cw: religion, animal cruelty, ghosts(?)
Night fell down and it was done
When the river echoed shut
And the mountains’ daylight ceased
And the willows whispered east
All the rest of mine remained
Beyond the sky and memory
When I first betrayed my song
And I laid – as always – wrong
Then my goddess smiled sweet
Cry, o raven, cry for me
- The Death of Aphrodite, M. Cortland
wherein our crew makes dock and gains its bearings, by bright auspices and dark hours
I had barely slept in the last fifty hours. Our three-month journey into the fringes of the wheel was at its end, and Saniasa eight hundred million miles behind us. The crew was in a flurry of supply checks, calibrations, and doubly frequent meetings. It was our first assignment in the field, and nerves ran high but steady.
For better or worse, the crew had been collated entirely from recent graduates, and as such I was familiar with each of them from the haruspex academy. I knew the faces of our scribe and liaison, Didion and Henarl respectively, though we had never taken classes together due to their being male. Kaitei too had been a year ahead of us all, and better traveled by way of his engineer’s curriculum. The long journey had eased us into a polite friendship after the initial awkwardness of cohabitation, but Anahit and I had for years been close. We had made a point of sharing studies for several years, even as her coursework shifted towards the radically divergent speaker curriculum, and I was glad to have at least one person to lean on during this voyage. Prefect Bettany I could not say the same for. I had never been fond of her company, and her being chosen to lead this audit is why I had slept so poorly on this last, crucial leg.
Her continued nonchalance puzzled me. Was she ignoring all the signs that marked it as profoundly strange, or was she simply oblivious to them? She was tight-lipped and preening enough that it easily could have been either, and none of my pleas for reason had registered. We were an inexperienced team far out of our depth, and though I was confident in our training and in our judgement, I wondered if the archdiocese had been rash in choosing us.
The library was our customary gathering space for all our logistical discussions and team meetings. It was primarily a law library, for ours was a law ship, its shelves dedicated to case and practice of both the Ecumene chanticleers and the courts of our own Ilion. I had spent many hours in study and contemplation here watching the stars. We had even begun taking our dinners here as the ship became more and more familiar to us, in the same plush perches on each of the walls that we now rested in, and it was a shame that my last hours with it would be spent in the tedium of our last crew meetings before the audit began. Before us, displayed on the beautiful arched glass windows facing the void, Bettany and Savannah’s ruling HR director were engaged in the last formalities of welcome.
The contracts had all been finalized and signed months ago, and meaningful discussion would be saved for a habitat-side debrief in several hours, but what else was there to do now? He was a jolly man of monstrous stature called Anyndelhataman, face boldly striped, with the golden foliage of the habitat shining through the office windows behind him. He laughed and chatted with our obliging prefect as if his office were a tourism agency.
Meanwhile, Savannah approached.
Its hull was built to resemble wide-spaced wicker overgrown with vinewood and yellow ivy, with spaces in the lattice through which the white ceramic that made up its core structure was visible. It recalled an arm cut to the bone again and again. It also lacked windows, and thus lacked a way for sun to touch its interior terrain - this was exceedingly strange, as the hulls of habitats typically dedicated half their area to windows. How could anything living grow properly without sun? It turned, a monolith in the void, the size of a continent where most habitats were but cities.
I silently said a Guide Christopher to myself, as my stomach lurched at the sight.
Twenty minutes in depressurization, thirty minutes in decontamination, the stagnant air and blinding lamps roasting and rotting us the entire hour. I was withered and exhausted in the ultraviolet light when Anahit sidled up to me. “I say again, Emelry – it will be a cult,” she hissed. “The ley is so sour here. Can you feel it, can you?”
I fidgeted in my uniform. “Patience, Anahit. More than likely, it is only the air.” I drew a sheaf of pills from my medicine box. “Here is another. Kaitei’s arranged for a larger supply of antiolfactants, as even he was affected.” Kaitei glanced at me.
“And these will truly help with the smell?” Anahit asked, already snatching one up. “It is like soil and septic and mildew, I just don’t understand how the changelings can live with it…”
“We’ve been over this,” Kaitei said from where he clung to the opposite wall, “raw air is raw air. And not only do our present clients ‘live with it’, it is the standard across the world. It is the scent of life! Those’ll help, but you’re going to need to build a resistance eventually.”
Anahit grimaced and covered her eyes. Bettany laughed, her hair rippling in the air - she kept it at a full four inches, longer than any of us, and years ago this was the first of many ill impressions I had of her. I saw her dip into her own pills a moment later.
We had known boarding would be an ordeal. Months of travel, comfortable though they may be made, take a toll on their passengers. To add a period of adaptation to a place not built for your kind made it yet the more oppressive. The landscape of Savannah was spun up to the same gravity level as most habitats were, Arean standard, and oh, I had blanched upon hearing as much!
