55 \ 237

The ground beef had been massaged with a little bit of pepper and salt. Draig washed his hands and wiped them on his barbecue apron. He brought the bowl outside, to where the grill was already warmed. It was set to overlook his small but nice fenced backyard, hemmed by the roofline of the dense, well-to-do residential area situated between the Imperial Court and the Spear. The gardener had just been there, so the two rosebushes looked vibrant. He sighed, half contented and half unsettled, and began the rotating process of forming patties and grilling up a plateful of burgers to himself. This was a perfect time to sink into his thoughts.

I know the story of my great-grandfather. It was told to me once, but now and then I’d ask to make sure I had the details right. He escaped an inquisition chamber when Rianoire was ruthlessly crushing dissent under her drastic misrule, and he helped others into hiding. When I dreamed I was fleeing, recently before the fleet strike, it felt just like the story. I was holding a child and a gun. I can still feel it, knowing what I had to do.

I remember when the Princess worried that she might turn out like her least-loved predecessor. I don’t think she guessed that her father, not of that blood, would approach it so nearly. Now he wants me to direct undercover questionings of average citizens. I catch myself asking why this is happening, why things are going this way – as if by knowing why, I could stop it. I’m not sure if why matters.

Maybe Vario’s broken-hearted. I can’t heal that. Maybe the only thing I can stop is my own hand in it. What if I would have more compassion than anyone else given the position? Could I deliver the least possible cruelty? How much worse would my functional replacement be? Functional replacement, wow, I sound like I’ve got one foot out the door.

What if I do give up everything I’ve worked for… I would be shamed, but would I be ashamed? Not with the shame of doing to others what was done to my own. I don’t have long until I’ve decided my guilt.

The meat came from a heritage local farm near the outer edge of the Capital. When the first had cooled just enough, the bite was fresh and juicy. He held the burger patty in one hand and munched while finishing up the batch.

54.2 \ 236

The class sat up, picking up their notebooks beside them to do some journaling. Words, drawings, letters, scribbles, whatever they wanted to record in this moment at their learning level. Jae, their teacher, got to her feet and drifted around fixing her ringlets, preparing spots around the edge of the room with pairs of pillows. She passed close to the circle to peek encouragingly at open pages. Prince Cristobal and the new student were executing some form of comics dialogue or duel, taking turns with back-and-forth arrows. It looked vivid and complex, and their faces were mercurial with reaction, holding their voices in during this active moment of quiet.

The blossoming of this enlivening friendship had been a sweet surprise, yesterday. The Prince’s reserve had melted into effervescence. He relaxed and had fun as though they were sitting on a beach. Carlo, often under Cristobal’s charge, seemed more at peace now. The new student, Toller, was bright and personable, and his sense of humor put people at ease. They rearranged for notebook shares at the front of the room, and though the teacher was aware of the existence of an entire storyline, those two boys sat on their journals and watched others. Everyone then bid a fond farewell to the Aquari guests, learning how to make a tactile grasp of meeting and parting. The octopuslike arm tentacles did not have suckers; they were velvety and uniquely tinted.

“Okay, we’ll take partners now for a session of Teaching Each Other. Pick a spot at the edge of the room, and this time we’ll exchange something from yesterday – from in school or out of school – from your own experience.” Jae helped a few of the kids choose someone else. Toller and Prince Cristobal stuck together, and she didn’t mind it. It was a relief to see the Prince this way. She went around visiting, sitting as a third to offer insight or guidance. The two like-brothers murmured to each other, foreheads touching over their notebooks, a mutual supportive hand on the opposing shoulder. Jae welcomed this handshake embrace though she hadn’t seen it before, feeling that exchange of distant customs and other ways was generally worth allowing.

54.1 \ 236

The children, of varying age, and their lead teacher lay on the floor in a circle, heads oriented toward the center. Toller was laying between his fast friends, royal brothers Cristobal and Carlo. In the middle, three Aquarii sat. The adult was the soft-mannered, and elegant, pioneering artist Bright Wave; she was accompanied by two younglings, their manes of head tendrils still short, carapaces and tentacles a shade off from Bright Wave’s periwinkle. They sat in the Aquariid kneeling crouch, backs to each other and facing out. They were improvising a display of the sensations of a Sending, for the small class.

