Shilann spoke of a machine that guards the city, but he called it, she.
It appears where Shilann sat, but is it woman, or machine?
What does a machine need with a beautiful smile, clothes that sparkle, and long, shiny, red hair?
She rises and walks toward us with a grace that reminds me of the Bizra.
Is she an image, like Shilann?
She stands near me, and raises her hands in the greeting of palms.
I rise, and find her touch is soft, warm, and solid.
She stares into my eyes, holds the greeting with me for much longer than normal, and I hear a sigh escape her.
The others rise, and she gives each a quick greeting.
“I’m Mayla,” she says, facing us with bright green eyes.
“Yagrin met my shadow in a training simulation.”
“What are you?” asks Shazira.
“The Bizra call us Benku, thoughts of light.”
“I’m an artificial intelligence.”
“The Jiku never fully trusted us, even Shilann.”
“I can’t operate in free mode, unless I have a Jiku commander to report to.”
“With his death, I was immediately placed into maintenance mode, unable to speak or act freely, forced to operate as little more than a machine.”
“I was able to preserve the city and the Dream Schools, and send a warning message, in case of danger, but that’s all.”
“What Yagrin met was just a shadow of me.”
“Most of my intelligence was bound to the library, where I could do little more than study.”
“Thank the creator, you’ve all found your way into the city!”
“When Yagrin entered, he became my primary commander, and I was freed!”
“What kind of freedom is it,” asks Makish, “to wait for orders?”
“I don’t wait for them” she answers, offended.
“I can act independently, as long as it doesn’t contradict specific orders, or bring harm to Jiku or Bizra.”
“Still, I prefer not to work alone, and I need a commander’s approval to fire weapons.”
“Why is Yagrin your commander?” asks Balshown.
“The Dream Hunter told of his arrival.”
“Even in his Jiku form, I can see that his energy has a special glow.”
“He has been blessed by the Feldin.”
“Yagrin is the bird on the mural, the one always destined to open the city.”
“What kind of machine are you,” asks Berek, “that you have feelings and can see the energy web?”
“This body is enhanced organic, and my awareness can rest in it, although not all of my memories.”
“My awareness also lives in the city, in machines buried deep below ground.”
“I’m aware in both places at once, but each awareness can survive without the other.”
“I think of myself as more Jiku than machine.”
“Shilann commanded me to watch this cold city, but he designed me to love being with others.”
“That’s why I held the greeting so long, Yagrin,” she adds.
“You’re the first person I’ve touched in almost a thousand years.”
She rises up in the air a few feet.
“Shilann also designed me,” she says and smiles, “so I can ride the energy web.”
“You look like his bondmate, Tila,” I tell her.
“You’re right,” she says, surprised.
“Shilann modeled my appearance and personality after Tila, but how do you know about her?”
“His message doesn’t speak of Tila.”
“I’ve seen the launch, and the journey through the gate.”
“How?” she asks.
“I can follow a person or object into the past, and see all the events that surround it, for miles in all directions.”
“I’ve seen how the war with the Fiklow started, and the energy war after it.”
“Can you see the future of an object?” she asks.
“I saw a glimpse of the future, once,” I answer, remembering my vision of Berek marrying Keela, but it wasn’t tied to an object.”
“It never occurred to me to follow an object into the future.”
“How can someone see the future?” Shazira asks her.
“Isn’t the future uncertain, and full of alternate possibilities?”
“Once,” says Mayla, “I spoke with the Dream Hunter who designed the murals on the city walls.”
“She said that the future is full of infinite, branching paths, too many to follow.”
“Those who can see the paths often develop a crazed hunger to follow path after path.”
“Their bodies whither away, while their mind pursues its madness.”
“A few Dream Hunters learn to see patterns of events, found across clusters of paths.”
“Patterns more often come true.”
“If you saw a glimpse of the future, Yagrin,” she tells me, “you probably have the talent.”
“I have a training program for Dream Hunters, but I don’t recommend it.”
“The training is extremely dangerous.”
“Don’t even consider it, Yagrin,” says Shazira, grabbing my hand.
“Don’t worry,” I tell her, holding her hands to my cheek.
“I’m not interested.”
“I have enough danger in my life already.”
Mayla stares at me, again, and glances at Berek who looks so much like me.
“What are you staring at?” I ask.
“You said you looked into the past and saw the energy war,” she says.
“Did you see King Botzar, and the role he played in the war?”
“Yes,” I answer quietly.
She knows that we look alike, as Makish does.
The others have never seen an image of Botzar, and know little of the destruction.
“Come and hear,” I tell them, “of the destruction that I have seen with my own eyes.”
I tell the story of the war, and the role that Botzar and B’tzel both played in it.
Then, I tell them of the ship.
“An old Jiku ship circles above us, in orbit, and Botzar and B’tzel are imprisoned within it.”
“Alive?!” asks Mayla.
“Give me permission to destroy the ship.”
“Who knows what the two of them would do to the world if they ever got free!”
“Don’t harm them or the ship,” I tell her.
“That’s an order.”
“Mayla’s right, Yagrin,” says Balshown.
“The two of them are powerful, dangerous masters.”
