Diplomacy and Death

 
Secret Meetings
“I don’t like it,” says her elder advisor.
“There’s no way we can protect you tomorrow when you visit the emperor on his ship.”

“At the moment, they mean us no harm, elder,” says Keela.
“Besides, Berek will be there with me.”

“They are heavily armed, and we don’t know how many guards are on each ship.”
“Berek’s fighting skills are unmatched, but without the web, how can he defend you against hundreds of enemies?!”
“One energy blast is all it takes to kill you!”

“I agree with the elder,” says Berek.
“It’s reckless to meet them on the ship.”

“This is my decision,” says Keela.
“We need to learn more about the Kizak.”
“Maybe we can convince them to leave us alone.”

“Let me go first, without you, to make sure it’s safe.”

“I am queen, Berek.”
“A leader does not act like a coward.”
“Another word, and I’ll go alone!”

“I’m sorry,” he says.
“I’ll see you later.”
Berek walks out of the commander’s office, goes outside the building, and activates the flying armband.
Ten minutes later, he leaves Tshuan behind, and passes over a great forest.
Beyond that is a mountain range.
Berek rises toward a snow-covered mountaintop, and lands there.
He activates a nullifier briefly and scans the area for miles around.
There’s no one here, and no sign of any equipment that could detect communications.
The Kizak disk glows slightly when he turns it on.

The emperor is alone in his chamber, looking at images of his family, when his sons were little, and his wife was still alive.
A familiar pattern of tones signals an important message.
He activates the communication disk.
“What is it?”
“I left orders that no one should interrupt me for the next hour.”

“Yes, emperor, but one of the commdisks that we gave to Tshuan has been activated.”
“He says he will only speak with you.”

Teyus sighs, and connects.
“Who is this?”

“Berek.”

“What do you need, Lord Berek?”
“If you want to reschedule our meeting, any of my staff can do it.”

“No, emperor.”
“I wish to meet with you alone, today.”

“The queen asked you to contact me?”

“It’s my idea, and I need to keep this meeting secret, for now.”
“The queen might not approve of it.”

“Why should I agree, and risk upsetting her?”

“I can convince the queen to join the empire or reject it.”
“Meet with me, and you’ll get my support.”

“You’re far from Tshuan, Lord Berek.”

“Yes, so I can be picked up without anyone noticing.”

“We have ships in the guild lands, building healing centers.”
“I’ll divert one of them to your location.”
“It will arrive in a few minutes.”

While he waits, Berek hides all of the tech he carries except for the Kizak commdisk.
He wears the long knives that the emperor gave him as gifts.
The ship lands, and one of the guards steps out.
“Wear this,” says the guard, handing him a belt, and eyeing the knives.

“What does it do?” asks Berek.
“Wenri has lower gravity than Siksa, and we keep our ships the same as the homeworld.”
“I’ve set your belt to simulate Siksa’s familiar gravity so you can move normally on the ship.”
“Press here to activate it, once you go aboard.”

“Show me how to adjust the device.”

The guard looks troubled.
“We have orders not to show you any of our tech, without specific permission.”

“That makes sense, but you’re giving me this to use while I’m on board.”
“I should know how to use it.”

The interface is simple.
The user enters a number which indicates the desired multiple of Kizak standard gravity.
Siksa is 1.32.

I’ve trained in Mayla’s simulations to handle high and low gravity, and I’ve continued to practice high gravity activity in Tshuan using heavy weights, but I won’t tell that to the Kizak.

Berek waits a few minutes before turning on the gtech device, to see if he remembers his low gravity training.
He has no trouble walking or handling objects, despite the lower gravity.

“I’ll take your knives now,” says the guard, nervously.
He has been told that his passenger is extremely dangerous, but to treat him with the greatest respect

“I’d rather keep them.”

“You have to surrender them before you set foot on the ship.”
“Visitors are not permitted to carry weapons.”

“The knives are a gift from the emperor,” says Berek.
“Ask him whether I can keep them.”

The guard is reluctant, but he contacts his commanding officer using the headset he wears.
A few minutes later, he gets the surprising answer.

“You’re allowed to wear them, Lord Berek, even when you meet with him.”
“Forgive me.”

“No apology needed.”
“You were only following orders.”

 
Safety
Berek is led to a beautiful room with elaborate furniture.
He sits alone for a few minutes, while the walls display shifting views of great cities, oceans, forests, and mountains.

He stands when the emperor enters with several guards.
“Good day, emperor,” says Berek.
“Are these views of Wenri?”

“Yes, Lord Berek.”

“A beautiful world.”

“Perhaps you will see it, someday.”

“I would love to travel to other worlds.”

The emperor smiles.
“Out,” he says to his guards.

“We can’t leave you with him,” says one of the palace guard.
“The alien has proven that he’s dangerous, plus you’ve allowed him to be armed.”

“If he wanted to kill me, he would have done it on the planet.”
“Go.”

“Why are you here, Lord Berek?” asks the emperor, after the guards leave.
“To plead with us to go away, and leave the energy web alone.”

“No.”
“You truly believe that energy abilities are dangerous.”
“Belief is not easily pushed away by argument.”

The lights fail, and the room goes dark.
The gravity adjuster shuts off, and Berek feels the gravity shift.

