Zed felt his muscles go weak, and he swayed to the side, nearly losing his balance.
“Amber? Zoe?”, he stammered, “You were dead! I saw you both dead!”
Amber stepped toward Zed with a worried and inquisitive expression on her face. “Does our presence here not please you Zed?” Zoe looked equally concerned.
“Looks like he’s pleased to me”, Jim said, motioning to the tent pole growing in Zed’s pants.
Zed grew angry suddenly, dropped the beers and pulled the blaster from its ankle holster, pointing it at the tall man with the mustache.
“And who the hell is this guy?” he yelled at the nude women, pointing in his direction with the blaster, “You told me I was the only man you’d screw!”
Despite the threat of blaster fire, the man smiled gently, and stepped toward Zed. He spoke in a clear, calm voice. “I have come in the image of Jim Croce for the benefit of the Jim organism”.
“Told you bro”, Jim said from across the room.
“These two have chosen the images of Amber and Zoe in an attempt to please you Zed”, Croce continued, “They felt it would comfort you in your time of loss.”
The news caused a fresh surge anger to well up inside of Zed and he stepped forward, pressing the end of the blaster against Jim Croce’s face. “What the hell are you saying? These chicks aren’t Amber and Zoe?”
“That is correct”, Croce said calmly.
“Then who are you?”, Zed snarled.
“We have no name for ourselves”, Croce replied, “But we are known by many names and concepts throughout the Universe…labels such as the Creators, the Makers, and most commonly, the Keepers of the Light”.
Zed heard an odd noise coming from behind him, not unlike the sound of a flat car tire rolling on pavement, and he spared a backward glance to catch Jim approaching. It was the first time Zed had seen Jim move from his chair, and he noted that Jim’s body simply rolled across the floor. The dark circles that Zed had thought of as eyeballs floated just under Jim’s transparent skin, and seemed to remain suspended in place while the rest of it’s body rolled along… like the nucleus of a cell.
“I’ve heard the legends”, Jim said, coming to stop next to Zed, “A race of beings old as time and powerful as Gods. How’d you help us get away from the Dor’Ahkans?”
Amber stepped forward, joining Jim Croce at his side. “We created a rip in the fabric of space and time and allowed you to slip through. From the Dor’Ahkan’s perspective, you simply blinked out of existence.”
“Where’d you bring us?”, Zed asked, blaster still pressed against Jim Croce’s face.
“We are in a secret place”, Zoe said, stepping forward to join her companions. “Your computers cannot determine your location because we are hidden within a dark nebulae. No one will find you here. You are safe”.
“Why’d you help us”, Jim asked, “The Dor’Ahkans have caught and killed millions of creatures. What makes the two of us so special?”
Jim Croce smiled, and spoke softly. “It is simple. We need your help. We feel you possess the correct blend of qualities, both personal and situational, to aid us in our search for a valuable object”.
“How valuable?”, Jim asked.
“If this object is not retrieved and returned to its proper location, the fate of the Universe is in question”, Zoe answered.
“What’s in it for us?”, Zed asked, blaster still pressed against Croce’s face.
“With this object”, Amber said, “It is within our power to recreate what you have lost. Your wounds will be healed, and your worlds restored to their former glory.”
Zed studied the three figures standing shoulder to shoulder before him. He could not detect a shred of animosity in their pleasant, smiling faces… nor did he sense a double-cross. He let his blaster arm relax, and the barrel of the gun slid down Croce’s face until it fell toward the floor.
Zoe stooped to pick up the Miller Light he had dropped on the floor, and Zed watched as a layer of frost coated the bottles in her hands. Amber moved forward and embraced him, and he felt waves of warmth and comfort move through his body.
Zoe took his hand. “You are tired Zed. Let us refresh you.” They moved toward the stairs leading to the living quarters below the main deck. “You should make your decision with a clear mind and a well-rested body”.
As they made their way down the stairs to the sleeping quarters, Zed heard the sound of “Time in a Bottle” being played softly on the guitar.
