Swirling, turning, diving deep and deeper. Sissy let her mind follow the guts of the nav unit where they wanted to take her. There! That’s where she needed to place the final chip.
A yawning vacancy beckoned her to fill it with the black crystal grown in a matrix of Badger Metal.
Not yet, she told the opening. I can’t let you come alive until I get this last chip in place.
Sissy du Maigrie pu Chauncey hummed as she picked up the precious, fine-as-a-hair piece of silicon with Badger Metal tweezers. “Two more pieces to the puzzle and I can go home.”
She bent in concentration over her workbench, allowing her dark hair to swish forward and form a shield between herself and the rest of the world. Then she hummed a little louder, completing the barrier.
Badger Metal, a ceramic-metal alloy in a crystalline lattice, gave her tools the tensile strength necessary to hold steady the sliver of microscopic computer circuits as she rotated the navigational guidance system to the proper place. She adjusted the note in the back of her throat, seeking a harmonic vibration between herself, the unit, and the chip. When all was ready and sympathetic, she deftly dropped the chip into place. It nestled snugly in its proper location, precisely between two upright crystals.
Robots could make most of a spaceship. But only she and a very few others could assemble the tiny pieces of the interstellar guidance system. Someone had described the process to her in big words she didn’t understand. She just did what felt right. No exotic magnification. Just her and the nav unit.
Sissy sat back and breathed deeply. A fine sheen of perspiration coated her face and back. She knew it blurred the caste mark she’d drawn on her left cheek. Didn’t matter now, this close to quittin’ time. The large workroom seemed brighter and noisier, jangling her nerves.
The dinner bell gonged. A raucous note that didn’t harmonize with the chips, or with her.
Finally time to go home. She sensed only a few workers clearing off their workbenches and heading out. Management, meaning Lord Chauncey, didn’t appreciate workers who left unfinished items overnight.
Sissy would have stayed even if management tried to push her out. She had to get the black crystal column in place and the housing fastened around it before she could go home. The High Council needed this last system to complete their upgrade of the military fleet.
She shuddered at the idea of alien invaders and predators pressing against the Harmonic Empire from every direction, threatening their sovereignty as well as their culture, religion, and prosperity.
If she had built the nav system on the Lost Colony’s ship, they wouldn’t have gotten lost in hyperspace.
“You done yet, Sissy?” her older brother Stevie da Jaimey pa Chauncey called. He was responsible for making certain the components were packaged and cushioned properly by other workers and getting them to the shipping bay on time. He couldn’t go home until she finished.
His natural caste mark, a brown X on his left cheek, the same color as his hair, stood out in stark contrast to his pale skin. Day shift Worker caste rarely saw the sunlight except in high summer.
“One more minute,” she called back and plucked the black crystal from its nest of cushioning material with a special padded tool. This final and crucial piece of the nav system anchored a ship to a homing beacon so it couldn’t get lost in hyperspace.
Scientists in a secret lab grew the black crystals very slowly with liquid Badger Metal thoroughly mixed in the growing solution. Temple caste supervised every step of the process with special rituals and chimes in the crystal nurseries, a different note in each room to guide the crystal formation to its final purpose.
She found a note within the crystal and matched it with her voice. All in harmony for the final insertion.
Gently she tapped a button on the floor with her bare toe. A wheel in her workbench began a slow rotation with the navigational unit fixed firmly in its center. Once around, and she spotted the precise place to anchor the crystal. A micrometer off and the nav system wouldn’t lock on to a beacon in hyperspace. Twice around, and she harmonized with the blank spot waiting for the crystal to complete it, to bring it into Harmony with the universe.
Third time around, she inserted the crystal.
The navigational unit slid a micron. She missed.
Hastily she jerked the fragile column up to avoid damage.
Three long heartbeats while she calmed herself. She had to check the crystal before risking another insertion. If the thing had even the tiniest scratch, no wider than a nano, the entire system would fail. The ship it guided could jump through hyperspace to an unknown point, lost, alone, drifting in hostile territory.
Her worst nightmare. To be alone. Lost. Without her family. Her heart ached for the Lost Colony. Gone some five years now and still an open wound in their society.
She pulled over an atomic microscope and inspected the black crystal. The facets gleamed back at her, begging her to look deeper into the crystal’s core, to join with it and reach out to meld with the universe.
She jerked her vision away from the enticement.
Clean. She’d avoided touching the crystal to a chip.
She let out a long breath. She could lose her job for damaging a crystal.
“Come on, Sissy. I want to get home,” Stevie whined. “I’m hungry and Mama promised us roasted goat and yammikins for dinner.”
