SUN: Yeah, but it’s gonna be the hundredth year soon.
BASIS: Feh. Supposing you lot even managed to count right.
BASIS gestures absently to the continuing rain outside the hut. SEA pouts, visibly exasperated.
SEA: Look, I’m sorry, but we’re not here to argue about the future or anything. We just need the family’s credentials, and then we can be on our way, back to port. Okay? All we want is a few trinkets, they don’t even mean anything to you! Are you, like, asking for money? You have to spell it out, but we can talk! You don’t needa live in this swamp, or –
BASIS: Still don’t know nothin’ about that, so get on to port after all. Get back to your storybooks, too. I’m happy where I am, and you can’t buy somethin’ that ain’t there! I’m sick of idiots like you comin’ around knocking! It’s shameful, to act the way you do.
SUN: Don’t be mean, old man. Just help us out.
BASIS: I can be meaner yet to you folk, if you keep talking ‘hundred years, hundred years’. It’s been done for a hundred years! It’s all gone, all starved, nothing left but scrap and stories.
SEA: Well, that’s wrong, but... pleeease mister, just work with us! One last charity!
BASIS picks up his book and lies down, reading in a way that covers his face.
BASIS: Things don’t work like that any more.
SKY joins in for the first time, the room turning to face her in surprise.
SKY: A spear still flies in wind, and we are going north. The repairs are done soon. This is our last stop afore we hit Habana. The tower stands. We demand nothing. This is only a chance to expedite the process.
BASIS sits up and scowls. His face perplexedly moves between anger, fear, wariness.
BASIS: Bull. The old capital’s under a mile of sea, not even mentioning the sites.
SUN: So what! We got a carrier and the cranes are huge.
BASIS: Ha! So you are fools! Your old warboat can barely hold together as it is, we all saw the hull. Now what, you’ll launch some old explosive deathtrap off of it?
A thick silence. The group faces the baffled BASIS expectantly. SUN fidgets, Their smile radiant.
Sea and Sky Azure Hyperballad, Act LXXV, Scene 6 – Pine Road and the estate of set Hill Head
Usas identified god with gold, but her first teachings were inscribed on slabs of jade. The scepters and flagstones of the Triple Alliance were cast in gold, but their palaces were nonetheless called “houses of jade" at the time Sofia sheltered in them. Shinmu’s honor guard carried arrows tipped with jade, and even well towards the present and the emergence of the one See – in Anklik, scholars mark “Jade" as a potential pre-Delphic name of Noe. Jade was worked by humans since the dawn of history, and undeniably enmeshed in each step of our messianic history. Some mines have stood since the first industrious few walked from the walls of Babylon, east to the steppe and mountains.
Where gold is power, glory, and stature, jade is mystery and magic. God and sun and gold are the same, representing a fundamental sameness in the idea of light, yet for every question gold provides an easy answer, to jade raises ten more. Gold is familiar, but early cultures could find nothing in the world like jade. Its spiritual properties made it feared and revered, used only in rare instruments and priceless ornaments, kept there by its scarcity and an overwhelming taboo.
Centuries later, modern theology would eventually identify it as the ley mineral. But until that point its effects were ascribed to the power of seers, of miracle-wielding warlords, of capricious spirits. Even when industrial applications began to stabilize in the 1800s, this reputation remained: the green fairy, burning verdant from the canaried reactors. It would take the sun blinking out for the spell to break, for the mastery of wormwood to be achieved.
The Sickly Star: Industry and the Deluge Crisis – [APOSTATIZED]
in which our lieutenant eats, dreams, and makes ready
Perhaps a hundred staff members were present for the executive brunch. The ones whose faces I knew, a smattering of lunics from Sever Malice’s unending retinue, and the rainbow of strange Triactian bodies and faces. The crowd bubbled, colorful and bright, and put all the debriefs and introductions to shame.
“So now you see why I’ve been so busy?" Bettany whispered from next to me. I nodded, and continued scanning the crowd.
The room was cathedral-sized, and filled with glass and arches beside. I would have expected to see an altar where the dias and main screen lay on the far wall, sandwiched between two glass walls in a wishbone arc. Behind the glass was a swaying field of yellow grass and red flowers, lit by true sunlight that must have been reflected in from the receptor. We were close, after all - both here, the conference hall, and the receptor office lay in the central zone of the habitat, ringing the central spoke and housing the most important installations. The scale of this room, the statues I had seen before - it was built to impress.
And, sure enough, in the orange light of the floor-foliage Henarl was enthralled. He could barely hold his attention to his conversation, pausing every few seconds to gawk at the grass in the breeze. How he was so excited, I’d never know; the scale of this room was just enough to recall the unsettling scale of Savannah without sparking outright nausea. A faint reminder of the overlook lurch somewhere in my stomance.
For my part, my eye was fixed on Tacimarsa. She was as she was each time I saw her - quiet, passing unnoticed through crowds and behind backs, speaking low and tense with seemingly random members of staff. At the moment, it was a surly-looking, crocodile-scaled man by the bar.
“Oh, I see!" burst out Henarl from next to us, loud enough to distract me. “I was confused. Of course they are still calling for understudies. It must have been some journey, speaking from experience."
“Well, yes, there’s regular flights out. I, for my part, my coterie grew up on the liners between Near Victory and Diadem," the lunic boy he was speaking with said airily. His name was Rain Flower, of some sel family I did not recognize, and was one of the few people on staff who looked even younger than we. “So, the flight out here was just a change of scenery! Travel, darling, was the least of my concerns when there was an opening with the master. An irrepressible vision - anyone back home, in the proper circles, can see it."
“It’s been quite the thing to see. I saw the interior for the first time, you know, knocked us right over. And our liuetenant had it even worse! Irrepressible, indeed, and it looks many more will soon have the chance to be stunned."
“Stunned! Yes, you should be excited to be here." He glanced over to me, drawing his sparkling shawl a bit closer around his shoulders, with an unintentional nervous pout. “We’re - excited - about the attention, of course. It’s a strange place, the wheel."
Henarl nodded, comically serious. “Of course. Of course."
Bettany was at my shoulder. “Did you hear me?"
“Then you agree?" She gestured with her chin across the room, still feigning small talk with me, that casual smile on her face. “Shocking, but our dear speaker was right. It’s a cult, I hope you’re seeing why."
“Of course she was right. We all should have guessed, with a place like this."
She idly squeezed her cocktail as she spoke; I had half a mind to confiscate it before she burst the bag. “She stayed up all night again, you know."
“I of all. We’re glad at least you are managing rest.."
Henarl and Flower laughed again, louder again. It was oppressive here, the beautiful glass creating a funnel of echoes noise that seemed to be raining down on us.
The more I saw Savannah, the more it came to be clear. How the staff fit together, the distinctions between them - the lunic community clustered around power and construction, the changelings to genetics and homeostasis. My first impressions were of a strange diversity, but no, it was the opposite - a joint project between the academic cults of Triactis and a disenfranchised splinter of the Board, hiding in genericness and hoping to be overlooked. By all signs, it had worked, hence the choice of auditors.
There were under a hundred solar folk on staff - were they too of some apostate sect run afoul of the Mikad@’s court? It made sense. Across the room, I watched Sever Malice gingerly pick his way through the crowd, carrying his permanent look of slight disgust.
“Look, look at him there," Bettany said, nudging me in a different direction with her foot. “I want you to watch Cote the whole brunch, Sever we will get to. See! Everyone he touches flinches."
I nodded, finding the old man in the crowd. Sure enough, the group of women (each in the same clerical uniform, and each with loose iridescent hair) he spoke with laughed, hiding their nervousness reasonably well. But I could see that they were tensed, they were simpering… I hoped it was not fear. “So, what is it?" I said. “I still say the abstellars are not involved. They were a dying breed even during Redname’s time, and we know everything about her route to ending up here. Any ideology she has is… very personal, clouded by her history. She is a follower, not a leader. And, even then, it would be no familiar breed of abstellar to tolerate inner-systemers."
As we spoke, I continued scanning the room - Tacimarsa had already gone.
“No solars on staff, remember."
“There’s a handful, there’s involvement to be sure. Notes cribbed from New Medina, consultants who worked with its construction. Inevitable, really, perhaps a ‘refugee’ group as set Pearl Wall’s is. I’ve no idea if they are influential, I would like to know."
“Yes… yes, that is a wildcard," she admitted. “But if I speak honestly, the Weylboom connection is so overwhelming I can scarce imagine anything else. But the censure process was so uncommonly thorough. Surely, not one soul could cling to their creed after seeing its results. It must be something else. My wager is vitalists."
One of the smallest, most harmless sects recorded. Changelings hoping to put their brains into dolphin bodies, as far as I’d heard, as proscribed and unrealistic as one would imagine. “I don’t see how it connects, but they were a subset of the Weylbloom staff. Tell me, has Tacimarsa yet attended one of these events?" I’d seen her before, but she had vanished while my eyes were on the old men.
She nodded with a smile. “Almost never. Stops in, once in a while, to whisper with dear leader and attend to his health. I don’t like that, either."
