Telic I

Mara made one more attempt, and only one, to call her scattered people home. She had hoped the assault would convince them they had a responsibility to the Reef, to come home and repair the damage they had caused. It went poorly, however, for though her tech witches were able to amplify her bond to her people through the augments Kelda had developed, she was only one voice in a maelstrom. Her Awoken had sensitive antennae, in the metaphysical sense, and could not hear her plea through the clamor. Also, the communications engineer kept forgetting to call Mara "Majesty" or "Queen."

"Good news," Uldren told her with the grim delight he always showed after a debacle he had survived. "Illyn and I went through the Fallen communications logs. Their Baron never transmitted our position to his Kell. He wanted the prize to himself. We remain secure."

"The Baron might have planted a time-delayed beacon," Mara warned him. "Never underestimate these beings. They've lived in the void longer than us."

"I already admire them," Uldren confessed. "They've lost so much. Some of them even ritually dismember themselves, Mara, to prove they have the strength to grow back the missing limbs. I tell you that even if we are doomed to dwindle and go extinct, those Fallen may outlive us."

Mara made a dry note in her log that her brother had at last discovered his true people.

For her part, Sjur Eido wandered about in a daze, filled with joy to be alive and grief that she no longer knew the day when she would die. "In you, all things are possible," she told Mara. "I live because of you." When Mara saw her string her mighty bow, the limbs coiled behind her leg and around her opposite arm, she was glad beyond telling that Sjur had survived.

In time, Mara appointed Paladins to oversee her new military, as Alis Li had done during the Theodicy War. She created talented starfarers as Corsairs, to scour the asteroid belt in utmost secrecy and to establish routes and caches that would support the covert motion of Awoken ships.

Most of all, she charged her brother with the mission that occupied her thoughts. "Brother," she said, "never again can I allow my people to be divided. We must offer them more than shielding ice and cold habitat cylinders and the warrens of Vesta. We must make a culture, a thread that binds us all in pride and wonder at the mystery of ourselves. Nowhere does culture flourish better than in a city."

"Gather in one place," Uldren warned her, "and you make yourself a target."

Mara had considered this, and found an answer. "Go forth and find me a power unknown to all the other powers of this world. Return it to me, and I shall make of it the cornerstone of my new city, where the Awoken shall dream of all they have been and all that is yet to come."

So Uldren went out voyaging among the worlds, swift as a blueshift ghost. In time, he returned to the Reef with a creature not larger than his hand, saying, "Behold, Sister, the lie that makes itself true. This is an Ahamkara."

Telic II

It was Mara alone who established a covenant with that young Ahamkara, which chose the use-name Riven, in honor of its host. It was Mara alone whose singular will and unity of purpose saved the Awoken from that which we now name the Anthem Anatheme. For there was in Mara very little division between Reality-As-Is and Reality-As-Desired; she was confident in her centuries of purpose and patient with the winding way by which the river of methods reaches the objective ocean. Blessed are those who in their absolute selfhood become selfless. Unappetizing are those who in their truest self-knowledge exclude the possibility of self-deceit.

"Mara," said Uldren Queensbrother, "why do you forbid me to speak to the Ahamkara?"

"This secret is mine alone," said Mara Queen. She knew that her brother had only widened the gap between He-As-Was (which is called NUME) and He-As-He-Would-Be (which is named CAUST). "Begone to the outer world, where I require thee."

This was when Sjur Eido, having spoken to Kelda Wadj and to Esila, at last came before her Queen. Kneeling, she said, "Your Majesty, Kelda Wadj says you are a god, for there is no difference between your desire and reality. Yet I know that you desire things before they ever become real. Esila says that you are keeping a secret from your brother that he must never know. I think the secret is thus: You are now a god because one day you will become a god, and a god is not temporal. Your brother is not a god because he will never become a god. Shall I worship you?"

"Sjur," Mara said, falling to her knees, clutching her beloved's face between shaking hands, "Sjur, on the day you worship me, you cannot love me anymore, for to worship is to yield all power, and I cannot love what has no power over me."

At this, the Ahamkara coiled around her neck, yawned, and showed its fangs: for there was a crevice between What Was and What Was Wanted.

"I see," Sjur Eido said. "Then to me you are not yet a god."

Although in time the knowledge of what Mara would become pushed them apart, it was a kind and happy push, as a friend might urge a beloved companion onward to a distant opportunity. And their days together were spent gladly.

