“Continue the training, Tzina,” I tell her.
“It’s time for us to enter the network.”
“Not yet,” she answers, “but my fire twin will join you briefly for the next step.”
Tzina and Shazira go back to their nests, and I send Berek away.
I don’t want him to watch while I dissolve my body.
I flow it into water and air.
The pattern body disappears a few minutes later.
The change happens so quickly that there’s no pain, but I’m disoriented for a moment.
Then, I’m filled with sadness, a sense of loss, and the smell of decay that comes with dead flesh.
The smell of death fills me whenever I release my body.
It makes no sense, since my body just vanishes, but fortunately it passes quickly.
The crystal staff and the eighteen wheels of energy are visible, brighter than ever.
It only takes me an instant to synchronize the wheels to the desired speed.
The outside world slows down, as I speed up, and Shazira and Tzina’s twins arrive.
A fire twin has the shape of a Jiku body, but it’s pure energy.
It has a gentle glow, except for the seven energy wells within it that burn brightly.
My fire body looks different than the twin.
It’s egg-shaped, and not remotely humanoid, except for two flaming eyes.
I have the same seven energy wells, but they’re hidden behind bright streams of color that spin through the body.
“Is that you, Yagrin?” asks Shazira.
Masters can see the fire body with their energy senses, but the senses of the fire twins are far more sensitive.
Shazira has never seen a fire body this clearly.
“Of course,” I answer, flying around her.
“No time for playing,” says Tzina.
“I have to train you, then leave as quickly as possible.”
“There are many types of networks,” she adds.
“The simplest networks carry packets of energy along thin rivers of metal or other materials.”
“Information and commands float on the energy, and control machines connected to the network.”
“The networks are protected by physical barriers and codes that hide or compress information and block commands.”
“It’s much easier to disrupt or destroy these networks than extracting information or taking control of machines.”
“Other networks use an energy field like an artificial web.”
“You need to learn how to discover a network’s command structure, decode the way that information is hidden, and overcome any traps or dangers on the networks.”
“That’s impossible, without some knowledge of the network,” I tell her.
“Difficult, yes,” she answers, “but not impossible.”
“How?” asks Shazira.
“Your conscious mind can’t do it, even with your current speed.”
“There are many ways of looking for patterns, breaking unknown codes, encoding information, and finding or setting barriers and traps.”
“Mayla downloaded thousands into my unconscious mind, and showed me how to give them to you.”
“Once the algorithms are loaded, you just clear your mind, focus on the network or energy structure, and what you want.”
“For example, you could say to yourself: Find commands and codes.”
“If there’s particular information or commands that you want, focus on that.”
“You’ll know when you’ve succeeded.”
“You’ll get a feeling, or a sound, followed by some kind of image that will let you access what you requested.”
“When will you give us the algorithms?”
“I did it several days ago, when your mind shields were down.”
Tzina stretches out her energy arms wide, and ten networks appear through the cave, each one about twenty-three feet wide.
Some have pathways of light like fiber optics, others direct energy along fixed paths using wires, or other methods, and a few look like clouds of energy.
“Find out how to control the networks, and access the knowledge hidden within them!”
“You’ll face many challenges, including hostile AIs during your training.”
“The last network, directly over my circle, is the only one that you should be in together.”
“The final network I’ve built for you is like the network in the city, where Mayla lived.”
“It’s a web of energy that fills space.”
“An AI can live within the artificial web, and draw energy from the network.”
“You make it sound like an energy being!” says Shazira.
“Yes, the most advanced AIs are artificial energy beings that can live within special energy environments that power them.
“Mayla stored backup copies of her memories and intelligence outside the network, but within the network she was an energy being.”
“Like us, the AIs can jump faster than light between places on the network.”
“Could Mayla do that?” asks Shazira.
“How is the network protected against unauthorized AIs?” asks Shazira.
