Fall

 
Fugitives
The yellow message light flashes slowly in Shazira’s room.
It’s two inches wide, and is surrounded with a white circle that blinks rapidly on and off.
The circle indicates a secure message, and the rapid blinking means that it’s urgent.
The caller’s location and identity are unspecified, but who else could it be?
Shazira enters the family code, loads the encryption algorithm, and waits a moment for the wall to glow.
Tzina’s image appears, standing next to a black beast that holds her arm.
She’s wearing strange clothes and holding a Kizak blaster.

“You’re alive!” cries Shazira.
“It’s been days since I saw your message.”
“I thought I’d never see you again.”
“Where are you, and what is that creature?”

“I’m hiding at an old, forgotten platform, deep in the forest.”
“It took me half a day to walk here.”
“I’m surprised the platform and message wall still work.”
“Here are the codes for the site.”
“I’ve lost my disk and armband, and I can’t fly home without your help.”

“You can’t come back here, Tzina.”
“It’s too dangerous.”
“The infonet is calling you a terrorist and murderer.”

“It was war, not murder.”

“War?”
“Did the Kizak try to conquer us, or even threaten to attack us?”
“The empire invited us to join them.”
“You’re the one who destroyed a ship carrying ten thousand Kizak, and it’s you who tried to kill the emperor.”

Tzina’s heart beats fast, and she feels dizzy.
Guilt circles her like a bird of prey waiting to attack its victim.
Her attack wasn’t a dream or simulation that fades away, or an empty moment she can forget.
Living, feeling beings are dead because of her, leaving broken families behind.
When she twisted the minds of the Kizak on the ship, some of their memories passed into her.
She carries them forever, and now, random images and sounds rise to the surface of her awareness.

She looks for her anger, and shakes off the guilt.
“I left the emperor there!” she says defiantly.
“How did he escape?”

“Does it matter now, Tzina?”

“No,” she answers quietly.

“The Tshuan are disgusted by what you’ve done.”
“They listen intently when the emperor says energy masters are cursed, bringing death and war wherever we go.”
“Dilasa and I are with the sisters in their school, out of sight.”
“Keela posted guards to protect us and the other schools.”

“Where is Berek?”

“He spends most of his time with Keela, especially when she appears in public.”
“Berek doesn’t trust anyone else to protect her.”

“Does everyone believe that we’re cursed?!”

“I don’t know.”
“Before this, the people accepted the sisters and us.”
“Now they’re frightened, wondering if the Kizak will attack.”
“You’ve given them a good reason to fear us again, and they’re demanding the queen expel the energy masters from Tshuan.
“So far, she has refused.”

“There was no reprisal?”

“No.”
“The emperor claims he wants justice, not revenge.”
“The Tshuans are grateful for his restraint, and the population is convinced that Siksa should join the empire.”

“What does Keela say, oodah?”

“She avoids speaking about you.”
“I told her what you saw in Hanli’s memories.”
“She wants to believe it’s true, but she’s not sure.”

“Has she ordered my arrest?”

“Not yet.”

Give the girl a few days to come forward and tell her side of the events before we judge her.

“The people want action, not patience, and a third of the guard resigned in protest.”
“They claim the queen has abandoned justice to protect her cousin.”
“Thousands of Tshuans march each day against the queen, and demand that the guard search for you.”
“The emperor has been surprisingly calm through most of this.”
“He thanks the Tshuan people for their words of support, and offers gifts to any Jiku who reveals where you are.”

“He’s turning us against each other.”

“Don’t you understand, Tzina?”
“You did this, not him.”
“Isn’t it possible the memories you found in Hanli were twisted images planted in her mind, or hallucinations she suffered while being tortured?”

“No.”
“She was on the ship.”
“Her memories matched what I found when I went there,”

“How can you be sure, Tzina?”
“Your mind was damaged once.”
“Maybe your mind is confused again, and you’ve twisted or imagined her memories.”
“Even your appearance is strange, with those odd clothes, and that beast by your side.”

“The Kizak took everything I brought with me to the ship.”
“I grabbed the first clothes I could get from one of the crew.”
“Shusal wandered here a few minutes ago, confused.”
“He’s no beast, but the star cage twists the minds of his kind, worse than it effects the Jiku.”
“When he first found me, he couldn’t think straight, but he could feel that I’m a friend.”
“Our hands met, our minds touched, and his thoughts cleared.”
“Shusal is an energy master like us, from a race called Madar.”
“The Kizak have imprisoned him for hundreds of years, and he wants to go home.”

“There’s no way for him to get there without a Kizak ship.”
“We need to keep ina’s starship for emergencies.”

“The Madar aren’t native to that galaxy.”
“They come from the seven towers.”
“Maybe the Bizra can help him.”

“What do you need, Tzina?”

