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Ms. Thomason brings us a tale of diversity among the stars…


Walking the Rim


Selena Thomason


            Kevyn walked the Devoran side of the rim almost by memory. He would occasionally glance into the gaping hole that punctuated the border between Devshi's two territories, but he wasn't obsessed with it like most of the people on the planet. As he approached the border station, he noticed a group of Washi scrambling toward the edge. Kevyn quickened his pace when he recognized the black robes of the Washi's judicial system.

            The border guard made a cursory inspection of Kevyn's bags. "Anything exciting for us today?"

            "No. But it looks like you have some excitement of your own." Kevyn nodded in the direction of four men dragging a reluctant, terrified woman to the rim.

            "Disposing of a murderer, I hear."

            "She doesn't look dangerous."

            "You can never tell. Good day, off-worlder. Safe travels."

            "And to you. Thank you."

            Kevyn saw that the woman was now being held in a crouch on the rim's stone lip.

            She pulled at the men's clothes. "Please, it wasn't me."

            The judge began to recite the litany of punishment.

            Kevyn called out, "Wait a moment." The Washi turned to stare at him. Even the woman cast a suddenly silent face in his direction.

            "Stay out of this, off-worlder," the judge warned, raising a hand as if to stop him with it.

            Kevyn tried to pretend that he didn't really mind if they threw the woman to her death in the black. The Washi didn't like to be interfered with, so a sideways approach was best. "I'm not trying to get in the way," he assured them. "I'm just curious. What did she do that warrants her death?"

            "She killed her husband."

            "I didn't," she protested until one of the guards struck her across her face. She was silent for a moment then whispered to the ground, "I didn't. It wasn't me."

            Kevyn looked at the judge. "There seems to be some doubt about her guilt."

            "There is no doubt."

            "Still, it's such a terrible waste."

            That piqued the judge's interest, as Kevyn knew it would. The Washi hated to waste anything.

            "A waste? How so?"

            Even the woman appeared curious. She gazed up at Kevyn's face as if trying to read meaning in his alien features. Kevyn knew it was futile. He wanted to reassure her. He was even pretty sure he knew the right facial expression for it. But he couldn't afford to tip his hand to the other Washi, so he kept his focus on the judge.

            "A waste, you see," he said, casually, "because I have all this heavy merchandise to carry. I could not hire a beast of burden because they tend to get spooked by the rim and are dangerous for walking it. I wouldn't want all my valuable commodities going over the edge with a panicked, loose-footed animal. That would be a terrible waste. But a person can tread carefully around the rim and not fall in. I thought I might find such a person to carry my belongings."

            Kevyn pointed at the woman. "She looks strong. After all, it took four of you to drag her here. How much do you want for her?"

            Kevyn could see in the judge's face that greed was causing his sense of civic duty to waver. He knew that the Washi was already trying to rationalize letting her go.

            "But she is a criminal." The judge's protest was without conviction.

            "Yes, yes. We know that already." Kevyn waved aside the thought. "But I need someone to carry my things. And I'm willing to pay. Besides, it will be hard work for her. A true punishment, I assure you." He pulled out a pouch and emptied the contents into his hand. "How about this?" A silver lace necklace spilled across his fingers. "Are you married, judge?"

            "Yes," he stammered back, eyes transfixed by the glittering metal.

            "Ah, then this is for you. Or, more accurately, for your wife. It belonged to a sorcerer's mate. Not only is it beautiful, as you can see..." He pulled the chain up into the light and let it hang there for the judge to covet. "But it is enchanted. The silver webbing tames the wearer—just a little, mind you—just enough to bend the wife's will toward her husband's."

            Kevyn dropped the necklace back into his hand and began to put it away. "Ah, but what am I thinking? A powerful man such as you would need no aid in controlling his wife. This trinket is for a weaker man. I meant no offense in offering it to you. I hope you know that."

            "Yes, of course." The judge nodded absently, keeping his eye on the necklace that Kevyn had not yet put away. "Still, it is quite lovely."

            "Yes, quite lovely." Kevyn held the necklace up again for the judge to inspect. He noted that the woman was watching their conversation with a skeptical interest.

            "It won't hurt her?" the judge asked.

            "Of course not. It merely softens the woman's edges a little, makes her easier to control." At that, Kevyn saw the crouched woman smirk. He tried not to smile.

            "Well, perhaps my wife would like it. It's very unique. I don't think I have ever seen the like before."

            "Certainly not. It is truly one of a kind." Kevyn instantly had a vision of all the Devoran women who wore them. It was quite the fashion on the other side of the rim.

