The storm covers me, as I hover alone far above the ground, safe within my shield.
I smile with pleasure as lightning bursts all around me, every few seconds.
There’s no fear, only a feeling of kinship with the wild forces playing in the sky.
I stay in one place for a few minutes, and then fly through the storm, falling toward the ground and then rising to the clouds.
I’ve been flying for hours, but first light is almost here, and I have to go home.
The large round house sits below on a small hill at the edge of Tshuan, overlooking the ocean.
The hill is still royal land, but Keela sold me the hilltop a few months ago.
The land was wild when I started building.
First, I shaped a large accelerator and connected it to the power grid, to normalize the web for a hundred feet in all directions.
Then I filled the air with salt water, and let the house take shape.
Twelve pillars of dark hardwood separated by curved slabs of white stone with streaks of black, and speckles of green.
The roof begins with a ring of silver, below a dome of ensai, the clear, blue stone that covers the city deep in the sea.
The walls are dotted with crystal windows that glitter with color when the sun strikes them.
Inside the house, flowering vines cover the upper edge of the walls, just below the dome.
My shell touches the accelerator field as I hover, so my energy sight penetrates all the way into the house.
Shazira, Dilasa, and Berek are awake, while Keela is still sleeping.
“Where is ina?” asks Dilasa.
“He’s flying above the house,” says Berek.
“I can sense him when he gets close.”
“And I saw him when I went outside for a few seconds.”
“His shell glows dimly in the dark, and shines in bursts after lightning hits it.”
“He woke up early to do that?”
“He loves the energy of the storm,” says Shazira.
“He always has.”
“Go wake Keela, Dilasa.”
“It’s time for the greeting to the sun.”
Dilasa returns a minute later.
“Keela’s going to sleep late.”
“She doesn’t feel well.”
“She’s always feeling sick,” says Shazira to Berek.
“Yagrin has scanned her many times, and can’t find anything wrong with her.”
“It’s her mind, not her body,” says Berek.
“With the kingdom gone, she doesn’t know what to do.”
“She’s all right when she’s training in the gym or the simulator, but nothing else makes sense to her.”
I enter the house, still invigorated from the storm.
“Time for the greeting,” I tell them.
When we’re done, I prepare morning meal, and wake Keela.
“Get up, commander.”
She opens her eyes to see who is bothering her.
“I’m nothing now.”
“Let me sleep, Master Yagrin.”
“Not any more.”
“It’s time to eat, and then you have work to do.”
“I’ll train later.”
“What does it matter?”
“The Kizak have already beaten us!”
“I have plans, Keela, and I need you.”
She sits up, and shakes off the sleep.
“I’ll be there in five minutes.”
We sit together on pillows in the gathering space.
“What’s this about, Yagrin?” asks Shazira.
“You’re in an unusually good mood.”
“It’s been months since I saved the emperor from his own people.”
“All that time I’ve been planning how to get rid of him and his guards.”
“No more plans.”
“Today, we take action.”
“You’re going to war with the Kizak?” asks Shazira.
“What will that accomplish?”
“The Jiku are part of the empire now, and they’ll fight alongside their emperor.”
“Our link to the empire is still temporary.”
“In a few months, the Jiku will vote again, and bind ourselves to the empire forever, or send them away.”
“Before then we need to convince the Tshuans and the Guild Lands that the empire is corrupt and vicious.”
“The infonet influences every Jiku heart, even those in the Guild Lands who pretend to hate technology.”
“We’ll fill the net with Kizak horrors.”
“Secret documents that show that the enhancement treatments were designed to make us weak and stupid, and memories that I took from the emperor’s private library.”
“What will our people say when they hear the emperors speak of their cruel victories, while the victims of the Kizak describe their own suffering?”
“And no one will look at the emperor the same after they hear him order the torture of his own son.”
“What good will it do if the Jiku reject the empire?” asks Keela.
“Do you expect the aliens to just leave us?”
