Seeds and Cuttings
1. On the day she boards the Yang Liwei, they call her Nasya Sarwar. She carries in her knapsack an unopened letter from her brother, her mother's ashes, a selection of seeds and cuttings from her favorite neighborhood trees and plants, and some thirty thousand songs and short videos on a hand-me-down myoelectric augment. On the ship's manifest, Nasya Sarwar is one of two dozen classless Scopares, trash collectors and composters and caretakers devoted to endlessly tidying the many surfaces and people within the Yang Liwei that cannot or do not clean themselves. She hopes through hard work and perseverance, she will prove herself worthy of one of the ship's remaining civilian cryopods, or—even better—a promotion to an Auturge position where she believes she'll find the freedom to devote her waking hours entirely to the loving care of the ship's hydroponics facilities. Nasya is quadrilingual. Several of her fellow Scopares are not: born monolinguals who got lucky in international Exodus lotteries, just like she did. When they realize that she can speak to some of them, they do their best to befriend her. They share meals. They show her photos of the loved ones they left behind. They explain the function of the ship's many impossible machines. In turn, she does her best to teach them how to speak to the others. In this way, they are all a little less alone. She is twenty-seven years old. 2. On the day she awakens in the Distributary, she names herself Nasan Ar. She carries in her hands a small silver jar. A dent has crushed its lid; it is impossible to open. She does not know its provenance, but she feels an inexplicable tugging of grief in her chest when she thinks about walking on without it. She makes herself a home under the largest tree she can find. In the early days, it is little more than a lean-to and a campfire, but she shares it willingly with whoever passes by. Her guests help her transform the lean-to into a proper cottage with several guest beds. One cottage becomes two, then two is three, until three becomes a village. Nasan loves her guests and friends; she loves her little ramshackle community... but she never wished to become mother or mayor. Whenever they gather in the evening for dinner, she feels claustrophobic anxiety press tight around her. She is shackled to the earth by all these people that she loves, and she has no words to explain her own restlessness. She feels monstrous. Why doesn't she love this? Why doesn't she want to stay? One clear night, amid the honey-heavy smell of spring flowers and recent rain, she takes her silver jar and goes out into the dripping dark. 3. She wanders. She tries on lives like she is trying on city-tailored fashions: for a few weeks, she is a Corsair. Then for a whole summer, she is a field hand. When she tires of that, she balances books for an atom merchant who trades in radioactive materials. Nothing holds her. Seeing her silver jar, one man suggests she may be a treasure hunter. The idea sends her deep into a subterranean cavern where she finds no treasure, but instead bioluminescent worms and a Paladin who calls herself Sjur Eido. "If you're looking for a job," Sjur says, "I should introduce you to my boss." 4. On the day Nasan finds her calling, the Diasyrm styles her a translator. It confuses her, because the Speech is the Speech. Variations have developed over time, but none are so distant from each other that two Awoken from around the world cannot speak to each other. "What do you mean?" Nasan asks. "Well," the Diasyrm says. "I've been watching since you arrived. People look to you when they're fighting, and you try to understand each side before you try to help. When you speak, you do it deftly, without condescension." She considers Nasan. "It seems to me that you lend people grace when you help them explain themselves." A little candle of pride flickers in Nasan's throat. "That's just mediation," she says, glancing away. "Don't sell yourself short. Anyone can break up a fight. Few people can so clearly grasp the spirit of a thought, then rephrase it so that deaf ears hear it. Gifts like that can end wars." Thinking on that, the Diasyrm sobers. "We'll have to keep your talent to ourselves, for now. The Sanguine would just as soon cut out your tongue." 5. The Theodicy War is a fact of life until it isn't. The killing stops, but the wounds remain. Nasan helps the Awoken mend. Her friends urge her to speak publicly, to help people on a grander scale, but Nasan believes the most effective change happens in groups of fewer than ten.
Chords of Meaning
6. She is standing in a crowd of thousands when Mara Sov tells the Awoken about the dying world they abandoned. The idea sucker-punches her—one crippling jab to every tender part of her. For four sleepless nights, she can scarcely draw a breath without gulping. She holds her silver jar to her forehead, focusing on its cool constant weight, and knows that she must leave. 7. She finds her old friend Sjur. Amid the feverish departure preparations, there is somehow time for an introduction to Mara. Nasan makes a pledge of herself and her skills. She will do what she can to convince those who might stay behind— "No," Mara interrupts with the bite of unsweetened tea. "I would not ask that of you or anyone else." Nasan hesitates. "Help those who have already made their choice, whatever it is. Help them with the grief." She clasps Nasan's hand. The stress around her eyes eases. "That's more important." 8. The exodus is absolute in its terror. Nasan has never felt such a profound sense of schism—not when leaving lovers, nor communities, nor cherished hiding places. As the Distributary shrinks behind their Hulls, she looks down at the little silver jar in her hands and wonders who she left behind in the world they're returning to protect. She wonders if they might still be alive. 9. Sjur is as plain and ready a companion as she ever was in the Diasyrm's camp, but Mara is an enigma. Nasan feels drawn to her, not by her porcelain beauty, but by her onion-skin layers of defense. There are so many different truths that ring through Mara's carefully chosen words: chords of nuanced meaning that she feels she might be able to separate out into cleaner notes for frightened minds craving simplicity. She does what she can. In quiet hours and fragmented conversations, she becomes an unconventional counselor to the would-be queen. When the first fragile attempts at rebuilding society run afoul of the Long Unquiet Night, then the discovery of the Traveler and the Fallen, and then inevitably turn to riot and desertion, Nasan goes to Mara again to pledge her services. "Let me go after them," she begs, not a day after the proclamation that they all hear in their skulls instead of their ears. "I don't mean to change their minds or convince them to come back. I just—" "Then what DO you mean to do?" Sjur asks curiously. Mara watches her with ageless patience, waiting for her to find the words. Nasan purses her lips. "I want them to understand that you are—that you—that you are good. That you aren't what they think." Seeing Sjur bristle, she holds up her hand. To her relief, Mara makes a slight warding gesture as well. "And if they know that and still wish to live apart from us on Earth, that's fine. That's their choice." "I don't need them to understand that," Mara says softly. There is the faintest husk of grief in her steady voice. "No," Nasan agrees, relieved that Mara is willing to consider this truth. "You don't. You have the courage to be disliked, and that is uncommon. But it is just as important, sometimes, to cultivate good will..." Especially if you have forgotten what it feels like to not know everything, she thinks. Mara looks away. Nasan watches closely and thinks that perhaps she has been heard. Sjur shifts her weight impatiently, tired by all this meaningful silence. It has been a long nineteen hours. "If you go," Mara says finally, "you cannot come back." Nasan hears the truth in it. She reaches to clasp Mara's hand. "Of course." 10. So she goes to Earth. She carries a survival kit, a hunting rifle, and the tarnished silver jar that has followed her through her whole existence. She finds no Awoken as she wanders an empty prairie. She spreads no gospel. It is not two weeks before a band of Risen—wild with fear of themselves, each other, and the unknown—ambush her lonely campsite and kill her in her sleep.
