The Shape of Emptiness
It’s still night when Shazira wakes, to a soft, sad sound coming from the deck outside our bedroom.
She wraps herself in a warm maroon cloak, covered with yellow flowers.
Moving silently, she slips on sandals, and goes out on the deck of the Watchtower.
The morning is still cool, especially at this height.
One of the Kishla is sitting on the deck, singing a song that tears the heart.
Shazira has never seen one this age, only a month or two old.
The young ones are never seen among us.
I wake a few minutes later, and walk out onto the deck behind Shazira.
“Do you think that he’s lost?” I ask.
“How did he get separated from his parents?”
I transform into a great bird to speak with the little one.
I sing to him, and he sings back.
“Why is he here?” asks Shazira.
“He’s too young to understand what happened to him,” I tell her.
“His parents left him, by day, on one of the islands near here, and never returned.”
“The light of the Watchtower drew him here.”
Soon, we’re surrounded with a great tapestry of song.
The songs seem to spin around me, each with its own unique sound, bound together in a way that I can feel, but don’t understand.
The joining of songs reminds me of the the old ones in the temple.
I turn, and there are dozens of the birds flying toward us.
I rise in front of them, as the wind catches my wings, and I bathe in the sweet energy of the web.
“Where are the young one’s parents?” I ask, my words carried upon a song.
“They sang a death song,” say the birds.
“The gentle, soft world gave way to something round, hard, spinning, shining.”
“It binds the energy in a strange way.”
Are they speaking of something made of metal?
I show them a metal ball.
“It shines like that, but your round thing is dead, and blind to the web.”
“What we saw chooses its own way, and touches the web.”
“It flew hard at the parents of the little one.”
“A great fire came forth, on two thin paths, and our brother and sister sang of death.”
“Is the thing still where you saw it?”
“It moves little, as we watch it from the air, but we are afraid to go near.”
“Take me as close as you can.”
Two of the birds remain with the little one, while the others lead Shazira and me to a small, uninhabited island, about fifty miles from the Watchtower.
This is the place where I felt a strange energy when we returned from Tshuan!
An orange metal sphere hovers over the surface of a large, flat rock.
The sphere spins and shimmers with the energy that passes through it.
Two dead birds lie still near the sphere, their bodies black and twisted.
“There is little time for us,” cry the birds.
“The dead will be dishonored, unless we mourn them at first sun, after we let the sea take their bodies.”
“Not yet,” I warn them.
“You’ll die if you go near that ball.”
“What is that device, Shazira?” I ask her.
“I don’t know.”
“Keep them away, and I’ll get Balshown.”
“If the sphere moves, go back to the tower.”
In Jiku form, I glide along the energy web, and reach Balshown’s house in a few minutes.
He wakes quickly, and returns with me to the island.
We hover at a distance.
“I’ve seen this scene,” says Balshown,” in a mural on the walls of the hidden city.
“It shows the sphere and two dead birds.”
“Why would the artist paint a vision of the dead birds?”
“What does it tell us?”
“There’s another mural on the walls, Yagrin.”
“It shows the Jiku’s desperate flight here from their old home.”
“Dozens of enemy ships chase them toward a hole in space, while hundreds of these same spheres wait near the hole.”
“I’m guessing this device is an automated probe that followed the Jiku here.”
“What if you’re wrong and this is a new probe?”
“It means our enemies have found us!”
The sphere accelerates toward us.
“Shazira,” I tell her, “lead the birds back to the Watchtower, now!”
“Balshown and I will lead the machine in the opposite direction, out to sea.”
I fill the air around me with energy to attract the probe’s attention.
It moves quickly toward us, and follows us as we fly.
Even at full speed, Balshown can barely stay ahead of it.
I scan the probe with energy eyes as it chases us.
The sphere has a strange energy signature for a machine.
It uses technology to glide on the web.
It’s my own foolish fear, but machines that manipulate the energy web seem more frightening then any hostile master.
Something moves in me, and I know how to send away the probe.
There’s no time to tell Balshown.
