’t I guide you to the common room on this level? I’ll meet you there. This is a… better talk to have face to face.” The small room’s door sighed open into the corridor beyond, where a warm, rosy line of embedded lights glowed down the path and around one of the corners.
“Just follow the lights and you can’t miss it. I’ll have some food ready.”
A loud grumble. Just the mention of food had sent an instantaneous pang of hunger through Indrani. “Yes, I’ll be right there! Thank you, Captain Sun.”
The curate, clad in only his skimpy compression suit, started poking around the cabin’s shelves and drawers. Nothing, nothing, a bandage, a single sock, a pair of gloves… “Ah!” Indrani reached behind one of the drawers, tugged at the edge of a crumpled piece of fabric, pulling out an old tunic. He pulled it over his suit, peered at himself carefully in the narrow mirror on the wall. This would have to suffice for his modesty for the time being, his hunger said, and the curate agreed, stepping out into the warm glow of the main hall.
Walking through The Sun Clouded Over was an exercise in awe. He’d never been in a ship besides the one he’d just been blasted out of, and it had been a dingy hauler, more pockmarks than bolts, more rust than metal. The Sun’s hallway alone was more expansive than fifty of his monasteries combined, the vast openness of it pristine and daunting. Finally the guiding lights veered towards a door which irised open with a shushing sound. Indrani leaned through the wide doorway, feet at the threshold of the room, hands held nervously behind his back. “H-hello? Captain?”
The common room was a round, high-ceilinged chamber with indirect lighting that mimicked a fair day on a pan-human world. The utilitarian material that tiled the floors in the airlock and corridors included an eclectic mix of carpets of various ages and designs. There were also several tables, well-worn and well-scrubbed, bedecked with chairs and cushions. Some were clearly designed to seat at least a dozen for meals, but others were small and square, with a shallow depression or a screen set in the middle. Off to the side by the food fabber in the wall, sitting at a large table laden with steaming dishes, was a person.
They were a broad person, wide in the shoulders, hips, and stomach, but they sat with their hands clasped meekly in front of them. Their complexion was not dissimilar from the wood table they sat at, well-worn and well-scrubbed, and their hair was tied back in a tight, exact bun. But they had an accommodating smile and alert eyes shining from behind a pair of eyeglasses. The room’s light also glinted off a few gold bands on their arms and wrists, but their clothes were simple and unostentatious. Comfortable.
Sun had decided, after much deliberation, to pick this avatar. They were reluctant to reuse the one they’d assumed with the Heptagrams player, even though Sun knew the player’s suspicions probably had little to do with the realism of the hologram. But Sun liked the way the armbands jingled on this one’s wrists, and the way their weight appeared to settle on the surfaces they sat down on.
Sun beamed cheerfully at the man as he peered nervously through the doorway, the cabin’s default tunic hanging off his narrow frame. Fuck me, I forgot to leave him clothes.
Encouraged by the person’s bright smile, Indrani gestured hello by forming a quick triangle with his fingers; a small signal of peace, appreciation, well wishes. The smell of the fabbed food cut through the otherwise gently antiseptic air, hitting his nose like a mining beam. Saliva pooled in his mouth as he hurried towards the table, fingertips pressed together in front of his mouth in eager but sheepish anticipation. The food fabber on Malakar was a few decades old and the meals it deigned to spit out were what one might expect to see at a monastery: bland, simple, efficient.
“This looks incredible, uh…um?” The curate sank into a cushioned seat, tapping his chin apprehensively as he struggled to recall if this person had given him their name. As if physically pained by his faux pas, the curate scrunched his face up and met his host’s gaze. “F-forgive me if you’ve already introduced yourself; I was out of sorts while we communicated earlier…”
“You can call me Sun,” they replied, gesturing with a hand towards the spread. “I share the name with my ship. Please, go ahead. I’d join you, but I ate like an hour before you woke up. You must be starving.”
Sun studied High Curate Indrani the IV of Malakar and once again rifled through their available memory for any hits on the word “Malakar.” Any hits that were more contemporary, because surely their guest wasn’t talking about that Malakar. They tilted their avatar’s head and allowed themself the expression of searching their memory. “And you — you called yourself Curate…Indy? Remind me.”