            "I'll take it. And you can take the criminal as your beast of burden." He ordered the guards to let her go, then turned back to Kevyn. "You can control her, I suppose?"

            Kevyn pretended to be offended. "Of course."

            A guard brought the woman's lead to Kevyn. Kevyn placed the necklace back in its pouch and handed it to the judge. Then, concealing his distaste, he took the lead from the guard.

            "Well, then," the judge said, "our business here is concluded." He dismissed the guards with a gesture. "Enjoy your purchase, off-worlder, as I'm sure I will enjoy mine." He turned back toward town, away from the dangerous edge.

            Kevyn and the woman were silent as they watched the others leave. Then the woman said quietly, "What are you doing to do with me?"

            "Just what I said." He knelt down to unbuckle her collar. "I need you to help carry my merchandise."

            "It doesn't seem like much, just a couple shoulder bags and a waist pouch."

            "Well, let's just say I'm lazy and would prefer to share the load." The collar split open. There was a red welt on the woman's neck where it had been. She reached up and rubbed it with one hand. He stared for a moment then pulled one of the bags off his shoulder. It was the lighter of the two. "Can you carry this?"

            The woman stood and lifted the bag over her shoulder. "Easily, yes. Do you want to give me the others?"

            "No, I will keep them for now. What is your name?"


            "I'm Kevyn."

            "I know who you are."

            "I guess I am a bit famous."

            "Or infamous," she replied.

            Kevyn nearly laughed. "You're somewhat sassy for a woman who was about to be thrown into the black."

            Fear flickered across Esra's face, but Kevyn quickly reassured her with a Washi smile.

            "It's fine. I happen to like sassy. Come on, let's go. I've got another stop to make further around the rim."

            After a while, Esra asked, "Will that necklace really control his wife?"

            "Not at all. Devoran women wear them to emphasize their—" He started to say cleavage, which was the truth, as the delicate, silver webbing fell from their necks down to a point between their breasts. But instead he chose "—necks. They wear them to emphasize their lovely necks."

            "So, there is no magic in the necklace?"

            "Well, I wouldn't say that. Devoran men find them most enchanting."

            "Why did you save me from the black?"

            "It annoys me that people on both sides of the rim are so anxious to throw their own kind into that crazy hole. Besides, I have a friend who has been looking for an assistant. Maybe you would be interested?"

            "He won't mind having a murderess in his employ?"

            "Are you really a murderess?"


            "Then, no, I don't think he will mind."


            Kevyn was glad to be walking alone again; Esra had slowed him down considerably. It was a relief when Gywr, the medicine man in Bentuk, agreed to take her on as his assistant. Kevyn had quickly transacted his business—two pounds of Alva root for Gwyr in exchange for two jars of powdered Kefa flower—and been on his way. He was anxious to get back to Devor. It wasn't exactly home—no place on this odd world was—but it was where Likal lived and so it was as close to home as he could hope for.

            When Kevyn arrived at the Devoran border, he found an unfamiliar face at the station.        "That's far enough, off-worlder," the guard ordered.

            Kevyn stopped at the checkpoint.

            "Hello, sir, I am Kevyn. I am just passing through, as usual, to make some trade. Perhaps you have heard of me."

            "I know who you are, alien. There is no need for so much talk. Just place your bags on the table and open them for inspection."

            "I've no weapons or forbidden trade, I assure you." Kevyn set his bags down and opened them wide as directed.

            "Of course, but I must see for myself." The guard peered into the sacks one by one. He pointed at the wrapped jars in the larger shoulder bag. "What are those?"

            "Just powdered Kefa flower. A request from doctors in both Bertim and Malin. It's for treating stomach ailments. I'm sure I could spare a little Kefa powder if you have need of it."

            "Are you trying to bribe me, off-worlder?"

            "No, of course not. I'm just trying to be friendly. I don't have anything to hide. I come through here all the time. I'm sure that if you ask your supervisor about me, he will say that it is fine for me to pass."

            "Calm yourself, alien. I am merely searching your bags as a matter of protocol. There is no need to get so touchy."

            "I'm sorry, I don't mean to be any trouble. I just..."

            "That's good enough. You can pack up your things and go. Steady travels to you, off-worlder. Be careful around the rim."

            "Steady travels to you as well."

            Kevyn gathered his belongings and went gratefully on his way. Bertim was his next stop, but it wouldn't be the doctor's hut he visited first.


            Likal was in the garden. From the path, Kevyn could see her bright yellow hair rising out of the flowers. Likal's garden had flowers of every kind found in Devor, but none could soothe her son's stomach.

