Cautioned not stray too close to the sun, Icarus soared high into the sky on wings fashioned of wood, wax and feather that he might escape his earthly prison. Giddy with the freedom of flight, Icarus soared ever higher, and perished as the wax melted away…
Taylor Neeran, Star-Killer.
That’s what she was being called throughout the Xathen dominion. Turn one minor star of a binary system into a black hole, and they gave her that title. She was famous. Infamous, whatever. It’s not like it was a handful of stars, one wasn’t that many, the galaxy had plenty of them.
But sometimes it was the small actions that got the most attention. The inhabitants of the system, some eighteen billion of them, would have nearly twenty years to evacuate before the accumulated gamma radiation became lethal. Well, some had died already but it couldn’t be helped. One star to save a hundred unsuspecting civilisations and a trillion or so lives, in some ways it was more than a fair trade.
Besides, only a few Xathen on the inner planets had died of exposure so far, but they were relatively small settlements. It wasn’t her fault that the missile bearing the hyper-singularity altered the spin of the minor sun as it began its transformation into a black hole. However, the transformation faltered, and the dying star had become a pulsar – tilted on its side, spraying death across the system every one hundred and fifty Xathen standard days as it wobbled on its axis.
One hundred and fifty days was a long time, or no time at all. Only a planet close enough to the ejection stream from the pulsar, or too slow moving through the orbital path would be badly affected, some of the population possibly able to survive in sheltered facilities deep within the planet, shielding them.
If they had such shelters, of course.
And if they were deep enough.
And if they had room to hold enough of the population.
And if only they were exposed only for a very short period of time.
The outermost habitation was luckier than most, a moon around one of the gas giants, well out of the lethal zone but it was small, far too small. It couldn’t hold more than a few extra million, and birth defects might still become an issue in a few years.
Franath was a dying system.
In exactly six hundred and forty-two Xathen standard days, the most densely populated planet in the system would be bathed in high-energy gamma rays for exactly eighty-two hours, sixteen minutes, four seconds as it travelled through the emission path of the pulsar, at a distance of ninety three million kilometres. It would go through its daily rotation three and a half times, bathing the entire surface in deadly rays to a depth of a hundred kilometres.
It was well within the lethal zone, and approximately five billion Xathen would die, slowly or quickly. The lucky ones would go first, of course. They simply couldn’t evacuate them all fast enough. They projected the survivable depth underground for that period of exposure was deep within the mantle of the planet itself. No shelters could be dug deep enough or fast enough, but some were still trying. However, there was still a slim ray of hope, and that’s why she was here with a plan. She shuffled the papers in front of her.
Franath-two had not been so lucky. Twenty thousand died in the first pass, thirty million kilometres away. Thirty thousand died a hundred and fifty days later, unlucky that the orbital period of the planet so closely matched the intersection of the pulsar’s wobbling polar emissions and the orbital plane of the planet. Yes, Franath-two was taking it hardest of all, and they were bracing for the third pass. Most had evacuated, of course, but still, hundreds refused to leave, thinking they could ride it out…
Stupid Xathen, Taylor sighed.
And of course it was her fault. It always was, it seemed.
Now, she was going to do something to fix it, or at least to help. It was her responsibility as a full-fledged Xathen citizen, after all, and highest of the Threes. She wasn’t sure if it was actually possible, but she was going to try and she had a daring plan that just might work. She lifted up a long leather cord over her head and rested it slowly on her shoulders, letting the collection of ears settle against her freshly cleaned shirt. Faded and thin, but clean. Creek washing was always hard on Commonwealth fabrics. She could have worn the heavier fabric of her Illiyan made shirts, but that did not suit the occasion.
As always, the prickly bristles on the red Haplander ears poked through the thinning fabric of her shirt. They always did, but she ignored it. Tried to ignore it, as always, but it was always a reminder of her brush with death. Appropriate for today. Because she was ready. Ready to face the challenges ahead. But in order to do it she would need help. She would need to form alliances, bargain, negotiate… she sighed. She had never wanted to be a politician, but it was part of the game now.
Taylor tapped her wrist comms to check the time. It was the only piece of technology she wore now, not that anyone else on the surface of Aeden would be so foolish as to live to the tickings of a clock. No, they lived according to the rhythms of the sun, the moons, the stars, the seasons, and births… She checked again. Three minutes. She tapped her nails against the surface of the table in the Elder’s low hut. They demanded having a table in each location, scattered across the stars, or a suitably equipped full-augmented-reality room. She could arrange that now, of course, now that at least some of Aeden’s capabilities were more or less publicly known. Still, she preferred the solid firmness of the real table in front of her. It helped keep her grounded.
She glanced at her wrist again. The wrist comms was not to tell the time, not really. No, it was a reminder. Not to her, but to everyone she was about to see that she was from the Commonwealth, the Experimental Zone. The Wilds. And that meant she was unpredictable, a wildcard, and even… scary when it served her purposes. The ears just added to the effect.
She checked the time. One minute. A shape flickered into existence on her far left.
“Good afternoon, Peelath, congratulations on your re-election. How are the children?”
Peelath smiled slowly. “Well, and thank you, Taylor. I see you are wearing your decorations again.”
“Glad you noticed.”
Peelath nodded. “If I may say so, the blue one nicely sets off your bracelet.”
Taylor glanced at the plain black communicator circling her wrist. “Thank you.”
Peelath nodded and sat in an uncomfortable silence, waiting for the others to arrive. Taylor politely ignored him and adjusted the Haplander ear. Peelath pretended not to notice, but she saw a muscle twitch in his right cheek.
