58

58

They stood before the song-molded door of Bright Wave’s healing chamber. Through windowed crevices came flashes of light and bursts of music. “Though she made it back through the barrier alive, her spectral voice was practically destroyed. She’s no longer in critical condition, but she must remain here for some time.” Lead Composer Fleeting Shade shuddered his tendrils. “Some worried her injuries were permanent. The destruction of the Groves has already been a strike at our hearts. But there’s no need for despair.”

“Of course not. We anticipate Bright Wave back at her post when she’s once again able.”

“Be that as it may.” Before he continued, the Princess went to the door and laid her palm on it. “You’ve seen how these work, then?” She raised her eyebrows at the Lead Composer. “No? Hm.” He joined her, laying a tentacle on the door, to a responding shimmer. “Though we can’t enter the room without disturbing the mending field, we can communicate through here. The environment within is responsive; when we touch the door, we can hear it, it can hear us.” Color pulsed around his tentacle. “Human interface is limited, but if you send from your outer layer, your message will reach her in some way when possible.”

Without warning, the seven symbols Soleil had memorized floated to the forefront of her thoughts. She felt warmth at her temples, then fingertips as the thought flowed to the healing chamber. She felt surprised as it happened. Perhaps she should trust the Aquari artist.

The Lead Composer nodded. “If your Graces are ready, let us join the Octave at Glowing Eye Nest.” Soleil and her mother returned the nod. “You are prepared for the walk? With a sendsinger, it won’t take long.”

Queen Ascendant Charlotte smiled. “We are ready, Lead Composer.”

“Fleeting Shade will do, your Grace.” From the living wood and rock of the infirmary house, the two next in the Magus line followed the Aquari sendsinger down a soft, grippy natural rock trail. The surrounding trees fell away, revealing a wide scrub woodland vista under a periwinkle sky. In the center of the area, a rock tabletop stood raised over the trees. The distance to the rock closed quickly, as the sendsinger promised. Their steps glided to cover the distance, their breaths catching his tune.

The steep path up the mount, suited for an Aquari’s ease of climbing, went slowly and surely. Atop the rise, they moved through rings of large, stark trees to the meeting place within.

Eight Aquarii rose to greet them from around the oval rock table. The large stone in its middle caught tones of light, throwing them into the air above. They made courtesies, then launched into discussion.

At the Queen Ascendant’s behest, they outlined the extent of the disasters. The fires had touched the Groves of every home planet. “They are not just places. The Symbias Trees are part of how we gain our adult capabilities, our full range of communication. We have a connection with these that only grows stronger as we age. The Symbias keep and pass on much of our memory. Those of us connected to Groves that burned are variously debilitated. Scant few of us are unaffected.”

They turned down the Queen’s offer of medical support. These kinds of injury, they explained, were only treatable by Aquari methods. Instead, they requested botanical researchers and investigators. “We want to know how this happened, and how to rebuild. We haven’t seen this kind of destruction to the Symbias since we became a people.”

The nine Aquarii exchanged the lead expressing their viewpoints to the Queen Ascendant. “Most may find it difficult to continue our occupations. I advise summoning a replacement force where possible. Many of us will have to return home, no question.”

“And what about professions with no non-Aquari equivalents?” He knew she meant specifically the sendsingers. These Aquarii, in concert with human technologies, enabled transit and trade throughout the Pan-Galaxy with their spacefaring voices. These specialists swore allegiance to no one planet. The Sendsinger’s Guild was represented as a planet unto itself at the Aquari Home Federet – the ninth member of an Octave.

Lead Composer Fleeting Shade rose from his seat. “I attest to the difficulty of singing across the stars without connection to the Symbias of one’s youth.” His crowning tendrils wavered with uncompressed grief, his two tentacles clasped before him. His emitted spectrum was deeply clouded with grey. “Not that we can’t do it. We’ll tire easily. With the support we can find amongst ourselves, there may be a quarter loss in service power until we recover more fully.”

Queen Ascendant Charlotte blinked, taken aback. “A quarter.”

Fleeting Shade bowed deeply. “Only one quarter, with the Guild doing all it can to mitigate widespread injury.” They went on to discuss adjusting travel regulations. The bright stone in the table threw strands and loops of light in the space around them. The others touched this stone without a thought, and Soleil reached out to do the same. It was warm, and like water, there were currents below the surface.

