Lost Courage

 
An Honorable Death
I leave Siksa and my family, again.
Only Balshown is with me on the ship, and he is too quiet, lost in his thoughts.
We pass unnoticed through the atmosphere, and accelerate past Siksa’s moon.
Soon, we’ll be at a safe distance from the planet, where we can engage the star drive.

Balshown watches the view-screen until Siksa is out of sight.
“Why are we here, Yagrin?” he asks, breaking the silence.
“This ship is fast, but it will still take us weeks to reach my world.”
“You’re a PathFinder!”
“Open a gate, give me back my old shape, and send me home!”

“I don’t where your world is, only that it’s in the next galaxy.”

“But Yagrin, Mayla showed me a star only a hundred light years away from my own world.”
“You have the location.”
“Doesn’t it help?”

“Yes, but do you want me to drop you in lifeless space, light years from home?!”
“Besides, I can’t open gates anymore on Siksa.”
“I need to channel huge amounts of energy for a gate, and the damaged connection with the web is just too slow.”

“What about here, inside the ship, where the web is normal?”
“You’ve opened gates in a small space before.”

“Yes, but the energy might damage the ship’s systems.”
“I won’t risk it.”

“What do we do?”
“Just sit here for weeks?”

“You’ve waited two hundred years!”
“Is a few weeks so bad?”

He scowls, but doesn’t answer.

“Anyway, I don’t intend to make you wait that long.”
“We’re headed for a nearby sun, where the web is strong.”
“I’ll open a gate there, and take the ship through.”

His people are called the Veezal.
Does he expect me to send him home, and forget that I ever knew him?
Even if I find the location of his world, I won’t just throw him through the gate, and let him die on a scorched world.
I’ll go with him, and stay until I know he’s safe.
Then, I hunt for the enemy.
Mayla suspects that their homeworld is somewhere in Balshown’s galaxy.

“You’re coming with me, all the way to my world?” he asks.
Balshown can’t touch my thoughts, but he knows how I think.

“I am.”

“You’re a fool!”
“The Veezal have a natural hatred for other races.”
“They’ll kill you.”

“Let them try,” I answer, defiantly.
“Besides, I can always shape another body.”

“A Jiku body won’t live more than a few seconds in our atmosphere.”

“I won’t be Jiku.”
“I’ll transform both of us.”

“You think my people are blind to energy?!”
“Your fire body is nothing like ours, Yagrin.”
“They’ll see your inner energy, and know that you’re not one of us!”

“Will you hate me too, Balshown, once you take your old form?”

“No, but I can’t protect you from them.”

“What about you?”
“Will you be safe among them?”
“When you came to Siksa, you took over a Jiku body.”
“The fire body will remain, even after I transform your physical form.”

“Don’t be so sure, until you check, Yagrin.”

Until now, I never had a reason to scan Balshown’s inner energy.
The fire body hides behind the physical and pattern bodies.
Jiku energy eyes can see it, but only with intense concentration.

My heart beats fast, and my face registers the shock I feel.
His fires are completely alien.
Even the shape of his fire body is different, a ring instead of an egg.

“When you give me a new physical body, Yagrin, I’ll be whole again, and my people will know me.”

“How is it possible, Balshown?”
“Only awareness can travel from body to body.”

“Who told you that?”
“Do you know how awareness travels?”

“Not really,” I answer
“The cubes don’t explain it.”

“Do they explain how it works when you touch minds, and hear another’s thoughts?”
“Or how it’s possible for you to Mind Weave, and move your whole awareness into another mind?”

“No.”
“Do you know?”

“There are hints in some of the cubes.”
“I have a theory.”

“Tell me.”

“The Jiku believe in a creator, who made this universe and many others.”
“My people moved away from the idea long ago, but I think they were wrong.”

He smiles.
“I’ve been on Siksa for two hundred years.”
“Maybe the Jiku have corrupted me.”

I laugh with him.

He continues.
“The universe is full of energy and substance and order, but there’s something more fundamental, and most of us don’t even know that it’s there.”
“Not even you, Yagrin.”