“Message disks, armbands, nullifiers, a light shifter, and weapons.”
“Make sure they all have the carbon fibers that shield against the tech screen.”
“Shusal needs the widest armband you can find, and make sure it’s powerful enough to carry his weight.”
“He weighs twice as much as a Jiku man.”
“I also need a piece of Kralestone to protect his mind until I have time to build him a mind wall.”

“Give him what he needs, and go far from him.”
“He’ll want revenge for his imprisonment, and drag you into another attack on the Kizak.”

“Don’t worry.”
“We’re planning to split up right after you bring us the weapons.”
He‘ll go across the ocean to the Bizra, and I’ll find a place to hide.”

“I have everything here.”
“I’ll send you what you need in a few minutes, but I can’t come in person.”
“The Kizak are tracking my movements.”

“Where do I go, oodah?”

“I don’t have a good suggestion.”
“Besides, it’s better if I don’t know where you’re going.”

“I could try the guild lands.”

“They believe you’re a murderer, and they’ll report you to the Kizak.”
“The council won’t help you.”
“They isolated us before, and now, they’ve condemned your attack.”
“Tshuan is even worse.”
“If you stay, you’ll be tried and put to death.”
“The queen can’t protect you for long.”
“Hide where they’ll never find you, deeper in the wilderness, or across the ocean.”
Shazira pauses, and starts crying.

“Don’t cry,” says Tzina, as her own tears start to fall.

“I still can’t believe my little girl killed thousands of people!”
“How could you do it, Tzina?”

“They tortured Hanli and laughed about it, oodah.”
“And they want to kill all the masters.”
“I’m not a child anymore.”
“I won’t stand by and wait for them to slaughter us!”

“Do you have proof they kidnapped Hanli?”

“You don’t believe me?!”

“I believe you, but no court will accept your word about her memories.”

“Tshuan is ready to believe the emperor, but not me?”
“He can’t even prove I was on that ship!”

“You’re wrong.”
“Security sensors recorded everything you said and did.”
“The ship automatically shared those images with backup systems on other ships, before the communications root was destroyed.”

Tzina wipes away her tears.
“Send the items I’ve asked for, and hurry, or they’ll catch us.”

 
Justice
Keela’s commdisk lights up.
“Yes?”

“This is Teyus, queen Keela.”

“How are you, emperor?”

“Still troubled by the deaths of my people.”
“Three days have passed, and only justice will relieve my pain.”

“The girl hasn’t come forward, and no one knows where she is.”

“Then search for her!”

“It’s not that simple.”
“She has royal blood, and the law protects her.”
“The guard can’t act against her unless there is evidence linking her to a crime.”

“Evidence?!”
“Your own satellites show my ship exploding as it came close to the sun.”
“Do you think the ship set course for the sun on its own?!”

“I believe you that your ship was sabotaged, but I need evidence Tzina was involved.”

“You have the images from the ship, and my own report.”

“Digital images are not admissible as evidence.”
“They’re too easy to fake.”
“And only the testimony of a Tshuan citizen is acceptable as evidence.”

“This is not a game, queen Keela, where you rely on the strict interpretation of the rules to win.”
“You have enough reason to suspect her, and the law gives you the power to bring in anyone from the royal family for questioning.”
“Why do you refuse?”
“You’re protecting a murderer.”

“I gave Tzina the chance to come in by herself, but not because I’m protecting her.”
“Tshuan law demands that the royal family is treated with honor.”

“A government with different laws for its leaders will not survive.”

“Is that a threat, emperor?”

“No, but look around, queen Keela.”
“Your people are tired of this double standard, and they’re turning against you.”
“You gave the girl a few days.”
“That’s enough for her honor.”
“Now it’s time to start the search.”

“I’m queen here, not you, and I’ll decide when to deploy my guard!”
“It’s no surprise you’re pleased that the people want a new government.”
“You’ll conquer us easily while we’re fighting with each other!”

“Conquer?”
“Your people want to join the empire.”
“But I’m not pleased that your government will fall.”
“I want you and Lord Berek to lead Siksa when it joins the empire.”
“Your aggressive spirits are much closer to my own.”
“Accept our offer of membership.”
“Your agreement will calm many of your subjects.”
“We can work together after that to quiet any remaining voices that speak against you.”

Keela pauses.
“I hate to admit it, but you’re right about Tzina.”
“I’ll start the search in an hour, but your guard will not join us.”
“I don’t trust them to bring her back safely.”
“Once we settle your accusations against the girl, we can discuss the empire again.”

The Tshuan guard searches for two days, on foot, and using airships.
Their sensors will detect Jiku life signs, anywhere above ground.
The devices are adjusted to locate Tzina’s unique energy signature, but there’s no trace of her within two hundred miles of Tshuan.

Keela reports the results to the emperor.

“You’ve performed a thorough search, but it’s not complete.”

“What else can we do?”

“Interview your cousins to see if they know where she is.”

“We’ve done that.”
“She hasn’t contacted them since the incident.”

