Mission Report: 02/02/2056 13:47
The Vollans really do appear to be a God-send. Since they first contacted us last year, our understanding of the Universe has increased drastically. Humanity had long suspected that we were not alone in the cosmos, but to have proof appear on every screen on Earth at the same time was a bit of a shock. Then when they dropped the bombshell that both of our peoples had evolved from the same group on a planet that was destroyed a millennia ago, I think you could feel the entire population of Earth being struck dumb. Speaking of, next to the Vollans, we truly are dumb. They've mastered science on a level that we barely comprehend. Their mathematics, biology, and physics are all at a level where they pretty much become one. Hearing that they have been monitoring us for the past 200 years had some people worried, honestly. But the Vollans offering up all of their knowledge went a long way towards smoothing over those ruffled feathers.
The way the Vollans live is a bit odd, but evidently it works. No need for a police force, since crime is nearly non-existent. No crime because everyone has access to the highest education, best medical treatment, zero chemical addiction, and their culture has evolved past the point of fighting over land. I guess losing a planet will put things like that into perspective. The only reason the Vollans have contacted us now is because we have finally taken the first steps towards the same path they have walked. To tell you the truth, there were quite a few people that were against the International Unification Treaty, and some were talking about going back to the old ways. At ten-billion strong, the human race cannot afford to spend our resources on petty in-fighting when there's so much more to life than taking what your neighbor has for the sake of greed.
Back to the mission report. I was rambling a bit. First physical contact with the Vollans is scheduled for tomorrow at 12:00 on the space station. As per instructions, I am the only human that will be present for the first meeting, but if it goes well, our two peoples will be able to exchange small groups in order to learn more about each other. I was so lucky to get this assignment from the council. I guess studying to be a diplomat wasn't such a waste of time, even though our world had become a world without nations. I will have every recording device that we have at our disposal running for the meeting, and between all of them, this will be one of the most well-documented moments in human history. I'm nervous and excited. I have absolutely no fear of the Vollans, because they seem to be a truly peaceful people. Honor and law are high on their list of personal traits, and they cannot harm another without proper provocation. Now, to hope I don't provoke them. Just a little joke.
On a personal note, I'm glad I didn't get that head-cold that I was expecting. Usually happens when I travel, but I guess space is different.
Signing off (for now),
Hannah was waiting for her turn at the pedestal. Her father had had his turn, and her mother was taking her turn now. It's not like it took long, but she had never been good at waiting. When her mother was finished, she had to wait for the pedestal to reset itself. Rather, the mechanisms within the pedestal had to reset. Either way. Didn't matter. Many viewed the pedestals as both life and slavery. Without the medicines within, every human on Earth would be dead, but the daily doses of the cure made sure that we were tied to our individual houses. Next year at 21, Hannah would be old enough to choose her own house and have her own pedestal installed. Yay, her very own tool of oppression.
These were Hannah's thoughts as she slid her arm down inside the hollow portion of the pedestal and found the lever inside. She wrapped her hand around the lever and pulled upwards, causing the inside of the pedestal to tighten around her arm. It's not like her arm had a clamp on it, but it was still a bit tight for comfort. Maybe a little tighter than normal, but since her thoughts had been more focused on slavery and oppression, she wasn't really able to gauge. She felt the usual pressure of the needles against her inner arm, but when they had finished injecting her with her daily dose of cure, the pedestal did not loosen so she could pull her arm free. Instead she felt a quick pain in her forearm, and heard a chime come from the pedestal. Before she could register what was happening, the pedestal released her arm and she pulled it free to see the dreaded Mark of Umbra had been placed on her.
While she watched in shock, the symbol darkened as it set into her skin. It was a simple 'U' burned into her arm two inches above her wrist. She could easily cover it with her shirt, but that wouldn't change the fact that she had been chosen. While she had been in school, every child had been taught what it meant to have the Mark of Umbra placed upon them. Not only did it mean that those marked had to fight to the death with Umbra, but it also meant that they were humanity's only hope for a full cure for the Plague. The genetic plague had been a punishment placed on them by the Vollans.
