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The Loveliest Abyss in the Universe

The Loveliest
Abyss in the Universe

 

An Aravinda Novelette

Andrew M. Crusoe

First published 2015

In a spirit of goodwill, this work is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 License, allowing up to one thousand words to be quoted. Cover designed by Andrew Crusoe, including elements originally by Shookooboo.

Version W3–20151117

Released by Aravinda Publishing

DEDICATION

To Robyn, who always seeks out the truth.

A NOTE TO THE READER

Welcome back.

And welcome home. Whether you’ve read everything you can about the Aravinda Galaxy or are entering it now for the first time, I’d like to thank you for embarking on another unforgettable journey across the cosmos with me.

This novelette represents a brand new off-shoot, taking place within the same galaxy as the main Epic of Aravinda series. It does not require you to have read anything else in order to appreciate the adventure herein.

To stay in the loop with my work and get your free Sci-Fi Starter Pack, sign up for the Aravinda Loop mailing list. (Once you join, you’ll be the first to know about upcoming books and exclusive giveaways, so you’ll never miss out.)

I still believe that the best days for Humanity are yet ahead, as long as we continue to purposefully create that brighter future.

I’ve created this part for you.

AMC

CONTENTS

0. Prelude

1. Madam Viragat

2. Our Beloved Family

3. Bound By Oath

4. Greater Allegiance

5. Called Into Question

6. Consequences

7. The Seed of Proof

Afterword

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PRELUDE

&A low hum& oozed through the unlit passages, flowing throughout a dizzying labyrinth of underground tunnels that the world above could never have imagined.

The source of the hum was located far below any level that the Nirangi Order had permitted for mere members. Only the most holy, the most clever, and the most cunning had attained the clearance to reach the lowest levels of the complex. Only these select few knew of the machine’s existence.

The product of decades of unrelenting work, the machine rested at the lowest level of the complex, in a hexagonal room with unlit corners that seemed to creep of their own accord and a ceiling so high that not even the lead scientists had bothered to bring in enough illumination to light it. It was deemed unnecessary.

Instead, the resources had been focused on defense, with holy guards placed liberally along the path to the machine room, which could only be accessed by a hidden door.

The Order of Nirangi had gone to great lengths to keep the machine secret. And as it sat in the center of its hexagonal home, the machine rumbled, stewing with a dark energy and an even darker purpose.

Anyone standing beside it might have remarked at how bizarrely sharp the edge of the machine looked, haloed in a series of thin, metallic rings that grew thicker toward the center, forming a horrendous bowl that stood just over a meter high. Upon closer examination, it was easy to see how nearly every element in its design had been focused toward the center, toward a large hollow space that was filled with a bubbling, oozing darkness that had not been there just a moment before. The darkness grew until it touched a tiny probe on the edge of the bowl.

At long last, the machine had found Maraka.

Everyone on the council had concluded that Maraka’s bones would be perfect to pinpoint the coordinates of the Abyss. Building upon previous experiments that showed how one’s energetic body imprinted on the physical body before death, the machine had taken the concept a step further. Once it had compiled the complete energetic signature of Maraka’s bones, they set it to work on finding Maraka’s soul. After all, who better to locate the Abyss than the most notorious murderer to have ever lived? His soul would surely have had no other fate than the Abyss itself.

The only difficulty was time. While the machine’s mechanism was well understood, its speed was not, and no one could say with certainty how long the machine would take to work. Dozens of theories had been put forth, but they were all thrown out as unsubstantiated. And many of the scientists had resigned themselves to visiting the machine whenever they had the chance, vainly hoping that perhaps, just perhaps, they might be there when the machine at last opened the viewing portal.

Holy guards had been placed outside the room to keep watch, until one scientist, the youngest, got the bright idea to design a probe to set off a silent alarm when the viewing portal finally opened. Many of the other scientists smacked their forehead when they heard this, wondering why they hadn’t thought of that. Many of them grew increasingly wary of the project, and once the machine had been completed, most of them had enjoyed a well-deserved holiday to the nearby archipelago.

All the while, the youngest scientist stayed within Zaamani’s borders. In fact, he scarcely left the basilica complex. Although the machine would surely show them something quite horrendous, he was nonetheless electrified with excitement at the thought of it finally working. Indeed, unbeknownst to everyone else, he’d programmed the probe to message his comm first.

And so the probe, a tiny silver orb connected by a thin wire to a charge-sensitive alarm, waited to trigger. With each passing morning, Sujan’s anticipation grew, because he knew, deep down, that when the probe fired, it wouldn’t merely make him and his team famous, it would make their names immortal.

CHAPTER 1

MADAM VIRAGAT

As a slowly moving wave, the congregation of parishioners flowed into the Zaamani Basilica, wearing their traditional blue and indigo pastels. The basilica, which was the largest such structure in the entire Zaamani nation, had been built long before the modern age of curving synthetic sapphire, so its towering limestone steeples stood out against the rest of the crystalline skyline.

Today’s sermon would be about divine law. At least, that’s what Madam Viragat, Chief Chintak of the Zaamani Basilica, had imagined for this morning. Her olive face was filled with fine wrinkles, yet in spite of that, she somehow retained the warm hue of youth in her features; and as she walked up to the lectern, her plum cloak billowing with each stride, she smiled broadly.

She looked out onto the congregation that was waiting reverently for her words, hungry for meaning, starving for answers. And behind her, six other robed chintaka stood in a line, expressionless.

“Beloved,” she began, her words seeming especially deliberate this morning, “something deep is stirring within our land, a cancer that threatens the longstanding peace and tranquility that we have attained.”

“What is it?” a young, fearless voice called out from the front row, a move that terrified his parents.

Unfazed, Madam Viragat gazed down to the boy and spoke in measured sentences. “My child, the cancer is disbelief. Zaamani is a wide and diverse nation that spans our continent, and fewer and fewer of our flock join us on our days of rest. I fear that this trend will continue, which brings me to this morning’s passage.” She touched the glass panel built into the lectern, and it flickered to life, displaying a passage in large, crisp text. “In prehistory, the tribes that inhabited this continent were at war and believed only in their primitive self-interest. They had no concept of a greater good, and they certainly did not fathom the afterlife. When they died, they passed into death unpurified, and their lack of knowledge did not pardon them for their impurity.”

A smirk flashed across the face of one of the lesser chintaka behind her, and he cleared his throat and spoke up. “Madam Chief, pardon my interruption, but could you kindly elaborate on their fate? For those who are newly initiated, perhaps the reminder would serve useful.”

Madam Viragat glanced back to him, a dark expression filling her face. “Of course,” she said, turning back around. “The consequence for the unpurified is inescapable. There is only one destination after their departure from this world.”

She paused, sweeping her harsh gaze across the wide space that held the congregation.

“The Abyss,” she finally said.

The child from the front row couldn’t stay quiet. “But how can you say that? How could the ancient tribes know if they’d never been told? That isn’t fair!”

His mother rushed to cover his mouth and scolded him under her breath, while the Chief Chintak shook her head.

“Child, a cosmic law does not change because of your ignorance. If I did not know the law of gravity, would you believe I could fly?” Madam Viragat breathed slowly and continued. “This is the fallacy that faces our age. Some believe that ignorance pardons evil, but it surely does not. The Divine passes judgment as swiftly as a tsunami rips across an ocean. There is no escaping this truth. Yet, there is hope. The teachings of the Nirangi are our salvation, teachings of humility, loyalty, and responsibility. That is what brings us to congregate here. Within these teachings, within this book, is the only truth.” She held up one of the thick, brown volumes of Nirangi scripture that was lying in front of her. “And soon, I hope to show you firsthand—”

A high-pitched whistle went off in Viragat’s ear, silencing her. If anyone else had heard it, they would have been thrown off of their train of thought, too. Yet to her audience, it appeared that Madam Viragat had frozen in mid-sentence for no apparent reason, and she set the tome back down.

Why now? Why did it have to be in the middle of a divine message? She had feared this might happen, and so had made a contingency plan.

“Beloved, I am needed for an emergency meeting that cannot be delayed. I am regretful to leave you now. Chintak Tarus will continue in my stead. I trust you will find his words enlightening.”

