The ethereal stream ferried us to the Hub – a galactic repository for interrupted existence, a depot collecting the chaff of every species in the cosmos, a harbor for abandoned souls needing to belong. Didn’t matter what system you were from or how you were expelled. We all found refuge in each other’s exile.
Of course, not every soul felt at home. Some chose dissipation, others preferred isolation. Most of us just tried to quell the pain (even the soul-gangs were only looking to assuage the agony), but Śevvi had a different plan.
“Míly and Teru are late,” said Śevvi, collecting a set of Essences, which wasn’t easy.
The procedure was simple, like scraping salt off a rock. All we needed was one grain to obtain a viable Essence (a soul’s DNA). But it felt wrong, like we were robbing ourselves of the only thing we had left.
“Lélek and Szív are late, too,” I said somberly, feeling uneasy about our task.
We’d stationed ourselves at the Gate, the main portal where the primary stream stopped and souls emerged. Śevvi had encountered a being named Ohros, a lifeform from the Pillars who promised to teach her a method of transmutation. But Ohros didn’t just give Śevvi a list for us to procure, he gave her hope (which, in a place like the Hub, is dangerous). We worked in pairs, collecting samples from all the portals, fully committed to Śevvi’s plan.
Perhaps it was my origin gnawing at me. I mean, I was the only human soul in our group and even though humanity’s defining feature was the remarkable (and frighteningly creative) ability to terminate life, regret, perhaps out of an abundant necessity, was equally descriptive of an Earth-born’s nature and I was filled with it.
So, I found it difficult to ignore the ramifications of our task, especially as I watched a rare lot emerge from Toprak, one of the farthest realms in the mysterious void beyond the expanse. Toprakian souls were so delicate it would take them three times as long to acclimate to the Hub than any other soul in the universe (that we knew of – some of us speculated there might be thousands of realms like the Hub, given the vastness of space and the universal desire to destroy what’s just been created).
Toprakian awakening was intense and only fellow Toprakians could serve as Guides – it was a horrible comfort, escorting one another through the Hub’s simulation of existence. But that’s what shared trauma does, it connects you in ways that can never be measured (or severed).
“They’ll never know our pain or our shame,” offered Śevvi as she extracted a sample, causing me to wince (because, for some reason, it seemed as if the emergent soul felt it).
“Or our history,” I added, wishing I could cry real tears instead of the celestial ones that fell.
“What good is the past, Ling-Mei?” asked Śevvi, looking at me as if the entire saga of humanity were hovering between us, like a dark nebula. “It’s not a prologue to anything because life doesn’t really evolve. It’s just stuck in an endless cycle of mistakes no one ever learns from, not because they’re incapable, but because they’re selfish.”
Śevvi was from Kamara and Kamaran philosophy was blunt, as was their society – to the extent that procreation had nothing to do with love (or even survival). It was about status and judgment, like a perverse artist competition to see who could conceive perfection (which is why the Kamaran stream never ceased, because an imperfect canvass can’t be repurposed, it must be tossed).
But Śevvi was different. She was capable of immense love. It’s what made our relationship special (as special as two female-identified souls from opposite sides of the galaxy could be). We’d found comfort in each other’s pain (which led to the frequent merging of our auras), but I feared it wasn’t enough to sustain our relationship beyond eternity. What would happen to us if the reason for our existence changed?
“Our history is who we are, Śevvi,” I said, finally answering her question, wanting her to read between my words.
“But it’s not who we have to be, Ling-Mei,” countered Śevvi. “We can choose to subsist in the eternal present, never looking back, always forgetting what came before. You don’t have to be Ling-Mei from Earth, whose father wanted a son, just like I don’t have to be Śevvi from Kamara, whose mother was jealous of having a daughter more flawless than her.”
Śevvi and I may never have been born, but our perspectives, our cultures, and our histories were hardwired into our souls – it’s what made Essences so valuable, as if an entire world could be stored in a single sliver of ethereal matter.
As I watched Śevvi collect her samples, my thoughts faded to one of Dušan’s sermons. An elder on the council (having emerged in the Hub several millennia ago, before the Hub was called the Hub), Dušan offered his sermons (which he called “healings”) to help us cope with the realities of our shattered existence.
“Our souls ache, for they are not just broken, they are gripped by the lure of desire – to love, to live, to return. But why long for something we’ve never known? Why yearn to go back to a place we’ve never seen? Why dream of a life bound by mortality? Why remember a past that does not define our future? It is the plight of every form of life. We endeavor to shape our lives into something new, until we realize that new is a dream. We may not know our past, but we cannot escape it. We’re forever old, born ancient even though we may never realize it. But maybe it doesn’t have to be this way, maybe we can still dream and maybe the dream will come true.”
I looked at Śevvi as Dušan spoke. Her gaze was luminous, and I realized my love for her wasn’t mere infatuation, nor was it loneliness. She was the other half of my existence, a soul I never would have found had I been born. She was more than love, she was awareness.
