I walk slowly, letting the crowd move past me toward the shuttle.
Mayani takes my arm, and we stop.
He pushes on my mind wall, and I drop it.
He gives me a series of three security codes.
Can you remember them?
Your identity has been authorized for full access to the facility, Lukara.
Enter the main storage area, and find the control surface.
Touch in the codes without requesting a command, and a hidden door will open, giving you entry to a ship hanger.
Where will you go?
Do you have another ship hidden on another world that can travel between galaxies?
How long will it take you to reach your home?
The ship you’ve given me will be good enough.
As soon as I get far enough from this planet, the effects of the cage projector will fade.
I’ll be home shortly after that.
Do you look anything like us?
Not so different.
Brown skin, sharper teeth, and no webs between our fingers and toes.
Even without the webs, though, most of us love to swim.
Long life, Lukara.
And to you.
Come back someday to see if we’ve overcome the Sehtoo and the emperor.
If I survive, elder.
May you find sweet waters.
Once, the Kizak language was full of references to the sea, but few use those greetings any more.
I watch Mayani walk away for a few seconds, and carefully slip into a utility corridor and out of sight.
He told me that he hacked into the shuttle and main ship’s systems, so they will show that I boarded one of the shuttles and returned from the planet.
The pilgrims and elders will be told that I’ll be alone in my room for the return trip.
That lie will last for a few days, until the guard boards the pilgrimage ship, and look for me.
I enter the storage room and sit in silence, waiting for the last shuttle to leave the planet.
The facility goes dark, and the life support systems switch to maintenance mode.
The ventilation system is off, along with the scrubbers that clean the air of carbon dioxide.
The temperature will drop to just above freezing in thirty minutes, but it doesn’t matter.
I’ll be gone soon.
I use a portable light to find my way back to the cavern, and try to open a PathFinder gateway.
The gate won’t open, even when I strengthen myself with well energy.
The cavern blocks the gate.
I return to the storage rooms, touch the codes, and a doorway appears.
Lights come on in the small hanger, and reveal three ships.
I tell the building’s AI to run full diagnostics on them.
None have weapons or shields, but the hulls are solid.
Life support, navigation, and the star drives all check out.
Time to go.
The Kizak always name their ships.
The one on the left is called LightRacer.
I like the name, so I enter the ship.
The air is thin and stale, but life support activates automatically, and the lights come on.
I keep the robes on for now.
I’ll flow new clothes for myself once I get free of the cage.
I take out a beam generator from under my robe, one of the ones that the elders used to activate the caves.
Mayani gave it to me.
“Remember us,” he said, as he gave me the generator as a souvenir.
I also carry a crystal chip from each of the seven caves.
The pilgrim’s ship begins moving toward the center of the ring, to find its way home.
Hyperspace gates won’t open within a dozen light years of the ring, except at its very center.
Worse yet, for me, something inhibits a connection with the web within the same area, except inside the caverns.
Kizak scientists can’t explain either phenomenon.
There’s no real need for the cage projectors in orbit around the ring worlds, but the empire maintains them anyway.
In ninety minutes, the pilgrims will reach the center and jump.
The ship’s AI will inform me when they’re gone, so I can follow the same path to the jump point.
Meanwhile, I familiarize myself with the ship’s capabilities.
The Black World
My ship is slower than the pilgrimage ship.
It will take me three hours to reach the center.
I spend most of the time meditating, waiting for the AI to tell me that we’ve arrived at the jump point.
Instead, the ship sounds a loud warning, four million miles from the center, and comes to a stop.
“Unidentified body, moving directly across our path.”
“Unknown, but it seems too large.”
“It’s invisible to our ship’s scanners, but a wide area of stars behind it are slightly dimmer than normal.”
“How can you tell that it’s moving?”
“The right edge of the dimming effect is moving to our left.”
“Why did you stop?”
“The engines shut off by themselves, and something absorbed our momentum, like we were passing through a thick liquid.”
“How far away is the object?”
“Impossible to tell, but we should be free of it in thirty minutes.”
“We can only wait, and hope that I can restart the engines when the hidden body passes.”
The ship starts accelerating.
“Did the engines come back on?” I ask the AI.
“It’s pulling us in.”
A few minutes later the ship begins to slow, and then comes to a rough stop.
“Whatever it is,” says the AI, “we’re right on top of it.”
