5X Rerun: Fire Within (1) 68-72

– 68 –

Bright Wave sat curled at the base of the tree growing from the platform over the valley below. With half-closed eyes, she moved a line of color across the sunset. Slowly, and with care – previous ambitious attempts at expression had made her faint.

Her reverie was interrupted by the big grey pietrobird, scattering rocks as it landed. She rose from her seat, and went to look the bird eye to eye where it stood. It hopped backward, pealing loudly, and dropped below the ledge before its eyes popped over again. Someone may be down in the mountain. She sent the bird a flash of color, which it spread its wings to absorb.

Bright Wave moved down the rock face. Halfway down, outside the cave, hovered a vehicle. With a tentacle she parted the vine curtain to see a mantled Fleeting Shade.

They stepped toward each other, tendrils lifting. They met partway, super and subsonic vibrations popping in the air. The leaves on the vines shook lightly.

Lead Composer Fleeting Shade gestured, and a stage floor shimmered in to surround them. Figures in red and white danced around the edges. The star image above reflected the sky in two weeks’ time.

Bright Wave cast her tentacles aside and whipped one around in a circle, marring the picture with scratches. She would have dispelled it entirely, but it remained. Her supersonics morphed to echo the burning Symbias, which made him flinch. She reached out to him again, and the dead silence of the groves fell around them. She sagged, her head hanging.

Fleeting Shade held her up, and the edges of the stage surrounded the silence. The figures in red and white appeared, drawing themselves into the dead space around them. They had eyes, and ears.

She straightened and looked up. Before her she created a candlepoint of light, which grew to the size of her head, then faded. She tried again to make it brighter, but couldn’t, tendrils shaking in frustration. He drew her in to hold her. The stage and people remained.

68

– 69 –

From her perspective in darkness, the occasional sound reached her ears. Chrysanthe was thinking of her pillow and blanket forts – the way everything became dark and hot, smelling of her own breath, and she listened to her father in the house. She couldn’t hear much more, so she stayed in that cozy place.

Her dad hadn’t said anything since she’d last slept, but he was nearby. When she reached for him, he played with her hand a little. The occasional squeeze was enough to reassure her, since she didn’t know if he couldn’t speak, or she just couldn’t hear him.

People approached, talking. Just the rise and fall of their voices, through many layers. She jiggled his hand and he wiggled back.

“We’ve sent so many nurses to other planets. Thank you for volunteering.”

“This seemed an appropriate time to step back in. Yet, I’ve never done triage. What am I looking for?”

“This is our first sweep. We’re reaction testing. This device measures muscular nerve response and blood flow to extremities. There’s a threshold.” She showed the readout to the volunteer. “During high rush, patients below that will have lowest priority as instructed. I’ll show you.” She gestured to the man holding his daughter’s hand. “He’s awake, we’ll start with him.” She cradled his other hand in hers and he flexed it. He did the same for Chrysanthe on the other side. The voices were louder going wah wahh wahhh.

The nurse put the holding device in his hand and wrapped his fingers around it, squeezing them. She released and cradled it for a moment until the device light turned color. She checked it, and glanced at the other patients around the room before showing it to the volunteer aide. “This is a significant reading, below threshold by a margin. Input the command here, and his bracelet will carry the tag. And that’s it.”

The aide nodded. “I’ll watch while you check the next patient over here.”

69

– 70 –

“Due to energy pattern expansion rates, we need to widen flight paths beyond the C sphere, here.” With her laser pen she colored the zone orange.

“Except for you people,” Arcta indicated the technical instrument pilots, “because you’re carrying the Dyson probes and photon sounders. You’re in two teams, each covering a hemisphere. There is a set rotation plan, in case communication equipment is affected. We already have some signal bandwidth workarounds.”

The door opened, and General Iparia stepped in. Dr. Hydraia straightened.

“Now for those of you shadow marking – priority observations are signal strength, signal length, placement, and finally type.”

“Don’t you think the subject of what we see might be more important than the quantified signatures?”

Arcta looked down and let half a smile emerge. “Those of you who’ve examined the list of signal types have found, I’m sure, that the list keeps growing longer and is already too long to memorize. Type recognition is last priority because attempting it would keep attention from every other reading. The data is being pored over at Loramer. If they find a useful pattern in it, then we might shift our focus there. Until then, let’s concern ourselves with the possible effects and direction of the energy output, and how to handle and defend ourselves from it.”

Iparia leaned against the wall, arms crossed.

“And we’ll detach one team – that’s you – to array themselves between here and Photuris. You’ll have a more sensitive set of instruments. We want you to sit there, and read. I’m sorry we can’t just deploy satellites for this – we want people there live reading, and able to respond.”

“That’s all you need to hear from me. Your officers will give you the nitty gritty.” She watched the pilots exit, saluting the General as they passed. Hydraia cleared her data display.

The General took a step forward. “We’re going to assign two shadow markers to type cataloguing.”

“That would leave holes in our coverage. We’ve already thinned out in order to create a buffer zone.”

“I think the greater hole in our knowledge would be to ignore this information. We can spare that much, so that’s what we’ll do.”

“Do you realize that the energy dynamic in that sphere is over twenty times that of any known anomaly? And we still have no reason, or insight other than confusion. Diverting resources from safety on something practically pointless is reckless. I hope you understand that.”

“That’s what we’ll do until or unless we can bring out another Alpha base.”

