CW: hell, genocide, altered consciousness, derealization, religious hierarchy, religious conflict, genetic engineering
The way down from the mountains was an arm. It recalled an arm, a cat, a sealscript tablet? No, let me… I think it’s best pictured as every delicate part of the human body in a contiguous pale cord of skin. A tower blending from earlobe into ulna into collarbone into rib, moving slow and smooth in the dark. And where the mountains intersected the heavy, heavy red sky there was a sort of frame that the arm clipped into, and clipped out of again at the accompanying frame down in the center of the city where they burn the fires.
The city rises unceremoniously from the void. Blue, very blue stone, perhaps literally lapis. Built in concentric circles out of great roughly-hewn cubes, I had the distinct impression they had been dropped somehow from above. The camera swoops in quickly, soon we are close into the plateaus and shelters… the souls here. Smog-spider-fire scribbles coagulated into the seams of the edifice. Like, like… like little pipe cleaner cages, a shuddering filamented heart crystallized around its own mantras. I couldn’t look too closely without falling into their motive wells. Very simple; very, very concentrated. Ah, spider was the wrong word. Perhaps clusters of caterpillars? Cocoon, cocoon seems like the orthodox metaphor.
2004 Dis Exploration Footage Report: Scry Lead Victoire Ueki - Tremont Divinities Seminar archives
You start at the roof. It’s this old crumbling tower like out of a storybook, made of big rough bricks and a thatch roof. Felt like a run-down old barn. Or maybe an old temple built back into a barn, anyway rough grey clean overgrown bricks. You saw, standing on the thatch I mean, the black starless sky and a rainbow crashing down like a waterfall into the ground, so we panned down and it was flowers and flowers in flowers, the rainbow splashing into these flowers. Like a whole meadow. Lilies and eagleflower and thistles and roses that kept twitching, changing colors, becoming…
Okay, let me try it like this. One rose would feel like this: smell of copper, crystal, sand and seagulls, teardrop salt, velvet, peach and cinnamon, earwax, texture of salmon, rotting fruit. But another would feel like this: graphite dust, old fungusy tree bark, bat leather, raspberry wine, perfect circle, mother of pearl, rock dust in the fading sun, a low distant train rumble. See? And they’d look exactly the same, but it was the difference between like warm red and cool red.
We realize we’re at the foot of the tower now, pulled down when we were looking. But then the camera tracks up the rainbow again, and the whole sky, I mean the whole sky like all the blackness in it. You realize it’s not a sky, it’s a ceiling. And it’s made of wings, just mats of whirling black wings with no birds, packed and packed in there like, I don’t know, like they were becoming water but still flying.
2004 Dis Exploration Footage Report: Tenor Aclla Robin Madison - Tremont Divinities Seminar archives
But in some audits motive purification and votive realignment are both infeasible. The singular method to remove an undesired spirit is complete annihilation of all matter conjugated with it.
This is a condition unique to our age. One cannot annihilate a river - all impulses encoded into it will disperse with the water, be engraved upon the land as ley where its beds once proceeded. But likewise one can very easily change a river, as the surface of Heath is an inescapable chorus of scar tissue upon lush scar tissue. It is only modifiable for the sake of that same scale; when nothing can be destroyed, all tools must be worked with. When a river runs sour it is a matter of processes, similar to topsoil replenishment or groundwater laying, a careful gardening back to health. But habitats have no wider song to fall back upon. Each is possessed by their very young, still-forming spirits; of the spine, of the windows. Each of these dwarfs any river. And each are incredibly suggestible at the time of any audit.
Each new habitat either joins the choir predictably, quickly settling into the flow of wheel or canopy or ellspace, well-treaded rows. We must stress that corruption is rare. The process is understood. But the earliest tones of society on a habitat will live with it forever, and it is the primary task of an audit to completely record this snapshot to look back upon decades after establishment. But it is the primary task of a speaker is to alter it.
If flourishing has not taken root at the place you are assigned, it must be spoken into existence. Censure and structure must be made, and the guidance must be effective. You are not dealing with people of your era in roles you understand. You have already stepped into legend and folklore; you speak to ancestors and the beginnings of lines. You are at a station at its establishment. Major spirits will reflect this beginning most completely, as the original hopes and dreams and flaws of their projects deepen and clarify themselves with time. Staff and stake are all immersed in these concerns, but only you are capable of unraveling them. Your primary concern during a habitat audit must be the analysis and management of whichever spirit has become most central. You must attune yourself to that center, hear its voice work through you, and know very well which direction it pulls you in. You must hold the heart in your hands.
Glorification is the complete failure of an audit. To even approach the idea, you must be utterly sure that there is nothing left to do, nothing left to salvage, no worth at all in what you have found here. But know that glorification does not destroy, it prevents. Nothing is lost but a future of misery, a slide towards hell, a long agony of dissolution that the Ecumene was created to stand at the gate of.
The world is strong. But it can happen anywhere.
Haruspicial Standards and Principles, Speaker Role, Revision 46 - Warren Olkha
What occurred prior to our Lieutenant’s defection
“You have to come now.” Kuryo’s hair was wild and spreading in the air across the threshold, dressed in undergarments and some heavy cloak thrown over them. The brass of the door still echoed where she was struck it. “Your speaker’s sick.”
I was out of black sleep then. Never quite in it. When I slept now it was like waiting, heavy wild eyes under the texture of eyelid, always open, always on the brink of slipping into the lucid faculty of wonderland, how in some liuetenants meditation could replace the faculty of sleep. So this was on me mind, one of her usual headaches, I assumed. Like my own, all her lavender work was awful on a few of her centers and sometimes the suppressants failed to catch. “What? It’s early. What happened, what are you doing here?” I asked blearily as I extracted myself from my hammock.
“Now, Sainshand,” she tried to bark authoritatively, but it came out weak. She wouldn’t meet my eyes. My entire body felt like it was turning red, she would answer no further questions, I flew to the women’s dorm and Anahit was weakly twitching in her tangle of a hammock, room empty, limbs bent wrong.
I screamed out, rushing to cut her free, “Where is Kaitei? Why is it empty here? Why has no one come? What is happening to the ship?”
Anahit whispered before me, voice small and wavering in the air. “T-the locking staff… the barring staff…”
Kuryo was girlishly panicked, her long nails nervously digging into her hands. “I came to you! You know her, I -”
And then I just screamed. “Our engineer! Our engineer, clearly this is a medical emergency, why, why would you not fetch him? Go! Go now!” And she did, scattered and shamed and fragile in an honest way. Good.
The door hung open and I was pulling her out of the hammock. Nothing broken, all tender, hips dislocated but that was a simple fix. I pushed her to the wall of the mockingly empty room, next to the doorway, and spread her arms. Opening her chest up for air, God, her eyes were open and flickering. Feverish. Cheeks pale. A low whisper, “Anahit,” I cried, “can you hear me, can you? Wake, wake! She’s… KAITEI!” and he was there somewhere beside me with a light in her eyes and the blue-red compact applied to her chest. That was immediate results - as soon as the pad was on her she let out one long gasping breath as if she had been underwater, coughing.
“I wasn’t here.” Her voice was strong and hoarse. “Why? Why was I…?”
I grabbed her wrist. “Speak, speak, easy. Easy. Say more, say more?”
She was looking at nothing, head straining to search the corners of the room. “It was barred, gate of gates,” she shuddered, “aching a half down the… ha… flurry of blue bark. Nothing came through after all, there was nothing, it was closed, Emelry. Sandpaper furious to chest. A golden cut on the outline,” and with that last word her voice raised to a scream and fell back again immediately like the calling-cry of an animal.
Clipping. “Listen, Anahit, we’re right here. Right here, solid steel,” I shook her wrist, “and clean clean air. Alright? We’re deep, deep in. Far in, safe.”
I motioned furiously in the air for Kuryo to curtain the window as all the heavens they were piling in now. Anahit strained, skin tight. I passed her wrist to Kaitei.
She flinched and tried to pull away, twisting on the verge of tears, “No. No, it’s my fingertips… they’re ripping…”
“She’s alright,” Kaitei said, two fingers to her forehead and listening intently. He shook his head, entirely in the thrall of his role. “Clipping. She’s alright, she’s coming out of it.”
That’s it. They’d been doing what we had. I was calm, I knew I was calm, I swung slow to Kuryo; she looked back at me blankly and unsurprised, “You have to understand. We’ve been discussing -”
“You’ve targeted her,” I simmered, doing all I could to hold myself still in the air without my shivering fury drifting me away. “You’ve picked out the most tender of us and sought something in her. And now you’ve stolen it? Have you stolen it from her, or have you stolen it from the homelands you despise? What art is this?”