“The scanners show a solid body made of some kind of black crystal.”
There are seven, relatively accessible energy wells, and an eighth well, black and hidden.
Is there a hidden black world here?
“AI, are there any reports of a black planet in the ring?”
“One ship mentioned it, but the words are cryptic.”
The heart of the ring is alive, flashing through space.
It fills a sphere, twelve light-years wide.
The heart has a shadow, an eighth planet, black and clear, a phantom that is only seen when it wants to be seen.
It brings worthy pilgrims to paradise, and crushes those who disgrace the ring.
Something glows within me when I hear the words.
It sounds like a vision.
The AI continues.
“Every twenty or thirty years, a pilgrimage ship disappears after entering the ring, with no trace of debris or radiation.”
“Empire bureaucrats hate to leave events unexplained.”
“Catastrophic drive failure in hyperspace is the official explanation, but it’s illogical.”
“There are no proven cases of failure in the last two centuries.”
“The safety systems prevent it.”
“Still, it’s possible.”
“There are tracking sensors installed on the ring worlds.”
“They record the flight path of the pilgrimage ships within the ring, and when the ships enter hyperspace.”
“The lost ships simply disappear in the ring, as they move toward the center.”
“There’s no sign of them entering hyperspace.”
“What’s the connection between those ships and the report of the black planet?”
“One of the lost ships launched three escape pods before it disappeared.”
“The same handwritten message was left in each of them.”
“Almost no one writes by hand anymore, except for a few artists and poets.”
“Everything about the incident is strange, Lukara.”
“Do the Dahwee speak about an eighth planet?”
“The elders dismiss the message.”
“They say it comes from the voices of twisted minds, born of an epidemic that damages the brain.”
“Clearly, there’s more to these words than madness.”
“This world has captured us.”
The forward view-screen is completely dark now.
At this distance, the planet doesn’t dim the view of the stars.
It blocks them.
The AI activates another screen, where the view of the stars changes dramatically every few seconds.
“What are you showing me?”
“A simple view of space from the back of the ship.”
“Why do you keep changing it?”
“You see what the ship sees,” says the AI.
“We’re moving with the planet through normal space at a steady speed.”
“We seem to be orbiting the center of the ring, but every three seconds, the planet instantly shifts its position, moving up to a light-year at a time.”
“Then, three seconds later, it shifts back into its orbit.”
“How far do we move from the ring?”
“The planet stays within a virtual sphere, stretching twelve light-years from the ring’s center.”
“Are we moving through hyperspace?”
“There’s no acceleration, no sign of the typical increased radiation, and no measurable stress on our ship.”
“Perhaps this world jumps through space using the same method that the Madar once used.”
“There were many Kizak reports about instantaneous Madar travel in the past.”
“Empire investigators certified the reliability of the witnesses, but they never discovered the science behind the jumps.”
“I’m going out to explore the planet,” I tell the AI.
“I have to find out how we can escape its hold on us.”
“Without weapons or shields, there’s no way that you can get us out of here.”
“Even if you discover a way to free us, we need to escape during one of the three-second periods that the planet is close to the center.”
“Otherwise, we’ll end up light years from here, and you’ll run out of supplies long before we reach a place where we can jump.”
I put on a BioSuit, store weapons and other items in a waist pack, and go out through the airlock.
The world is still covered in darkness, but my energy senses open.
The energy web is strong and active on this world, and my connection with it seems unblocked.
With barely a thought, I cover myself with an energy shield, and rise up a hundred feet.
Then I look for a PathFinder gate to take me home.
I see the microscopic energy gates, but I can’t stretch them open.
The planet’s energy interferes.
I continue to fly up, to see if I can leave the planet in the BioSuit, but something stops me when I reach a thousand feet.
I drop down toward the ground and activate a spotlight, but the crystal consumes every drop of light, leaving the world as dark as before.
I fly slowly over the surface, looking for a way to free myself from this place.
Thank the creator, the world is still bright to energy eyes.
My flight path glows, and the world below echoes that glow with its own path.
Fountains of energy burst at random from the crystal surface, in thousands of places at once.
My senses find dozens of Kizak ships, some hundreds of years old, all perfectly preserved, but drained of power and empty of life.
The planet jumps, again and again, but there’s no acceleration, no feeling at all.
Nothing changes, except for the stars above.
I land, and spread my healing sense for miles in every direction.
