5x Rerun: Fire Within (1) 73-74, 8th Sequence, 75-76

– 73 –

The panoramic door drew upward, revealing row after row of hard gazes landing squarely on the prisoner and his two keepers. The clamoring hiss fell silent. The three traveled up the center aisle toward the hearing platform ahead. From within the green-tinted keeper’s field, Sturlusson received their suppressed snarls. He looked up at the ceiling full of recording lights, the fixated heads around him, and the arbiter’s tiers beyond the rest. Passing the front row of assembly seats was like breaking a runner’s tape.

At the pause before the platform, he was greeted by the three judges, and the King and Queen Ascendant above them. They all went through the requisite gestures. He eyed the empty witness’ stand, and opposite that, to the right of the arbiter’s tiers, the large screen where the Queen’s face watched the proceedings.

As he stepped to the platform and the keepers attached the field to it, he felt nudges at the tip of either shoulder over his burn scars. Sturlusson glanced up again, and behind his field of vision he pinpointed two watching presences. Their communication with him was more or less clear.

“I loathe them, and watch this only under duress.”

“I sort of know what you mean.” He looked to the medallion above the tiers, which read Justice Is Served In Many Ways.

“Over the next few days, we will hear from witnesses who will present accounts of your doings. There are many in this hall who have waited some time for the opportunity, though their statements must remain brief, as must your rebuttals. You’ve opted against the presence of a legal interpreter, so you are responsible for adhering to the guidelines of reply.” He received a veiled stare from King Ascendant Vario in his red arbiter’s garb.

“From the witnesses’ statements and your replies, we will build and subsequently examine the case to determine your sentence. For all that you yourself have taken credit for, you can expect no less than a great period of suffering.” At this, Raev Sturlusson blinked slowly. He heard a hissing chuckle of irony.

73

– 74 –

It was like flipping through a yearbook, or being at a royal roast, or attending his own funeral. A little like all three. It was serious – every one would draw blood if allowed, but Raev remembered them more clearly than suspected. His past decisions were walking up to greet him, and he knew them very well.

The critical ones, everybody knew about. It started a long time ago, and he learned quickly how to use notoriety to his advantage. Some in particular created a lot of requisite damage, that he wished weren’t so even as he made it happen. It was pointless telling them he didn’t have horns – after all, he wore them so well. True, for some time his thirst for retribution could hardly be slaked. But it had taken him all those years to figure out why.

When he acquired that first gargantuan sum of funds off the Oligarchy of Tamakopa, it was enough to shut down companies and end towns. He’d known who would greet the citizens beyond the town borders, and now he learned how life had treated them. Ultimately well, he thought, but he must be held accountable.

There was the one he hated to hear, even though he reminded himself of it all the time. When he didn’t keep her – lost her and everything in one fell swoop, all involved. People had never been more angry with him, and he with himself. Here he paid probably his greatest price.

After that was a lot of boat rocking, and sinkholing. And of course, the disappearance at the prestige. His return still had people fuming, most especially because he had won sympathy, and families divided over it.

Certain attributed tidbits, he did not recognize. He didn’t bother making contest, only took in the news as it came to him. The source of his privately connected counsel noted the new information as well.

“They have added to your reputation.”

“Clearly. Though I don’t mind, as the time for setting things straight is not now. The tall tales are an added layer of distraction, which is fine with me. The truth overshadows them regardless, which is why they slip right in.”

“How will they hang you for your current move?”

“They can’t yet. However this centershow works out, they still need me to get them out of the corner. The King Ascendant and Queen haven’t released a reverse agent. We got it from them after all, though we improved on it. I suspect what final option they’re narrowing down to as far as handling this. I don’t think I’m prepared to play lab rat to satisfy the cameras. They have days before a toll begins to mount, as far as they know.” This final indictment was difficult, as its inconclusive nature brought everyone to edge.

Raev Sturlusson heard it all again in the Queen Ascendant’s voice as she announced the collected statements.

74

– 8TH SEQUENCE –

Eighth Sequence

– 75 –

The sphere image was frozen steady, drawn lines within reading as chaos. At one side of the table, the two Alpha Captains and General Ionos leaned forward. The General lifted a hand to the display. “Explain how the surrounding technicians are supposed to align and co-triangulate.”

