AZB 6720: Advanced Zeno Biology: What We Know about the Grip of the Shadow--Lecture 3 transcript (09_16_2336)
As we’ve already discussed, the Grip of the Shadow, or simply, the Shadow, is the one and only space faring civilization that seems to defy scientific inquiry. No genetic samples have ever been obtained, no original language has ever been deciphered, and much of their technology remains shrouded in mystery—no pun intended.
What do we know? Well, not much… despite this being an advanced graduate level class on that very subject.
We know the Shadow is a “hive mind,” much like the Tyrasian Hive and the being known as Uma, which both coincidently reside in the northern hemisphere of the galaxy. But unlike these “bug-minded” devouring swarms, the Shadow engages in diplomacy, and adheres to galactic procedures regarding trade and declarations of war. They make deals, albeit rarely, and they’ve even taken in weaker star nations as vassals, allowing them to carry on with their way of life, for the most part, without any fear of extermination… for the most part.
We know the Shadow has waged many wars very successfully, and consumed a large swath of territory not too far from the border of the United Nations of Earth and its allies. We know the Shadow did not genocide the citizens of these fallen worlds, but rather sent them away as refugees. Many of you have even met the descendants of these refugees, and heard the stories told by their grandparents and great grandparents about the horrifying and unstoppable Shadow.
Finally, we know something that might seem like a paradox: The Shadow knows something we don’t know. Some call it a mastery of dark matter, others call it ancient forerunner technology, and the foolish among us call it magic—but the sensible scientist calls it what it is: the unknown. We simply do not know how the Shadow does what the Shadow does.
Today our lecture will focus on that final item: We know the Shadow knows something we don’t.
As some of you may have guessed, this is why you all have signed an NDA, and also why we have an agent from the UNE_XMA monitoring our class. Many of the things I am about to tell you are considered highly classified federation secrets. You are privy to these secrets because we trust you as scientists… And we’re pretty sure you're not Shadow spies. *chuckles*
First off, most of the rumors you’ve heard are true. The Shadow homeworld, codenamed Dark Star, has never been observed in person (at least by someone who lived to tell the tale) or via telescopes. Our most advanced sensory equipment has detected a gravitational anomaly around where Dark Star is purported to be, but we cannot detect any signs of radiation or civilization.
The Shadow is comprised of many different beings, some massive, some small, some ethereal, but no known civilization has ever obtained a DNA sample or living specimen. As far as we can tell, the individual members of the Shadow have no defined or standard morphology. In fact, they seem to often mimic the shape of the species they’re interacting with. The Shadow is certainly a fitting name in this regard, and we still do not know exactly how they are able to change shape at will.
In accordance with the rumors you may have heard, these Shadow beings instantly turn to carbon dust upon death or capture. Similarly, the Shadow’s battle armor, weapons, and even starcrafts turn into the same carbon dust upon the destruction and/or death of the wielder. It seems the Shadow doesn't want us to know what it’s made of.
It is true that there are “Shadow Runners,” clans of mercenaries that pass through the Grip of the Shadow’s borders in order to facilitate much-needed trade with the northern civilizations. The stories told by these Shadow Runners, which have inexorably turned into VRs and Movys, are often as real as they are horrifying, but this is for another lecture.
The main rumor, which you undoubtedly heard one way or another from one of the many refugee descendants within our borders, concerns a highly improbable starship dubbed the Keeper, and this rumor, unlikely as might sound, is also very much true.
Here are the confirmed details:
On March 26, 2230, the Shadow was laying siege to the planet Aqaion, homeworld of the Aqa. The Shadow had a fleet of roughly 72 light cruisers and 9 frigates. The remaining 3rd Aqa Star Fleet, along with the neighboring Glaza Star Hunters, warped within .3 AU of the Shadow fleet. They more than tripled the Shadow’s numbers with around 265 light cruisers and 16 frigates.
The battle should have been a slaughter. Aqaion should have been liberated, and the Shadow should have been beaten all the way back to Dark Star, but then the Keeper showed up, as if from a small worm hole between the two forces. The Shadow’s original fleet paid no mind to the interlopers, as the massive Keeper, which some eyewitnesses claimed was as large as Aqaion itself, laid waste to the final resistance with advanced particle weapons, and vanished as soon as it appeared once the joint force was dealt with. No available sensor in the galaxy could offer a clue as to where the Keeper came from or went.
