Lee and Andrew Play…Various Games

In addition to my review show, I’ve started a Let’s Play series with my co-host Andrew Cornell. Watch us as we play video games, give our own commentary, and discuss life, the universe, and how bad the controls for the Wii are.

This is a different sort of project than I am used to working on. As a writer, I attempt to plan out what I am going to create, and execute it accordingly. With the off-the-wall, improvisational environment of a Let’s Play, there isn’t as much room for planning as there is to just spew whatever nonsense fills my head. Sitting down with the footage afterward allows me to make edits and enhance the humor, but my quick wit and responses to my co-host are what I challenge myself to showcase during our playthroughs.

Please enjoy the first two episodes of our series, as we play Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze and Until Dawn.

Rush’n Attack – Hidden Gems

It took me over a year, but I finally finished my first YouTube game review.

In October of 2014, I resolved to start a YouTube channel with my friend, Andrew Cornell. We wanted to make a channel where we would review lesser-known video games and have our own Let’s Plays. We came up with the concept for the show that night and then created a game plan to achieve our goal. Writing, acquiring the film equipment, recording the footage, and editing was completed over the course of months on and off. And as of today, I am proud to present Hidden Gems, the show where we unearth the unknown classics of the video gaming libraries.

Our first episode explores Rush’n Attack, a Konami game that never achieved the level of fame that Castlevania has. Why is that the case? And why does vodka taste like permanent markers? You’ll have to watch the review to find out.

Opening Cinematic – Spectrals

INT. HOUSE – DAY

Open on sunlight trickling through curtains, a gentle breeze rustling the fabric. DANIEL (28) walks over to the curtains and thrusts them open. Sunlight pours into his bedroom and he gazes out into the farming community he lives in. The houses in the town are small, wooden shacks. It is early morning and many villagers are already awake, tilling the soil of their own fields. Daniel smiles weakly at this sight, before turning back into the darkness of his own room.

CUT TO

EXT. SMALL TOWN – DAY

Daniel closes the door to his own home and walks down a dirt pathway on a hill in his mountain community. He is wearing a mining uniform, with leather straps and long-sleeves; very unlike the denim and comfortable clothing the farmers are wearing. The sun is just barely rising above the mountain ranges. Daniel continues his descent before suddenly pausing, and looking back over his shoulder at his own home.

CUT TO

INT. TRAIN – DAY

Daniel stands in the small gap between train cars, watching the natural landscape pass swiftly by. As the mountains and plains transition into the steel towers of the city, Daniel struggles to keep his head turned and watching the natural world for as long as he possibly can. He eventually relents, sighing as he gazes at the city.

CUT TO

EXT. STATION – DAY

Daniel, adjusting the pack on his back, steps off the train. His stance is enclosed and guarded as he walks towards the quarry, staring primarily at his feet. He looks up to see a group of miners, wearing uniforms similar to his, running towards the quarry. They are eventually enveloped by a large mob surrounding a new, large bucket-wheel excavator. The machine towers over the miners and Daniel can hear excited conversation emanating from the group. Daniel looks at the excavator, then rolls his eyes and continues towards the mine.

CUT TO

INT. WALKWAY – DAY

VINCENT (44) races across a steel walkway, exiting the underground rail system leading to his base of operations as immediately as the door opens. As he walks, he is hurriedly inputting calculations into a tablet, frowning as he does so. He steps into an elevator at the end of the walkway and hectically jams a button leading to the surface offices and control deck. He continues to work on his calculations as the elevator door closes.

CUT TO

INT. OFFICE – DAY

Vincent enters his office, a room which would normally be somewhat roomy and potentially comfortable. It, however, is immensely unkempt. Filing cabinets are left wide open, with the contents haphazardly thrown inside. A desktop computer station on one side is covered in various papers and scraps. The desk in the center of the room is also disheveled and blanketed in notes and papers. Vincent places down his tablet and scans through some papers on the desk. There is a sudden knock and an OFFICIAL (52), wearing a United States military uniform, steps into the office.

OFFICIAL
Good morning, doctor…you look nervous. Aren’t you excited to see what’s on the other side?

VINCENT
(shaky)
I am, but…

OFFICIAL
(confused)
“But?” Vincent, we’re about to start the trials. You can’t be having doubts now.

VINCENT
(hurriedly)
I know, but I’ve been redoing the calculations since this morning, and…something…isn’t adding up.

OFFICIAL
(scoffing)
Doctor, your team, which YOU appointed personally, has assured me that the calculations are accurate and complete.

A light tap emits from the door, and a female ASSISTANT (27) pokes her head in.

ASSISTANT
(nervously)
Excuse me, the team leads say that Project VIRGIL is ready to commence.

Vincent opens his mouth to object.

OFFICIAL
(interrupting)
We’ll be there in a moment.

The assistant closes the door. The official turns to face Vincent once more.

VINCENT
(nervous, interrupted)
Sir, I just need another day, two at the most, just to make sure–

Before giving him a chance to finish, the official leaves the office. Visibly agitated, Vincent chases after him, walking to…

CUT TO

INT. CONTROL DECK – DAY

The control deck, filled with computers and staff, has an aura of anticipation in the air. The personnel sit at their workstations, preparing for the upcoming trials. Vincent enters and sees the official standing at the lead workstation. He gazes out of the window opposite him, looking at the gargantuan machinery in the desert outside. The official leans to the microphone at his station.

OFFICIAL
(somewhat harshly)
Ladies and gentlemen, make your way to your stations. Project VIRGIL is about to begin.

The official turns his head to angrily motion to Vincent to take his place.

VINCENT
(pleading)
Sir, I can’t allow this to–

OFFICIAL
(quiet, angrily)
Vincent, we are out of time and the investors want their answer today! Do you really want to risk everything on the off-chance that your entire team got all of their calculations wrong?

