Gold Chip

Image by Team GHB

:: previous – The Hijinks. The Mayhem.

Winter

Deep breaths.

I’m in control.

I am the driver of my emotions.

Everything’s fine…

“Did you read about the thunderstorms in Black Mountain last night?”

“A morbid affair. Birds rained from the sky and splashed to the ground… I rather I didn’t.”

“Some suggest it was the hourglass.”

“They were fine flying around it days ago.”

I watch Commander Geampa and Dayen ramble like buddies in a pub about the hourglass, birds, and basketball. Since the championships are on, everyone has bulbs and balls on the brain.

Ah…

The games are a pleasant reminder of normalcy, I suppose. Life goes on.

Speaking of which…

“Gentlemen, can we move this along, please? I have a demanding agenda today and a powerful headache unequipped to handle your small talk.”

“Yes, of course.” Dayen says. “Commander?”

“Apologies, ma’am.”

A translucent, towering screen comes to life in front of me, projected from Geampa’s tablet. It stretches wide across my office in perfect clarity.

“We took the following photo on Black Cherry beach, one minute past midnight. It was our first attempt to reach the atmospheric phenomena.”

On the screen, the hourglass bulb fades into view. Against the black sky, it shimmers beneath the moon’s gray glow.

“If you look, just about here…” I follow Commander Geampa’s red dot across the screen. It hovers around the lower part of the bulb. “There’s an image of mountains engraved on the glass, highlighted by the moonlight.” He zooms into a group of mighty, rugged mountains with pointed summits. “See? It’s rather small, but my team agrees. Those are mountains.”

“Hm. For Black Mountain?”

“That makes sense, ma’am. It persists in occupying their sky, after all.”

This must be a message.

I look at Dayen standing beside the screen, staring at the image with narrowed eyes. With his styled dark hair and black service uniform on, he displays the role of a powerful Crown Soldier well. A position from his past, forever etched in his blood.

“How was this photo obtained?” He asks.

“By drone, Advisor Mourning, a modified SkyDumisani. After reviewing witness accounts of the SkyGrim incident and wreckage photos from the press, we fireproofed ours, which allowed us to get closer.”

“And?” Dayen continues. “What happened to the drone?”

“Appearance and component wise the drone is intact. There are no signs of physical foul play. It didn’t burn, and it landed safely. However, after we downloaded this photo, the drone powered off. Analysis of its inner workings shows nothing changed and it should operate as normal, but it doesn’t.”

“Was another sent up?” I ask.

“Yes, ma’am. Nine more SkyDumisani took flight. All became inoperable mid-air and crashed. We captured no other photos.” Geampa turns back to the screen. “Except for this one.”

“How did the first drone make it, but nine others didn’t?”

“Luck, ma’am. The moon certainly helped shed light on this engraving.”

Some luck.

Those drones will be costly to replace. The budget is tight as is…

“This is a clear shot. At what altitude was SkyDumisani when this was taken?” Dayen inquires.

“Approximately two thousand feet. The nine others couldn’t pass one thousand feet before they crashed. It’s perplexing… we built these models to fly up to three thousand feet. It’s as if an invisible barrier is blocking us from getting too close to the phenomena.”

Ridiculous. “Sky travel will remain suspended to and out of Black Mountain.” I announce.

“Agreed.” Dayen adds. “Of course, that could put a strain on ground transportation. I can arrange sending additional resources down to help.”

Budget, budget, budget.

“Let’s wait and see if there’s a need for extra hands first. I don’t think many will have a taste for crossing into Black Mountain lands right now. I’d rather not waste the resources.”

“Understood… This interference will certainly hurt their tourism sector, just as the wildflowers are blooming again.”

Wildflowers?

“And they’ll bloom again and again.” Dayen stares at me with a confused look. “Better safe than sorry.” I force a smile and shake Geampa’s meaty hand. “Thank you, Commander. The work you and your team are doing has far exceeded our expectations. Please do what you can to find meaning from this engraving and the reason behind the demise of the nine SkyDumisani’s. As I’m sure you understand, we cannot afford to lose another drone.”

“Absolutely—”

“Also, let’s reconvene before my press briefing tomorrow, to ensure I’m aware of any fresh developments. I don’t want any surprises at the podium.”

The Commander looks over at his male assistant to confirm. He nods back in the affirmative. “We will reconvene.” Geampa says. “I thank you for your time. Good day, ma’am.”

Rose sees him and his team out.

Quickly, Dayen shuts the door behind them.

“One photo.” He mutters. “Mountain markings with the aid of moonlight.”

I lean back in my chair and massage the side of my pounding head. “Why can’t it just go away?”

I open my eyes.

Dayen stands beside my desk, staring at me.

“Does your mind feel… Grim, ma’am?”