One of the lesser chintaka, an older man with fine wrinkles, walked up to the lectern, and they bowed to each other slightly before Madam Viragat hurried away and followed a small opening down a narrow hall.

At the end of the hall, she opened a small closet and quickly removed her plum cloak, replacing it with a somber grey one. Now properly prepared, she zipped across the hall, over to another room that had long been unoccupied. Viragat walked to a low, knob-less door in the corner of the room and pressed her fingers onto a pad beside it. The door slid back, and as fast as she could, Viragat shuffled down the narrow staircase, past a series of holy guards, down the stone hall, across several subterranean intersections, and down several flights of stairs until she reached an entirely featureless dead end where several other high-ranking Nirangi members were already waiting for her.

A younger man clad in a black robe spoke first. “Madam Chief, it seems the machine is finally active. We notified you as soon as we knew.”

Madam Viragat studied him coldly. Although well into adulthood, he was the youngest of the elite members, a scientist transferred from Shamindesha, the coastal province. But his youthful appearance belied his intelligence. He had only been here for three years, but in that short time his service had been exemplary.

“Has anyone been inside yet?” Viragat said.

“No, we thought it respectful to wait for you, Madam.”

Madam Viragat nodded, suddenly remembering his name. “That was wise, Chintak Sujan. The Chief Chintak is meant to enter first. Move aside.”

They cleared a path for her, and she pressed her palm to the bare wall of the dead end. Slowly, the wall rumbled aside to reveal an opening, and a low hum echoed all around them as they filed, one by one, into a hexagonal room.

Sujan let Madam Viragat pass as she rushed up to the terrible machine, tapping at its cold controls. Just ahead, a dark mass was swirling within its focusing bowl, like liquid clouds of impenetrable smoke. Sujan got lost in the sight of the churning mass, until Madam Chief barked her orders, shattering his cloudy trance.

“An image is coming through,” she said. “Take your positions!”

All five of them, including Sujan, encircled the machine and placed their right hands on one of the six silver handles protruding from it. At first touch, Sujan felt a charge and then a pulling sensation as the machine made a low gonging sound.

“Direct your energies toward the focusing bowl! The etheric energy is nearly at optimum levels. Very close now, my chintaka!”

Around him Sujan noticed how the others winced, and just ahead the clouds changed, gradually resolving themselves into a bright image.

“Here it comes, beloved! Here it comes!”

Sujan had never heard Madam Chief sound so excited before. Her unrestrained enthusiasm almost frightened him, and as he watched, the bright image resolved itself into the view of a snowy basin with colossal ice formations reaching into the sky like terrible daggers.

“Something must be wrong,” Madam Viragat snapped. “Sujan, is the machine still locked onto Maraka’s signature?”

Sujan glanced at the small auxiliary display beside the silver handle and used his other hand to operate the controls.

“Apologies, Madam Chief. The machine has found two matches. Permission to select the other?”

“Yes, chintak.”

Sujan raced to reprogram the machine as the rest of the chintaka glared at him, still holding their etheric handles.

The focusing bowl flickered and swarmed with dark, brooding clouds once more; and the machine let out another deep gong.

“Get on with it!” another chintak yelled.

“Hold on!” Sujan yelled back. The tension in the room had grown so thick, that he felt as if the air itself might catch fire.

And then, the clouds cleared for a second time, revealing a truly horrific sight. Sujan looked outward and beheld a raging volcano oozing lava over its jagged surface, only to spill into a roiling lava lake at its base. In the distance, dozens of other volcanos raged along with it, spewing chunks of molten boulders high into the dark space above. When he looked closer, what he saw filled him with horror: a figure in the far distance was swimming in the lava lake, and lying on the blackened ground beside it, even more bodies were strewn in various positions.

They had found exactly what they were looking for.

Madam Viragat’s gaze darted over to Sujan, but he could hardly speak at the torturous sight. The image had filled the room with a red light, casting ghostly silhouettes onto the walls.

“We have found it, Chintak Sujan,” she said, in an almost reverent tone. “And we are going to save multitudes with these images.”

“Yes, Madam.”

“Confirm archival subroutine activity.”

Sujan checked the auxiliary display. “Confirmed.”

For a few more moments, they all gazed onward through the window into a hideous realm, speechless at its indescribable grotesquery. Since the machine did not provide a method to collect sound, the space was silent except for the growing whine within the machine, as if it were under considerable strain.

Sujan thought he saw one of the figures walking along the edge of the lake, toward the viewport. But how could that be possible? The machine was designed to permit electromagnetic radiation in one direction only, so there was no way it could see them. Sujan heard the machine begin to whirr as the image wavered, but he simply couldn’t pull his gaze away. Still, the figure headed directly toward their viewpoint, and behind it, Sujan thought he saw other figures gnashing their teeth in unimaginable fury.

At last, Sujan could finally make out its features. It was completely bald and clearly female, with skin that was a deep crimson. The figure looked up and made eye contact with Sujan for a split second, before the image flickered away to darkness.

“What happened? Is the machine all right?” Madam Viragat shouted.

“Could she see us?” one of the chintaka said. “Is that possible?”

“It’s impossible!” Sujan barked, but then checked himself. “She must have seen something behind the viewpoint. It couldn’t have been us. Madam Chief, the machine appears to have had its power cut off. It’s possible—”

“Cut off? How much power was consumed?”

Sujan checked the display below. In under five minutes, they had devoured as much power as the entire province consumed in a typical day. Since the province now contained nearly a half million citizens, Madam Viragat’s eyes went wide when he told her the reading.

“The machine is unresponsive. We must have overloaded the conduits for the entire complex! Hold on.” He released his grip on the silver handle and ran over to a panel by the door. The panel was dimmer than normal, and he brought up a diagram of the entire complex, confirming that the subsystem had automatically cut power to the room to avoid a total system overload.

“I’m sorry, Madam Chief,” he said, glancing back to her. “If we ever want to reactivate the machine, we’ll need new equipment to deliver the power.”

Madam Viragat simply stared into the focusing bowl, now merely an empty space. “Yes,” she said quietly, “I suppose we will.” She turned to Sujan. “What about the images? Were they preserved?”

He tapped on the panel and checked.

“Yes, we have just over a minute of ultra-band EM video.”

“Enough then. Enough to show them the fate of those who do not believe.” Madam Viragat finally released her hold on the silver handle, and walked over to the door. “Reset the machine,” she said, waving her hand toward it. “And place an order for any components you need to provide the necessary power. When it’s ready, message me immediately.”

Now that she had released her hold on the machine, the rest of the chintaka followed suit; and Madam Viragat walked down the hall, leaving them in silence.

“Madam Chief,” one chintak called out, “where are you going?”

The Chief Chintak turned back to face them, for once appearing as old as she really was. “My dear chintaka, we have just seen the Abyss — using our own etheric energy as a catalyst, no less. We would be wise to rest. Oh, and Chintak Kathanik,” she said, shooting her gaze over to one of the other chintaka, “prepare a formal summary of what you’ve seen here, and I will compile an official report.”

“Yes, Madam Chief,” Kathanik said reflexively.

And she turned around again, her long grey cloak swinging around as she did so, and disappeared down the hall. As she receded into the darkness, five chintaka stood around a lifeless machine, slumping over in utter exhaustion.

CHAPTER 2

OUR BELOVED FAMILY

The following day, everyone on the team, including Sujan, received an encrypted message containing the official report of their glimpse into the Abyss.

Each of them was tasked to contribute their observations and provide suggestions. Yet this was not an easy task for Sujan, and he read the material dozens of times before he began his formal notes for Madam Viragat. There were numerous problems with the report, most of which he had anticipated; and he sat at his desk anxiously, contemplating how to phrase his thoughts so that Madam Chief would be receptive to his logic.

First and foremost, the report made assumptions that were not adequately supported by their data. When he had first seen what the machine had shown them, the images he saw were so profound that he never questioned the true nature of what they were seeing, but as he reviewed the ultra-band video they’d recorded, uncertainty gnawed at him. How could he be sure that they really were seeing the Abyss and not somewhere else?

