"Are you coming?"
Zoe pried her eyes away from the deactivated stargate and shook her head at her fellow townsman. "No, I think I'll wait a bit longer."
"Suit yourself," her friend said, walking off down the dirt trail that lead into the town of Hollis. "Bret's not going to like it though…"
Zoe looked back at the great ring, ignoring the warning. Her betrothed, Bret, wanted her at his side at all times…and until this morning she'd meekly complied. But the arrival of the soldiers had awoken something inside of her, something that yearned for more than the quiet life of perpetual domestic servitude. She couldn't ever remember feeling like this before, but at the moment she wanted nothing to do with her village or its people. Her mind was fixed squarely on the three men that had come to their village through the ring and promised a life free of the Wraith.
The village elders had been skeptical, but eventually agreed to send two representatives through the ring to see this promised 'sanctuary' and report back later today. They had yet to return, and it was nearly dusk.
Zoe knew she should be heading back, not only for the protection of the village from the local wildlife, which grew more bold as night fell, but also because she would be scolded for being unaccounted for…or as she liked to put it, "out of their world." Hollis wasn't the most restrictive village, but Zoe had always had to fight the urge to, well, deviate from normal behavior. Her upbringing had been closely scripted, her social interactions were dictated by her parents…even her upcoming marriage had been arranged by the village and was not of her choosing. With only 2,000 inhabitants, the elders insisted that only with a tight controlling influence would their people survive, and with recent Wraith raids that number had decreased by a third. Still, something about her people had always set wrong with Zoe Sevesean, and that feeling had exploded inside of her when she first laid eyes on the armored offworlders.
They had come through the ring early that morning, just before dawn. When they entered the village their bodies rippled with color as the hard shells that they wore changed with every step they took. After a while Zoe realized the colors matched what was around them…which further blew her mind away.
The strangers told them their world was not safe from the Wraith…no surprise there…but then they told of a world called Leesat, guarded by the Ancestors, the makers of the great rings, where they could live free of the Wraith. Those in the village scoffed at the idea, no one was ever free of the Wraith. But Zoe knew they spoke the truth, knew it in her heart and in her dreams and hopes and everything inside of her that screamed of life.
She had followed the men and the two villagers to the ring and watched them leave…and had been waiting for their return ever since. They were supposed to have returned by midday…
Zoe pulled her cloak tighter around her neck. The evening winds were cooling off, and she knew that within a few hours the air would become like ice. She should have headed back to the warm fires of Hollis, but something inside her wouldn't let her leave.
When the sun finally did go down, she began to worry. There was little starlight, with great wisps of cloud blanketing the sky, and she could barely see her hands in front of her face now. She hadn't expected to be outside this late or she would have brought a torchlight.
Zoe curled up beside the pedestal next to the ring, pressing her back against it and dropping her hood as far over her head as she could, conserving warmth. She pulled her knees up to her chest and covered those as well with her cloak. She looked like a dark colored rock beside the pedestal, almost blending into its structure.
Soon a loud noise came…but it wasn't of the woods. It was unreal, and after a spike of fear shot through her body she realized it was the sound of the great ring coming to life.
She stumbled to her feet just as the woods were blinded with bluish light. Her eyes hurt, but she blinked away the pain gladly as the small ring cloud pulled back inside the wall of water.
Soon two familiar faces walked out of the great ring and Zoe ran to greet them.
"Child, what are you doing here?" one of them asked.
"I wanted to hear…" she said, her words coming out with difficulty.
The elderly man's face broadened into a wide smile, only partially visible in the backlight. "It is beyond wonder."
Zoe smiled widely as the light of the great ring disappeared. All was darkness for a moment, Zoe couldn't see a thing, just varying degrees of darkness.
The shadow nearest her shifted and a small yellow light burst forth inside a tiny crystal. Framed within a cradle of wood, the torchlight hung from a small handle and provided the three villagers enough light to see the path before them. The second elder withdrew a similar device from beneath his heavy robes and lit the tiny flame inside. Then they began to walk.
"Can we go?" Zoe finally asked. She knew she was supposed to speak only when spoken to in the presence of an elder, but she couldn't help herself.