“My Loramer co-fellow can answer that,” said Dr. Hydraia, turning to look at her colleague to the left.

“This is an unusual problem,” said Arys Steinman, laying out a few notes. “We can create a system that will co-map a series of points, call them mirrors. For the interruption sequence we want to enact, each point needs to be an intersection of the signal figures we reviewed.”

Steinman laid out the factor maps, pointing things out. “A technology pattern found in our Zerite-based inventions. The energy signature of an Iljen Engine at pre-critical burst. Here’s the map of microhole readings, and shadow radius sectors.

“Each mirror spins at a live rate responding to the weather of the vortex, tethering to each technician ship along designated connection paths. Setting a mirror takes more energy input from the initiating technician until it can tether down multiple paths. You’re tethering the mirrors, not the other way around.

“At a designated level of synergy, the energy to maintain the mirrornet will drop greatly. At this point, co-triangulation can run automatically, and we can move on to the next phase, precise insertion of chain reactives.”

General Ionos sat back, looking partially satisfied. “You’ve said we do this rarely in application. What makes you confident that this maneuver will work at this scale, with live pilots instead of robotics?”

“We’re keeping in mind that pre-critical burst phase of an Iljen Engine is only inwardly unstable. So while ships must remain in place to enact the interruption, they remain outside the boundary of collapse. In recorded failures, backlash occurred in the programming, preventing recurrence of the process without damaging equipment. The program you’ll be using is contained separately from ship operations.”

“How many times did you run this in simulation, and on how many levels? And did you do your utmost to minimize the number of technicians required?”

Arcta took in a slow breath. “We forwarded the ultimate simulations to you and your captains. If you want the complete logs, I can request them from Loramer Ultra sim rooms, but they were combed deeply and to do so again would be a great waste of time.”

The General leaned on the table. “If we determine this course of action, when will we need to mobilize?”

“In about twelve days, we’ll get our next likely shot in the vortex activity cycles.”

75

– 76 –

The King Ascendant with his two armed guards filled the room when they entered. “Now that the verdict is being processed, we can attend to other pressing matters. The HA235 patients on Alisandre are nearing critical status, and thousands of people on three other planets are close behind them. Tell us everything now, because if they die, you will die with them.”

“Wasn’t I supposed to in the first place, with my family and home? Your stance and bluster don’t convince me. You’ve held out far longer than I have with the truth of the matter, and not even the impending death of thousands will change your tune. If you want to keep all these people from dying, that’s within your power. These deaths will dig your grave if you allow them.”

“How are you carrying the disease and not suffering symptoms?” At his gesture, the guards flanked the prisoner.

“Have your doctors not figured that out, with the samples they took?”

Looking him in the eye, the King Ascendant stepped close. “They have not. But I believe the answer is in you, somewhere.”

“It would have to be.” Raev bowed his head for a moment before looking up at the three surrounding him. “You might be surprised how simple it is. Since the verdict is being processed, and I’m facing my fate, perhaps you deserve a farewell letter after all. Bring the doctor.” He turned his right side to Vario and lifted his sleeve, revealing designs on his skin. “It’s here. Beneath the winged horse in the lightning.”

“Take off his arm.” A guard drew a hot sword and it was gone. Raev Sturlusson sank to one knee. The King Ascendant picked up the limb, lifting the tattoo to his eyes. “Make sure he doesn’t die.” He exited, leaving the door open, blood decorating the hallway floor.

76

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) 60-63

– 60 –

The light streamed through the holes in the cave ceiling as it bounced off the pool of water and onto the walls. Past where her toes dabbled, Karma Ilacqua watched gold and white fish nibble larva from the surface.

“We’ve been lucky twice already.” She sipped her fizzy beverage and looked sidelong at the mustached detective. “With finding the system taproot, and unearthing the Hoopoe in that tent. Blasted kid, sending us on a goose chase.”

Derringer aimed a level gaze at her from where he sat in his shorts under a ray of sunlight. “What do you expect, he’s from here.”

“Yeah, I’m sorry you didn’t learn that sooner. We got a little worried, but he’s going to hold up his end after all.”

“You think so?”

“Oh yeah, he wouldn’t have boarded the jet at all otherwise.”

“You know – I helped this happen, but I still don’t really know what it was all about.”