Yet, while I was falling in love, Śevvi was hatching her plan to seek out Ohros and because I loved Śevvi I went along with it. That’s what love is, right? It’s not blind, it’s not willful ignorance, it’s knowing exactly what’s in your lover’s heart and choosing not just to accept it, but to embrace it, to stay rather than leave – not for yourself, but for them.
“If we transform, Śevvi, we’ll strip away our significance. Whatever we become will be meaningless – unless we remember why we made this choice.”
As much as I craved the possibility of my own flesh (I could only imagine the bliss Śevvi and I would share through physical contact), I began to fear what it would cost us. I’d made my choice, but that didn’t mean I’d abandoned my perspective.
“You think they remember, Ling-Mei, the ones who sent us here?” asked Śevvi. “You think they’ve ever given us one thought after they discarded us? Earth, Kamara, Talaj, Pôda, Suolo, Griovia, Toprak and all the other realms filled with so-called advanced life? All they’ve ever advanced is their method of disposal, of eradicating life rather than sustaining it. Do they even realize how many of us subsist in The Hub?”
Śevvi and I had been in the Hub for half a millennia and the last time I remember a census (which is only performed after Floods), our count was beyond a number I could comprehend, an absurd figure making the argument that numbers shouldn’t be infinite, there should be a limit.
Śevvi’s words echoed backwards through time as a remarkable batch from Území arrived. We paused to watch because Územíans were almost as rare as Toprakians (so they weren’t even on the list). The rarity had nothing to do with Územían or Toprakian morality. They just weren’t species who reproduced often, because when your lifespan is several hundred years long, you don’t really need offspring – which made the souls who arrived in the Hub even more tragic. I mean, you’d think they be cherished rather than tossed.
A batch of Suolos emerged next, which was heartbreaking, for they were almost microscopic, more fragile than Toprakian souls, at least in the beginning. When fully formed, Suolos would tower over the rest of us.
The Suolos were followed by a batch of Talajians who happened to be Partials, the cruelest type of interruption and the most common method on Kamara, Śevvi’s home world (they wanted to see the form first to make sure).
“Your parents, my szülők,” said Śevvi as she cataloged her samples, wanting to finish her point. “They won’t matter anymore because we’ll finally exist, Ling-Mei.”
If we followed through with the plan, we’d be severing all ties with our former selves, with those who spawned us, with the worlds we came from, with The Hub itself. In the end, it wasn’t about forgetting anything, it was about changing the future so we could create a better past for those yet to come, something worth remembering, something worth passing on, something worthy of preserving rather than annihilating.
Still, I couldn’t shake the idea that we’d become like those who sent us here. Were we going to perpetuate the same cycle? How far do you have to go before you’ve gone too far? The universe had spent eons depositing a galaxy of souls in the Hub. Śevvi’s plan would transform them in a millisecond.
“That should do it,” said Śevvi. “If the others gathered their lots, then we have what Ohros needs. Are you ready?”
I couldn’t answer. I was mesmerized by the aura of an unusual soul that arrived. Not a batch. Just a singular soul, unique and alone in the Hub.
“What is it?” I managed to utter.
“It’s like nothing we’ve ever seen,” said Śevvi, considering whether she should gather a sample of its essence for Ohros. Would he want more than he’d asked for?
“Wait,” I said cautiously. “Could be a Semel.”
“There hasn’t been a First Soul in eons,” answered Śevvi, as two more arrived.
“Now there are three,” I said in awe of the moment we’d just witnessed.
The Semels were stunningly beautiful. Symmetrically balanced with a pulsating, teal aura. Each soul was perfectly intact, not a hint of how they’d been sent or from where. For all the billions of souls I’d seen, the Semels were the purest I’d ever perceived, even purer than Śevvi.
“Why these three?” asked Śevvi, mourning their arrival. “What caused their world to do this? Why now?”
“Maybe their world is new,” I answered. “Maybe they just figured out ...”
“Universe is billions of years old,” interrupted Śevvi.
“And stars get reborn all the time,” I countered. “Whatever they are, wherever they’re from, they’re rejects like us ... they’re home.”
“They seem to resemble Toprakians,” said Śevvi.
“Closer to Talajian,” said Lélek and Teru, arriving with a trio of Semels they’d placed in an emergence pod we used for observation (because the methods on some worlds were too extreme, requiring incubation before acclimation).
“We don’t know anything about them,” added Míly and Szív, bringing another pod of Semels. “If we don’t nurture them soon, they’ll fade.”
“Begin the nourishing cycle,” said Śevvi, placing the three Semels we’d seen emerge in a pod. “Talajian formula is good, but Pôdan is the most universal. The Semels may dim a little, but they shouldn’t fade. If they start to diffuse, mix in some Kamaran nectar.”
“We have to tell Dušan, his wisdom and council could help us,” I said, as everyone looked at me in shock. “And, these knew souls are Semels, they’re too important to hide.”
“All the essences we’ve collected, think we’re good at hiding things,” said Szív.
“This is different,” I said.
“How?” asked Lélek. “If anything, it makes our plan more necessary and if Dušan finds out, he’ll have to notify the council. Everything we’ve done will be for nothing.”
“Ling-Mei and I will deliver the Essences,” said Śevvi. “Rest of you take the Semels to the Shore and keep them nourished until we return.”
“Hurry,” said Teru looking deeply concerned. “If the Semels wail, like most souls do when their awareness awakens, we won’t be able to keep them concealed. Not even the Shore will protect us.”
Śevvi nodded, pondering the gravity of the moment, as Teru and Míly nourished the Semels with Pôdan victuals, while souls continued to emerge through the spectrum of sonic waves emanating from every quadrant in space. It’s why the Gate always hummed, as if the ethereal stream were playing a cosmic lullaby born from the anguish of abandoned oddities longing to connect. It was a soothing cacophony, reminding us that even monsters of the universe needed somewhere to belong.
“Guard these,” said Śevvi, handing Teru two emergence pods filled with extra Essences. “Ling-Mei and I have an errand to run.”
“What are these?” asked Teru, setting the pods next to the Semels.
“Insurance,” answered Śevvi.
“This the whole lot?” asked Ohros, gruffly.
He or she or they or something else (because, honestly, there didn’t seem to be an identifiable gender) had a strange voice and manner. Visually, Ohros was unremarkable, as plain and generic as any lifeform could be, like a template ready for imprinting. Yet, there was something primordially fascinating about Ohros, as if a species long extinct had suddenly reemerged to interact with the future. His or her or their (or something else’s) existence should not have been possible, and yet it seemed inevitable.
“Everything on the list,” said Śevvi coldly.
Ohros rocked himself or herself or themselves (or something else), humming a faint tune (or cursing us in another language, because, really, I couldn’t tell), examining the Essences as if they were celestial fossils, remnants of a parallel realm, existing through an unnecessary necessity.
The humming stopped and Ohros gave Śevvi an orb.
“Life can only come from death,” said Ohros. “The price is paid. Once paid, it cannot be unpaid.”
“What do I do with this?” asked Śevvi.
“It is an Első-Kő,” answered Ohros. “A first stone from the first world in the first realm to ever exist. Open the path and the path is yours.”
Ohros faded, along with the Essences, and the stone glowed softly as it attached itself around Śevvi’s neck.
“Feel anything?” I asked.
Śevvi looked at me through eyes that seemed ancient, like they belonged to the stars before the stars and I sensed a strange fear lingering between us.
We returned to the Gate to find Míly screaming as the Semels hovered before us, growing at an alarming rate.
It was rare for Míly to be afraid. On an outing to the Twin Nebulas near Torvus (which was her idea, because the Twins were where the Waywards hung out, and sneaking out to meet them was worth the inevitable punishment), she surfed a comet’s tail with the Waywards, earning a mark on her soul.
Celestial tattoos are impossible to hide on a translucent aura, so, Míly’s essence was forever altered, earning her a punishment from the Council and street cred from the Torvusians in the Hub (who were impressed that a Silik could endure the marking ceremony).
“How much did you give them?” asked Śevvi.
“Standard rations,” answered Teru.
“Not even Suolos grow that fast,” said Lélek.
The nine Semels towered over us – scanning us, dissecting us, learning us. One of them noticed the Első-Kő and engulfed Śevvi, surrounding her in a field of energy, paralyzing her as she hovered between the particles threatening to devour her.
“Let her go,” I demanded, summoning an aura stream (something I learned from a Kjárnian soul-trader on an outing to the Horsehead Nebula).
Lélek joined in (because he begged me to teach him after he got jumped by a Todesserin gang – one of the most brutal soul-gangs in the Hub) but a pulse radiated from the Semel facing me, knocking us back and disintegrating our streams.
“Think they’re weapons are better than ours,” quipped Lélek.
“What the hell do they want?” asked Míly.
“Maybe they don’t want anything,” said Teru. “This happens sometimes. Some souls remember the moment of expulsion, they cling to it as they travel here, then they vent it. It’s why emergence takes place in the Portals, so the rest of the realm doesn’t have to hear the screams.”
“They’re not screaming,” said Szív. “Went for Śevvi and that stone around her neck.”
“Maybe they think she’s their mother,” said Míly.
“No,” said Lélek, sensing something else. “We’re totally vulnerable here. We’re like food to them.”
Lélek’s words lingered, revealing a truth we weren’t prepared to face. The Hub didn’t have defenses. Given its nature, the Hub didn’t really need to be defended from invaders. There was only one way to get here and it was never by choice.
I glanced at Śevvi. Save me and I’ll save you, she said to me in her thoughts – it was the way Kamarans said I love you. For all the cruelty Kamarans were capable of, it was the only time they’d acknowledge their vulnerability. It’s what made Kamaran love so beautiful, knowing that you’re never whole unless you’re together. I repeated the phrase as the Semel floating in front of me stared at us like we were Nőfaló beasts from the Karhu Maelstrom (though I didn’t think we looked as pale).
“Ohros,” the Semel finally said.
“What about him or her or them or something else?” I asked nervously.
“Deal,” said the Semel, staring at the Első-Kő.
It was the tenor of his speech that clued me. Either they’d made their own deal and they’d come to collect or they knew about our deal and wanted to stop it.
“What do we do?” asked Teru telepathically, reading my thoughts.
I looked at Teru and nodded at everyone else. It was the look that required no thought, the look we’d shared a million times (usually when we were fleeing something, like the Shreds, a soul-gang who’d emerged mutilated, unable to be made whole – they were like vultures, scalping and scavenging souls they’d capture). We acted on our instinct and a millisecond later we appeared in a cave on the southern shore facing the Celestial Sea – our safe place, the hiding spot we used since we were novices.
“Now what?” asked Lélek. “How do we save Śevvi?”
“How do we save the Hub?” asked Szív. “If you’re right, Lélek, if we’re nothing but nourishment, more of them will come and they’ll have an endless supply to sustain themselves.”
“We need help,” said Teru.
“How about the Soul Clones,” said Lélek. “Those bastards are fierce.”
“Waywards are our best bet,” said Míly.
“No way,” said Szív. “They can’t be trusted, they hate every soul who can trace an origin.”
“I’ve got their mark,” said Míly. “They have to help me.”
Míly’s suggestion was risky, but it was our best chance because she was right, despite her Silik heritage, they’d have to help her, it was their code – as much as homeless, vagrant souls can have a code (because Szív was right, too).
But there’s always a catch.
“If we go,” said Teru solemnly. “Might not be able to return. Excursion to the Twins was bad enough, but our outing to Canis Major and the Monoceros Ring really pissed off the Council. They won’t just let us return, there will be consequences.”
Because, yeah, we were free, disembodied, discarded souls, but we still needed to be governed.
“Semels are after the Hub,” said Míly. “If we don’t go, the realm’s lost. Who cares about the damn Council.”
We hovered silently for a moment, listening to the celestial waves crashing the shoreline. The waves were soothing, the complete opposite of the noise saturating the portals – because it wasn’t agony we were hearing, it was tranquility, masking the war about to erupt.
“You’re sure this is our best option, Madame Entity?” asked Míly. “There’s no other way?”
It worked. Waywards followed Míly as if she were their leader – apparently, she’d become quite a legend among them, even Víz The Drifter (a lone Wayward who functioned as their de facto leader) deferred to her.
Víz took us to Madam Entity – an eternal being like Ohros, who’d existed before existence. She also happened to be Víz’s mother.
Víz’s father was a Vynosian spice miner she’d had a fling with when she was going through a rebellious phase. She killed him after they’d mated, and, not wanting a child, she expelled Víz’s soul into the Gum Nebula, which she formed a million years ago by exploding a supernova, guess she felt it could serve as a celestial womb – so, yeah, all kinds of psychological baggage to unpack. Still, despite the awkwardness of the estrangement, Madam Entity was polite, but eccentric, especially in her speech.
“My dear,” answered Madam Entity with a voice that resonated in at least a dozen different dimensional frequencies. “Only chance governs the universe, hemlock or shepherd’s purse. Of course, choice is the counterpart to chance, the variable in every equation, equally unpredictable, but no less appositional.”
“So, it’ll work if we make the right choice?” asked Míly, trying to understand Madam Entity’s logic.
“Choice and chance, forever entwined in a celestial dance,” laughed Madam Entity as she augmented the sonic intensity of her voice with more frequencies. “We all feel the pull of home, the yearn to roam, everything returns, longing to be renewed, a promise, a clue, for those who learn, but the closer we get the farther we are, for we may be tossed by the waves but we will not sink, ‘round the serpents caves, where angels slink.”
“Don’t bother with her anymore,” said Víz. “All she loves is riddles and gibberish. She won’t commit to an answer because she doesn’t take responsibility for her choices.” Víz raised his voice, mimicking his mother’s multi-frequency tenor, which was aurally fascinating. “All you know is spite and destruction – stars, galaxies, dimensions, your own progeny!” shouted Víz in anger. “You’ve never created anything!”
“I made you,” she said softly in one, focused wavelength, ending her ramblings (and she actually looked sad).
“You didn’t finish,” said Víz. “You left me for dead.”
“Then why did you come?” she asked, wanting to hear a certain answer as she struggled to maintain her regally detached façade.
“To give you a chance to make things right, to give you a choice to do things right,” replied Víz.
“I’ve given you what you need, now you must heed,” said Madam Entity, tormented by a desire for atonement, but unable to abide it.
Víz turned his gaze toward Míly and me and I felt the same pain that was always radiating through the Hub, the pain we tried so hard to hide or deny (but you can only pretend for so long. Eventually, the pain is all you know, all you become).
I glanced at Madam Entity, seeing every being that had ever sent a soul to the Hub swirling in each of her fifteen eyes, laughing and crying, because they felt the same pain, too.
As we left her presence, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the universe seemed infinitely small and I wondered if we weren’t all descendants of Madam Entity, if creation was nothing more than a product of one of her whims, an accident she couldn’t undo.
“What if she was right?” asked Míly. “What if what she told us actually works?”
“It’ll work,” said Víz. “It’s part of her cruelty. She never lies ... because the truth always hurts more.”
“It’s still a choice,” I said. “Just have to make the right one.”
Waywards had been busy. They’d recruited armies from seven sectors, an array of entities (including the Soul Clones) united in abandonment – because not every soul made it to the Hub and that was the new deal we had to strike. The Hub would become a haven for any soul seeking the solace of a home. All we had to do was save it from the Semels.
“What did you see?” I asked Lélek and Szív, who’d scouted the portals and dwellings.
“We were wrong about them,” answered Lélek. “They don’t want us for food.”
“Our souls,” said Szív. “They’ve run out, they can no longer reproduce themselves. The nine that emerged are all that’s left of their race.”
“But if they’re here, they’re already extinct,” said Teru.
“They seem to be able to transform their matter, from a body to a soul and a soul to a body,” explained Lélek. “If they merge with us, we’ll have the same ability.”
“It’s why we couldn’t tell how they’d been disposed when they emerged,” added Szív. “But Lélek’s right, we could become physical ... what we’ve always wanted.”
Physical souls. We’d heard tall tales spun by the nebula-traders of a world where souls could transform themselves as if it were a game. It was an alluringly grotesque fantasy, one we wanted to be true even though we knew it was a perversion of our own existence. (And now it seemed like a mockery and a negation, as if the Hub were nothing more than a gameboard for their whims.)
“What about Śevvi?”
“Couldn’t find her,” said Szív.
“But she has to be with them,” said Lélek. “They found Hava’s Isle, only Śevvi could’ve led them there.”
“It was her backup plan,” added Míly, looking worried.
It was more than that. It was Śevvi’s dream. Hava wasn’t just a myth, she was worshiped by many of us, not as a god, but as an example. Our awakenings left us distraught and Hava gave us hope that our existence wasn’t wasted, that there was a purpose to our arrival.
“What’s Hava’s Isle?” asked Víz.
“The heart of the Hub,” answered Teru. “The place it all began.”
“Legends say Hava was the first abandoned soul ejected into space,” recounted Míly. “She formed an island from her ethereal tears and weaved the Hub from stardust, using her own essence to shield the realm she’d created, embalming it in love, not for herself, but for the sake of souls throughout the universe needing a place to dwell. It was the dream she dreamed as she drifted through space.”
“The Hub was a beacon in the darkness of the universe,” continued Teru. “Millions came, from every world, every dimension, every existence.”
“Until the Council formed and perverted everything,” scoffed Lélek.
“She gave her life for the sake of others?” asked Víz.
“She did,” I answered. “And the Council quarantined her isle, not to hide her story, but to keep it from happening again.”
“Whoever controls the Isle, controls the fate of every soul in the Hub,” said Szív.
“We’re all connected,” said Míly. “And if they seize that power ...”
“Then our armies are for nothing,” said Víz.
“What your mother told us could still work,” I said.
“Not if they’re already at the Isle,” said Míly. “It’s too late.”
“But they haven’t succeeded yet,” said Teru. “If they had, our souls would be ...”
“Gone,” said Lélek.
“And we’re still here,” said Víz.
We’d surrounded the Isle, a legion of discarded souls hovered above the celestial waters, armed with aura blasts and spectral snares – the Mutilated from Centaurus-A (who were different from the Shreds in the Hub – they’d been discarded by some facility outside a womb) had learned how to wield ionized matter and relativistic plasma (and those guys were always pissed – because forced, artificial conception is a bitch). Soul Clones could duplicate themselves and augment their numbers.
Víz was in command and oblivion was the goal. Still, I’d sent Lélek and Szív to find Dušan, as a failsafe – for Śevvi, Dušan was an inspiration and I hoped his words would help.
Míly, Teru, and I walked ashore. It was strangely quiet and there was an old boat resting on the sand, marooned eons ago, yet the shards scattered around it seemed fresh. Footprints marked dozens of trails radiating in all directions. Coconut and papaya trees swayed in a warm breeze as a gentle rain slowly fell.
It was as if we’d entered another realm, unable to see the Hub’s dome or our troops surrounding the isle and even though we remained translucent, we could feel the elements – the sand, the rain, the scent of the salty ocean air. It was intoxicatingly frightening, being able to glimpse the dream we’d always shared (yet forced by our nature to remain detached from it, unable to fully grasp the beauty).
We looked at the paths. One set of tracks stood out, resisting the precipitation as if the water wasn’t allowed to muddy the trail. We followed it into the jungle. The foliage was dense and thorny and the serpentine rocky path carved its way up a small mountain until we came to a plateau. A waterfall fed a small lagoon surrounded by jagged boulders marking four small streams that snaked into the jungle. Thick vines draped the stone and a field of orchids glistened in what seemed like a hallowed sanctuary. The clouds parted and a ray of sun illuminated a grove beyond the garden, where Śevvi was picking fruit.
“It’s okay,” said Śevvi. “We’re alone. Made a deal.”
“So did we,” said Teru.
“What deal?” I asked.
“The Semels?” asked Míly.
“Utarr is the fourth planet of a binary system a million light years from here. Like most worlds, they bred themselves out of existence – wasting life instead of cherishing it.”
“Right, they ran out of souls and they want the Hub to replenish them,” I said. “We did recon.”
“Only half the tale,” said Śevvi, carefully placing the fruit in large baskets. “They’re fathers who want to reseed their world and begin again. They’ll give us life, transform the entire Hub, we won’t have to sacrifice one Essence.”
“What about choice,” I asked. “Our plan was never to force everyone.”
“We have a galaxy of souls in the Hub, enough to last an eternity, with plenty to spare,” said Śevvi. “The Utarré sacrificed themselves to emerge in our realm. How could we not do the same to be born into theirs?”
“Souls to spare?” scoffed Teru.
“Listen to yourself,” I pleaded.
“Only unborn souls can enter the Hub,” said Míly.
“We’ve used backdoors,” answered Śevvi.
“They came through a portal, think it through, they’re deceiving you,” I said.
“And you’re not?” asked Śevvi, gazing out at the beach below us. “We were a team once. We emerged together, awakened together, loved together, traveled the universe together. We were inseparable, an interstellar squad of rejected souls and the universe was our backyard. Now you want to destroy me because you can’t see the dream anymore. You think you’re woke but you’re still asleep.”
“What happened to you?” asked Teru.
“They can come, too, your army,” said Śevvi, ignoring Teru’s question. “Every soul is welcomed by the Utarré.”
“She’s lost her mind,” said Teru as Śevvi’s aura began to glow.
Visions swirled around the grove as Śevvi faded in and out of reality, hovering between existences. A dream devoured her as she sat on the throne of her mind’s eye, the conqueror and the conquered, alive and dead in an eternal moment of transcendence. Then the light faded and she stood before us as a corporeal being, naked and newly formed (and intoxicatingly beautiful).
“This is what awaits us,” said Śevvi, as she picked a kiwi and took a bite. “Life, thriving on a world of our own. The Utarré are giving us this gift. Ohros wanted to trade, wanted us to betray our realm, but the Utarré want to bequeath their world to us so it can continue, so it won’t perish like so many worlds have in the eons we’ve known.”
“This doesn’t sound so bad anymore,” whispered Míly.
“Maybe the Utarré weren’t meant to continue, maybe we weren’t meant to be born,” I said.
“Why?” asked Śevvi, as Míly looked at me with the same question. “Who gets to decide what’s meant to be?”
“We all do,” said Dušan, approaching from the path with Lélek and Szív. “Every soul decides the paths their lives take.”
“Except us, Dušan,” sneered Śevvi, as Lélek and Szív stood frozen by her appearance (she’d materialized in her Kamaran form, a physical perfection no imagination could comprehend without observation). “We never got to choose our path ... until now.”
“What choice?” asked Dušan. “They’ve promised you what you’ve always wanted, what every soul in the Hub wants. If you refuse, you consign them to extinction, to the only fate we’ve ever known. I understand why you sympathize, why you initially made a deal with Ohros.”
“He offered me a way,” said Śevvi.
“Made me the same offer millennia ago,” explained Dušan. “It’s why the council formed, to ward off tricksters like Ohros and to dispel the myths we’d come to believe, like Hava.”
“To give us rules, to pass judgment under the guise of wisdom,” said Śevvi. “We’re on Hava’s isle. Doesn’t seem like a myth.”
“This island has been many things,” said Dušan. “One of the first portals, which made it a nursery of sorts, the cradle of the Hub, but Hava was nothing more than a story invented by the original souls to give their existence meaning.”
“What about hope?” asked Míly.
“If it’s rooted in a lie, then one dare not call it hope,” answered Dušan.
“So, the isle doesn’t work?” asked Teru.
“It never has,” said Dušan somberly. “It’s just a relic, a glimpse of the life the first souls led, when they tried to mimic the worlds they’d come from, before they awakened.”
“Save your twisted logic,” said Śevvi bitterly. “The deal is done.”
“You have no authority to alter our realm,” said Dušan.
“I have the only authority,” interrupted Śevvi as she held her hands in front of her and began to resonate.
The frequencies emanating from her body caused all of us to writhe in pain as our souls were being pulled apart and reordered. Struggling was useless as the isle became a maelstrom, churning with rage and desire, engulfing us in the resonance of our own fears until everything suddenly ceased and all we could hear were hearts beating inside of us and lungs taking their first breaths.
“Never pictured you with red hair,” said Lélek as we stood before each other in our natural, physical forms. “Thought only Toprakians evolved crimson hues.”
“Not how I pictured you either,” I replied (because, apparently, Griovian souls bear no resemblance to the physical body).
We’d all been transformed, even Dušan, though he remained on the ground looking like a typical Suolo – no eyes or ears, just a cylindrical body functioning like a radar, sensing everything.
“Is he sleeping?” asked Szív. “Physical bodies require rest to rejuvenate and, he’s like three millennia old.”
“Physical bodies don’t live that long,” said Míly.
“Suolos hibernate a lot,” said Teru. “Their whole world spends more time asleep than being awake.”
“He’s not sleeping,” said Lélek, kneeling next to Dušan, scanning him (because Griovian eyes could perceive multiple spectrums and dimensions). “He’s dead.”
“Warned me that might happen,” chuckled Śevvi. “Not every soul can handle the transformation. They estimated a loss of about twelve percent.”
“Dušan was our teacher, the only father we’d ever had,” said Lélek.
“The only fathers we have now are the Utarré,” said Śevvi robotically.
“What just happened?” asked Víz, walking through the path. His tall, sinewy frame was covered in a scaly blue skin and his purple eyes glowed like neutron stars. “A wave hit us and suddenly we were solid. Fell in the sea, most of us didn’t make it to the beach. Our army’s gone.”
“It was Śevvi, she has some kind of power,” said Míly, as her delicate Silik body (her skin looked more like a membrane than skin) pulsated as she gazed at Víz. “We couldn’t stop her and not all of us made it either,” added Míly, glancing at Dušan.
“Can you reverse it?” asked Víz as even Śevvi seemed aroused (her Kamaran pheromones filled the grove with an enthralling scent).
“Why would you want to go back?” asked Śevvi nervously – because it wasn’t arousal, it was fear and shame.
“Not what I asked, Kamaran,” growled Víz.
“The Utarré need us and we need them,” said Śevvi as if she’d been brainwashed. “Going back serves no purpose.”
“I’ll take that as a yes,” said Víz. “Change us back or I’ll throw you off this cliff and we’ll see what happens to Kamaran skin and bones when they hit a rocky shore. Waywards from Nódoa split in half the second they hit the water, the Mutilated couldn’t even be made solid, there wasn’t enough of them to coalesce, and the Arávelian warriors aren’t carbon-based, so they couldn’t breathe. Even the Soul Clones ... this is what happens when you try to act like a god when you’re nothing more than a child, incapable of comprehending the mysteries of existence.”
“The Utarré ...”
“Bred themselves out of existence,” interrupted Víz. “They don’t deserve a second chance. And, where are they? Looks like they abandoned you.”
“I transformed the council so the Utarré could return to their world,” confessed Śevvi. “They’re waiting for us. An entire planet awaits us, empty, ready to be repopulated. I’ll change you back if you want, but I’m going, alone if I have to.”
“Even if every soul in the Hub chose to go with you, the portals won’t close,” said Teru. “The Hub never stops. What happens to the souls who keep arriving?”
“I’ll stay,” said Lélek. “For Dušan.”
“And I,” said Szív. “Because Víz is right, we’re not gods.”
“I believed in what we were doing and for a time, it was all I could see,” said Teru. “But I don’t want to leave anymore, not like this, not when I know the Hub will flood again.”
“I’ll go with Śevvi,” said Míly, surprising everyone, especially Víz. “Your mother never gave you a choice, Víz, none of our mothers did. I’ve spent millennia in the Hub and I want to experience life in a different way.”
Víz remained silent, contemplating his choice.
“Maybe that’s the solution,” I said. “It’s about choice. Ironically, it’s what Víz’s mom suggested. We have to choose, all of us. Even those who continue to be sent to the Hub should be given a choice, after their awakening, to stay here or transform.”
“So, what do you choose?” asked Śevvi. “Will you come with me?”
“I’ll go,” said Víz before I could answer. “I’d like to find a better way, fix the mistakes made by those who came before us.”
