The spaceport near the capital city is called StarPath.
It was designed by one of the empire’s leading architects, filled with curves and high ceilings.
Most of the waiting areas are underground, beneath the clusters of landing pads.
The ships rise and rest quietly, through g-tech that allows them to manipulate gravity.
The above-ground terminal is made of three domes, surrounding a taller fourth dome, with a blue stone tower.
The smaller domes are red, yellow, and green, with black-roofed walkways at ground level leading to the larger white dome.
Each of the three outer domes has a large entrance, marked by an arch thirty feet tall.
A river of stars and planets moves across the arch, displaying the colonies of the empire.
The inner walls of the spaceport are also in motion, covered with info streams, or decorative, moving patterns.
I find the loading gate, and a place to sit.
One of the walls shows our ship, the RingShaper, waiting to leave for the ring of planets.
It’s designed for speed, not luxury, but it’s new and pleasing to the eye, with a bright silver hull, and spiral designs of green and black.
The Kizak expect their ships to be beautiful.
This one is small for a Kizak passenger ship, and carries less than four hundred guests.
We enter, forty or fifty at a time, through an elevator that takes us up into the center of the ship.
The pilgrims all dress the same, but only some are bright-Dahwee, true believers.
The rest are shadow-Dahwee, unsure, uncommitted.
The Dahwee-van, the clear way, is the dominant religion in the empire.
Nearly all Kizak go on the pilgrimage, sooner or later, even if they don’t believe.
There are other reasons to visit the ring, and many science and tourist vessels go there.
Still, it’s rare and strange to do what I’m doing, walking with the pilgrims, while setting myself apart.
I relax when I see some of the ship’s crew, dressed in ordinary clothes, like me.
One of them calls my name, and she leads me away from the others.
Soon, she stops by a large opening, edged in gold, and marked with a dark blue light.
“This is your place,” she says.
“Touch the pad.”
I put my left hand on the security pad, and the doors open to a beautiful, large room.
Not what I expected.
Dahwee pilgrims pledge to abandon comfort and rich foods during their silent journey, and the ships reflect their simple needs.
“How can this be a pilgrimage ship?” I ask.
“It’s too luxurious.”
“This section of the ship is for the crew and the occasional special guest, not pilgrims.”
“We don’t take the pledge, and we like our comfort.”
For a moment, I wonder how to tip her.
Then I remember that tips are an insult among the Kizak.
“Do you mind a personal question?” she asks.
“Go ahead, but I might not answer it.”
“You’re going to the ring of worlds anyway.”
“Why not just put on the robe and join the pilgrimage?”
“Almost everyone does it sooner or later.”
“Cover myself from head to feet, and keep quiet?”
“You know the rules on this trip?”
“If I speak to the pilgrims, I get confined to my room.”
“I bound myself to the travel contract with a retinal scan.”
“I don’t agree to anything unless I check it out first.”
“Knowing isn’t enough.”
“It’s much easier to promise to be quiet, than to actually do it.”
“Most of us can’t be silent for ten minutes when we’re surrounded by others.”
“I’ll be careful.”
“I can’t stay in my room all the time, or the walls will start closing on on me.”
“Besides, I need to eat.”
“Join the Dahwee in one of the eating rooms, if you like, but you’ll have to suffer with their food.”
“Is it so bad?”
“Not bad, but really plain.”
“What choice is there?”
“Eat with us.”
“We’re loud, but the food is better.”
“Isn’t there a rule against passengers eating with the crew.”
“Not unless we force you.”
“Good,” she says.
“Someone will message you with the meal times.”
I sit down when she leaves, and the doors close.
Music and Prayer
In the quiet, my thoughts turn to Disu, dead because I came into his life.
He might have traveled on this ship, if he had lived.
Most Kizak take the robe between twenty and thirty years old.
The royal family has a different custom, set by the first emperor, Dinik.
“Don’t trust the Dahwee,” said Dinik to his children, “and stay far from their ways.”
“Religion is necessary to keep weak minds out of trouble, but we don’t need it in the palace.”
