5x Rerun: Fire Within (1) 37-41

– 37 –

Soleil glazes over. Her emotions are beyond their extremes, deadening under the force of this litany of wrongs. Then, at last, a face she dreaded to see this way.

Her grandmother Celeste might know her better than any other, and Soleil holds her opinion highest. The Princess learned the world in hand with her grandmother since the dawn of time, and her wisdom helped Soleil build a shining future.

Now the girl sees that this future is built on bones, and worse. That her grandmother knew, even as she was building it, what it meant for her descendant. A castle of blood debt requiring death to enter, sin after sin against spirit.

Seeing this, Soleil feels that somehow, she’d known.

37

– 38 –

“What he meant, Mr. Dremel, is that Lurin has a masked planetwide network or three, and he wants you to connect to one of them. They connect and control all sorts of Can You Even Imagine. Either you’re more skilled than I gave you credit for, or he really is that desperate.”

“Probably both, Ms. Ilacqua.” He typed as he spoke, the displays above him changing views. Karma Ilacqua’s face was on none of them – voice calls seemed to be a habit of hers. Considered rude, but she’d let you know it wasn’t personal.

“I’m disappointed to hear his contact was awol, though not surprised. Derringer, I figured, could improvise. How he got himself lost is what I want to know.” Her smirk was audible. “He said he knew what he was getting into.”

“Well, you’ve heard the stories, haven’t you?”

“About what?”

“Lurin.”

A sigh came over the channel. “Mr. Dremel, I’ve heard them. I even have a couple of my own.” The two men raised their eyebrows at each other. “I was simply hoping for the best.”

“Do you need someone on the ground? Do you want me to go? Because I’ll go.”

DeWalt lunged over from his seat on the couch. “We’ll both go. Dremel and DeWalt, I bet you’ll need us both there.”

“I don’t need either of you there.” DeWalt sat, disgruntled. “Just do what Derringer asked of you.”

“We started when he asked me an hour ago. I detect the presence of a network like you mentioned. You say it exists, right? Then that’s about where we’re at.”

She chuckled. “That’s actually pretty good, champ. Keep going.” The line beeped as she disconnected.

Dremel sat back and crossed his arms. He took off his shades and pressed the back of his hand to his eyes. “Keep going, huh.”

“Yeah.” DeWalt lifted his hands and looked at the office – empty when they’d arrived, now well littered with food boxes, snack wrappers, and bottles. “Keep going.”

38

– 39 –

And then, respite; an eminence of quietude overtakes.

Her energy collects itself, piece by piece, certain that she isn’t put together the same.

The fire surrounds, remaining. She breathes for an indefinite while. Soon she feels a current of expectation underlying the calm, and reaches out halfway to meet it.

She feels herself transforming. Gently, so as not to alarm. The transformation is a means of understanding.

She opens into the fire. Combustion becomes a means of existence, the world exploding in consumptive and radiant energy signatures connecting corners of the universe. As she grasps the torrential motions that form this structure, she feels herself approached by the people who live here. Their contact to her is like flame rushing up against a glass window. An invisible pane mutes the force into a warm touch, fingertips against fingertips.

The contact is cordially scrutinizing; unimpressed. She is in their house because they brought her here. This is their self communication. She is reminded of the Huntress’ Aria, again feels herself hearing it for the first time. She nods, acknowledging the initial contact. An emissary furls forward from the fire, and she looks it in the eyes. A wave of recognition putting her to mind of her dragon teacher, though she’d never seen dragons like this before. The tendrils of fire fold back on themselves, the emissary receding, and she returns to the familiar shape of humanity.

Another change commences, now unspooling into connected strands of idea. This form feels closer to her own. The strands of idea like connected pieces of knowledge about herself, a braid of lightning awareness.

The connection sucks her through into a room of sorts, completely herself and surrounded by people. They turn to her, strongly curious. She is stunned; they’re human. She skims her mental file of human peoples of the Imperium, and these are not any of those. Their likenesses flow via portals fueled by constant babble. An unheard language in laughs and whispers, from irrelevance to secret truths. All faces are unclear, and there are more voices than could possibly come from those around her. They are convivial, and critical.

One steps forward and lifts a staff, the top of it a shifting, spinning polyhedron. Looking into it, she is pulled again through those thought channels into the between.

39

– 40 –

“You’re from Aristyd – have you heard of the Pliskin Program?” The lean, pale man in hat and shades turned around to face his partner. He sat cross-legged in the office armchair.

“No.” His counterpart spoke from where he lay on the couch, studying an issue of Hover Life in his hands. It featured a Sibley Griffin on the cover.

“It’s a charity fund that builds and improves medical facilities on outer worlds, along with other small projects. Ilacqua, our boss, is employed by them as a Sites and Technology Researcher in the Project Development wing.”

DeWalt smirked without lifting his eyes from the magazine. “Which means she can go anywhere and get nosy.”

“I’m thinking she’s got bosses. There are a few above her in the funding scheme, though they’re not all in her department. It’s just one of Plexus Corp’s charity arms. Ravl Pliskin’s company.”

“Who’s he?”

“He set patents on the newer travelgate tech for the major inter-g routes. Made them as safe as they’ve ever been. Only one major accident since the Plexus modules were installed.” Dremel waited for acknowledgment of the achievement, but received none. “That was thirty-six years ago. Now, they’re the main equipment and tech supplier for all our transportation networks.”

DeWalt paused and looked up, furrowing his brow. “Wait, who did you say we were working for, Plixin?”

“Plexus.”

DeWalt cleared his throat. “What, PLEXUS?” He set the magazine aside. “You mean the name on every single drive archway, you see it flashing in and out like an optical illusion when it spins up into transmode?”

“Yeah, Fred. That’s who we’re working for.”

Fred DeWalt put his feet on the ground and leaned over his knees. He issued a chuckle. “Oh, no. No, we’re in deep shit now.”

Dremel put his hands in the air. “Now you understand?”