“They wouldn’t tell you, even if they knew.”
“Wouldn’t you lie to protect your own family?”
“We have devices that detect when a person is lying.”
“Use them.”

“No.”
“Any other suggestions?”

“There was a secure link established with your cousin Shazira within the last few days.”
“Ask her about it.”

“How do you know?”
“Secure communications don’t leave a trace when they’re complete.”

The emperor looks uncomfortable.
“My security people penetrated your communications network to look for signs of the girl.”
“We recorded communications where your cousins or the sisters were part of the link.”

“You recorded my secure communications with Berek?!”

“Yes.”
“I’m sorry, but we’re desperate to find that girl.”

Keela breaks the link, but the commdisk soon lights again.

“Please don’t disconnect me,” he says, as his image appears.

“You had no right!”

“True, but wouldn’t you do the same if thousands of your guards had been killed?”

“I would do whatever was necessary to find justice for my people.”

“You see,” says the emperor.
“We’re not so different.”
“I admire your courage, queen Keela.”
“You’re not afraid to tell the truth, even when it’s uncomfortable.”

“Did you find any useful information in the messages you stole from us?”

“No, but we were unable to decode the message your cousin received.”
“Convince Shazira to give you the algorithm and key, so we can view it.”

“If I refuse?”

“We’ll find a way to convince her ourselves.”

“You will not touch my people as long as I’m queen.”

“Calm down.”
“I won’t hold Shazira responsible for the actions of her daughter.”
“I just want to speak with her.”

“I’ll allow it if you come without weapons, and without your guards.”

“When?”

“Tomorrow, two hours after first sun.”

The emperor comes in a small ship, with a few guards, but they remain on board.
“We can’t let you go unprotected,” says one of his guards.

“It’s all right, Talika.”
“The queen may not like me, but she knows that I can help her hold on to her throne.”
“She won’t let anyone harm me.”

The emperor is led into a small room, where the queen waits with Shazira and Berek.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” says the emperor.

“What do you want?” asks Shazira.

“Justice.”
“Your daughter is a terrorist.”
“We’re not at war with the Jiku, yet she killed thousands of my people.”
“Where is she?”

“I spoke with her a few days ago.”
“I told her to leave Tshuan, and stay away from the guild lands.”
“She’s gone.”

“You helped a known murderer, Shazira.”

“I don’t approve of what she did, emperor.”
“But I spoke with my daughter.”
“That’s all.”
“She won’t be contacting me again.”
“I told her I don’t want to know where she goes.”

“Did she say why she did it?”

“You know why.”
“She discovered your plans to kill the sisters, and the other masters on Siksa.”

“She’s confused.”
“There are no such plans.”

“If you say so.”
“Tzina pulled the memories from the dying woman.”

“I want to see the unencrypted conversation between you and your daughter.”

“It’s gone.”

“All of it?”

“Except for the last few seconds where we cry together.”
“That’s all I saved, and I won’t share it with you.”

“I have a copy of the whole conversation, but I can’t decode it.”

“It’s useless to you.”
“I destroyed the algorithm and codes needed to view it.”

“Shazira,” says Keela, “can’t you at least show him an image of Tzina, without the sound?”

“What will that accomplish?”

Just do it.”

Shazira displays an image of Tzina standing with the Madar.
The emperor is visibly shocked.

“The Madar from the ship is free!”
“It’s possible he corrupted her mind and forced her to do it.”
“She may be innocent after all.”

“Tzina said that you’ve kept him imprisoned for hundreds of years.”

“True, but it was necessary.”
“That creature and his race are dangerous, and long-lived.”
“They started a war that destroyed hundreds of worlds.”
“We imprison the few that remain, until they all die out.”

“Why not kill them all.” asks Keela.

“The first emperor decreed that the remaining Madar be imprisoned as a symbol of the evil that we overcame.”
“He made killing a Madar a capital offense.”

“Can’t you change the law?”

“There is no need for change.”
“And the Kizak have grown superstitious about the Madar.”
“Many believe that without our prisoners, the Madar would return in great numbers and destroy us.”
“Fools.”
“Still, this one Madar is a much greater threat to your daughter than any of the Kizak.”
“Help me find them before it’s too late.”

“I told you already,” says Shazira, with tears in her eyes.
“I don’t know where she is, and she threw away her communication disk.”
“She can’t be tracked.”
“Search every corner of the world, if you like, but there’s nothing more I can do.”
Shazira walks out.

“Satisfied?” asks Keela.

“For now, but I need permission for my guard to search everywhere in Tshuan, including the caves of the seven hills.”

“Caves?”

“I’ve heard stories about caves in the hills.”
“Tzina and the beast may be hiding there.”

“That area is sacred, and close to guard headquarters.”
“I won’t let you search there, or anywhere else in Tshuan.”

“If you won’t cooperate, there are others who will.”

“What are you saying?”