At this point Hydraia nodded, turning around to put things in her bag. “I’m heading to Alpha 1, and back in three days.” On her way out she stopped to salute. “General.”

She crossed the corridors of the Alpha base to where the Drift 9 was docked. Arcta entered straight to the cockpit where Wendel Harper lounged in the captain’s chair. She chucked her stuff into a bin and flopped down next to her, heaving a sigh. “Fools. They really have no idea.”

Wendel straightened and began powering the ship. “That kind of day today?”

70

img_5200

– 71 –

“I’m being transferred to Ionos. They’ll put me on show shortly. There’s nothing you wouldn’t already know.”

“Your sham trial is not a concern. We can feel them meddling with the relay amplifier. Are you ensuring they are properly misdirected?”

“Someone’s making sure they’re properly misdirecting themselves. They wouldn’t recognize the technology for some time anyhow, given their own devices. The Imperium may have picked up some Vedani trash, but the cutting edge, combined with your additions, is outside their scope. The best researchers on the subject are currently occupied with other things. Is the power accrual going smoothly?”

“Certainly. Nothing is interfering with the core, which will soon be drained.”

“Which is… devastating. I hear the survival rate has been very good.”

“We’ve given them plenty of time where we could. But forces operate as they must.”

“That’s good to know.”

71

– 72 –

Mireille loaded her bowl with greens as Margeaux took her seat.

“Glad you could join us, dear,” Charlotte intoned, leaning forward to fill Margeaux’s glass.

“My pleasure. Where is Queen Celeste?” she asked, looking around.

“The Queen pardoned herself for other matters,” replied Vario. Mireille rotated the greens to Margeaux’s place and dipped into the capers and onions.

Charlotte smiled, and asked “Have you spoken with Soleil in the last couple days?”

“Yeah!” Margeaux flashed a grin and laughed. “What a relief it is. I expected her to sound croaky, but it’s her very same voice, only a little quiet.” Charlotte nodded.

Mireille sampled her melange. “She hasn’t been eating with us,” she shrugged, “so.”

“Oh, I know. It makes sense she’s withdrawn, considering. It’s strange as to when Soleil started speaking again, isn’t it.” Margeaux sipped on her drink. “At least that’s all there was to it, and he’s off to get what he deserves.”

Charlotte pressed her lips shut and looked at her husband. “It was a surprise, yes,” said Vario. “One that I was glad to see. I was only expecting she would learn from the encounter as necessary, but her speech at that moment was revelatory.”

“Can’t argue with that,” said Mireille. She tipped a ramekin of honeygrub dressing over her bowl and cracked pepper over it. Everyone continued to help themselves.

“It had been a while since we two caught a sunset together.” Margeaux smiled as she nibbled.

“Here’s to many more,” toasted Charlotte, raising her glass. Vario returned the gesture, and the girls followed suit.

72

5x Rerun: Fire Within (1) 56-59, 6th Sequence

– 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.

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.

56

– 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.”

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.”

57

– 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.

58

– 59 –

From within the two women watched the nearby dogfight between Harper’s Drift 9 and their attacker. There wasn’t much debris nearby, so Harper used the Entropy 8 as a maneuvering focus. Rosh watched shots fire past the hull of her ship with clenching fists. “Where’s that gun of yours. Quit dancing.”

The attacking fighter popped in from a blind angle, straight toward the window of the pod. There was a split second to grab hold before the blow sent them careening.

“I think it fair, perhaps, to discount your trip fee,” Rosh breathed as the pod slowed.

“It’s my rotten luck.” The passenger, a lovely woman though currently disheveled, shot her a fey look. “Listen, if we get through this, I will pay double.” She sighed and muttered.

The window drifted round in time to see the fighter release a beam that stretched into a razor-thin plane. Drift 9 dove out of the way, but Rosh’s ship was helpless in its path. “No stop – why -” She watched the beam fatally interrupt both of her engines. “ENTROPY,” Rosh wailed as her machinery crumbled.

A wide white flash suddenly cut across their field of vision. The fighter wobbled past, now missing part of a scorpion wing. Another gigantic beam flashed out of the Drift 9, making a square hit before anyone could blink. The fighter just drifted now, leaking fuel into space, the rear of it shredded.

The two looked at each other, holding their breaths. Drift 9 popped up in front of them, hatch open, pulling them in.

After steadying the pod, Leiv Gruun opened the door. The passenger exited, staggering over to sit on a nearby cargo case. As Rosh stepped out, she clapped Gruun on the shoulder. “SkyFather?”

Leiv nodded and grinned. He was a crack shot with that beast of a thing, from the time they went asteroid shooting. Emira felt the ship beneath her on its way into the next neighborhood.

The green-haired passenger looked up from where she sat. “Where are we headed right now?”

“Out of here, first,” Emira Rosh replied. “After that,” she looked at Gruun, “we’ll talk it over.”

“I’d like to discuss it before we go very much further.” She stood and approached them. “My errand is urgent.”

Leiv and Emira gave each other a look. “We’ll take it to the captain,” he said, gesturing for them to follow.

Toller vacated the copilot’s chair when the three of them entered. Leiv touched Wendel on the shoulder before he took the seat. She unbuckled and embraced Emira. “I’m sorry about your ship.”

Emira began the laughter, but they both carried it for a moment. “Ah. I’ve caught up with you. Now we’ll both have nines.”