DeWalt kept laughing. “I don’t understand a damn thing, Dremel, and you know it.”

“I know, Fred. Dammit, I know.”

40

– 41 –

It dawns on Soleil that the mass of all she doesn’t know eclipses the little she does, even on a personal level.

She feels relief, and proximity to danger. Maintaining this-ness becomes a priority, a good portion of her energy going to that task. The quiet core exists like the eye of a storm as she undergoes further transformations.

People tribal and proud, barbaric and warlike, elegant and organized with unique senses of sophistication.

A chaotic court of creatures made mostly of spirit. Constantly changing shape, essence, and intention, while possessed of a complex integrity.

After these, a human with a particular signature – at once dark and ethereal, naturally powerful. A remarkable grin. Soleil is again reminded of the Huntresses’ Aria, the shaman’s dirge.

She meets them all part way, the world and themselves appearing to her as it does to them. She returns to the pupil in the eye. A dark, hot space where she sinks into her own breath.

The field of vision opens, revealing an array of objects, symbols. They are monadic, bearing layers of personal connection and universal meaning that unfold at a glance.

She approaches them intuitively, selecting one at a time. Below is a box for them. The chosen objects go in one at a time, synergizing into a loaded construct. When the seventh and final object goes in, a brief superstructural flash sears itself against the surrounding space. She closes the box and collapses it between her hands as she brings them together.

The undersides of her hands glow gold. Bringing her fingertips to her temples, she feels the glow diffuse around her head like the soothing touch of sunlight. Finally, she is able to close her eyes.

41

5x Rerun: Fire Within (1) 33-35, 4th Sequence, 36

– 33 –

Outside the hospice room door, two guards were posted in dressed-down black and white smocks. One read a paper stating the business of the five Aquarii awaiting entry. He bowed to the smallish one at the front. Bright Wave bowed back. The bipedal, tentacle-crowned Aquari body is eloquent at displays of courtesy. He opened the door, and the guests entered.

They were greeted by Queen Celeste, and the King and Queen Ascendants. By their differing sizes, and patterns on their thoraxes, it appeared none of these Aquarii were of the same tribe. Unusual for such a tribal people.

Soleil’s bed was at the center of the room. Her parents and grandmother stood at the foot of the bed, while the five Aquarii arrayed themselves around her. Two more Imperial guards were posted inside the door.

All discussed what had been agreed on. “We are not intruding on her mind in the least, not gaining any sort of access. Merely interpreting surface expressions,” said Sharp Talon, the brown-and-gold. His two main tentacles were clasped before him.

“All of us are versed in human-spectrum expression,” said Dark Zephyr, the one mostly black with a few green accents, “so we should be able to translate what we feel from her into something you can understand.” All five of them carried a barely audible harmonizing undertone.

“But we have no guarantees,” said Bright Wave, “about anything. We can do this for, perhaps–” Her octopuslike eyes narrowed, the fine tentacles around her face waving in thought. “–an hour. With some resting time in between.”

“You three are most able to understand the meaning of the song. You are all human. We will do our best to act as appropriate media.”

“Will it interfere with your work to have a camera recording?” asked the King Ascendant Vario.

“No. But your senses will give you the complete picture as it will never occur again. Your Graces, please pay attention. At best, cameras will provide you with a reminder of the song as it transpired. They are not good with subtlety.”

The family nodded to each other before again nodding to their guests. “Yes, we understand. Thank you,” said Queen Celeste on the left. She nodded to the guards inside the door, who brought chairs to the foot of the bed. The three sat.

The Aquarii bowed. All their facial tendrils became busy with motion as they reached out to grasp each other’s left and right tentacles.

Instantly the air above Soleil turned luminous, as though sunlight were shining in from some forested place. A choirlike frequency emanated from the sides of the room. Columns of dark shadow appeared, and moved about as though marching in formation. Out of the choirlike humming, music began to rise.

True Aquari music is almost never like human instruments – instead, frequencies bend, sounding like one thing and then another, produced from the majority of their finer tentacles.

This song began with a sound like wind and travel, transforming into a rough beat. It permutated, volume rising and lowering. It put Celeste in mind of the musicians tuning before the opera, a week ago now.

A metallic melody began to weave itself over the picture, fierce and feral. Queen Ascendant Charlotte almost smiled. It sounded like her daughter when she was angry. Around the melody ran a cathedral echo of awe. The columns of shadow split and reformed, until suddenly they dwindled into the distance and vanished.

Layers of pearly haze drifted within the Aquari circle. This gave way, condensing into bright points of light. What does that spell out? thought Vario, King Ascendant, Soleil’s father. What picture do those dots draw? What constellation, in what voidy corner of the Pan-Galaxy? Where is her mind?

Then, a stillness with distinct presence. As though they had been spotted. The music stuttered to a stop and held its breath. The stillness seemed to smile as the corners of the room folded in. The Aquari humming resumed quietly, cautiously. Again the song clipped off as though muted. Something was wrong. The Aquari voices broke forcefully into a great, swooping finale in symphonic meter. Promptly they disentangled, and each sagged or sank to the floor.

Dark Zephyr spoke quickly, distractedly, her speech garbled as through a patchy radio signal. “Not like any Aquari we know. Not human, not dragon, and too alive to be a machine. Something or someone is interfacing with the Princess’ mind. Not resident, but more than just in contact.”

The brown-shelled Aquari Sharp Talon was on one knee. “Other than that, she is dreaming some orderly dream. We can’t say how much of her mind is affected, but she is mostly herself.”

“Can we locate or identify the intruder?” asked the Queen.

“In a short while, we can try again.” Bright Wave gestured soothingly. “No guarantee of learning anything new.”

“We understand. Whatever service you can render the Imperium will be rewarded,” replied King Ascendant Vario. “We can offer you quarters where you may rest until you are ready to return at the soonest opportunity.”

The five Aquarii rose from their weary positions while giving courtesy. “We accept,” they replied in a voice that projected from above their heads. The Queen nodded to a guard, who opened the door and led them out.

