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Dream Planet

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  • Аннотация:
    Фантастический роман Семь миров на английском языке. Английское название книги: Dream Planet (Планета мечты). For over 22 years now, since my earliest memories, I close my eyes and see the same dream over and over again. In front of me, there is a world with an endless dome sky, sprinkled with stars, gigantic green plants, and a multicolour buffet of herbs and fruit. It's a world that's warmed with the light of a golden sun, whose rays simply radiate warmth without killing anyone, almost as if from a fairytale. It's a world filled with crystal-like water and uncontaminated oxygen. My visions are so bright that they outshine reality itself. Every time as I wake up in my capsule, it's as if I return to the shadows, stepping away from that pure light. Going to a space station with the task of catching a dangerous spy, I couldn't imagine that this would be the person to reveal the truth and essence of my dreams. The pulse which the old man Iza spotted transmits the sights, music, and even the language of an unexplored yet inhabited planet, exactly identical to what I envision. I always knew that a long road was waiting for me, but what exactly awaits on the other side of this mysterious star maze?

  
  
  
  Dream Planet
  
  Book 1
  Star Maze
  
  By the Pikulina Sisters
  
  
  Translated by Mike Ivanov and Lena Timchenko
  Edited by Mike Ivanov
  
  Cover page illustration: Tamara Pikulina
  
  
  
  
  
  
  Contents:
  
  
  Chapter 1. Tulona
  Chapter 2. The Fateful Meeting
  Chapter 3. Friend among strangers, stranger among friends
  Chapter 4. Onward
  Chapter 5. Attack
  Chapter 6. The Olmeco Tunnel
  Chapter 7. The Comet
  Chapter 8. Marcius' Story
  Chapter 9. Atla's Story
  Chapter 10. The Prime Tunnel
  Chapter 11. The Mysterious Planet
  Chapter 12. Looking for Marcius
  Chapter 13. The Friendly Tribe
  Chapter 14. The Mother's Bosom
  Chapter 15. Yonk's Story
  Chapter 16. The Oracle's Union
  Chapter 17. Around the World
  Chapter 18. Two sides of a single medal
  Chapter 19. Het and the monsters
  
  
  
  
  
  Chapter 1. Tulona
  Marcius guided his capsule towards Tulona; the young pilot was finishing his ninth supporting mission. He was exhausted, but he kept on without losing focus, knowing that he was doing something important for his world. Beside him, huge cubic crystals floated weightlessly, supported by thin silver cables. They contained argon - the Tulonians were transporting this valuable cargo from Pacifa.
  Argon was needed to make the Tulonian atmosphere habitable. For now, the people hid in cities inside the planet, but they never stopped dreaming that soon they would be able to walk openly under the rays of Onyx.
  From century to century, from mouth to mouth, the same mantra was passed on: "Have faith, this is but a temporary confinement. Soon, people will see the world and the stars, and will breathe without domes or walls."
  Having lowered the load, the pilots had attained their long-awaited freedom and quickly dispersed. Marcius alone remained, watching the capsules of his colleagues disappear into the distance. He concluded that he was the only one not eager to rush home, most likely all because unlike all the others, there was no one there waiting for him. Marcius took a few moments to tilt back his head and looked up at the sky.
  Several bright points started to come through the settling dust, shining majestically up above. It was a special ritual for Marcius to look up at the stars that he'd sped past just recently. As if in a dream, he looked up at the glittering diamonds in the satin darkness, waiting, hoping that any minute now one of them will take off, pick him up and roll off into the immeasurable abyss, racing from one star to the next in the endless expanse of the universe, and will indefinitely bring him to the place he'd been searching for his whole entire life. To enter into the mystical beyond, to finally discover that new world that had existed for millennia before his time - that is what he wanted most of all.
  Marcius felt that somewhere, maybe even close by, maybe even in his galaxy, there exists a planet perfectly suited for humans, with plenty oxygen and water, not molten with lava and not frozen in ice, but just the way that everyone wants. And even though through thousands of years of search and exploration the citizens of the Seven Worlds had failed to discover such a planet, his faith was fed by visions he'd experienced since childhood. He'd seen a magical world with his own eyes, he raved about it, he'd been there and he knew all about it - the color of its clouds, the stars that stretched across the sky, its native plants and animals. Unfortunately, no one gave any credibility to his visions. Remembering this with a heavy sigh, he started towards the city.
  Marcius lived in the capital, located in the planet's warmest region right by the equator, but even there the temperature remained in the negatives for two-thirds of the year.
  He passed through the gateway and slowly started his descent into the city.
  Despite being underground, the city was still brightly illuminated. The light entering the giant lens scattered in all directions and was transported to other cities with the help of mirrors. Onyx could at times be seen through the lens, and so the area beneath the Eye was never empty. At all times of the day it was filled with a crowd of spectators, taken with the dream of seeing the light-source. People believed that if they were lucky enough to stand directly under the rays of Onyx, they would be graced with happiness and imminent good fortune.
  He lived in the military district, along with the numerous other military personnel of the capital. In this sense he was lucky - the best of everything was reserved specifically for the military dynasties. They even lived higher up, closer to the Eye and away from the irritating vapors of the lake down below. What's more, the houses here lasted longer and suffered less breakages due to the warmer climate.
  Marcius walked along the alley of Generals. It carried this name because it was lined with holographic sculptures of every great leader since the beginning of time. All the generals were handsome, carrying the traits of true Tulonians: sturdy, blond, blue-eyed, with snow-white skin. Marcius looked like them, but was different in principle. He walked past them quickly, head bent low, trying not to look at a single one. The culprit was the shame he felt before each of them. Many of the sculptures were erected to honor his ancestors - he belonged to one of the three ruling dynasties. On top of that, he was the last direct descendant of the Lauons, and for the first time in the history of his name, he'd been deprived not only of the right to run for ruler, but also to be a member of the Council of Twelve. And yet, he had no choice - he had to walk down this alley once again since it was the only one leading up to his house. Marcius could almost feel the majestic white faces frown and turn away just from the sound of his footsteps.
  The house, which he inherited from his father, stood at the very top. It was bright and spacious, in the shape of a perfect cube, with square gardens on the inside, tiers descending towards the foundation, elliptical windows and gentle violet illumination along the hems. Despite the limited amount of space inside the city and its significant shortage of resources, the house was rich and spacious. Holograms of wolves shimmered along its four corners - the mythical patron animal of the house Lauon. Each of the noble military dynasties had their own, and why the Lauons had this one in particular Marcius did not know.
  No one had ever seen such an animal - not in this world or any of the others, and Marcius regarded the symbol of his house with indifference. However, it appeared on one other important object - a ring he wore on his finger. He did this not to honor his ancestors, but because such was the religious tradition of Tulona.
  He stopped by the house. Many generations of Lauons had lived within these walls - felt happiness, pride, won great victories, told legends about them. But Marcius put it to a different use. He didn't feel worthy of such luxury, even though it was his by right. Instead, he turned it into a shelter for children whose parents, just like his own, had died in battle. He kept only a couple of rooms for himself in the rear end of the house and always used the back door, crossing paths with neither staff nor inhabitants. He felt more at peace in the small, isolated space, separate from the rest of the world.
  He was eager to be alone, but he saw that it would have to wait. On the doorstep sat his friend Karii, dozing in the shadows.
  Karii was his only friend in the whole wide world. For reasons unknown, he remained incredibly loyal, ignoring any rumors and gossip that surrounded Marius.
  For several moments Marcius stood and looked at his friend in silence, in no rush to rouse him, trying to guess what he'd been up to during his absence. Karii was dressed in everyday clothes, disheveled and slightly paler than usual. On his cheek a healing gash was still visible, left over from their last mission. Marcius hid a smile - Karii had tons of friends and hobbies as well as a girlfriend, and yet here he was, sitting at his doorstep, waiting faithfully, while the rest of the city relished in the last night of the holiday.
  Marcius tapped his shoulder.
  Karii came to, startled at first, but soon recognized the tall figure rising above him as Marius, greeting him with a wide and genuine smile. He stood up briskly, hugged him and then in turn rebuked:
  "Marcius, you devil! Everyone's been back for such a long time now, and where have you been?"
  Marcius shrugged, putting his face to the sensor on the door so that it could read his retina. But before he could finish the activation, he felt his friend pull him back.
  "No no, today you're having dinner with us!" he said firmly.
  Marcius cast him a tired look and feebly shook his head.
  'Let's go! Gayla is finishing up earlier, and they've brought in some fresh seaweed from the fields! Come on!"
  For Marcius, the idea of running into Gayla, Karii's girlfriend, was not at all appealing. She disliked him quite openly, but he couldn't disappoint his friend with a refusal.
  "Okay, but only for a bit," he timidly replied.
  "We'll just pick her up from work, and then head over to my place!"
  Gayla worked as an overseer in the observatory, in the department of external cosmic influence. She'd felt useless for a long time now, since there were no changes at all from day to day. For a long time now everything had been excruciatingly stable, and even though technically this was the goal, Gayla felt oppressed by such hyper-structured well being. It goes without saying that if any of the neighboring worlds were to impinge unto the Tulonian channels of information, or say, tried to unlawfully enter the space surrounding the planet, Gayla would be the first to know. If a meteor were to approach their world, it would be her duty to immediately let everyone know. On top of that, she also had to report any changes in the activity of the main star of the Seven Worlds. But for three years now, from the moment she had taken up this post, nothing had happened. Many made fun of her and joked that this was due to her stern and watchful eye, but Gayla did not lose vigilance and continued to do her job accurately and responsibly - after all, these were the very traits that landed her the job in the first place.
  When the two pilots passed through the protective shield of her laboratory, she didn't even turn, so as not to get distracted from the images on her screens.
  "Wait by the entrance" she said sternly.
  But neither Marcius nor Karii heeded her request. A screen display of potentially dangerous asteroids had already captured Marcius' attention. He'd encountered several of them in real life, and on some he'd even landed his ship. On the screen, however, they looked completely different.
  Like many others, this observatory was powered by Tulona's magnetic field, and for this reason many of its devices were made of magnetized liquid metals.
  Marcius' wandering gaze fixated upon the most important thing amidst the seven worlds - quite rightfully, this was Onyx. It shone bright and merciless, scorching like a flame. It was a regular red dwarf, the most common type of star in their galaxy, but labeled as "main object" on the screen, it seemed extraordinary, as if there were no others like it in the whole entire universe.
  Gayla turned to face Marius and Karii, and immediately froze. The alarm signal went off. The monitors started to melt apart, the space of the room got distorted. Some of the wall barriers cracked and crashed to the floor with a clatter, wounding several people. The shiny smooth surface of the walls rippled and boiled over, and the liquid amalgam lining of the ceiling swirled around in a spiral and burst forth in thin needles. The sensors and devices surrounding Gayla went haywire. The liquid in the magnetic meters climbed up the columns. The one closest to her burst from the pressure, staining her shoes. Her frightened screams were mixed in with the metallic buzz of malfunction. Rushing over to the panel of direct contact, deafened by the sudden onset of otherworldly ringing, he discovered, much to her horror, that she was unable to reach headquarters
  "It's coming from outside - it's an attack!" She said decisively, having analyzed the readings on the screen, and pushed Marcius towards the exit.
  Gayla realized that if she couldn't transmit the message herself, then Marcius was the only one present that could make a run to headquarters in person and relay what had happened. He still had direct access, even after being degraded. Marcius ran out onto the street. He was met with glitches all around. The lanes lined up along the lines of the magnetic field had collapsed. The citizens' flying capsules were swept up by the chaos. Some collided in midair and fell into the icy lake below, and the multilayer overpasses mixed among themselves. It was as if an enormous magnet hung over their city, massive enough to overthrow the structure of Tulona's magnetic field.
  It was useless to try and take the capsule, so Marcius ran on foot, jumping from bridge to bridge, heading towards the base of the tower of Council.
  The main headquarters were located in a white building shaped like a slanted cube, raised above the city by three giant spikes. It was the most elevated point of their world. Only the emergency elevators remained functional - they were powered by hydraulics, not magnetism. The others stood motionless with people trapped inside. Marcius traced his finger along the shiny smooth panel all the way to the top, indicating the direction of movement.
  Having reached the last tier, he ran out into the hall. He kept going past the checkpoint without identifying himself, hearing a string of intergalactic swear words behind him as well as some gunshots. But he didn't stop, he only ran faster. Security had recognized him - otherwise he would have been dead. He stopped at the end of the hall.
  He threw the door wide open and immediately came face to face with all eleven members of the council. The round table spiraled down in steps, going from member to member. Marcius' rightful place, the twelfth one, was still empty. General Indro, the gray-haired ruler of their world, stood behind the top step of the table. Across from him lay a communication device, now rendered completely useless. He looked worried, and his eyes betrayed a lack of understanding. Was the malfunction a result of internal glitches in the city's systems or was this an attack? This was the main question on everyone's mind.
  "The force is coming from outside!" Marcius yelled, not waiting for permission to speak.
  Indro dropped his head, sharply and with disdain. The thought of yet another war was too much for him to bear.
   "Raise all defenses to the maximum!" he barked.
  Not wasting any time, he activated the table. It instantly transformed into a cascade of control panels.
  The council members directed the whole army to the external border, closed off all exposed water and fields, hid zones with cities and provinces under invisible electric domes, setting them to the highest pressure. All the residential areas were transferred into night mode in an effort to save energy and lower the chances of being detected. Neither one of the two satellites could be reached. Kata and Aiax were silent.
  They spent several minutes in complete silence, watching. All of a sudden the impulsator on Indro's table came to life, which was the main mode of communication in the underground world. Like a chain reaction, signals started coming in all along the table, to the other impulsators.
  "The connection's back!" Marcius exclaimed.
  "Yes", the general confirmed sternly, accepting the signal.
  Gayla's face, illuminated by blue beams, appeared above the surface of the table. She expertly hid her worry, speaking calmly and clearly, as was her manner.
  "We have been rushed by an immensely strong magnetic wind. The magnetic field of our planet was unable to withstand it and let it through. For a time, the magnetic poles and lines of power were disturbed."
  "Have you identified the source of the turbulence?" Indro asked.
  Gayla paused.
  "Who??" yelled Indro.
  "We haven't identified the source of the turbulence. Nothing of this sort has ever happened in the history of our city, but we're working on it," she said, justifying herself.
  Indro threw the impulsator off to the side and collapsed in his chair, exasperated. Of course the primary suspects were the Krameans, their main enemy. Silence ensued at the table. No one wanted war.
  "The magnetic shields at the orbits are up and running again," reported one of the generals. "What will you have us do, sir?"
  "Keep all defenses up on maximum until we can get to the bottom of this," General Indro commanded.
  "That will come at a great cost," another general warned him, referring to the consumption of energy.
  "The lives of my citizens are more important," Indro said reproachfully. "Everyone's free to go!"
  The room quickly emptied. Marcius turned his back to Indro and took a couple of steps towards the exit when the general called after him:
  "Everyone except for you."
  Marcius turned and looked at him apologetically. For many months now he'd carefully avoided the ruler, but this time he wasn't getting out of it.
   Come closer," he said, softer this time.
  Marcius came up to the table, coming to a stop across from him. He could barely look him in the eyes. Just as before, he was petrified by an overwhelming sense of shame.
  "How are you doing?" Indro asked.
  Marcius gave a deep sigh.
  The general was still kind to him, even though he didn't deserve it. Several years ago, Marcius committed a serious transgression, and ever since then has not been able to justify himself. He'd stolen a spacecraft and wanted to fly off in search of his cherished world, the one he'd seen in his visions, but he was stopped, punished, and afterwards degraded to the rank of a common pilot. Since the death of Marcius' parents, Indro's family had brought him up as one of their own, up until he reached adulthood. Only his connection to general Indro had saved him from being exiled into satellite prison on Aiax.
  "Are you still haunted by your visions?" the general quietly asked.
  "No," Marius replied dryly, lowering his eyes to the floor.
  The ruler smiled deviously.
  "You always lower your eyes when you lie. So they're still with you," he concluded.
  "I know the lengths you went to in order to try and help me," muttered Marius, quietly and stiffly. "But it was all in vain, I'm sorry. The visions come to me daily. They've only gotten stronger - more bright and colourful."
  "I'd like to admit," declared the general with unexpected straightforwardness, "I'd really want for your visions to be an actual world and not a figment of your imagination. For if they are to be trusted, this world of yours is perfectly suited for humans."
  "Perfectly," Marcius repeated after him.
  "But there's nothing to suggest that it's real," said the general with a shrug.
  "Yes, I have no proof, but I feel it," said Marcius, "It's hard for me to explain, but I just know!"
  "It would be very useful for us if it were true. The cities are getting older, the systems are crumbling, the development of the planet is coming along too slowly, and your world would be just the thing. But I can't just let you blindly wander off into the unknown," said the general.
  Marcius' whole demeanor wilted. "If only there was proof," he thought.
  "It's probably very far away, seeing as we've already explored all the nearby systems, and none of them are suitable for us," Marcius suggested. "If only you'd send me off to search," he pleaded.
  "I can't send you on a search, but I'll have to send you off elsewhere" said the general. There's fantasy, and then there are problems of vital importance. What happened today is clearly the work of our enemies.
  "Where are you sending me?" asked Marcius.
  "If we can't determine the cause of the malfunction ourselves, then our agents will help us. I'll send people to the stations and to other worlds. You'll be dealing with one of our most difficult contacts. It's your chance to redeem yourself. If you manage, then I'll reestablish you in the Council."
  Marcius was paying close attention. He did want to receive a second chance and return to the Council. Indro continued:
  "There is a person that can tell us who attacked us today. He is an old man named Iza. He is a spy, a runaway criminal from Iona. He's been with us for a long time. Have you heard of him?"
  Marcius was taken aback by the question. Old man Iza was famous - all the military on Tulona knew who he was. He was wanted on all seven planets.
  "I've heard of him," Marcius replied.
  "Then you probably know how hard he is to find." 
  Marcius nodded. The general continued.
  "Ionian forces have located him on Girius, and asked for our help to catch him. Your job is not only to find him, but to turn him in. The old man betrayed Tulona! We found out that he was selling sensitive information to the Krameans."
  Marcius was filled with anger towards the old man. Anyone that collaborated with the Krameans was a personal enemy of his.
  The general noticed the blood rushing to his face and smiled.
  "Don't forget to find out the identity of the attacker, and then eliminate the criminal yourself or give him up to the Ionians. If they find him first, then ask for a chance to speak with him. For that we've already been granted permission."
  Marcius made sure to remember everything. On Iona, the old man had been sentenced to death. One way or another, death awaited him.
  "I won't let you down," he replied.
  "You and your partner are flying out tomorrow at dawn. Headquarters will provide you with any additional information," Indro commanded, and waved his hand towards the door.
  Marcius bowed and left. By partner Indro was referring to Karii, but he didn't bother to remember the name. Karii wasn't a member of the ruling dynasties and so was of no interest to the general. Nonetheless, ever since childhood, it was Karii that was Marius was always paired up with, and together they had already completed more than one hundred missions. Karii's parents were also in the military, although not part of the elite. It made no difference, really - the main thing was that they were alive and loved him.
  As soon as Marcius left the general, he headed in the direction of the observatory, knowing that his friend would not have left Gayla all by herself in such a difficult time. All around him he could see traces of the recent malfunction. In pitch darkness, the citizens were collecting fragments of capsules from the streets and fishing them out of the lake. The capsules were structured in a very particular way. A round core on the inside could fit either two or four people, and on the outside it was coated with a thick layer of ferromagnetic liquid, held flush to the core by magnetic forces. When the capsules were still they looked like a glittering silver orb, and when moving - like a drop of liquid. Broken ones looked like a pile of scrap metal in a puddle of mercury, as was the case for most on this particular evening. People collected the ferromagnetic liquid into containers, lighting their way with rays of white light. The city remained in a state of emergency - a wise decision, since no one knew if the strange force was to return.
  Karii stood solemnly by the door. Seeing Marius, he cheered up, but nonetheless started off with a complaint:
  "She kicked me out!"
  "Don't bother her now, her career is hanging by a thread," said Marcius.
  "Did Indro say anything about her?" his friend asked anxiously.
  "No - but you know what happens to those that disappoint him," Marcius replied, and then added," Come on, we need to get a good night's sleep. We leave tomorrow at dawn!"
  "We got assigned a mission?" Karii asked cautiously.
  "Yes, and not just any mission! But all that tomorrow. Now - sleep!"
  Not wasting any more energy or words, they both went home. Ari was all stirred up and excited that night, and few could sleep, but Marcius was no stranger to such conditions. He was used to stress and could make himself fall asleep in any situation. The magnetic attack did not seem any worse than any previous one - on the contrary, it was even elegant in its own way. The enemy's weapons continued to evolve, forcing everyone to tread the difficult and inhumane path of progress.
  
  The planet Krama. Several hours later.
  
  Krama at this time of year was overwhelmingly hot. Only a little more and it would seem like the hollow pyramid, that was the main dome of the city, was to crack from the dryness and crumble down onto the millions of townspeople below, but no - the rock was used to such high temperatures and could withstand for many seasons more.
  An old Kramean woman sat in the middle of a temple, her eyes never leaving the reflective orb in front of her. With a blue hood over her head, hunched over and perfectly still, she looked exceptionally focused. The bright red sky was refracted by the pyramid, and its light was cast onto the woman. She squinted, but continued to look. Even the black lizards crawling at the top, their paws tapping along the glass, were unable to break her concentration. Marcius was already close to the solution, and this caused her to rejoice. She watched him with great pleasure.
  She ran a withered old hand down the smooth surface, fishing out any news regarding the talented Tulonian. The description of his latest visions entranced her. The faraway world presented itself to him even more beautifully, so fully and clearly that she trembled with emotion.
  "Tatida!" She heard her pupil calling her.
  "Quiet," she whispered, still glued to the scene in front of her. "Just look at him! What do you think?"
  She beckoned Atla to come over, giving her a clear view of their hero's face, his eyes and his smile.
  Her headpiece swaying side to side, the girl looked into the crystal and froze. Marcius had indeed grown up. He had the same white locks and snowy skin, but the cheekbones, the brows, the lines of his face had transformed and strengthened. He reminded of a sculpture, seemed hard like ice, was tall, but well-proportioned. The long fingers, strong wrists, raised veins protruding through the skin, shoulders and musculature - everything was now perfect.
  Tatida watched with enjoyment as her pupil grew more and more captivated by the Tulonian warrior. She nodded her head approvingly, quietly thinking something over. She read the delighted thoughts of the girl, and with a smile caught every glance she cast in his direction.
  "How is it possible to possess such strength and beauty and to be so unhappy and unsure of yourself?" Atla would say with exasperation, coming closer to the image of his eyes. There wasn't anyone quite as beautiful in their city, or quite as talented. Had he been born in their city with such extraordinary abilities, he would have lived like a king.
  Marcius' blue eyes did indeed radiate a sort of sadness. He was lost and unhappy, which made the Kramean priestess all the more eager to help him open up and rise above himself.
  "He'll be with us very soon, the time has come!" the old woman said with confidence, hugging her pupil by the shoulders.
  
  Chapter 2. The Fateful Meeting
  Tulona, the next morning.
  Marcius's capsule was ready for takeoff and stood at the start line. He was walking towards it along the spacious white field of the aerodrome, Karii by his side, waiting for the arrival of the instructor. This is how it was every time. They were always debriefed about the mission last minute, just before takeoff. A member of the secret service was already walking up to meet them. They all looked the same - stern, in silver uniform and completely expressionless. The agent briefly activated the dome around them. The pilots were transported out of the vast field of the aerodrome into a white spherical room fit for three. The dome cut them off from the already isolated world.
  The instructor spoke quietly, calmly and clearly:
  "You are flying to Girius. The space fair was the last place where old man Iza was seen. Remember - Iza is a criminal, a spy of the highest degree. According to our sources, he is armed. You will need four crates of diamond dust for negotiation, which are located under the control panel."
  Diamond dust was a universal currency in the Seven Worlds. It could buy you any product. Usually it was compressed into small tablets or weights. The amount at hand was immeasurably high. Marcius and Karii exchanged a worried glance. It was dangerous to even transport it.
  "The old man doesn't know that we are collaborating with Iona and will think that you're merely looking for information about the magnetic attack. Most likely, he will contact you first and ask for compensation for his work, which we have provided you with, but only so that he doesn't doubt your ability to pay. Having received the necessary information, you must immobilize him and hand him over to the Ionians. The diamond dust must return to headquarters. If he resists, you can shoot to kill. The Ionians will accept him dead or alive."
  "In your bags you will find weapons and explosives. Marcius will be the one in charge. Try to complete the mission without uncalled for witnesses and casualties" said the instructor and pointed to two flat backpacks.
  "Here's a copy of him," added the instructor and handed them a small statuette.
  Marcius took the figure and squeezed it between his fingers, transforming it into a life-size model of the old man.
  "So that's what he looks like," he thought.
  And indeed, in front of them stood an old man. The nickname wasn't just for show. He was hutched over, skinny, short, wrinkly, in a long hooded robe. His features were distinctly Ionian. Stealth and cunning came through even in the 3D model.
  Marcius and Karii put on their lenses, using them to record the image.
  "Don't forget to get a testimony about who specifically attacked us yesterday!" repeated the instructor.
  Marcius nodded, so did Karii. The instructor took down the dome and left them.
  Gently touching off the ground, the capsule broke free of Tulona's gravity and flew out into open space.
  According to the coordinates, Girius soared round the orbit of Yurei, the fifth planet from Onyx, just past the asteroid belt left by the explosion of Oeela. From Tulona's current location, it would take only two Tulonian days to get to Girius, which was a relief.
  Marcius and Karii worked well together. During the flight they let each other take breaks, and at times engaged in lengthy conversations.
  Karii was brushing up on his Ionian, muttering phrases to himself, repeating words over and over, trying to develop the forgotten pronunciation.
  "Trying to make up for lost time?" Asked Marius with a smile.
  "Damn it all to hell! Ionian was always the hardest one for me!" Karii exclaimed, exasperated.
  "Yes, I remember," Marcius laughed.
  "It's not that funny, you could at least help! From now on, speak only Ionian to me for the rest of the flight!" he ordered.
  "Alright," Marcius agreed, switching over to the enemy tongue. He deemed any language other than his own to be an enemy tongue.
  "Did you get your visions yesterday as well?" asked Karii in Ionian, formulating the question as best as he could.
  "Yes," the other replied bluntly.
  "Anything new?" he asked with genuine curiosity.
  Karii loved listening to Marcius' stories, even in a language he could barely understand. He carefully recorded them into a magnetic notebook that he never let out of his sight.
  "Again with the notebook - are you not tired of it?" asked Marcius with a note of frustration in his voice.
  "It's like the two of you are out to get me! Gayla has already thrown it out twice, but I can't stop. I've had it ever since childhood," Karii justified himself.
  "Exactly! No one uses those things anymore!" Marcius smiled.
  "It's something bigger than me. I want to write about you, about me and about everything that happens to us, even if in Ionian!"
  Marcius was silent for a long time. Describing his visions was like baring his soul. And to bare his soul, which had already been thoroughly trampled upon, was not easy for him to do. But he trusted Karii more than anyone else. Only in his eyes he saw a reciprocal interest and a spark that inspired hope. Having calculated their route ahead of time so as not to get distracted, he started his story, caught up in a wave of emotion.  
  "I've already told you what's been happening in the realm of my visions lately. They're evolving again. Instead of abstractions and colorful splotches I'm starting to see outlines that are quite distinct. The images still appear quite suddenly. The brightest of all are a species of tall green beings. I hear them rustling, feel a variety of smells. There's lots of greenery all around. I'm walking barefoot along a carpet of green, and it's tickling my feet. Looking up, I see a vast open space of a radiant blue, with asymmetrical white splotches scattered all around. They're moving over me, changing shape in the most peculiar manner. It all feels clean and exotic. It gets easy to breathe. I hear people's voices, their laughter, a foreign dialect. Yesterday I noticed a boy there. He got lost among the green creatures. I saw him so clearly that I would've recognized him had I met him in real life, but he didn't notice me. Afterwards, I saw their night sky, full of depth and clarity. Their stars are completely different - different constellations, different shades.
  Marcius finished his story and looked away.
  Karii carefully wrote everything down, turned off the notebook and hung it on his wrist. It was a cylinder about the same size as his pinky, filled with ferromagnetic liquid. It contained within itself their whole life story, starting from childhood. Karii always wore it as a bracelet. A single touch of a finger to the center was enough to make the bottom come apart and spill forth a shapeless gummy substance, which immediately turned into a hard, perfectly shaped circular foil. The Tulonians read and wrote in a circle, the letters spiraling in towards the center.
  Karii could write the words down, could dictate them with his voice, could visually capture his surroundings. He could even mold the plastic material like a sculptor, could draw on it, could make an imprint of his own face, and it would remember everything. He'd been recording handprints every day since the age of ten, keeping a record of his own development. Periodically he would bother Marcius with this, recording his hands as well for amusement. He liked to take pictures of them - the shiny surface remembered everything that was reflected in it. Having finished its work, the substance gathered into a droplet and returned into its burrow, like an obedient little creature.
  "You haven't told me as much today," said Karii, slightly disappointed.
  He tried to recreate the scene his friend had described in his mind, but no matter how hard he tried, the world proposed was too outlandish, and Karii couldn't stretch his imagination far enough to guess what Marcius had experienced.
  "It's too bad you don't draw," he said. "Otherwise you would have been able to depict what you have seen."
  "It really is too bad," said Marcius.
  Seeing the sorrow in his eyes, his friend asked:
  "Do you really believe that that this world exists?"
  "It exists. I know for sure. It's there, somewhere far beyond the borders of the Seven Worlds. I feel it!" Marcius replied, with not even a shadow of doubt.
  "One more day until arrival," Karii calculated.
  "Did the forecast predict magnetic storms in the Square of the Stingray?" Marcius asked.
  "They'll be gone long before we get there."
  Marcius nodded.
  The route to Girius was well-known and did not present any difficulties. The capsule reached its destination at the designated time. Girius was a space station in orbit around Yurei. Its magnetic field protected it against Onyx's radioactive rays and against cosmic winds. Only recently this area of space belonged to the Oeelians, but after the destruction of their world it got occupied by vagabonds.
  The station consisted of two giant metal spheres connected by thin corridors. The bigger sphere was used as a dock where arriving travelers left their vessels. They would then walk down the corridors into the trade district, which was located in the smaller sphere.
  Without losing any ferromagnetic liquid, they managed to enter the dock through the gate at the bottom of the sphere.
  Girius' dock was uniquely equipped to house any type of spacecraft from across the Seven Worlds. The sphere was hollow, and its interior was divided up into sectors. Having pulled his capsule into the Tulonian division, Marcius and Karii ventured out. They were fully equipped. Karii carried on his shoulders the flat grey backpack filled with explosives. Just a single touch to the panel on his belt would send everything flying into the air. Marcius carried the diamond dust in a similar bag, and had a magnetic beam fastened at his hip.
  Marcius was overjoyed to have it back. The beam had three settings - it could cut like a sword, could stretch out and bend like a lasso and could also shoot.
  The staging post was full of wanderers and traders alike, since it was wide open to all. In a nutshell, this was its main and only advantage. Such vulnerability was rare in the Seven Worlds. Everything everywhere was usually locked up tight, but here - unbelievable! No security whatsoever.
  It was no easy task to locate in this conglomerate mass a person who was most likely hiding both their face and their name. The only solution was perhaps to start asking around in the crowd, but there was still a chance that Iza would make himself known.
  Staying close together, the two young men walked towards the technical division of the market.
  "Try to act more natural," Marius whispered to Karii, who was rigid and tense.
  Stealing glances at the salespeople as they passed by, they kept moving. As always, the stands were piled high with recycled robots from Iona. Many of them were forbidden. This was just the place to look for a distributor of dangerous systems, but not one of the salespeople examined fit the description.
  "If anything, we'll come back later, but for now, let's go upstairs," Marcius decided. They headed towards the top.
  The top division was more pleasant to be in. Unlike the soulless robots below, this space was full of life and greenery. The pavilion was bright and spacious. An endlessly long row curled in a spiral towards the center, ending off just as it started - with an elevator leading to other levels. All the counters and stands were woven out of a clear fiber. The vendors showed off their animals, plants, seeds, ready to eat food items and water. Each fair, the Murians always had some new wonder to offer - a new type of plant, animal or insect. Their creativity knew no bounds. These masters of genetics transformed the living world in such unimaginable ways that at times it was even frightening.
  Marcius stopped for a minute, captivated by the sight of a new animal with two enormous identical heads on opposite ends of its body and with one leg in the middle. In no way could he guess which types of already existing animals were mixed together in this beast, and for what purpose it was created.
  "Careful!" Karii called out to him, pointing at something on the ground.
  Marcius warily looked down and saw that a polyp was trying to free itself from under his shoe. He hurriedly step off, muttering an awkward apology.
  "Let's get out of here!" he ordered.
  The Tulonians picked up their pace.
  Krameans and Pacifians dominated the second last level. A reddish glow permeated the pavilion, which contained many shiny reflective objects and surfaces. The Krameans sold stones and crystals, and the Pacifians - fabric and jewelry. The shoppers strolling among the rows were mostly female, so Marcius and Karii looked a bit out of place. It was easy to identify Kramean women, even from the back. On their shoulders inevitably sat a genie. This creature, created on Krama, was in style on their planet. It was essentially a ball of light energy venturing forth from a crystal, and it was able to carry out all sorts of errands. It was a personal helper of sorts. It could act as a translator, a friend, a daily planner, even a means of communication.
  Unsurprisingly, the old man was nowhere to be found. The only thing left was to check the gallery upstairs, and then turn to plan B - that is, start questioning the people that passed by.
  The gallery was under a dome made out of material so clear it was virtually invisible, creating a distinct illusion of being out in open space. It took some getting used to, and not everyone could feel at ease in such a state. Only people who were truly open, unchained by fear and judgment, were able to find peace. There were no crowds on this level. Only true lovers of beauty made it this far.
  Marcius sat down in a floating chair, hanging in midair nearby without any support. For a moment, he relaxed. Everything around was white - his favorite color. He enjoyed being here. He even allowed himself to momentarily forget the elusive old man.
  More or less all the world were gathered here. The circular perimeter of the pavilion was lined with Tulonian sculptures carved from a natural stone found in their world alone. This stone glowed and emanated water. It was considered sacred on Tulona as well as all the other worlds. Hard sculptures alternated with soft, plastic ones. With a magnetic field, the Tulonians transformed a giant droplet of ferromagnetic liquid into a work of art. It was alive and fluid, every moment morphing into something new.
  The Krameans displayed their best crystals. All their artwork was based on their ability to visualize thoughts. You had only to think of a face or an event in your mind and the crystals would reflect them back to you. They were incredibly versatile - receptive not only to the thoughts of Krameans, but also to those of visitors unfamiliar with the art-form. Anyone could become an artist. The clearer the thoughts, the more beautiful the images they produced. Marcius didn't dare approach the crystals. Their beauty was tempting, but the Krameans were his sworn enemies, and any object carrying the energy of their world was off limits for him.
  "What if our spy is a lover of fine art?" Karii continued his surveillance, sizing up every person entering the pavilion.
  "I wouldn't be surprised," replied Marcius," Anyone with a brain as sophisticated as his requires some sustenance from time to time."
  The Tulonians continued to examine the exhibits.
  The Murians displayed masterpieces of the living world: flowers, wings, corals. All their art was alive and moving.
  The Pacifians displayed their theatre, which being by far the most popular, attracted the most attention. They put on a show with live actors, something no one else dared to do. Their stage hung in the middle of the pavilion - a silver hemisphere rocking gently side to side. It faced the seats and was brightly lit up from within.
  Today's show was unusual, captivating at first glance. The set was unlike any other. Marcius was shocked, not sure if the others saw what he saw, or if he was experiencing a sudden onset of his visions.
  The world depicted by the Pacifians was remarkably akin to the one he saw in his visions. The coincidence was too unlikely. This could only happen if someone had seen the same visions that he had, or otherwise had actually been in that world.
  "Karii," said Marcius, his voice cracking, "Remember how you were saying it's too bad I can't draw you the world of my visions?"
  "Yes," his friend replied thoughtfully.
  "Well, it looks like someone's already done it for me," he said, pointing to the center of the silver stage.
  His friend froze. For several moments, they watched the play in silence, catching every detail. The show was in Pacifian, but few words being said - the main action was based on the visuals. The story was about the space travels of a young man. It was a fantastic tale that drew you in not so much with its storyline as with its dynamic on-stage manifestation. Everything was just as Marcius had seen - the waterfalls, the blue sky, the white clouds, a brilliant star in the sky glowing crimson as it set over the horizon, one single silver satellite, the forests, the bright green foliage so vibrant that not even the fertile Murie could compare in terms of color and size. He distinctly recognized an animal with branching antlers, something he'd only ever seen inside his own head. The holograms kept changing, and people scattered among them, shouting, creating images. But all of Marcius' thoughts in that instant were captured by a single question: where did the Pacifians get these images from?
  "We need to look for the old man," whispered Karii, starting to worry that they're losing time.
  Marcius didn't hear him. He eagerly awaited the end of the play with the sole purpose of finding out its author.
  The show was over. The audience was satisfied. The director came out at last, bowed and said a few words in praise of his emperor. The Pacifians were fanatically loyal to their leader, and everything they did was in his name and for him.
  The light inside the stage was shut off and its exterior was covered with a sheet of glass, preparing the set for a different show. The actors descended to the ground and dispersed. The Pacifian introduced as the director came down last. Marcius grabbed this opportunity and ran up to him ahead of anyone else. He was a slender man with classic Pacifian features, a brunet of medium height with slanted eyes. He was quite taken aback by such enthusiasm. Tulonians were never the type to be captivated by theatre, always carrying themselves sternly with an air of arrogance, never displaying any emotions.
  "Are you the author?" asked the Tulonian, slightly out of breath.
  "Yes, that would be me," the Pacifian replied proudly. "I'm also the director."
  "That was the best I've ever seen!" Marcius exclaimed with genuine admiration.
  The man straightened out his shoulders, smiled, and continued to look at him in wonder.
  "What am I hearing?" he grinned at the unexpected complement.
  The director wrung his hands unnaturally, talking in an overplayed voice that concealed his genuine manner. He was in character, that character being himself, and he was openly admiring his own art. He was visibly flattered by the attention, but his restless eyes betrayed that he was in a hurry.
  "Can I have a word with you?" asked Marcius.
  "I've already said everything I had to say in my composition," he replied, not wanting to waste any more time on discussion.
  "I understand, but I won't keep you long," Marcius persisted. "Just one question - what inspired you to create such a world? Why these particular colors and shapes?"
  The director rolled his eyes dramatically.
  "Imagination, what else?" he replied, slightly hurt, getting ready to leave.
  "Hold on a second! Please," Marcius stopped him. "What if I told you that the hologram world you created is real, and not merely imagined?"
  "I'm glad that my art has such an effect, but nonetheless you offend me, as if accusing me of stealing it instead of conjuring it up on my own!" he said, pressing a hand to his chest.
  "No, no, not at all," said Marcius, bewildered, not sure how to get the author talking. "I only want to know - maybe there was something that pushed you to it?"
  The director gave him a stern look and turned away, wanting to leave, but he was held back roughly by Karii.
  The director was at a loss. He'd never had to confront two military Tulonians all at once. He lowered his eyes, as if giving up. Then he cautiously looked at Marcius, then at Karii, and then started to talk.
  "Well alright, I'll admit there was one thing. For the longest time I was in search of a new art form, something fresh and exotic. I bothered other artists, exhausted my colleagues, but for the longest time no one could satisfy my demand. And then just recently, by accident, we went with our theatre to Sirius. Maybe you've heard of it - it's a station like this one, but in much worse condition."
  Marcius nodded.
  "The Krameans brought their crystals there as well, and many people were visualizing their thoughts in them. I'm not a big fan of all that, but I was passing by and was captivated by the memories of this one girl. What she saw was so daring and unusual! Her images were very clear, appearing in colour, which doesn't happen that often. Her talent dazzled me. I used her images in my play."
  "How can we find the girl?" asked Marcius. "Surely you kept in touch?"
  In sync with his question, Karii handed the director a tablet with diamond dust.
  "Worse," said the man curtly, accepting the tablet. "I invited her to work with me. My interest was immediately noticed by her guardian, a sly haggard old man. We made a deal. I took them in, and in return she created for us the world you've just witnessed."
  "So that's to say the girl and her guardian are here right now?" asked Karii.
  "Yes," said the director, and lowering his voice, continued on a bit softer.
  "I don't know where she'd seen that world, but I will say one thing: I'm thoroughly sick and tired of that suspicious couple. My project is done, and I have no further use for the acquaintance. On the contrary, your interest is evident, and if you offer them money and transportation, they'll tell you everything you want to know."
  "Take us to them," Marcius whispered. "We'll do what it takes so that they bother you no more."
  The director looked on, intrigued. He forgot all about his rush. It seems that his dislike for his guests was so great that he was willing to give them up immediately.
  "Let's go," he said decisively and led them towards his ship, talking all the while: "The old man almost never leaves, sends the child to fetch what they need from the ruins. Its obvious they aren't related, seeing as the man is an Ionian, and the girl - an Oeelian.
  Karii and Marcius looked at each other, but didn't interrupt.
  "Yes, yes, a complete redhead, probably one of the last surviving. Their behavior is strange and suspicious. I think they're on the run."
  The director presented this story as yet another performance, flaunting himself, dramatically playing out his role.
  The theatre's ship was anchored at the very bottom of the dock. It was far from new, a little scraped up, but sturdy. It was spherical in shape, with many smaller spheres scattered along its surface like beads. It was clearly Pacifian, Pacifa being the only world where spherical shapes were prevalent. Each small sphere was someone's cabin. The entrance was wide open with no security, which gave away the poverty of the theatre.
  
  They entered through the gateway into the core of the sphere. The space that harbored the stage was currently empty. The rounded walls and floors were evenly riddled with openings that led to the cabins. They were connected by narrow paths.
  "Over here," said the director, pointing them towards one of the burrows, "I won't go with you, now you're on your own."
  Marcius nodded, thanked him and started his descent down the vertical staircase, with Karii following behind. The passage ended with a round door. Marcius knocked on it a couple of times with his foot, but was left waiting - no one rushed to open up. He then got the idea to tap out the rhythm of military truce that was common to all Seven Worlds.
  To his surprise, it worked immediately. There was a click and the door retracted into the wall. From below they were greeted by a pair of brilliant blue eyes. It was the girl, Oeelian in appearance, just like the director described. Her long red curly hair was braided into two thick braids. She looked at them fearlessly and with confidence, with no hint of bashfulness. Marcius smiled his friendliest smile.
  "Hello," he greeted her.
  The girl didn't reply, only gave him a playful wink. There was a wild, intense energy in her eyes, and Marcius couldn't hold her gaze for long.
  The staircase descended automatically, bringing him down to the floor of the cabin. Still facing the child, he jumped down. Karii came down after him.
  Marcius went straight to it:
  "What you created for the play is unforgettably beautiful. We're only here to ask you where you've seen that world? Surely you must have seen it somewhere?"
  Marcius asked the question in Oeelian, but she didn't understand. Then, remembering that her guardian was an Ionian, he translated the question into Ionian as best he could.
  This time, she understood. She smiled and replied, "I don't know, my grandpa showed it to me."
  "Where is he?" asked Marcius.
  He barely finished speaking when he felt a cold object pressing to the back of his head - undoubtedly, an Ionian weapon. Marcius raised up his hands. Karii, standing in front of him, saw his shadow and without turning around, reached for the control panel at his belt.
  "Took you long enough!" The phrase was said in Tulonian with an Ionian accent. "Turn around!"
  Marcius and Karii slowly turned around.
  The girl's guardian was indeed the spy they were looking for. Hiding in a theatre was a genius idea. In fact, this was exactly what the old man was known for - his cleverness and sharpness of wit.
  "Praise be, I won't have to speak Ionian!" Karii exclaimed from behind Marius. "Only the gods know how difficult your language is for me!"
  The stranger grinned at Karii's statement.
  "I have been watching you ever since you landed," he said.
  The old man's appearance matched the description. His eyes glimmered multicolor in the light, just like Iona at different times of day. They dulled, and then lit up again. In those same eyes, surrounded by countless small wrinkles, was a trace of something lively, childish and playful. The outlines of contact lenses were visible in his eyes. They were the kind that afforded nocturnal vision. He wore a long black hooded robe, wrinkled and shabby. Behind him were various round screens showing Girius from different points. The cabin was cramped and filled to the brim with Ionian equipment.
  The girl ran over to him and grabbing onto the folds of his clothing, huddling close to him. The presence of a child beside a criminal and a spy was disorienting. It didn't seem like this guardianship was inspired by feelings of affection, although the child was lively and outgoing, likely even happy. She spoke Ionian fluently, as if it was her native tongue. She had no knowledge of Oeelian, therefore she must have been with the old man from a very young age - he was likely the only one who could tell Marcius the truth about the world that she'd seen.
  "So you were sent to me with an assignment," he confirmed, putting a wrinkled hand around the girl.
  "Yes," said Marcius, a little bewildered. He was taken off guard, not knowing whether to start with his orders from Indro or with his question about the world that the girl had seen, and there was a lot at stake.
  "I didn't expect you to find me," admitted the old man.
  "To be honest, we expected you to find us first," said Marcius.
  "What for? So that you could lead the Ionians onto me?"
  Marcius stood completely still, his fingers numbing with cold. The old man knew that they were in affinity with Iona and wanted him dead.
  "I served Tulona faithfully for many years," started the old man.
  "You also served Krama!" Karii retorted.
  "Yes, everyone who paid well," he smiled.
  Iza kept his gun pointed at Marcius, who couldn't understand why he hesitated to shoot, especially since he knew the real purpose of their visit. The most reasonable course of action would be to shoot them, take their money and run. The old man answered this question himself, as if reading his mind:
  "I would have already shot you by now if not for your partner, who's standing behind you with all those explosives."
  Marcius looked at him carefully. He even knew about the bomb in Karii's bag. It's true, a shot would have triggered an explosion that would've wiped them all out, along with half the theatre.
  "Hold on," said Marcius, "I can see you understand. Yes, we were assigned to kill you or else to hand you over to the Ionians. But everything's changed now, and you're the last person in this universe whom I'd wish to harm."
  The old man narrowed his eyes, not sure where he was going with this.
  "I need to know where your girl saw the world that was recreated in the performance."
  Iza raised his brows in surprise and quickly responded:
  "I won't talk as long as your partner's still here. He must return to your capsule."
  Marcius glanced at Karii. "Go", he said.
  His friend was in shock. "What? You want to stay here by yourself? That's suicide!"
  "I need you to leave right now! That's an order!" Marcius commanded.
  Full of dread, Karii slowly started to go up the stairs. Iza called after him:
  "No funny business, you hear? I have your partner and I can see everything!"
  Marcius was left alone with the old man. He still had his magnetic beam tucked away in his belt, and Iza saw this.
  "Take out your beam," he said, "Put it on the floor and roll it towards me."
  Marcius slowly carried out his order. Iza caught the beam with his foot and picked it up. He looked at the screens, keeping track of Karii, making sure he's back at the capsule.
  "Now we can start talking," he said calmly. "I suggest we go in order. First of all: Tulona needs to know the attacker, and I have a report ready." He took a file out of his pocket and showed it to Marcius, who reached for it, but the old man held it just out of reach.
  "First the money!" he said.
  Marcius took all four cubes out of his bag and gave them to him.
  "A generous payment, your general won't regret it. The information I'm giving you will change everything!"
  With these worlds the old man handed Marcius the file and continued:
  "Second of all: as I understand, you have a personal question."
  Marcius nodded and repeated himself:
  "Where has your girl seen the world that was shown in the play?"
  The old man paused, thinking, stepped from one foot to the other, his brow furled in concentration, and answered with a question of his own:
  "In other words, you're asking me to provide you with more information, yes?"
  "Yes!" Marcius exclaimed impatiently.
  "In that case, you should know: Iza never gives anything out for free!"
  Marcius nodded.
  "Do you know what's the most valuable thing in the universe?"
  "What?" he asked, taken aback.
  "Information! And accurate information is twice as expensive! You want to know the truth about where my Lika saw this? Then you better pay up," said the old man with a cunning smile.
  "I'm afraid I have nothing more to offer you," Marcius replied, disappointed.
  "You have quite a nice ring sitting there on your finger," said Iza, squinting in a most unpleasant way.
  Marcius winced. The ring was priceless to him, and parting with it wasn't an option. He found the ring in a secret drawer belonging to his father after his death, and before that the ring belonged to his grandfather, and his father before him. He'd seen it in ancient holographic photographs. The ring had been with the Lauons since time immemorial.
  "This ring means too much to me!" he retorted.
  "It's really up to you. If the ring is more valuable than the information, then leave, and if not, take it off and you will see everything with your own eyes."
  Marcius was faced with an unpleasant decision. Parting with his father's ring meant losing the familial protection he felt upon himself while wearing it, and keeping it meant missing his chance to answer his most burning question. The price was enormous, but the immense power of curiosity drew him to the old man stronger than the gravity of even the largest of planets.
  "I will never forgive myself if I leave right now without getting an answer," Marcius thought.
  With pain in his heart, he ripped off the ring and with a quickly handed it over to the old man.
  Having received what he wanted, Iza carefully examined the metal under a microscope that suddenly appeared before his eye, then shook the ring in the air as if checking its weight, then bit down on it, and finally hid it away in his pocket with a satisfied smile. After which, with an ever-signifying expression on his face, he started to talk:
  "Several years ago I discovered a signal. Due to the nature of my profession I daily come across thousands of signals from different corners of the universe, and this one in particular did not seem to me at first to be any more exceptional than the rest. A weak, barely audible impulse cycling in a loop, requiring a thorough deciphering. It was no simple task, as I had never before encountered such a method of transmission. It was surprisingly primitive, yet genius at the same time. Yet still I was able to get something out of it!
  With these words the old man climbed under his table and pulled a clear file out of a handmade box covered with children's drawings. It looked like a lit up glass cube.
  "Lika likes it. She enjoys the pictures and the music. I put them on for her before bedtime," he said, suspending the cube in midair by one of its corners with a ray of light.
  The girl smiled widely. She came up close to him, anticipating to see her favorite show yet another time.
  A cloud started to from inside the cube. It thickened and grew, stretching like a fabric across all planes. The cube grew in size. Images started to flash across the sides, and were soon followed by music. Marcius had never heard a melody like this. The music was poignant, worrisome, reaching to the depth of his soul. The pictures raced by one after the other like a slide show.
   Marcius looked into each one, overtaken with wonder. He was seeing his visions manifesting in real life. Exotic landscapes gave way to incomprehensible diagrams and numbers; an image of a humble woman with a baby in her lap; a portrait of another woman, lonesome and dressed in black, with a mysterious smile; a graphic depiction of a naked man inside a circle, with arms and legs stretched out in all directions; unheard of birds and animals, and again numbers and diagrams.
  In one of the diagrams Marcius recognized human DNA, another resembled the structure of an unknown molecule. Then the images started to repeat, cycling through a second time. Captivated by the powerful music and the clarity of the images, he felt a tear slide down his cheek. Indescribable ecstasy took his breath away.
  "Where did the signal come from?" he asked in a barely audible whisper.
  The old man remained enigmatically silent.
  "There are also people in that world, can't you see?" he asked, excited.
  The old man nodded: "Apparently so."
  "Have you tried to find them?"
  Iza, surprised, asked in all seriousness:
  "What for?"
  Marcius didn't hear him, everything inside him was in turmoil.
  "Where did the signal come from?" he kept on repeating, as if in a trance.
  Iza was about to answer, but all of a sudden cut himself off and said reproachfully:
  "We're surrounded by Ionians."
  His monitors displayed the space around the ship. It was filled with Ionian robots. Marcius counted ten of them. He looked at the old man in alarm.
  "Where did the signal come from?"
  Iza smiled his cunning smile.
  "If the robots get to me, you'll never know! Save me, and you'll receive your answer."
  Marcius stood there, flabbergasted. Failing to give him up to the robots meant going against Indro's orders, but without him he had no idea how to find that world. He quickly weighed his pros and cons. If the old man manages to lead him to the world he so desperately seeks, Tulona would greatly benefit, which might absolve his disobedience of orders. Marcius decided:
  "I'll get you out of here, trust me!"
  Iza agreed.
  "Give me the beam! Let me tie up your hands!"
  The old man handed him his weapon.
  "Now play along!"
  Iza knew what Marius had in mind.
  "Just one second!" he said, pushing a lever in the wall. All of a sudden, all the equipment in the room turned to metallic granules and scattered all around.
  Marcius was shocked and at a loss, not knowing what to say.
  The old man let himself be apprehended and led up the stairs.
  "Lika, follow us!" he ordered the girl.
  Marcius led him out of the theatre carefully, holding the beam to his throat. He dragged him out to the open platform of the dock and let the robots line themselves up around them. Lika pressed herself close to the old man.
  The robots aimed their flying discs at Iza. Even their cold, emotionless faces betrayed a sense of longing and impatience as they looked at him. Catching him was of highest importance to them.
  Ionian robots looked just like humans, but their skin was much more light and sturdy, its texture reminiscent of frosted metal. They could be recognized by their unnatural slenderness and lack of hair. Contrary to appearance, they were very heavy, and wore identical tight-fitting hooded suits with cross-like bags hanging behind their backs.
   "The old man is unarmed and not dangerous. In the name of Tulona, lower your disks!" Marcius ordered.
  The robots lowered their weapons reluctantly, but didn't dare disobey the Tulonian warrior. The deal was going according to instruction.
  Marcius smiled, just about to push the old man in their direction, but instead stealthily activated his beam with a quick motion sent it all along the circle.
  The long shining beam, taking on the shape of a lasso, lashed out along the heads of all ten robots, putting them out of order with its strong electric discharge. The whole bunch fell down, dysfunctional.
  "Run!" he yelled, pulling the old man behind him.
  Iza grabbed Lika up in his arms and jumping over the lifeless bodies, took off after Marcius, who led them towards his capsule. It was already opened up by Karii.
  "We need to get out of here, now!" Marcius yelled.
  Karii couldn't understand what was going on, but he listened to his friend and readied the craft for takeoff. Marcius helped Iza and Lika get into the capsule and shut the doors behind them. Some of the robots had managed to recuperate, and disks started to fly their way. Two of the robots managed to jump onto the capsule, but got caught in the ferromagnetic liquid and slid back down. The capsule shot out of the station.
  "We're being followed!" yelled Karii, seeing two Ionian ships at their tail.
  "I'll knock them down!" said Marcius, and started to aim.
  He let out three shots simultaneously. One of the ships got blown to pieces. The second got hit by a fragment of the first, started to spin and lost momentum. Karii turned up the acceleration, approaching the speed of light. They vanished out view, leaving the Ionians behind, attaining freedom.
  Karii gave Marcius a questioning look, then glanced over at the old man and the girl sitting in the back, then back at Marcius again.
  "And now explain what all of this is supposed to mean!" he exclaimed.
  Marcius quickly told him about the signal and what he saw, adding at the end:
  "Iza is too important, I couldn't give him up. He knows the coordinates of the world that I see. This is important for Indro as well. We must take him to Tulona."
  The old man overheard this conversation and jumped in:
  "That wasn't part of the deal! We agreed that I will tell you the coordinates and you'll let me go!"
  Marcius gave him a stern look.
  "I never said I'd let you go. I said I won't hand you over to the Ionians."
  "Taking me to Tulona is the same as handing me over! Your general has a deal with them! You're going against your word!" the old man pressed on.
  Marcius remained silent.
  "Then where should we take you?"
  "To Sirius!" ordered the old man. "As soon as we're there you'll get your answer."
  Karii could take no more and intervened.
  "Marcius!" he retorted. "Come to your senses! Indro will never let us live this down!"
  Marcius looked back at the old man.
  "I can only take you to Tulona."
  The old man smiled, arranging his face into an understanding expression. He nodded mysteriously, looked over at Lika, patted her on the head and said:
  "Red little beam, a lengthy slumber!"
  The girl smiled in return. Marcius didn't know what this meant, looking at the girl. She was carefree, her eyes hypnotizing as she slowly unbraided her right braid, which concealed an ampule. She squeezed it with her fingers, letting out a red gas that immediately spread throughout the capsule.
  Marcius reached his hand out towards her hair to stop her, but all of a sudden, he was overtaken by convulsions. He collapsed to the floor, and Karii followed his suit. Everything started to swim before their eyes. As if through a fog, Marcius saw the old man pull them back from the controls and position himself in front of them instead. The girl stood beside him, laughing and talking quietly. The two of them were immune to the gas, which meant they had taken an antidote beforehand. The old man lived up to his reputation.
  The following day
  Marcius awoke still inside the capsule. Karii lay close by, his eyes closed. They were chaotically tumbling through open space. The old man and the girl were nowhere to be found.
  "Karii!" he shook his friend. "Wake up!"
  Karii slowly came to.
  "Where are they?" he asked in a raspy voice.
  "I don't know," said Marcius.
  "And where are we?"
  "No idea."
  Marcius crawled up to the monitor. He had a terrible headache, blood pulsing in his temples. The radars showed that they were close to Guinea. A hologram was left on the panel with the following text:
  "The signal came from square number twelve of our galaxy. That's all I was able to establish. Don't try to find me. And don't try to find that world either."
  Marcius read the text. The information was insufficient. There were millions of planets in the twelfth segment of their galaxy. Even if he could live a hundred lifetimes, he'd still be unable to search them all. But now at least he knew the general direction.
  "It's in the other end of the galaxy," he told Karii.
  "Our capsule??" asked his friend in shock, collapsing into a chair.
  "No, that planet!" Marcius replied.
  "You should think instead of how we'll get home," Karii grumbled.
  That's the last thing Marcius wanted to think about. He failed the mission, lost the money, broke his deal with Indro and let the old man get away.
  "We might end up in jail," said Karii darkly, guessing what his friend was thinking about.
  "I, not we," Marcius replied.
  "You need to tell Indro everything that's happened. Tell him that you found a signal that came from another world of humans! Explain to him that these were extraordinary circumstances and you couldn't give the old man up to the Ionians."
  "I have no proof, they'll never believe me. But that's not the point - I had no right to disobey my instructions."
  "If only the old man hadn't escaped, we would have somehow managed," said Karii with disdain."
  "If he hadn't, then yes. But now it's all over for me," Marcius sighed.
  "We also shot down the Ionian patrol ship," Karii reminded him.
  "I, not we," Marcius corrected him again.
  Karii was silent.
  "Karii," Marcius started, "Listen to me. You have a flawless reputation and you still have a future on Tulona. You can still make a career for yourself. You have your parents and you have Gayla. But me - everyone already thinks I'm crazy. Let me take full responsibility for what happened."
  "What do you have in mind?" Karii asked cautiously.
  Marcius stretched out his hands.
  "Tie me up, take me to Tulona as a prisoner. Tell them you disagreed with my decision and you drove the capsule from Girius because I threatened you."
  "No!" Karii exclaimed.
  "Indro's like family to me, I'll manage somehow!" begged Marcius.
  Karii wasn't buying it. "He won't let you off so easy this time!"
  "Yes he will!" Marcius insisted.
  Karii turned the capsule in the direction of Tulona. It took its course, and they spent three days in transit, anxiously awaiting what came next.
  Everyone at home was already waiting for them, ready for their arrest. The Ionians had evidence against them - everything that happened on Girius was recorded and sent to headquarters.
  The capsule was stopped at the gateway and they were ordered to get out. Karii led Marcius out, holding the beam to his throat, just like they agreed. Marcius' hands were bound.
  "I am Karii Ougas, I have delivered to Tulona my partner, who violated the charter."
  Marcius stood by, slouched over.
  The guards arrested them both. Neither one resisted. For several days they were held in separate cells, being questioned one by one. Their testimonies matched, since they'd rehearsed everything ahead of time. Everything pointed to Karii's innocence, and he was let go after three days, but Marcius was a different story. He was faced with three charges: sabotage, theft of government property and damage to interplanetary technology. Marcius passed along Iza's file for Indro, asked several times for a personal meeting with him, but was declined.
  His case didn't even make it to court - the evidence was so overwhelming that he was found guilty right away. Even though Marcius described everything in detail in his report - how the old man captured the otherworldly signal, and how the images it contained match the ones he saw in his visions, no one payed him any attention. His actions were seen as a violation of instructions and were punishable by exile.
  His week of confinement dragged on forever. He was like a wild animal in a cage, pacing from one side to the next. Just when he'd finally found a lead in his search of the mysterious world, he'd lost his freedom.
  Even in the presence of guards Marcius could not gather his thoughts and could only think of his meeting with the old man. The images never left his mind, and the piercing music kept ceaselessly playing somewhere in the distance. He never thought himself crazy, but now, with his visions confirmed by real solid facts, he was exceptionally certain of his sanity. It was frightening, almost making him wish to go back to the way things were.
  "I truly am seeing a faraway world, full of life, people, feeling and intellect. It exists! But why does it call me? Why can't it let me be? Maybe it needs me? Or maybe I need it? How disappointing that the old man could not say for sure where to find it! My wish to find it does indeed border on insanity. My life seems illusory and meaningless, its only purpose lying somewhere far across the galaxy!"
  On the eighth day they came to get him. The warden read his sentence out to him in private:
  "Marcius Appa Laun, you have been found guilty of crimes against Tulona. You have undermined our authority in the eyes of Iona and enabled a dangerous criminal to escape. You've displayed aggression towards your partner and put your personal interests above those of your leaders. You are sentenced to ten years of confinement. You will be transported to the satellite Aiax. You will have regular sessions with a prison psychiatrist."
  Everything he said was completely true, except perhaps for the part about Marcius having more concern for his own interests than those of Tulona.
  Immediately after his conviction, he was led out of the cell, given a change of clothing and a number and sent on his way to the aerodrome to be taken to Aiax. He walked as if through a haze. Ten years was a number he could barely comprehend - it seemed that all of this was happening to someone else. There was a discernible ringing in his ears.
  Yet there was still one last glimmer of hope. Karii was assigned as pilot to take him to Aiax, which meant he could still have one last word with him. Seeing his friend was like a breath of fresh air after so many days in solitude. He caught his eye and gave him a wink, but Karii met his gaze with indifference, which was surprisingly painful, although the real surprise was Karii being allowed to be here in the first place. Marcius sensed that Indro had something to do with it.
  Giving him a rough shove from behind, the guards loaded Marcius into the capsule, tightly fastening him to the seat, isolating him from the pilot's quarters. They carried this out with stark indifference and disrespect, which Marcius quietly tried to ignore. He felt the capsule take off the ground and soar into the sky. The path to Aiax was only a few minutes long, and very soon he would come face to face with the hostile world of prison, which was to be his home for the next ten years.
  The conditions on Aiax were particularly toxic. It was out in open space, so escape was virtually impossible, and it was hard to last there for ten years. Marcius knew that he was doomed, although not yet able to fully grasp the true horror of his situation.
  The trip should have long been over, but the capsule continued to soar through open space. One hour passed, then another, but still they did not stop, and Marcius started to understand that he's being taken someplace else entirely. He started to yell:
  "Karii! Can you hear me? Where are we?"
  But his friend didn't respond.
  A whole day passed, and they were still going. Marcius was disoriented, and his ignorance drove him mad. What sort of game was this? Where could they be taking him? His friend gave him no hints.
  Finally, they came to a stop. Marcius felt the artificial gravity of the spacecraft shut off and a natural external gravitational field come into play. Judging from the weakness of the pull, the object wasn't too large - the size of maybe a satellite, but definitely not a planet. Marcius started to rack his brain for all locations within a days' travel of Tulona with such a gravity. There weren't too many options - it had to be a satellite of one of the neighboring planets. But what in the world were they doing here?
  Karii opened the cabin and handed him a spacesuit. "Put it on," he said.
  Marcius looked at him, bewildered. The magnets holding him to the chair got deactivated and slowly he pulled on the suit.
  "Let's go!" Karii commanded.
  "Where are we?" asked Marcius.
   Karii didn't reply, taking care to hide his eyes and avoid Marcius' gaze. He heaved a deep sigh, stretched a silver cord out to him and said:
  "We are on the satellite Glo, descending to the bottom of a volcano."
  "Whatever for?" Marcius asked in surprise.
  Glo was Krama's satellite. They were on enemy territory. Their capsule floated above the mouth of a dead volcano, and Marcius had not the slightest clue what this could mean.
  "I'll explain everything when we get down," said Karii. "It's important, trust me!"
  Marcius didn't know what to do, but he trusted his friend. If Karii told him to do this, he must have his reasons. Maybe this was an assignment, maybe something else, but he didn't doubt his friend for a second and did as he was told. He fastened himself to the cable and started to slowly make his way down, expecting Karii to follow. Only a few meters remained off the ground when Marcius looked up and saw that Karii was still standing at the top.
  Noticing that Marcius stopped and was looking up at him, Karii took his beam and cut the chord.
  As Marcius fell, he saw the capsule door snap shut, swallowing up his friend. Leaving him behind, the craft spiraled up and flew off into the unknown. Then his back painfully collided with the exposed rock below. He groaned. The weakness of gravity was the only thing that saved him from imminent death. The ferromagnetic liquid of the severed cord splattered him with cold.
  Out of the corner of his eye, he saw movement to his left. Turning his head, he saw light shining through a crack in the rocks, illuminating the dark silhouettes of Krameans. They were watching him. They did not appear too friendly - narrow suits billowing out bell-shaped at the bottom, headpieces with ominous spikes sticking out in all directions, black lenses obstructing their faces, blinding with a sharp reflective gleam. Squinting, Marcius turned away with a grimace. He hated the Krameans with his whole heart. They were the ones that killed his parents. Why did Karii leave him here with them??
  Still woozy from the fall, Marcius felt strong vibrations accompanied by a frantic screeching. An unpleasant shudder ran through his body. Two hollow pyramids approached him from both sides, closing up upon him upon him like jaws, trapping him in a crystal rhombus. Through the fusing seam, he caught a last glimpse of the night sky, which still harbored a silver trace of his friend's capsule, receding into the distance at the speed of light.
  The last thought that crossed Marcius' mind before he lost consciousness was that this was sooner a terrible nightmare than real life.
  