“All of Tshuan will connect with the infonet in a few hours, and vote for who will lead them.
“Analysts expect 80% of your subjects to approve the new provisional government.”
“Join the empire, and let us search.”
“I’m the only who can save the throne.”

“I don’t want your help.”

“Too bad,” says the emperor, and walks away.

 
Empty
Tzina is surrounded by the rotting corpses of thousands of Kizak, covering the muddy ground in all directions.
She tries to climb on a pile, to see if there’s an end to the bodies, and one reaches out and grabs her leg.
The corpse sits up, laughs, and stares at her.
The body is Kizak, but it looks like her.
She wakes up, sweating and screaming, in a cave.
The Madar is next to her, touching her arm.

“Are you all right?” he asks.

“Did you give me that nightmare?”

“Why would I hurt you?”
“It’s your own guilt that fills your dreams.”

Tzina ignores the comment, and walks to the edge of the cave.
The sun is setting over the island.
Nothing but ocean surrounds it for hundreds of miles.
Tshuan and the guild lands are far away.

Tzina and the Madar sleep during the day and travel at night.
And when they travel, they hide themselves from sensors with a light shifter.
“It’ll be dark soon,” she says, “and then we’ll move again.”
“We’ll reach the Bizra before morning.”

“Good,” says the Madar.
“They can send me home.”
“Thank you for showing me the way.”

“You’re welcome, but I came for myself, not you.”
“I don’t know where else to go.”

“Don’t worry.”
“You’ll be safe there.”

“Safe?”
“Where can I hide after what I’ve done?”

“But you told me that the Bizra’s land has natural energy fields that disrupt sensors.”

“Only from a distance.”
“The Kizak will eventually come there to look for me, and even if they don’t, I can’t stay with the Bizra.”
“They hate violence, and they’ll cast me out when they discover how many Kizak I’ve killed.”

“Then why are you going to them?”

You said the Bizra can send you away from Siksa.”
“Maybe they can do the same for me.”

The night sky is full of clouds that block the stars and the sliver of a moon.
There’s little light, even for Tzina’s Jiku eyes that see well in the dark.
Her armband shows the way, and keeps her on course toward the south-east corner of the continent where the Bizra live.
She lands on the beach, and the Madar follows, a moment later.

“Where are the Bizra?” he asks, impatient.

“Sleeping and dreaming together, in great meadows nearby.”
“They won’t wake until first sun.”
“We’ll rest here on the sand until then, and then we’ll find them.”

“How long since you were here?”
“The Bizra may have moved.”

“I came five years ago with my family, when they brought me here to be healed.”
“My father says the Bizra have slept in the same place since they first came to this world.”
“Why would they change now?”

She lays down.
The sand is soft enough, and they are both still tired from the journey, so sleep takes them quickly.

The clouds are gone by morning, and Tzina dances the greeting to the sun, while the Madar watches.
Then she leads him toward the meadows.
Tzina is older now, but remembers the awesome sight of the meadows covered in Bizra.
She looks forward to seeing it again.

They pass over a small hill, and enter the meadows.
Empty.

“They’re gone,” says the Madar.
“How do we find them?”

Tzina activates one of the nullifiers that still has power.
She carries a device that can recharge them from sunlight, but she hasn’t used it yet.
She’s too afraid of her tech being located by Kizak sensors.

“What are you looking for?” asks the Madar.

“I don’t know yet.”

Tzina walks through the meadow, sweeping the area with her energy senses.
The nullifier lets her see the energy world, but only for a few feet beyond her skin.
She meets a cluster of energy, frozen in place in the shape of a doorway, and stops.
The word safety is written over the door with energy, in Madar script.

She tells the Madar what she’s found.
“We need to leave now,” she adds.
“I found fresh boot prints.”
“The Kizak were here.”
“Maybe they still are!”

A ship hovers above them, a thousand feet up.
Tzina and the Madar are still covered by the light shifter, but it won’t block a scanner when the ship gets close enough.
Besides, their footprints are all over the sand.

Tzina enters the energy doorway, and the Madar follows.
The area glows for a second.
Then the energy of the word and the doorway loses its shape, and is reabsorbed back into the web.

 
Search
The emperor sits in his office alone, caught in his thoughts.
His nights are filled with dreams of his sons dying, and armies of Madar laughing at him.
While he sleeps, his possessions move around his room.
Twice a week, his hands glow when he opens his eyes, but thankfully the light fades away after a few seconds.
Once a month, strange objects appear that where not there when he went to sleep.
He destroys them all.

I know I’m cursed, and even the cage can’t stop it completely.
There’s no doubt of that.
But I won’t give in to it.

Sometimes I get so tired of the struggle.
When I discovered there were rebels aboard the ship, plotting my death, I let them come.
I thought the empire would be better off without me, and the curses that keep whispering to me.

But then Berek saved me.
I took it as a sign that I must continue to live and serve, and wipe out the curse wherever I find it.

