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Commonwealth Universe, Age 3: Volume 20: Virtually Dead by Michelle Levigne (Science Fiction)

Commonwealth Universe, Age 3: Volume 20: Virtually Dead by Michelle Levigne (Science Fiction)
 
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For six hundred years, the Khybor scientists on Ayvystal slept, through the destruction of their civilization. Now the new civilization built on the ruins above them threatens their existence.

Caspya is their Sentinel, their guardian. She must make contact with the living, waking world above them, find allies, and recover their life tubes before any more members of their virtual reality Community are killed. Or worse, found by the heirs of the enemy who sent them into hiding long ago.

Problem: The language and culture have changed in six hundred years.
Bigger problem: Finding someone to believe her.
Biggest problem: She can't leave her life tube. The only way to make contact...is by animating the recently deceased.

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Commonwealth Universe, Age 3: Volume 20: Virtually Dead by Michelle Levigne (Science Fiction)
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Sample Chapter

Episode One

Centuries after she was buried, the living, swarming world overhead intruded on Caspya's long repose.
 Irritating, but in the long run, all for the good.
 She had to keep reminding herself of that as she struggled to keep the newcomers to her planet from killing her permanently.

*****

The first breath of air tasted wrong.

A bad sign?

Caspya wasn't supposed to be able to taste anything. After all, she--or rather, the body she now inhabited--was dead.

Were we wrong? Or did the energy flow start up functions we didn't intend?

No response from the Community.

She didn't need to breathe, or to have a heartbeat, according to the theorists among the Community. The collected energy of the Community, fed to the body through Caspya as the link between body and the sleeping Khybors to mobilize it was--in theory--supposed to take care of all requirements for necessary sensory gathering and transfer to the Community.

Not needing to breathe wasn't the same as not wanting to breathe. She found, despite the oddness of it, she enjoyed the novelty of air in her lungs, and having lungs--even if they were someone else's, technically--after so long with no physical being. Virtual reality, after all, didn't quite count. The autonomic nervous system of this body seemed to be cohesive enough to restart when enough energy entered the biological matrix. Blessing or problem? She had thought sight and sound would be enough, and all she had prayed for. All the Community had aimed to obtain. Other senses could be a distraction, hindrance, or even a barrier.

Are you catching all this?

No response from the Community.

Caspya had hoped they could communicate with her. She wouldn't know if they could graft in through her senses to at least monitor her foray until after she returned to them.

More breaths and heartbeats later brought her some order and understanding through awakening senses. It was almost a relief to recognize the taste of antiseptics in the air, to feel cold, to move her borrowed arms and legs and have them resist. Her borrowed heart labored, and she found she rather enjoyed feeling that subconscious rhythm, despite the assertion of the theorists in the Community that she wouldn't need any functioning organs to navigate on this first foray into the living world.

Everything had been theory, after all, until her consciousness made contact with a freshly dead body and obtained an anchor to allow her to take over the nervous system. For how long--that was still theory. Caspya hoped other theories woven by the Community would be a little closer to reality.

No pain. Yet. She knew how to fight pain--but she had to remember this wasn't her body. Unfamiliar territory might not yield to disciplines she had employed when she last had physical being.

How long had they all been buried? That was one of the first things she had to learn.

Who had taken over their world? That was even more important, because that knowledge would determine everything else she did.

Her sense of gravity and position grew strong enough to know she lay flat on her back. Her borrowed eyes felt sticky-dry and the lids didn't at first want to lift.

When they did, darkness surrounded her, but a different darkness than had first enveloped her when she entered the energy link between the Community and the physical, waking, living world somewhere far above them. She could see. How well remained to be determined. She blinked, trying to generate moisture, and hesitantly lifted a hand to touch her face. The left hand. She was right-handed, but this body was left-handed and obviously its automatic synapses still ruled. Something rumbled in her borrowed throat when she felt, dimly, through prickly-numb fingertips, the telltale stubble of a beard. The Community had latched onto a male body for her first foray into the waking world.

Luck? Blessing from Fi'in? Males dominated in many cultures, so she was less likely to be questioned or stopped if she carried out her first recognizance in a male body.

Unless the body had died in a particularly gruesome fashion. Then people were bound to notice and react, and get in her way. She felt no damage to the face with its flattened, wide nose, flabby cheeks and deep eye sockets. Maybe that was a benefit--homely people were more likely to be ignored.

"Enough." She flinched at the baritone rasp of the voice and the flatness as it bounced off surfaces very close to her. That was a good sign, she supposed, that she didn't have to make a conscious effort to speak. Although, what were the chances that the language of the Human race had stayed close enough to the tongue she spoke that she would understand and could make herself understood on this first foray? "Get up and move, Sentinel. This is what you're paid for."

True, she had centuries of accumulated pay, but the government that employed her had fallen. There was no one to pay her, and what currency should she hope to be paid in, anyway?

Several minutes of exploration through the tingles of sluggish nerves and heavy, awkward limbs, told her she lay in an enclosed space, maybe ten centimeters beyond her shoulders on either side, twenty above her forehead, and she couldn't touch the furthest extent with her toes. The material was either metal or ceramic, and chill.

"Please, Fi'in, let this be the morgue," she whispered. The voice was clearer. Moisture had come into the mouth. Just how recently dead was this body?

Caspya braced her hands on the sides of the enclosure. She pushed, praying she had been put in feet-first. The drawer she lay on slid out. The door sealing her in popped open with minimal pressure.

The sting of antiseptics grew stronger, along with the copper tang of blood, the pungent sweet-rot of feces and other smells she associated with wounds and war and death. Caspya lay a moment, listening, blinking as her eyes adjusted to the light. The level of the lights, in the juncture of walls and ceiling, indicated this room was in use, rather than shut down for either the night or off-shift.

"Please, Fi'in, guard me. Help me understand. Help me learn." A choked sound escaped the male throat, and she wondered if that was laughter. "Please, don't make me have to go through this too many times."

Then she rolled over, slowly, gathering her limbs under herself to sit up.

She ended up on the floor. It wasn't a far fall and she didn't make any noise. She hoped. Sounds came muffled through her borrowed ears, as if underwater. The drawer was at knee height, when she got to her feet. The room was long, rectangular, maybe twenty meters by ten, silver and white, with drawers like hers stacked five high on both long walls. Tables with drains and perforated surfaces, undecipherable devices hanging over them, sat every three meters or so down the center of the room. An easy guess was autopsy tables.