“The teachings of discipline and responsibility are true enough, but what use is the rest, and all that prayer?”
“It’s just a waste of time.”
“The people follow them, father,” said his son, “and everyone goes on the pilgrimage.”
“How can we ignore them?”
“How old are you, Opri?”
“You know that father, almost fifteen!”
“You’re wise for your years, and you’ll make a good emperor.”
“We will pretend to follow the Dahwee, attending prayer meetings on the three major holidays.”
“You’ll go on the silent journey with the other pilgrims, just after your fifteenth birthday.”
“No one goes so young.”
“This will protect you from Dahwee foolishness.”
“You won’t fit in with the adults, so they’ll keep their distance from you.”
“Be careful with their music.”
“It’s relaxing, but if you listen too much, it dulls the mind.”
It was Opri who later introduced the custom of the Madar val on the fifteenth birthday.
Disu confessed to me that he loved the Dahwee prayers, with their poetic rhythms that speak of the wonders of creation.
He wished that he could go to the prayer meetings every week, instead of three times a year.
Disu also wanted to study the Dahwee teachings.
He could never admit this to his father.
“Listen to your heart, Disu,” I told him, “and do whatever you can, in secret, here in the palace.”
“Just keep your actions and feelings hidden.”
Disu studied the Dahwee teachings, and listened to their music.
It’s called seed music, and people say that it feeds the spirit.
I listened a few times.
The music fills the whole body, lighting up the energy centers, one after another.
It leaves the body with a feeling of peace and calm.
I didn’t discourage Disu, but the music is little more than a way to relax.
It helps the listener feel spiritual, but doesn’t seem to have any long-term benefit.
There are studies in the library that support Dinik’s claim that long-term use of the music slows down the mind.
At first Disu was able to hide his growing interest in the Dahwee ways from his father.
I helped him, by giving him one hour of each study day to explore the teachings, the music, and the prayer.
This wasn’t enough to satisfy his hunger.
One evening he disguised himself, and went out to a Dahwee prayer meeting.
He loved it, but the guard tracked him, and his actions were reported.
His father was furious.
“Do that again,” said the emperor, “and I won’t let you go on the pilgrimage!”
Disu was watched more closely after that, even during our study time.
I take a deep breath, and let go of thoughts about him.
The past is gone.
Then I prepare for departure.
The bells sound for two minutes before we enter hyperspace.
After we leave normal space, the warning lights go dark, and the passengers pour out of their rooms into the common areas.
I feel like I’m in a dream, swimming through a sea of white shadows.
Their robes, gloves, and shoes are all white, and their faces are covered.
Air passes through the special fabric, so the pilgrims stay cool, and breathe easily.
The openings for the eyes are covered with a reflective material, like one-way glass.
The Dahwee see out, but no one sees in.
Their hidden faces are far more unsettling than their silence, and at first, I avoid them.
I spend the first morning in my room, writing and meditating, but soon the space gets too small, and I find a crew member to walk with.
“The pilgrims wear message bands,” she tells me.
“They’re allowed to text message each other or the crew, without voice, although elders limit this to ten messages a day.”
I’ve experimented in the past with voice fasts.
The written messages won’t relieve the thirst to hear their own voices.
“That won’t help much,” I tell the crew woman.
“You’re right,” she agrees, surprised that I know.
“The elders give them one way to rest from the silence.”
“The pilgrims are allowed to meet and recite prayers together, out loud, twice a day.”
“Can I join them?”
She looks at me strangely, wondering why I would want to join the prayers, but not wear the robe.
“Only pilgrims are allowed in the prayer rooms.”
I sit with the crew for second meal.
The food is good, and there’s plenty of it.
“I’m Tela,” says one of the crew women, as she sits down across from me.
“How do you eat so much, and stay so thin?” she asks, as she watches me eat.
I smile at her.
The Kizak woman whose body I’ve copied doesn’t eat much, but I’ve brought my own habits with me.
The food brings me comfort.
An alarm sounds in the crew room, and three of the crew get up and head for the transport.
“What’s that?” I ask.