The remaining three stood looking at each other silently for many breaths. The King Ascendant bowed his head and said, “I am going to lay down for a spell.” He left without requiring assent.

The Queen and Queen Ascendant gazed down at the face of their scion.

33

– 34 –

The multi-tiered breakfast service was a series of concentric platters hovering over each other in a stack. On three sides of a square table sat Mireille, Cristobal, and Carlo, the younger Magus children, Princes and Princessa. The bottom plate had sardines, radishes, roasted peppers, and bread. Above that was cheese, jam, yogurt and toasted grains. The third plate held sausage and thin-sliced cured meat. The three of them were each pulling different platters toward them and sampling onto their plates, chatting.

“Maybe she was into something she shouldn’t have been, maybe she had secrets. We don’t even know who it could be.” Cristobal pulled down the sausage platter and helped himself to a sizable pile.

“Soleil’s too busy overachieving for deep dark secrets. That’s how I see it. Speaking of overachieving, how was your presentation the other day?” Mireille stuffed her mouth with a spoonful of yogurt and grains.

“It went alright. I’m not the greatest presenter, but the screen animators made up for it.” Cristobal ate piece after piece of sausage.

“You’re not great, but you’re not bad. You’re just young and you need more practice.”

“I like doing the research. The presentation part I can take it or leave it.”

“It doesn’t take much effort to improve on that. Something for your to-do list.”

Cristobal wrinkled his face. “Thanks, sister. I really have plenty to do, but at some point I will… I may as well. Carlo, what do you want?”

The younger brother, still small in his chair, was reaching across the table. “The cheese.” Cristobal brought the second plate down to Carlo, who picked up a white palm-sized wheel. “Thank you brother.”

Mireille bit into a radish. “Carlo, I heard you lost your temper at a student who was teaching you the other day.”

“Yes, but I only hit the table. I’m sorry and I said so.” He tore a morsel off the wheel and nibbled it.

“You’re given plenty of leniency because you’re still a child. What you did was forgivable. But you’re on camera now with your brother.”

“I know I know I know.” He stuck his fork in a radish before looking up at his sister with puppy eyes. “It’s fine, I won’t do that the next time I get frustrated.” Mireille kissed her hand and patted his cheek. He rolled his eyes and smiled.

“It’s Pyrean Midsummer soon,” said Cristobal, referring to the holiday on which Alisandre and four other far-flung planets shared the same solstice, once every seven years. “Soleil is supposed to lead the ceremonies.”

“That’s a long way from now, Cristobal.” Mireille was preparing to stand in, though she expected her sister to be awake by then. They ate without speaking for a minute.

A knock sounded. “Let’s get going,” said Cristobal to his younger brother. “Astrography today, with Lector Una Ixa in the projection dome,” this partially spoken to Mireille.

“That’ll be enjoyable. Carlo, you haven’t been yet, have you?”

“To the projection dome? No.”

“Well, you’re in for a treat. Just don’t get motion sickness.”

“I won’t,” he said sounding offended. “I don’t.”

“We’ll see.” His brown eyes glared into her grey-eyed smirk. “Go on, your brother’s leaving.” Carlo stuck his tongue out at her before following Cristobal out the door.

As it closed, Mireille slumped with her hands before her lips.

34

– 35 –

The planet’s atmosphere flashed pale light against a dark night sky. The magnetic aurora was strong as ever, at some points bright as daylight, or brighter. This lit the craggy mountainside. A peculiar fire was burning halfway up the slope.

A large stand of trees was aflame, but this was no uncontrolled wildfire. Rather, the flames buttressed from tree to tree in forms of energetic architecture. The fuel was barely consumed. Loud harmonic frequency distortions filled the air. In the center of these, untouched and protected, were eight beings, each marked in the darkness by a fiery halo interfacing with the greater structure.

One, appearing to be a human man, was ensconced in a temperamental blaze. Ripples of conversation moved through the thick, ornate flame, forming a filigree both friendly and aggressive. It acted like a separate entity, which it was.

The man floating within this sphere of tumult was large, well-muscled, bronze-skinned. His long dark hair crackled with heat and electricity, moving in Aquari-like gestures. Barefoot, in pants and a coat, he floated cross-legged, eyes closed, face tilted softly upwards.

The structure of the entire fire was massive. In the air high above it burned a piercing central beacon, tiny but star-bright. A light like that would be visible from orbit. Even the aurora couldn’t outshine it.

35

– 4TH SEQUENCE –

Fourth Sequence

– 36 –

“So, we’re not that smart; but we’re not dumb, either. They figured things out enough to get there, but not to get what they were after. I figure we’ve got even chances. That’s good odds, quit moaning.” The screens surrounding Chad Dremel were covered in pictures and files. The one he was working on showed a progress bar titled Unencrypt, which stood at just over sixty-five percent. To one side, Fred DeWalt slumped back on a bench, resting the back of his head against a desk.

“This just isn’t simple, Dremel. It isn’t simple. I’m not cut out for detective work. Devious people hiding everything. I just knew when Derringer called…”

Dremel adjusted his screen shades. “Relax. I’m taking care of the research. If we need to chase anybody down, you can drive the Griffin, you can hold the gun.”

“You can hold your own.”

“I do, but it’s not as big as yours.” One of the five com relays lit up and began to buzz. “Speaking of your mother.” DeWalt covered his face with his hands. Dremel sent the call to his lower right hand screen. “Big D. What’s happening.”

In the picture, people in all manner of bizarre dress were passing across, behind, and around him. They wore every color of the spectrum, and most sported feathers large and small, including the many Aquarii in the crowd. “–at the Ileus Peak festival on Lurin. I’m A) Lost, and B) Lost. Two different kinds of lost, maybe three. You gotta help me with at least one.”

DeWalt sat up at the mention of the notorious planet. “How, in all the galaxies, did you get to Lurin?”

