Imponent

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.