“You wouldn’t want to. The clearance levels aren’t worth your trouble.”

Derringer leaned back against the knobbly-smooth cave wall and sipped his liquor. “I guessed that.”

“You’re not bad at doing the dirty work, Derringer.”

“My specialty, madame.” He raised his glass in a toast.

Karma cupped water in a hand and poured it over her legs. The computer projected a message to her right. “Our intrepid backup.” She keyed a sequence to show the incoming images without displaying their own. “Greetings, gentlemen. Do you find the compensation satisfactory?”

“Shit yes, Ms. Ilacqua. Shit yes.” Fred DeWalt’s reply piped in with satisfaction.

“Enjoy your new office. My associates and I may be in touch further down the line.”

Chad Dremel nudged his partner out of the screen space. “We’ll look forward to hearing from you. How’s Derringer down there on Lurin?”

Karma raised her eyebrow at the hint of envy, smirking at the detective. “He’s in tip-top shape, we’ve got it wrapped out here. I’ll let him know you were concerned.”

A suspicious pause from the security team. “Are you two just living the lush Lurin dream, or what?”

Derringer leaned over to speak. “We’re hiding in a dank little hole in the ground, Dremel. I’ll be sure and bring you pictures if we make it out of this trench alive.” He reached over and tapped the call closed.

Karma leaned towards him. “I’ll do my best to make sure that happens.”

“You can do your worst.”

60

– 61 –

Though their passenger insisted she didn’t require special consideration, they picked the finest pub in Dalmeera – plenty of chairs, intact windows, no fleas, full meal service. Toller looked across the table at her, indifferently curious.

Arcta Hydraia’s long green hair was braided, and she gazed through spectacles at the menu, a mess of chalk writing on the opposing wall. She murmured and nodded, then blinked and looked elsewhere as she noticed the boy’s attention on her.

“So you’re a scientist?” he asked again.

“Yes, in massive sphere dynamics.”

“I don’t know what that is.”

“A relatively new discipline. We’ve only really been able to explore sphere dynamics since the appearance of non-solid anomalies.” She paused. “And from there it gets complicated.”

“Why are you going to the capital?”

She drew her breath in slowly. “Sorry, classified. It’s important enough that I don’t want to look for a different ship. Not here in Dalmeera, anyway.”

A blond figure detached from the crowd to stand square in front of their booth. “What do you guys want? I’m going to fetch it from the bar.” Wendel’s short hair was in disarray, a lingering smile on her face.

“Did Leiv go?” Toller asked, using his first name as requested.

“Yeah, we found a buddy headed out to join the second round of the refugee shuffle. They left, he’s going to look to his ship. Did you want anything to eat or drink?”

“How about a fried honklizard steak?”

Wendel raised her eyebrows. “Hungry boy. I’ll finish it if you don’t. What about you, Ms. Hydraia?”

“Arcta, please,” she replied, her eyes glancing at distant corners. “I’m not hungry right now, thanks.”

Wendel peered at her. “How about some hot silver?”

“Hot silver?”

“You can’t leave Dalmeera without trying hot silver, no ma’am.” She patted the table. “Back in a minute. Don’t leave, don’t get in trouble.” She turned to weave through the thick crowd toward the counters. Toller shrugged across the table.

The pilot was back shortly with food. She unburdened herself of the steak and kept a mug for herself, handing the other to Arcta, who looked curiously at the iridescence in her cup. Harper took a hearty sip. “Moonlighty caffeinated nourishment. They don’t make it properly outside Dalmeera, they really don’t.” Harper watched the passenger’s tentative reaction.

“How long are we to wait here, do you think?” Arcta asked her pilot without impatience. “I trust your reasoning is good, I am just curious.”

“There are lots of people I haven’t seen here, which is good,” said Wendel, continuing to sip. “It means parts of the world are in working order. I just sense a simmer in the direction of the capital, and I’m waiting for it to die down. It’s so central a place, and also a busy time. I’m not too apprehensive to go there, that’s our next wise step fare aside. I’m aiming for a completely uneventful trip.” Harper was draining her cup quickly, almost as fast as Toller was demolishing his steak. Arcta noticed their pace and followed suit.