“Mayla’s network was secured with energy locks, patterns that pass through the network and disrupt unauthorized movement or jumps.”
“There’s additional protection at the edge of the network, where it connects with machines, weapons, information libraries.”
“Why couldn’t Mayla overcome the alien AI?” I ask her.
“I don’t know.”
“Maybe it was faster than her, or had better algorithms that it used to quickly decipher the locks.”
“Can we scan the networks before we enter, to learn about them?” asks Shazira.
“Of course,” says Tzina, “but eventually you’ll need to enter each one.”
“They’re not very big,” says Shazira.
“They’re built of energy or tiny structures of matter,” answers Tzina.
“The size of the network doesn’t matter, any more than the size of the fire twin.”
She compacts her twin’s energy to a space, one-thousandth of an inch long, and hovers outside of one of the networks.
“Place your awareness at your heart center and pull at the edges of your body to make yourself small.”
We struggle at first, but soon we shrink ourselves, and hover near her.
“How small can we become?” asks Shazira.
“You can go smaller, but no one knows just how small,” answers Tzina.
“Besides, if you go smaller than this, the fire twin becomes unstable, and soon dissolves.”
“Where do we begin, Tzina?” asks Shazira.
“Oodah, start with this network.”
“Ina will pick another.”
“When you’ve both mastered all the networks, return to your physical bodies.”
Tzina’s twin dissolves, and leaves us to train.
The Tenth Network
It takes us weeks to master each network, discover its secrets, disable its defenses, and overcomes its AIs.
In some of the networks we’re able to cut off the AI from the network and its energy.
The AI slows down, and we destroy it or enslave it.
Twenty years pass before we’re ready to enter the last network together.
It reminds me of the great web, except for the energy barriers and locks.
There are periodic bursts of energy, like lightning, that erupt through the network, to remove excess energy.
The AI that we face looks like Mayla, but she treats us as enemies, refusing to speak with us.
As fast as we break through the energy locks and disrupters, she creates new patterns that block us.
“It’s great practice,” says Shazira.
“We’ve broken through hundreds of codes, and defended ourselves against dozens of attacks.”
“With all this effort, we’ve only taken control of a small piece of the network, and that’s with two of us fighting.”
“What good is this training if we can’t find a way to overcome the AI?”
“We should give up and go back to our bodies.”
“Not yet,” I tell her.
“The answer is here, but just outside of conscious awareness.”
“How will we find it?” asks Shazira.
“Follow Tzina’s advice.”
“Ask the question and listen carefully for the answer, in whatever form it takes.”
“How do we conquer this network?.”
We struggle against Mayla’s shadow while we wait for the answer.
“There’s no answer, Shazira.”
“You’re wrong,” she says.
“I saw an image of the night sky, Yagrin, full of stars, bright and dim, large and small.”
“There was one black spot in the sky, swallowing all the others.”
“Maybe it refers to the ekrisa, the star heart within me.”
“That’s not it,” says Shazira.
“I can tell.”
We’re silent, and distracted by finding the solution.
The AI takes advantage of this, and recaptures some of the area we control.
“The stars are unimaginably far apart in space,” I say at last, “although they seem to be together.”
“Their brightness and size are vastly different to our eyes, but the image lies.”
“Their true brightness and size are hidden from us.”
“The stars are also separated in time.”
“The images we see are from different ages, because the speed of light is limited.”
“One star is from 50 years ago, and another 200 years in the past.”
“So?” asks Shazira.
“We must go smaller and faster.”
“Then we’ll live in a different world than the AI and the locks, separate in time and space.”
“Their energy won’t be able to affect us.”
“If they can’t touch us, then how will we affect them?” asks Shazira.
“How will we take control of the network and its resources?” asks Shazira.
“When we focus our compact energy, it will pull at them like a black hole.”
“We’ll destroy the AI and the locks.”
“Then we’ll return to our current size and speed, with nothing left in the network to stop us.”
