Copyright (C) 2020 Ashlyn Nafina
Summary: This story is the sequel of Agent. Rather than follow the exploits of the group that Agent was about, this one is more of an adventure story that follows Keia’s personal journey of exploration as she travels around the world to try to find anything about her people.
Timeline note: This story was actually written around 2008 or so, but it’s never actually seen the light of day. So I’m going to go ahead and leave the date for this post as today, to avoid confusion about what’s new on the site.
Spin. Thrust. Dip. Crane Wades in the Rushes. One with the ground, one with the sky. Cat Stalks the Mouse. Flowing, stance to stance. Hold the Ball.
Keia el Rahim, previously Agent Five Two Three and recently joined member of the Ba’hari resistance, spun as a dervish, practicing her Ka Te. It was cold yet; the early morning sun still had not taken the wet ocean chill from the air in the port town of Belio. She wore only a wide strap across her chest and the white flowing pants in which every student of Ka Te, high or low, always practiced. Her red eyes faced an unseen opponent, her shoulder-length turquoise-sky-blue hair flying behind. Her cold feet shuffled across the sandy concrete floor under the vine-covered ceiling trellis. Keia was too caught up in the moment to notice her audience of one.
Tasha Emerald River, Relian, Initiate of the Flame, high conspirator of the Rahim, watched quietly from the side. Her normal outfit of an Initiate was conspicuous only by its absence, she having just risen. She was both surprised and pleased at the progress Keia had made since her induction. Since being freed from the control of HQ via her BPG, her control of her Ba’hari shape-shifting powers was nearly flawless. Keia had, in fact, reached a level of skill seldom reached by even the most experienced of the Agents under BPG control. And of course, her flawless Ka Te was unsurpassed anywhere in the agency. Perhaps surpassed in all of Casilan only by one Ka Te master: Tasha herself.
After some time, Keia’s exercises came to a halt; she turned slowly and sighed.
“Superb form. And yet, you are distracted. What troubles you, Keia?” Tasha asked her.
Keia sighed again.
“The Rahim grow in numbers, and we bring our fight ever more openly to HQ. We fight the good fight, don’t we?”
“And yet,” Keia continued, “we’re fighting our own people. If only they would see!” She punctuated this thought by pounding a fist into her open hand. “I’d a known life, I lived in a known world, I had easy, obvious enemies to fight against. And then, suddenly, the rug was pulled from under me. I’m not who I thought I was, and worse, I discover that HQ and the Agents, the whole foundation of that life, were not what I thought they were either. And now, instead of a selfless secret agent, I am Keia el Rahim.”
Keia was silent for some time, but Tasha only nodded once and waited for her to collect her thoughts.
“I need to bring a foundation back to my life again. I need to know who I was, who we were before they made us what we are now. There may or may not be any ‘true’ Ba’hari left on this world, but I feel like I have to seek the remains of our civilization. I must know, and I must put the past behind me before I can go on into the future.”
Tasha raised her eyebrows questioningly.
“You wish to seek the Ba’hari home land?” she asked.
“You don’t seek an easy path, but then, you’ve never been one to follow an easy path,” Tasha said with an ironic smile. “You know that we will gladly accept your help any time you wish to give it, and we will sorely miss it, but we are no military organization. If you want to seek your ancestors, then you’re free to do so. I’ll be happy to give you all the information I’ve collected over the years about the origins of the Ba’hari, but I’m afraid that it’s not as much as you’d like. And I’m also afraid that you may not like what you find when you find it, but that too is your choice.”
“Thanks as always, Tasha,” she said, smiling as well. “And who knows, perhaps we’ll find Ba’hari who escaped the slavery of the Agents and will join our fight, teach us things we’ve only dreamed of. I don’t hold out much hope for that, but it’s worth trying.”
“Yes,” Tasha replied. Then more sadly, “And as a Relian, I feel obligated to try to put some of this mess right whenever I can. I know it was my ancestors that did the deed, but I can’t help but feel some guilt myself.” Keia shook her head.
“No, Tasha, you represent everything that’s right about Relians. Don’t feel bad for something you had no control over. I’ll clean up and be right down to your office.”
And at that, Keia el Rahim strode away toward the showers.
The heardquarters of the fearsome Rahim, sworn enemy of Agent HQ, occupied a sprawling riverfront building called Senshen Wharf in the sea port of Belio. Few knew the true purpose of the building. Elite Ba’hari agents were employed by an organization known only as HQ. It served as a shadowy side-arm to the governments of the Carads, the scientists and technologists of planet Casilan; and the Relians, workers of the arcane arts. The Carads, the Ba’hari, and the Relians were all originally descended from a group of colonists from old Earth; but after eons of isolation, a war or two, and other unknown events in the interim, Casilan had changed her fair people into something new. The Carads and Relians, fearing the powers of their distant Ba’hari cousins, worked together to enslave them and brainwash them into forgetting their origins. When the first Agent learned the true origins of the Agents and HQ, she broke away from them. She destroyed her BPG, a Carad-designed bracelet that controlled and regulated a Ba’hari’s shape-shifting powers, and became Astra el Rahim, first of that organization. Though she destroyed her own powers in that act, Astra worked from that day forward to safely free her fellow agents and bring them, one by one, into her organization. With the help of Tasha Emerald River, Relian Initiate, and descendant of one of the main instigators of the Ba’hari slavery several hundred years earlier, she was able to transfer each Agent’s abilities back to their control safely. Their latest coup had been Keia el Rahim, née Agent Five Two Three. Astra was, perhaps not coincidentally, Keia’s blood sister.
Central to this operation was the most prized material of the Relian people, Tear Stone. Oh, a Relian had his or her own inner abilities, gained over centuries of natural selection, but Tear Stone acted like a catalyst: it could seemingly store what Relians called Mana, the raw energy of their abilities, multiply its effects by tenfold or a hundredfold, cause it to do other things. An Agent’s BPG used Tear Stone in some unknown way to control a Ba’hari’s innate abilities; unknown except to Tasha Emerald River, who had discovered how to neutralize this effect.
Few Ba’hari who knew the truth really held out much hope, even freed, that they could go back to the old ways, though some desired it. They had been an innocent, tribal people, living in harmony with nature; and despite their awesome powers, they respected the normal cycle of nature and died in their appointed time. With the formation of HQ, all of that had simply ceased to be. An awesome and final end to their social childhood had come. Their society, destroyed; their culture, vanished; their death and birth, put on hold indefinitely. Who ever needs to die when one can simply replenish one’s cells into a new form at any time? HQ “encouraged” all Agents to forget who they were and become a selfless no-one, a perfect spy, assassin, or other nefarious agent, for each mission. That all changed for an Agent when they became a member of the Rahim and gained an identity of their own once again. Perhaps it wasn’t their original identity, but it was better than nothing.
These troubled thoughts and more tumbled through Keia’s mind as she walked to Tasha’s office in Senshen Wharf. Ironically, the two had met almost a year before in another place with the same name: Senshen Square, in Asterbré. She had been Agent Five Two Three, on a mission to infiltrate this very organization, and yet little did she realize that a plot had already been hatched against her to free her from her employer.
When she entered Tasha’s office, the Initiate of Clan Emerald River looked much as she had looked during that fateful meeting of a year previous. Tasha was yet young, but one could see that the stress of conspiracy was not making her any younger. You might think her a young lady of her late-to-mid-twenties on Earth, though Earth had never seen dark turquoise hair before, nor golden eyes that seemed to dance with an unseen flame in the light. Blue, comet-shaped orbs floated unsupported above her hair, which was cut evenly with her chin except for a long tail jutting out in the back. A close-fitting gold necklace surrounded her neck, complemented by gold bracelets around her wrists. A red, sleeveless shirt with a diagonal seam surrounded her torso and narrowed to strips in the front and back that reached nearly to the floor. Around her waist, a belt with a ruby-hilted, crystal dagger. Tight black shorts covered her legs from hip to near her knees, and her feet were covered by leather boots.
Tasha nodded at Keia as she entered, and Keia nodded back.
“I fear I’ve got even less for you than I thought I had,” she said, handing a piece of paper to Keia. “Here is a copy of a very old map of Casilan. You can see the main continent which we’re on now, as well as a couple of small islands spread throughout the ocean. We have impassible ice caps in the far north and south, and the rest is ocean. It makes one wonder why our ancestors chose to live here, for that’s what they say — we came from elsewhere originally.”
Keia nodded and replied, “I assume, then, that the Ba’hari lands would have been on one of these islands?”
“That is most likely,” Tasha replied, “though it’s also possible with this much ocean that they lived on an island that’s now under water. That’s always a possibility, but since you want somewhere to start, we have to assume this map is still good. In fact we can do much better than that. I cross-referenced some of my other notes I brought from the university and it turns out that one of those islands was called ‘Bahar’ about two thousand years ago. It’s this one,” she said, pointing to a small island in the middle of a vast expanse of ocean.
“I see,” Keia replied. Her face was bleak and yet determined. “Half a world away, but I’ll make it there. And if I don’t find signs of the Ba’hari there, I’ll go on.”
Tasha came around the desk and started to give Keia a handshake, then changed her mind and gave her a hug.
“Be careful Keia, and come back to us whole! We still need you, Astra and I still need your friendship, and of course, Nilo… he needs your friendship and much more.”
Having been robbed of proper words for the occasion, Keia simple bowed over the Relian hand-gesture meaning “good luck and safe journeys” as Tasha did the same.
Several days later, Keia stood in the prow of a swift ship with the sun in her hair and the clean breeze of the open ocean on her face. The water surrounded them for as far as the eye could see, sparkling all over. Their ship, The Dirty Girl, rose and sank with the gentle swell of the waves. Staring out over the expanse of water, Keia, living in the desert for all of her remembered life, could hardly believe that such a thing could exist. Of course her jobs as an Agent had taken her onto the ocean before, but only in short hops around the coast of Relia and Carad, both on the main continent. To most who lived there, it was simply Casilan, since they had known nothing else.
The captain of the ship had been persuaded to take her to the remote island half a world away by wanderlust and a desire to see new places. He was also motived more than a little bit, though no one said it aloud, by the hope for an undiscovered society with which to trade and thus become rich through this exclusive and proprietary knowledge.
After several days of the unchanging sea and several nights of unchanging, incredibly bright stars, Keia start to feel a primal fear. She knew that the captain knew what he was about, and yet they were heading into the mostly unknown. Keia felt like a tiny spider on a giant.
“It’ll be alright, lass,” the gruff captain said as she stared off at the water with a worried look on her face. “These seas are like my own lady, my home. We’ll be goin’ somewhere no one’s gone for a long, long time, but we’ll do just fine. Just look here on the map,” he said, pointing out where they were and where they were going, and showing her the place on the horizon. Keia nodded and tried to look at ease, and yet she was not.
About a week later the ship mate manning the lookout called out early in the morning. Keia was inside and couldn’t hear what he said, but she went up on deck out of curiosity, to see if perhaps they were in sight of land. Instead what she saw on the horizon made her stomach feel as if its bottom had dropped out. From where they came, the skies were as clear and blue as anything. In front of the ship, a dark, seething wall of cloud blocked their way. And all around them, that unchanging blue water.
“What’s that?” Keia asked a startled captain, pointing to the cloud as he stepped on deck.
“That,” he said matter-of-factly, and yet with a certain worried tremor in his voice, “looks like a hurricane. Sometimes gets ’em on the coast of the main land, but I’ve never seen anything like this. Looks to be headin’ this way real fast too.” He squinted at it for a moment. “Normally I’d sail around it, but… Don’t think we can get out of this one’s way fast enough. Well, we’ll ride this one out same as we always have when we’re stuck in a storm — batten down the hatches and head into the waves.”
