CW: religion, afterlife, altered states of consciousness, human psychological experimentation, cults, animal cruelty, mental breakdown, consciousness sharing, hunting, butchery, meat eating, skeleton
FROM THE EUGENETICS CHANTICLEER
OF THE ECUMENE OF HEATH
Year 320 of the Eighth Sun
As mandated by the New Epcot Charter and modern pandiocesal human rights law, this chanticleer recognizes and resolves that a new, and fourth, speciation is necessary.
While the Delphic and Novarian proposals for the approaching Hundred-Year Plan are admirable and well considered, neither people are adapted to the task. While the question of wheel colonization could be resolved in any number of ways - increased investment in janitorial and automative infrastructure, or simple unadapted inhabitation - these current proposals are insufficient in poetic quality for the era itself.
Human technology is amenable to the task. But of the three human species, none are. Under any of our directions, the wheel would neither be a region nor a home, but rather a resource as in the failure of the Arean proposals. But the nature of the wheel is such that it requires a people, and a name, for the mode of life its natural law demands will inevitably be reached by humans as the Ecumene reaches maturity. Under the current proposals, the wheel would turn one of two directions - one, an imperial expansion of an existing culture, or two, a slow and natural speciation not under the control of the Ecumene.
Therefore this chanticleer, alongside the three Heathling Sees, the Novarian Operational Court, and Ia-Om, hereby lay down these guidelines for the creation of a new people. These guidelines are intended to be as minimal as possible to reduce alienation from baseline and rigidity of design.
Two main principles;
● Full systemic adaptation to microgravity
○ Modified parietal and pineal areas for three-dimensional navigation in unweight
○ Prehensile feet to aid orientation and movement in indoor environments
○ Extrapolated vestibular system for similar purposes
○ Continually self-repairing skeleton and musculature
● Thriving in a land of inherent scarcity
○ Diminutive size and slowed metabolism at maturity to decrease resource consumption
○ Heavily reduced sexual dimorphism and a return to unmodified standards of gender
○ Lack of claustrophobia reflex for living-space efficiency
The true name of this people must be found in their own history, and technical name in the process of design. But as placeholder, and in the tradition of Declarations “Sidhe” (homo aristes) and “Qajin” (homo innubilius), this chanticleer has elected to use the word “Knytt”: after all small, strange, and beloved humanoid creatures in our shared folklore.
Eugenetics Declaration “Knytt”
towards the grave tree
I blinked. She did not. Ice, ice in the air, like the frost on an aging void-facing window. But just as our eyes had held each other long enough that I was near fidgeting again, she let out a grand terse sigh that I could only describe as childish, looked away from me, and began.
“When you first saw footage of heaven,” Tacimarsa asked, against the glass of the Plains Room, “what did you see? The very first tries. Before you were used to it.”
“Why is it the beginning that concerns you? Superplanal dynamics are not unfamiliar to me, but it is years of study before the sight is made useful.”
“Yes. As a priest you’re used to grappling with its nature. But there are no preconceptions at the start. Please consider and tell me.”
When was it? Long before the lieutenant’s course, long before I had any language for the practicality of such a thing. It must have been very early on in school, the first theology classes you take in compulsory education. Whatever it had been, it wasn’t as if it made an exceptional impression. Some people saw the faces of their loved ones, living and dead, changed by flourish. Some saw transcendent insight they struggled to even transcribe. That first glimpse could define lives, and had been doing so since the first broachings had been made, but it had never taken that effect on me. Once you made sense of your perspective, all the mystery fell away in favor of a blunt, warm certainty that by nature did not require second looks.
I hadn’t quite appreciated this chamber, when it had been full. The crowd of bodies at the brunch had made the place loud and hot, obscured the form of how the three glass walls down its length met at managed angles, the seams between them, the volume of uniform yellow grass that danced behind each. There the dias was empty, and all the perches unheld. Something in the grasses’ motion felt like being underwater. How perfect they were, how equal in length, how drawn in the cool ventilation breeze.
The innermost layers of Savannah all felt like this. Out from the generic, canopy-mimicking chic of the empty alabaster storefronts around the docks regions, those repeated and repeated templates of too-wide living space woven between the vast, closed-off gulfs of infrastructure. Only gradually, and deeply, did those manicured gardens gave way to showcases like this. Not individual, tasteful displays of complemented vegetation, but portraits of specific ideas of the interior design. This made ever more sense since the visit down. This, the Plains Room, was clearly a purified vision of Savanni plains, the yellow painter’s streaks of little-broken grasses that covered so much of that inner sky-land we had seen above. A signifier encased in perfect glass geometry. Now that I had had a chance to explore beyond even these most sealed doors, the whole region was like this. Corridors of circular glass, with muddy turquoise waters and muddy red fish helplessly circling in the current. Glass conference rooms, whose walls showcased bonsai-wide trees grown in straight and evenly-spaced lines, but with branches free and unkempt. An archive of concepts.
And that did serve to jog my memory, those grasses swaying like hair. Here I was, having asked only one question; tell me, consultant, of any Weylbloom connection I should be aware of, and she had already swung the interview around onto me. I humored her.
“Oh, I recall. It was something simple. Visions of rain and snow, or indistinct animal shapes… things that confused me, for I was young, and had only been exposed to those things in books or songs or distant feeds. I suppose my link was trying to reconnect me with a few snippets of ancestral memory.”
“Hm.” Her legs stiffened from where they were anchored to the perch by her clipper-shoes. “I see so in your affinities. Well, I say it, because I didn’t see footage until I started traveling for work. And the first times was just nothing. Interplanar static. Single words, fragments of thought. Maybe my heart just wasn’t weighted that way, maybe I wasn’t going there, I thought. But I looked, to answer your question. Tried to pull down those words. Who knows, but it disturbed me.
“By the time I was called to Weylbloom I had almost given up on heaven mattering for us. Of it being any more useful than other ways to alter ones own state. The grand archive, dream of all dreaming, never to be translated to satisfaction. A thing that barred its gates. I was young then, too, and given to these kinds of hopes. Soon, the static I saw, after years, changed to golden fire. An accurate view. And that is when they got me.”
“The founders of Weylbloom?”
She perched stone-still from across me, eyes fixed on mine, statuesque as she ever was. Long, spear-straight hair, a decorated upper-staff uniform that sat on her frame like a weapon. Most Triactians, upon earning their syllables, delved further and further into ostentatious modification, it was the basis of the changeling self - but for her she remained plain and close to baseline. Had she only carved her preexisting features in, harder and harder at each step? She made an impression, ice cube in a sea of golden fog, and there was not one trace of doubt in that expression.
She spoke so quickly, “Yes, obviously it was a cult, obviously you know how cults work, how they drag you in. The armor cracks they can smell. It begins with a lie about the shape of the world, and I was primed to believe it. Come and see, they said, come and build this library, of the richest minds and hearts, that we could keep with them past their time. It was the fearful kind of immortality, a blindness, couched in all the cosmopolitan aspirations of the inner wheel. We built the library, the hall of sages, fat university prize-winners. And then their souls reached the end of their watchmaker’s span, and burnt, and burnt. Even in the worst of the project heads, who was expecting this? Who wanted it? Death - time - changes the shape of a soul, and without being unmoored from the tellurian plane… well. Eccentricity and insight, at first. But in ten years each was an atrocity.” Her throat twitched. “Do you know the kind of thing I had to cover up, in those days? When the ghost-riots began gripping that thousand-person habitat. Cats nailed living to the walls in hundreds, on a tuesday. We began with talk of heaven living in this world.”
“You speak very harshly. Even the portions of the hearing I have access to… I suppose refraining from the true grotesqueries is a good thing.”
“Yes, well, don’t we lose sight of it?” She sighed, high, patient-impatient, dramatic. “Don’t we love to bury histories. But I was there, yes, in the thick of it, and you’ve been right to look at me like that. But I won’t run. Here we are. I’ve spent every year since trying to heal, myself and the parts of the world it touched. To undo the legacy. Not for the injustice, priest - who cares - but for the enshrined pride.”
