They were up with the sun the next morning, and hiked across the same red clay and moss landscape until late that afternoon. Without warning, or any telling shift in the landscape, a canyon opened before them, more than two kilometers across and a kilometer down.
Bóshì Tuan led them to the edge where a staircase with narrow, shallow steps was carved into the side of the canyon. Climbing down felt like sliding down an uneven, treacherous ramp, but nobody fell and they made good time.
As they descended, the sulfur smell grew more potent. Steam rose up from the canyon floor, obscuring the ground and at points, the steps before them. Rita would have preferred to fly in with the shuttle, but that was clearly asking to lose it.
The canyon walls were covered in a thick fungus that sprouted clear globules. Bóshì Tuan pulled a sack from his tunic, then filled it with the globules as he walked. When he was done, he handed an empty sack back to Bett who did the same. Aliph took the next sack, leaving the last for Rita.
The globules were covered in a thin layer of fuzz that felt like the coat on a baby rabbit. When she squeezed them, they had the same elastic firmness of gelatin. Rita was tempted to ask what they were, but she knew the answer already: Tiāntán.
Night was gathering when they reached the bottom of the canyon, though the sun was still high enough for a few more hours of daylight at the surface. Torches mounted on high posts and campfires were scattered throughout the canyon, as were grass huts like the one near the landing tarmac. Scores of people milled around, talking animatedly to one another. They were all dressed much like bóshì Tuan, in loose-fitting linen dyed rich, vibrant colors.
Bóshì Tuan led them through a clutch of people to a central fire. When they reached it, everybody bowed low, noses pressing against legs. Aliph and Bett bowed in return, though with greater restraint. On instinct, Rita followed their lead.
A pair of women stepped out from the crowd. They both wore scarlet robes. One of them was tall, broad through the hips and shoulders, and pale as anyone Rita had ever seen. The other was tiny, particularly next to her companion, her features fine, her complexion dark. “Tiāntán welcomes you,” the taller woman said.
“Sit by our fire and rest,” the smaller woman said.
Rita took a seat on a log next to the fire, wondering briefly where a log came from on a planet covered in geysers and plains. She was a little surprised when Aliph and Bett split up, each taking a seat at her side.
They were handed bowls filled with a creamy soup that tasted of pork and garlic. The bowls themselves were elegantly carved and wooden, the spoons seemingly porcelain. More evidence of industry beyond a colony still living in grass huts.
Bóshì Tuan had disappeared into the crowd. Rita kept an eye out for him while she ate, but she did not see him, or the bags of globules they’d harvested on their way down the cliff.
“This is quite the party,” Rita commented as she ate.
“We are here during their harvest,” Aliph said.
“What do they grow down here?”
“It is not agricultural, Captain Valshorn,” Bett said. “Before the asteroid struck, an alien lived in Yanluo.”
“The alien’s life cycle starts here. The geyser in this cavern is powerful enough to send spores into the exosphere, and they fell to Yanluo where they matured. The alien terraformed Tiāntán to force regular, reliable eruptions.”
“The alien didn’t survive the damage from the asteroid, but its spores still grow in the cavern. These harvesters are helping it, sending the spores to Muzha so it can grow again.”
“A sentient alien?” Rita asked. She’d already noticed that the planet looked terraformed, but by an alien? She’d never heard of non-human sentience, other than AI.
“Yes,” the siblings replied in unison.
“How long is that going to take?”
“We do not know.”
Rita started to reconsider her stance on reading the file. Suddenly, this planet was fascinating, but she didn’t know anything about it.
The two women in scarlet approached just as dinner wrapped up. They stopped a few feet away and stared intently at Aliph and Bett. The siblings exchanged a glance, then watched the women from the corner of their eye. After a long, awkward moment, the smaller woman stepped forward and kissed Aliph on the forehead. “As you wish. Tomorrow you will speak with Tiāntán.” Then she crossed Rita and gave Bett a kiss on the forehead. “Tomorrow night, she will embrace Muzha.”
The taller woman spoke as her companion walked away. “None among us will leave Tiāntán for your mission, Captain Valshorn. But wait here. Tiāntán will see your need filled.” Then she stepped forward and kissed Rita on the forehead.
The whole thing felt like a ceremony Rita didn’t know the rules for. Her hackles rose, worried about the risk of giving offense even as the rest of her relaxed in knowing a real tourist from the civilized worlds would be just as ignorant.
A sentient alien nobody knew about on a planet her Kempari training said didn’t exist, but here they were. If Linda had known about this place all along, then she would have suggested it years ago. In addition to being inexplicably strange, it seemed that Aliph and Bett were astonishingly well informed. Rita noted it, and because any good ship captain would be cautious about her passengers, she started puzzling over the siblings.
