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Power

Power

A novel

Shaun Patrick McGonigal

2013

Shades in the Foreground

It was only mere moments nearer to now that The Accident happened—following it like hitting the ground follows the exhilaration of free-fall—and the connection was then unseen, but now dances in his mind like a tune that will not leave. He dwells, now. It should not have happened at all, he thinks in this dwelling. But that feeling, that intoxication of potency, of the greed, and of the need to no longer fear…. It almost excuses it. Almost. The question that he asks himself now is whether that should have come to pass in his life; perhaps it was that which had the greatest impact, and not the death of those millions. But then he sees that, once again, it is all about him. And this, in the end, will win out.

The cycles have aged since that first taste of that overwhelming intoxication, that power. More impressionable in youth, perhaps, its strength has only grown and now….

Part 1

1. The Accident

In a sea of movement along a shaded city street, beneath ordered towers of metallic grays, silvers, and blacks, a boy of twelve cycles adeptly navigates the traffic of morning commute nearly unaware of their presence. His mind and small form are in aloof rhythm with the ebb and flow of life around him, and he dances around the fury of morning shadows—people, perhaps—with powerful potent strides.

Patula is a huge city, both fast-paced and complicated, and it is really all he knows. He makes up for this parochiality by knowing it well. After a morning appointment at the neuro-facility to install his first implant, he was anxious to test it. But he also was late and had to get on the trans. He would have a few minutes while getting across town to see how it worked, and so he was nearly running.

Passing through the gate, he almost tripped over his own feet, but caught himself just in time in order to slip into the closing doors of the trans. He found a seat, hurried to it, and reached into his pack for something flat, metallic, and powered it on. As it booted up, he closed his eyes and then pressed the small, unseen, subcutaneous button on the side of his head and next to his right eye. As he did so, he felt a strange sensation in his mind, and then he sensed that his textpad was on and waiting for him, and so he reached out with his mind and linked the implant to his pad.

There was a subtle feeling of potency in this. As a relatively small boy for his age, it was a feeling somewhat alien to him, and he liked the rush it gave him. As the protocols and parameters set themselves to their defaults, he quickly began to manipulate the controls on the screen with his thoughts as a smile crept onto his face.

The shiny screen reflected the boy’s face as it switched from page to page, manipulated by invisible fingers emanating from his brain’s new tool. He caught a glimpse of his reddish hair for the shortest of moments as the screen went blank, and then his gaze shifted upwards. Not at anything in particular, but to the space directly in front of his face. He felt a slight buzzing and a ghostly virtual display appeared in his vision, partially obstructing his field of view. As the neuro-image resolved, it displayed an options menu which Brax scanned through and manipulated to his desired settings.

Then he just sort of stopped, the display hung, and Brax merely looked at it. The smile on his face sort of froze, and he took a deep breath and just admired the image without really being aware of what it said. As he did so, he leaned back against the seat and almost absently closed the settings screen and returned to the blank, non-configured, home screen. It wasn’t really important to actually do anything with it yet, just that he was able to do it all; that he had the ability.

This is great!

He was attracted to not only the simplicity of a neural link, but the ability it provided to seemingly control the world around him, just by thinking, gave him a feeling of control which a small boy naturally lacks. He had wanted one of these implants for quite a while now, and all that he had needed was the approval of his mother for the quick procedure, and she had given it finally. Mom was the best.

After this moment of reflection, he glanced back down to his pad and the screen flicked back on. His hands remained motionless, simply holding the flat device, as he browsed for something to read on the interlink, even though the subtrans would arrive at his station shortly and he would have no time to read anything of significance. He just had to try doing it this new way for the first time before he got home. It really didn’t matter what it was, he just wanted to read something. He downlinked the first article he saw—something about increased efficiency in newer power nodes or something like that—and happily scanned the text without absorbing anything about the article itself. And then he browsed up to the options and decided to display the text in the neuro interface, and the text appeared, semi-transparent, on his field of vision.

If anyone had been looking at him, they would have seen a boy looking into apparent empty space with a giddy smile on his face. But nobody was looking at him. They were looking at something else completely. Something Brax, distracted, had not noticed yet.

Brax pretended to care about a .23% increase in power efficiency by using some new kind of current manipulation for something or other. It was not a subject he knew anything about, so it was all jumbled words and phrases anyway. He closed the text and returned to other news stories, but as he was doing so something behind the text—in the real world, that is—caught his attention. To his left, there was some sort of agitated discussion, one-sided as it was, going on between two men. One of them was a tall, surprisingly relaxed (considering he was being quite aggressively verbally assaulted), and strangely dressed Thalean who was leaning against the door of the trans with his arms folded casually just under his chest. The other, moving and gesticulating with his versatile forelimbs, was a Kasarian.

As Brax realized he was only a couple of stations away from home, he closed the text in his vision and shut off the textpad without taking his eyes off of the Kasarian who continued to yell at the amused-looking Thalean in his dark and long coat. He fully turned his head, as many had around him, to fully take in this scene with some curiosity and surprise. The loud Kasarian was speaking ferociously to the Thalean—who simply smiled back at the agitated alien—and Brax’s own smile had disintegrated without his being aware of it. Something was not right about this. Something was very odd about it indeed. There was something…well, Brax could not put his finger on it, but something was wrong and there was another dull buzzing sensation in his head from the implant that Brax hardly noticed and didn’t bother to consider. It would take some time to get used to its presence, and he wasn’t sure if that was normal yet, anyway.

Brax considered shutting off the neural interface device, but distraction amounted to inaction and Brax effectively decided not to do so. He was much more interested in what he was witnessing, still haunted by a vague feeling that something was very wrong.

The blue forelimbs of the Kasarian were quite animated, apparently having been irritated by something the Thalean next to him has done or said. The suggestive limbs were accompanied by an analogous verbal component flung in a barely noticeable Kasarian accent. The accent was mostly what caught Brax’s ear, as it was rare to hear any accents other than Thalean anymore, let alone another language. The intermixed language of the Interstellar Cooperative had long replaced any planet’s particular languages, and only scholars even knew any of the original languages now. The fact that the common tongue was still called Thalean, despite the fact that it was very different from either of the ancient Thalean languages, didn’t seem to cause anyone any second thoughts. This is what made the Thalean’s response even more unexpected.

The Kasarian had pulled something out of his pocket that was unidentifiable to Brax. Nonetheless he had no doubt, due to the way the Kasarian held it, that it was something potentially dangerous. Most of the passengers stiffened, a few even moved slowly away, but the Thalean simply smiled wider, and looked very intently into the eyes of the Kasarian. His own eyes were green. Not just green, but green, as if they almost seemed to radiate greenness. His smile was calm, amused, and confident. He looked at the Kasarian and didn’t move a millimeasure, but rather breathed slowly and stared confidently at his adversary. The Kasarian looked overly confident, and no indication of good humor could be discerned from his expression—Kasarians don’t exactly smile anyway, they just sort of bounce their heads in different rhythms and directions when pleased or displeased. In this case, the Kasarian’s head was uncomfortably still, especially considering the gesticulations from the rest of his body. Suddenly the Kasarian stopped, his apparent weapon poised in his hand, and asked the green-eyed Thalean,

What do you think of my friend now?”

The Thalean did not immediately respond, but his smile widened even more. He shifted his stance slightly, inhaled deeply, and spoke.

He didn’t speak in Thalean. He spoke in what could only have been ancient Kasarian, and with a very identifiable and convincing accent that one still heard in ancient Kasarian vids, the kind that you saw in history classes or museums. The Kasarian became instantly and unmistakably terrified at the sound of these ancient words, and made a gesture as to apologize, but it was too late. That’s when they all felt it.

Brax knew that he wasn’t the only one who was feeling it. He could see it in the eyes and expressions of the people around him—Thalean, Kasarian, Bruuk, Nisivalen, and even the one Diderondac—that this was a shared experience by others around him. Brax had certainly never felt anything like it; it could only be described as the feeling of swimming inside an energy field that you could feed on, manipulate, and even stretch yourself into. It made Brax feel invincible, immortal, and terrified at the same time—at least for that first moment. As the feeling started to settle in Brax’s body, he slowly returned his head fully towards the scene of the encounter and noticed that the Thalean’s right hand had moved inside his coat and was gripping something that hung from his hip. There was a subtle glow coming from inside of that black coat which hung down to the tall Thalean’s ankles. As he started to look towards the Thalean’s face the light grew more intense.

Now Brax started to feel confident, powerful, and brazen. The intensity of that feeling started to seep deeper into him and he looked down at his hands for a moment and could almost imagine lifting small mountains with them with but a mere thought. It was like having the most powerful neural device ever, and the world was your textpad.

Then something started to change, but Brax could not quite grasp what it was. At first it was a wrenching feeling in his stomach, then there was a brief but intense vibrating sensation in his mind, and…

Life withdraws from me. “Me”? No, that word won’t do. Us? Them? Is there a difference here in this miasma? Is this ‘me’ anymore?

Life seems to withdraw with a shiver, and I see it on his face too. It is on all of their faces, all of our faces, and life withdraws from each individual for the sake of this terror which could only be called the kind of death that will not be the end it is supposed to be. The moment seems to hang there, but further inspection reveals an insistent crawl rather than a pause. Brax’s eyes have not left the scene before him, but he seems to see it from a dozen perspectives at once, which should be dizzying, but somehow is not. The Kasarian’s body—it’s forelimb specifically—still clings to that object. That object, like time’s crawling and death’s refusal to play along, insists itself to the front of my mind. Our mind. The mind.

This leads to terror. Brax feels it, they all do, but it is a kind of terror with the kind of depth that a boy his age cannot possibly comprehend, and so it fits loosely on him like clothes that do not fit. This does not make it any less real, however, and that terror lingers along with time and death, whose eternal battle seem the only sense in this moment.

What’s happening to me, was the thought. What is this feeling, and why won’t it stop? What is this?

That fact that this voice belonged to all of them, and yet none of them, only adds to the terror. There was a center to this voice, but it was not Brax’s, nor was it the Divi’s.

There was something deep and vibrating beneath that voice, and as they all felt themselves being pulled into the chaos of this eternally lingering moment a unification took hold and suddenly Brax felt himself pushed aside from the depth of it all.

The Divi, that is what the Thalean must be they all seem to think in unison, has managed to grab hold of time, space, and especially of the Kasarian in front of him and the rest of them are left to be intimate witnesses to this moment which is less and less like death and crawling time and more and more like the pain, terror, and the approach of death rather than it’s apotheosis.

It is now clear that the Divi, with his long dark coat and his green eyes still burning, had been temporarily overwhelmed along with the rest of them, but he has pulled himself out of the miasma of the eternal moment of uncooperative death. But none of this matters now, as his reassertion of control is seemingly absolute. Where Brax had felt, at first, able to move planets and manipulate quantum forces with a thought, he now realizes, somehow, that this had not been his feeling at all.

And yet it lingers. It pulls at him like hunger, the need to breathe, or the lustful longing of a lover which he has not yet experienced. He tries to thrust himself back in, but it’s like trying to push through a steel wall. He gets the most vague of senses that the Divi whose mind he is sensing is aware of him, is in fact watching him is some very specific way, but there is no indication of this on his face, or in is burning green eyes.

Brax begins to settle, pulls back his mind somewhat, and feels a bit more like himself—mostly himself. He still feels the Divi’s lingering terror, his immense concentration, and he senses the smallest glimpse of how different the Divi is from himself. But Brax cannot begin to comprehend it. Brax reflects that this just be what it would feel like for a blind person suddenly given sight, unable to make sense of a world of perception he has no experience with. The Divi is seeing more than Brax’s mind can comprehend, but to some degree he can still sense it all, and Brax is unsure if it is his own terror he feels of that of the Divi before him, who is…what is he doing?

Brax shakes the moment from his mind and focuses his attention to the scene before him. The Kasarian is frozen in place within an arm’s reach of the Divi, and as Brax makes sense of the scene he can see that he is actually floating! The Divi…I, he, we…that sense of impersonality still lingers…the Divi is actually holding the stupefied Kasarian in some sort of field that is lifting him up and against the opposite side of the trans.

Brax can see the Kasarian trying to struggle. He can see it in his eyes and taut muscles, but it’s like the alien is being held in place by hundreds of invisible hands and is being lifted from the floor of the transport and away from the Divi. The Kasarian is now backed against the side of the transport, and Brax can see the Divi’s green eyes looking—yes, it’s as if his look itself is making the Kasarian move—the Kasarian’s forelimbs and hindlimbs into a forced standing pose, weapon hand forced to his side, the Kasarian looking like he’s about to die of terror.

This is when the Divi, whose terror has seemed to subside, calmly puts his left hand on his hip and walks over to the Kasarian and looks up at him.

It was a mistake for you to try something like this. You should not have come with that artifact of yours. Now I’m sorry to have to restrain you like this, but pulling out such a dangerous device on a public transport is a violation of Cooperative law, not to mention Protectorate law.”

Protectorate.’ There is no doubt he is one of them now, Brax thinks. The sense of impersonality continues to fade as the Divi continues.

I have no choice now but to relieve you of your…your toy…”

The Thalean laughs that last word out and I see the “toy” that the Divi referred to float away from the hand of the Kasarian and in a flash it’s gone. It just vanishes in a flash of light. As this happens, Brax becomes aware that this whole time they were in a moving subtrans, and are slowing to a stop as they approach the station. Brax is aware that that it is not his station, but he is also unclear whether he would be capable of getting up at this moment even if it had been. As Brax sees the edge of the platform through the window as they continue to slow, the Divi continues his lambasting of the Kasarian, who is still pressed against the wall of the trans, almost to the ceiling.

I’ll uplink your genetic signature to the central database in order to track you in the future. You know the rules; we’ll watch you for one cycle, and if you keep out of anything that might bother me or any of the other Protectors, we’ll stop tracking you. I suggest that you keep away from such devices in the future. It will be better for you, for me, and for everyone else.”

Then the Divi switches off the device and in a flash the surge that had held them all together is gone and the Kasarian falls to the floor, catching himself with his hindlimbs, and runs out of the transport just as the doors open. The whole transport seems to watch him run through the light crowd at the station, then watches as the door closes, which seems to snap some of the trance they had all been held in.

Nobody besides the Kasarian has been able to move, which goes largely unnoticed by the few who have entered the transport from the station. Brax can only sit with the feeling of the surge faded, his eyes not leaving those of the Divi. Brax watches as his long dark coat swirls as he turns to sit down. And for a moment, as the burning green eyes of the Divi meet those of Brax, Brax can feel that surge again. Brax is unsure if that feeling is real or imaginary, and he is not sure if it matters, but it’s compelling.

The Divi’s eyes hold his for another moment, then they seem to drift towards the space in front of him. After a moment, as the trans begins to move again, the Divi’s face drops into sudden surprise—no, shock and fear—and a moment later, we all felt it.

In a flash the Divi stood, reached into his coat, and his strange glowing device was in his hand. But this time there was no subtle light, but a blinding flash. There was a momentary wave of something that brushed through everyone’s body. The transport had become enveloped in a field that was translucent as it rapidly grew to surround everyone inside. Everything seemed normal for a moment, but only for a moment. For the most brief of instants as that translucent field expanded Brax thought he could hear, and feel, a tremendous jolt of motion. Suddenly the lights in the trans went dark. Then silence, stillness, and it felt as if the transport had not only stopped, but was suspended in space and time. Brax thought that the emergency lights had kicked in, but the light was coming from outside the transport, through the windows. Brax turns to look out the window of the transport, and beyond the translucent barrier there is nothing but fire—no, plasma. Everything around the transport is nothing but superheated material and Brax becomes transfixed by its terrible beauty, not quite realizing the implications yet. It didn’t seem to make sense that three to four arms lengths from something so hot it would be so, well, calm. The transport didn’t as much as shift even a little, but the world outside was molten metals and rock; what had been a trans station in a massive city was now pure hot chaos.

Then it dawned on Brax’s overwhelmed mind that anything that could do that kind of damage would not leave much of a station behind. In fact, the amount of energy to do that much damage would have to do significant damage to the city itself.

The Kasarian!

All of those people in the station!

Mom?

Patula?

Just how much damage was there outside?

The sight was transfixing, but with some will he tore his gaze from the destruction outside and Brax could see the others in the transport looking out the windows as well, and then he looked into the eyes of the Divi, and his certainty that this man was one of the Divi took him by force. He could be nothing else, and the sight of him was both awesome and somehow horrible.

His device was held out in front of him, and the brightness of the light that came from it illuminated the concentrating face of the man who was a living legend, a god even. A single bead of sweat traced the side of his furrowed brow. The device itself was black, cylindrical except for the one end which was rounded, transparent, and glowing with a sort of light that was now the only internal source of illumination in the trans. But its contribution was sufficient to see all of the awestruck faces that had turned away from the chaos outside. They all looked at this device of power which was the apparent savior of these few people, huddled in a powerless trans surrounded by destruction.

The Divi—the Protector, as they call themselves—closed his eyes, and there was a subtle sense of motion. Brax looked out the window again and noticed that the transport was moving in a direction that it should not move considering we were underground; up. The trans was moving through fire and melted material that only seemed to be hotter as they ascended. After a moment, the subtrans left the surface and was in the air, fire visible on all sides. And that’s when Brax saw what was left of the city. The entire skyline was gone, what was left was an inflamed crater which must have been at least a hundred kilomeasures wide, if not much more. The city was gone, and there was a feeling of desperate loss in the eyes of those that looked out the windows. Brax looked back at the Divi, but could not discern the expression on his face. As he looked around the trans, the faces of the others radiated fear, grief, or utter disbelief.

Disbelief at what had happened outside, but perhaps more at what was happening inside. Almost nobody ever saw a Divi (or, at least, knew that who they saw was, in fact, a Divi), and certainly nobody ever saw one doing what they were witnessing now. It was the most horrible and yet most awesome sight that any of them could have imagined. And for a twelve cycle old boy, it was to be a moment of immense impact, for sure, although he likely did not know that.

The greatest of cities, home to more than eighteen million, gone. But somehow these few had survived, being near the very center of that city, which didn’t make any sense to any of them except one, and he was not sharing his understanding at the moment. As the subtrans climbed higher into the sky, Brax could catch glimpses of what lay below. There was nothing but a crater where the city had been. The world surrounding had either collapsed from the shock of the blast or was on fire—or both.

The abilities of the Divi and their enigmatic technology was legendary, but what was happening now still inspired awe. The Divi hovered the subtrans over the remains of the city, and then there was a brief disorientation and the view outside shimmered and then was replaced by a skyline again. For a moment Brax thought that the Divi had somehow managed to put the city back, undamaged, but then he looked closer and saw that this was not Patula but the city of Gullina. They had been teleported to the nearest city, many hundreds of kilomeasures away.

Gullina, a beautiful city in its own right, was no Patula. The transport sat near the middle of town, and as the survivors looked around at one-another, obviously in shock, the doors opened and the Divi apparently switched off the device and with a final flash that translucent field dropped. Brax had hardly noticed an intoxicating fear that had settled into him—and everyone else—in the moments of confusion, but suddenly it was like having your heart ripped out. Brax felt weak, but was still unable to take his eyes off of this Divi—this man—who stood with a hand clutching at the wall with some unreadable stoicism forced upon his cheeks.

The air from outside began to swarm its way into the trans, and a few people who happened to be walking by peered in curiously, but did not enter the trans. Nobody inside moved. They all were looking at the Divi expectantly as did the new on-lookers. They had no idea who this man was or what he had just done, only that he was the obvious focus of everyone else’s attention.

After a moment, the Divi dropped his hand from the wall and stood up straight. He appeared to try and clear his mind of that enigmatic emotion and commanded himself to mimic something magnanimous, grave and yet scared. There was genuine fear peeking out from around the corner of that magnanimity, a phenomenon which Brax empathized with without trying. The Divi inattentively placed the device back in its place upon his hip and looked around at all of his attendees. He breathed deeply, looked down, and cleared his throat to speak, but then paused for a moment. His eyes closed, and for a moment it looked as if he might not say anything at all.

As his eyes reopened, they shifted their glance towards Brax for just a moment before sliding past him and towards the others that had gathered around as well. They had, in the moments of this hesitation, created a pocket around this legendary being and were waiting for what would happen. They wanted some explanation. They wanted to hear that perhaps this had been some elaborate Protectorate illusion, and it seemed that they did not even breathe as they stood motionless in anticipation. Finally, the Divi took another deep breath and spoke without any indication of emotion.

I am saddened to have to tell you all the following, but some explanation is in order. The experimental facility run by the Protectorate near the center of Patula was the source of a massive explosion. The resulting energy has destroyed all of the city and much of its surrounding area. I do not expect that anyone—or anything—has survived within the city itself. As far as I can tell, all of you, as well as another Protector and several citizens around him in another part of the city, are the only people to have survived.”

He paused for a moment, but nobody moved or spoke. Brax, and probably everyone else around him, could only stare. The Divi continued.

My name is Menson. If you have need of any further assistance from me, go to any interlink terminal and ask for my name, and I will respond if possible. I have uplinked your genetic signatures into a personal database and will respond to any of you personally as soon as I am able. Given the nature and scope of this event, it may be some time before this is possible.”

Then he stopped, seeming to contemplate for a moment before continuing. There was a flash of hesitation in his eyes, but his tone lacked any hint of this.

I have to leave now to investigate the ramifications of this tragedy. I assure you that this was an accident.”

Then in a flash he was gone.

2. Exploration

Leaving home. It had such an alien feeling—and wasn’t that just the thing? The beauty of nature, in its complexity, vastness, and deadly emptiness had never called to them. It was like the endless stretches of wilderness between cities, connected only by roads and the occasional fuel station. But they were outposts, mostly automated stands, and not home to anybody. The spaces between civilization did not call to them.

And until recently there had been no civilization beyond the empty expanses above for space to be seen as the wilderness between. Until recently, Thalea was a lonely spark of awareness, intellect, and of civilization in the vast blackness of space. That was about to change.

Zuzek Damula sat in his command chair and pondered these things. His brand new ship, one of two which were almost identical except in name, population, and destination, sat docked to a temporary orbiting station far above his home. There was a certain kind of pride that sat with him, but also of severe apprehension. He felt strange in space. The artificial gravity field held him down, but there were moments of inefficiency, gaps in the field really, where you often sensed the true weightlessness that these fields hid.

He felt untethered and far away. He felt uncertain, insecure, and it made him feel out of control. He would not allow this sense to be seen. He was their commanding officer, after all, and he must be above all of this. He was Thalean, and Thaleans do not show such lacks. He must be the force that binds these 500 or so people for the next few cycles while they journeyed to their destination. He would be the focal point of their portable sharing.

The sharing was for them a sacred thing, although that description would have made no sense to them. But something akin to a proto-sacredness swam through Zuzek Damula’s head as he waited to receive the final orders to depart and thought of the sharing. Twenty cycles since that date, not to the day, but close enough. fifteen cycles since the arguments and legislation ended. fifteen cycles of designing and building the first interstellar transport ships; the first of their kind, and masterpieces for first tries, they had no doubt. They had received a sign of genuine intelligence beyond the wilderness of space, and they had decided to send envoys, explorers, and even colonies after them.

The Patula. The magnificent ship, named after his home for nearly forty-six cycles, lay far below and waited with him. He didn’t think he would ever see it again, and this in itself was enough to cause him uncertainty. On the other side of the station lay the twin ship, the Thale, which while named after the oldest known ancient city which no longer existed, nonetheless did not represent an exact sentimentality but more an efficiency. What else would you name your first two transport ships but the first and then the greatest of your cities?

And what else would you name the smaller scout ship, which had left but a few hours before, than the Fez, after the ancient sea vessel that found nothing but the other side of the continent so many centuries before. No new worlds to find there, only ocean for the whole other side of the world. Perhaps the same would be so here. Perhaps the universe was a lifeless ocean where they would only find themselves again, alone in a strange place, and far away from the shore which they left.

Uncertainty sat uneasily with Damula’s pride, and as he pondered this the order came in. It was time. The Fez, already on its journey, would seek out the source of the signal received twenty cycles before. He and his twin ship—with his dear friend Commander Jul Rilko—would seek out possible life-sustaining planets in different directions, and they would stretch out their hands towards potential civilizations, to seek distant neighbors, like the ancients did before the merging of the great cities did to the towns on the other side of forests, deserts, or mountains.

But they were uncertain what they would find.

Several days later, after Thalea was far behind them and the Thale off in some other specific direction, Damula looked at the calendar on his wall. He suddenly realized that the object had no meaning anymore. It was no more the 2nd cycle segment than it was the 5th or the 7th. It was no more the 3rd day than it was the 10th. Of course, the cycle date itself was also meaningless. Its beginning was arbitrary, and now remote and, well, it was uncertain. It was all uncertain.

All is uncertainty, he thought with a slight smile and a gleam in the eye. He smiled because he didn’t know what else to do with this sensation. His world had tried so hard to eliminate uncertainty, and here he was charging directly into its heart and realizing that this heart lay in almost every direction. His home had headed only into directions of control, efficiency, and security as a matter of nature, and while they had all tried to convince themselves that this step into deep space was deliberate and in control, Damula had started to realize the facade of this truth had been crumbling, and the calendar was the first major hole in this lie.

But he didn’t take it down. Not yet. There was something about this sensation that he didn’t want to trash just yet. And so it remained, for now.

Damula had no conception of the time that would come. He had no idea that in 2205 cycles around his home star of his home planet, that his home city would be no more. He had no reason to think that the relationship between this event and his trajectory would have anything to do with each other. But what was more unknown was the fact that he would be there to see it, and that he could do nothing to stop it. And that it would be his fault.

At least it would feel that way.

Over the next few cycles the crew would start to see it all too. Many buckled, sometimes proposing to return home, and most grew more impatient with each passing of absurd time definitions. The calendar eventually disappeared, and when they finally reached the system of their destination, around five cycles since they left, most were anxious to feel real ground under their feet. Damula was not one of these.

They established a colony with the speed and efficiency that they all had come to know of as their nature. But over the cycles, Damula’s feelings towards the various natures of his home became a little less solid, and he elected to stay aboard his ship with those for whom the journey became a relief, or at least not a source of discomfort. He now knew who would stay below and who would stay aboard, and the decreased mass from loss of equipment and personnel made the ship feel light, youthful, and the change made Damula smile a little.

He had lost something, he knew. He was no longer sure he could hear Jul Rilko’s voice in his head, or see her smile when he closed his eyes. He could no longer imagine the skyline of Patula, but he insisted that he would desire nothing more than to see it again. There was a sense of loss, but it was not the loss of home, it was a loss of himself, and the feeling was not sitting well.

This irritation sat within him, and brewed. He became less and less comfortable, and more and more anxious and irritated, and he was not sure why. The more he thought about Jul, his home, and even the colony below, the more he wanted to run away from it all. But he stuffed all of this inside a kind of armor he wore. Nobody saw any of this tension, and he felt that it could live there, for now, unseen. He was not sure what to do about it, so he did nothing.

A few months after the colony was established, Damula sat at the desk of his office, aboard his ship which felt more like home now, and held a report with a look of mild interest on his face. Geological reports from the small, rocky, and poisonous planet they were in orbit of occupied his thoughts until a young officer cleared her throat, causing him to look up at her with a look of mild annoyance and impatience. She greeted him with an informal and inarticulate verbal gesture and handed a piece of paper to him, avoiding direct eye-contact. He noticed that she was afraid, and that perhaps she had just cleared fresh tears from her eyes, and he stood up and took it as his annoyance disappeared and was replaced with curiosity. Her eyes slid up towards his, but stopped short of meeting his, and she turned quickly and left the room, closing the door behind her. Damula watched her go momentarily, but then looked down at the sheet of paper which had the look of an official communication. The first he had seen in some time.

The header indeed identified its origin; Thalean Command. Without sitting back down, he read the note.

Priority One message for Thalean Exploration ship PATULA Commander Zuzek Damula:

Exploration ship THALE, en route to destination A, has not replied to three most recent communication attempts in the last two months. Sufficient time has passed in order for any message sent to be received in orderly manner. In addition, no automatic beacon reply has been received for more than referred to amount of time. Last communication and last known coordinates for THALE location is included in full periodic report.

I’m sorry my old friend. I hope she’s OK, as she is my friend too. You have standing orders, so you know what you need to do and what you should do.

Officer Carron Wulliter.

Damula’s face melted into pain and anger as he read the lines. His mind searched for a dozen explanations for why Rilko could not, or would not, respond. But for the automatic beacon to not respond would imply that it was destroyed or turned off. Why it would ever be turned off escaped Damula, and he knew that something was wrong. He knew that the ship was likely destroyed or otherwise nonfunctional which meant that the crew and all its passengers would likely all be dead or stranded. Damula dropped the paper onto the desk and his right hand fell to the desktop to stop him from falling, while his left hand reached behind him to the top of his chair to prevent himself from falling backwards. His knees were weak.

Over the last five cycles he had almost forgotten about her. No, that wasn’t true, because he thought of her often, but he had certainly not allowed himself to fully remember. And now there was a moment of a full bloom of emotion. He was suddenly and overwhelmingly aware that he had missed her and had been denying it to himself. There was a sudden awareness of deep loss that broke through his shell and covered him, with the seeming effect of weakening his ability to hold himself up.

He tried to re-read the message, but half way through it simply fell from his hand and something inside him shattered. There was a moment of disorientation, and as it cleared he found himself breathing hard, tears poured from his eyes, and with one knee close to the ground he suddenly found a new strength which allowed him to rise, hard enough and fast enough to find that he had picked up his chair, raised it over the desk, and was throwing it at his door. He missed, but next to the door was a new dent in the wall, and Damula found himself panting and grimacing with surprise and anger as he tried to piece together the last few seconds and found that he was unable to do so.

The impact had caused a noticeable reaction to those on the other side of the wall. Within a few seconds, before Damula could compose himself from his own surprise, a security officer burst into the room, and Damula looked at him in embarrassment and shame. He could not stop himself from shaking.

Commander Damula, what has happened here, are you alright?”

Damula searched for something to tell the young security officer, and as the superior security officer nudged his subordinate out of the way to inspect the scene, Damula could only look at the paper that had fallen to the floor in all of the commotion, and he found his answer. With as must composure and presence as he could muster, he straightened himself out and pointed to the paper and addressed both of them with a surprising amount of evenness in his tone, considering how much he was shaking.

The Thale has been lost. Commander Rilko and her crew are almost certainly dead. We must assemble the senior officers immediately and discuss what our next move is.”

For a long moment the two security officers merely looked at Damula in disbelief, and Damula was finally able to get a hold of his emotions and the shaking started to dissipate. But still, the two officers did not react.

That was an order, officer Natak!”

Yes sir,” the officer of security said in a low voice with an edge of emotion in it. The two security officers left the room and Damula forced himself to sit, but found that his chair was not where it was supposed to be. Finding it still intact and below a point of impact on the wall, he merely leaned against his desk, the bridge crew turning to look at the distraught yet increasingly composed commander. Damula noticed their surprised gawking, and forcefully commanded them to get back to their stations and return the ship to the colony immediately. As they began to do so he walked intently across his office and picked up his chair, carried it back to the area behind his desk, and sat down. He stared at the wall for a moment as he felt the subtle vibrations of the ship starting to move.

My standing orders are to remain here until I receive orders to do otherwise, Damula thought to himself. But I know Wulliter, and he knows that the right thing to do is to investigate the disappearance. I will have to convince the others that we need to break with standing orders and leave, whether we have been given those new orders or not.

Damula didn’t think it would take much convincing. The question would be who would stay at the colony, and whether the colony would ever see this ship again if they left. Damula doubted it.

Before he got up to meet with the other officers, Damula promised himself he would never allow this anger to surface again in such a violent manner. Thus it was that he found a new tenant for his repressive armor. A more perilous guest anger is in comparison to loss, especially when said anger is the child of loss. It is this demon that began to grow inside Damula, and a deep fear resided within him that this resident would mature and strengthen within him. He pushed that thought aside and put his head in his hands.

Within a few days, those who decided to remain on the colony had made their final arrangements, and those that were going with Damula had settled as well. Damula, with his less than one hundred person crew, input their navigation trajectory and fired up the engines. They had a long trip ahead of them, and once again the Patula was an exploratory vessel.

This time the trip was easier. Cycles of journey had weeded out who was truly an explorer and who had joined an exhibition only to run away from something else. Damula found that he was beginning to enjoy command after all, despite his tribulations. He had a fine crew; they were the smartest and most innovative Thaleans available for such a journey, and many found that they actually enjoyed the prospect of seeing new places. But Damula slowly eased himself into the realization that despite his incident involving a thrown chair, he was happier out here than he ever was on Thalea with Rilko and the others he had left behind. He slowly began to realize, along their journey in search of Rilko and her ship, that his anger had been at the realization that he had started to care more about this ship than he did for his friend. He was afraid that he was losing what it meant to be a Thalean. He was afraid that exploration had taken away his identity. He was afraid to become something alien.

As each day passed he felt less normal, and the resentment of this tucked itself into that armor of his for the next few cycles, feeding the demon within. He simply didn’t know what he would do if he did see Commander Rilko again. He began to fear that he’d prefer she be dead than to see her alive and possibly find that she had changed as well, or that she’d see that he had changed. This, of course, was not what he said to himself so much as what he spent so much energy trying to pretend wasn’t true. It just so happens that the new tenant of his armor fed on just this repression, and as Damula got closer to the Thale’s last-known position, this anger poked its head out now and again and before long the crew began to notice that the Commander had changed. The intense but composed man had occasionally become erratic and forceful. The crew, in short, became scared of what they saw that day when he found out about the Thale and its likely fate.

Since the Patula had been further from the Thale’s last-known coordinates than Thalea, it had taken the Patula nearly five-and-a-half cycles to get there. It was a long time for such thoughts to stew. On Thalea, a similar set of emotions was stewing, and the government feared the worst and prepared for a potential dangerous neighbor and built planetary defense weapons, including a small fleet of well armed and shielded ships. Not being naturally violent or interested in large-scale conflict, these weapons first had to be conceived then invented, but within five cycles the planet was ready for whatever the galaxy could throw at them.

Or so they, perhaps proudly, thought.

3. Aftermath

Brax hated Gullina. But the fact was that Brax was angry with everything right about now. The survivors of The Accident—that was what the media was calling it—had been perpetually swarmed with attention, interviews, and even a little mistrust. Brax didn’t want the attention right now, but avoiding it had been difficult.

The news hit the whole Cooperative very quickly, and those interested in reporting on the story or coming in hopes of finding survivors were jamming up the portal gates to get to this smaller city as well as the others on the planet. The streets were full of people. There were looks of pain, sadness, loss, and utter inability to process what had happened. The survivors were held together and were being interviewed in some cases, taken care of in others. Brax sat alone for much of the first few hours afterward, staring into space and fighting to keep the pain inside him from surfacing. Brax had only been to Gullina once before, from what he remembered. It was the closest city to Patula, and now it was swarmed with more people than it could handle.

Gullina was a smaller city west of the crater which previously had been the city of Patula just a few hours before. This smaller city’s nearly six-and-a-half million residents were largely descendents of those that had been the builders of the battleships from the ancient Nimri wars. They now were the primary designers, technicians, and repair experts for ships of all kinds. Thus, the city was surrounded by spaceports and repair bays, making Gullina a hub for interstellar trade and greater cultural mix as well.

Gullina was the only city on Thalea where Thaleans were the minority. It was the only city that was dominated by a central Diderondac influence of architecture. The Diderondac were masters of engineering and sheer desire to surpass previous feats of design and beauty. Their home world, quite far away, had a flair for the architecturally dramatic. They were artists of the environment, carving their structures to complement and contrast the landscape, giving a treat to the eyes and a trick to those who tried to navigate the complex results of these metropolitan dreams of seeming impossibility. Gullina with its large irregularly shaped buildings not held to the ground by physical structure but rather held in place by invisible force-fields, was no exception. This choice of form over simple function was distasteful to most Thaleans who preferred simple, functional buildings.

The residents of Gullina had always been more accepting of foreign ideas, and had gladly accepted the offer from the Diderondac to rebuild Gullina after the Nimri destroyed most of it in the last ancient war. Many times the Nimri had tried to attack this city, and it was only with the last of their strength that they would succeed with significant effort. Thus, centuries of protection led to a rethinking of design, one that brought Dideron closer to Thalea. It was the result of a time when the tension and disagreements between the five major races would die in order to be replaced by the Great Cooperation, which would lead to the political alliance that still existed after fourteen centuries.

As for Patula, Menson had been right; nobody survived except those that happened to be near the Protectors—the derogatory term ‘Divi’ had suddenly lost its prevalence out of what was called respect, but which also consisted of fear. That’s not exactly right; there had been one other Protector in the city, but he had been inside the Protectorate experimental facility when it exploded and had not enough time to react to the explosion. As far as anyone knew this was the first Protector to die, ever. They are not immortal, it seemed now to many people’s actual surprise. This was another point of discussion now, but only among those who looked over their shoulders and spoke softly.

Of course, nobody seemed to know what caused the explosion. The Protectors said they were investigating and did not know the cause either. Many were suspicious of this proclamation. In fact, there was a general feeling of distrust concerning anything the Protectors said or did, but fear of the Protectorate’s ubiquitous presence and power made verbal reservations of this kind rare, and very quiet. No implied reprisal was given for such comments, but there had always been an uneasy feeling about the Protectors from people despite the lack of any obvious reason for conflict between them. It was a tension that existed for many, said by few, acted on by almost none.

The Protectorate seemingly thought of itself as the guardians of civilization. Many saw them this way as well, and for legitimate reason. Had it not been for the return of the Protectors during certain times in antiquity, the Nimri may never have been prevented from destroying every city on the planet (and then perhaps every other planet), but there was something about them that scared people—especially Thaleans. The fact that they were Thalean, very old ones, made this relationship even stranger.

The survivors were mostly Thalean themselves, as would be expected in a city that had been predominantly demographically non-alien. Those that were not were all reunited with family in other cities or planets, but the Thalean survivors had generally lost all of their family in the explosion, as Thalean culture tends towards sedentary families. There were exceptions, of course, and as it turned out Brax was one of them.

Brax sat on a bench in a room where many of the survivors had been brought a few hours before. Most had already left, but a few remained while they tried to figure out where to go, when to go, or decided to stay and talk to each other about what had happened. Brax had nowhere to go, really. Everyone he knew lived in Patula. He knew he had family in the far southern city of Cesternatton, but he had not seen them since almost before he could remember, and they may not even remember who he was. There was an aunt, a half-sister of his father, but what was her name….

Brax? Hello, please allow me to introduce myself. I am Haddick, the governor of Gullina, and I was wondering if I could have a moment of your time?”

Brax looked up at the man, who was followed by another as well as a woman, and looked at him skeptically.

Brax, I have noticed that you have not been contacted by any family or friends, and I am willing to offer you a place to stay, at least for tonight. You are welcome to stay longer if you would like to, but I don’t want you to feel like you have nowhere to go. Would you want to come with me?”

Brax simply looked at the man blankly, and the governor’s face conveyed minor frustration. The man behind him whispered into his ear and Haddick nodded and looked at Brax again.

I understand if you are hesitant, but I urge you to keep our offer in mind. You can stay at the governor’s mansion for tonight, or longer, if you like. Please contact me at this contact code,”

Haddick handed Brax a card.

“…if you change your mind.”

Brax looked at the card with mixed interest. It was true that Brax had nowhere to go yet. He had not tried to contact any family even though he knew he should. Governor Haddick was starting to walk away when Brax stood up and called after him.

Wait!”

Haddick turned back around with a sympathetic smile, and Brax smiled back shyly.

A few hours later Brax sat in front of an untouched meal, the governor came in for a few minutes to talk with the boy, chasing away his staff for a little while. Brax was understandably reticent, and Haddick tried to make pleasant conversation with him but was not getting much of a response. Understanding and being somewhat relieved by this fact, Haddick circumvented the pleasantries and got to the point. Haddick wanted to help him, but he also had a disaster on his hands and he had logistical concerns from multiple people and his governmental responsibilities.

Brax, I know that this time is not easy for you, and I want very much to help. I was just informed that your father had died some cycles back, and that you lived with your mother in Patula for several cycles. I’m terribly sorry for your loss, for all of your losses.”

The boy looked at the roast in front of him, feeling hungry but still unable to get himself to eat. He thought of his mother whom he had seen for the last time earlier that morning, and felt hollow. Governor Haddick looked at the boy with saddened eyes, having compassion for what the boy must be feeling, but put those thoughts aside and pulled out a small textpad from his lap and placed it on the table in front of Brax, who refused to look directly at it. This did not surprise Haddick at all, but attention was paid from his periphery as he continued to sit and wait patiently. After a few moments, Haddick shifted in his seat and gained Brax’s attention with a cleared throat and a forced smile.

Would you be interested in possibly staying with your fathers sister—your aunt—for at least a little while?”

Brax stiffened a little at this. He knew about this aunt, an older half-sister of his father, and still could not think of her name. He then thought of his mother, who apparently hated the woman. She had rarely mentioned her, and when she did a pained expression overcame her face which she seemed to repress when Brax caught it. His mother was a mostly serious woman who rarely reacted to anything emotionally, so this expression had always surprised him on the rare occasion it became applicable. He always wondered who this woman was that caused such pain and anger to come through to the surface of his mother’s tough exterior, but something had always prevented him from finding out anything about her.

Brax felt a sudden rise of sadness overcome him as he imagined his mothers face, and he lowered his head and forced the sadness down low. He didn’t want the governor of Gullina to see him sad and crying. He wanted to remain tough, like his mother was strong the day that she heard that Brax’s father was dead. This thought excavated the memory of lulu birds singing, his mother’s face half in shadow, and the sunlight that illuminated the half that was not in shadow. Brax forced this memory from his mind and shook his head to clear it before he looked back up.

I understand that you have not seen her in many cycles and probably do not remember her at all, but according to the interlink she still lives in Cesternatton. You are welcome to stay here if you like, as long as you like, but if you would prefer to be with family it looks like she is the closest family that you have that is still ali—” Haddick caught himself at this, as he saw the word he was about to utter cause pain in the boy. He could not imagine how hard this was for him, and yet he felt a little proud that the boy was able to take it so well. He cleared his throat again and moved to stand up, then stopped as he saw Brax looking at him, obviously fighting the pain of such a loss which the governor had trouble imagining.

Brax, I’m sorry I said anything. We can talk about this tomorrow, if you like.”

Brax watched him for a moment as the governor got up and walked across the room. Brax also noticed that the textpad was still on the table in front of him, but the image was obscured by a glare from the light which hung from the wall. As Haddick opened the door to the hallway, he looked back and caught Brax looking at the textpad he had left on the table with some anticipation, and then passed through the door, shutting it quietly behind him. Brax waited a moment, but his curiosity overpowered him. He looked again at the door, and heard that the governor’s footsteps lead him towards the office down the hall. Brax heard a chair move across the floor in that office, and what sounded like the governor sitting down to his desk to do some work. Brax reached across the table and pulled the pad towards him and turned it around to catch a glimpse of the image of a woman. He could see a resemblance to his father in her face. She looked cheerful, thoughtful, and intelligent in this image. She appeared to be speaking, perhaps from a lectern, and her eyes were intense but smiling. And she did look a little like his father, a man that Brax barely remembered but whose face was as familiar to him as his own. His mother had displayed a picture of his father and her together at their home, and Brax would sometimes stare at that picture and try to remember him. That picture was gone now. It was all gone.

Brax began read the short bio under the picture, and as he did so he leaned back with the pad and read with increasing interest. He learned that his estranged aunt was quite accomplished and well-known, yet somehow unknown to him. She had become an expert in ancient history, studied on Kasara for many cycles, taught at the University of Cesternatton for many cycles later, and did indeed still live in Cesternatton where Brax had lived before his father died.

In looking at this profile, Brax wondered what it was about her that had made his mother react so strongly. What could an accomplished historian have done to make his mother so irritated? Brax wondered once again why it was that his mother had decided to leave Cesternatton, the city of her family for generations, as far as Brax knew. She had cut herself off from that city and most of the people she had known there since then, and Brax didn’t know why. It was a rare thing for anyone to do, especially someone from Cesternatton, and she decided to do so the very day after Brax’s father died for reasons that Brax was ignorant of. The subject always upset his mother, so he never asked directly about it but only tried to hint at it a few times. Unsuccessfully, of course.

Brax considered possibly inquiring about his mother’s one remaining friend in Cesternatton—was he a cousin of his mother? He just didn’t know—who had visited last cycle. What was his name…Brax just couldn’t remember that right now either, and perhaps this was reason enough to toss this idea. Brax knew that there were other family members of his still in Cesternatton besides this woman, but he had not seen them in many cycles and was not close to any of them. The mystery of this woman, this Shontesta, whom his mother apparently disliked greatly, began to draw complex swirls of curiosity in Brax’s mind, and he decided that he would at least want to meet her, talk to her, and find out what made his mother react in such a way towards her.

At that, Brax decided he was exhausted, and retired to the room he was given to sleep in. His sole surviving possession, a textpad he had just modified this morning, lay on the bed. The clothes he had been given to wear were laid out on the top of a dresser, and Brax looked at them as if they were clothes befit for a Kasarian—they were alien and looking at them made his insides feel ill. He sat on the bed, and found himself falling backwards. Catching himself, he squirmed to pull himself towards the pillows and lay on his back and closed his eyes. The last thing he heard as he fell towards sleep was the muffled conversation of Gullinan officials still talking a few rooms away.

He dreamed of death that night. He dreamed of fire, of his mother, and he dreamed of that feeling of that device in that transport before the explosion. The memory of it was like a brilliant sparkling of beauty through a mist of ugly poison, but it was still there. He had almost forgotten about that feeling, that experience, and that power. Almost.

4. The Nimri

Late in the cycle 794 PC (Pre-Cooperative, an anachronistic date, of course), the Patula arrived at the last known location of the Thale. Finding nothing but empty space, they progressed along the planned trajectory of said ship until fragments of what they concluded was the remains of the massive ship were detected. They were the remains of an explosion apparently, and forensic investigation seemed to rule out the possibilities of engine malfunction or power surge in the reactor, but they seemed to be that of the Thale quite conclusively. The investigation made it clear that the ship was, as the Thalean government feared, attacked and destroyed. Further investigation concluded that the star-system which the Thale was en route to was filled with faint energy signatures and so Damula commanded that they head straight towards it.

As the Patula approached the system, detection of massive power sources and various artificial structures, objects in space, and signals of the same sort as the one the Fez had been sent to study were picked up and recorded. Confident in their ship and its armaments, the Patula headed straight for the planet where most of the signals were coming from, and began signaling them to announce their approach and to demand an explanation as to why the Thale was destroyed.

Damula was obsessed, angry, and insistent. He would find his answers.

Damula was certain that the Thale must have been destroyed without warning. He couldn’t believe that such a ship of mastery could have been destroyed in an honest fight so easily, and without any sign of debris from any other ships. So sure were they that the Thale was destroyed through deception or before its shielding could be powered up, that they were not prepared for what was about to happen.

Just as the Thale had been equally unprepared, apparently.

Before the Patula could approach the planet, a smaller ship contacted the Patula on their own Thalean frequencies, in the Thalean primary language, using Thalean identification codes embedded in the stream;

Discontinue your approach towards the planet, hold your position, and don’t bother powering up your defenses,” was all it said.

The message was in perfect Thalean with a Patulan accent. No detectable translation program was apparent in the feed, so the Commander smiled and seemed heavily relieved. It was an audio message only, so the commander of the Patula responded in kind, a bit confused but pleasantly so.

This is Commander Damula of the Thalean defense ship Patula. Please identify your rank, name, and please explain how you survived that explosion on the Thale. And please tell me you were not the only one to survive.”

There was a moment of silence that seemed to last too long for comfort. The smaller ship, in the mean time, placed itself in an aggressive position directly beside the Patula and powered up its defenses. The Commander’s smile melted away, and he motioned to his Officer of Defense to power up shield-plating while he replied;

Commander Damula to unidentified ship, please explain why you have powered up weapons. Please identify yourself. Again, this is the Thalean defense ship Patula. We came in search of a ship, the Thale, that we lost contact with some time back, and found the remains of it on the course for this system, having been apparently attacked. Do you know about this attack, who was responsible, and what the cause of the aggression was?”

Another moment, and then a response, in the same voice and language, although with more rasp than before, and much more than one would expect from a Thalean.

There is no need of a cause for aggression. Aggression simply is.”

Damula turned to his officers and looked perplexed. This is not something any Thalean he had ever known would say. He responded;

May I ask, with whom I am speaking?”

I am Hull, from the Tuyin clan, dominant clan of the Nimri. We destroyed your ship. None survived. They were aggressive, and they were defeated. Are you from the same clan as the ship…the Thale…or from a different clan?

Damula looked pale. The officers in the control room looked angry, confused, and a few began to power up the rest of the defensive systems at the non-verbal request of the Commander.

Am I to understand that you are not Thalean?”

None of the five-hundred and fifty-four Thaleans survived.”

A few of the officers winced, and the Commander now stood very erect, his voice gaining some rasp of its own.

My curiosity has peaked, as your mastery of our language is impressive, considering you probably never even spoke to our sister ship before you destroyed it. Be warned that we will not be caught off guard in the same way.’

He turned to his officer of armaments and said flatly and with a wry smile, while the channel was still open, and with a voice loud enough to make sure that the Nimri on the other side would hear it.

Give that little piece of scrap metal out there a 10% energy burst with the main gun on my order.”

He waited a few seconds to see if the ship would flee, and when it didn’t he gave the order;

Now.”

The main gun powered up and gave a short burst of fire onto the smaller ship, which hadn’t bothered to move, increase power to defenses, or fire back in any way. But the blast didn’t even touch the ship. The blast of energy made contact with an invisible shield surrounding the ship—a very large shield that surrounded much more than it seemed to need to—and the ship didn’t as much as nudge.

OK,” said Damula a little surprised, “make it 50%. Now!”

This time a more significant burst leaped from the gun, but again the ship next to them was not nudged a single measure. The field held and did not appear to waver at all.  When the noise of the guns died down, he could hear laughter through the speakers.  Damula gripped his hand into a fist, his eyes firing ire through the view screen to a man, a thing, he could not see, followed by a shot from his mouth;

That’s it! Full attack. All guns open fire, now!”

A flurry of guns opened up, some missiles fired, and for a number of seconds the ship was hidden on the main screen in front of them by a ball of fire that seemed to caress and protect that field and the ship within, rather than attack it.

Sir, I detect a 57% drop in power from that shield, but the ship is still intact and holding its position. It has not fired yet.”

Damula’s expression showed disbelief. This ship was armed with the most powerful weapons that the recently formed Thalean military had when they left Thalea close to 11 cycles before. The ship was operating at better than 98% capacity, according to the display in front of him.  He felt the demon living inside that armor begin to thrash about, and the armor begin to buckle. He turned to his crew and began barking orders at various officers who snapped to attention and hurried to follow Damula’s demands.

Double check the current power levels of the reactor. Is there a malfunction in the weapons system? Are the weapons receiving full power from the reactor? Check the power relays to make sure that they are functioning at full capacity. Or maybe….”

The ship rocked suddenly, and alarms were blaring from multiple stations around the control room.  Officers were thrown to the floor of the control room and for a moment the lights flickered and the artificial gravity dipped in strength, but then reasserted.

What the fuck was that?”

I don’t know, Damula,” said a female voice from the controls next to him, getting to her feet to check her panel. “It seems to have been some sort of shock wave from the ship. It knocked us back some distance. I’ll compensate and stabilize the ship. Minor damage only, power levels returning to 94…no 95 percent.

I want that ship back on communications!”

It never left sir” said another voice. “We are still transmitting and receiving”

Yes, Commander Damula, I can still hear you. I hope that my little shock wave didn’t do too much damage. If you keep coming back, I might have to actually use some real weapons.”

Damula walked purposefully, with unhidden rage on his face, to the visual display that showed a irritating little dark reddish-brown ship that was farther away now (hell of a shock wave, apparently, he thought but quickly dismissed) but moving slowly closer. Just a few moments ago, before that so-called “shock wave” hit, that view had been a sea of explosions and energy bursts. And yet the little ship showed no damage whatsoever.

The armor that had held back the anger in him had not only burst open, but simply ceased to exist. His mind reeled with pure livid intensity as he stared at the little ship on the view screen, and he turned back to the officers behind him and began to seethe, visibly and audibly;

I want that little piece of shit out of my sight. Open up all weapons and release the safeties from the reactor. I want to burn that thing with every quanta of energy that reactor can output. I don’t care if you melt the guns to do it, but destroy that fucking ship, NOW!”

A feverish crew, perhaps afraid to even question the Commander in this state, began to make the necessary adjustments as he turned back to the display to notice the smaller ship just sat there, as if it were taunting him. It still seemed to be moving closer.

Why won’t you run? Are you not afraid of us?” he said under his breath. “Are the Thaleans impotent to you, hmm? I will destroy you, do not even fucking think that we can’t!” he said, his voice rising to more audible levels, face quivering. It was a deadly anger that was not unseen by his crew, but never at such intensity.

Again, that voice from the other ship, once again calm and but still amused, responded.

“Yes, yes, I’ve heard this all before. Another of our ships of the Tuyin clan, commanded by a close acquaintance of mine, played back the audio from the transmission from the other ship…your Thale…. Its Commander, a Rilko I believe, made much the same threats, though I must say that your performance was much more convincing and amusing. I must say that I have been very pleased to have heard it. Your race is a weak race, not a worthy adversary really, which is why I ultimately don’t agree with my friend in his decision to destroy your Thale despite his reasons. It would have been much better to just kick you around for a bit then send you home crying, like the failures that you are.”

He paused for a moment and the taunting was replaced by the sounds of subtle motions by officers making the necessary adjustments to the power systems and weapons. Then Hull seemed to get audibly restless and impatient, as there was a bit of an edge of annoyance in his voice now;

Well, since you are still making those oh so deadly adjustments to your power system, I might as well play it for you…let me see, I’ll load it into the communication system and play it on your own speakers, and you can take it home and play it to your government and they can all get quite angry and bemused by how the great Thalean civilization is not so great after all.”

The next moment a voice began to transmit. It was unmistakably Commander Rilko, of the Thale. Damula would recognize her voice anywhere, even after all these cycles. He heard a familiar pitch, intonations, but that anger… that was new. He suddenly became aware of the state that he was in, and was now hearing what he had become himself. His fears, that he had changed, had apparently not been his alone. The same threats, the same disbelief, anger, and….was that fear? It was fear. Rilko sounded terrified in that transmission. Did Damula sound terrified too? No, impossible, he thought forcefully.

Then, after no more than a minute of listening to that other Commander yell threats and commands to his officers to do just the same thing as Damula had just commanded, which gave pause to the officers and their commander—frozen in disbelief at what they were hearing—the transmission cut out, and Hull continued, this time almost laughing again;

Yes, that was when my clansman gave your big strong ship a warning shot, as you see your Commander Rilko decided to be more aggressive and started with that nice, orderly number of 25%, rather than your weak 10% effort. That little push we gave you was a mere jolt to get your attention. As you say ‘fuck’, it wasn’t even a weapon but a tool we use to move asteroids when we need to. The remains you seem to have found should be sufficient for you to notice that our ships are much more powerful than yours. Such a small percentage of the power output from that ship of my clansman, which was a ship about the same size as mine, completely obliterated the great Thale, and the Thaleans within.”

Damula’s eyes froze in shock under furrowed brows. His whole body became rigid, his chest heaved with anger, his jaw and hands clenched, and the back of his shirt was soaked in sweat. He turned to his officer of defense and managed to get out two words between his quivering lips and clenched teeth.

Kill that!”

The officer kept his eyes on Damula while he unhappily manipulated the controls, and the Commander turned to the view screen to watch the bombardment. The ship lurched and groaned as the reactor was at its peak of output, causing the lights in the control room to dim to almost blackness. As the reactor gave as much as it could give, and as the slow initiating hum of the backup minor reactors kicked in more power to compensate, the view screen flickered back on and the ship was still there, with not a visible scratch on it as the explosions dissipated.

I detect approximately 25 percent power on their shield, and superficial and minor damage to the ship itself. Our main gun, secondary guns, and missile batteries are all burned out or depleted, and main power is offline. I estimate at least a day before we can get the reactor back online with sufficient power to get the engine functioning at any more than 25 percent. Our shielding is still damaged but returning to maximum strength now. Your suggestion, Commander?”

Damula looked weakened and defeated. His legs shook and he was near to collapsing. He held himself from falling by catching himself on the communications station to his right, and merely stared at the ship through the view screen.

Then Hull spoke again, laughing energetically as he spoke.

Well, well. I see you have gone and burnt out most of your critical systems there. I’ll tell you what. I’ll give you a little help, and make sure to keep your detection system at maximum sensitivity for what’s about to happen, as it will give your researchers back home something to ponder for a few cycles…or centuries. I’ll wait a minute because I know how slowly it takes you to adjust the settings on your new toy.”

The Officer of detection did, in fact, adjust the settings to maximum sensitivity and even turned on some on the non-standard detection devices (the ones that were still functioning, anyway), and waited. They all waited. For a moment or two nobody moved, breathed, and a heavy wave of anxiety settled in the room. Nobody had any idea what to expect.

The Commander was about to speak when all of the sudden he felt a slight tingling throughout his body. The feeling intensified and by the looks of the officers around him, he wasn’t the only one to feel it. Then the energy changed its….flavor? texture? It changed in a very noticeable way and there was a sort of flash of light, and a moment of disorientation.

When the flash was gone and the Commander could see again clearly, he turned to the view screen again. As he interpreted what he saw his jaw dropped. He was looking at Thalea, around which the ship appeared to be orbiting.

Officer, please verify our position. Is that Thalea or is the view screen malfunctioning?”

A moment of officers checking data, and one responded with utter disbelief in his voice. “Yes Commander, it appears as if we are home.”

Damula’s fear had transformed into awe. They had traveled, in a flash, a distance that should have taken cycles at maximum speed. He wanted to know how that was possible.

And that’s when Damula noticed one of the new planetary defense satellites approaching, with guns fully charged and ready to fire.

5. Shonny

Brax awoke in a small room two days after the loss of Patula, sunshine streaming in through the window carrying with it the song of birds. It was the First Season in the south, and the flowers and trees were starting to bloom. Brax could hear the lulu bird singing its patented theme, apparently unaware of the shock that the whole Cooperative was in. They were also unaware that Brax always sort of hated that little song. It reminded him of his early childhood, from which he derived unpleasant memories, especially of early mornings with singing lulu birds.

He was back in Cesternatton on the Southern continent with his aunt, one new to him and whom he had only met the day before as far as he remembered. The smell of cooking, as well as the damned bird song, had awoken him. He had the same dream again during the night. Two nights in a row he’s stuck in a subtrans with fire all around. All he can feel is that overwhelming surge of power running through him. In the dream there is no Divi that he could see—no Protector; while he’s decided not to refer to them as Divis anymore, he’s also discovering that such habits break with difficulty. He, like everyone else, had mostly convinced himself that this was mostly out of respect, but the truth is that it was also out of fear. And envy.

In the dream he’s on the transport again when he hears an explosion. It isn’t as intense as the one that destroyed Patula, mostly because whatever Menson did that day muted it for Brax such that he had no inkling of its magnitude anyway. He looks out the window as the fire outside gets closer, and Brax is trying desperately to find a way to stop it, but he can’t. And as it gets hotter and the flames approach, he wakes up in a sweat, still wishing he could do something about it. This time, at least, he had been able to get some more sleep, but not much more. He’s tired, hungry, and scared. He pulls on his pants and stumbles into the hall and follows the smell of firstmeal with the kind of involuntary draw that can only come in times when intention does not want to be found.

He knows that he would be dead had it not been for Menson. But he only knows this in some ghostly way, or the way we know we are dreaming and yet are still scared of the shadows of reverie. The fact that almost all the other eighteen million people in Patula that day are all dead hasn’t really sunk in yet. He won’t let it sink in. He knows that the twenty-one passengers of that transport, as well as the six others that the other Protector—whose name was Natak, Brax had heard—happened to be near when the accident happened were feeling much the same way. He had been the youngest to be saved, and that gained him a bit of extra sympathy with the discussions and news on the interlink, and so he decided to hide from the world in a small city in which he grew up. It was, perhaps, not the best place to hide, but he didn’t know where else to go. Besides, he had to figure out why his mother disliked this woman so much. So far, he had not a clue.

As he neared the entrance to the kitchen, he wondered if the city could ever be rebuilt. He wonders if anyone would even bother trying. He wonders what will happen to replace the government officials that were killed, which was nearly all of them as they were in session when the accident happened two or three measures from the center of the blast. Only sixteen officials, for whatever reason not present at the session, survived. Most of them were off world, at their various home worlds in most cases. None of the Thalean Cooperative governors survived. Their dedication to detail in their work could be blamed for that, as a Thalean politician almost never missed any sessions. And so now the Cooperative was led by the senior surviving governor, Aldea from Brua. This Bruuk had been attending a conference at the time of the session and was well known for his great knowledge and academic achievements, but not so much for his leadership. Even at twelve Brax knew that this was a very difficult situation to be in for any official, especially a largely academic one. All of these thoughts began to fade as hunger asserted itself in Brax’s consciousness. He became keenly aware of his empty and demanding stomach as the aroma became more pronounced.

Shontesta, whom he had hardly paid any attention to for the first few moments of standing near the doorway of the kitchen, was cooking on an ancient style stove, with hot pans and all. There were still, even after all these centuries, people who actually cooked on Thalea. On other worlds, it was more common, especially with the Nisivalen who prided themselves on their culinary techniques, and often with legitimate reason. But on Thalea the technology was utilized that allowed a hungry person to create any food by the mere pressing of a few buttons on a pattern converter that would give you a meal of excellent quality. Nonetheless, there were a few people who still enjoyed the process of making a meal without the help of this technology. Shonny, as her friends called her (and who wasn’t her friend that knew her?), was one of them. After all, people would hear Shonny argue, it was tedious to program a new recipe every time she came up with a new concoction. Most of the fun was making something new and delicious, not merely filling your stomach.

Shonny was a woman of mere one-hundred and sixty-four cycles. She was energetic, with dark red hair, and beautiful. She had spent the majority of her life in this town, and was an extremely patient, friendly, and well loved woman. She lived in a small house on the edge of town and was an expert in ancient history, especially of the Southern Continent. She had taught at the University for more than fifty cycles, and still lectured there occasionally, but she spent most of her time with books, cooking large dinners for the many friends who lived in the area, and occasional trips to many of the other planets within the Cooperative.

As she cooked, she looked out the window at an old tree which provided shade to the back of the house. It was a tree she planted as a child and was now old and perhaps close to dying. Shonny, like almost every Thalean her age, might live another three hundred or more cycles without worrying about such things, as the Thaleans had genetically engineered themselves centuries before to allow life to last much longer than it once did. This made Brax very young, indeed, from the point of view of the rest of the world.

Shonny had eagerly agreed to allow Brax to stay with her for as long as he wanted when governor Haddick contacted her from Gullina after The Accident. She was a half-sister of his father, which made her the closest to family that he had on Thalea now that his mother and father were dead. Not that family was much of importance to the Thaleans, but it seemed the natural choice for Haddick, and Brax’s curiosity about his aunt solidified his decision. The day after Haddick asked Brax about the idea, after some fanfare with the media and some grandiose speeches from the Gullinan government about the tragedy, Brax was taxied to the southern town in a private skytrans, courtesy of the governor, who saw him off.

And now Brax found himself sitting at the table nearby where Shonny was finishing what could only have been gatal eggs (real gatal eggs, it seemed, probably from the gatals that lived behind the house) with some delicious smelling gravy he didn’t recognize by scent. She looked at him sidelong, smiling, but a bit sadly. Brax didn’t even look at her. He couldn’t shake thinking about that surge he felt in that subtrans before the explosion which he was just dreaming about not long before. He could almost feel it still, enveloping his skin, muscles, organs, and bones in some energy that he didn’t understand. What that feeling was, Brax had no idea. It had something to do with that device the Protector had, he thought as he absently watched the eggs cook.

It was very early in the morning, and Brax had been up late unable to sleep. He had not eaten much in the last couple of days, and his stomach was complaining louder than his recent aversion to eating. Plus those eggs smelled damn good. Brax managed to make his way to the chair closest to him and sit down. As he did so, Shonny turned to him and finally broke the silence, managing to shake that feeling out of Brax, at least a little.

Did you sleep sufficiently?”

Brax considered telling her about the dream, but decided against it for the moment.

Better than the night before,” he said. “But I hate those lulu birds.”

He thought that this might distract her from using her uncanny ability that he encountered the day previous to see through half-truths, and looked down at the table, hoping she wouldn’t push further. But despite only knowing her for one day, he already knew better.

What was the dream about?” she asked over her cooking eggs.

Brax sighed to himself. He wasn’t even sure why he was avoiding the subject anyway, because he wanted very much to understand what the dream was about, why he was having it, and why he couldn’t stop thinking about that feeling rather than the tragedy that followed it. So he straightened himself up and looked directly into Shonny’s eyes. Her eyes had a reddish tint that really complimented her golden skin and dark, slightly reddish hair.

I had it the previous night as well,” he said finally.

Shonny took a quick look at the pan in front of her, then turned towards the table carrying it, and nudged a wonderfully aromatic egg onto a plate in front of him, and then sat in the chair to his right, giving herself the other egg but not touching it.

I thought as much. Did you know you were screaming in your sleep?”

Brax wasn’t aware of this, but was not really surprised to hear it. He wanted to talk about it, but his stomach was growling in anticipation of the egg in front of him so he grabbed a fork and wedged a piece off and eagerly scooped it into his mouth. It tasted wonderful, and for a moment he was lost in the flavor, and forgot about the dream. Shonny watched as he finished his egg, and when he was done she brushed hers onto his plate, which she still had not touched, and Brax accepted it gladly with a glance and continued to finish the second in like-fashion.

When he had finished, feeling quite satisfied, he looked up to see that Shonny was sitting very still, looking directly at him with a slight questioning frown that brought Brax back to the world around him.

Tell me about the dream, if you like. I’m very interested to hear how your mind is processing your experience.”

Brax wasn’t fazed by her directness, as it was a common Thalean trait. He cleaned the last of the sauce off the plate with his finger, raised it to his mouth and sucked off the marvelous flavor and resolved himself to focus his mind on the memory of his newly recurring nightmare.

I’m on the subtrans on my way to…well, I guess I’m my way home, but it feels like I’m on my way somewhere else…somewhere I’ve never been maybe, but it feels different. I can’t explain it, really.”

Shonny nods and waves her hand as if to say ‘go on’ and Brax continues.

I hear an explosion, and the world outside is on fire. Not just the platform or the city, but the whole world, it seems.”

He stops, trying to recall every detail, but the dream has faded some. He looks at Shonny uncertainly, and she leans forward a little, still not breaking that stare. She has a sort of knowing look on her face, and it suddenly strikes him that this woman is more than ten times his age, despite not looking noticeably different than a thirty-five cycle-old. She has a look of being much more than she appears, knowing much more than she will ever admit, and yet pulling off the façade of being aloof, simple, even somewhat naïve. He makes a note to keep in mind that this is only a pretense. Pushing that thought aside for the moment, he continues with what he does remember.

As I look out the window, I remember feeling like the fire is getting closer, and the transport starts to feel hot. And…wait, yes! People are looking at me, as if they are waiting for me to do something, and then…then…” He can’t seem to remember what happened after that, but Shonny’s question sparks it back for him;

Tell me; was the Protector in your dream?”

No!” Brax said quickly, surprised that he had forgotten about his not being in the dream. “In the dream I’m on the transport, and the Divi—the Protector…”

Shonny smiled a little at the derogatory title that Brax obviously had habitually used, and nodded for him to go on.

“…the Protector is not there. The other passengers are, or at least they are for the beginning of the dream…I think they sort of disappear towards the end…and I am trying to get out, to help, to…to…”

“…to be the Protector yourself. To save the transport yourself.  Perhaps, to be able to save yourself, rather than be helpless in fear….” Shonny finished. And when Brax heard this, he knew she was right. The feeling he had had during the dream was of wanting to be the Protector. It wasn’t that the Protector wasn’t there; it was that he had replaced him somehow, which is why his absence had not seemed so odd to him.

In that moment, upon that understanding, Brax regarded her closely. He could not imagine any reason why his mother would have disliked Shonny. She seemed intelligent, direct, honest, and everyone he met yesterday seemed to be her greatest admirer and friend. He decided to be cautious, but he also felt like he was quickly becoming her admirer as well. The thought of how this may have made his mother feel gave him a sudden winching pain in his mind, as he didn’t want to think about her right now. Shonny leaned back a little and looked in the direction of the door, and took a deep breath.

How did the surge feel, to you? Not in the dream, but the day of the…the Accident?”

She intoned that last word with a bit of irony. Brax felt angry at this. Did she mean to imply that it was no accident at all? Her tone seemed to imply that. She seemed to notice his irritation and repeated the question without reference to The Accident, ironic or otherwise.

I don’t know what you mean.” He lied, still angry.

When the Protector took out his…” she stopped for a second, as if to catch herself, “when he took out his device as you referred to it in your report to the officials; how did it feel?”

Brax stiffened a little. That feeling in his skin returned, and he almost didn’t want to admit how much he liked how it felt, but he realized there was no point in trying to deceive Shonny, who was, by the standards of the Cooperative but not so much Thalean tradition, his aunt. But thinking about that feeling also made him feel uncomfortable and scared. It made him feel a way that he only felt when, well, when he felt angry. It made him feel powerful, and with such power he wasn’t sure what he could or would do. So he decided to be honest, but only honest enough.

It felt like…it felt like I was swimming in energy, as if it were a kind of liquid or gas around me that I could almost feel, taste, and touch.”

Is that all?” she asked abruptly.

Brax hesitated, and Shonny noticed this and leaned in closer.

Did it hurt in any way? Did you feel like yourself still? Most importantly, did it make you feel uneasy or weakened?”

Brax could only stare at her wide-eyed, and he could feel himself about to swallow, an action which he knew would give too much away to her, but also which he couldn’t help himself from doing. She seemed to perceive an affirmative in this subtle and involuntary exploit of muscles in his neck, and she then leaned back and said, mostly to herself, “I had a feeling that was the case.” And then she looked contemplative, staring at the door with a sort of knowing smile that seemed to climax in her eyes.

Brax felt impelled to say more, and he was glad that he could shift the discussion to the feeling of being weakened, rather than of feeling powerful and invincible. Weakness and pain he knew well, but power was rather new, and exciting, to him.

Perhaps too exciting.

This last thought he dismissed before continuing.

It was as if he did something, something that changed how the energy flowed, and it felt as if the life was being sucked out of me, and I felt like I was dying, weakened, and, well, I’m not sure how to describe it, but it was terrifying.”

He had wished he hadn’t said that last part, but as he looked at her now she didn’t seem to notice that latter comment, anyway. After a moment or two of apparent deep contemplation, Shonny looked at him with an intensity he had not seen in her face before. It seemed as if she were considering something, and not finding an easy decision. After a few moments of silence, she got up to make herself another egg, and Brax watched her prepare the ingredients. He watched, fascinated, because it was not often that he had seen someone cook. She would occasionally turn her head to look at him, looking unsure, as if a battle were going on inside her mind and every once in a while one side would almost win, when the other would keep the battle going with a sudden invigoration, and she would reconsider.

Brax didn’t know what to make of this, so he watched silently and tried to imagine that surge again. When she was finished making her egg, she sat down to eat it and slowly proceeded to cut a small piece off at a time and chew each one, slowly and deliberately. Every so often she would look at him curiously, and Brax grew more and more anxious to know what it was she was thinking. Finally, after what seemed like a lifetime of this (at least to the young Brax), of his impatiently shifting in his chair, leaning forward, back, and forward again he finally stood up, knocking the chair over in doing so, and looked directly at her while wanting to say something but not knowing what to say. As he clumsily picked up the chair, not intending to get up so suddenly and surprising himself with the ferocity of the sudden motion himself, he regarded her still looking at him.

This unusually aggressive action didn’t phase Shonny one bit, almost as if she had been expecting it, or at very least thought it probable. She simply put her fork down, leaned back, and nodded her head subtly with a smile of accomplishment on her face.

So,” she started bluntly, “you want to be a Protector, hmm? You want to know how that thing works, so you can have that kind of power, do you?”

Brax’s expression turned to utter confusion at this outrageous suggestion, but then as the words settled in his mind, he felt a scream of ‘YES!’ throughout his body, and then he looked at her again. That affirmation was screaming from that energy that he still felt himself swimming in. The desire to feel that way again was transforming itself into a need to have that power in his hands, but the enormity of that desire he kept to himself. He hoped that she wouldn’t see it. He hoped to mask it by shifting the up-righted chair, and proceeded to do so.

OK,” she said at that. “But you do realize that this power is beyond you, don’t you? The Protectorate doesn’t take new members…at least they very rarely do from what I understand. But I might be able to offer you something interesting anyway. I cannot help you become a Protector, but I can, perhaps, find a way to get you closer to them than you would otherwise. But if that’s what you want, you are going to have to stay here for a while with me. There is much you have to learn before that can happen, many things I need to show you.”

Brax suddenly felt naked and disoriented. He wasn’t sure if he could stay here; this place was too honest, too open, and too raw. This desire for that power was a feeling he wasn’t sure he wanted to share, as it was a feeling that scared him…and excited him. And after all, shouldn’t he be more concerned with the loss of his mother and his city than this? If so, then why were they talking about this rather than any of the more important issues? Brax considered that maybe she was just doing this to take his mind away from the tragedy. And for now he was glad to be distracted.

He didn’t quite know what this woman was going to offer him, but at the moment he didn’t know what else to do. Then he remembered that his mother had some reason to distrust or at least dislike this woman very strongly. He also could not shake the feeling that this woman was more than she appeared, or so it seemed more and more with each passing moment.

Shontesta smiled, got up to clean her cooking tools, and Brax could only stand there with the up-righted chair still in his grasp. He watched as she cleaned up from her cooking while humming a tune he didn’t recognize, frozen with the back of that chair against his palm. Eventually, he would walk out of there, but for now he was transfixed by that feeling of confusion about what to think of this woman. But if she could possibly help and shed some light on what happened in that subtrans just two days ago, perhaps it might be worth putting all of that aside for now.

That mysterious experience and the feeling that he had; they may not be out of reach. He could get closer to it, he thought. That might be enough, at least for a while.

6. Shared Secret

The Patula was never in any danger from the planetary defense system, as it was well equipped to tell the difference between friend and foe. Still, the fact that the crew of the paralyzed ship didn’t know that made for a very tense few moments. Shortly after those moments passed, Damula went to the surface to speak with the expanded military leadership outside of the younger, and much smaller, city of Patula compared to the one of Brax’s time.