“More than energy?!”

“Yes.”

“What?”

Awareness.”

“I don’t understand.”
“Life and awareness are built on energy.”

“No, Yagrin.”
“Awareness comes first.”
“The creator made a universe, and filled it with a web of awareness.”
“This web stretches across all space and time, larger and more dense than any energy web that you’ve seen.”

“Why did he create it?”

“Jiku cubes say that the universe exists to explore endless possibility.”
“That explanation is incomplete.”
“Do you think that the creator made a universe so he could fill it with an endless variety of form and substance?”

“That’s only the background for what’s essential.”
“I believe the universe exists for the endless possibilities of awareness within it.”

“Is the universe aware of itself?”

“The web of awareness is everywhere, but self-awareness, intelligence, is not.”
“Intelligence requires a complex and stable structure of awareness, supported by fire energy.”

“Intelligence can travel along the web of awareness to any point in the universe, Yagrin!”
“Think of it.”

“Why is it so rare?”

“Traveling takes more than knowing how to move along the web of awareness.”
“That movement tears at the bonds that hold our awareness together, and would destroy most of us.”
“Some travelers have an awareness which is naturally stronger than an ordinary intelligent being.”
“Other travelers find a way to strengthen themselves before their journey.”
“Touching minds at close range is more common.”
“I think those beings who touch minds, especially Mind Weavers, draw strength from the energy web to hold their awareness together.”

“Do you know how to move on the web of awareness?”

“Not yet.”
“I spent most of my Jiku life hunting for the Heart Fountain, hoping that it would teach me the secrets of traveling.”
“It was all for nothing.”
“The fountain almost killed me.”
“You entered it, but learned nothing about travel.”

“You brought me to the city, Balshown.”
“That’s how We got this ship that will take you home.”

He’s quiet.

“When you first traveled here, you were happy to escape.”
“When did you decide to return home, Balshown?”

“It took me twenty years to face what I’d done, Yagrin.”
“That’s when I became obsessed with traveling, and later on with the Heart Fountain.”
“I became a master just to get full access to the guild libraries.”
“Life had a purpose again, and it helped me hide from the shame.”
“Though, deep down I knew that I would never live again with my people.”

“You killed to come here.”
“Wouldn’t you do the same to go back?”

He looks shocked, disappointed in me.
“We’re hunters, Yagrin, and killing our enemies and prey is easy, but take over a Veezal body?”
Kill one of my own people?”
“Never.”
“I planned to use traveling to shadow a Veezal mind, enter it just enough to observe my old world for a few days.”

“How did we travel, Balshown?”
“Both of us wanted to find another world, but desire isn’t enough.”
“Besides, I did nothing to strengthen myself so I could survive the trip.”
“Did you?”

“No, we found our way unconsciously.”
“Maybe there is no way to plan it, and all travelers are like this.”
“I can’t tell you how my awareness came to Siksa, but it did.”

“How did you bring your fire body with you?”

“Most travelers reach a new world, carrying only their memories, and a trace of their own fire energy.”
“They seize the physical and fire bodies they find.”
“Others, like me, carry their fire body with them.”
“We steal some memories, if we can, and then drive out all traces of the old awareness.”

“You’ve lived a long time with your secret, Balshown.”
“Why did you finally decide to tell me this?”

“You’re powerful enough now to send me home.”
“That’s the only reason I can bare the shame of telling you.”
“I’m getting old.”
“If I don’t go soon, I never will, but whatever I find, I won’t return to Siksa.”

“Even if your people are gone?”
“Will you remain alone, on a dead world?

“That would be an easy death, Yagrin.”
“Do you know what my people will do to me, if they live?”

“No.”

“They’ll punish me for my cowardice.”
“The swarm will tear me apart as they eat me alive.”
“Don’t be shocked.”
“If I submit myself to their judgement, the punishment will drive away the shame, and my memory will be honored.”
“That’s enough.”

“You’re going there to die?!”

He puts his hand on my shoulder.
“It’s all right, Yagrin,” he says.
“I want to end my life with honor on my own world.”
“That’s all that matters to me.”