“My mood is because of the budget. The Crown is nearly insolvent, remember? Then there’s the Governor of Fortune considering resignation because of her predecessor’s supposed transgressions she claims left a stain on the Governor’s House. Our King is hiding. The madness doesn’t end.”

“Not that Grim.” He takes a seat across from me at my desk.

“What?”

“House Grim.” He says casually. “I sent an inquiry.”

“You what?! I told you I didn’t want the Crown busting doors for data—”

“There was no intrusion, but an invitation, to better understand the thing beyond the clouds.”

“I wanted you to leave that family alone, Advisor Mourning.” I snap.

He stiffens in place and I know he feels the heat of my blood boiling. Especially since I never call him by his title and last name.

“You also gave me leave to handle Black Mountain, ma’am.” His voice is low and lined with caution. “That is what I am doing.”

And pissing me off.

“Since when do you care about the hourglass? The other day you called it a dirty sky trick. Now you’re sending inquiries. I should assign you to sort the budget. Obviously you aren’t busy enough around here.”

“It may be more than a sky trick, ma’am.”

“Yeah? Great. And still no word from my father on Earth.” I rub my temples harder. If I could reach into my brain and scrub the pain away, I would. “Something happened and likely why I have this headache… Something always happens when my head hurts.” Our eyes lock. “Like your insubordination.”

“What September is doing on Earth takes deep concentration. He could be gone for some time. I’m sure he’s fine.”

“In the world you said has an unconquerable sickness. But nothing to worry about, right?

He sighs. “Earth has its troubles, yes, but I don’t doubt your father’s unique gifts.”

Gifts…

I hear the soft thump of the baby bird’s head hitting the ground. It looked like a toy lying in the dirt. Motionless, in my backyard.

I remember Father and I watching it transform into bright blue dust, taken up by a quiet breeze.

But Father bears gifts when he reaches behind my ear, retrieving the deceased baby bird… fluttering in his palm. Bones miraculously mended…

He returned it to the nest, safe and sound.

But when will he return to me?

“So, what of the inquiry?” I change the subject to force myself to stop thinking about father. “Was it answered? Or did you make a fool of yourself?”

“I received a response.” He hesitates. “May I… first explain why I issued it?”

I nod impatiently.

“While reviewing photos of the SkyGrim wreckage, Geampa identified a data chip on Mr. Grim’s lawn. Aware of its potential value, he came straight to me about it.”

He hands me his tablet, showing a magnified image of the tiny gold square chip situated in the grass.

“I thought SkyGrim and its components burned to a crisp?”

“Some advanced data chips can detect critical system errors three seconds before shut down. If information is stored on it, the chip will safely eject itself to preserve the data. That’s our assessment of why this gold chip was found near the wreckage.”

“So, you are trying to squeeze House Grim.”

“In a friendly way. His chip could hold information. If so, we could compare it to the moonlight photo Geampa’s team took.”

“An inquiry is a nuisance, never friendly. What was Grim’s response to all of this you kept me in the darkness about?”

“A stunning Crown portrait of Ms. Khiana Grim accompanied by the cryptic message: You First.”

“Ugh, the missing woman. I take it House Grim wants answers, like her slithering friend did?”

“That is correct, ma’am.”

The chunky crimson snake Mr. Zubin caught at the last press briefing pops in my head. It’s still in Crown Affairs. Evidence of Inga Incognicio’s wrongdoing in case we ever decide to use it.

But we don’t need things to escalate.

“Enough of this. Surely we can extend a Crown Investigator to resolve this missing person matter and put her family’s mind at ease.”

“Not for hostile former officials disliked by the King.”

“You said yourself the Crown’s hands are clean of her situation, so what does it matter? Plus, she’s someone’s mother. I know what it’s like to be without one.”

“Yes, Ms. Grim is mother to a grown man starting his own family. No longer a child in need of care.”

“That doesn’t matter! You will assist House Grim. In turn, they may consider entertaining your lust for their data. And if my half-brother takes issue with my decisioning, he’s welcome to emerge from his chambers and see me about it. Or make his own decisions. Be a King, for once.”

Our eyes lock for a long moment. Dayen’s is a muddy shade of green and defiant.

“Do you require anything else from me at the moment?”

His voice is quiet and composed.

“Just do as I said this time.”

“Ma’am.”

“Mourning.”

He walks to the door with haste, then stops and turns.

“Winter?”

His lingering presence makes my skin crawl. I can’t stomach disobedience.

“What?” I glare at him.

“I…understand I have overstepped my authority… For that, I apologize. I will provide assistance to House Grim as per your request and trust this matter will not negatively affect the friendship we have built organically and sustained… with great ease.”

“That will be all, Dayen.”

He nods slowly and leaves without another word.

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