- 9 -

Separate Ways

Gummi Station

Sora had gotten to bed relatively early the previous night, but the anticipation of the impending journey kept him up for some time. Even so, after tossing and turning for a bit, he eventually dozed off and slept reasonably well. A knock on his bedroom door the following morning stirred him from his slumber.

"Today's the big day, Sora! Breakfast's in the dining hall in ten minutes, so get your butt up!" From the sound of Yuffie's jovial tone, Sora wondered how anyone could be so full of energy so early in the morning.

After crawling out of bed, Sora showered and changed into his new outfit before making his way to the dining hall. Riku and Kairi were already there, and they both proceeded to remark on his usual tardiness. Donald and Goofy showed up a few minutes later, followed soon after by Zack, Mickey, Leon, Merlin, Cid, and Aerith. Yuffie and the Gullwings were the last to arrive, bringing with them the final few plates of food. Once they had all taken their seats, everyone dug in. The food was delicious, and everyone made sure to thank Yuffie and the Gullwings for their work. They all conversed and laughed with one another while enjoying what Sora believed was one of the heartiest meals in recent memory.

Afterward, they made their way up to the computer room where Sora and Riku said their goodbyes to Merlin, Yuffie, Aerith, and the Gullwings. Once everyone had said their farewells, Leon contacted Alan up in the Gummi Station, who then proceeded to beam the rest of them up. The group materialized in the center of the CIC, where Alan and Flynn greeted them.

"Good morning, everyone!" Alan took a sip from a dark-blue mug of freshly brewed coffee before adjusting his glasses. Behind him sat Flynn, resting upon the surface of the table he had used to show them the Grid layout the previous day. Unlike Alan, who was wide awake and attired in slacks, dress shirt, and tie, Flynn looked like he hadn't slept in days and was still in his pajamas.

"First and foremost, I'd like to apologize for my colleague's . . . untidy visage here this morning." Alan turned to Flynn. "He has a nasty habit of working well into the night and loses track of time, and by extension, sleep as well.

Flynn yawned and raised his own mug of coffee into the air. "As long as I get my usual fill of miracle liquid every morning, I can get through the day just fine." His pajamas consisted of a blue and white striped shirt with matching trousers and slippers, as well as a black night robe. "Now that you've put me out there, Alan, why don't you get this thing started?"

Alan chuckled and turned to face the small crowd that had gathered in the CIC. "I see we've got a full house here today," he said with a laugh. "Leon, I'll defer to you."

Leon made his way past everyone and took his place next to Flynn. "You guys are about to set out on possibly the most important and dangerous journey of your lives. But before you do, we've got to go over a few things." He turned around. "Flynn, if you would."

"Hmm? Oh, right." Flynn hopped off the table and walked over to the main computer. He punched a few commands into the console and seconds later an image appeared on the large screen. "There we are."

"You already know about the new sectors opening up in the lanes between," began Leon. "You'll be exploring these new sectors during your journey, however, the distance between here and there is just too great. Flying there the traditional way would take years, and time's not a luxury we can afford right now."

"It's that far?" Sora was shocked by the revelation. He could not even fathom a distance such as the one Leon was describing. "What about the Warp Drive?"

Behind him, Cid was already shaking his head. "Warp Drive can't make the jump. When I designed the thing, I made sure to account for what I believed were exaggeratedly long distances, just in case your travels ever took you somewhere ridiculously far." Cid scratched his nose and folded his arms. "And up until now that safeguard turned out to be a smart move. You guys have been pretty far out there. That wouldn't have been possible if I hadn't taken that precaution."

"But even that forethought wasn't enough to account for this jump here," Leon declared. "We ran a few simulations, and the bottom line is that it's just too damn far. The Warp Drive doesn't have enough juice. It'll die out before you're even halfway there."