The control deck grows silent as the few people not at their workstations return to their designated spots. Vincent, defeated, walks to his own workstation and turns a key in the corner. Three green lights shine at the official’s station, one after the other.

OFFICIAL
Teleportation trials commencing in ten, nine…

CUT TO

EXT. QUARRY – DAY

Daniel stands before lighting rod three, seeing the indicator lights at the base of the tower flashing red. He adjusts his harness, attaching it to the automatic pulley system on the tower. He opens a panel at the base of the tower, shutting down the electrical flow to it. He firmly grasps the locket around his neck.

DANIEL
(whispering)
Terra firma.

He activates the pulley system and ascends the tower slowly.

CUT TO

EXT. DESERT – DAY

Official
(V.O., continued)
…two, one, begin.

The machinery in the desert begins to glow, and a pulse of light emits from the center, erecting a beam into the sky. The beam opens a small tear in the sky, opening to a black void.

CUT TO

INT. CONTROL DECK – DAY

The official watches the experiment, before turning to Vincent.

OFFICIAL
(confident)
Everything is preceding normally, doctor. Although…

He leans to the microphone.

OFFICIAL
Increase output by four percent.

TECHNICIAN
Increasing output.

A TECHNICIAN (33) types at his station. As he types, the beam glows brighter and the tear opens up even more. Vincent eyes the monitor at his desk, watching the lines on the graphs before him grow exponentially. There is a sudden beeping and a frantic murmur. Vincent looks up.

CUT TO

EXT. DESERT – DAY

The rift in the sky suddenly rends apart, creating a massive fracture in the air. This gash rips through the air as more, smaller tears open across the sky. The initial rift extends out towards the countryside, towards nearby cities, and towards a quarry off in the distance. As the rifts open, massive earthquakes shudder across the land. Electricity tears across the machinery.

CUT TO

INT. CONTROL DECK – DAY

An alarm is sounding inside of the control deck. Much of the equipment is shorting out and failing.

VINCENT
(pointing, yelling)
Shut it down!

The technician he points to runs over to a large series of computers on the left wall of the control deck. As soon as he touches the devices, he screams in immense pain and his body is vaporized, leaving no trace as Vincent looks on in horror. The murmur amongst the crew erupts into panic. The technicians, physicists, and engineers present run amok, with many attempting to vacate the premises.

CUT TO

EXT. QUARRY – DAY

Daniel has ascended almost thirty feet before the equipment lurches to an immediate halt. He quickly scans the pulley system, attempting to find the source of the sudden stop, before looking up to the sky and seeing the vast rift above him. A black rock structure, shaped almost like a hand, thrusts downward to the earth. It sinks its points into the dirt around the mine and quickly begins to ascend into the void. The lightning rod Daniel is on, now standing on uneven ground, creaks, tilts, and falls towards the soil. Daniel braces for impact as he quickly reaches the bottom.

EXTREME WIDE SHOT:

The towering structure lifts the landmass up into the sky and through the rift.

CUT TO BLACK

BEGIN GAMEPLAY

Chosen – I

2419 A.D., 49 years since Parallax

“One day, this chalk outline will circle this city.”
– Cedric Bixler-Zavala

۩

I was walking past the main gate of the Crafter’s District when her silken, metallic voice came over the intercom.

“Attention citizens: curfew begins in one hour. Please make your way to your residences. Any citizens found outside during curfew are in direct violation of the City’s laws. Thank you for your cooperation.”

I fucking hate her voice. The Recons are dead serious about enforcing the curfew, so, adjusting the bag I carried on my back, I picked up my pace.

The gray sky bore down on me, more than it usually did. Perhaps the Field Marshall’s reminiscence about the sun affected me more than I thought. I’ve never seen the sun, but old-timers like the Field Marshall grew up in an era before the City. What a different time that must’ve been, before the City, before the Rings, before this shit-storm of a life…

The Outer Ring didn’t so much prosper but rather…fester, unlike the rest of the City. Who am I kidding? It’s a shit hole. Sure, there are a few locations, like the Crafter’s District or the AgriCenter, that do well for themselves, but they’re exceptions to the rule. The small complex I live in is just one of many buildings that have fallen into disrepair. I always strode past the glimmering white walls of the Inner Ring when I was a kid, but now, I can pass through them. I know I don’t belong, though. If it isn’t the Recons reminding me of that fact, it’s the Inners.

I walked past an emaciated beggar, sitting outside of a small, metal abode one could barely consider to be a shack. We can’t all get by on rations. I put a couple of astrals into the small box he was holding out.

“First bless you.” He coughed wheezily, holding out his box, hoping other passers-by would be as generous. They, of course, ignored him. But that wasn’t as bad as how the Recons treated him. A couple of them walked past him, like he was a piece of trash. When he reached out to touch them, one of the Recons turned around and smashed him in the face with the butt of his rifle. The beggar screamed in pain as he grabbed his face, blood gushing from between his fingers.

“Get off the street, or next time, we’ll run you in for vagrancy,” the Recon said, pointing his finger at the beggar, before walking away with his comrade. The few bystanders still around were staring at the Recon in shock. “Go about your business, citizens,” he commanded, and the crowd dispersed.

I stepped forward to intervene, to yell at the guard or to assist the man who was now doubled-over in agony on the steel ground, but something yanked at the back of my neck. I turned away and continued along my path.

How did it get this bad?

I approached the towering white gate to the Inner Ring. Clad in his heavy black armor, the Recon at the gate, of course, asked for my identification. They don’t want Outers entering the Inner Ring without reason. I handed him the plastic card with my information.

“State your business.” Can’t imagine he was this gruff to everyone.