 
Slash and Burn
The star appears in the view-screen, twenty light years closer to Balshown’s galaxy.
There are a few planets here, some rocky, some gas giants, but all empty of life.

Energy webs are strongest near a sun, or on a planet with intelligent life.
Energy webs are weak in empty space, or on dead planets.
Still they will be far stronger than the poisoned web on Siksa.

“Ship, are any of the planetary webs poisoned?”

“All of them, and much more severely than the web on Siksa.”

“The webs are worse here?”

“Yes,” says the AI.
“You wouldn’t be able to weave energy or flow at all.”

“This is troubling, Yagrin,” says Balshown.

“Yes.”
“We didn’t think the web could get worse.”
“The probe that came to Siksa didn’t have time to finish weakening the web.”

“It might have stopped on purpose, so you would be taken by surprise when they aliens come and erase all your strength.”

“What’s the status of the space webs, AI?”

“The same.”

“Even the sun?!”

“Yes.”

“There’s nothing for us here, Yagrin,” says Balshown.
“Try another system.”

I pick another sun, fifty light years closer to the galactic border.
When we get there, we find that this system has also been poisoned.

“Don’t give up,” says Balshown.
“One probe can’t visit every sun in the galaxy!”

“Our probe was away from Siksa for almost a century,” I tell him.
“It could have been visiting the suns near us for years before the aliens sent it back to us.”

“It wasn’t alone,” says the AI.
“There’s a cloaked ship moving toward us, probably unmanned.”
“Too small for passengers, with no signs of life.”

“Does it match anything in your data-store?”

“No, but it has recognized your Jiku life signs.”
“It’s broadcasting a signal of greeting, using one of the older Jiku communication protocols.”

I view a star map, and choose another sun.
“Get us out of here,” I tell the ship.

We disappear from normal space.
“Who knows how many ships the aliens sent into this galaxy?”

“But why would they touch empty systems?” asks Balshown.

“To prepare an invasion corridor, a road through the wilderness.”

“Wilderness?”

“On my world, people cut and burn a path through dense forests to make a road for land vehicles.”
“The aliens have cleared a chain of star systems.”
“They can position ships anywhere along the path, as they prepare to invade Siksa, unthreatened by energy masters.”

“They would take the most direct path from the edge of the galaxy,” suggests Balshown.
“If we could discover that path, we could go off the path and find an unaffected sun.”

“Yes, but the edge of the galaxy is not a point in space.”
“We don’t know where they entered the galaxy, and we don’t have time to map the path.”
“I’ve chosen a system three hundred light years past Siksa, farther away from the galactic edge.”
“They would have little reason to go so far from Siksa.”

The ship announces its approach to the target system, just before we re-enter normal space.
“What have you found?” I ask.

“The webs are strong here,” says the AI.
“We can prepare now for our journey to the other galaxy.”

 
Going Home
The ship fades around us, and the two of us are moving at incredible speed, somewhere in deep space toward a thin disk of light.
Our physical bodies are gone, replaced by fiery balls of energy, like little suns.
The disk stretches out in front of us, as we approach and rise.
We come to a stop when the disk covers our field of view.

A bar of light is at the center, with a dark core.
Five spiral arms reach out from the bar, and fill out the disk.

“What is this?” asks Balshown.

“A galaxy,” I answer.

“Correct,” says the AI.
“This is a simulation of Balshown’s galaxy and its stars.”

“You’ve mapped the whole galaxy?” I ask the AI.

“No.”
“Our probes have mapped parts of the galaxy.”
“They’ve also gathered star charts from some of the worlds that they’ve visited.”
“Still, there are gaps in our knowledge, indicated by a light gray mist.”

“How large is the galaxy?”

“About twice the diameter of our own.”
“One hundred twenty thousand light years, and twelve hundred light years thick.”

“It’s a fascinating display,” I tell the AI, “but what use is it to us?”

“You can move instantly to any part of the display to get more detail, or back out to see the whole galaxy again.”
“You can even get detail on a star’s planets if we have that information.”