I’ll say it again: The Keeper is real. Potentially some of the photos you’ve seen of the Keeper are real. As far as we know, it’s never appeared again, but we’re pretty sure it’s still around—somewhere. After all, nothing the Shadow has done could be called a fluke.
If you want to know more about the Keeper, too bad. All we know is that it’s real, it’s nowhere to be seen, and it could potentially turn the tide of any battle. The level of tech it employed seemed beyond even the most ancient star nations. The amount of energy it must consume is simply astronomical.
Another rumor, which is common, but often dismissed, concerns the Shadow’s supposed telepathic abilities. And this, again, is most likely true. As advanced Zeno Biologists, I’m sure you already know that literally every sentient species sleeps, and by extension, dreams. A powerful mind must have its downtime, it seems, and this is also likely to be true of the Shadow. Although as you may have guessed, the Shadow sleeps differently.
“Shadow Dreams,” wherein a sentient organism is contacted in dreams by the Shadow, are not confirmed, but widely regarded as a real phenomenon among serious academics. Some scholars maintain that humans had Shadow Dreams as far back as the early 1800s. Others argue it began when we made “unofficial” contact with the Shadow in 2030, during the event commonly referred to as “The Rapture.” Others still argue that they began when we made official contact with the Grip of the Shadow in 2213. These debates will likely never be resolved, particularly those that involve the Rapture. But this, again, is for another lecture.
Every species within the federation, and many beyond it, have also reported Shadow Dreams, in addition to their own otherworldly events that seemed to have somehow involved the Shadow. I’m sure some of you were drawn to this field and class in particular because of your own experience with Shadow Dreams.
Unfortunately, I cannot give you any of the answers you’re probably seeking on these subjects. All I can say is that these experiences are most likely related to the Shadow in some way, but I don’t know why or how. It seems the Shadow sleeps like the rest of us, but somehow uses dreams to drift into the minds of other beings, despite how far away they might be in the galaxy.
Raise your hand if you’ve had a Shadow Dream.
*multiple students raise their hand*
*Zamyatin points at a girl in the front row*
Tell us, what was it like?
“Well, like most people who’ve had them would say: It didn't feel like a dream. Nothing was blurry, like in other dreams. Everything felt entirely real. I was on a moon; I could tell. There were factories, there in the dead of space, and I saw the Shadow... Shadow beings, working the machines. They knew I was there. They stopped and looked at me. All the machines stopped and they just looked at me. Suddenly, one of them was standing in front of me—bipedal, two arms and a head—so close to human, but not quite. It was wearing a suit, with a visor that seemed to hold a dark nebula... Just like in the pictures. It said ‘Are you cold?’, and somehow the voice it asked in seemed cold, like I was feeling the words instead of hearing them, and I woke up freezing and shivering in cold sweat.”
Very good. Very good, thank you for sharing, and what an excellent example you’ve provided us with! It contains all the key motifs: a glimpse of one of the Shadow’s colonies, in this case a moon; the feeling of not being in a dream, but rather waking life; the presence of multiple Shadow beings, who all seem to notice the observer; and finally, the way the Shadow attempts to communicate with the dreamer.
Some reports, although they could never be confirmed, depict the Shadow helping a dreamer with some sort of wisdom or warning. In one of the most famous cases, a Prygorian female reported meeting the Shadow on an icy world. The being told her that her mother was in trouble. After waking up, she rushed to her mother’s home, only to find that her mother was already dead—murdered, supposedly, after some sort of clan dispute.
Stories like these are undoubtedly why the Shadow has the reputation it does, both here and across the galaxy. Some see it as a boogeyman, others a prophet.
What is the Shadow trying to convey with these visions?
Well, I offer a rather simple explanation. On a basic level, the Shadow seems to merely want to say “Hello.”