Keia was not at all reassured by this, but the captain did seem to know what he was doing.
When the storm struck, it was beyond belief for the one-time Agent. First came the winds that seemed to want to topple over the ship, and with them, the waves caused by those winds. Rain pelted the ship as if she had been flushed carelessly down a drain. The ship rode up the side of each huge wave and back down again like a great roller coaster of the gods. Water slopped onto the deck and back off again. Lightning flashed and thunder crashed all around them.
She heard a great commotion on the deck and looked out the porthole to see the great grandmother of all waves bearing down upon them. It was a tsunami in its own right, a wall of water like a mobile cliff bearing down on them. Before anyone knew what was happening, the ship rode up the wall and then fell back before it. Wood crackled and split all around Keia. What was solid deck a few moments before became a gush of water, and then she was in the sea.
The ship had been lost, and Keia knew that it was probably futile to search for survivors. Yet when she entered the water and became a dolphin, she swam back and forth looking for them. They were there, but they were sinking, already lost. With a heavy heart and no real hope of finding either her destination or the continent of Casilan in the massive oceans, she chose what seemed to her to be the right direction and swam away.
Not long after she had set off, she came upon a pod of fellow dolphins. They asked her which pod she was from, and from where, but the best thing she could tell them in their language was that she was from the land pod. The other dolphins didn’t understand this but thought it a great joke. Their conversation took place in a sea strangely calm, for all the tempest raging above.
“I search for land,” she squeaked at them, with the appropriate gestures. “Small land in big water,” she said, trying to phrase an explanation of an island. The dolphins squeed and made several flips. They then reoriented and pointed almost the direction she had been swimming.
“Many lights, and many darks. You find land this way. Small land, big water,” their ever-smiling faces said.
“Land pod, land pod!” another one added somewhat mysteriously. Perhaps they meant that humans lived on that island!
“Maybe you want air first,” a third said. He pointed in another direction. “Go there. Circle of calm. Get air!” Keia nodded her thanks and swam toward the “circle of calm” he had pointed out.
The “circle of calm” actually turned out to be the eye of the hurricane. When she surfaced, the water was incredibly still. Keia flowed into her human form and surfaced, treading water, to get a better view.
It was as if she was inside a giant cylinder of cloud. Perhaps 10 or 20 minutes of solid swimming would have brought her to the far edge of it. Along the sides, clouds writhed madly. Keia shivered wildly, her human body incapable of withstanding the cold temperatures of the ocean. She flowed back into a dolphin and, after getting a few good breaths of air, she dove down and headed in the direction the pod had indicated.
Keia met other pods of dolphins during her long swim, and they gave her more and more refined directions. She ate fish, surfaced for air, enjoyed a few jumps and flips, and then proceeded with more swimming. She slept as only a dolphin can, half of her brain awake. By the time she closed in on her goal she had been a dolphin for at least a week and had almost forgotten what being human felt like. When the bottom started to rise up and the sandy shore became visible, it was almost more than she could do, against her delphinic instincts, to beach herself upon it. In a moment of exhaustion and panic, she almost forgot her Ba’hari powers, but she remembered just in time. Keia had lost all of her possessions, even the clothes she wore on the ship, but she managed to crawl up to the warm, dry sand of the beach before dropping into a blessed oblivion.
Some time later the first chill of night woke Keia from her exhaustion. For a moment she couldn’t remember where she was and sat bolt upright, looking around wildly. Then it all came crashing back in on her — the storm, the wrecked ship, her weeks spent as a dolphin swimming here. Her naked skin was no defense against the cold of the night and she had nothing to wear anymore, having lost all of her supplies in the ship wreck, so she flowed into her favorite land-animal shape, the panther.
I really have no reason to like it more than any other, she thought as she loped slowly through the jungle leading away from the store, yet it feels right. There was something about being a panther that somehow made her feel more like herself again — as much as one can say such a thing after uncounted years of being no one.
She hunted down a rabbit for dinner and gnawed on it somewhat discontentedly. Oh how I will love to get some properly cooked and prepared food!, she thought fiercely. Despite having spent all this time as an animal, she was still more human than anything else.
Keia spent several days loping around the island, looking for some sign of the Ba’hari. She wasn’t even sure this island she’d landed on was the Bahar she was looking for, but did she really have any choice?
At last she found something which gave her some hope in her search. Along another sandy beach she found the remains of several stone houses. So at least there had been people of some kind here at one time. Exploring among the remains of the buildings, she found something she never would have expected in this desolation — a pack. And in that pack, a moldy book about the sea ports of Casilan, several pieces of disintegrated food, and a set of clothes. The clothes were not in the best repair, but they seemed servicable and, luck of luck, about the right size. Keia quickly flowed back into her human form and dressed. She screamed aloud in sheer joy and proclaimed,
“How good it is to be myself again!” And, she thought to herself, how very good it is to have a ‘myself’ to be.
With human hands she was better able to search the pack, and she found several interesting items: an old set of papers for a Carad of about 80 years ago, a box of matches, and a journal. Hope leapt up within her, but she refused to give in to it until she’d struck one of the matches on the box and got a workable flame. Keia then set about to build herself a small fire in a sheltered area within one of the walls.
She was too tired to do much else so soon, so Keia found herself a comfortable place to rest and went to sleep. That night she had the most curious sensation of being watched and heard all sorts of strange noises, but she was still too exhausted to concern herself with it overly much.
In the morning, Keia flowed into her panther form once again and caught several rabbits. This time, instead of gnawing on them raw, she brought them back to her makeshift camp, became human once again, and roasted them over her fire. While she was waiting for these to finish cooking, she started thumbing through the journal from the pack. The explorer seemed to be someone named Geompalo.
“Finally, we have made landfall,” one of the earlier entries stated, but in slightly more antiquated phrasing, “and we can only hope that this is indeed the island we seek. It matches the description, and yet the ocean is so vast that we may still have landed somewhere completely different.”
“We have searched for the whole of the last week,” another entry started. “We have found some traces of previous civilization, like these stone dwelling remains, and yet there is nothing to indicate that this is the island of the mythical Ba’hari.” Keia’s heart lurched as she received confirmation of her location. How would he know that name? Another mystery for another day, she supposed. She thumbed several pages forward as she chewed on the juicy hare, careful not to drip the grease on the old pages.
“So far we have seen no sign of a living civilization,” a later entry stated. “And yet, the men feel as if they’re being watched. We hear strange noises throughout the night and at least one man claimed he saw a hominid creature prowling around our camp upon returning one day. Several of our bags appeared to have been searched and we had all been away that day.”
“The men have come down with an illness,” a yet later entry said. “We do not recognize the symptoms and fear it’s a contagion that has lain dormant on this island for all the years since human habitation here. Several of the crew have died already, and the rest are not in very good shape. Only a couple of us have not come down with the strange illness. Perhaps we are immune to it.”
A few pages over, perhaps three quarters of the way through the book, a very strange entry caught her eye.
“The monkey returned to us again today. We do not understand how, but somehow he seems capable of speaking a very old and almost unintelligible dialect of our language. He seems far more intelligent than a monkey ought to be. Very likely this was our night prowler from the original landing. Why will he not just leave us in peace?” A slight shiver went down her spine at the thought of a strange, alien, ultra-intelligent monkey watching her every move. She dismissed these thoughts with a laugh, thinking of how she herself could easily be an ultra-intelligent monkey if she wanted.
“Wait a minute!” she said out loud. “Wait just a minute.” What if that monkey was one of the Ba’hari who was simply playing a game with these explorers to find out more about them? What if they really are still living here? Keia felt the stirrings of excitement in her again. What if he will reveal his true form to me, I myself being a Ba’hari?
And yet, this journal was from 80 years ago! If the rumors proved to be true, a Ba’hari would not have remained alive for so long unless they’d forgotten their customs. But perhaps there were other survivors on the island. She read on.
“He teaches us a little of his language,” it said. “It is a strangely modified dialect of the ancient language. At the same time, he seems to be learning our language. He seems friendly, and has brought us food and helped us to build shelters from these broken stone walls. Yet it still seems uncanny for a monkey to be doing all of these things. He seems kind and yet there is something I do not trust about this creature.”
“A great storm is approaching on the horizon,” the final entry of the journal said. “It sweeps this way with a frightening speed. Despite our shelters, we may not survive to tell this tale. After this entry, I will place this log book in my waterproof back pack and stow it somewhere it should stay safe within these stone dwellings. If anyone should ever find it again, tell the University of Relia that their intrepid Carad study fellow was lost at sea, and convey my regrets to my friends there.”
Keia stared at this last line for almost a minute and then an unknown compulsion caused her to look up. There in the tree, staring down at her and reflected in the light of her fire, were two simian eyes.
Were it not for her Agent training, she probably would have jumped mightily, but instead she called out to it.
“Hello up there! Are you the monkey they talked about?” She could see its eyes shift slightly, but it stayed completely still. “It’s OK, you know,” she called out on a hunch, “I’m one of you.” At this she transformed into a monkey herself and cavorted around on the ground, then shifted back to herself again.
The reaction from the monkey was not at all what she had expected. He climbed down from the tree in a stately manner, walked over to her, and bowed fluidly. He spoke a few words in a language she didn’t understand. When he looked at her expectantly and she said nothing in response, he spoke in her own language, somewhat brokenly.
“You speaking like explorers!” he said. “I’d almost forgot it. Good thing Globo find you! Great ones return at last! More treasures to guard? More like you come?” Keia was surprised by this sudden onslaught, but happy that she could at least communicate with the monkey.
“Globo? Is that your name?” she asked. Keia continued after he nodded, “I’m sorry Globo, but I’m the only one here. And the people you knew will not be returning. If they’re not here, the Ba’hari are gone, vanished from the face of the planet.” The monkey then looked down at the ground sadly and his shoulders slumped in an all too human expression.
“You not same great ones as before,” he said to her sadly. “And yet you are same. You are great one. Ba’hari,” he said with a strange, almost exotic emphasis on the syllables. “If one, must be more! Where they go? Why bad people come and take them?” Keia could hardly believe her ears. This monkey was claiming to have been here when her people were originally enslaved! And for all she knew, if she could remember her childhood, she might even have known him.
Keia gestured to the monkey to have a seat by the fire, and proceeded to tell him the sad story of what had happened to the Ba’hari. At several points he turned to look at her sharply and angrily, but not angrily at her: angry at what she was telling him. His expressions seemed to flow between sadness, guilt, and anger many times. She concluded by telling him about her quest to find the remains of her people’s earlier civilization, and they both stared quietly into the flames. The silence stretched for several minutes, and finally he spoke again.
“You great one, and yet not great one. You say you lived here, but you not live here. Did Globo know you? If true, Globo must have. You strange to Globo, and yet Globo seem to know you, inside,” he said as he pointed to his chest. At that he launched into his own story.
“Globo real name, Globorimaranistam. Globo for short. I was guardian of great, great Ba’hari treasure.” He said the word in the same way as before, exotically accented, and almost savored on the tongue. “Globo fail, and that why no more great ones. People came here, long time ago. Spoke strange language, wear strange clothes. No change forms. Strange weapons, strange… powers.” He gestured in front of him in a way vaguely reminiscent of a Relian Mana casting.
The monkey continued with his monologue, telling Keia about his job as the guardian of the great Ba’hari treasure kept deep in the island. He didn’t know what the treasure was, nor even where he himself came from. He only knew that the great ones had set him to guard it, and to only let one of them pass who could answer the riddles. The Relians came, disguised as Ba’hari themselves, and answered the riddles.
“How I know?” he cried out suddenly. “They look fine to me. They answer riddles fine. I let them in.”