After much reflection and prayer, he had to admit that there was no concrete evidence to prove this was the Abyss. What they witnessed matched the description of the Abyss in Nirangi scripture well enough, but their glimpse had simply been too brief to be conclusive.

Sujan reflected on their original plan. After a long period of research, the Order of Nirangi had recovered the grave of Maraka, the most vile man ever to have lived. According to state records, he was so incredibly evil that he would actually eat the flesh of his victims, who were mostly young women, after murdering them. And when they’d finally found his hideout, they found ropes woven out of hair and razor sharp knives carved from bone.

The Order of Nirangi had concluded that if the machine could manage to hone in on someone as evil as Maraka, they should be able to track his energy body, what some would call his soul, back to its final fate: eternity in the Abyss. Sujan raised concerns about this assumption during their formal meetings, but they went unanswered. Madam Viragat’s staunch determination tended to drown out the concerns of the other chintaka, so perhaps he shouldn’t have been surprised.

In the end, Sujan decided to ask Madam Chief for more time before they published the final report. Getting the necessary equipment to upgrade the machine would only take a few days, and then they could do another session to confirm whether or not they truly had found the Abyss. After all, being thorough was a value he and Madam Chief shared, and he dispatched his message to her office with a cautious confidence that she would see reason.

Just a few minutes later, his display flashed up a response.

≛ Madam Viragat, Anuttam Chintak {ac.zaamani.bas}

∸ Chintak Sujan {chintak33.zaamani.bas}

4943:0710:038810

Your request for postponement for release of the official report is denied. Any doubt that may have existed is insignificant to the proof that we now have. However, the notes you have provided concerning phrasing and flow will be considered.

Many blessings for your continued service to our Beloved Family.

+Mme. Viragat, AC, ZB.

Sujan’s gaze darkened as he read the message. He had been afraid of this. Ever since he’d moved to the capital province of Nividesha, he noticed a disturbing correlation between power and pride within the basilica. He’d noticed it back at Shamin province, too, but it was even more pronounced here.

“This is wrong,” he whispered. “What if we’re mistaken? It’ll be the greatest sin the order has stumbled into since…”

He tried to put unspeakable thoughts out of his head as his mind raced for a solution to the conflict within him. Would he submit to Madam Viragat’s will or hold firmly to his desire for truth?

He pulled up the ultra-band video of their viewing once more, and this time he closely studied how the volcano spewed chunks of molten rock high into the air. He couldn’t see any sky in the background, only blackness. That matched what the sacred texts said about the Abyss; one unchanging description of the Abyss was that it existed deep within the planet, and therefore had no sky, only a dark unforgiving roof of jagged rock.

The molten lake seemed to ooze with hate, and he marveled at how fluidly the lava lake moved. He ran a spectral analysis on the ultra-band video, which contained frequencies ranging from infrared to gamma. Just as he suspected, elements 8 and 14 were in abundance. No problem there.

On a whim, he watched the video from the beginning at one-tenth speed. He watched as one volcano spewed a molten rock into the air, and for the first time Sujan noticed a white, jagged spike reach down to the landscape in the far distance.

Sujan furrowed his eyebrows and played back the video again, this time going one-fortieth speed of the original video. Scanning the individual frames, he watched as the rock ticked across his view, and far behind it a bolt of lightning etched down in a jagged path toward the ground. Soon, another bolt raced up from the ground to meet it, and a few frames later they met in the middle space, creating a bright, jagged bolt that flashed across the landscape, briefly illuminating something high above.

He repeated the procedure again, this time playing the video one-hundred times slower than realtime, and watched as the distant lightning made contact. At the instant of its greatest brightness, he saw something that should simply not have been there: a row of distant clouds.

Sujan yelped in surprise. “Clouds? But the Abyss has no clouds!”

He watched the entire video again, and all of the facts hit him like a series of falling bricks: the lightning, the lava lake, the creatures beside it, and the crimson woman that had walked toward their view.

“This is no Abyss!” Sujan smacked the desk with his palm. “It’s a world.”

Sujan transferred the images to his reading pad, put his computer to sleep, and darted out of the room. The conclusion was inescapable. He could only hope that Madam Viragat would agree.

CHAPTER 3

BOUND BY OATH

With evidence in hand, Sujan knocked on the Chief Chintak’s office door.

“Yes, beloved?” Madam Viragat said as he opened the door. She was sitting behind her formidable glass desk, wearing her plum cloak again.

“Madam Chief,” he said, “I’ve made a discovery that you must see at once. May I sit with you and show you what I’ve found?”

“Of course.” She gestured toward a large chair in front of her desk.

With growing conviction, Sujan explained to her all that he had discovered in his analysis, and Madam Chief regarded him quietly as he showed her the lightning and the instant when it revealed the clouds beyond. He did everything he could to provide her with a new, more objective, lens to see their experience though and convince her that they were in fact seeing a new kind of life and not the spiritual Abyss described in the Nirangi volumes. Patiently, he explained how further viewings were needed to confirm what they were seeing.

She shook her head slowly, with the hint of a grin on her month. “Chintak, I appreciate your effort in this analysis, but I’m afraid it is of no consequence. It is the Abyss. I feel it in my heart, chintak, and you cannot take that away from me.”

Chintak Sujan looked up from the reading pad and studied her face, appearing somehow youthful and ageless at the same time. She was completely serene, and he did everything he could to hold back the growing sense of frustration within him. After all, respecting the Madam Chief was paramount in his service as a chintak.

“Madam Chief, the evidence that this could be a new world is compelling. What if we are lying to the people when we say this is the Abyss? Are you willing to take that risk?”

“That is irrelevant, young chintak.” Her smirk finally made its way out. “You are still relatively new to our ways within the basilica. I understand that. But soon you will realize the truth.”

“What truth?”

“That your data is irrelevant. What we can use these findings for is what matters. Don’t you see, lowly chintak? Our congregation dwindles year after year. This recording will turn the tide back to our favor. Once the masses see the fate of the unbelievers, they will return to the teachings, the only place true peace is found. Just imagine, we may fill the sanctuary once more! We must do this, chintak. For the common good. Even if it is a lie! We must do what is best for the people!”

Sadness passed like a shadow over Sujan’s face. He had been afraid of this, afraid that she would attack the very core of why he had accepted this position in the first place. Sujan felt strongly that no lie, no matter its motivation, could ever prove virtuous. At last, it had come to this. He had reached an impasse with the Chief Chintak, a circumstance for which no training or forethought could prepare him.

“Then you would say the teachings condone lying?” he finally said.

“In the right circumstances, sometimes it is necessary for the greater good. Don’t you understand how many souls will be saved by seeing what will happen to them if they reject the teachings?”

Sujan gritted his teeth. “I understand you are bound by your oath to spread the teachings and grow the congregation as large as possible. But I hope that you understand that I am bound by an oath as well.”

“And what is that?”

“The Truth.” Sujan stood up with a new fire in his eyes. “If you proclaim to the nation that what we have seen is the Abyss, then I will be forced to write a formal rebuttal to your statement, including the images I’ve just shown you, of course.”

Madam Viragat stood up and narrowed her eyes at him. “Are you prepared to accept the consequences of that action?”

“Yes. I will defend the truth, even if you conceal it.”

Madam Chief’s expression hardened, leaving no trace of its former serenity. “Should such a statement include any confidential data about the project, you would, by necessity, be excommunicated from our order and your license to practice the sacred sciences revoked. Permanently.”

“I understand.” Sujan nodded. “Then I would hope that Madam Chief does not make any statements which would force me to refute them.”

Madam Viragat’s eyes went wide in surprise, but before she could reply, Sujan turned around and walked out.

CHAPTER 4

GREATER ALLEGIANCE

As Irah prepared a hearty soup that evening, she could tell that Sujan was stewing about something. When he arrived home, he wasn’t even pleased that she’d got all of the ingredients necessary for his favorite dessert, aptly named lava pie because it oozed red when cut. In fact, the thought of eating it seemed to revolt him.

“Sujan, something is bothering you,” she said as they sat down to eat. “Don’t try and convince me otherwise. We’ve been together too long for you to try and keep something from me now.” She reached out to touch his hand across the table. “Whatever it is, I want to help.”

