Little Moment: For Fear Of Little Men
By Eric 'Erico' Lawson
100 Years Prior to Little Moments Rebooted
Azmuth was used to working alone. He was used to being alone, ever since Zenith had left him. As laboratory space on Galvan Prime was both expensive and forever in demand, it had been more efficient for him to rent his out and set up workspaces elsewhere in the quadrant. He'd long ago passed the point where he needed to prove himself to others. Let the younger generation carouse on the homeworld, he told himself.
His latest project had started as a nascent thought dreamt up on sabbatical after his mate had left him. Throughout his tour of the reaches of the galaxy that were relatively safe to travel, he'd encountered numerous lifeforms, and not all of whom were signatories of the Galactic Enforcers compact. Of the billions of star systems within the spiral galaxy that he and the Galvan called home, of the millions that supported life, only a miniscule proportion supported intelligent, evolved life. And who knew how many civilizations had fallen and risen in the epochs before the Galvan had risen to prominence and become the watchful people they were now? Ultimos was a living singularity, a refugee from a star system that had gone nova and wiped out his entire species, save him, with it. There was only one Specimen Prime left in all the galaxy, and for all the power he commanded, all the kindness and charisma that his upbringing on Galvan Prime had bestowed on him, there would never be another.
If Azmuth were honest with himself, his current project hadn't only been born out of watching failure after failure in all his other projects and creations. It had started with an impulse, a pure impulse, to see the sentient creatures of the galaxy catalogued and preserved. For them to be remembered. And within that primary goal that was the heart of the Index, Azmuth had found another.
He was a scientist and an innovator. He knew full well that one idea often sparked others. The Index provided a genetic library, a repository of preservation that would hopefully survive the factors that too often led to the collapse of civilizations and the extinction of their peoples. The device he was laying out the schematics for now would provide access to the Index, allow its user to do what had before only been a metaphorical ambition; travel a cycle in another entity's skin. Far too often, differing groups of creatures in the galaxy found friction in one another and struggled to find common ground. They went to war and destroyed each other over stupid and meaningless arguments and differences.
The sentient wearing the device he envisioned would be able to break the limitations of their physical form and transform, briefly, to the shape and form of an entirely different species, any of the 2,438 currently registered to the Index, though that number continued to grow. The sentient wearing the device he was drawing up on soft-light diagrams could be a bridge between two peoples. Or more. They could be a voice of unity and peace in a galaxy that currently only had one bright spot of it.
If there was one reason above all else that Azmuth preferred to work in laboratories and sanctuaries far off the well-trod paths, it was that he despised interruptions or distractions while he was busy. Not even the loss of Zenith had changed that part of him, and he doubted anything would at this point in his life. Still, even a Galvan could be surprised from time to time. He was certainly surprised when a lilting, refined voice that caused an unusual sensation in his mind from the translator microbes sounded off.
"Up the airy mountain, down the rushing glen…"
Azmuth saved his work and closed the window before spinning around, flexing his small hands in a pattern that made his laboratory's inner defenses move from offline to standby. "Who's there?!" He demanded, cursing that he was outside of his identity-hiding mechsuit. To his eyes, the small complex buried within the asteroid field seemed as empty as ever. Or it did, until he noticed a flicker of movement from a patch of darkness in the far corner. Out of it stepped a bipedal sentient devoid of hair save for atop its head, dressed in unusual garments with some kind of an unsealed white smock over it all. Its hair was the color of Galvanic shockwheat with some traces of fading coloration...a marker of age, perhaps...and it smiled as it came into view. It took Azmuth a moment to place the man as a human. He knew of their kind, knew that there was a homeworld of theirs somewhere in the far-flung backwater of a spiral arm. It didn't answer why one was here, or how they'd gotten here.
"...we dare not go a'hunting, for fear of little men." The fellow finished his strange cadence, and gave Azmuth a nod of his head. "Greetings, Azmuth of the Galvan. The First Thinker. Greatest inventor of his time."
"How did you get in here?" Azmuth demanded.
"Hm? I walked." The man shrugged. Azmuth glared at him, and the human male blinked. "Ah. You didn't attack me this time." This time? Azmuth mused, wondering if this human was somehow insane. "It's rude of me not to introduce myself, since I know your name. You may call me Professor."
"Professor what?" Azmuth asked, and let one of the guns in the ceiling power up just enough to whine audibly. The human glanced up at the ceiling with a touch of amusement and chuckled.