“Same way you got yourselves a free Griffin. You know, I wonder who it is we’re really working for.”

“That occurred to me,” said Dremel. “And I want to look into it.”

“Kay. And back to our point.”

“You’re Lost, how can we help?”

Derringer looked around at the crowds passing through a wide, forested thoroughfare. “So, Lurin has no street signs, and I lost my landmarks. On top of that, I don’t speak Lurinese.” Dremel and DeWalt were already laughing at him. Derringer showed expression of aggrieved forbearance.

“Well – where are you trying to get to?” asked Dremel, getting things under control.

“That’s the other part. I’m looking for someone. They were not where they were supposed to be, and this is how I reached the current situation.” The screen picture started to change color. Dremel attempted to modulate, with no luck. The image was being captured with wavelength refraction via ambient moisture, transmitted from a pin on his lapel. There could be someone nearby emitting interference; you never knew who was under the aqua feathers and body paint.

The screen image was now fully tinted in gold and black. “Your signal’s bad,” said Dremel, chin in hand. “What are we supposed to do?”

Derringer started walking, the landscape behind him changing as he went his way. “Establish a connection with the planet.” He was looking around as the screen picture finally roughed out and cut off.

Dremel stared at the blank call screen. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

36

5x Rerun: Fire Within (1) 28-32

– 28 –

As Derringer and Karma caught their breath side by side on the tossed sheets, subdued chuckles escaped from their grins. She sighed, rolling her head to face him. “I’m so glad you could make it out to orbit.”

Stretching his arms above his head, Derringer yawned and smacked his lips. “I had to clear a few things off my plate.”

“Oh, really.”

“My services are highly sought after.”

Throwing the covers off the both of them, she got out of bed and crossed the small private bunk to the sink. She filled a mug with water and drank it down, then refilled it and walked it over to Derringer. Just then, the sight and sound of two honklizards appeared on the screen. “Oh it’s your boys, Dremel and DeWalt. Let’s see what they’ve got.”

She tapped a sequence into the keypad. Derringer began to pull a sheet over himself when she waved him to stop. “We can see them. They can’t see us.” She brought a hand to her mouth and winked.

“Hey gents. Your timing is good. Your supervisor and I happen to be meeting at this very moment.” She kept one hand on the console, pushing the button to talk. The other rested on her hip as she faced the detective, staring into his eyes as she spoke. “Is this routine, or have you turned up something new?”

“Both. Yes and yes.” The screen showed Chad Dremel surrounded by his arc of displays and relays hanging from various arms above the desk. He wore his hat, no shades. The changing colors reflected off his cheeks.

“Where’s your partner?”

“DeWalt is on the couch nursing a few bruises and a deep, dark hangover. We traced the driver back to his last job at Capitol Cab. Spent some time getting to know the other drivers. Nobody’s heard from him since.”

“Who owns Capitol Cab?”

“It’s an independent company, this city only. Run by the Mayor’s son, one Iako Shukla.”

“Small-time local hero. He’s got no personal interest in this. What about the gunmen?”

“Mercenary types. We haven’t chased em down yet.”

“So far so good. Keep me posted.” Dremel signed off, and she tuned into an Aquari symphonic channel full of vibrating strings and winds.

Derringer rolled on his side to face her. “Wouldn’t have thought this was your kind of music.”

She lay down on the covers next to him. “I like it to fall asleep to.”

He drew a fingertip down her torso. “Oh, are we falling asleep?”

28

– 29 –

The dragon towered over the doctor, even in the form he wore for human interaction. He had a torso, hands, a head, eyes, and a mouth – all features that made cross-species communication easier. These aspects of his physicality were up to conscious choice, while other details sorted themselves out according to the mandates of his being. The white-golden scales, the outcurving ridges around his head, and the saurid tail were unavoidable draconid assertions.

Despite being dwarfed, Dr. Basa spoke with calm authority. He had no idea what was wrong with his patient. All his disease tests had come up negative, which was a relief in some ways. It was time to consult other sources and practice proper medical science. The dragon Councillor agreed to do his version of diagnosis.

Arkuda held his hands over the Princess’ bed. His palms appeared to shimmer and steam. Though his eyes were fully present, looking from her face to the doctor’s, his focus was clearly on some complex, invisible mass of information.

The dragon sighed, breaking his posture by waving his hands as though he were clearing a space on a table. Dr. Basa looked at him inquiringly.

“I’m sorry. It seems as though every contact I could possibly make with her experience is closed to me. I don’t think you can appreciate how unusual this is. All the points of connection we have established are blocked, even ones that should hold through any mind state.”

The doctor was pensive, hand on his chin. “Who else could possibly give us insight?”

“Bright Wave, perhaps.”

“The Aquari artist?”

“Yes. She is very skilled, and their art can do much more than colors and sounds. They have their own means of mental interpretation.” Both of them gazed on the Princess in her unreachable slumber. It had been a week, the threshold of a more serious situation. Her even breathing was deceptively peaceful. Though either of them could touch her hand from where they stood, she felt far away, and drifting further.

29

– 30 –

From the cockpit, Wendel Harper read the real-time data feed on the planetwide Genesee disaster signal. The hold of her ship was empty, hovering light and steady, ready to take on cargo. She held point in formation with three other pilots. No one ship was like another, but they flew together just the same.

A voice crackled in through her headset. “Are we still waiting on Gruun? Ehh. Those suits can talk all morning about who to send where and do what, and nothing gets done.”

Wendel smirked at her friend’s grumping. “You better be glad he’s there instead of you. I can just see it now, you with the IDRA. The bucket brigade to put out the fire on city hall.”

A dry chuckle came through the com. “That’s exactly what it’d be like. Na. Gruun can do all the fancy talking he wants, he’s good enough at it. It’s just, I’m on my third systems check since we been waiting here for him,” he ended plaintively.

“Anyway, glad you made it, Manoukian. Didn’t think I’d see you again so soon.”