  Chapter 3. Friend among strangers, stranger among friends
  One hundred and forty minutes later
  White carefree silence, cold and an unusual sense of calm. The pleasant feeling of a deep sleep, the kind you don't want to wake from so as to avoid remembering the nightmare of the day before. Unfortunately for Marcius, his mind awoke sooner than his body. Straining every cell in his body, he tried to open his eyes, but his stubborn eyelids failed to do as they were told, as if held down by the weight of all Seven Worlds all at once. He heard the sound of his own breath, so quiet it seemed to be coming from the other end of the universe. Feeling slowly returned to his legs, along with a sharp sensation of pain. He wanted to scream, but couldn't.
  "Human!" he heard a voice say right into his ear.
  "Human!" he heard it yet again.
  "How strange, no one's ever called me that before. Why is it so strange? Only because I am indeed a human. I wonder who got the bright idea of climbing into my house and rousing me in such a manner?" thought Marcius, quite certain he was in the comfort of his own home.
  "Gayla! It's definitely her. It's a woman's voice. Maybe she's looking for Karii? Maybe something happened?" This phrase continued to loop through his mind like a song stuck on repeat. His brain refused to unite the idea of Karii with the idea that something had happened.
  "Everything's fine, everything's fine!" he repeated to himself over and over, not wanting to remember what had happened. He might have even succeeded in convincing himself that everything was in fact just fine if not for the pesky, persistent voice.
  "Human! Human!" it continued to shout at him.
  Suddenly, Marcius opened his eyes. Too suddenly. He was blinded by a bright light. Everything that happened flashed before his eyes in an instant. Unbearable pain pierced his body and soul alike. The cold feeling of loneliness and fear brought him to a stupor. Looking around, Marcius realized that he's inside of a viscous white cocoon, immobilizing him with contractions of immeasurable strength. His own heartbeat thundered frantically in his ears like a brass hammer.
  "Get yourself together! No need for panic. You're alive, and that's already something considering that your last memory is of a Kramean trap," he thought, trying to regain his bearings.
  "Human!" the voice pressed on.
  Right above his head the fibers of the cocoon started to come apart at the seams, unpleasantly tickling his nose. Gradually the cocoon dissolved completely and scattered to the ground in snowy wisps. Marcius saw he was inside a clear glass cone, all by himself, in the middle of a large hall. But who was shouting?
  He lifted himself up and put a hand to the glass. It was thick and monolithic. He circled all around the cone, but found not a single gap. Exasperated, he hit the glass forcefully with his hand, but the construction was so strong and stable that he didn't even elicit a vibration. He figured he was somewhere on Krama at this point, somewhere inside the giant pyramid.
  From his transparent prison Marcius was able to examine its interior. It was truly enormous, reaching far up into the sky and coming together in a clear glowing vertex that let in the rays of Onyx. The ornamental walls and floor cast their reflections towards his cone.
  Never before had the Tulonian found himself alone in such a large and empty space. He started anxiously examining the writing on the multidimensional surfaces around him. It was in ancient Kramean, which Marcius was unfamiliar with. It was only ever used in rituals.
  The hall started to fill up with Krameans. Without going too far in, they lined up right along the walls. They were dressed in hooded robes, more like priests than soldiers in appearance.
  They merged around him into a perfect square and sung out a strange long sound, after which they collapsed onto their knees, stretching out their long slender hands towards Marcius. This was too much. Marcius couldn't understand what was going on. He was being treated as either a deity or a sacrifice to be presented in praise of the gods. But Krameans don't worship Tulonian warriors; they don't honor them, but kill them coldly and cruelly, usually in battle.
  Marcius stood up straight and tall, crossing his hands across his chest. He was disgusted by what was happening, a feeling that intensified as one of them broke free of the procession started to approach him.
  It was a young woman. She came from the left corner of the square. A dog appeared after her, jumping over the heads of the Kramean ranks. The dog's appearance was surprising, mainly because it was a Murian dog, chimerian in breed. A Murian chimera walking alongside a priestess at the heart of a Kramean temple was truly an unexplainable phenomenon.
  The girl's expensive ornaments put her apart her from the rest - evidently, a symbol of her superior ranking. She walked quickly and with confidence, as if in a hurry to say something. The dog ran along beside her.
  She had an overwhelming air of self-assurance which bordered on arrogance. She held her head and shoulders very straight, her nose and chin slightly elevated and was smiling openly. On Tulona such a smile was considered inappropriate - just as was strong and intensive eye contact. Luckily, her radiance was balanced out by the dog. It was old and its skin was riddled with scars, the largest of which cut straight across its face. It had a slight limp, and unlike its mistress, it was gloomy and cautious.
  The Kramean walked right up to the glass cone and came to a halt.
  The girl was beautiful by Kramean standards: perfectly even dark skin, a symmetrical face with hazel eyes, plump lips and a playfully lifted left brow. Her smooth hair was neatly braided into countless little braids and crowned with a silver glittering headpiece, creating a halo of rays around her head and an appearance of lightness and slenderness. It seemed she had the energy and charisma to captivate whomever she pleased, but Marcius found her whole appearance so alien that he was unable to hide his true emotions.
  The girl looked at Marcius as if she'd known him for a thousand years. Marcius, on the other hand, was tense and on guard. He composed his face into a mask that hid all traces of anxiety, but on the inside he was on fire. The limited space of the cone gave him no chance to move away from her. Clenching his fists, he had to bear the uncomfortable proximity of the Kramean.
  "Welcome," she said with a bow.
  The dog carefully sat down beside her.
  "My name is Atla Tida. I am the daughter of Lan Tida, the head shaman. In the name of my father and my people, we are happy to have you here on our planet!"
  With these words, the others once again bowed down in his direction.
  Marcius could not understand where such a radiant tone was coming from. She addressed him as if he'd come here of his own free will. The priestess tried to be friendly and welcoming, but her efforts came off as forced and overeager, and did not produce the desired effect. Marcius was all too familiar with the deceitful nature of the red world and trusted neither their words nor their smiles. The girl spoke perfect Tulonian, but he answered back in Kramean, if only to avoid tarnishing his mother tongue by speaking it on the enemy planet.
  "My planet handed me over to you?" he asked.
  "Your friend handed you over to us!" she replied.
  Marcius continued to reside in a state of utter confusion.
  "What do you want with me? Why did you bring me here?"
  "We only want to help you achieve your purpose," she said.
  Marcius narrowed his eyes in suspicion and asked:
  "Why do you want that?"
  "Because the fate of our world depends on how quickly and effectively you achieve it," she replied.
  "My purpose and the fate of your world have nothing in common," he said sternly, "And if the fulfillment of my purpose would be to your benefit, I'd rather do nothing at all!"
  "I know you see us as enemies, but-"
  "No," he cut her off, "I don't see you as my enemies, you are my enemies! There is nothing more to discuss!"
  Atla was eager to continue the conversation, but Marcius' disposition was so hostile that she stopped. It's like he constructed an invisible wall around himself. He was completely closed off and so shaken that she decided to leave it. He wasn't going to give her what she wants.
  "From now on you belong to us!" she snapped, turned her back, walked back across the room and out the door. The rest followed her suit. Marcius was left all alone in complete ignorance.
  The temple of the head shaman. Two days later.
  The thing Atla disliked most of all was reporting to her father, especially when that meant admitting her own shortfalls. And that evening her honour called upon her to face up to her failure in front of him. She walked swiftly down the smooth tiles. Her overseer Tatida was now her only hope - the old woman was the only one capable of calming her father's rage. Sounds of drums and horns came from the city square below. They vibrated along the floor, making the girl lose her train of thought. Taking a couple of deep breaths, gathering herself, she stopped in front of the entrance.
  Atla opened the doors with a wave of the hand and entered into the long, towering hall. Her father sat at the other end upon a throne cut like a diamond. The worst part was that he already knew everything ahead of time, seeing as he could read her mind and was stronger than she was. No barriers were powerful enough to keep him out of her head.
  Atla approached the throne and bowed. Her father gave a majestic and proud nod. He was calm and smiled when he saw her. Tatida along with a few other trusted advisers stood behind him, waiting for her arrival.
  Lan was no longer young, but he was still very handsome, with typical Kramean features - dark skin with a golden undertone, large brown eyes, thick eyelashes, a high forehead, a powerful jutting chin and a well-defined jawline. He wore a long priestly robe adorned with precious stones and mystical symbols. Along with Kramean beauty he also embodied their temperament. The shaman was quick-tempered and emotional. Many feared him, as he was capable of wreaking irreparable havoc in a fit of passionate rage.
  "Hello, father," she bowed.
  "Did you manage to get the visions?" he asked her mockingly.
  Atla lowered her eyes apologetically.
  "I see not," said Lan, displeased.
  "We've placed him inside the strongest temple, we've been trying to get to him for two days now using our most powerful crystals, and still nothing!" said the girl in desperation.
  "Are you sure he doesn't know what you are trying to do?" her father asked her sternly. "Maybe he's putting up blocks, resisting?"
  "Yes, he suspects something. His thoughts are clear and easy to see, but I still can't find the key to his visions," Atla admitted with disappointment.
  "And you?" he snapped at Tatida.
  The psychic descended and stood between him and Atla.
  "I tried it all with my own two hands," she said, stretching out her wrinkled old hands in front of her. "You know the power they contain, and yet I was unable!"
  Atla was very surprised - she hadn't even considered that Tatida might have personally attempted to grapple with the visions. She was more disappointed in the failure of the old witch than even her own.
  "He's not letting up at all," said Tatida in annoyance, "He is protected by something overwhelmingly powerful. I have never before encountered such resistance, and I've seen a lot in my day!"
  "I see you're losing it, you old witch!" The shaman retorted, "Lead me to him, and I'll show you how it's done!"
  "Father," said Atla timidly, "Perhaps the universe prevents us from meddling with his mind because we have no right to do so?"
  "Nonsense," the shaman grinned deviously, "This boy is an extension of our collective consciousness. For how many thousands of years now each world is dreaming of turning their planet into a paradise! How many people have perished in backbreaking labour, poisoned by the elements of their own planet! It's been a long time coming, and now he's finally here, and it's completely unsurprising that he's seeing the world we need. The Gods are only using him to enlighten everyone else. And we have the right to take him, since his gift does not belong to him!"
  The shaman was cruel and radical, as always. He had no empathy for anyone and could justify any action by appeal to the greater good.
  "Let's go!" he repeated his order.
  Tatida shook her head, but didn't bother trying to change his mind.
  The shaman was handed a rook - an elongated stone figure that the Krameans used to fly over the city.
  Having seated his daughter along with the psychic, he headed towards the pyramid holding Marcius. Making a few laps around, tuning in to the Tulonian's thoughts, examining his energy and configuration, he soared decidedly towards the top, and that is where he stopped, floating in the air.
  "I'm shocked that this is taking up so much of your time," he scoffed, "Just your typical Tulonian, with not a single higher ability developed! He's not a seer or a shaman, he's a nobody!"
  Tatida closed her eyes with a smile. "What if his powers are hidden in the depths we don't have access to?" she suggested.
  "Do such depths even exist?" asked the shaman doubtfully.
  "Go see for yourself, he's all yours," she said, gesturing at Marcius with her hand.
  The shaman was floating right above the tip of the pyramid, right in line with where Marcius was below. Having aligned himself, he closed his eyes and compressed his skull with invisible hands.
  Marcius continued to sit in his confinement. He could see neither the rook above the pyramid nor the shaman. He only felt a slight tinge of unrest.
  Lan gathered up all his willpower and started the process. Marcius didn't react. His thoughts, feelings and fears were on the surface plain to see, but the visions sat so deep that they evaded the shaman's stealthy grasp.
  "Help me," he said with scorn.
  "You can't do that!" Atla retorted.
  "You'll kill him!" Tatida exclaimed.
  "That's an order!" Lan yelled.
  Atla stood beside her father and took Marcius by the wrists. Tatida put a hand on his chest. They amplified the influence, putting all their powers to work.
  Marcius felt stuffy and lay down.
  He had no idea that he was being torn apart by three of the most powerful sorcerers, but intuitively put up a strong block. He started to pray, although that's not something he usually did. He called upon the help of his brothers the Lauons - his ancestors and the heroes of the ancient world. He called the wolves to help him, the patrons of his house. He asked the Tulonian god to protect him.
  "Unthinkable!" said the shaman.
  Tatida nodded.
  "What do you see?" he asked Atla.
  "We've managed to dig up his memories, but the visions are still a mystery," Atla said quietly. Everything is very clear - his thoughts as well as his past, but the visions are hidden from us by something thick and immobile."
  "What do you have to say about his future?" he sternly asked Tatida.
  The psychic gave out the verdict:
  "I see many options. His life will always be hanging by a thread, and it's unclear when exactly it will break. I can only say one thing: this boy will achieve something great. The guardians are very strong and will not let him leave this life until he's finished what he came for! Leave him!"
  The shaman suddenly released his head, Alta - his wrists, and Tatida removed her hand from his chest. Marcius immediately felt better.
  "So then! I suppose this means we'll have to be friends!" the shaman smiled deviously, glancing at Marcius with a hint of jealousy.
  "We'll definitely be able to," said Tatida, "But what about him?"
  "We'll only be able to access his visions if he gives them up himself," said Atla, "He needs to become one of us."
  "Well then! I have faith in you," said the shaman, "And also: no one on Krama can know that we weren't able to break him!" he added.
  Tatida looked at Atla:
  "We'll continue with the story of Karii's betrayal," she decided, "Loss of faith in his most trusted friend will weaken his will. He will be desperate to fill the emptiness. And you, my dear, must try to be gentle with him."
  "He despises me!" Atla refused, "He hates us all and is too loyal to his world, can't you see that?"
  "Everything can change," Tatida smiled.
  Two Kramean hours later.
  Marcius sat in the center of his cone and looked up with tired eyes. For two days now he's had no visitors. Only water sometimes appeared all by itself in the glass grooves, overflowing them and dripping down like tears. It was night, and the interior of the pyramid was in darkness, only partially illuminated by the weak light coming from the three satellites.
  The faint sound of footsteps came from a distance. Marcius turned his head to look. The priestess appeared out of the darkness like a ghost, all dressed in white. She was the same one he's seen earlier. She still had the dog with her, but this time she was dressed simply - a flowy dress with her hair let down, with no jewelry or crown. She walked barefoot down the hard stone of the temple, lightly and at ease. She greeted Marcius as she approached his cone, sat down and from her wrist removed Karii's magnetic notebook. She opened it up and started to read. The dog lay down beside her, solemnly looking ahead.
  Marcius stood up and walked up to the glass. He clearly remembered that Karii was still wearing the bracelet as he cut the chord, and knew that the Krameans did not have such technology.
  "Karii is here?!" he asked.
  The girl pretended not to hear. She ay her head down on the dog's back, getting comfortable, and continued to read:
  "Yet again, no one believes Marcius. Yesterday we went for a long walk, and today he fell asleep during the Kramean lesson. I didn't give him away - he did that all by himself. He saw something and screamed. Everyone started to look at him, smirking. The teacher took him away to the infirmary. It's unbearable to watch him being haunted by those visions, and there's only one cure. If only he would find that world!"
  Atla gave him a long look and said:
  "It's written ten years ago, yet here we are, still with those same problems."
  "How dare you!" Marcius yelled at her, "How did you get his journal?!"
  "Whose journal?" she asked, bewildered.
  "Karii's journal! My friend's journal!" Marcius yelled, his face going red.
  "Are you sure about that?" she asked him with a sly smile.
  "About what?" he looked at her with disdain.
  "About Karii being your friend," she confirmed.
  "I'm certain!" Marcius said with conviction.
  "I, however, beg to differ," she said, stressing every syllable.
  "I don't care what you think!" Marcius blurted out angrily, "I don't believe that he betrayed me. You set it up!"
  Atla didn't reply. She stood up gracefully, came up to the glass and showed him the notebook. He couldn't take it, of course - he could only look. Up close he saw that the cylinder was golden, not silver like the one that Karii had. The priestess turned it over, revealing a coat of arms inscribed on the bottom. It was a lizard, and it belonged to the priestly Tida clan. The girl opened the journal again and showed him the writing and the images. They were all labeled as copies and stamped with the date they were received.
  Marcius felt something clench inside his chest. He felt his whole body go cold. The priestess was clearly letting him know that his friend was providing them with information about him this whole entire time.
  "That's exactly right!" she said, reading his thoughts.
  "Karii's been watching you because we told him to. There are two such bracelets - one is his, and one is ours. Everything that he records we immediately see here on our end as a copy."
  "I don't believe you!" Marcius said, his voice breaking.
  "Furthermore," she continued, "When the time came, he gave you over to us for good! You saw it happen with your own eyes."
  "Shut up!" he yelled. He started to bang on the glass. "What do you want from me??"
  The priestess ignored him. She got up and walked towards the exit, taking the dog with her.
  "Think it over!" she shouted back to him just before leaving the room.
  Marcius remained defeated, completely drained and completely alone.
  "Could it be that he actually betrayed me?" Marcius thought with a shudder, "Could it really be that all these years he was gradually betraying me, bit by bit?"
  The seeds of doubt planted by the priestess started to sprout in his mind and poison his soul. He started to seriously consider what she had said. He racked his brain for everything to do with Karii - their conversations, their mutual dreams, their actions. His friend really was possessed with the idea of recording everything into his notebook. He never showed an interest for language or literature, and he wasn't a meticulous sort of person, but that notebook was like some sort of personal mission for him - he was so consistent with his entries. There could only be one explanation. Karii had been brainwashed by the Krameans when he was still a child. They could have planted the idea of keeping a journal into his head without him even fully understanding what was going on. In order to do that, they would have had to reach out to him in person. But where? At what moment? When? The Krameans' sorcery was powerless on Tulona, therefore it had to have happened elsewhere.
  Marcius sat with his forehead pressed against the glass, digging in the past. He hadn't slept in two days and could bear it no longer. His eyelids grew heavy, his neck and shoulders grew weak. He lay down on the floor and started to drift off.
  In this transitional moment between sleep and wakefulness he was overtaken by visions. He was unable to resist - they engulfed him completely. He saw the vastness of the night sky stretching over the foreign world. He was alone amidst a snowy field, gazing up above. The vision was so vivid that he could even feel the cold. He stood in the snow with bare feet, feeling it melt beneath them as a blizzard swirled all around. He was shivering, but kept on looking up. He was captivated by the stars. The sky was so bright and beautiful! He could see every constellation in detail, even pick up on the shades of the planets and the stars. It was indescribable. He'd never before experienced his visions so clearly - it seemed that in this moment they were more vivid than real life.
  The visions slowly transitioned into a deep sleep. He was finally able to rest.
  Krama, the next morning.
  Marcius was awakened by the feeling of a foreign presence nearby. This person's energy was so heavy and scorching that he experienced something close to physical pain. Marcius lifted himself up, turned his head and was confronted by an old woman's gaze.
  She sat in an armchair and embroidered a long red cloth with incomprehensible symbols. Her genie soared close by, hopping from shoulder to shoulder. She looked very focused, gently rocking back and forth, and didn't seem to notice that Marcius had awoken. The woman was very good at her craft - she clearly enjoyed what she was doing, but still it seemed somehow out of place. Why was she doing this sitting here in front of him?
  Her appearance was very different from the Kramean image Marcius was familiar with, possibly due to her age. Her face was riddled with wrinkles, concealing the features of her youth. Dim pupils, halfway covered by the heavy lids, a sharp long nose, seemingly endless thick white brows along with long white hair - all this created an exotic image of a Kramean witch. The fabric wrapped around her frail body left not a single inch of skin exposed. Only parts of her face were visible, peering from behind thick locks of hair.
  The old woman silently shifted her gaze in his direction and looked at him so intensely it seemed she was trying to get under his skin.
  Marcius felt an unpleasant cold sensation run through his whole body. Wanting to get away from the toxic stare, he pressed his back against the cold glass of the cone.
  "Enough!" he yelled, "What do you need?"
  "The same thing as you," he heard a voice say in his mind, "Good morning, Marcius. My name is Tatida. I'm the head psychic of this world, and I've come to have a talk with you."
  She said the words without moving her lips. Her whole face remained completely still. The Tulonian phrases flowed so clearly and with ease that it chilled him to the bone, but strangest of all was that she spoke in his mother's voice - with just as much feeling and tenderness. Gathering up all his willpower, Marcius promised himself that despite any similarities, he will not trust the witch and will not give in to her requests
  "There will be no requests. I'll only tell you what you need to hear," said the voice, "You've already understood, and you know why you're here. For a long time now, you've been searching for the mysterious world, but with no luck. Your problem is that you were born in the wrong world."
  He wanted to object, but all of a sudden was overtaken by a feeling of total numbness, unable to utter a single sound, as if invisible hands were squeezing his throat.
   "I don't like being interrupted," she continued, "Our civilization aims towards discovering the powers of the subconscious. Only the best of us get to access the higher knowledge, and your experience is a paradox. For many years now, we've lived awaiting for the prophecy to be fulfilled. You should have been born in our world, should have been one of us," said the old woman calmly and with confidence, "We've been waiting for you for so long!"
  "But I'm not one of you, and never will be!" Marcius thought, knowing the Kramean will hear, "I'm nothing special - you must have mistaken me for someone else."
  The old woman smiled.
  "Mistaken?" she confirmed, "I've been watching you ever since the moment you first opened your eyes, and will continue watching you until the moment they last close! I know you better than anyone else, and there's been no mistake!"
  Marcius was frightened by the unpleasant information. The Kramean was watching him, her hold on him unwavering. Moreover, she clearly expected to live longer than him.
  "My visions?" he asked, "Were you the one that them to me?"
  Tatida was about to laugh, but stopped herself.
  "On the contrary, I've been trying to track them down!" she admitted with a hint of blood-lust.
  Marcius heaved a deep sigh. This short phrase answered all his questions. He'd had the feeling all along that he was here due to his visions. Now all he had to do was come up with a way to use his gift to his advantage.
  "That's right!" replied Tatida, reading his mind, "Your visions are what make you special. You see the world that we seek. The secret's out."
  "Why do you seek it?" asked Marcius, curious.
  "Our reasons are more serious than yours. It's no longer just a matter of curiosity, but a fight for survival. The Seven Worlds are fated to perish very soon, all without exception, and the world in your visions is our only chance of survival!"
  Marcius looked at her in awe. The news of peril seemed like a fantasy, but the old woman wasn't joking - you could see it in her eyes. The cunning Krameans were always the first to know everything, which is precisely why they were so disliked.
  "What makes you believe the Seven Worlds will perish? Will we destroy each other? What will happen?" Marcius asked suspiciously.
  "The universe itself will erase us from the face of existence. It seems it wants to start a new life without us. Our gods say that it's a punishment for the sins of our ancestors. Something terrible has happened in antiquity, and we're the ones who will pay," said Tatida mysteriously.
  Such an abstract explanation of the pending catastrophe left Marcius untouched. A lot was said, but no actual answer was given. The Kramean's words could not be trusted, but it was something to think about.
  "Do you have any proof?" he asked.
  "You've already witnessed it yourself. Magnetic storms on Onyx is what caused the strange anomaly on Tulona. We were affected also, as well as all the other worlds, just not as much as you! Tulona relies on the magnetic field more than the others. Our star is dying," Tatida carried out the sentence with a fateful omniscience.
  Marcius looked at her in horror. This explained a lot. Most likely this is exactly what Iza had reported in his message to Indro, and why he had said this information would alter everything.
  "Even if that's the case, I still don't know the way to this world that I see. You've made a mistake on my account," said Marcius apologetically.
  "You do know the way!" the old woman exclaimed confidently.
  Marcius shook his head in denial.
  "Don't even argue! The human brain has an uncanny ability to attract what it desires, no matter how grandiose it may be! Think about it! What did you want most of all?" Tatida paused. "I'll put it simply. Fate brought you together with the untraceable old man that caught a signal from that world. Among the images received was a diagram of their system's approximate location in relation to the larger pulsars of our galaxy. If you take that and combine it with the night sky you saw in your vision, it's possible to calculate the route to the desired object. Of course, you won't be able to reproduce the view from memory, but it nonetheless exists as a trace in your consciousness, and we are the only ones with the ability to read it. You only need to let us do it, bringing up the information, imagining what you saw!"
  "So the old man has already sent you the recording from the signal? And you know that the world is located somewhere in our galaxy?"
  Tatida laughed.
  "Iza sold us the recording a couple of years back. We know the coordinates of the square where the signal originated. But the information is insufficient, and we've been waiting for you to complete the picture. You're the only one that knows it in its entirety. You've absorbed the map into yourself because you yourself are the map. You are the guide, and your duty is to lead us there."
  "How exactly did I absorb it?" Marcius asked, not following.
  "You see their night sky," said the old woman.
  Marcius was chilled to the bone.
  "She's right," he realized, "I see the sky so clearly, each single constellation. I see their sky from different vantage points. I'm the map, and only the Krameans can read it. How ironic!"
  "You need to give it to us," said Tatida sternly.
  "I don't owe the Krameans anything," he replied.
  "Of course you do! And not only the Krameans," the psychic insisted.
  "Crazy old woman," Marcius thought.
  "Are you deliberately setting me up against Karii?"
  "No, Karii really did betray you, and he really was our spy this whole time," said the old woman calmly.
  "But---" he wanted to object, his breath catching in his throat.
  "We only want you to know the truth: you have no friends on Tulona!" she interrupted him, "On Tulona, no one believes in you. There, you're a banished criminal, but here, we need you as much as the air we breathe!"
  "You want me to be one of you?" asked Marcius.
  "You're already one of us," said Tatida, "You're a great seer," she smiled, "You were born that way."
  Marcius felt lightheaded, he wanted to tear the clothes off his chest. His breath came quickly and heavily, but he was still able to communicate his point:
  "Maybe I really am a great seer, but a seer from Tulona! Maybe no one needs me there and I have no friends, but Tulona is my world and I love it! And I'll never be one of you!"
  The old woman gave him a long arrogant look and was silent for a long time, having no reply.
  Disappointment could be seen clearly on her face. Marcius, on the other hand, was reanimated, having clearly sorted out his priorities. An unprecedented clarity flooded his mind, but also some questions. He wanted to know more while the witch was still here.
  "How much time is left for Onyx?"
  "Best case scenario is three years," she said, "But the changes are already happening."
  "You're looking for that world as an escape?"
  "Yes!" Tatida replied.
  "But what if those living there won't want that?" asked Marcius, not grasping the full depth of his question.
  "It is foretold, and it's how it shall be. There is no other way! We will meet resistance with resistance."
  "So you'll take the whole planet and fly over there all at once?" Marcius smirked, knowing that it's impossible.
  "Obviously not. First we'll check everything out. For many years now we've been growing our fleet of spacecraft. The most reliable one, with a team of volunteers on board, will go off to explore, and only after that, having a clear map and information about its habitability, we will commence the relocation."
  The old woman was possessed by the mysterious world no less than Marcius, which he liked. The main thing he learned from their conversation was the reason for his captivity. Now he knew what the Krameans wanted. He understood that having received what they wanted, they would immediately do away with him, so he was in no rush to give up the map. It was his only trump card, and the only thing he wanted to do now was to warn his own people of the danger. Deep in thought, he looked straight into the old woman's eyes.
  "Having received the map, you will kill me! Then what's the point of me giving it to you?"
  The old woman paused.
  "Every person always has a choice, just as you do now. I can see how much you hate us and how little you believe our words, and I'll admit you have your reasons for that. I mourn the death of your parents, it was a tragedy! I've only just realized how attached you are to your homeland. Reveal your visions now and we'll bring you back to Ari, and you'll be able to warn your people of the impending catastrophe."
  Marcius wasn't bothered by his criminal status on Tulona. The main thing was to give Indro the coordinates, and after that, be what may.
  "Will you give me the map to take with me?"
  "Of course," Tatida smiled.
  Marcius looked at her with disappointment and didn't believe her. "The Krameans would sooner perish themselves than help their enemies," he thought, "They'll kill me as soon as they get what they want, and Tulona will never find anything out."
  "You're too valuable to kill!" Tatida interrupted his train of thought.
  "Enough!" Marcius cut her off, "My value consists wholly in my knowledge of that map. I'm nothing without it. And I won't be giving it up just like that!"
  Tatida gave him a tense look. She already knew what he was about to suggest.
  "Okay, I'll show you my visions, but you'll take me with you on the expedition. I'll get a Tulonian beam, a private cabin with provisions and won't be bothered until the end of the trip," said Marcius.
  Tatida pretended to think it over.
  "Alright, I'll make the necessary arrangements. Shall we begin?" she said majestically, getting ready to extract the visions.
  "No, that's not all!" replied Marcius sharply, "We will go out into space and I'll make sure that my conditions have been met. Only then will I give you the map. And most importantly - my conditions also demand an impulsator which I will use to transmit the message to Tulona!"
  "But we don't have any Tulonian transmitters here!" said Tatida.
  "Yes you do!" Marcius snapped at her, knowing perfectly well that Kramean spies are equipped with every model of interplanetary technology.
  Tatida smiled. The young man turned out to be a lot more brave and clever than she anticipated, and in the depth of her soul this made her very happy. She felt comfortable sending off her pupil out into the unknown with him by her side. The old woman didn't argue or resist. Whatever this boy had in mind, his path was already laid out for him. She had no desire to stand in his way, knowing how many difficulties still lay before him.
  "So be it!" she exclaimed loudly. She clapped her hands and disappeared.
  Marcius was left in solitude once again.
  He knew how much the Krameans feared Tulonian weapons, and greatly valued the deadly beam. It was the only thing that made him feel protected. Food and water had to be secured ahead of time - after receiving the map, they could simply refuse to give him any, or might slip some poison into it. He could transmit the coordinates to Tulona with the help of the impulsator - this was a matter of honor. He wanted to make sure the Tulonians could find this world themselves in case he doesn't succeed.
  The risk was great, but he had no desire to stop. Something about the old woman's story didn't quite fit, and Marcius couldn't decide if the part about catastrophe was true or if it was just a ploy to get him moving. It seemed unlikely for everything to just disappear all at once and without a trace. All of history, all the wars, the disagreements, the life that only recently seemed so significant all of a sudden turned into an inconsequential microscopic episode in the history of the universe, so easily erased and forever forgotten.
  Like any self-respecting Tulonian, Marcius found the idea of perishing the same day as the Krameans, Murians and all the other degenerates altogether unappealing. His heart refused to believe what was said, and his mind stubbornly clung on to any chance of error. On the other hand, the old woman knew everything - about the visions, Iza and the signal.
  "It seems as if they really have been watching me my whole entire life, waiting for the moment I'd be able to bring them salvation," Marcius thought, "In my world I was crazy, but here I'm considered gifted, although that's not what draws me in. My whole life I've dreamt of reaching that world, have begged the general for a ship, was ready to fly off without any guidance, and now fate has brought me such an opportunity: a spaceship as well as a map that's been inside my head this whole entire time. I can't let it pass me by; I'll do everything I can to get there!"
  Having returned his mind, soul and emotions to a harmonious balance, Marcius patiently awaited the Krameans' return. Several times he was tempted to change his mind during the many hours of monotonous silence, but every time he returned to his original decision. To be sure, he knew perfectly well what he was coming up against. Out of all the scoundrels in the world, the Krameans were the last to be trusted, but the mad power of curiosity and an appetite for adventure outweighed all other motives.
  Chapter 4. Onward
  At dawn
  They left early in the morning. The interstellar crystal was just as elaborate as Marcius had imagined. The stone was of very high quality, without a single defect - no cracks or air bubbles, only a smooth, uniform structure and surprising clarity. The Krameans had grown their best crystal spaceship for this mission. The crystal was faceted and round in layout. It narrowed into a cone towards the bottom, touching the podium at a single point only, almost as if hanging in midair.
  It was perfectly fitted for the expedition. In its bottom part, a small laboratory could be seen through the glass. It contained tools for the collection of soil and natural resources, excavators and all-purpose vehicles. The crystal was equipped with liquid hydrogen bullets to protect itself in the case of an attack. Its whole body was riddled with round cabins and long corridors spiraling up from the base towards the top. At the very top was the navigation panel, alongside a spare ship for emergency evacuation.
   The Krameans lined themselves up on the platform beside the spaceship. Today they looked completely different from yesterday. They wore practical clothing - tight shiny bodysuits, dark crimson in color. Their hair was braided into tight little braids and carefully pinned back into massive buns. Their jewelry was minimal - only Atla wore a diadem, and the others sufficed with barely noticeable gold headbands. Marcius was left wearing his Tulonian gear, for which he was thankful.
   The Krameans were of different ages and complexions. There were old men as well as almost children. Behind their shoulders each person carried a multifunctional shield - a popular tool on Krama, an all-time favourite. They used it in all walks of life: as a weapon, a carrier of information, a mirror, a table, a container and many other things. The disks were made out of special glass and were reminiscent of giant optical lenses. Their names were inscribed on the inside with wire made of precious metals, enabling Marcius to call each one by name if he had to. The Krameans left behind their genies, since they would not have survived the trip. This made Marcius very happy - he greatly disliked them, finding the tiny creatures pesky and hypocritical.
   The head shaman was seeing them off, along with a whole committee of priests and psychics. Volunteers' relatives were also present, and also that strange dog - the chimera from the planet Murie that was always by Atla's side. Marcius stood last, beside Atla. Neither Lan nor Tatida as much as glanced in his direction today. They were still bitter about yesterday.
   He watched how tenderly the shaman hugged his daughter, followed by an equally heartfelt hug from Tatida. It was difficult for them to let Atla go. They were visibly worried, and it almost seemed like they were holding back tears. These eminent Krameans loved their girl dearly, and Marcius had a hard time understanding why they were letting her fly off with him on such a long voyage.
   The shaman conversed with his daughter wordlessly, in his mind. Tatida, on the other hand, wanted her farewell to be heard by all, and spoke with Atla loudly, using her voice.
   "You are going very far - know that the journey won't be an easy one," she took her face in her hands, touching her forehead to hers, "Whatever happens, no matter how hard it is, under no circumstance are you to turn back. Everything depends on this! No matter what, you must find that world and return to us with the coordinates. No matter what!" she repeated.
   Hypnotized, Atla nodded, and tightly hugged Tatida once more.
   "Take care of her," the psychic told Marcius sternly.
   The Tulonian lowered his eyes. This was too much! He never signed up for this. Why is the witch turning to him of all people with this request?
   "Look at me, promise me!" Tatida implored.
   "I can't promise that. I'll be thinking of myself and of the interests of my world," he replied earnestly.
   Tatida looked at him with disapproval. Marcius felt regret, but didn't show it.
   Atla was not at all surprised by his words. She expected nothing less. She silently hugged her dog by the neck and held him for a long time. The animal whimpered, anticipating her departure.
   "I'm asking you again, let me take him with me!" she begged Tatida, ruffling the dogs ear with her hand.
   "No," said the psychic decisively.
   The girl kissed the chimera and stood up.
   One by one they loaded themselves onto the ship. Marcius was led to his cabin, checking for his beam and impulsator as soon as he entered the room. The Krameans weren't lying - they were both there in the center of the room, on a round stand hanging from the ceiling. The only thing was that the charge in the impulsator was only good for a single message. Marcius gritted his teeth, although that was all he really needed.
   His cabin was fairly cozy and spacious. It was shaped like a polyhedron, and like many others on this vessel, was made of polished glass. There were even pieces of furniture, such as a table and a bed, all Kramean in style. The most alluring part of his cabin was the enormous porthole stretching across an entire wall. Across from it stood a chair woven out of glass fiber. He'd be able to watch the scenery of open space.
   The Krameans kept their word in terms of provisions as well. Food and water were packed into retractable drawers in the wall. The minimal information provided by Iza was enough to calculate the approximate duration of the trip and stock up on provisions. The ship was equipped with a greenhouse, which allowed them to grow their own food. They packed a surplus of water and came up with a method to replenish it, mining it from meteors. Thanks to the old man, the Krameans knew for sure that the planet they were searching for was located in their galaxy in the sleeve of Orion. They knew the approximate direction, but it wasn't enough. Everyone awaited the final coordinates from Marcius.
   Open space, the Seven Worlds system
   The first moments of the trip went by smoothly. The newest system of gravitation was working splendidly. The crystal was in constant rotation, eliminating weightlessness via the pull of centrifusion. It was possible to travel across the ship vertically as well as horizontally. Marcius didn't even feel any bio-rhythmic changes in his own body, and he had to give the Krameans due credit - they really knew how to grow spaceships. And yet it was too early for celebration - the craft still wasn't gaining any speed, moving carefully at the lowest possible setting. It wasn't hard to guess why.
   "They don't have the exact coordinates, which means they'll come fetch me soon enough," Marcius thought. Right away, he heard the sound of footsteps.
   The door disappeared without a sound, and she entered through the newly formed portal. Slowly and gracefully Atla approached him with a big smile.
   Marcius watched her intently and cautiously.
   "Will you be the one to do it?" he asked, looking at her carefully.
   "Yes," she replied kindly.
   The girl was calm, not making any sudden movements. Her demeanor was natural and at ease, as if the issue at hand was some insignificant trifle as opposed to a matter of life and death. Atla felt his anxiety, catching every single thought. She was worried herself, but put on a carefree facade. Stopping within a couple of steps from him, so as not to fluster and irritate him with her proximity, she attempted to take the map quickly, without touch.
   "Are you ready?" she whispered slowly and hypnotically.
   Marcius nodded and clenched his fists.
   Atla looked at him with a smile, and although she felt that he still despises her and the Kramean people as a whole, they had already formed a sort of connection, which meant it was possible for her to come into contact with his consciousness.
   "Very good," she said loudly, and transversed the distance between them with a sudden movement.
   He stepped away from her.
   "Sit down," she suggested, pointing to a chair, attempting to relieve the physical tension in his body.
   Marcius sat down and tried to relax.
  Atla felt the favourable impulse. She walked around the room in a semicircle near the chair, scanning the Tulonian with her gaze, as if choosing where to strike. It was most important not to go behind his back, or else he would shut down completely, and the previous discomfort would return once again.
  "Can you trust me and close your eyes?" she asked, distracted by Marcius' watchful gaze.
  Marcius narrowed his eyes:
  "Trust you - no. But I can close my eyes."
  Atla nodded.
  "Let's start from the beginning. Try to imagine your visions in as much detail as possible," she said quietly, looking into his closed eyelids. Closed lids were his weak spot, so that's where she aimed.
  Marcius closed his eyes. It was hard for him to trust Atla and relax completely - his body and mind put up an invisible shield despite his desire to give up the map. He persuaded himself to be open with her. Atla saw that he was trying, and hoped to take the map quickly and painlessly.
   Marcius started thinking of his visions, but couldn't quite grasp them. Other thoughts crawled into his mind, blocking the images of the night sky. Focusing on his memories, he all of a sudden saw the Pacifian theatre in his mind's eye. That day's events flooded his entire consciousness.
   Atla saw his memories. She read that initial emotion he felt when he first saw the set. His astonishment was so bright that Atla was blinded, as if by a flash of lightning. She squeezed her eyes shut, but didn't stop. Overwhelming delight and a desire to know the whole truth radiated from Marcius so powerfully that they inspired even her.
   "Try to think only of your visions," she corrected him.
  Marcius felt himself getting distracted by other memories, and had a hard time leading Atla to the visions. As soon as he thought of the views from the enchanted world, he immediately remembered recordings from the signal. He saw all the slides recorded on Iza's matrix, cycling through them in his imagination. Atla saw everything very clearly - she heard the conversation with Iza, observed as he attained Marcius' ring, caught the sounds of the music.
  Atla touched her hand to her lips. She'd already heard this music before - a whole laboratory on Krama labored to decipher and analyze it. The shaman made his best musicians learn it and play it at receptions, showing his find off to his guests, but the way the melody sounded in Marcius' interpretation was completely different. Shivers ran down her spine, and her heart beat so quickly it seemed it would jump out of her chest. She'd never before heard anything this beautiful. Marcius perceived the music in his own unique way, letting it through his soul, enriching it with emotion. The sound was incredibly powerful and deep. If it was possible to describe all the emotions in the world with sound, it would have been precisely this sound, and it ventured from the subconscious of an enemy. Atla's head started to spin. Putting her hands to her temples, she leaned against a wall.
  She had no need for that recording. That's not what she came here for, and yet she'd already lost so much energy.
  "Marcius, if you don't object, I'll take you by the hands - only to strengthen the effect," she asked.
   It was clear by his eyes that he did object. His whole being rebelled against the thought of the priestess holding his hands, but there was no other choice. He wanted to find his world very badly, and in order to do so was ready even to bear her touch.
  Marcius nodded. Atla came closer, sat beside him and put her palms onto his.
  "Please, remember your visions!" she begged.
   Marcius chose to focus on the night when the visions came to him the clearest - the night on Krama. Yes, it was then that the starry sky of that world appeared to him the brightest. He started to remember how he lay under the clear cone, relived that state of being half-asleep which triggered the visions, but all of a sudden got distracted by thoughts of the unbearable Kramean heat that tormented him at the time.
   Atla saw how uncomfortable and alarming their planet was for him, and her heart went out to him. She was forced to experience all of his feelings herself, and this was so difficult and unpleasant that she had to use every last bit of strength to stop herself from letting go of his hands.
  "Remember, what did you see that night?" she asked, "Concentrate on the images of the sky."
  All of a sudden Marcius found himself in that world under the limitless starry sky. Atla began to gradually follow him there, but he threw her out with the sharp, poisonous thought of Karii's betrayal. He felt such piercing pain, yearning and cold that Atla yanked her hands away, unable to bear the depth of his suffering.
  "This is very hard for me," she said, "You're too strongly preoccupied with everything."
   Marcius opened his eyes - Atla looked very frightened. She looked at Marcius, full of demand, wordlessly reproaching him for his lack of trust.
   "It's not on purpose!" he said coldly.
   "I know!" she said, full of emotion, "Your mind is guarding your visions harder than I thought. Even your conscious agreement to give them up is unable to convince your subconscious to do so. You have an amazing ability to hide your innermost private experiences."
   "I've been practicing my whole life," he said. "What will you do now?" he asked her worriedly.
   "I'll stay with you and wait until your visions will come to you."
   Marcius looked at her in shock.
   "You want to stay in my cabin?"
   "What else can you suggest?" she said, not understanding his indignation, "Worst case scenario - I'll miss them."
   "The visions come to me before sleep and just before waking, but I can't say ahead of time when it will happen."
   "Then we'll stake them out together! There's no other choice," said Atla with conviction.
   "It can happen in a day, or in three," Marcius clarified.
   "Then for three days, or for as long as necessary, we'll have to be together in the same room," she insisted.
   Marcius sighed heavily. He didn't like this idea. He needed his personal space, and didn't want to share it with a Kramean. But there was no choice - the coordinates were his number one priority, and he was ready to do what was needed to get them.
   "Alright, but let's agree ahead of time that we won't talk to each other," he said sternly, "That's my condition!"
   Atla nodded and walked towards the other end of the room.
  They spent more than a day together in silence, and Atla didn't sleep the whole time. She tracked Marcius' every thought and was especially alert when he was waking up and going to sleep, but the first night brought no visions. The crystal continued to fly painstakingly slow. No one bothered or rushed them - everyone on the ship knew what was going on.
   The whole time Marcius read Karii's journal. He'd never done so before, even though Karii would have let him - the story belonged to them both. Marcius had never suspected that his friend's writing was so engaging and full of humor. The text contained much of Karii himself - familiar sharp expressions, swear words, jokes, and everything with a lot of detail. Marcius laughed out loud several times, but remembering Atla's presence, he'd quickly grow quiet. The more he read, the more he was convinced that this person couldn't have betrayed him. There was something off about the whole thing. The last entry was made before they landed on Girius, and after that Karii wrote no more, or else the Krameans stopped receiving his copies. Marcius doubted he could get a straight answer from Atla, so he didn't ask.
  The second night came. He started to fall asleep, remaining under Atla's vigilant observation. It bothered him, but he put up with it. He slowly got used to her presence, and thanks to her silence, would at times forget she was there at all. This night, falling asleep was easier. He turned his back to her and turned down the lights. Only the faint glow along the edges of the crystal walls remained.
  He closed his eyes and was immediately overcome with visions. Half asleep, he saw the outline of Atla's diadem glittering against the sky. She came towards him through the darkness, carefully sat down and took his hand. Marcius could resist neither her nor his visions. He took her with him into his private world. He sat on the snow under the limitless night sky, turned his head and saw her silhouette. He has never experienced anything like this before. He has always been alone in his visions, and now another living being was in here with him. He felt the warmth of her presence, as if she's carried a bit of Kramean heat into his cold world. Music sounded from the hidden corners of his consciousness.
  Atla got what she wanted. The priestess saw the night sky in the full glory of Marcius' visions. She was amazed by the sensations. The sky was so rich and deep that it took her breath away. Now she saw each point in the sky and remembered it, taking a mental photograph with her inner eye. Marcius Appa Laun was unique, there was no doubt about it. The clarity and sensitivity of his open mind was truly remarkable. Atla wasn't able to explain the nature of his visions.
  "How could someone who's never worked to develop the higher abilities achieve such astounding results? Maybe someone from there is sending him an invitation in the form of a vision? In that case, the creatures of that world are immensely powerful," thought the priestess warily.
  She took away her hand.
  Marcius slowly opened his eyes. The dream was gone. With a glance, Atla silently thanked him for his trust and apologized for invading his mind. She tried to keep her face carefree and radiant, not a single twitch betraying what she'd just experienced.
  "I'll bring the map to our navigators," she said with a smile, got up and turned away.
  "Stop," Marcius ordered, pulling out his beam and pointing it at her back, almost touching her skin. "You agreed to tell me the coordinates so that I can transmit them to Tulona," he insisted, gesturing to the impulsator.
  Atla felt a weak electric discharge between her shoulder blades - his beam was very close. He was aggressively predisposed, and no kind intention on her part was able to break through his hatred.
   "Stay here. I'll figure out the map and come back to you with the coordinates," she said.
   "No way, there's no guarantee that you'll return. I'm coming with you!"
  Marcius believed in his invincibility on this ship. His intuition told him that the Krameans still needed him and so won't harm him, but he still had no assurance that they would share the coordinates with the Tulonians.
  Having read his mind, Atla declared:
  "Alright, you can come with me, but do me a favor and don't wave that beam around for no good reason."
  "That all depends on you," said Marcius coldly.
  Atla walked forward in quick steps, nodding telepathically at those that passed her by. Marcius was close behind. Not once did she turn around, which was an expression of trust in a sense. Shooting presumptuous sideway glances at passing Krameans, Marcius was quick to turn away. The Krameans, on the other hand, smoldered him with their looks, examining him and smiling. Atla had managed to send a thought wave down the corridors, warning the others that the Tulonian is outside his cabin and is moving with her towards the center. Out of curiosity, everyone ran out to look at him.
  Atla knew each of the volunteers personally. They all had tremendous trust in her, and this gave her no right to make mistakes. She understood how important of a mission lay on her shoulders, and was in a great hurry, careful not to miss anything. The soulful music was still with her and it was very distracting; she fought to shut it out. Marcius at her heels did nothing to ease the tension, but she put up with him, understanding that it was best not to argue until she'd managed to load the coordinates into the ship's memory.
   In the main cabin everyone was already waiting for her. Marcius' presence, on the other hand, was quite unwelcome, despite everyone's polite smiles and sunny disposition. The dangerous beam in his hands was especially nerve-wracking.
   "We begged the psychic to give him a fake - why on earth did she insist on a real one?" thought the Krameans in unison.
  There were three people in the room. One was very old, the other - very young, and the third was middle-aged. Their gold headbands were a bit thicker than the rest, and were encrusted with gemstones. They were responsible for navigating the spaceship, and did so telepathically. The bands strengthened their mental signals, but Marcius still couldn't understand how they did this. Tulonians were unfamiliar with this method of navigation.
  The elder stood in the center, his eyes glued to Atla, and the young pilot sat behind a long flat crystal panel. The middle-aged Kramean stood at the back of the room beside three big glass droplets. One of them hung down from the ceiling, and the other two protruded from the floor. They were dark blue, almost black, and about the size of a person. Evidently, they performed some important function.
  Through these strange glass droplets, the man was sorting his thoughts, isolating only those that had to do with navigation. There are too many memories hidden away in the human subconscious - Marcius could now see that firsthand. The man's thoughts were visualized in the first droplet, then got refined and transferred over to the second. The third, in turn, received only a single thought - the navigational command.
  Shadows swirled in the first droplet. Marcius could see the man playing with his daughter and having dinner with his wife. A multitude of Kramean eyes looked back at him from there - another person's whole mind and life were in the palm of his hand. The next droplet only displayed numbers and diagrams, chaotically scattered all around. Marcius recognized among them a map of the Seven Worlds and also one of military bases on Kata, the Tulonian satellite. It was amazing how much was hidden away inside the head of this one little man. The third droplet displayed a clear and distinct image of the square where the impulse originated. This information was used by the spaceship to calculate the direction of flight.
  Atla came up to the three droplets. Even though she told Marcius to stay put, he didn't listen and went after her.
  The girl looked into the first drop. It filled with a rich crimson colour, silhouettes, numbers and letters flashing by. The surface reflected her subconscious, and its contents were amazingly diverse. Despite her age, it looked like the young priestess had gone through a lot. There were many tears inside the drop. Marcius recognized one of the faces - it was Tatida. Judging from the sharpness of the outline, the old witch occupied an important role in Atla's life. Among the images were also the dog, her father the shaman, many other unpleasant foreign faces, smugglers, Pacifians, robots and even the perished Oeelians. This pushed Marcius to conclude that she'd managed to travel all over their system, and her life was likely nowhere as simple as he'd initially thought. He saw her as a spoiled heir, knowing no sorrow, but what he saw now suggested a great richness of experience.
  It was bewildering, but he recognized himself in one of the images. He was only ten years old in that memory. It was the day when he and Karii first left the borders of their planet on their parents' ship to see the fair on Sirius. Now, many years, alter, he looked at himself through the lens of Atla's memory. "The Krameans really have been watching me this whole time," he thought with disgust. He was about to turn away when he froze. His own eyes looked back at him from the droplet. She was thinking about him now, which threw his soul into a state of frantic turmoil.
  Atla's eyes were closed. She was silent and still, but it was nonetheless visible how much effort she was putting into sorting her thoughts. Her vibrations echoed warmly through the air. The second droplet slowly came to life. It was dedicated entirely to Marcius, depicting only memories about him. A discernible tension hung about the room. Right behind his back, breathing heavily, stood the elder, to his right - the young pilot, and the middle-aged man was in the corner close by, rubbing his temples. Everyone was looking impatiently at the third drop and then at Atla.
  Out of all the memories about the Tulonian, she chose the vision of the starry sky and placed it into the last drop. Leaning against the glass surface with both hands, without opening her eyes, she started to upload the attained information. The map appeared gradually, as if through a haze. Thousands of starry specks glittered inside the droplet. The view of the night sky from that faraway planet was spread out before them. Now all that was left was to juxtapose it with all the planets in Iza's square and deduce the right one.
  Marcius gripped his impulsator with his right hand, holding the beam in his left. He was ready to transmit the message as soon as he got the numbers.
  The Krameans didn't jump to any conclusions and took their time. The received information still needed to be analyzed.
  They had studied their galaxy rigorously. They had detailed, holographic models with exact locations of stars, interstellar gas, dust and dark matter. They were very glad that the planet in question was located in their galaxy; it was always safer and more pleasant to stay within the bounds of home. Although everyone knew that their home galaxy contained about two hundred billion stars scattered along the spiral, and the galaxy itself was not exactly minute (twenty thousand light years in width and one hundred thousand in height was no joke), each single heart still had faith that the lifesaving planet would inevitably be found. They'd already prepared a model of the square pointed out by Iza, narrowing the search by a million times.
  The Krameans started to check which planets might yield such constellations. They used Ionian equipment in their calculations, relying on the power of artificial intelligence. They must have acquired this device from the old man, since it was very rare and top-secret. The machine took a while to process the data, and finally gave an answer. There were two possible options. Such a starry sky could be seen at one time or another from three different planets, but the nice thing was that all three planets were in the same star system and were neighbors, rotating on the second, third and fourth orbit away from the star. It wouldn't be difficult to determine which one was habitable - the key was to get to that system.
  It was located on the second swirl of the galactic spiral, two hundred and five light years away from the center.
  "It really is the other end of the galaxy," said the middle-aged Kramean.
  "Of course it is - had it been right under our noses we would have found it a long time ago," said the young pilot.
  "Take out the diagram of magic tunnels," ordered the middle-aged man.
  Wormholes connecting different locations in space, or magic tunnels, as the Krameans called them, were well-studied in the Seven Worlds. They were hard to find. Some of them were so small that they were almost impossible to notice, whereas others, on the other hand, were impossible to miss. A tunnel entrance could be the size of a star, a planet, a house or a speck of dust. The Krameans had a rich database of such tunnels, having purchased them from the Guineans - they were smugglers and traveled more than the rest. It was their trade, and each tunnel cost a fortune.
  Wormhole travel was a risky and unpredictable business. You'd often dive out of the hole very far from where you dove in. It could throw you out on the other end of your own galaxy, in a different galaxy or even in a different universe. Nonetheless, unlike deadly black holes, it was possible to come back out from a wormhole, and so the inhabitants of the Seven Worlds used them for travel. Some daredevils risked themselves, but for the most part the Krameans sent their charged crystals into the holes and examined the phenomenon from a distance.
  Over thousands of years of study, their database of magical tunnels accumulated close to fifteen hundred, and this was just a tiny fragment of what was possible. For example, the latest discovery was located two light years away from Krama - that is, right around the corner, but it long remained unnoticed due to its miniscule size. It was possible that closer portals existed, maybe even on Krama itself, but they were yet to be discovered.
  All of the known tunnels were mostly intragalactic - that is, they connected different parts of the galaxy.
  "We'll have to jump through three tunnels," said the young Kramean hastily.
  "What do we have?" Atla asked the elder, ignoring him.
  The old Kramean opened up the magic tunnel map. It was also three-dimensional, occupying the entire room. It displayed their current location as well as their destination. They started to calculate the shortest route, and the system suggested several options.
  "The closest portal to our target planet is called Prime. Its one end reaches the interstellar space close to the target star system, but its other end is in Tron, our neighboring galaxy. In other words, we must first get to Tron and only then to the other end of our own galaxy."
  "Where's the closest exit to Tron?" Atla asked, narrowing her eyes.
  "The tunnel Olmeco," said the middle-aged Kramean thoughtfully, "It's located right at the border of the Onyx star system. Then a jump to the tunnel Delos, and only then to Prime."
  "That's exactly what I was saying," said the young pilot, slightly offended that no one believed him right away, "We'll have to go through three portals, and that's the shortest possible way. Most of our time will be occupied by flying from portal to portal - travel through the portals themselves will be instantaneous."
  Marcius couldn't hear the Krameans' telepathic negotiation. It just looked like a whole lot of looking back and forth to him, but judging from how long it took, he guessed that they were discussing the route. On the holographic model, Marcius saw how far the planet was from the Seven Worlds, and understood that the journey would be impossible without the tunnels. It would take an eternity to fly there directly. The Tulonians also searched for the tunnels, and their database was admittedly larger than the Kramean one. They greatly valued their knowledge and no sum of money could buy their secrets, just like any other world. A joined effort would have greatly accelerated the search, but no one would agree to such a thing.
  Marcius looked at the Krameans impatiently, never forgetting his desire to transmit the message to Ari. He was a criminal kidnapped by the Krameans, and he knew it was unlikely that anyone would believe him, but he also knew his own people. The Tulonians investigated all signals from outside.
  "I'm waiting for the promised coordinates!" he insisted, interrupting the Krameans' mental dialogue.
  All four of them turned his way, as if just remembering he was still there. They had no further need for him, and their initial friendliness was gone from their faces.
  "Soon!" Atla replied.
  With a subsequent mental exercise, she displayed the planet's coordinates on a screen.
  All Seven Worlds shared the same number system - something they'd agreed upon in ancient times. It was necessary in order to set boundaries and routes in space and was useful in their minimal contact. The yielded digit pointed out the planet's location within the space of the galaxy. This was exactly what Marcius was after.
  Three long numbers flashed on the screen, and Marcius carefully transferred them into his impulsator. He'd prepared the text he'd send with them ahead of time - it was a report of everything he'd found out from the Krameans. The message would reach Tulonian satellites with the speed of a magnetic wave. It was sent quickly; the impulsator was in perfect order, but a shadow of suspicion still fell on Marcius' soul. Allowing Tulonians to access the lifesaving coordinates was too generous of a gesture. There was one more charge left in the impulsator. He started to think of ways to test it and didn't come up with anything better than to send a duplicate. The impulsator immediately transferred his message a second time, which couldn't have happened with a real device. Magnetic waves couldn't be reset so quickly, and a greater time gap was needed in between messages.
  "A fake," thought Marcius angrily, squeezing the toy in his hands.
  The Krameans tricked him. He could barely hold himself back from grabbing his beam and slashing the scoundrels to pieces. But he couldn't do that - he was trapped on their crystal.
   The Krameans read his thoughts, but gave no outward sign that they did.
  "Is everything okay?" asked Atla with a smile, understanding that Marcius won't start a conflict. Now his only chance of transferring the coordinates to Tulona was to return there alive after the expedition.
   "Yes, everything's fine," he replied dryly, looking at the deceitful priestess with hatred.
   Alta carried herself well, not giving anything away. She was very disappointed that Marcius caught on to the impulsator being a fake.
   "Wonderful, now you can go back to your quarters! We have a long journey ahead of us, and it's most important not to let loneliness get the best of you," she said sweetly.
   Marcius understood this well enough. He was to spend many a day in his isolated cabin, and yet between persistent loneliness and community with despicable Krameans he chose the former.
   "Show him the way," said Atla.
   Marcius walked to his cabin, ignoring both the hoard of people in his way and the malevolent looks they cast in his direction. The Krameans' deed broke him completely. They had no honor. They didn't know how to stay true to their word. He languished under the injustice and the sense of his own powerlessness. It was unfair that the Krameans reserved salvation only for themselves, not wanting to share the coordinates with others. Yes, Tatida promised that he will be taken to that world and then safely returned, but he'd already grasped the value of Kramean promises. Most likely they'll hold him in his cabin until they reach their destination - they are too reverent of higher abilities, and his visions are still with him. However, it's unlikely that they'd let him return to the Seven Worlds and report everything to his own planet. Upon arrival in the faraway world he'd most likely be killed or abandoned. One Tulonian is no threat. Marcius felt like he miscalculated. Such treasure was hidden in his head, and he'd squandered it. He was utterly defeated. He returned to his cabin, smashed the fake impulsator to pieces against the wall and collapsed face down onto his bed.
  Chapter 5. Attack
  
