Fast and Slow

 
Night
Night is the same as day, here in the cave.
Only our inner clocks tell us that the day is gone.
Every Jiku knows whether it’s morning, evening, or night, even in a dark place, with no clues from the sun.
We always know the exact hour and minute.

Time is twisted when we enter or leave a simulation, when we transport from one part of the world to another, or when we move between worlds.
Still, a few seconds later, the inner clock finds its way.

I welcome the peace that night brings, but Dilasa doesn’t want it to come.
What is she afraid of?
Right now, this cave is the safest place on the planet!

“Do we train, even when we sleep?” asks Berek, interrupting my thoughts.

“No,” says Tzina.
“We’ll spend two thirds of the day in the games, but our nights are for rest, and ordinary dreams.”
“My simulations are not Dream Schools that take over the night.”

“I don’t want to sleep,” says Dilasa.
“It’s not safe here.”

“What are you afraid of?” asks Filarin.
“There’s no one in the cave but your family and me.”

“I hate the darkness that surrounds the platforms,” she admits.
“It feels like something is hiding there!”

“There’s nothing, Dilasa,” I tell her.

“My head knows that,” she says, “but I’m still scared.”
“Can I sleep next to you?”

“Sleep in your own circle,” says Filarin.
“It’s the only way.”

“Why?” asks Dilasa.
“The platforms are hundreds of feet apart.”
“I don’t want to be alone in this huge cave.”

“Is it really necessary?” I ask him.
“The circles are big enough for two, and Tzina’s circle is even larger.”

“Try it if you doubt me,” he answers.

Dilasa and I lay down in my circle.
The stone softens under me, becoming a nest big enough for one.
Small as she is, Dilasa is excluded, left on the cold stone just outside my nest.
“Filarin was right Dilasa.”
“There’s no room for you.”

She doesn’t give up, trying to force her way into the nest.
An energy barrier covers me, and stops her.
She gets up, frustrated.

“Who made this cave, Filarin?” I ask.

“I don’t know, Yagrin,” he answers, “but it’s clear that it was made for this moment, to protect me, and prepare your family for the times ahead.”

“Sleep comes easily here,” says Filarin, trying to comfort Dilasa.
“Waking up on time is harder,” he adds, speaking to all of us.
“Tell your bodies to wake a few minutes before first sun.”

I rise, and hug them all, planning to hold Dilasa a little longer.
She won’t let me go.

“Will you be all right, little one?”

“I don’t like it, ina, but I’ll be ok.”

I follow her to her circle and smile as she lies down, and the stone becomes a nest.
Then I hover over her, and wait for sleep to take her.
Energy pours out of my heart center and spins around me, a gentle bright storm.
Then, it falls like rain on Dilasa, and calms her.

She lets go, after one last look at me, watching over her.
I return to my own nest, and the night is filled with ordinary dreams.

 
Training
Only the sense of time within us separates the night from the day.
The cave and its crystal glow never change.
A mist covers us while we sleep, and shields our eyes from that light.
When we rise, we dance to the sun that shines somewhere beyond these stone walls.
Then, we plan the training that will fill the first third of the day.
Tzina will shape the next third with a simulation that takes our family to places far from here.

Tzina’s simulations twist time.
Each eight hours becomes twelve days of dream time.
Tzina calls the simulations games, but I prefer to call them dreams.

“What will we train in today?” asks Tzina.
“I can make a game from knowledge that any of us have.”

“What if we want to learn something that none of us know?” asks Berek.

“I can ask for a game that is beyond all of us.”
“Sometimes, my unconscious can reach out and find the knowledge to shape the game, but the results are unpredictable.”

“That’s not good enough,” I tell her.
“We know how to fight using the web or technology, but the aliens have the power to disrupt both.”
“We need to study martial arts, and learn how to fight with physical weapons like knives.”
I know how to fight with driga, the long knives, from my travels in the vats, but the rest of my family needs to learn.

