ANDATA EXPRESS/
HOLOHAUS4/
DOWN BY
THE RIVER
TO PRAY /
RECORD 4




CW: confinement, species prejudice, death, altered consciousness



In blur I eat cattle and bread
To appease the record of records
Jade burning grass
Tall sky blue hurt
Where is the hope and heat to eat
Of my blood, my gold, my roan?
Talesi flew the sun in a day
E found no place of honor
Talesi was born of the rooms
And the line from speech to silence:
Of what e had e made a pyre
And dreaming again stacked high
“Here I make my blade of Henna
Here I find the bane of kings
Ka! Ka!” Talesi once laughed.
“Now I’ll have none of it.”


Poem 73, Kali I of Quay


What more could they possibly want? Is this all bluffing for negotiation’s sake, or are they actually incapable of foresight? When I was last there, trinkets and ceramic supply were more than enough, this is baffling. Tell them again. I’m sending a sailbarge to Third to show off, we’ll load it with everything we’ve mentioned, proof of wares and capacity and anything, anything! Be ruthless, it’s bowering season and they must have cloth and rope. Even timber we can have here, with struggle, but there must be some line they’ll follow.


Meanwhile while you’ve been out the border station is complete. Hsay (third), at least, has been able to make it work. We’ve been mobilizing for extraction but again, months away from making the manufacturing side work, so much setup left - which we desperately need the supplies for! Soon we’ll never have to worry about this again.


Where are our contacts? Where are the bodies we need? We can hit flow so soon. You can’t delay. Phase Four is arriving and we must be ready long before its time is here. Remember what we’ve invested. Come home and you’ll know. We’ll climb the mountain, you and I, and relish it. Up here the air is so clear, so thin. It’s where storms come to die; where storms whisper and bear young. You’ll weep with joy to see it all. But we can’t wait.


Unlabeled status missive, presumably Ynewy Fletchetteir (fifthright) Quarry


The nature of the King of Goods is the axle and the spokes, the central nature and rainbow of potential expressions. How fire and spear fed thousands of people before killing once. That’s the project, that’s God’s claim on the world. So the tension is there. Sun and blood, death and heaven, om and us. That challenge to build with volatile blocks. Of the tenths, road seems the most vague, the scholarship of it always lacking, But I’ve been reading back, in the Usas psalms, how road is distinct from more core principles. The common ground between light, soul, heat, plasma, a background animating principle etched into natural law .


Like an arrow? An arch? But it follows a pattern. The star patterned in stone patterned in egg patterned in heart. How when iron sharpens iron we can see it, eventually. We see it in our neighbors, this mastery… I feel like I’m watching orreries in real time, dancing little mechanisms that tell stories more than they record facts. Cultures that can dance like that, that can pattern the arrow-breaking flow of tellurian power - in fact, the exact shift from “violence” to “power”, digestion to fire to resplendence - we can see it. That yes, it can happen. You can climb it, it’s possible, you were reading it right: you can take all life’s blunt balance and pattern it into something foundational. Cast the arrowhead back, century by century, until it really is gone forever. From the star, pattern the hearth, and then pattern the heart back into the star.


Eight-Tenths Testament, Admonitions 3:5-6


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


Record IV


concerning the discovery of a murder


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


The raven stood nearly as tall as I did. I was afire.The balance of the litter tipped - Didion scrambled from where he had fallen, out of the path of the litter’s skittering restabilizing legs. I clung to its velvet and porcelain chassis, and we all stumbled together in the first meters of Savannah’s dust.


It grumbled at me as it perched, looming, blotting out the light. How could I ever speak again?


I pulled myself up back to sitting as the litter found its balance. Slowly, I took it in against the dazzling tree-color vastness behind it. The creature’s plumage was glossy, sleek black, and brilliantly, brilliantly ultraviolet, shimmering iridescent and dark. It’s beak was… bizarre. Metal bands embedded into it. Grooves, lacquer, hooks and flourishes, like a well-used tool more than a face.


Didion had found his feet, and let himself collapse onto the support of the litter. “You - you understand us? You speak Akkadu? Those words?”


The raven was inscrutable - stared, ruffled, bobbed its head. “I hear you. I am Minak. A scout and flier nine rain years. Lieutenant, I will light now? I will come at dark where you rest, and we all can understand and speak. Glad tidings, glad tidings, I love you, we begin!” it cried.


“We’ve been looking for you!” Didion nearly shouted from a hiss. “We – we knew someone dwelt in the interior! Was it you, who met her above? What is this, are we really here?”


“Ka! So high, then, and now I fly low! It was I. Good, I cannot stay.” As it spoke, its head carefully scanned the surroundings - and as it finished speaking, it spread its wings. A whirl of strange earthy air hit us, flecks of dust, and by the time we could see again it had gone.


We stayed. Watching the interior yawn away from us, I had never felt so small. Neither had I ever seen such color.


I gasped, I breathed in, the air seemed to fill me. It was so green here. Green in the light, green, yellow, tan and red, blurring with distance as the far, far sky fell into its warp. The wind hit us, from far away. I failed to completely catch my breath and was trapped into a series of gasps, my eyes narrowing in the light – how was it so quiet? The sounds of whispering trees, few and far as they may be, must have echoed from across the entire cylinder. They felt louder even that the waterfall far off to our right, cascading in slow motion down the cliff wall of the cap.


Didion was shaking with adrenaline from the near fall, “Emelry, we must go. Anyone could come, they could have seen.


I looked down the long light-paved paths under that vast ceiling.“Where…? Were they not to fetch us? The doctor’s bus?”


“I don’t think we’ll be met… Emelry?”


“What is this. What is this.” I looked down again, Didion wide-eyed and weakly resting a hand on the railing. “Yes, yes of course. Come aboard. We will on.”


At last he listened. His hand was cold and limp as I pulled him up. We were able to do it alright - were strong enough to make the system of braces and supports between each other for this kind of liter mount, but it was still backbreaking work to help haul him up.


He was right, we had to go. The spotlight fell on us. We knew. They knew. If, somehow, none of the doctor’s group were watching us now, it would only be a cursory glance at the footage of the town to know, for every party to know every thing.


The town was a strange patchwork and utterly empty. No border whatsoever between the manmade and the natural things; buildings lay dropped on raw soil, trees and grasses growing wild and indiscriminate. And it was empty, emptier even than the unoccupied zones of the caps, for here there was no life-support buzz, no grounding lights but the false sun above.


“This is a bit of luck,” Didion said, leaning against the front rail of the litter as I claimed the back. “A straight line down, and a straight line there. No chance of losing our way.”


This was true. Why then had no one greeted us, when there were schedules and lines of sight making it so easy? I felt toyed with, what else was one to think!


There was one main concrete road, and the rest dirt as we had joked of. The town branched off from the main – to our right, row-houses and low offices; to our left, fields and farm shacks, and some miles away the thundering waterfall that fed the river. The air was humid, moist from the spray, making breathing even more of a challenge. Yet even with that it was arid, arid and warm, like water on sunburn - there was a sharpness to things, a stone-and-rain edge that was wholly unlike the dry stillness of life-support climes.


Building after building, brick covered in smooth, fat, coral-colored stucco marred by kicked-up dust at their bases. Pretty as flowers are. And before us, at the end of the road and far center of the town, loomed the greenhouse, a tall, cubic tower of a building with, oh god, a great brass dome crowning it that was patterned after an aviary.


“Ha,” Didion laughed. He agreed, “It’s a prison.”


“The habitat entire.”


Such a grand building, but it did not feel out of place. The rest of the town was of a more typical, rustic construction – brick walls, shingle roofs, very picturesque. But the greenhouse was of the same material as the cap walls, a striated grey-green low-cast ceramic, and seemed like a rock-hewn monument which had laid in this place for centuries. As if it was an outgrowth of the wider superstructure.


As we approached at a light gallop, the great green brass doors swung open, and a rather harried group of people tumbled from the threshold – Razina the foremost among them. One was a mousy changeling woman, blood-red skin and eyes to match; the other a tall solar man with a steady smile. I recognized him, from the crew manifests, one of that rare handful of solars among the staff.


“You’ve made it in one piece!” Razina called, when we had thundered down enough of that packed-dirt road to be within earshot. “Too good for the bus? Well, regardless, welcome to town. This is Aetheotl, and Danalir.” She gestured to her left and right, at a smiling solar man and a blood-red changeling woman. “The lieutenant and scribe. Thought you could use some company.”


“I’m sure it will reward us.” I squinted in the light, shielding my eyes as I nodded to each of them. “Doctor, a pleasure to be meeting you again.”


“I run logistics here,” Aetheotl said, jocular and bright. “Y’know, town matters, housekeeping. Really amazed you’ve made it here, honored. I thought I had it bad just adapting from Arean.”