“He... the Weylbloom treatments, they couldn’t be in the same..."
“The same procedures? No, I’m confident no. Weylbloom’s life extension was only tangentially medical; the mechanism was direct modification of soul. The treatments here are advanced, but they simply would not have the capability. We’d be able to feel it in more than simple sourness. He’s just a normal old man with a whole hospital dedicated to him."
“Hm." None of my subjects thus far had registered as particularly devoted to Coteshinoeleon. There were the portraits in the receptor offices, Dr. Savelyevna’s maybe-friendship with Tacimarsa. But the way she spoke of her, and the way Beckon Bell had spoken of Coteshinoeleon... they had both sounded hesitant. Evasive. I would have to verify later, but those two, at least, were neither afraid nor fawning. I hoped that meant they were influential yet unindoctrinated, and not ringleaders themselves. And Redname, for her part, had been so upset about the status quo that it was clear she felt as if she had few answers; even her esteem towards her Triactian sponsors was as that between roommates.
I had to speak to someone closer, and my eyes kept drifting back to Sever Malice.
He still hung in the middle of the room, able to navigate the unweight with a grace unseen in the rest of the staff. He was dressed in a brilliant garment I could not even guess at the name of, a flowing mass of lace and silk and straps that enveloped him like a cloud. All silver, black… and yet again, superfluous ultraviolent. His face was made up like a statue, so masterfully carved that its emotions seemed to make the rest of the world grow paler.
He caught me looking, glared, and theatrically swept himself and his ensemble to face exactly away from us.
“Emelry, I need to ask something of you," Bettany said when he was no longer looking back.
“I’d like you to act excited?"
“You’ll have to spell this one out for me, prefect."
“Well, old Cote is moving his way across the room now," she nodded upwards to the opposite wall, where a small crowd was still welcoming him to the room, “and I assume he’d like to chat with the girls who’ve a knife to his gut. So, will you please play fangirl for me?"
“Well enough, if I’m allowed to be polite about it. I won’t start fawning."
“Oh, of course not. You’re the mean one of the crew, you know, chip on your shoulder."
I rolled my eyes.
“See! But I mean it, Emelry." Her tone chilled, even as her manner remained as inconspicuously chatty as it had been. She spoke so quick. “I’d like you to be surly but polite, clearly unwilling to speak with him but magnetically interested in the workings of Savannah. You’re being such a zealot right now because you’ve spun a tale for yourself that you’ve something to prove. You’re fanatic, defensive, status-concerned. But it’s all fueled by curiosity, a wonder at the grandeur of the habitat!" She smiled. “It won’t even be that far from the truth."
“Really? If you’re only going to insult me, at the least could we –“
“I’m not." She dropped the pretense of politeness. “You’re not an idiot, Emelry. This is what we’ve been doing here. It’s a cult. I meant it, we have to be as small as we can. I need the narrative, lieutenant, I’ll beg for it. Show them they have a way to buy you, and they’ll suspect you that much less"
We stared each other down, faces frozen, until Henarl nudged me in the shoulder. “You two."
I smiled, broad and just this side of forced. “Yes?"
The man himself was here.
He truly was like a ghost. He was turquoise, his skin so pale it seemed translucent, spectral. One did not typically see the like of this complexion outside of void-adapt Ilians; rather than muscle and skin, he seemed to have a thick, gel-like veneer across his entire body. His uniform was unadorned by any mark of leadership, it was the same plain airy cotton that the staff - save, predictably, the fashion-aware lunics - typically wore. The cloth seemed to fold in a bit too far when creased.
“Ah, prefect Bettany!" He smiled nimbly, blissfully unbothered by the painful-looking tubes and wires snaking through his clothes. “You’re here early. That’s very good. And you’ve brought the lieutenant! Even better. Tell me, miss Sainshand, is she the last I’ve gotten a chance to talk with?"
Bettany spoke for me, cheery and relieved. “Yes, teacher- well, her and Didion. He’s our scribe, and you come to expect some shyness from the role. But, here we are! Emelry Sainshand, Coteshinoeleon."
“I’ve been looking forward, so much to meeting you," he said, holding his smile and taking my hand. Henarl had managed to explain to me the tradition of handshake, but feeling mine in his was still bizarre. “You’ve been kicking up a storm already, I heard? Glad you’re bringing the energy."
Well, the spotlight was on. I crossed my arms. “Only my due diligence. Honored to meet you, teacher. I’m glad to be here, and quite eager to jump into my duties. An audit should be efficient, from the first."
“Straight to business!" He laughed, Bettany joining him with a polite chuckle. “Just as I’d expect, good. We appreciate your diligence plenty - I’m looking forward to seeing your process, that impressive pedigree at work. You run into a lot of Sainshands, if you read up just a little on how audits work."
“Aha, Bettany has been gossipping, I see." I scoffed, doing my best to lighten the strange mood. “It’s no dynasty, really; butchers pass their shops down."
A beat of quiet. “Why is this the only thing you can find humbleness for?" Bettany said, and they laughed to end the silence. I let myself join in.
“Well, teacher. Now that we are some acquainted, I’d like again to schedule our preliminary. Your station, I’m sure, is busy - but I am always eager to move forward.."
“No question, no question. It’s a big time. I mean, today is the day! The first wave of promotionals has been a great undertaking, you can imagine how hectic and exciting things are. And you’ve heard Anyn speak of it; he of everyone has been working overtime… there’s a lot of catching up to do. Of course I’d like to schedule, soon as I am able… really, it’s so promising you’ve come when you have. I’ll say, when Taci and I first settled here long-term, after all the drama, I couldn’t have imagined this place working as well as it does now."
“And you even came from Saniasa, no?" Bettany chimed, and leaned in. “We still need to exchange some stories about the city. It’s great you had the chance to see it, it’s built so rare that non-neotenes can appreciate it! I shan’t see it for another three years, but even that seems an age."
They turned away from me, having dodged the question entirely, and at last I witnessed the famous rapport Bettany had been so desperately cultivating. I perched there, now fiddling with my own drink, as they talked of the city, of arriving in new places, of the grandeur of discovery - I let them prattle together, making note of his tendence to ramble, gesture, and come to very few real points but quite many pointed . After what seemed like hours, a clap rang out from the other side of the room.
Anyndelhataman clung to the side of the great screen at the other end of the room, waving like a sailor as the occasional system light whirred awake.“Hey, hello, everybody attention please! I think we’re all ready now... if we could get the lights, Pymin... great!"
A staff member fiddled with the controls, and the room’s lights dipped dim - something about the light was unsettling. It felt like a rare middle-point of light, the dull gold from the yawning glass walls against the cold dark blue of the inner screens.
Where had he come from? Cote was suddenly next to me, conspiratorial. “Room a bit too wide, is it?" He must have caught the discomfort in my face. “I don’t know why they built it this way either, you should take it up with the real mastermind. I’m not a fan, either. Unbalanced light, all that grass clouding things up for drying out. Hm."
Before I could think of how to respond, the room rang out in scattered cheers, polite clapping, as the screen flared up with the Triactian butterfly seal. Anyndel grinned his playful tiger’s grin, “Ahem!", and Coteshinoeleon loomed right next to me, his eyes like heavy iron wherever they settled.
“Thanks for making it to another great brunch, everyone! Really, really glad to have you here, especially our guests –“ Anyndelhataman gestured straight to us. Everyone clapped, perhaps a bit less enthused than he, And Coteshinoeleon nodded to them all from next to me. “The audit really is a gamechanger for us, can’t overstate that. A complete shift in our position and progress! This, all this, means the real start of Phase Three. We’re here, folks, we really are."
The room murmured happily at that – we among the crew had heard talk of the ‘phases’ often. Formulation, Iteration; Publication was the third of five phases, followed by Propagation and Realization. All corporate code-words, we were still making sense of their layered meanings. But three, anyone on staff could tell you, was monumental. The halfway point of the long journey.
“We have so far to go, you guys. I’m so excited to face it with you. Well, I’ll throw you in blind! Our first wide-release promotion is running… now!" The lights finished fading, the fields of grass suddenly dark as the sea.
The screen slowly came to life, poignant, tinkling music fading in from black over the voice of a much younger Sever Malice.
He was almost unrecognizable. Across the room – he was gaunt, his frame stretched to a brittle plastic break, most definitely a peer of Coteshinoeleon’s. But here, on screen, he was in his prime, the flower of his youth. He was resplendent in full Board regalia, perfectly coiffed and gleaming hair dancing about his shoulders in the soft pink light. It was the same rose-tint as Diadem’s glass sky - long before his exile. “Habitats," he said, to an interviewer off-screen, “are named as people are.
“Habitats must be built to have a history. Character is the paramount concern of an architect; personality. Color, shape, temperament, each a quality of the human body that must be echoed and upheld in a habitat. There are some habitats one could easily identify as gold or silver, male or female. Noble habitats built to foster nobility, others perfectly adapted to foreign spirits. Each has a history, a character-of-culture, that progresses as a human life does. People are reflected within themselves..
