– 60 –
The light streamed through the holes in the cave ceiling as it bounced off the pool of water and onto the walls. Past where her toes dabbled, Karma Ilacqua watched gold and white fish nibble larva from the surface.
“We’ve been lucky twice already.” She sipped her fizzy beverage and looked sidelong at the mustached detective. “With finding the system taproot, and unearthing the Hoopoe in that tent. Blasted kid, sending us on a goose chase.”
Derringer aimed a level gaze at her from where he sat in his shorts under a ray of sunlight. “What do you expect, he’s from here.”
“Yeah, I’m sorry you didn’t learn that sooner. We got a little worried, but he’s going to hold up his end after all.”
“You think so?”
“Oh yeah, he wouldn’t have boarded the jet at all otherwise.”
“You know – I helped this happen, but I still don’t really know what it was all about.”
“You wouldn’t want to. The clearance levels aren’t worth your trouble.”
Derringer leaned back against the knobbly-smooth cave wall and sipped his liquor. “I guessed that.”
“You’re not bad at doing the dirty work, Derringer.”
“My specialty, madame.” He raised his glass in a toast.
Karma cupped water in a hand and poured it over her legs. The computer projected a message to her right. “Our intrepid backup.” She keyed a sequence to show the incoming images without displaying their own. “Greetings, gentlemen. Do you find the compensation satisfactory?”
“Shit yes, Ms. Ilacqua. Shit yes.” Fred DeWalt’s reply piped in with satisfaction.
“Enjoy your new office. My associates and I may be in touch further down the line.”
Chad Dremel nudged his partner out of the screen space. “We’ll look forward to hearing from you. How’s Derringer down there on Lurin?”
Karma raised her eyebrow at the hint of envy, smirking at the detective. “He’s in tip-top shape, we’ve got it wrapped out here. I’ll let him know you were concerned.”
A suspicious pause from the security team. “Are you two just living the lush Lurin dream, or what?”
Derringer leaned over to speak. “We’re hiding in a dank little hole in the ground, Dremel. I’ll be sure and bring you pictures if we make it out of this trench alive.” He reached over and tapped the call closed.
Karma leaned towards him. “I’ll do my best to make sure that happens.”
“You can do your worst.”
– 61 –
Though their passenger insisted she didn’t require special consideration, they picked the finest pub in Dalmeera – plenty of chairs, intact windows, no fleas, full meal service. Toller looked across the table at her, indifferently curious.
Arcta Hydraia’s long green hair was braided, and she gazed through spectacles at the menu, a mess of chalk writing on the opposing wall. She murmured and nodded, then blinked and looked elsewhere as she noticed the boy’s attention on her.
“So you’re a scientist?” he asked again.
“Yes, in massive sphere dynamics.”
“I don’t know what that is.”
“A relatively new discipline. We’ve only really been able to explore sphere dynamics since the appearance of non-solid anomalies.” She paused. “And from there it gets complicated.”
“Why are you going to the capital?”
She drew her breath in slowly. “Sorry, classified. It’s important enough that I don’t want to look for a different ship. Not here in Dalmeera, anyway.”
A blond figure detached from the crowd to stand square in front of their booth. “What do you guys want? I’m going to fetch it from the bar.” Wendel’s short hair was in disarray, a lingering smile on her face.
“Did Leiv go?” Toller asked, using his first name as requested.
“Yeah, we found a buddy headed out to join the second round of the refugee shuffle. They left, he’s going to look to his ship. Did you want anything to eat or drink?”
“How about a fried honklizard steak?”
Wendel raised her eyebrows. “Hungry boy. I’ll finish it if you don’t. What about you, Ms. Hydraia?”
“Arcta, please,” she replied, her eyes glancing at distant corners. “I’m not hungry right now, thanks.”
Wendel peered at her. “How about some hot silver?”
“You can’t leave Dalmeera without trying hot silver, no ma’am.” She patted the table. “Back in a minute. Don’t leave, don’t get in trouble.” She turned to weave through the thick crowd toward the counters. Toller shrugged across the table.
The pilot was back shortly with food. She unburdened herself of the steak and kept a mug for herself, handing the other to Arcta, who looked curiously at the iridescence in her cup. Harper took a hearty sip. “Moonlighty caffeinated nourishment. They don’t make it properly outside Dalmeera, they really don’t.” Harper watched the passenger’s tentative reaction.