“And I’m the greenhouse head! We’ll be running through my space a little bit, so no need to stand out in the sun…” the other said. She cheerily looked up to Razina for permission, and then swept the group of us into the building.


“Multitasking multitasking…” Danalir muttered as we passed inside, up the grand temple-esque stairs and engraved doors, into its yawning central hall. From a distance it seemed just an odd collection of geometries, but up close and within it was like a library, a monument, its style similar to the lunic motifs of the receptor zones. Statues here, too - human figures with crows perched on their arms,


Didion was staring. I wonder what I would have thought of such audacity - the figures’ faces with assured smiles pasted on them - before I had known.


“Welcome welcome! Now, I am the head here, but it’s all such a group project…” Danalir said, jogging ahead of the group to peer over the long railing that begun at the floor and rose, along with the central staircase, into a wide spiral upwards. But below was a pit. “The greenhouse here is strictly the doctor’s. You’ve… seen one right? Lived with them?”


“Yes of course, they’re from Saniasa. Not completely podunk,” Razina scolded. “There’s plenty of use for greenhouses in hydroponics and such. But,” she said, “this one is something special. Come, come, look at this. It is a real display piece.”


We walked the litter to the edge, standing above even the railing. It was like we were emerging from clouds. There, down the sheer walls of the pit below us, was a tiny facsimile of the Savanni landscape - mountain peaks built into the cap-mimicking texture of the wall, hills rolling out from them and a busy myriad of miniaturized life. Mosses lying in fields of grass, tall bonsai and bushes with little half-foot-tall giraffes grazing between them in herds.


“Our production models are much more involved. Usually we’d want a whole field at this scale, maybe ten times this floorspace… a lot of the basements are devoted to that sort of thing. But this one is more of a jewel, little bit of everything to greet you. Pretty, don’t you think?”


It was. Proof-of-concept microsystems were an integral part of habitat development, but the sheer number of biomes and conditions Savannah was capable of must have necessitated hundreds of building-blocks like this. Greenhousing was a production-model proof of species palettes, done just small enough to be practical and repeatable; just big enough to simulate long-term dynamics. Those giraffes were more toy than proper animal, brains like lobster ganglia - but they herded, and grazed, and ran when hunted. And that was enough for any sustainability fault lines to become apparent.


“It’s a bit of a patchwork. Been moved around alot,” Danalir said airily, “but there’s culture lines in there probably as old as the whole project? All the key components.” She pointed down to the tiny landscape. The sound of the water trickling was not so far away as to not reach us; there was a mockup of a building of wood, built into a tree, by the puddle of a lake. “A little ambitious, but why not? There’s a few more mockups of what surface construction could look like, even though we’re not doing that yet.”


“Why is that?” I asked. “You’ll excuse me, but Fisher Valley is yet more outpost than town. There’s quite the lack of infrastructure for settlement, it seems.”


“It’s a selling point, y’know? The do-it-yourself bent. The showrunners limit us pretty heavily, even in the town, anything we wanted to do bigger than a few floors has had to be here. Or under here. Once plots start wrong sold they’ll be waaay out there… proper city-sized footprints, semisovereignity, people are gonna want the pristine…”


“Ha,” I said. “I can see set Pearl Wall not being happy with that.”


Razina shook her head. “Oh, Sever will be on board. Whatever we end up with, it’ll be something he wants.”


“That’s real red carpet stuff,” Aetheotl stepped in, “Wow, I don’t think I ever actually met the guy, but I heard you tracked him down quick.”


“Yes, well, it just comes with the preliminaries,” I said without properly looking at him, and continued to ask Razina, “Why do you say that?”


“The phases are moving fast,” he answered for her. Like the three of them were juggling the conversation between them. “And the lord doesn’t have much interest in the landscape, unless he’s joyriding.” He and


That bothered me. He bothered me. Who was this? “Ran logistics”, a vague nothing descriptor. So he was a lackey of Razina’s, one of those she managed in the course of whatever level of retirement she had ended up in? But his backtalk bothered her not at all, she said nothing but a soft smile and a shake of her head. He immediately cowed and stepped back, hands behind his back.


“As Aetheotl said,” Razina said, walking towards the litter with one hand imperiously on the greenhouse’s railing, “times are changing. It’s why you’re here. It’s not exactly an architect’s game any more, you know... really, I don’t mean to be cruel, but in as much as this place is a home for any of us, he’s the most stuck here… you must be getting sick of gossip. Come on.” She swept her labcoat uniform up with her, and stalked off to the spiral staircase wound around the walls, up to the aviary dome.


Landing by landing we went, perhaps twenty stories up. As adapted and accustomed to weight as they were, it was amusing how the three lost their breath bit by bit as we climbed. Each floor seemed in a state of disarray. As if they had been hastily disassembled, packed up with just the dregs left - or, that it was newly-opened, only the first trappings of its eventually grand interior assembled. The lower floors were worst of all, the inner rooms we glimpsed from the broad stations at each landing a mess of packaging, fine construction, drapes over statues and canvases. Higher were offices with knocked-down cubicles, barren cafes with rows of empty refrigeration - it was here we rested for a moment. The group remained quiet. “What is this?” I had to ask, halfway up. “It looks like a storm’s passed through.”


“Well, it has! I can answer that,” Danalir said, bouncing over and putting her hands on the railings of the litter where we had stopped. “It’s been kind of a mixed-use building for a while, studio and storage room for us who live down here. But you, you, the new phase and all! I’m having to reconsider it all. So we’ve been doing the upper levels first and moving down; all the junk’s collecting down there as we finish more and more of the place. I’m kind of mad you insisted so hard?”


“I’m sorry?” Didion started.


“Like the director said! Crown jewel. If only you’d given us a few more weeks we could’ve put more of it together and...” She didn’t even seem upset, only this airy, childish pout.


“Danalir,” Razina had taken a seat at the bar of that empty cafe - she, of all of us, was coping with the climb worst. A terse, covered sigh. “We are heading to the top.”


“Right right! We can keep going, then.”


The thud of the three’s footfalls on the stairs, the tic-tic-tic precision plodding of the litter. Didion noted, “Parts of this are to be a museum, I gather? Quite a lot of statuary and canvases laid up in corners.”


“Mm,” Razina said with some effort. “A lot of artists on staff, you know. Things like this attract them. But yes, obviously a showcase on all that. There’s a lot ot cover. All the history, staff culture, engineering, what have you.


“Staff history, as in the communities formed here? Would we have access to the plans for those sections?”


She hoisted herself up and kept climbing.


We walked the rest of the way up. The trio’s ragged breaths had me feeling more at home here - we’d had an easy equivalent of an elevator ride, they not so. The staircase flattened into its last landing, circling the base of the glass dome in one long balcony.


“Ha.” I couldn’t help but laugh as we turned in to the observation deck. It was like a flattened version of the lounge we had met in.


“Here we are,” she said. “I wanted you to see this, come.”


We tiptoed over. The window curved, long and low, above the rest of the little town.


The greenhouse complex stood at the far end of the village. From this direction one could look back upon the rest of the streets, and the great cliff of the cap wall looming before us – always shockingly close. This was the clearest we had seen it; the far end was simply too distant to see through the air, and every other view was from an angle. But here it was, mimicking rock for what seemed like a scant mile-tall trim, quickly retreating to a distance so great it seemed to disappear. Above was the clean white of Hightower ceramic, glinting blue like an ocean-stone in the light of the sky, and the spine jutting out above and behind us. Was it this that the crows had seen as the disk of the sun? A blue shield and white sword, geometric in the way of orbital law.


“Overcome again?” she asked with a smile. “I love the walls. You can never get away from the scale of it all, but here its laid totally bareAll around us is the scale of this world, but it really is laid bare here. Look, see there?” She pointed to the waterfall, and guided our gaze upwards along it – we had to huddle around the edge of the window to see. The chassis of the litter tinked against the glass and recoiled.


“You came in right down the same way; the trains run right next to the primal water mains.” Primal? “Up there where the waterfall starts, those are all the actual facilities. Tucked away in the caverns, it’s all very mystical.”


“How does the water get here?” Didion asked, “if the river flows away?”


She nodded. “Yes, the rivers always run towards the center, from both caps. The central lakes are a sort of midpoint facility, of course too far out to visit in the time you’ll be here. Getting here was hard, that’ll be weeks. Well. The lakes drain underground to shadowrivers that run back here, collecting runoff water that gets filtered back into the soil.” She smiled with a satisfied breath. “Think of it as a bedpan. One of the little ways we concentrate complex closed systems into single pivot points.”


She walked briskly along the curve of the window, raising her voice as we followed. “But, the town proper. Fisher Valley, after the water and the wall. The dorms are there, the brick building with the courtyard; the center street runs from there spinwise to the fields, antispinwise towards senior staff housing and biochemics. I live there, the blue house.”


