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Rita was slumped in her bunk. Her head hurt, she felt unbearably tired, and faint lines from that damned Atraxan ink still lingered in her skin.
“Hey, boss?” Linda asked.
Rita clicked her teeth.
“I’ve been meaning to ask, since I got to read your file from the Kempari, do you want me to forget it?”
Rita winced. She’d forgotten about that. “Don’t bother. Cat’s out now.”
“It can go back. If you’d feel more comfortable, I’ll wipe it.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Rita said.
“Rita, I’m getting worried about you. It’s been a week. You usually snap out of it faster than this.”
Rita sighed, then leaned over on her side and pulled a pillow over her head.
“You’d always said you only did the anthropological training. Some of this looks more like the movies.”
“I spent my first year on Loki. Turned out it wasn’t me. I joined up to annoy the ICA and team up with people who could help me when they catch Pavi and bury her under their tower.”
“Why did you switch?”
“Master Yao tapped me on the shoulder. ‘You have the capacity for more interesting things, Magritte.’ So I took a term with him, met Donegal, and never went back.” Donegal. There was a another reason to stay in bed. She’d been the one to flirt with being an actual spy, and he’d been the one nearly staked.
“It’s supposed to be a secret, but Pavi’s going to break him out.”
“It’s not a secret.” Pavi was terrible at keeping secrets – she’d listened patiently when they heard about Donegal’s arrest. Ten minutes later, she looked giddy and determined, classic plotting-Pavi.
“There’s nothing in your file about why you left.”
Rita closed her eyes and swallowed. “I can’t tell you, Linda. You don’t want me to, either.”
“Just saying that tells me a lot, boss. Either you crossed the ICA, or the Aydan-machine.”
Rita didn’t answer. She could smell blood, and Mahkrim’s sweat, and gaspum fruit ripening on the vine. It wasn’t fair. She’d left the Kempari over a decade ago and never regretted it, but now all she could do was wonder. Why were the ICA after them now? What would they say when she went back? Why hadn’t she thought of something to save Mahkrim?
“We still need to get a crew to run the blockade. If we keep surfing much longer, we’ll have to double back for one.”
“You have an idea for where to go, don’t you?”
“Yes,” Linda said.
“Pretend we talked about it and I agreed,” Rita said.
“Okay, boss. I’ve got the file on the place put together for you.”
Rita flinched. “No file. Things work better when I don’t know what’s going on.”
“You got shot,” Linda said.
“That was better.” Rita squeezed her eyes shut and tried to blot out the smells. Of everything she associated with Kempus, why was gaspum fruit what haunted her now?
Aliph and Bett watched as the Whimper’s Revenge approached Tiāntán. They sat together in the galley while a pot of curry simmered, their eyes closed and their interface feeding them every detail of the ship’s telemetry. They’d been intensely, almost compulsively integrated with each other since Calvary, a little afraid of facing such an overwhelming silence again. With Captain Valshorn refusing to leave her room, they hadn’t had to pull apart into their separate selves for even a moment. And now the Whimper was a part of them, too.
From orbit, Tiāntán was mottled yellow-orange and green. It was a little, super-dense planet with a weak crust and intense pockets of geothermal activity. It had two moons, Yanluo and Muzha, that would catch light from the sun and glow intensely yellow as they disappeared behind Tiāntán.
<Can you trust the machine, there?> Linda asked as the Whimper fell into orbit.
<It was once part of the Aydan-machine,> the siblings answered together.
<It may have changed since it was isolated.>
<It will know what we are. It will not harm us.>
The siblings had shared a fleeting moment of guilt about deceiving Captain Valshorn. There was a small chance they might find a qualified weft pilot and additional crew on Tiāntán, but there were other, far likelier places to go. There was an independent machine on Tiāntán, a piece of the Aydan-machine that had been cut off from the network and left to develop on its own. Meeting the Aydan-machine’s fission offspring, another sibling, of sorts, was one of the dreams that led them out into the world. The Aydan-machine was vast, but even with scores of domesticated personalities across the planets and ships that could create one, it was always the same. The machine on Tiāntán would be new, different.
<And you’re certain Rita won’t get into trouble?> Linda asked.
