Chotzra Leshaku Stripped had three names to his being: Kharat, Neraq, and Vacore. Perhaps Chotzra was his Anore name, but who was he to judge that? He was hardly complete. He still longed for something in this world, something gnawing at him, and Dialona was not at all his goal anyway.
Though, he did easily seize ‘Stripped’ as his Vacore name. It had been used mockingly against him and then…he decided to take it for his own. After all, he did have a stripped down Vacore. Some Mechanicha wanted to have large, complicated frames. Some Mechanicha preferred simpler ones. Chotzra wanted a stripped down one and so that was what he had. Just enough to get by—and he only needed a thin frame and a head for that.
The Vacore was of the physical and the physical was hardly where Chotzra was…in a way. He spent the most of his time on the Spine of the Empire. Both tangible and not as it was an ever-present construct that existed on the physical corpse of the Titan Eyelaktreahtz. Physical enough, but not quite.
Maybe he should have called his Vacore name Spine or Simulation or something else trite like that, but Stripped had stuck and changing it now seemed pointless. He had more important things to be doing, anyway.
Which were, as usual, exploring the Spine. Not alone, though. Djah’pak’ma, his best friend, was joining him as always. She was a Magvierak who took to the Spine as if it was magnetic—as if she was a Mechanicha connecting directly to it. The Spine was their domain and where they had met each other.
Had they ever met physically? As in, not through the Spine? Three times. Once just…to do it, the second time to watch a hilariously convoluted duel between a Wolfen and Vapaezyre, and the last time…
He did not have to exert the effort to recall the memory. The Spine held it in its databases, as it had been shared. A public thing. It was them dancing around a constructed planet, a small thing, with spiraling buildings and constructions…all while it was crumbling down. There were others there, aye, but they stuck with each other til the end of it. It blew up and they watched, gazing at it blow away into pieces. The memory of it shuddered him now.
Afterwards, Djah’pak’ma, just Djah to him, went back to Magvierak and Chotzra went back to Mechanicha and then they were back on the Spine together. That was sometime ago. Time hardly seemed to matter to them.
But time had to be filled with something.
So here Djah and Chotzra were, planning out their next experience.
“What are you thinking we do this time?” Djah asked. She was lounging across from him.
“I am thinking…we play as Valkyries fighting the Mad Tree!” Chotzra exclaimed. It was not a particularly inspired choice, but it was one he had not yet had the pleasure of trying and he imagined Djah had not either. “Swooping down into a miasma of madness sounds exciting and different enough. We simulated being underwater the last time.”
They had been Sawapash before, looking for some sunken treasure. Being a different race in a different environment kept things interesting. So going from water to air seemed like a perfect contrast, but he trained his gaze on Djah, hoping for an elated response.
The chunks of her arms swung up and she yelped out: “Aye ky! That sounds brilliant, Chotzra,” Djah replied.
With her affirmation, his designs were thus approved. The Spine began its work. The construction swirled around them and they were reformed as Valkyries. Chotzra was a shimmering gray Aeriatros and Djah was a familiar neon green-blue one. They were standing at the edge of a ship’s hangar. They were not alone: there were memories of true Aeriatros standing beside them. Or maybe they were just of the Spine’s imagination to make this as epic as possible—that was equally possible.
Regardless, the Spine was driving this. A command was uttered and that was their cue. Djah stared, wide eyed, at him, smiled, and then they plunged down.
Both of them were flying together along with some other Aeriatros constructs down into the sprawl of the infected planet. Towering buildings were covered in vines, slowly being torn down, and there was a fog rising high into the sky. All the work of the Mad Tree.
Sometimes, it was not so much about the objective in a simulation, but about the atmosphere. The rushing downward drop they were experiencing in the thick, toxic fog that surrounded them was certainly atmospheric. The poisonous miasma was filtered through their breathing equipment. Neither of them were actually breathing, of course. Not in here, never in reality. The idea of it they understood, though. It added to the experience.