“Great number. Badge of pride.” Wendel wiped her eye.

Emira indicated her passenger. “This is Arcta Hydraia. She’s looking to contract a private transport.”

“Nice to meet you, Ms. Hydraia. You’ve found the best ship round these parts.” The two of them enjoyed the joke. “Well, where is it you’re headed?”

She drew herself up, smoothing her hair. “To Alisandre Capital, with haste.”

59

– 6TH SEQUENCE –

Sixth Sequence

5x Rerun: Fire Within (1), 51-55

– 51 –

As she came to, Wendel calmly opened her eyes. She was sitting on the floor, her hands secured to a fixture behind her. Looking to either side, she saw a darkened bunk. Across the room, someone was chained to a wall pipe. “Toller,” she whispered.

Conscious, Toller nodded to her and jutted his chin to the door. Then he jerked his head to one side, indicating something behind him. He wiggled his shoulders and gave her a slow nod.

Wendel smirked and curled her fingers up to examine her bonds. Locking strongfiber loops. He had something that would open these? She watched him shift and work, both of them listening through the quiet.

Bootsteps approached, followed by discussion, then the sound of a key. In came two men wearing grey coveralls off the loading bay. They shut the door behind them and turned on the light.

One walked to Wendel and tilted her face up. Meeting his eyes, she felt a rush of recognition. She had been right about the undercover shipping network. Poke a web at enough points, and the spider comes out to investigate. She only regretted the boy’s involvement.

“This is she. Wendel Harper.” He sucked his teeth. His rough black countenance showed him to be some years older than his associate, and his posture was military. “We’re going to have words about your presence in our doings. Possibly you made an honest mistake or two at the beginning. But now you’re meddling. And we won’t have it, not from you or your group.” Her group.

Wendel’s voice stayed light. “Leanders Aynsdotr. It was your patterns that tipped me off. Pirates and thieves.”

“Call us what you want, we’re not petty.”

“You’re building an interesting stock of materials. What is it you want here at Genesee disaster? You didn’t come all this way for little old me.”

“You know much less than you think you do. Don’t worry, we’ll teach you more about us before the day is over.” He turned to the other man. “Well done. Let’s get them all on board, and we can go.”

She watched Toller in her peripheral vision. Aynsdotr’s lackey stooped to reach the restraints. With unexpected grace, the boy slithered from where he sat, trapping the man’s feet. Toller grabbed his shirt collar, using his arm as leverage to bring him down. The boy kicked him in the head hard enough to knock him out.

Wendel saw Aynsdotr draw his weapon as Toller grabbed the electric baton from the downed man’s belt. The boy flung it across the room into Aynsdotr’s face. In the time it took for him to scream and drop his aim, Toller closed the distance, wielding his broken cuffs like a sap. Rooting his feet, he swung it straight across Aynsdotr’s temple, dropping him to the ground.

Wendel watched Toller pause for the next couple breaths. He blinked and began to search pockets. He withdrew a rectangle key. “Here, this is it.” As he leaned toward her, she caught his gaze with a piercing look. He let her search his eyes, appearing slightly embarassed. Satisfied, she relaxed, leaning away so he could unlock the cuffs.

She stood, rubbing her wrists. “We have to find Leiv, and the others. We have to get off this ship.” Looking at Toller’s puzzled face, she realized she was grinning. She raised her eyebrows and started to laugh.

51

– 52 –

The four Generals looked from the observation window onto a large patch of space that billowed inward and out. It was defined by a minute fringe of light that only instruments could clearly magnify. The four of them stood transfixed. It caused the mind to chatter in every possible direction.

“You see why it’s been difficult to study, then.” General Ionos of the Libran Federet took a sip of whisky and turned to face the projection dais in the center of the room. The others followed suit, though General Alisandre let his gaze linger on the vortex for another moment. It felt like a familiar puzzle. Just as he turned away, he saw a flash of blue-green aurora.

“We know what you mean now about the ghost ships, the random images.” General Lucay gestured with his glass to the projections, live relays of skewed shipboard readings. “In the course of our approach, instruments reported five bogeys, then twenty-five, then two, then a small fleet. Scout ships found nada while all this occurred. The placemap read the bogeys as asteroids, and the network read them as com points.” He rubbed his forehead with a bewildered smirk. “Then they started wheeling around like a flock of damn birds.”

Ionos nodded. “Yup. Just like that. Though it’s never the same twice. The false echoes, we call them shadows. We’ve been watching for patterns, set some programs to scan, but so far the only trend is an activity increase with no physical correlate.” He played back the original recording. “The shadows started early yesterday.”

“Around the time of the fires in Aquari Home?” General Iparia swished a sip of whisky.

“Not long before.” Ionos swept his finger along the arc of the barely visible formation. “This Alpha’s captain thought he saw the arrival of completely unknown ships. He raised alarms, but recon was barely out before displays changed again, showing nothing as before. They confirmed the false readings, and that was our first sighting.” He reinstated the live view. “This is why we’re convened. We don’t have anything like this on record. Not in all twenty-four generations.”

“What about the other two vortices we’re watching?” asked Lucay.

“They remain stable. Only the Photuris Vortex is evolving, thankfully.” Ionos cleared his throat. “Lucky us. At least the effects don’t reach as far as Photuris itself.”

