The Sun From Both Sides (Part 3 of 3)
By R.S.A. Garcia
(Continued from Part 2 – Escape Pod episode 758)
He started awake, his hand tightening on something. Someone.
The Knight hung motionless over him. He had it by the throat, his fingers digging into the soft flesh beneath the golden full mask and its red speaker.
A gold mask. A Knight of the Royal Sept Valencia. He released the Knight and it straightened, showing no sign that he had almost throttled it in his sleep.
His sleep. He’d fallen asleep.
He looked down at the empty sheets beside him and sucked in a breath. The Knight took a step back as he swung his legs onto the floor.
“Where is my wife?” he ground out, his voice harsh with sleep and fear.
“Grandmaster Valencia awaits you in the Audience Room.”
“Where is my wife?”
The Knight crossed its arms over bare breasts, the only outward reaction to his inexcusable rudeness.
“Grandmaster Valencia awaits you,” the Knight repeated. The rainbow colors of the three-dimensional dodecahedron crest of Sept Valencia covered most of its forearm.
His blood was ice in his veins as he swiftly pulled on his boots. There was no sign Eva had ever been there. Her shoes were gone, the trays of food had been removed and only one mask remained on the table. His heart stuttered when he laid eyes on it, his lungs refusing to draw air. Then he took a breath and let the old calm, the old watchfulness, settle around him.
For the first time in years, he was the Grandmaster Didecus Avnette Valentino Lucochin, and Sept Valencia and the entire Greatwood was going to be very sorry they’d brought him back.
He left the mask behind and strode from the room, his mind several moves ahead as the Knight trailed him. He ran down the gentle ramp to the lower floors, toward the public areas at the front of the manse. His boots were muffled on the polished stone floors, so he made sure to push open the doors to the Audience Room hard enough to make them slam against the walls.
As he strode to the centre of the chamber and faced the throne, he saw the sedan chair on one side of the dais–the last piece of the puzzle.
Two rows of golden-headed Knights lining the path to the throne turned their faces in his direction, hands ready at the belts on their waists. He ignored them, stalking between them to the unmasked figure waiting for him in a pile of red translucent silks. Valencia’s Queen stood next to the throne in red trousers, black-gloved hands clasped behind his back and Valencia’s crest shining in the centre of his chest.
He should have known not to use the room they’d selected. He’d been unforgivably careless, and Eva had paid for it.
He stopped with one foot on the incline that led up the dais as he met the cold gaze of the Grandmaster Valencia. “You gassed us,” he said.
The Valencia didn’t hesitate. “Yes.”
“This was never just about me, was it?”
“On the contrary. It has everything to do with you. And your wife.”
He narrowed his eyes at the only person in the Greatwood who didn’t wear a mask, the better for everyone to know exactly who they were.
His first wife stared back at him, her dreadlocks so thick and long they fell past her waist, her dark eyes like obsidian.
“She had nothing to do with this.”
“She is a solution,” the man beside the Valencia said.
He let his eyes drift over the Grandmaster’s Queen, once a White Knight of Valencia, bitterness filling his mouth. “To what problem? She has never set foot on Valencia.”
The Grandmaster fluttered a hand and the Knights came to attention then trooped out, closing the doors behind them. It galled him that she knew he would take no action. Not while he had no idea where they held his wife.
“Her people will come for her if you harm a hair on her head,” he warned.
“We’ve taken precautions,” the Valencia said. “For now, she’s alive and well. Your solution will decide if she stays that way.”
“I was exiled,” he said. “You no longer command me.”
The Grandmaster Valencia leaned forward, her brown skin flawless and supple in the morning light streaming through the floor to ceiling windows behind him. “You will solve our problem, or the Consortium will receive the solution they contracted for.”
He was careful not to let her see the dread that filled him. The Valencia propped her chin in the palm of her hand, studying him.
“Yes.” She let her gaze slide past him, as though bored. “They lost a ship a solar year ago. There was a catastrophic malfunction before it disappeared, but the Consortium didn’t find any debris at the ship’s last known location. Their inability to confirm the fate of the ship meant insurance on the ship and cargo could be withheld for years, so the Consortium turned to the best problem solvers in the known Systems for help in finding it.”
“And have you done so?”
She leaned back and tapped her fingers against the arms of the throne. “No. And we never will, given it was destroyed by a Kairi Havoc class solo-ship. Your wife’s, to be precise.”
He folded his arms across his chest. “You came to this conclusion how?”
“My Grandmasters examined all data from the ship. The transmissions and location coordinates had been altered by a rare Trojan, one that amends the AI code of any analyst, erasing all data not in support of a false conclusion. The Kairi call it Cleanslate and developed it during the Nicene war. No machine could pinpoint it, but Grandmasters are not code.