Their flying experience was interrupted when vines began to lash at them. They had begun to penetrate the overgrown mess of the planet. Djah struck back at them and Chotzra joined in later, but then the moment shuddered. Some large movement of plant mass, of course. Some roots roaring up from the earth and taking out the buildings quivering near them. Vines pealed off from the nearest one to them and Djah was caught in them. She cried out to him and Chotzra lunged out to her. But as he came closer to her, her form paled, maybe she was yanked back and then something came crashing down at him.
His vision tessellated for a moment, maybe it was like his helmet shattered and he was supposed to be breathing in this toxic air and he was on the ground. It was covered with moss and leaves…
Except it was not. The edges were…barely, but the floor was smooth and metallic and he was in a corridor. He stared at his form, felt it, and he was…well, he was himself again.
Not a Valkyrie. And Djah was nowhere to be seen. The walls of this place he had no memory of were tight against him…and seemingly getting tighter.
He turned around, back to where the battle was…and it was gone. Just these walls, closing in.
The Spine was having fun with them—or maybe this was Djah’s idea. To really shake it up and add intrigue to their simulation experience. He laughed and went with it—after all, escape was merely a wish away from reality here.
The walls came tighter and tighter until they were wrapping around him—metal against metal, slowly crushing his basic form, and then a voice spoke:
“Do you realize where you are?”
The voice was thick, wavy, and hypnotizing with its tone.
“Do you realize what you are?”
Words slurring together…or his hearing was slurry. It was amazing how that was possible.
“The Mad Tree,” Chotzra murmured.
“Am I mad? Or are you mad?” The Mad Tree returned—or the projection of it anyway. Beyond sight, but not beyond his hearing. That was for sure.
The metal blew away in a gust that turned into a pale green fog. Back to this. He was back again in the overgrown city claimed by the Mad Tree. This simulation that had been abruptly shifted was returned into place and Djah was still nowhere to be seen.
Except there she was. Flying down, armor a bit beaten up, but there. Glowing and proud. And sticky with some…sap? Whatever it was, she was here.
“The Spine, I think, tried to give me a classic Mad Tree hallucination,” Chotzra said. “It was strange.”
“Really?” Djah asked. “I just broke out of some vines, fought some more, and then…well, back here. I saw you go down and fade into the vines and foliage.” She cackled. Her Aeriatros wings fluttered. “This was an excellent choice, Chotzra.”
Chotzra laughed and bowed. When he did, the simulation cascaded away from being and they were back in a nondescript atrium of the Spine. A lounging area. Djah was leaning backward and Chotzra was leaning forward.
“It was really interesting, though,” Chotzra said. The memory of the experience just would not leave him. “Let me show you what happened.” He invoked the Spine, commanding it to replay his memory of that simulation or that part of the simulation. Either way would work.
And it did. It showed him falling, getting up and…
Being mauled by some plant with teeth. He fought it after being dragged away and then he wound up back with Djah. Nothing involving an echoing voice or the metal.
“That…that was not it,” Chotzra whispered. He scrolled through the memory again, making sure this was not some joke or momentary lapse in reality.
But it was not. The Spine was showing him something other than what he had experienced. It was wrong.
Was it wrong…or was his memory wrong?
Maybe this was wrong. He laughed.
“Mad Tree!” Chotzra called out, glancing for any errors in this presentation. “I see through this trickery!”
Djah stared at him as he rose up and started to gesture about manically. “It is over, Chotzra,” was all she said. “You realize that, aye?” Her voice was so soft…and for a moment so…raw.
It drew him out of the moment.
“It…” He trailed off.
Djah hummed. Her clunky form shifted upward and she reached out and tugged at him. “Let us go elsewhere.”
Chotzra relented and followed her head. She led him to a strange corner of the Spine…maybe carved into being for this now. It was dark and humming with energy. The thoughts of the previous frantic moments had been whisked away.
“Have you heard of the Ghost of the Spine?” Djah whispered to him and—well, the moment just became obvious for what it was.
So he laughed. He cackled and even giggled. “Bashl, but tell me of it.”