Then, about a week later, the flood of strangers came. The great ones were rounded up, somehow against their power, and taken aboard ships.
“Then, only Globo left. Globo only ever let one other group inside. Taia. She great one among great ones. And she have strange friend, Quinn, and Kaio. They fine. How I know about new strange ones? How I know…”
“So,” Keia asked after a moment, “you think that these strangers somehow used the great treasure you were guarding to dominate the Ba’hari?” He nodded.
“But some escape! Some escape! And one day they come back for revenge,” he said savagely. Keia could hardly believe her ears.
“You mean there were others of the Ba’hari who were not enslaved?” she asked Globo excitedly. “Help me find them, Globo, and if we all work together, we can free all of our people!” At this, the monkey merely looked at her suspiciously.
“How I know? Maybe you another stranger, just try to find rest and slave. You look like one.” She didn’t know how to respond, but Globo picked up again before she had the chance. “And yet, you great one. Globo know this time.” He shrugged. “I help. Tonight, sleep. Tomorrow, go to old village. Maybe together we find great ones again.”
A little later they both laid down by the fire, but Keia could hardly sleep because of her excitement. And despite his apparent trust, Globo slept little either as he kept a suspicious eye on the stranger-yet-great-one beside him.
Their several-day trek took them through some of the most wild and beautiful terrain Keia had ever laid eyes upon. Having spent all of the life she remembered in a mostly-desert continent, she could hardly believe the vaulting cliffs of dark rock, the gushing waterfalls, and everywhere green, green, green. Tiny animal trails barely wide enough for Keia and Globo to walk on wound their way back and forth around the cliffs, through stately canyons.
At last they wound their way down into a deep valley near the center of the isle. There, in the middle of the valley, stood the remains of a stone village in a style similar to that on the coast. Yet more of these buildings were intact, as if they had been built for the ages by master craftsmen, and had indeed lasted for the ages.
As they walked quietly into the village square itself, an almost overwhelming sense of deja vu caused her skin to crawl all over. She closed her eyes and could almost hear the laughter of little children and the romping of animals, chasing around in the square as a game. Nights under the open stars among family and friends, at festivals and feasts to incomprehensible occasions. When she opened her eyes again, she was only Keia, and standing beside her, Globo the monkey. The sound of a waterfall thundered quietly in the distance.
“I was here,” she said finally, almost with tears in her eyes. “I remember this place. I was here!” Globo grinned a little but seemed little moved.
“Yes, many here once,” he said sadly, and walked off in one direction. Keia sensed that he wished to be alone for a little while, so she headed off in the direction her feet took her.
Without realizing where her meandering was taking her, she headed to a particular house along one small side avenue. She had an almost irresistible compulsion to enter the house, though there was nothing different about it from any of the other houses. As she did so, the deja vu, the sense of the past, came back to her once again.
She had skipped along this path happily, many times, as her mother called her to dinner. (Something not right, but she couldn’t place it.) Keia walked up to the door, and almost saw her mother lean down to give her a kiss. (Something different!)
She walked inside the house and instead of the crumbling mortar and collapsing ceiling, she saw a full structure. Exotic artwork made from plants and paint decorated the walls tastefully. Lanterns spread a cheery light around the rooms. The smells of dinner filled the air. A face flashed into her mind, a young girl with tiger stripes on her cheeks. At this, she almost staggered and fell.
“You girls go wash up now,” she heard her mother say as if she were at the other end of a tunnel. (Something very wrong!) She felt the wrongness of it, like a word on the tip of one’s tongue, yet she couldn’t place it. Her sister had lived here with her, now Astra el Rahim.
Screams of children sounded outside, shouts of adults. The sounds of fighting. Alien voices. They burst into the room and suddenly she was paralyzed, unable to move. A cruel, triumphant face leered down at her, violet hair cropped even with the woman’s chin, a strange sleeveless shirt with a seam across the breast which narrowed to strips as it reached to her feet.
Finally she was overcome by the sensations, dizzied by the holes in her memory, and she sank to the floor and passed out.
Some time later she was awakened by Globo’s careful prodding at her shoulder. When she opened her eyes, she discovered it was almost sunset. She had lain there on the floor for several hours. Keia stared up at the crumbled walls and the partially collapsed ceiling, and the magic of a few hours ago had gone.
“I saw them, Globo,” she said tentatively. “I saw my family. We lived here.” He shook his head sadly.
“Yes, many live here once,” he said with an almost urgent, worried tone. “Now none live here. None but Globo. But Globo go with Keia to find great ones again! Let us go, go, before past takes over head!” he said, pointing to his head and hers in turn. He actually whooped a few times monkey-style and flipped around in his agitation to go.
“Alright Globo,” she replied. “But do you have a clue where to go next to find them? I arrived here on this island with no ship of any kind, and you claim there aren’t any people left here. How do we find them?” Globo shifted around uncomfortably.
“We go, go to place where Globo guard in old time. Escaped ones went in, never came out. Maybe Keia find something there. Globo speak, smart for monkey, not so smart for person,” he finished abashedly.
“I’m sure you did your best, Globo,” Keia said with a kind smile.
Globo grinned back at her, and she gestured for him to lead on. They camped outside the old village, and in the morning they left her home and her past behind as they trekked into the jungle once again.
Perhaps half an hour’s walk outside the village they found what looked to be an old, vine-grown temple entrance. A great white arch outlined a tunnel into the side of a mountain. Vague outlines were visible inside, all curves, arches and circles, alien to her Casilian senses and yet strangely familiar. Globo stopped at the threshold and refused to enter.
“Globo may not enter,” he said seriously. “Globo never enter, can’t. Only great one. Globo should ask riddle, but Keia not know riddle anyway. Enter, Keia, look for clues. Globo stay here.”
Keia nodded and walked under the arch.
She had gone little distance into the strange underground building when she noticed shafts of golden sunlight shining down onto the floor here and there. Other places, a dim ambient light was visible, but no sunlight. Keia stood under one such light and looked up into a narrow tunnel that extended up through the mountain to the surface.
Some drilling skill they had there!, she thought. Especially for such a supposedly primitive people. She had seen nothing like it in all her time on Casilan, except perhaps in the great Relian and Carad cities. The temple seemed to extend forever under the mountain, a labyrinth of chambers.
Keia found a large side chamber after some time walking around, with a vast arched ceiling and birds roosting in cubbyholes of broken stone. They clucked and gobbled at her in alarm, having never seen a human in their lifetime. Interlocked spirals of various colors fanned out from a central point in the room, to end at various places along the walls. The small beams of outside light fell around the floor, giving the room a somber, moody feel.
She walked over to one of these places on the wall and saw that it had been inscribed in an unknown, angular script. A seam was barely visible along the wall. Keia carefully pried out a piece of stone that had been marked with one of the larger symbols and peered inside.
The walls appeared to be filled with strange green wafers. Angular patterns of metallic shininess ran across them in a maze of patterns among dark blocks and cylinders of various shapes. Some of the flatter blocks appeared to be marked with words in yet another strange script. A small blue light glowed out at her from deeper in the wall. She had seen things like this before.
In Carad technology museums.
Keia replaced the stone block and traced her finger along the symbol, pondering what it might mean, when she suddenly felt a rumbling, vibrating sound under the floor. The spiral leading to the place on the wall had turned from a dull purple to a brightly glowing violet. An almost inhuman, female voice echoed through the chamber in a strange accent and language. In her alarm she flowed into the shape of a bird, ready to fly away, and the rumbling settled down to a quiet hum. The voice said something else and then fell silent. She flowed back into her human form and pondered this puzzle.
One of three spirals leading from the center of the room to the edge had been dull, dark purple. She traced the symbol on the block in the wall with her finger, and it had come alive. When she changed forms, it had settled. Perhaps this was some sort of lock that only a Ba’hari could open!
Keia followed a second spiral, red, away from the center of the room out to its edge. Yet another symbol was etched there. She took a deep breath and traced the symbol. Once again, the rumbling and the voice filled the room and the red spiral turned bright, but she was prepared for it. She shifted her shape into the bird again.
Except this time, nothing happened. The rumbling and the dire voice continued. Huge slabs of smooth stone started to slide into place to block the exits. She took off to fly through one in her bird form, but she realized she would be leaving her newly obtained pack here with matches and her only set of clothes, yet again. So she fluttered back to where she’d been standing a moment ago and changed back into human form. At once the rumbling quieted, and the voice stopped. However, the doors had not opened again.
Keia sat down on the stone to think this through before doing anything more. Perhaps the answer to the puzzle was that she had to change to a certain form to open the lock. And very likely, those symbols on the wall specified a form. Yet she could spend hours of constant shifting to find the form it specified, and by that time the machinery of the room would likely have done for her.
She stood up and studied the symbols of the two spirals she’d completed. They meant nothing to her. She reached out to those triggered memories from the village, to the past, trying to feel something, staring at the strange symbol. Nothing… no, wait! Keia had the slightest impression of a bird in her mind, and then it was gone. She looked up at the wall and found that she was standing on the lighted purple spiral.
Striding over to look at a third spiral’s symbol, this one blue, she stared at it for long moments, trying to remember, racking her brains for anything. The only image she could conjure was that of her long lost and regained sister, the small tiger stripes adorning her cheeks. Taking a deep breath, she traced the symbol once again. Immediately the spiral glowed bright blue, and the inhuman voice sounded through the room. Quickly Keia shifted into the form of her sister she’d seen in her mind. The rumbling continued.
“What do I do, damn you!” she cried out in a young girl’s voice, almost a growl. Then it came to her. She shifted again, this time into a tiger.
The doors opened once again, and the voice said yet another phrase. The room was still rumbling in a dire way, but something was happening in the middle. There at the center point where the spirals met, a bright flash of light appeared, almost blinding Keia. When she could see again, there appeared to be steps leading up to a circle of bright light and shifting patterns floating in the center of the room. At that, Globo ran wildly into the room. He whooped several times and did several somersaults before landing in front of Keia.
“You did it! You did it! Keia find something good!” he said excitedly. “Gate to Attarmansi, the voice said. Globo not know Attarmansi.” Keia tore her eyes away from the beautiful sight to look down at him.
“I thought you said you could never come in here?” she said with one raised eyebrow. “No matter, if you’re to come with me you’ll have to go through this anyway.” She stared at it a moment longer while getting dressed again, before continuing, “I’ve seen teleportal gates in my time, we used to use them as Agents to get to a mission. Yet I’ve never seen anything like this. This must be old, high technology from the days when the world was young.”
Yet she felt apprehensive. “This gate must be very old,” she said. “Very, very old. It is certainly one of the treasures you were set to guard. But what if the place it links to no longer exists? What if it places us at the bottom of an ocean?”
Almost at the end of her last sentence, the voice started intoning sonorously as if it were counting. Globo looked up at her frantically and said, “She count down! Gate gonna close! Go now or never!” He grabbed her hand and urged her toward the steps.
Keia grabbed her pack and ran with Globo, up the steps and toward the glowing circle of light. As they jumped through, she heard a clap of thunder as the gate closed behind them. They had landed inside a huge stone hall with columns marching along its length, dull blue light filtering in from huge plate windows. Globo suddenly pointed at her pack. She examined a loose strap and found it several centis shorter. They had not gone a moment too soon.
Their destination was a strange place. The architecture seemed familiar to Keia and yet it was also very different. Large angular script, much like that in the chamber on Bahar, marched across one wall. Globo peered up at it for a moment and then translated for her.
“‘Attarmansi’ it says, weird lookin’ though. That hall,” he said, pointing down a side hallway, “says ‘customs’, whatever that mean. Maybe they teach you culture before you go out. Ahh, that says ‘exit’.” He pointed again.
