The world came screaming back to him, with a bright flash. His lungs filled with air for the first time in centuries. He had no idea what was happening, or where he had just been. All he knew was that it had been a long time since he last felt this body, and that filled him with a sense of dread. As his eyes finally regained the ability to focus, and his limbs heeded his brain's commands, he noticed that all was far from well.
And there was a little floating thing with a single glowing mechanical eye staring at him.
"Okay. Listen.... this is gonna freak you out, but stay with me..." It said.
"No, fuck you! Who are you?!"
"Oh.... good. I got the right one. Last time, I woke up someone else's human. That was embarrassing. She's still upset with me for that mix-up."
"Why am I back here? And why can't I remember where I was a minute ago?"
"Like I said... this is gonna freak you out, but you need to listen. You've been dead for a few hundred years... maybe a couple thousand. Nobody really knows, anymore."
"Wait... so did I just come from..."
"The Afterlife? Yes. But we can't really have you remembering something like that and telling everyone who hasn't been there yet, now can we? Mind if I finish?"
"Sure, I guess."
"Thank you. Anyhow. You're in unbelievable danger right now. Things have changed, down here.... or up here. Whatever, you get the idea. But, as soon as you can run, we need to get moving. The Eliksni are going to track us down, and I just discovered that resurrecting you is REALLY exhausting. I don't want to have to do it, again."
"Eliksni. Aliens. They really hate you guys, by the way."
"No, the other part."
"Oh.... bad news is, I forcibly pulled you out of the Afterlife. Good news is, you're immortal as long as I'm alive. You can thank and blame the Traveler for both of those things, however you see fit."
"Yeah, but who are you?"
"I'm a Ghost. *Your* Ghost, specifically. Now, we really have to be going. I'm detecting a scavenging party about 2km out. We can talk, later. Right now, we have to find some shelter so I can figure out what exactly to do with you, and build you some kind of armor."
"Fair enough. Let's go, then."
The pair set off to find whatever shelter the area could offer, but it didn't look like any was going to present itself any time soon.
Run-down buildings on the horizon looked promising, but the Ghost assured its new friend that they were far from safe. The Eliksni would be drawn to any form of technology. Few places on Earth were safe from them. There was nothing but desert all around, and the sky was gray and threatening rain. Near as the newly re-awakened human could tell, he was still where he died. The name of the city escaped him for the moment, but he knew it was his home. The shape of what was left of the city's skyline was all too familiar, even in its delapidated state, and the mountains to the Northwest -he wasn't sure how he so easily knew which direction Northwest was- brought with him a sense of what little happiness he could muster. He knew that must be the way to safety.
"Ghost.... the mountains. I have a good feeling about those."
"Oh, the mountains. You know, I can't recall any Eliksni ever going up there. Not sure why."
"I don't know how I know this.... but there were only a few houses up there. Not much in the way of anything. If it's technology they were looking for, they wouldn't have found it up there. By the way... can we think of a new name for you? Calling you "Ghost" seems a little..... I dunno.... racist?"
"Lots of your kind rename us. Some of us pick our own names. I was waiting to meet you before picking a name. What sounds good to you?"
"I'm not sure why, but I really like the name Ridgeway. I think I want to call you that."
The Ghost's shell took on a shape that seemed as close to blushing as such a being were capable of. It knew something it wasn't quite willing to share with the human.
"I like that a lot. My name is Ridgeway now." It said.
"Great. So, how about those mountains?"
"Sure, but let me fix you up some more fitting clothes. Let's see..... some cotton fibers for a shemagh scarf.... plenty of synthetic material around for a softshell jacket... let's sturdy up those pants, and gather some nomex and leather for a nice pair of gloves and a set of boots. Bam. You look like a proper mountaineer, now. Well.... for the time you last lived in, anyhow."
The new clothing just materialized around him, directed by a faint beam of light coming from Ridgeway's eye. It looked familiar and made him happy. As he began to walk forward toward the mountains, Ridgeway stopped him with a sharp warning.
"Pick that up!"
"That rifle you just stepped on! You're going to need that thing."
He reached down and scooped up a mangled old weapon. It barely even looked like one, anymore. Bent and twisted metal components were corroded beyond hope, and all the composite parts had long since rotted away.
Ridgeway promptly cast that same beam of light upon it, and the rifle was soon good as brand new, with a full load of ammunition. The human instinctively pulled back on the bolt, to prime the chamber and ready it for use, should he need it.
"That's a classic. An ancient FN SCAR Mk16. It's not much by today's standards, but it'll do for now. Just don't expect to drop anything tougher than an average Dreg with less than the entire magazine. The world moved past ballistic weapons, long after you died... and you're going to need something modern to fight the Eliksni."