Sora exchanged glances with Donald and Goofy. "So then ho-"

Leon held up his hand and grinned. "Relax. Life has a way of working these kinds of things out. When one door closes, another one opens. We're gonna be doing things a little differently this time around." He pointed toward the image on the screen behind him. "And this is how."

Sora took in the image before him. He was looking at an object comprised of two long, curved metal "arms" with a pair of revolving rings in between them. Situated within the rings was a giant ball of blue-glowing energy. Sora was dumbstruck. "What is it?"

"We call them the mass relays," Flynn revealed.

"Mass relays?" Sora repeated.

"What do they do?" inquired Donald, his eyes studying the image on the screen.

"They function by creating a virtually mass-free 'corridor' of space-time," explained Alan. "This can propel a ship across vast distances that would otherwise take centuries to traverse, even at faster-than-light speeds."

"To put it simply," declared Flynn, in response to the looks of confusion that remained on the faces of Sora and the others after Alan's explanation, "think of a railgun. What does it do?"

"It fires bullets at high speeds using electricity," answered Riku following a momentary silence. When everyone in the room turned to him, he shrugged. "Video games."

Flynn chuckled. "Right on, man. That's exactly right. Now just apply that same concept to the mass relays. You fly your ship into one of these babies, and it literally 'shoots' you across space."

"Whoa." The method was utterly fascinating to Sora. "So we're just gonna fire ourselves over to the new sectors?" He was already painting a mental picture of how the process worked in his mind.

"Yes and no," answered Alan. "You see, there are two kinds of mass relays, primary and secondary. Primary relays can propel a ship thousands of light years but they're linked to only one other relay – its 'partner' so to speak. Secondary relays, on the other hand, can link to any other relay, but only over shorter distances. When someone activates a relay, that relay communicates with another one out in space. If you're activating a primary relay, it communicates with its partner. If you're activating a secondary relay, you designate which relay you wish to travel to. Either way, the two open a passageway of sorts between each other, and when you pass through one relay, you travel through that passageway and emerge on the other side at the other relay's location. Make sense?"

"I think so," replied Sora, not entirely certain if it did. "Are there any relays close to these new sectors?"

Alan nodded. "The Delta-7 Relay. It's a primary, and its partner isn't too far from here."

"Riku, Zack, you'll travel to the Delta-7 Relay and use it to get to those new sectors," Leon instructed. "Sora, Donald, Goofy, the worlds you'll be investigating aren't nearly as far, so any one of the nearby secondary relays should be able to get you to those worlds without a problem. Last night each of your ships were outfitted with a Mass Effect drive. They're up and running now, so you're good to go."

"Just think of it as an upgrade to the Warp Drive," remarked Cid with a thumbs-up. "Chip, Dale, and I were up all night working on those, so you're welcome."

"Thanks, Cid," Sora declared. "By the way, where are Chip and Dale?"

"I'm sure they're napping in the maintenance wing," replied Cid. He took the toothpick out of his mouth, flipped it, then returned it to his mouth. "You'll see them before you leave. Don't worry."

"I've got a question," Goofy said. "When did you guys find out about these mass relays?"

"Not too long ago actually," responded Alan, pointing. "Zack here was the one who discovered them, along with Gummi Station."

Zack casually waved a hand. "I was on a scouting assignment looking for new sectors," he revealed. "I found the Gummi Station just floating there in the middle of space. It was pretty banged up, but the docking bays were still intact. So I docked, boarded, and took a look around. Eventually I made it here to the CIC and got the main computer up and running. After browsing through some files I came across a map."

As Zack spoke, Flynn began typing on the computer. After a moment the image of the mass relay vanished, and a new image appeared.

Sora studied the new image for a moment, before realizing he knew what it was. He had seen a variant of the image dozens of times from the cockpit of the Highwind. It was a star map of Gummi space. However, this map was slightly unlike the one he was familiar with; something was different. It took him all of five seconds to spot the difference, and when he did he understood everything. "Whoa."

Zack nodded. "It's a star map pinpointing the location of mass relays all over the Universe."