“So it is for cities. But not for worlds. You’ve asked my opinion on New Medina, and I do admire it. But it is not Hightower-built, it’s a fact. Speaking as a former understudy on the very project, it suffers from a shocking dearth of imagination, of personality." Someone off-camera laughed, and Sever waved it away with a demure magnanimous smile. “Really, though, la! It is grand, but what is it? Only a facsimile of veldt and waste and rain. There are no plans for its blank slate, no identity to build on. Of course, this is the object when dealing with certain among the See..." More laughs, a high female one piercing the murmur.
Sever all but purred behind his fan. He snapped it shut and continued, more sober. “While an architect cannot forgive a lack of color, I do understand the deficit. It is a world, after all, that is the one true accomplishment, and perhaps its scale was thought to demand it generic. An abstract openness - I understand it. But oh, it is so easy to dream for more.
“‘Heath’ is not the name of a person. It means something different. By way of its natural grandeur, blue jewel and red land - it contains, describes our entire foundation of spirit. Too many stories, too much color. It is not named as a person but as a species; where and what the species is. Could the canopy say the same, in another hundred years? Could Lune say it, had it been named Waste, or Sea? I enjoy that, the land-name. Call all of dysonspace Light, a dream of Ares matured to a hearty Taiga. Why should we hesitate? Why shy from the boldness of naming our works equal to the heaths of Eden? What I dream of holding in my hands... is the Savannah."
And the music swelled full, cutting to sweeping drone footage. Bits of it I recognized; the same plains and rivers and herds of the interior, and of life in the caps. There was the reactor complex, busy with staff moving through its gardens – but there too were the emptier parts of the place, the ghost-resorts, mocked up to be bustling with people of all shapes and colors, bands playing and birds flying among its balustrades.
Coteshinoeleon’s voice, fraught and steady and deep, closed out the video. Over a kaleidoscope of color and scenery he spoke, “The world’s largest ecological reserve. An unlimited testbed of genetic innovation. Land, weather, geology, built into history’s greatest monument." The montage came to an end, and left us with a healthier-looking Coteshinoelon, in a great green weighted building. It seemed to be a greenhouse of the interior. He paced by a railing over a pit, a pit that held a miniature, diorama-view of Savanni wildlife tumbling about - only flashes were visible. Miniaturized gazelle herds, bonzai groves with whimsical treehouses mocked up in them. He planted his hands on the metal, gestured grandly over the scene; “We have passed the time of frontiers – ours is the time of canvases. Savannah: the painted land."
As he spoke, the butterfly seal bled back into the picture until it was all that was left. The logo faded in turn, and left us with an increasingly distant view of Savannah, spinning alone in the void. The lights rose, and the crowd exploded.
Bettany clapped loud and proud and steady, and I joined her as best I could. Coteshinoeleon smiled, still watching the black screen before us as the light hit his face again. The staff were electrified in parts, feigning excitement in others - but he, he stared as if through the wall, miles away.
When quiet fell and Anyndelhataman began taking questions, he clapped his hands and turned back to us. “And there we are. So? Impressions? I’d love to hear an outsider’s perspective."
Bettany nodded, “This is the very first publicly released piece?"
“Outside of some nonsense footage sent to the regulatory bodies, yes. I know some rumors have been swirling… especially in Diadem. Hopefully this will shed some light, open some doors. Stir the pot, if we can."
“Well, it will certainly do that. A taste of the beauty possible here, and the start with set Pearl Wall is bold! It emphasizes what a historical project this is."
“Ah, I’m very glad. The legacy aspect has been one of the trickiest. How does one emphasize the real weight of a century-long project? I say, through the lives of those who have been with it the longest.“What are the next steps for releases?" I asked. “Straight to virtual tours?"
“I believe we can answer that." Coteneoshinoeleon smiled, and swept back to the room – only craning his neck for a moment before Anyndelhataman, who had been talking with a frustrated-looking Sever Malice, caught the gesture and hurried over. Sever followed in his trail, and lingered on the edges of our forming group
No one spoke before Coteshinoeleon did.
“Ah, Anyndel! How are you feeling?"
“Excited, teacher! I’ve watched that at my desk maybe five hundred times this week, but on the big screen! I’m proud, teacher."
“Wonderful. We were just discussing the roadmap for Phase Three, and knew you’d have some insight," Coteshinoeleon said, and Anyndelhataman nodded vigorously along. “And Sever, come, why don’t you ingratiate yourself? It’s a good day."
“Thank you," Sever said dryly. Anyndelhataman fidgeted next to him, dwarfed despite his own hefty stature by that dizzying lunic height. He looked unsure as to whether he was allowed to speak; Coteshinoeleon nodded to him when it was clear Sever Malice had nothing more to say.
“For the record, it’s still being edited. But it’s a strong first draft. We’re trying to work in as much archival footage as possible. What did you think, set? Done you justice?"
“I’m glad you kept the laugh, in, they’ll hate it." A smirk threatened to pass over Sever Malice’s leathery face, but did not. “Though, I still don’t see why it couldn’t have featured a more recent seminar, actually filmed on-site. It’s a bit exoticizing, isn’t it? The tone of a postmortem hagiography."
“Well, it will serve as one one day. Won’t it, old friend?" Coteshinoeleon patted him gently on the back - and he flinched. “We’re all getting up there, on the countdown or close to it. But we are seeing these great days, no? All I could have asked."
His smile was stuck onto his face. I spoke up, as light and polite as could be. “Coteshinoeleon, I’d like again to work a plan of scheduling. You are the chief priest of Savannah’s staff - speaking as one of a crew of priests, I have been curious about your theological standpoint. It must take a great faith to build the ethos of a place such as Savannah."
“I assure you, he has not ministered in quite some time," said Sever.
Coteshinoeleon laughed, “Chief priest! It does seem a silly title, sometimes, just a relic from the early days. Yes, I do technically oversee Savannah, but I passed on the duties to my successors long ago. My doors are open. But for things like that, you’d be better served with Taci, or even Anyndel."
“Sainshand, please," Bettany huffed. “I’m sorry."
“I get it! She’s very keen. But let’s enjoy brunch, lieutenant. I won’t put it off forever, but all of us are busy. You, with your preparations as well. It would be a great help if we deferred to, say, after your visit to the surface." His eye twinkled. “Did you notice the glimpse? The fields, the greenhouse… it will be enlightening to see, Emerly."
I almost protested, heart racing at his using my proper name, until I saw Bettany’s face.
“And, speaking of timing, you’ll have quite a task pinning this one down," he continued, gesturing to Sever Malice. “Dodgy."
“You’ll find I have no problem with working out the details. I can be flexible. I am so flexible that we could begin now."
Sever Malice was unaffected. he looked straight at me. “Would you like to hold our preliminary now?"
Bettany laughed hastily. “A good joke, set! Oh, that it were so easy. But the crew of a lawship is bound to a very specific standard; you’ll excuse the red tape. These things must be private, and all the regulations observed."
“Must they?" He raised his voice. “I’d think it a better system for public figures to have sessions in the public square. Why wait for the hearings to let my community hear what I have to say about all your questions. My work, my process? What would you like to discuss?"
People were watching. It was not that a crowd had formed, only that so many eyes were on us, from all across the room. The gazes had been gathering for some time, ever since Sever Malice had stalked over to the other highest-ranking among the staff. Rain Flower looked to be panicking, unsure whether to remain next to Henarl or dodge the attention himself and join the crowd.
Bettany shook her head, short and simple. “I’m sorry, but that would be too irregular."
Sever Malice continued, his bold voice in the slowing room. Whispers behind him. “It would be hard to find a place more irregular than Savannah, la! If privacy is a concern, pick whichever corner you’d like," he said, pointing at my sachet, “and consider leaving your devices behind."
Bettany opened her mouth; this time I was the one to cut her off. “Set Pearl Wall, there are non-negotiables. Standard stands with all its process for a reason, some things we cannot change for the sake of whim and circumstance." I turned my lie detector over and over in my fingers, running my finger-nails down the spiral grooves of the active surface.
“And standard also swears you to servitude to the people of the Ecumene. Is that not us? I know I am at the top of your list, can’t I speak frankly after being targeted?"
“Sever," Coteshinoeleon said, gently touching him on the shoulder. “Enough."
And at hearing that, the growing crowd vanished. Every head turned away, every conversation continued from where it had been arrested.
“Procedure is procedure, we’re all doing our jobs. So put that off for another hour! Here, prefect, there’s still a few drinks you haven’t tried."
He and Bettany ushered us to a new table, holding some sort of buffet. Sever Malice hung back with me.
“You don’t realize where we stand, lieutenant. We will talk, and talk soon, and it will be tonight. Acceptable?"
“O-of course. Set, I’ve been the one continually arguing for speed."
“Speed is always good. But I won’t allow you to rush without realizing what this place is. You saw that awful video, my scoffing and preening. How frivolous the idea of Savannah once seemed. But who can deny what a golden beacon it has become since? Nothing in the world was able to prevent its manifest. Why did they send you, all greenlings?"
Somehow, I did not flinch at this. I looked him in the glittering eyes, listening.