Forty years ago, when the Vollans first made contact, they had been infected by a head-cold. Their medicine had advanced far, but evidently there had been a few missed areas. Their civilization had been nearly wiped out. Their numbers went from two-hundred billion to ten thousand before they overcame the effects. By their law, even though we had not intentionally infected them, we had been responsible for the near-destruction of another species. The Plague was the punishment. Within a year, our numbers had dropped from ten-billion to ten thousand. The old and infirm were the first to go. Their respiratory systems just stopped working, but they were delusional by the time that happened, so no one really knows if they realized what was happening to them. When the population dropped to a low enough level, the Vollans stepped in with the pedestals and the daily doses of the cure. There would have been riots if there would have been enough people left to make a decent sized mob. As it was, what was left of humanity just wanted the death to stop, so we accepted the pedestals into our homes.
We figured the Vollans were going to leave us to our misery after that, but we were wrong. Instead of keeping us living in our fields of the dead, the Vollans helped us give each and every body an honorable disposal. I would say burial, but we don't do that anymore. Our dead are now given transference rites instead of burial. When a body is put through transference, after all of the loved ones have had a chance to say goodbye, the body is placed under a small beam that covers the body in dark light. There is no other way to describe it, other than dark light. It's not like the old black light that makes white and yellow things glow, but it's like a light that is made out of shadow instead. After the light is turned off, the body is gone. The Vollans say that the body is placed in the shadow realm, and that no conventional living thing can survive there. So, we no longer have graves to visit when we wish to speak with our dead, but the Vollans claim that the shadow realm is all around us, so if we need a focal point when speaking with our dead, just look into any shadow and speak. Growing up, it always scared me to think that after I died, I would be spending eternity in the dark, but mom helped me see that it's easier to rest in the dark. Looking at it that way helps. Especially while wearing the Mark of Umbra. The Vollans also made sure that we were able to progress as a people. They made sure we each had access to top-notch education and medicine. We were cured of everything except the genetic plague which dropped birth rates drastically.
The other thing about bearing the mark is that starting tomorrow, all cure injections will be withheld until I present myself as a Combatant of Umbra. I am given today to get my affairs in order, which doesn't mean much since I don't have my own house, and my few friends are already at work. I guess that just means spending time with my family, since both of my parents are excused from work until this challenge is completed, one way or the other. I wish I didn't have to put them through this, but there's absolutely nothing I can do about it. I have to fight Umbra, and I have no clue how. The fights aren't televised, and the only people that have to watch are the Vollans, a small group of human witnesses, and the families of the challenger. The Vollans watch to see if they are allowed to give us the full cure. The humans watch to tell the rest of humanity the outcome. The families watch as a way to help boost the courage of the challenger. Once a challenge starts, there is no contact with anyone until the challenger is victorious. At least, that would be the case if a challenger was ever victorious. There have been 11 challenges over the years, and 11 humans have died. Umbra is undefeated. Every three years, a new challenger is chosen at random from people 20 years old or older. I think I'm the youngest challenger to date, but I doubt that's going to help me.
These are the thoughts in my head as I look at my arm, hoping that the mark isn't really there, and that I'm just seeing things. That's a hope that doesn't last as mom sees my arm and starts screaming. Dad comes in to see what has her so worked up, sees my arm, and falls into the nearest chair. I think it was just luck that there was a chair where he collapsed. All the color drained from his face, and I was suddenly more worried for him than I was for myself. However, he was looking at my arm, and he mouthed two words.
That's when it becomes real for me, and I start crying. My mother wraps her arms around me in the strongest embrace that I can recall her ever giving me. Then the hug gets tighter, and I realize my dad has found his feet again and has wrapped his arms around my mother and me. We stay like this for nearly half an hour before dad breaks the hug and asks what I would like to do first. As this is probably the last day that I'll ever have with my parents, I choose something that I've always wanted to do. I want to have a picnic in the park and just talk. We all take our cameras, since we are a family of shutterbugs, and commence filling the day with laughter and good memories. We don't talk about the challenge, but it's there behind everything we say and do. How could it not be? When it starts to get dark, I make my announcement: I'm presenting myself tonight. I'll not risk anyone dying from the plague because I have cold feet. I'm terrified, but that's no excuse for letting anyone else suffer.