            Kevyn didn't want to call to her, instead preferring to watch her unnoticed for as long as possible. He was barely two feet away when she looked up and saw him.

            "Kevyn, you startled me! I didn't hear you come up the path."

            "You were absorbed in the garden. The flowers seem to be doing well; the colors bright, the stems tall and strong."

            She beamed with pride and sat back on her heels to admire her handiwork. "They are beautiful, aren't they?"

            Kevyn thought of the other beauty in the picture. "Yes, they are."

            "Did you bring it?"

            "Of course."

            Likal got up and brushed the dirt off her clothes. "Come in. I will make us tea and get you some coin."

            "The coin is unnecessary, Likal, you know that. But I will take the tea. How is Piro, today?"

            "Weak, but at least he has not thrown up his food. I will make him some soup with a pinch of Kefa powder. I think that will bring his strength back."

            "I'm sorry I'm a little late."

            "It's fine. I know you have other customers, other responsibilities."

            Kevyn wanted to protest that she was neither customer nor responsibility. She was the closest thing he had to a friend.

            After Piro had his soup, he felt much better. He was soon quizzing Kevyn about his latest trip around the rim.

            "How many guards were there?"


            "It took four guards to drag a girl to the rim?"

            "She wasn't a child, Piro. She was a full-grown woman, tall and strong, and persistent in her desire to stay out of the black. When a woman sets her mind to something, it is very hard to sway her otherwise." He leaned in closer to Piro and whispered, "Surely you have noticed that to be true of your mother."

            Piro glanced toward the kitchen where his mother was just out of earshot. "No one can make Mother do anything. They wouldn't be able to drag her to the rim."

            Kevyn thought that he wouldn't even let them try. "Certainly not. And this woman was strong like your mother."

            "Was she an off-worlder like you?"

            "No. She was Washi."

            "I've never seen a Washi."

            The boy looked so dejected that Kevyn had a fleeting thought of taking Piro on his next walk around the rim. But then he remembered how dangerous it would be for the boy.

            "Is it true that their skin is brownish orange, like the clay we make pots out of?"


            "They must look very strange."

            "They think Devorans look strange. They joke that the greenish tint to your skin is because Devorans are always sick to their stomachs."

            "Washi are never sick?"

            "Sometimes they are sick, but it's never their digestive system."

            Likal came in with a tray of tea for the adults and warm milk with Kefa for little Piro.

            "If you eat your Kefa, like your mother has told you to, then you won't be sick either."

            "Yes, Mother."

            The boy turned to Kevyn. "Have you remembered where you came from yet?"

            Kevyn laughed. "No, not yet. What makes you think today would be any different?"

            Piro shrugged. "You never know." He fiddled with the cup for moment, sloshing the contents back and forth until his mother placed a hand on his arm and gave him a stern look.

            "When I get better, will you take me to see your ship?"

            "I've told you before that there's not much to see, just a burnt jumble of metal in a ring of scorched land."

            "So, you really crashed, from up there?"

            "Yes, it must be so. But I don't remember it."

            "I want to see the wreckage."

            "It's too far, Piro. It was many days walking before I came into Devor, before I saw anyone else at all. I'm not even sure I could find my way back there. I was injured and delirious."

            It wasn't the answer Piro had hoped for. Likal decided to step in. "Piro, it's time for you to go to bed."

            "But, Mom…"

            "No, Piro. Now."

            Piro and Kevyn exchanged a quick look as if to say, "See, this is exactly what we were talking about."

            Piro kissed his mother lightly on the side of her neck. "Good night, Mother." He turned to Kevyn. "And good night to you too, Mister Kevyn. Will you be here tomorrow?"

            "I will. I don't have to go back into Washi for another day or so."

            Once Piro was in his room, Likal turned to Kevyn. "Thank you for spending so much time with him. I worry about him growing up without his father."

            "You never talk of him. Your husband, I mean."

            Likal was uncomfortable; Kevyn could see it in the fluttering of her hands as she placed the cups back on the tray. "There is no sense fussing over what is no more. Good night."

            "Good night." Kevyn watched her go then stretched out on the couch.

            Shortly after meeting Likal, Kevyn had asked around about her husband. The story varied. Some said there was an argument. Some said her husband had been wooed away by a Devoran enchantress in a neighboring town. The only thing everyone agreed on was that he was gone and not likely to return.

            Kevyn remembered little about the day he had stumbled into Bertim. He was so exhausted that he could barely walk. He remembered the joy of seeing the town, then the ecstasy of seeing people. As he got closer, he was troubled by how strange they looked, a sickly yellow-green. At least, the color had seemed sickly to him at the time.

