Chapter 1:

Chapter 1: Introduction Part 1

Gathering


A set of hazel colored eyes panned out into the distance. Waves crash against high reaching cliffs. A flock of seagulls flies overhead crying out. The skyline looked like it had walked right out of a painting. Beautiful hues of red, orange, yellow and purple exploded over the sky. Another wave crashed against the cliff. A gentle breeze began to rustle through the trees. The sunset was something he normally loved to watch. Unfortunately, the owner of this pair of eyes was staring into the sky out for sheer boredom mixed with anticipation.

Michael was staring out over the caged-in balcony from the room that he was inside. Listening. Seeing. Breathing. Feeling. Hoping as if something would happen, he searched fervently with his eyes. He knew the answer though. No matter what happened, Michael knew that nothing was going to change. Nothing had changed in the three days that he had been kept in his room. He was given food and water, so he wasn’t a prisoner per say, but it was simply slid under the door through a latch type system in the door. Somehow someone, or something, was coming in his room at night and giving him fresh clothes along with a fresh batch of clean linens. He tried to stay up the second night to see who it was, but sleep oddly overcame him quite quickly. He slept through the first night peacefully. “Well…,” he muttered to himself, “I guess there isn’t a whole lot that I can do.” With tomorrow on the line, he really needed to think about turning in and getting some rest. Bored and beyond restless, he paced about his room.

“Tomorrow. Tomorrow. Tomorrow,” he said. As if saying those words over and over was going to quell the storm in his mind, and give him enough clarity to get some rest and relax. “Well, why not,” he reasoned with himself. Then it hit him: he should do some yoga. Yoga was always the one thing he could do to clear his mind. Indeed it had helped him with his training and his studies. Every time there was an upcoming event within his history or he couldn’t focus, he would simply roll out his mat and do some yoga. There was a slight problem though… with no mat and being locked in a cage-like hotel room with nowhere really to go, he was going to have to get creative. The carpet? Well it was already quite old and it didn’t look like it would mind his sweat. “Nah…,” he said. He wasn’t interested in that. His clothes? No, no, he wasn’t about to do that either. He searched around his room wracking his brain for what he could use for an improv mat. Then it came to him. He had a towel left over from this morning’s shower.

Positioning the desk table on one end of the towel and the night stand on the other, he settled down into stretching. Michael formed mountain pose with just his hands and eventually swan dived over his legs and went down into plank. Down to chaturanga. Syncing his breathing with his movement was always what he struggled with, but he wasn’t worried. It would eventually fall into place. Michael took a deep breath and slid back into downward dog. This was his favorite position. His hamstrings hated it, but he liked it. Feeling the blood start rushing towards his head, he realized this is what he missed. True, he missed having access to a gym where burning off steam was never an issue, but he never ever minded doing yoga. Feeling good he thought that maybe he should do yoga a bit more often. His head was starting to pound as his heart worked harder, and he took a deep breath and jumped forward.

Moving slowly back up, he came back to his starting position of mountain pose. Repeating sun salutations a few more times, he decided to work on his warrior poses. Warrior one was no problem. Warrior two was so easy. He decided to go for reverse warrior. While this pose wasn’t hard for Michael, he was really feeling the rush of endorphins and enjoying himself. He locked his back leg down and threw himself into reverse warrior. Whoops. He had forgotten that furniture was what he had used to hold down the towel, and slammed his head into the night stand falling out of position immediately. Wincing and rubbing his head, he started laughing. “What an idiot I can be sometimes,” he said between laughs. True, if someone else had been present, he would have been horribly embarrassed. Thankfully, no one except for the seagulls outside seemed to be listening. They weren’t going to judge him. Enough time had now passed that the sunlight was now almost nonexistent. He flipped the light switch on and the room lit up. Michael pushed the furniture back to where it originally was and then there was a knock at the door. “Come in,” he said as if whomever was on the other side of the door was asking for permission.

In strolled a rather plump woman. Michael had never seen her before. She pointed a stubby finger at him, and said, in a rather high-pitched voice that made nails on a chalkboard sound like a symphony, “sit on the bed and keep your hands in plain sight at all times.” Michael complied. He was not thrilled that this was how his first human interaction in three days was going, but he knew that this was for tomorrow’s event. She must be important. She was wearing what looked like a full body suit in a dull grey hue. Or was it brown? Or black? It almost seemed as if when she moved, the suit seemed to change colors.

“That suit is not doing you any favors lady,” he mused. She walked to the window and gazed out. Whatever she was trying to see was beyond him. Michael knew that there wasn’t a lot to see… rather there was nothing because it was dark. He shrugged and she whipped around looking at him almost glaringly. “I’m not ready to hear her speak again,” he thought.

Too soon. Suddenly that wretched voice was squawking, “I’m sure you’re aware that you’re going to be meeting your companions tomorrow, yes?”