Alisandre met the eyes of Iparia sidelong before suggesting, “The Loramer Institute may be our best resource for investigation.”

Lucay grunted. “What, those softnoggins?”

Iparia briefly closed his eyes. “Those softnoggins have made great strides recently, if you haven’t been paying attention. Theoreticians are most useful when dealing with the unknown.”

Ionos nodded. “If you can debrief them, Alisandre, and have them send someone, the sooner the better. Someone with steel nerves. I won’t deny the shadows have everyone on edge.” The younger General nodded.

“Isn’t your son an officer on this ship?” Lucay asked Ionos over his whisky.

“He is, in fact. Lietenant Corporal Tyson Sorens. His office is on third deck if you have any questions regarding the crew.”

52

– 53 –

“Down this way. We’re headed towards Drift 9,” directed the pilot, calling her ship by name. Toller tailed at her inconspicuous yet rapid pace. They ducked into an intravessel transit. No one had tried to stop them. She fixed her mind on Leiv – where might they have brought him? If he knew what was going on and wasn’t captive, he should be at their rendezvous.

Toller kept his head down beneath his hood. He eyed people’s movements, seeing no one familiar, and nothing particularly strange. He assumed they were going straight to the ship bay, so he nearly missed Wendel exiting at the residential floors.

“I thought we were leaving,” Toller said as he caught up to her.

“We are, but I have to get something first.”

“Really?” asked the boy with some distress. He recalled the memory of Cheli’s face, still looking up at him as tides of fire and ash rushed to engulf Anzi.

“Absolutely. Head back to the Drift if you want, I’ll see you there.”

“Oh, no.” Toller paced her grimly. “Besides, it’s not going anywhere without you.”

Maybe, thought Wendel. She focused on the room up ahead. He would be there. Him, or what she needed to find him.

From paces away, the door burst open, Leiv emerging full speed carrying a pack. Wendel gasped as they practically ran into each other, and Leiv leaned in to kiss her on the mouth. Without a word, they turned and sped to the ship bay.

53

– 54 –

“So, how goes the hunt for our elusive rabbit?”

General Alisandre snorted as he keyed his remote data to the small projection table. A display opened of a feral-looking man with long, straight dark hair. His grin mocked them as it rotated around, facing every corner of the room. “General Iparia, Sturlusson is no rabbit.”

“No, he is lower. I honor him with the title of rabbit, because when we capture him, I will dine well.” Alisandre looked at the senior General’s slender face, set in stone. He knew of the death of Iparia’s sister on the day Sturlusson collapsed the Freshwater Consulate. The man hadn’t been connected to the incident till days later, when they found his signature in the rubble: the trisected triangle with a crosscut on each arm, stamped on a phronium coin.

General Iparia was now the strongest proponent of the intergalactic effort to apprehend the man whose mysterious agenda had wreaked destruction and chaos in nearly every federet.

It had been a long hunt. General Alisandre followed it as the news crossed his desk. Agency squads for intergalactic criminals fell in his jurisdiction as the capital planet General, and Sturlusson was already on the enemy roster when Claymore took the post.

Raev Sturlusson was known for maneuvers that crippled operations, and he didn’t shy from taking lives. He announced himself often. They were still tracking the full extent of his network. This one man had made so many enemies, caused so many personal vendettas, that it was only a matter of time.

“We have word of two separate cells, one in the Vertris Federet, concentrated on Lurin-”

“-of course,” muttered General Iparia.

“-and one in the Libran Federet, focused on planet Ionos.”

“I assume General Ionos knows about this?”

“Yes, but it concerns him little. This group hasn’t directly acted on any of his planets, and the forces to pursue it are mine.”

“Then he is practically harboring them.”

“Hardly. He’s put every resource at my disposal and opened every pathway I’ve requested. He knows it can’t be long before they make a point of their presence, but you can’t blame him for being currently preoccupied here.” They both turned their heads briefly to the blank wall in the direction of the Photuris Vortex.

“Even so. The magnitude of Sturlusson’s crimes makes him a top priority.”

“That, he is. We’re very close now.”

Alisandre watched Iparia’s jaw work for a moment before he spoke. “I depart for Freshwater shortly. I intend to supply aid for Ionos. Another Alpha base here at the Vortex, and I think a team or two to help take care of the vermin problem on his home planet.”

“No doubt he will appreciate those offers. If you wish to send special ops, please have them report to my mission chief, Commander Georg Hertez.”

Iparia nodded and went to the door. He paused before it to salute. “I would like every update, General Alisandre.”

Returning the salute, he sighed inwardly. “General Iparia. You will have it.”

54

– 55 –

Cross-legged, he perched on a rippling plane of light in a room of vibrating azure walls. His hands were raised, contacting midair frequency terminals. Words and lines of light under tattoos and scars glowed in synch with the programs around him.

He’d been expecting the call that he tapped to project before him. A woman’s face displayed in 3D monochrome, the covert connection offering but a weak signal. He examined her hair in grayscale.

“Where is Leanders?”

She made a face. “Busy. Otherwise occupied. We’re switching to plan b.”

“So be it. How’s that going?”

“They’re doing their job perfectly, which is to say badly.”

“Excellent.” He drew a long breath. “You know what you’re doing from here.”

She nodded. “We’ll both be out of communique for some time, is that right?”