“What have you done, Berek?” shouts the emperor, reaching for a communication device around his neck.

“Nothing.”
“Every device in the room seems to have stopped working, including communication, and the gravity belt.”
“Maybe there’s a problem with the ship’s power.”

“No.”
“Your belt and the commring have their own power source.”
“Every device in this room is being jammed by a tech screen.”
“Maybe the whole ship is being jammed.”

The emperor feels his way to the door, and bends down to find a manual release hidden behind an access panel.
He pulls on the release and the door opens.
The corridor outside is also dark, but lights are approaching.
Three guards enter the room holding lights and active weapons, and wearing gravity belts.

The lights are pointed at Berek and the emperor, making it difficult to see.

“What’s happening?” asks the emperor.
“Where is the tech screen coming from?”
“How did you get your lights and weapons to work?”

One of the guards pushes the emperor away from the access panel, and manually closes the door.

“How dare you!” shouts the emperor.

The guards turns their lights to the side.
Their faces are covered with masks.

“Quiet, fool.”
“The tech screen is ours.”
“We’re rebels, here to kill you.”
“Stand aside alien, and you won’t get hurt.”
“Your people know the blessings.”
“We have no fight with you.”

They activate a gtech device which doubles the gravity in the room.
Their own gravity belts are set to compensate, so they’re unaffected.
The emperor falls to the floor, and is unable to rise.

“The three of them are still close together,” thinks Berek.
“An easy target.”
The gravity is about 1.5 times Siksa’s, but with his heavy gravity training, and Kruta movements, he can still fight.
A few moments later, their throats are cut.
It takes him another minute to shut off the gravity projector, and restore the normal gravity in the room.

Berek helps the emperor rise.

“I could barely breathe,” he tells Berek.
“You killed them all, even with the heavy gravity.”

“Training,” says Berek.
“That’s all.”

The emperor pulls on the manual release again, and walks out the door with Berek, carrying one of the lights.
“We need to find loyal guards.”
“There may be more rebels on the ship.”

Several palace guards approach, and the lights in the corridor come back on.
“This is the alien’s doing, emperor,” says one of them, pointing a weapon at Berek.
“We’ll kill him, and bring his body back to the queen.”
“Let them all know what happens to those who threaten the Kizak!”

“Stop,” says the emperor, knocking the weapon from the guard’s hands.
“He saved me from rebels.”
“Look in the room.”

“I recognize them,” says one of the guards when he returns.
“They’re all palace guards, for many years.”
“How could this happen?”
“The rebels must be everywhere!”

“Why were there no guards outside this room?!”

“There were guards here, but they never suspected that their friends would attack them.”
“We just received a message that the bodies were hidden nearby.”

“Walk with me, Berek, while they clean up the room.”
The emperor brings him to a garden.
Berek sits down.

“You look troubled,” says the emperor.

“I’ve never killed anyone before.”

“But everyone says that you avenged the king’s death.”

“An alien spirit took over the body of the queen’s brother.”
“I drove out that spirit, so that it can never return.”
“That struggle is nothing like watching a man die at your hands.”

“Every soldier must face this moment, Berek, when he feels the power of life and death, and chooses to kill one person, and save another.”

Berek stands.
“I feel different.”

“Yes,” says the emperor.
“It’s a great moment in one’s life.”

Berek takes a deep breath, and absorbs the sights and scents of the garden.

“You could have let them kill me,” says the emperor.
“Why did you stop them?

“Your men would have blamed the attack on me or the Jiku.”
“We’re safer with you still alive, and I’ll do whatever it takes to keep Keela safe.”
“That’s why I’m here.”

“I believe you.”
“The best way to keep her safe Berek, is to convince her to bring Tshuan into the empire.”
“It’s in her own best interest.”
“There are traitors in Tshuan who want to kill her.”
“Without us, she will lose her throne, and probably her life.”
“We can strengthen her position, and give her a great role to play.”
“She will lead the empire in this galaxy, and you will walk at her side.”

Berek pauses and the emperor continues.

“I know you love the power that the curses bring you, but you can have a rich life without them.”
“It’s the only way to keep her safe.”

“I’ll do as you suggest,” says Berek.
“Anything to protect her.”

 
Dinner and Doubt
“What will you say to the emperor, Keela?” asks Berek.

“That we’re honored by his offer, but we only kill when necessary.”
“We won’t go to war against other races in the galaxy.”

“But we can still become part of the empire.”

“Why would we do that?”
“Pay taxes, and compromise our freedom?”
“For what?”

“Their tech is impressive.”
“It would improve the quality of life across the planet.”
“Besides, if they conquer us, we’ll have much less freedom, and thousands of Jiku lives will be lost.”
“We should join the empire, until we find a way to steal their tech, and become stronger than them.”

“Why are you so sure that they’ll go to war?”
“Maybe they’ll just leave when we refuse.”

“The Kizak came here from another galaxy, Keela.”
“They’ve chosen us.”
“Do you think they’ll just go away?!”

“Why did they pick us?”
“We’re far from the edge of the galaxy.”

“When the empire moves into a new area, they identify worlds which harness the power of the web.”
“The first emperor said that such worlds are evil and the source of all wars.”
“Every emperor after him has followed those words without hesitation.”
“Worlds like ours must accept the Kizak peacefully, or be conquered or destroyed.”

