In the sky above the Moonlet Station of Dargin Drel swirls of multi-hued plasma arced along the artificially induced magnetosphere to form a dazzling aurora which lit the groundside docking facilities like a holiday. At any other time Gabriel would have been more than content to wait out the duration of the automated repair process just staring at them and making notes and plans for where to go next.
But not for this repair process.
“Regeneration complete,” the automated voice from the Vita-Pod announced. “All biological system checks passed. Consciousness will return in five, four,…”
Gabriel didn’t wait for the countdown to finish before turning around. Regeneration pods were usually exited via a cutscene where you, apparently, grabbed all your gear and dressed before exiting into the station’s common quarters. Living inside the world of Crystal Stars meant time skips like cutscenes weren’t really a thing.
“Gabe? Is that you?” Luna asked a moment after the Vita-Pod hissed open.
“Yep, my regen finished a few minutes ago,” Gabe said, contenting himself with a view of the aurora for the first time since he’d woken up and found himself living inside the world of the game he’d been playing before he…he wasn’t exactly sure. Dissolved? Transported? Transported seemed less permanent, so he was hoping he could go with that one, but since teleportation wasn’t exactly possible on Earth, he was afraid one of the less pleasant and more permanent options might be the reality.
“Is this for real?” Luna asked. Gabe could hear her dressing behind him, her reserve gear having been laid out for her the same as his had been.
“It can’t be, except, no matter how much I tell myself that nothing here is going away,” Gabe said. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I think so,” Luna said. “I’m…this is weird. I’m not exactly me.”
“What do you mean?” Gabe asked. It sounded like it was safe to turn around, but he was going to let that be Luna’s decision.
“This is Ti’el’s body, not mine,” Luna said. “And…wow this is weird. I can remember things she went through.”
“Yeah. I based my pilot on myself, but I’ve still got these other memories too. Like going through flight school and learning warp space navigation. Also, full disclosure, I do not have abs like these in real life.”
“I want to say this is impossible, but it’s the same thing that happened to those people from [Broken Horizons] isn’t it?” Luna said.
“The thought occurred to me too,” Gabe said. “But what the hell does it mean?”
“I’m going to guess nothing good,” Luna said. “Have you been able to contact anyone yet?”
“Outside the game? No. Inside the game? Also no,” Gabe said. “I pinged support for a GM call but no response yet. I wasn’t even sure you would really be you when the pod opened.”
Luna gave him a light punch on the shoulder as she spun around to stand in front of him.
“Not getting rid of me that easy. My insurance policy’s got like a hundred resurrections left on it,” she said.
“Yeah, but I was hoping you wouldn’t be here at all,” Gabe said before shaking his head. “Wait, no, that sounds totally wrong.”
“I get it. If I’ve got to be stuck in a game though, I’m glad I’m not alone,” she said. “Especially if we run into another of those War Beasts again.”
“I’m thinking we want to unlock the Blockade Runners we picked up last week and get spaceborn asap,” Gabe said. “We’re a few systems away from that Beast, and there’s no reason to assume it would leave it’s system, or even could make it here, but…”
“But that thing shouldn’t have existed in the first place, and where there’s one there’s probably going to be more,” Luna finished for him. “Yeah, I think you’re right about the Blockade Runners. If speed can’t keep us out of that things path, then we’ll need to head into Guild Space and see if we can get one of the Dreadnaughts to take it off us.”
“I’m going to bet that thing will take apart any ship we throw at it,” Gabe said. “It wasn’t using any kind of weapons that exist in the game as far as I could see.”
Luna frowned, pausing for a moment in reloading the various pockets in her flightsuit.
“That’s a decent point. Also we’d be risking the players who are manning the Dreadnaughts, if the thing can pull them in here the same as it did us.”
“Maybe that would be a good thing though?” Gabe asked. “Most of our friends read as offline, so we can’t exactly get the message out about what’s happened. If we head for Guild Space we might run into another player who could pass along the message for us.”
“And if he doesn’t believe us, he will after he gets scragged like we did,” Luna said.
“We can’t have been the first though, can we?” Gabe asked. “I mean I tried reaching out to people on my friends list, I tried shouting in zone chat , I even tried a GM call like I said, but no responses.”
“It’s a big galaxy,” Luna said. “Two hundred thousand light years means we get pretty spread out, and it’s not like there’s a COMMS channel for ‘Castaway from the Real World’, or I don’t think there is.”
Gabe was already checking for that, kicking himself for not thinking to set one up while he’d been waiting for Luna to recover.
Sure enough, in the list of ‘Recent Open COMMS’ the was one right at the top named ‘Lost Here 4 Real”. It had been made just a few minutes before Gabe’s Vita-Pod had decanted him. He tapped a seemingly real finger on the holographic projection in front of him and then confirmed the prompt to join the channel.
Instantly a cacophony of voices and a rapidly flowing wall of text drowned out his senses.
“Mute channel,” he said, blinking rapidly to clear his HUD out.
“Wow,” Luna said, doing the same. “I guess we’re not alone after all.”
“That’s probably not good is it?” Gabe asked.
“Uh, no, not at all,” Luna said. “Gabe, what’s happening to our world?”