  The Kramean spacecraft, one hour later.
  Tired after several sleepless nights, Atla walked down the long round corridor to her cabin. The crystal still floated weightlessly, but was setting its course. Things couldn't have gone better. She should have been happy, or at the very least satisfied, but for some reason her heart was heavy. Before her eyes stood Marcius' face the moment he realized the impulsator was fake. He was so disappointed - in her personally before all else. She found herself walking towards his cabin - she wanted to explain herself. For a long time she stood by his door, listening to his thoughts.
   Marcius felt the spaceship still preparing for the jump. The pilots must have already calculated the route to the first tunnel. They were now flying between the Kramean and Pacifian orbit.
   He was looking into the porthole and drifting off to sleep when all of a sudden something suspicious appeared on the cosmic horizon. Marcius lifted himself up above the bed and came close to the porthole. He saw a light moving towards them very quickly. It was a fleet of spaceships. At first he thought it might have been Tulonian, but such jagged trajectory of movement was characteristic only for Pacifians. Hundreds of spheres came into view - small singles as well as monstrous giant ones. They were all military, covered with battle spikes on the surface. They looked like sea urchins and were very dangerous and uncomfortable in combat. The appearance of so many warships beside a Kramean vessel couldn't have been an accident.
   Marcius saw that an attack was on the way.
   "The Pacifians figured out that the Krameans know the way to salvation," he guessed and grabbed his beam, "They understood that the coordinates won't be shared and thus decided to get them by force."
   Marcius was trained for battle with Pacifians. He knew all their moves. If the crystal had gained enough speed, they wouldn't be able to catch it, but as it was, the Krameans were in a very vulnerable position. The Pacifian emperor set his whole army out to catch them.
   "They want to seize the crystal and take the coordinates from the system of navigation," he analyzed, "They're not likely to leave anyone alive!"
   Marcius started to swing his magnetic beam over his head, creating a protective field around himself. The Pacifians could open fire at any minute.
  Alta stood by the door and couldn't see what was happening outside, but she caught on to the negatively charged consciousness directed at them. With her inner eye, she scanned the space around the crystal - enemy spheres were everywhere.
  She opened the door. Marcius stood inside a translucent white cocoon created by the beam's rotation. Clouds of Pacifian spheres swarmed behind him in the porthole.
  "Follow me!" Alta yelled.
   Marcius ran out the door without stopping his beam's rotation. The Pacifians fired. Long beams of light shot out of the spikes on their spheres and went right through the hard exterior of the ship in narrow threads without damaging the crystal or the metal. The beams could only damage living organisms and other organic matter - they immediately cut through anything that was alive like razor-sharp blades.
   Thanks to his magnetic cocoon, Marcius remained untouched by the beams. He reflected them like a mirror and sent them ricocheting back at the Pacifians. Marcius spun the beam ceaselessly, chasing away death. Atla took her shield off her back and expanded it, using it to ward off the beams. It was harder for her than for Marcius, whose body was protected head to toe. He didn't even have to keep track of the shots, just as long as he kept up his rotation. Atla, on the other hand, needed to put her undivided attention into her deflections, so it was harder for her to run, and she had trouble keeping up with him. They weren't alone in the corridor. The other Krameans were going to the same place they were. Marcius guessed that they were all heading towards the emergency ship to make their escape.
   In an instant, the spaceship was covered with a whole net of beams. The spheres flooded it on all sides and shot beams out blindly in all directions - they had no need for precision, since the idea was to create a net so tight that not a single living thing on the enemy ship could withstand it.
   One of the Krameans turned on an electric field. With a discharge of electricity, the crystal threw the swarm of spheres off itself, giving itself a bit of a break. It started to gain speed, but the Pacifians didn't let up either. The Krameans launched their missiles, which shot out of the narrowest part of the crystal, located at the bottom. They struck down some of the bigger spheres and spooked away the little ones, but it wasn't enough. There were many more to take their place, and they gathered at the top, out of the missiles' reach.
  More and more spheres attached themselves to the crystal, and the net of beams grew more refined. One by one, the Krameans fell down dead. Seeing that Atla was no longer managing by herself, Marcius took her under his cocoon and they ran together.
   "Had the Krameans been equipped with the same beams as me, they would have survived," he thought.
   The further they ran, the more cut-up lifeless Kramean bodies they encountered.
   The net got tighter, and the crystal's protective shield wasn't holding up to the pressure. Layers and layers of spheres appeared out of nowhere; the smaller spheres were accompanied by the bigger ones, which were more dangerous, since their beams were capable of destroying more than just organic matter. Even though they were powerless against the massive crystal shell, they could still reach the structure within. Walls, corridors, floors and ceilings cracked at the seams; everything around started to crumble, and the floor shook beneath their feet. Glass lining shattered to pieces all around.
   "Our only chance is at the end of the hall!" yelled Atla.
   The grinding of breaking metal tore at their eardrums. Sparks and Pacifian beams lashed out everywhere. The corridor they were running along bent out of shape, and the floor began to slant. Marcius managed to keep his footing and ran onwards, but Atla lost her balance and tumbled down. Her body landed into a crack and got trapped by a shard off the ceiling. She cried out in pain. Marcius turned - she was far down below, among the dead bodies and shards of metal, beams flashing all around. Just a second more and they'd take off her head.
   "Keep going!" she yelled, seeing him stop.
   Marcius looked ahead. He could already see the emergency crystal at the end of the hall and was just about to run to it, but something deep inside held him back. He suddenly turned around, swung his beam, lengthening it, and wrapped it around Atla's arms. With a sharp tug, he pulled her out. In that moment, they were both unprotected before the Pacifians' needles of light, but luckily they remained unscathed. Pulling her towards him, he threw her over his left shoulder - she was in no condition to run. With his right hand, he continued to rotate he beam.
   The corridor led them to the top tier of the crystal. It ended with a spacious pavilion, the emergency craft at its center, but even here everything had already been damaged. The spare ship was an exact replica of the crystal, but ten times smaller. It had already been started by those who managed to reach it first - it was open and surrounded by several bodies. Light beams zapped all around.
   Marcius ran inside, but no one was left alive.
   "Higher!" Atla yelled.
   He ran to the top. All three pilots were gathered in the room of navigation. They had less distance to cover and had managed to reach the craft alive, but their bodies were maimed by the beams. Beside the control panel he saw the wounded young pilot, hiding behind two shields. Beside him was the elder, barely alive, and the dead body of the middle-aged Kramean. They'd already prepared the ship for takeoff.
   "Put me down!" ordered the priestess.
   Marcius brought her down to the floor. With a limp, she came over to the old man. Marcius came after her, maintaining his cocoon.
   "Get under our cocoon!" Atla ordered the pilot.
   The young Kramean crawled towards them into the safe space of the magnetic beam.
   "I destroyed all data containing the coordinates. They won't receive them!" wheezed the old man with a cough.
   Atla took his hand, wanting to say something, but she wasn't quick enough. He helplessly dropped his head, emitting his last breath.
   Atla looked at the remaining pilot, her eyes full of tears.
   "Takeoff! No one else will make it now!"
   The pilot touched his headband. The terrible racket sounded almost like an explosion. The emergency ship shot out into space, using its perishing brother as a launch pad. They were thrown upwards as if by a catapult. The bigger crystal gave its last resources to launch them as far out as possible. The emergency crystal flew off in a flash, far away from the point of battle.
   But the Pacifians were well prepared. They placed their ranks within the radius of ejection, in case anyone managed to reach the emergency craft.
   Marcius saw them through the porthole.
   Atla removed the headband from the head of the old man and put it onto her own. She ripped the headband off the other dead pilot as well and handed it to Marcius.
   "All three of us will navigate!" she ordered.
   The pilot coordinated the direction of movement, even though he was very weak. Atla controlled the speed, and Marcius monitored their surroundings, getting ready to ward off any pursuers. He didn't understand how, but along with the headband he received the knowledge of navigation and attack. He understood the commands of Atla and the young pilot without words. He knew what they would do, and acted in synchrony, as if they had one brain among the three of them. The spheres were on their tail. They'd managed to escape the main squad, and only the most swift and persistent of the bunch were after them.
   "Have you already contacted Krama?" Atla asked the pilot.
   The young Kramean didn't utter a single sound, but already she understood everything. The crystal's center of communication was destroyed.
   "Head over to Yurei," she ordered.
   The young pilot didn't hear her as he collapsed. Atla and Marcius ran over to him; the girl ripped open his suit. The clothes concealed the seriousness of his injuries. His side was slashed open, and the cut appeared to be very deep. With such an injury, it was amazing he'd survived for any length of time at all. He must have been in agony.
   "Don't you dare die!" she begged him, one hand under his head, the other on his hand. The young man gave her one last smile, squeezed her hand and left his body.
   Atla screamed at the top of her lungs, laying her head on his chest.
   "We're doomed!" she told Marcius, "Three people are needed to navigate the spaceship!"
   Marcius sat down, for several moments remaining completely still. There were no other survivors on board - only him, Atla and a pile of dead bodies.
   The spheres were rapidly approaching, already reaching them with their needles. Marcius stood beside Atla and swung his beam.
   "But can we still shoot?" he asked.
   "Yes!" she said loudly.
   Marcius opened fire onto the spheres. The emergency craft worked in line with the same principles as the big one - it also contained charges of liquid hydrogen. They had speed at their advantage, which they'd gained at takeoff; the spheres had trouble keeping up with them. Only the strongest remained at their tail - about a dozen of them. Every second shot that Marcius fired reached its intended destination. He shot down six spheres with prefect precision, destroying them completely. With the others he'd only managed to damage their needles. The sphere leading the pack, however, was surprisingly agile. He wasted four charges on it, and every time it managed to escape unharmed.
   "Stop!" Atla yelled.
   Marcius looked at her, confused.
   "We need to catch one of them!" she said.
   "What?" he asked in surprise.
   "We'll capture one of them and force him to be our third pilot," she ordered.
   "You're crazy!" he objected.
   "Do it!"
   "What can I say? If I can't knock that one down then perhaps I can at least capture him," said Marcius, squinting at the first sphere.
   The laboratory downstairs contained a mechanical claw for collecting specimens. It worked like an excavator, sliding out of the bottom part of the crystal, scooping the contents and placing them in a container. Marcius already made contact with it telepathically. During contact, it was like an avatar of his own hand. Only three spheres remained on their tail - no fresh ranks were dispatched to the chase. The Pacifians were probably happy enough with their capture of the large crystal, not yet knowing that it harbored no coordinates. Nonetheless, the remaining three spheres were very persistent.
   Marcius let them come very close, allowing them to fire the beams. The elusive sphere that previously evaded his shots came the closest, and as it did so, he sharply reduced the speed of their craft. The sphere almost collided with the crystal, but managed to brake in the nick of time. It went below the crystal, just as Marcius intended. The two others flew by overhead. He could only reach the bottom one with the claw, and without hesitation, reached out to grab it. He caught it quickly, on the first try. He had the element of surprise on his side, and the Pacifian had no chance of escape. Marcius dragged the sphere into the compartment. He broke off all its needles, fixing it to the center of the bottom pavilion. The needles were not only a weapon, but also a means of communication. Now the Pacifian couldn't even relay his capture to the others, and all that remained was to get rid of the witnesses.
   "Shoot!" Marcius yelled, seeing that the other two spheres were very close.
   Atla swept the craft upwards and fired all their remaining shots. One was shot down, and a shard from its wreckage hit the other one, sending it spinning off to the side and rendering it dysfunctional. Everything went silent, and the beams disappeared. Atla set the speed to maximum capacity, but they still needed a third pilot to set the route. They were flying at crazy speed in a completely unknown direction.
   "What now?" Marcius asked, "We've captured the Pacifian, he's downstairs!"
   Atla nodded, listening to the sounds coming from below. The sphere was trying to break free, tossing from side to side.
   "Now we have to convince him to be our third pilot. Otherwise, we'll crash into something sooner or later, and that will be the end of us."
   "Good luck," said Marcius. He didn't believe she'd be able to do it. The Pacifians were zealots who'd sooner die than enter into an agreement with the enemy. Marcius couldn't see how she'd convince him to take her side.
   They carefully descended to the lower level, as if wary of scaring away their prey. The sphere was at the very center of the laboratory, held in place by the claw. It was trying to move, but the powers were unmatched. Marcius confirmed that all the needles were knocked off its surface and removed the cocoon. Both he and Atla looked at the sphere with unbridled curiosity. The Pacifian inside already displayed his character when he was still chasing after them. He was the most stealthy and persistent of his rank, and it was foolish to expect from him an easy agreement to compromise.
   "I'll try to read his thoughts," said Atla. She came up to the sphere and started to listen.
   "I can't hear anything," she said.
   "Is he dead?" asked Marcius.
   "I don't think so," said the girl, "Military Pacifians have a protective plate implanted into their head to shield them from Krameans."
   Atla knocked. The Pacifian didn't react.
   "He's scared," she said.
  They looked in silence at the stubborn, lifeless sphere. They needed to come up with something quickly.
  "Well of course!" Marcius exclaimed all of a sudden, "The little pest will be able to see us if we figure out where exactly the portholes are located!" In theory, he knew that the Pacifian spheres see the outside world through tiny openings.
   The sphere was completely uniform on the surface. Marcius lit his way with his beam, and Atla - with her shield, but they weren't able to find anything until they thought of turning the sphere around. The opening was at the bottom and looked like a razor-thin glowing strip.
   "He's upside down in there," Atla caught on.
   Marcius turned the sphere so that the Pacifian occupied a more natural position and saw them at the right angle.
   "I hope he forgives us for that," said Marcius quietly.
   Atla shrugged.
   "If he sees us, we can write him a message," she decided.
   Marcius nodded. It was a good idea.
   Atla removed her shield from behind her back and put it out in front of her. She closed her eyes and it released beams of light in different directions. They formed a round glowing surface. Atla placed it vertically in front of the sphere and started to write. She thought to herself, and the text appeared on the field of light.
   "Hello. We've captured you out of necessity, and we don't wish to harm you. We need three people in order to navigate the spaceship, and we have only two on board. We need another pilot, and that's why you're here. Open the sphere and come out - we won't shoot. If you don't come out, we will all perish!"
   "Also tell him that the Pacifians are no longer pursuing us - we've shaken them off," Marcius suggested. She added on that information into the text:
   "The Pacifians can no longer save you - it's just the three of us now for miles and miles of open space."
   "Tell him about the connection," Marcius corrected her.
   "We've lost our means of communication on our craft, and we can't call for help. We really need you!"
   Atla repeated the message several times, adding more and more detail to it. But everything was in vain, and the soldier in the sphere showed no response. She was completely exhausted and sat down off to the side, leaning her back against the wall. Marcius sat down beside her. For a long time they were silent, never taking their eyes off the opening. They both knew that the Pacifian could hear and see them, but how to reach him still remained a complete mystery.
   Marcius looked at Atla. There were tears in her eyes.
   "All those people that just died, they were all my friends, every single one," she whispered, sobbing.
   Marcius sympathized with her. Even though he felt no regret for the death of the Kramean squad, his heart went out to her in particular. Marcius could easily imagine what she felt right now.
   "When the creature ventures forth from the sphere, we'll be able to return to Krama and everything will work out just fine!" he tried to cheer her up.
   "What?!" she objected.
   Marcius looked at her in surprise, not understanding what he said wrong.
   "To Krama?" asked the priestess. There was a crazed look in her eyes.
   "Yes, the expedition fell through," said Marcius calmly.
   "I'm not going back to Krama!" Atla retorted sharply, 'We're going to find the new world!"
   "But we need people and resources!" said Marcius, bewildered.
   He didn't expect that in catching the sphere she planned to set off to find the lifesaving world along with just him and the Pacifian.
   "We have people - you, me, and this beast," she gestured towards the sphere.
   Marcius didn't agree.
   "Even if the Pacifian comes out and we manage to convince him to work with us, then the best thing would be to reach the nearest interplanetary station and go our separate ways. You have the coordinates, and so do I. At home you can gather a new team and go off to search. I will obviously do the same."
   "You don't understand," she said, "If a war has started because of the coordinates, then the next team awaits the same fate. It will be a deadly chase. Do you really want to set everyone onto each other?"
   Marcius thought it over.
   "Our only chance is to fly there together right now!" she continued. "No one knows where we are, or that we're even alive, and we're the only ones that have the coordinates. Maybe that world isn't even fit for people like us - we'll have to check it ourselves. And only then will we return."
   Atla swiftly got up and came up to the sphere. She started to bang her hand hysterically against its surface.
   "Get out, quickly! We need a third pilot!"
   The Pacifian didn't react. Time went by, but there was no response. Both Atla and Marcius grew full of despair.
   "Sooner or later thirst and hunger will get to him and he'll have to come out," said Atla angrily.
   "Are you kidding?" asked Marcius. "We're about to enter Tulonian territory, and they'll knock us down. We need to get him out of there at any cost, and as soon as possible."
   "What if we pretend that we've gone away? That is, turn off the lights and go upstairs?" she suggested.
   "And?"
   Atla stood up and walked towards the door. Marcius didn't like her idea, but he went after her. They ascended to the higher level.
   "We need to think of what to do with the sphere in the case that he does come out and agrees to work with us," said Atla.
   "What do you mean?" Marcius didn't see what she was worried about.
   "Having found out the coordinates, he can kill us and use it to escape back to his own world. To be fair, that's something you'd be capable of as well!" Atla predicted.
   Marcius smiled. The Kramean was in her element, but he didn't blame her. He didn't trust her either.
   "We really damaged the sphere when we caught it, and then he added to the damage when he was trying to escape the claw. It's been punctured," said Marcius, "He isn't going anywhere in that sphere."
   The girl believed Marcius. The sphere really didn't look its best.
   "For now let's take care of the dead bodies," said Atla.
   They dragged the bodies into the freezer division and started to clean the blood off the floor when a person emerged out of the sphere. He stood in the doorway, holding a weapon in front of him. Atla looked at him indifferently, lowered her head and continued cleaning as if nothing had happened. Marcius' reaction was more emotional. He stood up, wiped the blood off his hands and rushed to introduce himself in Pacifian.
   "Please don't shoot. I'm Marcius Appa Laun, a pilot from Tulona. We have no ill will towards you."
   The Pacifian was silent. In his hand, swinging from a thin silver thread, hung an orb - the Pacifians' weapon of choice. Had he wanted he could have already shot them dead. It was unlikely that Marcius could have knocked the bullets away with his beam, and yet the Pacifian was hesitating.
   He was lean, not particularly tall, with typical Pacifian features, likely from the lower ranks of his world. Nonetheless, he carried himself with confidence, looking at them fearlessly, boldly even. The unusual texture of his black hair was immediately noticeable. Each hair was unusually thick, and the whole bunch rose above his head in a style of peculiar shape, compensating for his lack of height. He was somehow reminiscent of his sphere - just as spiky and cold. His eyes were slanted, like with all Pacifians. His gaze shifted from Atla to Marcius and back again, as if deciding where to start.
   "What is a Tulonian like yourself doing here?" he said finally.
   "I keep on asking that myself," Marcius smiled, "Wiping off the Kramean blood that you spilled."
   The Pacifian didn't react to the joke. Marcius saw that he was too hasty with the answer and decided to tell him everything as it was.
   "The Krameans captured me and used by ability to see the faraway world to attain its coordinates."
   The Pacifian furled his brows in confusion.
   "Don't you know why the Pacifians attacked the Krameans?" Marcius asked him.
   "I was following orders," he replied dryly, "It's not my job to know the reason behind the battle."
   Marcius nodded. The Pacifian elite never communicated their intentions to mere mortals.
   "And yet there was a reason!" Atla joined in, standing up, "We were on our way to find a world capable of sustaining human life. The Seven Worlds are in danger; we need to relocate."
   "We think the emperor wanted to seize the coordinates from the Krameans," Marcius continued.
   "Don't you talk of Him! You're unworthy!" barked the Pacifian with unexpected harshness.
   Marcius apologized. Discussing the actions of the great ruler was an insult in the eyes of the Pacifian.
   "I apologize. I know how much Pacifians look up to their ruler, but we only want to explain the situation to you."
   "What's your name?" Atla asked.
   "You don't need to know that," he replied.
   "Okay, only business then," she said. He was just as difficult to deal with as they'd anticipated.
   "The situation is simple. If you won't help us navigate, we'll all die," she explained.
   "That much I've understood," he said.
   "I realize how this looks. It seems like we've taken you as our prisoner, but believe me, you aren't being held captive. You're an equal among us!" said Marcius.
   The Pacifian's gaze was very intelligent. He was too stubborn, but had his wits about him.
   "We want to continue the expedition," Marcius continued, "We only need your agreement to be a part of it."
   "How long will it take?" he asked coldly.
   "Up to two years," Atla replied, "But in the end you will receive what your people wanted to get a hold of so badly."
   "I don't believe you," said the Pacifian, "I'm still alive only because you need a pilot to save your own skin. If not for that, you would have shot me down just like you did the others!"
   "Yes," Marcius admitted, "Just like you would have shot us down right now if you didn't need our help to get out of here alive."
   The Pacifian nodded and continued:
   "You want my help to find the world, and you're promising to just let me go off with the coordinates after?"
   "We'll need your help even after we get there. We won't be able to return to the Seven Worlds without you! The three of us need to stick together on our way there as well as on our way back," said Atla.
   "In other words," replied the Pacifian, "You affirm that the critical moment will come at the very end of the journey? The moment when we will stop needing each other?"
   "Most likely, but we still need to survive up until then," Atla specified.
   "I'm aware," he snapped, "All that I'm trying to understand is whether or not it's worth trying to live that long."
   "You want to kill us now because you're not sure you'll be able to do so once we return?" asked Marcius.
   "Precisely," the Pacifian admitted, "The options are simple. I can kill you now, two dangerous enemies of my world. Then I perish myself, but success is absolutely certain. Otherwise, I live two more years with you and hope that upon return I'll get a chance to finish you off before you try to do the same to me. Likelihood of success - around 30%. As you can see, the answer is evident!"
   "Just make sure you take into account that me and her are also enemies," added Marcius dryly, "You offend me by treating us as a team."
   "In that case then towards the end she will wish to kill both of us, and you will wish to kill both her and myself. And I'll do everything I can to kill the two of you, because I'm sure we all understand that if that world really is lifesaving, not one of us has any intention of letting the others just walk away with the coordinates. We're soldiers!"
   Marcius looked at him carefully. He truly appreciated how open and direct he was. This manner of interaction sat with him much better than the Krameans' phony smiles. The Pacifian was right.
   "I have to admit, I'm taking quite a liking to you," said Marcius suddenly.
   The Pacifian raised his brows. Marcius continued:
   "Everything that you're saying is true, but you understand that you can give yourself two more years of life, and...." Marcius paused for emphasis, "There's still 30% that you'll be the one to win!"
   "Yes," Atla joined in, "Treat this as a competition, if you will."
   "And how do you see it?" The Pacifian asked, narrowing his eyes.
   "In a different light," she admitted, "I can't calculate the likelihood of my success with such precision. I can't foresee what will happen to us along the way. I act according to the situation, without planning that far ahead. But between life and death I always choose life!"
   The Pacifian nodded and turned towards Marcius.
   "And you?"
   "And I just really want to find that world," said Marcius, "Let's go!"
   The Pacifian thought it over. His expression was hard to read. If only he had some grand ambition, a sense of adventure and curiosity! At this point, that was their only saving grace.
   Marcius was sure of his answer. He knew that a soldier that led his ranks in battle, so expertly avoiding any shots fired in his direction and daring to talk back to a Kramean priestess and a Tulonian warrior must without a doubt possess all those qualities.
   "I'm in," said the Pacifian, "And also: I'd want our interaction throughout the journey to be minimal."
   "I understand," said Marcius.
   "Works for me," said Atla. She picked up the headband and handed it to him.
   "Put it on your head in the same way that we have."
   The man from the sphere put on the device very carefully, looking out for new sensations. As soon as the headband touched his forehead, he mentally connected to both Atla and Marcius. They couldn't hear his thoughts, but very distinctly felt his presence.
   "With your permission, I'll be the captain," Atla commanded.
   Neither Tulonian nor Pacifian liked this very much, but seeing as the ship was Kramean and she was most familiar with its controls, they agreed.
   "The main task for us now is to set the route, and after that, everything will be much easier," she decided.
   The Pacifian gradually joined their labor. He started to feel the crystal with all its systems and feel the surrounding space. It was a peculiar feeling, as if his own body had expanded to the size of a spaceship. Many new diagrams and data points flooded his brain all at once, and he grew capable of doing things he'd never learned to do, which was impressive. The headband intensified his brain's function and toned up his entire body. The three of them could understand each other without words.
   Atla put in the route she'd already calculated on the big ship. It was the shortest and most effective.
   "How much water do we have left?" she asked, seeing that several of the containers have been punctured.
   "Seven hundred liters," Marcius replied.
   "How long will it last?"
   "For three people, two thirds of the way in one direction," replied the Pacifian, 'That's assuming we won't drink more than five hundred milliliters per day."
   "What about the provisions?" she continued her examination.
   "We have enough for the whole journey, including the return, with extra left over," Marcius replied, checking the storage.
   "Let's get the water storage up to 100% and be on our way," the priestess decided.
   "Bring up a diagram of nearby meteors and asteroids," she told Marcius, suggesting to mine the water from them.
   The Tulonian examined their surroundings.
   "The closest is three light days away," he replied.
   "Then that's where we'll go," Atla commanded.
   The Pacifian calculated the route and they were on their way.
  Chapter 6. The Olmeco Tunnel
   Atla picked an asteroid in a remote, faraway location, on the edges of the Seven Worlds. They attached themselves to it and both Marcius and the Pacifian got ready to get out. Atla remained inside as backup.
   "We need to secure each other with a rope," Marcius suggested.
   "We already have enough safeguards," the Pacifian disagreed.
   Marcius insistently handed him a third rope.
  "I'm used to working alone," said the Pacifian stubbornly.
  "I'm not," replied Marcius, "I've always worked together with my friend," he added, "Please!"
  The Pacifian didn't like the idea of being tied with a rope to the Tulonian, but not wanting to waste time arguing, he took the other end of the rope and fastened it to his belt. They left the ship and were immediately confronted with weightlessness.
  On one side was the sparkly white surface of the asteroid, and on the other - the golden smoothness of the crystal. Moving their hands along the surface of the ship, grabbing onto the shallow grooves intended specifically for this purpose, they lowered themselves down to the drills holding the crystal to the asteroid. Descending along them to the surface of the rock, Marcius immediately fastened a cable to the asteroid, plunging a spike into its body. The Pacifian descended along the other drill, and having reached the bottom, did the same. Activating the claw, Atla handed them the tools for collecting ice - one for Marcius and one for the Pacifian.
   These devices were reminiscent of metallic boxes, but without bottoms. A handle with a button was fastened to the top lid, along with another lever. The surface heated up to a smoldering red at the push of the button. As soon as the box came into contact with ice, it plunged into it, smoothly cutting it into cubes. With a push of the lever, a scorching string slid along the bottom edges of the box, cutting off the ice cube like a mushroom. The only difficulty was lifting it up out of the main block of ice.
  Tensing all the muscles on his back, arms and legs, Marcius pulled out the cubes one by one, handing them to the claw, which loaded it onto the ship. Even though the Pacifian was much smaller than Marcius, he was just as fast as him, and did his work just as thoroughly.
  Marcius was drenched in sweat. The lining of his spacesuit wasn't able to absorb and filter it fast enough. On top of that, the suit was too small for him. Even the largest Kramean size barely fit him, pinching at the shoulders. They worked for twelve hours. Periodically, Marcius would look at the Pacifian, his pace slackening as time went by and tiredness overcame him.
  "I suggest we return to the ship, get some rest, get our strength back and then continue," he suggested.
  The Pacifian heard Marcius' voice inside his helmet, and sharply objected:
  "We only have 12% left to load out of the amount we've already done, and we have enough resources left. We have enough oxygen for five more hours."
  Marcius didn't argue. He still had some energy left, being well-trained, but he didn't expect such perseverance from the Pacifian. They worked nonstop for one more hour. The Pacifian's plan to replenish the store in one burst of effort might have worked if a certain accident hadn't thrown them off.
  The Pacifian drew out yet another ice cube, lifted it up above himself and handed it to the claw. It grasped it and carried it off to the ship, and the Pacifian started to drill his next cube. Marcius was just about to turn to the claw to pass off his latest catch when he froze in place, completely defeated by the sight in front of him. Either Atla, who was controlling the claw, squeezed the ice cube in its grasp too tightly and crushed it, or otherwise the cube itself was unusually porous in structure and cracked all by itself. One way or another, it fell to pieces. One of the shards hit the Pacifian's back, knocking off the cable at his waist that held him to the ship.
  He let out a sickening scream from the sudden pain. He lost his balance and fell towards the asteroid, hitting the icy surface with a thud and bouncing back into weightlessness. He was floating away into space quickly. The cable connecting him to the asteroid stretched to its limits and snapped. It did, however, manage to slow his movement, so that his last lifeline, the cable connecting him to Marcius, wasn't subjected to as much pressure. Marcius saw clearly that once that cable gets stretched to its full length, it would drag him away after the Pacifian into the cosmic void. His heart raced anxiously. He could hear his partner's heavy breathing through the intercom.
  "Hold on to me with the claw!" he yelled out to Atla, and then to the Pacifian, "Hang in there!"
  The Pacifian didn't reply; Atla aimed the claw at Marcius. He was almost in its grasp when at the last moment he slipped away and flew after the Pacifian into the blackness of space.
   The cable connecting Marcius to the asteroid reached its limit first and wasn't able to handle the pull of two bodies at once. The end that was impaled into the ice jumped out and all the pressure got transfused into the last cable connecting Marcius to the ship. This cable was fastened very tightly, but Marcius was worried that the rope itself wouldn't hold up. Thankfully, the speed at which their bodies were travelling was greatly hindered by the breakage of the other two cables.
   The last cable stretched to its full length, but was able to withstand the pressure. Marcius felt a sudden deceleration and an overwhelming pain in his waist. He was sharply pulled back towards the asteroid, seeing the Pacifian flying towards him. Atla tried to grab them with the claw, but their trajectory of movement did not fall within its reach. Marcius fell into the ship with his back, but inertia pushed him back into space. Having flown off no more than two meters he found himself once again pressed to the ship, this time by the body of the Pacifian. They were just about to be flung back into space, but at the last moment Marcius managed to grab onto a groove in the spaceship and hold them back close to the crystal.
  The Pacifian wasn't moving. Marcius' heart pounded forcefully in his chest. He had time only to check that his partner's spacesuit hasn't been punctured by the ice shard, and thankfully, it was indeed still in one piece. The Pacifian was unconscious, likely due to the pain, but Marcius could hear him breathing. He tied him to his back with the cable that connected them and started to move along the grooves in the ship's surface towards the entrance.
  Atla met them by the gateway and helped get the Pacifian inside.
  "Careful!" she begged.
  Once inside, they removed his spacesuit and began to examine his wound. The skin was unbroken, but several ribs were broken, and a dark bruise stretched across his whole back.
  "He'll live," said Marcius with relief.
   The Pacifian started to cough, coming to senses. He opened his eyes and looked at Atla with distaste.
  "It's my fault, I almost killed you!" she said, her voice breaking.
  "Later," said Marcius, "Let's move him to the infirmary."
  In case of sickness or wounds the Krameans used a specialized container of liquid which they called a sarcophagus. It was carved out of medicinal crystals and filled with water, which was energetically charged and facilitated quick recovery. They loaded the Pacifian inside, leaving only the head on the surface. The pain dispersed immediately. His face expressed relief, and he started to drift off to sleep.
  "I'll finish collecting the ice by myself - there's only a little bit left," said Marcius.
  "I'll come with you," said the Pacifian, half asleep, and passed out.
  Marcius smiled at his stubbornness and spent several hours sitting beside him in complete silence, resting and watching him.
  The Pacifian finally came to. He turned over with a barely audible moan.
  "How are you?" asked the Tulonian with concern.
  "Fine," the other replied through gritted teeth.
  He really didn't like this situation, especially the sympathetic looks cast in his direction. Marcius quickly understood and did not linger beside him for much longer.
  "I won't bother you any longer. If you need anything, I'm close by," he said and turned to leave.
  "Yonk, my name is Yonk!" the Pacifian called after him.
  Marcius stopped. The Pacifian revealed his name. This was a victory of sorts. He turned and said, "I'm glad that you're alive, Yonk!"
  The Pacifian nodded.
  Marcius went up to where Atla was. He put on his spacesuit again and went out into open space. The stressful incident had sucked all the life out of him. He was completely drained. He could have never imagined that he'd ever be so worried about the life of a Pacifian whose name he didn't even know.
  Working on his own, Marcius was especially careful, never rushing and passing off the ice in small pieces. Atla accepted the cubes slowly and attentively. The value of each of the three lives was too high.
  Marcius finished the work by himself. The devices confirmed that the water store was filled up completely, and they left without hesitation. Even though the chunks collected were not only ice but also had carbon mixed into them, the water could be filtered during flight. The main thing was to clear it of radiation.
  They continued on their way towards the first tunnel. It was located between the orbits of Yurei and Guinea and belonged to the Seven Worlds. It was considered Semi-Native - that's how the inhabitants of this system called tunnels whose one side was inside the Seven Worlds, and the other was beyond its borders. Only if both ends were within their home system was the tunnel called Native. Onyx determined the boundaries of the system - everything that fell under the influence of its gravity was considered a part of the Seven Worlds, and everything else was considered a separate world.
  The flight to the entrance of the Olmeco tunnel was three months in duration. This was the most difficult part of the journey, and it wasn't easy for the travelers to get used to each other. Because of their strong mutual mistrust, it was difficult for them to work together. Arguments broke out frequently.
  It was thoroughly irritating to eat the same Kramean food three times a day. Even though it contained all the necessary nutrients and minerals, its taste got so tiresome that its nutritional value did nothing to salvage the situation. They took turns sleeping - at least two people had to be awake at all times, although even the sleeping pilot remained connected to the collective consciousness of the spaceship and continued to carry out the necessary duties unconsciously. Each had their own cabin, which gave them some privacy, but they spent the majority of their time in the main pavilion. It was a spacious room with a high ceiling strung with thin crystals. Oxygen entered through the tips of the crystals, and none of them were starving, but even this spacious hall wasn't big enough for the three of them.
   As they approached the first portal, Marcius was asleep. It was his turn to rest, but he woke up because of a nosebleed. He jumped out of bed and looked down. Several red drops fell to the floor. Marcius watched in bewilderment as the blood collected on the floor into a small globule, flew up into the air and split in two. Then each half divided again and again until the microscopic drops mixed in with the surrounding air and disappeared from view. All of this happened in an instant. Gravity had been disrupted, which meant they were right at the tunnel's entrance.
   He ran out into the pavilion. Atla turned and looked at him.
   "We're in the tunnel!" she said, her voice dull and quiet, as if coming from the other end of the universe. The sound of her voice didn't reach him right away. He felt a ringing in his ears.
   "Hang in there, it'll pass soon enough," Marcius told himself, trying to grab onto the numbness in his eardrums.
   The sensations felt going through a magic tunnel were too intense, and it was scariest of all for first-timers. You didn't know what to expect, and your experience inside the tunnel would forever change your worldview. Your consciousness expanded to the size of the universe, all boundaries broke down, and you started to feel bigger, more majestic, and most importantly, you stopped associating yourself with any particular point in space, be that a planet or a star. You started to look at each corner of the universe as your home.
   All your senses sharpened and became more sensitive. Feeling each receptor, each nerve ending and each single cell on your body, you began to be more intuitive and in touch with yourself. You absorbed your environment, feeling the sickening collision of each molecule, winced with each movement of a neutron inside yourself as well as outside.
   You could look at your hand and see right through it, piercing the skin, muscles, blood and bones with your gaze, sinking into it. But most enthralling of all was a newfound ability to see profound beauty in the most unlikely places. Colours sharpened to an amazing degree of saturation, becoming surprisingly strong and dynamic. Your experience of the world turned into a fairy tale, your mood soared, and your fear melted away.
   The room was flooded with the bright light of a million stars. Sparkling silver started to drip down the walls. The screens lit up with blooming red roses. The surreal psychedelic atmosphere was mind-boggling. Marcius swayed a little and looked into the porthole. Faces flew out at him through the endless darkness, some familiar, others not. They materialized out of stardust that for some reason he began to see and feel. The starlight scorched his face. His gaze paused upon his own reflection. Marcius froze in horror, as the pupils seemed to have disappeared from his eyes. A crazed desire flooded his heart to return to the way things were. He began to feel pain in his chest.
   "Don't look at yourself!" Atla yelled, "Someone say something, I beg you!"
  Both Marcius and Yonk understood what she was getting at. Everyone in the Seven Worlds knew that you couldn't let your mind be idle while falling through a magic tunnel, or else you might forever become dependent on it and spend the rest of your life chasing after that feeling, aimlessly wandering through wormholes. A lot of Guineans suffered from this. Magic tunnels were the strongest drug in the universe, and the only way to fight it was to become emotionally engaged with something, lessening the effect.
  "Tulonians, Pacifians, vile barbarians, dirty animals, I hate you all!" Atla screamed.
   It was clear that she was trying to start a fight. Evidently, the emotion of anger was the best she could do right now. She wanted to distract them from the idleness, and her aggressive outburst did the trick.
   Marcius saw Yonk's face go red and his hands tighten into fists and he jumped up from his chair. Marcius himself wasn't any less affected by the outburst, but most importantly, it distracted him from his hallucinations.
   "What did you say?" he asked, mirroring her aggressive disposition.
   "You hold nothing sacred. You're empty and soulless and deserving of death, all of you!" she spat at him, and looked over at Yonk, her eyes full of mad hatred. Unlike Marcius, her eyes had pupils, and they were so big they barely left room for anything else.
   Marcius' eye started to twitch and his blood boiled inside of him, but he didn't debase himself with yelling. He replied coldly and with disdain:
   "Oh, yes, I completely forgot, the souls of Krameans turn to stars after death!" He paused, "You're stupid and naive! Can you even think of anything more ridiculous!"
   This time, Atla got truly offended. She felt a tightness in her throat. Nothing wounded her more than an insult against her native religion. The conversation stopped being a mere imitation of an argument and escalated to the level of a real interplanetary conflict.
   "It's our religion, it's millions of years old, have some respect, you barbarian!"
   "Tulona is older than Krama, and I'm not sure which one of us is the barbarian!"
  Yonk was quiet, but still emotionally invested in the argument. The waves of hatred coming from him could be felt strongly and distinctly.
  "Who told you that?" Atla asked indignantly, "Our religion claims that..."
  "Your religion means nothing!" Marcius interrupted her, "The only thing you're good at is spying, eavesdropping, gossip and drama!"
   Yonk nodded silently, agreeing with the Tulonian, and cast a dirty look in Atla's direction.
   Atla's eyes turned red. The trip through the tunnel had long ceased to be carefree and easygoing. She'd managed to salvage everyone's sanity at the price of her own feelings, but they couldn't stop talking yet. The tunnel was long and they were only at the beginning.
   "What do you even know about us?" she asked after a lengthy pause, quietly and full of hurt.
   "You want to say I'm unfamiliar with your religion?" Marcius asked crossly.
   "I want to say you're judging what you do not know."
   "And what about you? Do you yourself know anything about the religion of Tulona?"
   "Does it even exist? You know, apart from ancestor worship and arrogance? Is there anything sacred?"
   Marcius heaved a deep sigh. Up until that moment he held Atla in high regard, although he still hated her even then.
   "Yes," he replied and turned away.
   This was one of the rare occasions when Atla felt awkward, realizing she'd said too much.
   "I'm sorry, maybe I crossed the line, but... Tulona is so cold, and you want to say that faith lives within you, and you know the name of the creator of the Seven Worlds?"
   "What do you mean, the name?" said Marcius slowly.
   "I mean that at one point, none of this existed, and now it does. We know that nothing can just appear all by itself, so who created us?" said Atla.
   "I don't know who created you," Marcius replied, indignant at the idea of a single creator for all the worlds, "But I can say for sure that there is nothing in common between our civilizations. We're different! Each has its own history. In the time when a second star, Ram, still abided in the Seven Worlds, Tulona belonged to Ram. It was completely covered in water, and that's where the first Tulonians appeared. From the simplest forms, they evolved into giant underwater humans. When Ram was getting reborn, it expanded and caused Tulona's water to evaporate. The Tulonians were losing their natural habitat and adapted their bodies to the new environment. Foreseeing the loss of water, they decomposed it into oxygen and hydrogen.
  They funneled the oxygen into underwater pits and let the hydrogen evaporate. New Tulonians began living outside the water and breathe oxygen. When Ram went out and gravity pulled Tulona to Onyx, what little water was left turned to ice, and cold swept over the surface of the planet. The only ones surviving were those whose bodies managed to adapt. All of Tulona's underground cities used to be underwater pits in the past. Right now we are oxygenating the planet's atmosphere, trying to correct that same cosmic cataclysm of long ago. Our gods are our ancestors, great minds of the past to whom we owe our survival! We have no concern for your gods! "
   "How strange!" Atla exclaimed, genuinely surprised, "Because we see the whole system of the Seven Worlds through a single consciousness - the consciousness of the Kramean god. Onyx is his soul, and everything that happens to us, even now, happens because he draws it in his mind. He can create anything he wants. He can conjure up a city under a dome if he so pleases, and he can also destroy it, like he did with the Oeelians and the Guineans."
   "So you Krameans think that you live in the mind of an illusory god," said Marcius with a wry smile.
   "Exactly! Us Krameans, we are his creative masterpiece, his favourites, and you - the dark corners of his subconscious!"
  "Why thank you!" Marcius exclaimed, still smiling, "And where does this god live?"
  "Everywhere! He's a spirit!" Atla replied earnestly, "And we have been chosen by him to enlighten you!"
  "That's to say, your god has psychological problems? Since, you know, he doesn't seem able to get a grip on his own mind?"
  "If you were able to see into the minds of people, you'd be able to see how complicated everything is. Not once in my life have I met a person with a truly harmonious mind. Same with him - the Tulonians are at war with the Krameans, and the Pacifians with the Murians."
  "But you're talking of a god, not a human?" Marcius confirmed, this time more seriously, "The structure of his consciousness is assumed to be perfect, is it not?"
   At this point Yonk, who up until now had been observing the conversation from the side, lost his patience.
   "That's it, I've had enough!" he yelled out, "You don't know anything, you don't understand! That's not how it is. First of all, there is no god," he snapped at Atla, "Second of all, there never were any underwater people," he barked at Marcius, going red in the face, "But I don't blame you for believing this nonsense because third of all, it's completely the fault of the Pacifians that you do!"
   "What do you mean, the fault of the Pacifians?" Marcius asked, bewildered.
   "Pacifians have always existed in the universe. You have been artificially bred from our genes and settled on the other planets, but the experiment didn't go as planned. You're all but a poor imitation, a bunch of mutants. The anomaly has affected the Krameans' brains, and the Tulonians' bones and pigmentation. Leaving you alive out of pity, for many years now we have been trying to forget about our mistake. Blocking you off with a wall, we have been struggling to retain our world's purity," Yonk finished his speech with a loud, nervous gulp triggered by spasms in his throat. He turned away.
   Marcius, dumbfounded by the Pacifian's story, stood still, not moving a muscle. This was something he did not expect. He had to admit, Yonk beat them all in terms of audacity and megalomania. This version of creation greatly wounded the young man's ego.
   "Who would even come up with something like that?" Marcius thought to himself, reeling, "According to him, I'm just a pitiful attempt to make a copy of these lowly creatures!"
  Going over the dialogue in his head one more time, he started to laugh uncontrollably.
  "You know what the most interesting part is?" he turned to Atla, struggling to speak through bursts of laughter.
  "What?" she asked.
  "That fact that he's dead set in his beliefs, just like you and I. And no one can convince any of us of the contrary!" he summed up the conversation.
   Silence ensued, and each member of the crew was left one on one with their own thoughts. The tunnel was coming to an end, and they found themselves in a different galaxy, a whole different world, but each of them could only think about what they'd heard just a moment earlier. Each started to doubt their own religion, the foundation of their culture, the beliefs their ancestors carried through millennia. No one fell under the narcotic influence of the magic tunnel, which was only a small comfort at this point. Their passage through the portal left behind a gray sediment of sadness. Although without a doubt, for the first time in a long time, everyone had said exactly what they felt.
  Marcius spent a lot of time thinking about the conversation, and his consciousness began to shift. Having heard the stories of Atla and Yonk, he tried to see himself through their eyes.
  "Who would have guessed? Yonk looks at me and it seems like everything is fine and we've finally established a connection, but in reality he thinks I'm a crazy mutant that's kidnapped him due to the anomalous functioning of my brain. He probably isn't even angry with us, but rather condescending, humoring us in our crazy quest to find some faraway world. Maybe he feels guilty for the sins of his ancestors? Maybe he even feels sorry for us? And what about Atla? She's so full of life, and at the same time so full of mystery. It's hard to even imagine how she sees me, considering she views all Tulonians as manifestations of some deity's subconscious. Most likely, she holds us both in contempt. But I have to admit, she does hold the higher ground in this whole situation, if only because she knows what I'm thinking about, even right this second..."
  Chapter 7. The Comet
  The foreign galaxy Tron met them with cold indifference. They lay out the route to the second tunnel and started to fly in its direction, picking up speed. Yonk calculated the route. He took into account the trajectory of movement and the speed of nearby cosmic bodies, and lay out a route straight to the Delos portal. An uninterrupted four months of travel lay ahead of them, so Yonk could finally relax and focus on trying to fix his sphere.
  He was constantly in the laboratory. Bringing the sphere back to life became to him a mission just as important as finding the lifesaving world. Atla saw no harm in it - such spheres were incapable of interstellar travel. They'd already gone through the tunnel, so even if he manages to fix it, there was nowhere for him to go.
  "The sphere could be useful when we reach the planet," Marcius supported his initiative, "I'm amazed at your patience! If you succeed, we will have two ships at our disposal."
  The Pacifian didn't react to the praise, still trying his best to avoid interaction. Piece by piece, he refurbished the exterior, eliminating dents and deformations.
  "What if he manages to reestablish communication with his world?" Atla asked Marcius anxiously.
  "I don't think that's possible," he replied. He showed her a shard from one of the needles that he was hiding in his pocket.
   "Is that the one responsible for communication?" asked Atla.
   "Yes, only these needles contain no orifice for firing the beams."
   "Give it to me, I'll throw it out into space."
   Marcius gave the fragment to Atla.
   "But what if he manages to reestablish connectivity even without that shard?" Atla worried.
  "Even if by some miracle he establishes the connection and sends a signal from here, it will only reach Pacifa in a hundred years. We're too far from home now!"
  Atla was reassured. Marcius was a warrior and was trained in the nuances of enemy extraterrestrial technology.
   "I beg you, don't make a big deal of these repairs, he's only just starting to get used to us," Marcius asked her, "Don't deny him his only outlet - he'll be driven mad without it."
  "Agreed," she said.
  One day they finally managed to learn something about the Pacifian's past. Yonk returned that evening as usual with red eyes, but looked more tired than usual.
   "You seem to know what you're doing," Marcius commented.
   Yonk looked at him indifferently and reluctantly answered:
   "I'm fairly new to the military. I used to work in a factory assembling ships."
  Atla and Marcius glanced at each other. If the emperor had gotten to the point of expanding his army to include common workers, things weren't looking good. Pacifa was the most populated world, and its human resources were unmatched by any other planet.
  They haven't had a chance to venture too far from Olmeco or pick up any speed when all of a sudden an inexplicable phenomenon crossed their path. Out of the corner of his eye, Marcius saw something move to the left of the ship, something that looked like golden snowflakes slowly drifting through the expanse of the universe. Marcius looked closer, but still could not identify the nature of this phenomenon. He only knew one thing - nothing in space happened by accident.
  "Something is moving on the left," he warned Atla.
  "Yes, I see," she said, "Most likely cosmic debris."
  "Sharpen the image - what is it?" he asked anxiously.
  Atla nodded and pulled up the images on the screen. They displayed the hard, solidified bodies of cosmic stingrays mixed in with shards of Guinean ships.
  "Murian animals? Here?" Marcius asked in surprise.
  Murian engineers adapted the bodies of stingrays to withstand the conditions of open space. The stingrays served them as spaceships.
  "Yes," said Atla, "They're dead!"
  "With people inside?!" he exclaimed.
  "No, they're empty!" the priestess proclaimed, thoroughly scanning their bodies.
  "I'm guessing that a Murian caravan flew into Tron for resources and was attacked and plundered by Guineans," Yonk's voice sounded from behind.
  "Possibly," Atla agreed, "The stingrays likely defended themselves and managed to destroy a couple of Guinean ships."
  "What's that?" asked Marcius, frozen, not paying any attention to their conversation.
  One of the corpses moved. Atla zoomed in on the object.
  "Amazing it survived," Marcius couldn't believe his eyes, "We need to pick it up!"
  "What?" Yonk balked.
  "What?" Atla was taken aback, "That's crazy, what will we do with it?" she asked.
  "I thought you believed in signs," the Tulonian turned her way, "If there's a tiny living creature surrounded by dead bodies on our path, we are obliged to take care of it!"
  "No!" Atla objected, "We are obliged to remember that the continued existence of our people depends on our expedition. A stingray's life means nothing right now."
  "I'm sorry, but I can't start my quest to save millions of lives by passing by a dying animal like this."
  Atla was silent. So was Yonk.
  "We'll only lose a little time, but our conscience will be clear," Marcius begged.
  "I don't agree," Yonk replied firmly, "We barely have enough water even for us, so what will we do with a Murian fish?"
  "Yonk is right," Atla agreed, "We really don't need that stingray. We won't be able to nurse it back to health!"
  "It will die along the way anyways," said Yonk, trying to bring him back to his senses.
  "No, we'll put it into stasis, and then release it into the waters of the foreign planet once we get there," Marcius insisted.
  Atla begged him to reconsider: "We don't even know if it has waters, or if that world exists in the first place!"
  "Of course it exists," Marcius replied firmly and began to put on his spacesuit.
  Murian stingrays lived in water, so in theory his plan could work. Nonetheless, Yonk was still strongly opposed to the idea, and Atla was hesitant. Her heart was filled with pity for the helpless creature, but her obligations as captain didn't allow her to give into Marcius' whims.
  "Stop! We'll vote," she said, "Who's against this?"
  Atla and Yonk raised their hands.
  "You're in the minority," she told him.
  Marcius didn't even hear her. He wordlessly put on the helmet, secured himself with a cable, grabbed an extra one for the stingray and started towards the gateway.
  "Wait!" she yelled, "Alright, fine!"
  "Aim the crystal into the pack!" she commanded Yonk.
  The Pacifian made a face, but followed the order. The ship came closer. Marcius jumped out into space, and while letting a bit of oxygen out of his gloves and boots, came closer to the dead female. The pup was hiding behind her fin. Marcius tied the rope around its head and started to slowly pull it towards the gateway. The stingray resisted, refusing to part with its mother. It was twice as long as Marcius himself, and it was difficult to lead it away against its will. Marcius touched its skin with his glove. Even through several layers of hard fabric he could feel the tremors running through the little stingray's body. He wrapped an arm around its head and very slowly led it away, while stroking it gently.
  The opening of the gateway was smaller than the span of its wings, so Marcius had to tie them flush against its body with a rope. The poor creature was so scared and so weak that it didn't even resist.
  The stingray was heavy - Marcius was barely able to bring it inside. He dragged its heavy body along the cold glass ramp down into the laboratory. Feeling the temperature change and the artificial gravity come into effect, the animal gave a dull moan. The stingray's body was big enough to cover the whole floor. Its skin was stronger than steel and felt like dry ice to the touch. The animal was shaking, but slowly coming to. Marcius poured some water into its mouth through a tube. Stingrays received oxygen from water and died only when the water in their body ran out.
  "You understand that now we'll need more water, right?" the Pacifian reproached him, entering the laboratory to have a look at the madness.
  "I'll get as much of it as needed," said Marcius apologetically.
  "How do you suggest we put it to sleep?" asked Atla.
  "The same way as with a human," he replied, "But it's still too weak for that, we need to give it more water."
  Yonk and Atla looked at him with disapproval.
  "Let me check it for bugs," said Yonk.
  The Pacifian got a flat object out of his sphere, used it let out a few translucent waves and traced it along the stingray's body. Marcius watched him carefully.
  "No, only organic matter," Yonk confirmed, "It's only just been born. It hasn't even been branded yet."
  "So you know a lot about stingrays?" Marcius confirmed.
  "As soon as it feels better, it'll want to fly away, will start to move and will smash up the whole laboratory," said Yonk skeptically.
  "Then what do you suggest?" Marcius asked him.
  "I saw lots of glass containers for specimens downstairs. We can connect them, creating a big, closed-off aquarium," The Pacifian suggested and added, "And one more thing: this creature won't last even a month out in the open air, let alone a whole year of travel. The aquarium needs to be filled with water to the brim, and if we add a triple dose of sleeping draft into it, this guy will fall into stasis."
  "Guy?" Marcius was surprised, "I'll admit, you've amazed me with your knowledge of the Murian animal world."
  "Not the animal world, but the world of their technology! I don't know what they teach you on Tulona, but on Pacifa we know how to maneuver extraterrestrial machines. This is a biorobot, created to transport our enemies through space. What's more, the aquarium needs to be twice as big as his current size, since he'll continue to grow even in his sleep. And remember, the male stingrays are always more aggressive."
  Marcius listened to the advice. Though unwillingly, the other two helped him out. With their combined efforts, they quickly assembled the aquarium. To fill it with water, Marcius spent several days on an asteroid, mining for ice. Atla poured the sleeping draft into the water. Gradually, the little stingray closed his eyes and stopped moving. The substance produced a freezing effect, and as long as the animal remained in the water, he'd be asleep.
  Exactly a month after going through the first tunnel, they were flying as planned and everything was going well, but Atla was constantly bothered by bad premonitions. She knew that their mission was too great - she was essentially trying to go against fate, and the powers behind the destruction of the Seven Worlds wouldn't let them avoid it so easily. At the same time, the priestess strongly felt the gods' blessing. She could see that on a higher level inaccessible to humans, a war for their souls was already underway.
  The alarm rang. Marcius had heard this sound only recently, when it warned of the Pacifian attack. 'What could be the matter this time?' he asked himself.
  "A comet!" Atla yelled, covering her face with her hands.
  "But it shouldn't be there," said Yonk in disbelief, running over to the screens.
  Despite his confidence, the devices pointed to an approaching comet. Its trajectory crossed with that of the crystal, and a collision seemed imminent.
  "Change the trajectory!" Marcius commanded.
  "You can try, but it's no use," said Yonk, "We're approaching the speed of light, and won't have enough time."
  "There shouldn't have been a comet here," said Atla, puzzled.
  "Maybe it's a stray that ended up here by accident," Marcius suggested.
  "How? Only yesterday it failed to show up on even a single screen!" Yonk exclaimed.
  "I mean through the magic tunnel. If that's how we got here, why couldn't it have entered through some other portal?" Marcius reasoned.
   "Or else it was aimed at us," Yonk replied cynically.
  "We'll have to shoot," Atla ordered.
  Marcius got the weapons ready, and Yonk aimed them at their target. They fired the first round of shots. Their speed made aiming very difficult, but the shot would have slowed them down. It flew past the comet.
  Now we'll collide only with its tail," Yonk calculated.
  "That still means death for us," said Marcius.
  "Shoot again!" Atla commanded.
  "It's the last round," said Marcius.
  "Then we can't miss!" she yelled.
  The round of shots hit the comet, crushing its side and throwing it off its path. Tiny rocks and clouds of dust scattered through the weightless darkness.
  "No," said Yonk, "We'll still collide with the rubble."
  Atla realized that this was the end. At this speed, collision with a dust particle was equivalent to an atomic explosion. Her first impulse was to find a door and run far away from the spaceship, but that was impossible. All around was only the icy, inhospitable void, without a drop of oxygen - imminent death. She couldn't believe that she was doomed. This was some sort of joke, a misunderstanding, this couldn't be happening! Nonetheless, the wounded mass was flying in their direction, spreading out its tail.
  Marcius has never seen a comet this close before. Watching it straight ahead, he looked in the face of death, and worst of all was to take no action. The anticipation of physical pain filled his body. In an instant, there would be no trace left of him. What frustrated Marcius most of all was how quickly he accepted the situation. His life didn't flash before his eyes, not even a single memory, only an immense disappointment that he will be dying on his way to his dream, in the moment when he most wants to live.
  "This is it then!" he thought, and closed his eyes.
  "It's not the end quite yet!" Atla yelled, and put her hands out in front of her.
   It seemed like she really was intending to ward off the comet with the power of thought. Marcius and Yonk clung onto this miniscule chance of survival, but common sense told them that the collision was imminent. Then they were swallowed up by a bright flash.
   Space got distorted. It crumpled, but kept on racing forth. Marcius felt as if his body decomposed into millions of light particles, and then returned once again to its normal state. He felt a piercing sensation of pain, but quickly came to. They flew through the very tip of the comet's gaseous tail.
   The collision sharply decelerated the spacecraft. The crystal got turned upside down. At that moment, Marcius was beside the panel and had time to grab onto it with his hand. Yonk and Atla stood further away, and having no chance to grab onto anything, flew down towards the sharp crystals hanging from the ceiling. At the last minute, Marcius caught them with his beam, like a lasso, and pulled them towards him. He held them with just one hand, still holding onto the panel with the other.
   The weight was considerable. Understanding that Marcius won't last long, Yonk quickly started to climb up the lasso. The radiation burned his hands, but he stubbornly climbed on and was already very close to the top. Marcius looked down on them in horror. He was panic stricken, scared that they will fall and their bodies will get smeared against the crystals.
  "Father, hold on!" he called out to Yonk, seeing him overtaken by convulsions from the pain.
   Yonk gave Marcius a questioning look, not understanding why he would refer to him like that. He grabbed onto his hand and used it to climb onto his back.
  "The lever!" yelled Atla, still dangling at the bottom.
  Only the lever could turn the spaceship around, and that's where Yonk was heading. It was too difficult to reach it, so he had to stand on the shoulder of Marcius, who was still hanging only by one hand, and use the entire length of his short body. Marcius was barely able to bear the pressure. Yonk's spiked boots pressed into his ear. He cried out in pain, and his muscles trembled with tension. Just a second longer and his numb fingers would have lost their grip and all three of them would have fallen onto the crystals below, but Yonk managed just in time. He flipped the switch hidden under the panel and the spaceship immediately began to straighten itself out.
  The ship slowly turned around its axis, assuming the correct position. Atla collapsed onto the smooth floor. Yonk, still breathless with agitation, was already busy checking the surrounding space. Marcius was holding onto his overworked arm and scratched up ear. None of them could quite believe that they survived the collision.
   "You called me father?" Yonk asked Marcius in surprise.
  Marcius looked at him in silence. Atla looked away - she knew what happened to Marcius' parents, and understood why this exact word came to his mind in this critical moment.
  "Doesn't matter. We need to realign the ship's trajectory," said Marcius.
  The three of them got to work.
  "It's too bad we lost so much speed," Yonk lamented. He recalculated the route, and Marcius rebooted the systems. Atla set the speed, and they could finally relax again.
  "We're in the clear now, but from now on we have to be constantly monitoring our surroundings," Yonk concluded, "This star system is unpredictable! There's probably someone out there."
  "Yes," Atla agreed.
  They sat in silence for a long time. For the first time, Yonk didn't go down into his laboratory but stayed here with them.
  "Your father died?" he asked Marcius all of a sudden.
  The Tulonian was taken by surprise. This was the first personal question Yonk had ventured to ask, and you could see in his eyes that he was genuinely curious to know the answer.
  "Both my father and mother," Marcius replied dryly.
  "And you saw it happen," the Pacifian guessed.
  "Yes," said the Tulonian sadly.
  "Tell us the story," Atla asked him.
  "I've never told anyone about it, not even my friends," said Marcius.
  "Then tell it to your enemies," the priestess smiled, "Tell it, you need to tell it to someone! We have several months of silence in store in any case."
  Unwillingly, Marcius began to tell his story.
  Chapter 8. Marcius' Story
  The Kata satellite. Fifteen Tulonian years ago.
  This morning was special for young Marcius Appa-Laun. After 30 days of training on the satellite, he received all the necessary knowledge, studied the instructions and worked hard with the exercise machines. Thus, he finally received the pilot certification for Tulonian ferromagnetic capsules.
   According to tradition, young pilots made their first flight on their father's capsule. Being the first to wake up in the rookie bunker and sighing heavily with excitement, Marcius started to mentally prepare himself for the flight. Karii lay on the neighboring bunk, his hand dangling off the bed and mouth slightly open. He was fast asleep. Studying the carefree and peaceful face of his friend, who had a similar day ahead of him, Marcius gradually calmed down, imagining how he'll be sitting to the right of his father as the secondary pilot, racing towards Onyx along the winding cliffs of Kata, ahead of all the other young pilots.
  Without realizing, he drifted off to sleep again. In his dream, he saw his father smiling and looking at him proudly. Their capsule flew farther and farther, and Marcius began to notice that they were no longer on Kata. The scenery changed. Rivers flowed down below, and the sky turned blue instead of green-orange. The cliffs got covered in greenery, and the blood-red colour of Onyx turned into a pale yellow. He then felt himself lose control of the capsule, and turning to where his father sat, he saw only emptiness. He was alone in the new world. The capsule was losing height, and Marcius hopped into the empty seat of the main pilot, trying to steer it straight. He was at the very surface of the water when the capsule finally listened to his command, spread itself out and flew along the current of the river. Marcius looked down and flinched in horror. He saw the deathly pale bodies of his parents in the water.
  He jumped out of bed with a scream, waking the others. At the same time, the supervisor entered the sleeping quarters, calling the young pilots to rise and gather on the platform.
  "What happened?" Karii asked him fearfully.
  "A bad dream."
  "Is it the visions again?"
  "The visions..." Marcius thought about it for a minute, "I wouldn't say. In the sense that when I see them, they seem real to me... I shouldn't fly today," he said all of a sudden.
  Karii was dumbfounded.
  "Why not?"
  "A bad feeling," said Macius, holding his breath.
   His friend looked at him with disapproval, but didn't bother arguing. Marcius was pale and agitated. It seemed as if he got no sleep at all that night. The upcoming flight couldn't scare him - it was all because of the inexplicable visions, and Karii wasn't going to take on the responsibility of giving his friend advice.
   "If that's the case, you'll have to explain it to your father," said Karii, nodding his head.
  "I know," Marcius whispered, turning away.
   The spacious rectangular hall was flooded with artificial light from neon lamps where the youngsters lined themselves up in formation. Marcius looked collected and confident, but was disheveled and restless on the inside, wanting to fall through the many floors of the military training base if only to avoid today's flight. His attempt to play sick fell through. Having received an unflattering review from the local medical personnel, he started to think of a new way to avoid the flight, but nothing came to mind.
   "Disperse to your capsules!" came the order from a man in blue uniform.
  The sound of running feet scattered throughout the room. Marcius rushed towards the capsule with the familiar number and his family's initials. After jumping inside, he could barely hold back a frightened sigh. Beside his smiling father was his mother as well. Madam Appa-Laun served in the Tulonian ranks as a second pilot, and making use of her professional title, she came to see her son's first flight in person. Karii's mother did the same, as well as many others whose children were graduating that day from the flying school.
   Hopping into the seat beside his father and turning his piercing gaze towards him, Marcius quickly said:
   "We're not flying anywhere!"
  His father furrowed his brows in bewilderment, after which he exclaimed:
  "What??!"
  "I can't!" Marcius admitted.
  "What do you mean you can't, haven't they taught you?" his father asked him sternly.
  "They have."
  "Then cut it out!" said his father, "Today you graduate! After three laps around Kata, you will receive the certification and the right to continue your education. To refuse means to chase yourself into a corner!"
  "That's not the point," Marcius interrupted him,"I'm afraid it could be dangerous for you!"
  "Aww," cooed Madam Appa-Laun endearingly from behind, "There's nothing to be afraid of! Everything is under control. This flight is a formality, half a day on Kata. And after that, when we get home, I'll make your favourite pie!"
  "But mom, can't you at least stay here?" Marcius begged, trying to change the plot of his dream in any way he could.
  "Oh, I'll definitely be flying," she smiled, but her tone was firm.
  Marcius bit his lip. 'Indeed, who would bother listening to a ten year old boy? Although maybe I am worrying too much, maybe everything will turn out fine?' he thought.
   "If not for this discussion, we would have been the first ones to take off," said his father reproachfully, watching the swarm of capsules ahead of him, "We'll have to put in some effort to be in the lead at the finish."
   Marcius nodded silently. He was familiar with his father's ambition - the Launs always had to be first in everything. He adjusted the magnetic ceiling, balanced out the screens, weakened the gravity and proceeded to warily observe the flight. If not for the worrisome premonitions, this event would have filled him with delight: his first real flight, the two closest people in his life by his side, the anticipation of that evening's festivities, then the next training course, a new life... but he couldn't forget about the dream and give in to those emotions.
   "Surprisingly nice weather we're having here on Kata - wonderful visibility, minimal sediments, the pleasantly steady glow of Onyx!" said Madam Laun happily.
   "That's right, records will be set today," nodded his father.
   His mother was right: the day was perfectly surreal.
   Their capsule broke out of the tail and into the middle of the ranks. It was easy to work in a team with his father. The experienced Tulonian pilot was in tune with his son's mannerisms and gave him his space without imposing his own style of flight. Marcius couldn't see his mother's face, but could feel her presence behind him and knew that she was smiling. Gradually he loosened up, got into his element and allowed himself to feel excited. Everything was going smoothly. Passing over the industrial mining sector and the rings of icy freshwater lakes, they flew along Kata's invisible hemisphere. This side of the satellite never turned to face Tulona and remained perpetually hidden from view. It was a mysterious place that opened up upon everything in the universe - everything except their home planet.
   According to legend, a lost race of desert people once lived on this hemisphere. They traveled to different worlds on a meteor from a different universe, and got captured by Tulona for eternity. Covered in long white fur, with symmetrical fangs on both sides, they yearned for home. They sought out their star in the sky, lifted their paws up to it and begged the gods for help. When the people from Tulona came to them and showed them the planet that held them captive, the creatures burst into tears, recognizing it as their home planet. Having traveled the whole universe, they looped back around to where they started. After spending millions of years on the satellite, they still failed to see that what they were after was right behind their backs the whole entire time.
   For some reason, out of all the ancient Tulonian tales, Marcius remembered this one in particular. Shaking his head, trying to rid himself of the unnecessary thoughts, he began to focus on the trail of cliffs. This was the most difficult part of the journey - a wall of jagged mountains with valleys, gaps, steep edges and ravines; an old Tulonian climbing range. He would study here someday, in the distant future. The trick was to fly over the range without slowing down or getting stuck. The capsule's narrow, pointy tail could easily get caught on the rocks, or its bottom could skim the stone walls, leaving behind a dripping trace of ferromagnetic liquid. Or else, it might not fit through an uneven rift in the mountains that just happened to narrow towards the end. The pilots who worked in the mines of Kata could pass through this area with their eyes closed, knowing all the hidden passages that took you straight through it, but neither Marcius nor his father the military pilot were familiar with those routes - just like everyone else who was flying there that morning.
   They were flying through a series of vertical columns that reminded Marcius of a rusty old comb thrown off a cliff. Their capsule slithered through them like a snake - an animal altogether unfamiliar to the Tulonians. His father found the flight greatly entertaining. It was clear to see how much he enjoyed showing off his skills at every obstacle.
   "We're ahead of Ouba-Klauon," he said, "And he's graduating his third son already! He could have easily learned this route by now!"
   "Do you see Karii's capsule?" Marcius asked, turning to his mother.
  "They're slightly ahead of us," she said, smiling, pointing ahead.
  Marcius tried to pin him down in the sea of silver capsules, but they all looked identical.
   "We'll pass them any minute now!" said his father eagerly, guessing what his son was thinking.
  Marcius nodded. The first lap around Kata went by quick and easy. Having gone through the darkness of night, the sunrise and the sunset, they flew over the military base and entered their second lap. Kata was a small satellite, but very rich in resources. This tiny red speck was more bountiful than Tulona in all its mass, so the satellite was greatly valued and heavily guarded, especially considering that it was on the very border of the planet's cosmic territory.
  During the second lap Marcius calmed down completely. He'd almost forgotten about his nightmare and already started to feel embarrassed that he wanted to put a stop to the flight. Flying around Kata a second time, already approaching the string of cliffs, they saw a blood-red spark in the sky. Their first guess was a meteor burning up in the orange atmosphere, but it soon became apparent that that's not what it was. A large meteor would have been immediately destroyed by the satellite's security system, and a smaller one would have disintegrated in the dense atmosphere. But this object didn't disappear. It went through the main gateway and landed on Kata. Right behind were eight just like it, and instead of disappearing, they grew in size and density with a shrill whistle. From the flames appearing all around, Marcius saw white spheres emerge, burst and release smoke.
  Confusion was written all over his father's face. A small blue vein was pulsing at his temple. Sharply turning his head, he looked at his wife. She nodded cautiously.
  "Krameans!" she hissed, "Don't slow down!"
  "Krameans, here? Out of the question!" he yelled, but there was a hint of doubt in his voice.
  "Of course, but as you see, they're here," said his wife ominously, carefully studying the enemy ships.
  His father clenched his teeth and turned on the general communication. They heard static. His mother started unpacking the spacesuits in sharp, quick movements. Marcius watched his parents' actions in a daze.
  "There's no signal from the orbiting station!"
  "That's because there's no station," the woman replied curtly, looking at the blazing point up in the sky, "Go sit in the back, dear," she said, running her hand over her son's head.
  Marcius climbed over the seat without hesitation - he could no longer keep up with his father. The situation was out of control, and he was of no use now. Marcius heard a lot about the Krameans. Studying the red world would have been the next step in his education - mainly, studying the best ways to fight it. He could understand his father's indignation over seeing their enemies in a place like this. Kata was protected by Tulona's magnetic shield and was considered one of the most secure satellites. It harboured two military bases - one for education, the one Marcius was most familiar with, and also an active, fully functional one, located on the opposite hemisphere. Even the Krameans weren't capable of taking the satellite over with only a couple of ships.
   "Just one bomb of mass destruction is enough to wipe out everyone on the satellite, so what are they waiting for?" said his father angrily.
  "Maybe they're looking for something specific, or they want to colonize the satellite without damaging the surroundings, and leave us here as slaves."
  "They won't have the time, the troops from Aiax and from the planet will arrive any minute now. The Tulonians will never give up Kata!" said his father with confidence, guiding the ferromagnetic capsule towards the trail of cliffs - the only place that still held a chance of survival.
  The elder Appa-Laun's decision was evident - the rest of the capsules did the same. It was an attempt of sorts to hide in the crevices of the ravine before the bombs start to rain down on them.
  "We don't even have anything to defend ourselves with," said his father, discovering only a single short-range round inside the capsule.
  "Don't even bother, it's useless! They've got us surrounded," said the woman, closely watching the enemy's every move.
  "What do they even want with a base full of training capsules?" the general asked himself.
  "It's a provocation! The Krameans crave to prove to us how vulnerable we still are, despite our strengthening of the magnetic shield. It wouldn't be as convincing without casualties, and today they just happened to choose us..."
  "When they open fire, there will be no chance for survival," he said fatefully.
  Silence ensued. Lowering themselves to the surface, looking for a place to hide, the capsule slowed down. Marcius could feel the cold black shadow of death falling over them. He saw the Kramean ships with his own eyes, felt the heat of their presence. A tense, doomed atmosphere hung in the air. Madam Appa-Laun gave her son a deeply emotional look, full of pain and hopelessness. Marcius could guess his mother's thoughts, and furrowing his brows in fear, he pressed his cheek against her shoulder.
  The first explosion erupted. A bloody silver rain of bursting capsules sprayed the orange cliffs of Kata. Flat black Kramean crystals circled up above, pouring streams of yellow electric lava onto the ground.
  "Lower!" exclaimed his mother, covering her face with her hands.
  A chaotic hail of bullets scattered all around. The capsule dove into the ravine. A chunk of cliff fell right behind their backs, pinning the capsule's ferromagnetic tail. The mountains trembled. Their tops got torn down and fractured against the ground as they fell, the shards flying off in all directions. The falling rocks knocked down the capsules and roused the dust that accumulated on the satellite over the centuries.
  The capsule glided along the ravine dodging fiery fragments, its sides sticking to the cliffs. It was engulfed by the darkness of thick dust and smoke. Frequent bursts of light were still visible through the fog.
  "We've lost a lot of ferromagnetic liquid," said his mother, watching the critical mark on the display.
  "The capsule can no longer carry our weight," said his father, defeated. He lowered it onto the ground and yelled, "Get out and run to the caves!"
  Marcius heard that there are a number of underground caves under the cliffs. During their first lap around Kata, he noticed a tiny rock climbing station several kilometers from the mountains, and knew that somewhere below was a store of equipment. They could still save themselves.
  Having put on the helmet of his spacesuit, he stepped through the cold viscous ferromagnetic liquid after his father, pressing himself against him. He could feel his mother's hand on his back. A silent vacuous explosion threw them back towards the capsule, almost drowning them in its liquid. Marcius' father tried to shield him. A cliff collapsed somewhere up ahead, and crumbled loudly down the trembling slope.
  A bright light flashed over their heads - another capsule gone. Its remnants splashed down beside them. Marcius was shaking, and could feel his mother shaking as well. She squeezed his hand so tightly it hurt. The most frightening part was being blind and deaf - he could only hear the jagged sound of his own breathing in the spacesuit. The ground began to vibrate. It felt like something deep beneath their feet was breaking and rumbling, which instilled a sense of panic. Their capsule rolled off to the side and slowly started to slide down the slope.
  'Everything is going to collapse!' Marcius thought.
   He continued to lie where he fell. His father tried to get up, but kept on losing his balance and falling back down. Another explosion came. His mother sat nearby, hunched over, trying to shield herself and her son from the falling rocks. Marcius saw his father gesture something to her through the fog. She nodded. His father lifted him up and started to push him back into the capsule. His mother helped, holding him by the legs. Marcius thought it was strange that his parents decided to return to the capsule, since it could no longer carry all three of them.
   He reached the liquid-covered orifice and climbed inside, expecting his parents to follow, but his father's hands released him and slowly disappeared into the wall. He tried to grab onto them, but the capsule was already taking off. In that moment Marcius understood. His parents knew the capsule couldn't lift them all, and so remained to die outside. Marcius' heart was gripped by cold terror. He knew this would happen, but he wasn't ready. He burst into tears.
  "Mom!" he screamed, stretching out his arms.
  The capsule was shaking terribly. He could imagine what was happening on the outside, but couldn't see and was powerless to do anything. He flew over the seat with a somersault and collapsed onto the control panel with his whole body. Getting down, he grabbed onto the steering wheel, activating the system. He still hoped to somehow save his parents, but the capsule wouldn't budge. There wasn't enough ferromagnetic liquid left to start it. He tried, but his efforts were in vain. It was impossible to tear the capsule away from the cliff until the cliff itself tore away from the capsule and tumbled down into the abyss. The underground caves were collapsing. Feeling he was hanging over a seething current of rocks flowing down to the bottom of the ravine, Marcius tried to go higher. He thought he almost heard the bloodcurdling screams of his parents, saw them falling down, trying to hold onto each other, but choking with grief, through the tears, dust and gloom he could only see darkness and hear the hum of catastrophe.
   He spent several minutes in smooth movement that bordered on the edge of falling. The smoke was settling, and at a certain point it seemed like there was a Kramean ship right in front of him, face to face. The obscure black spot was frozen across from him with flashing green lights, studying him carefully and humming. Sinking into the seat, squinting, Marcius waited for the final shot that would finish it all. The seconds went by, his heart jumped out of his chest, his eyelids squeezed tighter and tighter, but the shot didn't come. Opening his eyes all of a sudden, he saw only emptiness.
   "It was only in my head," he thought.
  A war waged high up in the sky. The Tulonian fleet arrived just in time. Military capsules exterminated the black monsters in silver swarms. The Kramean ships melted away, and the vessel that he most likely only imagined vanished into thin air.
  Marcius remained completely alone. Not a single training capsule was visible over the demolished bluffs. Below were the glowing remains of ships and missiles and billowing smoke. Stray rocks continued to scatter intermittently. There was only enough energy in the capsule to land it on one of the few remaining intact cliffs. Marcius landed, lay his head on the panel and cried up until the point he was found by rescuers.
  The Tron system - open space.
  Marcius finished his story. Atla and Yonk looked at him sympathetically.
  For some reason, they all began to trust each other more after that story.
  Time went by. It was getting easier for them to work together. Their previous stiffness would at times disappear altogether. There were periods when they really did become a single consciousness, understanding each other without words or gestures. But as soon as they remembered that they belonged to different races, the harmony would crumble instantly.
  They now had a lot of free time on their hands, and each one found their own way to make use of it. Yonk fiddled with his sphere. Marcius worked out, having convinced himself that their success in the new world will depend to a significant extent on his physical strength and endurance. He had never before reached such bodily perfection, not even in the training compound. Atla tried to teach him spiritual practices, but he resisted. He found all things Kramean to be despicable.
  "Just give it a try!" she insisted, "You have such potential, and you don't even use it. You can move mountains with your consciousness, but instead you're killing time to strengthen your already sturdy muscles!"
  "No," Marcius would cut her off curtly.
  Atla herself, on the other hand, had accomplished many things. Her meditations took her to a new level. Being in space helped - there was no hustle or needless noise. The only other consciousness that she was able to hear was Marcius', but it was unusually clear and didn't distract her. On the contrary, the presence of his thoughts in her head helped her understand her own thoughts. Seeing the world through Marcius' eyes, she lit up. The Tulonian genuinely loved the world. He explored it with the curiosity of a child. Even his hate towards the Krameans was only on the surface. He clearly saw what was good and what was bad. His principles were so strong that no one had the power to lead him astray. This was not something Atla could say about herself. Deep inside he wished for the salvation of all the worlds. Even though he was convinced that he was searching for the faraway world out of his own ambition and to prove to everyone that he was right, in reality he did it only for the sake of people. He had little concern for glory, as well as his own life.
  No matter how hard she tried, Atla wasn't able to hear Yonk. The Pacifian was impenetrable as a fortress. She could neither charm him nor win him over, nor understand him, nor get him to talk.
  One day, she worked up the nerve to ask him a question:
  "Do you have a family?"
  But the Pacifian looked at her reproachfully, urging her to mind her own business. Only in a month did Yonk admit, half-asleep, that he had three kids, with a fourth one on the way.
  After hearing that, Marcius fell deep into thought. Yonk had a very strong motivation to return home and save his planet and his family - this was probably why he was putting in the effort and was likely the only reason why he agreed to fly with them.
  "I feel sorry for his wife," Atla whispered to Marcius, "His personality is terrible."
  Gradually, they approached the Delos tunnel.
  "Delos is very dangerous!" Atla warned, "It's a parasitic tunnel and is especially ferocious when travelers use it to venture into interstellar space."
  "That is, it connects Tron with interstellar space?" Yonk asked.
  "Yes!" Atla replied.
  "The interstellar space of which galaxy?" asked Marcius.
  "That's exactly the point - it leads into the space between galaxies," Atla explained.
  "Into the zone of endless dark matter," Yonk confirmed.
  "You do understand how dangerous that is?" Marcius said warily.
  "Yes, but it's the shortest way!" said Atla, and pulled up another possible route on the screen.
  "That route takes fifteen years," Yonk grimaced.
  "That's what I'm saying - we only have one option!" said Atla.
  Marcius nodded.
  "We're just about to go inside it. Will there be any special instructions?" he asked Atla.
  "No matter what happens, don't let the tunnel get into your head!" Atla warned, "It will be most difficult for me, since my higher abilities are most developed. I'm not too worried about Yonk, since he's shut tight, but you," Atla looked at Marcius, "Your perception of the world is unique, and I don't know how you will react. And once we're inside the portal, we won't be able to talk."
  "Whatever happens - happens," said Marcius and closed his eyes.
  They flew through the tunnel with extraordinary speed. The sensations really were more aggressive than in the first one. It seemed that parts of their bodies flew off their skeletons one by one and disappeared into the void. It was hard to even think, because the exterior traveled faster than consciousness, and every new thought remained hopelessly behind. Emptiness ruled over the mind. They really couldn't talk or see each other in this tunnel. It was impossible to get entranced by this one.
  "People aren't meant to be in a place like this," a thought bounced off of Macius' head.
  It felt like the tunnel was meant for more evolved creatures, more sturdy and enduring. This wasn't the first time that Marcius had found himself in an alien environment - any venture into space led to these sorts of thoughts. But this tunnel wasn't just any other alien zone - it was beyond the limits of life and death. It made a person forget they're a person. Marcius figured out its unfeeling nature - it absorbed all memories and emotions. He focused on his name, since he realized that he was starting to forget it. Everything that remained of him compressed into a tiny speck.
  "I'm Marcius, I'm Marcius," he kept on repeating hundreds of times. He didn't stop until the very end.
  The Delos tunnel spit them out in the midst of an endless void. Everyone immediately felt an immense rush of energy. If inside the tunnel a person was concentrated into a tiny seed, then their essence expanded to the size of the universe in the newfound space.
  "Get yourself together!" Yonk screamed at him.
  Suddenly, Marcius opened his eyes. He was lying spread-eagle on the ground, and Yonk was towering over him. He recognized him with difficulty.
  "We have a problem!!!" the Pacifian yelled.
  Marcius lifted himself up with some effort. Yonk pointed towards Atla.
  She was seized by convulsions, ripping open the suit at her neck, as if it was hard for her to breathe. The magic tunnel wouldn't let her go. Yonk ran up to her and grabbed her hands. She was a lot stronger now and threw him off to the side.
  Marcius rushed to help. Yonk quickly recovered and ran over to her once more. Her hails were scratching up her chest.
  "No!" she howled, "Don't touch me, I won't give it up!!!"
  She was trying to cover her solar plexus, twisting her whole body.
  "They're mine," she continued to scream. "These feelings are mine!!!"
  Marcius and Yonk looked at each other. She still thought they were in the tunnel.
  "Atla! Wake up!" Marcius begged.
  But she wouldn't open her eyes.
  "The damned red souls, the damned red souls!" she wailed, scratching and biting.
  "It's us, it's Yonk and Marcius!" Yonk shouted at her.
  "I'll still destroy you all," she kept on, her voice straining. Yonk's appeal fell on deaf ears, "You'll vanish, and I'll continue to live!" she was choking with rage, "I'll destroy you!!!"
  "Atla!" Yonk slapped her across the face.
  She opened her eyes with a start. Her distant gaze betrayed that she was still not fully there, but her aggression suddenly dissipated. She calmed down and muttered quietly:
  "Wash the blood off my hands, I beg you, wash the blood off my hands!"
  Marcius took her worlds literally. He brought some water and wiped her hands.
  "Wash the blood off my hands," she repeated.
  "They're clean, your hands are clean," Marcius showed her, not knowing what she wants. He put some ice to her forehead, and Yonk held it to her temples. She drifted off to sleep.
  She slept for several hours, and the ship flew on with the force of inertia. There was no friction or obstacles in the interstellar space. Neither Yonk nor Marcius bothered her until she came to on her own.
  "How are you?" Marcius asked her, seeing her enter the pavilion.
  "Better," she said hoarsely, "And please just ignore whatever I was saying before."
  "Everything's okay," Yonk confirmed, "But you were threatening to destroy us."
  Atla shook her head.
  "I was talking to someone else."
  "Who are the red souls?" Marcius asked.
  "The damned red souls," Yonk corrected him.
  Atla looked away.
  "I said that as well?" she asked with guilt in her voice.
  "Did you see something in the tunnel?" Marcius asked.
  "No, but I experienced a deja vu."
  "There is no human sensation more unpleasant than that tunnel, and you mean to say that you've already experienced something like that before?" Yonk asked doubtfully.
  Atla nodded. She looked very lost and unsure of herself. This was the first time Marcius had seen her like this.
  "What could have possibly happened in your past that's comparable to this?!" he asked in disbelief.
  Yonk agreed, and stated his opinion:
  "What do you know about pain? You're a spoiled princess, the only daughter of a shaman, a rich, arrogant Kramean priestess!"
  "Yes," she agreed, "And also, I'm... I'm a monster," she said timidly, "And I'll prove it to you."
  Atla came up to the frozen droplets, put her hands against them and her memories appeared inside.
  Marcius' heart skipped a beat. He always saw a deeply wounded character behind her smiling façade, and he felt an inexplicable fear and need to hear the truth about her. He carefully looked at the screen, and it was insanely painful for him to see what it showed. He was no longer indifferent towards Atla. Without noticing or realizing when exactly, but somehow he'd started to see her pain as his own.
  Chapter 9. Atla's Story
  Krama. Nineteen Kramean years ago.
  Woken up by the weak glow of the projector, young Atla felt an incomparable sorrow in her bottomless soul, too overwhelming even for her. The priestess caught herself thinking that she doesn't want to wake up anymore and doesn't want to serve her world. Horrified at herself, she jumped out of the warm, airy cocoon where she'd cozily spent the night, and raced in the direction of the temple with a genuine desire to ask the Kramean god forgiveness for her insolence. She ran so fast that her material shell could barely keep up with her spirit. Reaching the gates, she came to a sharp halt, feeling a concentration of power behind them. Putting her hand against the door, which was hot with emotion, she jumped back. An argument was taking place inside. She felt her father's energy. She also recognized Tatida and a few other elders. Their fiery thoughts were so focused on themselves that Atla remained unnoticed by all.
  "A black shadow is creeping over our whole race," whispered one of the elders.
  "I'm feeling a coldness!" another interrupted him.
  "We still have time!" Tatida objected.
  "Don't you think you're relying on her a little too much?" the shaman barked in her direction reproachfully.
  "Not any more than she's worth!" Tatida replied sharply, "The girl is unbelievably strong. Her mother deliberately sacrificed herself to give her life, thereby strengthening her higher abilities. She's destined to incessant spiritual growth. Only the gods know what she's capable of!"
  Atla was pushed away from the door as if by an electric charge. This was news to her. Everything inside her contracted and froze. No, it wasn't Tatida's words about her great power that defeated her - she'd heard them many times before. The reason behind her mother's death was the culprit. She had missed her terribly all these years. Atla swayed to the side, put her hands on her chest and felt how frantically her heart was pounding. Looking at her feet, she saw with alarm that she'd sunk into the ground, melting the metal beneath her. Breaking free of its grasp, she rushed towards the street.
  'Why do I have to live according to someone else's orders? Why was I destined to be a slave since before I was born?'
  A crazed passion for freedom, which the girl had never experienced before, filled her whole entire being.
   'From now on, I'll be the only one to decide what to do and how to do it. My life is mine alone, and it'll be the way I want it to be!'
  Coming to a sharp halt, Atla thought about her next move. She needed but a second to plan her escape. She'd left the planet before, and wasn't scared of open space. The girl knew that a merchant shuttle leaves Krama twice a day.
  Atla was familiar with the city's systems, and if she didn't know something, then she'd permeate the head of the right person without hesitation and find all the necessary information inside their consciousness.
  Nearing the station where the shuttle departed, she entered the captain's train of thought and found out that the vessel leaves in ten minutes, immediately after receiving confirmation from the loader. It carried Kramean healing sarcophagi to sell.
  The last object was being loaded - an elongated hollow cylinder with sharpened edges.
  Waiting for the right moment, Atla stealthily snuck up close and jumped inside, closing the lid behind her with a barely audible click. Knowing that any minute now her absence in the temple will be noticed and a search will begin, Atla began to cover her tracks, creating alternate versions of the escape in her mind and throwing them out into the toxic red Kramean atmosphere.
   The sarcophagus was loaded onto the ship. Atla felt vibrations and clenched her fists. The shuttle immediately took off the ground and rushed into the darkness of open space.
  Poking around the ship's navigational system, she discovered that the load was being taken to Sirius, one of the hundreds of trade stations scattered throughout the Seven Worlds.
   The girl felt no fear, rather a mad sense of curiosity. Atla's ego was impossibly inflated, therefore she was more likely to assume that fear was more appropriate for those unfortunate enough to cross her path. She was protected by the immense power of knowledge, her body shielded by an invisible barrier.
   Atla didn't regret her escape, didn't think of those she left behind. She tried to erase all memory of Tatida from her mind, but it turned out to be impossible, and she felt intuitively how disappointed the old Kramean must be.
  And so, at the age of twelve, Atla found herself all alone out in open space. The first moments of her new life, lying in the healing sarcophagus, she reveled in her freedom. She liked that there was no one there to limit her, no one to dictate conditions or tell her how to live. Her heart pounded loud and strong, not with fear or anxiety, but rather with frantic excitement and a newfound sense of freedom. It seemed she could hear how the thread connecting her to her planet ripped, the roots that pulled her into the depths of Krama unearthed, and Tatida called out with pain and exasperation.
  The handcuffs were gone. Atla squeezed her eyes shut and started whispering a prayer to herself. She didn't ask the gods for mercy or protection. On the contrary, she begged them to leave her alone, to turn away from her, to stop watching, to let her go and trust her. Atla craved to be tested and feel pain, she wanted to fight. A childish wish to go beyond the universe, beyond time and space grew to fill up the closed sarcophagus and accidentally threw off its lid with a strong energetic charge.
  Atla jumped, wary that someone might hear. Holding her breath and listening, she felt tiny sneaky vibrations coming from the head of the pilot. Catching onto his thoughts, the girl quickly recognized deception. She wasn't surprised that her trip had started with a lie. The pilot wasn't going to Sirius as per instructions. He stopped several light minutes away from the station, anxiously waiting for someone.
  A slight feeling of solidarity with the unfamiliar Kramean pilot, a liar just like her, slipped through her turbulent consciousness. His plan was laid out bare for her to see, and she read his thoughts like a book. The man had already spent several years profiting from the task he was entrusted with. There was no sense in taking the load to Sirius, saturated with a variety of cosmic rabble, considering that the product could be sold for twice the price to the dying Oeelian race, which was barred from entering the station. It was teeming with Guineans, their sworn enemies. The healing sarcophagi were in great demand among the space vagabonds - they were willing to pay their last speck of diamond dust for them.
   Living on run-down mini-shuttles, the once great and mysterious race came to resemble mold living off its own waste, gobbling up its own hands. Terrible hunger reigned on the ships. People sacrificed their limbs only to feed their kids. A neighbour's death was no cause for grief, but instead brought with it a tiny hope of nourishment. The Oeelians became exiles within the Seven Worlds. The more opulent planets tried not to think of them, and the poorer ones remembered the unfortunates only rarely, with the sole purpose of consoling themselves: "Yes, it's bad, but definitely not worse than the Oeelians, who are rotting alive."
  Destiny carried the girl towards the nightmare at the speed of light, but Atla hasn't yet entirely understood what she would be up against. The greedy Kramean pilot was meeting the ship carrying the handful of wretches in the Abandoned Waters, the dead zone left untouched due to the stench that hung over it. A thick cloud of caustic hydrogen sulphide, cast out from the depths of the Oeelians' destroyed planet, filled the space, tracing out the phantom borders of their territory. The cloud was practically immobile, rotating only within itself in a weak current.
  The Kramean ship slowed down. Icy remains of former cities floated by, corroded by radioactive dust, almost as if eaten by moths. Fragments of towers, bridges and overpasses crawled by, propelled by the weak currents of gas, slowly decaying and turning to dust.
  Atla felt the smell of death. She was familiar with the Oeelians' story, but it was one thing to know and sympathize from a distance and quite another entirely to be immersed into the misery headfirst. This was the first and perhaps the most serious test of character for the young priestess. She had to close off her wide open soul to keep the misery from coming in. The euphoria she felt from the frivolous and playful escape quickly dissipated, and her whole body trembled, permeated with cold. She heard the screams of millions of souls that left their bodies at the moment of the grand explosion. Atla instinctively tried to close her ears, but the cramped sarcophagus didn't leave enough room for her hands to reach them. Barely holding herself back from screaming, Atla cursed her great gift of sensing the supernatural.
  Most of the souls didn't get a chance to understand what had happened to them, and driven mad with pain, continued to frantically search for their vanquished bodies. Sensing Atla's openness, they threw themselves at her like vultures, trying to get inside. Millions of bites washed over her body. Each one tried to break through her hard exterior and crawl inside her heart, filling it with their essence.
   Atla cringed, feeling like a speck of cosmic dust. It got harder to breathe as she felt the weight of the whole planet on her chest. Insane fear took over her brain. She could physically feel her soul being chased out of her body, could feel her strength slowly fading as she got overtaken by the hysterical crowd. The ghosts were eating her alive. She was being pushed out, and she saw how gradually she was leaving her body. Looking at her closed eyes from above, she saw tears. Grabbing onto her own hand, Atla struggled and groaned.
  "Close it!" she heard Tatida's voice in her mind.
  The inner voice demanded that she cut off all her higher abilities at the root. Mere seconds remained. Time was running out, and Atla understood that one moment more and she would forever lose her physical body.
  Atla closed off all the channels which she'd spent so many years developing. She felt her strength leaving her, but this was the only thing that could save her. Gathering up her last bit of energy, she transported herself into a made-up future, imagined herself old and happy. Atla tried to adjust her reality, to change her setting, to escape this dead ocean of souls and fall into a different time and place. She stopped hearing the screams. Instead, water dripped somewhere in the distance, along with strange sounds that seemed to her like songs of exotic birds. Warmth flooded her body. She descended into silence and fell asleep as the red ghosts receded.
  The mechanical grinding of the opening sarcophagus woke her from a deep slumber. Through a layer of fog she saw a skinny Oeelian face, its skin pulled taught over the skull, its eyes deep in their sockets. It took a minute for her to remember where she was and what was happening. The Kramean shuttle met the ship of half-dead Oeelians, dropped off its cargo, and having received a couple of diamond tablets in exchange, continued on its way.
  Realizing this, Atla felt abandoned, completely cut off from home. The greedy pilot, her last weak thread of connection, was now gone. She was completely alone among strangers who were eating her up with hungry, miserable eyes. The battle with the souls had weakened her considerably. There was no strength left in her body. Straining the muscles on her forehead, she tried to read the enemies' thoughts, but all her efforts were in vain. She'd given up her last bit of energy specifically to rid herself of her permeating abilities and to close off her wide open heart.
  'I'll need a fair bit of time to recuperate,' she thought, and noticing the Oeelian bending over her, she realized apprehensively, 'There's no guarantee I'll get that time and that I won't turn into food.'
  "The pupils are reacting to light," said the Oeelian slowly in a weak, tired voice.
  The girl correctly translated every word. Luckily, Atla had already mastered all the languages of the Seven Worlds when she was very small. There was a lot of argument in the temple back then about whether or not the flowery, confusing, and most importantly, dying language would be of any use to the young priestess, but Tatida insisted that the ancient extraterrestrial language will have power in the world of the dead, and her pupil needs it like the air she breathes.
  Strangely enough, it was the first foreign language she had use for in the world of the living.
  "She's alive," a voice came from somewhere down below.
  Atla slowly turned her head towards the sound, but didn't see anyone. The interior of the room surprised her with its gloominess. It was dimly lit, a sign of fervent energy saving, and terribly cramped, lined with vertically constructed digesting coffins. It was cold, and the air was so thin that for every breath she would usually take, Atla now had to take three. But even this was not what shocked her most. Time, that intangible, ephemeral phenomenon, was different here. It passed more slowly, something that the girl noticed immediately.
  The Oeelian's movements were smooth, light and inhibited. Atla was just about to start feeling superior, but froze as she noticed the deadly light in his hands, the Oeelians' ancient weapon.
   He bent over her slowly and brought the light close to her face. Atla felt a warm sensation.
  "You want to kill her!" the same voice said from below.
  "I see no point in keeping her alive," the Oeelian replied monotonously, "We can extract many useful elements from her body."
  Atla felt the heat on her face more strongly. The Oeelian had made his decision.
  "Stop!" she yelled, startling him. He sharply withdrew his hand.
  "Don't do it, you'll find me useful!" she begged.
  The extraterrestrial made a face.
  "It looks like she speaks our language?"
  "Indeed," said the voice from downstairs in surprise.
  Atla saw the figure of the second person towering over her head. A pair of curious blue eyes, long fiery red hair framing the face in soft waves, and deathly pale translucent skin. The new person was a woman, it was undeniable. The shape of her breasts was visible through the fabric, her figure was wider and slouching towards the bottom, and her gaze betrayed a distinctly feminine curiosity.
  The original distinction between men and women was present on every planet of the Seven Worlds. Murie was perhaps the only exception, where cloning and genetic manipulation were rampant, blurring all natural traits into each other. The men in every world were in some way different from the women of their own world. At times, even living on the same planet, misunderstanding between the genders became so extreme that they saw each other as aliens, and it seemed that men from neighbouring worlds could come to an agreement with each other easier than with women of their own world. The half-dead pair of ghostly Oeelians was no exception. Atla unintentionally became a witness to a subsequent family argument - original and peculiar only to Oeelians, but developing according to the standard scheme of lack of understanding and refusal to back down. This was bizarre for Atla, but the reason behind the argument was her life.
  "There's no point in keeping her!" the man insisted, led by the momentary desire to nourish his body.
  "She could help us!" the woman insisted, pulling away the hand with the deadly light away from the girl's face.
  "How? She's only a child!" her partner wouldn't let up.
  "She knows our language! She'll know what to do!" the woman tried to convince him.
  "Let go!" he pushed her aside, "She won't understand and she won't want to!"
  "I'll do whatever you tell me!" Atla intervened, looking the man dead in the eye.
  Atla felt the cold from the Oeelian's icy touch as he brought his hands to her throat. She flinched. The cold scared her hot-blooded nature more than the deadly beam. He wasn't as weak as it seemed at first glance.
  "Remember the first rule of our world! Direct eye contact is forbidden and is punishable by death!" he said harshly and coldly.
  Atla lowered her eyes. It was hard to communicate without looking at the person in front of her, without seeing their eyes. She understood immediately that she would never belong here, but there was no choice - she had to accept the conditions to at least survive.
  "It's a necessity. They steal from us," the woman said quietly from the side.
  Atla nodded bashfully, knowing what she meant. She was only too aware of what could be stolen through the eyes, but how could the ghostly, backwards Oeelians be capable of that?
  "I understand," Atla whispered.
  "You're just wasting your time with her!" said the man reproachfully to his wife, and Atla imagined how coldly and heartlessly he did this, without looking at her.
  Atla frustrated him with her fearlessness and lack of tact. Interrupting his wife, he addressed the girl first:
  "Did someone steal your fear? Have you already come face to face with Oeelians?"
  Atala shook her head, but remembering that this gesture signaled agreement for the Oeelians, rushed to correct herself.
  "No, I've never met Oeelians before."
  "She's wholesome, can't you feel it?" said the woman.
  It was hard to decipher her worlds, and Atla decided to keep quiet and not to ask any questions.
  The silence stretched on. Atla nervously swallowed the air. As if noticing this, the woman started to talk.
  "We have no access to the station, our ships are at the limit, our stores have run out, and life energy is all but gone. The neighbouring worlds laugh at us. They wait for our demise with anticipation. We're a dismal, gloomy laughing stock, living its final days in need and in cold. The ships disappear one by one. A couple of days ago, our twin "plunged into the void", as we call mass suicide - the most serious sin in our religion. The crew couldn't stand the depravity and gave up. One hundred and five living souls committed suicide. Their terrible example spread panic and confusion on our ship."
  "Why are you telling her all this?" her husband interrupted her, pushing her off to the side.
  "She needs to absorb our misery in order to help."
  "It won't work," he waved his hands and receded into a dark corner.
  The woman came up close to Atla. The girl threw a nervous glance at her shoulders, and after, gaining courage, transferred her gaze to her lips, using all her willpower to avoid looking into her eyes.
  "You've come to us at a very scary time. We're on the verge of a final emotional breakdown. Help us!" the woman begged.
  She touched a cold trembling hand to her, and Atla cringed.
  "What can I do for you?" she asked in a voice that was unusually loud for this place.
  "Go to the station and get us some food and fuel," the cold touch grew into a tight grip on her wrist. Atla felt pain.
  "You're wasting your time! If you let her go, you'll never see her again. No one returns. What makes you think she's any better than our other captives? It makes more sense to just eat her," said the man dejectedly.
  "We'll take a security deposit!" the woman yelled at him, her voice straining. It seemed her hair would turn from fiery-red to fiery-crimson with emotion.
  "We took deposits from the others as well, but no one values their emotions, instead preferring freedom and money. How much diamond dust we've scattered to the wind! We have nothing left!"
  Atla's skin crawled with fear. She'd heard legends about the Oeelians, about the enigmatic perished worlds of thieves and merchants of human emotions, and now, finding herself in their home, gradually saw that this was not just a myth. She was one step away from losing some very important parts of her soul.
  Pain, love, fear, hunger, joy, satiety, hate, anger, happiness, desperation, euphoria, pride, melancholy - which one exactly did they want to steal away from her?
  Atla knew that each emotion is priceless for the harmony of her spirit; not a single one could be replaced or replenished. She needs her fear - it protects her from danger. She can't not feel pain - it's the only thing that sets her apart from the dead. Without happiness, she will become hard and will have no drive to live, without love she will extinguish, will become vulnerable without anger and rage, and without sadness and melancholy will turn into a cold chunk of ice.
  'Such a pity that I'm still so weak! Had I been at my best, they would be powerless against me, but now I can't even hear their thoughts, those damned red souls!' thought the girl, and gave the woman an exasperated glance, looking her straight in the eyes.
  She was looking at her with bloodlust. Her pupils were already rotating, and even though Atla didn't yet know what this mysterious gesture meant, she already understood that it foreshadowed a great loss.
  "What do you want to take from her?" asked the man.
  "I'll take her pride!"
  "Stupid woman, no one will come back for pride alone! Take more! Take joy, or happiness, or curiosity!"
  "I can't, she won't manage the task without those emotions."
  "I'm telling you, take more! Skim her to the bone - only then is there a chance she'll come back for it!"
  "Then I'll take anger!"
  "Take anger, and pride, and something else...." her husband insisted.
  "I can't carry all that by myself, we'll need to call for help!"
  "Then call! But I beg you, take more!"
  "Such good advice you give me..." the witch smiled, "I'll take away her greed!"
  "That too, but still, who would want to come back for greed, pride and anger! We're dying, so forget about compassion and steal something else! Take love and fear, then she'll comeback for sure!"
  "That would be too cruel!"
  "No, she's Kramean, she'll manage!"
  Atla clenched her fists. She heard everything and understood.
  She heard the light footsteps of other Oeelians. A crowd started to gather by her sarcophagus. Five pairs were lined up in a circle around her - five men and five women.
  "One emotion per family," she thought. Realizing that there was no way out, she hungrily looked into their faces with greed that she still possessed, trying to save their portraits in her mind so that she'll know later whom to ask for what. She'd never experienced anything like this before, and wasn't sure what to expect.
  "Where should we start?" asked one of them.
  "Let's start with the most challenging - let's take away love, and everything after that should go smoothly."
  "Who's willing to take on love?"
  The ghosts livened up a little. An extra dose of love was always welcome. Exchanging a few glances, the couples went to fetch the looker. He was a sickly, ancient Oeelian in a coat made of hair from their deceased companions. Despite the hunger and destitution, he was warm and well-fed. They brought him in on a stretcher. Throwing an authoritative look around the room, he pointed towards the couple standing at the edge and nodded. His decision was uncontested. The four other couples stepped back in unison, clearing the way for the chosen ones to take the poor girl's love.
  Atla was frightened. No one has ever before looked at her so deeply and passionately. The redheaded banshee bent over her and grasped onto her very soul with her piercing gaze. Atla could physically feel the love being pulled out of her. At first she felt a slight prickling in her chest, then something that felt like release. There was no pain - more like emptiness. She didn't feel any significant changes in her mind. The banshee drilled her with her eyes, but whatever was coming out of her she couldn't see. She only felt colder and colder, and the world around her grew duller. Bright colours vanished, shades of yellow and orange disappeared, and everything around took on a cold and dismal tone. The woman finished up, flashed a satisfied smile and retreated into the shadows.
  "Greed!" said the elder and pointed to the furthermost couple in the corner.
  Another woman approached - it seemed they were more skilled than the men in the art of stealing emotion.
  Everything repeated, the same sensations. Strangely enough, Atla felt little difference between the loss of love and the loss of greed - perhaps only the fact that this time, the colour purple slowly vanished from the world.
  "Pride!" continued the elder relentlessly.
  For some reason, Atla kept waiting for the couple she first encountered to come up, but this time too it was someone else.
  Pride was taken away from her just as coldly and heartlessly. Blue disappeared from the spectrum entirely.
  Then it was time for anger. This time around, all sorts of feelings boiled up inside of her; parting with anger was most painful of all. Her heart pounded wildly. Had she any pride left, she would have surely held herself back, but pride was no more, and she shamelessly let out a bloodcurdling howl, not caring that the damned Oeelians saw her pain. Saturation went along with the anger. Shades of black turned gray, dulling the contrast she was accustomed to.
  "Fear!" said the elder, emphasizing the frightening word.
  Atla cringed. Her fear was still with her, and she was still scared for now. The last couple approached, the same one that initiated this terrible game. Atla caught herself thinking that she'd almost rather they just eat her, but catching herself, promised that she'd get back what is rightfully hers.
  The ghastly blue eyes swirled above her. Fear was the very emotion she'd relied on for the last half an hour. In that instant, it was fear that filled her to the brim, and losing it now would be the same as dying.
  Atla fought, grasping onto her fear, and the experienced Oeelian had to put in a fair amount of effort to overcome her. When Atla lost her fear, she felt changes not only in her vision but also within herself. There was little of her old self remaining. The loss of crimson was relatively insignificant compared to all her other losses, but her spirit was broken completely - something she couldn't fail to notice.
  The bloodsuckers drained her to the core, but she was no longer scared. Emptiness, a bottomless icy void filled her heart. Atla wanted to fume and rage, but she couldn't - the blood froze in her veins, and her world took on a bleak, dull grey hue. There was a weak glimmer of green, some objects reflected a pale blue and the tiniest bit of brown, and that was all. It's as if she had died.
  "You'll be given a ship, a small shuttle we traded from the Kramean pilot. You'll be equipped with a list of things you need to get, and you'll be given money, but it won't be enough, so your cunning is still with you. Bring us everything that's listed, and you'll get your emotions back - but hurry, while we haven't yet sold them. You have one year at your disposal - our current resources will sustain us for only that long. And remember - dead bodies aren't capable of returning emotions!"
  Tears flowed down Atla's cheeks in thin, cold streams. She felt weak, a spineless slave unable even to furl a brow. She was given a day to catch up on sleep, then was placed in a shuttle and thrown out into open space. The list was unbelievably long, and the little bag of diamond dust was practically weightless. Atla felt crushed and downtrodden. She was yearning to return home. In her heart she knew that one sob from her would push her father to wipe all remaining Oeelians from the face of existence, taking care to personally wring the neck of each person that dared steal from his daughter and restoring her emotions. And Tatida would ensure that their whole race never finds peace, even in the next world. But she didn't dare return to Krama. Although she had no pride, she still had shame and unimaginable determination to overcome her difficulties by herself.
  Looking at herself in the mirror, Atla found five grey hairs on her head, and they looked terrible against the sea of black. Atla threw the mirror to the side. It broke in half and disappeared. Once again, she burst into tears.
  After a good cry, she collected herself, got up and headed towards the controls. She was a trained pilot - something the cunning Oeelians picked up on right away. It seemed her distinguished status was written all over her face. Before, this would have inspired a self-satisfied smile, but now she felt nothing. Strangely enough, she felt the loss of pride more than any other emotion. Her previous experiences were tied in to it in many ways. Ever since she was a child, Atla was always the greatest, the most gifted, the most powerful and chosen by the heavens, and this thought propped her up her whole life, no matter how hard she tried to fight her singular fate. She was proud of herself every moment of her life, and now that feeling was gone. Her formative feeling disappeared. Atla swiftly fell down from the heavens into real life and looked at it with different, much more somber eyes.
  For example, in order to survive on Sirius, to feed herself and acquire the needed money for the purchases, Atla worked a lot, and the work was far from designations like "prestigious", "elite" or "noble". Atla cleaned up after the dirtiest and most pitiful rundowns of the Seven Worlds. There was no fear before anything, and pride as well, and so no one was able to scare her.
  At first, she cleaned and washed public places, collecting the dust into a little bag, managing to buy one thing on the list. After that, she gave the money out to beggars, who noticed the girl's lack of greed and rushed to pick her apart. Atla needed greed like the air she breathed, and felt its absence acutely. The seemingly vile feeling turned out to be vital. She could go hungry herself, giving all her reserves out to strangers.
   Atla had to move, or rather run away, many times. Extraterrestrial creatures quickly picked up on her inadequacy and used it against her. She suffered most of all from her lack of anger. She was indifferent to being beat up and didn't resist, or rather wasn't able to, so she would just run away instead. The absence of fear prevented her from accurately judging the situation around her, and she would often take unnecessary risks. She got into fights, intervened in arguments, and watched fires rage around her with disdain and indifference. She was lied to and used, cheated and thrown out. But most of all she missed love. She didn't love anyone or anything - not her past, not her future, and not herself.
  Strangely enough, no Krameans came looking for her. Not a single piece of news came from her father nor from Tatida.
  Gloom and anguish captured her heart. Atla was defenseless and unable to stand up for herself. She cried a lot, but nonetheless didn't give up - the strong, domineering blood of an ancient Kramean race prevented her from doing so. She would wipe her tears, get up and keep going.
  Hundreds of times she got burned by people's greed and avarice, but she finally managed to find a light and peaceful corner among the Seven Worlds. This magical place was a morgue on the interplanetary station Sto. Cold, quiet, calmness and indifference surrounded her. Death was frequent here, just like on many of the other stations, and there was always lots of work to keep her busy. Corpses were unable to cause her pain, to wound or humiliate her. They remained silent and at times even listened to her quiet sobs and complaints. The living avoided this place, but Atla was indifferent. The mute morgue supervisor, a robot, paid her generously, but even now her selflessness plagued her as soon as she ventured out into the world of the living.
  "Luckily, they didn't steal away my brain," Atla once thought to herself, standing over a dying animal. She raised herself a little helper, a small lame dog from the planet Murie she'd found dying of thirst. The dog was chimerian in breed and gifted with intelligence; Atla made a deal with him. She hung a bag where she collected all her earnings onto his neck and demanded that he bite her every time she tried to spend it aimlessly. In return she promised to feed and protect him, giving him the name Animal.
  Initially, her hands were covered in bites, but this was the only way she was able to save up enough money for the remaining items on her list. Animal was completely devoted to her, ate from her hands, protected her and threw himself onto anyone who tried to hurt his mistress. Atla found protection in her new friend. She felt more secure, and gradually her natural telepathic abilities started to return, but without her full spectrum of emotions, any efforts to return to her former glory were doomed.
  'All emotions are necessary, it's the only way to live,' Atla concluded once and for all, dreaming of restoring internal balance one day. Looking at her lame, half-dead dog, Atla saw herself: not a person, but a cripple - a strange creature with a damaged soul.
  Her poor little friend helped her recover some of her lost self-preservation instinct. The dog had enough anger, pride and greed to replenish the emptiness in the heart of his beloved savior. He dragged his impetuous mistress by the hem away from scuffles. Animal helped her save up enough money to buy all the items on the list. With high spirits, anticipating her full recovery she returned to the Oeelians exactly a year later, just as agreed.
  The redheads greeted her radiantly, accepted the merchandise with a grateful smile, and sent her on a new mission with a new list without a hint of guilt or hesitation.
  "You forget about dignity when on the brink of extermination. We need you, Atla! Complete this task and we'll return all your emotions!" said the redheaded banshee with a cunning smile and cold, narrowed eyes.
  Swallowing her disappointment and her failed hope of liberation, Atla set off once again.
   She returned to the Oeelians many times to pass along what she'd gathered, hoping that this one will be the last, after which she immediately left for the next phase of her slavery. Resentment gradually began to grow inside of her. Time went on, but liberation was still a long way off. Earning her money honestly became unbearably tedious, and the yearning to regain her emotions - unbearably strong. At that point, Atla risked stealing. Quiet, fierce hatred and cold cynicism replaced her anger, pride, fear, greed and love. She found a new source of strength. Her hatred gave her energy to live on. The powerful feeling pushed desperation, disappointment, hurt and self-pity out of her heart. It seemed she'd once again attained a sense of self.
  Atla changed radically. She became stronger and more confident, but remained enslaved just as before. She got used to seeing the world as grey and started to forget what it really looked like. At first, her robberies were minor and harmless. She was a pickpocket, stealing from anyone who crossed her path - be that Kramean, Ionian, Guinean or anyone else. No one could match her skill - she was able to feel people, catch on to their thoughts, and most importantly, was completely fearless. Her dog was barely able to run her stolen money to the division of interplanetary technology.
  The lists were now fulfilled ten times as fast. Atla even began to enjoy her pursuits, treating them as an arduous game. Many of the needed parts were unbelievably difficult to find, and many others could only be made to order. This called for even greater ingenuity on her part. Thereby, Atla found herself in the dark and slippery world of swindlers, since this was the only place she could find what she was looking for.
  At first with their help and then on her own, she got involved in space piracy and contraband. People would talk about her: "This girl has no head, she's a child of a black hole!"
   Her fearlessness frightened. She plowed through everything in her path, impervious to obstacles. At the same time, she was ready to give herself over completely and be left with nothing. Only the dog could stop her in time. Atla gained a distinct self-image, an expressive manner and a one-of-a-kind persona. She left a bright trace behind her wherever she went. She developed her own style: a wide-brimmed hat with long black braids sticking out from underneath, an open smile, daring makeup, always pants made out of rough, durable material and always a skinny, lame dog by her side with a bag around its neck. She was recognized even by those who were seeing her for the first time.
  Atla knew all the languages, and spoke them loudly and with confidence. She learned to make anyone fall in love with her at first sight and to impress the crowd, after which she shamelessly picked them to the bone and escaped, or rather set them up so that the unfortunates gave everything up themselves and were even glad for the encounter.
  Time went by, Atla was growing up, turning from a child into a teenager, and from a teenager into a young woman. She fervently worked for the Oeelians, but they were in no rush to give her back her emotions, blackmailing her and loading her with yet another mission, and another.
  Throughout these years, Atla learned to charm her way into even the most select societies, whether that be soulless robots from Iona or dreamy Murians on stingrays, or the cautious Pacifians. She developed so many connections that now she could make money off of them. If all of a sudden a Guinean captain's child fell sick with an incurable illness, she'd find a way to get him the best doctor from Murie, a planet whose medicine was ten times as good. If criminals from Pacifa wanted to get rid of a body, Atla directed them to the morgue overseer whom she'd so selflessly worked for as a child. With the help of special corrosive substances, not even a trace was left over afterwards, only chemical compounds. If a wanted felon needed cover, she'd successfully find him a hiding place in the dark, bottomless world of the seven planets, for which she charged a considerable sum.
  Atla learned to read people and understand the various races. She showered some of them with exotic gifts from faraway corners of the system, some she entertained with exaggerated stories about fantastic travels to faraway worlds, and with others she got right down to business. The result was all the same: she took what she wanted, be that a rare piece of merchandise, a profitable acquaintance or little bags of diamond dust that were immediately snatched out of her hands by her dog.
   At times she would look at herself with disdain in the mirror, which was glued together many times with a laser after yet another shatter. She saw elongated facial features, a prominent chin, a sharp, strong jawline, small wrinkles from the smile constantly plastered across her face, and a bottomless emptiness and pain in her eyes. However weakly, but the colour red would at times slip into her life. In order to somehow liven up her face in the reflection, she painted her lips a toxic red, which seemed to her a barely visible pink, and she lined her eyes with a thick layer of black, which she saw as grey. But no matter what she did, her enormous soul still felt the painful lack of colour. She wanted to howl with anguish - without love and anger her life lost all meaning, and the will to keep fighting for her feelings became weaker and weaker.
  Atla went everywhere and knew everything. There was only one planet she still avoided - Krama. Abysmal shame and an overwhelming sense of indebtedness flared up inside of her whenever she saw the pale-red tint of her home planet in the distance. The Krameans still didn't search for her.
  "Atla, your pride is dying!" a quiet voice called from the Oeelian ship across the intercom.
  Atla flinched, and immediately turned her ship towards the ring of asteroids. No other words were needed, she understood everything. The woman who kept her pride was on her deathbed, and she had to make it back to the ship in time. Judging from how cautiously and quietly the voice spoke, Atla concluded that one of the Oeelians went against the looker's orders and warned her in secret.
  "Where is she?" Atla shouted, bursting through the doors of the ship.
  The Oeelians that greeted her exchanged a frightened glance and lowered their eyes.
  "She's not here," one of them said, examining a spiral design on the ceiling.
  "Look me in the eyes!" Atla shrieked in desperation.
  "Oeelians never look directly in the eyes, you forgot what I taught you!" came a familiar voice from behind her back.
  "You should've just let your spouse eat me back then, instead of torturing me like this!" said Atla bitterly, without turning her head, "Where is my pride??" she turned sharply and grabbed the woman by the throat.
  The dog backed up his mistress with a menacing growl.
  "Let go!" the woman wheezed.
  "Tell me!"
  The woman remained silent and looked Atla dead in the eye. The years filled her face filled with wrinkles, and her eyes were so red it seemed she hadn't slept in weeks.
  Atla looked around, and not remembering seeing even a single trace of battle as she approached the ship, graced the Oeelian with a direct, suspicious gaze. The woman rushed to explain:
  "They had a strong magnetic field. They never had such a weapon before. A couple minutes of impact and dozens of us, the ones who were weak, are lying in the west end of the ship with internal bleeding."
  "What about her?" Atla asked hesitantly.
  "Her too," said the woman, lowering her lids.
  Atla gave a start and was about to run.
  "Hold on!"
  Atla froze.
  "I'm the one who called you, Atla! And we need you now more than ever. Please, promise that you won't abandon us once you get back your pride."
  "I won't abandon you, even if I get all of my emotions back. I have no one else in this world," she told her with an earnest glance, "I've gotten used to serving you." A tear slid down her cheek, leaving behind a smudged black streak.
  The redhead looked at her carefully - the girl wasn't lying. She'd become an obedient, priceless little marionette. The Oeelian woman was moved and flattered that they were able to tame the young priestess so successfully. The girl rekindled hope among the doomed race - for the last six years, she was the single-handed breadwinner for the whole entire ship. But now there was the question of her pride, and the woman wasn't sure what to do. The pride was mentioned only in order to get her here as soon as possible and arm her with the new, urgent mission of destroying the Guinean weapon.
  Atla was tense with anticipation. She looked at the Oeelian and tried to understand what was in her head, but unsuccessfully.
   'Her will is broken,' thought the woman. 'She won't gain anything by getting back her pride. Should we return it? Besides, we need to get her a little something to inspire her for the serious mission.'
  "Atla, we greatly value your help," she said, "And just so you know that we aren't lying and honour our word, today you'll get back your pride, and after you carry out the last assignment, the rest of your emotions as well."
  Atla smiled timidly.
  The woman took her by the hand and led her down the hall. They walked quickly, and the ship was unusually quiet. Judging from the bloody streaks on the floors, Atla concluded that the woman wasn't lying. As they walked, she noticed a rounded belly protruding from underneath her translucent tunic.
  "I thought the law prohibits you from having children," Atla said, noticing that the keeper of her fear was expecting.
  "You changed the law. You gave us hope, and I'm not afraid to give birth."
  Atla lowered her eyes.
  Soon they reached the infirmary. The door opened, and Atla was greeted by a multitude of tired red eyes looking at her in the dim light. Examining the dying faces, Atla quickly found the one that took away her pride. The faces of those five women were seared into her memory - there was no mistaking them, although it seemed like this woman was already dead. Atla kneeled down beside her and took her cold hand into hers.
  "Give me back my pride," she whispered.
  The woman slowly opened her eyes and silently turned her head towards Atla. Traces of dried blood were visible beside her nose and ears, and her eyes were bloodshot. She recognized Atla with a start and burst into a feeble, frightened fit of coughing. She tried to say something, but no sound would leave her trembling lips. The first woman squinted and tried to distinguish some of her friend's words, but to no avail. One thing was clear though: she had no intention of giving Atla's pride back to her. That much was apparent even without words.
  "Just relax, please! Gather yourself and give the girl back her pride," said the Oeelian with overdone love and tenderness, wrapping her arms around her friend, "Our heroine deserves it!"
  The other woman fervently shook her head with what little strength she had left.
  "Don't be so stubborn!" she begged her.
  The woman looked at her in silence, then suspiciously at Atla, then realizing that she isn't able to utter a single sound, started to draw something on her tunic in slow, weak movements. She dipped her hand in the blood dripping from the corner of her mouth and traced out an ornate symbol. A red spiral of a snake sat upon the snow-white dress.
  The sign symbolized forbidden energy and was something like a stop sign for the Oeelians. Both Atla and the Oeelian woman correctly deciphered the message, but it didn't stop them. The woman turned her head in exasperation, ignoring her dying friend's wish.
  "I'm sorry, but in that case I'll have to steal it away from you!"
  She grabbed her head with her hands and lifted it off the bed. She looked at her face directly, lifted her eyelids with her fingers and started to pull Atla's pride out of her. It was a frightening sight to behold. Their bodies shook, and their pupils were expanded to maximum size. They radiated heat, and Atla jumped back. Then everything quickly dissipated and it seemed the sick woman was now dead, and the living one was bent over with pain.
  "Look at me!" she yelled suddenly, putting one hand under Atla's chin.
  Atla looked at her with worry and apprehension. Her pupils were still rotating, gradually gaining speed, like a wheel. She didn't hold the pride inside herself, but simply acted as a conductor. Atla started to feel herself filling up with something new, or rather long-forgotten. Yes, it was her pride - that long-awaited strong, real and living feeling she so dearly missed.
  Atla heaved a deep sigh and closed her eyes. When she opened them again, she was almost blinded by the brilliant blue that lit up all around. A sweet, pleasant warmth flooded her whole body. It got easier to breathe, and she wanted to weep with joy, but she held herself back - her pride was once again with her after all.
   Then came the revelation. Atla frowned, stood up and ran out of the infirmary. Bursting out the door, she stopped, caught her breath and slowly slid down along the wall to the floor. She'd never before felt so stuffy and terrible. Her pride was tainted and torn to shreds. Everything inside her screamed in protest. She felt nauseous. All of a sudden it all flashed before her eyes - the disgusting toilets, the stealing, slavery, dirt, the revolting smell, the small, despicable shouting people, all the vileness and corruption of her old wicked world, and of herself. At a certain point she was overcome with a desire to kill herself, to erase her vile, horrid, sellout soul from the face of the universe. A flood of tears streamed down her cheeks. Nothing could wash away this shame. The insulted soul of a great Kramean priestess raged inside of her. Her hands were shaking, her eyes clouding with hate towards the damned Oeelians.
  Atla's shadow flickered outside the door. The Oeelians saw her frenzy, but were lost in a confused silence.
  "What have you done!!" moaned the dying woman, spitting out blood.
  Her friend looked at her with guilt and bewilderment. She'd already realized that she committed an unforgivable mistake.
  "You underestimated her pride! You could have returned her any other feeling, but not her pride. You didn't listen to me, the one that's been dragging it around all these years! It permeates her entire being! We've lost the girl forever," hissed the woman with her dying breath and was gone.
  Her dead hand silently fell and hit the metal. Her friend stared at the spiral symbol and put a horrified hand to her mouth. Atla was nowhere to be found. The Oeelian rushed after her, but was no match for the vehement priestess. She met fresh bodies along the way. Atla had a deadly beam, and she went off the rails.
  First, she ripped her greed out of the second Oeelian. Her world flashed purple, which only fed her desire to immediately regain everything. She then tore her anger out of the heart of the third redheaded banshee. Now, armed with fresh rage and contrast, she was unstoppable. She crushed and destroyed everything indiscriminately. The pregnant Oeelian, the keeper of her fear, made a feeble attempt to calm her down, but it only resulted in Atla gaining back her fear as well.
  "Stop!" she begged her, kneeling down and wrapping her hands around Atla's legs, "If you take your fear from me now, my daughter will be born without fear!" she wept, "Wait just a while longer, and I'll give it back to you!"
  But Atla no longer believed anyone, this woman least of all. Grabbing her by her flaming locks, looking into her eyes, putting the deadly beam against her rounded stomach, she reclaimed all of her fear.
  "Your child will have no need for fear! Only fearlessness can save you now, and as for me, count me out!" she said, and pushed her away.
  When among the frightened, hiding women Atla found the one that had her love, she grabbed onto her throat with trembling hands and pushed her body into the metal, aiming the deadly beam at her eyes. Her love returned to her in fear of death, all of it to the last drop. Atla cooled down, looked around her and was filled with instant regret. Tears streaming down her cheeks, she wandered towards the exit to leave behind this godforsaken place once and for all. Without looking back, she hopped into her shuttle, her dog climbing in after her. She threw all the remaining bags of diamond dust to the Oeelians - her last gift to the tormented race. She shut the gateway and rushed out into space with the speed of light.
   That night Atla regained everything that was hers. Pride, greed, anger, fear and love were with her once again. She'd realized how important those feelings were for her, but at what cost? She remembered what anger was - a sudden flow of hot blood to the brain and a strong explosion in the chest, pushing her to feel how much power and energy lay inside. She remembered what greed was - a piercing, drilling feeling, bringing her mind and soul back to reality. With immense satisfaction, she once again felt fear - long-forgotten, sharp and frequent unnerving heartbeats.
  She was finally afraid - for herself, for her past and her future, for her people and the fate of all the Seven Worlds, whose dark and grimy side she had to witness all these years. "What is the world coming to?" she thought, covering her face with her hands.
  And finally, love. When her love came back to her, the first thing that appeared before her eyes was Krama, her people, her home, the faces of her father and Tatida. A sharp longing pierced her heart - for them, and for her dear red planet that she so stupidly and mercilessly betrayed. Holding onto the warm fur of her loyal dog, she started to cry.
   "Come back!" she heard Tatida's voice inside her mind.
  Atla flinched and started to cry even harder. The old psychic hasn't contacted her in six long years, and now she was inside her head once again, calling her to return. How she wanted to collapse into the old woman's lap, bury her face in her grey, fragrant hair and fall asleep just like she used to do as a child.
  "We're waiting for you!" she heard once again.
  This voice belonged to her father. Atla tore her swollen face away from the wet fur of her only friend, got up and without a single doubt turned her tattered shuttle towards Krama - the one place she's avoided all these years.
  "It's time to come home," she thought, and set the route.
  Her father and Tatida were already waiting for her on the landing platform. Atla got out timidly, looking at the floor. The head shaman threw himself at her and hugged her tightly, and Tatida rushed after him. Their faces betrayed their bewilderment, and their eyes were wet with tears. It seemed they might squish their poor, famished grown-up daughter to bits.
  Beautiful, dear, strong, shrouded in fragrance, with glittering robes, weighty branching diadems and jeweled shoes, they looked like gods.
  Atla wept.
  "I... I... " she tried to say.
  "We know," Tatida interrupted, not letting her apologize or repent, "It's just another part of your destiny," she nodded with a soft smile, "Come now, the water will get cold."
  Atla wiped her tears, stood up straight and smiled.
  Entering the golden hall, she washed herself in the clean water, thoroughly scrubbing the dirt from her body and the black and blood-red paint from her face. She almost felt like her soul was being cleansed in the process, but she knew it was just an illusion. Her terrible past weighed down on her. Collapsing into Tatida's lap, she moaned:
  "I've tainted my soul, there's blood on my hands. I killed, I stole and betrayed... How do I wash away my sins?"
  The psychic wrapped her arms around her, pressed her lips to her hair and whispered:
  "You will be able to cleanse your soul in the waters of a faraway planet. Only there you will find the spring that will wash the blackness off completely. Just you wait, Marcius will take you there soon enough. Save your people, and god will forgive you for your sins!"
  Chapter 10. The Prime Tunnel
  Atla showed her story, took her hands away from the glass droplet and sat down.
  Marcius and Yonk were shocked. They couldn't say anything for a long time, only looked at the priestess with empathy. What they saw was monstrous. The feeling was inspired not by Atla's actions, but by the fact that she had to spend six years as a slave to the most soulless race in the Seven Worlds. She hid her pain expertly. For a person who has gone through so much, she held herself with surprising liveliness and optimism.
  "Tatida's prophecy will soon come true! Soon we'll reach the new world," said Marcius.
  Atla smiled.
  "Enough about that! Just look, we're in the interstellar space!" she pointed at the screen.
  Through the tunnel Delos, they entered the space between the worlds, where not a single star had any influence over them - a world of emptiness and freedom. At first, it was easy to navigate the interstellar space, and to simply be inside it as well. This place inspired a characteristic lightness throughout the body. Due to the complete absence of gravity, there was likely not a single cosmic body for billions of kilometers.
  Nonetheless, emotions were severely lacking. The two months of travel from the Delos tunnel to the last portal Prime were the longest of all. Yonk, Atla and Marcius each caught themselves with the thought that they're unable to remain alone with themselves, or else they were immediately overtaken by fear. The entire human race and all living things were so far away that seeing and feeling each other was their only tie to the past. They dragged their beds out into the main pavilion, and always kept each other in sight. This helped keep them sane.
  Each one of them, and at times all three at once, started to experience hallucinations. Humans weren't made for the interstellar space, and it showed. They noticed themselves getting a little bit unhinged. They saw creatures that didn't exist in their worlds, and they experienced identical dreams about life flourishing outside of stars and planets. They were constantly haunted by a feeling of being infinitesimally small.
   Yonk got the pesky idea that they were three electrons rotating around an atomic core belonging to a molecule in the body of a giant monster - that they're living inside his heart and will soon be destroyed because the cell is dying off.
  Ever since they left Delos, Atla couldn't shake off the feeling that endlessly long arms with claws were stretching out after them. She kept on wanting to activate the ship's function of invisibility, forgetting that such a function didn't exist. She was reassured by Yonk's lengthy and tedious explanations of how the monster they're part of is moving faster than the hands of the monster chasing them.
  Marcius constantly wanted to venture outside because he thought that he could survive if he left the monster, forgetting that he's out in space. Atla stopped him, explaining that he can't go outside because he'll get squashed by the monster pursuing them, but if he stays inside, there's a chance that their monster will manage to escape.
  Luckily, their madness ceased all by itself as soon as they reached the Prime tunnel.
  All this time their ship was flying on autopilot, following strict preset instructions and heading towards their destination. Once inside the portal, everyone's mind cleared simultaneously. The Prime portal was much easier than the previous one, but slightly more challenging than the first. It felt like a shock of electricity, bringing their brains back to reality. The hallucinations disappeared, and all the monsters remained on the other side of the tunnel.
  The portal spat them out right into the target star system. Every time they entered a portal close to the speed of light and came out the other end at a much slower speed, they needed to set the route once more and gain some speed.
  "Congratulations! We've reached the star system we've been looking for!" Atla declared, rubbing her temples with exhaustion.
  "I suggest we don't analyze and don't discuss what happened to us in the interstellar space," Marcius suggested.
  "Only hallucinations, nothing more," Yonk replied dryly.
  Atla made no comment about what happened as she noticed a new threat approaching. The spaceship registered hundreds of tiny space particles around them.
  "What is that?" asked Marcius, confused.
  "The Prime tunnel exits right into an asteroid belt," Yonk replied, scanning their surroundings.
  "We're inside the belt with chunks floating all around," said Atla, "Recalibrate the gravity fields!"
  Yonk traced out diagonal lines with his gaze across the panel while Marcius altered the incline of barely noticeable panels that appeared above his head.
  "Turn on the transparency setting!" Atla commanded.
  Marcius obeyed. The surface of all the walls and floors displayed their surroundings, as if they were made out of clear glass. They saw what passed by them, as well as under and over. Atla navigated the flight.
  "Listen carefully to my orders and do everything exactly as I say!" she said with a note of anxiety in her voice, "Lift the ship up ten kilometers then stop."
  Marcius heeded her commands.
  "Thirteen kilometers to the left, then descend straight down at a sixteen degree angle for a duration of nine minutes."
  Atla shouted out orders one after another:
  "Dive forty kilometers down, then freeze!"
  The other two could barely keep up with her. Small rocks rained down against the ship with slight thumps - they fluttered around the bigger chunks like a flurry.
  "Nooo! I said more to the left!" Atla shrieked, covering her face with her hands.
  Two giant blocks hurled towards them from both the bottom and the top. They approached each other, on their way to squish the crystal in between.
  "We need to squeeze through in between!" she ordered.
  "Turn the ship around!" Yonk joined in.
  All three quickly buckled into their seats. Marcius gave the command to turn. The crystal rotated to the side and flew between the boulders. It remained right in the middle, fitting through the gap perfectly, but the top block received a hit from a passing rock and picked up speed, rapidly approaching them. Marcius pushed the ship to maximum speed, but the block still brushed against them, leaving a shallow scratch on the ship's surface.
  "We did it!" Atla exclaimed.
  "We're now in the dust trail," Yonk observed.
  The crystal found itself surrounded by fog. The boulders collided behind them, crushing each other into tiny pieces. Occasional pieces of rock still zoomed by, but their size was insignificant, and it was easier to avoid them.
  "I see a clear tunnel up ahead!" Atla shouted frantically, "Four kilometers to the left, and push the speed to maximum!"
  Immediately carrying out her order, the ship finally broke free of its rocky prison. The asteroid belt remained behind them.
  "We're out in the open..." said Atla with relief, "We're very close," she added in a fateful whisper.
  Atla focused on the last confirmation of coordinates.
  "There's an imprecision," she said, holding her hands to her temples.
  "What exactly?" asked Yonk.
  "The starry sky that Marcius saw in his visions can be seen from three different planets in this system."
  "How is that possible...?" asked Yonk, not following.
  "At one time or another of its cycle, each of the three planets passes through the sky at a similar angle."
  "So then which one of the three?" asked Marcius. He gave Atla a worried look. "Do you want to say that we'll be exploring each one individually?"
  "No!" Atla shut her eyes, "I can feel life from a distance. It's the great gift the gods have sent me with to serve humanity."
  "So what do you feel?" he asked.
  "I feel life!" she exclaimed confidently.
  "Where?" Yonk asked.
  "The third one from the star is in bloom, and the others are dead," the girl replied.
  "To be honest, that much is visible even to the naked eye," said Yonk sarcastically, zooming in on the planet with the telescope, "It clearly has an atmosphere."
  Marcius glanced at the image and smiled. It was the one!
  "At the speed of light, we would reach the planet in thirty seven minutes," Yonk calculated, "But our speed right now is miniscule, so we'll need a month to accelerate, fourteen days for travel at top speed and then just as long for slowing down. My final calculation - two months," he declared.
  Atla and Marcius agreed.
  "Okay, two months," said the priestess, "We'll have plenty to keep us occupied. We'll get a chance to study this system through the telescopes."
  Two months later.
  The time flew by. Marcius was very focused during the last moments of the flight. A light tremor ran through his body. Less than four days remained, and he approached his cherished dream with unease. Only now did he start to seriously think about what could be waiting for them. Marcius' bright thoughts were interrupted by an alien signal. All three of them froze. The space around was completely clear, yet the signal warned of danger.
  "We're losing pressure," said Atla incredulously.
  "How come?" asked Marcius with bewilderment.
  Yonk examined the ship's surface. The scratch left by the asteroid was making itself felt.
  "Look, it grew into a microscopic gap, and oxygen is slowly seeping through," said the priestess.
  Yonk zoomed in on the scratch, examining it closely.
   "It's gradually expanding," he said in alarm, "It's hitting the oxygenation system."
  The collision left its mark. It was hard to believe, but the signal continued to buzz despite everything."
  "Why now?" asked Marcius.
  "We braked too fast," Yonk hypothesized, "The surface wasn't able to withstand the pressure."
  "Will we make it?" asked Marcius anxiously, looking at Atla. He clung on to the hope that they will reach the planet before the oxygen runs out.
  "Keep calm! We need to run some calculations," Yonk decided, "First of all, we have my sphere."
  Atla nodded. It could be their saving grace.
  "However," he warned, "It can hold no more than two people. If three were to go inside, the automatic safety system will kick in and it won't close. The upside is that at least two of us can definitely be saved."
  "The point isn't to just save ourselves," Marcius reminded him, "The point is to return home with the coordinates if the planet is suitable for relocation."
  "That's the only thing on my mind," Yonk snapped at him, "That is, our goal is to save all three of us, and most importantly, to salvage the ship. First, I propose we think about how all three can survive."
  "We have spacesuits on board," said Marcius.
  Atla nodded.
  "I need an exact amount! Get everything we have!" Yonk ordered.
  "There's nine of them!" Atla replied. She retrieved the spacesuits.
  "There's enough oxygen to last us a day!" Yonk calculated.
  "What are you doing?" asked Marcius, observing his movements.
  "I'm sealing off all unnecessary compartments - the cabins, the storage, the greenhouse. The remaining oxygen will accumulate here, in the main pavilion."
  The alarm escalated. Yonk started to count and trace out numbers on the screen. Marcius and Atla trusted him with this. Along the way, the Pacifian proved himself to be very good at calculations.
  "Record the oxygen level on each spacesuit and give it to me," he ordered.
  Marcius and Atla carefully examined the spacesuits, relaying each number to Yonk to the nearest hundredth. One of the nine was already empty.
  "I also have a spacesuit in my sphere - you can use it to replace the empty one. Bring it here," commanded the Pacifian.
  "Is there a chance we could fill up the empty suits using the sphere?" asked Marcius.
  "Unfortunately not," Yonk replied, "The oxygen system is isolated and automatic."
  Marcius nodded and quickly carried out the task. There it was, right inside the sphere - a fully oxygenated spacesuit.
  "To sum it up, we have seventy two hours until we reach the planet. The total amount of oxygen in all the spacesuits is thirty three hours, and that's only for one person. The oxygen remaining on board the ship is good for forty hours. If two of us go into the sphere right this second, then there should be just enough left for one.
  "Alright," Atla agreed.
  "The remaining person will have to land the ship by themselves. Is that possible?" asked Marcius.
  "Yes, it's possible if we choose the landing location ahead of time and lay out the route," said Atla.
  "What sort of landscape will be best for landing?" asked Marcius.
  "Taking into account that it will be an emergency landing, water would be best of all. The crystal doesn't land, it hovers above the surface, but it might collapse if the energy runs out. In that case, water would be a perfect buffer. We need a deep ocean trench.
  Yonk examined the planet. He took into account its rotation around its axis and its speed of travel around the star. He calculated its trajectory around the orbit and aimed their ship towards the northern ocean.
  "The planet's atmosphere is very dense - are you sure it won't burn up the crystal?" Marcius asked cautiously.
  "We tried it out in Yurei's atmosphere, and it's twice as dense as this one. It'll go through!" said Atla confidently.
  "Will we be able to lift it back up from the bottom?" asked Yonk.
  "Yes, we've had those sorts of trials as well. I know how to lift it from the bottom and how to restore the surface damaged by the asteroid.
  "Is there any chance we could fix it now?" Marcius asked.
  "Not when the ship is moving!" Atla replied with disappointment.
  "Alright," Marcius nodded.
  "Just one more thing," Yonk pointed out, "It's best to let the sphere out of the crystal ahead of time."
  "As in right now?" asked Marcius.
  "If we let it out right now, it will take a year for it to reach the planet. We need to let it out as we're flying. I'll leave a beacon on the ship - we can use it to track each other."
  Both Atla and Marcius agreed.
  "Now we need to decide as soon as possible who'll go into the sphere," said Yonk.
  "Obviously you and Atla," said Marcius without a second of doubt.
  "What makes you say that?" Atla asked, surprised.
  "Yonk's candidacy is quite clear, since he's the only one that knows how to navigate the sphere," said Marcius.
  "Agreed - just like I know best how to navigate the Kramean ship," she confirmed.
  "Yes, but my lungs are better trained and I can go without oxygen for longer than you!"
  "Agreed," said Yonk, "Towards the end, it could end up being a matter of seconds between life and death. The most endurant should stay behind."
  Atla was hesitant. She didn't like this decision, even though she was presented with the safer option.
  "If the spaceship doesn't stay above the water, run to the gateways and be ready to swim!" Atla warned him.
  "We need to go quickly!" Yonk said impatiently.
  "Go! I'll keep in touch with you telepathically," Marcius urged her, touching her shoulder.
  Marcius walked Yonk and Atla to the sphere. Yonk gave Marcius the beacon and told him to fasten it under the control panel.
  "From this moment, no matter what happens, you can't leave the sphere!" said the Tulonian sternly.
  "Yes," Yonk nodded, "Try to let us out in the atmosphere, as close as possible to the landing location, so that we can help you if anything."
  Marcius nodded. Yonk hopped inside the sphere. Atla hugged Marcius tightly and went inside after Yonk. The doors closed, and now Marcius was completely alone. He slowly walked up the stairs to the upper level, breathing slow, shallow breaths, starting to ration the oxygen from the get go.
  He sat down by the screens. No action was needed on his part, he was simply taking in the surroundings. Spacesuits were scattered all around him, ready for when he would need them. He turned off the alarm, which now served no purpose, and listened to the silence. The only sound was a barely audible hum coming from below the floor. Large numbers on the screen displayed the amount of oxygen remaining in minutes. Yonk calculated everything to the dot. He also left a half-empty cup of tea on the panel - it was still warm. Marcius lifted it to his lips and took a sip. Yonk would have killed him if he'd seen.
  It was hard to admit, but the three of them really did make a decent team. Their separation made Marcius very uncomfortable, and he quickly turned on some soothing, melodic music. Although he wasn't fond of anything Kramean, this melody calmed him. He tried to think positively, to keep the leaking oxygen out of mind. He studied the new planet, examining the shapes of continents and rivers with anticipation, knowing that very soon now he would be there. He had the chance to sleep for a little bit, so he lay his head in his arms and closed his eyes.
  He was woken by a strange rumble. The spaceship was vibrating - he could feel the floor shaking beneath him. The ship's systems were clearly askew. He zoomed in on the crack - it was about the same size as two hours ago, but there was still something wrong. Marcius zoomed in to the maximum and noticed a small hairline fracture winding its way down the wall. He followed it to where it ended and saw it growing before his eyes. It was easy to see that soon this tiny line would turn into a crack that would go all the way around the crystal, splitting it in two. This changed all their plans. But scariest of all was that the oxygen was now leaving the ship at a much faster rate than they anticipated, which meant he had no time to land the ship.
  Marius' heart pounded rapidly in his chest. Hot blood flooded to his face. He was a prisoner of circumstance and wasn't able to do anything to alter the course of events. He knew that Atla was reading his each and every thought, and understood that they were both probably panicking by now, but unable to leave the sphere.
  "I'll let the sphere out as we're approaching, just as we agreed!" he told her loudly inside his mind, "You'll survive!"
  He felt her presence inside his head. It seemed he could almost see the tears welling up in her eyes.
  The temperature started to drop rapidly. Marcius put on the body of the spacesuit, continuing to breathe the remaining oxygen inside the ship. Remembering the stingray, Marcius went down into the laboratory. He had to make sure the water didn't freeze. Marcius hit the glass with his beam. It shattered into tiny pieces, and the water flooded out under his feet. The stingray really had grown - he now could barely fit inside. Amazingly enough, the animal could actually be of some use to him now!
  A day went by and the spaceship lost all its oxygen, and Marcius was relying on the spacesuits. The temperature inside the ship was now the same as outside - absolute zero (-269C). The stingray was slowly coming to after the stasis. His fins were fluttering slightly, but he couldn't yet move them full strength.
  "Wake up," Marcius begged him, stroking his head and rubbing his skin.
  The stingray opened his eyes, but only halfway. Marcius had already gone through all the spacesuits, taking care to ration the oxygen, and was now wearing the last one. There was nothing left to rely on.
  The crystal was now very close to the planet. Marcius checked the oxygen levels in the spacesuit and the time until landing. They would touch down in eighteen minutes, and he only had five minutes worth of oxygen left. He racked his brain for what to do next. His lungs were well-trained, and his record for going without oxygen was seven minutes. That meant he had thirteen minutes to spare, but after that, only oxygen starvation, loss of consciousness and death. He was five minutes short of remaining conscious and landing the ship as planned. He couldn't believe that this might be the end. He searched for a way to survive with all his power. Only the stingray could save him. Assuming the planet's atmosphere really did contain oxygen, he could leave the ship on the stingray's back and take in the atmospheric oxygen through the valves in the spacesuit.
  Two minutes had passed since he'd done the calculation. The sphere harboring Atla and Yonk was still inside, and three minutes of oxygen remained. He couldn't risk their lives and wait for total loss of oxygen inside his suit, so he decided to let them out in two minutes.
  "Atla, get ready - I'm letting you out," he said in his mind.
  They hadn't yet reached the atmosphere, but he gave the command anyways. The claw grabbed the sphere, dragged it through the gateway and tossed it out into open space. He saw it fly away from the crystal at tremendous speed and take its route towards the planet. Now there was only enough oxygen left in his suit for one minute of life. Marcius ran over to the stingray. He had less than a minute to think of something.
  In the same way it tossed out the sphere, the claw could toss him out along with the stingray. He grasped onto this possibility. He closed his eyes and put in the command into the system. The claw was instructed to let them out in the top layers of the atmosphere, at a height of forty thousand meters above the surface - in eight minutes, according to calculations. He couldn't do it yet - it was still too early, and there was no oxygen to receive.
  He reached the stingray, fastened his body to him with ropes, and lay down on top of him.
  "Program the valves," a thought raced through his mind.
  The last spacesuit, which he was wearing right now, belonged to Yonk. He knew how it worked only in theory.
  "Somewhere on the glove, somewhere on the glove..." With shaking hands, he felt the glove. With difficulty, he found a tiny panel to the left of the cuff. He squeezed it with two fingers. A sensor screen popped up right in front of his face, projected onto the interior surface of his helmet. Hundreds of possible operations appeared before him, but which was responsible for the valves? Marcius was trembling. His meager understanding of Pacifian was enough to distinguish the words "life support". He pressed them with shaking hands.
  The button brought up an image of the spacesuit. Instinctually, he reached towards the area of the helmet. A detailed, three-dimensional diagram of the helmet appeared, and he could see the valves. Many more operations popped up - "open", "close", "timer". He pressed "open" and started to put in the time, making several mistakes, forgetting that the Pacifians use different units to measure time. Finally, he entered the correct number.
  The valves were to open in exactly eight minutes, to begin pumping in oxygen into his helmet from the atmosphere. Marcius understood that even fresh oxygen was no guarantee that he would regain consciousness. In the event if he doesn't come to, the stingray could pull him underwater for good.
   It was getting very hard for him to think, and a siren once again signaled a complete lack of oxygen. He saw everything as if through a fog. He reached for the carabiner fastened to his belt, set the timer to seventeen minutes, at the end of which the clasp would open. The spacesuit could act as a lifejacket in the water, but only if the stingray finds water. Worst case scenario, they shatter against the ground. So much was up to chance!
  Marcius forced himself to relax despite everything, to close his eyes and lie still on top of the stingray. He was no longer breathing, only waiting and bearing it through. In his mind, he prayed to the Tulonian gods for salvation. There was no one else for him to count on.
  The first three minutes he begged them for life, but after, realizing that he might not make it, decided to thank them for what they had already given him. His life, although not long, was decidedly eventful. Marcius thought of everyone he loved.
  The crumbling spaceship carried him towards the foreign planet. He lay on the barely conscious stingray, completely alone in a vacuum, yet still found the strength within himself to smile.
  He was able to remain conscious for six minutes without oxygen, but the seventh minute was critical. The last face that floated before his eyes belonged to Atla. His fingers turned to ice, his body shook with convulsions, and his brain was barely functioning. When the claw tossed him out into the stratosphere along with the stingray, his heart was no longer beating.
  They left the spaceship at tremendous speed. Luckily, Marcius was protected by the heat-resistant spacesuit. Still sleepy and groggy, the stingray, to his great surprise, found himself within an unfamiliar planet's atmosphere. However, the Murian animal remained inactive. For thirty seconds, he continued to fall thoughtlessly, surrendering himself to the power of gravity, forgetting all about his ability to fly. Marcius motionlessly dangled off of him.
   After that, the stingray gathered his bearings, spread his wings and soared. Marcius' limp body still lay on his back. The valves opened inside his helmet, just as programmed, and oxygen seeped into his helmet, but the sacred gas did nothing to bring him back to life. Below them, the spaceship split in two with a loud explosion.
  The panicked stingray shot upwards, then back down. Marcius' body jumped up several meters, then slumped back down, held in place by the ropes. The strong collision of his chest against the stingray's rock-hard back started up his heart.
  He began to breathe, but wasn't able to regain consciousness.
  They were now flying in the lower layers of the atmosphere. For a long time, the stingray couldn't land, looking for water. Although his instincts should have guided him south towards the warmth, he thoughtlessly flew north towards the cold. His brain was still asleep. They were still very high up, but the carabiner had already unfastened. Marcius was no longer secured, but his body still remained on the stingray's back because the animal was flying horizontally. He descended towards the snowy bank and flew low along the shore, getting ready to dive. Marcius slowly slid down his right wing and finally fell down into the water below.
  The stingray dove in several meters away from him, disappearing into the depths. The spacesuit pushed the Tulonian out of the water, and the waves pushed him closer to the shore. Several times he collided with rocks, and the Pacifian helmet cracked in two. One half remained with him, and the other sank to the bottom. Finally, he washed up on shore. He was completely alone, only thick snow rushing to cover his wounded body.
  Chapter 11. The Mysterious Planet
  5 hours later
  Peace and quiet, cold, and at the same time an inexplicable sensation of burning.
  "This is it! This time I'm dead for sure..." thought Marcius through a sickly fog.
  He couldn't feel his body, as if it had disappeared altogether. He only felt his heavy eyelids, as if the whole world collapsed onto them and started to melt. He tried to open his eyes but couldn't.
  Spending a couple more moments motionless, he felt his cold blood gradually flood to his hands, then to the rest of his body. It was unbearably painful. It seemed his flesh was pierced by a billion tiny explosions. He wanted to scream, but when he tried to open his mouth, something fell down his throat and turned into water with a wave of coldness. Getting a taste of the substance, he greedily grabbed more of it with his lips and swallowed it down.
  "Water!"
   At that moment he experienced a deja vu. Straining his memory, he suddenly saw a scene from his childhood. His mother always scolded him for eating the snow that fell on Ari's bridges during the cold season. The realization that it covered him now like a blanket inspired both peace and clarity in his soul. Now he felt like he understood what was happening to him, and why he was here.
  Marcius knew the Tulonian legends by heart, especially those that talked of the next life. Tulonian warriors held a special rank with the gods. They were the elite, and after death ended up in the distant past of their own planet in order to give rise to the Tulonian race. Warriors resurrected from snow. Their hearts crystallized into diamonds, their flesh formed from ice, and the clearest star dew flowed through their veins.
  Everything was happening according to description, there was no doubt about it. He perished and was now about to witness his world's creation. The realization happened through the pain.
  The first person he remembered was his father. It was possible he could meet him in the world of the past, and this thought forced him awake. He already felt the numerous other warrior souls resurrecting from the ice along with him. Anguish, loneliness and foreboding disappeared instantaneously, and he felt like an icy titan, no longer merely human, surrounded by an army of creatures just as perfect and godlike as him. Someone stretched a glittering hand out to him from the darkness.
  "Father!" thought Marcius.
  It was him - his gaze, his scent and warmth.
  "Open your eyes, Appa, and get up!" he heard a voice from above.
  The desire to see his father and the world of the past with his own eyes overwhelmed him. Forgetting about the pain, swept away by a trembling sensation of delight, he tried to move his limbs and reach for his father's glowing hand. Strangely enough, the family ring he'd given away to the old man was there on his finger.
  Marcius came to and lifted himself up through the cold snowy dust. He tried to stand, but his legs wouldn't listen; his hands listened only halfway. Straightening up somewhat and brushing frozen locks of hair out of his face, he slowly opened his eyes. It was dark. Everything floated before his eyes, swirling into a grey spiral and disappearing into the distance. Only one thing was clear - he was alone once again. A cold, dark silence reigned all around.
  His vision returned gradually. He stood amidst an endless snowy field, completely lost and alone. His body was shaking. He waited, but no warriors rose out of the snow after him. He heard no ice cracking, no yells of born-again heroes, no moans, no Tulonian battle calls, nothing. Marcius began to feel frightened.
  "Father, come back!" he pleaded, "Don't leave me here!"
  He heard only silence in response.
  'Maybe I angered the gods?' he thought, 'Maybe I'm unworthy of living together with everyone else, and I've been exiled? Could it be? I'm destined to be an outcast even after death!'
  Barely moving and with considerable effort, he lifted up his head, expecting to see layers and layers of ancient Tulonian bedrock, bracing himself to spend an eternity in aimless wandering, but all of a sudden he froze, heaving a deep sigh.
  Night. No barriers. Endless black space above with thousands of tiny bright specks scattered throughout. Marcius almost assumed that he woke up on Tulona's surface, but the satellites Kata and Aiax were missing from the night sky. There was only one satellite, and it was completely different. He'd clearly resurrected on another planet. The mysterious blue sphere cast its soft, somber glow over the new world. Marcius breathed all by himself, without any devices, which was impossible on every one of the familiar planets. It scared him, making his soul feel exposed before the whole wide world.
  Looking at the stars, elated and full of hope, he began to recognize the patterns as images from his visions. He couldn't believe he was alive, and that he'd finally arrived at his destination, his dream.
  Stray snowflakes fluttered down from the sky, merging with the endless white carpet that Marcius had just resurrected from. They glittered in the moonlight, twinkling like fireflies. Everything changed for him.
  The oxygen-rich air intoxicated him, and he tasted blood in his mouth. His brain wasn't able to adequately process the new reality. Everything seemed like a dream - the lack of devices on his body was disorienting; it felt as if his skin had disappeared. The atmospheric pressure seemed too strong, and the natural gravity - too severe. Everything was different, but it was real. There were too many physical changes to keep track of, and strangely enough, it was pain that saved Marcius from going mad. In that moment, it was the only familiar sensation, and it was merciless.
  Fighting the pain, swaying from side to side, Marcius made a step. Snow fell into the gaps of his torn spacesuit, and his bruised body cried out in protest. Judging from the sound of the water, a sea or ocean was close by.
  'Could it be that the stingray really did save me?' he looked around. He couldn't believe it. He didn't remember anything.
  'I hope Atla and Yonk are alive,' he thought, 'If I'm alive, surely they must be???... I'm alive! Alive, even though I should have been dead... I'm alive!' he repeated again, 'I'm here and I'm breathing. There's no dome overhead, no devices, my head is out in the open, and nonetheless I'm still breathing!'
  It was a magical moment for Marcius. Despite the pain, cold, exhaustion and discomfort, he was overwhelmed with joy and elation. He knew that he found what he has been looking for his whole entire life - a world without limits, a world for humans. Looking up at the countless stars in the sky, he laughed like a child, and with a pleasant melancholy thought of Ari, somewhere out there, far far away inside a cold planet. Karii was probably drinking tea with Gayla, General Indro was sitting at the head of the round hall, and here he was, alone in the endless expanse of the sacred planet, thinking of them. The Kramean prophecy wasn't lying, the planet really was fit for life, and much better than any city in the Seven Worlds.
  'If only the spaceship remained intact,' he prayed.
  Looking around, he searched for the sphere, but with no luck. There was no chance of discovering it here. He let it out very high up, and the silver orb with Yonk and Atla could have landed at any point on the planet. Yonk's beacon, which Marcius fastened to the spaceship, could show him the way to the sphere, but he didn't know how far away the crystal was either.
  'They probably think I'm dead,' he thought, 'What else is there to think? I myself can barely believe I'm alive!'
   In any case, there was no point in going anywhere right now, at least not in the dark. He didn't know where to go and decided to wait until sunrise. He walked further away from the water and sat in a snowdrift. He felt cold and pain. Something inside his body was undeniably broken, likely a rib or a collarbone. He felt fear and read a prayer. Whispering in his native Tulonian tongue, he once again asked the gods to help him.
  He tried to do a calculation in his head, remembering the speed at which the planet rotated around the star and around its own axis, visualized its tilt and his approximate location, but it was all useless. He wasn't Yonk, and he fell asleep without having figured out when dawn would come.
  Day one.
  Marcius was woken up by bright sunlight. The star illuminated the bright blue sky. It was very different from Onyx - it was tinted yellow and slightly bigger than the star of his home planet. The colour of the sky was unlike anything he has ever seen. It was hard to come across a richer shade of blue anywhere in the universe, and here it was all around, engulfing the world.
  Marcius felt cozy and warm. This prompted him to ask himself why, since the last thing he remembered was cold ice and solitude. Opening his eyes wider, he realized that he wasn't alone in the snow. Wild creatures slept beside him on all sides. He had never before encountered extraterrestrial animals and didn't know how to react.
   He was scared to move. He lifted only his head. The largest animal noticed this and gave a menacing growl. Marcius froze. Examining the animal more closely, he realized that he knew perfectly well who was in front of him, but couldn't believe it. The creatures looked a lot like the mythical animals decorating his family's coat of arms.
  'Wolves!'
  The wolf that was looking at him was predisposed aggressively - it was clear from his gaze and his snarl. Marcius didn't know what to do, so he remained quiet and immobile. In the legends, these creatures were predators. The wolves slowly lined themselves up around him, and he wasn't sure what they wanted. On one hand, they didn't let him freeze in the snow, but on the other, they looked at him coldly and angrily, as if he was an enemy.
  Quietly growling and snarling, the wolves began to walk away. There were seven of them altogether. The seventh was smallest and most agile. This one was the first to leave. Marcius remembered him well - he slept at his feet and had a tinge of red about him. The fur on his back was singed, which instantly incited Marcius to think of fire, which the poor thing had clearly come in contact with. 'Where could he encounter fire?' he wondered.
  The sixth wolf strolled after him. While the seventh kept on turning to look behind him, the sixth was fat, indifferent, and gray all over. He was shut up in himself as he walked away, forgetting about Marcius altogether. The fifth wolf sniffed him over with his wet nose and without further ado, waddled after his brothers, slowly wagging his tail. The fourth and third wolves were twins. They mimicked each other's actions and left together, turning to look at Marcius in unison.
  The second wolf exploded in a fit of barking then suddenly fell silent and ran away, trying to catch up to the rest. The head of the pack sat unmoving for a long time, examining Marcius closely. His pack periodically glanced back at their leader and slowed down. The animal's white fur and blue eyes blended with the sky reflected in the snow. He hypnotized Marcius with his gaze, calling to the deepest parts of his consciousness. The Tulonian felt uncomfortable. The wolf was wordlessly communicating something to him, and he couldn't understand what it was.
  Finally, the wolf got up and followed his pack, proudly and majestically. Then he stopped, turned around and froze, staring straight at Marcius. In that moment everything suddenly became clear to him. The pack was calling him to come with them. That was the reason behind all the stops and turns.
  Gathering his strength with a heavy wheeze, he stood up and went after his saviors, following their large footprints. The leader was satisfied with his decision and stopped growling. The pack scurried through the snow at a quick pace, and Marcius struggled to keep up, thanking his fate that his legs were intact.
  The pack was leading him somewhere with determination. A new journey now lay ahead of him, and although the end goal was still unclear, he saw purpose in it, and he wasn't alone.
  'You don't argue with the gods,' he thought to himself, keeping the pace.
  There was a lot of ground to cover. Marcius didn't take his eyes off the sky - he was in tune with the cosmic rhythms of the planet. It rotated quickly, and its days were half as long as those on Tulona, which gave the pesky impression that time passed twice as fast. He was almost completely used to the rich oxygenated air, but the state of intoxication and euphoria was still with him. In many ways, it was these two feelings that helped him find the strength to keep moving.
  The air here was denser, but also clearer, which meant that the receptors in his eyes had to adjust as well. He was able to see better.
  The wolves were always far in the distance. At times they looked like black silhouettes, at others like gleaming ghosts flying at the edge of the blue sky, and sometimes they disappeared altogether - only their footprints were left to guide Marcius in the right direction. The most important thing was not to lose them. They were his only connection to life and he kept on fighting, although it was becoming more and more difficult. There was no way for fire to form spontaneously in a world as cold and icy as this, and yet the wolf's fur was singed, which meant that intelligent creatures must be somewhere close. He could ask them for help.
  In the evening he finally managed to get some rest. The wolves went off to hunt and halted their journey in a forest meadow. Far in the distance he could see them cornering an unknown animal with branching antlers and silvery fur. Such a creature was unheard of even in Tulonian legends. Leaning in, all seven tore it apart coldly and mercilessly, even the bones. At that moment the animals stopped seeming like mythical creatures to him. They were too alive, no better than humans, controlled by the basic instinct to satisfy their uncontrollable hunger. Looking at them, Marcius realized that he himself was terribly hungry. The animal with the antlers seemed so young and defenseless - it didn't deserve death, but received it anyways.
  From what he saw, Marcius deduced his first lesson. Even though this planet was at the other end of the galaxy, it was governed by the exact same laws as his world. Weakness was despised, instincts were satisfied, and the creatures lived in packs. This immediately led him to his second conclusion - if the laws of life on his own planet are so like the ones governing the creatures on this one, maybe they can be applied to the universe as a whole?
  Marcius carefully studied the remains. The creature's blood was red, and its consistency reminded him of his own. The animal was warm-blooded. He didn't get a chance to carry out a thorough examination, but everything pointed to the fact that this animal's basic structure had a striking resemblance to his own.
  It got dark. Having eaten, the wolves directed their gaze to the stars. An already familiar sorrow crept into the sky. The satellite, a pale glowing perfect sphere, was so large and hung so low above the planet that it seemed within the reach of his hand. It was an enchanting sight. All seven wolves lined themselves up in a row and began to howl. Marcius stood quietly to the side, listening and looking. He was cold, his bones ached, but he didn't dare interrupt the ritual with even a slightest rustle. He had to wait as long as their sacred wolfish souls demanded. Soon enough everything went quiet, the animals started to gather together in a tight ring around him and lying down beside him. That night as he was falling asleep, Marcius felt himself a wolf. For some reason, the pack let him into their ranks, accepting him as one of them. He didn't know why, but was eternally grateful.
  There were no flurries that night. He felt warm and at peace in the wolves' company. This time Marcius began to fall asleep with full awareness of where he was. He lay wrapped in the snow and fur, drifting off into faraway worlds. He was slowly getting used to the new planet, although stars continued to race before his eyes at a crazy speed. He saw the faces of Atla and Yonk in his dreams. The Pacifian and Kramean were still with him.
  Day two.
   Marcius woke up in the middle of a smooth white meadow. The wolves were nowhere to be found - they'd left him all alone. Far among the trees he noticed shadows moving. The light of the main star was blinding, and he squinted. His first thought was that wolves were walking away into the bush, but then he noticed that the silhouettes were moving towards him and looked completely different. The new creatures were two-legged. The closer they got to him, the better he could see them.
   Something about them reminded him of humans, and yet they were different. They were small in stature, about Yonk's height, but their built was so massive that it didn't fit into any normal human proportions. Their heads were too big and unusually shaped, with powerful brow ridges, wide protruding noses and very small chins. Their hands looked more like paws; their necks were short and bent forward, as if under the weight of the head. They were red-haired and light-skinned. Marcius was faced with a very strange, inexplicable type of human. He didn't know how to react, and lay in the snow unmoving. His beam was hidden away in the folds of his clothing. One swing would render them all dead, but he was in no rush to use such drastic measures, although he immediately identified this strange alien race as predators.
   The people looked at him as if he was an outlandish animal. They carefully formed a circle around him, making strange sounds without vowels, somewhat like the wolves' growling. His clothes captivated their attention. Several people crouched down beside him and started to feel the silver lining of his suit with their fingers. This was very unpleasant, but Marcius gritted his teeth. These people seemed to him very underdeveloped and even wild. They were all men - for now, he could only count five. They were wrapped in animal hides. Their arms were covered in blood - they'd likely just finished a hunt, although Marcius didn't see any tools anywhere. This pushed him to conclude that they killed with their bare hands.
   The arms of the man who was touching his chest were badly maimed. An old, poorly healed fracture was visible, and a finger was missing. Numerous scars peeked through the thick hair. The creatures were bathed in a strong, unpleasant odor, and their blank, hungry gaze was truly unsettling, but even then Marcius hesitated to use his weapon, likely because they were just as confused by him as he was by them. They didn't understand who he was or what to do with him.
   Two of the men lifted him up and threw him over a third man's shoulders. Still Marcius didn't move. The man carrying him took two steps and all of a sudden fell over. He was hit by a spear swiftly thrown out of nowhere. Marcius collapsed along with him and once again found himself in the snow. At the same time, the other hunters fell down. New people emerged out of the forest and finished off anyone remaining, breaking their necks with their hands. Marcius watched the fight, not moving a muscle.
   The new people looked different. Their skin and hair was darker. They also seemed a bit taller, and their pelvis and chest were much narrower. They were slender with long legs - a lot more human in appearance, but still wrapped in animal hides. They had some sort of wooden and stone tools with them.
   Marcius caught sight of the dead animal brought to the meadow by the first group of people. It was enormous, laying in the snow, dripping blood. It was all covered in fur, and two cured antlers protruded from its head, one bigger than the other. The new group of people took over the dead people's prey. They noticed him right away and were just as interested.
   They dragged Marcius' body out from under the giant squishing him. They put him alongside the killed animal and started to examine him closely. The new people seemed to him more intelligent, and more attractive. The words they used among themselves were longer and more complicated, and there was less hair on their bodies. He noticed a shell bracelet on the wrist of one man. Their spears ended off with a sharpened black stone, fastened to the body of the spear by an unknown black glue.
   Traces of civilization were present among these people, the kind that Marcius was used to. He would much rather be part of their tribe than the first one he encountered. He understood that he wouldn't survive all alone in the snow, and felt that if he did the right thing, he could win them over. He had a big advantage over them - his beam. It would be much more effective in a hunt than their spears. If these people were so desperate for meat that they were willing to kill their own kind to get it, it meant he definitely had something to offer. For now, however, he played dead, carefully studying them through half-closed eyes and allowing them to study him in turn.
   The hunters talked amongst themselves for a long time. Marcius understood that they were talking about him, since they were pointing at him as they talked. They were deciding what to do with him. In the end, they loaded him up onto the back of the furry monster and dragged them through the snow in an unknown direction. Marcius guessed that they were taking him to a settlement. According to the laws of nature, these men had to have women and children to accompany them, and some shelter from the bitter cold.
   They walked for about two hours, first uphill then down. The settlement was in a valley surrounded by a series of hills, well-protected from the winds. Shacks were visible down below, looking like pyramids or cones from far away. Their frames were made of white bones of enormous unknown animals. Animal hides were stretched tightly across the bones, and smoke billowed from the tops, which meant fires blazed on the inside. There were no more than twenty such structures. They were all of different sizes, sprinkled with snow. Fires burned next to them as well, on the outside.
   Seeing the hunters, the tribe came to life. Children ran out to meet them. The body of the monster was dragged into a small clearing between the shacks, and people immediately began to gut it with small flint knives. They took Marcius down and put him on top of some hides in the snow. A crowd gathered around him. Women touched his spacesuit with their hands, stroked the smooth surface of the silver coating, squeezed his steel boots in their hands, rustled his unusual white hair with their hands.
   Marcius felt like a precious gemstone in the hands of a jeweler setting a price. They weren't scared of him, and he was fine with that. He finally got the nerve to open his eyes fully. Very carefully, he started to smile, noticing that the children smiled at their fathers as they returned from the hunt, which meant that it was a gesture of friendliness here, just like on Tulona.
   But when one of the women tried to unzip his suit, thereby coming close to discovering his beam, he sharply pulled her hand away. This was a mistake. The woman jumped back with a scream. Up until this point, they all likely thought him a dummy, unable to move. The commotion got the hunters' attention.
   Realizing that Marcius could move, the men tried to tie him up, and the situation started to get dangerous. Two of the hunters threw a rope around him, but didn't have the time to tighten it. Marcius jumped up, took out his beam and began to swing it over his head. He turned into a giant silver orb. He knew that this trick would leave an impression, and did it on purpose. He gradually slowed the rotation, and the orb became transparent. He saw shocked faces all around. He stopped the beam and held it out in front of him, like a glowing sword. The people watching him remained completely frozen. He backed away, moving towards the hunters cutting up the carcass. He came up beside it and with a single swing of his beam, cut it into two perfectly even parts. A cry echoed through the crowd. The animal fell apart, exposing its insides and dripping blood.
   The people watched him with fear. No one dared come close. Marcius noticed a large bird flying overhead. Lifting the beam, he turned it into a lasso and launched it into the sky. In an instant the bird was lying in the snow before his speechless audience.
   He picked it up and held it out to the women. The people exchanged looks and began talking amongst themselves. Marcius wasn't able to think of anything else to impress them with. He put the bird down at their feet and stepped back. One of the women came up, picked it up and examined it. Marcius was a source of intense power - he was like a deity to them. No one dared come out against him.
   Which was exactly what he wanted. He needed the warmth of their fires, food and rest.
  Chapter 12. Looking for Marcius
   Three days earlier.
  Being shut away one on one with Yonk inside the sphere was extremely difficult for Atla. The Pacifian rejected any suggestion she put forth, twisted her every word and constantly highlighted his position as master of the ship.
  "I can hear Marcius' thoughts, something's wrong," said Atla with a start.
  The Pacifian cave her a careful glance.
  "The oxygen is leaving the ship faster than expected. The crystal is cracking in two. He won't have time to land it!" she said with horror, "We need to go and help him!"
  "Stop!" Yonk screamed.
  Atla froze.
  "You'll ruin everything! We're already inside a vacuum. If you open the sphere, you'll blow our brains out. Sit tight!" he yelled.
  There was no other choice. Atla sat quietly, anxiously tapping her fingers on the panel.
  "Hold on a minute!" she said, putting her fingers to her temples, "He knows that I'm reading his mind and is telling me something!"
  Atla listened carefully and repeated his message out loud:
  "Don't worry, I'll let the sphere out just as planned."
  Yonk nodded.
  "Of course he will," he said.
  "Of course?" asked Atla, shocked, "Do you even understand what's going on? He's dying, but still giving us a chance of survival!"
  "I understand," said the Pacifian dryly, with no emotion.
  "No, you don't," she disagreed, "He's our enemy, but he's saving us!"
  "Do you think it makes more sense from his perspective to keep us in and let us perish along with him?"
  "That's exactly what an enemy would do!" said Atla sternly.
  Yonk was silent.
  "There's something else!" said Atla, listening.
  "What?" asked Yonk.
  "He's thinking of the stingray. I don't see a concrete plan in his head, but he hopes he can somehow save him."
  "It's possible, but too many nuances," Yonk analyzed, "I hope he has enough brains to think of everything."
  Atla and Yonk felt vibrations. The claw dragged them through the gateway and threw them out into space. The sphere spun around chaotically, and Yonk activated the engine and balanced it out. The spaceship raced down past them in a bright flash.
  "There's no way we'll catch up," said Yonk, "But we'll follow the beacon."
  He turned on the tracking panel, set the route and moved the sphere down towards the atmosphere.
  "The atmosphere is very thick, we'll need to go slow," he said, exasperated.
  Yonk was getting ready to meet intelligent creatures. With characteristic paranoia, he checked the surrounding space for the presence of flying capsules.
  "This plant sent an impulse," he began to speak. "It was done by someone who lives here, or used to live here," he reasoned.
  "Or someone who's going to live here," Atla added.
  "What?" Yonk was confused.
  "Old man Iza said that the impulse he caught took a very long time to get to the Seven Worlds. He never said that it was sent in the past. He said - from any point in time."
  "Even if so, a planet like this can't be empty - it's seething with life. The question is only whether or not it's intelligent," said the Pacifian, "If it is we'll have to somehow communicate. We can always say we're here because we received their impulse."
  "Agreed," said Atla.
  Yonk kept scanning the surroundings, listening to the signals, static and waves.
  "I don't hear anything," he said, "I get the impression that we're alone, but maybe we're just unable to catch their signals."
  "Look around! There's no one here, we're alone in the sky!" Atla reassured him, "There are no artificial satellites, or flying capsules, or even debris. It's the first time I'm seeing such a clean atmosphere."
  Yonk made a face. It seemed impossible to him in such a lively world.
  "The beacon stopped!" said Atla, pointing her finger at the screen.
  Yonk scanned the surface.
  "Just as planned, the spaceship fell into the water," he said.
  Atla closed her eyes. Everything was decided, but she still didn't know the outcome. She could no longer hear Marcius' thoughts, and she wanted for him to be alive so badly.
  Slowly they approached the water and came to a stop just above the surface. Deep on the bottom below them laid the spaceship. Waves were still visible near the point where it fell.
  "Get ready, we're going in," said Yonk.
  The sphere functioned as a submarine underwater. They slowly descended further and further down. Alien fish and plants met them with the full force of their abundance. It made Atla uncomfortable. The ocean was seething with life. Schools of blue fish dashed out of their way like projectiles. Larger fish slowed down, studying them with curiosity.
  "Three thousand eighty kinds," said Yonk dryly.
  "What is that?" Atla didn't catch on.
  "That's how many types of flora and fauna my sensors have already identified."
  The sphere recorded all objects within a one hundred kilometer radius, constructed a 3D model of them and stored them in the database. The number grew, and the diagrams kept changing on the screen. The most unbelievable creatures popped up: walruses, whales, fish...
  "This isn't a planet, it's a treasure," Yonk exclaimed breathlessly, no longer able to hold himself back.
  Both Atla and Yonk were amazed by the abundance of the new world. The lower they submerged, the darker it became. Daylight no longer reached that deep, so Yonk turned on the floodlights. They soon glimpsed the spaceship hidden away at the bottom. Its lights were still on, and it glowed like a precious gemstone in the deep. Small fish circled around it.
  "That's only one half of it," said Yonk.
  Atla nodded with understanding.
  "It fell to pieces!" she said.
  Yonk came right up to the ruins and began scanning.
  "Marcius' body isn't in this half," he said dryly, "The stingray isn't here either. The aquarium is broken."
  "That means either he survived the fall and swam away, or Marcius managed to toss him out beforehand."
  "Most likely he tossed him out, it's unlikely he would have survived the fall," Yonk reasoned, "We need to find the second half!"
  "There should be a recording of the flight!" said Atla, pointing to the crystal beside the control panel.
  Yonk began to fish it out. He let a suction chord out of the sphere, aimed it at the crystal, attached it and pulled. It was only possible to watch the recording on the surface. Atla nodded. They slowly began to rise up. The sphere dove out of the blue ocean waters and shot upwards. The sky was completely clear, and the sphere continued to update its database of the planet's exotic creatures. They reached the shore and landed on the snowy surface.
  "Get ready, we'll be opening the sphere soon," said Yonk. He gradually adjusted the sphere's interior pressure to match that of the surrounding atmosphere. He took a sample of the air and grimaced.
  "It will be strange for us to breathe here, the atmosphere is twenty percent oxygen. It's more than we're used to."
  Choosing the right moment, he opened the sphere. A fresh gust of alien wind burst inside along with some snowflakes. Atla took a breath, and it was like the first breath of a newborn child. Her lungs were simultaneously scorched and frozen. She began to cough and was almost choking. The air was too rich - the oxygen really was much higher in proportion.
   Yonk felt dizzy.
  "Blood," said Atla, pointing at his nose.
  The Pacifian tilted his head back and sat down. In a state of intoxication, Atla climbed out of the sphere. She crawled up to the crystal, wrapped her arms around it and lay on top of it for several minutes, her eyes closed. She had a terrible headache, and the bright light was blinding. Everything around was foreign. The noise, the sounds, the smells, colours, gravity, temperature.
  For Marcius' sake, she forced herself to get it together and decipher the crystal. She touched her hands to it, establishing a connection. The crystal glowed yellow from within. Gradually she learned everything about Marcius' last minutes. Yonk rushed up to her.
  "The oxygen in the last suit ran out thirty minutes before the ship landed. He released the stingray seven and a half minutes after it ran out. He was no longer inside at that point. The spaceship fell empty for five minutes.
  "He was most likely already unconscious when the stingray was released," Yonk guessed.
  "He programmed the claw ahead of time," Atla concluded, "But why didn't he just leave earlier?"
  "Because they haven't reached the atmosphere yet," Yonk explained.
  "This is where the crystal split in two. There was an explosion," said Atla and pointed out the height and coordinates.
  "Wait," Yonk began to think, "We need to search for the second half in another quadrant." He calculated the zone where the second part of the crystal must have landed.
  "It's near," he said.
  The second part also fell in the water, but not as deep. Atla and Yonk returned to the sphere and headed off in that direction.
   "Marcius isn't there," said Yonk.
  Atla agreed with him.
  "We've lost the spaceship," she said sadly, looking at its remains on the screen.
  "No, we'll lift it out from the bottom and fix it," said Yonk.
  "It would take ten years to grow everything together, and there's no guarantee that we'll be able to... And we can't fly away without a third person," the priestess replied, nowhere near as hopeful.
  "We'll find Marcius!" said Yonk, examining the crystal recording, "He left the ship on the stingray at a height of forty kilometers."
  "Yes, but that's really high, and we don't know which direction he went in after that, or how far," said Atla anxiously.
  "The spacesuits!" Yonk exclaimed with a flash of realization, "I only saw eight suits in the half we just examined, and they were all Kramean. That means he was wearing the last suit, and it was Pacifian."
  "What exactly does that mean?" Atla asked, not following.
  "We can track it via its radio signals," said Yonk with confidence. He studied the surrounding space, gradually widening the radius. There were no signals nearby.
  "We need to change our location and keep searching!" Atla insisted.
  "We won't stop until we find him," Yonk agreed, "The instincts would have carried the stingray south. He would have tried to find warm water like the water on Murie. It's unlikely the ice would have attracted him."
  The two of them explored sector after sector, moving north to south towards the equator and towards warmth. Only god knows where the stingray might have taken Marcius. Nonetheless, their search rewarded them with new knowledge about the planet. Yonk was mapping the territories they passed. They also saw enormous birds and animals, and were shocked by the planet's natural environment. Yes, they had seen plants and trees before in their own worlds, but here everything was colossal. Atla had never before seen a plant higher than herself, and what she saw here seemed magical.
  But even this wasn't the most astounding. Yonk and Atla discovered humans, although it was hard to classify these creatures as humans. What they saw from above looked like small, rare settlements populated by completely uncivilized tribes. They encountered at least two types. One resembled animals somewhat, and another was much more human, but removed in technological development so far from the Seven Worlds that it inspired pity. They witnessed a fight between these two types on a meadow by a river.
   Watching alien bloodshed from a bird's eye view was disturbing, as if they were completely detached from the history and fate of the events below. These tribes had primitive weapons made out of bone and wood, although they fought primarily with their bare hands, mercilessly tearing each other to shreds. They were dressed in animal hides. The fight consumed all their attention, but as soon as they noticed the sphere overhead, they all stopped and looked up into the sky with horror and confusion.
  "Go higher! I can hear their thoughts, they're quite agitated," Atla ordered, frightened, "They shouldn't see us!"
  "What difference does it make?" Yonk shrugged cynically.
  "We shouldn't interfere with the course of events," she said sternly.
  Atla was very much intrigued by them, but there was no point in descending to them, so she only took notes and pictures. Their patterns of thought were just as primitive as their appearance, and yet one type held a clear intellectual superiority over the other.
  "Focus on the search!" Yonk reprimanded her.
  They didn't land for a long time, enduring a long endless flight. They started to lose hope when the sphere caught a weak, barely audible signal. It was hard to believe, but a small Ionian spaceship sat atop a cliff.
  "I see an Ionian ship and one single person beside it," said Yonk.
  "What makes you think the ship is Ionian?" asked Atla.
  "Everything - the structure, the lining. I even know the model and year it was released," said Yonk, not able to believe his eyes, "The only thing I don't know is why a Murian is sitting beside it."
  "Is that possible? Can it be that the Ionians got here ahead of us?" said Atla, shocked.
  "Murians!" Yonk corrected her.
  Yonk zoomed in on the person's face: Murian facial features, skin and hair colour, characteristic height and body build.
  "This young man looks about seventeen," Yonk concluded, "I see no other people for hundreds of kilometers. Judging from the state of the lining and level of radiation, this ship must have stood here for two years without moving."
  "Quiet," Atla started to listen," I hear his thoughts! He can see us!"
  The Murian noticed them. He stood up, jumping and waving his hands. He was even yelling, but they couldn't hear his worlds.
  "He's genuinely happy to see us," Atla read his emotions, "He wants to believe we're his saviors," she added, surprised.
  "Are you sure?" asked Yonk cautiously, "On one hand, he isn't armed, and I see no danger. There are no warm objects inside the ship - that is, no living people. On the other hand, it could contain Ionian robots. The ship is equipped with missiles, and they could open fire."
  "There aren't any robots," said Atla, "No one but him!"
  "Are you sure?" Yonk still couldn't believe it.
  "Positive. That's all he's thinking about," said the priestess, "Looking at us, he's only thinking about how he's no longer alone."
  It was hard for Yonk to trust Atla, but he risked it. He lowered the sphere, landed it onto the stone surface, opened it up and slowly climbed out. Atla followed his suit.
  The Murian approached them cautiously, wide-eyed, expecting only kindness. Even Yonk's gloomy, tense face didn't stop him. Atla smiled. He really was very young and very lonely. He came within three steps of them and stopped.
  Atla could see what was happening inside his head. He wanted to start talking, but was at a loss. He recognized her as a Kramean and Yonk as a Pacifian, but still didn't know which language to go with. Atla noted with amazement that he is well-versed in languages - a rare trait for his world.
  "Hello," she said in Murian, surprising him. He smiled.
  "Hello!" he said timidly.
  Yonk didn't know Murian and remained silent. The priestess continued the conversation.
  "My name is Atla, and this is Yonk," she pointed in his direction.
  "My name is Het. I'm from Murie," the young man replied.
  "Do you speak Tulonian?" she asked him.
  He nodded. Atla rushed to explain.
  "Yonk doesn't speak Murian, so let's speak Tulonian if possible."
  The Murian was surprised she picked Tulonian of all languages, but didn't question it.
  "The Seven Worlds have discovered this planet?" he asked.
  "It's been two years now," Yonk replied, pointing to his spaceship.
  The young man didn't know what to say.
  "You mean me?" he asked, "I'm here by accident!"
  "But you are here. You're from the Seven Worlds, and you found it first," said Atla.
  Het lowered his head. All of a sudden he became very sad.
  "I wasn't looking, I just got lucky."
  "Lucky?" asked Yonk suspiciously, "How did you get here then, on an Ionian ship nonetheless?"
  "I was being chased," he replied.
  "Who was chasing you?" Atla asked.
  "I was captured by Guineans. I escaped, took the first ship I saw on their lot and took off," he said.
  "How did you set the route to come here?" Atla asked in surprise.
  "I didn't. I don't even know how to do that," Het justified himself. "I only knew how to launch the ship into space."
  "And it brought you here all by itself?" Yonk asked skeptically, "Not to a gas giant, or a star, or a dead satellite, but here, to this unique world better suited for human life than anything else we know?"
  "Yes," said Het.
  Yonk burst into laughter.
  "I don't believe you!"
  "But that's what happened," Het said apologetically.
  Atla took Yonk by the shoulder and whispered, "He really believes what he's saying is true!"
  "I need to take a look at your ship," said Yonk.
  The Murian gestured him inside. The ship was in decent condition, but still in need of repairs.
  "How did you land it?" Yonk asked, taking note of every detail.
  "I didn't. I woke up and it was already here," Het explained.
  "You were asleep?" Yonk confirmed.
  "I had nothing to eat, so I put myself into stasis," he replied.
  Yonk studied the flight recording. He handled the Ionian technology expertly and effortlessly, without even a second thought. Atla watched him carefully. He was too well educated for a simple soldier, which raised a lot of questions.
  "It's unbelievable!" said Yonk, "You aren't lying?"
  "Not a habit of mine," Het confirmed.
  "No coordinates were entered into this ship since its last launch, and no one set a route. For its destination, it took a set of coordinates that were regarded as a virus by the last user."
  "How do you know this?" asked Atla suspiciously.
  Yonk explained everything in detail.
  "The ship's system suffered a serious glitch and somehow received this planet's location ten years ago. Take a look! It was rebooted four times, but the owner still wasn't able to get rid of it." Yonk pulled up the logs onto the screen.
  "Has someone already traveled here on this ship before Het?" Atla asked.
  "No. It seems like Het is the first to let the virus take over the system."
  "So the previous owner didn't realize he had such valuable coordinates in his grasp?" Atla confirmed.
  "He didn't, and moreover, he mercilessly tried to get rid of them," Yonk concluded.
  "How is that possible?" Atla tried to understand, "Where did the virus even come from?"
  Yonk was deep in thought. The tension was visible on his face.
  "There is a lot of tracking equipment on this ship. I can only assume it belonged to a spy, a dealer of information, or otherwise the Ionian secret service. I know that Pacifians use similar viruses to combat Ionian spies. Spies check all signals and impulses, and Pacifians deliberately send out contaminated signals. As soon as the spy receives it and studies it using his equipment, the malware enters into his system and blocks off the ship's life support. This worked up until the Ionians learned to recognize such signals.
  "Yes, but who would incorporate the planet's coordinates into such a virus?" Atla asked.
  Yonk thought it over.
  "Only someone who wanted the Seven Worlds to discover this place and come here."
  "Who else might need it apart from the Seven World's citizens?"
  "No one I can think of," Yonk agreed.
  Atla fell silent. They had no answers.
  "Does the ship still have the virus?" she asked after a pause.
  "Yes," Yonk replied.
  "So we can't use it to take us back?" she confirmed.
  "We can fly back on manual control. But it has visible damage, and needs to be fixed."
  "Ten years?" Atla asked.
  "Several months," Yonk estimated.
  The Kramean remained satisfied with his answer. Ionians built the sturdiest ships. They had automatic navigation, landed all by themselves and were surprisingly long-lasting.
  "How many pilots do we need?" she asked.
  "If not for the virus, I would have been able to fly it back all by myself in my sleep," Yonk sighed, "But manual control requires at least three."
  "That same number again," Atla smiled, "We're lucky you stole this particular ship," she turned to Het.
  The Murian was thoughtful. He was still gazing at Yonk and Atla, his lonesome eyes full of emotion and expectation.
  "Are you hungry?" he asked them.
  Yonk and Atla looked at each other. The Murians were known for being friendly, but this boy was especially kind.
  Atla smiled and politely replied:
  "Thank you, but we have no time to lose. One of our team members has gone missing, and we need to find him."
  Yonk gave her a long, questioning look.
  "Do you really intend to continue the search?"
  His question shocked her.
  "You mean to say you don't?" she asked reproachfully.
  Yonk's reply was dry and cruel.
  "The Tulonian threw his lifeless body out of the ship at a height of forty kilometers tied to the back of a barely conscious stingray. The chances he's alive are infinitesimal."
  "We're only still alive because of him!" Atla yelled.
  "So go on living!" Yonk yelled back at her, "I have no desire to chase after dead men."
  "You're only saying that because we've found Het!" she shouted, "You know that Marcius is alive, but don't want to look for him because we no longer need him!"
  Yonk turned away. The Murian watched their argument in confusion, feeling rather out of place. Atla ran outside, and it took Yonk a moment to realize she's intending to steal his sphere. He ran out after her, but it was too late. The sphere glowed high above him in the sunset.
  "You idiot, you'll never find him all by yourself!" he screamed after her at the top of his lungs.
  ...
  Chapter 13. The Friendly Tribe
   Marcius kept his distance. No one dared address him, and they didn't know his language anyway. As he gradually came closer, people dashed out of his way and gathered into small groups. He made no sudden movements, stopped by the fire and slowly sat down. He put his beam down beside him and warmed his hands, stretching them out over the flames. The tribe didn't know how to react. They talked among themselves in short, airy words that he didn't understand.
  Marcius was very hungry and didn't hesitate to take the food of the person he'd chased from his spot. A bowl of melted ice stood beside him. He took it in his hands and was just about to bring it to his lips, but when he got a closer look at it he tossed it off to the side in shock. The bowl was made out of a human skull. The frontal and parietal bone were clearly visible. He was struck with the thought that these people were cannibals.
  He heard children's laughter behind him. He turned abruptly towards the child. The little boy was frightened and immediately fell silent. Marcius reached for a grilled piece of meat that lay nearby on the hide and tried to take a bite, but it was so chewy and undercooked that his teeth sunk into it. Blood squirted into his eyes and dripped down his cheeks. He put the piece back in its place and wiped his face.
  The tribe watched him with interest. He didn't try to hide his hunger from them, and one of the women came out to feed him. She came up to another fire and retrieved something wrapped in tree bark. She put it in front of him and ran off to the side. Marcius unwrapped the object. Three warm fish lay inside. He looked at the woman, smiled and thanked her with a nod. The fish was better cooked than the meat and was easy to bite. This option suited him much better. He has never tried meat or fish before, but only heard that some people in the Seven Worlds eat it. Tulonian food was processed and full of supplements, so even despite his hunger, he ate the fish carefully. The taste was new, it was full of bones he had to pick out, and its strong odor was unsettling. Tulonian food was completely odorless. Marcius managed to get one down, but put the other two off to the side.
  The day was coming to an end. The people were gradually getting used to him and ventured to come closer than before. Marcius sat by the fire for several hours. He had nowhere to go and his only goal in the next twenty four hours was to win the favor of the tribes-people so that they would let him sleep in one of their yurts. He saw that a snowstorm was coming and understood that he wouldn't last even a couple of hours out there by himself. He periodically looked up at the sky, hoping to see Yonk's sphere up above him, but it was endlessly blue and empty.
   Later in the evening the people relaxed completely and began to come close to him, but no one would sit beside him by the fire. He was just happy that they went back to going about their business and no longer stood around gawking at him. He was watching a group of men making spears out of wood. They cut up branches with stone knives and carved the tips out of bone. These people knew nothing about molding and alloys. Marcius saw not a single metal item - only bone, wood and leather, not even glass or ceramics. He expected a higher level of civilization from the inhabitants of this planet and was wondering who could have sent the signal. He assumed that he doesn't know everything and maybe more advanced societies live in other parts of the planet.
  It got colder, and the already familiar woman - the one who gave him the fish - brought him a large bear hide. She put it within two meters of him, looking at his beam with caution, and walked away. Once again Marcius thanked her with a nod. He took the hide and threw it over his shoulders. He instantly felt much warmer. When Marcius burned up the last log, one of the men noticed this and brought him another heap of firewood. Marcius thanked him as well. He couldn't decide whether these were the inklings of hospitality or if these people were simply scared of him.
  As night was falling, a commotion stirred up in the tribe. A second group of hunters returned. About eight men in hides and with spears carried a huge monster on their backs. Marcius got up to take a closer look. It was a very large animal, three times the size of a human. He didn't have enough imagination to think of how they could have defeated it with thin wooden spears. One of the hunters was heavily wounded. People ran up to him and led him away into one of the yurts. The last man in the group led two bound up women behind him. Marcius looked closer and saw that they belonged to the other type of human, like the ones he'd encountered first. They trembled and howled like captured animals.
  The hunters immediately noticed Marcius. They were seeing him for the first time and so were pointing at him, shouting and aiming their spears in his direction. The others came to his defense, barring the hunters from coming any closer. One of the hunters, who was wearing a mask made of bone, talked the most and the loudest of all. Everyone fell silent as soon as he opened his mouth, and everyone jumped out of his way when he approached. Marcius took him to be their leader. This man was the only one who dared come close to him.
  The leader shone his torch on him to take a closer look. Marcius squinted and activated his beam. It radiated bright white light in all directions. The leader jumped with a start, but didn't move away. He looked Marcius dead in the eye, and very sternly. He smelled him and was brave enough to touch his shoulder. Marcius didn't like this, but he didn't object. The leader lifted his hand and pointed to the sky.
  The tribe kneeled down before him, including the leader himself. Even the captured women were forced to kneel. This put Marcius on edge. He had no need for reverence or worship, only temporary shelter. Marcius kneeled himself in front of the leader and bowed his head. If this was a sign of respect for them, it was only fair to repay like with like. He was a person just like them, only from a more advanced world. Although how could he even say that, when these people lived freely on the surface with no domes or walls, and he himself spent his whole life hiding underground. Everyone was taken aback by his actions. The leader rose, the tribe followed suit, and Marcius rose last of all.
  He felt like he had been accepted and given permission to stay. The snowstorm started. The gusts of wind picked up, and the leader ordered everyone to their yurts. The woman who had showed him kindness twice already did it a third time - she called him into her yurt. Marcius got up and went inside. A fire was lit in the middle, and children lay around it, huddled close together. Marcius counted five of them. Dried stalks, roots, leaves and fruit hung from the bone carcass of the yurt. The woman gestured towards the hides. He lay down and covered himself with them. She lay down beside the children and continued to stare at him intensely.
  Marcius was so tired that he drifted off to sleep right away. It was warm, and outside a storm was raging. His cheeks burned up, his lungs were on fire from the unusually high dose of oxygen, his bruises ached, his pulse raced, his body was growing accustomed to Earth. He wanted to think of the future, of how he would return home and how he would look for Yonk and Atla, but he had no energy left to think of anything. All he could do was thank god that the wolves had led him to this tribe, and that these people accepted him. It was a true miracle.
  