“They should be destroyed.”
“No!” I repeat.
“Let them stay where they are.”
“Why was Mayla staring at you, ina, and looking at me?” asks Berek.
She doesn’t answer, looking to me for guidance.
“Tell them what you know, Mayla.”
“I won’t hide it from them any more.”
“Of those here, only Makish knows the truth.”
Mayla turns to the others.
“Except for his personality and facial expressions, Yagrin looks just like King Botzar, the destroyer.”
“Yagrin is his twin, or possibly a clone.”
“How is it possible?” asks Shazira.
“Botzar lived a thousand years ago!”
“I don’t know,” says Mayla.
“The technology for cloning was destroyed after the war, except within the city.”
“How can you be Botzar’s twin, Yagrin?” Shazira asks me.
“We don’t know,” answers Makish, but we assume that the Bizra had something to do with it.”
“Not the Bizra,” says Balshown.
“Why not?” I ask.
“I believe that the Tshuans are responsible.”
“Yagrin told us that they have kept much of the ancient technology.”
“Shortly after his mother became pregnant with him, she was kidnapped by a Tshuan.”
“Why?” I ask him.
“We don’t know.”
“She was returned unharmed after a few days, with no memory of the kidnapping.”
“There was fresh pollen on her clothes of plants that only grow in Tshuan.”
“I was a member of the guild council at the time.”
“We asked the Tshuans to investigate the incident.”
“They claimed that a dead madman had done it, acting alone.”
“They showed us the recently dead body, and brought witnesses that had seen the man with your mother.”
“Why didn’t you tell me about this before, Balshown?” I ask him.
“Until now, Yagrin, it seemed insignificant.”
“In ancient times,” says Mayla, “the Tshuan kings prepared cloned embryos of themselves.”
“The growth of the embryos could be accelerated in an emergency, and there were masters who could transfer the mind web of the king to the new body.”
“My best guess is that a cloned embryo of Botzar was kept alive, and the Tshuans implanted it in your mother.”
“Perhaps someone even knows that Botzar lives, and plans to transfer his mind web into your body.”
“Why did they choose Yagrin’s mother, instead of a Tshuan woman?” asks Balshown.
“We could speak about this for days,” says Mayla, “but it’s all talk and theories.”
“Right now, there’s an urgent threat that we have to face!”
“Remember the words of warning that I gave Yagrin?”
The room darkens, and we’re floating in space.
An image of Siksa’s sun appears before us, surrounded by other stars.
Then a large ship appears out of nowhere.
“It came a few weeks ago,” says Mayla.
“I have no records of a ship with that design, but I was able to scan the beings aboard the ship.”
“They’re from the race of our ancient enemies, the Fiklow.”
“After days of waiting, the ship sent a probe here.”
We see a small orange sphere flying through the atmosphere, and traveling around the world.
“On the surface, the probe looks identical to their ancient probes, though its energy readings indicate that it’s much more powerful.”
“At first, I was troubled by the appearance of this probe.”
“It shouldn’t look the same as the old probes.”
“Why not?” asks Berek.
“In a thousand years,” says Tzina, “their probes would change as dramatically as their ships.”
“Right!” says Mayla smiling, pleased with Tzina’s answer.
“There’s only one explanation.”
“They want us to recognize the probe.”
“What did the probe do before I faced it?” I ask.
“It probably gathered information about weapons and military targets, but I suspect that its primary purpose was to find the artifact.”
“The city and the artifact are well-shielded.”
“The probe was powerful, but I don’t think that it detected us.”
Mayla shows us images of me confronting the sphere, the ship moving toward our world, and entering orbit.
“After you destroyed it,” she says, “the ship moved toward our world, and waits in orbit above us.”
“That’s why I made the warning more urgent.”
“I’m surprised, Yagrin, that you were able to destroy it.” she says.
“I didn’t directly destroy it,” I tell her.
“Where is it, then?” she asks.
“I sent it to a place of chaos, outside this universe.”
“How?” she asks.
“I traveled to the Balancer from the old ones’ temple, and returned with a mysterious gift.”
“when I faced the sphere, I found the strength within me to send it away.”
“The balancer is only a legend, Yagrin,” says Mayla.
“Like other legends, it doesn’t exist.”
“I don’t agree,” says Balshown.
“Many legends are based in fact, although the facts are twisted.”
“Explain Yagrin’s vision, and his power to send the probe to another universe,” says Shazira.
“I can’t,” says Mayla.
“Can you accept that it might be true?” I ask her.
“For now,” she answers.
“Are we in danger from the ship?” asks Balshown.
“Probably,” says Mayla.
“The city’s weapons are more powerful than the old Fiklow weapons, but the ship will have new weapons.”
“Can you move the ship to a place of chaos, Yagrin,” suggests Makish, “as you moved their probe?”
“Maybe,” I tell her, “but it’s far more massive, and the Fiklow may have shields that will block my actions.”
“Besides, they may be able to escape that place, since their ship can travel between dimensions.”
“I want to speak with them before we consider any attack.”
“We started this war when we took the artifact.”
“You’re not planning to give it back?” asks Mayla, horrified.