“Mayla taught me both those skills,” says Tzina.
“Today’s learning game will focus on martial arts.”
“Tomorrow you’ll learn how to use ordinary physical objects as weapons, and fight with knives.”

“One dream gives us only twelve days of training,” says Dilasa.
“How much can we learn?”

“In this game, you won’t get sore or tired,” says Tzina.
“You’ll train with all your attention and strength.”
“It’s better than months of practice in the real world.”

“It’s a great start, Tzina,” I agree, “but it’s still not enough.”
“We’ll need to continue training outside the dreams, when we leave the cave.”
“We have to know how to fight, even when we’re tired and hungry.”

“You’ll learn quickly, ina,” she says with a strange smile.
“Much faster than you expect.”
What is she hiding?

We lay down again in our nests, and the martial arts dream begins.
This dream feels so different from Mayla’s simulations.
I’m fully aware of myself but the world seems stranger, more like a real dream.

We wear white robes and form a circle in the middle of a gym so large, that I can’t see the walls.
The floor is covered in dark blue mats and the room is filled with a white light.
My whole body has an unfamiliar awareness.
I can sense how the people around me will move, before they do it.

The instructor shows us a move and then we practice it, smooth and swift, getting it perfect on the first try.
The movements are familiar and strange all at once.

Tzina’s double smiles at us.

“What did you do, Tzina?”

She waits for me to figure it out.

“You gave us the skills when we started the dream!”

“Yes, ina.”
“I wanted to surprise you.”
“I wish I could give you all the knowledge like this, but the brain can’t handle it.”

“Why didn’t Mayla do this for us?”

“The brain can only accept this kind of instant transfer once a year, and even then, there are risks.”
“This type of knowledge is especially difficult to learn, and our situation is urgent, so I took a chance.”
“But don’t worry.”
“Everyone seems all right.”

“I still don’t understand, Tzina.”
“If we have the skills, why are we here?”

“You still need today’s practice to anchor the skills, or they’ll fade away.”

The real Tzina is awake in the cave, far away, watching over us.
The Tzina in the dream is only a copy.
I feel strange when I speak with her.
She seems like my daughter in every way.
Only I know that she’s not real and will disappear when the dream is gone.

When we wake from the day’s learning dream, we have a brief meal, before Tzina sends us into another dream and another world.
The mist that covers us while we lay in the nest keeps us healthy and strong.
There’s no soreness or weakness when we get up, even though we spend so many hours in the nest.

The days disappear, each day filled with a different learning dream, and travel to a new, distant place.
The worlds we visit are borrowed from our memories.
Some are places where we’ve walked, and some are worlds that we’ve only seen in the cubes from Mayla’s library.
Twice, Tzina takes us to worlds, new to us all.

During our breaks from the dreams I ask Tzina about the unknown worlds that she brings us to.
“Are they only fantasy, or do they exist in some distant galaxy or universe?”

“Ina, I ask my unconscious to find us a different, beautiful place each day.”
“Even I don’t know where the images of these worlds come from.”

 
Other worlds, Other dreams
We walk on Siksa years before the energy wars, and see the Silver Falls where Botzar first met Sindar.
The rock walls behind the waterfall are covered with a silver crystal that emits a bright glow when sunlight reaches it.

We swim in a small lake near the base of the waterfall.
Dilasa disappears beneath the water and surfaces, minutes later.
“Look what I found, ina,” says Dilasa, holding up an information cube.

It doesn’t look like the ancient design, or the modern one.
Instead it has elements of each.
Stranger still, it has one surface decorated with Sindar’s symbol, and the opposite side with a whisheeku, the symbol of the Gen.

Later, we take the cube to a player, but it’s empty except for an image of me, and two of my twins, standing on Sinesu.

“Where is that place?” asks Shazira, troubled, “and who is with you?”

