The station of navitar is neither sought after by petitioners nor bestowed by the Magisterium. Far otherwise! The pilot is chosen by the Nigh.
—from The Radiant Way
ON BOARD THE NAVITAR VESSEL, Sydney’s hair whipped around her face.
She was sailing toward the Ascendancy, toward civilization, and toward her confrontation with the Tarig. She could not have said at that moment which of these she found more exhilarating. Oh, Mo Ti, they handed it to me.
Rim City. Since the day Mo Ti had suggested a scheme to supplant the Tarig, she’d known she would return to the Ascendancy. Now she’d be a stone’s throw away. Mo Ti, look at me now.
She welcomed the wind in her face like the breath of the steppe as she rode her mount, like the future hitting her fresh and hard. Having emerged from the binds, the ship skimmed over the Sea of Arising, bearing only her, Helice, and Riod. And her watchful escort, Lady Anuve.
Before her lay a smudged curve of land that was the closest shore of Rim City; behind and much further away, the glowing pillars of the Ascendancy.
She wondered why they sailed at all, when the pilot could have aimed closer to their destination. Happily, the navitar provided this slow approach, perhaps for her to savor. If she craned her neck she could see the floating city, the home of all her enemies and her one friend.
Cixi, she thought, I’m almost there. Cixi, I have a sway.
The riders had told her all about Rim City, city of ten billion souls. Around the campfire, they had told her of the never-ending city pierced by the five rivers and linked by bridges. The great crystal bridges arched over not only the rivers, but leaned far away from the storm walls like horseshoes set at an angle in the sand. By this means, a sentient could set out at any point and, with enough time, travel the length of the city, back to the starting point. She was Mistress of this Sway. Although not much more than a decoy, she thrilled to her new prospects.
Riod, however, fared poorly. He lay on a bed of straw in the lean-to the ship keeper had constructed for him. When the vessel had plunged down to the binds, he’d fallen into a festering sleep. Inyx were known for their aversion to the Nigh; he would recover quickly once on solid ground, she trusted. By his side, she had stroked his neck, murmuring that the ship didn’t really descend in the usual sense, and the river didn’t really spill into the hut, as Riod thought. It was an illusion, the mind’s construct to explain sensations. The river matter wasn’t a physical substance, but exotic foam, a turbulence of time and quantum particles—so Helice had explained.
If Riod’s mind was too sensitive to endure the Nigh, no logic would help. She turned from the view and made her way back to him, ducking behind the blanket that served as a privacy curtain.
Helice, standing at the rail, watched Sydney disappear into Riod’s shed. She avoided looking up at the bridge. The Tarig bitch had begun to take notice of her, peering down now and then from her billet in the navitar’s cabin. There was no help for it, though Helice tried to act like Sydney’s minion, one whose voice was ruined by burns from a cook fire.
But not even Anuve could ruin her happiness. She was on her way. Incredibly, all was well on track. Quinn hadn’t used the cirque yet. She wondered why he held off. Did he believe her that the device was too virulent? She’d tried to tell him that, but he was so mistrustful.
His daughter was more malleable. That was because she and Helice shared the same goals: They both wanted to kill Titus Quinn and have the Ascendancy. That made for solidarity, yes it did. Even the horsy creatures were partners, as queer as that was. Well, it was helpful to be able to read the minds of your opponents. Nice little role for the beasts. All working out nicely now.
Except that Quinn was still tromping about with the nan. Dangerous, nasty nan. Can’t control the nan, but can control the man. That was her mantra, and she was sticking to it.
Her first concern, though, was to save the Entire. Some people might conclude it was the wrong universe, but that would be sloppy thinking. Despite being a native of the Rose, she had always felt like an outsider, even as a child. As she’d grown older she’d formed her viewpoint that the world’s capable and energetic were blackmailed by the clueless and indigent. Support us, keep us on the dole, or we’ll rise up.
One might wish to believe in equality. Helice wished to. Unfortunately, people were divided among the haves and have nots. Some have advanced intelligence, some do not. Even those at the level of the somewhat capable, the somewhat educated—the middies—depended on the savvies to grasp the world of the math-based sciences. What did the average citizen know of bio-molecular manipulation or quantum processing, to name but two essential fields? It was all very well to share—but sharing had become a system of entitlements: subsidized food, housing, virtual entertainments. All so gradual that the yoked no longer noticed the dent in their shoulders.
Fatally, it hadn’t occurred to the average citizen that the beast of burden might refuse.
Not that she would have been a revolutionary under normal circumstances. It was just that these weren’t ordinary circumstances. The Tarig wanted to kill the Rose, and they were surely going to succeed. It wasn’t her fault; it wasn’t her choice that the Tarig planned to burn the Rose. But since it had to happen, she would make sure someone got out alive.
And now, who would that be? The folks with capabilities near the lower end of the scale, where nuanced thought just cannot occur, or the mathematicians, physicists, biologists, engineers, and what have you?
It didn’t take more than a femtosecond to make that pick.