“Stolen? Everything lives in everyone, you’re not listening. That’s the one thing you’re right about and you’re not going to listen.” Her hands were working, worrying the edge of the cloak she still wore. “She was finding it! Can you understand? You really just… can’t get this? Is it something you’re literally unable to understand? You are moving. We are moving. These things must be done, must be understood, if we -”
“We. No.” By now my outburst had brought the rest of the ship to the threshold, Didion wild-eyed and helpless, Bettany and Henarl in a tense fighter’s impassivity. Harka fluttered behind them all. So I spoke for the benefit of them all. “No hospitality law after this. I do not know where you’ve dragged her, what you’ve taken her through, what possible… no. You are dangerous. This is living danger.” I was done speaking with her, I kicked off the brass to the doors so abruptly that the group startled. “I want her off the ship, prefect. Now. We never should have brought her here. Anahit was right, before this. We should have been on lockdown. We should never have -”
“You’re being a coward,” Kuryo shouted, playing the innocent brash crone again. How much of it was play? How much of it was her toeing our lines of propriety, how much of it was her own frayed instability? I was learning more daily, learning to recognize more in people, but I was forgetting what deception itself was in the face of this black wall of storms. “Who will I go to now, hm?” she continued, “Who shall I tell how you’ve t-treated me! She was the only one able to listen, look, she’s fine! She’s fine. See, she’s coming out of it. You idiots.”
Harka exploded in a shimmering black fervor, squawking from Didion’s shoulder so that he lost balance. “Ripper, turner. Sliptongue! They fall about you, they turn! Continuation! You find nothing, she has found nothing!”
“Harka,” Bettany spoke, as Didion managed to calm em. Somehow she had ended up by the windows, snuck behind both of us as we argued. “Please. I cannot know what that means, and I need to listen to you. Give yourself time to explain, and us time to listen. Lady Redname, you threaten to break faith with us and you will not leave this ship. You’re worried. You don’t intend your own spite. You are not of the cult, I know this, they would not blink either. Please, I know you couldn’t mean that. Let’s to the library and discuss.” Voice like cold honey, going through the motions, all she could do was smooth.
I pushed back. Let Kaitei push in to cover me and oh. Oh. I drifted, too straight, before I knew it my hands had snapped to Bettany’s lapels. “Well you’re not listening to em. Or me. I said that I want her off the ship, I want her off. Whatever they were doing…”
She made no move to touch me, just swung her neck to Kuryo as if I hadn’t been in the room. “Library, please,” she said. “You and everyone. The lieutenant will stay with the speaker, as one’s opinion is clear and the other’s still unreliable. Let’s.”
She knocked my hands away gently, bone tapping bone, and swept the rest of them all out of the room so casually that the argument was struck out of me. Kuryo too had looked like she would fight for a moment, but the fervor had passed in favor of Bettany’s corporate calm. Smooth. I flew to the door and slammed the lock across with a great dull thud.
Anahit had shaken herself awake. While we’d argued, she had unwrapped the compact from her chest and was gingerly plucking its tendrils from around her arms. She looked up at me expectantly, lost. But she smiled.
I was at her side, helping her unravel. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for the commotion… are you well now? Truly?”
“The headache is back,” she winced, “but really it’s only gone when I’m working here, and that means the intensity is down... I’ve been resting a lot, she’s been helping me rest.”
“Anahit… helping? Don’t say that. I feel I put you here, pushed her on you, but this is not helping! Surely you cannot see it so?”
“You needed to, I needed to see her. I think she’s one of the pivot points.” I moved to touch her shoulder but she stiffened, “No, I’m alright. I’m still coming out of it, but I can see clearly. Let’s… still” She was pushing herself into confidence. Breathing fast, but she was supporting herself. She wove her fingers between the gaps of the hammock, pushing herself into a proper perch at last.
“Obviously she’s important. But was she guiding you? What did she even say this was? I know, I’ve seen this, I’ve done it, but during training you are at the most suggestible you will ever be. Are you able to counter? What are you thinking?”
She only held her smile. “It’s been so hard with her, you know. Haha. She is just… I’ve never met someone like her. She is at odds with everything. She’s perpendicular, Emelry, she is just so haggard. It’s like she was born in a different world, of a different kind…”
It was like she was slipping away, shifting into that different kind. The tenderness of her face now I had never seen before, that subdued haze about her cheeks. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. You were right, we jumped in too fast… I’m so desperate, aren’t I?”
“No. It’s good, we’ve made the bed,” she shrugged. “I was so scared at the beginning. I was reading the Shine Sorghum audit the whole way here, I, I, the parts of the sealed file I have. It was weighing so strong in me. The one with the…”
And the parts I had seen of it had been terrible enough - the early stages of an arrow cult. I’d lost sleep over the Sweet Sorghum interview when we were first exposed to them in the liuetenant’s course, God forbid what the speakers’ segments were.“With the factory. We needn’t get into it. We’ve seen enough, dear, we’ve seen enough here to know it is not that.”
“Yes, I know.” She looked towards the still-shuttered windows curtly. “There’s less of the fear now that we’re talking. Nothing’s coming in the night. All my Lords, but it is all so weak… And you prepare for the weakness, no? The weakness is inherent, the foundation of the problem at all. But it is usually the weakness of blindness, of being blind to what flourishment is, its workings. But here the awareness is there, but misapplied, how they scrabble towards the ideal but with no structure, no lines. So I must to see the lines in it.” Her sharp eyes, so strong in her touch face. “I need to see the lines. It's easy, now. there’s just the work left.”
“But through her… through her, Anahit… what lines are with her? Hers are outer voices. Wrong voices, she has reached in, and…”
“As we will. As all will be.” The room was quiet. In some other part of the ship, some support cycle turned on and hummed through the hull. “Kaitei left me this,” she said, holding up the compact he’d left her with and breaking off the tip of one of the tendrils to chew.
“So she will be staying,” was the first thing Bettany said to me when I’d joined them. Harka still clung to Didion’s shoulder in a show of mutual protectiveness from them both, but relaxed enough that I knew the bulk of any argument had passed. Both of them were those who felt most at home in the library. “No other options, you’ll agree? This will need study, documentation, and all crews reach this point with time and trust. Here we are with little of either and far more than a crew. Do you understand, lieutenant?”
I did. “This is to be accepted then, this level of risk? I feel it’s a miracle she was able to come out so quickly and so intact. We only see this kind of clipping is very early or very radical stages of learning, and we do not have the facilities here to cope with the severe cases. I don’t know how we are to study it. Do we have any format but grasping in the dark, or trusting her methods?” I nodded at Kuryo.
She was neither meeting my eyes nor anyone’s. She was curled in midair, lazily spinning in fetal position so that she was gazing askance out the windows, alone. So wrapped in her cloak that she seemed tengmunnin, with folded wings. “I want a record. Are you peacekeepers or recordkeepers?”
“There isn’t a difference,” I answered.
“Yes. Exactly. So I want a record, a human record. I want it written that this was done. The speaker told me that this was the way, that it’s something that has to be felt. So I want it to be felt now. To prove it. She directs herself.”
“Unacceptable. Proof of what? Lavendry is secret but well-recorded, it has been explored and explained for centuries. It is a narrow path and a pure one, one which those centuries have gone into purifying. What do you have that we do not? This is your flaw, Kuryo, heresy of solipsism, that your perspective matters and must be preserved because no other soul could reach the same ground. So you make yourself ready to stand in opposition to the world because you do not understand it and if you are going to tell us it must be you, I call you a liar.”
“Emelry. I know you’re upset,” Bettany said softly. I hadn’t realized how loud my voice had become. “There’s nothing wrong with claiming expertise on something new. You must admit to strange waters here.”
Kuryo continued looking into the distance, eyes wide, taking a deep settling breath without acknowledging me. “This isn’t working, you know this isn’t working, your whole project is hopeless in the form it was originally conceived, so you’re punishing the people you’ve demanded servitude from. Fine. Fine,” she spat, “have it all out in the open. You know what I want. Anyone I’m interested in in this place is about to be crushed. An entire language of being is at threat from the same tired standards you’re clinging to, internal divisions, general incompetence, everything! Everything. You’ve made it clear you’ve already picked a side, and pretty fucking predictably. Are you able to promise me that you’ll be able to grind the gears to a halt? That this is where it finally stops? No, you’ll never promise me that in a way I’ll believe, kaka. So I told you, I told you from the beginning that I’d work with you, and listen.”
“Lot-caster.” Harka spread eir wings and held them. “Taker and puller, why is it the thrill that changes your eyes’ shade? Why? Yearning black sky. I don’t see it, why can I cannot? Likin says solid of the blindness that swallows. It eats. Teeth, spear, never claw. I mine remember. Fluttering in the dark, and no claw in the people of the claw.”
“Ha!” Kuryo almost screeched in an echoing call of a laugh. “And you say I’m the one close to the cult, you talking about claw?”
“Dancer,” e said simply.
“How can you talk like this? Oh, like everything would be established already, in full flower. When you’ve struggled the same for decades in fragile hope of joining your idols? You could have built a whole world, you know. At least Quarry still wants that. But all you want is to drown in the same tired storm, I know where your path goes. It goes down, lackey, it goes down hard, the white death of fire.”