The door was only a few meters away. She visually checked her borrowed body. Clothed, in shapeless, gray-blue, oversized pants and shirt, and barefoot. With her borrowed heart and lungs functioning, she assumed no autopsy had been performed yet. Did that mean she had a deadline to work against--and just how much time passed between death and autopsy in this new world that had taken over the one she knew? Closer inspection revealed a bluish metal band on her wrist, with some indecipherable coding on it, and crusty yellow and rusty stains around the neck and left side of the body. She chose not to look for wounds. No missing limbs or dripping fluids--yet. That could change as the heart pumped more efficiently. She should get out and get new clothes before exploring.

Sounds assailed her when she pulled the door open, with a soft hiss and a gush of antiseptic spray from the doorframe. She guessed anyone going in or out of the morgue got doused with it. A sensible and cautious civilization, then.

But a foreign civilization. The voices coming from ceiling speaker grids and around the corner to her left spoke an unknown language. The signs on the wall of the corridor opposite the doorway were in a somewhat familiar alphabet, but the words made no sense.

Please, can any of you decipher this?

No response from the Community.

First step: get out of this doorway before someone saw her and reacted badly. Fifteen words explained the arrow pointing left. Three words pointed to the right. She guessed the left led further into the building, and the right was an exit. She said a silent prayer, looked right and left, and saw no movement, though the voices continued speaking. She turned right.

The corridor turned right again after a dozen steps. Caspya caught hold of the corner, her cold hand slapping at the wall to help her stop. Maybe five meters down the corridor, it ended in two transparent doors. Beyond that, she saw three people in gray and red uniforms with their backs to the door, holding what looked like energy rifles, looking out across an open plaza. From the angle of the light, she guessed it was mid-morning or late afternoon. The buildings on the other side of the plaza held no remnants of the colony world, Ayvystal. Her world. The plaza was paved in a reddish-gold tile, the buildings coated in long, irregular panels of some reflective material, each building a different golden tint--red, blue, green.

Her medical research station and the entire colony--gone.

The seconds piled up into minutes as she leaned against the wall, studying the situation outside. Caspya needed to get out of this place before someone saw the dead body walking. She had to find a safe place to assess the complete condition of her borrowed "vehicle", then get different clothes, then learn about this time and culture. Especially the language. Especially if the Community was unable to communicate with her and help her navigate. She approached the doorway for a better view.

Outside, people walked across the plaza, including children. The uniformed men propped their energy weapons against their shoulders and talked to each other. They were on duty, but not on alert. Caspya wagered this wasn't a hospital. Next best guess was a security hub, or military headquarters. That explained the huge morgue and autopsy facilities. Things looked peaceful right now, however.

"Fi'in guard me," she prayed, and stepped up to the door.

The pressure pad in front of the door clicked under her weight--but the door didn't open automatically. She reached for what looked like a release down the middle bar of the door.

The band on her wrist hummed against her skin and a pale blue light flashed from the undersurface. Corresponding blue light filled the doorframe. A voice spoke in a crisp, computerized tone.

Caspya refused to panic. She refused to retreat when she was so close to escape. She pressed on the hoped-for release bar. A jolt like an old-style electrical current slapped her, coming up from the soles of her feet. Vertigo rolled through her, making her feel as if she would suddenly break free of gravity and go flying off at an odd angle.

The voice spoke again, different words and more of them. She staggered backwards off the pressure pad and saw a flashing panel in the wall light up. The outline of a hand and a keypad were easy enough to understand. The recognizable alphabet gave her some hope these people were descended from the Humans of the Central Allied Worlds.

Her hand moved by itself, going up to the keypad. Caspya gasped as it tapped out...

Her name?

Was that the Community, controlling her body, and trying to communicate?

Ask for help, her borrowed fingers told her.

"Ask who?" she whispered, wondering if they could hear her. "I've been praying the entire time."

Maybe someone understands our language.

The hand shook when it finished the message, and the arm ached. Caspya didn't like this proof that the body could feel pain. How soon until she shared the agony of whatever killed this man and put those ugly stains on his clothes? She guessed these were hospital clothes of some kind, and he had lingered some time between injury and death.

But she did understand what the members of the Community manipulating her body like a puppet meant. Maybe someone here in this world understood their language, even if it didn't seem to be the common one in use.

Ask for help? Best to start out politely. Introduce herself and the problem.

I am Caspya Tollis, Sentinel for the Khybor research scientist team of Ayvystal colony. We are sleeping. Buried. We hid when the Set'ri fleet entered Ayvystal's solar system. The Khrystal linkage between brain and machines discovered on Norbra works for healing. We do not know how long we have been sleeping. We are fifty-seven. Fourteen have been lost to damages. Recent activity coming from the surface threatens--

The voice spoke again. Caspya didn't like the stern tone.

Light flashed red from the doorway. It kept flashing.

Voices sounded in the corridor. Running feet approached.

Caspya turned to look out the door, and saw one of those uniformed people outside approach the door.

Four people in dark, closed helmets and dark gray uniforms came around the corner. One let out a shout. The words were indecipherable but the shock in the voice was clear--someone knew this body was dead.

"In Fi'in's name, help us!" She staggered back from the wall panel when two of those faceless people waved their sleek rifles at her.

Her feet connected with the pressure pad of the doorway. More energy shot through her. The body convulsed, arms out, legs stiffening. Caspya shrieked as every nerve shredded. A sensation of falling while simultaneously being whipped upwards squeezed her flat.

*****

"Scholar!" One of the local scientific liaisons poked his head through the flaps of Alvar's tent. "Excuse me, sir, but that odd energy signature is back." He stepped back as Scholar Alvar of the Order hurried out of his tent and darted down the long, curving path that divided the archeological dig, ten K away from Hub, from the living quarters of the scientists in a dozen different disciplines who had set up a temporary city around the excavation.

For the last six days, a stream of energy coming from deep underground had baffled the monitoring team and evaded the most finely tuned sensors available to the Order. Even the Rangers and the Commonwealth Fleet didn't have such sensitive equipment. The energy always grew slowly, with almost an organic feeling. Its existence at that point was only noticed in retrospect, when looking backwards through the sensor records. Then at some point it burst upward, enough to catch the attention of men and machines, but never lasted long enough for any useful analysis to occur.

By the time Alvar reached the central building holding the most delicate and sensitive monitoring equipment--for archeological as well as security purposes--the energy stream had faded away again.

"But it was a spike," Talya, his assistant reported, eyes gleaming. "Three times stronger than anything we've recorded so far. And it lasted twenty-seven minutes, twelve point six seconds." She frowned and tapped the screen that displayed an image of the full progression of the energy reading for the entire time it had been detectable. "Then another energy signature interfered, clashing with the first, and it just died."

"Were you able to track the source?" Alvar leaned against the back of her chair instead of taking his seat on the raised platform in the center of the monitoring room that let him view all the different work stations and disciplines under his command.