“Eh well, you know I’m a soft touch for a rescue mission.”

“Here he is,” chimed in the voice of Emira Rosh from far left wing. The channel bleeped as his com joined in.

“Leiv,” said Wendel with a warm smile.

“Hello Darlin. All you all. Awww, but it’s been a long morning.”

“Sounds like it. What’s the word from the hallowed halls of bureaucracy?”

“Well, the Imperials are putting another refugee ship in orbit for temporary residence seeing as how both Anzi and Annan are now on the impending list. They still can’t or won’t supply any ships for ground rescue, so that’s being left up to the Genesee Guard.” Sighs from a few voices. “We report to GG Unit 17. They’re currently still ferrying survivors from Surcha Province, but they’ll be en route in two days. Instrument readings give us a week till Anzi’s situation goes critical.”

“So we just hang here while the air gets thicker.”

“That’s right. You all ready to do a sweep of the fault?”

“Hours ready, Gruun. Glad you’re back.” His ship came into visual, and they reformed to give him lead. “Just sent you all a flight plan. Let’s go.”

In v-formation like underwater shellhunters, they slid through the cloud layer coming into bird’s-eye view of the stone city of Anzi and the barren, craggy hills around it. Maneuvering low enough to see the ground with the naked eye, but well above city traffic, they followed the line of hills curving to the southwest. The scar on the ground where the fault lay was highly evident; it was already shifting.

Wendel saw the dark cloud to her right before Leiv spoke. “Something’s happening to the north.” They swung around to face it. Before they’d finished crossing the city, a series of cracking booms like dynamite shook the air.

“This isn’t preliminary,” Wendel muttered. “This doesn’t look preliminary,” she said over the mic.

“Ohhh no it isn’t,” said Gretz. From north to west, a a growing wall of ash-laden black smoke billowed upwards. Booming, grinding noises sounded at alarming decibels. In the distance, through the screen of ash, the sides of three hills began sinking, while lower elevations began to steam and seethe.

Beneath chemical waves of ash, lava began to bubble, pool, and spread. The city sat squarely in the path of things now happening. Wendel mentally calculated the rate of disaster. “An hour – maybe three before the city gets swallowed. Does anyone know what just happened?!”

“Instrument reports are on the air. The entire fault is under immediate and violent subduction. Not expected to cease for weeks.” Leiv’s voice weighed heavily as he echoed the news. “The magnitude of the tenth anticipated tectonic shift… within hours will destroy the city of Anzi.”

“All of it lost,” intoned Emira Rosh.

“Let’s go. It doesn’t matter who else is coming, we have to get there now. We each find a place to land and take on as many passengers as we can. Also,” Leiv paused, “this is voluntary.”

“Bullshit this is voluntary,” said Rosh.

“Not kidding around, Starweavers. We’re going into the fire here. We have our reasons for what we do. So,” Kev cleared his chest with a cough, “follow me if you’re ready.”

“He’s right,” said the fifth wing. “I have my reasons. Fair winds to you all.” The last ship zoomed up towards atmospheric exit. This was followed by a stunned silence from the other four arcing southeast towards the city at top speed.

The approach took five minutes. Minimal flight directions and responses were traded as each of the pilots steeled themselves to singlehand their cargo ships through the chaos.

The two outer wings claimed the nearest city quadrants and broke off first. Wendel Harper took to the southern direction. In the sky surrounding them, a multitude of private ships were taking off on their own desperate flight paths. She looked for an open space to hover and take in some people. It can be so difficult, she thought with an edge of absurdity, to find a parking spot.

She glimpsed a park ahead. Torrents of hot ash might be following her by minutes. More than ten, not more than thirty. The growing stench of subterranean minerals smelled like engine fire.

The park she approached had, Wendel noticed, very high walls; it was in fact, not a park. It was a warehouse without a roof, with a green space inside? She pushed aside her questions as she noticed that there were plenty of people within who were clearly aware of the catastrophe’s onset. Mercifully, the airspace above it was clear, and she maneuvered into it.

Setting the controls to keep the ship flying in place, she unrolled the cable ladder to hang just inside the main entrance. She scrambled over to the hatch, and dropped onto the ladder, hanging on one hand, amplifying her voice with the other. “My hold can take on forty people. I count,” she said scanning quickly, “twenty-three. Climb aboard ONE at a time. Move, let’s go!” She hopped back in, sticking her hand out to wave people up.

Wendel was relieved to see people helping each other on board. She was giving a hand to the eighth person up when she overheard the argument on the ground.

“What are you saying – this is our chance, you’re coming with us.” Toller tried to grab Cheli’s hand, but she drew away just as quickly.

“No, I’m not. You go.”

Wendel stuck her head down as she reached for the next passenger. “Wrap it up, I’m stopping again to fill the hold!”

“You heard her!” Toller took a few quick steps toward Cheli, but was stopped when an older, taller man grabbed his shirt.

“It’s her place to make her decision. You don’t have to understand.” Toller was shoved toward the ladder, which he grabbed. “Save your life.” He began to climb, numb with disbelief. He couldn’t take his eyes off Cheli, who was now smiling slightly. He was almost to the top when she reached in her pocket and threw something at his head. He blocked and caught it on reflex. It was a tassfruit, pulpy and sweet in its leathery skin. Before he could think of something to say or do, Wendel Harper hauled him into her ship.

30

– 31 –

Bright Wave’s tentacle lay on Princess Soleil’s forehead. Her suedelike skin was a pearly lavender, and the carapace below it was a brilliant blue with a gray sheen. Even for her immediate tribe, who shared a like carapace, her color and vibrational sensitivity were exceptional.

Her deep black eyes were half closed. She emitted a frostlike color radiance around her head. This shimmered out of sight, and a simplistic percussion came into hearing – like fingers tapping a simple drum line. This permutated until all her delicate hair and face tentacles had lifted. The hearts of those next to her beat a little faster in response.