Mom is against the idea, of course, but dad understands. He's the one that taught me to face any challenge head-on, and as soon as possible, so that I could move past it as soon as possible. We hug once more, then all three of us walk to the challenger center. I slide my marked arm into the slot by the door marked 'Challenger', and the door opens. So does a door beside it marked 'Family of the Brave'. With one last glance at my parents, I walk through the door and hear it close behind me. I can only assume that my parents did the same. The only way I'll have any contact with them again is if I can defeat Umbra. I'm not counting on it. I'm standing in a room that looks rather plain, and nothing like the nightmarish visions we use to tell each other as kids. The walls are white, as are the floor and ceiling. The lighting is hidden, so it seems that everything is glowing. There's a computer box in the middle of the room on a table with a chair, a bed in the corner, and a stall that is probably a bathroom. There's also a slot in the wall. I have no clue what that slot could be for, until I realize it must be how food is delivered. I guess the rumors are true. Until I defeat Umbra, I'll not be seeing another living being. There is another door on the other side of the room, but since it has no obvious way for me to open it, I'm sure it will come into play later.
There's no reason to just stand here, so I go test the bed. It's comfortable, just like my bed back home. I start to think about home, and push away the thoughts, because I won't be able to do what I need to if I'm crying like a baby. I wipe my eyes, and go check out the computer. The interface is an advanced holo-display. There are no keys to touch, nor a screen to look at. It's all holographic. I wave my hand above the small box, and it comes alive. The keys are projected onto the table surface, and the display is hovering in the air above the box. It's one of the 360 degree interface systems, so I can work on the display from any angle. That's interesting, but I'm not sure why I would need anything like that. At least, not yet.
There is only one object that I can interact with in the display, so I activate it, and since it is an object marked 'Information' it seems appropriate, since I don't have any of my own. The display seems to explode, while a voice tells me that with this box, I will set the conditions with which I'll fight Umbra. There are objects that I can activate marked 'Environment', 'Conditions', 'Weapons', 'Tools', 'Battle Footage', 'Food', and 'Clothes'. The last two I figure are for use while I'm still in this room, since I plan on wearing my normal clothes to fight, and I doubt the fight will last long enough to require a meal break. I start checking the different options when I click on the object marked 'Battle Footage'. There is a listing of every challenger that Umbra has faced, along with video footage of all the fights. I guess the Vollans don't want me to go into this fight blind. That's a plus.
I watch the first fight, and my heart sinks. I get my first look at Umbra, and I feel my stomach drop. He, if it is a he, has to be 7 feet tall, with a three foot tail, and a face full of teeth. It's surprisingly difficult to get a clear idea of what he looks like, because his body is a flat black that seems to blend in with the background. He moves like fluid, pouring out of the shadows when advancing on a challenger. It appears that he disappears in the shadows, until I realize what I'm seeing. He's jumping into one shadow and jumping out of another. He must be going through the shadow realm that the Vollans told us about. I didn't think anything could live in that realm, but it seems Umbra can. His opponent looks freaked out by what he's seeing, and I can't blame him. They must not have given him any information on what he would be facing, and is seeing it for the first time now. Poor guy. I'm guessing that's why he chose a parking garage with plenty of hard surfaces. He was planning on bouncing Umbra's head off of each surface, but instead he chose a place with plenty of shadows. Bad luck. The fight didn't last long.
