Snowflakes sparkled in the mid-morning air. At least, that’s what the weather app said. Confined within the home office, Linuka Hinloé stared at her prison’s silver walls. Without a single window, the six-by-six chamber hosted one meager ceiling light casting a dull luster on the computer console resting before her on the stone floor. The crystal screen, like her, had been abandoned in this silver cell without even a piece of furniture. No distractions, her parents had said. No opportunities for getting into trouble, her sister had said. Torture, Linuka had said.
Why did her family treat her, a seventeen-year old, like an infant? She never did anything troublesome—at least, not most of the time.
What time was it, anyway?
Her brain converted her question into an electrical impulse; a hexagonal computer crystal tucked in the green sleeve of her dress read the signal as it monitored her nervous system; the computer converted the answer as an electrical impulse and sent it up the nerves in her wrist directly to her visual cortex; and the digits 10:21 flashed over the boring scenery.
Linuka sighed. She had finished biochemistry early. Astrophysics came next—more precisely—a collection of irrelevant videos about subspace trajectories, a topic made obsolete by the fact that a computer could make the necessary calculations without so much as a single human input. So, time to skip class…again.
She bounded off the cold floor and took two puny steps to the exit. A simple press against the invisible console tucked inside the wall caused the silver door to silently slide into its recess, opening her path to freedom. To the left and right, shafts of light spilled from the crystal roof onto an empty balcony. Below, silence emanated from the polished, white tiles.
Stepping into the light, Linuka felt a gentle breeze caress her back as the door closed. Agile as the wind, she tip-toed left, proud that her hunter green dress didn’t make so much as a peep as she slipped into her room. An assortment of crystals, engineering parts, and clothes presented a fine obstacle course, and she noted the still unfolded blankets draping off her stone bed as she reached the finished mark of the windowsill. Her mother or sister—or maybe both—would yell at her later for the mess. She shrugged her shoulders. She could tackle that hurdle later.
As the weather app had proclaimed, stray, white flakes danced in the morning light that peeked through a layer of wispy clouds. A tap to the wall console opened the window and admitted a rush of cold air from empty streets below. At this hour, everyone fulfilled their work or school obligations—well, all but one.
Leaning out the window, Linuka paused. Dare she leave her father alone? Today was the most important day for the Hinloé family in decades: Fela turned one hundred, the day a Cinlin formally joined society. Following in their mother’s footsteps, Fela had apprenticed for decades in the observatory. This afternoon, the city’s council would acknowledge Fela’s accomplishments and record her name in the official history of the city as an astrophysicist. To celebrate, both Fela and her mother had left for the observatory at the break of dawn, probably having the time of their lives with their colleagues.
Only Hildor, her father, stayed behind, supposedly to keep Linuka focused on her school work, but since he wasn’t upstairs, he had long since forgotten about her for his work in the basement. His current project involved a brilliant modification to the energy barrier of the military’s fighter ships, which, if successful, would ensure Cinla never lost another pilot. His obsessive dedication to redesigning defense systems had promoted him to chief engineer for the Involosrho army and, finally, Minister of Defense. Maybe, one day, she could contribute to society as much as he had. He already allowed her to be his assistant, even permitting her to conduct some experiments. He, at least, understood she had a mind for creating—not for sitting around staring at a computer. Since she was already two years ahead in the curriculum, he wouldn’t mind her taking yet another day off as long as she came back in time to get him to the ceremony. He was a genius, but definitely absent minded.
Leaping from the second-story window, she snatched energy from the atmosphere to catch her fall and hover over the street, gently floating down the neighborhood just high enough to avoid leaving evidence in the snow and low enough to escape the eye of the Involosrho guard; getting his attention was not an experience she wanted to repeat.
The fresh layer of powder shone with a brilliance that made the silver and white buildings appear to rest on a sea of light. Although seemingly random, each structure in the city of Hinvolia flowed in a specific pattern. The homes and offices had been diligently designed to imitate a crystal bursting from the ground in all its spiked glory.
Once, during a flight test in the prototype fighter ship, Linuka had seen the beautiful design. From high above, the city Hinvolia glistened like a genuine crystal. The mathematics required for the illusion were extraordinary, and understanding it presented a wonderful challenge she might undertake one day. But, for now, she just wanted to graduate from those stupid digital lessons devoid of any real human interaction.
Why couldn’t life be more like science? When she helped her father run his experiments, they seldom succeeded, but that wasn’t the point. Whether a miscalculation, a new variable, or a structural adjustment, each failed attempt helped them understand the problem a little better. That was the best part of science; failure was expected.
The last building gave way to open tundra, pulling Linuka back to the present. Accelerating as fast as possible, she summoned a thin energy shield to protect her from the increasing snowfall. Not that the snow hurt; getting wet just wasn’t her style. The ravines lay northeast, past the city of Marsil, far beyond the last sign of civilization, providing ample time to enjoy the scenery.