Sora took a step forward to get a better look. "How many are there?"

"When Zack first discovered Gummi Station, the map displayed the location of nineteen mass relays," answered Alan. "Since then he's located five more."

Riku made his way next to Sora. "So there could still be even more of them out there?"

"We believe so," stated Leon. "The five relays Zack found were all located in the southwest quadrant there. That's just one small portion of known space. There's no telling how many more of them could still be out there."

"Any clue where these relays and the Gummi Station came from?" asked Sora. "Or who made them?"

"Judging from the way some of the metalwork aboard the station has rusted, we estimate that it's at least a few centuries old," stated Alan. "And since the station contained a map of all the active relays, it would only make sense that they would be just as old, if not older. But as far as who or what created them . . . we simply have no idea."

Sora's thoughts raced as he tried to imagine where the technological marvel he was standing inside of had originated from.

"Any idea why there was a map of the relays here on the station?" asked Riku suddenly.

"We believe the station was used as some sort of command center or base of operations," responded Flynn. "When we brought the station back online, we discovered that all nineteen active mass relays were directly linked up with the Gummi Station's central computer network. And when Zack found the other five, we linked those to the station as well. So, whoever's here in the CIC – in this case that would be us – has direct control and access to each relay. That's a dangerous amount of power and responsibility to have all in one location, so when I linked the Grid up with the Gummi Station's network, I made sure to place the mass relay control system in a safe place. Tron and Clu are in there keeping an eye on things, so if worse comes to worse we can shut down any or all of the relays in the event of an emergency."

"Emergency?" Sora repeated. "What kind of emergency?"

Flynn brought back the first image he had shown them of the mass relay. "You see that ball of blue energy inside the rotating circles? We call it Element Zero. We're not entirely sure how it works, but we do know two things about it. The first is that each relay is powered by the Element Zero within the spinning circles. It's the only energy source in existence capable of doing what the mass relays do. Which brings us to the second thing we know about Element Zero, and that is the fact that if it were to ever overload or break free from suspension, the result would be nothing short of a cataclysmic explosion equivalent to a supernova. Everything in that star system would be completely wiped out."

An uncomfortable silence followed. Sora could not even imagine such destruction. The thought of it filled him with dread. From the looks on everyone else's faces, he knew they were all thinking the same thing.

Flynn smiled after a moment and laughed aloud. "Relax, everyone. The only thing that could cause the Element Zero inside a relay to break free from suspension is if that relay were destroyed. Lucky for us, the relays are made out of the strongest alloy we've ever seen. They're damn near indestructible. And like I mentioned earlier, the station is synched up with each relay. If a relay's core somehow begins to overload, we can flip the switch from here and shut that relay down before it happens. So you can sleep soundly at night knowing we've got everything under control."

"That's good to know," declared Kairi, which caused everyone in the room to laugh.

"Any other questions?" Leon asked.

"Yeah," answered Donald. "What do we do if we discover any new relays?"

Flynn took a sip from his mug. "I've synched your ships' navigational computers up with the Gummi Station's central network. If by any chance you do encounter a new relay, all you have to do is link it with your ship's computer and that relay will automatically become synchronized and added to the Gummi Station's network. Got it?"

"Got it," replied Sora, Donald, and Riku in unison.

"You guys are gonna be our eyes and ears out there," said Leon. "After the Heartless invade a world, some refugees get lucky and find their way to Traverse Town. But what about the ones who aren't so lucky? Who knows how many of them are out there right now, lost in the vastness of space? Every mass relay you discover is another bridge built, another path opened, another beacon of light for those lost in the darkness. I know the worlds aren't supposed to be connected to one another; it's not the natural state of things. But the fact of the matter is that they are connected now. We can worry about fixing that later, but right now we need to focus on ridding the Universe of evil and saving as many people as we can in the meantime."

Alan took a step forward. "We don't know who or what made the mass relays. But what we do know is that they're a blessing we can't afford to squander. This technology will allow us to assume the role of pioneers and pave the way for generations to come."

Sora found the men's words inspiring. For too long the darkness had spread its influence across the worlds, leaving agony and despair in its wake. Sora had witnessed first-hand the harm it could cause if left unchecked. He and his friends were amongst the few left that could ensure the safety of the Universe. As the magnitude of such a responsibility dawned on Sora, he found himself a bit unsettled. Yet despite that, he had no intention of shying away from his duty. We've got a job to do. Plain and simple.

"You can count on us," declared Riku assuredly.

"We won't let you down," added Zack with a nod.

Donald hopped up with excitement. "You can say that again!"

Goofy patted him on the shoulder. "The bad guys won't know what hit 'em."

"I have faith in every one of us," Kairi said. "We're gonna make it through this."

Sora looked at her and nodded. "We have to."

Leon could've been a proud father then with the smile he gave them all. "Alright then. Let's get to work."

A few minutes later, the group had descended the elevator to the docking bay level. When the elevator doors slid open, the party was met by Chip and Dale.

"Hiya, everyone!" greeted the red-nosed Dale with a wave.

"Hey, guys," Sora replied. He bent down to shake both of their their tiny hands.

"Sorry we missed the briefing," Chip apologized. "We slept a little longer than we planned to."

Cid scoffed. "I stayed up just as late as you two and I got up this morning no problem."

Chip turned to Cid and placed his hands on his hips. "You should've woken us up then."

"I'm not your mother," responded Cid. "Get yourselves an alarm clock."

Chip ignored him and turned back to Sora. "Your ships are ready to go. Right this way."

Sora and the others proceeded to follow the diminutive duo through the wide corridors of the station. After a few minutes, Sora recognized the path they were taking as the same one Leon and Cid had led them through the day before, albeit in reverse. Before long they had reached a junction in the hallway, just outside Docking Bay 2. Chip and Dale halted at the junction and turned to face them.

"Alright," announced Chip. "Highwind crew, you'll be coming with me to the right. Ark Royal crew, follow Dale to the left."

A brief moment of inactivity followed, as the sudden realization of what was happening seemed to hit them all at once. The silence lasted for a few more seconds before someone finally spoke.

"The three of you remind me of a group of friends I once met." Everyone turned to face the speaker. It was Mickey. He exchanged glances between Sora, Riku, and Kairi before continuing. "I look at the three of you now and I see a bit of them in each of you."

Sora understood that Mickey was speaking of the individuals he had mentioned in the letter he had written – the ones who were hurting.

"Their actions altered the course of fate," continued Mickey. "I have no doubt that you all will do the same. Three heroes, three paths, one destination. Yes, you're going your separate ways now, but that doesn't mean you'll be alone. Each of you carries the others with you in your hearts, and as long as that stays true, no amount of distance can ever separate you. And you'll still have friends with you for support."

Donald and Goofy turned to Sora and gave him a thumbs-up. Sora grinned and returned the gesture. Zack threw an arm around Riku while Riku patted him on the back, and Kairi knelt down beside Mickey and hugged him.

A moment ago Sora had been filled with grim apprehension at the thought of departing without Riku and Kairi. However, with just a few thoughtful words, Mickey had replaced Sora's discomfort with hope. "Thank you, Your Majesty," he said with a bow.

Mickey humbly accepted the compliment. "Thank you."

Riku made his way to Mickey and knelt down. "The darkness had me in its grasp. I was hopeless and alone, and just when I thought it was over for me, you pulled me out of the darkness. You were there for me. You believed in me and stuck by my side. I wouldn't be here right now if it wasn't for you. You're a true friend, Mickey. Thank you."

Mickey nodded and the two of them embraced. Riku rose and turned to Kairi. "Don't ever for a second doubt yourself, you hear me? You'll be a Keyblade Master in no time. I'm sure of it."