  Day Three.
  Marcius was woken in the middle of the night by bloodcurdling screams. The sound came from outside. He wanted to go out, but the woman stopped him. The screams came from a man in a neighboring yurt. Marcius realized it was the wounded hunter. Medical care from the Seven Worlds would have brought him back to life in no time. Had the spaceship survived he would have been able to put him inside the sarcophagus, but as it was, there was nothing he could do. The man suffered for several hours more and then fell silent.
  The morning started off with a burial. It was clear from their faces that the people mourned the dead man. They dug a hole beyond the borders of the settlement, loaded it with furs and antlers and placed the hunter's body on top of them. It had been washed and folded into the fetal position. This was Marcius' first burial. In his world, leaving this world completely was a luxury. Only the greatest ever avoided the recycling process, but here, judging from the number of tombstones, it seemed that everyone received a burial. A question popped into Marcius' mind. If they buried their dead, whose skulls did they use to make bowls? He assumed they used the skulls of their enemies.
  They began to bury the body, and Marcius paid attention to the soil. The bottom layers were viscous and red, like clay. If that was so, he could make himself a bowl and avoid drinking from skulls. He saw how Murians used it to make dishes during exhibitions on Girius. He gathered himself some clay, wrapped it in a hide and carried it towards the fire. People followed him, not understanding what he's about to do. Marcius sat by the fire and started to knead the clay. It was frozen, mixed in with bits of ice, but it melted in his hands and became malleable. He kneaded the whole mass to a uniform consistency, then split it in two and fashioned the halves into two rounded bowls. He then began drying them by the fire. Moisture evaporated, and the bowls became lighter and paler in colour. Marcius examined them and put them into the flames.
  He sat beside the fire for several hours, burning them. All throughout, he would look up at the sky, sending out thought impulses to Atla, asking her to come get him. He believed that she would hear him, but the sphere was nowhere to be seen.
   Several hours went by. He took the bowls out of the fire and cooled them. They were sturdy as rock. He gave one of them to the woman who gave him shelter and kept the second for himself. The woman was very happy with the gift. She smiled, exposing her yellow teeth, showing the bowl to the others. Marcius' technique for making dishes caught the tribe's interest, and by evening everyone was sitting by the fires with lumps of clay, trying to shape and burn them as he had. Those who forgot to dry them watched their bowls explode in the fire, those who dried them poorly watched them crack, but everyone tried nonetheless. Those who succeeded brought their bowls to show Marcius, who nodded indifferently. These people were like children. However, one child truly surprised him. He was the only one who made not a bowl but an animal, and so well that Marcius immediately recognized it as a wolf. He patted the boy on the head and let him hold his glowing beam.
  He spent the whole day with the women and children. The men went to hunt and returned only towards the evening. This time they came with empty hands.
  Day Four.
  The next morning Marcius decided to go hunt with the men. The meat was running out, and if they didn't replenish their stores that day they would have nothing left to eat. Marcius wrapped himself in furs and grabbed his beam. He walked last in line, and the leader was first. They walked through the forest for a long time along the snowy trail. The weather was calm - not a single gust of wind or a single rustle.
  Marcius observed a strict division of labour in the group. He could easily identify the scouts who would break away from the main group and search for animal tracks in the snow.
  The forest came to an end and they came up to some flat, brown cliffs. The scouts came across some paw-prints and reported them to the leader. They followed the tracks for a long time and ended up at the mouth of a cave. Marcius guessed that the animal lived inside. The hunters lined themselves up along the rocky slope. They began lighting branches on fire and throwing them into the cave. They needed to smoke the animal out of its hiding place and wait for the right moment to attack. They did this very carefully and with very little noise. Every movement and action spoke of great experience and skill. Marcius was standing guard on top of the highest peak above the cave, ready to use his lasso if needed. He didn't feel like a part of the tribe, but he didn't want these people to suffer any losses, and he also didn't want the animal to suffer any longer than necessary.
  A sinister roar sounded from the cave, and the angry animal raced out, straight through the rocks and branches. It was a giant shaggy bear. The hunters raised their stones and spears, but Marcius beat them to it. Within a fraction of a second, he threw the lasso around the animal and paralyzed it. The bear fell down dead and rolled down the slope. For several moments the hunters stood motionless, looking at Marcius. His deadly weapon horrified them. Finally, the leader gave the command and the hunters went down the slope to fetch the bear. They started to drag it away towards the settlement.
  That day they returned home with a catch. The leader told everyone of Marcius' actions, and people started giving him offerings in the form of bone amulets, necklaces and bracelets. He shook his head in protest, refusing everything, but the people were so persistent that they left everything in a pile at his feet.
  The Tulonian threw his hide over himself like a hood, bowed his head and got lost in thought, not paying any attention to the people around him. His presence in this tribe was a complete waste of time. His world was in danger, and he had to go back, but now it seemed he had no means to do so. Atla and Yonk were nowhere to be found. What if they weren't even looking for him, and this tribe would end up being his last stop? Just the thought of it drove him mad, and he got up abruptly and went into the yurt.
  Day Five.
  In the middle of the night Marcius felt like he was choking. He opened his eyes and began to cough, seeing the left side of the yurt up in flames. Marcius shook the woman awake, grabbed the children and dragged them out into the fresh air. As soon as he got out, several large boulders hit him in the back. He fell, grabbed his beam and crawled away, looking around him. He scanned the settlement and evaluated the situation. All the yurts were on fire. People ran out and were met by flying rocks and clubs. They were under attack. It was the people Marcius saw first: large, burly and red-haired. They reminded him of wild, savage animals.
  The enemy's arsenal contained throwing stones, wooden clubs, spears and darts with stone arrowheads. They released all of this onto the tribe, and Marcius became enraged. He jumped up and started to fight. No one had the right to harm these people while he was with them. He cut up the attackers with his beam in sword mode, and reached those who were farther away with the lasso. One hit was enough to kill. The enemies saw how dangerous Marcius was with his weapon, and showered him with boulders and spears. Swinging the beam, Marcius repelled all the shots. The enemy tribe was frightened and began to retreat.
  Marcius sat down and pressed his head into his hands. He didn't like killing, didn't like war, didn't want to be spilling blood on this planet, but he had no other choice. It was only his fifth day here, and already he has killed more than a dozen local people. The leader ran up to him and grabbed him by the shoulders. The people were scared that Marcius was wounded and crowded around him. He desperately wanted to talk to them, to tell them to stop guarding him like that, but he couldn't. He walked away from the crowd and began smothering the flaming yurts with snow. The people followed his suit. All through the night they were putting out fires and tending to the wounded. The attacking tribe took their two captured women with them, and Marcius didn't blame them. On this planet, just like in his own world, everyone loved and protected their own kind.
  The following day was particularly sad. Many graves were dug, and many funerals carried out. There were women and small children among the casualties. No one went to hunt; everyone was busy restoring their homes. Almost all the hides were burnt, and only the bone carcasses remained. The remaining hides, including the hide of the freshly killed bear, were enough for two yurts only. The tribe would have to manage with only two until they could acquire more.
  In the evening everyone gathered by a big fire. For the first time, Marcius heard the sound of their musical instrument. It was a long flute made of bone, and its melody was enchanting. It sounded so fine and natural that it gave him shivers. It had a somber undertone, and people's eyes filled with tears. They were mourning their dead. The sparks from the fire flew up into the night sky, and stray snowflakes fluttered down like a blessing.
  Only now and only through this music Marcius started to feel the souls of the people around him. Their culture was so clean and fresh. They were at the very dawn of humanity's greatest achievements. They were all so young, even their elderly. They lived in harmony with this world; they were part of it, while he was still an outsider. They loved this world, loved living in it, were loyal to it since they knew nothing else. For them, the world was endless and mysterious. Marcius looked into their faces. They knew nothing about space, about the laws of physics, the structure of the universe, but were still so wise and peaceful. This exact sense of serenity was what was missing from the Seven Worlds.
  The women started to sing, their voices wispy and beautiful. They blended together perfectly, captivating with their kind and genuine energy. Marcius finally felt cozy and comfortable. He let in the sounds of their voices and gave himself over to them. He was looking up into the sky and drifting off. Through a sleepy daze, he caught sight of Yonk's sphere. He smiled blissfully, taking it for a mirage, but the people's screams brought him back to his senses.
  The sphere was real. It flew at a tremendous speed straight towards the fire. Marcius jumped up and stretched out his hands. People scattered in all directions, crouching in the snow and covering their heads with their hands. He wanted to tell them they had nothing to be scared of, but he didn't know how.
  The silver orb landed several meters away from the fire. It opened up and green neon light flooded from within. He saw Atla's silhouette and his heart skipped a beat, overwhelmed with emotions and excitement. He ran towards her, but stopped timidly within a couple of meters.
  "Atla!" he called out to her.
  "You're not hurt?" she asked.
  "No," he replied, "I'm so happy to see you!"
  "Me too!" she said. She didn't try to hide her enthusiasm.
  "Where's Yonk?" asked Marcius anxiously.
  "On the other hemisphere with Het."
  "Het?!" Marius asked.
  "We found a Murian with a ship."
  Marcius smiled. The Murians were here as well. He couldn't believe that Atla had found him. It was such a pleasure to see her again. He never thought he would be so glad to see a Kramean, but in this world Atla was the closest person he had.
  "I can't leave just like that, I need to say goodbye to the tribe," he said.
  Atla understood and got out of the sphere, leaving it hanging in mid-air.
  Marcius walked towards the people, one by one urging them to get up. He pointed towards himself and towards Atla, trying to explain that he knows her, and is also familiar with the sphere. Little by little the people stopped being scared and examined the Kramean with curiosity.
  Atla noticed the wounded people sitting by the fire and came up to them. She touched her hands to their wounds, whispered spells and their pain went away. She could hear their thoughts.
  "They adore you, Marcius," she whispered to him.
  With a single touch, she read off the tribe's language. It was quite simple, with very few words, and now she was able to say a couple of phrases.
  She stood in front of everyone by the fire and tried to communicate to them:
  "My name is Atla, and my friend's name is Marcius Appa Laun. I am very grateful that you gave him shelter from the cold," she said and bowed.
  The people were surprised that she spoke their language, and listened carefully, viewing her as a deity, just like Marcius. She continued:
  "We came to you from the sky, and now it's time for us to go home. We're leaving, but we will remember you. And you remember us also!"
  Atla smiled. Marcius could guess what she was saying, and nodded. Atla felt how much the people regretted that Marcius was leaving. Their hearts were broken, and she felt like a criminal for taking him away from them. She wanted to give them something, to somehow smooth things over. She took off her golden bracelets and placed them down on the snow.
  "This is a gift for you," she smiled and started walking away. Marcius bowed and followed her. The people understood that he was leaving, and called after him:
  "Appalaun, Appalaun!"
  Marcius stopped himself from turning back. Atla slowly closed the sphere. He looked at the tribe one last time and waved them goodbye.
  The sphere shut completely, and the world of snow, mountains, wind, people, fire and warmth was suddenly replaced by cold metallic devices, screens, artificial light and the unpleasant smell of ionic filters. Atla's face was the only remaining trace of life and beauty.
  "Yonk let you take the sphere to go search for me?" Marcius asked.
  "I can be very convincing when I want to be!" Atla replied, laying out the return route.
  "Wasn't it dangerous to leave him alone with your new friend Het?"
  "It's probably more dangerous for Het."
  "Who is he? Tell me more!" Marcius exclaimed with curiosity.
  "We met him on the other hemisphere, when we were looking for you. He's from the Seven Worlds, from Murie. He has spent two years on Earth all by himself. Yes, yes, all by himself! And he has a spaceship that Yonk promised to fix."
  "If that's true, then why did you bother looking for me? It seems like you could have flown back without me."
  Atla was quiet, not wanting to answer the question. She couldn't admit that ever since he let the sphere out of the ship, he was the only thing she thought about, hoping and believing that he was still alive. Kramean pride held her back from betraying such weakness. Thanking the gods that Marcius can't read minds, she said coldly:
  "The way back to the Seven Worlds will be difficult. We could use an extra person."
  Thoroughly disappointed, Marcius heaved a deep sigh and tried not to think of her anymore. He spent the rest of the flight in silence. He knew that all his thoughts were laid out clear to see, and was unable to relax because of this. He thought about the journey ahead loudly and deliberately, about the routes and diagrams, trying to drown out the rumblings of his deep subconscious. Everything inside him led him only back to her, and he needed to do whatever it took to conceal it.
  Marcius looked at the screen, trying to distract himself. The sphere was well-suited for the ebb and flow of this planet and easily navigated the wind currents. He could fell the speed. He could almost feel the wind whistling in his ears and it took his breath away. The bare fields drowned in the darkness of the night. The territory was completely unfamiliar, vast and endless. Something terrible and joyful and mysterious hid this crazy flight amid the dark and silence. The sphere flew towards the dawn, reflecting the star's bright light in pearly rays. The scenery changed beneath their feet. The jutting white mountains turned yellow, then small green clusters began to appear, getting more and more dense as they kept going and eventually filled up the entire world.
  Covering half the planet and flying over the sea, the small Pacifian ship began to descend, anticipating the green grass below. A small bump followed. In that moment Marcius knew he was just about to see the alien world in its new form. Fresh fragrant air burst into the open sphere, and the strange new bright green colour disturbed his eyes. The greenery streamed down the hills, spread out under his feet like a carpet and enveloped the trees. Only small patches of blue sky far up above were visible through the green mass. He had only ever seen such things in his dreams and was thrilled and awestruck to see them in real life.
  Atla called him to follow her. She walked with confidence. She clearly knew where she was going and could find her way around expertly in the dense shrubs. Moving branches out of her way, she walked towards the clearing. Small beads of sweat quickly covered her dark shoulders. Never taking his eyes off her graceful back, Marcius felt her silhouette blending in perfectly with the wild jungle. Arms like elegant vines, long sturdy legs, a slender neck, thick hair braided into strands and the amazing plasticity of a proud animal - she had it all.
  All of a sudden the jungle ended and a vast, airy meadow opened up in front of them, flooded with sunlight. Water streamed down stony cliffs and trickled down into an enchanting crystal lake. A dizzying clarity filled up the shores. The star flamed above the lake like a fiery orb, playfully casting off vibrant sparkles everywhere as far as the eye could see.
  It was blinding, but wild and empty. A bird's soft chattering broke the silence. It flashed by before their eyes and settled on a nearby branch, its small lively eyes looking at the humans with curiosity. Its tiny body, covered in golden feathers, could fit in the palm of their hand. The alien creature chirped ceaselessly. As Atla stretched her hand out to it with a smile, it fluttered its wings and flew off into the sky.
  "Look!" Atla exclaimed, pointing up.
  Marcius looked. White billows of clouds crawled slowly across the sky, gradually shifting into curious shapes. Marcius picked the most peculiar one, shaped like the face of a person.
  "Look, it's you!" he pointed.
  Atla smiled, not at all offended by the joke. Choosing an even stranger-shaped cloud, she called it Marcius and started to laugh. He, in turn, was much more sensitive. He miserably examined the white monstrosity with a jutting stomach and a long nose, starting to notice that it's catching up to the cloud labeled Atla and trying to fuse into one with it. Embarrassed for his cloud, he turned bright red.
  "Alright, that's enough!" he snapped, "We didn't come all this way to look at the sky! Where's Yonk, where's the ship? Where have you brought me?"
  "They're over there!" she said, gesturing towards the cliffs.
  "Let's go!"
  A narrow path let up the sharp incline. Het lived in a cave far above the sea. The scorching star was high up in the sky, and it was getting muggy and hard to breathe. Hot vapours off the rocks melted the air and distorted it. The abrupt change of climate made Marcius sleepy. His body was convinced it was time for him to go to bed, but now it was out of the question. Only on this planet could you encounter such contrasting temperatures - in all the cities of the Seven Worlds the climate was well-regulated and unchanging.
  A human figure was moving towards them. Squinting, Marcius recognized the figure as Yonk. His lips stretched into a smile all by themselves. He was surprisingly glad to once again come face to face with the brash Pacifian.
  "You're alive," Yonk said very calmly as a matter of fact. "What took you so long? We saw the sphere land a long time ago! Is it alright?!" he asked coldly, shooting Atla an angry glance.
  "Yes! Everything is wonderful, Yonk!" she replied with overplayed kindness. "As you can see, I found him!"
  "I've noticed," Yonk replied dryly.
  A new silhouette appeared behind him. Marcius realized that this must be the mysterious Het he had already heard so much about from Atla. The young man walked towards them at a brisk pace.
   He was tall and skinny. As he got closer, his Murian features became more and more evident: big brown eyes, thin golden skin, black tangled hair scattered around his shoulders, a Murian work suit. Although apart from that he had features characteristic to him in particular: an open, direct, innocent gaze, shyness mixed in with a bit of fear and an expressive scar on his temple, left by the claws of a ferocious animal. It lay across his otherwise flawless young skin in jagged lines. To Marcius, Het seemed well-meaning and defenseless - not at all what he imagined.
  'He's almost a child - how was he able to single-handedly travel half the galaxy to end up here? How did he survive all this time in an alien jungle?' he thought.
  Overcome with pity and compassion, Marcius rushed to introduce himself:
  "Marcius Appa Laun! I'm from Tulona! I'm very pleased to meet you!"
  "My name is Het! Likewise!" the young man replied politely in Tulonian, "How was your flight?"
  "Enough chit chat, let's go!" Yonk snapped, interrupting what he considered a completely pointless question.
  "Yes, let's go. Please!" Het agreed, courteously stepping aside.
  It was strange, but two years of solitude had failed to turn him into a savage. Het maintained excellent posture, was well-versed in interplanetary etiquette and was very composed. And nonetheless, something seemed off about him. The reason behind this impression was most likely his unnatural and noble beauty - perfect facial symmetry and impeccable bodily proportions, without a single mistake nor the slightest glitch. He was flawless - that scar on his face was the only thing betraying him as a living being. It didn't seem like such a person fit in with any type of natural environment, even one as perfect as the one at hand.
  "Welcome to my home!" Het said with a smile.
  The guests followed him inside. The cave was small, but cozy. It was just a large cavity in the cliff that didn't lead anywhere, and was perfectly suited as shelter for a single person. It was cool and airy, which was greatly appreciated by everyone after the hot and tiresome climb. Daylight entered the cave through several small gaps, the dim lighting inspiring an enchanting and mysterious atmosphere. The walls of the cave were covered in drawings. They pictured people, which caught the eye and drew them in to examine the masterpiece more closely.
  "Did you draw this?" asked Marcius with curiosity.
  "Yes," Het replied hesitantly.
  Slowly walking along the wall, Marcius read the pictures like a book. The images were traced out with something red. Touching one of the tines with his fingertips, he felt the material crumbling and noticed that it left a trace when touched. The fragility of the images made them that much more valuable.
  The main characters were a man and a woman, although the woman was clearly given more attention. The outlines of her figure and her facial features were traced out with loving devotion. He drew her from the back, running away, sleeping, drew her profile. Going higher and higher up the wall, Marcius noticed a natural formation of clear, crystalline material, frozen on the tile in a large drop. Amazed by how effectively Het combined it with a giant picture of an eye, creating the illusion of crying, Marius exclaimed with fascination:
  "Stunning!"
  Het smiled timidly.
  "His soul is full of yearning," said Atla quietly, carefully watching Marcius's face, "This whole place is filled with the spirit of a lonesome heart. He's in love!"
  'Just like me,' thought Marcius, as a surprise to himself, momentarily losing his iron grip over his mind. It frightened him, and he sprang off to the side, wanting to fall through the floor.
  'She could have heard!' he thought in exasperation, 'But it's not true! I feel nothing towards you, you hear me? Nothing!'
  Marcius looked up at the ceiling of the cave. Het used it to draw the starry night the way it was visible from Murie. Marcius read the familiar constellations like a map. Het's talent astounded him.
  "Why did you draw all this?"
  "I was fighting loneliness," Het replied.
  Yonk didn't agree:
  "Come on, it would be a dream to have a whole planet to yourself! What can be better than solitude?"
  After a bit of thinking, Het replied with his characteristic melancholic smile:
  "Yes, solitude can be lovely, I agree, but only when there's someone by your side whom you can tell about how lovely it is! Two years on this planet have taught me a lot. Live loses purpose when you're alone. I want to go home."
  "Have you told him?" Marcius asked.
  "You mean about the Seven Worlds' imminent destruction?" Yonk confirmed, "We have. And this hero also wants to save his people."
  "I understand," Marcius replied, "In that case there are no obstacles for us to return and let everyone know that this planet is perfectly suited for life."
  "Not exactly," said Atla cautiously.
  Marcius looked at her in surprise.
  "What do you mean?"
  Atla bowed her head and started to speak very quietly:
  "When I was looking for you, I went very far north, towards the pole. For a long time I flew with no problem, but then everything started to malfunction. I encountered a dead zone."
  "What do you mean by dead?" Yonk asked.
  "A zone that's impossible to go through with the sphere," she explained.
  "What do you mean, impossible?" Is it covered with a dome?" Marcius confirmed.
  "It's an invisible, immaterial dome," she replied, "It's impermeable to radio signals as well as electric impulses. Someone put up a shield so strong that not a single form of technology from the Seven Worlds can compare."
  "You think that intelligent creatures live on this planet?" Marcius asked.
  "I think creatures intellectually superior to us live on this planet," Atla nodded. "It might be dangerous! We can't lead our people here until we learn who they are."
  "We need to check it out," said Yonk decisively. "I won't say anything until I see it myself. I don't trust your observations."
  "Is it even possible for a human to go there?" Het asked.
  "I saw birds fly there," Atla confirmed, "I think humans can go there, but not technology."
  "I agree with Yonk, we need to check it out," said Marcius, "How will we get there? The sphere can only fit two. Who's coming with me?"
  Marcius considered his own candidacy absolutely certain and not up for discussion. Now they had to choose between Atla and Yonk to accompany him.
   "You're always so self-assured!" Yonk reprimanded him, "In my opinion, it's best if me and Atla go, and you stay here to wait for us."
  "And why's that?" Marcius objected.
  "I know best how to navigate my sphere, and Atla can come of use if we encounter a foreign language. We'll manage by ourselves, stay here."
  "I want to go too!" Het said suddenly.
  Everyone fell silent. Their curiosity transcended all acceptable boundaries.
  "The shielded area is a rocky one," Atla specified. "We'll need rock-climbing equipment. I suggest we split up. One pair will go in and study the area, and the other will stay by the sphere, ready to help at a moment's notice."
  "Alright. Then I and Marcius will go first." The Pacifian pointed first at himself, then at the Tulonian.
  Marcius hid a smile.
  "When do we leave?" he asked.
  "We should think about when it will be daytime in that zone," said Atla.
  "In order to make it there by sunrise, we need to leave at around the break of dawn," Yonk estimated.
  "Do we have rock climbing gear?" Marcius asked.
  "We have one set for sure," said Yonk, "In the lower part of the sphere there's a trapdoor. It contains equipment and food stores. We need to check Het's ship for another set."
  He turned his back towards the entrance. The rest followed him. Marcius couldn't see the ship yet, and was very curious.
  "How much further?" he asked Het.
  "It's close by," Het replied, gesturing towards a bend in the trail. "Yonk has been examining it all morning and has almost finished restoring the stern."
  "What have you been eating this whole time?" Atla asked him. "We'll need to take some food along with us."
  "Oh, there's plenty of things. At first I only ate what grew on the ground, but later I started climbing trees and harvesting the fruit, but most important is that there's plenty of water everywhere."
  "The scar on your face - is that an animal?" asked Marcius.
  "Yes," Het replied, embarrassed, "But that's in the past. I have grown to love this place long since."
  "Grown to love it?" Atla confirmed.
  "I love it in the evening and in the night. I love sitting by the cave's entrance and looking at the planet's satellite. It's always changing, living. Sometimes only a thin sliver is visible, and it grows with each day, gradually transforming into the silvery face of a woman. When you look at it for long, it starts to seem like she's talking to you, covering her eyes, playing around. When the night is clear and the ocean is still, I can see both her faces, one at the bottom and one at the top. The one on the bottom is so fragile that at the slightest gust of wind it turns into a path leading up into the sky. Tonight will be such a night," Het finished with a smile.
  The Pacifian couldn't bear his tale and sped up his pace. Het's romantic tendencies frustrated him to no end.
  The ship was in dismal shape, with obvious cracks and dents. A giant silver beetle sat at the top, its wings bent out of shape. It looked decidedly out of place among the rocks and trees.
  Yonk approached the ship in quick, confident strides. The fragment he was bringing to life showed signs of repair. A pile of rocks was gathered at his feet. Marcius came closer to the minerals and began to study them. The fresh shiny ore was scattered all around the grass.
  "Ore!" the Tulonian exclaimed, feeling the weight of the rock in his hand.
  "It's for the repairs. I bring it down from the mountains, Yonk told me to do it," said Het.
  Marcius looked at Yonk and asked:
  "I see you've established a connection with the ship?"
  "You don't believe me?" The Pacifian grinned, "This is all my work."
  Macius nodded. Yonk was very confident in himself. He was equipped with knowledge that put him at a level above everyone else.
  "Have you even been in the mountains?" Yonk asked.
  Marcius smiled. Tulona had some of the best rock-climbing bases in all of the Seven Worlds. Back in the day he and Karii have climbed all over Kata and experienced the mountains' treachery firsthand. He took the military rock climbing course in the last phases of his time in the flight academy. If not for Indro, he would most likely have stayed on Kata as an instructor, or as a commercial scout.
  "I'm familiar with them," he replied.
  "Good, then we'll go together," said Yonk.
  Marcius had no doubts in regard to Yonk. His planet was very rocky, and he had plenty of places where to practice.
  "We'll need rock climbing shoes of my size to get across the icy cliffs, an ice pick, a helmet, a safety rope, a clutch, carabiner and a torch or a flashlight," Marcius listed.
  "Order accepted," Yonk joked. "We'll work with what we have."
  They didn't find any proper rock climbing gear on board, so Yonk took a copy of his equipment and molded a second copy from the ore. He was a master of his trade, and Marcius helped. Atla and Het collected some food for them, and they planned to leave by evening.
  Chapter 14. The Mother's Bosom.
  Yonk transported them in three trips. They set up camp at the edge of the dead zone, and prepared to leave in the morning. Just as Atla said, this part of the planet was under an invisible shield, like clear spherical radiation. The source of this radiation was somewhere far below. They saw its approximate location on their devices, but weren't able to identify the nature of the phenomenon. There were no footprints along the border of this zone - not even the wild people came here.
  The snowy valley where they stopped stretched across hundreds of kilometers along an endless circular mountain range. These mountains guarded the source of the radiation. Inside the circle lay a giant cavity, like an enormous volcanic crater.
  The four of them made a dugout in the snow. The Tulonian beam was a big help here, as well as prior experience setting up camp under alien conditions. It was best for everyone to stick together, but despite the fact that Marcius and Yonk were going to explore the mountains, someone had to stay at camp as backup. Most importantly, they couldn't leave the sphere unattended. There was a chance it could be discovered, and then it would be extremely difficult to find. The cave created in the snow was well suited for sheltering the sphere, as well as Atla and Het, who were staying behind.
  Everyone was rather quiet these days. There was no desire to talk in such bitter cold. Het was sharpening the crampons and putting finishing touches on the other equipment. Marcius and Yonk went off to explore along the base of the mountains, trying to find the easiest route. They chose the gentlest slope they could find, but even that looked dangerous.
  The journey into the sky would not be easy. The route held many mysteries and looked unapproachable. An ancient Tulonian technique was chosen to tackle it - load all necessary food and equipment into a backpack and drag everything up in one go. It was considered the most ancient, almost primitive, and left no room for mistakes, allowing nature and human to face each other as equals.
  The mountain was very steep, running up into the sky. It was the primary obstacle they had to overcome to find out what was inside.
  Marcius and Yonk left camp at sunrise. Het was still sleeping, wrapped in hides, but was woken up by the rustling and got up to see them off. Atla barely got any sleep that night - she was kept awake by nightmares and ominous premonitions. Getting up before anyone else, she double checked the contents of the backpacks and the sturdiness of the equipment, secretly fortifying them with additional Kramean spells and establishing an invisible connection with the Tulonian.
  The yellow star began to rise on the horizon. The priestess walked them to the mountain and stayed there for a long time at the its base, watching the first phase of the climb.
  The crampons dug into the snow with a crunch. The ice axe pierced the frosty crust, and tiny crystalline ice splatters covered their faces. The whole body strained and tensed with every step towards the sky, calling for both skill, agility and patience. The steel crampons Het carved gripped onto the ice splendidly. Yonk and Marcius covered the first hundred meters quickly and easily and reached an area where ice was mixed in with rock, forming vertical cascades. Here they had to maneuver and wind their way through. They were fastened to each other with ropes and traveled in a single pack. They had no choice but to completely trust in each other's skill and experience, nonetheless a pesky worrisome thought would run through their heads every once in a while.
  The rope could save their lives as well as end them. If one of them fell, he would drag the other into the abyss with him and both would die. They looked around from time to time, but never noticed anything out of the ordinary. Both were satisfied with the results of the first day. They worked hard and covered a lot of ground.
  They stopped inside of a small cavity inside the mountain. It was easy to get dehydrated at such an altitude, so they needed to drink a lot - four to five liters per day. The only way to get water was to melt some snow. A lot of time was lost to get just a single cup of water. Marcius' beam didn't work in this zone, just like any other technological device. They started fire the natural way, worked out by Yonk ahead of time, with the help of flint and steel.
  The journey was tiring. Because of the high altitude, their hearts had to work extra hard, and although both Marcius and Yonk had already grown accustomed to the planet's gravity, they experienced constant deviations between their accustomed technique and what needed to be done in the moment. The gravity of Kata and Pacifa was much weaker, and they were used to relying on the aid of technology, but here they had to do everything by hand.
  The snowstorm picked up by the end of the second day, and the temperature dropped significantly. The entire slope became engulfed with tiny snowflakes. The snow stuck to their clothes, then froze. Its weight dragged them down like heavy armor. The last part of the climb was an utter nightmare. There was nothing to grab onto, and they had to work with their entire bodies to hold on. It took four whole hours to climb some fifty meters.
  It was long past dark, and they were still climbing. Marcius was chilled to the bone waiting for Yonk to catch up to him. He was on the verge of freezing and dug himself into the snow.
  In the morning in good clear weather they saw where they had climbed to the night before. They were face to face with snow-powdered furrows and snowy peaks. It seemed impossible that so much snow could accumulate on such steep cliffs.
  Marcius couldn't remember a more tiring or risky climb. Fumbling with the ropes, pulling themselves up, plunging the axe into a new chunk of ice, they moved towards their goal.
  They managed to reach the ridge when all their energy ran out completely. Marcius was barely breathing. They were standing on the edge of a gulf thousands of meters in depth, on the top of this crazy planet's north pole, above the primordial world. Everything was silent. They expected to see traces of a great civilization at the bottom of the pit, since that was exactly where the radiation was coming from, but there was nothing, only a flat snowy field far below.
   "Atla!" Marcius screamed at the top of his lungs.
  Yonk turned away sheepishly.
  "I'm calling to you from the top of the world, can you hear me?"
  Atla smiled quietly.
  Marcius felt her reading his thoughts, knew that she was close by, and was sending her an image of what he saw in front of him. The sun shone brighter than anywhere else, and the world was at their feet.
  "We need to get down and explore the ravine," said Yonk.
  "Yes," Marcius agreed, "Look down!"
  The most treacherous thing about the mountains was the descent, they both knew that. A thick darkness moved in from the east, but they weren't expecting any tricks from the mountain peak. They were counting on an easy descent, but that wasn't going to happen. The plunging vertical drop seemed unsurpassable. In forty minutes, as soon as they started to climb down, they were covered by a cold fog. They were completely lost, continuing to descend blindly. Soon enough a small clearing approached. Marcius saw a ridge and climbed towards it. He didn't know, since there was no way for him to see it, that he was on top of a huge overhang of snow and ice. It broke off with a loud crack and they fell tumbling down the slope.
  Coming to a stop, Marcius looked around and yelled:
  "Yonk, we found a ridge!"
  Finding a ridge meant finding the way. The Pacifian smiled and looked down. They were about to descend to the very bottom of the ravine.
  They walked down along the ridge for forty more meters.
  It was much calmer inside the pit. The wind and fog remained high above, and everything was going smoothly. There was less snow and ice down here. The slope grew less steep and it was now possible to walk.
  They were now at the very bottom and came across the entrances to some underground caves. They looked at each other. It almost seemed as if it was some sort of trap, but they had no choice, they had to explore these paths. There was still no trace of humans or any sort of intelligent life. Even these passageways seemed like natural formations.
  At first the stone hallways were very narrow, but the deeper they went the wider they became. The path led them into an opening filled with precious fresh air. Light came through a gap above. A river flowed down the rocky slopes. They followed the current and came to a waterfall, crashing loudly into a deep lake.
  "We need to go to the lake," said Marcius.
  "Yes," Yonk agreed.
  They went lower still. The water was perfectly clear, and Marcius gazed into the depths. Light was coming from the bottom. He looked closer. Deep down below were the remains of white arches.
  "Look!" he called out to Yonk.
  The Pacifian crouched down and carefully studied the structure.
  "Well, finally!" he said skeptically, "Traces of civilization!"
  A giant megalithic construction was hidden underwater, something like a white stone temple. Marcius and Yonk walked along the shore, never taking their eyes off the flooded architecture. It was colossal in size - not a single city in the Seven Worlds could compare. On one of the columns Marcius noticed an engraved symbol, a fourteen-ended star. It was hard to estimate the age of this city - it seemed it sunk beneath the water thousands of years ago, and they shouldn't expect to come into contact with living creatures.
  The lake ended with a large stone cave in the cliff. Lake water flooded it. It wasn't deep, so Yonk and Marcius were able to wade through. Light came through somewhere far above, along with stray snowflakes.
  An enormous black disk lay in front of them. It looked like an embroidered plate encrusted with precious stones, but of phenomenal size. The plate was cracked into three pieces, each of which lay at different levels. The stones it was encrusted with looked oval and rounded. Many of the stones were broken. Some were in one piece but cracked, and only a couple were still completely untouched. Marcius and Yonk came down to them.
  "I'm telling you, these rocks are containers!" Yonk insisted, "Only the contents are unknown."
  "It's possible," Marcius agreed, "We should check."
   The plate was slanted, and the stones at the bottom blended with the rocky ground. Only the ones at the top were accessible, but even they were covered with a thick layer of sediment.
   "Let's try to examine at least a single one," Marcius suggested.
  Yonk and Marcius chose the topmost stone and began to clean off the rocky crust. The traces of time weren't easy to remove. Suddenly light shone through the next chip. A red beam pulsated through the clear material underneath. Marcius paused, looked at Yonk and sped up in unison with him. They were overcome with an urge to free the stone of sediment as quickly as possible. They were both excited. They weren't themselves; they lost touch with all reason. With shaking hands, they cracked off the rock piece by piece until the shell covering the stone was gone completely.
  In the giant crystal case, submerged in a cloudy liquid lay a creature somewhat resembling a giant human. Light radiated from within his body, pulsing with the beat of his heart. Marcius looked at Yonk. His eyes were flaming red and he barely recognized him, but he figured he himself was possessed by the same thing.
  He was wary of waking the giant, but the hypnotic red light called him to it. Marcius and Yonk placed their hands on the stone and began chanting words in an unfamiliar language. Cracks formed beneath their hands. They didn't know what they said exactly, but it was clear that it was a key of some sort. The stone started to move, peeled away from the disk and hovered up above its surface. Its glow grew more intense. The stronger it became, the more cracks appeared. This kept going until it crumbled into tiny pieces, turning to sand, then to dust, then disappearing altogether.
  The person got out. He was naked, with nothing but a circular amulet around his neck. The liquid that held him swirled around his body and formed into a robe. He stood with his head bowed, with his eyes closed and not moving. He was a man, a giant, twice as tall as Marcius. His skin was translucent, his organs, muscles, and skeleton visible through it. He was completely devoid of colour, almost as if he was molded from viscous glass. You could see his semi-transparent blood circulating through his veins. Light impulses radiated from inside his heart.
  Marcius and Yonk stood before him unmoving and utterly speechless. The man opened his eyes and looked at them. His gaze was intensely powerful, and it was hard to hold it, but neither Marcius nor Yonk could look away. They stared at him, mesmerized. He had them under his control. Light radiated from his eyes as well. His gaze was somewhat agitated, almost transparent, kind on one hand, and domineering on the other. It seemed he knew and was capable of so much that just by the mere act of existing he put into question everything that they knew and were capable of.
  The man took a long, hard look at Marcius, then at Yonk. He was silent, but it was clear from his eyes that he was reading off all their past and present.
   "You're contaminated," he said finally in an unfamiliar, but somehow comprehensible language.
   "What?" Marcius whispered.
   "With what?" Yonk asked.
   "With lies and hate," the man replied.
   Marcius heaved a deep sigh. The reply was too vague and unclear.
  "You've contracted in volume and size," the giant added.
  Marcius didn't understand what he meant. He only saw that this person knew everything about them. He stood in front of him like in front of a firing squad, vulnerable and exposed from within.
  "Your colony is very disappointing," the giant continued.
  Marcius was so lost that he couldn't even formulate a question and remained quiet, for some reason feeling guilty for something.
  "What happened to the others?" asked the man.
  "Which others?" Yonk wondered.
  "The other worlds," The man specified.
  "Krameans, Murians and Ionians exist, and the Oeelians and Guineans have fallen," Marcius replied.
  "No! That's only one world. What happened to the other colonies?"
  Marcius looked at Yonk. This was the first time they were treated as one species, and it was strange.
  "We don't know," he replied.
  "You lost contact?" asked the giant.
  "Contact with whom?" asked Marcius.
  "With the Empire," said the man quietly.
  "We don't know of any other civilizations apart from the Seven Worlds," Yonk confirmed.
  "The Seven Worlds? That's how you named the twenty first colony?"
  "The twenty first?" Marcius repeated, bewildered.
  "Who are you?" Yonk asked.
  "Me?" the giant smiled, "I'm your past, I'm your genes. You've degenerated."
  Marcius and Yonk stared in shocked silence. Marcius lowered his head.
  "We've evolved," said Yonk, offended.
  "Oh, yes? Then tell me my name, Yonk!" said the giant.
  The Pacifian had nothing to say.
  "Atla would have been able to say who you are," Marcius answered for him.
  "No, she also wouldn't have known," the giant objected.
  "But you haven't even met her," said Marcius in surprise.
  "I can see her right now," said the man, "I'll admit, the girl has talent, but it's not enough. You've moved away from the creator even further than we did, which is tragic. What a void between us, what a void..."
  "Don't listen to him," Yonk spoke up, "Void or no void, it doesn't matter! We are what we are! We woke you up! And I don't like you either!" The Pacifian sounded even cruder than usual, "Tell us who you are, how long you've been here and why!"
  The giant turned away from him and looked at Marcius:
  "I'll be speaking with him!"
  Marcius wasn't sure how to continue the conversation. He had so many questions that he didn't know where to start.
  "So you mean to say the people of the Seven Worlds came from you?" he began.
  "Yes," the giant confirmed.
  "And you were born here?" Marcius continued his questioning.
  "It's a great honour to be born on this planet. Very few have been worthy of it," the man replied.
  "What do you mean?"
  "I, for example, was born in the Empire capital," said the giant.
  "Where is that?" Yonk joined in.
  "It's a planet in this star system!"
  "But there aren't any other inhabitable planets in the system apart from this one!" Marcius objected.
  "Not anymore, but there used to be! A great planet, right next to this one," the man's eyes glittered, as if he was ready to cry, but held himself back, "One small, but great planet ruled over a network of galaxies. For me it was only yesterday. The capital was my home. My family remained there, along with everything I loved. Although some of my brothers managed to fly off to found the new twenty first colony before the Empire fell, when they first discovered Murie, a planet with abundant water and oxygen."
  "Murie..." Marcius was lost.
  "How did you get there when it's at the other end of the galaxy?" asked Yonk.
  "There are tunnels, or rather there were. The whole Empire was connected with cosmic paths," said the giant.
  "So there was a direct path from the Seven Worlds straight to this planet?" Yonk confirmed.
  "The capital was connected with tunnels to each one of the colonies," the man nodded.
  "If the capital was on a neighboring planet, then what was on this one?" Marcius asked.
  "The Oracle lived here. This place was the most sacred place in the Empire. It was kept clean and unpopulated. The chosen ones lived here. This planet was the Empire's main temple!"
  "You're one of the chosen?" Yonk asked.
  "Yes, I'm a servant of God," replied the giant.
  "Just like those who slept in these cocoons?" asked Marcius.
  "We were all servants of God. We weren't able to escape, so we activated stasis for hundreds of thousands of years, until someone comes and saves us."
  "Save you from what? What happened here?" Yonk showered him with questions.
  "A catastrophe," the giant heaved a deep sigh, "It happened suddenly. The sky went black over our heads, and all because we made a mistake. As the colonies grew, it became more and more difficult to control them. The Oracle approved a new system of control using artificial intelligence - in the name of goodness and unity for the Empire. Twenty one giant spaceships were constructed and sent out to all ends of the galaxy, one to each colony. For several years we lived in harmony, and the main control center was in the capital, but one day the system suffered a glitch and one of the ships switched all controls onto itself and set all the other ships against the capital. My homeland was destroyed in an instant."
  After a brief pause, he continued:
  "We were here, on the sacred planet. We already saw that the Empire's capital was dead. Their next move was getting rid of the Oracle. They surrounded the planet, but the Oracle knew a way to stop them. The ships went numb and then started shooting each other. Only one ship remained, the one that didn't have a counterpart. As it escaped, it managed to fire one last shot, which submerged the planet into darkness for hundreds of years."
  The giant fell silent.
  "So you're saying one of the ships got away?" Yonk confirmed.
  "Yes, it hid inside the magic tunnel and collapsed it from within. The whole network of tunnels collapsed, so the colonies lost contact with us and with each other."
  "What did the Oracle do?" asked Marcius.
  "The Oracle didn't survive; he put too much energy into the battle. Not even his body remained. Almost everyone who supported him were gone as well," said the giant.
  "And what did you do?" Marcius pointed to the cocoons.
  "We remained all alone in a completely dark world. The planet was covered in ash and smog. All living things started to die off. We had no food, water or energy. We decided to wait it out. We went into the caves, induced stasis mode and set up a shield over this zone. We believed that the colonies would come for us, or otherwise those who managed to escape from the planet would send help. We waited for someone to wake us, but no one could have guessed that it would take so long.
  "We came," said Marcius, "But not to wake you. We didn't know you were here."
  "Our world is on the brink of collapse, and we're looking for a new one," Yonk added.
  "I've already gathered everything," the giant nodded sadly. "I can't believe you met them."
  "Who?" Yonk asked.
  "The monkey people," he replied.
  "You know about them?" Marcius asked.
  "We created them. It was the Oracle's last wish. He sensed a catastrophe approaching and wanted to preserve our genes. He chose a local animal species and spliced them with our kind. But the creatures were weak - we could never have guessed they would survive."
  "They not only survived, but spread across several continents, differentiated and fought each other while you slept," Yonk replied sarcastically. "Such unpleasant tribes - bloodthirsty and stupid!"
  After hearing that, the giant did something strange. He grasped his head with both hands and started listening.
  "What's wrong?" Marcius asked cautiously.
  "I thought I heard a heartbeat, but no... all the others are dead," he said with pain in his voice."
  "This rock is still intact," said Yonk doubtfully, gesturing to the neighboring vessel.
  "It's intact, but everything inside has dried up. My brother is long gone," said the giant.
  "What about these ones?" Marcius asked, pointing to two small stones lined up beside each other.
  "Those were twins - children. Thousands of years of hibernation was too much for them."
  "How about you? How do you feel?" Marcius asked.
  "I won't last long," he said, "It's very difficult for me to even speak with you."
  "We'll help you get to the surface and you'll feel better," said Marcius.
  "If you so much as touch me, I'll fall apart. If even a single ray of light falls on me, I'll fall apart," the giant replied, "I've lost all my pigmentation and immunity."
  "So we have to just walk away and leave you here?" asked Marcius.
  "You've already done a lot," said the giant, "You've given me several years of your life."
  "How?" Yonk asked bitterly.
  "You gave me your energy when you woke me," he explained.
  "I see," Yonk nodded with resentment. "Let's get out of here," he called to Marcius.
  "Hold on a minute," Marcius told him, in no rush to leave. He turned to the giant, "Maybe you have something else you can tell us?"
  "Don't make the same mistakes we did," said the giant.
  "I'm afraid we're too much alike," Marcius replied wistfully. "Everything's already been done."
   The giant smiled sadly. He stretched out his hand and traced out a circle in front of them.
   "You have my blessing," he said. "Although you already have the mark of God."
  Yonk made a face. Marcius bowed. He didn't want to leave the giant in the cave all by himself, but he let them know clearly that it's difficult for him to be near them. His body and memory survived, but his emotions were dried up and long gone. He had no interest in life. He was a ghost with no desire to resurrect.
  "He'll come to," Yonk whispered to Marcius. They began walking away.
  "Wait," the giant stopped them. He took off his amulet and placed it on a rock in front of them.
  "What is that?" asked Marcius.
  "It belonged to the Oracle. It gives you power. I think the only reason I survived the hibernation is because I had it on me. The others didn't have it, and they never woke up."
  Marcius carefully picked up the amulet and examined it, mesmerized. A heavy gold circle was in front of him, with a spiral in the middle.
  "I'll give it to Atla! She deserves it most," Marcius smiled.
  "As long as humans still have it among themselves, our kind will endure!" the giant replied.
  The Tulonian bowed gratefully and put the amulet away. It was sad to leave the giant all alone, surrounded by ghostly remains. But he made himself clear - he had no desire to leave the cave.
  "But how will you feed yourself? What will you drink?" asked Marcius anxiously.
  "You don't know what I'm capable of," said the giant, "You'd better worry about yourself instead."
  Marcius gave him an understanding nod. The giant's tired, sad eyes radiated kindness. In so many years he still has not lost the ability to love. He looked at them with endearment, as if forgiving their mistakes and degradation.
  Marcius and Yonk left him and prepared themselves for the return journey.
  Return to the camp.
  They were faced with the mountains once again.
  By noon the next day, they reached the peak with renewed energy and started their descent. Backing each other up, connected with a rope, their movements were quick and precise. They hoped to reach the bottom that same day, but they were still very high up. The weather was abysmal. A storm raged all around. Hiding in a crack, they melted some snow and proceeded to wait it out, huddling together. Marcius couldn't wait to get back to camp and tell Atla about everything that happened, but the weather didn't let up, holding them back for another day.
  By morning it became clear that the most difficult part of the journey was behind them, so they were both certain they would reach camp by the end of the day, when suddenly they came to a sharp drop that split the ridge in two. Marcius got down on all fours, plunged both axes into the ice and began climbing down the ledge, listening carefully to the sound made by the axe with each strike. He paused about halfway down, hanging onto the axes, getting ready to move the top one lower. He plunged it in, but the sound was suspicious. The climb was going to be difficult, and it was important to get it just right. He swung again, going for a deeper plunge, but at that moment he lost his grip and tumbled down into the ravine.
  Hitting the rocks, he hung down from the rope. A sharp, intense pain shot through his entire body. The collision knocked out his shinbone. The bone shot through his kneecap, shattering it to pieces, and plunged into his hip. The pain didn't subside, and there was nothing he could do to make it stop. He took a deep breath and looked up. The peak gaped through the mist high up above, and Marcius quickly oriented himself in terms of altitude, but only a single thought was racing through his mind: 'If I broke my leg, this is the end of me!'
  The rope loosened - Yonk was coming down after him. He reached for his leg, but found no protruding bones. There was no blood, so he thought that perhaps it's alright, maybe just a torn ligament.
  He tried to stand, but felt the bone crack and loosen. So it was a fracture after all! Yonk looked down at him. A mix of desperation, shock and horror - his face had it all.
  "Are you alright?" Yonk asked him sheepishly.
  Marcius was just about to say yes, but bracing his heart, he admitted, "No, I broke my leg."
  The Pacifian was stunned. 'This is the end,' he thought. 'Even a single one of us getting out of this alive would be a grand success.'
  Then another thought raced through his mind: 'With Marcius gone, my hands will be free. I'll let him be and climb down by myself. Then he won't drag me down, and I won't have to think of what to do with him.' But gathering his spirits, Yonk chased away these thoughts, came down after Marcius, fished a painkiller out of his backpack and handed it to him.
  Yonk didn't say anything and didn't ask any questions.
  Marcius knew that Yonk would have to leave him here in order to survive. He could have told him he would go to fetch some help, and Marcius would reply, "Yes, go!" but they both knew that there was no one to turn to for help. Atla and Het were too far away, and couldn't climb this far even if they wanted to without proper equipment or training. The sphere couldn't fit through here, which meant he could rely only on himself. There was no other way.
  Yonk stayed with him, and Marcius was astounded. The Pacifian sat down and started to think of how to get him down to the camp. They had two ropes, fifty meters each. If he tied them together, Yonk could in theory use them to lower Marcius down, one hundred meters at a time. Then he'd climb down himself, and continue doing this until the very bottom.
  Yonk had nowhere to anchor himself, but this wasn't the time for such luxury, so he dug out a hole in the snow and got a good grip. Marcius lay on his stomach, and Yonk began to lower him. He lowered him fifty meters, up until the point the knot reached the carabiner. The knot didn't fit through, slowing Marcius down, who leaned against his healthy foot in order to loosen the rope. Yonk let it through once again, trying to get the knot to the other side, then lowered Marcius fifty meters more. Marcius steadied himself as best he could. Yonk climbed down to him, and everything was repeated. Yonk wanted to get him down as fast as possible, but Marcius' injured leg kept hitting the rocks, and he kept on letting out piercing screams. He'd angrily mumble to himself, "Slow down!"
  But there was no time to lose, and he didn't blame his partner. Yonk had a fierce air about him, and as Marcius looked at him, he realized how much all this must be getting on his nerves. Yonk understood how much pain Marcius must be in, but pretended to be indifferent and continued the descent. They kept on digging out seats in the snow for Yonk, and they were just barely holding up. It was hard to get a proper grip in the loose snow. With numb, cold hands, Yonk silently lowered the thick and clumsy rope. Marcius was blown away by his patience and determination. It was an amazing feat. Marcius had never heard of anyone being rescued single-handedly like this in extraterrestrial conditions.
  By evening they were hit with a snowstorm. Cold and flurries raged all around. Marcius lost a lot of blood on top of the terrible pain and dehydration. It would have made sense to dig a cave in the snow, take shelter, melt some snow and have some rest, but the snowfall got so strong that they risked being buried alive.
  Yonk continued to lower Marcius blindly despite everything. He blamed the situation on their rush during the dangerous descent and the bad weather characteristic to this area. There was still hope they would make it. Yonk worked with the rope patiently and in silence, thinking: 'Just one more time, and then another, and we'll be done.' All of a sudden Marcius felt something hard with his hands. It was ice. The slope steepened, which meant that another ravine was coming up.
  Marcius got scared. He called out to Yonk, but he didn't hear him over the strong wind and continued to lower him. Marcius reached the edge and tumbled down. He helplessly dangled at the end of the rope in the emptiness. Yonk immediately felt the increased pressure, but didn't think much of it, assuming that the slope changed. Marcius looked down and saw a vertical wall below him. He realized to his horror that he lost his grip. An icy gap was clearly visible around twenty five meters to the bottom. He tried to grasp onto the icy wall with his axe, but wasn't quick enough. Yonk continued to lower him, and after a certain point there were no more opportunities to grasp onto anything.
  "Don't!" Marcius called out.
  He understood that the rope wasn't long enough to reach a landing, and without a landing there was no way for him to release it. Yonk reached the knot and gave the rope a tug, signaling Marcius to slacken it, but it was impossible. No reaction whatsoever. Nothing. Yonk was at a loss, wondering what might have happened, and Marcius understood he had no way to reach him.
  Yonk didn't know what to do. Time went by, and still there was no news from Marcius. He started to freeze and was reaching his limit. He needed to do something. He was barely holding onto the crumbling snow, and was slowly sliding down. Marcius felt it and understood that Yonk was on the verge of losing his grip. Yonk, however, had no idea whether Marcius was three meters off the ground or one hundred.
  All this time Yonk thought about a knife hidden away in his backpack. Cutting the rope seemed to be his only way out, but he was hesitating. Marcius was thinking the same thing - he also had a knife on him. One swipe and he would free himself and save his partner's life. Marcius waited to see what Yonk would do, but the stubborn Pacifian kept on lingering. Then Marcius took matters into his own hands. If Yonk wasn't able to cut the rope and abandon him, then he would do it himself. He had to decide!
  Marcius swung the knife through the air. The rope snapped, and he fell into the chasm.
  Yonk felt freedom. It was night, and it was impossible to keep going through the darkness. He sat for several minutes in silence, analyzing what had just happened. The rope couldn't have ripped, which meant Marcius was conscious and cut it deliberately. But why? Why didn't he just loosen it and let him lower him like planned? Yonk had no answers. He dug himself into the snow and fell asleep, waiting for dawn. All his thoughts came back to Marcius. There was no way he would be able to dig himself a cave with a broken leg, which meant he risked freezing to death.
  The Tulonian fell fifty meters through the air, broke through the icy crust connecting the two ridges, collapsed onto the level underground slope and slowly rolled down into the pitch darkness. The collision knocked him out, and he lost consciousness.
  He woke up the next morning. He didn't understand what was happening and where he was. He couldn't believe that he was still alive.
  He saw that he was still holding the knife in his hand, and instantly remembered everything. He looked around and realized he couldn't get out by himself. He looked up towards the light, then down into the darkness. The icy cleft looked frightening and hopeless. Marcius felt horrified and alone. He was tired of dying, and definitely tired of being resurrected. He banged his fists against the ice, screaming out Tulonian swear words. From nothing to do, he started calling Yonk, although he knew it was useless. The Pacifian left him for dead and most likely decided to return to camp alone.
  Yonk woke up in his cave. He packed his things and continued his descent. He saw the overhang and realized what happened. He saw the icy cleft that Marcius must have fallen into. It stretched for many kilometers along the ridge, and it was highly unlikely for Marcius to have survived the fall.
  Yonk understood everything. The Tulonian was faced with the choice of falling down by himself or dragging him along. He decided to die alone. Yonk stood there thinking of whether or not Marcius could have survived. It seemed impossible. The fall would have killed him, and if not, he would have frozen to death by now. Certain that Marcius was dead, Yonk decided to keep going by himself.
  Marcius felt that he remained all alone.
  He started to think of how he could get out of here. He tried climbing up, but the twenty five meters of jutting ice were too much even for a healthy leg. There were two options: die here or go further down into the chasm and try his luck down there. The cleft was a natural formation, which meant it was unpredictable. He forced himself to believe that he would find a way out of this icy maze. He tried to get up, but instantly fell back down - his broken leg refused to listen to him. He tried to crawl, made several attempts and moaned with pain.
  Yonk took several steps in the direction of the camp, already seeing the footprints from before. He knew he was on the right track and would be able to make the journey by himself without a problem, but something caused him to pause and turn around. He didn't hear Marcius' moans, since he was far above him, but he was taken with the thought that he might still be alive. It was one chance out of a thousand - the likelihood was miniscule, but the Pacifian hated to retreat, so he turned around and decided to climb down into the chasm after Marcius.
  Yonk climbed back up to the chasm and started his descent. He climbed down the jutting icy slope, reprimanding himself for the unnecessary risk. All that he would find down there was a frozen corpse in a puddle of frozen blood. Yonk was risking his own life, since he himself could end up a prisoner of the cleft. As he climbed down, he noticed a break in the ice below, and a large airy space visible through it. This gap could have been made by Marcius' body during the fall. He approached it and looked down, but Marcius was nowhere to be found.
  'What if he crawled away?' Yonk thought.
  He wanted to call out to Marcius, but stopped himself. Everything around was extremely fragile, and the vibrations of his voice could trigger an avalanche. He decided to go lower still and explore the cave. He reached the bottom and jumped down. Marcius wasn't there, but he found an imprint of his body and followed the tracks. Judging from the pattern, he was moving further down. The vertical climb burned up all of Yonk's energy, but he gathered himself and picked up his pace. Marcius' tracks led him to a hidden path. They had already left the pit inside the mountains, so this path could only lead away from the dead zone and not back into it.
  One hundred meters down the road, he found Marcius' immobile body. He was lying face down, his arms stretched out in front of him clutching at the snow. Yonk checked his pulse - his heart was still beating, but he was unconscious. Yonk looked ahead. Light beamed at the end of the stone tunnel. Yonk placed Marcius on a hide and dragged him along. He was a head taller than him and twice as heavy and muscular, so scrawny Yonk had to exert himself to the maximum. Groaning and struggling, he moved Marcius along meter by meter. Many times he wanted to just leave him and keep going alone, but his conscience wouldn't let him. Finally they reached the end, and Yonk looked up. They were at the base of the mountain. He wiped Marcius' face with some snow and sat down to rest. The Tulonian moaned.
  "Marcius!" Yonk sprang to life.
  Marcius slowly opened his eyes. He was pale, his lips were blue and his pupils had trouble focusing, but he managed to find Yonk and give him a weak smile. He had no strength to speak, but his face expressed gratitude.
  "We're very close. Just a little more and we'll reach the camp," said Yonk.
  Marcius tried to get up. It was very difficult, but with Yonk's help, he was able to hop along on one leg. The Pacifian bandaged his leg and leaned him onto himself. Marcius knew he was saved. He never expected this from Yonk. He was more or less indifferent towards him, and yet he came back and rescued him. Why?
  Chapter 15. Yonk's Story
  The planet of Pacifa, the home of the fearless little spheres, had a golden glean to it because of the high concentration of reflective metal bits in the atmosphere. It spun around the same orbit as Murrey, on the third axis from Onix. Even though Pacifa was located in the habitable zone, it differed from Murrey with its practically infertile ground. On its surface you could see the outlines of its cities, called by their Pacifan names. The whole city network looked a gigantic cone from outer space. The cone's peak was the first link, in which the Emperor and his relatives resided. The lower a city was from the peak, the lower the social status of its citizens. All the links in this chain were isolated, yet bound together by long transparent tunnels. Pacifans were so zealous with the order of their hierarchy that in order to rise from a lower city to a higher one was only possible with the proper permission or with a huge amount of capital.
  Throughout their whole lives, Pacifans of different links never crossed paths. Trade was possible only by tunnels. Everyone was united by the common dream of one day making it to the revered top link. There were legends about its beauty, but mere mortals were not lucky enough to enjoy it. All entrances were tightly guarded by a whole army of Pacifans. All attempts to get in illegally by the curious lead to death, which is probably why there weren't many throughout history who tried.
  Yonk belonged to the very last part of the thirteenth link. His fate consisted in serving those who served. In other words, he was the very lowest rank of Pacifan, just like the rest of his sizable family.
  The boy was born prematurely and remarkably quickly, causing plenty of pain to his mother. He was the smallest out of eleven brothers and sisters, and most relatives warned Suss the slave from giving birth at such an advanced age. They said he'd be a useless child, recommending an abortion since another boy would only bring more toils, especially considering that the number eleven was cursed according to Pacifan mythology. The number was disliked since the times of the great catastrophe, when link number eleven was blown to bits because of a serious gas leak. Yonk's mother listened to the warnings, but was unbelievably busy with work during the pregnancy. She simply forgot about the problem, postponing a decision to the next and then the next day, eventually being too late to do anything. It seemed that the boy sensed the danger and was determined to see the light of day despite everyone's wishes.
  Just like it was promised, there were problems right away. Being seriously sick throughout his childhood, it was decided he was unfit for schooling. During the time when his older brothers were happily beginning to learn their careers as mechanics, construction workers, and space technology workers, he was bored out of his mind with no trade to pursue. Yonk didn't remember his father since he died before Yonk was even born, which meant that Yonk's family was destined for a life of poverty.
  The most prestigious job a person from Pacifa's last link could obtain was as a military mechanic - putting together and fixing space ships on military bases located on the planet's satellites. This meant one would have the opportunity of direct contact with the military link, which was a step higher, and at times even glance at the cosmos through the viewing holes of bunkers and terminals. But for those like Yonk, it was stupid even to dream of such heights. The only career for which he was fit was to scrub the metallic casing of the floors in hallways and public buildings, never leaving his forsaken link since in order to become a caretaker in better places he'd have to be a hell lot better-looking.
  As a child, Yonk right away alienated from everyone. In his fantasies he saw himself as a grand warrior, going through space on the fearless sphere, imagining himself as a hero from the old legends of renowned pilots who brought glory to their planets. Coming back to reality, he saw himself as useless and pitiful, dealing with his condition by sulking. He was very quiet and solemn. Speech came to him later than usual, because of which he was was thought to be mute for a long time. When being teased he didn't react at all allowing himself to be beaten, since he was sure that it was meant to be that way. He was born for pain and humiliation, and others are naturally stronger and smarter than him. Nevertheless, deep inside he felt that he was capable of more, imagining a shining golden star of potential inside himself which could be sparked at any moment, blinding others with its light. In all his visible backwardness he listened to much and understood everything, expecting that any time now fate would show him the way.
  The day when little Yonk's worldview changed was special, and rooted itself in his consciousness like a bright flash inside the eight year-old's head. His older brother Shu, one of those who would regularly torment Yonk suddenly turned ill and couldn't come to the Bohemian theatre which toured the links of Pacifa. He handed over the half-ripped ticket to his ugly little brother, picturing how this idiosyncratic midget will entertain the crowd. Yonk accepted the ticket as a gift, being grateful to his brother for the first time. He prepared for the trip thoroughly, realizing that it would be better to come last, sneaking in unnoticed to the last row, and then leave earlier than the others in order to not irritate others with his looks. When the day came, that's exactly how he did it. Subtly and quickly passing the entrance, he quietly got into the round hall. Shadows flickered and tiny lights danced on the stage.
  Eventually the small Yonk understood the story of the spectacle. The show told about the most ancient and loved of Pacifan legends - 'The Tale of Suiz the Metalsmith'. It was about a master smith who forged a blade of unseen beauty for the emperor, with laser-made plates and golden quilling on the handle, and then wished to present it to the emperor himself. The brave hero went through a whole army of Pacifans, overcame another row of security guards and got into the palace of the Emperor, leaving him the revered gift. On his face there was a smile, even when the very same blade took him down in blood at the emperor's feet, at the feet of his murderer. That very same blade became the symbol of the Emperor's power. Decorating the shields of the Pacifan army, the blade served as tribute to the brave man who loved his emperor more than his life.
  The role of the hero was performed by three actors. First, it was a small, thin boy with twig-like arms and weak legs, over whose head floated a barely visible hologram watch, showing the flow of time in the story. The fragile youth sat on the green sand, sifting through it with his fingers. He was undisturbed and calm when all the sudden, looking at the abstract lines he drew, he rose to the top of the theatre on an invisible stand, with a fiery smile and full of new-found strength. The magnetized sand began to rise in the air and expand, showing the audience the image that Suiz drew. In front of the audience's eyes arose a transparent image of the future blade. That's when the idea of the blade was seeded in Suiz's mind.
  The next act showed the older and stronger hero in his steaming hot workshop. The youth worked tirelessly, hammering the steel again and again, sprinkling illusory red sparks all over the audience so convincingly that some flinched out of inertia, not wanting to get burned. Along the borders of the stage there was a circle of hundred different blades, which showed what type of daunting project the youth undertook on the way to fulfilling his dream. His muscles became harder than metal, face as if carved out of a mountain, with his bare chest sparkling with sweat. The loud drum beat along with the protracted singing of the choir made for a fight-like atmosphere.
  The young Yonk felt the unnatural beat of his heart, effected by the emotions from what he witnessed. In the next scene Suiz grabbed the hot blade with his hands and with a roar broke it in his hands, falling to the floor. After that he stood up and threw the other blades away, showing how dissatisfied he was with his creations. The music suddenly went quiet, and a soft sound could be heard instead. Stars came out of the complete darkness in the theatre. Yonk flinched and felt as if he was in space. Then, a grown-up Suiz was on the stage. He ran from one planet to the next, looking for the best metal possible, grabbing the stars with his hands. By which star he touched, the audience could figure out where the action would continue.
  He fought with an illusory volcano eruption on one planet, with the wind portrayed by a huge blue-haired diva on the next, killed monsters which he met on the way, and didn't stop for even a moment. Joined into a sort of dance, the fighting scenes replaced one another rapidly, setting up a tense atmosphere. At the moment of peak tension the music went quiet, the lights went off, and only the thin ray from the projector, coming from their native star Onix, illuminated the wounded body of Suiz holding on tight to the coveted metal. For the first time in his life, Yonk had a broad smile on his face. This hero found what he was looking for, reached out to Onix, and in front of everyone the metal core, heated by Suiz's hands and the star's rays turned into a shining blade - a gift for the god-like emperor.
  The next part of the show was about the obstacles Suiz had to face on the way to the emperor. For the first time, Yonk saw how the other links looked like, understood what it was made of and how it ran. A 3D model of the world spun at the top of the theatre, almost like a network of balls joined by silver threads. Suiz scrambled for the central ball at the very top, but everything in sight was against him. He fought, he killed, tripped here and there, yet kept going. The long-awaited meeting with the emperor happened at the very end. The great leader stood in front of the hero, like a ray of light. Suiz fell to his knees and held out his blade in front of him. Then, the ray of light started growing and swallowed first the blade and then the hero himself, almost as if making Suiz a part of himself.
  The light instantly went out. The usual lights turned on again. The audience gave a huge round of applause, while little Yonk was completely frozen from emotion. Tears rolled down his cheeks. He forgot about his own wish to leave before everyone else, forgot about himself and everyone else. He was so shocked, he couldn't remember his own name. The story of Suiz changed his understanding of the world and those that inhabited it.
  He understood one simple truth: A person was able to accomplish whatever one desired as long as that person was willing to work on oneself, most importantly refusing to give up along the way. He was the last one to get up from his seat and finally started strolling towards the exit. He was already noticed by others who were waiting for him to step outside, but he wasn't scared this time around. On the contrary, he was almost looking forward to it.
  What do you think you're doing here, you parasite? - said the voices behind him. Then there was a painful hit at one of his shoulders and right away a shove in the other. Yonk's usual reaction would be to drop his head and run away as fast as possible, but not this time, not on this night, and never again.
  Yonk turned out, seeing the two boys after him. With all the strength he could muster, he shoved one of them back. The boys roared with laughter. A dark shadow came from behind and took him down. Yonk struggled, tried to fight back, but he was too weak to put up much resistance, especially since teeth were his only weapon. He bit one of them on the shin, which was met with a strong punch to his face. Feeling the taste of blood on his lips, he ignited with anger and jumped on top of the assailant. Yonk grabbed on to his cheek with his teeth, at the same trying to pull out his hair, roaring.
  For a long time they tried to pull away the crazed little Yonk from the older boy who was dumbfounded. Yonk turned out to be surprisingly tenacious and stubborn. They beat him, but he didn't feel the pain, the same pain he got used to in life. He bit and scratched anything within reach, yelled, and spit blood on anyone who wanted to come near him. Something diabolically strong could be seen in his gaze. He scared people away by being soaked in blood, with a broken nose, with a cut-up knee, and sprained fingers, in a torn dress, yet staring at his assailants fearlessly, almost as if wanting the next blow to land.
  -We're going! He's some kind of psycho! - said one of the attacking boys.
  The gang turned away from him and gradually disappeared in the direction of the spherical houses. It was the first time the young Pacifan witnessed such a sight, usually he'd be the one turning around simply because he was running away from the group.
  This was Yonk's first victory, strange, meaningless, and at the price of a broken body, and yet a victory. Most importantly, it was a victory over himself. Never again would Yonk allow others to put him down, answering aggression with aggression, insults with insults, and a hit with a hit in reply. Coming home late at night, washing the blood from his body, washing the clothes with his hands full of sprained fingers, he decided to change his fate.
  Appreciating the importance of physical strength, he started training, keeping nothing in reserve. Being the first to wake up in his link, he would run nine laps on the overpasses, gradually increasing the load, jumping over the bridge railings, climbing ropes. Yonk's responsibility was the cleaning of one of the residential areas, in which he spent his days. Yet in the mornings and evenings he'd devote himself to working on his undeveloped body.
  Far from his home, in a territory under construction, Yonk would spend hours on end stretching himself, flexing his bones and spine as far as possible, dreaming of one day attaining seemingly unattainable heights (and height). The little Pacifan build himself training machines out of wheels and springs from the dumpster, metallic plates and ropes, making a secret base all for himself. He saw the results of his effort for the first time when his older brother Shu tried to punch him in the stomach for amusement, and grimaced in pain and surprise when it turned out the abs on his 'midget-brother' were not what they used to be. The look on his brother's face was the best reward Yonk could have asked for.
  The next big realization came to the young Pacifan two years after the theatre incident, when the the twins Amo and Klo who were the oldest in the family finished their educational program, the one that Yonk was not allowed to go in, and moved out on their own. The twin that studied the hardest and received a porcelain statue went off on duty as a technician for space tech on the military base of the N1 Satellite. The less sophisticated one that slept more stayed on his home link, working at the local factory.
  Yonk drew conclusion from this episode: the only way to get out of this forsaken link - was to study, to such an extent that those above will be begging to take you. This thought put the young dreamer in a dead end, considering his education or lack thereof. He was three years behind his peers who were ready for further training, and his future lay in cleaning the sewer system, or polishing parts at a factory in the best case scenario. Realizing this, Yonk ran away from home, spent the night weeping at his secret base, after which he settled down and decided once and for all to become educated in spite of all circumstances. Coming back home in the morning, he decided to use materials belonging to his older brothers. Yet immersing himself in the virtual library system, he realized that without help he wouldn't find his way through all the data, or read any of it for that matter. The only way out of this problem was his brother Shu, the others just wouldn't listen to him.
  -Teach me how to read, what are all these signs? -he nagged his brother.
  -leave me alone! - Shu said, waving him away. -What would you need it for, midget?
  Yonk kept asking his brother for a few days, until he understood that there would be no way that Shu would agree to it as a favour. He'd have to pay for the knowledge, one way or another.
  -I'll do all your evening work, just please, help me out!
  Shu raised an eyebrow and smelling potential profit, gladly agreed. The time needed to teach the midget was twice less than what his usual work would take. Furthermore talking his tongue off was much easier then dragging metallic tubes at the construction site.
  -Deal!
  The learning process was intensive. Yonk absorbed everything coming from Shu like a sponge. He'd ask endless questions, dragging information out of Shu. If Shu couldn't find the necessary information, he'd use his new physique to intimidate Shu to ask his teachers. Even Shu learned quite a bit as a result.
  In no time, Yonk learned how to read and was able to obtain most of what he needed himself. Blueprints, numbers, what spaceships looked like, engine mechanisms, all were floating through his head even in his dreams. His hands were itching to try and apply what he knew, which is why he'd try to implement the blueprints he'd seen with real materials. He ran away at nights to his secret base and dragged all the rubbish he could get his hands on there, which included some of the required instruments. Yonk learned how to get by on little sleep, and hung over his hand-made wielded parts almost indefinitely, until his nose would bleed from his full concentration and lack of movement.
  The metal attracted Yonk with its structure. The strength and power that it personified inspired him. Yonk associated himself with it. The unlimited potential of the metal liberated him. It could take any form, be stretched as thin as a hair or as thick as a rope, be melted or turned into stone.
  Gradually, he moved up from being one of the unwanted sons into being one of the favourites, giving the family reasons to appreciate him. Half of the kitchen was refurbished by his hands, to such a degree that everyone envied the mother. He automated most of the housework which really took a load off mom's plate. Despite all this, Yonk was modest and couldn't tolerate praise, as if scared of it. The room in which he lived with his brothers was remade to look like a cabin in a space-ship after everyone agreed on the idea. They copied the interior perfectly, making sure everything inside still worked: Mobile bins, panels, even an illuminator with a built-in screen showing a recording of space. Falling asleep every night, he dreamed of one day getting out of his link.
  Soon after, the construction site which hosted his workshop was once again busy and with the permission of his mother he moved the workshop into his house. His ambitions became known to the whole city. There were times when he needed to help out his twin brother Klo at the factory. Yet not a word came from Amo, which didn't surprise Yonk. From his understanding, the brother who escaped the bottom of society didn't even want to remember this hell. Yonk still wanted to study with everyone else, but after so many years missed, this seemed impossible even though his intellectual developmental long surpassed that of his peers. The lack of official education annoyed Yonk and seemed unjust. Long falling behind everyone in physique, he finally caught up with everyone in weight and height so no obstacles were left, all that was needed was luck.
  In the masters' school an announcement was made about a special contest for the creation of a new flying apparatus. All types of ideas were considered, even the most eccentric ones you could come up with. For example, all types of new fuels, radically new engines, and new life support systems were looked at. It was necessary to present the blueprints and a model in person. Yonk heard of this from his brother Shu. The young Pacifan was all sorts of excited, getting to work right away. There were no restrictions regarding who could participate in this contest, which was a blessing for Yonk.
  The idea of a new machine eventually formed in his mind. The exterior would have the shape of a shallow cup, while the fuel source would be hydrogen which their city had in abundance, yet didn't use much. He took time off all three jobs that he had, and started working on the blueprints. Staying in his workshop for the whole Pacifan month, occasionally scaring the whole neighborhood with explosions and bitter odors, Yonk finally put together a ship and presented it to the committee of judges.
  The day when results would be revealed was coming up, and Yonk couldn't help but to worry. He was nervous about the fate of his creation. 'What if they won't understand? What if they underestimate it?' Yonk sat in the hall when the results were about to be announced, biting his lips constantly changing his posture. Covered in a slightly oversized black suit which belonged to the Suss family for ages, he looked like a personification of anxiety.
   Nope, he didn't get the first prize, but that's not bad considering he still got second. The sick self-taught boy, condemned to being formally uneducated, landed in second place over hundreds of participants who went through serious training in their schools, with the help of their teachers and professors. Yonk's mother who didn't expect anything from her poor eleventh child couldn't help but fall into tears, sobbing loudly for the whole hall to hear. Yonk received a package of diamond specks, and was called up to the podium to describe his invention in action. Yonk was noticeably nervous even now, but spoke articulately and with incredible passion that came from his inventor-like sense of fanaticism. When he finished, everyone in the hall applauded and he could hardly restrain his emotions.
  -Which school did you finish? - asked a smiling man sitting at the table of the judges' committee.
  Yonk was lost for words, especially after feeling his heart beat. The silence in the hall was deafening and hundreds of questioning eyes were turned his way.
  -I didn't attend school, -answered Yonk quietly, looking down.
  -Pardon me? - said the surprised man, raising his eyebrows.
  -I wasn't taken to school because of my health. I learned from my brother, - Yonk remarked hurriedly, trying to justify himself.
  -Your brother is apparently a good teacher!
  Yonk took a deep breath and wanted to leave the stage already, but the man thoroughly looked through his file and stopped him with a gesture.
  -According to your current age, you would now be finishing with your education at the twelfth level, correct?
  Yonk nodded.
  -Well then- the man said, nodding and turning to his colleagues, -I think that such a talented youngster should learn and develop his mastery further, -he told to those next to him and then the audience. Here is my decision. If you, Suss Sano can pass the transfer test to the twelfth link, then you'll have the opportunity to get educated there and receive your Master Diploma.
  Yonk was dumbstruck from the news. He gave a long nod, thanking the lord for what he received. Then, barely aware of what was going on, he returned to his surroundings.
  That night the young Pacifan couldn't sleep out of sheer over-excitement and emotional overabundance. The fear that he wouldn't be able to cop with the transfer exam dug deep in his heart and wouldn't let go. The necessary knowledge was definitely in his head, yet it wasn't systematically organized and there was plenty of work to do. He had exactly one Pacifan month left. He didn't go to any of his previous jobs. Dedicating himself completely to preparation, he begged everyone in his family to disturb him as little as possible. His efforts weren't in vain, and when the time came, he got his results.
  -Well what is it? -exclaimed Shu
  -Do you know for sure? -opening the doors to the cosmos-themed room, asked his mother.
  'Enrolled in the twelfth level of education, in the master's school by the name of 'Amatero'
  This short, yet meaningful phrase threw him into Euphoria. Lying back with his legs stretched and his arms folded, he could hardly restrain himself from tears.
  The Amatero School was something beyond Yonk's dreams. It was rightfully considered the best educational institution in his link. Ninety percent of its graduates were consistently sent for duty to the military department, which meant he would have the same chance. The biggest advantage of the academy over others was a secret area for the analysis of extra-terrestrial technology. In other words, the students of this school had their horizons expanded, since beside Pacifan technology, they had access to that of the Tulonians, Kramians, Ionians, Mureys, Guineans, and Oeelians. Education was based on real-life examples, using fake enemy ships and communication tools brought to Pacifa from other worlds. Generally they were military trophies or devices taken from prisoners of war. Specifically those tools interested Yonk. For the longest time he wanted to know about machines from other worlds, but this information was strictly guarded and basically impossible to obtain otherwise. Yet here the doors to his intellectual desires were opening up for him. By the rules, a student could specialize only in two branches, whether they be Tulon and Oeel, or perhaps Guinea and Murrey. For the rest, he would have to pay.
  Yonk was perfectly aware of this and was willing to go all the way if needed. The reward he received a month earlier would help pay for his first round of education. Yonk would hang on to every speck of science he could get his eyes on, picking up every detail. The thinking process of extra-terrestrial enemies astounded him. The technology of each world had its own signature signs and was categorically different from their own. Learning about the devices of his planet's enemies, he found out more not only about their handiwork, but also their worldviews. Kramians, who were masters of the crystal-growing trade, were by far the hardest to understand. To Yonk, they seemed too superficial and presumptuous, with too much relying on chance alone, and no serious insurance. On the other hand, Yonk held the Tulonians in high regard, since they had a replacement on hand for every system on their ships. As one system burnt out, another would immediately turn on. Ionian technology seemed to him as way too fancy, with too many components and an inefficient use of energy. The mannequins of Murreyan stingrays scared Yonk away, to the point where he'd have to go around them. Eventually he found the courage to explore them as well. To figure out the inner workings of a live creature capable of travelling through outer space while carrying people inside it and possessing incomprehensible instincts would seem next to impossible. Any biological system is far more complex than an artificial one, which made Yonk wonder in awe about the creator of all biological entities.
  When it came to financial difficulties Yonk had to face in the second round of his education, his brother Shu came to the rescue, having recently started working. Despite some complaining, he helped cover the fees for the additional lessons which Yonk needed. He never had any problems with the material that was being covered, but there were difficulties in regards to socializing with others. Yonk was closed off and defensive, which made most stay away from him simply out of fear. As for himself, he'd never be the first one to approach others. This left an impression of Yonk being a jerk, and a cynical one at that. He scared off even those with whom he'd like to be friends. Little did they know that the reasons behind this behavior were the complexes of a person who was from childhood used to fearing and fighting with people who were usually out to get him. It seemed more likely that his attitude came from a certain condescension resulting from astounding results in his studies.
  Finishing all the rounds, Yonk was almost at the finishing line. A series of graduation exams awaited him after which he'd be divided into the appropriate sector. Yonk's greatest desire was to be placed on the outer orbits in the emergency reaction team. He had everything necessary for this: excellent recommendations from his teachers, great physical preparation, hands-on skills and most importantly-an overwhelming desire to serve his world. His application was one of the first to be accepted.
  With a bittersweet ambivalence and a little sadness he got his bags ready. He carefully put away his ruffled ticket for the Suiz show in the lower compartment, filled the cubed space with his simple cloths, and glanced around his room. He felt that he would never return. Bumping into his sleepy-eyed brother Shu who woke up at such an hour just to see him off, he saw grief in those eyes.
  -It's alright, I can get there myself, -said Yonk, feeling that his brother wanted to drive him to the terminal.
  -Let me decide that for myself, Pre-termer! -answered his brother as usual, in his loud and hurried voice, taking the bags from Yonk.
  Yonk dropped his eyes and followed his brother. In the kitchen, Mother Suss was busy preparing. She looked out the hallway, and grabbing a warm parcel of the table, ran to her youngest son.
  -Eat on the way there,- she said quietly, and not being able to hold herself any longer, erupted into tears.
  It's all Amo's fault,- thought Yonk sadly. After he left, he didn't bother even once to write or to call. Well, the same will happen with me, she must be thinking.
  -Please don't!- he said while patting mom on her shoulder. -I'll stay in touch, - Yonk said confidently.
  Mother Suss just stood there quietly and kept shaking her head with no hope in her eyes.
  Not being able to stand the tension, Yonk hugged his mom with all the strength he had. Tears were swelling up in his eyes but they were held.
  -Let's go, -murmured Shu.
  -Go, -said mom, having kissed him on the forehead.
  Shu drove him to the terminal too quickly. Looking out the window, zooming past the school, theatre, and the new building that was built over his secret workshop, Yonk was mentally saying his farewell to his world, preparing himself for what was to come.
  Lining up in a row, the new recruits were formed into columns, corresponding to the numbers of their ships. Yonk was worried. Seeing Shu in the sea of faces accompanying the riders helped. Next step for Yonk was a flight to the military base of the 'N1' satellite.
  The same one that Amo serves at, -thought Yonk.
  And so, Yonk left his home. Despite not knowing what was waiting for him in the future, whom he was to meet and how fate will treat him next, he was infinitely happy and proud to fly into the unknown.
  