I catch a feeling, a restlessness, a need, a yearning for something more.
It strengthens slowly, and peaks, just before a jump.
I try to decipher the meaning of this longing, but I can’t.
Like many worlds, this planet has an awareness, but it’s too slow, too big for me to communicate with.
I turn my attention to the graveyard of ships, five miles wide.
At the center is a structure, a perfect black sphere, ten feet high, with four arches, one for each direction.
There are energy letters floating near the arches, that spell fong, the Madar word for death.
The web feels normal here, and my energy senses are strong, but I’m still almost helpless.
The hand weapons I carry won’t power on.
I can fly, but not beyond the planet, and I can’t change my own shape or the shape of anything around me.
My healing sense can feel the world’s balance, but I can’t alter it in any way.
There’s no choice.
I have to approach the sphere.
It gets hard to walk, the closer I get to the sphere.
Thirty feet away, I can barely move.
I push through an invisible barrier, and everything changes.
It’s easy to walk now, and there’s visible light shining from the sphere.
My BioSuit reports that I’m surrounded with warm, breathable air, and my energy senses confirm it.
I pick one of the arches and try to move through it.
An energy field blocks the way.
I take off the suit, and try again.
I feel the pressure everywhere except my head.
The field rips my clothes, as I try to push my way through, so I leave them behind.
Finally I pass through, carrying only the beam generator and the crystal chips.
I touch the sphere, and I’m pulled down, through an opening in the stone below me.
I drift down for fifteen seconds, land gently, and the opening closes above me.
There’s no visible light, but my energy senses show me what’s here.
I’m standing on a ten-foot platform, suspended at the center of a hollow sphere of black crystal, sixty-four feet wide.
Thirty-two rings of energy stretch around the sphere, one above the next.
They’re grouped into sets of eight, tied to the eight energy wells, red through violet, and black.
The platform starts to spin, and the bands of energy begin to rise, disappearing when they reach the top of the sphere, and new bands appearing below.
A large energy gate opens before me, similar to a PathFinder gateway, and pulls at me.
I don’t know where it leads, but I’m sure that no one has returned from there.
I resist the gate with all my strength, but I’m still being dragged toward it.
I load all the crystal chips in the beam generator and fire at the ceiling above me.
The colors merge into a dark beam that strikes the black crystal, and reflects down to me.
My movement slows, but doesn’t stop.
I’ll enter the gateway in a few seconds.
The black well that drifts around me opens wide, far wider than the seven wells within me.
I direct eight streams of energy through the beam generator.
The cave glows, and the room heats up.
Seven rays of colored energy shine down on me, surrounded with a shadow of black energy.
My shape changes, and I wear Yagrin’s body again, barely able to contain the energy that moves through me from the black well.
It feels clear and colored, bright and dark, effortless and unbearable.
The black energy carries every possibility within it.
I redirect the eight streams of energy toward the gate’s edge.
It flickers for a moment, then shatters and disappears.
A voice fills my head, and I see an image of a shadow drifting, high above the possibility sea, covering the whole sea.
All is possible, Yagrin.
Accept our gift, and come to us.
Siksa was born before you, and will live when you are gone.
We are watchers.
Give up struggle, and be free.
Watch the sea, a web of dreams, and let your pain go.
Learn without end.
I will not go.
Are you so bound to your sorrow?
Death surrounds you.
Others will die because of you.
Death and war will come, with or without me.
I’m not afraid of death.
I’ve died again and again for this universe.
I am Embu, called to serve.
Death and love surround me.
Return to your pain, then.
I find myself on the surface, standing outside the arch, the black energy still trying to burst out of me.
I change back to Lukara’s form, and put on the BioSuit again.
PathFinder gates are still blocked, but the ship is powered up, ready to leave, when I return.
“How did you free us?” asks the AI.
“I refused to accept a gift.”
“We’re no longer welcome here.”
“We were trapped here.”
“Time to go.”
The AI understands that I won’t explain more.
He accelerates quickly away from the planet, until we’re far enough away, that the hidden world doesn’t pull us with it when it shifts.
Then we’re still, waiting for the planet to pass out of our way.
Finally, we move to the center of the ring, and jump.
Out of Control
We complete the first jump and return to normal space, fifty light years from the ring.
Jumping from the ring always leads to the same place, not like a regular jump where you control the destination.
Another strange feature of the ring.