"Just like the others, the only direction we get is down."

"How far down? Lower than the excavation?" Shoun, another local representative of the scientific community, tipped his head in the direction of the deep pit that had brought the Order archeologists to the planet Aviston.

"No way of telling. But I have an idea I'd like to test. With your permission," Talya added, glancing upward at Alvar.

"I'm listening."

"This energy signal has been growing stronger, barely enough to register unless you're looking for the change. What if it's been sneaking up on us for the last two months, but only recently it was strong enough to register on our equipment? Maybe I can look backward in the geological record, detect a pattern, and that will let us predict when the next emergence will take place. If I can have equipment ready to pounce, so to speak--" She flushed and grinned when several of the others gathered around her station laughed at her choice of words "--then maybe I can catch what we missed the other times. Especially if the energy signature is incrementally stronger every time it appears."

"Do it," Alvar said.

Aviston was once a colony of Khybor scientists, back when the planet was called Ayvystal. There was no telling what treasures of ancient technology and knowledge might be buried deep underground, lower than any building project on this colony had reason to go. The excavation to construct a military base, with just as many levels below ground as above ground, had uncovered the remains of buildings and equipment that could only be termed ancient. The Order had been contacted even before the report was sent to the Commonwealth Council, because the military had a healthy respect for the scholarly branch of the Church that had brought civilization back to the stars.

Alvar could only begin to speculate what might still be found buried deep in the bedrock of the planet to protect it from enemies of the Khybors and the ravages of the Downfall Wars. But he did know one thing--the excavation for the building had awakened something. It was up to him to find out and deal with it before it turned into a threat to the safety of this world, or before it was discovered and destroyed by those who couldn't possibly have any understanding of its cultural and scientific value.

*****

Her world, her perceptions, were nothing but electrical buzzing and burning and scraping. Caspya longed for the ability to clench her fists, even gasp for breath and sob, to release the torment.

Gradually, the buzzing turned to prickling, and voices whispered, soothing against her frayed nerves. Blackness seeped in, blunting the sharp, jagged edges, then turning gray. The gray turned silver, then transparent.

"Oh, well done." Thena faded into view. Tears touched her ageless, pale, oval face.

Caspya liked Thena best of all the Khybor elders and healers in the Community, because her virtual reality face was the same as her physical face had been before they entered their life support tubes.

"How are you, dear child?"

"I'm here. I didn't blow any circuits in my tube. How long was I out of the link?" Caspya looked around, half-afraid that she would see nothing but Thena. Half-afraid to learn the energy flow that had shoved her out of her borrowed body had damaged her connections with the Community, and maybe her life support. The only clue they had that something physically threatened their sleeping tubes was when people had vanished from the link.

To her relief, a garden coalesced out of the light surrounding them--but not other members of the Community. Hopefully, this was Thena's choice and not a sign of damage in Caspya's sleeping body or her tube.

"Not long. Thanks to what we learned on this first foray, we can actually measure real time again." Thena gestured across the garden and linked her arm with Caspya's. They walked barefoot down a lavender sanded path, to an arbor framed in fruit trees. "The others are busy following those energy pulses that hurt you. It's glorious to have something constructive to do after so long."

"How long?"

"We don't know yet. But we can now tap the energy flows in the world above us, hopefully security feeds, audio and visual data streams. We can't fully replace the energy stores we're losing to whatever is gnawing at our life support systems, but it does help buy us some time. We hope to learn the language and perhaps the layout of the city before enough power builds up and we can send you back." She sighed and grasped Caspya's upper arm. "We do need to send you back."

"No one has responded to my message yet?" She smiled, knowing that was a foolish question. She hadn't managed to say one-tenth of what the waking world needed to know--and how long would it take before someone realized it was another language, and not gibberish, tapped out by a dead man?

They settled down in the arbor and discussed her foray into the waking, living world. Sometimes it was with words, more often Caspya shared her actual impressions and thoughts, the things she had seen, her interpretation of what she had picked up through the borrowed senses. At first, there was a burned-tender sensation in the link as she spilled the information straight into Thena's mind, but as the reporting session progressed, she felt the flow grow smoother, cooler, more comfortable. As if the portal in her mind had been healed.

Even more healing was to receive comments and questions from others in the Community, as Thena passed on questions and bits of data to the various members of the team who oversaw this first foray. Caspya hadn't realized how much she feared being burned useless by her first adventure.

"Next time...well, we shall try for more control. We agree with your speculation that this was a military facility of some kind," Thena said, after she spent some time in silent communication with the team, and the Community in general. "We originally sent you there because there was such a concentration of mechanical energy, as well as large numbers of life signs. Or at least," she added with a sigh and a weary smile, "what we interpreted as life signs. Now, using what you have sent back so far, we hope to avoid that particular energy configuration, and find you a hospital. Much less security, less chance of damaging energy that will interfere with the linkage. We want you to spend as much time in the next body as possible, and establish communication."

*****

"It's completely gone. Nothing to backtrack. I'd swear whoever or whatever is giving off the energy knows how to erase its tracks." Talya turned away from her screen and looked up at Alvar, who sat on the supervisory platform of the monitoring room with enough equipment to look like a high-security military operation under siege conditions.

Only the most trusted outsiders were allowed into this particular pre-fab building in the temporary city that had sprung up around the pit where excavations five stories down into the strata under the city had uncovered remains of buildings and technology from before the Downfall Wars. The Order's archeologists knew to be prepared for much more than just excavations when dealing with ancient technology and buried colonies. The Downfall Wars had been a time of brutality and desperation, and too many scientists and scholars had been killed by booby-traps and last-ditch defensive measures that had waited centuries to be triggered. Alvar, as head of the team, had learned in nearly three centuries of life to be prepared for the worst, and every contingency.

The odd energy flows emanating from so deep down in the planet's bedrock, picked up by the most modern sensing equipment available, weren't what he and his team expected when they built their city of tents and temporary buildings around the excavation. Explosives and booby-traps and hidden tunnels lined with sensor-evading alloys were more along the lines of what he anticipated encountering. The fact that this planet had been settled by Khybors trying to expand their knowledge and control of Khrystal, and fearing another Set'ri genocide campaign, contributed to the mysteries and anomalies.

"Speculations?" Alvar responded after stepping down and approaching her work station to look over the analysis output filling five different screens and sensors devoted just to that energy flow.

"A communication link. At least, that's the simplest explanation. But coming from so deep below ground? In a particular energy resonance we've never encountered before?"