Suddenly, I could hear the water. Fisher Valley wasn’t really just a town beneath a waterfall. Beneath us ran a third of all the waters of this world, equal in scale to those yawning industrial caverns of transport ways and ventilation I’d seen by train.


It occurred to me. If Savannah was a bone, it was hollow.


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


Nothing else of note on the tour. We took the elevator down, perhaps mercifully, in its long glass column with a view of that central spiral. We ate together at the bottom floor’s cafe, open and stocked well with local produce and imported packaged food - carrots, curry, coffee. Aetheotl had disappeared, leaving us to listen to Danalir dominate the conversation, a detailed rundown of town happenings and plans for the greenhouse building. Just in case, I held my lie detector out of view in the bed of the litter, and made sure to maintain occasional focus. No more missed details, I told myself.


It wasn’t until we left, night falling, that Aethotl returned, now on horseback. As we descended those front steps, he pranced about in front of us, kicking up orange dust with that grin of his.


“Figured I should try and match you guys! Pretty cool, right? The stables are right by -” he turned the beast in an awkward, mismanaged circle, trying and failing to point to some place in the town behind him, “- the granary. Huh!”


“That’s enough,” Razina called from the top of the steps. “Where is that bus? But we can walk back, if you’d like. Just don’t expect me to gallop.”


Aetheotl held his smile and led us down the road.


We walked the litter between the two, hanging behind a pace. “What were you doing at the stables? Were they still open?”


“Nah, everyone went home. Just wanted to show off a little.”


“What do you think, lieutenant?” Razina asked, turning back with an air as if she’d just remembered we were there. “The great martial art of horse breeding, ha ha. The pinnacle of Savanni genetics.”


“How big are horses, usually?”


They both laughed at that, predictably.


“It’s rewarding, honestly.” Aetheotl waved one slim but callused hand in the air. “Gets you back in touch with the basics. Breeding’s a changeling thing, obvi, but… yeah, it is that, huh? You’re not being silly. It is a martial art. Like weaving.”


“Little practices that keep your hands sharp?” Didion asked. “Though weaving seems cleaner.”


“Quicker, too!” Aetheotl laughed and trotted ahead of us. Razina was simply dour. At this pace we completed the last blocks until the first stop on the path to where we would be staying the night.


“Well. This is me.” Razina unlocked an iron gate. We were at the blue house she had marked, taking up a block all to itself, circled by a waist-height brick wall. One of the more humble buildings of the town, with a dense garden plot and a small greenhouse - of the kind used to only grow plants, rather than as a test bed - huddled in the corner with its fogged windows. “We’ll call it here?”


“Yes, that’s quite alright, doctor. This was a wonderful introduction.”


“Yeah, well.” She smiled wryly. “Aetheotl will show you to the tubs. They should be up to your standards, that’s important, bring it up with me if anything’s wrong. Think about what you’d want to start with, in the morning.”


Didion nodded over-courteously. “We will. Pleasant sleep, doctor.”


She nodded, and latched her gate behind her.


We left her in that garden. She went there first, not touching her front door, going directly to her tomatoes and lemons with the hiss of a hose. I looked back too long - how somber she looked, when she was looking away from me.


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


They said the amenities here were bare, and it was true. The bathhouse complex was robust but sequestered - intercepting one of the networks of subterranean canals that ran from the waterfall basin, and stood at some small distance from the town. It served as the center of water - redundant reservoirs, communal showers, laundries and the like, hot springs. The sleeping tanks were included as an attache, a low-slung concrete building separated from the main complex by a small barren courtyard, and it was here that Aetheotl hitched his horse in the courtyard and showed us in.


“I sent ahead,” Aetheotl said, opening the door to the annex. It was a dark, close room, with several tanks separated from each other by simple reed screens. Little privacy, less a bedroom so much as a changing room, or capsule hotel. It would serve - in fact, the warmth of the water already in the air, and the little baskets of Ilian amenities, made it feel quite well-considered. “So they should be filled up by now. You can set the heaters as you’d like, controls are inside. Inside the tanks, I mean, not just the room. Um.”


“Thank you,” I said. “We will keep that in mind.”


“Hey, this is really safe? I kinda worry about sleeping underwater... feels like a lot could go wrong.”


“Well, that does not inspire confidence, coming from this facility’s steward.”


He was wounded at that, embarrassed even. “Sorry! Everything’s working fine! I just mean, the principle of it...”


“I’m sure it will serve. I can’t tell you,” I said, tugging off the horrible, constraining shoes that Kaitei had foisted on us. Like shackles – “what a relief the water will be.”


“Never fear!” Didion grinned. “Worst comes to worst, we’ll simply toss the scupaps and stay up floating.”


“Alright. Alright,” he said. He watched us, hands folded behind his back. “So… you’ll be good?”


“Yes, if you please. Good night.”


“Good night!” he haltingly waved, and at last was gone.


The door slid closed. Didion waited a few seconds, and said “Quite snappy, there.”


I jolted the controls and led the litter over to the low wooden benches at the center of the room. “Why is the floor all concrete? I tell you, it’s a hostility.” We helped each other out of the litter to settle on the cushions.


“Are… are they…” He scanned the room, appraising it, and making sure we were alone before he dared to lower his voice. The ambient trickle of water would cover us. “Emelry… what are we to do? This feels so beyond us.”


“Face it, I suppose.” I rummaged through the baskets they had left us - water sleeping clothes, biscuits and juice and salve. “Live up to the assignment.”


“No...” He sighed, air heavy in his lungs. “No, this... is not like other audits. This is not like Weylbloom, or any others we could compare it to. Much to bear, for one’s first.”


“Are you tired? I am. Worry once we’ve taken that first step.”


“That step being?”


I looked at him coldly. “Whatever tonight holds. The meeting.”


How quiet it was, but for the distant waterfall roar. God, but that water did look warm, and soft. It was some time until he spoke again.


“Lyly is long since convinced whatever lives here is evil. It will be a strong prejudice to overcome. Are you worried?”


“What? Of them or of her? No, neither. She’s just a skittish one, and… anyway. The answer is only to continue. They will speak to us, tell us of themselves, our duty is to listen. We will learn all we can and bring it to the crew, there is nothing else to do.”


“Sainshand, I mean it! Is the crew something we can trust?”


I couldn’t help but laugh. “What! What is this? It’s the only thing we can. We’re trained in this, we...”


“No, we are not. This is new, too new. I don’t trust Lyly with the decision, and Henarl moves with the prefect. Tell me, would you put this in her hands?”


“Our hands.”


“She remains the leader.”


“As do I!”


“And I know how… how you feel about her!” he burst out. He looked from side to side - a habit one picks up quickly as a lawship gossip in small, sound-carrying rooms, but we were alone. “I... I don’t like moving in shadows either. I’m sorry I’ve said so much. But... I cannot tolerate pretense here, not with an entire… population at stake.”


The dust settled. “Didion… where is this coming from? This force is unlike you”


“Aha, only –”


And then the knock at the window came.


Trickle of water. Another sharp rap, a stabbing sound. A rush, like I was under water after all.


“Help me up,” I barked. Didion stood unsteadily, and hoisted me into the litter. I pulled him in, and we stood, and all but crashed the thing into the wall to that echoing tapping. “We’re here!” I cried, hurting my hands trying to push it open.


“What’s happening?”


“I can’t get it – oh God.” But then the thick glass popped open, and Minak’s curious head was pushing through the gap. I rested, winded, on the concrete windowsill as e flutter-fell into the room, talons skittering on the floor.


I turned and collapsed in the litter, sitting as it caught me, to find em nested between us. E burst with chatter straightaway, “Outside ways there are guards and staves. Did you know this?”


“Guards? Of the staff, you mean?” Didion stammered.


“Big men.” The crow shook his head in erratic, pointed movements, like trying to get a better angle of sight. “Sticks.”


“Surely in case of drowning. Difficulties in the water,” Didion reasoned.


“Irregular. Our litters would do the job of fishing us out better. No, I... surely not, surely they do not mean to bar us in.”


Minak looked at us, waiting. “Ahaps to bar doors, yes. To beat and kettle.”


Didion groaned. “Here it is. Here it is! How could they stoop so low? A show of force?”


Would you relax? That is so unacceptable I will not even repeat the thought. None would dare. But is there another way?”


“No doors,” Minak said. “But we need out. I am to bring you. The king waits in camp, e must speak, and must tonight.”


“Jesus,” he swore. “Hospitality indeed!”


“Stop that. We’ll confront them, I won’t slink about this night. No deranged esteem they may hold could have them stand against haruspices.”


He laughed weakly. “Emelry, we’ll break bones soon enough with a simple fall. You’ll pick a fight?”


“Ha! I challenge them to!” Suddenly blood was pounding in my head. I was out of my life and into a story, no rules left, “Let’s see if they dare! Our mandate stands, nothing interrupts it - we’ll determine intent, if they have demands they must speak them. No fear for us, none”


“Right you are.” He shook his head, and clung closer to the handles of the litter. “They could not yet know we know. We’ll speak to them regularly?”