"Well. Perhaps you aren't so different from the others after all."
"Oth…" Azmuth started to say, but paused as a holographic screen popped up in front of his eyes and fed him the data that the laboratory sensors had gathered on the man. The results were perplexing and inconclusive, and based on the human's unfathomable quantum resonance, which seemed to supersede even the expected parameters of the observer effect, horrifying to consider for more than a few fractions of a millicycle. "You - you're a Traveler."
The man laughed at that and shook his head, and Azmuth shivered in spite of himself. Travelers. Even amongst the Galvan, who reveled in peeling back the mysteries of the cosmos, Travelers were entities largely dismissed as myth and hearsay from their earliest days. The appearances in the lore of other species of bipedal creatures like the Travelers were portrayed as living deities who came and went on whims and were possessed of terrible power. The Galvan treated their lore as flawed, the delusions of lesser minds who could not comprehend what they witnessed. Everything had an explanation.
And yet the man disappeared and reappeared a few feet to the side of his former position in the blink of an eye, and every sensor pointed at him failed to recognize a power source for the translocation from one fixed point to another. This 'Professor' existed, and then he existed somewhere else entirely with no rational explanation by his (nigh total) understanding of unified mechanics. Azmuth found himself shuddering as he wondered if the old myths might be true after all. If there was an entity who existed beyond the laws of nature and the mechanisms that kept the universe spinning, it might take a form like this.
"I've been called by many names." The Professor said to Azmuth warmly. "Traveler is one I haven't heard in a while. Your alternates even refused to entertain the notion. I wonder how you made the association that they couldn't." He dusted his white coat off and took a knee, bringing him close to eye level with Azmuth. "Fear not, my diminutive friend, I've not come as a threat. Indeed, in most realities, you and I are rather close."
"I see." Azmuth said, his mind racing with that information. What had this entity seen and witnessed? How old was he? Azmuth was not terribly familiar with the human species, but it occurred to him that the shape before him might only be a mask. How would he know? This Professor was a blank to all of his sensors. A sudden laugh from the entity had Azmuth blinking in surprise. "What's so amusing?"
"Oh, don't mind me." The man laughed, running a finger along the corner of his eye. "Just musing on your ability to ponder entire conversations worth of questions in mere moments." Azmuth's eyes went wide, and the fellow shook his head. "No, I cannot read minds. I'm just rather good at reading people, and I know you better than most."
"If I take you at your word, you know other versions of me. You do not know me, Professor." Azmuth bit off a curt reply.
"Ah, you always say that." The Professor sighed good-naturedly. "And you're correct, to a degree. Throughout the fractals of all of you there are many constants, but there are also differences. If one knows how to look for them." He gestured to the ceiling. "You didn't shoot me first for intruding. That's new. Although…" The man pulled out what seemed to be some kind of a primitive metallic timepiece on a chain and flipped the lid open, staring at the hidden face of it while a delicate ticking sounded off. "...might have something to do with when I approached you in this universe, rather than any other factor."
"You could do better than that barbaric coil spring and gear timepiece if you wanted to tell time accurately." Azmuth pointed out in a voice drier than the Adargen Wastes. The Professor blinked and looked up in confusion before he chuckled and snapped the lid shut on the object.
"You think this tells time? How amusing." He laughed again, and Azmuth growled as the Professor stowed it away. "What, have I said something to offend you my old friend?"
"I have never met you before today!" Azmuth exploded at him. "Why do you keep calling me that?" He asked, and the Professor blinked as his smile slowly changed into something more brittle.
"Habit, I suppose. And I need the practice." The Professor admitted as he looked off to the side, haunted by something. Not that Azmuth cared, every person carried their own demons and he had enough of his own without needing to ask after the Travelers' pain. "In any case, I feel the need to reiterate, again, that I did not come to threaten you or your work or your secrecy."
"You knew where to find me, which is a neat trick in and of itself." Azmuth said, and narrowed his eyes when the Professor looked up meaningfully towards the ceiling and the rows of weapons that he was sure were hidden behind holographic illusions and recessed paneling. "They probably wouldn't have hurt you anyways, would they?"
"No. Or not for very long at least." The fellow said and shrugged. Azmuth let out a very un-Galvan snort and made a gesture, disarming every weapon in this sector of his laboratory.