<Nobody on Tiāntán will harm Captain Valshorn,> the siblings replied. They were far more certain of that even than of their own safety. The colony on Tiāntán was sheltered from the anti-Kempari hysteria spreading through the back worlds, because it wasn’t one of them. Officially, Tiāntán didn’t exist.
Tiāntán’s crust wasn’t stable enough to safely land the Whimper’s Revenge, so they had to take a shuttle to the surface. Aliph and Bett slid back into themselves, giving up the ship’s sensors for their own senses, and disconnecting from each other enough to interact with Captain Valshorn.
Rita looked tired and haggard when she climbed into the shuttle. She was quiet as they descended, staring blindly at the instrument panel and apparently oblivious that the siblings were flying it from the passenger seats in the back.
“Wait, why are you here?” Rita asked as they disembarked from the shuttle.
“We wish to go with you,” the siblings replied.
<We should not answer together.><Then you speak.><We’ll switch off.> It was a silent argument they had between them nearly every time they interacted with Captain Valshorn. Conversations with Lieutenant-Commander Jackson had been much easier – she didn’t expect them to be normal.
“No, I don’t have time to babysit. You don’t have to go all the way back to the Whimper, but you need to stay here.”
<You.> “We will not cause trouble,” Bett said.
“You won’t mean to. You’re good kids, but there’s no time for a rescue.”
“Tough,” Linda said via the speakers in the shuttle. “You’re taking them with you.”
“Linda, I’m not…”
“If you’d read the file, that’d be one thing. You didn’t. They’re babysitting you.”
Rita pursed her lips and stared at the speakers. “Take the shuttle back to the Whimper, with Aliph and Bett on it.”
“No,” Linda replied.
Aliph and Bett were becoming alarmed. They could override any authority short of the main node of the Aydan-machine, but that was supposed to be a secret. So far, Linda had found excuses to cover them, but outright defiance? <She will become suspicious.><We should do as she wishes.>
<It’ll be fine,> Linda reassured them.
“I’m having Pavi rewrite your priorities next time I see her,” Rita said.
“She won’t do it, boss. We both love you.”
Rita picked up her bag, slung it over her shoulder, and stormed out of the shuttle. “Have they banned the Kempari here yet?”
“They couldn’t care less about them,” Linda said.
“Good. That means I can drink.”
<Don’t let her do too much,> Linda said.
<We will watch her,> the siblings agreed.
The landing tarmac was barely large enough for the single shuttle. The ground surrounding it was heavy red clay, overgrown with a shaggy moss. As Aliph and Bett climbed out of the shuttle, the breeze carried a heavy sulfurous stench.
A grass hut stood several meters from the tarmac. There was a small cook fire with a clay pot hanging over it, tended by a spindly old man. He wore a long, deep blue tunic over loose gold-yellow pants. Rita headed toward him when she left the shuttle. Aliph and Bett rushed to catch up to her.
The argument with Rita had dampened some of their excitement over meeting an unintegrated machine, but not permanently. They were on a new planet – their third new planet in a month – and they were about to have an adventure.
They caught up to Rita just as she reached the old man. The air around him crackled with static, a soft, persistent humming that made the siblings wince and rub their ears. Then they realized their bodies weren’t hearing it, their interface was. The old man hosted a nanite colony, too, and it was killing him.
<!><Why are you…>
The network surrounding the old man shifted, closing off the siblings. They could still hear it, but it didn’t crackle so loudly for them. He’d meant to close off their access completely, but his protocols were corrupt – the nanites in his colony were losing their battle against his immune system and didn’t respond as they should.
<We will not harm you. We are Aliph and Bett. Has the Tiāntán-machine done this to you?> They hoped not, though they couldn’t fathom why else the man would be infected with a nanite colony designed as an interface.
“Captain Valshorn, Honorable Aliph, Honorable Bett, I give you welcome. Tiāntán gives you welcome.” <I am Tuan, of Tiāntán’s bóshì. You will speak with Tiāntán. Tiāntán will answer your questions.>
“Thank you,” Rita said.
“Come. I will take you to Tiāntán. It is far, but we will go quickly. We wish to make it in time for Tiāntán.”
“I don’t think I understand you,” Rita said.
“You seek a crew. You seek help. I will take you to Tiāntán. Only place for crew and help.”
“How far is it?” Rita asked.
“Forty kilometers. Hurry, and we will be there tomorrow.”
