Guardians of the Living and the Dead
It makes no sense to bury or burn those that die in the sea.
Instead, the Fiklow dead are sent on a year-long journey.
The body is wrapped in two layers of woven material, soaked in herbs and chemicals.
The outer layer is coarse, and the inner layer soft.
A paste is spread on the outside cloth, to combine with the chemicals, and harden into a shell.
A day later, the relatives and friends sing praises of the dead, as the shell is released into a swift current.
The shell protects the body from the sea and small predators, for close to a year.
The large predators are driven away by the shell’s smell.
The queen is honored with a different type of death journey.
Her ceremony is also performed a day after death, before there is any visible decay of the body.
The shadow prepares for the queen’s journey by circling the crystal forest at night.
He continues until he finds the perfect spot for his queen to rest.
Eight Fiklow are chosen to be the queen’s guardians.
They surround her body, and each guardian wraps one of the queen’s large tentacles.
Together, they carry the queen.
The queen’s shadow swims ahead of the guardians as they circle the crystal forest eight times.
When the eight circles are complete, the shadow takes the body from the guardians, and carries it to its resting place.
He holds the body upright, in contact with the crystal surface, and stares at the queen’s head.
Light shines from his eyes, and the queen’s body straightens, the tentacles wrapping themselves around the body.
The body hardens and thickens, like the trunk of a tree, and the shadow lets go.
Colored light rises from the sea floor and the body turns to crystal.
In three or four cycles, the features of the body blur, and finally disappear, leaving a small, crystal tree.
It’s a great honor to carry the queen’s body during her death journey, but only eight can be guardians.
There are thirty-five Fiklow worlds, and each planet sends one of their own citizens as a candidate for guardian, usually the leader of the world assembly.
In addition, there are military and other Fiklow of high status who seek to be guardians.
Forty-four candidates will arrive over the next few hours.
Information about each has been messaged to Keesha, for my review.
It’s my task, as shadow, to choose the eight.
Power and Tradition
“I’m an outsider, Keesha.” I tell her.
“You would do a better job choosing the eight.”
“You are wrong, Lord Yagrin,” she says.
“As a powerful outsider, you are the perfect one to make this choice.”
“It will be difficult or impossible to bribe you!” she says, with a laugh.
“What’s so funny, Keesha?”
“Most of the candidates think that power is everything, but against you, their power is useless.”
“Right now, they are frantically thinking of some strategy to influence you.”
“Several of them have made me extraordinary promises, if only I convince you to choose them.”
“I told them that you dislike me, and are likely to do the opposite of what I suggest.”
“Couldn’t they smell that you were lying?”
“I spoke to them through a communications device.”
“Why don’t you accept their offer, Keesha, and try to influence me?”
“Politics in the union is nasty and deadly,” she says.
“I can’t help all the candidates.”
“The others will rip me into food, to feed to their children, or spread false rumours to destroy my career.”
“Fwitay said that you want to leave the military and move into government.”
“No one questions your courage, but you don’t seem mean enough to handle Fiklow politics.”
“It’s true, Lord Yagrin, that I’m not as vicious as they are, but that’s the point.”
“It will take a different type of leader to change the union, if she can survive long enough.”
“Still, I’m rethinking my plans.”
“Now that we will have a queen again, I have a better choice.”
“I could become the queen’s main advisor.”
“Let me know if you decide that you want this,” I tell her.
“I will recommend you to the new queen.”
“Why would you do that, Lord Yagrin?”
“I have nothing to give you in return for this favor.”
“You would be a great help to the new queen, and I know that you want peace with the Jiku.”
“That alone is enough.”
“Thank you, Lord Yagrin,” she says, and turns to leave the room.
“I need your help.”
“Tell me about those who deny the old ways.”
“Lord Yagrin,” she says, “we’ve had no queen for over fifty-thousand cycles.”
“Until yesterday, stories of the queen were more legend than fact.”
“Do you believe?”
“Yes, along with many others.”
“Why do you believe?”
“All Fiklow have a deep hunger for meaning, which no food or mating can fill.”