“It’s fair to tell you now that we’re hiding in plain sight. We’re likely surrounded by people who would aid in our capture if they knew who they were looking at. But they don’t, which helps me find the safe route.” Harper put out a hand. “I wasn’t placing you at any great risk. This town is dangerous, but also safe.”

The three finished their food and drink without much extra talk. Murmurs rose and fell, deals, meetings, uproar and upset – the place as usual.

When at the sound of a shot, chaos erupted. Wendel pulled the other two under the table, and dragging them by their shirts like ducklings, crawled along the wall below people’s legs, shielding the three of them with well aimed blows. The other two kept quiet and stayed close. They squeezed out of a door into a less crowded chamber.

Harper yelled briefly to the others. “This,” she pointed, “has nothing to do with us. Not our problem. We’re going now.” Her words were clearly enunciated. Toller and Arcta looked at each other, and both nodded tersely, agreeing that they would just like to get out.

Outside the bar, the noise was surprisingly minimal. It was a localized event. Harper put a hand on their backs and walked them away briskly. “Nothing to worry about,” were her only words until they boarded the Drift 9 at the airlot.

61

– 62/1 –

The floating stage platform shimmered behind a curving geometric field. Where they began in the transport arena, Princessa Mireille Magus took the speaker’s dais in the center, between her older sister and younger brother below.

The procession aisle was lined with people. The main group of platforms started forward. Performers from both sides of the path joined them to enact the Lay of Sakhana & Zoe, the capital’s traditional Pyrean play narrated by the Princessa.

Now we retell the tale,
as we do every Pyrean Midsummer.
The story of old Babylon Magus,
when this place was Babylon,
before it was Alisandre,
in the times of the Magus Emperors.

When walls, the ground, lights, the world,
breathed and grew at human whim,
miraculous machinery lost to ancient thought.
Before even the pergola on the plateau was raised,
when water reached to the walls of the city,
there was an only son, only child of the Magus.
His name was Marius Nikolai, also called Sakhana,
for he embodied the gentle warrior’s way,
young but already wise, formidable in reason.

The actor playing Marius Nikolai leaped to the main stage preceding the royal family. He bore a shock of blond hair, wearing black and grey leather armor blazoned with old crests. Aquari scene artists following to either side displayed a vast city fortress with lights, smoke and high stone walls.

Clever enough was he to discover the great evil
in old Babylon, in the walls themselves,
forces that held his dear land in secret thrall.
Cousins. Advisors. The Builders. His Father.
Old Babylon Magus was dying a slow death
at the hands of its keepers, bargains they’d made
with forces beyond their ken.

He would witness the end of it.
Clever Sakhana, he made sure of it.
He took action, performing rites for those
he hoped he would save, and wept
for the fall of this place, as he knew it must.

The actor’s stage morphed into a network of evolving paths along which he ran, defeating enemies who fell back in acrobatic tumbles to melt into the crowd.

By his engines, by his doing,
Babylon fell in one night.
His Father. Advisors. Cousins. The walls.
Many wonders and arts, now gone.
Sakhana cast himself from a keyhole parapet
to the waves far below,
his last desperate measure.

Old Babylon Magus had different creatures then,
and these saved the young man, bearing him far.
Sakhana only heard their ocean music.

He was carried on a billowing construct of dark blue and white silk, as operatic singers mimicked portisfish calls. When he returned to it, the stage platform was set as a seaside cove.

He awoke on a shore at the base of a cliff,
as a woman was climbing down.
He hailed her, and though hesitant,
she went to help the stranger.
This was Zoe, fleeing from capture.

Sakhana was sorely weak. Zoe gave him water,
and brought him up the long approach
to the entrance of a cave.
Within were rooms hewn from the rough stone cliff.
In one of these they hid,
and as he regained his health,
she told Marius Nikolai her tale.

Zoe lived her whole life by this cliff,
but was now pursued for reasons unknown.
She could defend herself with her bow in hand, and that was all.
Her pursuers were relentless –
they threatened her family to find her.

She was leaving to hide when she found Sakhana at the shore.

Trusting Zoe in turn,
Sakhana told her his tale of flight.
He recovered, and they ventured further into the cave.
They continued until they reached an iron gate;
beyond it lay sky.