Alvar nodded, thinking that "before" was the key word. So much technology and knowledge had been lost during the Downfall, when the Central Allied Worlds had imploded from its own greed and bureaucracy and the multiple racial and genetic and political purges that wracked it, to the point that its own military had gone rogue as a survival tactic. After two centuries among the stars again, Humanity was still picking up the pieces and rediscovering lost colonies. Who was to say that the scientific team that had been based on this particular planet hadn't had new technology, perhaps developed through their research into Khrystal, that was either never recorded, or the knowledge of it had been lost through time and destruction?

"But here--" Talya tapped one screen where the particular readout had been frozen. "This indicates massive amounts of compressed data. At least, I assume it's data. I captured a micro-slice of it and haven't been able to decipher it in the time the flow was active." She glanced up at Alvar, seemed about to say something, then pressed her lips together and turned back to her screen.

"What don't you want to speculate?" He rested his hand on her shoulder to encourage her. Talya was one of the most brilliant novices he had ever worked with, and he had been pleased when the administration of the Order listened to his request and sent her out to him, despite the fact that her training wasn't complete.

When most people discovered they were among the Undying and were recruited for the Order, it was usually a traumatic experience, involving violence and some kind of physical damage that should have killed them--but didn't. Part of the mandatory training included emotional and psychological as well as spiritual counseling, along with teaching the new Undying how to create new identities and move from one location to another as the years passed--and to sever relationships with ordinary Humans--so that no one caught on to the fact that they didn't age.

Alvar knew better than to flatter himself that his investigative skills were so vital to the Order's ongoing quest to regain the lost knowledge and technology of the ancients--while preventing the stupidity and mistakes from being repeated--that they would give him anything and anyone he asked for on his team. No, the archeological dig on Aviston was the reason.

"What if," Talya said, lowering her voice and glancing around, to make sure they weren't overheard.

Alvar found her tactic somewhat amusing, and yet sad. Everyone currently in the main sensor and science building was a member of the Order, and fully trustworthy. Anyone from Aviston who was permitted within the doors had proven their trustworthiness. Her caution just showed that she hadn't quite acclimated to the reality of what she was, and the full safety she enjoyed among her fellow Order members.

"What if it's signs of Set'ri technology? They're still here, active, guiding Gen'gineer activity in this sector. The ancient records do say the Set'ri were coming here to destroy the Khybor research station when they ran into the rebel fleet and were decimated. If there were survivors, they could have gone underground, hiding, after they wiped out the Khybor researchers."

"It is a valid theory. But I tend to believe the base was not wiped out. The Khybors had warning and they fled, maybe to another dimension like the Leapers did, and took their technology with them," he nodded at the screen, "or hid it so deeply that no one could find it, until perhaps it has reactivated. Perhaps in response to all the activity in the city above, all the development, the digging of transportation tunnels and laying new geo-thermal taps and excavating for more water. That's how we found the remains of the station, after all."

"If the base wasn't wiped out, maybe some Set'ri survivors took over what was left. Maybe even pretended to be the original researchers, to protect themselves." Talya tapped a few more controls, watching the readings change. "But no matter what, this colony was essentially abandoned from the middle of the Downfall Wars until only forty Standards ago. So what is below us, and what is the source of that energy? Determining who was last in control won't make that much of a difference in what we find." She shuddered. "Unless it's another spoilsport weapon left by the Set'ri. Could something engineered to destroy genotypes they disapproved of have survived this long?"

"Let's find out." Alvar chuckled when she cast him a surprised look that quickly shifted to sour before she disciplined it back to her normal attentive neutrality. "No, I'm sure whatever is generating that energy wave isn't attempting to destroy us. Just as I'm sure whatever we find, it will be fascinating."

"With our luck, it's going to be a last-ditch effort to transmit all sorts of research data. While centuries-old information on Khrystal would have archival value alone, not to mention the insight into how the Leap talent works...it won't do us any good until we can interpret the code."

"I agree." Alvar slowly made his way back to his station. "Leit, designate a team to find everything available on all known First Civ dialects dominant in this sector of the galaxy." He glanced at the man who spent most of his work shift wearing a headset that provided audio and visual data feeds.

Leit coordinated the various teams scattered through the dig site, as well as monitoring the planetary communication feed to keep the Order archeologists updated on the feelings and reactions and public conversations of the local population. Without taking off his equipment, the man nodded and his fingers flew across his control board, tapping in the assignment.

"We'll need a linguist," Talya said.

"By some strange coincidence, that's one of my main talents."

"There is no such thing as coincidence."

"Should we be grateful, or afraid?" Alvar murmured, and picked up his datapad to check some new information he had requested. Much as he wanted to play with the anomaly of the energy feed, he had too many other vital functions to fulfill. But maybe later, when he was off-shift, he could indulge and fantasize and theorize.

*****

Caspya's first foray into the waking world had strained her Khrystal link down to the genetic level. No one admitted that until she was fully recovered, and the energy had built up enough to allow her to reach out to the waking world again. That damage frightened the rest of the Community more than it frightened her. She was the only one strong enough to venture out into borrowed, recently dead bodies, to make contact with the world that threatened their physical existence.

She didn't fear dying, all connections severed from the life tube that protected her body. She had become Sentinel, guardian for the research team that tamed Khrystal for healing, because of her "warrior tendencies", as the more cerebral members of the team put it. Caspya preferred to be moving, active, doing. Living in virtual reality smothered her.

If she gave her life to free the others, she would not mind. She would be home with Fi'in, at long last. She didn't have a death wish, but death didn't frighten her.

Not after spending time in a dead, borrowed body.

For her second foray, the team waited until they thought they had located a healing center.

*****

Caspya opened her borrowed eyes in a dimly lit room. The body was a young woman's, the skin an unnatural red tint, with blue around the fingertips and toes. After growing acclimated to being physical again, she sat up and perched a while on the side of the bed--that hadn't changed, at least--and studied the body. Irritation pulsed through her borrowed flesh, somewhere between burning and itching, easily ignored for a few heartbeats, then rising up to the point of making her want to scratch her skin off to get at whatever seethed between her skin and muscle.

What killed her? she asked. Will it hinder me?

The Community could hear her thoughts and see through her eyes, as had been proven by the first foray. That knowledge comforted her. She wasn't entirely alone, and they could communicate by moving her hand to write or type. Maybe it didn't matter how her borrowed body died, but diagnosing the cause would repay borrowing the body. Maybe this young woman had family who grieved. Or maybe they didn't know yet? After all, the body hadn't yet been put in a morgue.

She wore a long, simple gown in pale green. A sliding door in one wall turned out to be a closet, holding a thick robe that matched the gown, and matching slippers. Coordinated sets of clothes indicated people with enough money to care about and procure such things. There were no other clothes. Caspya put on robe and slippers, then tried the other sliding door in the wall to the right. It opened into a hallway with soft pink lighting and gentle voices speaking from the ceiling grids. Some of the words sounded familiar, and she took some comfort that even if the language wasn't hers, at least she was learning to recognize words. Perhaps it wouldn't be too hard to learn this language?