The crew woman looks upset as she reads the report on her message-band.
“Trouble on the deck below us,” she says.
“A pilgrim was declared empty, but she refuses to go to her room.”
“On some trips, one or two of the first-time pilgrims can’t adapt to the rules.”
“They’ve gone through Dahwee orientation, and practiced their silence, but words still slip from their lips.”
“A few mistakes are forgiven, but after that, the elders declare them empty, unworthy.”
“An empty pilgrim is confined her to her room for the rest of the trip, and never permitted to visit the ring.”
“Those tiny rooms?”
“Doesn’t that drive them crazy?”
“We drug them, if necessary.”
“I’ve got to go.”
“I’m needed to keep the other pilgrims away from the area.”
She starts running, and I follow her into the transport closet.
“Can I come with you?”
“No,” she says, as she reads more details on her band.
“You’d probably speak to the pilgrims and get us both in trouble.”
“Stay in the crew area.”
“The pilgrim on level four is armed and violent.”
“I can take care of myself,” I tell her, and touch the pad to close the door.
She looks at the thin, short body that I’m carrying, and doesn’t believe me, but she has no time to argue.
The transport opens on another deck, and the woman steps out.
“Go back to the crew area,” she shouts, and then goes to help with crowd control.
When the doors close, I hesitate.
I should tap in level three, and go back to the crew area, but instead I enter four into the pad.
A pilgrim is standing with her back to a door, her torn robe exposing her face.
She’s holding a knife to the throat of another pilgrim with a blood-stained robe.
A Dahwee elder and a crewman are both pointing blasters at the agitated passenger.
Other crew are standing around.
Everyone is silent, but the blasters speak loud enough.
The pilgrim is expected to surrender.
I could disarm her, but there would be too many questions.
Instead, I activate a jammer under my clothes, and touch her mind.
Her name is Willa, and she’s caught in a severe panic attack.
She suffers from claustrophobia, and went on the pilgrimage against the advice of her counselor.
Willa is from a rich family, and she used her money to buy her doctor’s silence, and his signoff on the medical forms.
She has no great love for Dahwee ways, but she just wants to go on the pilgrimage, like her friends.
The patch she wears to relax isn’t good enough.
She can barely keep from shouting when the robe covers her face.
The robe comes off when she enters her room, but then the small space closes in on her.
Willa only enters the room at night, and takes her sleeping pills right away.
When she’s nervous, she talks, and has spoken several times since she came on board.
The elders gave her a written warning yesterday, but Willa spoke again after that.
A few hours ago, the elders declared her empty, and marked the back of her robe with a large, black circle.
They ordered her to stay in her room, and informed the crew.
She refused in writing, promising to be quiet.
There are no second chances.
The elders escorted her to her room, armed with knives, their traditional weapons.
Willa took the knife from one and cut his robe.
Then she raised the knife to his throat, and won’t back down.
Willa’s more afraid of that room, than a knife or blaster.
I search her memories to find a weapon to use against her.
Then I fall to the ground in front of her, and shake like I’m having a seizure.
She’s seen her younger sister like this, too many times, and it frightens her.
She stares at me in horror, and takes her eyes off the others, who quickly disarm her.
“Are you all right?” asks one of the crew, helping me up.
“It was just an act, to distract her.”
“You were pretty convincing.”
I feel pressure against my mind wall.
An elder is facing me, and trying to probe me.
I should have stayed away.
Now, he knows that I have mind skills.
He’ll become even more suspicious if I don’t communicate with him.
I drop the wall, and let him touch the surface of my mind.
You knew how to distract her!
A lucky guess.
No, you have a barrier, and you saw her thoughts!
I don’t want people to know that I’m strange.
I shouldn’t have gotten involved.
You saved her.
I don’t understand.
You looked in her mind, and saw her sickness.
Why did you try to force Willa into her room?
We don’t look at the thoughts of every pilgrim!
I first tried to see her thoughts after she held the knife, but I couldn’t see through her panic.
It was fortunate you were here.
She is a fool.
She knew her weakness, and chose to ignore it.