I let him fly away, while I stop and hover, and wait for the probe.
I reach for the tattoos of the long knives.
The knives appear in my hands, and I cross them above my head.
The probe fires a burst of energy at me, which is captured by the knives, and reflected back at the probe.
The energy blast disappears when it gets within a few inches of the probe.
Two colored rings glow on the handles of my knives.
They are a gift from the balancer, given during my deep space journey, and they whisper at me.
I reach for the color, and it drifts out of the knives, and into my hands.
My left hand turns blue, and my right, gold.
I remember what it feels like to be near the Balancer who watches, in a space between worlds.
I see a distant place with a great, solid black sphere, and a sound that fills everything.
The sphere spins for all time, without end.
Galaxies disappear as specks in the sphere’s shadow.
Its surface is like a great desert, not because of sand or heat, but because of its emptiness.
The sphere is covered with dark holes, empty of energy and life.
Each hole is a tiny, empty space, isolated from the rest of existence.
I focus on one tiny hole, and reach out both hands toward the probe.
The probe shimmers for a moment, and disappears.
I see the probe with my energy eyes, far away, in a tiny space, with no stars and no light.
The energy of the probe drains away, and its substance vanishes.
“Where’s the probe?”
“I sent it to a place of emptiness, that hides between worlds.”
“A place of quiet chaos, where nothing can exist for long.”
“How?” he asks.
“A gift that the balancer gave me.”
We return to the island, and bring the charred bodies of the Kishla back to the Watchtower.
At first sun, the birds seize the dead bodies and lay them gently on the surface of the waves.
As Shazira, Balshown and I dance the greeting of the light, the Kishla send their dead brother and sister along the path from life to death.
The orphan bird looks on with a broken heart, understanding only that his parents are gone.
“We must find a way into the city,” says Balshown.
“Yes,” I agree.
“This attack makes our trip even more urgent, but we also need to know more about the old enemy, and the journey that brought the Jiku here.”
“We’ve read everything available, Yagrin, even in Tshuan.”
“Your friendship with the king has given us access to the royal library, and its rare materials, but what have we gained?”
“We’re faced with contradictory stories, and nothing that will help us defend the people.”
“I have an idea,” I tell him.
“There is an old transport ships in orbit, built from parts of the other ships that crashed here.”
“I’ll shape myself into an exact twin of the ship, and then, with my healing sight, I’ll follow the ship’s trail into the past.”
“I’ll meet you back here at the Watchtower, in an hour.”
I need to move closer to the ship to become its twin.
I take a pure energy form, and rise through the atmosphere.
I locate the ship, in orbit, and go inside to get a closer look.
Is this the same ship where B’tzel was imprisoned?!
There are no signs of life, but in the corner of one storage area, I detect a strange energy.
As I approach, an image appears outside the storage area, a three-dimensional projection, meant for physical eyes.
There’s air and heat here, so I reshape my Jiku form to view the message.
My own face stares at me, and leaves me with a strange feeling of dread.
This is a message from Botzar!
“You’re in great danger,” he warns.
“The sealed compartment could trap you, or even kill you.”
“Don’t enter it, or use energy sight to view the contents.”
My energy sight opens without thought, and focuses on the container.
There are no ordinary signs of biological life within it, but there are two mental webs, five feet apart, and the mental webs are active.
How can the mental webs be active, if there is no life?
I notice a thin, quiet energy that surrounds each of the two webs.
Where have I felt that energy before, I wonder?
In a few minutes I remember.
Botzar used the sword to cast an energy net over B’tzel, and then imprisoned him on a ship.
What I feel is the energy net.
B’tzel is still here after a thousand years, and someone else is with him!
I pull away from the container, and transform again into energy.
Then I move into space, and become a twin of the ship, without its contents.
My listener bursts out of me, so anxious to rest on the other ship, and read its past.
I move back quickly through a thousand years of endless, unchanging orbits.
Until I see B’tzel imprisoned here.
I scan slowly forward through the next few days, until I find what I seek.
