The Core, Lumin Cycle 9498
“We can no longer ignore this,” said Minister SainClair, her voice echoing in the massive cavern. Its resonance was dampened by the deeply embedded roots threaded through the foundation of the room.
The encircling vines carried twinkling gourds and night flowers, all of which threw soft light around the chamber. Melia Kannon glanced around. The spectacular romance of the atmosphere contrasted sharply with the tense faces of the assembly. What was filling her with such deep unease? Was it the tension pressing down around her or the moist air? The heat of the chamber, which usually softly enveloped the Central Counsel like a cocoon, nurturing the growth of a civilization, crackled with energy that bordered on oppressive.
Are you getting this?
“Affirmative. I am recording,” said a smooth voice directly into her ear.
Good, because Minister SainClair wants a full account of the proceeding.
Melia swallowed hard, her gut a mangled knot. She looked over to the carved elderwood table that arced around the front of the Core’s assembly hall. The ministers sat facing the general delegation.
“Lumin grows weaker by the cycle. We’ve hit a critical degradation threshold. We must act now to immediately implement Gamma Protocol,” said SainClair to the frowning faces.
The delegates erupted into frantic chatter that resonated up through the roots of the Core and into its trunks. No doubt the branches high up in the sky above shook from the force. Melia stifled a small smile from her position at the ministers’ table. Now wasn’t the time.
“Silence!” Minister Draca’s voice thundered through the assembly. He banged the gnarled stick in his hands hard against the stone floor.
Melia flinched, but he struck the staff only once.
“Minister SainClair is speaking, and you’ll let her finish.”
“The ministers already voted, and we’re unanimous,” SainClair said. She stood up and stepped around the table to approach the assembly.
Minister SainClair had aged much over the last ten cycles but still looked regal in her finely woven teal robes. Her whitening blond hair was intricately plaited back with loose tendrils curling around her ears. Her soft clothes and features belied the ice of her almost colorless eyes. Her look of intense determination made Melia proud to serve with the woman. She swallowed hard, her heart thumping against her ribs; it didn’t want to be here any more than she did. She glanced to her right. The other ministers sat stony faced, eyes forward.
SainClair folded her hands in her robes. “Lumin is at a crossroads. To continue down our current path will bring doom. We all know this. We’ve seen the wilt in the Great Forest. Jefferson has shown us the data on projected electrical use.”
Minister Jefferson nodded from his seat.
“Gamma Protocol is too extreme!” a voice interjected. Delegate Rosewater stood from his chair to face SainClair. “Why can’t we just institute a more stringent ration? A full-scale Network blackout is madness.”
Murmurs of agreement rose from the crowd.
Rosewater moved to stand next to Minister SainClair. “And why five hundred years?” he added. “How do we even know it’ll work? We’re dooming Lumin either way. There’ll be no way to restore it, us, anything, if we go forward with Gamma Protocol.”
SainClair raised her hand to quell the burgeoning discontent mirrored in Rosewater’s words. “The rations aren’t working. We need a total reversal. I fear we’re almost too late as it is.”
“What if we are? You want to throw us into five hundred years of blackout, but if it’s too late, we should be working harder to find a solution, not sitting on our hands.”
“It’s not just about us now,” she said. “It’s about Lumin. The planet needs to rest and regrow. If she doesn’t, it won’t just be us who’ll be doomed. It’ll be all of life. We have a responsibility greater than the Core.”
“So we just burn all our technology?” Rosewater’s face grew dark, and his fists clenched at his side. His spring-leaf-green robes swung behind him as he turned to face the other ministers. “I guess we just torch the Network we’ve spent thousands of cycles building? Fill in the Core with dirt? Is that your proposal?” He glared accusingly at each of the ministers in turn, his eyes flashing. He slammed his hands on the table in front of them.
SainClair suddenly looked very tired. The iron melted from her eyes, and she rested her hands on the table. “Gamma Protocol dictates that we are to cease all use of the Network immediately. The Network will be locked, and access will be revoked for all devices.”
“What about the devices that don’t rely on Network access?” asked a voice from the general assembly.
“What about preservation of information?” asked another.
The floodgate released, and the room again erupted in a clamor of noise and movement. This time Minister SainClair seemed inclined to let the delegates air their grievances and concerns for a bit.
Melia sat at the ministers’ table and took in the spectacle. SainClair nodded to those addressing her and leaned over to speak to the others. Melia mentally retraced the Protocol again, her brain caught in a loop that played the same steps over and over. Everything was in order, and nothing could stop it now.
