Ethan re-entered the virtual realm of Luminary Labyrinths, his heart oscillating between relief and excitement. Materializing beside Aisling and the other Aetherians, he was immediately greeted with warmth from the group.
"You're back! How was Earth?" Aisling asked.
Ethan smiled, feeling a strange disconnection from his recent earthly experience.
"It's good to be back. Earth feels so... ordinary now. Dinner with mom was nice. She made her famous lasagna. But she did ask about my frequent 'gaming.' I just said that I'm working on a class project. It felt like a half-truth." He hesitated, then decided to delve deeper into his concerns, "However, I couldn't help but notice things I hadn't before... the signs of environmental strain. It's becoming more evident, like a tinge of green to the clouds outside."
Aisling watched him thoughtfully, her respect deepening as she considered his ability to juggle two vastly different worlds.
Swan, always perceptive, chimed in. "Do you think your mom suspects anything about our missions?"
"Doubt it," Ethan countered, scanning the assembly, each member lost in their research, their Library Shards flickering with newly acquired data.
Maxxyy, unable to contain his excitement, shared, "You know, we've unearthed a treasure trove of information with Gauresh's help, to start reducing Green Shadow Syndrome."
"And I've been down the blockchain rabbit hole, figuring out how it could give us an edge over Earth, or as Luminans call 'Core', yeah... their eco-crisis," Web3Dev chimed in, enthusiasm spiking his tone. "Think of it as bypassing the slow red tape of The Council and those territorial, distractible Core governments."
Ethan, impressed and eager to contribute, asked, "What's the plan now?"
Aisling, stepping closer, her galactic dress-suit subtly reacting to her enthusiasm, outlined their next steps. "We're piecing together a strategy that combines Luminary technology with the Earth's resources. Historical records show that industrial revolutions led to unprecedented pollution, causing significant ecological damage. Toxic waste, deforestation, and fossil fuel emissions have created glitches in the bridges and code of the Labyrinths world. If only there's some way we could... cross more data between Core and... hm, but I'm stumped."
As they conversed, Web3Dev became somewhat mesmerized by Aisling's attire. Her dress-suit, an embodiment of Luminan culture, featured deep midnight blue fabric adorned with twinkling, star-like points that responded to the sounds around them. When the environment was calm, the lights on her suit glowed softly, pulsating like distant stars. In moments of laughter or heightened conversation, the lights transformed into vibrant purples and pinks, matching the energy of her voice.
Web3Dev, always curious to understand mechanics, interjected, "The way your dress interacts with the environment and our conversations... it's like it has a life of its own. Does it serve any purpose beyond aesthetics?"
Aisling revealed another aspect of her suit—its ability to cloak emotions. "Well it reflects mine and somewhat of the collective local emotions, due to mirror-neurons. If needed, I can activate the 'Deception Mode,'" she explained, adjusting a discreet control on her wrist. The suit's lights immediately dimmed, replacing the lively display with serene blues and greens, effectively masking true emotions. "It's like a digital poker face, crucial in a world where technology often reflects our feelings."
Ethan, awestruck, commented, "That's wild. Like a firewall for feelings."
"Spot-on," Aisling affirmed, her tone a mix of pride and gravitas. "In a realm as transparent as ours, a little opacity is a rare gem..." she said, as she clutched her necklace that concealed the glowing Yeye artifact within. "I'm no Shapeshifter, but it's the next best thing."
As they resumed their exploration, Ethan shared more about his life on Earth, his mother Ms. Takahashi's gentle concern, and his reflections on the stark differences between his world and Aisling of Aer's. Meanwhile, the rest of the group, Swan, Web3Dev, and Maxxyy, expressed their desire to venture into uncharted lands of the map.
However, they didn't get very far from the Pegasus Testnet Library before running into a tough woman in the parking lot, elbows deep in the guts of an unusual machine. The back of her denim work shirt bore the name "Pit Bixi" on a patch. From her other patches, they could tell she was something of a Luminan mechanic or medic. Pit was deeply immersed in fixing something under the hood of this contraption that seemed like part vehicle and part cloud, her darker sun-crusted skin sweating with attempted focus, but distracted by the group.
"What're y'all starin' at?" she drawled, ejecting a wad of gum with a practiced flick.
Ethan said, "Sorry, I'm from Earth.. er, Core. It's not you. It's that I've never seen a vehicle quite like that."