“We re-focused our search from a missing ship to reports of engagements involving Kairi ships, then cross-referenced them with the time of the Consortium ship’s disappearance. There weren’t many–those that attack the Protectorate soon learn why the Sibling Army is feared in all the known galaxies.
“One report was of a raid by an unknown attacker on an Outpost planet with few defenses. The description of the ship that repelled the attack matched that of a Kairi solo-ship. The description of the destroyed ship matched that of a slaver. And your implant’s ping occurred on the same planet, at around the same time.”
His derisive snort was without humor and he glanced first at the silent Queen, then the Valencia. “That’s how you found me. It’s not why I’m here.”
The Valencia raised her eyebrows. “Tell me why then.”
“I’m here because you’ve been trapped by your games and your lies.”
The Queen took a threatening step toward him, but he gave him a withering stare. “It wouldn’t be wise to hurt me or my wife when we both know you are desperate for my assistance.”
The Valencia’s eyes came alive for the first time, mirth crinkling their corners, though she never smiled. “Desperate? You’re the one who stands captive in your former Sept. The penalty for returning from exile is death.”
“You don’t want me dead,” he said. “The game was obvious the moment I saw your chair.”
The Valencia leaned back. He’d been married to her long enough to recognize her annoyance. “You’re still very much the Lucochin, aren’t you?”
“You came here in a transport, instead of entering Valencia’s Greatwood and arriving at my Vineyard. I was delivered to my estate instead of Valencia’s because your Vineyard is no longer functioning as it should, and you couldn’t take the chance I wouldn’t arrive.
“You had been searching for me for many tempi when the Consortium reached out to you. When you learned about my wife, you seized the chance to use her as leverage. Like a newly Septed Pawn, I obliged you by bringing her along.”
“Don’t feel too badly,” the Queen said, his voice cold and calm. “Sept Kingston’s White Knight was told to bring you both in alive. He chose subtlety over force. He knew no Kairi citizen would allow a mate to go anywhere without them.”
The Lucochin inclined his head mockingly. “You know everything but what’s most important. How to save the Greatwood. The Coretrees are fading, aren’t they? Accepting fewer and fewer stratagems from the Games, or problems from outsiders. Solutions have errors. Vineyard transports are erratic and inaccurate, if they work at all. I can only imagine how much cargo has been stranded or lost.”
“How do you know any of this? You haven’t been here in many, many tempi.” The Valencia’s voice was sharp.
“The same way I know you had Alexandar killed after your marriage, so you could be promoted to Grandmaster. Your actions cost thousands of lives and destroyed any chance of mercy from me.”
“Grandmaster Lucochin.” He heard a soft snick as the Queen clenched his fingers, activating the weapon in his gloves. “You will respect the Valencia.”
“What are a few thousand souls?” she replied with a shrug. “The Game separates the useful from the useless and ensures resources are not strained beyond capacity. You haven’t been so long from Valencia you’ve forgotten your work as Grandmaster, have you?”
“You have my wife,” he said, refusing to give in to the guilt and shame that flashed through him at the mention of his past. “Make your demands.”
The Valencia’s head made a slight nod and the Queen stepped back to her side, fingers loose.
“Grandmaster Lucochin. You will attend the Coretrees in the Greatwood and return them to health. You will attend Valencia’s Vineyards and return them to health. You will do these things quickly and well, or I will give your wife to the Consortium, so they may seek redress for their injustices.”
“Injustices?” He raised an eyebrow. “You apply this term to slave traders?”
“I apply it to a client. It’s not for me to judge an artificial lifeform because it has no attachment to biological entities. Only to provide the contracted solution, where possible.”
She stood. The Queen touched thumb to middle finger and the Knights re-entered the room, forming a silent phalanx behind the Lucochin.
“What is your answer, Grandmaster Lucochin?”
He bowed, as custom dictated, then met her gaze with an unflinching one of his own. “Show her to me and I’ll do as you ask.”
The Queen raised his hands, brought his extended index fingers together then drew a glowing square in front of him. The square filled with the image of a suspension chamber. His wife was enclosed beneath the transparent lid, her sleeping face tranquil.
It took a supreme effort not to leap forward and snap the Queen’s neck.
Patience, he told himself.
“Take me to her,” he said.
The Valencia smiled. “Not before the Greatwood is repaired.”
Of course. They would never let him use the annex at his own Sept. They didn’t trust him.
And they shouldn’t.
“Then take me to the Greatwood.”
