O, King of Woe, may your war last forever, may my sons be unworthy to fight, may I die disgraced in my bed.
THE HERD GATHERED AT SHADOW EBB, one by one and in groups, first to graze, and then to dream. They stood, heads held aloft, bearing the full weight of their double row of horns, or hanging low as though drowsing. But inwardly, they raced. Led by Riod, they joined above the roamland plain, circling, calling their herd mates, calling in that silent manner suited to the heart-joined.
Once Riod sensed enough were gathered, he led them in a communal act of will: the penetration of the dreams of the Entire. It was not difficult. All the Entire slept at the same time. All the Entire fell into Shadow Ebb at the same time, and therefore many were likely to be dreaming at once.
After his return from Rim City, Riod leached the poisons from his body by exhausting runs across the steppe. He was recovered, but riderless, a loss he felt acutely. But he was with Sydney in his intention as he led his fellow mounts into dream-space. There they told of the betrayal of the Long War: How for hundreds of thousands of days, the sons and daughters of the Entire had died on the plains of Ahnenhoon for a war that meant nothing. The Paion would have surrendered with a small concession: that the lords join their minoral back to the body of the world. But the gracious lords chose not to.
The Long War suited the lords. It united the primacies against an outside enemy. It deflected attention from the Tarig themselves, who ruled like gods, but who were pitiable, fearful creatures afraid of true life. At will, and over and over again, individual Tarig went home to the comfort of the Heart, a land of fire where all the Tarig melded into a singular consciousness. These were the beings who claimed to be gracious lords, who supposedly shared the life of the Entire. They were nothing but simulacra—a mode of being so removed from the general experience as to be no living thing at all.
Milinard the Jout tossed on his couch in the Magisterium. In his dreams he saw the Paion rap on the door of a Tarig lord. Let me in, for I am dying, the Paion cried. It was a small, weak creature, and a starving one. Though Milinard feared the Paion as much as the next sentient, he had to admit this Paion was to be pitied. The table of the lord was heaped high with food. Share with me but one meal, the Paion cried. But the lord turned away. In fury, the Paion set fire to the house of the Tarig. Out from the fiery house poured the inhabitants, but to Milinard’s surprise, it was not Tarig who ran out, but Jout soldiers, bodies on fire. They died painfully, and their wives wailed at their demise.
Fajan slept on good silk sheets at his mother’s dwelling in Rim City. He was tired from days of street parties, but his sleep alarmed him. He woke, sweating, heart racing. He’d had these dreams last night, too. And what dreams! Too crisp to be normal fugues of the mind, these dreams surely bore a message. The Long War must be resisted. It is not fought to save the Entire, but was needlessly provoked by the Tarig. Most of the morts refused service in the Long War. Now their instincts were proven right. Too agitated to return to bed, Fajan paced. Were the dreams emanations from a navitar? Who else would know such deep secrets? He looked around at his comfortable room in his mother’s house. What was he doing, playing at mort by ebb and the good son by day? Maybe Tai was right, that there were bigger things to do. What had Tai asked him? What if we had to risk our lives for something worthwhile?
He wondered if the undercity shared this dream. Who could still love the Tarig after a night like this? He hurriedly dressed and slipped into the Way. The dream of the severed minoral lingered in his mind. Had the lords really cut off the sway of the Paion? It might seem unthinkable, except that it was happening again. News had been arriving by pieces every hour from travelers coming to Rim City. There was no proof yet, only rumors—that many minorals of the Arm of Heaven primacy had collapsed in the last arc of days. Things were not what they had been. The All was changing. As disturbing as that might be, it thrilled him.
Zhiya dozed in a chair by Quinn’s bed, keeping near in case his wound woke him. He’d been lucky. The gun pellet entered the right side of his chest just below the pectoral muscle, missing both heart and liver, fortunately for him. The healer had used a chest tube to drain the fluid, but Quinn still slept sitting up. Helice had very nearly killed him, though, and Zhiya dearly wished that her own operatives had earlier managed to assassinate the creature. With such murderous thoughts, it was perhaps no wonder she had violent dreams.
Quinn had told her that the Inyx sent the dreams, though. She watched his troubled sleep, wondering how close his dreams were to her own, and what he made of the current subject matter—nightmare matter. Holding her eyes open for as long as she could, she put off further dreaming, but ultimately sleep crept toward her from the corners of her mind. The dream came, stronger and more clearly, of the falsity of the Long War. One part of her mind evaluated the dream, while another part was swept away by it. Surely even the Tarig couldn’t be so monstrous. Could the Long War be such a lie? And would the Tarig cut off a primacy, set it loose from the All? In her dream she was in her dirigible outside the Entire. It moved slowly, trying to catch the severed minoral, a tube of geography rushing ahead of her into the void.