I shot towards her, Kaitei only managing to hold my shoulder before I was too far. “You speak so of the sun? You speak so of light without fire under your face? Another world! You refuse to live in the world, you don’t want it!”
“Let’s hold it? Let’s hold it. We don’t need to start saying stuff like that yet,” Henarl said, clambering between us as precaution. I kept my eyes on her, the room was tense, what were they worried of? How? How was she yet straining, yet against the heart of all things? She had been shown the word here, read it, spoken it, none of her connection to Anahit had told her. Sickly, sickly, and we were compromising.
“Emelry,” Bettany said as if she knew my thoughts. “Let’s hold it. We’ve no need of delving straight into debate. For the moment - we can say that we are all aligned towards preservation, no? All who have boarded this ship are already in tenuous position with all authority. This necessity outweighs our other concerns, any of them. If we meet to survive and succeed, if any of us have hopes they need realized - it has to be here. We can overlook some unorthodoxy. There is no one from rim to rim of the world in the position we are; none have the scale arm to make choices here but us.” She folded her hands, satisfied the matter was closed.
“I just don’t think it matters,” I continued before they had a reason to awe at her. “This goes to the See, eventually. Sooner, later, there will be a leviathan of a hearing. The one way will arrive, the process will succeed, all things will be said. She knows this, and knows it will expose her. How can we trust? How can we share a path when she of all does not believe in its completion? ‘White fire’, please, we are discussing core principles!”
Kuryo thrust out an arm and stilled herself by a crossing-beam, skull bouncing on her neck. “We can make ourselves indispensable,” she said. “Cult tactics that work. They’re all done, see, the work is over and their eyes are all empty now. I talk back to you because I know I can get away with it. I’m here and not there for a reason, you idiot girl, they have nothing to lose and no reason to want anything. One outrageous, irrevocable project, and then they’re untouchable, that was always the goal. So we can do the same. Peel back, crack it open, synthesize a new pure unlimited lavender, raise a flag of mind here that can’t be censured away. And then we’re all safe, and no need to snip.”
As if she was planning to find a catalyst. As if she was trying to burn it all down, supposing that she knew better, that she could do it alone. Setting up a refuge tent in wilderness void and holding court there like a capital. As if she could do what Kali did without eir key to the hearts of people, without the flame of flourish she found so rotten! Bettany was looking at me gravely, that same low thunder in her eyes that she barked quiet at me with before. So I let my shoulders relax. “It is a way out. It is. I still…why was she so hurt?”
Kuryo scoffed. “Was she? Was she scared, after it? It can be rocky, yeah, but it’s all stuff I’ve done before. The main reason it’ll be difficult is because you are so exclusive with the knowledge, you treat it like a weapon to be responsibly reserved and never talked about. I meant it about exchanging notes, writing them for the first time. Look, can’t you see it? If birds can get there, birds, it’s not limited by genetics, is it?”
I lost my balance, I lost my balance as if I was still down there. I fumbled for something to support me but sold it as a calm drift backwards to rest at the wall. “Ah.”
“Door’s open. It’s been open. Now, lieutenant, the era is turning. Don’t you want a precedent, before the meltdown psychic awakening of humanity or whatever? Wouldn’t it be a little useful to have an example of an entire society that has lived drenched in just that kind of long dreaming art for its entire existence? Kali and the city folk are right to rush, but not to exclusion. You understand.”
Something was wrong. Something was still wrong. I rubbed my eyes; they were aching from behind, from within, like when you need to rest your eyes and so close them only to discover that there is no relief, for even closed you are always looking at something, view ever fixed and focused at some point. What was I missing?
“Very well. I won’t fight this. But neither I nor Bettany will let you forget the ship you are on, and the project that is ours. You are not of the crew, and neither yet of Ilion, and your words are weaker for it. But I did once promise you we would listen.”
“And we are,” Bettany said. “We need perspective. We need the ability to have a direction. I need both of you, both sights you have, if we are to push through past the pitted ways. We are, then, of accord.”
Harka still had eir wings extended, but now snapped them shut in a gesture that Kuryo almost flinched at. “My king’s dominion. Claim. Bark orders from here and there, but know Kali guides the skyland. Here yet a thread of faith. Here yet a law, a city. So much new. Claim then always us of belonging, of shared faith, of high faith, of the old word never condemned. So all can dance, yes. But dance is for fat times and health is for ever.”
“Well said,” Kuryo smiled with a mock bow. “You’re right. You are the line unbroken.”
Something was wrong.
Didion’s office. Forest of papers in twine bundles, a whole wall of data drives sleeping in the wall array. Neater than mine was, and far more cluttered. He was fidgeting with them, going through the motions of minor reorganization as he did when nervous. He was having trouble meeting either of our eyes.
“Is this why you all hate her so much?”
“Disapproval,” Harka trilled. “Reckless. How can I blame recklessness, well. In her own way she works. But it is against my king.”
“Against how? I just… don’t understand the struggle. I don’t understand any of this, the dreams, the lavender. Scribes don’t even get anything, only we must hold sober.”
“We are early. Three worlds, four worlds on the plain, too young to bare teeth. Nymph, call it, echoes in the still of flourish. Good or bad, way way. Quiet Kali wants, for voices to parse, letter and key both. But Kuryo says the world is inside you, and the word incidental. To chase the blind vision, and see nothing. She wants to see nothing!”
Didion stared at Harka’s claws readjusting on eir perch. “I still don’t get it… there were just so many people there, at the hunt, it seemed… constructive.”
“Growing together. Needs saying. We can all fly as far as we can but it needs to be a road. I’m a follower. Some roads I can’t live on, she a road anti-vision. It leads away from you. Away from others and away from the abilities. Basic.”
“Irreconcilable,” Didion nodded.
Harka struggled for eir words a moment, shuffling back and forth on the perch, Didion still following the talons with dull eyes. E began with a sharp dip of the beak. “Kuryo wants to fly. She wants to free and be free from the full soul. When jays fly together they are the same. When apes speak it is with the eternal single nymph words, take give help bite go. Fin foot feather and interstice; there is an echo inherent to all life but of people. People have no echo, for we are echoes of God, and gain it in the wave flourish. You see? The relationship is reversed. We become a shadow, a limited cell. Animals cannot die, and people ever do, their candles die and flare, they rejoin. There a mutuality of direction. To be struck from that, to relinquish the road… she wants to find something new. But I cannot believe it. It is the same. They think, our unemployed, that! That they will join a shining river of their own.. Like yours, the low law, but T that they will leap and never die and see more. It is still thought sung too far into song, only feeling, the whisper spirit that blows through any wall. But not mine. No thought without knowing. It is less than a life, it is less than a short life of mine. Would you be blind? Could you walk backwards? I could not even bear a week of work lost. It is hard.” Harka cocked eir head up at me, nodding impatiently.
That was beyond what I had assumed. I had thought of those of the third as simply unaffiliated, pure and progressing before finding the walls of their hearts. “What, Kuryo and those of the third would reject the project of the species entirely? Return to the motions of animal flocks?”
E fluttered noncommittal. “Yes, but more. Back, no, true side, not a return but a reformation. To have of all worlds, votive bodies and motive wave.”
“A shared consciousness?” Didion asked. “This sounds similar to the higher planes. Soul clusters interact with each other very fluidly in the holy world, how flame mingles and splits… our speaker’s numbers have been so strange, fluctuating by orders of magnitude… is this why the scries are recognizing souls incorrectly?”
“How? No. It is the opposite, opposite of a society. Nothing shared. I say there is nothing. Pure force dislocated dream. It does not touch the world, it touches not between selves. But it is as incomplete as we. Don’t know where it goes. I just think it’s wash, not grandeur. Quarry seeks the power we do. They have the same means and goal, but want to go alone. My king will go with you. E has chased for lifetime. I understand these two paths. Human paths. Three that can communicate. But the rest I don’t know, don’t want communication, just the eternal words. Empty sky. Whisper, wind, will.” E clacked eir beak reassuringly and tentative. “I can’t feel it. But in me it would feel oblivion.”
“I don’t pretend to understand entirely, either,” I said. “But you and Kuryo both say theirs is a new way of life. An eternal nymphood?”
“Developed, grown, but never out of the old language. Many of our nymphs leave from the hutches to the distant third, called. Many of theirs arrive to the Quay sobbing with the weight of words they never knew. Can it remain so free? How can we call in a way they hear? You called mine hate. But hate is always fear. I do not understand it, relinquish, kill the spark? Give up not my caw but my knowing of shape? Shame shudder. If I went to song, would I lose my eyes? Was your speaker plucked the same? Saying, I know their life sense. Never can see the world of no sight.”
I hissed to myself, thinking of Kuryo still behind the same hull I was. What had I even been hoping for letting her aboard? Now with a few minutes distance from the morning’s panic, her words felt less and less crucial in my memory.
