The Core, Cl 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 and encircled with vines carrying twinkling gourds and night flowers, all which threw soft light around the chamber. The spectacular romance of the atmosphere contrasted sharply with the tense faces of the assembly. Melia wondered if it was the tension she felt pressing down around her or the moist air. The heat of the chamber, which normally softly enveloped the Central Counsel like a cocoon, nurturing the growth of a civilization, crackled with energy bordering on oppressive.
Are you getting this? Melia thought.
“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 were seated facing the general delegation.
“Lumin grows weaker by the cycle. We have hit a critical degradation threshold. We must act now to immediately implement Gamma Protocol,” said SaintClair to the frowning faces.
The delegates erupted into frantic chatter, which resonated upward through the roots of the Core and into its trunks. Melia imagined the branches high up in the sky above shaking from the force and 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 of the floor. Melia flinched, but he only struck the staff once. “Minister SainClair is speaking, and you will let her finish.”
“The ministers have already voted, and we are unanimous,” SainClair said. She stood up and stepped around the table to approach the assembly. She had aged much over the last ten cycles but still looked regal in her finely woven teal robes, her whitening blond hair intricately plaited back, loose tendrils curling around her ears. Her soft clothes and features belied the ice of her almost colorless eyes. Melia saw the look of intense determination and was proud to have served with the minister. 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 brings doom. We all know this. We have seen the wilt in the Great Forest. Jefferson has shown us the data on projected electrical use.” Minister Jefferson nodded briefly from his seat.
“Gamma Protocol is too extreme!” a voice interjected. Delegate Rosewater stood from his chair to face SainClair. “Why can we not just institute a more stringent ration? A full-scale network blackout is madness.” There were murmurs of agreement from the crowd. Rosewater moved to stand next to the Minister. “And why five hundred years?” he added. “How do we even know it will work? We are dooming Lumin either way. There will 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 are not working. We need a total reversal. I fear we are almost too late as it is.”
“What if we are? You want to throw us into five hundred years of blackout, but if it is too late, we should be working harder to find a solution, not sitting on our hands.”
“It’s not just about us now. It's about Lumin. The planet needs to rest and regrow. If she doesn't, it will not just be us who are doomed. It will be all 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 green robes swung behind him as he turned to face the remaining ministers. “I guess we just torch the network we have spent thousands of cycles building? Fill in the Core in with dirt? Is that your proposal?” He looked accusingly at each of the ministers in turn, his eyes flashing. He slammed his hands down on the table in front of them.
SainClair suddenly looked very tired. The iron melted from her eyes, and she rested her hand 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. She watched as SainClair nodded to those addressing her and leaned over to speak to others. Melia mentally retraced the Protocol again, her brain caught in a loop playing the same steps over and over. Everything was in order, and nothing could stop it now. Melia 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 set the switch with Melia there to witness. They knew this proceeding would be rife with discord, but SainClair was right.
They could no longer 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 could not 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.
Melia hadn’t expected such a visceral reaction from Rosewater. He was just as passionate as any minister about protecting Lumin, but all of 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. Melia’s side twitched at the thought of informing the general populace why they would no longer have access to the network, of explaining that all of their equipment would go dormant, and of them never understanding how close Lumin came to the brink.
She would miss the beauty of the Core. She frowned to herself, 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!” Melia screamed, bolting to her feet. She rushed around the elderwood table to see Minister SainClair crumpled on the floor, Minister Draca on his knees at her side.
“What have you done?” she screamed at Rosewater. “Seize him!”
Rosewater held a curved knife, dripping 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 dark. He held his hands out as two delegates emerged from the mass, each taking one arm.
“You have done nothing,” said SainClair from the floor. “Gamma Protocol has already been initiated.” Her voice was raspy and at the same time gurgled slightly. Melia shoved past Rosewater and knelt at SainClair’s side. She pulled the Minister’s hands away to find a large bloom of blood spreading quickly across her chest.
“Her lung,” she muttered to Minister Draca, who nodded grimly.
“For your deed, we will all suffer,” Minister Draca said, addressing Rosewater. His voice was cold and hard.