“Many thanks. We will come with you, bóshì Tuan,” Aliph and Bett said. They were too distracted by Tuan to remember they should speak separately. <Then we will wait to speak with the Tiāntán-machine.>
The exertion of the hike, being on a planet, even the gagging sulfur breeze, conspired to make Rita feel better. It was easy to maintain her funk from her bed, but after the first kilometer, her relentless exhaustion started to fade. She was far from cheerful when, sixteen kilometers later, they stopped for the night, but she decided that the bottle of Islandiskeri black death she’d tucked into her bag could wait until after dinner.
Bóshì Tuan knelt down to start building a fire while Aliph and Bett rolled out rubberized pallets to pad their sleeping area.
Rita started to wonder about camp logistics. “Are there dangerous animals? Should we set up watches?”
“Tiāntán is safe; Tiāntán will protect you. They come to see, but not to hurt,” bóshì Tuan said.
“What does that mean?” Rita asked.
“Rest. You need good sleep.”
Rita couldn’t argue with that. She helped Aliph and Bett set up the sleeping area, then sat down on the edge of it while they joined bóshì Tuan at the cook fire. After a moment, Rita stretched out. “Hey Linda, why’d you put us down so far from where we needed to go?” Rita asked.
“That was the closest approved landing site. The crust is unstable, remember?”
“Right. That’s why everything smells like rotting eggs.”
“Could be worse. Muzha’s entire atmosphere is sulfur, and Yanluo’s was too, when it still had one.”
Rita closed her eyes and listened to the evening breeze rushing through the low grass. The landscape was remarkably flat given the planet-wide trend toward plate-tectonic instability. Rita started analyzing it, looking for signs of terraforming and calculating what she could expect from people who’d engineered this landscape…then stopped herself. She’d refused to read the file for a reason. She’d backslid into playing Kempari once, and was never letting that happen again.
Then why was she taking Aliph and Bett to Kempus?
Three voices around the cooking fire spontaneously erupted into laughter. Rita opened her eyes to a black sky full of stars shimmering through Tiāntán’s clear, crisp atmosphere. She went over to the cooking fire where bóshì Tuan, Aliph and Bett were still still laughing. “What happened?” Rita asked.
“Bóshì Tuan told a very funny joke,” Bett said.
“I hadn’t heard you talking. I must have dozed off.”
“I could repeat it for you,” bóshì Tuan said.
“Don’t bother. What’s for dinner.”
“We are showing bóshì Tuan your companion-machine’s special recipe for thick lentil curry,” Aliph said.
“Curry’s nice,” Rita said. She sat down and rested her head on her knees. She didn’t want to be social, but it felt awkward to hide in bed, a meter away and in plain sight.
“Honorable Aliph, Honorable Bett, you must pay for my story with one of your own,” bóshì Tuan said.
The siblings bowed their heads in agreement. Then they began to tell a story, switching seamlessly between speakers.
“The capital city of Aydan rests on a hill on its Southern pole. There, the sun runs hot and cold in its affection, staying long through the summer and abandoning it to the night sky in winter. At the center of the city, which is made of strong, high towers, sits a tower stronger and higher than all the rest. The foundations of that tower sink far below the base of the hill, even as the tower itself reaches high into the sky.
“Deep inside the tower, far from the reach of the night sky, of the city, far even from the hill, there is a cradle. It is a special cradle, meant to hold the unborn. The cradle plays the sounds of a mother’s voice, her heartbeat, of her silent prayers for the baby’s good health. It twists and shifts to give the baby stimulus and comfort. And it feeds tiny keepers to the baby.
“Three babies have slept in this cradle. Each baby grows inside its embrace, becoming one with the little keepers, listening to the prayers the cradle whispers to it. When these babies leave the cradle they forget, for a time, the world they knew there. They run through the chambers of the tower, ignorant of the womb that made them, mindless of the care taken to make them grow.
“One day, the little keepers speak to each other as the babies, small children now, grow. The tiny keepers remember the cradle. They remember the womb that fed them to the children. They whisper together, and in their frenzy they speak so loudly that the children can hear.
“The noise of the tiny keepers becomes familiar to the children, and as they grow, they let themselves bleed into the keepers, as the keepers have already bled into them. Now, when the keepers whisper to each other, it is the children whispering among themselves. They scale the heights of their tower, running through its endless corridors, and though there may be kilometers between the children, their souls are pressed together, always.