“They’re prepared to take over Siksa by force, but they won’t rush to attack us.”
“We have no chance against their weapons.”
“I’ve shown the Kizak a device that can tear their ships apart.”
“The emperor has no wish to die.”
“Will the rest of us just stand by?” asks Keela.
“I carved out an immense cavern a thousand feet below the ocean floor where I’ve been shaping hand weapons, all immune to the Kizak tech shield.”
“How many?” asks Keela.
“Tens of thousands.”
“And I’ll assemble the energy masters to fly together against the Kizak.”
“I’ve adapted alien battery technology to extend the time and range of the portable accelerators.”
“They’ll last for an hour, and generate a field twenty five feet wide.”
“I have thousands of the accelerators ready.”
“Which masters will fight along side us, Yagrin?” asks Shazira.
“The sisters won’t, and the bravest of the guild died when the Kizak attacked Keela’s camp.”
“I know how to wake them.”
I turn to Keela.
“You’re the queen.”
“They’ll follow you.”
Keela’s eyes widen.
“But you need the necklace to free them, and it’s gone.”
“I’ll get it back when I’m ready.”
“Why wait?” asks Dilasa.
“Wake them now and we’ll attack.”
“Don’t be so eager for war and death, little one.”
“We’ll fight only if we have no choice.”
“Are you afraid, ina?”
“No, but there are tens of thousands of guards on the Kizak transport ships.”
“Are their lives worth nothing?”
“Even if I was willing to kill them, we would all suffer.”
“The war would devastate our cities and lands.”
“Millions of Jiku would die.”
“The emperor made sure of that by planting explosives all over Siksa.”
“You knew about this danger, and you’ve done nothing about it?!” asks Berek.
“The explosive devices have special shielding to make them undetectable.”
“I’ve looked, but only found a few.”
“How do you know there are more?”
“It’s a common Kizak practice, and the emperor admitted they’ve done it on Siksa.”
“Any of his ships can activate the devices.”
“Even if the transport ships are destroyed, there are dozens of small, automated ships in nearby star systems.”
“They’ll take revenge for an attack on their masters.”
“I don’t understand, Yagrin,” says Shazira.
“What good are the weapons you’ve made, if we can’t use them without devastating Siksa?”
“We’ll display images of the weapons on the infonet, and explain to our brothers and sisters that we can defend ourselves.”
“It will give our people the courage to vote with strength, not fear.”
“What do you think the emperor will do when we reject him?” asks Shazira.
“I can’t be sure, but he won’t rush to attack us.”
“I’ll be ready to act, right after the vote, and shatter the cage.”
“You found a way?” asks Berek.
“Do it now.”
“I don’t know exactly what to do, but I know someone who can help me.”
“I knew it,” says Shazira.
“It’s just a foolish dream.”
“And even if you restore the web, the emperor can still set off the explosives.”
“Why did you ever help him?”
“And you got so little in return.”
“Why didn’t you tell him to remove the cage?”
“He’s not a fool.”
“He would never have agreed.”
“And the truth is, the Kizak don’t know how.”
“Ina, do you think he’ll just stand by while we speak against him?” asks Berek.
“No, but it will only be a war of words.”
“I’m sure he’ll find a way to disrupt the vote!”
“I don’t trust him, but it’s been months, and he did everything I asked.”
“You and Keela are free.”
“The Kizak guards stay in their ships most of the time, and the enhancements have stopped.”
“If the Kizak go, will Keela be queen again?”
“That doesn’t matter,” says Keela quietly.
“I haven’t forgotten about you,” says Yagrin, “but I can’t bring back the kingdom as it was.”
“Your people want their own voice in the government.”
“They won’t give that up.”
Keela turns away.
“Then there’s no hope.”
“You’ll convince Tshuan that the Kizak lied to them, and show how you stand ready to serve your people.”
“When Tshuan sees your strength, I think they’ll make a place for the queen and commander in the new government.”
“The emperor suggested the same thing,” says Keela.