“Well,” Keia replied, “let’s go see where we’ve landed ourselves.”
The two exited the strange hall through glass doors that let out onto a large boulevard. Ancient buildings along the street ranged from crumbled and collapsed to new as the day they were built. The most pristine ones, like the hall they had exited, appeared to be constructed differently, or perhaps of a different material. Along another side of the building, a smaller road with two bars of metal running along its length ran off around a corner. A train, Keia recognized from her time in Carad cities, was sitting on its rails. But all of this is not what took their breath away.
They stared up at the “sky” in wonder. It was blue, but it was not air. They were inside a great, vast dome that covered the entire city, and above them stood many tons of water. Attarmansi was beneath the surface of Casilan’s oceans after all.
Keia and Globo searched the dead city for several days. They found no signs of life, and very little to help them with their search for the escaped Ba’hari. Most of their searching had to be done in the daylight, for there was very little working power. Here and there, the most random things would be lit up and fully operational. They found luxurious residential districts, shopping malls with collapsed store fronts, museums, what must have been fine restaurants in their time; all dusty and many collapsed. There was an abundance of strange technology which was either inoperative or incomprehensible to Keia and Globo. To their joy and delight, the train they had spied near the Gate Station (as they came to call it) was still somehow operational after all these years. They entered the conductor’s booth, and after a bit of experimentation, discovered the acceleration lever. The train’s speakers called out each stop in that ancient language, to passengers who were no longer living. In this way they got to see a great deal more of the city. The train also led them to the important cultural centers, to search for more information.
Yet they knew they could not stay here forever. A dead city has no wildlife, and their pack contained a scant amount of food for an extended trip. And there was something sad and more than a little disturbing about the dead city. Where had its inhabitants gone? There was no real sign of turmoil. In many cases they found tables set for dinner, as if the diners had simply vanished where they sat. Why did some of the city’s machinery still work, such as the power grid and air circulation systems, but other pieces did not? They had a persistent feeling of being watched and followed, though there was no one else here.
During one part of their search, they happened upon a museum of technology. They found pictures of space, of other planets, of star ships that could cross great distances in little time (or so Keia, with Globo’s help, puzzled out from the strange script written along the displays). All their great technology had come to almost nothing. And yet none of the displays ever mentioned the Mana powers of the Relians, or the Ba’hari. Perhaps Casilan did offer something new under the suns.
Next to this display was a glowing square of some clear material that showed a moving picture. It took Keia a few moments to realize that the picture was in fact moving and changing as she watched. As she realized what it was, she drew a sharp breath. An arc of blue with a spill of light across its side filled most of the display, white swirls at one end. There in the center, unmistakable, was the main continent of Casilan where the Relians and Carads now lived. And off to west of it, also unmistakable, the huge hurricane that had destroyed her ship. They were somehow seeing their planet from space!
“It’s so beautiful…” she whispered to herself. Globo was not immune to its spell either, as he studied the scene with obvious interest.
After that, Globo set off to explore the museum a bit on his own, and Keia wandered into what looked like a relatively new part of the museum. Here she found what appeared to be displays about Tear Stone. There were diagrams that looked like spirals of interweaving hexagons and octagons, with small script scribbled in their insides. Pictures lined the walls showing humans with strange hair and eye colors, in white coats, tinkering with Tear Stone in huge machines. In one area, Keia actually found a small piece of Tear Stone of a shape and color she had neither seen nor heard of before. The case itself had collapsed in some previous eon, so she pocketed the Tear Stone itself. Tasha would love to study it if Keia ever returned to Belio alive.
In an adjoining area she found what looked like a display of various weapons, each featuring a Tear Stone. She had never seen anything like them. One of the cases held a small pistol with what was obviously a strength control and a trigger. Not thinking of the possible consequences, she set it to the lowest setting and test-fired at a piece of wood. To Keia’s great surprise a beam lit from the end of the pistol and the piece of wood started to smoke. She quickly stopped, made sure the wood was in no danger of setting fire, and pocketed the pistol. No telling when something like that might come in useful!
“Anything?” she asked Globo when she found him again. He shrugged and shook his head. They left that building as curious and awed as ever, but no closer to their goal.
At last, when they had started to despair that they would live the rest of their short lives and die in that place, luck found them. While searching through what appeared to be an old school, they found an intact map of Casilan. Except it was no Casilan as they knew it.
As Keia had known, oceans covered most of the planet in this diagram. She could see what must have become the main continent, where the Carads and Relians lived at present. By taking the old map from Geompalo’s pack and comparing it with the one they found, she could find the island of Bahar, though it was merely the center of a large continent on the old map. What truly drew her attention, though, was that no more than perhaps 70% of Casilan had been ocean and ice caps when this old map was made. Now, over 90% of it was ocean and caps. Uncountable chains of islands had sunk beneath the waves. Several major continents had either been reduced to islands, as in the case of Bahar, or simply disappeared from the surface. Most frightening was that the ice caps on this old map were almost double the size of the ones on her map. So that was where the water had come from. But what had caused it? And all the hundreds of cities marked on this map… now swimming in the ocean like Attarmansi. Perhaps they saw it coming here and built the dome. While comparing the maps, her eye was drawn to an interesting correlation.
Marked on the old map was a set of huge, icy peaks with a major city set in their midst, one vast volcano in the center of the group. On her new map, in the same place, stood a small island with nothing marked on it. Many other places on the map corresponded to small islands, but none of them had held cities in times past. What if the old Ba’hari gate had gone to other places besides just Attarmansi? Perhaps the Ba’hari elders as remained led the few people who could escape to that place, a place unknown to the Relians and Carads, and a place to which they could not follow without opening the gate the same way Keia herself had done.
Keia and Globo discussed this possibility, but they still had no idea how to get to the island. Keia could shift into a dolphin and swim there, but it would take weeks and Globo could not follow. It would be a death sentence for him. And anyway, how would she get out of the dome enclosing them? Going back was no path either: the gate in Bahar had led here, but they found nothing resembling a gate on this side. Reason suggested that such a thing existed, but who now alive would know how to operate the machines?
Further search of the map room in the school provided the answer for that as well. They found a full map of Attarmansi on one sheet. Marveling at the sheer size of the city, and how little of it they had explored, they found a place marked “Sea Port”. It was on the very edge of the city.
“This is probably our best bet to get out of this place alive,” she told Globo, tapping it. “If we can’t escape here then we’re probably done for.” He agreed, and so they set off to the sea port on their train.
As they came around to the Sea Port, the down-sloping wall of the dome covering the city became more and more prominent. It changed from a strange sky into a massive feature that dominated their whole vision. They came as close to the Sea Port as they could with the train and then abandoned it there.
The Sea Port bore a strange and yet not unexpected resemblance to the Gate Station. There are certain features which are present at any conjunction of transportation modes — counters, chairs to sit in while waiting, status monitors (no longer functional here), queueing areas for passengers. Finally, after breaking into a number of areas that were obviously only attended by employees in the original design, they found a docked passenger submersible in an airlock. They entered it, hoping beyond hope that it was one of the few artifacts in Attarmansi that still functioned after all this time.
Keia sat at its controls, studying them. She had seen similar things during Carad missions before. Despite all the other things that change in a society over time, some machines’ user interfaces never seem to change much. Once one settles on something that works, there is little reason to want to change it. She’d never flown an underwater plane before, but the controls of this one resembled craft she had piloted, enough to give it a try. Keia put her hand on the ignition switch, and then hesitated.
“What you waiting for?” Globo asked curiously. Keia sighed.
“What if it doesn’t work, Globo? What then?” she replied. She shrugged and pressed the switch.
Much to their surprise and delight, the engines powered up and the console lit piece by piece. Globo whooped and flipped around the co-pilot’s chair several times. Keia squealed and clapped her hands together like a little girl receiving a treat.
“Strap yourself in, Globo, and prepare for takeoff,” she said in her most serious voice, a delivery botched only by barely stifled giggles.
Keia pushed a button and the outer door behind them closed, followed by another exterior door that made a loud booming noise. Another button and a gate opened in front of them slowly, letting the ocean gush in around them. She had a few horrified moments wondering if the craft was still waterproof, but her fears turned out to be baseless. Yet another switch flipped, and the craft was loosed from its docking mechanism, floating around queasily in the docking bay. Finally she pressed an acceleration lever forward and under a loud hum they proceeded out of the bay into the open ocean.
The gods of luck must be with us for sure today, she thought, smiling at the anachronism she and Globo had read about in the city. She was ready to bow and scrape to anyone if it would keep their luck coming as it had been. And with that thought, she steered them about, facing the island they had found on the map, and they left the tomb of Attarmansi behind.
Several days of underwater travel brought them to the vicinity of the ancient mountain range, now mostly underwater. They passed over innumerable small towns and cities, lost under the oceans when they rose up to consume the land eons ago. After a bit of searching they were able to find a deep bay with a beach on which they could land their craft.
When Keia had driven the submersible as far as it could go onto the beach, she opened an emergency hatch on the top and climbed out, wading to shore. A wave of tropical heat blasted at her, for this island was in the southern hemisphere and it was high summer. Globo was terrified of the open water and refused to come out until they were completely out of the water and he could leave by the normal door. Keia saw no other solution, so she tried tugging on the craft by herself to pull it farther up the beach. To her surprise, it was extremely light and easy to drag. When she’d gotten it far enough up the beach, Globo climbed out and helped her pull on it until it was hidden among nearby trees. They sat down on the beach for a few moments’ rest, feeling the ocean breeze and deciding what to do next.
“Well, we’re here,” she said to the monkey. “We still don’t know if this is where they went, but it seems as likely as anywhere. How do we start?”
“There,” he said, pointing toward what should be the center of the island. He had become very serious again now that they were nearing the goal of their quest. “If these great ones like other great ones, that where they’ll go. Middle of old volcano, good dirt, many plants, shelter from storms.”
“Do you think we’ll actually find them?” she asked, a shadow of doubt entering her voice now that they were so near. “If they found the first set of Ba’hari, it seems like they would have found these eventually too.” Globo shrugged in his fatalistic way and headed toward a well-beaten path he had discovered in the trees.
“This path seem to say we find someone!”
It turned out that they were not very far from the cone of the old volcanic island after all. In under an hour of quick walking they were over its rim, staring down into the valley. Keia shifted her human eyes to something more closely resembling an eagle’s eyes, to see farther away. Almost immediately she felt as if her heart had dropped through her stomach. There, to one side of the huge valley, was a set of buildings very similar in design to the ruins in Bahar. And coming out of several chimneys, columns of wispy smoke. She shifted her eyes back and looked at Globo.
“They’re here Globo. My people! They’re here! We’ve found them!”
“Yes, so it seems,” he said, looking troubled. “So it seems.”
“What’s wrong?” she asked him. “Aren’t you excited as well?”
He stared back at her for a moment with slight suspicion in his eyes, and then his features softened.
“I just hope they accept Globo after what he did,” he said. Keia sensed that there was more to it than that, but she didn’t push him on the subject. As human as he seemed sometimes, it was often beyond Keia to interpret Globo when he was in one of his moods, as now. “And Globo suggest you change eyes and hair. Look too much like the strangers.”
Keia realized the sense in this immediately, considering that her last Agent mission as Keia had her posing as a Relian. She shifted her hair to be almost blue-black, her skin darker, and her eyes to an emerald green, to match her brief memories of her family from Bahar.
“How should we approach them?” she asked him. “I don’t want to frighten them. Who knows how long it’s been since they have seen any but their own people?”
“Too late,” the monkey said, and pointed up to a tree along the volcano’s rim. She had a few moments to glimpse a human form crouched in the branches before it shot away, becoming a cawing crow in the process. The crow flew directly toward the village.