Melia focused her attention on SainClair, who was coughing. “You must relax,” Melia said. “Coughing will only hasten it.”
“Listen to me,” SainClair said, her voice sounding weaker now. “You have to get out of here. The network is monitoring my vital signs. “
“Hush,” Melia said, “you must preserve your strength.”
“No,” she said, “you have to get the key out and to safety. When I am gone, the Core will going into lockdown. If it is here when I die, they will override the Protocol.”
“I can’t leave you,” she said, fear tingeing her voice, “any of you. I can’t live with that.”
“But you will all be trapped!” whispered Melia fervently. She glanced over at the general assembly. The chairs were all ajar in confusion, and the other ministers were trying to calm the delegates.
“There is no time,” Minister Draca said. “She is fading.” He held his hand on SainClair’s wrist. Her skin was tinged with blue.
“Melia,” SainClair whispered. 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 only have moments now,” Draca said through clenched teeth.
“Help me,” Melia said, grimacing. She pulled a pin from her robes and stuck it deeply into her thumb. A drop of blood welled up on the pad of her thumb. Minister Draca nodded and pressed the Minister’s finger into the blood seeping from her chest.
“Quickly,” he said. Melia pulled the book from her robes and opened it to a random page. She pressed her bleeding thumb into the center of the page, and Draca pressed SainClair’s bloody thumb onto the page as well.
End recording and lock all profiles to these samples, Melia thought.
“Recording ended and locked,” the smooth voice said into her ear.
Activate sleep mode.
“Goodbye,” 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. “Now go!”
Still, partially in shock, Melia staggered to her feet and rushed away from the crush of delegates and the more delicate roots sprouting up from the earth. She could hear the yells of the others as the lights began to fail, and a deep throbbing began to vibrate through the roots. The Core was shutting down. If she didn’t go now, she would be trapped with the others. In the confusion, Rosewater had broken free from his restraints and was barreling towards 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!” and slammed the stick down on the ground twice. Rosewater’s enraged face disappeared behind the swirling vortex that opened up in front of her with an enormous crack. It was the sound of something existing where just moments ago nothing did, and it always unnerved her. Turning her head to the side to shield it from the intense winds, she held her breath and leaped into the vortex.
Melia’s knees buckled as she hit a deep snowdrift on the other side. Her stomach churned, threatening to give back her last five meals. So what, she thought. Nerves 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 bacillus and the book. They were both inert now. She stowed the book in her robes, and began to trudge 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 if the shaking was 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 a slow and horrendous death. The Minister’s son, Gerard SainClair, sat silently as she struggled through the thick-throated recounting of the day’s events. The house around them was dimly lit. The blackout had already reached the Northlands. The main hearthroot still emanated heat, but the SainClair family was relying on portable gourds for light. It was lucky for them that the Northland trees were so hearty. Melia shivered again involuntarily, recalling Minister SainClair’s charge to go to Gerard.
“So, Mother is dead,” he said. It was a statement more than a question. “And the others are trapped?”
Melia nodded, her eyes fixed on the smoldering hearthroot before her.
“As a fail safe, Minister SainClair coded the Core to enter Gamma Protocol if her vital signs were no longer detectable by the network.” Melia stifled a sob with the back of her hand. “We took such precaution with no real conviction that things would get that bad.”
Gerard sighed, and Melia looked over to see him slumped over his kneads 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.”
Melia 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 are 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 for five hundred cycles?”
Melia nodded. “The projections indicate that Lumin needs five hundred cycles to heal itself.”
Gerard shook his head in disbelief but 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?”
Melia nodded again. 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?” Melia asked.
Gerard looked over at her, his eyes so like his mother’s, and Melia felt a pang of loss. “Mother left you this,” he said and handed her a letter.
“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 will find everything you need in the Compound situated in Willowslip. Your faithful friend, Aris SainClair.”
“Willowslip,” Melia said. “That is very far south of here. Without a baccillum, it will take us almost a quarter cycle.”
“Well,” said Gerard, a wry and sad grin touching his lips, “we have five hundred cycles. We have all the time in the world.”