“You are a gambler,” Harka croaked at me. E gazed at me in that listening-face of eirs - beak folden down, both eyes meeting mine, gentle clacks of the beak that somehow hardly interfered with eir voice. “It’s good.”
“Harka,” I ventured. Somehow, that last comment barely touched my memory, I barely let myself feel it then. “The body sense… it was hard. Even our measured testing, it is… is it all tripwire? I… if we continue diving into each other. How far can we drift?”
“It was hard. When seeing a human perspective. The wing,” E raised one up, feathers full spread, “collapses. Explodes. You… could fly with tucked wrists, dip, dip. But hands are like angels, three wings rotating around each other but they touch nothing, only feel. They fall through the ground. You live in them. Not cold wings or fast claws.”
“Yes… It must be like switching hands and feet?” Didion flexed his own hand open and close, intently examining the palm. “As, wings and feet cause movement; hands and claws manipulate. I assume. Rather than limbs I believe center of mass is a primary propulsion thing…”
Harka looked away sharply, clambered to another perch in a shelf handle on a different section of the wall. “True foreign. Regards. Listen, I’ll say. There is a way, my king says, that holds there is nothing special in words. Nothing special in bricks. Nothing worth looking at besides the poetry of the world. But no one writes that poetry. So it isn’ t. But there is a way that follows ley like poetry, speaking to the curve and furrow, finding. Down the ramble of blood and water. I don’t believe in it good.”
Didion nodded along, grave. I wasn’t sure if I was seeing it as clearly. The ship whirred, Didion’s menagerie of trinkets clicked in the walls, and something in Harka seemed unsettled. Eir feathers were ruffled and kept sticking out misaligned no matter how ey repositioned, until finally e folded eir wings neat and pecked at Didion’s main workstation.
It stretched out from wall to wall, his curved model, littered with entry devices attached and well-tended to. Ilion’s fairy logo insignia gently moved its engraving across the screen; Harka hopped over like a flechette through the air, probing at the surface of the display.
“Why this? Why horse, you have horses?”
“There are none on Savannah,” Didion noted for my benefit. “The niches are just filled differently, deer and pigs.”
“What need of horses, is the thinking. Too noble. And what need yours? Galloping up here in the no ground.”
I laughed, “Oh, poetic quality, I suppose? We do love horses. Any settlement with hydroponics wings has a few, so anywhere of a certain size. During establishment the See had all these worries about mechanization, so there was a program of disincentivizing it indoors. So we had horses rather than harvesters.”
“And old Ilion,” Didion added, miffed at me for not including the more properly poetic heritage of it all, “city of horses, distant vassal-allay to Delphi. Bound by names; the first stations to be established drew from the region.”
“Noe had something of a fixation on the history of prejesuit cooperation,” I said. “Tongue and tower, They wax of it quite extensively in Admonitions.”
“Horses…” Harka mused.
“Yes. Ehe. Little fairies we are, don’t you see? The small ones to Lune’s proud and tall old law. It’s funny,” I felt my smile freeze into place, the one I had been lightly wearing was now creased in, “every time you hear from another species that oh, life in unweight must be like flying! But we have birds, you know, birds and climbing cats. But even so. I don’t know if I, even now, have an idea of what flying is. I know what the action is, but… I think of Heath, and how people born there have this perspective, looking up from the world at passing wings, longing to follow, it’s all they write about. But there’s nothing that exists in that space for me. No similar idea? Birds, at home, certainly not here, always seemed to just… drift and perch, just as I did.” Something tugging at my smile. Soon I was in hitching laughter, the kind only in your chest that does not translate to sound. “Aha! But the twice-funny thing of the wings! Oh, they were put there as metaphor for us, but just turned into a play for the horses! Did you know, did you know, the first time I went to a drum farm… we keep them low, lunic or less weight, good old seed stock. I swear, I have seen video of horses on Heath. A shame! Like those thumping red sanguinelles, hooves all but rooted to the ground. Heath horses look so serious and grave, but our horses! Harka, you must see it one day, how they prance and laugh and jump three fields in one bound! Ah, no, we’re just the accompanying unemployed - the project of Ilion was to turn horses to birds!” And I laughed, helpless, until the laughter hardened like a fist around my chest and Harka could only watch and muster a polite ka.
E was quiet. Eir claws were tangled in the loops of my hammock, but with a shake of eir wrists e was climbing over to me - claw over claw, pulling closer rather than walking or drifting, and only spoke when e was close. “Do you think of that often?”
“Of which part?”
“Of how states must have be named to hold. You can see something but not have it, you know? Not know it.” E interrupted emself with a click, a hard, clacky, disappointed trill. “No, no better. I say that you see a way and feel it, but feeling how it is done is less in the sight.”
Back to the Lunic quarter with the world on my mind, another few hours shot. It was a very simple compromise, Razina insisted, standard practice, and it was. Light enough to be comfortable for both of us, just far enough on the train to inconvenience us not so equally. The lights were low, and on the way down Kaitei had caught me up.
In something of a joke, we met in a lounge. They were different down here. Not the quiet, elegant observatory arcs of the spine-adjacent views made for leisure parties, here we looked out far lower, amidst the cliff walls of the cap. The spine far above and the skyland seemed much more a comforting arch rather than an impossible storm, and likewise the lounge was more residential, a proper commune’s gathering place.
The doctor looked up at me from her spread of documents, setting down a sheaf of elevation surveys, “Ah! Liuetenant. You’ve come along. Here, both of you sit, sit. What… what are you carrying?”
I solemnly with two hands put down the stuffed animal upon the broad, slate table. “I hear you’ve been talking ecosystem. They have these in the shops, you know, in the executive districts? So doctor, tell what are these?”
She laughed, rough and rumbly and a tiny bit restrained. “Oh, oh, the sanguinelle. A very silly thing. Haha, oh, I the mascots… I’m glad you like them, that someone does. We’re very confident. Anyndel, he’s always been a bit spectacular, I’m sure you can read that one on his face. I mean, it was fun, I had fun working on it, the horn proteins were a joy,” she said, Kaitei nodding along.
“But they’re beautiful! Emblematic of all the hot haze of the interior, I know about that now! How they must look from above, that stark red upon green and gold…” Kaitei gave me a cold look, and he was right for it. The prefect would not have tiptoed like that. “But, Fisher Valley… do they live close to there? Could I have been able to see one? Come, you’ve been plenty in the catalogue. Where do these range?”
She was smiling now. “Yes, yes, they’re one of the biggest grazer stocks. I prefer the plain giraffes, but those are more about the tree lines. They’re more… oh, where should I start, Yu?”
“What do you think?” Kaitei asked, nodding to her. “Let’s jump right into the map. We can start with the broadfields and work out from there, a little biome tour.”
Razina nodded, and reached up to one of the ornaments mounted on the back wall. A habitat map the size of a small log, mounted on the usual little rotating stand. Together they plunked it onto the table like a secret spoils.
I’d glanced at the digital maps for an idea of the place, but hadn’t noted much aside from the major lakes and mountains. This was less exact than those, more stylized. The mountain ranges were rendered in relief, raised in ridges along their ranges, the length of it painted a rainbow of suggestive colors. Razina was already spinning it, pointing out a few areas of broad flat dusty yellow - not the bright ginkgo yellow or the mustardy deep gold, but the color of the grass that had been burned into my brain from the blood on it.
Broadfields, they explained to me. Flowering floodplains - the way that the seasonal cycle worked here meant that each “year”, certain streams would dry, their beds transformed by knots of flowers, and flow again as the lakes swelled and found new roots for the streams. What you ended up with was broadplains, vast savannah crisscrossed with hummocks of hedges and root masses with rare rivers woven between them. Shadowsteppe - wind blew as a rule from our end of the habitat to the opposite. Where the mountains stood and the clouds rising from Fisher Valleybroke upon them, it created long stretches of cracked brittle rocky land dominated by highly derived succulent cover. Kelp lakes - surely the type Quay stood by. Proper rainforest that Razina bragged about sourcing genuine old growth for, ported in from the first-wave Lunic wilderness of High Haven. But among all those colors there were two lines of red.
“What are these?” I asked. “These two lines. There are only two rather than three. They are… at the third-marks, but Savannah has no windows to divide it…”
“Yeah, the third, we primarily call it the third. Sever had it built into the contract that a proportion of the place would be left as wilderness, which has my full support. An entire cross-section of our ecosystemic work that can always come back to seed. It’s a very nonstandard model, you know, just the pure unplanned wild being parceled out instead of actual infrastructure. I suppose that’s the charm.”
She didn’t seem very enthused. I ran my finger over one of the mountain ranges that tumbled across both of the red lines, stretching diagonally. The whole interior was like that - mottled stripes of color intertwining, always progressing spinwise.
