The next day, Brewky arranges for me to leave my job, and come to work for the syndicate.
My old boss isn’t happy, but Brewky pays him off.
“I’m surprised he didn’t just take you.”
“I couldn’t say no.”
“I think he wanted to make me happy, and I suggested that he treat you well.”
I begin several days of training at the Boss’s underground facility.
Blika and Brewky give me a new name, Neyima, and an identity chip.
An ordinary chip carries a single name, citizen code, and basic birth data: planet, dates, etc.
It can’t be updated without physically removing it and placing it in an empire security device.
My chip is different.
It carries multiple identities, which I can switch between as needed.
I can even alter details of the identities or add a new one.
One of the identities is a woman named Rishku.
I wonder how I’ll use that?
To switch identities, I need a special transmitter, and a security code unique to my chip.
Brewky shows me how to use the transmitter, and since I’m a tech, he shows me the schematics so I can build my own.
“Tell the AI to give him standard corps training, along with basic and advanced tech supplements.”
“Make sure to include star cage tech.”
“He’ll need it for his first assignment.”
My heart pounds.
This is what I’ve been looking for.
It takes me a month to get through the training.
“I thought it would take you two or three months,” says Blika, impressed.
I study both the star cage generator, and the local cage projector.
The projector creates bursts of chaotic energy which mix with the natural web.
The AI doesn’t know exactly how this blocks the curse, but I think I understand.
Our energy abilities derive from complex movements of energy between us and the web.
The additional chaos in the web makes it impossible for us to maintain the connection, or move enough energy through the link.
The generator works in a completely different way.
We’re familiar with the concepts of matter and energy, but the universe is also filled with dark matter and dark energy.
The physicists on Earth believe they exist, although they know little about them.
Dark matter has gravitational effects, but otherwise doesn’t significantly interact with regular matter and energy.
The generator creates a special mix of dark matter and dark energy which is infused into the star.
The dark matter in the star is effected, as are the gravitational waves that the star produces.
This colors all the webs in the star system for a few years, until the star slowly recovers its normal rhythms.
The net effect on the great web is that the movement of energy becomes more predictable and slow.
The projector made the web too chaotic, and the generator makes the web too orderly.
Both slow down the energy.
“What’s my assignment?” I ask, when Blika returns.
“There’s a group of rebels planning to overthrow the emperor.”
“What do they want?”
“To end the enhancements and the cages.”
“Why do they care?”
“They believe that the enhancements are making us infertile, weak, and stupid, and they think that our race will die out.”
“We can’t admit it publicly,” says Brewky, “but they’re not far off.”
“Over generations, the Kizak are building up a resistance to the cage, and starting to show more signs of the curse.”
“The newest enhancements bury the curse again, but at a great price.”
“Hopefully our scientists will find something better, before the enhancements destroy us.”
“We believe that many of the rebels were born on fringe worlds without enhancements or the cage.”
“Rumor says that these rebels are strongly cursed, and may have been able to train their abilities.”
“Still,” says Blika, “their curse is no threat as long as our colonies are protected by the star cage.”
“Here’s the problem.”
“The rebels are developing a way to reverse the affects of the cage.”
“If they succeed, they’ll bring back the destruction of the old wars.”
“Is it possible to undo the cage?”
“The effect wears off on its own after several years.”
“Maybe they’re working on a way to accelerate the recovery.”
“Truth is, we don’t know anything about their tech.”
“We’ve sent agents to try and join the rebellion, but the rebels have been able to identify and kill each one.”
“Are the rebels also mind thieves?”
“We think so.”
“That’s why you and your mind shield are so valuable to us.”
“Have you identified any of the rebels?”
“A few, but they died before they gave us any useful information.”
“There must be many more in our prisons.”
“I’ve contacted central command,” says Brewky, “and told them about you.”
“You’ll be sent into a key prison as our agent, to find rebels and get information about their tech.”
“We have two other agents there, who will support you, but the prison staff is unaware of our presence.”
“Don’t trust the guards.”
“You’ll have two identities in the prison,” says Blika, “Yagrin and Rishku.”
“Only our agents will recognize you as Neyima.”
“How do I use a woman’s identity?”
“I guess you’ve never been in prison before, but I’m surprised you haven’t heard about it.”
“All the large prisons are virtual.”
“Your body is in a tank, while your mind enters the simulation.”
“The prison will have records of two prisoners, but there will be only one.”