Bright Wave opened her eyes wide once more. With her tentacle she smoothed back Soleil’s stray hairs. She turned to face both Councillor Arkuda and Her Vast Eminence Celeste, Magus the 24th.

“I humbly request the aid of three to five of our most insightful patternmakers. I know who to contact.” Bright Wave gestured urbanely through the tips of her tentacles. “Together, we would be able to sing you some perceptions. Her mind is well guarded; however, we need not intrude to interpret. Alone, I am insufficient. This task requires synergy.” Her voice was a conglomerate vibration from the tentacles waving around her head, like a human speaking from a generalized source.

“How soon can you bring in your company?” asked the Queen.

“In haste, we can be convened and prepared by tomorrow afternoon.”

“Then let it be so,” replied Queen Celeste with a nod. “Present their identities to the head of Royal Security when you have them.”

31

– 32 –

From the twenty-four figures in fiery assembly, one rises above the others. Her deeds and history surround her like a cloud, instantly recognizable as Marialain, Magus the 1st. From the leadership on her home planet, she stepped forward to create a united human empire – the beginning of the Imperium, and the Magus line. It was she who made first contact with the dragons, whose generation brought humanity out of its cradle on Alisandre.

Her visage powerful, hair coiffed just so in her ancient regalia – she looks guilty. The shadows echo behind and about the scene. Guilty.

Soleil knows about scandals and mistakes made by her predecessor. But not all. Far from it. Look closely at the half-truths and lies. The depictions surrounding Marialain purple and blacken, like a fire whose fuel is full of poison. Here is our truth. This is what we know. You must see.

And so she begins to understand the long chains of rationalized decisions. Too numerous to count, masked with the deepest self-deceptions. Heinous actions that are part of the fabric of their rule.

Entire civilizations kept hidden, plundered and silenced, leaders and visionaries neutralized or worse. None of this in the histories. Generation by generation, the blacker side of all they have done covers their bright accomplishments in a mountain of ash.

From Marialain to Louisiane, Magus the 4th, who engineered the second expansion route. Then to her daughter Mariselle, who masterminded the massive colonization. The most celebrated were often the most reviled – though not always.

Arianne, Magus the 7th, to her daughter Arnelle, who annexed four planets of the Archipelago Federet. Her son Ricardio was the first of the few Magus Kings. The technologies he initiated in the Imperial military created new ways of living, but their roots reveal themselves now in a sickening of light. His daughter Rochelle, who established the federets. And on.

The costs of their accomplishments were vast, and made to be forgotten. Those who did not forget are telling it now. Soleil can feel the weight of them, as heavy as the empire she was born to inherit.

She tries to turn away, wishing she had eyes to cover. You may not, says the susurrus of voices. We lived through this, and you must witness.

32

 

5x Rerun: Fire Within (1) 23-27

– 23 –

An audio newscast played quietly in the dim room. Mireille reclined in a chair next to the bed where her older sister lay still. Facedown on her lap was an open history textbook on the Phiroen Era of Magus expansion, when a group of imperial fleet officers staged a military revolt. The orb embedded at the top of the curved ceiling pulsed its light in theta rhythms.

A knock on the door. Mireille rose, setting the book down. She opened the door a few inches, then all the way, letting the visitor in. “General Claymore. Draig.”

He stepped forward, his eyes on Soleil beneath the covers. He turned his head to nod back. “Princessa Mireille. How’s she doing?”

They kept their voices quiet, both watching the bed. “Her vitals are fine, but we still can’t wake her.”

“I don’t know what happened there. She looked tired, but that was all. She collapsed mid-sentence. I think she was conscious for a few moments more before she passed out entirely.” His brow furrowed. “This hasn’t ever happened before, right?”

Mireille shook her head. “No. No, she’s never just fallen like that. These ceremonies hardly phase her, I can’t explain it. I just hope she wakes up soon.”

After a moment, Draig cleared his throat. “Do you want someone to relieve you here?”

She smiled. “No, thank you. I’m catching up on my history, anyhow.” She gestured to the facedown book. “Get some rest. We may need your help later.”

Section 23

– 24 –

Every visual detail is made of living fire. Twenty-four people stand, arrayed as though in ceremonial reception. Waves of heat blur their faces. Most are female, some male. All connected with ties like the bones of starlight.

She sees them from every angle, through the vantage of an invisible surrounding mob. Eyes seething with condemnation, demanding testimony.

A face comes into focus. Though she barely recognizes it, it is one of her ancestors. The likeness bears little resemblance to the historical paintings or projections. It looks wrong. As she looks on the rest, so they return her gaze. She feels herself drawing strength from a belonging that always fostered her, while the surrounding forces swell into a roar held barely at bay.

Everything she knows about her family begins to illustrate itself in fiery lines around their forms. Flourishes of their proudest accomplishments multiply into a great mass. She draws herself into it, a comforting blanket to shield her from those other eyes.

Section 24

– 25 –

A knot of serious-faced people held conversation near the doorway, where an obsidian and hematite mosaic spiraled out from a corner. Those rocks were the ubiquitous rubble by-product of the construction of Anzi and its suburbs. Fragrant herbs grew from the cracks amid the feet of those conversing.

A stone’s throw away, he looked up from his task of grinding powder apples to watch them. The sun shone through a quickly moving layer of overcast. He poured a heap of powder, seeds, and skins through a strainer, sifting the powder into the bowl below. He winnowed the strainer so the light, dry skins lay on top, brushing those off into a bag for tea. The seeds went into a jar, which would find its place in the shed where other full seed jars lay dormant.

He looked up in time to see the messenger lift his hand in farewell before hurrying out, probably heading to as many places as he could hit. The four or five who talked with him dispersed slowly, faces thoughtful. Cheli, in her rag-stitched skirt, met his eye and smiled, heading over.

“Thanks for doing that, Toller.” She took a pinch of powder apple from the bowl and brought it to her tongue. She smacked her lips with appreciation. “Good for cereal, sauce, pudding, baking and it never goes bad.” Cheli took another dip into the bowl.

