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: Fire Within (1) 28-32

– 28 –

As Derringer and Karma caught their breath side by side on the tossed sheets, subdued chuckles escaped from their grins. She sighed, rolling her head to face him. “I’m so glad you could make it out to orbit.”

Stretching his arms above his head, Derringer yawned and smacked his lips. “I had to clear a few things off my plate.”

“Oh, really.”

“My services are highly sought after.”

Throwing the covers off the both of them, she got out of bed and crossed the small private bunk to the sink. She filled a mug with water and drank it down, then refilled it and walked it over to Derringer. Just then, the sight and sound of two honklizards appeared on the screen. “Oh it’s your boys, Dremel and DeWalt. Let’s see what they’ve got.”

She tapped a sequence into the keypad. Derringer began to pull a sheet over himself when she waved him to stop. “We can see them. They can’t see us.” She brought a hand to her mouth and winked.

“Hey gents. Your timing is good. Your supervisor and I happen to be meeting at this very moment.” She kept one hand on the console, pushing the button to talk. The other rested on her hip as she faced the detective, staring into his eyes as she spoke. “Is this routine, or have you turned up something new?”

“Both. Yes and yes.” The screen showed Chad Dremel surrounded by his arc of displays and relays hanging from various arms above the desk. He wore his hat, no shades. The changing colors reflected off his cheeks.

“Where’s your partner?”

“DeWalt is on the couch nursing a few bruises and a deep, dark hangover. We traced the driver back to his last job at Capitol Cab. Spent some time getting to know the other drivers. Nobody’s heard from him since.”

“Who owns Capitol Cab?”

“It’s an independent company, this city only. Run by the Mayor’s son, one Iako Shukla.”

“Small-time local hero. He’s got no personal interest in this. What about the gunmen?”

“Mercenary types. We haven’t chased em down yet.”

“So far so good. Keep me posted.” Dremel signed off, and she tuned into an Aquari symphonic channel full of vibrating strings and winds.

Derringer rolled on his side to face her. “Wouldn’t have thought this was your kind of music.”

She lay down on the covers next to him. “I like it to fall asleep to.”

He drew a fingertip down her torso. “Oh, are we falling asleep?”

28

– 29 –

The dragon towered over the doctor, even in the form he wore for human interaction. He had a torso, hands, a head, eyes, and a mouth – all features that made cross-species communication easier. These aspects of his physicality were up to conscious choice, while other details sorted themselves out according to the mandates of his being. The white-golden scales, the outcurving ridges around his head, and the saurid tail were unavoidable draconid assertions.

Despite being dwarfed, Dr. Basa spoke with calm authority. He had no idea what was wrong with his patient. All his disease tests had come up negative, which was a relief in some ways. It was time to consult other sources and practice proper medical science. The dragon Councillor agreed to do his version of diagnosis.

Arkuda held his hands over the Princess’ bed. His palms appeared to shimmer and steam. Though his eyes were fully present, looking from her face to the doctor’s, his focus was clearly on some complex, invisible mass of information.

The dragon sighed, breaking his posture by waving his hands as though he were clearing a space on a table. Dr. Basa looked at him inquiringly.

“I’m sorry. It seems as though every contact I could possibly make with her experience is closed to me. I don’t think you can appreciate how unusual this is. All the points of connection we have established are blocked, even ones that should hold through any mind state.”

The doctor was pensive, hand on his chin. “Who else could possibly give us insight?”

“Bright Wave, perhaps.”

“The Aquari artist?”

“Yes. She is very skilled, and their art can do much more than colors and sounds. They have their own means of mental interpretation.” Both of them gazed on the Princess in her unreachable slumber. It had been a week, the threshold of a more serious situation. Her even breathing was deceptively peaceful. Though either of them could touch her hand from where they stood, she felt far away, and drifting further.

29

– 30 –

From the cockpit, Wendel Harper read the real-time data feed on the planetwide Genesee disaster signal. The hold of her ship was empty, hovering light and steady, ready to take on cargo. She held point in formation with three other pilots. No one ship was like another, but they flew together just the same.

A voice crackled in through her headset. “Are we still waiting on Gruun? Ehh. Those suits can talk all morning about who to send where and do what, and nothing gets done.”

Wendel smirked at her friend’s grumping. “You better be glad he’s there instead of you. I can just see it now, you with the IDRA. The bucket brigade to put out the fire on city hall.”