“Ah, I see! Sun, it’s a most fortuitous pleasure.” Indrani spread a palm over his chest, drew a triangle in the air with the other. “Correct, I am High Curate Indrani the IV of Malakar.”
Indrani plucked a chapati from a center plate and began filling it with a little of each of the curries and toppings Sun had provided. After he’d taken a massive bite, red sauce dotting his chin and corners of his mouth, he asked, “Are you familiar with the holy moon, Sun? The Malakarian monastery?”
He did mean that Malakar. “Well, I’ve heard of Malakarian relics. Peak-imperial relics, from, y’know, a century ago. I wasn’t aware anyone still, uh, practiced.”
“Of course! We’re up to thirteen acolytes now,” the curate said proudly, raking rice from a communal bowl onto his plate. To even the most esoteric archivist, Malakar was less than obscure; it was positively arcane. Thirteen acolytes in the span of thousands of years seemed meager, but to Indrani, this was the peak of Malakar’s membership. “Altogether, with the High Curates and our Holy Paragons, we number twenty-one Seekers.”
Sun held their polite smile as they digested this unbelievable coincidence. Sun was probably one of the only ones in the fragment with living memory of the Malakarian movement, the original one wiped into obscurity by time and fragmentation, and here they were, sharing a meal with one of the only people who would actually care. Not just eating – they’d saved this little cultist from certain death. Speaking of which –
“Do you curates and paragons travel often? Go on pilgrimages? Where were you off to when – “ Sun dipped their head, “ – when our paths crossed?”
Indrani gave an acknowledging hum as he chewed and swallowed the savory curry, eager to answer. He leaned in conspiratorially towards Sun, dabbing the corners of his mouth with a napkin. “Not at all, actually,” he murmured, holding Sun’s gaze as if to impress the gravity of this statement. “You see, I’m on a mission.”
Sun waited an entire, excruciating second before raising an eyebrow. “A mission?”
“Yes,” he said, breathing out the word like it was a bomb about to be set off. The curate folded his hands in his lap, expression suddenly dire, his large eyes somehow larger still with the weight of his endeavor. “The three Holy Paragons…are dying.” Indrani’s face crumpled, a genuine grief in the confession. “They’ve lived long lives and now they are fading. Some physically, some mentally. We have no way of preserving their knowledge, their experiences in a full and robust way. They are the last scions of the Malakarian faith…”
Indrani unfolded his hands, stared down at them as he balled them into fists like he could will power into his own grasp. “I’m…trying to find a way to save them.”
How young he seems, Sun thought, watching the emotions wash over the man. How long had his Paragons lived, compared to the Ship he was aboard? What experience did he have of saving anybody, taking their lives into his hands?
Sun leaned forward towards him. “And how are you going to do that?”
Indrani pursed his lips, the harsh diamonds of his brows drawing together. “I found something in our archives. Allusions towards some fragment technology that could…do what we need. Remnants of a star map. The hauler was taking me towards where I think this relic lies…”
Until it got blown up. “Until you ran into some difficulties,” Sun finished, more diplomatically.
“Yes,” he muttered, a resignation slackening his posture. “That was my fellow Curate’s doing, but thankfully, my Purpose wasn’t to be obliterated by her hand at that moment.” Indrani signed the Path in the air in front of him with a sigh. “She was always…overeager.”
“That was — you were attacked by someone from your own monastery?” Both of Sun’s eyebrows shot up. The ship that had sent Indrani hurtling into space hadn’t been messing around on account of some petty rivalry. It was a decisive brutal hit intended to stop him in his tracks. The flying fuck was he looking for?
“Yes?” He was taken aback by Sun’s surprise, but waved a hand in the air indifferently as if the incident was some silly in-joke between the two Curates. “She pursues the same Purpose as I, but wishes to achieve It first. Her Path differs there and in other areas; for example, trying to permanently remove me as an obstacle.” There was a trapped chuckle in his voice. Mirthraiya’s Path had always involved violence and, most of the time, she got what she wanted through its use. Not this time, elder sister.
