Herrek hadn’t gotten the chance to see Lethe before it burned. Born on the frontiers of the empire, he had always had his eyes turned home.
But the empire was too large, Lethe’s influence too wide-spanning, for just anyone to return home. Travel was expensive, and not without risks—how little they had known—so he had been stuck on a frontier world mired in dust, mud, and rebels.
The Hammer had been his chance to return to the land of his forefathers, to go back to Lethe.
He arrived to ashes, the burnt shell of a once-proud civilization.
And now, over a century later, he was dead. He had gone to a world not unlike the one he was born and raised on, and did not return.
The Hammer was concerned. Herrek was important, but he had also slipped away in secret. There was no greater betrayal than using the Nexus secretly and without permission. It opened the whole community to danger.
Eril sat up when he heard the buzzer on his communicator. He had been lost in thought, half-sleeping at his desk. It was the commander calling him. He cursed his timing, then accepted the call.
“Congratulations, ensign. You’re about to have your first real assignment.”
He felt a stirring deep in his gut. It wasn’t that he wasn’t happy to go on an adventure. But he’d heard rumors that something big was going on. He was part of the Hammercalled, and he knew they called on the auxiliaries to do the dirty, risky work.
All the struggle, none of the glory.
Commander Kellan was standing over a tactical display when Eril made it to the briefing room. He was surprised to see that the commander was alone, but the grim look on his face made it clear that there wasn’t time for questions.
“Eril, you’re here. Took enough time. I need you to go and look into a situation. Reconnaissance only, no combat, one person. You’ll be alone, but it’s on a world we’ve got agreements with. Say the word and we can get you out of trouble.”
Kellan indicated a planet on the display. Rothal. Looking over it, Eril made some snap judgments: nothing too significant; barely developed, with some promising magical traditions that may one day be adopted by the Hammer if they blossom into anything.
“We can’t watch every planet, but if an elder wanders off somewhere and dies, we pay attention. Rothal’s been friendly; they don’t have a planetary government but nobody’s gotten too antsy when we show up. You heard about Herrek’s death?”
“Then I don’t have to explain why you’re being sent there. Higher-ups think it’s suspicious, but we’ve recovered the body and there’s no sign of foul play that we can see. Some magical activity, but nothing that looks actively malevolent. Grab your kit and head to the Nexus, we’ll send you with a quick pulse.”
Eril had been through the Nexus three times before; the first when he was inducted into the Hammer, and two more times: his outbound trip to a mission on a world called Orpheon, and the hasty retreat back. Until now, he had been concerned that he might never have gotten to go on another mission with that stain on his record.
Now, he just stared at the Nexus. It was magnificent, a massive structure seemingly woven of frozen energy and painted with the stars. Even New Lethe, the Hammer’s base of operations, paled in comparison to its size and its beauty.
The tin cans the Hammercalled stayed in were nothing in comparison. The Hammer had found the Nexus, not created it. Even at the peak of Lethe’s glory, they could have made nothing that competed with it.
Once inside the Nexus he was careful to move quickly toward his destination, following the guidance of the markers. The spokes of the Nexus each had their own localized gravity, so travel through the winding corridors was difficult without the help of a digital assistant. His communicator fit the bill nicely, sending signals to his optic nerve to direct him along the right path and warn him of the fluctuation.
The beaming pad was the only concession to practicality he saw in the transmission room. The Letheans still didn’t understand how the Nexus worked, and they didn’t want to risk missing a signal. He stepped on it, realizing that he had not seen another living soul since taking a turn off the beaten path a couple minutes earlier as his world blinked out of existence.
Eril reached out his hands in the darkness and felt cold stone. Fumbling through his bag, he looked for a light. The chem light he found nearly fell to the ground, but he was able to save it with a quick lunge.
Then he felt his world begin to fall, his footing shifting under him in the darkness. Frantically he tried to snap the cap on the chem light and activate it, but it came out of his hand as he began to tumble. He slid onward, feeling some sort of gravel or sand underneath him as he descended.
But the light had taken hold, and he could see its faint green glow up the embankment. They had dropped him into some sort of a cave. Two gleaming eyes reflected the light back at him. Reaching for the pistol at his hip, he crept toward the light prepared for the worst. But the creature moved forward slowly, evidently as afraid of him as he was of it. He could see that it was small—some sort of scavenger—and nothing about it looked particularly well suited to cave life. He experimentally fished out a couple pieces of survival ration and tossed it toward the critter, watching for its response.
After a few experimental sniffs, it gulped down the food, and watched Eril expectantly. He wondered how loyal it would be, or if it really appreciated the gesture. He sat and waited a few minutes, and the creature got bored enough to wander off.
Eril followed, and a short but exhausting climb brought him out of the darkness and into the light.
Rothal’s sky was a pleasant but ominous blue, its distance from its home star too great to accommodate the brighter light of most inhabited worlds. He could hear rivers running in the distance, occasionally drowned out by the din of a motorway. Eril knew where he was headed, and walked toward the noise.
The scavenging animal, no longer interested in Eril, parted ways with him, and he found himself walking in silence. He wished he had been told more about his mission. The communicator was silent. It would get a pulse from the Nexus daily. Until then, he had to wait, look for a place to stay and get the lay of the land.
He stopped by the side of the motorway. Night was quickly falling, and with it the traffic had dropped off. He picked a direction and started walking, comforting himself with the hopeful notion that they wouldn’t have dropped him too far from a major city.
The first sign he saw nearly crushed his resolve. The communicator had to translate for him, but it said he was a few days’ walk away from town. He had the supplies he needed, but it would be an arduous journey.