A dry chuckle came through the com. “That’s exactly what it’d be like. Na. Gruun can do all the fancy talking he wants, he’s good enough at it. It’s just, I’m on my third systems check since we been waiting here for him,” he ended plaintively.

“Anyway, glad you made it, Manoukian. Didn’t think I’d see you again so soon.”

“Eh well, you know I’m a soft touch for a rescue mission.”

“Here he is,” chimed in the voice of Emira Rosh from far left wing. The channel bleeped as his com joined in.

“Leiv,” said Wendel with a warm smile.

“Hello Darlin. All you all. Awww, but it’s been a long morning.”

“Sounds like it. What’s the word from the hallowed halls of bureaucracy?”

“Well, the Imperials are putting another refugee ship in orbit for temporary residence seeing as how both Anzi and Annan are now on the impending list. They still can’t or won’t supply any ships for ground rescue, so that’s being left up to the Genesee Guard.” Sighs from a few voices. “We report to GG Unit 17. They’re currently still ferrying survivors from Surcha Province, but they’ll be en route in two days. Instrument readings give us a week till Anzi’s situation goes critical.”

“So we just hang here while the air gets thicker.”

“That’s right. You all ready to do a sweep of the fault?”

“Hours ready, Gruun. Glad you’re back.” His ship came into visual, and they reformed to give him lead. “Just sent you all a flight plan. Let’s go.”

In v-formation like underwater shellhunters, they slid through the cloud layer coming into bird’s-eye view of the stone city of Anzi and the barren, craggy hills around it. Maneuvering low enough to see the ground with the naked eye, but well above city traffic, they followed the line of hills curving to the southwest. The scar on the ground where the fault lay was highly evident; it was already shifting.

Wendel saw the dark cloud to her right before Leiv spoke. “Something’s happening to the north.” They swung around to face it. Before they’d finished crossing the city, a series of cracking booms like dynamite shook the air.

“This isn’t preliminary,” Wendel muttered. “This doesn’t look preliminary,” she said over the mic.

“Ohhh no it isn’t,” said Gretz. From north to west, a a growing wall of ash-laden black smoke billowed upwards. Booming, grinding noises sounded at alarming decibels. In the distance, through the screen of ash, the sides of three hills began sinking, while lower elevations began to steam and seethe.

Beneath chemical waves of ash, lava began to bubble, pool, and spread. The city sat squarely in the path of things now happening. Wendel mentally calculated the rate of disaster. “An hour – maybe three before the city gets swallowed. Does anyone know what just happened?!”

“Instrument reports are on the air. The entire fault is under immediate and violent subduction. Not expected to cease for weeks.” Leiv’s voice weighed heavily as he echoed the news. “The magnitude of the tenth anticipated tectonic shift… within hours will destroy the city of Anzi.”

“All of it lost,” intoned Emira Rosh.

“Let’s go. It doesn’t matter who else is coming, we have to get there now. We each find a place to land and take on as many passengers as we can. Also,” Leiv paused, “this is voluntary.”

“Bullshit this is voluntary,” said Rosh.

“Not kidding around, Starweavers. We’re going into the fire here. We have our reasons for what we do. So,” Kev cleared his chest with a cough, “follow me if you’re ready.”

“He’s right,” said the fifth wing. “I have my reasons. Fair winds to you all.” The last ship zoomed up towards atmospheric exit. This was followed by a stunned silence from the other four arcing southeast towards the city at top speed.

The approach took five minutes. Minimal flight directions and responses were traded as each of the pilots steeled themselves to singlehand their cargo ships through the chaos.

The two outer wings claimed the nearest city quadrants and broke off first. Wendel Harper took to the southern direction. In the sky surrounding them, a multitude of private ships were taking off on their own desperate flight paths. She looked for an open space to hover and take in some people. It can be so difficult, she thought with an edge of absurdity, to find a parking spot.

She glimpsed a park ahead. Torrents of hot ash might be following her by minutes. More than ten, not more than thirty. The growing stench of subterranean minerals smelled like engine fire.

The park she approached had, Wendel noticed, very high walls; it was in fact, not a park. It was a warehouse without a roof, with a green space inside? She pushed aside her questions as she noticed that there were plenty of people within who were clearly aware of the catastrophe’s onset. Mercifully, the airspace above it was clear, and she maneuvered into it.

