Marasenna is a Lore book introduced in Forsaken that contains transcripts tells the story of the Awoken's origin and Mara Sov's rise to power. Entries are unlocked by collecting Ahamkara bones and breaking Corrupted Eggs in the Dreaming City.
Secrets. Do you come in hope, o reader, for the secrets of My reign? A parable. In the nitrate earth of the lightning crater, where the firmament has joined in electric fury with the fundament, there lives a burrowing insect with two trembling antennae, thin as whiskers, long as life. A grasping hand reaches for the buried secret, finds the antenna, and pulls. Comes away with a single whisker, meaningless: the searcher disappointed. A wounded insect buried deeper: the secret now half-blind. That which digs for truth may bury deeper lies.
If you recognize My Authority then I command you to pass onward as gently as the lover passes a razor over beloved skin. If you do not, then I name you majescept, doubter-of-royalty, and I suggest you watch your edge. Cut too deep and too quick, and you will kill the thing you want to know. Think too eagerly, and as the digging hand leaves its print in soft earth, so you will find only the image left by your own presumptions. Beware the one who feeds on truth-adjacent lies! Beware the space between Reality-As-Imagined and Reality-As-Is, for it is abundant to those with appetite.
So then. The brave voyagers' fate, the timeless birthing-place, my Milton reenactment, the ruins made ours, the riven twice riven, the daughter's blood scabbed hard on mother's wound. All things told, all truth revealed, if through mist and mystery. If you have grace, then see our sorrows, but swallow back your tears. We were made to pay this price. I led us to our fate.
Seek me in my place. Hear these whispers from the lips of Queen-Egged God.
The woman sits on a ledge that overhangs infinity. She looks down and kicks her legs.
The stars shine brilliant here, because the sun is only fractionally brighter than the rest of them. Sol lies almost perfectly below her. Of course up and down are defined only by the thrust axis of Yang Liwei. Upward, the black umbrella of the shield and the matter storage, and the docked ships which make Yang Liwei not just a mothership, but an entire traveling fleet. Down below, along the slim spine of the ship, the shielded bulb of the engine glows invisibly infrared. If she slips off this ledge, she will fall down the ship's length at one-third of an Earth gravity, not because there is anything pulling her, but because the ship is pulling away.
Yang Liwei is accelerating, slowly but inexorably, toward the stars.
She is of no single race or ancestry, and the light on her skin is the color of starlight: She drifts with her suit tinted clear so she can soak it up. She was nineteen years and nine months old at the moment the ship began its transtellar injection burn, although this is true only if you count by the calendar of a planet she has barely visited but will always love. She thinks you cannot help but love Earth if you grow up in space. You love Earth the way all adolescents secretly adore two-century-old video of nai nai and ye ye dancing on New Year's Eve. Earth does not ask too much. The colonies are demanding parents, but Earth is like a chill old grandam, simmering in weird art and weirder ideas, enthroned upon ecology older than Human time. Earth was the first terraformed world. Life made Earth livable.
She is going with Yang Liwei and the rest of Project Amrita to make new worlds.
She came because she saw an omen in a man's death. She was on EVA with him, repairing a jammed radiator fin on an uncrewed circum-Jovian platform. They worked in companionable silence, listening to the howl of the Jovian magnetosphere when it happened. A frozen rabbit embryo came out of deep space at forty kilometers per second and went through his faceplate. The rabbit must have been spilled in a biocontainer accident far from the sun to plunge back inward like a comet.
Immediately afterward—for reasons very clear to her because she has always had a sense for the meaning of things, reasons very difficult to explain to others because she has always felt this sense was secret—she asked her mother if the family could travel with Project Amrita.
Amrita: the drink that endeth drinking, the bottomless cup. It is the quest to spread far beyond the solar system and to end Human dependence on the Traveler. It calls to those who see Humanity as a cocoon, an instar, a form ready to be shed.
She is an Auturge 3rd Class, a self-motivating subsystem of the ship's inclusive ecology, a term that spans technology, biology, and behavior, all of which must be maintained for the mission to succeed. Her task is to locate problems and report them to an Auturge 2nd Class, who will give her the tools she needs to repair them. But she never speaks to her 2nd. She never tells anyone about the problems she finds. Instead she fixes them herself. Her work has therefore assumed a magical quality: She appears where there is trouble, and shortly afterward, the trouble goes away. People have begun to leave gifts for her. Some of these gifts are questions. She answers the questions with a quiet confidence some would argue she has not earned. She knows she sees more of their lives than they see of hers—and that this mystery, this seeing-without-being-seen, grants her a kind of power that is like wisdom.
She lives outside the ship, suited and cocooned in a layer of cytogel, which keeps her surgically clean. She misses the wild zero-gravity fashions of her upbringing, clothes like drifting jellyfish that squirm away from snags, self-correcting darts in the fabric, silk like cool spilled alcohol. She misses the sense of oil and sweat on her skin, for the suit leaves her so clean that she feels skinned raw.
Still, she stays out here because she wants to feel the changing taste of starlight as the universe ahead blue-shifts. As Yang Liwei accelerates toward lightspeed, it moves faster and faster into the light coming from ahead. If light were like dust, it would strike Yang faster, but light can never change speed, so it gains energy instead. Red light is low energy, and blue-violet light is high energy, so the universe becomes blue.
Even now, the very tip of the visual spectrum, violet-blue light, is shifting up into invisible ultraviolet, the color of speed, the color of future.
"Mara!" the fighter shouts, delighted, and a punch shuts him concussively up. It's a real good hit, a thunderous uppercut to the point of the jaw. Mara hears his teeth grind across each other, down into lip-flesh and shredded gums. She cringes in silent sympathy. He loses his grip on the equipment rack and tumbles out into zero gravity in a big arc of blood. His opponent goes for the coup de gras, kicks off hard and catches him in the stomach like a Human torpedo. They plunge together toward the killzone painted on the floor.
Uldwyn grins messily at Mara over his opponent's shoulder. He's fighting a big, brutal woman from Gravity Ops, a woman who's had her myostatin genes knocked out so she can swell up into a giant plug of brawn. Uldwyn doesn't have a chance. He took the fight for the same reason he wanted to join the Amrita expedition—he measures himself by the bravery of his losses. By what he can survive losing.
He applies a blood choke. It's the right move, but it doesn't matter. The woman groans, grays out, goes limp—but Uldwyn can't get out from beneath her sheer inertia before he hits the killzone. The bell goes off. Uldwyn groans as his rail-hard body forcibly decelerates his opponent's entire mass. Events have built up momentum, and he is just in the way.
"What did you lose?" Mara asks him.
He lies there panting and grinning, shedding perfectly round spheres of blood. "It's good to see you inside. What brought you?"
She and her fraternal twin never answer each other's questions directly. Mara is cool with this because she feels like words are a very bad system of encryption, and that if you really want to communicate with someone, you must develop your own special one-to-one cryptosystem. The ideal statement, Mara feels, would be indecipherable to anyone but the person it's spoken to—and even then, only if they know you are the one speaking.
"I got you some pictures," she says, pushing the big woman off him, eliciting a fuzzy "oh hi Mara." "Full sensorium captures. You can trade them for the parts I need."
Uldwyn helps the big woman pull herself vertical, but his eyes are narrow on Mara. Not because he's sore at the idea of helping her—he's always liked bartering, bargaining, the hustle—but because he knows what kind of black market wants these captures. "How far off the hull did you take them?"
How far off? All the way off. They are in zero gravity because Yang Liwei shut off its engines for an inspection cycle. So while Uldwyn got in prize fights, Mara kicked off Yang Liwei's forward shield and coasted ten kilometers into pure void, tethered by only a thread-thin molecular line. She ordered her suit's cytogel to gather around her face. Then, only then, she overrode every sanity system in her softsuit and commanded it to retract into storage mode.
The suit peeled away like rind and she was drifting in hard vacuum.
The void boiled the water off her skin. Her body swelled with unchecked pressure until her undersuit forced it to stop. Alarmed cytogel crawled down her throat, hissing emergency oxygen: not enough. Her skin blued with cyanosis. She was bathed in the most profound emptiness.
She recorded all of it at the neural level. The exquisite darkness. The sense of fatal independence from all things. There are those who will give anything to feel that void.
"You can't keep doing this," Uldwyn complains, as the big woman stares at Mara in awe. "Mom is going to die of worry."
"I really don't care what risks you take," Mara's mother sighs. "That's the deal we made, my little yellow star—"
"Mom!" Mara protests.
"My discarded tube of sealant, my sweet little fleck of paint—"
Osana likes to compare Mara to small pestilent items that drift near spacecraft, like crystals of frozen urine. As far as Mara can tell, Osana is the apex of a centuries-long project to create the ultimate embarrassing mom. She is also very blunt: "Mara, even when you were little, you wanted me to treat you like an adult. So I have. But you remember what I told you, don't you? If you don't want to be my daughter, I can't watch over you like a mother would. I can't put you first, like a mother would. I will always be your friend, but I have to make my own choices too."
"That doesn't mean you had to tell the Captain!"
They walk shoulder-to-shoulder down the companionway to Captain Li's wardroom. Mara keeps trying to get a step ahead, to lead, but Osana somehow matches her every time. "Of course I did," Osana says. "You started a cult, Mara. If I didn't say something to the Captain, Behavior would've had this conversation with you instead. Do you want that?"