From Zuzek Damula’s point of view, the cycle was an anachronistic 794 PC. In his emotional state from nearly being killed and transported, seemingly instantaneously, light cycles to his home planet he had forgotten that this time-reference was relative, and that his near-light speed traveling had un-synced him from time at home where it was actually 786 PC. He was slowly becoming aware of this fact as he strode through the corridors of the new military central control, where it was obvious that much more time than 11 cycles had passed. Things, he couldn’t help but notice, had changed.

As he was led toward the debriefing, turning left, right, descending an elevator to an underground bunker (an architectural feature he never would have expected before leaving) he found himself reflecting on this city, this planet, and these people. He found himself deeply aware of history pressing upon him. He found himself seeing his home as from a deep place in time, removed and observing like a distant star.

He felt alien.

At the time of this return home, descending into the depths below Patula, the city was home to a little more than two million Thaleans, which was just slightly higher than when he left. Patula was by far the largest city on Thalea. Thaleans are are not a social people, by nature, but had become so for the sake of efficiency, necessity, and perhaps out of some deep and untended curiosity. Until recent centuries the cultures of Thalea had been diverse, spread apart, and communicated only when necessary or convenient. Cultural changes several hundred cycles ago had started to change that, and now less than ten merged and populated locations existed on the entire planet of any consequence, six of them the major cities of Patula, Gullina, Roshtek, Zule, Aderna, and Cesternatton. An overwhelming minority remained in wilderness between, gathered in small communities who did not seek out those cultural changes. But they were slowly, steadily, dying out. They would eventually be all but extinct communities.

Community, through merges, meant better spread of information and technology, so the natural impulse to isolate oneself was overwhelmed by the desire to work together to better understand the nature of things around them. It had been a drastic cultural change, the origins of which were largely lost to history, and it was now nearly universal in its influence. It was an initially reluctant civilization, made out of the desire to cooperate and to share for the sake of survival. Over time, the impulse to gather together replaced the desire for isolation, and so that’s what they would do; gather together into only several cities on both continents, with only a few very small communities in between.

It was uncommon for a Thalean to leave home except for the sake of trade, cooperative efforts, or for the sake of city merging. Travel, whether for vacation or for mere curiosity, was not an idea that would have made sense to most Thaleans. The rare exceptions existed, but it seems that most of them had already left on ships two decades before, one of whom was now about to enter the meeting room to debrief his superiors.

The feeling of being alien was never as strong as it was when the doors to the meeting room opened, and Damula took his seat. There were greetings, observing of the aging on the faces of old friends, comrades, and even rivals. They sat and waited for the rest to arrive, sharing stories and news from the elapsed time. It was the sharing, in a sense, but to Damula it felt strange. Something had changed since he left. On the surface the passing along of information and trading of ideas, thoughts, and tech updates was as it had always been, but his time away had created some rift. But he wasn’t sure if it was just him; they seemed different as well.

In ancient times, the sharing was a sort of ritual. It was a means to keep up with the town nearby, but it was also a means of slowly coming together. A new way to make a spear, a pair of shoes, or (eventually) a transmission for a motor would be copied, shared, implemented, improved on and then shared again. Over time, places were built just for the sake of people coming together to share, and around these building new cities would form, attracting people from villages to re-locate around the sharing centers, and eventually, as more time passed, bigger and better sharing centers would be built, and larger cities would emerge (and sometimes merge) as a result.

As Damula talked and shared in this room, while they waited for the debriefing to begin, there was a sense of nostalgia, home-coming, and a genuine sense of happiness for a little while. As he talked, Damula thought that something was wrong here, and he thought that he could attribute this to the tension of the circumstances, but something else was different and he couldn’t identify precisely what it was yet. There was an unspoken tension in the room, and Damula very much wanted to know what it was.

It felt alien.

Thaleans were not prone to wars. Arguments, rivalries, competition, and deadly fights sure, but not war as they were facing now. Never before in Thalean history had an entire group over there threatened the entire group here. Never before had it been about tribes versus tribes—or clans versus clans as it was with the Nimri. And in the mean time, while all of this was settling on them over the last number of years, something was changing, perhaps already had changed, and Damula was beginning to understand it, slowly.

It had something to do with the sharing. There was a reluctance, a hesitation, in talking to the people in the room now. This type of reluctance he had never seen before, and what was worse is that they seemed comfortable with it. Sharing was principal for Thaleans; to not share was not only a violation of the reason why they bothered to tolerate one-another at all, it just didn’t make good sense to do in the name of efficiency and progress.

And yet, there were things not being said in these greetings. And not merely the little internal things, feeling things, but simple relevant information. The people there were holding something back, and Damula picked up that he would have to wait to see if it would be divulged or not. For the moment, he would merely watch, wait, and see where this meeting went.

As Damula waited for the last of the military leadership to arrive in the large conference room at Military Building One, he found himself still feeling the anger and fear from earlier, but he also felt tired and anxious. He had been mysteriously transported from the scene of the Nimri encounter a mere three hours previous and there was confusion as to why the Patula was on orbit, rather than being where they were supposed to be, or at least hunting down the Thale. When Commander Damula responded that they had just recently found the debris of what was once the Thale, encountered a hostile race, and then were just as confused why—and how—they were in orbit, the meeting was set and Damula was ordered to travel to the surface to brief the Officer of Defense personally.

Now the veil of that reluctance had dropped over the room, and it was clear that something was very different. The room had gone quiet, most had taken their seats off to the side, and Damula found himself faced with six superiors from various parts of the Office; four men and two women who were all wondering what had happened, and Damula didn’t know what to tell them.

The moment these six had entered the room, the casual greeting and sharing had stopped, and they didn’t as much as say hello to him. Rather, they took there seats on one side of the large table in the middle of the larger room, and Damula took his seat across from them. Nobody sat next to him. Feeling uncomfortable by this scene, he looked them all in the eye, one by one, then he started with what had happened, withholding nothing, with possible exception of how scared and overwhelmed he felt. That wasn’t really relevant anyway.

The de-briefing left the six of them in disbelief. They said almost nothing through the details of the events, especially during the replay of the audio from the Thale as well as from his own ship, and nobody quite knew what to say or do.

Previous to these revelations, the Thaleans had no doubt, none at all, that any problem they encountered could be solved with their ingenuity. They had no apparent insecurities about their abilities, but at that moment, perhaps for the first time for all of the people in that room, there was a feeling of hesitation, being overwhelmed, and possibly even overt and shared fear.

Finally, Supreme Commander Milinos spoke;

It is clear that we have encountered a race that is older and more advanced militarily than we have at our disposal. From your description, as well as from the audio you played for us, it seems obvious that they have known aggression far longer than Thalea, and thus obviously have had more time to develop tools and technology of conflict that we have not yet developed. We simply need to find a way to increase power output to our defense systems, as we obviously underestimated the need for defense as a priority for our ships. The new fleet we have protecting Thalea right now already have improved defensive capabilities, and we will work immediately on improving them further.”

A woman to his left shifted in her chair and added;

I agree with your assessment nearly entirely. I will make the necessary preparations to begin designing a new class of ship designed to fight these…‘Nimri’ I believe they are called?”

Damula seemed caught off-guard to be addressed, and cleared his throat, sat up straighter, and answered.

Yes, that is how they identified themselves. They also mentioned something about a ‘clan,’ but I don’t quite understand what they meant by this.”

Yes, I remember that from the audio you played” responded another man on the other end of the table. “Hull…that sounds like a Thalean name. I believe I grew up knowing a man by that name. I suppose names will be common, even among different worlds. Carron, have you had a chance to look at the data from the Patula’s detection system yet?”

Officer Carron Wulliter, a much older Thalean, shook his head. “Not yet, but I’m having my team look over it right now, and I will look at it myself when we are done here.”

Milinos spoke again, this time leaning in a bit, and quieter. “I wonder what we should release to the public at this point. Should we explain the presence of the Patula, release what we know now or wait until we know more before making anything fully disclosed?

This was a question that Damula had not expected, and it sealed his certainty that something here was very different. He had heard reluctance in the voices of those whom he greeted, but it wasn’t until this very moment that he understood that the sharing had changed. Had things become so different in a little less than twenty cycles that Thaleans were keeping secrets? He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. As he was about to voice his disbelief, a voice from behind him, a woman who seemingly entered the room without his notice, spoke up in response.

For now we should remain quiet. We need to find out more about these Nimri.”

So are we to say nothing about this encounter?” a fourth man, someone Damula didn’t recognize, said in response from the table.

We shall tell them that the Thale was destroyed, and that there is a continuing investigation as to who is responsible.”

Milinos, more fiercely now, took issue with this unidentified person coming into this meeting unannounced and making decisions under his jurisdiction.

Who are you, from which Office are you, and why are you at this meeting?”

Excuse me Supreme Commander for my lack of introduction. I am Officer Jasmi, from the office of Central Thalean Communication. I am also working with the Office of Research concerning the development of newer defense technologies. I believe I have met your head of military technology before, haven’t I, Nadia?”

She looked directly at the woman next to Milinos, who looked uncomfortable with the question. “Yes, we have met before. We have worked together on the project that resulted in the development of the Fez, Patula, and Thale. Officer Jasmi was the head designer of the Fez scout ship and I, as you all know, of the Patula and Thale.”

Yes,” replied Jasmi, “the loss of the Thale is truly unfortunate, as Nadia worked so very tirelessly on both of them, and to find them in their current conditions is unfortunate,” replied Jasmi in a tone that seemed genuine but still obnoxious.

Nadia became visibly angry and stood up. “I would prefer to be called Officer Sepri, if you don’t mind.”

Milinos stood up and turned to Officer Sepri, then turned his head to Officer Jasmi, and spoke much more fiercely now. “I am not sure of the nature of your previous relationship, but it is not relevant here. My concern is why your office, the CTC, is concerned in this matter, and why your opinions carry weight with us here? In short, why is the Office of the CTC at this meeting, as it does not pertain to communication directly?”

It concerns us because of the potential technology that is being developed through this office.”

How so?” Milinos asked, becoming annoyed.

At this, Jasmi approached the table and sat directly next to Damula, smiled to him in greeting, and then regarded Milinos confidently.

We need to consider the ramifications of the development of these technologies. Before we decided to venture beyond our planetary system, we had little to no need for defensive technology at all. When was the last time Thalea has seen open conflict? Two-hundred and fifty cycles ago, over the dispute over which city, Gullina or Techery, would merge into the other. That’s how long.”

The room started to look as if they understood where she was going with this line of thought, and Damula spoke first.

You are concerned that by introducing new technology to be disseminated throughout Thalea via the sharing, which would happen through the interlink you manage as well as the Office of Transportation which works under your Office, it is possible that Thaleans might arm themselves with these defense technologies and if any hostilities erupted like they did in the Gullinan merge war, much more damage would be possible and instead of a couple hundred lost, we could lose thousands?”

If not more,” she replied.

Damula simply looked at her perplexed, which Milinos observed and spoke before his bewilderment increased into anger, which he noticed in the corners of Damula’s eyes.

I can see your point, Officer Jasmi. We have discussed this issue at various meetings I have been invited to over the last few cycles, and I have voiced my displeasure with the view you seem to represent. Not sharing is not even an option. An undertaking of this sort, which not only violates our very community but threatens to divide it, is too much to ask especially with something of this magnitude. And even if we could do it, if we make this exception—and I don’t know where the line will be—how will that affect Thalea?”

I don’t know, but it is a question that we need to address now.”

Her response was rehearsed and automatic, it seemed to Damula. She, he guessed, was under orders. Yet, he also thought, she didn’t completely disagree. He wouldn’t have imagined this situation before he left, and barely believed it now. He expected to wake up in a cold sweat at any moment, still on route to the last known coordinates of the Thale, but no such awakening was forthcoming.

The other officers in the room seemed to simply accept this view, as if they were finally giving up on a long fight they knew they were going to lose, but were still not happy about it. Officer Jasmi pulled out some papers and began to organize them in front of her. Officer Sepri watched uneasily, but most of her irritation had now passed. Jasmi looked around the room, noticed she had all of their attention, and began to speak.

What I am about to tell everyone in this room must be kept to ourselves. I know, that seems ridiculous, but just hear what I have to say. I believe that it is necessary, at least for now.”

The room seemed to agree with the ‘ridiculous’ part only. Seeing that, she continued anyway.

I have, under the authority of the Chancellor of Thalean Inter-City Policy, orders that we are to form a new Office within the Greater Thalean Federation. It will be considered a branch of the military, officially, but will be independent in actuality. They will work with the CTC—as well as the military, so don’t get restless just yet Supreme Commander—to determine what information will be protected and what will enter the interlink and become publicly shared.”

She paused and looked down, not exactly looking at the documents in front of her, but apparently trying to believe, or to at very least understand, what they said. With a sigh, she continued;

We are working with unknown parts here, so we’ll have to be at our best in this. We will be creating a hierarchy of shared information, some of which will only be assessable through the new office and by its officers only. This office is to be known, at least for now, as the Office of Protection.”

She stopped there, staring at Milinos, who merely stared back. The room fell silent, still, and after a moment one of the officers—Carron Wulliter—stirred a little and looked directly at Jasmi. After another moment, he spoke.

Protection of or from?” Officer Wulliter began. “What is the subject of their protection; Thalea or of this shared secret of ours?” he continued.

The room seemed to stiffen more, as the words of Officer Wulliter were never taken lightly. The idea of keeping information from the interlink made everyone in the room uncomfortable. Wulliter’s question got to the heart of the issue at hand, and nobody seemed to want to address it at the moment other than this one man.

Damula turned and regarded Jasmi closely. He could sense no intention to deceive or much desire to say the words she was ordered to give. She seemed as uncomfortable with the idea as he felt. But after seeing what he had a few hours before, he wasn’t sure how to analyze the current situation. He wondered if the Nimri, some time in the past, had had a secret meeting comparable to this one. But his line of thought would be interrupted as Halen Milinos, head of the Office of Defense, legendary strategist and well loved man of the people stood up and continued his long eye-contact with officer Jasmi.

And who, my good friend, is to lead this new pretend branch of my Office of Defense?”

Officer Yeri Jasmi also stood up, turned slightly as if to leave the room, and then stopped, turned to Commander Damula, and smiled.

Commander Zuzek Damula stood up, appearing bewildered, and spoke with disbelief.

You do not intend to indicate me?”

Yes, I do” Jasmi replied. Congratulations on your promotion. I have just spoken to Chancellor Krugek a short while ago, and he has requested that you become the new Officer of Protection. There were other qualified people considered, but your recent encounter with the Nimri put you right over the top of the list. You will accept, I take it, so good-day and we’ll be talking very soon. I need to speak with my office to make preparations at this time.”

Wait,” Damula interrupted as Jasmi turned to leave again. “How long has this Office of Protection been in discussion? How long have you been considering this as a possibility?” but his words were ignored as she hurried out of the room.

Milinos spoke this time. “We began discussing the possibility of creating such an office some time after we lost contact with the Thale, but mostly as a RESEARCH WING…,” he shouted at Officer Jasmi as her footfalls faded down the hallway, then he returned his voice to a normal volume when she was out of range of his enormous voice. “However, it appears as if the CTC and other offices decided to go ahead and make this decision without my knowledge which, my friend, is a shock as much to me as it is to you. Things have begun to change here at home, Zuzek, and I’m afraid for what we are headed towards. In any case, this meeting is adjourned for now.”

Milinos looked sullen and contemplative for a moment as the other Officers began to leave the room talking amongst themselves. Milinos had walked around the table towards Damula and as he approached him Milinos looked up with forced cheerfulness and held his hands out to his old friend. Some genuine cheer was present in his next words, and a smile began to creep along the sides of his mouth as he opened in an embrace of Damula as the room emptied.

In any case I enthusiastically agree with their decision to put you in charge of such an auspicious position. You are an excellent choice of officer, my friend Zuzek, and I look forward to working with you here, even of only ‘officially.’ It comforts me that a person of such good character will be in charge of something so, well, so unusual and new to us.”

Damula couldn’t help but smile but a little at this, but also felt a little afraid, as his recent outburst at the Nimri was still reverberating in his mind, as well as the fear that accompanied it. The anger was nothing new to him, but the fear and desire to destroy was distressing to him, at very least. The others would chalk it up to emotions at losing more than five hundred Thaleans and finding the ones responsible—or at least the ones strident about that responsibility. But Damula knew otherwise. He pushed that thought to the side for the moment and looked his friend in the eyes.

I’ve missed you, my old friend.”

Damula noticed that his old friend looked much older than himself, even though they were only a couple of cycles different in age. Damula then remembered again that he had been traveling for some time a high, near light-speed, velocities. He knew that when he returned home more time would pass here than for himself, but seeing it in front of him like this was still a shock. Returning his mind to the question at hand, Damula finally responded.

How are we to operate not only in partial secret but to keep secrets? I don’t know how to do that!”

At that Milinos only looked at him. He had known Damula for many cycles, and there was no question what Milinos was thinking. The Supreme Commander, like every other Thalean, knew very well that there were some things that nobody ever admitted to the world around them. The difference was that Damula and Milinos were two rare cases of people that were willing to admit, at least to one-another, that this was the case. No verbal response was necessary, and they both let the subject drop and walked together out of the room.

Damula thought that perhaps it was the time to use that deeply hidden attribute and strengthen it, because now it seemed like it had a role to play. Perhaps nobody in that room earlier knew the consequences of that thought, and perhaps if they did they may have spoken up. And if they had they would have found that they were all thinking the same thing.

This was a mistake is what Damula was thinking. But that was something that a Thalean would almost never admit. A Thalean kept inside the mistakes made, and acted to cover those mistakes with greater actions that make that mistake irrelevant. Damula knew that the only way to make this mistake of being unprepared for their encounter with the Nimri irrelevant was to never make that mistake again. Once that insufficiency was overcome, then there would no longer be a reason to hide the inadequacy, and no more reason to hide anything from the sharing of Thalean society.

All they had to do was to figure out the Nimri technology and eliminate them as a possible threat to Thalean superiority. There was no doubt in his mind, in any of their minds he thought, that this would be done soon.

Well, no doubt that anyone would admit, anyway.

7. Five Cycles, Five Cities, Five worlds.

It was the Cooperative cycle 1421. Five cycles, to the day, since The Accident.  There was a gathering near the center of Patula crater, as it had become known.  They were the survivors of The Accident, some friends, as well as a few representatives from the government who made the trip from Brua, where political affairs of the Cooperative were centered, temporarily at least.  Chancellor Aldea, who had taken the reigns of control as the new Chancellor shortly after the loss of the vast majority of the government, had called a conference of the survivors to meet where the Cooperative Building One had once stood, which was now a wasteland of what used to be the subterranean part of the ancient city.  He was to make an announcement that would be sent to the rest of the Cooperative via a live feed through the media, and billions were watching.

Some of the deeper levels of the city had not been completely obliterated, but nobody survived even at the lower levels.  The explosion caused massive earthquakes, volcanic activity and structural collapse that killed anyone that might have survived the initial explosion within minutes.  Not even the Protectors that were on Thalea at the time could react quickly enough.  Besides the two in the city that survived (in addition to the one who didn’t, apparently having been too close or not quick enough to have enough time to react), the few others elsewhere were unable to make sense of the devastation quickly enough to get inside to help before it was too late.  This, in itself, was probably as shocking as the news of the explosion.  Protectors, it was thought, could do anything.

Thaleans never had any religion, not in the entire history of their world.  They had never had their own concepts of gods, spirits, or any supernatural power or realms.  The Bruuk sometimes joke that this is because Thaleans lack a power of imagination and abstraction that allow other races to imagine such false beings in the first place.  This is also why, they say, Thaleans never had any need for philosophy; they saw only the world as it was, and thus never had to invent a way of thinking to circumvent the illusions created by minds riddled with fantasy.  Of course, this may be why Thaleans don’t have much in terms of art, as what the Thaleans see as art the Bruuk see as functional architecture and technology that works very efficiently. 

In the last few cycles, the question of how the most advanced of all Thalean achievements, the Protectorate, had become so inefficient as to allow a tragedy of this magnitude to happen under their noses. That question was still not answered, and the Protectors were even more elusive now than they had been before.

Aldea of Brua stood at a lectern in front of the small crowd, seated atop a temporary platform created for the very purpose of this gathering. A couple of skytrans sat waiting behind them all, waiting to taxi them away when the announcement was over.  Seated behind and to his right was his assistant, a Nisivalen that was less than half the height of the Bruuk Chancellor, who himself was a bit tall even for a Bruuk.  He was a white furred man of sixty-five Thaleans cycles, which was somewhat young to be Chancellor, although not the youngest in history.  He was wearing a red and black traditional Bruuk sash with the Cooperative emblem beautifully stitched above the crest of Brua.  He stood looking at the small gathering and paused for a moment, seeming to allow the moment to settle on his large shoulders.  He seemed to make eye contact with all of those in front of him before he straightened himself up to speak.

“I remember the first time I visited Patula.  I was a small boy…well, small for a Bruuk anyway” he said as he indicated his small blue-scaled Nisivalen adviser seated behind him with a quick jostle of his head.  The Nisivalen smiled a bit and remained seated.  Aldea then seemed to re-claim his severe expression and continued. “I remember being truly awe-struck at the sheer size of this city, as well as it’s simplicity, functionality, and—dare I say it—subtle beauty.  Thalean architecture is not known for its aesthetic beauty, but taken as a whole the city itself had a sort of elegance of form that can only be found here, as well as the Thalean colonies of course.  I spent much time here as a young man, having attended special training sessions with some of my colleagues here in Patula before I started my work as a public servant.  My father told me that people with a vision of things that lay beyond the obvious need to be in government, and I had always been a thinker that saw beyond what was right in front of me.”


He stopped for a moment at that and looked down at his hands.  He lifted them up to the crowd and then turned his body to the right and to the left to allow everyone to see them, then continued.

“It was these that, at that point in my life, I had hardly used.  I had my eyes scanning the surface of text pads for so long that I had never taken anything apart, seen how they actually work.  I had a mind that allowed me to see the larger world beyond the world, the one that allowed me to write some of those stories that people used to like so much.  But I had not opened myself to the Thalean inside of me, the tinkerer and inventor, until I spent time in this city.”

Aldea seemed to get more intense and vibrant with each word.  His respiration was visibly increased, and his hands were now pounding the lectern to emphasize certain words.

“It was here that I actually learned how to take one of those textpads apart and see what it was made of.  I got a chance to actually build one of my own from parts I found in the home of a Thalean friend near where I lived.  That’s when it finally connected in my mind that the difference between the home I grew up in, a Bruuk home, and a home of a Thalean is that my home was a place of sleep and relaxation when I came home from whatever it was I was doing with my day, while a Thalean worked in his home and relaxed at sharing centers to offer what he or she had done that day.  A Thalean will go and enjoy a meal and a drink—or two or three if you are Bruuk—and bring with you your new idea, your new invention, and show it off to the world.  This is how this city of Patula was built!  For hundreds of cycles, thousands of years ago, people came to this area from the other smaller villages that used to surround it. As it became easier to just build a house near the sharing center here rather than travel once a day or week, eventually a few small towns in this region coalesced into this great city.  And the same is true of all of the six cities—I’m sorry, even after five cycles I’m still used to thinking of this planet as the six cities—all the remaining five cities on this world came about in very similar ways.  Thaleans didn’t conquer, build armies, or fight one another but rather shared and built and invented until they had a world of peaceful tinkerers and, most importantly, sharers.”

He appeared as if he were about to continue when he stopped himself, and his expression calmed.  He took a deep breath, looked into the crowd and continued.

“And for centuries before the Cooperative existed, the Bruuk people distrusted and fought against Thalean technological superiority, and for good reason as history demonstrates.  The Bruuk were once a people that secretly hated and despised the Thaleans for what they did to Brua in ancient times, not knowing how necessary it was for the Thaleans for their survival, despite their ancient pride.  But when the Nimri attacked Brua, almost leaving it to dust, the Thaleans sacrificed the protection of their two colonies to bring their entire fleet to defend us.  We had never seen the Nimri before that day, and had it not been for the Thaleans that we hated so deeply and so thoroughly, it would have been the last we had seen of anything.  And after the Nimri were no more, the Brua were on the front lines of re-building those two sacrificed colonies and the Brua were the best allies the Thaleans could ask for.  Now, Brua and Thalea are the closest of friends, and I, as a proud Bruuk and a proud leader of the Cooperative, am here to help re-build this city.”

A few murmurs arose at this, and Aldea watched the crowd react and allowed it to settle on its own before continuing. 

“But I want to do something different with this city, something that has only been done on a small scale before but will be done on a larger scale here.  I want to re-build a capital city that includes the architectural styles of all five member worlds. I want a city that blends each style in a way that has never been done from the ground up.  For the past four cycles or so, such a city has been in planning.  I believe that you have all seen the designs that many have proposed and discussed on the interlink, and now we have decided to officially assign some architectural experts, artists, engineers, and so forth from all five worlds in order to design a city that will not be as large, but will function as the governmental center of both the Cooperative and…” he paused for a moment, and turned to his assistant who nodded to him.  “…the center for the Cooperative and the Protectorate.”

At the sound of the word ‘Protectorate’ the crowd shifted some.  Near the front of that crowd sat Brax and Shonny, who both looked at one-another knowingly as a couple of Protectors appeared directly on each side of the Chancellor in a flash.  The one on the left was surely Menson, with whom not one of the survivors in that subtrans had spoken, despite his invitation for contact, since that day.  The other was unknown to Brax by sight, but was very likely to be Natak, the other Protector which survived that day.  As they appeared, another round of murmurs overtook the crowd, which was silenced when the Protector Brax assumed was Natak, spoke.

“Once the design has been completed, however long that may take, the Protectors have agreed to build the new city ourselves, using our own technology. Thus, the effort will take a mere day, rather than cycles.”

The people in the crowd looked at one-another in confusion at this.  The Protectors were not engineers, architects, or builders.  The Protectors were…well, the truth is that nobody really seemed to know what they were.  They were just there, invisible to the world but there in a flash and gone in another.  They seemed invincible, omnipotent, and omniscient.  It is this that gave them their nickname ‘Divis’, from the old Kasarian word for the supernatural entities they used to worship in the pre-temple days.  To imagine them laboring to build a city was to take the comparison too far or to make the gods into mere workmen.  The Protector spoke again.

“I am Natak, as some of you know and as some of you have probably guessed.  I am a Protector of the first order, as is my associate Protector on the other side of the Chancellor.  His name is Menson, as most of you probably know.  We have come to officially announce for the Protectorate that we will indeed be responsible for the materialization of the city once the designs are completed by the commission.  The date of this completion is not known to us, and the matter of its design will not be our business or concern until said designs are given to us for materialization.  We will not participate in the designs or plans of any of the new city, with exception of the designs of the new Protectorate facility which we have already allocated space for and will remain under Protectorate control solely. That is to say that these plans will remain secret, so don’t bother inquiring about them.”

A new murmur, this time more intense, erupted at this.  Brax felt Shonny’s sidelong glance at him but kept his attention on Natak.  Aldea, noticing the surfacing tension, spoke up at this.

“The governing body has agreed to these terms in negotiation with the Protectorate and feels that the risk is negligible.  The Protectorate has assured the government that this facility will not be a risk of accident in the same way as five cycles ago…isn’t that correct, Protector?”

Aldea turned, somewhat timidly, to the Protector on his left, but the other Protector, Menson, spoke up, this time. 

“The failed experiment that was under Protectorate watch in that research facility was unfortunate, which is why the experiment has been moved to a location without civilians in order to relieve your anxieties.”

Aldea was visibly taken aback at this, but said nothing.  Shonny, looking more like a Shontesta than a Shonny with the intensity she carried in her eyes while she stood now, did not remain silent.

“Do you mean to officially verify that the experiment that destroyed Patula is still continuing, Protector?”

Both of the Protectors looked intensely at Shontesta at this.  Natak looked mildly annoyed, but Menson had the look that Brax remembered from his confrontation with the Kasarian before the explosion, and Brax wondered if he was about to switch on his device and hold her in a force-field as well.  Instead, he calmed his expression some and responded. 

“Shontesta of Cesternatton, I hear your question.  Yes, we have continued our experiments.  Out of respect for the concerns that the Protectorate has received in the last five cycles—and we have heard your concerns—we have moved that particular point of research away from any cities, at a location elsewhere.”  Menson regarded Shontesta with a look as if to say ‘is that enough for you?’ and went to look away as she continued.

“Are you at liberty to divulge, finally, the nature of that research if not where it is being conducted?”

At this, Natak spoke before Menson had an opportunity to let escape the thoughts that sat perched on his lips, half-open to release them.

“The Protectorate will release the nature of our research under standard Protectorate code of sharing, as we always…”

“…You mean to say never, right?” Shontesta quipped before Natak could finish. 

And now the crowd around her was dead still.  Nobody could believe what they were seeing.  To see a Protector was a rare event—at least to see one and know that they were, in fact, a Protector, as they had no uniform or identifying marks on their clothes of any kind.  But to hear one speak was even rarer, so to interrupt one was almost, well, heretical.  Natak seemed to consider a response, but instead looked at Menson, with whom he nodded in unison, and in a flash the two Protectors vanished in a similar way that brought them there.  At that, Aldea looked puzzled and seemed to fumble for the words to say, and Shonny and Brax got up to leave, followed by looks of disbelief and even ire from the crowd around them.  One Nisivalen man near where they were sitting stood up and shouted;

“Hey! Why would you talk to the very Protector that saved our lives that way?  They are heroes to us; heroes to the entire Cooperative.  They saved us from that devastation, so perhaps you should be grateful.”

Shontesta turned to the man and stared directly at him to respond.

“The Protectorate is responsible for the explosion itself, if you will recall?  I am glad that they saved my…” she turned to indicate Brax  “… my friend Brax here, who is preferably alive today.  But perhaps you should pay attention to all the facts here, not just the fact that your scaled skin is still carrying around that poor excuse for a point of view.  It is ideas like yours that keep the Protectorate as powerful and mysterious as they are.  It is people like you who allow them to walk around the galaxy with their smugness and power and to hold onto a superior technology that makes them so enigmatic and awe-inspiring to us.  Whatever research they are doing will only create more of a gap between us and them.  Doesn’t that bother you at all?”

The Nisivalen seemed to be struck speechless at this, so she then turned to the Chancellor, who seemed to be following her comments attentively and seemed surprised when she looked directly at him.

“Chancellor Aldea, I apologize for speaking without invitation, but I hold no automatic reverence for anyone, even Divis.”

The Chancellor winced at the derogatory term and stood up straight to respond.

“Professor Shontesta, your insight is always welcome in any discussion. However, I see no reason to challenge the Protectors, as their actions in collaboration with the Cooperative government has always been very friendly and they have never given us any reason to believe that their research is a danger to anyone… previous to The Accident of course.  Since then they have been very helpful, and in more ways than the saving of these people around you.  Thus, so long as their research, continuing as it appears it is, is away from where it could do more damage, it seems to me to be a vanishing concern.”

Shontesta considered saying much more, but for now she sighed and simply replied in a slow, restrained voice that everyone in the crowd strained to hear clearly.

“I’m not so sure that the research they are doing, and have done, is harmless to anyone.  But the fact that we don’t know much at all about how they do what they do, or even what it is they are truly capable with their guarded technology, bothers me as it should bother anyone else.”

“Yes, their technology is unknown to us, but they have not hurt anyone intentionally, and I trust them.  I see no reason to question them further or to know what they are researching now” responded the Chancellor. 

Hoping the subject could drop, the white-furred Bruuk could only raise his hands in a gesture that looked like abandonment to Brax, who couldn’t help but laugh a little at the irony of having previously raised his hands to indicate that he had learned how to use them to figure out how things worked, but now, apparently to indicate that he perhaps didn’t even want to know.  Shonny, now less Shontesta again, smiled at that laugh and with the Chancellor watching her, she walked towards the skytrans while the rest of the crowd stood or sat silently as if waiting for more.  They wouldn’t get it that day, and they watched as the professor and the youngest survivor, Brax was his name they all knew, walked side-by-side away from the crowd with Shonny’s head shaking slightly in disbelief while Brax continued to chuckle.

The Chancellor watched them walk for a moment then remembered that he had a crowd in front of him, and began to collect himself to finish the rest of his announcements concerning the new commission. But the crowd was still watching the pair walk away, and so Aldea decided walk to his own private transport, motioning his Nisivalen assistant to finish the rest of the announcements.

The Nisivalen hopped up, seemed to consider the lectern which was taller than she, and decided instead to jump on top of it rather than try and stand behind it.

“Now, as for the rest of the details concerning the planning commission and dates for sessions…”

She, noticing that she was regaining the attention of the crowd, smiled and continued.

Nobody was really listening, however. Murmurs of conversation began to reassert themselves, and few heard the rest of the announcements from the dedicated Nisivalen, who simply kept talking anyway. 

Shonny and Brax sat in the skytrans and waited with remnants of amusement decorating their faces.

8. The Estate of War’s Ancestor

It was now 780 PC. Six years had passed since Damula returned home, and the Thaleans had been productive.

Damula took one last look at the new Thalean fleet from the control room of his new ship. His old ship, the Patula, would remain in orbit of Thalea under new leadership, and would only be used at this point as reserve defense. The new fleet was truly a collection of masterpieces, impressing even Damula and his crew. The power output of the new ships was increased almost twofold, and the amount of ships seemed to cover the entire view screen of the flag ship, which Damula called the Rilko after the Commander of the fallen Thale, but which was officially called Protector One.

Protector One was not part of the new fleet. It remained in position at some distance from the fleet as not to be seen, accidentally. Officially it did not exist, and it was the only vessel solely under the command of the Office of Protection. As the Commander of the nearly six-cycle-old Office, Damula got to command it. It was a large ship—although not as large as the Patula, as it was not intended for transport but only defense—with a pair of newly designed Type II reactors, which were unknown to the general public as well as to the vast majority of the military. All of the other new warships (“warship” was a word that the Thaleans would not have needed six cycles ago) were equipped with a Type I reactor, which was a significant improvement over what the Patula had six cycles previous during its encounter with the Nimri. As far as any of the Commanders of the other ships were concerned, having one of these Type I reactors was more than enough to handle the Nimri, especially when surrounded with as many similarly armed and deadly warships.

Damula was uncertain about the military’s confidence, which is why he insisted upon having two of the secret reactors on his ship, no matter how often the engineers tried to convince him that one was more than enough for anything he’d need. Damula was never going into battle against the Nimri again without having as much protection as he could manage, and with that attitude he was preparing to launch a new attack against the Tuyin clan of the Nimri. He made sure to give explicit standing orders that if the ship he encountered six cycles before was present, none of the military would engage it unless absolutely necessary. Only a few of the higher command knew why, and it would be their job to make sure that Hull’s ship was led to where Damula would be waiting for it.

The Thalean research teams could not make any sense of the data from whatever transported the Patula to Thalea after the encounter at Nimrea—this is what the Thaleans were calling the planet that the Thale was on route to when it was destroyed, not knowing what the Nimri called the planet. But a new way of traveling by use of artificial tunnels through space had been experimented with and the Office of Research thought they had perfected the technique enough to allow the Thalean fleet to cut significant time from the journey, and had planned to set up transport portals near Thalea as well as at the new colony on Thalea II, where the Patula had left most of their crew and passengers before the encounter with the Nimri. Another portal was taken to the outpost visited by the Fez, and a third one was to be put at a point close enough to Nimrea for attack but (hopefully) not close enough to be detected by the Nimri themselves. This last one was the first to be completed, and its expected completion date was now.

All Damula had to do now was wait for word that that new portal was operational, as the engineering crew that went to build it had left more than three cycles before to set it up and were due, any day now, to return through the portal which would initiate the fleet’s attack. The distance they needed to travel, amount of material they had to transport, the time to put it all together, as well as having to be sure that they were not detected by the Nimri was what made this mission so long-term. Two defense ships had gone with them in case an encounter happened anyway, but given the last encounter it was doubtful that these two older ships, even though they were second generation, would be sufficient to defend the engineering crew for long.

The military had discussed sending the fleet without waiting for the portals to be completed, but the fact that the Nimri could, apparently, transport ships over great distances in a very short time (the flash that transported the Patula, which seemed to them a moment, was in reality more than several minutes, as recorded data showed) made that seem unwise. That is, even if the entire fleet traveled to the planet, surprised the Nimri, and wiped out the entire planet, still one or two rogue ships could simply transport itself to Thalea and wipe out the defenses and then the cities below before the fleet could have any chance to return. This was a war where the Thalean military couldn’t simply create a border that the Nimri would have to fight through. They would have to defend every corner of Thalean space at all times, not knowing where the Nimri would suddenly appear, or when.

This thought kept the military, as well as the rest of Thalea, nervous. The planetary defenses were doubled and then tripled, and each unit was upgraded with better shielding and power output. Anything that appeared in orbit, the atmosphere, or on the surface that was not recognized by the independent interlink (created by the CTC and monitored by the Office of Protection) would be fired upon within five seconds, and the many un-manned defense satellites would converge on anything that lasted any more than that. Thalea was locked down. Any unwelcome visitors would be extremely unlucky.

A vote through the sharing had allowed a transmission to be sent beyond the wall of defense for any other possibly friendly races to keep their distance, for their protection of course. Any exploring races from elsewhere in the galaxy would pick up the transmission, the Thaleans hoped, and would try to communicate before entering Thalean space and being accidentally destroyed. So far, no explorers of any kind had approached.

Officer Damula sat in his control chair while the night crew routinely monitored the fleet and the portal, ran simulations, or otherwise maintained the ship. Two officers appeared to be discussing the best way to coordinate detection data with communications, which Damula paid some mild attention to as he watched the view screen in front of him. The portal engineering crew was nearly five days overdue, and Damula was getting nervous, along with everyone else around him. He would have guessed that the crew never had a chance to build their portal, and that they were never coming through the portal to Thalea again. If this was the case, there were backup plans in preparation, but for now they waited.

Waiting was not a skill that Damula was particularly good at. Having been so busy with preparations prior to the eve of the day that the portal crew was set to return, he hadn’t had a chance to exercise this skill anyway. But now he felt like a newly retired worker who felt like he should be doing something, anything, but knew that there was nothing to do. Damula read reports, went over battle strategies over and over again, and even took up hand combat training sessions to give himself an outlet for his anxiety. Now, as his body sat tired as his mind raced, Damula stayed at his post until he could no longer stay awake just as he had done the previous five nights, and then forced himself to his room to sleep.

He dreamed of fire, death, and of secrets.

The next morning came fast, after a few short hours of sleep, and there was still no word of the return of the portal engineering crew. The plan was to wait twenty-five days, allowing for any sort of unforeseen delays that could occur. Only being six days in now, each day seemed like slow torture. The various ships in orbit of Thalea would practice maneuvers, test power levels, and would try to keep their wits sharp. Each day a meeting between the Officers of Protection would discuss any insights into the research of the data from the Patula’s mysterious transport, which would almost always remain a complete mind-drain for any Thalean that took a stab at it. For six cycles the data was shared and studied by each sharing center on Thalea but without any idea how such a thing would be possible, as the data seemed to not indicate a tunnel as with the new portals, but something completely different and using a power signature that was beyond perplexing.

As Damula sat and ate his firstmeal alone, he read reports from the night’s activities and began to feel anxious again. He was still uncomfortable with the fact that everything about the ship he was on was unknown to the society it was created to protect. Its very existence was but a rumor, and it remained at a distance to be out of sight of any of the other ships or satellites around Thalea, and its ability to remain oblivious to any of the military’s detection fields was just another level of discomfort in Damula’s mind. Everything about this piece of war technology was un-Thalean. And what worried him more was how natural it was starting to become to most of the crew. What scared him most was that he was starting to get used to it as well.

He felt like a secret in a world which thought no secrets existed. He felt like one of the characters in the stories he read as a child; only existing as he thought of them, hidden from the world of investigation. He felt un-real. In all of the Thalean languages and traditions, there was no concept for ‘god’ or ‘spirit,’ but if there were that is exactly how Officer Damula would have described feeling; like a god or spirit that had power beyond what lay below and who was hidden, mysterious, mythical even. His ship existed in isolation from Thalean society, living among more advanced technology than was shared with Thalean society below. After more than a cycle of being isolated on this new ship while completing it’s construction, the less than two hundred crew had become used to being separate, as if they were in ancient times and this was their city, too far away to communicate with the other cities and just continuing the sharing amongst themselves, only with the advantage of having more to work with.

The key difference was the new technology that was the basis for the new reactors. The greater energy output allowed designs that would not function properly without them, and thus newer and more powerful weapons, tools, and newly created energy fields that would deflect energy bursts—much like the ones the Nimri ship had six cycles before—and even absorb some of the energy into the shield generator itself. The sheer amount of energy it took to maintain this field was not possible until the new reactor was built. Having two of them simply added redundancy, and allowed each reactor to run at a normal maximum of 75% to allow plenty of room for more if necessary. All in all, the new Protector One had more than six times the power output as any of the large ships in the fleet.

He was about to pick up his nula juice to take a sip when the alarm went off. Something was happening, and either it was an approaching ship, the portal powering up, or a drill—he didn’t remember scheduling any drills—and he wasted no time to find out, spilling his juice as he ran out of his room to the control center.

When he arrived there was no question. The view screen clearly showed the portal had powered up, and the portal crew was just emerging through the portal and were contacting the Thalean Office of Defense, as ordered. The Officer of communication in front of him was simultaneously listening to the transmission as well as paging; “Commander Damula, please report to the control center, Command…”

Damula halted his page by placing a hand on the officer’s shoulder, the owner of which seemed startled at this and turned to the Officer of Protection.

Commander, the crew from the portal construction has just returned, and they are reporting that their mission was a complete success. The portal on the other end is fully operational and we can embark at any time. What are your orders?”

Damula smiled, which was rare for him in recent cycles, and looked into the younger officer’s eyes.

I want to do nothing quite yet. I must consult with the Office of Defense to make sure we are prepared to move.”

Then, after a moment of hesitation, he added;

I imagine we’ll be on our way very shortly.”

The officer smiled back and returned to his controls, and the rest of the control crew, having heard this exchange began to signal to various crews around the ship to prepare to move. Damula was glad that he had such a fine crew. It was such a shame that he had to isolate them from the rest of society, but it was necessary to keep what they knew from the sharing, and he wanted to take no chances.

Well Officer, it is time” said a projection of Supreme Commander Milinos to Damula, floating over the Officer of Protection’s desk. Milinos was looking much older now and in much worse health and forcing a smile through the holographic interface. Damula sat upright and replied coldly;

Yes, Officer, it is. I hope you will remain well here at Thalea, and I hope that your planetary defense fleet will never be necessary. Hopefully we can eradicate this threat before it ever finds its way to our home.”

Damula looked down, and his tone changed as he continued.

Halen, I know how you feel about the Office of Protection. We’ve talked about this. I have told you that I would disband the Office and we would discuss what to do with our new technology upon completion of this mission.”

Officer Milinos turned his head and raised his hand at Damula at this, and spat out a reply;

Officer Damula…Zuzek…my old friend. I truly hope that you are still in there. The man I knew cycles ago has slowly died and has been replaced by this officer, this non-sharer! We both knew that when we decided to keep certain things from the sharing that there would be repercussions. But I didn’t expect one of them to be your sanity! You know very well that you will never share what you have at your disposal there. You know very well that the only thing to do is to either create a rift between your Office and the sharing or to destroy anyone and everything that your Office has created, and I—”

Halen, you know that isn’t true! We have discussed—”

Your ‘discussion’ was more lies, more deception, and more to make this harder. Your Office cannot ever return to the sharing as it once was. So go on your damned mission and destroy those Nimri of yours. Share your technology with them while you are at it, as if they won’t already know everything you hide from us and then they will simply laugh at you for trying to attack them again.”

Damula’s face flared red at this, and he could not contain his anger, despite his silent response.

Yes, that’s it,” continued Milinos. “Get angry. That will help you. You have more in common with those aggressive barbarians than you do with Thalean society, and you know it. So, with my…”

Milinos snickered, but there was genuine sadness behind it as well.

“…with my permission, as Officer and Supreme Commander of Defense, I grant you leave. You know very well that the CTC has already given you standing orders to embark as soon as you can. So before your girlfriend, Officer Jasmi, starts to harass you to move, I suggest you do so.”

Damula could only look at his long friend and companion, and couldn’t speak. His recent relationship with Officer Jasmi had been something that he had not discussed with Milinos, and it was more of a rub into the wound that became his anxiety about secrets. He could only stand and regard his friend as coolly as he could muster.

Supreme Commander, I hope to see you again soon. Officer of Protection will now commence standing orders and initiate our transport into enemy territory. Good-bye, Halen.”

At that Damula switched off his transmitter, exited his office, and began delegating orders to signal to the fleet, through the proxy flagship defense ship Patula II, to power up the portal and head though. When the entire fleet had passed through the portal the Rilko—Damula simply hated the title ‘Protector One’—would pass through while hoping that the cloaking field would keep it unseen by the fleet, as well as the Nimri.

In moments the portal was powered up and the fleet began to approach it. One-by-one the ships disappeared through the large circular device and as the last one disappeared, Damula gave the order and his ship approached. As he watched the circle get closer, he began to think about that encounter six cycles before, and he felt his fists clench a bit. He was hoping that Hull of the Tuyin clan was still alive and in command of that little ship. He could not wait to talk to that thing again.

There was a slight disorientation as they entered the portal, and in a few minutes they emerged from the other side where the fleet was already on route to the planet, which was but a few hours distant.

Damula ordered the Rilko to remain a safe distance behind the fleet and to remain invisible to detection. He sat in his chair and looked at the blackness of space, dotted with points of light that were more than one hundred Thalean attack ships, and grimaced. His hands gripped the arms of the chair tightly, and his face displayed an intensity that didn’t flinch for the next four hours. Not even when he slept in his chair. He, again, dreamed of fire.

9. The Shuttle

A few months after the announcement to rebuild Patula, still the year 1421, Brax stood looking out of the kitchen window as he finished browning the fish on the stove as Shonny read at the table. He had grown to enjoy cooking, but wasn’t nearly as good at it as his aunt, who peeked over her textpad to observe what he was doing. The fish was undoubtedly from a local stream. She guessed that Brax had caught it himself this morning, although she wasn’t sure how he had done so as she had never seen him attempt such a feat. Despite being on a planet dominated by ocean, Thaleans were not big on catching and eating fish, although it was not uncommon in the north, especially in Roshtek which was the only city near the shore on Thalea. Shonny thought that maybe fishing was something he did with his mother before she died. He didn’t talk about her much, and Shonny hadn’t pried into the subject in a long time.

Nevertheless the fish smelled good enough, as Brax had used what looked like a good combination of spices, and lunch looked like it was large enough to be shared. Shonny skeptically looked forward to eating, but eyed the materializer anyway; thinking of what to eat in case she decided that he could eat the fish himself—in case she’d prefer he ate it himself. The materializer had been used more often in the last few cycles, as much of their time had been spent in research and traveling throughout the five cities gathering information, rather than cooking. What they had learned so far was one reason why Brax had prepared for a journey to Kasara, where Brax would leave for that very afternoon.

Brax had a bag packed, which was leaning next to the door. He hadn’t packed much, which was not surprising since he didn’t own much—a textpad, some clothes, and a teched sword which he had gotten two cycles before when he spent some time in Aderna. Aderna is the Southern-most city on Thalea and is known for its annual defense arts tournament which Brax had gone to watch two cycles before, and where he developed a strong attraction for the sword. He didn’t seem to have much of a knack for the ancient weapon, but this didn’t stop him from ‘practicing’ in the yard behind the house, scaring the gatals as he did so.

Brax had had a choice when picking out a sword. The traditional Aderna swords were ancient-technology—forged metal with sharpened edge on one side and usually with a slight curve and about an arm’s length, although some were much longer. While most of Thalea had been peaceful and had no reason for building good swords, in ancient times Aderna had a problem with the city of Svert, which had once been a city to it’s east and had grown a bit of a mean streak towards Aderna. Svert’s leaders had decided that they didn’t like how the people of Aderna were governing the local area and decided to not join their city but rather move in and take over governing control.

The result was decades of arguments, fighting, and the eventual challenge from the governor of Svert to the governor of Aderna to a match with whatever weapon the governor of Aderna wished. What the governor of Svert didn’t know, however, was that his would-be opponent had recently finished developing a technique for making a very light and strong metal, and with this knowledge he built a sword that was lighter and more deadly than anything that his opponent would have seen previously. The contest was short lived, and from it was born an annual festival that remembered this event as well as tested the sword-making ability of each town as well as the technique of their citizens. After the cities officially merged cycles later, the festival remained and began to invite interested people from other Thalean cities, eventually becoming a planetary tradition, although the best swordsmen were almost always found in Aderna.

Over the centuries the organizing body of the festival decided that the competition was more about skill than sword-making, so rules were created that didn’t allow new technologies that would change the nature of the competition, despite the technology to make increasingly powerful swords. Most now had customized grips, and the metals used were essentially un-breakable and extremely light, but this was not enough for Brax, who preferred something flashier. He went for one of the non-traditional powered swords. The sword he chose was almost weightless, and the blade was not even a metal but rather a crystal that was extremely thin but still stronger than any metal sword. In addition to this very sharp material, the energy reactor in the grip could be powered up further to be coated with an energy field, a “cutting field,” which would separate molecules at the atomic level on the edge of the blade. It would cut through any material as a traditional metal sword would cut through a piece of taut rope. When unused, the blade could de-materialize and would not re-appear until the grip was powered up, and in a flash the blade would appear followed by the slight glow of the cutting field, if one was inclined to use it. It didn’t have to glow; there was nothing about the technology that needed to be visible at all, but the glow was there to make sure anyone around knew that the thing was powered up and thus more dangerous. When Brax used it, the sword almost always glowed.

At first Shonny was unsure about his choice to obtain this particular piece of technology. There were no laws or regulations against owning one, but perhaps a fifteen cycle-old boy, as he had been when he went nearly two cycles before, should not have one for a number of reasons. The swordsman at the festival who sold it to Brax seemed annoyed that the traditional swords he made were not of interest to him or to most of the other customers, as he thought that these were mere novelties without use, as they were not allowed in the tournament for obvious reasons. The swords used often ended up causing injuries and the occasional death in competition as it stood. Bringing these powered toys into a sword fight would completely change the nature of the tournament, which is why most Adernans disliked the newer swords, even if they sold in fair quantities. Adernans were sentimental about their swords in a way that most Thaleans were not sentimental about much of anything.

Shonny had watched Brax as he tested to see what he could cut through and how easily he could do it, usually from a safe distance. He had used the materializer in the kitchen to make materials of various densities to see how easily he could cut through them, and he had not found anything that he couldn’t cut through. But after a while the novelty of the cutting field, which was a technology that could be found in tools for certain purposes in many shops, simply wore off. Brax secretly thought that maybe he should go back to Aderna and get one of the traditional swords and learn how to use it, but for now he mostly had left the sword on the shelf in his room, allowing Brax to concentrate on other things. Nonetheless, it rested near the top of that packed bag, which was better, perhaps, than being on the Brax’s hip. He had, for some time, walked around with it like that, perhaps pretending to be a Protector. He was, in many ways, still a boy even at seventeen.

A few hour after Brax served up that fish, which Shonny found to be surprisingly good, Brax stood near the portal with Shonny. The station was crowded, as it usually was throughout the day. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a necklace, and handed it to Brax. Brax looked at it quizzically, and then looked at her with a cocked head, and she smiled with her answer to his look.

This is a necklace that belongs to the friend of mine you’ll be staying with on Kasara. He, or someone from his family, will be awaiting you on the other side of the portal. The last time I saw him, which was some twenty-three cycles ago, he gave this to me. It’s a very old good luck charm from Kasara’s pre-Cooperative days, and he said that I should keep it. Tell him that I’ve finally decided that I don’t believe in luck.”

Brax smiled at this, and Shonny continued with a requited expression crawling around the corner of her mouth.

It’s an old joke, as he might say. We go back a long way, Jullen and I. He was once a teacher of mine, which makes him older than I and quite old for a Kasarian. But I talk with him occasionally, and he still has many wits left, and he can teach you a lot.”

Brax smiled openly now and embraced his aunt. Neither were affectionate people, but Brax felt like it was the appropriate thing to do, and she accepted the affection gladly. He released the embrace and turned to walk towards the shuttle; it was not much more than a large rounded box that held no more than twelve people, and was just the size of the portal in width. The travelers would get inside this box, have a seat, and the shielding of the box would protect whoever was inside from the energy of the tunnel created by the portal. To go through without the shuttle was surely to die, as even a very short distance portal transport would begin to tear apart the molecules in your body, as early experiments before the first Nimri war discovered millennia ago. Centuries of research found no reliable safe way to transport people without use of the shuttle cars through these portals—with exception of the Protectors, that is. They are able to travel to any part of the galaxy, within the proximity of the portal system, with apparently no more than a thought. Nobody outside of the Protectorate knew how they did so or exactly why they were limited to the portal system itself, but it was not a major concern. Protectors were on the side of good, it seemed, so nobody acted as if they cared.

Brax cared.

Brax had never been through the portal before, having never left Thalea for more than a ride to the colony on Thalea’s largest moon, where his father had gone for some conference. That had been when he was only four cycles old, and he didn’t remember that trip anyway. He only knew that less than a cycle after that visit he would wake up one early morning in his room in Cesternatton and find out that his father was gone, and that he and his mother were moving to Patula. And he remembered the lulu birds and their persistent awful song.

Now as he sat in the shuttle, he suddenly felt anxious. He had been riding in transports of all sorts throughout the Thalean transport system, both skytrans and subtrans, since The Accident, but he still felt uncomfortable inside any transport. He still had that dream of the subtrans, surrounded by fire, but over the cycles it had changed. Sometimes he’s the Protector but he doesn’t know how to save the people, sometimes he’s just a scared little kid helpless to do anything, and sometimes he’s the Kasarian being held by Menson. It was telling Shonny about this latter version of the dream recently that gave her the idea to have him visit Kasara and continue his education there among the Kasarians, with the legend that was Ninnii Jullen.

Shonny had told him that, in her experience, the Kasarians were the friendliest of the Cooperative. “They are natural moderators” she had said. “Their ability to bring people together and talk was a great inspiration to what eventually became the Cooperative that we live in today.” Brax listened to her suggestion and eventually agreed to go, so Shonny contacted her friend Ninnii Jullen and asked about Brax staying with him. Jullen accepted, and it wasn’t long after that when Brax’s current study-cycle was over and he packed his bag.

The last of the expected passengers arrived and sat next to Brax—A Kasarian with blue skin and whose head was bouncing agreeably as he saluted Brax.

Hello there, how are you? My, you’re a young one, I’d say, not a day over fourteen I’d guess!”

I’m seventeen” replied Brax, smiling in return.

Ah, yes, the Thaleans live so long that when I do see a young one, I tend to underestimate. Still, you are young.”

The Kasarian checked his pockets and looked relieved when he pulled out a small interlink monitor, then placed it in another pocket and gave it a quick pat with his right forelimb.

I have never actually forgotten it, but I always seem to think I have. I suppose one day it just might, and then how will I check the interlink? A travesty that would be to be out of touch for a minute or two, you know?”

Brax wasn’t really in the mood to talk, as he still felt anxious about being in the shuttle in the first place. But he had decided that he would have to try and open up, especially since he was going to Kasara where the culture was much more open and friendly than Thalea. He wanted to try and fit in as much as he could. He forced a smile and pulled out his own textpad. It was much larger than the smaller monitor which was not intended for reading so much as keeping updated and informed.

I know what you mean. Is there anywhere that we don’t uplink and downlink?”

The Kasarian nodded amiably, and leaned a little closer.

Have you ever shuttled before?”

Brax shook his head. “No, never have, my first time going to Kasara, or anywhere besides Thalea.”

The Kasarian leaned back and bobbed his head jovially “Ah, well you are in for a treat, my friend, as Kasara is a beautiful place. Large mountains, deep canyons, energy storms that will shake you in your sleep, and massive underground cities as far as you can see.”

He paused, then looked like he was about to continue when an announcement came through a speaker above their heads;

Your attention please. The shuttle is about to close, and we are about to commence to Keser, the capital city of Kasara. This is your last chance to exit the shuttle for any reason. Again, last chance…

It is not a long trip. We’ll only be in the dimensional tunnel for a short while. It’s an improvement upon those ancient portals, like the one at the museum at Gullina or Zule,” the Kasarian said over the announcement.

I saw one in Patula, at the museum that used to be there, when I was a kid. I read about how it was created from theory to working condition in less than two cycles, which helped initiate the first war with the Nimri by Zuzek Damula, the first Officer of the old Office of Protection, which eventually became the Protectorate.”

Smart kid” the Kasarian said. “I remember those stories as well, but I haven’t thought about that in a long time. I mostly think about my kids, these days. I have three of them; two girls and a boy. All green like their mom, rather than this splendidly handsome blue that you see before you today…” The Kasarian sort of wiggled his torso, his blue forelimbs shaking a bit to show off the pigment to them, and Brax smiled a bit more at this.

Brax was about to speak again when the Kasarian extended a limb and touched Brax lightly on the shoulder. “The name is Tellinas, Vernas Tellinas. I’m a consultant for a company that sells…well it sells stuff, nothing all that interesting actually. I’ve been on Thalea for a few days now, on business, and I am on my way home to celebrate a good trip with my family.”

I’m Brax, Brax Damula.”

Damula?” Tellinas said, head suddenly still. “You mean, like the Protectorate guy you were just talking about?”

Yes, I am a descendent of his, at least that’s what I’m told. Family isn’t so important for Tha…” Brax reddened at having to tell this Kasarian what he undoubtedly already knew, but the Kasarian surprised him.

You know, the thing I’ve noticed is that Thaleans tell everyone that family doesn’t mean anything to them. But I think you might have the wrong concept of family, my friend.”

Brax stiffened, and was about to respond when Tellinas continued;

Think about how your cities coalesced over the centuries. Think about how you share everything with your neighbors in the hope of improving yourselves. Now think about how each city is different in many ways; how you can tell a person from Patula…well, what few of them left anyway…or from Cesternatton or Zule. Your families are your cities, and you take care of one-another like extended families as a race. Family is important to you; it’s just that family is not limited to biology for Thaleans. It’s one of the things that we, as Kasarians, have in common with you, except we are well aware of it while you seem not to be…at least not so much.”

Brax was taken aback at this, but didn’t respond and instead considered Tellinas’ comment. He knew everything that the Kasarian had told him, but never had put it all together so cleanly, so concisely. He then thought about that old Bruuk joke, which seemed hilarious to the people of Brua, about the master of technology from Thalea who couldn’t figure out why his tools didn’t work whenever he forgot to turn them on. The joke, as everyone knew, was that Thaleans might be the leaders of technological innovation, but can’t seem to put together the larger picture easily, even when it seemed simple to everyone else. Over the centuries exposure to Bruuk culture and philosophy has made this observation less true, but Thaleans are Thaleans, and even some genetic engineering in the past had not completely solved this cognitive lack in Thalean brain anatomy. Thaleans simply were much better at putting things together than solving mysteries, even when the cognitive skills seemed so similar to the other races.

Brax looked at Vernas Tellinas squarely, and simply nodded in understanding. Tellinas returned the nod, and the door to the shuttle closed. There were no windows; there was no need as there would be nothing outside to see except the tunnel in space which would be invisible to the eye anyway. The door sealed and the shuttle lifted off the floor of the station and moved slowly towards portal number 17, which was powered up and ready to go, at least according to the display in front of them. The shuttle began it’s entry into the portal and there was a slight vibration as the shuttle encountered the dimensional tunnel, and then the shuttle was deadly still.

Brax still felt nervous, but he looked over at Tellinas who had taken out his interlink monitor and was apparently reading something of interest, and Brax felt very alone for a moment.

Twenty minutes Brax thought. A little bit more than 20 minutes, and I’ll be on another planet many light-cycles away. So he closed his eyes and tried to relax, and for a moment he swore he could feel the shuttle getting hot, and was sure he felt just the slightest presence of that energy again, swimming around his skin. Brax opened his eyes, saw that the monitor in front of him didn’t display any sort of malfunction or explosion, and he slid down into his seat and pulled out his textpad for something, anything, to read.

10. The First Nimri War, Part I

Damula watched as the fleet approached what they were assuming is the Nimri system. So far, no power signatures were detected, which made Damula uneasy. The space around the planet was littered with debris. Scans seemed to indicate that they were Nimri ships, although they had only seen the one, and so this was only an educated guess. As the scout ship approached the planet, Damula watched the telemetry as it appeared on his holo-monitor of the surface scans. There they were. Hundreds of them. Hundreds?

The planet was a wasteland. Enormous cities lay in wreck. The planet was covered, it seemed, with the remains of a civilization that had been destroyed in the last fifty cycles or so. But near the center what was probably the largest of the destroyed cities were a few settlements with different architecture than the ruins. It was from these settlements that the scout ship detected Nimri power signatures. It looked like whatever fighting was left remained on the surface.

But there were only hundreds of them. This was going to be easy. But then a thought occurred to Damula, and the Commander’s smile suddenly dropped away into realization. He stood up suddenly and he yelled an order to the scout ship.

Officer Damula to Thalean scout ship control. Order the rest of the scouts to get into position around the planet and begin sweep of surrounding space. Also, send one scout to each planet in this system and scan them as well.

He then turned to his communications officer and spat another order.

Officer, route my command console through the proxy on the flag ship”

The officer manipulated a few controls then nodded.

This is Officer Damula to the Thalean fleet. Scout ship scans have confirmed Nimri presence on the target planet. However, it appears as if our fears are justified concerning the aggressive nature of the Nimri. The scans seem to indicate that the Nimri have invaded and destroyed this world, rather than call it home. I have detected four Nimri ships on the surface, none are currently in space within detection range. Our orders are to break onto our attack groups. Attack groups one through four will target the planetary settlements. The Patula II and its escort heavy attack ships will establish contact with the Nimri. The scout ships will surround the planet and maintain full sweep of any incoming ships that may transport themselves here, and we have no way of knowing how many ships will appear. Attack groups five through ten will position themselves around the planet at some distance, and will be in position to flank any appearing ships near the planet. Officer Damula out.”

He turned to his crew and they were already powering up all systems, so he didn’t bother giving the order. Instead, he sat down in his chair and waited for the ships to coordinate their positions and for the Patula II to be in position. The Rilko, still some distance from the planet, sat back and waited, hoping to not be needed in this fight.

When the flag ship reported that it was in position, and that the other ships were making their final approaches to their positions, Damula stood up again.

Communications, make sure that a strong signal is targeted to each of the four settlements on the planet below.”

Yes, Officer.” After a moment at the controls, the young female officer turned and nodded to Damula.

This is Officer Damula of the Thalean attack fleet. We have your settlements surrounded, and wish to speak with whoever is in command of your military. We have returned after an encounter with your forces some time ago that left one of our ships destroyed and hundreds of Thaleans dead. We wish to discuss the conditions of your surrender to our superior fleet. If you have any…”

There was a sudden explosion of sound through the communications relay and most of the crew covered their ears and the communications officer compensated for the sound. Damula looked like he was about to continue when a voice came through the speakers.

This is Yeshin of the Tuyin clan. We will not surrender to any force, whether it be…”

This is Chissar of the Makin clan, ignore the weak Tuyin clan. Makin clan speaks for the Nimri now. I will not surrender to your weak forces no matter how many—” the voice was replaced by a sudden explosion that sounded through the speakers, which coincided with a massive explosion on the surface at one of the settlements. After a moment of noise, a third voice came through the speakers, laughing.

We thank you for your distraction in orbit. It has allowed us to complete a mission against our enemies, the Makin clan, while they were distracted. I am Shimar, of the Vishi clan. Our clan is on the rise, and we will be dominant and we will destroy your fleet, starting with that cute little scout ship over our weapons array.”

A shockingly bright bolt of energy leapt from the surface and one of the un-manned scout ships exploded into thousands of shards, the sudden absence of which caused a minor hiccup in the sensor telemetry which was quickly and automatically compensated for by the computer. Damula considered returning fire, but then held off the order with a hand, and then moved that same hand to indicate the display to those at the weapons’ controls.

The settlements had erupted into a blazing battle that seemed to have been going on for some time, by the looks of the bombardment and the sophistication of the battle lines with their fortifications. Damula suddenly guessed, and his instincts insisted that this guess was a good one, that their arrival in the system had caused this battle to merely pause for a few moments. It appeared as if they had walked in on a nasty domestic dispute that was too hostile to give way to social concerns and the newcomers merely created a short hiatus that would cease the moment one of the disputants happened to look the wrong way or make a sly comment just loud enough to be heard. The Nimri were not concerned with the Thalean fleet, as if they were a mere distraction at best.

The mood in the control room seemed to be ruled by confusion and a fragment of hope at the apparent civil war that they seemed to be witnessing. The room watched as the four settlements below continued to attack one-another while the Thalean fleet was ignored, and then suddenly the proximity alarm went off. The holo-display that was showing the space around the planet suddenly was populated by a medium sized ship, obviously Nimri in design, and then by two more of similar size. They seemed to stop for a moment, one was obviously scanning the fleet, and then a fourth appeared and it started making a run at the planet. Damula had silenced the alarm and started to scramble orders, and then he started to notice that they were not only not approaching the fleet at all, but they were also attacking one-another.

What is going on out there?” He asked nobody in particular. He then signaled to the communications officer to enable the proxy again and began talking as soon as he saw it open; “Attack groups five through ten, back off of the planet by 500,000 kilomeasures. Attack groups one through four, avoid getting in their way and retreat to sector…to sector forty by fifty-six by seven. Scout ship command return half of the scouts to base ship and leave the other to maintain observation of the settlements on the surface.”

As the ships moved, Damula watched as the Nimri battled with one-another through the view screen and then turned his attention onto his personal display, navigating through the data of the battle on the surface, which seemed to have all four settlements attacking one another with much smaller surface units, energy weapons, and what appeared to be at least one hand-to-hand fight when he zoomed in on one of the battle lines. The Nimri themselves had six limbs, two on which they seemed to do mostly walking, and the other four for other uses. Damula thought they were about as ugly a race as he could imagine. They seemed bred for battle, strong and quick and with what appeared to be either armor or a thick carapace that seemed to have been selected for being armor-like. He hoped never to have to meet one face-to…well…face? He wasn’t sure what to call their mishmash of a mouth and eyes, but it wasn’t quite a face.

One of the four settlements was obviously larger than the other four, and they were winning the battle for land territory, it seemed, as well. Damula was fine to watch the Nimri destroy one-another, and he started to wonder if this mission had been necessary. Perhaps this civilization would merely destroy itself. Perhaps their resources spent on military creation had been for naught. Perhaps the damage done to Thalean culture, even if it was fixable, had been unnecessary. The thought pulsated painfully in Damula’s mind, and he had a feeling that he was not alone in having it.

In orbit, the four other ships—three, as one exploded under fire from the largest of the four—maintained the same indifference to the Thalean fleet. For a while the three ships chased one-another around in a dance of balancing attack and defense, trying to hold the space above the city below where the land-war was waged, and after a short while another ship appeared and began an attack run towards the larger ship, which returned fire and made some evasive maneuvers and fired back. Watch their ships closely Damula thought. Pay attention to their maneuverability, tactics, and what attack strategies work best against them. Damula thought he really needed a strategist working with him. Officer Wulliter came to mind, and Damula promised himself that he’d have to get him out here at some point, if for nothing else than to study this…well, it’s almost seemed like watching a sport more than watching war. Strangely, that felt like a more accurate description of this spectacle. Something wasn’t quite right about this.

For some time, Damula and the crew watched and studied data, but once in a while just about everyone could be caught just watching, flabbergasted. At no point were their more than six ships, and never, it seemed, less than three for more than a short while. The analogy of sport seemed more and more apt the more they watched, as at any time it seemed as if the battle would maintain a sort of equilibrium, even when it appeared that a particular clan was close to being defeated. The crew scurried around the data to try and determine a way to identify which ships were fighting for which clan—the running assumption was four factions at war with one-another—and eventually one of the officers identified a minor energy signature was broadcast by each ship, and their were four unique types that matched the signatures of the settlements on the planet.

The Thalean fleet simply sat back and watched the endless destruction between the clans, and looks of amazement began to dominate the crew around Damula. In recent cycles the concept of war strategy had been discussed in a way that Thalean civilization never had reason to spend much effort on previously. What they were watching was so alien to them, so not-Thalean in behavior, that they simply didn’t know what to make of it quite yet. So they did what they did best; they observed how the parts worked and tried to figure out how to fix it.

Hours went by. Fighting lulled sometimes and picked up at others. After a while the crew was able to pick up on markings on the ships’ identifying iconography in addition to the unique energy-signature that identified the clans. Over time, it became clear that each clan was transporting in ships to replace ones destroyed, and it didn’t take long for the replacement to arrive. What didn’t make sense to any of them was why the clans didn’t simply send all their ships at one time. Why were there usually one, and at most two, ships at any given time for each clan? And why did it take some time to replace them, rather than immediately? Damula was almost convinced he was watching a competition, rather than a battle. But people were dying out there, and people shouldn’t die in competition if it could be avoided, right?

The fourth clan, which had not contacted the Thaleans when they arrived and thus remained nameless to them, seemed to be losing at the moment, and badly. Their settlement was nearly destroyed and it took longer and longer to replenish lost ships in orbit, while the other clans were doing so at a quicker rate, sometimes actually maintaining two or, now in one case, three ships at a time, depending on the ebb and flow of the battle. The clan that identified itself as the Vishi seemed to be the most dominant. It currently had three ships in space as the third just appeared and was being attacked from both sides by two of the other clans, one of which was also fighting a two-front battle including the weaker fourth clan.

As time went by, it was clear that whoever had the strongest position and number of ships was attacked by the weaker, and as the flow of battle ensued, another clan would become dominant and the others would concentrate their efforts on them. It seemed to promote a constant state of battle that would ensure that an army was unlikely to be destroyed completely, as the weaker enemy seemed to be of no interest to attacking ships.

As he watched this and considered the various explanations for what he was seeing, Damula began to understand the encounter with Hull, who seemed completely disinterested in fighting him six cycles before. Hull thought—or at least Damula thought that Hull thought with another insistence of his instincts—that the Patula which Damula commanded cycles before in that encounter was too inferior to attack. And the fact that the Thalean fleet was being ignored still meant that they still saw the Thaleans as inferior. This thought infuriated Damula. He didn’t like being thought of as inferior. Thaleans were not inferior to anyone, his mind insisted. The fact that this race was the first that they had made contact with seemed to bode unwell for this pride of Thalean supremacy. Damula had to resist the urge to simply order a full attack and show these arrogant Nimri exactly who was worth attacking.

Damula was seething in this thought when his private alarm went off on his console, as the detection grid around the planet picked up a familiar signature. The ship itself was new, but the personal signature, as the last few hours had clarified them to be, was identical to the one from six cycles ago. It was Hull. He was in a newer ship, but it was him. Damula stood suddenly and commanded the ship to follow, which startled action into the crew, and Damula watched as the ship attacked one of the Makin clan’s ships.

I want full detection on that ship. I don’t want to lose it. Hail it! I want him to know I’m coming!”

Damula watched the display of the ship as it attacked. The Rilko was some distance away from the battle, but approaching fast. Then one of the Vishi ships began to fire upon Hull’s ship, and Damula stood suddenly and screamed in his displeasure at this. He wanted that ship for himself. All thoughts of the wisdom of remaining as a spectator of this atrocity evacuated from his mind, as Damula’s need to see that obnoxious Hull of the Tuyin clan—the clan currently getting it’s ass handed to them by the Vishi, he thought with a sneer—plead for his disgusting life as the Protector One’s weapons targeted his ship. He held this image in his mind for a moment then focused again on the ship they were approaching, still invisible to the fleet, he hoped.

Damula could only watch as two Vishi ships converged on Hull, and in a few moments it was destroyed. Damula slammed his fists onto the console and almost tore the display emitter from the desk in frustration. He was furious, yelling obscenities to the walls, which he also kicked with enraged enthusiasm over and over again.

Sir…Sir!…. SIR!”

It was the officer of detection, looking petrified at Damula’s rage.

WHAT?” he yelled back, almost scaring the officer out of his seat.

Sir….sir, I have detected something odd when that ship was destroyed…I think you should take a look at this.”

Damula calmed himself down and walked with a slight limp around behind the officer to look at his display.

Look, right here.” The Officer pointed at the holo-display, with a slight shake in his hand, while he reversed the sequence of time to play back the data. “Look, we didn’t see it before because we hadn’t had a full sensor sweep of the ships when they were destroyed. But there is an energy signature that happens just as the ship is destroyed. It is the same power signature that we see when the ship appears, only smaller, and from what appears to be the control center of the ship.”

Damula looked puzzled, his rage replaced by bewilderment. After a moment of watching the data play a few times, he seems to be struck by an idea, causing him to stand suddenly, with rage replaced by ingenuity.

Put a full sensor sweep on one of those ships that looks like it is about to be destroyed—any one of them.”

The officer finds a medium ship that has taken moderate damage, and displays its data. Damula points to one part of the ship, and asks “would this be the control room?”

The Officer enlarges that part of the data and looks unsure. “Probably, but it looks like its only big enough for one or two people, just like the other ship…Hull’s ship. And this is a larger ship, which would seem to imply a larger control room.

Damula scratches the back of his head and stands up-right, then turns a bit, looking pensive. Then he turns back and leans in again, speaking quicker this time. “How many Nimri are on that ship?”

One moment, sir…” The officer adjusts some display parameters and only one Nimri appears to be on the ship, and it’s in the control room according to the display.

One crew per ship?” Damula stands up again and then sighs with frustration. “Keep a close eye on that ship. Let’s see what happens when it is destroyed. That shouldn’t be more than a few minutes at this rate. In fact, put this data on the larger display up front”

The large display at the front of the control room powers up and the crew watches as the scanned ship eludes a blast from another smaller ship, and returns fire to destroy it. After a few minutes, it looks like it may be on the winning side of the battle when, inevitably, the three clans focus their attack on it and it begins to take heavy damage. Damula walks slowly closer to the display as it appears as if it can’t take much more, and the engine in the rear is hit hard and it explodes. As this happens, the control room simply disappears, and then the rest of the ship seems to just self-destruct.

Did I just see what I think I saw?” asked Damula to his perplexed crew.

It appears, sir, that the control room transported itself out of the ship before it was fully destroyed.”

Damula turned, index finger pointing intently at the display behind him. “From now on, track the energy signature of each control room of each ship. I want a log created for each signature, and I want to know if those signatures appear again at any time.”

Yes, sir. I’m on it.”