“Well, nothing for it I guess,” she replied, and they headed down the path into the valley.
After only about ten minutes of walking, they entered the village. Its design was so similar to the one in Bahar that Keia almost felt a sense of deja vu coming on her again. For here, not only in her mind but in reality, the buildings were well maintained and there were signs of recent habitation. A single Ba’hari stood in the center of the square to receive them. He was not smiling.
He seemed to be slightly younger than Keia seemed, which is to say in his early twenties. His shoulder-length blue-black hair glistened in the sun and parted around two feline ears perched atop his head. Three wide black stripes adorned each side of his face as if they were natural skin coloration rather than paint. He was dressed in only a loin cloth and sandals. Here, in front of her, was her memory made real. A Ba’hari who was very likely the age he appeared, who had lived in this place all his life, and who had never felt the taint of being an Agent, of HQ. Keia was so emotionally overwhelmed by this moment that she bowed to the boy, and Globo did the same.
The boy spoke a string of words that sounded almost like musical gibberish to Keia, but she did recognize the word “Ba’hari” almost exactly as Globo had pronounced it. She looked at Globo queryingly.
“He say,” he said in her language, “he wise one training, sent to meet us.” Almost before Globo had finished this sentence, the boy turned to Keia and spoke another string of words with a good deal of confusion in their tone, and an edge of hostility, demanding.
“He saw you up there,” Globo translated nervously, “changing looks to be like Ba’hari. Demand to know what you are, why try to trick them, and why won’t speak for self if are truly Ba’hari.” Before Keia could get a word in edgewise, the monkey spoke to the boy rapidly, using many hand gestures, as if trying to convince him of something. Several times the boy nodded, glanced over at Keia suspiciously, and then back at the monkey again. Once or twice he interjected a quick question. Finally he nodded at Keia again, and Globo told her what he had told him.
“Globo tell him you were kidnapped one, like in legends. Keia look like strange ones before to hide with them. Not want to scare great ones. And Keia forget how to talk. Not sure he believes Globo,” he finished sadly. The boy turned to Globo then and spoke a few wondering words to the monkey. Globo merely nodded and hung his head at this. The boy spoke a few more words, and the monkey perked up again suddenly. “Great ones remember Globo!” he said to her excitedly. “And not mad at him. Not mad! Globo only did his duty.”
One more string of conversation between the two, and the monkey turned to Keia and spoke with what appeared to be great trepidation.
“He ask… he ask where is third of us? I tell him, there only two. He says, definitely, are three. Again he seem to wonder if we are true.” It was this short exchange that, after a month or more of have having not really thought about them, brought HQ back to Keia’s mind. She didn’t know why it did so, but it gave her a bad feeling about the situation. She merely shook her head, and the boy led them on into the village.
Quarters were found for Keia and for Globo, and they attended a great feast that night under the stars, just as in Keia’s dream memories. The children scurried around the square, playing games, and the people of the village laughed and talked, telling stories and enjoying each other’s company. They were all at great ease with each other, all except for one person — Keia. If any of the Ba’hari turned to her, they became apprehensive and looked away, trying to find something else to stare at.
She could not know what was going through their minds, but she could take a very good guess. Keia el Rahim was an ill omen for what remained of the tribes. Keia el Rahim was the world coming back to them again at last, and not in a good way.
She had yearned for this moment for so long, to be among her people as they had been in her innocent childhood, and she was an outsider. She wished dearly to be part of this group, but knew that she could never be, not in the way she wished. It was as if the prodigal daughter stood out in the snow, pounding on the windows of the cozy and cheery family home, begging to be let in to be with them and join their dinner; but it was beyond their power to do more than shake their heads sadly at the apparition trying to get in. Her time as an Agent had changed her forever, and she was part of a different family now.
On the other hand, Globo was a great hit. The people here had heard of him in their legends, but never really believed in their heart of hearts that he was a real creature. He regaled them with wild tales of olden times, cavorting around the fire in the square as an acrobat. He raised the spirits of the village and yet made them look even more bitterly at Keia, because here was living proof that the legends were true. Here was proof that they, too, could be enslaved.
Once during the evening a young boy started over toward her with a curious and open look on his face. He, at least, seemed interested in making her acquaintance. But perhaps half way around to her, when his parents figured out where he was going, a sharp word from them brought him back. He shrugged and frowned over his shoulder at her.
She spent a quiet night alone in her guest quarters, and things did not improve for her the next day. The Ba’hari looked at her even more standoffishly than they had the night before, and none tried to speak with her. Globo was nowhere to be found, and so she was left alone to wander around the village like a ghost they wished to banish. The villagers did not start spitting angrily at her feet and cursing in their melodic language, however, until the conversation of the next evening.
All of the village elders attended a meeting with Keia and Globo, and any other villagers who were interested. Which meant, in practice, that the whole village was present. A great deal of translation on Globo’s part was involved, though Keia had started to pick up the Ba’hari language as it surfaced more and more in her memories, but it went something like the following after an initial telling of Keia’s story:
Elder: So, you irresponsible idiots let yourselves be captured by these Relians, and these Carads, and made into slaves. Do I have the right of it?
Keia: We had no choice. They came with technology and weapons to bond us and enslave us. And where were you chickens, when we idiots were being ripped away from our families?
Elder: I am the one asking the questions here! We did what we could to save the few that could be saved. Why did you not resist them after being captured? Where was your dignity?
Keia: You have no idea what you speak of. We fought them that night. Your great, great, great, great grandparents were there, not you! Have you ever been thrown in a cell, drugged, and brainwashed? Until you could not even remember who you were? We fight them now!
Elder: And yet [a wicked grin adorned his face] you come here wearing a body of one of our enemies, disguising yourself on our borders! [murmurs around the group] What is your motivation? Are you sure you are truly a Ba’hari? Or [he pauses dramatically] perhaps you have become one of them in mind as well?
Keia: [regaining her calm with a sigh] I did not come here to fight you, Elder. I came here to seek what’s left of my people, to try to find my origins, to find the truth. And, I had hoped, to find help to free the rest of our people at last.
Elder: And yet, in doing so, you have selfishly risked everything. How do you know you did not lead them here to us? For that matter, how do we know you did not lead them to us purposefully!
Keia: [angrily again] Why, you….
Elder: Three of you entered our village! Two now stand here! Where is the third? [standing, spitting, yelling angrily] We will have no truck with traitors who served our enemies, with pigs and dogs who neglect the ceremonies and maintain their bodies in many forms vainly for hundreds of years!
Keia: [calm once again] I see. Then I have wasted my time. Excuse me.
With those words, Keia stood from the ground where she had sat, and strode away from the gathering. Angry shouts and protests followed her, but she ignored them. Instead she flashed into a panther where she stood, so fast that none of the villagers could even see the transformation, growled viciously, and loped off into the forest to be alone. Her clothes had ripped to shreds and dropped on the ground in the process, but her powerful feline muscles didn’t even notice. She was beyond caring. A surprised murmur followed her departure, for none of the villagers themselves could have transformed so quickly and precisely.
Globorimaranistam, talking monkey, subject of legends, stood watching her go with a sad and yet resolute look on his simian face.
Many hours later she loped quietly back to her quarters in the village. She almost didn’t expect them to provide even that anymore, but she was wrong. In fact someone had brought food to her room and even mended her clothes. Shedding her fur for human skin once again brought her chills, so she was very grateful for that service, whoever had done it. Some, at least, still treated her as the ambassador she had hoped to be, and had failed at so miserably.
Already tense and sensing someone having crept quietly to her back after she had closed the door, she spun around in a controlled Ka Te strike. At the last second she pulled back and checked her motion before hurting the young boy who had tried to talk with her at the feast several days back.
“Hello,” he said nervously. “I had hoped you would not kill me when I came.” He smiled tentatively. “They all say, now, that you have quite a temper. And also that you may be the most accomplished shifter the Ba’hari have ever known.”
“Do they now,” Keia muttered. It’s no wonder, she thought ruefully, after that exit scene. “Well, I’m no more of a monster than any who live here, and I wish no one harm. I’m merely frustrated.”
It was only then that she realized they’d been talking in her language the whole time.
“You speak my language!” she exclaimed to the boy. He merely nodded and sat down next to her.
“Yes, the people of this village are not as unworldly as they’d have you believe. We have some Tear Stone and some technology left to us, and we see what happens elsewhere in the world. Our people lost track of yours during the great kidnapping, but we have watched the world anxiously. That’s why the elders seem angry.”
Keia put two and two together quickly.
“Yes, they’re afraid,” the boy replied. “However, some of us have had a desire to become a part of the world again, if only distantly, before it becomes part of us and we have no say in how that happens. I am Mian’no, wise one in training of Ash’hari, this land and also this people. I brought you the food and your clothes. And I would be your friend,” he said, reaching a hand out tentatively. Keia took his hand and shook it.
“Well met,” she replied.
“The elders would not be pleased to find that I’m still talking with you, especially in your own language, despite that they themselves have ordered that you should be provided quarters here for as long as you want.” A puzzled look crossed his face. “They spoke as if you were staying with us for a long time. I suppose now you have no reason to stay, and will want to go back, Keia?”
“I’m not sure, Mian’no,” she replied, looking somewhere distant. “I have friends back home, and a fight to fight. Yet I came all this way and went to all this trouble, so I’d like to stay a while and learn what I can. How did you get in here?”
Silly question, Keia thought as he flowed slowly and gracefully into the tiny shape of a mouse. He squeaked and ran in several circles before shifting back to his human form. It was only then that she noticed that he had somehow kept his clothes in the process.
“How did you do that?” she exclaimed.
“Do what?” he asked quizzically.
“Shift your clothes with you like that.”
“You mean you can’t?” he asked her, incredulous. “I guess that explains why I had to repair yours. Well, if you truly don’t know, then I would be happy to try to teach you.” For the first time in several days, Keia smiled, and ruffled the top of his head.
“I’d be happy to learn. My thanks. And come visit me whenever you want.”
Over the next several days, Mian’no visited her several times. She spent what effort she could learning about the Ash’hari people (she refused to think of them as Ba’hari), but their dislike for her, almost a revulsion, kept her from learning much. Her true learning came from her clandestine meetings with Mian’no, because he was excited to finally be able to teach someone else something of what he had learned in his training.
He confirmed for her their previous hypothesis that some of the villagers from Bahar had fled into the temple, and through the gate to this island. They were almost captured by the Carads and Relians as well, but they had managed fight them off long enough for the gate to close. A particularly gruesome passage of their legends detailed a Relian being sliced in half by the gate, embellished by entirely unrealistic descriptions of demons crawling from his body and howling away after his demise.
Mian’no taught her the trick of keeping her clothes with her when shifting. It was merely a matter of extending her sense of self to include her clothes. What else could this new ability do for her, she wondered. And for the fight of the Rahim, she added more grimly.
Days passed, and still there was no sign of the mysterious third visitor the islanders had accused her of bringing. In fact there was little sign of the second visitor, Globo. She wondered what he had gotten up to, and figured that he was just being kept busy by telling the villagers stories and visiting with the people he had missed so much.
They passed many happy conversations together, talking about their lands, their people, and their adventures. Mian’no asked about Nilo, and Keia painted a mental picture of a brave and noble freedom fighter for him.
One day she was sitting with Mian’no on a small rock, under a tree overlooking the vast ocean.
“I really should be getting back,” she thought out loud. “I miss Nilo, and he’ll be missing me badly by now. I was, am, one of their best, and they need me to carry on the fight. This is all very interesting here, but I know now it can do nothing for our fight.” She glanced down at the curiously quiet Mian’no and saw that tears were dripping down his small face.