"I didn't do anything. People liked my captures. People left me presents, spare parts, tips—then Uldwyn got into it, you know how he is—"
"Don't!" Osana wheels on her. "For shame, Mara. You know your brother will follow anywhere you lead. You know he's not capable of the same, ah," her lips twitch, "imperial remove. You knew he'd brag about you living on the hull—and you let him do it. It is one thing to have a particular power over people, Mara. But it is another to deny that you are using it."
Mara thinks she can come up with a stinging retort, given a few more paces, but it's too late. The hatch to Captain Li's wardroom swings open. Mara is terrified of this place. This is where Captain Alice Li, divine presence in Mara's life, interfaces with the officers who are the manifestations of her will. Since Mara wants to be Alice Li someday, the wardroom makes Mara feel like she is an usurper princess scoping out her rival's court.
Captain Li offers them tea. Mara cannot imagine the ways in which she is butchering what must be an intricate and meaningful tea ceremony. Li serves some very battered pre-Traveler ceramic sloshing with hot green tea, then immediately adulterates her own cup with milk from the Cow Thing on the biodeck.
"Revolting, isn't it?" She smiles at Mara's bewildered horror. "You should've seen what I put in my tea when I was camping in Mongolia. I understand your colleague, who is also your mother, has some concerns about your relationship with the rest of the crew?"
"My darling Mara," Osana says, "has—entirely by accident, I'm sure—cultivated a reputation as a minor divinity. Her captures from outside the ship are hot items for barter. People draw fan art. There are… tips left for her."
"You take captures while EVA, sometimes without a suit?" Li nods. "Yes, I've played one. A remarkable sensation." This makes Mara grin impetuously. "Mara, you are an Auturge, a volunteer. I cannot order you to stop, and your work is exemplary. Are you putting anyone else in danger with your… art projects?"
"No," Mara says. "Just myself."
"False!" Li barks. "That is a selfish answer. You are now a symbol to my crew, a house god. If you were to die, they would lose something important, something Human that they have created out of loneliness and void. It would be an unforgettable reminder of the hostile nothingness that surrounds us. When you endanger yourself, you endanger that symbol. You are part of this mission's behavioral armor, Mara."
Mara is thunderstruck. She's never thought about it this way. "All I did was take some captures. I didn't ask to be anyone's… mascot."
"You presented yourself as a conduit to secret knowledge," Captain Li counters. "People made something out of you, Mara. Please take this from a starship captain: What people make of you, what they create of you—even without your consent—becomes a kind of responsibility. If the Mara they see when they look at you is good for them, then you have some duty to be that Mara." She looks to Osana. "What about your boy? He's in medical more often than any of the other underground fighters."
It does not surprise Mara that Captain Li knows about the fights. "My son," Osana says, "is determined to be his own worst enemy. Thank you for taking the time to speak to us."
"Of course." Li studies them coolly. "I keep an ear out for… curious personalities. People who might be suited to long-term isolation while the rest of us are in cryo. People who awaken when others sleep."
"Exodus Green to unknown maneuvering object. Please squawk your transponder and ident. Over."
Another silent quarter-hour passes in Flight. No response comes from the transient contact twelve and a half light minutes away. The ghost has stalked Yang Liwei for eighteen hours now, closing in each time it appears, and Captain Alice Li is wary of it. Other colony missions have vanished during their outward burns—victims of mishap or hostility—and because of these disappearances, Project Amrita did not hurl itself fearless into the void. Rather, they came armed to the molars.
"Let's give them a fright," she decides. "Cut the main engine."
The ship's AI executes the command, but a crewperson confirms and calls the order back. "MECO, aye aye."
"Launch a distributed antenna. Heat up the targeting radar for a full fusion-powered snapshot. We'll take their picture and see what we see."
"Captain," the comm officer calls. "I've got… something weird here."
"Is our phantom saying hello?"
"No. It's a neutrino tightbeam from SOLSECCENT. They've declared a CARRHAE WHITE emergency. The whole solar system is now… now under Warmind control." Comm dismisses her sensorium, goes to her hard controls, as if she thinks this might be some kind of virtual prank. "We're… being conscripted."
Alice smashes these ideas together in her head like a child banging rocks. They are so preposterous, so stupid, that she cannot even begin to manipulate them coherently. "We're WHAT?"
"We've been commissioned as an auxiliary warship. We are ordered to," Comm swallows in disbelief, "to kill our exit trajectory and assume a heliocentric orbit. That comes with explicit instructions to suicide burn our engines until they are destroyed. Rasputin will transmit targeting coordinates so we can use our Kinetic weapons as… long-range artillery. We'll be recovered 'after the crisis is concluded.'"
"Details! What kind of crisis?"
"It's a SKYSHOCK event, ma'am. Uh, that's a hostile extrasolar arrival."
Captain Li clamps the mask of command authority over her face. "Transmit a request for clarification."
"Belay the antenna, Captain?"
"No. Scale it up, add telescopes to the swarm, get me a full system survey. I want to know what's going on back home." Alice Li reaches out to call up a file, hesitates, and then selects the Project Amrita charter. "We have a decision to make."
Mara kicks off Yang Liwei's forward shield, aiming astern and inward, so she will cross the void to the ship's spine in a long slow curve. "Oh, come on," Uldwyn says in delight as much as horror. "You really do this all the time?"
"All the time." Yang is a big ship, newer than the antique trucks used in the other Exodus missions. Project Amrita demanded the cutting edge of Human science. It says that in the mission charter, which everyone's been rereading. The Captain has called a vote.
Should Yang Liwei turn home?
"What if the ship starts accelerating?" Uldwyn has already, of course, leapt after her. His envy-yellow softsuit glows with gentle bioluminescence. "We'd just fall forever."
"We'd fall into the stars. We're still on a solar escape trajectory. Yang would just outrun us."
"At least we'd still be going the right direction."
She doesn't think she's given anything away, but somehow he knows. "Mara." He looks up frowning, his face bigger and brighter than the distant Sun. "You want to go back, don't you? You're going to vote to return."
Mara thinks that if she looked him in the eye he would see the truth, the turmoil, the half-formed yes.
"Mara. You don't have to tell me how…" He swallows the hitch in his voice. "I've seen how bad it is. I've watched it long enough to know that it's not going to get better. They're gambling everything on the Traveler. We came out here to get away from it. To step off the easy path. Why would we go back?"
Because I asked us to leave, Mara thinks. Because something came out of deep space and killed the man next to me, and I saw the omen, and I said we should go. And now I feel like a coward.
"We might make a difference," she says. "There are other ships…"
"We'd be dead before we saved a single soul."
He's right. She doesn't want him to be right, but he's right. And she cannot withdraw into some silent place where she is above this choice.
They drift in silence until Yang Liwei's silver stem rushes up to meet them. Mara spins, uncoils, and lands in a crouch. Uldwyn comes down on his hands and springs up grinning. But the smile dies when he sees her expression. "Oh, Mara."
She's silent. "We left everything behind," he says, "and it turns out we did that for a very good reason. We don't owe… we don't owe those people our deaths. We don't owe them our dreams."
"I know," she says. "I know."
The EVA GUARD channel pops into her sensorium. "Everyone should get inside," Captain Li calls. "Our friend is closing in on us, and we need to maneuver."
The stars have gone out. The universe blackened: a shroud of nothingness drawn over Yang Liwei, its forty thousand sleeping passengers, its nine hundred crew, and maybe even the whole solar system. There is no way to know, because there is no way to see anything beyond the hull. The vacuum itself has become hostile to the propagation of light. Darkness surrounds them.
The ship bucks on a storm sea as space-time ripples with gravity tides.
"Report!" Captain Li calls. Her sensorium blazes with positional telemetry from ring-laser gyros, beacon satellites, pulsar fixes, cosmic microwave background texture, galactic EM-field terrain mapping: every single instrument useless, crashed, spitting nonsense. "Sound off by stations!"
"FIDO," the flight dynamics officer calls. "Main engine on safe. Thrusters firing erratically. Attitude control keeps crashing to manual."
"Guidance. I have no position. I cannot get a vector. We're moving, but I can't tell how or where."
"INCO. No external comms. Internal networks are dropping in and out."
An incredible sensation washes over Captain Li. A rumble and a thrum down in her gut, in her marrow, in the lowest, basest elements of her body. It is the vibration, the sound of the very fabric of her being scrunching up and stretching out; the distance between the atoms of her body collapses, then expands. The cycle repeats again and again. For a moment, she feels her fingertips and toes pulled away from her core, yanked by tidal forces. It feels like the lowest rumble of the biggest subwoofer ever built. It sounds like the deep voice of God whispering ASMR directly into her ear. It tingles, it thrills, and it leaves in its wake a subsonic tint of dread and anticipation.
She shivers. "Gravity wave," she says. "Talk to me, Geode."
The Space-Time Geodesics Officer looks like she's just been hand-delivered a Nobel. "This is amazing!" she crows, fully aware that she and everyone else are about to die, but transported away from such temporal concerns by scientific rapture. "Can you feel that growl? We're experiencing high-frequency, high-amplitude gravity waves. Phaeton strikes. Axions decaying through the hull. Sterile neutrinos. It's all coming from a source at bearing, uh, zero four five mark zero three zero relative, range—range highly variable."
Another wave tears through Yang Liwei. Everything in the ship simultaneously compresses and stretches as the gravity wave deforms the space-time metric. "Is it the phantom?" Li demands, as her ship thrums subsonically. "Is that phantom ship emitting these waves?"
"I have no idea!" GEOD says, exultantly. "None of this makes any sense at all! Wow!"
