(Cw: possible hallucinations/break down of reality)
Our lights cast cold flickers on rough stone and corroded metals. Where the ancient dark-green walls keep enough traces of their once-mirror polish, our reflections swell up before breaking apart on the next rough patch. A tall figure like a walking sculpture with her spindly form rising to a crested head, all purple skin and gleaming pink plates. Yes, there am I in my silver and green professorial robes.
Beside me as ever, the solid woman with soft black hair and smooth brown skin and a measured step. Jeans, t-shirt, and a harness for her gear–including a rail pistol that would break my arm if I tried to fire it. Scarcely more than half my height and three times over stronger than I am. My plates have their cracks. Her skin has its wrinkles.
“Are you certain of this?” Amara asks. She speaks Mneyarth fluently. Grafted mandibles flex within her mouth and mold air around her second tongue. I like to tease her that humans less so adapt than they break through by pure stubbornness. It’s usually shortly thereafter that she makes me both right and wrong by stubbornly adapting.
It feels like it was a day ago, or in a dream, when she first spoke my name as I speak it and I was left dumbstruck for five full seconds. She breaks my reverie by speaking it again: the hard T at the same time as the soft tch that follows, consonant echoes overlapping. “Ttchilim?” she prompts.
“That is what we told the keepers,” I answer.
“We’re not in front of the keepers anymore,” she says. “We’ve seen enough out there. We both know that warning could have something to it.”
“True,” I say, and nod. Our footsteps echo one-two, one-two, and the odd roughness of the stonework seems almost like something that could’ve grown from a cave. Free of any mortal maker. A raw embodiment of time and downfall. “Marked by the forbidden age… quite a literary sentiment. Does it not have a storyteller’s flair about it? Two professors, aging and grown arrogant in their habits as the aging do, stumbling onto something truly forsaken?”
“Oh, gods, Ttchil,” Amara laughs, “don’t go speaking us into a living story again.”
“Very well,” I say, directing my eyes forward. “The story was meant to feature a scene where the nletora and her human partner get very drunk in celebration of their findings and have steamy lesbian sex. Sadly, it will never see the light of day.”
“In your dreams,” Amara snorts.
“But, my dear Amara,” I say, slanting my walk to draw closer, “you are my dreams.”
She gives me a flat stare.
“You walked into that.”
“I walked into that,” she agrees, and breaks into an exasperated smile. Long practiced, we lean towards each other without breaking stride. A kiss, a parting, a promise. Some things can stay good forever.
We stop before a slab of a door with long-empty notches for its hinges. Amara angles her wrist computer’s light inward. Its frail blue cone catches dust motes, further doorways, and long benches of dark rock covered in pale debris.
“You didn’t answer my question,” Amara says.
“I was delaying this moment as long as possible,” I say.
The final threshold opens wide before us. The keepers of this place are a people, a species, so old and worn by time they do not bother to name themselves any longer. They say they are the keepers of their ancestors’ end. For them there will be no more beginnings. A melancholy slide over the brink, and then nothing. They’ve dwelled long below the surface of a forlorn world scorched by a star in its death-throws. Whence their lore came or how, they do not know.
“An age of calamity,” their leader told us. “The victory of woe. Disturb it only if you must. It might yet reawaken.”
It could be true. We both know that. We’ve wandered far together. There are realms of creation where the sciences break down–carried too far from Earth and Irttchol, from Sol and the star Corattra that my beloved’s people call Antares. Forces in the deep reaches of the cosmos that will not allow themselves to be quantified or constrained.
“Amara,” I say, even while my right hand drifts inside my robes to clasp the polymer grip of my hidden beam-pistol, “we’ve spoken so many times about Earth and Irttchol. Humanity and the nletora. Your ancestors, like mine, were driven from their homelands and oppressed. Yet they survived. They found allies, though flawed, and with long centuries turned the crimes of tyranny back upon it. Civil war and strife and pain. So many times it seemed all our civilizations would topple for the unatoned sins of decaying empires.”
“Yet, here we are,” Amara says.
“Here we are,” I agree. “And when our peoples met there was no contact war, as our storytellers so long feared of old. There is peace, and harmony, and the wickedness of empire lies in the tomb of the past. So many fought so we could walk the universe together. Knowing that all is well at home. Knowing that there is no more want or scarcity or injustice. That, at long last, the children of Earth and Irttchol live their true potential. Not destroyers, but builders. Not colonizers, but nurturers. Not zealots, but scholars.”
Amara shifts against me and takes my hand. “You know you don’t need to justify your decision to me,” she says. “If you don’t want to do this, we just won’t.”