August 31, 2018
by @kiroi


Revanche II

Mara calls a caucus of elected representatives in the Sacred Fire, one of the largest hulks in the reef of derelicts. The Fire was built to support habitat construction on 4 Vesta, where Mara hopes to one day anchor the entire flotilla and set down roots—but the hopeful, fearful faces before her make Mara afraid that it'll never happen. What if everyone runs off at the first hint of home? Having come so far, across worlds and eons, to see Earth again—how can she ask them to hold back now?

"We've found Humanity," she tells them. "We've found our ancestors."

The cheer of triumph and wonder thrills her to the marrow. Most of these Awoken are Distributary-born, raised on myths of Humanity and the Traveler. She has just opened the pages of their storybooks and conjured them to life.

"What remains of the Human species lives in a single settlement." She nods to Uldren, who snaps his fingers for footage. His ship's holographic perspective plunges through fluffy strata of clouds and mist, out into clear air. A lucid vista, a perfect instant: the white mountains, the city, and the enormous shattered sphere that hangs above it.

"Freeze," Uldren commands. "That is the Traveler."

As the crowd murmurs and thrills, Mara feels herself bridle. She doesn't like that thread of reverence. She doesn't like the Traveler looming there, almost but not quite completely dormant (like a dying heart ripped from its body and thrown into warm water, it ebbs and flutters if you look at it with the right sensors). If the Traveler had the power to protect anyone, wouldn't it protect more than one huddled settlement?

Esila, daughter of Sila, leaps up from the crowd, too small to make it on her own, but buoyed up by enthusiastic neighbors. "What are we waiting for?" she calls. "That's everything we came to find! They need us, and that's where we belong!"

Uldren and Mara trade glances. Uldren snaps his fingers, and the recording resumes.

Something moves in the treetops. The canopy roils and parts. A red-brown aircraft shaped like a fat, wingless, furiously angry dragonfly bursts from cover and climbs to intercept. Uldren's head-cued camera tracks the target, and Mara imagines his narrow grin as he waits for the other guy to make a move.

The dragonfly ship drops a brace of little needles, and they erupt into dirty orange flame and come arrowing after Uldren. Everyone in the caucus gets an earful of his grunts as he whips through a high-G turn and climbs away.

"Those are Fallen," Uldren says. "They're a species of interstellar scavengers and subsistence pirates. They've been here for a long time, and they've sacked most of the large settlements that survived the original fall of Humanity. There may be more Fallen than there are Humans left on Earth." He lifts his chin to bare the pale scar across his throat. "I landed and went looking for prisoners. I was ready when he pulled two knives on me, but it turned out he had an extra set of arms."

Nervous laughter.

"Worse," Mara adds, beckoning for panes of deep-space passive sensor data, "they're all over the solar system. We've detected flotillas of their interstellar ships around Jupiter and Venus. They don't go near Mars, but only because it's under occupation by another alien species. Mercury is—well, you can see for yourself." Gasps of horror at the clockwork cinder, all that remains of the legendary garden world. "We believe this may be the work of the Vex, a machine species listed in Shipspire's threat index."

Esila, famed historian, puts voice to the plea in the crowd. "So they need our help, don't they? We have to go to them! Our ships, our technology—we could make all the difference."

"No." Mara collapses the projected images between her hands. She stayed up late wrestling with this dilemma, which kept her from wrestling with Sjur. It was a choice she had to make alone. "We can't reveal our existence, lest the Fallen track us down. We need more information. Our focus must remain on securing this derelict reef, bootstrapping industry and a population, and scouting out the solar system."

"Mara, with all my respect, all my genuine gratitude for bringing us here," Esila sighs, "who died and made you Queen?"

Mara says nothing. But she thinks: Everyone, Esila. All of us died and made me Queen.

Revanche III

"It's bad," Sjur Eido says, confirming what Mara already knows, but nonetheless performing the valuable service of mopping away all the blood and tears and allowing Mara to glimpse the actual shape of the wound that divides her people. Not a literal wound (though she is, right now, tending to Uldren's scar, tweezing tiny fragments of Fallen metal out for analysis), but the rift in her Reef, the schism now re-schismatic, as if the quake that split the Distributary Awoken from Mara's people is now firing off aftershocks.

She should've known this would happen. She shouldn't have told them so much about Earth. "How bad?"