Alice Li has the distinct sense that something ancient and malevolent is operating upon them: a trillion-fingered hand reaching in to caress the very atoms of their being, setting protons a-spin, strumming nerves like guitar strings. A tongue with ten billion slithering forks tasting the surface of their brains. The sense of imminent doom crescendos. She knows, absolutely and utterly, that what is about to happen to her and to her crew is far worse than death. The darkness knows them now. The thing that has come to kill Humanity has their taste.
"INCO." She clings to her restraint harness as the ship growls through another wave. Her bones creak as they stretch. "Last report on the Traveler? Any sign of an intervention?"
"It was at Earth, Captain, and there were high-yield weapon discharges all over the signal. Nothing else."
"Understood." Well. She did not fly this far to look back and beg for salvation from an alien god. Pinned to the center of her sensorium is the blazing ledger of her crew's vote: We go onward. We do not turn home. Our fate lies ahead, not behind.
"Launch an antennae," she orders. "I want every probe and satellite we've got outside."
"Captain," INCO protests, "the vacuum's not signal-permissive—"
"We're still passing signals internally, aren't we? Use hardline! Run filament between the satellites! I want a transmitter sail out there, and I want to broadcast."
Her flight crew stares. "Captain?" FIDO says. "Broadcast what?"
"A declaration of neutrality." Alice Li grits her teeth against another wave. It rattles her molars in her skull. "Whatever's out there, it came for the Traveler. We tell it we're not part of this war. We've seceded from Human existence under the Traveler. We demand to be treated as a separate species, not party to baseline Humanity's conflicts.
"And we pray there's something out there that cares about the difference."
She remembers everything about the moment she is born.
She has gone outside Yang Liwei to die in starlight. She cannot bear to let anyone see her fear or her awe at the scale of destruction or her pity for the billions of souls dying in darkness back around Sol. She cannot be among the other crew as they cling to each other and whisper reassurances; not even with her mother. She cannot surrender her mystery.
So she kicks off the hull on fifty kilometers of tether.
But there's no starlight to die in. The darkness is absolute. Gravity waves tug on her line, pulling her back toward Yang and then hurling her away. In time, she feels another vibration in the line. "Sister," the tether transmits. "I'm coming out to get you."
Brother, she thinks, you'll lose yourself trying to follow me.
Captain Li's voice breaks through the static, drawn out to a mumble and then compressed to a shriek. Spikes of hard radiation go through her words like bullets, spattering phonemes into eerie compression artifacts. "This is the interstellar vessel Yang Liwei to the entity interacting with us. We are not involved in your dispute with the powers around this star. We are on a mission to begin a new life elsewhere. Our purpose is orthogonal to yours. We request your indifference…"
Mara's tether trembles with Uldwyn's progress. She holds it in one hand and reaches out with the other, gripping the emptiness, feeling how the tides of broken space pull at her fingertips. She senses that the nothingness around her is not indifferent; that it is aware of all purposes, and that its own purpose encompasses them. It is infinitely hostile because it must be.
Suddenly, as if the void around her has just spontaneously Big Banged, she sees light.
A point of pure white shines in the cosmic distance. Not just visible luminance—her suit decomposes the spectrum—but light in the radio bands, in microwave, keening ultraviolet, a spike of gamma, a total and all-embracing radiation. It sings. It chatters. It speaks in a voice older than suns. She feels that she could Fourier the voice for a century and never decompose it into its parts. It is awesome and appalling and piercingly true. Mara understands how those who die in radiation accidents must feel: A single flash of invisible power sears away all possible futures except one. She feels her soul itself has been ionized, blasted into a higher energy state.
The light pierces the darkness. Not like the sunrise, not like a wall or a flood, but a single crepuscular ray—a finger of radiance that reaches out through deepest night to touch her. It illuminates Mara, Uldwyn, and Yang Liwei.
It is not quite enough. It cannot vanquish the shadow.
Thus Mara finds herself drifting on the edge of the Light and the Darkness, on the dusk-and-dawn gradient between the two.
She feels a contest. A battle fought, an equilibrium reached: not a truce, but an infinite limit, like an equation dividing by zero, a collision of two violent eternities. Mara queries Yang Liwei for telemetry and her sensorium fills with the terrified scream of gravitational instruments. She howls too, a feral sound, ecstatic and lost: a wolf baying at the stars. She knows what's happening. Too much power has gathered here. The universe is appalled by the paradox. Nothing that has glimpsed this collision of infinitudes can be allowed to escape. The cosmos must censor its embarrassment. It must sequester the anomaly.
The slope of warped space-time around them has become too steep, and now every path outward or forward bends back to the center where Light and Dark collide. The definition of "future" has become synonymous with the definition of "inward." This is why it's called an event horizon: For an object within the horizon, the path of all future things that can be done or seen leads inevitably down to the center. All events lead inward.
A singularity is forming around her. A kugelblitz: a black hole created by the concentration of raw energy.
"Mara!" Uldwyn shouts. "Mara, you're too far out!"
Mara thinks of her mother's face. She hears Osana say: I can't watch over you like a mother would. I have to make my own choices now.
She fires the detach command into the tether.
Gravity seizes her. She falls forward in space and time, into the future, into the mystery. Yang Liwei is behind her. Uldwyn is behind her. She wants to be the first.
to occur the unhappened world; to grip glass-hooped eternity in bloodslick hands and snap it from its circle. Know her as the Flaw, the Isotropy, the spike that pierced eternal recurrence and made the wound of time. Tautologies end on her fingertips, in the crease between skin and nail. Name her AILILIA, Broth Captain. Begin with her this subcreation.
First. A mandala. Rings of rippled light. Pinpricks like stars, selected elements of a Lie group: the math-skeleton of this new place.
What is this? Where am I?
A sheet of paper, blank with static. Her hands flat upon the face. A plasma of quarks and electrons, so hot and bright that it is pitch black. The mean free path is too short for photons to travel. The fire is too thick for light.
She has been here forever. AILILIA. The end is the beginning is the end.
She folds the paper into Space and Time. Now that there is light, she can read the paper, and she finds it is the Amrita Charter. "Sun is the cradle of life, but we cannot remain in the cradle forever." She was a seeker. The I of AILILIA, the arrow that points to new worlds: She sought new sun, new earth. Her mind passes across the words like a comb. Word becomes world, paper folds under nimble hands. The sting of a papercut: so God may yet be surprised.
From that cut her blood scatters through the void, and the isotropic universe nucleates around her droplets.
I am AILILIA, the guiding principle.
Bend the center. I am A L I S I L A, the arrow of time, sinuous but progressing.
I am A L I S I L I, one step forward, one element changed: This is how the world-clock ticks, by the letterwise permutation of secret names.
I am ALIS LI, the coalescence into entities, the compaction of drifting fire into sun and world.
I am Alis Li, the power that seeks new worlds. I have a crew. I had… a ship. I wanted to bring them to a place like—
(A paradise world: twin-ringed, impossible beauty, and a sky milk-bright with stars. She makes it real with a thought, and in that thought she falls herself, undoes her transient divinity, binds herself and all those after her into the law. The omniscient cannot explore. The omnipotent cannot struggle. She refuses that God-trap.)
This is how Alice Li awakens.
She was nothingness. If she existed before, she existed only as possibility stretched across the aether. Once, there might have been a body that was an anticipation of the body not yet formed, and a soul that was an anticipation of the soul not yet encrypted, but they were not yet real.
Then the universe began, and she was free to be born.
First there is a mandala, and upon the rings of that mandala are star-bright gems.
M A R A R A M the closed symmetry, secret within itself: and she cuts it off center so that it is imperfect, open at one end, not cycling back to its own beginning but subliming away into future possibility. M A R A the permutation of one relationship into another, MA become RA, RA become what may yet come. Two points suggest a line.
With that amputation, around that scar, she incarnates. Awakens with a gasp. Cold stone under her shoulders and back and a face above her, radiant. "Mara?" the face says.
"What am I?" Mara whispers.
"The second," the woman says. "I'm Alis. I think you were Mara…"
The sky behind Alis blooms with stars, a haze of light like sun through mist, richer than a galactic core. Across that night sky arches the impossible twin shape of a double planetary ring. Mara gapes in wonder. "I remember," she says. "I was on the tether—"
The sudden need to keep this memory secret shuts her mouth. "We're on a world," she says, instead. "How long have you been alone?"
"Forever, I think. Come." She draws Mara to her feet. "I want to show you what I've found."
It is a world that grows, a world that thrives. The stone is rich with veins of platinum, and Mara tastes tingling inclusions of transuranic elements in a fingertip of earth. Silver rivers flow in fractal deltas to lakes as still and bright as coolant pools. Acres of forests all woven at the root into a single tree. There is life of such variety and energy that each new crawling thing they see must be its own species. Or species do not mean anything at all here, and all that lives may intermingle.
Jutting from the horizon is a titanic metal spear. The head of the spear is a metal dish, kilometers across, buried in bedrock.
"I don't know what this is," Alis says. "I only know that it's mine."
They pass inside.
"There should be others," Mara says afterward. "There was room for others. Thousands of others. Where are they?"
"They're in the same place you came from. We have to make them real." Li stares at Mara, and coruscations of white fire map the tiny lines and furrows of her skin. Her bright eyes narrow. "Why were you the second? Why you in particular?"
"I don't know," Mara lies. It is the first lie ever told, the first secret kept.