She was acutely aware of how it looked, however. Like she was killing the Rose. People who thought so would just have to remember that the Rose was doomed anyway, and therefore they had no right to destroy humanity’s only refuge.
While the Earth’s predicament was regrettable, someone really ought to consider the up side. Renaissance. The renaissance of humanity. Two thousand individuals, selected by an empirical test and, because of time constraints, a little favoritism. The few and the smart. These would cross over and begin things anew in a nice little sway a bit removed from Tarig paranoia. She was sure she could come to terms with the high lords.
Taking a deep breath of Entire air, she let the rays of the bright fall on her skin. The bright might have an effect on regenerative senescence, extending Entirean lives. But it might also have effects on cancer-suppressing proteins and a host of disease- and infection-suppressing genes. All these restorative effects might be the function of some other Tarig technology— but if so, why did the Tarig fret that human lives would be extended here, and therefore attract mass migrations? Whatever the source of the Entire’s healing, she’d be sure to fold that into her list of requests.
The damn Tarig bitch. Still gazing out the window. Not yet, ugly thing. I’m not ready for you yet. Not until my mSap works out exactly where your transfer sites are. A little leverage is a wonderful thing. Pulling her attention away from the view, Helice decided to duck into Riod’s lean-to and give some moral support. A nice thought, and one that Riod might even be reading out of her mind at this moment. She was always careful to think generous and civil thoughts. You never knew when horse-face might be listening.
In the shed, Sydney sponged Riod’s head as he lay on a bed of dried grasses. Though his coat was slicked with sweat and his lovely green eyes were dull, he sent pulses of gratitude to her as she swabbed and curried him. Beloved, he sent. My heart, she formed in her mind, trusting he reached for her thoughts.
Helice sat by Sydney’s side, rubbing ointment into Riod’s hooves and polishing them. The woman of the Rose had once fascinated Sydney, but over her days with the herd, her reluctance to share thoughts or any bond with her mount kept her a stranger. Though the two women were allies now against the Tarig, Sydney was uneasy. Helice had a cold center. But she also had an mSap. Riod felt they needed no machines, but an mSap was no mere machine.
Sydney heard footsteps on the deck and looked up in time to see the curtain pulled aside.
A young man stood before her, dressed in a navitar’s caftan and blinking in the deep shade of the lean-to. When he spoke, his voice was flat and high. “Shall I purge the Inyx? Sometimes that helps.”
The idea startled Sydney. “I don’t think you’d want to be purging an Inyx. Once on shore he’ll be fine.”
He bowed. “I am Geng De, ship’s pilot.”
Riod raised his head, taking an interest in the visitor.
“I saw a mount die on a ship once. That was a sad occurrence; but we are almost to our berth.” The navitar turned a pale gaze on Helice. “You’re the servant calling herself Hei Ling. As you see, I know all my passengers by name.”
Helice made a proper little bow of her head.
Turning to Sydney, the navitar said, “You are a personage, indeed: Mistress of Rim City. The longest city is eager to have a view of you, Sen Ni.”
Sydney exchanged glances with Helice. It made her wary that the navitar knew the name she planned to adopt.
Riod lowered his head once more, beginning a plunge into a nauseated sleep.
He went on, “We should talk quickly, before the Tarig lady comes snooping.” The navitar folded his hands in front of his little paunch belly. “We should get to know each other, Sen Ni. Would you like that?”
It was hard to believe this youngster was a navitar. She’d heard they were half mad, and this one seemed almost normal. “What do you want?”
“Many things, like anyone. I’ve seen a great deal I could want. They aren’t things, though, not like dwellings or jewels. A navitar cares nothing for that.”
He sounded older now, as though he had seen many things.
“What I want today is to tell you about the foaming chain. Where it is.” As the two women stared at him, he said, “Would you like to know?”
“Yes,” Sydney murmured. If he was referring to the chain her father brought as a weapon, she would very much like to know. “Tell me, Geng De.”
“Oh, it’s locked away. In the river, where it can’t hurt us. Aren’t you glad? I hope you’re glad, because I came all the way down from the bridge to tell you.”
“In the river?” Sydney asked. “It fell in the river?”
“No. Your father threw it in the river. It sank right down, and the river sent its contents out of the binds, transferring its energy into a good form for transit. So it’s still down there, but empty. Now, as for the molecular poisons themselves, it would be impossible to describe to you where those have gone. I don’t suppose under-sentients care much for such explanations.”
Sydney was still trying to comprehend their new circumstances. The nan, gone. The weapon, disarmed. “He wanted to throw it in the river?”
Geng De cocked his head, thinking. “I didn’t see any coercion. I just saw the chain sink, and Titus Quinn’s hand flinging it. You knew that navitars see things in the binds?” When Sydney nodded, he went on, “Other navitars saw it too. It’s a reliable reality.”
She exchanged glances with Helice, seeing her own doubt reflected. Helice was bursting to break into the conversation, but her language skills were too weak.