Sjur pokes Uldren in the hard gut, where a passing line of molten metal left a red burn. He's under anesthesia, but he snarls at her anyway. "As of the last caucus, I'd say thirty percent of the expedition wants to head for Earth. If you ask the 891," though there aren't 891 of them anymore, "it's more like eighty percent."

Mara swears and pulls a bloody line of solidified slag from her brother. "Unacceptable. We can't lose their skills." Or their genes: The Awoken have yet to adapt to the attrition of this harsh spaceborne world, and tentative mothers are still in the early stages of designing their babies. It's vital to maintain a diverse gene pool. "And the Fallen will vector them back to us."

"I know," Sjur says, heavily. "That's when I'm going to die."

The most horrible thing about the words is that they slap down on Mara's consciousness like face-up cards, like truth revealed. "Unacceptable!" she barks, and then both she and Sjur begin laughing, and then, at last, Mara shakes her head and growls. "You can't know that, Sjur. No one can know that."

"I do. I don't know how, but I do. I know it's going to be something I choose to do, and it's going to be incontrovertibly heroic. Which is enough for me."

"But if that's true—" Mara proposes, flinching away from the personal conversation they really ought to have, and all its attendant rawness, "—if you die when Fallen attack us, it means I won't stop these people from fleeing to Earth, and the Fallen are going to find us, and we're doomed." She is already building intricate models of how the universe might accommodate fate or doom and how she might go about destroying those things.

"Could be, I suppose." Sjur pulls a parchment-thin rag of dead flesh off Uldren's wound. "Look. I'm the Queen's bodyguard. I always expected I'd die violently."

"I'm not the Queen."

"Maybe that's your problem." She flicks Uldren in the chest, leaving a purple bruise, fading. "What is with you two, anyway? You never talk about him. You never seem to think about him at all. But he's dashing himself to pieces for you. How do live as his favorite and only sister for so many centuries… and hardly even smile at him?"

Secrets, Mara thinks. You've got to have secrets from each other so there's room for him to fill in the gaps with his own happy illusions. Two ships joined together rigidly will tear each other apart if they try to move. But a loose tether leaves room to maneuver—and can be more quickly disengaged, if necessary.

That makes her think of Sjur's prophecy again. She sets the shrapnel down in the dissection dish, very gently. "You won't die. I won't allow it."

Revanche IV

Of all the disasters that might happen in space, riot is the worst. Breaches can be contained, fires can be starved, plague can be quarantined, radiation shielded, heat vented—but a riot has a will of its own: a chaotic ingenuity that corrodes any countermeasure.

Mara crawls through compartments choked with vaporized coolant. She keeps low and clutches the breather to her face. All she can think of is Kelda Wadj's last message and the data attached. "Mara. The paracausal effects are strongest around you. Whatever's happened to us, you are the locus. I cannot overstate how subtle and how important this discovery might be. Mara, when we use radioactive decay as a trigger for simulated bombs—bombs that could harm Awoken—the trigger atoms are a thousandfold less likely to decay near you. People are literally safer when you are around."

She has to get into the riot. She has to protect her people.

A horrible groan vibrates through the habitat structure, and then, with an apocalyptic shudder, something tears off the Reef. A ship. A ship is leaving. Mara has failed.

Mara drops onto her belly and pants into the mask. Then, cringing in anticipation of migraine, she activates the augment, the jury-rigged machine her eutechs produced for exactly this purpose by extracting Mara's ruined Distributary implants and reworking them. She's going to fire a command override to shut down that ship's systems—

—but then she realizes it's a salvaged Human vessel, deaf to her commands.

She gasps in frustration, sucking down cold bottled air. "Sjur."

"I'm here," her radio whispers. "Pinned down in the dockmaster's office. I shot a few in the shoulders, and they seem to have gotten the idea."

"Let them go. If one ship's away, there's no sense holding back the rest. Our position is compromised."


"Broadcast to everyone. I'm going to allow anyone who wants to leave the Reef to go. This their one and only chance." She rolls onto her back and stares up into the swirling vortices of coolant, seeing faces, futures, the lives she has just lost, the lives she might yet lose. She brought her people here to die in the sense that she brought them into mortality—but she never wanted it to happen quickly.

"They know, your Majesty," Sjur says. "They already know."


"You told us. We heard your voice." Awe like gratitude in Sjur Eido's voice. "Mara, I heard you. You spoke to me."