“Why are you so afraid of them, Berek?”

“I’m not, but I don’t think you should be so quick to send your people to their death.”

“Better to die with honor than be a slave.”

“That’s not the choice.”
“Are you going to reject the Kizak, no matter what the cost?”

She sighs.
“I’ll listen to what the emperor has to say, Berek, but I won’t promise more than that.”
“Then, as queen, I’ll decide what’s right for Tshuan, whether you like it, or not!”

“I know it’s your decision, but you don’t have to tell the Kizak everything you’re thinking.”
“Stall the emperor for a few months.”
“My father will return, and find a way to fight them.”

“Master Yagrin?!”
“I wish he would come and save us, Berek.”
“I really do.”
“But he’s not here, and he may never come back.”
“It’s up to us, now.”

Dinner is served aboard ship in the same ornate room where Berek met with the emperor.
The emperor and two of his advisors describe the glory of the empire — its size, technology, culture.
Then he speaks about the great role that Tshuan could play, leading the search for new worlds in this galaxy.
Keela listens politely until he finishes.

“You’ve been quiet, queen Keela.”
“Tell me what you think.”

“I think that the empire has achieved great things.”
“But I don’t think that the Jiku are ready to play the role that you’ve imagined for us.”

“Why not?”

“The guilds and Tshuan have been enemies for a long time.”
“Siksa needs to solve that struggle before it can be a leading world in the empire.”
“And we have old fears about going into space that will be difficult to overcome.”
“We’re not ready to be the leaders that you need us to be.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Will you accept our offer of membership in the empire?”

“We have little to offer you, emperor.”
“We’re too immature as a people.”
“Maybe in another century or two, we will be ready to accept this honor.”
“I’m sorry that you’ve traveled so far, for nothing.”

The emperor stands.
“It’s not that simple.”
“Your world is full of the cursed.”

“But you’ve stopped them with your technology.”

“For now.”
“You have the knowledge to build ships, even though you pretend not to use it.”
“We would never have found you, but for your probe that reached our galaxy.”
Someone on Siksa is actively building ships.”
“Your cursed will go to other worlds, and fill this galaxy with war.”
“We can’t let that happen.”
“You must join the empire now.”

“Let us delay for a year, emperor.”
“Leave some of your advisors with us, and help us prepare for the great changes that will come to Siksa.”

“That’s too long.”
“Anything can happen in a year.”

“Will you take this world by force, and kill us if we resist?”

“You are the first one to speak of force and killing.”
“It would be much better for everyone if you simply agree.”

“Tshuans are a proud people, emperor.”
“You may conquer us for a time, but one day we will have our revenge.”

“No one has to die, queen Keela.”

“My father already died because of you,” shouts Keela.

“What are you talking about?”

“You’ve heard the story of the invading spirit that took over my brother’s body and killed my father.”

“Yes, but what does that have to do with us?”

“It was a Kizak spirit, named Harkus,” says Keela.

“That’s impossible.”
“My son was named Harkus, and it was a rare name.”

“It was your son,” shouts Keela, “or at least some shadow of him!”
“He told us that when his body burned, his spirit found its way here.”
“Harkus pretended to be my brother, but when we discovered the truth, he begged us to let him stay.”
“When we first tried to drive away his spirit, he killed my father.”
“Berek eventually drove him out of the body and killed him.”

“You killed my son!” says the emperor.

“No,” says Berek.
You suppress energy talent, and it bursts out in dangerous ways.”
“You’re the ones who made his body burn, and sent him to his death.”

“You killed one cursed son, and your father killed the other.”

“What are you talking about?” asks Keela.

“His father Yagrin came to Wenri, wearing a Kizak body,” says the emperor.
“He used many names among us, including Yagrin and Neyima.”
“Neyima convinced my son Disu to follow the way of the curses, and Disu died because of it.”

“How could a Kizak man in your galaxy be Berek’s father?” asks Keela.

“I don’t know for sure, but those knives are unique, and they were carried by Neyima, as well as Berek’s father.”
“And Berek has been trained in their use.”
“Neyima had a mental shield that we’ve never seen anywhere else, until we came to Siksa.”
“I don’t expect you to admit it,” adds the emperor.
“Just go.”
“Think for a few days about what I’ve said.”
“We can still resolve this peacefully, before more children die for nothing from the curses.”

Three guards escort Keela and Berek back to the ship, while the emperor sits down with his advisors.
“Lord Berek never confirmed that Neyima was his father,” says one advisor.

“No, but he didn’t deny it.”
“He knows that it’s possible.”

“Will you take your revenge on them?”

“My sons were corrupted by the curses, and the boys have paid the price for their weakness.”
“Siksa is not responsible.”
“The only revenge I want here is against the curses themselves.”

“What would you like us to do now?”

“The queen is unlikely to agree, and the guilds give vague replies.”
“We need to find other friends, so we can avoid war.”
“Publicize the wonders of the empire, and the right of the people to have a voice in the future.”
“We want upheaval in the governments of both lands, so everyone will look to us to bring order.”
“If the people take over, it’s even better.”
“In our experience, we’ve found it easier to convince democratic governments to join us.”

