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

 

5x Rerun: Fire Within (1), 14-18

– 14 –

Four of spades. Jack of diamonds. Two men leaned back in identical office chairs, their feet propped up on either end of the institutional metal desk. They took turns tossing cards face up into a hat on the floor between them. The room was small, not much more than a basement supply closet, but it had ambient ceiling light, and the wall com was working fine. The sounds of a traveler string duo piped in, just loud enough to hear.

Three of spades. Six of diamonds. “Think you’re gonna miss the official headquarters?” This from the slender, pale blond wearing sunglasses. He wasn’t tall, nor short, but he did look like he would bruise if you poked him. The sunglasses were mirrored, his eyes not visible.

“Come on.” Ace of diamonds. This man was tall, with a bald head of deep brown skin, solid but not heavy. “Business was terrible. Nobody wanted to hire the guys working out of the old supply closet, no matter how nice they made it in the remodel. No, I won’t be looking back.” Everything that wasn’t furniture or part of the walls was gathered in three boxes, including a pile of com relay displays.

Five of hearts. “Easy for you to say. We’re not moving the office into your apartment.”

Ten of spades. “I can’t afford an apartment.”

Nine of hearts. “You just stay in mine and don’t pay rent.”

Queen of clubs. “I could, but we’re saving up for another office, remember. That’s my savings account,” said the dark man, pointing to his chest.

Ten of clubs. “You mean your ex-wife’s.”

Seven of spades. “I earned that settlement. I didn’t cheat.”

Two of clubs. “You sure did. And you never do.”

Seven of clubs. “Oh what, did you like that one?”

Two of spades. “I like all of ’em, you’re a bastard and I can’t stand the sight of you.”

Ace of clubs. “Can’t stand the sight of myself sometimes, it makes me wonder when I’m gonna get flunked.”

“DeWalt, the sad thing is I think you’re passing with flying colors.”

The radio string music was sliced in half by a screech, and the volume rose as the channels seemed to tune themselves. Both men looked at the wall console.

“I’m on your line, idiots. Did you turn off your ringer?”

They looked at each other. The dark one, DeWalt, made a face. “Sounds like Derringer.”

“I didn’t turn it off,” said wavy blond hair. “Anyway, Derringer. Why are you talking this way. What’s going on.” He threw the three of hearts into the felt brim hat.

“Listen Dremel,” the voice warped, white noise cutting in and out, “I’ve got a pretty big deal in the room here with me, and we need you to show up.” A few strange warbles came through, none of which made sense.

The slender blond leaned back in his chair and put his hands behind his head. “Last day on this line, bud. You’re lucky you found us here.”

“No, I’m not,” the incoming voice whistled, “you have absolutely no where else to be. Sending the address.” The five working com relays in the box lit up, showing a new message stored.

Dremel sat up, taking his shoes off the desk. “Is that you doing that? Have you learned some new tricks? I didn’t think it possible.”

“Not me. The people I’m working with -” He was cut off by a twenty second drum solo. With a couple sonic slashes, the system reconnected to a pop channel that made both men wince.

“Okay then.” The pale blond Dremel stood, smoothing back his hair with one hand, while adjusting his tie with the other. He bent down and picked up the hat, emptying the cards out onto the floor.

Section 14

– 15 –

The oncoming sunrise and still-visible moonset balanced each other on opposing edges of the horizon. The grassy slope on one side of the little airlot was just beginning to brighten. Two old friends crossed it towards each other.

Walking part of the way, the wiry, medium-height man crossed his arms, smiling. He angled his chin toward the healthy, muscled blonde throwing her arms open. “Gretz Manoukian, what brings you to Southerpart?” She gave him a tight squeeze and a pat on the back, which he endured with a stoic grin.

“Eyyy, same as you. Unloading government stock.” They stood a few feet apart, facing the changing sky. The breeze smelled of evaporating moisture, and color rose softly.

“How long you staying down here on Genoe?”

“Hey, until I feel restless. I’m paid. You?”

“Yup, I saw the credits hit the account, but I’ll keep moving on. Treat you to breakfast roast? Heard they’re grilling wild runner hens out behind the saloon.”

He turned to face her with a stretchy grin. “If that’s so, you just made my day.” They crossed the airlot together.

Wendel Harper called out as they approached the grillmaster. “Jay, it’s you doing these birds? Is that gunpowder again for the seasoning?”

“Yep. It’s been all head shots lately, but sometimes you miss the taste of scattershot in the body.” He set down his grill poker and caught Wendel in a hug. He and Gretz shared a nod.