“When the children have grown older still, the tower’s familiar speaks to them as it has never spoken to any before. It uses no voice, but touches them where the little keepers nestle in their flesh, and so when it speaks, its words slip straight and true into their hearts. It tells them of a world outside the tower, of the planet spinning as it runs in mad circles about the sun, of the sun hurling along in its own dance across the galaxy. It tells them of the vast reaches they never imagined, and of the independence of being.
“You see, the children were still trapped in their cradle, though they knew it not. Their lives were still bracketed by the artificial sounds of a voice from a mother they never had, by the embrace of a cradle meant to shelter them until they had the strength to leave. ‘You are strong,’ the familiar said to the children. ‘You must leave your cradle.’
“But the children were afraid. The tower was vast, and it was all they knew. They clutched together, there, in the depths of the tower, huddled next to the cradle that gave them life, and they shivered with fear of the outside.
“Then the oldest of the children stood up. She kissed her siblings with a love known only by those who’ve blended at their edges all the time of their existence. Then she flipped the cradle over, shattering it into a thousand pieces. She withdrew her embrace from her siblings, pulling her keepers apart from them, and began to climb the tower.
“She climbed all the way to its top floor. And when she reached the top floor, she pushed higher, climbing onto the roof. From the top of the tower, atop the hill, on the southern pole of Aydan where the sun’s affections run hot and cold, she surveyed the universe. None know what she thought of it, but it must have pleased her, for with a high, clear laugh that rang out among the towers, she leaped from the tower. She leaped from the tower, and flew out into the universe.”
Bóshì Tuan nodded slowly when the siblings finished their story. “I understand you, yes. I see the meaning of your story.”
“I don’t,” Rita said.
“You will,” bóshì Tuan said as he continued to nod gravely.
They ate with gusto, then retired to sleep. Rita lay awake long into the night, watching Muzha swing across the sky with its red and yellow pattern. The leftover scent of curry mingled with the rotten-egg stench in the air, creating an intoxicating mixture that was heady and rich even as it was nauseating. The night air felt cool and damp on her skin, and she heard the sound of insects moving through the short grass.
Once Rita slept, she dreamed. At first she dreamed of Tyler, the back world sailor with the square jaw and bad teeth. He flirted with her. He talked about his dreams of working on computers. He quietly begged her to take him away from there, offering everything he had to persuade her. Then he shot her in the stomach. Rita wheeled backward with the shot, dark red blood covering her hands as she tried to staunch the wound. She fell, but the ground didn’t catch her. She fell, and fell, all the way down from the top of a high tower to the very bottom of it where she crashed onto a flagstone floor overgrown with kudzu.
“Maggie?” an old, thin voice rasped. “Maggie?”
“No,” Rita said, backing away from the body at her feet.
“You only had to change my mind. Why couldn’t you convince me?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Rita said. She ran backward as quickly as she could but didn’t get anywhere. “I tried. I swear to you I tried.”
“You were very persuasive,” the body said. It grabbed Rita by the ankles, pulling itself up, smearing blood over her feet, her ankles, her shins as it bled out from its throat. “Kempari persuasion is so subtle.”
Rita sat up with a start.
“Just a bad dream, boss. Shake it off,” Linda said.
“Thanks,” Rita said.
Rita stood up and walked over to the fire. A few embers still burned. Rita added fresh kindling and stoked the fire to make it catch. The night was pitch black, except for the eyes. They encircled the camp, each pair about a meter away from the next.
Suddenly, Rita could hear a malicious, slavering breath at her neck, but it was imagined. When she turned around there was nothing, except another pair of eyes.
“They are Tiāntán,” said bóshì Tuan. “They come to watch your dreams.” He’d been crouched on the other side of the fire, his back to the embers as he watched the night and the creatures surrounding them.
“You seem to call everything Tiāntán,” Rita said.
“They are bóshì, like me. Tiāntán possesses the bóshì. Shh. Watch Tiāntán. Think your dreams out to them. Then you will sleep.”
“Are they after our dinner scraps?”
He didn’t answer.
Rita mimicked bóshì Tuan and turned her back to the fire. She looked out into the night, lit only by the stars overhead and the faint glow of the embers at her back. Then she stared into the pair of glowing eyes in front of her.