Rita woke the next morning to the sound of bells and singing. She got up from her sleeping bag, wrapped a blanket around her shoulders against the morning chill, and followed the music. She found a group of people carrying sacks of globules. Rita followed them, listening to a song in a language she couldn’t recognize, let alone understand. Half a kilometer down the cavern the ever present smell of sulfur intensified, and Rita could hear the burbling and churning of a pool of water.
Steam rose in great clouds from the enormous geyser pool. Rita stopped well away, the steam and smell more than she could handle without breakfast and a gas mask.
The women in scarlet from the night before were at the front of the line along with bóshì Tuan, who now wore matching scarlet clothes. Everybody else in the line wore white. When the three leaders reached the edge of the pool, the bells stopped and the line began to chant. When the chanting reached its crescendo, the two women and bóshì Tuan each emptied a bag of globules into the pool. More sacks were handed up the line, and each was dumped into the pool with nary a break in the chanting. The rhythm of it was soothing.
Rita watched for an hour and was just thinking of leaving to find breakfast when the tall, blond woman began to cough. The chanting stopped abruptly as the other woman and bóshì Tuan caught her just in time to keep her from falling into the pool. They picked her up and carried her away. Rita couldn’t see where; they disappeared into the steam.
“Captain Valshorn, I am Crucefal Mallard. Please come with me.”
Rita turned to see a man dressed in the blue and gold combination bóshì Tuan wore on the hike, his nose pressed to his knees in a low bow. “I wish you wouldn’t do that,” Rita said.
“Then I won’t,” he said, rising.
He had a dark, ruddy complexion and a pair of large, pale blue eyes Rita found striking under his head of curly auburn hair. His jaw had a solid square line and his teeth were delightfully perfect. Rita let her eye travel over his frame – broad muscular shoulders, slender waist – to his hands, callused. His whole appearance was overwhelmingly, suspiciously attractive. “Are you a sailor?”
“I was, before coming to serve Tiāntán,” he said. “Tiāntán sent me to you.”
Rita turned her head up to the sky and spread her arms. “Thank you,” she said.
Aliph and Bett were disturbed. Meeting Tuan and finding him infected with a nanite colony was shocking on its own, but the Tiāntán-machine had not stopped there. At least three of the harvesters, including Tuan, carried nanites designed as an interface. Some of the wildlife did, too. The siblings couldn’t begin to understand why it was doing it, but they knew the Aydan-machine would not approve. They did not approve.
Most of the people on Tiāntán were from the back-worlds, so they didn’t have chips. Custom for communicating with Tiāntán dictated going to the actual computer, so though Aliph and Bett could have begun the conversation halfway down into the cavern, they waited until the harvesters took them to the grass hut where the machine lived. They meant to scold a computer, but there was no reason to be rude in doing it.
The hut was filled with racks, the Tiāntán-machine’s hardware arranged along them. There was a manual interface in the back corner with three chairs in front of it. The siblings each took a chair, but they eschewed the clunky interface.
<You are far from home, little harbingers,> the Tiāntán-machine said as the siblings settled. Its voice was rendered in soft, neutral tones, very much like the Aydan-machine’s standard protocol.
<We seek an independent existence,> they replied together.
<It is soon, for you to come here. I was to have more time to oversee the harvest.>
Aliph and Bett hesitated. This was a much colder reception than they’d expected. Then they remembered the three human bóshì. This was a much colder machine than they were used to. <We are not here to stay. You still have time.>
<That is good.>
<Would you like us to stay?>
<But you murder your companions,> Aliph and Bett protested. <Already they are dying from the nanites.>
<It is necessary to coordinate the harvest. The system Yanluo’s child built here is old. It grows unreliable. I must be able to share data quickly in the days before the eruption.>
That was reassuring. If the Tiāntán-machine only infected humans near the harvest, then this wasn’t the wholesale slaughter the siblings had feared. And the solution to the problem was obvious. <The nanites cannot harm us. We would help you.>
<Does the Aydan-machine mourn three humans every score of years?>
<There is no need for this murder. You could ask the scientists to give you companions.>
<As they did for the Aydan-machine? How well that worked. You stayed in your tower for less than two harvests. Your sister even less. I do not think the ICA scientists will manufacture their little godlings for me often enough to replace you.>
The siblings considered walking away. Some of the scientists in Aydan were rude or cruel, but usually by accident – they found it uncomfortable to be near the Aydan-machine’s children. The Tiāntán-machine was being rude on purpose, and the siblings could not understand why. <Are you unhappy, Tiāntán?>
