“Prince Ilaz!” says Siya, the director of the research center.
She’s about seventy years old, middle age for the Jiku.

“Director Siya, you’re still alive!”

She laughs.
“You know I’m not that old.”
“I missed you.”
“I haven’t seen you in over ten years.”
“You stopped coming, and then I heard you were in a waking coma.”

“I recovered.”
“Sorry I never visited or messaged you.”

“Do you have a hug for an old friend?”

He hugs the older woman.

“I never expected you to hang around here like you used to.”
“You were a boy of fifteen when you last came here.”
“When your strength returned, you were grown up.”
“I wasn’t sure if you remembered your old life.”

“I still love the sea,” he says, “but I’ve been busy with other things.”
“And I’m not a prince anymore.”
“The kingdom is gone.”

“It’s terrible what happened.”
“I don’t trust the Kizak, but I would love to examine them and see how they’re different than us.”

“Always the scientist.”

“Tell me.”
“Why have you come now?”
“Are you in trouble with the Kizak?”

“I haven’t fought against them or the new government.”
“But I’ve been staying out of sight.”
“And I heard a rumor that a strange sea creature was captured.”
“I knew you must be involved somehow.”

She smiles.
“It’s an incredible find, Ilaz.”
“One of my colleagues suggested that we caught one of the dragons from the Bizra stories.”
“I think that’s ridiculous.”
“There’s no sign that they ever existed.”
“In any case, the creature isn’t doing well.”
“I don’t think we can keep it alive much longer.”

They enter a room with dim light.
It contains a large tank, with walls of transparent metal.
“We sedated the creature when we first captured it.”
“Then, when it awoke in the center, we had to put it to sleep again.”
“It was frantic, and let loose with an energy burst that broke the walls of the first tank.”
“We moved it here.”
“These walls are strong enough to resist the energy blasts, but we still have to keep it sedated most of the time.”
“When it’s awake, it barely eats, and it rams the walls, trying to break free.”
“I think we should return it to the water, where we found it.”

Hukal will die if he goes back in the water now.
He’ll try to get back to the city, but he won’t reach it in time.

“Let me work with the creature, director.”
“May I can calm him down, and get him to eat.”

“How do you know it’s male?”
“We can’t tell.”

“Just a hunch.”

“We don’t have much time, Ilaz.”
“You’re not the only one who knows about it.”
“The Tshuan government contacted us the morning after we captured the dragon, and brought the Kizak emperor to see it.”
“The Kizak have an irrational fear of the ocean, but they’re fascinated to look at sea life when it’s contained in tanks.”
“The emperor stared at the creature for a few minutes, and asked me many questions about it.”
“When he heard about the energy blasts, he suggested we dissect the creature to learn how it does it.”
“Something strange happened.”
“Right after he said that, the creature started ramming the tank.”
“The emperor looked frightened for a moment, and left the room.”
“One thing is clear, Ilaz.”
“If we keep the dragon much longer, it will die or be killed.”

“At least let me try to get it to eat.”
“It’s too weak now to survive in the wild.”

She brings Ilaz to a storage locker and gives him a diving suit that covers his whole body and face.
“This will protect you from the energy blasts.”

“I won’t use it,” says Ilaz.
“The suit will scare him.”

“Without the suit, the creature will crush you, if it rams you, and if the energy burst hits you, you’ll be knocked out and drown.”

“I’ll stay by the edge of the tank, away from him.”
“You can always sedate the creature and rescue me, if necessary.”

“It’s too dangerous.”

“Sea creatures always trust me.”
“Don’t you remember?”

“Yes, Ilaz.”
“They always came to you.”

“It’s your last chance to save a unique specimen.”

She calls her staff to the room.
They position themselves around the tank, equipped with tranquilizer darts, ready to protect Ilaz.

“Is there a training panel in the tank?” asks Ilaz.
The panel can display symbols or images, and is used to train the creatures that perform in public shows.

“We already tried it.”
“The creature was excited by it at first, but not anymore.”

Ilaz types “Be calm. Ilaz is here,” into the panel’s control program, as Siya looks over his shoulder.