“Delivering weapons to the Children of Synthesis.”

He gave me an exhausted, aggravated look through his semi-transparent visor. He obviously wasn’t in any mood to deal with my shit, nor was I in any mood to get my ass beat by Recons. Again.

“I’ve got business with the Archon,” I stated plainly this time. He continued to look at me with that same expression. “Seriously.”

After a short pause, he turned to the other Recon at the post. “Get a confirmation.” Turning back to me, he said, “I find out you’re causing any trouble…”

“Yeah, yeah,” I replied, “heard it all before.”

I’m sure he was about to pull out a baton and give me a thrashing, but his companion called out, “He’s clear.”

The Recon stepped to the side. “Get your business done quick.”

I walked past him, making sure to scuff his boot as I continued by. I should’ve expected the harsh smack from his weapon in the center of my back, but the pain still caught me by surprise. I knew this was a fight not worth having, so I ignored it as best I could.

The gleaming white buildings in the Inner Ring were instantly different in appearance from the fragmented and beaten-down hovels in the other districts. I never felt as though I belonged here, not like my father did. Mom never told me what exactly he used to do for a living. “He was a government contractor,” was the most I could get out of her. She didn’t like talking about dad. Thinking of them, I jogged past advertisements of water purifiers and travel simulators, the seductive perks of being rich. Most of the citizens in the Outer Ring were lucky if the meager amount of astrals they could scrape up could get them a second water ration. I tried to ignore the flashing lights of the city as I made my way to the Skywatch.

I was, again, stopped by the Recons at the barricade to the Skywatch.

“Oh, come on guys,” I said, exasperated, “You know who I am. I’ve been through this gate, what, fifty fucking times now?”

“Standard procedure, Mr. Vaas.” The same bullshit they gave me every time. I think they just got a sick pleasure out of holding me up. I was eventually waved on through. Guess they were getting bored. I slowly began my long trek up the hill, to the white tower which rose above the City.

۩

“What’s up, Aeranas?”

The vaulting white ceiling and the soft blue glow of the Archon’s office always made me feel protected. No matter what happened in the City, I felt weirdly safe in the Skywatch. Maybe it’s because the people here at least pretended to give a damn about us.

“I’ve told you before, Jacob, please address me with a modicum of respect.”

I sighed, “Greetings, Lord Archon.” He gave me this job. I owe him that much.

Archon Bartoq Aeranas stood in front of the window. He turned to face me after I had properly greeted him, his green cloak fluttering behind him. Stress was something that could be seen on the face of everyone in the City, but it was always extremely apparent on his. It weighed heavily on him. He wasn’t old, but the wrinkles that lined his face and the gray in his black hair made him seem much older than he was. The toils of leading the City probably took at least ten years off of his life. “Thank you for humoring me. Now, do you have the Field Marshall’s report?”

“Right here.” Walking over to him, my boots echoing on the smooth metal floor, I handed him a tablet, which I had removed from my pack. He pressed its screen, staring at it for a long moment in silence. “Well, if there’s nothing else, I should be getting home.”

“Hold on for a moment,” he said, putting the tablet down on his desk.

“Sir, curfew’s going to be in effect soon.”

“I told you to wait a moment. This will not take long.” He gestured to the white chairs in front of his desk.

I shrugged. No denying the Archon, I suppose. I sat down in front of his cold metal bureau, as he sat across from me, fingers interlocked, examining me with his gray eyes, gray like the sunless sky.

“Do you know why I gave you this job?” He finally asked.

“Because you owed my father a favor?”

“Yes, but I had another reason in mind. It’s because I trust you.” Oh great, one of these talks. “But your friends…them, I do not trust.”

“Sir?”

“The group you hang around with. To be plain, they’re miscreants. I don’t want to see you falling into their behavior.”

I gave him an annoyed look. “How do you know who I spend time with? Have you been following me?”

“Me, no.”

I knew what that implied.

“I’m concerned for your safety, Jacob. I know what your ‘friends’ do after curfew. I don’t want you being hurt, or worse: caught up in their activities.” He stood up, fingers dragging lightly across the surface of his desk. He was being unusually harsh. What did he know? “If I find you engaging in any illegal behavior with them, I will punish you, regardless of your affiliation with me. Do you understand?”

I hesitated. “Perfectly.”

He smiled wearily. I’m sure he knew I was lying. “Good. Now, get on home. You don’t want to be out after curfew.”

۩

“Attention citizens: curfew is now in effect. Any citizens found outside of their residences during this time will be incarcerated by the Special Tasks and Reconnaissance Force. Curfew will be lifted in twelve hours. Thank you for your compliance.”

Shutting the door behind me, my sister sprinted out from some alcove in our apartment to greet me.

“Jake!”

Elena hugged me around my legs with that immense strength four-year olds seem to have. I patted her on the head. No matter how shitty I felt, she always could cheer me up.

“I was worried you weren’t going to make it back.”

“What, and leave you all alone? Never.”

“Want to see the picture that I made?”

I smiled. “Do I ever.”

She ran back deep into the apartment, most likely to our bedroom. I could hear her feet echoing off the stone floor in the distance. She’s sweet. Sheltering her like this isn’t good, but what am I supposed to do? Knowing what the City was like when I was her age screwed me up permanently, got me mixed up in some bad business. What would it do to her, now that things are worse?

I walked over to the busted holo-screen in the corner of the room. Damn thing hasn’t shown a clear image in years. Only static now, but Elena was probably trying to watch some kid’s show before curfew started. I shut it off. No point in keeping it on during curfew.