 
Debate
Three days later, just after first sun, the Tshuan infonet is flooded with reports of miraculous cures, and images of beautiful Kizak worlds.
There are dramatic moments from political debates that took place on the Kizak home world when Teyus’s father was alive.
The old emperor suggested the introduction of an elected council with real power, and the Kizak media debated the benefits of such a change.
Everything that appears on the infonet is translated to the Jiku language, using expressions and slang common in Tshuan.

The Kizak follow a different approach in the guild lands, focusing at first on the healing centers.
The centers are located in heavily populated areas, and are full of Jiku, even though they’ve only been open a few days.
As each center is built, the guilds and the public wonder why the outside walls of the centers have huge display areas.
When the center is complete, the walls light up, and display information about the centers.
When people are cured from serious injury or illness, they’re asked to speak of their healing experience.
Those stories are displayed for everyone to see, encouraging others to come in for treatment.

Now the walls have another purpose.
At first sun, the walls go dark, except for the word watch.
A few minutes later, sounds and sights of exotic Kizak worlds appear, followed by excerpts of the information released in Tshuan.
Citizens are encouraged to look for more information on the guild infonet, beginning at mid-day.
The guild infonet is separate from the one in Tshuan.
Everyone here has access to it, but the council discourages its use.
On a normal day, the young are the greatest users, ignoring the council’s advice that technology is dangerous.
As the morning continues, more and more Jiku are talking on the infonet, commenting on the excerpts shown at the healing centers, waiting for the full content.

Even more Jiku rush to the infonet when mid-day comes.
The net becomes a place to discuss everything that is wrong with the guilds, and what should be changed.
Soon, the majority of people in both lands are talking about the empire and change.
In Tshuan, some start to call the infonet the changenet, and the Kizak carry that name to the guild lands.
Discussions lead to demonstrations, larger than any ever seen.
The Tshuan guard comes out in force, in case there is trouble, but the demonstrations are peaceful.
In the guild lands, the demonstrations are more chaotic, and there’s damage to buildings near the council hall.

Berek comes to Keela’s office, a week after their visit to the emperor.
“We have a problem, Keela,” he says.

“That’s obvious,” she says.
“There’s growing chaos, and the Kizak are responsible.”

“Yes, but the people’s discontent is real.”
“Still, that’s not why I’m here.”

“What do you want?” she asks, frustrated.
Keela doesn’t know how to deal with the political unrest.

“This morning, one of the sisters disappeared.”
“Her name is Hanli.”

“So she grew tired of the school, and took a trip.”
“So what?”

“She’s not like that.”
“I know her well.”
“Ilaz and I are her students.”

“Perhaps she’s mentally unstable.”

“She disappeared in the middle of the night, Keela, and her room shows signs of struggle.”
“And there’s a note: The masters will rise, and Tshuan will fall to the guilds.”

“Do you think the guilds really did this?”

“Unlikely, but some of the people will think so.”

“We must keep this quiet, and search for the woman secretly.”

“It’s too late for that.”
“News of the event appeared on the Tshuan and guild infonets, only a few minutes after we knew about it in the school, and there’s a rumor that you’re planning to attack the guild lands, now that they have no powers.”
“In the guild lands, they say that the Tshuan guard kidnapped the woman at your request to give you an excuse to attack.”

“It’s not true, Berek!”

“I know that, Keela, but there are people in both lands that believe it.”
“Two days ago, the guilds gave transport technology to the emperor, in appreciation for the healing centers, and as a sign of friendship.”
“The aliens completed several platforms aboard the emperor’s ship, only a few hours after they received the plans.”
“This morning shortly after the kidnapping appeared on the infonets, the Kizak offered to mediate the dispute, and help keep the peace.”
“The guild council accepted their offer, and give the Kizak transport security codes.”
“Hundreds of armed Kizak traveled through the platforms, and are patrolling the streets in several cities.”
“Additional Kizak transport ships have landed, with weapons and supplies.”

“This all happened too quickly and conveniently!”
“The Kizak must be behind this.”
“They want us to attack the guild lands.”

“I agree, but we can’t prove it.”

“What do I do?”

“Make an announcement to everyone (your people, the Kizak, and the guild lands) that you don’t believe that the guilds are responsible for the kidnapping, and that you won’t attack.”

Keela goes off to issue the message, and returns ten minutes later.
Ilaz is waiting with Berek.

“How are you, Ilaz?” asks Keela, giving him a hug.

“Terrible, without my master.”
“What are you going to do about Hanli?”

“I’ve ordered hundreds of the guards to search for her throughout Tshuan.”

“That’s pointless.”
“It’s the guilds that took her.”
“Message the council, and tell them to return her.”

“Don’t be a fool,” says Keela.
“There’s a cage in place.”
“The guilds are too weak and too timid to openly act against us.”
“The kidnapping is a Kizak plot to make the Jiku fight each other.”

“Then contact the emperor, and tell him that you know what he’s doing.”
“Dare him to deny it!”
“Don’t just abandon Hanli!”

“I can’t accuse the emperor, Ilaz,” says Keela, “without putting Tshuan and all of Siksa at risk.”
“He’s just waiting for an excuse to attack us.”
“Soon the Kizak will see that the kidnapping has no effect, and they’ll release your teacher unharmed.”