Sujan looked up from his soup and frowned. “Irah, I may have to leave the basilica.”

Irah felt as though a chill breeze had swept through the room.

“What?”

“I have to leave, Irah. I’m sorry. I know that your service there is important to you, but Madam Chief… She isn’t the woman I thought she was. She’s insistent upon lying to the congregation.”

“What do you mean? What did she say?”

“It isn’t what she said; it’s what she’s about to say.” Sujan sighed. “My dear, I need to tell you something, but you must promise you’ll keep it a secret.”

“Of course,” she nodded.

Sujan told her an abbreviated version of what had happened. The machine had shown them something otherworldly, but not the Abyss. And now that they had video of such a place, Madam Viragat didn’t seem to care about confirming her conclusion, only to use the findings for her own ends.

“So,” Irah said, “that must be why they broadcast that special earlier.”

“What?” Sujan shouted with a volume that surprised even himself.

“Earlier today, around the time you were on your way home. Don’t worry; I archived it. There was even a 3D stream available. Seems Madam Viragat wanted to reach as many people as possible.”

Sujan’s face fell, and he whipped out his reading pad and brought up the archived Zaamani Basilica live stream. Blue and indigo pastel shapes drifted across the screen, and he scrubbed ahead, until Madam Viragat approached the lectern.

“Today, we are humbled to announce a discovery of monumental proportions. Although we have known of the Abyss since the beginnings of the Nirangi Order—”

He scrubbed ahead more.

“—present you a revelation which has cemented our faith in the literal interpretation of the Nirangi volumes, and the fate of those who deny the teachings.”

The screen filled with the scene Sujan had studied so closely, but the video had been carefully edited to show only the most frightening moments. The shots of the lava lake were repeated more than once, and haunting organ music was played over the otherwise silent video to complete the effect, a nightmarish and horrendous vision.

The video cut back to Madam Viragat. “We hope that these images, collected by following the energetic body of Maraka himself, will provide you with food for thought in these waning days. And should you want to know more, the complete study containing our findings is available on the Zaamani Basilica network. It is our hope that—”

Sujan switched it off.

“What?” Irah gasped. “You’re just going to turn it off? What if—”

“I’ve heard everything I need to hear. Their scare campaign is in full swing, and I suspect the sanctuary will be quite full for the next service. Irah, these images are not the Abyss. But if I publish a rebuttal, I’ll be severed from the order. I could never go back. I’ll be saying goodbye to everyone close to me.”

With a warm gaze, she massaged his palm. “Not everyone.”

He looked up and smiled wanly. “I’m glad you’re with me on this, Irah.”

“Of course,” she said. “You know I value my time with the congregation, but if the Chief Chintak is lying, then we have to do something about it. It goes against everything the Nirangi teachings stand for.”

“I just don’t know what to do. I told her I’d publish something, that I’d have to do something if she did this. But now I don’t know if I can bring myself to do it, Irah. I’ve never gone up against someone this powerful before.” He shook his head. “She’ll have me excommunicated for life. We’ll never be able to go back. Well, I won’t at least.” Sujan looked back into Irah’s soft blue eyes.

“Sujan,” she said, “you only need to ask yourself one simple question.”

“What?”

“Who do you have a greater allegiance to? The order… or the truth?”

Sujan’s eyes drifted down to the remaining drops of green soup left in his bowl, as if they might provide some new insight, but they did not.

He looked up, a new fire in his eyes. “You’re right, Irah. That’s the real question. Who do I have allegiance to? And I have to answer it. I have to answer it with action, and I have to answer it now. I’ll be back.”

Sujan ran upstairs, disappearing from view.

“Follow your heart, my love!” she called back.

He only heard the last two words, but he smiled nonetheless.

CHAPTER 5

CALLED INTO QUESTION

Sujan blazed into his small home office, still littered with old schematics for the machine he had helped build, and brushed everything off the desk and onto the floor. The paper copies of the designs were a silly formality that the basilica required, and they made a satisfying swooshing sound as they collapsed in on themselves.

Sujan set his reading pad on the stand behind the keyboard and wrote as if his very existence depended on it. For once in his life, he possessed knowledge that could benefit everyone in Zaamani, from Nividesha all the way to his birthplace back at Shamin. A rare opportunity now presented itself to him, and he would seize it, no matter the personal risk.

Writing as if he were constructing a cathedral in the midst of a hurricane, Sujan synthesized all of the available data to compose an airtight rebuttal to the mendacious Madam Chief. The words flowed from him easily.

After including the complete video that no one outside of the order had even seen, he added a special slow-motion version of it to highlight the lightning storm, clearly showing that what they had seen was probably another world altogether and most certainly not the Abyss.

Just before he sent it, he called Irah in, who looked it over carefully. His argument was sound, but some wording was changed to improve the clarity and flow. And then, with bated breath, he published his findings to the open network.

And waited.

At first, no one responded. A few old friends from Shamindesha read it, but for the rest of the night the article only received light traffic. And as Sujan nuzzled up to Irah that evening, he wondered if it made any difference at all. Who would listen to a mere chintak over the words of Madam Viragat?

The next morning, Sujan almost fell off of his chair when he saw the traffic data.

Everyone had read it.

Not merely 90% or 95% of the population. His report had received so much attention that nearly 99% of everyone in the Zaamani peninsula had read, or archived for later, his findings. The slow motion video he made had already reached well over one million viewings.

It was a strange feeling. He was now the most famous person in the entire Nirangi Order, receiving even more traffic and feedback than Madam Viragat herself. He thought that getting the message out would relieve him, but in truth it had the opposite effect. Somehow, all of the attention was exciting and terrifying at the same time. Now that he had provided the entire video to the public, his article had sparked a chain reaction of analyses and commentary; and by noon, it had gone global. Even people on the other side of Avani were beginning to take notice of the strange machine the Order of Nirangi had built and what they had seen with it.

Unsurprisingly, many attacked him, calling him the most evil man since Maraka himself. Still others glorified him, calling him brave and selfless for publishing his honest analysis, even when it contradicted Madam Viragat and put him in considerable danger.

Thousands upon thousands of messages flooded in from around the planet. Even the validity of the Abyss itself was called into question, and Sujan felt more and more overwhelmed by the sheer immensity of it all. He had never intended that his article would shake the very foundation of the Nirangi faith, but that’s exactly what was happening.

Outside, he heard cheering.

No. It was roaring.

Irah ran into the room, two bowls full of kaala in her hands.

“Sujan, something’s happening. I was making breakfast, and I heard your name over the broadcast.” Irah choked back tears. “They say you’ve disturbed the peace, that the order has a warrant out on you. But I— ”

Sujan ran over to the window and saw a crowd of screaming people just below, faces twisted in unrestrained anger. The crowd was getting bigger. “Irah, we’ve got to get out of here.”

She walked over, brushing away her tears. “They’re rioting in the streets. Look! The flags.”

Sujan looked closer and noticed a different group of people marching farther out down the narrow streets, and holding flags in the traditional blue and indigo pastel colors of the basilica.

“Devotees of the basilica.” He turned to her. “They’re holy guards. But this is crazy. I’m not attacking them! I’m just trying to—”

Irah gazed at him sympathetically. “You said their leader was a liar. I’m sorry, Sujan, but it makes sense.”

Below, they heard a pounding on the front door, and the noise of the crowd reached a strange, maddening pitch that he’d never heard anywhere before, not even in his wildest nightmares.

“What do we do?” Irah said, studying his face. “They’re going to bash the door in. There are so many, Sujan. There must be nearly a hundred.”

“The basement. It’s our only chance.”

Sujan took her hand, and they both bolted down the stairs to a small door. He opened it, and quietly closed it behind him, wishing it could lock. He flicked on the light, and they made their way down an old spiral staircase made of blackened metal. At the bottom, there were only stone walls lit with dim emergency lighting and a single shaft of light that shot down from a crack in the door.

“There!” Sujan said, pointing to a tall cabinet in the corner. Just above, they heard the pounding grow more intense.

“Isn’t there some secret exit or something? I thought the basilica complex had hundreds of tunnels. Don’t you have a secret tunnel leading there?”

“Sorry, Irah, but there is no such tunnel from here. Not everyone gets their own tunnel. Budget cuts, I guess.”