FOR YOUR EYES ONLY
“Testimony of a Shadow Runner”
Subject Name: A’jaxubn Gu’then Tr’yic (codenamed “A’jax”)
Species: Lythic (male)
Date Recorded: 1_16_2340
Date of Events: 7_01_2339 → 8_30_2339
Location of Events: The Aqaion system (unconfirmed) and other unknown system(s) within the Grip of the Shadow
Threat Level: Red 16
Note from the reporting agent (XSU_9056):
Although the holo-video from this encounter was partially corrupted, I’m inclined to believe Mr. A’jax for three reasons: 1) The ship, codenamed “Luma 6,” where this encounter occurred has been recovered, and the damage and content found on this ship are consistent with the events recounted by the subject. 2) The available video footage, also recovered on the Luma 6, is congruent with his story, even for some of the parts that seem insane, for lack of a better word. 3) This smuggler reached out to us as soon as he re-entered federation space. In all my experience, a runner has never surrendered themselves to the UNE_XMA so willingly. He obviously felt compelled to tell us what happened.
He also seemed genuinely scared as hell. In my humble opinion, this is very rare for a Lythic smuggler.
The interview (XenoTrans 12.7 used, accuracy level stable at 99.5 percent):
9056: How large was the crew aboard the Luma 6 when you entered the Grip of the Shadow’s border?
A’jax: There were 10 of us.
9056: Do you recall their names, and/or species type(s)?
A’jax: Runners never give out their real names. Makes it harder to squeal after a job gone wrong. Most I hadn’t met before the run. Six of us were Lythic, two were humans, and there was a Prygorian and an Aqa. Guess that was our first mistake. Shadow runs should always have a Lythic crew, no one else.
9056: Why’s that?
A’jax: Well I thought you’d already know, Agent… What was it, 9154?... They say we have a very unique frontal cortex... A quad-cortex, right? Well whatever it is, it seems to turn down the intensity of the Shadow’s “mind games.”
9056: How many Shadow runs have you made?
A’jax: Seven, including the last one.
9056: And did you experience these “mind games” on any of those previous runs?
A’jax: Fuck yeah I did. Everyone does. You ever meet a runner who says they didn't and you're talking to a goddamn liar. One time a runner I was with was in cryo for the whole trip. His experience was actually the worst I’d ever heard about, at least before this last one… (indistinguishable)
9056: Tell me about these previous encounters.
A’jax: I’m here to tell you about the one that just happened.
9056: I’m aware of that, but I’d like to compile a more complete record of your experience with the Shadow.
A’jax: Well I had at least two on every run. Most of the time it’s pretty small. You walk down a hall to take a piss or something and suddenly one of them is just standing there in front of you. You look at it for a moment and then it’s gone again, just like that. But fuck man, it makes you feel like you’re always being watched. Sometimes it’s much worse, especially when you sleep in Shadow space. Guess that’s another reason Lythics are good runners. We can get by with a few minutes of sleep a day, rather than a few hours. The more you sleep in Shadow space, the more you’re gonna get fucked with.
9056: What was your most traumatic experience with the Shadow?
A’jax: The worst one I ever had… what before last time? Fuck man, I don’t like talking about it, but whatever. It was my third run. We had the goods and we were about four systems away from home base, but we were running out of fuel. The logistics guy was a fucking spaz--I think the Shadow was really getting on his nerves. Some days he told us we had enough fuel to make it back, and others he said we were gonna run out in Shadow space, but no one else could do the math to find the truth. Well, we were one system away, and the ship said there wasn't enough fuel for another jump. We got in a brawl about it. The spaz logistic guy got his skull crushed. I went back to my cabin to wash the blood off, and there were three Shadows in my room. All at the same time, they said in Lythic, “The blood will bring you home.” And as they vanished the room filled with dark blood, and I thought for sure I was gonna drown in it, but I snapped out of it, and the next day we arrived at home base. Turns out we had the fuel all along, and the logistic guy never died. We didn't even have a fight, and I still don’t know where my memory ends and the vision begins. That’s the thing about Shadow runs you’ll never understand. Everyone’s reality becomes a different puppet in the Grip of the Shadow.
9056: Do you feel like the Shadow knows you personally?
9056: Care to elaborate?
9056: All right, fair enough. Let’s turn to your most recent run. How did it all start?