“How long will it take?”
“What if the Kizak are mistreating her?”

“I don’t know.”

Ilaz walks away, upset.

“The school should close, Berek,” says Keela.
“What’s the point of teaching about the web when you can’t draw power from it?”
“Why is Ilaz still there?”

“First of all, the children are orphans, and have no place else to go.”
“We mostly teach them about ordinary subjects, like math, science, language, history, art and music.”
“And it’s still important to teach about the creator and the web that he put here to support all of life.

“But what good is it to have a movements class?”

“Some of the movements still enhance our connection with the web, even with the cage.”
“They have a noticeable, though diminished effect.”

 
First Vote
The eldest of the queen’s advisors enters, and activates the wall.
“Look,” he says.

There are two large columns of numbers displayed, changing every few seconds.

“What is this?” asks Keela.

“The infonet.”
“The people are voting whether to join the empire, and change Tshuan’s government.”

“You’re joking.”
“Who agreed to such a vote?”

“It’s not official in any way, but a rumor was spread that there would be a real vote soon.”
“Someone set up the link, and people started voting.”
“As of now, over half of Tshuan has voted.”

“Half?!”

“Yes, and seventy percent of those who voted want you to revive the great council, and join the empire.”
“The numbers are similar in the guild lands.”

“We can’t take this seriously.”
“The Kizak have faked the entire thing.”

“I’m sure they’re involved, but there’s no way to know how much they’ve adjusted the numbers.”
“We’ve randomly monitored many of the messages moving through Tshuan today.”
“Everyone is talking about the vote, and they’re clearly excited about getting a new council and joining the empire.”

“But the percentage of positive messages about the vote must be smaller than seventy percent.”

“No, they’re about the same.”

“Issue a public announcement.”
“Tell the people that we’re proud of their initiative in wanting to improve the government, and their willingness to welcome visitors to our planet.”
“However, stability is critical to Tshuan’s success.”
“The current government will manage any discussions with the empire.”
“Changes to the government will only be explored after the matter with the empire is settled.”

The advisor returns fifteen minutes later.

“Did you post the announcement on the infonet?” asks Keela.

“Yes.”

“What are the people saying about it?”

“More of our people have voted, a total of seventy-five percent of the adult population.”
“The level of support for empire membership, and a change of government is still high.”
“There’s more.”
“You know that members of the guard are prohibited from attending public political events, or making public political statements.”
“Of course, they’re allowed to vote, and express their opinions in private communication.”
“We’ve been looking at guard messages, especially after your latest announcement.”

“I’m sure the guard overwhelmingly supports us.”

“Most of the guard avoids politics, even in their private messages, partly because they suspect that we monitor their communications.”
“Today, almost half of the guard are speaking about the vote in their messages, and a third of them agree with the public.”
“They want a change in government, and membership in the empire.”

One-third don’t support us?”

“We can’t be sure what they would do in a crisis.”
“I suspect that many of them would follow orders, but for how long?”

“How is the guild council responding to the vote in their lands?”

“They’re encouraging the people to express their opinion.”
“The council is promising to review the results and take action as soon as possible.”

“They’re just stalling.”
“They won’t act anytime soon.”

“You’re right, but their response seems more supportive of the people than yours does.”
“They’re pretending that they’ll take action, while you’ve said that you’re going to ignore the results.”

Keela’s Kizak commdisk starts flashing, indicating an incoming message.
She accepts the message, and an image appears, a foot above the disk.
It’s the emperor.

“Have you seen the results of the vote, queen Keela?”

“You know I have.”
“I’m sure you’ve seen our response.”

“We’re concerned that this may lead to civil war in Tshuan, and possibly the guild lands.”
“I’m offering my troops to help maintain order, if you need them.”

“Thank you for your generous offer, but we can handle the situation.”

“I have a suggestion.”
“Accept our offer of membership now, and end the crisis before it escalates.”
“The people would feel that you were listening, and I think that you could indefinitely postpone any change in the government.”

Keela is angry at his interference, but she pushes the emotion away.
“I’ll discuss it with my advisors, and respond soon.”

“Good,” says the emperor.
“I look forward to it.”

“I’m just stalling him, Berek,” says Keela, after the link is broken.
“I have no intention of joining the empire.”

“Still,” says the elder, “the law requires that the whole council meet to discuss such a vital issue, my queen.”

“I’ve made my decision, but let them talk.”
“Message them to come right away, to discuss it.”

The full council of seven advisors takes two hours to assemble.
“I’m tired of discussing this issue,” says Keela to the council, as they get ready to enter the conference room.”
“Form your own opinion, and then message me to join you for a summary of your thoughts.”

Keela walks away.
An hour and a half passes before they call her back to the room.
The elder looks upset when Keela enters.

“What’s wrong?” she asks.

“I don’t agree with the council’s conclusions, my queen, so they have chosen a new speaker to present their viewpoint.”

One of the youngest advisors stands up, a woman about thirty years old.
“My queen,” says the advisor, “the majority of your council, five out of seven, believes that Siksa should accept membership in the empire.”
“We’ve been isolated and stagnant too long.”
“We sit and wait for visions to come true, and do almost nothing to improve the lives of the people.”
“Siksa needs to grow and change.”
“Further, we think that one week after the terms of membership are settled, we should complete and publicize a plan for restoring the great council.”