            There was a young woman carrying a basket. She had long, bright yellow hair and green eyes. She wore a dark green dress. Kevyn said something to her. She didn't understand his words. Kevyn thought he saw concern in her strange face.

            He tried again to talk, to ask for help. But the words caught in his throat and the world began to spin. She came closer, set down the basket and reached out with her strange, yellow-green hands. Kevyn began to crumble. As his shoulder hit the ground at her feet, one hand clutched at the hem of her skirt. Then the world went black.


            The sound of pounding woke Kevyn. It took him a moment to remember where he was. Then he heard Likal's voice coming from the kitchen.

            "I'll get it," she said as she walked to the door.

            He noticed she was already dressed in her day clothes. Delicious aromas were already wafting from the kitchen. Why didn't she wake me? he wondered grumpily as his feet sought the floor.

            A man's voice at the door asked, "Is the off-worlder here?"

            Kevyn thought he must have misunderstood that.

            "Yes, he's right there on the couch."

            The man came in. His skin was flushed with excitement. Kevyn recognized him as Gerin, one of the leaders in town. Kevyn realized that if Gerin had come looking for him so early in the morning then it probably wasn't good news.

            "Kevyn, you'll never believe it. We've found another like you."

            Gerin's words were like a shower of frigid water. Over the man's shoulder, Kevyn could see that Likal had stopped moving toward the kitchen and now stood perfectly still.

            "Another like me?"

            "Yes, another off-worlder."

            "Is he injured? Did he crash?"

            "No, he seems fine. He is asking for you, by name even."

            "He knows my name?"

            "Yes, he calls you Captain Kevyn Lassiter."

            Kevyn was too stunned to reply.

            "You are to come with me to the town hall as soon as possible."

            "Of course." Kevyn tried to smooth his rumpled clothes. He looked quickly at Likal who seemed frightened by the turn of events.

            "I will ask Rovan to watch Piro and meet you there."

            Kevyn laid a hand on her shoulder. "It will be fine, Likal. Don't worry."

            She nodded but the effort was unconvincing. Kevyn could see that she was anxious but trying to hide it. She stowed her fluttering hands in the pockets of her apron as if that would calm them.

            "I'll see you soon," he added as he passed Likal at the doorway.

            Gerin wouldn't say much on the short walk to the hall.

            "He was waiting when I came in this morning. Said he wanted to talk to you but that he didn't want to go wandering through town, that his presence would be disruptive."

            "What does he want?"

            "To talk to you, he said."

            "No, I mean, why is he here?"

            "I don't know. I assumed he would tell you when we got there."

            When they entered the town hall, Kevyn was stunned to see someone who looked a lot like him—all the same number of appendages in all the same places, same beige skin (that Devshi on both sides of the rim considered boring and unhealthy), two eyes, two ears, all such similar and in the same places. What wasn't the same was the rest of the man's appearance. His hair was cropped close to his head and he wore a uniform that Kevyn didn't recognize. The man's crisp, clean appearance made Kevyn very aware of his own rumpled clothes and unkempt hair.

            "Captain Lassiter?" the man said as he approached Kevyn.

            "I'm Kevyn," he responded cautiously.

            The man came closer and surveyed Kevyn's face.

            "Captain Kevyn Lassiter?" he asked again.

            "I am Kevyn. I don't know about the other part."

            Gerin stepped in. "He doesn't remember anything from before the crash."

            Kevyn wished Gerin had stayed out of it and shot him an angry look. Gerin backed away a little.

            "Really?" the stranger asked. "You don't remember anything?"

            "Should I remember you?"

            "No, we have never met before. I am Lieutenant Michael Dobbs." He extended his hand but Kevyn just stared at it.

            "What do you want, Lieutenant?"

            "I am here to rescue you."

            "I don't need to be rescued."

            "But surely you see that you don't belong here."

            Likal came to the door. All three men turned to her.

            Dobbs smiled. "Well, this primitive planet does have its benefits, I suppose."

            Kevyn didn't like the way Dobbs peered at Likal. He moved to stand between them. "I want to know who you are and what you know about me and my past. What makes you think I belong with you anyway?"

            "You mean, despite the fact that we are obviously the same species and that no one else on this backwater world is?"

            "Yes, beside that."

            Dobbs came closer to Kevyn and examined his vest jacket. He fingered one of the lapels and tapped a circular pin he found there.

            "What's this then?"