“I’ll have one and he’ll have one. Gunpowder’s got all the vitamins and minerals we need.” Jay set to finishing two nearly done birds.

Gretz leaned against the wall. “What’s the news in Southerpart?”

“Well, you know about the livestock failure. They think it’s some rare pollen spread happening planetwide. None of the Aquarii wanted to hang around. Maybe they figured they’d be susceptible.” Jay watched the food cook. “Decent business for those of us who can hunt the planet birds and buzzers. Wouldn’t call it easy living, though.”

“Well anyway,” said Wendel, running a hand over her short hair, “these flocks have got a new fancy-tech innoculant. The bio-imm team sounded pretty confident, so let’s hope they know what they’re doing.”

“Yep. Glad you could bring ’em.” Jay picked up two sticks and offered one in each hand to both of them. “Least I can do is make you breakfast. Gratis.” He hissed a drawn-out S through his teeth. An old man and woman rounded the corner arm in arm, clearly following their noses. Jay smiled and turned the other birds on the grill. Wendel and Gretz raised their food in salute and turned to go.

The two sat on the grassy slope, each biting at the small elongated runnerbird on its skewer. Between them, an open infosheet lay on the grass. This paperweight cloth received Wendel Harper’s subscriptions daily, and bundled or crumpled nice and tight in any pocket she happened to stuff it into. She rustled it flat with a hand, and set it to the daily issue that covered the inhabited planets in the Leuko Galaxy.

“Genesee is coping with major geothermal disruptions. Elections this year for the Genoene Council.” She read headlines aloud when they struck her interest. Gretz Manoukian stared into the sky and ate his breakfast. “Princess Soleil is back from her Alisandrian tour. The hunt for Raev Sturlusson continues.” The sun had fully risen, shining directly into their eyes. She shook it by its corner and the sheet went blank. “I think that’s enough news for now.”

Section 15

– 16 –

Derringer peered down the sight of the assault rifle into the corner of the room. He butted the stock against his chest to feel the hard spring in it. After working a few of the actions and feeling them click smoothly, he lay the rifle down on the large wooden desktop next to the lady’s pistol. He looked over at the man holding the shotgun.

It was a short-barreled type, with a carved stock in wood. The man holding it was tall, and wore a stern face behind dark spectacles. His short black hair was decidedly unruly. He checked to make sure the chambers were empty before leaning it over to Derringer’s scrutiny.

Derringer turned to inspect, one hand on the desk. The condition of it was unnaturally new for its design; some parts must have been re-machined. “Col, that thing belongs in a museum.”

“That’d be a shame, considering it still does what it was made to do, as well as it’s ever done it.” Col withdrew the shotgun possessively and set it back in its case. He clicked the snap shut and elevated it back to its former place on a high shelf. “One of my daddy’s daddies back down the line was a gunsmith. We keep it in working order.”

“Yeah, and did your great-great-grandpap sell to all sides?”

“Actually, yeah.”

A hallway door opened and shut, footsteps approached. Karma entered the study, going straight to the cabinet to pull out three glasses and a carafe of golden whisky.

Derringer squinted at her. “Did you just change?” She was now wearing a black turtleneck sweater instead of her suit jacket.

“Perceptive of you. Yes, I did.” She poured them each a drink. Derringer looked from her, to where she came from, to Col, and just blinked. When she offered a glass, he took it with a nod.

She handed the other to Col. “That attempt to steal this data was so… rent-a-wreck. I’m slightly insulted by whoever thought it would be that easy.” Col smirked, taking a sip while Karma gestured with her glass. “Who would be so amateur, yet able to risk so much and walk away with nothing?”

Col polished his sunglasses, inspecting them in the light from the window before putting them back on. “Fortuity?”

“No, Irons wouldn’t dream of sending in that sort of skeleton crew. That isn’t her style. If it were her, we would’ve needed the safety net. As it was, your guys never got involved, did they?” Karma tilted her head at Col.

He shook his head. “Didn’t have to. What you saw was it. You took out the thugs and the hover. Hotel and emergency cleaned it up. We just watched.” A smirk curved at the corners of his face.

Derringer finished the last of the whisky, setting the glass down with a loud clack. “You had guys on this?” He pointed at Col.

“I know, when does Col hire anybody.” He shrugged again. “Right timing, good pay for easy service.”

“You’re welcome,” Karma shot in his direction.

“You are also welcome,” deadpanned Col. He finished his glass and left it on the desk next to Derringer’s.

Karma swirled her last sip and drank it down. “When do you think those two will be here?” This she aimed towards Derringer.