Cixi did not sleep in the ebb. The high prefect had held court in ebb time for so long, it would not do to change her custom now. But she had learned, between audiences with petitioners, to meditate—to meditate so profoundly that she caught glimmers of the nightmare dreams of the Inyx. She paced in agitation, looking out at the palatine hill. From Mo Ti’s former reports, she knew the Inyx stole into dreams. But how had Sydney and her band come into the knowledge of the false Long War? Surely Cixi with all her operatives would have known this first. She sighed, considering these swift changes. Sen Ni rose in power, thank the All. But the dear girl was doing it without her. Where was Mo Ti, and why had he not reported by now how Sen Ni fared? In all her spies’ gatherings from Rim City, none had mentioned the eunuch being in her attendance. If he was dead, he had done his duty—to protect Sydney among the Inyx and to plant in her heart the seeds of power. Wherever Mo Ti was, perhaps he was no longer needed. Cixi remembered that once Mo Ti had gone for a soldier. She wondered what he thought of the Tarig now, realizing that he had fought for nothing.
Su Bei was weary of ships of the Nigh and bekus and the eternally late trains of the far-flung primacies. He was too old for this undertaking. It was one thing to journey millions of miles on the bilious ships and on the backs of bekus; but it was quite another to travel with many boxes of stone well computational devices, such as had to be set up at experimental minorals all through the All. He had to admit he could never have accomplished so much without Anzi. But still, he had found nothing in his relentless search, nothing that would help Titus Quinn.
Search for the Heart, the messenger had said. Titus will control the Heart. Wanted to control it, by the Miserable God. High time the man came into his destiny, though Bei well knew Titus didn’t see himself that way. His vision was expanding, though: no longer just to save the daughter, now it was to save the Rose. Still, it brought Titus to the same place: control. And from there, the Chalin people had their chance to rise.
Yes, all to the good, but at the present moment, Bei could be no help to Titus. In this small, foreign reach set up by some long-dead scholar, he could see nothing. The Heart was not accessible here. So he and Anzi would be on the move tomorrow. He needed rest and hoped this ebb would grant sleep without nightmares such as the vivid dream of that nightmare rush down the minoral with Anzi, and the thunderous closing of the minoral. . . .
He threw the covers off and shuffled to the long-disused veil-of-worlds.
The screens of the stone wells were dark. Not malfunctioning, but simply dark. Most universes were empty of light as well as mass. This certainly was not the Heart that the poor ship keeper spoke of. If the stone wells ever found a realm of bursting light, his alarms would wake the dead. He had made sure he and Anzi did not sleep through any discoveries. The stone wells would clang like the Ascendancy falling from the sky.
Instead of sleeping, Helice gazed at her image in the mirror. She hardly recognized herself, with her scabs turning spongy and seeping. Her eyes simmered with an unnatural intensity. It was quite possible, she now allowed, that she was dangerously ill. Trying to recover in this dingy underworld was proving impossible. It had been—what?—thirty days now since she’d arrived in Tai’s nasty little burrow. For a while she had seemed to improve with the ointments Tai brought her. Until today. The infection was back with a sudden ferocity. This should not be happening.
Amid the squalor of Tai’s burrow, among the dirty plates and piles of clothes, Helice barely had room to sit and spread out her work. The mSap was in the corner, humming away, probing for fluctuations in the electromagnetic signature of the Ascendancy. In another corner lay a pile of soil from Tai’s digging project, where he was tunneling out a back door in case of need.
Frankly, Tai had saved her life, and she’d been eager to promise him all that he asked. He deserved it, though his excavation raised dust that made her worry about her mSap. She kept it covered, although overheating was a problem too. But the tunnel was prudent; she needed an escape route. Anuve would be looking for her. The Tarig bitch would never forget how Helice had duped her. Helice wondered if, weeks ago, Anuve had figured out what the mSap was, or if Sydney had immediately capitulated and told Anuve everything.
In her present condition, Tai’s hospitality was essential. Without this hiding place the Tarig would have found her by now. Also a concern: she suspected Quinn was still alive to stalk her. And Mo Ti was working for him. Mo Ti! How had Quinn won the big troll over? Mo Ti might have told him of her plans. Her renaissance plans that she had confided to Sydney, but that Mo Ti had been lurking around to hear.
Raising her chin, she inspected the wreck of her skin. She thought she had a fever.
How could so much be going wrong given her initial spectacular successes? Her colleagues in the Rose had calibrated their engine to match the outputs at Ahnenhoon. She had crossed over to the Entire, following Quinn through many difficulties. She’d managed to win over Quinn’s daughter, who had a goal so close to her own it was breathtaking.
But now a small, vile bacterium had taken hold. Exploiting her lack of natural Entirean immunity, it might get out of hand. She pushed the mirror away on the bed so she wouldn’t look at herself accidentally. The Entire— that place she had thought of as rebirthing humankind—might well kill her as though she were nothing but an ideal disease vector.
It was a thought she had not allowed herself to consider until his moment. Was that long life of the Entire to be denied her? She let the black thought do its worst. It penetrated her. As she sat, helpless before this strong possibility, as her mind grappled with the preposterous notion of its own demise, she came to a place of calm. A cold place, yes. But not paralyzing. If she knew she couldn’t share in humanity’s renaissance, would she still be here? Did mankind’s resurrection matter if she was gone?