I realized I had not blinked in several minutes, and quickly willed some traces of tears to compensate. Immediately she softened.
“Help me understand,” I shook my head. “When I spoke to Dr. Savelyevna, she spoke of this as a retirement. Set Pearl Wall, an exile to laurels. Is it the same for you? Are you here, now, to garden? Is that your healing?”
She smiled. “A good word. I came out of Weylbloom at home in death. Greeting it as a friend. A lesson I should have learned, long ago, from Cote when he was Coteshi. But that’s not why I came to Savannah. This land is a pure one, lieutenant. I am glad you saw the interior, the red earth, the blue glow, it is good to see. I suppose I’m here as a purification rite. This empty but blooming land, the false sun you’re so scared of. A land of life and something like a horizon. No more projects of blood and lineage and hope. There is an innocence in all Triactian ambition. But here it is true, and not vile naivete.”
I had put the inner circle off for so long, deferring to their stays and delays happily, for how could I face them without crumpling? And that was before we knew the weight of lives - that no longer were the victims of this place, as we had supposed, the cult members themselves. That it was not with themselves that their work was. And that was before the tide of realization had come in. They had made a grand show, paperwork, forms, screeds for our poor Henarl, an unimpeachable dodge. I had been grateful for it - time to become ready, to be able to face them, grapple with their stature and their secrets.
“Your courts did their work,” she continued simply, her smile continuing to flicker slightly, slightly stronger, “and I’ve no ambition or conflicts left. No weight. No fear. Just the things I once loved in my homeland, honored here in the still-still plains. Ancestral memory. Soon, the phases will progress. Soon this will be a place of healthy society. And soon I will be dead, and at home in that old golden flame at last.”
What possible explanation could there be, for her not to know? There still was not a trace of doubt in her. Still she was steady, forward and brave. Was there any possible way did she not know? Was there any possible way her story was true, that this is what she felt?
“When did you and Coteshinoeleon become acquainted? You speak of him familiarly.”
“Oh!” she said sharply, eyes unoffended and wide, “Oh, I had assumed it was known… he’s always just been my teacher, you see. In correspondence. Career-spanning. Savannah was once the project of his own teacher, and after her death he had meant to honor it. Hence those garish fucking statues, haha. So I followed him here, and had a place.”
“I see. Ehe, I had wondered, your hometown was the same…”
And now she was beaming, relaxed, entirely warm and fluid. “Apologies for my passion, lieutenant. And apologies for my reticence. But that was all I wished to say. And I wanted time to be sure that your crew did not come with knives.”
“Figuratively! An agenda. I understand it, the worry. But you’ve been asking your worst questions straight and frank. You’ll get all the time and assurance you need from us. I do trust you, now.”
And it was clear, in the mood of that room, that there was nothing left to say.
“And that’s what they’re used for. It’s a very complex mechanism, but the refraction networks let light that reaches the interior be granularly scaled between the luminaire spinelight and actual sunlight mirrored in from, well, right here! A similar system also pipes light and light fixtures through the sections of the cap - we can see those diagrams another day, yes? So by default it’s a seasonal system. Right below us, where you visited, at this point in the calendar, should have been at about 20% true sunlight, and likewise at the opposite end. The middle of the habitat is at 80% sun now, for example, and it rotates down the length once a year.” Beckon flipped the slide - more blueprints on the wall, this time a detailed calendar view, split out between twenty segments of the interior. I rubbed my eyes. “Eventually, as parcels get leased out, it can be customized by area. It’s all about catering! But… at your limit for today, lieutenant?”
“Ahh, you’ve caught me. I apologize, this still is fascinating. But, sometimes it’s as if I've simply transferred schools by coming here.”
“Ha ha, that you have! I’m surprised your engineer didn’t accompany you - this is his field, no?”
“Yes, but he’s all preoccupied with the biological side. I imagine he’s demanding the same time from Dr. Savelyevna, compiling his own survey of species included… no, this is more a personal interest.” I tied together the stack of hardcopy blueprints I had been following along with, slotting them in with the rest of my notes. “But thank you again. This has been very, very valuable.”
“Good!” he said, with a real smile. “I’m very glad. But is that all you wanted from today? You still look a bit nervous.”
Good. “Ah… aha, I didn’t mean…” I rubbed my temples, wincing. “Sel Nine, if I may ask… strictly after personal interest, not for the record. But were you raised in Dear Diadem? Or a nearby habitat?”
I saw a bristle in him, something in the way he raised his shoulders. “Between Diadem and Pearl Wall habitat proper, yes. My family’s estates are based in the set’s own habitat.” He held his smile, turned it apologetic. “I know it's not the same, but you know of fealty on a smaller scale… la, we can get back to the old drama if you ask, but…”
“No, no, I meant it, that isn’t it. I’m not here for my superiors’ paranoia. It’s that I still think of your perspective on the sun, the talks we’ve had on scripture proper.. I suppose half the reason I am making you run me through the whole structure of the receptor and spine is for my concern over sun, over distance…”
“Ahhh,” he sighed, “that. The adaptation process still taking its toll?”
I nodded, meek. “Yes. And you must excuse me, the idea, a priest coming to you for theological advice…”
“A young professional coming to an older one, you mean.” His arms were crossed - that slightly smug, surveying attitude he was so used to as a director.
“I’ve always thought of sunlight as a distant friend. One of many stars, but ours, just on the threshold. So, what I mean to ask… how did you see the sun, when you were younger, closer? Is it different, to be so adjacent to the light, so… unherded by it? I only ask, because… my reservations about this place, if the core sun-ley qualities could be preserved even here, the nature of the interior’s light. It scared me at first - the abrupt day cycle, the closeness, closer even than the See lies to the sun… it felt strange and alien. But did it seem the same to you? I fear…”
Pity was dripping and dripping from his face. Poor little knytt, he seemed to say, how sad it is you think of yourself as so distant. “No, you’re alright,” he said gruffly. “I understand. One's own relationship with the sun… exile has given me similar worries. How far away I feel from that light sometimes, even right next to so much of it. But even at Diadem, is that a pure sun? Through that rose-tinted glass sky? And pouring through the great windowed hull of Pearl Wall, the only habitat in the central configuration with those steel-reinforced sixths. I think everywhere we live finds a new sun, a new tint. Close, far, filtered as Savannah is! But it’s all the same. We have the expertise for that, no?”
With profuse thanks, and letting him lead another little prayer at the wall of the sun well, I slipped out of that thundering place again.
I was running out of time, now. Today’s session had far and away satisfied all my feigned technical concerns, and soon I would have to find a new tack of stalling. How silly it seemed, now, to have been so afraid of such small difference!
From the docks, it was the same trip again and again. I was becoming accustomed to it, and it only felt eerier and eerier. The same blank storefronts and arcades and rumbling rails among the grand interconnections of the caps, the same sleepy statuary and quiet parks of the receptor.
It was gentle here, gray and green and gold. The high points of my trips to the reactor were certainly here, this courtyard, and how close a semblance it was to home. The familiar dull-dark gray of softcrete, the neatly-clipped and short vegetation as was customary in Ilian habitats, with only the occasional spreading and sturdy tree for support. The only things that truly stood out were the unmistakable statues, and that the shelters here were clearly patterned after weighted structures, gazebos and glass houses. The statues stood, grand and angular overlooking the hollow, and I let myself waft down to one of the little grooves between the trees, the softcrete channels that held the cafeterias and small supply stores catering to the receptor staff. Shady things, tucked away from the harsher lights, alcoves of cafeteria seating, automated food vendors and a few showcase domes of hydroponic produce. Singular, but not such utter avatars as those inner-sanctum rooms were. And it was empty, at least in the hours I found here, with only the occasional lunic staff members in groups of two or three taking their quiet lunches here. I stayed away, aside from polite acknowledgements. People were becoming accustomed to our presence here, but still the fear. Always the fear.
I took two lunches, typical comfort-food lunic fare with garish package exteriors advertising the Savannah-grown ingredients of each - black bread and escargot? Those were all the ingredients listed, a strange and simple thing. One for me, one for Harka.