“Our religious leaders teach us about the creator, the great web, and the queen who masters the web.”
“This teaching tames the hunger of those who believe.”
“Some Fiklow deny the old ways, and channel their emptiness into a thirst for power.”
“This thirst has built the union, and made it large and strong.”
“The leaders of each world fear anyone who challenges their power, and they see the queen as a threat.”
“Are they correct?”
“Would the queen truly threaten their power?”
“Indirectly,” says Keesha.
“The queen leads us at times of celebration and ceremony, and makes us feel that we are bound together.”
“This calms the Fiklow, and moves them to follow their own leaders.”
“That strengthens the union!”
“Yes, Lord Yagrin, but the queen encourages us to to look within, choose our own path, and swim in our own ways.”
“Independence is the enemy of blind power.”
“Also, according to legend, her presence and blessing strengthens the power of the energy binders.”
“This will create a community of powerful Fiklow, who would follow her against the union.”
“There are other reasons, aside from politics, why Fiklow do not believe in the old ways.”
“We are a practical race, focused on the life in front of us.”
“We can’t hold or taste legends, an ancient queen, spirits, or blessings.”
A few hours later, Keesha brings all the leaders to the large meeting room.
Then she comes, to get me and Makish.
“I am Yagrin,” I say as I enter the room, “death shadow to the last queen.”
I take a place in the front of the room.
The leaders approach, and I greet each of them, by wrapping two tentacles.
They tell me their sounds, and the world or group that they lead.
Then, they take their places around me in a half-circle.
“Who among you believes in the ancient tradition of a queen?” I ask.
About half voice their agreement, and I take note of which ones are traditionalists.
Fortunately, there is no smell of lies in the room.
“Excellent,” I say.
“There are good reasons to believe, and good reasons not to believe.”
“Both will make the Fiklow stronger.”
“You defend the non-believers?” asks one of the traditionalists.
“You are the queen’s death shadow.”
“It has been fifty thousand cycles since the queen ruled,” I answer.
“There is nothing wrong with having questions.”
I can smell that some of the non-believers are intrigued.
“You will speak straight with us?” asks one of them.
“You would smell my lies,” I answer.
“Yes,” he answers, “but half-truths can hide the lies, and still not reveal the truth.”
“What do you want from us?”
“I want to demonstrate that it will be good for all of the Fiklow worlds to accept the next queen.”
“The old ways should be accepted, together with technology.”
They are silent, listening.
“You know that Gunal is restored to life.”
“How do you explain it?”
“Can technology do this?”
“You know that we can’t do it,” answers one of them, “but power alone doesn’t make you greater than us.”
“You are one of us, no more.”
“Perhaps less, for they tell us that you are really Jiku.”
I release my glow and let them all see it.
Many of them move back a few feet.
“I have listened at the center of the sun,” I answer strongly, “and deep within Gunal.”
“I have died, and risen from death, more than once.”
“I have walked and swam and flown in many shapes, on many worlds.”
“I hear the past as easily as I hear you.”
They watch as I glide food into my mouth, without touching it.
“I can swim in your thoughts, and I have the power to crush a ship, as easily as I move my food.”
I dim the glow, and motion for them to approach me.
“You spoke well when you said that power doesn’t make me greater than you.”
“Still, you are fools if you ignore it.”
“Think how can use this strength to help you and the Fiklow you lead.”
“See the possibility in energy binding.”
“Help your binders to grow their skills and power.”
“Build up your worlds using the right blend of technology, and energy binding.”
“What of the new queen, if she is ever found?” asks one of them.
“She will ask us to bow before her.”
“She will,” I agree, “but teaching the people to respect their leaders is not a bad thing, is it?”
A few of them laugh.
“In the old times, the queen did not rule over the colonies, but they showed her respect, and they received her blessing.”
“Make a special place for the next queen in your union of worlds, and she will be a symbol that makes the union even stronger.”
“She will encourage the binders to serve the leaders of the union, for the benefit of all Fiklow.”
“What about the Jiku worlds,” asks one of the leaders.
“What are your demands for them?”