Damula walked over to his chair and sat. He watched the battle continue, and waited for confirmation of his hypothesis. His instincts were at full strength now, but he wanted to be sure.

It was some time before a signature re-appeared, but when it did it confirmed Damula’s hypothesis. Almost an hour later, a logged signature re-appeared on a new ship appearing in the system. It was a signature that was on a smaller ship, and the new one was also small. But the newer ship appeared to have a slightly higher energy output, slight change in design, and this time had increased shielding on its under-side (where the final blast destroyed the previous ship, one detail-oriented officer happened to notice). The Nimri inside was the same person, at least from what the data could determine. It appeared as if, when his ship was destroyed previously, the Nimri transported the control room, using the technology that still baffled the Thalean researchers, somewhere else where the Nimri would return later with a new ship. Where that place was nobody could figure out, but it seemed like a worthy research direction, and so Damula put some good people on answering that question.

This trend continued for a few more hours. A ship is destroyed and a short while later, anywhere from a half-hour to a couple of hours, another would appear with the same pilot. It was as if each Nimri had a stock-pile of ships waiting for them somewhere, and all he had to do was travel back to his garage and pick up a new one. It seemed that the Nimri were not numerous as a race, which being as aggressive as they seemed, was not surprising.

Except that each time a Nimri re-appeared, his or her ship (it seemed that all of them were the same sex, which implied they were all the same sex, whether male or female, or that the species had no binary sex distinction; the data was inconclusive so far) would be improved upon, even if only slightly. It is as if the Nimri would go back and get a slightly better ship, which seemed counter-intuitive. Damula’s hesitant theory was that they were managing to build a new ship every hour or so with slight improvements, which seemed unlikely but it fit the facts better so far. But Thaleans couldn’t even build ships that fast, so that can’t be how they were doing it, said Damula’s Thalean pride. Damula refused to believe that was the way, in any case. He needed to see that for himself.

He found it difficult to believe that a race this destructive could have the technology sufficient to the task; they didn’t stop fighting long enough to have time to invent anything, it seemed. Perhaps they had not always been this way. Perhaps something had happened to change them. Perhaps it was when they stopped sharing technology. Perhaps it started by competing for technology. Damula made a vow that, if that were even remotely the case, he’d make sure that the Office of Protection would never allow Thaleans to compete for technology. He wasn’t sure, yet, how he would do that, but it seemed the right thing to do.

Had the Thaleans encountered the Bruuk previous to this encounter, what happened next might have been avoided. For what was about to happen would awaken the fact that the Thalean fleet was a worthy adversary, that is worthy of paying attention to and fighting. And had Damula had the wisdom of that philosophical species at his disposal now, he may have realized that it would have been better to allow the Nimri to believe that they were weak, because then they would have had no reason to stop fighting one-another.

The Nimri way, he would find out soon enough, was to concentrate their attacks on the powerful in order to be the most powerful. Aggression simply is, after all. But aggression towards the weak makes one weak. Better, as a Bruuk might say, to appear weak and stay alive than to be carried by pride into danger. But, alas, the Bruuk and their philosophy were as yet unknown to Thalea, and so Damula’s rage bumped up against a giant that, while not sleeping, was currently un-interested in the fluttering about of Thalean insects.

Damula was considering the ways of preventing undesirable and divisive competition when his personal detection alarm went off again. It was Hull. He was back. Damula sprang to his feet and suddenly turned to the communications officer.

Hail that ship, now!”

Do you want me to use the proxy, sir?”

No. Contact it directly”

The officer sprang to action and Damula had an open channel.

Hull, this is Commander Damula of the Thaleans attack ship Protector One. I don’t know if you have noticed, but your space is surrounded by Thalean attack ships. Why have you not confronted us?”

Damula was going to get some answers. And some satisfaction of his hurt pride, if he couldn’t get good enough answers. He was done sitting and watching, and who better, he rationalized, than someone with which he had already established a relationship.

At first, Hull did nothing. But after a few moments all of the attacks between the clans slowed and then stopped, and they formed defensive stances and held their position. Except for Hull. His ship began to head straight for Damula’s ship, weapons hot and targeting them. Damula was suddenly very unsure about his decision, but swallowed his uncertainty and managed to calm himself down just a little, then Damula gave the signal, and his shields were at maximum.

No, no…that won’t do. Increase the output of the reactors to 95% each, then power up to full shields again.”

As Hull approached, Damula’s nervousness returned to its visible status again. He had drawn unwanted attention to him, as now every ship nearby would be aware of this curious change in behavior and would surely see the Protector One, now that it was significantly closer to the battle site and the battle had stopped for the moment. The secret ship would no longer be a secret. Now every Thalean sharing center would want to have its technology shared. There was a moment of cognitive dissonance in his mind between avoiding competition and safe-guarding Thalean society from the power of this technology, but there was no time for that now. Damula forced that conflict from his mind and focused.

Damula went to speak again when he heard Hull’s voice through the speakers. He would never forget that harsh voice. “Damula! My old friend, I see you have returned despite my kicking your little behinds all the way back home. Did it take you this long to get back here?”

Hull laughed and then an image came over the large holo-display. Hull, at one point, had six limbs and was covered with what appeared to be a black exoskeleton. Now one of those limbs was but a stub, and he was seated in a chair that seemed designed for the six-legged race. Hull looked intensely at Damula with what might have been a smile. Of course, with the holo-display it would appear to everyone in the room that they were looking at them, but everyone knew to whom the glare belonged.

You know, I didn’t notice your new toy all the way outside of the audience you brought with you. You have some interesting technology that hides you from our sensors, at least at normal sensitivity. But when you called me by name, using your own ship’s transmitters rather than through that proxy ship you have a link to—very clever by the way, to fool your own military is daring, indeed, but now that I am broadcasting your presence to the rest of your fleet I don’t think that your secret will survive much longer.”

Damula was about to respond when Hull continued.

I must say that I am a little impressed. The ships over there will not last against any one of our clans in the long-run. Certainly all of us in unison would lay waste to the whole fleet with some ease. I assume you have noticed that we have a way of, how should I say, coming at you in waves?”

Hull laughed at this and fiddled with some controls in front of him.

But now I see a ship that is a worthy of our attention. A ship which is much more powerful than the rest, and which actually has an energy field protecting it, much like ours. I see the Nimri will continue to inspire the warrior within each race we find.”

Damula leaned in his seat at this and replied with suffocated anger. “I think that you will find that our fleet is well prepared to take you on. We have come to make sure that the Nimri can never threaten Thalean society. We are here because…”

We’ve known about your society for quite some time, Damula. It is how we know your language, your communication frequencies, and how we knew where to send you. Oh, and it was because we’ve visited your world previously that we already had a trans-jump point near your planet. I’m surprised you haven’t found it yet.”

Damula sat straight up at that and shot a look at the communications officer, who seemed to understand his thought and began transmitting a message to someone, somewhere.

Ah yes, you will certainly look for it now, I’m sure. But no matter. We’ll find a way to get there if we need to.” Then Hull clasped two of his “hands” together and leaned towards each of the crew in the room. Say, will there be a reason for us to come to Thalea? Will there be a more powerful enemy to attack than one-another? I have to say it will be a change of pace, as it’s been some time since we laid waste to the planet you see there.”

Damula couldn’t resist the question. “Who were they?”

They called themselves the Kozar…at least some of them did. They are a very old race. Older than the Thaleans, and much more advanced. Yet we destroyed them. It took quite a long time to do so, but we did. And now we have their advanced technology to use as we see fit. And with that we have become even more powerful than we were before. And so the question is whether you are a worthy adversary, as they were, or not. If you die here today, then your race is not worth our interest, and we shall leave your planet alone…for now. However, if you fight us and live, we shall come to your planet and wreak havoc upon it, as we did to the Kozar.”

Damula looked fierce, his hands clenched together, and he looked around at his crew, who looked genuinely terrified.

It’s a tough situation, I know” Hull continued. “But you will fight. It is in you, I can see it. You have the mind of a warrior, and you will fight. You will hope, if you care for your world, that you will die. I guess the question is what is more important; your Thalean pride or your civilization’s survival?”

There was no question, in any of the crews’ minds, what Damula would do. What they didn’t know, however, was how he would do it, and the consequences of that decision. Damula sat in his chair and transferred weapons control to his console discreetly. He powered up his weapons and targeted the control room of Hull’s ship. He was not going to give Hull a chance to fire back or to transport himself away from the wreckage. With a push of a button he vaporized the control room of Hull’s ship, with Hull inside. Within seconds the rest of the Nimri attacked the fleet, and the long war would begin.

But Damula could only smile, at least for now.

11. The Temple

As Brax walked out of the shuttle, he noticed a subtle difference in his step. It was subtle, but it felt lighter. Brax suddenly realized that it was because of the lower gravity on Kasara. He had known that Kasara was a smaller planet than Thalea, but had not anticipated this effect when he took his first few steps out of the shuttle.

Brax looked down at his feet for a moment and then back to the shuttle where the last few riders were emerging from. Vernas Tellinas, with whom Brax had not said much more to after they departed, was greeted by his family nearby and Brax smiled and waved to them as they walked off. They were going home. It would be some time before he would see home again. He suddenly felt a pang of loss, loneliness, and a bit of anxiety.

Brax turned again to the shuttle, which was turning around to face the portal again, for its next journey. The portal here looked identical to the one that it had entered on Thalea, but the surrounding area was anything but identical. As Brax widened his attention, he could see that they were on a platform above the city shortly before sundown. The floor was transparent and below could be seen the edge of downtown Keser, the newer style capital city which lay between two mountain ranges.

To the distant west, where an intense orange dominated the horizon, a few rocky peaks created a shadow over the rocky plain that sat at its feet. Brax could not make out much of the detail of these mountains, held mostly in shadow, but the show in the sky was beautiful. And yet, Brax managed to turn and move towards the station exit, allowing his eyes to adjust to the lack of sunset, and caught a glimpse of another set of peaks to the north and then to the east, above which a few barely visible stars were beginning to pierce the sky. Softer hills lay here, but they would give way to more peaks that could just barely be seen beyond them. Brax slowed to take in the expanse of mountain ranges as far as he could see, and then he looked down, through the transparent floor. The city was nestled into the lap of these hills to the east. And to the south, to Brax’s right, Brax could see the opening of a massive canyon that was his destination. Canyon city. The oldest of the cities on Kasara, Brax had read. Miles of tunnels, massive faces carved into the walls, and caves that went down quite deep into the surface of the planet.

The lights were starting to come on. To the north, the small cities there shimmered. Below him the outlines of rock, ubiquitous rock, became clear. Brax moved towards the elevators with his eyes trained through the floor on which he walked. It was like walking on air. He felt like he was flying, feeling a little nervous despite the slight reflections and metallic frames that held the floor in place.

It seems that Brax isn’t fond of heights.

The station was well above ground and was a splash of translucence atop a city. Everywhere Brax would turn he could see rock, lying under rain-clouds moving in from the south that would eventually seem ubiquitous here. It was a wet landscape of rocky terrain with life flowing from between its almost artistically patterned cracks. And although Brax thought that this city was more aesthetically pleasing than most of the architecture he had seen images of from Kasara, the place didn’t really seem city-like to him. It felt too primitive, too natural.

It was built around a central temple of concentric circles, the temple of the Kas. The Kas were the gods of the dominant religion which were still revered, if not worshiped, by most of the people. The temple itself was ancient but the rest of the city, built with the help of Thalean engineers more than a thousand cycles ago, was a well structured and planned city that looked like it was made out of rock. Which of course, being on Kasara, it primarily was.

Brax thought it looked chaotic, dirty, and alien.

Brax walked slowly towards the exits ahead of him, scanning for anyone who seemed like they were looking for a Thalean boy who felt anxious, and eventually heard his name being called towards his left. Brax turned and he saw a young Kasarian female, blue in color and running towards him using all four limbs, head bobbing along with great glee.

Hello!” she said as she slowed next to Brax and stood. “You must be Brax, I am Shok Jullen, the great-grand-daughter of Ninnii.”

Brax shifted his bag to his left hand and extended his other in greeting, and Shok happily reached for it and pulled him in for an embrace. Brax was more than a little uncomfortable with this, but he knew he should have expected it. Brax forced himself to relax a little but was only able to rigidly return the hug.

Well, I am glad to have you on Kasara. My family tells me that you have never been here. Is this true?”

Brax cleared his throat and forced a smile. “Yes, I have never been off Thalea before.”

Well then, would you like to see the city before we head south? The city is not very large, as it is a political and religious center only, but there are a few things you might wish to see…” she stopped suddenly, looking shy, and continued somewhat apologetically. “Unless, of course, you would prefer to go straight to Ninnii…”

No, it’s OK” Brax said, wanting to not start out by insulting the girl. “I would very much like to see the temple.”

Brax did have some interest in seeing the temple, but he didn’t know why this request leapt from his mouth so quickly. Nonetheless, it was done and so Brax resolved himself to going now rather than later. Shok bobbed her head much more amiably after a moment after hearing Brax’s request and grabbed for his arm to pull him towards the elevators at a pace Brax was not quite prepared for.

You’ll love it, it is amazing” she said with her head turned towards him as she pulled him along.” It has been there for thousands of cycles, as it is the place where the gods appeared when they visited us so long ago.”

Brax smirked at this as he kept up, but held his tongue. He knew the legends about the Kas, as he spent some time reading about Kasarian culture after planning to make this trip. He didn’t believe that these gods existed, but found the concept of the belief in them fascinating. He wanted to see the temple up-close, even if he couldn’t go inside—nobody did anymore. For more than a thousand Thalean cycles no Kasarian had entered the temple, because according to history everyone who did never returned. Thus, after the last researcher disappeared, the temple’s entrance was closed off by a transparent wall. This researcher, a Thalean, had in fact disappeared from history, but many thought that it was because he had been kidnapped by Kasarian extremists.

In addition, there were stories about the temple making people feel strange when close to it, but these were ancient stories that Brax found silly. According to what Brax had read there seemed to be nothing particularly interesting about it anymore except its age and being an object of extreme reverence. Still, nobody entered, but Brax shelved this in his mind as a means to preserve the site more than anything else. Still, a few curious people would stand outside and look, use their detection devices if they desired to know what was inside, or venture a step or two towards the entrance for a peek into the dark entrance. It was merely an old and empty building that stood as a monument to an ancient belief system that Brax found to be largely out-dated. But Brax felt like he should at least see it.

Brax’s curiosity ran a little deeper than this. Mostly because he knew that nobody was allowed to do so or had done so for many cycles, he wanted to go inside. He had a feeling that a lot of people felt the same way, but knew that they wouldn’t, just like he wouldn’t, even if the barrier weren’t there. Superstitions have a way of compelling curiosity and fear, even among Thaleans from time to time. He imagined that some story, ages ago, about someone disappearing had somehow turned into someone going to the temple and vanishing. Folklore always seemed to start this way, and it made him wonder what was really at play here. Certainly this was no gateway of the gods, as the Kasarians believed.

Shok pulled Brax along as the elevator door opened at the bottom. They were near the edge of the city, which was bustling with traffic of all kinds. All of the buildings were made of rocks or pseudo-rocks of various shades of gray, brown, or green, and all had life clinging to them in the form of plants that climbed up the sides with flowers of various colors. In a strange way, it began to seem beautiful. It resembled the canyon cities, like the one where Brax was soon to live for a time, where buildings were carved out of the rock-faces and caves found all over the planet. But these buildings were built on a plain, and all the rock was artificial or moved from other parts of the landscape. Despite this, there was an organic and natural feel to the design which was very different from the Patula that he remembered which was so orderly and symmetrical.

As Shok led Brax through the streets, she pointed out buildings as they passed by. She pointed out the old Thalean embassy, which was a metal cylinder in the middle of all of this rock, and some government buildings of various kinds. She pointed out a good place to get firstmeal, a shop to get all the new upgrades for your various tech, and a small park that consisted of pools of water that looked more like marshes with rocks jutting up from them, with Kasarians sitting on top either reading or relaxing in the remains of the evening sunset with stars increasing their influence above.

As they approached the center of the city the architecture suddenly changed. Here was a very large circle of intricately carved columns supporting large crudely carved rocks in a giant circle that circumvented the temple inside. Inside this circle was a grassy area with paths of smooth rock headed towards the center from various gates around the rock wall. They approached the first circle, and along the inside of this wide stone path that went around the inner wall were numerous statues of Kasarians from long ago.

Brax stopped in front of one statue, and looked up at it. “Who is this?” he asked, pointing at the inscription which was written in three of the ancient Kasarian languages, none of which Brax could read.

I don’t know, I can’t read that either.”

Brax looked at her, and cocked his head slightly. “How many Kasarians can read this, do you think?”

Hmmmm….” She seemed to think about this for a moment then simply dipped her head in a sign of ignorance. My guess is that it’s either one of the ancient rulers from the time of the temple’s construction. But as to who might be able to read this, not many. I know that Ninnii can, as he used to teach ancient history and language at the university before he retired.”

Brax nodded at this, which Shok interpreted as pleasure at her answer, and she pulled him along the path towards the inner wall. As they approached, they had to go around to one of the four entrances that lead inside, and entered the one that faced the increasingly dark western horizon. Above the entrance was another short inscription, but before he could take a close look at it he was pulled inside by an impatient Shok. Inside the wall was a stone floored area open to the sky, and at the center was the circular domed temple itself. Its entrance was on the North side, Brax knew, and so he anticipated Shok’s change in direction and turned slightly to his left as he began to more eagerly run himself. As he moved around the side he could see the edge of the opening, and the light from large torches on either side reflected for a moment off of the transparent barrier that stopped anyone who decided to try and enter the temple. On each side of the door stood a Kasarian high-priest, two of which stood by the door at all times in shifts. A few paces from the entrance there was a small raised area with another statue on it. This statue was not of a Kasarian, but rather a tall and very thin being with four horns on its head, two long arms, and two long legs that bent in the opposite direction as a Thalean.

The statue pointed toward the sky with it’s right hand, its carved head looking up, and in its other hand was an object that looked…well, like it may have been a large ball. Brax had seen images of this statue, but never looked at it very closely. Now that it was in front of him, he took every inch of it in. He thought, with some amusement, that this was supposed to be a god. This statue was based upon the descriptions of the Kas that were believed to have visited Kasara around two thousand and two hundred cycles ago, and then left shortly after. The dome itself was supposed to have been built by the Kas, but the surrounding structures were apparently built a few decades after the Kas were believed to have left. Evidence of any alien presence was severely lacking, as far as Brax was concerned. The dome itself was built upon what was supposed to be the exact spot where the small ship which brought the Kas here landed, but no evidence of a ship has ever been found. In addition to this, the dome itself was empty according to every investigation that had been done for many centuries.

And yet the Kasarians believe faithfully in the stories.

No wonder faith is considered a strength, Brax thought. It survives without food, water, or even an atmosphere in which to breathe.

The statue was made out of Kasarian rock. This rock was immensely heavy and solid, and not even hundreds of cycles of exposure to rain and weather had worn it much at all. The same was true of the temple itself and the other statues outside of the inner wall, which all stood very well against the Kasarian climate. Apparently, the builders of the temple had discovered a way to coat the rock with a material that prevented wearing over the ages, almost as if they intended it to last as long as it did. As it turned out, the temple was covered with a plastic polymer that was very thin and strong, and almost unnoticeable to the touch. What was curious to people now was how the ancient Kasarians knew how to make such a plastic, as it seemed beyond the technology of the time. The reigning theory is that the plastic was added much later, and this seemed to make sense to Brax as well.

As Brax turned his attention to the temple, he looked up at the domed roof which was probably no more than twenty-five measures high at its peak. The door was tall, as if intended for the taller ‘gods’ Brax thought with a slight smile, and no light was visible inside. The priests next to the door looked at Brax, their heads moved slightly in a friendly motion, and Brax moved closer to the door. Only a few paces from the barrier, he began to feel strange. He turned to Shok, who was several steps behind him, and she looked nervous.

Shok, what’s wrong? Don’t you want to see inside?”

I don’t want to get any closer…it’s dangerous…”

One priest turned his head to Shok at this and looked reassuring. “This is the place of the Kas, of the Divi. This is a safe place. The barrier will not let you enter, so you have nothing to fear.”

Brax’s attention was caught at the word ‘Divi,’ and addressed the priest directly. “Did you say ‘Divi’, as in the name that we call the Protectors?”

The priest seemed amused at this, and responded with a bit of a laughing head-bob. “‘Divi’ is an ancient Kasarian word. It means ‘god,’ ‘edge’, or ‘frontier’, and only by coincidence has the same sound as your ancient Thalean word meaning ‘power.’ The Protectors are called that because many people think of them as gods. The truth is that the Protectors are mere men with very advanced technology. The Kas come from the Divi, from the edge of the universe, and are the gods from which we learned so much.”

Brax nodded at this, and the priest went back to standing by the door quietly. A few other Kasarians approached from Brax’s left, but he hardly noticed them. The other visitors watched as Brax stood in front of the entrance, and saw that the Thalean was moving slowly towards the barrier.

As he looked into the dark entrance, his strange feeling returned. He found himself walking towards the barrier, and as he reached for it he felt it very slightly on his skin, in his flesh, and seemingly in his bones. He stopped momentarily to look at the high-priest to his right, then the one on his left. They weren’t moving. In fact, it seemed to him that the whole world around him was dead still. He considered turning around, but that thought fizzled in the increase of that feeling in his nerves again. The high priest seemed oblivious to it, for he still stood guard, silently and still looking into the distance. His eyes returned to the barrier, beyond which was blackness. He tried to get closer to try and peer inside, but couldn’t distinguish anything from the dark. Then, just for a moment he thought he heard—no, more like felt—a whisper in his mind. Suddenly he felt that power again, and as he touched the surface of the barrier, he lost consciousness.

The blackness eventually transformed itself into dream. Brax was at the temple at night. There was a cool chill in the air, and above the stars were bright, as there were no clouds on this fantasy Kasara. There was a wave of heat as the wind changed, and Brax looked back at the temple. It was on fire, or at least inflamed. Standing on top of it was Menson, who looked down at Brax, who was now holding a sword which was also engulfed in flame.

Why did you do it?” Menson asked, his voice a ubiquitous resonance. “Why did you have to enter the temple?”

Brax suddenly noticed the presence of a flaming sword in his own hand, and looked perplexed. “I didn’t. I’m just here, perhaps the sword….”

Menson looked severely at him. “No, why did you enter the temple with your thoughts. Why did you look inside with your mind? Why did you need to know what was inside? Don’t you know that nothing is inside?”

I was…I was just curious. I didn’t mean to do anything!” cried Brax

Yes, we were all curious.” Menson’s expression grew saddened at this. “And what we found was the emptiness inside. Sometimes it is better not to know what is inside. Sometimes it is better to leave mysteries alone.”

I can’t do that!”

Menson powered up his device at this and his eyes burned green. “Then we are all ruined.”

Then Menson disappeared in a flash, and Brax awoke in the night, covered in sweat, breathing quickly and on the verge of screaming. He found himself in a strange bed, alone, and it was dark. He looked around but only saw the walls of a small room and some furniture. Knowing he was either at Ninnii Jullen’s house or some hospital, he decided to leave that question for the next day, and lay back down to try and sleep.

That feeling of power still reverberated in his nerves.

12. The First Nimri War, Part II

Consequences. The consequences of our emotions take their toll. Perhaps war was inevitable here. Perhaps if Damula had not done it, someone else would have. This is what Zuzek is telling himself these days. Three cycles since that day that Damula killed Hull. Three cycles since the Nimri turned their attention, suddenly and without resignation toward the Thalean fleet. And for a while the Thalean fleet just destroyed ship after ship, hoping to drain their resources eventually.

This didn’t appear to be working.

In the cycle 777 PC the war began to take a turn. They battle still raged mostly around that planet. They had called it Nimrea at first arrival, assuming it was their home world, but it was not. Kaset was a world whose original inhabitants were gone, or at least unseen. The cities lay in waste but left behind scattered corpses, technology, and records. These records told of a race that had created a civilization that numbered in the billions, of competing nations with strange beliefs, conflicts, and who had been destroyed by warfare of all kinds.

But no clear record of how the conflicts had started could be found. It was only clear that the Nimri had finished it and were now fighting over the spoils of their invasion. It looked as if when the Nimri found Kaset, the Kasetians (as they called themselves), were embroiled in war and they had cleaned up what was left and plundered the cities. This was the only explanation that made any sense. The Kasetians, despite their conflicts, seemed to be enlightened people with a culture and level of technology that could not have been the only cause of their ultimate destruction. Why would enlightened people fight destructive wars? How could they achieve this level of understanding and technology in the constant presence of large-scale conflict?

That, thought the Thaleans, would be impossible. To delve into the workings of nature with conflict surrounding you only decreased efficiency in production and progress. One simply could not concentrate with some much going on! It was distasteful to tolerate it. The idea, as it swam through Damula’s confused mind, made him feel anxious, annoyed, and he wanted to rip it out of the universe.

The Nimri now represented this chaos of conflict very realistically. It must have been their barbarism that brought this destruction, a barbarism that allowed themselves to plunder a civilization—and who knew how many other victims there may have been to these scavengers of a species—and take technology that was not their creation and using it to become more powerful. They must be stopped!

This last thought brought a grimace to Damula’s face. He was trying to read battle reports, but kept getting distracted. He gathered himself and looked back at the report. It was nothing new; the effectiveness of their ships was slowly but steadily declining against the Nimri, who were continuing to build new ships come back at them again and again. In three cycles, no more than a couple of dozen, at most, Nimri pilots had died. Damula had had a clean shot at a pilot—Hull—who was not moving and whose shields were not powered up much. Hull had assumed that Damula would not fire, and that if he did he would not destroy the ship in one shot. Hull had either underestimated them or simply failed to predict that Damula’s action would be possible. The result was to enrage the Nimri, it seemed.

And so there was war. A war that no ground could be gained, and slowly, painfully slowly, they were being driven backwards. Each day it seemed that the Nimri were able to get closer and closer to Thalea—although they had not gotten within striking distance yet.

Yet. Such a small word and so much hangs upon it. Because it was becoming clear that eventually they would, as the Thaleans simply could not contain the Nimri’s progression towards increased strength. The Thaleans could not keep up. Something drastic must be done. The source of the Nimri’s resources must be tracked down and halted. Otherwise, defeat was inevitable, even if it could be delayed.

At first, the Thalean fleet was effective, but mostly because they vastly out-numbered the more powerful Nimri. Now, the tide was turning. The last attack got so close to Thalea that the explosion was seen from the surface. No damage had been taken, but it had been close. The Nimri could afford to be daring, because even if they were stopped their pilot simply transported back, unharmed. At least in the vast majority of cases. The Thaleans got lucky sometimes.

Damula was leaning back in his office chair looking over data and statistics of the battle lines when a man appeared in his doorway and tapped at the wall a bit to get Damula’s attention. Damula leaned forward a bit, put the report down and looked at him.

What can I do for you, officer?”

Rather than reply, he simply walked to Damula’s desk, dropped a piece of paper—it was still warm from having been printed—and smiled as stepped back a half step and waited for Damula to look at it. Damula looked curiously at the report, which the officer had been aware enough as to rotate in such that Damula could read it from his angle when he put it down, and Damula’s eyes widened a little.

It was a scouting report. It was an emergency transmission from a scouting information relay, in fact. A scout ship had discovered a planet with life on it; Nimri life. In orbit were four very large artificial objects, likely launching stations, which housed advanced ship-building facilities. The source of the Nimri ships had been found, finally, and they were working at astonishing levels of productivity. The scout ship had been discovered and destroyed within minutes, but the information it sent back was of massive importance, Damula was discovering as he read. As he did so, the officer broke the silence as he watched Damula take in the news with a smile creeping onto his face.

So, what do you want to do, Protector Damula?”

It appears that you were right, officer, the Nimri are from the edge of the galaxy. And it also appears that you were right about the clan warfare being systemic, rather than local.”

Protector, what are we to do now?” the young officer responded. “Should we head towards the system with the fleet or try and hold down this position first?”

Damula was thoughtful for a moment, then put down the report and looked at the young man. Willem was perhaps his best recruit, and his insight had been invaluable, but right now he thought that he was trying a little too hard.

Officer, I appreciate your energy, but right now I think I need to consider this more carefully. We need to give the people studying the surface of the planet more time to figure out exactly what it is that the Nimri are protecting down there. There must be some reason why they persist in fighting us here rather than retreat to their home system. For now, we will remain here. You are dismissed.”

Damula kept reading. The planet where the Nimri seemed to be originating from was nearly uninhabitable. It appeared that changes in the planet’s surface, from tectonic activity and a shift in atmospheric composition, had caused massive planet-wide calamity. On top of that wars had caused the environment to be further destroyed, and most of the Nimri were forced to leave, abandoning thousands to try and survive despite continuing war on the poisonous surface. The few that remained behind only survived in small domed cities that were under constant bombardment. It appeared that the inter-clan fighting had been going on for some time, but that it wasn’t an old tradition by any means. Perhaps it started out as necessity, but necessity has a way of breeding habit.

What was most intriguing was that it appeared that the clan warfare was not more than fifty or sixty cycles old. It seemed that the fighting started either right before or at the same time as the Nimri encountered the Kasetians, here where Damula’s ship was in high orbit over. Likely some military take-over of the government that carried conflict to Kaset. This was more information for the puzzle that was this conflict. More pieces for the academics to argue over. Damula didn’t have time for that, which was unfortunate because it fascinated him. He could not afford to attend to these larger questions with a war that was slowly driving the military back further each day.

The environmental calamity was certainly older than the war, but there was little evidence that the fighting on the Nimri world had been anything but recent. Since it also appeared that the Nimri had not been in this system more than about the same time as the clan warfare, it seemed more likely that it actually started after they invaded the Kozar system. Something about this situation simply did not add up.

There was one other very peculiar aspect to this war. When the Thaleans arrived, there had been four clans battling, and one was predominantly winning the battles. But within a short time, that clan—the Vishi—began to pull out from conflict and eventually disappeared completely. Initially, the Thaleans had assumed that this clan had been beaten, but now it appeared that the exact opposite was true.

According to this most recent intelligence, the Vishi clan decided that the perpetual war at the Kaset system was fruitless for the moment, and so the weaker clans fought and protected the system while the Vishi held onto Nimria without significant challenge. Life at Nimria was easy, peaceful, and oppressive for the weaker clans, while the Vishi lived in wealth and luxury upon the backs of the clans held in relatively peaceful subjugation. This was at least how it appeared from the limited amount of information that Damula had at his disposal. Where the Vishi had no presence here any longer, they had superior dominance at their own home world.

Nimria.

This is what he decided to call it. The original, and inappropriate, name for the planet he orbited now had been Nimrea, but this one would be Nimria. A subtle distinction for historians, if any would survive this war, to mutter about.

But now, there were decisions to make. They had been able to, finally, get to the surface of the planet in small groups safely after many attempts. A few research groups with limited defensive capabilities (they wanted them to be small and invisible, if possible), studied the technology that they found on the surface. Damula was looking for something to use, to turn the tides of war the other way. He wanted to find what the Nimri had found in order to use it against them. So far, they found nothing that could explain the Nimri’s technological advances. Someone had made sure to either take or destroy anything of significant use, because whatever the Nimri had previously found Damula’s teams could not find currently.

But he didn’t want to pull them out yet. He must organize a plan to attack Nimria, but focus on this planet first. The research teams below must be given more time. If they could hold the system secure enough, he might be able to get some more people down there to take a closer look at more of the planet. They would be more of his people, the office of Protection’s secret team of engineers and security, specially trained with advanced tools. They were almost ready.

They just needed more time.

Some weeks later, Protector Damula, as he was called now that the office of Protection became public, walked swiftly through the corridor of the Rilko. After all these cycles this ship still held it’s ground in a fight, especially when surrounded by the new Protectorate fleet of un-manned defense drones. The various upgrades to the ship were significant, but nothing beat the P-Drones. These were small and quick ships that were controlled from the Rilko via remote control, as Thaleans hooked themselves into new neural-interface devices that allowed them to attack the Nimri without fearing for loss of life. They had, in fact, taken a page from the play-book of the enemy.

The Thaleans were beginning to lose badly. Something had changed, and Damula guessed that it was because they had found the Nimri home planet, and the Nimri were probably feeling more desperate. It might also be because the Nimri had found some of the secret teams on the surface of Kaset.

We are were getting close to something, Damula thought, and they are scared.

They had been holding their ground for a long time but with the new information, the Nimri’s obvious surge in intensity, and with some of the more recent reports from the researchers on Kaset, it was getting close to a necessity to implement the attack plan. Damula had just spoken with the other military leaders who were in majority agreement that no longer could they wait. They were no closer to understanding what exactly made this hunk of obliterated rock below the battle so important, and it was beginning to matter less to all of them because soon enough they would not be able to defend their position.

On top of all of this, Damula had just received word that another scout ship had been destroyed, and what it had discovered made the decision more urgent. Damula was about to send the ship through to the newest portal ring that was near-by the location of the Nimri home world. That is, he was about to finish this job once and for all. More than three cycles he had been at this fight, and it was time to end it. Three cycles of loss, newer and more powerful ships, and now a gateway to the belly of the beast that could not be delayed any longer. The more they waited, the less the advantage they would have. They had to move fast, before the Nimri could bolster their defenses.

As he entered the control room, he could tell that the crew was ready to depart. He actually had known that since a few moments after receiving word through the Protectorate interlink, through which the crew had constant access to information via their portable link monitors. It was old technology that the sharing centers had used to keep people in contact when others could not make it to the sharing center itself, but it had not been used previously as a military communications technology until the need for efficiency became important to keep up with the Nimri. The Nimri were, it seemed, extremely efficient barbarians.

As he entered the control room, Damula replaced his interlink monitor onto his pocket and sat in his chair. With a mere wave of his hand the crew did their part to power up the portal ring, power up detection and weapons systems, and to get them moving towards the ring.

The ship passed through the portal unceremoniously and after some time the ship emerged near the blackness that was the edge of the galaxy. It was only a short trip to the planet, and Damula was followed by more than a dozen similar Protectorate ships, some of which where nearly twice as powerful as Damula’s own ship, which he continued to upgrade rather than replace. He was not going to give up on two ships in a row. Not until this was finished.

The fifteen ships, most loaded with P-Drones, accelerated towards the planet and Damula threw his head back for a quick nap. He knew he had more than an hour before they arrived, and he thought a short rest might clear his tired mind. So he relaxed as the crew checked and double-checked power levels, control systems, and kept in contact with the other ships through the link.

The last thought that Damula thought before allowing his mind to quiet was that this was going to be easy. All they had to do now was destroy the base ships, in orbit around Nimria, that were apparently unprotected according to their last intelligence. If they acted fast enough, they might be able to cut off the Nimri’s resources and make sure this war would be short-lived. If they succeeded, the Nimri ships would attack them and when they were destroyed no more would come to replace them. No more waves of slightly improved ships each time.

Apparently the reason that the battle had been going the way of the Nimri was that the clans had begun throwing everything at the Thalean fleet recently, even the planetary defense ships. While they had the chance they had to cut off their supply. And with their armament, it shouldn’t be a problem.

He smiled as he rested.

Twenty or so minutes later Damula’s head snapped up and Damula felt just a little fuzzy and disoriented for a moment. He looked around the control room and saw that they were still on course, and he checked how far away they still were. No sign of defense parameters, detection grids, or defense of any kind was in detection range, and they still had some time before they arrived.

Have we picked up anything at all on the long-ranged sensors?”

No, sir. So far only one pulsar is all we’ve seen of any interest.”

Very well, keep me informed of anything that you see that looks even the slightest bit out of the ordinary. I don’t want to walk into an ambush.”

Damula tried to clear the remaining cobwebs from his mind as he looked at data from the sensor array from the last twenty minutes or so, and had to conclude that there was, in fact, little of interest. Near the edge of the galaxy there was a lack of pretty much anything, and they were only eighteen light-cycles or so from the farthest stars until the blackness of space between galaxies. The planet they were headed for was about as far from the center of the galaxy as any Thalean had been, and as they approached, the right side of the view-screen was nearly black, except for a few stars here and there in the distance and even more distant galaxies. On the left was the continuing arm of the great spiral galaxy they lived in, which spread some 123,000 light-cycles from one end to the other. Directly ahead was a yellow star which acted as the gravitational anchor-point for a planet they were on route to. It looked so peaceful and quiet at a distance.

The positioning of Thalea, which was towards the edge of the galaxy itself, meant that for the Nimri to get very far, they would almost have to go very close to Thalea without going far out of their way or without crossing the gap between the arms of the galaxy. Knowing that the Nimri’s ability to transport themselves from one place to another was based upon locator beacons that they placed in various places throughout space was helpful, but only three had been found since the beginning of the war. It seemed that the Nimri could transport their ships via these beacons with a rather generous range, and their small size meant that they could be easily hidden in an asteroid, in a nebula, or many other places.

What was more frustrating for Thalea was that they had no idea how the devices worked, or even how they were powered. Each beacon had a power output of a small Thalean warship. Yet only a small sphere, generally the size of one’s head or a bit larger, could be identified as the power source. No way to open it (or even break it) could be managed with everything the Thaleans tried, and the only apparent irregular thing about it was that it made a person feel tingly when they got near it; no way to draw power from it could be gleaned. It seemed just like a semi-translucent ball that made your skin crawl a bit.

The Thalean system had been scoured for beacons, and only one was found. Another was found near the colony, which was closer to Nimria thus acted as a military outpost, mostly, and one other was found not far from that colony. None had been found near Kaset, where most of the war had taken place. This frustrated the Thalean military very much, as it meant that they could not stop the Nimri from simply appearing over and over again, with only short pauses not lasting more than a few days, for the last three cycles.

The Thaleans were extremely careful. They made sure to create a detection grid that cut off the Nimri part of space from the rest of the galaxy. Much of it was completed, but now that they knew where their home planet was, the rest could be completed as well. The Thaleans wanted to make sure that they could, at very least, contain the Nimri to their part of space, so that they could not sneak around them and invade from another location. The task was tedious and expensive in terms of resources, but so far the grid seemed promising.

Portals were also being built throughout the arm of the galaxy, making sure to keep them on the outside of the detection grid as to make sure that if the Nimri tried to break through the grid an attack fleet, a few of which were always standing by the colony portals, could portal through and meet the Nimri. This had been necessary more than a few times in the last few cycles, and so far the plan was working to keep the Nimri contained, as far as anyone knew. Thalea itself was still surrounded by an immense orbital protection system and a large fleet of Protectorate ships were always near-by. The Thaleans were not taking any chances.

As Damula sat considering these things, he saw a blinking light on the display of the data from the forward scanners, and saw an energy signature. It was, it seemed, a single approaching Nimri ship. Damula had expected this. He had a feeling they would see them coming. Whether it would be a fleet of hidden ships or just a few he had not been sure. But one? One was not what he expected. Damula checked the status of the shields, and then to see if the invisi-shield was functioning, which it was. It wouldn’t matter much, as Nimri detection technology was superior, and it would only make tracking his ship more difficult rather than invisible, but any advantage helped.

Ready weapons, but hail them first. I want to see what clan they have sent to intercept us”

After a moment, the communications officer opened the channel, and the chirp through the speakers alerted Damula to this fact.

This is the Protectorate ship Rilko. We are on route to your home planet. Be would like to know which clan has been nice enough to meet us at the door.”

A moment of silence was the response and as the ship got closer it slowed. Damula could see that its weapons were not powered and it had not raised any shields of any kind. In fact, he noticed that it was not even a military vessel at all, but what appeared to be a transport ship of some kind. But it wasn’t a transport ship; that would have made no sense. Damula decided it must be an envoy.

Still, its power output was immense for a mere transport ship.

This is Muzead, of the Vishi clan. I have come to escort you to Nimria. Please follow me. Keep your weapons powered if you wish, but we will not initiate attack.”

Damula looked as if he had been slapped. His jaw had fallen open and he found himself standing.

Vishi ship, can you please verify your last transmission. Were we just invited to be escorted to your planet?”

Yes, that is true. All will be explained upon your arrival to Nimria. But for now, know that the war of the last three of your cycles has not been waged by the Vishi clan, but rather the other weaker clans who have been unable to challenge us for some time. Their weakness has forced them to divide their attacks, in a sort-of alliance, against both the Thalean military and the Vishi clan. The Vishi, I am allowed to inform you, want to declare peace with the Thaleans.”

Damula was shell-shocked. He was, for the moment, too flabbergasted to be skeptical, but that feeling was beginning to burn underneath his amazement.

So you don’t view the Thaleans as a threat or as a more powerful enemy? Don’t the Nimri destroy the strong? Are we not strong enough?”

A moment of silence seemed to stretch on, and finally a response was offered.

I can only say that the Vishi have no interest in attacking the Thaleans at this time. Interpret this any way you like, but Komar will explain more once we are at Nimria.”

Damula thought for a moment, and then answered.

I will need a moment to consult with my commanders. We will contact you again in an hour.”

Very well, I will wait here for one of your hours.”

Damula ordered a holo-conference with his commanders, and stormed through the control room towards his office behind the large room. The crew watched him as he passed them, and when he disappeared they started to talk among themselves, as surprised as Damula was.

In the conference room behind Damula’s office was a large oval table, and around it were holo-images of the other fourteen commanders of the fleet waiting outside of Nimrian space. Damula was the only flesh in the room, but he addressed their images as if the imaged referents were all there in the room with him.

What do we make of this?” Damula started. “For more than three cycles we have fought against the Nimri incessantly, and it is true that we have not seen the Vishi at Kaset for the vast majority of those cycles, but we have no way of knowing what kind of assistance they might be giving to the effort behind the scenes.”

An image of a female commander to his left leaned in and responded.

We have no way of knowing what their culture is really like. We have no way of knowing whether the clans are genuinely in military competition or whether this clan warfare is an image they give to deceive us. Frankly, we don’t know if the last few cycles have been a tactic to give them time to build up a much larger fleet and attack with that. Perhaps that fleet is already in position to attack Thalea or the colony as we sit and talk diplomacy.”

I tend to agree with commander Frath on this, Officer” said an older man towards the farthest end of the table. “I think that we need to be very cautious with this. I want to believe that diplomacy is possible with the Nimri, but everything we have seen from them has led me to believe that they are a sincere race, and…”

Sincere? Are you serious?” This was a much younger image of a man directly to Damula’s right, who appeared to be seething with rage at the word ‘sincere.’ He continued with this rage; “I don’t know what is sincere about a culture that thrives on games of war and conquest. Don’t forget what they did to that civilization on Kaset, which appears to have had technology far more advanced than even our own.”

The older man appeared embarrassed at this, but it was another commander, a large and boisterous woman with animated hands, that came to his defense;

Commander, you are young, so I will forgive your impatience and your ignorance, but the fact is that this race has been direct with us. Granted, their directness has been quite deadly, but I don’t think their forte is deception.”

And if you are wrong then we are all dead.”

This last reply by the young commander left the room silent. Damula looked at his hands and considered the options, and without raising his head or looking at him, he addressed the oldest of the commanders, Officer Carron Wulliter.

Carron…Commander Wulliter, you have been my most trusted adviser to me since I returned from that first encounter with the Nimri nearly ten cycles ago. I…we need your insight now. Tell me you have some thoughts concerning this situation.”

Officer Wulliter, whose words were few but carried more weight than that of any of them combined, didn’t as much as budge from his leaning back in his chair. His image, now almost ancient, looked towards the ceiling. He had heard the request, nobody doubted that, and the room was dead silent in expectation. Eventually the one hundred and twenty-three cycle-old Commander sighed and leaned forward just a bit, and he spoke very slowly at first, but his speech quickened, and his mood livened, as he told his story.

When I was a young boy, I lived in Aderna. During one of the festivals I was watching a competition between two men with whom I was well-acquainted in a semi-final match at the tournament. The one man, whose name I forget now, was the favorite, as he was the champion from the cycle before and was well-known for his skill. His sword was long, and his arms were strong, and anyone knew that if he were to hit you, the match would be over.

The other man, whose name also escapes me, was a rather quick and very tactical fighter. His skill was also very impressive, but he used a smaller sword, and therefore had to fight with great caution, patience, and cunning to avoid the attacks that were thrown at him and wait out for the right moment. The match had been going for some time and both men looked tired but the larger and stronger man looked exhausted. It appeared that the match was soon to be over when the larger man lost his footing for just a moment and thus lost balance and fell into a corner of the arena, and was over-taken by the smaller man, who paused for just a moment.

It was in this moment, which didn’t last more than a second or two although it seemed to last longer to me, when I saw the hesitation on the man’s face as he stood over the reigning champion in what could be, very easily, his moment of victory and his entrance into the finals. Seeing this hesitation the man on the ground took the opportunity to roll and to hit his opponent in the leg—with the flat edge of his sword as to not injure him—and to thus score a winning point in the match.”

Wulliter’s image leaned in a little closer to the table and cleared his throat before he continued, with a subtle change in tone that implied that his point was approaching. The rest of the room simply listened, carefully and motionless.

As it turned out, the two men had been long-time friends, and had sparred many times in their life. They had an agreement, in their sparring, that should one of them fall in a way that was not caused by the tactics of their opponent, then they would be allowed to gain their feet again to continue, and they had done so for many cycles of practice with one-another. But because the smaller man…ah! I think his name was Trivin, but little matter…. Because Trivin did not finish off his opponent who had fallen, his opponent won the match in using this hesitation to his advantage.

There was much discussion after that match as to whether this was a tactic that the winning fighter used…I remember his name was Shimiva now…it was questioned whether Shimiva fell intentionally so that he could use the hesitation of his opponent and his friend to win the match. This remained speculation, but after that match the two men did not remain friends, and Triven did not re-enter the tournament the following cycle or for many cycles. He later did enter and did win, I believe, but that wasn’t until after Shimiva retired, if I remember correctly.”

Wulliter leaned in and shook his head a bit, as if to shake the tangent memory from himself, and looked, for the first time since he began to speak, directly at Damula. Even as a holo-image his look gave Damula shivers.

The point is that even if you think you know someone, it is not until you are in the arena with them that you see the true man. The fact is that we don’t know whether the Nimri have stumbled, or simply want us to think that they have stumbled. In either case to stop would be to let our guard down for a moment and be vulnerable.”

At that he paused for a moment while holding a finger up to halt any response, then continued;

The question is whether this is an opponent that we want to give up our guard to, even for a moment. Even if they won’t strike us now, their ultimate goal seems to be to strike us, whether it is now or later.”

Wulliter leaned back and seemed to consider more, but was reticent about these new thoughts. The room remained silent, and Damula sighed and continued to regard the image of his old adviser’s eyes, and finally spoke.

Very well. Here are my orders. We follow the ship out there towards Nimria, but not all the way to it. We will not let down our guard. We keep full sensor sweeps, weapons at maximum power, shields at full, and we enter in attack formation and we attack at the slightest provocation.

I’ll tell Muzead that we will not enter inside the defenses of the Nimri planet, as I’m assuming that they will have been re-established since our last intelligence. We will talk with Komar on our terms and any sudden move will be taken as hostile and we will attack with full force. When it appears we have a good shot, I’ll order a full attack. Any further suggestions?”

The room merely looked at him, and nobody spoke up.

Very well, let’s get back to our control rooms. I’ll do the talking.”

Damula shut off the transmission and got up to return to the control room where his crew looked at him with questions hanging on their lips. Damula simply ordered an attack vector that would follow the Nimri ship, and told them that they should be prepared to fire at any moment. Damula sat, nervously, and ordered a channel to be opened to the Nimri ship. He repressed a creeping smile, and delivered his message.

13. Ninnii

Brax has awoken during the night not knowing where he was or how he had gotten there. The last thing he remembered was being at the temple. No, there was a dream…he was convinced it was a dream. He was exhausted, but he didn’t fall back asleep right away. But he was too scared to move so he lay down and stared at the ceiling for a while, concentrating on that feeling that had returned to him again. It had been some time since he felt it this strongly, but it had faded. His eyes eventually slid closed and he slept again.

Some time later he awoke again and it was no longer night. There was some light coming in through a small window, illuminating the small room. Outside he saw a column carved out of rock. He was undoubtedly in Canyon City just south of the capital, Keser. He was probably in the house of Ninnii Jullen, and felt deeply embarrassed to have arrived in such condition. He was just about to rise out of the small bed when he noticed a Kasarian sitting in the corner, sitting on top of a small chest. He was very old, but his eyes beheld those of Brax with a kind of intensity, intelligence, and yet affection that disarmed Brax in a deep way. Brax froze at having been discovered in his current state, and could only slowly return to the center of the bed and sit.

The Kasarian only nodded his head in a jovial manner continuously and unflinchingly regarded the Thalean boy. Brax hoped to have this man, his host, this legend of a mind, break this tension with a word. He would have given anything at all to hear the Kasarian say that he thought Brax was foolish and weak for fainting at the temple, rather than simply stare at him as the old man was doing. The look was maddening. It made Brax feel nervous and, well, and a little angry. He wanted to scream at the man and to shake that look off his face. He imagined himself rushing at the sitting, nodding, and judging ass to demand him to cease this staring contest. As Brax felt this emotion begin to announce itself in a deepening of the redness of his skin, he swallowed his anger down and allowed himself to get up.

As he stirred his legs into position to move the old man shifted slightly and Brax flinched and threw himself off-balance a little. As Brax tried to stop his balance from tipping, the old man spoke, nearly throwing Brax’s momentum to the stone floor.

I hear you had quite a visit to the Temple.”

This simple question, perceived as he caught himself with his left arm, reinvigorated his fury. He once again forced it down and managed to stand next to the bed while Ninnii followed this action with his whole attention, still looking amiable and infuriating.

I…” Brax was bereft of anything to say, and felt that even if he had composed volumes of oration to lament his adventure, he would not have been able to push them past the emotion he was swallowing.

It’s OK, you are allowed to be angry here. This is not Thalea.”

Brax looked at the man in confusion. He opened his mouth to respond, but was interrupted by the old man, who continued while he slowly stood up on his hindlimbs, supporting himself a little with one or the other forelimb.

My boy, you have much to learn, indeed. You are certainly a Damula. I can see what Shonny meant. In any case, you should join us in the common room for firstmeal. I have asked a traditional Kasarian meal be made for you, as you are unlikely to find it on Thalea, at least prepared correctly.”

The old man turned to exit the room, and he motioned for Brax to follow. Brax was still battling with the anger in his throat, but managed to follow through the arched doorway, slowly as to not overtake Ninnii, who was slow with age. As he exited the room he saw meticulously carved wall that arched over them, as the corridor was a low and narrow vaulted ceiling that looked as if it were carved right out of the rock itself. This was, it appeared, one of the many houses carved right out of the canyon wall, and it appeared to be ancient. Still, there was a certain beauty in the intricate detail of the rock, and ahead of them lay a large room that was a half dome and opened through a wide open doorway into the canyon itself. He could see rock paths that tunneled through the canyon wall with stairways, columns, and various platforms all along the opposite canyon wall. Dozens of Kasarians, and even a pair of Nisivalens, walked about this canyon as they began a day in the ancient Canyon City that was flooded with sunlight that rose in the east through scattered clouds.

It was certainly not Thalea. It was hot, humid, and it smelled like it was going to rain any moment. It always smelled like that on this part of Kasara, Brax would find soon enough.

Brax’s contemplation was interrupted by Shok, who was asking if he felt any better. Brax shook his reverie from his mind and smiled at her, and said that he was feeling better. She seemed relieved at this, and returned to the low table around which sat a few Kasarians.

Ninnii sat next to a rather old female Kasarian, who he assumed was Ninnii’s wife, and two much younger Kasarians—possibly a mated couple…or siblings…Brax simply couldn’t tell—who were busy talking with Shok, but also looking in Brax’s direction.

Brax was leering at the meal they were eating when Ninnii seemed suddenly to have become aware of something and put down a bowl of what appeared to be green moss with some orange sauce on it before turning towards Brax.

I apologize, Brax. I sometimes forget that you Thaleans have different customs in meeting new people. Since I retired some cycles ago I must say I have become remiss in the ways of inter-cultural diplomacy.” Shok seemed to almost laugh at this, at least as far as Kasarians laugh, and then Ninnii continued.

I believe you know who I am. I am Ninnii Jullen, and this here is Fragek Jullen, my life companion and an outrageously beautiful woman.”

Brax looked uncertain how to react, as the old woman playfully slapped at Ninnii’s back.

Now Ninnii, my darling, the boy can clearly see that I’m about as old as this canyon, and you sir are blind anyway. Brax, it is a pleasure to meet you. I am glad to have you in our home. What Ninnii refers to in discussing our customs, is that on Kasara it is customary for the guest to introduce themselves. It is somewhat old-fashioned, but we are quite old. Our grandchildren, sitting across from us, are Karisi, who is Shok’s father, and Zelli, who is still un-mated, but perhaps too old for you”

Stop it, grand-ma! I told you I’m not interested in such things. Besides, I’m too busy with research to get involved with such foolishness.” Zelli then turned her attention to Brax and continued; “Besides, I think Shok is the one that has a thing for Thalean boys.”

I do not, aunt Zelli! Besides, it’s not like I can have children with a Thalean anyway.”

Brax watched the conversation bounce around the room for a few moments more, unsure of what he was supposed to do. Then, after he gathered his thoughts he realized he was supposed to introduce himself. And so as the teasing of one-another began to settle for a moment he cleared his throat and instantly the room fell silent and their attention was poured upon him, closing his throat in a wave of anxiety. Ninnii looked as if he were about to jump in to speak again when Brax suddenly forced himself to do so instead.

I am Brax Damula. I grew up on Thalea, born in Cesternatton, raised in Patula, survived the destruction of that city, and have until recently resided again at Cesternatton. My mother was killed in the explosion…”

KAS-A!” The room burst simultaneously and spontaneously, throwing off Brax’s thoughts. They fell silent again and continued their attention, and Brax continued cautiously.

OK…, um…. My father was a researcher studying power generation for the Cooperative and I have not seen him for many cycles, as he died when I was quite young.” He paused, waiting for another spontaneous outburst from the room, but continued when none came.

OK, well, I am here on Kasara to continue my education that my aunt Shonny, Shontesta that is, has been kind enough to assist me with, and am looking forward to spending some time here. I guess that’s it for now.

Ninnii shifted and asked a question that, if he had not an affectionate countenance, would have seemed rude. “How long will you stay?”

Brax shifted a little uneasily at this, and shrugged his shoulders.

I see. My boy, you are welcome to stay as long as you like. I hope that Kasara will have much to offer you. So far, it appears to have given you a start worthy of mention, and yet you did not mention it. Please, come and eat, and after we eat…

And after I run. I need to get to my meeting and must depart at this time” said Karisi. “Shok, you may stay from school today, if you like, but you must return tomorrow”

I actually need to go to school today, as we are presenting and I don’t want to miss it. I will have other times to acquaint myself with our new friend. I will come with you” said Shok, before she grabbed another mouthful of green moss-like substance and stood to join her father.

It was a pleasure to meet you. I am greatly sorrowed for the loss of your mother in The Accident, and I hope that you will enjoy your stay.” Brax thanked Karisi for his departing words and the two of them left together, joining the fray that was just outside their open doorway.

Ninnii waved to them as they left and continued. “Karisi is a politician indeed. He departs because his wife Mimisa—Kas-A—was on Thalea, in Patula, when The Accident occurred. I’m afraid that he has healed from this loss much less than Shok, but still the both of them feel deeply for this loss. Shok will be a friend to you, but know that she and her father will feel discomfort with you for having lived while their wife and mother did not. They will not blame you, but they will be uncomfortable with you for some time. Do not take it personally, as they do not take your comments earlier personally.”

Brax’s embarrassment was obvious to the room, and Fragek stood beside him and embraced him. “Brax, you have been through much. It is time for you now to eat. I know that the firstmeal I have prepared for us to eat looks like vegetation to you, but in my many cycles I’ve never met a Thalean that has not liked my kishi.”

Brax looked at the food on the table skeptically at this, and gently pulled away and responded with a voice of disbelief.

But I’ve had kishi, and it looks nothing like that when I’ve had it.”

Yes, yes” said Ninnii. You’ve had the Thalean ‘improvement’ of kishi, but you’ve likely never had it Kasarian style. I’m surprised that Shonny has not made it for you, except that she could never quite get the sauce right, as I recall. In any case, join us and take a taste, I guarantee you’ll love it.”

He did join them, he did taste it, and he did love it. And for some time they talked. They didn’t talk of the Temple. Not yet anyway. They talked of Thalea, Kasara, and of history. Ninnii seemed to be particularly interested in what Brax had learned while researching with Shonny. And as Zelli eventually had other things to attend to and as Fragek simply lost interest in the discussion, Brax found himself in a conversation with the legendary Ninnii Jullen, alone in his common room, throughout the morning.

And before either of them had realized it had happened, they were hungry again. It was at this that Ninnii decided it was time to take a walk to the surface above the ancient Canyon City, to take a stroll through Kasarian streets and to show Brax around and to grab some local cuisine. Before Brax could question Ninnii’s ability to take a stroll anywhere, Ninnii remotely switched on a device that was mostly hidden in the corner that floated over to the old man, and he sat upon it and looked up at the boy. At that Brax smiled and laughed a little, and the old man seemed to try his hardest to smile in return.

Brax genuinely liked this man. He felt a pang of guilt for the violent thoughts he had had this very morning upon finding himself spied upon as he awoke. He found that he respected Ninnii about as much as he respected anyone. But there was an edge to that respect, and it started a small fire in Brax’s stomach that Brax didn’t quite understand. But as they walked out of the doorway and into the cliffs of Canyon City and climbed them to the surface, that feeling subsided until Brax could almost not feel it at all.

And while Ninnii had not mentioned it again since firstmeal, Brax felt the question burning to be asked; What happened at the Temple?

Brax wasn’t sure. He was not sure he wanted to be sure. But the question hung in the air for some time as they traveled the cliff-paths that led along the canyon walls. And as they reached an elevator that would take them up, silenced fell between the two of them. And as they waited for the doors to open, the question pounded the air to form an audible question that had hung between them for the whole morning. That hanging had become too heavy for either of them, and as the door opened Brax thought of his dream and for a moment, just a moment, he thought he saw Menson in the elevator as it opened.

As the tall Thalean passed between them on his way out of the elevator, Brax followed him with his eyes as Ninnii hovered into the small lift.

Someone you know?”

No, just surprised to see a Thalean here, is all”

Ah, yes. He’s around quite a bit. He’s a trader of some sort, not quite sure of his name. Keeps to himself mostly, but seems nice, at least for a Thalean.”

Brax smiled at the jab at him. He was quickly growing very accustomed to the playful teasing that Ninnii seemed so fond of. He entered the elevator and Ninnii pressed a button and the doors closed.

So, the temple…”

On the surface, a buzzing metropolis of intricately carved and artificially created rock, Brax relayed his experience at the Temple the night before. As Ninnii hovered next to him, he watched the boy carefully, and interrupted not once. When Brax got to the part about him blacking out and then waking up that morning, Ninnii simply looked at him. He could tell there was more to this story. But the boy merely bounced his eyes between the ground and Ninnii, and became uncomfortable. There were heavy clouds above, and a few drops of rain fell around them. For a moment both of them continued their stroll slowly with the sounds of the city around them being drowned out by the tension of their own silence.

Brax was well aware that Ninnii was waiting for the rest, but Brax was also aware that he wanted the old man to say something, anything. Ninnii was aware of this too, but he wanted to give the boy a chance to come forward with what was left unsaid on his own accord. It was an ancient cultural practice of allowing one’s interlocutor to bring the truth out without unnecessary prying. Kasarians were known for their patience and their skills in arbitration and diplomacy. Ninnii, with his many cycles of experience, knew that the boy had more to say, had more he wanted to say, but that he just needed to work it out for himself that this desire was stronger than his fear. And eventually Brax did realize this, and he finally continued.

Then…, well, there was a dream I had in between that passing out and waking up. But, it seemed more powerful and more real than any dream I’ve had before. I don’t know what to make of it.”

What was this dream?”

Ninnii stopped after having said these words, and Brax stopped after a couple of steps, and turned to him. They had found themselves in a park not far from what appeared to be an old museum, and the rain was now starting to get heavier. Ninnii, who was used to this, didn’t as much as flinch. Brax didn’t seem to notice much either, and simply brushed his thick reddish-brown hair back from his face and began to speak with more passion behind his voice.

After a moment…but I guess it could have been some time…in any case after some blackness I found myself in front of the temple again. But this time the sky was clear, the stars were very bright, and the temple was inflamed.”

Inflamed, you say?”

Yes, and on top of the temple was Menson, and I had in my hand…”

Menson?”

Yes, he was the Protector that saved me in The Accident…anyway, I had in my hand…”

A protector, on the Temple?” Ninnii shifted in his hover-chair at this.

Yes…, but as I was saying…wait, why do you seem so surprised to hear that?”

Surprised? No. I’m not surprised. In fact, that is the first place I expect to see a Protector.”

Why is that? What do Protectors have to do with an old temple here? I mean, all the Protectors are Thalean, and they existed before we had contact with Kasara. So, why would a Protector being on the Temple seem so natural to you?”

Brax, my dear boy, we shall talk more of that during your stay here. But for now I want to hear every detail of your dream. You were about to tell me you were holding something, I believe.”

Yes, I was holding a sword, also inflamed. I didn’t know where I got the sword, but it seemed like it had something to do with the Temple burning.”

Now, was the temple actually burning, or was it merely inflamed?”

Brax paused for a moment with his eyes closed. He saw the flames rising from the dome, but didn’t remember seeing the dome itself burnt or discolored in any way. And if the temple was made of rock, how could it burn anyway?”

Brax paused, looked directly at Ninnii, and continued.

I believe it was just inflamed, as it was not damaged in any way.”

I see. Tell me more about this Menson. What does he look like?”

He had dazzling green eyes. He wore, on both of occasions I saw him and in the dream, a long black coat, has long dark hair, and has a device on his hip that has a translucent rounded thing on the end and the rest is black. In the dream he is holding it, it glows bright white, and his eyes burn a green, more green than when I saw him before.”

Brax paused for a moment, and looked at the old Kasarian, who seemed to be soaking up every detail of the story with great interest. The old man motioned for Brax to continue, this time apparently too impatient to wait for Brax to be ready this time.

Then, he asked me why I entered the temple, but not actually entered it; he asked me why I entered it with my thoughts. He asked my why I wanted to know what was inside. He said that nothing was inside. He said that was what they found inside…nothing.”

Nothing, you say? He said that nothing was inside?”

Yes, that’s what he said. Why does that strike you?”

Well, my young friend, it’s because that is either the most audacious of lies or the most profound truth in the world. Which it is, however, I cannot say. But my guess is that you may have a better point of view than I concerning this question. After all, it was your dream.”

Brax simply nodded at this, but the sudden change in rhythm of the old man’s head-bobbing insinuated that there was more to what he was saying than what Brax heard. Ninnii, seeing this realization, suddenly stopped his head from its rhythmic countenance and looked directly at Brax with a new vigor in his eyes.

What has Shonny told you about the history of the Protectors?”

Brax’s expression stiffened as he thought about some of the articles and books that Shonny had given Brax to read about the Protector’s history.

Well, they first appeared during the first Nimri war, and they eventually hunted down the last of the Nimri and killed them all. Ever since then they have lived in secret and largely out-of-sight for many centuries, and act as protectors of our peace.”

How would you describe their power?”

Their power?”

Yes, how would you describe what they are capable of doing?”

I don’t know what they are capable of doing, at least not completely. I know they can appear and disappear seemingly at will. I know they can create powerful force-fields, as Menson did on the subtrans that day, and I…”

Have you ever wondered what a Protector was doing in a subtrans in the first place?”

Brax paused for a moment, as if he were asked why he breathed, but then it occurred to him that the Protectors have the ability to travel seemingly anywhere with but a thought. Why would a Protector need to ride a subtrans? As he realized this, his face changed and Ninnii jumped back in before Brax could answer the question.

What was the Protector doing before that explosion destroyed the city?”

He was talking to a Kasarian, and they had some sort of argument. The Kasarian pulled out what looked like a weapon and Menson stopped him and destroyed the weapon. Then the Kasarian ran out of the subtrans and a few moments later the explosion happened.”

Yes, I’ve read the various reports from the survivors of that trans and the other group. Nothing abnormal was happening with the other Protector that survived. He was on the outside of the city apparently just walking down the street when the few people close to him were pulled into a small force-field and saved from the blast. Nobody had any idea he was a Protector before he did that, as he was just walking down the street, as I imagine Protectors do from time to time in their anonymity. Nobody is sure what happened with the Protectors within the research center when the explosion happened, and no explanation for the explosion was ever given.”

Yes, I have read those reports as well.”

Well then, my boy, we seem to have the same information. Of course, there is one thing that I find odd. Perhaps you can help me understand something.”

Sure, Ninnii, anything.”

Every person in the transport you were in recalls feeling a flood of power through their bodies, but nobody in the presence of the other Protector reports having felt anything at all. That seems very strange to me. Perhaps you might enlighten me as to why this is the case. Do you have any thoughts?”

Brax thought hard about this. He had read the reports from the other people that were saved, but had not considered that none of those from the other group had mentioned the feeling of power. He didn’t know why he hadn’t noticed this before, but now that he was aware of it the idea seemed unavoidable. Why hadn’t he noticed this before right now?

Never mind that for a moment.” Ninnii said, interrupting Brax’s confused thoughts. “Tell me more about what the Protector, Menson. Tell me more about what he said to the Kasarian. I remember reading that nobody, not even the two Kasarians on the transport with you, knew what he said. All we seem to know is that whatever it was scared the Kasarian quite profoundly.”

He was speaking in what sounded like a dialect and accent that I recognize from old Kasarian videos, from what I remember.”

Yes, and the one Kasarian who heard most of it, being closer, thought he heard some mention of the Kas, and something about immense danger to large groups. Now, this Kasarian was no linguist, but the ancient languages have some resemblance to some current words we still use, and he seemed to make some sense of the commentary by the Protector. But the fact that this warning was followed by an explosion that destroyed Patula might seem like a coincidence, but perhaps it isn’t.”

Brax turned quite suddenly at this, and retorted a bit loudly.

Are you implying that the Kasarian, as well as the Protectors, are somehow responsible for The Accident?”

No, not quite. I’m wondering whether there was a connection between that conversation about that “weapon” as it is referred to in the discussions, and the explosion. The fact is that the reports do not conclude what that object was, why a Kasarian who speaks ancient Kasarian had it, and what Menson did with it.”

Wait…” Brax moved closer to Ninnii, a sudden move which might have been taken as aggression in another context. “Are you saying that he didn’t destroy it? That’s what it looked like.”

Indeed. However, when Menson left after dropping you off at Gullina, did he fly away?”

No, he simply vanished in a flash.”

And what happened to the “weapon” when it was destroyed?

It vanished, in a flash.”

OK, so is it possible that he didn’t actually destroy it, but rather transported it somewhere, say the Protector’s research center which was the epicenter of the explosion?”

Brax’s eyes lit up at this. The idea that the “weapon” as it was now referred to, was the cause of the explosion had not occurred to him. In fact, he never heard anyone imply this theory as far as he knew. The fact that Ninnii was implying its possibility made him wonder what else the old man knew about all of this.

My boy, you Thaleans are marvelous inventors and fixers of things. But you would make, and often do make, terrible investigators. Shonny was a brilliant student, but often I had to remind her to check her assumptions when figuring out a problem. We must all check our assumptions.”

Brax could only look at the old man and hide a small amount of anger at this. Ninnii simply turned his hover-chair around and waved to Brax.

Where are you going?”

Home. I’m tired. I’m going to go home and rest. We shall continue this conversation tomorrow. I want you to think about what we talked about. I suggest you wander the city a bit.” Then he stopped a moment and turned to Brax. “You will be able to find your way back, I assume.”

Yes, I will find my way back.”

Ninnii nodded at this and turned back and continued his journey back home. Brax stood and watched him go and then found himself wandering towards the old museum. His mind was full of doubts about his thoughts and opinions that he had heard from the media in recent cycles. He wondered what the Protectors were really like, in person. As he absorbed these thoughts he found himself walking past the museum and found a place to sit. As he looked around he found that he missed trees. And as he sat longer he also found that he missed his mother, Patula, and that power he felt that terrible day.

Why was it that only he and his co-subtrans-riders felt it but nobody else did? Why was it that he felt he could still feel it sometimes? Was it an illusion or was he still being affected by the Protector’s device somehow? And what was it about the Kas which Menson apparently mentioned to the Kasarian? Did that have something to do with the temple? But what could the temple have to do with this?

This thought was quickly eclipsed by another that wiped its significance from Brax’s mind. He thought that maybe that feeling of power had something to do with that thing the Kasarian had in his hand. Perhaps that device allowed him to feel that power. Perhaps another one like it would allow him to feel it again. It was the only factor that seemed to distinguish what he and the others felt in the subtrans that the others did not feel. There must be some connection.

If that was true, then he would have to find out what it was, where it came from, and where he could get one.

14. Nimria

It is often the case that knowledge of a situation is insufficient to model a viable plan. Such was the case for the Office of Protection upon its first visit to the home world of the Nimri. They were as prepared as they thought they could have been. But it is a flaw of the Thaleans to think that being ready with what one has is always sufficient. The humorous irony, at least as the Bruuk would see it later, was that no level of self-knowledge—which many have said the Thaleans were in dire need of—would have helped. For when one is not faced with an enemy of one’s self but rather an interlocutor of vast difference, psychology ceases to be useful.

When one is faced with a mind that is constructed in different environment of time and space, one needs to dig beneath the floor of one’s assumptions and become archaeologists of alien assumptions.

Damula and his fleet followed the envoy ship as far as the edge of the planetary defense system, and then ordered a full stop which drew the attention of the escorting ship. What caught Damula’s attention was not the four orbiting stations; he had already known about them from the information sent from the scout ship. What drew his attention was the Nimri ship that was orbiting the larger of the two moons of Nimria.

He had almost not seen it at first, but his officer of detection was meticulous, and he had caught it despite its apparent attempt to hide behind the moon. What scared Damula was the fact that its size, about a quarter that of his own ship, had a power output that he would not have believed if he wasn’t looking at the data on the screen in front of him.

Part of him still didn’t believe it.

Protector, we are being hailed by the envoy. They wish to know why we have stopped.”

Damula stood up and considered what to do for a moment, then motioned for the officer of communication to open a channel.

Muzead, we have detected the ship in orbit around your moon. Its attempt to hide makes it clear to us that this is an ambush. We will not walk into a trap.”

Damula motioned to mute the transmission.

Let’s see what he does. Monitor his communications and see if he sends any message to Nimria or anywhere else.”

I can’t tell if they are sending anything or not. Nothing I can be sure of, anyway” responded the officer.

A moment of tension began to thicken, and then Muzead responded.

You must accept our apologies. We had thought that you would assume that we would not leave our home planet unprotected. The ship you mention is the new lead ship of the Vishi clan. It is the command ship of Komar. As I said, we offer you peace. If you would prefer to remain here and allow Komar to rendezvous with you here under guard of a smaller ship, he may be willing to grant that wish. Please allow me to confer with him and I will contact you again.”

The transmission cut off, and the officer of communication was busy at work trying to monitor anything coming from the ship.

They are talking, I can see, but I cannot unscramble it to make any sense of it. Even if I could unscramble the code, we don’t know anything about their language.”

Keep trying anyway.” Damula stared at the envoy through the view screen and grimaced. He knew that in a fight all of their ships combined could not begin to match the Nimri with that ship opposing them. It seemed as if the Vishi clan had used their position of power and dominance to assemble something deadly. He wondered to what extent the war, which distracted the other clans from the Vishi, could have allowed the dominance of the Vishi to be extended.

After a couple of minutes the channel was re-opened and Muzead’s voice interrupted Damula’s thoughts.

Komar will agree to a meeting between your commanders and himself, with two of his advisers. We will meet on your terms.”

Damula didn’t hesitate for more than a moment.

We will meet on my conference room as soon as he can get there.”

Damula stormed towards his office while he barked out the rest of his orders.

I want commander Wulliter on my conference room as soon as possible. Tell the other commanders that they may monitor the discussion, but if they as much as ask an impertinent question I will make sure they are commanding a transport ship before this is through.”

Damula disappeared into his office, leaving his crew momentarily paralyzed.

Damula sat in his office chair for a few minutes while he waited. While he lingered with his thoughts his communicator buzzed, and he linked the call through his screen at his desk. The face that appeared was the last person he expected to hear from at that moment. It was Yeri Jasmi.

Yeri, what brings you to call?”

Zuzek, this is not a personal call. I’m calling as the Officer of the CTC. We have been monitoring your situation, and through an emergency session of the government, we have been ordered to accept the proposal of peace with the Vishi clan, under any circumstances.”

Damula had stood up before she had finished, and when she had his face was a deep red that indicated rage.

What?” he almost screamed. “This is insane! Doesn’t the government understand that the more we wait the more powerful the Nimri will become? There is no reason to expect that peace is their actual goal. Have they seen the data from the most recent scan, from the ship orbiting that moon?”

Yes, Zuzek…Protector…we have monitored everything. The presence of that ship was the deciding factor and the government is adamant that peace must be sought. We cannot maintain a war with an enemy of that magnitude…”

You cannot allow the other officials to do this!”

Officer Damula, you have received your orders, if you …”

We have discussed this. I have told you that he Nimri are not like us. They destroyed that civilization, the Kasetians, despite their being more powerful than the Nimri. Don’t you remember what Hull said before we—”

“—you mean before you killed him and initiated this war?”

Damula was stung. There was a scar in his mind that was lacerated every time Hull’s name was brought up. In Damula’s dreams, when he slept, he haunted that moment. Time had passed and nothing could be done but move forward, but still Damula swam in this memory more and more as this war continued. It wasn’t that he felt fully responsible for the war, although there were many on Thalea that resented Damula’s killing of Hull and blamed him for the war taking place. No, that wasn’t quite right. He told himself that the war was inevitable, but as time wore on it seemed like the way it progressed was somehow linked to his decision to kill Hull. A fierceness took over after that moment that he hadn’t observed in watching the Nimri battle, and it grew ever fiercer still.

The Nimri had almost seemed to avoid destroying Thalean ships—although they often left them crippled and beyond repair. In fact, the losses on their side had been less than what was expected. Whenever the Nimri had the Thalean fleet pinned back, they would not move in for the kill. And what was more puzzling was that when the Nimri were pinned back they would lash out with crazed violence—and it was here that most Thalean deaths had occurred. That is, the more successful the campaign against the Nimri forces, the greater the loss. Noticing this pattern, the Thaleans had started to wonder if continuing the war was wise.