“Excepting anything through the media.” He tilted the camera downward, but the view was blocked by a shipboard control unit. “It’ll happen in stages, and you’ll be in a position to watch it all and keep up.”

“If anyone can do it, it’s me.” She kissed her fingertips and waved to him. “See you on the other side, boss.” Another call alert flashed as her image disappeared.

He took the incoming signal, which was a sending-throughport. From a spark wobbling at chest level entered five gently glowing wire frame avatars. He dispersed his frequency terminals and stood to greet them.

“You’re all here, so I take it our trials have been thorougly successful.”

The last wire frame to emerge nodded her head. “We’ve reached certainty rates on all auric testflesh programs. The mechanical side is functioning at 92%.”

“That will do. And you’re all willing to do this yourselves?”

“We are. It will work similarly on us, if not entirely the same. Our end of the signal is strong, only we five need carry the connection.”

“Then we’re ready.” Sturlusson stood and stretched. One figure handed him a green sphere. It gloved his hand in light, which spread to cover his body with a framenet like those around him. “Bring me through.”

The six of them joined hands in a horseshoe, and the murmuring hum arose. The two open ends touched the sending-throughport. The body frames, Sturlusson included, together folded rapidly into the spark, which winked out behind them.

He was released by the electric net on the other side, standing before the five who had sent their avatars. He opened his arms and bowed, lifting his eyes to speak with them from there. “That you five accept this responsibility, when it’s not even your cause-”

One raised his hand. “Our aims have become intertwined. Signalman.”

Raev lowered his bow even further. “And for that the living and the dead for whom I stand are deeply grateful to the Vedani.”

They nodded to him, some smiling. “The vector group is ready in the next chamber when you are.”

“This has been a work of long years, friends. I walk lighter knowing the blood of my father and home shall have its vindication.” The five parted to let him pass, and he strode forward to open the door.

In the adjoining hall stood twenty people in two facing rows. Upon his entrance, they took a knee and planted their fists on the floor, eyes glowing. They rose and all stood before each other, the five Vedani behind Sturlusson.

“You last remnants of Hirylien. All the years I searched for you, that we searched for each other, precipitated this moment. You know the truth now as I discovered it, and we are bringing it to them. So that finally, the rage burning in our hearts for our lost families and futures can be shown as the grave injustice being perpetrated on all peoples of the Imperium. We are their warriors. This is our first step.”

“For all you’ve suffered, you have agreed to suffer more to bring, if not ultimately justice, then some retribution. To put an end to one of their great poisons. You all have what you need to survive the time of onslaught, and let us draw each other through this fire to the other side victorious.” All twenty dropped a knee and knuckle pounded the floor. Sturlusson did the same, bringing down both fists at once. The pounding subsided.

“Remember, this is only the beginning.” A smile stretched wide on his face, growing into a full grin. He turned to the five behind him standing respectfully in salute. He gestured toward one, her Vedani hair silver against blue-white skin. She nodded slightly, and all five murmured subtonally, making microgestures.

A door on one side of the hall opened, and in came a cart bearing capped tubes and dosers with three doctors. It stopped at one end of the double line, and the doctors started inoculating them with the brassy serum. Raev Sturlusson and the Vedani joined them at the far end.

Through the door followed a rack carrying necessity packs for twenty-one Hirylienites, and behind that a rolling freezer billowing cool air. The entire vector group had been injected, and a pack was set behind each of them. The chest freezer took the place of the med cart, and from it came racks of flasks to distribute. Each flask was a secure carrycase for a smaller set of tubes, filled with liquids and some powders.

Sturlusson paced between the two lines. “Familiarize yourselves with these. This carries our mission, as well as your individual salvation and assurance. Be able to use them as needed, without thinking, under any duress you may encounter. Put it where you can immediately access it. These will save much more than just yourselves.” He zippered his into a pocket. “Assemble things and get in groups.”

55 sketch

 

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

5xRerun: Fire Within (1) 1st Sequence, 1-4

– 1ST SEQUENCE –

First Sequence mandala

– 1 –

In the cold hour before dawn, the shipping dock workers were wiping their noses and shouting, filling the blackness with sound and business. Derringer stood in a nearby alley, one hand with a smoke, the other cradling his forehead. Everything was still too loud, though he’d recovered somewhat from a couple hours ago when his client’s case had come to call. He broke up the fight by giving the intruder a solid one to the head with a coffee mug, which was worth the rest of his fee. It was just as well.

Another ship arrived a block over. Derringer held his coat over his face, shutting his eyes against the dust billowing past him. The ship dropped a few feet onto its landing gear, the hull hitting the ground with a loud scrape. Their suspension was shot.

He finished his smoke and turned away from the dock, on a meandering path through the warehouses. A few had their lights on, but most were shut down. Derringer knew what went on behind some of those doors; the sheer volume of things he knew kept him moving. Being a decent private investigator means that eventually, people learn his face. He did his best to keep his image out of pictures and papers, but in some cases it just can’t be helped. He knew when it was time to leave a city – or a planet. He was never the only one watching.

It was his first time back on Alisandre in four years, and he was free, for now. Time to take a look around, see what had become of the place. The buildings of Alisandre Capital spiraled and curved, thrust and shone against a clear sky.

The morning brightened as Derringer turned toward his rented flat. He could see the Aquarii were busy here with their art. Colors shifted and swirled on the walls, blues and greys echoing the streets’ calm. The colors and shapes echoed the outermost level of thought, so if you had anything to hide, you’d better be good at hiding it in this neighborhood. Derringer had long ago learned how to manipulate that, like the diplomats and councillors.