“You mean between this and the stuff with Broken Horizons? I don’t know. If it was just one thing it would be really weird but, you know, not the end of the world or anything. But this? I mean, it can’t just be them and us right? So is it, like, all games? Movies too? Books? Daydreams? I mean where does it stop?”
“Maybe where we stop it,” Luna said, her voice sounding slightly different.
“Luna?” Gabe asked. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah. We’re fine,” Ti’el said. “Maybe better than fine.”
“Uh, what does that mean?” Gabe asked.
He knew he was speaking to Ti’el rather than Luna. It was obvious from her posture. From the tone of her voice and the cadence of her words. She still sounded like the Luna he knew and…like Luna, but it was as though the voice actress who’d been cast for “Female Human Pilot” was the one using her voice.
“What if we’re not here by accident,” Luna said, her voice again fully her own.
Gabe blinked, wondering if he was the one losing his mind.
“You think we did this to ourselves?” Gabe asked, trying to guess Luna’s line of reasoning.
“Not consciously,” Luna said. “But that thing we faced? That was the definition of ‘not supposed to be there’ and what did we do?”
“Died horribly?” Gabe said.
“Not much of a death if we’re here to talk about it is it?” Ti’el asked. “Also, our insurance policies cover resurrections anywhere in Free Space. Hell, you’ve got a Title that would have let you rez back in Crystal Empresses sphere. So, why are we here?”
“Because this is real and there was no menu where would pick our rez point?” Gabe guessed, except he knew that was wrong. Yeah, there hadn’t been a game menu when he dissolved into light, but that didn’t mean Dargin Drel hadn’t been his choice of destinations. “Or, no, it’s because you were here.”
“Yeah,” Luna said. “And I came here because you were here. So why did we both pick this spot? What’s unique about this out of all the med-facilities in the galaxy?”
Gabe tried to think of some special quality that Dargin Drel possessed. The pretty aurora were cool, but hardly unique and far from the most impressive sight in the galaxy. It didn’t have any unusual facilities that he could remember either. Standard repair bays. Standard food services. Standard accommodations and sleep learning centers. If there was a definition of a plain vanilla space port, Dargin Drel would check off every box on the list. It wasn’t even a particularly safe one. Not with the War Beast being so, relatively, close.
“Oh,” he breathed, understanding dawning at last. “We came to the spot that was the closest to the War Beast. We could have gotten away from it. Really far away from it. And we didn’t.”
“And we didn’t,” Ti’el agreed.
“We’re not running from it,” Luna said. “We’re not here because it killed us and now we’re in its power or something.”
“Killing us opened a channel, like a teleporter lock on,” Gabe said. “Oh damn. I was jealous of the Broken Horizons people. I wanted this.”
“We wanted this,” Luna said. “There’s more going on here than anything we’ve ever encountered before, in or out of the game.”
“But this world needs us,” Ti’el said.
“Our world needs us,” Luna said.
“Wait, which one, Earth or this one?” Gabe asked.
“Yes,” It might have been Luna or it might have been Ti’el who answered. Gabe couldn’t tell any longer but he understood the answer nonetheless.
The Crystal Stars were facing an existential threat. The War Beast was something the galaxy wasn’t equipped to deal with.
And it wasn’t limited to just this galaxy.
The Broken Horizon world was under a similar attack.
That was why people were disappearing.
They weren’t being abducted.
They were answering a call.
“We’re going to save the galaxy?”
“Wouldn’t be the first time,” Luna said. “And, honestly, I wouldn’t want to have anyone by my side more than you.”
Gabe’s knees weren’t supposed to be made of jello but the Vita-Pod had clearly made a mistake. Between that and the mega-colony of butterflies that had just hatched in his stomach, he was pretty sure he was owed a refund. Or something.
Standing silent and smiling stupidly was probably worth some compensation too, but Luna helped him reboot from that.
“Of course, it’ll probably be easier if we get a few more people to pitch in too,” she said.
Gabe shook his head but the smile didn’t come off completely.
“You know everyone, and I mean literally everyone is going to want in on this,” he said.
“Yeah, the trick is going to be getting the word out,” Luna said. “I wonder why we can’t reach back to Earth? There should still be a connection right? There was for the BH players I thought?”
“There was, so there’s got to be one for us too,” Gabe said. “We have a lot more space than they do though. What if we’re just too spread out?”
“We need to get one of our friends to log in,” Luna said.
“Or, we need to get a message out to someone outside of Free Space,” Gabe said. “Check the membership of ‘Lost Here 4 Real’, all the players on it are in Free Space. Most of them are in within about 4 jumps from here.”
“Which means the War Beast isn’t alone. Not if everything within 4 jumps has been knocked out by them,” Luna said.
“We’re definitely going to need some help then,” Gabe said. “Which means we need to get to the Ansible Relay.”
“But we can send messages across the galaxy with the global chat channels,” Luna said.
“Only to other players and they’re all freaking out at the moment,” Gabe said. “We need to talk to someone with a little more influence than that.”
“Who are you…” Luna started to ask and then froze. “You want to call the Empress.”
“The galaxy’s named after her. She’s explicitly a being ‘beyond time and space’. She can weaponize the love of every beating heart in the cosmos. They say waking the Empress is the most dangerous thing in creation, but given the circumstances I think that’s exactly the kind of danger we need.”