This observation of proportionality between strategic success and loss of life was consistent with what Damula and his fleet had seen while observing the Nimri fight one-another. They would fight feverishly while weak but would almost never kill when in a position of advantage. This made no sense to Damula. In his study of the history of conflict on Thalea, he had seen the opposite trend. When weak, Thaleans of his history became subservient, docile, and even complacent. When in a position of power, a city or group would relentlessly pursue he destruction of their enemy, even if they rarely used military means to do so. The weak would be cast out, shunned, barred from sharing, and thus they would rarely survive in significant quantities. Children would be expected to demonstrate usefulness early on and left to their own abilities. The ones who couldn’t produce usually survived but reproduced rarely. And thus natural selection did its work to the effect of a Thalea of small numbers but very industrious cities.

Thus, the instinct of Damula was to strike while in a position of power. He had his enemy weak in front of him, and didn’t hesitate. But it seemed to shock the Nimri in a way that was not expected. The Nimri were acting not like a civilization merely endangered but like one insulted. The Nimri saw themselves as being superior, so to be attacked was not a surprise. What was a surprise was as the Thalean army started to dominate early on, they kept coming. This forced the Nimri to coalesce and attack together. And after a short period the Vishi simply backed off completely. Their power, now, was immense and unchecked on Nimria. This was apparently not only un-heard of in their society, but somehow wrong to them. The subservience of the other clans of Nimria was not even challenged, as the maddened clans turned their attention to war against the Thalean fleet and ignored their home world. And because the weakened Nimri never give up as the dominating Thaleans never cease, there was no obvious way to prevent further fighting unless the dominance would be reversed or one were completely wiped out.

And now, with the offer of peace from the Vishi, this shift in dominance was being tested. As Damula thought about it, the order to accept submission to the Vishi made sense to him. This was mere Thalean policy of bowing to superior force, or at least to a force that was inevitably to be superior in their opinions. It also spelled the end of any possible superiority for Thalea, which was different then the impossibility of merely one group of Thaleans being superior. The idea tasted bad to Damula and it sat uncomfortably in Damula’s mind. For him, his dominance was not in question. He just needed to prove it to everyone else.

As his mind wrapped up this reverie, his attention returned to the beautiful and anxious face of his lover. The fact that they had sent Yeri, the woman who was mother to his son, to relay this message was maddening. He was about to respond to her stinging comment when Yeri continued.

I’m sorry for that, and I know what you are thinking. It’s just that this war is having affects here on Thalea that we were not prepared for. The people are afraid, and it seems that everything is done to make your ships more and more powerful, and still the Nimri out-pace us in technological advancement despite our so-called ‘victories.’ It seems like a losing battle in the long run.”

Damula continued to understand. She was not merely sent to relay the message, she agreed with it. He felt a surge of despair as he realized that this was the end of what he had with her. He looked at her with saddened eyes, and his head dropped for a moment. He knew that this line of submission to power had to stop. Damula had a dream of power that was not traditionally Thalean. It was what gained him this position, and it would be this position that would allow him to complete it. Or to fail. Either way, he would not submit to the Nimri. He would not continue the Thalean tradition of folding under assumed defeat. With this in his eyes he looked back up at the monitor and forced a slight smile that Yeri’s armored countenance buckled at. She already knew what he was going to do, and made no attempt to dissuade him.

Yeri, take care of our son for me, and take care of yourself. As of this moment the Office of Protection secedes from Thalea. That way what we do today will not be hung from your necks. We act independently. We must persist even against the odds in fighting the Nimri, even at the cost of our lives.”

At that, Damula disconnected the transmission. He was about to stand to his feet when Officer Wulliter gained his attention with a clearing of his throat.

I could not help but overhear your conversation…at least that last part. Is it true then? Are we to become vigilantes and to attack Nimria without support from Thalea? Shall we throw our lives away for the possibility of inflicting some damage to an enemy that will likely come back at us, at Thalea regardless of our secession, with full force and without our protection?”

Damula could only sit there. This was a decision he had considered for some time. He knew that many of the officials on Thalea wanted to end the war at any cost and that they had been gaining more and more support in the last few cycles. Officer Wulliter wanted to agree with them, and so did Damula. It was difficult to fight against the long training of custom, culture, and instincts honed by generations of similar policy of action. The politicians didn’t, however, have to deal with the Nimri directly. The change of views that resulted due to this had created a rift between Damula’s Office of Protection and even the Thalean military, let alone the citizens. No, they didn’t see, every day, what the Nimri were capable of. It was this thought that reminded him that he was about to meet with one of them for the first time face-to-…face?

Damula’s memory brought back the image of Hull. It had been the first time he had seen a Nimri, even through the image was largely unclear, and he had never seen one in the…flesh? At that, he shook the current argument from his mind and looked at his adviser and friend.

Carron, this is a discussion that must wait, at least until we hear what this ‘Komar’ has to say. I am convinced that this is some sort of trap, but I will at least hear what this Nimri, the apparent head of the Vishi clan, has to offer us.”

I agree. Shall we go then?”

At that Damula stood and walked to open the Commander’s private door that opened into the conference room. As they entered they suddenly stopped as they noticed a dark figure standing in front of the large window on the other side of the room. It wore a long, dark red cape and the back of its head was covered in a sort of fuzz or fur that was almost as dark as the reflective black…skin? carapace? The Nimri stood upon two limbs, and the other four were I folded in front of the…man? woman? thing? It was tall, its arms were thin but looked very strong, and it turned around.

There were two large reddish eyes, no visible nose, and a beak-like mouth that was nonetheless flexible which allowed the thing to change its countenance, but towards what emotion neither man could guess.

I am Komar.”

The voice did not come through the mouth. Instead, it appeared to emanate from a place in what could be described as its throat. Below this was a thin chest covered in white fabric contrasted with the dark brown skin, or carapace, that was its chest. Its long abdomen was covered in the white fabric that fell almost to its…knees” and in the middle was a shape that Damula recognized as the Vishi clan’s crest.

You said to come to your conference room as quickly as I could. So I transported myself here and waited for you to arrive. I suppose you temporarily forgot that we have the capability to transport ourselves, even from great distances?”

Damula looked at Wulliter, who sat down at the table and smiled at Komar, somewhat forcibly.

You’ll have to forgive us, Komar, as it is our custom to ask permission to come aboard a ship. However, since the request implied this consent was given, we will not take offense.”

Carron Wulliter’s words acted to soothe the emotions of Damula, and it seemed to be working. Damula sat next to Wulliter and then spoke.

There was mention of two advisers of yours to join you. Where are they?”

Yes, I anticipated your being uncomfortable at my appearing unannounced, and decided to have them wait until you had spoken with me, so that you didn’t think that we were invading your ship three at a time. I figured I would wait until I spoke with you before summoning them.”

Damula considered this, then waved his hand and nodded. The Nimri looked confused, and Wulliter leaned in and translated the gesture of agreement. While Wulliter spoke Damula activated the transmitter to allow the other commanders to monitor the discussion, and after a few moments two more Nimri appeared in a flash, both dressed similarly but without any cape. Damula cautiously and surreptitiously studied the appearances of the three Nimri for a clue of differences between individuals. There were some, and clearly Komar was the tallest. Damula noticed them standing, and thought that maybe the chairs around the table would be insufficient for them to sit upon, and Damula sat up straighter and spoke.

I’m afraid I’m not sure if our chairs are suitable for you. If you like, we can…”

Unnecessary” Komar interrupted as he reached for a device clipped to his clothes. Both Thaleans stiffened, and Komar, laughing a bit…it looked like laughing, anyway… stopped and regarded the two men.

If I wanted you dead, you’d be dead. This device in not a…well, that’s not true, it is a weapon if used that way, but I will not use it as such. Rather, I will procure my own seats.”

The device glowed slightly and three larger and differently shaped chairs appeared in the place of three chairs that had been at the table previously. Damula looked at Wulliter, who was trying to hide the same curiosity that Damula felt, and Wulliter gave him a quick glance that seemed to imply not to look impressed by anything they said or did, and Damula tried to comply. As the three Nimri took their seats, Damula noticed that Komar sat directly across from himself and forced a smile at the…Damula decided the Nimri was a male. He wasn’t even sure if the Nimri had sexes, but the voice and size implied maleness to him, so he decided this until further evidence presented itself. Damula shook these thoughts aside and was about to speak when one of the advisers spoke up first.

On behalf of the Vishi, and of the Nimri, we offer you a treaty. Your continuing conflict with our competing clans has upset the balance of our society, and we wish that you would cease your aggression against our opponents so that balance can be restored. We demand that you cease hostilities with the other three clans and continue hostilities with the Vishi clan or with none of the Nimri. We would prefer a period of time of non-hostilities with Nimria as a whole, including all four clans, to allow their efforts to return to our own society rather than against yours. We believe that their attacks against your people has been continued on the assumption that your society is more powerful than any of our clans. And while this assumption seems to be not without flaw, it is largely invalid. We demand that if you are to continue in the hostilities against Nimria, you will follow the codes of war that Nimria adheres to. That is, you may not attack the weakest clan except defensively. Alliances are not permitted between two clans unless the combined clans resources are less than or equal to any of the other clans. Deadly force against persons is to be avoided, if possible. You are allowed to build one station of operations to remain in orbit around Nimria, and it will not be attacked directly under any circumstances, as you will agree to not attack any other station of the other clans directly. Accidental damage to any station will result in your providing the resources and effort to restore said station to full functionality as quickly as you are able. A full set of rules and regulations of war-games shall be provided to each of your commanders upon their request. Also, under…”

Excuse me…” Damula was flabbergasted, and he rose to his feet, almost knocking his chair to the floor. “I’m sorry, you are going to have to repeat that. Did you refer to this conflict as ‘war-games’? Are these the rules you follow in these ‘games’?”

Komar’s beak-like mouth widened as a short laugh burst from his neck. “How little you understand, Thalean. We have known about your world for some time now. We know about your culture, traditions, and your history’s conflicts. We’ve seen how you submit to power, how you lack mercy in having obtained it. You view yourselves as civilized and advanced, but you are monstrous. You actually kill one-another in your conflicts. You take yourselves seriously in battle. Nimri do not kill Nimri in almost all cases. We prefer to make them stronger through conflict, so that they learn and become better. You insist that a person is successful immediately, and if not you toss them aside. To kill, as you do, is…”

Excuse me, Komar, but it was your ship that destroyed our ship first, remember?”

Yes, indeed. It is true that your ship was destroyed. But frankly, our view of ethics and policy of action implies that to kill destructive races is not really destruction. Rather, it is the removal of evil from the universe. The fact is that your world is a place of danger and destruction, and that Nimri commander decided to cut a piece of the sickness out of the universe. I happen to disagree with that decision, as did Hull who you killed…. In any case, it is you who are the aggressive race, and not us. I invited you to visit Nimria to show you the result of your crimes. Your actions, in killing Nimri, has driven the other clans mad. The Vishi decided to pull back from the conflict, as it seemed as if you would be incapable of following the rules of war games even if we had stopped to inform you of them. And by the time anyone else thought to do so, the other clans had already lost so many friends and family in the battle that it started to change them. They started to become crazed and enraged and relapsed into an ancient form of conflict we abolished many generations ago. They became savage, but it was a savageness of desperation at being hunted towards extinction. The few who remained on Nimria have become depressed, having lost so much that they no longer even wish to maintain the goal of equality that Nimria strives for through conflict.”

Damula’s face was frozen in disbelief, and somehow, while Komar spoke, he managed to sit back down. After a few moments, he managed to process what he had just heard, and started to speak, but stopped. He had no idea what to say. He looked at Wulliter and the old man seemed taken aback as well. Komar took the opportunity to continue.

There were once six clans on Nimria. More than a century and a half of your cycles ago one clan was killed off in a war between them and another clan. Neither of those clans exists now, as a group decision to wipe out the prevailing clan was passed. This is referred to, in our history, as the Great Loss. Only a handful of Nimri survived from those two clans, and they all eventually merged with other clans, and very few of them survived long, as most took their own lives in guilt for what their clan had done. Today, only two live. One is in the Vishi clan, the other eventually chose to no longer consider himself a part of any clan. He lives, now quite old, in a small town on Nimria where he tells the story of what happened in those days, as a sort of example for us. It was not long after the Great Loss that our rules were enacted. Any clan that is responsible for the destruction of any other clan will be disgraced and no longer allowed to remain on Nimria. And if you decide to become another Nimri clan, then we can together forge a new future for both of our worlds. Like my associate said earlier, all we ask is some time to allow our other clans to heal and re-build, so that we can stop this madness of death between our worlds.”

Damula felt a deep, penetrating feeling of disgust and remorse. He had no idea what had been happening in the last number of cycles, and didn’t know what to do. He looked at Wulliter, who looked as if he had something up his sleeve. Damula regarded this, and Wulliter seemed to notice this from the corner of his vision. Wulliter spoke evenly and calmly.

There is, indeed, much about your world that we don’t know. I am glad to have gained some understanding this day, Komar”

I can only hope that further sharing can replace death, in the future, Carron Wulliter” replied Komar.

As do I, Komar. However, I am curious about one thing. Your planet is uninhabitable; largely due to massive warfare but also to environmental misfortune. The home world of the Kasetians—Kaset—is leveled from massive warfare. The Kasetians themselves seem to be all gone—dead. We’ve observed Nimri on that planet fighting and killing one-another on the surface of that planet. How do you reconcile what you have just told us with these facts? It seems to me—and I hope you pardon the incendiary nature of my tentative conclusion—that you have destroyed your planet so thoroughly that you are forced to try and conquer other places to inhabit, fighting each-other as you go. What say you, sir, to these accusations?”

Komar now looked flabbergasted. Even not knowing how to read the Nimri’s emotions, his disbelief seemed to flare from his very being. He looked from Wulliter to Damula, and he eventually spoke to nobody in particular, eyes darting between them. His advisers also seemed stunned.

Do you mean to tell me that you don’t know what’s on that planet? You’ve been fighting around it for so long, and we know you’ve been studying the surface, yet you don’t know what those radicals and outcasts are fighting over on that planet? We have tried to subdue their fighting on that planet, but they have gone mad, and mad they were even before your arrival. This madness that has overtaken the clans was only exacerbated by your crimes against them, but there have been exiled analogues of Nimrian society on the surface of that planet for more than fifty of your cycles now, with little to no interaction with Nimria. What is down there has caused them to change into something very destructive.”

What is down there?” Wulliter asked. The third Nimri, the one thus-far silent, spoke at this.

Something more destructive and powerful than anything we have encountered. It was the cause of the destruction of the Kasetian civilization. And when we discovered it towards the end of their wars, those Nimri that discovered it only accelerated the demise of that civilization. We had the planet guarded, in quarantine, since then. No Nimri has left the surface without being destroyed, and…”

I thought you said that Nimri don’t kill Nimri. Why destroy them just for trying to leave?”

Komar leaned in closely at this, and spoke directly to Damula, who had asked the question.

Because once they have been exposed to what is down there, they are no longer Nimri. And if you have not yet discovered it, you will soon; what is down there will change you as well. If your researchers and military personnel have not already discovered it, they soon will. We had assumed that you had already discovered it, which was why we assumed that you would be willing to declare peace with Nimria. If you haven’t, I suggest that you direct your attention to your people there immediately. If they have not been corrupted yet, get them out of there. If they have, you must not let them leave.”

Why not just kill them on the surface?” asked Wulliter.

The third Nimri spoke up again, at this. “Because on the surface they can’t seem to be killed, at least not easily. It is only when they leave the surface that this seems possible, if not quite difficult. The technology that the Kasetians have developed seems to have a range of influence. In orbit, the influence seems less pronounced. On the surface, every former-Nimri continues to fight for control of that technology. The problem is that most that are left have already managed to use it to their defense, and nobody seems to be able to gain any advantage. They simply fight continuously on the surface. We mostly wait around the planet for people to try and leave.”

Damula,” Wulliter started, “That would explain why over the past cycles we have never seen any of the Nimri land on the planet, and why when any ship tries to leave it is immediately destroyed. Even among the fiercest fighting in that system I’ve seen ships break away from a battle to destroy a ship trying to leave the surface.”

Exactly” This was Komar, again. “While the ships that watch Kaset must continue being Nimri and still continue to compete in battle—it is the foundation of our culture, after all—they never put that before their reason for being there, which is to keep what’s on that planet on that planet. If I were you, I’d stay away from that planet. Until we have a way to destroy what’s down there, we will continue to keep it under guard. You must have wondered why despite being beaten again and again in that system the Nimri forces you are up against have not retreated to Nimria, which would be strategically wise. We simply can’t trust that you will be able to contain what is down there.”

Komar stopped and looked to the Nimri on his right, who spoke next.

In fact, the Vishi clan is convinced that if you had been left to the planet, you might become corrupted by what the Kozar—I mean the Kasetians—created and become a real danger to Nimria. This is why we’ve spent our time here—the Vishi clan, that is—concentrating our efforts to defend against that possible outcome. We would be prepared to intervene in the case that Thalea might become affected by this technology. If that happened, then there would be nothing to stop you from becoming as dangerous as the Nimri on that planet have become. And we have no way of knowing what would happen if that power were able to escape from the confines of the planet.”

Well,” said Wulliter, “we need to check on our people near that planet, in that case.”

Damula looked at Wulliter. He still saw something in the old man’s eyes that told him there was more to what he was thinking, but said nothing. Instead, he turned his gaze to Komar.

We will investigate these claims of yours. In the mean time, I wonder if we may be permitted to remain near this system. There is much that we have to learn about your race, and proximity may be useful. We will send one of our ships back to investigate Kaset and see if what you say has any merit. Is that satisfactory to you, Komar?”

Komar stood, and his assistants stood with him. They all stepped away from their chairs and in a flash the chairs were gone, replaced by what appeared to be the original Thalean-designed chairs. Komar then turned to the two men still sitting and bowed to them in turn.

Your terms are satisfactory. You are welcome to contact my ship if you have any questions. I will add that you must be careful in dealing with what is on Kaset. If you do not take my warning seriously, we all may regret it.”

At that, the three Nimri disappeared in a flash. Damula turned to Wulliter to speak but the older man stopped him and motioned him to follow him. They entered Damula’s office, closed the door, and then Wulliter indicated for the controls on Damula’s desk.

I suggest you order your crew to dispose of, completely, those three chairs that the Nimri put back. Scratch that, I suggest you destroy everything in that conference room and replace it. There is no telling what they may have left behind.”

Damula complied in giving the order to his maintenance crew, and then sat down. Wulliter had already sat opposite him, waiting to speak.

Well, what is it?”

What do you make of all this, Damula?”

I’m shocked, frankly. I didn’t expect what we just heard.”

How much of it do you believe?”

Damula leaned back at this and looked to the ceiling and responded.

Not a word of it. And yet there must be some truth in their claims. I just don’t know what to believe and what not to.”

So, you are thinking what I’m thinking, perhaps?”

I’m thinking I get to that planet and see what the Nimri are trying to keep us away from on Kaset. There is certainly something worth investigating there. Only we and a few others know about all of the researchers on the planet, and I don’t know if the other Nimri know about them but would not be surprised if they do.”

And what shall we tell the Thalean government?”

I haven’t decided yet. I’m thinking that, for now, we tell them only that we have a short cease-fire with the Nimri, and that we are investigating diplomatic solutions to the problem. Of course, they may ignore us since I’ve seceded, but I doubt it.”

And if they insist upon getting involved?”

Let them get involved in all the Diplomacy they wish. This will make it appear that we are considering their offer. In the mean time I will be on Kaset solving a mystery.”

15. Past and Present tensions.

(1421)

In the next few weeks on Kasara, Brax would be exposed to a world that he never thought could have existed. Kasara itself was interesting enough and he did travel around the planet a bit to see the sites, but these were mere and necessary distractions from his new obsession. Brax wanted to know everything he could about the temple; what he was learning wasn’t consistent with how it was understood by history and he was determined to figure out this mystery.

Shonny had talked about the temple a little before Brax had left Thalea, but Brax didn’t pay much attention to what she had said, not being particularly interested in the Kasarian religious beliefs. He considered the ideas about gods to be fantasy and so the temple was a symbol of something wasteful, absurd, and irrational. But the more he read about it now, the more he was convinced that there was something about the temple that transcended religion. The Temple was more than a religious site.

Brax had not visited the temple itself since he arrived. He felt that actually seeing it again would not be a fruitful enterprise since he could not get inside anyway. At least that’s what he told himself. In reality the thought of visiting the site terrified him. He didn’t continue to have dreams about it, but the emotional reverberations from his experience hung on his rationalizations for not going back.

There were very detailed pictures of the many statues, walls, and even the outside of the temple itself. There were some inscriptions that he had translated, but they were of no help. They talked of the Kas from the edge of the universe who had come and shared knowledge with them. There was a vague reference to their leaving in order to do battle against some great evil and of returning. But there was no mention of their returning. For more than two millennia the temple stood with no returning ‘Kas’ or anyone else for that matter.

The scriptures which were written some time after these supposed events were of little help. There were tales with moral lessons, advice both practical and philosophical, and the mythologized stories about the Kas’ presence were largely uninspiring to Brax. Very little detail of the Kas themselves was revealed, and there was nearly nothing in the scriptures themselves that were not inscribed on the temple’s outer and inner walls, since those inscriptions seemed to be based upon the same scriptures, rather than the other way around. Most of the surrounding architecture of the Temple—everything but the dome itself—was built after that dome , which was supposedly built by the ‘gods’ themselves.

Brax didn’t believe that there were any gods, but he was starting to believe that these ‘Kas’ may have been real anyway. But who were they? He didn’t know, but he was starting to see some clues which were compelling.

The thing of greatest interest was the story of the temple’s construction. According to history, the temple was constructed in 832 PC. This was a short time before the Thaleans had began exploring the galaxy themselves, and not long after the supposed landing of the ship of the gods—the Kas-et—arrived on Kasara. This word, which was one Brax had not read before, caught his eye. In his studies with Shonny on Thalea, he had read about the first Nimri war at a planet that was referred to as Kaset. It had been an ancient civilization that surpassed Thalea at the time, but was ultimately destroyed by warfare between its own nations and given its final blow by the Nimri.

Brax had read some articles where a few ancient historians had tried to claim that the Kas were these Kasetians. The problem is that Kaset was destroyed so thoroughly that no support for this theory could be verified. The surface of the planet was more than wasted; it was left in literal dust. Everything on the planet was obliterated by such a cataclysmic level of destruction that it was impossible to tell that any civilization ever existed there at all. Nobody knew what the Kasetians looked like, what they wrote, what their architecture looked like, etc. There was simply nothing left of this civilization, and the planet was abandoned to time since the first Nimri war, more than two millennia in the past.

The Kasarian theologians insist that the Kas were not mere aliens, and with no evidence to support an alternative explanation, there was no conversation to have. The stories of the Kasetians, no matter the similarity in name, simply could not be verified and so the Kasarian religious orders denied any connection. The Kasarian gods had a power that could simply not be matched by any enemy, the theologians argued. The powers of the Kas were so immense and prevailing that they had to be gods, not aliens who would be destroyed in slightly less than a hundred cycles after the events that created their religion.

Thus, to even imply this connection was considered blasphemous, and thus nobody did so. The Thaleans took little interest in the matter, as did most of the other races as well. The Bruuk held the story with some interest, but their theories were heretical to the Kasarians, who often merely ignored them. And so the Bruuk simply let the matter drop in most cases. What did it matter if the Kas were the extinct race of that ancient war? It was of mere historical interest to some, and to others it was insignificant.

But in talking with Ninnii, Brax got a different side of the story. Since their first discussion on that day after Brax’s arrival, Ninnii had opened up the boy’s mind to possibilities that were not only heretical, they were down-right radical. Ninnii had teased Brax with the idea that the Protectors had something to do with the temple. Brax’s dream of the temple inspired Ninnii to share an idea that he didn’t talk about with anyone else, so far as Brax knew. Not even his family knew about what Ninnii really did with his life now, but slowly Brax was being ushered into a world on Kasara that almost nobody saw.

The Kasarian religion was ubiquitous. There was no such thing as a place where religion was not. Kasarian society was immersed in Kas-A—a word that seemed to have so many meanings that it seemed to mean everything, and thus nothing. To find a Kasarian who was not religious was, it seemed, a contradiction. There were not even sects or different interpretations as with some of the other religions from the Bruuk or the Nisivalen. They simply knew the stories from the scriptures and revered the gods for having given Kasara so much in the ancient past. In fact, the word Kasara means ‘grateful to the Kas.’ Before the time of the temple, Kasarians referred to themselves as Tallanians, from the word tallan meaning ‘people’ in the dominant language of the time. After the temple was completed, shortly after the first high-priests wrote the scriptures of their experiences with the Kas, they renamed their civilization to honor their awaited soon-to-return gods.

There were no specific times or place of worship, it was just always there in the background of daily life. The priests themselves were normal people that dedicated some of their free time in study of the scriptures about the Kas or helping with the up-keep of the temple and with the telling of the stories. At all times two high-priests were stationed at the entrance to the temple itself. Their role, it seemed, was to ensure that nobody tried to break in. Their presence was probably unnecessary as nobody seemed to want to enter the temple anyway. In the last couple of millennia only a few Kasarians had successfully entered the temple, and none were ever heard from again. Despite Brax’s initial skepticism about this, Kasarian records seem to support it. The last person known to try and enter—a Thalean researcher—had tried to enter more than one-thousand cycles ago and his disappearance, despite his care in trying to prevent such a thing, led eventually to the barrier being created.

There were a few, and they were very quiet, who didn’t believe the stories of the Kas. They were not treated badly, in most cases, but they were socially shunned in a way that was largely unintended by the one who shuns, and yet very real to the shunned. Thus, these people didn’t talk much, not even to one-another. After all, if a non-believer were always quiet, how could they find another one like themselves to talk to? When they did surface occasionally, they argued that there was simply no evidence that the Kas had ever been there, that these were mere tall tales invented for some purpose or another. Believers would point to the strange protective coating of the temple, which was beyond the technical knowledge of the old Kasarians who built it, but non-believers said something about it being restored and protected much later by technology developed since. These were debates that simmered under the surface of Kasarian culture, but which really didn’t matter to most people. Nobody really still expected the Kas to return, right?

Others, however, realized that there was something else going on with the temple. They thought it strange that it would be built with this advanced techniques after the Kas left, but yet the technology to do so simply disappeared. They would ask about what happened to all that advanced learning taught by the Kas; the scriptures discuss philosophy, ethics, and some better methods for building and growing crops, for example, but hardly anything that some ingenious contemporaries couldn’t have devised. These people wondered if maybe some small group of ingenious Tallanians came up with some good stories to sell their social improvements and called themselves Kas, arguing that they may have named themselves after the ancient god of invention, Kashteb.

Theories—heresy!—abound. These were but fodder for conspiracies and novels about ancient clandestine organizations plotting in secret to fabricate the Kas and their story. The people ate them up but didn’t believe any of it. They were non-believers in their own right, one might say. Everyone disbelieves in the lunacy of the other, after all.

Ninnii was not quite a non-believer. Rather, he believed very fully in the Kas having visited thousands of cycles before. He was convinced, it seems, that the Kas were, in fact, the Kasetians. And as a professional historian for many cycles, his vast and secure reputation prevented him from ever speaking up concerning this belief, and almost nobody around him knew. Not even Fragek, his life-long partner, lover, and mother to his children knew about this secret part of his life. It seemed that Brax was entrusted with something about this legendary teacher and historian that almost nobody else knew. Further, it seemed that the reason Brax was entrusted with this information was because of the word of Shonny, who was apparently well aware of this secret. It seems that this was the real reason that Brax was sent to Kasara. And once Ninnii trusted Brax—which was almost instantly—Ninnii opened up to Brax in a way that brought true joy to the old man. It was unbelievably wonderful to finally pass on what he knew to somebody again. True, there were others like him, but these people were old themselves, and now there was a possible future for the secrets he held onto. The mantle could be passed.

Brax made sure to keep his research concerning this heresy away from everyone else he knew on Kasara. He traveled with Ninnii’s family and kept up a façade of studying history and architecture, while covertly reading some of Ninnii’s notes which he kept in a secret place, a secret library hidden away. This secret place was not far from Ninnii’s home, and it was there that he met the few members of the secret society of the Protectors of the Kas-A. It was here where Brax was to eventually discover the truth. The truth, unfortunately, sometimes turns itself into something else, of course. But Brax didn’t understand that yet.

(777 PC)

Damula sent Officer Wulliter back to his ship and immediately turned his own towards the portal that awaited him. As he settled in for the short journey, he heard a hail coming from the Nimri, and Damula considered ignoring it. But he thought that he must keep up a diplomatic appearance and decided to take the call. The screen in his office powered up and Komar was looking at him through the monitor. Damula smiled uneasily and spoke first.

Is there something I can help you with, Komar?”

Actually, I was wondering if I could help you out, my friend.”

Damula leaned in a little at this, genuinely curious, and was about to ask how when Komar continued with what appeared to be a wry smile—but who knew what this expression really means, Damula wondered.

I have noticed that you have some traveling to do in order to return to your portal—”

Damula frowned slightly at this.

“—yes, we know about your portal system, as well as the detection grid you have created around Nimri space. I must say you are quite the industrious little race, and I must say it has been quite successful in keeping us caged up since you discovered those transport beacons you destroyed. Although, there may be other beacons we have left in your region of space that you have not yet found—you simply would not know….”

Damula’s brows furrowed at this, and Komar let out a slight chuckle before continuing.

But that’s not what I called to talk about. I was wondering if you might want us to transport your portal to this system so that you might get back-and-forth more quickly. And if not, perhaps we could transport you to Kaset, or at least to your portal? It will cut significant time off of your trip. It will save, at very least, the relativistic affects on your traveling at such high velocities in normal space-time. I have noticed that you have not yet found a way to compensate for this. Perhaps this will be the first technology we can offer you as a gesture of friendship in our peace?”

Damula was subduing a creeping anger at the apparent mocking tone of Komar. He shifted slightly and considered telling the Nimri to screw himself. Instead, he smiled and politely declined.

I appreciate your offer. But we will manage on our own power.”

And, remembering that he wished to maintain the façade of friendly diplomacy, he added, “I may have to look into that technology of which you speak. It is getting rather annoying arriving at a location and having to re-sync our clocks constantly. Not to mention that I’m watching the people not traveling in these ships age so quickly in comparison.”

Very well Officer—Protector—Damula. I will look forward to our next encounter. Happy hunting! Please keep me informed of what you find, in case we have missed anything. I know how meticulous you Thaleans can be.”

At that the screen returned to black and Damula considered Komar’s mocking. How would you compensate for relativistic effects of space-travel? Would it involve some sort of time-manipulation? Was that possible? He shook that thought as another climbed to the top; what would prevent Komar from simply transporting this ship into a star? For that matter, what prevented them from simply de-materializing them? The technology implied the ability, and he didn’t think the shields would do more than interfere with the energy field that was required to use it. The Thaleans had figured out that some complex energy-field was necessary for their transportation technology, but not much more than that.

It just didn’t make sense. Why would the Nimri even fight when they had this crippling technology that made a fight unnecessary? Perhaps…just perhaps…the Nimri were not as barbaric as he thought. He would leave that consideration aside for now. He had, first, to get to Kaset and figure out what was going on at that planet. What was causing that madness of warfare down there and why did the Nimri really want to keep them away. More to the point, why were the Nimri pretending to want to keep them away from whatever was down there?

He sorted through some reports from the research teams on Kaset and began reading. At first, they all seemed largely unhelpful, but after some time one seemed worthy of his attention. One recent report mentioned a small domed building that was found in a remote part of one of the continents, which was largely ignored by all the clans. The researchers had almost not paid any attention to it except that a power-spike emanated from it and a small green-skinned being with four limbs emerged from it, speaking in a language that the Thaleans didn’t understand. It was taken away and linguists were sent to try and communicate with it. It kept saying a word over and over again—‘kassa’ or something like that—and it died shortly later, apparently due to some virulent bacteria in the environment that it had no immunity to.

It was because of this, and other reasons, that the researchers concluded that it was not a Kasetian. The end of the report mentioned something about intending to return to the dome-shaped building when the near-by fighting ceased long enough for safe-passage. This report was dated only a day or so before they left Kaset. They could already be there now, Damula thought.

It was then that those relativistic effects came to mind. How much time had gone by on Kaset since they traveled to Nimria, with all that normal-space travel at high-velocity? Damula couldn’t calculate the math with his mind just then, being so frazzled, but he imagined it was significant considering that every minute seemed to take on new importance now.

And suddenly he regretted not accepting Komar’s offer. He suddenly had a feeling that he wanted to be there when that research team returned to that building, and that Komar’s help would have saved him time that was amounting to more significance and causing Damula anxiety. He also had the feeling that maybe he should prevent anyone from going near that domed building. The fact that the Nimri were avoiding it was enough for him to think that something was not quite right.

He pushed these thoughts aside as he continued to look through the various reports from the research teams. If he was forced to have time, he was going to kill it productively.

(1421)

Brax sat at a desk in the secret library, alone, reading a paper article about the various Kasarians that had ran into the temple in order to go and meet the ‘gods’. In the first hundred cycles or so after the temple was built, more than ten Kasarians had attempted the feat. Most of the first few went in simply to look for the ones that preceded them, and when none ever came out, word spread and rumors turned into mythology; they had joined the gods. Despite this, the high-priests insisted that the Kas’ warning not to enter the temple be enforced, and from then on anyone trying to enter would be prevented from doing so. High-priests were posted at the entrances to the wall around the temple and at the temple door itself.

After a while, it seemed, people simply stopped trying with extremely rare exceptions. And only a very rare exception of these attempts succeeded.

The high priests didn’t know what happened to the people who entered the temple. The scripture said that a great danger would await anyone who entered, but they didn’t bother trying to explain further than this. The Kasarians were not big on embellishing too far over what they knew for sure, thus no stories of divine punishment were offered as an explanation. The fact that the Kas had told them that there was danger was enough for most people. While many still stood outside the temple and wondered what was inside, over the centuries a deep fear and reverence of the place replaced curiosity.

What was curious to Brax was why he was reading a copy of a copy of a copy of an original paper document? Why wasn’t all of this information digitized and stored? Why wasn’t any of this on the interlink? He had searched the interlink and found some stories and histories of the temple, as well as some minor details about those that tried to enter the temple, but most of it was vague and little to no detail existed. When he tried to find information about the Thalean, Billuth Rancort, who tried to enter the temple—and did, disappearing like all the others—all he found was some basic facts about the man and that he was never heard from again. There were no details about the cautious measures he employed to detect any strange technology inside he may have found, whether his data was left behind with his devices after he disappeared—nothing.

But here, at the secret library of the Protectors of Kas-A, there were some more extensive records. There was even a copy of Rancort’s journal and research notes. They didn’t provide much of interest, but the fact that this information was not out there for the public to share, but rather hidden in this small room, infuriated Brax. He had asked Ninnii why this was the case, but all Ninnii would say is that this information was uninteresting to most people. When Brax asked why the records couldn’t be put in the sharing for anyone who was interested, Ninnii grew silent. Ninnii only insisted that this material must be kept secret, at least for now. Perhaps some day the information would be useful, but until then in must remain out of sight—and most certainly not on the interlink. Ninnii was very clear about that part.

Brax capitulated, but he was not happy about it.

As he read through the reports of various disappearing Kasarians, one report stuck out to him. There was nothing unusual about the Kasarian himself. In fact, there was nothing unusual about the report either. The Kasarian was, perhaps, psychologically unstable and obsessed with the temple, as some were. What was interesting was that a printed page was clipped to this report, apparently left there by another member—perhaps accidentally. The report was a story about some researchers finding a green, four-limbed creature that appeared on Kaset during the height of the first Nimri war. The creature reportedly died shortly later due to some bacterial infection, and it spoke a language they couldn’t understand. However, the alien kept repeating, as the report relayed, something sounding like “Kassa.”

Brax was in the middle of checking his textpad for anything on the interlink about this story, but found nothing. The paper looked like it was printed hundreds of cycles ago, and had no identifiable header to say where it came from, but it did have a date. Brax, wanting to verify that the association of these two reports were not haphazardly clipped together, decided to calculate when this Kasarian would have gone into the temple in terms of the Cooperative’s calendar. Using a table of comparative dates with the old Kasarian calendar and the current Cooperative calendar, this particular Kasarian entered the temple in the pre-Cooperative cycle of 777, which indeed coincided with the date of the report. Upon further comparing of dates, it appeared that this Kasarian was the only one that had managed to get into the temple during the first Nimri war, which lasted from 780 PC and ended, finally, in 774 PC.

Brax was sitting, jaw-agape, at the implications of this finding when Ninnii and another man—a Bruuk—entered the room. Ninnii was amiably bobbing his head, following the taller Bruuk, when he saw Brax with this expression.

Brax, are you well my boy? Have you found anything interesting in these old files?”

I…I think so…” Brax began.

Well then, we’d love to hear about it. By the way, this is an old friend from Brua. His name is Gildeous and he is a long time member of this little secret of ours, he is very interested in meeting you, as you are but the second Thalean member—the first being your aunt, of course.”

Brax had to shake the thought from his mind for a second, but simply couldn’t. He looked at the brown-furred Bruuk. He was short for a Bruuk, he noticed; probably slightly taller than Brax was. Brax’s mouth was still hanging open, and he closed it to gather his ability to communicate again and stood to greet the Bruuk, who smiled largely at him.

It is a great pleasure to meet you, Brax. I hope that you are learning much from these old files. I have spent many weeks down here, in my day, and have learned much myself.”

Brax picked up the reports in front of him and handed them to Gildeous.

Have you seen this?” Brax asked him, still reeling from its implications.

Gildeous looked at the paper, and after a moment his face transformed into recognition. He turned to Ninnii and held out one of the papers to him.

I believe the boy has discovered that report you lost some cycles back. You know, the one about the Kasarian who appeared on Kaset during the Nimri war—”

Wait, you two knew about that?” Brax interrupted.

Ninnii took the paper and hovered in his chair over to the table and invited Brax to sit down again. Gildeous pulled a chair from the other side of the room and joined them.

Brax, there is much I know. I didn’t want to spoil all of it for you. I figured you would put together the mystery of the temple yourself in time. I admit that I didn’t anticipate you finding this lost report that an old mentor, long dead—Kas-A—gave to me many cycles ago, but I knew you’d figure it out eventually.”

So…” Brax shifted in his chair and leaned forward, almost whispering. “So the temple is a transport portal of some sort? It takes you to Kaset?”

Gildeous, still smiling widely, answered.

I was even more surprised when I figured that out myself. I didn’t find that report. In fact, Ninnii showed it to me after I figured it out on my own. You benefited, it seems, from the old man’s proclivity for losing things.”

Ninnii shot a playfully angry nod at Gildeous at this and continued.

My boy, I suppose it’s time to tell you what I know about that temple. The documents are all here, but you look like you could use a briefing. You’ve been in this room for much of the last week. So I’ll tell you a quick overview of what I know now if you promise to get out more, especially soon. Frankly, my family is starting to think that you don’t like them, hiding away in here most of the day. So if you promise to take a break for a couple of days and stay out of here so that people don’t get suspicious, I’ll give you a summary. Deal?”

Deal” Brax blurted, not hesitating.

You are spoiling the boy, Ninnii. You made me sit here and read this stuff myself; you made me work for it.”

Yes, Gildeous, I did. However you were here as a research student of mine at the time studying ancient history, and thus your being hidden away for days at a time was expected. Brax here is supposed to be visiting Kasara to get to know Kasarians, not to undermine everything this world thinks about its religion and culture, for starters.”

Ninnii, who seemed to shake the joking tone from his mind after that comment, turned his attention to Brax and regarded him keenly before speaking.

The temple was not built by the ancient Kasarians—at least not the domed central building. The walls, pathways, and statues were all built around the cycle 832 PC, which was not long before the Thaleans started their exploration of space which led to their conflicts with the Nimri, as you should be well aware of. The temple itself seems to have been built by the visiting aliens, from what we now call Kaset, around the cycle 882 PC. According to the scriptures from those times as well as other historical sources, the Kasetians had to leave in order to fight a great evil, and vowed to return when they could.”

Ninnii stopped for a moment and looked at Gildeous, who continued by asking Brax a question.

What do you know about your ancestor, the great Zuzek Damula from whom you derive your surname?”

Brax looked confused at the question, and this confusion wasn’t masked in his tone.

What does that have to do with anything?”

Ninnii and Gildeous looked at one-another, and Brax started to understand.

Do you imply that the change in the tide of the first Nimri war, which seemed to take place around the cycle 776 pre-Cooperative, had something to do with the Kasarian who came through the temple? Did Zuzek meet this Kasarian and that somehow influenced the war?”

No, that’s not what we mean” Ninnii continued. “We mean that the Kasetians never returned because they couldn’t. They had been killed by a rival nation on their home planet and it seems that they were almost wiped out at that time. However, somebody else did return through that temple in the cycle 777 PC. It isn’t in any of the history books, but there is a mention of him in some of the later scriptures, at least one of the ones we have here; you see this particular scripture was considered heretical and was not included in the official priest-sanctioned version, but people do still read it, sometimes. I wouldn’t be surprised if you haven’t read it, but we do have a copy of it—”

Ninnii indicated its location on the shelf and Gildeous stood up and walked over to it, finding it easily, and opening the small book (yes, actually a bound book—Brax still loved seeing that somehow). Gildeous searched quickly and read;

In the days of Vanini’s rule a messenger of Kas-A emerged from the temple. He spoke not the language of the Kas-A, but stayed for some days upon the land of the shursta and drew many followers. His upright stature was supported on limbs opposing those of the Kas-A, his skin was golden, his head covered with reddish covering rather than horns, thus many saw him as an imposter. He heard the word of the writings of Kas with understanding, and despite his inability to speak to us in our tongue he seemed to know the Kas-A themselves, repeating the name ‘Kaseth’ while indicating the temple. When he returned into the temple, as he did every day that he was among us, he prevented the followers of Kas from going with him, indicating that death waited inside for them, as the Kas-A had done previously. He called himself Susek Tamila and was a friend of the one CAMEN….

Susek Tamila?” Brax repeated, standing up to look at the page and noticing the difference in spelling, but the very similar sound as compared to ‘Zuzek Damula.’ “Is it really possible that Zuzek Damula was here, on Kasara, long before the known Thalean encounter with them?”

That is one of our theories. Of course, all of this could be coincidence. What is not coincidence is that in the cycle 776 or so the war did in fact change in direction. Within a couple of cycles not only would the Nimri be destroyed on Kaset—everything would be destroyed on Kaset, in fact—shortly after the Office of Protection, having just withdrawn from formal relations with the Thalean government, would disappear for just over one hundred cycles after the war. They would not appear again until the second Nimri-Thalean war. As far as history is concerned, Zuzek Damula simply disappeared from history after 774 PC, as well as the rest of the Office of Protection. When they emerged again, they were the enigmatic beings they came to be known as, increasing in secrecy and in power as the centuries marched on. They became reclusive, invisible, and yet ubiquitous; they would be there whenever the Nimri appeared, fighting them back. And when the Nimri would be pushed almost to complete destruction they would disappear again into obscurity.”

Brax sat and digested all of this. And as his thoughts returned to the subject where this began, he sat up straight again.

So, does the temple still transport people to Kaset? I mean, if everything on Kaset was destroyed, would it go anywhere?”

We simply do not know. The barrier was placed there, by the Protectorate, long ago. Now, it could be that the temple simply goes to an abandoned planet or perhaps it transports you to oblivion given that the other end of it is destroyed—that is to say that the domed building on Kaset was destroyed as well—and so the Protectors closed it off for that reason. All of this is, of course, speculation.”

Brax wasn’t satisfied with Gildeous’ speculation. Ninnii could see that.

Brax, the temple is not really of interest anymore…at least not until recently. See, nothing of interest has happened at that temple in a long time. That is, of course, until your little adventure with unconsciousness several weeks ago.”

Brax looked at Ninnii when he heard this.

What does my passing out and my dream have to do with any of this?”

We don’t know that, either. We were hoping you might be able to answer that for us. Right now, it seems that digging around in old files and texts are of limited use concerning that mystery.”

And that’s why you said I should be getting out, rather than being in here?”

Gildeous leaned in towards Brax and his smile now faded away completely. He folded his hands and took a deep breath to speak.

Well, Brax, it was also that we were concerned with you hiding away and avoiding real life. I mean, all of this is interesting, but you are a boy, and boys should find interests other than those of old fools who keep secret libraries hidden in ancient cities. We encourage you to investigate this, as I think it is worth pursuing, but you should also live a little. I have come to Kasara for the annual festival, which is tonight and tomorrow. My suggestion, and I believe Ninnii will agree with me—”

Ninnii nodded in agreement

“—my suggestion is that you come to the festival and put all this aside for a short time. And after the festival is over, we can continue this discussion.”

Brax wanted nothing more, at that moment, than to run to the temple and tear it open with his bare hands. But he forced himself to comply with the suggestion of the Bruuk sitting across from him, whose smile was now returning even with more than a hint of anxiety dressing it. Brax gathered up the files he was inspecting, sans Ninnii’s reclaimed report which Ninnii had tucked into his coat, and put them back on the shelf.

Well, gentlemen, what are you waiting for? I hear there’s a party we will be missing soon.”

Ninnii nodded approvingly at this and turned to go, Brax and Gildeous following.

I wonder if that temple is closed because it still goes somewhere, Brax thought. Somewhere that the Protectors don’t want anyone to see would be my guess. There is only one way to find out.

Brax forced his anticipation to be patient.

(777 PC)

Protector Damula was still busy reading the various reports from the surface when he heard from the officer of communications about their arrival to the portal. He finished the sentence he was reading then responded by commanding them to head on through and that he would be in the control room very shortly.

He was regretting, now, having ignored many of these reports. His interest, before today, had been primarily with the movements of the Nimri on the planet, and he had showed little interest in the ruins and other remnants of the dead civilization. It wasn’t that these things did not interest him inherently; it was that his mission was primarily military and these issues seemed secondary to him. He was beginning to understand that had he paid these reports any attention at all, he would have quickly gathered that they were of at least minor importance.

The teams had found that there was, at some time in the not-so-distant past, six factions at war with one-another on Kaset. This, of course, paralleled what the Nimri had said about their past and the six clans. The similarity was interesting, but not conclusive. It wasn’t impossible, in any case, that two planets would have the same number of feuding factions. But there was more to it than this. It was clear, from the patterns of destruction, that one of them was almost completely destroyed prior to most of the fighting. Almost no Nimri presence was evident in the location of this faction, and the two largest cities were obliterated by massive weapons. It appears that whatever was left was wiped up quite soon after this by lesser military forces.

The rest of the forensic evidence was difficult to sort out, as battle had erased much of the tracks. But it seemed quite likely that the smallest of the factions was wiped out quite early as well, and that they seem to have had, within their small borders, a facility for the creation of weapons sufficient to inflict the damage done to those large cities which had been obliterated. Seeing all of this in the reports, and keeping in mind what he had heard from the Vishi in that conference just a few hours before, Damula could not help but notice the similarities. It was as if Komar and his advisers were describing what happened on Kaset, and not what had happened on Nimria as they claimed. This didn’t seem to make sense.

He finished these thoughts as he strode into the control room. They had just emerged from the portal a few moments before, and the space around Kaset was abnormally quiet and calm. The fighting had seemed to cease for the time being, as it had done from time-to-time in the last few cycles, but this time it had an eerie feeling about it. Damula thought that this was all in his head, as the crew seemed to be in normal spirits and were chattering away at their posts as usual.

Put us in orbit around the planet. Keep us over these coordinates—”

Damula entered some coordinates into the computer manually, which was relayed to the appropriate officer.

“—and keep the sensors at maximum. I will be going down to the surface with a small security and engineering contingent. Officers Visti and Zellem, organize that small landing party with the tools which I talked to you about before for a transport, one of the new ones. They should include yourselves, of course. Oh, summon Willem as well. I want him there too.”

This command drew a few curious glances, which Damula ignored, and the two officers moved to their stations to pick the handful of their crew to join them in the main docking bay.

I will meet you two, and your subordinates, at the docking bay in a short while. We’ll embark at the hour—that should give you all about twenty minutes.”

Damula walked back to his office and the two officers complied.

(1421)

The night was cool and there was no rain for once. The party was in full swing and Ninnii and the others were well occupied. Brax had eaten, watched the revelry for long enough, and it was now dark and quite late. He had time, he thought, to slip away.

As he reached Ninnii’s house, he entered quickly—the house was empty—and headed towards his room. Since he had arrived he had not touched his sword more than was necessary to put it away on a shelf. Now he walked directly towards it and held it in his hand. He wiped some dust from it and tossed it into his bag, closed it, then slung the bag over his shoulder. He had made sure to have a few necessary things inside—one change of clothes, his textpad, some food, and a few other various items for grooming and cleanliness—and knowing this he didn’t bother with the rest of his things. They would only weigh him down, he thought.

He quickly left the house and rushed along the darkened rock walkway. When he reached the elevator, he was hoping that he could find a transport before the celebration ended in order to get away unnoticed. He would ‘borrow’ one, if he had to, but he also had some money to hire a driver, if that was an option. As the elevator door opened, he hoped not to run into anyone he knew, and fortune favored him as he found nobody inside. He pushed the button to close the doors and ascended.

He was almost in the clear. So long as he could get away from the canyon and into Keser, the anonymity of the larger city would cloak his intentions. Getting there, however, was going to be the second hardest part of his journey. Getting into the temple, he thought, might prove the hardest.

16. Revelations

(777 PC)

At the hour, the eight chosen crew were waiting, with all relevant gear, at the main shuttle when Damula walked onto the docking bay. He had a small bag on his back and was wearing similar gear as the rest. He was prepared for anything, it appeared to the rest of them. He inspected the gear and found that they had prepared equally, as the transport was full of equipment, weapons, and food rations.

As the transport left the bay, Damula looked through the window from the front of the shuttle—he insisted on sitting with the pilot to observe their descent—and saw that things on the surface were calmer than usual as well. Damula was almost certain that something was up. He didn’t think it was an ambush, because if the Nimri wanted him dead they could have clearly assassinated him earlier that day, but he thought that the sudden lack of activity which coincided with the recent Vishi offer was odd, especially since the other clans were supposedly not allied with the Vishi.

Keep an eye out for surface to air missiles. I’m pretty sure the Vishi don’t want me dead right now, but I am not sure what to expect from the other clans.”

The pilot was a man Damula knew well. His name was Keper Diden, and Damula noticed that he had already switched on full sensors, and so Damula shut up. He knew that officer Diden was an exceptional officer and knew what to do. Damula just wanted to be thorough. None of the officers appeared particularly happy about landing on the planet. They knew that Damula was one of many that thought that the Thaleans on the surface were foolish to be down there now, especially given what they had seen from the Nimri present. Granted, the Nimri largely left the researchers alone, but there were a few times that the researchers were in the middle of the fight, unintentionally, and found themselves caught in crossfire.

As they descended through some clouds, a mountain range came into view. This area was surely remote, and lay near the cities that had been destroyed in the earliest part of the Kasetian wars, near the apparently extinct Kozar nation.

Kozar. That word was familiar. He had found that the massive obliterated cities had been called the Kozar nation before they were exterminated en masse. But Damula could swear that he heard one of Komar’s men use that word in the meeting they had a few hours before. Damula could not be sure, but he was almost certain he had heard it. In any case, the site they were landing on was once part of the Kozar’s territory, which confused Damula.

Why would the territory of the nation that was defeated in the first moments of this war, well before either the Nimri or the Thaleans arrived here, be so important to everyone involved now? And if it was important, then why was this area avoided?

Damula pondered this as they descended nearer to the mountain ranges. They didn’t allow for much in terms of cities or even towns, but their destination lay right in the middle of it.

Even in this calm there was still an explosion in the distance. In a strange way this made Damula feel a little better; it was almost too calm prior to that flash in the distance. It was evening where they were headed. There was still light, but it was fading. The temperature was cool in the mountains, and there was snow at the top of the larger ones. He could see, just barely, the dome ahead of them, and it seemed untouched. A wave of anticipation descended upon Damula, but he had almost forgotten to do something important before he allowed himself to get caught up in that feeling.

Can you tell if the research team is in the proximity?’

One moment sir.”

The navigation officer, Damula noticed it was a quite young officer named Bon Cesten, fiddled with some controls and then pointed to the display.

They are at their camp, it appears, which is a short distance away from the coordinates you requested we land.”

Slow down and hail them. I wish to speak with them before we land.”

Yes sir.”

Officer Cesten looked up the communication code for this research team, and as Damula watched while he thought that a cleaner interface would include that information being integrated with the detection system. He made a mental note to mention this to his Officer of Detection and his Officer Communications later as a potential upgrade, but said nothing for the moment.

I am hailing them now, sir.”

Good job, now switch seats with me.”

As they switched seats a woman with very light skin and short red hair answered, apparently annoyed.

Please excuse the interruption. This is Officer Damula of the Office of Protection. We are on route to the domed structure not far from your camp. I have recently read your report about the creature you found there, and I was wondering if you were able to investigate the structure itself yet. I have reason to believe that the structure may be of some importance in this conflict.”

Officer Damula, eh? Last I heard you seceded from Thalea. You’ve caused quite a stir in the government. They are not sure what you have been up to. I’m assuming you’ve destroyed the Nimri construction stations and have returned with intel?”

Not quite. There is too much to brief you on at this moment. For now, I simply need to know if you have been to the structure, and if so what you have found.”

No, we have not been back to the structure. For a while there the fighting was too intense in the area and we have avoided it for our safety. Just in the last several hours it has died down. We were starting to wonder if the Nimri had had their teeth kicked in some and were scaling back activity here. If you are interested, we have autopsy reports from that alien who died. I can—”

“—That can wait, but I will want to see that later so have it sent to my ship. For now I just need to know anything you think I should know before approaching that structure.”

We know nothing more than what was included in that report. Will you need any assistance there? Would you like us to join you?”

For the moment, no. The intelligence I have received implies that the structure may be dangerous. Quite frankly I don’t know what to expect. I’d prefer to minimize risk, and keep you out of this for now. I am sending you my personal contact code, and will keep in touch if I need anything from you.”

I am curious why you would think that the structure has any significance to this conflict? As far as we can see, the Nimri have avoided it completely. In one case I actually saw a few Nimri actually avoid going near it when walking right past it would have been a more efficient a route.”

Do you remember which clan it was that avoided it?”

I believe they were Tuyin, if I remember correctly…yes, almost certain they were. Why?”

Because I have reason to believe that the structure in being held by the Vishi clan.”

Vishi? Are you sure? They have abandoned this planet for the last three cycles. Why would they hold onto that structure? And if they were there, why would the other clans not attack it?”

I am not sure about anything right now. I think that in a short while, I may have more answers for you. Damula out.”

Damula indicated to the pilot to continue to the structure, and Keper Diden complied. They were very close to it now, and Damula switched back to his original seat. His heart was racing. His crew around him looked both anxious and apparently confused by what was going on. Damula smiled, feeling exhilarated.

As they landed near the structure, Damula noticed a faint light coming from the entrance. He wasn’t surprised to see it, as he almost expected to find someone here.

The shuttle opened and Damula lead the way out. He walked confidently directly towards the structure, and his crew looked at one-another in mild confusion. Damula turned to them and indicated them to follow, and to hurry. A few did immediately, and after a moment the rest followed. It was a short climb up a set of stairs until they reached the flattened landscape where the structure sat. It was certainly artificial, as little of the area was flat at all. As Damula reached the top steps, he turned and waited for the rest of the crew to climb the steps before delegating responsibility.

I want the engineering crew to set up your detection equipment. I want a complete and detailed scan of the structure. Security, create a perimeter with the walls of the transport—it’s why I wanted the new one—and make sure that if anyone approaches I know about it. I don’t expect anyone will approach, but I just want to be cautious. I’m going inside. Under no circumstances are you to come in after me. That is a direct and very severe order. If anyone comes into that structure without my orders, I guarantee I’ll call you my crew no longer. Is that clear?”

The crew nodded and Damula motioned for them to commence with his orders, which they did quickly.

Oh, officer Willem, you are in charge of this party while I am absent. I honestly don’t know what will happen when I go in there, but if for any reason I don’t return, you are in charge of getting these people out of here if need be. Leave if any attack comes this way, but otherwise stay here for at least a day before leaving.”

Damula then turned to the entrance and took a deep breath.

I hope I’m right about this. Because if I’m not, this will be the last decision I will make, most likely.

With that thought echoing in his mind, he took his first step towards the entrance. As he approached he sensed a vibration, very subtle, on his skin. There was a sort of humming all around him that he didn’t quite hear but felt. As he entered the structure the lights brightened and a door behind him closed, causing Damula to turn his head and shoulders suddenly in surprise. When he turned back around, he took a moment to a look around the room carefully. The small structure was simply a round room with a pedestal at the center. In that pedestal sat a round translucent object that had a slight glow to it. Around that object appeared to be some controls, and then he noticed a man standing on the far side of the room, sitting in a chair on the other side of the pedestal.

Damula swore to himself that the man was not there a moment ago.

The man stood, and Damula noticed that he was certainly not Thalean and most certainly not Nimri. He was tall, thin, and his knees bent the opposite direction as those of Damula’s legs. His head was covered in four horns, and he smiled amiably. Damula was frozen, unsure what to say or do. This was not what he expected at all.

My name is Camen, of the Kozar nation. I am the last of my nation, in fact. This structure is all that is left of our once great culture. You, I believe, are a Thalean. We once visited your world some time ago, but at the time we found your culture primitive and of little interest. But alas your race may be what I need right now. That is, of course, if you wish to help me. If not, you may try to leave at your leisure. But you will not leave, I am quite sure.”

Damula considered how to respond. Listening to the man, who Damula decided was a Kasetian—perhaps one of the last, but almost certainly not the last—as he figured out what was happening. What he wasn’t sure of is whether the Vishi gave him the information they did intentionally to lead Damula here. If the Vishi knew that a Kozar was here, why warn him of danger if they would almost push him to investigate? He figured that some direct questions would be a way of determining what was going on here.

I am Zuzek Damula. You are a Kasetian?”

Very good, you are observant and apparently informed.”

You are a survivor of the attacks from a war that destroyed your nation, the Kozar.”

You were listening, it seems.”

You are not the only Kasetian that survived, I’m guessing. I’ll bet that at least four others survived and that they represent the Vishi, Tuyin, Makin, and Bombath nations that once inhabited this world.”

You are correct, although the exact number of survivors I do not know, but almost certainly there are four more from those nations which you named. I sincerely doubt that Dupeth, the leader of the rogue nation that attacked us, survived the onslaught from the Vishi clan. The Vishi, you should know, were once an ally to the Kozar before the war. We weren’t exactly close friends, but we got along well enough.”

Is that why they sent me to you?”

That is quite possible. I haven’t spoken with any of the other clans in some time. The war created damaging rifts between our cultures, and I doubt that the other Kasetian clans speak to one-another anymore. All I know is that Nimri allied with the Vishi managed to leave the planet shortly after you arrived, and they probably took the Kasetian leader of the Vishi nation to Nimria with them. And if I am right, the Nimri may be looking for a way to break loose from his control, especially if they sent you to me.”

Damula’s reaction was obvious to Camen, and Camen smiled again.

You see,” continued the Kasetian, “the Nimri war was a failed experiment on our part…more specifically the part of the others, but we share much of the responsibility. When they arrived the nations here on Kaset had devolved into a form of cruelty and genocidal rage that our race had not seen for centuries. The various differences that simmered below the decades of diplomacy and peace exploded as soon as any cause for war surfaced. When the rogue Dupeth, himself a ideological radical, started recruiting members from the five nations—including the Kozar—we tried to reason with them, come to political terms, and to finally hunt them down if that didn’t work. Somehow, they acquired the ability to create massively destructive devices and they destroyed our two largest cities in one day. This was a catalyst for the Vishi to attack Dupeth and, I believe, to kill him. The death of civilians from the other nations that had joined his rogue state inflamed already touchy relations, and a brutal war ensued that consumed Kaset for a long time.

Then, when the Nimri arrived during a moderate lull in military activity, envoys were sent from the Nimri to make contact with each of our nations—what were left of them, anyway—in order to find a place to settle. No envoy was sent to the Kozar, since not much was left other than a small village at that point. Over time the other clans began to manipulate the Nimri, resorting to methods of mind-control and genetic manipulation, which created the four ‘clans’ you see today. The Nimri were already highly competitive, but also highly moral. The nations were unable to convince them to out-right kill at first, but they could be convinced, through all sorts of suggestion, to fight in war games that allowed the nations to hold control of territory for various strategic reasons. Eventually the Nimri were sufficiently well groomed as mercenaries that they started to shape their own culture, even on Nimria, to reflect the clan distinctions. Within a little more than half of one of your centuries the Nimri were transformed from a relatively peaceful, highly moral and structured society that had been the unfortunate victims of planetary change that devastated their world, and into the Nimri you see today. The ones on this planet are particularly dangerous; having gained technology that makes them almost impossible to kill, at least while on the surface.”

Damula was trying to take all of this in, and he found that while it answered some questions and solved a few riddles, it only opened up more questions. He nodded in understanding at what this ‘Camen’ had said, and the took a deep breath before replying.

Do you think the Vishi—the Nimri I talked to, in any case—are aware of all of this? Do you think they are looking for a way, as you say, to loosen themselves from Kasetian control?”

Camen looked unsure, and didn’t respond verbally, yet Damula understood.

Can any of the Nimri, as they are now, be trusted?”

Some of them, maybe. The closer you get to the Kasetians they serve, however, the less trusting I’d be. The fact that the Vishi-controlled Nimri seem to have sent you here either implies that an exception exists or that the Vishi are planning something devious. Given what I know about the Vishi, either is possible, as some of their Kasetian leaders that might still be alive are trust-worthy and others are certainly not. The question is which of the Kasetian leaders are in control of their Nimri subjects. That, I’m afraid, I do not know. And I sincerely doubt that you know since you seemed unsure, if not unaware, of their presence prior to entering this room.”

Damula nodded his head in agreement with this thesis, and the Kasetian returned to his seat as Damula’s questions continued.

So what can I do now? How can I find out this information?”

Zuzek Damula, you are not going to like what I am going to tell you. But the fact is that if you leave here unscathed, the Vishi will be certain that there are, in fact, Kozar here. If they know that for certain, they will certainly come for me.”

Wait, that doesn’t make any sense. I’ve heard reports that the clans are avoiding this structure intentionally, it seems. Don’t they already know you are here?”

Damula looked at Camen, but the alien did not respond immediately. Camen seemed to be considering the question, and after a moment he shifted in his chair before responding.

There are two likely possibilities, it seems to me. Either they know I am here and they want to know what I would do with you if you came to me. In that case if I let you live then they would assume that the Kozar have hired you as mercenaries of our own. If you don’t return, they will likely assume that I have killed you. If they don’t know, for certain, whether I am here then they are testing to see whether you disappear when you enter this structure or not. You see, if I was not here then the structure would automatically transport you to another place far from here. If that were the case, they would know because the power surge it would create they would detect. Sending you here is a way of figuring out whether I, or any other Kozar, am here or not. And the fact is that I want them to think that I am not here, so I’m afraid I’m going to have to activate the transporter and send you far away. In order to return, you will simply have to enter the structure at the other end. And when you return, I will not be here, most likely.”

Wait, why don’t you want them to think you are here.”

Because I want them to think I am dead. If I am dead, the technology which they fear that I guard will compel them to come. They will not hunt it if I am alive, knowing that I am too powerful with it to defeat. In the mean time, I want you to introduce yourselves to the people of Tallania. We visited them more than a century ago and promised to return. But the war went badly and we unfortunately never kept that promise. They will not be able to understand your language, but if you speak of us, they will recognize the word. They called us the Kas-A, since they had trouble pronouncing ‘Kasetian.’ They are very friendly and peaceful, and they will treat you well. I want you to return here once a day until you either find me here or the portal does not work—if that happens it means that this facility will have been destroyed.”

And leave me stranded, of course. And what about those outside, the ones I brought with me?”

If this place gets destroyed it means that all hope is lost. If the Vishi or any other clan gets a hold of what I guard, there will be no more war; there will only be elimination of the enemies of whoever holds that power without the possibility of defense. I will defend that from happening with my life. And if I fail, you will be better off being with the Tallanians, with whom you can spend the rest of your life in peace, hopefully, before whoever takes this technology from me reaches you at that great distance. As for your friends, I cannot risk opening the door again and having them come in as well. Had they all come with you initially, they would be able to join you, but for now they must wait and suffer the same fate as I.”

Well, what about this power you guard? Why can’t you use it against the Nimri?

If only it were that simple. It shall be sufficient for me to say that the project is not finished yet, and my using it prematurely could be devastating. I will only use it as a last resort, and I only hope that the fear of this power will keep the Nimri away, as it has so far.”

Damula was unsure what to say at this. He had a feeling that pressing further would be fruitless. He considered asking whether he could inform his crew of any of this, but already knew the answer. He only hoped that they would follow his orders and stay out of here.

Camen stood and walked to the pedestal at the center of the room, and Damula waved a quick good-bye before the room disappeared in a flash that was replaced with darkness.

As his eyes adjusted, he saw that he was in a very dim room that had an open entrance open to moonlight. He stepped out of the doorway, nearly scaring two greenish-blue four-legged beings to death. He now knew where that alien from the report came from, but had no idea where that where was.

(1421)

Brax reached the city of Keser in less than an hour via a small vehicle that he borrowed from the canyon city—that was, after all, what people called it. It was actually too old to be given a proper name, as was the Kasarian tradition.

He found himself running through the downtown section of the city, which was largely deserted at this hour. There was no party here, as the festival—which was all the party was referred to as, being ancient itself—was not here. As he reached the edge of the temple’s outer walls, he looked around for anyone who might see him, and saw only a couple of Kasarians talking intimately as they strolled down the street walking the opposite direction. It was late, very late, and Kasarians are not generally nocturnal. He knew, however, that the temple would be guarded. He still wasn’t quite sure what he was going to do about that.

As he ran down the stone path, he tried to muffle his foot-falls that seemed to echo off the inner walls, dividing the grassy area with statues from the inner stone-floored sanctum. There were no doors, no apparent detection devices, and no sign of any high-priests yet.

As Brax entered the south entrance that led to the temple, he knew that the temple’s doorway, with its guards and its barrier, would be on the exact opposite side. This gave him the advantage of coming from a blind angle, which might mean he could surprise the guards and…well, he still had not figured that part out.

As he approached the wall of the temple, he listened for conversation or movement of any kind. Hearing nothing but the sounds of the night and a light rainfall that was just beginning, he slid around the side as quietly as he could. As he peered around the edge, he saw the lip of the entrance but saw no high-priests guarding it. As he continued around, this was confirmed by the very obvious lack of anybody anywhere in sight. Brax guessed that the fear of the Kasarians, as well as the barrier, meant that nobody really had to guard this at festival night, and so Brax felt some relief at having some good fortune.

As Brax reached into his bag for his sword—he had to try and cut through the barrier somehow, and he had not yet found a material he couldn’t cut through with the cutting field—he allowed a smile to augment his feeling of anticipation.

This is going to work, I just know it, he thought.

No, it will not,” a voice from behind him said.

For a moment Brax was paralyzed. Fear overtook his excitement and he turned his head ever so slightly to see a dark figure standing in the shadow of the statue of what Brax now knew was a Kasetian. As Brax turned more fully around, the figure stepped towards him, and in the light the face of Menson and his green eyes came into view.

Brax, having just managed to get his hand around the thing, dropped the sword. But before it could reach the ground Menson’s eyes followed it and it simply stopped in mid-fall, floated back up, and Brax grabbed a hold of it.

It would be a shame to damage a fancy toy like that. I imagine it would be rather difficult getting through that barrier without it. The truth is that even with that sword, even with its cutting field, you would never get past that barrier. The Kasarians don’t know that, which is what they always guard it. I was courteous enough to relieve them of their duties temporarily. They won’t be any wiser in the morning. As you may have guessed we Protectors have a number of tricks.”

Why don’t you want anyone to enter the temple?”

Hmm, aggressive little boy aren’t you? I see that you have discovered our little secret here. The truth is that you are barely scratching at the surface. Your little band of ‘Protectors of the Kas-A” as they call themselves have quite a collection, and I’m glad you led me to them. They have been meticulous in being secretive—using no technology to store their artifacts and never talking in public about what they know. It is actually quite impressive that they were able to avoid our gaze for as long as they did.”

What will you do to them?”

To them, you ask? I will do nothing to them. I have confiscated their library, but they may go about with their knowledge. Without evidence nobody will believe them anyway. The question is what shall I do with you? You seem bent on destruction, and you don’t even know what it is you are trying to destroy. Yes, I think the solution is simple. You must disappear. You must cease to be. You must—”

No, he must not.”

This voice came from directly next to Brax. He hadn’t heard anyone approach, but there was, within arms length of Brax, a tall man with long faded red hair directing this command to Menson as if the Protector were a small boy.

Brax, we have much to discuss. Menson will not bother you anymore right now, right Menson?”

At that, Menson, apparently displeased but not visibly angry, simply disappeared in a flash of light.

The much older looking gentleman took a step towards Brax’s front and stood facing the boy, looking down somewhat.

Brax Damula. My name is Mezar.”

Brax could only stare at him, taking a half step back with his lips parted slightly, unable to respond. The man continued.

Long ago…very long ago, indeed, I went by the name of Zuzek Damula. I have lost count of the number of ‘greats’ that separate you and I, genetically, but I also see much of my old self in you. Your youth, impertinence, temper, and your destructive decisiveness are all traits I once had on my previous…”

Mezar paused, smiled,

…my previous incarnation. I am the first Protector, Protector One, or simply, as I said, Mezar. A name I have grown to appreciate, despite its inappropriateness. Now it is time for you to enter this temple. I could take you to where it leads myself, but this is a journey you must take alone. I can guarantee your safety from Menson or any of the other Protectors, at least for now. When you see me again in a while, and it will seem like a long while from your young point of view, you may be ready to find the answers you seek. For now, you are too young to take that path. I bid you farewell, and will look forward to seeing you older and wiser.”

At that, the barrier caught his attention as it flickered out of existence. As Brax turned back to ask this man, his ancient ancestor who was somehow still alive, a million questions he wanted answers to, Brax noticed that he was once again alone. And as he looked around him, he considered not entering the temple at all. Suddenly a deep fear embraced him and he was unable to breath or move. But after a moment or two of this he began to calm down and looked into the dark entrance, half expecting that feeling to return. It didn’t.

And in the silent moonlight of pre-dawn, Brax’s footsteps were all he could hear as he entered the temple. And as he cleared the inner wall he felt a slight buzzing in his mind followed by a flash, followed by darkness, and then light.

And there, standing directly in front of him, was his father.

Part 2

17. Prisoners

Consciousness arises through a fog. Slowly, an awareness of shapes, colors, and of noises dances through the obstructed perception. And what beautiful noises they are to an ear in this fog; soft, melodic, repeating songs coming from through a window. As this fog fades, he squints at the sun reflecting off of the edge of the circular hole in the wall that houses an impossibly thin yet strong crystal pane. He feels the pressure of a hand on his right shoulder, gently shaking him, and he turns to see that it is his mother. And as he is able to focus on her face, he notices that something is terribly wrong. As she looks at her little boy, her face folds into sadness the depths of which he has never before seen and hopes to never see again. Suddenly, those beautiful noises become a stinging pain in his ears, and he desperately wants to flee beyond their call and back into the murky depths of rest.

Instead, the world outside becomes an inferno and he watches his mother disappear in a flash of fiery pain. It is here when the reverie of awakening becomes real, and Brax, no longer a small boy, finds himself in a small room, alone.

The dream has not quite faded from his mind as his breathing begins to slow and his eyes adjust to the darkness. A few drops of sweat tickle his temples as the subtle implication of light makes its way through the mostly opaque walls of the dome over his head. He thinks about there being additional light and to his initial surprise—quickly replaced with mounting understanding—a light raises to a dim glow that permeates the room.

As he looks around, he finds that he has to re-acquaint his mind with the awesome surroundings he finds himself. He thinks that maybe the previous day had been a dream, and that the wonders that surround him could not possibly be real. But as he stands up, he looks through the now transparent walls—having made them so with but a thought. But no, they are not really walls at all but rather something else entirely. There is something there which exists to differentiate inside from outside, but Brax knows that it isn’t quite a wall.

This building, this room, it was nothing but an empty space yesterday. But upon the will of his own thought it became this, a completely empty dome encased in a force-field of some kind. A dome he did choose, perhaps because of the temple on Kasara, that mysterious ancient shape that was responsible for his being here. The only thing present inside is a bed and Brax’s bag next to it. As Brax finds that he no longer has use for the bed, he notices that it simply disappears, replaced by a sink, mirror, and implements of morning grooming and hygiene; he had also just thought that he wanted to wash up.

He approaches the mirror and looks at himself. His red hair is somewhat messy, and as he reached for a brush that just appeared on the edge of the sink he notices that he is hungry. As he fixes his hair he imagines a firstmeal and observes the reflection of a table occupied by fresh fruits and breads appear behind him.

This is going to take some getting used to.

Brax washes his face, brushes his teeth, and thinks into existence some new clothes to wear for the day, which simply appear suspended by apparently nothing. He reached for them and then thought of the transparent walls which fail to hide him from the outside world, and they fade towards opacity. He discards his worn clothes to the floor and replaces them with the much nicer set that look much like a favorite set of clothes he had not brought with him. And with a set of new thoughts the older clothes disappear and the walls become transparent once again.

The day outside is bright, warm, and he finds himself in a small city that consisted of buildings of incredible beauty. He thinks of it as a city that might be the result of the efforts of a genius sculptor who had no restraints of any kind to build with. There were buildings that floated in the air, some that were of such intricate shape that the engineering feat of creating them alone was masterful. Then there was the fact that they changed shape according to the needs of the people using them. He watched as a building nearby grew larger as a couple of visitors came in to visit. It, of course, had to rise off the ground in order to compensate for the limited room of the surrounding area.

Brax watched as he saw a man walking down a path towards his dome. It was his father, Gerek. Perhaps this was a dream after all, filled with ghosts and memories and he would awaken at Ninnii’s home or maybe even at Shonny’s. But the image persisted with undeniable realness, and he awoke nowhere else. This, it seemed, was as real as it got.

There was no hurry in the older man’s step, but his face looked anxious. Brax stood just outside his dome and watched him approach as he thought of the day before. The people, the explanations, the truth….

It was dizzying.

This was home, he had been told. The people here were all ghosts; those that history had counted as dead, had no record of, or who were thought to be missing. And so as Brax had digested this place the day before, his father had brought him here to rest as Brax’s body and mind were exhausted. His father, Gerek, had called the empty lot where this dome sat a needspace, or something like that, and that Brax could make it whatever he wanted. Brax had wanted home, but the shape his mind returned to was that temple, and so a dome appeared.