“We must do it all quickly, before we become unstable.”
“How small do we go?” asks Shazira.
“Make yourself a thousand times smaller, and cover yourself with an energy shield.”
“Jump to the center of each lock, disrupter, and even the AI, itself.”
“Focus your energy on them, and move around.”
“We’ll tear them apart.”
“Then quickly return to this size before you dissolve.”
“How do I get faster?” asks Shazira.
“A fire body or twin has great strength.”
“When we concentrate this power in a small enough space, it starts to warp time.”
We shrink ourselves as I suggested, and the world seems to come to a complete stop.
We can still jump, and we shatter the locks and AI as I planned.
I don’t know how we can still jump, perceive energy instantaneously, and think at this speed, but we do.
When we’re done, I see Shazira grow in size, and come to a stop.
A distant voice and cloudy images fill my mind, but they’re not from Shazira.
“Do you see or hear anything strange?” I ask her.
“Something’s moving through my mind.”
“Wait for me, while I listen to it.”
Is this another message from the unconscious, answering some question I didn’t know that I asked?
The images come into focus when I give them my attention.
The first image shows Mayla floating in space, with Siksa visible far below.
“Welcome, Yagrin,” she says.
“Don’t try and speak to me.”
“This is only a memory, a message.”
“These memories are only for you, hidden among the algorithms that Tzina planted in your mind.”
“If you see this, then you’ve found a way to conquer the last challenge.”
“I believed it was possible, based on a vision that showed you challenging me in the network, and destroying me.”
“At first, I thought you might be a threat.”
“Then I realized that certain details showed that the vision was of a simulation.”
“I’m not the Mayla you know.”
“She and I are twins, though she doesn’t know I exist.”
“We separated long ago, to ensure that we survive, even if she is destroyed.”
“On her own, she would never have trained Tzina in Mind Twisting, and given her the algorithms that you used to fight the AIs.”
“I commanded Mayla to ignore the danger, prepare Tzina, and be untroubled by her actions.”
“She thought it was her own idea.”
“This message is done, Yagrin, and your energy body will generate a signal that I’ll recognize.”
“When the time is right, I’ll contact you directly.”
“Tell no one else what you’ve seen.”
The image fades.
“What was it, Yagrin?” asks Shazira.
“A strange image from my unconscious.”
“I’ll figure out what it means later.”
She knows I’m hiding something, but she lets it go.
“Are you ready to return now?” I ask her.
“To our old life?!”
“We were shadows there, compared to the power we have in this form.”
Her words trouble me, but I understand.
I feel different too, so free, so far away from the physical world.
“Someday, we’ll live as energy, Shazira, but now the children and the Jiku need us!”
“Stop lying to me, Yagrin.”
“I can’t go back.”
“When I die, I’ll be gone, and she’ll wake up.”
“Why can’t she sleep for an hour, so I can have this life?”
“Don’t think of it like that,” I tell her.
“When you dissolve the fire twin, you’ll awake in your body with memories of this place, and our life will continue.”
“I’m going to die, Yagrin, not dissolve!”
“You call me Shazira, but you know that I’m only a copy of her.”
“You don’t trust me, because you think that I’ll harm her.”
It’s true, but how can I admit it.
“You don’t understand,” she says, frustrated.
“I have all her memories and emotions, and I’m as much your bondmate as she is.”
“I feel what you feel, and I can’t bear the thought of losing you.”
“Shazira needs to learn how to fight in the network.”
“That’s why she sent you here!”
She pauses, and looks distracted.
“I gave her the memories she needs.”
“We’ve been training here for twenty years.”
“My years as a twin will end, but you don’t age.”
“Can’t you spend some time with me?”
I don’t answer.
“Why would you ever return to her?” she asks, upset.
“Her physical body makes her so weak!”
What would happen if the twin killed Shazira’s body?
Would the twin’s consciousness survive in the fire body?
