The strange planet below lacked any sort of large scale barrier, a planetary formation. That allowed Anton’s senses to focus on particular locations, starting with seeking out cities. Most of the larger ones did have barriers, and while Anton could have likely pushed through to sense inside them, he didn’t want to worry about raising alarms. That led him to focus on smaller population centers, ones which still acted as sources of light in the constant darkness.
It was strange, stumbling upon this planet that shouldn’t exist. It would be one thing for it to merely be a rogue planet wandering in the void between systems, but it was quite another to find it like this. Within the space behind space, hidden from the stars.
Darkness itself didn’t make Anton nervous, nor did he even feel particularly strange traveling through sunspace with minimal access to his stars. But here, there was a place that may have never seen a star. More than how it came to exist, Anton wondered how it continued to exist.
His senses focused on a particular city. Architectural differences abounded between individual planets and further between different systems, but certain features were simply practical. Some sort of covering to keep out the elements was universal. Indeed, Anton found the same was true of this planet. Perhaps it was even more necessary to have proper insulation, as his senses indicated that the planet was below freezing. Though it was odd, because there was very little in terms of ice or snow to be found.
He focused on a particular hut. There was a crackling fire in the center of it, surrounded by a dirt floor and a small number of furnishings. No, he wouldn’t quite call it a dirt floor but instead it was a step beyond that. It was bare soil, with plants growing out of it. Anton wondered who was so hard pressed as to not be able to pull up weeds within their own home, but in a moment it became clear to him that the plants were quite intentionally kept. The packed dirt from walking around them had a very particular pattern, an intention to avoid them. Some sort of crops, then?
The inhabitants of the hut slept, as with most of the rest in the small city- shop and other public spaces alike standing empty. Anton sought out another area, looking for people who were up and about. Without an external source of light, there was no cycle to be followed but the majority of the city seemed to follow a set time.
But finally, Anton found some alert individuals. The first was a shepherd, tending his flocks while bundled in many layers. The sheep in question possessed a very thick wool, enough that Anton wasn’t quite certain about their body shape or if they were in fact sheep and not simply piles of wool, not without looking deeper. If this was the time of twilight, Anton would have expected that along with the shepherd farmers of all sorts would be up, tending to their fields. However, he found only a few in all the fields.
It was simple to judge the city as being particularly lazy and full of sluggards… but without dawn to judge by, he wondered what getting up early amounted to at all. A proper farmer worked hard all day and rested fully at night. But as long as the work got done when it was needed, Anton couldn’t discount anyone’s personal style. And without a sun providing heat, any time was just as good as any other. Synchronizing to the city center was not particularly odd.
After a few hours, Anton was finally able to determine it had become early morning. That was because various activities began. Bakers starting on their wares, shopkeepers setting up. People out and about on the streets, though still in small quantities. They began to interact with one another, and Anton discovered a slight hiccup in his current method of observation. He couldn’t understand any conversations.
It wasn’t that he didn’t have the capacity to transmit the sounds from down below back to himself. He simply didn’t understand the words. Focusing on signs and other writings, he couldn’t make sense of any of it. Even cut off worlds that had distanced themselves maintained some recognizable roots, but this was completely different.
But though he couldn’t understand their words, people’s actions generally spoke for themselves. He could even tell how a conversation was going by body language. There were certainly some quirks of bodily expression he didn’t immediately understand, but he understood confidence, anger, and exasperation. There was also much to be understood by tone of voice.
For an entire day Anton watched, uncertain what to do. Should he do anything? They were living their lives just fine without him. He seriously doubted that the upper realms would be trouble for them. But even so, he found their lifestyle rather… pitiful. Citizens began to push through cramped streets, many of which were covered increasing the claustrophobia. And yet, Anton saw the design was intentional. People nearly fled from one place to another for warmth, and gaining some warmth from people before their destination might prove to be more valuable to them than the comfort of personal space. He might have thought the city simply grew too quickly, but the pattern continued even on the outer edge, next to their fields.
Everything growing in the fields was some sort of root vegetable. Some fields appeared to lie fallow, but when Anton took a closer look he found that the crops grown within were merely buried deeper. It was a bit warmer there, perhaps.
The world was cold… but none were freezing. Or perhaps Anton should better interpret that as those who would freeze had already done so.
Some equivalent of local evening came, and then night. But rather than settling to bed on their own time like Anton expected, the whole city began to synchronize on one final daily task. No, it wasn’t just the city. Anton had expected individual cities to keep their own time, but instead he felt the planet change all at once, with a very slight bias towards a phenomenon beginning in the largest cities with their barriers and pulsing outward.
Cultivation. Everyone began to cultivate all at once. Anton felt a flow of natural energy pulling in from all of the surrounding areas… but there was more. Even though it had no connection to him, Anton recognized a great flow of devotion from the outlying areas, flowing from small villages to cities to the metropolises. But it wasn’t just a one-sided gathering. Something also flowed out in the reverse direction, a comforting and protective feeling- though that was merely what Anton gathered secondhand. He was not present down below, nor did he think he would be welcome.