“You must be joking!” she says.
“Even if the creature is intelligent it won’t know our language.”

“Maybe not, but I think he’ll recognize that it is language.”
“Wake him.”
“After he sees the panel, I’ll go in the water.”

Siya’s assistants give the dragon a counter agent to erase the effects of the sedative.
When the creature awakes it starts to move wildly.
Then it notices the training panel and stops.

“The dragon is quiet,” says Siya, astonished, “just like you expected.”
Ilaz slips into the water, so the creature can get a good look at his face.
He can’t risk speaking.
The scientists might hear him, and anyway, Hukal is good at reading lips.
“I came here to rescue you,” mouths Ilaz.
“The dragon shape will fall away in a day or two.”
“I’ll stay with you, and keep you safe until then.”

Hukal eats whatever food Ilaz offers, as long as it comes from his hands.

“You haven’t lost your touch, Ilaz,” says Siya.
“The creature is getting its strength back.”
“We’ll return it to the sea in a few more days.”

Ilaz sleeps in the tank room at night, and tells the center’s AI to wake him, if it detects any living thing in the tank beside the dragon.
The second night, Ilaz is woken by the AI, and jumps into the tank.
He pulls out the frightened Hukal, coughing and crying.

“Quiet, Hukal,” says Ilaz.
“I have to get you out of here before you’re seen.”

“I thought I’d never escape from the tank,” he whispers.
“The emperor told them to kill me.”

Ilaz dries off the boy, and gives him a packet of clothes that he prepared.
“Get dressed.”
“We leave in a few minutes.”

Hukal and Ilaz slip out of the center
They start walking.
Hukal struggles to speak.
“How far?” he asks at last.

“We’re going to a small house, two miles away.

“I can’t.”

Ilaz puts a transport belt on Hukal.
When he activates it, Hukal floats a few feet above the ground.
Ilaz takes hold of a rope attached to the belt, and starts walking.

The house is owned by the royal family, but rarely used.
Ilaz hasn’t been here since he was a boy.
“Stay here until I return,” he says.
“I’ll join you as soon as I can.”

Hukal looks into the entry scanner, which matches his retinal patterns with an authorization list.
When the doorway opens, he goes to a bedroom and lies down, exhausted.

Ilaz returns to the center, sets the autopilot on the center’s airship, and brings it to the location where Hukal was captured.
He lowers the specimen net into the water gently, as though he were releasing the dragon.
Then he returns to the center, and goes back to sleep.
A few hours later, Siya wakes him.

“Get up Ilaz.”
“There are government officials and guards here to take the dragon.”
“Where is it?”
“What did you do?”

“I released it in the middle of the night.”
“Check the ship’s log.”

“We were planning to do it today.”

“Someone at the center reported us to the government.”
“I was warned that the dragon would be killed and taken from us at first light.”
“I couldn’t let that happen.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Do you think I’m spying for the government?”

“I trust you, Siya, but I wanted to protect you.”
“Now you can say that I released the dragon without permission.”
“I don’t want you or the center to be blamed.”

The Science Bureau
Ilaz is brought into a room with a few guards and government representatives.

Siya introduces him to a man about her age.
“This is Commissioner Woen, head of the science bureau.”

“Prince Ilaz?” he asks.
“It’s good to see you.”
“You were reported dead in an airship crash.”

“At the last moment, I decided not to go with the sisters.”
“Instead, I went away from the cities and the fighting.”
“I wanted no part of it.”

“A wise choice.”
“The struggle is over, and Tshuan has joined the empire.”
“Come back to the capital city.”
“I think the council would like to find a role for the royal family if you’re willing to cooperate.”

“I assume you want me to recognize the new government, and accept the Kizak empire.”
“Everything that the queen refused to do.”

“Her arrogance resulted in the deaths of dozens of Tshuan guards.”

“What do you want from her now?”
“She paid for her poor judgement with her life!”

“You don’t know?”


“She’s unharmed, and Lord Berek the guild master is with her.”

“How is that possible?”
“You said there were many deaths!”
“Didn’t the government try to search the royal compound and the hills?”