She came back from wherever-she-was and thrust a scrap of paper towards me. I took it from her hands, inspecting the four figures she had drew. There she was, messy blonde hair and wide grin, standing between myself, decked out in full Skywatch outfit, and our mother, with her gleaming gold hair and reserved stance. The man on my other side, though, I didn’t recognize. I couldn’t recall anyone in my family who had long brown hair and wore a Recon uniform.

“Who’s this?” I pointed at the unknown man.

“What do you mean? It’s dad?” She giggled.

I took a closer look at the man in the drawing whom she claimed to be our father. She was born a few months before he died, way too young to remember him. Hell, I don’t remember him looking like that.

“Oh yeah, I see it now.” Might as well play along. I handed it back to her. “It’s a great drawing, sis.”

She took it from my grasp, but pouted as she did so. “Don’t lie to me. It’s not that good. You couldn’t even tell dad.”

“Oh no, I just forgot that he had hair like that.” I ruffled her hair. “It really is good, Lena-Baina. I promise.”

She shook her head, trying to get my hand off of her, and looked back up at me. “Thanks, Jake.” I couldn’t tell if she actually meant it or was just placating me.

I yawned. “Hey, I’m really tired. I’m going to go to sleep early. Could you play out here for now?”

“Okay.” She walked over to a stuffed elephant in the corner of the room, conversing with it. I think she loves Trunks more than she loves me sometimes.

I walked to the end of the apartment, but opened the door across from my bedroom instead. I wanted to check on her. She was lying in almost complete darkness, only illuminated by the green glow of the heart monitor by her bedside. Her sheets were strewn in a messy pile around her. It’s been a long time since mom left that bed. Her bright blonde hair was now dull and sickly, her once-full cheeks now gaunt, her smile non-existent. Her chest rose and fell slowly. Every time she exhaled, an almost-silent wheeze came from her open mouth. I reached into my pack and pulled out a small, glass bottle filled with blue pills, which I placed on the counter by her bed. We weren’t supposed to get a refill on our medicine ration until the end of the month, but the Archon pulled a few strings for us. I slowly and silently shut the door as I exited her room and entered my own.

It was cramped, having to share a room with Elena, but I found a way to make it work. Maneuvering around the various toys and pens littered on the floor, I removed my bag, placing it beside my bed as I flopped onto it’s nearly solid surface. I repositioned myself on the uncomfortable mattress, facing away from the opaque window. There wasn’t much else one could do after curfew, apart from sleep. And I needed the rest.

۩

The faint knocking at my door woke me up. I turned to see my sister in her bed, still fast asleep, before checking my watch. Midnight. On time as usual. Dex was always a man of his word. I hopped out of bed, tip-toeing to the front door of our complex.

As I opened the door, Dexter’s mousy face greeted me. He may have been a few years older than me, but he was still scrawny. Good thing he was quick, though, or the Recon’s would’ve gotten to him a lot sooner. Still, being out this late, even dressed in dark clothing and with a vast knowledge of the Recon’s patrol patterns, was dangerous.

“Good to see you, mate.” Dex and I couldn’t meet up as often as I would like. My work got in the way, but our evening excursions always brought us together again. “Ready to go?”

I nervously shifted my weight as I looked at the ground. “I don’t think it’s a good idea for me to go tonight.”

“Jake, what are you talking about?”

“I think the Archon’s following me. He knows what we’re doing.”

Dex swore to himself as he walked past me into the living room. I closed the door quickly, turning to see him sitting down on the rough couch in the middle of the room.

“What does he know?”

“He was mentioning that he knows about what we do after curfew.” I leaned against the wall.

“But he couldn’t prove anything.”

“Dex, he’s the Archon. He doesn’t have to prove anything.”

He scratched the back of his head feverishly. Anything that went off the plan made him nervous. “We gotta deliver the Nether. You know Callax.”

I sighed. “Yeah, I do.”

“He’s already pissed about some dorks who got caught going off plan. Recons got to them, seized a few cases. We gotta stick to the plan. That’s all there is to it.”

“But the Archon…”

“Fuck the Archon, man.” He stood up and paced around the room, turning every few steps to prevent walking into the walls. “Callax knows what he’s doing. As long as we stick to the plan, we can avoid the Recons, make the deal, and be back before curfew lifts.”

That didn’t really comfort me. “You sure?”

He looked me straight in the eye and gave me his most consolatory smile, a weak grin that resembled a nervous admittance of dishonesty rather than encouragement. “We’ve listened to Callax this far and things have worked out for us. We don’t have a choice, Jake. We trade the Nether, get the ration cards, and get out. Callax’s happy, the clients are happy, we’re happy.”

“Speak for yourself.” None of this made me happy.

“I know, man, I know. But Callax’s depending on us.”

I straightened up from the wall, shrugging at Dex. “Yeah, I guess he is.”

He grinned and strode towards the door. Putting my boots on, I joined him as we exited from my home and sprinted through the darkness. Sometimes, I think we know the patrol routes better than the Recons do. At least, I hope we do.

Excerpts from “Reflections from the Stars” by Nikolaus Borghaaz

Published 2389

We called It the Zenith, and we believed It to be godsend. No one was sure from where or when that monumental black obelisk came, but this much could be agreed upon: It was not of this Earth. It was our first confirmation, after a history spanning the course of thousands of years, of the existence of an alien species who had, at one point, traveled to our blue planet and left their impression on its surface. Much like these Visitors, I leave this account so our progeny may understand the mistakes we have made. In this way, perhaps you will become the redemption our species now seeks.

۞

The year was 2341, the day the 18th of August. Though my mind decays, I will remember this date for the rest of my life.