He nodded. “Know this: the world has rejected one of its true wonders. Nothing can compare. This is no equal to Medina, or Kozue - this will be greater yet. This is all but holy ground. And if you mean to talk to me, as that prefect does, knowing only how to wheedle and cajole, you can never see it. Poor girl, your machines and mandates. What will you do?"
“Emelry?" Bettany called, from a table where the rest had ended up. “Come join us! You must try the swan roast, they’ve even real cranberries here!"
“I will soon!" I called back, and answered Sever. “Then, you are asking for tonight?"
“Of course, you’ll not see me anywhere so bright as this again. My office, midnight."
“You’ll forgive the silver intensity. I have my duties, too."
He moved one knee, and was sailing away across the strange golden cathedral of a room.
Bettany looked like she wanted to hit me when I was back. We laughed more, and ate, and I felt the weight of this world’s palace walls.
We stormed down the hall together.
“Will you stop pouting?" Bettany asked, just keeping up with me. The corridor flew by. “You did fine, despite the outburst. There was tension, yes, but…"
“I am doing my best, prefect, to act how you have asked. Why are you surprised when I come off as unnaturally as you do?"
“Very well! There’s no need for barbs. I appreciate the effort, I’ve told you that. What did Sever say to you?"
An anger welled up in me. “I don’t know. I don’t like it. I am scared enough already, at the crowd back there, much less his strange midnight errands."
“I wish I could say it was as simple as us drawing attention." Bettany said. “But that was a bit beyond typical social dynamics, perhaps even a supercohesion. Really, Emelry, I wish you had left out the talk of interrogation entirely."
“But is that not what you asked of me? That pointed eagerness? I do what I can, but I cannot just… dance on command! I was standing up for myself."
“And doing so too much, getting us further away from the script, from cover. It all resolved well today, but you have to think! You were warned it was a sensitive subject for the set. So, what did he say?"
“Shadows and secrets," I spat. “I’m to meet him alone this night, as he has some grand announcement, or lesson to give me. I do not know."
“Good! That is good! A guilty conscience, do you think? He certainly is cryptic. You’re frustrated, why?"
“Because," I said, pushing off especially hard from a passing wall, “you are micromanaging. Let me be, let me think, let me operate as I was trained to."
“Will you slow down?" she said, speeding up behind me in turn. I kept just ahead of her. “You’re going to hurt yourself, again."
“We’re needed at the ship."
“Emelry! This is too fast," she said, catching up, grabbing my arm, and pushing us both into a spin down the corridor. “Can we please have a conversation?"
My other arm went flailing, “Speak for yourself! Let go of me!"
She did not. She stabilized us and kicked off the walls until we had ceased our breakneck pace. We came to a rest, Henarl zones and zones behind us.
“Really? That was dangerous! You must stop acting so childish -"
“Childish!" I batted her hand away. “Have you not demanded that from me, prefect? First I am excluded from any command decisions on the voyage, and now you mean to move my tongue for me, and use me as scapegoat. By what right? You really think you can treat me like this, make demands -"
“Yes! Yes, I do think so, by the right of prefect! Where in the world do you think you are?"
I looked away. “A mausoleum."
“So flippant; does this mean you are at last comprehending the scale? Are the numbers affecting you? We are no longer in academy war games, where you’ve the luxury to posture and pout. I need you! I need you now, Emelry, and I need you with me. Is it not so terribly delicate, bitter since the beginning? Yet this is the crucial stage."
“I know. I know. I know it is." I caught my breath. We’d perched in a doorway between two empty antechamber, the sharp marble threshhold cold on my lower hands.
“Thank you, you’re listening now," she said - almost gently, but then raised her voice again. “But evidently, you do not! We’ve now confirmation of a cult, confirmation that whatever is down there, ghosts banging on our door as we sleep. I cannot – we can no longer bicker. I cannot argue with you, nor force you to do anything. But you need to look at yourself, the situation we’re in. It’s your job to read people; my job is to read you. And Emelry? You aren’t at the best I know of you, not when you’re distracted."
I sighed. “Then, enlighten me, dearleader. What is it that is distracting me, besides fear of the dark and aggravation at my management?"
“See how well you can listen." She smiled, and smoothed a loose fold of my hood for me. “But it’s clear, to me at least. You are so caught in the need to be, and stand well, that you forget how to maneuver. We have nothing to prove to these people. We are here for one purpose, and must make that purpose seem convenient."
“You’re right. That is my issue. I don’t like the secrecy. I know you think it necessary, and it may well be. But that was not what I have hoped for. It is not the proper role of a haruspex."
“I know. But can you make peace with that? That a bit of rule-bending is necessary when we work at this scale?"
Henarl was quickly catching up with us again, panting and confused. “I can’t stand you, Bettany John."
She looked satisfied with that. Henarl blustered at us about being so reckless, Bettany laughed him off, and we returned to our little ship.
Bettany swept through the airlock with hardly a look, yanking off her hood and tying it to her cubby in one fluid motion. Henarl hurried after her, making a scene in getting his outdoor footgloves off and finding his indoor ones. Anahit waited hesitantly at the door, exchanging a muted “good morning" with Bettany before creeping in with me.
“Hello." I unpacked my bag into its cubby, keeping only my notes.
“Are you all right?"
I handled my things too roughly, slamming the little door with a muffled echo in the room. “Yes, well. Just a minor disagreement on the way back."
“Oh... is she being terrible again?"
“We all are. Has the letter arrived, by the way?"
She brightened. “Yes! Earlier than expected, we’ll watch through it over a meal."
“Ugh, I don’t know if I could eat more..." Brunch was so full of food, little drones flying new little morsels over every few minutes. All far too rich.
“Well, it is here regardless! It came in not an hour ago. It turns out, the handlers are quite close to us along the wheel, isn’t that lucky?"
“I’m glad our happy administrators have at last found the time for us... have you watched it already, what are they saying?"
“No! No, of course not, I’d hoped to watch all together..."
“Everyone take ten and we’ll have some theater!" Bettany called from deeper into the rooms. Anahit smiled at me apologetically.
“And there we are! Seems she wants to get it over with. Come, Emelry, let’s be happy for the taste of home."
When we’d regrouped in the library, Didion had finished setting the screens to the emblem of the archdiocese. Our Ilion logo – a fairy-knight chess piece, winged and reversed – hummed reassuringly, the engine in its base whirring. The screen shifted to a video of two neotenes side by side in a cramped cycler cockpit – Tivali and Matali Fatima, the twin haruspex supervisors assigned to our crew.
Of course it would be them. The archdiocese always kept classmates close to each other in the field, but it was not every class that was lucky enough to include twins; material for the navigator course. They were of our year, and had themselves recently moved into a wheeler ship, one that was nearly as new and fresh as ours. The corps have must be trying to put its best foot forward – fresh young faces in fancy new ships, the lot of us. That it was them that made all this seem even more of a charade.
“Hello, you happy few!" The woman waved. “Terrible apologies for not checking in sooner, but I trust you’ve been adjusting well!"
“‘Not checking in sooner’, she says, breathing down our necks." Bettany muttered. The video continued.
“Oh, I am envious! All the footage of the place has looked marvelous, it must feel like flying to be there. They’ve afforded us the privilege of some of the pre-release promotionals, but of course nothing substantial... the big day is so soon!" she said, Tivali nodding along.
Bettany was grating, but she had the skill of her role. The twins had gained their office by their twinhood, and had never had much interest in the duties of study.
“Ah, erm, to matters of business," she coughed. “Ti?"
“Yes. Chain of command is still unstable here, as you may have guessed. Everyone is still adapting to their assignments, rushed and fledgling.." her brother spoke up, and Bettany tipped her head back in a silent groan. “It is what it is."
“We are all flying solo, so please do lean on us," Matali chirped. “Now that we are official representatives of the archdiocese, you’ll find we can be an excellent resource!"
Even Tivali couldn’t be too enthused at that. “Um… well, I suppose we should to guidelines, get our thoughts on the table. Now, the… stature of the audit may be discouraging. But don’t let it be. This is not meant to be a deep probe. Savannah, by all accounts including yours, has been a quiet project despite how it may appear. The staff is only in the thousands, no? Olkha and Mon have been rather close in consultation with us, and especially with your assignment, so before getting into the specifics please know the standard really should be archival and historical documentation. What we’re looking for most is matters of design ethos, hopes for the future, collaboration for the grand opening.."
Matali took over again. “We would like preliminaries to begin within a week or two, once you’ve had the time to settle in." Bettany shot me a look at that. “But, if you are looking for a place to focus your concern, Emelry… we’d also be interested in the temperature there, among the lunic staff. The construction history is… well, we will just say that Novarian archdiocese is still very concerned about the scale and pace of it all. As I’ve said, a light probe! No need to go digging. But, if you do notice anything, we would like confirmation on if there is any conflict with the Hightower proprietary mandates. Any… extraneous techniques, equipment, things of that nature. But that’s the only big thing, I suppose... oh! And of course, the apostate girl! Speak with whoever you can in sales, I still remember that sunbeam..." I couldn’t help but scoff at the last point.