“How long are we to wait here, do you think?” Arcta asked her pilot without impatience. “I trust your reasoning is good, I am just curious.”
“There are lots of people I haven’t seen here, which is good,” said Wendel, continuing to sip. “It means parts of the world are in working order. I just sense a simmer in the direction of the capital, and I’m waiting for it to die down. It’s so central a place, and also a busy time. I’m not too apprehensive to go there, that’s our next wise step fare aside. I’m aiming for a completely uneventful trip.” Harper was draining her cup quickly, almost as fast as Toller was demolishing his steak. Arcta noticed their pace and followed suit.
“It’s fair to tell you now that we’re hiding in plain sight. We’re likely surrounded by people who would aid in our capture if they knew who they were looking at. But they don’t, which helps me find the safe route.” Harper put out a hand. “I wasn’t placing you at any great risk. This town is dangerous, but also safe.”
The three finished their food and drink without much extra talk. Murmurs rose and fell, deals, meetings, uproar and upset – the place as usual.
When at the sound of a shot, chaos erupted. Wendel pulled the other two under the table, and dragging them by their shirts like ducklings, crawled along the wall below people’s legs, shielding the three of them with well aimed blows. The other two kept quiet and stayed close. They squeezed out of a door into a less crowded chamber.
Harper yelled briefly to the others. “This,” she pointed, “has nothing to do with us. Not our problem. We’re going now.” Her words were clearly enunciated. Toller and Arcta looked at each other, and both nodded tersely, agreeing that they would just like to get out.
Outside the bar, the noise was surprisingly minimal. It was a localized event. Harper put a hand on their backs and walked them away briskly. “Nothing to worry about,” were her only words until they boarded the Drift 9 at the airlot.
– 62/1 –
The floating stage platform shimmered behind a curving geometric field. Where they began in the transport arena, Princessa Mireille Magus took the speaker’s dais in the center, between her older sister and younger brother below.
The procession aisle was lined with people. The main group of platforms started forward. Performers from both sides of the path joined them to enact the Lay of Sakhana & Zoe, the capital’s traditional Pyrean play narrated by the Princessa.
Now we retell the tale,
as we do every Pyrean Midsummer.
The story of old Babylon Magus,
when this place was Babylon,
before it was Alisandre,
in the times of the Magus Emperors.
When walls, the ground, lights, the world,
breathed and grew at human whim,
miraculous machinery lost to ancient thought.
Before even the pergola on the plateau was raised,
when water reached to the walls of the city,
there was an only son, only child of the Magus.
His name was Marius Nikolai, also called Sakhana,
for he embodied the gentle warrior’s way,
young but already wise, formidable in reason.
The actor playing Marius Nikolai leaped to the main stage preceding the royal family. He bore a shock of blond hair, wearing black and grey leather armor blazoned with old crests. Aquari scene artists following to either side displayed a vast city fortress with lights, smoke and high stone walls.
Clever enough was he to discover the great evil
in old Babylon, in the walls themselves,
forces that held his dear land in secret thrall.
Cousins. Advisors. The Builders. His Father.
Old Babylon Magus was dying a slow death
at the hands of its keepers, bargains they’d made
with forces beyond their ken.
He would witness the end of it.
Clever Sakhana, he made sure of it.
He took action, performing rites for those
he hoped he would save, and wept
for the fall of this place, as he knew it must.
The actor’s stage morphed into a network of evolving paths along which he ran, defeating enemies who fell back in acrobatic tumbles to melt into the crowd.
By his engines, by his doing,
Babylon fell in one night.
His Father. Advisors. Cousins. The walls.
Many wonders and arts, now gone.
Sakhana cast himself from a keyhole parapet
to the waves far below,
his last desperate measure.
Old Babylon Magus had different creatures then,
and these saved the young man, bearing him far.
Sakhana only heard their ocean music.
He was carried on a billowing construct of dark blue and white silk, as operatic singers mimicked portisfish calls. When he returned to it, the stage platform was set as a seaside cove.
He awoke on a shore at the base of a cliff,
as a woman was climbing down.
He hailed her, and though hesitant,
she went to help the stranger.
This was Zoe, fleeing from capture.
Sakhana was sorely weak. Zoe gave him water,
and brought him up the long approach
to the entrance of a cave.
Within were rooms hewn from the rough stone cliff.
In one of these they hid,
and as he regained his health,
she told Marius Nikolai her tale.