“Thank you for your advice, council, but in this instance, I will not be able to follow it.”
“The empire is bad for Tshuan, and bad for Siksa.”
“We must reject the empire, send them away, and restore peace.”
“If we succeed, then, in a few years, we can discuss the great council again.”

“We’re confident that our plan is best for Tshuan,” adds the speaker.
“This is what the people truly want.”

“I am the voice of Tshuan,” says the queen, raising her voice, “and I will decide its future.”
“My opinion will never be based on what’s popular or easy!”

“We hoped you would listen to us,” says the speaker, “but we expected you to respond like this.”
“It is your decision, according to current law, but we can no longer support you.”
“The five of us resign, effective immediately.”

“You’re going to resign now?” asks Keela.
“That’s irresponsible.”
“The people are troubled, and only a strong government can reassure them.”
“And we need to convince the Kizak that Tshuan does not want them, so the aliens will leave us alone.”

“We don’t agree,” says the speaker.
“The people are upset with you and this government.”
“They want something new, and welcome the coming of the empire.”

The five council members walk out.

 
First Kill
The council’s resignation is on the infonet within minutes, along with the details of their disagreement with the queen.
A few hours later, there’s a suggestion on the net that they plan a general strike, and form a new government.

The strike takes place the following morning.
Almost all of Tshuan closes down, and thousands of people meet in public places to talk about what they must do.
In the capital city, they decide to march toward the commander’s headquarters.
The guard tries to turn them away when the crowd reaches the first checkpoint, a mile away.
When the people break through the checkpoint, one of the guards fires a stun blast, which knocks out a dozen people.
There are only three guards at the site, and they are quickly overpowered.

When the crowd reaches the next checkpoint, they’re met by hundreds of guards, heavily armed.
“Go back,” says the captain.
“We don’t want to hurt anyone, but you’re approaching a military facility where most civilians are not permitted to go.”
The crowd advances, but the guard fire a wide stun ray.
Everyone is knocked out, falling all over each other.

The guards move methodically through the crowd, putting restraints on each person, and then reviving them.
There are some injuries from the falls, including some broken bones.
But in the middle of the group, they find an eight-year-old child, with four adults covering her.
She’s not breathing, and the guard doctor is unable to revive her.

The death ceremony takes place the next day.
The queen wants to attend, but the crowd is angry, and the guard advises her to stay away.
The parents get up to speak when the ceremony is over.

“Tshuan was once a place of justice,” says the girl’s mother, “but there is no justice today.”
“How can the guards kill a child, and dismiss their murder with a short apology?”
“We have no leaders anymore.”
“It’s time for the great council to return, and the queen to go!”
“Only a new government can bring us justice!”

Niyta, and three of the other sisters come to the queen.
She agrees to meet with them, but only for a few minutes.

“Tshuan is crumbling,” she says.
“What do you want?”

“We’re skilled negotiators, my queen,” says Niyta, their leader.
“I suggest we facilitate negotiations between you and some of those who are leading the crowd.”
“You could form a government similar to the old kingdom.”
“You would still be queen, but you would work with the great council.”

“I’ve already said that we can’t make any changes in government until the Kizak leave.”

“The people will never accept that.”
“Form the new government first, and maybe you’ll be able to convince the council to reject the Kizak.”
“Compromise, or there will be civil war and death.”

“Never,” says Keela.
“Go back to your school.”
She sends them away.

“Am I wrong, Berek?” asks Keela, when the two of them are alone in the room.
“Is compromise the only solution?”
“How can I let my people welcome our enemies?”

“I don’t see how you can save Tshuan without compromise, but the people may be too angry and troubled to accept any compromise with you.”
“Maybe we should just go, so your people will have no reason to fight each other.”
“We could leave Siksa in the starship, or hide in the sleeper’s cavern.”

“I am not a coward.”
“Whatever happens, I will stay here, among the sacred hills, where my father and the other kings before us ruled.”
“I will stand with any of my guard who support me, until we are victorious, captured or dead.”
“You can stay or go, as you wish.”

Berek smiles.
“There’s no place for me, except here, with you.”

 
Revenge
“What did the queen say, Niyta?” asks Shazira, when Niyta returns to the school.

“She’s stubborn, and believes that we must send away the Kizak.”

“What will happen?”

“More than half the guard will defend her if she is attacked.”
“If she sends the guard against the people, before she’s attacked, I don’t know what they’ll do.”
“I suspect that there will be civil war, with or without the active involvement of the Kizak.”

Tzina bursts into the room.
“Oodah, one of the children found Hanli.”
“Come quickly.”

“Where was she found?” asks Shazira, as she and Niyta follow Tzina outside.

“At the edge of the nearby forest, near the entrance to the busiest one of the trails.”
“That trail is used every day.”
“Whoever took Hanli, must have brought her back, and left her there in the last few hours.

A few sisters are with Hanli when they reach her.
She’s alive, but her breathing is shallow, and her pulse slow.
A note by the body claims that this was done by the guilds.

Niyta sends away the older children who have gathered there, and most of the other sisters.
Then she lays down next to Hanli, and activates one of the nullifiers that Berek give her, placing it between them.
Niyta scans the damage.