“If you follow that range, you’ll find the driest split. You always find the biggest herds there, moving between the grass and the bamboo with the water. We like to keep our biome mosaics organized down the major rivers, hence three kind of where the windows would be typically, just vanishingly small compared. Spinwise from Valley the third is rockier, and counter wetter, but you see these guys everywhere in the actual savannah of Savannah. The floodplains, yellow fields, they even fare decently in birchforest and lichenland.”
“It’s a kind of contrast, you see,” Kaitei laid out for me, “some kind of color theory if I’m getting this right, doctor?” He looked to her for approval; she warmly nodded. “A bit of synthesis between weed and fruit, mascot and scrabble… hard weedy things and leaping bright ones.”
“Grittiness, yes. Thistle, sheafweed, chipmunks and giant capys. Quite proud of it.”
Yes, the brush and twisted roots of Fisher Valley. The dirt roads - something she could stay proud of, the stucco and clay beneath the white porcelain, the twist and twist and twist. I continued following those mountains, those plains, that river, and sure enough well away from the red lined, down the same river Fisher Valley fed. And sure enough - there, within hours flying distance of those plains by the mountains, the ones I had seen… I lazily spun the map with two fingers, walking spinwise, after I saw it. That swell in the river, the crook of the arm - Quay.
We left peaceably, Razina patting me on the shoulder as I left. She saw nothing in me. How much terror she had once held in me, symbol of the land and sickness - but now she gazed right through me, and happily.
Another long train ride back. Another special service called just for us, slowed for our palettes - Kaitei had refrained from knocking us out for these ones, as they became routine, and we had less and less solitude for work. So I polished. I polished and polished. Everything in my head would be in my dossier, every piece, every touch and scent.
An hour in I stalled. Pinched the bridge of my nose; it seemed I was catching Anahit’s headaches the more I dabbled in parallel processing. “Kaitei,” I asked, “I have to say. I still don’t know. Your work is all physical, only spiritual in the places it intersects. But I know you have something. What?”
“Ah, that such?” He closed his book and looked at me kindly. “It’s nothing, not worth mentioning.
“What do you think? Of what we discussed.”
“I’m happy to share. Mine isn’t that much a part of my job. It’s just the same one the navigators get.”
“The full thing. Then you wouldn’t mind showing me…?”
“Not at all, I meant it. The least secret by far, and easiest. Hold my hands, I can demonstrate perfectly.” So I did. He faced me, took a breath, closed his eyes.
The wheel, invisible in the world and living only in our eyes, blossomed behind him like a halo. A whirling mass of faint purple lights, each moving at different speeds, this vast collection of dust - one speck winked at us from the edges. The Hildas, and Savannah. It was a complete model of the wheel, velocity and position of each asteroid, each station and settlement and liner that treaded it, flawlessly replicated. It blinked out.
“That’s all. Not so faceted, useful for little but calendar. A side effect.”
But the car glowed.
“It’s very simple, very cryptic. No insight, just direction. Um, it’s… politics…”
She was harried. Office a mess. Her body was tense, unable to wait, all but shivering before the great beautiful cage of the clayliner that loomed outside the windows. Its gristly pillar was run down another section of the dock pylons - it was the same kind that was most often parked at the Saniasa hull. The wireframe hold contacts, stabilizer slabs, and the raw compressed cargo in a massive slug of matter. To move people across the wheel one must build specialized homes, cities - neotenes bruise at accelerations others find basic, solars quickly go pallid and weak without a sky full of screaming sun; all have their own special concerns. But for raw things, clay and sand and steel, you had only to apply your strongest torch and fly.
Staff was still saying it was a routine supply run, a standard replenishment back in from the nearest station of the wheel with a few errant staff members riding back from their away duties. But this was not exactly standard delivery of orders. This was a clear encroachment of the soft rule of lockdown that audits carry, and with the janitors factored in it edged into audacity. Stress had found her, compounding from this morning, I supposed.
It was time. I asked gently, “Didion said it’s a full oman’s delivery. Why? Is this true? With so few solars aboard, I don’t understand...”
“He’s not supposed to discuss that with crew,” she conceded sourly. “The keyholder is likely the only true oman in regular contact with Savannah. I would have liked to petition for their records, but now this will edge into oath law with no recourse…”
So she hadn’t told anyone but I. Foolish of her, but flattering. “Well? Will we see it?”
She didn’t respond for a moment, weighing her options on getting out of it. But I did not look away, and finally she huffed and made preparations for viewing. “Once more, this is nothing we had not guessed before. But you shall see.” The screen crackled awake, its points flickering their relief across the surface, finally forming the concentric hexagons of the Delphic logo.
It was still strange seeing omen, despite all diocesan traffic naturally being full of them for ceremonial and regulatory roles. But Ilian omen were very different from the true solar ones, the types one saw in so many retroactive depictions of saints and even the messiahs. As if an avatar of the sun has stepped from the page each time, resplendent with their pitch-rich solar skin literally shining that impossible gray-blue color of starlit skies. That disciplined neutral gaze, sharp and towering as an unconquerable widow, hearty and aloof as a brave bachelor.
“I didn’t even want to show you. But they’re waiting for it. Anahit won’t be brushed off, it’s Olkha...”
“It is daunting,” I said, relaxing and allowing myself to cross my legs.
“Hello,” they began, “Speaking is Ifeollan Caihan, we’re keyholder at Savannah. Warren Olkha carries branch to this place; true fruit, long light. Our voice moves as hers.” The seal recitation was complete, and they shifted into the true message. “The crew is to ignore all orders originating from wheel ship Spiruline. The crew is to belay any incision actions until direct instructions are received. The audit is not to be marked hostile until direct instructions are received. The crew is to remain living aboard law ship Umihotaru. The crew is to indefinitely shelter Kuryo Redname aboard law ship Umihotaru. The crew is to entirely remove Tacimarsa from their future scrutiny. In one week the crew is to submit a complete summary of all persons with connections to Hightower Habitat Solutions’ human resources department. And now we know nothing, our sight is our own. Thank you for your time.” The message was resealed.
Ifeollan turned away. We stared at the wall as the recording faded to the Delphic crest again, burning from yellow to deepest purple at the center.
“So its bad,” she ventured after the chill had passed through us both. “I think it’s very bad. It’s bad, God it's bad, they’re throwing the whole thing. See, am I wrong here? Is this not transparent? Do they think us simple?”
“Yes. Of course they do, that’s why we’re here. I suppose its the only weapon we have, that they are still steering us away as if we may discover something. How could it be a throw, how could it be a throw from Olkha?”
‘I don’t know,” she said carefully, “whether to even bring this to the wider crew. The borders are enough for us to know, no? But we have to follow along for the time being. You can be on Rain primarily, work together to dig the info out… solidify the alliance?”
“He wouldn’t go along with a pincer attack. Too proud.” I still hadn’t looked away from the now empty screen, running through the orders. Tacimarsa’s inclusion made no sense, how could this come after her preliminary was already reported, how could they think we could get anything from that woman? “But I can speak with him.”
“We need something to offer up. Tell me, is the Sever connection there? Any corporate impropriety? Is it all smokescreen, or will you find anything?”
Find anything? Find anything? A few stolen machines, a resentment that was the least secret thing across the entire body of staff? Months ago, I suppose, the suggestion of illicitness would have shaken me - now, what betrayal could it possibly be? What betrayal could stand as more than a candle in Savannah’s false sun? I was hopelessly gone the second Likin had called for me, really. But it was then that I knew I had decided. “You can’t be thinking of actually following through on it. We can falsify some things, push it a bit longer -“
“And then what? What are we going to do, how long can we hold out like this? We need - we need to get - agh! I just… how long do we have?”
I cocked my neck. “We’re not throwing it. We can’t. You were there, Bettany, burning with us. Listen, I’ve done the interrogations. I’ve spoken to the two most prominent of the faction, and Beckon more than plenty; I’ve spent enough time at the receptor to judge well the tenor. If there is any major structure here unadjacent to the cult, with their own motivations, it is them. Any, I think any posturing must be done at their side. It’s that or yes, go directly to the See, and we are not ready for that. We aren’t.”
She made one of her rumbling defeated sighs, slumping by her elbow against the wall. “I don’t think there’s anything. I don’t think there’s anywhere else to go. Henarl’s been telling me and telling me that it needs to be done, that at least the broad gestures must be made, and now this oman speaking to us… is there a route? Do we just default? Henarl insists that the longer we wait the worse it will be, the more they will suspect us before others… the doors are closing, Emelry, I think they are.”
I pressed her, “Did, did we hear from Tiv and Mat? What is this? Closing us off, nonchalantly positioning new handlers? We have to reach out to them again, I… with them involved we would not be so trapped…”
“Involved in what? Full conspiracy?” Even now she seemed uncomfortable at the suggestion. “No, we have to follow orders here, we have to at least have the appearance. We can trust Rain at least a little, no? Promise him collaborator’s immunity, something we can handle if we’re locked out of hostility… oh, this is ugly. No, we’ve given the twins enough to carry. If we falter here… Knowing Olkha there will be reconfirmations, we need real documentation. Throw them some meat to be left on longer, for more time…”
This was disgusting. Not only a fellow haruspex but a revered one, a beloved teacher - how would Anahit react to this? Such little loyalty left, no honor to cling to. There was nothing here. “We won’t win anything by doing what they ask. We need to make this ours, Bettany. How can we?”