We discovered It in a chamber far below the surface, deep inside the Rocky Mountains, while exploring a newly found cave system. A team of archaeologists, scientists, and engineers, myself among them, found a never before seen pattern of radiation emanating from within the mountain range. Barely distinctive in any form, it was nearly identical to background radiation, impossible to discern, unless one was looking for it. Nevertheless, we found this signal both fascinating and disturbing. Such readings had never been seen on Earth before, and so all desired to discover its source. In order to understand this radiation and its origin, we set on a journey through the center of the mountains. The primary exploration team consisted of myself, an archaeologist from the New Republic of Baltaslavia, Dr. Anthony Rickard of the physics department at the University of Astra in New York, Emilio Vescio of the Center for Radiation and Alternative Energies Studies, and Sir David Edgerton of the International United Sovereignty’s Cosmological and Interstellar Research Division.

It was found in the epicenter of an expertly excavated, and even more expertly hidden, chamber. Though It was imbedded in the stone, It appeared as though It were placed there, for us, or someone else, to find and activate. It towered nearly a hundred feet above us, radiating a strange coldness. I remember the sense of dread that filled my very essence as we approached It and the frost that penetrated through me. It was unlike anything we had ever seen. Though It was ancient, Its metallic surface was intricately carved with swirling designs. We ascertained that among the patterns was an unknown language, a message which was left for us. We could not read what had been written on Its ebony surface. Maybe if we had, we would have known to avoid It.

And then, Rickard had discovered a smoothness on Its inky exterior. What prompted him to touch the flat plate, I cannot imagine. Perhaps he was motivated by the universal thirst for knowledge, or perhaps It had already begun to indoctrinate him by Its very presence. Whatever the true reason, he placed his hand on the surface of the pylon, and, in that instant, everything we had ever known changed.

Light exploded from the obelisk, bathing us in a heavenly aurora. The coldness that filled me to the brim had now been replaced by a soothing warmth. When my eyes had finally adjusted and the outburst of luminosity had died down, I saw Rickard convulsing before the monolith, whose surface now radiated white. He stood in front of It, shaking, his eyes rolling to the back of his head as the curves and patterns on Its surface glowed. Without thinking of the consequences, I rushed forward to pull him back and as I tackled him, the light from Its surface dimmed. Rickard recovered from his seizure and immediately shoved me to the side. Kneeling on the ground, he drew on the cave floor, writing out strange mathematical proofs into the damp dirt. Though we attempted to question his health and implored him to answer us, he would ignore us, pleading with us to stay quiet as he continued his equations. Edgerton and I resigned Rickard to his work, while Vescio watched over him, as we continued in our attempt to understand the artifact before us. It was ancient, thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of years old, and yet the technology that went into crafting such a monument was millenia more advanced than anything we could create. It rose above us ominously, an ebony spire in an already dark cavern. Such symbolism was not lost on us.

Vescio called out suddenly, beckoning us over. Pulling my eyes away from the pillar, I turned to see for what reason Vescio had hailed us. He pointed towards the equations and statements written out by Rickard. Edgerton, after a moment, recognized them. It was a variation on a series of formulas designed around the creation of a faster-than-light warp engine drive, capable of bringing spacecrafts to the edges of our solar system within minutes. Edgerton was stunned, and for good reason. His research department at IUSCIRD had been working on developing warp drives for over fifteen years and they could never discover a method of rendering the plasma required into a safe method of charging the engines without overheating the drives or generating deadly radiation. At long last, Rickard sat back, staring at the blueprints he had written out. We questioned him, asking him where the knowledge came from, and he responded by looking back at the obelisk. It was impossible to even consider. Could such a technology contain this sought-after information?

One after another, Vescio, Edgerton, and I approached the spire and placed our hands upon Its flat surface. Much like Rickard, Vescio and Edgerton convulsed and shook before It, white filling their eyes. This time, however, we simply waited and observed, in order to ascertain what would happen. Unexpectedly, after only seconds, they snapped out of their seizures and began to discuss what they had seen. It would be as the ravings of madmen, had I not experienced it myself.

Fearing what would happen, I pressed my hand onto the obelisk and it seemed as though time had stopped. I stood among nebulae, gasses of greens and violets surrounding me as stars and other astral bodies filled the void of space around me. It is difficult to describe, but it felt as if I had become as central to the cosmos as the sun to our own planet. I attempted to walk forward, and found that I could not lift my legs. My feet were rooted to the non-existent ground. Seeing as I could not move my lower body, I outstretched my arms with ease. It was at this point that I heard a faint whispering, a nearly silent lull that beckoned to me in a tongue which I could not understand. I felt compelled to reach out and pluck a star from its place in space. I did just that, clutching at a nearby heavenly body. As I drew it near, however, it erupted into new shapes. Floating around me were now mathematical equations, chains of molecular structures, paragraphs upon paragraphs of words in various languages, blueprints, codes, notes, plans. Though I could not recognize nor understand all that which surrounded me, I began to comprehend what it was: it was a guide, a series of documents encased within an archaic, advanced reliquary. The designs which drifted around me could be utilized in various fields: philosophy, infectious disease research, interstellar travel. It appeared as though every industry our race had sought to completely conquer was finally within reach. I stood there for an endless stretch of time, reading the compositions which swirled around me, attempting to understand them. Even though they were in a format I could easily read, many of the concepts were in fields I had not studied. The silent voice, which had become a companion to me by this point, faded away and the astral world around me dimmed. I slowly awoke to see my fellow researchers standing around me, waiting anticipatively to see if I had experienced a similar revelation. We did not speak for a long time and yet we knew we shared the same thought: we stood on the precipice of something greater than we could ever have conceived. And what occurred was far greater, and far more devastating, than anyone could have imagined.