Setting the controls to keep the ship flying in place, she unrolled the cable ladder to hang just inside the main entrance. She scrambled over to the hatch, and dropped onto the ladder, hanging on one hand, amplifying her voice with the other. “My hold can take on forty people. I count,” she said scanning quickly, “twenty-three. Climb aboard ONE at a time. Move, let’s go!” She hopped back in, sticking her hand out to wave people up.

Wendel was relieved to see people helping each other on board. She was giving a hand to the eighth person up when she overheard the argument on the ground.

“What are you saying – this is our chance, you’re coming with us.” Toller tried to grab Cheli’s hand, but she drew away just as quickly.

“No, I’m not. You go.”

Wendel stuck her head down as she reached for the next passenger. “Wrap it up, I’m stopping again to fill the hold!”

“You heard her!” Toller took a few quick steps toward Cheli, but was stopped when an older, taller man grabbed his shirt.

“It’s her place to make her decision. You don’t have to understand.” Toller was shoved toward the ladder, which he grabbed. “Save your life.” He began to climb, numb with disbelief. He couldn’t take his eyes off Cheli, who was now smiling slightly. He was almost to the top when she reached in her pocket and threw something at his head. He blocked and caught it on reflex. It was a tassfruit, pulpy and sweet in its leathery skin. Before he could think of something to say or do, Wendel Harper hauled him into her ship.

30

– 31 –

Bright Wave’s tentacle lay on Princess Soleil’s forehead. Her suedelike skin was a pearly lavender, and the carapace below it was a brilliant blue with a gray sheen. Even for her immediate tribe, who shared a like carapace, her color and vibrational sensitivity were exceptional.

Her deep black eyes were half closed. She emitted a frostlike color radiance around her head. This shimmered out of sight, and a simplistic percussion came into hearing – like fingers tapping a simple drum line. This permutated until all her delicate hair and face tentacles had lifted. The hearts of those next to her beat a little faster in response.

Bright Wave opened her eyes wide once more. With her tentacle she smoothed back Soleil’s stray hairs. She turned to face both Councillor Arkuda and Her Vast Eminence Celeste, Magus the 24th.

“I humbly request the aid of three to five of our most insightful patternmakers. I know who to contact.” Bright Wave gestured urbanely through the tips of her tentacles. “Together, we would be able to sing you some perceptions. Her mind is well guarded; however, we need not intrude to interpret. Alone, I am insufficient. This task requires synergy.” Her voice was a conglomerate vibration from the tentacles waving around her head, like a human speaking from a generalized source.

“How soon can you bring in your company?” asked the Queen.

“In haste, we can be convened and prepared by tomorrow afternoon.”

“Then let it be so,” replied Queen Celeste with a nod. “Present their identities to the head of Royal Security when you have them.”

31

– 32 –

From the twenty-four figures in fiery assembly, one rises above the others. Her deeds and history surround her like a cloud, instantly recognizable as Marialain, Magus the 1st. From the leadership on her home planet, she stepped forward to create a united human empire – the beginning of the Imperium, and the Magus line. It was she who made first contact with the dragons, whose generation brought humanity out of its cradle on Alisandre.

Her visage powerful, hair coiffed just so in her ancient regalia – she looks guilty. The shadows echo behind and about the scene. Guilty.

Soleil knows about scandals and mistakes made by her predecessor. But not all. Far from it. Look closely at the half-truths and lies. The depictions surrounding Marialain purple and blacken, like a fire whose fuel is full of poison. Here is our truth. This is what we know. You must see.

And so she begins to understand the long chains of rationalized decisions. Too numerous to count, masked with the deepest self-deceptions. Heinous actions that are part of the fabric of their rule.

Entire civilizations kept hidden, plundered and silenced, leaders and visionaries neutralized or worse. None of this in the histories. Generation by generation, the blacker side of all they have done covers their bright accomplishments in a mountain of ash.

From Marialain to Louisiane, Magus the 4th, who engineered the second expansion route. Then to her daughter Mariselle, who masterminded the massive colonization. The most celebrated were often the most reviled – though not always.

Arianne, Magus the 7th, to her daughter Arnelle, who annexed four planets of the Archipelago Federet. Her son Ricardio was the first of the few Magus Kings. The technologies he initiated in the Imperial military created new ways of living, but their roots reveal themselves now in a sickening of light. His daughter Rochelle, who established the federets. And on.

The costs of their accomplishments were vast, and made to be forgotten. Those who did not forget are telling it now. Soleil can feel the weight of them, as heavy as the empire she was born to inherit.