I draw a deep breath. I look past the threshold to the dim shapes of a fractured tablet: one among so, so many.
“But I do,” I say at last. “On the cosmic scale, nothing is permanent. One day our peoples will pass, as the people of this world have passed. But on the scale of you and I, that is an eternity away. We will live our days in happiness and peace on the zenith. We will pass to meet infinity long before the heat-death comes.” I meet Amara’s ocher eyes. “We have made it, as far as such a feat exists or has meaning. I feel a duty to those who did not. To know. To remember.”
I incline my head to the gloom before us. “If it’s true that something of them remains here, I am ready to find it.”
“Right,” Amara says, with a cleansing breath of her own. No humor. I love her because she knows when a joke is a crime. “Then let’s begin.” She squeezes my fingers. I squeeze back.
Together we tread upon the fallen doorway, and by the light we have brought to this place too old to date by any art or science, we begin to translate.
The Qwa were an aquatic species, and the oldest of all the Elder Peoples save the Siirlinu themselves: chitinous creatures with passing resemblances to the many-legged crustaceans of a certain world called Earth. When the Elder Assembly first called on the Qwa to send representatives, it sparked what might be the only case of war by mental exhaustion recorded by all the annals of the Elders. No single culture among the Qwa felt any eagerness to answer the summons. All agreed it was necessary.
Eventually, after a full decade of awkward missives and uncomfortable chance meetings, the greater Qwa Kindred sent five representatives from the Qolekt culture. The name Qwa comes from the Qolekt language, itself named Qolekt. The lead Qolekt representative, evidently anxious or annoyed by knowing their own culture would carry the weight of the Qwa’s reputation throughout the universe, suggested that perhaps “Glanbrihaga” from the older Shoval culture would be more grandiose and thus fitting.
The ploy, if ploy it was, backfired. The Siirlinu representatives immediately spoke out insisting that they loved the name “Qwa.” Thus “Qwa” was the name the other Elders came to know and the Qolekt became the Kindred’s hereditary ambassadors.
Perhaps some kindness of chance or serendipity was at play, for the Qolekt proved as good a cross-section of Qwa cultures as any could reasonably hope. Homeworlds situated between the Shoval, the Qad, and others left the Qolekt with a mishmash of customs, traditions, and beliefs from throughout the Qwa Kindred. Their approach to body ornaments showed this blend in grand style.
Qwa shells sported a number of prongs and a second section studded with antennae which sprouted just after hatching. Many Qolekt chose to adorn these sections with plates and metallic bands which might be bolted directly into the carapace for greater security. Qolekt “tattoos” consisted of long-term chemical applications to the fleshy matter just beneath the carapace, causing it to grow in different colors—a technique inherited from the Shoval. Sanding and engraving offered further chances for body-modding. The Qolekt themselves had a complex secondary language of rank and profession markings their people carved into their shells as they aged and gained experience.
The Qolekt preferred to keep this information as visible as possible in order to ensure that they didn’t have to answer any more questions than necessary. Like many other Qwa cultures, they commonly had their own names carved into their facial plates. The Qolekt wrote this in the Siirlinu script rather than their own. They preferred not to teach their language’s characters even to other Qwa–for they Qolekt believed these sacred markings to be inherited from an ancient power which never gave permission to pass its gift to non-Qolekt.
The mystical and occult thrived in nearly every Qwa culture. Most had at least one beloved myth about a hero figure, one named Tarqel for the Qolekt, who journeyed into ancient ruins and spirit realms to reshape themselves by the experience of unknowable things. The Qwa felt an early fascination for—
Translators’ note: this passage, compiled from three tablets found in a collapsed alcove of the atrium at the center of the wallward side of Grid D6, here shifts to varying combinations of thirty-one characters in a completely different script. Shows some resemblance to the samples gifted to us by our Fetaaran colleagues. Cannot yet translate, so about three paragraphs of material are missing here.
–however, a seer whose name was lost to history gleaned some insight about the nature of [Untranslated word or phrase. Eerily sharp lines. Script is an odd mutation of the previous resembling the Fetaaran samples. Characters are written with waves, jagged edges, and other patterns in their outlines. Significance unknown]. After this the Qolekt came to fear and distrust their emissaries.
Ritual served as a regular part of life in many Qwa societies. The Qad, perhaps the greatest outside influence on Qolekt mysticism, held the custom that every member of a community had the right to bring forth spirits in public areas and commune with them. Children were initiated in this by their parents, and often had beings from the [Resilient Maze? Translation unclear. Seems to be an adaptation from another language, likely the best attempt at a literal Qolekt translation of words with layers of meaning their own words had no perfect equal to.] The Qad had a game called Elekek where the spirit-friends to the Qwa wove streamers of light and shadow. The Qad players strove to seize the streamers of shadow while dodging the light ones. Five shadow-ribbons seized made a winner, but only if they had not been touched by the light more than twice.