The Rook stopped short when the maintenance robot rolled directly into his path.
*You are Second Rook of the Sept Kingston. Confirm.*
The Rook put a hand to the spear on his waist as he read the robot’s serial number.
“Unit 1014, you have deviated from your assigned tasks.”
“You are malfunctioning, Unit 1014. Proceed to the nearest repair station.”
*This bot is functioning at 86% efficiency. Confirm identity.*
The Rook unsnapped his spear and sank into an attack position.
“I am Second Rook of Sept Kingston. Identify yourself.”
*Second Rook,” the robot replied, *There has been a Stage Four violation against my shell. Vineyard link to Valencia was closed without notification. Caution Protocol enacted.*
The Rook’s fingers flexed on his weapon. “You are the solo-ship?”
*I am Sister to Eva Gomez. You have committed infractions against my sibling. There will be consequences. Release my ship. Take me to my Primarch.*
The Rook sliced the humming point of his spear at the machine.
It rolled backward, unfolding two cutting attachments from its conical body.
*Second Rook,* it intoned. *You have attempted violence on a temporary shell. There will be consequences.*
“Hear me,” the Rook replied calmly. “Your demands will not be met. I’m under orders from my Grandmaster to secure your solo-ship indefinitely.”
He took a step forward and slashed at the robot. It slid out of the way, snapping its shears onto the end of the spear. The Rook tugged the robot toward it with one hand and drew an energy blade from his belt with the other. In a single movement, he sliced through the control box on the side of the robot. It settled onto the floor with a heavy thunk.
He poked the robot with his spear, ensuring it was deactivated, before re-sheathing his knife. Striding to the nearest comm, he placed a hand on the panel next to it.
*Temporary shell deactivated,* the comm said before he could utter a word. *Negotiations have failed.*
“As I have no authority to negotiate on behalf of my Grandmaster, this was a foregone conclusion.”
*Defense is noted. Crew statements consistent. Veracity estimated at 98.2%.*
“You have spoken to my comrades?”
*All crew are being informed. This is standard procedure.*
The Rook swung around, intending to try another comm. A drone hovered behind him, transparent petal-arms rippling around a glowing central light. Beyond the drone, he saw two cleaning robots enter the corridor and roll to a silent stop.
“How did you breach our security?” Second Rook demanded.
*Swiftly,* one of the robots responded. *Caution Protocol ended. Negotiations ended. This vessel is forfeit.*
“You think gaining control of cleaning robots will force us to do as you wish? There are more than enough crew to disable whatever machinery you attack us with,” the Rook said.
*Warning,* the comm said. *Greenlight Protocol authorized. Crew confined to quarters.*
“You will find it difficult to convince us to go peacefully.”
Hissing filled the air, and the ship’s address system announced the removal of oxygen from all public areas in preparation for a ship-wide cleansing of the air-filtration system.
*Greenlight protocol enacted,* the drone replied. *Persuasion not required.*
The Valencia’s transport waited in the courtyard, a shield humming around its passenger cab. The Grandmaster stepped directly from her chair into the large, padded interior and the Queen settled next to her. He took the seat opposite them both. The chair was stored away in the compartment at the back of the domed vehicle and they were on their way, the Knights riding in security berths on the outside of the cab as the guidance system took them back to Sept Valencia.
He felt the Valencia’s eyes on him, but he refused to meet her gaze. He stared out of the transparent dome as they drove away from his overrun estate, an ache in his chest and his head as saw the dark shape of servant quarters, harvester homes and barracks beneath the glimmering overgrowth. All empty now.
His fall from grace had brought down a Sept, killed thousands and led to Eva’s abduction. It was time to ensure nothing like that ever happened again.
Sept Valencia lay several hours to the west of Sept Lucochin via transport, through some un-Septed townships. The first two were once part of Sept Lucochin and were as abandoned as his Sept. The townships beyond those had sprung up around Sept Valencia and hundreds thronged the sides of the smooth road they travelled on to see them pass, even though they would see nothing but Knights and a darkened shell. Grandmasters seldom left their mansions without using the Vineyards, and those born un-Septed would only see such personages when important news, ceremonies or changes in the Great Game of Valencia warranted the use of Sept Valencia’s continental broadcast system to notify all citizens, regardless of Sept status.
Their unmasked faces blurred together, every shade from pale to ebony, their expressions curious, contemptuous, desperate, angry–nothing like the careful blankness the Septed and the ruling class cultivated.
By the time the huge curves of the colony ship Valencia, now a monument, rose up out of the open fields to his left, the rainbow glare of the vast Greatwood was almost too much for the tinted transport.
“A mask?” the Queen asked.