“I have no demands, but the Jiku will make their own discoveries in technology and energy binding, just as you will.”
“You see my strength, and I am Jiku.”
“Are you so powerful that you need no help, no friends, no allies?”
“Accept the Jiku as members of your union.”
“You will be stronger for it, and better able to crush your enemies.”
“Joining with the Jiku, and end the war between you, forever.”
“We will consider your suggestions,” they say, “but what about today’s ceremony?”
“Who will you choose to honor?”
“I will take three traditionalists from the planetary leaders, and three who are not traditionalists.”
“Plus one military leader, and one religious leader.”
“Let each group choose its representatives.”
“Those who are not chosen can form a great circle around those who carry the body, and swim with them.”
“This was never done in the past!” protests one traditionalist.
“I am the queen’s death shadow,” I answer.
“Will you disobey me?”
“No,” she answers.
“Is this method fair to the rest of you?” I ask.
“It’s fair enough,” they answer.
“Take one hour,” I say, “to decide who from each group will represent you.”
“Otherwise, I will choose.”
The Curse of Possibility
The chosen Fiklow carry the queen’s body around the crystal forest eight times.
The other leaders swim around them.
With each circle, the queen’s body glows brighter, until we can’t look directly at it.
When the circles are complete, I find an open space in the crystal forest, near the queen’s favorite crystal tree.
I let the glow of my eyes and body mix with her own glow, and the body hardens.
Then, a mist of yellow energy rises up from the crystal forest, in a small funnel.
The must spins around the body, absorbing the body’s light.
Then the yellow energy enters the mouth, and fills the body, transforming it into yellow crystal.
A single clear tone is heard, as the transformation to crystal is complete.
The guests leave for their own worlds, except for one.
“Lord Yagrin,” says Keesha, “you remember Vendik?”
“She leads the council of the largest of the Fiklow worlds.”
I wrap two tentacles with her.
“I wanted to compliment you, Lord Yagrin,” she says, “on your strategy today.”
“You included candidates from all the major factions, and even forced us to choose our own representatives.”
“Thank you, Vendik.”
“The old ways say that you will die when the new queen is born.”
“If true, this is a great waste of talent.”
“Of course,” she continues, “I’ve heard that you are no stranger to death, and that you are too slippery for death to hold for long.”
“It’s true,” answers Makish.
“You know I don’t follow the old ways,” says Vendik, “so all this is difficult to believe.”
“Still, we’ve all seen the impossible, today.”
“The whole planet is reborn, and flesh is turned into stone.”
“What’s one more wonder, compared with that?”
“If you survive the queen’s birth,” she says, “come visit me for a few days, and ask commander Keesha to bring the old Jiku ship.”
“I’m a student of history, and I’d love to see a ship that survived from the time of the great war.”
“Thank you for the invitation Vendik,” I say, “but I think we’ll be returning home soon.”
“I’m needed there.”
She gestures reluctant agreement, and departs.
I return to Keesha’s ship.
“Lord Yagrin, says Fwitay, we still need to discuss the danger from the seven towers.”
“The danger has passed, Fwitay,” I answer.
“The artifact is repaired, and safely hidden, so the Fiklow are safe.”
“I’ll be sorry to say goodbye,” says Fwitay, “but I have no excuse to keep you with us anymore.”
“You forget about the new queen, Fwitay,” says Keesha.
“Lord Yagrin’s duties as shadow are not finished.”
“He must stay on Gunal for the birth of the next queen.”
“Keesha,” I answer, “I don’t need to wait on Gunal.”
“Send Fwitay to my world, to get me when the new queen is found.”
“I can’t come to get you, Lord Yagrin,” he says.
“The trip would kill us both.”
“Kill us?” asks Makish.
“Yes,” he answers.
“When we travel from one universe to another, we enter the possibility sea.”
“It’s a place full of strange energy that we don’t understand.”
“The possibility sea has already touched me twice, Lord Yagrin.”
“Once when I traveled to your world, and once, when we returned.”
“You seem completely healthy, Fwitay.”
“I am,” he says.
“Twice seems harmless, at least as far as we can tell.”