I can’t trust her.
“I’m sorry,” I tell her.
Then I shatter her energies.
I feel her pain, the sense of betrayal, for just an instant before she’s gone.
The world is so quiet and lonely.
I feel sick, like I actually killed my bondmate.
The twin was as real, as alive, as Shazira.
I turn from these thoughts, jump to a place above my circle, resize myself, and dissolve the networks.
Then I build new physical and pattern bodies.
I wake in my Jiku body and find Tzina.
“What about the tenth network?”
“Did you find a way to overcome the AI?”
“We discovered it together.”
I tell Tzina about the image of stars that the twin saw, and what we did.
“Did the twin resist when the time came to dissolve herself?”
I don’t give a real answer.
“She’s gone, and I’m here,” I tell Tzina.
“That’s all that matters now.”
Tzina hugs me, and doesn’t let go.
“It’s all right, ina.”
“You had to do it to protect oodah.”
“I could have stayed with the twin until she dissolved.”
“Instead I killed her.”
I pull away, and Shazira joins us.
She gives me a strange look, and there’s a hint of fear in her when I connect with her feelings.
“Are you all right?” I ask her.
“I guess so.”
“The twin gave me the key memories of the networks, just as we planned, but she added something else.”
“I have her thoughts and emotions from just before she died.”
“It’s like I was there with you.”
“Let me explain, Shazira.”
“She loved you, and you betrayed her.”
“You killed her!”
“He had to do it,” says Tzina.
“The longer the twin lives, the more distant become her memories of the physical world, and the less she cares about you!”
“Eventually she would have driven you insane, or killed you.”
“Do you blame her?” asks Shazira.
“We treat her like a slave, allowing her to live only as long as it pleases us.”
“We ask her to give up her life and her bondmate.”
“The emotions of the bond are still present in the twins, probably stronger because the twins are pure energy.”
“How can we expect them to abandon each other and kill themselves?!”
Shazira looks at me.
“I don’t know if it was necessary to kill her, Yagrin.”
“Maybe after several years with you, the twin might have tried to hurt me.”
“Think about this — at the moment you killed her, she thought of me as her sister, and meant me no harm.”
“She just wanted you to stay with her.”
“It was all for nothing!” she says.
“I won’t create a twin again to fight in the networks, and then die for me.”
“You’ll fight alone, Yagrin.”
Shazira turns away, and flies back to her circle, away from us.
I rise to follow her.
“Let her go, ina.”
“We’ll leave the cave in the morning.”
“She wants to be alone until then.”
“How do you know?”
“Her mind shield is down, and her thoughts are like thunder.”
“I don’t have to listen, to hear them.”
“She feels responsible for the death of the twin.”
“How do you bear the guilt, Tzina?”
“The sorrow at killing your double and other innocent beings in the simulations.”
“I keep thinking about what I did to the twin.”
“I understand, but you can’t let it drag you down.”
“Oodah is still here, and the twin’s memories are part of her.”
“Besides, we’ll have to kill again in the coming war, and you’ll be useless in battle if you agonize over every death.”
“Killing enemies is different.”
“Are you sure?”
“What if you have to wipe out a city to stop the aliens?”
“There are always innocents lost in a war.”
“I don’t know if I can do it.”
“When the Jiku are threatened, you’ll do it, ina.”
“I wish we weren’t done with the training.”
“I need to keep busy, and get away from my thoughts.”
“There is one more weapon I can give you, but Mayla said I shouldn’t.”
“What, Mind Twisting?”
“No, but you’re not far off.”
“I can show you ways to protect yourself when your mind shield is weak, damaged, or gone.”
“I thought the shield is impenetrable.”
“It will stop a Mind Weaver, but not a Mind Twister.”
“Nothing is perfect, ina.”
“There are subtle weak spots in every shield.”
“Mind Twisters learn how to find them, and force their way through.”
“There are no Mind Twisters but you.”