But I’d already walked us to the doors - Minak hidden under our blankets.


Sure enough, two men were waiting. They sat on their benches at the far doors, down all the hallway - Aetheotl, and another I didn’t recognize, staves their own height resting on the wall.


Aetheotl heard the door slam, and scrambled upright.


“Oh, hey... having any issues?” He made a show of brushing himself off.”


“Sleep was fitful,” I said. “We’d like to walk a bit, for some air.”


“Air? Aha, is that good for you? I’d be surprised. You have issues with the smell too, right?” He scratched his nose, smiling.


“I’m sure.”


“You know, you’re not really wet…”


“What?”


“I said… never mind.” He smiled, wry. “Can I do anything for you? Anything you need, the doctor posted us here to handle. Count on it.”


“No, I don’t believe so. But thank you. It will be nice to walk the square, see the streetlights… see all of it, should we not be back again.”


“Listen.” He picked up his stick from the wall, held it in a pose of authority, but stopped short of brandishing it. “I really... doctor’s orders, right, that you needa stay here. It’s dark out, you’re tired, the exertion already... you can’t be stumbling around out there unsupervised.”


“We’re quite rested. There’s still so much of the night.”


He regretfully let his smile vanish. “You need to get back in the tanks, now.”


I summoned everything hard that was in me. I spoke, intoning like I had heard in speeches, “Aetheotl, how little I know you. How little I know of your ties and thoughts. But, I’m sure that you’ve realized what is going on here. Stay silent. Stay silent, the both of you. It is a matter of months before the See arrives in force. A matter of hours before they know. Either use your hands while you can, or back away. We’ve plenty of good words yet, and Savannah is opening.”


“Use... what?”


I began walking the litter out to the road - his partner stood, but Aetheotl waved him back again. “Stay silent,” I said, “Stay here. When the good doctor asks, you can tell the truth - that we stayed here, fast asleep, good the whole night. When your sovereign asks... think on that.”


Wide-eyed, stonelike, he watched us go.


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


There were no roads into the woods. Dusk had fallen, the spine sun faded grey out of the sky. The town that claimed to be the only trace of acknowledged civilization upon Savannah ended at the borders of Fisher Valley. The town was a stopgap, a footprint, no reason to edge into the deeper wilds, if Razina was to be believed, so it was dark, and rough, and bitter out there. In the night.


Didion and I lay low in the litter, branches skittering off the arced glass of the raised roof-shield. It was hard running. Velvet reinforcements and state-of-the-art hydraulics aside, we were battered, our backs would be out for a week. I watched the dull line of the turned-off sun continue to hang above us, faintly. Minak’s lantern, swaying high above us in the trees as e glided from peak to peak. How easy would it have been to close ones eyes and simply drift along - as transport was meant to happen, in shuttles burrowed inside that sun.


Our litter tumbled through the undergrowth. Minak clutched eir little light in those carved beak grooves, locked in - the distant sound of wrought-iron clanking. E swept with us, a shadow within shadow, for what seemed like hours. Twigs cracked beneath the litter’s hard legs; leaves bit at our skin.


My sense of smell was returning. It should not have. Perhaps it was only the henna - something on Minak reeked of it - its unique molecular structure cutting through the sensory blocks and reaching my soul, it felt. It was pungent, smelt of ink, night, dust. It was not the rancidity of life, but the dust-smell of the shells that life takes. Smoke on the air, distant clouds of it.


When we broke into the clearing it was abruptly. The light rising from it we saw painted in distant treetops a minute before we arrived, cut to pieces by the swinging shadows of the other trees. “Ahead! Ka,” Minak called - e was far above us, muffled by the branches, but that cry was like a clarion in the night. “We are here and there.”


I slowed the litter; Didion reflexively shifted closer to me. Kneeling forward to push away the last of the branches by hand, we arrived at the camp of the king.


Yet more lanterns hung from the high branches, of the same design that Minak carried. An entire… facility had been constructed. Tent-cloths strung between the high branches formed a sort of high roof that trapped the light; many branches were connected by beams of wood carved for hanging hooks and easy perch, beds of neat straw covered by hard clean reed-boards formed a floor. Parcels, tied in nets, were strung from the trees and left in piles upon the ground – some overgrown and uncared for, as if they had sat here some time before being returned to. Others were new, freshly carved or carpented, such as the great table that lay at the far end of the clearing.


There were ravens in the trees, standing on the branches from which the lanterns hung. One was heavyset, in a bold red and orange vest, with wings sheathed in the same fabric. One was scrawny, beak pitted and worn like Minak’s was, but more frayed. One eye was blind with cataract, and e was unclothed but for the strings of jewelry that snaked around eir whole body. There, another carried a smoking censer of sorts by a long trail of knotted and painted cord, their face obscured by some sort of blank helmet – but among them all, it was clear who we had come to meet.


Eir feathers were greyed and sparse, run with dark-brown streaks, caked in neatly-applied henna along the wings and face - thick, durable markings almost equivalent in splendor to the ultraviolet shimmer present in half the other’s coats. But this was the king. E looked up at us from where e sat at work.


The crows dropped down, one by one, around the table. Their wingbeats as they landed stirred the refuse of leaves and twigs at the edges of the floor mats, far more powerful than their small frames seemed capable of. All turned to look at us, all flanked around the one who sat upon the table, who was the smallest of all.


Bathed in lamplight, e carefully with curled talons folded shut the pages they had been poring over. Deftly, e tucked them back into the stacks of books. As e stood, the heavyset raven cried out, “Book king of Quay, hi Kali, city-pon-wake!”


No bows or other acknowledgement. The declaration fell hollow but remained there, hovering in the night.


Kali stood, and dipped into a pocket of eir dense loose shawl, pulling out a pair of little glasses, gold-framed, sparkling. In a fluid movement e’d nudged them onto eir face, supported by the few small, neat carved grooves in eir beak, and blinked at us.


“You did not,” Kali said, “bring your speaker. And I’ve come to speak.”


“Apologies. It was I who was called,” I stammered, suddenly overcome with how quiet the fires of this clearing were, compared to the gallop here, “and our scribe is fit for this meeting. I… apologize if your expectations were otherwise.”


“No,” e said, coolly. “No, not at all. No formalities here. Sit, you and your machine, whatever best.”


I pushed the litter forward into a full rest; its knees sunk into the earth and buckled at the unfamiliar softness - Didion, in the meantime, scrambled with the console on his side of the bed. “May we record this meeting? Our crew waits above. I’d like to stream this to them, remain together.”


Kali nodded, arching eir neck to look down at us. “Very well. You’ve come to meet us in the deep dark, ka, by all means take notes. I’ve thought so often of this time. I’ve prayed ten years of how to begin. This is not the first meeting, but the most official between human and tengmunnin thus far… I say. So, I’ve something of a loss, how was I to know you would accept? I wasn’t.”


“I wasn’t either,” I said. “A tall ask.”


E jerked their beak at Didion. “Thoughts of going to the staff? Evidently never, but did you want to work with them more? To not conceal the fear and shock?”


“The shock of learning of you? No, that isn’t quite…” I trailed off, then snapped back to lay out a plan. “I’ll start here. How much do you know of the happenings above? If we need to cover any ground…”


“Everything,” e answered without hesitation, “Our fliers and technicians have the caps mapped good. We have access to it all, their systems are ours. The whole opera of records and reports, don’t worry about it. Your ship as well.” E paused, cocked eir head. “Disapprove?”


“Kali,” Didion hazarded, “since we arrived the staff has been less than amenable to our presence. That we’ve come should tell you where we stand. There’s a resentment there, an evasiveness. People don’t trust invasions, it’s expected with any audit, but here, and with the staff, it was wrong from the beginning. We saw the marks of deeper life, of something grand and strange… they dance around it with classical corporatism and grand niceties, but no. There was never the option of asking the staff directly what... I’m sorry, what you were. The choice was between our own espionage, or a direct report to the See.”


“Good!” Kali cried, cutting off the last syllables of Didion’s sentence. “Good, good choice. I knew your kind would listen.”


I bristled at that. “Kali,” I said. “When Minak fetched us from the station… e mentioned e was nine. Why do you bring children to speak with us? If there is some assumption being made...”


E stood, hopped around the table looking for the words. “No, now this is my desperation, Minak is an adult. Listen. Don’t think like that. I name your people familiar because you fly, because you live far from the core, because you are scholars and priests. Human and tengmunnin are wide conditions, but separate in their fundaments. There are different rules. Different how, different deaths. I’m fifteen and eldery, Emelry. I’m cut like a flower.”


Amber light flickered on cloth.