I tied my bag down to the perch underneath the awning of the gazebo that was becoming my favorite, wincing. All those bruises, from all my blundering across the corridors and the bonecrush pressure of the interior, had healed quickly but in that burning and knotted way the body loves to put its repairs through. The roof was an amusing conceit, patterned so after surface dwellings rather than the space-maximizing double-sidedness of Ilian architecture. And just as I was settling and making ready to eat, just as I had found myself alone and with a modicum of peace - alas! None, there was no solace for me here.
“Hello!” It was the frivolous boy who had been gloating at Henarl’s side at the brunch. Rain Flower, in all his orange and winding pinned silks, taller and darker than Beckon. His head popped down from the roof, clambering into view before perching, cross-legged, on the underside of the awning. “Lady liuetenant! I see you’ve made yourself comfortable here? Another meeting with the master’s husband? May I eat with you? Black bread, my! You’ll pick up our tastes if you hang around here much longer,” he grinned, already settled in with his cloak flowing lightly around him.
I deliberately took a bite of bread. “Regards, sel…?”
“Lock Wave, Lock Wave,” he said, proudly and primly gesturing to his chest by way of introduction. “I’ve heard on the wind your sessions with our director.”
“Ah. You work in the receptor, then.”
“Well, yes, ehe, by on the wind I suppose I mean seeing you through the windows every day. Still up and at it, collecting blueprints?” He motioned to my bag - arm darting out again in a flash, retreating just as quickly into his shifting cloak.
“Yes,” I said cautiously. “I apologize, Rain Flower, but I am bound to not speak overmuch on my interviews. They are very delicate procedures, personal for my subjects, and integral to the project. If you have concerns, shall I put you in contact with our liaison? His is the role that fields questions such as this, and -”
“Lieutenant,” he drawled, disappointed. “La, I know you’re not learning much here that you couldn’t get from any hardhull habitat. You’re waffling.” He stopped - I was pushing a look of slow outrage onto my face. “I don’t mean to be direct. Well, I do. But I think we’re at a crossroads. I only, only want to talk!”
Why was he whining as if it would woo me? “As I said, Rain, this is simply not my role.”
He leaned in conspiratorially, changing tack. “Ahem, yes. Then I would like very much to speak to your liaison, very much. In fact, if you’d grant me an audience on your ship? Tonight perhaps?”
“Impossible. We -”
“Tonight. Perhaps. Unless you’ve plans? Watch the clayliner pull in together? You’ll think about it, you’ll remember my name? After all, I am a certain level of closeness to the master, there are words I could pass along.”
“Sel,” I said firmly, stretching out of perch and making to leave. “If this is an extortion, you will get nowhere. I’m sorry, but this is unacceptable, and I am not swayed. If I’ve need of speaking with set Pearl Wall, I will make the meeting.”
“No! No, listen, I know. Not all of the quarter does. But the master, and Beckon… ahh, wouldn’t you listen! I’m not trying to buy you, I’m here to beg while able! Will you have me spell it out? I want,” he said, finding his firmness, “my foot in the door. You have the lay of the land, the political fault lines. You have the gun loaded!” His voice dropped to a furiously fast and velvety whisper. “You’re playing with upper management, and playing with Beckon besides, and very well, we can play more. I have access. I can give you the entirety of the lunic quarter’s standpoint, the intimate ear of the master. In return, spare him a thought. Things will fall into place very quickly, from here on.”
Ah, the third strategy, utter forwardness. I tried to roll with the punch, not think too hard yet of just what knowing meant. “...Does he know you’re doing this?”
“No. Not yet.” His smile was back now, and doubly sly. “The master is preoccupied with his own worries. Once it was clear you were not sent by his swamp of a family, he entirely stopped caring at what this audit would find. Ha! His part done, yes yes. But this was in your orders, no? Focus on the lunics, pin any impropriety on the exiles? But that’s wrong, la, that’s wrong, lieutenant, and you know. My master built this place, built it after his own bones, but he was not responsible, not privy to the subject of your plans for tonight. We’ve only made the best of it. If you care about that, care about the truth, bring me! Take me. It will work.”
God, was this his intimidation? This half-raised voice, wild eyes in this wide room? The statues loomed beside us, in line with the carved cataracts of stony sunlight, impassive.
“God damn it. Very well, you’ll come and speak to the prefect at least. She will decide if you’d be oathed.”
“Yes! Yes yes and yes, you have my word now, that -”
“Not now, you fool! I said oath.”
The stars turned outside the kitchen windows, and one more brightly than the rest. Nothing to do but wait; the deceleration would be finished with… soon, so soon that it was pain.
Anyndelhataman had cheerfully informed us a routine clayliner was pulling in - Hightower built, Ilian leased. Raw materials, burned out from the wheel, the drip-feed that was still necessary in these last phases of construction. Asteroid clay to be fired in the sunfurnaces ringing the receptor zones, raw iron and inert carbon… it must have been brought in from Glauheft, the closest major Ilian settlement before the sparseness of the Hildas… and how far, far away that was.
A message was coming for us, brought in from that station of the cycle. I had consulted the turning-records - Matali’s ship would not be passing there for a full two thirds of her cycle. Years.
I stayed for some minutes, watching the blaze.
The kitchen was becoming a rare oasis in the increasingly crowded ship. Parts of its modular structure had been disassembled and moved to the women’s dorm, one of the fridges and the main range entirely, leaving whole stretches of the walls here empty as the rest of Umihotaru was overstuffed. Kuryo had commandeered what had been our quarters, and only Anahit had stayed. Absorbed were the both of them in each other, their discussions taking up so much of their efforts that it was becoming frightening. Bettany and Henarl had taken to sleeping in the library with overwork, and I was not much better.
I lingered at my gathered stash of rations. Each time I returned to the ship I brought with me as many cafeteria packets as I could manage in, I suppose, some feeble instinct to stockpile for storm. Red risotto, blueberry pork, hemp nutrient bars, the black bread - overly spicy and dense to the point of wetness, but bread regardless, and comically filling. Harka was having great reams of fun picking through the variety of food here, in between bragging about eir own cuisine, the gray brick stoves and intricate seafood stir fries e liked the best back home.
I left the kitchen quietly, just brushing against the walls and handles as I pushed off. I glanced into the library opposite from the kitchen - only Kaitei, earphones in, measuring out his maintenance tasks for the week. And the still securely locked airlock door, waiting for Rain’s arrival in hours. I turned the corner to the main corridor, leading to the larger rooms in the ship, the dark wood-paneled string of cubbyholes that made up our personal offices.
I’d moved my hammock into mine. Easier to be close to my workstation and growing records, and cozily soundproofed away from the passing noise of the waking ship. All four sides of the corridor were lined with simple square cupboard-doors, some for storage and some for what little space was allotted for purely personal use.
I slid open the portal to my poor inner sanctum here and Harka was entirely tangled in my hammock.
Bettany thrust her arm out expectantly, and I handed her her lunch, long since resigned. They started up again, tearing up the packet together like overactive siblings, just as the door closed again.
“And the next!” Harka cried, untangling eir claws from the hammock mesh and swinging haphazardly around the already very small place. Salt and grain, salt and grain, e was becoming addicted to the stuff. Without natural mineral deposits, proper matter-reclamation infrastructure, or even seas as Heath had, salt was vanishingly rare across Savannah below us and easily worth its weight in gold. Gold? What did they even use for exchange? Regardless, e tore into it carelessly
“Gah. Snail worm,” e said, picking them one by one out of the packet and letting them drift around the room. “I will not eat these. But the bread!”
“Harka!” I called, scandalized, “I am the one that must sleep here!” But Bettany only laughed, picking them out of the air herself.
“You,” she said, the two of them already fluttering with laughter over the shared spoils, “are so picky. Why do you insist on such limits on this culinary adventure?”