“Chad and Fred? Ten, twenty minutes. They pick up easy, and I’m sure they were impressed with your dj skills. But I warned you, they’re only sort of competent.”

“That’s perfectly alright,” she murmured, staring into nothing. She flashed Derringer a self-consciously charming smile and kept her mouth shut. He picked up her gun and handed it to her, holding it by the barrel. She reached toward it, eyebrows raised, and grabbed it. “Are you done looking at that?” It went back in her side holster with a pat.

“One of a kind, isn’t it?”

“That’s right.”

“What do you think of those?” Col asked, pointing at the assault rifle on the desk.

Derringer eyed the rifle from end to end. “The mechanics are smooth, but it feels light. Even flimsy… where are they from?”

“Don’t let the weight fool you. The recoil is like a feather in the wind. I have two shipments and no regrets. Made on Geris.”

“Geris… the crude ore planet?” Col nodded.

Karma was rearranging the vase of flowers on the windowsill. There was still sunlight in the day, and it lit her hair in a flaming halo. Black knee-high boots elevated her a tiny bit above her tiny stature. Derringer wasn’t fooled. “Cobra lilies,” she said, “that’s what this bouquet is missing. Col, where did you get these.” Derringer’s eyebrows lifted at the imperative in her tone.

“The Array. I was shopping there the other day.” Col’s face was inscrutable.

“Well, this florist is okay, but…” Her voice drifted off, one hand on her chin, one on her hip, still facing the vase. Her gaze was aimed out the window. “Cobra lilies.”

“I know where to find those,” Col said from where he stood.

Karma faced them, a closed smile from ear to ear. From behind her the sound of doors opening and shutting. Derringer nodded to the other two and headed to the entrance. “I know that van.”

Section 16

– 17 –

A small cohort of kids filed in through the door to the viewstudy, a teacher shepherding from their midst. The room was empty of seating; instead, bright cushions and stuffed animals formed an inviting pile in the center of the floor. The curved window wall was set to transparency, with the view of Capital City as backdrop.

Three remote cameras lifted off a high shelf and began hovering around the room like lazy winged mice. Everyone made themselves comfortable, the teacher on a large cushion at the back of the group. When all eight children had settled, she smiled directly at the camera blinking red.

“Good morning, Rocketeers! We’re so glad you could join us here at the Pan-Galactic Imperial Court on Alisandre.” She radiated eager warmth, her curling golden hair seemingly reflecting it. “Today, Prince Cristobal is going to tell us about the ten federets of the Pan-Galaxy.” The body of another camera turned red as it transmitted a close-up of a young boy of about twelve. He looked like his oldest sister, dark-haired and pale, though his eyes were grey like his father’s. Quiet and self-possessed, he nodded at the camera. “Sir Prince, thank you for sharing. The floor is yours.”

He smiled briefly, rising from where he sat at the edge of the group. He was tall for his age, and the black-with-gold garb that he wore made him look taller. From his pocket he withdrew a data chip, which he inserted into a console by the side of the window wall. The center panel turned a flat white, and he stood in front of it, notecards in hand.

“The Pan-Galactic Imperium is divided into ten parts, or federets.” Behind him, a red circle drew itself against the white backdrop. Lines crisscrossed it to divide the pie into ten pieces, which separated to array themselves around the Prince’s silhouette. “The Imperial planet of Alisandre is separate from these, to better serve as a neutral governing body. This means each federet is equally important.” A red dot appeared above the ten dispersed shapes, encircled by a line of gold.

He was reserved, if not shy; but his voice stayed steady and his diction clear. “Each federet is a common sense group of planets and galaxies. Some were formed when they became part of the Imperium. Others have been regrouped depending on population and transport accessibility.” The diagrams rearranged themselves around him, illustrating the changes he spoke of, each shape taking on its own new color.

As the Prince described each federet, the teacher shifted her gaze from him to the city view on either side of the screen. He’d been her pupil for almost six years now, and he always lit up when the topic came to worlds outside the court, especially the distant edges of the Imperium. His usual reservations would melt away. Even now, he became more animated as he sprinkled the cut-and-dry presentation with some favorite gems.

His oldest sister would rule, but as the first boy and third child of the family, his destiny was very much in his hands. For now, he could only repeat the canonical histories as they were taught to him. As his teacher, she could feel his yearning for original knowledge from outside his sheltered world. She had a feeling he would find it, soon enough.