“Every organ is failing, and there’s severe brain damage.”
“I can’t heal her fast enough to save her, even if I had the strength, and the nullifier worked for hours.”
“Besides, her mind will never recover, after so much trauma to her brain.”
“I’ll do what I can to stabilize her temporarily, and reduce the pain.”

Tzina reaches out to touch Hanli.

“What are you doing?” asks Niyta.
“You’re not a healer.”

Tzina stops.
“No, but I can read some of her memories and find out what happened to her.”

“Too dangerous,” says Shazira.

“We need to know who did this,” says Tzina, “and why, or no one in the school will be safe!”

“The Kizak put a mind cage around the planet,” says Niyta.
“How do you expect to reach Hanli.”

“Mind Weavers can overcome the cage, if we touch the other person’s skin.”

The woman is unconscious, but still moaning.
“She sounds like a wounded animal,” thinks Tzina.
Tzina takes one deep breath, and makes contact with the sister’s cold, clammy skin.

Her mind web is a mess!
I won’t be able to access her ordinary memories.

We think that memories are only recorded in the brain, but key events are copied and stored within the energy body.
Tzina finds the memory center, and links to it.

So much pain here.
The Kizak were hunting for secrets about weapons or starships, but there was nothing for them to find.
They refused to believe her, and she was tortured.

“Stop,” says one of the interrogators.
“She’s not holding back, and she doesn’t have the information we need.”
“This is pointless.”

The other guards laugh at Hanli’s pain, and the emperor is there, laughing with them.

“Continue,” he says, “and don’t you dare feel any compassion for her.”
“She’s a worthless alien, one of the cursed they call sisters.”
“We’ll see what they know, and then they die.”

“The queen’s cousins are also among the cursed,” says one of the advisors.

“Leave them.”
“When the new governments are established, we’ll turn our attention to the rest of the cursed.”
“We have the guild membership records, so we already know who they are.”
“All the cursed will die, except for a few, like the queen’s cousins, that are useful to us.”

“The woman is unconscious, emperor, and nearly dead,” says the interrogator.
“It’s impossible to continue.”
“What do you want us to do with her?”

“She’ll die on her own?”

“Yes.”

“Write a note that blames her death on the guilds.”
“Leave her near the school, in a place where she’ll be found before she dies.”
“The Tshuans will be more angry if the woman dies in front of them.”

“What are you doing here,” says the emperor to a tech that enters the room.
The tech’s face shows that he’s shocked by what they’ve done to Hanli.

He stutters when he responds.
“We’ve just changed the security codes on the shields and the transport platforms.”
The technician hands a small storage device to the emperor.
“I was ordered to personally give you the new codes.”

“Are you familiar with the healing tech that we’ve given to the aliens?”

“Yes.”

“Tell your supervisor that I want you to leave immediately for the surface, and bring fifty more healing devices to the Tshuan medical facilities.”
“I want them to believe that we’re their friends.”
“Spend a few days there, installing the tech, and training the aliens how to use it.”

“Understood.”

“Now get out.”
“You don’t belong here.”

“The tech is probably still in Tshuan,” thinks Tzina, “and I can pull the codes from his mind.”

Tzina looks on the infonet to see the schedule of installations.
The technician is working today at the largest medical facility in the capital.
She activates her armband, and reaches the building in ten minutes.

It takes her a few more minutes to locate him.
He’s been trained in Jiku, but he’s naturally shy, and afraid of the aliens, so he spokes to almost no one.
Tzina bumps into him, and falls on top of him, so she can hold a connection to his mind for half a minute.

“I’m sorry,” she says in Kizak, after she gets up.
“I’m so clumsy.”
“Did I hurt you?”

“I’m all right,” he says.
“You must work for the queen, or she wouldn’t have chosen you to learn our language.”

“Yes,” she lies.
The truth is that Berek brought her to her father’s ship to learn the Kizak language from the AI.
During her brief contact with the Kizak’s mind, she copies all his memories from the last few days.
Then she finds a quiet place to review those memories, and plan her next move.

The tech’s memories are full of treasures.
She sees the layout of most of the ship.
There are ten working transport platforms, one of them only a hundred feet from the ship’s mind cage projector.
She needs to destroy that device first, so she can twist the minds of the whole crew.

The platform and shield codes are here, as she expected, but she has to act quickly.
The codes change every two or three days.

Back at the school, Tzina changes her clothes and arms herself with weapons shielded against the Kizak tech screen.
And carries three nullifiers, each giving her ten minutes of freedom from the cage around the web.
Finally, she takes a light shifter, which will make her invisible under the right conditions.

Just before she leaves, she records a visual message, and schedules it to be delivered to her mother, several hours from now.

I’m sorry, oodah, but someone has to make the Kizak pay for what they’ve done.
The emperor was present when they tortured Hanli.
I saw it in her mind.
He seems friendly when he visits Siksa, but he’s a vicious man.
He plans to kill all the sisters, and energy masters across the planet.
I’ll destroy the ship and kill him.
There are other ships, so I know this won’t be the end of the war, but after this, the Kizak will be afraid of us.
I don’t think I’ll see you again.
Tell everyone I love them, and tell Dilasa and Berek that I’m sorry that I didn’t say goodbye.
There’s no time.