  Chapter 16. The Oracle's Union
  Yonk dragged Marcius one hundred meters further. They were far from the camp, but already saw Atla running towards them. She has heard Marcius' thoughts and rushed to help. She was very worried, carrying along food and water for them. Atla came to Marcius' other side and took some of the weight onto herself. It was easier and faster for the three of them, and by noon they had already reached the sphere.
  Marcius was very weak. He lost a lot of blood and was feverish. Atla lay him down on the hides beside the fire to warm him. She ripped open his suit and examined his leg. It was an open fracture. This called for high-level magic, and she ordered Het to melt as much snow as possible and to start a big fire. Yonk's fingers were frozen, so he wasn't able to help yet. His suggestion to move Marcius to the warmer part of the planet was outright rejected - Atla decided he was in no position to be moved or shaken.
  The priestess froze his leg and started to bend the bones by hand. Light radiated from her hands. She whispered prayer after prayer nonstop. She took off the band that was on her head, removed the rock and squeezed several drops out of it onto the fracture. Marcius cried out in pain. The bones began growing together right before their eyes. After it was healed completely, she went on to sew together the muscles and skin. Het helped her. Krameans knew how to restore someone's body with the power of thought, although it took a lot of energy out of them, but Atla was relentless. That night she didn't get a wink of sleep and lost quite a bit of strength. The heat that came from her burned like fire, and it was difficult to be near her. Marcius was conscious the whole time, since the ritual called for it. He groaned, but bore it out.
  Despite all odds, Atla healed his leg in one night. By morning, both Atla and Marcius were asleep, and they slept until evening. The Pacifian was impatient and was all ready to start transporting everyone with his sphere, but Het refused to leave until Atla said it was alright.
   It seemed like a miracle, but upon waking, Marcius could already stand on his feet. Although he continued to feel pain and fresh scars were visible on his skin, the bones were in one piece, and it boggled the mind. Atla looked exhausted and wasn't able to express joy. Het, on the other hand, expressed enough to cover everyone. The young Murian rejoiced at the miracle. He watched Marcius' every step with delight, like a mother watching her child's first steps. Only yesterday, when helping Atla, he held his broken bones in his hands, and today he was already walking beside him.
  "You're the greatest priestess I've ever encountered or heard of!" he kept on repeating, looking at her in awe.
  Atla smiled. She liked praise, it gave her life. Without knowing it, Het was helping her restore her lost strength. Every exuberant glance cast in her direction charged her with energy. This was precisely why Atla developed such a fondness for the Murian, in stark contrast to Yonk. The Pacifian was stingy with his praise and kept his energy to himself.
  "Marcius is feeling better, it's time to go!" he said sternly.
  Marcius agreed, feeling guilty for holding everyone back.
  "Alright," the priestess agreed.
  