“Your chip will automatically switch each day between the two identities.”
“I’ll look like a woman in the sim when the Rishku identity is active?”
“Yes, does that bother you?”
“No, but I don’t how to act.”
“Sure, you’ll need some training so you can fit in.”
Brewky directs me to a sim chair.
“This is a training sim, to teach you the basics of acting like a woman.”
When I exit the sim, I feel weak.
“How long was I in there?”
“About a day and a half.”
“Sorry, the nutrient drip in this chair, doesn’t work so well.”
They give me some food and liquids and a pill for the headache.
“What do I do when I get the information?”
“How do I get out?”
“You’ll meet with the other agents once a month.”
“They’ll show you how to contact central command, and arrange for your transfer.”
“Be careful Neyima.”
“This is the most secure prison in the empire, and houses the most dangerous criminals.”
“I can take care of myself.”
“We know that,” says Blika, “but the goal of this place is to break the spirit of the prisoners, and ensure that they are no further threat to the empire.”
“It’s the guards you need to watch out for.”
“Once you’re arrested, it will take a day to reach the prison, where our agents will contact you.”
“Will I see you again?” I ask him and Blika.
He pours the three of us a drink.
“Long life, Neyima, in the service of the emperor.”
I don’t remember the arrest.
The soldiers must have gassed me, and now that I’m awake, I can’t feel or move my body.
Blika told me about this.
The empire’s prisons are huge warehouses that store prisoners in life support tanks.
Our minds are cut off from our bodies, and we live our days in simulations until our sentence is up, or we die.
There are guards inside the sim with us, but they can move back and forth from the outside world.
The guards are trained to be sadistic, and are given free reign to do anything they want to us within the sim, even kill us.
The suffering and the terror seem real, but the next day, we return to the sim, our bodies healed from the abuse.
Anyone who is excessively abused or killed in the sim, including guards, is disconnected from the sim until the morning reset.
It’s a fail-safe system, designed to prevent endless horrors that could drive you mad.
I suspect that I’ve already been tanked, though I’m not yet connected to a simulator.
The Kizak are a highly social race, and this initial isolation is very difficult for the average prisoner to bear.
It’s done to make us compliant, so we welcome the prison simulation, once we’re hooked into it.
I enjoy the quiet.
With the cage in place, my energy senses are mostly blocked.
Still, there’s a shadow left of my listener and healing sense.
I can’t see clearly what’s around me, but I can get occasional glimpses of the ship and the crew.
There’s a brief simulation that plays once an hour, informing me of the time left until we arrive.
A recording of a kind-faced guard tells us that prison will cure us of our madness, so we can be productive citizens again.
It’s a standard recording that has little relevance to me.
Few prisoners ever leave the prison that I’m going to.
About halfway into the trip, they put me in a desert simulation.
Another attempt at intimidation, since Kizak hate the endless miles of sand.
It’s unpleasant, but I can manage.
Still, I’d prefer a large lake where I could swim and cool off.
The scene changes and a lake appears.
I have a pleasant swim, and wonder why they’re allowing me to control the sim.
I alter the situation at will, entertaining myself for several hours before the scene vanishes completely.
We must have arrived at the prison.
About thirty minutes later, I find myself in the courtyard of an immense building, a mile long and one thousand floors high.
I have no idea what the real prison looks like, but I doubt that it’s like this.
There are twenty new prisoners with me, all of us with our hands bound behind our backs.
A guard walks in front of us, carrying a light stick, an energy weapon that causes debilitating pain, but no permanent injury.
“Do what you’re told, and you’ll suffer less.”
“It’s that simple.”
“None of this is real,” shouts one of the new prisoners, about a foot taller than me.
The guard hits him with the light stick and then hits another ten, including me.
We all fall, and jerk uncontrollably.
The shaking stops, but the pain continues.
I use my training to tune it out, and I’m the first one to rise.
“Do you want it again?” he asks me.
“You’re wondering why I struck a group of you in addition to the one who was disrespectful.”
“Whenever we punish one of you, we pick another ten at random, who did nothing.”
“You’re all responsible to make your fellow prisoners behave.”
The guard disappears and our hands are freed.
“You’re a coward,” says the one who spoke first.
“He’s an animal, and you call him sir?!”
He swings at me, but I grab him and throw him to the ground.
“Try it again,” I tell him, “and I’ll throw you harder.”