Ahead of him a door opened, a small red-haired woman hurrying out of it carrying a basket. The doorway swirled purple and black around her, tendrils of color following as she hummed the tune of an old-time march. She had the look of a Capital woman, eyes forever creased in a facsimile of good intentions, lips shut tight holding back her words. As she passed him, the wall swirled magenta. Oh ho, thought Derringer. She thinks I’m handsome.

Section 1

– 2 –

“How are you feeling today, Your Eminence?”

“All things considered, not bad.” The old woman smiled over her glasses from behind the desk. “How are you today, Dr. Basa?”

“I am well, Your Eminence.  Thank you for asking.”

“Glad to hear it. Let’s get on with this then, I’m ready to bleed.” Her smile showed a trace of irony as she rose and walked out from behind her desk, past her bodyguards to the pair of chairs near the door. Her heeled shoes set her some inches above the doctor, for she was tall, and her grey coif only increased her stature. The legs showing beneath the yellow knee-length suit skirt were still shapely, though she walked slowly; a floor-length russet cape whispered trailing behind her, the velvet shimmering. Placing a hand on the chair arm, she sat gracefully, though not without tension. She gestured to the chair facing her, holding the doctor’s gaze with dark brown eyes.

Dr. Basa sat, placing his kit on the floor. The acting leader of the Pan-Galactic Imperium, 24th in the Magus dynasty, pulled her collar to one side. With a large metal stylus, the doctor pricked her at the crook of her neck; the inside of her right elbow; and at her left ankle. The two kept their silence during the sample analysis. The Queen turned her head to the window view: a bright, warm day with vehicles of council and court weaving about the imperial grounds. Beyond that, the towers and neighborhoods of Alisandre Capital, themselves dispersing into the contours of the mountain’s slopes.

The device beeped. The doctor read the results silently, taking the time to read them again. “It’s… much as expected, Your Eminence. The tests show your condition continues to worsen.” They shared a moment of consolation. “How is your appetite?”

“Well, you know I can’t eat like I used to. But I still can, so there is that.”

“Have you felt any shortness of breath?”

“My limbs are weak. I can’t do much, and I need a lot of rest. But it’s just how things are – nothing seems to have changed from yesterday or the day before.”

“No, you wouldn’t necessarily feel it so dramatically.”

From the chair where she waited in the hallway, Soleil could hear the ruffled murmur of question and answer. Though she couldn’t make out the words, her grandmother’s tone was bemused, if impatient with the familiar protocol. Soleil hummed a tune under her breath, a village cooking fire song.

The voices grew intelligible as they drew closer to the door. “Thank you, Dr. Basa. Give my warm regards to your wife and children.”

“I will, Your Eminence. As always, it is my greatest honor to serve you and the Pan-Galactic Imperium.” Soleil stood as the door opened. “Madam Princess, good to see you.”

“Doctor, thank you for all you do for us. Be well.” They bowed, and as he left, the guards opened the door for Soleil to enter. She walked in and dropped her most formal curtsey, head bowed though smiling. “Your Eminence.”

Celeste, Magus the 24th, walked to her granddaughter and put a gentle hand under her chin. “Soleil. Rise. And give me a hug.” The girl rose, and ignoring their formal dress, they gave each other a long squeeze. “That’s more like it,” said the old woman through closed eyes.

Letting go, the Queen looked to her guards. “Leave us. But,” she said as the four filed to the door, “please send someone with refreshments. Hot tea.”

“Yes, Your Eminence.” The last in line nodded and closed the door behind him.

“Let’s sit by the window.” The two women, one old and grand, one young and fresh, walked over to the two armchairs bathed in sunlight. They sat, both arranging their finery. Celeste gazed over at her granddaughter. “Time in the countryside has done you good. Rosy cheeks, new dress, hairstyle – I love it.”

“You like the dress?” Soleil beamed, smoothing her hands over the weave bearing Inka leaves and scenes of rolling hills. “The textiles of Darye are truly impressive. This dress was made by Sujen, one of the great tailors there, during the week I stayed. It was an honor.” Soleil smiled as she gazed into the distance.

“Mm. Yes.” A pensive look crossed the face of the old Queen.

“And you, grandmaria… well?” Soleil asked pointedly, using the old family nickname. “I did worry.” She studied the elder woman, looking for any shake in her limbs, pallor to her skin.

The Queen nodded. “I am well, thank you Soleil. As well as ever I am. Certainly not as well as you. But my body is still strong, even if I need more rest than I used to. Anyone my age can say the same, I’m very fortunate to be doing as well as I am. The doctor does his tests, and they show better or worse… still, after six years of better or worse, what they say means very little to me. All I have to say is this old tower isn’t toppling any time soon.” She winked.

A knock sounded on the door. “Refreshments, for your Graces.”

“Yes, enter,” spoke Celeste. Through the door came a woman pushing a wheeled cart bearing a tea service and covered platter. The Queen gestured to the space between herself and her granddaughter. “Set it here, thank you.”

The woman pushed the cart there and uncovered the platter, revealing an assortment of light food. She filled their cups, setting everything in its place till it was arranged to her satisfaction. She bowed and left.

