– 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.”
“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?”
– 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.
– 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.
– 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.”
– 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.