Phoenix Afire, book 2

chapter 1

Merica de Gaulle told the bottom drawer to shut. She stood and rubbed her back, tired from bending over the drawers all morning. The muscle aches would be gone by lunch time. The heartache would last much longer.

Merica glanced around her great-grandfather's suite then scrunched her eyes against the memories and grief. Great-Damon had still had half his life ahead of him. To be struck down in midlife--

Merica shook her head. "Is that all?" she asked the room.

"No," it replied. "You have not yet sorted Miscellany."

"Open Miscellany." She ran a hand through her hair and drew a long breath. "Almost done."

A rectangle appeared on one wall's seamless surface, then a drawer slid out. Merica picked through the contents -- crystals, medallions, an ancient two-dee handviewer. Uncle Nile would grab that one.

She held a crystal to the light. At its heart nestled a short lock of brown hair. Her father's? No, the ghostly image that wavered to life within the prism depicted one of her father's cousins.

Merica made room on one of the crowded carts, shoving aside a pile of ornate shoulder pins. She set out the handviewer and crystals and other miscellany of a lifetime. After her great-grandfather's memorial tomorrow all the relatives would visit his suite and take mementos.

She bit her lip. Dear old Great-Damon.

Merica gave the empty drawer a last glance. Tucked in the back, a slip of paper caught her eye. She drew it out, studied it a moment and frowned. The scrap was small as her hand and covered with markings lined up like formulae. Not mathematical or musical notations. Certainly not glyphs. Chemistry symbols, perhaps, but why executed in brush strokes?

Merica glanced at the tray layered with Great-Anna's art supplies. Brushes bristled from a jar surrounded by ink bottles. Why would Great-Damon keep a page of his wife's hand-painted chemistry formulae, if that's what they were?

She shrugged, tossed the paper in the cycle bin and ordered the drawer closed. "Is there anything else?"

"No," the room said. "All storage compartments, now emptied."

Merica surveyed the room one last time. Clothing hung from a rack. Footwear stood in formation below the wall of artwork. Jewelry, grooming supplies and Anna's miniature sculptures sat out on trays. Damon's violin nestled among the sheets, blankets and pillows on the reposer. Plant stands waited by the doorway.

Another wave of pain swept over Merica. She blinked against the tears. How she missed Damon and Anna! She grabbed the cycle bin and hastened out of the suite.

Great-Anna had died half a year ago, leaving Damon more confused than ever. During his last few years he seldom recognized acquaintances. Names of his closest friends often slipped his mind. Sometimes he even called Merica by his oldest daughter's name. But his wife of seventy-three years he never forgot. "Have you seen Anna?" he would ask whenever Merica came to spend her care-shift. "Where is she?"

"Anna's gone," she would explain. "Remember? She died, and we scattered her ashes in the honeysuckle garden."

Painful memory would dawn in his eyes. Until it faded away she would sit beside him, holding his hand, comforting him as once he'd comforted her.

Merica wiped her cheeks, angry at fate for taking her Greats before their time. She strode on down the corridor, realized she'd passed the cycle station and tracked back along her path. "They're gone, and you have to accept it," she scolded herself, then to the station said, "Access."

It opened a chute for her.

"Better dump the anger, too," Merica muttered as she positioned the bin. It teetered in place, her hand halted in mid-action.

Among worn stockings and empty bottles lay that cryptic paper. Anna's handwork. Damon had never tossed it into recycling. It meant something to him. Merica snatched the slip, chucked the rest and headed for the nearest Vox.

At the next node she slipped into a Vox booth and called her father. She took a deep breath to compose herself. "The suite is ready, monPere," she said when his image shimmered to life. "Want to break for lunch?"

In the holo, McKinley leaned back and rubbed his temples. "Give me another half hour to finish this file."

Merica studied his drawn face. "Are you okay?"

One corner of his mouth twitched. "Think I'd better turn this over to Nile. I'm burning out. Half an hour more. See you then." He broke the connection.

She shook her head, glad the task of retagging Damon's files hadn't ended up in her lap. A monster job. Poor monPere.

She brushed back a lock of dark hair. "Vox, identify item, size category three."

A glimmering field a quarter meter in diameter appeared before her. She placed the mystery slip in its hovering cradle. "What are the markings on this paper?"