Soleil leaned over to inspect the offerings. Her eyes landed on small bowls filled with a mass of noodle-like shiny green tendrils. “Is this seaweed?”

Celeste took her cup of tea between her hands, inhaling the rising steam. “Yes it is dear, from Foshan.”

“Oooh.” Soleil picked a bowl and a pair of chopsticks from the cart and took a nibble. “Mmmm.” She swallowed and sighed.

“What can you tell me about Foshan?”

These pop quizzes were a tradition, and Soleil was ready. “The majority of its surface is covered by oceans, with a scattering of small, isolated islands. It was the eighth planet to join the Imperium, during the reign of Arnelle, Magus the 6th. Acquisition was peaceful, as it was inhabited only by a small number of Dragons, who had brought the planet to our attention. Today, Foshan’s islands support small human and Aquariid populations. It’s one of the four planets whose solstice falls on Pyrean Midsummer.” She brought another bite of seaweed to her mouth and chewed.

Celeste nodded, smiling. “Name some exports.”

“These include cordage, nets, fluid chemicals used in the production of fuel, and,” she gestured with her chopsticks, “seaweed.”

“Very good.” Celeste sipped her tea. They watched a group of vehicles navigate to the council administration, small pods arcing in formation along an invisible airway. “You visited all the Skandarian villages by land, I hear?”

The girl nodded. “We traveled in carts pulled by oxen. A first for me, and somewhat less comfortable than a flier. Though there is a charm to it. It’s how nearly all the villagers travel, if not by foot.”

“How were the roads?”

Soleil’s eyebrows twitched up at the question. “Roads… were more like cart trails.” A small laugh escaped. “Occasionally they were paved, but then you would almost wish they weren’t. I don’t think they have any way to maintain pavement – the dirt road sections were actually somewhat smoother. It was long hours traveling, grandmaria. Except when local riders would accompany us. They have loud voices, and good stories. They like to sing.”

“Well, I’m glad they kept you entertained.” Picking chopsticks from the cart, the Queen took a dumpling off its plate. “Tell me what you saw in the towns.”

“We made a loop, Arkahn to Starhn to Darius to Darye. There aren’t a lot of people left in Arkahn and Starhn, at least it seemed that way to me. Maybe everyone was in the hills with their flocks? What I saw was rather desolate. In Darius the fiber harvests have been poor, and they say the past two years have brought unhappy weather. They can’t produce much, and families there have been on meager rations. But spirits are still high, and they asked but didn’t beg for food assistance. Darye is prosperous with the textile trade – it’s actually a fairly sizable town, which makes me think maybe that’s where the young people of Arkahn and Starhn have gone.” They continued their talk until the sun began to set.

Section 2

– 3 –

There were five major market districts in Capital city. There was the Array, a boulevard lined with trees and shops where people would walk with their tiny pets – scalebirds, suede-skinned decapeds, anything small, exotic and expensive. At Green Hills, people could get common goods, anything they desired, at decent price and quality.

Another of these markets was Division, and it was here Derringer found himself wearing his formals. Division was a selective market on Sundays. It wasn’t at all like bustling Saturdays, or the chaos of street-wide freight Tuesdays. Today, Division was practically deserted. There would be the occasional solitary person outside a closed establishment. As a general rule, they were well-dressed, with refined but understated tailoring, and you never could quite meet their eyes unless they were looking for you.

Derringer carried a medium leather satchel at his side, half full of lumpy objects. He stopped at a gated facade and rang the buzzer. At the obnoxious sound, Derringer opened the gate, heading up the front steps, and in.

The ground level of the house was a pastiche of rare and aged objects, some of them ancient. Though the place felt crowded, there was a sense that this multitude of objects had been arranged so the eye would rest on each in turn.

The detective walked up a narrow flight of stairs, toward a noise that grew louder the closer he approached. It was rhythmic, though not consistent – short outbursts of unrelated beats, each expressing a capsule of thought, a staccato statement.

Through the near left door of the narrow hallway, a lean man with wild hair was juggling five or six balls of different color and size. Occasionally he would send them flying toward glowing color patches on the walls, which would change and move when hit. It was that sound, the percussion of orb against house, that was making that unpredictable music.

Derringer watched as some rearrangements were made, having no real idea what they signified. The different orbs, he knew, were Jacobs’ own modified phronium housings, so there must be some elemental interaction with the color and spacing. One by one the balls slowly came to rest in the orchestrator’s arms. He then chucked them rapid-fire into a bag hanging in the corner. While the last one was in the air, he turned and grinned.

“D my man,” he said, throwing open his arms. He stripped off his perspiration-soaked undershirt and threw it at the wall, revealing a collection of mandala tattoos spread across his chest. “If you’re here it means you’ve found me some precious metals.” He walked over and clapped a hand on Derringer’s shoulder.

Derringer lifted the bag in his right hand. “Also brought you some essential vitamins and minerals.”

He brought his other hand to Derringer’s other shoulder and squeezed them both. “And this is why, we are friends to the end.” He led the detective back down the stairs and down another hallway. The house went a lot deeper than it looked from the front. “Got a minute? I’m going to freshen up. Meet you in the red room.” He disappeared into a bathroom, the door slamming shut.

Derringer strolled on down, ducking through a doorway on the right with a sheet pinned over it. The room was small, containing little but for a folding table and a set of chairs. On the table were scattered some small scientific instruments, and above that dominating the room was a lamp the size of a double sink hanging from the ceiling. It emitted a visible red-violet wavelength, and was the only source of light in the room.