She tries to turn away, wishing she had eyes to cover. You may not, says the susurrus of voices. We lived through this, and you must witness.

32

 

5x Rerun: Fire Within (1) 23-27

– 23 –

An audio newscast played quietly in the dim room. Mireille reclined in a chair next to the bed where her older sister lay still. Facedown on her lap was an open history textbook on the Phiroen Era of Magus expansion, when a group of imperial fleet officers staged a military revolt. The orb embedded at the top of the curved ceiling pulsed its light in theta rhythms.

A knock on the door. Mireille rose, setting the book down. She opened the door a few inches, then all the way, letting the visitor in. “General Claymore. Draig.”

He stepped forward, his eyes on Soleil beneath the covers. He turned his head to nod back. “Princessa Mireille. How’s she doing?”

They kept their voices quiet, both watching the bed. “Her vitals are fine, but we still can’t wake her.”

“I don’t know what happened there. She looked tired, but that was all. She collapsed mid-sentence. I think she was conscious for a few moments more before she passed out entirely.” His brow furrowed. “This hasn’t ever happened before, right?”

Mireille shook her head. “No. No, she’s never just fallen like that. These ceremonies hardly phase her, I can’t explain it. I just hope she wakes up soon.”

After a moment, Draig cleared his throat. “Do you want someone to relieve you here?”

She smiled. “No, thank you. I’m catching up on my history, anyhow.” She gestured to the facedown book. “Get some rest. We may need your help later.”

Section 23

– 24 –

Every visual detail is made of living fire. Twenty-four people stand, arrayed as though in ceremonial reception. Waves of heat blur their faces. Most are female, some male. All connected with ties like the bones of starlight.

She sees them from every angle, through the vantage of an invisible surrounding mob. Eyes seething with condemnation, demanding testimony.

A face comes into focus. Though she barely recognizes it, it is one of her ancestors. The likeness bears little resemblance to the historical paintings or projections. It looks wrong. As she looks on the rest, so they return her gaze. She feels herself drawing strength from a belonging that always fostered her, while the surrounding forces swell into a roar held barely at bay.

Everything she knows about her family begins to illustrate itself in fiery lines around their forms. Flourishes of their proudest accomplishments multiply into a great mass. She draws herself into it, a comforting blanket to shield her from those other eyes.

Section 24

– 25 –

A knot of serious-faced people held conversation near the doorway, where an obsidian and hematite mosaic spiraled out from a corner. Those rocks were the ubiquitous rubble by-product of the construction of Anzi and its suburbs. Fragrant herbs grew from the cracks amid the feet of those conversing.

A stone’s throw away, he looked up from his task of grinding powder apples to watch them. The sun shone through a quickly moving layer of overcast. He poured a heap of powder, seeds, and skins through a strainer, sifting the powder into the bowl below. He winnowed the strainer so the light, dry skins lay on top, brushing those off into a bag for tea. The seeds went into a jar, which would find its place in the shed where other full seed jars lay dormant.

He looked up in time to see the messenger lift his hand in farewell before hurrying out, probably heading to as many places as he could hit. The four or five who talked with him dispersed slowly, faces thoughtful. Cheli, in her rag-stitched skirt, met his eye and smiled, heading over.

“Thanks for doing that, Toller.” She took a pinch of powder apple from the bowl and brought it to her tongue. She smacked her lips with appreciation. “Good for cereal, sauce, pudding, baking and it never goes bad.” Cheli took another dip into the bowl.

He followed suit, taking a taste of his work. The graininess sweetened and melted, with hints of dry spice. He could hear voices murmuring around the valley. “What was that about? At the door.”

Cheli crossed her arms and sighed, affecting nonchalance. “The Zendris Fault is moving. The one that runs right by this city.” He blinked. Toller wasn’t really surprised that the planetwide catastrophes had reached him. Places he once knew had been demolished by earthquake or buried in eruption, news he’d already been accepting. “No official announcements, but people are getting ready. Evacuation within the week, probably. Who knows when these things really happen. Could be tomorrow.”

“Could be.” He smiled at Cheli. If nature claimed the city before he left this garden, he could think of worse places to be buried.

“Mmm hmm.” Cheli bent to pick up the bowl of powder apple. “Want to make some pudding?”

