the sage of hyperia
Forgotten how to read? Worry not, as Frisco has kindly narrated the entire story for just such an occasion:
“It’d be easy to disappear out here,” the cabbie had commented, tilting a head at the blurring landscape beneath us.
“Sure, we seen our share of tourists. Them’s with money to burn got’s little to worry for. Enter through the giftshop, exit through the giftshop. Complimentary draughts of Neon Nightmare to further loosen th’ pursestrings. But if ya turn your back on all that glitz ‘n glamor and start to walkin’, don’t take long to recall you’re still at the System‘s fringe.
“An’ that’s just the surface, to say nuthin of what lies beneath it all. Them olde Hyperians are a mystery to us, for all our grandstandin’ atop their shoulders. ‘Cept for a few relics bought up by the corps, centerpieces for their parks, ya could go a lifetime without layin’ yer peepers on genuine Hyperiana.
“No money in excavating, I reckon. Not on a trading outpost.”
• • •
The bar’s absinthe was bluer than my parents’ blood. I blasphemously stuck a straw in it to keep my teeth from mimicking its neon coloration, swirled it in place of a spoon to further dispurse the sugar-cube dissapting milkily in its depths.
It’s hard to savor anything whilst shoulder-to-shoulder with a few thousand of your new best friends, most of them so drunk that only their rotundity keeps them vertical. I was halfway through the second glass before I recalled that I shouldn’t be drinking while armed. The weighty iron at my left ribcage ached like a guilty conscience. But I hadn’t noticed any detectors. Let’s face it, I’m not the first nor last to disregard Meridian civility at an outpost. You never know who you’ll run into out here.
“Professor!” my contact shouted, but I wasn’t aware of his existence until he took the chair across from me.
“Apologies,” I murmured as I set aside the glass and extended a gloved hand. “Cera.”
“Milo,” he responded, shaking hardily. His calluses were frictive against the leather of my glove. The hands of a field archeologist.
“They say you’re the go-to-guy when it comes to Hyperiana?” I ventured.
He squinted, making out only a few of my words, then grinned. “Want to get out of here?”
“Ab-so-lute-ly,” I mouthed.
He was handsome in the moonlight. The garishness of the restaraunt had obstructed that. He had the wiry brawn you find on chain gangs—a man familiar with a pickaxe.
“Professor…” he began again, once we were outside of the audible blastzone, “I asked you out here because we’ve found something. Something we didn’t expect. I know you need to justify your grant expenditures to Bharvale, but it’s…” His voice lowered even further. He placed a heavy hand upon my shoulder and leaned down to my ear, brushing the brim of my hat. “…It’s not safe to discuss. Not yet. Not here.” His breath was hot on my cheek.
We were almost to the hotel before I made our tail. State-of-the-art AR goggles. Broken-in boots. Brand-name trenchcoat—with urban artillery underneath?
The archeologist smoothed his collar self-consciously as we crossed the threshold and read our room number upon the screen-wall.
I smirked. “What kind of girl do you take me for, Milo?”
“No, no, Professor,” he apologized, almost blushing. “You’ll—see.”
I would indeed.
After checking that the hall was clear, he unlocked our door and moved aside for me to take a peak. The ever-present hum of a closed-loop portal array vibrated the room like a growling throat.
“Ye gods,” I breathed. “Those things cost a fortune.”
“A fortune we didn’t have, until a Hyperian week ago.”
We stared at one another in the hallway, and I momentarily debated walking away. “You’ll defray all my expenses. And the Academy gets 10%, in addition to first publishing rights.”
He swallowed. “Deal.”
As he went to his knees before the array to attune it to our destination, I couldn’t help but flinch at what he uttered absentmindedly. “Stay close. It’d be easy to disappear out here.”
Howling winds whipped the frost-tipped shale barrens of Hyperia’s undeveloped zone, strewing sharp little fragments of rock and ice into the face of whatever creature had the misfortune of traversing it. I went to my knees unsteadily, punchdrunk from the trip through the portal array, and raised my scarf about my face to tie it on as a mask.