Sissy’s mouth watered at the thought of the rare treat. Pop’s birthday warranted meat as a part of the celebration.
She cleared her mind and concentrated on completing the unit. The wheel within her workbench turned slowly. A note formed in her mind and her voice. She opened her mouth and let the music slide over the nav unit. The proper place for the crystal, the only place for the crystal, appeared in her mind and before her eyes.
The table tilted, sending the navigational unit sliding three degrees to the left.
“Quake!” she shouted.
Even as she rose to run for safety, she took two heartbeats to put the fragile crystal into a protective sleeve, padded with air and gel. Then she tucked the cushioned crystal into the pocket of her brown coveralls.
“Quake!” she shouted again. “A big one.”
All around her, late workers jumped to their feet and began running for the nearest exit. Three children, twelve years old, the minimum working age, headed for the central tower.
“Not safe.” She grabbed the collars of two of them and pushed them toward the exterior stairs.
Inside the windowed core of the round building, she spotted several supervisors fighting to get to their private stairway, totally ignoring the fate of the people in the open space all around them.
The factory was made almost entirely of transparent bio-plastic windows, with a few clear Badger Metal pillars supporting each floor. Not enough of them. The windows would shatter, threatening the workers closest to them—the ones who needed the most light to perform their chores.
But if the central tower—also made of bio-plastic with little or no precious Badger Metal supporting it—should crack, the entire building would collapse.
They had to hurry.
Tremors vibrated against Sissy’s bare feet as she guided the children toward the outer rim of the building. Seven exterior staircases would take them seven stories down to the ground and safety.
Even as she herded the children outward, she felt the building sway.
“Gods above and below, and those all around me, hear my prayer,” she invoked the entire host of seven with a chant. “Please let everyone get out safely.”
The tremors in her feet struck a clashing chord against the rhythms in her body and mind.
A column sagged. Then another. Fully two thirds of her fellow workers remained inside. Trapped. Workers from the other floors above and below clogged the stairs.
She had to do something.
Her workbench broke in two and slid toward the tower. It clanged against the interior windows. A crack rippled and spread across the bio-plastic, clouding it. The supervisors couldn’t view the entire floor of the factory from there anymore.
Sissy belted out another note, one that didn’t clash with either the groaning building or the planet screaming in distress.
Her feet ceased to tingle for half a heartbeat. She found another note, up a third from the previous one as she dashed toward the tower.
Did the building sigh in relief?
Her imagination was working overtime. She had to get out of there. If she died, the last nav unit would never be complete. The fleet would lack a crucial vessel. Harmony and her empire, everything that was good and right about Sissy’s home, would die beneath the flood of change brought by outsiders.
A tremendous crash rocked the building as an upper story succumbed to the quake.
Sissy hummed an entire scale that complemented the notes she’d already sung. Still pouring the harmonies into the air, she knew what she had to do.
Ignoring the shouts and pleas of Stevie and her coworkers, Sissy planted her feet between two tower supports and placed her hands on the cross struts.
“Please,” she chanted. “Please, Harmony, find calm. Find peace. Stop your temper tantrum. Please.”
Over and over she sang. Over and over she pleaded with the planet to forgive Her people for digging too deep with their mines, for fighting natural weather patterns with satellites. For polluting Her air and water with their waste.
She sang of her love of her home, of the bounteous oceans, the mystery of the dark forests, the grandeur of the open desert. She sang of her family—all seven children, her parents—and their parents and how they all crowded into two joined apartments. How they fought, how they cried, and how they loved each other and protected each other. As Harmony said they should.
She sang of the six colony worlds, making a seven-planet empire and how each fitted a niche in their society.
She sang of the rightness of the seven castes and how each one served Harmony.
She sang to each of the seven gods, Harmony, Empathy, their children Nurture and Unity, balanced by their stepchildren Anger, Greed, and Fear. She sang to them in turn and then all together.
And all the while she sang, she caught the energies gathered by the planet and pushed them down, deep into Harmony. Deeper, broader, find places for them to run to the surface without harm. Find sympathetic vibrations. Find peace. Find harmony.
The energy that escaped she guided upward through far-flung channels. A little bit here, a little bit there. Not too much in any one place.
Darkness crept around Sissy. She drowned out the sounds of destruction with chord after chord of sound that sought harmony in chaos.
The crystal in her pocket vibrated. She found a sympathetic tone, matched, and joined with it. Together, they reached out beyond Sissy’s sense of self, beyond Harmony, out into the universe to find the threads that bound everything together. They sought the broken threads and a way to mend them. They found the connections to all life in all the far-flung planets, friendly and alien. Bit by bit they spliced them, stronger than before, until the entire web worked together so that Harmony could heal.