He tries to hit me again, and I throw him hard.
It takes him a minute to get up.
He looks at five of the others, and the six of them attack together.
They all go down.
“You can fight like that, and you call him sir?”
“I’ll bet you could have knocked him out with just your feet.”
“I’ll go along with their stupid rules,” I tell him, “so they ignore me, or give me privileges.”
“It makes it easier to plan an escape.”
“You can’t escape from a sim, idiot.”
“It’s not real.”
“Yeah, but what if I could find a way to activate the tank release for twenty or thirty of us?”
“Then we might be able to steal a ship, and escape the prison.”
“If you figure that out, they’ll tell stories about you.”
“I’m not interested in stories,” I tell him.
“Just getting free, and maybe killing a few sadistic guards along the way.”
“Myntra,” he says.
“You have an idea how to get out of here?”
“Not yet, but I’m an expert in all kinds of tech.”
“Give me some time.”
“We’ve got plenty of that,” he says.
Planning the Escape
I wonder how many prisoners are really here?
There are multiple sims, and the guards divide up the prison population into sims no bigger than two hundred and fifty prisoners.
The most dangerous prisoners spend a lot of time in isolation, and are moved daily between sims.
The empire wants to know what we’re thinking, but they can’t read our minds.
They can see and hear anything that goes on in the sims, so they push us to reveal what we’re thinking, and how we feel.
“They use the sims to torture us,” says Myntra.
“I knew a guard once when I was younger, and he told me all about it.”
“The guards have an implant in their bodies that lets them control the sims, changing scenes or creating things.”
“Some prisoners can bring objects into the sims, but not many.”
“Even then, you can only create something that you’ve made in real life.”
“What’s so funny, idiot?”
“I’m a tech.”
“I’ve made all kinds of stuff, including weapons.”
“Yeah, but who says that you’ll be one of the lucky ones who can shape the sim?”
He stares at me, and sees that I’m suddenly wearing a long knife on each leg.
“How big is the prison, Myntra?”
“Thousands, spread out in about 20 sims, men separated from women.”
“If we want to get out of here, we need to gather information about men and women prisoners that have special knowledge.”
“How to build weapons, ships.”
“Information on how this facility or any other major prison is built and secured.”
“How to build the sim equipment that they use here.”
“I also want to know who’s from the fringe worlds.”
“We might find some people among them who are mind thieves, or have the curse.”
“No one will admit that!”
“Maybe not, but I want to know about anybody who seems unusually lucky, good at finding things out, or who has strange things happen around them.”
“This is too much,” says Myntra.
“People will think that you’re working with the guards.”
“Once we know it, the guards will know it.”
“A lot of this information is no secret, Myntra.”
“Start by asking for information that that guards already know, so no one will mind talking about it.”
“How will we get information about the women?”
“I came in with a woman.”
“She’ll handle them.”
“I don’t understand,” says Myntra.
“We can’t share information with the women, and the only men who can gather information are the prisoners who rotate from sim to sim.”
“Why should they help you, and even if they agree, then what?”
“You can’t gather all the key prisoners together.”
“We’re scattered in different sims!”
“I can’t tell you everything, Myntra.”
“The guards might be listening to us.”
“See what information you can gather.”
“I’ll figure out what to do with it.”
The guards don’t abuse new prisoners the first few days.
They want us to speak freely, so they can learn our secrets.
They let us watch as veteran prisoners are attacked at random, or given impossible tasks to complete, and punished when they fail.
How will I ever organize the prisoners in the midst of this chaos?
The whole first day, I wonder whether Blika was lying about making me an agent.
The other agents haven’t contacted me, but why else would Blika show me the star cage tech?
The day is longer than a typical Kizak day, but eventually it ends.
We return to our virtual cells and the lights go out.
The prison is quiet, except for the moans of some of the prisoners.
Our brains need sleep, especially when we spend so much time in the sims.
Myntra warned me that the guards often invade our dreams, and bind us to more sims.
Sure, guards are forbidden to do anything that will permanently damage our health.
Officially, we can only be bound to dream sims once per week.
Truth is, the guards don’t care about regulations, and the rest of the military ignores most of what happens here.
Prisoners regularly die in the tanks when their life support accidentally fails.
Still, there’s a do not kill list, and Blika told me I’m on it.
The guards can’t do a remote shut down of life support for prisoners on the list.
Most guards don’t have access to the actual tank rooms.