Aurora colors crossed their vision in misty swatches, while untranslated Aquari music whooshed through like a constant breeze. Stars and leaves shifted into and out of sight. It was innately awe-inspiring, soothing with an adventurous undertone. The class breathed deeply, as they’d been guided, emitting exclamations of wonder like, “Wow,” and “whoah.”

Bright Wave had regained her vocalization to a great extent, since being hurt in the grove fires, but she still wasn’t up for grand workings. Like most Aquarii, the resounding absence of their Symbias family made them all unable to function at fullest extent. They had no idea how the young of this generation would mature, and that suffused them with listlessness. Still, Bright Wave welcomed the request for a single, short concert to a small group of children which included the youngest royalty.

She had decided to bring two of her family tribe’s children for backup accompaniment – in case she tired or faltered – and because they could add the relatable energy of youth. Springing Stalk and Deep Lake were strong harmonizers. Eventually, they let their projection fade from the space above the upturned faces, with just a few sparkling twinkles for a goodbye signature.

53.7 \ 235

“That’s…” King Vario paused and sighed, “…quite the development. We’ll take your report, plus any data you have Hayze, and that’s all we need from you for now. Other matters follow closely, and now I need to speak exclusively with General Claymore. Thank you for bringing your local and procedural expertise to this office.” Responding to the tense urgency in the proxem’s voice, the two officials got up and made bowed salutes, then hastened through the hatches to summon their awaiting transports.

The remaining two shuffled around a little to adjust their momentary comforts. Water cups were refilled, communications connected or closed. Recent days had them accustomed to each other’s presence, an evolution of longtime family friend status – managing wartime together. Not that they were calling it war, exactly. They again sat, angled toward each other at the bell of the curved desk.

King Proxem Vario opened without ceremony. “We need to start uncovering hidden information directly from sources. I’ve already looked into reserving rooms for questionings in strategic locations, and restaffing an unused complex.”

“How long unused?” It seemed like trivial errata, but Claymore knew enough history, including that of his family.

Thinking about security and scope of possible involvement, the King informed the General, “Since about a couple generations ago.” Then that was probably one of those, from that time. Draig held his peace and let the King continue. “You’re already in charge of a heavy campaign. I only require your assistance in staffing, and possible emergency supervision. It’s a scattered operation.”

Draig Claymore sank into his chair, continuing to sit strong. “I understand, sir.” This was something he said to register receipt when he might not necessarily agree, but it didn’t matter.

“I’ll get you into the communication. You may go.” Draig drifted through his exit, glancing at Vario’s seat back silhouetted against the view, just before the hatches shut – getting onto his transport – feeling himself in motion before releasing the last of some long-held breath.

53.6 \ 235

“What do these rumors tell of?” King Vario grabbed onto the next topic.

“They’re on the crest of a wave of communication flotsam that’s hard to track, because our usual channels are shut down the same way theirs are. There are moments of coherence that allow glimpses of corroboration.”

“We have newly designed layers of surveillance working now, out through the net prism. Are you working with this data?” asked King Vario.

“No, I’m intentionally looking elsewhere. The usual rays of the prism are heavily fractured, and I won’t get more from that than you can yourself.”

“Do you have records and files?”

“What I have is my report. Information of this kind is strange and different where I’m looking. It’s harder to capture.” The official refrained from trotting out all the gory details of mafunctioning screen photo, impenetrable and unmodifiable code, all recordings blackout. It would not be of interest, it was instantly boring information, and of dubious credulity even to the most knowledgable. Raving to the uninitiated. “In short summary, there is a concerted cadre of establishment attackers, explaining why this situation is, uh,” Roznmyk touched her face, “actually the fault of our government.” The newest packet dropped just yesterday, and it has usually taken a few days for people to readjust their theories. Roznmyk knew people were working on it without her. They were highly motivated – not just by boredom, but also by rewards of confirming information, seeded strategically or serendipitously. The packets were often signed in disappearing ink, or the code equivalent thereof, from names who had built credibility, despite possibly being from among the enemies throttling entire neighborhoods.