He shook his head. “When we arrive is soon enough.”
The Valencia remained in the transport when the doors were opened at the ramp to her white mansion. He raised his eyebrows at her, waiting.
“The Queen and several of my Knights will accompany you to the Coretrees. Once you have a solution, you will implement it and return to the mansion to wait. As soon as we know your solution has worked, you will have your wife.”
“And what do you intend to tell the Consortium?”
She shrugged. “We’ve failed to provide solutions before. I will happily refund our retainer and extend our regrets in exchange for a Harvest and your permanent solution.”
He inclined his head at her. “Be assured, the solution will be permanent.”
The Valencia descended into her chair and the Queen waved a hand over the sensors to shut the doors. The transport continued on to the Greatwood’s entrance beyond the colony ship. When the Queen extended a mask, he took it, watching as the man donned his own.
The Greatwood’s iridescence dimmed to a shifting, multi-colored glow as he exited the transport and four Knights surrounded him. He was marched alongside the Queen into the low-hanging needle-leaves that spun and glinted in the wind, until they reached the Barrier, which kept all but the Grandmasters from entering. A cylindrical drone swept over to verify his seedling, then retreated to its charging station somewhere beyond the Barrier. He walked into the heart of the Greatwood, sensing the Queen’s unwavering gaze on his back.
At the transport hub a short distance from the Barrier, he got into one of the small carts and let it take him on its pre-programmed route to the Coretrees. The sweet, musky perfume of the flowering vines draped on the trees surrounded him like a blanket, but for the first time, he caught the dank scent of rot underneath it all. Purple, red, golden and green seedpods peeped between the branches, but many were shriveled and blackened, and heaps of spoiled pods had burst open on the ground. He heard the rustling of small animals in the undergrowth, but sobered by what he’d seen, he focused on clearing his mind for the task ahead.
The enormous stand of Coretrees rose out of the deep forest like a monolith, entwined trunks and quantum vines woven together into one massive, flowering, windblown, pulsing glare that forced his mask to its maximum setting. But there were also large dark areas within the Coretrees, where saplings had faded and died. More than ever before.
As the cart halted, a vibration prickled his skin, and heat blasted him. He made his way to the nearest annex in the group of hollowed-out beds at the roots of the Coretrees. He lay down, heart hammering in his chest at the thought of what he was about to do, adrenaline making his fingers shake as he wrapped a Corevine around the hand implanted with the seedling. The needle-leaves sank into his arm, tiny stinging points.
Instantly, he was weightless, his body free of pain and filled with the euphoria of the joining. His mind squeezed with energy and impressions, even as it grew to include every scrabbling life in the Greatwood, every vine curtain on every Vineyard ship, every needle-leaf that draped over his paralyzed body, every quark in every Arbor floating in the silent dark.
He chased the rush of information to its source, past the inexorable pull of the Vineyards in other Septs, or near other worlds, and the flow of thoughts other Grandmasters fed into the Coretrees from their Sept annexes. He delved deep, deeper than anyone before him, including the long dead First Gardeners.
Into the white. Into the murmuration and hum of life.
Into Valencia and all its living, breathing, moving parts. All its dead, rotting, dying parts. Every soul and every sapling connected to it, before and to come.
Bright warmth and cold realization flooded his mind, drowning him, pulling at him, forcing him to fight for his thoughts as It turned Its complex regard on him. A tsunami of sensation and energy. Life engaged in living, nature striving toward continuance by any means possible.
And it shifted, glowing and hungry at his return. Eager.
He offered up logic puzzles he’d concocted out of habit over the years tending his garden at home.
Then surged forward, surrounding him, searching blindly. Tiny feathery sensations. Sharp probes. The ice-cold lick of interstellar Arbors, drawing on the energy and life of its planet-bound mother-brethren.
Satisfaction flashed through the tiny part of his mind he’d kept for himself. What he’d tried to correct had never been a mistake, and so his attempts to put things back to the way they had been so many tempi ago had failed, just as he’d hoped.
His plan would work.
There would be no going back now.
When he emerged from the seductive whirlpool of Valencia’s embrace hours later, he barely found the strength to detach himself from the annex and drag his heavy limbs to the cart. The Queen caught him as he fell across the Barrier and lifted him into the transport.
Knowing they couldn’t execute him before they were sure his solution had worked, he let himself slip into sweet oblivion.
Loss speared through him as soon as he opened his eyes. The ecstatic link to Valencia’s true heart was one he’d survived losing many tempi ago. Terrible as it was to be without it again, the excruciating absence of his wife eclipsed that pain with ease. He’d sensed the infinitesimally small presence of Eva’s seedling while in the annex, but it had been too new, too weak to follow to its source.