The view-screen shows two ships nearby: the pilgrimage ship and a guard ship.
Before I can do anything, my ship loses power, leaving only the emergency lighting and communications active.
“Do not try to regain control of your ship,” comes a voice over the message panel.
“We’re coming to arrest you.”
The guard ship has a powerful cage projector whose effects reach my ship.
I activate a nullifier, and open a weak PathFinder gate to the nearby pilgrimage ship.
I arrive in an empty corridor, wearing the pilgrim’s robe, and move toward one of the common rooms.
Another pilgrim approaches me.
“What are you doing here?” he asks.
“The guards don’t allow us to move freely around the ship.”
“You’ll get us all in trouble.”
“Who are you?” I ask in return.
“Wootak, but what does that matter?”
“The guards gave me permission to leave the common room.”
“One of the elders reported Lukara for what she did in the ring.”
“The emperor believes she is cursed, and too dangerous to let live.”
“Because of her, the emperor may kill every pilgrim on this trip!”
I pull out a light stick and stun him with it.
Then I touch his arm, and scan his thoughts.
I need more information.
I can’t believe what I find, so I uncover his face.
He faked his death, full of grief for killing me, and came on this pilgrimage.
Disu was astounded when he saw what I did as Lukara in the first few caves.
He accessed the infonet and discovered that the real Lukara is still on the homeworld.
Disu suspects that it’s me, Neyima, who hides behind her form.
On the surface, he still has affection for me, but his mind is twisted from the brainwashing of the Mind Corps.
Deep within, he has a burning desire to kill Neyima or anyone who opposes the emperor.
He’ll kill me again if I reveal myself to him.
I should just go, and leave him as he is, but I feel responsible for what’s been done to him.
Mind Weavers can change the way a person thinks, but it’s considered a betrayal of our craft.
I push that concern aside, and go deep into his mind.
They tortured him until he lowered his mind wall, and told him to never use it again.
Then they twisted his mind as they pleased.
I’ve been here before, when I built the wall, and I can sense the foreign desires buried here.
I’m surprised at how easy it is to undo the effects of the brainwashing.
There are bitter memories of his torture, hidden from his conscious mind.
I let those remain lost, except for one, where he is half-conscious, and his father tells the Corps that they can do anything they want to Disu, as long as he obeys.
I give him back the use of the wall.
Then I cover his face, and wake him.
“Wake up, Disu.”
“What did you do to me, and why did you look under my robe?”
“I’m not Disu, although I look a lot like him.”
“Didn’t you hear that he died?”
I grab his arm, so I can touch his thoughts.
Then I reveal my face.
You know that I’m not Lukara, even though I look just like her.
Who are you?
I killed you!
Yes, but I’ve come back.
Who else could do what I did in the caves?
Are you here for revenge?
Then kill me already, and end my suffering.
You had no choice.
The Mind Corps brainwashed you, so you would kill if I appeared in the arena.
I’ve freed you from their influence.
Sooner or later the guard will discover who I am and I’ll be returned to my father.
They’ll torture me and twist my mind again.
You should have left me alone.
I sense danger and instinctively raise a shield, powered by energy from the black well.
A dozen weapons fire at me, and I feel dizzy, but my shield holds.
I hear a cry, and see Disu struck by several blasts.
I cover him with my shield, but the damage is already done.
I’ve been afraid to use the energy from the wells to overcome the cage, unsure of my ability to control that much power.
I feel how easy it is to call on that energy, and my desire to protect Disu quickly overcomes my fear.
I strike out at the guards in the corridor, to stun them.
A tremendous blast fills the corridor from end to end.
When I wake, a few seconds later, the walls are scorched, and the guards gone.
I smell burnt flesh, the only trace of the guards’ physical or energy bodies.
Disu is alive, but only barely, and his fire body is damaged.
I don’t know how to heal him.
I have to get him to the Seven Towers, and put him in stasis.
More guards come, but their weapons can’t penetrate my shield.
I start to feel sick, and my fire body looks strange.
My energy senses, powered by well energy, tell me that Mayani the elder is with them.
I touch his mind briefly to give him a message.
All that I will say is false, but it may protect you against the emperor’s foolishness.
I take Neyima’s form, and drop the robe.
I want the guards to see me.
“I am Neyima,” I announce loudly.
“Tell the emperor that I will return soon to destroy the ring and the Dahwee.”