She fingered the chain around her neck. The key lay against her chest under her robes. SainClair had given it to her for safekeeping. Ministers Draca and SainClair already had set the switch, with Melia there to witness. They knew this proceeding would be rife with discord, but SainClair was right. They no longer could put off the inevitable. Every week the Network grew hotter, and the trees wilted a little more. The Core itself, once a pleasant enclave, had grown uncomfortably warm over the past couple of cycles. Whether the decision was right or wrong, Melia couldn’t say, but it was the only viable option. The brightest minds of Lumin had worked on this problem night and day, and now it was too late to do anything but shut it down and hope for the best.
Still, she hadn’t expected such a visceral reaction from Rosewater. He was just as passionate as any minister about protecting Lumin, but all the delegates, minister or otherwise, were in this together. All of Lumin will be looking to us for guidance, to see them through the dark cycles to come, she thought. Melia’s side twitched at the idea of informing the general populace why they no longer had access to the Network, of explaining that all their equipment was dormant. She knew they’d never understand how close Lumin had come to the brink.
She would miss the beauty of the Core. She frowned when a bounce of light caught her eye. Something had glinted just then, and she shook her head to clear the foggy thoughts. In that brief moment, the disordered chaos devolved into terror.
“No!” she screamed, bolting to her feet. She rushed around the elderwood table just as Minister SainClair crumpled on the floor, with Minister Draca on his knees at her side. “What have you done?” she shouted at Rosewater. “Seize him!”
Rosewater held a curved knife that dripped with blood. At her words, his hand loosened, and it clattered to the floor. “Only what I had to do to stop this madness,” he said, his face menacing. He held his hands out as two delegates emerged from the mass, each taking one arm.
“You’ve done nothing,” SainClair said weakly from the floor. “Gamma Protocol already has been initiated.” Her voice was raspy but gurgled slightly.
Melia shoved past Rosewater and knelt at SainClair’s side. She pulled away the minister’s hands to find a large bloom of blood spreading quickly across the woman’s chest. “Her lung,” she muttered to Minister Draca.
The man nodded, his face ashen and hands shaking. “For your deed, we’ll all suffer,” he told Rosewater. His voice was cold and hard.
Melia focused her attention on SainClair, who was coughing. “You must relax. Coughing will only hasten it.”
“Listen to me,” SainClair said, her voice sounding hollow. “You have to get out of here. The Network is monitoring my vital signs.”
“Hush,” she said. “You must preserve your strength.”
“No. You have to get the key out and to safety. When I’m gone, the Core will go into lockdown. If the key’s here when I die, the dissenters will override the Protocol.”
“I can’t leave you,” Melia said, fear lacing her voice, “any of you. I can’t live with that.”
“But you’ll all be trapped,” she whispered fervently. She glanced over at the general assembly. The delegates’ chairs were in disarray, and the other ministers were trying to calm the delegates.
“There’s no time,” Minister Draca said. “She’s fading.” He held two fingers to SainClair’s wrist.
“Melia,” SainClair whispered. Her skin was tinged with blue.
Melia lowered her head next to the minister’s lips.
“Go now. Get the key to my estate. My son will know what to do with it.”
“You have only moments now,” Draca said through clenched teeth.
“Help me,” Melia said, grimacing. She pulled a pin from her robes and stuck it deeply into the pad of her thumb, where a drop of blood welled up.
Minister Draca nodded and pressed SainClair’s right thumb into the blood that seeped from her chest.
“Quickly,” he said.
Melia pulled a book from her robes and opened it to a random page. She pressed her bleeding thumb into the center of the page while Draca pressed SainClair’s bloody thumb onto it as well.
End recording and lock all profiles to these samples, Melia commanded.
“Recording ended and locked,” the smooth voice said into her ear.
Activate sleep mode.
“Good-bye,” the voice said.
She barely heard the voice in her head as the lights in the Core dimmed.
“Hurry,” Draca said, and shoved his walking stick into her hand. “Go!”
Partially in shock, Melia staggered to her feet and rushed away from the crush of delegates as well as the more delicate roots that sprouted up from the earth. The yelling voices of the others followed her as the lights began to fail and a deep throbbing vibrated through the roots. The Core was shutting down. If Melia didn’t go now, she would be trapped with the others. In the confusion, Rosewater had broken free from his restraints and was barreling toward her. She swallowed hard, a ball of panic caught in her throat like a bone.
She took a deep breath and yelled, “To the SainClair estate!” then slammed the stick onto the ground twice.