"Is that just a face you wear to hide your real self, or are you actually human?" Azmuth asked him wearily, once the guns had gone silent and the energy was drained out of their capacitors.
"I was. Once." The Professor said faintly, his eyes tracking over the ceiling without ever looking at it. "I suppose enough of me still is to care. Otherwise, I would have never come back here."
"Here?" Azmuth prodded him, his mind eagerly turning towards fresh information. For all the irritation that this entity seemed capable of dragging out of him, the Traveler was a mystery wrapped in an enigma, and Galvan loved unraveling mysteries. Not even the Cerebrocrustaceans had such an affinity and fascination for pure research that they did. "You've been in this reality before then?"
"A long time ago." The Professor nodded faintly, finally turning his attention back towards Azmuth. "You're my first stop, coincidentally. Well, I suppose there were a few detours back when I was first starting out to get my bearings, but…"
"Just. Stop. Talking." Azmuth groaned, rubbing at his frontal cranium between his eyes with a pair of fingers. By the Unified Laws, this man seemed bound and determined to drive him to insanity. Perhaps the man himself was insane, gone round the bend from too many trips through realities and time and space. "What do you want, Professor? Why are you here, aside from wanting to give me idiopathic intracranial hypertension?"
"Hm. Yes, I suppose I should get to the point. Places and times to be yet…" The man murmured.
"Oh? Is this little intrusion making you late for another appointment?" Azmuth dug the barb in, and instead of being offended, the Traveler just smiled at him. Azmuth shivered a little when he registered the depth of feeling and experience in those eyes. They were tremendously old. And haunted.
"You're a curious creature, Azmuth. Your accomplishments are myriad and varied, and no two are ever pointed in the same direction." The Professor mused. "The Galvanic Mechamorphs. The Null Void. The Galactic Enforcers. Half a dozen others. And now this." The man made a gesture and all of the holographic screens which Azmuth had been using flared back to life around him and proportionally sized, displaying every piece of it. Azmuth started and nearly blurted out a question of asking him how he'd managed that trick before he settled back down, not keen on tempting the Traveler into being well and truly irritated and not entirely sure the answer wouldn't be some form of misdirection to begin with. "A register, cataloguing sentient life throughout the Milky Way Galaxy." Azmuth raised an eyebrow at the name, and the Professor smiled and shrugged. "It's what the people of Terra - sorry, Earth - call it."
"They can be a ridiculous people." The Professor hummed in agreement. "But every so often, they give in to the better angels of their nature to make or think up something beautiful. Regardless. It's a wonderful concept, this Index of yours. As is this device you're making to access it. The Omnitrix…"
Azmuth blinked at that. He'd given no designation to the access device yet. "The Omnitrix? What?"
The Professor blinked again, then smiled as if being caught out. "Whoops. Apologies. Spoilers." Azmuth's head spun again from the portents of that, and he snarled at the man. The Traveler gave him a shrug before tapping the soft-light display twice. "Regardless. It is a marvel you are making here. But it could be more."
Azmuth's blood ran cold. "If you've come to ask me to turn it into a weapon, Traveler, you will be disappointed. I'd rather burn this place to the ground with me in it than allow you to cause violence with one of my creations."
The Professor nodded. "I know, and rest easy. Regardless of the universe, Azmuth always despises violence and brutality. I have no such appetites or inclination." The man put a hand over his heart, smiling as his eyes drifted to some long-forgotten and bittersweet memory. "My teacher would never forgive me if I did. No, I am not asking you to change the function of your work, or its intent. Merely the scope. You have but scratched the surface of what the Omnitrix is capable of, and of how many lifeforms the Index is capable of holding."
"I have nearly 2,500 genetic samples of intelligent life saved so far."
"A drop in the bucket, I'm afraid. If you really tried, Azmuth, I suspect you could find many more within your galaxy. At least 10,000." The Professor hummed thoughtfully. "And more besides. What's stopping you?"
Azmuth could give him countless reasons with enough deliberation. The most patently obvious snapped to life quickly enough in his mind. Because a project of this magnitude was the sort of thing which loose lips couldn't help but spoil, so secrecy had been his first and chief weapon. Because there were reaches of the Milky Way Gal - Unified Laws, now the Traveler had him using humanity's galactic nomenclature - reaches where it was not safe to travel, like the Inner Spiral or the breadth of the Incursean Empire, which even now flared and waxed and waned because of the renegade Chimera Sui Generis warlord Vilgax. Because while he could move faster with additional help, that would mean trusting people with his newest project, and he was too bitter and disappointed to trust easily ever again.