They didn’t have long to wait, and shortly the empty chairs filled with projections of the other Committee members. Meelah liked her meetings to start on time, which is why Taylor was always early. Not always first, mind you, but usually earlier than Meelah herself. Her father, of course, was last to arrive. He was currently away in the Franath system, trying to help with the evacuations. It was hazardous, but necessary. She glanced at her wrist when he finally appeared. Exactly fifty-six seconds late. She wondered what Meelah would do when he reached a full minute. Squawk, she supposed, or hiss. She was currently an amphibious form, after all. Meelah’s eyes flicked around the room, hovering for the barest moment on Strayer’s seat, then moved on. Taylor was impressed that Meelah could communicate such displeasure in such a short period of time. Taylor could learn a lot from her, but what she chose to do with what she learned was her business, and hers alone.
Meelah finished her visual sweep and nodded. She cleared her throat.
“All are assembled. Minutes from the last meeting have been distributed, are they accurate and correct?” Meelah looked up from a tablet resting on the table. Taylor had re-established the full mass-interaction effect expressly for these meetings. Having your hand fall through the table had become a distraction. Meelah’s eyes swept the room as nineteen heads nodded.
Meelah smiled. “Good, noted and filed as the official record. Now, on to the agenda. First order of business, in respect to an enhanced aid package-”
“A potential solution, not an aid package, Meelah,” Taylor interrupted.
Meelah frowned. “-a solution to help Frenath with their current gamma radiation issues-”
“That she caused herself!” Neelak slammed his hands on the table as he stood up.
Meelah waved him to sit. “The past is the past, Neelak, she was not formally confirmed, therefore a wild thing at the time and therefore not fully accountable. Now that we are past that, she is serving in her proper and formal capacity in her service to the Xathen public on the Committee, as the highest Three in the Xathen dominion, and as such-”
“The highest three so far,” said Neelak. “They continue to find mid-ranking hybrids in the wilds, I mean the Commonwealth,” he sneered.
Meelah nodded. “That is as it may be. She may yet be dethroned, I mean lose her rank to another if one is found. However, given the growing numbers of Threes, we are also nearing the point that the several Three seats will no longer be automatically assigned, but elected. Need I remind you that she has other… assets at her disposal that warrant keeping formal communications open, for goodwill as it were.”
Neelak glared at Taylor. “Perhaps. But I’d like to see her run for her seat, rather than be given it out of fear.”
“Oh, I will run,” Taylor smiled sweetly. “For the next term, in four years. With so many Threes, the number of seats available for Fours will be reduced to make room, isn’t that correct?”
Meelah nodded. “That is correct, but only if the Threes take their seats. At present most of the Threes in the wilds remain unaware of their status.”
Neelak looked away. She would need to watch him closely.
Meelah coughed. “Neelak, she was offered Fatook’s seat once he Ascended, so it is her rightful seat, formally offered and accepted. Now, if there are no more interruptions, the Star Killer-”
Taylor looked around the room. All eyes were on her.
Meelah blinked. “Ah… ah… Taylor has a paper for discussion. It has already been distributed. Let’s hear her speak, without interruption. If you need reminding again, I give her full permission to handle you directly. I presume you don’t need me to elaborate further or explain what that means.”
Eighteen figures drew still, mouths silently forming the word Franath as each briefly bowed their heads then looked back up. The word was quickly becoming a common expression for death. Property prices in the Franath system were at an all-time low and sinking through the floor. You couldn’t give homes away, and often a midday meal was worth more. Trillions of invested Xathen credits were being lost every day. Families, not enemies, just normal people, going about their small, normal, everyday lives. Until she killed one of their suns, because a crazy Two who happened to come from that system stole her baby. It was madness, all of it. I mean, who would want to buy a home in a certain death-trap? Nobody. Tickets out of the system going anywhere, anywhere at all were at a premium, and then there were the overcrowded government-funded evacuation liners. Some commercial starship corporations had stopped coming due to safety concerns. There had been riots and stampedes, and too, too many deaths… Taylor shivered. The eyes around the table probably considered them potential votes to stay in their seat, more than people. Taylor felt ill, then the moment passed. She had to stay strong, save those she could, however she could. She was already sick of politics and she was just getting started. Franath was in Neelak’s sector, he must be hurting, she wondered if he thought about them as people or just voters. She didn’t care about him, but she cared about them.
Now, all of their attention was on Taylor, mother of the only Level One in the Xathen dominion, at least so far. Margaret would soon be taking her own seat on the Committee, but only when she was ready. She was being trained by Taylor herself, which they well knew, and by her father, which they feared even more.
Taylor shuffled a blank set of papers in front of her. She already knew what she was going to say and had memorised the entire report and presentation. The papers were simply for effect, a primitive prop but, as it turned out, highly effective. They were all ears, and more than half of them were staring openly at her leather cord. The others stared fixedly at her face, refusing to look any lower.
“Ladies, gentlemen and ambi-forms, honourable chair of the Xathen Galactic Committee, as distributed to each of you some ten Xathen standard days ago for your review, this is what I propose to help solve the problems being encountered in the Franath system, quite unfortunate as they currently are…” Taylor smiled, all teeth.
She was going to fix it.
To save eighteen billion souls that she herself had condemned, Taylor Neeran, Star-Killer, Spirit-Mother of Aeden and mother of the first Level One born in four hundred million years was going to tame a star.
Or die trying.
Of course, not actually die, that would help nobody. But she was going to try really, really hard…