So Jim’s getting his too, he thought, good.
Several hours later, Zed, the women and the two Jim’s met in the ship’s lounge. It was the first time Zed had been in that particular room, and the arrangement of levitating seating and entertainment devices might have impressed him in another time and place. At the moment, however, he was filled with thoughts of the pleasure he had experienced with the new Amber and Zoe. His permanent grin betrayed his experiences to Jim.
“Had a shitload of fun, didn’t you?”, Jim asked.
Zed smiled widely in response. He was too relaxed to speak, and even if he were able to utilize those particular muscles at the moment, his mind was too clouded with a fog of euphoria to form coherent words.
Amber spoke to Jim Croce by telepathy. “Has the Jim organism agreed to help us?”
“Yes”, Croce answered, projecting his thoughts to the two women, “And the Zed organism?”
Zoe smiled. “Yes”, she said, “Several times”.
Amber, lounging nude in a recliner which hovered several feet off the ground, was the first to speak openly. “It seems you have agreed to help us”, she said, directing her attention to Zed and Jim, “This is a joyous occasion!”
“So what’s this object you want us to find for you?” Jim asked, opening a compartment in the arm of its chair, pulling a can of Bud Light from it, and pushing the can into its body.
“Let us begin with a story”, Zoe said, waving a hand toward the center of the room. As she did so, a three-dimensional image of the Universe appeared, rotating slowly. “For ages stretching into the infinite reaches of the past, the Universe has struggled against the Darkness which surrounds it. While the Universe is composed of material and order and time, the Darkness which lies outside is composed of pure Nothingness. There is no time, no mass, no energy… one cannot claim the Darkness even exists, for how can Nothingness exist?”
Jim Croce stood and walked toward the center of the room. “At the center of the Universe lies a very special particle”. He waved his hand, and the image of the Universe began to expand. Galaxies sped past them and through them, disappearing through the walls of the lounge. It became apparent they were zooming toward the center of the Universe, and as they arrived, a speck of light appeared. It was an orb, roughly the size of a golf ball, and it glowed with a brilliant white light that hurt Zed’s eyes. Croce walked up to the glowing orb and cupped his hands around the faux particle with love and awe. Light streamed through his fingers and lit his face with an intense glow. “This particle is known as The Light. It is the Spark which ignited an infinite number of Universal Cycles. It is the source of all order, and by extension, all life in the Universe, for it is the particle which illuminates the Darkness, and pushes it to the far edges of our physical domain.”
Amber approached Croce, and waved her hand. The image began to zoom outward, until it became apparent that a planet-sized temple was being built around the Light. Though transparent and crystalline, the temple was impossibly ornate, and revolved around the Light like a glass jar around a lit candle. It was the most beautiful thing Zed and Jim had ever seen.
“After the last Big Bang”, Amber said, “Our race was the first to evolve to self-awareness. Our planet lay closest to the Light, and it’s influence guided our understanding of the Universe. Slowly, we learned its secrets, and divined our purpose as sentient beings”.
“You see”, Zoe interjected, “In every Universal Cycle, the Universe evolves to perfection. That is its purpose, to illustrate that order will prevail over chaos, that life will prevail over death, and that the Light will illuminate the Darkness. When a cycle ends, when the beings that compose the self-aware aspect of the Universe have evolved to a perfect understanding of the role which they have played, the Universe begins to contract once again, and a new cycle is born”.
The euphoria Zed felt had begun to fade, and he felt this lecture strayed uncomfortably close to church talk. “So what does all this crap have to do with me and Jim?”, he asked.
Amber turned her attention to Zed. “We will show you”, she said.
Jim Croce waved his hand, and the the impossibly beautiful temple began to shrink. They were zooming outward again, and soon the galaxies that had retreated moments before came back into view. They were countless, and dotted space like stars in the sky.
“Our race came to understand that our purpose was to guide evolution on other worlds”, Jim said softly, and streaks of light began to emanate outward from the center of the Universe, touching the galaxies like the delicate silk of a spider’s web. “The Light had chosen us for this work, and had given us the understanding to travel the Universe and choose forms which suited our new environments. We could be found on every planet supporting life, gently guiding the evolution of creatures large and small, nudging them toward intelligence and wisdom.”