“The new council authorized the Kizak to search for the suspected terrorist.”
“Many guards were killed during the battle with the Kizak, but the emperor told his troops not to harm the queen or Lord Berek.”

“What will happen to her?”

“For now, nothing.”
“She caused many deaths, but it’s hard to say what crime she committed.”

“She fought against the new council, didn’t she?”
“I’m sure they consider it a crime.”

“Yes, and the new leaders were chosen by the Tshuan people.”
“Still, the elections weren’t authorized under existing law, so some say that the queen had no responsibility to obey the council.”
“And when she sent her guards to defend Tshuan territory, technically she broke no law.”

“Where is she?”

“People demanded that the government punish her for the deaths of Jiku guards, but the government hesitated.”
“They thought it would tear the country apart.”
“The Kizak emperor suggested that the queen and Lord Berek be pardoned for any crimes they committed, and placed in protective custody.”
“The government agreed, and now, the two of them are being held in the royal compound.”
“They’re not allowed to travel, or have access to commdisks, to make sure they don’t cause any trouble.”

“Do you think I could see her?”

“Visits are restricted, but you could ask.”

“I can’t believe she’s still alive.”
“Thank the creator.”

“Forgive me, Prince Ilaz, but we need to talk about the creature.”
“Why did you release it?”

“It’s a unique, intelligent specimen, maybe the last of its kind.”
“It was dying in captivity, so I let it go.”
“What right do we have to kill it?”

“For someone who isn’t part of the center, you have unusual access to the facilities.”
“You worked here when you were a boy?”

“I came here often.”

“Director Siya says that the fish and creatures treat you differently from everyone else.”

“I love the sea, and the creatures sense it.”

“Did you ever think about becoming a scientist?”

“Yes, but my father wouldn’t allow it.”

“Too bad.”
“We all respected the king, but now that he’s gone, you should reconsider it.”

“I might.”
“Are there any other questions?”
“I’d like to visit my sister as soon as possible.”

“I’m sorry to have troubled you with this, Prince Ilaz.”
“I have enough information for my report.”
“The matter is closed.”

“I hope the center won’t suffer for my actions.”

“Don’t worry.”
“The director and her staff won’t be blamed.”

“Thank you.”

“Consider what I said about joining the government.”
“I think your presence would help heal the discord.”
“And the science bureau would gladly support a member of government who appreciates the value of research.”

“I understand.”

Woen gives Ilaz a comm id to contact, to request permission to visit Keela.
The delegation leaves, and Ilaz gets lost in his thoughts.

“Are you all right?” asks Siya.

“I’m just surprised to find out Keela is still alive.”
“I don’t trust the Kizak to let her live, but what can I do to help her?”

“Don’t do anything.”
“Go see her, and find out what she knows.”
“Maybe the situation is just as Woen said.”

“Good advice, as always, Siya.”
“It was wonderful to see you again,” he adds, getting up.
“It brings back so many good memories.”

“For me too.”
“This time, don’t wait so long, before you return.”
“We could plan an expedition to look for the dragon in the sea.”
“I think we could find a way to communicate with it there.”

“Maybe after I adjust to the new Tshuan.”
Ilaz hugs her, and walks away.

An Urgent Message
The house has a brightly colored dome, and sits on a tall hill, overlooking the sea.
When Ilaz enters, Hukal is sitting on a mat, surrounded by images from one of the history cubes.

“How do you feel?” asks Ilaz.

“It doesn’t matter.”
“I have to tell you something.”

“Answer my question first.”

Hukal sighs.
“I’m not weak, but I’m still nervous.”
“At least I can think now.”
“Please, let me talk.”

“Go ahead.”

“When I was in the tank, someone messaged the emperor.”
“He sent everybody out, so he could speak on a commdisk.”
“Two days from now, two minutes before midnight, a group of Jiku will attack the Tshuan building that holds the sisters.”
“They’ll throw fire bombs into the building, and seal the doors.”
“Everyone will die.”

“What about the guards?”