۞

In the months that followed the discovery of the artifact, which became colloquially known as the Zenith, an unprecedented level of progress rocketed forth from the human mind. Almost immediately after the news of the Zenith went public, the International United Sovereignty, headed by Prime Minister Elena Wagner, imposed restrictions, sending in the military to secure It, and began to build a headquarters nearby. Accelerated by the materials obtained from the Zenith, construction of the Skywatch, an advanced military garrison and encampment, was completed in less than a year.

Few individuals were allowed near the Zenith, in order to ensure safeguards. Even fewer were allowed to interact with It. A select few individuals, myself and the Discovery Team included, were able to approach the Zenith and extract information from within. Vescio and Edgerton began, from that point, to work for the IUS and utilize the Zenith to obtain schematics for desired research. The technologies they discovered paved the way for innovations in weapons, medicine and disease control, interstellar travel, and quality-of-life improvements. These findings were not released to the general public, however. The IUS deemed that many of these discoveries, were they to fall into the wrong hands, could lead to a break in the international peace which the world had long-since fought and bled for.

I did not desire to network with It any longer. It was apparent that the Zenith was an object far beyond our comprehension. A research team scanned It days after our discovery. The readings they returned were unusual, to say the least. The Zenith was comprised of a yet-unknown metal, an element which had never before been seen. It radiated the natural energies of the universe, which seemed to power It. It was a self-perpetuating device that was too powerful for our own good, despite the knowledge It yielded. In the end, I returned to Baltaslavia to continue my research on proto-humans, all the while contemplating my encounter with the Zenith. The whispers which encircled me as I entered the Zenith still follow me, calling me back to It. I resist the beckons of the artifact.

Others, however, believed It to be a source of salvation for humanity. Anthony Rickard, the first man to interact with the Zenith, promptly resigned from his position at the University of Astra and founded an organization promoting “the universal spread of knowledge and an interaction between forces, in order to promote the common welfare for humanity’s future.” In other words, a religion. Called The First among his technophyte followers, Rickard’s organization, The Children of Synthesis, argued that the technologies discovered—everything, from warp drives to cancer medication—should be made free for the citizens of humanity to use as they desired, eventually leading to humanity becoming one with machines. A noble cause, yes, but the methods by which they desired to acquire the Zenith’s technologies were far from benevolent. The technophytes attacked genetic research laboratories, weapon contractors, and hospitals, in retaliation for the restrictions imposed by the IUS, which in turn caused more limitations to be enforced. A vicious cycle of conflict began and continued at that point, which only further escalated after Rickard was assassinated in 2344 by Henry Elias, a man believed to be behind numerous governmental killings.

The public outrage and riots sparked by Rickard’s martyrdom led to the IUS slowly, but surely, releasing the technologies developed from the Zenith. Within a decade, our technology had jumped forward by nearly two centuries. Hundreds of epidemics were eliminated. The rising conflicts in the African Demilitarized Zone were quelled. Humans traveled to the edges of the solar system and beyond. New cities popped up around the world. Treatments converted otherwise undrinkable water into a form which could be used, ending the global drought. Lifespans of humans were nearly doubled. It was a new golden age for humanity, a period of time known as The Rise. If only we knew how far we would fall.

۞

The scanners of the Skywatch revealed startling information after countless checks and rechecks. Every time the Zenith was used, It would release a signal, a more immense version of the signal which the Discovery Team had used to find It. Astronomers and cosmological watchers at the Skywatch included their own signal among the ones sent out by the Zenith, to see where they would head. After months, a signal was sent back, from far beyond the edge of the solar system. It was foreign, unnatural. It was a sign that something alien was headed our way, compelled to us by the Zenith. No one was certain whether it was the creators of the Zenith or something else entirely, but the general consensus became that one day soon, we would be visited by an alien species. Even if they had access to the same technologies as the Zenith granted, warp drives could only accelerate the ships beyond the speed of light by so much. It would be years at the earliest before we would be visited.

First Contact was made on January 22, 2366. The craft was unlike anything we had ever conceived. It was far different from the design of the Zenith, black and carved with intricate patterns. The ship was sleek and white, gigantic and yet contained. However, it glowed with that same radiance which came from the Zenith. It touched down outside of London, near the headquarters of the IUS. A number of governmental officials, including Prime Minister Wagner, met the visitors as their ship landed, watched by thousands of citizens in person and billions on holo-screens.

No one expected what stepped out from that ship. As a lift descended from the underside of the craft, humanity looked on as three robotic beings disembarked from the vessel. They were humanoid in shape, with skin of pure white, a black skeleton barely visible beneath their semi-transparent surface. Walking over to the government officials, they appeared to be significantly taller than humans, rising a couple feet above even the tallest present. Perhaps the most disturbing feature was their faces, or their lack-thereof. Where a face would normally reside, there was what appeared to be a sheet of glass. They had no eyes, no noses, no ears. Only a pair of lips, located near the bottom of their heads. They approached Prime Minister Wagner. The whole world stood silent, watching them. After nearly a minute of muteness, they bowed.

The one in front identified itself as Vigil, a member of the Collective. It explained that the Collective is a race of networked advanced intelligences who hail from the Tau Nebula on far rim of the galaxy. The Collective’s origins were unknown, even to themselves. They were created thousands of years ago by someone called the Grand Creator. Ever since the Collective first became aware, they sought after anything developed by this god-like figure whom they worshiped, a being whose works disappeared many millenia previously and only fragments of which remain. Vigil claimed that what we called the Zenith was one such technology created by the Grand Creator. Prime Minister Wagner, who stared in stunned silence, finally spoke up, stating how she hoped this would become the first step in a peaceful coexistence between their kinds. With that, more lifts descended from the Collective’s ship, and many more of their kind exited and interacted with the humans present. The First Contact was, by humanity’s standards and hopes, a success.