Our kind live in few places outside of Ilion. Neotenes, unique among all the species of humanity, were designed to live and work and grow in the lack of gravity - hence our elegant and diminutive forms, spared many of the decays of age. Arean would crush and immobilize us, no matter what cumbersome mechanical assistance we may employ. But, to my relief, the landscape was not where we would be working, and the residential caps of the habitat were kept at a proper unweight. This meant one thing - Savannah was preparing for tourists, sometime down the line. Now, Triactis settlements doubling as resorts and museums was nothing new, but rarely were they advertised so early as this.
At last the locks chimed gently. Bettany called, “Come, that’s the last of it. We will enter in formation. Speaker, if you would?”
Anahit moved to the front of the line, and I found my place just below her, with Bettany beside me. Together we put up our hoods, and I heard the men do the same behind us. I swallowed and felt my ears pop, and thankfully the rank, organic scent had died down. Anahit cleared her throat and clapped twice, recited a short praise of passage, and with that our work was begun.
We disembarked from our Umihotaru directly into the under-construction loading bays. It pained me to leave it alongside the tankers, bulwarks and scaffolding of the port looming around it - the law ship was our last physical connection to home. It, proud and pale gold among all the strange color of the edifice, watched me as well as I turned into a place that was not mine.
It had been a long way here, for Savannah lay in one of the most remote regions of the world. These were the Hildas, the sparse cluster of asteroids on the furthest rim of the wheel, opposite in orbit from the greatest of the world’s celestial bodies. The gravity of Zeus was, in fact, what created them. Eons ago it had shepherded them into their place, and even now held them there as distant as was possible from the dense hub of frontier settlement now clustered around it and its major satellites. Even the supply ships of Ilion, which brought bounty and security to life along the wheel, did not reach the Hildas - for they remained the single span of the wheel not in Ilian territory. Few, even among we of the outer system, would ever have the occasion to visit - much less build great triumphs here.
But build they had, and from far they came. Savannah’s staff drew from across the full span of the world, from the inner system to the fringes - not only the expected Triactans, those of Savannah’s native company, but so too from Lune, Ares, even Heath itself. My assumption had been that a project of this scale, so determined to preserve its secrets of trade, would have kept its recruiting to a closer circle.
And this was not only its crew: even its executive team was a melting pot. This is where I began my dossier, two months prior. I had chosen six among the leadership to begin my interrogations with: four foreigners, and two Triactans, and had scrounged all the information I could find of them into the small book of records I worked out of as a lieutenant. Of course, my role was a broader documentation of persons of interests than a sole six strangers, but I was trained to start where my intuition demanded. Therefore I would ask of these illustrious foreigners how they had found their way to the periphery of creation, and of the natives, more. What then follows is a list of those among the staff whose testimony I would build my audit upon:
Sever Malice set Pearl Wall. Perhaps the strangest name on the staff registry. Born as a member of the world’s oldest extant nobility, the Board of Hightower, he was now exiled from it. Why? Any rationale had been aggressively suppressed by the Board in the years after, and I had little confidence I could coax the story out of him. Even rumors were hard to come by. The best I could tell, an extreme disagreement with his family had spiraled into a conflict with the Board as a whole, and he was summarily banished from lunic space and Hightower-built habitats. This meant banishment from nearly every habitat, and thus the vast majority of the world. This must have pained him terribly, for Sever had once been an architect, responsible at the highest level for the design of habitats of his own - the founding enterprise and most honored art of his homeland. Now he was here, the sole lord of his radical masterpiece, shunned by all among his people but for his own retinue.
Chief among this retinue was one Beckon Bell sel Nine Leaves, a former intern protege from a long-allied vassal house, and current chief engineer of Savannah’s life support infrastructure. A loyal squire boy who fled Lune alongside his master, and had grown to seek their fortunes together - a storybook romance, by their culture’s standards. He was said to be similarly devoted to his faith, though what Hightowerers worshipped aside from their own achievements was beyond me. There was no particular intrigue to his name, and until Savannah he had led a life typical of any among the citizen-shareholdery. But still he was a key figure. There was no better source on the systems and secrets of Savannah’s structure, and it was my hope that he would be more forthcoming than his husband.
One more inner-systemer had caught my eye: Razina Savelyevna, chief ecosystemic analyst. She was responsible for the broader strokes of Savannah’s biosphere and presumably still involved in its maintenance. Her background in comparative ecology was extensive and impressive, not least of all because she was born on Heath, and conducted a great bulk of her work there. There was no better case study of an ancient and dynamic biosphere than the birthworld itself, and the qualities of a natural planet were precisely what Savannah was built to mimic. She, in her phases of humanitarian work, had also published extensively on the oft-ignored unaffiliated habitats’ lack of access to transportation and stable ecology both. This suggested, in combination with her work at Savannah, a deep-lying interest in the fragile and the strange. Of all featured in my dossier - indeed of all the staff - she was the most foreign to me, and I itched to speak to her.
