Ayinde stepped carefully through the underbrush trying to avoid making noise but somehow he knew his presence was known. How had he never seen this place before? It wasn't even far from the usual hunting grounds. He'd been warned of places like this. His people knew that danger sometimes lurked within the seemingly familiar.
Ayinde looked up trying to locate the full moon in an attempt to reorient himself but it had disappeared from the sky. He heard a bird chirp in the distance; its call sounded distorted and somehow reversed. As he searched the trees an ominous hum rose around him. He could see the bird now, it fluttered unnaturally, twitching and shaking as water droplets lifted off the ground and burrowed into the feathers on its back. It jerked its head in his direction then stopped upon making eye contact with him. It leapt from the branch and flew backwards through the air in a manner he'd never seen before.
He was once again aware of something watching him. He'd come here to hunt but now he'd inadvertently become the prey. He crouched low to the ground, tightly gripping his hunting spear as he approached a large body of water. Ayinde cupped his hand in the water and brought it to his mouth. He thanked Oshun, the river goddess, as he splashed some on his face and neck to cool off. He stared into his reflection in the water and thought he saw the outline of something behind him. A shudder ran through his body as he spun around but there was nothing there.
As he faced the lake once again he saw a dark figure standing on the shore of the opposite side. It shared a strange combination of animal and insect-like features. He surmised it to be a predator of some kind based on the exposed fangs and claws and, unfortunately, he'd caught its attention. For the moment he was thankful the two of them were separated by a large body of water, then it sprinted across the top of the lake toward him. Its tall, lean body impossibly supported by the surface of the water as if it had no weight at all.
He no longer had time for speculation, now he turned and ran.
Ayinde sprinted into the high grass hoping he might be able to lose the creature that was surely closing the distance between the two of them now. He could hear it panting and the light pat-pat of its feet on the ground somewhere behind him. He moved in a zig-zag pattern thinking that it might confuse it or, at the very least, make him a little harder to catch. It dawned on him that he was instinctually heading back to his village, bringing the danger to his people. He must try to take care of this predicament on his own like the heroes of old and like his grandfather, one of the most venerated warriors of his tribe. Heroes bravely fought for their communities rather than cowardly raining calamity down upon it.
On the hill to his right he saw a large tree and darted toward it. He'd scaled to the top within a matter of seconds and now awaited the beast with his hunting spear drawn. Without warning the tree folded in on itself and collapsed into the ground, taking him along with it. He listened to the rocks and soil churn restlessly around him as he was forced deeper and deeper. The dirt fell away and he saw a large subterranean chasm open up beneath him. He clung to the roots of the tree by his fingertips but he could feel his grip slipping. The roots broke free from his grasp and he plummeted into the chasm.
As he descended further into the abyss he watched a dim light grow with increasing brightness as he neared its source. Streams of hot air ran over his face and limbs as he discovered he was reaching the earth's core. Oceans of liquified rock broiled for as far as he could see. Suddenly he rocketed past them and ascended back through the earth's crust to the opposite side of the surface. Ayinde burst free from the ground in a plume of dust, throwing rocks and soil in every direction.
Then he saw a twin planet suspended parallel to his own as he sped toward its surface in a spot identical to where he'd been submerged with the previous tree before. Another treetop (or was it the same one?) folded into itself, taking him along with it once again, repeating the entire process until he was ejected from the planet's opposite side. Then he was jettisoned to the next replica of his planet as he seemed to be stuck in an infinite loop, faster and faster. Ayinde shut his eyes unable to watch any longer for fear of going insane.
He finally reopened them when he felt his rate of descent slowing. He saw his village from above; now there were several of the creatures chasing his fellow tribesmen. Whenever the tribesmen tried to break away from a path leading to the village the creatures would circle around and force them back to the village as if they were herding them like sheepdogs . . . but for what purpose?
He struck the ground with a soft thud.
Ayinde rose to his feet and looked around. Up the hill stood the same tree he'd fallen into earlier; his hunting spear now lay at the base of it. He lifted his hunting spear from the ground, careful not to touch that cursed tree again.
If the beasts were intentionally rounding up the hunters and pushing them back toward the village, then they were already aware of its location and hoping to use it as a point of convergence. He could only guess at their purpose for rounding all of his people up into one spot, but he doubted it was for anything good. He decided to stand his ground against the monster even though he knew his chances of survival weren't very high. He crouched into a defensive position and prayed for Ogun, the god of warriors, to guide his aim as he awaited its arrival.