Brax decided to walk to meet his father along the path, rather than wait for him. He knew that if he had wished it so, the space would return to its normal state of being empty. But somehow the illusion of permanence comforted him, and so he left the dome intact rather than dissolve it. He somehow felt uncomfortable in making his home disappear while he was not there. It felt wrong, but not in a way he could understand right now. There were too many jumbled thoughts and emotions to make sense of any of this. But, more importantly, there was no time to analyze this thought as he was face to face with his father again. They both stood in front of one-another for a moment before the older man yielded a slight smile.

Gerek. He had almost forgotten his father’s name. Not only had Brax thought he had been dead since he was a small boy, but he had almost never called him anything but ‘father,’ and he barely remembered doing that. As Brax looked at him, Gerek’s apparent anxiety lifted a little more and Brax even managed to smile a little bit.

Brax still could not believe that his father was alive. And as he looked at him, he couldn’t help but think of mom. They had talked about that the day before. Gerek had missed his partner and mother to his only son for many cycles, and had told Brax that he wished he could have visited. The Protectors, apparently, would not allow this. Nobody returned to The Cooperative from here, it seemed.

Brax’s nightmare was still with him even after the return of full consciousness. The emotions were still present, perhaps even amplified with his father standing before him. It had been based on something real, but now it was mixed with the terrors of his life in ways that Brax was having trouble understanding fully. And as he looked at his father now, Brax allowed his mind to wander far away, and to long ago.

As Brax’s mother helped the boy dress, a couple of friends stood by and waited with her things. They were leaving, it seemed. His mother was quite angry as well as crying. Brax could tell, even at this young age, that she had just been arguing with somebody, but didn’t know who.

Mommy, where are we going?”

Braxy, we are going to Patula.”

Why?”

Because I will not stay in this city with that…with your fathers sister any longer.”

A man standing in the doorway shifted at this and put one of the bags in his hands down. “Sevry, you know that this wasn’t her fault. The Protectors have said that the explosion was an attack from some terrorist organization. They have already found those responsible. Shon….”

Sevry Rup, pausing in her efforts at helping her son with a shoe stopped the man, who was holding one of her bags, from finishing that name with a look that made even the other man next to him stiffen slightly. She looked back at Brax, but addressed her critical interlocutor.

I don’t want to hear that name again. Her views and opinions are clear. Gerek was working on something important, and that woman agrees with those terrorists that what he was developing is dangerous. I can’t imagine a better, more efficient, power source being dangerous to anyone except for terrorists. Gerek was no danger to anyone. He was a good man….” Her voice trailed off a bit at this and Brax noticed her steeling herself against something overwhelming and unfamiliar on her. It looked like unfathomable sadness.

Mommy, why are you talking about daddy like that?”

The boy watched as his mother’s face melted into ungoverned emotion before recovering with less iron will this time. She sniffed and her face buried itself into his shoulder, and Brax threw his arms around her neck. She cried openly, now unable to hold off the emotion any longer.

Braxy, my beautiful little boy. Your daddy has been killed. He died last night while working late, killed by some bad people.”

And with that, Brax joined her, and those damned lulu birds continued their stupid song outside.

Brax’s memory was interrupted by his father’s sudden and passionate plea;

Brax, I know you were really upset yesterday, and I understand why you ran off from the introductions. You are young, so nobody thinks too unfavorably of you for leaving, but there is still much more you need to understand about this place and why you are here.”

Brax’s initial calmness upon facing his father this morning had dissipated since Brax’s memory asserted itself. He now felt angry, sad, and his confusion and desire to run from the day before returned. But rather than walk away, he simply half turned his head and spoke without looking at his father directly.

How can you live here with these people, father? Why can’t you leave?”

That’s what I need to talk to you about. The Protectors can’t allow anyone here to leave because…”

And you are fine with that?”

Brax, it’s not like we have much of a choice. And besides, it is for the sake of the Cooperative anyway. The Protectorate is designed to protect our safety, so us being here is better for everyone. You will come to understand as I have, that there are necessities to protecting the people. And while we may not always agree with how they do it, some measures are necessary.”

You know, Shonny was right, she said that…”

Brax, I don’t know what Shontesta has told you. I wish that you had chosen to stay elsewhere after The Accident, because her affiliations have always been a problem for her, and she has passed that burden down to you now. The fact is that she endangers herself with her investigations. In fact, I’m surprised she is not here with us now.”

There is nothing wrong with what she does! She simply wants to understand history. There is something very wrong with what the Protectorate is doing, and she simply wants to expose that. She taught me about the history of the Protectorate and many other things which ultimately led me to the Temple on Kasara with the help of the Protectors of the Kas-A.”

Brax, I am aware, at least I am now, how you came to be here. I am not sure what my sister knows about them, but if she was involved with so-called Protectors of the Kas-A then it is quite possible that she is under the jurisdiction of the Protectorate as well as the rest.”

What does that mean? Does that mean she’s imprisoned or something? She’s done nothing wrong!”

No, it just means that they watch her. But if she were to do anything that would somehow threaten the Protectorate, she would be brought here, like I was…like we both were.”

Brax didn’t reply immediately at this. He looked at Gerek, whose respiration had increased somewhat and who looked ready to counter any move Brax would make next. His father looked certain, rational, and yet somehow too certain. Brax thought of the news of his father’s death from his childhood, the terrorists that were blamed, and understood that this had been a cover. Brax wondered if there were really any terrorists at all anywhere. He wondered whether any actual threat existed anywhere for the Protectorate to counter.

So the attack that we all thought killed you cycles ago was a hoax. It was created by the Protectorate to look like you were killed by terrorists to cover their necks in some way? But why would they need to do that? What could threaten them?”

Gerek didn’t seem quite taken by surprise by the question, but Brax guessed that his father had not anticipated this particular move at this point in the conversation. Rather than respond immediately, Gerek took a deep breath and shifted his pose before answering.

Brax, there is much that you do not understand. If you want, we can meet with some people who can tell you more, all you have to do is…”

And what about the Protectors of the Kas-A? You know, I met some of them. They were not bad people. Why do they have to remain so secretive? Why did Menson say that he confiscated their library?”

Brax’s father merely looked at him thoughtfully, and Brax saw enlightenment overtake his father’s face. Gerek apparently thought up a bench because he sat in one that wasn’t there a moment before, but Brax simply stood there and watched him sit and rest his head in his hands. Brax, after a few moments of watching his father, sat next to him and and watched his father who appeared to be deep in thought. After a few moments, Gerek looked up and spoke.

Brax, I have made a point to not pay attention to what goes on outside of this place too much, mostly because it reminds me that I cannot be a part of it anymore. Had I paid more attention to your life I might have tried to relay a message to you somehow to not allow you to get involved with Shontesta or her affiliated groups such as the Protectors of the Kas-A. I had feared, cycles ago, that she was involved with some people who were working in secret to undermine the authority of the Protectorate, but never imagined that she was actually in contact with the Kasarian group that was recently uncovered. I…”

She was a member.”

“…what?”

Shonny is, or at least was at some point, a member of the Protectors of the Kas-A. And so am I”

There was another pause. Brax started to understand the enlightenment he had just witnessed upon his father’s face. He had followed in his father’s footsteps, in some unintended way.

Yes.” Gerek finally said. “That is why you are here. It’s also why they probably will never allow you to leave.”

Somehow, they had both stumbled into something which brought them to the attention of the Protectorate. Brax didn’t know what his father had found. What was worse was that he wasn’t quite sure what he knew himself that had secured his presence here.

As Brax thought about it his thoughts returned to the past again, and he found himself lost in old memories.

Sevry Rup sat in the back of a small vehicle with her young son clutching her shirt. She looked longingly at the house they were leaving. It had been her mother’s house as well, a mother who had moved onto bigger and better things cycles ago and was probably still on Dideron. Brax had never actually met the woman who was, by some rites, his grandmother. It wasn’t so much that there was animosity between anyone involved, Sevry simply liked Cesternatton and her mother really liked whatever she was doing elsewhere. Family, after all, was not really so much biological as ideological on Thalea. Mother and daughter simply had little in common so they naturally drifted apart.

Yet Sevry knew she would miss the house. So many memories from so many years resided there, and despite her insistence that this move was necessary, she had a sudden desire to go back. She looked through the window of the house that was beginning to grow farther away as they traveled and saw a memory looking back at her from inside.

She had met Gerek there some sixty or so cycles earlier at a community dinner her father had cooked for some friends, co-workers, and neighbors. Her father, the great Tarrin Rup, would occasionally invite people to come over and stay with his family, especially during research breaks. On one occasion, a relatively young student sat at dinner next to Tarrin and caught the young girl’s attention.

This student had come from the Gullina research lab with Tarrin, the great scientist and teacher, in order to take a break from work. His name was Gerek Damula, a name that perked ears and gained Gerek unwanted attention. The famous Damula name annoyed the young Gerek, and he felt as if he had to somehow transcend the name by making a reputation for his own work, rather than be defined by his famous name shared with the elusive and powerful Protector. Nobody was certain of the relation, not even him at that time, but everyone suspected even if they never asked.

So far, Gerek’s attempts to earn a reputation were working; Gerek’s name was quietly gaining respect in the research community, and being invited to Tarrin Rup’s home during the research break would only increase his standing in the community. But at this particular moment, it was not his intellectual prowess which stood out, but something about his eyes that attracted Sevry’s attention at the table. She looked at him, and he apparently didn’t notice or was cleverly pretending not to notice. This only invigorated her curiosity.

At first, Sevry didn’t know what to think of Gerek. He was quiet, shy, but highly regarded for his abilities. She found herself looking at him over her dinner, but he was listening to her father tell stories, dutifully attending to his mentor. Perhaps this dutiful attention was a means to avoid returning the gaze that he felt coming from the younger woman who sat across from him. Gerek was not used to the attention of women he did not know, especially beautiful ones who also happen to be the daughter of one’s mentor. But when one spends their time in laboratories working alone, flirtation does not become common.

And yet those first few days of research break would spark an interest within Gerek that the old scientist would look upon with joy. Tarrin had watched Sevry with boys she would meet from time to time, but none of them seemed to interest her much and most disappeared after a few weeks. And now he saw in her an interest that he could understand, as Gerek was a good man despite his eccentricities. When he saw them together Tarrin would feel genuine happiness, and so their friendship grew as Tarrin kept bringing Gerek home with him over the next couple of years until Gerek needed no invitation. Gerek became part of the family.

Tarrin noticed the mutual attraction between Gerek and Sevry, and decided to act where they would not. Tarrin liked efficiency, and so he gave a push to the inevitable relationship between his daughter and Gerek rather than wait for it to happen the slow and natural way. Tarrin, of course, had a plan.

Gerek was extremely brilliant with theoretical models. This brilliance was what brought Gerek to Tarrin’s attention. Sevry was brilliant herself as a master at fixing just about anything that was broken, which was fortunate for Gerek because he was having trouble engineering a device he needed to maintain a consistent field, yet kept malfunctioning. It was only natural that Tarrin would bring this problem to Sevry’s attention after dinner one time while Gerek was visiting, and then suddenly, and conveniently, remember that he had errands to do leaving the two younger people alone to talk about engineering…or something…. It was all quite efficient.

Sevry, upon looking at Gerek’s design, eventually did manage to find a significant design flaw and thus gave Gerek much-needed advice in ways to better design his prototype. This was the key that allowed him to move past simple attraction towards genuine respect for her that would ultimately grow into love. It was the start of a collaboration that compelled him to keep coming back—or so Gerek told himself.

But there were complications, as there often are in matters of love and relationships. Gerek had a home in Gullina, where he had a personal life that began to suffer with his increasingly frequent trips to his mentor’s home. Besides Gerek’s work with his advanced training and research, there was another woman, Jul, whose attention was aimed at Gerek. A long-time friend, lover, and confidant slowly accepted Gerek’s new passion reluctantly. To do otherwise would only mean to end her own relationship with Gerek, an option which she did not prefer. And while Gerek loved Jul, they both knew that it had been a relationship of convenience that could not compete with Sevry Rup in the long-run, even if in the short run she could accept sharing him. The beautiful and brilliant daughter of the most well-known researcher outside of Patula was too strong of a light to stand next to in relation, and Jul took this with some sadness but with mature acceptance.

Eventually, Gerek came to visit Sevry often. Over time, this often became most of the time, until Jul started to worry that she was being forgotten. And so eventually Jul asked to and eventually did travel with Gerek to meet this woman who had invigorated her lover, and found that Gerek had found a jewel among people, and found a friend herself. And for many years the three of them maintained a close friendship, and Gerek divided his time between the two of them. Eventually, however, Jul moved onto a project that required her to be on Brua most of the time, and over the cycles Gerek saw less of her until he spent most of his time in Cesternatton with Sevry. And eventually, after many more years of being together, they decided to have a child. It was not long after this decision that Brax was born.

About a cycle later Gerek became the head of energy research at Gullina, replacing Sevry’s father who had decided to retire after so many years. Gerek traveled to Gullina every other week or so to lead tests of a prototype that he had been working on improving for decades. The design was already in use in many places, but Thaleans are perfectionists and continue to improve designs for efficiency, size, and universality of their inventions. A few cycles into these efforts Gerek happened to accidentally discover some fluke energy spike while doing some efficiency experiments that caused a small explosion in his lab. Nobody was seriously hurt, but the data from the equipment noted a field pattern that showed potential for an energy output that would dwarf anything that he had seen before. Over the next few weeks, he worked up a model to maintain such a field until he was ready to test some simulations.

Twelve days later, Gerek was reported dead from an attack from some anti-technology terrorist group from Kasara. The day after this attack, Sevry was in a vehicle with her son on their way to Patula. And as Brax watched his only home disappear in the back window as his mother turned her attention forward, a small tear welling up in her eye. And as they moved further away, Brax watched a woman standing near the house, watching them go.

Brax knows now that this woman was Shontesta. Brax still didn’t know how she fit into all of this. And now, as Brax sat across from his father whom supposedly died those many cycles ago, he had to know. He found himself staring at his father while his memories faded from consciousness. Eventually he sat up straight, maintaining his stare, and broke a long silence.

Why did mom hate Shontesta so much?”

Gerek had sat deadly still for some time and the sudden question seemed to pull him away from something else he was concentrating on. Gerek turned his body towards Brax and smiled a little. He cleared his throat and then paused, then closed his mouth. Brax maintained his stare. After a moment Gerek shifted some and responded with a soft voice;

Brax, do you know what I had been working on before I disappeared?”

Mom had told me that it was some energy generator you had created early in your relationship with her. She said that you had discovered some way to make it more powerful, and that some group didn’t want you to pursue the improvement because it was somehow dangerous.”

Yes, and did she ever tell you what Shontesta said about it?”

Actually, I don’t think I ever heard the name ‘Shontesta’ from her mouth. She occasionally made comments about “that woman” somehow being responsible. I have learned since that Shontesta had spent many cycles on Kasara learning from a man named Ninnii Jullen, whose house I had been staying at before I came through the portal that lead me here. Apparently, Shonny had suddenly returned to Cesternatton a couple of days before you disappeared to try and warn you not to pursue the technology you had discovered. My mom, it seems, thought that this warning was some sort of threat.”

Gerek was listening patiently, but Brax could tell that he wanted to interrupt, so he stopped there. Gerek shook his head at this and rubbed his forehead.

No, that isn’t quite right. It is true that Shontesta returned to Thalea, but she first came to Gullina while I was designing my field models to see what I was working on. I had only met her a few times prior to then, as she is a lot older than I am and by the time I was born she had been long gone from home. We had different mothers too—and they didn’t get along too well—so we never spent much time together. But what I was working on was so interesting to her that she traveled to Thalea to see it for herself. She was, at first, very excited about the potential new discovery, and she asked to take a copy of all of my data so she could look over it with some friends on Kasara, and I gave it to her.

Then, a couple of days later she came to Cesternatton, as I had returned to spend some time with you and your mother. You most-likely do not remember her visiting…do you?”

No, I don’t”

I didn’t think so, you were still quite young. In any case, she said that she had looked at the research and found that it could be potentially dangerous to pursue, and that I should stop working on the project for now. But when I asked her how it would be dangerous, she refused to explain, so I refused to stop my research. She begged me to pause my research just for a little while, so that she could get some friends of hers to meet with me about it, and I agreed reluctantly. Shontesta was a very well respected professor and her request seemed reasonable enough.”

Who were the people she wanted you to meet with?”

I don’t know who they were, because I never met them. Two days later, I had just finished cleaning up from a training session with some students in my lab when a man appeared in my office. At first, I assumed it must have been one of the people she mentioned, but he introduced himself as Strasen, and as a Protector. I had never met a Protector before, so I was a bit flabbergasted at this introduction, but introduced myself. He said that he knew who I was, and that I had, unfortunately, discovered something that was a secret of the Protectorate and that I must cease all research immediately.”

And you refused?”

Not exactly. I was curious how I was supposed to stop this research since it was already a part of the sharing and that others could simply pick up where I left off even if I did stop. He simply replied that this was no longer a concern, but that I was restricted from pursuing the technology any longer, and that if I did not comply the Protectorate would be force to step in. And then…., well, and then things got ugly.”

What do you mean? What happened?”

Well, I lost control of my temper. I began to argue with the man about how we do not hide technology from others, and he said that I was not the first to discover this technology and it had been suppressed before. At this I flew into a rage and tried to throw a textpad at him, which he merely disintegrated with a nod and then held me in some sort of restraining field, which was—”

I’ve seen that. I saw Menson do that on the subtrans the day of The Accident.”

Yes, Menson mentioned that he had seen you that day, and that you had survived. It’s actually about as much as he’s said to me ever, now that I think about it.”

Does he not like you, or something?”

No, I don’t think it’s that. I think that, mostly, it’s because they don’t spend much time talking to any of us here. Protectors are rarely actually here.”

Wait, but this is their city, why would they not be here?”

Gerek looked at Brax for a moment, smiled, and then actually laughed a little.

Brax, this isn’t the Protectorate’s city. This is the Protectorate’s jail to keep those whom have discovered their secrets over the centuries away from society. That’s why I’m here, why you are here, and why everyone else you see are here. We get to live with the full splendor of the technology that they have because we were able to either discover or reinvent some of it ourselves, but they will not allow it to be shared with The Cooperative.”

So the Protectors are keeping their technology to themselves to remain in power?”

Gerek smiled again at this, and shook his head.

The Protectors aren’t concerned with power…well, that’s not exactly true, but never mind that now. You still don’t understand the nature of their technology and what it is capable of if it were put in the hands of the sharing. If all of their technology were shared, if the rest of society had what the Protectors have, a mere stray thought might wipe out an entire planet. Or, as it were in the more recent case, an entire city.”

Gerek almost whispered that last word, and understanding dropped on Brax like a lightning bolt, and he stood up so fiercely that he almost fell over.

Patula?”

Yes.”

So, it was the Protector’s fault that the Accident happened, just like Shontesta thought might be the case!”

Gerek stood up to steady the boy—Brax was so close to being a grown man, but not quite yet, his father thought.

No, that’s not quite it, either. In fact, the fault could have been any of the people of that subtrans with you that day. The fact is we, and most likely they, just don’t know. It could be your fault, for all anyone knows.”

At this, Brax turned very pale. The look on his father’s face was such that he didn’t doubt that not only did Gerek believe this, but that he probably had good reason to accept it as true.

Who was responsible, and how, he asked himself. Could it possibly be my fault?

As this thought settled into him, Brax found that he didn’t quite believe this. He would not have thought to destroy a city, so it could not have been him.

Do you mean that someone intended to destroy the city?”

You know Brax, I only know so much myself. I don’t think it is that simple. The fact is that the nature of what caused the explosion is still beyond my understanding. I asked Menson about that, and he just looked at me. Either he doesn’t know, doesn’t want me to know, or, well, who knows….”

How could we find out?”

I don’t know, Brax.”

Brax hunkered down in his seat and felt dejected. He looked at his father and began to feel angry.

Why did they send me here? I haven’t discovered any secret technology.”

Well, you were involved with the group on Kasara.”

OK, then where is Ninnii? How about Gildeous? What about Shonny?”

From what I understand, you were the one trying to break into the temple on Kasara. I guess they took that as a sign that you were not going to give up.”

Right, and they send me directly into a jail, a prison for people that find out their secrets. That’s unjustified!”

Gerek looked at his son. He understood his frustration, but knew there was nothing he could do to help. Gerek knew how mad Brax would be at Mezar now. Brax would not quite understand that Mezar was not really Thalean anymore. Mezar, who had once been the famous Zuzek Damula and their distant ancestor, was now fundamentally different than either of them.

Gerek tried to imagine, again, what it would be like to be as old as Mezar was. He tried to imagine the things he had seen, done, and what it was like to be him now. Gerek knew enough to know that he had no basis of comparison to understand what it would be like, and so he chased away the thought.

Brax, this is home now. You might as well make the best of it. There are interesting people here, libraries of knowledge, games, women, drinks…. Brax, you can have whatever you want here.”

Except to go home.”

Yes, except that.”

They looked at one another for a moment, and then Brax stood up and walked away. He was angry and he didn’t want to talk to his father any longer.

He would not have imagined that seeing his father again would be like this. While he had been ecstatic to see him at first, this wore off as he understood where he was and what it meant.

The Protectorate was a collection of totalitarian oligarchs. Mezar had pretended to help him while opening the door to a cell. Brax had been so proud to have discovered the temple’s purpose, and felt special at being allowed inside. Now that he found that he was in a prison, he felt anger and resentment.

And so Brax found himself steaming mad as he walked around the town. He was too angry to appreciate its beauty or even to return the greetings of those he had passed. He had a chance to tell about his experiences the day before, but now this was all real, and he felt trapped.

He felt helpless.

He felt afraid.

He felt tears on his cheeks.

18. Tallania

Damula had no idea what to expect. But as his eyes adjusted to the light he found himself inside a small domed building identical to the one he was just in, only darker. He thought about what Camen had told him; that the people here would be friendly, so he suppressed a small amount of fear that crept into his stomach and took a step towards the open doorway.

It was night, partly overcast, but warm. He stopped just before the doorway and saw two figures outside, one on each side of the door with their backs to him. Their blue skin shined in the starlight, which was considerably brighter than he had ever seen before. The night sky was crowded with unfamiliar stars that peeked around scattered clouds. Halted by the many stars he could see through the mostly cloudy night as well as around the massive statue of some alien that looked a bit like Camen, he gaped at the alien landscape for a moment before he collected himself and slowly walked out of the doorway.

Their reactions were almost simultaneous and quite animated. They both jumped back and then froze in place looking at him, standing as still as he thought they were able. Damula did not move much himself, except to wave to each of them in turn and then greeted them.

Hello. I am not here to hurt you. I was sent here by Camen, from Kaset.”

The blue alien to Damula’s left was the first to speak. The gibberish that escaped its mouth was meaningless to Damula, and the alien seemed to pick up on this and he…Damula assumed it was male…merely stood up on it hind legs and slowly stepped towards the taller Thalean, who tried to maintain a smile. Then, the one on his right slowly walked—using both front and hind legs—slowly around Damula while scrutinizing him head to toe. Damula decided not to move or speak again until they had a chance to get a good look, hoping that looking would be the extent of it. He wanted to look as harmless and non-threatening as possible. Camen had said that they were friendly, but it had also been more than a century since they had been here, and who knows what could have changed since then.

The second alien, who Damula noticed was more of a greenish blue than blue, joined his blue friend in standing, and they spoke quietly to one-another. After a few moments of speech, the blue one started to run away, looking behind him as he ran at first, then fled at what looked like top speed towards one of at least two entrances through the wall that surrounded a stone-floored area.

Damula decided that slow movement would be OK, now, and as he turned to look at the domed building behind him—it looked almost exactly like the building he entered just a short while ago on Kaset—the alien followed his gaze, and said aloud, very clearly “Kas-A.

Kaset” is what Damula said in response, and the alien’s head began to bounce just a little, and he repeated, “Kas-At” And pointed at the statue of what appeared to be his Kasetian friend Camen, although the horns were smaller and he appeared a bit more plump than Camen had been.

Damula regarded the statue a moment longer then smiled at the word the alien had said. He saw what Camen had meant. The alien’s vocal chords…or whatever he had…were not quite structured to repeat the word quite right.

Damula decided to try to communicate some more, and decided to introduce himself. So, while pointing at his chest, he said “Zuzek Damula.”

The alien’s head tilted, and then it bounced a couple of times and it said, “Timir Zula. Timir!”

It’s nice to meet you, Timir!”

The alien’s head tilted again, but there was an ever-so-subtle bounce that remained. Damula tentatively guessed that this meant either that the Timir was pleased or something very similar, so Damula bounced his head a couple of times, noticing that his neck was not quite as flexible as Timir’s was. This gesture seemed to please Timir some, which prompted more head-bouncing.

For some time they stood there silently, Damula smiling and the alien humming some tune, and occasionally they exchanged curious looks and the alien bounced his head. Damula walked around the dome a little and found that the wall went around all sides, and after a little while the alien called to him and tugged him back a little.

Timir pointed towards where the other had run, and said “Pustid, Pustid Pirra!”

Damula was not sure what he meant, but then he saw that the other alien was returning, and guessed that it might be the other one’s name, or saying that he was coming back, or perhaps he was telling Damula to head to the execution chamber…Damula just didn’t know. Alongside the returning alien was another one who was decidedly green and with more ornate dress which looked like it had been thrown on in haste.

As they approached, Timir indicated his friend from earlier, who introduced himself, verifying that his name was indeed Pustid Pirra, and then the other, green alien walked right up to Damula, and in unison they all dropped down, bowing towards Damula and began to chant Kas-A and a few other words Damula couldn’t quite make out.

Damula was confused. He didn’t know what he was seeing. His brow furrowed, he could only speak while forgetting they would have no idea what he was saying.

What is this? Do not bow to me! Why would you do that? I’m not your master! I have come from Kaset, and…”

At that word, the green one stood up, and repeated the word as best he could, and then held out a…hand? It had fingers, of a kind anyway, but it wasn’t quite what Damula was used to seeing.

Vanini” it said. “Vanini Kas”

Zuzek Damula” was the Thalean’s response, reaching for Vanini’s hand. The skin was smooth, a bit colder than his own, but otherwise rather pleasant to touch. They held that greeting for a moment until Damula pulled his hand slowly away. What did Camen call them? Tallanians, or something like that?

Tallania?”

Vanini’s head tilted at this for a moment and then his head bounced feverishly, and a sort of laugh escaped his mouth.

Kasara” was his response. The alien swept his hand to indicate the surroundings and repeated the word emphatically “KASARA!”

You mean, this is not…not Tallania?”

Tallania…etey Kasara

Damula pondered this for a moment. Camen had called this place Tallania, but they had been gone for some time. It is quite possible that another nation had taken control of this land in the mean time. But the fact that the new name he was hearing seemed so close to ‘Kaset,’ it was possible that what he was saying was that this place was called Kasara in memory of the Kasetians who visited here. Damula desperately wanted to understand them, and so he dove in.

While holding his hands down to point to the ground, he said “Kasara,” to which they all gave a quick nod of what looked like agreement, and then indicated the horizon and said “Tallania?” to which they all suddenly halted nodding, and tilted their heads, almost in unison.

Vanini indicated the ground, imitating Damula, and said something that sounded like “shursta Kas-A” then indicated the horizon and repeated, once again, “Kasara.”

Damula suddenly understood. The name of the area, if not the whole nation or even world, was Kasara. Apparently, the presence of the Kasetians had had an impact on the society here on Tallania…or Kasara. Damula nodded, and they all seemed to understand well enough.

Vanini turned and motioned for all of them to follow, and Damula took his first few steps towards the entrance from where Vanini had entered. There was the slightest hint of dawn approaching almost directly ahead of them, and Damula gazed at the fading and unfamiliar star patterns that poked through the clouds as he followed the three Kasarians towards the entrance.

Vanini was thinking that he knew that the gods would return one day.

19. Memorial

One thing that Brax knew was that the Temple on Kasara had not taken him to Kaset. Kaset was a ball of dust ever since the first Nimri war, and this was no ball of dust. The fact was that nobody here knew where they were. The stars above didn’t help because the Protectors had managed to make them obscured by a planet-wide holographic projection that could mimic any star pattern—including any actual star pattern from other planets—that they wanted to. It changed nightly, creating a unique and dizzying experience under each canopy of night. And what was maddening about it was the knowledge that if the holographic projection ever disappeared, nobody could be sure. A lie so convincing that even the truth would not point to itself if presented.

Brax’s thoughts swam in the murky confusion of the last few days. On one hand, he was in a city of unimaginable luxury populated by some of the most interesting people in the known galaxy. In fact, as it turned out, the galaxy may not have been the limitation Brax assumed it would be. There was one citizen, a recluse, who was rumored to be from outside the limits of the galaxy, but nobody had ever seen it outside. Its home was perpetually opaque and the only people to enter were the Protectors, and only rarely. Everyone else was denied entrance, despite many requests for a meeting. Some wondered if anyone lived there at all.

And, on the other hand from that of the luxury and wonder of this place, the people here became its populace almost exclusively against their wills or had been born here. Many had either resigned to this fact or actually preferred it after some time, but a few wanted nothing more than to get back to their homes, families, and friends. The citizens—this term for the population didn’t sit well for Brax, but nonetheless that’s what they were—argued about whether this was a good way to live or not. It really came down to the person with their varieties of perspectives, and some simply were more interested in the easy life of luxury afforded here than anything they had outside. Others would take freedom over any luxury.

They called the place The City, mostly because this is how the Protectorate referred to it. It was not huge; although it did get larger the more people were there. Anything that the citizens needed was merely a thought away. Anything except something that could be used as some means of transport out of here, that is. Games, competitions, libraries of data and many other wonders were only as far as the desire to have them. In a sense, it was a paradise as far as prisons went. But of course the question was why this place was necessary at all; why were these people here?

There were a number of competing theories as to why the Protectors created and maintained this place. They all boiled down to the fact that the Protectors had technology that gave them powers of nearly unlimited scope and influence, and whenever anyone began to get too close to discovering any aspect of its mystery, they were put here so as to not allow this both wondrous and dangerous power to be acquired by anyone else. Outside of these walls the technology used by the Protectorate was a mystery of social disgrace to ponder. In reality, very few people actually cared, and those who might would find little to no place to requite such curiosity. Those who pushed this curiosity and who found the resources to answer to its calling usually ended up here or found jeers from the rest of society for their efforts.

This left two essential questions; what happened to people who tried to continue pursuing the technology here? From where did the Protectors acquire this technology themselves? The answer to the first is that they disappear, to where nobody knew. The answer to the second is that it was a technology passed down from a dead civilization. Not much was known about the particulars, but the people here had managed to put together many of the pieces. What confused everyone is why this must remain a secret, even here.

Brax sat on a bench near the edge of the city. He watched a sunset over some mountains to what must have been west, unless the sun was a holographic projection of some kind as well. There was no barrier. Nothing prevented anyone from merely walking out into the landscape. Apparently a few had already done so, a few ever came back, choosing to spend the rest of their lives wandering rather than remain prisoners even in luxury. Occasionally one or two would come back for visits, but they usually left again. This city had existed for nearly fourteen centuries, and many of the people here were the ancestors of those bought here. There were children too—although not many. It seemed to Brax that the only ones truly irate about being here were the ones who were brought here. For everyone else, it was all they knew. This was home.

Brax could not imagine thinking of this place as home. He had spent the past couple of nights meeting with people that had been brought here in the last hundred cycles or so. A couple of them had been acquainted with Ninnii Jullen and had asked about him. Some were surprised to find that the Protectors of Kas-A had survived, and were sad to find that its library had finally been found and apparently destroyed. Nobody seemed to blame Brax, as they had resigned to the belief that it was inevitable. The Protectors simply were too powerful. There simply was no fight to be had, and so they looked at Brax as the sufferer of a fate brought on by a power incomprehensible to them. A fate which was the will of the only few who had real freedom.

Although the Protectors rarely came to this place, over the centuries enough of them had visited to get an idea of what they looked like, how many there may be, and perhaps which ones were whom. The fact is that few were really sure about most of them. They had names, and they had been matched up to historical records as having served with the office of Protection during the first Nimri war, but up until a few days ago, nobody knew anything for certain about the one referred to as the ‘first,’ the one called Mezar, until Brax arrived. Gerek had known, but he had never chosen to reveal what he knew to the others to their recently cultivated consternation. Brax wasn’t quite sure why he had kept this piece of information to himself, and Gerek would give no clues.

The fact that it was Zuzek Damula didn’t surprise anyone, as many had guessed that to be the case already. But now that it was clearly true, it gave Brax and his father a sort of awkward position, considering that they were his descendents. Gerek had not received any obvious special treatment, nor did anyone look at him differently, but it was probably a point of embarrassment in a slight way. The fact that their ancestor had imprisoned both of them spoke volumes of the importance of family to Mezar, at least. At this point Brax wondered to what extent Mezar even identified himself as an ancestor of anyone. Who know how removed and distant two millennia would make a man from his roots and his family. For all anyone knew, Mezar’s relationship to the two of them was inconsequential to him. Yet, still….

Brax sat now with something else on his mind. His mind reeled with what he had seen earlier that day. He wasn’t quite sure what to make of it all, and so he just sat and watched the sun descend. He was not happy, and he couldn’t imagine himself being happy again for some time, if ever. As he looked to his left, he tried to see the dome, but it was beyond view from this location.

But it was there. Just south of The City was a large white dome. It was but a short walk to get there, and on the insistence of his father, Brax followed him there earlier without any explanation of what the building was or why Brax should visit it. Nonetheless, Brax agreed, and so they went….

The morning rain had ceased its cool cleansing of the streets. Brax walked behind his father with a look of both anticipation and curiosity. A few citizens watched them go past, and one looked at Brax with a bit of indiscernible emotion on his face. A Nisivalen had stopped in his conversation with a Bruuk, who had subsequently stopped to see why her smaller friend had halted. The Bruuk followed the gaze of her interlocutor’s distraction and noticed Brax walking behind Gerek, who she had known by sight (as most did), and so she also stopped to watch. Her large fur-covered hands were behind her back and she expressed a sympathy that confused Brax.

Why do they look at me like that, Gerek?”

His father winced at being called by his name. He wanted Brax to think of his as his father, but he understood why the boy was angry with him and tried not to let it bother him too much. So far he wasn’t successful at this. He stopped and turned to him, and tried to hide the sadness in his eyes.

It’s because they lament that you should be here. You are probably the youngest to arrive here, and they know who you are and what you’ve already endured with The Accident and with my disappearance. Come on Brax, let’s keep going.”

And where is that again? Why won’t you tell me what that dome is?”

Gerek didn’t respond, but merely turned back around and walked some more at a quick pace. Brax reluctantly followed, scuttling along to catch up. Gerek knew that the boy’s curiosity would overpower his stubbornness. Brax hated that this was true, and felt a new anger surge in him at this, but buried it deep so as to not give away any more to his father. Apparently he shared Shonny’s ability to read Brax, and it made Brax miss her. He hoped that she was alright. He hoped, for her sake, she would not end up here too. But he did miss her, so a darker part of him disputed this former desire.

As they approached the building, Gerek walked directly to a rounded portal that allowed them entrance, and then stopped to turn towards Brax.

This city has been here for a long time. And while our ancestor’s genetic engineering has allowed the five species to live far longer than we used to, we of course eventually die. Inside this building are memorials to those whom have died while imprisoned here. Each memorial contains data such as images, writings, and so forth to remember these people.”

Is there somebody in particular that we have come to see?”

Well, not exactly. I want you to spend some time and wander the dome. I want you to see if you find anything that looks odd or familiar to you.”

Brax tilted his head a bit. It was a habit he had picked up on Kasara, he suddenly realized. He didn’t like that his father was using his curiosity to manipulate his actions again. He also didn’t like that it was about to work.

What am I looking for?”

Just go inside. I’ll be wandering too. I like to come here and learn about people occasionally. It helps me gain perspective on what this place means and why we keep going. Just call for me if you want me.”

Gerek walked through the portal and stopped for a moment and seemed to consider a direction, and chose to walk towards his left. Brax felt apprehension rising, and shook it off and managed to walk towards the doorway and enter it as well. The dome was huge, and he didn’t doubt that it had actually grown as time went on.

That would mean that the older memorials would be towards the center, assuming it grows outwards, he thought. And with that, he walked straight ahead, looking towards his left to find his father reading some biography of a Diderondac. Brax couldn’t determine if Gerek was even paying attention to where the boy was headed, let alone if it was the right direction.

They were not alone inside either. Throughout the very large room there were at least three others, but they were wandering on their own, and Brax paid little attention to them. As he walked towards the center he looked closely at a few of them. Each memorial was a white pedestal with a holographic image of a person on top. They were evenly spread out throughout the entire floor and a name floated above each image. Brax scanned the many images and names but found none of them to be familiar. Brax did notice that, like The City, most of them were Thalean. It seemed that the mystery of the Protectors fascinated the Thaleans most of all, which was not surprising since it seemed that all of the Protectors were Thalean themselves as far as anyone knew. And then something caught his eye directly ahead of him, something that had been obscured by some columns around the center of the dome. Brax sped up and walked directly towards them.

The columns were deadly black, complementing the almost pure white walls of the dome. They were thick, nearly half the height of the center of the dome itself, and very heavily ornamented. They created a large circle in the center of the dome that contained no memorials, at least not the same kind. Brax couldn’t help but think of the temple on Kasara. With its circular walls surrounding it, as he approached.

But rather than a structure at the center there were several statues in a circle and facing outward, and Brax walked directly towards the closest one. It was a stout Thalean man who was a bit older. Brax read the name carved in the base; Hukain Masil. It was not a name that Brax recognized, and so he went to the next one to the left.

This one was a rather thin woman, also Thalean. As Brax took a quick glance around at the statues he noticed that they all looked Thalean. As he read the name his eyes widened; Nadia Sepri, it said. That was a name that he recognized, but he couldn’t quite place it, and so he quickly moved to the next. This was another portly man who was decorated in a form of military uniform that Brax recognized from historical images, and as he saw the name his eyes grew wider. This was Halen Milinos! This was a name that Brax knew, and it put in place the previous name. This was the Supreme Commander of the Thalean military during the Nimri war who had been killed in action along with many of the high officials of the time during a Nimri raid on Thalea.

Brax hurried to the next statue and was not a bit surprised to see the name of Carron Wulliter, and as Brax continued around the circle, he saw a woman of medium build who Brax recognized even without the name. This was Yeri Jasmi, the woman who was the mother to some ancestor of his more than 2000 cycles ago that carried the name Damula. This was Brax’s great, great…Brax wasn’t sure how many greats there were there…this was a grandmother of sorts to Brax.

Why would these people be here? Brax thought. These people died many hundreds of cycles before this place existed. “Were these people ever here?”

No.”

Gerek had somehow managed to sneak behind Brax, who had been too distracted by this discovery to notice, and Brax turned suddenly to face him as Gerek leaned against one of the columns.

None of these people were ever here. But their statues are here for a very good reason, and that’s what I have come here to show you.”

From what I remember reading, Milinos and those who led the defense against the Nimri that broke through the defenses at the end of the war were killed. So what do they have to do with this place?”

History only records some of what that group did. It is true that they died while defending Thalea, and thus they have a place of reverence in history, but they are here as a reminder.”

Of what?”

They are a reminder that if they had never died, the Protectors may have never returned and the Nimri may have won the war and Thalean civilization, and perhaps the rest as well, may have ceased. We have to remember that while we have very good reasons to be angry with our imprisonment, had it not been for the Protectors over the centuries, the Nimri would still be a threat to us. It is a reminder that the Protectorate has our welfare in mind, which is why this place exists.”

So, we just forget and forgive everything else because they saved us in ancient history from a civilization that no longer exists?”

Gerek didn’t reply immediately. Instead, he looked at Brax and a smile crept onto his face that he quickly suppressed. There was something in that smile, but before Brax could consider what it might be, his father continued.

No, Brax, it’s that this is not simple. There are reasons why the Protectors keep us here, and it’s not simply because they want their power. Believe me, if they had their choice, they would have just stayed away and left us to our own power—in fact, a few have, but that’s another story for another time. It is a reminder that some of them have sacrificed much of themselves to stay behind and to protect us. For a while, it was to protect us from the Nimri, and now it is to protect us from something else.”

And what would that be?”

They are trying to make sure that we don’t become like them.”

Exactly, they are trying to maintain their power!”

No, Brax…you don’t understand. They don’t want us to become like them because what they are is dangerous, and they remain in order to make sure that this danger doesn’t become common.”

Dangerous how? Look at the wonders of this place, the technology here, and what they could do. Imagine if we all had that!”

Yes Brax, please do. Imagine if we all had their power.”

Brax paused for a moment. He tried to imagine a world where everyone could have the powers that a Protector had. The complexities of the thought clogged his imagination in a way that made his head hurt, and Gerek seemed to pick up on this.

Brax, have you ever been really angry?”

Brax looked at Gerek suspiciously, and Gerek continued.

Have you ever lost control of your emotions and broke something, said something hurtful, or simply stomped a little too hard?”

Brax steeled himself against his anger, trying not to allow it to answer for him.

Yes, you probably have—especially if you have the temper of a Damula. Now imagine having that kind of ability. Imagine what type of damage you could inflict when you have an intense amount of power at your disposal and you lose composure for just a moment. Imagine what an overzealous ‘stomping’ by a Protector would amount to.”

Brax shifted uncomfortably, his anger subsiding a little. Still, Brax could not bring himself to speak yet.

Even now, you can’t maintain composure just in a simple conversation. Now imagine how you would feel if a close friend died, and you knew who caused it.”

And at this Brax’s anger dissipated rapidly. He stood up erect and his mind traced the patterns of what lay before him. He knew why these statues were here and why they mattered so much. And finally he was able to speak.

Mezar.”

Gerek nodded.

Damula, Zuzek Damula had a temper, didn’t he?”

Very much so. I see the same in you as well…”

And he lost his temper at some point, didn’t he?”

Many times, no doubt.”

But one time it had consequences.”

That’s an understatement.”

OK, but what…what could it have been—and don’t tell me, let me guess…”

Brax sat on the edge of the statue’s base behind him and rested his head in his hands. Gerek walked closer and sat on the floor near him.

Well, I’m guessing that he found out that the Nimri attacked Thalea and attacked the Nimri in some way, but the Nimri came back again after a century, so he didn’t destroy all of them at that point…”

You are on the right track, at least, Brax.”

Right, right…hold on…. But wait, why did the Protectors allow the Nimri to get close enough to Thalea to attack in the first place. If they had the power to do something destructive, why wasn’t the war over earlier?”

Gerek smiled at this and shifted his position to lean closer to the boy, who reciprocated the gesture.

Imagine that you were born blind or deaf. How would you make sense of images or sounds with your new-found senses if you were given implants after cycles of life rather than as a baby?”

Brax seemed confused by the question, and looked at the man seated before him with bewilderment.

Now imagine that the sense you suddenly were given was insanely more complex than sight or hearing, and that it was given to you along with a host of other senses at the same time, and along with these senses was the ability to manipulate those things you sensed in ways that you had no previous experience with.”

I don’t understand the point of these questions. What does this have to do with my question?”

Brax, what the Protectors have is not merely technology, although that is essential to what they are, what they have is a completely different consciousness. They perceive things in ways we simply cannot begin to understand and thus became something different. Imagine how long that type of shift would take to adjust to.”

OK, so they had to adjust, so when they did adjust, why didn’t they simply come in and clean up the Nimri?”

Gerek could only look at the boy. He was so young. Brax simply could not understand what was being explained to him, and Gerek knew that there was plenty of time for it anyway, and so he decided to allow the subject to drop.

Brax, some day you may understand. And if you do, you’ll know why the Protectors don’t want you to understand. But by then, it will be too late.”

He then paused for a moment to stand up. Brax looked at him quizzically, and Gerek smiled again.

Son, one day you’ll learn that there are some things that when known, cannot be unknown. And those things will forever change your perspective on the world. If you knew half of what I know about the Protectors, you would not want to know any more.”

And how do you know?”

Gerek looked suddenly very tense at this. Gerek seemed to consider his response, and then looked intensely into Brax’s eyes.

Because when I first met Mezar after being here for a few weeks, I insisted that he explain to me why this place was necessary. I insisted that he give me a good reason why we should be protected from their mysteriousness.”

And what did he tell you?”

Gerek sighed deeply. He knew that the boy would not give up on this just as he had not given up when challenging Mezar those many cycles ago. He rubbed at his forehead and looked at the floor, and he could feel the boy’s frustration and impatience. Finally he lowered his hand and looked at the boys face. It was so young, so angry, and so familiar. Gerek sighed once more and then bit his lip.

He didn’t say anything. Instead, he projected a memory of his into my mind. It was a memory of the moment he learned that Yeri Jasmi and the rest enshrined here had been killed. He was on Kaset when he lost his temper, destroying the entire surface of the planet with a mere thought of stray anger. He had flexed a muscle he didn’t even know he had yet, and the result was to make every last piece of the surface of that planet to disintegrate. Had it not been for…well, for the one training him and the others, he and some of the others may have all died and we would have lost much of what allowed us to fight back and eventually, hundreds of cycles later, defeat the Nimri.”

Wait, who was training them?”

Gerek’s expression told Brax that this was a line that would not be crossed right now, and Brax had too much to digest anyway, and decided to not pursue this question now. But as Brax looked at his father and began to understand a little, he felt a kind of anxiety creep into him as another thought occurred to him.

Is that what happened to Patula, at least something like it?”

No, I don’t think it was anything like that…at least not exactly. That’s more complicated. But what Mezar learned that day was that he was not ready for the power he had been given. And, as far as I know, he has never forgotten about that day and the people that died as a result. That was the day he disappeared, and nobody except the other Protectors saw him again for more than a century. The man you met just recently is a man who has spent more than 2000 cycles in perpetual concern for what he and his kind are capable of. He is a man who simply will not allow anyone else to gain what he and the others have gained, because he does not trust the fragile and temperamental minds of people. And to be honest, I sometimes agree with him.”

Gerek turned towards the column and seemed to inspect it bottom to top, and then looked over his shoulder at Brax.

There are truths that people don’t want to be true. And they will fight these truths to the detriment of those around them, as well as themselves. But they are true nonetheless, and because of this arrangement of facts we must keep people in the illusion that these truths are in fact not true.”

Brax only looked at him. This all sounded like jumbled nonsense to him, and Gerek could read this thought off of Brax’s face. Gerek merely looked back at the top of the column, and then walked towards a pedestal and began interacting with the data about some Thalean woman whose name Brax could not read from where he was. Brax sat more frustrated and angry than he wanted to be. He had been raised to believe that all information, all truth, should be shared. Now, it seemed, his father was telling him that there were some things that were not true but that we thought were true. It all sounded like meaningless ancient Bruuk philosophy to him. It seemed like pseudo-profound doublespeak, and Brax didn’t like hearing it from a Thalean who had spent most of his life in pursuit of understanding. Something had happened to his father in here.

Brax decided that he would not submit to this apparently self-defeating point of view, and to pursue his path of understanding. Perhaps his father had resigned to this view while here. If so, Brax would not allow himself to follow in those footsteps.

He simply had to find the truth.

This thought reverberated in Brax’s mind as the sunset finished its show. After a few days here, he had found that many here had expressed thoughts similar to his father. It seemed, to Brax, that they had simply resigned themselves and that they had been defeated by the imprisonment of this place. There was also a certain kind of arrogance and self-importance here, as if they had been chosen among the multitude as special. And suddenly Brax thought that maybe, just maybe, this was a truth that those here had convinced themselves of. Perhaps it was the kind of truth that wasn’t true, but that one would find easy enough to convince oneself of in certain situations.

It was at this moment that Brax started to understand what his father had said to him. It led him to thoughts that he wished he hadn’t had, and to conclusions that he wished he couldn’t have reached.

The truth was that he didn’t think he would trust anyone to have the kind of power that Mezar and the others had, but that he knew that almost everyone would choose it for themselves. The truth was that he wanted it himself even while knowing this. He also knew that others would feel the same way. He also began to realize that this was but one of the inner sanctums of a larger prison of which the Protectors were wardens; The Cooperative itself was a sort of prison, only very few realized it.

Layers of truth. It was true that those here had convinced themselves that they were chosen to be here, that they were special. It was true that they were prisoners. It was true, perhaps, that they had always been prisoners. It was true that the memorial was the only escape from this place.

The past was the only way out, but the past was already written. All one could hope for was a better understanding of what had been to better understand where one was. And that was not a kind of salvation unless there was something in that knowing that could be used…something that was being hidden from view.

What was it his father had said? There are truths that people don’t want to be true. And they will fight these truths to the detriment of those around them, as well as themselves. But they are true nonetheless, and because of this arrangement of facts we must keep people in the illusion that these truths are in fact not true.

What if there was something else? And what if that something else was the actual truth, a truth which must be kept from Brax and presented as untruth? What did Gerek know? What was being hidden?

Brax’s curiosity was overwhelmed, and he knew of no way to satisfy it. But he had to try.

20. Kasara

Damula found himself seated at a table in a chair that was not quite large enough for him. There seemed to have been some confusion, because while someone was expected, it was not him. The chair he was initially led to seemed to have been designed for a Kasetian, and it was very quickly pointed out that this visitor didn’t have the requisite body plan to sit in it. This Kasetian chair now sat useless against the wall behind him.

So far, that was about all that Damula had put together from the gesticulations and conversations around him. He was surrounded by dozens of Kasarians who had come to see the visitor that had come through the portal. At this point, Damula wasn’t sure what they understood about the portal, but doubted that they understood how it worked or where it went. The only obvious fact that was that Vanini was in charge here.

The massive structure they were in, built into the side of a rock-face and exquisitely carved and shaped to indicate that these were not primitive cave-dwellers but rather a people whose architecture obviously differed significantly when compared to Thalean sensibilities. Damula didn’t find it the slightest pleasing, but he did appreciate the immense effort it would have taken to carve the intricate, yet chaotic, patterns in these walls and ceilings.

He was at the apex of a very large wooden table that was generally triangular in shape, although it was more rounded than that. Vanini sat next to him and held the attention of most of the room, although a few were talking quietly among themselves. Something of consequence was happening here, but Damula was not sure exactly what it was. His presence was assuredly the root cause, but there seemed to be more than that at stake.

Damula was no linguist, but it hardly mattered. The chittering and chattering noises that surrounded him were a symphony of chaos. Whispered voices echoed off the walls of this great hall in a way that made the soft noises dancing around the room seem like giants talking through some cracks in the wall, unseen yet not reticent.

Picking out a strange language was not a natural ability for Damula, or most Thaleans for that matter. Thalea only had two languages, and nearly everyone spoke the primary language which was the chosen form of communication for politics and the sharing. Damula didn’t speak more than a few phrases of the language of the southern continent, and so what he was hearing now was more than just alien to him, it seemed somehow perverse. His inability to understand made him a little anxious, but he tried to listen to every word closely with frustrated annoyance.

In front of him was a plate of something that must have been food. It did not look like more than a mush of green and orange plants with a green sauce over it and yet it didn’t look completely unappetizing either. Nonetheless Damula was not hungry. Even if he was, his concentration was with the sounds around him; he was more focused on listening. He could not make out much, but what he did catch was the words kas and Kas-A quite often.

Vanini was answering what looked like questions from many of those present, and was in the middle of an impassioned response when suddenly he fell silent and stood up as he noticed that there was a small group that had just entered, apparently led by another Kasarian who was also decorated with similar dress as Vanini, and the two of them looked at one another as a tension very clearly settled on the room.

As the whispers died down, many in the room looked at this exchange of stares, and a few began to leave the room, slowly as if to not draw attention to themselves. Vanini turned his body completely towards the doorway that housed this oppositional Kasarian and his cohorts, and as they both stood, unmoving and unwavering in their gazes, the room fell deadly silent. There were no whispers now. The unseen giants had apparently been struck silent at this as well. Damula felt a prickle of tension in the back of his neck, and it caused a subtle shiver that traced his spine.

After a few moments of this, the new-comer spoke a few words and the rest of those present started to make their way out of the room, giving the newcomer a wide berth as they passed. It was a sea of movement centered by two immobile Kasarians who did not break their gaze upon one-another as the current went by. After some time, Damula looked back and forth between the two of them. He wasn’t quite sure how to tell the sexes apart, but he was pretty sure that both of them were male. And as the last left the room, closing a large door and leaving only the three of them inside, the newcomer finally broke his intense stare upon Vanini and regarded Damula for the first time.

Kera sesh Kas-A” was what Damula heard.

Kera sesh Kas-A, kereta gul Kas-A!” was Vanini’s response.

At that the second Kasarian tilted its head and approached the table, and sat a few chairs away from Vanini. Vanini then turned to Damula and seemed to expect something, when nothing came, the other spoke up.

Ferretta Kas.”

Damula looked from Vanini to the other.

I don’t understand.” Seeing that he was not understood, Damula tilted his head, guessing that this was an indication of displeasure or misunderstanding. He was quickly learning that a significant part of their language was based on head-movements, which despite being quite foreign was quite simple and elegant to him. Seeing this head movement, even with its thick Thalean accent, they seemed to understand enough and the unfamiliar Kasarian straightened up a little, this time pointing a finger towards a chest that was decked out in some sort of finely weaved pattern of title.

Ferretta Kas,” he repeated, obviously emphasizing the second word. This Kasarian was apparently named Ferretta, and was either a relative of Vanini or a fellow leader, sharing the title of Kas. Damula thought that the latter was more likely, although it was possible that either or even both were true. He had known relatives to be this cold to one-another in just this fashion, especially when they were in competition.

Kas,” Damula started. “kas means leader? Governor?”

He didn’t expect an answer, but he had to start to communicate in some way. However, neither of them responded. Instead, Ferretta looked at Vanini with what looked like confusion and possibly annoyance. Vanini said something soft to him, and Ferretta stood up suddenly and turned away from both of them as his breathing deepened and a sort of sigh escaped his mouth as he looked away. When he turned back around, he threw his forelimbs in the airs and shouted,

Kera sesh Kas-A! Sesh Kozar? Sesh Vishi? Sesh Makin, Sesh Bombath? Tuyin?”

Damula stood up at this; these were words he knew. Damula considered this and regarded the excited Ferretta with some unease while he spoke slowly.

Tuyin, Bombath, Vishi, Makin, Kozar. These are the Kaset! What do you know about them?”

Suddenly they both looked astonished, and Vanini was the first to speak.

Vishi?”

Damula wasn’t quite sure what he was being asked, but he had a good guess that Vanini was asking Damula if he were one of the Vishi. Not being quite sure, he decided to run with this assumption and see where it led. Damula tilted his head, and as Vanini named each of the nations of Kaset in turn, Damula tilted his head to each. He figured this was sufficient to say no to his assumed interpretation of the question, and they seemed to be confused when, upon naming all five nations, he said no to each in turn, assuming that this attempt was sufficient in identifying himself as none of them. And then Damula remembered that these people may have known Camen, or at least remembered him from historical records, and so he decided to throw this name into the pot as well.

I know Camen. Camen….”

Camen, Camen sesh Kas-A!”

Damula, starting to understand, replied by speaking very slowly with what he hoped would be the appropriate response, starting by pointing to his chest.

Damula. Zuzek Damula. Damula sesh Thalean. Camen sesh Kozar. Vanini sesh Tallanian…sorry, Vanini sesh Kasarian. Also, Ferretta sesh Kasarian.”

As he spoke, each of their heads began to bob more feverishly, and Damula began to feel a surge of confidence as he didn’t even bother to suppress a smile, and added a couple of head-bobs for good measure.

Vanini touched Damula’s arm and looked at him with what looked like warmth.

Damula. Thalean. Camen. Camen murdet?” is what he said. Damula didn’t exactly understand, but it sounded like a question about Camen, and so Damula thought of how to respond.

Camen is in trouble,” coupled with an expression of concern that was amplified. They didn’t seem to understand the expression, and so Damula tilted his head and repeated the name Camen, which caused them to tilt with him, and they both appeared distraught. Damula then realized he may have over-stated the trouble, and with his hands motioned a shape of a dome, and continued,

Camen, the dome, the portal, the, um, hmmm…”

Camen seshi shursta?” was what Ferretta said, apparently with some trepidation.

Shursta?” Damula continued to arc his hands in the air making a dome shape with them.

Vanini imitated the motion with a bit more dexterity and seemed to confirm that the dome was indeed called a shursta, and this was how Damula began, ever so slowly, to explain that Camen was on the other side of the portal and that there was some danger with him. This seemed to confuse them and even to cause them to argue too quickly for Damula to make any sense of. There was obviously some history of conflict between these two leaders, and it seemed that it was being played out in front of him.

But in between bouts of argumentation that Damula could not make sense of, he was able to listen and learn. Their language was not very different from his own, having similar syntax, and so he tried to communicate with frustrating sluggishness. And as the hours waned, Damula began to feel tired and hungry. He took advantage of the plate of food left for him which he found to taste better than it looked, and so he finished the entire plate while he tried to explain the situation as best he could.

He began to notice that he was not the only tired person in the room, and so Damula made an attempt to communicate his desire to rest. After a few attempts, he managed to get his point across and was led to a chamber where he was eventually left alone. As he lay back on a bed that was harder and shorter than what he would have preferred, he looked up at an intricate ceiling swimming with images of what may have been flowers, vines, and possibly animals. He thought about the tremendous day he was having, and after a few moments of trying to convince himself this was actually happening, he found that the black of sleep overtook him. He slept hard and did not dream.

When he awoke, it was dark again. He arose, his back a bit tense from the hard bed, and approached a window that looked onto a courtyard of sorts. There were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people—Kasarians—down there, and he had little doubt that the news of his arrival had spread and they had come to see him. As he leaned a little out the window, a few apparently noticed, and many limbs indicated his position and a sort of murmur overtook the crowd.

He had slept through the later part of the day, and now the light had faded and there were a few stars that peeked through clouds, and a light rain fell. In the distance was thunder, and there were faint flashes in the sky, but he saw no lightning bolts themselves; the storm was not yet in striking distance. Suddenly he remembered that Camen had requested that he return once a day, and so Damula decided that enough time had passed, and he headed straight for the door and opened it.

As he exited he startled a guard that stood next to the door, compelling Damula to apologize, and the blue-skinned Kasarian bowed and backed away slightly. Damula was annoyed at this. He was getting tired of this bowing that he ran into everywhere he went so far, but he said nothing and walked towards the hall where they had talked earlier.

As he entered, passing two bowing Kasarians guarding the door, he found the room empty. Damula turned to one of the guards and, seeing that he was still bowing, he tapped his foot once to get his, or her…he just wasn’t sure…attention.

Hey, you! Where is Vanini? Vanini? Ferretta?”

Looking up at the words to see he was being addressed, the guard stood and gave a sort of grunt and turned to walk down the hall. The other Kasarian remained bowing, but snuck a peek now and then at Damula under a sort of brow.

You! You don’t need to do that. Please, stand up straight to me, I don’t want this bowing that you are doing.”

Seeing that the words meant nothing to the Kasarian guard, Damula slowly approached and as he did so, the Kasarian seemed to look nervous, and so Damula slowed down even more.

I will not hurt you. Look at me.”

And pointing to his eyes, he repeated.

Look at me.”

And the Kasarian did so, and started to straighten up but then corrected itself to remain bowing. Damula gently touched its shoulder, which was padded with a kind of armor, and Damula nudged the shoulder up, and the Kasarian did not resist. Damula guided the guard into a standing position, and there was a subtle bob of the guard’s head that seemed to imply both relief and reverence, and Damula nodded briefly, which was his version of the same bob, and it was requited with more energetic bobbing.

As the other guard returned with Vanini, the guard returned to its still pose next to the door, and Vanini touched the guard’s shoulder gently, and the guard looked at him, and they dipped their head in unison, and Vanini turned to Damula.

I slept well. Thank you!”

There was no response, and no indication that understanding was received, only a gesture to sit down. But Damula didn’t have time for more conversation, he wanted to return to Kaset.

No, I need to go. I need to go to the dome, the shursta. Damula seshi shursta.”

At first, Vanini tilted his head, but then he seemed to understand and he quickly motioned with a quick order for the guards to lead the way, and Vanini gave Damula the slightest of tugs and Damula followed. They descended the giant rock stairway and walked through a small gathering of decorated Kasarians who were talking in a large room that led to the enormous door that led to the courtyard and out of the structure. And then Damula remembered the crowd out there, and thought that this might take some time to get through.

As Vanini approached the door, he shouted a command and four Kasarian guards quickly unlatched and opened the doorway. As the door opened, Damula saw a distant flash of lightning illuminate the crowd some, which was replaced by the mostly dark of the dimly lit courtyard. There were artificial lights, but they were few. Some in the crowd had lights of their own, and as the doors opened they all turned towards the entrance and, one-by-one, they all bent to their knees and bowed.

Vanini, I don’t want them to bow to me. If they are bowing to me, they should stop now.”

Vanini looked at Damula with a perplexed look, and seemed like he was about to speak when the guard Damula had spoken to earlier tapped his forelimb and whispered something to him. At this, Vanini looked at Damula with a tilting bob—he had not seen that one before, Damula thought—but there seemed to be understanding this time. Then Vanini stepped forward and, giving a signal, was handed a small device. Vanini held it to his mouth and began speaking, having the sound amplified through speakers throughout the courtyard.

Damula didn’t know what he said, but he had a very good guess. As Vanini spoke, the crowd began to return to standing, whether on two limbs or four, and a path was formed that would allow access out of the structure and towards the portal. Upon seeing this, Vanini returned the device to the guard that handed it to him and Vanini motioned for Damula to follow, and he did.

As they moved through the crowd, all eyes were on the Thalean visitor. A few, especially in the front, bowed anyway, and they were gently reminded by their neighbors not to do so, and were pulled back up. Damula didn’t know exactly what all this was about, but he didn’t like it in any case.

As they approached the gates that led out of the courtyard, Vanini grabbed a post out of the ground that had a light attached to the top. He grabbed another and handed it to Damula who took it, and they began walking towards the outside wall surrounding the portal, the shursta. It was dark, but the occasional flash in the sky compensated for that and Damula caught glimpses of mountains in the distance. He had not noticed them before, and now that he did he looked closer and saw that hey were dotted with lights. It seemed that there was a city of some sort in those mountains, but what he could see was mostly empty, rocky plains. And as a louder thunderclap followed a flash, Damula thought that the storm was moving closer, and he increased his walking speed, making Vanini have to try and keep up.

As they approached the outer walls Damula was able to appreciate the beauty of the architecture from the outside this time. The portal was surrounded by ornamentation that would have been unnatural for his own people to bother with, but there was a subtle sense to it all. He didn’t understand what was so important about the portal that warranted the effort, but a part of him understood the desire to decorate things with unnecessary flair. Another part of him scoffed at the inefficiency and absurdity of it all. The two instincts left a sour dissonance in his mind that he allowed to take residence for a moment as he slowed down to take a closer look at a stone statue of a well-dressed Kasarian in a regal pose.

Vanini stopped to observe this and Damula turned to meet his gaze and there was a moment where Damula thought he saw understanding in this look. He was realizing that his inability to understand these people—their language, their gestures, and even their expressions—was not gone but for that moment he thought he understood this man and he felt understood. Damula let loose a slight smile and returned to his quick pace towards the portal.

They walked through one of the four entrances around the portal and quickly moved towards the dome itself as he felt the first rain drops fall. He could hear the rain hitting earth behind him and knew that soon it would be upon them, but this concerned him little. The rain felt good in the warm air, and soon enough he would be on another planet where is had been much cooler and he knew not what awaited him there. He had a momentary fear of finding his crew dead there, and the Nimri waiting for him.

As they reached the entrance to the portal, Vanini apparently verbally commanded the guards from bowing and they moved to the side a bit instead. There was what looked like confusion on their faces as they stood aside, and Vanini turned to Damula and put a hand over his eyes to block the increasing rainfall.

Damula. Damula gul Kozar. Damula fetran?”

Damula didn’t understand the question. And rather than try and hammer home the message that he would come back in a short while, assuming he could, he touched Vanini’s shoulder gently, and smiled. Vanini returned the gesture with a bob of the head and then it dipped reverently and then rose again. Damula laughed briefly, handed one of the guards his light, and turned towards the entrance and stepped through. He noticed the three Kasarians watch him very intently, and as Damula moved towards the center he felt the portal powering up and in a flash he found himself, once again, on Kaset.

The door to the portal on this side had been opened, and there was no sign of the Kozarian—no Kasetians of any kind. Camen had not returned yet, it seemed. The room was noticeably cooler and as his eyes adjusted he could see daylight outside. It appeared to be a sunny and beautiful day, if not a little cold, and he could see evidence of a small camp set up near the entrance with at least one guard at the door, keeping watch. As he walked towards the door he saw that it was a female, probably officer Yessin Burn, one of his top security officers. Damula stood on the inside of the door and called to her.

Yessin, how are things on this end?”

She turned to him with weapon drawn, but in seeing that it was him, she smiled warmly and lowered her arms.

Good to see you, sir.”

She then turned towards the camp and shouted to a man whose back was to them and was apparently busy talking with who looked like Bon Cesten, an engineer that had joined them on this expedition.

Officer Visti, Damula has returned.”

At this, the dark red complexion of Damula’s head of security, Natak Visti, turned and approached them. It wasn’t long before another man joined him, and Damula saw that it was his second in command, Officer Menson Willem.

21. Gildon

Months. It didn’t feel that long; it felt longer. Brax had created a space for himself that felt like home, but whenever he stepped outside he felt uncomfortable. Thus, these days, he spent a lot of time inside, hiding. What he was hiding from was not clear to him. He only knew that he didn’t want to be outside.

What was one to do with imprisonment? How do you spend your time while in the luxury of this place with nowhere to go? At first, he had tried to embrace it and learn all he could, but eventually he just would sit with this information at his fingertips and stared into space rather than devour it. He would walk aimlessly, get drunk with some people and talk about nothing, and then one day he just didn’t want to. Not that he didn’t want to do anything in particular, he just didn’t want to.

He spent a considerable amount of time playing games. He was fond of puzzles, and decided to distract himself from his situation by playing games, solving puzzles, and other assorted mildly intellectual distractions. He played for hours, these days, and visitors showed up less frequently. He slept. He slept a lot and at odd times of day. While inside his space, which was most of the time and which he kept opaque, he was never quite sure what time of day it was.

There was a dullness that had settled on him that he hardly noticed. And when he did notice it, the simple fact was that he didn’t care. What did it matter, anyway? He couldn’t really go anywhere, so why bother doing anything? But there was something…something calling from inside his skull. There was a drive that was so hidden, so buried under his dullness that he hardly heard it anymore. And so he spent his days ignoring this dry, dull, distant screaming from deep inside him.

What was most frustrating to him was that he just didn’t know where he was. The planet simply could have been anywhere. For all he knew, they were on Thalea at a place artificially created by the Protectorate and hidden. It was not, Brax now understood, beyond them to do so. The gravity was close enough (as if they couldn’t manipulate that), the length of day was similar (could they manipulate that easily?), and some of the plant-life was certainly Thalean. There simply was not enough data to conclude where they were, and this was maddening to Brax.

Of course, he was not the first to be frustrated by this question and to try and solve it, but for a while the question kept his mind occupied. He had given up this pointless endeavor weeks ago, but he was still restless about it. Occasionally he would look up at the ceiling and imagine it simply exploding outwards, exposing the true sky and then he realized that it would likely just be a hologram. What was the point in going outside when even the outside was inside?

He had not found answers to the questions that had motivated him at first, and the frustration had become overwhelming to the point of, well, to just not wanting to.

The luxury of this place was not what he wanted, and he understood why so many had left for the wilderness; that was preferable to this imprisonment of ease. And while he had explored and spent some time with those that had left the city, he found that many of the people that lived there to be largely unstable and uninteresting, driven sometimes to semi-madness over the decades or centuries. He saw that they were losing a sense of reality, and Brax feared that the same was true of those that remained in the city as well, but in a vastly different way. There was a sense of almost forgetting that there was an outside world. Most didn’t pay attention to any information that came in from the political changes, competitions, or changes in culture. Some still spoke the older dead languages which the Cooperative had forgotten centuries before, perhaps in an attempt to remain home in some sense.

But for most of them, the home they remembered was gone. What remained was a homogenous culture of froth and superficiality. And what was worse was that not much was different here. In some ways, it was worse in here than outside. When one puts a lid on your cage, pretty much all you can do is eat the free food, water, and interact with the other animals. This was a sort of zoo, and they were the cared-for pets of the gods—the Protectors—who were protected from most harm as well as the excitement (or dullness) of freedom.

Some of the citizens of The City had been here for hundreds of cycles, and Brax had no way to understand what they had been through yet, but felt the pressure of coming time impede upon his youth. His youth was not unknown to him, especially here, but in a sense he felt old. He felt as if his youth was a mere facade made of scraps, because in a sense this was a sort of community for the retired, the infirm, when in fact these were the best of the best. The best at standing out and thus smacked down, preserved, protected.

He had time, so much time, and it was all to be spent here, in a city of confined dissidents. And right now it just didn’t sit well with him.

Brax was playing a very old simulation game. It was one he had found in the archives that was based on a two-dimensional screen but had somehow been complex enough to still be enjoyed by people even at a place where entire rooms and environments can be created either virtually or actually. Most of those that distracted themselves played games involving the large rooms that created changing environments. Brax had tried some of these and they were quite impressive, but as time strolled on he felt less like being around those people, as if they reminded him of the inevitability of all of this. These days he preferred his own company, where he chose what he saw and when; a sort of way to control his world so as to not be too aware of it all. It was an ironic escape from prison, to imprison oneself even further.

As he advanced to the next stage, he paused the game and decided to stand up and stretch his legs. Finding them sufficiently stretched, he found himself restless and decided to take a walk through The City for a little while. He called it The Prison in his mind, and he knew that he was not the only one who did so. He saved his game progress and the desk, monitor, and chair he was using disappeared. The bed remained. He had decided to leave it there permanently a while back because it reminded him of home. It was designed to look exactly like his bed at Shonny’s, although it was decidedly more comfortable. This was insignificant as a trade-off.

As he left his space he noticed it was very early in the morning and the sun seemed blindingly bright. He had stayed up all night again, and probably slept most of the previous day but couldn’t be sure about that. He stretched his arms above his head and yawned. As he did so, he noticed that he was in need of a shave—a fact that was taking some getting used to by itself, having not needed to do do at all until quite recently. He concentrated for a moment and a subtle buzzing sensation brushed his cheeks and neck as the hairs were removed and his face returned to its youthful smoothness. He tilted his head to pop his neck and started to walk in a seemingly random direction as he started to feel a little energy emerge from his inactive legs.

He started towards the center of town, while not having any particular destination in mind. He just suddenly needed to walk, to move, and to be somewhere else.

The day was bright and warm already, and birds flew above him and perched along the buildings to either side. Brax was glad that they were not lulu birds. That was something, at least. It turns out that the pain of a memory, even when that memory turns out to be based on a hoax, does not merely go away at the truth. Even though he had always associated the song of lulu birds with the death of his father, finding his father alive did not take the edge from that song. Truth, Brax thought, is rarely associated with a mind imprisoned by the fear and grief brought about by fantasies in childhood. Even fantasies are indistinguishable from what is real when they are held onto long enough, it seems.

As Brax neared an open grassy area surrounded with benches, he decided to find a place to sit and observe people for a while. He liked to watch people. He found their behavior fascinating yet predictable to some degree. Yet, the degree beyond which he could predict was a point of perpetual interest to him, and so he watched and extended the reach of those limits.

As Brax entered the grassy circle, he eyed an open bench directly across from him. Some were sitting on the other benches or grass with books, textpads, or sat idly. Others talked to friends, while sitting or strolling, and a few were playing some game that involved a small ball they were keeping in the air by use of their feet. Brax found his empty bench and sat down with his arms crossed in front of him. He suddenly didn’t know why he bothered to sit at all, and thought about going back to his game. He felt out of place, alien even, surrounded by these people. He couldn’t comprehend their apparent acceptance of their imprisonment with their smiles, laughter, and contentedness. He was considering getting up again and returning to his space but a lethargic numbness overtook this impulse.

As he watched the game with the ball to his right, a small group of people walked in front of him talking and laughing. Brax hated to see people laugh here because it sounded false to his ears, forced even. What was worse was that when he knew it was not false, and that he was unable to see the humor. It felt like laughing at pain, and he stiffened as they went by, hoping they would do so quickly. Instead of this, one of them made eye-contact with him, and she stopped and looked at him with an expression of concern. Those that walked with her stopped as well and observed this, and one of them turned to her.

Elatia, are you coming?”

The girl shot the inquirer a quick glance, and then turned her gaze back to Brax. The young man who had spoken, a rather tall Bruuk who held a rather long sword which rested on right shoulder, gave a quick nod and nudged the other two, a Thalean teenager and a Nisivalen woman, to follow him along the path. They each also held swords, although theirs were smaller than the Bruuk’s, and as the Nisivalen walked on she raised hers high and said something that Brax didn’t hear clearly, followed by some more laughter that made Brax want to scream at them to shut up.

Rather than scream, Brax took a deep breath and finally looked back at the girl. He noticed that she too had a sword, but in her case it hung from her hip. It was a traditional tournament sword, as one would find in Aderna on Thalea, and Brax thought that it looked a bit worn. Felling punchy, he couldn’t help but smirk a little as he broke the silence.

Shouldn’t you get that sword cleaned up? It looks like it’s been through quite a lot. Perhaps you should create a new one or something”

The girl appeared to become amused by this. The corner of her mouth rose slightly, and as she turned slightly, Brax leaned back in his seat. As he was about to place his hands behind his head, there was a flash of movement and before Brax had a chance to react, he found the blade of the sword against his neck, and he froze. He managed to shift his gaze from the ground to her eyes, and he found that she was now suppressing a grin, while her arms held the metal edge to his neck, and Brax felt a slight drip of blood drip down his neck to his shoulder.

A few of those reading began to notice this as well. One of them, behind him and to his left, spoke up.

Brax, my friend, she’s a girl you don’t want to be an enemy. Whatever you said, I’d apologize.”

Brax didn’t know who belonged to this voice, and right now it didn’t matter. He moved away from the blade, but the edge followed him, making the cut worse.

Brax, is it? I’ve heard of you. If I were you, I would not move. I’m pretty good with this, but this blade is sharp and I might sneeze or something.”

Brax was terrified. He didn’t know what to say. And he thought that if he had known what to say he wasn’t sure he could get the words past his throat. The girl looked at him, and an eye-brow raised a little as her head tilted a bit, and continued.