Learning the current dominant language was necessary for the success of her mission, and to permit all the members of the Community to safely leave their life tubes and resume their physical lives on the surface of Ayvystal again. She chose to leave the question of what they would do with those lives for later. One duty and hurdle at a time.

Caspya stepped out into the hall, straining her dimmed senses for sounds of people coming from either end of the long corridor. She studied the small display screens set into the cream-colored walls next to each sliding door, to let the Community gather data. None of the words made sense, but maybe someone could start to translate the words by comparing what were obviously patient stats with their counterparts in the past. Right now, she needed to get as far from that room as she could--away from people who knew the girl had died, or any mourners who might pass her in the hall and recognize her.

We never really discussed this, did we? she asked her silent watchers. The problem of how we might hurt the people who mourn the owners of the bodies I borrow. How do we explain to them? Will it be safe to explain? How do we apologize?

Faint leg tremors made her stumble. The same tremors afflicted the hand she braced against the wall. Her knees tried to lock.

What is wrong with her? The tissues and joints are damaged. What causes this?

She hoped she hadn't awakened into an epidemic situation, perhaps a mutated virus unleashed against specific genotypes. That was a trick of the Set'ri in their quest to "purify" the Human genome.

Please, blessed Fi'in, let us have out-slept the Set'ri. Let us emerge into a better civilization, where variety in Humans is treasured, not abhorred.

Caspya came to an intersection in the warren of corridors and rooms. She listened for voices or movement, and turned in the opposite direction. There were plenty of arrows, but no clue to what the words underneath them meant. The familiarity of the letters was perhaps the worst part. How could the Human language have drifted and changed so much? How long had the Community slept?

She turned down five corridors, and twice hid in a recessed doorway and then an empty room, to avoid people in white uniforms, with green stripes and indecipherable insignias on their sleeves.

Then she saw an insignia she recognized.

And learned that borrowed bodies couldn't weep.

Caspya ignored the increasing burning in her flesh and the growing stiffness in her joints, as she stared at the cloven flame insignia, with the three upward pointing spirals wrapped around it--the symbol for Fi'in. She followed the arrow under the symbol. A stylized deciduous tree was next to the Fi'in symbol. When she turned the next corner, she understood.

An atrium lay before her, with a transparent roof five stories overhead. The cream-colored walls and pale pink lighting of the hospital corridors gave way to natural lighting, and white sand paths wandering among lavender moss-covered stone blocks that invited sitting in contemplation. Pale silver-green stone pillars, five on each of the six sides of the atrium, delineated this place of worship. Caspya paused to assess her surroundings. Six corridors opened into this place. She could go down a new corridor when she left.

Common sense said to take advantage of this worship spot and pray for Fi'in's guidance and protection. And give thanks that this world still worshiped Fi'in, the creator.

Her foot dragged as she stepped onto the path. She silently scolded the borrowed body to keep functioning, and let the gentle downward slope of the path guide her into the center of the atrium, perhaps ten meters wide on each side. Tall ornamental grasses--a sweet pain to touch the familiar plants and feel a little less lost--formed a softly swaying, spicy-scented wall around the center of the worship spot.

Caspya stepped through the barrier and dropped to her knees, staring.

Encased in a transparent cylinder was a pillar of the native silver-green granite, three-sided, a meter on each side and four meters tall, and after she walked around it once, she saw it had the symbol for Fi'in at the top of each side. Carved into the side facing her were names she recognized; their rank and duty, and the date of death for those who had died, carved beside their names in smaller letters and numbers. She lost her balance, sliding sideways until she could regain control of the deteriorating body and get back to her feet. She moved to the left and reached to touch the cylinder, wanting to touch the names carved on the pillar.

The list was shorter on this side: those who had come to Ayvystal to explore, expand the colony, and protect the researchers. All but three names had dates of death next to them. Hers was the last one on the list. Her aunt and cousin had no dates of death next to their names, but they had put Caspya into the life tube, and they had not joined the Community in virtual reality. Whether they had been captured and tortured, or had escaped and fled to another world, she knew they were dead now, after all this time.

"Please, Fi'in...I don't know what to pray," Caspya said, straining to speak, needing to hear her voice, even if it was borrowed. She tasted blood in her mouth. "Please, let me find friends. Let me find someone to communicate with. Help me bring the others out to safety. I have given my life to your service and to protecting those in my charge. Give me the wisdom and strength to fulfill my duty." She pressed her hand against the cylinder, needing to touch those names carved into the pillar.

Blood spattered the transparent casing, and when she put her hand to her mouth, it came away streaked with blood.

Voices shouted behind her. She turned to face the white-uniformed people who surrounded her, and fell, unable to keep her balance. Terror and wonder lit their faces. They caught at her arms, trying to guide her to come with them. Blood seeped through the robe where her borrowed flesh split from the pressure. Caspya felt nothing. The burning-itching in her flesh had stopped.

Not a good sign, she surmised.

A man with silver streaking his red hair gestured for her to sit on a stone bench facing the pillar. He barked what were obviously orders, and the people around him backed away. He spoke gently, slowly. She didn't understand a word.

"I'm sorry. I don't understand." Caspya almost laughed when his eyes widened and he stepped back, stunned at the words coming out of her mouth. "I'm not this girl--oh, this is insane!" She coughed, spattering the robe and her hands with blood.

Her hands worked with jerks and fits, controlled by the Community, taking the blood to write with a fingertip on the polished stone surface. She stopped, shaking, when the simple abrasion of fingertip on smooth stone caused the flesh to split and bleed.

She's disintegrating. Can't we stop the heart? Will she stop bleeding if the blood stops flowing? But how long can I stay if that happens?

How could she remain in this body and communicate with these people?

The man barked more orders. Someone arrived with a wheeled chair that hummed. Caspya obeyed his gestures and got into the chair. Someone put a small keyboard in her lap as the chair hummed and whisked her down another corridor. She sat back and let her hands move, tapping out messages from the Community.

She coughed again and inhaled blood. Through the dimming of her senses, she felt her throat shredding from the force of her coughing, raising more blood. She was drowning, and there was nothing--

*****

"Did it do any good?" Caspya cried, startled when the blankness shattered, bringing her back into the Community. All the members of the team hovered around her in the shimmering dimness that meant her Khrystal link was strained. Hopefully, just temporarily.

How many times could she "temporarily" strain her link with the Community and the life support functions of her tube before she burned out something and was trapped within her own mind, alone and unable to communicate?