“We’ve been looking over the records from the decommission, how she ended up on staff. All by the book. But one never knows, and the HR director was… not particularly helpful."
“And…" she said, checking the notes they’d written, “There’s… not much job stuff left to say, really. You’ve all your orders, and by this point know the place better than, well, anyone else in the world. All we can say from here is, good luck! I… ooh, I just wish we could see it."
Tivali cleared his throat. “I hoped we could use the rest of the time for some other news. We know you’re still on the socials blackout, and may appreciate some updates. So, this is mostly for Didion, but Maren and Si got assigned right after you departed. They’re at Rufus, also a Triactis project, but it’s fir the thirty-year review. I think a lot of the class is ending up with Triactis, at least among those who’ve received their assignments. Did you know Umihotaru was only the second to depart?"
“And so new! The Spiruline is beautiful, it’s made embarking so much easier. I’m so glad this is a new crew, mostly traders and specialist doctors for the moment, but we’re hoping it will fill up soon! I don’t know what I would have done if we had to take over from retiring navigators… ah, but I’m rambling. That is where we are, but on to the girls’ side! Cabeya made prefect and was straight off to that new solar hab, also a grand opening. We’re quite the prestigious year, no? They’re still in transit, Jami ended up right with her on the Dyata…"
Half the video was dedicated to class gossip. Our year was composed of roughly fifty aspiring haruspices. strong, and only thirty-two had graduated, in six crews and one navigator pair - there was only news of the graduates. At last they signed off with a “We miss you, Anahit, and everyone else."
“Hope you’ll be back by the end of next year. Mon says you should be. We’ll see you then."
“Signing out! Enjoy yourselves enough for the rest of us, alright?" And the screen blinked back to the logo.
Anahit broke the silence. “That was… nice, really."
“Though barely a work call," Kaitei mumbled.
Bettany clicked the screen off and turned to face the rest of us. “God, they are such… right. Anyone require another viewing?" she lilted.
“No," Henarl said. Kaitei shook his head next to him, and Anahit was quiet and slightly confused.
“Good. I can’t tell whether to be glad or terrified," she said. “Henarl, thoughts."
“It seemed a bit misguided."
“Misguided! I say we cut most contact, if I am honest," Bettany said. “Keep it sterile and professional, for dignity and caution, bare minimum communications. Oh, I want to tell them nothing, really. Am I wrong here?"
“I don’t like the idea of shutting them out," I said. “They’re a silly pair, we’ve known that. It’s only something to work around. Is it prudent to be so cagey?"
Anahhit spoke up, “Prefect, wait. What do you mean by cut contact? I… now, more than ever, as we prepare to explore… they must be brought up to speed on our fears! Can we not float the idea of a hostile audit, at the least?"
“Anahit, Olkha’s feeding them orders as we speak, and they’re telling us to put on kid gloves. ‘Not a deep probe’?! The one thing we are sure of is the intractable, pervasive connection to Weylbloom, and like it or not, she is another point on that map."
“What?" Anahit asked, scandalized. “How could you imply she, of anyone, would fall to a cult. I know all three of them, you know them too, it isn’t fair to throw away trust so quickly."
“With these numbers, I don’t think we’ve the room for trust. I make no implications, but we are better off safer. And besides… haven’t we been having technical difficulties? On a lawship just months out from construction? Please, that doesn’t happen."
Kaitei nodded along with that, and I found myself agreeing. He continued, “The systems interruptions. Do you think there’s been some type of compromise?"
Anahit blanched. “W-what? Do you mean, a wiretap?"
Kaitei shrugged, “That’s never been my field, I specialized in hardware and medical. I always saw the possibility as absurd."
Bettany nodded, “It’s very, very possible. I was not enthused about linking our systems, but we could hardly refuse. They may be intercepting anything in and out. I feel we must operate under this assumption; that command is careless at best, and that any transmissions will be heard. I don’t think it’s safe to call for help."
“But… but if something happens to us!" Anahit broke out. “And truly, do a few crossed wires suggest so much?"
“Here we are again," Kaitei mumbled.
“Are we… afraid of the leadership?" Didion asked, frankly and unaccusingly. The room paused a beat at his uncharacteristic forwardness.
“Oh, deeply, of course," Bettany said. “But only of what they are doing. Indoctrination is present, but likely not fanatic in the majority of staff. If I’ve guessed correctly at them being vitalists they’re strictly nonviolent. What they take nonviolent to mean is anyone’s guess, however, hence the potential breach."
“And are we truly sure it is a cult?" he continued. “It’s a distant outpost built for grandeur yet winning no recognition. They’ve toiled for decades, as shunned as you may imagine. We must make far more allowance for strange ideas and bitterness, for some divergence at least. Emotions run high here, it is Triactis, the project is strange. If we are to call it such, it must be fair."
“I understand, I really do. We’ll be charitable. But it is incontrovertible. I am convinced these are the same subcell that originated in the lower-ranked Weylbloom staff, and malcontents in the Triactian academies. There is not much of a distinction, only the widening of the experience of life rather than its infinite sustainment."
“What does that mean?" Anahit asked.
“I’m not sure. It’s not so simple to go and ask. But it definitely means the creation of whatever is the interior, and the effects up here seem to go no further than minor hedonism and the social experimentation we’re used to with Triactis. Inoffensive, the parts I’ve seen." She paused. “But how could they expect us not to know by now? The scrys were so easy…"
Anahit looked ready to cry. “I knew it, you know. The first thing I said when we left, the first thing I said when we arrived. Why did it have to be the first assignment? What is wrong with them, it’s all so heavy, I..."
“Speaker, please? Don’t whine. We’ve a job to do; we are those who stand up then. This is our lot."
Didion spoke as Anahit shrunk into herself. “Then, the plan is…? I trust Tiv and Mat, but what you’ve said is reasonable. Should we assume command is unreliable and the staff perverse; what are we to do? Where is our recourse?"
“I want to know! I want… a full, deep picture of what is happening here, what has been born here. Whatever complete history we are all satisfied with, while maintaining the image of ignorance throughout. And then, I suppose… yes. When we have that, we will immediately go to the See. Henarl was right. That is the scale."
The meeting ended in low spirits. We put together a short draft of our response, but left recording it for another day, when we had the heart for it. Fewer people yet we could put trust in, and now the highest response was our only possible one. What would happen when we did call the See? Leave, and let their proceedings here go unmediated? Stay, and cower for nine months from the resentful staff?
I saw few ways out of something I knew so little of. I saw it on all of our faces - even Bettany’s frown was strained, something wild and cold in her eyes.
“Sainshand," Henarl said, catching it in me. “We will be well." He walked me out of the library again, as the meeting fizzled out and we slowly gravitated to our tasks. “This is still what we have prepared for. It will be well."
I thanked him, but his kindness was yet another strange, strange thing of Savannah.
Sleep was predictably fitful. Bettany read a while before falling asleep with her tablet still on, and I stayed up longer. I watched the great white arcs of the docks’ structure looming from the window. The occasional maintenance automaton skittered like a small sea-creature from pylon to pylon, miles away.
As to how many miles, who could guess. At a certain scale you stopped trying to make sense of it. I was restless – sleep would only give me a cycle of dreamless dark and fidgeting. No use.
Anahit had never come to bed. I distentagled myself from the hammock and loped out to the rest of the ship. Bettany had put the lights on a 24-hour cycle like the rest of Savannah, and it would have been utter dark if it were not for the warm lights from the library, the low cold white of the kitchen lamps, and the reflected sunlight from the bleached bones of Savannah. I passed through the ceramic halls with their bronze filigree, and sure enough, Anahit was in the kitchen.
She floated at the center of the room, curled up with a tablet and turning gently in midair.
“Emelry!" she unfolded, and her lower hands snatched a perch to face me. “Why are you up? You need the rest more than any of us. Not another night excursion?"
“You’ve guessed it." The kitchen was lit low and cold, and her eyes were sunken. “But no camping trip this night. I’d hoped to get some rest before my appointment with set Pearl Wall."
She found the bitterness in my voice and matched it. “He is certainly demanding. Meetings at midnight, you shouldn’t allow it."
“He’s particular, I’ve been warned of it so many times I’ve lost count." I rummaged in the refrigerator but could see nothing I could stomach. The richness of brunch still weighed on me. “Frankly, I’d like to be through with it, and I will play the game if it is faster."
“Hey..." she said, closing the door and taking my hand. “Just postpone next time, okay? You’ve had a hard enough day already with those hours with her. You shouldn’t have to spend so much time with others."
“No, Anahit, worry less. This is my role, it’s only growing pains. What are you up so late with?"
“Just… reading," she said. “Looking through Didion’s dossier for clues, but nothing makes sense tonight. Emelry… look at you. You’re not taking care of yourself. Even the twins said we should be taking our time. I know there are concerns now, suspicions of our own… and I know you’re stressed, of course we all would be.“
“I’m not." I drew away.