The moment its head rose from the tall grass he lunged forward, hurling the spear through the air. There was a ripping sound as it made impact but the outcome was not as he'd expected. His spear had left a gaping hole, not only in the creature but in the environment as well. It was as if he was looking at a painting with a tear in its canvas. Beyond the tear was no blood or bodily fluids, only a void into which his spear had vanished. The tattered edges of the hole quickly rethread themselves together and the beast continued on undeterred.
He was now without a weapon, but he was determined not to give up. As the beast charged, he grabbed a large stone from the ground and leapt into the air swinging wildly at its face. He landed several blows with the rock as the creature lifted him off the ground with its thin but surprisingly strong front legs. He stared into its blank, unfeeling eyes as it let loose an ear-piercing wail in his face. Then his free hand fell on something cold and metallic around its neck, a luminescent collar of some kind. He smashed the rock against the collar repeatedly not quite sure of what it would accomplish, if anything.
After a series of merciless blows the collar came off in his hand. The creature ceased wailing and grew strangely calm. It gave him a confused expression, chirped softly at him, then turned around and disappeared back through the tall grass. He stood in place for a while examining the bizarre collar, then he darted down the hill back towards his village.
As he reached the village he saw his tribespeople panicked and mothers clutching their children tightly as they ran. In the distance were brilliant flashes of light approaching as a massive gust of wind swept across the savanna toward him. It blew through the village tearing off the roofs of several huts. At first he thought the light and wind must be the fury of an approaching storm, but then he saw it.
With each flash of light another member of Ayinde’s tribe ascended into the air reaching impossible heights. Then he noticed the strange sky—what he had previously mistaken for stars were the twinkling spires of an upside-down cityscape. He saw several of the greatest warriors of his tribe traveling up the shafts of light. One of the men was his close friend, Kaseko; he grabbed Kaseko's ankle desperately trying to bring him back down to the earth but soon found himself under its thrall as well. Ayinde released his grasp but it was too late. He was now being lifted high into the air above the village.
He looked below to see the roofs of the huts growing smaller and smaller. It appeared as if little ants were scurrying about around the shrinking huts and he realized they were his tribespeople. He returned his eyes to above and saw each warrior disappearing inside of the structure. A mechanized mouth opened wide and he closed his eyes preparing for the end.
When he reopened them, all was silent as his eyes adjusted to the blinding brightness. He found himself standing in an entirely white room by himself. He could not tell where the room ended or if there were walls or a ceiling, so he began walking with his hands stretched out in front of him. He approached what he believed to be a wall when his hand passed through it, startling him. He took another step forward and passed through entirely, stepping down into a silver corridor.
Ayinde looked back at the silver wall where he'd entered and lifted his hand to it. His fingers brushed along the cold, metallic surface of the wall. It was completely solid now so one thing was for certain: he wouldn't be going back the way he came in. He looked along the corridor realizing he could go either direction. He chose randomly and started walking as he approached what appeared to be a dead end when the corridor shifted, transforming into an open field of waist-high grass blowing in the breeze.
Though he could see no boundaries or walls, he knew he was still inside the massive structure; there was something artificial about this natural scene. He couldn't place his finger on it but something was just off. To his left something began moving towards him through the weeds. At first he believed it was a writhing coil of brown snakes but as it grew closer he realized it was a bundle of twisting, tangled roots. Without warning the roots shot upward, taking on a definitive human shape. As the tendrils fell away he saw a face emerge.
His mother's face.
His mother was draped in an elegant white tunic with flowing sleeves and a high neckband. She spoke in a strange yet calming manner. "Hello dear, I'm sure you're quite confused by all of this so I'd be happy to enlighten you. There is much reason for our people to rejoice. The Supreme Creator, Olodumare, has chosen to smile upon us this day. A new race of explorers from above wishes to bring us into their fold. We need only to cooperate and they will bestow humanity with access to the stars through technology and power we could never achieve on our own."
Ayinde eyed her suspiciously, then he saw the faint glow of the luminescent collar beneath the neckband of her tunic. "Your camouflage is the most impressive I've ever seen," he said, "but you are not my mother."