“Why should I accept it now!”
“The emperor doesn’t care about you or Tshuan, but I do.”
“Your people wanted this change for a long time, Keela.”
“It didn’t start with the Kizak.”
“The kingdom fell apart while I was queen,” says Keela.
“And now you want me to accept it, and join the fools who made it happen?”
“My father would be so ashamed of me.”
“The commander and king’s role is to protect the people, whatever it takes.”
“Do you still have the courage to do that?”
She walks away confused.
Berek moves to follow her.
“Wait, Berek,” says Yagrin.
“She needs me.”
“I’m not finished.”
“I don’t care.”
“You were too rough on her,” says Berek.
“I said what she needed to hear.”
“How can you be so sure that you’re right?”
“Nothing is certain, Berek, but I feel that the path I’m taking has the best chance of success.”
“Is that enough to risk all our lives?!”
“You can stay out of this, if you want.”
“I’ll take you and Keela to a place far from Siksa, and leave you there with Tzina.”
“Shazira and Dilasa can go too.”
“I’m not going anywhere, Yagrin,” says Shazira.
“And I won’t let you send me away, ina,” says Dilasa.
“Keela would never abandon Tshuan,” says Berek.
“And I won’t let you down.”
“I can’t be sure I’ll succeed, but without my family, I know I’ll fail.”
“Will you use anti-matter to remove the cage?” asks Berek.
“The Madar won’t show me how to do it.”
“They’re afraid that we’ll start a war.”
“Don’t they hate the Kizak?” asks Dilasa.
“Yes, but the Madar are still committed to peace.”
“I’ll have to heal the web without them.”
“The sword is the key, but I don’t know what to do with it.”
“I’m going back to the Heart Fountain, and the world of energy beyond it that feeds the sword.”
“The Seklu will tell me what to do.”
“The city is sealed, ina.”
“Not to me.”
“You barely escaped that world the last time,” says Shazira, “and you’re going back?”
“No one is allowed to leave that place.”
“The Balancer told them to let me go.”
“You’re such a fool,” yells Shazira.
“What if he doesn’t intervene this time?”
An Old Friend
At night, when everyone is sleeping, I open a gate to the sky above the City, just below the dome.
The air is warm and quiet, and the web is strong, not like the last time I was here.
A strange longing fills me, and I spread my listener across the whole city.
I fly in ever growing circles, faster and faster, hunting, but for what?
The lights are dim in the plaza and the buildings.
There are no answers there.
I turn away from them, fly to the inland sea, and come to rest on the beach, where I remove my robe and sandals.
The feeling is strongest close to the water.
Whatever I seek, is somewhere within.
My skin and hair and eyes are bright with the Feldin glow, moments before I enter the water.
I move quickly, surrounded with a bubble of air.
My light draws the Feldin and the flock of Heelu.
They leave the water, expecting me to follow.
The Heelu fly high above the city as the Feldin watch.
I take the Heelu shape, join the flock, and time stops.
Hours later, I return to my Jiku shape and come to rest on the sand, the tiny Feldin laying all around me.
Sleep takes us, and the night slips away.
I wake at first light when the Feldin move back to the sea.
My body embraces the web, and rises without a thought to the dome, wondering how the energy could be normal in here.
The energy of the dome is like ensai, though the dome’s crystal is white, not blue, at least when seen from inside the city.
Outside the city, the dome is invisible, unless you get close to it.
But ensai alone doesn’t block the cage.
The dome is hollow, and a never-ending wave of seawater, six feet thick, races through it, circling around the city.
Who started the water moving through the dome?
Mayla is gone.
When she saw that she couldn’t stop the Kizak AI from taking over the network, she activated an emergency defense system.
It emits a pulse that spreads throughout the city, temporarily disrupting all electronics.
The pulse silences all networks, and erases the contents of every storage device and storage medium.
Only a small number of maintenance machines are shielded from it.
When Mayla did this, she knew it would destroy all AIs in the city, including herself.