You have a vow of silence!
Doesn’t mind speech break it?
This is permitted when there’s a need.
You have power.
Take the pilgrim’s robe and join us.
We’re almost there.
When I take the robe, I want the full experience of being a pilgrim.
The elders thank you for your help.
I hope we will meet again, soon.
He turns and walks away.
Willa will be sedated for the rest of the trip, and kept in a medical holding area.
I’m allowed to speak with the crew, even in front of the pilgrims.
When I first see this, I’m surprised.
Why would the elders permit this?
Hearing our words makes it harder for the pilgrims to stay silent.
I ask one of the crew about it.
“You don’t understand,” she tells me.
“The elders ask us to speak in front of the pilgrims.”
“Are they trying to torture them?”
“The Dahwee way is full of discipline.”
“The elders want the pilgrims to see and hear us, to test their self-control.”
“Don’t some of the pilgrims avoid us, to stay free of the threat to their silence?”
“They’re not allowed to ignore us.”
“The elders require them to give a special touch greeting to those who speak, at least once a day.”
There are twenty crew members who walk the ship, but most of the Dahwee choose me for the greeting, even before word spreads about the incident with Willa, and my role in it.
I guess they wonder what I’m doing on the ship.
The greeting is intimate in a strange way, and it bothers me at first.
Still, the physical contact gives me a chance to scan their minds without a jammer.
I extend my right hand as though I was giving a handshake.
The pilgrim closes her right hand into a fist, and traces a circle on my right palm with her thumb.
Then she pulls her fist toward herself, across my palm and fingers.
The open palm of her right hand finally comes to rest against her chest.
A few of these pilgrims already have the mind block.
It’s too strong for the Mind Corps to penetrate, but I can see its weak spots, and reach through.
Over the next few days, I’m greeted by almost all of the pilgrims.
The four elders who walk among the pilgrims avoid my touch, choosing to greet the crew instead.
And there are thirty pilgrims who never leave their rooms.
I’ve read the public writings of the Dahwee-van, that discuss the wonders of creation, the mystery of the creator, and the thirst within each spirit to create, grow, and face any challenge.
The Dahwee speak of choice, personal responsibility, and the hidden power within us, but there is no mention of the energy web that binds all life together.
There’s nothing in their words that threatens the empire.
And Dahwee leaders denounce the energy ways of the Sehtoo and the rebels, supporting the use of the cage to protect us all from the curses.
The elders publicly reject the energy worlds as dangerous.
Is this just a way to disguise their true feelings?
Are they allied with the rebels?
I scan each pilgrim’s mind, concentrating on the true believers, as I look for hidden knowledge and love of the web.
I find no secrets or conspiracies here, just ordinary people from all levels of Kizak society.
One out of ten of the shadow-Dahwee, the uncommitted, resonate with the Dahwee-van, eager to find meaning and mystery in their lives.
They want to be transformed by the pilgrimage, and return home to a new life.
Too bad that change is rarely that simple or quick.
Most of the uncommitted that I scan have little interest in the teachings.
They come because everyone does it, and many break the pilgrim’s oath of silence and simplicity.
Some have hidden music players that they use in their rooms, and others bribe the crew to get better food.
I don’t care about their little secrets.
I turn my attention to the Dahwee that stay all day in their rooms.
If there’s any hidden knowledge here, it lies with them.
I hack into the ship’s network, and look over the records of the pilgrims who never leave their room.
Twenty-three of them are bright-Dahwee, long-time members of the sect, elders.
They sit alone, their days filled with prayer, until we reach the first planet in the ring.
Then, they’ll cast off their isolation, to lead the procession on each planet.
On the planets, the leaders and the pilgrims are permitted to speak with each other.
In the ring, only the crew and I must be silent.
There are seven half-Dahwee, uncommitted, who stay in their rooms all day for medical reasons.
They’re hoping that the old worlds will bring them a miracle, conquering the diseases that Kizak medicine can’t touch.
According to pilgrimage custom, everyone, even the thirty, change rooms each night, as directed by a Dahwee administrator.
