CHAPTER TWELVE (draft)

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CHAPTER 12

Okay, this is hell.

Despite the combined efforts of our three Logos Plural Voices, the ancient ark-ship is active again.

Aeson starts—or more accurately, freezes—and his eyes widen slightly. He looks at his wrist, then looks up at me. "Forgive me, Mother, but we need to go now," he says in the most casual way possible, turning to the Imperatris. "Please excuse us."

"What's wrong?" Devora asks her son, with immediate concern. Her maternal senses are strong and, knowing her children's moods, she picks up something troubling in Aeson's demeanor.

"Nothing major, but I did promise to take care of a few things, and the appointments can't wait. Just got a time reminder. We'll see you very soon again, I promise."

"All right, but be sure not to overtire Gwen, not today, it's too soon after—"

"Yes, thank you for the lovely meal." I stand up, smiling warmly at Devora, to reinforce the fact that all is well. "We'll see you soon, Manala!" I add to the younger girl whose emotionally transparent face echoes her mother's worry.

And then we depart the Imperatris's Quarters.

"What now, Aeson?" I ask as we hurry back to the Imperator's part of the floor.

"I don't know." He glances at me with a troubled look that he no longer bothers to hide, now that we're alone.

"Do we need to do the Plural Voice again?"

"Probably. Though again it might only buy us a few hours."

I bite my lip and nod, because I've got nothing.

Aeson's wrist comm chimes again, making a different sound, and I'm beginning to recognize the difference between the ring tones. Just as I suspect, it's the Imperator.

"He wants us in his Red Office, now," Aeson says, checking his wrist multiple times as more tones sound, one after the other, heralding additional text messages, as we enter the interior corridor. "He got the ship alarm and immediately wrapped up his Audience with the Oratorat, getting rid of her for now with some excuse. From all this haste she may suspect something is wrong, but at this point it doesn't matter."

"One crisis at a time," I whisper, with a bitter smile.

We turn the corner and enter the now familiar Imperial office, hearing several male voices in agitated conversation.

* * *

The Imperator is not alone. With him in the small red chamber are the ACA Director, the First Priest, and a third man whom I recognize as Miramis Opu, this year's designated Priest of the Grail. The last time I saw Miramis was yesterday at noon when I inadvertently raised the Grail and he called out my act as blasphemy.

The Priest of the Grail is not a large man, but he does have a "large man presence." Right now, he is very distressed and venting, and we enter in the middle of his diatribe:

". . . still not working, and if my Imperial Sovereign will concede, the unrelenting news coverage is not helping to calm them at all! I realize that Hel-Ra is being discreet, but the other feeds are out of control! And now these idiots with their nonsense about the pale ghosts and the lights in the sky—"

"They are picking up false sensor signals," the ACA Director Hijep Tiofon says in a calming voice, sitting back in one of the chairs before the Imperial desk, across from the Imperator. "Very common instrument malfunctions, both atmospheric and orbital satellite level, especially considering the problems they've been having in New Deshret configuring all their weather tech. Someone at Hel-Ra at least needs to make a brief announcement to put down the rumors. Have Desher Keigeri read it. Give a solid rundown of the sensor issues, use simple public-oriented language, make it easy to understand—"

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