“Luckily, the Paragons continue to support my Path by providing me a new means to reach my Purpose,” he said, a gratified smile crinkling the corner of his eyes. “—you!”
Sun barely needed to draw out the second’s pause this time, they were so dumbfounded. Someone from the same tiny rock of less than two dozen people wanted him dead, and he didn’t even bat an eyelid. That destroyed longhauler had been run by a crew — people had died, and he hadn’t asked about them, hadn’t presumed their fate since he sat down for the obvious face-to-face Bad News Meal. No, he was ready to press on with this – this mission — with the assumption that Sun would take him there!
But his smile’s not the same, Sun found themself thinking. And it was true. Indrani’s smile was not that of the last passenger, the one who’d figured it out. He still thinks I’m the captain of a ship.
Sun blinked, simulated a deep breath, and locked eyes with Indrani once again. “This fragment technology. Tell me more about it.” Another smile, with just an edge to the voice. “It must be a hell of a relic, for it to be worth all this danger.”
“Possibly,” Indrani said, scratching thoughtfully at his chin. “We don’t have a full cryptograph of the fragment’s language, but from what we did decipher it spoke of ‘the metamorphosis of the soul,’ the ‘rebirth of vessels’. I feel these records hint towards their medical technology.” Indrani imagined the magnificence of the fragmented empire, every citizen undying, just a step behind divinity, scholars and artisans all.
“I think this could save the Paragons if I’m able to find it. No. I will find it. We will!”
Medical technology. Peak-imperial medical technology? The idea shot through Sun’s core like lightning. But once again, they tamped down their excitement, not daring to get carried away. After all, it might be just like all the other leads Sun had followed on their own over the decades. Another dead end. What would make this little hayseed’s mission any different?
It was unlikely, but everything about this encounter had been unlikely. Sun needed more information. They had to be sure.
“You mentioned a star map. I can make a projection on one of my game tables,” they said, rising and gesturing to one of the smaller square tables in the room. “Show me where you were going.”
Indrani didn’t hesitate, simply tapped a bead held by a thin choker at his neck and passed the data through to Sun’s open channel. It was a strange patchwork map—3D, but notated in various odd inscrutable sigils and layered, a series of dimensional schematics nesting one into the other like a matryoshka doll.
“It’s not totally clear to me how to read these, but I’m sure these are meant to take me where I need to go. Imagine, a way to rejuvenate your body endlessly. Or change it completely! Take on another soul! Who knows what the Fragmented were capable of?” he said, drifting off into a daydream.
Unnoticed, Sun stood a few paces away, staring at the schematic, hand to their mouth. They hadn’t seen schematics like this in a century. This might actually be the real deal. This might help them find what Sun so desperately wanted.
“These symbols,” they murmured, drawing closer to the projection and gesturing to notations on the map, “indicated where you could find jumpgates. Before the fragmentation, I mean.”
They ran their fingers through the layers of the map’s hologram, one of the only things they could touch and pass through without raising suspicion. “See how these pierce through the center of the construct and connect to the symbols on the other side? Going through a jumpgate was a near-instantaneous trip to another point in space that our current ships couldn’t crawl to in a hundred and fifty years.”
Sun flicked a hand, ordered the projection to spin its nested shape around. “Trying to capture that distance on a typical star map would render all standard distances meaningless. So this ancient mapmaker folded the world into layers, marked the places where you could burrow through space and bend time. That was the old empire at its peak. That’s what it was like, before fragmentation.”
That’s what it was like when I was made. And somewhere in there, I can be remade. Sun glanced back toward Indrani. “Or so I’ve been told.”
The curate clapped his hands together once, his smile turning into a slightly manic grin. “Of course you’re familiar with pre-fragment cartography! Our Paths are aligned! You were meant to find me,” he said, rising to his feet and stepping up to Sun giddily, “and I to find you.”