“Well, alright. But you never snap at me when you’ve a grip on yourself." she said, drawing back in turn and pushing back to her perch. Her fists were little balls on her lap.
I explained to her carefully, joining her at the table. “I apologize... look at us, still awake. Remember, I could go forty hours back home with no trouble? And here I am falling apart after a few missed naps…"
“What? Why do you laugh?"
“You are crazy! That’s not something to brag about, you know. You treat insomnia like a favorite credential?"
“If there’s ever a time where overwork could help! Ah..."
“I know, I know…" She sobered some, and put one hand over mine again. “Oh! I was meaning to ask, after the call... did you ever spend much time with them? The twins, I mean."
“You really underestimate how unique the speaker course is, dear. They don’t let us common-curriculums even meet with navigators outside of a few planned events, they’re much too busy with their exercises. Maybe you and your lavendries."
“I know that." She giggled again. “And you underestimate people’s ability to meet outside of the classroom or crew. Considering your family, I’d assumed Tiv and Mat would have been interested in you, even if not you in them. A blessed lineage," she intoned, mimicking lady Olkha’s voice.
“Oh, this again." It was true that my line was rich in twins – my grandfather and his brother, several removed cousins I barely knew, and that plenty more were in the corps. It was an easy opportunity. “I do not understand why they are all so set on bringing it up... Bettany’s been talking it up to the staff, I suspect, intent on making it about more than luck."
“Still... I envy you."
“What, the stuffy family? Please, you’d never need."
“Well... just that you are more prepared for this sort of thing. I had so little image of what to expect… often I have thought that the speaker course is all prayer and practice, little of the practical."
“Having family in the corps rarely remedies that," I said. “You hear a few more stories, travel a bit more, perhaps. But the confidentiality and oaths still loom. I expected none of this, either."
She reacted little. She touched each of her fingertips together, one by one. “I... I really, really, really don’t want to be here any more, Emelry…"
“It is only… I come to feel lost. Emptied. As if the world blinked out behind us the moment we made dock."
“And yet the sunlight still finds us, Anahit." I took her hand, and gently pushed us closer to the window. “I was watching as I turned in bed. See, how those bones of the docks are glinting with it. Adonai is here, alone as we may be - I know this half so well as you do. What else would we need, to let us work and try?"
She gave a slight, crooked smile. “Perhaps. Perhaps..."
“There’s plenty to worry of, dear. But if my family’s stories have managed to teach me a thing, it’s that the homesickness will fade. We are already used to it, all of us. At the dawn of Ilion, the first indigo children born upon the wheel – did they not too feel as if the world was behind them? We are yet in the world. The void is kind, whenever light is in it, and it is the same void as home."
“Aha!" she sniffled. “You... see? You are so sure of yourself. And I... I..."
“Anahit, it will be well. We will leave again, whole and hale, and the months will too heal whatever ails this place. If the world is behind us, sun shines at our back. Cling to that."
“Do you promise?"
Malice in truth! I glanced at the clock Bettany had nailed to one of the walls. The hour grew closer, and I could not chance being late with the man.
“You should go," Anahit said, carefully, “it’s alright. I’ll be well. It’s... just the cycle hitting me. My temperament will stabilize. You can go."
“Will you be awake when I am back?"
“Ha. I do not know. God willing, I will sleep soon - but it seems unlikely. I’ve caught the bug."
“All right… oh, Anahit, would you walk down with me?"
“No," she said, a quiet smile. “The night, in those halls? No, it would serve me ill. It’s alright, Emelry. You should go."
We said goodbye, and suddenly I was back in the stark cold of the sleeping facades.
The central lunic offices were alive with activity, even this late at night - more appropriately, because it was so late. Silvers were defined by their nocturnalism, and each of them here were in their element, just as Sever knew he would be.
Again, here were the early tendrils of weight. My bare feet found the strange paths and stairs of the lunic quarter, every bit built for giants. There were echoes of the design that went into the receptor offices, but none of the concrete. Here was all soft grass and broad cushioned walls, and lovingly carved filigree under glittering screen-skies.
It was so strange to remember people lived here, made homes here. I passed through, the occasional whisper or wave from those socializing on the balconies, but for the most part I was ignored underfoot. Workplace and residence could merge here, I thought, as I was passed by the occasional passerby loping along at their incredible long-legged speeds. Here was a haven, outside the logic of prepackaged purpose that defined the upper levels.
In the comfort of his office Sever Malice was regal – a far cry from his sneering demeanor I’d seen at brunch. Still aloof, make no mistake, but self-possessed. In his fur chair behind his great mahogany desk, filled with trinkets and models and unrecognizable species of potted plants, he stared at me unflinching from the moment his secretary showed me the way in. He was dressed in an even more elaborate getup, lips and eyes done up in violet and ultraviolet both, subsumed in a business gown so black that its folds were invisible. It was a bold choice, surely sacreligious to those who had exiled him. A statement, as clinging to his title was.
The room was lit low and golden-gray, like century-old candles.
“Good evening, set Pearl Wall," I said, hesitating. He nodded back at me, indicating I should sit. I complied, and I took one of the chairs across from him and winced as I settled into it – it touched my arms, my back, suffocating and designed for those much larger than I.
“It’s night. Are you well?" he asked, with a hint of that purr I’d heard in his voice before. We were at the foot of the throne he’d built for himself. “Being here cannot be best for your constitution. Water, cushion, anything?"
“I believe I will be well," I said, adjusting in the seat. “Thank you, but the weight is something we’ve been preparing for. I must be used to it soon, after all."
“Razina did mention the excursion. I’m glad you’ve insisted on it. You’re really going though, not just sending a drone?"
“It’s what we’ve decided on. Our prefect has been quite set on seeing the interior proper, and it’s fallen to myself and our scribe."
“Ah," he smiled, “the other one I haven’t met. It’s good you’re visiting, it really is, God knows those assigned down there could certainly use the company. Such a hamlet."
Of all the staff of Savannah, Sever Malice I had been dreading speaking with the most. Perhaps none of my candidates were so far from myself, with so towering of a reputation. He had been vicious at brunch, Beckon had gone to great pains to warn me of his temperament - but now that I found myself with him, alone, there was little intimidation left. But the last dregs of it still made me swallow, when I reached across the table.
“Sever Malice, I thank you again for scheduling with me so promptly. I apologize for any offense that may have been given this morning. But I meant it then: some parts of this process are not optional." From my pocket I drew my detector, and carefully placed it before me. “I will waive the proper application. But it must be present, if we are beginning in earnest. Do you understand?"
For a moment he sat there frozen, his only movement a slow, extended crossing of his arms. He broke into a grin.
“Oh, what, did Beckon tell you to be gentle? I, I assure you, am aware of the trick. You are the one with the gun, lieutenant, you are free to speak plainly. Has this turned hostile since yesterday?"
I froze, my heart quickened, and as soon as it did I knew he saw it. I was close to panic, and could only think of Bettany;s casual “good luck" message – so I let myself jolt.
“What?" My voice wavered. “W-what do you mean? Why would it be? Set, this is an irregular audit, but it’s been only days. Hostility is not even in the realm of imagination at the moment. Is - is there something I need to know? If… you’ve called me here to speak frankly."
He let out a small puff of air, and rested his chin on his hand. “Oh, get out of the headlights already. I have to ask, everything else is so irregular. It’s hard to picture you as sent here for my secrets. But you must understand my paranoia."
“You’re right, I... of course. I understand. Thank you," I said, and made a point of self-consciously smoothing my clothes as I sat back in the seat again. “I can assure you easily, I will ask you nothing of Lune. That is not in the audit’s scope, unless you choose to make it so."
“Hm," he laughed. “Really, you are so worked up. How much of the story did he tell you?"
“What I asked; the reasons for your arrival here. We need to know some of what the Board has censured, but only the outline of events. It was my decision, my interest, I make no apology."
“Such a gossip," he said with an airy smile, letting himself drift back in his chair. “Tarnishes so easily. Very well, no harm. Tell me, why is it you?"
He was toying with me. Tangents and dramatics. Perhaps it would have upset me, a day ago, so I frowned. “I’m sorry?"
“Why are you here," he sighed. “You know how I feel of Savannah, how pivotal its existence is. But Saniasa sends me fresh kids in a bright plastic ship. Lottery, nepotism, sending a message? It bothers me."
He still had not taken his eyes off me. I pushed myself up in the chair, its armrests just high enough to be irritating.
“Assignments went out perhaps a week before launch. Our destinations and crewmates were classified until then. Who knows why it was us? The magnitude of the task continues dawning on us, I doubt any besides the prefect were entirely ready for it - how to chart a continent from scratch. But, set, if I may. A haruspex is as good as they ever will be on the day they graduate: experience is not the key to the role, for each audit is one for an entirely new community. Each is the task of understanding a small world, a new world. Does that serve as answer? I am confident."
“If you say so. I still say you’re too young for this," he said, unfazed. “And, by the way, we’re running out of time, and you’ll leave when its up. But one question from me: you’re Ilian, the ever-unreachable market. I’d like to know your impressions of Savannah when you arrived, architecturally. Indulge me?"
