Sunstone by Holly Barbo by Holly Barbo - Read Online

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Sunstone - Holly Barbo

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The steam-powered civilization of Myrn is a thriving adolescent culture. But the rapid industrial development has given rise to greed, and the triumvirate of government, banks and industry leaders has lost sight of those it is supposed to serve and protect.

When a mysterious incurable illness sweeps through the impoverished masses, increasing the suffering to breaking point, rebellion seems unavoidable. Society is on the brink of revolution, and the planet is marked for destruction.

M’nacht, his son Kes, and his team of researchers investigate a legend about three sacred fossils that could save the people and rebalance Myrn. However, they are not the only ones looking. Where they see salvation, others see power, wealth and control.

Will the gifts from the goddess Navora be found in time to save their world, or will the sacrifice of innocents be lost under the weight of human depravity and corruption?

The Price of Navora’s Power

A person looking out over the channel would think very little of a woman out in the boat with her fishing gear, and that was exactly the inconsequential picture Ravarian wanted to portray. People knew that she loved to fish and the Cradle Channel was one of her favorite spots. The rocky bluffs framed the rich blue of the strait and the remarkable planet which seemed to float above. It was a place she could breathe deep and feel as carefree as the hawks that soared from the nests in the cliffs.

The small woman sailed in a zigzag pattern, sometimes stopping for a while before moving on to try the next spot. Drifting in the current of the wide strait, she was careful to show complete nonchalance. Her hair, touched with silver, caught the rays of sunlight as she cast her line. She shaded her eyes and gazed up at beautiful Shacir, the gas giant of which her Myrn was a moon. The huge red-and-tan banded planet was a breathtaking sight in the summer sky. She loved her world. A smile kissed the lines around her eyes as she returned her attention to the waves lapping the sides of her boat.

The real reason she was out fishing in the Cradle was much more serious than any observer might guess. Ravarian was one of three very special elemental hosts that had been blessed by the Goddess Navora. For years, Ravarian and her two companions had waged a clandestine war to keep Myrn’s society healthy and balanced by using the power of Navora’s Sunstones. Less than a handful of people suspected that they were doing something but couldn’t prove it; however, the time that Ravarian and her companions discussed as a possibility years ago was now upon them.

Her associates had suddenly died in the last few weeks. The first, tragically, in a house fire three weeks ago. They said that he had a chronic medical condition and was overmedicated, which led him to set the fire that killed him. But Ravarian knew that he was in prime health when he died; they had just spoken a week prior to his death. The other was the youngest of the group. A mother of three, she had been an up-and-coming engineer. Her body was found at the bottom of a rock escarpment with her rappelling line frayed and broken. Ravarian knew that her companion loathed rock climbing due to a frightening childhood incident. Both deaths were anything but accidents.

And now there were watchers that seemed to lurk in the shadows as she went about her normal routine. The secret of the Sunstones must be kept! Each of the three had alternate plans to hide the Goddess’s tokens and break their links to her power should their roles become close to being discovered. Only the gatekeeper would know. He’d get word to the rest by sending a sacred rhamat. Rhamats were woven from the blue grass that grew at the shrine and braided into a spiral resembling a navorite; the items were honored. No one knew that they were also a way the gatekeeper communicated with the three hosts.

Ravarian mused on her real task, of which the fishing was just a cover. They don’t know that they can’t use the Goddess’s gift, she murmured to herself then continued the thought silently. Only the chosen can access Navora’s strengths, but that wouldn’t stop them from hurting my loved ones if they believed that would help them obtain the information they are seeking. She cast her line again. From a distance, her face appeared serene but the look in her eyes would have belied that impression to the close observer. Subtle creases at the outer corners were tight and the lids a bit lowered as her gaze hardened. The secret must be kept. On the off chance that the greedy ones would figure out the source of my skills, they would try to use the power themselves. When that wouldn’t work, they might destroy the Goddess’s artifacts, and I won’t allow that to happen. Either way, things have progressed to a point that Myrn will have to do without any help from the Goddess. At least for a while. As her boat drifted, she studied the water. It was time to hide her stone for its own protection. She was expendable, but the Goddess’s gift was not. Even without the physical link, she knew that the residual effect from being chosen for so many years would allow her to resist breaking under torture. When her line was again in the waters of the channel, her thoughts returned to what she had to do. They were coming for her. It was simply a matter of hours.