“We’re standing near the River of Sound on Sinesu, but I’ve never been there.”
“I recognize it from other cubes.”

Dilasa looks at me, excited.

“Ina, that’s the place that Zias told you about.”
“This cube is a clue about how to find it.”

“How can it help me, Dilasa?”
“Sinesu is gone.”
I tell the others about meeting with Zias, her necklace and dreams, and the message from the Tshuan witch telling me to bathe in the river.

“Who is with you in the image, Yagrin?” asks Shazira, again.

“One of the twins is Sindar, but I’m not sure about the other one.”
“He doesn’t carry himself like Botzar.”
“He remind me a little of B’tzel, but B’tzel died before the Jiku came to Sinesu.”

“The image doesn’t have to be literally true, ina,” says Tzina’s double.
“It’s just a message.”

“I know who the other twin is,” says Shazira quietly.

“Who?”

“It’s the old Yagrin.”

“It makes no sense at all,” I tell her, “that the two of us should stand together in a place where neither of us has been.”

“I know,” she says, “but I’m sure it’s him.”

I take her aside.
“You miss him,” I suggest.

“Yes.”
“No.”
“How can I?”
“The two of you are merged together, one being.”
“I feel it, and I accept it.”
“Still, there’s something very troubling about seeing the two of you standing together like that.”

“Don’t worry.”
“I’ll get over it.”

Shazira is quiet for the rest of our time on ancient Siksa.
When we return to the cave, she eats and then welcomes a night of ordinary sleep.

On other days, Tzina takes us to Sinesu, both in ancient times, and just before it became a sun.
We enjoy our time there, but I can’t find the river of sound in either dream.

Two more dreams take us to distant worlds that Mayla’s probes explored.
Our shapes there are not even remotely humanoid.

One morning we wake from sleep, our last full day in the cave.
At first meal, Tzina surprises us.
“Today we’re going to reverse the order of the games.”
“First, we travel together.”
“Then, we train.”

“Why?” asks Dilasa.

“Filarin suggested it.”
“Ina and oodah will make fire twins and go in the network today.”
“Their training will be exhausting.”
“They’ll need to sleep afterwards, not start another game.”

The last day’s traveling dream gives us a humanoid form.
We arrive on an island, empty of any signs of intelligent life.
A few minutes later, we start changing shape, taking on a variety of animal forms.
It takes us an hour to get our shape shifting abilities under control.
We have a kind of shape memory, and we can quickly scan through it, looking for forms that we can change into.
I find our initial humanoid shape in the memory, along with the Kishla, the large intelligent birds on Siksa.
“Take this form,” I tell everyone, and then I change and leap into the air.
The others follow.
I wonder which of the shapes in our memory is our true form here.

The birds have incredible vision, but I use energy eyes to quickly scan the surface of the whole world.
This planet is full of islands, with a dozen continents, each about half the size of Australia.
The energy web is weaker on land or in the air, than it was on Siksa before the change.
“Let’s try the ocean,” I suggest, and dive into the water.

The web is far stronger here.
When we enter the ocean, our bodies instinctively take on another form.
It reminds me of Shazira’s dragon, except without wings: a long flexible body with scales, and an intelligent face.
The soft scales on the face and head generate some kind of cold green light, so that our faces are still visible, deep within the ocean.

There are millions like us, living in great underwater cities.
We’re called Chikal.
Thousands of years ago these beings lived on land in a humanoid form.
Then, they developed the power of shape shifting.
Now, they rarely go on land, except when it’s time to give birth.
Their cities are built of glowing crystals, using flow and energy weaving.
We live among them for a few days, until the dream ends.

 
Fire Twins
Shazira and I prepare ourselves for the final training dream.

Dilasa glides toward me.
A grab her just before she lands, and give her a hug.
She laughs.

“What will you do, little one, while oodah and I are training in the network?”

“Tzina has some training ideas for me, but I want to do something else.”

“What?”