Aquari projection made the sky around the stage seem brighter, sparkling and clear. Rays shone down on the evolving stage floor shaping a path. They were now in the midst of the University Quarter, surrounded by buildings of the old institutions.

Light fell over expanses of mosaic-tiled streets.
Sakhana saw before him a kingdom
more beautiful than Babylon.
Gardens, fountains, a palace in the distance,
bathed in sunny silence.
Zoe found the gate key nearby where it was hid,
and they walked to the palace,
eating fruit from the trees.

Inside were further splendors, all deserted.
A series of statues led them to a chamber below,
where a powerful light pulsed and glowed.

The light poured forth from an enormous jewel,
size of an eagle, crystalline and blue.
It rested on a pedestal in the center
of the great underground chamber.
Without a thought, they drew close to this
starry warmth, but as they touched it
the earth and the foundations began to shake.
Sakhana went to flee, but Zoe cried out
that they mustn’t abandon the jewel.
She toppled it from the pedestal,
but it was too heavy for her to lift.
So Sakhana carried it with her, though
they could hear the castle crumbling above them.
Through grave danger they emerged
to the mosaic-tiled streets.

The castle collapsed behind them in a cloud of dust.
From this cloud issued a furious roar;
a flaming beast with hooves, wings and talons
came charging with a voice like a host of warriors.

The costume of the beast was manipulated by athletic dancers, who moved to make the stride of its limbs. It trailed flames and smoke. As they passed through the hospitals, troops of singers from the Imperial Army joined to march alongside.

Sakhana made himself a match for the beast.
As bright as the beast burned,
it was no brighter than the flame in his heart.
As high as it flew, it never escaped his eye.
When it closed the distance, Marius Nikolai
leaped to meet it with bare hands of iron.

The male lead showed his ferocity in hand to hand martial display. Princess Soleil watched his leaps and twists, lifting her eyes to scan the crowds. They rested again on the female lead in her travel dress.

Zoe stood guard with her bow over the jewel
as Marius Nikolai and the beast wrestled
once, twice, thrice, and each time
his burns were healed with its light.
The next time the beast broke free,
it wheeled to face the girl, and dove.
She struck the beast with her arrows,
but they burned, and she threw herself out of its path.
With its talons, the beast seized the jewel.
As it flew away, Zoe loosed more arrows
until one struck the jewel,
breaking a piece of it free.

Sakhana found it where it fell, and offered it
back to Zoe. They knew the beast would return soon,
so they fled back across the deserted city
to the tunnel cave.

62.1

62.1.2

– 62/2 –

Exiting the cave, they encountered a ship
anchored off the coast, and rowboats on the beach.
Zoe retreated, but Marius Nikolai stopped her.
He knew them – pirate traders who visited Babylon Magus.
Zoe stayed hid, and Sakhana moved closer to investigate.

The ship and boats were festooned hover vehicles, eliciting cheers from the crowd when they joined the scene. The salty crew were popular in this rough neighborhood.

He overheard them speak of his home:
a city in ruins, but a people awakened and free.
They struggled to survive the harsh time,
but still they sang of that day as a good one.
They celebrated the fall as a victory,
and so Marius Nikolai knew that he could return home.

Sakhana showed himself to the nearby captain,
who recognized and moved to embrace him.
Sakhana asked after Zoe’s pursuers.
They had been here, the captain said,
and gone hence some time ago.
They had seen no one else.

Marius Nikolai brought word back to Zoe in the cave.
At once, she determined to see what became of her family.
Sakhana accompanied her to the top of the cliff.
Inside, the house was empty but for a message.

They had left in haste, their duty discharged:
to care for the changeling princess until
her identity should be discovered.
Zoe held the gem shard,
and knew what her pursuers were seeking.
Her kingdom was dead, not of this world,
so it was said by the dying man
who brought her as an infant to this cliffside.
He had given them her true name, Viridis Merida.
It was said that should she ever go to her old home,
it would be her doom. Zoe wept.
She knew she had seen it,
and that she could not go back there, nor stay.
Sakhana asked her to come with him
where he would rebuild his country.
Though grieving, she agreed to the journey.

Marius Nikolai and Viridis Merida
left with the trading vessel,
making many calls to port.
As they approached Old Babylon,
there was more rumor of what was lost
and gained in the fall of the city.
Some spoke of the Magus,
and how its last son was missing,
but Marius Nikolai kept his identity secret.