“If we are ready to conclude,” said the Lead Composer, “touch the shore stone, focus, and the session will construct itself.” Nine Aquarii and two humans placed their digits on the edge of the lit stone, and a full image blossomed above them. Their eleven perspectives shifted through various balances, moving thought elements to achieve relation. As greater patterns emerged, the stone emitted bright, warm pulses.

The Princess opened up to the Rasakarya, thinking something might float out to jar her speech. No such surprise, but her impression of the conversation became more detailed and true to memory, with added nuances from the thoughts of others. After the final harmonic burst, she disconnected.

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57

Drift 9’s passenger door whooshed shut, and Leiv Gruun, Wendel Harper, and the boy Toller collapsed just inside. It was a couple breaths before Wendel picked herself up and headed to the cockpit. There, she opened a channel to the Entropy 8, Emira’s ship. “Rosh,” she projected, “Rosh, are you there?”

“Harper, I’m here, yeah. What do you need?”

“We’re leaving, and you have to come with us. Sorry, I’ll explain once we’re away. Where’s Manoukian?”

“His ship left about an hour ago. I have a passenger, though -”

“Bring em, leave em, either way we really can’t wait.” As she spoke, Harper turned her ship live, locking seals and decoupling. Gruun joined her, getting things ready. “It’s me they’re after, but I think we’ve all been noted.” She ran a hand through her short blond hair. “We’ll be safer leaving together, now. If we’re separated, meet us at this system’s freight shipstream. We’d better hop out of this galaxy, at least.”

“Ghosting the party, hm?”

“Exactly.”

“Alright. I’m fueled up, systems tested and smooth. I’ll be right behind you.” The two cargo ships detached from their outer bays and drifted casually away from the refugee resort. Wendel was glad for the other vessels in nearby space masking their departure.

It would be twenty minutes before they reached the freight shipstream. Toller stood behind the pilot’s chairs, watching the aft display. Odessia 6 had dwindled almost completely, Genesee behind it covered in clouds. He remembered his pack, still on board the resort.

Toller blinked at the display. Something approached them from behind. He studied it as it grew larger. Once he could glimpse thruster flare, he tapped Gruun’s shoulder.

Leiv turned to squint at the monitor. A few seconds, then a few seconds more. He activated his mic. “Drift 9 to Entropy 8. Check your aft display and tell me what you see.” Harper paused to look over as well.

Rosh took a moment to respond. “I see someone closing with us in our wake.”

“That’s what I thought,” he muttered. “Let’s arm-”

“I’m target locked.”

The channel crackled loudly as the frequency was hijacked. The voice of the man Toller slapped with his handcuffs snarled over the line. “You thought you could just skip town. No Ms. Harper, you’re coming with us. So unless you consider your friend’s ship reasonable collateral-”

Just then a hatch opened in the back of Entropy 8, letting out a couple dozen fast, bright objects in a miasma of heat. It dropped suddenly out of path. Audio crackled as the intruding connection cut off.

Harper pumped a fist. “Scatterbugs! That’ll keep his lock occupied. Alright, let’s shake em.” She peeled the Drift 9 up into a cloverleaf arc, pointing her nose to Rosh’s flank trajectory. Toller, meanwhile, hung onto two wall handles as the ship swung around.

Leiv turned during the two seconds of level flight. “You. Strap in.” The boy lunged for the fold-down seat, clicking the belts shut in time for a plunge toward the Entropy 8.

“Harper!” shouted Rosh over the channel. “Who is this asshole?” The pursuant ship was fast, a streamlined model not designed for cargo. It fired intermittently at the both of them.

“Aynsdotr and crew. They want me alive. They’ve been redirecting shipments from all over. Their methods tipped me off to the existence of an entire network, and I wasn’t wrong.”

57

Grunn finished setting impact shields, and checked his gauges. “Auxiliary turbos are up.” He looked back at Toller, then nodded to the pilot. “Let’s helix.”

“Helix?” shouted Harper.

“Helix!” Rosh concurred. The two ships parted on their own rotational paths, switching relation while expanding and contracting the space between, slowing and speeding on coordinated whim. They were followed by the scatterbugs, weaving a flashing net that effectively distracted targeting.