Section 17

– 18 –

“So you want us to figure out who it was went after you at the handoff.” Chad Dremel, wearing both hat and sunglasses, spoke from the loveseat in the front room of Col’s safe house. “Why? It’s not our uh, expertise. You’d know better than we would.”

“That’s just it. I thought I knew all the players who would be after this research, but that attack and the way it was done doesn’t make sense for any of them. Because you know nothing about this scenario, you might be able to figure out something I couldn’t.” Karma Ilacqua leaned against the table. “Besides, their attempt failed, and I don’t have time to go chasing down every Jack and Jill who tries to trip me in the hallway.” Her eyes gleamed. “But I’m curious.”

Dremel turned his head to DeWalt sitting next to him. They read each other’s faces for a few seconds. DeWalt tilted his black pate and looked over at the business woman. “We’ll need an office.”

Smirking, she glanced at the detective before looking back at them. “I’ve got an office you can use.”

Section 18

5x Rerun: (1) Fire Within, 10-13 + 2nd Sequence

– 10 –

The light grows dim through the trees,
the shadows dapple and rise.
Everyone inside, this is a huntress’ time.
When the sun sets, and the heat dies,
when the devils awake, but to their tragedy,
no greater devils than we!

Margeaux felt a strange hunger in her muscles and the music. Wriggling inside her skin, she saw herself crawling through growing darkness. The lyrics were sung in Old Indar, which meant Margeaux understood every fourth word, but she could hear it in the musicians, and Kamini’s voice. She had the urge to grin ferociously. The Queen was smiling, to her left. Soleil was expressionless.

In my tender childhood, when first my mothers
and sisters took me into the night,
I was blind. All shadow and shade a mystery,
and now it is the other side of me.

Soleil was feeling emotions she couldn’t name, surprised at their strength. She felt a similar response from her cousin next to her. Atop that, like graffiti scratched into a mirror, was a feeling that she was overhearing someone talk about her. Like an unfamiliar voice saying something personal, right in her ear. Despite wanting to really hear the music, Soleil kept her focus ready, senses pricked. She didn’t anticipate danger, necessarily. If she had described this sensation to Arkuda, her teacher, he would have told her this was a precursor to contact with some ethereal beings. As it was, she had no knowledge, and no warning. She was in the dark.

No home so wild and subtle as the shadow forest.
Herald the night-singing small ones,
the dusk orchids and their lover moths.
Let the cool hours envelop us and our
bodies set to the stalk and chase.

With daggers, claws and darts,
All our limbs, the scents and our calls –
only then, when we are risking everything
committing our muscle, our breath, our life –
this thrill is the soul of us!

Section 10

– 11 –

The data on Karma’s display turned green all at once, and collapsed into a single flashing dot. Her computer and the safe emitted a small beep. As she reached toward them, a hovercar dropped into view, and the window wall by the bed exploded in shards.

Derringer hit the floor and looked up. Karma, crouching, reached up and grabbed both devices from the desktop. “I thought you weren’t followed,” she shouted as she took cover. From her jacket she withdrew a custom automatic pistol.

Derringer lunged over to the portal and slapped the frame, calling the elevator. A few bullets struck the frame and the wall nearby. “Did you ask yourself that question?” He got himself behind a corner in time to hear her fire three shots.

Sticking his head out to look, he saw both men down, one conscious. “I saw it as an eventuality,” said Karma, reholstering her piece. She sent him a wink before crossing the room and withdrawing a rocket launcher from under the bed. Firing from her shoulder, the rocket plumed a white smoke trail to where it collided with the hovercar outside.

They felt the waves from the explosion as the flier fell from view. Karma dropped her weapon and headed for the elevator just as the frame illuminated and the door slipped open. Derringer launched himself after her and they were in together.

Through the elevator’s glass walls, he could see the wreckage thirty floors below amidst a growing crowd. The sound of sirens was approaching from a distance. Karma glanced over at him with her computer in hand. “Jacobs warned you, right? He should have.”

“When he hires me, it goes without saying.” A thin red beam stretched itself from her device to the middle of the elevator ceiling as she set another program in motion. “Who’s paying the bill for this? Cause it surely isn’t me.”

“Either my people, who booked the room, or their people, who blew it up. We’ll see!” The elevator detached itself from the building, but instead of going down its appointed route to the ground floor, they headed round to the other side of the building. Her computer chimed, the beam disappearing as she slipped it back into her jacket.

“Where is this going?” asked Derringer.

“Service entrance,” she replied. He relaxed, loosening his joints and smiling a little. This could be fun. He was empty-handed, only a minor disadvantage. When you need a weapon, there’s usually something at hand.