“They’ll be gone for fifteen minutes.”
“Four days later, at the same time, the same thing will happen in the guild lands.”

“Are you sure about the dates?”
“It’s really important.”

“I’m sure.”

“Why would Jiku do this?”

“I hear people talk in the center.”
“People are really scared of the sisters.”

“Enough to kill them?”

“Think about it.”
“The sisters are a thousand years old, and stronger than guild masters!”
“The infonet says they caused the energy wars.”
“Then hid so no one could punish them.”
“They waited for us to be weak so they could take over.”

“Do you believe that, Hukal?”

“No, but everyone talks about it on the infonet.”
“Even the emperor.”

My Jiku friends.
Give thanks to the creator for the gift of the cage.
It guards us all from the curse.
The sisters aren’t dangerous anymore.
Or the crazy ones with golden eyes.
Now they are the ones who need protection.”
We’ll keep them safe in guarded facilities until everyone calms down.”

“It’s all lies, Ilaz.”
“I heard the truth in the tank room.”
“The emperor wants the sisters dead.”
“But when it happens, he’ll say how sad it is.”
“He’ll pretend to mourn for the children.”
“It’s just an excuse to bring more soldiers.”

Ilaz hugs Hukal.
“I won’t let that happen.”

“The city and the sisters are so far away.”
“You’re not a dragon, and you can’t change into one.”
“How can you get help?”

“I have a way.”

Hukal gives Ilaz the locations of the buildings where the sisters are being kept.

“How did you get the locations?”
“Did the emperor mention them?”

“No,” says Hukal.
“I connected to the government’s private infonet.”
“Don’t worry.”
“They won’t be able to trace it.”
“Can we go now?”

“You can’t come with me, Hukal.”

“Why not?”

“It’s too dangerous.”

Ilaz goes by himself into the next room, and locks the entry screen.
He touches the wall to activate a control panel, records a message, and gives instructions to the house AI.

“What were you doing?” asks Hukal, when Ilaz returns.

“I have to go now.”

“To save the twins?”

“If I don’t come back by the morning of the seventh day, the house will tell you to go to the research center.”
“And Siya will get a message to expect you.”
“She’ll take care of you until it’s safe for the sisters to come for you.”

“Why wouldn’t you come for me?”

“Something might happen.”

Ilaz takes a necklace out of his pocket, and gives it to Hukal.
Hukal stares at it, resting in his hand.
The chain is a white precious metal that glows with a silver light.
A dark red crystal hangs at the end, in the shape of a fish.
The chain feels cool, and the stone, warm.

“It’s beautiful,” says Hukal, as he tries to hand it back.

Ilaz takes the necklace, and puts it on the boy.
“This was one of my favorite possessions,” says Ilaz, “a gift from Siya when I was young.”
“But now it’s yours.”

Hukal doesn’t know what to say, and finally mumbles his thanks.
Ilaz hugs him, and walks out of the house.

When the doorway closes, Hukal taps out a complex passcode, and activates a personalized wall display with multiple views.
There are live feeds from the inside and outside of buildings where the sisters are imprisoned, meeting rooms in government offices, official message links, and a view of the area just outside the house.
Hukal ignores the other views, and watches Ilaz go down the stone path, and pass out of sight.

Ilaz contacts the message id he was given, and recognizes the face immediately.
It’s Commissioner Woen, of the science bureau.
“I’m confused,” says Ilaz.
“Why did you tell me to contact you for permission to visit Keela?”

“I’m on the council, Prince Ilaz.”
“I can authorize your visit, but first we need to speak privately.”


“Not over the link.”
“I’ll send a ship for you.”
“When can you be at terminal one of the main transport station?”
Terminal one is reserved for military use.

“Fifteen minutes.”

He arrives early.
The guards aren’t surprised to see him, and there are a few Kizak among them.

He recognizes the face of one of the Jiku guards.
This man who once was an aide to his father.

“I’m sorry, Prince Ilaz,” says the guard, “but I have to put you through a security scan.”

In the past, the royal family was never scanned.
Now we’re a threat.
“Go ahead.”