E said nothing, only ripping into the bread further with a warm glint in eir eye. But I quieted. I had not eaten them either, after Rain had interrupted me. The taste of river water, sand in my mouth…
Bettany reduced herself to mere snickers, reestablishing herself on my perch. She’d taken over my desk as soon as I’d left the room. Likely, I’d had nightmares about exactly this moment, the preening prefect rifling through this sliver of an inner sanctum I had! But my shelves and closets were still untouched, and I took a breath. There was work to be done.
I nestled on the opposite wall as they. “I think,” Bettany said, scrolling through a file open on my workstation, “Harka’s gotten me a serviceable understanding of eir end of the process now. And I’ve finished reading your notes - do they really supply you with no real documentation? Even Anahit’s equipment comes with instruction manuals…”
“I suppose my lavendry is a tool of luxury. Hers is far more integral to the crew,” I nodded. “But regardless of position, the trance is a deep secret. A corporate secret, even. Not meant to be known among crews, much less among Ilion as a whole, much less the Ecumene entire. It is a great risk I take, passing the art to you. These are not capabilities that should be known.”
“Huh? I think you’re overrating it.”
“You do not yet understand the gravity of the wonderland, prefect. It is a terrible thing, and as spiritual as it is functional. Most of those rejected from the lieutenant’s course are ones who cannot bear the vision of it, and there are many of them.”
“No, I mean about the secrecy. It can’t be that serious.” What was she talking about? This was the crux of it, the human memory bank that made this life, this work, at all parseable - her face tightened. “No, clearly there are the rules in place. But things like this must become known among the crews that stay together, and the most effective ones do. Look, how easily we were pushed to start sharing like this. It must be common knowledge in the veteran circles. And, going off your Sever preliminaries - the Board employs neotenes as interrogators, and surely their eyes could not be pried away so easily? The silver fixation on secrets? Really, Sever must at least know, or else not have the ambition we thought of him. And, I mean, Kuryo…”
That was it. That was it. “Harka…” I hazarded.
“Yes,” e replied. “At camp you sat with Kali and dreamt. Is it the same art? No, for the wrong skull, but thought weaves through. This is the magic of blue, and that the cityless sing smoothest. Surely she.”
“You said,” Bettany said, looking at me evenly, “that it felt like flaying, Emelry. Caustic? I’ll decline, if this is being drugged into terrors. What did you even mean?”
“It isn’t that! I meant… what I saw there, the interaction was the problem, not the faculty itself. It was sudden. It was adapting to the memories of an entirely different body! Think of it, bones change when you make a wing - pinfeathers!“ I shuddered. “It was very… Gah. Entire new languages of sense. But we’re the same kind of human, prefect - I… it still does scare me. The potential is new, for all of us.”
Quiet in the room. She frowned, turning it over in her head. “Oh, alright. If you can bear it then so can I. But we remain in the basics, for now, I want no adventure until I’ve a baseline of skill. And Harka - I want you to step in with any input, as well. This is all exploratory.”
“Yes,” e nodded.
So we began. Bettany and I strapped into the padded perching chairs in the wan light of the workstation screen, Harka keeping to the edge of the room with eir gleaming eyes, taking us in at all different angles. I took her hands in mine.
“We begin with an image,” I said, “and please meet my eyes, it is necessary for the teaching. It must be an image we are both thoroughly familiar with. Usually this is done with the focus of the detector, a small thread of jade to reliably tie your mind to. But we will begin with memory alone. What will it be? A place on the ship?”
“No, I don’t think I would be very connected to any of that. Let me think,” she looked away, eyes flitted to Harka for help, but quickly realized e would have nothing to say - still watching us impassively, eir cocked head shimmering with those streaks of ultraviolet. “Ohh… what was the hall they used for graduation, actually? The one with the big window to the geofront.”
“Igumo Memorial. Did you even spend much time there, though? I doubt it, if you’ve forgotten the name in only a few months.”
Her hands clenched, “Oh please. Is that your only objection? I passed plenty of time there, awards ceremonies you weren’t at.”
“Fine. Graduation, then? We can work with that.”
“Good!” she grinned. “Where do we start? Just focus on the memories?”
“Yes.” I took a deep breath, perched a little straighter, and let myself slip into the steady, confident, calm voice my instructors had used. ”You must fully inhabit yourself there. Think in terms of release-meditation, and how one by one it shuts down sectors of the body. You must be intentional in this way, inhabit in the same way. Replicate the moment fully, and work it, inch by inch, through your entire body. From the air on your skin to the color of the light. Nostalgia, your thoughts and fondness, are helpful as an anchor, but do not contribute to the mechanism. It is of the body, fundamentally.” I breathed deep in, deep out. “We will close our eyes, and begin.”
“Yes. Close your eyes, but keep them fixed on mine.”
“What?” she said, a hint of incredulous laugh.
“Eye contact must be maintained. It will function the same as a jade anchor, since you haven’t had time or supply to bond with one. Maintain the focus and position of your eyes completely straight. To look around, you must turn your head only in the wonderland. Rely on that recreated set of muscles, use them, and freeze your outer ones.”
“Alright. This might be a few days of getting it right, even normal meditation has never been for me. But alright.” She took a great gulp of air and clamped her eyes shut - I slowly closed mine.
“I was tense that day. Stiff in formalwear. The thick wool veil a bit too tight, itching around my ears and neck. I couldn’t sit still.”
“Mine was black silk. Beautiful, but sliding off my hair terribly then, and hot in the lamplight. Did you know, it was longer those months ago? I thought to be presentable at dock.”
“On topic, please. More about the body. My arms were heavy. I picked at the little ridges in my fingernails. I perched next to Lhani Noornoor. My feet were pinched, I had only bought my formal sandals the day before.”
“Uhh. I was hungover.”
“Prefect! Why do you -”
“Shut up! It was an important sensation anchor, or whatever you’d call it, no? A little headache. A shard of red was shining in my eye from that great window. Mon was about to speak, and I was so fidgety about it, the tension of if my sleepy old advisor would pull his vigor out today… Sleepy. Arms held behind my back. I… I don’t remember who I was next to or anything…”
“Quite alright. Your deeper memory will fill in with time. Are you beginning to feel it? As if you were there, now, but with eyes closed.”
“Yes. I can imagine the surroundings, but not truly see them. But… oh! Oh, that red light, that I can see?”
“Good! Good. Tell me about the window itself. Build it out, look to it, moving only your head, as your head was that day.”
“Alright. Alright. A great circle of glass, as large as the whole opposite wall we perched on. Ah! The red was from the outer ring of stained glass rosettes… the central facet, with the winged emblem in red and blue…” Bettany recited, focusing properly as I’d asked her. “The wrought iron frame. Lord Mon all colored purple in the light, hah.”
“We don’t need to jump to the speech yet.”
Her hands shifted in mine, annoyed. But she continued. “Sixteen panes of glass for the stations of the Wheel. Those mother-of-pearl mural walls. Everyone in formalwear, the same we wore… Adonai, Emelry, have we gotten out of these things since landing? I’m so sick of uniform…”
I shushed her. “Just a few more details. Anywhere your eyes were wandering, or kept coming back to?”
She thought. I thought. “The chatter before the speech began… seemed a bit hushed. Ah! Oh, alright, I’m –! The red was from the fourth station, top right, Rioros! I can see the emblems, the ice-saws and three flowers?”
And then I was there.
“Oh!” she cried, and we were out again. I opened my eyes. Harka had fluttered closer, concerned and craning eir neck, but kept eir quiet for us.
“What was that?”
“I… I yeah, that worked. Headache, headache already. Wow. That’s absurd?”
“Not really. You’ll find the capacity is quite inbuilt, its learning the triggers that is the problem. The state comes quickly, and should be stable. Why did you break out?”
“The shock! You just do this, regularly?”
“Sparingly.” I smiled half apologetically, half smug. “It is headache and worse, however. A trial.”
She groaned, but quickly swept my hands up again and closed her eyes like a child making a show of counting to ten. I followed suit - the window, again, the red wing and blue wing and Lord Mon’s aged and taut face –
She sighed, deep and breathy. “Alright. Alright. I’m… I understand the room. I’m there. But I don’t know where I am, no sense of perspective. Where am I seeing this from? Should I find myself in the crowd?”