“In our first test, a ship entered the possibility sea, and returned home without entering another universe.”
“When this was successful, the same crew repeated the test, several times in quick succession.”
“They died painfully, within days.”
“The possibility sea weakens the energy bodies, and they decay, like salt that falls in the ocean.”
“There is no spirit left to journey to the next world.”
“Even you, Lord Yagrin,” says Fwitay, “wouldn’t survive this.”
“When the crews died, we concluded that the travel is deadly, and testing stopped for twenty cycles.”
“Eventually the testing was restarted, and we discovered that it’s the third contact with the sea that kills.”
“You touched the possibility sea, Lord Yagrin, on your journey here, and, you can pass once more through the sea, on your way home.”
“After that, you can never enter the sea again, or you die.”
“Either way, you will be lost to us, forever.”
“I assumed you knew about the danger, Lord Yagrin.”
“The Jiku have had the drive far longer than us.”
“They must have discovered this death.”
“They may know of it,” I answer, “but I never studied the technology.”
“I had no need for it.”
“Besides, it’s possible the Jiku are immune to the effect.”
I smell his discomfort.
“After the Fiklow died,” he answers, “we conducted tests with the Jiku to see if they would be similarly affected.”
“They all died after the third contact.”
“I’ll assemble a new crew to take you home,” he adds, “after the birth of the new queen.”
“How long will it take to find a new queen, Keesha?” I ask.
“The first females to be tested, will arrive on Gunal within a day,” she answers.
“In the past, a new queen was found within a week of the old queen’s death, but in those times, females prepared themselves for the test.”
“Without that preparation, I don’t know if anyone will be found worthy.”
“I have a suggestion, Lord Yagrin,” says Keesha.
“Visit your choice of the fourteen Jiku worlds, while you wait for a queen to be found.”
“A wonderful use of my time,” I respond, “but I’d also like to visit your colony, where Fiklow and Jiku work together.”
I smell her happiness as I speak of her project.
“I have fought so hard to make it happen,” she says.
“It has great potential.”
“A new colony always struggles,” I tell her.
“This one has many enemies, Lord Yagrin.”
“If I can keep them away, the colony will grow much faster than normal, with easy access to resources on sea and land.”
“Time will teach us whether our two species can live together.”
“When can we leave, commander?” asks Makish.
“Fwitay and his crew will take you, as soon as you wish.”
“Tradition demands that you be guarded, so that nothing happens to you.”
“It’s possible for a new queen to be born without the help of the shadow, but her power of blessing is weak.”
“Is there a way for us to travel on the old Jiku ship?” asks Makish.
“I’d like to return to my own form.”
“We can tow the ship again,” says Fwitay.
“Or the ship can travel under its own power, and we’ll follow you.”
“The star drive has been reinstalled and optimized.”
“There are no weapons, but the ship will travel fast enough for your needs.”
“How will we know when you’ve found a new queen?”
“We’ve installed a message communicator that translates between Fiklow and Jiku sounds.”
“We’ll contact you as soon as a queen is found.”
“There’s one problem, Fwitay,” says Makish.
“Neither of us know how to pilot a ship.”
“You don’t need to,” he answers.
“The old Jiku ships were managed, and often piloted, by an artificial intelligence.”
“The ship’s intelligence is still present?”
“It appears intact,” says Fwitay, “but it refuses to communicate with us.”
“I assume that it recognizes us, and it’s following orders to ignore the enemy.”
“If you can’t activate the intelligence, message us, and we’ll tow you to the Jiku worlds.”
Fwitay and Keesha escort us, as Makish and I swim toward the transportation platform.
A tank rests on the platform.
In a moment we’ll enter the tank and return to the Jiku ship.
I feel a mind touch, and lower my wintzal.
“What, Makish?” I ask, annoyed.
“You know I don’t like to use the mind touch in front of the Fiklow.”
“Just wait until we’re alone on the Jiku ship.”
A strange voice invades my head, speaking the Fiklow language.
“Don’t go aboard the ship or you will die!”
I try to follow the touch back to its source, but the connection is gone, and the voice is silent.