Víz and Míly embraced – which, given their awkwardness with their new bodies (hadn’t learned self-control yet), they should’ve gone behind one of the trees. Leaving Víz and Míly to their moment, Śevvi waved her hands and the souls that had perished rose again, disembodied and eternal, as they were before.
“From this time forward, existence is a choice every soul makes for itself,” said Śevvi, glancing at me, still waiting for my answer. “Those of us going to Utarr choose to live a mortal life, not just the one that was denied to us, but one of our own design, better than the worlds that discarded us. Those who choose to stay become the stewards of all abandoned souls that continue to emerge until the day the Hub is no longer needed. May that day come.”
“May that day come,” we echoed softly as one of the Mutilated souls hovered toward Śevvi.
“My name is Yarim, from Soğuk Dünya,” he said. “Not all of us can be made whole. How can we join you, if we so choose?”
“I will find a way, Yarim, for all who wish it,” answered Śevvi, glancing at me again.
“You’ve brought us hope, where none existed,” said Dušan, surprising Śevvi, who’d expected a lecture.
“I’m sorry, Dušan, for all I’ve done,” said Śevvi. “You’ve always been there for me and I failed you.”
“You succeeded, Śevvi,” said Dušan. “You found what so many of us have yearned for since our awakening and I’m proud of you.”
“I killed you,” said Śevvi, crying (which was strangely beautiful to see, given how Kamaran tears glowed as they fell – like diamonds mixed with fireflies, highlighting her pain as they flickered to the ground, evaporating the moment they touched the soil).
“I would gladly give my life for any of you to be able to live yours,” said Dušan. “That is why I choose to join you.”
“But you can’t survive the transformation,” said Teru.
“When Śevvi finds a way for Yarim and those like him, she’ll find a way for me,” said Dušan as Śevvi cried more intensely.
“I will help you,” said Madam Entity, who descended upon us, the frequencies of her voice shaking loose some of the fruit from the trees. “I will help any soul,” she added as Víz looked embarrassed (because no mother should see their son standing naked next to his naked girlfriend) and proud (because as horrible as Madam Entity was as a mother, she’d finally found her grace).
Madam Entity hovered around the grove, inspecting all of us as if we were saplings she had planted herself.
“A seed grows but no one knows, in the silty loam of a barren forest, an entire existence encased in a kernel, but always dependent upon forces external,” she said as most of us stood bewildered by the uncertainty of her presence.
“What the hell is she talking about?” asked Lélek, as Víz and Míly looked visibly disturbed.
“Abandonment becomes atonement, for one everlasting moment,” said Madam Entity, as she closed her eyes and a radiant, purple light bathed the isle, gently transforming every soul who’d chosen Utarr into a physical being, whole and sustainable, in a state of prime condition, with an entire life awaiting them.
“I do not seek forgiveness, for that is not what I deserve,” said Madam Entity, looking directly at Víz, who was overcome with emotions. “Nothing could ever undo what I’ve done, but at least now, life can begin its mortal run.”
Madam Entity faded as we remained naked in the grove, trying to process her gift. Taking a cue, Śevvi opened a portal to Utarr and we caught a glimpse of what awaited us, but as I started to walk through I glanced back at the isle, seeing every memory I’d ever known churning in the nebula surrounding the Hub, hearing the faint echo of new arrivals at the Gate screaming in the distance, calling to me.
“I can’t leave,” I said to Śevvi, realizing what my words meant.
“I know,” said Śevvi, as we held each other’s physical bodies for the first time.
We were two corporeal creatures clinging to a state of pure tranquility, surrendering ourselves to the moment of our embrace, as if we were two halves of the only being in existence.
Nothing more was said between us as we let go and Śevvi returned me to my ethereal form. We simply knew our thoughts as the portal closed and she disappeared, the scent of her aura lingered in the grove, as did a trail of tears, unwilling to dissipate.
I returned to the Gate and I noticed a different hum radiating from one of the alcoves – back in the day, when the council initially formed, they constructed the alcoves as a way to observe the ethereal stream of souls traveling through the cosmos, which glistened like a comet’s tale, one that never faded.
With everything that had happened, we’d forgotten about the extra pods of Essences Śevvi collected and about the souls that had continued to arrive after the Semels emerged. They’d been left unattended, unnourished, and there was nothing I could do. It had been too long.
“Save me, and I’ll save you,” I whispered solemnly as I opened the alcove’s forcefield and released the forgotten souls and Essences to the vacuum of space, marveling as the celestial winds ferried them across the universe, a million slivers of stardust dancing in the half-lit glow of the cosmos.
As I watched the remnants of life swirling around me, I realized that we always emerge in the middle of story, thrust into the action of a self-perpetuating narrative, shaping it as we go along until our time ends and others assume our roles. But always, the story is in progress – the beginning being too long ago to remember and the end remaining too far away to imagine.
We’re fractured souls, emerging and fading into one another with the same relentless rhythm of the tides, born into a future forever tethered to the past.