Most alarming of my candidates was by far Kuryo Redname. An apostate born and bred, she was until a decade or so ago a member of some hit-and-run flock of junk vessels that had managed to attract the attention of a previous generation of law ships. The scheme they lived by was a mixture of theft and force under the guise of simple black market trade, commandeering isolated habitats – many of them Ilian, despite her being a neotene herself – and demanding sunbeam access and supplies in exchange for whatever illicit cargo they happened to have on hand. It was unforgivable, unheard of, and could never last long. She broke with them and joined civilization only a few years before the group was brought to justice, and had somehow found work as chief of sales and inventory for all of Savannah. This was a rise so meteorically above her station that it could only have involved foul play. I hesitated to even contact her, her inclusion amongst the staff disturbed me so, but for that very reason a confrontation with her was necessary.
Those were the foreigners, but two more had caught my eye. Both were changelings, native to Triactis, and perhaps most fascinating and most deeply entangled with what Savannah was. First was Tacimarsa - a mysterious woman from Zeussian space. She lacked a distinct public presence, but when I took the time to build a resume for her, I was shocked. Tenures aboard several mainline Triactis experimental habitats – one of the few survivors of the Apillata project, and one of the Weylbloom project’s founders? What two names could chill one’s heart so surely as those? She habitually took titles in the vein of “head consultant” or “supplementary specialist” (the latter of which happened to be her current one here), placing herself in positions just below official responsibility yet just above being beholden to a chain of command. I had my eye on her for the last month of the transit in as I completed my research, and her presence was the impetus for my calling a lockdown as soon as we docked. She had been scheduled to fly out mere days after we arrived, and I could not allow that – even and especially if she was the harbinger of disaster for Triactis’s more cutting-edge endeavors that she appeared to be.
The second changeling was Coteshinoeleon, and it was with him that I was most eager for an audience with. Savannah’s project lead, its core mastermind, and off the grid to an extent I was not aware was possible in the modern era. I had used every resource of archival and inquiry available to me, and had found almost nothing beyond his age (84), birthplace (Milagros Moris habitat, Heran orbit – also Tacimarsa’s hometown), schooling (some unassuming martial academy near Saniasa), and work history: Savannah staff, and Savannah staff alone. A man who had apparently done nothing but plan this work for decades without break, while uttering not a word of it in any public forum. I had found but a single quote of his, from his brief days as an understudy. It was an internal Triactis newsletter covering the earliest conceptual stages of Savannah:
“Triactis overflows and bleeds with life. What we did in a hundred years for the advancement and development of life is what typically takes a hundred million. A thousand colors in a thousand flowers, field a thousand miles square. That’s always been a metaphor, you know, and I don’t wanna keep it one. I don’t want to play in a garden my whole life. I want a golden crown [...] for our best gems. I want the canvas of a golden land. I think my colleagues all want something like that. What could be better than the savanna to hold all of it?”
So few words to say so little, a dreaming twenty-year-old who would rapidly gain the confidence of his company’s highest echelons. Was it nepotism, bribery, luck? After that single quote, it was all project briefs and technical documents of increasing complexity and import, which listed him as only a fourth or fifth contributing author at best. He eventually fell off their lists completely. If I had not already met Anyndelhataman, I would have assumed that this was the figurehead, but this blank in the record was too conspicuous. It could not be explained by a genuine lack of consequence – I needed to see him.
Coteshinoeleon, I wagered, was the one who could answer a question that had quietly burned in my mind since we had begun work. The only habitat of a comparable scale to Savannah was New Medina, located at the very heart of the world, in the capital dysonspace of the See. Two centuries it took for its construction to complete - how then had Savannah, in a quarter of that time, been built half again as grand? One could explain it easily by pointing to better manufacturing infrastructure, the presence of a proven template to work off of, or sheer resolve. But none of these served as a real answer.
I leafed through my papers one last time. The exiled royal with only his dreams and his lover left to his name. The humble Heathling so far from her home, and the outlaw who I suspected had never truly left hers. And lastly, the two changelings who had so carefully cultivated mystery about them, shielded by the bastion they built. I pushed into Anyndelhataman’s office.
“Ah! Lieutenant, finally get to see you in person! Come take a seat. Here to drop off the paperwork Bettany mentioned?” He attempted an Ilian genuflection. “Hey, pretty good, right?”
I smiled despite myself, and returned it. “I thank you for your welcome, Director, and it is well met.”
“Found your way here fine, looks like. Didn’t you just board?”