۞

The peace between our kinds did not last as Prime Minister Wagner hoped. After being denied access to the Zenith numerous times, the Collective emissary Vigil issued an ultimatum: allow their kind to access the Spire of the Grand Creator, or otherwise be issued the full-force of their might. In a meeting between our two kinds, Prime Minister Wagner calmly explained to Vigil that access to the Zenith was restricted even amongst humanity, that even though the Collective were peaceful, granting them contact was a risk that she could not take. She had barely finished her statement before Vigil raised his hand before her and fired from his palm a blast of energy, killing her instantly. We had no time to react before the leadership of Earth’s united government was eliminated. The Parallax had begun on June 13, 2370.

The Collective’s ships filled the skies as beams of light erupted from their vessels and lay waste to the surface of Earth. Collective soldiers marched upon our cities, killing human civilians and military indiscriminately. The audacity of such acts had not been seen on Earth for centuries. War crimes of this magnitude were non-existent as of The Rise, and now we were faced with a threat far greater than we could have prepared for. The various world militaries and the IUS’s Special Tasks and Reconnaissance Force were deployed to key locations around the globe in order to minimize the severity of casualties while defeating the onslaught of Collective, but to no avail. The technologies utilized by this advanced hivemind were too great for our soldiers.

Not all Collective were the enemy, though. There were a number of factions who did not associate with Vigil and his invasion force. The Severed were one-such group, an offshoot of Collective who had been removed from the network and did not have access to their kind’s minds. This did not stop the animosity between our species, however. The Collective were the enemy, and therefore, all Collective, regardless of their association to Vigil, were seen as a threat. Some of the Severed went into hiding, while others were protected by the IUS, an action which was taken to the displeasure of the common folk.

The Collective invaders blackened the Earth’s surface and darkened its skies, turning most of the planet uninhabitable. Major cities were abandoned or otherwise destroyed. Civilians fled their homes, escaping to whichever military bunker would accept them. Thousands were protected by the IUS STRF, who now coordinated the planet’s militaries. The bunkers could not hold everyone, however. Thousands more were turned away by the STRF, forced to find shelter elsewhere. Some civilians who were denied entry by the STRF created hidden settlements in caves and underground, hidden sanctuaries where they could remain undetected by both humans and Collective. Most, unfortunately, were slaughtered by the Collective invasion force.

The war in the skies raged on as human warships met the Collective fleet. Though the Collective were smaller in number, their weaponry was far more advanced. Their cannons and lasers shot down numerous human vessels, but we were not entirely defenseless. Technology yielded by the Zenith, along with the sheer amount of human ships, gave us a chance to repel their forces. We were at a stalemate. Both human and Collective ships were shot down at regular rates, creating the vast wasteland of devastated ships that now floats around the planet, called The Steel Graveyard. Ground forces were able to hold back the Collective at numerous flashpoints, but the technology of the Collective, as well as their scorched earth tactics, were too much for humanity to handle. It was no surprise, then, when the leader of the STRF, Archon Alexander Gabrysch, contacted me.

۞

What choice did the Archon have? It had been years since the Parallax started and humanity was out of options. As I was the only one of the men still alive who had contact with It, I was a prime candidate for returning to the Zenith and extracting what information I could from It, anything which could give our forces an advantage against the Collective. Edgerton had died during the invasion, while Vescio’s mental state had long-since deteriorated, a side-effect of exposure to the Zenith. Access to the Zenith had been completely restricted after those who came in contact with It showed signs of mania, dementia, and insanity. I admit, the whispers still called to me. I feared their appeals for so many years, but the time had come for me to return and do what I could to save the human race.

I returned to the Skywatch, which had become a displaced persons camp, so crowded and built up that it now resembled a fractured city. It was far different from the top-of-the-line military base I remembered it to be. Escorted by the STRF into the Zenith caverns, I passed by various military checkpoints and stationary unmanned weapons, until I approached the obelisk once more. Trepidation filled my heart as I pressed my hand to It. My body froze and I once again found myself in the nebulae. This time, though, I did not find comfort in the brume of space. I grabbed at one of the stars of knowledge and began reading, reading, reading. I sought any information that would help humanity in its fight. It felt as though I had searched through the records of the Zenith for days, while in actuality it lasted only for a few seconds. I was exhausted and exasperated, and yet I continued to search. At long last, however, I found schematics for a pulse weapon that could be utilized for military forces or anti-air weaponry. I studied the blueprints closely and shortly thereafter found myself waking up in the Zenith chamber. I notated the information, which was now etched onto my brain, inside the Skywatch’s command post, explicitly stating how each element of the weapon worked. Satisfied, Archon Gabyrsch ordered for the weapons to be developed immediately.

Every soldier and ship was outfitted with these new pulse weapons, the effects of which were instantaneously apparent on the Collective forces. The beams of plasma shot through the Collective as though they were paper, their fleets suffering a similar effect. For once, the tide of battle was turning in our favor. Less than a year after the STRF began using the pulse weapons, the remaining few Collective warships commanded by Vigil fled beyond the Kuiper Belt. After thirteen years, the war was over. Humanity survived the Parallax.

But at what cost? Our blue planet was now black. The IUS estimated that over ninety percent of humanity had been eradicated by the Collective, while the Collective suffered similar losses. The majority of the planet had been scorched beyond repair, rendering most land uninhabitable. What humans remained were, for the most part, distrustful of their new government, which declared total control over the world’s forces and, furthermore, harbored what many considered enemies of the planet. The conflict reached a boiling point when Archon Gabyrsch declared that access to the Zenith and many of its technologies would be, from that point onward, completely denied. The surviving Children of Synthesis were outraged, stirring up the anger of the survivors who were already enraged at the IUS for their quarantines and restrictions. Those who despised the totalitarian power of the IUS fled into the Wastes, in order to build fractured settlements. Most of these wanderers resorted to abhorrent acts in order to survive, such as banditry, rape, even cannibalism. The plurality of survivors, however, saw the IUS as the only entity which could protect them and ensure any future. The Skywatch became the only safe place on Earth, and so the military base became the last City of humanity with the Skywatch, the new government capitol, at its center. The remaining humans and Collective live inside of the City, attempting to create a marginally hopeful future for both our kinds.