"Through the keyboard they gave you, we told them what poison killed the girl, and we told them who we were--who we are," Lyann said. "Energy fields around the pillar interfered with the link and the energy we needed to keep the body from deteriorating further. Dear Caspya, we had to pull you out of there before it severed the link and left you out there." Tears glistened like crystals in her eyes.

"We think at least one energy field was a monitoring system, probably protecting the pillar as an archeological artifact," Demarsil said with his characteristic gruff harumph. Then he winked at Caspya. "I'm inclined to think Fi'in was guiding you there. A gift to us, a sign, promising success. Very well done, lass."

She wondered how he could say she had done well, when she hadn't done anything except destroy a borrowed body. What good would the messages left for the healers do, if no one understood them?

*****

"I don't know what good you think I can do," Alvar said, coming into the conference room of the Fredocian Medical Research Center in Hub, the capital of the restored colony on Aviston.

Dr. Fredocian chuckled, shaking his head. "My friend, it never ceases to amaze me how the members of the Order constantly see themselves as helpless, and yet produce so many miracles. You are a fine scholar, despite your insistence on working security."

"The Order is constantly under attack from those who resent us leading Humanity back to the stars." He shrugged and settled down at the table. He pulled out his datapad and tapped the commands to record audio and visual. "Now, you mentioned something about two dead bodies walking. I heard about the one at Security Central--"

"Colonel Deslock, who died a full day before his body got up and tried to exit through a high-level access door. They sent him here for us to thoroughly examine. Then a young lady who died of a particularly vicious, corrosive poison got up and walked to the worship garden less than twenty minutes after she was pronounced dead. She was a student from the Upper University, and we were still going through channels to send a message to her family. They still don't know she's dead. We want answers before we tell them what happened."

"Understandable. And you think the two walking corpses are related?" Alvar sat back, focusing all his attention on the doctor.

"The same odd energy residue was found in the tissues of both bodies."

Dr. Fredocian didn't react when Alvar flinched at the words "energy residue".

"That is the first clue. An unusual resonance we've never seen before. They both used keypads to pass on a large amount of information. We thought it was code, in the Colonel's case, and the Rangers took over the files in case it was something classified. Then the girl did the same thing. She had no military connections. Her family are all academics, no political or military leanings. Which might explain how she knew the language she used--but doesn't explain why she wouldn't use Commonwealth Standard to communicate. Nor does it explain how she knew and chose to use the same language the Colonel's corpse used. The Rangers have released the files to us, though they're not ready to admit the cases are connected."

"Two dead bodies walking, then collapsing, after using keypads to deposit coded communications?" He shook his head, even as he formulated a plan to get at the scientific data records. The words "odd energy residue" had snagged his attention more firmly than if Dr. Fredocian had used a hook and the strongest polymer adhesive. "Fascinating. I enjoy puzzles, but--"

"The Order deals with the unknown, the strange, the miraculous. And forgotten knowledge. Some words the girl typed match words on the pillar in the worship garden. A pillar erected by the Khybor medical team that originally settled this planet, before the Downfall."

Alvar let out his breath slowly, while his pulse tripled in pace and his mind continued to race, making connections, fighting not to jump to conclusions just because the new pieces of the puzzle fit his nebulous theory. "Could you give me a copy of her message?"

In moments, Dr. Fredocian had the data transmitted to his datapad and he sat back to read through it. The racing of his thoughts turned into a roaring as he noted the times during which the bodies had walked. Both took place during the powerful energy surges that had become Talya's sole focus. Alvar fought to keep his expression bland as, one by one, he separated out a word here and there. Words from a language that supposedly had not been spoken, except by Order scholars, since First Civ had imploded under its own greed, bureaucracy, and prejudice.

Alvar had a gift of intuitive genius, and his superiors in the Order gave him full freedom to follow every leap of logic. What if the language of First Civ appearing here was directly connected to the lost research colony? More than a neural transmitter suddenly coming to life and transmitting information? What could re-animate dead bodies? What had that kind of energy? And why dead bodies? Why those dead bodies, specifically?

"Give me everything you have. Please?" he added, lifting his gaze from the datapad to meet his friend's amused, knowing glance. Fi'in, All-Maker, give me the wisdom to understand. Protect me from fear and foolishness. I am your servant and tool.

"What is it?" Fredocian whispered, and leaned closer as if they had to guard a dangerous secret. "Is it First Civ? Khybor artifacts?"

Alvar met his gaze a long time, unblinking, until finally he let himself nod. Communication through time, from the ancient past. Did that count as "artifacts"?

Fi'in, help us all.

The Khybor researchers who had lived on this once-remote colony world had been working with Khrystal that had finally been tamed. There was a time, in the earliest days of using biological crystal, when implanting it in a damaged body to heal the nervous system or promote regeneration of limbs and organs, meant the patient became a Khybor. There was no control over it. Khrystal became part of the body, down to the genetic level. And Khybors had been feared, hated, made the subject of nasty Set'ri annihilation campaigns, because of that genetic penetration. The Set'ri claimed they were no longer Human.

At the time this colony was established on the world once known as Ayvystal, Khybors had gained the fine control over Khrystal to blunt its impact and restrain its tendency to merge with the host. The government officials with ties to the Set'ri worked to halt their attacks on Khybors once they made it possible for Khrystal to heal without creating any more Khybors. From that point onward, the only new Khybors were born to Khybor parents. As Khybors bred with each other--and only each other, because the prejudice against them remained--Khrystal-linked talents and abilities changed.

The researchers were there to learn what else Khrystal could do. The colonists on the planet once called Norbra had developed an ability to link with machines, and from them had come the Leapers, who had only recently returned to the universe known to the Commonwealth. There was no telling what the colonists here on Ayvystal/Aviston could have learned, if they hadn't been attacked by the Set'ri and fled for their lives--and lost to all Humanity.

Or had they fled? What if they were still here, taking advantage of the enhanced protection provided by Khrystal merging with the life support machinery of their life tubes? Alvar shuddered inwardly in excitement and anticipation. He was going to enjoy this investigation. He just hoped he enjoyed whatever he found at the end of the long, twisting path that lay ahead of him.

*****

With her second foray into the living world, the connection with the energy field of the planet grew stronger and more solid, secure. As one member of the Community described it, a narrow channel through granite was slowly being eroded wider, to allow more to flow through the gap. This meant the energy needed to send Caspya back to the world above their buried life tubes replenished sooner. She was almost unprepared when Thena contacted her and said they had found a body she could transfer into, near a core of power signatures but not inside them. Meaning, perhaps, greater freedom to move around and explore and learn about this new world that had displaced them before complications interfered.