“This is useless, Yagrin,” says Balshown, irritated.
“Send me home.”

“Yagrin needs to visualize your star,” says the AI, “in order to find a gate to take you home.”

The AI moves us half-way along the surface of one of the spiral arms, and then we plunge four hundred light years deep.
The galaxy grows larger and larger, until we’re looking at a cluster of twenty-three stars.
All but one of the stars grows dim.

“Remember this location, Yagrin,” says the AI.
“It’s the last known position of our probe before the aliens found it.”

“How do you know that?” I ask her.

“Another probe crossed paths with it near this star, and they shared data.”

“Why didn’t Mayla tell me about this?” I ask.

The AI is silent.

“Mayla showed me a star whose planet was attacked by the Spiral,” says Balshown to the AI.
“Take us there.”
“It’s only a hundred light years from my home.”

The AI takes us to the bottom of the galaxy, and along the arm toward the edge of the galaxy.
She stops us at another cluster of stars.

“Finally!” says Balshown.
“I recognize this group.”
“My own star is part of it.”

“How do you know?”
“You told me your people don’t have space travel, and are uninterested in other races.”
“Why would you be interested in the stars?”

“We are warriors by nature, Yagrin, always prepared for enemies, and we know that there is life among the stars.”
“When we swarm, the group mind can see hundreds of light years away.”
“Our guards watch the stars around us, to warn us of alien ships.”

Balshown moves to a nearby star, and I follow.
This is the one that was attacked by the Spiral,” he says.

“Where is your star?” I ask him.

“Here,” says Balshown, pointing to a star behind and to the left of the other one.
The star is visible but gray mist seems to hover around it.

“We have little knowledge of the area,” says the AI.
“Our probes and nearby civilizations report that it’s a dangerous place, full of hostile worlds and black holes.”
“One probe was nearly caught in a gravity well at the edge of the cluster.”
“Other probes were attacked.”

“Take us out of the simulation,” I tell the AI.
“I can get us to Balshown’s star.”

I dissolve my Jiku shape, and move my fire body out of the ship.
Space seems empty, but not to my energy eyes, sensitive to the near infinite array of tiny gateways.
Only a few of the gates connect galaxies.
I imagine one of the stars in Balshown’s cluster, and my eyes focus on one sparkling gate.
I form a tiny sphere of blue energy at the edge of the gate, and fill it with the grandmother pattern and the Feldin glow.
A great rush of energy streams through me and into the tiny sphere.

The sphere expands, stretching the gate wide open.
I push the ship through, before I follow and seal the way.
Balshown is staring at the view-screen when I re-enter the ship and shape a new body.

“This is not my star,” he says, irritated.

“It’s not,” I agree, “but your star is nearby.”
“I don’t want to end up in a black hole.”
“The ship can navigate from here, avoiding the black holes, and getting us safely there.”

In a few moments, another star comes into view at the center of the screen.
It’s yellow like Siksa’s sun, but at the hottest end of the scale.

The planets appear on the viewer, and Balshown identifies his world.
It’s much larger than Siksa, with heavier gravity.

The ship stops, a million miles away from the planet.
“Should I go into orbit, Yagrin?” asks the AI.

“No,” says Balshown.
“If the swarm still lives, it’s already aware of our presence, and may attack as soon as we approach the planet.”

“The ship has powerful shields,” says the AI.
“The swarm may not be able to detect us.”

“Possibly,” says Balshown, “but it’s still better to stay away from the planet until we’re ready to be dropped off.”

“How will you transform us, Yagrin?” he asks.
“You’ve never scanned the patterns of my native form.”

“There’s an echo of your old pattern body within your fire body.”

The ship displays images of the visible portion of the planet, and Balshown identifies an area to drop us off.

“It’s in mid-air,” says the AI.

“Yes,” says Balshown.
“That’s where we spend most of our time.”

“There are no signs of life,” says the AI.

“We instinctively cover our life energy to hide ourselves from predators.”
“Once we take the Veezal form on the planet, we’ll be able to feel if the swarm still lives.”