An unsettling grin spread across her face as her demeanor completely changed. "I knew you were different from the moment I saw you fight that Letari of ours." The voice coming from her mouth was no longer her own. Now it was coarse and deep, seemingly coming from all directions at once. "I'm glad there's no need for pretense with you, it's refreshing. I apologize for using your mother as a means of communication but I thought it might make it easier for you."
"Make what easier?" Ayinde said warily.
"Your Immersion. What I said before was the truth. We are explorers from above," she said pointing up at the transforming sky. The sunny day instantly turned to a starry night with a particular section of stars illuminated. "We call ourselves the Halcyon from the Empyrean Galaxy, which is the star cluster you see overhead. We travel throughout the Universe bringing other species into our fold, such as the Letari you encountered earlier."
He gave her a skeptical look. "You call yourselves explorers yet you resemble conquerors, and this so-called Immersion sounds a lot like servitude to me. For instance, where is my mother as we hold this conversation?"
She winked at him. "Oh, rest assured she's still here. This is only a temporary state and our Immersion comes with many advantages. As I have said access to the stars and unimaginable power. Do you really think that primitive Letari beast could have performed those miraculous feats without our technology at its disposal?"
Ayinde was unimpressed. "You're trying to convince me that submission to you is what's best for humanity, but our freedom is more valuable than any advancements you could ever give to us. I know that you're going to do what you want anyway, but the fact that you even present it as if we have an option tells me that you're scared. Probably because I've overcome your beast and your technology once already."
She sighed. "You are perceptive, I'll give you that, but humanity will bow down like all the species before it have. We simply wanted to show mercy, make it a little easier on you."
She brought another glowing collar from her tunic and took a step toward him. His body experienced a sudden paralysis before she clasped the collar firmly around his neck.
Ayinde felt as if his mind was a crowded room and he'd suddenly been pushed to the back as someone else took over. He was still looking out through his eyes but he had no control of his body. He passively watched as he left the place where his mother was and stepped back into the long, silver corridor. At the end of the corridor he stepped through a wall of rippling liquid then he entered a large circular room with a window viewing the savanna where his village sat.
There was a strange shimmering being that stood before the window gazing out at the pastoral scene. The figure was so bright that he couldn't look directly at it. He guessed this was one of the Halcyon in its true form, but he couldn't be sure. Then he realized they were not the only two in the room. He recognized members of his tribe as well as those of other neighboring villages. He also saw more of the Letari creatures roaming around. The humans and the Letari both wore the same type of collar that he wore.
He could feel the probing fingers of the Halcyon inside of his head accessing particular memories and knowledge he had. Then something unexpected happened, he saw through the eyes of one of his tribespeople. Then through the eyes of a neighboring villager. Then through his mother's eyes. Somehow, whether or not the Halcyon had intended it, the collars had made all of those that wore them form a strong mental connection with each other.
He wondered if it was possible to communicate through this cerebral linking that had occurred. If the Halcyon could send commands to each person's mind and extract information from them, then it seemed reasonable that the villagers might be able to use this conduit to send thoughts and ideas to each other as well. As the Halcyon used his physical body for mysterious interactions with their ship he mentally focused on his mother, attempting to send her a message.
If Ayinde could create a psychic bridge with his mother, assuming she really was still in there somewhere just as he was, then maybe they could work together to find a weakness in the Halcyon's technology and use it against them. He knew it was a long shot, but he also knew the Halcyon underestimated humans. They probably considered them only slightly more capable than the Letari and after witnessing that beast manipulate the environment with the collar he knew a human could do far more once they overcame whatever safeguards were in place.
So he honed in on his mother's mind using one of their most treasured memories together as the jumping-off point. He was a young boy playing out in the grass, pretending to be a skilled hunter like his father when he heard a growl nearby. That's when he noticed the lion cub he'd nearly stumbled on top of in the tall weeds, only the growling wasn't coming from the cub but rather the mother lion a few feet ahead of him. She was ferocious and more terrifying than anything he'd seen in his young life.
Back at the village he burst into his family's hut and into his mother's arms crying without giving her an explanation. For the next several nights the mother lion stalked him in nightmares, forcing him awake screaming until his mother comforted him. When he finally shared the source of his night terrors she hugged him and informed him that even though the danger he'd experienced that day was quite real the female lion was not a monster. It was only a mother looking after her cub just as she would always look after and protect him.