Milo caught his hat as it began to fly away and screwed it back down about his ears. “The shaft’s not far,” he gestured. “This is the closest the array engineers could get without seeing our dig site.”
We made for and circled the flank of a great shale slab which jutted out of the landscape like a shipwrecked vessel. At its western side, the very tip of its morning shadow terminated with a rowdy little camp–all of it pinned in place or lashed together–which consisted of a worldweary tent, a small pyramid of crated tools, and sleds with food/water rations–just enough to reach civilization if one had to rough it on foot.
“We sleep in the shaft,” Milo commented on the absence of beds. “One good gust could make a dreamer take flight.”
It only became visible as we ducked under the tent. The shaft was quite small, maybe six feet in circumference. Oldfashioned lanterns flickered at intervals down its tilted seam. It went down ten feet or so until the telltale punchholes for dynamite began. “You did the entrance by hand?”
“How’d you know to dig here?”
He hummed, reached into a vest pocket, and produced a compass. He handed it to me. As I set it flat upon a steady palm, it began to spin wildly. “It’s not that?” I asked, gesturing at the shale formation looming behind us.
“I climbed atop it to be sure. Straight as an arrow up there.”
Handing his compass back, I took one more wary glance all about us. “You saw him too—outside the hotel?”
Milo pocketed his compass and sat to dangle his feet over the lip of the shaft. “I’ve seen him a couple times, ever since we took out the loan for the portal array.”
I cursed under my breath. “By staking the land.”
“What else? We knew if we started carting relics back it would draw the corps’ attention. But I guess buying an array on credit draws as much notice as artifact-laden sleds.”
“That guy didn’t look like theme park muscle to me. There might be a third party in play now.” I brooded for a moment. “How long do we have, if he knows this location and takes a cab?”
Milo glanced at his watch. “Six hours, as the moubou flies.”
“Then let’s get to work.”
We here halfway down the gloomy stretch before I heard it. The sound of laughter.
We found Milo’s compatriots lying in various drunken poses upon gleaming piles of coined Hyperian svelt—a blue-grey precious metal crucial in the construction of portal arrays. A handful of svelt is a salaryman’s yearly wages; this trove was ten thousand lifetimes worth of wealth, at least.
I knelt to pick up a couple pieces and rub them together. “Svelt doesn’t affect compasses, does it?”
Milo shook his head. “It’s not that. If it was, the corps would have never let this land go cheap. What’s causing the interference,” he knelt next to me and pointed, “is that.”
I hadn’t noticed it at first. Its coloration practically camoflagued against the surrounding rock. I cast aside the coins and walked over to it. Equally imperceptable to the touch, its grooves were little more than slight indentations, and its hinges little more than subtle elevations. Up close, it shimmered in the lantern light.
It was a gate set into the collossal slab, a gate known to all who love their legends.
The Gate of Hyperia.
I glanced back at Milo’s fellow miners and found no shared enthusiasm in their eyes. The svelt sickness had already taken hold. “You don’t know how to open it!” I called, almost mockingly, to Milo. He shook his head.
“You’re a lucky man, Milo. I do.”
I ruefully returned my gaze to the gate, tugging off my righthand glove a finger at a time. “About that 10%…” I mentioned as I pressed my fingertips flush upon the stone.
“Yes?” Milo asked, with the faintest hint of a quiver in his voice.
“You can keep it. And as for the publishing rights—well, I suspect I’ll be first no matter what.”
The lines that demarked gate from wall began to glow. It was an eerie light that did not illumine the gloom around it. The hair on the nape of my neck stood on end.
A noise echoed down to us from the mineshaft above, but I was no longer present to hear it.
It seemed to me that my feet were planted firm upon a yawning void of stars, and overhead Their city hung from the firmament like architectural stalactites. Minarets, pyramids, and ziggurats of pure svelt gleamed there in upsidedown glory, and their streets teemed with countless humanoidal statues of svelt that walked and gestured as though alive.
One of these tilted its neck up—or should I say down—at me, and pointed. Its body rose—or sunk—until it was almost perpendicular with mine. Its face was like a metallic mask, with eyes softly shut and lips vaguely parted. Determining age and gender was out of the question.
“You have opened a Gate of Hyperia,” it posed, or questioned.
“A gate? There are more than one?”
“Many gateways, few openers,” it appraised. With the one hand still pointing at me, it pointed its other hand back at the city above.
“Did you…did they…?” I stuttered. “Do all enter through a gate?” Just then, I made the mistake of looking down at my own body. My flesh was turning svelt too—and cold. So very cold.
“When thine treasure is new, still weighty may it be,” the levitating one explained. “You must store it there,” it gestured to the city, “to become as light as I.”
My heart would have dropped, if I had had one, for I knew even as he spoke that I wasn’t ready. The thought of the other weights I carried, and the other treasures I might yet find, condensed upon me like a primordial universe. I was so heavy, it seemed as though the stars beneath me might shatter like a mirror.
It nodded, and returned its hands serenely to rest atop its navel. “You are still a beast of burden. Return, when you are ready to take flight.”
Drawing near to me, its eyes opened—but I do not remember what they looked like, or if I even managed to see them.
Milo’s assistants were dead, plugged between the eyes, and their employer rested at the opposite end of the cave under the boot of their killer. “Where is she?” he asked with finality down the barrel of his rifle, AR goggles still in CQC mode.
My skin wasn’t svelt anymore as my bare right hand tugged sidearm from holster.
“Threat detected,” his goggles announced.
It sounded like one deafening shot as we fired simultaneously. Only the angle saved me; I caught him in the side and sent him spinning as his slug exploded a mound of svelt in front of me. Milo quickly clamored up and threw the rifle away across the cave.
“Stand back,” I ordered Milo as I mounted a mound of treasure and stepped over to them. His hands were still taunt, cupping his grievous wound. A magnum round—I load the cases myself.
“Who are you with? You’re no Hyperian.”
Something like a laugh escaped him as his goggles began to beep.
Milo and I dove behind a mound as a flash of light sent svelt burying into the walls like shrapnel. We peered over our priceless barricade. It was a small bomb—more for his sake than ours. Milo and I looked at one another.
“Take what you can carry,” I concluded.
After detonating the portal array exit—our guest must have come through it—I helped Milo load three shoulderbags worth of svelt, shoveled in with our bare hands. We said a hasty Hyperian blessing over the mineshaft for Milo’s fallen compatriots before detonating that as well. A rather romantic and pointless gesture; it would surely be reopened and emptied before we’d have a chance to return.
“It’s enough to get me out of debt with the engineers,” Milo concluded as he hefted the last bag onto the sled, “and cover a lifetime’s worth of Neon Nightmare to boot.” He stooped and unzipped one of them. “Here,” he extended a gleaming handful, “you should at least break even as well.”
I hesitated, unsure of the theological ramifications, before pocketing them. “Buy your absinthe and get off-world.”
He nodded. “Hey,” he said as I turned to another sled, “what’d you see in there?”
I paused. “Streets paved with svelt.”
He grinned. “Well. I see that in my dreams all the time.”
After we had lost each other in the horizon, I pulled my sled over and reached in my coat for the unfamiliar weight I’d felt there ever since I exited the gate. It was a playing card made of svelt. I flipped it over to its face. The image thereon was of a pair of hands. The palm of the left hand was wide open, and being cut. The fist of the right hand was clutching the dagger.
Underneath, in embossed svelt, it read:
• • •
Narration provided by our very own Frisco Dias: professional itinerant, wandering the cosmos in service of his duty to sample all the rich banquet of delights & despairs the Meridian System has to offer. His dulcet tones are frequently likened to those of extradimensional wizard Richard Di Britannia — though it bears mentioning that the two have never been seen in the same room together…
Aided & Abetted by this Cast of Extradimensional Co-Conspirators:
• • •
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