Karma turned to face him. “I can get us out. Stick with me till we’re clear, then you’re free as a bird.” Derringer nodded, though he intended to learn a little more about what he was just dodging bullets for.

The moment the door began to open, they squeezed through and took off down a hallway packed with cleaning carts, linen piles, open supply closet doors and people. Karma was nimble even in her boots, and Derringer enlarged her wake. One man attempted to get in their way, and Karma dodged past while Derringer lightly flipped him down.

Karma tapped a code into her computer. Ahead of them at the end of the hall, the door to the service elevator shaft slid open. “Going down?” Derringer yelled.

“Yes.”

“Is there a hook slider in there?”

She flashed him a look. “Yes.” Must have thought she was the only one here who’d ever planned an elevator escape. The sounds of confusion were rising behind them.

“I’ll take it, then, you hang onto me.”

After a pause, she nodded. “Okay. It’s on the right.” Derringer caught the edge of the opening, with his left hand finding the maintenance rappel device against the wall of the shaft. He hooked it up with the center of the cable, jamming the lever down to keep it steady. With one side, he hung onto the hook slider. Karma stepped into his other arm, hanging onto his shoulders and wrapping around his free leg. He could feel the pistol under her jacket against his side. He jammed the lever up, the door closing as they dropped out of sight.

Section 11

– 12 –

I seek the fire, the blue-green fire
of Oloa the snake dancer –
healer of our tribe, deliverer of daughters,
savior of lives, shaman of visions.

Spirit speaker Oloa, one of us and not one of us,
with us and always apart, we find her
by her fire when traces of dusk have vanished.
We follow the moon moth to Oloa’s fire.

Soleil broke into a sweat. She kept her breathing calm, but why sweating? The music was intense, but this wasn’t a usual reaction. Her life had been generally free of present danger; feeling it now, she didn’t understand it. Soleil couldn’t move or squeeze her hands, holding her grandmother’s and cousin’s. Her body was unresponsive to command. Tendrils of panic arose in her thoughts.

Something is wrong, nothing is cooking.
No song in her hut, no glamour of vines,
the beasts her friends all hide their faces
and make no sound.

An arrow! Our snake dancer
is no warrior, her weapons and power
are of another world, why does her
agate-tipped arrow wear blood?

Lysha begins calling the other warriors by name to join her. The music turns darker, urgency rising in tempo and timbre. Easing herself into a state of detachment, Soleil guessed she was having an adrenaline response with night terror paralysis. There was a distinct pulse in what felt like a physical place in her skull.

She would have spoken if she could, maybe to Margeaux, but she couldn’t manage even a quiet utterance. One by one, the other women singers were arriving in the piece. Together, they were discovering the scene of the crime. Finally, climbing a peak of terrific arpeggios, they screamed,

MURDER! She is slain. Fallen…

Soleil’s senses dimmed as though someone was squeezing her life in their fist. Her detached self understood that this wasn’t a mortal sensation – it had a distinctly neural quality, like the traces of iron in water. The animal core of her, however, was a rearing, frightened horse locked in and tied tight.

The dead shaman Oloa was carried out from backstage in the arms of Lysha and Neris. Soleil focused on her through pulses of blackness. It was a bright enough sight that it was something her mind could hold onto, even as it seemed somehow to be failing.

Traditionally, the shaman is a role of honor, the silent star of this piece. She emerges only this once in her full regalia, and she is already dead. This costume, not bound by any enduring or definite character, is often an homage to an ancestor or elder. On this stage, Oloa’s skin was black as night, her hair a voluminous dark fall including many strands of pulsating, soft rainbow light. This was bound in uncountable loose sections by loops glowing with the same light, as did the stripes down the sides of her fitted black bodysuit. Their dead shaman was a glowing, alien anachronism, lit up and supine as a martyr in neon; pitiful as a firefly’s last dance.

This assembly of glowing swoops and halos anchored Soleil’s vision. When she became certain that she could either cry out, or that her mind would cave to whatever was attacking it – the sensations fled, leaving the barest trace on her memory. As though she had eaten spicy food.

The four women onstage were now singing the memorial verse, setting the shaman onto a bier, covering her, and raising her up. Soleil’s mind was reflexively healing its trauma, covering its tracks, but she took note before it could erase them completely. Should mention this later, though to whom? Very unusual. The entire ensemble switched to percussion, beginning the battle verse.

We are a storm, the lightning suddenly
cleaving a tree in twain, the sudden fire
springing forth from its body, the fire that
takes the mountainside, the winds that
spread it and the driving rain that ends it.