Irah stared at him blankly.

“Never mind,” Sujan said. “Bad time for a joke.”

Above they heard the front door finally break open, followed by dozens of footsteps as people poured in.

“Isn’t there a better place?” she said, her heart filling with fear.

“Shh! They might be able to hear us. Anyway, look around! There aren’t that many options.”

Sujan was right. Dusty wooden cabinets lined the walls. This was once a workshop, but had been converted into a storage area with piles of boxes placed haphazardly around the room. The single shaft of light from the door zig-zagged across their angular forms in a strange dance.

The basement door flew open, smacking the wall.

“We know you’re down there!” one guard called out.

They scurried into the cabinet as quietly as they could, and the basement rapidly filled with holy guards, wearing expensive-sounding boots.

Sujan held Irah tightly. “It’s going to be okay. Just hold me close, my darling.”

Irah’s soft blue eyes peered back at him, filled with sadness.

The cabinet door shattered open, and an especially tall guard grabbed Sujan and held him in a chokehold.

“Leave him alone!” Irah screamed.

Another guard covered her mouth with his glove and held her arms back tightly as more holy guards flooded into the room.

“Don’t hurt her!” Sujan screamed out, tears running down his face. “She didn’t do this. It’s my doing! You want me!”

One of the guards smiled. “What’s wrong, Sujan? Reality hitting you hard?”

A flash of pain erupted on the back of his head. He felt as though he were sinking into quicksand, and everything around him faded away.

CHAPTER 6

CONSEQUENCES

A loud bell shocked Sujan awake, and his eyes flashed open as the ringing sound pummeled into his head. He was surprised to see most of the congregation spread out before him, studying him as he was strapped to a chair on the platform in front of the sanctuary.

This perspective was not new to him; he had stood here dozens of times before to assist Madam Viragat during her sermons. But today he was the center of attention, and the congregation regarded him with great suspicion. He tried to move his hands, but they were bound tightly to the chair’s armrests. And behind him, holy guards on both sides pressed down on his shoulders.

“Let the official record state that the formal hearing for Chintak Sujan has begun.” The voice was sharply familiar.

Sujan turned and saw Madam Viragat perched behind the lectern, still wearing the plum cloak that signified her power and authority.

“In accordance with Zaamani Legal Code, this hearing is public. To those of you who are not members of this basilica, we ask that you observe the posted signs and refrain from consumption of any kind within these walls. Thank you.”

Sujan glanced around. Most of the chintaka were here, lined up in a row some distance behind Madam Viragat. But Sujan felt that someone was missing; he couldn’t recall who.

“Chintak Sujan,” Madam Chief said, turning to him, “you have been accused by the Nirangi elders of publicly attacking the Holy Order of Nirangi and publishing confidential documents belonging solely to the order. Do you deny this?”

His mind raced. Technically, it was true. The law dictated that he didn’t own any of the data they had collected. Based on the agreement he signed when he transferred to the basilica, those rights were firmly in the hands of the Nirangi Order, and no one had given him permission to publish the entire video.

“I,” he hesitated. “My actions were for the greater good, but I do not deny what I have done. I believe my findings speak—”

Madam Chief cut him off. “Beloved congregation, this man has admitted his guilt. What other information could possibly change what he has done?”

A voice called out. “Let him speak!”

All eyes darted to the front row, where a familiar child was sitting. It was the same child that had spoken before.

“Child!” she snapped. “Why do you raise your voice against reason? You continually interrupt those with authority over you, and your parents would be wise to correct this.”

The child’s mother covered his mouth and punished the child as discreetly as she could in such a large crowd. “Forgive us, Madam Chief! He’s been acting strange lately.”

“If you cannot teach your son to be respectful, then why do you keep bringing him to the front row where his simpleton inquiries waste everyone’s time?”

An older man with fine wrinkles stood up behind the family, and Sujan instantly recognized him as Chintak Tarus. Yet he wasn’t wearing his chintak robe. “Madam Chief,” Tarus began, “does this mean that Chintak Sujan will not be allowed to plead his case? Isn’t that required under Zaamani law? I’ve read his report, as I think most of us here have, and I believe he should be allowed to speak. I’d like to hear his side of the story, and I don’t believe I’m alone.”

Tarus looked around, and there were mumblings of agreement around the room.

Madam Chief’s eyes flashed with surprise, and she took a deep breath. “Beloved, I am quite aware of this fact. However, he has already pled guilty. And under his agreement with the order, any breach of that contract is met with severe punishment. His childish critique of our report has twisted the minds of everyone who has seen it. No doubt those of you here have read it and recognized its lies. And I’m afraid that the only recourse left to us is total excommunication. In fact, the laws of the Nirangi Order demand it.”

Madam Viragat made a subtle gesture, and one of the guards grabbed Sujan’s arm, still tied to the armrest, and rolled up the thin sleeve of his chintak robe, its black dye now faded. With the exception of a small scar in the middle of his forearm, his olive skin was smooth.

“Clean the area,” Madam Chief said calmly.

“No!” Sujan screamed and struggled to break free of his bindings. “Please! I’m not a criminal!”

Another guard walked up and pulled out a curved blade, while the first took out a vial of clear solution and rubbed it onto his skin.

“Please, don’t remove it!” Sujan’s voice turned desperate, breathless. “I’ll leave! I’ll leave Nividesha and never return!”

He struggled to move his arms as they sterilized the area, but the bindings were too tight.

“Please! I was just trying to show the truth!” Sujan cried.

“I told you the consequences, Sujan,” Viragat snapped back. “You were told what would happen. Admit it, you knew there was no going back!”

Deep inside his mind, Sujan felt something snap in half, as if a great tree of knowledge had been struck by lightning.

Then he screamed again, but this scream was quite different.

“She’s a liar!” He screamed at the top of his lungs. “She’s trying to deceive you all! That video was not an image of the Abyss! She is deliberately warping the truth to manipulate you!”

Most in the congregation gasped to see this sudden change in him, and they grew quieter to listen.

“Madam Chief would lie to you all to get what she wants! She told me herself. She told me she would lie for what she says is the common good. And that’s what she’s doing here. Is that the kind of person you want leading your basilica? Look inside yourself. The Divinity inside each of us knows that to lie is to walk the dark path!”

Chintak Tarus, who was still sitting in the second row, stood up. “Madam Chief, is that true? Did you say those words?”

Madam Viragat glared down to the old man, and then turned back to the guards. “Remove the mark.”

“Wait!” Tarus said, holding his hand up. “If what Sujan said is true, you are guilty of a far darker crime than he is.”

“Silence, lower chintak!” She rattled back. “And why aren’t you up here at your post? If you speak another word, I shall have you joining Sujan in his punishment.” Her words were even and firm.

“I will not! I will not stand by while this man is denied a fair trial.”

The woman beside him stood up. “Neither will I.”

“Or I,” said another.

In moments, dozens of people had stood up for him, and when Madam Viragat raised her hand to cancel her order to the guard, Sujan was stunned.

“What you are doing here is wrong.” Tarus said. “I have seen Sujan’s report, and he raises some crucial questions! For instance, how do you explain the clouds illuminated by the lightning in the images you recorded? How do you explain the existence of weather in the Abyss?”

“Yes! That’s an excellent question,” the mother in the front row said. “Please, Madam Chief. Tell us why that is.”

Another man beside her echoed this. And for the first time in years, the entire sanctuary was bubbling with chatter.

“Beloved, our scriptures do not contradict—” she hesitated, but her voice was drowned out by the congregation.

Sujan shot a glance over to Madam Viragat and interrupted her. “What’s wrong? Not prepared to accept the consequences of your actions? You lied to these people! You manipulated them. You may have thought you were doing it for a good reason, but there’s something you just don’t realize, Viragat.”

The Chief Chintak’s mood turned from hesitance to white hot anger as she glared at him. “And what is that, Sujan?”

“There’s never a righteous reason to lie.”

In a flash, she screamed to the guards. “Cut him open, you fools!”

The closest holy guard, who had been waiting silently the entire time, finally took Sujan’s arm and lowered the curved blade to his skin, just above where the scar was.