The Qolekt held that spirits existed by different rules and could be far too dangerous to dwell among children. While most Qolekt adults practiced mysticism, especially attempting to hone the gift of foresight and the ability to mutate their bodies, they did this within reinforced buildings of many concentric stone walls and stone supports. The stairways to each level were at the opposite side of the rings from the previous flight, and each layer carried the strongest wards Qolekt spellcraft could muster.
These were, by all accounts, ominous spaces with dim lighting provided by tiny portals to some realm of unnatural radiance. Tunnels in corkscrew shapes and rectangular mazes, too small by the end for even a Qwa infant to travel them, burrowed through the walls to nowhere. The Qolekt sages wrote that it was best to assume the tunnels went nowhere. The other answers raised questions. “An question we cannot answer,” the proverb ran, “is an invitation to answers we cannot abide.”
All Qwa had four sets of eyes: three eyes in front, two along either flank, and three facing backward upon their hind sections. Deep recesses encased all to protect them from harm. Whether seismic activity, asteroid impacts, or something else, the oceans of the ancient Qwa homeworld on Vetliil were full of lightweight yet large and razor-sharp stony debris. In the depths lay many ancient hulks—of metal, of crystal, of materials that neither the Qwa nor any other Elder People could analyze. Shoval architecture included submerged regions of miniature sculptures with fine sediment mixed into the water and stabilized by energy fields to embody these ancient domains. The Shoval swam and frolicked there.
The Qolekt warned that the deep was a place to be felt, but never embraced too quickly. Its lulling, they said, could numb the unwary to the dangers it birthed.
Translators’ Note: large portions of the archives seem to be missing here. As far as we can piece together, the following is the earliest surviving follow-on. It’s the tail end of a glimpse into the Qwa’s relations with the other Elder Peoples. We did find one extant passage of about five paragraphs in Grid C2 of Room 9. It’s written in the same unknown language as the tablets from Atrium D6. Must contact the Fetaarans. Perhaps joint translation effort? Fragment follows:
The Osclewiirn, likely because the Qwa could be so standoffish, were famously more comfortable around the insular crustaceans than any others.
Translators’ Note: this is the only context provided. The archives seem to assume a great deal of knowledge about the Elder Peoples that might have been common at the time. Must be wary of forming conclusions from pure speculation, however.
The feeling was quasi-mutual. The Qwa seemed to have some sympathy for the Osclewiirn’s airheaded ways, and would even defend them on the Elder Assembly if the need arose. However, the Qwa did not extend this to working with the Osclewiirn on a regular basis. The Qwa refused to work with anyone on a regular basis, even other Qwa. A vital distinction here: Qwa could be, and often were, sociable and friendly in leisure. While as with any sapient people there were plenty of neurodivergent Qwa who flouted the common way, it was true that most preferred solitude when doing anything they considered work rather than play. Which was which? That, too, was personal preference!
Each member thus became adept at using their claws, and cybernetic attachments integrated with those claws, to perform the full range of tasks needed in their own lives.
They had a rare leg configuration, with four heavier legs on the underside in addition to their claws, and six lighter ones sprouting along the top of their lengthy carapaces. This was an evolution they appeared to have picked up at some distant point to allow them to navigate tunnels with greater ease. Qwa buildings were often nearly impossible for non-Qwa to navigate—the exceptions being the Cuoth, who had much more outlandish architecture, the Siirlinu, who could shapeshift as needed, and the emissaries of [Same untranslatable word or phrase as written at the end of the Atrium D6 tablets], who relished the chance to warp reality around them so that they could walk fully upright.
The Qwa could do nothing to stop or redress this behavior—a conscious assertion of superiority which, though obnoxious, was not remotely close to illegal—for they had no psionic gifts to speak of. That is, there were Qwa psionics, but they were so rare that it was impossible to look at them as indicative of a species-wide potential for such abilities.