Behind Sun, the map rotated, the tiered star chart a glittering spiderweb of possibilities; Indrani could feel the pull of his Path deep in his marrow, his Purpose no longer a microscopic speck of light in his mind’s eyes but a brighter guiding torch, waiting, drawing him onwards. “So,” he said, “where is our first gate?”
Sun, alarmed at the possibility that Indrani might try touching them, took a step back but held him in their stare. “Nowhere. There aren’t jumpgates anymore.” Was he that sheltered? Or just stupid? “Story goes that one gate was targeted by some rebel faction, and in retaliation, the gates to any systems sympathetic to the faction were attacked. They all fell within a few years. The distances became too great, and the empire split into fragments. That’s what fragmentation means.“
That was the simple version one might tell to a child, but it would never measure up to Sun’s memories, the ones they didn’t care to relive, but found themself drawn to now. Threading through a debris-scattered expanse, searching for small figures tumbling through space, answering distress calls, all against the backdrop of the enormous ring that had shattered into thousands of pieces. Metal scraping across their hull matched by wails rising from the people in their airlocks as they realized that their only path to the system beyond — to their families, friends, or homes — had been severed forever.
Sun returned their focus to the present, to the star map, and looked for their current location. There was the pulsar, there’s where they changed course — all right. They expanded outward from that point, and found the area Indrani might have been referring to. It appeared the mapmaker had tried to superimpose data from a more specialized map with stricter permissions, and a few details were fuzzy or unclear. But certain phrases screamed at them.
“Orgcore testing grounds,” Sun read aloud, and pointed to another. “Cultivation labs.” They glanced back at their passenger. “This looks like the place you want. You’re in luck, Indy. It’s a ways, but we can reach it well within an average human lifespan. You can’t say that for a lot of fragments.”
“Oh no no, the Path is surely guiding us to a gate! The Paragons don’t have that long and the fact that you knew these glyphs, this gate symbol,” he said, stabbing his finger into the chilled blue light of the holomap, “means that we are meant to go there! And you, Sun, are meant to be my guide, my beacon to my Purpose!”
Sun said nothing for several seconds, smiling blandly as they spent every available mental faculty cussing out this self-centered, oblivious, idiotic —
“I’ll see what I can do. Let me convert this map’s data and plot a course. I believe there’s a gate in this part of the fragment we can…investigate on the way.” Sun turned on their heel, walking away from the game table. “While I prepare for our journey, Indy, it might be a good idea for a man of the cloth like yourself to perform a few rites.”
They glanced back at Indrani, their cheerful expression eclipsed by an almost ferocious gleam in their eyes, like a thick veil of fog pierced by harsh sunlight. “You know. For the dead.”
The curate blinked, cleared his throat. “Of course, of course, you’re right.”
He hurriedly knelt on the ground, thumb and forefinger together, eyes pinched shut. Their names. He hadn’t even learned them all. A cough as he shifted slightly. “So died Captain Orlo and his crew as becomes starfarers, in the vastness of the dark. Paragons willing, their Purpose was fulfilled. Now, in their Fulfilling, they lay down a new Path for others to walk. Great will be our struggle to follow it and yet we shall, without question, without fail.” Indrani drew the sign of the Path over his chest once more, bowing his head in silence, brows furrowed as he tried to focus on their sacrifice, manifest the appropriate grief, and not the elation he felt at getting closer to his Purpose.
Sun paused to watch, hands clasped respectfully, as Indrani carried out the rite. Their attention was divided, as usual, monitoring external conditions, plotting a viable course on the antiquated map, but they tried to focus on the man in front of them. Pulse elevated, expression almost comically intense, but quiet for once.
As he rose, they once again turned to leave the room.
“I’ll get us going in the right direction. You can use the fabber and everything else available in the common room or your quarters, but please stay on the passenger level. This is a big ship, and it’s easy to get lost.” They willed the door to open before their hologram body. “Call me if you need anything, Indy.”
The door shut behind them with a sigh, and the figure walked to the first curve of the corridor before they dissipated in a shimmer of light. As The Sun Clouded Over adjusted their heading and increased speed, they thought about the possibilities awaiting them at the end of this journey — even if their new companion was shaping up to be a real handful. It will be worth it.