A light flashes, and a tone sounds, signaling a message.
He activates the panel, annoyed.
“What do you want?!”

“Forgive us, emperor, but you asked us to report immediately if we found any trace of the beast.”

“You captured them?”

“Not yet.”
“We found Madar footprints in the sand, and Jiku shoe prints.”
“The Madar was here recently, and possibly the girl with him.”

“Good.”
“Where are they now?”

“There’s no sign of them.”
“They disappeared, like the Bizra creatures.”

“You let them escape?!”

“We never saw them emperor.”
“The crystal in the rocks interferes with our sensors, except at close range.”

“What about the Bizra?”

“When we came here two days ago, the Bizra pretended to be dumb beasts, and there was no trace of the Madar or the girl.”
“The next morning, the Bizra were gone.”
“We searched all day yesterday, but we couldn’t find them, except for thousands of tracks which lead to the ocean.”
“We saved images of the entire beach at that time, and there was no Madar footprint.”
“I rechecked the images.”
“The beast must have come late yesterday, and left before we returned today.”

“Did you find anything in the ocean?”

“Our sensors can’t penetrate more than a few hundred feet into the water.”
“And none of our ships are equipped to enter the water for a deep search.”

“Ocean water is cursed.”
“Stay away from it.”

“Of course.”

“Leave one ship to monitor the area for the next three days.”
“Bring the other ships back to Tshuan.”
“We’ll continue the search here.”

“But emperor, Tshuan is thousands of miles from here.”
“It’s unlikely the Madar and the girl would return there.”

“Follow my orders whether you understand them or not!”
“Understand?”

“Yes, emperor.”

The emperor’s advisor enters his office.
His name is Sakool.

“Things are going well, emperor,” says Sakool.
“The guilds agreed to join us, along with the new Tshuan government.”

“Going well?!”
“What about the ship, the Madar, and the girl!”
“And then there’s the queen.”
“She still controls the headquarters and the hills, with the remaining third of her army.”
“I know there are secrets hidden in those caves.”

“Her army loses more members every day.”
“Soon, she will have to surrender.”

“Have the searchers found any trace of the Madar or the girl?”

“Unfortunately, no.”
“Our searches in the areas controlled by the new government are complete.”
“We angered no one with our presence, except the queen.”

“Will she attack us?”

“I doubt it, emperor.”
“The queen knows that we have superior ships and weapons.”
“Now that the other Tshuans have joined us, they’re obligated under empire law to fight against our enemies.”
“They’ve accepted this responsibility, and have publicly promised to side with us, if we’re attacked by the queen.”

“It’s better not to test their loyalty.”
“The Tshuans have begun to call me great father, but it’s too soon to ask them to fight against their own people.”

“What do you suggest?”

“Keela and her guard have announced that they won’t attack us, or fight with their own people, unless someone tries to enter their territory.”
“Soon we’ll enter the areas she controls, but without the help of our new allies.”

“A brilliant move, emperor.”

“Save your empty praise, Sakool.”
“I have no taste for it today.”

“I meant no disrespect.”

“Tell me about the guild.”
“I heard a report that some of the masters have come to Tshuan.”

“One hundred of them are furious with the guild council for agreeing to join the empire.”
“That group has come to Tshuan to offer its help to the queen.”
“The cage has lifted the curses and taken their power.”
“Without it, these masters can barely fight.”

“Why wasn’t I told before they reached the queen?”
“We should have stopped them.”

“The Tshuans and the guilds don’t trust each other.”
“If they speak at all, they’ll argue.”
“Let the masters join their armies.”
“Their presence will make the Tshuans weaker, not stronger.”
“It’s time to attack.”

“Make a public announcement, Sakool.”

In three days, we’ll enter the remaining areas of Tshuan to complete the search for the terrorists.
We suspect there is a strange alien creature with the girl.
He’s controlling her mind, so her actions are not her own.
If you see the two of them, inform us immediately, and try not to harm her.

We’ll conduct the search with Kizak personnel only.
No Tshuan should have to fight another.
The empire hopes the queen and her forces will not interfere with our search, but justice demands that it be done.

 
School’s End
Berek’s message disk lights up.
“Morning meal is done, Berek,” says Keela.
“I’m coming to visit the children.”

“They’ll be happy to see you, Keela, especially today.”
“The Kizak are coming tomorrow, and the children are frightened.”
“You need to convince them the school is safe.”

“You want me to lie to them?”
“No one is safe.”
“The sisters have twenty schools in Tshuan, but yours is the only one that I still control.”
“All the others were closed by the provisional government.”

“Why?”

“The government wants to exile all masters to the guild lands.”
“They’ve announced that the sisters have already been sent away.”

“What about their students?”
“Many of the children have energy skills.”

“I don’t know, Berek.”
“The government statements don’t mention the children.”

“I wonder how long the sisters will be safe in the guild lands?”

“They never arrived.”

“What?”