Zoe lived her whole life by this cliff,
but was now pursued for reasons unknown.
She could defend herself with her bow in hand, and that was all.
Her pursuers were relentless –
they threatened her family to find her.
She was leaving to hide when she found Sakhana at the shore.
Trusting Zoe in turn,
Sakhana told her his tale of flight.
He recovered, and they ventured further into the cave.
They continued until they reached an iron gate;
beyond it lay sky.
Aquari projection made the sky around the stage seem brighter, sparkling and clear. Rays shone down on the evolving stage floor shaping a path. They were now in the midst of the University Quarter, surrounded by buildings of the old institutions.
Light fell over expanses of mosaic-tiled streets.
Sakhana saw before him a kingdom
more beautiful than Babylon.
Gardens, fountains, a palace in the distance,
bathed in sunny silence.
Zoe found the gate key nearby where it was hid,
and they walked to the palace,
eating fruit from the trees.
Inside were further splendors, all deserted.
A series of statues led them to a chamber below,
where a powerful light pulsed and glowed.
The light poured forth from an enormous jewel,
size of an eagle, crystalline and blue.
It rested on a pedestal in the center
of the great underground chamber.
Without a thought, they drew close to this
starry warmth, but as they touched it
the earth and the foundations began to shake.
Sakhana went to flee, but Zoe cried out
that they mustn’t abandon the jewel.
She toppled it from the pedestal,
but it was too heavy for her to lift.
So Sakhana carried it with her, though
they could hear the castle crumbling above them.
Through grave danger they emerged
to the mosaic-tiled streets.
The castle collapsed behind them in a cloud of dust.
From this cloud issued a furious roar;
a flaming beast with hooves, wings and talons
came charging with a voice like a host of warriors.
The costume of the beast was manipulated by athletic dancers, who moved to make the stride of its limbs. It trailed flames and smoke. As they passed through the hospitals, troops of singers from the Imperial Army joined to march alongside.
Sakhana made himself a match for the beast.
As bright as the beast burned,
it was no brighter than the flame in his heart.
As high as it flew, it never escaped his eye.
When it closed the distance, Marius Nikolai
leaped to meet it with bare hands of iron.
The male lead showed his ferocity in hand to hand martial display. Princess Soleil watched his leaps and twists, lifting her eyes to scan the crowds. They rested again on the female lead in her travel dress.
Zoe stood guard with her bow over the jewel
as Marius Nikolai and the beast wrestled
once, twice, thrice, and each time
his burns were healed with its light.
The next time the beast broke free,
it wheeled to face the girl, and dove.
She struck the beast with her arrows,
but they burned, and she threw herself out of its path.
With its talons, the beast seized the jewel.
As it flew away, Zoe loosed more arrows
until one struck the jewel,
breaking a piece of it free.
Sakhana found it where it fell, and offered it
back to Zoe. They knew the beast would return soon,
so they fled back across the deserted city
to the tunnel cave.
– 62/2 –
Exiting the cave, they encountered a ship
anchored off the coast, and rowboats on the beach.
Zoe retreated, but Marius Nikolai stopped her.
He knew them – pirate traders who visited Babylon Magus.
Zoe stayed hid, and Sakhana moved closer to investigate.
The ship and boats were festooned hover vehicles, eliciting cheers from the crowd when they joined the scene. The salty crew were popular in this rough neighborhood.
He overheard them speak of his home:
a city in ruins, but a people awakened and free.
They struggled to survive the harsh time,
but still they sang of that day as a good one.
They celebrated the fall as a victory,
and so Marius Nikolai knew that he could return home.
Sakhana showed himself to the nearby captain,
who recognized and moved to embrace him.
Sakhana asked after Zoe’s pursuers.
They had been here, the captain said,
and gone hence some time ago.
They had seen no one else.
Marius Nikolai brought word back to Zoe in the cave.
At once, she determined to see what became of her family.
Sakhana accompanied her to the top of the cliff.
Inside, the house was empty but for a message.
They had left in haste, their duty discharged:
to care for the changeling princess until
her identity should be discovered.
Zoe held the gem shard,
and knew what her pursuers were seeking.
Her kingdom was dead, not of this world,
so it was said by the dying man
who brought her as an infant to this cliffside.
He had given them her true name, Viridis Merida.
It was said that should she ever go to her old home,
it would be her doom. Zoe wept.
She knew she had seen it,
and that she could not go back there, nor stay.