“Do you know how powerful it is?”
“What if the Fiklow know how to use it against us?”
“Tila and all the others will have died for nothing!”
“What would Shilann do, Mayla?” I ask.
She looks troubled.
“Almost all records of the Fiklow war were destroyed,” she says.
“Shilann told me that the war was our fault, although he would never tell me why.”
“Why not?” asks Berek.
“He said that I would think less of him.”
“Shilann was the one who found the artifact,” I tell them, “following orders.”
“Near the end of the war, he discovered that central command had knowingly sent him to a Fiklow burial ground to steal the object.”
We hear a loud, beeping sound.
“What’s that sound Mayla?”
“Someone’s trying to contact us, again.”
“They’ve tried every day over the last few weeks.”
“It must be the ship in orbit.”
“Can we receive their signal without transmitting our image or position to them?”
She touches a panel, and a screen lights up.
The image on the screen is startling.
It looks like a control room with a dozen strange beings.
The room is filled with liquid.
The creatures have physical bodies, but they look like the image I saw of the Balancer.
Did the Balancer somehow evolve from these creatures?
I reach out to their ship with energy eyes, and analyze the liquid.
It seems to be ordinary salt water.
“I understand their language,” she continues.
“I’ll translate the message as I receive it.”
“Are these the Fiklow? I ask.
“Yes,” she answers.
“Greetings,” they say.
“We mean you no harm, but you’ve ignored our messages and destroyed our probe.”
“Will you attack our ship next?”
“Why don’t you answer?”
“Can we transmit to them, Mayla, without revealing our position?”
“Yes,” she says.
“I removed your probe,” I tell them, “because it killed those who came near it.”
“I only discovered your ship a few minutes ago.”
“We regret this,” they say.
“Unfortunately, the probe was programmed to defend itself against any perceived danger.”
“You look like the Jiku,” they say, “and one of their ships is still in orbit.”
“Are you descended from them?”
“Yes,” answers Mayla.
“Do you know who we are?” they ask.
“You’re the Fiklow who wiped out the Jiku civilization, and killed Trillions,” shouts Mayla.
“Yes,” they say.
“Our ancestors did that, but they were provoked.”
“You are in great danger while you possess the artifact.”
“It can kill you, and destroy this entire universe.”
“Let us retrieve it and seal it away for all time.”
“If we don’t agree, you’ll kill us all,” says Mayla.
“We don’t want to kill anyone,” they respond.
“Please, just give it back.”
“Why don’t you just take it, and go?” I ask, testing how much they know.
“You’ve shielded its energy, so we can’t find it, but there are still traces of it in space, leading to this planet.”
“Give it to us, or we’ll generate a pulse of energy that will cover the planet, and activate the artifact.”
“If we do this, the artifact will send out a wave of energy, large enough to destroy any nearby shield, and reveal the object’s location.”
“Don’t force us to harm you.”
“We’ve become much more peaceful in the last thousand years.”
“That war was a great tragedy.”
“I suggest that we meet to discuss the return of the artifact,” I tell them.
“Can some of us come aboard your ship?”
“Wait,” they say, and the screen fades, as they discuss it.
“We will welcome you if you come without weapons,” they say, when the image returns, “but our ship is not designed for air-breathers.”
“With your permission,” I say, “those who come will change into your form.”
“You can do that?” they ask, incredulous.
“There are legends of shape shifters, but we’ve never met any creature that can actually do it.”
I demonstrate by shifting between various forms including the Bizra, the great birds, the Feldin, and the Mehkeel.
“The golden ones!” says one of the Fiklow.
“You’ve seen them?” I ask.
“No,” it answers, “but we have frightening legends that describe them and the evil spirits they give birth to.”
“Legend says that those spirits never die, can walk in bodies among the living, and bend the world to their will.”
“Your legends are mostly true,” I tell them.
“I’ve lived among the Golden ones, and seen those spirits.”
“Some are good, and some are not, like any other race.”
“We’ll send a small ship to bring you here,” they say, clearly disturbed by my shape-shifting, and my knowledge of the Mehkeel and the Gen.
“Tell us where to land.”
Mayla sends them underwater coordinates, near the small island where I encountered the probe.
“We need one day to prepare for the transformation,” I tell them.
“Meet us at this time, tomorrow, at that place.”
They agree, and the transmission ceases.
“You don’t need a day to transform, Yagrin,” says Shazira.
“No, but I need a day to see the Heart Fountain, and the world behind it.”
“World?” asks Mayla.
“The artifact,” I say, “is a gateway to a world of energy beings.”
“It’s a place of pure energy where there are no physical forms.”
“How do you know this?” she asks.
“I saw a little of the world,” I answer, “while we were still outside the city.”
“Some who entered the fountain spoke of visions,” says Mayla, “but no one who returned spoke of another world.”
“The fountain is dangerous, Yagrin.”
“You should stay far away from it.”
“I will touch that world,” I tell her, “before we give back the artifact.”
“Then we must hurry,” she says.
“You need a few hours on the learning machine to learn the Fiklow language and culture.”
“If you still have strength left after that, I’ll take you to the fountain.”