The next fight took place in a field at night. The woman had set up a ring of dried shrubs around the perimeter, and lit them as soon as Umbra entered. I think her plan was to kill Umbra with fire. It didn't work that way. With fire comes smoke, heat, and dancing shadows. Shadows that Umbra calls home. This fight lasted even less time than the first one. Umbra just pulled her down into her own shadow and was gone. The footage ended shortly after only her hand was left sticking out of the ground. I guess there wasn't enough shadow left for Umbra to work with since the hand fell over revealing nothing under it but blood. The third and fourth fights weren't much better. The fifth fight, however, gave me some much needed information. Umbra had a few weaknesses. The guy fighting Umbra created an environment completely devoid of shadows. As Umbra was already in the environment when the guy entered, there was no place for Umbra to go. But that didn't stop him from going straight at the challenger. The challenger was armed with a pair of old pistols that I guess he knew how to use. He managed to hit Umbra with a few bullets before Umbra was upon him. I guess Umbra has claws because he opened long slices in the challenges arm as he passed. Umbra found a corner and did something that I didn't see coming, and I'm guessing neither did the challenger: Umbra shed his tail. The entire length of tail hit the ground, leaving Umbra with a stump. Umbra dove into the shadow created by the tail while the challenger approached. I could tell it was a trap, but that didn't stop him from bending down to get a close look at the tail. I guess he wanted to know what Umbra was made of, but he never found out. As soon as he got within range, Umbra reached out of the shadow, and ripped the guy's head clean off. I was so glad when that tape ended.
I had a pretty good idea of how the other fights would go, and I was right. Some went a little longer due to clever tactics, and others were over quick. Some people just seemed to offer themselves up as sacrifices, while others were truly fighting for their lives. None of it mattered, though, since they all ended the same, and the only ones that knew which did which were the Vollans and the challengers themselves. The human witnesses were all selected at random every three years, so none of them had to witness the horrors more than once, unless they were also selected as challengers. I sat back in the chair, feeling the materials in it working to ease the tension in my body. You had to hand it to the Vollans, they gave us technology way beyond what humanity had created. All they asked for in return was our blood as payment. Not sure how fair that is, but it was how the world worked now.
I took a break from the computer to go over what I knew. I made a list in my mind.
- Umbra could be hurt, but it had to be done quick.
- Umbra could shed his tail in order to create a new shadow.
- Umbra moved through the shadow realm.
- Umbra could pull people into the shadow realm and leave them there.
- The fewer shadows, the more exposed Umbra becomes.
- None of this will help me.
After that last point, I went to lay on the bed and let everything sink in. After a good cry, I got over feeling sorry for myself and started putting a plan into place. I went back to the computer, and chose a simple indoor environment for my stand against Umbra. Large square room with plenty of lighting and nothing else. No corners or pillars to cast shadows. I also made sure that the lighting was bright and would not cast a useable shadow from me. Next was weapons. Dad taught me how to use blades as a pass-time when I was younger, so I chose two daggers. I knew that I would have to get close in order to use them, but there was nothing I could do about that. I could only hope that I was quick enough to dodge the claws and the teeth. All I had left to decide on was tools. I was going to leave that blank until I thought about Umbra creating a new shadow with his tail, so I added a harness that is attached to a hook on the ceiling of the environment via a length of cable. I didn't want anything that Umbra could cut through.
I was about to submit my settings, when my eye fell upon the last two objects. I was hungry after all, and I could always see what kind of options they had for clothes. I ordered up the tastiest thing I could think of and it slid through the slot in the wall moments after I ordered it. While I munched, I looked through the settings for clothes and found an outfit that I felt could be useful. Boots with great tread, tight pants that Umbra could not grab hold of without grabbing me as well, sheathes for my daggers, tight top with places for throwing knives (which I ordered up as well), and a cap to keep my hair out of my face. The last thing I need is my hair falling into my eyes when I need to keep them on him. Of course, I made sure that every piece was the same odd black of Umbra. Maybe it would give him pause, but I doubt it. I also found a nifty little box that contained a few simple controls.
With my outfit set, I was ready to submit my settings. I confirmed that these were the settings that I had chosen, and the display went blank. After a moment, the display stated that the challenge would take place the following evening. After that, there was nothing to do but wait.
When I awoke, the first thing I saw was a new table beside the computer table. It looks like it came out of the floor, and on it were my clothes and my weapons. I look for the rope and harness, but I guess those would be waiting for me in the environment. After getting dressed and sliding my blades into place, the door that I had not entered through opened. I stepped through and found my harness waiting for me in a room not much larger than a closet. I stepped into the room and the harness, and locked it into place when another door slid open. With this door open, I found myself looking into the very room that I had designed yesterday. My harness was already attached to the ceiling by the length of cable, which was a plus, because Umbra was on the other end of the room looking in my direction.