After a pair of long looks the second elder deigned to answer her. "I do not know. That is up to the council to decide…but the outsiders spoke the truth. They are free of the Wraith."
"Where are the soldiers?" she asked.
"They are not needed now. They will return in a few days to await our decision. Now, be silent and walk."
Zoe bit down on her lip to forestall any more questions bursting forth, but she was practically jumping in the air with each step. She was so excited she would not sleep a wink tonight. In the morning the council discussions would begin…and after four days of heated debate, relocation was decided upon for two villages, while the others defiantly refused to abandon their planet, their culture, and their tightly confined and controlled lives. However, when the soldiers returned and opened the great ring back to Leesat, many runaways from the other villages appeared at the stargate and anonymously joined the refugee throng…including Zoe Sevesean.
Zoe had never stepped through the great ring before, few of her people had. She did so eagerly, leaving behind her family, her betrothed, her entire way of life for the glimpse of a better future that she'd unexpectedly encountered a few days ago. It was the purest, truest feeling and one that she would follow to the end of her days without fail…so when she stepped into the wall of water she didn't hesitate as many others did. She rushed forward, embracing the adventure and saying goodbye to her boorish world.
On the other side she ran into the back of another villager that had stopped short. Zoe saw nothing but the small of his back as her face smacked into it.
"Keep moving forward," she heard a voice say as she pried herself free of the man's brown robe and looked up. The sky was orange, but other than that she couldn't see anything, given the fact that she was more than two hands shorter than the others around her. Someone else bumped into her from behind, and the crowd felt as if it was swallowing her up until some cracks began to form ahead and the group began walking forward.
When she had a partial view her feet kept moving by some magic of their own, for her mind was froze with awe. In the distance, visible between two villagers on her right, were great candlesticks rising into the sky. They gleamed of silver and reflected orange highlights, far off in the distance. Zoe had never seen such things before, nor did she have any idea what they were, but her heart told her this was where she belonged. Her life had just begun anew.
She bumped into someone on her left, then pried her eyes away from the horizon enough to follow the others between several low columns and into three single file lines. Zoe tried to look around, but couldn't see much between everyone. She was in the center line, so her view was still mostly blocked. She looked down at her feet and saw smooth polished stone, dark green in color beneath them. The columns she walked between were of similar color, and her skin prickled as she passed through, leaving her with goosebumps for a few seconds.
Just ahead, there was a woman giving instructions to the person first in line as well as asking questions. A minute later the line moved up, and Zoe caught a few of the words. Her speech was odd, even more so than that of the soldiers, but it sounded fresh and crisp, as well as calm and controlled. It immediately put her at ease, making her feel safe and at home. A few more minutes and it was her turn to wait at the head of the line as the man in front of her stepped onto a small platform a few meters in front of her while a soldier motioned for her to stay put. She did so, eagerly awaiting her turn, and trying to memorize the questions so she'd have her answers ready.
"Your turn," the male soldier said, giving her a friendly wink as he nudged her shoulder with the palm of his hand.
Zoe took four giant steps and planted herself in front of the woman, who smiled gently as she looked into her eyes. "Place your hand here please."
Zoe reached her palm out and touched a stone square. It glowed blue after a moment's touch.
"Thank you. What is your name?"
"Zoe Sevesean," she said smiling.
"What is the name of the world from which you came?"
"We call the world Belssit, but I'm from the town of Hollis."
"Well then, Zoe Sevesean," the woman said in perfect mimicry, "you are going to be sent into processing, where you will be taught what you need to know to begin your new life here. You must go through this transitional period alone, but you can be reunited with family and friends afterward, if you wish. Is there someone you wish to be notified of your progress? We can arrange a meeting afterwards."
"No," Zoe said quickly. She wanted to get away from her people and explore this place, and she knew the first thing that the others would do would be to try and restrict her movements.
"Do you have any injuries?" the woman asked.
"No, I'm fine."
The woman smiled again. "Welcome to Leesat. Please walk forward," she said, pointing to an archway a few steps ahead.