Tzina finds a quiet transportation platform on the edge of Tshuan, and enters the destination codes to pass through the ship’s shield, and land on the platform.
They’ll have a tech screen in place, but her weapons are designed to block it.
She knows that there’s only one guard at the platform this time of day, and the guard will be bored.
The platforms aren’t being used much.

She fires her weapon as soon as she reaches the ship.
The guard is dead before he has a chance to react.
She turns on the light shifter, and heads for the room that houses the mind cage projector.
Her heart beats fast as she walks past guards in the hallway, but soon she turns a corner and goes down into a small deserted hallway, and reaches the room with the projector.
There’s no guard for this room.
The projector is not considered critical tech, but the door still requires a security code that she doesn’t have.

She could make contact with other guards, and look for the code, but she decides to take a more direct approach.
Tzina blasts through the door.
Guards will come, but it won’t take long to destroy the projector.
After that, she can easily twist the minds of anyone who comes near her.

The projector control asks for a code.

It would have been safer to shut it off before I start firing, but I have no choice.

She lays the weapon on the control panel to give her a more precise aim, and starts firing at the projector.
The weapons she carries are designed to kill people, so it takes a half a minute to damage the projector beyond repair.
She’s about to shut off the blaster when there’s a power surge that knock her out.

Tzina wakes up sitting in a chair.
There are restraints that hold her arms and legs in place.

“The alien is awake,” says one of the guards.
“Get the emperor.”

With the mind cage gone, she can twist their thoughts and get free.

Better to wait until the emperor comes.

As soon as he enters the room, she takes control of the minds of everyone in the room, except the emperor.
His mind is protected.
Ina told her about a device he wears that repels the mind touch.

She directs one of the guards to fire a stun blast at the emperor, and then free her.
When the emperor wakes, he’s sitting in the interrogation chair.

“What’s going on?” he yells.
“Who fired on me?!”

“The guards are mine,” says Tzina.
“I thought about torturing you with my own hands, to pay you back for what you did to that harmless woman, but I’m not cruel enough.”
“Don’t worry, though, I’ll have no trouble destroying your ship.”
You are going to watch, helpless, and wait for death.”

“Stop,” says the emperor.
“We’re not responsible for that woman’s death.”

Tzina ignores him.
She builds a simulation, and pulls the minds of everyone on the ship into it, except for the emperor, and two of the guards in the room.
She sets the blaster to low stun, and fires at the emperor.
“Carry him to the central control room, and tie his hands and feet.”

They stand there with no expression on their faces, waiting empty for her will to move them.
“Scramble the security codes that other ships need to be recognized and dock with this ship.”

“Done,” replies the guard.

She identifies one of the pilots, and pulls his mind out of the simulation.
She hands him a control pad.
“Lock in a course for the sun at maximum speed, with a two minute delay.”
“Tie it into this display.”

“Wake the emperor,” she says to the other guards.

“What are you doing?” he asks, looking at his surroundings.
“You’ll never get off the ship.”

“The course is set for the sun.”
“The engines will activate two minutes after I press this control.”
“You’ll sit here helpless and just watch.”
“Ten minutes after that, you’ll get close enough to the sun that you’ll burn up.”
“It’s a better death than you deserve.”

“What kind of monster are you,” asks the emperor, “killing a whole ship as revenge for one woman’s death?!”
“And we’re not even responsible!”

“Do you think I care what you think of me?” she screams at him.
You started this!”

She taps into the pad, and hands it to the guards.
“Change the codes for the transport platform to the ones shown here.”
“Then destroy the communications root for the ship.”

She sends the guards and the pilot back to the simulation.
Two virtual worlds are waiting there.
Most of the crew lives in a quiet place where their life will just fade away.
But the Kizak who tortured Hanli suffer in a nightmarish world until death frees them.

Tzina remembers a strange mind she touched for a moment when she exiled the bulk of the crew into the simulations.
“It doesn’t belong on this ship,” whispers an inner voice.

She pulls it back from the simulation, and sees images of a black creature in a cage, at the far end of the ship.
There are old memories of this creature on a starship with others of its kind.
Their language is unfamiliar, but they are energy masters, and they call themselves Madar.”

The creature directs silent words to Tzina, using the Kizak language.

Help me escape from here, but don’t let go of my mind.

She puts images into the Madar’s mind, showing it the path to a nearby transport platform, and gives it the codes to reach Tshuan.
Tzina awakens a guard at that end of the ship for a few seconds, to free the creature, and give it a weapon.
Then she waits a minute while the Madar finds its way to the platform, and disappears.

Tzina taps the pad she holds.
The timer counts down as she runs for the nearest transport room, where the door is waiting open for her.
She sets the destination codes and steps onto the platform.

The inside of the ship is still in its last moments of life.
The crew dies from heat before the hull explodes, but the emperor is not with them.


Empire of Stone -- 4: ReturnPrevious StoryNext Story
  1. Allies and Enemies
  2. Strangers and their Gifts
  3. Diplomacy and Death
  4. Fall
  5. Sanctuary
  6. Treason
  7. Rescue
  8. Eclipse
  9. Standoff
  10. Into the Storm
  11. Sleepers
  12. Choosing Death
  13. Peace and Destruction
  14. Sacrifice and Rebellion

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