“Harka!” Kali snapped, and the heavyset one promptly hopped up to stand by em on the table. “Harka was born in my clutch, the same season. I have spent my whole life reading without break, e has been my arm. Minak, you’ve met, e joined us at five, a defector from the plains of the Third. Already e was a skilled and able scout. Read it as decades of experience. Likin,” e raised a broad wing up towards the one draped in silvery jewelry, “A singer, a chronicler, celebrity, caretaker. Nineteen and flies as well as I, without my condition. Fili –“ the last, with eir rainbow cord, “- of six proud summers of service. All of us – and I promise – are as grown as yourself. We are quick, sharp, grave, never mistake it! Our greatest strength and greatest injustice. If we were less bound up, if we had lives like yours... oh, perspective, perspective. I wish I could call it natural. I wish that the breath of time we’re given would be enough, would be whole enough in our hearts, and that you were the ones that seemed ancient and stagnant. But no. Ka! Kaka, Weylbloom... there it was proven what span a soul was meant for. That a century is proper and exact. We’re diminished to a fifth of that, can you understand that? Souls cut short? Trapped, hungry? If it were different, I would not be who I am. I would not be so burning burnt. I would be happy I would sit and build in the cage arcs. But no. No.” E puffed eirself up, each feather on eir chest seemed to swell. “This is what you will do. This is the change you will help effect. Ruin our patrons, and deliver us the sun. I demand it by millions of years, I beg it from my bones. Make a fist.”


“How do you know so much?” Didion asked, resettling himself closer to me, towards the litter’s front. “No disrespect meant. But in this cage, how have you accomplished so much? I know nothing of your life and deeds. You speak as so familiar with the world. The wider world. I know you, uh, infiltrated the staff systems, but how did you get there? You speak sure and cosmopolitan.”


Kali slowly drew one wing up towards eir face - covering eir body, and slowly blinking eir black, fire-glinting eyes. “A land of secrets. Harka, tell them a walk through Quay.”


Harka cocked eir head back and forth, back and forth, like cracking one’s neck before work. “Savannah is wide. Down the river from this town we’ve built our own and are expanding. From the middle lake we’ve flown here. There is our capital of Quay. A hundred thousand live there working and building and studying. We are builders. The wide plains above us hold more people, the claimed Third, and the recluse city of the far end that is Quarry. But our capital is Quay, the library city.”


“We have flown,” Minak chirped, “three weeks shifts. Timed arrived at yours. First was I!”


“I thought I recognized your voice. When I saw you... when we met, at the Valley, your voice. I thought it was you. I told myself that, well, were you the only, or were your voices identical...” No, what was I saying. Immediately each of them had been distinct at the clearing. Minak spoke gravelly and harsh, lilting amused squawks. But Harka sounded nearly human with eir smooth and deep voice, and Kali sang like wind chimes, like microtones, at every word. E took back the explanation.


“Sixty years ago we were released from the worse confinement of the old rooms. Generations have lived and died since, centuries relative of our quick overclocked hearts. Sixty years ago the landscape of Savannah was livable. We watched as stone and mud poured from the sky, as the janitors assembled our pristine mountain vistas. Strange worlds make you learn fast.


“Fifty years ago, when this hull was still a skeleton, a foreigner arrived. A human fugitive, a solar man rejected by his kind after failing the measure of omanhood. Quay is built around his old ship and personal library. Our royalty styled itself after his example. My predecessors, each king of Quay, has spent their lives reading and singing and watching and wading through the regolith of human knowledge we have. That is all. Luck and study and fire alone.”


“The sword,” Likin said, speaking for the first time in a high vizier’s croak, tinkling as e shifted eir weight from claw to claw on the high branch e remained at, “of all knowledge. The fire of the grave tree, do not mistake it’s of for pretension airs. It is the science of legendscraft and the art is living.”


“Of which we may speak of as friends,” Kali said, cutting em off. Likin stayed motionless, with the same stare. “But as it stands.”


Didion, wavering, said, “It is hard to give advice here. You place in my hands... no. In our hands - our, I mean, all of us gathered, and all who will hear the story - there is already the fate of a species. How could we even approach...?”


“I don’t want to see it that way. Every soul is a heathen vessel, every one. Our sun was filtered, but we too have grown in the one light. We sing paper and fire the same,” Kali said, eir gaze lost in the auburn leaves. “I have such this pride that... listen. This esteem. There’s nothing alien here, nothing strange, I don’t want to be strange. My new friends, I want your duty from you. I want this audit to remain as an audit, for us to be integrated into the Ecumene. As Weylbloom was, and Nadir, and Far Pale, and Lune.”


Didion frowned. “Is this not about independence? independence. About claiming Savannah as a world for yourselves, building a history here.”


E shook his head, like shaking off water. “I want to strap sundrives to this place and ram it into the surface of Ares, let history grow from its hatched shell. Unfold the landscape here as a valley in the trenches. That will never happen. But I have no love for this place. It is beautiful, it provides, but... now, you will excuse me to the architect, but Savannah is hardly a work of art, hardly a homeland. None of the bones of the Heath tapestry, not built for every roof to have a story as proper habitats. One large field.”


“I’m gone! Scratch it!,” one of the tengmu in back said, hopping forward to join us. It was Fili, speaking from behind eir featureless mask. “Quarry’s gone too. People are scratching at walls desperate, far from corridors, and here we are doing the same with words! The city I left is built of scrap torn from the walls. Soon they will breach the null rooms, and conquer Third fields. And dream of cargo and void.”


“We are on a timer,” Kali said, “if you know.”


E was right. Too right. Forget the talk of short years - with the worst luck, we would have only the night. Surely Razina had guessed, and certainly, after our flight, one on the staff knew that we knew.


Kali caught my quiet. “Emelry. Before we talk more of courses. I want to show you something. You are the one I looked for first – this is because of your role. You have been schooled in the sight?”


“I… well. If you mean…”


“I do.”


“If it’s about reading her share of the instruments,” Didion added, “‘the sight’ seems a bit grand…”


“Scribe does not know? The craft is yours, but I, if it were I, would move to be past the secrets. Unless it’s valuable to keep, that’s you.”


Both of them were staring at me. “No, no, you’re right. It comes to be known among crews at some point, if they are… good ones, functional ones. Didion I trust. But how did you hear tell?”


Harka cawed sharply in the background, and was silenced by a glance from king Kali - who slowly, steely gazed back at me.”


“Nymphs are born in the science of wonder. Our blue, the lavender arts, it’s a product feature. Selling gimmick. Make sure we could take care of ourselves, maybe. Nothing to react to, here, no mineral but in whatever the Quarriers may or may not have plundered. I’m speaking bitter. The point is that the wonder is how we dream and hold ourselves, how we see the world before adulthood – do you see?”


“Are you saying you once… live in the state? In unbroken perception? How?”


“How. It is simply there. There’s no words,” e said, as if vaguely bothered that I’d asked.


“It’s formless, flying. You know,” Harka said, hopping a little closer to our circle. “We hatch and dream. It is beautiful, in the moment and to look back upon, but I see what you’re thinking – it would be unbearable, for you! And I would never go back to it.”


“Nor I. It’s ache and silence. No body in the words,” from Minak. The rest of the group made little gestures of assent.


“It’s interesting, what we got instead of childhoods,” Kali said. “That age is a heady memory of wildness, of animal instinct, of… a mind flayed to the curve of the ground, all corners of the sky. There’s an old pain there. Nymphs - empty apsara husks.”


Didion shook my shoulder. “Emelry? What... what are we talking about?Flaying?


Kali clearly would do me no favors in explaining this, so I began. “My detector. The only real lieutenant tool. Um, you see, it’s less of a violet mechanism in and of itself, it’s more of a meditative focal point trigger for an internal dissociative state of direct soul-narrative interaction, and…” I caught my breath and made sure to slow down, “and it is disorienting. Very disorienting. Three hours a week is more than one could be asked to bear. What Kali is telling me is that tengmu childhoods are spent entirely in this state, this... pre-ego fugue?”


Kali cut me off, sudden and sharp. “Look at my eyes.” Tentatively, I obeyed. Didion scowled, offended, not having parsed the explanation at all. But I turned to Kali, finding eir deep black gaze, in that low, low light. And before I could -


We were. The world died.


It was scorching brink of rain season before the clouds broke. Cold light hot. How could it be so hot? My coat felt like it was burning down in the dust and rabble of the yellow ground. I combed through stalks and stones. I chased grasshoppers and broke the paper-candy shells of snails. I ran lithe and edgeborne and adapted, as easy as air, as easy as without air – my claws were long and thin.


It was rain season and I saw people weaving under the canopy oilskins. I couldn’t tell their faces apart no matter who I was they were like stones, like little shadows of angels, puppets, boats, blank as statue molds.


The sun glowed a dull blue at night – just enough so you could see before you.