  24 hours later. Het's cave.
  Back at the cave, Marcius and Yonk told everyone the story about the titan in all its detail. It left a big impression on Het and Atla.
  "This amulet is for you," said Marcius, handing Atla the giant's gift.
  Atla froze in amazement as she lay eyes on the object. She was speechless, frozen in place, not daring to even draw a breath.
  "Atla!" Marcius called to her. She didn't react.
  "What's up with you?" he asked again. She heard him only on the third time.
  "I can't accept this gift. I won't be able to wear it. It's so much stronger than I am, it'll take me over. I will lose myself."
  "But I carried it in my pocket the whole way here! It's just an amulet," said Marcius.
  "You're not sensitive. You're behind a shield, but I won't be able to stand it," she replied, "Keep it for yourself."
  Marcius didn't agree with her. His whole being wanted her to put it on - after all it belonged to the Oracle and could give her immense power.
  "Just try it on. If anything happens to you, we'll take it off of you. Something's telling me you're the one who needs to wear it."
  "It's the amulet telling you, it already has you under its control. And I don't want it to have any control over me," said Atla, rejecting the gift, "This amulet is the past. The civilization that made it is dead, and I want to start anew."
  It was late at night. The silver satellite was high up in the black sky, and a warm night breeze could be felt from outside. Marcius couldn't fall asleep. He was worried about everything all at once - the past, the future and the present. Atla was asleep nearby. Her hair spread around her exposing her neck, she looked very fragile and unprotected. Marcius remembered the amulet. He couldn't resist her vulnerability. This was the moment, when she was deep asleep, that he could slip the amulet around her neck. He came up to her slowly and quietly, took out the amulet and warmed it in his hands for several seconds, so that the cold metal wouldn't wake her, then he carefully put it on. The round golden block touched her skin. Atla turned her head the other way, sighed and flipped over. Marcius stood over her, frozen. She didn't wake up.
  Thoroughly satisfied with himself, with no stirrings of conscience, he returned to his corner and finally fell asleep.
  "Wake up!" Het shook him awake.
  Marcius slowly opened his eyes. It was morning, and the sun's rays seeped into the cave. Seagulls cried and Yonk's hammer pounded away somewhere in the distance.
  "Have you seen Atla?" Het asked, "Did she say where she was going?"
  Marcius jolted awake. He looked to his left, and saw that the stone she was sleeping on was empty. He instantly regretted his actions from last night. He valued personal space and freedom of choice above anything else, and yet he did such a thing to Atla with his own hands.
  "No, she didn't say," he replied gloomily.
  "Don't worry," Het rushed to comfort him, "She couldn't have gone far. She didn't take anything with her, not even her shoes."
  Marcius cautiously looked at Atla's boots. He jumped up and ran to find Yonk.
  "We need the sphere," he called out to him.
  Marcius jumped inside the sphere and rose above the jungle.
  He flew around all day searching for her, but it was no use. There was no trace of her anywhere. He returned to the cave completely defeated. Yonk and Het were still awake.
  "She hasn't come by?" he asked timidly.
  "No," they replied in unison.
  Atla returned at dawn on the third day as if nothing had happened. She quietly entered the cave and sat down on her rock.
  Her feet were perfectly fine, not a single scratch or cut. It didn't look like she did any walking. Marcius saw her as if through a fog. The amulet was still around her neck. She was calm, confident and emotionless.
  "Atla," Marcius whispered.
  "Yes," she replied.
  "Where were you?" he asked, a little louder.
  "In the desert," she said.
  Marcius was confused.
  "But there's no desert around here!"
  "Really now?" she asked, raising a brow.
  "Let me take off the amulet," he said, getting up and reaching for her neck.
  "No!" she jumped up, "Don't touch it!"
  "But..." Marcius was surprised, "I was wrong, I put it on you against your will!"
  "You did the right thing!" she smiled, "I'm grateful to you for what you did."
  "What did you see? Do you feel anything?" Marcius asked anxiously.
  "I saw everything, and now I feel everything," she replied, and smiled.
  "What exactly?"
  "I feel this planet breathing," she said quietly, "I can feel what it wants."
  Marcius sat down and clasped his head in his hands. Atla looked and talked rather like she was possessed, and it was all his fault. Their voices woke Het, then Yonk.
  "You're back," Yonk grumbled sleepily. "Where in the world did you go?!"
  "Atla!" the Murian exclaimed joyously as he saw her. He got up, came up to her and gave her a hug when all of a sudden he was thrown back, as if by an electric shock. Awe and fear flashed in his eyes simultaneously.
  "You're radiating impulses," he commented, and stretched his hand out once more.
  "Don't touch!" Yonk yanked his hand away.
  "But it's amazing," Het reached towards Atla as if hypnotized. "It's so pleasant and warm!"
  Atla heated up, but didn't burn. She radiated a barely visible glow. She melted the air around her, and her eyes glittered in a peculiar fashion. They contained so much calm, kindness, love and heat, and it was mesmerizing. All three of them looked at her, not quite sure what was going on.
  "I've finally found peace," she said. "My sins are forgiven. I'm as clean as the tears of a newborn child."
  "Forgiven by whom?" Marcius asked.
  "By me," she said. "I feel so light! Now I'm completely open to the world."
  Atla was speaking in riddles, but the impulse coming from her was so positive that no one dared call her out on her strange behavior. Even if the amulet had an influence on her, it seemed like it was for the better.
  "Please, don't worry about me," she told Marcius. "I didn't lose anything, but only gained. The amulet gave me strength."
  The Tulonian nodded wordlessly. No matter what Atla said, the situation still alarmed him.
  "Moreover," she continued, "The planet is communicating with me. I can hear it, and I understand it."
  "What is it saying?" Het asked.
  "It has accepted us and infused us with power," she replied.
  "Power?" Yonk confirmed.
  "Yes, we will rule over this planet," she said with confidence.
  "When you say "we", you mean our kind? Humans?" Yonk furled his brow in concentration.
  "I mean us four. We'll rule our races. They have received the right to come here through us," Atla replied.
  Yonk burst out laughing, unable to hold himself back.
  "Ruling the races! Looks like you've spent too much time out in the sun!" he retorted.
  "We will rule!" she insisted.
  "Well, maybe you will, but let me remind you that I'm a slave of the last rank, Het is a fugitive and Marcius is a crazed soldier," Yonk spoke passionately. "Our races have their own rulers. The most we can do is get back alive with the coordinates. If we manage, that is! If you won't distract us from fixing the ship!" he escalated to a shout.
  "You don't have to believe me, but your fate is already predetermined, Yonk," she calmly replied. "You're a future emperor. And this planet has already accepted you."
  Atla's words seemed insane. Up until that day none of them ever dreamed of power. It was unclear whether they would even be able to return with the coordinates.
   "You're saying some very strange, but most importantly, pointless things," Yonk argued.
  "Try to listen to her," Marcius intervened, and turned to Atla, "You've started seeing the future?"
  "Yes," she confirmed.
  "And what did you see?" Het asked.
  "I saw rivers of blood, I heard screams, I felt many betrayals, but I know for certain that we'll be tied in a union, and if we remain together, humanity will go on living."
  "A union?!" Yonk exclaimed, "A union among the planets of the Seven Worlds?"
  "A union among the four of us," Atla corrected him.
  Marcius lowered his head. Yonk smiled sarcastically. Het looked at Atla with trembling delight, but couldn't understand why her prophecies seemed impossible.
  "Peace on this planet will depend on our friendship. The planet accepts us only under this circumstance!" she insisted.
  "You're talking of the planet like of a living being, which is insane!" Yonk accused her.
  "It is a living being. Any planet is a living being. But this planet is special. It has been chosen! The ancients knew it, as did those that came before them, and now it's our turn to protect it."
  "Protect it?! We're turning to it for salvation!" Yonk broke down, "We're using it!"
  "Wait," Marcius interrupted him. "I understand what you mean," he turned to Atla. "We're bringing our people here, who are at war with each other, who have weapons that can destroy ten such planets."
  "Yes," Het agreed. "It's hard to imagine that the people of the Seven Worlds could coexist peacefully on a single planet."
  "Of course they couldn't," Yonk snapped. "Most likely there will be a race, whoever can get here first. And then a war. But that's all up to our rulers, our job is simply to bring them the coordinates."
  Yonk was visibly angry. The veins on his neck were throbbing. Stupidity always upset him.
  "The war will begin even sooner than you think," Atla replied, "It's already happening."
  Yonk was silent.
  "The Seven Worlds are at war?" Marcius asked in a low, somber voice.
  The girl nodded quietly.
  "No!" Het yelled, "It shouldn't be like that! We're all originally a single race, and I believe that we can find a way to settle on one planet!"
  "That depends entirely on you," Atla insisted, "Only us four can make it happen."
  "You can see that in the future? Us four ruling over the new world?" Marcius asked.
  "I'm seeing many versions, but one of them is truly magnificent. It will only happen if we rule together," she replied.
  "And how to you intend to carry out this plan?" Yonk smirked.
  "It won't be easy, but we have to start right now," she said confidently.
  "How can we do that?" Het wondered.
  Atla remained silent, smiling mysteriously.
  "We'll give an oath to each other and choose a course," Marcius suggested after a short pause.
  "An oath!" Yonk laughed. "A course?!" he laughed even harder.
  "I agree," said Het.
  Yonk looked at him incredulously and vigorously shook his head.
  Atla removed the amulet and stretched it out towards them on the palm of her hand.
  "Let's name our union after this amulet," she said.
  "What name?" asked Het with curiosity.
  "Oracle," Atla replied.
  "The Oracle's Union?" Yonk made a face.
  "I swear to always be faithful to the Oracle's Union," she said the words like a spell. "I swear to follow the union's course no matter what happens!"
  "And what course is that?" Yonk interrupted her.
  "The course of peace and kindness," Het answered for her and placed his hand on top of hers.
  "I swear to always be faithful to the Oracle's Union. I swear to follow the union's course no matter what happens!" he repeated after her.
  "This is insanity," Yonk muttered.
  Marcius placed his hand on top of theirs and repeated the oath. Then he shot Yonk a stern look, urging him to join.
  "Are you kidding?" he scoffed. "What you're doing right now won't change anything!"
  "Join in, Yonk!" said Marcius.
  The Pacifian just laughed.
  "Join in, even as a joke," Atla smiled.
  "Yonk, please," Het turned to him.
  For some reason it was hardest of all for Yonk to refuse Het in particular. He was moved to pity by his naive faith.
  "Well alright, emperor it is!" he said loudly, and forcefully clapped his hand on top of the other three.
  Yonk's warm hand covered theirs. For several seconds they stayed that way, holding each other and not moving. It was as if time stood still around them. All sound disappeared. They couldn't hear the birds, or the sound of the waves, only an absolute cosmic vacuum in their ears. They couldn't see the stone walls of the cave or light, but only each other's faces, only each other's eyes. Yonk was ready to take his hand away, but couldn't - he was mesmerized. His hand suddenly became extremely heavy, as if it belonged to someone else.
  "Say the oath," Atla told him.
  Maybe Yonk himself didn't even want to, but the words spilled from his lips of their own free will:
  "I swear to always be faithful to the Oracle's Union. I swear to follow the union's course no matter what happens!"
  As soon as he said it, the mystical influence disappeared and they disconnected their hands.
  "I congratulate you with the birth of the union!" said Atla after a long silence.
  They all looked a little lost, as if only now realizing what a burden they took onto themselves.
  "I have just one question," Het said suddenly.
  "Just one?!" Yonk was surprised. "I can think of thousands!"
  "Don't interrupt," Marcius snapped at him, "What's on your mind, Het?"
  The Murian looked very preoccupied.
  "If the four of us swore to lead our races to peace on this planet, what happens to the races that aren't represented in our union?"
  "Evidently, they won't be saved," Yonk supposed.
  "No," Atla rejected this option. "From this moment on all representatives of the Seven Worlds are part of our race. We will fight for every living person."
  "For real? You'll give up the coordinates to Guinean bandits and humanoids from Iona?" Marcius looked at her in confusion.
  Atla was silent. Yonk found a way to get to her.
  "It's a good thing you at least got rid of the Oeelians. Now that would have been a problem," he smiled, remaining very pleased with himself.
  Atla ignored his sarcasm.
   "We'll find a worthy representative from the other worlds. We'll make them a member of our union and will give them the coordinates."
   No one commented on Atla's decision, but Yonk was bothered most of all by this idea with the union. The Pacifian thought only of practical problems, and at this phase they were still prisoners to this planet, since the spaceship wasn't yet ready for takeoff. Yonk built a plan for repairs. He calculated the amount of work and scheduled everything that had to be done to the hour. He took Het to help him, and sent Marcius and Atla away to construct a map of this world.
  Chapter 17. Around the World
  The sphere slowly took off the ground and vanished in the sky. Atla looked at Marcius and smiled. The beautiful scenery of the wild world dazzled with their variety. The planet's uniqueness knew no bounds. Every new corner was different from the last.
  The whole planet was within their grasp today, which inspired and scared them, calling forth a sensation of unlimited freedom. The sphere cut through the air with a whistle, getting lost in the clouds. The screen carefully traced out the outlines of the continents they passed, which looked like leaves floating on water from this altitude.
  The water on this planet was limitless, just like oxygen, light and plants. Atla expertly handled the technology that scanned the surface. She entered the necessary numbers into the devices, and they constructed precise three dimensional models of the hills and valleys below.
  "I learned this from Yonk," she said with concentration, catching Marcius' curious look. "Let's get to it!"
  "Aren't we already at it?" he asked.
  "Not exactly. It's time to choose. Which territories do you want for Tulona?"
  "I'll leave the first choice with you," Marcius replied.
   "This isn't the time for courtesy. Right now you're deciding where your race is going to live. Don't you want to get the best land possible?" Atla asked him.
   "It's all relative. We have our own preferences for climate. We like cold, moisture, dim lighting, fog. Or rather we're used to it. What you might deem acceptable - heat, blinding rays, shortage of water - will be extremely uncomfortable for us. I suggest we divide up the territory according to our natural predispositions."
   "Good idea! But I won't say anything until I see all the spaces with my own eyes," she replied.
   "As you say. Look, there's a clearing up ahead! Let's go lower and take a closer look," Marcius suggested.
   Coming down to the tree level, they raced past some hills, admiring the scenery with wide-eyed wonder. The nature in these parts was astoundingly rich: crystal lakes, fragrant blossoms, ghostly mountains on the horizon, a state of light and clarity, exotic grasses and branching picturesque trees. An atmosphere of solitary harmony and ancient wisdom hung in the air. Thick, primordial stumps of perished giants peeked through the fresh, young shoots.
   "What do you think about this continent?" Marcius asked. "A great part of it is very well suited for life."
  "I have a feeling that mine is still up ahead. As for these stretches, I suggest we leave them for Yonk. Let him take his Pacifians here," Atla said with a smile.
  The sphere raced on, taking down all the necessary information and constructing a detailed map. Marcius examined its equipment with curiosity. Everything was so small and precise that it seemed one wrong move could cause irreparable damage. It was covered in microscopic buttons, tiny screens and levers and a multitude of secret drawers hidden away in the rounded walls. Marcius noted with amusement how accurately the sphere reflected its owner - a silver, spiky orb that can sting at any moment, equipped with a million unexpected functions. Yonk wasn't around, but his presence could still be felt inside. The energy of the small spherical space was laced with his thoughts, emotions and feelings. It was likely more difficult for Atla, who sensed the fine-tuned world not only with her heart but with her mind as well.
   "Do you feel Yonk's presence?" Marcius asked her.
   "Possibly!" she replied with a smile.
   "What is he like? I'm sure you've already figured him out a long time ago?"
  "He's not that simple," she admitted. "He's careful and unpredictable, but he has a noble heart."
  The last phrase stung. That sort of address towards another man from a girl whom he saw as much more than just an acquaintance was quite unpleasant, even if that man was a short Pacifian from a sphere. He was curious to know what his own heart was like according to Atla, but he never got the nerve to ask, lest he receive a less flattering evaluation. A strange, sacred melancholy pierced his soul.
   They reached the ocean. Masses of salty water stirred beneath them, rising and falling. Sharp invisible bits of coral made their presence faintly known, hidden away in the clear water. A light mist lay above the horizon. The star's yellow rays reached far beneath the water and disappeared, dissolving in its depths. The ocean was quiet, but impossibly deep, judging from the sphere's models. Flooded islands, underwater tunnels and volcanoes were visible from time to time.
   It was getting dark, but before night overtook them completely, they had to experience something great and astounding - a sunset over the smooth, unbroken surface of the ocean, which stirred gently like a liquid mirror. It was breathtaking - the moment when the sky and the ocean fuse into a single endless pink expanse and it isn't clear if you are gliding along the ocean surface or falling headfirst into its depths... Forgetting about everything in the world, Atla and Marcius allowed themselves to be distracted from the screens and took in the marvel unfolding before them, overcome with emotion.
  Various shades continued to change in the sky, slowly turning deep crimson in colour. The yellow star slowly descended into the horizon. Warm, salty air burst into the sphere as Marcius cracked the door open. They moved along, feeling the waters get more and more turbulent. It created the illusion that the ocean was afraid of the dark and was resisting it as best it could, wrinkling its deep blue skin. Storm clouds gathered, and strong gusts of wind collided with the sphere. It was becoming more difficult to fly. Marcius felt a rain droplet land on his hand, and a short blue light flashed somewhere in a distant corner of the darkness.
  The contrast of the silence and lightning ended with a decisive crash of thunder. Marcius rushed to close the gateway, which was already letting in streams of water. A lively rumble shook up the darkness, and the deadly bright illumination from the lightning exposed the raging greenish water. Atla's worried face expressed hesitation. The downpour clattered against the lining of the sphere with a million raindrops. The sphere started to swerve, giving in to the currents of wind. Marcius was barely able to hold the controls. Another clap of thunder sounded in the sky, and several light cracks fell down right beside them.
  It wasn't easy to go against the elements. The sphere aimed to break through the clouds in order to escape the storm, but the ocean pulled them in. Giant waves tried to swallow up the little orb. It wasn't handling the weather well. Glitches flashed across the screens, and the controls ignored many of the commands, but they were still flying through the air, racing forward, so sooner or later the ship would have to break out of the storm's clutches.
   And that was exactly what happened. The tempest ceased suddenly, as if someone had shut it off. Silence ensued, and only stray bursts of lightning still flashed weakly somewhere far behind. The night was black - not a single star in the sky or a single reflection in the water. All this gave rise to an atmosphere of gloomy uncertainty. The dim light inside the cabin lit up Atla's face. Her breathing was heavy. Her frightened gaze shifted from screen to screen. Looking at Marcius from time to time, she was trembling - possibly from the cold, or from fear, or else the darkness was getting to her, or maybe she was just pretending. Marcius didn't know. She seemed very contradictory. On the one hand she seemed strong, confident and unapproachable, but on the other she could lose control, break down crying and start to panic.
   "Remember! Until we finish what we came here to do, we have no right to die!" she said very seriously, trying to answer the questions that were floating through Marcius' mind.
  "She's scared to die before her time," he thought.
  "So after it's okay then?" he asked with a smile.
  "It's not funny. We have a lot of responsibility, and judging from your thoughts, you're perfectly aware of that."
  "Stop digging through my head!" he snapped. "Live honestly!"
  "Soon we'll reach a new continent," Atla changed the subject, pointing towards the outlines coming into focus.
  Marcius looked at the screens carefully. They were about to discover a new enormous continent. The sky became lighter, and the crack of dawn on the horizon slowly began to expand. The sky was illuminated by the first rays of the sun, which hung so low over the shore it seemed it would collapse any minute.
   "The territory of lonesome deserts," Marcius thought as soon as he laid eyes on the landscape. Somehow such a name seemed fitting.
  Below him he saw sand, some rare shrubs and dried riverbeds. Tumbleweeds rolled across the barren fields, adding some movement to the bleak dessert and creating an illusion of life. In contrast to the meadows seen earlier, it inspired little interest, although it left a mystical impression.
   The new territory didn't capture their attention, and not wishing to spend any more time exploring it, Marcius and Atla raced on. Two giant continents connected by a thin path lay side by side. Having already discovered certain regularities in the climate, they had a rough idea of what to expect. Towards the north, the climate became more severe. Eternal frost awaited them up by the pole, but now, in the wild hot deserts, they would have the pleasure of witnessing ferocious tornadoes. This was yet another surprise on top of the storm, thunder and lightning, which neither one of them had ever seen before.
   The element hid behind a beautiful facade, for what could be more beautiful than a tornado against a deep, dark grey sky? The sphere was flying too quickly to stop and avoid the trap. Studying the scenery, Atla and Marcius forgot about the danger that might have been lurking behind every corner on an unfamiliar planet. The devices came to life, marking the wind's outrageous speed. The funnel was coming straight at them, destroying everything in its path. Billows of black smoke swirled around furiously, sucking in sand and rocks, and spitting out only dust. Visibility declined sharply, and the screens refused to work. The sphere, unprepared for such rampant atmospheric changes, has gone out of control, giving in to the violent gusts of wind. A frantic current sucked it in and sent it circling around an invisible core, mixed in with trees, rocks and sand. Yonk's wish of "not a single scratch on my sphere!" remained but a wish. Blows came from all directions. The fervent shaking made it hard to tune the devices. With each new attempt to grab a hold of the controls, Marcius was thrown off to the side, forcefully slamming against the wall. Atla, on the other hand, was buckled into the one seat that had that feature, and it was easier for her to control the panels. As they kept moving, the column only grew in size, accumulating new prey. The tornado's diameter increased, and the only way out was to break into the epicenter and then go up.
  "Can you hear me? Bring it up!" Marcius shouted.
  "I know, I know!"
  Atla pulled the lever towards her with all her strength. The sphere's manual controls required substantial physical exertion, and the centrifugal force held her back from making the required tug.
  "Help me!" she shouted.
  "I'm trying!"
  Pressed into the wall, Marcius could barely move his head, let alone his arms. Digging his heels into the sphere's surface, he began pushing himself away from it, trying to reach the lever. Straining every muscle, very gradually he shortened the distance between Atla and himself.
  "Faster!" she begged.
  "Yessss!" he strained, gritting his teeth under the unbearable tension.
  Grasping the lever over Atla's hands, he helped her pull. The only thing that saved them was a collision with a tree. Receiving an additional push, the sphere burst into the center and shot upwards at Atla's command, breaking free of the element's ferocious grasp.
  Gaining altitude, both pilots agreed that it was much safer in the upper layers of the atmosphere, although for precision's sake, it was important for them to stay as low as possible.
  "You scratched my hands," said Atla indignantly, rubbing her fingers with the palm of her hand.
  "I'm sorry," Marcius replied in a tired voice, wiping sweat from his face.
  Catching their breath, they decided to enjoy the peace and quiet and continue mapping the unpredictable planet from a safe distance. At the same time, their curiosity was excruciating. Seeing it live in all its glory as opposed to glimpsing it through a screen was like comparing a living arm to a prosthetic.
  "I'm tired," said Atla quietly. "It's been a whole day, and we've traveled half the globe. There's nothing you want to suggest?"
  Marcius looked at her carefully.
  "Sleep?"
  She nodded.
  "You can sleep, I can steer on my own," he suggested.
  "That won't do. I suggest we land and spend the night in a meadow."
  Marcius got flustered. The meaning of this was unclear: perhaps she didn't trust him, or she was scared of missing something, or maybe she just read his thoughts, which betrayed that he himself would really like some rest.
   "But what about time?"
   "I doubt they managed to fix the ship that fast," said Atla, and seeing that Marcius mentally agreed with her, began to lower the sphere.
  "Will you just keep on making all the decisions yourself?" he asked resentfully, watching her actions.
  "Don't argue, you agreed," she calmly replied.
  "I didn't say it out loud!"
  "You thought it!" she insisted.
  "I thought I asked you to stay out of my head," he reminded her.
  She looked away playfully. It amused her how worried he was that she would notice his feelings for her. The sphere slowly descended onto the grass. Night reigned all around. Forrest engulfed them on all sides, and they could hear a waterfall somewhere far in the distance. The spacious dark meadow greeted them with soft grass and sleeping flowers. The melodic rustle of crickets mixed in with the lullaby of nocturnal birds, creating the illusion or carefree slumber. A glittering stream reflected the mystical satellite, diffusing its light with its smooth current. A sweet, fresh smell came from the water, which was a welcome and much-needed change after the cramped and isolated sphere.
  "There's a spacesuit. One of us can lay on it," said Marcius, retrieving the lavender suit from a cabinet on the wall.
   But Atla could no longer hear him. She hopped out of the sphere and slowly walked towards the river. The pale light from the satellite illuminated the outline of her perfect silhouette. She stood beneath the endless stretch of sky and looked up at the stars. Marcius couldn't see it, but a tear slowly slid down her cheek and fell into the black water. She was overwhelmed with emotion. The world on this planet was too beautiful, and it almost felt like people didn't deserve it.
   A star shot across the sky, and then another. Marcius had never seen anything like this. A meteor shower was an experience reserved only for planets with a dense atmosphere.
  Laying the spacesuit on the grass beside the sphere, he called out to Atla:
  "Where do you plan to sleep?"
  "Insects!" he heard in reply.
  "What?"
  "Did you feel something sting you?" she asked.
  The next moment Marcius felt a bite. A strange creature of peculiar shape sat on his cheek, with a pair of translucent wings and many fuzzy legs sticking out in all directions. Atla was right, the local inhabitants had a taste for their blood, which could put a damper on things. After killing one, he drew the rest onto himself with his warmth. The unpleasant buzzing and the itchiness left after the bite ruined the allure of the warm, quiet night.
   "I'm sleeping in the sphere!" Atla exclaimed, waving her hands, trying to ward off the pesky insects.
  Marcius had no choice but to put on the spacesuit. Keeping a safe distance from the sphere, so that the crafty Kramean had no chance to peek into his dreams, he immersed himself into the deep grass and tried to fall asleep. His beam was with him, and he felt protected. The spacesuit was the wrong size and pinched his sides, but it was better than becoming a meal for the bugs. Bumping against the helmet, the bloodthirsty animals flew off to the side and soon lost interest in Marcius as well as in Atla, who was hiding inside the sphere.
  The vacuum inside the helmet was completely silent. Marcius opened the clear valves to let in some fresh air and sounds of the night. The foggy glass immediately cleared up, and the distant starry sky peered through. His eyelids grew heavy, and before he knew it he found himself in the land of dreams. The eventful day flashed by in an instant. Scenes of rolling hills and rivers flashed before his eyes. He felt Atla's presence beside him, fought the thunderstorm and tornado, flew above the ocean, and then was overcome with darkness. Sleep consumed his tired body so thoroughly that he no longer heard or saw anything, feeling like a weightless speck in the cosmic void.
  Morning. Dawn.
  The beautiful yellow star rose above the horizon, illuminating the valley with its golden rays. Bright light glared off the spacesuit, crawling under Marcius' sleeping eyelids. He wrinkled his face, then abruptly opened his eyes. He lay in the middle of a green field under a blue sky, enveloped by soft grass on all sides, but the sphere was nowhere to be found! He jumped to his feet in alarm.
  "Where is it?!" he exclaimed, running to the spot where it stood the night before.
   He looked up at the sky and gazed into the green distance of the meadows, checking if the sphere was hanging somewhere above the forest or floating in the water, but it was nowhere to be seen.
   'She couldn't have done something like this, something must have happened,' he told himself.
  His gaze stopped on the trampled grass. There was a pale patch under the spot where the sphere used to be, but strangely enough, it didn't end with that. A barely noticeable strip of crushed grass led off to the side, as if the sphere rolled down a hill, but at the same time there was no slope to be found anywhere.
   How bizarre, thought Marcius.
  Picking up his helmet, he followed the trail. It led into the forest.
   He broke into a run. He was worried for Atla and baffled as to who might have done this, which clouded his reason with an anxious fog.
  'There are no people here, so who else could want it?' he thought.
  Inside the forest, Marcius noticed that the trail was growing faint, as if the sphere was being carried. Following the broken twigs and crushed leaves, he was eager to find it. He heard a crack, stopped in his tracks and turned around. He saw light coming from the depth of the forest, with blue shadows flickering in its rays. He crouched behind a nearby stump and watched carefully. The action was happening very far away, so he crawled closer. Watching his every rustle, he crawled towards the edge of a cliff, where the silhouettes stood.
  The creatures had a certain resemblance to humans, but very slight, and were covered in brown fur. Their large head, thick palms, giant feet and heavy slouch made it impossible to classify them as people. Swaying on their crooked legs, the "apes", as Marcius labeled them in his mind, howled an indistinct tune with gurgling sounds. They were looking downhill, and as Marcius followed the trajectory of their gazes, he saw the sphere peeking through some branches at the bottom of the trench. It was open, and Atla wasn't in it.
   "Marcius!" he heard her voice.
  He looked around anxiously, but didn't see her. He realized he was hearing her voice in his head - she must be close.
  "Where are you?" he asked.
  "I'm in a cave, eight meters below you."
  "How are you?"
  "I'm tied up. They want to keep the sphere for themselves."
  "I see."
   It seemed to be true, considering how much attention the animals were devoting to the extraterrestrial orb. Marcius saw one of the creatures wearing Atla's headband, and another was playing around with her silver water cube. Most of them were looking at the sphere with caution, but there were those who weren't afraid to come closer and touch their palms to it, feel the lining with their tongue or put their fingers into the openings where the laser needles used to be.
   The creatures' intellect seemed much lower than human. Possibly they even had a whole different way of thinking and feeling, if even Atla failed to notice them. Maybe they were also a cross between a human and an animal, but didn't get the chance to evolve like the ones on the other continent. They were mesmerized by the giant silver orb, and taking advantage of their impressionable nature seemed to be the only way, so the too-small spacesuit and round helmet could even serve as a weapon of sorts. He had to act fast, since the creatures were numerous, with sharp claws and fangs. Atla was to read his plan and play along.
   Marcius walked around the trench, carefully moving from tree to tree. Choosing the side with the fewest animals, he prepared to run out. He had his beam ready, but he didn't want to use it unless absolutely necessary. Putting on his helmet and taking a deep breath, he took off running and jumped into the trench.
  A small shiny bundle, glittering in the sunlight, rolled down the hill towards the sphere. Hissing and snarling, the animals stepped aside, flaring their nostrils in fear. The males bared their teeth and tried to claw at it, but fear made them clumsy, and they jumped back as soon as their hands touched the slippery material. Marcius sprinted the last few meters to the sphere. He dove into the opening and ripping the helmet from his head, began tapping his fingers on the panel, activating the vehicle. The sphere started to hum and lifted off several meters above the meadow. The animals hid among the forest and caves.
  "Where are you? Lead me!" he yelled to Atla.
  "A bit lower and to the left! Do you see a big rock?"
  Marcius looked and saw a massive boulder on his left hand side, blocking the entrance to a cave. He flew up to it and lashed it with his beam, cracking it to pieces.
  Deep inside, squinting at the bright sunlight, sat Atla, wrapped in a vine. Marcius left the sphere hanging near the entrance and crawled inside. The damp, dark cave was saturated with animal odors. He wanted to get Atla away from here as soon as possible, and there was no time to untie her. He lifted her up, slung her over his shoulder and carried her into the sphere.
  The ship soared into the air, leaving the trench, rivers, fields and forests full if mysterious inhabitants far behind. Freeing Atla from the vine, Marcius sat her in a chair and offered her some water. The vines left deep marks on her skin, and the blood was still struggling to reach her numb hands. She winced with pain as she opened and closed her palms.
  "Thanks for the help," she turned to him.
  "I don't understand how you didn't notice them," said Marcius in surprise.
  "They don't think like us, so I can't hear their thoughts. But I felt their presence," Atla looked at him and continued. "I heard knocking. I was half asleep and thought it was you, so I opened the sphere."
  "What about after? Why didn't you escape? Didn't you have your shield with you?"
  "They knocked me out, I was unconscious," she said sadly.
  Marcius looked at her sympathetically and took her hand. He was very scared for her.
  "We can't underestimate this planet. It only seems like we're the only ones here," he said.
  Atla turned away timidly and smiled. Marcius didn't even suspect that she let herself be kidnapped on purpose. She wanted him to save her and feel strong - he still saw her as an all-powerful priestess and was scared to come close. But now he held her hand in his, which was exactly what she wanted.
  Continuing to map out the planet in silence, they raced on north. Scenic views of nature zoomed by one after another like slides, and the surrounding temperature gradually dropped. The sphere flew just below a collection of massive snow clouds. A long strip of forest powdered with fresh snow flashed before their eyes. Marcius liked this area, but he was in no rush to choose. Mountains stretched along the continent's western coast, wondrously beautiful with snowy white caps, surrounded by crystal clear lakes. The higher they climbed the more cold and lonesome it became. Moving away from the light, they soon found themselves submerged in darkness. A snowy veil stretched out across the land far below, illuminated by the stars.
  Noticing a sudden stirring in the black sky, Marcius stopped the sphere, on the lookout for more surprises. He was wary of approaching the mysterious glow, but couldn't turn back, captivated by the beauty of the rippling colours.
  "Don't move," Atla whispered.
   Dissolved in the velvet shroud of darkness, they observed the mystical phenomenon in awe. The northern lights took up a large portion of the sky, flowing through all the shades and colours of the rainbow. Accompanied by the blissful stillness of the night, the playful shimmer was like a whole different galaxy hanging above the snowy valley. And although both Marcius and Atla could guess the origin of the mysterious lights, it couldn't break the magic of the moment. On the contrary, they sat still, gazing at the sky in childlike wonder until the very last glimmer.
   Having studied both continents, they crossed the ocean once again, on their way towards the larger continent. This time, they didn't come so close to the water, staying in the higher layers of the atmosphere. They flew at top speed, and the sphere quickly traversed the boundless body of water.
   The continent was familiar, but not all the way. They had already seen the tribes that lived up north, so there was no sense in going back there. On the other end of the giant landmass, closer to the equator, Yonk and Het were waiting for their return. They had examined the eastern part, but the one to the west still remained unknown.
   The new territory impressed them with its abundance and variety: snowy mountains, forests, fields and lakes. The climate was pleasant - not too hot and not too cold, but moderate and tactful, like a person with good taste. Closing his eyes and trying to hug them in his arms, Marcius felt something familiar in the smell of the grass, the glow of the yellow star and the depth of the blue sky.
  "This way!"
  Atla pointed to the last unexplored continent, outlined on the screens in red. The hot yellow-orange continent was humid, open and alluring in its resemblance to her own world. You could see in her eyes how much pleasure she felt from watching the jungles from above, savoring the hot wind, smiling as they raced along the rivers, rejoicing like a child who finally found what she was looking for.
  Marcius was admiring her joy. He was overcome with an inexplicable desire to do something, no matter what, that would inspire such boundless happiness within her once again. It came on suddenly, flustering him and catching him off guard.
   Reaching the southern borders of the continent and finding themselves near the ocean again, Atla gathered all the data into a single diagram. A detailed map displaying the terrain of the area appeared on the screen, then grew into a three-dimensional, holographic image. Just a couple more weeks - and the whole planet will be mapped out. Dividing up the globe into sectors and taking into account regularities, she could now transcribe the territories into numbers. This meant that now each world could know the coordinates of its territory and descend onto the planet without coming into contact with the others.
   Marcius carefully watched the movements of her hands with a look of intense concentration on his face. Their travels across the globe were yielding the results, as could be seen in the holographic model that was forming before their eyes. It revolved in Atla's hands, its blue colours lighting up her eyes and skin. Marcius wanted to share his experiences when a barely noticeable tension crept onto her face, as if she heard or felt something he wasn't able to.
  "What is it?" he asked her.
  She didn't hear him. Her lips stretched into a mysterious smile. She was listening to something intently, slightly furrowing her brows. She covered her ears with her hands, then let them go, then covered them again.
  Marcius looked at her anxiously, trying to understand. Her eyes had a wild glimmer to them.
  "What?" he asked.
  "An island," she replied. "With two rainbows above it."
  A ring-shaped island appeared below them, its peculiar form setting it apart from all the others.
  "Let's go lower!" said Atla with excitement.
  "You want to land?"
  "Yes!"
  Marcius didn't see the point, but didn't argue - her delight was too intense. The sphere descended rapidly, and soon enough they were on the island. Atla was itching to get out. She slipped through the doors as soon as they cracked open and ran off along the grass. Jumping and twirling, she was like a child, but try as he might, Marcius couldn't see the reason behind her happiness. Going after her, he never took her eyes off of her, anxiously watching her every move. She looked borderline insane; happy and unprotected.
  "What is the meaning of all this? Explain!" she asked her tensely.
  "This island is so young. No one has ever died here. I want it to be mine!"
  She looked at him, and her eyes flashed radiantly. How could he refuse?
  "I don't mind," he said with a smile.
  Marcius looked at her in awe, feeling how much she loved this place. Seeing her happy, as it turned out, was better than anything else. Her joy was contagious, and he burst out laughing.
  "Let's go!" he called out. "Let's see what's there!"
  Atla took off her shoes, carelessly tossed them towards the sphere, catching Marcius in the process by accident, and ran as fast as she could along the young green grass. It seemed like she was playing with him, and he took off his heavy Tulonian boots, startling her, pretending as if he was about to throw them at her. Atla ran very quickly. Turning to look behind her from time to time, she went towards the river glimmering on the horizon in a silver ribbon. They encountered small trees from time to time, young and fragile. Their freshness and clarity confirmed the theory that this place was very young indeed.
  Atla didn't stop in front of the water, as if there was no obstacle whatsoever, and she just wanted to keep running on top of it. And that's exactly what happened. She walked on the water, slightly brushing it with the tips of her toes. Marcius froze in wonder seeing the magic. Gracefully and with ease, like a little white feather, she twirled in a dance, swinging her arms through the air. Marcius suspected that she possessed great power, but he didn't expect this. She laughed joyfully, beckoning him over with her hand, but he knew that walking on water wasn't his trade, so he stayed put, awkwardly waving away her invitations. Feeling his resistance, she suddenly went in for a dive, dissolving in the clear waters like a magician.
  Marcius fearfully looked side to side. Sooner or later she was bound to appear on the surface, but time went by and there was no trace of her, not even bubbles. His worry pushed him to dive in. The clear liquid burned and caressed him, enveloping his body with its coldness. Its perfect clarity let him see quite far ahead. He could see the seaweed, fish and sandy bottom as if it was on the palm of his hand, but Atla was nowhere to be found. Marcius got frightened, and his frantic heartbeat echoed through the water like an ultrasound, scaring away the small fish. Coming up for a breath of air, he continued to search.
  As he came up to the surface yet again, he noticed Atla calmly sitting on shore, watching him with curiosity. Immediately he wanted to tell her off for her ridiculous games, but he froze as he noticed the way she was looking at him. No one had ever looked at him that way before. Her clear, languid gaze went straight to his heart, and a pleasant tremble ran through his whole body. At the same time, its thoroughness and mystique frightened him, forcing him to jump back. In that moment Atla looked like a wild black cat, frozen before leaping onto an unsuspecting prey. She got up and slowly walked into the water. The smooth movements of her arms and legs were overtaken by a sudden plunge into the depths. She swam right under him, the waves from her movement tickling the soles of his feet. Smiling widely, Marcius made up his mind to catch up to her.
  Soft, silky currents of water streamed along his body. Millions of tiny air bubbles ran across his face, caressing his skin, and glittering rays seeped through from above, gradually dissolving towards the bottom. Marcius felt his body hungrily absorbing the moisture with every cell. Water always gave him strength, filling him with energy, and this river especially. He experienced an unprecedented surge of life and felt like he could move mountains if need be.
  Clear, glimmering reflections rippled overhead on the water's surface. He could see the bright pale-yellow star and a school of small silver fish passing by, but nothing was as beautiful as what he saw next. Atla's slender, graceful body, wrapped in shrouds of translucent material, soared through the water, its silhouette changing smoothly. The wave-like movements of her arms and legs mesmerized him, and the silent underwater wind furled her long black locks. The outlines of her weightless body dissolved in the fabric. Forgetting about the shortage of oxygen that was starting to bother him, Marcius couldn't take his eyes off of her.
  Bursting through to the surface, he took a deep breath, moved his wet hair out of his face and continued to search for Atla with his gaze. She had managed to swim quite a distance. With a burst of speed, he caught up to her and she was almost within his grasp, but at the last moment she slipped away, bursting into silent underwater laughter. With all her might, she started paddling towards the shore.
  Atla felt like a fish in the water. She swam quickly and skillfully, showing that she had spent a lot of time with the element sometime in a past life. Feeling Marcius catching up to her, brushing the soles of her feet from time to time, she would laugh, playfully splashing at him and picking up speed. Her clear, piercing laugh came from the heart, filling up the water, air and earth. It was contagious, and even the most miserable person in the universe would not have remained untouched. Loud and intense, it forced one to stop, listen and join in. Atla rarely laughed, only in moments of true happiness and only with the most trusted people, well aware of her powerful charm. Reaching the shore, she ran along the grass towards the forest without looking back.
   She knew that Marcius was racing after her and read his every thought. Their content intrigued her, as well as his motivation behind the chase. He gave in to her on purpose, giving her a chance to escape, then came closer again, almost touching her back, inspiring a startled playful shriek to leave her lips. Before they knew it, they reached the forest. It was bright and quiet inside. The rays caught on the branches, creating a dim green glow. Atla disappeared. He could no longer hear her laughter, or a single rustle, or a single sound. The mysterious silence was frightening. Marcius looked anxiously from side to side.
  "Atla! Atla!"
  He heard a quiet crunch up ahead and raced towards the sound with the agility of a deer. A golden shadow flashed behind the trees. Running after it, he burst out into a meadow.
   Coming to a halt, he realized that he didn't know where to go next.
   "Atla!!!"
   The thick air reflected the sky. Various shades of fragrance wafted up from the grasses and disappeared into the sky in a swirling spiral. Calming warmth soaked into his body through the soles of his feet. He felt a sharp gaze and the slight stirring of her breath behind his back. Turning around, he saw her so close that he got dizzy with emotion and surprise.
   His eyes were directly across from hers. Her gaze was so passionate and enigmatic that it stirred a tremor in him, and an immensely powerful attraction. In that moment, she reflected the whole universe - everything he had ever seen, known and felt, everything he held dear. All things great and mysterious looked back at him through her eyes.
  She concealed mystery and uncertainty with innocence and fragility simultaneously. It had always been difficult for Marcius to shut off his reason and surrender to his feelings, throw himself into the whirlpool of emotion. Craving to pull her close and press his lips to hers, he gathered all his willpower and took a step back. But the sting of disappointment that lit up her face in a sharp cosmic storm made him lose his mind completely. Stripped of the great human ability of self-control, he kissed her, springing back immediately and casting her a timid glance.
   He saw his reflection in her eyes, dark and clear, as if they were two small pieces of a magic mirror, forever trapping his image in their grasp. Her face across from his seemed like fragile golden crystal, lit up from within by an even, unwavering light. She was not at all offended by the kiss - on the contrary, it seemed she begged him to continue, and without thinking long, she moved in closer herself, wrapping her arms around his head and neck. Marcius felt the light of a soft, glimmering star within himself, its flame thickening, flaring and bursting to get out.
  Velvet skin, gentle touches and raging joy fused into one. The most complex movements of spirit stirred inside of him in powerful harmony, opening the only real passage into the vastness of eternity. He saw a glow before him like the one they passed on the other end of the universe, although there was no glow, and heard the music of the wind and water, although silence reigned all around. He felt like he had already won, although he knew for certain that the entire battle was still up ahead. He felt dizzy and his heart pounded wildly in his ears. As their bodies sunk into the soft green grass, they both felt like the whole world was spinning above their heads.
  Chapter 18. Two sides of a single medal.
  As the darkness fell, existing worries became heavier, there were less stars, and only the biggest ones would glimmer through the night fog.
  The fourteenth day from the moment the Pacifan and Mureyan started to fix the ship was coming to an end.
  Het stood, faithfully holding the burning torch over Yonk's head, keeping his eyes totally locked on the small human hands which oriented so well in the bosom of the cold mechanisms. This hypnotic sight of the human mind showing its superiority over this lifeless material inspired Het. Yonk looked like a wizard to him. Whether he was a good wizard or bad was irrelevant, what was certain were the wonders he could come up with, which the Mureyan was incapable of.
  Especially memorable was the restoration of the ship's exterior. There were small gashes covering the corpus with a net of tears almost like a cracked egg-shell. He would fix them easily with a laser ray. From its cold light, all that would remain would be scars in beautiful patterns, resembling small silver circles tightly knit to each other in strings. It was almost as if an ant colony suddenly jumped on crumbs and ran in zigzags in different directions. He did his job with such love and pleasure, as if he was a painter drawing a portrait of his lover.
  This method wouldn't work for more serious rips, so Yonk created another. He would pour molten ore from a hand-made muffle furnace into the cracks, right after mixing it with cut out bits from metallic objects found on the ship. He mixed the metal in clever proportion to the ore. known only to himself. In the first nervous attempts to get the right ratio, he melted down two chests designed for the spacesuits, the floor covering, one shield, one spoon, and his own belt buckle. The mix would immediately solidify, almost as if it was lava. He would put anything extra in a container, using his ray to put every bit away so it can be used for the next crack. Here and there, he would need to put on patches made from metal plates rolled up in thin layers inside a foundry which Yonk designed himself. The Ionians made their ships from special metals. Not all types of such metals existed on this planet, but he managed.
  Yonk didn't turn away any help, and Het was essential to his efforts. The Murreyan would help him in every aspect, sustaining the fire, carrying the metal nuggets, choosing the best out of the bunch, holding them for Yonk and providing lighting. Het would bring him water and make sure Yonk wouldn't fall off the ship as he was fixing crack after crack in barely accessible places crouching in unfathomable poses. Yonk inspected every millimeter, checking the metal by ear and strengthening the suspicious fragments with an additional layer of metal. It seemed that there wasn't one screw left which Yonk didn't take out and put in again.
  He would turn the system on a few times, and after expressing his anger, would turn it off again in disappointment, starting the inspection all over. Het carefully observed as the ship flashed out in blue neon fire, held on to the light for a few seconds and went out. As it vanished, it would give off a deep helpless sigh, almost as if the spaceship didn't want to go anywhere now that it was used to this planet. Sometimes only half of it would flash, but in any case it was already better than the first useless attempts to animate it.
  Grass and flowers grew into the ship's metallic body, releasing their juices into its lifeless pores. Yonk didn't seem like a superstitious person, but nevertheless he ordered Het to cut every piece of grass connecting the immobile titan with the cliff, almost as if these thin green strings could hold back the monster.
  -You're right, there is great power in this planet, - agreed Het, as he took the time to rip apart every living stem with his bare hands.
  In the evening near the fire, Yonk laughed at Het and the way he tried to wash off the green from his hands. Marcius and Atla were far off, so there was nobody to stand up for the Mureyan. Yonk just wouldn't let up the bantering.
  -We just need a couple more weeks, and the ship will be ready for flight! - declared Yonk.
  -What? -grinned Het.
  -The flight will take a year, we need to figure something out in regards to food, - the Pacifan continued.
  The Mureyan sank into thought. To feed four people over the course of a year - was not an easy task. With the condition that one could fly in stasis, even three people would take up plenty of resources. On board was a cooling room, but it wasn't really that big. To fill it up to brim with fish and meat would make some sense, but even then it would be hard to imagine cooking without a fire.
  -We won't be able to make a fire inside the ship during the flight, will we? - asked Het cautiously, realizing that he could come off as completely ignorant.
  Yonk gave him a furrowed look, resulting from the dumb question.
  -The oxygen balance is disturbed, -explained the Pacifan. - On the road here we ate special types of tin-food.
  The Mureyan nodded:
  -Yup, me too. That means we'll have to freeze the already-cooked supplies.
  -That's right, but this volume of food won't be enough for the course of the journey, - said Yonk.
   -We need to take with us everything that doesn't spoil for long periods of time, agreed Het. - and I think I know exactly what that something might be. In the jungles there are nut trees, the fish can be dried, as well as the fruits. The most important part will be to fill up the free containers with water.
  -Not bad! - replied Yonk after assessing the thought. - Go for it!
  