He pressed the sharp tip in, and Sujan’s deep crimson blood oozed out.

“HELP!” he screamed, and Chintak Tarus ran toward him.

At that moment, something completely inexplicable happened to the space beside him. In the air to his right, space itself seemed to spread apart in a deafening roar, as if it were being wrapped around a shape far beyond any dimensions he could understand, and the guards gasped, backing away in terror.

As the distortion widened, the roar grew until it revealed a fissure in space, like a dark gash cut into the fabric of spacetime itself. Vast amounts of air sucked into it, blowing Sujan’s sandy brown hair into a tousled mess.

“What is that!?” Viragat demanded, but no one could offer an answer.

The gusts grew stronger, reaching such a tremendous speed that Sujan was pulled toward the opening. The chair dragged across the floor as he grew nearer, and Tarus’ eyes widened as he studied the hole in space, his advance now frozen in shock.

“Someone untie me!” Sujan yelled.

All around, a cacophony of voices enveloped him. But before anyone could reach him, he was engulfed entirely, swallowed up by the jagged fissure in space.

“Help!” he screamed back, but all at once his vision was filled with a pure radiance, beyond form or description.

[*
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**]

CHAPTER 7

THE SEED OF PROOF

Sujan’s first instinct was to hold his breath. Yet a mere fraction of a second later, the radiance flickered away, replaced by a sickening feeling in the pit of his stomach.

He realized two important facts simultaneously. The chair that he’d been tied to was strangely gone. Yet he also realized that he was now a few meters above the ground and falling fast.

Sujan did his best to roll with the fall and tumbled across a patch of dusty, red sand. When at last he came to rest, he closed his eyes and breathed slowly. He had just been within seconds of being cut open in front of the entire congregation, and then this.

He thought of the radiance he’d seen just after he’d been sucked into the fissure, what must have been a tear in spacetime itself. He’d read about such phenomena, but never imagined it could be so localized, so small. And after he’d been sucked in, he’d been amidst the purest light he’d ever seen. Had there been gravity? No, he didn’t recall any forces whatsoever. He had felt held. Held and loved in that brief instant. Where had he been?

No matter. He had to deal with the present. Wherever he was, he probably wasn’t in Zaamani anymore. He probably wasn’t even on Avani anymore. He inhaled cautiously, but the air smelled normal.

Slowly, he flexed his fingers one by one, praying that nothing was broken. So far, so good. He wiggled his toes. Not bad. Everything was there.

Then, gradually, he opened his eyes.

Hanging high above him was a rusty orange sky with streaks of grey clouds. He pushed himself up and was flooded with hundreds of details at once.

Sujan was sitting on the edge of a hill, overlooking an abysmal landscape, littered with blackened ridges, lava pools, strange black stalks reaching into the sky, and other objects that were so bizarre he couldn’t begin to describe them. Just a few hundred meters away, a roiling river of lava oozed by. His eyes followed the river up as it snaked around blackened stumps, finding its source at a wide crack in the side of a volcano that flowed like an open wound.

As he studied the horizon, he realized that there were at least five other volcanos in view, one of which was spewing ash high into the air in the distance.

He considered what it might mean if he was indeed where he suspected: the world he’d spied on just the day before.

The beauty of the scene began to dawn on him, for the ash plume was backlit by a bright disc. And in much the same way as a cloud would be, the plume of ash was painted in the stunning orange and blood red hues of the sunset.

The longer he stared at it, the wider the plume spread across the sky, and the more beautiful it became. It seemed to contain colors he had never seen before, and he was so enchanted by it, that he didn’t notice the figure approaching him from his right.

As he watched the plume grow and change, a deep anxiety grew within him, and he jumped straight up into the air when he realized that a naked, crimson figure was fast approaching.

Although his heart was pounding, he tried to slow his breathing and remain calm. As his training had clearly shown him, panicking was never helpful.

“Hello,” he said in the most reasonable tone he could muster. “Are you the one who brought me here?”

The figure didn’t react, or slow down.

The crimson woman was utterly naked and bald. Could this be the same woman he had seen with the machine? He began to notice details that he couldn’t before. Fine diagonal stripes of darker red lined most of her body, and she was nearly two meters tall, holding a long, sable scepter in her right hand.

“Why did you take me?” he continued. “You took me right when they were about to do something terrible. Why?”

Still, she said nothing, her round face and piercing black eyes seeming to peer directly into his soul. His eyes drifted over to the scepter, which held a small gemstone. At first, he might have guessed it was a ruby, but the way that light slid off of it at certain angles suggested otherwise.

And then the woman stopped, now standing just three meters away.

“Who are you?” Sujan said. “You’re the woman I saw, aren’t you?”

She closed her eyes slightly and nodded.

“And this is your world, isn’t it? This isn’t the Abyss. At least, I really hope it isn’t.”

“We are the last of a primal race.” She spoke in a low, yet elegant tone, and Sujan gasped in surprise. “When your windows appeared in our world, we saw your people for the first time. We felt your hearts across the cosmos.”

“But how did you see us? The machine is only supposed to be one-way. And why am I here?”

The woman smiled, and for the first time Sujan noticed her radiant, ivory teeth. “There is no such thing as a one-way window in spacetime. It is because of your inquiring and honest nature that we have chosen you. And your wisdom. Were you not the first to question what you were seeing?”

“Yes, but how would you know that?”

“You are here because we felt your heart across the vastness. We see now that you have shared your conclusions with your world, creating quite a stir.”

“Yes, and it nearly got me killed. And Irah. IRAH! I’ve got to get back there.”

The crimson woman raised her hand. “I see that Irah is brave and resourceful, and I sense that she is unharmed. You have the support of your people, Sujan. You must trust them to uphold justice until we return you.”

“Who is we, anyway? What is your name?”

The woman bowed. “I am Shona, emissary to foreign worlds, such as yours.”

Sujan furrowed his eyebrows. “But wait, how do you know I published my report? I wasn’t using the machine when I did that.”

“Your memories,” she nodded. “They are as clear to me as the sky and the trees.”

Sujan blinked. “Really. And you chose me. Why?”

“The toxic combination of power and pride cannot be allowed to continue on your world, lest it destroy itself with blind dogma, unbalanced by compassion and truth. Your machine is only the beginning. We have seen that once a civilization can view us, it is only a short time before they set foot onto our world, as well. This cannot be allowed to happen. Your world is still only a hatchling, and unaware of the Grander Scheme of the Galaxy. However, your discovery of our world has forced our hand, and we have chosen you to be our emissary.”

Sujan’s mouth hung open for a moment, and then he laughed mockingly. “Emissary? What is that supposed to mean? How can you possibly expect that of me? Look, I agree with you. The power structures on my world aren’t perfect. They could even hurt us, but how are you supposed to help us with that? If you’re honest about sending me back, then what do you expect them to think when I return? Madam Viragat is going to think I was taken by dark forces. How do you expect me to convince her otherwise? You’re just feeding her delusions.”

Shona shook her head slowly. “Sujan, why don’t you trust us? Remember, your people were the ones who trespassed. When you saw our world, tiny fissures hung in the air above our rocks and flows, causing my people great distress. Shouldn’t you be the one to apologize?”

Sujan winced. “Okay, I’m sorry about that. We had no idea that it could be visible on the other end. But try to see it from our perspective. Some of my people still believe that your world is the Abyss. We have video of someone swimming in a lava lake! That completely violates our understanding of physics. How do you expect me to convince my people?”

To his surprise, Shona smiled again and began walking down a red sandy path to the bottom of the hill, waving him onward. “Follow me, Avanian. I have something to show you.”

Out of sheer curiosity, he followed, noticing that the air just above him rippled as he walked, as if he were inside of a glass bubble that was just barely visible.

He followed her past jagged black rocks and the narrow river of lava to a rather familiar lava lake. All along the edge of the lake were blackened boulders. Sujan noticed a small glass container set atop one of them, but was quickly distracted by the lake itself. The air rippled just above it, and yellow gas slowly rose into the sky.

A strange feeling of déjà vu came over him. “This is it, isn’t it? This is where the viewer was.”

Shona nodded and pointed to a dark shape in the midst of the lava lake.