11. On the day her Ghost resurrects her, she asks him for a name and he calls her Orin. He asks her for a name and she calls him Gol. Marrow-deep instinct drives that decision; she could not declare its etymology if someone held a knife to her throat. Gol explains that there is a settlement a few days' walk to the east, that there is no road, and that the wilderness is regularly patrolled by roving aliens who will try to kill them both. As he speaks, Orin looks around. They are surrounded by a young forest vivacious with birds and clouds of gnats. It is impossible to imagine that a deadly alien might be lurking somewhere nearby. But Gol found her. Gol knows more about the world than she does. She trusts him. She scavenges the leaf litter until she finds a fallen tree limb. "Will this help?" she asks him, testing its heft. He twists his wings, puzzled. "...Against the aliens," she elaborates. "Oh." Courteous, he pretends to consider it, then, "No. Probably not. They have guns." "I see," she says, though she doesn't. She breaks off the smaller branches, using her foot for leverage. Soon, she has a crude mace. It is heavy, slow, and does not break when she tests it against a tree trunk. She doesn't know what the aliens look like. She does not know what guns are. She does trust Gol. But, she can't help thinking, if an alien tried to attack her while she was armed with a stick like this, she would have no trouble crushing its skull. 12. They reach the settlement. It is smoldering cinder and ruin. Gol frets about "fission products" and "acute radiation," so Orin lingers at a distance and studies what remains. A cat moves among the most distant rubble, hunting for mice. A tattered banner stirs in the breeze. She sees nothing more, so she ignores Gol's warning and goes in for a closer look. She finds bodies. Adults, mostly. Some children. There are little houses for big animals, but there are no big animals among the dead. "How did this happen?" she asks, overcome by grief for these charred strangers. "Aliens?" "I doubt it. The Fallen don't often use nuclear weapons. It ruins the land. My guess is that a Warlord raided this place for its livestock and then set off a bomb." "Why?" Gol gives a little shrug, bobbing in place. "Why not? No one was here to stop them." Orin clenches her mace a little tighter. She feels nauseous. "Can you tell when it happened?" He runs the computations. "Not precisely. Less than thirty-six hours ago, I suppose." "I should have walked faster," she mutters, and then bends over to be sick. "You can't do that here," Gol interrupts anxiously. "Stop, Orin. Stop. You have radiation poisoning. If you're sick here, you'll die here, and then I'll have to resurrect you here, and you'll be sick and die again and again. You have to move. Come. I told you not to walk around here."
13. Orin graduates from wooden mace to stolen Scorch Cannon, from bare flesh to salvaged plate. The Fallen do not interest her, but they are well-provisioned. She hunts them to better hunt Warlords, and makes many enemies of many older, wilier Risen than she. 14. The Pilgrim Guard finds her pinned down in a box canyon, fighting alone and out of ammunition against a gang of six mercenaries. She is a graceless fighter with an unflappably grim resolve, so when they sweep in to help her, she does not immediately recognize them as the cavalry; she sees them coming, considers the odds, and then raises her empty Scorch Cannon to wield as a maul. Seventeen to one? She'll try her luck. They laugh about it later over weak tea and hardtack. 15. When the Guard invites her to join them, they present her with a war hammer. It is as tall as she is. Along its grip, they've engraved the words I AM THE END OF ALL THINGS in tidy block print. 16. She meets a young woman whose skin looks like hers. "Where did you come from?" Orin asks, staring too hard, standing a little too close. It is impossible not to: every other blue-skinned person she has ever seen has either been dead or a distant figure hurrying for a gleaming ship. The young woman cringes away from her. "The Sinaloan ruins." "Are there other people there like you?" "No." Hearing her question, one of her friends pulls her aside to point up at the sky. "Your people are up there," he says. "They live among the asteroids." "Why aren't they here?" she asks, but he has no answer. 17. The everyday rhythm of the Pilgrim Guard suits her for decades: eradicate Warlords and alien invaders; protect mortal civilians; guide homeless refugees to safety. