She's not sure when she became separated from the group. All the hallways feel familiar ... but the hallways all look the same. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she thinks she ought to be panicking by now, but for some reason she's calm. Tranquil.
She's not sure what level she's on, whether it's higher or lower than the school area. Did she get on the elevator with the rest of the class? She can't remember.
The girl appears just around the bend in the hallway. She is older than Urkni, not a grownup but mature, confident, and reassuring. She is elegant and beautiful, and she makes Urkni feel tingly in a way she can't quite describe. There's a radiance that seems to come from her eyes, and a sense of peace.
She looks at Urkni for a long moment, silent and smiling gently, as if waiting for Urkni to initiate conversation.
"Can you help me? I'm lost," Urkni manages at last.
The stranger steps forward and touches Urkni's arm. "Oh, no you're not," she says reassuringly. "You're found. Come with me. I want to show you something fun. I know you'll like it! You'll see ... it's a lot more exciting than muscial chairs."
The abandoned laboratory is utterly prosaic. Many years ago, the colony on Planet 138 was the site of some very important scientific research for one of the Kathrite clans. Nowadays, no one is sure what it was, exactly, that was being studied; all that is certain is that Planet 138 hasn't been part of the big picture for a long time. The colony's population has remained roughly stable, or perhaps declined a little, and the lecture halls and workshops in the sector have been gradually converted to warehouses or meeting-halls, or simply left vacant. In the old days, the sector was strictly off-limits to the general public. Now, it's not: nobody has a reason to go there, but then, nobody has a reason not to go there, so it's a perfect place to go without attracting attention.
Urkni doesn't know any of this, but by the time she gets there, she knows she'll never ever be able to find her way back to Miss Orizhend's class on her own. The part of her mind that was worried an hour ago has now cried itself hoarse and is has given up on trying to change the course of events; it has resigned itself to looking for comfort wherever comfort can be found.
The stranger - who still hasn't given her name - rests her hand reassuringly on Urkni's shoulder. "Don't be afraid. We're all friends here." The mention of the word "afraid" makes Urkni realize that, come to think of it, she has been feeling something very much like fear; but she's glad to be able to let go of it now.
They are standing at the doorway to a room about the size of her old schoolroom, but it feels a lot different. There are voices - friendly voices, talking, chattering, perhaps telling stories. She can't make out any of the words, but it feels comforting. It feels like home. The older girl walks through the doorway, not looking back, and Urkni follows.
The lamps are off. Instead of artificial light, a single candle in the middle of the floor provides illumination. About two dozen people, young and old, are seated on the floor in a circle around the candle. When Urkni enters the room, conversation hushes and all eyes turn to her. "Welcome, sister," several voices say.
The light of the candle throws dramatic shadows against the walls. From a dark corner of the room, a silver-haired woman steps forward. "Welcome, sister," the woman says, looking at Urkni. Her manner is solemn but reassuring. In the woman's gaze, Urkni has a feling of being taken seriously. It is a good feeling.
Following the older girl's lead, Urkni takes a spot on the floor at the edge of the circle. The woman, who is obviously the leader of the group, stands silent for a long moment.
"Once, long ago, people knew the way. But the way was lost. And people became lost. Look at us now - look around. Where is the happiness? Where is the peace? Where is the hope? Where is the love?
"We've all heard the legend of how Eve was driven out of the Garden by the angel Lilith. So, too, has the spirit of life been driven out of the Universe. We are wracked by conflict and burdened by suffering in our daily lives - and each day, it seems, we sacrifice another little piece of our souls. And for what? We work, we strive, we suffer, we grieve - but our lives are empty.
"Friends, sisters, our generation has lost sight of the great Unity. Like the debris of a dying star, we are drifting farther and farther away from one another, losing energy, losing light. Dying, slowly dying.
"Only one thing can bring us back, and that is the realization of the great truth: the truth that we must live for something greater, for this universe is not our real home. These rocks we live on, these bodies we inhabit - they are prisons. They do not belong to us, nor we to them.
"Our destiny is to return to the Source. This Universe was created from nothing, and it will grow, and then it will turn inward and return to the great Void from which it came. So too with us: like the Universe, our calling is to return to the great Void. Then we will be one with the Cosmos for all eternity.
"One time soon, all created beings will understand this wisdom. But most are not ready for it yet. For now, the secret must remain with a trusted few - those enlightened souls that can grasp the greatness of this sacred calling. We are few, but we are many. We are here, and we are everywhere. We are Gilkesh, and we are among all the sentient races. We are the messengers of rebirth and redemption. We are Singularity."
The leader stands silent, her eyes closed, perhaps in a trance. Then a low murmur rises from the group, and resolves itself into a hum, and then into a slow, rippling chant. Urkni can't understand most of the words - they seem to be in another language, yet there's a familiar sounding phrase here and there, and she feels the meaning of the chant hangs just beyond her grasp. She starts humming along with the tune, then repeating the sounds she hears, she's afraid she's getting the words wrong but she wants to sing so badly she doesn't mind if she makes mistakes.
Now she doesn't care if she ever goes back home again, or if she ever sees the silly schoolroom again or not. Now she realizes it doesn't matter if she ever sees her stupid friends again, and anyway, they were never really her friends. This is where she belongs.
Someone blows out the candle, but the song continues. Now, nothing else matters: only the song, and the promise, and the endless night ahead.