How it feels to grow up homeless and with no need for a home, no conception of what a home is, no image of inside and outside, inside the great cage, inside the wheel of heaven pierced by an arrow of light, the sacrilege you only learn in later years of the undone fragment of god called time, the arrow, the anti-center banished, the seed of separation and the point of pain.


I ate crabs by the river when their young were overflowing. I stabbed them and pried them apart just by opening my mouth. I was still looking into my eyes, Kali’s pupils, I choked out, “How?” and we said, “I’m just reading aloud. We can stop,” but I was not ready to stop and then I was in the sky.


The fog was beginning to clear. My mind at the edge of my mind was waking. There were words and calls and thoughts that did not vanish behind me, that I was carrying like an armful of stones rather than a suit of clothes. I was so high, in the middle of the sky, light and sound, green blue white green winter leaves like being in a room and something was wrong.


From behind? Below? Around me I heard Harka call, eir voice distant, no/move/no/red/shape in the half-language of nymphs.


red/move/move I cried but my wing was already broken and the world spinning, delirium, derision.


Kali broke away from me. Eir fire was gone from me again, disappeared like sunlight turning out behind closed eyes – like when you lay there in your bunk, dozing out the window – all christs, where was this coming from, how old was I...? When the ambient spin of the port turns like a whale in the sunlight. Morning news with cheery officer talking over drone footage sweeping across the outer surface of the town, floating there, a mountain covered in houses.


How habitats, being inside them, feels like the walls are gonna collapse on you, swallow you up like a storage-bay gate slamming shut. And stations felt like being inside a warm house when it’s raining outside like the jug-month slipstream storms, tearing over the heavy covered library walls, its branches tied in holy cord so the wind wouldn’t damage them, fifty skeletons you had known by name strewn in the lamplit rafters.


Grandfather’s funeral. Funneling his ashes into his porcelain flagstone – decorated with the honor ribbons of ten year’s Admin-sector service, the long drift home with it tied between the porters – sons and daughters of his crewmembers from the corps – through the streets where the townspeople peeked out of their doors at the procession. Unpacking the grave wall in our family’s shrine room, fitting him in next to our other beloved.


A frog raw from the river. Killifish. Sandy raspberries. Birch bark. Cold murky water and grainy silt on your beak.


I was at home. I was eight. Second shift had just ended for the day and in the typical rush of activity down the flocks of neotenes through the main tunnel corridors. I took a detour from the loop branch of the station as a shortcut to the residential layer – I’d sneak through the hydroponics alleyways and got distracted by the sudden cool moisture in the air, the clanking-hum that showed up in the stations motion-sections, the garden barrel turning and the racks of produce clung to the rim of the walls. All around me was green and dew, this small, turning room filled with carrots and parsnips in black soil planters, waterberries in thick bushy clumps with the lights shining through them. No one was on duty. It was just me, and the sound of water running down the stone-paved drainage gutters, back into the town’s water system.


I was curious. I dropped down into the verdancy, letting the spin carry me. It was the first time I had ever felt weight, and my heart skipped as if someone had seized me. But the air was sweet and I was home.


And just as my mind woke, I came to, and was in the clearing again, Kali nuzzling eir head into the crook of my neck.


“What happened to her?” Didion shouted, almost standing in the litter. “Are you alright? What did you do?” Harka hopped before him with one outstretched wing – the most human gesture I had seen from them yet. It was unsettling,


Kali spoke to me low and steady. “I could fly that high when I was a nymph. Even when my mind was in that state, I chose to do it, to chase high. I meditate on that the rest of my life. It is like –“ e said, hopping back from me again to perch on the litter’s railing “– it is like... do you ever worry about who you are? Not your path, or moral choices, but of your essence? Our essence is already patterned in these dreams. The ones we come back to. The anchors of the practice, you know? We are slaves to it, and we remember that.”


“How kind and cruel. How similar, aha,” I laughed weakly, staring at my lap. E was right. There was something similar there. Anchors - core principles you hang your personality on while learning wonderwork, to reinforce and stabilize internal perception. Essential beliefs, traits, memories. A tengmu nymph… if I understood, through animal adrenaline and a soul to grow into, lived their first years in a way where the entire time spent would be “locked in” as that kind of pillar. Building themselves around their own relationship with old, outgrown instincts, unable to make new anchors themselves? This was too much. I would have to consult with Anahit, so much of this was more her field than mine. “Would you return with us?” I asked once I knew the world was not fading. Didion, in the lamplight, quietly straightened up but otherwise did not react.


Kali stared at me, utterly motionless. “What?”


“To our ship. We could take you – a few hours in the claustrophobia of this litter’s cargo compartment,” I patted the machine beneath me. “We would leave our supplies, have you settle in, anywhere we could be seen. But we should do it. I believe we need to become very serious, very quickly.”


“Why do you propose this?”


“The See is what you wish to contact? Directly into arbitrations?”


E slowly shrugged his equivalent of shoulders – the equivalent of a nod.


“Then it should be you who speaks with them. We can give overviews, general ideas – only you can say what you mean. I… I can do my best. I can approximate. But you can sing that.”


E thought. And then - in what I would come to recognize as the basal tengmu “smile” - pointed eir beak straight to the sky.


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


“Will you be comfortable? I’m so sorry, again.”


“It will be comfortable! Very. I like small spaces, and look -” from what appeared to be an awkward crouching position, Harka spread eir wings and turned slowly, demonstrating how spacious the cargo area was. Didion had spent a few minutes tinkering, and was able to turn the auxiliary lights brighter and constant. “As long as I can breathe, we should do what we must. I will use your blankets here.”


“Good. And eat the rations too. Anything there you’re welcome to.”


Harka laughed, ka, rung out in a dense barrel echo.


And from there it was only up. A round of curt farewells - Aethotl pitchingly nervous and on guard, taking refuge in formalities, Razina distracted with the work of the week and the pace of organization finding itself again. I couldn’t help but smile to myself as we left - a retired farmer, she insisted, but there had been a job change besides into a kind of post-retirement museum curator, micromanaging the project like a bride. They let us go without much fanfare.


Didion and I took our pills, I having refused the syringe without Kaitei’s steady hands, so fitful falling dreams took me for the long ride up. And then we were there again, in the upper stations, as if we’d only left moments ago - that eerie blue sleeping glow letting us know it was night into early morning. We made our way back, first walking the litter, then riding it as it kicked off from wall to wall all the way back to the ship.


Umihotaru waited, proud and long.


As soon as the outer airlock rolled open Bettany was there. She had evidently waited right here for us, in the center of the doorway, eyes darting between every inch of us both before speaking.


“You’re back. We’ve been drafting the letter. In, please.” She locked the door behind us as if preparing for voyage, closing the great padlock fast the minute we had loaded the litters back in. When it was closed, Harka promptly unfolded emself from the storage compartment and tumbled gracelessly into the room. E spread eir wings cooly, surveying the room, eyes darting as e found balance in the unweight.


Bettany stared only a moment before regaining her composure. “Lord Harka. Well, words fail me, as I’m sure you understand. My most earnest welcome to this little vessel; treat it as you would a home should it please you.”


“Prefect, your words refresh me already. I will be here. I will be.”


“We are immeasurably privileged. I will prepare. Emelry, we will be in the kitchen, for safety’s sake, smaller windows, you know...” She nodded at me, ducking her jittery head as if apologizing.


“I suppose she’d like to jump right into it...” Didion mumbled, watching after as she scurried in.


Harka snapped eir beak. “What? That’s well. I am rested and waited, we’ll direct.”


I followed Didion’s gaze into the bulk of the ship, down the long hallway that ran from the airlock to library. For a moment it seemed so clean and still that it felt like I was again stepping onto it for the first time, like all those scant months ago. How was it that all that time of the voyage blended together, and seemed shorter yet than the mere week we’d spent here?


I’d approached the voyage as if it was another class. A practice session, acclimation to void travel, a diversionary theoretical foray into preparations for a project so grand it seemed then to be negligible. The absurd, absurd idea that a true world could live here. I took it as a positive that I felt no shame for that.


Didion and Harka shuffled together by an open cubby, sorting out the little paper-and-twine package the king had entrusted us with after refusing the call to come - the leather-bound notebook, a full crow skeleton lovingly linked bone by bone with fine metal rings. I was oblivious for a moment as I thought, and then I saw Anahit’s face appear and disappear at the library threshold.


“Excuse me a moment, I’ll fetch the speaker. Didion, I’ll leave things to you.”


“Right!” he said. “Right, right.”


In a moment I was there, and found her curled with her back at the wall. She stared at me - that look on her face, the one she has when wounded and too proud to admit so in her heart. “Why, Emelry?” she hissed to me, tense and quiet, like a girl. “How could you think like this?”


“I - I’m sorry? I’ve only returned, I know the visit -”


“Not the visit! This... this... this...” she trailed off, unwilling to say something cruel, but then said with sudden force. “No. This is so far beyond. This is not how I thought we would do this.”