“Excellent," I grinned. “I’d hoped to ask of your process, your goals with the project. Our first impressions were shock!"
“Clearly, Savannah was built stark and secret, hiding its colors. Part of that was familiar; it is as white and purposeful as Saniasa… ah, have you been, set?"
“Of course! The city proper and the region both. It’s quite different, deceptively large, the city. I’ll admit, some of its design philosophy influenced us in building out the caps. I fear it’s been years and years, however, and since I’ve last been several new habitats have gathered there."
“I’m sure. I was at academy there when Snow Bride was flown in from Furtive Needle."
“Really! A Still Harp piece?"
“Is it? You’ll excuse me, I’m not at all familiar…"
“I’d thought she retired," he said. That had upset him, somehow, and not the indignancy I’d come to expect. He looked hurt, in a small way, but so sudden that he forgot I was there.
“It was a beautiful one. The blue glass of the skies, the silver-shield hull… Oh! But what I meant to say. Saniasa, Saniasa proper is built old. Grand, but no prettier outwardly than any mining establishment, and not quite grand enough for a sky within. But it truly is a masterwork of unweighted urban design, not only functional but a joy to live in. Like flying." He gave me an odd look, and I gave a nervous laugh. “Ehe, you’ll excuse me if my interests are small in scale. A homemaker’s sensibility, not a monumentalist’s. But the point I am coming to is that Savannah seemed… emblematic, in the same way. Confident enough to be stark, real enough to be wide."
“The bones of a world, no? You said as much. When we first arrived, the scale was terrifying. Even now… those habitats I saw from my dorm in Saniasa, it is difficult to picture them as true cities, rather than trinkets in the void. But Savannah is unmistakeable."
He considered me. “That is illuminating. I appreciate it."
“I’ve said very little."
“Nevertheless!" He stood up, his head shooting dangerously close to the distant ceiling. “Time, lieutenant, time. When are you visiting?"
“The interior? Not - not for another week or so, sel. Is there something there I should pay attention to?"
“Hmm," he purred. “No, not for me. I’ve had little opportunities to direct the interior construction, much too busy out here. The lunic quarter is the only place I’ve had real input in - the rest was done by committee, the receptor offices by Throne."
“Oh! Some old mentor of Cote’s. Or rival? I’m not entirely sure, it’s ancient history - before even my time, if you can believe anything wass," he chuckled to himself, picking up one of the trinkets on his desk - a tiny woodframe model of a habitat, complete with mirror-windows folding out. He clacked one of them open and closed, and continued. “No, my peers are the doctor’s, really. You’ve been in contact with her, I’ve heard?"
“Dr. Savelyevna? Oh, very much. She’s insisted on leading our preparative regimens, and fate seems to cross my path and hers quite frequently."
“No accident there, I’d say. More capsaicin than iron in that woman’s blood. I’ve known her most of my career; in my apprenticeship we worked on several canopy pieces together. Root Light, Sugar Bowl, Point Peace - all subterranean. She specialized in that, before everything."
He looked at me, expecting me to interrupt. “I was not aware of that. The crew manifest is strangely limited in parts, set…"
“I am sure it is."
“This time as colleagues, was it before Savannah was conceptualized?"
He stood with a grand sweep of his gown. “Before we knew of it, yes. I’m sure Cote had been throwing together steel beams at that point. The plans have been in motion so long. Hut I was young, and her younger, both rookies in those incestuos circles of the canopy craftspeople. But, lieutenant, what I mean to say that the interior is her purview, all the terroir and humus she works with. If you’re still curious about the design of the land, I imagine she’ll have plenty to say."
“I see," I said. I glanced at the flower-clock on his wall. A living Triactian mechanism; the stamens slowly, measuredly continuing to rise.
He paced to the corner of the room, examining the spines of one of his dusty bookshelves. “Yes, it’s time. Lieutenant?"
“I like you, my husband likes you. You will be careful, down there by the river. Go in open, make friends? Would you?"
I stood in turn, gathering my things, though standing paradoxically let him loom even further above me. “Friends?"
“I’ve not much time to visit the village, and I won’t risk my bones as you do. But it’s good people there. Listen to them, if you can."
“I… believe I understand, set. Thank you."
“Thank you," he smiled, wide. “Goodbye."
I awoke early, if I slept at all. The dread of tomorrow was palpable, eating at me in any position I tried to settle in. So I gave up.
The trains still ran at night, along with the added clanging of the railcranes. Apparently, they used the night to reset their machinery, and move materials to their morning destination. It was such a bizarre system. The Lunic weeks were hard enough to wrap one’s head around, but the constant on-off, stop-start whiplash of the Heath cycle was absurd. As if being made to live in two worlds at once!
Of course I could not sleep. I dressed in a familiar old quilt – one I had sewn myself – and left Umihotaru once more. I strode out, clicking the airlock open and shut with only its confirmation lights, and the lamps from the kitchen, to light my way before the floodlights of the docks. From there I remembered my way to the train, which
Its scrolling displays read precisely three in the morning as I took my perch by the better window. I smiled to myself – lucky.
Tonight, it was storming far away, above the first lake. A great ring of thunderclouds arced around Savannah’s spine; so vast were they that at any given moment tens of flashes of lightning were visible. They radiated out from the swooping clouds like a the pattern of a strange iris, and seemed so terribly close. The true length of the place, that distorted blue, was invisible. The sky ended with the storm.
Perhaps because of this, there was no overlook shock. The closeness was almost comforting. Hundreds of miles away and hundreds more below, it was a small world, one chandelier of lightning.
I quickly found a spot by the window railing, tethered myself, and closed my eyes.
It is a clever bit of misdirection, the lie detector. Of course it does no such thing. The human mind can only be charted from within; anything else is guesswork. Lies, too, are guesswork. There is no identifiable pattern as we would have you believe, no universal tic of face or pulse. Each person’s mannerisms differ, as too do their conceptions of guilt and reality themselves. If there were a technique to read the essence of a soul, it would be assault, an unthinkably invasive cruelty. A process so frightening it must remain theoretical, never built nor planned. Those making the attempt were some of the first examples of glorification.
They say that the true distinction between gold and silver is an opposite sense of intuition; feeling opposed to thinking. They say omanhood is a complete understanding of each strain of human nature. Perhaps our breed of refinement, the art of wondering, lies somewhere between all these concepts. A flash of insight clearer and wider than thought can be.
The lieutenant’s course ostensibly focuses on reading people. This is a skill that can be mastered in a year. The second field we learn, the secret field, is of the mind. None know this but we and the most veteran members of our crews. The “lie detector" is a personal locus, the key to a mind-palace. The accurate parsing of human nature cannot be done accurately in real time, it necessitates photographic memory extrapolated to the edges of comprehension.
The mastery of mind must be of one’s own.
I was unpracticed, I had not wondered once since the voyage began. Not, even, since the last examinations at academy. What would I have wondered of? Our orders, the mission? I never would have thought to.
Lord Mon had once told me, in confidence, that while a crew must trust each other, a lieutenant must trust themselves. That our access is to truth, not interpretation. Was that true? I had no reason to trust it, as of yet, not on an assignment such as this. I held my key. Before I even looked at it, I focused every ounce of my attention upon the dark, textured jewel at its center. I took a deep breath, and held it to the level of my eyes, and found that iridescence flash at its center - the deepest part, my shard of jade. Subtle, heavy, dropping, I found it.
The world went lavender. I projected up, into the bare wonder-land, and fell into my mind.
I echoed. I screamed and it echoed; I felt every pulse of the soundwave as it hit the glass, the concrete, the upholstery of the lounge over and over again. I forgot who I was, forgot my body, for a single terrible year-long second before I found the flow. Echo upon echo, I established the feedback loop, and felt my body on pure instinct drag itself stable again, where it had been choked by the tether.
I asked myself what I had missed.
I had been rushing the whole time. This was regrettable but good in the end. Bettany was good. I had been off-guard, distractible, their faces, I was underestimated. Awake, this would have hurt me, now it would not.
This was a failure in training, the offense at one’s self. Bettany was right. How Anyndel’s eyes had pierced me, that first day! He had been sharp, sharper than I knew, but in my ignorance I gave him nothing. He was obsessive, God, he was a true believer.
I knew not what he knew. But Sever knew everything. He was cryptic, encouraging me to be cryptic, counting on me to find his silver game, and I could. What was the project, the object of the cult? Simply a new species of humanity? Why the secrecy, the darkness? New Medina was built for experimental reverse-development, I had read, settled by volunteers attracted by the low-tech life, in search of the Delphic human spirit. There would be millions of volunteers, Triactis had long since mainstreamed post-birth modifications. Why? Searching for primitive purity the See could not dream of? Where was the ambition in this?
The major cults. Locus habitat, people with transparent minds - glorified. Weylbloom, people who could not die - glorified. Did they believe Savannah was too large for light?
I could strain no further. What was strange?