He towered before me from his desk. No two changelings were alike, and it was only after several months of working with Triactis that I was now becoming accustomed to their appearances. His entire body was chromatically patterned after a tiger, claws sprouted from his hands and bone spurs out from his arms, his neck had been elongated by half a foot. I did not wish to stare, but it was polite among his people to stare, and I had spent much of our conversations during the journey simply trying to pick out each modification and quirk he had gathered in himself. We must have appeared strange to him as well, as small and as similar as neotenes are.
“Yes, minutes ago. Your secretary showed me the way. I realize I’ve called upon you so shortly before the debrief, but I shall begin interrogations in thirty hours or so. I require meetings with this list of people, in this order.”
I plucked a page from my dossier and handed it to him. “Absolutely. I’ll take that. ” He grinned to himself as he read through the names and I found my perch. I noticed his face darken upon reaching the last page, but a moment later and his eager manner had returned. “Okay, okay, this makes sense… hey, you sure you only wanna start with six? It seems low for a first round.”
“That’s quite alright. I have chosen carefully. This is anticipated to be a longer audit than usual, and we’ve elected to take additional care with the initial interrogations.”
He shrugged. “I’ll get time on everyone’s calendars then, whenever’s best for you. When’s second round, then?”
“Undecided. I apologize.”
“Totally fine.” He leaned forward and lowered his voice conspiratorially. “But listen, when you do start seconds, come find me. Alright? I really want to put you in touch with some of our guys in publicity and marketing, seriously. This is the first big attention we’ve gotten, and they’ll be the best foot forward you could ask for. Anything you need from me, even if statute doesn’t require it.”
“I will keep that in mind. Thank you, their perspective does indeed sound enlightening.”
“It is! We actually put together some materials for you and your team, just to give you an idea. Lieutenant, once again, I can’t stress enough how happy I am you’ll have the chance to stay so long. I actually have some ready, for your team, plus a few other materials…” he handed me from his desk his own stack of papers - a few maps, and around twenty brochures and pamphlets. “I’ve marked my office on those floorplans, for whenever you need to drop off or pick up stuff. I’ve also marked a little lounge in the middle rings, most gorgeous view this side.”
“Well!” I marvelled, and leafed through them. Colorful but cheaply printed, all marked with warnings about their being for pre-release purposes only and not final copy, covered in art and bold lettering… Anyndelhataman was certainly unabashed in showing his marketing roots. I had expected this from what I’d read of his files, but now the doubt set in that I would be able to rely on him as much as he insisted I would. This was acceptable. “Enlightening, but ah, look at the time! I will be on my way with one last question, Director, if you are still open to favors.”
“This is for personal purposes rather than strict haruspicial concern… but I do have an interest in meeting with any more senior theologic personnel of Savannah, and had hopes of learning from their perspective. But, on the staff registry, I was able to find very few. Is there no representative of the Triactan archdiocese on board?”
He hesitated. With a look of concern, he said, “Isn’t that why Cote was on the list?”
Anahit found me quickly.
“Emelry. Emelry! Oh, thank heaven you’re done.” There was no time until the debrief. She was here to collect me, out of breath and clutching at my sleeve. “I’ve begun my readings, you must see this!”
“Hello, Anahit. Here, relieve me of a few of these. Even the few is enough for a textbook.” I flipped upside-down to face her, and made to unload half the pamphlets into her care. She brushed them aside and they spiraled into the air around us. “My!”
“Emelry! Please hear me. Something is wrong. Deeply so.” She sighed, and pulled me down the corridor. “I must show you myself before this pageant of a meeting.”
“What? What is this, what did you find?” I asked, not daring to grasp the wall to slow her. We continued floating down the corridor a bit faster than was comfortable. “Are you still convinced of your cult?”
In typical circumstances, she would have snapped at me for that. She only looked ahead. “Yes. I don’t know. Perhaps worse.”
We hastened back to the docks. No sooner had we returned to the library than Anahit threw herself towards a perch and grabbed it with her feet. She had rearranged everything - pushed the shelves back into the wall and strapped everything down, making room for her equipment floating by the walls. A cylinder of water was suspended in the center of the room, and Anahit’s eyes were fixed on the steady pattern of roiling bubbles in its center. I watched too, though less intently, as the whirl turned in on itself and spread faint ripples on the shape’s surface. This was her ongoing water scry of Savannah, mimicking its shape and providing a rough reading of the web of life force within it.
“Tell me, Anahit. What have you seen?”
She spoke hesitantly. “When Lady Olkha – did you take classes with her?”
I perched across from her, still watching the water. “Yes, but only the one.”
“Mm. We work quite closely in my vision courses. When I was learning the water scry, she was telling me of an audit she ran many decades ago.”
“Ah… yes. She did make her name at Weylbloom?” I asked. Anahit nodded a yes. “A shame… I did not know she spoke of it.”