Cheli tries the powder apple

– 26 –

As though the four of them were at lunch around the table, the Princess’ mother, sister, and cousin sat around her bed. They discussed recent alliance changes in the Council, trade shifts, and diplomatic appointments. Queen Ascendant Charlotte seemed unwilling to touch on the subject of her daughter’s comatose condition; the most she could do was include Soleil in state affairs as she normally did. She sat upright in spotless white and gold robes, looking much as she did at the head of Council.

In contrast, Mireille sat upright in pajamas, her hair undone, though she looked pleased to be talking with her mother. Her last visit had been four days ago already, the night Soleil had fallen ill. The Queen Ascendant had been required on emergency matters in the Expansion 6 Federet. She brought them news, and more than that, the presence of her monumental stiff upper lip.

Margeaux had brought a favorite dress obi of Soleil’s; it was draped across the bed so she would see it when she woke. Soleil’s long black hair lay neatly plaited down her chest.

“… About fifteen percent of the refugees are choosing to relocate to underpopulated worlds in the Archipelago Federet. There are plenty of agricultural and industrial opportunities there.” Charlotte pursed her lips. “While the rest remain in orbit for now.”

“What about Zerite production?” Mireille looked to her mother. “Genesee is still our sole source, correct?”

“Correct. Production has halted completely. The Aquarii sendsingers will have to make do with the Zerite that’s already in the market. There’s plenty there. But the fact of a finite quantity will raise the price of Inter-Fed travel.” Charlotte patted and stroked Soleil’s limp hand. “Zerite isn’t strictly necessary to enable the TransNet, but without it the sendsingers would be taxed to their limits. It’s a good thing we don’t need much, and it’s one of the longest-lasting on the phronium spectrum.” As soon as he finished her sentence, a patterned knock sounded at the door.

“It’s time for me to go.” The Queen Ascendant rose, and the two younger ladies stood with her. She smoothed a hand over Soleil’s forehead before leaning in to give it a kiss. “My strong daughter.” She gave warm farewells to the other two girls before making her exit.

Mireille crossed her arms over her chest and looked over at Margeaux, who seemed a bit overwhelmed. Her lips twisted into a wry smile. “Mother’s milk, Cousin. Mother’s milk.”

Margeaux gave her head a shake as if to clear it. She curtseyed to her cousin. “I must be going as well, Mireille. May the light of the Pan-Galactic suns shine on you both.”

Section 26

– 27 –

From within the comfort of the known, her gaze is drawn outward by the insistent presence of the surrounding watchers.

Strange stars shine through the pervasive medium of fire. She knows the charts, and this multitude of skies is wholly unfamiliar. Unknown populations push forth just beyond comprehension.

An individual coalesces in the forefront. Not visible, just the feel of someone human – a mental handshake reminiscent of moondust, engine grit, and distance. Cold but firm. It stretches wide into a smile, indicating much to be told.

The touch leads her to someone nearby. An introduction of sorts. This one is a swell of magma, a wave of heat assuming form. This is the communicator, the conduit. The fire in her mind. It gives her a glimpse of those it represents, possibly draconid. She’s never met a dragon in this aspect, the trilling, echoing vibration of its spiraling form.

The trill unfolds, volume expanding to include many strange and emotional voices. They reach, expressing eagerness, a desire to be known. Beneath that, suppressed anger driving the reason for contact, a clamoring for amends to be made. For what?

Back to the grinning soul, placing her again amongst her dynasty. They all look outward. They know why they’re here.

27

5x Rerun: Fire Within (1), 14-18

– 14 –

Four of spades. Jack of diamonds. Two men leaned back in identical office chairs, their feet propped up on either end of the institutional metal desk. They took turns tossing cards face up into a hat on the floor between them. The room was small, not much more than a basement supply closet, but it had ambient ceiling light, and the wall com was working fine. The sounds of a traveler string duo piped in, just loud enough to hear.

Three of spades. Six of diamonds. “Think you’re gonna miss the official headquarters?” This from the slender, pale blond wearing sunglasses. He wasn’t tall, nor short, but he did look like he would bruise if you poked him. The sunglasses were mirrored, his eyes not visible.

“Come on.” Ace of diamonds. This man was tall, with a bald head of deep brown skin, solid but not heavy. “Business was terrible. Nobody wanted to hire the guys working out of the old supply closet, no matter how nice they made it in the remodel. No, I won’t be looking back.” Everything that wasn’t furniture or part of the walls was gathered in three boxes, including a pile of com relay displays.

Five of hearts. “Easy for you to say. We’re not moving the office into your apartment.”

Ten of spades. “I can’t afford an apartment.”