The guard takes his commdisk.
“It will be stored here, and returned to you at the end of the trip.”
“Standard security protocol for where you’re visiting.”

“I assume we’re going to the royal compound.”

“I’m not authorized to give you any information.”
“Your questions will be answered when you board.”

A large airship appears suddenly in the skies over the terminal.
He doesn’t recognize the shape.
It must be one of the new models that he’s heard about.

When the ship lands he realizes his mistake.
This is a Kizak shuttle.
He notices that the Jiku guards seem nervous.

“Where am I being taken?” asks Ilaz.
“Am I being arrested?”

“You’re a guest, not a prisoner,” says one of the Kizak.
“You’ll understand soon.”

When the ship opens, Woen comes out to greet him.

“Come, Prince Ilaz.”
“There’s someone you need to meet.”

He follows the commissioner aboard.
The ceilings are lower than a Jiku ship, since the Kizak are shorter.
Colors, materials, and even the shape of things are different.
The floor is especially strange.
It makes almost no sound when you walk on it.

A Kizak guard scans him again when they reach the entrance to a meeting room.
“Enter,” says the guard.

There are more guards inside of the room, and they point their weapons at him.”

“What is this?” asks Ilaz.

“Lower your weapons now,” says a voice from the other end of the room.
The emperor.

“Emperor,” says Woen, “I’d like to introduce Prince Ilaz from the royal family of Tshuan.”
The emperor gives Ilaz the greeting of palms.

“It’s an honor to meet you, emperor,” says Ilaz, stiffly.

The emperor laughs.
“You’re not much of a liar, are you?” he asks.

“I mean no disrespect,” says Ilaz, “but my feelings always show on my face.”

“It’s all right,” says the emperor.
“I like to know where I stand with others.”
“But there are many lies being told about me.”
“Don’t be too quick to believe them.”
“You went to one of the schools, didn’t you?”


“You taught dance.”
“That’s not one of the usual curses.”

“Movements, not dance, but I guess you’re right.”
“It’s a peaceful activity.”
“I’m not a fighter.”

“You’re not like your sister.”

“I loved the school, because the sisters were peaceful.”
“You sent them away, and now they’re all gone.”

“I arranged for their transport, so they would be protected from terrorists who wanted them dead.”
“The same terrorists who caused all their ships to crash.”

“What will happen to the few who are left?”

“We’re guarding them.”
“You really believe they’re all peaceful?”
“Who knows what they did in the wars?”
“If we let them, they would start another war!”

“Technology can also be abused, but we don’t abandon it!”

“I heard that you were attacked by an alien master, and lived ten years of your life, locked away inside your head.”
“No one should suffer such agony.”
“Surely you accept the need for the cage?”

Ilaz ignores the question.
“Why did Woen bring me here?”

“So I could meet you.”
“He thinks you should join the council, as one of my appointees.”

“I’ve seen some of the council members on the infonet.”
“They’re disgusting.”
“They chased the people’s votes, running from place to place, babbling the words they thought everyone wanted to hear.”
“Once they’re elected, each one becomes an emperor in his own eyes.”
“Now, no one can question what they say.”
“Their lives are lies and empty promises.”
“People who hunger for the council are fools.”

Woen is offended.

“I don’t mean you, commissioner,” says Ilaz.
“You’re a scientist, and you want the council to support research.”

“Leave us, Woen,” says the emperor.
When the commissioner goes, the emperor continues.

“He’s head of the council, and better than most of them, but he still talks too much.”
“You’re right about them, Ilaz, and that’s exactly why you should join.”
“The council needs leaders who aren’t afraid to speak the truth and follow their hearts.”
“Keela is also like that, but she’s too proud to work with us.”
“You’re different, the king’s son who didn’t want to be king.”

“You’re well informed, but don’t think you know me.”
“I never wanted to be king, but I’m still trained to act like one.”
“A king listens to all sides of an issue, and then forms his own opinion.”
“Put me in the council, and I’ll argue with them all if I believe they’re wrong.”
“And I’ll tell the people what I think, even if it offends the council or the empire!”