"How are you doing all this? The clothes... the rifle... hell, me. You're just making things happen."
"I can reconstruct things. None of my kind are entirely sure how, but we can. It's my gift from the Traveler, and I am your gift."
"Is the Traveler a god or something?"
"In a manner of speaking. I only knew him... or her.... or them... for a moment before the silence fell. The Traveler is resting, now. Not dead, but not exactly alive."
"This is too much. I think I need a moment, Ridge."
"Just as well. We have a long walk ahead of us... and you're probably still not fully processing everything yet."
On they trekked towards the mountains. By the time the desert vanished behind them, and the sights changed to trees and snow, night had already fallen. Ridgeway stood watch as his human went to sleep for a few hours. In the morning, they would rise and search for a way out. A way to the others. And maybe some day, a way back to the Traveler.
"I think you'll be a Hunter when you wake up. It's what you would have wanted in your old life..."
-Chapter 1: The Open Road-
He awoke before the sun peered over the mountains. Nature was alive and well. Gone was the silence of the valley floor. Up here, the wind moved the aspen leaves with a steady and gentle rustling, and birds sang with joy and carefree whimsy.
The human grabbed the rifle and set out to find something to eat. Rising up from his rest against a nearby tree, he wondered at what had happened to him, yesterday. Was that real? Was any of this real? Was he back wherever he had come from?
"Good morning, human. You're probably hungry, so I've taken the liberty of scouting ahead of you. There's a bird nest nearby, and more than a few fruit trees. It'll be a bit until we're able to take game down, unless you like your meat raw. I've also made you a knife. It'll come in handy for a lot of things."
"Thanks. Let's get started, then."
"Would you like to know more abut everything? I don't want to overwhelm you too soon."
"Might as well just give me the run-down, now. I don't want to be caught off guard if shit hits the fan."
"Well, as I said before, as long as I'm alive, I can bring you back as many times as I need to. So don't worry about getting killed, again.
"Yeah, but WHY am I back? What happened while I was dead?"
"Some time after your death, humanity reached out to the stars and began to colonize the other planets. I believe you'd sent manned expeditions as far as the moons of Jupiter when the Traveler arrived."
"But, how? I mean, Earth is the only planet life can exist on, as far as I know."
"The Traveler brought every solid planet in the system to life. The gasseous ones had their moons transformed. Humanity flourished in its wake, and experienced a Golden Age for centuries, until the Collapse."
"No, they came after. It seems they were following the Traveler from their homeworlds. Everything we've uncovered about them suggests that they worshipped the Traveler, and thought it was leading them to new lands. When they arrived, they found that the Traveler had already gone to sleep. We are unsure what happened. Not even the Ghosts know. But, the Eliksni despise humanity. They think you're holding their deity hostage, and they're trying to re-awaken it."
"Let me guess..... by killing us all?"
"Yes. By killing you. They've found you re-awakened a bit vexing, however. Most of them run after realizing they're facing one of the immortal humans. Your new purpose is to protect those without the Traveler's gifts... to rebuild humanity, and restore yourselves to your former glory. To fend off extinction. To this end, you have abilities, you know."
"Really? Tell me more about that. I'd have thought being unkillable was awesome enough."
Ridgeway brought up a holographic image of people doing amazing things. A robed, blue-skinned woman conjuring a massive purple explosion... a cyborg erecting a force-field to protect his comrades... a wild-looking man slashing his enemies with a knife made of electricity. People falling in battle and rising again once the dust settled to begin the fight, anew.
"These are your kind, now. They go by many different names. Some gather in groups. Others are lone protectors of villages with no organization. You are split into three types... Warlocks, Titans, and Hunters. You're a Hunter, by the way."
"Am I, now? So, what's my job as a Hunter?"
"You are an explorer and a rogue. You are able to survive for long periods of time without support. You are a navigator and a scout. You are swift and hard to find. And you are terrifying to behold, in battle. The Eliksni fear you more than the others. Should we ever find a group to attach to, you will be the point of the spear in any unit. Acting in the absense of orders from a leader, and carving a path through countless enemies for your team."
"So, what can I do? I saw all of that you showed me. Am I the man with the knife?"
"Yes. But you can do other things, too. For now, though, let's stick to the basics. I believe you call that set of powers the "Bladedancer". You weild a form of the Light -the power that gave me life- known as The Arc. Electricity, if you will."
"Okay, so then, teach me."
"I don't have to. You already know. The first few times, it may be a bit hard to control... but with focus and training, you will be able to unleash your powers at will."