            Kevyn looked down at the pin. It was worn but still showed a field of stars and a series of letters at the bottom. The letters were unreadable. "It's decorative, a depiction of the stars at night."

            "Ah, but not the stars over Devshi."

            Kevyn wondered at that. He was the only person who called the planet and its inhabitants Devshi.

            Dobbs tapped the lapel of his crisp, long-sleeved, blue jacket. There was a newer version of the same circular pin. It was bright blue with white stars and the letters I.S.E. at the bottom.

            It was then that Kevyn noticed the stripes that began at each of the man's shoulders and ran down the length of his arms. Kevyn's jacket was sleeveless and ragged around the edges but it had the same stripes on the shoulder.

            "You really don't remember, do you?" Dobbs asked.

            Kevyn shook his head. "Where did you come from?"

            "From the rabbit hole. Or as the natives so charmingly call it, the black."

            Only Likal found the strength to speak. "You came from the black?"


            "What happened to the people who were...?" Likal couldn't finish the sentence.

            "You mean, the people who were thrown to their deaths? Well, I am afraid most of them did die. We didn't know what to do when you savages started throwing people at us. But eventually we arranged a web to catch them and bring them safely into our compound. Then we'd just wipe their memories and drop them outside an appropriate town." He turned to Kevyn. "Look, Captain, we have much to discuss and this is not the place. I have already shared too much information with the locals. We must go."

            "Into the black?"

            "Yes, as I said, our compound is there."

            "But the Devshi will be able to see us enter the abyss."

            "We'll enter though the other side. I have already caused enough upheaval in their world for one day, don't you think?"

            This time it was Gerin who spoke. "So, the hole does go all the way through the planet."

            "Yes." Dobbs was getting impatient and annoyed; Kevyn could see it in the tightening of the muscles of his face. He knew the Devorans wouldn't recognize the expression. "Captain Lassiter, we really must go now."

            "Fine." He moved to leave with Lieutenant Dobbs. As he passed Likal, he reached out to reassure her. "I'll be back."

            Dobbs rolled his eyes. Kevyn didn't remember seeing that expression before, but he knew what it meant. Kevyn vowed that he would find a way to return to Likal even if that wasn't part of Dobbs' plan.


            Dobbs' ship was as polished as his person. It was also small, about the size of the one Kevyn had crashed in, just large enough for two people.

            "I thought your ship would be more impressive," Kevyn said in an attempt to rattle the lieutenant.

            It didn't work. Dobbs continued to display the composed confidence of someone convinced of his superiority.

            "This is a planetary skimmer. It's only meant from traveling short distances. You will find our interplanetary ships impressive enough."

            A planetary skimmer, Kevyn thought, that means I was already on this planet, that I wasn't traveling from somewhere else.

            Lt. Dobbs smiled as he started the engines. He was enjoying this, but Kevyn couldn't discern why.

            "How is it that you call the people and planet Devshi? I coined that term. They call themselves either Devoran or Washi. They don't have a name for the two peoples combined."

            "We adopted the term from listening to you."

            "Who exactly is 'we'?"

            Dobbs looked over at him again as they sped toward the uninhabited part of Devshi. "You really don't remember anything, do you? I thought maybe familiar sights would bring back some of your memory."

            The landscape below passed so quickly that it was a smudge. Kevyn could see a round shadow ahead, growing steadily as they approached.

            "Is that it?" he asked.


            Lt. Dobbs turned the ship into the black and they dove into darkness.

            Kevyn felt fear constrict his chest. If it weren't for the lights on the control panel, he wouldn't have been able to see Dobbs sitting right next to him.

            They plunged deeper and deeper into the gloom. This is the Devshi nightmare, Kevyn thought, to fall into the bottomless black. Kevyn's breath began to catch in his throat.

            "Don't worry, old man. We'll be there in just a few more seconds." Dobbs patted him on the shoulder. Then he pointed out of the forward portal. "See, there it is."

            Kevyn didn't see anything at first. Then he noticed a tiny light in the darkness, then a cluster of lights. As they got closer, he could make out buildings, then a flat open space. It was there that the lieutenant landed his small craft.


            The room was clean but spare. A number of people hung around the edges of the room, whispering to each other. Many seemed to recognize Kevyn, but he didn't remember any of them.

            An older man with a row of colored pieces on his uniform and a bit of gray in his hair came into the room, followed by two younger men, also in uniforms. Kevyn noticed immediately that they had what looked like hand weapons strapped to their hips. The graying man strode directly to Kevyn.