He followed suit, taking a taste of his work. The graininess sweetened and melted, with hints of dry spice. He could hear voices murmuring around the valley. “What was that about? At the door.”

Cheli crossed her arms and sighed, affecting nonchalance. “The Zendris Fault is moving. The one that runs right by this city.” He blinked. Toller wasn’t really surprised that the planetwide catastrophes had reached him. Places he once knew had been demolished by earthquake or buried in eruption, news he’d already been accepting. “No official announcements, but people are getting ready. Evacuation within the week, probably. Who knows when these things really happen. Could be tomorrow.”

“Could be.” He smiled at Cheli. If nature claimed the city before he left this garden, he could think of worse places to be buried.

“Mmm hmm.” Cheli bent to pick up the bowl of powder apple. “Want to make some pudding?”

Cheli tries the powder apple

– 26 –

As though the four of them were at lunch around the table, the Princess’ mother, sister, and cousin sat around her bed. They discussed recent alliance changes in the Council, trade shifts, and diplomatic appointments. Queen Ascendant Charlotte seemed unwilling to touch on the subject of her daughter’s comatose condition; the most she could do was include Soleil in state affairs as she normally did. She sat upright in spotless white and gold robes, looking much as she did at the head of Council.

In contrast, Mireille sat upright in pajamas, her hair undone, though she looked pleased to be talking with her mother. Her last visit had been four days ago already, the night Soleil had fallen ill. The Queen Ascendant had been required on emergency matters in the Expansion 6 Federet. She brought them news, and more than that, the presence of her monumental stiff upper lip.

Margeaux had brought a favorite dress obi of Soleil’s; it was draped across the bed so she would see it when she woke. Soleil’s long black hair lay neatly plaited down her chest.

“… About fifteen percent of the refugees are choosing to relocate to underpopulated worlds in the Archipelago Federet. There are plenty of agricultural and industrial opportunities there.” Charlotte pursed her lips. “While the rest remain in orbit for now.”

“What about Zerite production?” Mireille looked to her mother. “Genesee is still our sole source, correct?”

“Correct. Production has halted completely. The Aquarii sendsingers will have to make do with the Zerite that’s already in the market. There’s plenty there. But the fact of a finite quantity will raise the price of Inter-Fed travel.” Charlotte patted and stroked Soleil’s limp hand. “Zerite isn’t strictly necessary to enable the TransNet, but without it the sendsingers would be taxed to their limits. It’s a good thing we don’t need much, and it’s one of the longest-lasting on the phronium spectrum.” As soon as he finished her sentence, a patterned knock sounded at the door.

“It’s time for me to go.” The Queen Ascendant rose, and the two younger ladies stood with her. She smoothed a hand over Soleil’s forehead before leaning in to give it a kiss. “My strong daughter.” She gave warm farewells to the other two girls before making her exit.

Mireille crossed her arms over her chest and looked over at Margeaux, who seemed a bit overwhelmed. Her lips twisted into a wry smile. “Mother’s milk, Cousin. Mother’s milk.”

Margeaux gave her head a shake as if to clear it. She curtseyed to her cousin. “I must be going as well, Mireille. May the light of the Pan-Galactic suns shine on you both.”

Section 26

– 27 –

From within the comfort of the known, her gaze is drawn outward by the insistent presence of the surrounding watchers.

Strange stars shine through the pervasive medium of fire. She knows the charts, and this multitude of skies is wholly unfamiliar. Unknown populations push forth just beyond comprehension.

An individual coalesces in the forefront. Not visible, just the feel of someone human – a mental handshake reminiscent of moondust, engine grit, and distance. Cold but firm. It stretches wide into a smile, indicating much to be told.

The touch leads her to someone nearby. An introduction of sorts. This one is a swell of magma, a wave of heat assuming form. This is the communicator, the conduit. The fire in her mind. It gives her a glimpse of those it represents, possibly draconid. She’s never met a dragon in this aspect, the trilling, echoing vibration of its spiraling form.

The trill unfolds, volume expanding to include many strange and emotional voices. They reach, expressing eagerness, a desire to be known. Beneath that, suppressed anger driving the reason for contact, a clamoring for amends to be made. For what?

Back to the grinning soul, placing her again amongst her dynasty. They all look outward. They know why they’re here.

27

5x Rerun: Fire Within (1) 19-21, 3rd Sequence, 22

– 19 –

The place sat amidst other medium buildings its size, an ordinary metal-and-glass affair that reflected the last glow of afternoon. The address was its only sign, though there were traces of past businesses. The first floor windows were blacked out. Derringer tossed a ring of keys from hand to hand. “Well, this looks promising.”

Fred DeWalt leaned toward the detective. “Do you think it’s a trap?”

“Only insofar as working for a woman like that is a trap. No, this is for you to use. Just like the hover.” He turned halfway to look at the gleaming, new-model stock racing flier behind them.

“Stars afire, Derringer,” said Chad, adjusting his glasses, “when he drove this up I thought it must be the boss’ car. And then she hands us the keys. To a Griffen.”

The detective showed a wide grin through his mustache. “Tools to your advantage. You found yourselves a good game here, don’t be afraid to play it. Savor this moment. You’re aces!”

“What about you, D?” asked Chad as they walked to the door.

“…I’m aces too, yeah.” He almost started laughing. “Trust me. But this is your gig.” He fit the key into the door, which unlocked smoothly. He looked up at the side of the building. “What do you think this place was? Newspaper?”

“Old insurance company.” The other two men looked at Fred, who’d spoken. He shrugged, they shrugged, and they all went in, leaving no sign of themselves but the shining white Sibley Griffen out front.

Section 19

– 20 –

Residential ramparts ran along both sides of the aqueduct waterway, sunlight still touching their uppermost stories. The water ran slowly between two high fences, contained in its hardstone channel.