Throughout the years that followed this memory forged their bond as the constant reminder of the fierceness of a mother's love. He used this recollection now in an attempt to reach his mother, but the merging went no further than him seeing through her eyes once more. He started to panic. If he couldn't connect with his beloved mother, his own flesh and blood, then what hope was there? A heavy feeling of sadness began to weigh down on him as he considered his fate and the fate of his people.
Ayinde felt his grip loosening on the last thread of hope when the words came: "A single stick is easily broken, but sticks in a bundle are unbreakable." It was an ancient proverb about strength through community that his mother had taught him as a child. Maybe he'd been going about this all wrong. He loved his mother but he also knew there was great power in numbers, and uniting to work toward a common goal was something that humans could excel at when it was absolutely necessary.
Humanity's intellect paired with the capability of mass cooperation is what set them apart from the animal kingdom. It could be used toward destruction, such as grand-scale war, or toward creation, such as towering civilizations. He was now determined to show the Halcyon this side of humanity and make them regret their underestimation of his species. As this thought formed it was as if multiple light switches flipped on at once and an instantaneous merging of minds occurred. He could hear the voices of the tribe members inside of his head, many of them felt scared and alone just as he had.
Ayinde repeated the old proverb and sent it out to each of them. Then it was as if they were each awaking from a deep sleep, soon his entire tribe was ready and waiting. They were a force to be reckoned with but he knew it still wasn't going to be enough against the Halcyon. Then he thought of the people from the neighboring villages; his tribe had disagreed and fought with many of them in the past but all of that had to be put aside for now. This was bigger than any one person or community.
Send the message out to anyone and everyone that will listen, he communicated to the tribe.
And they did . . . .
Soon the people of the neighboring villages were awaking and joining as well. He could feel the psychic resistance growing ever larger. Then something completely unexpected happened—the message just kept on going.
People he'd never seen, from tribes and places he'd never heard of, started uniting with the growing consciousness. These people were different from him in their shades of skin and spoken tongues, but they all had two things in common: they were human and they'd been subjugated by the Halcyon. He wondered how long the Halcyon had been doing this. He'd foolishly assumed his people were their first contact with humanity, now he knew that was far from the case.
Massive amounts of information concerning the Halcyon tech and their way of life flooded his mind. From this collage of disparate details he spotted a chink in their armor that could be exploited. The Halcyon had a safeguard in place for when humans were at the ship's command station. In order for a human to utilize their technology the user's collar had to confirm that the person was not operating from their own personal will but under the influence of a Controller. In typical circumstances a Controller was one of the Halcyon, all of their technology could be accessed based on this single assumption.
The Halcyon were about to pay dearly for this oversight as he allowed his consciousness to merge with the rest of humanity. Through their collected consciousness they entered the command station and his collar confirmed the presence of a Controller. The small pieces of each individual's knowledge assembled into a patchwork understanding of the entire system. Humanity disconnected the ship from the Halcyon network, then turned off the ship’s engine and the craft plunged to the Earth.
Ayinde’s tribe and the neighboring villagers still had their psychic connection and the technology at their disposal, but now without the interference of the Halcyon. Every human aboard formed an energy field around themselves and burst through the ship's hull. He watched the Halcyon vessel explode as they ascended above the flames into the sky. He knew this same scene was being repeated all over as humanity freed itself from its captors.
He reunited with his mother as they floated through the clouds. Her eyes widened with fear when he broke the collar around his neck, but he reassured her with a smile as it crumbled and fell from his body. It had somehow permanently altered him; he was now stronger than ever before. Then he reached out, removing her collar as well, as she continued levitating. It appeared Ayinde was not the only one who'd undergone a transformation. He grabbed ahold of her hand as their eyes searched the stars overhead.
"Mother, it looks like we've got some exploring to do," he said as they drifted out into the aether.
Gene leaned back in his computer chair and removed his glasses as he lightly massaged the bridge of his nose. He spent several minutes staring at the blinking cursor with a growing sense of accomplishment. He still needed a fresh set of eyes to look over the manuscript and give him some feedback, but his wife was asleep with the baby. So he picked up his cellphone and dialed a number.
"Hey Mom, sorry to bother you this late, but I’d really like your input on a piece I just finished . . . ."