Nothing to say? Very well, We’ll just stay like this.”

She shifted her feet ever so slightly and the blade, somehow, held deadly still against his neck, barely touching it now. Brax tried to remain as still as he could, but found that it was difficult. He forced himself to take a slow, deep breath. As he felt himself calm a little, he was finally able to speak.

I’m sorry, alright? I don’t know what I said, but I’m sorry!”

After a long moment, the girl pulled the sword back, sighed, and put the weapon away.

Well, in that case, I apologize for cutting your neck. It should not be much of a problem, I don’t think. It’s only bleeding a little.”

Brax felt his neck and she seemed to be right. The cut was very clean and there was only a very small bead of blood that had escaped his skin. He sat up a little straighter and managed to feel a bit calmer.

What the hell is wrong with you, anyway? You could have killed me!”

The girl placed her hand on her hip and looked at him fiercely.

You dishonored me! This is my father’s sword, and he won three tournaments with it. It means a lot to me, and anyone who disrespects its value to me should apologize.”

She looked at him earnestly, and then a slight smile cracked through, betraying a playfulness that Brax was not expecting. Suppressing that smile a little, she corrected herself.

OK, that’s not really true. You just looked like you needed to be shaken out of your mood, and I figured a sword to the throat was as good a way to do it as any. However, it still is my dad’s sword and I like it a lot, so please try and maintain some respect.”

Brax looked at her befuddled. But before he could say anymore she turned and left, heading in the direction of the three she originally walked by with. Brax, still a bit stunned, watched her go. As she walked away, Brax couldn’t help but notice that his mouth was agape. And as he pulled his jaw back up, he found his tongue again and called after her.

Wait!” He stood up and trotted after her, she had barely even shot a glance over her shoulder when he had called, although she may have slowed a little. As he was about to overtake her, she suddenly stopped and turned to him, almost causing him to run into her. Rather than impact her, however, she side-stepped and guided him to the side, almost causing him to fall over, but she held onto his hand, keeping his balance, and Brax regained himself and faced her.

As Brax found his face directly in front of hers, he suddenly noticed that she was quite beautiful, a fact which he had probably been too terrified a few moments ago to notice. She continued to hold onto his hand as he became stabilized, he found that he was completely aroused and hoped that she would not notice this, and he found himself unable to speak, again. Rather than maintain the awkward pose, the girl let go of his hand and they found themselves looking at one another rather closely. Still thinking about his arousal, Brax tried to lean forward ever so slightly as to hide his sudden stimulation from standing out. She, apparently not noticing this, poorly repressed a playful smile again and it was her turn to break the silence.

So, you ask me to stop, run after me, almost fall down in the process, and then when you finally get my attention, you are silent again?”

Brax could only stand there, his mouth poised to speak. Her eyes were a light red, her hair matched, and her face beheld a smile that radiated self-assuredness and amusement, seemingly striking him dumb. As he continued to look at her, her smile deepened, and a sort of blush overtook her cheeks, and Brax wondered if he shared this blood rush to the face, as his heart was pounding.

You know, you are sort of cute, but you are also apparently are quite fretful. I suggest deciding what you want to say before causing such a commotion next time.”

Brax searched his mind for something to say, and then, looking down (and trying not to look like he was looking too closely at her) he eyed the sword again, and knew what to say.

I have a sword too. I went to the tournament at Aderna two cycles ago. I didn’t know anyone practiced here. I was wondering if I could come some time, possibly, to join you? I mean, I don’t know what you are doing with a sword…I mean, I know you know what you are doing with the sword…I mean, well, I want to learn how to use one.”

At this, her smile transformed into a look of surprise, and her eyebrows raised as she replied.

You’ve been to the tournament?”

Yes, like I said, two cycles ago, and I…”

That’s awesome; I wish I could have gone.”

Did you ever go, I mean, before you came here?”

Her expression of mild surprise and good humor melted away into annoyance at this question. Brax suddenly realized that it was quite possible that mentioning their obvious imprisonment was not socially acceptable here for most people, and he saw that this was probably the case. However, he had not considered all options before he spoke.

Actually, Brax, I have never been to the tournament because I’ve never been anywhere except here, in The City. I was born here. My father lived in Aderna and had been a tournament fighter for a long time, as well as an historian and a bunch of other things. He taught at Cesternatton for a while too. He now runs a sort of tournament here, and teaches the art of sword fighting for those that are interested. I was on my way to today’s lesson when I ran into you and saw how unhappy you looked.”

She then paused, her smile returning a little.

Perhaps next time I’ll just keep walking.”

The smile was muted now, Brax could see. He had stung her, a little at least, and he could see a vague sense of longing in her eyes when she had talked about her father, Aderna, and the tournament. Brax suddenly realized he would probably never get another chance to go to it himself, and his sympathy bled into guilt for having spoke so rashly.

Brax understood how she might feel. She had never been anywhere except for here, and she probably wanted to leave to see other things. Up until a few months before he had arrived here, he had never been away from Thalea, and he knew how nice it was to see other places. Now, thinking that he may never escape from this place, he suddenly wished he could see Brua, Nisivatak, Dideron, and all of the colonies.

Brax saw that her sadness had softened a bit more, and more of her smile retraced its steps and found its way back to her face, which pleased Brax in at least two ways, one which he was still hoping was not apparent to her.

I am not sure I caught your name earlier. Was it Elea, or something?”

Elatia.”

Oh, right, sorry. I’m also sorry for upsetting you. I guess I am not quite adapted to the fact that this is a prison, and people here don’t often get to see the tournaments at Aderna while here.”

We do watch the matches as they happen, sometimes. The Protectors do allow us to take information in, but just don’t allow us to send any out, as you likely know. I did see a number of tournaments, I just wasn’t there for any of them.”

Well, I suppose there isn’t too much of a difference. But I guess it would be nice to have the freedom to go if you want, right?”

Elatia nodded at this, and looked as if she was going to turn and walk again, and then she stopped and looked at him.

If you would like to join us today, why don’t you get your sword and come with me. I’ll wait here.”

Brax thought about his sword. He suddenly severely regretted that he had chosen the teched sword now, as anyone who took the tournament seriously would have found it in bad taste. Brax quickly searched for a way out and remembered where he was.

That’s not necessary. I can just create one when I get there. My sword has no value or significance on its own, and I can just use one I think up.”

OK, in that case, follow me.”

She turned to continue down the path, and Brax found his legs again and followed.

He tried not to stare at her as she walked. He tried.

Brax followed Elatia into a building that Brax had not been inside before. It was a large mushroom shaped building, and they had to approach an entrance that lay underneath the bulk of the building. Had normal engineering been used to create this, Brax doubted that any material would have been strong enough to hold up something so large by only a small central entrance, but Brax knew that this building was held in place by invisible fields of energy. It was a popular Diderondac method of construction, but in this case the building was actually attached to the ground, rather than floating not far from the ground as it would on Dideron.

Dideron was notoriously earthquake prone, and thus they tried to keep all of their cities off of the surface to avoid perpetual destruction and shaking. Not being earthquake prone here, the architectural style was mostly a matter of aesthetics rather than function, and it was not the only such building. As they entered a small elevator to ascend into the building, Brax tried to look at the door rather than the girl next to him. As they had walked he had to remind himself not to look at her too obviously, although he had a feeling she caught him more than once as they ascended in silence.

As they exited the elevator, Brax walked into a large central area of the building that was generally circular and topped with a rather complex and transparent ceiling. It seemed to change shape continuously and randomly, and Brax found himself staring at it when Elatia took a hold of his arm and tugged him to their left. He looked at her, and for a moment their eyes held one-another and he thought he caught a slight smile before turning and motioning for him to follow. He did.

They passed trough a large doorway and into a room with a padded floor. In the center was a large man who was talking to a circle of around ten people seated around him. Brax noticed that three of them were the ones with whom Elatia had been previously, and as the man at the center noticed their entrance, he held his hands out in welcome and smiled.

Ah, and here she is! Welcome Elatia, my beautiful daughter. Thank you for bringing my sword, as I asked. Will you come and join us?”

Then his gaze turned to Brax, and his hands widened to amplify his expression of welcome, and he continued.

And who is this? You have brought me a new student?”

My name is Brax, sir. Elatia ran into me on the way here, and she invited me to join your class. I’m interested in learning the art of the sword, and would be honored to learn from a tournament champion.”

Brax noticed that Elatia was looking at him with a look of amusement, but Brax made no attempt to react to this look or to imply that he was aware of it. She knew he was trying to show off a bit, and the others probably knew this as well. Nonetheless, the man’s smile broadened and he bowed slightly, and then responded as he rose.

I appreciate the honor. My name is Gildon Muris. I would welcome a new student. However, you should know that I don’t merely teach the art of the sword, but also the art of being. This is a class for the philosophy of Purista.”

Brax’s head tilted at this—it was an expression that stuck with him from being on Kasara—as he didn’t know this word. Noticing this, Gildon continued apparently ecstatic at having the opportunity to explain.

I would not be surprised that you don’t know of this philosophy. You see, I grew up on Brua, and moved to Thalea, to Aderna specifically, later on. While on Brua, I had been trained to use a sword in the Bruuk schools of martial arts.”

I was not aware that the Bruuk has such a school,” Brax replied, this time with a hint of actual interest.

Well, that’s because it was started by a man named Cirilo in ancient times, a man who was born in Aderna and moved later to Brua, to the city of Rekwar. He brought with him the tradition of Aderna and taught some of the Bruuk how to fight. This was centuries ago, before the Cooperative was formed. At first, the Bruuk didn’t trust him, and he received scorn, but over the cycles he became a beloved citizen and actually helped lead some of the rebellions against Thalean occupation of Brua, and became a name of disrepute among those on Thalea, especially those in Aderna. He was not an ancestor of mine, but he was a friend to an ancestor of mine who also moved from Aderna to Rekwar. And for centuries the city of Rekwar has had its own traditional tournament.”

I’ve never heard of it.”

I’m not surprised, as it is not much in terms of competition compared to the tournament of Aderna. And to be honest, when I first came to Aderna I was no competition for it either, and I lost in the first round my first attempt to compete in the tournament. It was only after training with the locals there that I was able to compete and eventually win two cycles later, and then two more times after that.”

And what of…Purista, was it?”

Gildon nodded at this and indicated that Brax should sit. Brax, having been distracted, had hardly noticed that Elatia had already sat down in the circle. And as Brax moved to sit, disappointed that there was not much room to sit near her, Gildon walked over to her and took the sword she held, and looked at it with deep feeling.

This was the sword I used to win those tournaments. It is different from the Bruuk sword I used prior. The Bruuk are stronger and larger than I, as well as most other Thaleans, and they prefer the longer, heavier swords. When I discovered that I was probably more suited for a lighter sword, I notice a great improvement in my performance.”

He held the sword in a starting position and breathed deeply before thrusting at an invisible enemy. Brax had no doubt that this enemy would have been defeated. As quick and nimble as his daughter had been, even at his age Gildon appeared to be much faster. Having vanquished his imaginary opponent, Gildon retracted his thrust and placed his sword carefully on the floor before sitting next to it. He looked around at the dozen or so students and smiled.

Which one of you wants to explain what Purista is?”

22. The Approaching Storms

Damula returned to Kasara to find that something had changed. It was his third day visiting, and each day had become progressively more intense. He had sat in the chamber with what were probably heads of state while the room was filled with noise. Damula simply could not follow it, as they talked too fast and he did not seem able to get their attention for them to slow down and explain what was going on. Vanini Kas seemed overwhelmed by questions and arguments, while Ferretta, his brother, had only appeared briefly to make a short speech (which Damula simply could not make heads or tails of) before leaving the room in this state.

The entire area had become flooded with Kasarians. As far as the eyes could see, hundreds of thousands if not millions of them had come to see the visitor. Many chanted songs and continued to bow, while others apparently only wanted to stare at him and make a sort of humming noise which Damula guessed was not a greeting so much as a warning of some kind. All that Damula was sure of was that the crowds seemed to be quite divided about his presence, and Damula considered leaving and staying on Kaset.

But Camen had told him to stay here, and Camen, Damula hoped, had good reason for this.

While he had been on Kaset, his officers had briefed him on what was happening. The Nimri were still quiet, but a few scouting parties had been spotted near the portal. They were apparently very interested in what was going on there, but dared not approach the perimeter set up by Damula’s small party. The ship was near the planet, waiting for further orders, and had not seen any military activity of significance for the past couple of days. Damula hoped that this peaceful interlude would maintain itself, but was not convinced it would.

The political situation on Thalea was heating up as well, especially after hearing about the offer from the Vishi. While the military didn’t trust the Vishi, the majority of the people preferred to take their offer and hope for peace and an end to this conflict. There was so much unknown in all of this that Damula didn’t know what orders to give. Being here, where he could not follow what the uproar was about, he had time to think.

Away from the military and political crises from Thalea and the Nimri, he was on a planet somewhere with a species that he barely could communicate with and who were apparently ready to either bow to him or…well, he wasn’t sure what else; he hadn’t found the Kasarians prone to violence so far. His head began to ache with the noise, however. Their lack of violence seemed balanced by a desire, perhaps need, to argue with one-another quite loudly.

Outside the building it was raining. When he had arrived there earlier that day there had been a storm over the city that surpassed anything he had yet seen, and yet the crowds hardly seemed to notice, and didn’t even bother looking for shelter. Damula was learning quite quickly that it rained here almost daily, and that the lightning was as ubiquitous as the sun would have been if the clouds ever went away.

Finally Damula stood up, and began heading for the door. Vanini tried to grab for his arm but was slow, and one Kasarian actually stood in his way and seemed to lambaste Damula before another pulled him to the side and re-directed the argument to him. Damula simply didn’t know what was going on, and so he decided to get out of the room and take a walk. Vanini looked as if he wanted to follow, but Damula knew he would not. Somebody had to be in charge here, and it surely would not be this Thalean.

As Damula passed through the doorway, he nodded to the guards who bobbed their heads back. These were his friends and, it seemed, personal body-guards. They had followed him wherever he went ever since he arrived earlier. He wanted to be alone, but he knew they would not submit even if he could communicate this sufficiently. They did, thankfully, keep a respectful distance.

Damula walked towards the stairs and, rather than going down, decided to go up to the next level. He had not been up these stairs yet, and decided to take a closer look at the large building they were in. From what he could tell, the building had been carved out of the side of a cliff of a very large canyon, and the rest of the city was as well. There were a few building at the top of the canyons, but there was nothing that looked like a city. Most of it was underground, hidden, and seemed to embrace the landscape rather than stand out from it, as Thalean cities did.

As he reached the top of the stairs, he found the large open area that he had seen from the entrance and walked towards it. The rain had slowed, but he still could see flashes of lightning and hear rumbles of thunder from the distance. He approached the low wall that separated himself from the ledges and canyon floor far below, and saw that there were still multitudes of Kasarians camped below. None of them seemed to notice him, and so as to not change this, he backed away and looked over towards the edge of the opposing canyon wall at the storm as it moved away. It was beautiful, and Damula felt warmth overtake him and noticed a smile that had made its way through his defenses. It had been a while since he genuinely smiled, he thought. It was nice to get out of that noisy room.

As he watched the storm, he found himself thinking about the Nimri and what Camen had told him a couple of days ago. He wondered what the Vishi who called himself ‘Komar’ really wanted. Why had he led him to the portal, and what was it that Camen was holding onto that scared the Nimri so much?

Damula hoped that Camen would be there today when he returned, as he wanted someone here with him to act as a translator. He had a feeling that Damula’s presence was more disruptive at the moment, and he thought that the presence of a Kasetian might shine some light on all of this confusion.

If only I could talk to these people, I might be able to figure out what they are arguing about and possibly help.”

Damula found that he was talking to himself. But his friends, who were standing at the doorway behind him, heard his voice and one of them approached and seemed to ask a question that Damula didn’t even bother to try and understand. Instead, he looked at the Kasarian guard and smiled, which was reciprocated with the predictable head-bobbing. The Kasarians didn’t seem to have a knack for adjusting their facial muscles to express emotions, but the Kasarian was appearing to attempt to smile back with little to no success.

As Damula’s smile widened some, being a bit amused at this, the floor beneath them all suddenly rocked as what sounded like an explosion came from below.

Damula saw chunks of rock thrown into the air, and part of the structure below them was simply gone, only missing them by not more than the distance that Damula was tall. The guards had landed on all of their limbs, but Damula found himself on his back, having hit his head quite hard on the floor. As he got up, feeling some blood on his hands as he felt for the damage, the closer guard motioned for Damula to follow him, which he did with haste. As they found their way back into the building, Damula caught the slightest of glimpses of a rocket as it impacted the canyon wall above them, followed by another, louder explosion that caused rock to rain down where Damula and his two friends had just been a few seconds before.

Damula watched as the rock fell and saw that there were a few Kasarians on the opposite side of the canyon and looked like they might have fired the first two rockets. Damula didn’t want them to have the opportunity to fire another and headed towards the stairs to be met by Vanini and a crowd behind him. Vanini turned to the crowd with him for a moment to order them to do something that Damula didn’t understand, and motioned for Damula’s guards and four others to come with him. Vanini then reached right for Damula and grabbed into his arm and led him deeper into the building, away from the surface and from the attack. The eight of them found a small room with a desk and some papers, and Vanini went over to a wall and managed to open an unseen door that led into a dark hallway, and Damula entered with his entourage.

As Vanini joined them, closing the hidden door behind them, he turned on some artificial lights that illuminated a long passageway that seemed to go for some distance. Vanini nudged his way to the front and led the way at a quick pace which everyone followed quietly.

After a few minutes, They found themselves in front of a door, and Vanini opened it with a key that he pulled out from his pocket. As the door opened, it revealed a dark and round room. To the left were the bottom steps of a stairway that spiraled up beyond what Damula could see through the door. As the group went through the door, Damula’s eyes followed the stairs up a fair distance towards a small landing at the top, and what looked like what might be a way out.

Vanini spoke a few words to two of the guards who quickly ascended the stone stairway and Damula could hear another door being opened. As it did, some dim light spilled into the top of the room and they all waited, looking up and apparently waiting for something.

They are checking to see if the entrance is clear, Damula thought.

After a few moments, one of them poked his head back over the landing at the top and quietly motioned the rest to follow, which they did hurriedly.

Damula climbed the stairs quickly in the middle of the group and as they reached the top he saw finally that the others had started to draw weapons. He was being escorted to safety by armed guards, it seemed. As he exited the door he saw that the rain had finally stopped. They were right near the outside wall of the portal in what looked like a large rock jutting out from the ground. Apparently, the doorway they were exiting from was hidden from the outside, for when it closed it blended in and there was no apparent way to open it. Four of the guards set up a quick perimeter and the rest of them charged towards the entrance. Damula turned around as he heard another explosion in the distance followed by what might have been some sort of weapon firing.

Kasarians have it in them to be violent after all, Damula thought.

The shursta, as he understood the portal to be called now, seemed mostly deserted at the moment. Two guards still were near the entrance, but this time they were crouched behind the statue there with their staffs held in defensive postures. As they saw Vanini and Damula approach, they waved them in, as if to say that it was safe, and Vanini pulled Damula along faster. As they approached the entrance, Damula stopped for a moment and Vanini seemed to try and shove him through the entrance, but Damula stopped.

Thank you, my friend,” is what he said. Vanini seemed to get the gist of what Damula had said, but still he insisted that Damula go through the portal immediately. And as Damula heard the weapons that fired in the distance sound closer, Damula placed his hand on Vanini’s shoulder and then turned to go through the portal.

Natak seemed to be a bit surprised to see Damula return so early and obviously perturbed. Damula quickly called his crew to get together so that he could update them on what had happened, but Natak preempted him.

Sir, we have a little bit of a problem. About an hour ago, the Patula II was attacked by what appeared to be a small Vishi ship. It was repelled, but it appears that the cease-fire has been breached. Since then, no attack has commenced, but we are not sure how long the silence will be maintained. In addition, we took a few shots here from a sniper, but Feg over here took care of him.”

Damula’s head dropped a bit at hearing the bad news, but he managed to look at officer Feg Musrin and smiled a bit despite this.

Well done, officer. Now, allow me to bring you all some bad news as well. I was just attacked by some Kasarians, and managed to escape with the help of Vanini. I don’t know exactly what the situation is there or why I was attacked, but it appears that the Kasarians were not as friendly as Camen remembered…at least some of them. I can only hope that he’ll return soon and we can figure out what this is all about. At this point it looks like they have some divisions that they need to work out at very least.”

Damula, shall I call for reinforcements here, in case we are attacked again?”

Menson, no. I think that we do not want to draw any more attention to this location, and having any more of our people land here will certainly do that. We will wait here until Camen returns, as it appears as if Kasara will not be safe right now. Perhaps I’ll return in a couple of days and see if things have died down there, if he has not arrived.”

Damula considered for a moment, and was about to speak when one of the engineers, Strasen Muller, gained their attention.

Damula, we have not managed to determine where in the galaxy the portal leads to, so we don’t know where Kasara is yet. However, we have been able to make some sense of the energy output of that thing. I’ll tell you that’s its immense. My guess is that it’s sending you quite far away, much further than we have yet explored, would be my guess.”

I’d agree with that,” started lead engineer Mikeli Zellem. “It seems that the portal has an internal power source, and that the method of transport is at least similar to the technology we use for our own.”

OK, good work everyone.”

Damula was glad to hear that the engineers had made some progress. He had considered not bringing them along at first, but thought that all the intelligence they could obtain would be helpful.

Menson, I want you to communicate with the ship and tell them to alert me of any movements of the Nimri while I’m down here.”

Already doing so, Damula”

OK, fine, give me what reports you have so far and relay them to me as you get them. Oh, and how are our provisions?”

We have rations for at least three more days, and we could stretch that to four or five, if necessary.”

OK, I don’t think we’ll be here that long, but if I’m able to find a calmer Kasara in a couple of days, I’ll try and bring some food and water back with me. In the mean time, get me those reports.”

Yes, Protector.”

Protector.

The word didn’t seem right now. Damula was not sure what it was, but something had changed. As Menson left to gather the reports, Damula stood and reflected for a moment about the Office of Protection. Feeling a little tired in his legs from the running he had done to get here, Damula crouched for a moment and watched the four engineers huddle over some data as they feverishly argued over something that Damula couldn’t quite make out. He suddenly felt very tired. And as Menson Willem returned with the information he had gone to fetch, Damula shook himself fully awake and stood back up.

He thanked Menson and turned toward the large tent the crew had set up for resting and looked down at the top report absently. As he brushed aside the entrance flap, he saw that nobody was currently resting and pulled back one chair from the small table at the center of the area surrounded by a few portable beds and sat down slowly as he began to read the first report.

Updates from Thalea, a message—sounding very formal—from Commander Milinos, and several updates of Nimri movements was all he found in them. Just collections of facts, facts that needed structure but where no cohesive pattern could be deduced. None of this was helpful. None of this made sense to him, and he desperately wanted someone to hand him a clear update on what was happening.

Where is Camen?

He didn’t know. Perhaps he was dead. Perhaps he was working with the Vishi. Perhaps Komar and Camen were watching from a distance, laughing at the little Thaleans trying to make sense of all of this. Perhaps he was a minor piece in a very large game, and this game was the Nimri’s way of amusing themselves with the help of their Kasetian friends.

There was nothing of seeming consequence in any of these reports. As Damula finished scanning over the last one for anything more than apparently random facts without pattern, he threw them across the room and held his head in his hands. He couldn’t make enough sense of all of this, and he was starting to feel quite frustrated. The situation on Kasara made no sense, the Vishi leading him here made no sense, and the fact that the Nimri were, it seemed, pawns in a greater and longer struggle on this planet which was almost completely in ruins only made sense only in some insane manner which escaped him.

Damula decided that, at least for the moment, he was going to accept Camen at his word. He was going to pretend that what he heard from the strange alien a few days ago was the truth, as he so desperately wanted it to be because so much of what he was doing rode on that assumption. Damula tried to imagine the Nimri as Camen had described them before the war here in Kaset. He tried to imagine a race in a desperate search for a planet to settle and finding one inflamed in warfare. Being so close to the edge of the galaxy, the Nimri home world was far from any other known habitable planets, as far as Damula knew. The colony that he had set up was not that far, and perhaps it was possible that the Nimri could have found that one as well rather than Kaset. Damula wondered what might have been different had that been the case.

Things could have been very different, had different decisions been made. Damula found himself imagining alternate sequences, leading to different places. He imagined his long dead friend Commander Rilko finding the Kasetians at war or perhaps extinct while Damula discovers a Nimri colony; a peaceful and quite happy newly settled culture, rather than the monsters that Rilko had met. Then he wondered if the Kasetians would have tried to lure the Thaleans into their war. Damula was not sure if the Thaleans’ lack of desperation would have made this impossible, but hoped that it would have. Perhaps Rilko would have been lured into helping with the promise of the Kasetians’ advanced technology. It was clear that the Kozar were the most advanced of them all, but even with them mostly destroyed the other nations held technology that rivaled and often seemed to surpass that of the Thaleans even now.

Damula suddenly started to feel a visceral sympathy for the Nimri, even for Hull. Damula had thought of Hull as some sort of embodiment of evil, a monster even. He understood now that the Nimri had been transformed, and that it was very possible that the Thaleans may have been transformed in similar ways under similar circumstances. Had his adventures in exploration and in finding the destroyed ship of his friend Commander Rilko transformed himself in ways that scared the crew and himself? Were thoughts like these healthy?

The point was clear; they had been transformed. The sharing was now excluded from some technology, there was large-scale warfare, and Thalea was surrounded by defensive borders. Camen had said that they had visited Thalea but had found it primitive. That was the word Camen had used. And yet Damula had just been to Kasara, although Camen had known it as Tallania, which had just attacked him after arguing profusely over Damula’s presence—although he didn’t understand why. If that culture was where the Kasetians had decided to introduce themselves and Camen had described Thalea as primitive, Damula was at a loss to understand how he thought of his own culture as having been enlightened. What had the Kasetians seen that was so unappealing to them?

Damula didn’t understand. No, he didn’t want to understand.

And as nightfall approached, Damula noticed that there had been neither more communication from the Patula II nor any scouting parties here on the surface. It was quiet, and Damula decided that he could afford to get some sleep.

As he drifted off, he heard the wind outside brush against the tent, some officers outside quietly talking, and another officer near him already asleep. Damula found that he missed Yeri, and wondered how his son was doing. He wasn’t even sure how old the boy was now. He only hoped that they would be safe on Thalea.

Safe. Now wasn’t that a strange word to use in such provocative times.

A few hours later Damula awoke rather suddenly. It was very dark, as only the lights of the equipment in the tent provided any illumination and outside the night watch would keep no lights at all on.

Damula got up and threw his coat on, as it was cold outside, and waved to Natak and Feg who were on duty. They were talking quietly as they watched two different directions, and Damula grabbed a weapon and sat between them.

Is it your watch, Protector?”

Damula smiled at this. Feg had a pretty good sense of humor, and Damula was glad he had him here. Feg had served with Damula ever since they left Thalea for the first time. He had been quite young at the time, and Damula had watched him turn into a fantastic officer. During down time, Feg had the room laughing with his stories. Damula was quite sure that nobody disliked him, even a little, as he always seemed to have some fans around him. Here, however, Feg seemed stifled. Without a drink, an audience for his stories, and without the apparent requisite girls clamoring for his attention (Damula admitted that he was quite an attractive man, even though he tended not to prefer men in that way himself). Still, Feg always seemed to be smiling, and never seemed to take anything too seriously or with ill mood. Damula sometimes wished he could emulate that, but found that he was unable to most of the time.

As Damula looked at Feg Musrin with is weapon in hand, scoping the terrain, Feg caught the look and smiled at him.

Hey, it’s been a few days for me since I had any outlet for my sexual needs, if you know what I mean, Damula. See, little Bon Cesten—she’s a hot one I tell you—has been turning me down ever since you brought us to this rock. So unless you want to have a go at me, I suggest you find someone else to smile at, because I just might decide to take you up on it, even though I don’t like the men like I hear old Natak here does.”

Shut up, Feg. My preferences are none of your business. Besides, I don’t mind all women, not even those two I saw you leave the bar with last week.”

Yeah, Natak, except that I never see you leaving with anyone, just watching me leave with them and wondering if you are jealous of me or of them.”

Feg laughed, and Natak could not help but smile a little. Damula watched the two of them as they enjoyed the moment, and he smiled as well.

Natak Visti, when will you ever learn not to take on Feg, you know he always will top anything you throw at him. Besides, I’ve seen you with that guy from communications. What was his name?”

Oh, you mean the big muscle-bound guy who has been flirting with Natak ever since they both joined the crew?” Feg said, jumping in. “The one with the big nose and who talks like a southerner?” Feg continued, beating Natak to any possible response.

Yeah, well, you two can go…wait, what was that?”

Natak turned his head towards the left side of the rocky terrain that surrounded their position and aimed his weapon, Feg and Damula followed suit, and they all scanned the area, but could see nothing.

I thought I heard something, over in that direction,” Natak whispered, as he pointed towards some trees in the distance.

Natak lowered some goggles over his eyes, and switched on the dark vision, and Feg did the same. Damula took position behind a rock before going back into the tent to alert the others, quietly. As he shook awake one of the officers, he heard the noise of a weapon, and then a quick volley of fire. As Damula ran out with two other officers with weapons in hand, a few Nimri had approached with some sort of cloaking field and Natak had continued to fire on them. Feg…Damula didn’t see him…Damula and the others aimed and shot at them, and after a few moments all five of them have been hit and apparently killed.

That seemed too easy. I thought that the Nimri on this planet were almost impossible to kill, due to some technology they had,” said officer Yessin Burn. She was scanning the terrain for any others that had not appeared yet, and then she looked to her left and saw that Damula was crouching over what looked like Feg Musrin.

As she approached them, along with a couple of the engineers, she saw that blood surrounded his body. And as she moved around Damula to see better, she could see his arm, shoulder, and half of his head were simply gone. Some weapon had left only the edge of the blast with blackened, smoking skin, bone, and muscle. As the scent hit her nose, she felt a little ill, and she noticed that one of the engineers, probably Keper Diden, had vomited what was left of his small dinner.

There was a moment of silence before Damula stood up and commanded that everyone take a defensive position. As they complied, Mikeli Zellem, the head engineer, set up some piece of equipment and then activated it. Suddenly two more Nimri appeared, their cloaking fields de-activated, and before they knew that they had been seen multiple energy blasts had disintegrated them.

OK, that’s all that are here now, but if they sent in an attack now, it is likely that more will come soon. We cannot abandon this location, but if they have decided to attack, they will likely come now with full force, and we must be prepared. Menson, I want you and Natak to get some more mines set up and to coordinate a more aggressive watch. From now on, no less than four of us at any time will be on watch. Keper, contact the research station and tell them to find somewhere safe to hole up for a while. Tell them that they will most likely be safe in the mountains for now, and not to ascend into orbit at the moment. Mikeli, I want you to set up that device to automatically pulse every few seconds or so. If the Nimri try to come in cloaked, their attempts will not work, hopefully.”

Damula watched as they began to move and he thought what to do himself. He found that he was quite hungry and grabbed for his pocket and felt that he still had two pieces of some kind of fruit in his pocket from Kasara. He didn’t know what they were called, but they were delicious and provided a lot of energy, and he was glad that he grabbed a couple from the table while the Kasarians argued earlier. He ate one of them quickly while he sat there, then suddenly remembered Feg. He could not leave the body there, as it would get in the way, and yet he was unable to become sentimental at the moment.

He forced himself to be single-minded and he dragged Feg’s body into the tent and put it under the table. There might be time later to mourn, but right now he was expecting an attack soon, and he wanted to be ready. As he left the tent, he saw that Natak, Menson and Strasen were laying mines in the dark while the four other surviving officers set up barricades and placed extra energy packs for their weapons near them in case they needed extra power in the case of a prolonged fight. They had also managed to get out the two larger weapons and set them up on both ends of the wall they had built, in case they needed something with more impact. Damula was suddenly very happy with the newly designed transport that had brought them here. The fact that its walls could be used as a defensive barrier if one were needed was suddenly very helpful. It was about then that Keper shouted that Nimri were on their way. Natak and Menson quickly retreated to behind the wall, followed by Strasen, having only laid some of the mines they intended to, and as they climbed over the wall Natak activated their deflection shields.

And as Damula looked, he barely could see several Nimri turning the corner around a rock-face not so far away. They were not even trying to hide, it seemed. And as Damula grabbed for a pair of farsight goggles, he saw that in the middle of the pack was what appeared to be someone carrying the Vishi emblem. As he zoomed in, he saw that far to the back, in a small vehicle, was Komar.

Damula was starting to understand, and wasn’t sure what he should do if they became overrun. As more of the Nimri turned the corner, Damula could count dozens of them, at least.

Damula!” It was Menson. “Damula, I’m getting a communication from the ship. It seems that the Vishi have attacked the other clans, and are winning overwhelmingly. It seems imminent that the others will be wiped out, probably soon. The Vishi have moved in that large ship we saw while at their planet into orbit and are wiping out any other Nimri clans’ ships.”

Damula’s anger rose. He was feeling trapped, and had little to run to. They were overwhelmed here on the surface. If they reconstructed the transport, as it would only take a minute or less and so they might get into space before the Nimri could get here, they would be an easy target for the Nimri ships. They were pinned down. They may be able to hold off Komar and his forces for a while, but it was only a matter of time.

As Damula was adjusting the sight on his weapon, there was a sudden flash of light and a horrendous noise that came from directly above. They all flinched, looked up, and what they saw was unbelievable. The Nimri ships, in orbit, were firing on their position and there was a massive shield being generated from the portal behind them that was absorbing or deflecting the energy away.

That is why they have stayed away from this place. There is something about that portal which protects itself—and us because we are here—from attack.

Damula’s thought coincided with the ships in orbit ceasing their attacks as the ground forces quickened their pace.

They were probably waiting to see if the orbital assault worked before charging in.”

Natak’s comment was on the mark, and Damula ordered them to hold their fire for a moment as he addressed them all.

OK, we need to hold this position as long as we can. If we are unable to hold them back, I will give the order and we will all go into the portal. I have a feeling we’ll have more luck on Kasara than we will here, but I don’t want to use that possibility until we have no other option.”

Damula turned to Natak and called to him.

I want you to get that launcher you brought with you and see if you might be able to take out at least a few of them. For now, they are bunched up, but as soon as they spread out that weapon will be largely useless. Take the shot soon, and hope that it might give us a little time.”

Natak had already started moving before Damula finished giving the order and quickly appeared with a large cylinder which he hoisted over his shoulder. He placed it over a rock, steadied himself, and aimed. After a moment, he fired, and the Nimri reacted by ducking for cover. An explosion obscured their view, but it looked like Natak may have been able to hit a few, and then a volley of fire began to come at them, and all eight of them took cover themselves.

And then suddenly the impact of the weapons sounded different, muffled even, and there was no more debris or thudding noises against the wall and Damula noticed that there was a mostly translucent field surrounding their position that had not been there before. But it was not coming from the portal behind them, but it seemed rather to come from closer to them. As Damula managed to uncover his head, he looked up and saw a familiar face near him, between the attacking Nimri and the small group of huddled Thaleans.

Damula, take yourself and your men through the portal and wait for me there. I will not be long. Please, do not leave the area of the portal on the other side. I am aware that your presence on Kasara has caused some problems, and I will explain when I arrive. For now, get your people to safety and avoid contact with anyone on the other side if possible. I’ll be with you as soon as I can.”

The others looked at him in amazement for a moment, and Damula remembered that the others had not seen Camen until now.

Go, now!”

Damula got up with the rest of his crew to follow this order, but paused a moment to turn to see Camen focusing his attention on the charging Nimri soldiers who now numbered in the hundreds. He was holding a small silver object in his hand and pointing towards the portal’s entrance with the other with his back to Damula. Damula didn’t hesitate, and he called for the rest of them to follow. As he guided them all through, one at a time, Damula watched as the Nimri charged them, and as Camen simply watched them come. Camen turned to Damula and repeated Camen’s command.

Go, now!”

Damula felt some sort of energy buildup on his skin as some new translucent field surrounded Camen’s body. Damula backed into the portal and, just before the flash of transport took over his perception, he thought he saw the charging wall of Nimri all explode in a flash of light with Camen pointing his silver device in their direction.

And then there was the darkness of the portal, and the moonlight outside. His officers were gawking at the alien landscape, the dome, and the surrounding walls, but had also managed to create a perimeter, and luckily there seemed to be nobody in sight. No Kasarian guards, no Vanini, just the smell of something burning and a faint glow from the east side of the wall. Through the entrance Damula could see that something was on fire outside the walls, and Damula realized he had exchanged a war zone for a different war zone.

Everyone, get as close to the shursta…sorry, the portal as you can. I want to avoid being seen if at all possible.”

They huddled near the entrance and watched the three entrances visible from their position carefully. For a while, nobody moved, talked, or seemed to breathe much.

23. Dreams and Reality

Brax awoke early in the morning and immediately rolled out of bed. A shower appeared and he took a couple of naked steps towards it and turned it on. The water was warm and he allowed it to run through his hair and down his back. He was noticing each day that he was getting stronger, fitter, and larger.

It had been some weeks since he had started waking up early and making his way to Purista training, and he began to notice that he enjoyed the exercise each day. He wasn’t so particularly interested in the sword, although he was a quite good at it, and this was not what made him get up each day. He actually was more interested in the philosophy of Purista itself, which he found empowered him in ways that everyone was noticing. He still continued the sword training, as it was a way to improve his strength, and the people just loved to watch him do it. Brax had found a mentor of sorts in his new best friend Gildon, and it didn’t hurt that he was Elatia’s father.

Brax, can you possibly make that shower a little bigger, I think I’ll join you in there.”

Brax smiled and the shower doubled in size, and he watched as Elatia threw the covers back as stood up and walked around the bed towards him. She was absolutely stunning, and Brax felt his getting larger take on a new meaning. As she stepped in with him, she took him in her hands and kissed him, and he pulled her in and kissed her back hard, making her squeal just a little. And as she moved closer to him, he—

A vague noise…a flashing light, fuzziness, and then gaining consciousness….

The alarm flashed and blurted its early song as Brax opened his eyes to the flashing dome ceiling of his space. It was time to get up, again. Brax thought the alarm off and sighed, and noticed that the dream had left him with a bit of a problem, and he knew if he didn’t take care of it, he would be bothered by it for the rest of the day. He looked to his right, seeing the empty space on the bed there, and resigned himself to the fact that there are some things you simply have to do yourself.

Later, as he finished his real shower alone, he reached for a towel and caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror. He didn’t even know why he bothered to have it there, as it just reminded him of the fact that he was a scrawny kid that could hardly even lift the sword left alone defend himself with it. Still, he forced himself to continue attending, in the hopes that he might gain something from it.

He found Purista to be intriguing. But really, it seemed more a way for big and strong people to make themselves more powerful and in control. He saw the large and quick Gildon move about as if he owned everything around him, and he always seemed to get his way. Brax sometimes dreamed that he had found some way to be the greatest swordsman ever, and when he came to class he challenged the man to a fight and, Gildon laughing, Brax would meticulously and systematically break down any defense that the larger man could muster. He tended not to wake up with the same affect as with dreams like the one he had had this morning, but it surely left him feeling invigorated.

Brax had turned eighteen in the weeks that had gone by, but he wasn’t exactly sure when it had happened. To be honest, he wasn’t sure what season it would have been on Thalea, let alone the Cooperative date. It didn’t matter much here, as it was sunny and warm, with occasional light rain, all the time here. There was even a beach, a lake, mountains, and other so-called wonders of the world on this planet that anyone could visit at any time. There was even a fucking canyon for the Kasarians and the Kasarophiles. How damned perfect that was….

Each day it seemed to get more difficult to force himself to get up. Actually, it seemed to sort of cycle a bit, and some days he did enjoy it while others he decided to skip. He had told himself that as long as he never skipped more than one in a row, he’d be fine with not going every day. That was until he missed two, and then that became the rule. So far, he had gone the last three days, and considered not going today, before he considered that he had already pleased himself earlier so it was all downhill from here anyway.

As he stepped out of the door, he saw that there was a touch of rain left over from an early morning rain shower, and finished a piece of Nisivalen sweetbread that he had been craving. He knew that it was not the most healthy of firstmeals, but he liked them and he didn’t really care anyway. He noticed the time and thought of running, as he would be late, but he really didn’t care about that either. A few people said hello to him, and he waved politely but moved along his way. He didn’t know why they bothered. They didn’t really like him anyway, they were just trying to be nice. Anything to make this hell more livable, he thought.

Hey, Brax, going to class again today?”

Brax turned to see his father talking with a friend and decided to humor him.

Yeah, dad! You know, one day when I get out of here, I might just be a champion of the tournament too! I’ll see you later, father!”

Brax didn’t mean to come off that way, and he sort of felt bad for doing so, and he tried not to notice the slight look of sadness come over his father’s face as he heard what Brax had to say. Instead of dwelling on this, Brax waved and continued towards class, finishing the sweetbread as he turned a corner that would put the mushroom (this is what he called the building, in his mind) in his view and direct path. As he noticed the time again, he saw that he was already late. Well, crap, he thought¸ I guess I’m just not challenging myself sufficiently to be better than I have been. I guess I just suck.

Brax repressed a sly smile at this thought and ascended the elevator up the stem of the building and walked quickly to the practice room, now feeling anxious about being late. He had tried to repress it on the way, but he hated it when Gildon looked at him the way he did when Brax showed up late. Brax was usually late.

As he entered, he waved apologetically to the class and saw that two of the students, one was a newer one whose name escaped Brax for the moment, were beginning a sparring session with their blunted practice swords.

Brax had been the new student for a while, and now that this new kid had showed up, Brax was no longer the one that get all of the new kid jokes. Now he was just one of them, and he missed the extra attention.

What bothered Brax most was the fact that this kid was actually probably better than he was already. Brax imagined him going home and actually practicing at night, as if this really mattered; as if this skill would amount to anything in here, in this prison.

Brax sat down and he thought up a sword, as he always did, and it appeared behind him on the floor. He felt for it and easily found the hilt and then grabbed a hold of it. For a moment he fantasized about coming up from behind the new kid and splitting open his head. This thought made Brax cringe a little. He didn’t know why he thought it, as the kid was actually pretty nice. But there was something that really irked Brax about him, and so he found himself suppressing thoughts of this kind more and more often recently.

The other truth was this new student wasn’t actually a kid. He was probably a couple of cycles older than Brax, even though he was smaller. He was the son of a woman who had been born in The City, as she was probably third or fourth generation here. Brax had not met the kid’s mother, but had overheard some conversations over the last couple of weeks.

Well done, Shittaro, well done. I think that he may have still scored more points, but you are certainly improving!”

Gildon giving praise like this to the new kid—he had not forgotten his name, of course!—burned inside Brax a little, and he glared at him as he smiled at the praise.

OK, well done both of you. Now, can anyone tell me what they may have done better in that match?”

Brax tuned out the drivel from the Bruuk…his name was Halxis or something, he remembered. The Bruuk was one of the older students and was a favorite of Gildon. Gildon had apparently known his uncle or something back in Rekwar, and despite not knowing his mother and father too well, he had apparently become a bit of a mentor and friend to him over the cycles.

As the Bruuk finished his evaluation, Brax noticed that Gildon was looking at him as he replied to the Bruuk.

Yes, well said Halxis. Timsaar, next time keep your shoulders a little lower on that parry, as well as watching your footwork. And Shittaro, you need to work on not over-committing. Your energy and zeal are a value to you, but do not allow them to become a vice.”

While saying all this, Gildon never broke his eye-contact with Brax, and Brax turned a bit redder at this.

Brax, my friend. I’m glad you have made it. Would you like to come up next? Perhaps you would like to spar with Karna?”

The room became dead silent, and all eyes were on Brax. Brax suddenly felt like running from the room. He looked at Karna, who sat to his left, and she smiled at him with genuine affection. Of course, she always looked at him like that, and it was starting to get on his nerves. Many times she had approached him after class to take a walk, play some game or another, or to maybe have a look at his space for a little while. Brax thought she was OK, but she had this weird thing with her eyes that didn’t sit right, and he always said no.

Brax?” Gildon said, a little more stern, this time, “I am wondering whether you heard my question.”

Brax looked at the man, who had taken a step towards him, and sighed.

Fine, I’ll do it…”

No!” This more forceful command took Brax by surprise, and a few others seemed to try to conceal a kind of embarrassment at seeing Brax spoken to like this, although they didn’t seem to find it out of place.

Brax, I have tried to teach you the principles. You must be decisive, clear, and resolute. You do not merely resign to do something. If you do not wish to spar with Karna, then simply say that you would prefer not to. If you do, then clearly and unambiguously declare it!”

Brax saw a look of pity from Karna, and Brax stood up and looked into Gildon’s eyes, which necessitated him to look up.

I apologize, teacher. Yes, I wish to spar with Karna!”

OK, Brax, better. I still think that you have strength in you, even though you do not yet see it.”

This comment left daggers in Brax. He hated when Gildon would tell him that he was capable of more. Brax appreciated the pep talk, sometimes, but mostly he resented it. But rather than reveal this resentment, he picked up his sword, which was blunted as was necessary for sparring, and he began to stretch his legs and arms, as did Karna.

As she stretched, Brax caught her smiling at him slightly, and he turned his body such that it would look like we were continuing to stretch rather than avoid the look. After a minute of requisite stretching and breathing exercises, the two of them approached the middle of the circle and faced one another. From the corner of his vision Brax could see Elatia watching intently. He noticed, however, that her gaze was not on him, but Karna. Even from the corner of his eye she was stunning. There had been many times that he had wanted to ask her for a walk, a game, or some time alone in his space, but had never dared ask. She was completely beyond his reach, and he didn’t want to embarrass himself in asking and being laughed at. He had seen her with an older Thalean many times, walking through the city close to him, and Brax thought that she was not interested in him.

Brax forced this line of thought from his mind as he focused his attention on Karna who was poised and ready for their spar, and she looked ferocious. She looked quite intent upon making a quick first move, and Brax knew she was capable of it. She was on the small side and not particularly strong, but she was quite fast. They had sparred once before and Brax had underestimated this speed and lost quite easily. Brax didn’t want to lose again, and so he anticipated a quick attack, and prepared to move back as soon as the match began.

Gildon looked on, saw that they appeared ready, and he clapped his hands and Brax moved backwards to avoid any attack, but none came. Rather than merely step back, however, Brax tripped over his own feet and fell onto his back. Before he could react he found that Karna had over-taken him and was poised with the sword against his chest. There was a very slight snicker from behind Brax, and Brax began to get up as Gildon reached down and gave him a hand.

OK, Brax?”

Yeah, I just tripped.”

Yes, I noticed. Timsaar, I heard that laugh. I know you mean no harm, but you must consider how this may make Brax feel. I suggest you consider that for next time.”

Brax hated that Gildon had to point this out, and hated it even more when the Nisivalen apologized without any humor left in his voice. Gildon nodded and motioned for Brax to move back to the starting position.

Brax, the last time you two sparred you underestimated Karna’s speed. This time, you seemed to over-anticipate it. I want you to try again. She is fast, but so are you. You must not psyche yourself out here, but you must be prepared to react to what you see, and not what you expect. Remember, Purista teaches us to not expect our dreams, but to look for our realities. We must train ourselves to know what is and to deal with it, rather than to react to what we think will be or to what we think has been.”

Brax moved himself back into position and Gildon stepped back to prepare to clap to initiate the second round. Brax thought that if this had been a tournament, he’d be defeated already, and felt like he was receiving some sort of handicap. He, once again, forced this thought from his mind and tried to focus.

This time, when Gildon clapped, Brax found that Karna started with a quick thrust which Brax blocked, and she retreated to a different starting position which was more defensive. Brax side-stepped and tried to get on her left side—her weaker side, but she rolled and managed to get behind him. He was quick enough to block, but not quick enough to prevent her from gaining her feet again, and they circled one another for a moment.

Brax’s heart was racing a bit, and as he looked at her he saw that she was concentrating and breathing very steadily, and he tried to settle his breathing as well.

Good, Brax, keep your movements calm and collected. Keep your attention here and now.”

Brax hardly heard Gildon. He wanted to win this match, and was determined to do so. He faked a thrust, causing her to react defensively and almost got through her defenses with a secondary attack, but she managed to escape it.

Well done Brax; that was a point for you.”

Brax felt a smile creep onto his face, and he started to feel some confidence rise within him. He raised his sword to a more offensive posture and Karna match with an appropriate defensive tactic. Brax concentrated all of his will into his muscles and tried to strike with some power and quickness, hoping to catch Karna unprepared but she parried and managed to trip him to the floor and fall almost on top of him, stopping herself with a knee, her left hand, and with her sword to his throat.

Wow, very well done Karna, that was a very good take down. Excellent work, my friend!”

Karna, rather than get up, stayed for a moment and hovered over Brax and smiled at him. She then seemed to grow a little self-conscious and quickly got to her feet and then offered a hand to Brax. Rather than take it, Brax got up on his own power, and the room was glowing at Karna, and almost nobody looked at Brax. Had Brax been looking at her, he would have seen Elatia looking at him with a smile, but Brax was too embarrassed to look in her direction, assuming she would more likely be feeling sorry for him, and Brax didn’t want her pity.

He did notice that Karna looked at him with a little bit of pity, but she also was smiling affectionately.

OK, Brax, you started out quite well there. You almost caught her off her guard with that fake thrust, and you may have tried that again, but she also may not have fallen for it again. You seemed to get a little over-confident with that aggressive attack, and she reacted appropriately with that parry. It was an improvement, and I hope to see more of it from you in the future.”

Brax and Karna both sat back in their seats at this, and Gildon took the center of the circle to himself and unsheathed a sword.

This is a powerful weapon. But like all weapons, they are only as useful as the master that wields it. And as I have tried to teach you all, we have another weapon at our disposal, one that makes any other weapon more effective, as well as makes weapons unnecessary. What am I talking about, everyone?”

The mind,” most of them said almost in unison.

Right, and we must perpetually challenge ourselves to be more attentive, more at home in the present, and to not allow ourselves to become distracted by our fears, insecurities, or illusions.”

Gildon stopped for a moment before he placed his sword back into its sheath and continued.

OK, now we will break for a short meditation, and in a little while we will split up into pairs and work on defense techniques. I would like everyone to find a different partner than they have had in the last few classes, if possible, and to take turns with the basic forms we have learned. Now, find a spot alone and I’ll call you all when I’ve given you some time.”

Brax stayed sitting for a moment before he rose, and as he did he saw Gildon looking at him again. Brax tried to lose the gaze, but Gildon seemed insistent. As Brax found his feet, Gildon walked over to him and placed a hand on his shoulder.

Brax, come over to the corner with me, I have something I want to ask you about.”

Brax nodded in assent and he followed Gildon to a bench in the corner and sat down. Gildon sat in the bench next to him.

Brax, I am concerned about you. When you first showed up here, you seemed full of energy and vigor, but as the weeks have gone by, you have become less enthusiastic. Now, I don’t mind that you miss some classes. In fact, I don’t think anyone here makes it every day. I understand that some days you just want a break, and that’s fine. But you are almost always late, you seem angry, and you don’t seem to have confidence in yourself.”

Gildon stopped for a moment and sighed, looked towards the others who were in meditation, and continued, a little softer than before.

I have to tell you that I know that you are a great kid, and you will soon be a full grown man, and I would like to see you have the same energy that you had when you arrived here.”

How do you know what I was like when I arrived here, you have only known me for a few weeks?”

Brax, I know your father. We are not exactly friends, but I talk to him now and then. He told me that you were quite reclusive for a while, and that you seemed to have broken out of that since you started coming here. Now, your father was very happy to see that, and he’s worried that if this keeps up, eventually you will stop showing up and you will begin to retreat into your space again.”

Brax tried to suppress some anger at this, as he wished his father would stay out of this and allow Brax to deal with it himself. Gildon seemed to pick up on this.

Brax, don’t be mad at him, he was just concerned about you, and so am I. I’ve seen too many people in this place become reclusive and depressed, and many have gone to the wilderness or have changed for the worse. It happens, believe me. This place is a prison, there is no denying that. But there are wonderful opportunities here that you should relish.”

Brax looked at Gildon with a look of mild annoyance, and Gildon smiled and let out a sigh.

I’m sorry, Brax, I’m pressing too much. I shouldn’t be giving you a long pep talk, I know. Let me just say that if you ever want to talk, you can find me.”

Gildon stood up and began to walk away before he caught himself and turned back with a mischievous smile. He walked back to Brax and leaned in a little, in order to whisper near Brax’s ear.

Better, yet, you could seek out Karna. I saw the way she took you down earlier. I think there was more to that than swords, if you catch my drift.”

Gildon stood back up and smiled at Brax a little.

I’ve noticed her looking at you, and I think you have too. Perhaps you should give her a shot. She’s a great girl, and not much older than you either.”

Brax couldn’t help but laugh at this. Gildon probably interpreted this as mild embarrassment, but in reality Brax considered telling Gildon that he much preferred his daughter, and that he had just had a rather raunchy dream about her as he was awoken by the alarm this morning. Brax didn’t think that this would necessarily make Gildon angry—Elatia was an adult and could make her own decisions—but he thought it may not have been the best reply he could think of.

Instead, he shook his head a little as Gildon walked away and saw that Karna was across the room and facing him. Her eyes were closed, but Brax had little doubt that she may have been peeking a little bit just a moment ago. And as he looked at her, he found that he had to agree that Karna was a pretty nice girl, overall. She had a nice smile and had a very fun attitude, and now that he was thinking about it she was pretty attractive. Most people seemed to like her a lot, and she did seem to be into him. Brax filed this away for later, and found a spot on the floor and tried to grab a little meditation, assuming he could settle his mind down.

But despite his thoughts a moment ago, he found himself taking a peek at Elatia and thinking about her again, and he noticed that the room in his pants became limited once again as he thought about his dream.

Rather than meditating, Brax found himself fantasizing about Elatia, continuing from where the dream had left off. And after some time of this, feeling aroused and frustrated, Gildon broke the silence.

OK, everyone, let’s stand up!”

Brax’s eyes went wide, and he desperately tried to calm himself down, but knew it would take a few moments, so he found himself to be the only one still on the floor and his face went red again as he didn’t want to show off his raging erection to the room upon standing up.

And this was how his day was going so far.

As class ended, Brax found that he wanted to get out of there quickly. He disintegrated the sword and was adjusting his shoe when Karna hurried over to him before he could finish. Brax felt his heart pound a little heavier, and he hoped that she would both go away and ask him to spend some time with her. He had a feeling that he would only get one of these desires, and he knew which it was likely to be.

Hey, Brax, I’m really sorry about that take down earlier. I’m sorry if I embarrassed you.”

It’s OK Karna. It was very well done. I should not have attacked so aggressively.”

Actually, I like how you attacked so aggressively. I wish you would be more aggressive….”

Brax noticed that her skin turned a little darker at this, and Brax knew she was regretting her own aggressiveness right then, but Brax actually found that he liked seeing her blush. He was finding that he even liked how she pinned him down earlier, and felt a blush emerge as he remembered the look she gave him.

You know Karna, I’ve been thinking that I’ve been perhaps foolish in not accepting any of your offers about hanging out. What are you doing today?”

Karna’s eyes seemed to light up at hearing this, and she grabbed for his arm and smiled widely.

Well, I was going to spend some time with some friends, but I can do that any day. I’d love—”

No, no, it’s OK, go see your friends. I don’t want to ruin your plans. We can do something another time.”

No, Brax, it really is fine. I would much prefer to spend some time with you today, and they’d understand. But I think I’ll want to shower first, would you mind waiting for me. My space is not far from here, and you can take a shower there as well, if you like.”

Karna’s voiced became a bit more rich and nuanced at those last few words, and Brax felt a fluttering feeling in his stomach, and his face became warm with a fresh flow of blood that she must have noticed.

Of course, if you are more comfortable, you can shower at your own space, if you would prefer. We could meet after, or whatever you want.”

Brax found himself smiling as he saw Karna blushing and trying to recover from the quite forward invitation, but Brax found that he liked seeing her this way. He was surprised that he had not paid much attention to her before today, and was beginning to feel like he should have done so earlier. He had kept his hopes up for this type of interaction with Elatia—he had, in fact, thought about such things frequently—but so far he had not approached her, nor had Elatia approached him. But this, he thought as his attention lingered on Karna, could be good.

I think that maybe we can meet in a short while. After all of that I am quite hungry after only eating a piece of sweetbread today, and would love to get something to eat with you if you’d like.”

Karna smiled at this, and she quickly leaned in to kiss his cheek, and then she ran off.

OK, I’ll be at your place in a little while,” she said over her shoulder. “We’ll figure out what to do when I get there.”

Brax watched her go and Halxis, the Bruuk, and Kalvaa, a Nisivalen, approached him as they were passing by to leave.

So,” started Kalvaa, her eyes displaying a playfulness that made Brax smile, “you are going to spend some time with Karna, eh?”

Brax couldn’t help but smile at the Nisivalen girl. Brax had always liked her very much.

Yeah,” added Halxis, compelling Brax to go from looking down at the Nisivalen to looking up at the Bruuk. “She’s had her eye on you since day one. It’s about time you went for it.”

But you better be careful, I hear that she’s a wild one.”

You know, that’s exactly the kind of thing a Nisivalen would say, isn’t it Brax?”

This was Kader Oderdon, the lone Diderondac in the group, who had come from behind Brax. He continued;

You know, the few times I have been to Nisivatak I saw more sex than I’ve seen in all my cycles before or since. Those guys and girls are the masters of sexual promiscuity. It is thus rich to hear such words coming from the mouth of someone such as Kalvaa Mitsa!”

Oh shut up, Kader. You are just jealous that you aren’t getting any of this beauty right here, baby.”

Kalvaa followed this comment up with a dance that was both lewd and hilarious, and they all broke into laughter, including Kalvaa who fell backwards while laughing, which caused the others to laugh harder.

Yeah well, if I had the chance you’d find out that I’m bigger than your whole body, because if I were to…”

OK, ladies and gentlemen…and I use these terms very loosely with you all…you all need to get out of here. I’m sick of all of you, and I don’t want to see any of you until tomorrow morning, on time if possible, right Brax?”

The laughter died down a little at this, and Gildon waved them off with a slight smile and they made their way to the elevator as a group, still chuckling.

Hey, Braxy!”

It was Kalvaa, again. Brax had told her that his mother called him this at some point, and she insisted upon calling him this ever since.

Take some pictures for me, will you. You know I like the ladies as well as the men. And if you want, call me over and I’ll help you by giving you some pointers.”

Brax brushed this off and waved her to scram, and she laughed again. Brax walked swiftly and suddenly felt very anxious. He had not ever been with a woman, sexually. He had, in fact, only kissed one girl in his life, and that was only twice. He knew that Karna was a few cycles older than he was, but hadn’t considered that this playful flirting might actually be based upon some reality that he had only thought about. Granted, he thought about it a lot, but he had only thought about it.

Brax was suddenly faced with the fact that he had to be at home with the present, and the present was scaring the crap out of him. He had to face the reality that he was going to spend time, alone, with a woman who had been quite forward with him and who was obviously attracted to him. He had no idea what he was going to do, and so he started running home.

Nothing like running towards your fears, he thought, and laughed to himself a little.

24. Gods

Damula and his crew had been waiting for some time. It was still dark, and nobody had approached the portal. Damula had spent some time telling the others what he knew about this place. The portal had been built by the Kozar, he had told them. It had been here for some time, more than a century. The Tallanians had since changed what they called themselves to the Kasarians, and this planet they called Kasara. Damula was almost certain that this had something to do with the Kasetians, but didn’t understand why they would change their name because of some alien visitors. Damula had not understood enough of what Vanini had tried to explain to grasp that part of the story.

Most of them sat around the edge of the dome, and two at a time would keep watch. It was quiet now, and the fire outside the walls had burnt itself out. Whatever fighting that had transpired was over, for now, and Damula thought that this location would be safest and so they remained. It rained slightly, but no thunder could be heard at the moment. There was a break in the clouds to their west, and this clearing was moving their way slowly. Damula could make out some stars there, and was taken aback by the quantity of them. They must have been quite close to the center of the galaxy, because the amount of stars and the pattern of them were unlike anything Damula would have seen on Thalea or anywhere else he had been. Damula had not seen many stars during his time here, and clearly he had seen a different part of the sky previously.

So, how long do we wait?”

Damula turned to look at Strasen, who had asked the question. There was an impatience that was beginning to settle on them, and Damula knew that before too much longer he would have to make a decision if Camen did not show. He had said he would be there shortly, and wondered if he had not survived the attack. From what Damula had seen right before he was transported, he didn’t know how that was possible, but what else would explain this?

Officer Muller, we will wait longer. I have reason to believe that Camen will return, and we need to give him more time.”

Damula knew that this would not sit well with them, but he also knew that they would not question it further, at least not for a while. A few of them whom had been sleeping had been awakened by the short discussion, and Keper Diden stood up, stretched a little, and approached Natak.

Natak, take a rest. I’ll take watch for a bit.”

Natak did look quite tired. Damula was sure that he had not allowed himself to sleep much in the last few days. Natak was in charge of security, and he took it quite seriously. But there was a limit to what he could do, and so he decided to take Keper up on his offer, and he nodded and walked over to sit next to Damula.

I hope that you are right. It’s been a while, and there were a lot of Nimri moving in on him when we left. It’s likely that he didn’t survive, and we are on our own.”

Damula took a deep breath. He had not told them what he had seen Camen do yet. He wasn’t sure why, but he thought that this was something that Damula would allow Camen to talk about, if he chose to. Looking at Natak, Damula smiled weakly and shifted his position to turn to him slightly.

You need to turn off that brain of yours for a bit, officer. Don’t worry about Camen, he can take care of himself. He survived being on that planet with the Nimri for much longer than we have been waging this war. My guess is that Camen is quite old and has some tricks we might not know about.”

Natak leaned back against the wall and stretched his arms as Damula continued.

You know, I think he actually was one of the Kasetians to visit this planet more than a century ago. In talking with some of the people here, the name Camen seemed familiar to them. Of course, there may be another Camen, perhaps his father or something, but I don’t think so.”

Natak seemed to take this as sufficient reason to not pursue the question, but in reality he was merely exhausted. Damula watched as his eyes closed and his breathing slowed. Good, Damula thought, get some rest.

Damula noticed that he was feeling tired himself, as he had not allowed himself to sleep too much during the last few days either. And as the clouds began to clear more, Damula took another look at the stars and then his eyes closed as well. The quiet of the night relaxed him, and he slept.

When Damula woke up, the sun was up. There were long shadows in front of him, and as he focused his blurry vision, he saw that Natak and Mikeli were talking about something quietly a few paces away. Yessin still was asleep to his left, having replaced Natak while Damula slept, and it looked like Menson had not been awake too long himself as he stretched to his right.

Damula got up and Mikeli noticed him and she and Natak walked over to him.

What’s going on?”

Damula, a few Kasarians have been seen peeking around the doorways at us in the last hour or so. I don’t think they are of any threat, but I thought you should know.”

Thank you, Mikeli. I’m going to go and see who they are. I want you to stay back here.”

Damula, I don’t think that’s a good…”

Natak, you’ll have to trust me on this. I don’t think they want me dead, otherwise they would have attacked already, is my guess. They are likely the guards that watch the portal, and they are probably too scared to come in because of our presence.”

Yes, Protector.”

Damula nodded and started to walk, and then realized he had forgotten something.

Which doorway?”

The east one, over there.”

The sun was just over the wall, but its brightness was obscured by a few clouds remaining in that direction. It was a clear day, for the most part, and no smell of rain was present. Damula waved his thanks to Mikeli again as he walked swiftly in that direction, shielding his eyes with his hands as he did so. As he walked, he did notice a head poke around the edge. There was too much sun to see clearly who it might be, but it seemed to recognize him, and rather than hide again it came around the edge more and motioned for his partner to come out from behind the wall as well.

As he got closer, Damula recognized them as his two friends from the day before. They looked like they were dirty, and one of them looked injured, but not severely. Some bandages were wrapped around his left forelimb, and it was stained with a bluish-purple stain that Damula assumed would have been blood, or something comparable.

Vanini? Where is Vanini?”

The two of them—he had not remembered their names—looked at one another and they cocked their heads to the side almost in unison. Damula stopped at this, only a few paces from them, and he suddenly felt a shiver.

What? You don’t mean to tell me that Vanini is dead, do you?”

Damula knew that they would not understand, but they seemed to know what Damula wanted to know to some degree.

Vanini martum aya vernus.”

The Kasarian followed this with a slow closing of his eyes and having his forelimbs hang loosely. This was not an expression he had seen before, but it looked enough like death to get the message across. Damula was about to continue when he heard a noise behind him, followed by a voice.

Damula, Camen is here!”

And before Damula could turn around to see him, both of the Kasarians had a look of unreserved awe and surprise, and they bowed. As Damula turned around, he saw that Camen had appeared behind him, and he looked at the two Kasarians and spoke severely.

Ata. ATA!”

The two of them raised themselves up to rest on their forelimbs, but still looked at the ground.

Damula, we have much to discuss, but before we do that I need to speak with these two for a few moments.”

Damula nodded and returned to where his crew was watching, and he heard Camen begin to speak to them.

What do you think they are talking about?”

I don’t know, Menson. He knows their language, so he’ll probably be able to clear this up for us when he’s done. All I know is that they bowed to me…well, except the ones who tried to kill me…when I first got here too. I’m not sure what that is all about.”

They watched as Camen talked with the two Kasarians. As they talked, the Kasarians seemed to become more comfortable and less submissive, and Camen eventually bowed his head to them and then turned towards Damula and his crew, while the Kasarians went in the other direction and towards the canyon. Camen walked over to Damula, and stopped a few feet away before speaking.

Damula, you and your people should come with me to somewhere else, somewhere more comfortable and private. Do you object?”

Damula looked around and nobody seemed to object, and so Damula shook his head.

Very well. In that case, prepare for transport.”

Damula was about to ask what he meant, but before he could open his mouth there was a flash and he found himself in a large room with rock walls, a large table in the center, and many monitors and other devices on desks throughout. Damula found that he was not the only one surprised, and it was Menson who spoke up first.

What was that? Where are we?”

I have not been introduced to this gentleman. Your name, sir?”

I’m sorry, my name is Menson Willem. I’m…”

He’s my second in command, Camen. He is a well trained security officer who I have promoted to command recently.”

I see, and the rest?”

OK, well, let’s introduce ourselves. Besides myself and Menson, there are my security officers, led by Natak Visti.”

Natak, and each after him in turn, waved or nodded in greeting to Camen, and Camen bowed his head in greeting to each.

Then there is officer Yessin Burn. She is the other security officer. There was one more when we arrived, but Feg Musrin was killed when the Nimri attacked.”

My condolences to you and your officers, Damula.”

Damula nodded and he allowed himself a moment before continuing. They had talked about Feg’s misfortune in the night while they waited for Camen to arrive, and more than one had cried at his loss. Damula could see that this sadness remained, but it seemed overpowered by expressions of curiosity as some of them looked around them uncertainly.

And then there are my engineers. I had brought them because I was not sure what I would find down on Kaset, and wanted them there to take a look at that dome. The lead engineer is Mikeli Zellem. She’s quite brilliant, I must say, and I have been quite lucky to have her on my ship throughout this war.

There is also Strasen Muller. He was on the team to design the power generators that we use on our ships, and so I keep him around to maintain them. Officer Bon Cesten is the one there with the long hair and the perpetual smile. Keper Diden, next to her, is my pilot and the last of my engineers with me here.”

It is an honor to meet you all. I am Camen. I am the last, as far as I have been able to determine, of the Kozar. I am sure that you have some questions, but first I wish to talk about what has happened here on Kasara.”

So, this here is still Kasara?”

Yes, Natak, it is. This is the facility that my colleagues and I used while we were here long ago. It is where we used to watch their civilization from, before we introduced ourselves to them. They do not know about it, I do not think, and I concluded that to talk here would be better than to remain at the temple.”

Temple? I’m not familiar with that word”

No, I am aware that you are not, Yessin. The Kasarian word for it is shursta, as I believe Zuzek already knows.”

Yes, that is what they called it, Damula confirmed.”

When the Kozar were here on Kasara long ago, before we returned home after our cities were destroyed, that building was called a shurasta, which was the Kozarian word for portal. The word, it seems, has turned into the Kasarian word for temple, which used to be a different word altogether, but appears to no longer be used. It seems that our presence here on Kasara has had an influence that we had hoped to prevent. It seems that they consider us, all of you as well as me, gods.”

Damula’s brow furrowed at this. He looked around and the others had similar looks of confusion.

Camen, I do not know this word, ‘god’”

Damula was thinking the same question, but it was Mikeli who has asked it before he could articulate the thought. Camen’s expression didn’t change except to make way for a very slight smile, and then Camen actually snorted a sort of laugh.

In all our travels, we have so far only encountered six intelligent races in the galaxy in addition to our own. We first found the Nimri, but they were not ready to have us introduce ourselves to them, and so we set up a place to watch them, much like this one here on Kasara, and remained for many cycles. They were a deeply legalistic culture that believed in a being that created them and gave them laws to live by, a being that was also responsible for the existence of the universe, of reason, and of beauty. The Nimri were a race of structure, conformity, and of discipline, but they were not especially violent. They lived in collective societies that were matriarchal and monarchical. They were getting close to being able to explore the galaxy with ships, and we thought that within a few more cycles we could introduce ourselves, but then that’s when the trouble started on Kaset that forced us to bring back all of our anthropologists and scientists, like myself, to try and defend what was left of our nation against the followers of a great enemy named Dupeth from killing everyone who was left. But before I get into too much detail about that, let me continue.”

Perhaps, Camen, we could all have a seat for this?”

Yes, of course, let’s all have a seat at this table.”

As they approached the table, a few noticed that the chairs were not suited for Thalean legs, and it was Keper who spoke up.

I’d love to sit, but our legs bend in a different way than yours do and these chairs will not work out so well.”

Camen, who was about to sit at the head of the table, laughed a little bit to himself.

Of course, I had not thought of that. Well, I might as well give this a try and see if it works. Please, stand back from the table.”

They all backed away and Camen reached for his pocket and pulled out his silver device and appeared to turn it on. There was a subtle feeling of static electricity in the room that they all reacted to, and a slight buzzing was just perceivable to them all.

I have not yet perfected this device, and I’m not sure if it will work now, but it’s worth a try.”

Camen closed his eyes and seemed to concentrate, and after a few moments the chairs, except for his, vanished. Camen opened his eyes and, with a smile, closed them again and seemed to concentrate more. Eventually, a chair, one fit for a Thalean, appeared next to the table. Camen peeked again and then went back to concentrating. After a few more moments, seven more chairs appeared around the table, and then Camen opened his eyes with a large smile beaming at what he had done, and Damula and the rest looked at him astonished.

How…how did you do that?”

Mikeli’s surprise seemed shared, and she and a few others walked over to the chairs and touched them to make sure they were real. Damula hung back and looked at the device that Camen was now putting back in his pocket. As it was switched off the buzzing and static feeling on his skin vanished, and the others seemed to notice it too, but they were too busy inspecting the new chairs and eventually sitting in them.

Making the old ones disappear is an easier task. Creating the new ones took more concentration. I know that you have even more questions now, but I will ask you to hold them until I’m done with what has transpired on Kasara.”

Sure, Camen. I think we can wait,” Damula said as he took a seat himself. And as he and the others finished settling into the chairs, Camen sat down as well and continued.

Shortly after we found the Nimri, we discovered another race that called themselves Bruuk. They were still living in forests mostly, and lived an agrarian and gathering lifestyle. They had little need for technology as they were quite rare in having a mild temperament, an abundance of resources, and a love of philosophical discussion. We never introduced ourselves to them either, despite the conclusion that they would have accepted us joyfully. I think that had we had more time among them, we would have within a short time.

It was not long after that when we found Thalea. We also set up a station there, and were impressed with your understanding of science and your curiosity. There were some things about your culture which we were not sure we were comfortable with, and so we did not introduce ourselves. I’m sure that you are curious what it was about you that made us think so, but I don’t want that discussion now.

In the meantime, we had encountered two other intelligent species, but either found them too primitive or too different. In one case, we would have been unable to communicate easily, as they had developed under the seas of their world and their atmosphere was poisonous to us, and in the other they barely had developed the controlled use of electricity.

Eventually, we discovered Tallania. Their technology does not look advanced, but it is more advanced than it looks. Their cities, despite being in canyons, mountains, and underground, are made with engineering knowledge that is impressive. Even their older cities are cut out of the mountains and canyons in ways that Thalean engineers would be impressed with. Their intricate carvings on the walls were the result of a deeply artistic people, and they were quite peaceful and open when we arrived. Despite this, many of the Kozar anthropologists and ethnologists still thought that they needed more time, and so we gave it to them. Unfortunately, we were discovered by accident, and so we were forced to introduce ourselves earlier than we would have under more controlled circumstances.

We had already learned their language, so we were able to tell them that we had come from another world and that we were friends. We explained that we had ships that had brought us there, and that we wanted to build a portal to make getting back and forth easier. They approved of our plan, and we built the portal that you see today.

However, we didn’t build the walls or any of the statues that are there now. It seems that, in our absence, the portal has become a symbol of us, and they have come to think of us as gods and so they have decorated the area around the portal as a holy place.”

Mikeli leaned in at this, her face contorted into frustration and impatience, and interrupted Camen’s story.

Yes, and that’s where this started, asking what a ‘god’ was.”

Mikeli, do you remember when I talked about the Nimri believing in a being that created them as well as the universe?”

Yes, is that what a god is?”

That is what a god is for the Nimri, yes. In general, a god is a supreme being that either created the world, the universe, a people, and has ultimate power, knowledge, etc. It is an object of belief held by nearly all civilizations I have known. But you, Thaleans, are the first species I have met that don’t have this concept. As far as I can tell, you Thaleans are the only world that has no such idea at all.”

Well, why would we believe in such a thing? It seems counter-intuitive. It seems absurd, even. Why would anyone believe that a being created the universe?”

Yes, Mikeli makes a good point Camen. Why would they think that the Kasetians were capable of such things, in order to be called gods themselves?”

Strasen’s question was a good one, and Camen looked as if he were about to continue to answer it when Damula voiced a possible answer.

Did you, Camen, at the time of your presence here have a device like the one that you used to make these chairs?”

Camen’s response was partnered with a smile.

Not as sophisticated as this one, but yes, we did.”

And did you use it in their presence?”