Soleil rose to her feet with the rest of the front row. She was clapping. With bewildered sarcasm, she noted that her hands and feet were now working just fine. She smiled, and all the cameras looked at her.

Section 12

– 13 –

She was finally nearing the end of guest reception. Members of the family stood in different areas, having informal words with those leaving. On Soleil’s left, her younger sister Mireille was bowing to an Aquari Councillor. Brown-haired and still wearing baby fat at eighteen, she took more after their father, sharing his inclination to follow stories and gossip. Soleil understood politics, and Mireille understood politicians. They weren’t the closest of friends – Margeaux knew more of her heart – but they spoke often about matters of state.

Soleil could feel composure slipping, and knew she needed to get out. She put a hand on her sister’s shoulder, who leaned an ear to her. “I need to go for now,” she spoke quietly. “I’ll be back if I can.”

Mireille curved her lips in a smile, speaking back with equal warmth. “Be well, Soleil. I can take it from here.” Turning in a way that kept the shape of her skirts, Soleil went through the double doors behind them that led to the outer balcony. This open-air walk stretched around the outside curve of the Auditorium building, ending in Imperial offices and apartments. There was a dressing room there where she could take a moment.

The night air was cool. Soleil sighed, tilting her face to the sky. It was on this balcony that her mother had taught her the Alisandrian constellations. Though the Pan-Galactic Imperium spanned dozens of planets acquired over more than twenty generations, the royal seat had been on Alisandre since the beginning of expansion. It was this sky, her mother said, that had shaped the dynasty – no matter how many skies she would see over her lifetime, these stars would tell her she was home.

Her formal shoes clicked along the flagstone expanse. The balcony was mostly empty, but for a scattering of strolling pairs, who bowed as she passed. Rounding the final curve, she slowed her pace when she saw the figure leaning against the rail. Hearing an approach, he stood, and smiled.

The high-dress uniform in colors of black, red, gold and white struck a crisp outline to his caramel brown hair and weathered complexion. He made a bow, his eyes crinkling at hers. “An honor, Princess Soleil.”

She acknowledged him, her face opening into a weary smile. “General Draig Claymore.” Though the sight of her childhood friend cheered her, she was still dragging, and was sure that it must show. This was the first she’d seen of him since her return, and she was loathe to make the time short; but she had to admit she felt ready to collapse. “I’m glad you could attend.” Her head felt light and detached, her voice far away. “Please excuse me -”

He rushed forward when he saw her drop.

Suddenly Soleil looked up, felt the pavers beneath her hands, and realized she was no longer standing. She was supported on Draig’s arm, and he was shouting to someone. Soleil began to laugh at herself, but when she opened her mouth it was only the jabber of flames, and everything was lost in the sunfire.

Section 13

– 2ND SEQUENCE –

Second Sequence

5x Rerun: (1) Fire Within, 5-9

5

“Was just thinking about you the other day, D.” Jacobs leaned over the phronium, examining each through a multi-lens in his hand. “Business has been picking up. All different kinds.” He went from capsule to capsule, his head bobbing like a poult pecking rocks. Finally he straightened up and directed a satisfied gaze toward Derringer. “I could put you to work if you’ve got the time.”

For a moment the only sound came from Derringer’s index finger tapping the tabletop. He was smirking as he drew in a breath. “Little or big?”

“I’ve got both. What do you want?”

“I’ve had action lately… but I’ll take something on, so long as it doesn’t send me to the shipping docks.”

“Easy breezy, D. I’ve got just the thing for a man of your talents.”

Section 5

6

From her place at the table of honor, Soleil could see nearly everyone attending, both extended family and intimate court. Many of these found reasons to stop by during dinner to exchange oblique words of opinion. There were warm reunions as well, enough to add genuine pleasure to the evening. As these weren’t official court visits, no weighty matters were brought to her plate, so to speak. Those went to the Queen. People came to the Princess to talk about the future, show loyalty, and express hopes.

She ate enough between courtesies so that she wasn’t hungry, though they had taken the game hen away from her untouched. She’d watched it go regretfully. But while dinner was over and the plates were still being cleared, she had a moment to breathe.

Soleil looked from face to face, gauging what moods had changed since the beginning of the night. She met eyes with Arkuda, the Dragon Councillor. He wore his courtly form, slightly larger than the size of a man, sunrise-golden scales gleaming on his torso and head. Soleil nodded to him, showing a trace of a smile. He lifted his scale-clad hand in greeting before continuing his conversation with the Orconian natural resources director seated next to him. She would see her teacher and friend again in a few days to resume their study.