Sakhana asked her to come with him
where he would rebuild his country.
Though grieving, she agreed to the journey.
Marius Nikolai and Viridis Merida
left with the trading vessel,
making many calls to port.
As they approached Old Babylon,
there was more rumor of what was lost
and gained in the fall of the city.
Some spoke of the Magus,
and how its last son was missing,
but Marius Nikolai kept his identity secret.
They arrived at the port of Babylon Magus
with an abundance of goods, carrying
timber, fiber, stone and food.
These he distributed among people,
still not revealing his identity.
Zoe went with him, healing and listening,
keeping the jewel concealed.
By its magic, she gained knowledge of ways to live
without the forces that corrupted the city
and brought its downfall. This she shared
with Sakhana and his people.
In time, they prospered.
The city as they knew it disappeared, brick by gear.
Boxes that looked like bricks and building debris were sent through the crowd, and opened to reveal gifts and treats. The well-dressed crowd between the Maray and the Diplomat’s District were appreciative.
As the old fortress was being cleared,
Marius Nikolai found a cellar door he hadn’t before seen,
blown askew on its hinges. A hallway led into the earth.
He journeyed in, bringing none but Viridis Merida,
who would not leave his side.
The hallway went to a bank of empty storerooms.
In the last of these, Sakhana found
a hidden trapdoor with a ladder going further down.
Here he entreated Zoe to turn back,
but she would not, so they went on together.
So absorbed were they in the mystery of this place,
they didn’t see the torch running low
until it began to gutter.
They were enveloped by darkness, and fear arose.
Sakhana banished the angry spirits that crowded his mind.
As they made to turn back in trepidation,
Viridis Merida saw a glow in her pocket.
She withdrew the gem, and it lit the hall.
So they continued.
Before long, the passageway ended.
They examined the dusty end, uncertain.
As Zoe held the gem to the wall,
a light answered forth, describing a door
with its hidden mechanism.
The door was represented by a mechanical gate with lights along its moving parts. Counterweights and pulleys opened it for the actors behind.
Marius Nikolai and Viridis Merida
entered a vast library chamber.
The walls bearing volumes were flanked by
massive statues that glowed as though living.
These took many forms, that Sakhana recognized
as his people’s ancient teachers of myth.
He bent a knee before them, and at the sight of this place.
Zoe held the jewel aloft, and
the library responded with its own illumination.
In wonder, they explored and examined the trove.
Many of the finest volumes were empty,
by myriad items of unknown but powerful magic.
A wall of books opened before Zoe
as she approached it holding the gem.
It revealed a stairway of masterful craft.
Upon the stone steps were carved tales of great heroes.
Sakhana asked Zoe if she would stay behind,
and again she refused.
So they took the long, winding stair.
Here they passed the great military obelisk as the actors climbed illusory stairs. The projectionists displayed carved story reliefs in the surrounding space.
When at last they reached light,
they found themselves atop Mt. Kairas.
Marius Nikolai had not known the place.
He found there a slender stone standing to chest height,
in the top of it a small window. The solstice sun set,
and the gem of Viridis Merida glowed again
with a piercing light that fell directly on the stone.
So she brought it close, placing it within the window.
The jewel pulsed, growing brighter each time.
Then with a deafening silence,
the light enveloped the entire city.
The parade arrived in the Royal Court. The bright display played off the walls of the city’s most fantastical architecture, setting a backdrop for the arrival of Her Vast Eminence, Queen Celeste. She was brought to the royal platform, where she boarded and below and in front of her second oldest granddaughter. They continued to the Verdant Plateau nearby. In the Pergola waited representatives from neighboring planets, and a Dragon.
All across the land could see it, near and far.
Within the encompassing veil of light shone visions,
sharp and clear, of a realm with more grace and triumph
than any they had seen.
Every detail of it etched into every looking eye.
Nor could any eye miss the man and woman
atop the mountain, revealed in majesty.
Though distant, their faces became known to all in that moment.
Marius Nikolai and Viridis Merida were recognized thus.
They stewarded the beginning of the next age of marvels,
and the new city that became Alisandre Capital.
So at Pyrean Midsummer we conjure forth our visions,
bright and clear as the light of Zoe’s gem,
great and certain enough to lay the foundation
for our futures in the spirit of new hope.
To Marius Nikolai!
To Viridis Merida!
And to the Great Pan-Galactic Imperium!
