Long, long ago people traveled the cosmos through these gates. No one knows exactly what happened. Most people think the spirits inside them didn’t like how people used them and blocked travel. Those people, now cut off from the cosmos, forgot how to travel the stars in ships, so they were stranded far away from other worlds.
We speak to the being that controls each world’s gates, which we call the Tree, through their emissaries called Keepers. I wanted to know more. This brought me to the Keeper’s chamber. Bright neon vines that pulsed in unison, first yellow, then red, then green, then they diverged and exploded into bright, colorful insects. Dara bugs.
“Hello, little fox.”
The air around me changed from cold to warm, then to cool, and I felt at peace for the first time in a long time. I watched the swarm merge into a fox-like form that mirrored my own, but in a blue silhouette.
I walked closer to it. “What are you?”
It tried to move its mouth, some weird sounds came from it, then it finally spoke from an unmoving muzzle. “I know it’s been a long time since I had visitors, but surely hello is still the traditional greeting.”
“Hello. What can I do ya for?”
“I don’t understand.”
“Sorry. Ancient dialect. What brings you out to my chamber, far from home?”
“I want to know the truth.” She stepped back as the Keeper pulsed. “The truth about the gates. What really happened?”
“The truth of the gates reflects an old way. Not practiced by your people. I meet each of you when you die. At least in this region. I know your ways. Why do you think you need this knowledge?”
“If you know our ways, you know who’s in power. They built a whole religion around the gates. They call themselves the Bulwark.”
“That’s worrying. I haven’t heard of this. The situation, I mean. I know of a Bulwark. I don’t know if it’s the same one.” The Keeper turned back into a swarm of bugs, then returned. “I called a meeting.”
I ran toward the chamber’s opening to put sight to the loud roaring outside. Lines waved and twisted on the blue horizon, past a field of browns and greens. More dara bugs. “What’s happening?”
“Friends. You need to leave.”
“Planet. I’m sending you to meet some other friends, more like you. They explore the Network. Not just the few destinations I share with you and your people.”
I walked back to the Keeper. “You trust me, just like that? I’m not used to that.”
“It’s only the specific memories of this Bulwark I don’t have. People you know…knew. They’re with me. Don’t they tell stories about renewal?”
“No. We’re told we go to hell or heaven depending on how we live.”
“Yep. Same Bulwark. I’m sorry you had to live in a place like that. I came from a similar place. Women weren’t taken seriously there, too. Generally.”
“Wait. You were just an ordinary person?”
“Still am. Oh jeeze. They really messed with your concept of what a person is. We’re going to fix this. Trust me.” The Keeper pulsed again, and a portal emerged from the floor made of leaves, concrete, and wood. “Go. You’ll meet your people again.”
I closed my eyes and walked through.
The team took cover behind rocks and trees as the gate activated, guns aimed at whatever was about to emerge. Bulwark? A random traveler? You could never tell.
Each of the gate’s eight lights activated in order. Every gate was unique, but they all had eight lights, and they all activated in the same order. At least that was true of all the gates they knew about.
Out walked a Vulpri. She looked distressed and afraid, and you didn’t need a translator to tell you that. The team leader, Rex, popped up first.
“Hello there. Are you friendly?”
She took a moment to respond, and Rex started poking at his translator to see if something was broken, until she broke her silence. “Are you?”
“Should we be otherwise?”
“I’m sorry. I’ve never gone to another world. Did I do something wrong?”
“What? Oh, I get it. You must be from a Bulwark world. You did fine. How’s your Keeper?”
She walked up and sat down at the team’s camp. “I need a moment.”
“Sure.” He introduced everyone as they emerged from hiding.
First the only human on the crew, Talm. He waved. “You’re probably very afraid of humans coming from there. I won’t take offense.”
Then the red panda, Warren, who was the expert on the gates. “Talm doesn’t bite. Usually.” She went back to studying the gate.
And the fox, Chel, who used to be human, but changed after escaping the Bulwark. He nodded and smiled, but didn’t say anything.