The human sat down for a moment to let it all sink in. He thought deeply on everything, and tried to imagine himself as the man in that image the Ghost showed him. As he concentrated, a tingle ran along his skin, and he could smell the sour odor of ozone in the air.
As he closed his eyes and willed the power to the surface, a blue flash filled his vision, a dazzling explosion of pure energy surrounded him. As quickly as it came, it left. Disappointed in his inability to maintain it, he gave up, determined to try again, later.
"You'll get it, eventually." Ridgeway reassured him.
"That felt amazing... but painful. Does it always hurt?"
"At first. Most of you get used to it. Often, you're already in a desperate situation when you have to do it, so the pain is relative."
"Let's wait... I really do need something to eat."
They set off to gather food. The serenity of the mountain made it seem as though all was well with the world. The crises Ridgeway had told him about were the last thing on his mind. All that surrounded him was peace and nature. It was hard to imagine a fight for existence was going on, right this moment.
The human had gathered wild fruits and a few eggs, and had his breakfast, before moving on.
"We've got to find some kind of transportation. Anything we choose won't last long, and the enemy will find us more easily. But remember, you've got an advantage now. Me."
"I gather all that. But, don't cars need fuel? If we're really as far into what I see as the future, shouldn't gasoline be a thing of the past?"
"Yes.... but synthesizing petrol will be the easiest thing I do, all day. And most of the vehicles around us are still mostly complete. Reversing the damage of time is relatively simple for me."
"Then let's get to work. I still don't know how I know things, when I can't remember a thing about my life before the Afterlife.... before this life. But, I think a few of the houses up here might be familiar. Let's go poke around?"
"Lead the way, Hunter. Get used to hearing that, by the by."
The silent road, cracked and broken by time and the elements stretched out before them. As they went on, they began to see the remnants of civilization. Many of the houses were still mostly intact. Inside, furniture had rotted away, or destroyed by animals.
The human rifled through the first few houses they came across. Ridgeway, all too happy to repair a field pack and some gear they found. A compass didn't seem all that necessary, but he took it anyhow. A few homes had ancient ballistic ammo cases stashed away inside.
"You think these are right for this rifle?" The human asked.
"No.... but it doesn't matter. Let me have those. We may need the material components and chemicals, later on."
The cases vanished as the Ghost deconstructed them, molecule by molecule and stored them away.
"What did you do?"
"I broke them down into data. I can rebuild new ammo, later, using what they were made of. You'll find there's a scientific explanation for most of what I can do. Other things, not so much."
Breaking down the door to the garage, the human found an old car inside. It was nearly rusted down to nothing, under the aluminum skin, and nothing remained of the interior. It looked hopeless, until he remembered the things he'd already seen Ridgeway do.
As he was thinking, the Ghost had already begun his work. Within a few minutes, the car was mostly brand-new-looking. He'd have marvelled at what this strange lifeform had done, except that at the forefront of his mind, the fact that he was alive was already astounding enough.
The shape and look of the car was familiar. Something from his own time. Nothing too special, but it was better than walking.
"That's.... let me check.... hm. A Subaru Forester, from about the mid-2000's.... Common Era, of course. We haven't used that reckoning in a long time... and the Collapse kind of threw everyone's counting of the years off. Who knows how long it's been wasting away. But, now it's ready. Should start right up."
The human got in and tried to turn the key, but nothing happened.
"You were saying?"
"Oh, dear me.... forgot to charge the battery. There, that should do."
This time, the car fired to life. It was smooth and perfect. His body knew how to drive just as easily as it knew what to do with the rifle. For all the damage time had done to everything around him, it didn't seem to affect what his muscles had "remembered" from his former life. After coaxing the door to the garage open, he pulled the car out and onto the broken road, leaving the mountain behind.
The Ghost floated in the air above the passenger seat, pensively examining everything around as it passed by the windows, and giving the human occasional directions.
They stopped every 200 or so miles so the Ghost could gather the material he needed to fill the fuel tank and repair any damage done by friction and use. This car only had to get them to the Eastern coast of the continent, and then it could be discarded, once they reached the hub for the remaining humans in this area of the world. A place once called Fort Drum. An airplane would have been faster, but far more detectable... despite there being an international airport and a former military air base near where Ridgeway had found his human, the choice to travel by land was far better. And a small, unarmored car would more easily evade or outrun most of what the Eliksni could chase them in than a heavy military vehicle.
They drove a long and lonely road for well over a half a day. The desert gave way to mountains larger and steeper and more alive than the one they'd spent their first night on. They stopped only to rest and eat. Miraculously, trouble had yet to find them.