            "It's good to have you back, Captain Lassiter. I must say that I never agreed with the anthropologists' decision to leave you out there among the natives. But they thought it would make the study more interesting, more relevant, something. Scientists! You know how they are. Always wanting to see what will happen if."

            "You have stars on your shoulder," Kevyn replied. The comment sounded childish to his ears but it was too late to retract it.

            The man laughed. "Yes, stars indeed. Do you remember what they mean?"

            Kevyn shook his head. "I'm guessing they don't mean you are a star-watcher, someone who predicts the weather, like the Devorans who wears stars on their clothes."

            "No, not quite. They mean that I am in charge. I'm General Malcolm Bank." He extended his hand as Dobbs had done. Kevyn still didn't know what to make of the gesture, but at least he realized now that it accompanied introductions.

            "Please to meet you, General Bank. Perhaps you can tell me why I am here."

            "Of course, have a seat." Bank motioned to a pair of chairs and they sat. "You are here because the Zipan Imperium is headed this way and they are not on a pleasure cruise!"

            "Who are they?"

            "Our enemies. They are also the reason we created this place."

            "This place? You mean, this complex?"

            General Bank didn't answer. Instead he waited for Kevyn to think through the details.

            "No," Kevyn said slowly, "you mean the black. We always knew the hole was artificial. We just could never figure out how someone could drill a hole through a planet and still have the planet remain stable. Drilling through the core should..."

            Bank continued to wait.

            "No, you didn't drill through the center of the" Kevyn paused as an impossible conclusion appeared at the end of his logical train of thought. "You built the planet around the hole, then terraformed it to make it look natural."

            "By Jove, I think he's got it! I knew you had it in you, Lassiter. A few of the boys didn't think you would be able to figure it out, but I knew you had it in you. You always were smart, with or without your memories."

            "But what about the Devshi? If you created the planet, how did they get here?"

            "Transplanted from elsewhere, my boy. How do you like them apples? It was perfect. Their world was dying. An instability in the tectonic plates. Imagine that. How the planet survived long enough to develop sentient life is still a mystery. We captured a couple towns worth of them and transported them here without their knowledge."

            "So, they are one species?"

            "Of course. The yellow ones were taken from the northern continent. The brownish ones from the southern one. It's odd how diverged they were. Even stranger is how they've grown further apart even though they now live in such close proximity. It is a source of much fascination among our scientists, I can tell you."

            "That is all very interesting. But what I don't understand is why. Why create a planet with a hole in the middle? Why people it with a foreign species?"

            "Do you really not see?"

            Kevyn shook his head. The general looked terribly disappointed.

            "This station's purpose is two-fold: to observe and study the Devshi and their development, and your interaction with them—that part was added after your crash. But the station is also designed to be the perfect hiding place for our fleet, or at least the core of it." The general laughed, but Kevyn didn't immediately understand the joke. "Core! Ha, you see, don't you? We plan to hide the core of the fleet in the core of the planet." He chuckled again. Kevyn understood the pun now, but still didn't find it funny. "Anyway, the Zipans are on the way. They will follow us to this system. And won't they be surprised when they don't find us here! Our ships will all be inside the core, and we'll just close up the ends and disappear."

            "You plan to seal off the black and hide in here?"

            "Yes. A brilliant plan, wouldn't you say? I wish I could see the Zipan general's face when he discovers our armada has disappeared. He will probably assume that we have that space-folding technology we've been leaking documents about. Our scientists could never make it work, but the Zipans don't know that. They will think we have folded into another galaxy. They will give up and go away. It's perfect. Such subterfuge and elegant deception. So much more effective than direct combat. Think of all the lives this plan will save. Remarkable, isn't it?"

            "What about the Devshi? What if the Zipans attack them instead? The Devshi can't fight back. They will be annihilated."

            "Not necessarily. And even if they are, our scientists tell me they have learned all they can."

            Kevyn could feel fury building in his gut. "So, it doesn't matter if they are destroyed?"

            "It matters. Just not as much as our survival. You see that, don't you? After all, we brought them here for our own purposes. We saved them. If we hadn't intervened, they would have been destroyed when their planet tore itself apart. So, even if they die when the Zipans arrive, they will still have lived a good bit longer than nature intended."

            "I want them brought in here," Kevyn demanded.


            "Before the Zipans arrive. I want every last Devshi brought in here where it is safe. If you are going to hide out in the middle of their planet, you can at least allow them to do the same."

            "But they are just... They are not higher-level sentients like us."

            "They are not as deceitful as you are, yes, I will grant you that. But they are very much like us, and I demand that you protect them." Kevyn stood while making his declaration and now hovered over the still-seated general.