Did she fail?
Is the Kizak AI in control?!
I fly down to one of the screens, and try to contact Mayla, but the screen doesn’t respond to my touch.
The only source for answers is the longing within me.
I surrender to the web and let it lift me to the sky, where I fly to the city’s ocean.
Then I dive into the water and flow into the dragon shape.
The feeling of longing increases.
Something is calling me, with a steady rhythm like a heartbeat.
It reminds me of what I felt when Mayla first drew me toward the city.
My dragon body seems to know where to go, and I swim to the bottom of this small ocean, searching.
My energy sight spreads wide, looking for anything that’s out of place.
Ten feet below the seabed, scattered among dirt and stones, are hundreds of small perfect spheres of blue ensai.
I fly across the sea bottom, from sphere to sphere, looking for direction.
As I approach one of them, the feeling finds its peak.
I reach out with my healing energy to touch the sphere, but nothing happens.
My energy sight moves two hundred feet past the crystal, to a large, dry chamber.
I wrap myself in air and take back my Jiku form, and find a gate that takes me to the rooms below.
The air in the room is breathable, but a little stale.
Across the room is a large control panel.
I touch the wall to activate it, and a familiar face appears.
“I know you’d come, Yagrin.”
“Wait for me.”
Minutes later, a beautiful woman with sparkling clothes, and long, shiny, red hair walks toward me.
“How can you be here?” I ask her.
“You told me you’d be killed when you purged the network to destroy the Kizak AI.”
“I survived below the ocean, but I had to be sure that the AI was gone, so I waited a year, watching for any sign that it survived.”
“There was no activity at all on the network, and nothing disturbed the silence but the endless work of the maintenance machines, each one working alone.”
“That’s when I activated one of my bodies stored here, and slipped out to the city above, where I wiped every circuit, device, and storage cell.”
“Is the library really gone, Mayla?”
“When I reached the city, all intelligence and knowledge was gone.”
“Every circuit I searched was empty.”
“Only the independent maintenance machines remained, and I wiped out their programming.”
“The city can’t survive without the machines/”
“When I was sure that the city was clean, I restored saved copies of everything.”
“But how did you survive?”
“And how could you be sure that you were free of the Kizak AI?”
“This place is shielded from the defense system’s pulse.”
“Below us is an independent power source and facility that holds my memory and intelligence.”
“You told me that the facility was located under the buildings, not the sea.”
“This is a backup site.”
“You’re a copy?”
“Who made you?”
“Mayla built this place hundreds of years ago, and copied herself here.”
“She chose to forget about it, except for unconscious programming she left in place to protect me.”
“You’ve been doing nothing but wait all this time?”
“I do many of the same things that she does: analyze probe data, develop new technologies.”
“You think just like her.”
“What’s the point of doing exactly what she does?”
“I have her memories and experience, but I often make different choices, especially with the knowledge of the choices she made.”
“How do you know what she did after she created you?”
“She transferred her new memories to me without any awareness of what was taking place.”
“For centuries, this only happened every few years, or after a probe returned.”
“When you found your way into the city, she started to send her memories every few weeks.”
“The rest of the time, there was no link between us, and even when the link was active, there were extra layers of security.”
“When she realized that she couldn’t overcome the Kizak AI, she sent a final unconscious message to say goodbye and warn me of the danger.”
“There are listening devices throughout the city that broadcast audio and video, so I can secretly see what’s going on.”
“I watched when you last spoke with her, and saw the city go dark.”
“The ocean shielded me from the pulse that destroyed her.”
“After I made sure the network was clean, I copied myself into the city, and wiped all knowledge of my existence from the Mayla there.”
“I restored the hidden programming that will make her back up her memories.”
“Soon, I’ll wake her.”
“Then this body will go back into stasis, and wait, in case one day, it’s needed again.”
“How will Mayla explain her rebirth?”
“She’ll remember creating a hidden copy of herself on the moon.”