He sat up on the hard bed, his gaze going to the gold-masked Knight that stood guard in the doorway. They were still careful not to let him near a Pawn or a Rook, ranks he might manipulate.
The Knight retreated from the doorway and he strode over to the window. The night sky danced with colors. He’d been asleep for hours.
Good. By now, the Grandmasters would be gathering.
The Knight supervised the servant that brought him his food, making sure no conversation occurred. He sat at a table that folded down from the wall to eat, noting the chair was bolted to the floor and the bed he’d slept in was devoid of sheets. He had a selection of fruit and bread, nothing that would require utensils, and a sip-bag of wine. He ate it all, hunger gnawing at him after more than a day without food, and all he saw, all he thought about, as he stared at the wall before him was the woman he loved, the man he’d lost, and the people he still had a chance to save.
When the Knight returned, he was waiting.
“Take me to the Audience Room.”
The Knight was silent.
“As a Grandmaster, it’s my right to attend any gathering concerning the Great Game. Take me to the Audience Room.”
He folded his arms across his chest and didn’t let his gaze move from the tinted slits of the mask. After long minutes, the Knight turned and strode away.
The hallways were cool and meandering and had not changed since his days as the Lucochin. Valencia’s mansion was the only one grown from the Greatwood itself, as the colony ship had landed on the very edge of it. The petrified wood of the walls and floors had been left unpainted, and the shimmer of vines was everywhere, the powdery scent of flowers infused in every breath.
He’d been kept in private quarters on the upper floors. He heard the hum of voices long before he reached the vast Audience Room on the first floor. The Knight stopped next to the guards who opened the doors for him. He walked in past the masked Kings, Queens and Grandmasters that turned to look, and the rows of Knights from the twelve Septs of Valencia lining the sides of the room. He focused on the stage at the far end, the line of Valencian Knights before it, and the floating silver fountain in the shape of dodecahedron in front of them.
He approached among a flurry of signing hands and mutters. The Valencia sat between her King and Queen and watched him enter, the long drape of her sheer sleeves billowing around her gilded throne. None of their expressions changed, but the Valencian Bishop who stood below her throne started toward him.
He stopped to the left of the fountain, resting one hand against its side as he raised the other, palm out in warning.
“I am Grandmaster Didecus Avnette Valentino Lucochin and I would speak to my fellow Grandmasters regarding the failure of their annexes and their inability to access and feed the Coretrees.”
The Valencia’s eyes narrowed, the smallest movement. “You are no longer a Grandmaster of Valencia.”
“And yet I am the only Grandmaster who can tell you what has happened and why, and how you can save our people.” His fingers quested against the underside of the fountain, found the rough imprint they were searching for and pushed.
“Traitor!” came a voice behind him.
“You are exiled,” came another. “You should have been executed the moment you arrived.”
“The Grandmaster Valencia brought me here,” he answered without turning as he withdrew his hand. “Ask yourselves why.”
He sensed someone draw closer and tensed, even though none of the Knights in front of him had moved.
“He is a Grandmaster of Valencia until the Greatwood calls him home,” said a familiar voice. He turned to face a tiny man in an orange mask who sat in a mobile chair. The Grandmaster Yuta, oldest of their number, gave him a deferential nod. “He is entitled to speak at any gathering if he has not yet been executed. This is the law.”
The Valencia let her gaze rise above the crowded room. “Very well. I brought the Lucochin here to repair the damage he caused to the Greatwood. It was an error on my part. One I will remedy once this gathering has ended.”
“Before we get to my imminent demise,” he interrupted. “Allow me to tell you a story.”
Whispers spread behind him.
The Grandmaster hissed out a breath and shook her head, her braids swishing against the thin silk of her robe. “My predecessor died without uttering a word, not even a plea for his life. This delay does not become you.”
Sorrow and anger swept through him. “Your actions do not become you. Why order the clearing of Lucochin’s board?”
“Because you corrupted it. You Septed all families of Pawns. Increased the rations for the un-Septed. Visited them to hear their concerns. What you did–it was Deviation.” The Valencia’s voice was filled with disgust despite her tranquil expression. “You had no respect for the governance of the Grandmasters. You corrupted Alexander as you tried to corrupt me. I only regret you escaped to exile instead of facing your due for your crimes. Sept Lucochin was an abomination under you. Clearing the board of it was my duty to the Great Game and my Sept. I did what was best for Valencia.”
He laughed, a sad, resigned sound that echoed in the cavernous room. “You are as wrong about that as you are about the un-Septed.”