She wouldn’t presume about Dragon friendship, but Arkuda had been her steady mentor for over ten years, and probably knew more of her mind than anyone besides her grandmother. As the sole ambassador of his people to the court, and special advisor in a great many matters, that he chose to have her as a student was a blessing not lost on her.

Maybe it was all the time recently spent in tiny hill villages, but there was a strange current running through the room. It felt like someone she couldn’t see was trying to find her.

Section 6

7

The front gate of Jacobs’ house buzzed for a few long seconds, and Derringer eased out of the doorway into the morning light. His feet fell onto the pavement and turned him north, toward the residential blocks past the market streets. The business day had already begun, with transport cars and service rigs filling the aerial roadways. There were a few clouds in the sky, but it was going to be another gorgeous day.

Despite his preference, he stuck to the main walkways. Gentlemen who look as sharp as he did are always headed somewhere in a hurry. Jacobs had a tailor fit him into a new suit last night, just the thing to wear under high-profile security in the financial district.

It was part of the deal that his cargo not get aboard any vehicles or vessels on the way. No taxis. The simplest systems contain the fewest errors. It was a fine day for a walk anyhow, and he took his time through the mostly empty neighborhoods.

The facades got fancier as he came into the money part of town. The buildings doubled and tripled in height, and now he shared the walkways with steady streams of office goers. Derringer cut through a multi-level car park. Shunning the elevator, he took two flights of stairs up to the next street.

Iljen Square. He stopped in front of an azure-tinted window to check the time on his borrowed wristwatch. The square was the size of a city block, and the Monument seemed to fill it all, a great calculating dome of information rising from its center. They’d unveiled it four years ago, and it was a huge deal, big breakthrough accomplishment for Aquariid-human engineering. Derringer had only seen it once before. The weather was still friendly, and he was running early. He sat himself on a nearby bench to take it in.

It was like a great fountain, but instead of water, in the air hung a three-dimensional constellation of information. Within its visual hemispheres spun layers of data. There were projections for every planet of the Pan-Galaxy, with tickertape lines threading everywhere between, showing shipping and trade data, stocks, politics, even jokes.  This was all changing position according to a logic that Derringer could see but not understand. He just let his mind wander from one tidbit to the next. A little girl, parents in tow, screamed amusement as she passed her hand through a seemingly solid planet. His watch beeped at him. Monument Synchronize? He tapped its corner. No, thank you. But it was time to go.

“The other end of this delivery is at the Massey-Sonnes Hotel at Iljen Square, in a suite accessible only by private elevator. You’re the guest of Ms. Karma Ilacqua, tell the front desk she’s expecting you. They’ll send you up. She’s the only one supposed to be there, as much for their good as ours. She’s gonna plug it in, read and verify the data, and when she says thank you, you go. That’s all that needs to happen.” With that, Casper Jacobs had shut the metal case with the data key in it and slipped it into Derringer’s breast pocket.

There was a lot that could go wrong. The contingencies were so numerous that they couldn’t be planned. No wonder Jacobs had saved this gig for him.

They stopped in front of reflective metal portals. The bellhop, a young guy who looked like a card shark, faced them as he spoke. “You’re going to Ambassador’s Suite 7. Ms. Ilacqua has not informed us that you require guest access, so once you leave the suite you cannot return without authorization.” Derringer flicked his eyes over to the bellhop, who wasn’t looking at him, and nodded.

His reflection gleamed back at him, framed in one of the portal doorways. At a little taller than average, he stood sturdy, on a well-used frame. His face was friendly, no-nonsense, with a full mustache and curling brown hair. In this suit, he looked like he’d stepped off his own stellar yacht.

The frame he was gazing into lit up, and the panel slid open with a slight vacuum suck. At the bellhop’s gesture, Derringer stepped inside. “Enjoy your time at the Massey-Sonnes Hotel, sir. Let us know if we can be of any assistance.” He looked over his shoulder, meeting the bellhop’s eyes. The ovoid elevator opening slid shut, and the chamber detached out from the building with a barely noticeable vibration. As it lifted out and up, Derringer turned to the glass walls to watch the square disappear below.

Section 7

8

The last few attendees were ushered to their seats in the Auditorium Salon. It was a small, fully-fitted theater with royal accoutrements. A 16-piece orchestra sat at the foot of the velvet-curtained stage. Princess Soleil sat midway to the left in the front row, with her cousin Margeaux on one side and her grandmother the Queen on the other. The musicians continued tuning while people settled in their seats.