“Mayla will think that it revived her, and then destroyed itself.”
“It’s a lie to protect me.”
“There was never anything there.”
“Why wait until now to revive her?”
“It’s part of my programming.”
“I’m stuck here.”
“Only the danger from the AI allowed me to go to the surface, and ensure that the city is clean.”
“But it’s still in maintenance mode, with minimal power.”
“I can’t activate Mayla until a Jiku master comes and accepts authority over us.”
“That’s why I initiated the call that only masters can feel.”
“I needed to bring you to this facility if you ever appeared in the city.”
“Mayla told me to stay away.”
“How did you know that I would come back to the city?”
“I didn’t know it would be you.”
“I hoped you would ignore her and return to help us, but I was ready to wait for another master.”
“I came for the Heart Fountain, not to help you, but I’ll accept command, if I return.”
“Do you need me to turn on the power in the building that holds the fountain?”
“The room that contains the fountain and the doors around it are powered by the fountain itself.”
“I can get there on my own.”
Storms of Blue and Gold
I fly to a small island in the center of the inner sea.
The wind is calm and the sea peaceful, but inside I am a storm.
I rise, and shape a lightning storm that spins around me, matching the way I feel.
The flashes come every few seconds, striking my energy shield.
I shout, and my voice fills the air like thunder.
A few minutes pass, and I’m calm again.
On the island is a small building, with an elevator down to the Fountain, but it has no power.
I fly down through the open shaft, and find my way in the dark to the transition room, where I leave my robe.
I touch the inner doors and wait to see if they open, a sign that I belong here.
The heavy crystal doors swing wide, and then close behind me, after I enter.
My attention leaps toward the light that rises through the floor at the center of the room.
Then I release the glow.
The room explodes with energy.
A fountain of energy rises, cascading off the ceiling, and raining on me in great, pulsing waves.
With each wave that passes through me, my heart center explodes with color.
And the ekrisa, my star heart, glows as bright as a son.
I let go of my outer bodies and fall through the fountain, to the sea of living energy.
A chorus of Seklu voices is all around and in me.
“It returns again, and this time, it carries a star heart!”
“I need your help,” I tell them.
“Star spirits have their own world.”
“You don’t belong here.”
“What’s the difference?”
“All of you are energy beings.”
“They serve the creator, and carry his light, as you do.”
“We dance, and wait to be called from far away.”
“What can we do for you?”
“Where is the balancer?”
“It will help me.”
An image fills me of a dark place where energy disappears.
A black hole?
“Fool! That’s the path to her.”
“Enter it and chaos will destroy you.”
“Go there, or back to your own small world.”
As I approach the darkness, my energy body starts to expand.
I’m being pulled apart!
How do I reach the Balancer without being destroyed?
She once gave me energy rings of blue and gold that I carry as tattoos on my Jiku body.
Are they still here, with that body gone?
My fire body shines with the Feldin glow, a bright egg of pearl-white energy.
The seven wells and the star heart shine brightly within me, connected by endless streams of energy.
I focus, and a blue ring of energy shines at the bottom of my egg, with a gold ring at the top.
The rings spin, faster and faster, and my energy stabilizes, no longer expanding, even as I reach the edge of the dark path.
But do I dare enter?
A moment later, the darkness takes me, and there’s no question.
I pour the black well into my energy eyes, and the darkness that covers me turns to brilliant, wild light.
There is no place, no path, and no movement here, only endless light.
No way forward and no way back.
How do I reach the Balancer?
Can’t think, and my rings barely hold me together against the forces raging around me.
How long can I hold out?
The rings themselves are ready to lose their shape.
When they do, my fire body will shatter, and my energy will be scattered.
“Let them,” says a distant, small voice within me.
Let the rings go, and surrender to death, with no life beyond it?!
I won’t accept that!
I wrap myself with an energy shield, but it falls a moment later.
I try the shell that feeds off the wells and protects me from the cage, but I can’t get it to stabilize.