Sujan struggled to discern it, and then gasped.

“What you saw was a commemoration of one of our people from long ago,” she continued, “This lake is a relatively new development, and when the lava overtook the sculpture, our people were quite disappointed.”

“A statue?” Sujan squinted his eyes and studied the shape. The gas rising out of the lake distorted the outline, but when he looked closer, he noticed a head and arms that pointed toward the sky. It was indeed completely immobile and inanimate, carved from dark obsidian rock. They had interpreted it all wrong.

“You see,” Shona continued, “sometimes when we are looking for something, we only see what we are expecting to see. But you didn’t stop there. You questioned your beliefs. You questioned authority with bravery and respect. And when your authority abused its power, you did what you could to spread the truth. That is why we ask you to be our emissary.” She turned around to face him once more and smiled. “Do you see now, Chintak Sujan?”

He was taken aback, and looked up to her, realizing that she was uniquely lovely, that this whole place was beautiful in its own way.

“Yes. I understand now. Thank you.” He breathed deeply. “But what do you want me to do?”

“What you have always done: spread the truth. We have a token of greetings to your people, should you accept this title. As our emissary, your only duty is to speak the truth. Do you accept this task?”

“What is the token of greeting?”

Shona bent down and picked up the small glass container that Sujan had briefly noticed before and offered it up to him. He noticed that it was a small glass dome encasing something, and when she grew near, the space just in front of him rippled around her hand.

“Why is that happening?” Sujan asked. “Am I in some kind of shield?”

“Yes.” Shona nodded. “Our air is much different from your world. You would not survive long, so to facilitate this conversation, we created a field bubble around you, containing your own atmosphere, the instant you were sucked through.”

“Right.”

“Please, take this token of greeting.”

Sujan did, and noticed that the force field grew clear again once she’d removed her arm from his immediate vicinity. He studied the small glass dome. Inside was a small, pale disc less than a centimeter wide.

“What is this?” he asked.

“Your Abyss legend is a place of death. Nothing could grow there, yes?”

“Yeah. If it even exists, it’s tortured and lifeless. It is death.”

“What you now hold is a seed of one of our most beloved trees. Call it a seed of proof. Show your people this seed. Although it is completely benign, it cannot breathe your atmosphere. Let them study it and sequence its code. When they realize that it is a strain of life they have never seen before, then you will have done your job. Do you accept this task?”

Sujan nodded. “Yes.”

She smiled so big that even her dark eyes seemed to smile, and swung her sable scepter around in a circle in the air between them, creating a wooshing sound. And she did it again. The third time, he saw a flash from the red gem, and the wooshing sound became a thunderclap which filled his ears as a black tear ripped open in the air between them.

“Goodbye, Emissary Sujan,” she said and smiled, radiating a gentle warmth that touched him.

The fissure grew closer to him, and before he had a chance to reply, it pulled him in without hesitation. Once again, he beheld a realm of pure light, and as he floated within its perfect radiance, he gripped the small glass dome with determination.

He had a new mission now. Yet in many ways it was the same mission he’d always had: to reveal and spread the truth, the real truth that was confirmed by experimentation and testing. And as he held that small seed in the midst of the radiant realm, he realized that nothing on Avani would ever be the same, and his heart filled with awe and wonder.

AFTERWORD

Congratulations for completing The Loveliest Abyss in the Universe, an off-shoot of the Epic of Aravinda series.

Did you enjoy this story? Let your voice be heard! These days, readers, not publishers, are the gatekeepers. By leaving a review, you harness your power to decide which authors thrive, and I would be forever grateful if you would take a minute to write an honest review on Goodreads, your blog, or wherever you got this book. As an independent author, I depend on the support of readers like you.

The story you’ve just enjoyed is truly the tip of the iceberg in the growing Epic of Aravinda series. If you haven’t already read it, the award-nominated novel The Truth Beyond the Sky is the next step on your journey. In fact, I’ve gone ahead and included the first chapter of that book after this note.

Remember, only with your help will these kinds of stories continue to reach the people they are meant to reach, and perhaps change the world in some small way in the process.

Thank you.

with a galaxy of gratitude,

Andrew M. Crusoe

p.s. Check out Aravinda Loop website to find more stories like this one and learn about upcoming books and giveaways.

Sanskrit meanings:

Sujan = good or virtuous person

Viragat = stoicism or indifference

Irah = refreshment/comfort

Tarus = battle/superiority

Shona = crimson

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THE TRUTH BEYOND THE SKY

CHAPTER 1

GOOD MORNING, ASHRAYA

Zahn opened his eyes.

He was a young boy, walking barefoot on pristine, silvery sand. Although this time, something was different. While the beach around him was familiar, it seemed unusual at the same time, and he couldn’t discern why.

Zahn didn’t realize that his entire world was about to come crashing down.

To his left, he could see the majestic Ashraya Bay opening up into the ocean, and beyond that, there were faint outlines of islands in the haze along the horizon. To his right, he could see a forest path leading around the edge of a canopy of blue leaves.

He drew himself back to the therapeutic feeling of the sand beneath his feet and the soft sound of the waves. The crisp scent of the ocean made him smile, yet the thought came to him once more: something wasn’t quite right.

Zahn examined his surroundings again and realized that the sand looked strangely luminous, like no sand he had ever seen. But before he could investigate, he heard a familiar voice calling to him in the distance. He looked ahead and saw his mother farther up the beach, kneeling on the sand and waving him over as she called out to him. The way the sun glinted off of her light brown hair was almost surreal.

“Zahn! Come over here! You’ve got to see what I’ve found!”

“What is it, Mom? Is it the first rockturtle?”

“Nope, even better!”

Zahn ran over to his mother, who was looking into a shallow pit in the sand, and knelt down beside her. Inside the pit were hundreds of small, pearl-colored, rockturtle eggs gently sparkling in the afternoon sun.

“Wow! I thought none of them had laid their eggs yet.”

Darshana smiled so big that even her eyes seemed to smile.

“Well, I guess today is our lucky day, Zahn. I’m going to take some measurements so we can estimate when they’ll hatch. Why don’t you take some photos so Dad can see later?”

“Good idea!”

From one of his pockets Zahn pulled out a palm-sized transparent disc that appeared to be solid glass except for a rim of bluish metal around the edge. He held it in front of the eggs and squeezed the edge of the disc. After doing this a few times from different angles, he put the device back into his pocket.

“Guess what?” Darshana said. “It looks like these eggs are going to hatch in about five days.”

“Wow! So can we come back then? Please! Extremely please!”

“Of course you can come back! In fact, I’m assigning this mission to you, Zahn. Make sure these eggs stay safe.”

“Oh, they will.”

A look of worry crept over Zahn’s face.

“Wait. You said I had to make sure, but you didn’t say you would come. You can’t come, can you?”

“I’m so sorry, Zahn. I don’t think I’ll be able to. Five days from now we have an important meeting at the observatory, and I can’t miss it.”

“More important than rockturtle eggs?”

“More important than rockturtle eggs, but I want you and your father to take lots of photos and tell me all about it when I get back, okay?”

“Okay…”

Still kneeling on the sand, she kissed him on the forehead and then stood up. In the distance, the sun had sunk below the horizon, bathing the sky in striking red and orange rays.

“It will be nightfall soon. We should head back.”

Zahn and Darshana walked toward the narrow path that led around the trees, up the incline, and back to their home. After walking for a few minutes, a thought crossed Zahn’s mind.

“Mom, what do you really do at the observatory?”

“You know what I do, Zahn. I observe the mysterious universe around us and use that knowledge to help the Ashraya Islands, and all of us on Avani.”

“Yeah, I know. But what do you really do? Why is it that you don’t come home some days?”

“Zahn, my job is… complex. Sometimes they need me at unpredictable times. Why are you worried?”

“I don’t know. I’m just trying to figure out why sometimes I don’t see you.”

Darshana stopped walking, knelt down, and looked into her son’s eyes.

“Zahn, I’m going to tell you something, and I want you to always remember it. Can you do that?”

“Yes.”