A story of a ghost? Djah did so love toying with him. Pranks…winding stories…maybe this was still her play. And why would he deny her? Because he was feeling confused and a little worried? What was there ever to worry about?
“Well, it is what it is called,” she said. “The Ghost of the Spine, Chotzra. The Spine is of the dead Titan Eyelaktreahtz. Death is not the end, Chotzra.”
Chotzra cackled. “So you are saying Eyelaktreahtz exists as a ghost passing in and out of reality here…but where?”
Djah shook her head. “Maybe. Maybe you have to believe in it to see it.”
“Titans are not Gods, though,” Chotzra said. They care not for belief.”
“Maybe dead ones do,” Djah said.
He hummed and he almost clicked to that. Instead he asked: “Do you think this Ghost is what caused my strange experience?” Was this what she was really saying?
“Maybe,” Djah drawled out playfully. She pulled away from him and walked forth. “Why do we not try another simulation? Something less…mad. Maybe as Wolfen hunters targeting some exotic prey?”
“Sounds simple and straight forward,” Chotzra said. “Maybe it was just the Spine being far, far too good at emulating the Mad Tree.” The Spine was perhaps the most sophisticated piece of technology in the Empire. Excluding the Mechanicha, if they deigned to count themselves as such. Chotzra did not.
“We shall see,” Djah said and then she clicked and then they were no longer a Magvierak and a Mechanicha but two Wolfen.
Again, he was gray. A dusty gray furred Wolfen. Djah was a black Wolfen but with fur dyed blue and green. The colors of the Spine. But they blended in perfectly to this setting. They were surrounded by rough trees—an endless forest. Both of them wore armor that was leather-like and with slick weapons made with glittering metal and adorned with bone.
“What are we hunting?” Chotzra asked, getting the grip on his weapon of choice.
“Boushana Stalkers,” Djah said, drawing out her weapon as well. “The Wolfen like to pick strange things from other worlds to hunt, so why not one from Flana?”
Chotzra laughed. “I like it,” Chotzra asked. The Boushana Stalkers would be tough opponents—that they were infamous for.
And their infamy rung true when in the corner of his vision, he saw something creeping out from a tree.
Djah reacted first, though. She lunged over to it and sliced down the tree in a few brutal strokes. The Stalker leapt away from its falling form and Djah’s presence and went deeper into the murky forest. There was a pale fog out in the horizon that she disappeared into. She cried out, to him, though:
“Come and join!”
Metal clanging against…stone, wood, or something, echoed forth and Chotzra…
He had been smirking in this Wolfen form, but then something came over him, like a stabbing pain and he fell to his knees.
The world glitched again, but when it refocused there was a Boushana Stalker right in front of him. Its wide, vacant eyes stared at him and then its tongue dropped down from its orifice and it started to react out for him. Chotzra slashed at its arms and tongue and it shrieked in wounded agony. It ran away into the mist and Chotzra pursued. He was heading into the same direction Djah went towards. A few paces in, or maybe it was minutes in, he stopped. The trees had thinned out until there was just this pale mist again.
It was too familiar. Djah had seemed a little off… None of this was right.
“Mad Tree!” Chotzra called out.
No answer. He laughed as Djah’s words came back to him and why not try it?
“Ghost of Eyelaktreahtz!”
No answer. He tensed.
Not for a moment.
Then there was a bellowing war cry. Something came out from the mist, something obscured in his vision, and Chotzra reacted quickly. He slashed at it as it tried to slash him and then it was down. He approached its dark form and appreciated it.
It was not a Boushana Stalker. It was a…Human. Bleeding out from wounds Chotzra gave them and their eyes were blank and then, before Chotzra could react any further, they faded away into nothingness.
Chotzra stepped back—far back. And then he killed the simulation. For both of them.
He returned to the lounging space of the Spine, but he was the only one there.
“Djah! Djah’pak’ma!” Chotzra cried out verbally and through the Spine. But nothing was working. The Spine was not responding. There was nothing and nothing responded to him.
Now he was worried.