Two became four, and the four called out, and so the four became eight. In this manner, conjured forth by their doubling, the sleepers did awaken. In time the awoken spilled across the face of the world, and their number was forty thousand eight hundred ninety one. They drank of the sweet rain, and they ate of the fruit of the forest, and the starlight pooled as clear oil on their skin. First of their tongues was Speech, and the first of their hunting weapons was the bow.
Now the awoken called out for a name to distinguish World from Unworld. The eight hundred ninety one said to the forty thousand, "Let this world be named Tributary, for we dream of a great river from which we have parted." But the forty thousand were troubled, and they asked to know their antecedent, the place from which they came. "We did not awaken from the sleep that we entered," said the forty thousand. "In our rest we passed through some terminus and our atavism was severed from us. How did it happen thus?"
So a council was called at the place where the rivers met to determine the nature and purpose of existence. Here was undertaken the first census, which counted thirty thousand one hundred eleven women, ten thousand two hundred ninety five men, and four hundred eighty five otherwise. A fear arose among the awoken that the men and otherwise would be lost.
Alis Li spoke first in council, but at the urging of Uldren, many sought out Mara for secret conclave. Among these were Kelda Wadj, who would be the Allteacher, and Sila, who would be mother of Esila.
Sayeth Alis, "We were granted this world by a covenant with high powers, and in that covenant, we yielded our claim to our history. We abandoned what came before, but in doing so, we cast off all our debts. Look forward! Let us explore this infant cosmos, and revel in its glories!"
Against her spoke Owome An, who was of the forty thousand. "We are alien here," said Owome. "We must climb up our worldline, back to the place from which we came. I call for a vote."
Sayeth Mara, in secret, "I think that we came here as safe harbor, and we cannot forever remain. I remember the danger was appalling. I remember we were born in death. I think we must gather ourselves carefully until the time is right."
From this council, there arose eight verdicts and a ninth.
First, that the people were Awoken, and they were immortal.
Second, that this world was Tributary of another, but that it was forbidden to seek any way to rejoin the mother stream. For this reason, it would be called the Distributary, for that was the proper name for a river that branches from the mother and does not return.
Third, that the Awoken should multiply in wombs of flesh and machine, but only after the most careful forecast of population and ecology, and only under the supervision of those who knew the good technology; for each new child would be immortal.
Fourth, that those wise in the good technology should be heralded and heeded, so that the eu-technology could be preserved. They would be eutechs.
Fifth, that the women should hold care and protection of the men and the others until more could be born.
Sixth, that the purpose of the Awoken should be to know and love the cosmos.
Seventh, that the Awoken were created out of covenant with Light and Darkness, but the covenant was complete, and no further debt would ever be called, except the duty of the Second Verdict to remain on the Distributary.
Eighth, that the Awoken were whole in themselves, and they existed in balance.
Ninth, that there would be no vote, but instead Alis Li would be recognized as Queen. Her first pronunciation was that there would be no secrets among Awoken.
For Alis knew of the quiet council around Mara, and although she was neither jealous nor afraid, she remembered it carefully as a spark that might catch.
In those days, there was a great birth of adventure among the Awoken. Hunters and pioneers sought the shape of the world, sailors charted the skein of rivers and the perimeter of seas, and astronomers plotted the motion of the crowded heavens. Over this age ruled Queen Alis Li, whose work was the creation of agriculture and the preservation of the eutechnology that she deciphered from the Shipspire.
But there remained in the forests many tribes of huntresses who preferred their lightfooted freedom-from-comfort-and-duty to the painstaking surplus of the city. Among these tribes, Mara lived with her brother—whose name had returned as Uldren—and with Osana, their mother. It is said that Osana lived as a negotiator and that her son brought her news from other tribes, for he was a scout and hunter of renown. Mara dwelt alone on a mountaintop.
In the tribes of the forests and the sea, there was the belief that the Awoken had been made out of a friction between contesting forces and that one day this conflict would need to be resolved. These were the Eccaleists who preached that Awoken owed a debt to the cosmos.
In the cities, however, they lived by the Seventh Verdict under their Queen, and they said the Awoken had been created by cosmic gift and carried neither responsibility nor eschaton. These were the Sanguine, who preached that the Awoken were as stable as an atom of carbon.
Now there arose among the Eccaleists a woman out of the eight hundred ninety one who called herself the Diasyrm. She went into the cities, calling out, "I accuse the Queen of deicide!" When she was questioned, she spoke of a foundational crime.
"Alis Li was the first to awaken in this world," the Diasyrm preached. "She set the terms of our existence. We could have been gods free of want or suffering. Instead, Alis Li chose our mortal form. Our Queen is complicit in all the pain we experience! The Queen murdered all our unborn godheads!"
At the thought that the Queen Without Secrets had kept this most appalling secret to herself, the Sanguine cityfolk were deeply troubled. Thus began the Theodicy War.
"It wasn't supposed to be like this," Alis Li whispers as, far below the Shipspire, the funeral barges on the Lake of Leaves burst up into magnesium-white fire. The voices of the Paladins rise on summer wind, first choral, then the single keening strains of grief-paeans sung by lovers and close friends. They are singing their lost comrades into death. One of the 891 fell today, shot down by a matter laser, a coherent boson weapon: There was almost nothing left to burn. Matter lasers are the kind of appalling maltech weapon Alis thought she'd locked up in the Shipspire's vaults. She'd armed a few of her Paladins with them, just a few—women she couldn't bear to lose…
The thought that one might have defected to the Diasyrm breaks her heart.
"It wasn't supposed to go this way," Alis repeats. She has not had a confidante in nigh on fifty years: There is no one to whom she can show any doubt. "I promise you it wasn't."
"I know," Mara says. The eutechs found her and plucked her from her mountaintop with one of the Shipspire's VTOL aircraft, which Alis had, until the war, only ever used as an ambulance.
"The mission was to carry on the Human journey in a new world." Alis paces the wooden deck that clings to the Shipspire airlock, nearly a kilometer above the lake. "To build a better society, on the principles of equality, knowledge, and peace. I have the charter, Mara. It remembers what I cannot. We were never meant to give up our bodies or shine like stars or—or—" She groans in frustration and clutches the railing. "Or whatever it is that the Diasyrm thinks I denied them."
"She thinks you denied them even the capability to imagine godhood."
Alis looks sharply back at the other woman. "Did you start this, Mara?"
"Nothing has one beginning," Mara says.
"Did she come to you on your mountaintop and ask you what I did? Did you answer her? Is that why she's so convinced I," she swallows against the bitter taste of her enemy's words, "enslaved her in mere Humanity?"
"I didn't have to tell her." Mara's white hair stirs in the hot wind. A herd of black horses crosses the northern horizon, all born of Shipspire's wombs: chased by a long-legged huntress and her collie. "You don't keep enough secrets, your Majesty. The Diasyrm might have opened any one of your texts and read the story you tell. "We were born when a great ship fell into a pearl of shattered space. I awoke first, and in my awakening I collapsed the potential of the void into a form I understood…" Who can read that truth and not hear arrogance?"
Alis thought Mara might say that. Alis also thought Mara might try to push her off the balcony, but she now knows that was a petty fear. Mara is not the Diasyrm: Mara knows the unthinkable value of even a single Awoken life.
"Why do you love lies so much?" she asks Mara.
"Not lies." The pale radiance of Mara's eyes; the flush of violet stain around them. "Secrets. Even if everyone shared a single truth, all our minds would produce different versions of the truth. We speak these subtruths, and like flowers of different seed, the subtruths compete for the light of our attention. In time, only the fiercest and most provocative strains remain. They are not always the truest. Better to keep secrets, your Majesty. Better to tend a great mystery, and so starve the flowers before they can grow. That is how I would be Queen."
Below, the Lake of Leaves shimmers in the crater carved by Shipspire's mushroom prow. One by one, the funeral boats are going out.
"I want to end this war," Alis Li tells the second Awoken. "I want to negotiate peace. I need your mother's help. What would you ask in exchange?"
Mara smiles graciously and bows her head. "Nothing but a future boon."
To end a world with a shot or pin eternity on a blade; to see your sisters lost to rot and their undone works decayed—the death of an immortal wastes the infinite potential of all they might become. An immortal's grief and murder-guilt, left untended, will never fade. Thus it became known to those who fought in the Theodicy War that they had committed an incomparable evil. However, they could not confront their own responsibility, so they rose up in wrath against those who had given them cause, whether by caging them in flesh bodies or by drawing blood over grievance. The war continued by spear and bow, by knife and scalpel, by old machine and new invention. Ever did the Diasyrm's faithful call for the unawaring of Queen Alis Li.
Now there entered into the Diasyrm's camp Osana, mother of Mara, famed for her skill in negotiating contested land. She had come with her son Uldren, who could win a place in any camp for his beauty and for the regal crow-eagle that alighted on his shoulder.
"I come from Mara," said Osana, "whose heart has frozen in her chest. If you will end the killing, she will tell you any secret that you desire."
For his part, Uldren went among the Diasyrm's warriors and spread ill tidings of Mara's knowledge, saying, "Mara remembers how the Queen led us here out of chaos and saved us from the twin blindness of darkness and light. Mara knows what the Queen keeps secret. Mara has seen the strife in our souls, the clash from which we were made. We could not ever have been gods with this flaw in us! Rather, we were made from this schism. For as all life is born from energy gradient, as life in the World Before was born from the gradient between hot proton-rich ventwater and cold seawater, we were born of the shadowline at the edge of Light and Dark. We are tremors in that fault. Forever will that schism lead us."