Ravarian wiped the sweat off her forehead and peered out over the strait. Her grey eyes were clear and resolute. The clear day was warm and so beautiful that her heart filled with bittersweet joy. Grateful for this last gift from the Goddess, Ravarian pulled in her line and the small fish on it. Once it was stored in her cooler, she moved her boat again. No one watching her would be able to see when she palmed the fossil and let it slip beneath the waves as she pulled in her catch. Hours went by as she continued casting her line.

Her task accomplished, Ravarian decided to stop performing for her watchers. Returning to shore with her cooler full of her catch, she was met by the young man she had rented the boat from. He grinned at her and the size of her haul. They bantered about her luck. She loaded her steam car to return home and smiled her goodbye. As the steam filled the chamber and she began to move, Ravarian gave a final salute. The lad laughed and waved her away. When her vehicle crested the rise on its way back to the city, his face took on a serious expression and he returned to the hut. On his desk was the dash-key and, without wasting a minute, he tapped out his report and hit send.

She was ready when the uninvited visitors came. Her mind was at peace. As she opened her door to them, she had the random thought that the police reports and newspapers would report her death as a victim of a brutal home invasion burglary. Ravarian was shoved into her living room as one of the men tore her pictures and books from the walls. The other set a bag down that clunked with ominous metallic sounds and approached her with the gait of a predator. She knew that the next few hours would be unpleasant for her and frustrating for her guests. No one would hear her screams. They wouldn’t learn what they wanted to know, only enough of a story so they wouldn’t go after her loved ones. This particular chapter of the Sunstone would close for now, but she was confident that for the little fossils, there would be another day just as she knew she wouldn’t live to see the next sunrise.

Many Years Later

Kes was standing on his porch, drinking a steaming mug of kris. He closed his eyes for a moment, savoring the refreshing brew. An empty breakfast plate lay on the step beside his feet. This was his down time. A rest day before he needed to head off to his last assignment, after which he would receive accreditation and his degree. He took a deep breath, soaking in the spicy scent of the blooming plants with the freshness of the early morning dew. For him, this was the scent of home.

Brushing his brown hair off his forehead, he considered getting it cut today. He hadn’t been near any civilization for a while and things like haircuts had simply been overlooked. His rueful smile highlighted the lean planes of his pale face. He’d been out of the sunlight too much in the past few months.

Two days ago, he had finished an exhaustive three-month survey of the marine life in Okamak Bay. It was one of the extinct calderas on his world. The nature of its origin had given it the unique shape of being nearly round and ringed by land with steep vertical walls. There were no gentle beaches anywhere around the bay. The only reason it was a bay at all was because there’d been a quake, long ago, which had collapsed sections of the old caldera wall near the ocean, thus letting in the sea water. Even so, that side looked like animal teeth with spires of volcanic rock piercing the opening with the ocean. The cobalt-rich lava that had ejected from the moon’s core and the slower tidal turnover had created a delicately unique ecosystem subtly different from the nearby ocean. Because of those conditions, it was sensitive to the ocean’s health and was always the first place to show any negative change in Myrn’s eco-balance. An accurate survey of the Okamak was so critical that there was a small automated underwater habitat located near the center of the bay for the scientists.

The most dangerous part of the assignment was getting in and out of the old caldera. The currents were tricky around the stone teeth and one misjudgment of the tide level or the ever-changing eddies near the sharp rock spires would be disastrous. It was not something to be navigated when you were tired. A couple of days ago, the tides were the best in late afternoon, and by the time he fought his way into the ocean and made his way back to the small community where he had rented the small steam-powered boat, his shoulders were knotted and his arms shook with fatigue.

Over the years, he had visited the Okamak several times and was well acquainted with Hank’s Boat Rentals. Hank and his family made a good living outfitting and supplying the scientists and sportsmen who wanted to experience the fascinating virtues of the area. Exhausted, Kes welcomed the opportunity to unwind at the beach bonfire, which was a nightly occurrence during this time of the year. A few hours spent in relaxing chat had been refreshing after the long isolation of his intense survey work.

It proved to be a relaxing evening, and after loading his samples, his gear and the heavy metal diving helmet in the roomy boot of his steam car, he’d spun the dials on the nav bot’s top, setting the destination, and started for home.