“Zahn, I love you and your father more than life itself, and even though I can’t always tell when or how long I’ll be gone, I want you to know that it is for the greater good. Sometimes a person can’t tell every last detail of the truth because it might mean violating someone else’s choices, someone else’s free will. But I want you to remember that I will never leave you, Zahn, or your father. Do you understand?”

Zahn wasn’t sure if he understood the part about free will completely, but he nodded.

“I love you so much. Now c’mere!”

Darshana gave her son a huge hug, ruffled his hair, and took his hand as they continued to walk along the path.

After a while, Zahn looked up through the blue leaves and saw the evening sky again. This time, the clouds were a strange green hue. Zahn had never seen anything like it before, and once again an unsettling feeling came over him.

“Hey Mom, why are the clouds green?”

But his mother was no longer there. Zahn looked up and down the path, but he couldn’t see anyone.

“Mom?” Zahn called out.

“Mom?!” he called again. He was starting to get afraid.

Zahn ran up the path.

Perhaps his mother had gone ahead. After running up the path for a while, he turned around and ran back toward the beach. Zahn was convinced that she must be on the path somewhere. But when he arrived back at the beach, no one was there. Where else could she be?

“Mom!” He was beginning to panic.

Then, he heard a faint sound from high above him. Someone was screaming.

“Zaaaaahn!”

Zahn looked up and saw his mother being pulled up into the sky, as if by an invisible cord. She was higher than the tallest trees, and she was reaching down to him.

“Mom! What’s happening?!”

“Zahn!”

The wind grew stronger, and Darshana continued to rise into the sky. She was getting smaller by the second.

“Mom!”

“Zahn, I’m sorry! I’m so sorry! Tell your father I’m sorry!”

“No! Mom, don’t go!” His eyes were wet with tears.

The sand beneath Zahn’s feet began sinking, taking him along with it. All around him, the wind grew stronger, kicking up sand and causing the ocean waves to become even more choppy.

“Zahn, I love you.”

And then his mother’s voice faded into nothingness as she disappeared into the clouds.

“Mom!” Zahn screamed into the sky.

The sand was nearly up to his shoulders now.

“Help!” Sand entered his mouth as he screamed. “Heeeelp!”

He tried to wave his arms, but he couldn’t. Soon he would suffocate. Soon he would be dead, buried under layers of pristine, silvery sand.

Just before he was swallowed up entirely, he felt something beneath his feet supporting him. A moment later, this strange object beneath his feet rose slowly. But how could that be? What could possibly be buried under layers of beach sand?

Zahn felt a curious sensation. The strange object that was supporting him vibrated, and the entire beach rumbled and jostled. Then, he abruptly sank again, and in moments his head was completely under the sand. Zahn realized he couldn’t breathe, and he shut his eyes tight. He was going to suffocate, and there was nothing he could do about it.

Yet when he took a final panicked breath, he somehow got air.

Then, Zahn opened his real eyes.

He was a young man, lying in a tangled mess on the floor. Above him, his hammock still gently rocked back and forth, and the morning sun illuminated the fact that it was now bare of blanket and pillow.

Apparently, his new last-resort device for waking up had worked brilliantly, at least in the sense that it had successfully woken him up. Yet he wondered if it had worked too well, since the feeling of being shaken awake had found its way into his dreams. He was thankful the dream-quake wasn’t real, and yet much of the dream had been all too real for him.

In the distance, he heard the sound of birds calling. Their sound filled the valley, and if he listened closely enough, he could even hear a faint echo as their calls bounced off of a nearby ridge.

Zahn didn’t stand up immediately. He remained there on the floor, staring at the slowly changing crystalline patterns on the ceiling and wondering why his dreams kept turning into nightmares. The vision of his mother being abducted from the beach continued to return to him, even though he knew she hadn’t actually disappeared that way.

He pushed the unpleasant thought out of his mind. Today was the first day of autumn, and it wasn’t the first time he’d had a nightmare like that around this time of year.

After some time, he stood up and looked out from the wide opening in the crystalline latticework that made up one of the room’s walls. Spread out before him, he could see the forest canopy and the ocean beyond.

“Good morning, Ashraya.”

He looked out toward the beach and reflected on all of the times he and his mother would walk along the silvery sands of Ashraya and how she had been so excited to show him all of the remarkable creatures that called the beach their home.

But it didn’t give Zahn joy any longer. For despite Ashraya’s charm, the island scarcely seemed like the same one he grew up on. Almost always, he had felt out of place there, but this feeling of alienation had increased dramatically after his mother had disappeared without a trace, twelve long years ago. Since then, the island didn’t seem like home.

Yet he still remembered a time when these islands felt alive to him. He remembered the small expeditions he would take to map them, and how he would often get lost when exploring a new area. In the end, he always mastered the land, and by now, as an adult on Ashraya, he had explored nearly every hidden place within each of the ten islands of the archipelago.

Some of the islands had been trickier to map than others, and when retelling his adventures, he would often leave out the parts about his close brushes with death. What would the point be? He had survived, so he saw little point in making people worry about him for something he’d obviously lived through. (He’d always planned to live to be 111 years old anyway, but that is the subject of another story.)

It had been a long time since he’d gone on any adventures. After all, now he’d seen nearly everything on the archipelago. More importantly, he was all his father had left since his mother had disappeared, and Zahn didn’t want to leave his father unless he had a good reason.

So he stayed nearby, enjoying the wealth of trails and passages that were hidden within the landscape. Probably his favorite place on the island was Zikhara Peak, the tallest point on the entire archipelago. At least once a year, he made time to hike up the long mountain pass to the top to spend the night, and the majesty of the entire archipelago laid out before him never failed to fill him with wonder.

The sight was incredible, but quite different from most Avanians who made the journey, the beauty of the view wasn’t the main reason he scaled the peak. The more important reason, the reason that kept him coming back year after year, was that up on Zikhara Peak, he felt closest to his mother.

He often wondered if that made any logical sense. After all, how could being one mere klick closer to the sky allow his mother to hear him across the gaping darkness of space? But that didn’t matter in the end. Being on the peak comforted him, and it was on those nights filled with sweet, crisp air that he told his mother how much he loved her and missed her.

And sometimes, he thought that he heard his mother whisper in reply.

This concludes the free chapter.

To continue the journey, buy the book in any format you’d like on my website.

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with a galaxy of gratitude,

AMC

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see you starside,

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The Loveliest Abyss in the Universe

The Portal is unnatural, a fissure in spacetime, torn between sharp rings. The Portal shows you images that haunt your waking moments, as well as your dreams. The Portal wants you to gaze within, but when you do, you will never be the same. When the Order of Nirangi opens a portal into a hellish realm, they tempt far more than fate. The portal, created by a bizarre, ringed machine that tears into the fabric of spacetime itself, shows the Nirangi scientists a glimpse into a realm covered in roiling lava lakes and volcanos, leaving them petrified and humbled. Only Madam Viragat, the project overseer, is unconcerned, clearly bent on using their recording of the glimpse to scare the populous into submission. Despite incomplete data, she insists that the hellish realm they saw was the spiritual abyss, the fate of the unsanctified after death. Only Sujan, a brilliant young scientist, is willing to investigate further. To his shock, he makes a discovery that rocks his world to its core… What Top Reviewers Say… “Readers can feel how much thought he has put into all the details of this alternate world — even details we can't yet ‘see’…I can hardly wait to find out what happens next!” -- Tui Snider, Author of ‘Paranormal Texas’ “I thoroughly enjoyed this one. The story gets going quickly and puts forth big questions for the reader to ponder without pushing a specific opinion. I really appreciate it when an author lets me get there on my own, a subtle but complex part of the craft.” -- Anela (Creator of AmidtheImaginary) “As a reader of the Aravinda books, I enjoyed the new angle on the galaxy this story offered…I'm sure it would also work as a good introduction for any new comers to the series.” -- M.M. Stauffer (Tatterwing Chronicles author) “Sci-Fi with an ethical purpose for the 21st century! The author’s work has been called Transcendental Science Fiction, and with good reason.” -- Flavia Westermann

  • ISBN: 9781310903069
  • Author: Andrew M. Crusoe
  • Published: 2015-11-17 20:50:08
  • Words: 13047
The Loveliest Abyss in the Universe The Loveliest Abyss in the Universe