A’jax: Well, like I said, we fucked up by bringing non-Lythics, but there was a reason behind that. The Luma 6 was supposed to be the slickest ship I ever took on a Shadow run on. It was fast as (translation_error) and equipped with all the weapons you’d need for this sort of thing. The only catch was that it was piloted and owned by an Aqa, and she insisted on bringing her three friends—the two humans and the Prygorian. They came looking for some Lythics to guide them through Shadow space, show them the ropes and potentially kill some shit, you know? I took the job because I knew the loot they were after was ripe for the taking. I thought it was risky bringing non-Lythics, but this Aqa had a damn good reputation in some respected circles. The humans, too, were supposedly top-notch navigators and logistic types. And the Prygorian—he was the muscle, and he definitely looked like he could hold his own. Besides, I’d heard of plenty of non-Lythic Shadow runs that still got back to daylight. So me and the other Lythics signed up, got on board, and BOOM, three weeks later I’m in the Grip of the Shadow again.
9056: What was your mission?
A’jax: Well, I hope you forgive me, agent 9234, but I’m not here to reveal trade secrets. I’ll tell you that we set out to receive a package from the Jehetma Domain, in a system near the border. It shoulda taken two months for the two-way trip. But then… (translation_error) the fucking Aqa...
9056: What did your captain do?
A’jax: Fucking killed us all, that’s what. Shoulda known not to trust an Aqa in Shadow space, considering the history. All to see her desolated homeworld—one of the Shadow’s few off-limit systems...
9056: Sorry to interrupt, but I’m glad you brought this up. I’d like to clear up a rumor on this subject. After all, it’s not very often that a Shadow Runner comes right to us with their story, especially not with the evidence you provided. As we know, the Shadow has an open border policy with 62 of the 65 star nations of the galaxy. Despite their “cold” communications, the Shadow seems to welcome tourists, for the most part… but how is it you know which systems are off limits?
A’jax: Man, you guys are real fucking slackers, huh? Well if you ever actually entered Shadow space, you’d know how simple this answer is. The Shadow hails you via holo-com like any other half-decent star empire. You enter their border, and they always hail you that very day to tell you what’s what. But it’s funny you bring this up, because the most recent message was different from the others I had seen.
9056: How so?
A’jax: Well, in the past it was some bullshit like this: “Welcome to the Grip of the Shadow. We hope you enjoy your visit. If you need a fuel refill, please feel free to visit colonies A, B, or C… for a price. Please refrain from visiting systems D, E, and F. If you enter these territories, let it be known that you will die quickly and painfully.” The most recent one I’ll never forget. It said: “Welcome, wanderers. Turn back now or face the nightmares of your own creation.”
9056: Earlier you mentioned your need for fuel in Shadow space. Why didn't you visit one of the Shadow’s starports to refuel?
A’jax: Because you’re a (translation_error) idiot if you believe what the Shadow says. Every story I’ve heard about fueling at a Shadow port ends in fucking disaster one way or another. Any wise runner will tell you to ignore the Shadow’s message at all costs. You’re better off acting like it doesn’t exist at all.
9056: Is that why you ignored the new message on your most recent run?
A’jax: Yeah, exactly. Most of us knew the Shadow was just trying to scare us off. That’s what it does. It wants to get in your head, and most of the time it does.
9056: Was your captain, the Aqa, affected by this message?
A’jax: Well I guess fucking not, considering she took us to one of the most forbidden systems. Everyone knows you can't go there, at least not after the... whataya call it, diaspora. Every message I heard on a run before the last one said visiting Aqaion would result in “quick and painful death.” I shoulda guessed an Aqa would be up to some crazy shit. After all, I never heard of an Aqa, or any of the other exiled species for that matter, eager to go back to the Grip of the Shadow.
9056: So you’re positive you entered the Aqaion system? How far into the journey did this occur?
A’jax: Yeah, I’m pretty sure we were there, but I guess I can’t say for sure what really happened. Also I’m a gunner. I don’t pay much mind to logistic things. I keep my eyes on the prize, and kill whatever gets in the way. We entered the “Aqaion” system on the way back, about three weeks away from safe borders, and two months away from federation borders. We had the goods on board… fuckin hell man, it had all gone so well before I saw that grey planet.
9056: So you’re telling me that you, along with logistic team and the rest of the crew, had no idea you were about to enter a forbidden system?
A’jax: Oh the humans knew, no way they couldn’t have… The Prygorian too, they were all friends. But me and the other gun-heads? Well we know how to keep our mouths shut and let the captain do what the captain’s gonna do. Plus I never thought that Aqa, or anyone in Shadow space for that matter, would do something so damn stupid.