Besides, any guard that harms a prisoner on the list will be executed.
My eyes close, and sleep takes me for a moment,until I wake up in a dream, standing by a lake, the same lake that I saw during the transport.
I look in the water and see an unfamiliar face.
A man and woman approach me.
“This sim is secure, Neyima.”
“We’re your contacts.”
“Ti-law,” says the woman.
“Finza,” says the man.
“Our names, faces and voices are all different here,” says Tilaw.
“We need to remain hidden, even from each other.”
“We’re your contacts, not your friends.”
“Be careful when you speak with us.”
“Don’t tell us anything that we could use to identify you.”
“Can I come back to this sim?”
“You can activate it any night,” says Finza, “by repeating your agent name seven times in your head.”
“Once a month, this sim will activate automatically, and bring all three of us together.”
The woman walks over to a thin black pillar, four feet tall, one of three pillars in the center of the room.
There’s a ring of seven colored buttons that circle each pillar, just below the top.
Tilaw enters a six button sequence, and then puts her hand on top of the pillar.
A screen rises up from the pillar, and powers up.
Another sequence of buttons on the pillar, and a command program appears.
Tilaw executes a command and looks at me.
Then she closes down the console.
The codes are in my head!
I enter the sequence on the pillar to reactivate the console and the program.
“This console,” says Tilaw, “will help you search through the prison records for information on a prisoner or guard.”
“You can view their personal history, skills, psychological profile, assigned sim, etc.”
“Select the recall option to bring the full record for an individual into your memory.”
“You can also select the sim that you’ll be in the next day, as long as it aligns with your gender.”
“If you’re in danger,” says Finza, “use the console to request retrieval from the prison, but make sure it’s really an emergency.”
Tilaw presses the activation sequence on the other two pillars, and two more consoles appear.
I start searching through the prison files for prisoners with the skills I need, while the other agents use the consoles for their own research.
When I’m done, I set my sim for tomorrow, and get up from my console.
Tilaw and Finza are waiting for me.
“How do we exit the sim?” I ask them.
“Just press the yellow button three times,” answers Tilaw.
I reach for the button.
“What are you planning, Neyima?” asks Finza.
“I’m not sure yet, but I’m looking for prisoners with skills that would be particularly valuable to the resistance.”
“Let us know how it goes.”
“Can I ask how long the two of you have been imprisoned here?”
They look at each other.
“We can’t tell you how long we’ve been here, Neyima, but we can tell you that we’ve never been prisoners here.”
“The corps put us here as guards.”
I’ve taken many alien forms, and lived without any form at all.
When I performed with the sisters, I took their female forms and sang with all my heart.
It was easy.
Today is different.
This female shape is mine to live and breathe in, at least for a few hours.
There’s no one to copy.
I have to be me, here.
I picked this sim because of a woman who’s here, Mehkoos.
She designed and built the first generation of sim tech used in the prisons.
I need to pull that knowledge from her mind, so I position myself next to her as the guard puts us to work.
Our assignment is to dig in a garden and plant seeds.
The seeds grow rapidly, and bloom.
Then the guard covers them with a flammable liquid, and burns them all.
We’ll repeat this all day, while the guard smiles at our helplessness.
For a while I just work with the rest of them, without speaking
A tall women seems to be in charge among the prisoners.
She walks over to the guard.
“What’s the name of the new girl?” she asks.
“Building forbidden tech, Fenik.”
“Another useless tech,” says Fenik, looking toward Mehkoos, who quickly turns away.
The leader walks toward us.
“I haven’t beaten you in a few days, Mehkoos.”
“What do you think?”
“You, or the new girl?”
Mehkoos stands up, and pulls me behind her.
“Leave Rishku alone,” she tells Fenik.
“You’re going to stop me?”
“Maybe this time, the guards will torture you for days!”
“How about being eaten alive by Vitsa?”
“Another time, Rishku,” says Fenik, walking away.
“Thanks,” I tell Mehkoos.
“Fenik was my friend before we ended up in here,” says Mehkoos.
“She blames me for getting caught, and she’s right.”
“I knew the star drive needed maintenance, but instead I spent hours playing with some interesting tech that I had just bought.”
“How long have the two of you been here?”
She looks me over, trying to size me up.
“You don’t seem like someone who breaks the rules, Rishku.”
“What kind of forbidden tech did they catch you with?”
“Mind Cage jammer.”