Nine of hearts. “You just stay in mine and don’t pay rent.”

Queen of clubs. “I could, but we’re saving up for another office, remember. That’s my savings account,” said the dark man, pointing to his chest.

Ten of clubs. “You mean your ex-wife’s.”

Seven of spades. “I earned that settlement. I didn’t cheat.”

Two of clubs. “You sure did. And you never do.”

Seven of clubs. “Oh what, did you like that one?”

Two of spades. “I like all of ’em, you’re a bastard and I can’t stand the sight of you.”

Ace of clubs. “Can’t stand the sight of myself sometimes, it makes me wonder when I’m gonna get flunked.”

“DeWalt, the sad thing is I think you’re passing with flying colors.”

The radio string music was sliced in half by a screech, and the volume rose as the channels seemed to tune themselves. Both men looked at the wall console.

“I’m on your line, idiots. Did you turn off your ringer?”

They looked at each other. The dark one, DeWalt, made a face. “Sounds like Derringer.”

“I didn’t turn it off,” said wavy blond hair. “Anyway, Derringer. Why are you talking this way. What’s going on.” He threw the three of hearts into the felt brim hat.

“Listen Dremel,” the voice warped, white noise cutting in and out, “I’ve got a pretty big deal in the room here with me, and we need you to show up.” A few strange warbles came through, none of which made sense.

The slender blond leaned back in his chair and put his hands behind his head. “Last day on this line, bud. You’re lucky you found us here.”

“No, I’m not,” the incoming voice whistled, “you have absolutely no where else to be. Sending the address.” The five working com relays in the box lit up, showing a new message stored.

Dremel sat up, taking his shoes off the desk. “Is that you doing that? Have you learned some new tricks? I didn’t think it possible.”

“Not me. The people I’m working with -” He was cut off by a twenty second drum solo. With a couple sonic slashes, the system reconnected to a pop channel that made both men wince.

“Okay then.” The pale blond Dremel stood, smoothing back his hair with one hand, while adjusting his tie with the other. He bent down and picked up the hat, emptying the cards out onto the floor.

Section 14

– 15 –

The oncoming sunrise and still-visible moonset balanced each other on opposing edges of the horizon. The grassy slope on one side of the little airlot was just beginning to brighten. Two old friends crossed it towards each other.

Walking part of the way, the wiry, medium-height man crossed his arms, smiling. He angled his chin toward the healthy, muscled blonde throwing her arms open. “Gretz Manoukian, what brings you to Southerpart?” She gave him a tight squeeze and a pat on the back, which he endured with a stoic grin.

“Eyyy, same as you. Unloading government stock.” They stood a few feet apart, facing the changing sky. The breeze smelled of evaporating moisture, and color rose softly.

“How long you staying down here on Genoe?”

“Hey, until I feel restless. I’m paid. You?”

“Yup, I saw the credits hit the account, but I’ll keep moving on. Treat you to breakfast roast? Heard they’re grilling wild runner hens out behind the saloon.”

He turned to face her with a stretchy grin. “If that’s so, you just made my day.” They crossed the airlot together.

Wendel Harper called out as they approached the grillmaster. “Jay, it’s you doing these birds? Is that gunpowder again for the seasoning?”

“Yep. It’s been all head shots lately, but sometimes you miss the taste of scattershot in the body.” He set down his grill poker and caught Wendel in a hug. He and Gretz shared a nod.

“I’ll have one and he’ll have one. Gunpowder’s got all the vitamins and minerals we need.” Jay set to finishing two nearly done birds.

Gretz leaned against the wall. “What’s the news in Southerpart?”

“Well, you know about the livestock failure. They think it’s some rare pollen spread happening planetwide. None of the Aquarii wanted to hang around. Maybe they figured they’d be susceptible.” Jay watched the food cook. “Decent business for those of us who can hunt the planet birds and buzzers. Wouldn’t call it easy living, though.”

“Well anyway,” said Wendel, running a hand over her short hair, “these flocks have got a new fancy-tech innoculant. The bio-imm team sounded pretty confident, so let’s hope they know what they’re doing.”

“Yep. Glad you could bring ’em.” Jay picked up two sticks and offered one in each hand to both of them. “Least I can do is make you breakfast. Gratis.” He hissed a drawn-out S through his teeth. An old man and woman rounded the corner arm in arm, clearly following their noses. Jay smiled and turned the other birds on the grill. Wendel and Gretz raised their food in salute and turned to go.