“I started keeping tabs on them, connecting incidents.” As she spoke, Wendel torqued her yoke, leaning from her chair. “I got in the way of a couple shipments, just to see.” The following ship fired a few missiles, detonated by intercepting scatterbugs. “I thought this was head guy here, but now I’m not sure.” She checked the monitors. “We have to cripple him, ship’s too fast. We can’t get away like this.”

“Breaking out,” replied Rosh. She pulled a side split stall maneuver that set her above the incoming fighter. “Passenger can’t operate the big gun, so I can’t do more than this.” She sprayed an arc from her forward turret that shaved the pursuer off his path.

“Oh – we’ve got a gun.” Wendel gave Leiv a hot stare, and he lifted his eyebrows and got out of his chair. He pointed to Toller, then back at the copilot’s chair. “You, sit there.” Harper nodded agreement while watching her flying.

Toller waited till he could make the leap, then lunged in. He strapped up, and went ahead and started touching things.

“Just don’t actually use any controls unless I ask you to.”

“Yup.”

With only two scatterbugs left, the Entropy 8 was doing the hummingbird, firing the occasional salvo on the chasing fighter. Harper could see Rosh was tiring. “How’s the SkyFather back there, old man?”

“Warming up!” replied Gruun over the com.

“Tell me when.” Harper ramped up her speed, arrowing toward the fighter’s belly. She had the pistol sprayer and Potato Gun up front to use, and she realized she didn’t have enough hands. “Okay – boy – Toller – I need your help, this is simple.” She pointed to a trigger stick to the right of his seat. “Pistol sprayer. Give that a try.”

“I’m not right-handed,” he warned her.

She sighed. “Oh well.” He moved the control and squeezed the trigger. It gave bursts of light fire in the directions he guided it. “Waste as much of that as you want. Superficial damage, but still don’t hit our friend. Can you handle that?”

Toller gave a serious face and a cool nod, wiping his palms on his pants.

“That display is your targeting,” Harper pointed. “No target lock on your gun, but you’ll see when he’s in range, just a second.” With the ball control on her dash, she aimed the Potato Gun before smacking in the command. A pause, then a muffled fthoom as a plasma ball released. The glowing blob drifted slowly at first, becoming denser and gaining in speed until it was hurtling toward the fighter like a fist. As it hit critical density and released its phronium-fueled boom, the fighter just barely outran it. The shockwave, however, threw the ship into a barrel roll as the Drift 9 sped past it. Toller saw some of his shots connect with the hull.

The pursuant ship hung still after coming out of the tailspin. The Entropy 8 banked around it in successively tighter circles, trying to do enough damage to keep him off. Harper realigned herself to face them, watching him float.

In silence, a shell of white light exploded from around the fighter and grew, expanding past the Entropy 8, nearly reaching Drift 9 before vanishing. Wendel and Toller glanced at each other.

“Rosh?” Entropy 8 was afloat, and the smaller ship headed towards it. According to a quick check, Drift 9 was fine.

“Entropy 8?” The fighter ship began to dock alongside Rosh’s ship.

“Emira!?” Harper tapped the mic, wall com, controls, but hers were all fine. Only silence on the other end.

The com channel crackled again. “Your friends aren’t answering because they can’t. If you want to ensure their safety, join us. Please.”

Harper steered them in that direction. She waited before hearing the channel disconnect before calling to the back of the ship. “What’s the word?” she asked with an edge in her voice.

“SkyFather’s charged and ready.”

Harper exhaled. “Good. Only issue now-”

“Look!” called Toller. He pointed out the oval of light appearing on the side of Entropy 8.

Wendel lifted her head with a sudden rush. “They’re activating the escape pod.”

56

The three of them stood near the precipice on the facing side of Mt. Kairas, jutting over the valley cradling Alisandre Capital. The sun set ahead of them, glowing hues of emerald green and vermilion. “It’s going to be a fine Midsummer,” intoned Queen Ascendant Charlotte. An echo of birds reached their ears. Soleil studied her father and mother.

“Yes,” the King Ascendant Grant Vario replied. “Soleil, we’ll arrange your appearance as needed, though the rest of us will do the talking. We have two weeks to prepare.” They looked at her for a long moment.

56

She acknowledged them in posture, keeping her gaze fixed on the city below. Most of it was visible from this ledge, though it filled the entire mountain plateau. A stream of ships arrived and left from the transport arena in the distance. The tallest buildings of the inner courts reflected the light, giving off Aquari auras in response. Closer to them, the markets, labs, and hospitals. She looked back at the Pan-Galactic Imperium’s leaders to be, in casual finery.