“Yes. Only to her speaker students. It was terrible even to hear of, all those people, the state of their afflicted souls… I won’t dwell on the morbidity, you’ve read the case, and know how long they were made to live. What matters was the scry. A proper scry reacts to each soul in its range of vision, resonates with their individual light, and resubstantiates that soul-light into heat – hence, the boil when calibrated to scale. But sometimes... aha. Do you know how she demonstrated this to me?”
She struck her palm with her fist. “She captured a scry of a mouse’s body at the moment she drove a nail into its spine. It was horrible, the heat came out… wrong. A jagged and lilting heat, not the hale fire of a heart. Neither dying nor living. That, she said, was what it had looked like in her initial reads of Weylbloom. The first signs of those poor thousand ghosts.”
I was no speaker. Anahit’s role was by far the most specialized of the six, more altar maiden than detective. I could not hope in another decade to grasp the delicacy of her work, and the attunement to all adoration it required: to my unpracticed eyes this seemed a scry as any other. But I knew her, and knew she saw true.
“And that is what you are seeing? I have memorized the staff registry. There are five thousand employees garrisoned here, are they all… strange?”
“No, aha.” She wiped her tearless face. “No, they are accounted for. Five thousand, living in the caps, whole and at their assignments. The strangeness comes from the interior, and… oh, Emelry! The more I stare at this, the less I can hope to doubt it. There are two million of them. Two million warped half-souls, across all the landscape. I don’t know what to do.”
Bettany droned on. I perched at her side on the presentation dias as she gestured and spun in her speech. The crowd circling us was a mercifully small one, and I nursed my veal compote.
“I realize our presence here is an imposition, especially when the project is preparing to go public. It is a delicate phase. I’m sure you’ve heard, but this is our team’s first major assignment, and the first full audit we will be conducting. I mean it, I was more scared of this than some of you!”
She won some laughs at that. I wasn’t actually convinced that Bettany could feel fear; her mind was simply not built to register it.
Gathered in the ornate yet rustic conference room was most of the operational management of Savannah, its leaders and departments heads. Many from my dossier I saw in the flesh for the first time here. Sever and Beckon sat furthest from the display screen, whispering together behind their fans, and I couldn’t help but note that much of their clothing was dyed ultraviolet. This was strange, as I knew they were unable to see the color themselves. Tacimarsa too was curiously dressed, entirely in black, when Triactians were notorious for their garishly colorful sense of fashion. She perched at the side of Coteshinoeleon - regal, upright, and unbothered by the oxygen tubes and several IVs bundled to him. He was an unwavering old man, and his sky-blue skin glimmered in the light. Besides these were ten or so others, drawn from the various offices across the habitat, and all were anxious but smiling. Our crew were the only neotenes in the room.
The dinner was a good one. Our hosts (primarily Anyndelhataman, who was blending in with the waiters above the table had made a show of explaining each course to us in detail, how each ingredient was foraged from the wilds of Savannah – deer from the terminal plains, goat from the central highlands, lemons from the river ridges, lotus root from the inland sea. The walls were paneled with acacia wood and grass planters that mimicked both the landscape of Savannah and the habitat’s hull. Beautiful showmanship, as I was quickly coming to expect from our hosts.
Bettany continued. “I meditated a long time on the journey here as to what this responsibility meant for us. I pored over my case law, all the high-profile disasters, preparing for the worst. I felt that our greenness was a liability, that I in my inexperience would miss some quirk of… the sometimes labyrinthine proceduralism of Ilion, and doom us all in the midst of a project so crucial as this. But that was because I did not understand my role.
“We are not here to dig up dirt. The word ‘haruspex’ may carry some less than kind associations with it, but the haruspex corps is fundamentally an organization of discovery – words like interrogation and investigation carry the wrong message. We want to learn. Of what this place is, who you are, and all the hopes and works that have come into confluence within this hull. I know it is something you are proud of.
“My liaison and lieutenant will, over the coming weeks, be holding interviews and making explorations of Savannah. Please treat them as archivists, and entrust them with what you would have known of Savannah in the sight of Adonai. Explain to them this masterpiece. My hope is that it will be a high point of the long relationship between our two companies – and, indeed, our species.”
Applause. Archivists, she said! I would thank her for that later – her feigned charm could grate upon me, but it was certainly disarming. She shifted into a happier tone and continued, laying out the basics of our scheduling and procedures. First week preliminary observations, second week the full of the audit, and third our hearing held. From there it would conclude, or else move to another audit and hearing cycle until all obligations were satisfied. She took questions, ramped up the banter, and halfway through my watered wine I felt myself cease listening.
I looked to the rest of the team. Henarl was beaming, nodding along with the crowd. Kaitei fiddled on his tablet as usual, Didion earnestly took minutes, and Anahit was bright and unperturbed. She was sociable, more so than usual, and never lost her composure.
“Thank you, colleagues, for your sympathy.” Bettany had finished. “Speaker Anahit. Would you provide us with a closing prayer?”
Anahit straightened, and nodded with a smile. “Of course, prefect. Today, it would be my honor to lead you in a Sofia Capac, Be My Mercy, to celebrate the advent of our joint explorations. If you would follow along with your tablets…”
She led, and they all fumbled to make time.
“Dear fire ne’er created
O dew in lonely dawn…”
The group kept up as best they could for five or so verses, few used to singing even basic hymnals. I watched them most intently here. Anyndelhataman squinted at his lyrics and mumbled the whole way through, the lunics sang with proud clarion voices… but Tacimarsa, at the back of the crowd, sang so clear and sweet and simple that something in me wanted to cry. She did not look at the words once.
“Bettany. We must talk,” I said, gliding alongside her as the debrief ended, and the last of the staff filtered out.
“Tomorrow, lieutenant,” she waved airily. “I’ve a second dinner with the command staff.”
“Anyndel and Cote, you know. We’ve plans to stop at a lounge down by… oh.” She had caught the confusion on my face. She smirked, in that pursed-lip way she had. “Tomorrow. Really, I warned you about this, you made no effort to build a day cycle. Half your job is cultural acclimation. Statute, in fact, calls for you to lead the crew in –“
“Bettany…” I glanced around us, confirming that the room was empty but for our crew. “I must insist. Anahit’s preliminaries have yielded truly grave signs, I think it is better that you hear of this soon… Something is deeply wrong.”
“Alright, alright, we shall hear it,” she sighed and shook her head. “But please, keep to tomorrow. Good material for our morning meetings, no? Didion should have put them on your calendar, do accept.”
“Prefect!” I started forward, voice raised. “Look here, I - !”
She faced me, calmer and unsmiling. “Lieutenant. I do not mean to bicker with you. I ask for no word now, that you sleep and consider, and phrase well what you wish to say. I was quite proud of that speech, and would like to run on its fumes another night... Let’s not have this audit operate on a gossip of first impressions and maybe-leads. I need no suggestions. I need facts, evidence, and a course of direction. Do you understand?”
Oh, I seethed in my heart then. But she was right. “I do. I do, thank you. I will reconfirm the readings, and begin my interviews, and we will speak in the… morning. But please hear me then. I... I do not know that we are safe here.”
“Good. Excellent. Thank you, Emelry, and I do respect your fears.” She lowered her voice, and leaned closer. “Please tread carefully out there. Use tonight to get your bearings. I and Henarl will be occupied for some days, and we could all use some orienting. The ley is sour here.”
“I understand. And – good luck.”
“Of course.” She smiled, and threw her voice back to its usual city-girl tamber. “Then, see you soon!”
The day was ending. Soon the crew would be retiring to sleep en masse, which meant that everything would close down. The lights, the few shops in operation, the offices. But I was wide and well awake still. All I could do in the absence of my team or interview targets was to explore or meditate, and I resolved to do both at once. I picked out the lounge Anyndelhataman had recommended to me, on the opposite side of the cap. I took the rail.
I passed miles of offices, gardens, amenities, hotels, restaurants. It was well-lit, lushly planted, clean - but empty. It would be years until these halls would be populated by anyone save the current skeleton crew and ourselves. The caps of Savannah were meant to be cities in their own right. They were built as such. The bulk of their physical area was taken up by great industrial edifice - manufactories, mass transport, and the dockyards - but their inner residential areas were small, well-organized townships.
The foyer I disembarked into was similar to that where I began - only that here was red marble and palm, and there yellow marble and cypress. All I heard was the echo of the train as it departed, and distant muffled clangs I could not identify. From the plaza I took a corridor inward.
I thought myself well-prepared to see the interior. The live drone feeds we had been shown during our previous briefings, the picturesque plains and mountains of the brochures - I had thought I had a sense for it. I had seen many images of Heath from orbit, and assumed Savannah would look similar, only with different geometry. But as I entered the lounge, and saw for the first time the breadth of Savannah laid out before me, my heart stopped.
My eyes could not process what they were seeing. The approach had not done it justice, nothing could. As I looked further down the cylinder, the vista gradually faded to blue, before dissolving further into a shimmering distorted pool of light and color and mirage haze as the hollow sky stretched into its full four-thousand-mile depth. It seemed to disappear into itself - for a moment it was as if I was staring into Anahit’s scry again. Was I going blind?
Every cell in my body screamed for me to vomit. I was falling, endless empty and choked, all my hands grasping for structure that I knew would vanish at the touch. I almost lost consciousness, but I felt someone take me and turn my head away from the windows, and the world slowly stopped spinning.