Pit straightened up, wiping her hands on her greasy work clothes, proud and ready to boast. "This ain't your run-of-the-mill car, sugar. It's rigged with blockchain oracles for sniffing out environmental shifts. Uses a whole swarm of AI agents to funnel contract funds right where they're needed in medical emergencies, linking data between Core and the Labyrinths. She's a mobile unit for environmental management, providing real-time solutions to crises by bridging our worlds with Core data. I work for this company with a 3rd party bridge, and we manage a fleet. But, I reckon something's got her acting up..."
The group listened, spellbound with the sheer coincidence, one direct aid to the current intergalactic issue that was already in operation, though perhaps a company not fully realized. Before they could inquire further, an unexpected surge of energy burst from the engine, engulfing them in a brilliant green light and swirling smoke. When their sight returned, they found themselves in a different region of the map, an area pulsing with the strange energy of the green glitches.
Standing before them was Ezio Hare, an imposing figure with deer horns, draped in a cloak that shimmered dark velour speckles and fastened by a brilliant red clasp. Despite his formidable appearance, there was a gentleness in his eyes that spoke of deep wisdom. "Greetings, travelers. I am Ezio Hare, a guardian of the bridge between worlds. You have been brought here to confront the Green Shadow Syndrome," he said, his voice resonant with authority.
Pit, with a puzzled expression and thick southern drawl, quipped, "Syndro' what now?"
Swan turned to Web3Dev and Maxxyy, surprise in his voice, as his party-hat bobbled on his head, "How could she not be aware of the Syndrome?"
Ezio continued, "The only remedy is to find and stabilize the bridge between our worlds. The green glitches are distortions within this bridge, needing rectification... It seems I've been ensnared within one, inside this engine."
"Wait, we're inside Pit's vehicle? Have we shrunk?" Ethan blurted out in panic, reaching for his Time Anchor, seeking a retreat to Earth for advice from his late father's diagrams and journals, but the device remained inert, its usual glow absent. "It's not working! What's happening? Why can't I log off the computer with a save spot? It's frozen." Ethan's voice was tinged with desperation.
Realizing their predicament, the group quickly rallied, drawing on the arsenal of tools and know-how they had acquired from Gauresh. Web3Dev, with his knack for tech, whipped out the Multi-Tool Wrench, its holographic interface flickering to life as he scanned for anomalies in their bizarre surroundings.
"We're smack dab in the middle of the Syndrome's bullseye. It's mucking up our link to both worlds," Web3Dev announced, his fingers dancing across the interface. "Looks like it zeroed in on the vehicle's oracles—thinks this fleet could be its Achilles' heel—and went for the jugular."
Swan took charge with the Electromagnetic Compass in hand, his eyes narrowing as he deciphered the swirling energy fields. "This way! I've got a lead on an escape route through this mess," he declared, leading the charge.
As they ventured through the surreal landscape of oversized metal pistons, tangled wires, and bolts, Aisling drew a Laser-Sighted Sling from her pouch. With the poise of a seasoned archer, she began to dispel the smokey apparitions spawned by the glitches. Each shot from her Sling released objects that bore a striking resemblance to candy balloons.
Ethan, bewildered by the unfolding chaos, could barely keep up. "What in the world?!" he exclaimed, ducking behind Aisling, his gaze locked on the fantastical scene before him.
Pit, not one to stand idly by, rolled up her sleeves and joined the fray. "Let me add some muscle to this geek squad," she quipped with a grin, revealing a set of compact tools from her belt. With a swift motion and despite her size, she adjusted something within the vehicle's engine that seemed to pulse with a newfound energy, hinting at her intimate knowledge of its workings. "Y'all keep those glitch gremlins at bay and get towards the focal point. I can see these parts better from in here anyway. I'll rig this baby to punch through whatever this Syndrome's throwin' at us," Pit declared, her colorful hair waving in the breeze generated from the combustion chamber.
Suddenly, another flash of green light pierced their surroundings, and Pit appeared beside her car, which now hummed with a controlled energy rather than the chaotic surge from before. "Well, butter my biscuit, that was one heck of a shake-down," Pit said, scratching her head in a mix of confusion and awe. "Looks like we stumbled right into the thick of it," she continued, her gaze shifting to Ezio with a smirk, "And yanked this antlered fella right outta my engine to boot."
Despite the gravity of their situation, her comment brought a brief chuckle to the group. The interference began to wane, and Ethan's Time Anchor flickered back to life. "It’s active again! I can return to Earth. But what can I do there to combat the Syndrome?" Ethan asked Ezio, still with panic and exasperation in his voice.
As Ezio was about to answer, their attention was captured by Ivan, a Luminary with the imposing appearance of half-bull, half-man, ambling through the parking lot. His cart was brimming with what appeared to be stacks of paper money, drawing Ethan's interest. "Why are you carrying so much money around so openly?" Ethan asked, unable to mask his curiosity.
Ivan laughed heartily. "This? It's ye old banknotes. Moving beyond physical currency, there are digital currencies on ledgers zat traverse vorlds, carried by light and ideas. These here are only for my girlfriend's vonderful crafts!"
Ethan looked intrigued by Ivan's casual dismissal of what once was valuable.
"The real currency now is in ideas, connections across vorlds, and ze light zat carries 'em all!" Ivan explained, adjusting his cart, before trotting on.
Aisling nodded in agreement. "He's spot on. In our realm, we prioritize the circulation of energy and ideas far above the concept of physical wealth, mainly because wealth now naturally flows to where it's most needed. The strife on Earth isn't due to a lack of resources, but rather because the information within the supply chain is too scattered."
Ethan's grasp of the situation grew clearer. "So, battling the Green Shadow Syndrome on Earth involves more than just advancements in technology and environmental efforts. It's equally about shifting our perception of value and enhancing global cooperation?"
Maxxyy, ever the diplomat, added with a hint of humor, "That's something I could've told you."
Ezio said, "Indeed, the Syndrome's defeat hinges on a transformative shift in consciousness. Ethan, your mission is to be a catalyst for this change on Earth, and with luck, I'll join you there to offer my guidance."
As Ezio stood before them, his majestic antlers and the black cloak making him an imposing figure, there was a history in his eyes that spoke of many untold stories. He gazed at the group, sensing their curiosity beyond the immediate crisis.
"You may wonder why I, once a revered member of The Council, stand before you in this secluded realm," Ezio began, his voice carrying a hint of nostalgia mixed with a tinge of sorrow. "Years ago, I was part of The Council, guardians of the balance between worlds. Indeed, they had more order than the Core's administrations, with a moral compass less astray. But as time passed, I grew jaded. The Council, in its pursuit of preserving harmony, often responded too slow to innovation, falling just short of their goals." He paused, his eyes reflecting the burden of his decision. "I chose to leave the Council to explore the realms beyond our immediate perception. It was during these journeys that I first encountered the green glitches, manifestations of a growing imbalance that no one else seemed to perceive yet. I followed them."
As the group stood there, absorbing Ezio's story of self-imposed exile, he revealed something profound. "Ethereal artifacts, known as the Yeye, hold the key to bridging our worlds and combating the Syndrome," Ezio disclosed, his voice taking on a grave tone. "I possess the majority of these artifacts, collected over my years of exploration and study. I've been awaiting an Earthling's assistance to uncover the remaining few."
The group exchanged wild glances, but it was Swan who stepped forward, a complex look crossing his features. "I, too, have been collecting the Yeye artifacts, driven by my own understanding of their power and potential."
Tension filled the air as Swan's true intentions boiled inside of him. Known as a strategist, Swan now displayed a radical desire. He envisioned using the Yeye artifacts not merely as a means to combat the Syndrome but as a gateway to transforming himself and his companions into flesh and blood humans. This theory, speculative and untested, held for him a promise far beyond their digital realm—a promise of experiencing life in its fullest, tangible form.
This new goal marked a dramatic shift from his previous views, which had aligned closely with Ezio's. Swan had relished the idea of endless adventures across the galaxy with the Luminaries. However, witnessing Aisling's bond with Ethan, he found himself longing for Earth's simple pleasures: the cool freshness of morning dew underfoot, the comforting warmth of another's hand in his, the quintessential taste of corndogs at a baseball game, and the bittersweet notion of finite mortality. He imagined a scenario where, after resolving the crises of the Core, they could choose to remain there as real beings, experiencing life fully.
Despite his deep internal revelations, Swan remained silent, uncertain about voicing his newfound desires.
As Swan and Ezio locked gazes, an electric tension filled the space between them. Previously, they had stood side by side, navigating their escape from the grip of a slime-green carburetor. However, now, as the foremost collectors of the Yeye artifacts, their camaraderie was tested. They stood at a crossroads of potential conflict or dialogue, with the fate of the artifacts—and thereby the future path to Earth and the broader universe—at stake.