“I have spies among the guards that serve the provisional government.”
“The sisters were transported on Kizak ships.”
“Huge waves rose up from the ocean, as much as a thousand feet high, and pulled the ships into the water.”
“There were no survivors.”
“I failed them all, Berek.”

“You think the Kizak sabotaged their own ships?”

“I’m sure of it.”
“How else could this happen?”
“I can spare a large airship to carry fifty people to the guild lands.”
“There’s room for your family, the sisters, and their advanced students.”
“But they most go tonight.”
“I’m coming to the school to convince them to go.”

“Don’t you need to prepare your troops?”

“This will be a short visit, but I have to come.”
“The royal family was responsible for the old ones, and now, the sisters.”
“I won’t fail them again.”
“I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

She activates the armband and flies to the school.
Keela lands near a flower garden where Berek is waiting.
The garden is two hundred feet from the school, and filled with her favorite flowers.
Berek planted it months ago, and cares for it himself.
They almost always meet by that garden.

“I missed you,” says Berek.

“I’ve been busy preparing.”

“For war?”

“Yes.”

“Let the Kizak search here, Keela.”

“Do you think they’ll just leave when they’re done?”
“They’ll find an excuse to stay here, and occupy this land in the name of the provisional leaders.”
“I will not let them take possession of the commander’s house, or the weapons stores, and they will not set foot on the ancient hills without a fight.”

“You can’t win.”
“You don’t have enough weapons and guards to stop the Kizak.”
“Resist them, and your guards will die for nothing.”
“You and the kingdom will vanish forever.”

“We still have our honor, Berek.”
“I thought you understood us better than this.”
“Nothing holds you here.”
“Leave tonight in the airship, before the fight starts.”

“That ship goes to the guild lands.”
“There’s no place there for me.”
“But I can still call the starship.”
“Come with me.”
“We’ll go far from here, together”

Abandon those who are loyal to me, and the guild masters who have come here to fight?”
“I will never be happy as a coward.”
“The guards are ready to die for me, and I’m ready to die for them.”
“If this is the end of the kingdom, let it pass with honor!”
“Go.”

“No.”
“I stay here with you, no matter what happens.”

She smiles a sad smile.
“I hoped you would say that.”

Keela tells the sisters and students that they must leave the school.
“But where would the little ones go?” asks Niyta.
“Why can’t they come with us?”

“Life will be difficult for them in the guild lands.”
“They’ll be better off here.”

“No,” says one of the children.
“We have no one except the sisters.”
“We want to stay with them.”

All the children agree.

“The airship doesn’t have enough harnesses in the passenger compartment to hold you all, but we can add more harnesses to the cargo area.”

“Is that safe?”

“We use the cargo area to transport the guard when needed.”
“It’s not comfortable, but there’s room for everyone.”

“A few of the sisters are visiting relatives,” says Dilasa, “and the Bizra children are missing.”

“Where did the children go?” asks Niyta.

“No one knows.”

“We can’t go without them,” says Niyta.

“There’s no time,” says Keela.
“Leave while you still can, and protect the children that are still here.”

“We’ll go,” says Niyta.
“We can only hope that the others will follow us.”

“What about you?” Berek asks Dilasa.

“Shazira and I will stay,” says Dilasa, “and fight.”

“No,” says Shazira.
“We’ll go with the sisters, and keep the children safe.”
“Come with us, Berek.”

“My place is here.”

“I’ll stay, too,” says Keela’s brother, Ilaz.

“No, Ilaz,” says Keela.
“The children need you.”
“And if something happens to me, I want to be sure our family survives.”

“There won’t be time later,” says Keela, “so I’ll say goodbye now.”
She kisses some of the children goodbye, and hugs her brother and Dilasa.
They speak and cry together for a few minutes.

“Take good care of Berek,” whispers Shazira to the queen, as they hug each other.

Keela smiles, but doesn’t answer.
She doesn’t expect to survive, even with Berek protecting her.

 
Escape
The day goes slowly for Keela, as she reviews strategy with the senior members of the guard.
Berek joins her for night meal, an hour after dark.
“The ship will leave soon,” says Keela, “moving directly out to sea, and toward the guild lands.”
“We expect the Kizak to detect it, but hope they let it go.”
“Did you say your goodbyes?”

“Yes.”
“Can we go to the cavern?” he asks.
“I want to wear the shield when the Kizak come.”

“I was planning to go there anyway,” says Keela.
“There’s something I need to do.”

They enter the cavern, far below one of the sacred hills.
Berek puts on the necklace.
Keela is busy, tapping at a control pad.

“What are you doing?”

She finishes a few seconds later, and shuts off the pad.
“We need to leave now, Berek.”
“In three minutes, the cavern will seal itself, so no one will be able to enter, not even you and me.”
“Nothing inside will be damaged, but a Kizak scan of the area will show nothing but rock.”

The night is quiet when they exit.