But we were already there again, in just an instant, the sunlight on our skin, and the chatter of the student body. The stars turned, past that window, and past the window even further that separated the geofront from the void, and the walls of Saniasa.
“When Ilion,” intoned Lord Mon in that carrying and booming voice that he threw at larger rooms, so different from the measured whisper he had in lectures, “was seeded into the wheel, and given our cultures and names by right of its stations. When the indigo clans were separated, and began to build, a quality was revealed. A quality not of blood, not of land, but of perspective. The wheel is harsh, and dark, and sparse, and hewn of terrible stone. But this ascetic way determined one thing: witness. Many are the souls of the world, and many are their color. But what does ours tell us of our ordained industry and task?
“I served as prefect for six audits aboard my Janthina. Six newborn cities I visited, six secret histories I compiled. The first was New Rackton. It was built for the Delphic mandala, museum of ages, and was the first Arean-mimic habitats to qualify for the role. It’s way of life was a portrait of those rough and great mining towns of the red star’s surface, their close-knit skeleton garrisons. So many worlds met in that idea. So many paces of people. Such oldness and such newness, at that the shrine of shrines. And my second was a cult.
“A tiny, nondescript place in the canopy. Hibiscus Hill. Population in the low thousands, same as before. None of the weight - a frugal commission by a ragtag group of unemployeds - the first warning sign, and most common case in the canopy. We were diligent. They thought we would only look hard at the incubator records, all of sanctioned baseline stock. That we would be uninterested in the schools.”
A hush fell over the room. Bettany felt it too, hands cold in memory of how those words had echoed out. Here his doddering and simple manner turned to the incision we knew from him.
“My longest audit. Years spent managing the recovery. Things that were unspeakable. A generation raised in a blind fugue state, minds exploded to base foundation by the enforced psychedelic regimen. There was not even the malice, no typical abuse, a true and searing belief in their strange ambitions. To cut was to free, to warp was to grow. Impermissible within this ecumene, and in this world entire, was not their actions that mere janitors could clean up, but their spirit. The ethos their city was meant to follow. And that was why we knew. The only reason we could know, is to understand that central core of each place we visit. For then we see their shape, how accurately it conforms or diverges from the blueprint. Which of their structures keep the darkness out, and which that allow it to bleed in.”
Bettany huffed a silent laugh at his mention of “darkness”, and at great risk to this little experiment I stabbed my nails a moment into her hands to chastise. How kind, how kind a place like Hibiscus Hill now seemed in Savannah’s pale light of example.
“And my fourth audit was Kozue’s bicentennial!” Mon said, kindly, letting air seep into that hall again by us students’ relieved chuckles. “And what a festival that was. What is one to make of this? This position, at our border, that your crews will find themselves in? How do we bear the new things, these unproven places, and the terrible potential they carry, terrible more by far than all the tools of Ilion’s mines. For Ilion has a life in the world, the wheel is a true tellurian wonder, and its pace held. But not so for us. Not so, for priests.
“We must be outside of and among the world, as the wheel is outside and among the worlds of humanity. The world that was given to us is spread a thousand thousand miles further than the others, in union with its orbit entire. And this is why we see. This is why the task of history is ours. We are those branches of void grown back into the soil -” and the air stilled. His mouth froze into position, all sound stopped. And suddenly the headache hit. And not the usual wonderful headache that had been slowly building, but a stabbing one that unsettled even my core, stomach vinegary and churning.
Bettany interrupted, with a strained, quick tone of voice I’d never heard from her “Emelry?” she said, in the first stages of panicking, “Is this supposed to happen? Um, Lhani, Lhani is right next to me, and…”
And there was a flurry of black and ultraviolet, and my body stayed anchored but my vision churned warped, and there was that sense of body, bones twisting and disappearing, and laughing and laughing through the air, and that great window of the wheel exploded in my vision and I - we - were through it, past, into the geofront.
Saniasa was old enough to have one. One of the old cities, first of the stations, from the initial colonization. As Ilion was born it clustered around the larger rocks, bored massive routes into the greatest and most stable prizes - even today, bits of Saniasa continue to be sheared away. This place, this cavity that was now garden, was once dense, dense village, and before that pure mine. The very pit of an asteroid, hollowed out for cheap and easy shielding against the winds of the void, a starting point to carve the way out of. And as the city matured and modernized, the place became a memory and a center - we both knew it as a place to take lunches in, where the rowdier students held their sporting-days, that deep leathery green of the ironbushes that thrived on raw rock, between the great glass window of Igumo, and the lens that covered the old breach into the center.
And it was dazzling. I was seeing it for the first time. Seeing these trees for the first time, the wild brambles and perennial fruits, the smell of the air, how rich and how harsh - sterile, crystal, metallic, like flowers without the nectar, choking on graphite. Laughing and laughing. The glass cracked in both places, end to end.
I came to, panting, clinging to the wall. Harka had crashed into the opposite wall e had been at before, a few loose feathers still drifting in spirals through the air, and was all achatter with desperate apology. It had only been a moment, a moment catching eir eye in the break between our study - and that was enough.
The voice laughing had been Harka’s - but awake, Bettany was the one roaring with it.
An hour or so after we had recovered, Bettany was perching at arm’s length with two fingers on Rain’s forehead. “In free will and in faith, oath that by these terms your service stands. That you will abide by the dictates of each role of the crew, and that all said amongst us will remain so.”
“You really have to do this for everyone?” Kuryo whispered from next to me. “But not for the emissary Harka.”
“Who will have universal privilege and independence aboard this ship for as long as I am second in command,” I hissed back - a bit too much venom, alas - without even turning my head. You picked up curtness quickly with her… or, at least, most had. Anahit, from her other side, glanced aghast at me but had long since been overruled, and contented herself with clinging to the old woman’s side in their mutual barricade.
Rain exuberantly consented, so grave it seemed almost like mockery. “Then I pronounce you independent of all corporate charters, and bound to service of law crew Umihotaru,” Bettany finished intoning. She neatly withdrew her hand, touched those two fingers to her opposite palm for a long moment, then spread her arms wide. “Welcome then! To our growing menagerie of deputies. God help whoever is watching these camera feeds. And speaking of cameras! Kaitei, is everything set up?”
A kakaka from Harka, who had long since negotiated a perfect obscurity for our little section of the docks. Kali’s command of Savannah’s server systems, or whoever e had working so persistently on these things, was crude, unpredictable, but so far foolproof. Rain looked around the room with eyes sparkling.
“Ah, I think… so.” Kaitei fiddled with his work station, and the screens before us added a few extra views alongside the mains. “Camp of Kali! Can you hear us?”
“Yes,” soared the king’s voice, even as the drones continued taking their places and finding their views. “Introductions have been made, comrades. Thank you for witnessing this showcase. Harka! Call!”
“Beautiful,” Harka croaked from where e had perched, protectively, near Didion. “We sing and laugh and eat. All is strong.”
Kali nodded, and the preparations continued. Kuryo kept whispering at me.
"Why, lieutenant, why did you bring the boy? Why’re you the one always throwing our door open? Does Henarl like the whit that much?”
“Will you stop your laughing, if you are so concerned? Moves must be made, Kuryo, you’ve spurred us to action yourself.” My voice was spiritless, and Anahit gasped. But she did not argue, only gave me a long glare. More strangers, more strangers, she seemed to cry out from her forehead, more weight on this sunk ship.
But it was almost enough to laugh about, how colorful our austere library had become. On our side, one crowded room of strangers bracing for the worst. On theirs, a beautiful, fragrant day, rock dust kicked in a haze above the fields below, and the cliff above flowering in colorful flags and tents against the cold, harsh light of the spine. When Didion and I were in the interior, we left behind a drone package of ten or so clustered together, and Kali’s camp had taken the liberty of putting them to perfect use. One clung like a spider to the corner of the royal tent; Kali and Likin and two others I did not recognize - who, in fact, seemed entirely out of style with any tengmu I had seen so far - beside them.