۞

As for myself, my mind has now decayed beyond any point of improvement. Though I may write with some mastery of language, it is with great difficulty. The whispers of the Zenith claw at my mind. I hallucinate regularly, seeing strange visions of alien creatures. Soon, I will no longer be comprehensible. And so I leave this record of my tale for others to find. I will exit the City, a militarized nation and the final bastion of humanity, in order to find a quick mercy in the Wastes rather than suffering the elongated anguish of insanity. Woe unto humanity, for we believed the Zenith to be our salvation, the tool to a golden age of prosperity. Instead, It became our doom, turning us from anticipated ascendants into a race of the damned. Our legacy is not the technological fortune we hoped for, but instead, our legacy is a slow and drawn-out death.

Death’s True Face

The low crackle of the fire did not disturb Kaidan as he sat upon the earthen floor. The glare of the flames reflected weakly off of his black cloak. A canopy of stars filled the blackened sky above him, just visible through the gaps of treetops. He cleaned his blade silently, trying hard not to awake his party. His head perked up suddenly. A rustle, then a crack. Someone else was near. He slowly began to draw his blade, pointing it towards the direction of the noise. Lyavaine stepped from behind a bush, nervously approaching him.

“You could have gotten yourself killed,” Kaidan exhaled harshly, placing his sword on the ground and running a hand through his blonde mane. He carefully avoided making eye contact with her.

“Sorry,” replied Lyavaine, “I saw the fire was still alight.” She crouched next to him and held out her hands towards the feeble flames, vainly hoping for warmth.

“You best be careful next time. It might not be me pointing the blade.” Kaidan nodded his head to the side, indicating something off in the distance. Lyavaine turned and noticed the body Kaidan was referring to. She approached it warily, eying a pool of crimson blood surrounding it. Taking a better look, she noticed the insignia upon the corpse’s chest. A fist. The mark of Kilrain. She turned in shock towards Kaidan.

“When did you do this?” she asked, incredulously.

“Only a few moments ago,” Kaidan replied nonchalantly.

She returned to the fire, removed her bandolier and, carefully, sat across from him, trying not to bump into her sleeping brother.

“Those skills you learned have come in handy,” she said, her ears twitching as the fire crackled softly. “It must have been hard, becoming an assassin.”

“We’re Auroral Knights, not common assassins, and it is only as hard as one makes it for themselves,” he responded. He picked up his weapon once more and ran a rag across its surface.

Tilting her head to the side, she curiously asked, “Why did you do it?”

“Because if I had not, he would have killed us in our sleep.”

“No, not that. Why did you become an assassin–I mean, a Knight?”

Kaidan stopped suddenly, drawing a slow sigh. He placed his weapon to the side, and, for the first time that evening, looked into Lyavaine’s eyes. The weak flames danced across their eyes for a moment before he responded.

“Not like I had a choice. I was taken in as a child; it was the only way of life I knew.”

She pushed her black hair behind her pointed ear. “Yes, but you could have given it all up,” she answered chidingly. “Once you became of age, you could have left it all behind.”

“I could leave it behind as easily as you could leave behind your ears,” Kaidan retorted. “You simply cannot abandon who you are.”

Lyavaine, feeling angered, stood up and turned around before Kaidan suddenly remarked, “I stayed because I agree with their philosophy.”

She paused for a moment, before turning around with a confused look struck across her face. She settles upon the ground as Kaidan continued.

“People see Auroral Knights as heartless killers, fueled by the political system to further the agendas of humanity. That’s far from the truth.” He wiped the beads of sweat forming across his brow. “Knights kill because we must. We take lives in order to save them.”

Lyavaine relaxed, leaning closer towards Kaidan.

“The first question a Knight is asked during their induction into the order is, ‘Why should I sacrifice my interests in order to help another human being, at a high cost to myself?’ This is because it is the responsibility of one to help all. We kill military officials, political leaders, fanatics, zealots, anyone who threatens the fragility of Illias.” His hand gripped tightly into a fist, a wave of passion consuming him. “In a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible. Every decision we make, whether or not to help one another, matters. And by each deed we carry out, we either retard or accelerate the coming of redemption. It is up to man to ensure that the guilty are brought to retribution. We are the saviors because we are willing to do whatever is necessary to protect this world.”

Suddenly, he arose, making Lyavaine fall back, and gesticulating wildly, he began to loudly affirm, “If one must die to ensure a thousand will live, then it is the job of an Auroral Knight to ensure the death of that one. I would gladly give my life to know that Illias is safe from tyrants like Kilrain. So I will continue to do so, even in the face of my own destruction!”

“Would ya keep it down?” a booming voice cried above Kaidan’s words. Kaidan crouched suddenly, grabbed his sword, and pointed it towards the noise. The stout, red-bearded face of Olen arose from behind a rock. “It’s bloody late and we got a lot of walking ta do in the mornin’!” He disappeared to behind the boulder once more.

Kaidan sat down embarrassed and quietly murmured, “A Knight kills to save lives. I kill to save lives.” And with that, he drew the rag once more and began to clean his blade. Lyavaine, her face somewhat softened towards him, stood up and returned to her spot behind the bushes. The fire continued to crackle softly as Kaidan cleaned his sword, his face reflecting off of its silvery surface.