“The cage will no longer stop me.”
“Tell him that I said he’s a fool, and no threat to us.”
“That’s why I let him live.”
I change to a Madar shape, and laugh.
The guards move back in fear for a few seconds before they start firing again.
My shield still protects me.
“I wanted the emperor to see what I did in the ring, and destroy the Dahwee.”
“Only they have the power to stop us, though they don’t understand their strength.”
After the events in the caves, the emperor fears the Dahwee, but my words will make him hesitate to act against them.
I want him to fear me enough, that he looks to them for help.
My form shifts, against my will, and I’m Neyima again.
No time to wonder why.
I grab Disu, and fly to the escape pods.
Each time I draw on the well energy, I get more nauseous, and now, I have to fight to stay conscious.
I raise a shield around the pod as soon as it clears the ship, just before the guard ship stars firing on us.
Black energy moves into me, and my shape changes again, this time to Yagrin.
We’re still within the cage, so I can’t open a distant PathFinder gate without the wells.
It takes massive amounts of power to open a gate.
Can I channel so much black energy, and survive?
I struggle with the decision, but then the energy seems to jump out of me, and into the gate.
The gate starts to open, but with strange flashes of light around the edges.
A typical gate opens in seconds, but this one takes several minutes to open, and it opens to a much larger size than I intended.
I hesitate before entering the gate, wondering if it’s stable enough for us to pass through safely.
While I decide, something comes through from the other side.
A small ship, with shields raised.
I reach out my mind toward the ship, and find a familiar passenger, who recognizes my mind touch.
What are you doing here, Sindar?
My assistants detected a strange gate opening near the towers, and an unknown dark energy spreading outward from the gate.
The AIs have orders to wake me from stasis when the towers are in danger.
I opened the gate wider, and came through with this ship.
What’s going on here?
My energy senses are gone.
Is something wrong with the web?
We have enemies here with technology that blocks our connection with the web.
Their ships have weapons that will penetrate your shields.
You have to hurry.
I opened the gate in a strange way, and it’s not stable.
Turn around now, and go back.
I’ll be right behind you.
The guards fire at the pod and Sindar’s ship.
His shields fail when he’s almost through the gate.
Another blast comes and strikes one of the bright flashes at the edge of the gate.
There’s an explosion and Sindar’s ship disappears.
Is the gate still safe?
I can’t stay conscious much longer, so I take a chance, and follow Sindar.
When I’m through, the gate closes on its own.
Then I open the pod, and crawl out onto the ground, while the world spins around me.
Sindar’s ship is half gone, already surrounded by five Jiku who look like us.
They all share one mind.
An AI named Kihyez serves Sindar, and uses artificial bodies when needed.
“What did you do to Sindar?” asks the AI.
“He did nothing,” whispers Sindar.
One of them picks him up, and moves toward the tower.
“You’ll die,” says Kihyez.
“I need to get you into stasis.”
“What’s the point?”
“My fire body is about to unravel.”
“I’ve never seen weapons that can do this.”
Sindar turns his head slightly toward me.
“There’s a dying alien with you Yagrin.”
“Should we save him?”
“Yes, but his fire body is also damaged.”
“Not as badly as mine.”
“Several healers, working together, can repair the damage.”
“Kihyez will put him in stasis until you can bring the healers here.”
One of my doubles takes Disu away.
I reach Sindar, and try to cover him with healing energy.
I can’t pull energy from the web.
Even if I could, I don’t know how to heal his fire body.
As I stand there, helpless, I feel his mind touch.
Don’t blame yourself, Yagrin.
But it is my fault, Sindar.
The Kizak weapon combined with the strange energy of my gate and did this!
There’s no time for regrets.
You meant no harm.
I’m happy that we met, little brother, and I was able to start you on your path.
Wish Botzar a good life, and send my love to Dilasa.
My years are long enough.
“Kihyez,” whispers Sindar.
“When I’m gone, Yagrin will take my place as master of the tower.”
“Do you understand?”
“Yes, Sindar, but what about the hidden world?”
“When one year passes on Siksa, let Yagrin through the gateway.”
My head starts to clear, and I sit up.
Sindar gestures to me, and I move toward his face.
He touches my forehead with his palm, and kisses me on the ears.
It’s an old Jiku way that fathers say goodbye to their sons, before a long journey.
Then Sindar closes his eyes.