I put a hand on her shoulder. “Anahit... Anahit, you must not worry. There is so much to do, so much to learn, and surely a fight. But we make sanctuary now. It is a speaker’s role to -”


“Don’t tell me about that! Not by the mandate of my role! How could you do this, bring it here, when from the beginning I’ve told you, shown you, Emelry, the sourness here, the emptiness!” She was all but a few degrees of passion away from flailing her arms around in nervous fit. “The scrys still read dark, and you bring their subjects here after one conversation?”


“What choice could we have? They came to us desperate.”


“The choice of caution! The choice of audit process, lieutenant, that we have to parse things like this by. This is why the format exists, why each role functions as they do - you’ve been acting as lieutenant, liaison, speaker at once, as if… ugh. And now you’ve chosen our side for us. What can we know, what could we possibly know so soon? What are we to do now that protocol has been so abandoned? Reckless!” she said, the last word seethed out.


“This is beyond an audit, you know that. It’s staring at you. We are being pulled, willing or no, so deep into the future… You’re not arguing for caution, you’re arguing for panic and paralysis. Its too desperate to not move.”


“Wrong.” She couldn’t decide on where to settle her eyes. “You just think something strange here makes you special, and you can’t see anything now.”


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


In the kitchen, I let Didion talk. I let everyone talk. I hung back, first speaking only when spoken to.


Henarl was lost in himself as well. He barely reacted to Bettany as he usually did, staring at his feet rather than that steely pan of a gaze I knew from him. Anahit sat quiet, and smiling so naturally that it was uncanny. Didion and Bettany were the ones taking charge, animated and throwing themselves around the room as they paced and exclaimed - and Bettany would not let me shrink for long.


“So. I believe I have a checklist. Lavender matters, politics above and below, but really, Emelry, you are going to have to explain what this experience was.”


“Right, well...” Why were they looking at me like that? “The lieutenant role has a sort of special technique used in our deliberations. The tengmu are fully lavender-compatible, and have something similar innate. The extent… will take some time to chart. So little of this has been studied. “


Bettany asked, “Hold, all of them?”


“All,” Harka said. “Roan songs and blue dreams, it’s assumed. Less spiritual, as you, a new sense instead. Magnet vision. Seasonal visualization, lyric encryption.”


“What are you talking about? Not spiritual?” Anahit asked, her voice soft. “How could soulwork not be spiritual? I don’t believe that.”


Harka only cocked eir head again. “The point being. Are only lieutenants taught to do what we do?”


God, their eyes were all so heavy. “Yes,” I said, “I believe so. By official channels. I’m sure there are some outliers who have found it otherwise, but… the training is very specific. It would be difficult to orchestrate when outside of academy setting. And… I believe the tengmu capacity is different. Deeper.”


Anahit scoffed, “Deeper how?”


“Well… it was more than wonder. This was... a capability we pretend at. Sometimes hope towards. But we haven’t dreamed correctly of it. It was... the true encoding of thought. Not - not the reverse-engineered decoding that the detector facilitates. But a true transmission of qualia.”


“Wait,” Bettany said.


“No, I must. I... what I felt there...”


Henarl coughed with surprise. A deep chime from the loudspeakers, Bettany stared at the newly-opened video channel in awe. “No, this... damn. Emelry, how did she..? We don’t have the time for this.”


The screen flickered on. Kuryo redname clung alone to one of the pillars outside the ship, hailing us by voice over and over.


“I’m showing up,” Redname crackled over the interface, “for consultation with your speaker. As you’ve recommended. Let me on, I know your party just got back.”


“Oh, God,” Didion whispered from next to me.


Bettany pushed forward towards the screen, staring at her. “Right, well, terrible timing as always. What do we do?” Before anyone could respond, Redname moved. She scanned her surroundings, and pulled the skull around her neck from the folds of her cloak. “Let me on. Now, c’mon.”


“Let her,” Harka said, batting the air to stabilize eirself. “Let her on.”


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


“What, are you gonna make me wait in the airlock again?” she grinned, pulling off her cloak. “That was so rude. I can barely believe it.”


Bettany looked at her evenly. “It was irregular both times, chief.”


“Did you keep me here the first time because they were already here? Or was it just over tech access, haha.”


“We aren’t discussing that,” Bettany snapped.


“No, I get it. That answers it.” She stretched, making a show of taking up space here, again looked confidently to the inner door. “And the jig’s up now, so... let me in and let’s talk.”


I crossed my arms with apparently misplaced confidence - Bettany turned sharply, letting a glare flicker on only after she was no longer facing her, and swept into the kitchen with the door still open. Kuryo smiled, nodded at me, and followed.


“Ka!” Harka saw her before I’d followed in turn. I was left clinging to the threshold as this silly group made assembly. “And the staff enters stage! At center and with, how, it’s you.


“Harka, right? You should be thanking me.”


“Threats veiled and not, name your angle, fire maker! Ka!”


She spoke to Bettany. “I’m obviously not here on staff’s behalf, alright? I’m one of the few people who are gonna be real with you here, because we aren’t getting past this easy. Now, I’m here to talk.”


“No. No, what is this?” Bettany waved dismissively between the two visitors. “You’re explaining that first, before we begin ‘talk’. How much do you know, how do you know of one another - what is happening?”


“Drone girl,” Harka snapped, head fixed like a spearpoint at Kuryo. “Takes her toys and plays with the rejects. Pretends to be a prophet angel. She has nothing to tell you.”


“Did they tell you anything, by the way? Or are they still maintaining the position of nothing existing but their city.”


“The details of the political situation,” I said, “have been explained to us. I personally assure you, Redname, that there has been no duplicity. You arrived during our deliberations of how to proceed at the news, it’s all very delicate, as I’m sure you’re keenly aware. If you’re committed to honesty, then cards on the table, please.”


“She doesn’t know us. Subterfuge and fear. Not the plains or proper.”


Kuryo looked at me, brows dramatically raised. “Well? Can I talk?” I nodded to Harka, who put eir hackles down, and she continued. “Thanks. Now, I want to get one thing straight, to all of you. This guy has come to you as a representative of Quay, and I’m sure the scribe and lieutenant will fall into that role too. But I’m not on staff. I’m... I’m here as a representative of the Third.”


Harka broke into a long, cawing laugh, shaking the room with a sharp echo it wasn’t built to handle. “Ah, I see. This is where we are. You lie; you stand with Quarry. The Third is overtaken, easy pickings, now subsumed into the engine entirely. Of course they would be! Dreamers. Was there once a culture there? A breathing tradition? Perhaps, but no more than is the baseline of heart. Nowadays, it is all those who forget both cities. Those who reject the challenge of flourish. They go to the plains to dream again and eat from the dirt, to roll in the water wet, and mock the grace of soul.”


“The Third is the most advanced lavender practitioners in creation,” Kuryo coolly stared towards Anahit, missing not a beat in her answer. “What pieces that Quay has eked out of their books, my folks totally live in. I started... living with them because I wanted to study their language; they don’t speak Akkadu like the Quays, so - “


“They truly don’t?” Kaitei asked, cautious. “I don’t understand that. The engineer role is both technical and medical; I’ve studied this, and all we know about the brain-soul tells that knowledge of Akkadu is tied to the development of the speech centers at the fundamental level; as soon as one is theoretically able to speak, the knowledge should flow into them regardless. This is what happened with you, at Quay, no? The presence of a cultural dialect is some proof it wasn’t learned through direct study.” Harka preened eir wingtips, a gesture of agreement.


“That’s the thing. I don’t think, at least for those born into the life, there are speech centers. It’s something else. It’s a telepathic, ideatic language, engrammatic song, an order of magnitude different from human language. And,” Kuryo said, “it was part of the goal. Nymphhood as a trance state, phased in and out of at will.”


Harka seemed uncomfortable, curling eir claws in the air. But e remained quiet, until eventually asking, “Who do you mourn?”


“A friend. She was Thirdish, if you’re still attacking my loyalties..”


“’She’,” Harka squawked. “These ideas. I can’t believe it.”


Kuryo sighed. “This is the problem.”


“Yes, it is!” Harka exclaimed.


Didion had prepared a round of tea upon returning. The bags had sat there, tied to the platter, since we had begun talking. Bettany straightened, took one, was disappointed it was lukewarm. “This is all quite vague. Are we here for a reason, or would you two like to speak privately? All due respect.”


“We are well here,” Harka said without looking away.


Kuryo nodded. “Yeah. I’m just here to put things on the table.”


“Then can someone tell us the story?”


“She,” Harka cried, “has long forayed into the plains. Posed as a prophet-angel, riled up discontent among the cityless.” E nodded. “Does she do it with approval? I don’t know.”


“I’m not posing as anyone. I’m talking to people I care for.”