9056: Tell me what happened in the Aqaion system.
A’jax: I knew something was up as soon as the jump was complete. I saw all this debris outside the window in my room, along with the grey planet. Both were pretty close, and there’s no (translation_error) reason why you’d get that close to a random planet or find a graveyard like that on a run. I started going to the bridge to ask what the fuck was happening, but the doors were locked. I screamed into the holo-com, but that was locked, too. Honestly man, I thought I was already dead. I know the Shadow’s killed entire fleets like nothing.
There’s no way a light craft could escape it—no way our firepower could make a dent in its fleet—and on top of that I couldn’t even get to any of the gun bays with all the main doors locked. I sat in the hall and started using my personal com-device in the hope that someone else aboard was using theirs. The Lythics were, no surprise there. Like me, they knew we fucked up. You stay away from planets on Shadow runs—all planets, not just the forbidden ones. One of the tech-savvy Lythics managed to override the locks, and we met in the main hall—all six of us—ready to take the bridge with force and hopefully fuck off before the Shadow fleet arrived. We were at the final door when one the Lythics started acting all loopy. He started saying something like, “The Keeper will keep us,” again and again. Eventually he got violent, screaming, “The Keeper will keep us,” and well, as we do, we beat him to death. No need for a loopy gunner at a time like that.
But then my vision shifted and all the Lythics I was with in the hall, including the dead one, became Shadows. I was stunned—no way I couldn't be. The Shadow hit me, got in my head, and I realized I had no fucking clue what was actually happening. I could be twisting and turning in bed, I thought. I could be the guy with his skull crushed on the floor. I could be a flower blooming on the other side of the galaxy, or some shit. But then I was coherent again and saw Lythics instead of Shadows, just as suddenly as the episode began. Didn’t seem like anything after all. We were hacking the bridge door as blood pooled around our feet.
9056: What do you mean by that last bit? You didn’t know what was happening, yet you suddenly felt normal again?
A’jax: Like I said earlier. You see things there—things that didn’t happen. You better get good at ignoring it if you wanna last. I had a few dozen “Shadow episodes” at that point. Each one was crazier than the last, but I got good at forgetting it once it was over.
9065: Noted. All right, tell me what happened on the bridge.
A’jax: We breached the door to find the two humans and the Prygorian pointing high-caliber laser rifles at us. The Aqa was busy flying the ship through the debris to get closer to the planet. We had guns too, and well, Lythics are prone to violence, no doubt, but if we started shooting, they would’ve too, and most of us would be dead while the Shadow got closer. So one of us, a friend of mine, actually, said, “What the fuck are we doing here?” The Aqa turned around, and god damn it I was that close to pulling the trigger—but I had to hear her out. She said something like, “I’m sorry to have done this to you.”
She put it on autopilot and stood up to face us. “Put your guns down,” she firmly told us, and halfheartedly told her friends. “We just took the longest jump this ship can handle. It’ll take at least 26 hours for the jump-drive to cool down. I suggest you accept the position we’re in, and remain loyal to the cause.”
“You just went and fucked with the most dangerous species in the galaxy,” another Lythic said. I said something like, “We’re better off finding a new ship at this point…. we could kill you as a favor, before the Shadow arrives to flay your soul.”
9056: Why didn’t you and your friends open fire?
A’jax: Because we woulda fried the bridge you (translation_error) idiot. We woulda put 56 holes in the ship. But, I guess beyond that, the Prygorian grabbed our attention. He, or it, said something like, “We hired warriors, did we not? The captain’s not lying. We have 26 hours. So pipe down and follow orders!” And well, none of us could say no. After all, we were hired for a job—like he said—and we knew they weren't bullshiting about the jump-drive.
9056: How’s that?
A’jax: Ha, sorry—I keep forgetting you don’t know shit about Shadow space. You run on a strict schedule there. You jump to nearby systems—desolate systems—in order to stay off the Shadow’s radar, and to leave quickly if you need to. We could see signs of civilization in the “Aqaion” system. That’s pretty much completely unheard of on safe runs. We knew we were far off the path, and it would take some time to leave.