Not a word had the Princess uttered since awakening. Pressure and entreaties had been borne on her in various ways, but she remained locked within. They worked around it. Her presence was a minimal requirement, while the remaining problem hinted at more amiss.

Queen Ascendant Charlotte drew close to her husband. Their hands met, and they looked into each other’s faces. “I’m pleased we were able to meet for supper,” said Charlotte, including her daughter in her gaze. She let go of Vario and joined Soleil, laying a hand on her back. “We go now to Aquari Home with the rest of their Councillors, excepting Frayed Edge who will remain at court. Their grove fires have died down to a smolder. Now that they can assess the damage, we’ll discuss the extent they can continue supporting the Transnet.”

Soleil nodded to her father, who inclined his head. “Arkuda and I will see you when you return.” A pause as he turned his lips in a smile. With a slight pressure from the Queen Ascendant’s hand, the two women left down the staircase, leaving Vario to take in the sunset.

They boarded their shuttle flier. “Before we go to Aquari Home, where we will encounter grave matters, I want us to visit the observatory.” Charlotte clasped her hands and said nothing more except to redirect the flier to the northern end of the Royal Court. Soleil caught a glimpse of the newly dedicated hospital before the medical neighborhood disappeared behind them, replaced by a wealthy neighborhood. As though with the vision of a rock eagle, she could now pick out false facades, poison evident around them. As it also was around her mother. Soleil puzzled at what she could say to untangle Charlotte from it, but there was no evident way, if that would even be her mother’s wish. The Princess’ heart was heavy in the face of certain threat from her own family – to herself, the capital, and the Imperium, results of cumulative decisions that could no longer be borne.

They arrived at the observatory, which was clear but for guarded entrances. In the great inner chamber, visual was set to a complete three-dimensional of the entire Imperium, slightly distorted to include galactic relation. Forty-nine highlighted galaxies filled the space above and around them, with human home planet Alisandre near enough to touch.

The Queen Ascendant highlighted the Expansion 6 and Aquari Home federets. “Two areas in the Pan-Galaxy experiencing major upheaval.” She superimposed the lines, connections, and gate arches of the Imperial Transnet System. “These arches,” she highlighted half in orange, “use charged and focus-narrowed zerite for greater stability. A recent archway improvement – people barely notice their travel, which costs less than it used to in time and power.”

“Zerite is a fairly new material, which we discovered on Genesee in my great-grandmother’s time.” She picked out the Expansion 6 galaxies and stretched them to full view. Rotating Genesee to rest at eye level, she expanded the planet’s image to globe size, overlaying its current disaster map. Charlotte nodded to Soleil. “Genesee is still our only source, and we’ve halted production in the face of planetwide eruptions.” She tapped the view out again to include the entire Pan-Galactic Imperium, with Transnet system. “Which means that we may soon have to cut down the use of these major gateways.”

She turned to regard her daughter, who watched silently. “Do you still remember the sky from the great balcony?” Soleil looked up at the expanse of stars comprising the Imperium. She stepped forward, raising a hand to rotate the view, looking over her shoulder to Alisandre’s placement. She touched a sequence of stars in different sectors and brought Alisandre back to center, shading out the rest of the sky. Three familiar constellations shined in front of them: the Crown, the Wanderer, and the Bear.

They looked on them for a moment before the Queen Ascendant cleared her throat. “Out here, beyond the Bear,” she said as she adjusted the view, “is where we’re going next. Aquari Home. Their Symbias Groves have been decimated by great fires across their home planets. I don’t know exactly how this affects them, but I know that it does so greatly. Their dignitaries have been called home, and the furor is immense. It’s all we can do to insist that the Sendsingers enabling the Transnet continue their work.” She dimmed the galaxies till only the Transnet connections remained, glowing in the space above them.

Gear shift

Dear Readers & Co-Adventurers,

I am stepping illustration down to sketchwork, in order to push forward with the story and produce more audiobook tracks, and other goodies besides!

Whether/when this will jump back up to full illustration, is a mystery.  It may just Happen sometimes.

title

The regular story will continue.  Set course to the Bones of Starlight.

Stay Tuned, cosmic beings of the universe!

Eva L.