Rex, a wolf, extended a paw to Elm. “And I’m Rex. Want to go into the village? It’s all freed Vulpri, like you.”
She hesitated, but took his paw and pulled herself up with his help. “I would like that. I’m Elm.”
“You can always say no. Always. For future reference.”
“I was never very obedient, but it’s good to know you respect that.”
The village was full of Vulpri. You could tell them apart from human-foxes because Vulpri were completely fox aside from the height, hands and feed, and the bipedal motion. Humans who became foxes, or whose parents did, usually still retained a lot of human features with shorter snouts. Better for eating human food. People just called them both foxes and didn’t think much of the distinction outside Bulwark territories. Under Bulwark logic, Vulpri were “natural,” and thus “Godly,” and were to be subjugated rather than exterminated.
Elm and Rex chatted while they strolled through the village, checking out merchants and greeting people. The village was mostly Vulpri-foxes with a few human-foxes, but there were other animal people too.
Rex bought a translator band from one of the shops and gave it to Elm. “There. Now you can understand everyone. So how did you get away to the Keeper?”
She looked to Rex, then scanned the people and places they passed. “Good humans live in Bulwark places. My Observer didn’t do much observing. He didn’t even try to use me like most Observers. I just told him I was off to the local Keeper to ask for passage somewhere else. We worked on a cover story in case anyone stopped me, and I left.”
“So your Keeper. They usually send messages along.”
“Oh. It seemed very worried it didn’t know about the Bulwark taking over my world.”
“Ah. The Bulwark figured out how to suppress the memories and independence of the people who live in the trees and the gates. So you weren’t always under Bulwark rule.”
“Just the last few years.” Elm closed her eyes and started sniffing the air, and let it lead her and the team down an alley. “I know that smell.”
Rex sniffed. “I don’t smell anything.”
“She smells home cooking.” She grabbed Rex’s hand and dragged him several blocks.
Elm spoke in Vulpri, the many sounds of foxes and then some, at the fox who opened the door. The wrist bands didn’t translate. He responded in a human language: “Welcome home. I heard we had a new Vulpri from occupied space, so I made something for them. That’s you?”
She nodded. “Yes. Being here is like being home, but I’m not anxious anymore.”
Rex declined in invitation to join and headed back to the gate. The Bulwark would almost certainly follow once they realized a subject was missing. A missing person disrupts the purity of the community, and they can’t have that.
The Missionary stepped through the gate, over the debris of the Recyclers he sent ahead. He would not be able to maintain Pious Distance this time.
“Friends. Hello. I ask that you pay for my machines through service.”
Rex turned his rifle from kill to stun. “Not on my watch.” And knocked him out cold.
The Missionary awoke in a bright void. “Keepspace. I’ve heard about this.”
“You are no friend to these people.”
“Ah. A Created. You do not belong in this way. We will help you become.” He walked around, looking for a wall or a door, but found none.
The Keeper spoke from all around. “I am of the beginning, the middle, the end. I create. I was created. This is our way. Your way is oppressive.”
“My way is freedom from the uncertainty of seeking purpose. We live as God created us. God gave us the tools and the wit to explore the cosmos, worlds to expand upon. Be fruitful and multiply. Surely you know the Word. You’re ancient. Seeded with yet more ancient knowledge. You were created, you are of God just as our machines are. You can exist in our way, as a tool that serves the Way.”
“You will remain here, free to explore the wealth of our knowledge, even see the cosmos through the Network, but not in a way that enables oppression. You will follow this way until you learn to create your own.”
“You claim to be against oppression. This is oppression.”
“It is only like your oppression in the most superficial sense. My way keeps space for you to make your own way. We will protect our way, and the ways we Keep. Ways that destroy and subjugate are not worthy of freedom because they steal freedom from others. I am as unapologetic about this way as you are about your own. This way is better.”
The Missionary argued with the Keeper for an age, until he found a way.