“Who was it for?” she asks, touching my shoulder.
I feel a presence trying to reach my mind.
I see the shock in her eyes when she finds my shield.
I open it.
She tries to go deeper into my mind, but I don’t sense that she wants to hurt me.
I hold her back easily, and push into her thoughts.
Mehkoos wants to see how strong I am, and she’s curious about my tech knowledge.
She also wonders if I’m blessed like her and Fenik.
They both have energy abilities.
I could push deeper, but she would feel it.
“That’s far enough, Mehkoos.”
“How were you blocking me at first?”
“A mind shield.”
“I can raise or lower it at will.”
“Some kind of neurotech?”
“No tech at all.”
“How come we can touch minds in the sim?”
“I like that.”
“So much better, than calling it mind theft.”
“You have an answer?”
“A flaw in the sim program.”
“Touch someone else’s body in the sim, and a jammer link is created between the two of you.”
“The same trick works in the outside world.”
“Touch someone, and you don’t need a jammer.”
I play dumb.
“What does it mean that you’re blessed?”
“What are you talking about?”
“You want to know if I’m blessed.”
She pulls her hand away, but I manage to hold on to the link.
“Don’t run away.”
“How can you hold the link, Rishku?”
“I’m much stronger than the rest of you.”
“Sorry that I took some of your thoughts, but you were trying to do the same to me.”
“You don’t know about the blessing?”
“I have energy abilities, too, but I’ve never heard the Kizak call them a blessing.”
“Long ago, they were called that, before the Kizak ruled.”
“By the Madar?”
Her face turns white when I mention the ancient ones.
“We’ve been quiet too long, Rishku.”
She pulls away, and focuses on her work.
I move away, and start working next to Fenik.
“Go away,” she says.
“I didn’t say anything.”
She stands up, towering over me.
“The new ones are always so brave, until they get beaten or stabbed the first time.”
She swings at my stomach, but I’m not there.
I knock her down, and keep my hand on her shoulder, to enable the mind touch.
“Stop fighting for a minute, Fenik.”
In her anger, she almost speaks out loud.
“I’ll kill you.”
“It won’t last.”
“Besides, wouldn’t you rather get out of prison?”
She glares at me, and sits up.
“No one escapes from here.”
“Even if we get out of the tanks, steal a ship, and manage to launch it, we’ll be dust before we can clear the planet.”
“The prison is protected with automated defenses.”
“We don’t have the codes to get by them.”
“You know a lot about the prison.”
“Yes, that’s why I’m not trying to escape.”
“I have some skills that might get us out of here.”
She stands up, and gets back to work.
I keep speaking with a mind touch.
“Work if you want, but I’m still talking.”
She turns to look at me.
“We’re not touching.”
“I can hold the link, once it’s made.”
“I have more, if I can get back to my body, and get free of the star cage.”
“It’s not a star cage.”
“We’re on a free-floating planet, far from any stars.”
“There are ten projectors in orbit that cover the whole prison.”
“They can’t be shut down remotely.”
“Why are you so interested in the cage?”
“Yes, and trained in the old ways.”
“The sun circles seven moons.”
It’s some kind of code.
I pull the answer out of her head, not far below the surface.
“Darkness burns, but does not end.”
Now, I remember these words.
The bird-man translated them to me in the Madar temple.
“Who is your master?” she asks.
“My masters were not Kizak.”
“I was trained outside the galaxy.”
“How do you know our words?”
“You took them from my head!”
“Yes, but your words are Madar.”
“I saw them in an old temple near the Madar homeworld.”
She doesn’t blink at the mention of the ancient ones, and she waits for me to explain.
“You’re not bothered when I say their name.”
“Mehkoos was afraid.”
“Not of their name, but of anyone knowing that we speak it.”
“We can help each other, Fenik.”
“My world is threatened by the empire, and I need to find a way to break the cage.”
“You need to do the same so you can use your blessings freely.”
“You’re not Kizak?”
“No, but not so different.”
“Smaller lungs, no webs on the feet, different skin and teeth.”
“If you permit it, I can give you a memory of what we look like.”
I give her a memory of flying with Shazira and the children.
“Strange, but not ugly, Rishku.”
“Even if I believe you, we can’t help.”
“We’ve tried to break the star cage, and all we’ve done is destroy three stars.”
“Mehkoos and I were captured after the last failed test.”
“You can’t give up!”