“I don’t know. I just don’t know. Hell!” and somehow I found myself consoling her.
We sat together for some minutes. I assured her I would speak to Rain, formulate an angle of attack, coordinate with Didion. There would be a way around, I eventually told her, a way to hold the course. But there was still nothing.
But there was something in her. She couldn’t quite see that we were alone. She knew that all this secrecy was redundant, that both staff and our superiors had a common and perverse goal - but to even suspect, much less question, an oman’s integrity was impossible. It was a terrifying position to be in, years of being forged into a flawless tool, a paragon of humanity - but Caihan was Aetheotl’s last name, and there were precious few solars at Savannah. There was now, with a word, the true possibility of the fist closing. I had given a grudge to the one person at Savannah capable of making the sun disappear.
“You said that very sadly.” He hooked the tops of his feet into the perch and settled neatly. “You look sad. Holding court right outside my workplace now, la? You gotta feel quite safe out in the open.”
I laughed, sadly indeed, though he read it as an awkward sigh. “No, no. It’s fine. Better here than slinking around. I’m asking you some perfectly routine questions about how the receptor’s run. Just an informal follow-up to my productive talks with Beckon Bell.”
At that name he was now listening to me less. “Beckon, I see. Well, have at it.” He took a long sip of the colorful drink packet he’d brought, looking down his distant nose at me.
“No, no, no play from me,” I said, reestablishing, “I ask… is it your impression that this is a silver job? Perhaps its my impression now, at least my role. It’s a lot of the same social dance, isn’t it? I’ve been thinking of that often.”
This hadn’t satisfied him. “Well… something like that. Especially in longer-term crews who have to come together and worry over careers together, right? I always felt like the groups they put you in work kind of like coteries.”
I hung my head, veil shielding my eyes, and spoke to my feet. “Coterie. Has any of yours too made life in this place?”
He grinned, “Oh, is this my interview? I have been waiting, la, for all the dance we’re talking of. I will have one, right?”
Please. “No, you will have no interview, because we are already delirious conspirators. As far as this audit - this remnant of an excuse of an audit - is concerned, you are an insignificant name I saw at the one frivolous brunch. But tell me Rain, where are you going? What course has been set by those whose path you look to? When will you have a home again? My superiors are demanding we blame the Lunics for something, a distraction, and I’m not going to do it. So. I still want to know about you, but I figure by now, I’m just… I’m quite disgusted. I don’t know when I’ll have a home again.”
“Alriiiight…” he said absentmindedly, looking away with his neck but not his eyes. “Whole crew’s turned against you, huh. How bad?”
“The diocesal leadership is on our backs, in line with the cult, and the crew has begun discussing trade secrets,” I coughed out, laughing. “Ka, so allyships are waning. I’m looking for friends now.”
Now his attention was real, a cruel skepticism on his young face that I recognized from Sever’s older one. “And you’re coming to me why?” he whined.
“Because,” I said, taking a shallow sideways breath, “you trusted me enough for secrets at very little blush. I’ve already entrusted you with broken faith, plans that should never be spoken, but I won’t be a part of them. All eyes are on the Lunic quarter, now, and I want them away, because, I mean to say, all the rest of this screaming place? I can’t play these politics, I won’t. The cult, the cunning, the clamor, I can no longer…” Was I saying anything, anything at all, idiot girl? “So please. Some give and take. Will you now report me, or might we speak?”
He didn’t know how he should be looking at me. Evenly considered me, a bit of apprehension, a bit of confusion, perhaps a trace of admiration if I was not so hopeful. So he spoke carefully. “The lunic quarter is an immune zone. Like Fisher Valley, or the receptor, or the incidental boarders. The cult dominates and demands lip service but it prefers to stay private, encased in its strongholds. But the other spheres have leeway to worry about their own things. So you’re right. I’m an ardent admirer, and I took that from my coterie - we all are, really, waiting out the regime here, called by some light the master has in him. I won’t drone, but its the promise of a pure port.”
“The regime, you are calling it such?”
“Well, yes and. The dream is dying,” he rolled his eyes, “and Novaria long old. The janitorial system means not absolute control but absolute inertia, you know, Sever thinks its scary but its not, its sad. The cult’s basic fetish is that Savannah is special because it’s an interstitial zone. That the size and distance makes this place the doorstep of a new era, a new way of being, and that those can only be found in, like, transitory areas. The jump. So there is a commonality of purpose, direction, I’m sure they both appreciate each other - Cote Sever’s initiative and fame, Sever Cote’s wonderful blind eye and safe tower.”
“Why was it so important? Why was it here, so far? Solely by necessity?
For the first time he appeared conflicted, unsure. He started and stopped a few times before he was satisfied he had found an angle of approach. “I, and a little less than half my coterie, was born on Dark Dandelion. I loved it. It wasn’t listed as one of his, so you might not have seen it in your research - still in Quilt Cotton’s name, but by that point in his internship he’d been doing most of the work anyway. But I loved it, I loved it. It’s rolling hills, and a strange kind of full wind you don’t get anywhere else, like you can feel how soft the air is. I’m very conscious of how air feels because of it; Savannah is cherry-rich like caked blood ground down diluted. But Dandelion fit together so perfect, you know? It was a whole way of growing up, he has this way of organizing spaces so that they walk you through themselves… over years, years, you understand? Growing up with the freedom of the yellow forest, then that led into sleepy little Gold Town, and it was… the way the hills fell down into the plains, the discoveries you had. So he’s good at interiors. He’s the best at interiors. What he really wanted here was an absurd canvas.
“If we’re talking about this, I think you should know how it feels. Not just to be there but to live there, as your baseline understanding of the world.” He casually crushed the rest of his juice packet in his fist. “You look up at that black sky and pink Lune and it all feels so small. Windows break all the time, I remember once in pre-coterie one of the bridges collapsed, fell right down, crack! Hundreds of people stuck there, a huge white line in the glass, a hiss that pulled wind in from half the length away. In ten minutes the janitors had patched things and begun to put the bridge back up. It’s scale. Bigger is stronger, and nothing’s alone. You get it? Dysonspace and ellspace are both just big castles.”
How funny, again, that Ilian stock was so bred for that distant familiarity with void. “Like the empty space in a hallway. Yes. And… wheelspace is so sparse. You don’t think of yourself as on land, as being born in a place. You are floating in the river; you are always floating in the river. Everywhere we live on the river is in the rapids, bubbling and changing. This mine opens, this island is exhausted, this wheel ship is passing. You live in what you can carry. That’s the sparseness, and it’s right.”
“I can’t imagine fearing the world like that. Even now we’re in a fortress, right? Self-sufficient, self-repairing. This is land.”
“Rain,” I said, “There is no distance at all. Everything is equally alone. Everything is equally touched. It’s not fear, it’s… a heavy respect for the scale. Of what it would do to a body to exist on the other side of the window.” I sniffed. “Poetic quality… I’v been thinking about that phrase. As though! As though! Oh, you unborns, it’s alright. We were all put in this world to live and dance in the sun, but you were put in to mine. Oh, but it’s alright! Not just to mine, no, but to sing songs about mining! And now it’s real. The poetic quality is there, I can feel it, I love it, I love the mines and I dream of the mines and today I saw Kaitei explode his own head into a portrait of all the mines… haha.”
He spoke boldly. “We are defined by where we live. It becomes us. We write into it, and it writes into us. But you’re on that other side. There’s plenty of exterior travel, right? Shuttles and drones and janitors, there’s that outer beehive buzz. Do you know just how hard like every Lunic kid grows up idolizing pilots? For me it was getting to see habitats from the outside - haha. Ironic, because now I’m an interiorist too.”
I was seeing it now. Sever’s faction was mostly unaligned. The ones actually concerned with selling up Savannah as tourist plots, making it an enterprise to be proud of. All the empty monuments and vast testaments to nothing, horribly outdated notions of commerce. And Cote’s faction, what did they care? Tacimarsa was lackadaisical, concerned with position, but… over? Their project was over? They truly had no dreams but to summon the tengmu and play out the rest of their lives? This cage, God, was it not vastly worse that it was not built to be a prison but a simple convenience?
No, I would no longer have time for them, not at all. They would be dealt with, empty fools as all power-chasers are. Whatever they were! I hated them, I hated them reflexively and loud, I could tolerate nothing but hate for them - and consider the tengmu as a miracle independent of them. No, I decided, deep in my heart - Coteshinoeleon’s project opened the door and found the tengmu in ideatic space. They came through into the world like St. Eve from the boughs, dread-dreaming and pure, hearts inherently hungry for masonry. A flash of life, golden life. But even Razina’s faction… her museum of geologist’s trinkets? Irrelevant maps? Pretending as if the giraffes and deer were the beautiful part here. Allies of Sever in complacency. Yes, I would tell Rain, yes yes, your side is where my lot has landed. It will be true.
