58

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.

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.

56

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.

50

Bright Wave could feel the distress in the air with her tendrils. They suggested that she numb her senses in order to approach the burning Grove. She spent time in a dampening chamber designed to minimize echoic sensitivity. Many warned her how terrible it was going anywhere near, nevertheless she had to. With her particular abilities, perhaps she could effect something. Her Grove was on fire.

She jumped from the hovercraft to the head of the trail, wearing an engineered suit that could withstand the heat. This trail was eons old, and required mature senses to follow – the very senses Aquarii had learned long ago in these places. And so they were self protected by a living echoic labyrinth. The elders brought in the young.

In those groves, Bright Wave had learned the land, and her histories. One Symbias that she remembered had a poetic personality, and was her closest teacher. Meditating with this one, Bright Wave had been able to open new meanings in their language, bringing her to the forefront of Aquari culture and technology. This Grove, in her home river valley, housed her first teachers. Later, she herself had helped cultivate it, furthering the work of over nine thousand years.

Fire technology wasn’t native to Aquarii. They were an agile carapid-molluscid people of watery climate, whose voices could connect across stars. Their methods of adaptation didn’t include external fuel combustion. They understood it now, but rarely applied it to much extent other than participating in the Pan-Galactic civilization. No one imagined bringing fire to a Symbias Grove, as only Aquarii could enter those guarded places, and ordinary fire would have inflicted little harm.

Now major Groves across Aquari Home planets were burning in entirety. Neither Aquari nor Imperial forces were able to douse them, and no one had been able to overcome the pain enough to understand the cause.

Meanwhile the wails and tumult of a burning Grove drove those nearby out of their homes, or their minds. The audible pain of a burning Symbias was said to be unbearable, the knowledge living inside them releasing in torrential explosions. They were being consumed at an achingly slow rate, drawing out the loss of their living history. Bright Wave had met with survivors to better understand what she was going into.

She felt practically deaf as she approached, following the path by the inner magnetic sense, humming in requisite time signatures. Near the edge of the valley, a wave of heat brought her to one knee. The suit protected her well, but she knew that without it the temperatures would be fearsome. She picked herself up and continued.

Here the trail began to fray. The singer must maintain the connection in order to stay on the trail, and it was constantly slipping out of grasp. Not just slipping, but twisting in ways not its wont. She felt along, touch and go.

After some progress, she started feeling it. Pain like a shock across her tentacles and tendrils. At different places on the trail it came through more and more, as she captured each frayed end, trying to follow the rope of it. She sped along faster, worried she might lose the thread and be locked out altogether. No one had been able to enter a Grove for hours already, while they burned with no knowledge of why, or how to stop it.

Bright Wave ran up against a wall of heat that knocked her flat. She lost her senses for a moment, facedown on the ground, tentacles covering the back of her head. The suit was holding up. Her skin could stand it. She raised her head to look up.

She could see and interpret the patterns in the searing wall of danger projected by the dying Symbias. It was formed with their escaping commingled forces, eons of lives and ancestral story shredding in waves of chaos. The remaining life in them contained the disaster, forbidding entry.

She steeled herself, reaching out to touch the barrier. She let the heat pass through her, knowing it was a projection. It took all her effort to hold herself in place. She chanted a melody, drawing like fragments to her from the disembodied pieces in howling maelstrom. As an adolescent, kneeling by her Symbias companion, she had made words for it.

Into the ground, all the way to the upper air,
weave your garden in. Your thorns, your spreading leaves.
Bring them forth to touch our living skins.
All the forms that you remember, carried down
and raised in the flowering of our voices.
Here every secret goes and lives it secret life.
We laugh as though it’s ours, all ours,
and always return it back. Build the braid,
pour the waters, and sing to remember.

50

Pieces of that memory joined with her song. Some were gone, and she patched them through the wracking pain that came with their contact. She was sweating, and trembling. She rose on one knee, then onto both jointed legs, and brought her other tentacle against the wall. Firework explosions of color emanated around her as she braced, leaning as though to push open a door.

The chant amplified in the pool of coherent tranquility gathering in front of her. Though clear, it was just a tiny voice under a great storm. Bright Wave could hear herself; it was enough to carry the tune. The pain coursing through her lessened. The coalescing pool grew wide enough to give, and she stumbled through.