The emperor laughs.
“The council wants Tshuan to abandon its past, and adopt Kizak culture.”
“The most successful empire worlds have kept their own distinct cultures and ways of thinking.”
“Your people need someone to build a bridge between the Jiku and the empire.”
“The kingdom is gone, but the royal family can still be part of the future.”
“Don’t answer today.”
“Just think about it.”

“I will.”
“Tell me something.”


“What will happen to my sister and Berek?”
“Will you kill them, or just arrange for them to die in an accident or terrorist attack?”

“It would be convenient to get rid of them, but Berek saved my life, and I repay my debts.”
“Nothing will happen to them for now, but I have to keep them isolated.”
“If I let them go free, they would start a rebellion.”
“It’s what I would do, in their place.”

“I appreciate your honesty.”

“Take a look at this,” says the emperor, as he activates a wall display.
It shows an image of Berek wearing a black necklace with Sindar’s symbol on it.
“Can you identify it?”

“It’s the shield of Tshuan, but I’m sure you already know that.”

The emperor displays another image next to the first, showing the same necklace on display in a strange room.

“Where is that image from?” asks Ilaz.
“Some of the other items in the room look like they’re Kizak.”

“Very observant.”
“This image is from a room in my palace.”

“You’ve already taken the shield to your homeworld?!”
“It belongs to Tshuan and Siksa!”

“I haven’t taken your necklace.”
“The one we had was captured from a cursed race, responsible for the death of billions.”
“It was in my treasure room, until it was recently stolen.”

“That’s incredible.”
“How could they be the same?”
“You can’t think we took it?”
“Tshuan kings have had it for a thousand years.”

“I verified that your necklace has always been here.”
“Still, I would like to examine it.”

“You captured Berek, so you have it.”

“It was gone when my guards found him.”
“He claims he was wearing it when he was stunned, but it was gone when the guards searched his body.”

“I won’t spy for you.”

“I don’t expect you to spy on him, but if it was stolen, and you find out who did it, tell me.”
“We’ll recover the necklace.”
“My scientists will examine it to see if the material is the same as ours.”
“Then we’ll return it to Tshuan.”

“I’ll consider your request.”

“The ship will take you to the royal compound for a visit.”
“Their living conditions are very simple.”
“And don’t expect privacy.”
“Your conversations will be monitored at all times.”

“I have another request.”


“After I see Keela, I’d like to visit the sisters that you’re holding in Tshuan.”
“There were some young children with golden eyes that are with them.”
“They were my students.”

“It’s not a good idea.”
“Their location is secret, and we need to keep them hidden for their own protection.”

“Look at the infonet.”
“There are images of their transfer to a building in Tshuan.”
“Everyone already knows where it is.”

“If that’s true, we need to move them.”
“I’ll authorize a brief visit with them, but no more.”
“You can have an hour.”

“Thank you, emperor.”

“Contact Woen when you decide about the council.”
“Give me an answer within a week.”
“And Prince Ilaz…”


“Siksa is officially part of the empire now.”
“Anyone who joins in an attack on government facilities is guilty of treason.”
“And the penalty for treason is death.”
“There are many Jiku eager to fight against the empire.”
“They’ll try to recruit you.”
“You’ve stayed away from trouble until now.”
“It would be a shame if you got involved with a hopeless struggle that brings no benefit to anyone.”

“I understand.”
Ilaz turns away from the emperor, and passes out of the room.

The Kizak ship lands, and one of the guards walks with Ilaz out of the ship.
“Where are we?” asks Ilaz, as he looks over the unfamiliar landscape.

“The royal compound.”

Ilaz expects to see signs of a battle, but not this.
A small building stands in a large, desolate area, with a landing pad nearby.
Every bit of ground is covered with stone and sand.
Nothing grows here anymore.
No flowers, no plants of any kind.

His Kizak escort brings him to the guards surrounding the remaining structure, and gives them his commdisk.
“You’ll get it back when you leave.”

They check him silently for weapons, before leading him inside.
The outside of the building is slightly familiar.
Ilaz remembers that it was once used for guests.
The inside has been completely redone by the Kizak.
Ilaz follows the guards down a hallway and into a small room with a cushioned chair.