"I've been meaning to ask you, Ridge... if you can rebuild things like this car, why didn't the Ghosts just stand society back up, and restore people killed by the aliens? Why go to all this trouble of bringing back people who have been dead for centuries? It doesn't make sense. Not that I'm complaining anymore. I've kinda just accepted it, by now."
"You'd have to ask the Traveler. As far as I know, I've only been empowered to bring back certain humans."
"But you said you raised the wrong one before you found me."
"Oh, I did, didn't I? Is....... is it okay if I tell you about that, some other time?"
"Still a little sheepish about it, eh?" The human showed his first glint of humor since coming back.
"No.... well, yes, but that's not why. Some things you just aren't ready for, yet. You've only been re-awakened for a couple days, so far."
"My brain hurts a little as it is, so I suppose that's fine. But... like, do you know anything about me? Who I was, before?"
"The Traveler told us nothing, except that we'd know our humans when we found them. We were brought to life with only a few scraps of knowledge, and the Traveler didn't have time to go into any details. Everything else, I learned as I searched." Ridgeway danced around the answer as best as he could.
The human's mind would collapse if he knew everything. The same reason why none of them were allowed to remember what came between this life and the one before. It would break them to know, and the Traveler knew it before this project began. An Atheist discovering there was something after death... a religious man being told there was nothing but void... both outcomes had severe consequences on the limitations of a flesh-and-blood human psyche.
"So, we're both making this up as we go, I guess?"
"How is that any different from your first time around?"
"Well, back then, I assume I had a mother and father, and other people. Now, all I have is you, a gun, and a car."
"And tattered scraps of a memory of your previous life. Only what you need to survive in this new reality. Same with my power. I can only repair you, and what you need to survive and fight."
"I think I'm starting to get it."
"Hey..... let's stop here. I'm detecting signatures that look..... well, human, actually. We should check it out."
A small run-down city came over the crest of the next hill. A sign worn away by time marked its boundary. No activity in sight, but the Ghost was insistent it had spotted at least the evidence of human presence.
The human in the car began to steel himself for what may come. He had hoped that humans hadn't changed much in the time he'd been gone. But he prepared himself for anything, no matter how shocking.
He pulled the car to a stop, outside the first building that looked recently used, and got out, slinging the rifle to his back and taking as non-threatening a posture as he could... did he even really know what that meant, now? A lot can change in only a decade, but he has been dead for centuries, at least. Nonetheless, he called out.
"Um..... he..... hello? Anyone here? I promise I'm not an alien. At least, my buddy here tells me I'm not."
"Look, I know there are people here, okay? I'm here to help, and it's been a REALLY long time since I've seen another human. Don't make me ask my Ghost to scan you down."
A voice called back.
"Put your hands up where I can see them, or I'll shoot you dead where you stand!"
"Now, that was rude..."
A loud crack broke the still of the afternoon air. But before he heard the crack, something had run into his midsection, and nearly took him to the ground. It was soon obvious to him that he'd been shot. Ridgeway vanished in a puff of luminescence.
"Hey, I need you!"
Ridgeway's voice spoke to him, but from inside his mind, this time.
"Okay, crash course. I need to protect myself, so when you're fighting, I'm inside your head. No good can come of me staying outside. I die, you go back to whatever you were doing before I brough you back... even if it's nothing! Got it? Now, solve this, but try not to kill anyone unless you have to! The Light will heal you over time. Just don't take too much damage, too fast."
The rifle came down off the human's back, and he dashed for cover. The movement felt effortless and natural. He scanned his surroundings and looked for how best to proceed. It was then that he caught a flash of sunlight reflected off a rifle scope for just a moment. Now he knew where to go.
"Right ahead of you. About 150 meters away in that storefront. You saw him, right?"
"Yeah... but how do I get there without getting shot again."
"You don't listen, do you? Don't worry about getting shot. Just don't get shot TOO MANY times, all at once. Your wound is already healed."
"I'll be damned, it is." The human remarked after touching the spot the bullet hit.
"Just remember, you're faster than you ever remember being. And jumping works a lot differ...." The human lept from cover up onto a nearby roof without even a second thought, and dashed from building to building. ".... ently. You know what? You got this. Imma shut up, now."
In a flash, he covered the distance between his car and the building the shot came from. It was unreal to him how quickly he moved, now. But what came next was all the more unbelieveable. In trying to quickly think out how best to get inside, he was already there, with only a brief flash of blue in between the roof and the interior.
In the spanse of but a thought, he was down on one knee with his rifle trained on his attacker.
"Don't make me shoot you, friend. I have no idea how I just did all that, and killing you is only going to freak me out, worse." He said to the back of the shooter.
