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From Here On Out

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The first question on his mind was “What is this thing?” but the first question on his tongue was a dopey “Huh?” In front of him was a small white being, slightly larger than his head. It was floating off the ground and looking around. Large black eyes complimented the small smile on its face, and he got the sense that it was anticipating something or someone. Just below it, a seemingly decorative hook of some sort lay on the ground, looking strangely clean and pristine considering the state of the rest of the sanctuary.

Ducking behind a rock, he opted to continue his observations of the being. He himself was by no means a large creature - in fact, while he was reasonably large for his kind, his people in general fell below the galaxy average in terms of height - but this… white thing seemed downright puny, even smaller than the Flyaxes that tended to buzz around spacecraft. His mind drifted back to the start of his mission, as he sincerely hoped this… blob could give him the answers he sought.

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“We are appointing you to discover the cause of the Galactic Lighthouse’s dimness, and we expect a full report as soon as possible!” he had muttered to himself as he flew through the expanse of space, mimicking the self-righteous speech of the adviser to King Hallabranth, the one who had “volunteered” him (more like volun-told, if he was being honest) to undertake this expedition. Sure, he had some slight renown from his previous travels as a space-faring adventurer and treasure hunter, but he supposed that the kingdom really must be desperate if they were bothering to try and hire him of all people. From what he had gathered, their previous attempts to uncover this information had ended in failure, and now they were resorting to recruiting random opportunists looking to make a quick buck in the hopes of making progress. However, in his case, this was more about paying off the fine that he had accrued from speeding in their airspace than any sort of noble expedition.

“You will be rewarded handsomely for your trouble and your debt forgotten. Now, if we might see your face…?” A hand had reached out, almost brushing his scarf before he’d reflexively jumped backwards.

“N-no,” he’d hastily answered, backing away. “That’s fine. I’ll head out immediately.” He had bowed quickly and taken his leave, escaping before any more questioning hands decided to invade his personal space. He had his reasons for protecting his identity, and for the most part, his work spoke for itself; he achieved the desired results, and so most people didn’t question him, but there were still some who couldn’t understand the concept of privacy, like it was their Siren-given right to know everything they desired about everyone. He hated those kinds of people.

He shifted the hat and scarf that obscured his features before gently guiding his tiny ship toward the imposing asteroid belt surrounding the Anamor planetoid, the small chunk of rock where the Galactic Lighthouse was said to stand, an unsleeping sentinel illuminating the endless darkness of the cosmos. Yet, as he was well aware of, something was amiss; there was no guiding light permeating the rocky barricade, and he felt his hopes dim as he realized that he would indeed have to make it through with only the light of his headlights to guide the way. However, he was far from inexperienced at flying. Strafing through gaps in the unyielding rock and navigating the seemingly endless sea of spiked shrapnel, he managed to weave through the barrier and arrive on the other side.

Upon arrival, he found that the once mighty light was dim, the planetoid destroyed, and as a quick visual sweep suggested, no signs of life anywhere. Still, he carefully parked his ship and jumped onto the cold hard ground, dust and dirt unsettling and flying away at his landing. His footsteps on the ground were the only sounds he could hear at the moment, an eerie feeling creeping up his spine. He looked around from where he stood in front of the Lighthouse, jotting down notes on a small notebook. The void of space had all but consumed this place; dust claimed residence on the Lighthouse's once pristine walls, and many of the windows were shattered and cracked, with hazardous glass being all that remained.

It filled him with a strange sort of sadness to see this wonder of the galaxy defiled in such a way. He could never call himself religious, but even he woke up every morning and prayed to the Sirens for good luck before setting sail. To see their gift to the galaxy go uncared for in such a way left him with a profound sense of emptiness, as if he had somehow personally failed the Sirens by being unable to avert the tragic fate of the structure before him.

The sound of something clanking to the ground shook him from his thoughts, and he turned to face the source of the noise. Making his way over the rubble, testing his footing with each step, he’d come upon this thing. He’d turned away from it to write more in his notebook, scribbling furiously as he recounted how he’d come here.

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He was so lost in thought that he didn’t even notice that the tiny creature had snuck up behind him. “♤¤☆~” it shouted (if it could even be considered shouting, he supposed, since it sounded more like a loud whisper than anything else). “Ahhhhhhhhh!” he exclaimed, taken by surprise, and promptly fell over as his balance suddenly shifted. “Oof,” he mumbled, before turning back to the surprising little being behind him. “Who are you?” he asked gently, hoping the tiny one floating in front of him could understand his words.

After the Ancient Sirens had given the Mermaidon Galaxy the gift of the Lighthouse and space travel suddenly became far more feasible, many leaders from across the galaxy, from emperors and kings to scholars and chieftains, had gathered together in order to decide what to do with all of the newfound freedom that their peoples had. One of their decisions had been to fund galaxy-wide communication techniques, and thanks to technological advancements brought on by this meeting, a universal translation tool had been developed for use by all creatures in the galaxy. Everyone who was anyone had one, as on most planets, the small earpiece cost little more than any other piece of cheap jewelry and saved everyone the time of actively trying to learn a myriad of new languages. Looking at the white creature before him, however, he couldn’t see such a device anywhere, and he was suddenly worried that-

“Ahhhhhh!” he shouted again as the small white thing, quick as a wink, hopped on his head and wrapped itself around his shoulders. His first worry was that he was suffocating- no no no no no! This couldn't be the way he was going to die. His hands shot up to grab at the ephemeral being, panicking all the while. “Breathe. Just breathe. In and out.” he thought to himself, although he couldn’t remember his inner monologue sounding quite so high-pitched. After a bit of meditative breathing, he relaxed, realizing that he could somehow see and breathe perfectly well with this… thing on his head.

“How rude!” came the voice, echoing in his mind. “I’m not just any old thing; I’m a Keeper!” Once again, he drew in breath to let out a satisfying scream but before he could even start, his “guest” cut him off. “Ok, enough of that. Like I said, I’m a Keeper, and this is the best way for me to talk to you. I just took a quick look at what your native language is; I hope you don’t mind.”

“O...Ok,” he mentally stammered, the automatic response flowing as he tried to wrap his head around this new development and determine what the tugging feeling in his mind was all about. “So… you’re a Keeper? Like one of the beings that guards this lighthouse?”

He felt a wave of foreign sadness wash through him, and he couldn't pinpoint why he would be feeling this way until he realized that it must have emanated from the Keeper. “Yes… that’s correct. My… I suppose the closest word in your tongue would be siblings. My siblings and I tended this place and protected it. However…” He could feel a rumble of anger from the tiny being atop his head, which quickly subsided. “As you can see, I’m the only one left here. The others all scattered, while I stayed behind to guard our most precious treasure. It’s over here.”

Suddenly, his body began to move without his consent, his legs walking purposefully toward where the creature had been floating earlier. “Whoa. What are you doing?!” he exclaimed, nervousness taking hold.

The Keeper was nonplussed. “Moving us, of course. What’s the matter?”

“You can’t just move people without their permission. It’s rude, not to mention unethical.”

He could feel the Keeper’s confusion. “In what way?”

“It’s a free will thing. You can’t take my free will from me; it is my right to have as an intelligent, sane being.”

“But that’s highly inefficient. Who gave you your free will? Or perhaps, more accurately, who gave you the notion that you have it? After all, not all creatures in this galaxy have free will; some don’t even know what it is, such as those who are part of a hivemind, never having experienced a life where all of their choices weren’t decided for them.”

He was about to speak, but the Keeper continued. “If I know where I’m going, and you don’t, then what is the point of me wasting valuable time to tell you where to go when I could just guide you there myself?”

He bristled, angered at the notion. “Because it’s my body, and I make the decisions about where it goes. I don’t care if it’s easier for you or takes less time; you tell me where to go and why, and I’ll decide if I want to go there.”

He felt proud of himself for being assertive, hoping that would be the end of that. Still, the Keeper pressed on. “How do you know nothing controls you and guides your decisions? Why are you so special?” The Keeper paused, and he could almost feel its smile. “Tell me… do you believe in Fate?”

The Keeper finally stopped talking, but he had nothing yet to say. The more he thought about it, the more he began to question and doubt. Did… did he really make his own decisions? Was he truly as free as he thought? But then again…

He dimly registered the fact that the Keeper hadn't continued moving his body, content to wait until it sensed that he was no longer thinking through his response. After several minutes of thought, he finally spoke. “It doesn’t matter.” He felt the Keeper’s surprise, and slowly tried to articulate the sudden rush of strange and new thoughts. “Whether or not my decisions are made by me personally or some higher power, I will still put all of my effort into fulfilling them, and I will hope that the outcome is a positive one.”

He paused. “But as for you possessing me… well, I suppose I cannot technically stop you. I have no idea as to how long you can possess me or to what extent. But I can gather from what little I know of you that you can appreciate someone who can think for themselves and make their own choices. Even if you don’t agree with me, I hope that you will respect my decision because you acknowledge its validity, even if it isn’t logically the best choice.”

He could feel a strange mix of resignation and admiration from the Keeper, as if it didn’t fully agree with his argument, but admired his tenacity. “...Very well, then. You’re certainly quite the orator, aren’t you? Well, since it is your body that I’m riding around on, I suppose that does make you the boss, in a sense. In that case, could you please move over to that hook that fell on the ground?”