Rosewater’s enraged face disappeared behind the swirling vortex that opened up in front of Melia with an enormous crack. It was the sound of something existing where just moments ago nothing had, and it always unnerved her. Turning her head to the side to shield it from the intense winds, she held her breath and leapt into the vortex.
Her knees buckled as she struck a deep snowdrift on the other side. Her stomach churned, threatening to give back her last meal. So what? she thought. Nerves had prevented her from having any appetite the last few days. I call your bluff! Go ahead and vomit. See what it gets you.
Traveling by baccillum was never pleasant. Still feeling ill, she struggled to her feet. She looked down at the baccillum and the book. They were both inert now; the tiny veins of blue light that shone intermittently on each were dark. She stowed the book in her robes and trudged toward the giant cluster of hearthtrees in the distance.
After a change of clothing, a warm fur draped over her knees, and a cup of ginger tea, Melia finally stopped shaking. She wasn’t sure whether the tremors were from the cold, from watching Minister SainClair die, or from the knowledge that she had left the rest of the delegation in the Core to die slow, horrendous deaths. The minister’s son, Gerard SainClair, sat silently as Melia struggled through her thick-throated recounting of the day’s events.
The house around them was dimly lit. The blackout already had reached the Northlands. The main hearthroot of the large home, an alcove of energy carved from one of the large trees comprising the home’s central structure, still emanated heat, but the SainClair family was relying on portable gourds that provided temporary light when agitated rather than the vine-enlaced sconces scattered around the rooms. Those were powered by energy from the Network. It was lucky for them that the Northland trees were so hearty. Melia shivered again as she recalled Minister SainClair’s charge to go to Gerard. With the terror of the day’s events passed, Melia thought now of her husband and children, trapped on Senegast, a large island many thousands of kilometers to the west. An ocean rolled and jostled between them. She sighed deeply and turned her thoughts back to the matter at hand.
“So Mother is dead,” he said. “And the others are trapped?”
Melia nodded, her eyes fixed on the smoldering hearthroot before her.
“As a fail-safe, your mother coded the Core to enter Gamma Protocol if her vital signs were no longer detectable by the Network.” She stifled a sob with the back of her hand. “We took such precaution, with no real conviction that the situation would get that bad.”
Gerard sighed, and Melia looked over. He was slumped over his knees and rubbing his blond temples with his index fingers.
“I could have predicted Rosewater would be the hothead,” he said, his face stony. “Well, what did Mother say to tell the others? The blackout reached here right before you did, so chaos must be breaking out all over Lumin.”
She winced at the thought. “Yes, well, we anticipated that the delegates would all be returning home to prepare everyone for the changes that would be taking place.”
“That’s admirable, but now we’re looking at total social and economic chaos. Communication is cut off; power is limited; and people’s information is trapped. And you say this is going to last five hundred cycles?”
She nodded. “The projections indicate that Lumin needs that much time to heal itself.”
Gerard shook his head in disbelief then leaned back in his chair and tapped his cheek with a finger. “So it could be less, it could be more?”
“Yes, but the Core won’t reactivate Network access until Lumin is healed.”
Gerard unhooked a carved wooden cuff from his wrist. “So this is kindling now?”
Again Melia nodded. She watched him toss the cuff into the hearthroot. It singed and crackled. She swallowed hard and patted the book at her side. She had to guard it with her life. It was her people’s only hope for the future advancement of Lumin, a compendium of all knowledge and the only record of what had happened in the Core today.
“What do we do now?” she asked.
Gerard looked over at Melia, his pale-blue eyes so like his mother’s, and she felt a pang of loss.
“Mother left you something,” he said, and turned to retrieve a letter from a wooden box sitting by the hearthroot.
“My dearest Melia,” she read aloud. “If you are reading this, then our efforts to ease Lumin’s transition into blackout failed, and I am dead. We had many cycles to prepare for this day, and in that time, we created the Order of Vis Firmitas. Ministers Draca, myself, and the others have each sent similar letters to our families to be opened upon the blackout. The future of Lumin is now up to those we leave behind. Please protect it. You’ll find everything you need in the Compound situated in Willowslip. Your faithful friend, Aris SainClair.”
Gerard rubbed his face again, as if reliving a deep pain. “She left me a very similar letter,” he said. “I am bound for Willowslip as well.”
“Willowslip,” Melia said. “That’s very far south of here. Without a baccillum, it’ll take us at least half a cycle.”
“Well,” said Gerard, a wry, sad grin touching his lips, “we have five hundred cycles. We have all the time in the world.”