"Okay, okay.... you've got me dead to rights here. I'm assuming you're one of those Risen we keep hearing about. Whatever you're here to take, just do it, and leave us be." The man said, slowly raising his hands in a gesture of surrender.
"Take? The hell would I want from you? Just drop your weapon and hear me out. And what the fuck is a Risen?"
"You mean you're not one of those dead guys brought back by the Traveler?"
"Well, it happens that I am... but that was only a couple days ago, and you're the first human I've seen since then. You've caught me one-hundred percent clueless about anything."
"We call you the Risen. I've never seen one of you, but I've heard stories. Now, what do you want?"
His fear was understandable. Going more than a day, and covering hundreds of miles without one human sighting was all the evidence the Risen needed to know he wasn't dealing with the same world he'd left. This man had probably been on the run from the Eliksni for his entire life. No doubt, he's lost loved ones to the aliens.
"If I may interject, here...." Ridgeway phased back into the physical world in a dazzle of light, leaving a shimmering trail behind him. "... you shot my human. I think you owe him an apology."
"Oh, that? I'm fine as long as he doesn't do it, again."
"I'm sure. But that doesn't mean I'm not angry at him."
"I still don't know if I like either of you, OR want you in my town!" The man shouted. "Now, what's your name, and what do you want?"
"Me? Well, I don't know. At least not yet. Just call me Nameless, for now. And this is my Ghost, Ridgeway. As for what I want... just trying to make sure you're not in any immediate danger."
"I wasn't until you showed up. Now that you're here, we are likely to be raided by aliens, any moment. They're really good at tracking your kind, from what I hear."
"He's telling the truth. But it was MY decision to stop here. How many of you are there? You're coming with us if we can manage it." Ridgeway interrupted.
"I am not. This is our home, and we'll hold it or die trying."
"The Eliksni will eventually find you and overrun, and kill you. There's no way you can hold out against them. With or without our presence."
There was a crack like the sound of thunder directly overhead, followed by a rumble and the sound of unearthly engines, which served to end the conversation. Even without having ever seen the Eliksni, the Risen knew that meant they were here.
There was no more time for talking.
"A Skiff. Over the town. Put your game face on."
The Risen dashed out of the building to face his enemy. The craft was the size of a large house. No wings at all. No visible means of staying aloft. Yet it hovered about 50 feet off the ground. The air around pushed and pulled at him, over and over. Six circular frames along the bottom opened up and two creatures with four arms each, looked down and lept from the craft, followed by four more with only two arms and a pair of nubs below. One of the four-armed creatures raised a weapon and fired at the Risen, who promptly vanished in a flash of light, letting the energy bolt sail past, harmlessly.
The Risen appeared behind the leader, and held down the trigger of his rifle until it stopped firing. The creature lurched forward and fell to the ground, dead. As he removed the empty magazine, he realized that he didn't have another one on him.
"A little help here?" He said to his Ghost as he ran for cover.
Without a reply, white light filled the void in the mag, and when it faded, 30 fresh rounds appeared inside. The Risen dropped down into a soccer-style slide to conceal himself behind a broken wall. He slammed the magazine back into the rifle, pulled back the bolt knob, and popped up to fire at the others. Before he could take aim, another bolt of crackling energy found his neck and shoulder, throwing him back. The world faded without giving him time to think.
But then that flash... the first thing he remembered about his new life... the sudden gasp as air filled his lungs again... and he was back in the fight.
Without a single moment of introspect, a scintillating cascade of electricity covered him. He drew his knife, dripping with sparks and arcs and dashed toward the aliens, a bright blue corona enveloping him. He easily cut through three of the two-armed creatures, causing the survivors to turn and run, shouting in an alien lauguage. He didn't know what they were saying, but he felt their fear in the air. It was almost tactile. They ran until the skiff scooped them up and flew off.
"You handled that pretty well, I'd say." Ridgeway congratulated.
"Did I..... I was dead for a second back there, wasn't I?"
"Oh, like it's your first time. Or last."
"It felt... different, this time."
"That's because you can't actually die anymore. Your consciousness doesn't go anywhere. The Light holds what makes you you in place until I can work my.... err... magic."
"That is both fascinating and disturbing, at the same time."
The local man stepped out as soon as it was safe. His face red with anger.
"That's the kind of hell you Risen bring down on us!"
"We just saved your lives!" The Ghost exclaimed.
"If you hadn't come here, they'd have never know this town was occupied! Now they'll come back in force!"
The Risen spoke up.
"How many people live here?"
"It's just me, my wife, and our son."
"I have five seats. More than enough. Get in, and we'll find safety. Bring whatever fits in the back of that car. I'm your best bet."
"Fine. It's not like we'll last long if they come back."