“Ynewy of the End,” Kuryo declared, “and High-sevens from the reserved third. Introductions will be made. Relax.”
“Where does this expertise come from, I’d ask? I’ve heard of you,” Rain replied sharply. Bettany immediately swung to me, seeming to say please, please no bickering today, not after all the ceremony. We must have sparked enough tension in the air that Kuryo made some smug noncommittal gesture and continued watching the screen.
Other drones. One far above the plains and cliff both, its feed panning across the vista of low, dark trees and tall, tall yellow grasses, punctuated by the vibrant patterns of billowing cloth. Atop the cliff was a great host of uniformed crows, in simple but bulky leather vests dyed the peculiar blue-yellow-green color that the skyland itself took on. Yet other drones were carried by some in that crowd - and surrounding them were onlookers, other small camps keeping to themselves, and several dozens of independent tengmu investigating the edges.
And down on those plains, at the long stretch before the cliffs, between distant forest and rushing rocky stream, was a vast herd of bright-red deer. I’d seen them, before, on the billboards of Savannah’s empty lots as I passed them to and fro. “Regazelles”, one of many quirky-appearing yet mundane-behaving signature species of the place. Their hide was like cherries, their horns angularly formed to the point of impractical zigzag. Stuffed toys in their image lined up on shelves, like the blueslate turtles and green condors in so much of the promotional materials. Materials that remained systematically empty of crows.
Kali and Ynewy were speaking in a low chatter, too soft and swift for us to catch - or had the drone been muted? Kali, dressed in a spectacular cloak, proud red and white waterfall patterns, that gave the simultaneous impression of imposing stature and a swaddled infant. Ynewy was dressed as those of the distant, separate camps were - wingblades lined with affixed hooks, ruffled and deeply reddened fur. Where Kali and eir kin wore light and intentional markings of henna, it seemed worked in handfuls throughout all Ynewy’s feathers, the whole body over… e was larger too, larger by far, the coating only accentuating the difference. E was probably my size.
Kali abruptly stood up and sang. A full minute, in calls and caws that seemed almost familiar, half familiar, something literally out of a dream… The dream I’d shared with em, that separate nymph language…?
Kuryo stepped in, no longer in that teasing tone of voice. “E gives this speech each time. The wonders of technology and coordination, what this demonstration is meant to accomplish.”
“Which is? Attracting members?” Bettany asked.
“The city wants to grow,” Kuryo shrugged. “And e is persuasive.”
“Kuryo is regrettably not a poet,” Harka spoke clearly from where e lurked behind Didion. “The king speaks of plenty and health. Blades of the end, bounty of the third, basis of Quay. This is vision showcase. Scoff, Kuryo, at scrabble - but always today is the work of city.”
Her eyes flamed. A kind of silent offense in her that surged and smoothed, “It should be starting now, at least. Let’s watch, if that’s the point.”
The regiment of tengmu had walked towards the edge of the cliff, and the bird at the front of the party stiffened, and called out orders - left wing, right wing, herding formation talk like a pilot or navigator, until a great “Launch!” and a sheet of mottled black, like a horizontal waterfall, poured off the cliff as a hundred crows took flight.
The one called High-sevens, jumped at the noise of all those wings hitting air, and leapt out of their shared sitting area, off the cliff in just moments to follow, at a slow and broad spiral, the forward-pressing flock as they rushed, bodies overlapping enough to cast a dissolute
“You and I,” Ynewy said, in a voice so high it seemed at odds with eir large body, and in a tone clearly unused to human phonetics, “and a nymph named for card games.”
“How kind that you can speak for our guests’ benefit, my friend!” Kali cried back happily. “And no no no. This is the reaction I want. The interest! Look at that wheeling joyous. I am never a salesman.”
“As you pitch and preach,” Ynewy seemed to groan, but nodded in an understanding. “Ah. Now we will see the use you will put all my head to.”
“Watch, then. See, see!”
One of the supplementary feeds - a spycam Kali had stuck onto some fresh-feathered young hunter - broke from the spreading diamond of wings. The angle shifted, horizon pitching up slightly before plummeting down, ground rising far too fast, suddenly a deer crumpling from red into red and then again, pitching up into the climb, taking another slug from eir holster. And on the wider screens, it continued. A tengmu would drop out of the sky, neatly deposit a flechette in the skull of a deer from a perfectly-aimed terminal velocity vantage point, before veering off in a series of great shared arcs to aim again. The herd fell quietly, with no panic passing through it, only the edges of the group falling with nary a grunt. Many of the survivors simply continued grazing, worry only beginning to grip them once those far-off birds began circling back, and the blood began seeping at their hooves.
It was then that they bolted, in all directions, the remnant fourth part of the already decimated herd scrambling, wild-eyed, to get away. But the herd itself was gone, scattered and silent. The deer that were left had been the ones sheltered in the center, and now they had no red tails before them to follow, and stumbled panicking over the bodies of their kin. As the bulk of the tengmu host descended onto the pile of corpses, pulling out rope and knives from the leather packs strapped to them, and resupplies already gliding in from the cliff again, the elite of the flock chased down the stragglers. And now we heard each body fall as they were picked off further away from the central pile of wing-churned charnel, no longer the raindrop thudding of dull metal and heavy bodies, but just scattered, distant falls.
And then the dust was settled. The pools of blood in the soil were small. The hunting-flock stepped out of the sky onto the ground in little yellow puffs of grass and sand, barking orders and updates to each other in the quick, staccato callsigns that rang far through the air. “Li!” “Ka!” “Hei!” coughed cracking into the sky, as they hopped together around the edges of the pile of deer.
The hunt had lasted minutes, but the butchery would last an hour. We watched it all in silence - the body of crows, of Quay and beyond, was far too absorbed and occupied for chatter to us, or more speeches. Ynewy spoke silently and in song to those of eir own retinue - tengmu almost eir size, from the neat sheet-metal parts of the camp that contrasted Kali’s colorful ones. And Kali emself only watched breathless.
But e leapt up in turn at some point. Kali, at the upper camp, was now pacing amongst the procedures here, hobbling and gesturing between the uniformed crows that had lingered above. As those below divided into groups of five, the ones still on the cliff divided into groups of four, and began gliding down, group by group, with unwieldy beams of wood strung between them.
As they landed below, the ground teams had advanced in their work. The carcasses had been tied with thick black rope, dragged into neat rows, and as the wood-carriers landed, things like gibbets began to rise - the beams riveted right into the ground in A-frames, the deer hoisted by their hind legs, their throats cut and blood collected in great clay bowls. The five-bird teams worked quickly, practiced, incisive, quickly gutting and flensing each body, taking them apart like puzzle pieces. Four rope-heaving tengmu to hold the bodies in place, two with blades affixed to their beaks to devote to butchery. The hide was passed off, like an assembly line to be scraped and cleaned, the corpses cut down and the hides strung back up in an unending flurry of wings and beaks and claws.
Soon the field was transformed - hides left stretched on drying racks, muscles and meat separated by cut and laid out on, bodies disappeared from the impromptu gibbets for there were simply no bodies left. At this point, the better portion of one of the upper groups - those that displayed as High-sevens did, eir - actually, his? her? - compatriots, the ones Kuryo had been watching were already dropping down in turn, chattering and investigating.
And soon they were all done. By the stream, the great piles still grew and continued to be sorted. A field of bones, cleaned briskly in the river that was now running a clean pink, neatly organized precisely by type. Side by side by side.
Kali sang from the top of the emptying cliff in a simply impossible voice
“Take,” Kuryo said, translating from the nymph-calls without being asked, “from here the things you like and can carry. The wealth of Quay and you. The first was of knowing. The head fang beyond fin foot feather. Where is the song? Is song in bone? Is song in blood? Is song in word? Is this world known to you? Look. Look at life on life and the fire of life. Song is in the shine of fire. A song to make Savannah red. The head claw to eat herds, to make river, to do it forever. Become a head and sing, be looked at. How easy this is!”