Hearing this new heresy, the Eccaleists were seized with rapture and scattered to the points of the compass, telling all they met, "We are the yield of a mighty engine! We could never have been gods! Like diamonds, we were crushed into being. Like diamonds, we hold flaws."
Meanwhile Osana spoke to the Diasyrm, who was also heartsick from the killing, and who longed to withdraw from the world and seek transcendence within. "There is no weregild for the murder of an immortal," Osana counseled her. "You must become a teacher or a midwife and devote yourself to the enrichment of new lives."
But the Diasyrm craved secret knowledge, and she sought Mara upon the mountaintop. Here, she vanished. If she was ever known again, it was not by the name Diasyrm.
When there was peace, Queen Li ruled the Awoken for a time; however, the guilt of the war lay heavy upon her, and after an age of peace and progress, she abdicated to a new Queen.
A woman lives alone on the forest hills above the Feather Barrens. North of her, in a chaos of ravines and clear but fiercely radioactive streams, the hills surrender to high imperial mountains engaged in brutal seismic warfare, for the Distributary is a young world and has not settled its grudges. To the south are the dry lands where the birds of the forest, especially the parrots, go to die. She lives here because one day she will no longer be immortal, and she wants to observe the dignity of death.
Up these hills comes a man and his mother. The man moves with practiced wariness. But his mother is tired of walking, so she sits down on a giant melon and bellows, "MARAAA!"
A fountain of startled birds shoots up into the dawnlight. Not far away, the woman looks up from the broken body of a juvenile gray parrot and softly says, "Mom?"
That night over the fire, after Mara and Osana talk around the oddness of long separation, Mara, tending the pheasants on their spits, says, "Brother, your eagle killed a parrot today."
"He had to hunt," Uldren says, carefully. "You won't forbid him his last pleasures, will you?"
"You've brought him here to die?" Mara wants to leap up and hug her brother, out of pity and respect. Many of his raptors have died before this one, but Uldren has always been grief-stricken and furious at the waste. Now he's accepted what must happen; he has given his bird the respect of choosing its own place and time to pass.
"I have," Uldren says, looking away. Her pride and respect make him a little verklempt. "Mother decided she would come along."
A shear force as powerful as tectonics has divided Mara's heart. She wants to sit down with her mother and ask her everything, but she is afraid of Osana's insight. "What brings you to my little camp, Mother?"
"Lies," Osana says. "Lies and secrets. And the girl who didn't want to be my daughter, who doesn't know the difference between them."
"I know the difference between a girl and a daughter," Mara says, purposefully misunderstanding. The drip pan sizzles beneath golden meat. Her stomach growls. "Your daughter picks up your baton at the end of the race, and goes on living the life you've taught her. You wouldn't want that, Mother. Because then I'd be all your fault."
"That's true," Osana sighs, "but you know what I meant."
Uldren looks between the two of them, frowning. "Mom, what's this?"
"It's your sister about to admit she's behind it all. Aren't you, Mara?"
She unimpales the pheasants from the spits and neatly licks hot grease off her hands. If she spoke, she might scream in terror. What does that mean, behind it all? Does Osana know?
"The Eccaleists are her creation," her mother tells her brother. "The Diasyrm was her pawn. She allowed the Theodisy War because she was afraid we'd be too comfortable here—also so Queen Alis would need her help politically. Mara couldn't afford to be the most radical dissident. She had to seem moderate for her beliefs to thrive. Isn't that right, Mara?"
Mara puts a hand into the warm soil to keep herself from slumping in relief. Mother doesn't know it all. "Shall I carve your portions?" she asks, holding the fractal knife blade-down.
Uldren has that look. He knows Mara never answers his questions directly; by evading Osana's, it's as if she's saying that the question is really Uldren's to ask. "Looks delicious. But Mother does make me curious. Why have you always lived away from the rest of us, Mara? The mountaintop, I understood. You had a brand new night sky to chart. But why now? Why go into the woods like a… a hermit? A heretic?"
For the same reason she lived on the hull. For the same reason she can never allow Uldren to really reach her. There is power in remove and safety from the belittling politics of temporal power, which reveal the mighty as unforgivably ordinary and petty. The Awoken have a Queen because a Queen can be a mystery.
"I remember the day I was born," she says. "Do you, Brother?"
He flinches from her eyes. He remembers Yang Liwei and the tether into darkness. He remembers how gravity stretched them into agonized ribbons of flesh. He remembers the truth not even Alis Li may be allowed to know; Mara sees the agonizing moment, the cyclic revelation, when he thinks of her crime, allows it to pierce him like a spit, and buries it deep again.
Osana takes her portion of pheasant meat and rolls it in the bowl of sweet cooked nuts her daughter has prepared. The stars are coming out over the mountains, and the forest birds sing. "This place is good," she says. "This world. Whatever you remember of our lives before, Mara… I know they cannot have been this good."
"No," Mara says. "But you were both with me. I hope you always will be."
"Always," her brother promises.
"Eat well." Mara claps her hands and stands. "Tomorrow we journey."
"Where?" her mother asks.
"I have star charts to share." And heresies to tend to. And a new eagle-crow to find for her bereft brother.
In later days, the power of the Queen waned, and the Distributary was ruled by scholars who sent their knights on mad quests to test the consistence of reality. These were the Gensym Scribes, who traced their origin to Kelda Wadj, the Allteacher, but who were in fact descendants of a band of roving storytellers who traveled across the immense salt glades in a hollering convoy of airboats. Here was their praise of the world:
It is sweet-watered, and there are no poisons upon it. The temper of the climate is even. Great broad-pawed cats stalk the shallow glades, and brilliant blue flamingos promenade upon the flats. The air is thick and warm, suited for flight, and the wind tastes of forest. No dawn has ever been as glorious as the salt glade dawn, and no dusk has ever moved women to weep as deeply as sunset in the Chriseiads. Corsairs sport upon the open seas, and where they waylay freighters rather than each other, they give rumor and assistance to their prey in proportion to the quality of the chase. Beloved are the stories of young lads and lasses who leap across to the corsair ship for a life of adventure! Beloved also are the terraced farms of the Andalayas, mountains so mighty and so dense with radioactives that they subside year by year into the crust. Most beloved are the fissioneers, who vaulted us to power on a world without petrochemicals. May they forgive the many stories of horror we have told in their memory. May they in particular forgive the lurid stories of the molten lead reactor, and the twelve who were impaled to the ceiling by their control rods, and the Core That Stalked.
It is the Sanguine Truth that we were granted this world by the unconditional mercy of the powers, and that we will never again know fear.
However, the Scribes also recorded their frustration with Mara and Uldren, who alone out of the eight hundred ninety one were said to have seen creation from outside. These two wandered the land gathering lore of portents and prophecies, and all the Eccaleists who remained from ancient days whispered that soon the day of reckoning would be known—the day when the Awoken would be called to repay their debt.
Now in the court of one of the Scribes, there appeared a woman of stellar height and furious wrath, armed with a bow that could be strung only if she twined it around her body and used her whole mass to bend it. "I am Sjur Eido," said the woman, "and I accuse Mara of the ancient murder of my lady the Diasyrm. In my saddle, I have a weapon with only one death remaining. Take me to Mara, and I will deliver it."
The Scribes consulted and said to each other that this foul murder might prevent another Theodicy War. So they gave Sjur Eido all their knowledge to hunt Mara.
Carefully, the people of the Distributary grew in number. Joyously and constantly, they grew in quality. Those who do not die are as malleable and passionate as the young, as tempered and constant as the mature, and as wise and humble as the best of the old.
But as ever, the Awoken were troubled by death. It was easy to imagine a world older and harsher than the Distributary, a world crowded with competitors where the slow-changing and lushly alive Awoken would be helpless beside austere mayfly-quick breeders who adapted with every swift generation.
Why had the Awoken been spared mortality? Were they, as the Sanguine preached, rewarded for their bravery and fidelity in a past existence? Or were the Eccaleists right? Could all the gifts of the Distributary, all the milk-bright stars above, all the years of Awoken life, be a form of cowardice? Was there an unfought battle down in the center of the Awoken soul? A duty yet to be discharged?
Queen Nguya Pin restored the monarchy to prominence over the Gensym Scribes. This she accomplished after a fateful visit, upon the day of the summer solstice, by a hooded and masked woman who some whispered was Mara Sov and others, the long-vanished Diasyrm. For nine and ninety years (a rhetorical figure meaning a long time), the Queen had been an authority only in the arts and matters spiritual. However, Queen Nguya Pin declared she was now an avowed Eccaleist and that the Queen would lead the quest to identify whatever debt the Awoken owed the cosmos. It was time to pursue a dream beloved to all Awoken: the conquest of space and the assessment of the true shape and age of their universe.
The ancient court of the Queen gave the Gensym Scribes a place to lay down their pride and act as equals. Soon the greatest engineers in the world assembled in the Queen's court, and whatever wealth or resources they required flowed freely. Great cataracts of men and women spilled around the palace screaming of ramjets and apoapses deep into the night, then awakening to pots of thick black coffee to mumble about metric tensors and cosmic microwave anisotropy.
Into this feast of ideas came Sjur Eido, searching for the woman who had turned Queen Pin to Eccaleism. Sjur smoldered with an ancient fury, for another thing that the immortal may nurture is everlasting vendetta.