  For the whole next week, Yonk was simply unbearable. Something wasn't going right with the repairs, so the filthy and tired Yonk allowed himself to scream at Het at the top of his voice.
  -Hold it straight! - barked the Pacifan angrily and added something in a language unfamiliar to this world.
  There was terrible cursing which mankind was not accustomed to, because besides the empty, long decayed butterflies, there wasn't anything left in the last ninth cylinder.
  What happened? Anything unfortunate? - said the dazed Het.
  -Yes, of course it happened! I'm stuck somewhere on the edge of the universe with a Mureyan idiot and his rusted scraps! Yonk exclaimed, throwing the lid aside. - Where are these slobs? It's about time they came back! - shouted Yonk, even louder than before, diligently cleaning the container from insects.
  -They're making a map of the planet, that takes time you know, -said Het appeasingly.
  -It's taking too long. Their cities would have rotted away a long time ago if the locals were as careless with their responsibilities!
  -They could have flew away on your sphere without us? - asked Het thoughtfully.
  Yonk laughed out loudly.
  -If that was possible, I would be long gone myself. There is no chance to complete the flight on the sphere, and they should understand that.
  Het looked over at Yonk's hands. They were shaking from tiredness.
  -You need to rest, -said Het convincingly. - One or two days won't make a difference. You're going to bring yourself to ruin this way!
  -One or two days might decide the fate of humanity, -scolded Yonk. We're continuing!!!
  The Pacifan used all his strength on that day. Only when it got dark could Het take the drained Yonk off the ship. There were seventeen attempts to start the system, but nothing worked.
  -I don't know how to wake up this damn ship! - said the Pacifan with a barely moving tongue.
  Het refrained from any comment. He sat the Pacifan down near the fire, washed his hands with water and started feeding him. Yonk laid back against a cool stone and closed his eyes.
  The Pacifan was feeling down. He couldn't meet the plan which he made for himself, and felt crushed. Het really wanted to cheer him up.
  -Want me to show you the treasures? - asked the Mureyan smiling.
  -Nope! - answered Yonk sharply.
  The Mureyan didn't listen to him and took out a few objects from the bag.
  -Wow, what a hoarder you are! - Yonk remarked scoldingly, looking at the formless pile.
  -I...I... - the Mureyan started worriedly.
  -What is this bunch of trash? - asked Yonk, picking up a dry, ornate branch.
  -Turn it over, - said Het, out of the corner of his mouth.
  Yonk followed his suggestion, but judging by his ambivalent glance, did not take well to Het's attempt to familiarize him with art.
  -You see, it's a man and a woman. Here - said Het, going over the smooth curves of the wood with his fingers. - It looks like they're swirling in dance, with joined hands, doesn't it?
  - he asked with sincere surprise, carefully looking over the little sculpture, spinning in Yonk's dirty hands.
  -The way I see it, it's a skull with a big jaw, - said Yonk, looking at the wood through the silver light of the satellite and smirking.
  Yonk threw the 'art-piece' in the pile, decided to retire for the day when another object caught his attention, a bit more interesting than the first. A mysteriously shaped, flat and porous stone.
  -There!!! - ambiguously said the Pacifan. - And how does one turn this trinket?
  -Like this! - answered Het, with the happy smile of an artist who found an audience that appreciates his work.
  And even though the audience wasn't the most grateful, the presence of any kind of person, especially one who showed interest in his work, brought delight.
  -Look, the biggest opening symbolizes the satellite of this planet, while these little ones - they're the stars, the line of little chips there - the sea, and here, you see this figurine - that's a human.
  He's lonely. He sits into the night beside the sea and looks at the stars, -Het said quietly. - I made a whole series of these stones, and this one, trust me, this one's the best! If you look closely, you can even see the face of this little guy, - he whispered, pointing his finger at a little dimple, and it really did remind Yonk of the silhouette of a sitting figure.
  Finishing his explanation, Het stared attentively at Yonk, almost as if waiting for an assessment.
  - What? Are you waiting for me to cry? Don't even think about it. The only thing that comes to my mind is: 'How much did he have to bang away at that stone until it got that ugly!' - said Yonk, while smiling sarcastically, carefully putting the stone back in the bag.
  -You don't like it? - asked Het sadly. - Well then, take a look at this.
  Het offered him another composition of his.
  The first thing that Yonk saw didn't impress him in the least- a plain grey object resembling another stone. Putting on a perplexed frown, he was going to stand up and leave, but the astounded glance of the Mureyan stopped him in his tracks.
  -Don't judge anything by its cover. That, which looks grey and banal, can contain inside it the light of a galaxy, - whispered Het quietly and carefully, almost as if wary of scaring someone away.
  With a mysterious look on his face he slowly began opening the object. Yonk stared emotionless at the dissolving hole. The effect made by what he saw forced his heart skip a beat. On two snow-white chalices, bathing in rays from the stars above, shone a huge black pearl. Cosmically illuminated, it bewitched everyone with its fairy-tale beauty. The silence, slight crackling of the dying fire and the distant echoes of the ocean waves clouded the pearl in a thin fog. It constantly changed, looked playful, and stubbornly pulled everything towards it.
  -What is it? - asked Yonk.
  -It's my planet. I discovered it and live on it, - quietly answered Het, with a smile.
  Yonk stood there in silence. Clearly, there was nothing to bicker about this time around. The unusual object was infinitely beautiful. He was aware that theoretically, there were some things capable of moving people to tears, to melt the heart of even the coldest human, awakening in him a spark of love and light. It seems that for Yonk, this thing was the small black planet, sitting in the warm hands of a person, treating him with sincere kindness.
  -Look deeply into its depth, it reflects back the soul, - said Het with a smile, bringing the shell to Yonk's eyes.
  The Pacifan attentively began to look into the tiny shiny shell. The pearl tempted him. He couldn't take his eyes away. He looked at it for a long time, and all the sudden it seemed to him that he could see the blade of Suiz and the emperor's eyes. Yonk shifted his worried glance to Het.
  - This is my gift to you! -announced Het.
  Isn't this your planet? - Yonk reminded him.
  -You're more worthy of it than me, - replied the Mureyan.
  Yonk smiled. He couldn't imagine that this unusual long and hard day could end in such a manner. He looked at Het with gratitude. He had never met such people before. This youngster didn't get mad at him for the screaming, or for the insults. He did all his work without grumbling, never taking a break and not even showing that he was tired. All that came from Het was kindness, affection, and understanding. Never before had Yonk felt so at ease with someone else. Het had indeed cheered him up and this was the real talent of the Mureyan. Yonk got his optimism back. The desire to return back to his home world and save people was stronger than ever, if only because there could be more characters like Het amongst them.
  