There were imperfections in the flow, but like eddies in a river they faded with distance. The greater flow was unstoppable, falling into place naturally. Anton could do nothing but watch with rapt attention. It was imperfect, but still beautiful.
Then, just as it had begun, it also ended. The vast flow faded away, turning into tiny trickles which faded away.
Then Anton felt something more. Something quite unexpected, in his position. Something looked at him. No, someone. The path of their gaze caught Anton on the outside of one of the large cities, where he was absolutely not planning to look further. Then it was gone, swiftly enough to almost make Anton believe it was a coincidence, or that it did not happen at all. But he knew better than that.
What should he do? Curiosity told him to stay. Common sense told him to leave. Caution told him to learn more before making any moves.
The next cycle came. Calling it a day seemed inappropriate, as there was no day to be had. A few individuals resisted the typical constraints of the cycle, but Anton had not noticed a single individual disconnected from the greater flow of cultivation. During other hours, however, Anton felt very little cultivation, though some used natural energy to aid their labor.
He focused on finding a schoolhouse. If he wanted to understand what was said, he needed to learn the basics. Fortunately, they did have some form of formal schooling. With somewhat more intentional speech, and a relation to their system of writing, Anton picked up the very beginnings of a grasp of the language. But Anton was no closer to answering his biggest questions.
But he did consider something. His innate desire to help could lead him into inserting himself into situations where he really wasn’t wanted… but while he was quite certain that this planet could continue to survive without him, he wasn’t sure if that was enough. Was this truly what they wanted? Or, like Gnadus, had their ancestors merely ended up here. Were they trapped, if they could not ascend?
Could they ascend, from this place? Anton didn’t think there was a lack of natural energy that would prevent them. In fact, he had the uncomfortable feeling that the individual who spotted him was beyond Life Transformation.
The fact that he could not simply leave them alone didn’t say much. Anton knew that was who he was. It wasn’t something good or bad. He knew there were probably more technically efficient ways to help people. He could have left- he could still leave, finishing his journey to a nearby star system. If he found people there, he could influence millions or maybe billions of their lives- over the course of decades and centuries of course.
That might not necessarily be different from this one planet, except for an important factor. These people couldn’t become part of an alliance. Certainly, they would have a more difficult time doing so, reducing how much they could contribute in the overall fight against the invasions of the upper realms. And while that was important to Anton… sometimes, he just wanted to think about people on a smaller scale.
He wanted to tell a young pair of siblings practicing archery how to adjust their stance. He wanted to chat with a farmer about what he was growing. More selfishly, he wanted to ask about the worldwide cultivation phenomenon. What did it mean to people? While they appeared to be doing it willingly, perhaps they really had little choice. All this and more Anton wondered.
Yet with every moment he felt time slipping away. He should be doing something else. Something more impactful. How long was he even going to live, anyway?
That last one was what got him back on track. Not the thought of limited time, exactly. Instead, it was the reminder that everything he currently was able to experience was already extra time. Certainly, it was worthwhile to spend his time trying to improve the lives of the most people possible. But if he did not remain true to his own desires, could he continue to provide faithful aid to others?
In other words, this was part of his vacation. And he was going to remain as long as he felt like, unless he could determine that the people wanted him gone. But at the moment, he was just observing- and not prying into the private lives of anyone.
The puzzle he was trying to figure out now was why people didn’t live underground, especially considering they had little in the way of proper structural material like wood. There had to be a reason, given that all their buildings were simply losing heat to the world around them. It was a wonder they hadn’t frozen over already. The only thing keeping them going was likely their dedication to cultivation, and natural energy supplementing the actual heat they had.
He’d picked up a bit of the language. Not enough to have an actual conversation, but his ability to intuit what people were talking about had improved.
“Good morning,” a grocer indicated to a customer. Crops from the surrounding area were placed atop his shelves, remaining fresh despite being there for days. Because unlike other places, this shop was kept cold.
“Thank you, sir. Good morning to you as well,” said the female customer. “If you could acquire for me -” It was there that Anton got lost, among the names of various vegetables and herbs, all of which they were fortunate to have at all given the harsh growing conditions. The grocer quickly plucked things off the shelves, and Anton noted them for the future, hoping to match them with words later.
His senses shifted to find others talking, and then, eventually to a farm. There he saw someone digging up the deep roots, and found the first clue to why they would live on the surface. Instead of proper digging, the farmers were performing a task more akin to mining. The earth was hard as a rock, frozen as it was- and it hardly eased up as they got deeper. Was it worth so much effort for the plants? Anton determined that it was, given the bits of natural energy he felt inside them while those on the surface were nearly devoid of it. But if it could be done at all, why not use it for something longer term like shelter? Anton knew people did everything for a reason, though sometimes that reason was lost to time and not very good to begin with.