The Heart. Ancestral home of the gracious lords, land of remembrance of the Sleeping Lord, the heavenly womb of the All.
—from Hol Fan’s Glossary of Needful Terms
HELICE STARED INTO THE DEPTHS OF THE SEA OF ARISING. It was bloody amazing. If she weren’t so intent on practical matters, she would sit here forever and study the foam of the sea. She was a kid in a candy store, an mSap engineer in particle heaven. She was a tad worried about gamma rays, but they didn’t seem to kill anyone in the Entire prematurely.
Tai was nearby, studying. Busy little beaver that he was, he was memorizing a list of English words and phrases Helice had given him against the day he’d need them in the Rose. Friend; My name is Tai. Where is the bathroom?
She was happy to help him. Her mood had skyrocketed within an hour of setting up shop in this new location. It was so lovely when mSaps performed their feats. They had a grace, precision, and power she had admired since she was old enough to build her first simple computer. She’d been twelve.
Earlier in the day, Tai had brought her to a mort hangout where, he had assured her, there was a porthole to the sea. Although empty now, the place had once been a favorite of some of Tai’s friends, but these same morts were now afraid of the old haunts. The lords were jumpy after a murder of one of their own.
It wouldn’t be long now before she could send Tai on his new mission: to the Ascendancy. To get things ready.
Outside, voices from the street penetrated. She cut a glance at the door, anxious.
Tai looked up from his tablet, then went back to his memorizing, his lips moving to form the words, foreigner; please; pardon me; hungry.
For the first time in weeks, Helice felt a surge of hope. The little machine that she had smuggled into the Entire, that she had carried on her back down the torturous descent of the crystal bridge, had just proven itself worthy. By virtue of her move to a new burrow, and concentrating on the search pathway offered by the sea, her machine sapient had found in the Ascendancy a particular and peculiar interface point along two branes. This locus generated a high wind of particles, much more intense than the bright itself, for instance.
She believed this was the Tarig access point. The doorway to their home place. The thing that Sydney and her crew were desperately looking for.
Once in position along the wall of the burrow, it had taken the mSap sixteen seconds to identify the interface site in the Ascendancy. Fourteen of those seconds had been devoted to creating a new reference grid with which to identify a location in the cityscape.
This doorway was not a broad, permeable field. Instead, it was a junction point, a slit through which information passed; through which Tarig passed. In solitary and titanic fashion, the junction leaked its gravitational anxiety, requiring a monumental force to keep it open. It required all the energy represented by, say, a whole galaxy, to maintain itself. The Tarig would not likely produce a lot of them. Helice reasoned, therefore, that the Tarig had only one door. But it was a pipe bigger than any she’d ever heard of.
However, though she had the junction point coordinates, she couldn’t translate them into an understandable location. For one thing, she didn’t know what the Ascendancy looked like, or how it was laid out. But still. She was on the verge of climbing into negotiating position with the CEOs of the universe. After a few guarantees were in place. Such as: I can blow your door to kingdom come if you aren’t nice.
In his corner, Tai formed his English words silently with his mouth, aware that he couldn’t talk while Helice was working: bed; love; thank you; clothes store.
She smiled at him. So earnest.
One didn’t approach the Tarig and ask permission for a contingent of savvies to come over, not without assurances. Therefore Tai would have to go and set in motion certain assurances. He had an excuse to go to the Ascendancy: a Jout subprefect had ordered him to be on the lookout for Rose fugitives. He’d tell the subprefect that he thought he’d seen the fugitive Rose woman, someone who looked very suspicious on the street. It would be fairly useless information, but it would be Tai’s excuse to be in the Ascendancy and would provide the opportunity for him to put in place her little guarantee.
So much to lose. The stakes had always been great: the survival of humanity, her preferred version of it. The preservation of the Entire as the repository of many far-flung cultures. But there was so much more. The Tarig, never mind their tendency toward domination, had been around for hundreds of thousands of years. They’d had time to master higher-order space-time and create the Entire. Their scientific understanding was of incalculable value.
They’d made some strange choices with their knowledge. They’d created this tunnel world and made it a meeting-ground cosmos for intelligent species. They’d chosen to live in those frightening bodies—tall, thin, metallic-looking—no doubt intended to convey awe and menace, but they’d rather overdone the menace part. Furred or feathered might have been a better start. She missed her pet macaw. Why couldn’t masters of the universe ever look like birds?
Nevertheless she was looking forward to conversations with the Tarig about so many things. For example, their truly ingenious products, such as the sea she was gazing at through the porthole. Structurally, it was indistinguishable from the Nigh. Helice conjectured that these geocosmic structures of the Tarig were all related. Beginning with the storm walls—those were indisputably gravitational turbulence. People even called the walls a storm. Then there were the water analogs to the Rose: the Nigh and the Sea. The Nigh, though key to so much of the workings of the Entire, was also merely turbulence, in this case, temporal and spatial. Ditto the Sea of Arising, source of all the Nighs. But the storm walls and the Nigh were secondary constructs.