Botzar enters the ship, and approaches the storage place where B’tzel is kept.
Then Botzar enters a security code to open the area.
He hesitates for a minute, with his hand just above the strange energy field that keeps B’tzel prisoner.
“We both deserve this,” he says aloud.
Finally, he touches it, and the field spreads around his body and his mental web.
He condemned them both to an endless prison.
In his mind, they were both at fault for the war, and the destruction that came when he released the sword.
No one deserves to suffer like this!
I follow the ship forward in time, until my arrival here.
There were no other visitors.
I have the security code to open the compartment, but I don’t know how to release them from the net.
Even if I discover how to free them, I must never do it.
Both of them are too powerful and dangerous to release.
B’tzel was mentally unstable before his imprisonment, and Botzar’s guilt would easily drive him mad.
What can be left of either mind after a thousand years of isolation?
Artifact of War
I follow the parts of the ship back in time before the crash, and before the beginning of its journey.
A man and woman stand on a hill overlooking the ocean.
Near the edge of the ocean floats a great ship.
“Will the ships be ready in time, Shilann?” asks the woman, with desperation in her voice.
“Where will we go”
“There’s no place left to run!”
“I don’t know where we’re going, Tila, but we must get ready to launch in two days.”
“The High Command has reports that the Fiklow will attack a day or two after that.”
“We need enough time to get to a jump point before the enemy reaches this system.”
The man and woman separate, and he enters a large building, riding something like an elevator to the top floor.
He passes through multiple layers of security to enter the High Command offices.
He’s directed to the commander’s office, where Shilann taps his hand nervously in front of a green, stone box.
“Sit down, Shilann,” says the commander.
“Is that the artifact?” asks Shilann.
“Why aren’t the energy priests still trying to open it?”
“We could defeat the Fiklow, if we knew how to use it!”
“The priests have no idea how to open it,” says the commander, rising from his seat.
“Twelve years, and all they can say is that this box is a link to limitless energy.”
“The priests tell us that it will give us a source of endless power, and make us invincible in battle.”
“They said that twelve years ago too, when I found it deep in the ruins at Gunal,” says Shilann.
“All they’ve done in twelve years is start a war, and kill trillions on each side.”
“This is our last system. We’re almost extinct, and the priests still want us to keep this box?!”
“Shilann,” says the commander, “what does it matter how many of our enemies have died?”
“They look like multi-armed worms, and they feast on their criminals and enemies.”
“Tell me what we have gained through this war?” asks Shilann.
“The Fiklow believe that the box will destroy the universe.”
“They just want to hide it away.”
“Calm down, Shilann, and don’t be so naive.”
“You don’t really believe what the Fiklow say?”
“Even if it’s true that this artifact is a remnant from their ancestors, Gunal is one of our old places.”
“The Fiklow know that the box is a weapon,” says the commander, “and they want to kill us before we discover how to use it!”
“The war is lost, Commander,” says Shilann.
“The only question now is whether we can escape to a place where they can’t follow.”
“Three of the arks are ready, Shilann, and two more will be ready to launch in a day or two.”
“The ships can carry almost the whole population in cold storage.”
“Only a few thousand will be awake to crew the ships”
“We’re going to make a dimensional jump, Shilann.”
“The Fiklow don’t have that technology, yet.”
“It will be impossible for them to follow us.”
“It will be just as impossible to return, Commander, and we have no idea whether it works.”
“We’ve sent test ships, Shilann!”
“The priests here say that they spoke with the priest on one of the ships, and he’s found a fertile world.”
“Do you believe them?”
“I do, and at this point, anything is better than waiting for our enemies to arrive and slaughter us.”
“Captain,” says the commander, “your ark will carry the artifact.”
“Perhaps on a new world, there will be enough time for the priests to discover its secrets.”
The commander reaches out his palm, and Shilann puts his palm on top.
As I view Shilann’s past, I feel that something about that commander feels wrong.
He’s lying to the Captain, even though they are clearly old friends.
Two days later, the arks launch accompanied by a great number of smaller warships.
After the launch, with course set for the jump point, Shilann goes to his cabin.
“Computer, show coded transmissions between this ship and the commander’s vessel in the last 24 hours.”
The computer displays six coded transmissions, between ship’s navigator and the commander.
The navigator is the commander’s son-in-law, and in charge of the inter-dimensional drive.
“Computer, play each message, audio only, at double normal speed.”
“I’m sorry captain. Those messages can’t be viewed except with permission of the commander.”
“Override code: zila – qut – zech”
“It’s a good thing,” says the captain aloud to himself, “that I modified the communications programming.”
The first five messages simply tell the navigator to be prepared.
Then, there is the sixth message.
“Navigator,” says the voice of the commander, “after completing the jump, wait for the Captain’s next sleep cycle and empty the air from his cabin while he sleeps.”
“Commander?” asks the navigator.
“You’re asking me to kill my captain!”
“The captain asks too many questions,” responds the commander.
“If he knew the truth, he would return the artifact to the Fiklow.”
“We searched for a copy of one of their secret holy books, and translated their strange language.”
“There are star charts encoded in the book.”
“Before long, we knew that the artifact was in Gunal.”
“We haven’t sacrificed this much, just to give up the artifact now.”
“But Commander,” says the navigator, “the Fiklow consider us all cursed for coming within fifty light years of the object, and their religion demands that they destroy all who are cursed.”
The commander laughs.
“I can’t believe that you take our stories seriously.”
“Our stories?” asks the navigator.
“Completely made up.”
“The Fiklow just want us to put it back, and stay fifty light years away from it.”
“Then why are they killing us?”
“Oh, that much is real.”
“They think that the whole universe is at risk while the artifact is out of its tomb.”
The playback of the sixth message ends.
Shilann can hardly catch his breath, he’s so furious.
A swarm of Fiklow probes arrive as the first ark enters the jump gate.
The Fiklow ships appear a few minutes later, as the last ark reaches the jump site.
All of the arks make it through the jump, but the last planet, and the fleet are wiped out.
“Security, I need to get a reliable ark status,” says the captain, after the jump is complete.
“The computer lists problems with every major ship system, on all the arks.”
The lieutenant reports a few minutes later, with a trembling voice.
“Captain, the computer is accurate.”
“During the jump, an unknown energy radiated from the artifact.”
“The blast killed all crew within one hundred feet, including the navigator, and most of the energy priests.”
“The artifact burnt out the circuitry for most of the freeze units, and dozens of other critical systems.
“Most of the people in freeze storage are dead, and we only have a few hours of power left.”
“The same circuitry and ship areas were damaged on all five arks, even though only this ark has the artifact.”
“Did the Fiklow do it?”
“We don’t know captain, but how else could it have happened?”
“There was a huge swarm of their automated probes scanning us as we entered the dimensional gate.”
“Can they use their readings to follow us, lieutenant?”
“They don’t know how yet, captain, but we could read the destination from the energy readings that they recorded.”
“Someday, when they discover how to open a dimensional gate, they will use their readings to follow us.”
“How long will it take them to develop the technology?”
“A hundred years, a thousand, or maybe never.”
“Who knows, captain.”
Shilann’s attention returns to the present.
“Have we gotten a signal from the test ship, lieutenant?”
“We have just enough power to get to the target world and land, but we will have to do it without shields.”
“The shield projectors are damaged, and there’s no way to repair them before the power runs out.”
“There’s no choice,” says Shilann.
“We can’t stay in space.”
The ships survive the landing, but are heavily damaged.
Millions die in cold storage, during the jump, when the freeze units fail, and many of the others die during the landing, only miles from their new home.
The captain stands alone on a hill overlooking the ocean.
He looks at the smoking ships, lying twisted on the shore, as the fog rolls in.
“Tila,” he says aloud, “you would love it here.”
“The hills and the sea are so much like home.”
Tila survived the jump, but died during the landing, when the hull split in her area of the shape, and she was cast into space.