I have no clue if Umbra gets hungry, but he looks hungry to me. I start to wonder just what happens to the bodies in the shadow realm, and I push the thought away. I can't let myself get sidetracked right now. I step into the room, retracting the cable as I go. If I keep the cable fairly short, I can keep him from pulling me into my own shadow, but that's only one of the various ways Umbra could end this. I almost smile as I see Umbra start to rush towards me. I reach towards the control box with one hand as I pull a dagger with my other hand. The last thing I see is Umbra reaching one huge arm back in order to slice at me with his claws when I hit the button on the box.
The room goes black.
I hear Umbra stop cold. He may have realized what I'm up to, but if not, this could get interesting. I drop the box and grab my other dagger. I hear Umbra moving towards me again, and I realize that we are both blind. My gamble paid off! We are on equal footing, and I actually have a chance! I hear Umbra right in front of me and thrust both of my daggers where I believe he is. Only one finds purchase, but it must have been a solid hit because that dagger is pulled from my hand. I hear a scream that is almost human, and it occurs to me to wonder where Umbra came from. That thought is knocked from my head as I feel Umbra's claws dig into my side and I scream as well.
His arm gets caught in the cable, and we end up tangled together. This is not really what I had planned when I chose the harness, but it's a great side-effect. With Umbra tangled, I can really do some damage, but so can he. I pull the throwing knives, and go to work imbedding as many into him as I can. At this range, every one of them finds purchase in his hide, but he also does damage. As I'm sliding the last knife into him, he brings his head down and takes a huge bite out of my arm, and I know that he's just removed the Mark from my arm with his teeth. A bit deeper and my hand would be gone, but I'm aware that this fight just got a very short time limit: I'm bleeding out. All I can do at this point is try to end this battle before I pass out from blood-loss.
All I have left is a dagger, so I wrap my injured arm around Umbra's neck, trying not to let him squirm away using my blood as lubricant, and bury my blade as deep into his chest as I can. I'm already losing my strength, so the wound isn't fatal, but I know I've seriously damaged him. I only have one tool left, so I use it. I wrap the cable around his neck a few times and let my feet fall out from under me. I can feel Umbra choking above me as I dangle from the end of the cable, and his body is pressed against me. I can feel my body losing blood and I'm getting cold, so I can only hope he dies before I do. I wonder if I'll even notice passing out when I do it.
I wake up to a Vollan placing a healing strip on my arm where Umbra bit me. I'm so glad that it was dark during the fight because I see that the bite was much worse than I thought. I'm lucky to have an arm after he was finished with me. I look up to see my harness hanging from the cable, and I can't believe how much blood is dripping from it. I wonder how much of it is mine, when I notice that some of the blood is black. That answers that question. There are Vollans tending to all of the wounds that I didn't know I had been receiving, and I guess my adrenaline was really pumping for me not to have noticed some of them. I manage to turn my head and I see Umbra laying on the ground. No one is going to his aid, as he is beyond any at this point.
A remarkable thing happens while I watch Umbra. He begins to transform. His black hide starts to fall off, revealing a uniform underneath. I can't really place it until Umbra's head falls off and I see a man's face where Umbra's chest had been. I recognize the man. It's James Jackson, the man that had made first contact with the Vollans. Everyone had assumed that he had been killed for infecting the Vollans, but I guess they found a better use for him. I had just killed the man that had nearly doomed two species. I must be dreaming. That's it, I'm dreaming, and I'll soon wake up and have to fight Umbra. I hold onto that until I'm told that the latest injection that I received was the full cure, and each pedestal on Earth is having the full cure uploaded so that tomorrow's injection is the last time anyone will have to use a pedestal.
I don't know if I should laugh, cry, or try to wake up. How can I have saved humanity? Me? Hannah? This just HAS to be a dream. Maybe if I close my eyes, it will all make sense.