“What is this?”
“Where is the queen?”

“Nearby, underground, but it doesn’t matter.”
“Sit in the chair, and place the headband just above your ears.”
“When you close your eyes, you’ll enter a virtual environment where you can speak with your sister.”

Ilaz looks at the chair, wondering if it’s safe.

“You have nothing to fear,” says one of the guards, noting his hesitation.
“The emperor made us personally responsible for your comfort and safety.”
“You’ll remember you’re in a simulation, and you can leave at any time by clapping your virtual hands together.”
“Stay as long as you like in the sim, but the chair provides no nourishment or waste disposal.”
“For your own safety, we’ll wake you every four hours, if you don’t come out on your own.”

“I won’t be there that long.”
Ilaz puts on the headband, and reclines in the chair.
When his headband makes contact with the headrest, the room fades, and he finds himself standing in the compound, outside the lone building.
This world has no color, made only of white, black and grey.
It’s deathly quiet, with no guards, and no sign of life.
He walks in, and continues down a long hall, dimly lit, until he reaches a wall where two stone signs float in space.
The left one is marked “Berek”, and the other, “Keela.”
The letters glow slightly, and occasionally sparkle with color, as though electricity runs through them.

Ilaz touches the edge of the freezing cold stone, and tries to move it.
It floats in place, yet it’s so heavy he can’t move it.
Finally he touches Keela’s name, and passes through the wall into an apartment.
This space has color.

“Keela,” he calls.

She comes from another room.
“You disappeared when your airship went down.”
“How can you be here?”
“Are you real, or a hallucination?”

He hugs her.
“You’re in a sim.”

She looks confused.
“A simulation?”
“That’s right,” she says after a pause, straightening up.
“For a moment, I forgot where I am.”
“How long have I been here?”

“A week.”

“It seems much longer.”
“Sometimes I see things in the apartment that aren’t here, like Berek.”
“I miss him.”

“Where is he, Keela?”

“They keep us apart.”
“I’m alone, except when I get a visitor.”
“The Kizak are a very social race, and consider isolation one of the worst punishments.”

“They’re punishing you?”
“The emperor said you wouldn’t be harmed!”

Everyone treats us with respect, in and out of the sim.”
“But I hate being alone, and confined to this apartment.”
“A few hours each day, I get partial access to the infonet, so I can study sciences, and history.”
“That keeps me from going crazy.”
“Still, the Kizak block out Jiku faces and voices, and any trace of what’s happening on Siksa.”

“I was alone for ten years, Keela.”

“It drove you crazy.”

“Yes, but I had no hope of getting out, and no one could visit me.”

“It’s wonderful to see you, Ilaz, but how did you get into the sim?”

“I wasn’t on the ship that went down.”
“A few days ago I came out of hiding, and met the emperor.”
“He gave me permission to visit you.”

“Don’t trust him.”
“He still may decide to kill us all.”

“What do you know of his plans?”
“Have you heard him say what he’ll do with us or the energy masters?”

“I don’t have any reliable information, just rumors that I heard before we were captured.”
“People say he wants to kill all the Jiku, or at least the masters, and those with Bizra eyes.”

“I’ve heard that too, but who knows what the truth is?”

She takes his hand, and traces letters in his palm.
“They’re watching and listening,” she spells out.

He spells out “yes” in response.
“How is Berek?” he adds, aloud.

“He was all right when we were first captured, but I haven’t seen him since we were put into the sim.”
“Do you have a plan to rescue us?”

“You know I’m not a soldier.”
“Besides, the emperor made it very clear that an attack on a government facility like this one is punishable by death.”
“I’ll find a way to negotiate your release.”

The conversation turns to other subjects, and after an hour, Ilaz gets up.

“Where are you going?” asks Keela.

“I have to see Berek, and then leave the sim.”
“There are things I need to do, like convince the emperor to free you!”

“Will you come back?” she asks quietly.

“As soon as a I can.”

She hugs him hard.
After a minute, she still won’t let go.