“Yes ma’am I am,” he politely replied. If there was anything that he hated, it was being talked down to and having to be polite with someone he didn’t know.

“Well I should expect such. You have had plenty of time since you haven’t gone anywhere for three days.” She snorted what sounded like a chuckle, but Michael was not going to be taking any more guesses with this one. He just politely made a small smile at the corners of his mouth and slightly bowed his head.

“Yea lady. Being in this room for three days has been such an enlightenment,” he thought.

“Let’s go over a few rules,” she squawked again. “First, under no circumstances are you to be fighting with any of your companions. You are to be going on a journey together and let me remind you, we have you wired and you will all have cameras. If do you something that we don’t like well...” She grinned again and that horrible chuckle made another unwanted appearance. Michael happened to look directly at her face and he averted his eyes immediately at the sight of her mouth. Teeth, if that’s what they had once been, were now black, much like her strange body suit. Her gums were a horrible shade of decay and it was amazing to him that her teeth, if that’s what they were, were even still in place.

“Second,” she continued on, “Should for any reason you fail in your task, then it will be the duty of the council to see that a replacement is found for you and you will be removed from your team.” Now she was pacing towards the caged balcony again. “Third. The sphere you are given is the sphere that you must carry and master with you on your journey. Altheggan will not accept anything that hasn’t been completely mastered.” “Then again, it’s been almost 50 years since anyone from your disgusting backwoods of a planet has ever even had a sphere to submit.” So don’t mess it up.” She paused and glanced back at him. “Then again, I suppose you could fail at the temple of Altheggan and we would have a delightful spectacle for the system to see.”

Michael shuddered. He had heard the stories. When the journey is over and the traveler submits themselves to Altheggan to be judged, if their sphere hasn’t been completely mastered, Altheggan would curse not only their planet for the next four years, but also destroy that individual on the spot. Three of the twenty-four planets had been cursed in the last five years. He had heard stories of terrifying wind storms, whole planets freezing overnight, sweltering heat waves, being pitched into darkness constantly to the point where lights nor fire would fail. He knew what that meant. He realized while thinking about the punishment, he had spaced out and missed whatever squawky, that was her new nickname, had said.

“… and to be sure to actually finish that task as well,” she rambled on. “Fourth, you must use every skill at least once. Using skills helps with sphere completion.” “Fifth,”

“ugh how much longer is this going to last,” he thought.

“Your sphere may never leave your body. Once it is installed, you may never remove it till the temple of Altheegan. Should you remove it, you will be terminated on the spot and a replacement will be put in your place.” “Sixth, the sphere is yours to place on your body wherever you want. Just remember, you will need it and you will need to be able to access it.” “She grinned. Those horrible teeth showed their ugly existence again. “Any questions?”

“Sure,” he said. “When do I know which one is mine? We get to choose right?”

Squawky did that horrible noise thing again and told him in a very condescending tone, “Oh? You didn’t hear? You no longer get to choose your element nor your sphere. You are given one.”

“B-b-b-b-but we were told when we handed over the sphere and agreed to the rules, we could choose the sphere again and what element we wanted.

“What element we wanted~,” she said in a mocking tone. “Not anymore. Don’t like it? You can leave, but remember you won’t be going anywhere alive. So, deal with it.” Now coupled with another flash of those disgusting teeth, Michael suddenly realized that squawky had a full head of luscious, blonde hair. He was so shocked, his eyes shot up in shock. “What,” she snarled, “is there another stupid question you need answering?” Fighting the urge to roll his eyes in annoyance, Michael simply looked her dead in the eyes and asked what time the festivities would start tomorrow.

“That’s easy! Breakfast is at seven, changing will be at eight, and then the presentation starts at nine sharp. Once the presentation of spheres is over, you will spend the rest of the day speaking with your fellow group mates.” With a tug of her blonde hair, she decided that she had helped enough and turned around heading for the door. “Don’t forget,” she said almost as if to no one, “six o’clock. Don’t oversleep. Oversleeping can lead to rather disastrous results.” With that the door opened, and she moved her plump body through the door and it was pulled shut firmly. Michael heard the locks all click in the door and then suddenly the room was silent.

Resigned to whatever his fate would be tomorrow. He decided it was time to take a shower. He turned on the water and let the shower start to run. For a dilapidated looking, shabby room on the inside, it was anything but in the bathroom. Indeed, the marble flooring was the clearest evidence of it. Everything that wasn’t covered in marble, was covered in what looked like platinum? Well, why not? He smirked slightly to himself. The bathroom was warm enough it seemed, so it’s time to climb in. As he pulled back the curtain, Michael was mesmerized at the sight of the falling water. He couldn’t explain it at all, but “Man! I really hope I get a blue sphere tomorrow. Water is good enough for me!” he thought.