"A sample of handwritten phonetic text," it replied. "Used hundreds of years ago for time-delayed communications."

Merica arched a brow. "Phonetic text?"

"Words expressed according to their sounds. In wide-spread use before the development of the glyph system."

"What does it say?"

"Damon, I'm scared. Mance caught sight of me in Zill's, a nd he gave me this long cold look. He's onto us -- we're in great danger! He'll do anything to protect his project on Pitera. We must contact the Council tonight before he has time to silence us. Don't use Vox! Anna."

Merica frowned at the paper as it floated glistening in the scanner's aura. Danger? The message made no sense. Must be nothing but wanderings of Anna's muddled mind.

Merica leaned back in the reposer. No, not wanderings. Neither Damon nor Anna had ever hallucinated. They'd merely confused past with present, scrambled up old memories. This couldn't be a product of her wasted years. Besides, those text notations showed the grace and precision of a mind in full control of its faculties.

"Does this text sample have a file date?" Merica asked.


"Is there any other way to find out when it was recorded?"

A violet light flickered in the paper's halo. "Estimation. The ink was applied approximately ten years ago."

"Before she was stricken," Merica murmured. "Must have been. Repeat message."

She listened intently. "We've got to contact the Council tonight--" Only serious matters went to Council. What had been the outcome? Merica couldn't recall her greats getting involved in any Council cases. "About ten years ago," she said to herself. "I'd have been old enough to remember anything like this, going to Council."

Merica ran the message a third time. Why did Anna use that archaic phonetic text, anyway? Where did she and Damon learn it, and why? Why avoid Vox? She hadn't thought someone had corrupted Vox security, had she? Ridiculous. Infringe-ment on privacy brought such heavy penalties, no one would dare tap into a confidential call.

But this Mance, Anna claimed, he would do anything to protect his project.


Merica had Vox repeat the message again. This time one passage stood out in hideous relief. "Before he has time to silence us."

She gasped. Nine years ago her greats had contracted a rare strain of encephalitis. Both of them. At the same time.

Merica's mind reeled at the thought. Nine years ago. Her greats never made it to Council. Mance had silenced them.

Impossible. Real people don't commit such hideous crimes.

Anna's fear, buried these many years, pierced through Merica's shield of denial and left a streak of dread.

If this Mance had stooped to personal assault by virus, he would have no qualms about breaking the privacy code. Not then. Not now.

Merica snatched the paper out of the scanner field. "This query is immediate and trivial," she told Vox. "Do not post to archives."

"Query deleted."

She turned away from the station and gazed out across the manicured greenery of the node. "Vox, who am I?" Her heart beat loud against the splashing of the fountain.

"Unknown. You did not identify, your voice pattern is not registered, and even the best eyescanner cannot read the back of your head."

At any other time Merica would have laughed at Vox's attempt at humor, but now she just sighed in relief. "Another trivial query. End of session."

In a daze she made her way to one of the scattered benches. This couldn't be real. Secret projects, dangerous criminals, desecration of the two most hallowed statutes of Phoenix -- the rights of privacy and freedom from assault.

Merica sat down and ran a hand through her hair. There had to be another explanation. Perhaps Anna had doodled in the ancient notations, a passing hobby, just to keep in practice. Could it be nothing more than a practical joke? Or a piece of fiction?

Merica's stomach knotted. She propped elbows on knees and head in hands and stared at the floor. The physicians had never pinpointed the source of infection. In theory, encephali-tis was impossible to contract. In a closed system like Phoenix an extinct disease simply cannot revive.

Not without help.

How could anyone be so depraved as to end another person's life? Impossible! Major crime on Phoenix was as obsolete as, well, as disease.

She groaned and sat up again. Like it or not, her world was not the orderly place it had always seemed. A grave danger lay brewing somewhere aboard the lightship. For all she knew, she may have already triggered its descent upon her own head.

If she had used the Vox in Damon's room and it was still illegally tapped-- Merica gulped. They'd have traced her by now.

Encephalitis. She shuddered, got up and headed for her father's favorite cafe.

No Vox. If she wanted to keep her health and her wits she'd have to puzzle this out on her own.

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