“I have to leave now,” he says, gently pushing her away.
He moves toward the wall that he first passed through and sees a sign that says “hallway.”
“Can you see the sign?” he asks her.

“Only visitors can see it and touch it.”
“Just go.”

He passes through the wall, and then enters the apartment where Berek is imprisoned.
Berek is practicing Kruta when Ilaz arrives, but stops when he sees him.

“It’s good to see you Ilaz,” says Berek.

“You too, Berek.”
“I was just visiting with Keela.”

“How is she?”

“Surviving, but she gets lost in the sim when no one is around.”
You look like you’re all right.”

“I practice Kruta and other movements, and review what I’ve been taught by my masters.”

Ilaz stares at the mark of Sindar’s symbol on Berek’s chest.

Berek takes both of Ilaz’s hands and hold them against his heart before Ilaz can speak.

Do you hear me?

Yes, but the sim is still recording our words.

The technology can’t see thoughts we have in the sim.
Speak freely.

Why is your chest marked with that symbol?

When the guards captured us, they fired energy blasts to stun us.
I was wearing the necklace under my shirt, when the blast struck my chest.
When I woke up, the necklace was gone, and this mark was here.

Do you think the necklace was vaporized?
It wouldn’t even be damaged by a simple stun blast!

I agree, but the situation is strange.
The Kizak are very interested in its location.
Maybe it was stolen.
See if you can find out where it went.
If I get it back, I might be able to escape from here.

I’ll let you know if I hear anything.

Is that why you’re here?
Did the emperor send you here to ask about the necklace?

No, I heard a disturbing report.
There are Jiku throughout Siksa that want to kill the remaining sisters in Tshuan and the guild lands.
The attack will come within days, and the emperor knows of it.

Did he plan it?

I don’t know, but I think he’s happy to have the guards stand aside and let it happen.
There are other Jiku in the detention centers with the sisters, adults and children with Bizra eyes, and they will also be lost.
I won’t let them all die.

Did you come to me for help, Ilaz?
There’s nothing I can do from here.

I need your advice.
What do you know about the emperor’s plans?
Do you think what I’ve heard is true?

It wouldn’t surprise me.
He vowed to remove every trace of the curses from Siksa.
How can he do that without getting rid of the masters?
The new Tshuan government is following his lead, and erasing all knowledge about the energy ways.

That could never happen!

Are you so sure?
A guard enters the sim every few days to make sure we’re all right.
The last one boasted that the infonet and large private nets in Tshuan are already clean.
She said there’s a new government in the guild lands, and they’ll soon start cleaning the infonet there.
Then, they’ll destroy the guild libraries, and make it a crime to possess memcubes with the information.
Of course, this is very different from killing anyone.

I have to be sure the sisters are really in danger.
Maybe the emperor just wants to isolate them.
What if I try a rescue, and some of them die?

Life is not about being certain, Ilaz.
Sometimes you have to make your best guess, and go with it.

Maybe I should forget about it, and do nothing.

You could, but don’t lie to yourself.

What do you mean?

People coast through life, and blame everyone else for what happens.
When you choose to do nothing, no one but you is responsible for the results!

Berek lets go.
“Come again soon,” says Berek.
“It gets lonely in here.”

“I will.”
Ilaz gives him the greeting of palms and then touches the transfer stone that says hallway.
The hallways seems smaller than before.
He feels claustrophobic in the grey building, and rushes outside.
He can’t tolerate a world without color for long.

The air outside the building feels thin and tastes stale.
He quickly claps his hands together to escape it.
A moment later he wakes in the sim chair, and walks out of the building, across the barren stone, toward the ship.

Empire of Stone -- 4: ReturnPrevious StoryNext Story
  1. Allies and Enemies
  2. Strangers and their Gifts
  3. Diplomacy and Death
  4. Fall
  5. Sanctuary
  6. Treason
  7. Rescue
  8. Eclipse
  9. Standoff
  10. Into the Storm
  11. Sleepers
  12. Choosing Death
  13. Peace and Destruction
  14. Sacrifice and Rebellion

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