Yes, we did”

Then, it seems that the Tallanians, who I’m assuming believed in such beings, thought that maybe you were a god because they saw you use technology that they could not explain. And, given insufficient understanding, they could only explicate what they saw by thinking about you in terms of a previous concept they already had, even if they had to tweak that concept some.”

That seems to be a fair hypothesis, Zukek Damula. I’ll have to disagree with my fellow researchers who concluded that the Thaleans were largely incapable of abstract thinking.”

Is that then one of the reasons that you thought we were not ready to have you introduce yourselves yet?”

Yes, Natak, that is one of the reasons.”

Tell me more about these gods. I’m curious what kind of effects such a belief would have on a culture. What did people do about these beliefs?”

Well, Mikeli, that’s very complicated. I will tell you that it has some good and some bad effects, largely. I will tell you that I have known many people that believe such things, even a few Kozar. But it was the other nations of Kaset that felt the effects most, as they were dominated by ideas about god, or what we call religion.”

Religion? What is that?”

Well, that’s a good question that many have argued about. In general, it is some sort of codified system of beliefs about the nature of some god or gods that includes rules, stories of creation of the world, and people who talk about meeting these gods. And since we have left this planet, books have been written about our visit here and are now believed to be sacred books about gods, and they hold them in extremely high esteem. In fact, they hold them to so high esteem that Damula’s presence here has led some to conclude, from what I can tell since I came back recently, that you guys are trying to pretend to be the gods, while others think you are just another kind of god. It has caused a rift in the religions of this part of the world. I fear that it might cause some rifts that will take centuries to heal if they are not confronted soon.”

Wait,” Keper started, “are you telling me that even though you just…and I’m assuming this…that you just explained to those Kasarians that you are not a god that the people on this planet will still fight over whether we are imposter gods or real gods?”

Keper, I have watched religion and how it develops on my own world, and I can tell you that with most people, it does not matter what you show them or how much evidence you have, some people will believe anyway. The Kasarians are intelligent and reasonable people, but they are also deeply emotional and insecure, like most species.”

But, that doesn’t make any sense. Why would they reject solid evidence?”

Because, Strasen, these beliefs become intertwined with their emotions, and to question their beliefs would be painful to them and so they will reject the evidence. I’ve seen all sorts of things in history turn into stories and beliefs, and in the time since I have been gone from here, the story of Kasetian presence here has created a religion that has traditions, sacred books, and so forth. I’ve seen religions grow quickly, but not quite as quickly as this one has. It has completely transformed their culture and is spreading rapidly throughout the rest of the planet. To challenge that which has been so widely and deeply accepted would cause even more violence, I fear.”

Why would you think that?”

Damula’s question caused Camen to stop and to lean back a little. Camen looked severely at Damula and breathed deeply before responding.

Because I, as well as the vast majority of the Kozar, didn’t believe in these kinds of beings called gods, but all of the other nations were largely dominated by these beliefs. We had set up our nation upon the foundations of science, evidence, and of the lack of religion in response to the history of religious wars that had plagued our people. In response, we received hatred, lies about us, and mistrust. We rarely criticized the beliefs of the other nations, as we upheld the right to believe what one wanted, but that didn’t matter ultimately. Our mere existence threatened them in ways that inflamed political and economic tensions.

Eventually, a leader who believed in a particularly virulent and dangerous religion broke away from the Vishi and started his own society which grew rather quickly. At first, they kept to themselves mostly, but advertised a life that would be dedicated to the worship of their concept of god, and they would create a haven for those that wanted to escape a world that was becoming less and less religious; less fervent in the old beliefs. Some of the nations allied with them, especially the Tuyin nation who, despite their differences in opinion about the nature of gods, were very devout themselves.

Dupeth, with the occasional help from the Tuyin, eventually started to bomb certain buildings, especially in Kozar, but also in Vishi lands and sometimes within the Makin Kingdom. The Bombath were rarely involved, as they were remote and peaceful, and were of little influence anyway. We tried diplomacy, setting up checkpoints in and out of our borders and then finally some minor military action within the borders of Dupeth’s rogue nation, which was mostly small villages in the mountains and deserts. And for a while, the bombings stopped.”

Camen stopped at this, and he appeared to restrain some emotion. The others listened carefully, and they seemed to be both confused and angry as they listened.

I’m guessing that when they bombed and destroyed your cities, it was largely unexpected.”

Camen nodded to Damula, and then continued.

Along with those massive explosions, they also attacked our military installations. It appeared that they were working along with the Tuyin, who probably supplied them with the resources to create the bombs and other weapons. Within a couple of days more than 96% of our population had been killed or severely injured, and we had little to no military left to respond with. We pleaded with the Vishi and the Makin to help, but the Makin refused. They were very peaceful and almost always refused to fight. That would change as the wars escalated, but at first they pulled out of our treaty with them. The Vishi immediately created a military presence within our borders and then attacked Dupeth, most likely killing him in the first attack. The Bombath also helped, but mostly with food and medical resources, but would eventually be drawn into the conflict as well.

Dupeth had created a small but dangerous group of people all over the planet that managed to do an incredible amount of damage. Eventually, the remaining nations started fighting each other, trying to survive. Centuries-old rivalries and cultural differences overtook political and economic alliances, and soon there was nowhere safe from warfare. In a matter of two cycles, the entire planet would be nearly in ruin, and the minor nations that were of little significance were targeted as well and devastated.

When the Nimri arrived cycles later, they would find only the five nations that would eventually manage to transform the Nimri into their mercenaries. The Nimri were brainwashed, engineered, and transformed. The other nations used technology that we had developed to do so, and we were so few and without any means of defense or influence to stop them. We tried to convince them it would end badly, but they did not listen.”

Camen then stopped and reached into his pocket, pulling out the silver object and placed it on the table. It was a cylinder not quite as long as a forearm, rounded perfectly and shiny without a hint of a scratch. At one end was a small translucent ball that was dull at the moment, and then Camen turned it on, making the ball glow ever so slightly. The buzzing static feeling returned, and they all seemed to be asking the same silent question.

During the war, the few of us that were left of Kozar developed devices like these. This is the last one, of my own design, and is the most powerful and wide-ranged in use. We created them as a means of defense, but also in order to not be dependent upon the resources of the other nations. Their support was used as leverage against us, and we wanted our independence back. Turning what was once a tool of science into a formidable weapon was not easy, but with this I think I have succeeded.

The problem was that the other nations got a hold of a few of our earlier prototypes, and they began to use them and reverse engineer them. It was the resulting technologies which made the Nimri on Kaset so dangerous. It is only because I have an upgraded and improved version of the technology that I was able to hold them off for as long as I did. But now that the Vishi have developed their new ship, they have come back and have apparently ceased any friendly terms with me that once existed. It seems that I no longer can have any positive influence on the other Kasetians, assuming any of the others survive this war.”

Damula folded his arms over his chest and leaned back in his chair. A few of the others whispered to themselves, and Camen looked dejected. Camen toyed with the device, and Damula saw that the others were looking at it curiously. Damula wanted to know what it did, how it was powered, and how it worked, but he suppressed those questions for the moment.

Camen, what is the situation on and in orbit around Kaset at the moment, as far as you know?”

The crew discontinued their conversations as Camen looked at Damula gravely. They could tell that the situation was not good, and Camen’s reluctance to respond made Damula more nervous. There had been a sizable force of Thalean ships in the area, including his own, and knowing that the Vishi had brought in their new ship made this reticence uncomfortable.

Damula, most of your fleet is fine.”

Damula sighed in mild relief, and then Camen raised his hand to stop Damula from responding.

Your ship was destroyed.”

The room was deadly still. Damula and his crew, now all that was left of the Office of Protection, it seemed, stared at Camen with disbelief.

What do you mean it was destroyed? How?”

The Vishi concentrated the power of three of their ships and destroyed it. Even with your new reactors and the arsenal it carried, they couldn’t hold out for long. I did what I could do to try and help, but in the end I couldn’t do enough.”

Damula’s head dropped, and he felt an anger grow inside him. His hands turned into fists and he stood up and turned towards the wall and his chest heaved.

Zuzek, you should know that two of the Vishi ships were also destroyed in the battle. The one that survived was not the new one. That has been destroyed as well. My guess is that if any of the Kasetian leaders from Vishi had survived, they would have been on that ship. The Nimri have been severely wounded, but they will re-group and the war will continue.”

Then we must return. We must get back to Thalea and inform them of what we know and what we can do about it,”Damula said, looking committed and certain. He then turned back to Camen, who was now standing. “Take us back to Kaset.”

I cannot.”

Why not?”

The portal on that end has been destroyed. I can take us to any of the other portals from here, however. I would just need to re-program the portal here to send us elsewhere.”

And where can we go?”

At this point, we can go to Brua, Nimria or to Thalea.”

There is a portal on Thalea?”

Yes, it is on one of the islands on the ocean side of your home. We thought it best to keep it there because you have no settlements on that side of the planet and rarely travel there.”

And how have we not found it, even now?”

We have ways to hide things from even you, Damula. Our technology is much more advanced than what you have seen so far, but that will change. In the coming days, we will return to Thalea, but we will not remain there. We will only be there long enough to get a ship, go through one of your portals to get back to Kaset, and there is where we will stay for some time.”

Why? Why can’t we stay on Thalea?”

Because I will not risk giving the technology I have to more than the people in this room. I have learned that it is too dangerous to be shared. It is one of the other things about your society we weren’t sure was compatible with us. We Kozar do not share everything with others because when we did, they used it against us and for undesirable ends. We cannot trust the population of Thalea or any other world with what we have found, because most are simply not ready for it.”

Damula looked at Camen in disbelief. He wanted to shout at Camen for saying something so insulting, but then Bon Cesten spoke up.

Damula, I can see that you are angry at hearing such things, but isn’t that the purpose of the Office of Protection? Isn’t that the philosophy we have employed for similar reasons?”

Camen nodded at this, and Menson stepped in.

I think that might be the reason why Camen has chosen us to reveal this information to. We are already not part of the greater Thalean culture. We have, on your words Protector, already seceded from the Thalean government. We need to find a way to assist the Thalean government to protect Thalea, and it looks like Camen has the means to make this possible in ways that we would not have on our own.”

Damula looked at Menson, and he saw the leader that he had picked in his eyes. Damula could only smile; they were both right. Damula looked around the room and saw that the others agreed as well, but he wanted to give them the chance to object.

I want to hear any opposition to this. I want to know if anyone has any problem with pursuing this path. Because, and this is my guess that Camen can either confirm or deny, that this is a path that may have long term consequences and it may be difficult to turn back from.”

Damula looked to his right to find Camen nodding in assent, and Damula then scanned the faces of all of the others at the table. There no verbal response, just looks of contemplation.

OK, I’m going to give each of you a day or so to think about this. In the mean time, we need to get back to Thalea and get ourselves a ship. I don’t think I will have much of a problem convincing Supreme Commander Milinos, despite our deteriorated relationship, to give me one if I tell him that we may have found a way to protect Thalea better.”

Damula stopped to think, looked at Camen, and continued.

Camen, I’m assuming that we should not give any of these details to the Thalean government right now, beyond what they already likely know. My question is whether you plan on introducing yourself to them?”

Camen nodded.

Yes, I would like to address them, if they want to hear what I have to say. I will give them some documents that will give them a brief history of what happened on Kaset and how the Nimri are our responsibility. I think it is fair for them to know. What they do with that information is up to them. I will not give them any information about our technology or what we intend to do. I will tell them that I am working with you, so they will not think that I have managed to brainwash or otherwise manipulate you. They may not believe this, so you should expect some resistance.”

Of course. If you have decided to share some of your information, I will not object. Now, we need to get moving quickly. How long will it take to reprogram the portal to take us to Thalea?”

It’s already done.”

Very well then, let’s go.”

Damula stood up and the others followed. In a flash, they found themselves in front of the Kasarian portal again, and the two guards who had returned to their post were quite startled and quickly bowed. Camen spoke to them and they quickly calmed down a bit and rose to their hindlimbs before moving aside to let them through.

Camen stopped to speak to the guards for a moment and Damula and his men walked through the portal. Damula was the last to wait again, and he watched as they spoke. Damula still didn’t know what they were saying, but listened carefully. Camen seemed to be talking about the portal, and they listened. As Camen finished, he bowed his head and joined Damula at the entrance.

I have told them, again, that they should not enter the portal. I do not believe they will, but in order to be safe I will turn off the portal’s automatic function on this end for now so that they will not come to Thalea. I have also told them, again, that we are not gods. They do not believe me. It is a problem we will have to deal with later. For the moment, we have larger concerns to address.”

Damula shook his head and they walked into the portal and Camen activated it with a few touches of the controls. He then added a barrier to the portal entrance and then activated the transporter.

For the first time in quite a long time, Damula found himself on Thalea. He could not help but smile and take in a deep breath. He was home.

25. Karna

Karna woke up first. There was no alarm that morning because Brax had not turned it on. As her eyes opened, the first thing that she saw was Brax’s shoulder, and then an ear. He was sleeping soundly, and she tried to not move in order not to wake him. He is so cute, she thought. He had been so nervous last night after they finished eating. She had wanted this to happen for what felt like a long time, and when he had told her he had never been with a woman she found it very arousing. She wanted to be his first, and she had gotten her wish.

She felt well-rested, and she was certain that they had overslept and that class was probably already half over, if not already done. She didn’t bother calling up the time, she decided to just enjoy the moment. She draped her arm gently over his chest and ran her finger over his nipple. He had a small amount of hair on his chest, but it was mostly smooth and she liked the way it felt against her fingertips. As she continued to play, she noticed that he was starting to wake up.

She slid her fingertips down his chest and circled around his stomach, and his head tilted a bit and his breathing deepened, but his eyes were still closed. Her fingers traveled lower, and she felt that he was completely erect.

She had hoped he would be.

As she played with him his eyes opened, and he looked at her and smiled.

Good morning, Braxy.”

Rather than respond he pulled her hand off of him and rolled over onto her, and Karna’s eyes went wide with anticipation, biting her bottom lip, and her arms wrapped themselves around him. As he penetrated her she sighed and thus it started again.

This time, it was Brax that awoke first. He had no idea what time it was, but it must have been late. He called up the clock and saw that it was nearly mid-day and he felt quite hungry. As he started to get up Karna’s eyes opened and she held onto his wrist, and pulled him back.

Where do you think you are going, Braxy?”

Well, I was feeling like I might need a shower. Also, I’m very hungry. I imagine you would be hungry to.”

Well, I am hungry, and I think you know what I want.”

Brax was very hungry, but he had to admit that another competing desire was rising along with another part of him, and he dove on top of her, causing her to squeal with surprise, and he kissed her. He reached back and pulled the covers over them and he began to kiss along her ribcage and she tried to fight back, but only half-heartedly. As his kisses continued to move downwards, she found that her hands guided him to where she wanted them to go, and she decided it was time to teach him another skill.

She was finding that she was thoroughly enjoying training him. She had not had the opportunity to do so before, but it was an idea that had always appealed to her. He was a quick learner it seemed, and he certainly had the energy of an eighteen cycle old. And as she felt her starting to climax again, she thought that this was even better than she had hoped. She didn’t know what had changed his mind, but she was glad….

And that was the point where coherent thought became a skill beyond her means.

After she screamed again, he pulled himself up to kiss her, and she returned it hungrily and as they went for their fourth turn, Brax thought that he could do this all day.

And so that’s what they did. Their enjoying each other in this way was only interrupted by some food, water, and a shower or two (which inevitably lead to more of the same).

At the end of the day Brax had felt like he had the greatest workout he had ever had. He could not imagine anything more fun.

The next morning an alarm did go off early. Karna and Brax were wrapped around one another as they both jerked awake at the noise and the flash, and they each pulled the other close as their eyesight adjusted.

Karna didn’t miss many classes, and didn’t want to miss two in a row. But as they lay there, they both thought that it might not be so bad. Brax was starting to kiss her again when she pushed him back.

OK, it’s not that I don’t want to, but I think it might be more fun to wait.”

What? Why?”

Trust me on this Brax. I have to say I’m a little sore from yesterday, and I think that if we let some of this build up for a bit, later on we will enjoy it that much more.”

Brax actually felt a little sore himself, and so he didn’t argue. Instead, he kissed her before jumping out of bed, materializing a shower once again.

Hey, if you don’t mind can you think up some firstmeal? I’m really hungry and can’t decide what I want, so you decide.”

Karna smiled and thought about what she wanted to eat. She thought some fresh fruits, juice, and some mushrooms with hulip sauce would be good, and so they appeared on a table with two chairs on the other side of the bed. She took a sip of juice and a bit from a mushroom before she hopped into the shower with Brax.

Karna and Brax were intent on not being late, and so they were running hard. They might make it in time, but it would be close. As they approached the building they saw that Kader and Shittaro were just arriving as well, and so they knew they were not late, at least not too late.

When they got off the elevator, they could see that the class was just sitting down in the circle, and so they ran to the door. As they were about to go in, both Brax and Karna stopped and tried to catch their breath.

OK, we made it on time,” Karna started. “Now, let’s just hope that they don’t tease us too much, as they all probably guessed why we didn’t make it to class yesterday.”

Brax nodded and they walked in together. As their footfalls were heard, most of them either turned around or peeked around others to see the two coming in as Gildon was about to start class.

Welcome, Brax. Welcome Karna. We missed you two yesterday!”

Kalvaa had made some comment that neither of them could hear, but it was followed by muffled laughter.

Now Kalvaa, that wasn’t very nice. I’m sure he did just fine.”

Most of the class laughed without even attempting to muffle the noise at this, apparently being surprised to have Gildon join in on the teasing.

Brax and Karna, now blushing and repressing smiles of their own, took seats that were not next to each other. But Karna smiled at Brax as they sat down, and Brax smiled back.

I apologize, Brax and Karna. We should not assume anything, but your both being absent was quite the conversation piece yesterday among these quite immature practitioners of Purista. I must point out that most of them were quite childish about it, I’d say.”

Of course, Gildon, you smiled at most of the better jokes, if I remember.”

OK Timsaar, we can leave all of that behind us. Let’s not bother those two anymore right now and continue with the class. So, who would like to start today?”

I would, Gildon.”

Very well, Halxis, and who would you like to spar with?”

Well, I was going to pick either Brax or Karna, but they are probably both too tired to lift their swords.”

Despite the embarrassment, even Karna was laughing at this, but Brax felt a little uncomfortable even though he was smiling. He had to admit that he’d probably do the same thing to someone else in his situation, so he tried not to feel angry about it. But as his eyes traveled to his left he saw that Elatia was not laughing. In fact, her expression conveyed anger or at least annoyance. She wasn’t looking at Brax but at Karna. Karna didn’t notice this, but Brax did, and Brax’s smile dissipated.

As the laughter died down, Elatia caught Brax’s gaze and quickly looked away, but then she stood up and picked up her sword.

I will volunteer, so long as Halxis does not object.”

The room seemed to pick up on her ill mood, and smiles started to fade and Gildon turned to his daughter.

Sure, Elly, if you like. Do you object, Halxis?”

No, of course not.”

As Elatia moved to the center of the circle Brax caught her shoot daggers from her eyes at Karna, but Karna was looking at Brax and didn’t notice. Halxis was stretching, but Elatia didn’t bother and went straight to a starting position.”

Elly, do you not need to stretch?”

No, father, I don’t. I stretched sufficiently before class, and feel ready.”

Gildon had a look of concern on his face as he held his hand to his chin, but he shrugged and walked out of the circle to sit down.

Very well, whenever you are ready, Halxis, you two may begin.”

Halxis, who was twice the size of Elatia and whose sword was significantly longer and heavier, looked at Elatia and saw that something was not right. A look of concern dropped onto his face, but he decided to continue anyway, and moved to the center of the circle and prepared to begin.

OK, on my clap, begin…”

crack

Elatia moved quickly and attacked, while Halxis countered and managed to guide her attacks away from him, almost knocking her over in the process, but he did not counter. She turned and continued to attack, quickly changing angles and thrusts, but not managing to break the Bruuk’s defenses. He appeared to merely deflect her attacks, and made no attempt to counter, even though her aggressive postures kept putting her in vulnerable positions.

Why won’t you fight back, Halxis!”

She yelled at him. She had stopped for a moment and they looked at one another as both of them breathed heavily. He simply held his sword in a defensive posture but did not move.

Why are you not attacking?”

Elatia lowered her sword and stepped closer, but Halxis did not move. Instead, he, as well as the rest of the room, stared at her in disbelief.

Elly, I think that this spar is over. Have a seat, please.”

Elatia began to catch her breath and her eyes seemed to be digging into the floor. As her obvious anger faded into embarrassment, she dropped her sword and, without saying a word or looking at anyone, she pushed past two students in the circle and walked swiftly out of the room. Gildon stood up and followed after her less quickly, and called over his shoulder to the circle.

Break into pairs and practice thrust counters until I return. If I’m not back in fifteen, go to meditation.”

There were a few moments of silence that teemed with confused looks and shaking of heads, eventually Halxis, who was still standing in the circle, got the attention of Shittaro and they walked to one of the sides and began to work on their techniques. Tomerch Baldea, who was sitting next to Brax, tugged Brax’s shirt and Brax, who had been looking at Karna’s perturbed expression, nodded absently to Tomerch and then stood up.

As the others broke into pairs, it was clear that everyone was talking about what had just happened.

So, what do you think that was all about, Brax?”

Brax had been looking in Karna’s direction, but her back was to him at the moment. Brax had heard the question, and he had an idea of what had happened, but it didn’t seem to add up in his head.

Brax, you there?”

Brax’s thoughts were shattered as he shook his attention back to Tomerch. He stood a pace or two away from him and pretended to prepare to thrust with his sword, while Brax absently held his sword in front of him. They could both see that most of the others—except Halxis and Shittaro—were also pretending to practice, and Brax wondered why they even bothered, and lowered his sword and looked at Tomerch, who also lowered his.

Tomerch, have you ever seen Elatia act like that before? Was she normal yesterday?”

He seemed to consider this, and then he nodded a little as he answered.

She did seem to be a little quieter yesterday, but she seemed alright overall. She didn’t join us for lunch and drinks after class, like she usually would. I’ve never seen her like that, though.”

Brax considered his, and still it didn’t seem to make sense to him.

Hey, but never mind all that right now, what happened with you and Karna two days ago. We could not help but notice that you two didn’t show up yesterday; we talked about that after class over drinks. But then you both showed up together today, and I must say it seemed to confirm what we thought.”

Brax reddened a little more and Tomerch suppressed a laugh, and Brax looked at him with a look of annoyance.

Sorry, sorry…. Hey, she’s a great girl, that’s awesome. I’ve thought about asking her to have dinner and drinks with me in the past, but I never got the feeling that she was into me.”

Well, I’ve known that she was interested in me for a while, but I never did anything about it until the other day.”

And why was that?”

Brax realized that if he told Tomerch that he had previously been more interested in Elatia, he might think that Brax was implying that he had been with her in the past too, and that Elatia’s actions today were in response to being jealous of Karna. And while Brax thought it much more likely that Elatia’s actions were the result of something complexly unrelated, the timing did make it seem like a possible explanation at least. Brax decided to not say anything at that moment, and just stared at Tomerch who looked as if he were about to press the issue, when Gildon came back in alone.

I see that many of you have become too distracted to practice. Very well, let’s do some demonstration of technique instead, and perhaps that will keep your attention.”

The class all turned to look, but did not move initially.

Come on, let’s go! Everyone in a half-circle, please.”

As everyone gathered around Gildon, who had picked his sword back up, Gildon looked as if he needed to settle himself and he closed his eyes for a moment before he continued. Before he did so, Gildon looked at Brax with what looked like a combination of annoyance and sympathy, and then addressed the class as a whole.

OK, today I want to demonstrate shoulder throws…”

The rest of the class moved along very slowly, and Brax felt apprehension as the time neared its end.

Later that day Brax was sitting in a park alone, thinking about the last few days, when Karna found him and sat next to him. Brax looked at her and smiled, and she smiled back.

So, you left class quickly again. I figured you would have gone home so I looked for you there. I had to use the system to locate you, and here you are.”

Brax sat watching some birds search through the grass and didn’t respond. He didn’t know what to say.

So, is everything alright?”

Karna, have you ever seen Elatia act like that before?”

I grew up with Elatia. She’s a couple of years younger than I am, but I’ve known her all my life. We have never been friends really, but I know her well enough. I know that she has a little bit of a temper, but I have never seen her as she was in class today without any obvious cause. I don’t understand what happened with her.”

I am not sure either, but I have a feeling that it might have something to do with us.”

Karna looked at him confused, and then something clicked home, and she laughed.

Brax, you don’t think she actually likes you or something, do you?”

Brax’s face grew red at this, causing Karna to put her hands over her mouth to stifle the laughter a little.

What, is that impossible?”

Brax, I think you’re adorable, and you are quite sexy…. But Elatia is so out of your league. There isn’t a person in this city that likes girls who hasn’t thought about her, and she could have any of them, I have little doubt. I saw the way that you looked at her. I’ve looked at her myself sometimes, but I know she’s out of my league too.”

So, you like girls too?”

Well, yeah. I actually tend to prefer them in some cases, but I make exceptions.”

And how many exceptions would that be?”

Karna looked at him with a smile. He was so cute when he was jealous. But she saw that as she looked at him, his jealousy was fading.

I’m sorry Karna, it doesn’t matter and I really don’t care. I’m just a little worked up right now.”

Why? Because you think that if she’s really into you that you may have lost your chance?”

Well, I don’t know, maybe.”

Brax, if she’s into you then go for it. I’m willing to share if she is. Of course, she better be willing to share!”

Brax didn’t reply at all. He sat motionless and continued to watch the birds sift through the grass for a snack and then took a deep breath. Karna sat down next to him, saw no response, and then nudged a little closer to him and poked at his ribs a little, causing him to smile at the tickling. He didn’t feel like laughing but he could not exactly help it. He looked at her and she stopped poking him. Her smile was warm, loving, and genuine. Brax was finding that he really liked her, and so he smiled back with a little bit of forcing of his mood and put an arm around her.

Besides, I’m so much better in bed than she is.”

Brax laughed a little and then he pulled her close and held her. As he did so, he felt that he was aroused again. He was not really in the mood to be this intimate at the moment, but he didn’t want to seem as if he was not in the mood, because he could see that she was ready to continue the workout they had the day before.

Your place is closer, right?”

Karna pulled away from him and smiled at him feverishly and bit her lip again. He loved it when she did that. In a flash she was up on her feet pulling him along towards her space. He eventually out-paced her, picked her up and spun her around while kissing her. As she returned to the ground she ran to catch up with his pace and they disappeared around a corner.

Nearby, on another bench, Elatia sat and watched them go. Neither of them had noticed her sitting there, which didn’t surprise her one bit. She was no longer upset as she had been earlier, nor was she angry. She had had time to think about what happened during class and felt an embarrassment about it all. She had acted terribly and she knew that people would look at her differently. It would fade, of course, as life went on and they forgot about it. But for now she was embarrassed.

The thing that made it frustrating was that she didn’t know why she had become so jealous. She had thought about it, and she decided that it was because she was so used to being chased, and Brax had not done so as she expected. She liked being chased, and his not doing so made her think that maybe he was not interested in girls and thus not interested in her. Still, she was intrigued by him, and wanted to know more about him.

She had watched Brax during class for some time, never allowing him to see her doing so, but also never seeing him watch her as other men (as well as quite a few women) almost always did. He never approached her, and she wasn’t used to that. She thought that maybe he liked men and so didn’t worry about it, but seeing this now made her think that he just preferred Karna. This, Elatia thought, was not how it was supposed to work.

Brax was supposed to approach her, say how much he wanted to be with her, and then she was supposed to play with him and make him work to earn her attention. After a while she might decide to reciprocate a little and he would work for more. Men were so easy to manipulate, after all. They thought so much with their libidos that she could usually get them to pay attention to her on her terms. And Karna, of course, would pick up the remains. That was how it had been for the past few years, anyway.

Brax had seemingly ignored her and had gone for Karna. This had not happened before and it had made Elatia angry. Now she just felt silly. She had not realized how overconfident she had become. She hadn’t realized that she had become so dependent upon this feeling of superiority and of being the object of people’s desires. It was not something that she wanted to continue. She had to realize that not everyone would want her first. She had to grow up. Today had been the first lesson, she decided, in realizing that she could not have everything, and that it was not all about her.

This realization had not come easily. She had talked with her father, and he had understood, but she had to take a long walk and sort through her feelings. She felt grateful for having been raised in an environment that pushed her to become self-challenging, because she at least knew how to find what the problem was, and what to do about it.

Elatia liked Karna. Karna was sometimes a little blunt, but she liked her. Perhaps that was why Karna had managed to get to Brax’s attention first, she thought now. Perhaps she had looked at this all wrong. Perhaps Brax was just very shy and had been intimidated by her. This place was not a home for the shy; people who are shy do not investigate the Protectorate and don’t get sent here, but perhaps he was an exception.

And then Elatia thought that perhaps Brax was here for some other reason. Perhaps he was a genius, like his father, and the Protectorate wanted him close for similar reasons. Not everyone here was here because they had discovered too much, after all. Sometimes people were brought here because they had something that the Protectorate wanted.

Elatia thought that she’d let the two of them burn out whatever fun they were having right now, and then she would approach him when they seemed less separable. She still thought it would be worth giving him a shot. She wanted to solve this mystery of this strange boy who had been sent here. Nobody had been sent here younger than he, and that had to make him worth the consideration.

For once, she would do the chasing.

26. The Protectorate

Damula sat at a table with Camen, who had made his own seat, in the new primary military complex just outside of Gullina. At the table were the leaders of the military. Damula knew most of them, but two were unfamiliar. Yeri Jasmi had so far refused to speak to Damula, despite his attempts to initiate conversation, and Damula painfully understood this and didn’t press her even though he knew he may not see her for some time after today. She was a member of the military leadership so she was here, whether she wanted to be or not.

Damula found that he couldn’t stop himself from looking at her. Despite their differences there was much about her he always found intoxicating, and in the time away from her he had forgotten what being in her presence was like. He had forgotten how much he still cared for her, and this wall she erected between them caused him sadness, and deep down he knew nothing would ever be the same.

He forced himself to look elsewhere, the wall was an improvement, and as Camen watched Damula in this moment, which did not escape his notice, Damula adjusted his position in the chair and tried to focus his attention. Now was not the time for such thoughts as there were large and very serious discussions to be had.

As Halen Milinos entered the room, Damula’s mouth dropped a little and he sat up straight. He doesn’t look good, Damula thought. He looked much older, beaten, and he walked slowly. The others had stood up out of respect for their Supreme Commander, and as he reached his seat they settled back down and the room became quiet.

Zuzek Damula, you have caused quite a disturbance here in your absence. Some of us were not sure if you and your crew survived the Nimri attack at Kaset. It appears as if most of them have not, but those that joined you on the surface did. I wonder…”

One did not.”

Excuse me, Damula?

Feg Musrin did not survive. He died on the surface when the Nimri attacked us there.”

Very well, I see. Well the rest of your Office of Protection has been wiped out. Your ship, that massive and so secretive technology is now gone. Had you shared the plans with us we might be able to rebuild it, but now we can’t, and I can’t tell you how much that makes me angry.”

Milinos settled into his seat and drank some water from a glass in front of him, and then turned and indicated Camen while he maintained his attention towards Damula.

And now you bring some alien to our planet that, as far as we can tell, is largely responsible for the Nimri being as they are. I’ve read his reports, and I’m frankly surprised that you would bring him here, knowing that he is responsible for what the Nimri are now. And, despite these facts, you tell us that he is going to help us in this war. Now, I know you are a smart man, Zuzek, and I know you should be able to explain to me why we should trust this alien.”

Damula looked at Milinos steadily. Camen did not move more than he needed to breathe. He seemed to be acutely aware that he was being scrutinized, and allowed Damula to handle this situation, for now.

Supreme Commander, you misunderstand. We are not asking you to trust him. We are not asking you to do anything with the exception of to give us a small ship, something large enough to get us to Kaset. We will have our own resources soon enough, I believe, and we will help you in your fight against the Nimri. All you need to do is to maintain your defense of Thalea and, at least for now, stay away from Kaset and Nimria. Concentrate your defense here and we will contact you when we are ready.”

Damula, I will not take orders from you. You seceded from this military body and your orders hold no weight here any longer. Frankly, I don’t know what I should do except to hold you responsible and to arrest you. After the tribunal we will see what can be done, but I will not release you or the rest of your Office of Protection, whatever is left of it, without a full hearing.”

Damula had not flinched, but he felt his face wanting to smile in frustrated disbelief.

You intend to arrest us?”

Yes, the others are already being held in a room and we will find a place, a comfortable place I assure you, for the eight of you to stay until the military decides what we are going to do with you.”

I see, and what will you do with our friend Camen?

Well, your friend will be staying elsewhere with us, and we will figure out what to do with him as well. I have a feeling he knows more than he is telling us, and we want to know what he knows.”

I see. And if he will not tell you any more?”

That is not your concern, Damula.”

Damula looked at Camen, who still had not moved, and Damula got up. As he did so, two guards that had been stationed behind him for what he thought was the protection of the room suddenly moved closer to him and Damula stopped and looked at Milinos, and then at Carron Wulliter. While much older than Milinos, Wulliter looked quite energetic and vital in comparison. Wulliter was looking down, apparently thinking, and it was he whom Damula was looking at as he began to speak.

Officer Wulliter, I know you to be a man of wisdom, thoughtfulness, and great experience. Tell me if you agree with this decision.”

Carron Wulliter didn’t look particularly surprised to be addressed, but he did look hesitant to speak. Damula had never known this man to be intimidated, but this is how he looked, if only a little.

Zuzek, I am not sure what to tell you. Your actions have been erratic and your decisions dubious at times. We simply do not understand your decision to seek out this Kasetian and your decision to go back to Kaset in a transport with him. It seems peculiar and leaves me uncertain about your motives and your judgment at this juncture. Perhaps if you gave us more information or at least gave us some time to make sure that you have thought this through, we might feel differently.”

I see, thank you for your thoughts, officer.”

Damula turned to Milinos and his passion rose as he stared at this man who he had thought of as a friend for many years. He took a deep breath to steady his anger and he leaned towards the Supreme Commander with his palms on the table as he spoke to him directly, but obviously addressing the entire room.

However, I will not be staying, and neither will my crew. You have no legal right to hold us against our will, and you especially have no right to hold Camen. Camen is the last of his nation and has resources that you don’t comprehend, and…”

Like what? What resources does he have?”

This was Yeri that jumped in. Her voice had a shrillness to it that Damula had only heard from her once or twice before. She was a passionate woman, but now there was a sort of desperation and sadness in her tone that Damula hated to hear. Damula turned his head reluctantly from Milinos to the mother to his son, but she looked at him as an enemy would, her eyes filled with anger, hatred, and pain. Damula felt sad to see her this way, and he wished that he hadn’t had to leave her the way he did, so suddenly and so harshly, but knew that it had been necessary. He wished she understood what he had done and why, but she simply didn’t seem to. He hoped that one day she would.

Yeri…”

Please address me as officer Jasmi, former Officer Zuzek Damula!”

Damula’s heart sank at this. She had not called him by his full name since he had first met her. She had been his lover, friend, and the mother to his son and now she was ‘officer Jasmi’ to him. He felt a strain within his face that made him want to cry, to yell, and to plead with her all at once. He stuffed it down hard and he forced himself to look into those pained eyes longer and to continue unflinchingly.

Officer Jasmi, the nature of Camen’s resources and technology will not be revealed to you because…”

“—I don’t want to hear your reasons. We have talked about this and your Office of Protection is no more, and so its policies are insufficient. You will either divulge all of your information…”

Yeri…”

“…no, Halen, I will not hold back! Damula, by the order of the Thalean Office of the Military and of the Office of the Civil Government, you will divulge all that you know to us about the technology obtained through the former Office of Protection and allow us to use what technology you have or we will hold you indefinitely.”

That’s it; I’ve had enough of this!”

Carron Wulliter had risen to his feet and was staring straight at Jasmi, and then turned to Milinos.

I will no longer sit back and watch this military body become more and more aggressive to its own people. I will not allow you to hold prisoners under my watch and force them to do anything for reasons of fear and desperation. I understand your fear, but these are people and they have served us, even if we have not always agreed with their methods.”

OK, everyone please calm down! Carron, sit, please. Yeri, not another word from you, either. As Supreme Commander, I say that this is necessary. We have talked about this, we have voted, and this is the decision we have come to. You will either follow the policies of this Office or you will…”

“—Will what, Halen, be kicked out? You know the situation we are in and we need every resource we can manage. What you have now is insufficient to combat the Nimri as the conflict stands now, and holding these people may not improve the situation at all, but will only be creating a further injustice to satisfy your anger at feeling betrayed by your old friend Zuzek Damula.”

Damula wished he didn’t feel like smiling as he watched Carron Wulliter lambaste his old friend. Damula didn’t think it would matter what Wulliter said, because when the Supreme Commander decided something he almost always stuck with it. But if anyone could change his mind, it would be this man who the Supreme Commander had chosen as his closest adviser. Milinos had a look of determination in his eyes and he was about to reply when Camen stood up, attracting the attention of the guards, who pointed their weapons at him and the room froze as Camen looked at the two armed men.

Do you intend to shoot me?”

The guards looked uneasily at Milinos, but Milinos made no gesture but watched closely as the alien spoke.

I have come here asking for a small favor from you. After that, we will not bother you or your decisions again. If you will not help us, we will go elsewhere to seek out assistance.”

And where do you think you will go, Kasetian?”

Camen looked very severely at Milinos in response to his snorted question, and then to Wulliter.

I appreciate your willingness to stand up for us, Officer Carron Wulliter. Your courage I find refreshing here.”

And then he seemed to address the whole room.

There are other worlds that my people know about that may be willing to help us. Their technology is not as advanced, but they may be sufficient for our needs. If you will not help us, we will go to them.”

Supreme Commander Milinos stood up and gestured to the guards, who grabbed Damula and began to bind his hands behind his back, and a second pair of guards moved towards Camen, who looked at them with mild amusement. It was then that Damula noticed that Camen’s hand had been in his pocket the entire time, and was thus not surprised when he felt a slight buzzing sensation fill the room, causing everyone to stir uneasily.

As the guards tried to approach Camen, their weapons, as well as the weapons of everyone else in the room, simply disappeared in flashes of light. Damula watched calmly as they looked at their newly empty hands in disbelief. As the guards continued, unarmed, towards Camen they impacted an invisible shield that shimmered as they ran into it, revealing its shape that surrounded Camen. One of the guards poked at it and then tried to punch at it, only to find that it merely gave a little to the force then simply stopped.

That is an inertia shield. It will stop any impact of any speed and absorb the energy from the impact into itself, meaning that the more you attack it, the stronger it gets. This is but one of the resources I have at my disposal. I will give you the chance to step aside and allow us, all of us, to leave or I will guide you aside myself. In either case, Damula and I will be taking our friends with us, assuming they wish to leave with us, and we are going to either use a ship you will give us, or we will find another way to get to Kaset.”

Milinos looked at Camen with an expression of severe irritation and frustration, but Camen simply waited. Finally, it was Wulliter who spoke.

Camen, I will take you and the others who wish to join you to Kaset myself,” and then turning to Milinos, to make the point of his determination he continued, “ in my ship.”

Wulliter, you cannot do that. I will charge you with insubordination and you…”

And what, Halen? Will you arrest me too? Look, you just saw what happened, and we don’t have any technology comparable to that. It does not look like we can stop them anyway. If they think they can go to Kaset and manage to do whatever they intend to do there in order to help us in this war, then I say let them go.”

Nadia Sepri stood up at that point and spoke for the first time since Milinos had come in.

I agree with Wulliter. In fact, I’ll go in order to give them support in case they run into any Nimri when they get there. I suggest we bring a few support ships for the same reason. I’ll leave them with a small transport in case they need one, and then we’ll come home.”

Milinos looked absolutely despondent. He knew that Wulliter and Sepri had many allies within the military who would agree with them, and he didn’t want to risk splitting the military into a war with itself at this time. So rather than argue further he stood up and threw a hand in the air and left the room. They all seemed to take this as a sort of capitulation, and the guards relaxed and the tension in the room settled a little bit.

Guards, can you please take the shackles off of Officer Damula?”

Damula smiled at Wulliter and nodded his head in thanks, then did the same towards Nadia Sepri. Yeri seemed irate and left the room rather quickly along with a few others, while most remained. After Yeri left, Sepri walked over to Damula and put a hand on his arm.

The vote was close, and I think you know who voted which way, so far. Fen Moris, who was sitting over there in the corner, voted with Milinos. He is the liaison to the civil government for the military, which shows you where the government stands. Hukain Masil, who is to your left, voted with Wulliter and I.”

OK, I count three votes each way, so who had the deciding vote?”

That would be Sverek Ponton. He is currently overseeing an attack against the Nimri home world, which is probably happening as we speak.”

Wait, they are attacking the Nimri now?”

Yes. It was decided that before they had the chance to rebuild that ship of theirs that we would attack. This war may be over soon anyway.”

At that, Camen approached them and interrupted with a grave voice.

Or it could go very wrong, very quickly. The Nimri, if felt cornered, will lash out in ways that they would not otherwise. I hope that your campaign is successful, because if it is not then they will come back after you sooner and with more aggressiveness than you have seen thus far.”

The room seemed to have quieted as Camen spoke, and a silent tension fell upon the room again. Damula was the one to break it.

Wulliter, how long until you will be ready to go?”

We will be ready as soon as you are. I already have a transport here at the complex and my ship is in orbit. We will be able to go as soon as we can get your people out of holding.”

Thank you, Carron. I appreciate you standing up to Milinos as you did. He will not forget about this, though. He will hold it against you for some time.”

Halen is an emotional man, a proud man, but he is not stupid. He knows that this is the right course of action, but you seceding before and challenging him here has attacked his pride, and he felt he needed to reassert his superiority. He is, as you know, a good man inside. You have been his friend for too long to have forgotten that. This war has caused him grief and pain which has changed him. Remember that.”

Damula nodded, and as Wulliter got up, Menson came through the door with the others behind him.

What happened here? One minute we are being arrested and thrown in a cell and a little while later they are letting us out and sending us down here, what is going on?”

Damula smiled, but rather than answer he put an arm around Menson and walked with him out of the room, and Wulliter and Sepri followed them.

Camen watched them as they went, and smiled a little to himself.

I think I have made the correct choice. I think that this group of people will make fine partners some day. I only hope that they can achieve this before it’s too late. I only hope that there is time enough to prepare them.

Camen followed as well, noticing that as he walked through the complex towards their destination everyone stopped to gawk at him. He greeted each with a bow of the head and walked on. The guards that, a few minutes earlier, had tried to arrest him were now following him as protection.

They still had no weapons.

Milinos had come to see them off, despite his irritation. There was an informal group of people that had come to see them leave, and they crowded near the platform as Camen, Damula, and the rest climbed into the transport.

Damula had scanned the group for Yeri and had almost missed her hiding near the back. She had been looking at him, he had noticed, but when he found her she looked elsewhere. He smiled to her, but wasn’t sure if she noticed. Damula walked in and sat down, but he noticed that Camen stopped and had turned around. He stood watching the group for a moment and then he stepped towards them and they all seemed to watch him intently. As he began to speak, everyone fell silent, and those that were sitting in the transport leaned to see and hear him speak.

This is to be the dawn of a new era for me and these men and women. It will eventually become a new dawn for Thalea as well. We are going to Kaset where we will begin a project that has been in planning for many years by me and the other Kozar that survived the wars. I am the last to survive, but any of the others, had they been the last or with me today, would be pursuing what I will try and complete with these people.

The details are not important right now, but the next time you see them they will be different people, changed people. With them, I hope to start an organization that will protect Thalea and the rest of the galaxy from threats such as those posed by the Nimri. We will help you, in time, fight this war. While we are preparing, you will need to keep up the effort. It will take some time for them to be ready, as the task I will hand them will be arduous. They will be asked to challenge themselves in ways that perhaps nobody has been challenged before. They will, in time, become the guardians of Thelea and, perhaps in time, others as well.

It is my intention to create what I will call, in honor of Zuzek Damula’s achievements, The Protectorate. We will not be part of your government and we will not interfere in its processes. We will also be independent, and not be subject to your policies. In time, I will hope to earn your trust. I thank you for this assistance today, and we wish you luck in your defense of this marvelous civilization.”

Camen, having finished, turned and walked back towards the transport. The crowd murmured as he did so, and Damula could see that Milinos looked less angry now, yet still sad and tired. Damula turned his attention to Camen as he created a seat suitable for him and noticed that each time he did so it seemed to take less concentration and effort. As the transport closed its hatch and started to lift off, Damula looked out a window at the city of Gullina. The sun reflected off of the distant buildings in shimmering patterns, and Damula hoped he’d be able to come back again soon. As he turned, he saw Camen looking at him, and they both smiled.

So far, I think we’ll be alright, Damula thought.

He has no idea what is coming and how difficult it will be, Camen thought.

27. The Visitor

A few weeks had passed, and Brax found that he was actually improving now. Karna had helped. He felt motivated to challenge himself to become as good as she was, and now when they practiced together he felt that he could offer her a challenge. And he was getting stronger. He finally felt like he was no longer a boy, and it made him feel powerful.

Karna and Brax had spent almost all of their free time together. They had not missed another class so far, and everyone seemed to accept that these two were inseparable. Elatia had come to apologize to the class two days after her scene and had returned to her normal self. People noticed, however, that she was not seen around the city with the same people. She was no longer found on the arm of the men whom she usually spent time with, but was more often found by herself. Not necessarily secluded in her own space, but not attached to someone else.

Brax had noticed this as well, but gave it little thought. Occasionally he would run into her around town, and his eye was still drawn to her. One evening he saw her reading in a park as he was on his way to meet with Karna, and saw that she appeared to be content to sit there alone. But for the first time in some weeks, he looked at her with desire, and he thought about approaching her. He hadn’t, that time, and he rationalized that it would have been rude to interrupt her reading. She hadn’t appeared to notice him as she scanned the surface of the textpad. Brax turned once more to look at her as he continued on his way, but she was still reading.

As he approached Karna’s place, he saw that she was reading as well on a bench next to her place. As she saw him coming, she put down her own pad and ran over to embrace him. As they kissed, Brax picked her up and she laughed a little and then bit playfully at his ear and he carried her inside.

Brax found that for the first time while with her, he thought about Elatia instead.

The next morning in class, as Gildon walked towards the circle, Brax found found himself gazing at Elatia. She was to his right today, and he saw that her shirt was open just enough that he thought he could almost see her breast. Almost. It was driving him mad, and as Gildon began to speak, he kept hoping that she might lean just a little more or even turn a little bit, but she didn’t.

Then to his left he saw Karna giving him a look. She had almost certainly noticed what he was looking at, and she was repressing a smile as she looked at him. He could tell that he was being teased, and Karna playfully opened her shirt just a little and subtly leaned forward a little and made a face that implied that she was feeling sexy and Brax actually found that he had to cover his mouth as to not laugh out loud.

Brax, have I said something funny?”

Gildon had caught this, and had walked over to Brax and looked down at him as he sat stifling his laughter.

Sorry Gildon, no. I mean, well, I hadn’t heard what you said. I apologize.”

Remember, we should live in such a way that apologies are never needed, but I appreciate that when it is needed it is offered. So, rather than simply feel sorry, why don’t you come up here.”

Brax felt a mild annoyance as he saw, from the periphery of his vision, that Karna was still repressing a more energetic laugh. Brax didn’t look at her directly, but rather stood up and faced Gildon, who was smiling a little himself.

Now Brax, I hope that you have not been too distracted in class these recent weeks because I want to see what you have learned. I want you to spar with Halxis today.”

Halxis stood up with his massive sword as Gildon said this, and Brax looked suddenly unsure.

Don’t worry; I’ll make sure that he goes easy on you. Right Halxis?”

You know I won’t, Gildon. Give all you have in whatever you do, right teacher?”

Gildon smiled, and Brax leaned down and picked up his sword.

You just remember that you are about to graduate from this class and move onto the advanced class, Halxis. I’ve only been here a few months.”

Halxis smiled as he stretched his arms and back, and Brax moved towards the center of the circle and began to do the same. Karna was looking at him playfully, and Brax gave her a look of playful anger and she laughed again.

Karna, you might be next.”

Karna tried to calm herself, and Gildon walked out of the circle and sat down to observe.

Are you two ready?”

Yes, they both replied, almost in unison.

Very well.”

Smack

Halxis took a defensive position, and Brax hesitated for a moment. Moving to his right, Halxis moved with him and kept Brax in front of him. Brax wanted to use his speed, and wanted to see if he might be able to throw the Bruuk’s balance off just a little. Brax stepped to his left suddenly and gave a quick thrust towards the hands of Halxis, who deflected and countered, forcing Brax to roll to his right to avoid the attack and then to his left to avoid the subsequent one.

Good!”

Brax ignored Gildon’s comment and returned to his feet just as Halxis was set again. Brax continued to move around and try to keep Halxis moving, but the larger Bruuk kept up with him and managed to score some points against him. Brax simply could not wear him down. As Brax began to get tired, Halxis became more aggressive, and after a while Brax simply could not avoid or deflect Halxis’ large sword anymore and Brax found the edge of it against his neck, and the practice was over.

Very well done, both of you. Very impressive, Brax. You have improved very much recently. Well played, Halxis. He is faster and you waited for the right times to attack.

Halxis had pulled the sword back and was now offering a hand to Brax, who took it as he got back up. Brax lowered his head to him and Halxis returned the respectful gesture. Brax felt thirsty and so he thought himself a glass of water, and saw that Halxis was doing the same. As Brax finished the glass he looked down and saw that Elatia had been smiling at him, and then she suddenly looked away. Brax looked at her for a moment, but she had started to say something to Tomerch next to her and he was nodding at whatever she was saying.

As he turned around, he saw that Halxis was moving back to his seat and so Brax did the same. Karna was beaming at him, and he smiled back at her. Gildon moved back to the circle and was looking back and forth between Brax and Halxis as he smiled widely himself.

A very good display. Halxis is the larger and stronger fighter, but Brax is learning to use his speed better, and it appears as if he has become stronger himself. Thoughts on that round?”

As Shittaro commented, Brax found that he was looking at Elatia again. She was listening to Shittaro and so she was looking away from him. He could no longer try to look into her shirt since she had closed it since earlier, unfortunately having noticed the oversight. Instead, he looked at the way her hair shone in this light and he wanted to feel his fingers running through it. It was tied back for class, and it hung down slightly past her shoulders, and he found himself wanting to kiss her neck and to open up that shirt to feel her breast in his hand, her nipple between his fingers, his….

She had turned and noticed his gaze, and Brax was startled out of his imagination and looked away quickly. Karna had been listening to Shittaro, it seemed, but he also noticed that her expression was more serious now. He wondered if she had noticed.

Very well said, Shittaro. Now, before we move onto something else, I’d like to read you all something that a friend of mine wrote years ago on Brua. He was a master at Purista and also considered himself a poet of sorts. I want you to pay attention to….”

Brax found himself wondering if Karna would mind if he asked Elatia to have dinner with him. Maybe he would cook for her. Brax had done so for Karna a few times, even though it was completely unnecessary here—one actually had to create not only the cooking implements but the ingredients as well. Nonetheless Brax had grown to enjoy cooking and Karna liked to watch. She had never seen it done before, she had said.

Brax was listening to Gildon read, but it washed through him without settling at first. He was not so interested in poetry, and he never liked this part of class so much. Karna looked more interested and appeared to listen carefully. She noticed Brax looking at her and she gave him a quick smile, but she then refocused her attention on Gildon’s reading.

Brax closed his eyes to listen. The words were largely meaningless but there were allusions to Purista philosophy and to ancient Bruuk stories that Brax could pick out. As Gildon read, Brax found that he had reached a state of consciousness that he had only previously found during meditation time. Brax found that the words started to settle into a hypnotic rhythm that danced through his mind, and Brax found that the sound of Gildon’s voice took on a different quality as he continued to read, and that the pulsating rhythm of the words made him feel distant. The poem started to slow, or at least to seem as if it did, and the words faded away as he felt his consciousness soften and settle into quiet.

As he settled into the quiet, still straining to hear the seemingly distant poem that Gildon read, Brax started to notice something going on in his mind that he had not heard before. There was a noise. No, not a noise, more like a feeling. No, that wasn’t quite it either. It was…he didn’t know what it was, but as he listened for it he found that it became more present all around him, penetrating his thoughts in ways that he had not felt before. The poem marched on, but something was different. It had slowed. Time, it seemed, had slowed, and Brax found that there seemed to be a kind of stillness around him that had not been there previously.

Suddenly Brax felt something very familiar begin to rise within that feeling, and a sudden presence surrounded him. It was subtle and yet it was undeniable. It was that feeling. He felt a subtle awareness that seemed to surround him like water. And as he thought about moving, he felt it surge. Startled by that surge, he held still and the energy seemed to tighten. Brax opened his eyes and saw that Gildon was still reading, but it appeared as if he had stopped. No, he had not stopped but he was moving extremely slowly yet steadily, and the words almost disappeared into the lower registers of sound where voices do not belong.

Brax saw that the room had a new visitor who stood to the side of the circle, but Brax did not recognize her. She stood with her arms over her chest and she was looking directly at Brax, and suddenly the feeling dissipated and Gildon’s voice returned to its normal cadence and he finished the poem.

Now, as you can hear the influence of ancient Bruuk myths have managed to weave themselves with Purista imagery in Gellem’s work. He was a master who had spent many years teaching history and philosophy on Brua and was a friend of mine for many years before he died. I would suggest that you read more of his work, if you liked this poem.”

Gildon then turned to the newcomer of the room and stood to greet her.

Now, some of you may have noticed that we have a visitor.”

Those whose backs were to her turned to greet her, but her eyes still held Brax’s.

Class, this is Protector Mikeli. Mikeli, as you likely know this is my Purista class. Have you come to watch, or perhaps to spar?”

Mikeli smiled a little at this and finally broke her stare with Brax and looked at Gildon.

Now Gildon, that would hardly be fair for them.”

Of course. Well, what brings you here?”

Mikeli returned her gaze to Brax, and her smiled broadened.

I’ve come to speak with you in private, Gildon. If you don’t mind?

No problem. Class, why don’t you meditate for a while until I return. Consider the words of Gellem while you do so. And if any of you want, you can look at this book to read more if you’d prefer. I’ll be back soon.”

Gildon put the book down and nodded to the Protector and she nodded back, and then the two of them vanished.

Well, I wonder what the Protectorate wants with Gildon?”

Elatia turned to Kader and frowned.

Well, they do occasionally come to him and take him away for a little while. I don’t know what they talk about, but it seems that Gildon does something to help them, now and then.”

Yeah, I hear he’s one of their Protectors of the second order.”

Kalvaa, that’s not true. Do you think he’d be here, teaching this class in this prison if he were?”

Halxis stood up and walked over to the book that Gildon had left behind as a few others moved elsewhere to meditate as Gildon had requested. Halxis flipped through the pages of the book. It was rare to see a book here, and Halxis seemed to be somewhat distracted by the presence of pages, but also seemed to be interested in the content as well, and so he sat and appeared to read with great interest.

Karna had gotten up and was walking over to Brax, who had not moved. He was still reeling from his experience, and Karna didn’t appear to have any idea that he had experienced anything strange.

So, what do you think that Protector wanted with Gildon?”

Brax looked up at her and her expression changed.

Brax, what’s wrong?”

Brax looked at her uncertainly for a moment as she sat next to him.

Brax?”

Karna, did you feel anything weird while Gildon was reading that poem?”

Karna seemed to consider this, and then shook her head.

Did you see the Protector appear?”

Oh, yeah! She was just suddenly there. I looked at you and your eyes were closed, and I assumed that you were just listening. Did something happen?”

Brax turned his head to look directly at her. He felt confused, and he wanted to explain what he had felt, but he didn’t quite have the words. Karna put her arms around him and gave him a quick hug and kissed is cheek.

Well, if you want to tell me later, that’s fine. Right now I want to check out that book with Halxis.”

Karna got up and placed an arm around the Bruuk who moved the book towards her to allow her to see it as well. Most of the others had moved somewhere quiet and were meditating, but the rest were huddled together and were talking, apparently about the Protector showing up. Brax guessed that this was the first time one had interrupted a class.

Brax was getting up—noticing that he felt stiff—to walk over to the group when Gildon suddenly appeared again, standing right next to where Halxis and Karna were reading from the book together.

OK. How long have I been gone?”

Karna and Halxis turned to him, but Elatia was the one to respond.

Well, from our point of view it was only a minute or two. How long were you gone?”

Gildon smiled and his head bowed down in an expression of disbelief.

Those Protectors…. Anyway, I was actually gone for what must have felt like hours. You all know that they have a way of manipulating time, making it slow or speed up for their needs. They can take me elsewhere for hours, days, or longer and only a minute or two might pass here.”

Those that had tried to start meditation had opened their eyes and were listening to Gildon, who continued to smile.

In any case, I’ll allow you to return to meditation for a while. I’m sorry if I interrupted.”

Brax decided to have a seat again and to reflect on what had just happened. He was sure that it was the same feeling as he had felt that day of The Accident. But he had been in the presence of Protectors since then and it had never been as strong as it did that day or right now. Further, nobody else here or anywhere except those who had been on that subtrans the day of The Accident seemed to notice it. None of this made any sense to Brax.

Suddenly Brax wished that Ninnii were here. Brax remembered that they had talked about this a while back. Ninnii had hypothesized that there might be some connection between that device the Kasarian had brought out that day and that feeling. Brax had almost forgotten about that. But now that device was gone, likely destroyed, and he still felt that presence stronger than ever. There had to be another explanation.

After class had ended, Brax and Karna walked out together. Brax had not said anything, and Karna looked at him with an expression of concern.

Brax, is everything alright?”

Brax looked at her and shrugged.

That wasn’t the same Protector as the day of The Accident or anything, was it?”

No, Menson was the one there that day.”

Oh, right. To be honest I’ve only seen them a few times and don’t really know their names. I supposed I don’t really care. My mom cares. She’s been here for a long time and is still not happy here. My father was born here, and so he is used to it. They don’t talk too much anymore.”

Your mom moved out to the wilderness, right?”

Yes. She comes back now and then and we spend some time together, but she really does not like this city. She misses Carroway, on the first Thalean colony. That’s where she grew up.”

I’ve never been there.”

Karna stopped and looked at him severely.

OK, we are not going to do this. Something is wrong and you are not telling me what it is. I’m not going to let you distract us from it by talking about other things. Brax, what happened in there?”

Brax looked at his feet, and she growled with frustration.

Listen, I saw you looking at Elatia in there. If that is what it is, if you want to spend time with her, that’s fine. I really don’t care if you want her too, so…”

No, no…it’s not that. Well, that’s true too but that’s not what this is about.”

Then what is it about then?”

Brax thought that he needed to sit and not seeing a bench nearby he thought one up and motioned her to sit down, and she did.

OK, do you remember how I told you about what happened in the subtrans on the day of The Accident?”

Yeah, and I read about it when I was younger as well. What about it?”

Do you remember how the people in that subtrans with Menson felt something that the others, the ones with Natak, had not felt?”

Yes, and?”

I felt it again today, or at least something very similar. Although it was different in some ways.”

Wait, you mean in class today?”

Yes. And that’s why I asked you if you felt anything strange.”

Well, I didn’t. So you think it had something to do with the Protector, what was her name…”

Mikeli, or something like that. And yes, I do. But the weird thing was that this time it was more intense. And I have only felt it very mildly when I saw Menson and Mezar before they sent me here, and it was much more intense today than it had been previously, even the day of The Accident.”

Karna just looked at him. Brax didn’t know what to say either. They looked at one another for a moment and then she broke the look and stood up.

Brax, I don’t know what to say or do? What do you want to do about it?”

I want to figure it out. I want to know what that feeling is. I want to know how time slowed like it did when Gildon…”

Wait, what?”

Oh, right. As I was listening to Gildon read, I began to feel like I was in meditation, like my thoughts were settling and my mind was quieting. And after that I felt that feeling—whatever it is—and then it felt like time had slowed because Gildon was moving very slowly and his voice changed. And when I looked at the Protector, I saw that she was looking directly at me.”

Well, that’s odd. Are you sure it wasn’t some hallucination?”

Well…”

Brax considered this for a moment. What if the Protector was just messing with him, perhaps she was causing him to imagine things somehow. He just wasn’t sure. He replayed the experience in his head and remembered feeling like he could manipulate the space around him, and he shook his head.

I don’t think it was a hallucination. Whatever it was, it was…it was overwhelming.”

Karna was smiling at him, and she sat back down and rested her head on his shoulder. He put his arm around her and pulled her close, and they just sat there for a while. After some time, she turned her head to look up at him with a wry smile.

I saw you trying to catch a glimpse of Elatia while her shirt was partially open. You totally want her, don’t you?”

Brax looked down at her and his mouth wanted to smile, but he held it back.

Yes, I was right. Well, you should go for it. I haven’t seen her with anyone recently. Just don’t forget about me, and at least come and see me every other night or something.”

Brax smiled and he noticed that he was becoming aroused as she had said that. She seemed to notice this and looked around to see if anyone was looking, and seeing that nobody was around, she slid her hand over the bulge and smiled.

In the meantime, I think we should take advantage of this problem of yours.”

Brax leaned in to kiss her and then they got up and walked slowly towards her space. He tried to hide his arousal as he walked by holding himself down with his hand inside his pocket, but it he eventually just didn’t bother.

Anyone who saw them together knew what they were up to anyway.

About an hour later Brax woke up from a post sex nap and looked at Karna, who had managed to wake up first and was showering. He looked past the shower to the wall, which had been left opaque as to not give a show to the neighbors, and thought about class from earlier that day.

Brax had assumed that his experience on the subtrans had had something to do with that device the Kasarian apparently threatened Menson with. He never found out who the Kasarian had been, and now, with his experience that morning, it looks like the device the Kasarian had was not necessarily responsible for his and the others’ experience. So perhaps it didn’t matter what it was.

He had felt that energy other times, but it had always been subdued. Thinking about this led Brax to wonder whether he had not merely imagined it those other times. Or perhaps he just hadn’t been concentrating enough or something. Maybe…

Brax, good to see you awake. Do you want to go and take a walk and get something to eat? I think that the others were getting together for drinks and so forth this afternoon. Maybe we can join them?”

Brax’s thought had been interrupted, and he found that he couldn’t find the strand of where they were going at the moment. He was very hungry, and this now managed to supersede his thoughts about anything else.

Yeah, but I think I might need a small snack before we get there. I’m feeling pretty hungry.”

At that, Brax imagined a fresh piece of nala fruit and one appeared in his hand. As he took a bite he started to think about that feeling again, but was interrupted again by a naked and partially wet Karna who had just jumped on top of him.

So, you want to head straight out or perhaps have another go?”

Brax smiled and pushed her to the side playfully. She looked up at him with a playful pout and he pulled a cover over her and tickled her before getting up to take a shower himself. He picked up the fruit and took one more large bite and said, through his chewing,

You are insatiable.”

Karna pulled the cover from over her face and she got up and smacked his bare ass.

And you love it!”

Yeah, well, I’m saving the rest of what I have for Elatia tonight.”

Oh, you wish! Oh, and if you do manage to succeed there, are you going to invite me along? I’ve had my eye on her too.”

I don’t think she likes girls.”

Yeah, well, that just sucks for me now, doesn’t it?”

Karna turned and thought up some clothes and began to dress while Brax stepped into the shower and turned on the water. As he began to rinse, he placed his face into the warm stream and thought about that feeling again. It had been so long since he had felt it so intensely, and perhaps he had never felt it as powerfully as today. He wondered if it had been that intense before, but the memory of its intensity had faded over the years. He didn’t think so.

He suddenly felt like a kid again. He felt like that twelve cycle old boy in that subtrans overflowing with those feelings of potency, and then he thought about his mother. He pulled his face out of the stream of warm water and looked at Karna dressing through the partially steamed glass, and he wondered if his mother would have liked Karna. He thought that she might have liked her. His father liked her. Brax liked her.

And then Brax thought of how he had caught Elatia looking at him in class that day as he finished with his sparring session with Halxis. He had almost forgotten about that among all of this. He had a quite interesting day, so far. He wondered what might happen with the rest of the day.

He found that he hoped that it would be uneventful from here on. He had a feeling, however, that this hope would not be fulfilled.

28. The Lab

The trip was not long. As they reached orbit, Wulliter’s ship detected no Nimri in the vicinity. No doubt, they were defending their home planet, which was probably being attacked at that moment by the Thalean fleet. Wulliter was apparently in disagreement with this strategy, but refused to comment on it during their short trip.

There were three other ships with them, and as they approached the planet Damula stood with his crew and Camen and watched it get closer.

Well, we’re just about there, Damula. I surely hope that whatever it is that Camen has for you will be worth it. Taking these ships from defense of Thalea was a moderate risk, even for this short amount of time.”

Yes, thank you, Carron. I thank you, again, for your willingness to bring us here despite Milinos’ objections. Also thank Officer Sepri for her support as well, when you see her again.”

I will.”

Wulliter then turned to Camen and they looked at each other for a moment.

Camen, what do you plan to do with these people?”

I intend to give them a gift, a gift that few will ever receive. And in time, they will be powerful enough to protect you and the others from the mistake that my people made. The Nimri, as they are now, are the result of long existing hatreds and religious wars that ravaged my world for generations, and they cannot be allowed to continue spreading throughout the galaxy as they likely would.”

I’m sorry, what kind of wars did you say?”

Religious wars, Carron.”

Wulliter looked at Damula quizzically, as it was he that had answered. Damula only smiled, and Camen laughed a little.

Carron, we Thaleans have missed a lot, apparently. It turns out that most other civilizations have this thing that Camen calls religion, and we don’t have it.”

Well, how do we get this religion, and what does one do with it?”

I do not believe that it is something that you have any need for, Officer Wulliter. And if I told you what it was, you may not find it worth coveting.”

Wulliter looked confused, and Damula laughed.

Do not worry about that, my old friend. Let’s just say that some people will fight over silly things, and that we hope to prevent their silliness from spreading to the rest of the galaxy.”

Wulliter nodded and one of his officers informed him that the transport was ready.

Very well, thank you officer. Now, will you ladies and gentleman please come with me so I can take you to your new transport? I’ll see you off myself.”

Camen and Damula followed along with the others and they walked towards the docking bay. As Damula walked, he could not help but wonder what Camen had planned. There was a sort of anticipation hanging in the air. As they walked through the halls of the ship, an eerie quiet surrounded them, allowing the sounds of their footfalls to echo in steady rhythm. There was a sort of peace now, and Damula found that he felt relaxed, even though he should have felt nervous. As they passed crew in the hall, they moved to the side and some of them watched them go by acutely, getting a good look at the alien with them as they passed.

Camen walked majestically beside him, and Damula saw in him a quality that was both alien and familiar. Camen had the look of a man who could walk into any room, anywhere, and be in charge. There was an effective and yet subtle power to him, and Damula felt a reverence for him already that he usually reserved for people he had known for more time. Time. It seemed that this was the issue now, didn’t it?

The war had not been going well. Damula knew that the frontal assault on Nimria was a risk, possibly one he might have ordered himself. But he knew that if it didn’t succeed, at least moderately, then time would become the beast around the corner, waiting to pounce on them. And despite all of this Camen looked confident, brazen even. Perhaps it was because he had nothing to lose anymore. Thalea was not his world, after all.

And yet he was here, his desire to help was explicit. Perhaps when there is nothing left to lose one will stand up and give all they have to another, in the hopes to regain something in doing so. It was an idea that seemed to have merit, and Damula wanted it to be true.

As they reached the bay there was a number of officers who had come to see them off—or at least to get another look at the alien that was with them. They stood in a perfectly formed arc that led directly to the transport, and on each side stood, erect and unmoving, uniformed officers with their right fist against their chest in a sign of respect. Damula had no doubt that this was Wulliter’s doing, and Damula found himself smiling.

Wulliter stopped next to the entrance to the new transport, and as they entered, he shook their hands one-by-one, and wished them well. Camen was the last to enter, and as he took Wulliter’s hand, they stopped and Camen turned to look at the crowd watching them.

The best of luck to you down there, Camen. Don’t take too long doing what you need to do, because this war may not go well, especially if our frontal assault is unsuccessful. Take care of my friends, and I hope to see you all soon.”

Camen smiled and entered the transport, then turned back to Wulliter.

I will try and get them ready as soon as possible, but I fear that we may not have enough time. Until we return, hold them off. Whatever you do, don’t allow them to spread the fire that has started on our world to yours.”

Wulliter clenched his right hand into a fist and pounded it reverently against his chest and then casually waved to them, and Camen sat down in a chair that, he just noticed, Wulliter’s crew had put there just for him. Camen laughed at this. There was no need for the quick effort since it was nothing for him to make his own, but he appreciated the sentiment. Camen sat down and watched Wulliter walk away from the transport.

OK Keper, fire it up. Let’s get down there.”

Yes, Protector.”

And Keper, call me Zuzek from now on. No more of this ‘Protector’ nonsense.”

Sure, Zuzek.”

In fact, I think we are all on first name basis now. So if nobody here minds, from now on I’m dropping the formalities. Agreed?”

They all seemed to nod at this, and it was Bon who first responded with a pleasant smile directed intently at Zuzek.

Sure, Zuzek, no problem.”

Thank you, Bon.”

They all smiled as the ship lifted off the floor of the bay, and Keper Diden maneuvered the ship with second nature. As they passed through the air-shield of the ship and into cold space, Damula put his head back and closed his eyes.

Get that rest now, Damula. It will be a long struggle from here forward.”

So Camen, where is it that we are going, anyway?”

Camen stood up and walked towards the pilot’s seat and sat in the empty chair that he had just transformed next to Keper.

I want you to head straight for the remains of the capital city of the Kozar.”

Camen opened up a holographic map in front of them both and pointed to a location.

I want you to land here. When we get there, we will have to descend into an underground lab that I have down there.”

I thought nothing was left of your cities at all?”

This is a place that was built after the destruction and has remained a secret to me and a few other Kozarians, before they were all eventually killed. I have kept it secret for good reason, and now I hope that it will be of use to us. It should not take us long to get down there, so long as there are no Nimri on the surface near that location. If there are, we will need to go elsewhere, as I don’t want to draw attention to that area and have them discover it.”

Understood, I’ll scan now.”

Camen sat back and watched the scanners, and it appeared that there were no Nimri anywhere near the old ruins. As they passed into the atmosphere there was a mild turbulence as they passed through some rain clouds. As they descended, the rain began to strike the front of the transport and began to be continuously wiped away by a repellent field. They quickly moved out of the storm and into daylight as they approached the massive ruins of the old Kozar city.

Fent.”

What was that, Camen?”

I said ‘Fent,’ Keper. That was the name of this city long ago. It was a wonderful city, larger than Patula and much more beautiful. I was raised here almost…well, a long time ago. I was one of the lead researchers on a project that we were working on when the wars started. I was out of the city, fortunately, when the bombs struck, visiting some family out in the country. It was a celebration of my sister’s second child, actually.”

That sounds nice.”

It was. We had a great time whenever we went there. My sister always liked the country and moved there some years earlier to run an agricultural center there with a man who I had known while young. They were quite happy there.”

What was she like?”

Camen stopped for a moment and appeared to become very saddened, and Keper had wished he had not asked.

I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you.”

Do not feel sorry, Keper. It was a fine question. To answer it, she was very kind and loving. She had a son who was around five and then a daughter who had just been born a few months before. She loved them and loved to be out in the fields. It made her and her family happy.”

Camen stopped and looked forward as they got closer, Keper was manipulating controls to look for a good place to land as close to the location that Camen had shown him as possible.

A few days later, they were all dead. The Tuyin forces swept across the land and killed anyone they found. I and a few others managed to escape them until the Vishi arrived and secured the Kozar borders. Only two of our researchers survived, and the rest were people that lived in the countryside or the mountains. We built two small towns and remained there for the rest of the war. Little by little, they died in the continuing conflict until I managed to be the last one.”

I’m sorry, Camen.”

Camen looked at Keper as he was landing the transport among old rubble,

Hopefully, what the others and I worked on while the wars continued will be useful to us now. If it is, our civilization will not have been a total loss.”

Let’s hope so, Camen. In the meantime, we are here, where you wanted us, so it’s your turn again to lead us.”

Camen nodded, stood, and returned the seat to its normal Thalean configuration with a thought. Keper had just noticed that the device had probably been on the whole time they were on Wulliter’s ship and on the way here in the transport, but he had become so used to it and had not noticed until now.

Camen opened the door to the transport and led them out onto the surface. It was a warm sunny day and Camen looked around him for a moment.

It’s been some time since this place was bustling with people, vehicles, and business. And now, it is a crater in the ground. I truly hope that you never have to suffer a loss this great on your world.”

Where to, Camen?”

This way, Yessin.”

They followed him towards what looked like a large chunk of rock that jutted up from the ground and were a bit surprised when it shimmered and disappeared to reveal that it was actually an entrance to a small building, no bigger than they could all fit in, barely.

So, this is your lab, Camen?”

No, Mikeli, this is not the lab. This is the descending platform that will take us to my lab. Follow me.”

As Camen approached, a large door opened to reveal that it was just a platform. As and the last of them entered, Camen closed the door and they descended.

When the door opened again they found themselves in a rather dark space. Camen walked in and lights began to turn on, revealing a rather large cavern.

This space is far below the city ruins. It was never used for anything until the war started. It became a refuge for a few of us to continue our research in the hope of possibly defending ourselves.”

Camen walked towards a doorway that led into a lit room, and as they others followed they noticed that they were not alone down there. The ceiling appeared to be covered with some sort of animal, but the ceiling was too high to see what they were.

Don’t mind them, they are harmless. They feed on insects and other small things, and stay away from us, for the most part. They don’t come down here, although their remains do.”

The floor of the cave, which was uneven except for a path from the platform to the lab, was covered in a greenish substance, and none of them had any question what it was.

Perhaps we should get inside before we get shat upon?”

Menson’s comment left a few of them with smiles, but Camen simply turned and continued towards the door with some severity. When he opened it, the lights inside brightened and they revealed a small room with a few tables around it. As they entered, they looked around and saw that there were a few tools, monitors, and larger devices that did not look familiar to any of them.

What are these things?”

Strasen’s question compelled Camen to pick up a tool from one of the tables and appeared to examine it.

I could tell you what these things are, but their names would do you little good. Essentially they are tools for making these.”

Camen pulled out his silver device and either switched it on again or just turned it up a notch and the now more and more familiar buzzing sensation filled the lab. For a moment, it sounded like the animals outside became excited, but they quickly resettled and Camen continued.