“After you drop us off,” I tell the AI, “bring the ship back to this point in space, and wait for my return.”

“We’re in danger, Yagrin,” says Balshown.
“When we leave the ship, the swarm will attack us, even if we carry the Veezal form.”
“I need time to join the group mind, and prove that I’m one of them.”
“Ordinary energy shields won’t protect us for long against their combined energy blasts.”

“I’ll discard my Jiku form, and just keep the fire body,” I tell him.

“What good will that do?”

“I’ll be faster and stronger without a physical body to hold me back.”

“Don’t hurt them!”

“I won’t.”
“I’ll use various shields, including crystal to protect us, and I’ll siphon the energy away using gates.”

“Crystal?” asks Balshown.
“What good will that do against energy blasts?”

“Remember when I first became an old one, and I was quarantined?”

“A wave of destructive energy was released whenever you opened your eyes.”

“Yes.”
“I was held in a room made from a special crystal that held back the energy.”
“The crystal is resistant to flow, but I know how to shape it out of air.”

“I hope it’s enough.”

 
Wheels of Life
The ship passes through the thick cloud cover, but there’s no attack.
Balshown and I move to the transition room, a small airlock.
I dissolve my Jiku body, and take us out of the ship and into the atmosphere, with Balshown surrounded by a pocket of the ship’s air.
I transform Balshown as the powerful winds rush by us, far stronger than what we would find on Siksa.

His Veezal shape is twice the size of his old Jiku body, and not even remotely humanoid.
The main part of the body is a large sphere, with two thick rings that surround the center of the sphere, one vertical and one horizontal.
When the Veezal fly, part of the sphere is filled with Hydrogen or Helium to make them buoyant, while powerful pumps push air through the disks to control their flight path.

I surround Balshown with energy shields and a large crystal sphere, but they’re unnecessary.
If there is anyone else here, they’re unaware that we’ve come, or they’re choosing to ignore us.

Balshown starts to move in circles.
He’s trying to tell me something.
I try to touch his mind, but there’s a thick energy barrier around it.
It’s a mind wall, and I can’t hear his thoughts through it.

My attention turns to flashes of energy all around the crystal sphere.
The swarm is here, thousands of them, but they’re unable to penetrate the crystal.
I feel their anger, but I can’t touch their thoughts.

Balshown hovers at the edge of the crystal sphere.

The attack reshapes itself, and focuses on the side of the shields near me, away from Balshown.
At least they recognize him.

I shape a Veezal body for myself, hoping it will help me communicate with the swarm.
I pulled the language from Balshown’s mind while we came here.
I have to start thinking of him as she.
Veezal genders are not split the same way as humanoid species, and they all refer to each other as she, except when they quicken eggs.

“Alien fire,” shouts a voice.
“She is not Veezal.”

I free Balshown from the crystal, but keep the sphere around me.
Balshown moves to join the swarm.

“What is this stone?” asks the swarm, “that energy will not penetrate it.”

Balshown shows them images of me as an old one, and the destruction that erupted from my eyes, held back by the crystal.

“Can you make it?” they ask her.

“No,” she answers.
“Only Yagrin can.”

“Why have you brought the alien among us?”
“Isn’t your shame already full?”

Balshown explains how she traveled and took an alien body in another galaxy.
“I was an unable to return until she brought me back to the swarm.”

“What have you promised her for this?”
“Our flesh?”

“She wants nothing in return.”
“She leaves me here on the way to battle.”
“Her people have enemies among our stars.”

“We saw that she lives as fire.”
“Can all her people do this?”

“No, she is the only one.”

“Is she powerful in other ways?”

“There is no creature like her.”
“She has fought and conquered the destroyer on other worlds.”

“Destroyer?” I ask.

“The Spiral,” answers Balshown.

“The destroyer was sister to the stars,” says the swarm, “before it was vanquished.”
“Only the stars themselves could overcome it.”

When was the Spiral vanquished in this galaxy?
Who did it?
How do they know that the Spiral was born from star spirits?
The spirits made me pledge to hide the true origin of the Spiral.