“Some care. Ideas, ideas, ideas. Kali has often cursed you on mission.”


“Why? You’re just as brutal as your idols, just waiting for the chance. I’m not spreading anything, trying anything! The plains are just as interested in those in the walls as you are with those outside of them. You’re the one robbing them of options, of ideas! I love that you call em a king, God.”


Harka flapped, tugging at Didion’s shirt, raising eir beak almost straight up. “Appalling! Appalling, appalling, no sense of the project, jailer! A human, encouraging the emulation of humans, who still cries kingdom. The word is a matter of respect, not power! You will never insult em. Never!”


Kuryo just looked at the wall.


Bettany cleared her throat. “How lovely. Another matter, I want to hear it from a member. Kuryo. You’ve been here long enough, you’re sharp. The cult of the changelings, what is it? Its tenets, goals?”


“And how much of it is your additions?” I added.


“You people...” she sighed, but began regardless. “New Vitalism is this. It’s this,” she gestured at Harka, “it’s... novel life.”


“Usual changeling fare, then,” Henarl mumbled.


“No. Vitalism is not just new kinds of life, its new modes. What’s that mean, it means new ways of living, ways that are currently impossible, currently unexplored. It’s... god, do we have to talk about this with em in the room?”


Bettany opened her mouth and laughed like I’ve never heard her laugh before. A sharp, high, incredulously cruel laugh that went on a second longer than was appropriate. She let it echo, simply smiling and continuing to listen to Kuryo. Harka quietly shifted the claw e was perched by.


“Yes, then,” Kuryo said, after having failed to stare our prefect down. “It’s about different cycles, different skies, in the ways the world hasn’t managed to be different yet. The tengmu are a different mode of life. An entire new language, as we’ve been going over... look, for how long has the world been about the same bullshit, sun and moon and all the rest of the framework. How long have its leaders forced... no, not forced, embodied this single lens.”


“We asked you for a description of the cult,” I interrupted, “Not a sermon from it. You know that isn’t true. The human rainbow...”


“Yes, yes, obviously the rainbow, that’s what I’m talking about. The one light of white Adonai with everything in its place, duh. This is what we mean, this is what new means!” she seethed, “A second light. A second light, to disprove the monolithic purity and... parity of the empire. It’s an antithesis, a partner...”


“This sounds empty,” Didion said. “A whole species just to prove a point. It doesn’t follow.”


“What, is a species born to rot in rock mines better? Is that more noble? Did our creators magically know what our place would be? No, the story rises from the nature it’s given.” This was almost sad to watch. Insecurity over artificial heritages was so typical of old women like her, born in places still spiritually yoked. That’s... that’s why! God, I’m on your side, this is all old..! I’m with you. I’m with you. I don’t apologize for the staff here. I’ve lived here, I’ve done what I can, I stand with the crows. I know where I am, but you will trust that. We’re past debates, we’re past everything. We’re in it now.”


Harka grumbled. “Then your time in the Third. How how how am I to believe you aren’t evangelizing for the staff there. Stewing the flames already there. What could have turned you? Pet.”


She brushed em off. “Please. No one here is innocent of angling for position. The doors have been open for a while, culture inside has never been isolated or pristine. You literally evangelize you literally set up those encampments right in the middle of herdland and… whatever, we’ll save the squabbles. Judge me as a foreigner, not an alien.”


“But the wolf in a new land ceases to be a hunter. He takes on the debt of a king,” I quoted


“Why! Are you like this! You’re already pulling out Yaya at me? This is hopeless.”


Harka said “I’ve come here to advocate. It’s what we agreed. You’ll not take -”


“No,” Kuryo boomed. So full and loud that Harka flinched, startling back on eir perch with feathers in disarray. “No. This is Savannah and I have just as much right to ‘advocate’. It’s my home too. Hell, if we’re being real, there’s barely more tengmu than human staff here, it’s still a small case. And if we’re moving forward with this, I’m not leaving anyone behind, I’m not just capitulating to your king. We’re doing it right, from the beginning.”


“Small?” I pushed back. “It’s not near the human population, surely, but we are discussing a matter of… millions.”


“No. No, she’s right,” Anahit bobbed along as if she didn’t hear me. “The details can fall into place later. But... I saw it in my scrys, you know, I missed it the first time. There’s the chain of settlements along the river, right? But there’s also the plains, and the great cluster at the far end. I didn’t understand that, it put my numbers wrong?”


“What? Anahit? We have a responsibility here. Weren’t you...”


“Wasn’t I what?” she beamed. “Obviously we’re all trepidatious, right? But this makes sense.”


I watched helplessly as everyone nodded in assent, how the whole crew just accepted such boldfaced maneuvering. They were smarter than this. Even for Anahit and Didion’s fragility, even for Henarl and Bettany’s callousness, and not even mentioning Kaitei the most solid of us all, each of them were smarter than this. Each of them knew how to think - why, how could they possibly go along with this?


I was worried. I was very, very worried. Kali had been wrong, there must have been… some echo. Some reverberation, something new found. What I’d seen with the king, Kuryo had found years ago and perfected.


“Here’s what it is. If we’re all working together now,” I rushed to say. I took point at what center I could find in the room, moving so that all eyes would be on me. “We need to know what we want to do with the big issues. The things we can agree on. Sever and Cote, those are the two power centers of human Savannah as I’ve seen it. Two cultural complexes around them both, and before we determine a course towards the interior, we must have a picture here, proposals made for how to handle each. How much we are willing to give. Next step we call the See and announce formal hostility and a request for arbitration - once we’re there, we can take command of Savannah forthwith. Let’s call it here tonight. Kuryo, Harka, we’ve spare quarters plenty. Let’s rest. Let’s think. Weigh what you’ve heard, and get to work on research.” I looked up to Bettany for approval - she silently nodded.


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


The ship slept. Didion had crashed quickly, worn and exhausted from the one long pounding bruise that was the visit - a bruise that set into me just the same, though the marrow-deep ache was only painful. Like cracks of fire in every bone, but I hardly felt it. The pain was there, really I felt it fully, but the bad part of pain couldn’t touch my mind that night. Like there was some barrier, some impossible distance between myself and my body


I lay in the library. I’d tethered myself so that I could rest on the glass of the window, needing the juvenile comfort of my utility sash close around me. Setting a bone, I chuckled to myself.


“I call,” I heard a caw from the threshhold.


“Ah, Harka.” I turned against my cloth, slow and careful to reposition myself. “I thought you’d boarded in the supply room.”


“Yes. Close and still and useful. I like the packages, all your things and crafts.” With a few small waves of his wings e was near to me. “Don’t judge. I’m fluttering into a storybook.”


“Ha. Library and library,” I smiled. “Apologies if you were looking to be alone here. Is there anything I could help you find.”


The tengmu looked at things with heads posed sideways, as a rule. Perhaps they weren’t quite as predator as humans, or even owls, I suppose. Their obsidian little eyes always seemed quizzical, fresh and clean. This close to em, it really was shocking just how crow they truly were. Some animal part of my mind, the one built to put human faces to peoples’ names, still reflexively saw tengmu as drones of a sort, even now. Mouthpieces, online avatars, with some strange but human culture remotely behind them. But in the low orange nightlights of the library, glinting off all our little luxuries of glass and filigree, I watched em breathe, eir feathers rise and fall. Like cat’s fur, like leaves in a tree.


“I came to look but not to read. Liuetenant. You remember. How we said of fliers.” Another subtle motion of eir wings, and eir claws scrabbled at the featureless corner of the window, somehow finding purchase on the smooth brass. “A flier is a special role, not all who fly are. It’s a word for messenger, carrier, seer, explorer. Who finds things in the sky, words and names in air. In the upper sky, where unweight is, one can glide for days without exertion and fall into bluesight the whole way. Any number of accesses and passages to the great rooms of the builders, but I’ve never been there. I’ve never seen stars.”


“And I’ve spent my whole life with no sky but for stars,” I said, not hiding my amusement. “They’re beautiful in the same way anything natural is beautiful; you get used to it.”


Ee paused in a way that I imagined was very slightly offended. “Used to the neighbors! Don’t say such.”


“Oh, most of all! Even that becomes just another field of history... look,” I pointed to one star, a favorite of mine. “Do you see that? Thuban - there, the soft green one, fading in and out.”


“Ah. Ah, yes.”


“I’ve read about them most. One of the most elaborate dysonspaces recorded - like a mandala of tangled string, thousands of planets worth of mass. And all they broadcast is their music, absolutely nothing else, just centuries of music. Baffling variety. All picked apart. By the see’s standards, a fully realized and whole culture... maybe they found their calling and turned to angels.”


“Scales of drama, ka,” e laughed. “That’s good. That’s very good. Millions of years of song, right to you.”


“To anyone here. To us,” I shrugged.


Together we watched the stars gently, slowly, inexorably turn.