They arrived at the port of Babylon Magus
with an abundance of goods, carrying
timber, fiber, stone and food.
These he distributed among people,
still not revealing his identity.
Zoe went with him, healing and listening,
keeping the jewel concealed.
By its magic, she gained knowledge of ways to live
without the forces that corrupted the city
and brought its downfall. This she shared
with Sakhana and his people.
In time, they prospered.
The city as they knew it disappeared, brick by gear.

Boxes that looked like bricks and building debris were sent through the crowd, and opened to reveal gifts and treats. The well-dressed crowd between the Maray and the Diplomat’s District were appreciative.

As the old fortress was being cleared,
Marius Nikolai found a cellar door he hadn’t before seen,
blown askew on its hinges. A hallway led into the earth.
He journeyed in, bringing none but Viridis Merida,
who would not leave his side.

The hallway went to a bank of empty storerooms.
In the last of these, Sakhana found
a hidden trapdoor with a ladder going further down.
Here he entreated Zoe to turn back,
but she would not, so they went on together.
So absorbed were they in the mystery of this place,
they didn’t see the torch running low
until it began to gutter.

They were enveloped by darkness, and fear arose.
Sakhana banished the angry spirits that crowded his mind.
As they made to turn back in trepidation,
Viridis Merida saw a glow in her pocket.
She withdrew the gem, and it lit the hall.
So they continued.

Before long, the passageway ended.
They examined the dusty end, uncertain.
As Zoe held the gem to the wall,
a light answered forth, describing a door
with its hidden mechanism.

The door was represented by a mechanical gate with lights along its moving parts. Counterweights and pulleys opened it for the actors behind.

Marius Nikolai and Viridis Merida
entered a vast library chamber.
The walls bearing volumes were flanked by
massive statues that glowed as though living.
These took many forms, that Sakhana recognized
as his people’s ancient teachers of myth.
He bent a knee before them, and at the sight of this place.

Zoe held the jewel aloft, and
the library responded with its own illumination.
In wonder, they explored and examined the trove.
Many of the finest volumes were empty,
by myriad items of unknown but powerful magic.

A wall of books opened before Zoe
as she approached it holding the gem.
It revealed a stairway of masterful craft.
Upon the stone steps were carved tales of great heroes.
Sakhana asked Zoe if she would stay behind,
and again she refused.
So they took the long, winding stair.

Here they passed the great military obelisk as the actors climbed illusory stairs. The projectionists displayed carved story reliefs in the surrounding space.

When at last they reached light,
they found themselves atop Mt. Kairas.
Marius Nikolai had not known the place.
He found there a slender stone standing to chest height,
in the top of it a small window. The solstice sun set,
and the gem of Viridis Merida glowed again
with a piercing light that fell directly on the stone.
So she brought it close, placing it within the window.
The jewel pulsed, growing brighter each time.
Then with a deafening silence,
the light enveloped the entire city.

The parade arrived in the Royal Court. The bright display played off the walls of the city’s most fantastical architecture, setting a backdrop for the arrival of Her Vast Eminence, Queen Celeste. She was brought to the royal platform, where she boarded and below and in front of her second oldest granddaughter. They continued to the Verdant Plateau nearby. In the Pergola waited representatives from neighboring planets, and a Dragon.

All across the land could see it, near and far.
Within the encompassing veil of light shone visions,
sharp and clear, of a realm with more grace and triumph
than any they had seen.
Every detail of it etched into every looking eye.

Nor could any eye miss the man and woman
atop the mountain, revealed in majesty.
Though distant, their faces became known to all in that moment.
Marius Nikolai and Viridis Merida were recognized thus.
They stewarded the beginning of the next age of marvels,
and the new city that became Alisandre Capital.

So at Pyrean Midsummer we conjure forth our visions,
bright and clear as the light of Zoe’s gem,
great and certain enough to lay the foundation
for our futures in the spirit of new hope.

To Marius Nikolai!
To Viridis Merida!
To Alisandre!
And to the Great Pan-Galactic Imperium!

62.2

– 63 –

A twenty-one person assembly waited atop the Verdant Plateau – one dragon, four Aquarii, and sixteen humans arrayed above, inside, and around the Pergola. The procession halted at the plateau’s edge, and alone the ruling family disembarked to join them.