“Why would my father do that?”
Geng De shrugged. “Fear, perhaps.”
Maybe he did the right thing for once, Sydney thought. Helice looked triumphant. Perhaps she took some credit for this.
The navitar moved to the doorway, where a gap in the curtain allowed him to watch the deck. “I’m glad you liked my news. I could tell you other things, too.” Geng De nodded toward Helice. “We should talk alone.”
Sydney let an awkward pause stretch out. Then: “Leave us, Hei Ling,” she murmured. She didn’t like how Helice’s face darkened. But at last Helice left the shed.
Geng De stood in the murky light, shaking his head. “Not good, that one. Anything that you get she’ll want for herself.”
She was disturbed to think Geng De had seen a bad future; on the other hand, he could be making it up. It was too dangerous to discuss these things with him, and she remained silent. He was only a pudgy young man with too much sentience.
“You might need me, Sen Ni. You might need me very much.”
She remained quiet.
“You think she’ll bring fire to the Rose. But what if her plots merely escalate the war between here and there? If war comes, you’ll never get what you want.”
“You know what I want?”
He blinked, as though puzzled that she questioned him. “Most of it. But don’t worry, I won’t tell.” Glancing out the doorway curtain again, he went on. “The more you threaten the Rose, the more they’ll want to kill us. She brings powers into the All—powers that are bad for us.”
“The Rose already wants to kill us.”
“Not really. The people who created the chain never wanted it to kill everything. They just put it together wrong. So you see, you don’t need to take on so many enemies. You’ve divided your efforts”
Sydney grew very quiet. What other enemies did Geng De think she had? How did he know so much?
He murmured. “I know you’ll move against the lords.”
Her heart shrank in her chest. It was unsettling to hear it said out loud, and with Lady Anuve so near.
“You need someone like me,” Geng De said.
“I’m mistress of a sway. I’m not sure I do need you.”
“You should listen to me. I’m not demented, like the others. If you help this woman and her schemes, you bring Titus Quinn against you. He won’t stop even if it means crushing you.”
Sydney had heard all she needed to. He was nothing but a pudgy youngster playing future-reading games. She went to the door, holding the blanket open for him to leave.
He held his ground. “You’re bringing bad threads together. Titus Quinn is a strong thread, if you only knew.”
“I’m not afraid of him.”
“You should be.”
“Maybe he should be afraid of me.”
“He would be, if I stood at your side.”
He glanced out toward the deck. “Do you know how strong the knot is, the one that ties Sen Ni with Geng De?” He locked the fingers of his hands together. “This strong. Strong as the brane that keeps the world. Mighty as the river of the sky.”
“I choose my own counselors.”
“I don’t think you do. She drove Mo Ti away, didn’t she?” Then he shoved past the curtain and headed for the bridge.
He knew her secrets. Did he see things in the binds, as he claimed? She watched as the navitar made his way down the outside deck and ducked into the central cabin. Letting the blanket fall, she sat next to Riod on the floor. She delayed waking him, though she wished for his comfort and advice.
She considered Geng De’s claim that her father had thrown the chain away. Ill-advisedly, she’d sent Mo Ti to kill him, then. She had almost been responsible for her father’s death. Though Helice could not have known it would turn out that way, she was the one who had urged the assassination, to keep the Entire safe. Sydney sat and thought about those who were for her, and those who were against. The sorting was a hard task.
Soon the ship keeper came to say they would dock. She went on deck, filling her lungs with cleansing air. There was no sign of Geng De or Helice. In the crowded waters near the port, ships plowed their courses, hulls streaming mercurial spray, shifting to neon greens and watery sapphire, if her eyes saw true.
As she rounded the prow of the ship, she saw a startling view of Rim City. The metropolis lay in a vast arc before her. With ebb-time lights just emerging, the coast bore a necklace of glittering stones, with the nearest node of the metropolis a central diadem.
Glancing up at the pilot house, she saw Geng De looking down at her. Anuve was nowhere in sight. Geng De bowed, and she nodded a little in return. She might not want him for an advisor. But she didn’t need him as an enemy, either.
Then she turned back to the bejeweled city. She had never lived in a city, much less the largest city in the universe, but she wouldn’t let it change her. She was a child of the roamlands. She knew how to ride an Inyx, command the loyalty of the herd, and fly into the mind of the Tarig. Whatever Rim City would bring, it couldn’t be harder than what she’d already done.
Helice joined her at the railing. “What did he want?” she whispered in English.
Sydney realized with surprise that she was going to lie to Helice. “He wanted to sell us more information.”
Helice was watching her with a considering gaze. “I didn’t think navi-tars were so worldly.”
“I didn’t think so either. This one is different.” It was easy to claim to foretell and to boast of having seen things happening far away. Perhaps he knew little, and only shared the navitar propensity for visions. She would have preferred him as a normal pilot. She would have preferred not hearing that a knot bound them together. She chose not to believe it.
But if she didn’t want him for a friend, she was not so sure she wanted Helice, either.