The Professor stood up with a grace that his age should have made impossible and grabbed at the ends of his white outer garment with a smile. "What holds you back, Azmuth? Fear? Worries? A lack of friends? They are such small things, in the grand scheme. And you really should be careful. If you forever expect your offered hand to be slapped away or bitten at, and stop reaching out entirely, you may deny yourself one of the best friendships you'll ever have. One that could define generations."
Azmuth narrowed his eyes at the man. "You exist outside of time and space, and you speak in allusion and allegory. What are you setting me up for, world-walker? What have you seen? What aren't you telling me?" The Professor stared at him inscrutably, and Azmuth snorted again. Damnit, what was with this entity inspiring such uncouth manners in him? "I'm half-tempted to invent a means of excising every memory of this encounter from my mind once you leave. You're a paradox."
The entity blinked a few times at that, then broke into a wide smile and laughed. "And here I was, thinking I couldn't be surprised anymore. Congratulations, my old friend. Pleased to meet you. You guessed my name." He took a bow. "Professor Paradox." After righting himself, his eyes gleamed faintly. "I know why you make this. I know you seek for some kind of a penance for your presumed past sins. I know that you hesitate to advance your plans, and that unlike many other life-forms, time has less of a hold on you than most. I offer this one suggestion in the hopes that you find the courage to make your greatest creation the best it can possibly be. How can it be a bridge between species, the ultimate link of common ground if you don't do everything possible to sample every lifeform within reach, even if they live where war grows strong or where the 'civilized' fear to tread? Who are you making it for, and who will it serve, if it is not meant to bring everyone together but only the select few?"
"You're asking me to speed things up, you know." Azmuth told Paradox flatly. "To take risks. By the Singularity, to do what you're asking would mean inventing means of stealthily gathering genetic data from people and places I could not go myself."
"It sounds like a challenge to me." Paradox mused. "And when has the great Azmuth ever backed down from a challenge?" He held out a hand down towards Azmuth, index finger extended, and after a huff, Azmuth used a hoverdisc to float up to hand level and took the man's finger in his hand.
It was warm, and he felt a pulse that none of his sensors had been able to detect. "You're so sure that this is the right thing to do? Even though it won't be easy?"
"You know, Azmuth, better than most, that the correct thing is very rarely the easy thing to do." Paradox told him, winking as he pulled his hand back. "Ah well. Time to go a'hunting, as they say."
"Hm? Aren't you afraid of little men like me?" Azmuth asked dryly, watching as Paradox paused to consider the question.
"I didn't quote that poem to refer to you, you know." Paradox pointed out. Then he winked, and in a small flash of light, disappeared as quickly as he'd arrived. Azmuth considered that parting remark for a long moment before he shook his head and turned the screens back towards him, shrinking them down to a more appropriate size for his stature.
"Addlepated Travelers…" He muttered, marking the entire encounter and the footage from the lab cameras into his primary and multiple backup servers for later review. He could do without whimsical, mythical, nigh-omnipotent beings mucking around in his life. Though he was grateful that this one seemed more harmless and jovial and prone to pranks than outright destruction, like so many stories of his kind from the other species in the galaxy spoke of. And the questions that Paradox had brought to mind weren't entirely new, Azmuth had been considering broadening his search.
Meeting the fellow merely put more impetus onto the idea. He opened up a new file and imported the schematics of one of the smaller 'darkship' reconnaissance vessels he'd made for the Galactic Enforcers what felt like a lifetime and several mistakes ago, and set to work making modifications that would convert it, when built, from a tool of scouting and war to a newer purpose.
"Ten thousand species…" Azmuth repeated, huffing at the notion and smiling a little. He did have to admit that it sounded more pleasing, in base 10 numerical terms. In the darkness of his private laboratory, Azmuth continued to work.
And time ticked on.
Author's Note: Consider this a merry little gift from the LM-Verse coauthors to all of our fans, who read our work and find it to be as inspiring and thoughtful as we try to make it. We are capable of such wonderful dreams - we need only listen to the better angels of our nature and reach for them. As Azmuth learned.
Here's to the New Year of 2021. May she be a damn sight better than the old one.