“At one time, we could be found on your home worlds, Zed and Jim”, Zoe said, “We were there when the algae coated the oceans of Earth, and when the porous slime pits of Sichonia belched their first nitrogen bubbles into thick atmosphere. This was the Great Work the Light had bestowed upon us, and we reveled in it.”
Amber waved her hand, and a transparent orb formed within the three-dimensional model of the Universe like a perfect balloon. The vast majority of Galaxies were within its walls, rotating lazily. A few lay outside the orb, scattered randomly. One galaxy lay on the surface of the orb, with half of its mass inside, and the other half on the outside.
“We soon found that there was a Zone within which the Light had influence over the development of life. Within this Zone of Influence, the Darkness was not present, and life developed in a perfect and predictable manner. On the rare occasion that life took hold outside this zone, it soon destroyed itself with its own will to survive, rendering its home world uninhabitable. This was the influence of the Darkness, to weaken the power of life… to twist it, and imbue it with sickness and despair and death.”
“So again”, Jim said, a note of irritation present in his voice, “What are we supposed to retrieve for you? Where do we fit into this story?”
“One planet lay on the edge of this Zone of Influence”, Croce began, “It was the home world of the Dor’Ahkans. For the much of their evolution, the planet drifted safely within the zone, and life on the Dor’Ahkan planet evolved a beautiful interconnected rhythm that exceeded our expectations. Eventually, however, the spiral arm of their galaxy took them out of the zone, and they were robbed of the Light’s influence. Soon, life on the Dor’Ahkan world changed as it has on your own planets. Animals began to devour one another, sickness and death began to creep in once again, and soon the Dor’Ahkans were scrambling to protect themselves and their short lives against the ravishes of this imperfect and unpredictable environment.”
Zoe waved a hand, and a crowd of brilliantly illuminated beings appeared in the three-dimensional image. “Our council met to discuss the issue of the Dor’Ahkans, and it was decided that we should wait for the planet to pass back into the Zone of Influence rather than risk travelling outside the zone to help them. It was felt that beings of our knowledge and power should not subject ourselves to the influence of the Darkness, that unpredictable and horrifying results may occur.”
“Despite this decision”, Amber said, waving an arm and showing a solitary being slip through a rip in the space-time continuum and out of existence, “A being of our race decided to ignore this decision and visit the home world of the Dor’Ahkans. His love of life outweighed his logic. His need to address the needs of the few outweighed his concern for the safety of the many. This being was named Mata Cana , and he was never seen or heard from again”.
“The plot thickens”, Jim joked to Zed, “Wanna beer?”
“Hell yeah!”, Zed replied.
Jim Croce continued the story.
“Around 3 million years ago”, he said, “The Light was ripped from its place at the center of the Universe. With no comprehension of violence and deceit, we stood helpless as a race of warriors stormed the temple and took the Light. In a matter of minutes, the Universal Cycle- the Holy and Eternal pattern of order conquering chaos- was dealt a deadly blow.”
“You see”, said Zoe, “The Light draws energy from the Universe, even as it gives. At the center of the Universe, this exchange is in perfect balance. Take the Light away from the center, however, and the balance begins to shift. As it moved toward the edge of the Universe, the Light began to dim. It’s Zone of Influence- weakened and unbalanced- allowed the Darkness to seep into the Universe, introducing sickness, decay and death- and all its trapping- to living worlds… planets such as your own. If the Light is not returned to its proper location, it will eventually dim and go out completely. When that happens, the Darkness will decay the Universe from within, and the Great Universal Cycle will be broken forever.”
“For the past 100,000 years, our race has been imprisoned within the Temple. Though the Darkness has begun to affect us as well, we have remained relatively healthy due to the residiual energy of the Light. The forms you see before you were created in the Temple. We are projecting our consciousness through them.”
