The Second Ark
rating: +11+x

I came upon someone in the darkness. A violet-hued, elongated body was draped across the ground. Its form was wrapped around a small flame that flickered precariously. Its limbs were pressed into its body and its head was limp on the ground. I did not recognize its species. Its eyes opened to watch me as I approached.

"Welcome to The Last Light, human."

"I'm kidding. It isn't this small and pathetic," it said slowly. The being's weathered face looked tired from staring into the flames. The fire was floating in thin air, burning upon nothing. "And you aren't quite human, are you?"

"Hm. Well, if you continue walking in the same direction, you'll eventually reach that final bastion of existence. It is quite grand. You should be able to appreciate it."

"Why are you just staring at me?" it asked. The silence that surrounded them was gentle. It was not absolute like the void. Within its gentle embrace, I spoke.

"I don't understand why you're here within the gateway and not at The Last Light."

"Oh," it said. Its body contorted as it shifted around the flames that it had surrounded. "My people destroyed themselves. I am the last from my tribe. I've decided that my people should not continue on."

"How selfish of you."

"Selfish? You don't understand anything," it said as it shuddered. "My people were once united in mind. We could freely experience one another from great distances. It allowed us to have true peace for a long time. Our people were undone when one of our most powerful members decided to exert his control over everyone. He subjugated the wills of the weak and destroyed the minds of the strong. He used our people's mental network to create a vivid paradise for himself. That? That is selfish."

I listened intently. When I did not interrupt, the creature continued.

"When he finally died, so did the vast majority of our people. We had spent so many galaxy cycles in slavery that we did not know how to live without a master. I am the descendant of the few survivors, and I was the only one able to escape the void and enter here. They gave everything to make my being here possible."

"Yet, you want to die."

"There are others of my kind at The Last Light, from different places and times. They would force themselves on me and I would become their servant, just like my ancestors. I don't want that. I don't want to connect to anyone ever again."

"You have been trying to connect to my mind, though," I pointed out. The cracked edges of the beast's mouth curled back.

"I have never seen a human like you before. I wanted to know your intentions, but your mind is too complex. I can't understand it."

"So yes, I will die, but not because I want to. It is simply the better of the two choices."

"I understand," I said. "Humans are blessed to not have that obstacle."

"Indeed," it replied. "Although, you came alone, too. That means that your people's grand empire is gone. There isn't much that you can accomplish now."

"There is. I am not a single person."

The darkness trembled before returning to normal. The creature looked between the flame and I slowly. "What do you mean?"

"You aren't completely wrong. The grand empire was defeated by the void. Our universe is almost completely gone. There are only a handful of stars left. However, a chance at salvation was offered to all people regardless of origin, belief, or age. The vast majority were either unwilling or incapable because they could not reach Iota Persei II in time. Only a tiny sliver of humanity, a measly thirty trillion people, were able to upload their essences into the vault."

"The vault?"

"Yes. It is the last safeguard against humanity's extinction. It can hold the memories, personalities, and physical schemas of the entire human race within it. I am the vessel responsible for delivering it to the Alephs so that they may restore humanity," I explained carefully.

"They are gone."

"The Alephs are no more. They have not been for a long time," the creature stated sadly.

"How do you know this?"

"I have been able to gleam into the minds of those within The Last Light from here."

"You must be mistaken. Our most powerful oracles saw visions of The Alephs. They are on the other side of this gateway."

"Once upon a time, they probably were. However, your oracles were seeing visions that had to travel extremely far to reach them. The light of a star travels quite far and shows a past version of that star to those who behold it. Visions that come from beyond our universe work in a similar way."

"The void is destroying everything, everywhere. The Last Light is full of refugees with nowhere else to go. Most people will not care for your problems. They keep themselves busy with meaningless things to keep their minds off the inevitable end. They are ruled by gluttons and hedonists. The technology that could save your people is being used for entertainment and sport."

"I'm sorry. You won't be able to achieve your goal. You are welcome to share my company here, though."

"No. I must continue forward and find a way."

"Without The Alephs, how will you do it?"

"I'll speak to the current leaders. I will make them give me what I need to restore everyone. Then, we will come up with a way to stop the void," I said defiantly.

"Ah," it said. Its purple form shuddered again and it pulled closer to the flames. "They have oracles and mind readers, too. Probably far more powerful than those from our universe. They will see you coming and know that you are antagonistic. They are undefeatable."

"Humans have fought against the undefeatable and come out on top time and time again," I retorted. "Predators. One another. Plagues. Extreme weather. Radiation. Space. Spatial drift. The speed of light. Death. All of these things that were once thought to be too strong, humanity conquered them. This is no different. The end of existence and those who guard the keys to salvation- I will defeat them."

Silence permeated between the two of us. There was nothing else to do in this place between places beyond talking. Either you moved forward or you waited for death. Going back was no longer an option. I was about to leave the creature behind when it raised one of its limbs. The flames rose with it and floated in the air as it spoke.