  Chapter 19. Het and the monsters.
  Het's ship. Two years earlier.
  The ship fell on an unknown planet. Het regretted waking up at all. He'd rather fall asleep forever without suffering, bypassing the episode of poisoning from alien gasses. Still in space with his consciousness intact, he craved the final crash with this grand cosmic body, as to put an end on all this meaningless shuffling from one world to the next. But the stolen ship turned out to be smarter than that, and after realizing that it was being pulled in to the gravity zone of a new planet, activated the proper systems and landed automatically, without much of a fall.
  The scariest part was looking out the illuminator. Out the window was something unknown and empty, alien combinations of colour and form. Het couldn't gather himself to exit. Since then, fifty long days had passed since the moment he landed on these rocks.
  'I'm turning fifteen today and I'm gonna die, -he thought. -My birthday!' Het didn't keep track of time much, and didn't really keep track of his age, but at this very moment he felt completely and utterly sure that he spent fifteen years in this universe. At least, that's what he really wanted to think, in order to somehow paint a silver lining on his spending his fiftieth day here.
  'Eventually, I'll have to come out of here', -he persuaded himself.
  'But why? And where to go then?'
  The Murreyan convinced himself that he'd only leave the ship when all his resources had run out. Time was ticking. He ate and drank from one corn a day, thus prolonging his agony. On board, there was one spacesuit, and a whole new planet off board. In his previous life which he left behind in a different part of the universe, he'd rarely have to make decisions for himself. Here, he was alone, and apart from himself, there was nobody to decide on how he was going to spend his last few days.
  The spacesuit would allow him to leave the ship, but Het didn't know what to expect from this world. The planet could destroy him with unbearable air pressure, or for that matter, the lack thereof. But most importantly, he feared an unfortunate meeting with the creatures on this planet. Even though he hadn't met anyone yet, the paralyzing feeling that there was definitely someone here was growing inside him. He already had the chance to observe the different parts of the day here. It was clear when dawn turned to dusk, and when the day was at its peak.
  There were days which caught him off guard. He called them 'water days', but that was just a name. It was either water or acid which fell from the sky, with no way of telling for sure. Jets would hit the outer casing and slide off as streams down the windows. These were gray days. In those moments, Het wouldn't be able to make out the rays from the yellow star that was completely new to him. The fiftieth day became the last one, as some decision had to be made.
  Exhausted by the waiting, hunger, and loneliness, he would lie in the middle of the cabin, curled up into a ball, and was simply dying. He was weak and thin to such an extent that his bones would stick out from his deathly pale skin. His heart barely beat, and it seemed like the beats would stop any minute. The first light of the day shone inside, and right after the light came the sound. For the first time, there was something not quite visible knocking on the window.
  Het opened his eyes, and looking through the haze coming from his built-up weakness, he could make out a shadow in the illuminator. A crazy-looking bird was scratching away at the window with its beak and was beating it with its wings.
  'Hallucinations?' - he asked himself.
  The Murreyan rose up and crawled closer to the window on half-folded legs. There was practically no energy left in his body. The bird on the other hand was so alive, bold and aggressive, that after one glance at her he was tired. She kept her gaze on him for a long time. Big yellow eyes with small dashes for irises spun eccentrically. Covered in a full shield of thick feathers, she glimmered in the light with a pearly shine. Het realized that on the other side of the window was life, while on this side, nothing but death awaited. There was nothing to lose. Het didn't even bother with the spacesuit, and there was no strength left to drag it on anyways. He crawled to the exit door, and using his sharp bony knees to propel him forward, leaned on the lever with his whole body.
  There was a click. The door opened.
  The wind blasted through the stuffy, musty space and disheveled his hair. Het was scared to take the first breath and held his last one instead. He held it until he started losing consciousness, at which point he finally gave in and took a deep lung-filling breath, saying farewell to life itself. This breath was special. Het's head started to spin, and he collapsed on the metal.
  Extraterrestrial air was coming to his lungs. The planet's gravity was also optimal for movement, which was a blessing. Slowly, Het started to crawl out to freedom.
  He took a step out of the spaceship and ended up on the stones. The ship landed on the cliffs. He was scared to glimpse away from the now familiar ship and look at the world around him. Rising to his feet hesitantly, he forced himself to look around.
  The Murreyan stood on the top of this world and looked far out. Het was absorbing this new world into himself, not being able to stop taking deep breaths. The space around him seemed boundless. Far into the distance, it was possible to make out a huge blue water reservoir, the yellow line of the shore, as well as the snow-white clouds above his head. The planet was filled with greenery. Only the silver ship left behind his back was a link back to the cosmos. There were intangible parallels between Murrey and this world, almost as if in some places the two planets merged into one which could only be seen through a blue lens. But in contrast to Murrey, this planet didn't require a spacesuit or a space-dome to survive, which astounded him. Het immediately got the thought that according to the law of universal unfairness, there had to be a city under a dome here whose residents could not breathe the oxygen here. Every time they would come out of the dome they would wear protective masks which were filled with the same gas which was everywhere on Murrey.
  Het could distinctly hear the noise of a liquid stream. It went down from the mountains and merged into the lake. Thirst tortured him. The wish for water overrode all other desires, so he followed the sound, hoping the liquid turned out to be water rather than acid. If the gas which filled this atmosphere turned out to be oxygen, then why can't the liquid flowing in these rivers be regular water?
  Conquering his own weakness, dragging his knees along the rocks, he finally got to the lake. He bent down, and put his hands deep into the liquid. The cold water allowed his hands in without melting them. Right away, Het pressed his lips against the water, wanting to quench his thirst even if it was with poison. As long as he could feel that long-awaited wetness on his lips for one last time. At that exact moment, he slipped from the stone and he fell down. Goosebumps passed on his back and hands. The water was cool and thick. He slowly got out, and licking his wet lips, felt the fresh taste. This was definitely water. In unlimited quantity! Sweet, tart, flowing water. The Murreyan began to drink greedily. He splashed around and moaned from all this joy. Everything left him simply in awe: the water, the air, the sky, and the fact that he wasn't dreaming this up either.
  Submerging himself shoulder-deep into the reservoir, he started washing away all the space-dust off himself, taking off the sticky wet clothes off his body. Moving his hands along his neck and torso, shaking off his hair in the water, he froze in fear. He was paralyzed by the attentive, strict glare of an alien creature on the other side of the island. The alien looked fearsome. A large beast with alternating black and orange stripes, strong clawed paws and sharp fangs was glaring at him. From the creature's jaw came a growl that vibrated through Het's bones. Het felt a sharp anger and resentment directed at him. The Murreyan didn't move or breathe. Similar habits could be found in dragons and chimeras, which meant that this meeting wasn't going anywhere good. A hunter is born to kill, and the victim was destined to die. He was clearly the victim here. The monster was getting ready to jump. Just then, Het heard a new growl right behind his back which shockingly told him that there were two of these creatures near him. The one across from him reacted to the appearance of the new beast with cold aggression. Clearly, rivalry was not to its liking. It puffed up its fur, slowly approached, and hissed. Clearly, there was a war starting for his possession. He stood in the middle of the lake, fragile and defenseless between two hunters, and waited.
  The monster jumped off from the shore and leaped in the direction of the newcomer, unleashing his claws. Het jumped underwater. Over his body, the war unfolded in the air. The beasts leaped at each other and began to fight ruthlessly. Using the moment, the Murreyan swam as fast as he could. He was moving towards the place where the water fell from the cliffs, hoping that the elements would hide him. Diving under the foam, he swam under the waterfall, hiding from the eery sounds of the battle. The waterfall hit the lake hard, so Het was sucked into the funnel and was getting dragged to the bottom. Struggling, he reached for air, amazed by his own strength. He surfaced on the other side of the waterfall. The silhouettes of the fighting beasts could still be seen through the cracks in the water.
  Het breathed heavily. The waterfall curtained off the entrance to the cave completely. He swam down the lake, going into deep darkness, yet scared to look back. The current caught him and took him forward.
  Gradually, the sounds of the waterfall faded away. The water knew the way out, so Het let it have its way. The current began to gain strength, and the sound of the waterfall was renewed. He was in a waterfall cascade which meant that sooner or later he would have to be thrown out into a new lake with all the water around him. With a roar and a splash, the Murreyan dropped ten meters and dived deep down.
  Emerging, he looked around. The new reservoir was wider and deeper. Now that he knew that there were hunters on this world, everywhere he looked was a potential threat, real or imagined. Therefore, there was no desire to get out of the water. At the same time he was running out of energy to stay afloat, and slowly began to sink. Land was close. All he needed to do was swim to the shore and rest. The fear of drowning eventually overpowered the fear of meeting more monsters. Het finally came out, collapsed on the grass, and passed out.
  He awoke when the night fell. The nightmarish creature which looked like a giant beast in the dark, buzzed around and stung him on the shoulder. The Murreyan pulled himself up, swatting away instinctively. Right afterwards came a second bite, and then a third, with the insects pouncing from all sides. He got to his feet and ran. The tall grass was catching on his feet, with Het tripping a few times and seriously falling once, hurting his knee on wild twigs. He barely saw anything and moved by touch. Only in the jungles did the insects lose him. Het slowed down. He was completely naked and barefoot. The clothes and shoes were left on the shore beside the lake where the monsters met him, and his ship was probably still sitting on the cliffs where he left it. Meanwhile, he was wondering around in the dark.
  From all sides he could hear sounds which his ears couldn't recognize. They were everywhere, getting under his skin and moving over it in goosebumps. Het started to lose his mind. It seemed to him that in the next very moment there will be something jumping out of the shadows to rip him to pieces.
  In this panic, he constantly looked left and right, started breathing faster because of all the spinning he was doing, and was getting ready to meet his end at any second. It made sense to hide, but where and how was not clear. In the darkness, he stumbled across something hard with his whole body and went numb. Stopping his heart, blood and thoughts for that matter, he stood completely frozen for a minute. The obstacle in his way stayed as still as him. By touch, it was rough and wet, similar to a stone but was round in its shape and grew straight out of the grass. 'A tree!' -he guessed. He hugged the trunk with his hands and sat next to it till the morning, shivering and praying to all the Murreyan gods.
  In the morning, when his whole body was covered with dew, he was encircled by a long and cold snake which began to spiral around him down to his legs. He was squeezed along with the tree to the point where he could hear his bones crack. He almost lost consciousness, but managed to endure the torture. Slithering through the grass, the snake left. He fell to the root of the tree and sobbed in more desperation than he'd ever felt in his life. It seemed that you couldn't take one step on this planet without getting in harm's way. Only the life-saving yellow star which flooded the jungle with light lessened his suffering. It was similar to an Onix, warming him up and lighting the way.
  Het couldn't wait to return to his ship, lock himself up, and never come out. He walked for a long time, having to go around the mountain. The lake spit him out in a different direction, and he was completely lost. A strong hunger was nagging at him, and his eyes dimmed. He couldn't walk further anymore, so he had to crawl. Het tried to chew the grass. First he'd munch it with his teeth and then swallowed. It was bitter but otherwise tasteless, cutting the tongue as well as the gums, but there wasn't much of a choice. Het looked around for anything edible. He would lick the stones and then mold the soil in his hands, bringing in to his mouth for chewing and processing. All the experiments led to brutal vomiting, but he wouldn't give up. It was clear that those who resided in this area had to eat something which meant that a portion of that something could suit him. He acted according to the principle of trying everything out. Yet so far, there was nothing suitable. Finally he found one crop near a tree which was filling and pleasant to the taste. The peel was bitter, but the filling was soft and sweet. The crop was long and yellow. It grew on the tree together with the rest of its kind. Murrey had its own plants and fruits, which let Het to guess at the origin of the ones here. It also allowed him to figure out the right way to clean and then eat the crop.
  The Murreyan was lucky in that he was able to find several of these fruits and could feed himself. He ate quickly, always looking over his shoulders, almost as if he stole the fruits from this world and was awaiting punishment. He was still bothered by every sound and crack. In the grass he'd envision buzzing monsters, in the skies there would be clawing birds, while the trees were teeming with snakes and lizards.
  In a few days, Het finally found his way to the ship. He closed the chute behind him and sat near the door for some time, without moving, just enjoying the familiar metallic interior. He thought for a long time, and tried to calm himself down. Inside the ship, he considered himself safe but it would be impossible to stay cooped in forever since water and food were on the side with all the beasts. Which meant that eventually he'd have to leave, but how? After all, the closest water reservoir was taken. The only way out of the dilemma could be weapons. Walking in the jungles can only be done while armed. There were no weapons on board, no lasers, no flying disks, nothing. He'd have to make it all himself.
  Het never killed anyone before and didn't really want to, since he was against the use of force and wanted his life to be a source of good in this world. Nevertheless, self-defense was a sad necessity here. Using the rocks that he found near the ship, he sharpened a piece of metal until it could pass off for a spear. Taking a round-shaped panel from the monitor, he bent the panel until it resembled a boomerang. His aim wasn't very well developed, and it took a lot of practice to confidently go out of his sanctuary. There was a need for a highly more effective weapon. 'What's the one thing that scares all living creatures?' -thought Het, sitting on the floor and looking at the useless spear and boomerang. He considered different options in his head, mumbling words to himself until finally, a new idea idea hit him and he sprang to his feet. Fire! Nothing's as scary as fire! He started looking around in the corners of the ship, creating chaos around him with all the useless trinkets that he found. He discovered three ideal white cubes which could fit in his hand: Concentrated chemical fuel. Het felt better and pressed a few of those fire cubes close to his chest. These three objects will save my life, -he thought confidently. The fuel supply was limited, but should be sufficient for the first little while.
  The monsters quickly learned about Het, where this foreigner lives and which routes he takes. They didn't like the fact that he drank their water and lived on their territory. As for his sparkling silver house on top of the cliff's peak irritated their eyes with its foreignness. The goal of ripping him to pieces became a point of honour for the creatures nearby. Het understood one detail that saved his life on several occasions. The monsters weren't pack animals, and preferred to hunt alone. They hunted according to their land and followed those boundaries carefully. His spaceship landed in the middle of such two zones. The cliff separated the possession of two monsters. Each one considered the invader as their rightful prey.
  In his very first approach to the reservoir, Het was forced to use the fire. The chemical fuel was fairly easy to use. It was enough to turn two parts of the cube past a barely noticeable red line (one clockwise and the other counter-clockwise) and in four seconds there was a powerful burning reaction which would last for ten hours. He would entrench this fiery cube on the tip of his homemade spear. Waving it from side to side, he started to slowly go down to the water. One monster followed him closely from behind, planning to seize him near the lake. He was creeping up so subtly and quietly that Het didn't notice anyone there. Only the bright shining torch which stayed over the Murreyan's head stopped the monster from a deadly and lightning-fast jump. Intuitively, Het felt the danger nearby but didn't turn around and kept stubbornly walking forward. The second monster waited for him in the tall grass right on the shore. Quietly moving over the grass, he was sneaking closer and closer, not taking off his hungry eyes from Het's white body. Seeing the fire in his hands, the beast backed away.
  The Murreyan finally reached the shore, stuck the torch in the grass right beside him and getting down on his knees, started filling up his spacesuit with water. The airtight suit served well as a container. Not resisting the temptation, Het bent over the water and started to drink greedily. His spine and ribs were visible on his bare back, teasing the monsters with their vulnerability. Het took one refreshing gulp, closed his eyes from the pleasure, and when opening them saw a reflection of the monster leaping at him. He was barely in time to grab the torch with his hand and turn around. Het directed the fire right into the beast's jaw. Burning the whiskers and nose, the monster gave out a pitiful whelp and took a step back. It stood on its hind legs and tried to beat away the torch out of Het's hands.
  The Murreyan went numb from the horror, took two steps back, and ended up knee-deep in water. He couldn't let the beast chase him into the water. The right approach was to attack, advancing on the predator, waving around the torch in front of its face. But Het couldn't force himself to take this approach. He was weak and turned weaker still when he looked at the monster's eyes. He took one step back and felt that he was losing. What saved him was a little spark of the fire which blew off when Het took the sharp step back, and landed on the grass. The fire began to grow, feeding off the yellow stars's heat and eventually making a circle of fire around Het. The monster was spooked and started running away. The second monster which was observing the duel between the invader and the competitor was also scared off and retreated to the jungles.
  Surrounded by the wall of fire, Het stood alone. He understood in horror what he had done. He began to frantically try to put out the burning area with the water he was in. But the fire grew faster than Het could try to put it out. Guessing the trajectory of the growing fire, he started going ahead of the fire by watering the places where the fire was going to be. The spacesuit was of huge help, since it could quickly release the water and then collect it just as easily. From the constant motion of filling the spacesuit, carrying it on his back, and then trying to put out the grass with this water, his head began to spin. The bright yellow star was burning strong. The Murreyan inhaled too much smoke and collapsed on the grass which was already put out with the water. The fire got to the puddles and wet grass, and began to wane, eventually disappearing altogether. The lack of wind on this morning came in handy, since otherwise both him and the jungles were due for a different fate.
  Het woke up near midday, with both hands burnt by the fire, and the rest of his body was burnt by the bright star. His white skin turned a sickening red. He couldn't touch his skin, since it felt like it was on fire. Now he didn't even like this part of himself which he just yesterday considered his best friend. He gathered some fruit near the lake, put the spacesuit on his back, raised the torch from the ground and returned to his home.
  He had only two cubes left, which translated to twenty hours of burning. He realized the value and the danger of the fire, carefully covered the fuel in a piece of cloth, and hid it in a box. The water in the spacesuit was enough for roughly seven days, fruits were sufficient for three dinners, yet at some point it wouldn't be enough. He'd have to go back sooner or later. Het suffered from the burns, soaking his skin in cool water and moaning. By nighttime, blisters appeared on his body. He couldn't fall asleep, lied down completely naked on the cold metal, trying to escape the hot pain.
  He spent a few days in his hiding place. The burns got better, and it was time to go out again. He didn't feel like exposing fresh wounds to the burning rays and decided to wait till the evening, when the star was beginning to go down. Het remembered that on the other side of the cliff there was a huge, seemingly infinite reservoir, perhaps a sea or an ocean. Yet he didn't want to venture there just yet, speculating that a familiar enemy was better than a new one, especially considering that the way there was too long. Het took out the second fuel cube, pierced it on the spear, put the spacesuit on his back, and began the way to the lake for water. In the evening twilight, the sole flame from the torch had a mysterious look to it.
  Het went down carefully and crept up to the water by going through the scorched grass. He bent down slowly, wanting to completely quench his thirst, at which point he bounced back in fear. A dead body of the white horned beast was floating on the water. The desire to drink dead water instantly vanished.
  The monsters knew what they were doing, and seemed to be nearby. Het looked around, keeping the torch in front of himself. He thought he heard rustling in the tall grass, and saw a pair of eyes sparkle.
  -Stay away! -He shouted in Murreyan. -I'll burn you!
  After a few minutes of quiet, the monster went away. The rustling from his retiring footsteps eventually disappeared. Het experienced a fleeting feeling of victory. He returned his gaze to the dead beast. This reservoir was the closest source of water for him, so leaving the troop in there would be a mistake. Het grabbed the beast by the horns and dragged him out of the water. The skin was still warm. Clearly, the killing happened not long before he came here. He took the giant thing on the shore, using the remainder of his strength on him. Monsters got to eat meat, which is why they were so strong.
  Het didn't have much in the way of physical strength, which as he noticed was one of the requirements to survive on this planet. In order to conquer these beasts, he had to eat what they ate.
  There on Murray, the food was completely different and was only grown. Yet he certainly heard that in the barbaric regions of his city, people ate animals. Plus there were Guineans and Oilians who ate people. He started to remember with horror about how chimeras had their skins taken off, after which they were cut into pieces and cooked over a fire. He understood that now he'd have to do the same.
  The animal with the horns still had an untouched front leg. He took the sharpened boomerang and hit by hit took off the leg from the dead beast. He filled the spacesuit with water, put the leg on his shoulders and returned to the ship.
  Starting a fire inside was crazy, while staying outside was scary. Nevertheless he was sure that if he stayed near the fire, he would be protected, so he decided to try. He laid out a circle of stones, gathered some sticks, and lit them with the torch, while standing back to watch how the fire rose and turned into a strong flame. He did everything the way it was told in the stories: Took off the skin with a knife, cut it up into pieces, put the remainder on a spear and began to roast it. The first piece was burnt completely, as well as the second. The fire didn't go easy on the meat, treating it the same way as the grass and branches. Het was lacking barbaric knowledge, but he figured out that it was better to wait till the flame would wane a bit, after which he could cook on a small fire. The first finished piece was almost raw, with Het trying to gnaw at it, failing, and spitting it out. The second piece was much softer. It was juicy, easy to chew, but Het couldn't swallow. The unfamiliar taste of meat and the understanding that he was eating someone else's body made him spit out even this bite. Het just couldn't eat it.
  In the morning, walking out of the ship, he noticed that there were no remains from the beast's leg, only the bones which were completely chewed out by someone. Het looked at the decaying coal, then at the sky, and saw a high-flying bird. Maybe, it was her? thought Het.
  Yet at the same time, there was a growl. He turned around and saw another monster. Chemical fuel wasn't nearby, the spear was still in the ship, and the boomerang was five meters away, which left running to the ship as the only option. Het sprinted from the beast, jumped into the chute, and pulled the lever. The beast jumped after him, extending its paws. Yet the closing door was just in time to stop the beast in its wake. All that the beast had time for was to scratch Het on his face. The Murreyan crawled back. Blood was dropping from his forehead to his cheeks. He pressed his hands against his face. The monster was alive, but couldn't get out. Half of him was on the inside, and the other half on the outside. The beast growled, and in this sound he heard 'Tigrrr, tigrrr', almost as if the monster was calling himself.
  'Tigrrr', -said Het aloud.
  Tigr was now in his control. Het slowly stood up, took the spear and came a bit closer to the beast. He raised the weapon above himself and aimed. The Murreyan already started the motion but at the last moment, looking the beast in the eyes, stopped. This monster was a live creature, and Het couldn't force himself to throw the spear. Tigr flinched, and looked pitiful. Gone was that arrogant swagger. Het sat down near it and thought about what to do. Sooner or later, he'd have to open the chute and leave. The most rational thing to do was to pierce the animal, but the Murreyan couldn't change his nature.
  In his own world, he could always establish contact with animals, even though those animals weren't predators. Hence, Het didn't know how to behave with the tiger. Het decided to try. He slowly got near the tiger, coming as close as he could. He tried extending his hand to the animal, doing so with extreme caution. The animal felt that fear and growled. In order to train the beast, it was necessary to get rid of his own fear, in order to give the understanding that he wasn't scared.
  Het decided to influence the beast in the same way that he was taught to influence stingrays. Murreyans controlled their stingrays on the account of becoming one with them. If a stingray would recognize someone as their master, then it would be loyal to that person for the rest of its years. Het stood in front of the tiger eye-to-eye, and began to mentally tell the creature that he was its master. Murreyans had in their countless years of living, developed an incredible ability to feel everything living.
  At the beginning, the beast would give him an angry look, hiss at him, and show his resentment. Then, as it saw that Het wouldn't give in, it looked away. As soon as the visual contact was broken, the Murreyan would walk away, and then after some time he would come again and start over. Near the evening, he was able to come to the tiger without any fear, look directly at him, and most importantly stop seeing the animal as an alien monster. The beast's eyes were a shade of gold, with the fur being rich and thick. Het tried to like it, to produce some sympathy towards the beast in the hopes of producing a corresponding reaction in it. For a couple of hours he sat across from it, with a hypnotizing glance. Het started seeing the beauty in the beast. Everything about it was now likeable: the thankful eyes, its strength, its character, its colours, its smell, its feet, even its claws. He started enjoying the conversations with it.
  Gradually, the tiger started getting used to him, and the new environment, and the situation. He stopped twitching and trying to break out, calmed down and looked Het in the eyes. The Murreyan brought some water to it in his hands, and the beast would lick it up. It didn't try to bite Het, or scratch him for that matter. At that point the Murreyan bravely petted the animal on its head. The animal bristled, but didn't bite the hand. Het spent a few hours standing near it, holding his hand on the animal's head and looking at its eyes. He felt its warmth and started to read its feelings. The beast wasn't scared of him and didn't wish to kill him anymore. When Het felt a moment of complete mutual trust, he started the last step of the training. He put his forehead on the beast's forehead and stood this way until it was completely dark. For a second, he could see with the eyes of the tiger, and the tiger could see with Het's eyes. This was the very moment of union which the Murreyan was going for.
  He started trusting the beast enough to eventually open the door and let him in. He didn't take any safety measures, didn't take a spear with him, and simply pulled the lever. The doors of the chute slid to the sides. The Tiger got his freedom. It shook itself, looked at Het, stood still for a minute, turned around, and left.
  The Murreyan stayed inside. He was very tired that day, so he drank some water, ate the last fruits, and slept.
  The next day started off with Het finding a dead carcass of the horned animal near his ship. The tiger shared his findings with him. It would be hard to explain that he didn't eat meat. The beast showed its loyalty. For a few months they lived together. Het barely saw him at all, noticed only the footprints, but knew that the beast observed him and slept near the ship. Then one day, when Het sat near his ship drying nuts, a second tiger tried to attack him. He attacked Het from the back and was about to pierce Het's back with his claws, when at that very moment, his tamed lion came to his defense, and took down the attacker to the stones below. A fight began. The tigers would somersault, biting each other with their fangs. They stood on their hind legs, stuck in a deadly grip, moving closer and closer towards the edge. Het tried to help, throwing the spear at the hostile tiger, but missed. The tigers veered off the edge and fell into an abyss, still not letting go of each other.
  The Murreyan found their dead bodies at the top of the mountain. He took off their fur and buried both.
  Het was left alone, and only the bird kept attacking him by stealing his food such as the fruits and the fish, which he learned to get and eat. It loved to attack from behind and peck at him. And even though he was capable of killing it for a long time now-striking it with the boomerang, spear it or even to burn it, he didn't do so simply because it was the only thing around.
  With time, Het moved to a cave. The cave was closer to the water, and was cooler than the sun-roasted metallic ship. From the cave, there was an amazing and enchanting view of the ocean, of every dawn and every dusk. Inside his little space, Het felt like he was home. He slept on a stone, covering himself with the fur of the dead tigers. He did a lot of thinking, and a lot of suffering.
  Eventually, he got used to this planet and even liked it. Food and water now came easily, there was always plenty of everything, and he lived alone. This was his territory. An incredible creative energy accumulated in him and soon started to spill out into cave paintings, inventions, and findings which he would take home with him. This was all in order to fill up dusty regions with warmth and creation, in order to use his time which would drag on endlessly with a conversation with his inside world if nothing else.
  He would sleep badly, wake up in the middle of the night from the shivering of his own body, and from dawn wouldn't take his eyes off the shining silver satellite in the sky. Het learned to listen to himself, talk with his unconsciousness, and the more he lived there, the more he wanted to return home. He would more and more often play the last day of his life on Murrey in his head, and blamed himself more and more for what he did.
  
  
  Spaceship, last day on the Blue planet.
  Het was happy. He observed Yonk's face, when after a hundred attempts he finally managed to start the system. The Pacifan rejoiced. The ship rose by a few meters over the cliff and hung in the air. They got the opportunity to fly home.
  Marcius and Atla were already back, catching the last attempts of the Pacifan and his triumph. Het went to great lengths in preparing the provisions and heard plenty of praise directed at him.
  -You guys made the map? - asked Yonk strictly.
  Atla took the shield off her shoulders and put it on a stone. From there, rays of light were projected into space, illuminating a globe of enormous size.
  We know every corner of this world. We know what's under the water and in the mountains. Every region is included in the notes. I'll distribute the copies, - she said.
  Marcius added: We even figured out the climate, taking seasons into account, all the information is here, - he pointed at the globe.
  -We think that the climate of this planet used to be milder, right now it's going through an ice age phase, but there are still more than enough useful territories, - said Atla.
  -We think that there's an opportunity to resettle the migrants of the Seven Worlds, without touching the territories of the native tribes, - relayed Marcius.
  -Are you sure? - Yonk didn't believe him.
  -On the continents the climate is harsh, with plenty of dangerous beasts. At the same time, there are deserted islands, on which the climate is softer because of ocean currents, and because of the absence of land connections to the continents, the big beasts can't really get to the islands, - explained Atla.
  -We picked out a few of the big islands from different parts of this world, which we thought would make ideal places for the construction of new civilizations, - said Marcius, showing the spots on the globe.
  -I'll think about it, - replied Yonk.
  -You have a whole year's journey ahead of you to figure out where to bring the Pacifans, - said Atla. - Think about it!
  There was still one last night left for them to stay on this planet before their journey. The rain started. Yonk and Het went to sleep early. Marcius and Atla, snuggled into their animal skins, hugged and sat for a long while inside the cave, looking at the silver drizzling rain. There was no desire to fly away from the blue planet, here they found happiness, here they found each other.
  In the morning, Yonk brought the sphere over to the spaceship, scolding Atla and Marcius for the many scratches he found on it. Once again, he checked all the containers with water, and once again he counted everything.
  There were obvious traces of repairs inside the spaceship, like missing floor tiles here and there along with suspiciously open panels, but when the ship ignited with its signature neon lights, all doubts dispersed.
  They were accompanied by the harsh summer rain. It dropped so solemnly that you would think the planet itself was crying for them.
  -It hurts this world to let us go, it let us in and got used to us, - said Atla, listening intently to the rustling of the leaves, looking up at the sky. - I was truly happy here, thanks for everything. I'll do anything to return, - quietly expressing her gratitude and closing her eyes, Atla enjoyed every touch of the rain before the parting of their ways. Cool drops would drip down onto her golden skin, and mixing with the warm tears of the young priestess, would fall on the grass.
  Marcius was just as sad, but kept his feelings on the inside. If Atla couldn't look down into his soul, she could never have guessed at the deep and surprising world residing in him. She came to him, took him by the arm, pressed her cheek to his shoulder, and slowly pulled him after her. They came on the ship. Atla didn't look back. Marcius couldn't resist and took a peek behind him. The door closed slowly, putting up a heavy metal barrier between them and the rich world of dreams and hope.
  Yonk and Het were already on board. For them, parting with the planet was much easier. Yonk was very spry and energetic. He showered everyone in orders and got ready for the flight.
  The ship awoke. Sucking the spider-like landing spikes inside itself, turning into a sparkling monolith, it started preparing a field of unbelievable strength above it for the jump. Light waves began to run on the borders of this field and after accelerating, turned the ship itself into light.
  Accompanying its actions with strong vibrations which caused vertigo, the spaceship left the Blue planet like a fired bullet.
  Eventually, the ship got through the atmosphere and its gravity, leaving the summer rain long behind, as well as the drawn-over cave, charming lights of the far north, and the lovely island which looked like a ring.
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  About the Authors:
  Tamara and Svetlana Pikulina were born in Russia.  Ever since childhood they have been fond of novels by famous science fiction authors like Bradbury, Asimov and Herbert. Their books inspired girls to write their own story.
  While working on the 'Dream Planet,' Tamara graduated with distinction from a Master of Arts program, and afterwards, finished a Bachelor of Architecture Program. Svetlana graduated from a Bachelor of History program. These degrees helped sisters with their writing, as the story includes many scenic landscapes, artistic images of people and animals and cities of various styles.
  Tamara and Svetlana have compiled illustrations depicting the structure of planets and spaceships and portraits of main characters as well.
  
  
  
  
  
  
  Illustrations and a brief description of next books can be found on the website devoted to the book: www.7mirov.com
  
  
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