9056: So you continued to follow your captain’s orders?
9056: And what happened then?
A’jax: Well, the Aqa told us why we were there: to recover a lost artifact. Supposedly it was worth a thousand times more than the cargo, which was already a lot’a money, if you ask me. This was the real mission, turns out. The only problem was the civilization that was supposed to be dead... on that sad grey planet. Even the Aqa didn’t expect that. Oh man, if only we knew...
9056: So the Shadow had a colony on Aqaion?
A’jax: Not quite. It looked like that at first, but we got close it was clear… that something was happening to the planet. Something was living on it. It looked like a massive (translation_error)--bigger than mountains.
9056: I’m sorry, what did it look like? My translation software didn’t catch that word.
A’jax: A (translation_error)? Hmmm what do you Earthers call them… Well, it’s like a small insect with long legs.
9056: A spider?
A’jax: Yes, a spider. A giant fucking spider. We saw its black legs stretch across the planet. The thickest part was outside the atmosphere, well what was left of the atmosphere. But at that point… I can’t say for sure what was real anymore. The madness was systemic. You looked at the holo-videos, right? What did you see? Was that thing real?!
9056: I cannot comment on the nature of the footage we recovered. Please, just tell me what you saw.
A’jax: Yeah sure, asshole. Well shit got bad for a minute there. No amount of bravery, or whatever you wanna call it, could keep you calm when you witness something like that. I’ve seen my fair share of Shadows, but no one ever saw one as big as a planet. The Aqa was stunned, didn’t say a word. Her friends seemed pretty shocked too. But us, we were mad—fucking livid. Not only did we have a Shadow extermination fleet coming for us, but now we had a leviathan Shadow on the planet right in front of us. The fleet coulda showed up in anywhere between 20 and 40 hours from our arrival, tops. We argued for a while, but our options were pretty clear: we could wait on the ship and hope the Shadow fleet didn’t show, or we could go to the planet to get a new ship and hope the leviathan Shadow didn't wake up. Both options also obviously involved going insane from the Shadow’s mind games. I guess the third option was killing ourselves before the Shadow’s reckoning. That mighta been the best bet, looking back… (indistinguishable)
9056: So what did you decide?
A’jax: It took an hour or two to talk it over. There were some fights, but no one got badly hurt. All the while, the massive Shadow on the planet never moved, it seemed. The sensors on the ship couldn't even detect it. Real Shadows always some at least some sort of signature, so we figured it had to be an illusion… something to scare us away. And well, at that point we really didn’t have anything to lose, and a new ship could guarantee our escape, so everyone besides the two humans got on the shuttle, and headed for the planet.
9056: How far away from the planet were you when you boarded the shuttle, and what was your destination?
A’jax: The ship was holding position at about 300 km from the surface. It took about 45 minutes to touch land. The Aqa said we were going to the old capital. Luckily it was plenty far away from that fucking gigantic (translation_error). The sun was nearing the horizon when landed in the desolate city. We had about 2 hours, tops, before nightfall.
9056: Could you elaborate more on what the surface looked like? They say Aqaion was simply picturesque, a lost wonder.
A’jax: Well like I said earlier, it looked grey from space, looked pretty fucking grey up close, too. The oceans they always talk about, gone. The beaches, dead. The blue skies, faded. We couldn't even take off breathing apparatuses in that atmosphere. It seemed like the life was being sucked away from the planet… go figure, fucking (translation_error).
9056: And what did the city look like?
A’jax: Obviously a war took place there, and no one bothered to rebuild. Most of the buildings were reduced to rubble, and there were Aqa skeletons in the streets. That’s about it. It was a fucking graveyard.
9056: Understood. Tell me what happened on the planet. What were you there to find?
A’jax: We landed about 2 km away from the “target,” in the only place with a clear landing zone. The Aqa looked over these documents she had, said we were close, and that there was an old starport nearby, too. We still didn’t know exactly what we were after, but with guns in hand, we followed. Mostly we saw the same shit: buildings with scorch marks and bones in the streets. Didn’t take long to approach the “target,” which seemed like an old, broken-down library. At that point it honestly surprised me that no one fell victim to one of the Shadow’s games. The captain tried to send all the Lythics to scour the starport for a new ride, along with the Prygorian to make sure we didn’t leave without her, I suppose. But I said, “Fuck that, I’m coming with you. I want to see what you brought us here for.” She said, “Fair enough,” and I entered the library with our dear captain.