My grandfather had good audits. Neither he not the family would tell me of the work itself in them, for he brought back no stories of the rote. What there was the months and years of life there, the periods of integration. His dossiers from Plum Grove were full of the leadership profiles, but also Hang Holly, the baker whose shop he dormed above, and his daughter, who helped him down the stairs each morning when the weight was still too much. The little lake basin town built around a single stone, a massive dish formation of rock found by chance during raw materials processing. Years of interviews with passers by on the street, paintings of where the orchard forests met the water. Once he had the leeway to choose his audits he chose them for artistry, in a way I’d perhaps never understood until now. Newly-opened places, habitats or geofronts or ships can and must be beautiful, portrait wellsprings of flower and flourish. Skipping stones to heaven. Of course we could still do that here. But the caps were simply not Savannah. They were a parasite, tick on the end of the arm, a leftover seed-casing that Quay and the rest had triumphed from. That was Savannah. It was not where I had been called, but how could I look anywhere else but the place itself?
I looked him in the face. “So you live here and know all the back doors. And you have sympathizers, more than I. I’ve come to ask the big question. Where shall we start…”
“Big question. Alright.” Voice suddenly lower, so drastically so there was a jolt of fear through me. Like the light he had seen me in suddenly changed, and now he saw a side of me to react to in a new, unimagined way.
“I am at the end of my legitimacy. I cannot stomach it. My crew is compromised. I can believe in nothing up here. This sickening cult, and even your dear master’s dreams - take no offense, but how can my eyes stay here? What is there to look at in these sad shadows? Am I wrong, Rain, that you are flagging here, that this is a husk of a fawnfest, a thinned maintenance crew with a job far too vast, a handful of museum heads with hearts halved. I could devote myself here and find justice, but it is slow.”
I had expected him to dissemble more, kick the kayfabe a few moves further down. He surprised me. “Ha. Look at Anyndel; this is a retirement home for gullible careerists. I know. Do you know why I’m here? Because, the Board thinks that it’s built everything there is to build. That they’ve mastered all colors and can hold them in their form. I know my master is here because he is a gullible careerist, but his remains an epochal work. We know this better than anyone. But Anyndel, he was just put here to spin and rot and make it all look incompetent. Kuryo’s a desperate charity case and all but unemployed. Doctor Savelyevna just wants to play with her dirt in peace and forget that souls exist that she does not understand. Every big title is some dreaming idiot and I bet anyone with something real to tell you about the crows is all locked up in forgettable junior bio titles. And me, of course.” A whiff of fear on his breath. “And me.”
Aha. Wonderful, I could feel my loneliness in him. Beckon was right - so little truly gets adapted away. “I want to run away. I want to throw it all away. I’m giving up, I think.”
“I’ve had longer to think about it. And more distance, ironically. I’ve never even been to the interior all on my own like you, much less spoken to the birds. I guess we both had our machines down there, but that’s not quite the same thing.”
I looked up at him and his snake’s smile, thin and wild. “Aha. Haha, you could not go so far… I could not ask so far, I…”
He smiled, short and simple. “I know how to take chances. We can do this, we can be friends, I know what you’re asking.”
“Do even I know what I am asking.”
“Well, one of us is cut out for a silver job, hm?” He tossed his hair in a very rehearsed drag of his fingers. “Anyway, your answer is yes. Tell me straight now. Say I run and betray everything. This is, you understand, some serious charges.”
“Oh… yes. Yes, and more serious still for I.”
“When we’re back, how will I know I have a place left for me?”
“Well, tell me, what did you think was down there? As in, what is the story told to your position?”
“That it was all trial phases. The common line for those in my rank is, well, it’s a potentiality, that they’re very bright and progressing quickly, but… it’s… it’s not very talked about. Considered a bit too close to the cult and Cote to ask or know too much. I had heard there were a few half-settlements, population centers. Nothing of cities like that.”
“A city? It’s more than a city, Rain. The cult, whatever their goals may have been, have accomplished them an order of magnitude more terrible more faceted. Generations of history. Generations of succession in solitude. Now there has to be a plan! There has to be a road built, if there is one! I can be the first one there, I can hold a real audit, I can record this snapshot. Rain, you don’t have to think, you know. There is no greater share from rim to rim. I don’t know what blame or how much will fall here, but this is too big for half-measures and coverups. Already the Spiruline has the fullest story we do, encryption to expire in a year - the worst that happens is that Savannah is crushed. I could be fired. But this is beyond state, beyond what the Ecumene has yet been… mayn’t be step to fill the role? Strike, and be a true friend of the widest law, the law of fire. A shining pearl of heroism that no human could speak against? We will not come out worrying about our positioning. We will be walking back inextricable from the legend, and that will be worse and easier.”
He sighed in that way that makes a glancing kiss in the air. “Damn.”
“So those are my hopes. I want to come out of this smelling like responsible roses and play prophet enough to achieve whatever direction Kali likes. I must be a servant now, for haruspices are record-makers, but priests are servants. That’s what I want. Now, have you been sold?“
“You are the least silver person I’ve ever met. You’re right, completely unsuited. It’s uncanny, isn’t it, disgusting? But no one can be silver, not really, not all the time. So I think I can ride with it. Give me half a day,” he was already straightening, breathing quickly, , “and I’ll know what I can do. But bribes are customary. When this is all over, I’ll tell you what the master wanted to call this place. And more, what they, what the world owed him.”
If he gave me this, I would give him that, I agreed apathetically. A whole plan of my life stretched out before me, not a set plan of events but rather a growing certainty that this place would never leave me, that already there was a pearl bone alongside my bones, already my skeleton waited within me, growing like a tree into the position it would be hung from when I was gone. Perhaps this was true of all souls on Savannah, perhaps its sickly spine was changing all of ours. We left hurriedly. And to myself I insisted, willing it true: my heart is not a gambler’s, my throat is not a liar’s, my heart is thick with sun. Willing the doubt gone, willing that there was still doubt to banish. Not so.
“So,” Rain had said as we huddled in the airlock, and Harka huddled in the little nest of cloths and possessions e has made in the litter’s hold, “it’ll be simple and quick and easy, for all the same excuses we’ll be feigning. The ones that got back are well into the process of making port, and soon it’ll be over, but we can be sure of a day or so at least before any return to the hangar we’ll be using. I’ll tell him it’s standard corner-cutting in a rush, that the arrival and our meeting piqued your interest - it will all be true.”
“Down the line,” Harka croaked. Everyone else asleep for cycle and stress but us, I imagined I heard their breathing through the smooth walls. “We gallop for river straight, and all is betrayed for the face. Living water; where we step, there blooms. A long path will be met.”
“I’ve prepared a letter for the crew, and another for the keyholder, and another for treasured Anahit. Then I am quiet. We leave now, we do it now.”
“We three are the ones who speak to us; we speak together. We absolve cult coterie and crew, down to poor Quay. Lose, and be lost. Who can question, but new calls?”
Satisfied, we sealed Harka back up in the silvered porcelain wales of the litter, and after a long flight down the trains we disembarked at a place near the receptor, which I had not seen before.
I had only seen hints of it. Savannah was hollow, not only in its interior but also in the construction of its caps. While the caps’ volume was as of countless oneils combined, it was in truth made a spiderweb by necessity of its design, since it had no interest in the urbanity of New Medina. So there were thoroughfares that the trains ran down, interconnected sections - that the sealed executive districts where the prefect had dug so much out of connected to the rings of the docks, which connected to spokes leading in to the receptor, and on and on. Navigation here was at last intuitive, just as I was about to depart it, and all that knowledge made senseless.
But here we stepped out from the spiderwebs into the true bulks of Savannah, the interstice, the yawning mega scale devices and empty bulkhead airholds that served as support and protection for the inhabited parts, and formed the thoroughfares of the vast alchemy and movement that had built, and must maintain this place. Savannah was quiet - inside. But once you stepped here, it came to life in a sort of heartbeat of distant storm-sized pressures, the clanging of world-scale hammers, the high whine of rail so heavy it escaped my hearing.
Our entry point to the interstice, the part of the interstice that was shared with the waterfall mechanisms and great continental elevators running up and down between Fisher Valley, and Cutter and Shader Valleys too, was one of the janitorial hangars. These offices were not traditional corporate in style as the receptors were, rather they were directly implanted into the mesh of rail and pipe that supported them without facade. Pulsing red lights for drone guidance, an unornamented and rough door that Rain pushed open easily. Inside was sleeker, a tall-ceilinged but stretching lay wide overlook, crowded with lens-specialized lunic workstations and a long, curved, unbroken glass window overlooking the true hangar bay.