Kali finished, satisfied, and went to speak with Ynewy without another glance down the cliff. The frenzy continued, the entire gathered group of tengmu leaping from the cliff and beginning the negotiations of the spoils. The feeds unceremoniously shut down as wings, claws, beaks found them and quietly deactivated them.
“Is that it? Truly what e said?” I asked Harka.
“And well spoken,” e nodded. Kuryo, for her part, stayed as calm and subdued as her recitation had been.
I had not quite realized it. I had been so caught up in the rush, the clockwork coordination. How long this must have taken! The practice, the skill, the mastery of craft, to spread out like locusts and secure food and materials for so many! How long would those gathered here eat from this act alone, this paltry hour of effort? These bones and hides, what edifice from them alone.
So I really hadn’t realized. All around me, faces were pale and silent. Anahit, freed from her attentively obedient posture now that there was nothing to watch, curled up into herself and looked as if she was about to cry, or vomit, or something worse. Kaitei stared at the emptied screens still deep in thought, frustrated and reserved.
“Aha. La, what? What was this? I - ahaha - I was told…” Rain struggled - composed, amused - “I was told it was a city in the walls? Sever said…”
“A wonderful demonstration,” Kuryo spat, “a perfect show of force! Oh, just some steel-flashing, how aspirational! It’s what I expected. Lyly, it’s what I told you it would be. It is what comes from someone whose word for human is cattle.”
“We are here,” Bettany said, rising and smoothing the air over, “to make this the most blood we see in this audit. Let’s be done with the day. Sleep on it. Debrief and discuss.” But already the room was emptying.
They filtered out quickly, back to quarters and cubbies - no room for real discussion with Harka and Kuryo so on the brink of bickering. “I don’t think it went over well.”
“I think it went badly, Kali. I’ll have to talk them all through it, tomorrow… it was read as a threat.”
“Kaka! Squeamishness simply. Redname’s influence. It will fade, the longer speaking rope she takes. For you it was informative, not demonstrative.”
“I understand. I do.”
“Why?” eir voice whispered uncompressed over my earpiece, along with the whistling wind. “Interior sapped your capacity for the shock. Did the air look delicious? Savannah is a sweet land, to fault, but sweet.”
“Enough to make those gallons of blood sweet, I suppose.” I sighed. My office viewscreen was still mostly dark - on the flight back to Quay, the drone camera I was seeing through was nestled next to Kali, wrapped in cloth. There was a shaky view of the sky, the long pale line of the nightime spine, and glimpses far, far away of lines of fire. On the other side of this world burned the borders of the third - the territory of those Kali called the stragglers and Kuryo called the land’s true people, the tengmu still living without organization. I could scarcely imagine what the End was, yet. But beneath those lines of light drawn through all the air’s muddle, the city Quay would soon shine.
“We are unpacking you alright now. Tell me when you’ve sight.”
“Yes, I have it now.” A dark and shimmering night was even further revealed as I crawled the devise out from the cloths it had been peeking out of.
“Fly with us down. Here you are.”
The view unmoored, the little spycam drone it was attached to rising from the flying carpet Kali emself was nestled in. Carried by three of eir dedicated guards, a little hammock’s worth of surveying space. Before them, the head of the flock was thick with similar formations, blocking out the growing and growing lights from the ground as the hundreds of birds carried hundreds of pounds of cargo between them. Were we high up enough to lessen the weight? It couldn’t be. “Drop below us,” Kali squawked, with a little wave of the wingblade, and I did.
Past the carrying-cloths, the night lit up. Quay lay like a mossy jewel before us, turquoise stone and so many candles.
The city was resplendent.
I had only seen nights in the interior as pitch dark, but this night was blue and pure and in the air was the sound of wings. The countless lanterns of the city glinted from between the gaps in the wicker-adobe buildings, but also splayed light across the wandering thoroughfares, those straight roads strung between great trees and the meandering bramble passes. And through the whole city was a great river, a great bay, that glowed from beneath with some unknown light! The city was built around its swell, the widest point for miles - and one could see miles of it. The river shone so strongly that one could see its currents moving, from one end of the town to the other and dimming off as it stretched, stretched in both directions. Even at this hour the surface was dotted with fishing boats. The mottled teal light threw itself especially on the center of the city - the grandest building, a massive dome on the water’s edge - and this was my destination. I watched as the drone grew closer and closer, eventually alighting atop the platform encircling the opening in its roof.
The rest of the convoy plummeted from the sky above me, the spans of cloth turning to parachute and neatly dropping the spoils from the cliff fields in new fields, parks and clearings on the floor of the city, like parts of the black sky falling and crumpling. We came in high, and flew down low. It seemed deserted but for shadows, how dark plumage bled so easily into the night aside from subtle flashes of fire caught in eyes, or the glinting iridescence of henna or blue.
Tiered little basket-houses. Colorful sailcloth limp in the breeze, so much scaffolding and netting between the neatly-planted trees - pulleys substituting for roads, little networks of signal and commerce. I was drinking in everything I could, every inch of the place I could see, and see bizarrely closely - but this search was vain skittering off the elephant at the center of the town. Wicker again - as if woven from tree trunks, zones high, lit in mandala patterns all across its sides. The whole town shook like flame in the wind.
“Borrowed”, Kali said. “Primitive? Ka. little birds living in trees. The height of Triactian science, beneath their use. With their lore wood melts and flows, jumps, sculpting streams into ice. These are useful. Hives, shields. But now come we see.” E spoke to me from inside. And I let the drone dip down, find a landing space among the tengmu gathered on the roof, who scattered as i touched down. They all stared, awed and stirred but unafraid.
A sensible portal at the top of each building, roofed for rain and high for access. But this place was fitted with an ornate pagoda structure ringed with great lanterns, whiter paper ones stretched in columns, great wooden ones with what appeared bonfires inside. Here was commotion. But they let me pass, wide-eyed and growing more curious, and from that portal looked with me down upon the center hollow of the building.
Masses of perches. Tengmu of all stripes, from the end and third and Quay both, all, but largely in the livery of the city - that red leather and silver. The interior… the throne room? The speaking house, I overheard. The grave tree.
It was more than a tree. Fifty trees woven together, mangrovelike, into a sort of dome - trunks interwoven in a rising spiral lattice littered with leaves, surprisingly regular and maintained, well lit all the way up. At the center of the room stood another tree, a smaller one, roots clustered around a warped shell of strange, semi-translucent white structure… and that central tree spread upwards, its highest branches somehow twining around the edges, giving this amazing verdancy lit up by - once again - an absolute superfluity of lantern.
A chatter and a clacking filled the room. The hushed talk of crows preparing for the feast - and something else.
It took some time for me to work it out. Not until we had descended to the floor level and looked up, up at those ringed walls of greenery… beside the lanterns, also strung up in the trees, strung up in equal number…. was thousands, thousands of skeletons of tengmu.
Gemstones glittered in their eyes, and trust an Ilian to know the distinction between gem and stained glass. These were true. Each one was carefully posed - this one with wings still spread, these two perched with beaks nuzzling in each others necks. This one in a great dive, like those the hunters dared earlier in the day - but frozen in place now, forever at the moment of terminal velocity, flechette still clutched in both claws. At first they were invisible, lost in the shape-obscuring jumble of irregular branches - but now that I saw them, they were inescapable, and defined the room. As I grasped their placement further, it made clear the structure of the place - how the branches were not haphazard, but rather grown in vast steady spirals up the inner walls of… whatever word could possibly live up to the function of this building. The palace. The heart. The grave tree.
Kali had bid me touch down beside the strange white structure at its center, that irregular wreck. At least, I was told it was, but it matched no ship model I knew. As I settled the drone, stowing its rotors and clicking out skittery legs, Likin emerged still bedecked in eir silvers from some hidden hollow in the structure, and pecked once at the rim of the camera.
The air was buzzing with the chatter of crows. I had thought this would be some speech or presentation, but the more I strained to make out the words, the quieter the crowd fell. This was no gathered congregation, I realized; all the speeches had been made at the cliff. I remembered. This was a place of scholars - not just lanterns hung from those branches, not just bodies, but also great cases of books, ringed with reading-platforms and tengmu-sized perches. Had they fallen silent for my presence?