He pulled up two chairs and sat. Humming softly, he reached into his bag and began arranging the objects on the table. There were five metal balls, all of them smaller than a fist. Through the small window in the top of each came a soft glow, its unique shade visible under the lamplight. Derringer respectfully passed his hand behind them, seeing the colors light up his palm. In the magenta light, his own skin looked bruised.

The sound of boots approached down the hall. The sheet flicked aside to reveal mathematician-coder Casper Jacobs, looking ready to party all night. Black pants covered in silver studs, black mesh tank top, leather gloves and boots. On his head sat a black Peter Pan hat sporting a pheasant feather. He beheld the objects on the table and rushed toward them, hands ready to worship.

Derringer reached into his bag and pulled out one more, bigger object. Aloft he held a softball-sized black lump with lumps on it. “Aquariid charcoal truffle.”

Casper Jacobs whirled to face him with a howl of delight. He released a sigh of desire as his hands closed around the lump. He brought it to eye level, turning it this way and that. “This specimen,” he said, “is a paragon of its type. This should be on display. And thanks to you, you gorgeous gumshoe, it’s mine.” He set it down with infinite care on the table and left the room.

He returned almost immediately with a red silk cloth, which he wrapped around the truffle, using the ends to tie the parcel to his belt. He leaned forward in his chair and looked Derringer in the eye. “Your timing is good.”

Section 3

– 4 –

Soleil sat while two women made a production of her long, black hair. She could see her reflection in a mirror surrounded by soft, tiny lightbulbs. She wore a champagne silk dressing gown with woven patterns of her family’s crest.

They manipulated her hair in architectural folds and rolls, affixing it with precious ornaments. The centerpiece of their creations was a large metal hairpiece bearing a charged ruby, emanating a low glow.

She withstood the assault first of her hairdressers, her costumers, then her makeup artists, and her jewelers. Before long, she stood at the same mirror, in full regalia, alone. She stood still, conserving her energy.

The doorknob on the second door in the room clicked, the one leading from the antechamber where visitors could wait. In came a girl with bright red hair, shorter than the Princess, but with the same build and alabaster skin showing their link as cousins. “Margeaux,” said Soleil, turning on her heels, “you’re here. Thank goodness. I can’t do these press dinners without you.”

“I don’t know why that would be. It’s not me they come to see.” She carefully placed her hands on Soleil’s arms where the sleeves wouldn’t wrinkle and gave them a squeeze. “It’s good to have you around after your countryside tour.” Margeaux held onto her cousin, scrutinizing her. “I’m a little surprised you’re dressed in capital colors.”

Soleil turned her head to see herself in the mirror. The black, white, red and gold stood out in brazen geometry. “Well, strength and solidarity of the royal family, you know. I’ve been gone, now I’m back; and instead of seeing a princess errant in provincial clothes, they see the scion of Magus.” She tilted up the corner of her lip. “More or less.”

“Oh, I’d say it’s a sufficient glamour. As always.” Margeaux assumed a grave and official air as she faced the Princess and gave a deep courtesy, the first of what would be many. Soleil returned the gesture with her most elaborate bow. All her baubles and folds of material stayed properly pinned, and the girls smiled.

The cameras began recording when the great doors opened into Troyen’s Reception Hall. Magus Princess Soleil entered at the head of a retinue, all dressed in the colors of the royal seat at Alisandre Capital. In her left hand she carried an eagle statue, and in her right was an orb of stone, as dark as deep space with flashes of aurora green and blue.

She stopped before her two parents, King and Queen Ascendant. The retinue broke into a new formation, that let each person in the party witness the royal reception with their own eyes.

A calculated dancelike flourish, Princess Soleil executed the body language that described deepest respect, and offered the two objects before her. Her mother picked up the globe of stone, and her father the eagle.

Margeaux was not anywhere near the front of the retinue, but from her distance she could still see everything. The hall must have been chosen for its size to accommodate the formal arrangement. Large, but nowhere as large as the minor amphitheater. Her mind wandered during the series of gestures to the Queen Regent, who stood imposing in a long gown of red atop her dais.

Throughout Margeaux’s whole life, Celeste, Magus the 24th had been leader of the Pan-Galactic Imperium. She could remember when the Queen’s hair was still part black. The Queen’s composure had always inspired awe in her young grand-neice once removed. The more so since Margeaux had seen her at other times, when she was altogether more human and personal. She had somehow kept that part of her safe from the vagaries of her office. Margeaux wondered how Soleil would take to ruling, how much it would change her.

Now the Queen was bowing to her family, which meant the ritual was nearly complete. As she faced the court, Margeaux went down to one knee along with the rest. The orchestra picked up and everyone rose, filing towards the banquet hall.

“Soleil’s really growing up, isn’t she.” Margeaux turned toward her twin brother’s voice on her right. “In all these ceremonies, she keeps getting better and better. She’s going to be an icon. Practically is already.”

Margeaux quirked an eyebrow and looked at him sidelong. “You and your cousin crush. I feel weird even thinking about it.”

“I can admire our Princess in her glorious flower.”

“Gerard, don’t say that. Don’t ever say that again.” She walked with sharp poise in step with her brother. “I’m going to be eating soon, so please no more about our dear Soleil.”

Section 4