“I want to find the Silver Falls and the cube that we saw.”

“The falls were destroyed in the energy wars, and there never was a cube with that image.”
“Tzina told us that strange, meaningless events slip into a game, just like they fall into ordinary night dreams.”
“Besides, I don’t want you exploring without us, especially when our connection with the web is so weak.”

“Trust me, ina.”
“I know there’s something out there, and I can find it.”

“We’re your parents,” says Shazira, “and it’s our job to protect you.”
“You’ll stay in the cave while we’re in the game.”

Dilasa doesn’t answer, but I feel her anger.

“Let them go, Dilasa,” says Tzina.
Dilasa frowns at her sister, and flies off to her own circle.

“Are you ready?” Tzina asks us.

Shazira and I return to our nests and lie down.
Tzina watches us with energy eyes as we begin.

Creating the fire twins is the first step.
I focus on the seven energy wells in the fire body, shutting out every other perception.
The wells grow brighter and larger, until I see a crystal staff of energy that reaches from the red well, up to the violet well.
I pull a red filament of energy from the bottom of the staff, and thread it through all the wells in the shape of a spiral, rotating clockwise.
I extract a violet strand of energy from the top of the staff, and thread it downward through the wells, forming a second spiral, spinning counter-clockwise.
Then, I push the energy staff away from the fire body, the staff still surrounded with the two spiral threads.
Finally I touch the staff to my mental web, and a copy of my mind forms around the staff.
The fire twin is complete, and it hovers over me, unmoving.

The twins can’t exist longer than a few seconds while they’re inactive.
They’ll awaken when we go to sleep, and once they’re active, they’re never still until they die.
We scan them quickly to be sure that their energy is stable.
Then we give in to the sleep that starts to pull at us.

My body fades, and I wake up as the twin.
It feels that way, but it’s not true.
I’m only a copy.
The real Yagrin is sleeping.
When my time is done, I’ll stream my memories to him, and disappear.

My awareness moves so fast that the physical world has almost stopped.
Even light barely moves, taking three seconds to travel a foot.
How long is my second?
I make a quick calculation in my head.
Light moves a foot in a nanosecond, one billionth of a second.
My second is one third of that.

Is my awareness built on faster-than-light particles like Tachyons, or movements of energy across tiny distances?
Either one could explain the speed of my fire mind.

Still, I have another mystery.
I’ve lived before as a fire body, even though I wasn’t a fire twin.
Why didn’t I have an awareness this fast?

“Yagrin!”
I hear Shazira’s thoughts within me, and I move toward her circle, unbearably slow.
What good is a mind this fast when I’m still limited by light speed?
It will take minutes to cross the few hundred feet that separate us!

I stop.
We’re meant to be fast and powerful.
I’ve forgotten something, but what?

Suddenly, Shazira is here.
“How did you get here so fast?” I ask her.
“I can barely move.”

“You’re doing it wrong, Yagrin.”
“Tzina told us to jump, not move through space.”

“It sounds familiar,” I tell her.
Why did I forget that?

“Try it, Yagrin.”

“How do I do it?”

“Didn’t you listen to Tzina?” she asks, frustrated with me.
“The twin can instantly sense places far away.”
“Just feel where you want to go to with your energy senses.”

I reach out to feel Shazira’s circle.
“I found it.”

“Good.”
“Do you feel it pulling at you?”

“Yes.”

“Let it take you.”
“Then come back.”

I find myself at her circle, but I’m so weak.
I feel for my own circle, and just barely find it.
Then I let go again.

My thoughts are cloudy and dull, and I can barely sense anything outside of me.
“Yagrin!”
It takes me a minute before I can find the strength to respond.

“Yes?”

“You were gone for minutes.”
“What’s wrong?”

“I lost consciousness.”

“That’s impossible for a fire twin, unless you’re about to dissolve.”
She pauses.