Perhaps. But they certainly had for Kali’s. I trained the camera upwards, where a faint brown and black shape, with ragged and wavering wings, glided down in a great hailing spiral through all the glittering treasures, the gems and feathers and bones and bindings.
“King! King! Why will you be not carried!” Liking rushed to eir side when e had landed, voice pitched high. But Kali made no answer, only folded eir wings slowly, carefully, painedly.
And e said to me, “Come down. Count this time.”
Quietly, I followed em down into the wreck.
The translucent shell, that fractured thing, had not indeed been the true ship. “A shard,” Kali explained as we walked down cracked, rough-hewn stone stairs, “of spine. It was weeks mended, unnoticed in din of janitors a-sky. Tens and tens, you saw their glow.”
“Sever Malice’s garrison.”
“The tin soldiers he managed kept, oh yes. Meager dowry. Ka.” We continued deeper down this… path. It was a tunnel, in the earth, propped up by perfectly-fitted wooden supports, soil packed down and painted over with stucco. “The ghost of the ship. It was disassembled ages, metals repurposed, but last room one remains. Little library after yours. It is, here.”
And at the end of the tunnel was blackness. The black, black stone of the sun, that compacted and carboned dense obsidian marble that protected all things built in dysonspace, land the See itself. The stone that drank sunlight yet remained perfectly cool, that shimmered with internal radiance, veined with smoky remnants of pearl. I had never seen sunstone in my life, not in person. Never so close to it, even as I waited in my lonely office.
A black, black room, stark and swept, and perhaps the size of two Umihotaru personal offices put together. Ample space for two tengmu and a smaller thing. Two old lanterns on the floor; one’s pattern a phoenix twining around its four sides, and one lightning striking a razed tower. Between those was an arcane solar console, deactivated and rising seamlessly from the stone of the floor, and at that console covered in flowers, covered in wax seals and tiny-lettered slips of paper, with feathers in its ribcage and great, great orbs of raw jade forced into the eye sockets so they cracked, was a single human skeleton slumped over half the length of the room.
“See, the first king of Quay. Al-Marilore Kitahuac. A man fell from the sky, tearing open the old prisons, with God and word aside. He landed here to name us friend.”
“This… Kali, I…”
“What is a king? Delphi says a king must be all types of people at once. They must carry every soul they know within them, and know that spectrum. They must see and love the faces of their subjects, and know their numbers. A king carries all their people may be and become within. This is the meaning of Word. A map of hearts. Something like love. King Kitahuac broke the spine of our world, lance of the egg in secret, and the gift of a billion words. Was he saint? Even a leader? No. Teacher, sustainer, frivolous. What a dreamer!”
Likin shifted from foot to foot, in a mannerism I now recognized from Harka. The little shifty dance e did when wanting to interrupt, but not having the confidence.
Kali stared at the bones, eir black eyes dancing in the reflected lamplight, sharp and quiet as fire uncaged. “The See chased him like a dog to the edge of the wheel and crippled him where he landed. This is good. A king with body not broken, what use can such creature be? Kaka. Tell me, is this the proper name for sun? Is this the proper use, a gun?”
I couldn’t help but gasp at that word. “Glorification? Savannah… was once a candidate?”
“No.” Kali walked closer, claws gingerly clicking on the perfectly smooth floor. “Oh stars aligned and hidden him. He slipped downshadow of Ares, what solace in its red and empty name, and this became the path he was hurtled. Dodged, only impossible way. He ran in that, hid from the futile sunbeams. I said, lieutenant, that a star fell.”
And so did my heart. So did my heart. Suddenly. The jade in his eyes, more jade than all the grains of it I had known in my life, hundreds of times more. “Kali. Kali. You do not mean to say, you cannot suggest…”
“Does it sleep here? Does it live? Is this - is this how you - ?”
“No. Close. And yes, true the green flame. Many miracles, here by Marilore. Miracle the metal was needed so, that it was peeled away safe. Torn divvied without hope of restoration, parts distributed and melted down, stone core used for trinkets and funeral eyes. He crashed. Perhaps he taught us Akkadu so that we would dispose of these things for him incapacitated. He grew this tree to shield the wreck’s operations, another long shadow for our night-known feathers. This, cracked single seed of my city.”
The man whose bones languished before me had stood on the knife’s edge of annihilation. This place, this world, every cell of life had been in the balance. The energy was past, decades removed, the blueprints burned. But I had thought the art that had produced the tengmu awful enough alone to think of, that warped vitalist drive to grow past. But this was beyond. This was primal taboo. This was the wreckage of the same doom of Heath, that once cut lune from land, that drowned the first world, that had made the whole-human heart cry out for their eighth messiah. A jade reactor.
“What,” Kali spoke, “do you know of war?”
I had been thinking of war. I had been thinking of war, perhaps, from the first moment we made dock. Perhaps only since that first night visit? The talk of kings and graves? God, my god, how small and safe this wheel-held world is. It must be safe, for how terribly small it is. A hundred billion lives protected by that old and trusted light, the sun that sanctifies its own path.
The Ecumene was indeed not about peace - conflict was baked into us. But it stood in opposition, as the opposite of, the name War. The foundations were solid, grown into the void between habitats like an all-suffusing root network; every time sunlight warmed your hand was the promise that it was held, and that you may bicker all you like for that door of violence would remain closed. That the fragility would be maintained, that no voice could throw off the lid of Hell that the See perched so carefully on. It was that stage. We were well on the course, well on the way of humanity’s Road… so it was given that these were things one thought of, when one thought of the project. It came naturally with the worth of the thing you were protecting. Mine is the hammer, I thought to myself, mine is the harvest; mine is the plowshare of Eden alive.
But now sixteen rain spears backed by all that living light approached - those distant stars that Rain Flower had looked out at, so proud and tall and quiet, when the hunt had ended. For the first time, there was no light any longer, no light in the world, that I felt I held the name to.
“Not this way. Please, not like this. Don’t say these things, this… king, lord, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, is it truly to be here?”
“Redname is right of some things. For her rage. Tell me, abandoned daughter of the high light. What is the price of your peace? I believe it is spears of light and utter dread. Sword divined above neck. Not so bad, you know how gentle that blade. But that woman’s home is gone forever, name unremembered.”
“That is not war! That is censure, a heavy hand, but the stories! It happened there for a reason.”
“And more such censures by the decade. Heavier, and heavier the hand. Its direction whole visible. A thousand years of peace spent flower war ring unbroken, each fire smothered down but unquelled. All civilization crystalled around the conflict that bled its first bedded footings in. On plague and salt and lives.”
“And too on bravery and aid and philosophy, that brutal work of healing. The utter audacity to grasp the blade pointed at you, laughing the while! Of course the human soul is scarred and tired, but what sanctum would we have? Where else might we slow enough to rest? There… there is no other story that suffices. Nothing else can carry us so.”
“I, too, love the Ecumene. I must. Its flourish and truth of edifice is what has captivated me, it is why I believe as I do. It is the highest craft, my craft, the great and only work: city. But worlds still melded when they were met. Still shaved off names and made golden inheritance with their forgetting. In Heath there blossomed a thousand tongues, and all but ten died devoured. The completion cannot be in its own hand. Will it be now? Will it be here? How could my Savannah find a place in that so-tenuous human rainbow? When my door opens it will be a crack through the world, and echo to the heart of the sun, and I have made myself a falling star, that I may see the first motions. How bitter and black, Emelry. It is opening, Emelry, now. I’ve opened it to you.”
“Unfair. That is change, not death. That is refinement, not erasure. The project lives, and I know this, for it still lives in me.” My eyes were red. I gave a muted, disgusting sniff, skin cold and throat sitting in me wrong. “Why is it me, Kali? Why am I the one you’ve brought here?”
“Because you are the one we reached first,” e said, cold and soft. “And because Harka named you friend, and e is one I love.”
I sobbed. I sobbed every grain of salt out of my body, there, in that tomb in a tomb in a tomb.