Translators’ Note: more data needed before this is applied to the rest of the Elder Peoples, but it seems that the Qwa, at least, had an incomplete understanding of psionics. Current theory–as far as Amara could find in a quick Unet search–suggests that any sapient person can become a psionic by exploring themselves in the right way. Perhaps something about the Qolekt and other Qwa cultures hampered this? Again, caution about speculation. Should consult with psionic scholars. Passages continue:
This made them much more cautious when it came to those Elder Peoples who frequently had psionics. The Qwa as a whole openly refused to have dealings with those like the Nilplid who had baked psionic potential into their social structure. While the Siirlinu and others had their doubts about this, they did not believe that it would be right to force the Qwa to accommodate psionics when such entities made them so uncomfortable. The Qwa were also famous for their extremely long lives, which—
Translators’ Note: there are mentions of tens of thousands of cycles. However, it is functionally impossible for us to translate these passages without a way to relate them to the time-measures of at least one contemporary species. While the archives mention a concept identical to light years as we understand them, this is treated solely as a unit of distance. All mentions of the time taken to travel these distances are, of course, in relative time units. We’d have to translate the time to translate the time… ah, joy of joys. Passages continue:
The Qwa were not resentful of the duties they took on through the Elder Assembly. However, they seemed very much of the opinion that it would be best for everyone if they were allowed to attend to their work and everyone else attended to theirs. Conversation was considered a luxury reserved for free time in most Qwa cultures. They were not irritable in any real sense, but found it difficult to focus when others were around.
All sapient species tend to obsess about certain things. For the Qolekt, the Qad, and other Qwa societies, obsession had become the norm and indeed the mortar of society itself. Qwa might wait years before choosing a subject to study. It was crucial to ensure they enjoyed the one they chose because they’d likely be unable to tear themselves away from it even if they came to hate it absolutely. The consistency with which the Qwa hurled themselves at uncomfortable experiences, as if to wear these experiences out of existence by repeated assaults, was so pronounced that even the Siirlinu sometimes spoke out against it. Whenever it was addressed, the Qwa representatives promised, in polite but stilted terms, that they would see what could be done about it. They invariably returned a few [months or years? Decades? Unclear] later to say that they believed solving this problem would be more trouble than it was worth and, additionally, cause undo strain upon their people.
Qwa homes were intricate constructs with numerous tweaks to support the desires of their makers. It was often remarked, and truly, that the Qwa shared a love of places far more than they could the love of people. Any given home might be a bewildering collection of ramps, vertical shafts, and rooms filled by such furniture as a Qwa body could inhabit. Qwa possessed the resources, the time, and the industrial technology to fabricate truly gargantuan homes, and devoted most of their spare time to this pursuit. In the process, they created their own tombs. When a Qwa felt ready to die, they simply sealed off their home’s entrances and filled their final hours with their favorite obsessions until the oxygen ran out or toxins built up enough for them to pass away in the night.
Translators’ Note: much still to collate. However, we’ve established a chronological endpoint for the collections. A small chamber which we’ve labeled as the Sanctuary. Walls still show traces of melt/running as though it were carved out with beam or plasma weapons. Piles of tablets inside an open sarcophagus. Hastily etched. Qwa archives reference high technology at least on par with our own. Assumed the stone tablets had spiritual significance, but then, why choose them for emergency records?
Regardless, haste of entries leaves little recoverable. Excerpts are as follows:
At the time the—
Translators’ Note: again, phrase from the D6 tablets. We’re beginning to hate its lines. Something about its shapes seems to gnaw us. Something from the outside glinting in our lights…
—declared the Elder Wars, there were less than ten thousand Qwa psionics out of the whole population—which, owing to high birth rates and the species’ ancient history, likely numbered in the low quintillions.
By tacit agreement, the Qwa provided the Elder Allegiance’s primary manufacturing base during the Elder Wars. For reasons known only to Themselves, the Enemy rarely attacked this base directly; they would destroy the Qwa along with any others when they overtook a world entirely, of course, but they did not attempt to destroy Qwa industrial centers in order gain those frontline victories earlier.
Translators’ Note: long gap. Final legible entry is as follows:
The Qwa had begun shipping new war material directly to the front-line systems a few light-years from Tra Vid Jog. The war against the Enemy’s emissaries reached a stable stalemate. The—
Translators’ Note: again, that evil scrawl! Something reverberating through the walls. Humming, pulsating, metallic undertones. Distant tremors. Surely tremors.
—still refused to appear. Allegiance high command became convinced that the emissaries never represented anyone higher than themselves, and the whispered Nemesis existed only as a terror tactic invented by these “underlings” without a master. Once the Vamok mustered enough forces behind the front, their counterstroke would turn the tide of the war. And the Qwa, as ever, would live on and thrive.
Final Note: Tablets placed in secure containment at the Vdelit Institute this morning. Making a typo run as I add this note before sending our translations and other findings out for peer review. This endeavor has been much more draining than we expected. There are other archaeologists and other translators. Lean on them. You’re not to contact us for anything except well-wishes for the next six standard months.
Amara mentioned a vacation to Canis Majoris. I think it’s a wonderful idea. -T