“I scanned you.”
“You’re bleeding energy, and you won’t last long.”
“Stream your memories to the real Yagrin.”

Real Yagrin?
Now I remember.
I’m just a copy.
I push the memories toward him with my last bit of strength.

 
Faster than Gen
I awake in the nest, watching the world with energy eyes.
Everyone except Dilasa is here, deathly still.
I try to speak, but I can’t feel or move my physical body.
The web is strange, its energy so slow.

“Tzina,” I call with a mind touch.
No response.

I scan the cave, looking for Filarin.
When I find him, he’s quiet.
He seems asleep, although I know he never sleeps.
“Filarin,” I call out, directing the thought toward him.

His energy changes, and he starts moving.
“Yagrin?”

“What’s going on, Filarin?”
“Where is Dilasa, and what happened to everyone else?”

“You just woke up?”

“Yes, but I can’t connect with my physical body.”

“Do you remember what you were doing before you awoke?”

My memories are sluggish at first, but then it all comes back.
“I remember being a fire twin.”
“The twin died, and then I found myself back in the cave.”

“You’re not like other Jiku, Yagrin.”
“Usually, your mind is connected to both your fire body and your physical body.”
“When the twin gave you its memories, it pushed your mind to switch to a faster speed, and weakened the connection between your mind and your physical body.”

“I’m as fast now as the fire twin?!”

“Yes.”

Will I be able to jump between places as the twin does?
I feel the pull of Shazira’s circle at a distance, and let it take me.
In a moment, I’m there, my strength untouched.

I practice for several minutes, jumping all over the cave.
Soon, I start to get tired.
I find Filarin, asleep again.

“Filarin!”

“Yes, Yagrin.”

“Why do you go to sleep?”

He laughs.
“I don’t sleep, Yagrin, but I change to Jiku speed, so I can interact with your family.”
“That’s so slow compared to you, that I seem to be asleep.”
“I’m able to leave a small part of me listening at the faster speed, so I can switch when necessary, like when you call me.”

“Why am I getting tired, Filarin?”
“Shazira’s twin doesn’t get weak.”
“What’s wrong?”

“Your mind still has a slight connection with your body, and it’s weighing you down.”
“I heard you tell your family that you’ve lived without a physical body.”
“Can you do it again?”

“Yes.”
“My mind and memories stay intact when I dissolve the physical body.”
“I can reshape a new body for myself whenever I want, at least where the web is healthy.”

“Good.”
“If you want to hold this speed for long without a fire twin, you have to get rid of the body.”

“What good is keeping this speed, Filarin, if I can’t change it?!”
“I need to learn how to slow down and speed up my mind.”

“I’m not sure it will work for you, Yagrin, but I’ll tell you how I do it.”
“Remember how you started to build the fire twin?”

“Yes.”
“I focused on the wells until a crystal rod appeared.”

“Do you know about the eighteen rings?”

“I remember the rings from the dream that Tzina pulled us into.”
“They were spinning around the staff.”
“There were spiral spokes that connected the staff to the rings, forming eighteen wheels, with the staff at the center.”

“Great,” says Filarin, “you’ve seen the wheels.”

“Only in the dream.”

“If you can find them again, then there’s a chance that you can change your speed.”

“What do I do?”

“Each wheel has its own distinct speed, and a unique, secret sound.”
“It’s possible to change the speed at which the wheels spin, but only for a few moments.”
“Make all the wheels spin together at the same speed, just for an instant, and your mind will change its rhythm.”

“How do I control the mind’s speed?”

“It’s based on the speed that the wheels spin when they’re in sync.”

“When the wheels spin about one-eighteenth of a turn per second, your mind will be as fast as the fire twin.”
“When the wheels spin so fast that they just disappear, your mind will be at Jiku speed.”

“What about the wheel sounds that you mentioned?”
“How do I hear them?”