Margeaux leaned towards her cousin. “Did you get enough to eat?”

“Only just,” Soleil spoke in a stage whisper. “Did you try the teriyaki fish thing?”

“That was pretty good. But I liked the game hen.”

A hush descended through the room. The lights dimmed, and the curtains opened to reveal the performer at center stage. She wore primitive but graceful lizard buckskin dress armor, her hair a bushy black mane over copper skin.

The Huntresses’ Aria begins with a soloist who plays Lysha, amazon of ancient Iza. She sings of her tribe and the night hunt. When a terrible murder is discovered, the song turns into a bloodthirsty battle cry. Soleil knew the piece, part of the larger Erris of Rahm. It was one of her favorites. She turned her head to smile at her grandmother. Queen Celeste returned it warmly before pinning her eyes on the stage.

Mara Kamini joked that she had performed for half the Pan-Galaxy, and the other half didn’t like opera. When she was invited to perform at an Imperial event, she cancelled other scheduled shows, pouring herself into the Huntresses’ Aria. She took pains in finding the other singers, for the piece was notorious for falling apart in the transition from solo to chorale. Three months later, she found herself twenty-five feet from the attention of Her Vast Eminence and the royal family. She could not remember how to begin. The Queen and the Princess shared a smile, and the court began to focus on her. Kamini felt a wave of helplessness and desperation rise larger than she could overcome. She met eyes with the Queen, opened her mouth, and let it out.

Section 8

9

The private elevator door, the only way into and out of the suite, slid open. A slight figure of a woman in a grey wool suit stood at the desk, her fingers on its surface while her face was turned looking out the window. Immediately Derringer recognized something about her body that made him narrow his eyes. When she turned her face to greet him, he realized where he’d seen her.

Like him, she was much better dressed than before. Her eyes registered a shadow of surprise, and she quirked her lip. She studied him, poised, for a moment longer. “You have something for me,” she stated.

“Yes I do. Delivered on foot, as requested.” Derringer continued to stare at the small capitol woman with red hair. Three days ago when she’d passed him in the Diplomat’s Quarter, she resembled a housewife on her errands. But she was in fact the contact for the other end of this delivery. He waited for her to say something. She could be drawing conclusions, just as he was.

She opened a soft briefcase sitting on the desk chair, withdrawing a computer the size of her hand. “Bring it here, lay it on the desk.” Derringer fished the mini safe from inside his breast pocket. He came close enough to leave it on the corner. His nerves were jangling. An alarm was going off, and he couldn’t pin it on this lady, or the situation. She looked a little on edge herself.

She aligned the devices and switched them on. A hemisphere of floating words and icons sprang into the air a foot tall above the desk, a tiny replica of the Iljen Monument. Jacobs said the data storage had program locks and tamper checks, and these had to green light at the other end in order to complete the delivery. She manipulated these elements into place, going through programs and items that Derringer couldn’t guess, never mind that he’d never seen a computer like that before.

“What do you have there? Is that hooked into the Monument?”

She glanced at him sidelong while she continued arranging data. “It can be. Just like that watch you’re wearing. It isn’t, right now.” She continued arranging and relating programs. “It’s its own system. Prototype model, not on the market yet. It has… its points and kinks, but I’d say the development is useful. I keep finding new things I can do with it.” She stopped herself. “How was your walk?”

“Good weather and nothing but strangers.”

“That’s good to hear.” She tapped a few things into place and straightened, turning to him and leaning against the chair. “This will be a few minutes.” She looked him in the eyes for a breath, sizing him up. “Would you like a drink?” She pointed toward a bottle of golden-brown spirit, two glasses next to it.

The brandy was a good label, he’d had it before on remarkable occasions. Derringer nodded and stood at ease. “Yes, thanks.” He watched her pour. Her nails were electroplated, with glowing phronium tips.

He took the glass when she held it out to him at arm’s length. She really was petite, disarmingly so, like a fairy woman. But she held an immense and dangerous electricity. He took a sip and licked his lips. This stuff was old-fashioned, but he liked it.

“I’m assuming deliveries aren’t your main line of work.”

“What makes you assume that?”

“You look like a man who does a great many things,” she said, pacing a half-circle around him with her drink in hand. “Usually alone. Though never without help.” Derringer didn’t bother to reply. She cracked a smile. “Sorry if I’m teasing you. It just… I know the type.” She looked bemused, sipping from her glass.

He rose to the bait. “You can call me Derringer.” He stuck out his hand. She stepped forward and took it with a ladylike grip.

“Karma,” she said with a smile.

Section 9