"Take this. It will show you the way forward. Without it, you will take a long time to find the exit. Perhaps, too long. It is not something that you can stumble upon with ease."

I took the fire in my right hand. As soon as I did, something appeared in the darkness: A faint trail on the ground. It extended out from both of us and into a seemingly random direction. The fire was floating in my palm calmly as I studied the path. The creature interrupted my thoughts.

"There are quite a few humans in The Last Light, but there are not from our universe. Even so, there could be some who went through something similar to your lot. Maybe they could help you complete your mission."

"What of you?" I asked. "Your flesh is fragile. You will succumb quickly without this fire."

"What is the difference between succumbing now or in millions of years from now?"

"You have many trials ahead of you. You will suffer greatly to reach your goal. In comparison, I will be enjoying a blissful rest. So, do not worry about me, human. March forward as your ancestors once did and achieve victory."

The flame flickered. It kissed at my fingers and swayed in the darkness. I stared down at it for some time before looking to the creature once again. It was a pitiful sight in the now near-complete darkness. The final member of something ancient and alien. I spoke resolutely.

"I will fight for you, too."

It looked up at me. We were different species, but I guessed that it was expressing confusion. I continued speaking.

"If I can find a way to restore your people into a state where the mistakes of their past won't be repeated, then I will make it so. I'll take on the dream that you are unable to see through, as compensation for this gift."

At first, both of us were eerily still. Then, the nameless serpent opened its mouth wide, revealing sharp fangs as it laughed. "The arrogance of humans! Do you really believe that every challenge can be overcome? Some things are just impossible! Why can't you accept that?"

It continued laughing for some time before becoming silent again. Nothing was said for another long while. The darkness was repelled from me by the flame. It now instead wrapped around the creature like a blanket. It was held gently as the two of us stared at one another. I could detect its mental intrusion but did not know what it was gleaming from me. Whatever it saw, it closed its eyes and spoke quietly.

"Thank you."

I walked away from the creature, following the path illuminated by the flame.

The darkness began to lighten. Grey hues broke through the blackness. The ground shifted beneath my feet. Electricity crackled above. As I walked forward, the flame burned brighter. Its heat seared through the topmost layers of my carbon exoskeleton. The light that was flung from it pierced through what was becoming a deep fog. Distant sounds echoed out all around me. A train's whistle. Children laughing. A waterfall's roar. They resonated in my core as familiar noises.

The fog was breaking down. A white wall revealed itself. It hummed with power. Most gateway scientists would have cautioned against exiting at this point, given the indication that one could end up inside of a star or other lethal destination. The path shown by the flame ended right up against it, however. I did not hesitate. There was no where else to go. I stepped into the wall and I-

I came out on the other side.

The first thing that I noticed was that the air was warm. I had not felt warmth like this in thousands of years. Then, my eyes adjusted and I saw that I was standing in a field. There was discarded trash and equipment mixed with various plant life for miles ahead of me. Grass touched my feet. It was not too unlike what I had seen on Iota Persei II. In the distance, the field gave way to a cloud sea from which marble skyscrapers pierced upwards. It was daytime, but there was no visible sun in the blue sky above. The sight of it all brought a deep sense of nostalgia out of me.

"There's no way!"

I looked down from the sky to notice that there were people standing before me. It was an assortment of creatures, aliens, beasts, and humans. They were geared with cutting tools and had been in the midst of tearing open a sealed storage container when I had appeared. I said nothing as they stared at me and talked amongst themselves.

"Loge told me that this gateway has never worked. This is crazy."

"What is that thing, though? It could be a robot, but that isn't synthetic metal or plastic, is it?"

"Be careful. It might not be friendly. Don't get any closer!"

"This is a great opportunity. He could have knowledge that would help us."

"It isn't normal. Something's wrong with its face. We should get out of here and report it."

I looked over my shoulder at the gateway. It was incomprehensible to me. It was made out of some sort of orange metal that I did not recognize. The only frame of reference I had was a motherboard. The gateway looked like a series of giant orange motherboards that were connected to one another. They extended far upward and down into the ground below as well. I saw that I had exited from the air between two pillars extending from the bottom of one of these motherboards.

"Hello?"

I turned to behold the source of the voice: A young human girl with oak brown skin and dark hair. She could not be older than thirty. She had stepped forward while her companions remained by the storage container. The woman offered a fierce grin as she spoke.

"I'm Maple. All of us are scavengers who salvage trash from the multiverse to bring back home. It is very rare that we find anyone still alive out here, let alone see someone coming out of a gateway. The gateways out this far are about to sink below the clouds or fall beyond the edge. You are very lucky to have gotten here before that happened," she said with a confident voice. This person extended their hand out to me even as the rest of her group looked on in horror.

"So, before we tell you about everything else, what's your name?"

I thought about what name I should give. My serial tag? My project code name? A random name from the vault? I thought about it for several moments as I looked down at my right hand. The flame was gone, but the burns it had left behind were still evident. It was proof for myself that I was real. I took her hand and one step closer to saving humanity.

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