The litter lingered outside the doors, and I by the windows. Rain quickly flitted over to a colleague, as I made myself look gravely out over the colorful little stock of janitors still at berth here.
Rain casually swung from the ceiling - it was easy to distinguish the ceiling; the room was built to the usual Lunic plan despite the unweight - speaking with a much tenser gold man about his age. He was protesting.
“Wine, you have to. I said it and now you have to.”
“You’re being stupid. Slinking around again.”
“Come on, just do a little favor? Everyone dreams about it, it’ll be my license anyway, just to look… Wine, can’t you see the position I’m in?” And then Rain’s voice fell to a whisper not worth straining to hear, and the one called Wine looked just as skeptical.
Seven janitors hung behind the great bay windows, half in personal liveries and half in a formal Savannah green-gold-white. I always found it interesting that people called them spiders so often, despite the implication of mending which the analogy carried. For I always thought their two tanks recalled grasshopper legs, ready to spring. One of pure water for the rain spears, built to cut apart habitat glass and hull, and one for the universal sealing agent of glueglass, pride and joy of Hightower chemistry. An intensely-powered precision tool, and crucial to the upkeep of anywhere humans lived. Habitat construction runs on a very refined script, from the kiln-fired hulls to the grand orchestra of drone finishing to the seeding of life in the new protection of the hulls. But after the fact, there is always inevitable damage: dust impacts, structural failures, window breakage - for a place like Savannah, twenty janitors could handle the upkeep indefinitely. But of course there were more, perhaps fifty all counted, from the outer hull berths, launches located in the interstice like this, perhaps most stowed down the length of the spine.
Rain relented in his conversation, made a show of frustration, and called me over. “Lieutenant! Lieutenant. Please, could you explain it better?”
I hung studying the chassis below for a bit longer, before deigning to drift over. “And what is the obstacle, sel Nine?”
“Wine Wound, this is Lieutenant Sainshand, see how I brought her? This is Wine Wound, a cal Soft Fang as I am. The Lieutenant has been asking about our coterie, you see, so some introductions are alright?”
At this Wine blanched a shade. “Hi, hello. I - I’m honored for the visit haruspex, but is this the best time? Someone more senior to…?”
I looked around, aloof, puzzled. “Is there more senior? Sever Malice, and the rest of the leadership, assured me of access to all of the quarter’s facilities. Rain Flower has told you of this small indulgence? It’s the only time we have available, you see, we’ve no need of disrupting the redocking process.” I spoke just as Rain had instructed me, and sure enough a knowing look came over Wine’s face. His sensitive and intense features changed in some sort of calculation, but soon enough smiled so broadly I almost thought it genuine.
“Yes, I understand then. Just a bit of time.” Wine said, and Rain patted him on the shoulder appraisingly.
“Good. Great, thank you. I’m sure we’ll find a place.” He happily stretched his arms far above his head, fingers interlocked, and it was like some secret tension between them dissipated. Wine even smiled, looking sheepishly away, as Rain continued. “Lantern Light through its paces alright? I miss it.”
“Whatever. Don’t even want to know,” Wine laughed, and promptly turned and disappeared into some secret back office, behind a self-sealing door.
And then Harka, from within, was clambering the litter in through the doors like a clumsy newborn deer. How long since I had felt like this? Slipping alongside Anahit across what paltry troubles we had mad in our Saniasa adolescences, staying past curfew or peeking at desperately intriguing but sealed case law. Perhaps Saniasa had places like this, perhaps all Ilian places were like this but in better light.
We hurried down to the berths. A new home, a new shell. Down the shockingly open angular arches of the hold, across the great launching rain that was a straight line from in to out.
Lantern Light. An exceedingly feminine lunic name. It was red, red as the deer, silver running down its improbably thin cylinder legs in lightning bolts - it was a cruiser, a bolt, angry and pure. The sphere of its cockpit was deep yellow, thinning out to transparent at its focal point.
Rain’s eyes shone. “Alright, I’m hopping up. I’ll scoop you up in just a minute.”
“They’ll really just let us go?” I asked. “You understand, this is… rather abrupt. Just walk in and fly out?”
“Well, not quite that easy,” he grinned, eyes still fixed on the rough contours of the thing, flitting from part to part as if he was reading it. “Not easy at all. I spent much of my social currency there, promised quiiite a bit. Nothing left in the tank,” he grinned, flexing his legs.
“Pace and pride,” Harka affirmed warmly, whatever e meant by that.
“And you?” Rain asked. “Neither of us will be followed?”
I strode forward on the light floor, testing how it felt beneath my feet. “Calling it a personal breakdown, maybe. A terrible secret I was hiding from the crew and that broke me. And whatever story you want, we can say I’ve threatened you with absurd retaliation, just as I did Aetheotl. I’ve made sure that was on record. There will be a panic behind us, Bettany will handle it admirably, but what are they going to do? Admit all over where we are going? No, they’ll keep things quiet for the sake of the crew, maybe a halfhearted search attempt. But they will know that here I declare war, and they can do nothing.”
“My mark same,” Harka said. E flapped slowly, savoring the rare light air and keeping emself afloat in it. “Humans inherently herd. Excuses. But we flock now, clean! Shock and pass, no recourse; they cannot cross it. So we’re on!”
E late emself sink until his claws just scraped the floor of the hangar, then with one great thrust of both wings sailed up in the cold concrete light. Rain kicked up with em in one long leap again, with a few well-placed kicks off spike and curve of the machine. They called down to me, and I left the ground.
Another ten minutes of loading in. We stashed the litter in the aftmost cockpit, and ourselves in the foremost, working in silence. Rain hushed any questions we had, and Harka and I simply did not know what to do.
It was beautiful within. Lavish, and would more than serve. The size of the interior seemed luxurious to me, but Rain had to duck his head as he deftly pulled himself from cabin to cabin. It was like the plush interior of a coffin, but in languid arcing shapes. Only the middle segment was hard-edged in a familiar way, packed with the entry ports into the crawlspaces of the vehicle and all the manual controls that could not be accessed in the front terminal. Harka tapped out a rhythm on the taut echoing porcelain, but at last we found ourselves all together at the head.
Rain had inserted the crystalline cube of his license into the velvet receptacle pad of the controls, which sparkled and glittered to life, ray-displays flickering their eggshell patterns onto that yellow glass. Immediately I was nauseous.
“Okay,” he wheeled his fingers in circles, pressing into the fabric like a seer. “Ready to get the knife in?”
“No,” I said. “Just a moment.”
I focused. Psyched myself into it. I summoned every thought I could, why was I doing this, what had made it so necessary? What fire was rising in me? What anger, what thirst for justice? I thought of Cote, happy and careless as his terrible edifice smoothly passed out from under him. The idea - that generations of human minds, generations of tengmu lives, were left to rot here, denied any communion, any connection. It was a limb cut off. It was black blood under the skin. The world cries out loudest in its most secret parts, where none can answer, where none can speak the words to heal; this is where God rises. This is why God tortures Themself to death again and again, and forgets the relief of rising before it arrives. I knotted myself up into one furious thought until I was satisfied I had approximated a blush.
I took a flask of water from where I’d stashed it at my belt. The water Anahit had used for that first scry still sat in barrels in the hold; sanctified, no good for drinking, and liable to be reused. I eased the cork off, trailed a finger through the water, and drew a small cross in the air before us. Right between us, right in the middle of the view.
“Praying?” Harka craned eir neck in.
“Just a voyage devotional.” A circle around the cross. Four drops, for the wheel’s colors. “We made one when we launched Umihotaru. For guidance and hold.”
I clapped my hands hard around the shivering lines of water in the air; the cabin filled with a sparkling mist that quickly stuck to our skin, our feathers. I prayed to Eve for discernment, Usas for feeling, God for heart. The words had left me, the forms, I had no lines in me, only names and hopes. “Eye wild,” Harka whispered from my shoulder.
We sat and were moved for a few minutes, the janitor’s four legs maneuvering it into launch position. Checked and rechecked each others’ harnesses, sent messages ahead of our arrival through a few secret tricks Harka had assembled. “We’ll start slow,” Rain’s voice had changed, a suppressed gleeful lilt, “but ramp up. Sorry. It’ll be the edge of tolerability, but we need to move.”
“It’s worth the pain. Let’s.” I stared straight ahead. Rain Flower hesitated, clenched his legs, and the rail grabbed and threw us.
I couldn’t even see. Just the rush, the hammer into my whole body, the rushing clack of transport and screech of metal, the sound of sparks crashing, and then the light hit us, the air carried us, as we were out into the bright world. A moment of silence, the momentum carrying us light through the air, the spine looming far above us, so far to be stationary. The vortex of blue and the colors of land swirled before us, the curved skyland warping, sinking, like a great slingshot pull. Savannah, drowning in Savannah, sky and land, sky and land, the burners sounded as thunder, and we were on.