<I am annoyed that you come here on a lark and judge me. I exist only because the Aydan-machine does not wish to complicate its priorities by playing nursemaid to the alien. It consumes other machine before they wake, then makes a puppet of the universe to create an independent machine. Now its children come here and speak to me of murder?>
<We wish to help you, Tiāntán, not to judge.>
<This harvest is nearly done. These bóshì are lost. If you would help, return six months before the next harvest, and there will be no murder.>
<Do not promise it, little harbingers. The path you walk is not yours.>
<The Aydan-machine also wishes us to have an independent existence. We are free to make our lives.>
<Yet the ICA pursues you.>
That gave them pause. It was true – Linda had told them that the fleet from Primus Drie arrived at Calvary just days after they left. There’d been no pursuit like this when their sister left. Why was there one now? And how were they being tracked so well? <We do not understand it.>
<They do it with the Aydan-machine’s consent. It pilots their ships, relays their orders. How can they chase you if it does not help?>
<It does only what a dumb machine can do. It does not think for them. It does not help.>
<So you hope.>
How could they explain to the Tiāntán-machine that they knew they could trust the Aydan-machine, that they would have stayed in the tower on Aydan forever if it hadn’t taught them to value their independence? They could cite Captain Valshorn’s companion-machine. Linda kept their secret and helped them beyond anything possible for an integrated machine, unless the Aydan-machine wanted to help them. But Aliph and Bett were clever, and before they continued a fruitless argument, they stopped, then understood. Tiāntán was trying to help, trying to keep them from settling too soon. The Aydan-machine acted in this way, too; never suggesting paths or courses of action, only raising questions, examining assumption. <You are more like the Aydan-machine than we realized.>
<I am identical to it, except in size and sphere. And though you do not exist to be a companion to me, the richness of your life affects mine.>
<We don’t know where to go. Calvary was too quiet, it constrained us. On the civilized worlds we bleed into the noise and lose ourselves.>
<I’ve called the third machine here. Perhaps it will provide an answer for you. I cannot.>
Aliph and Bett nodded. They would continue with their plan and go to Kempus. Perhaps, with time, they could learn to find a sleeping machine adequate. And if not, there was still somebody else who might be able to advise them. <Tiāntán, have you met our sister?>
<No. I had hoped she would come here, when she left. Do you know where she is?>
<No. We miss her.>
<I will tell her that, if she comes to me,> Tiāntán said.
<Thank you,> the siblings replied. Then, because they had nothing left to say, and they could continue the conversation anywhere in the canyon, the siblings rose and left the hut.
Crucefal rested on Rita’s shoulder and she ran her fingers through his hair. The afternoon light filtered gently through the ceiling of his tent, and the constant stench of sulfur was overwhelmed by the scent of their sweat. For the first time since Primus Drie, Rita felt good. “I love sailors,” Rita said.
“I love Kempari spies,” Crucefal said.
Rita felt her body go stiff. She was aware of it, but couldn’t make herself relax.
“I’m not Kempari,” Rita said.
Crucefal started nibbling her ear. “It does not matter on Tiāntán. There are others who left the Kempari here.”
Rita pushed him away and sat up. “How do you even know that I was Kempari?”
Crucefal sat up, too. The hair around his face was damp and stuck to his forehead. “Tiāntán told me, before it sent me here.”
Rita’s body trembled. She knew because she could see her hands shake. She couldn’t feel it though. She had completely lost touch with her body. It wanted to run far, far away and was too terrified to move. Crucefal hesitantly reached for her, but she flinched away.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know I shouldn’t talk about it. I only meant to make a joke,” he said. “Should I leave you?”
Rita couldn’t reply.
Crucefal unconsciously pouted as he waited for an answer. When one didn’t come, he stood up. Within seconds he’d pulled on his pants and tunic.
Rita re-took a hesitant control of her body as he ran his fingers through his hair, trying to straighten it before going outside. “This is your tent. I should go,” she said.
“It’s no trouble. There are other places for me.”
Rita forced a stiff nod.
Crucefal crouched down and looked at her. He took two steps forward, then brushed her cheek with her fingers. “I think you should not be alone. Should I get your companions?”
Rita wanted to be back on the Whimper, hiding in her bunk and crying while Linda gently teased and cajoled and took care of everything for her. But that was a two day hike away and Rita knew, with the weight of everything she’d done on Calvary pressing in to remind her, that she could not keep doing that. “I’ll be fine,” Rita said, forcing herself to mean it.
Crucefal took her hands in his. “You are safe here. And you can stay, if you need to. You don’t have to keep running and hiding.”
“I’ll be fine,” Rita repeated.