            Bank ran a hand across his mouth before standing to face Kevyn. "Well, Captain Lassiter," he said through clenched teeth, "this is not exactly the homecoming I had hoped for."

            He turned and headed toward the door. At the threshold, he stopped to talk to Lt. Dobbs. "Take the captain to his quarters and make sure he is comfortable. He is to remain there until I say otherwise. Is that clear?"

            "Yes, sir," Dobbs replied. "I will take care of it personally."


            Kevyn pounded his fists on the door of his so-called quarters.

            "Let me out of here!"

            He kept thinking about Likal and how he had promised to return. She would be worried. Worse, she might think he had abandoned her in favor of his more advanced "friends." Kevyn hoped Likal knew him better than that. But he also knew that Likal had been abandoned once before and was likely to be afraid of it happening again.

            "Open this door! I want to go home."

            The door slid open and Lt. Dobbs stood in the entrance. "Home, is it? Where exactly do you mean when you say you want to go home?" He came into the room and paced in circles around Kevyn. "I'm intrigued. Really. Is it Montana, where you were born? Or Washington, DC, where you were trained and educated? Or the Excelsior where you were stationed for five years before crashing on this backwater world?" He stopped walking, and leaned into Kevyn. "You can't really mean the surface of this decoy world."

            "That is exactly what I mean."

            "Interesting. So, would you say you were Devoran or Washi?"

            "You know that I am neither."

            "Exactly. In fact, you don't belong on this world at all."

            "Let me go. I am of no further use to you."

            "That, at least, is true." Dobbs went back to the door and motioned to a young soldier. "Ensign Brect will return you to the surface."

            "What about the Devshi?"

            "What about them?"

            "I want to bring them into the compound so they will be safe."

            "You overestimate your Devshi friends. They won't come in here. They are superstitious, primitive people who are terrified of the abyss. Even if you could convince them, there isn't room for all of them in here. We could house only about half, and not for long. If that is sufficient, and you can convince them, bring them to the rim. We will be listening and will come for you and the Devshi you've chosen to save."

            "No, all of them."

            "Take it or leave it."

            "Fine. We'll be in touch."

            "I really don't think you will."


            Kevyn saw Likal as he turned the corner of her street. She wasn't kneeling in her garden. Instead she stood over the flowers, ignoring them in favor of watching for him.

            When he appeared, she ran to him. "You're back! Are you all right?"

            "I'm fine. But there's trouble. We need to get everyone together."


            The meeting didn't go the way Kevyn had planned.

            "You can't expect us to willingly dive into the black," Gerin said to sounds of agreement from the other Devorans.

            "It will hide you from the Imperium. It will protect you." Kevyn tried to convince them, but all around were set Devoran faces.

            "I'd rather take my chances here on the surface," one said.

            Another joined in. "You can't know what will happen to you in the black. But it can't be good. The light of Lir doesn't fall there. It's a dark emptiness. How could we possibly survive there?"

            "I told you, there's a city and people, other people like me. They have food and air and artificial light. You will be fine, I promise you."

            The Devorans stopped arguing. Kevyn knew that was a bad sign. He realized that Dobbs was right. Nothing could convince the Devorans to go into the abyss. He watched as one by one they fell silent and walked away.

            He knew it would be the same with the Washi, yet he made the journey anyway. He had to try.

            "This is some Devoran trick!" Elder Van of the Washi declared. His accusation was met with cheers from the other Washi in their town center.

            "No," Kevyn insisted. "It isn't. The danger is real. I am also trying to get the Devorans to take refuge in the human outpost within the abyss."

            "They didn't agree. Did they?" another Washi asked.

            "No, they haven't."

            "Yet you expect us to!"

            "I had hoped the Washi weren't as superstitious and would see that hiding was the prudent course of action. The Zipan Imperium is very advanced and they will come looking for trouble. When they don't find the fleet they are chasing, they may take it out on whoever is around."

            "We have done nothing to these Zipans."

            "It doesn't always matter. If the humans, who are much more advanced than you, are afraid of the Imperium—well, doesn't that suggest you should be afraid of them too?"

            "Still, we will not leap into the abyss for fear of what might happen." Elder Van clearly had the support of those around him. It was a wind under the elder's sails. "We are not afraid of these off-worlders. We are Washi and we will not hide."

            Kevyn made the trip back around the rim to Devor. He wondered what he would say to the Zipans when they arrived. Would they take out their frustration on the Devshi or realize that the Devshi couldn't possibly be a threat and leave them alone? Would they believe the story that the human armada had space-folded out of the galaxy? Kevyn hoped so.