The two sat on the grassy slope, each biting at the small elongated runnerbird on its skewer. Between them, an open infosheet lay on the grass. This paperweight cloth received Wendel Harper’s subscriptions daily, and bundled or crumpled nice and tight in any pocket she happened to stuff it into. She rustled it flat with a hand, and set it to the daily issue that covered the inhabited planets in the Leuko Galaxy.

“Genesee is coping with major geothermal disruptions. Elections this year for the Genoene Council.” She read headlines aloud when they struck her interest. Gretz Manoukian stared into the sky and ate his breakfast. “Princess Soleil is back from her Alisandrian tour. The hunt for Raev Sturlusson continues.” The sun had fully risen, shining directly into their eyes. She shook it by its corner and the sheet went blank. “I think that’s enough news for now.”

Section 15

– 16 –

Derringer peered down the sight of the assault rifle into the corner of the room. He butted the stock against his chest to feel the hard spring in it. After working a few of the actions and feeling them click smoothly, he lay the rifle down on the large wooden desktop next to the lady’s pistol. He looked over at the man holding the shotgun.

It was a short-barreled type, with a carved stock in wood. The man holding it was tall, and wore a stern face behind dark spectacles. His short black hair was decidedly unruly. He checked to make sure the chambers were empty before leaning it over to Derringer’s scrutiny.

Derringer turned to inspect, one hand on the desk. The condition of it was unnaturally new for its design; some parts must have been re-machined. “Col, that thing belongs in a museum.”

“That’d be a shame, considering it still does what it was made to do, as well as it’s ever done it.” Col withdrew the shotgun possessively and set it back in its case. He clicked the snap shut and elevated it back to its former place on a high shelf. “One of my daddy’s daddies back down the line was a gunsmith. We keep it in working order.”

“Yeah, and did your great-great-grandpap sell to all sides?”

“Actually, yeah.”

A hallway door opened and shut, footsteps approached. Karma entered the study, going straight to the cabinet to pull out three glasses and a carafe of golden whisky.

Derringer squinted at her. “Did you just change?” She was now wearing a black turtleneck sweater instead of her suit jacket.

“Perceptive of you. Yes, I did.” She poured them each a drink. Derringer looked from her, to where she came from, to Col, and just blinked. When she offered a glass, he took it with a nod.

She handed the other to Col. “That attempt to steal this data was so… rent-a-wreck. I’m slightly insulted by whoever thought it would be that easy.” Col smirked, taking a sip while Karma gestured with her glass. “Who would be so amateur, yet able to risk so much and walk away with nothing?”

Col polished his sunglasses, inspecting them in the light from the window before putting them back on. “Fortuity?”

“No, Irons wouldn’t dream of sending in that sort of skeleton crew. That isn’t her style. If it were her, we would’ve needed the safety net. As it was, your guys never got involved, did they?” Karma tilted her head at Col.

He shook his head. “Didn’t have to. What you saw was it. You took out the thugs and the hover. Hotel and emergency cleaned it up. We just watched.” A smirk curved at the corners of his face.

Derringer finished the last of the whisky, setting the glass down with a loud clack. “You had guys on this?” He pointed at Col.

“I know, when does Col hire anybody.” He shrugged again. “Right timing, good pay for easy service.”

“You’re welcome,” Karma shot in his direction.

“You are also welcome,” deadpanned Col. He finished his glass and left it on the desk next to Derringer’s.

Karma swirled her last sip and drank it down. “When do you think those two will be here?” This she aimed towards Derringer.

“Chad and Fred? Ten, twenty minutes. They pick up easy, and I’m sure they were impressed with your dj skills. But I warned you, they’re only sort of competent.”

“That’s perfectly alright,” she murmured, staring into nothing. She flashed Derringer a self-consciously charming smile and kept her mouth shut. He picked up her gun and handed it to her, holding it by the barrel. She reached toward it, eyebrows raised, and grabbed it. “Are you done looking at that?” It went back in her side holster with a pat.

“One of a kind, isn’t it?”

“That’s right.”

“What do you think of those?” Col asked, pointing at the assault rifle on the desk.

Derringer eyed the rifle from end to end. “The mechanics are smooth, but it feels light. Even flimsy… where are they from?”

“Don’t let the weight fool you. The recoil is like a feather in the wind. I have two shipments and no regrets. Made on Geris.”

“Geris… the crude ore planet?” Col nodded.