“If you can do that”, Zed asked, “Then why do you need us? Why can’t you go search for the Light yourselves”.
“We have tried”, Amber said, “Though as we have stated, we do not understand violence and deceit. Many of our projected bodies have been brutally murdered in the pursuit of the Light. We have managed to find clues to its whereabouts, however.”
Jim Croce waved his hand, and the three-dimensional image zoomed into a galaxy, eventually resting on a gas giant with a large moon. The moon was blue and covered with swirling clouds, not unlike Earth.
“We believe Mata Cana orchestrated a plot to steal the Light. His mind and body twisted by the Darkness, his soul yearning for a connection to the Light, he sought the aid of a race of warriors to help him steal it. We held the place of Gods on their world, which had only recently felt the influence of the Darkness, and Mata Cana used his power and influence to trick them. They thought they would inherit the role of Keepers, but when Mata left their planet with the Light, they knew they had been deceived, and the entire race committed ritual suicide.”
“On their world”, Amber said, waving her hand and causing the image to zoom toward the planet until a pyramid-like mountain came into view, “There is a mountain containing an ancient machine. We believe this machine may help us find the location of Mata Cana and the Light. The Zanara found this machine several thousand years ago, and stole artifacts from it. We think one of these artifacts may be the key to using this machine. They are keeping this artifact in their asteroid fortress in the Mueronian Belt.”
Jim laughed “It’s in the Zanaran Fortress? How the hell do you expect us to get it outta there?”
“We will give you an gift”, Zoe said softly, “Our hope is that you can trade this gift for the object we desire.”
“The Zanarans don’t trade”, Jim said, “They take.”
“They may make an exception in this case”, Croce replied, smiling. “In a few moments, the sun will rise over the world of Krystos. We have been orbiting on its dark side for the past 11 hours.”
“Krystos!” Jim scoffed, “You’re joking!”
“We have created a special holding tank in your cargo bay that will hold one creature. Take no more than one, or it will die within hours. These creatures only thrive in special conditions”.
“Are you telling me these creatures are REAL?”, Jim asked, flabbergasted, “They actually exist!?!”
“Yes”, Zoe replied, “Unfortunately, we can no longer remain on the ship to aid you. We can only project for a short time, and I’m afraid we are too fatigued to continue. We will be watching, however, and will assist when we can”.
The two women, who had been levitating in lounge chairs, worked the controls in the arm and the chairs settled to the ground. They stepped out and walked to Zed, who was busy reading the label on his beer can. They sat on either side of him, and Zoe pulled the beer can gently from his hand and placed it on the floor.
“Hey, what are you doing?” Zed yelled.
“Zed, we have enjoyed your company”, Amber said, “We believe you will be successful in your quest for the Light, and we wish you well on your journey”.
“You’re leaving?”, Zed asked, surprised.
“Yes Zed”, Zoe answered, “We’re leaving”. The two women leaned in and gave Zed a kiss on the cheek, and then disappeared in a flash of light.
“I must leave as well Jim”, Croce said, and like the women, he disappeared from the lounge.
Zed leaned forward and picked up the beer. “What happened man? I lost track there at the end.”
Jim’s chair settled on the ground, and the creature rolled out the door and up the stairs toward the control room. Zed jumped up and ran after it.
“Jim!”, Zed yelled, “Wait up! Where’re you going?”
“If we’re orbiting Kyrstos”, Jim yelled back, “I gotta see this sunrise.”
Zed caught up with Jim in the control room, where it was already sitting in its chair and working the control panel. The wall above the console became transparent once again, and in moments, a sliver of light appeared around the edge of a planet.
The edge sparkled and shined in a million brilliant colors. As the light of the dawn crept across the surface, the light danced and gleamed in a display that dazzled the eyes.
“Wow!”, Zed said, leaning in for a better look, “The whole planet is sparkling!”
Jim stared in amazement, “It certainly is”.
“Why?”, Zed asked.
“Because, my friend”, Jim replied, an expression of awe on its face, “It’s covered in diamonds”.