"Thank you," Zoe said enthusiastically. She hurried forward and walked under the arch. Two vertical walls encased her on either side, but the orange sky was unobscured above her head. A few steps in and the pathway turned to the right, and she followed it, losing sight of her people and the great ring behind her, but she barely noticed. Her mind was on the road ahead of her, figuratively and literally.
After a short zigzag, the tunnel/path became a long straight shot off into the distance. Zoe hesitated for a moment, trying to see to the far end. When she stopped, small blue lights appeared on the floor beneath her feet and moved in sequence down the path. Zoe laughed aloud and walked with the lights down the long stretch until the pathway dead ended in a round circle wall. The lights indicated that she should step inside the circle, and she did so, looking around confused as to what to do next.
"Hello?" she asked meekly.
Suddenly there was a loud noise and Zoe thought she had fallen into the floor as it rose up around her, followed by a white light…then suddenly she found herself somewhere else…indoors.
"Hello…don't be afraid, Zoe. Come this way," a woman said standing a few feet in front of her…the same woman who had been at the great ring asking her questions.
"Where am I?" she asked, stepping forward.
"You are inside the processing center. You were transported inside the city. Now…first things first. We need to get you some new clothing, a hot meal, and a place to relax…then I'll explain everything."
"Okay…" Zoe said, not entirely understanding.
"Don't worry, I'll take good care of you," the hologram said. "My name is Leesa, and I'll be your host during this transition period." Leesa pointed to the wall in the short, white hallway in which they stood and a hidden door opened. "In here, dear."
Zoe walked through the doorway and saw a moderately sized room with a small pond in the middle.
"Now," Leesa said, clapping her hands together. "Let's get you out of these clothes and into a nice warm bath."
Processing took a day and a half, and proved stressful for many refugees being thrust into a new culture that broke many of their existing beliefs and taboos, but for Zoe it proved liberating. At the end of the indoctrination…and with the help of a few neural downloads…she felt exhilarated and ready to start exploring the city, or rather cities. There were three on Leesat, with a fourth currently under construction. Access to city 2 was restricted, as well as parts of 3, but that still left hundreds of square dekmas of Lantean city to explore.
It was funny how she knew what a dekmas was without ever being told. Lots of other things she saw or heard made since, but she could have sworn she'd never seen them before. Leesa said that would happen a lot, and not to worry about it. It was just part of the transition.
It was the same thing how, without ever being inside city 1 before, Zoe knew how to get to her newly assigned quarters, as well as the access code to enter them. She walked inside and began to look around, amazed that all of this splendor was for her. There was a large panoramic window, slightly curving to match the outside of the spire, that showed a slice of the city as well as the pink sky as the twin suns were beginning to rise in what this world called 'morning.' Zoe sat down in a 'chair' and sank down into the cushions, her jaw opening with a silent sigh. She was used to hard wooden chairs and this…this was pure bliss.
Zoe sat and watched the sky gradually shift from pink to orange, just soaking in her surroundings for what seemed a long, yet short time. Her body wanted to relax and sleep, but her mind wouldn't let her. She was so ALIVE that she couldn't waste a metak by sleeping!
Metak…there was another new word that popped into her head. A time measurement, she knew, and she could even feel how long it was.
Zoe leaned her head back and laughed…this was too incredible! It was like she was in a dream that she did NOT want to wake up from.
She thunked the side of her head with her finger to make sure she was awake, then laughed again. Yep…this was real.
Outside the window a shimmer appeared on the edge of the city and rose up above them. Zoe didn't know what it was…there was a lot she didn't know, but the sound that soon rang out throughout the city she recognized. It had a metallic feel to it, and kept repeating for a third of a metak before stopping.
It meant danger, and that she should get to somewhere safe and out of the way. Her quarters were the best place, she knew, so she didn't have to do anything but stay put. Still, a chill ran through her. What danger could there be here?
Zoe shrugged it off after a bit, then turned her attention back to the sky as the first of the two suns appeared over the near mountain ridge. A while later, the orange of the sky intensified and sparked in random spots overhead. Zoe got out of her chair and walked to the window, pressing her hands against the smooth invisible material and looked up as much as she could. The bright orange spots were only above them, not near the ground. Zoe didn't know what it was…but it was beautiful.