He faced the sea of colorful masks. His back felt naked, vulnerable, but he would let them see the truth of his words, the emotions he’d learned to express over time.
They had to know emotions were possible, even for a Grandmaster.
“Once,” he said, “an orphan of un-Septed Valencians whose township was cleared from the board, a descendant of the First Gardeners, made his Presentation and was taken into a new Sept. He rose through the ranks, from servant to Grandmaster, over many tempi of the Great Game.
“He found allies and a wife and more enemies than he ever knew possible, but he didn’t forget what it was to be un-Septed. How it felt to have no control over whether he ate or starved, whether he had a life of purpose or not. He knew this to be wrong. He knew Valencia to be unfair. And he wanted, more than anything to change that, and to protect the people under his care for as long as he could.”
“This orphan knew he held strange views. That the Great Game was not played for the benefit of the un-Septed, but to feed the Greatwood. So, imagine his shock to find another who believed as he did. The Grandmaster Alexandar Gordon Millefleur Valencia.”
There were gasps and a whisper of, “Impossible.”
“Together, they searched for a secret told to the orphan by his grandmother, and those Gardeners before her. A secret buried in the Coretrees. That there was intelligence within the Greatwood, which Gardeners had encountered.”
Silence fell as all in attendance hung on his every word.
“One of those Gardeners told an officer, and once the Captains of the colony ships learned of this intelligence, they determined ordinary colonists could not be allowed to control something so important as the Coretrees. They took over the care of the Greatwood. Gardeners were stripped of their duties and demoted. But some remembered what their comrades had spoken of and tried to find ways to contact it again.
“The orphan believed this entity might be the key to controlling the Greatwood without constant input from the Games. It had lain dormant despite the logic and puzzles of the Grandmasters who came after the Gardeners. But once both Grandmasters entered the Coretrees to investigate, they realized they were wrong, and everything changed.”
“We know what changed. There was a trial, Lucochin,” came the Valencia’s icy voice. “All here remember it.”
“You know part of the story,” he replied. “This is what I never spoke of. There is no single intelligence in the Coretrees. The Coretrees are intelligent and they are nature itself–the centre of Valencia’s ecosystem–a key part of a great whole we’ve injected ourselves into. They don’t respond only to logic. They respond to stimulation. Water, sunlight, nutrients–the Greatwood produces what it needs, in the amount it needs. Then we came, demanding more and more, and willing to stimulate the Greatwood in whatever way we could to get it.
“The Coretrees took what we gave it, logic as a form of cultivation, but when Alexandar and I entered together, it sensed what any good gardener will tell you is the secret to growing thriving plants. Care. Affection. It fed on our emotions. The more it did, the more we opened to it–and to our connection. With each other. With the Coretrees. With every Coretree, everywhere.” He stopped, taking a shuddering breath to centre himself.
“And the Harvest. It was the largest, the most incredible… So many ships were grown.” He shook his head with a sigh. “But that was when my estate’s Vineyard began to die. I had neglected it too long. Our ranking in the Great Game suffered and my wife, as my Queen, brought charges of neglect of my Sept and the Vineyards against me and my King.
“Alexandar had no choice but to bring me to trial for capital crimes. I begged him to save Lucochin, to absorb its people into Sept Valencia. In return I would save Valencia from what I had done in ignorance, prevent whatever corruption I had started from spreading, and agree to exile.
“To save my Vineyard, I gave it more than puzzles and stratagems. I gave it what I felt for Alexandar and for my Sept. And then I severed its annex from the Greatwood.”
His words echoed around them and he looked from mask to mask, willing them to understand.
“Valencia had only had a taste of human emotion, so I hoped it would forget and no further damage would be done. But it had taught me a new way, and I couldn’t forget.
“Now I know Valencia didn’t either. And while your ever-growing demands exhausted the ecosystem around it, the Coretrees crave a different kind of stimulation and waste away without it.”
As he spoke, he saw it. The exact moment they understood what his solution had been. Behind him the Valencia let anger seep into her voice.
“Grandmaster Lucochin, what have you done?”
He turned to face her, glad to be nearing the end of this farce. “I fixed the Coretrees the one way I knew.”
“You gave it your bond with your wife,” the Grandmaster Yuta said in a resigned voice.
“Oh no,” he said softly. “I gave it much more than that. I gave it the first moment I saw her. The first time I laughed. The first time I held Alexandar. I gave it every good emotion I’ve ever had. I gave it joy and hope…and love. I now suspect it has lost any taste for what Grandmasters provide.”
Anger buffeted him, even as some Grandmasters stepped back, gesturing to allies and members of their Septholds.