Revanche V

Thus the riven Awoken were riven again, into Reefborn and Earthborn. Those who left went to scour the ruins for lost history and give some succor to their Human cousins who still clung to a hostile world. The Awoken came unto these Humans like nephilim, armed with lost weapons, forgotten industry and medicine. They were like omens of hope, for they were often taken to be starborn colonists returned to the hearth, which was not, after all, so far from truth. All who looked on them saw that the night sky contained more than lurking doom. They bred true with each other and sometimes hybridized with Humans, and in the course of centuries, many forgot the Distributary and even the Reef. However, there was always in their souls an itch, a vector pointing to a distant place in the Asteroid Belt, where their Queen still dwelt.

"They've made a difference already," Sjur told Mara not long after the first Awoken made planetfall on Earth. "They'll save so many lives just with the provision of medicine, pure water, and construction supplies that even if they all died by year's end, they would each yield ten or twenty Humans."

"I know," Mara said, with bitter pride. "Let the people remember them as saints and paladins, and tell no one how many more they might've saved if they had only kept the faith." For she knew the precious value of each Awoken life: She knew how many she would have to spend and mourned each soul wasted on a lesser purpose.

On the day the Fallen struck, Mara was proclaimed Queen. It happened swiftly, though after no little debate among the people, for everyone was afraid of a monarch who could speak to their thoughts. Yet they feared more to deny her power and sovereignty, for they had come between worlds in her name. To refuse her would be to refuse their choice.

"Awoken," she told them, "for the first time in my life, I hesitated to reach for power, and now one in three of you are gone. I cannot deny what the cosmos has made of me any longer. I am your one and rightful Queen."

She knew she had been a fool to pretend to be a peer to the others. What was true of her brother was true of all Awoken. They needed secrets to marvel at, secrets that rhymed with the deep enigma of their souls. They could not follow what they fully understood.

There would be a formal coronation later, in a place not yet built. Out of respect for that unhappened coronation, Mara did not at first wear a crown; and later she claimed as her diadem the ring of event horizon that surrounds the observable universe.

"My techeuns," she said, gathering Kelda Wadj and the other eutechs who'd remained, "will be given absolute authority to explore our new power, the Traveler's relics, and all associated domains. We are no longer in the realm of pure science. We require an order of mysteries and witches to tend to them."

Not an hour later, a Fallen Ketch threw off its stealth and began a deceleration burn toward 4 Vesta. The four-armed predators had traced one of the Earthward ships back through all its erratic course changes and to the Reef. They came in search of the source of these blue ape-kin.

A salvo of coherent-matter guns gutted the Ketch: blink-quick death for the mighty ship, ancient fury compressing matter into a relativistic pinhead. It was a waste of weapons that couldn't be recharged or reloaded, however, and the Baron in command had already scattered his skiffs like camouflaged seeds. The Fallen Raiders came down all over the Reef and cut their way inside. The Awoken, young to mortality, terrified of death, fled in fear.

Mara, Uldren, and Sjur Eido rallied as many as they could. Sjur fought in a powered combat shell, but Mara needed to be seen vulnerable, silver-haired and narrow-eyed, hurling herself at the enemy. She fought with pistol and dagger, and her brother moved like a wraith at her flank. Her people were ashamed of their timidity. No more were the Fallen scuttling alien predators: Now they were an indignity, an offense to regal privilege to be met with a snarl and a rifle shot. The Awoken saw their desperation: how the stump-limbed Dregs stumbled forward emaciated, how the Vandals cringed from battle as they peeled off wall panels, desperate for salvage to please their Captains.

Armored Sjur Eido met the Fallen Baron in zero-gravity combat above his spider tank and shot him dead, one adamant shaft through plate and throat. Ether hissed into vacuum. Sjur threw herself upon the spider tank that clung to the Sacred Fire's hull. Laughing in joy, she cut into the tank's barrel and threw a charge inside, knowing its next vengeful shot would be meant for the Sacred Fire's main habitat drum—and that she would die in the catastrophic misfire.

The tank fired. The charge detonated. Sjur Eido was thrown clear, utterly unharmed.

"That was where I should have died," she said, in wonder—and in her mind was the smiling face of her Queen.

August 30, 2018
by @kiroi


Palingenesis I

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.

Palingenesis II

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.

August 30, 2018
by @kiroi

Nigh / Katabasis

Nigh I

"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?"

Nigh II

"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 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."

August 30, 2018
by @kiroi


Imponent I

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.

Imponent II

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.

Imponent III

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-grey 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.

Imponent IV

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."

Imponent V

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.

August 30, 2018
by @kiroi
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