When the shine of the last star fades away, the universe would succumb to eternal darkness, and all of galactic civilisation would be erased from history. Zeltrex, the unkillable soldier, the destroyer of galaxies, would be all that was left at the end. The fate of the universe rested in the hands of the lone time traveller, the last human alive in the future, and the great wizard of the past.
The words of my Lieutenant echoed in my mind. “Gentlemen, take a look around you. Not everyone you see in this room will be around at the end of your service. Treasure each life as if it were your own, a death in the squad is as solemn as your own.” I couldn’t comprehend the magnitude of her words until I held the bodies of my fallen men.
Even as I burned their bodies to scatter among the homely Earth soil, their burden weighed heavily on me. The embers charred the sapphire skies grey, and the stench of blood and bombs stained the forest that was left a browned, battered battleground. I was alone, yet the screams of the dead echoed throughout the vacuum of space. I was the last living being in the galaxy. The temptation to burn in the flames alongside my fallen comrades grew increasingly as I contemplated my loneliness.
Our people were once the mightiest empire in history. A type II civilisation, with the power to harness the energy of a dying star, create life from nothing but a few liquids in bottles, and program a whole self-aware consciousness in the brain. That was how Zeltrex came to be, the omnipotence of humanity gave birth to the ultimate soldier. To finally bring an end to the galactic civil war. The war was long and cost many lives. We were betrayed by the galactic federation, who sought an end to humanity’s might. I couldn’t blame them now, as I suffered the wrath of our own power turning against us. We became too powerful to tame ourselves.
All we wanted was to finally bring an end. But something went wrong. Instead, Zeltrex vowed to wipe out all of civilisation. It was programmed to wipe out all traces of humanity, It believed the poison of humanity was universal, as all of civilization was built on war and bloodshed. We were the final resistance against its malice, yet we were no match for its godlike powers.
One question ravaged my mind - why me? It had the power to destroy planets and stars with the pull of a trigger. It crushed our forces like a boot over ants. Yet of the 150 billion humans, and the trillions of others that inhabited our galaxy, it chose to spare me. At the time, I did not understand. I wondered how pitiful it saw me to be, to have left me alive.
The wizard stared wide-eyed in awe as he heard my story. I didn’t blame him, the pain I suffered and the bloodshed I witnessed would be enough to render anyone to tears.
“You see”, I continued, “I come from a future where your thoughts and memories can be rewritten as easily as you can scribe a story. Zeltrex isn't the only soldier we created in a lab and programmed to be void of thoughts. What started as a gift for couples unable to bear children aeons ago quickly turned to humans created in a lab from liquids, like you'd smith swords over a forge. It's all rather dystopian. Humans are created rather than birthed.”
“There's no telling if free will truly exists in such a reality where you don’t know if your own memories are real. It doesn't matter to me whether I became a soldier of my own choice, or programmed in a lab to think and feel the way I do. I am a fighter regardless, and I will fulfil my duty to the end. You, on the other hand, are primitive yet pure. You were birthed, and you have free will. Your life matters because you have the raw essence of humanity - pure and untampered. Whatever you do, do not engage Zeltrex, do what you must to stay alive. Should I die here, then you have to carry on and leave me behind. Is that clear?”
He sternly shook his head. "No”, he said as he placed a hand on my shoulder. “One life is just as important as a trillion." I admired his naivety, it was pure human, something you'd fail to come across in my time, yet it only angered me with all that was at stake. "Do you even understand the concept of a trillion lives? You could spend a lifetime counting to that number and still reach nowhere near it!"
"That doesn't matter to me. You cannot devalue your life beneath another. These eyes, you see, can see more than what light reflects. You clearly care whether you're human or not. Take your scarf for example. It stands out from your armour and uniform, yet you still choose to wear it. Why? Because you hold onto it like as dear as you hold on to your humanity. Sentiment - that's what makes us human. Even for something as menial as a scarf."
He dusted my shoulders and straightened my tattered, brown scarf. I hated that he was right. Though I could not disagree, this was no situation to be putting myself first. Zeltrex had to be stopped, whatever the cost. I clasped the wizard's hands, gazing into his piercing black eyes which I could see a swirling galaxy in. It reminded me what I was fighting for, and what was at stake.
A sudden blast jolted my ship. Warning lights and sirens flashed all around the console. Deflector shield critical. Zeltrex had arrived. “Go!” I urged the wizard. “Go back to the past and face Zeltrex. But do not engage it in battle. Even with your magic, you haven’t got the power to match something that can rip open stars in half. I’ll do my best to lure it to me.” I gave the wizard one last nod and my smug half-smile I was so well known across the galaxy for, as he waved open a portal and slowly disappeared into the past.