A boy sat on a bench at the base of the channel wall. He’d seen people on his way here, but now the area was empty. A beetle droned past, which meant that someone might have fruit trees on the rooftops. He scanned around for public access stairways, but couldn’t see any on this side. That didn’t rule out the possibility.

He gazed at the upper rooftops, taking in the last of the light. A sunstrip gleamed bronze, transporting the sunlight into subterranean depths. He withdrew half a sandwich from his schoolboy’s pack. It was gone in short order and he stretched, shouldering his bag again. He felt almost full.

Looking up and down the channel, he turned away from the sunset toward an alley leading out from the aqueduct. Before he could find a stair to the rooftop, or someone who knew where one was, there came a causeway leading into the bedrock. Down it he went.

The temperature dropped, hardstone giving way to natural hewn stone walls. There were more people in the belowstreets here, where the sunstrips spread their illumination through branching networks around doorways and windows. More and more people were ending their workdays, crossing between levels above and below.

He scanned the crowd as he walked, noticing a couple boys leaning against the wall of an alcove. They were older, both wearing dark jumpsuits covered in pockets. The moment he met the eyes of the one at the corner, they grinned wolfishly.

“Where you going in such a hurry?” said the boy who’d met his eye. Tattoos peeked out from both sides of his collar.

“Nowhere,” said the boy, getting out the main walkway. A few Aquarii passed behind him, mantislike legs clicking against the stone, head-tendrils waving.

“So, take a load off.” They sized him up, from his bag where he set it on the ground, to his clothes which were none too fresh. They were just playing, and he played back. The three of them narrated stories about passersby until a girl stopped in to visit.

She had an Aquari projection orb. They sat on the ground and passed it around. She was adept with it, intricate and luminous colorscapes rising from the orb in her hands. A few stopped to watch. She held it out to the boy in a scene of turquoise and silver filigree. When his fingers touched it, a series of orange polygons bounced and tumbled through, colliding with each other and exploding in puffs. They broke into laughter.

“Do you all want to come to the Valley?” she said playfully. The two in jumpsuits smiled, and seeing them, the boy nodded as well. She rose, brushing dust off her rag-stitched skirt and placing the orb in a belt pouch. Without another word, they followed her lead.

After following for miles of alleys and innumerable corners, ladders, and staircases, he found himself tagging along, ready to locate his whereabouts should he need to. This might have troubled him, but he decided the only way they might actually get there was if he stopped worrying about it. He was having a good time along the way.

The four of them occasionally emerged onto the surface, popping up in different neighborhoods. He lost count of the new faces he’d met at the houses and porches where they stopped to talk. Their smiles grew wide. Finally, they went through a door that looked like any other door, and he realized they’d arrived.

In a mudroom decorated with lights and branches they took off their shoes, adding them to the small mountain of footwear. Stepping in from there, he felt his soles touch soil and grass. Astonished, he looked up straight into the night sky. This was a courtyard, an orchard brimming with gardens, all lit by lamps and lights hanging from the trees. Heads turned to see them enter, and the four of them raised their hands in greeting.

Section 20

– 21 –

KI: So is it what you needed to move forward?

AS: This will give us at least four new streams of information in our reconnaissance soundings that should tell us where and how to modulate our power workings. It’s priceless, Karma. Good work.

KI: Don’t thank me. I was just the gopher. I’m sure the author would be proud, if he weren’t dead.

Karma Ilacqua sat in sunglasses before the Iljen Monument, a stylish cap covering her red bob. The morning rush was dying down. Above her level gaze, they had already replaced the windows on her last room at the Massey-Sonnes Hotel. She read the discussion on the inside of her dark lenses.

AS: If the Foundational fanatics hadn’t set the hit on him, he might be here doing this with us. He would have been. If only.

KI: Well your team, whoever they are. I’m betting they’ve got what it takes.

AS: If we don’t, nobody does.

KI: Then it’s a good thing no one knows who you are, where you are, or what you’re up to. How are you holding up in the middle of secret nowhere?

AS: Getting hardly any sleep, living the dream. Only I ran out of my favorite gin.

KI: Shame on them. Do I need to send you a care package through those company messengers?

AS: You should, and also I want cookies. I gotta go.

Closing her fists, Karma turned off the impulse readings of her glasses’ biosys. Reaching up, she took them off and rubbed her eyes. Idly, she scanned the rotating planet of information that was the Monument. The visual representation of Genesee, close by on her right, was pulsing red over half its surface. Shielded areas in color patterns of specific agencies indicated emergency relief. A paltry few of the planet’s tradelines still showed activity to the dozens of other entities.

She considered pulling up the infopoints on her hand held when a muted clash of cymbals issued out of it. A message from her boss at Plexus. She pursed her lips to one side and put her sunglasses back on, pulling it into view.

-Saris to Ilacqua
-Please report to the Mainstation in 5th Alisandrian orbit. You are to coordinate distraction teams aimed at Fortuity and Seven Suns. Compile dossiers.

Karma threw her head back in seeming exasperation, but she wore a close-lipped smile that lingered as she tucked her shades into a coat pocket. She stood and stretched, looking around as a flytaxi came to rest directly in front of her. Nearby pedestrians looked to see who it was. The door opened, and Ilacqua stepped inside.

Section 21

– 3rd Sequence –

Third Sequence

– 22 –

A searing, endless brilliance stretches in every direction. The pain of it is unavoidable, like pupils bare to the sun.

Once every eternity, it pulses. Magnesium-magma veins seep in for brief moments, giving way once more to inchoate light.

With each pulse, the bonfire rivers crackle and grow. The formations change, a message reaching through the empty channel. An unknown mental signature.

An emotion forms, the feeling of a child toward fire after having felt its burn. The pulsing gains wild velocity, a sense of familiarity growing ever nearer. The heat of a gaze on one’s back; ancient thoughts in living whispers, flickering. Getting warmer.

Then like a skull split, a ribcage opening, the scene unfolds and begins to make sense. Faces like her own, and the damning eyes of others all around.

Section 22