Stepping into the shower, he yelped and jumped out of the shower immediately. The water had become too hot, and unfortunately he had forgotten to turn on the cold water as well. Adjusting the water temperature as necessary, he finally did climb in the shower and let the water run freely down his body. Staring into the mirror in the shower, he was drawn to his own features. Deep hazel eyes. A strong robust nose with high cheekbones. A thick neck and shoulders. In fact, everything about him was slightly thick. He was of a stocky build, but he didn’t mind. That was the average build where he was from, and he rather enjoyed it. Though admittedly he was slightly slimmer than his peers due to the fact that he practiced yoga. He would get some grief for it, but it never really bothered him.

Water slowly trickled down his body. Pushing his hair back, he stared for a while into his own eyes. His eyes drifted down his own body and came to rest on his legs. He had very strong, thick legs, and he jokingly gave them a pat on the side saying, “I’m counting on you.” True, his legs would be carrying him on this journey. Before he could rely on anyone else, he had to be able to rely on himself. He washed himself up and then stepped out to dry himself off. He needed to eat something. He stepped out of the bathroom and like magic, there was a tray of food by the door. Life was clearly playing a cruel joke on him.

Michael sighed as he looked down at the tray. There were two biscuits barely the size of his index finger, a few leaves of what he presumed to be lettuce, and a handful of grapes. “Well at least the grapes look appetizing,” he thought. As he ate, he reflected on what tomorrow and what it would be. Tomorrow would quite possibly be the greatest race of all time for his planet and those he would be paired with. What would tomorrow bring? What would lie in his path? What he did know was that he had to be the first one to make it to the temple of Altheggan. Should he survive and make it there first, the revival of his planet would begin. The dead fields and forests would be no more. Crops would once again flourish. The sluggish flow of water around his planet would also be corrected to allow it to fill the rivers, lakes, and oceans.

He was not a fool. Michael knew that this was his chance to succeed and to make everyone’s livelihoods better. He thought about the city that he came from; hardly a large city, but yet, not a humble one by any means. Immense funds would be injected into their economy, greatly improving their lives. Merchants from across the galaxy would flock to his world only further boosting livelihoods and the economy. Michael knew that the revival would fix all of the problems in his world. Then he remembered that there were two sides to every coin.

While yes, his world would, along with the other words of his teammates, flourish for the next year, it also meant that the bottom teams’ worlds would decline inversely. Even then, the boost would last for another two to three years in his own world. He had heard stores and witnessed firsthand what happened to losing planets. The energy that flowed into the winning worlds to make them prosper is taken form the planets that had lost. Rivers dried up. Oceans stopped flowing which lead to global problems. Trees would wither to the point that they wouldn’t produce any greenery for the foreseeable future. Deserts sprung up within weeks. He had even heard that on one now dead planet, one of the fourteen moons that orbited it, had come crashing down on the most populated city. As he recalled, it was now just called planet number forty-seven. Once planets died, they were stripped of their names and just given a number. His own home world had not seen a winner in decades and it was a miracle that his planet hadn’t died. Michael shuddered. “This is the year to change. It just has to be,” he said aloud. Then he remembered what people had said before he left.

“Whatever you do, don’t lose and come in last. Even if it is second to last or somewhere in the middle, it is better than coming in last and losing.” If your team, depending on how many teams were present that year, came in second or third to last, nothing really seemed to happen. Your planet’s existence basically fell into this gray zone that meant nothing bad was going to happen, nor would anything good happen. The planet itself and society just seemed to continue on as it was before the journey happened. That’s not too bad as an outcome, but for Michael’s planet, he wasn’t sure how much more luck his planet could run on.

True, it was a horrible game that Altheggan had created for the people of his universe, however, he had no choice, along with the rest of his planet but to participate. Not participating was a much worse price than participating. Not participating was viewed in the eyes of the temple and Altheggan itself, as an act of defiance. The defiance being that that planet or society was better than others or had transcended even Altheggan.

“Arrogance must be dealt with retribution,” was a famous quote from the temple and its followers. The retribution was swift indeed. Altheggan would either then destroy the planet entirely, or worse, simply just let the planet rot away until it became inhabitable. Thankfully no planet had been too foolish, or brave for that matter, to not participate for almost 630 years. According to legend, the last planet to refuse to participate imploded upon itself. The entire population was killed in an instant one fateful night. Then, to serve as a reminder, the planet itself turned into a black hole and pulled a dead planet into it. Since then the black hole has existed as a reminder, however no dead planet has actually fallen into it. It exists only as a sign of what could happen. Now that he had finished his meal, Michael was suddenly very sleepy.

“For such a harsh diet, I don’t see why I am so sleepy,” he said to the room. He lethargically dragged himself to his bed and climbed into it, hitting the lights as he went down. Time for sleep.


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