“I understand,” he said. “We have to do what we have to do, and that task is yours. As much as I enjoy your company, I can’t try to keep you from it. Just, as a parting thanks for the time you’ve spent with me, let me take you back into your mind.” Keia stared at him for a moment.
“What do you mean, take me back into my mind?” she asked.
“What it sounds like,” he said. “You’ve told me that you remembered a few memories from your childhood but nothing else. Now that you have that toe-hold on them, it is possible to put you into a trance so that you can remember all of your memories, bring back all of your childhood and what came after it. It will not be pleasant for you after the capturing, but you’ve expressed a desire to remember it all.” He looked at her quietly for a few moments. “I can do it for you, it’s part of my training, to help people who have been hurt and forgotten themselves.”
Here is the thing I most wanted from this whole trip!, Keia thought to herself excitedly. Yet she was full of trepidation at what she might uncover. It was like staring into the edge of an abyss.
“I’ll do it,” she said. Mian’no smiled and sighed, as if he’d been holding his breath.
“You may not realize it, but you’ve paid me the best compliment I can be paid. This process will open you to me utterly. I could destroy your mind. I could convince you that you really are a panther, and being a human just a strange dream. Are you sure you want to do this?”
Keia nodded her head without hesitation. She felt an almost motherly love for this young boy. “Do we need to go somewhere special?”
“No,” he said. “Anywhere quiet and alone is fine. And we are several hours’ walk away from the village now. I’m going to sit here on this rock, and I want you to lean back against it, against my chest. That’s it exactly. Now I’m going to put my hands over your eyes and massage your head. Good. I want you to relax completely. Relax. Think calming thoughts, be one with the peace of the forest.” It felt to Keia as if she were about to pass out. She had the vague sensation of Mian’no’s fingers passing though her skull and into her brain. “Relax… Now, when I count back from 5, you will no longer be Keia el Rahim until I call you back. You will be a child, a child. Back to your childhood. Five… The forest, surrounding your people. Four… your village, your house. Three… your childhood friends, your sister. Two… your parents, safe in your home. One…”
Keia heard nothing more, but felt as if she had dived head-first into that abyss. Her last coherent thought as herself was an image of her sister’s face as she had seen it in Bahar.
The blackness was replaced with a warm, quiet, wet feeling. The nameless one could feel a persistent thumping nearby. No, it was more than one thumping. It heard a horrible cracking sound. Something was wrong! The world tumbled over and over, and suddenly everything was cold, bright, and horrible. It cried and cried, and yet this crying was a new and fascinating sensation. It had a voice! And there was another nearby, also crying. When they heard each other, they knew that all was well and they stopped crying at once. The big things passing them around made some strange noises which were still incomprehensible to the little ones, but meant roughly, “Congratulations! You have beautiful twins…” And it felt comforted because besides its twin, it felt as if a ghostly hand was holding its own, guiding it into life.
“Wake up, Palta. Wake UP!” a giggling girl’s voice yelled. “I want to go play!” Eyes opened to look at Palta’s sister’s face. Kalia. Her name was Kalia, a woman’s voice seemed to comment from somewhere, fully recognizing the face at last. Palta groggily rose from the bed. Something still felt strange about the situation. Something about a woman watching, watching … standing in front of the mirror, Palta’s head shook and finally the sleep cleared away. I am Palta, a voice said, looking in the mirror at a young boy’s face. Palta, Kalia’s brother, and her protector!
There was a sudden shock of understanding by the nameless watcher, and she faded away completely, her and the hand holding her hand. Then, there was only Palta.
“Have you done your homework, young man?” his mother called after him as he ran toward the door to go play. “I want to see you finish all of it! Shapes, Shifting Technique, Lore, Arithmetic… are you listening to me!” They spoke in the language of the Ash’hari, but it was accented subtly differently. Palta had no troubles understanding, as he had grown up his whole life hearing and speaking it. The sun beckoned outside, and he would not be delayed.
“Ok, Mom! I will,” he called back as he ran through the door. Kalia was waiting to greet him. He grabbed her hand as they ran down the lane, black hair streaming back from her face. She was innocent and beautiful (though he knew innocence and its opposite only as philosophical concepts), and Palta loved his sister more than anything else in the world. He felt as one with her, and would cause great pain to anyone who wished to harm her.
“Let’s go tease that old talking monkey again today!” Kalia said under her breath, conspiratorially. Palta’s big grin was an answer enough. They ran off toward the temple arch.
Palta was sitting in a forest clearing wearing Kalia’s form, and she, wearing his. They had gotten into an argument about the differences between boys and girls and how he couldn’t understand how she felt until he was in her shoes. He had shot back that she couldn’t understand him until she was in his shoes. And then in that way that only twins had, they read each other’s minds and knew how to solve the dilemma and have a little fun at the same time. They had gone back to the village that way on a mutual dare just to see if they could fool everyone.
“I guess I was wrong,” Kalia said to the eerie mirror of herself when she’d changed back in their shared room. “You’re so good at being me .. it’s creepy.” Palta smiled at her compliment. He had never felt so close to his sister before, and didn’t change back to his own form until morning.
Palta stalked through the jungle, sleek black fur shining in the sun, and great paws clawing the dirt. His golden eyes threw everything into sharp detail. Over there to the side… a little rabbit trying to hide from me, he thought. All at once he gathered his muscles and pounced after the rabbit, tearing it apart in one swipe and savoring its blood.
I am the Panther!, he shouted, but only a proud growl issued forth from his throat. He knew in that moment of power that he had found his true animal form. His twin had been drawn to the tiger, and she too reveled in the hunt.
Palta could hardly sleep. Day after tomorrow, he was to take part in the ceremony that confirmed him to his true animal form, the panther. At last he could change himself to show his inner animal even in his human form. It would be taboo henceforth for him to take any other shape besides his human and panther forms, but that didn’t bother him. It meant he was finally to come of age.
His sister, Kalia, had officially chosen her form of the tiger several days previously. They had deemed her ready a little before him, but he took no offense to it. To the contrary, he was just excited it would happen soon.
The next day when he saw his sister and the stripes on her face, he felt a pang of jealousy. And yet he didn’t let it bother him because he knew it was only a temporary difference, a temporary parting of ways. She beamed in happiness, both for her ceremony, and for his to come. Tomorrow they would be close again.
When he came home that night along the lane, he had a profound sense of deja vu. Something felt wrong, but it was as if someone outside himself felt the wrongness.
He’d skipped along this path happily, many times. Mother was calling him to dinner. Palta walked up to the door, and his mother lean down to give him a kiss.
He walked inside the house. Exotic artwork made from plants and paint decorated the walls tastefully. Lanterns spread a cheery light around the rooms. The smells of dinner filled the air. His sister ran up to him and grabbed his hands in excitement. Tiger stripes decorated her cheeks.
“You kids go wash up now,” Palta heard his mother say.
Screams of children sounded outside, shouts of adults. The sounds of fighting. Alien voices. They burst into the room and suddenly he was paralyzed, unable to move. He struggled, but they had him. A cruel, triumphant face leered down at Palta, violet hair cropped even with the woman’s chin, a strange sleeveless shirt with a seam across the breast which narrowed to strips as it reached to her feet. He passed out and knew no more.
He half-woke groggily, feeling as if he were in a dream. A persistent beeping noise filled the background. Several people speaking the strange, alien language stood around the room.
“Will this one, ahh, five twenty-three, make it?” one of them asked, though he didn’t understand how he knew the language.
“I think so,” a second one said. “It’s fighting us, but it’s a strong, healthy specimen. We’d better get on with the brain regression soon or it might fight the parasite.” Palta tried to scream, tried to struggle, but he was tied down.
Agent five-two-three floated in a blank, empty nothingness. It remembered nothing about its past, its future, its hopes and ambitions. It didn’t even know what they were, mere wisps of thought that were gone as quickly as thought. It opened its eyes and looked around dreamily. It mentally felt its body, a blank, humanoid, sexless thing, bereft of any distinguishing features except for one thing… a bracelet around its wrist.
More strangers stood in the room around it, this time chanting and weaving their hands in strange patterns. An amorphous, inky blob appeared in front of five-two-three. The Agent-to-be tried to scream, but the blob rushed into his chest instead, entangling itself in some strange way. The two ‘Its’ looked at each other a cross a vast mental gulf, and became one. One… was there ever anyone else?, thought five-two-three.
Flash. Re-education classes. Flash. Shape shifting practice. Flash. Practice missions. Flash. Assassinations. Flash. Hostile government takeovers. Flash. Flash. Flash.
Deep inside the vision, Keia el Rahim tried to scream, a scream to spill all of her guts out, but she had no mouth. Her life flashed past her, all one-thousand, three-hundred and forty-two years of it. And still she screamed.
The feeling of a gentle hand grabbing her and lifting her out of her vision disoriented the dream-Keia. She woke to the sight of stars blotted out by trees, screaming “Get it out of my head… get it out!”
Sweat dripped from her whole body as she came to her senses fully and remembered where she was. Keia felt the warm, loving hands of Mian’no massaging her forehead once again, and they both sat there sobbing silently for several minutes.
“Was it real?” she asked him shakily. “Was that truly my life, Palta with a sister named Kalia? And that… that thing!”
“Yes, yes it was,” he said just as shakily. “I had no idea… no idea. I’m not sure even I would have agreed to this if I’d known what was waiting in there.” He glanced up at the night sky. “We’ve been sitting here, in this position, for a full day and a half. I had to stay awake to make sure I could pull you back. It was a little touchy for a while there. Don’t try to move yet, just flex your muscles slowly while I massage them. I’m more used to this long trance business, so it doesn’t bother me quite as much.” She looked out over the sea, listening to the surf and contemplating over a thousand years of her life while Mian’no worked on her muscles.
“So, that’s the dirty secret,” she croaked with an ironic smile. “That’s why Tasha needs all of that Tear Stone.” The pieces started falling together in her mind. “The temple, the great Ba’hari treasure, the parasite… it all makes sense now. The Ba’hari were made the Ba’hari by living in Bahar, by the Tear Stone there. It resonated with their genetics somehow, activated by some event,” she said, still a little fuzzy on Carad scientific knowledge despite years of learning about it. “By taking a sample of the Ba’hari Tear Stone from the temple in the mountain, they were able to control us and design the parasite. And the BPG controls the parasite itself.”
Anger built in her until it was almost a palpable force, like a stream of lava threatening to burst forth and destroy the top of an ancient mountain, an echo of the panther in Palta’s youth. For a long moment she could feel nothing but red hatred, thinking of Tasha and all of her Relian race. Then all at once it subsided and she was calm again, thinking of all the good Tasha had done for her people. They were not all bad. She understood then the depth of the woman’s risk and her commitment, and loved her more than she had ever loved her before.
“That’s good,” Mian’no said suddenly. “Relax! Your tension is making it harder for me to do my job.” Keia laughed at this, a full, hearty laugh of one who has been damned and saved again.
“Enough,” she said, and stood up very wobbily. “I thank you for all of your help, Mian’no. I will not forget it. But soon I must leave the Ash’hari again. It’s more important now than ever before because I’ve a great deal of information for the Rahim that’ll help us in our fight. Truly, I will always think of you as my friend,” she finished with a hug for the boy and another ruffle of his hair.
“Will you go back now that you know?” Mian’no asked her while he stood in place and did some strange calisthenics. “To Palta, I mean.” Keia thought about it for a few moments, with a few special thoughts for Nilo, and shook her head.
“No, Palta is dead. He was killed by HQ. He’s more like a past life to me now. And Keia has too much going for her now. I am, and will be, Keia el Rahim. And in reliving his birth, I feel as if Keia has truly been born for the first time. But Palta won’t be forgotten. He’s a talisman for me now. Something to live up to,” she said with a smile. “And some day perhaps I will have my ceremony, and be the panther once again. Some day, when the fight is done and we have time for such luxuries.”