I sprinted towards the cockpit and gazed into the blazing fireball that was rapidly approaching. This is it, I thought, the last stand. Without warning, another blast was fired in my direction. I tilted my ship’s wing just in time, but the explosion hurled me in an uncontrollable spiral. I kept my white-knuckled grip on the control stick to regain stability as the G-force punched the blood into my head. My head pounding, and my veins were about to erupt out a rush of blood. But I gritted my teeth and fought back for control as I finally managed to stabilise the ship. The chase was on.
Zeltrex fired another burst as it exploded with the force of a collapsing star. But I was ready. I flew head-on at the explosion and was shot back further away from its aim. I punched the throttle forward and darted into a nearby asteroid field. Zeltrex continued to fire burst after burst. I wavered left, right, up, down, evading the rush of rocks that pelted towards my twelve, and the explosions that burst out at my rear six. My instincts took over as my heart pounded uncontrollably, and my vision reddened. The surge of adrenaline that rushed through my veins would have been enough to kill a large mammal.
Another explosion tore away my left wing, as I was hurled across the orbit like a falling comet. The warning sirens blared alive once more. The wing sustained heavy damage. I yanked the stick to desperately regain control as I was pelted into a nearby rock. With one final tug, I narrowly evaded it as it scratched the windshield. Warning, air pressure decreasing. I wasn’t fast enough, the asteroid had torn open a hole. I was losing oxygen, and Zeltrex was approaching. But I was close to my destination.
My eyes widened white as a blast exploded in front of me. The fireball ripped open its jaws, consuming my ship whole. The warning sirens blared all at once before silenced by the roar of the explosion. The sheer force and the ferocity of the flames had obliterated my ship. When the flames subsided, I was left drifting in the eternal darkness of space. I felt a cold, metallic hand reaching for the back of my head as my vision slowly rendered.
“Why do you continue to suffer for such a futile cause?”
I stared into the bloodlusted eyes of my adversary. It bore a sad, humanly expression on its face, as if it took pity on me. Though it had our image, it was not one of us, only a machine.
“The same reason why you killed the billions of my people, and the trillions of lives across the galaxy.” I replied, “to fulfil my duty. I was programmed to save, as you were programmed to destroy.”
“We weren’t made the same, AYR,” it replied as it pulled its murderous gaze close to my face. “You’re human. You fight because you have the drive to protect the ones you love. That is your own free will. You’re capable of love and to act on it. Don’t insult me by comparing yourself to the likes of me. I was created by your kind to be void of love and remorse. All I know is to kill. Yet you did not even have the mercy to rid me of my regret.”
It tightened its grip and I could feel my skull crushing, yet I refused to show this villain any sign of pain. “Don’t you see, AYR? You created what I am. The destruction of the galaxy is your burden to bear. The poison of humanity spreads through the galaxy. I was programmed to rid the galaxy of this disease. But all of civilization is infected with the same poison. You think I wanted to be the murderer of a trillion lives? Their screams echo endlessly in my mind. If I can eliminate those lives from ever being born in the past, no one will have to suffer. All I want is to silence the screams”
Its words infuriated me. With the last of my strength, I powered by blaster and emptied the full force of the barrel on its face. “Why don’t you just terminate your life then! Kill the screams with your own death!” Yet as the flames faded, it held its murderous gaze unscratched. “Or perhaps, I should just kill you,” it growled, as it crushed its grip around my skull. My pain overwhelmed me as I let out an agonising scream that masked the crunching of my bones. Yet, I couldn't help but menacingly laugh. It raised me up and gave a bewildered expression
“But you can’t,” I whispered feebly. “You’ve seen the future, haven’t you? The unkillable soldier also fears death. And you’ve seen your own, haven’t you? It scares you because you know that time cannot be easily rewritten. That’s why you couldn’t kill me back on Earth. Instead, you tried to erase me from history in the time rift, to ensure it would never happen.” I could sense the fear stirring within Zeltrex as it loosened its grip and widened its eyes. “It’s a lie! I am immortal, I am invincible!”
My face lit up with my iconic, smug smile as I revealed the genius of my plan. “I know it's a lie. I came up with it. Who do you think it was that showed you that future?” I replied as I slowly raised my finger. A figure drifted through space next to us.
Zeltrex stood in awe as he stared wide-eyed in disbelief at the wizard.
“Remember me?” the wizard asked playfully.
“You!” Zeltrex growled.
“That’s right”, I continued, “I told him to show you a future where you’d be killed by me. I escaped the time rift and got you to chase me. And where did I lead you? Look around, recognise this place?” Zeltrex’s eyes darted in disbelief. We were in the time rift, the place it had the vision of its death, the place I tricked him into trapping me, and the place that would ultimately be its defeat.
“Close it!” I screamed. “Close it now! Delete us from history!” Zeltrex grabbed my neck and pointed its blaster at me. “Close it and he dies. I know you too well, wizard. You treasure all life, especially that of your friend. Retreat and I’ll spare him.”
“Don’t listen to it! The lives of trillions are at stake!” This time, it was the wizard who gave a smug expression. “One life is just as important as a trillion,” he uttered, as he snapped his finger. A flash of light suddenly surrounded me, and I found myself next to the wizard, away from the grasp of Zeltrex. “Begone, abomination of humanity,” cried the wizard as he waved his arm and closed the time rift, trapping Zetlrex within.
He shot his hand forward, and the rift disappeared. It was over. Zeltrex would be erased from history as the rift evaporated from the flow of time. We won. I breathed a sigh of relief. I tightened my scarf and turned to the wizard, who returned a sly expression. “You cast a teleportation spell on my scarf, didn’t you?”
“Not teleported,” he smiled smugly. “Time travel. Just an instant to the future by my side, as history should be”. We were on the verge of rapturous laughter, but stopped dead as waves of weakness suddenly surged through us.
“What’s happening?” he asked.
“Don’t worry,” I assured him. “With Zeltrex erased from history, the flow of time is correcting itself. But I’m afraid for us, it means the memory of each other and our actions will also fade. Including your knowledge of the time spell.”
“But there’s so much I am yet to learn. So much to discover. I’ve not even had a chance to thank you properly.”
“You’re sacrificing the knowledge you’ve spent your life seeking for the sake of billions. If anything I should be thanking you”
“And what of our friendship? Will that fade out of existence too?”
I looked into his warm, black eyes which I could see my reflection in. The eyes with the shine I had only seen before in the stars. I gave him a sad smile and reached out my hand. “Somehow, I feel our paths are forever intertwined among the currents of time. I’m sure we’ll meet again. Though it will be as strangers, I have no doubt our bond will flourish at an instant.”
The wizard took my hand as we slowly faded from reality, as we said our final farewells. “Take care Ace, I’ll continue to look for you in the stars”
“You too Harken. Till the currents of time pull us together once more”...
The galactic war was over. The Tryzion treaty promised a virtuous and peaceful future, and humanity vowed to progress their knowledge and develop our technology ethically. The utopia we all dreamed of was slowly forming. My squadron had decided to celebrate with a journey to the past. Our knighthood had inspired one of my wingmen to celebrate in medieval earth, just as the knights of history had aeons ago. Though I was not keen to indulge in such a primitive tradition, I wanted to see my home once more.
I found myself once again in my lush, green, beautiful home. Where the gravity wasn’t crushing, the air wasn’t toxic, surrounded by the heavenly chorus of the earthly creatures that inhabited this paradise. I stood with my hair blowing in the roaring winds, taking in the beauty of my surroundings. And there he sat, alone in front of a small fire, flickering gently like a flag in the darkness.
He was an odd-looking man, even for his time. The moonlight reflected from his bald head hiding a face, whose age I could not determine. He could have been as old as a teenager or an old man at the end of his life. He was unnaturally hairless, not a single hair on his body. Instead, it was flooded with a series of intricate tattoos that resembled fractals. He gazed up into the night sky flooded with a billion diamonds, staring into the stars, almost as if he were waiting for someone.
"Beautiful, aren't they?" I said as I slowly approached him.
“By the void, but they are. Nothing on Earth could compare to such beauty that’s out there”
“Well, you’d be surprised. Being up there all the time, you’d eventually miss all the beauty that was down here”
“You speak as if you are not from this world.” I chuckled at the man’s words. If only he knew the whole truth. He gestured to me to sit next to him as he offered me his hand. “They call me Harken”.
“A.Y…” I paused. I was in the past, I had to give myself a more normal name to avoid standing out. I didn’t know why I chose to give him this name - it simply felt right.
“You can call me Ace”, I said, as I shook his hand and gazed into his shining black eye I could see my reflection in. A shine I had only seen in the stars. Gazing into them was like watching a galaxy spin on its orbit. I felt a sense of familiarity with this man that I could not explain. Somehow, strangely, I knew him. Like one knows a reflection they see in the mirror. Even though he looked nothing like me, I recognized a part of myself as I looked into his eyes.