Pulling back from himself, he tried to remove himself from the Spine. And it worked. He was disconnected from the Spine and returned to actual reality.
He flexed his frame. It took more effort than usual to do so. His sensors told him it was cold…very cold. He looked around wherever he was and he was not in his usual home. He was in some…worn out podlike space. Commanding his body up, he stood and took stock of it. There was a chair with a Spine interface, the one he had been attached to, and a basic set of control panels. Control panels for a spaceship.
Why was he on a spaceship?
“This is not fun anymore,” Chotzra whispered even though he knew this was real and this was not about fun or anything of the sort.
As it was real, he went to the control panels. There were settings so he could gaze to the outside—wherever in Tyra Kolaq’blegae he was. He hesitated a moment before opening them.
What he saw…
Too-small chunks of a planet, or maybe it was a moon, floating around. In the distance, he saw three other planets. He identified them easily as Paeyk, Djamu, and Shafien. He did not see Magvierak, though.
He asked the ship where he was before he could linger on that question himself.
“Warbaxion, where Magvierak was,” it answered.
Chotzra stepped back. He sat down, shaking, and then interfaced once more with the Spine.
This time, when he appeared, Djah was there to greet him.
“Djah…” Chotzra rasped out. His body, thin and basic as it was, was still shaking even now in the Spine. Maybe he would be named Chotzra Leshaku Shaking now. “What is…what has…”
She came up to him and just…stared at him. Glowing green and blue… Her form seemed so much…lighter than it ought to be. She was not quite herself.
“Are you…really…you…” Chotzra could not move. Would not move. Until…until he knew. Until he knew what was going on.
“Sort of,” Djah said. “I…I have been trying to make you remember. Slowly.”
“Remember what?” Chotzra questioned.
“Just…try to remember, Chotzra,” Djah whispered.
Chotzra put his hands over his head and closed himself to this moment. He tried. He tried and then he remembered other moments. Memories…memories were slowing coming back to him.
Memories of war, not with the Mad Tree, but with a mad Human, and…well…all sort of awful things and…
The end of Magvierak. The end of all Magvierak save one and it was not Djah who survived.
“Djah…” Choztra whispered, looking at her again. She was not quite here. Not quite not, either. Here enough, despite being dead. “Did you…stay for me?”
“Aye,” she answered so softly. “After all, you are a part of me as I am a part of you.” She laughed and well.
Maybe he was complete. Chotzra Chotzra Leshaku Djah Stripped. That was it. It hardly felt like it all. And, after all, she was not complete either. Dead and lingering for him? What was completion in this…pained state?
Choztra laughed. “You are, Djah, you are. I…I am sorry for not remembering. I do not know why I forgot. How I did.”
“It might have been because of me,” Djah admitted. “We were…well, let us just say it was a catastrophic event. You tried, though. To save me. But…no one was saved. No one could be. Except for Magniya King. He refused to choose and so we all can choose now what to do next.” She chuckled again. “I chose to stay with you until…well. I guess that is your choice now.”
Staring at her, Chotzra bowed his head. “You should not stay for me and I will not stay either,” he said without hesitation. “So let us move on. How about we reincarnate together? As loose or as strict as you want. As long as we are the same race I am fine.”
Djah stared at him and seemed the most of herself than ever before of late. “I would like that,” Djah said. “Let us try a race completely organic…how about Magaya? We could try magic in the best way possible.”
Magic! He was already in love with the idea. “Aye ky,” Chotzra said. “Loose…or strict?”
“I want to remember enough,” Djah said. “Enough so we find each other again.”
“Well, as you said…we are part of a each other so we do not have to worry about that,” Chotzra said.
“Shlranai,” Djah said and laughed. “Come on, mostly loose, then, I am not that tied to this me. No goodbyes, Chotzra. We will meet again soon.”
And without further word she faded away.
And Chotzra…well. He did not hesitate when he ordered his frame to death and well, he was chasing after her a moment later. Maybe some of his names would change…but he knew two that most definitely would not.
Chotzra and Djah…