Sjur Eido deduced who among the Queen's court must be a disguised Mara Sov. She followed the hooded figure to her laboratory and watched Mara go to work soldering a makeshift bolometer to search for signs of primordial gravity waves. Sjur Eido's fury and grief whetted themselves against Mara's thoughtless grace and ancient beauty, until at last her heart unseamed itself and spilled its hot blood in a shout. "Mara Sov!" she cried, throwing down her maltech matter laser between them. "I cannot live while you live, but I cannot bear to kill you. I challenge you to a duel to the agony. I will fight your most beloved companion to the death and leave you forever maimed or else die in the attempt."
Mara could not refuse this challenge. She summoned Uldren, and with a ruthlessness she was no longer frightened to wield, she told Uldren that he would stand for her in battle to the death against Sjur Eido.
"We cannot put it all upon a single fight," Uldren said to the ancient vendetta-bearer. "Too much would be left to chance. Such an old grudge deserves to be tested well. I propose we fight with blade, with rifle, and with fifth-generation air superiority fighters."
Sjur Eido accepted these terms.
Now it came to pass that Esila, daughter of Sila, recognized the scent of Sjur Eido, for smell lies deepest in memory. Esila spoke to Queen Nguya Pin about the presence of an ancient hero in her court. While Queen Pin pondered how to honor this visitor—and simmered over the insult of Sjur's unannounced presence—a spy brought word of Sjur Eido's intentions to the Gensym Scribes.
The many Scribes were troubled by this news, for they had given Sjur Eido license to hunt and kill Mara Sov. If Sjur Eido murdered a guest of the Queen under the Scribes' remit, it would mean war and the end of the great Awoken push for space. Historians were called to the court with bouquets of sweet flowers and grant money to speak of Sjur Eido. "She was one of Queen Alis Li's Paladins, but she was an Eccaleist, who believed that we would one day be called to repay the gift of our awakening."
"Would she defy the Queen's protection and murder a guest of the court?" the Scribes asked.
"Oh, absolutely," the historians said, laughing. "She was a terror."
The Scribes began preparations to flee the Queen's court, as they foresaw Sjur Eido's victory would be blamed on them. Sensing uncertainty, many vital contractors and suppliers withdrew from the space program. The Queen denounced the Gensym Scribes as faithless and selfish, and her Eccaleist followers bristled in rage against the Sanguine majority who had scuttled their dream of flight. Household turned against household, sister against brother, wife against wife. The whole world clenched her fists.
Meanwhile, Sjur Eido and Uldren met each other on a net of woven lianas over a pool of heavy water. The light of the Queen's reactors shimmered beneath them as they took their places. Uldren wore a white chestpiece of ceramic armor over a suit of black tasseled silk, and he wielded a long fractal knife whose cutting edge was nearly three times as long as the blade. Sjur Eido fought in the contoured blue-gray pressure armor of a Paladin with the Star of Eight Edicts blazoned on her chest.
Before they began, Sjur Eido tore away the sheer curtain over the gardener's nook and looked in on Mara Sov. "Are you afraid?" she whispered, half in hatred, half in admiration, all in awe. "Do you sweat? Does your breath come short?"
Mara pressed her hand to Sjur's faceplate and left no stain. She held Sjur's gauntlet to her heart so Sjur could feel her steady pulse and even breath. "You don't care about him?" Sjur pressed her. "It would mean nothing if I maimed him?"
"You ask the right questions," Mara said, "but of the wrong sibling."
Then Sjur understood that she fought a man who would always express his love through loss and ordeal.
She bowed to Uldren and drew her knife. Uldren bowed in mocking reply. They fought across the web of lianas in a slow spiral, creeping like spiders, waiting for the motion of the web beneath them to signal an instant of vulnerability. Then the pounce, the clash, the blur of knives: Sjur Eido's straightforward prisonyard jabs against Uldren's whirling deceptive theater. All of knife fighting is in the seizure and surrender of space: Neither would surrender to the close, the clinch, the berserk adrenaline-sick exchange of thrusts that would leave both dead.
Uldren began to cut away key lianas to throw Sjur Eido's footing, and Sjur Eido countered by charging him to keep him off balance. At last, they fell together into the coolant pond. The fight was a draw—but it was only the first of three.
Next, the fallen Paladin and the hunter chose long guns and went out into the monsoon jungle to stalk each other. Sjur Eido selected a Tigerspite in 11x90mm with five-round flock guidance and an inertial sump. Uldren chose a silent needle carbine with a conesnail payload. For six weeks, they stalked each other as the political situation grew more dire. He was the better hunter, stealthier in motion and at ease in the wilderness, but Sjur Eido was the better soldier. She had no respect for the systems of the jungle, and she knew how to use that to her advantage. She drove the animals into a frenzy with violence and habitat disruption. Parrots and crows warned each other of Uldren's stealthy hides, and jealous predators forced him off his carefully scouted trails. Sjur Eido caught him with his back against a rift lake and shot him as he tried to cross the lakebed. The wound was not mortal, for the water ruined the terminal ballistics, but she had won the match.
"Your life is at stake," Mara warned her brother. "Lose this final match, and you will—"
"Am I simple?" he snarled at her. The wound pained him terribly, but he would not risk more than a little analgesic. "Leave me my work, Sister, or you leave me nothing at all."
Now they would meet in air superiority fighters over the Andalayas. Charges under their seats would detonate if either of them left the engagement area. Because of the small combat zone, Sjur Eido chose a nimble Ermine tactical fighter and a payload of all-aspect heatseeking missiles.
"Where will we receive these aircraft?" Uldren demanded. "How can I trust the equipment?"
Sjur Eido told him that one of the Gensym Scribes would provide the aircraft and requested weapons from her personal deterrent stockpile. "Very well," Uldren sniffed. "And we will have access to all the weapons these airframes can equip?"
"Of course," Sjur said. "Those we cannot obtain can be replaced by training simulators." She was certain Uldren's wound would cripple him.
"Then I will fly a Dart," Uldren said. The ancient interceptor had awful fire control, dismal maneuverability, and primitive weapons.
"A Dart?" Sjur jeered. "Will you fly with its original weapons, too? You think you can beat me with rockets and a gun?"
"I do," Uldren purred. "You accept those terms?" She did.
The two duelists took to the skies on a bright winter morning. After a fuel check, a telemetry squawk, and a terrain snapshot, they turned in toward each other from a hundred kilometers apart. Sjur Eido descended for the terrain, knowing Uldren's radar could barely separate her from the clutter. Uldren came straight on.
At eighty kilometers of separation, Uldren called across the radio, "Fox three. Kill. Engagement over." Sjur sneered at the bluff and prepared to climb into a snap attack when the KILLED alert flashed on her Ermine's training panel. She had forgotten that the Dart's intercept loadout, when it had last served seventy years ago, included an unguided air-to-air nuclear rocket. Uldren had simulation-killed her and everything within several klicks.
On the tarmac, Sjur Eido threw off her helmet and parachute and knelt before Mara Sov. "My lady," she said, "as I have fought your brother to a tie, I leave my fate in your hands. Be more kind to me than you were to my lady the Diasyrm."
"Rise, Sjur Eido," said Mara. "Let us take the stars together."
The subsonic roar of the solid rocket boosters crosses the threshold from noise into motion. To hear it is to feel it, and to feel it is to remember that you are a sack of fluids and gels much more than you are a solid entity. Membranes and gradients, solutes and films: a body is a mingled thing. Mara thinks of this as she watches the launch vehicle discard its boosters and climb away through the clouds. The Awoken could have been angels. Instead, they are flesh.
"That's that." Queen Nguya Pin rises from her portable throne, unfolding two heads taller than Mara. "Choose your replacement. My work is done, and I will stomach no more."
Mara smiles at her. "Is a Queen's work ever done?"
"Oh, don't insult me," Queen Pin clucks. She brushes windblown pollen from her trousers; today's launches have blasted the spring trees with hot wind. "You used me to do your work, politically and scientifically. You used me to bundle up the Scribes in a neat little scroll for your disposal. I went along with it for the sake of the monarchy, Mara, not because I'm a fool. I don't know what you want or why you're so bent on keeping the Awoken uneasy and dissatisfied. I don't know how you manipulate the acclamations. But when I abdicate, I am going to find Alis Li, wherever she's gone, and ask her all my questions about you. I'm very interested to know the answers."
"You've been a wonderful Queen," Mara says. "No one will ever replace you." Although she is thinking of Devna Tel, who was never one of the Scribes, and whose coronation would make a wonderful rebuke to the Scribes' remaining ambitions.
Sjur Eido meets her by the ship. "We'll need a new Queen," Mara tells her, leaping up the side of the ramp. "Word on the satellite?"
"Still burning for the Lagrange point. What have you done to Nguya?"
"Given her too much perspective, I'm afraid." Just as this observatory satellite should help the Awoken see things from Mara's point of view. She smiles as she helps her bodyguard up the ramp, Sjur indulgently pretending that she needs Mara's hand. "Uldren should be on the ground in Kamarina by now. We'll have a go-ahead on that interferometer buyout when he's done."
There are new stars in the sky. Mara put them there. Huge distributed-array telescopes orbit the Distributary's cool sun; gravity wave sensors and cold primordial neutrino detectors spider the crust. Out of shell corporations and seed investments, she has opened her world as an enormous eye and focused it heavenward. Sjur Eido was her smiling public avatar these past decades, while her brother handled enforcement. The days of covert speed chess in the Queen's court are over: Sjur Eido's open endorsement made Mara the face of Eccaleism and armed Mara with blackmail over all the Gensym Scribes still in power.