Karma was rearranging the vase of flowers on the windowsill. There was still sunlight in the day, and it lit her hair in a flaming halo. Black knee-high boots elevated her a tiny bit above her tiny stature. Derringer wasn’t fooled. “Cobra lilies,” she said, “that’s what this bouquet is missing. Col, where did you get these.” Derringer’s eyebrows lifted at the imperative in her tone.

“The Array. I was shopping there the other day.” Col’s face was inscrutable.

“Well, this florist is okay, but…” Her voice drifted off, one hand on her chin, one on her hip, still facing the vase. Her gaze was aimed out the window. “Cobra lilies.”

“I know where to find those,” Col said from where he stood.

Karma faced them, a closed smile from ear to ear. From behind her the sound of doors opening and shutting. Derringer nodded to the other two and headed to the entrance. “I know that van.”

Section 16

– 17 –

A small cohort of kids filed in through the door to the viewstudy, a teacher shepherding from their midst. The room was empty of seating; instead, bright cushions and stuffed animals formed an inviting pile in the center of the floor. The curved window wall was set to transparency, with the view of Capital City as backdrop.

Three remote cameras lifted off a high shelf and began hovering around the room like lazy winged mice. Everyone made themselves comfortable, the teacher on a large cushion at the back of the group. When all eight children had settled, she smiled directly at the camera blinking red.

“Good morning, Rocketeers! We’re so glad you could join us here at the Pan-Galactic Imperial Court on Alisandre.” She radiated eager warmth, her curling golden hair seemingly reflecting it. “Today, Prince Cristobal is going to tell us about the ten federets of the Pan-Galaxy.” The body of another camera turned red as it transmitted a close-up of a young boy of about twelve. He looked like his oldest sister, dark-haired and pale, though his eyes were grey like his father’s. Quiet and self-possessed, he nodded at the camera. “Sir Prince, thank you for sharing. The floor is yours.”

He smiled briefly, rising from where he sat at the edge of the group. He was tall for his age, and the black-with-gold garb that he wore made him look taller. From his pocket he withdrew a data chip, which he inserted into a console by the side of the window wall. The center panel turned a flat white, and he stood in front of it, notecards in hand.

“The Pan-Galactic Imperium is divided into ten parts, or federets.” Behind him, a red circle drew itself against the white backdrop. Lines crisscrossed it to divide the pie into ten pieces, which separated to array themselves around the Prince’s silhouette. “The Imperial planet of Alisandre is separate from these, to better serve as a neutral governing body. This means each federet is equally important.” A red dot appeared above the ten dispersed shapes, encircled by a line of gold.

He was reserved, if not shy; but his voice stayed steady and his diction clear. “Each federet is a common sense group of planets and galaxies. Some were formed when they became part of the Imperium. Others have been regrouped depending on population and transport accessibility.” The diagrams rearranged themselves around him, illustrating the changes he spoke of, each shape taking on its own new color.

As the Prince described each federet, the teacher shifted her gaze from him to the city view on either side of the screen. He’d been her pupil for almost six years now, and he always lit up when the topic came to worlds outside the court, especially the distant edges of the Imperium. His usual reservations would melt away. Even now, he became more animated as he sprinkled the cut-and-dry presentation with some favorite gems.

His oldest sister would rule, but as the first boy and third child of the family, his destiny was very much in his hands. For now, he could only repeat the canonical histories as they were taught to him. As his teacher, she could feel his yearning for original knowledge from outside his sheltered world. She had a feeling he would find it, soon enough.

Section 17

– 18 –

“So you want us to figure out who it was went after you at the handoff.” Chad Dremel, wearing both hat and sunglasses, spoke from the loveseat in the front room of Col’s safe house. “Why? It’s not our uh, expertise. You’d know better than we would.”

“That’s just it. I thought I knew all the players who would be after this research, but that attack and the way it was done doesn’t make sense for any of them. Because you know nothing about this scenario, you might be able to figure out something I couldn’t.” Karma Ilacqua leaned against the table. “Besides, their attempt failed, and I don’t have time to go chasing down every Jack and Jill who tries to trip me in the hallway.” Her eyes gleamed. “But I’m curious.”

Dremel turned his head to DeWalt sitting next to him. They read each other’s faces for a few seconds. DeWalt tilted his black pate and looked over at the business woman. “We’ll need an office.”

Smirking, she glanced at the detective before looking back at them. “I’ve got an office you can use.”

Section 18

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