"That means a lot," she said with a smile before the two of them hugged. "Stay safe."

"I will."

"I've got his back," declared Zack from behind them. "Don't you worry."

Kairi nodded at him. "Good to know. You watch yourself out there too."

Zack gave her a brisk salute. "Yes, ma'am."

Riku walked over to Sora, who suddenly found himself unsure of what to say. Riku beat him to it.

"I guess this is it."

Sora nodded. "I guess so."

Riku placed an arm on his shoulder. "You're the best friend – the best rival – a guy could ever ask for, Sora. Whenever I felt like giving up, whether you knew it or not, it was always you who motivated me to keep pushing forward; to continue bettering myself. I'm damn proud to call you my friend, and in my heart, I'll always consider you my brother."

Sora stood there for a moment before looking up at him and saying, "Eh, I guess you're alright too."

Everyone laughed as Riku messed up Sora's hair. The two of them embraced after that, and when they pulled away from each other, Sora said, "Good luck out there."

When Sora turned to Kairi, he found her already looking at him. "Remember," she said as he approached. "You promised."

Sora took her hand. "I don't break my promises. I'm coming back."

Kairi looked past him at Donald and Goofy. "Keep an eye on him for me."

"You can count on us, Kairi," Goofy answered with a nod. "We'll take good care of him."

"That's right!" chimed Donald.

"Train hard," Sora told her. "You're gonna be great." Then he hugged her tighter than he had ever done before. She clutched the back of his shirt as her head rested on his chest. "I will."

The embrace seemed to last forever as neither of them wanted to let up. Finally, Sora forced himself to pull away from her. He could see the tears welling up in her eyes but save for one single tear that escaped, she did not cry. Sora wiped the tear from her cheek and beamed at her. "I'll see you soon."

Kairi smiled in return and said, "I know," before stepping back.

Sora looked at her for a few more seconds before turning. "Leon, Cid, thanks for everything. I don't know where we'd be right now without your help."

"Just save the Universe and we'll call it even," replied Leon with a grin. "All of us believe in you guys. We're with you always, no matter what."

"Damn skippy," added Cid. "Good luck to you all."

Five minutes later Sora was seated in the cockpit of the Highwind, maneuvering it away from Gummi Station, with the Ark Royal just ahead. Alan's voice emerged from the intercom, speaking to both ships.

"We've sent you the coordinates to your respective mass relays. You'll warp to your relay's location and then you'll use them to get you to the uncharted regions. Once you're over there you'll be on your own."

"You can contact us here at the station at any time using your ship's computers," added Leon. "Keep us posted with your findings. We'll help in any way we can."

"Copy that," answered Sora. "Don't forget that Maleficent and Pete are still out there. Watch yourselves while we're away."

"Understood," replied Leon. "Fly safe."

"We will. Highwind out."

Zack's voice came through over the intercom. "Happy travels, boys. We'll see you soon. Ark Royal out."

A burst of light appeared from the Ark Royal's hull, and a moment later the ship was gone. Sora looked back at Donald and Goofy, who both gave him a thumbs-up.

"Warping in three, two, one."

Sora pressed the warp button on the console and the space around the Highwind dissolved instantly. Seconds later they were no longer in orbit above Radiant Garden. Sora spotted the mass relay immediately.

The thing was immensely larger than he had imagined, and significantly grander than Flynn's hologram. There was a majestic touch about the construct that simply awed Sora. He guided the Highwind toward it.

"Our computer has synced with the relay," said Donald from behind him. "We're clear to jump."

"Here we go guys." Sora moved the throttle forward and the Highwind began picking up speed. "This is gonna be one for the history books."

The Highwind approached the mass relay's core, where the spinning circles kept the element zero within contained. Suddenly, a surge of energy shot from the core and took hold of the ship. The energy guided the craft across the center of the relay at an increasing speed before finally reaching its zenith and flinging the Highwind light years away to parts unknown.