“I apologize,” I burst out, still sightless. The smell of compost and blood was stronger than it ever had been, even during depressurization. “Oh. I am terribly sorry. I was not made to see things as this, you understand. Please let me collect myself. I beg you, this is unbecoming.”
A woman’s voice answered me, with an accent I could not trace. “It’s alright, you’re just fine. Perfectly normal overview reaction, everyone gets them… though I do guess knytts would be worse affected. Here, just sit and watch the wall, and you’ll be fine once your stomach settles.”
“Thank you, kind stranger. Again I beg you, look away.” I fidgeted with my loosened hood, ensuring my hair was covered, too preoccupied to register the rather uncultured word she had used.
“Alright, alright. I’m literally facing the opposite direction, okay? Your dignity’s intact, I promise.”
Small comfort. But I followed her instructions, and took careful measured breaths, until by and by I could open my eyes again.
“Alright?” she asked. “Still with us?”
“Yes. Yes, I am. I am decent again. I would like to thank you.”
“Well, of course and you’re welcome. Aha.” She looked me over. “So, you’re our inquisitor. What’re you even doing here?”
I caught my breath and straightened, meeting her eyes. I found that I recognized her, as she had me.
She was built strong, in the formidable but graceless way all Heathlings are. Betraying her heritage to a lesser extent was the tether at her waist fastened to the railings at the window - clearly unused to unweight, and relying on ropes like a child. She of course dwarfed me in length, but would be considered short by most species’ standards. Her uniform was disheveled and her hair barely tamed, but she carried herself with surety and conviction - I gathered that she was a solitary woman.
I caught my breath and straightened again. “Well. I am glad you’ve recognized us, correct. Emelry Sainshand, crew’s lieutenant, and you are Razina Savelyevna. I have come to view the interior from a better angle than my quarters. And, pardon my forwardness, but you’ve earned a place in my dossier.”
“Oh. Well, ‘on the list’... I hope that’s a good thing.” She pointed at me with her hand for several moments before withdrawing it. Strange, she didn’t seem like the fidgeting type.
“Of course. I had not anticipated making your acquaintance for several days. Thank you for your assistance, it is… quite a sight.”
“It is, isn’t it?” She smiled, and together we turned to watch the windows once more. It still made my head spin, to look upon it, but it was now an easier task. I kept my gaze from the far distance, and followed instead the run of rivers and forests closer to where we stood - though still tens of miles away.
“Ah, what do you know. Good timing. Look, lieutenant, there’s a barge coming in.”
I followed where she pointed. From far away, running along rails connected to the habitat’s spine, which ran from cap to cap along the interior, was a vast cylinder. How large? I could barely tell. “Just how large…?”
“Massive. Refitted oneill hulls, actually. We’ve been using them for a long time, to ferry bulk materials across the landscape - all the water you see below you, most of the soil, were all dumped from one of these and left to settle.” I saw she was right - although painted over a light blue, the barges indeed bore the characteristic ceramic and glass structure. “Are they still used?”
“For that? No, all the scaping-out was finished ages ago, and a natural water cycle’s already taken over. Just normal clouds now.”
A small wave of nausea impacted me but left quickly. I squinted. “And why the lack of natural sunlight?”
“Oh, that’s…” She paused, with a subtle frown. “Sorry, am I on record right now or something? I wasn’t really expecting questions already.” she asked.
“No, not at all. Our meeting is as of yet unscheduled, and would not be so soon. You will know.”
We watched as the barge continued pulling in.
“Though I had hoped for conversation,” I said.
She caught my smile, and sighed. “Actual sunlight wouldn’t be practical. Breaking up the landscape to that extent would give us so much less to work with, and split up populations unnaturally. Glass over this large of a superstructure would be under too much stress, anyway. We use lighting built into the spine to mimic the qualities of sunlight as accurately as we can, and there’s a subtle rainy and dry season cycle. It was a practical choice, not an artistic one.”
“A season cycle… as those of Heath? How is that achieved?”
“Well it’s not just the planet. Any oneill can have seasons, but again, that’s all window work we can’t do. It’s scheduled to dim and brighten over the course of months, with a bit of aid from the ventilation systems.”
“Ah, I see. We have been told Savannah was a stable biosphere, I did not know it still required such maintenance.”
“Listen, miss Sainshand…” I saw something like anger flash across her face and fade just as quickly. She shifted her posture. “Savannah is young. She is sparser and plainer than she will be. We cull deer herds, pump in more water yearly, it’s a process, but… how do I put this. Look, most of the work we do now is observational. We track water quality, soil acidity, changes in animal populations and foliage cover. It’s a lot of work, a lot of surveying. But… if we stopped doing that. If I quit my job, if the lights went out, if everything failed completely. Life here wouldn’t end. It would change, drastically, in ways we won’t let it change yet. But life here’s put down roots enough that some human failure can’t kill it anymore. That’s what we mean by stable, and it’s what I’m most proud of. What I’ve put twenty years into. Does that make sense?”