The primary construct—from a physics standpoint at least—was the bright, the greatest of the Tarig creations. She theorized that the bright was generated by energy sucked from neighboring universes. The most efficient way to accomplish this was along the interface of branes. In whatever way the Tarig drew down that energy, they chose to selectively perturb the interface to give off heat and light only across the vast sky of the Entire. It was a shame the Tarig hadn’t come up with a more sustainable world, but of course, from their standpoint, it was sustainable. Supply-side solutions always came to mind first. The very crux of the Rose/Entire geogalactic differences.
Damn, but this was fun. She profoundly wished she had more time to think.
She glanced at Tai. Yes, still studying, now on rising inflection: lonely? help me? job?
It was time to redirect her energies. She was programming the assembler module of the mSap to create a cell with a smart detonator. In stage one, the explosive burst would create just enough damage and smoke to get attention.
Can do, Helice thought merrily. She was a sapient engineer. Just the right person for the job, as she’d tried to explain to Stefan not long ago, when he hadn’t listened and had sent the wrong person to do the job she should have had. Well, Stefan’s punishment was that he wasn’t on the list.
So Stefan, you see? You aren’t coming along for this jaunt. You aren’t coming along to the future at all.
Tai interrupted her thoughts. “How do you say ‘the Entire’ in English?”
“You might not want to use that word over there.”
“But they’ll figure out I’m a . . . foreigner. I’ll be honest.”
“They don’t think of this place as everything that exists.”
He frowned, trying to figure out her point. “Neither do I.”
Well then, you will all get along famously, she thought. She pushed away feelings of guilt. She wasn’t going to admit to an admirer of Titus Quinn that she planned to make short work of the Rose. Tai would go, if she could arrange it. He’d have a short life. Likely it would be quite intense.
She gave him the translation, and he wrote it in his tablet.
The excitement from her day of discoveries was wearing off, and she leaned against the burrow wall, feeling nauseous. Just a little sleep, and she’d be able to work. Her throat felt like she’d swallowed thumbtacks. Best to get to the Tarig soon and have a look in their bag of medical tricks. Closing her eyes, she slept.
Tai woke her up, urgently. She snapped awake, thinking of pursuit, of giant, thin mantis lords . . .
“It’s at the porthole!” he whispered.
She turned to look. Something . . . something was out there. She stared at it. Nothing could be in the sea.
“A rivitar,” Tai whispered. At her look of incredulity, he continued, “I don’t know what it really is, but morts call it a rivitar. I’ve seen it once before.”
It was a cube about one foot square. Images flickered on every side of it; faces of the sentients of the Entire. Helice and Tai stared it, transfixed. The sides of the cube appeared to stare back.
Very slowly, Helice knelt down next to the mSap and touched the screen. The box outside the porthole was emitting a tight-beamed light stream of encoded data. She selected the mSap’s decryption functions. The thing in the river had an unusual energy signature, with fundamental particles exploding from nowhere in what had the appearance of a sustained virtual light. So the thing was only virtually present and yet sending messages, a nice little feat.
The mSap had not yet made sense of what was surely a message. So far it looked very much like static. It could also be something that looked like random static: a perfectly encrypted message.
While the mSap worked, Helice lowered herself to the floor, propping herself up against a piece of abandoned furniture. Through the distortion of the exotic matter, the faces on the cube’s sides were clear: a Hirrin, a Jout, Ysli, Inyx, Chalin. Tai identified a creature she’d never seen before, a Gond.
“Tell me what you know,” Helice whispered, and Tai did: He called it a rivitar. It came now and then to portholes here. Some of his friends had seen it often. But he knew, essentially, nothing.
Whatever this was, it had made an effort to elude Tarig detections. That by itself made the object an item of interest. Perhaps it had been attracted by the pings Helice had been sending. She indulged her curiosity; she’d give the mSap an hour to decode the static.
A hot weariness fell over her. She let herself close her eyes. . . .
The mSap woke her up with a vibration.
How she could have fallen asleep under the circumstances astonished her, but she was wide awake now. “Don’t let me sleep,” she instructed Tai. He sat on his heels, staring at the thing in the river.
On the screen, a line of type.
She scrambled over to it, peering closely.
. . . PLACE SUFFICES. JINDA CEB HORAT CONCEDE TO ANY PRIME REGION. MESSAGE REPEATS.
It was a recording.
JINDA CEB HORAT ACKNOWLEDGE SENTIENTS. ONCE OF THE PRIME REGION, JINDA CEB COME AGAIN, NOW WITHOUT THREATS.