“I’m going back to the school, Keela,” says Berek.
“I’ll follow the airship as it leaves the hill area to make sure they’re not attacked.”

Berek activates his communication disk when he’s far from Keela.
“The ship will be leaving soon,” he says on a secure channel.
“Ten minutes later, it’ll reach the ocean.”
“Get ready.”

When Berek nears the school, he stops and stays out of sight, waiting, and sighs.
He can’t go through the goodbyes again.

When the airship rises, he activates the light shifter to hide himself, and follows, using the armband.
The hills shrink as the ship climbs four thousand feet straight up.
The necklace is warm.
The first time he picked it up, he felt the waves of energy circling through it, but the energy is much stronger since the Kizak activated the cage.
Berek activates his healing sense to resonate with the waves.
When he rides the rhythm of the waves, his connection with the web rises and falls.
When the wave reaches its peak, the web feels normal, but it lasts only a brief instant.

At first, the waves made him so nauseous, he couldn’t wear the shield for more than a minute, but his body adapted, and the nausea disappeared.
It drains his strength when he uses it for an hour straight, but that should be more than enough to protect his family, the children, and the sisters.
The connection is useless for precise use of energy, like flowing a complex object or flying.
But he can still flow one substance into another, or dissolve an object, if it’s far away from anything he cares about.
And he can send a huge blast of energy that will destroy a target, if the object is big enough.

His energy senses work the same way.
He can sense objects at a great distance, but the view fades and returns.

The armband he wears is not the standard issue.
It generates a stronger shield, and goes much faster than the typical one.
He can keep up with the airship while it cruises over the land, but once it reaches the ocean, it will accelerate and leave him behind.

Berek is halfway to the coast, and far outside the hills, when three smaller Kizak ships approach, blocking the path of the airship.
His inner sight reveals that the ships are well-armed.
All four ships come to a stop and hover.
He activates his message disk.

“Are the Kizak contacting the airship?”

“Yes.”
“They’ve ordered the ship to land, so it can be searched for terrorists.”
“The ships are flying over an arid, uninhabited area.”
“The sisters have refused to stop here, agreeing to be searched once they reach the guild lands.”
“The Kizak are insisting that the airship land now.”

“Disable the main drive, weapons, and communications of each Kizak ship, while you travel in a wide, evasive pattern far below them.”
“I want the aliens to think that there are multiple attackers on the ground.”

The sky is filled with energy bursts, and then the three Kizak ships limp toward the ground.
The Tshuan airship resumes its course for the guild lands.

“Pick me up, now,” says Berek.
The starship stops directly in front of Berek, and he enters the airlock.
He settles into the pilot’s chair, and accelerates past the airship.
When as he reaches the ocean, he takes the ship down, so it’s flying only fifty feet above the waves.
Soon, he reaches the target point and stops, watching the airship approach on the ship’s sensors.
Two large Kizak ships are trailing them.

“When will the Kizak ships catch up?”

“Slightly before the airship reaches the target site.”
“These ships have strong shields,” says the AI.
“I don’t think my weapons will penetrate, and the ships will probably detect my presence during the attack.”

Berek moves his ship closer to the Kizak ships.
“When I clear the airlock, move to the target site, and follow the plan.”
“I’ll distract the ships.”

Berek hovers in the air, while the starship moves quickly away.
He releases a tremendous blast of energy which strikes one of the ships, penetrating its shields.
It’s damaged, but it can still fly, and turns toward the direction of the blast.
The other ship follows, firing its weapons.

Berek moves to the side, and drops into the water, long before the ships react.
The airship continues and reaches the target site.
Berek’s starship fires an energy pulse that disables the airship’s propulsion.
The airship falls only a few feet before a great wave rises up and surrounds it, pulling it hundred feet below the surface.

Berek plunges into the water.
Beneath the ocean, his connection with the web is fully restored.
He approaches the airship, already covered in a large bubble of air.
He couldn’t risk telling the sisters his plan before this, in case they were captured.
The ship has lost power, so the pilot can’t report what’s happening.
Berek knows that the children must be panicking in the dark, so he has to act quickly.
He flows a cushion of air around the ship, tears open the doors, and enters.

“What’s happening Berek?” asks Shazira, surrounded by crying children.

“No time to explain, but you’re all safe.”
“The ocean water shields us from the cage.”
They all exit the ship into the pocket of air.

“Stop,” says the Jiku pilot, pointing a blaster at them.
Berek flows away the weapon.

“The Kizak will find and punish you,” says the pilot.

“You can die here,” says Berek, “or be quiet and live.”
“Which do you choose?”

“You’ll only kill me later.”

“No.”
“You’ll be guarded, but you won’t be harmed.”

“Where are you taking us, Berek?” asks Niyta.
“How will we survive?”

A hundred strange creatures swim around the air bubble.

“What are they?” asks Niyta.

“Bizra,” answers Berek, “wearing a shape that can breathe in the water.”
“I contacted them, and warned them about the Kizak.”
“They’ve abandoned their old home, and built a new one under the ocean.”

“All the Bizra went underwater?” asks Shazira.

“No.”
“Some returned to their home world.”
“Others are traveling on rivers of light to find allies for us.”

“Rivers?”

“Energy gateways.”
“The Bizra are searching in distant galaxies for the descendants of Jiku masters who left Siksa after the energy wars.”

“The masters abandoned us.”
“Why would their children return to help us?”

“I don’t know.”
“In any case, you’ll be safe now.”
“The Bizra will bring you to their new home where the other sisters from Tshuan are waiting.”

“The sisters are alive?” asks Niyta.
“We heard that their ships crashed into the water.”

“The Bizra disabled the ships, but brought them down gently.”

“Were you there for all the rescues?” asks Dilasa.

“No, I was with Keela, but I helped.”
“Before the Bizra left the surface, they gave me a specially tuned communications disk that I use to send them messages.”
“I transmitted the flight path of each ship, and asked them to save the sisters.”

Berek turns away.

“Aren’t you coming?” asks Dilasa.

He kisses the top of her head and hugs her.
“I’m going back to the hills, to be with Keela.”

“Be safe,” says Dilasa.

Berek moves away and watches as the herd of Bizra take the Jiku and the ball of air far away from the ship.
Then they travel to a protected place, deep in the ocean.

One of the creatures stays behind, envelops the ship in a violent explosion, and directs a ball of fire above the water.
She had to destroy the airship, to make it look like all the Jiku died.
The Bizra turns toward Berek for a moment, bows her head, and then swims away.

Berek would love to follow and see what their new home looks like, but it’s safer if he doesn’t know where they are.

 
Hills of Tshuan
Keela’s message wall lights up, and she accepts the message.
“Queen Keela,” says the emperor, “it’s time to let us complete the search.”

“I told you that you will not enter the hills without a fight.”

“You can fight, but you can’t win.”
“What’s the point?”

Keela shuts off the wall without answering.
The masters from the guild lands are stationed with a small group of guards defending the hills.
Most of her people protect the main complex with the commanders house and the weapons depot.
She expects the Kizak to attack the main communications center, or the weapons storehouse first.

When the Kizak come, they activate a tech screen over the Tshuan camp.
Berek and Keela knew this would happen, but they could only prepare a few hundred weapons shielded from the screen.
Most of the Jiku tech stops working at once, and a wave of fear runs through Keela.
The airships on the ground can’t move, and the patrols in the sky fall like stones.
Armbands are just as bad, and communications is gone.

None of the new weapons were given to the guild masters, and many of them were patrolling the air.
Half of the masters die from the fall.
The other half soon follow when the Kizak attack the hills.
Berek flies to help them, but they’re dead before he reaches them.
He throws energy bursts at a ship about to land.
The ship crashes, half of it gone.
There are dead Jiku among the wreckage, some in uniform.
Some of the government guards have come along as guides.

“How can I kill other Jiku?” he wonders.

Berek pulls away from the battle, but not before he recognizes the body of one of the sisters.

Was she helping them?
Possibly, but more likely the Kizak are using their prisoners as human shields.
He rises into the air, striking out against a cluster of Kizak who are already swarming out of the ship.
They disappear, leaving a pool of water behind.

He rises, watching as the Kizak search the caves mapped out for them, but they find no trace of Tzina or the Madar.
The guard wants their revenge, and their anger burns within them.
One pilot launches a missile toward the hill above the cave of sleepers.
Berek flows the missile to water, along with the ship that sent it, but half of the hill disappears when it’s caught in the wide pulse of flow that touches the missile.

Berek’s inner eyes show thousands of Kizak guards on the ground, storming the compound, while he’s distracted at the hills.
He abandons the battle he’s in, and rushes back to protect Keela.

The Tshuans fight using the small number of working weapons they have, but the guard are soon overrun.
Too many Kizak have landed, and joined the battle.
He can’t use web to attack them.
They’re too close to the Tshuans.

He finds Keela in the commander’s house, still free.
“We have to go,” he says.
“I sent the ship into hiding yesterday, but we might be able to escape using our armbands.”

“Why would I leave in the middle of battle?”

He sighs, and keeps firing.
“Why don’t they blow up this building, and end the fight?” he asks her.
“The aliens have already destroyed half the compound.”

“I’ve retreated from building to building, and the Kizak have never blown up a building while I’m in it.”
“I’m convinced that the emperor ordered the aliens to capture us alive.”

The two of them stand side-by-side, and keep firing through the openings until their weapons are empty of charge.
Berek expects the Kizak to break down the door, and immediately stun or kill them, but instead the aliens ask for their surrender.
Keela and he answer by bursting out of the door, and attacking with the knives they carry.
A dozen Kizak fall dead to the ground before the leader of the guards fires, and the world fades.


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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