“You can’t, Yagrin, and I don’t know if you’ll be able to control the wheels without them.”
“Only messengers and a few other beings hear the sounds.”
“Their main purpose us to get us to the places where we need to do our work.”

I focus on the wells, and the staff appears.
Then, I wait for the rings to show themselves.
I even try to imagine them as I saw them in the dream.
Nothing.
“No rings and no wheels, Filarin.”

“See if you can feel energy spinning around the wells, a foot away from the staff.”
“That may help.”

After the staff appears again, I feel around it with my energy senses, for anything that feels like movement or vibration.
I’m about to give, when I decide to scan the staff itself.

I feel distinct rhythms in the staff, a kind of pulse where it passes through the wells.
The heart rhythm is the strongest of all.
I move my senses a foot away from the staff, looking for the pulse moving in a circle.
It takes me a while to get it, but eventually I feel the pulse, moving through the space around the well.
The first ring comes into focus.

I repeat the process at the other wells.
After the seventh ring comes into focus, I scan the staff, looking for other, weaker rhythms.
I find eleven more places that are full of the rhythms.
Soon after the rings appear.
Then the rings and the staff become wheels.

Every wheel has its own speed.
I can change it, but I can’t predict how it will change, and I can only focus on one wheel at a time.
It takes months of practice to get some control of the speed.
Years pass before I can make one wheel spin fast enough to briefly disappear.
I speak to Filarin occasionally, but most of the time I stay focused on the practice that will get me back to my family.

After countless years, I succeed in getting all the wheels to disappear at the same moment.
I awake in my physical body, cradled by the nest, with everyone standing around me.
“Sit up slowly, Yagrin,” says Shazira.

“I’m fine,” I tell her, getting up.

“Fine?!”
“Your twin shattered and you’ve been unconscious for minutes,” says Shazira.
“My fire twin dissolved herself, so I could come here to help you.”
“I brought Berek, and he covered you with healing energy.”

“The healing energy had no effect,” I tell them.
“I woke myself up.”
“I was training.”

“What’s going on, ina?” asks Berek.

“When the fire twin gave me its memories, my mind was accelerated, and it broke away from my physical body.”
“It took me decades to learn how to get back to you.”

“Why did your twin shatter so quickly?” asks Shazira.
“It looked stable at first.”

“It was stable,” says Tzina.
“I checked it, myself!”
“Mayla thought this might happen,” she adds.
“Your fire body is different than ours, so it can’t support a twin.”

“Of course, it can’t,” says Berek.

“Why not?” I ask him.

“Your conscious mind is already tied to your fire body.”
“It interferes somehow with the twin.”

“You’ve lived without a physical body,” says Shazira, “but you’ve never been as fast as the twin.”

“I learned form the Gen how to switch between regular speed, and a second speed, a thousand times faster.”
“The twin is a million times faster than that!”

“Some energy beings can live at many speeds, and even move as quickly as the fire twin.”
“Filarin taught me how to do it, but it took years of practice to get it.”

“It took you years to return to normal speed?” asks Shazira.

“Yes.”

“What if it takes you just as long to speed up?” says Shazira.
“What if something goes wrong the next time?”
“You could damage your mind, your memories, or even your fire body!”
“What if you’re unable to slow down the next time?”
“Filarin’s ways were never meant for Jiku!”
“Let me complete the training alone.”

I take her hands.
“No, Shazira,” I tell her.
“I have to do this.”
“I’m going to find the aliens before they reach Siksa, and I need every possible weapon to stop them.”


Empire of Stone -- 1: Cages of FearPrevious StoryNext Story
  1. Fading Light
  2. Waking the Council
  3. Challenging the Guilds
  4. Crystal Paths
  5. Caves of Dreams
  6. Worlds Within Worlds
  7. Black Fountain
  8. Secrets of the Game
  9. Fast and Slow
  10. Slavery and Death
  11. Silver Falls
  12. Sounds of Healing
  13. Songs of Change

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