The crew is told immediately where each of the sick Dahwee has gone.
Then, just before morning meal, the crew is given a list of the other twenty-three rooms which require meals.
The ship’s scanners could reveal the names of the Dahwee in each room, but the crew will not use them except in an emergency.
All the Dahwee, except the sick ones, become nameless after the first day when they change rooms.
I wander the ship during meal time when the the leaders are brought food.
The thick metal walls of the rooms interfere with the mind touch, even when I use a jammer, so I wait until the door opens.
It takes less than a minute for the crew member to bring in the meal and leave.
That’s not much time for me to make a connection and search for memories, but it’s better than nothing.
I follow the crew to different parts of the ship, so I can scan as many elders as possible.
Each time the door opens, I’m ready to push through a mind block, but all of their minds are open.
Their thoughts are full of the trip, Dahwee beliefs, or life back home, but no secrets.
I walk away disappointed, reviewing my contact with the elders.
I have a strong feeling that I’m missing something.
Then I get it.
The thoughts were pure, free of desire and violence, yet I felt a cloud of desire when a beautiful crew member brought a few of them food.
The emotions I sensed didn’t match the thoughts.
At the next meal, I try again, and push hard, beyond the thoughts and memories.
There should be nothing here but a chaotic mix of words, images, and sensations, shadows of the conscious and unconscious minds.
Instead, I find a mind block.
It doesn’t make sense.
The block should lie outside the mind, not within it!
I push through and find a clear chain of thoughts.
The first collection of thoughts isn’t real.
It’s only a mask to cover the mind block.
Inside the block, I find what I came for.
The Dahwee leaders pretend to be loyal to the emperor, but they’re plotting against him.
They have always studied the ways of energy, in secret, and they’ve taken over the leadership of the Mind Corps.
This is good!
If they succeed, they’ll stop the empire from using the cage, and end the wars.
The next leader’s thoughts crush my optimism.
The Dahwee are the true heirs of the Sehtoo, hungry to conquer other races.
Like their ancestors, they believe that the Kizak are superior, born to rule the universe.
The Dahwee do want to free their people from the cage, but only so they can use the blessings in war.
The truth about the ring is hidden deeper in her thoughts.
Each of the seven worlds is tuned to one of the energy wells, and a visit there strengthens our inner connection with that well.
Some pilgrims are able to touch minds, even in the presence of a jammer.
Others gain unusual physical strength.
All the effects of the first visit fade in a few days, but additional trips through the ring bring permanent effects.
Two or three visits give some pilgrims a mind block.
A few more trips, and the use of special crystals and music, brings control over the block, and immunity to the star cage.
Not true immunity.
The cage continues to block the web, but the fire bodies draw enough energy from the wells to fuel some of the blessings:
Energy perception (what I call energy eyes), a strong mind touch, energy blasts and shields, and limited power to transform objects.
There’s a natural bond between the fire body and the wells.
Look with energy eyes at a fire body, and you’ll see seven bright colored wells, along with a black well, nearly invisible, that hovers around the fire body.
Go deeper and you’ll understand that what we see are not true wells, but gateways.
We touch the wells so easily through the gateways that the wells seem to be within us, but they are far away, one set of wells binding all energy life together.
It’s natural for fire bodies to pull a small amount of energy from each well, but the ring opens that connection wider and much more energy moves through it.
There are consequences to this unnatural use of the wells.
Many Kizak children are born with this heightened connection, but can’t control the energy, and it burns them alive.
There are masters who can control it, but their physical bodies are slowly damaged by the intense energy from the wells, and their life is cut short.
So why am I here?
There are Kizak masters who fight on the side of the guard, and I need to understand their power.
I’ll take hold of any weapon that will help me defend my people.
There will be consequences, but I have no choice.
The energy masters of most races gain their abilities from working with the web, not the intense, powerful, and dangerous wells.
The Gen use the wells for transformation, but even Gen strength primarily comes from the web.
The teachings of the Bizra and the Madar both warn against using the wells on a regular basis.
They say that it will damage the physical body, the web, and ultimately the stars.