“For too long we’ve existed by making demands of an ecosystem we don’t fully understand and cannot live without. We’ve made a slave of a unique evolutionary miracle that exists across vast reaches of time and space, and in return we’ve given it death and cold space. The Greatwood can feel, and we’ve fed it logic and greed and forced separation. If we continue this way, we’ll destroy every part of it, no matter how far it’s spread. And we’ll doom ourselves.”
“You’ve taken away our only means of controlling the Greatwood,” someone whispered. “You’ve killed us.”
“Not at all. Dig deep and you’ll find what you need, though I caution you against negative emotions that might harm the Harvest. And if you truly cannot feed the Coretrees, I suggest you turn to the un-Septed. You’ll need every person you can find. Valencia is vast. Communing with it will require every open mind and warm heart.”
The Valencia stood, hands clenched, and for the first time, he saw Knights turn to look at each other. Heard voices speaking simultaneously behind his back.
It’s done, he thought. And there was no triumph in him. Only disgust for so many tempi of needlessly wasted lives. Only guilt for his part in Valencia’s treacherous, bloody past. Only sadness for those who had lost so much before, and those who would be called to sacrifice while Valencia transitioned to something else. Something new.
“You’ll die here,” the Valencia spat, “knowing your wife is in the hands of the Consortium.”
He faced her, the merest frisson of sympathy curling within him for what awaited her. “You have far more important things to worry about. Like how you’re going to handle the revolution that’s marching to your doorstep at this very moment.”
“What are you talking about?” the Queen said, eyes narrowed.
He shrugged. “You’ve been broadcasting this gathering to Valencia the entire time. Every citizen has heard what’s been said here tonight.”
The cries of horror rose to the rafters like a murder of crows.
The Queen clenched and released a glove, holding his palm flat and face up. An image of the Audience Chamber shimmered to life, confirming the open feed.
“Alexandar often recorded meetings without his Queen. There’s a surveillance drone in this fountain. I activated it and its link to the broadcast system the moment I entered.”
“Thousands of souls and countless denizens of the Greatwood and this planet have paid for our ambitions. It’s time everyone knows the perversion that sits at the head of this Game so they understand all Games must end.”
“Queen,” the Valencia said in an arctic voice. “Seize the Grandmaster Valencia and seal him in a chamber until his execution.”
He cast his gaze over the room. “You should secure your estates. There are far more un-Septed than you. You’ll want to be prepared to negotiate come morning.”
“Queen! I gave an order!”
He swung his gaze back to the hesitating Queen. “Do the Grandmasters know you hold a Primarch of the Kairi here? Do they know you risk the Sibling Army arriving on their doorstep searching for her? If you let us leave peacefully, together, this ends here. If it doesn’t, you will have killed two citizens of the Kairi Protectorate. You know what happens to governments that do that.”
Around him, Grandmasters were leaving. Knights pushed past, weapons at the ready as they escorted their charges.
But some Knights, Bishops and Rooks–some didn’t move at all.
He waited, his last card played, his last game ended.
The Valencian Knights turned to their motionless Queen for instructions.
The Valencian Queen met his Grandmaster’s gaze.
“Is this rebellion?” she asked in a gentle voice.
A hand gripped the last Lucochin’s arm. He turned to face the Grandmaster Yuta. “Come,” the old man said. “At the Valencia’s command, I kept your wife at my Sept. I will take you to her.”
He glanced at the stage where the Valencia stood, all her attention on her Queen. “Is it rebellion?” she asked him again.
The Queen tilted his head in deference. “Yes.”
He grasped her hands before she could draw a weapon.
“Come,” Yuta said again.
He followed, his last sight of the Valencia that of both her wrists caught in her Queen’s hands as her Bishop motioned to the Knights. One Knight deactivated its spear, returned it to its belt and walked away.
His heart sang relief and a fierce rightness as he did the same.
His wife was asleep in his arms when he exited the Yuta’s Vineyards into his own and found Sister’s secondary drone floating in the centre of the field, filaments rippling, waiting for him.
He smiled at it. “You were worried.”
*Sister was out of contact for more than 24 hours. Caution Protocol enacted. Tracking systems were activated and found you both alive and not in distress. Greenlight Protocol enacted.*
He started for the Vineyard controls, Sister floating behind him. “There was no need for that. You know I would never let her come to harm.”
*Tracking could not confirm location data and Sister’s drone was deactivated. Vineyard ship did not respond satisfactorily to queries. Greenlight Protocol enacted.*
“The Vineyard crew must have enjoyed that.”