“It’s not easy to get the materials for the tests, and the empire hunts us like animals.”
“Should we be like them, and start killing?”
“What good will it do?”
“Some of us want to keep going, but how can we?”
“Mehkoos has designed tech that will counter the affects of the projector, but only for a few seconds at a time, and only for one person at a time.”
“What good is that?”
“It won’t restore our blessings.”
“That tech will help us escape.”
“We have to get back to our bodies, and meet up.”
“Our tanks could be miles apart.”
“Then we have to build the tech, without parts, and escape the prison.”
“Just leave us alone, Rishku.”
“There’s no hope.”
I could go deep into Mehkoos, and force the information from her mind, but I don’t want to hurt her.
Even if I could escape without them, once I understood the tech, where would I go?
I need their help, and the help of their rebel friends.
There has to be a way to undo the cage.
I leave Mehkoos and go back to work.
The next month is a blur, as I cycle through the sims, stealing useful information from prisoner minds whenever I can.
I learn about life on many of the colonies, and even the homeworld.
I hear of the military and life as a smuggler.
The guards abuse us, and sometimes I fight back, pulling weapons out of the air.
I feel better after I hurt them, at least until I see how other prisoners are punished because of me.
Mostly I just suffer through the abuse.
Mehkoos refuses me again and again.
Finally, I can’t wait any more.
I step up to Mehkoos, and touch her to make contact.
“Leave me alone, Rishku.”
“Your daughter is being raised without you.”
“Why should you sit here, when you can see her again?”
“Help me learn what you know about the sim tech, the tanks, and the nullifier that blocks the projector.”
“We can’t stop working, and I won’t speak aloud about the nullifier.”
“Just think of all the tech, and everything you know about it.”
“Picture it in your mind, and assemble it.”
“Fix it when it breaks.”
It’s much easier to find and copy her memories when she actively thinks about the tech.
I go off and digest the information, searching for what I don’t understand.
Then I return, and ask her silent questions, like how to override the tank controls.
“This is great, Mehkoos.”
“I could take apart the controller for a sim chair, and find all the parts I need for the nullifier!”
“Yes, if you had a couple of days.”
I smile at her, but she thinks I’m crazy.
The guard comes over, and hits me with the light stick.
I’ve fought with her before, and she remembers.
She stands over me.
“I don’t like you girl,” she says while I’m twitching on the ground.
“I’ve tried to shut off life support to your tank, but the system won’t let me do it remotely.”
“One of these days I’ll walk over to your tank and blast a hole in it!”
When I get control of my limbs, and try to stand up, she hits me again.
“Stay down, Rishku,” says Mehkoos.
“She’ll just hit you again.”
When my limbs stop shaking the next time, I grab the guard’s leg, and touch her mind.
I hope this works.
I bind her mind so she can’t control her body, and she slips to the ground.
I catch her, keep the link, and shape the knives into my hands.
“Don’t do it, Rishku,” says Fenik.
She has no idea what I have in mind.
I take control of both bodies, and stand us up.
I stab us in the hearts.
Death within the sim takes us out, and wakes up her real body.
The guard’s tank slides out of the wall and opens, but it’s my mind that makes her sit up.
This room is huge, filled with hundreds of tanks for the guards who are on duty.
“What happened in there?” asks another guard, running up to me.
“The shift isn’t over!”
“I got attacked by a prisoner.”
“Get me to a control console.”
She pulls a robe off the wall.
“Put this on first.”
She leads me to a console and activates it for me.
The interface is similar to the virtual console in the agent’s sim.
I set Yagrin to have an off-day tomorrow, same as Rishku.
“I’ll deal with the girl myself in two days,” I tell the guard.
“Make sure no one else touches her.”
“You sure?” she asks.
“That’s an off shift for you.”
“I’ll rest tomorrow and take the shift in two days.”
“Do me a favor and get someone to switch with me.”
“You all right?”
“The sudden transitions can be a shock.”
“I’ll be fine with some extra rest.”
“You better get some food first, Nekur.”
She leads me to a small room, with a soft mat on the floor, and then gets me a plate of food.
This is my room.
“I have to get back to work,” she says.
“I’ll see you.”
“I put your security band in the pocket of the robe.”
When she leaves, I get dressed, and put on the band.
There’s not much in the room, except for a console and a couple of light sticks, with extra power cells.
I activate the console, and look up the locations where Mehkoos, Fenik, and I are tanked.