Blood filled Caspya's mouth, her lungs, her eyes the moment she slipped into the body. Every breath shot splinters of pain through her borrowed flesh. There was no time to acclimate, to wait for the senses to reawaken--the senses were still streaming the last physical impressions before death. She couldn't draw enough air into her lungs to groan. To move, she needed blood to pump and lungs to breathe. Unfortunately, pain came with the body. Not her own body.

A child's shriek jolted her out of the struggle to acclimate to her new body. Caspya rolled over, feeling small, sharp objects poking into her borrowed body, the stabbing of broken ribs, and more blood gushing from the belly wound.

This body was still warm.

She opened her eyes to dim light and an overall impression of filth, towering walls, and tight spaces. A man growled. Caspya didn't need to know the language to understand the threat. A smacking sound--flesh against flesh--then a child's shriek. Softer now. Weeping. Then the stumbling, scrabbling sounds of a small body trying to escape.

"Fi'in, give me strength," Caspya growled as she hauled this broken body upright.

The man was little more than a hulking, dark shape in the shadows. But there was enough light to see his wide-eyed shock as he looked at her. He aimed a short, flattened cylinder at her. He spoke, growled, visibly fighting fear--Caspya guessed he was telling her to stop. Maybe he cursed her. The child shrieked. Light and heat flashed and a projectile smacked into her thigh, sending her staggering back a few steps. Fire flared briefly through her flesh and she fought it down with the power of her mind. The heat dissipated quickly, pushed away by a surge of energy sent to her from the Community.

So, the fresher the body, the easier to exert her discipline over it. Useful. And something to consider later.

Caspya looked down at the wound, spilling blood in short bursts with the rhythm of the restarted heart. Would the heart still beat if the body ran out of blood?

"I curse you to the darkness that spawned you," Caspya spat as she partially crouched, compensated for her damaged hip, and leaped.

Part of her laughed at the melodramatic words. She had definitely spent far too much of the intervening centuries studying drama and literature.

The man let out a satisfying shriek as she hit him. Her knee drove in just under his ribs and stunned him silent. They went down, skidding, to ram up against the wall. She landed on top, pinning him. More pain flared through her body, fire that she quelled with anger.

"I'm dead. Join me?" she snarled, and wrapped her borrowed hands around his throat. She bounced on his chest and heard a satisfying crack. "Payment for my host."

The man didn't struggle long, with her fingers pressed against the nerve bundles and carotid artery, and cutting off his wind. When he went limp, she wanted to squeeze until his heart stopped hammering against the knee she dug into his ribs.

"No. I won't kill." She let go, a second before her hands yanked themselves off the man's throat. Just like the Community moved her hands to communicate with the people she had encountered before. I stopped. Don't worry about me.

The same unseen force turned her head toward the dark corner where something small snuffled and whimpered.

Of course. The child.

"You can't understand a word I'm saying," she said as she slid off the man's chest and staggered to her feet. "That probably scares you more than he did. But I'm a friend. I swear." Caspya tried to make her voice soft, and held out her arms.

The body was a woman's. The material of the skirt was thick, probably expensive; a soft knit overtunic hung past her hips. Caspya was grateful that fashion dictated longer, looser skirts. She had dreaded waking up to a society that decreed women wore little more than bandages wrapped around breasts and hips.

With a gulping sob, the child--a girl with long, chestnut curls--leaped from the dark corner and flung herself into Caspya's arms.

"All right, sweetheart, let's get you to Security, or whatever they call it now. Are you hurt?" She looked around, trying to find the way out of this narrow, dark place.

Light shone dimly maybe a dozen meters away. She guessed they were in an alley between buildings. Some things never changed.

The child clung to her uninjured side, making walking difficult. They stepped out onto a street just as dirty and deserted as what they left behind. Down the street, lights seemed brighter and more numerous. She didn't speak, but she rubbed the child's back to reassure her as they walked. No need to terrify her any further with foreign words.

Caspya would leave the problem of identifying the woman and child, and what they were doing in that alley, to the authorities. After she no longer needed this body.

The sky darkened as they walked, crossing five intersections before reaching the cluster of lights. She guessed she had awakened at nightfall.

The dirtiness and sense of desertion faded after the fourth intersection. She saw buildings with lights in the windows, what looked comfortingly just like shops and offices from her time, and people walking the streets, along with several three-wheeled, enclosed vehicles. The strongest lights came from a five-story building in the center of a cluster of intersections. Multiple identical, larger vehicles were parked against the building on the three sides she could see. A good guess was that this was a Security hub. Just the place to take the child.

Or perhaps not.

Uproar surrounded them as she and the child stepped into the light spilling from the building. Two men in gray uniforms dashed down the ramp from the main door to meet them. Several women in similar uniforms joined them as Caspya and the child were hurried indoors. They let the child stay with her, and hustled them into a room off what looked like a central processing lobby: multiple desks with screens in their surfaces, people going in and out of doors, and scruffy-looking people with restraint loops on their wrists and ankles--another thing that hadn't changed.

"You're going to think I'm crazy."

The two women and the man who stayed in the room with her and the child were probably higher-ranking officers, judging by the extra slashes of red on their gray sleeves and the tiny black and red pips on their collars. They stared at the sound of her foreign words.

"I'm a visitor here. That's not right. I was here first. But my time is going to be short, the way this body feels. Please--" She sighed when the Community took over and the fingers of one hand tapped at an invisible keypad, while the other hand made gestures as if writing.

The people looked stunned, but one woman immediately dashed out of the room, and the other woman pulled a drawer open in a cabinet in the wall, bringing out a stylus and writing sheets. Caspya gladly settled down at a table. Actually, she had no choice, with the Community guiding her movements. They ignored the rest of her body to focus on using her hand and arm to write, so when the child crept up and leaned against her, Caspya wrapped an arm around her. As long as the child didn't expect her to speak, to answer questions, to respond to the officers who watched her with concerned frowns, everything would be all right.

Please, Fi'in, let it work out all right. I don't know how much longer I can keep doing this.

*****

"Sir?" Talya poked her head into the tent that served as Alvar's office at the archeological dig. "We have a ping. Transport is waiting." Her grin widened when he froze for two seconds, caught in the middle of sitting down.

"A ping." He lurched upright and gestured for his assistant to lead the way.

On the trip to Kedlar Sector--one of the worst parts of Hub--he and Talya went over the data that streamed into his datapad link from planetary Peace Forcer headquarters. He had sent out a general alert to all Peacer units, hospitals, and medical kiosks to look for people in physical distress, disoriented, and speaking unfamiliar words. Alvar had hesitated to add "recently dead" to the notice. Even the influence and power of the Order might not be enough to override the negative reactions and even mockery that detail would garner.