Glimmering layers of ice and snow sparkled underneath. The straggling flurries condensed into a steady stream then a powdery cloud. Visibility vanished, but Linuka didn’t care. With the crystal tucked against her wrist, the computer remained an extension of her senses, maintaining her course and overlaying her sight with a map of the terrain as she skirted Marsil and all her responsibilities.
Finally, the storm scattered into brilliant blue skies. Below, wiggling northward, shallow cracks deepened to endless miles of intricate ravines in a glorious broken pattern. Even with centuries of access to advanced technologies, no one had a legitimate hypothesis for the deformations. The surface displayed no evidence of impact from heavenly objects nor magma movement below—a great mystery of the planet Cinla.
A wide chasm opened below to reveal miles of pit sprawling towards the planet’s core. Leaving the sparkling snow above, Linuka descended into the darkness. Walls of ice reflected the lingering light into a dull amber overhead. As the last flicker faded, she commanded a small globe of energy to form in her hand. The sphere’s soft glow revealed a tiny ledge jutting out of the rugged wall below—her favorite bench. Settling on the black stone, the distant sunlight above seemed like a remote ceiling. Ever present, ever shining, but always out of reach. Just like her life.
The dark stone called to her, as though it had a voice of its own. Despite the extended lifespan on Cinla, Linuka didn’t know anyone who remembered the planet before the orbital shift. The rich foliage and strange animals that had once flourished on Cinla now lived on solely in the painted ceilings of the cities’ courts. The last ember of warmth desperately clung to the depths of these ravines. What would it have felt like to walk on grass? To feel fur? These black walls knew.
A rumble rudely shook her from her thoughts. She leapt to her feet, the light dissipating as her mind focused on the danger. Boulders broke free from the left and right to tumble into the depths below. Seismic activity had not been predicted for today, but she didn’t want to wait around to make geological observations. Responding to her thoughts, the computer mapped an escape route, and she took to the air with precision, spinning around the falling debris to race towards the snowy sky.
The rocky chaos gave way to the cold storm that had caught up to her, wrapping her like a blanket, but the severe snowfall barely grabbed her attention. Something had caused the quake. The nearby city of Marsil could have been affected, but the computer couldn’t detect any signs of impact in the ground below. Better report the incident before something worse happened. She commanded her computer to access the planet’s mainframe, but a message from the Involosrho gripped her heart.
Cinla is under attack from a single unidentified vessel moving west from Telina. All Involosrho are at their stations. Citizens immediately report to the courts for instruction.
Her heart pounded in her chest. Why today, of all days, when her sister’s accomplishments were to be celebrated, when she was miles northeast of her family?
With a deep breath, she fought back the tears and sped towards home. The planet’s mainframe forwarded information to every computer crystal on Cinla, tracking the attack and providing instructions. None of it made sense. How had a single vessel breached the planetary shield? And why just one ship? The only other planet in the galaxy with advanced technology was Negev, and they lived underground. Who would dare attack peaceful Cinla?
Still, the ship sped west—towards her.
Linuka! she heard her dad cry directly to her mind. Where are you?
He must have charged upstairs to find an empty room. I’m at the ravines. I’m coming!
Don’t! Maril is closer.
Get inside that barrier.
She felt his fear, his desperate concern for her. The tears broke free.
Obeying her father, Linuka changed course to the nearby city. She could reach Maril in two minutes. A host of Involosrho fighter ships moved to intercept the invader.
Keep talking to me until you get there. I’m watching you. It will be okay.
Yes, Cinla’s technology was far beyond anything else in the galaxy. If it was just one ship, surely the Involosrho would defeat it quickly.
I’m almost there, Linuka replied. About a minute away.
Just keep going. You’re doing great.
I see the city, she said.
The Involosrho knows you are coming. He will let you in.
Linuka commanded her computer crystal to signal the city’s guard. Immediately, she felt the soldier’s presence in her mind, and she opened herself to the telepathy. A small breach in the barrier opened for her.
One mile. The Involosrho fleet engaged the enemy.
Half a mile. She was going to make it.
The energy barrier shut. Looking behind, sheer power overwhelmed her senses. She had no way to avoid the explosion. The Involosrho guard had chosen to save everyone else instead. She felt his sorrow as he left her mind.
I love you, Dad, Mom, Fela.
As she reached out to her family, she felt them cry her name as the excruciating force of the blast riveted through her body.