“I know nothing of this,” says Balshown, “but she speaks with the stars.”
“Look deep in her energy.”

“She carries the star heart,” says one.

“She overcame the destroyer in another universe across the endless sea,” says Balshown.

“Who vanquished the destroyer here?” I ask them.
“I was planning to battle it after I find my other enemies.”

“You know we were attacked by the destroyer?”

“Yes.”
“Balshown told me how the solar flare drove it away.”
“Your sun awoke and helped you.”

“Yes, but we did not understand at first.”
“Few survived the fire, and some of them died quickly.”
“We struggled with little hope, the living dead.”
“No new life came from us.”
“There is a great treasure of eggs, but none of us could lay eggs or quicken life anymore.”
“We waited for death.”

“Many cycles after Balshown ran from us, the sun awoke again.”
“This time, it spoke to us, and healed the planet.”
“It told us that the destroyer was gone forever from our galaxy.”

“Who brought an end to the destroyer?”

“The star spirits believe that the destroyer was poisoned by something it tried to consume.”

The swarm continues to speak.
“The surface of the sea grew rich again, and we grew strong.”
“We still could not lay eggs, but we hoped that we could quicken them again.”
“We released some of the eggs, and when we covered them with the living breath, they came to life.”
“We brought them to the light, and they awoke, and flew with us.”

 
Judgement of Pain
“Go, Yagrin,” says Balshown.
“I will accept my punishment.”
“You don’t want to see them tear me apart.”

“His crime demands death?” I ask.

“Yes.”
“Only flesh can answer for what he has done.”

“According to your laws, a student can take the punishment of his teacher.”
Balshown told me this.

“It’s true, but what does it matter in this judgement?”

“He is my master, and I claim the right of substitution.”

“Your spirit is alien.”

“But my flesh is Veezal.”
“Will you deny her the law?”
“Flesh in place of flesh.”

Twelve of the Veezal form a ring.
This is the council.
“What trick is this?” they ask.

“Take my thoughts,” says Balshown.
“I am not part of this.”

“Is it true that you taught this warrior?”

“Yes, though he has gone far beyond anyone’s teaching.”

“Can he take another body, once his Veezal body has gone?”

“Yes.”

The council pulls out of the group mind and confers privately.
“We will not deny this,” they announce at last.

“Alien, do you know what you will suffer?”
“We will rip your flesh, almost to death, in the most painful ways.”
“Then, we will leave you, and let your body regenerate.”

“We will rip your flesh eighteen times, and your master must lead us.”
“Only the last time will bring you to a full death.”
“You may do nothing to ease the pain, or speed up your death.”
“At any point, you can renounce the substitution, and let your master return to her death.”
“You promise to leave our world after your death, and never return here to take a Veezal form!”
“You will stay dead to us.”
“Do you understand?”

“Don’t do this, Yagrin,” says Balshown.
“You have no idea what it will be like!”

“Goodbye, master,” I tell her.
“I accept the judgement of the swarm,” I announce.

“Good hunting after you leave here,” says the council, before the swarm begins.
“May your enemies suffer as they deserve.”

My death lasts for seven days.
I don’t remember much of it, except for the endless pain, and my desire to save Balshown.

Finally, the pain disappears, and the universe is rich and calm.
I’m a fire body again, and my Veezal flesh is gone.
The memories wash over me, and try to smother me, but I spread my healing body on the web to find my balance.
Then, I look for Balshown.

She still lives.
Her sadness surrounds me, but I can’t touch her thoughts while I’m outside the swarm.
I wish I could say goodbye again, but I agreed to go.
I leave the atmosphere behind, as I turn toward space, and the ship that waits for me.


Empire of Stone -- 2: Lost SonsPrevious StoryNext Story
  1. King’s Son
  2. Lost Courage
  3. Far From Home
  4. Dreams of Life and Death
  5. Children of Fire
  6. Prisons of the Mind
  7. Beyond Darkness and Light
  8. Death of a Child
  9. Truth and Lies
  10. Fear of the Wild
  11. Sweet Waters

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