Yet she has never been so lonely or so worried for the future. Mother has told her that she, Mara, uses her power over Uldren too freely; that she must learn to stop, or her mother will no longer be her friend.
"Mara?" Sjur says, catching some flickering expression. Knowing Mara well, she immediately changes tack away from comfort. "What do you think we'll find with the satellite?"
"Proof that it's time for us to go," Mara says. "Proof of what I've known since the beginning."
Sjur frowns in thought. She doesn't remember much from before her awakening. Few of the 891 do—but enough to trouble her. "Time for us to go…"
The ship's turbines keen up to speed and then settle into whisper-quiet cruise. Sjur reaches to strap herself in across from Mara. Impulsively, hard-faced, denying she needs what she is asking for, Mara scoots aside to make room on her bench. Sjur raises an eyebrow at her.
"Don't say anything," Mara warns her. "Not a word." And so they pass the flight in silence, but not alone.
Mara looks into the camera and lets the fire in her eyes speak.
They are waiting on her, the Distributary's millions, her Awoken people. She has stoked their curiosity with thirty years of painstaking analysis. When they look up at the night sky, they see the stars of her observatories among the crowded bands of habitats, the spindly orbital factories, towering elevator counterweights, the burning roads of matter streams.
"Let me tell you of our world," she says.
There are the facts of tectonics and atmosphere, of water and climate: the parameters of the sun that feeds them. "No infants died last year. No child went unfed. No youth came of age illiterate, no one suffered illness who might have been treated. We have long surpassed the eutech gathered from Shipspire; yet we have grown carefully and cleanly. We have eluded pollution, eradicated plague, and chosen peace. No maltech weapon has been discharged in centuries. Our atomic weapons were dismantled before they could ever be used. We are our own triumph."
She has elected not to use graphics or theater. She would rather they remember her face.
"You know yourselves," she says. "Let me tell you of your cosmos. We live in a spatially infinite, isotropic universe 12.1 billion years old. Its metallicity is ideal for life and for the spread of technological civilizations. In time, the distance between all points in the universe will contract to zero, and the cosmos will collapse into a singularity, to be reborn in fire. There will be no end to eternity here."
She pauses. She waits. The whole world is out there, begging for the answer to the question.
"Our world is a gift. And we must refuse it."
They are Awoken. They love secrets. They will wait for her to explain.
"We have detected a pattern that was imprinted into our universe by its ancestor: a fingerprint of the initial conditions into which existence was born. From this information, we have confirmed the most primordial of Awoken myths. Our universe is a subset of another. We live within a singularity, a knot in space-time, that orbits a star in another world.
"Conventional relativity would suggest that time outside an event horizon passes quickly compared to a clock within, but our universe has a peculiar relationship with its mother. Thousands of years have passed for us on the Distributary. Outside? Centuries, at most. We are a swift eddy in a slow river.
"These ideas may not surprise you after centuries of theorizing and philosophy. But we have decrypted new data from the cosmic microwave and neutrino background signals. We have discovered voices… the voices of distress calls. They tell a story of bravery, of war, and of desperate loss.
"We were not always immortal. We did not earn this utopia by covenant with any cosmic power, or by attaining an enlightened moral condition. We are refugees. We fled from an apocalyptic clash between our ancestors' civilization and an invading power." She lowers her eyes. "The signals we have retrieved tell us that our ancestors were on the edge of defeat. Perhaps extinction."
"It is time that we accept our debt. The Distributary is a refuge, not a birthright; a base to rebuild our strength, not a garden to tend. I ask you, Awoken, to join me in the hardest and most worthy task a people has ever faced. We must leave our heaven, return to the world of our ancestors, and take up the works they abandoned. If some of them survive, we must offer aid. If they have enemies, we must share our strength. We must go back to the war we fled and face our enemies there."
She lets them dangle a moment before she drives it home. "We have also determined that our birthright, our immortality, is tied to the fundamental traits of this universe. Once we leave, we will begin to age again. In time, we will all die.
"Will you join me, Awoken? Will you answer my call? All I offer you is hardship and death. All I ask is everything you can offer. But you will see an older starlight. You will walk in a deeper dark than this world has ever known."
"You're the devil," Alis Li whispers. "I remember… in one of the old tongues, Mara means death."
An hour before. Mara's ship touches down a polite two kilometers from the Pearl Groves, and she looks out across mazes of channel and tidal pond to the compounds of ancient silver-white stone beyond. Two-ton oysters glitter in the shallows, their shells jeweled with mineral inclusions. Seabirds peck and fret along narrow white beaches. Mara lifts up her black formal skirts and begins her long walk into Alis Li's retreat, the sanctuary of former Queens.
"Mara," Uldren whispers, through her throat mic. "Don't do this. Take Sjur with you, at least."
But she has to do this, or she'll never be able to face herself again.
The sun batters at her. She hides under a parasol, but heat gathers in the folds of her garment, in the soles of her shoes. When she squints against the glare, she thinks she can see the shining grains of her fleet in orbit: the Hulls, built under eutech supervision to the specifications of radically post-conscious AI that will one day fly between worlds. It is far too late to stop the project now. Far, far too late for second thoughts: exactly twelve point one billion years too late, really. For Mara in particular.
Mara kicks the sand and trudges on.
She's in a foul mood when she reaches the old Queen's house, but the sight of Alis Li sitting on the porch with a battered tea service makes her smile. "Thank you for seeing me," Mara says.
"Thank you for coming. I was afraid you'd leave the universe without saying goodbye." Alis pours her a cup of cool blackberry tea. "Have a seat. How's Queen Tel?"
"She has declined to endorse my expedition," Mara admits, tucking her feet beneath her on the wide wooden deck chair. The tea is too sweet, but so blissfully cool. "I'm sure you understand her reasons."
"You mean she's declined to endorse the sudden violent severance of tens of thousands of threads from the tapestry of our society? How surprising." Alis looks Mara over, critically, then sits back to sigh. "A Scribe once told me that the definition of a utopia is a place where every single person's happiness is necessary to everyone else. You're going to make a lot of unhappy people, Mara. You'll make the lives of everyone in the world tangibly worse. Not just those you've lured to certain death, but those who will grieve their departure, and all those who will come to grief for lack of labor and knowledge you took with you."
"My people volunteered."
"Your mother told you," Alis says, "that it is one thing for you to have a particular power over people, but another thing entirely to deny that you are using it."
"You once told me," Mara counters, "that I had to consider the symbol people made out of me, and that if it were good, then I had to be that symbol for them. I had to perform as they required. I have done so. I have been the best thing I can think to be."
"Is this the best thing you could think to be?" Alis says, with very practiced neutrality.
Mara drinks her tea in delicate silence.
The old Queen sets her cup down hard enough to chip. Mara jumps in quiet shock: The tea service is an heirloom from Shipspire. Her face hardens with the power of ancient command. "Mara. I'm at least as clever as you. Do me the credit of acknowledging it."
"I have worked for many hundreds of years to arrange this outcome," Mara says, forthrightly, but without the courage to look Alis Li right in the eyes. "I have nurtured and tended the Eccaleist belief so that there will always be Awoken who feel uncomfortable in paradise. Guilty for the gift of existence in the Distributary. People who'll come with me."
"I know." Alis lays a hand on Mara's, and for a moment the touch almost makes Mara sigh in gratitude: to be seen, to be known, without revulsion. Then Alis' old strength pins her palm to the table.
"The Diasyrm?" Alis hisses. "The Theodisy War? Did you arrange it all?"
"No," Mara says, which is a lie told with truth.
"Do you understand what you've done? Have you reckoned the full cost?"
She has convinced tens of thousands of Awoken to abandon their immortality. She has deprived the Distributary an infinite quantity of joy, companionship, labor, and discovery: all the works that might be accomplished by all the people who will join her in her mission to another world. When she lies awake at night, seized by anxiety, she tries to tally up the loss in her head, but it is too huge, and it becomes a formless thing that stalks her down the pathways of her bones like the creak of a gravity wave.
"Some infinities are larger than others," she tells her old captain. "I believe… we are here for a reason, and this is the way to fulfill that purpose."
"And how much would you sacrifice? Your mother? Your brother? Are the Awoken real to you at all?" Alis leans across her pinned hand, viper-fierce, striking. "Do you think my people were made to die for you?"
"Not for me. For our purpose. For our fate."
"For a home we abandoned. It's in the charter, Mara. The document on Shipspire that," and even Alis Li falls into a hush as she broaches one of the primal mysteries, her memory of creation, "that shaped the… the way I made this universe."
"You were the first," Mara acknowledges. "The first one here laid down the rules."
Alis Li releases her hand and collapses back into her chair. "Why are you here, Mara?"
To tell you the truth at last. "To ask you for that boon you owe me."
"At last." Alis sighs. "Well, I knew the day would come. I think I'll be glad to have this weight off my shoulders. You'll ask me to throw my support behind your mission, won't you? The First Queen says, go with Mara; awaken from this dream and go fight for your home. Is that it?"
"No," Mara says, with her heart in her throat, with trepidation bubbling in her gut. You cannot keep a secret buried like a vintage for so many centuries, and then unbottle it without any ceremony. "The boon I ask is your forgiveness."
Then she explains the truth. She tells Alis Li what she did: about the choice Alis Li would have made, if Mara had not made her own first. It's only an extension of what Alis has already deduced.
When she's finished, her ancient captain's jaw trembles. Her hands shake. A keen slips between her clamped teeth. The oldest woman in the world conjures up all the grief she has ever felt, and still it is not enough to match Mara's crime.