– 63 –
A twenty-one person assembly waited atop the Verdant Plateau – one dragon, four Aquarii, and sixteen humans arrayed above, inside, and around the Pergola. The procession halted at the plateau’s edge, and alone the ruling family disembarked to join them.
“This is the big show, Chrysanthe. The Vision. You were a baby last time you saw this.” The young girl, still just small enough to ride atop her father’s shoulders, squished his cheeks between her palms. They had a distant view from amid the sea of people filling the valley south of the Plateau. He kept her hands off his face by holding them. “Of course, it’s never the same twice. But I remember you smiling.”
“I doubt I could really see it if I was just a baby.”
“Maybe so. It’s good luck for you to be born so near Pyrean Midsummer. Now that you’re seven you get to see why.”
The Queen’s voice rolled out over the surrounding valleys, transmitted into space beyond. “Now with all the peoples of the Imperium, we light the sky with the Pyrean Vision.” The Magus family turned to face the great Pergola, and together sat on their knees.
“Papa – why do they kneel?”
“A show of respect for the hopes and dreams we express in the Vision.”
The four Aquarii in their respective corners of the Pergola began to shimmer warmly. The four humans surrounding each Aquari raised their palms, and the light around the Aquarii grew. A deep, melodic thrumming pervaded the air as their spheres of light widened to intermingle, beaming through the open Pergola.
“See how the Aquarii channel the human representatives, mixing them all in one Rasakarya.”
“What’s a ross-corey again?”
“A synaesthetic, like multisensory, like living, portrait of emotion and thought. Something only Aquarii can do.”
“How come those people get to do it?”
Chrysanthe’s father took a deep breath, and laughed. “This event is unique, ‘Santhe. Them up there are the ones that start it, but actually we all get to take part.” At no response but silence, he checked to see his daughter’s face transfixed by the spectacle.
Aural melodies began to wail, soar and syncopate. Intricate brightness enveloped the entire Pergola, reaching the coiled body of the dragon perched in massive flying form on the roof. Its silver-blue scales flashed as it took to the air, gently spiraling to float high above.
The mass of light gained focus, a streaming latticework that converged on a pulsing point centered above the structure. “It’s all joined now, see, and they’re making sense of it.” Glowing geometry transformed through a series of iterations that became more concise and graceful. The central point grew brighter till it burst upward, illuminating the sky all the way to the dragon above.
“What dragon is that?”
“Let’s see, that’s not Arkuda…” He pulled the event program from his pocket. “That’s Arctyri, of Foshan. Saga, Kyridi, and Rhizoa are on the other three planets this Midsummer.” The young girl repeated the names quietly.
The light revealed the dragon’s greater spectral being, extending through the sky in whorls and spikes. Arctyri’s body navigated a toroidal pattern, bending and channeling the light in this shape. The color of the sky began to change.
“Now the dragons are uniting the Visions from across the universe, from four planets in four separate galaxies who share the same moment of summer solstice every seven years. Right now!”
“When do we get to join in?”
“You’ll see. You’ll know!” Chrysanthe held her father’s hands and craned her head to watch. The sun was setting to her left. Between the growing night and fading day, the sky did resemble a conduit reaching through the universe; though instead of being dark, it was varicolor luminescent. She untangled a hand to reach up to it.
The combined light of four sunsets filled the air overhead, breathed in by the motion of the dragons’ flight. The colors gained substance and weight, falling like mist until they reached upraised hands.
It wasn’t like rain or snow, but Chrysanthe felt it, an electric sparkle that raised the hairs on her skin. It reminded her of things: warm cereal in the morning, dancing to the music her parents played. She saw the colors respond around her hand, and she did know just what to do after all.
She tilted her head as the lines and figures issuing from her father’s hand rose to meet her own small pictures. The expressions were abstracted, but when they joined, it somehow made a little more sense. Chrysanthe turned to see it happening everywhere around her. The sunsets’ light was fading, and the grand picture grew brighter in turn. She could see lines now that didn’t come from around her, but from somewhere across the galaxies, and they too connect into the picture with meaning. It seemed miles wide.
Arctyri above released the energy from the glowing torus, sending it back to the central focus. As a point of static harmony was reached, the Aquarii sent the energy crackling back through the pattern, rays of light connecting disparate lines.
When the big egg came falling through the vision like a springtime surprise, Chrysanthe wondered what amazing thing would come from inside.