“Of course,” he replied, slightly smug. He walked over and picked it up, examining it closely. It seemed to be about the length of his forearm, and had a beautiful green gem in the crossguard. The emerald gleamed, and he stared at it, enraptured by how the many facets danced in the fading light. The emerald was also quite large, and he could tell based on the size, carat, and weight that it was certainly worth a pretty penny. He mentally considered who he could sell this to for the best price before a strong wave of disapproval crossed his mind.

The crossguard was made of treated wood, the smooth brown surface almost gleaming in the faint lantern light. He wasn’t entirely sure what kind of wood it was, but he could feel that it was reasonably weighty and balanced the rest of the tool fairly well. The hook itself was made of some sort of shiny silver metal, and as he turned it over in his hands, he marveled at how light it was. He had never seen a hook look so much like an anchor before, and he belatedly realized that he was looking at one of the galaxy’s greatest artifacts, the--

“Quickhook. Yep, that’s what that is~” the voice in his head chirped, and annoyance bubbled up in him, alongside a flash of alarm that quickly disappeared once he realized who it was. He had gotten too invested in looking at the strange artifact that he had tuned out his surroundings, he thought ruefully. Still...

“Could you please get off of me now?” he spat, more than a little irked by the fact that this sentient blob seemed to not only have no intention of getting off, but also to butt in to his inner monologue at every possible moment.

“First of all, don’t call me a blob. I’m a Keeper; I explained this already. Secondly, no. If I’m going to travel with you, we need to understand each other, and this is the best method of doing so.”

“Wait wait wait. Traveling together? You’ve got to be joking. Why would I let you go with me?” His tone grew more clipped as he failed to hide how uninterested he was in the idea.

The Keeper sighed, as if the answer were painfully obvious. “You came here to figure out why the light of the Galactic Lighthouse dimmed. I can help you.”

“You don’t even know me.”

“I know enough; I’ve been reading your memories and such ever since I hopped on top of you--”

“WHAT?!”

“--and I can tell that you’re a good sort, so--”

“You’ve been reading my mind this whole time?! Going through my private thoughts and memories is just… how could you? What’s wrong with you?!”

“It’s standard practice. I had to make sure I could trust you.”

“Ohhhh sure, you need to rummage through my brain to decide if you could trust me, because clearly, I’m the dangerous one here. Well, congratulations; I’m glad you trust me, because I certainly don’t trust you,” he spat. Concentrating, he tried to envision pushing the creature out of his head, putting up mental barriers, anything to stop this creature’s intrusions before it discovered--

“...Ok, stop trying to hide things,” the Keeper said in an exasperated tone. “It’s not going to work; I already saw what your real name is, where you come from, and who you really are. But for what it’s worth, I think...”

He was aware of the Keeper continuing, but he immediately tuned it out as his thought process screeched to a halt. It was at that moment that he realized just how much he was at this creature’s mercy. With what it knew, it could absolutely destroy him, and with the Keeper’s possession abilities, he could do nothing to stop it. The secret that he’d tried to keep for so long, his careful, almost paranoid nature dictating his cautious actions… the lack of paper trail, the disguises, the face coverings... it was all worthless, just because he had gotten a parking ticket.

He could vaguely hear eerie laughter permeating the air, and it took him a moment to realize that the sound was coming from him. He could feel the Keeper’s distress as it tried to calm him, more than a little worried. “Just stop,” he said, finally at the end of his rope. His shoulders heaved as his laughter gave way to sobs, the exhaustion of getting here and learning these astounding revelations finally taking its toll. The cloth near his eyes darkened slightly as it dampened. “Just leave me alone. I have no reason to go anywhere with you.” His voice dropped into a desperate whisper. “Please.”

The Keeper was quiet for a moment. “...I’m sorry,” it said, and he could feel the sincerity behind the words, its sorrow about upsetting him flooding through him and its worry that it had far overstepped its bounds close behind. “I didn’t mean to overwhelm you. How about you rest here for tonight?” As the Keeper said that, he realized how tired he really was; a fog wrapped around his mind, and he could feel his bones crying for rest. His indignation, fear, embarrassment, pain, and anger still blazed, but he couldn’t deal with that right now; the siren call of sleeping in a safe place was far too strong.

“Alright,” he said tiredly, dragging himself to his feet. He hadn’t even realized he’d been sitting down. He went to move forward but stopped, just staring at the bleak landscape for a long moment as the Keeper waited patiently. He sighed. “Look, I know I said that you shouldn’t move me, but--”

“I understand,” the Keeper said, and he gratefully relinquished control of his form as his guest moved his body for him, leading him up to the only usable bed in the entire Lighthouse. He was asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow, knowing everything would be different from here on out.