The two turned back down the path and started on the trek through the moonlight back to the village while Keia’s thoughts went in strange directions. She and Astra, thousands of years and thousands of kilometers from home, yet standing back to back as sisters again… fate? What exactly was Tear Stone anyway? Anyone who knew anything insisted that it was here when humans first arrived on Casilan. Was it alive? Keia imagined she could feel the slimy tendrils of the parasite in her, even though she knew Tasha had removed it. She shuddered suddenly at the thought of this unholy alliance of alien and human, and what it had wrought on their planet.
On a quiet, lonely ocean beach located at the edge of a mostly-lost island on Casilan, the waves pounded against each other near the shore. Moonlight from the two moons shone down on the crests, giving the impression of a strange line of lights growing and throwing themselves against the sand.
First one, then another dark shape poked their heads out from the trees at the end of a path. A line of them moved down the beach toward a bank of trees behind which a large object was hidden. With a great scraping sound, the object was pushed from its hiding place and out onto the beach itself by the dark shapes. A top hatch was swung open, and a nimble figure darted down inside. A moment later, a door opened on the side.
Shortly after that, a pounding was heard. More dark shapes with rocks in hand slipped inside the object. Sparks flew in all directions. Then they started on the outside, cracking glass, tearing panels. Soon the once-hidden object was merely a wreck of former greatness.
After making sure the job was thoroughly done, the Ash’hari villagers pushed the submersible out into the sea and watched it sink on its final voyage to the bottom of the bay.
Keia woke in the morning after a long, restful sleep. Mian’no had left her at the outside of the building she was quartered in, and she had laid down and passed out immediately. After taking a quick shower (one piece of Carad technology the Ash’hari were apparently not loathe to use) she began to pack her things for the long trip home. She would need to get some non-perishable food to take with her in the submersible, since it would be many weeks even in that fast craft to reach the main continent again and make port at Belio.
After all her time in the village, and despite the way they treated her, she was very surprised to hear raised voices and shouting in the village square on her way out of the building. Standing there in the center, and surrounded by a group of onlookers, were Mian’no and a woman, one of the elder village wise ones. The elder would yell at Mian’no, and Mian’no would shout back, both spitting their words with a harshness she had never suspected possible in the Ba’hari language. Off to one side stood Globo the monkey, absent for all these days, arms crossed on his chest and a grim expression on his face.
Keia had learned enough Ba’hari now to understand the gist of the conversation, but it went something like this:
“You were supposed to study her, you young idiot! Not to truly become her friend, to dip your mind into that dirty cesspool in hers!” the elder said. She grinned grimly. “And it is too late to change our decision anyway. We have seen to that.”
“I am the only one who truly knows her here,” Mian’no retorted. “I delved her mind. I verified that her entire story is true. And these people are our people! They need our help!”
“Mian’cho,” the elder responded in a sweet voice and with the form of his name that implied a cute little baby, “Little Mian’cho. You are the student here. You learn a few things and you think you know it all. You know nothing. We are trying to protect our people, to keep the same fate from happening to us! You of all people should understand this now!”
“Elder,” Globo interjected calmly, and silence fell. “Is this really necessary? Steps have been taken. It is a moot point now. Keia will never leave our island. Her craft has been destroyed, and there’s no way she could survive the long journey across the sea as an animal.”
It took Keia a moment to fully comprehend the meaning of their words. Mian’no sent as a spy? Globo, on “our” island? And the submersible…
At that moment they turned around and saw Keia.
“I am sorry, Keia,” Mian’no called out in her language. “I had nothing to do with this. They sent me to study you for my training, but I have truly become your friend. Do not hold anger against me… please?”
“Do not speak in that vile tongue!” the elder shrieked. “We have had enough of your idiocy for one day, boy.” The elder struck out with her fist across the side of Mian’no’s face, and the latter crumpled to the ground. Faster than anyone knew what had happened, Keia was crouched protectively at his side, and her Tear Stone pistol from the museum was out of her pocket, pointed at the elder.
“That’s enough. That’s enough,” she said quietly in what she knew of their tongue. Though her words were harshly accented and her sentences far more broken, she continued,”I trust you know what this is, even in this backward patch of hell. When I had thought of meeting my people once again, I had thought of proud, kind warriors when necessary, peaceful villagers when not. I’d imagined open minds and hearts. I had thought that maybe, just maybe, you would be curious what happened to the rest of us if you even existed at all.
“Well, now that I’ve found you I can’t believe how pitiful you’ve all become.” A murmur of protest started to raise at this. “Silence! I will say my piece. I’ve learned that not all of you are as bad as I’d hoped. But you are no better than those enslaved back home, though enslaved by fear, striking out at one who might bring even a slight change to your way of life.
“I don’t know who you are. You are not my people. You are not Ba’hari. I’m leaving now.”
Several voices, including the elder, began to respond to her harshly. Others joined with her voice, but pleading. Keia purposefully ignored them all, and chose not to listen enough to understand. She gathered up the small body of Mian’no, and started away from the square. At the last moment she turned around to look at Globo.
“What about you?” she asked in her language again. “Are you staying in this little paradise?” Globo just shook his head sadly and stared at the ground while he spoke.
“Globo stay. Globo wanted to come and stay all along. Use Keia’s help to get here, and make sure she not bring more strangers. I lead great ones to water plane.” He glanced up then, a touch of anger on his simian face for the first time in her memory. “Keia not bring ruin to great ones again, even by mistake.”
Keia merely shook her head and continued away from the village, unbelieving that even Globo had betrayed her.
When they had gotten past the bridge over the river surrounding one side of the village, Keia laid Mian’no down on the ground carefully and sat beside him. She went carefully down to the water’s edge and grabbed a bit of water in her cupped hands, spreading it on his face around the bruise that was forming there. She cradled his head as if he were her own son, massaging his face gently. At that he started to move around and mutter.
“Don’t hit, don’t hit!” he muttered in the Ba’hari language. Then to her surprise, in her language, with strangely mature voice, “Get it out of my head! Get it out!” Then he shuddered suddenly and opened his eyes, looking over at her. He let out a tense breath.
“Where are we?” he said groggily.
“On the edge of your village, across the river.”
“It didn’t go well, did it?” he asked Keia.
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “No, it didn’t. Now I’m marooned on the island of the Ash’hari and have no idea how to get home again, but I must. I must!” She nearly shook with frustration. “And that idiot monkey! Why did I trust him?” At this Mian’no’s eyes became wide and he took in a sharp breath as if she’d uttered a vile vulgarity.
“He was merely doing his job, once again,” he replied. “But you must not speak of him so. He is a very important figure to us, a legend, and even I wouldn’t have you speak badly of him.” She nodded.
“You’re right, of course… And yet, I can hardly help it. I’m so frustrated. Well, what are we to do now?” Mian’no sighed and looked down again.
“I don’t know, I really don’t.”
They sat there for a few moments and then Keia had a sudden thought.
“We came on the way here through a teleportal gate,” she said. “We knew this island might be a gate destination because one of the ancient cities was in this area at one time. There must be a gate here as well! We just have to find it!” Mian’no shook his head.
“No, that won’t work,” he said. “I don’t think you realize how big this island is. It may be a tiny dot on your map, but it’s not as small as that. There is such a place, an old city in ruins. But I had not learned the location of it. The older students had, but not I.” He sighed. “I’d heard that it was somewhere outside the valley though.” Keia was thinking furiously.
“Yes, that makes sense,” she said slowly. “On the old map, the valley would actually have been in the center of a volcano. It must’ve blown its top at some point. If it hadn’t been eaten by the rising oceans, that’d place the city somewhere near the beach. It’s a start!”
“We may as well try,” he said. “Because I don’t think they’ll let me go back to the village now. And to be honest with you,” he continued, with a glint in his eye and a grim expression, “seeing them with new eyes, I’m not sure I want to.”
She had shifted into a panther then, absorbing pack and all with her newly learned skill. Mian’no had become his mouse, and climbed up on her back to ride. Keia had then set out for the coast in a paced lope.
They’d explored the coast for several days, trying to find any hint of the ruins, but they had found nothing, only trees, jungle, and more trees. The terrain was beautiful but she had become restless and ever more frustrated.
Finally, one night when their supplies had started to run low, they sat moodily in a clearing around their fire.
“Someone’s been following us,” Keia told the boy. He didn’t really look surprised.
“Yes,” he said. “I thought I might have seen something, but I didn’t want to alarm you unless you saw it too. After all, why would anyone follow us? There is nothing we can do now.”
“There is one thing,” she replied. Then she called out in the Ba’hari language, “Hellooooooo!” The two Ba’hari waited patiently for a response, but heard nothing. “Please, if you’re there, show yourselves!” Again, nothing. Keia stood watching for many minutes and then returned to the fire. She started to speak, and then they heard noises a little way away.
Slowly a group of Ash’hari walked out and into the clearing, toward the fire. There were perhaps ten of them: a few teen boys and girls, and several older Ash’hari. She recognized the teen boy as he walked up to her, from their meeting when they’d first discovered the village. Keia was shocked at the small amount of noise they had all made while following.
“I greet you,” he said solemnly, in Keia’s language, but with a thick accent. “I am Makari.” A girl stepped forward as well, and his arm gesture indicated her. “My sister, Den’neia.” She nodded her head at Keia. “We’ve heard your story. We don’t think you’re a monster, or horrible, like some. And,” he said almost tentatively, “we would like to join you and help.” Heads throughout the group bobbed with nods. “We,” he said fiercely, “are Ba’hari!”
At that, cheers erupted from the group.
Keia felt her heart beating to break its way out of her chest with happiness and pride. So, there were some of her true people here still after all!
“I’d be glad to have you,” she replied. “Very glad. But we can’t join anyone or fight any fights until we get off this island. Do any of you know where the ancient ruins of a city might be?” Silence for a few breaths, then one of the older men stepped forward.
“I know it, Keia el Rahim,” he said. He pronounced her name as if it were a proud title, like “Commander.” “And I can guess your plan. We will lead you there. And we’ll do what no one has dared to do for hundreds of years… We will open the gate to the main land.” She nodded.
“Then that’s what we’ll do,” Keia said, holding up a hand. “But first, I must tell you what you’re heading into. You may not want to go after hearing about it, and there’s little chance you can ever come home.” She continued, talking about the scorching deserts and the relentless sun, the two races who lived there. She told them yet again, briefly, the story of what had been done to them, and that it might be done to anyone who accompanied her, if they were caught. “Do you still want to come?”
“Even after all that,” Makari replied, “even after all that, we want to come. Together we will free the rest of our people. At first light, let us proceed!”
They did just that. Early in the morning, they all set forth from the clearing where they had camped, toward the ancient city ruins. Keia and Mian’no had actually come closer than they’d realized because it took them less than a day’s travel to reach the edges of the ruins. Perhaps another half an hour later they were standing around the teleportal itself.
This machine bore very little resemblance to the room sized puzzle in Bahar. A circular ring of metal perhaps two meters across stood on its edge. It was so thin, and yet the material looked so heavy, that it seemed a wonder that it didn’t fall over instantly. The ring sat upon a large circular base with buttons, dials, and screens. On one side of the base, a set of stairs ascended to the ring itself.
Keia, having had the most experience with Carad-style machinery of anyone present, stepped up to the teleportal and surveyed it. She walked carefully up the stairs to the ring itself and touched it carefully, as if expecting it to bite her. It did not bite her, but she drew her hand back quickly anyway, as it was very cold. Much colder than it should have been, given the temperature of the room. The metal itself seemed to glisten, and almost to writhe in a stomach-wrenching way, so she looked away quickly and walked back down to the console.