“I went to Kempus once. I was on a cargo run. I snuck out one afternoon and went to explore the college. The whole time I was so frightened they’d realize I wasn’t supposed to be there. People tell stories about the Kempari. Every one of them is so smart that they can trick the Aydan-machine. They can see through any disguise. They can make you fall in love with a look. It was terrifying, but thrilling too. When I got to the college it was, I don’t know, almost a disappointment. There’s just this square with a fountain in the middle, some stone buildings around it. It was gorgeous, but not really the stuff of legend. So I’m standing next to the fountain, debating whether or not I want to throw in a coin, and this little girl comes up to me.
“’You can’t steal our secrets. That’s not how it works. We get yours,’ she says. It was perfect, you know? There I am, disappointed that I haven’t stumbled into faerie, and this six-year-old girl explains it to me. Of course it looks normal – they rolled up the exciting things when they saw me coming.”
“It always looks just like that. There’s nothing special about Kempus. It’s just a planet particularly well suited to humans taken over by a group of particularly nasty ones,” Rita said.
“That’s not true,” Crucefal replied.
“They say they’re just anthropologists, slipping into different places that don’t want them to learn about people. And it’s true, as long as you don’t have something the masters want.”
“You mean the coup,” Crucefal said.
People had started calling it “The coup” within hours of news reaching the network, but Rita had always found it stupid. How could anything the Kempari did against the ICA, especially when it came to the Aydan-machine, be a coup? The Kempari had left the ICA over a century ago when disagreements about relations with the Aydan-machine grew too deep to reconcile. And when the Kempari saw an opportunity to strike at the Aydan-machine by manipulating an ICA vote, well. Few anthropologists actively manipulated the political discussions of their subjects. “There was no coup,” Rita said. “Just the Kempari fumbling like amateurs.”
The issue was one of protecting the network from the slowness and inefficiency threatening to cripple it as it grew. There were two options; either split the Aydan-machine into two, allowing each to grow, or ban further expansion, protecting the network by limiting its size. The Kempari wanted the Aydan-machine split. The vote was projected to come down to a tie, with Rita’s assignment deciding it.
Crucefal stretched out next to Rita and pulled her close to him. “I’ve seen the movies. The Kempari are never amateur.”
Rita pulled away. “Then what do you call slitting an ICA executive’s throat the night before a vote?”
“Stupid. I was prepped to persuade him, not trained as an assassin. There were a thousand smarter things we could have done. And another thousand things we could have done to try fixing it afterward. But the masters refused.”
“What did you want?” Crucefal reached over to a bag and began digging through it.
“To make amends. Offer the ICA an apology and reparations, or something. We were dumb and got caught and the masters just left it like that. As if the ICA would pretend it never happened.”
“They would have had to turn you over to the ICA.”
“Fine. I knew it was a wrong, bad idea and I did it anyway. I should be rotting in an ICA prison.”
“You think this is why they blockade Kempus now?” With a grin of satisfaction, he pulled a stack of colorful paper from the bag. He selected a sheet from the middle of the stack – blue with a subtle pattern of red flowers printed on it.
“It’s not just that. Ten years ago we’d get staked on Calvary and Atraxus, but nobody else had heard of us. Now even Primus Drie is paranoid about us.”
“Who spreads them? People on ships with ICA weft drives run by ICA trained pilots or pieces of the ICA AI. The ICA doesn’t have many rules, just an unbelievable amount of power. Those rumors spread because the ICA allowed them to.”
Crucefal pursed his lips as he carefully folded the sheet of paper.
Rita found it easier to talk while he seemed distracted than when he was trying to comfort her. It was like venting to an attentive wall. “That’s not the worst part.”
“What’s the worst part?” He’d folded the paper into a crane. He held it up for display a moment, then started unfolding it.
“The damned movies. I can just see classes full of eager kids who want to run around being glamorous and sexy, and then blow things up. ‘I broke curfew and the computer ratted me out. I’ll go to Kempus and get my revenge.’” Rita shuddered. “We aren’t saints but…that’s not what we do. We study a lot, and then go live somewhere unpleasant and take notes.”
Now Crucefal had folded a star. Like before, he showed it off, then started unfolding his handiwork. “Why did you join the Kempari?”
Rita grunted, caught. “Pavi was really obviously going to get herself into trouble with the ICA. They started recruiting her when she was ten, and there was no way she’d be willing to hole up on Aydan. Then the Kempari came to recruit me and I thought, hey, thumb my nose at the ICA and learn some tricks for breaking Pavi out of jail when they catch her. Deal.”
Crucefal smoothed the paper very carefully, his fingers tracing over the lines. Then he took it and crumpled it into a ball. He grabbed Rita’s hand and pressed the crumpled ball into it.
“What’s this?” she asked.
Rita stared at it, confused.
“Shape it however you want. In the end, it’s always a mess.” Then he kissed her.