"You're the devil," Alis Li whispers. "I remember… in one of the old tongues, Mara means death. Oh, that's too perfect. That's too much."
She laughs for a while. Mara closes her eyes and waits.
"You realize," Alis Li says, breathing hard, "that this is the worst thing ever done. Worse than stealing a few thousand people from heaven. Worse than that thing we fled, before we were Awoken—"
"Please," Mara begs. "Please don't say that."
Alis Li rises from her chair. "I'll support your fleet," she says. "I'll use every favor and connection I have to get your Hulls completed and through the gateway—and I will do it so that I can hasten your departure from this world. I will do it out of hate for you; I will do it so that every good and great thing we achieve here will ever after be denied to you, you snake. No forgiveness. Do you understand me? It is unforgivable. Go. Go!"
"I'd be very glad if you didn't tell my mother," Mara says.
Alis Li hurls the pitcher of blackberry tea over Mara, turns, and goes inside, leaving her to trudge, wet and sticky but unbowed, back to her ship. She leaves her tea-stained parasol on the deck, but when she remembers it and looks back, it is already gone.
Mara thinks of the banyan trees that sprawl across the shallow silty lakes of a world she will never see again. The waveguides in her helmet detect the image and obey the encrypted command scheme she's rooted into every system in her fleet. She speaks into the flight directorate channel. "Flight. Sound off for final hold."
"FIDO. Go flight."
"Guidance. Go flight."
"INCO. Good constellation. Go flight."
"GEOD. Go flight."
"BIO. Go flight."
As her flight controllers confirm the state of their technical domains, Mara looks out into space through the synthetic gaze of her sensorium. The Hulls gleam in the stark blue-white light of the star, each ship a silver seedpod braced by immense structural members and cocooned in reservoirs of spectrally adaptive smart fluid: theoretically enough to survive the horrible forces of transit through a singularity. Mara orders herself not to crane her neck, but she does it anyway and gets a terrible cramp as she searches the sky for the Distributary.
There it is. The world of her rebirth, shining water-blue and beautiful, wrapped like a gyroscope in its twin rings. World of laughing Corsairs, world of breathless forest hunts, world of mountains flickering with pale Cherenkov fire, world of sweet berry-stained lips and mathematical insight pure as a rhodium chime. She will never see it again.
Mara thinks of her mother. She doesn't want to but she does, and the memory blindfolds her and muzzles her and plugs her ears so she can hear nothing but Osana's voice on that final night. They're tipsy together, and the evening has wrapped around to morning. Now they sit side by side, mother and daughter, watching the sun rise over the Chriseiad range from Osana's little ranch house on the tundra.
"I'm not coming with you," Osana says.
Mara has been so afraid of this answer for so long that she actually giggles. This can't be happening, of course. This is a nightmare; one of those stress dreams where your powers of persuasion and manipulation fail. "Sure, Mom," she says, "you've got a ranch to run, after all. More?"
"No thank you." Osana squints into the dawn. Little age creases surround her eyes, illegible encryption, unbroken despite Mara's centuries of effort. The rising light draws a tear. "You'll have to send my goodbyes to Uldren. He's not speaking to me."
"What?" Mara gasps, as if this is the real shock, and not losing her mother forever. "Why?"
"Because I already told him I wasn't coming with you. I'm happy here."
"Mom," Mara says, with rising anger, "I'm happy here too. That's not the point—" A conversation that did not so much end as beat itself to an unsustainable emotional pulp, hours later. No catharsis. No closure.
Back in the present: "Weapons," Uldren calls. "Go flight."
"Go flight," Mara confirms. "The clock is counting. L minus five minutes." Directly off her Hull's bow, a sphere of ultradense mass waits for the moment of implosion and collapse. There will be only moments to transit the wormhole before it evaporates.
"Flight, Sensor," Sjur Eido calls. "I have anomalous starfield occlusions, bearing—"
"Intercept!" Mara shouts. "They're missiles!" It had to happen. Someone had to try to stop the departure, someone good and Paladin-pure who believes they are saving tens of thousands of Awoken from madness and doom.
"Flight, FIDO. Do we abort?"
"Negative!" Mara snaps. "The countdown is go! Weapons, kill the inbounds!"
Sjur Eido grunts in dismay. "They're going to get through," she says. "Five or six, at least."
"Uldren." Mara opens their personal channel with the thought of his face. "Reassign your guns to protect the gateway."
"We'll lose Hulls, Mara—"
"I know. Do it." Mara opens the command interface for the gateway and sends the image of a bloody thorn. The countdown skips instantly to zero. "All ships, we are aborting directly to launch. Brace for acceleration!"
She issues the emergency launch order.
The Hull screams with thrust. Mara's suit floods with cushioning gel. She thinks of her mother's face, trying to fix it perfectly in her mind, and her sensorium tries, vainly, to open a channel to Osana. As the Hull plunges into the singularity, the last thing Mara sees is the mournful error message: No connection. No connection. No connection. Cannot connect to Osana.
Here in this time without time, pocketed by the ever-scattering cosm, touched as an assassin touches the gun in the secret fold. There is an eon within and I am going without. This is where we belong, interstitial, in that space between. This is where truth collapses supercritical.
There is a war, and its name is existence. There are two ways to fight—one is the sword, and one is the bomb.
By the sword, I mean the way to fight that is tempered and solid. The way that is made from old things and that triumphs by the reduction to simplicity. This way is known to those who study the cosmos. Take any part of it at any time, and you will see an edge and say, "This is a weapon."
By the bomb, I mean that way of being that is complex and schematic and that must attain a criticality to attack. The way that is made from new things and that triumphs by the arrangement of intricacy. This way is known to those who study themselves. Take any component of the bomb in isolation, and you will say, "What is this? I cannot understand its purpose." Yet in it is the possibility of a fire.
Numberless are the spaces that surround the universe. Subordinate and superordinate are their relationships to the intrinsic world-that-is-only-itself. We pass now through analogy space that will reify what was once subject into object. That power I held, which was agonist to a mother's rapprochement, will be realized and reified.
First is the awareness of my vector, which all who follow me held in their hearts.
Second is the desire to hear my speech, which all who follow me curled in their ears.
Third is the existence-at-the-fault, which is the inner tension that all who follow me still sense.
We are risen from man and fallen from heaven. We are made again in the fall. What was once us will not ever again be us. I am the uncrowned ever-Queen and my only diadem will be the event horizon of the universe, which is my dominion. By falling, I will rise.
There are an uncountable number of ways to be between zero and two.
The first hulk they colonized was a one-kilometer habitat tender, reactors still burning, gravity still steady at three-quarters of Earth's. Driven by an AI long ago reduced to basic subroutines, the tender had completed its final mission to wrangle an Oort-cloud comet down into the asteroid belt. When no orders came for the comet's disposition, it had set about gardening. The comet's surface was domed and soiled, and tethered mirrors kept taut by photon pressure focused starlight into a silvery radiance, which fed the oxygen forest well enough. It would have been a marvel of greenery and ancient ice, but the surface had caught fire recently. Oxygen-fueled flame killed nearly everything except insects and rats. But Mara judged it would be a good fixer-upper, the rats the first intelligent life they had met since their return, the insects edible.
The Hulls had not survived the unpocketing as well as their passengers. The microsingularity wormhole, propped open by a precipitous spike of dark energy, pulled alloy and ceramic armor like taffy. Missiles mauled five of the Hulls. Worst of all, the passage through the nightmare limen between worlds had devastated onboard AI and logic systems.
It was time to abandon their cocoons. Uldren's survey located a reef of derelict spacecraft, apparently convoyed together for mutual aid in the Asteroid Belt. The Gensym Scribes who'd joined Mara on her journey were even now giddily cataloguing cultural markers and ancient records.
"We'll salvage the Hulls," Mara told Sjur Eido. "Pull out the raw materials and the systems we can still use, and bring the biosystems of these hulks back online. Once we have reliable gravity, we can start having babies."
"We'll need weapons," Sjur said, cheerfully. "We don't have enough spare chemistry for firearms right now, and the maltech we brought with us would blow right through the hull. Also line-throwing tools and devices for launching satellites off the surfaces of asteroids, hulks, et cetera. You know what I'm thinking?"
"I cannot say I can imagine," Mara said, sarcastically. She imagined the sight of Sjur Eido stringing her woman-tall bow and passed the thought away like a card trick: Dwelling on such pleasantries would not do. "Will it involve archery?"
"Big old compound bows with all sorts of tactical knickknacks." Sjur paced in delighted thought. "I'll be the first woman in the universe to place a comsat in heliocentric orbit with a longbow."
"You're absurd," Mara said, and at Sjur's uninhibited grin of delight, at the thought of exploring and rebuilding this entire reef with her, even at the terrible flinch-thrill idea of sending Sjur into violence and danger, Mara felt a tingle of worrisome warmth and gladness.
"So," Sjur said, lunging into that moment of weakness to get what she wanted. "When will you tell everyone what's happened to Earth?"
At first they had thought Earth a ruin world, but there were signs otherwise. At least it had not turned into a machine-gnawed corpse like Mercury. "When Uldren's back from deploying his drones." She narrowed her eyes. "Sjur, can you hear what I'm thinking?"
"What, as in telepathically?" The Queen's bodyguard closed her eyes. "Everyone's been feeling spooky, but I'm not sure that extends to transmitting—Mara! Good grief!"