9056: How did you know it was a library?
A’jax: Because there were fucking books everywhere, dumbass.
9056: All right, what did you find there?
A’jax: Pretty standard stuff, honestly: more bones and more scorch marks. But I finally had the chance to ask that (translation_error) Aqa what we were there for. She said the “Crown of Knowledge,” or some shit, was hidden there. She said it was the key to defeating the Shadow. I thought something like that might come in handy, or at least be worth a lot of (translation_error). So I covered her back while she hacked the doors. Seemed like that Aqa knew exactly where she was going. Eventually we reached this golden gateway, and I knew it was special in that moment, or some shit… The way that gateway looked, it was like nothing I’d seen before. There was this blue light peeking around the edges, but it was all covered with gold. I don’t know how the electricity stayed on for so long, or if it even was electric light. The Aqa opened the door, didn’t take long, and inside we saw just like you’d think a fucking Crown of Knowledge would look like, on a pedestal of blue and gold. It was like the ocean and beach never died after all... (indistinguishable)....
9056: What was the nature of this artifact?
A’jax: Fuck if I know, man. The Aqa put it in her pack and we got the fuck out of there, onto the starport where the others hopefully had a ship ready.
9056: Why did you think one of those ships would be a viable option? Wasn’t it 100-year-old tech, at best?
A’jax: The Aqa made good ships, still do. A high-end ship with plenty of fuel could have had us back to safety before the jump-drive was even close to ready on the Luma 6… in theory. There was about one hour before nightfall when we found them in the starport. Most ships were pretty clearly out of commission, but they found one that looked promising. The Aqa opened it up and ran a diagnostic, which didn't say anything. It just wouldn't start up. We checked some others too. None of them would start. Odds are the Shadow blew an EMP during the war to neutralize them. Regardless, we figured the Shadow was the culprit, so we headed back to the shuttle before nightfall.
9056: Why were you so concerned about night?
A’jax: The Shadow… it’s pretty clear that it prefers darkness. We knew if it got dark we’d be in for something pretty bad. Plus we already overstayed our welcome, and we wanted to get the fuck off that planet.
9056: Had you given up on finding a new ship?
A’jax: Yeah, for the time being. Someone might have gone to the other side of the planet to look for one, but I have a feeling those were sabotaged too.
9056: So you made it back to the shuttle without incident?
A’jax: Yep, and back to the ship too, but it seemed our luck had run out at that point... We could see the lights on the Luma 6 flicker as we approached. I thought maybe the Shadow managed to EMP that ship too somehow. We boarded the craft and the lights stopped flickering, but there was some sort of mist everywhere. At that point I think we all lost our minds…. Tell me about the fucking cameras man, the black box. I couldn't access it. You recovered it, right? What did you see?!
9056: We’ll discuss the footage after you have completed your testimony.
A’jax: Whatever--(translation_error). I remember walking through the corridors with the others, guns ready, not sure what to expect. The fog... it was (indistinguishable) and thick. We made our way to the bridge. The humans were gone, but their blood was everywhere. The controls were caked in blood, but there were no signs of gunfire. The Aqa and Prygorian snapped a little at the sight of it. The Prygorian said something like, “You said they wouldn’t get hurt!” And the Aqa, with wide, crazy eyes, pulled that fucking Crown of Knowledge from her bag. She said, “I’m sorry, everyone,” placed it on her head, and just like that, she disappeared. Poof! Just like that, into the mist… then we heard it, before we could even react to the captain vanishing. Musta woken it up. Like a (translation_error) screaming through the emptiness of space, some noise from the massive spider Shadow rattled our ship. It was like a million pieces of metal grinding on each other, mixed with the screams and howls of dying beasts. We saw it stretch its limbs away from the planet, slowly. One of the Lythics blew his brains out right then and there. The Prygorian left the bridge, shouting frantically for the captain. The sound continued. Me and the Lythic—my friend—started cleaning human blood off the controls. The jump drive still needed about 20 more hours, but we thought we could at least fly away from that fucking leviathan. Before we even put a dent in the mess, the lights started flickering again. I turned around and watched the mist get thicker and darker. It twisted and flowed into shapes, and then there were about seven Shadows standing on the bridge with us, the rest of the mist still behind them. I looked at my friend and other Lythics to see if they were looking at the same thing as me, and oh yeah, they were. We raised our guns and pulled the triggers, but nothing happened. The Shadows just looked at us, and we looked at each other and our guns in disbelief…. (translation_error) I don’t really know how to describe the next part...
