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.
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.
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.
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.