* * *
Howling wind called Linuka to consciousness. Cold, wet snow pressed her face against the ground. She coughed then moaned as she forced herself to her knees, the snow sliding off her back with a crunch barely audible above the wind and the ringing in her ears. She tried to stand but her knees could not yet bear the weight. Falling to the ground, panic gripped her mind as she stared down, barely able to discern her hands amidst the raging storm. Her dress had been shredded. Her entire right sleeve—the precious sleeve that held her computer crystal—had vanished.
A sound rose above the wind—her panting. Ridiculous, she told herself. Think; don’t feel. One by one, she blocked out her surroundings to focus on basic truths. Today was just an adventure. One bad adventure, yes, but one that would soon be over.
The pain slowly subsided, and reason took charge. What was her condition? Without her computer crystal, she couldn’t scan for internal injuries, much less call for help, but at least she couldn’t see any wounds. The snow was not stained with blood. Then again, the storm might have buried it long ago.
White, swirling snow encompassed every direction. Maril could be to the right or left.
“Hello!” she screamed into the storm.
Think, Linuka. No one could possibly hear her over the roaring wind.
A strong gust slammed into her side, knocking her over. She needed protection. Concentrating on the abundant kinetic energy surrounding her, she refocused it into a small barrier. A surge of power generated warmth and light, melting the slush from her pale skin.
Why had no one found her? Did they think she was dead? No, her father headed the defense program. If no one else searched for her, he would never lose hope. She just needed to make it to Maril. If she couldn’t find the city with her eyes, she should be able to sense them with her mind. Bringing herself to perfect stillness, blackness fell around, blocking all external sensations.
Hello! she cried into the mental abyss.
She focused on her family. They had been within telepathic range before the explosion, but she couldn’t feel their presence anymore. She widened her search, only to realize she couldn’t feel anyone’s presence. What if no one answered because everyone was dead?
No. Don’t panic. She might be injured. Her senses could have been compromised. Everyone was probably fine. If she couldn’t see nor sense Maril, she would have to physically search for it.
Maril had been within half a mile. She might have to double-back, so what could serve as an obvious landmark? An idea came instantly. Expanding her protective shield, the energy melted the snow within a twenty-foot radius. Even if the drift filled it, the indention would be obvious. Good. Now, velocity. To find the quantity of joules needed, calculate the kinetic energy: one-half mass multiplied by velocity squared was approximately… 6.1 kilojoules. Easy.
With a mental command, the energy shield condensed and became the necessary source of propulsion, shooting her into the raging storm. Countless bands of snow clashed against her momentum, but Maril never appeared. Turning around, the wind seemed to press from all sides at once. Eerily unnatural.
Think, Linuka, don’t feel. The landmark should have been in view by now, and, indeed, there it sat just ahead. The snow raged like an angry sea, knocking wave after wave into the melted depression. Amazing how much it covered in only a couple of minutes. No wonder no one had found her yet.
Hovering over the spot, she once more melted the snow before proceeding in a new direction. Within a few seconds, she stopped mid-air.
The ground had been scorched. Linuka’s heart pounded in her chest, the panic swelling into a silent, internal scream. Maril’s majestic buildings and centuries-old layers of ice and snow had been swept away, replaced by a massive fissure revealing Cinla’s black stone.
The silent scream became audible, matching the wailing wind.
Completely destroyed! The blast necessary to cause so much damage, to obliterate all buildings and people, had turned Maril and its citizens into the powdery dust swirling around. She watched fine crystals of silver, grey, and white pellet her energy shield. Whose particles smashed into it? Whose homes floated past in the air?
She fell to her knees, shaking. What of the other cities? Was anyone left?
Think, don’t panic. The plume had to end, had to yield visibility at some altitude. She shot into the sky, rose one mile. The storm remained. Two miles. The oxygen became too thin, forcing her to descend. Still the storm raged on, concealing even the stars that should have shined through the darkness of space.
Her heart froze from the cold, inevitable conclusion. A debris cloud this high meant catastrophic destruction to all of the planet’s surface. Maril hadn’t been the only city destroyed.
Was she the last Cinlin?
The fractured ground came into view, and darkness swallowed her as she descended into the shelter of the new ravines. Drifting to a pile of boulders, she curled into a ball and dispersed the energy shield. The wind above seemed to carry the screams of the dead.
Was she truly alone?
Logic answered unequivocally: Yes.
But, she couldn’t be the last Cinlin. They were the most advanced civilization in the galaxy! The Involosrho had saved the planet during the great orbital shift. They had mastered energy manipulation and devised the greatest military weapons of the age. Surely, they couldn’t be defeated by a single vessel?
But, they had been.
Linuka clutched her knees, trying to squeeze away the war of logic and hope within her thoughts. Her family flashed before her mind. Why had she skipped class? If she had been where she was supposed to be, they all might be safely hiding in one of the Involosrho bunkers. Tears watered her eyes. Even if they were dead, at least she would have been dead with them. But, no. Only loneliness and regret remained.