The young man slid down the post to sit on the top step and, after checking his pocket watch, looked meditatively across the valley at the huge planet dominating the sky. His world literally lived in its shadow. His gold-flecked hazel eyes went a bit out of focus as memories of a loving childhood spent here enveloped him like a warm hug.

Kes smiled at the scurried movement near his feet. He threw some crumbs to the little fluffy-tailed rodent who was out gathering food. Since the sky was getting brighter, it triggered them to emerge from their dens and take advantage of the three-day sunlight cycle. The lowered light of the twi-days usually sent the somnolent little animals down into their burrows.

Finishing his kris, Kes stood and stretched his six-foot frame. Tugging down his vest, he remained on the porch for a moment longer before taking his dishes inside to the kitchen. His mother had died early and he’d been raised by Davvos, his astrophysicist father. When his dad had been killed in one of those senseless traffic accidents, a fifteen-year-old Kes had gone to live with his father’s lifelong friend and research partner, M’nacht. The man welcomed Kes into his home. M’nacht’s lineage was quite ancient, but he was the last member of his family and had no heirs. He’d come to love Kes as the son he never had and officially adopted him on the young man’s seventeenth birthday. That had been six years ago. As M’nacht’s heir, Kes could have hyphenated his name, signifying he had higher status in the society, but that didn’t matter to the young man and M’nacht didn’t mind. The old gentleman paid off any debts Kes’s parents had owed upon their deaths, including the mortgage to this house. The gesture was a gift beyond price for Kes. It was all he had left of his parents except for the ring his father had given his mother at his birth—a simple green-gold band with a silvery moon-pearl blossom etched into it. He’d had it enlarged a bit and wore it on the little finger of his right hand.

The young man tidied the kitchen, wound the top key of the disc-shaped, copper-clad robo-cleaner and set it on the floor. With a beep, it began its whirring tour of the house, spinning away dirt and dust into a container deep within its housing. Kes disengaged the heating system and locked up the house, glad the isolated home was connected to the geothermal grid. He was planning on dropping off the samples and report from his survey later today so tomorrow he could travel directly to his next assignment. He’d completely enjoyed the Okamak but he loved diving in the Cradle Channel. That particular report would be the last before he earned his certification and could receive his rank as a doctor in marine biology. He was one of the youngest to have accomplished that goal.

Donning his driving gloves and goggles, Kes climbed into his steam car and built up pressure in the boiler. Checking the gauges on the polished wood dash, he released the brake and with a hiss, started for the trip to Therad, the capital city. First on his list was turning in his report to his boss, Mitch. He spun the dials to set his destination on the vehicle’s nav bot and manually released steam into the car’s propulsion chamber. Once the gears engaged, he slowly circled his home, checking it and soaking up the peace of the place before changing his heading for the city. Since traffic was light, he placed the steam car into auto drive. It was a new invention that guided the vehicle by magnetic pulses in each intersection. With minimal attention on the car’s progress, Kes had time to review his article. Opening the phono pocket on the dash, he slipped the treated cylinder into the phonograph. The young man listened to the report one more time, making notes to expand on a couple of points. He needed to discuss his findings with Mitch, who was the moon’s leading marine micro-biologist. The record finished and, deep in thought, Kes watched the city come into view.

The steam stacks on every building created low level rainbows as the morning light refracted in the moisture droplets. It was a sight he never grew tired of. As the car navigated closer to the city fringe, he heard the whistle from the steam plant indicating a shift change. Usually that meant a bustle of movement around the factories. There was some but he also noticed signs of decay: empty buildings with dirty broken windows that had been incompletely boarded up and people milling with tattered dun-colored clothing and looks of hopelessness on their begrimed faces and in their postures. Some were slumped against the ornate iron aether lamps that lined the streets. One individual had apparently passed out and lay senseless as two miscreants went through his pockets. Kes shook his head in concern. He’d not seen this level of blatant lawlessness before going to the Okamak.

Kes found a parking place close to the office. Stashing his motoring togs in the car’s boot, he checked his pocket watch. Skipping the crowded pedestrian sidewalks, the young man shouldered his pack, lifted out the large box filled with carefully labeled sample bags and walked the short distance to Myrn’s Ecological Sciences Building. The Marine Biology division was located on the first floor, appropriately next to the large aquarium and reef-life exhibit. Kes strode into the office and logged in his report and sample box, but upon checking with Mitch’s staff, learned the man was still in a meeting. Kes waited by the walled aquarium and watched the sea life through the round viewing portals. The young scientist thoughtfully compared the vividly colored flora and fauna to that in the old caldera.