9056: All I ask is that you try your best.
A’jax: (pausing for a long moment) The mist… That fucking mist. Looking at the Shadows, somehow it’s like the mist crept into my mind, like the cold itself was gripping it. I kept pulling the trigger but nothing happened. The mist went down my back, through my legs and arms, and I was frozen… frozen and blind. I started forgetting everything, and when I could finally see again I was on this frozen planet with snow and sharp, black mountains like spikes… It felt like I was there for years...no, like I was there forever... Just cold, walking, looking for warmth only to find more snow and jagged black rocks. Didn’t know who I was, why I was there. Didn’t remember anything that had happened, or even what the Shadow was. I was like a ghost. Time passed like the blowing wind (translation_error), but eventually—somehow—the cold started to fade. I was able to feel my body again, and then I woke up in my room on the Luma 6. It still felt like a dream, but I remembered everything again. Didn’t know how I got back to my room. I thought I might have never even left it, and imagined the whole thing. I still had my gun. I was examining it when my door opened and a handful of Shadows walked in with black blades in their hands. I tried shooting again, nothing, and they surrounded me. I fought as best as I could, but they cut me into pieces… and I could feel it. I could feel it all. I watched my blood pool around me on the floor. But I wasn’t dead. I woke up again in that room, just like before. Looked at my gun again, and the same damn thing happened. They surrounded me. I fought. I died. I woke up again. It just kept happening, pretty much the same way every time. The Shadow killed me a thousand times, but I never stopped fighting. Didn’t know when or if the delusion would end. I just kept fighting. I thought, “So this is what they meant when they said we’d die quickly and painfully.” I figured, or I guess I hoped, that I would wake up one of those times and it would be real. And they would actually kill me. But, clearly, they never did… Eventually, just like the other times, I woke up after being butchered again. This time a single Shadow walked in, didn’t have a weapon. And it spoke to me. I’ll never forget the words. It said,
“You breathe softly, A’jaxubn Gu’then Tr’yic. You will make a fine offering. You are to return to your homeworld, dress in your native ceremonial garb, and return to us, to Dark Star. If you do not, your entire species will suffer as you and your clansmen have suffered here.”
And then it was gone. I looked around the ship, slowly, still wondering if this was another part of the Shadow’s game. I found everyone’s body—that is, except for the humans and the Aqa. They were all butchered, the same way I thought I was butchered. I got to the bridge to see that it was on autopilot. The ship was flying away from that sad, grey planet. The leviathan was gone all together. The autopilot engaged warp, and slowly but surely it flew me all the way to the border. Didn’t see another Shadow the whole trip. Once I left the Grip of the Shadow I could finally overwrite the autopilot, and as you can see, I made my way here.
9056: Why did you come directly to us?
A’jax: Because I think the Shadow wants to kill everything in the galaxy, even the universe, or at least torture it. I wanted you to know what it’s capable of. And that a planet-sized Shadow is probably lurking around its borders. Maybe there’s even more than one.
9056: Well, we thank you for the help. As you agreed with my captain, you are free to go, but we are keeping the Luma 6 and all of its contents…. Tell me, off the record... Are you going back to the Grip of the Shadow?
A’jax: All right asshole, I’ll tell you if you tell me something first, “off the record.” The holo-video, it had to see something—was the leviathan actually there?
9056: Yes, we believe so.
A’jax: (translation_error) motherfucking (translation_error)....
9056: Obviously you cannot share anything about this experience with anyone. The punishment would be quite…
A’jax: (interrupting) Don’t you want to know my answer?
9056: Of course.
A’jax: You’re damn right I’m going back.
9056: And what do you think will happen?
A’jax: I’ll probably be tortured for another millennia, and the galaxy will still be consumed by the Shadow in the end.
9056: Then why are you going?
A’jax: Because I’m not done fighting yet.