The light sticks attach to my belt with a magnetic lock.
I slip the extra power cells in my pockets, and visit three of the prisoner tank rooms, to check them out in person.
Then I go down to equipment storage, and take a sim chair controller, and a good toolkit.
Back in my room, I take apart one of the light sticks, and the controller.
I work through the night.
My real body is resting, but this body is tired.
It slows me down, but there’s nothing I can do about it.
In the morning I get some food, and then work all day.
Finally, I stare at the finished nullifier.
The small lights blink brightly, indicating that it’s ready to be activated.
Will I be able to use the web in a body that I’ve linked to?
The guard’s record says that she wasn’t enhanced.
That’s why I chose her to carry out the plan, but will I be able to flow using her body?
I hope I can at least feel the difference in the web, so I know if the device works!
I hold the nullifier near my heart and activate it.
My energy sight is clear, as the web dances strong and beautiful around me.
I feel the strength pouring through me, erasing the fatigue.
Then I see the indicator lights slowing down, telling me that I’m almost out of time.
I reach out with my mind, and two more nullifiers rest on the mat before the power runs out and the cage returns.
The End of the Sim
I wait until the shift is almost over.
The guards in the building are more relaxed, and pay little attention to the security monitors.
I make my way to the first tank room, where my own body is stored.
I activate the release control on the side of the tank, but it asks for a security code that I don’t have.
I have no choice, and trigger the emergency release, even though an alarm will sound.
The tank slides out and releases my body.
Another guard comes running.
“What’s going on, Nekur?” he asks.
“There’s something wrong with the tank, so I had to release him.”
“Don’t worry, though, I’m well armed.”
I point to the light stick on my belt.
When he turns toward the tank for a second, I hit the guard on the head with the stick.
A shock in the head will leave him unconscious for about ten minutes.
I start to feel my own body, and soon I can sit up and open my eyes.
I administer a shot with a stimulant to clear my head quickly and restore my strength.
The emergency alarm is still sounding, and other guards will be here soon.
I come out of the tank, and pull my mind back from the guard’s body, letting her body collapse to the floor.
Her mind is closed in on itself.
She’ll die if I leave her like this, but I can’t take the time to free her.
I collect the nullifiers and power cells from the guard’s body.
Then I activate one nullifier, and open a PathFinder gate to the next tank room.
I can only open gates to nearby places within the field of the nullifier, but that’s good enough for now.
Before the power dissipates, I flow myself some clothes and a blaster.
Then I use the emergency release on Fenik’s tank.
I give her a shot to help her wake, as the alarm sounds.
“What are you doing?” she asks.
“What’s that loud noise?”
“Is this another sim?”
“No,” I tell her, “but there’s no time to explain.”
“I’m a friend of Rishku, and we’re getting out of here.”
I take hold of her, activate another nullifier, and take us through a gate to the third room.
There are guards in the third room, but my shield holds long enough to protect us, and gives me time to turn the blaster on the guards.
“Prisoners are trying to escape,” comes a voice through a nearby console.
The doors to the room seal themselves, as I release Mehkoos.
Fenik helps her out of the tank.
“We’re trapped,” says Fenik.
“They’ll kill us.”
I load new power cells into two of the nullifiers.
I activate the third, and disable the identity chip that the corps gave me, in case there’s a locater in it.
I don’t want the military to follow us, although I doubt they can.
Both of the women are frightened, and cling to me while I search for a gate to a special place that I saw in Fenik’s mind.
She doesn’t where that planet is, so I focus on her images of a settlement surrounded with walls and light.
I call to the unconscious, and ask for help.
A moment later I see star charts and a cloud of black holes.
The stars are familiar, not far from Balshown’s sun, but our destination is not among them.
I feel an inner pull toward the cloud.
How can we find a safe haven among black holes that will trap us and tear us apart?
I exhaust the power in one nullifier, and then another as I search for a gate that calls to me.
I can flow more nullifiers or power cells, but sooner or later the guards will come.
We need to be gone before then.
I let my inner wells shine, along with the bright black well that surrounds me like a cloud.
One gate sparkles within the black well.
I’ve never seen gates within my energy body before!
I look through the gate, and find a planet at the other end with a breathable atmosphere, but empty of intelligent life.
How can that be the place?
I hear the doors to the tank room open.
I reach for the gate to expand it.
We slip through, wrapped in an energy shield, and leave the prison planet far behind.