“This is the big show, Chrysanthe. The Vision. You were a baby last time you saw this.” The young girl, still just small enough to ride atop her father’s shoulders, squished his cheeks between her palms. They had a distant view from amid the sea of people filling the valley south of the Plateau. He kept her hands off his face by holding them. “Of course, it’s never the same twice. But I remember you smiling.”

“I doubt I could really see it if I was just a baby.”

“Maybe so. It’s good luck for you to be born so near Pyrean Midsummer. Now that you’re seven you get to see why.”

The Queen’s voice rolled out over the surrounding valleys, transmitted into space beyond. “Now with all the peoples of the Imperium, we light the sky with the Pyrean Vision.” The Magus family turned to face the great Pergola, and together sat on their knees.

“Papa – why do they kneel?”

“A show of respect for the hopes and dreams we express in the Vision.”

The four Aquarii in their respective corners of the Pergola began to shimmer warmly. The four humans surrounding each Aquari raised their palms, and the light around the Aquarii grew. A deep, melodic thrumming pervaded the air as their spheres of light widened to intermingle, beaming through the open Pergola.

“See how the Aquarii channel the human representatives, mixing them all in one Rasakarya.”

“What’s a ross-corey again?”

“A synaesthetic, like multisensory, like living, portrait of emotion and thought. Something only Aquarii can do.”

“How come those people get to do it?”

Chrysanthe’s father took a deep breath, and laughed. “This event is unique, ‘Santhe. Them up there are the ones that start it, but actually we all get to take part.” At no response but silence, he checked to see his daughter’s face transfixed by the spectacle.

Aural melodies began to wail, soar and syncopate. Intricate brightness enveloped the entire Pergola, reaching the coiled body of the dragon perched in massive flying form on the roof. Its silver-blue scales flashed as it took to the air, gently spiraling to float high above.

The mass of light gained focus, a streaming latticework that converged on a pulsing point centered above the structure. “It’s all joined now, see, and they’re making sense of it.” Glowing geometry transformed through a series of iterations that became more concise and graceful. The central point grew brighter till it burst upward, illuminating the sky all the way to the dragon above.

“What dragon is that?”

“Let’s see, that’s not Arkuda…” He pulled the event program from his pocket. “That’s Arctyri, of Foshan. Saga, Kyridi, and Rhizoa are on the other three planets this Midsummer.” The young girl repeated the names quietly.

The light revealed the dragon’s greater spectral being, extending through the sky in whorls and spikes. Arctyri’s body navigated a toroidal pattern, bending and channeling the light in this shape. The color of the sky began to change.

“Now the dragons are uniting the Visions from across the universe, from four planets in four separate galaxies who share the same moment of summer solstice every seven years. Right now!”

“When do we get to join in?”

“You’ll see. You’ll know!” Chrysanthe held her father’s hands and craned her head to watch. The sun was setting to her left. Between the growing night and fading day, the sky did resemble a conduit reaching through the universe; though instead of being dark, it was varicolor luminescent. She untangled a hand to reach up to it.

The combined light of four sunsets filled the air overhead, breathed in by the motion of the dragons’ flight. The colors gained substance and weight, falling like mist until they reached upraised hands.

It wasn’t like rain or snow, but Chrysanthe felt it, an electric sparkle that raised the hairs on her skin. It reminded her of things: warm cereal in the morning, dancing to the music her parents played. She saw the colors respond around her hand, and she did know just what to do after all.

She tilted her head as the lines and figures issuing from her father’s hand rose to meet her own small pictures. The expressions were abstracted, but when they joined, it somehow made a little more sense. Chrysanthe turned to see it happening everywhere around her. The sunsets’ light was fading, and the grand picture grew brighter in turn. She could see lines now that didn’t come from around her, but from somewhere across the galaxies, and they too connect into the picture with meaning. It seemed miles wide.

Arctyri above released the energy from the glowing torus, sending it back to the central focus. As a point of static harmony was reached, the Aquarii sent the energy crackling back through the pattern, rays of light connecting disparate lines.

When the big egg came falling through the vision like a springtime surprise, Chrysanthe wondered what amazing thing would come from inside.

63

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