“Twenty years. I see.”
She braced herself against the railing, and pivoted her body to face me. Behind her, the barge disappeared as it continued its journey into the cap, swallowed by the little city.
“Since ‘38. I’m glad you came to take a look, and I’m glad it knocked you over. But you are questioning me, and if you don’t mind, let’s save it. Good night, lieutenant.” She unhooked her tether, and kicked off hard to float to the doors.
“One last thing?” I called after her. “You have my word it is only a question, not a questioning.”
She stopped at the threshold. “Alright.”
“A certain member of my crew has indicated they’d like to visit the landscape personally. Is that a possibility? I’ve no idea who to ask to find a way down.”
“The actual surface? Could you all even handle it?”
“She’s been exercising.”
She sighed again, patience wearing thin. “Well, if you’re that set on it… You can catch one of the trains down, but it’d be a day-long trip each way. I’m not sure that’d fit into your schedules. Talk to the HR director, he can get you some drones to fly around with if you want to look around that badly. That okay?”
“Yes, it is. Thank you.”
I let her leave. Perhaps I had been a touch too curious, or she a touch wary.
I braced against the railings, where she had before. I followed a river winding down from the hills at the foot of the caps, out past the tiny clusters of outposts and tilled fields into the wilderness. Beneath the distant cloud cover (which was natural, but nonetheless to me recalled the billows of fumes and debris one often saw rising from mining installations back home) it led through marshland and rocky veldt, until I could follow it no more for the trees. In which season was I seeing this land for the first time? I meditated on this, as I had come to do.
Anahit and Kaitei had remained aboard Umihotaru - Kaitei for the duties of his role, and Anahit because she refused to sleep in a place she was so suspicious of. I reminded her that even by her own standards the caps were not haunted, but she vehemently ignored me. Bettany and Henarl, meanwhile, had traipsed off laughing to staff quarters after the debrief. They had insisted on “spending the night” under light gravity to begin acclimating themselves, in a shockingly inappropriate display of deference to the people we were meant to be auditing. Of course Didion sheepishly bustled in after them. This left me alone in the block of quarters especially reserved for our crew, housed in the spine with windows overlooking the interior.
As I at last guided my bags to the door, I was glad indeed to have made such a fool of myself in the observation lounge. The sight from these windows still shook me, and I had to rest and look away from that impossibly distant and impossibly wide land. But now, the wave passed in moments rather than minutes. Soon I was able to look without flinching, and without that certain fear of falling.
I unpacked my effects - my talismans above the entry, my sleeping quilt on the bed. The room was grey-blue and its walls soft-carpeted, calling to mind cheap public dorms on crowded liners. Natural portraits of Savannah’s interior played on the room’s screens, colorful and framed as if from Anyndelhataman’s brochures.
My little conversation, and the fainting episode before it, had drained me. Unfortunately it seemed as if I was meant to sleep as the light faded; I could feel my body slowing down. As I strapped myself into bed, I watched the surface before me in the latter stages of its evening hours, the brilliant gold-green of its fields and forests giving way to deep purples, reds, blues before settling to an uncanny near-black. There was something hypnotizing about it, and though I must have stood there watching for ages, it all felt so fast. But at last I did feel sleep, by some instinct older even than my species, creep through that dark to take me.
Then a sound pierced the air.
It was an impact. A sharp, heavy thud directly before me. I started, knocking aside the blankets, illuminating the room - but this only made the outer black a deeper pitch. The noise continued, a horrible whistling broom-strike, over and over, on the glass itself. From the outside! All my hopes and tolerance of this place fled - surely this shoddily-built monstrosity was an illusion and always had been, surely it’s rickety skeleton was not meant for life - I was falling, falling after all, and soon the spine would crack and the glass would shatter and I would be thrown out into the utter vast night air! All my childhood fears of the void come true, but crueler: I would breathe! The noise continued, rasping and whirling, I felt tears begin to pool over my eyes --
“Lieutenant. Lieutenant!” came a hoarse mockery of a voice. The vocal equivalent of a left-handed chalkboard scrawl, a croaking, robotic approximation of syllables from across the glass. “An audience.”
“Who passes here! Who speaks!” I whirled to the door to find the intruder, but already my heart knew where it lay. Once again the wheeze from outside spoke.
“Calling, of calling who is king. A herald calls!” A pounding came, and the light upon the glass danced at every fist beat. “Find we, anon grave tree. Word and rain, say we scrivener. Calling and the king.”
And then it was gone, and quiet again, and the world took shape and light again. I caught my breath in silence, and waited hours before moving again. Surely I had seen a shade, a dead man, and surely it had called for me, and surely this place was thrice as cursed as any of us had dreamt.