Two kidnapping victims had staggered into the Peace Forcer hub for Kedlar Sector. The young woman and her little sister had been taken five days ago. The deadline for the ransom--uncut gemstones--had passed three hours ago. They were presumed dead. According to the child, the man had shot her sister four times, then her sister got up and fought the man, knocked him out, and they escaped. She thought something was wrong with her sister, because she "talked funny". The two had been separated by medical staff. Combat-experienced medics said the woman should be dead. As an afterthought, the report noted a foreign language and no sign of understanding anything said to her. She had asked with gestures for a keyboard, and they had given her stylus and flimsi sheets to use until they found a keyboard. An update to the report noted that no one understood a single thing she had communicated to them so far, and the letters she used were only partially familiar. One of the Peacers supervising the woman said her writing looked like something from primary-level history textbooks.

"It's not that I doubt you," Talya said, as their robot cart sped through the city. "But I still can't wrap my mind around the idea of people from a lost colony reaching through time--"

"Not through time." Alvar grinned at his reflection in the report screen he read. "Keep in mind the message we deciphered. They're Khybors, from the age when Humans were still fully taming Khrystal. Archeological evidence reveals they were working on adapting the mind-machine nexus that eventually gave us the Leapers. The goal was to develop a Khrystal that would bond fully with fatally injured patients, augment the healing process and avoid the neuroses that come from long-term healing comas--and then totally remove the Khrystal when the patient was healed."

"The people of First Civ were idiots. To fear Khrystal," she added when he just glanced at her, one corner of his mouth quirking up.

"They feared Khybors, not Khrystal. When the disintegration of civilization started, the Set'ri began wholesale attacks on every known Khybor settlement. My theory is that the researchers put themselves into long-term sleep and buried their life tubes. Like we did, the Set'ri who might have survived the battle in space would have assumed the Khybors fled the planet. Whatever contingency they set up to indicate they were safe again and they could wake up and emerge, it didn't work. Maybe the colony was attacked, and key equipment was damaged. But here's my theory, which I hope all this data she's giving us will prove: If Khrystal allows Leapers to merge with their ships and traverse dimensions, why couldn't a variation let these Khybors ..." He shrugged, feeling odd about speaking his theory even to someone who understood. "Step into vacated bodies and minds?"

"I wouldn't want to do that." Talya shuddered, her throat working with nausea.

Alvar agreed with her. Whoever was venturing out from the hiding places of the Khybor researchers had to be special, to withstand the emotional and mental trauma of the journey. He wouldn't want to wake up in dead bodies, time after time.

He was grateful for the preparation afforded him by the report, when he walked into the holding room at the Peace Forcer station and saw the walking dead woman. It helped that the medics had let her wash and put on clean clothes. He remembered the injury listing, and could guess at the thick bandages under the dark gray Peacer off-duty coveralls she wore. Interestingly, the blood flowed slower than normal in this revived body, and coagulation seemed to be non-existent. She needed those bandages to keep from bleeding dry.

"Fi'in, help us," he whispered as the door closed, leaving him alone with the woman while Talya went to talk to the child. "Are you the Khybor Sentinel who awoke in the medical center fifteen days ago?" he said slowly, carefully, in the most predominant dialect of First Civ language, according to all records from the time of the Downfall Wars.

The woman frowned and sat forward, but didn't respond any other way.

Alvar tried again, in another dialect. Twenty written dialects of First Civ had been unearthed on nearly eighty colony worlds that had been abandoned during the devastation and descent into barbarism of the Downfall.

He tried a third. Then a fourth.

"Caspya." Her hand shook a little as she pressed it against her chest, and an even shakier smile lit her face. "Yes, I am the Sentinel for the Khybor researchers," she said in the fifth dialect he tried. "We call this world Ayvystal."

"We call it Aviston now." Alvar sat down in the seat across the table from her. He felt nearly as giddy as he had the day he discovered he was an Undying, and he could spend centuries, if he wished, in scientific pursuits. "Many colonies were lost when civilization collapsed, shortly after the time of your colony. So much knowledge was lost. Nobody knew that your researchers were buried here, or else the ones who knew didn't survive to pass on the information."

"How do you know my language? How long since the Central Allied Worlds fell?"

"That will take a great deal of time to answer." Especially since he had to listen carefully to understand all her words. The archeological digs had yielded scores of written records, but no audio. He should have expected pronunciations to be different. "Be assured, you are safe. I am Alvar, a scholar in the Order of Kilvordi, a branch of the Church. We serve Fi'in."

"At least that name hasn't changed. How long?" She reached across the table to grasp his hand. Hers was cold, making him flinch. "I'm sorry. You will think I am insane--"

"You have found a way to animate dead bodies to communicate?" He could have laughed at the astonishment that widened her eyes. "When we know each other better, I will teach you things about the Order that will shock even you, Sentinel Caspya, and explain how I can accept your existence so easily. Your efforts at communication have been...disturbing. Unique, but disturbing. But be sure, you have succeeded. We know you are here."

"This body is badly injured. Our energy to keep it animated is limited. We are able to siphon it from the planetary energy field, but it takes a long time to build up the levels we need for this kind of effort. I will not be able to stay very long."

"Then let's get you to my headquarters. Maybe I can augment that energy." He stood, holding her hand. Her steps wobbled as she let him lead her out of the room.

A buzzing blared through the central lobby. Lights dimmed and red lights flashed in the corners.

"What is that?" Caspya asked. "Did I do something wrong?"

"No." He offered her a reassuring smile. "This is a dangerous section of the city, and we're in a security alert. Sensors have doubled in intensity, and a shield has gone down through the building, to prevent weapons, explosives, or dangerous chemicals from being brought into headquarters."

"Ah. Sensible. I was responsible for such things," she said as they approached the main doors.

"I have to warn you. Our historians will want to pump your mind for details of how things were back in the first colony. They might never let you go."

"I am not the one they should talk to. We have historians of our own, archivists. Let them talk to their own--"

Poison-green lights joined the red. Caspya convulsed, yanking her hand free of his. She staggered backwards, barely catching herself on a desk. He reached for her.

"What is it?"

"Something--interfering with the energy feed." She let him help her upright, and leaned against him as they headed for the door.

Alvar felt a buzzing through her flesh as she convulsed again. This time she fell forward, across the red line of light that marked the edge of the security sensor shield. Dark light flared up from her body where the energy field caught her. She arched upwards, then collapsed flat before he could shout to turn off the shield.

He knelt next to Caspya--but it wasn't her anymore, was it? Carefully, Alvar turned her over onto her back. The eyes stared vacantly, still wide-eyed from shock.

"Next time," he promised Caspya, and himself.

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