“Yes, among the Jiku here on Siksa, but who knows what the aliens can do?”
“There are other dangers.”
“Everyone lowers their shield sometimes, and if you take a pure energy form, a mind shield won’t protect you.”
“What can you show me?”
“I can show you how to reinforce the weak spots in your shield.”
“Then, I’ll show you how to raise a temporary shield that will protect a fire twin’s mind.”
“I don’t take the form of a fire twin, when I let go of my physical body.”
“I know, but I think the shield will still work for you.”
“Shape the dream, and we’ll train.”
“That’s why the training is dangerous.”
“I can’t build a game for it.”
“We have to do it for real, or not at all.”
“Tzina, there’s only a few hours before night comes.”
“Let’s get started.”
We stand together in Tzina’s circle, at the center of the cave.
“The mind shield is not made of stone,” she says.
“Anything made of energy is always in motion.”
“The movement of energy through the shield keeps it strong.”
“Parts of the shield automatically reshape themselves, to re-balance it.”
“It takes only a fraction of a second, but the shield is weaker in those places, while the change is happening.”
“A Mind Twister can anticipate the change and attack you at the exact instant.”
“I’m not a Mind Twister.”
“No, and I can’t teach you how to sense the changes in someone else’s shield.”
“But I can teach you to feel when and where the change is coming in your own mind shield, and raise an additional energy shield around those points.”
“Still, we don’t have much time.”
“Raise your shield and lose yourself in its rhythms until you move with the energy, and sense when it needs re-balancing.”
“Let me know when you’re ready to continue.
It takes too long to find the rhythms, and it’s too hard to stay with them.
I don’t have days to learn to do this.
I move to Gen speed, a thousand times faster.
I watch every change, let the rhythms fill me.
Soon, I can anticipate the change, and quickly raise the shield.
I do it a few times.
Then I slow down my mind to Jiku speed, and repeat it.
Tzina launches little attacks against my weak spots.
She’s faster than I am, and the attacks sting.
I’m tempted to speed up, but I resist the urge.
I have to be able to defend myself in all situations.
It takes me thirty minutes of practice until I can consistently block her mental attacks.
Then she adds attacks on my body — bursts of energy, and flowing the air around me into objects.
At first, I can’t keep up with it all, and the sting returns.
“Even you can’t do so much with your conscious mind, ina.”
“Let your unconscious mind do what needs to be done.”
“Something within you knows what to do.”
“Find a way to direct your intention inward, and then let go.”
“The way is different for each of us.”
An image comes to me of the seven energy wells.
I cast my intention into the wells as spheres of lightning that spin within the chaos.
She attacks again, and I am full of energy hands that reach out and dissolve the objects, while I stay focused on the mind shield.
My focus comes and goes, but finally it holds steady, and Tzina increases the strength of her mind attacks.
They would do more than sting, if they reached me, but I block each one.
“Open your mind shield, ina, so I can show you how to protect the twin.”
She shows me how to shape an energy shield that will protect the twin’s mind.
Once built, the shield seems to have no pattern, so it can’t be shattered from the outside.
“It takes a lot of energy to hide the pattern, ina, so you won’t be able to maintain the shield for more than a minute at a time.”
“Let’s practice again with the mind shields, ina.”
Tzina attacks with even more power this time.
More objects, more distractions.
My focus holds, as the strength within me rises to protect me.
She raises a sword against me, and I shape one to defend myself.
Tzina smiles in the midst of her attack, happy at my success.
I’m almost caught in her smile, and I barely manage to defend my mind shield.
My emotions will bury me, if I’m not careful.
In the midst of it all, I hear Berek’s voice.
“Dilasa is gone, and night is almost here.”
My heart is caught, and Tzina’s mental attack breaks through.
The world unravels and I feel myself melting into darkness.
I hear a sweet sound, and a voice that says, “come.”
I reach out, as the world ends.