            As Kevyn approached the Devoran border, the ground below him shook. He looked to the rim and was stunned to see doors appearing from the perimeter and sliding toward the center. He watched as the humans closed up their rabbit hole. Water flowed from the rim into the center, covering the doors and the stone trim of the opening. Quickly what had been a circle of emptiness became a lake. Kevyn admired the camouflage.


            By evening, ships appeared in the skies above the rim. Kevyn was glad they didn't begin shooting right away. He took that as a hopeful sign.

            For a whole day nothing happened. Kevyn assumed the Zipans were watching and waiting, deciding what to do.

            The next morning, a small ship landed in the town square of Bertim. Kevyn figured they were looking for him. So, he left Likal's house and headed into town.

            An alien in what appeared to be battle gear met him on the main road.

            "Where are your compatriots?" the alien asked through the faceplate of his helmet.

            "My compatriots are here in town, as you see." Kevyn indicated the Devorans who had begun to gather in the square. "But if you mean the humans who came here in space ships like yours, they are gone."

            "Where did they go?"

            "Their ships were in the sky, just like yours. Then there was a bright light and they all disappeared."

            "I ask you again, where did they go?"

            "I don't know. They said they were leaving the galaxy, using something called a space-fold. I don't know what it means. All I know is that they are gone."

            "Why didn't you go with them? You are clearly human."

            "They didn't want me. And I didn't want them. I crashed here several years ago. I don't remember anything from before. They said I was one of them, but I don't remember that. My place is here, not whatever far-off location they have run to."

            The alien checked a readout on his wrist. Then he removed his helmet.

            Kevyn was stunned to see a human face staring back at him.

            "They said you were aliens. The Zipan Imperium, they called you."

            "That is true." The stranger took a deep breath and seemed satisfied with the air quality. He removed his gloves. "I am Captain Balir Reeve of the Zipan Imperium."

            "But you look human."

            Reeve's facial expressions registered offense. "A very distant offshoot, I assure you. We broke away from the humans centuries ago."

            So, he was insulted, Kevyn thought. The fact that Kevyn could so easily read the Zipan's expressions seemed to confirm their common ancestry.

            "We have been separate cultures for quite some time. And we don't like to be called human. Our ancestors were human, I grant you that, but we are not. Humans are a deceitful, cowardly race who value no life but their own."

            Kevyn thought of the humans hiding in the planet's core, how they had refused to consider the safety of the Devshi, and he had to admit that the Zipan's assessment was a fair one.

            "I agree. I am human, yet I would hate to claim kinship with the humans who passed through here recently."

            Reeve smiled. "I am glad to hear it. What do you call yourself then?"

            "My name is Kevyn, and I am Devshi, which is what the people here are called. Devoran on this side of the—" He almost said rim, but thankfully stopped himself, and said "lake" instead. "And Washi on the other side of the lake. What will you do?"


            "With the Devshi?"

            "These harmless folk? They aren't a threat to us. They are merely in the wrong place at the wrong time. The humans brought this struggle to their door. The Devshi, as you call them, have no part in our clash."

            "Then you won't harm them?"

            "If you think we would attack these innocent, unarmed people then you have been spending too much time with the humans. No, we will be on our way." He began to replace his gloves and helmet. "Unless you need something?"

            "No, we're fine. We just want to stay out of this whole business."

            "Fair enough. Good travels to you, Kevyn, and to your Devshi friends as well."

            "Thank you. Steady travels to you also."

            In mere moments, the small craft was rising back to one of the larger ships. By midday, the Devshi sky was as bare as before.

            Likal stood next to Kevyn. "Now that they are gone, are you going to signal the humans that it's safe for them to come out?"

            "No, I don't think so."

            "But didn't you say they couldn't monitor surface activity with the doors closed and that they would need you to swim to the bottom of the lake and activate the all clear signal once the Zipans were gone from the system?"

            "Yes, that's what I said. But I think perhaps it can wait awhile, just to make sure the Zipan Imperium is really gone." A devilish smile played at Kevyn's lips.

            Likal caught his meaning and her eyes went wide. "How long do you plan to leave them in there?"

            "Just a little while. Just long enough for them to learn their lesson. In the meantime, how would you like to take a walk around our new lake?"

            "That would be marvelous."

            "I think you will enjoy the view. Maybe we will even walk all the way over to the Washi side and give them the good news."

            "Do you think we should?"

            "Yes, I think it is time that the two halves of this world get to know one another."