The screens were similar to the ones she had seen in the museum in Attermansi, but they were blank. None of the dials, buttons, or switches seemed to do anything when flipped. Keia flopped down in a swiveling chair made of some material that turned out to be shiny and smooth after she wiped off a layer of dirt and dust with her hand. She faced the controls and stared into space, thinking. How do I make this work? What if it doesn’t work at all? Then her eyes focused on the point she’d been staring at and she understood.
One of the glass panels on the console was not a screen at all. Instead, it could be pressed lightly and opened. Inside was a receptacle that had held something. She could only think of one thing it could hold — Tear Stone — and Tear Stone came in all different varieties. If she simply inserted the piece she’d picked up at the museum, it could do anything from destroy the whole island to nothing at all. Or it could open the teleportal to outer space, for all she knew.
“Well guys,” she said to the group, who were milling around the room looking at things, “looks like this is the end of our trip.”
“Yes indeed,” a young voice said right next to her where no one had been standing a moment before. “It’s almost the end of the road for you anyway, five-two-three.” Her pistol had been snatched out of her pocket and placed against her neck. “Don’t make any sudden moves now, anyone,” the young voice said as he walked around into her view. Keia gasped, then narrowed her eyes.
“Four-nine-six,” she said. The young agent from Belio who had warned her to be careful. The irony was strong. Why did I not listen to his advice?, she thought angrily. Watch your ass, K, he had said. Her skin crawled from being so close to what she knew to be a parasite-infested body.
“Well, well,” he continued. “Look what we have here. Suddenly so many things make sense. You would not believe how much trouble it took me to follow you from Bahar. The return trip will be a lot easier once I replace this Tear Stone I have in my hand. Thankfully I got a little extra firepower from HQ to help on this mission.” A BPG encircled his arm, but it was like no BPG Keia had ever seen. “New model,” he said. “Lets you take one form besides your human one even away from HQ. One of the perks of promotion, you might say. Never looked for a stow-away rat in your pack, did you?” He smiled grimly, then it slipped off his face. “But then we never expected to find a rat in our own organization, either, did we?”
“I wonder what Jens will make of all this,” he said after she continued to glare at him silently.
“Listen to me four-nine-six,” she said seriously. “You don’t know what’s going on. Why don’t we just talk about it, and if you don’t like what you hear, you can go ahead and shoot?” He considered for a few moments, then spun her chair around to face him and backed away a step.
“All right,” he said. “But none of your funny stuff. I know your Ka Te skills, and if I suspect the slightest movement in that direction, I’ll blast you. The rest of you stay where you are, too. So, five-two-three, how did you do it? How’d you give these bumbling simpletons our powers? We’ve heard rumors about this but I’d not really believed them until now.”
“Four-nine-six,” she said, feeling sad and ridiculous calling him that, “you’re exactly right. They were our powers all along. Not HQ! They didn’t grant us anything, they took them away. The people who used to live on Bahar…” He interrupted her with a hearty, contemptuous laugh.
“Yes,” he said. “They told me you’d try this story on me. It’s the same claptrap your little Rahim group has been telling all of its members all along.” She shifted uncomfortably, hearing the word come from his mouth. “Oh? Thought you could keep it from HQ forever, could you?”
“It’s true!” she replied passionately. “The story is true. If you want me to prove it then let me transform my hand or something here. You see I have no BPG anymore. Because we never needed it. All it does is limit your powers to only work at HQ’s command. There is a parasite of Relian design inside you, and it feeds on your shifting ability, controls it at the commands of the BPG.” He looked a little less certain for a moment, but regained his balance.
“I’ve heard most of this. I haven’t heard the part about the parasite, but we figured you’d make up some new parts to make it sound more feasible. You… you really believe this, don’t you!” Incredulity slipped into his voice. “They’ve got you good. Well, I’ll tell you the truth — the truth is that the Relian witch simply embeds the functionality of the BPG into you directly somehow. We haven’t figured out exactly how yet, but that’s how it works. You were asleep when she did it, weren’t you?” She nodded. “The Tear Stone she’s been collecting in such great quantities is what powers it outside of HQ. They’re tricksters, five-two-three. This whole island was staged by the Rahim just to convince gullible Agents into believing this story they’ve made up around their organization, so they can use us to carry out their terrorist activities. And the best part is, we figure a dissident high up in the organization has been heading up this whole Rahim thing to begin with. Well, what do you think of that, huh?”
It was Keia’s turn to be confused. Her mind spun at the conspiracies within conspiracies. She once again felt the floor start to drop out underneath her, in her mind. What he said made too much sense… too much sense. The pieces all seemed to be fitting together nicely. Maybe she didn’t have any special powers. Perhaps all her “memories” were just implanted by Mian’no to confuse her.
“I’m not going to use Ka Te on you,” she said to him, and turned her head slowly to look at her new friends from Ash’hari. Would they really make up such a thing? She looked over at Mian’no. At the look on her face, half believing, half disbelieving, he stared back at her sadly.
“Well, what do you think?” four-nine-six said again.
“I think…” she started as she turned her head back to him and gathered her will to include him in her shifting. “I think you’re full of shit!”
On her last word she began to transform herself, yet it was not the main part of her body that was changing. Everything moved in slow motion. It was the new part that was standing next to her that she would now change, holding a gun up to her head, preparing to fire. She could feel the oily touch of the parasite, but it was not truly part of her body, and it could not harm her. Nor could it overcome her will, to stop what was happening to four-nine-six. He screamed and dropped the pistol, for it was all he could do now.
Four-nine-six’s hand had congealed into a single smooth appendage, like a tentacle. It had stretched out slowly until it could no longer hold the pistol, which fell to the floor harmlessly. He screamed a primal scream of terror. Simultaneously his other arm did almost the same thing, and he dropped the Tear Stone to the floor.
“Impossible! What are you doing to me, you bitch!” he yelled at her. But Keia was still at work on him. His arms grew bigger and rounder until his BPG was stressed to its breaking point. “Nooo!” he cried out when he realized what she was up to.
“Please,” she said to him in a calm voice, but under great stress. “Don’t make me do this.”
“Go to hell, you damned terrorist!” he yelled at her.
The bracelet snapped into pieces that clattered to the floor. At that his hands shrunk back to their normal shape and size, and he fainted to the ground, mid-scream. He was only a little boy.
The rest of the group rushed over to Keia. She was sitting in the chair with her hands held up to her face, tears leaking down from them, sobbing silently.
“Did I d-do the r-right thing?” she asked the group standing around her between sobs. “He w-wasn’t telling the truth, was he?”
“No, Keia el Rahim,” Makari said gently. “He was not telling the truth. He was only telling the truth as he knows it. Here we’ve seen confirmation of the horrible face of this HQ you’ve spoken about. You shouldn’t sully the name of the Rahim by giving truth to these lies.” She merely nodded.
“But,” she said, somewhat more under control, “he was one of us. Now he’ll live out his natural life on this island with that horrible thing living inside of him.”
“Where,” Makari interjected, “he can do no harm. And where he will likely be taken in by the village, even if they don’t like him.”
“Perhaps. And yet,” Keia replied, “he was my friend, as much as Agents ever had friends, for as long as I can remember, which is a very long time. I hate to leave him here like this, but you’re probably right. We have to pick our fights and minimize the casualties where we can.” She had a grim expression on her face now. “This is war.” She picked up the Tear Stone that four-nine-six had dropped and placed it into the cradle behind the clear panel. The lights across the console blinked on. She pressed a button, and a great whirring sound began somewhere underground. “Get back, all of you.”
They backed quickly away from the teleportal gate, and with a bright flash of light and a curious sound, a disc of spinning light sprang into place inside the circle on top of the platform. It looked much as the one in Bahar had previously, at first. But after a few moments it started to shimmer and flicker in a strange way. The machine vibrated loudly. Keia dashed over to the console and looked inside the glass panel.
“The Tear Stone, it’s cracked!” she yelled over the noise. “It must’ve cracked when it hit the floor from his hand. And the crack is getting wider! We’ve got to get through, now!”
The rest of them spent no time pondering her words but leapt straight for the gate. At last everyone but Keia had jumped through the gate. She turned around and looked at four-nine-six, hesitating. He had started to come around, and looked up at her with a sad, lost face, more like the little boy’s shape he occupied than she’d ever seen before. Then his head sank back to the ground. Keia ran back down the steps to him, and started to pick him up.
The Tear Stone inside the glass panel gave a great popping sound, and fell into two pieces. The gate shimmered ever more violently, but stayed open. Keia lifted his body and turned around to head back to the gate. Smoke began to pour out of the panel, and the gate actually stuttered and disappeared for a few moments before coming back once again, looking very sickly this time. She wasted no more time, but leapt up the stairs and through the gate as it smashed closed behind her forever.
The rest of the group was there, staring at her.
“I couldn’t leave him,” she said simply. They nodded their heads, but they didn’t look happy.
“This one will cause us trouble again,” Den’neia said simply, yet her voice seemed to hold sympathy and perhaps approval.
It was night time, and the chilling desert wind whipped sand around their feet. Bits of stone could be made out here and there in the moon light, and after a few moments’ inspection, it was obvious that they’d landed in another set of ruins.
“Stands to reason I guess,” Den’neia commented. “You said all the other gates led to old cities.”
They all changed their appearance to match Keia’s earlier Relian disguise, and then made camp next to the largest remaining corner of a wall that provided a little shelter from the cold, dry wind. After being warned about the climate from the telling of Keia’s story, the Ash’hari had brought heavier clothes into which they now changed. A quick study of the nearby mountains and the old Attarmansi map, filched from the wall where it once hung in antiquity, gave them their current location. They were perhaps two hard days’ travel outside of Belio, to the northeast.
By late the next morning, many of them wanted to changed back to their previous clothes because of the heat, but Keia shook her head.
“No, these clothes may seem hot to you now, but it’s nothing to the heat of a harsh sun burn all over your body, and it’ll cold again soon enough. Keep them and you’ll thank me.” During all this time, four-nine-six remained unconscious and had to be carried. He automatically accepted water dribbled into his mouth, but that was all.
Three very long days later, for the jungle-adapted Ash’hari were not well suited to desert travel, they crested the hill looking down into Belio. They slipped into the town quietly and inconspicuously, by ones and twos so they wouldn’t be stopped as group by the gate guards. From there they regrouped and made their way down the tree-lined boulevards toward Senshen Wharf.
Perhaps a block before they arrived, some intuition warned Keia. She told the group to stay put in an alleyway while she scouted ahead, just to make sure there were no surprises waiting for them.
As she peered around a corner near the wharf, she could see that a great deal of damage had been done to the building. Parts of it looked blackened, as if set on fire. Guards in stark military uniforms stood outside of it, guarding the doors and corners. A finger tapped her shoulder and she nearly jumped out of her skin.
“Quietly, quietly,” said Nilo from behind her. She relaxed quickly and turned to embrace him. “We were worried you would come back this way,” he continued. “They were expecting you to return by a ship, so they’ve staked out all the piers in Belio. As you can probably guess, they figured out where we were operating.” He sighed heavily and then grinned at her. “But old Tasha outsmarted ’em again, and we were all gone by the time they got there. They did all that damage for nothing. But I’ve been here to watch for you and guide you to the new place. I think you’ll like it.”
“Well, I’m glad I found you,” she replied. “Very glad,” she said with an arched eyebrow and a warm, sultry smile. “But let’s get a move on! We’ve got traveling to do, and you have new recruits to meet!”
Keia of the Rahim walked hand in hand with Nilo back toward the alley and she knew, without a doubt, that they were the good guys.