If the worst was coming, did she still give a shit about the plans?
From the cold place within, she extracted an answer. Nothing would change. She would still go to the Tarig and demand a sway for her people. It surprised her that she wasn’t more cynical. She’d fought her whole life for recognition and advancement. Altruism carried the sour whiff of entitlement. Yet, here she was doing something for others. This great scheme had never been solely about her. It was about giving humanity back to the fittest, and if necessary she would die for the cause. So much nicer, of course, if it weren’t necessary.
So much more palatable if Tai could just find some fucking antibiotics.
She lay down on her cot again, silently urging the mSap to succeed in its search for cross-over points—points surely in constant use by the Tarig. Hurry, little friend, hurry.
Closing her eyes, she tried to rest, but the thought surfaced, was she doing everything she could? Surely she could reprogram the AI to perform better, to screen out the perturbations of the chaotic environment. Or perhaps the problem wasn’t so much the mSap as the hovel itself.
She began to think of needed improvements. Thinking was the one great skill of Helice Maki, the gift that made her practically a twin to any machine sapient. Therefore it was not long before an idea began to blossom in her mind.
The mSap should have solved this problem by now. Being underground was not ideal; it inhibited the search pulses. But what if she used the space-time foam on the other side of these walls? The exotic matter led from the Sea of Arising to the great glittering columns, straight to the heart of the Ascendancy.
As the idea formed, she stood up in her excitement. She’d use the Nigh as her conduit. It wasn’t an impediment, it was a transmission pathway. It was worth a try. To test it, she’d need to do a little programming.
And Tai would need to find a room with a view.
It was late in the ebb as Tai wound his way to his burrow. He had spent his day’s wages on food, wrapped in a paper bundle to bring home to Hel Ese. After all these days of providing for her, his savings were almost gone; but it was more than worth it, to befriend a woman of the Rose.
He hurried down the street, eager to be home, but also curious to see what was brewing. All evening the street outside the foodery had been crowded with sentients, knots of morts and others, talking furtively of the dreams. Up ahead, Tai saw that a small rally was under way in front of one of the wine dens. Someone stood on an overturned cart, exhorting bystanders.
The dreams of the Long War had touched a nerve. Everyone here knew someone who came back wounded from the war—even if healed by Tarig largesse, and most knew someone who had died. It was permissible not to go for a soldier, but it put you at a disadvantage for the Magisterial examination. The tests determined whether you could enter into the great meritocracy and, through higher levels of exam, how quickly you would progress through the ranks. So if you cared to spend your life in the civil service of the Radiant Land as a clerk, steward, or any manner of legate whatsoever, you had to pass the examinations. Former soldiers promoted as quickly as the brightest of scholars. The system, morts had long noted, put all sentients at odds with each other, striving to pass the tests and surpass each other on the scramble to the top. If your family had money, they could afford tutors to ensure their sons and daughters did well. For the poor and those lacking military service, on the other hand . . . well, morts had no intention of wasting their lives in the civil service in any case: the very emblem of a dismal, repetitive, haggish life.
Tai had heard it all before, and moved past the small crowd, watching for seven-foot figures, listening with half an ear to the orator . . .
By the bright, he knew that speaker. It was Fajan. Blue feathers. He stopped to stare at Fajan as he spoke with passion about how the navitars were sending visions of the great lie of the Long War.
Tai listened to him with amazement. Fajan the flash boy, Fajan the ogler at rivitars . . . here he was, talking of the Tarig and their deceptions. Their eyes met. Fajan nodded at him and paused, as though to say: You were right.
Moved and startled, Tai listened to Fajan as he gave himself to a cause.
Young morts were murmuring, peppering his speech with shouts of encouragement. “Fajan!” the chant began.
Then someone was pushing through the crowd, raising his hands for silence, for a chance to speak. By his conservative dress, a Red, Tai guessed.
He was older than most in the crowd, his dark-streaked hair bound in a clasp at his neck.
“No proof,” he called out. “Dreams are no proof.”
Though the crowd growled at this, the Red spread his arms, imploring reason: “Why trust a dream sent by traitors? Have you thought who might be manipulating the dreams of us all? Might it be the darklings themselves, the very ones the gracious lords search for?”
The crowd called out insults and Fajan tried to speak over his opponent, but the Red was a big man, and his voice carried. “Remember that you’re guests in our sanctuary. You call it the undercity, but it is the sanctuary of the Society. You are here by our sufferance, not to gather in traitorous cells, and not to burn resin and think you have knowledge from heaven. . . .
The crowd surged forward. Fajan was hollering for restraint. A young woman threw a stone. Pandemonium broke out.
Coming down the street were three Tarig, moving fast. Tai backed up toward the building frontage and moved quickly down the street, melting into an alleyway. He didn’t like abandoning Fajan; but these days, Hel Ese came first.