The portraits of Cote on the office walls, predictable personality worship. Beckon, at least, was entirely ambivalent about this, as if it mattered nothing. The skull at Rednames neck - did her old home keep birds, as the rest of us neotenes do? An old pet, an abstellar talisman, a symbol of a shoreless dove? Savelyevna’s laugh, always incredulous. Bettany’s hands. Sever’s disdain of the world, of everyone he looked at.
Was it about monoculture? Redname’s one-from-many, the same fears that plagued the early Ecumene? These were all students of history. Why did she strive to look so young? She was taking something, botox, gentian, something. Fear of death, enshrinement of it? Everyone was so old.
Beckon and Sever. They were easy, the holes in them obvious. Entangled in the grandeur, each other, the little lunic community they had built – loyalty to the cult lest all that be stripped from them, cal Savannah... but neither were masterminds. Sever a pure preening architect, Beckon a follower at the core. The romance of the intern and his master, it felt like fate, it was fate that found them here, that tied them to their dark mission...
But none of them, none of them I had spoken to... cared. If there were new people in the interior, their plight weighed none on the conscience of the staff. No trace of guilt, no contemplation, only nerves. Nerves, and excitement. It was barely constrained, really.
They were not heartless, but if I had not seen the scrys, their apathy would give me doubt of the whole hypothesis.
I could take it no longer. I broke from the loop, and woke to a cloud of my own drool smeared on the glass. The storm continued, unfazed. I had lost three hours - good time.
The week passed quietly. Personally, I slept half a day, and moved from my preliminaries to the more methodical interviews. I regularly met with Beckon, often in the lower lunic centers – on the voyage I had glanced at what blueprints of Savannah were publically available, but they were both few in number and heavily redacted to shield the secrets of its scale from Hightower eyes. He walked me through the full ones, and they were completely unremarkable. The “secrets" were the same as New Medina’s; minor tweaks when adjusting to megascale.
Dr. Savelyevna called daily from the interior, meting out diet and exercise recommendations for Didion and I. He had prepared for this more than myself on the voyage, but was frail as he ever was. How could we undo centuries of biology in a week?
The medical staff here was certainly trying – and even as a lifelong outer-systemer, Triactian medicine still astounded me. Of course, being able to walk would not come so quickly, but at least physical therapy could be hurried to sonic speed with all the cocktails of ointments and appliques and injections we were drowned in. My sleeping had returned to normal, reestablishing their common naps rather than the knockout trigger I’d been given by way of the day cycle. Sleeping was fine – but between the alcohol and herbs, I had made sure I hadn’t smelled for a week!
The morning after my third visit to the lounges, Didion recieved a final text from the doctor:
Glad to hear it. You’re lucky you dont have issues with stamina. When you get down, make your way into town (call the bus we have if you need it. Actually I’ll have it waiting for you. It can fit your walkers.) and we will be at the inward garden. We’ll start you off getting some sun and seeing the greenhouse before anything else since there will be work being done today and from there we’ll see how you’re feeling and if you need a swim. We have submerged sleeping equipment might as well make the trip count. I don’t really know what else you want to see here but let me know.
And from there it was only the train. Back to the same station I had met Savelyevna. Didion, Kaitei and I went down past the lunic quarter, down past the zones of the caps that were powered and occupied, our feet beginning to touch the ground in the dim blue lights. Our litter followed, kicking off the walls at a safe distance behind us. It was a heavy thing by nature, heavier for the cargo of drones tucked away in its chassis. Somewhere between desk, quadruped mech, and cradle, it was the bare minimum needed for neotenes to cope with fullweight.
The train waited for us, and we loaded ourselves in. Didion and I settled into our seats, as secure as a proper launch, as Kaitei prepared his materials.
“So the central greenhouse is here." Didion pointed out the largest building on the map, the one around which most of the others were clustered. “It is by the airstrip, beyond the fields and riverworks."
“I hope it will be a gentle ride, at least. The ‘bus’ setup worries me."
Didion laughed, short and bright. “Ha! Will it be dirt roads, do you think? Perhaps we should go by litter alone."
Kaitei slid the needle from my arm and I rotated it at the shoulder; the chill passed through me.
“And that’s the last. You’ll fall asleep within ten minutes, and your heartrate will be very up for a day or so. You’ve always been difficult to sedate."
“I still don’t understand why all this is necessary. We could afford to stay awake, this is not exactly a launch," I said, gesturing to the flimsy trappings of the train car.
“Out of the question. We’ve explained this again and again, any extra shock will serve you poorly. You’ll be worn out enough as is, you need the rest." He clicked the last buckles of his cases, and stood with one in each hand. “Especially you. Will you be alright, so much time with the doctor? It does not sound like you two get along."
“We’re getting there. Between the interviews and Bettany I’m quickly losing my shame response. It’s Cytiok here you should worry about."
“Oh, please!" he pouted. “I’m readier than you, to be sure."
Kaitei sighed, stopping at the threshold and leaning on one of his cases. “Anything that goes wrong down there will get worse with time, and will not fade. This is an order: contact if there are any side effects, any conditions too harsh, any injuries. Early, you understand?"
“Of course, Kaitei," Didion spoke for me – we were both already feeling the creeping, dull exhaustion. “I’ll be fastidious about it. We’ll be on the next train up at the first scrape."
“We’re of hardy stuff, engineer. I’m not looking forward to the crush either. But we handled the trip; I can handle this."
“Anything you say," he gave us a mock bow. “Well, goodnight. Five minutes now, I’d say."
He left, and the door slid shut with a pressurized hiss.
“Sainshand," Didion began, when it was quiet. “What did you say last time, about the wind."
“Ah. I’ve not been able to worry of that further... I still cannot explain it, but it seems such a small detail."
“I’d like to read through any weather records they’ve kept at the monitoring station down there. The roll clouds, the..."
He fell asleep. Ha, weak constitution as always, he –
I blinked and opened my eyes to a hammer strike upon my entire body. Didion was trapped in a painful fit of coughing. The trip was done, and no dreams.
For minutes we could not speak, only nod and point to each other as we came to, and eased out of the seats’ restraints. I practically crawled across the wall - no, it was still floor - pressing so horribly against us, but finally found the litter – it had automatically deployed once the train came to rest. I pulled myself onto its boarding step, and my strength gave out entirely. I fell into the cushions. Didion was standing, but didn’t look like he could for long.
“Cytiok. If you – if you’d mind," I squeezed out. I couldn’t help myself, a laugh burst from me. It felt like a punch to the stomach, which only made me laugh more.
“What? What is it? Are you alright?"
“Oh, Didion! Would you come aboard already? You look simply remarkable like that, all stretched out. Here, come."
He refused my hand, and instead leaned on the litter’s side railings. “No... no, I will manage."
It was strange being so intimate with him, waking up in the same room. But for that laugh we had not met each other’s eyes today.
“You were serious? You do mean to walk."
“Y-yes, lieutenant. I’ll be sure to ask for a ride if it proves too much for me, but I’d like to try."
“Remember. Don’t push yourself."
I sank back into the cushioning of the litter, and finally felt stable, even with the persistent blast of weight washing over me. I had expected it to have a sound. The litter rose on its spindly legs as I steered it to slowly walk from the car, and Didion rose with it, still bracing against.
“We are meeting Dr. Savelyevna at -" he panted - “her offices. Fisher Valley is barely four by four zones... blocks, rather. I’ll remember. I believe I can handle it." He straightened as best he could.
“Didion… before we leave. Have you had chance to see the interior yet? Beyond the photographs."
“Henarl and Yuu took me to one of the lounges last night, don’t worry. We managed together." We all but limped out from the station together, taking five steps in a minute. But we eventually came to the doors, and as they opened for us, I heard him gasp.
He staggered against the litter. “My… my God."
The faux-sunlight of the spine, pale and thin and all-suffusing, stretched its fathomless line down the length of the cylinder, turning snakeline in that vortex of distant distortion I had seen before. Above us loomed a sky of continent, entire mountain ranges the size of my finger held at arms’ length, sand and scrub painted in swathes hundreds of miles wide, beyond the blue tint. Gone was the fear I would fall into this vast airy empty - no, I was sure it would fall down on us.
We learned to look to the ground, and studied the dusty town road.
“Managing?" he asked, between pants. “I need - need only a moment."
I stopped the litter in its tracks. “Please, climb up, I insist. We’ve but barely arrived, no one has come to welcome us... where is the bus? You are already collapsing." The pressure had worsened. It was a struggle to speak, to keep my eyes open, to bend my body upwards and sit. Everything, even the heat was oppressive – I had not been warned half enough.
Didion threw his arm onto one of the higher railings, finally listening to me. I opened my mouth - but before I could speak, the sky fell after all.
A vague black shape plummeted into the litter, the knees buckling and chassis lurching as its balancing systems scrambled to account for the new weight. Didion fell to the ground as if struck. It stabilized quickly - and I was face-to-face with a raven.
It was hulking, the size of an eagle. Jet-black, earth-red, covered in cloth and tassels and little bones. It folded itself, pulled from its backpack a leather-bound notebook, and dropped it into my lap.
“Lieutenant," it wheezed, in the voice I knew. “Met, on the road. You are arrived."