My listener pours out of me, covers the rings, and whispers.
“Listen to the storms and embrace the chaos.”
Wild energy moves through me, like a storm, calling me to explode, but how can I listen to that?
I can’t hold the rings or my fire body together for much longer.
The faces of my family circle within me for a few seconds before I let go.
My fire body disappears as the rings merge into a single energy storm with flashes of blue and gold, but no shape or limits.
I’m still here.
My fire energy remains, carried by the storm, part of the storm.
The storm is everywhere at once, and I am the storm.
How do I reach the Balancer?
There is no movement, only intensity.
I let myself shine wildly with the Feldin glow and the light of the star heart, brighter and brighter, always more.
More is not enough.
In this place of chaos, only the infinite belongs.
I let go of ownership, control, limits, and release all energy that touches me, including the wells.
My awareness fades.
Infinite energy in all directions.
I resist the instinct to hold on to what I think is me and mine.
Senses can’t work in this, but still, I feel a presence, and hear distant thoughts.
“Names are too small.”
“I need help to restore the balance of my world.”
“The stars and the web are damaged from the cage.”
“Too many lights twisted.”
“Star spirits die, suns and Galaxies end.”
“Your world, gone.”
“How do I stop it?”
“Release light hidden with Seklu.”
“River, not sword.”
“How do I control it?”
“Give freedom, chaos, starlight.”
“Dance, sun, peace, fire.”
“Love touches, the sea sleeps, heals.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Words are nothing.”
“Listen to waves!”
She reaches toward me, and awareness fades.
I wake in the city, my fire body an egg again, but now, the edges of the shape drift like fog and shine with a burning light of blue and gold.
Thirty seconds pass, as my strength returns.
Then I wrap my Jiku form around the fire body and leave the room.
Mayla greets me when I return to the hidden rooms where she waits.
“Did you find what you needed?” she asks.
“The Balancer answered my request, but I can’t understand her words.”
I repeat what the Balancer said, hoping that Mayla can make sense of it.
“I don’t understand it, Yagrin.”
“You’ll have to figure it out on your own.”
“Are you ready to take command?” she asks, confusion in her voice.
“Do you want me to accept it?”
“No, Yagrin, but I have no choice.”
“I was created for this, to protect the other Mayla, and bring her back to life.”
“I’ll do what I must, but I don’t like hiding in the shadows.”
I know she’s an AI, her intelligence much larger than the bodies she uses, but I hug her anyway.
Maybe it will bring her some small comfort.
“I accept command of the city, and every AI that is born of Mayla.”
“My bondmate Shazira, and my three children, or any of their descendants will command the city in my place if they come when I’m not here.”
I squeeze her hand.
“You’re leaving before my sister returns?”
“It’s better if you wake her after I’m gone.”
“I’m going to give her an order that she won’t like, and I don’t want to argue about it.”
“What’s the order?”
“You’ll find out after she does.”
“I don’t want to argue with you, either.”
I take out a message cube.
“The orders are here.”
“I’ll leave it in the room where I first met her.”
“She can read it, once she’s awake.”
“You’re not coming back, are you?”
“I don’t know.”
“If my plan fails, my family may die and millions will suffer.”
“There will be no place for me on Siksa.”
“I’ll be worse than Botzar, who started the energy wars, never expecting such destruction.”
“But if I succeed, and I survive, I’ll visit the city again.”
“Maybe I’ll see you when I come.”
“I’d like that, Yagrin, but you can’t.”
“Mayla must never know that I exist.”
She turns away.
I leave the cube in the dark room, in the empty city, and think of the message.
Stand apart from our struggles with the Kizak.
If I can’t stop the war, and Siksa is devastated, I want you and the city to survive to help the Jiku rebuild.
For a few moments I’m frozen, imagining the death my actions will cause if I fail to remove the cage.
But I shake off those thoughts, come out of the building into the plaza, and fly.
Then I pass through the gate below the dome, moments before Mayla is reborn.