Watching the beautiful marine life seemed to suspend time. When Mitch came out to greet him, Kes was surprised to learn that forty-five minutes had passed. His boss greeted him with a slap on the back and a comment about his lack of tan as they made their way into the inner office. Turning the crank on the door, Mitch engaged the locks.

Kes, you could have just dropped this off and spent your time getting a haircut. He grinned. But I’m glad to see you before you left for the Cradle tomorrow. I wanted to ask that you pick up some samples of Bryozoan bugula, blue-green algae and bluebell tunicates. Though the room was secure, he lowered his voice and glanced toward the windows. The office was a beehive of activity as people rushed around collecting papers and dealt with messengers. The lab team has been carefully bio-prospecting and has come up with some very promising compounds, but they need more specimens. You acquiring some in the process of doing your routine survey would not be unnatural. Just be nonchalant about it, okay?

Mitch covered his words by looking through the box of sample bags and pulling out the report. Speaking again at a normal volume level, he said, I can listen to the record cylinder later, but give me the highlights.

Kes took off his newsy-cap and, resting it on his trousered knee, smoothed the tweed fabric of the bill. I’ve some concerns. I’m not sure that the condition is serious yet, but there are some indicators that I don’t like. Some species of crustaceans don’t look healthy. Their color is off and I saw one who was losing his legs. I have to question why that’s happening. There are also a few orange-beaked fish that appeared to have a crusty growth near their gill openings. Neither occurrence is good. I took water and soil samples as well as scrapings from the rocks. At night, in the habitat, I ran tests. My mobile lab wasn’t detecting anything, but something isn’t right. Because it’s an ancient volcano, I wondered if some mineral was leaching out, though I couldn’t find evidence of that. We need a mass spectrometer down there because tests I could perform only looked at minerals, not all possible chemical changes. Anyway, I don’t have answers and suggest we get a team there with a full lab and figure out if this is serious or just an anomaly. Check the sea floor over the entire bay to see if vents are developing, warming some areas and leaching cobalt particles from the old magma. One of the things that occurred to me was to check with sea floor monitoring devices if perhaps the old Okamak Caldera was building some pressure. Readings taken now could be compared with the original mapping of the Okamak. I’d like to rule out if the bay floor has gotten higher from underground pressure lifting it. If the instruments indicate that there is a change, then we need to set the engineers in motion to try to work out a solution. It isn’t going to be easy as the stress to the crust is from very deep in the mantle and along a wrinkle in the western oceanic plate.

Kes shook his head and pushed back the hair from his eyes. "Perhaps I’m seeing phantom problems. It could be that there aren’t anything more than a few diseased fish. I just didn’t like seeing any anomalies.

When I was renting the boat to go in, Hank was telling me that there’s a company looking into using the water from the Okamak as the base ingredient for designer bottled water and medicinal sea salt. They’ve been flying a dirigible in and syphoning some surface water as they develop their distillation and product line. He thought it was pretty amusing, but that’s all the more reason we want to make sure everything’s okay, or we need to appeal to the Council of Elders and the company involved to stop their efforts.

Hmm, I hadn’t heard of that. Did you see the dirigible?

Kes nodded. I don’t know the frequency of the trips as I was mostly down in the habitat, but I went topside a few times to get more supplies from my boat and did see one. It didn’t take water near my location but from a spot about a third of the way from the west wall. Even from a distance on a twi-day, it was a funny looking craft with the black bladders underneath it and the retractable hoses.

Mitch picked up the waxed cylinder and placed it in the phonograph. I’ll get the samples to the lab and listen to your report. We must have some strong evidence to justify the expense of sending a team in there. Meanwhile, enjoy your few days in the Cradle. We’ll talk more about this when you get back. He grinned at the young man. Now go get a haircut or the harlequin fish will think it a new source of sea grass!

The Cradle Channel

Very early the next morning, Kes packed up his gear and equipment and left for the wide channel called the Cradle of Navora. It was a beautiful place to dive, with an ancient fossil reef and numerous bivalve beds. The place was awash with color from the magnificent banded Shacir above to the coral reefs in shades of gold, fuchsia and turquoise. The strait teemed with many forms of marine life in a cornucopia of bright cheerful colors, flitting around sea fans and grottos. Kes was there to look for any obvious abnormalities, particularly in