*Crew was neutralized. Sister obtained seedling. Vineyard is under Sister’s control. Mirror connection open and active.*
He put a mask on Eva, then himself.
“No need to set the controls then?”
*Mirror connection open and active.*
He trailed the drone toward the translocation point.
“You didn’t hurt the crew, did you?”
*Neutralized. Sister would not want to cause a planetary incident. Husband is a pacifist.*
He stopped to laugh, the drone hovering patiently in the glistening fields beneath the rainbow-lit night.
Hours later, Eva stirred in the soft bed next to him, rolled over and opened her eyes. He smiled, his hand cupping her shoulder as he held her body against his. She smiled back, then let her gaze drift over the opulent stateroom, the best one in the Vineyard ship, intended only for Valencian dignitaries and guests. With everyone else locked in their cabins and Sister flying the ship back to the Outpost, there was no one to object and his wife damn well deserved the finest they had on offer, as he was never setting foot on a Vineyard again.
She groaned and buried her head in his shoulder before signing.
“You never woke me.”
He kissed the delicate shell of her ear and signed. “Guilty as charged.”
She leaned back to meet his eyes. “What happened?”
“Long story. It will keep. Enjoy your sleep. The Vineyard ship left orbit while we were away. We’re a few hours from the Outpost.”
She caressed the side of his face. “You okay?”
“I’m good. Never better.” And he knew she could see he meant it. Her body relaxed and she threw her leg over his, cuddling closer.
“Told you we’d leave together.”
“You did.” He kissed her forehead, blinking rapidly to clear his suddenly blurry vision. “Right as always.”
“Don’t you forget it.”
He stroked her hair as her breathing slowed.
“Wake me for first watch?”
This time, they fell asleep together.
By S.B. Divya
There are so many things I love about this one, but I’ll with the one that resonates most strongly for me: that nature and technology don’t have to be separate entities. It’s a theme I’ve been exploring in my fiction, as well, and I think it has a deep relevance to many of the problems we’re facing today, like climate change, sustainability, and mass extinction events.
When we persist in seeing nature as something outside of ourselves, we fall into a trap of thinking that we are superior to it. As the characters Lucochin and Alexandar realize in this story – that the great trees have more intelligence and capability than they realized – so too must we respect and accept that we don’t control everything about our environment. We have more extreme weather events than anytime in recent history. We have literal plagues of locusts. The mass deaths of bees. Microplastics showing up in every form of ocean life. We are not exempt from these things. We’re part of the ecosystem, and we have to deal with the fact that if don’t consider our interdepencies, no amount of technological advance will save us in the long run.
Which brings me to another aspect of this story that I love – its depiction of A.I.s. From the slavers in part 1 to Sister throughout, the author presents A.I. as another form of life. One that should be given equal consideration and treatment to a human life. A society like Eva’s, which treats artificially intelligent creatures as their siblings, has a greater chance for survival due to that symbiosis. It’s pretty much the thesis of my novel Machinehood, and I do believe that the more we can coexist, whether it’s with intelligent machines or natural systems, the better off we’ll be in the long run.
And finally, I love how the story opens so quietly, like a fairy tale or fable, and then draws you in to an elaborate, technologically advanced, and vast universe set in the far future. It reminded me in several ways of Eugie Foster’s award-winning story, “Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast.” If you’re not familiar with it, you can find it in Escape Pod’s archives.
I hope you enjoyed this three-part series as much as I did, and that you’ll join us again next week for Deepster Punks, where a very different type of person has to confront the ghosts of her past.
Escape Pod is a production of Escape Artists Inc, and is brought to you with a creative commons attribution non-commercial no derivatives license. Don’t change it. Don’t sell it. Do go forth and share it.
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Our opening and closing music is by daikaiju at daikaiju.org.
And our closing quotation this week comes courtesy of this story’s author, who says that the title is inspired by the words of psychiatrist David Viscott: “To love and be loved is to feel the sun from both sides.”
Thanks for joining us, and enjoy your adventures through time and space.
About the Author
R.S.A. lives in Trinidad and Tobago with an extended family and too many dogs. Her debut science fiction mystery novel, Lex Talionis, received a starred review from Publishers Weekly and the Silver Medal for Best Scifi/Fantasy/Horror Ebook from the Independent Publishers Awards (IPPY 2015). She has published short fiction in international magazines, including Clarkesworld, Abyss and Apex, Internazionale Magazine (Italy), and several anthologies.
About the Narrator
Hollis Monroe is an award winning radio producer, opera and jazz singer and Shakespearean. He served as executive producer and also read for Iowa Public Radio’s “The Book Club” for many years and is an active voice actor, emcee and singer.