This is the height of our technology. Within this device I have a multitude of tools that allow me to access information, the ability to materialize many things either based upon things I’ve scanned, thought of, or some combination of both, to transport myself over small distances, and some others that you will become acquainted with. It is based upon a type of energy generator that is self-contained and nearly limitless in power output, at least in theory. It is this, the energy generator, which makes it most dangerous. It is this that makes it necessary to prepare yourself before you will be able to have one of these of your own.”

The group looked at Camen. None of them really knew what to say. Some of them looked like they had hundreds of questions, especially the engineers, but for the moment they wanted to hear more, and waited.

Now, if you will have a seat,” materializing eight chairs, “I can begin to show you what you will need to do before it is safe for you to begin to design one of these for yourself.”

They all sat down, and Camen watched as they did so. He seemed to consider how he would proceed, and the others sat patiently. After a few moments of this, a few of them leaned in a little, and Damula cocked his head slightly, but Camen did not move.

After a few more moments, they started to become restless and started to shift in their seats. After a minute, Damula spoke up.

Is there something that we should be doing? Are you waiting for something?”

Yes.”

Damula nodded and sat back and waited, and the others seemed to settle as well. Camen eventually found a chair and pulled it towards the half-circle of chairs that the Thaleans were sitting in. He sat and he stared at nothing in particular, and stayed that way for a few minutes.

I remember there being some sort of time issue here. I seem to remember that there is a war that threatens our home, and that we need to become prepared. What are we waiting for?”

Natak’s voice indicated a severe impatience. Damula was not surprised that his patience would run thin first, and he turned to him and gave him a blank look, and then turned to Camen, who had shifted and looked as if he was preparing to speak.

We need patience, right now. It will be time soon enough. Speaking of which, does anyone here have a timer of some sort?”

Keper lifted his arm and pointed to a watch he wore.

This has a timer.”

Very will, Keper. Would you mind telling me when five more minutes have passed?”

Keper pressed a couple of buttons on his watch and then watched it tick away for a moment before he looked back at Camen.

What will happen in five minutes?”

You will see.”

They sat there, some more impatiently than others. Yessin stood up and walked around behind the other chairs and looked at some of the equipment in the room, and Camen said nothing. Seeing this, Mikeli and Strasen both stood up as well, and began to do the same. They whispered quietly as they did so, examining some of the objects and wondering what they were for.

I would not recommend touching that one, Yessin. I do not mind you looking, but some of these things are quite dangerous if you don’t know what you are doing.”

Yessin moved past the small tool and examined the one next to it, and Camen said nothing more, so she picked it up and looked at it closely. Keper started to become restless as well, and after taking a look at his timer, he went to the other side of the room to look at a larger piece of equipment that had a kind of shelf built in it, but it looked like it was designed to be a shelf to hold objects that the machine would manipulate in some way. He didn’t touch it, but moved very close and tried to peer into the mechanism with some curiosity.

That is, perhaps, the most important thing in this room, Keper. I urge you to be quite careful, as I don’t think we’ll find a replacement anywhere that I know of.”

Keper distanced himself a little at this, but his curiosity seemed to have peaked as well.

Has it been five minutes yet, Keper?”

Keper looked at his watch, shook his head, and then turned towards Menson, who otherwise seemed content to wait. Bon was sitting next to him and she looked content as well. Damula smiled a few seats away and watched as Mikeli and Strasen discussed some tool they had found. Natak, to Damula’s right, was rather annoyed and his fingers tapped at his leg while he waited. He had no interest in these gadgets around the room, and was looking at Camen steadily, who was now looking back at him.

You seem impatient, Natak. Why is that?”

Because we came here in order to be ready to battle the Nimri. Sitting here is not helping.”

Are we wasting time, do you think?”

Yes, we are.”

How much time are we wasting, Natak?”

Well, we were in here for a little while before you asked us to wait five more minutes, so maybe ten minutes.”

Really? That long will it have been?”

At least, yes.”

Keper, how long has it been?”

A little less than four minutes, now.”

Very well, long enough. Natak, I seem to have left my own timer, which I activated just before we came in here, just outside the door. Since you are impatient to begin, would you please mind getting it for me. As soon as I have it we shall begin.”

Natak looked at Camen in disbelief. He didn’t like being anyone’s errand boy, and getting a watch that he had dropped was not on the top of his list, but he wanted to get moving, so he got up and walked to the door.

He was thinking of what he’d like to say to Camen when, upon opening the door and walking outside, he felt a strange sense of passing through something and he stopped as he felt a very strange tingling throughout his body. After a moment he looked down to see that there was a round display that was counting up, and so he picked it up and looked at it.

23, 24, 25, 26…

That was odd. Camen had said that he had dropped it before they had come in, and that had been maybe five or six minutes before, at least. He turned to carry it back to Camen and as he walked through the door he felt that strange tingling as he felt like he was passing through something that he could not see again, and he looked at Camen quizzically.

OK, so I’m guessing that you had some sensor on this thing to start counting when I got out there, or perhaps it only counted while it was near someone, right? This is some strange sensor device you are going to show us? If so, that’s not particularly impressive.”

Camen took the device from him and stopped it. It displayed ‘45,’ and Camen looked at Natak with a smile.

No, Natak, nothing like that. I put this out there to demonstrate something. Outside this room, less than a minute has passed, as this counter demonstrates. But we have all, clearly, experienced more time, as Keper’s timer will indicate. How can this be?”

Natak looked annoyed and confused, but Bon suddenly stood up.

Wait, you mean that time is passing at a different rate inside this room. How?”

Natak turned around and pointed at the door.

As I stepped out of, and then back into, this room I felt like I was passing through some sort of, I don’t know what to call it, I guess a barrier. Does that have anything to do with it?”

Of course, it’s some sort of…time distortion field, right?”

Exactly, Bon. Very intuitive.”

Damula stood up and walked towards Camen, who had gathered almost all of the rest of them around him.

This means that we can have more time to prepare than we thought we had. We can be in here for months and much less time will pass outside. We have all the time we need.”

Yes, this is true. However there is a small problem with that plan. The time-distortion, ‘field’– that is as good a description as any I suppose, takes a considerable amount of the resources of this device. In order to use it, I cannot use any more of its functions, so it will only give us time, and not anything else.”

I see. So we should build another one, right?”

Yes, Menson, exactly. But that brings about another problem. The amount of concentration it takes to operate one of these devices, even to just hold this field in place, which is mostly automatic, means that another person would have to control the second device.”

No problem. Get one working with me, I’ll do it.”

Menson, I appreciate your enthusiasm. However, to learn to use one of these devices will take some time. For you to master it will take years, as it has taken me years to learn how to use my previous device, which I no longer have. First we need to build a separate time-dilation device, one that will not be contained within this device.”

Why not just set your device to automatic while we build another one, and then you can leave this one here on in order to maintain the field and take the other one to do whatever you need to do to train us.”

Camen smiled a little more, and he motioned the others to sit down. As they did so, Camen took his own seat and held the silver device on his lap.

After the first few devices, which were much less powerful and functional, were taken from those that died trying to defend themselves the rest of us made a decision. We decided to make our devices intimately intertwined with our minds. This way, if anyone tried to use it, it would not activate. If the person was killed, it would stop functioning altogether and it would self-destruct. This device is a part of me. The distinctions between my mind and it are not so clear. In a sense, it has become part of my brain, an extension of it. Over the recent months since I have completed this particular one, it had become an inseparable part of me. For me to try and control two of these things would be, well, rather confusing if not too much for me to handle. The links between the functioning of this device and my thoughts took months to allow me to even perceive the world normally again. It took days for me to differentiate the sensory input from this device, which perceives many more things than our bodily senses do, and the sense of my eyes, ears, etc.”

They looked at the silver device intently. Camen held onto it loosely. It looked innocent, simple, and almost inactive.

This little device allows me to perceive radiation from the whole spectrum. It allows me to detect particles in motion, if I concentrate. It allows me to access data from a massive library, stored inside this small device. I have the ability to manipulate quantum forces, gravity, electro-magnetic fields, space and time as well. After some time, the things I perceive with this device become beyond my ability to communicate to you because it involves concepts and words that don’t exist in your language because you cannot experience them in order to label them.

Maintaining this time field requires constant attention, although with practice it takes less attention than it used to. This all became necessary to make sure that no other person could hack into it, because to do so would require them to hack into my mind, which is significantly more complicated to navigate since the neural relationships first have to be understood in context to their connection to the world around me.”

Camen stopped, looking as if he wanted to continue, but instead looked at them all, one by one. They seemed fascinated, but their level of attention didn’t seem to reflect the magnitude of the gap of their understanding and what he was trying to convey. They seemed to be underestimating the complexity of what he was describing.

Camen suddenly remembered that he understood how they felt. He remembered how he had felt before he had activated the first of these devices so many years ago. He had not been the first, and he hadn’t been very intimidated by it despite a similar description given to him. And so he decided to tell them the story, and maybe that would give them some context.

Let tell you all a story. It takes place a long time ago, some time before the Kozar nation was attacked and destroyed when it begins. I was working in a lab with some colleagues on some new technologies and new implementations of older technologies, when something very unusual happened.”

Camen looked as if he were settling into a long story, so they all became comfortable and listened.

It all started one rather warm day while working on one of my own projects…”

29. Survivors

There had once been a time when new citizens of the luxurious prison were relatively common. In the early days, the disappearing people, the newness of things, and ultimate uncertainty of the first cycles of post-Nimri life led to curious people with curious behaviors. There used to be a time when people would show up every other day or so here in The City. But times had moved on, and then there were the times when nobody seemed to care anymore. The history of the Protectors was of little to no concern. They were really more of a mythology than a reality. For centuries few people arrived here, and The City grew slowly in its anonymity.

Now, early in the Cooperative calendar year of 1422, new arrivals were less rare. After The Accident happened., a resurgence of curiosity swept the Cooperative in a way that had not been seen for centuries, and curious people delved into areas that the Protectorate considered sensitive, and now The City was growing at a faster rate than it had in longer than anyone there could remember. It offered a sort of excitement, one that injected a vigor that the citizens were not accustomed to. Brax had watched them arrive with some interest, but none of them seemed to be linked to his particular group. The Protectors of the Kas-A were in hiding, it seemed. And as it turned out they were not the only secretive group that had libraries and silent academics. The Protectors seemed to be working extra hard to dig up these groups, or perhaps they were becoming more outspoken. Perhaps it was both.

Since Brax had arrived several months before, many others had arrived and he had become acquainted with some of them. They gawked and marveled at the place they now found themselves. Brax wondered if he had gawked so overtly when he first arrived. He probably had. There were ceremonies, introductions, and arrangements for new needspaces for them to live. The city was growing.

This brought up the ubiquitous question of how their disappearances were to be explained to people in the Cooperative. After all, these people didn’t arrive here from nowhere; they were people with real lives, families, and friends. What would happen to their research and their colleagues? This was handled in a number of ways, but it always came down to a handful of explanations and excuses. These were dangerous people, after all. They had revolutionary ideas, were experimenting with dangerous technology, or their research turned out not to work. Maybe they died in an explosion while testing their equipment which was poorly designed. Perhaps an old historian would suddenly die of old age. Producing a fake body of the missing person is easy for a Protector to pull off. And if you didn’t want to disappear as well, you didn’t ask too many questions if things looked strange.

So, what happens to people who do ask too many questions? Well, eventually they end up in The City as well. And today was one of those days.

It was the middle of the afternoon when the arrival signal sounded. It was a message to the citizens that a new prisoner was on its way. Anyone who was related to, knew personally, or otherwise had some connection to this person was notified so that they could greet them. It was a courtesy that the Protectorate included to allow new prisoners to become less uncomfortable with their new imprisonment, and it mostly worked. It was a sort of prisoner orientation program.

In this case, it was Brax that was notified that someone was on their way. He was walking down a path with Karna when a holographic image with a text message on it appeared in front of him and requested Brax to come immediately to the citizen’s entrance, as he should expect an acquaintance. The message did not say who it was—they never did—only that you were associated with them as far as the Protectorate’s information was concerned.

Shonny!”

This was all Brax could say. He didn’t know who the person would be yet, but that was his first guess. Without another word, both Karna and Brax were running towards the center of town. It was a part of town that was almost always deserted, except, of course, at times like this. It was a small circle in the center of The City that was surrounded by short pillars and had a receiving area around it. As Brax arrived, he saw that some people in the area had come to see who would arrive, but nobody else seemed to have been running.

I know that Shonny knows some of the people here, including my father, so what isn’t anyone else running? Maybe they just don’t care as much. But where’s my father?

Do you really think it will be Shonny, Brax?”

Karna’s question was fair. It could have easily have been Ninnii, Gildeous, or possibly someone else he just couldn’t think of at the moment, so he waited silently and did not answer Karna. Instead, he waited along the edge of the circle breathing hard after running so hard. Karna looked over at him expectantly, and then back at the center of the circle as a couple more curious people showed up to greet the newcomer. Nobody else seemed to look anticipative or anxious, meaning that perhaps nobody else had received a message of an acquaintance.

It does not look like anyone else but myself was summoned, does it Karna?”

No, not that I can tell anyway.”

Brax scanned the outside of the circle and all he saw were a few chatting people who looked like they just happened to be nearby. There had once been a time, Brax was told, when the new arrival of a citizen (or prisoner, you pick) would cause a rush of people to this area, with associates having to push their way to the front. But with the recent influx of new citizens, the event was less rare, and thus less people were interested at the increasingly common arrivals. Still, more would show up for the introduction ceremony later, Brax knew.

Brax was continuing to look at the small group of people who were curiously gathering—quite a few now that a few more minutes had passed—and then he noticed the transporter powering up. The hum built up for a moment and then there was a brief light that contained a dark shape within. But rather than finding a Thalean woman standing there, as Brax had expected, there stood a Nisivalen man whom Brax did not recognize.

The man looked around him wildly, obviously taken aback by his surroundings. He looked from person to person, but seemed to find no familiar faces. He looked directly at Brax, looked him up and down, and then moved onto Karna, and eventually kept looking. Brax didn’t know why he was summoned to greet this person, but rather than allow him to look scared and confused any longer he stepped forward to greet him.

Hello, my name is Brax Damula. This is a prison of the Protectorate, although we also call it The City, and it looks like you are our newest citizen.”

The Nisivalen turned quickly back to Brax upon being addressed. He looked very closely at Brax and his eyes widened a little.

Brax? Is that really you?”

Brax’s brows furrowed at being recognized. As far as Brax knew, he had never seen this man before.

Yes, I am Brax. I’m confused, have we met?”

The Nisivalen man walked over to Brax and hugged him. Brax returned the greeting, but had a look of confusion as he looked at Karna. The Nisivalen was considerably shorter and his arms traced around his waist, but this didn’t slow him down. His scales were a bit wet, apparently having come from somewhere rainy, Brax concluded. Their reddish color was contrasted by the purple markings on his shoulders, and his large head rested against Brax’s chest.

I am not surprised that you don’t recognize me, but we have met at least twice, although we were never introduced personally. My name is Verus Titsilana, and I am, like you, a survivor of The Accident.”

At hearing the name Brax remembered the man clearly. He had been on the far end of the transport that day, and he had been at the five-cycle ceremony with Brax and Shonny. He had, in fact, been the man whom Shonny had lambasted for being defensive of the Protectorate. And now that Verus had pulled back from the embrace, he could see that it was the same man.

Why are you here? What happened to you?”

Well, I must say that much of it was due to what Shontesta said that day of the ceremony when they announced the rebuilding of Patula—a project that still has not been completed yet as the various designers continue to argue about the plans. What she said to me that day stuck with me, and a few weeks later I started to do some research of my own.”

Well, I want to hear all about what you have to say, but let’s get you somewhere more comfortable. We have a place, it’s a little like a sharing center, where you can tell us about what brought you here. It’s where they brought me when I came, and I’m sure more people will want to hear your story. In the mean time, are you hungry, thirsty, or tired”

Verus considered this for a moment, but then shook his head.

No, I am fine, Brax. Quite taken aback and confused but otherwise fine. You say this is a prison?”

Of sorts, yes. Although life is not so bad here.”

Brax looked at Karna as he finished that sentence and she smiled at him. Verus looked over at her as well and nodded in greeting.

I’m Karna. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Verus.”

The pleasure is mine, at meeting a beautiful woman as yourself.”

He smiled a little, in the Nisivalen way at least, and turned back to Brax.

A sharing center, you say?”

Yes, sort of. It’s a place where people go when they arrive here to tell their story. It becomes logged into our records and we use it to add to the history of this place. We have extensive records going back centuries. Would you like me to lead you there?”

Verus sighed deeply and looked at the circle from which he had appeared and then back at Brax.

Well, if that is the ritual here, I suppose I have little choice. Lead the way, my friend.”

As Brax started to walk, Verus took his first real look at the city he was in the middle of, and he stopped, eyes wide, and gawked at it.

What is this place?”

Karna placed a hand on the back of his head and he turned to her.

This is a place that the Protectors had created, with their technology, to be whatever we want it to be. Some of us, like me, have lived here all of our lives. Others, like yourself, are brought here. Later on we will make a needspace for you, but before that let’s go to Prisoners’ Hall.”

Prisoner Hall, eh?”

Yes, that’s what we lifers call it, anyway.”

Verus nodded and followed after Brax, who had paused to listen to the interchange. Verus turned around as he walked to take in the skyline of intricate buildings, and the three of them walked through the crowd that had trickled in to see the newcomer. Verus greeted a few of them, who smiled back with just a hint of sadness. Verus was overwhelmed by all of this, but he was glad that the people at least seemed friendly.

Brax saw his father near the edge of the crowd with a slight smile on his face, and Brax knew that his father was remembering when, just several months previous, Brax had been in the same situation as Verus was now.

Verus found himself in the center of a very large circular building. Rows upon rows of stadium seats surrounded him, although they had not been there several minutes before. When he first came in it was just a large empty room, and someone had apparently re-shaped the room to allow him to speak to them all. He sat in a chair that was placed for him and he cleared his throat to find that his voice was amplified so that all could hear his every whisper.

Nonetheless he sat quietly for a moment. Brax was sitting in the first row, in front of him, and hundreds more had come to listen to his story. He had been told that people all over the city were likely to be listening remotely as well, and he had been told that this would include hundreds of thousands of people potentially.

Well, I suppose I should start with my name. I am Verus Titsilana. I am originally from near Kito, on Nisivatak. My father and mother designed detection equipment for ships, and I eventually took over their business. I was visiting Thalea to see some friends there the day of The Accident. I was one of the few that survived that day.”

He stopped there and seemed to collect his thoughts, and then laughed a little.

You know, this is all very strange. Just a little while ago I was preparing to send an expose about the Protectorate to the media when some guy appears in my office and informs me that I’ve broken some Protectorate law, and that I would go to their city, or something. After a short argument with him—don’t bother arguing with a Protector, by the way—he simply erased all of my data, vaporized my findings, and told me that I was too risky to keep in the general public. I tried to run, but I didn’t get more than a few steps into the rain when the man held me in place with some sort of field. He said something to me about being taken care of, and then there was some dizziness. The next thing I knew I was here, confused. This is all very sudden, so I’ll hope you will forgive me for sounding unprepared.”

There were a few murmurs of understanding as Verus continued, apparently encouraged.

Anyway, so I was on that trans with Brax that day, and like most people I became a jingoist and fan of the Protectorate, being very glad to have been saved. Nobody seemed to want to talk about how the explosion came from their facility, as any discussion about the Protectorate in general was a cause for caution and fear for as long as I can remember.

And then the day of the announcement that the Protectors would rebuild Patula, after it would be designed of course, I had a very short confrontation with the historian Shontesta of Thalea who challenged this blind pro-Protectorate view that I, as well as most others I knew, had. And I must say that this challenge resonated with many of the people I’ve talked with since, but most were afraid to pursue the question, but I and a few others were not.

And when I heard about the organization based on Kasara, the Kas-A or whatever they were called, being discovered and their materials destroyed, I knew that something bad was happening. And let me tell you, just to find out about the destruction of their library was not easy to find, and it was this fact more than any other that compelled me to write the article that I was going to publish in the next few days.

I managed to find a man by the name of Ninnii Jullen, who was an historian for many years on Kasara, who was unwilling to talk with me, but I managed to see in his eyes that he knew a lot, but had been scared into silence. You’ll all be sad to hear that his health is not well. I’m sad to think that he’ll die in relative obscurity probably soon, and that all his knowledge will be stained with his association with the group that the Protectors are calling terrorists….”

There was nothing surprising in the rest of Verus’ story. Brax sat and listened closely for the next hour or so, as did most of the others, until Verus was done retracing the various events that led him here. It was all so common, so similar, and so normal. Verus was a man who had become interested in the truth. He had become interested in exploring the history and activities of the Protectorate, and had been caught like they all were.

As Verus was talking, however, one piece of information stood out to Brax that perked his attention. Verus had been talking about his research into the explosion at the Protectorate facility in Patula, and had mentioned that he had talked to a woman who had once had transported a small box to a Kasarian man a few days before the accident. She said that having the box had made her feel a sort of buzzing feeling on her skin once, and that she had considered opening it, but feared what was inside.

After Verus had finished and people began to file out, Brax watched as a few people came down to greet him and talk with him. Brax waited for a while as they talked, and when the last of them was leaving, Brax stood up and approached.

They tell me that it is your duty to find me something called a ‘need space,’ or whatever they are called. They said that you would know what to do.”

Yes, Verus, I do. However, before I do that I want to ask you about that woman who delivered that box. You made a passing mention of it, but I want to hear more.”

Oh, OK, well let me think…”

Brax watched as Verus thought, and as he did so Brax motioned him to follow, and they walked together. Karna, Brax noticed, had left already.

Well, like I was saying before, she said it made her feel strange once.”

When?”

Well, she said she only had it for a few hours. She would not tell me where she got it, only that it had been in Zule, and she had gone to Patula to deliver it to a Kasarian whose name she didn’t remember. She had said it was most-likely a fake name anyway. She said it was while she was on her way to the sharing center to deliver it that she felt a strange sensation that seemed to come from the box, but she couldn’t be sure. She said that the feeling disappeared after a few moments and she kept going towards her delivery.”

Do you remember her name?”

Zelna. She was Thalean, and looked southern. I only talked to her a short while, as she was nervous in meeting with me in the first place.”

What about the Kasarian that she gave it to? Did she say anything about him?”

She said that she met with a rather nervous looking Kasarian man in one of the smaller annex sharing centers near the edge of the city, and that he had sounded like he was not from Thalea. She said he had an older Kasarian accent, and that he had actually greeted her with the old ‘Kas-a mi feelem’ saying that had been used by the ancient Kasarians, and that this had struck her as odd. This, of course, made me think of the Kasarian on the transport that day.”

Do you think that they may have been the same man?”

Yes, I think so. It was part of the article I was writing. Of course, I can’t be sure what the two stories have to do with each-other.”

No idea at all?”

At that question the Nisivalen’s eyes narrowed, and he stopped walking for a moment. Brax’s next question didn’t seem to surprise Verus at all.

You probably already have a guess, don’t you Brax?”

Indeed, I do.”

You think it has something to do with that thing that the Kasarian pulled out on the subtrans, don’t you?”

That seems to make sense.”

Because you felt…you felt it on the trans that day, just like the rest of us, right?”

It. Such a small word, so vague, and yet Verus’ expression was clear as day. What else would one call that feeling? ‘It’ was sufficient to communicate what Brax meant, and no other word, no other specificity, would have made Brax’s question clearer. It had been a singular and defining experience for Brax, and as Verus paused before he responded, Brax knew that it was so for Verus as well.

Yes, I did feel it. And you think that whatever that woman, what was her name again?”

“Zelna.”

Right, Zelna felt what we felt, or something similar, a few days before The Accident happened.”

Seems like it.”

Did you talk to her about that?”

She refused to talk with me anymore when I brought it up.”

Brax smiled knowingly at that. They had stopped just outside the building, and it was growing darker as the sun was setting in the west, reflecting softly off of a few buildings.

Brax, I suggest that you find me this needspace that you are supposed to take me to. I think we have some things to discuss. There are a few details I left out of my story, but I think you will appreciate them.”

Brax closed his eyes and imagined a layout of the city, and a holographic display appeared in front of them, mildly surprising Verus. Brax looked over the map and found a space that was open not far from his own, and began to walk in that direction. Verus followed and watched as the holographic image disappeared.

So, you really just need to think about what you want, and you have it here?”

Yes, pretty much anything.”

Hmm, well I’m imagining a fast ship to take me out of here.”

Like I said, almost anything.”

They walked silently until they got to the empty space, both thinking about what they had talked about. Brax found that his pace increased, but that Verus was following well enough. They were sharing the same anticipation, and it was becoming palpable.

After establishing a small building for Verus’ needs, Brax thought up some cooking implements and started to cook. Verus had protested, saying that he was interested in thinking himself up some food which Brax had never heard of, but Brax insisted.

As Brax was preparing, Verus watched him, hungrily.

So, you cook even though you don’t need to here?”

Yes, but only sometimes. Special occasions, mostly.”

So, what are you making?”

I’m going to make you something that Shonny—Shontesta you know her as—taught me to make a while back. It’s quite good.”

She is your aunt, right?”

Yes, I lived with her after The Accident.”

Why is she not in here?”

Brax looked over his shoulder as he mixed some ingredients together and Verus was waiting for an answer. It was an answer Brax did not have to give him.

I am not sure. I’ve often wondered that myself.”

Verus sat quietly and watched Brax cook. Verus considered himself to be a pretty good cook himself, but what he smelled now seemed pretty good, so far.

As Brax finished, Verus found himself with some freshly cooked eggs of some sort with a beautifully aromatic sauce over it. He took a bite and his eyes widened as he chewed.

Delicious!”

Brax smiled and started to eat his own gatal eggs, and he found he agreed.

They ate quickly and quietly, and as Brax finished he leaned back and watched as Verus took his last few bites.

Would you like some ale, Verus?”

That would be a fine idea, Brax. You must know a few Nisivalen if you ask that.”

There are a couple in my Purista class.”

Purista?”

Never mind.”

OK, so assuming that all we have to do is think of an ale and they will appear, right?”

Sure, give it a try.”

Verus closed his eyes and a moment later two glasses of ale appeared and Verus picked up the closer one and drank nearly a third of it in one gulp.

Yes, that’s good. A dark Nisivalen ale, with a good hearty bite, try some.”

Brax took a sip and found it quite good, and took another.

OK, so you want to know what I have found about that device the Kasarian had on that trans, right?”

Brax nodded eagerly while sipping his ale,spilling a little of it as he did so.

OK. I had thought about that thing in the beginning of my research. I had talked with a few of the other survivors and they had all described the feeling similarly. In talking with two of the survivors from the other Protector, the one called Natak, I found that they had experienced no such feeling, just like the interlink had reported.”

Yes, and I had actually talked with Ninnii Jullen about that a while back.”

Oh! You know Ninnii?”

I stayed with him for some time before coming here. I was, briefly, a member of the Protectors of the Kas-A.”

Ninnii did not mention you. But Ninnii pretty much refused to tell me anything. You’ll have to tell me what you had learned from that library, assuming you saw it.”

I did, and I would be glad to share what I learned there after we talk about that device.”

Of course. Well, let me see then, where to begin.”

Brax sipped at his ale again and noticed that Verus’ glass was nearly empty. He had never been able to keep up with Kalvaa or Timsaar after classes, and he doubted he could here either. As Verus emptied his glass he refilled it with a thought and laughed.

I think there is at least one thing I really like about this place. Infinite free ale!”

Brax laughed and spilled just a bit more of his own on his shirt, and Verus took a deep breath and continued.

Well, I figured, after talking with those people, that the device that the Kasarian—I never learned his name—had on the trans had something to do with that feeling we shared. And after talking with some people, I tracked down the woman who transported it from Zule to Patula, and then went to Zule, where I found a dead end. She refused to give me any more information, and I didn’t find anything myself, for a while.”

Brax watched Verus sip at his ale and nod as he swallowed.

Right, and then I found some article in an old library in Gullina. I was doing some research on the history of the Protectorate, in a section of the library that still had old books, and I was reading an account of some technology that was being researched a few centuries after the formation of the Cooperative. I was flipping though this book when I found a couple of pieces of paper that had been left inside, perhaps as a bookmark of some sort. But what was more interesting than the book was the papers themselves.”

I’ve found things left in books in the library of Ninnii on Kasara, so I know what that is like.”

I’ll bet you do. But I’ll bet more that you have never found anything like this.”

What was it about?”

It was a hand-written note about some other book, a book that was not cited, so I don’t know what book it was, about some guy who had discovered a few small devices on Kasara while doing some archaeological excavation near the old canyon city, near the temple.”

Right, I’ve been there.”

Sure. So it talked about how someone had found a way to allow other people to use the Protectorate’s devices.”

Wait, you mean those things they always have with them?”

Yes, like the thing that Menson used that day on the trans.”

So this device would allow others to use it? How?”

Well, Brax, I’m not quite sure. Frankly I don’t know too much about how those things work, although pretty clearly it’s similar to how the technology of this place works.”

You mean, by neural interface. It reads our thoughts or something.”

Right, that’s my guess as well. But clearly the devices are set to only accept interface commands from the Protectors themselves, perhaps each one is individualized, like if you set a coding for one of your textpads if you have a neural implant, only more complicated.”

Exactly, I do have one and I did do just that with mine.”

Right, many people do.”

OK, so this device allows you to break into it, to hack it essentially?”

Well, I’m not sure. See, almost everyone in the trans that day with us had a neural implant of some kind. Most people do on Thalea. But, as you likely know, those that didn’t have one also felt it, but their description of it seems to have been subdued and different than our experience.”

Right, I’ve thought that too. But there is another factor here.”

What is that Brax?”

A few weeks ago a Protector visited the class I am in. And while she was there, I felt that feeling again, but even more intensely.”

Verus looked at Brax blankly, and didn’t say anything for a moment.

And that time there was no device like that, at least not that I could see. In fact, I have felt that feeling a few times since then, although mostly it has been muted. But when that Protector was there, it was intense. And it did feel like I could control something, but I didn’t know what it was.”

Brax, that’s incredible. Are you sure about this?”

Yes.”

Well then, Brax, it appears that what I found later may have been true after all.”

And what did you find?”

One of the other survivors was from Brua, and practiced some ancient meditation or something. When he returned home after The Accident he continued his meditation, as he had been doing for years.”

Was it Purista?”

I don’t know what that is, but maybe. I didn’t ask him what it was called. In any case, he found that when he meditated he thought he could feel that same thing as he had on the trans, especially as he went deeper into altered states of consciousness, which apparently the Bruuk can do quite well. Now, most people thought that it was an illusion, or that it was some psychological trauma, but if you say that you experienced it too—”

I was meditating at the time, sort of.”

“—Well, in that case, that seems to support the idea that the device might have left some imprint, perhaps on your implant. The Bruuk I talked with had one too.”

Wait, you mean that the device the Kasarian had somehow reprogrammed or added some software to our implants?”

I don’t know. Maybe. That idea has crossed my mind a few times, but I have not been able to prove it. The fact is that I still don’t know enough to be sure about any of this.”

Well, have you tried meditating, Verus?”

No. I didn’t give much credit to his story. I don’t think I’d be very good at meditation anyway.”

Well maybe you should give it a try. Maybe we can help verify our hypothesis.”

Verus drank deeply and then nodded. Yes, perhaps, but not tonight. Perhaps you can show me how tomorrow.”

Come with me, in the morning, to Purista class. Gildon will show you.”

Gildon?”

Yes, he’s the master who lives here. He teaches the ancient Bruuk art of Purista, which is a combination of philosophy, meditation, and self-defense. We learn how to use swords.”

Wait, you mean like the tournament that they have on Thalea?”

Sort of, yes.”

Well, that might be interesting. I’ve actually never held a sword before.”

Well, some are there primarily for the sword lessons, but others are there for other reasons. Gildon will not force anyone to partake in all of the class. In fact, there are a couple of people that just show up for the meditation, although they rarely actually come to class.”

OK, well, I guess that we’ll find out tomorrow, eh?”

Sure.”

And in the meantime, I want to hear about the Protectors of the Kas-A and their library.”

Brax smiled and finished his glass of ale. With a thought it was refilled—this time with a more hoppy pale ale—and Brax took another sip and started to tell Verus about his time on Kasara. Verus listened intently, and the hours went by as they talked, sharing all that they knew about what had brought them here. Brax liked Verus very much, and Verus seemed to reciprocate the feeling. As the night grew late, they laughed, talked, and drank with one-another.

They were to be good friends, it seemed.

It was late, and Brax was wobbling a little towards his needspace. When he got there, he saw that his bed was not empty, and so he undressed and put his arms around the figure that lay under his covers.

But something was not right, as the person was too tall, and the figure not quite familiar, yet the body was naked nonetheless. Brax stood back up and thought the light on, yet dimly, and saw that it was Elatia that turned towards him, not Karna.

Elatia…what are you doing here?’

Rather than respond Elatia pulled the covers back, revealing her naked body to him. Brax looked at her and his jaw dropped, and Elatia smiled. Brax went to speak but no words came, and he found that he was fully erect.”

I see you are quite happy to see me, Brax.”

Brax considered covering himself, but he was too distracted by her nakedness. She was even more stunning in reality than she had been in his dreams. From her perfectly shaped breasts to the curve of her hips to her perfectly trimmed pubic area, and then back to her red eyes that stared back at him wantonly; she was gorgeous.

So, are you just going to stand there looking, or are you going to join me here?”

Brax thought for a moment and then he smiled widely. He thought the light dimmer and then lay down and rolled over to her. For a moment he stopped, close to her face, and looked at her.

Why are you here?”

Because, Brax, I was feeling a little lonely tonight. I was hoping you’d come back sooner, but you were out late. Were you with Karna?”

Uh, no. I thought you were Karna when I first got here. I was with the newcomer, Verus. We were talking about, well, about things about Patula and The Accident.”

Elatia laughed. Brax, under other circumstances, would have inquired why she laughed, but he had other things on his mind…as well as on his erect manhood below. Elatia’s hand had found its way to him and she held him in her hand, stroking with her finger at the tip, causing him to breath deep at the pleasure of it.

Very nice, Brax. I can see why Karna has been keeping you busy.”

Brax paused for a moment and tried to remain objective and sober, but both seemed beyond his reach at the moment. Instead, he kissed her and placed his fingers around her right nipple and felt her breast in his hand. And as he entered her he knew that he’d have to muster every bit of self control to not come almost immediately. And as he slowed down his pace he looked into her beautiful eyes and simply could not believe that this was happening.

30. Before the Wars

Camen settled into his story. There was a look of nostalgia as he began that only increased as he went along. Damula and the others sat back with varying interest as the story progressed, but nobody interrupted or stopped listening for even a moment.

It was a warm and sunny day in the city of Fent, the capital of the Kozar. Traffic was bustling, people were moving from place to place, and within a tall building on the North side, Camen was in his office laboratory hunched over a small piece of equipment.

He had been working in his lab trying to work out a slight energy loss in one of his projects when Ferrana, a portly Kasetian woman a few years younger than Camen, walked in and stood silently with a look of sadness on her face. She stood and watched him for a few moments before she made a subtle noise to get his attention, and he bumped his head on the casing of the thing when he heard her, and she laughed a little despite her sadness.

Camen, you need to be a little more aware. I’ve been standing here for a little while now, and you didn’t even notice.”

Camen rubbed his head a little and smiled at her. She was always sneaking up on him, it seemed, and he had to laugh at himself a little.

Sorry Ferr, I was a little preoccupied. To what good fortune do I owe this visit?”

Do you remember that project that we were involved with a little while ago?”

Which one?”

The one that involved the mind interface, the one where Zabri disappeared?”

Ah, yes. How could I forget that one?”

He’s been found.”

Camen became suddenly very still as he processed this. He put a tool down next to the casing of the unit he was working on and looked at her with a look of surprise and happiness.

When? How” What….”

Well, that’s the thing. It looked like he appeared about three days ago, and he was found floating in space by a passing ship.”

What?”

He’s dead, Camen.”

How?”

From exposure to the vacuum of space; freezing, lack of oxygen, and so forth.”

Camen walked over to her and pulled her close. He could see that she was as upset as he was, and he wanted to hold her.

I just heard. They found him earlier today and just ran the analysis to see who he was, what happened, etc.”

He loosened his hold and she pulled back to arm’s length and he saw that she was still quite upset.

They didn’t find the device, but they are searching for it now. They think it may still be out there.”

Where was he found?”

That’s the interesting thing. His body was found along the orbital path of the planet, approximately where the planet was several weeks ago when he disappeared. He appears to have just appeared there a few days ago and was just floating towards the sun, being pulled in by its gravity slowly. If the ship had not found him, he may have eventually fell into it and we would have never known what happened to him.”

What did happen to him?”

We can’t be exactly sure, but it looks like he may have jumped forward in time. The devise was, as you will remember, designed to do a number of things. Greven thinks that it may have caused some sort of spatial vibration that caused him to accelerate exponentially relative to, well, to be honest this is not my field of expertise. This is Greven’s explanation which I am trying to recite. You’ll have to talk to him.”

Camen looked confused, and Ferrana just stood there trying to compose herself.

It was hard getting used to thinking about him as gone, and now that I’m sure he’s dead, it’s just harder. I was just starting to accept it. He was probably the most brilliant of our team, I wish he hadn’t tested that thing himself the way he did.”

Where is Greven?”

He’s with the others in the primary lab looking over the body. They are trying to look for any clues to see if they can figure out exactly what happened. They asked me to bring you there.”

Well, let’s go. I want to take a look myself.”

As they walked through the hallway, a feeling of anxiety swept over him. He had lost a friend, but that part he had made peace with already. Still, the certainty of it now made it more real, more present. And what of the prototype? he thought to himself. He hoped that they would be able to find that as well, as it was extremely valuable for many reasons. It was not very large, but large enough to detect if they knew what to look for. He doubted that it would work anymore, but it would be good to examine it anyway, in order to learn what went wrong.

As they approached the main lab, Camen saw that the doorway was blocked by a few curious technicians who were peering inside. Word had spread, apparently, and soon the building would be swarmed with media from all of the major nations. When Zabri had disappeared, it became news that spread all over Kaset and was talked about for more than a week on all the major news programs. Eventually, the story became less interesting as he was not found, and the world began to move on. With this news, however, the story would gain new steam and there would be questions.

Camen wanted to have some answers.

Camen and Ferrana pushed their way through the technicians and entered the room. In the center were three people, two that Camen knew, standing around what must have been Zabri’s body. As they got closer, Camen could see the body had been exposed to space and it didn’t look pretty. Greven saw them coming and turned to Camen and took his hand in greeting.

Camen, I’m glad you are here. I want you to meet Chevner from the Kozarian military. It was a ship under his command that discovered the body. He has sent several more ships to try and find the device, assuming it’s out there. You know Karri, of course.”

Hello Chevner. Hello again Karri.”

Chevner turned to Camen and greeted him while Karri only looked up momentarily as she was taking a piece of skin from Zabri’s arm, most likely to run some tests.

Camen, Greven tells me that you were on the team with Zabri in designing the device that he had. What can you tell me about it?”

Well, it was a prototype that was supposed to allow someone to perceive and manipulate fields of force. We had already developed similar things in the past, but this one was more powerful and more precise. We had installed, for the first time, a device that allows us to manipulate quantum forces in data storage, but also much more powerful and precise. It is what allows you to store data in those tiny little sliver-drives that started to pop up around ten cycles ago.”

Of course, I have one myself. They hold a tremendous amount of data.”

Yes, and we have been working on improving them. We were interested in finding ways to make it easier to build relatively simply objects. We were hoping that if it worked, we would be able to allow people to create a cup, a chair, or even a simple tool just by thinking about it. This was the second attempt after the first failed. It seems that it takes a fair amount of energy and functional parts to make it successful. But after a larger version was able to materialize hydrogen and some other elements and simple molecules, we found a way to make one that was small enough to carry with one arm, and that’s what we were testing.”

And, did it work?”

Yes. Although it took some tweaking to get it right. After a few weeks of working with it we were able to fill a bowl with materialized water, and then a bowl itself eventually. It was at this point that Zabri started increasing the power output and adding some more functions. Eventually we were able to create gravity fields that would have the equivalent gravitational pull of a small moon, if we wanted. I remember when we turned it on it pulled a few smaller tools and other objects in the room towards it before the field collapsed. Over the next few months we began to maintain electromagnetic fields with it that could take complex shapes, hold masses of water in the air and make them change shapes, and even to make small objects move around by manipulating gravity and EM fields. All of this was done through a small implant that Zabri had, and he was able to control it with his mind. He became quite good at it, over time.”

That is quite impressive. I’m surprised that I didn’t read about it.”

Camen thought for a moment and it was Ferrana who responded.

We held our reports until we wanted to have a more comprehensive story to tell. We were drafting an article when Zabri disappeared.”

I see, and what happened when he disappeared?”

Nobody answered immediately. Camen looked at Karri who was running some test across the room, and Greven simply looked at Camen. Ferrana looked at Zabri’s legs, unable to look at what was left of his face, and Chevner looked at each in turn, provoking an answer that wasn’t coming.

What happened? What caused this?”

Greven took a deep breath and the corner of his mouth rose in a reluctant half-smile, and he turned and slowly strolled away from the body. Chevner followed him and stepped around him to face him.

Why won’t you tell me?”

It’s because we are not quite sure, Chevner.”

OK Camen, what do you know then?”

Camen was about to speak when Greven raised a hand to stop him.

No Camen, allow me to answer him instead. I am head of this department now, I should be the one to explain.”

Greven turned around and faced the others and Chevner walked back around to join them around the body again. Before he started he looked at Zabri’s body and took it all in. It was difficult to see his old partner in this condition, but looking at the body put him in the state of mind he needed to be in right now.

The morning that Zabri disappeared I was awakened earlier than I usually wake up. Zabri had called me—he called all of us here, actually—and told us to come to the lab as soon as we could get there. Once we were all there, it being still quite early, Zabri’s enthusiasm spiked and he walked us in here and had us sit around the device we had been working on. As he turned it on, which caused the usually static feeling that we had gotten used to—it has something to do with how the energy generator works, an imperfection that we are still working on—he started to tell us about something he had discovered the night before after working on some upgrades.

He seemed to concentrate for a moment and we all watched, and as we did so we saw that he was standing up, but very slowly. He reached, again slowly, into a pocket and pulled out a red ball, raised it to just over his head, and let go of it. But rather than fall as one would expect, it almost seemed to float down to his other hand. Then, when he caught it he seemed to very slowly pull it back and throw it.

For a few seconds it merely seemed to hang in the air, and then there was a sort of shimmering and then it sped up and nearly hit me in the shoulder. After it missed me and bounced harmlessly away, and we all looked at him, puzzled.

He asked us what we saw, and we described it to him. This caused him to smile and to tell us that from his point of view, he had just quickly pulled out a ball, dropped it from one hand to the other, and then threw it to me.”

So, he was able to manipulate time?” Chevner asked.

It appears so. After that, he did the opposite, where he seemed to take a ball out, throw it down and then throw it very fast at Camen, who actually ended up catching it to his surprise. He even said that this time he did it slower than the first time to make the point.”

What did he say to explain how that was possible?”

He told us that he was manipulating with a kind of quantum vibration. Somehow it allowed him to be traveling through space at a different rate while not actually moving in any way that was perceivable to us, since it was based on a sort of vibration rather than a linear motion. None of us really understood what he meant, to be honest with you. We were aware that he was experimenting with time-dilation fields on his own, but we hadn’t realized he was trying to incorporate this technology into the device in this way.”

Chevner rested his head on his hand and seemed to consider this for a moment and then looked at Greven again, who had fallen silent.

OK, so how did he disappear?”

That’s the thing. He was just sitting there, looking like he was thinking. All of a sudden there was a power surge of some sort and there was an intense feeling of that static energy in the room and then he was gone.”

What do you mean, gone?”

He just wasn’t there anymore. At first we thought he had played some trick on us, that he had turned it on and ran out faster than we could see and would come running back in, or something. Instead, we spent the rest of the day looking for him and never found him.”

Until this morning.”

Yes, until this morning like Karri says.”

Chevner seemed to understand as he was nodding, and Camen stepped in.

So, it seems like he may have done something that caused him to jump forward in time. Perhaps he had turned it up so high, whether on purpose or accidentally, that he jumped forward in time several weeks. And since the planet was no longer in the same position…”

Yes, exactly, the planet had moved in its orbit so his position remained the same, relative to the sun anyway, but it was later in time.”

Greven’s hypothesis seemed to make some sense, but there were too many questions. Why would he remain in the same place relative to the sun? Why not relative to the galaxy or to the planet? It didn’t seem to make much sense, but it was clear that in what would have seemed like a moment to Zabri, he appeared in the vacuum of space several weeks after disappearing from the lab. He was probably dead within a moment, and probably had no time to understand what had happened.

The question was what to do now.

Camen stopped his story there and looked at the floor. Damula and the others were enthralled by the story and wanted to hear more.

What happened then? You obviously continued the research, but after that I imagine that it would have been cautiously.”

Camen looked at Mikeli, who had asked the question, and forced a smile.

Yes, we did wait. A few days later we found the device. It was no longer functional but we were able to examine it and find what changes Zabri had made to it and study them. When the story hit the media it became a point of debate and intense argument. Many wanted to pursue the technology, while most others wanted to abandon it. Most fervent of those opposed to it was the rogue leader Dupeth, who had created a small nation in the previously uninhabited mountains and deserts of Falway.

I remember a few months later watching some news on the media stream with Karri and Greven when a video of Dupeth was sent to one of the stations….

And today we have more information about the recent activities of the rogue leader Dupeth who is believed to be hiding in the Falway mountains. This video was sent to us last night containing some of his most recent comments about the Zabri re-appearance issue that we reported on a few months ago.”

The travesty of this ungodly activity to manipulate time against His laws will bring the wrath of God upon the nation of Kozar. Their science has dug too deep into the creation of God, and we will not support any action that continues to try to act as gods as the Kozar have continued to do for decades. We call upon the nations of Kaset to rise up in rebellion against this evil nation, this ungodly nation, in order to prevent them from continuing these heretical projects, and to return to the path of the one, true god.

We also call on the nation of Vishi, which I used to call home, to discontinue its secularization that started with the decrees of so-called tolerance from nearly twenty-five cycles ago. Their alliance with the Kozar shortly after has befriended them with the enemies of the true God and their fate will be the same as the Kozarians…”

Dupeth continued to criticize the Makin and the Bombath, but continued to not include the Tuyin in his warnings, supporting the international concerns about a possible alliance between these two nations.”

In other news from Vishi City today…”

You know, I don’t know how much longer the international community will continue to take this from Dupeth. He continues to bomb us, as well and the Vishi, and no action seems to dissuade him. I sometimes think that those who try and stand up to him and his backwards ideologies have a point. Perhaps we should not continue to tolerate his dangerous religious views.”

Camen laughed a little at Karri. She tended to get riled easily by Dupeth, and Camen understood.

Karri, I understand your frustration. But we are scientists. It is not our place to tell these people that they are wrong. They have the right to believe what they want, and just because our nation has moved on and progressed beyond these silly ideas does not give us the right or the duty to try and convince others that they are wrong.”

Camen thought he agreed with Graven on this point, but right now he felt a burning distrust and dislike for Dupeth and all he stood for. He looked at Karri who was composing some reply to Graven when Ferrana walked in.

Hey, are you all still eating midmeal? I thought we had some tests to run this afternoon.”

Graven laughed at her and took a bite of his meal and she stood watching him and then looked at the screen.

Did you hear about that video that Dupeth made?”

Yeah, we were just watching it on the news. He really pisses Karri off, and Greven wants to leave him alone.”

Sounds about right. It looks like I have not missed anything unusual.”

They finished eating and returned to the lab. It was finally the day that they were going to try and test their new prototype with all of its safety precautions. They had drawn a lottery and Camen was the one to test it. They wanted to make sure that whoever was to risk the test would be willing and also have won randomly. Camen had already had the implant put in a couple of days before, and Karri had drawn to be second, assuming it worked correctly, and also had hers put in.

So, when are you leaving for your sister’s place, Camen?”

I leave in a week. I’m hoping that if I do flash forward in time, it’s just that long so I can get right to my vacation.”

Ferrana laughed, but there was a sadness that lay underneath that laughter. It was the kind of laughter one uses to cover a fear, and this fear has a legitimate source. Camen was afraid of the coming tests, and they all knew he would be. They were all scared, it seemed. They had taken many steps to ensure that the same accident would not happen again, and even if it did there were further precautions.

As they entered the lab, Camen headed straight for the new prototype and picked it up. It was slightly smaller than the last one and didn’t have as much of a power output. This way if anything went wrong it couldn’t have as much of an effect.

OK, let’s get you in this suit.”

Camen, who had been looking at the device in his hand, turned to Greven who was indicating a suit that was designed to withstand the cold and vacuum of space, as well as to supply oxygen. It was equipped with a locator beacon, so that if the same fate were to somehow befall Camen, at least they would be able to find him whenever he reappeared.

I don’t know, Greven, I think that it would be an awful fashion statement.”

Greven smiled a little at this, and Karri almost knocked over some boxes as she laughed suddenly. Ferrana smiled as well, but Camen was too nervous to smile despite his attempt to lighten the tension in the room.

Camen put the device down very carefully and walked over to the suit. As he put it on, Karri was looking over a last-minute diagnostic of the device. The familiar buzzing and static feeling was in the room since she had turned it on, and Ferrana watched patiently with Greven, who was mounting a connection to the end of the device so that it could be tethered to Camen’s suit.

OK, can someone make sure that the lining is completely sealed in the back here, please?”

Ferrana walked over to Camen, who had not yet put on his helmet, and checked the suit and found it sufficiently sealed. She then helped Camen get the helmet on and Greven held the device out to him as Karri fastened the other end of the short cord to his suit.

OK, let’s get to the testing room.”

Camen walked towards a door at the back of the lab. Ferrana opened the door for him and Camen walked in alone. As she closed the door, Camen could see, out of the corner of his eye, that she was waving to him as she did so. He was alone now.

They had cleared a storage area for the testing. It was a large room that was usually stacked with boxes, bins, and other storage devices, but today it was empty except for a few recording devices that had been strategically placed to monitor the tests. It seemed that all of Kaset was holding their breath in anticipation of this test, and there would be many who had come to watch. The media had arranged to have some cameras record the event as well and they waited on the other side of a window that Camen tried to ignore as he walked to the center of the room. He knew that they would see nothing, and that the test would move along slowly, as it would take Camen time to learn how to use it. He supposed that the interest in the work they were doing was good, though.

OK, Greven, I’m in place. Let’s switch this thing on.”

OK, Camen, I’m initiating fist interlink now. Let me know if anything seems weird.”

Camen knew that the first link was just to feed the device testing impulses from his implant, and knew it would not seem like anything, and it didn’t. He’s just showing off for the media, Camen thought with a slight smile.

Alright, Camen, finishing the first interlink sequence now.”

Camen stood there patiently and allowed the device to sync with his implants. He would simply stand there and look around, allowing the device to start to learn how to read his thoughts, studying what brain-processes did what as it scanned the environment around him. The device was, essentially, being programmed to work with Camen’s mind. He decided to walk around the room in a small circle, so that the media would have something to show those curious people at home.

And so far, as he walked around the testing room, Camen felt nothing. What he saw was a large room with a glass partition where a multitude of researchers and media reps who had come to observe the test as well as a few detectors located throughout the room. Camen walked towards the center of the room while the other three sat to watch the telemetry from their portable monitors in the lab, where Camen could not see them.

The men and women on the other side of the glass watched intently. Camen looked back at them and felt suddenly very nervous. He knew he would have to become as calm as he could to have this test be successful, so he closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths, and then reopened them. He felt a little calmer.

OK, I’m ready for stage two, Greven.”

Camen was not sure if stage one was fully completed, but he wanted to put a little bit of a show on for the audience.

OK, I’m initiating stage two…now.”

Stage two was supposed to open up the link in two directions. It was, essentially, feeding the processed information from Camen’s brain back to his brain. It was a way for Camen to become conscious of what the device was seeing of him.

At first Camen felt nothing, and then there was a sort of disorientation, a doubling of thought, and a sort of mental echo. It felt like, well, it felt like he was thinking things twice, but the second time it was more full, more real, more him. They had programmed the device to only send certain information back, and as Camen concentrated, rather than this echo he had a sense of a more clear awareness. He closed his eyes and tried to remember what the people in front of him looked like, and rather than a dimly remembered memory the image flashed back exactly as it had looked with his eyes opened. The device was recording what he saw, and, as they hoped, he was actually able to replay his experienced that it recorded in the device.

As he concentrated the dizzying sensation started to fade, and a singular consciousness returned. And yet it was fuller, richer, and somehow deeper.

Wonderful!”

Camen’s eyes were still closed, and Karri leaned in at the telemetry. She grabbed the microphone from Greven and pulled it towards her mouth.

What’s happening, Camen?”

Well, Karri, Greven, and Ferrana…” Camen started, opening his eyes, “the recordings are playing back very clearly. I think we nailed that one. The thought echo we were concerned about was there, but I think we were able to program the compensations just right. Right now everything seems pretty normal. Perhaps a slight dizziness, but I think that’s fading towards zero now.”

Good, very good. OK, do you want to move onto stage three?”

No, not quite yet. Give me a minute with this stage here before we continue.”

There was no response, but Camen could hear them adjusting settings and chatting in the background as he listened. Camen stretched his arms out, relaxed them, and when the dizziness seemed to be completely gone, he continued.

OK, let’s go onto stage three. Give me just a few seconds, but I’m ready.”

Camen concentrated and took a deep breath, and as he opened his eyes, he turned to one of the cameras and nodded.

They all knew that this stage would be the largest jump. This was the stage where the detection equipment in the device would begin to be fed into Camen’s mind. They would start by feeding him the simpler things, like EM fields, and work their way into more complex and subtle things like sensing particle motion.

As Greven turned on stage three, there was a massive dizziness and Camen almost fell over. This was expected because the same thing happened to Zabri when he first went this far in the testing, but Camen had no idea how intense it would be. For a few moments his vision was black, apparently overloaded by information. But as his vision returned he saw that things looked normal again.

Everything OK, Camen?”

Yes, Ferrana, I think so. Just the major dizziness we expected.”

OK, Camen, now I’m going to switch on the infrared. Are you ready?”

No, Greven, I’ll do it.”

Camen was trying to show off a bit, and Greven probably knew that. Camen concentrated and thought about seeing the heat in the room. There was a flicker of something, but it passed. As he concentrated again, he began to see patterns of heat around the room, and he smiled.

It’s working!”

And so it was. As he adjusted the sensitivity, Camen looked at the room with infrared eyes, and saw the world in a new way.

Camen spent the rest of the afternoon testing different detection equipment with the device. He found that as he added more and more of them, his mind felt larger, more expansive. Eventually he felt like he was not only seeing the infrared, ultra-violet, etc, but he was also feeling them. The device didn’t only effect visual perception, but touch, hearing, taste, etc. It allowed him to hear beyond what his ears could hear, feel the texture of a surface in another room, or simulate what something might taste or smell like. It was expanding his mind a little at a time, until he felt like he could extend himself beyond his body to the world around him and become part of it.

He felt, after turning on and activating all of the stage three detection systems, that he could close his eyes and feel the room. He could feel and hear the heartbeats of the various people around him. He could smell the subtle scent dust in the corner—even through the helmet he wore! He knew the shape of the chairs the people were sitting in. He felt, for a moment, what Karri’s breasts were like to hold. He had always secretly wanted to know that, and as it encroached on his awareness he felt a little guilty at having used the device in this way, but he was finding that it was difficult to reign in his thoughts every moment.

The more time he spent, the less difference there seemed to be between merely thinking an idea and having the device hone in on the object of that thought. This was, after all, what they had designed the device to do. There was, however, something very unsettling about this. Camen was slowly beginning to understand that the ideas of things were not matching up well with the things themselves. This had been a topic of discussion among many people in recent weeks, and he was not finding that it was true in a way that he had not been able to imagine.

All of his life, prior to this test now, Camen had to rely on the senses he was born with to apprehend the world. But the complexity of new senses, for this is what this device allowed him to do, was giving him new access to a world that he was not quite familiar with. Now, he could switch between not only different spectra of radiation to see things differently, he was able to peer at levels of size that had been invisible to him before.

He knew that the device was capable of it, but so far looking into the quantum realm was beyond him. He tried, but what he saw now was noise, and he simply could not wrap his brain around the information. It didn’t make any sense to him yet.

Camen thought about how Zabri had changed the more time he spent using his device. The man had become reclusive, distant, and he talked about things in ways that seemed nonsensical.

The things are as you see them, and they are also as you do not see them.

This was something that Zabri said to him once, and Camen thought about this now. There was a time when Camen had thought that maybe Zabri had gone a little mad in using the prototype of his. Now, he thinks that he may have been right, but that this madness was not a matter of losing his mind, but rather in gaining a new one that was radically different than his old one.

Camen had been describing what he saw to those that watched for the first hour or so, but after a while the words simply would not come. Now, nearing the end of the testing that they had planned for today, he simply did not know the words to express what he was sensing, and he stared blankly at the camera, sensing Greven on the other side, in response to a question he had asked. Luckily, the question was repeated.

Camen, we have completed our testing for now, are you ready to have the device disconnected now?”

Camen suddenly frowned. He thought back to the day that Zabri, upon his first successful completion of stage three, begging them not to disconnect him. Camen suddenly and very intimately understood why he had done so. Camen was becoming used to this increase in sensations and having them removed would be sort of like turning off hearing, sight, or smell in the brain. It would be like losing a part of one’s self, and it was terrifying.

But then Camen thought about how, upon being disconnected, Zabri had felt normal again, and after a few moments was quite fine, and so Camen, reluctantly, nodded.

There was a sudden pain in his head, and Camen lost his balance and fell to the floor. When his sight returned he found that his three partners were crowded over him, and that he had a mild headache.

Camen, are you alright?”

Yes, Karri, I am. It’s just a headache. I think the disorientation is gone.”

Well, what was it like, Camen?”

Camen looked at Greven and wanted to tell him, but could not. Camen found himself to be suddenly very tired, and so he stood up, with help from Greven and Ferrana, and smiled a little.

I don’t think there are sufficient words to describe the experience.”

They all smiled, as this was exactly what Zabri had said as well.

But right now I think I could eat something and then perhaps sleep for a couple of days.”

OK, well let’s get you out of this suit and get you some food. I think you will sleep well tonight, my friend.”

Camen saw that the people had come to watch had not left yet. A few were starting to move a little, but mostly they watched him closely, and Camen felt a little pride rise up inside him.

Tomorrow we will look over the data and see what we might be able to improve, and the next day we will try to move onto the last stage of testing, assuming you will want to continue, Camen.”

Of course, Greven. I think after a day of rest, I’ll be ready to give it a shot.”

They walked out of the testing room and Camen struggled to take off his helmet as he did so. It had become warm inside the suit, and it was nice to breathe the natural air again, rather than the filtered and recycled air in the suit. Camen smiled a little as they went back into the lab, and he saw that the crew had arranged a feast for them with some drinks. Camen would allow them to celebrate, but he would eat something quickly and then find a place to sleep for a while. Likely a long while.

Camen stopped his story here, and Damula was leaning in, fascinated.

How did the rest of the testing go?”

It went quite well, better than we expected. Two days later we did proceed with the tests and I was able to do, over the next few days, a few of the things that Zabri had done with his device. We had learned a lot from the data from his tests, and had made significant improvements that made adjusting much easier for me.”

You said that this was the week before your vacation, when you went to visit your sister. You said that was when the cites were attacked, right?”

Yes, that’s true. After that week I was tired, although I was getting better with the device. When I left for my vacation it was much needed, but I still brought the device with me to work with, in case I wanted to continue. I had become comfortable enough with it not to worry about accidents, especially since we removed the time-manipulation technology from the device for my vacation.’

I see, so you had a device that survived?”

Yes, perhaps ironically, I did. My sister lived quite far away from many of the cities. She wanted to move as far away from them as she could. The day of the attacks we were outside eating lunch when we felt a massive shaking. At first we thought it was a local earthquake, but then we saw, over the trees and in the distance, multiple flashes of light. Within minutes we knew that something terrible had happened, we just didn’t know what.”

What happened then?”

My sister and her family live nearby a very small village, and so we went there. There were less than a hundred or so people living in that area, and we had tried to contact other places with no luck. A few hours later the Tuyin forces came to the village and began firing upon us with their weapons. Within a few minutes I had found my sister and her family dead, and the few remaining people running for their lives.

I still had my device on me, so I turned it on and I concentrated to find where all of the Tuyin military were hiding, and with some more concentration I was able to, well….”

You killed them, didn’t you?”

Camen looked up at Natak. Natak was sitting with his arms folded over his stomach, and he was looking at Camen with a slight smile that showed no actual good humor, but rather sympathy.

Yes, Natak, I did. The device was not designed for that purpose, but in my rage and sadness I concluded that it could be used for such a purpose. I had never as much as hurt anyone before, but that day I killed them. When the Vishi forces eventually came to secure the area, they were surprised to find that the Tuyin forces were all dead. I never told them it was me.

As the months passed, I managed to get in contact with Greven again, who happened to be visiting the Vishi for a conference that would discuss the project we were working on. The two of us, as well as a few others that survived, eventually built this place we are in now in order to create more devices in order to fight back.”

But something went wrong, right?”

Yes Zuzek, that’s right. We were bereft of the advanced tools we had in our lab, having lost them when the city was destroyed. We either had to find older tools from other nations or build new ones. Over time we were able to build newer and better ones, but that wasn’t until our first attempts to recreate devices created ones that would malfunction, allowing the Tuyin, and eventually the other former allies, to get a hold of them.”

Camen fell silent. The memories had led him to the thoughts of his lost colleagues and friends, and it took him to a sad place in his mind that he usually avoided. The Thaleans looked at him with a combination of pity, sympathy, and anxiety. Mikeli shifted and cleared her throat then she spoke with a hesitant tone.

Camen, do you still see the world that way, the way you described just before?”

Yes, I do. I have, over the years, incorporated the extra senses into my consciousness. This device is always on, in fact, it’s just running at minimal power most of the time. I turn it up when I need to use it to manipulate the world around me, because that requires greater power output. At lower power levels, the generator does not cause that buzzing sensation. I’m hoping that eventually that sensation can be eliminated at any power level, but this has to do with an inefficiency in the power generator I have not been able to fix.”

Mikeli looked at him and a wry smile crept onto her face.

So that’s why you need some engineers, right?”

Camen smiled back at her, but skeptically.

Greven was the expert in that area, but he died relatively early in the conflicts after we created some more devices.”

I see, and what was your expertise?”

I was responsible for the implants, the neural interface.”

Damula shifted uncomfortably, and Camen saw that something was bothering him.

Camen, when I was on Kasara, they seemed to know about you. How could that have been if you were working on research on that project?”

Ah, yes, of course. Before I joined that project I had been invited to visit Tallania, as it was called then, by a very close friend of mine who was the lead ethnologist there. It was he that the statue next to the portal represents. I had spent a little less than a year there before I was called back by Zabri to work on that project. It was an offer I could not refuse, and so I went.”

You seemed to have your finger in a lot of pies?”

Camen seemed to blush a little at this, and he shifted a little in his seat.

I was, by many, considered to be one of the greater minds in Kozar. My research, while a student, led to vast improvements in neural interfacing technology. But my passion was for anthropology. I was fascinated by what people were finding on the other worlds, and I had also made trips to Brua and to Nimria as well as Tallania. I spent many years studying Kasetian history, religion, and then eventually alien history and religion. So when Zabri contacted me, I was reluctant to leave Tallania, but he eventually convinced me. And by the time Zabri disappeared, I had found that I was really enjoying working on the project so I decided to put my anthropological research behind me for a while.”

I see.”

There was a moment that bled into more that held an uncomfortable silence. They all wanted to know what came next, and Camen seemed to be lost in thought. Finally, Camen seemed to become aware of the growing anxiety in the room and so he stood up. There was a brief moment of a field dropping—almost certainly the time-dilation device being shut down—and Camen walked over to a large piece of equipment behind him and turned it on. He manipulated a few controls and a small silver device appeared after a few moments.

This is the casing for these devices. It contains some of the basic components already, but it will have to be worked on to become ready to use. This will take the majority of our time, so we need to get to work immediately. What we will need to do is figure out which one of you wants to go first, and then we will begin to adapt this neural interface technology for Thalean brains.”

The group looked around skeptically, and eventually Damula stood up.

It should be me. I’ll go first.”

Very well. The first thing I will need to do it to record your brain functions for some time to allow the computer to do its analysis.”

A rather provocative thought, this was, for Damula to digest. He was to have his brain scanned. The idea scared him a little bit, he had to be honest and admit to himself.

And how will you do that. Camen?”

It’s rather easy, if you have the right equipment. And in fact we do have the right equipment, just over here.

Camen indicated a reclining surface to the side of all of the equipment. It looked dusty and unassuming. Camen walked over to Damula and held out his hand to him. Damula reluctantly took it and stood up.

Please trust me, Zuzek.”

Camen led Damula to the device and brushed off the dust from the surface before he motioned for Zuzek to lay on the flat surface. Camen reached down and rotated a metallic device that swung over Zuzek’s head and then rested gently over it. Camen switched the unit on, and Zuzek’s face cringed ever so slightly. As Camen started to manipulate some controls on a monitor nearby, the others gathered around to watch.

This process will take some time, and I have some other projects for the rest of you to work on. Zuzek, I just want you to lie down here. Feel free to think about whatever you like, but try to remain still. After a little while I’ll go over the data that the device records and we can begin. In the meantime, we will need to train the rest of you to use these tools….”

Camen trailed off, and with a slight hesitation, he continued.

and then we will need to train you to stop repressing so much of your fears.”

Wait…what?”

Camen turned to Keper who had asked the surprised question.

Yes Keper, I am not surprised to hear your question. You see, one of the major factors that led us to determine that Thalea was not a place we felt comfortable introducing ourselves was an aspect of your culture that you simply do not talk about. You, as a culture, repress your fears, anxieties, and insecurities. You do so in order to never appear weak. In order to incorporate these devices into your minds, this will have to be dealt with. Because it is this that will lead to sudden outbursts of passion, anger, and so forth that will cause problems with having such a powerful device attached to your minds.”

As Camen said this, Damula felt the attention turn to him.

Yes, Damula, you know what I am talking about, as does everyone else here. I heard about your experience with Hull. And while Hull, as well as most of the Nimri manipulated by the Tuyin, were quite aggressive your outrage in comparison, as well as that of your old friend Rilko, will be your greatest enemy from now on.”

The room was silent. Almost everyone in the room was feeling very uncomfortable. Looks of annoyance, anger, and amusement—and some combinations thereof—Camen observed from the room.

Now, some of you are already better at this than others. There are a few here that I would feel quite nervous to give one of these devices to now, others I would not hesitate as much with. But all of you are capable of letting go of this cultural repression that may endanger you. In fact, I know of some ways to help this genetically, physiologically, etc. And with your permission I’d like to do each with all of you.”

More looks of anger and annoyance was all Camen received in response to this.

Very well, I see we have some work to do. It is this part of our journey that will take the most time, I fear. I imagine we will take some breaks, with the time-dilation field on when I can afford to maintain the attention needed to keep it working, in order to address this problem of yours. But for right now, Zuzek, just sit here and allow the computer to analyze your brain for a while, and the rest of you let me give you a tour of what these tools are for.”

Camen walked over to the workspace on the other side of the room, and most of them followed. After a few moments all but one of them was with Camen as he introduced the first tool. But Natak remained. He had, in fact, not left his chair from when Camen had told his story.

He was leaning back, chair leaning with him, against the wall. He had a strange smile on his face that seemed out of place here. He had been listening, very closely in fact, and he was even suppressing a laugh from surfacing.

Fears, eh?

He thought

I’ve been telling these people for years to stop repressing their emotions, he thought, and they called me soft, weak, and silly. All of these years of trying to tell them that they would be better off without stuffing that crap down. Perhaps I’ll be great at this. Perhaps I’ll be the best.

Natak laughed a little to himself while he stood up to join the others. Damula, straining to see him without moving his head too much, looked at Natak knowingly. Natak had been, for years, one of the few people that never had been intimidated by Damula’s outbursts. He was the only one that, after one happened, would come to him and tell him that he needed to deal with his emotions better. Damula had tried to dismiss him. But now it appears that maybe he had been right this whole time.

And yet to everyone else, Natak was called the angry one. He was the one that would easily and naturally allow his emotions to be unrepressed, whether they be tears, laughter, or anger. Natak was never out of control, which is what made him such a good fighter and leader. Damula feared, now, that Natak might even be a better leader than he. Natak, it seemed, never resented the fact that Damula was in charge.

All of these years everyone had underestimated Natak’s apparent weakness, but Damula had not. And now, after this, Damula was proud to have this man working with him. He would be a great leader some day, if he was not already.

31. Discoveries

In the morning, Brax’s alarm went off and his head hurt. He had drank way too much the night before, and he suddenly felt very thirsty. He thought himself some water, drank down the entire glass, and then got up to pee. And then he started to remember the night before, and he turned around suddenly, and he saw that Elatia was still asleep. His need to urinate was too insistent to wait much longer, so he went to take care of that before he could deal with that reality quite yet.

As he relieved himself in the stall that appeared for his needs, he remembered the conversation with Verus, coming home, and then he remembered finding Elatia here. He remembered assuming that Karna was waiting for him, as she sometimes did when Brax was out with others, and remembered finding Elatia there instead. It had not been a dream.

I had sex with Elatia last night,” he said to himself as he squeezed the last few drops out.

Brax surprised himself at hearing this out loud and he found that the headache was starting to fade. He was glad that he had programmed the system to automatically fix the damage that caused the hangover, returning the necessary nutrients and so forth, as he relieved himself. He would usually have set it to do the work while he slept, slowly, but he had been a little distracted last night.

You sure did, Brax.”

Brax turned his head to see that Elatia was awake and sitting up in his bed. As he made sure there were no drops remaining to squeeze out, he turned slowly towards her and smiled a little timidly.

I hope you didn’t mind me letting myself in last night. I wasn’t sure if you’d want me, but I wanted you.”

Brax smiled a little more, less bashfully now, and walked over to the bed and sat down.

Are you kidding? I’ve wanted that ever since the first day I met you.”

Well, you never approached me, so I thought that you weren’t interested in girls. And when I saw you with Karna, I, well, I felt rejected. That’s why I acted the way I did that day. And ever since then, I’ve been thinking about you. Yesterday I just didn’t want to wait anymore.”

You sound as if you have never been rejected before. You sound like you just wanted what you didn’t have, maybe.”

Is that what you think? Well, maybe, but I had a feeling that it would not be something that I couldn’t have, just that I hadn’t had. It looks like I guessed right.”

Brax looked at her and his eyes wandered down towards her naked breasts.

Well, I can see why. You are even more beautiful than I had imagined.”

An eyebrow rose at this, and Brax realized that he had said too much.

So, you’ve imagined me naked, then?”

Brax smiled and shook his head, and this was answer enough for her.

So, do you want to skip class today and spend it here, with me?”

Brax smiled more and moved to kiss her when he suddenly remembered about Verus and their plan to go to class together, like they had talked about. He stopped before their lips touched and he held her back, and she looked at him mystified.

I’m sorry Elatia, I can’t.”

Brax saw Elatia react a little to this and he suddenly realized that he had made a mistake, and quickly tried to recover.

No, it’s not that I don’t want to. I do, I really, really do. It’s just that I told Verus that I’d get him in the morning and take him to class. We talked about something yesterday that we need to research.”

I see, so you need to go to class to research something with some Nisivalen man rather than have sex with me?”

When she put it that way, it was an excellent point, and Brax felt a little silly about the whole thing, and he suddenly wanted her, desperately.

OK, you are right, I’ll just go and tell Verus that we’ll have to do it tomorrow. I’ll be right back, OK?”

You know what Brax, don’t bother. If you don’t want to be with me, that’s fine, but don’t make up some lame excuse. Just go back to Karna if that’s what you want, and we’ll just pretend that this never happened.”

And before Brax could think what to say, Elatia was halfway dressed and walking out the door.

Wait, Elatia, wait. You don’t understand!”

Brax went to follow her, to catch up, to try to explain. He didn’t understand what was happening, and as he walked out, still naked, he found himself face-to-face with Karna, who’s mouth was agape as he watched Elatia streak past her partially naked and adjusting a shirt.

As she turned to Brax, her expression included surprise and confusion.

Brax, what the hell was that all about?”

Brax, realizing that he was naked, was still tempted to chase after Elatia, but he stopped and looked at Karna.

I have no idea what that was all about. We were talking and suddenly she just got really mad and left after yelling at me.”

Well, you must have said something to piss her off. What were you talking about. No wait, let’s start with something more basic; what was she doing here?”

Brax was beginning to calm a little and he realized that he had a lot to tell Karna. He laughed to himself a little, mostly out of the sort of frustration you can only laugh at, and he motioned for Karna to follow him inside. A couple of Kasarians whose spaces were nearby were gawking at Brax standing there naked, but then simply kept walking by.

As they got back in Brax re-closed the door and sat on the bad and Karna sat next to him.

OK, start from the beginning. What happened after you left yesterday, and how did you end up with Elatia last night?”

Brax sighed loudly and looked at her. He was trying to discern if there was any anger or sadness in this question, but he could not detect any. He was suddenly aware that it was possible that she would be upset, but she didn’t seem to be anything but confused, and so he slid that line of thought away for now. He collected his thoughts and began.

Well, after the sharing yesterday, Verus and I went for a walk. He told me that…”

Karna listened carefully.

After Brax finished relaying all of the last half a day or so, Karna looked at Brax disbelievingly. She laughed as he stopped talking and shook her head and fell back on the bed.

What’s so funny?”

So, you still don’t know why Elatia was upset, do you?”

No, I tried to tell her that I would tell Verus we’d do it tomorrow. She made it clear that it was silly to be thinking about going to meet with some Nisivalen man rather than stay with her, so I changed my mind.”

Yes, but don’t you see, just the fact that you thought so in the first place was the problem. And by changing your mind, it looked like you were pitying her or something. She’s a person with feelings and she left herself vulnerable and open to you by taking the chance at being with you last night. She obviously likes you, and you hurt her feelings. Of course she will be mad.”

Wait….but that doesn’t make any sense. I realized how stupid I was being. Of course I’d rather be with her than Verus. That could have waited.”

Yes, but by that time she was already mad.”

I don’t understand…”

Brax…. Well, let me just say that you have a lot to learn.”

Brax looked back at Karna with bewilderment on his face. Karna laughed and got up to hug him, and h