You will find pleasant interface. Do you acknowledge?
On the same frequency, Helice sent a ping.
JINDA CEB HORAT, ONCE OF THE PRIME REGION LONG SIGHT OF FIRE, SEND PLEASANT QUERY. JINDA CEB REQUEST JUNCTION. TAR IG NAME US PAION. ONCE, IN LONG SIGHT OF FIRE, TAR IG WISHED TO DIMINISH ENERGY EXPENDITURE THAT SUSTAINED THE JINDA CEB HOME. THE DWELLING PLACE SEVERED, JINDA CEB BECAME ALONE. JINDA CEB APPROACHED WITH UNPLEASANT INTERFACE TO SECURE THE DWELLING PLACE AT LOCUS AHNEN-HOON. WHAT HAS BEEN THE CAUSE OF DYING IS UNNECESSARY. JINDA CEB SEND QUERY TO RETURN. PLEASANT DWELLERS OF THE PRIME REGIONS MAY DECIDE. TAR IG DO NOT DECIDE. JINDA CEB HAVE PROCEEDED MANY DAYS TO LIMIT ENERGY DEMANDS. JINDA CEB HORAT LIVE A BILLION DAYS BEYOND YOU OF THE ALL, IN A TIME STREAM OF HIGH VELOCITY. JINDA CEB ASK FOR JUNCTION. ONE SINGLE SMALL PLACE SUFFICES. JINDA CEB HORAT CONCEDE TO ANY PRIME REGION. MESSAGE REPEATS.
Helice pinged again. The message repeated.
Tai looked at her with barely controlled excitement. “What does it say?”
He couldn’t read it over her shoulder. The message from the Jinda ceb Horat had been in English.
“It said—” Helice paused to gauge how much she wanted to tell Tai.
This apparition in the exotic matter was a challenge to the Tarig, and no mistake. Undoubtedly, this was another highly technically capable species; one so advanced it knew to send the mSap a message in English. She considered telling Tai it was confidential, but that might not be wise. If he was going to risk even more danger for her, a little trust was in order.
“The message, it claims, is from the Paion.”
He turned a dumbfounded expression on her. “Paion?”
Helice was still staring at the cube submerged in exotic matter, diving in it as though it were a real sea. How did it happen that the message came to her in English? Perhaps the cube had accessed her mSap. That was a troubling thought. She was nothing without the mSap and she’d have no one fiddling with it.
The cube winked out of existence.
Helice let go a breath she hadn’t known she was holding. A Paion. It was trying to stop the war, and it was going around the Tarig to do so. She wished, she mightily wished, it had stayed longer.
She sat back against the wall, her mind racing. “It was an image bearing a message. It just repeats the same thing, over and over. But yes, it was Paion.”
Tai ran his fingers along the porthole in wonder. “What did they say?”
“They claim to be very old. Their time—Paion time—has been going much faster than yours. They may be a couple million years older than your civilization by now.”
“Time changes speed?”
She blinked at him. Didn’t they teach these people anything? “Each universe, each dimension is different that way.” She went on, “It sounds like they want some land. Land they once had in the Entire and that the Tarig took away.” She went back to the mSap, rereading. “No, they want to attach to any of the primacies, not just the . . .” here she traced the words on the screen with her finger . . . “not just at the Long Gaze of Fire. So, attaching to a primacy would make them a minoral.”
Tai was gazing thoughtfully into the pale light of the river. “They used to have a closed-off minoral, so the dreams say.”
Yes, Sydney and the horses were busy again, doing their dream spam.
How had she known, or how had the Inyx discovered, that the Paion had been cut off in their minoral? And what a fine piece of propaganda it was, to make the Tarig look ruthless! Apparently it was true, or the Jinda ceb wanted people to think so. The topic begged for resolution, but she had to put it away for a time. She was exhausted, and more immediate work lay ahead of her.
Meanwhile, it was important that no one know about this. No one must know she had an mSap.
“Keep this secret, Tai. Or the Tarig will come for me. You don’t want that, do you?”
“Haven’t I proven this?”
He was hurt. It was difficult for her to nurture him along, to know how much to tell him. She softened her tone. “Yes, you’ve proven yourself, Tai.
You’ve been a good man. The Rose will thank you.”
She closed her eyes, resting them, thinking. The Paion message suggested they were trying to stop the Long War. And that they wished to return to what they apparently thought of as their homeland. How could this be useful? But she didn’t have time to figure the Jinda ceb into her strategy.
They were, if anything, a distraction from her purpose. The last thing she needed right now was a game-changing new player on the field.
That being the case, it was lucky that she and Tai were the only ones who’d heard this message.
Renaissance was still on. Time to get back to it.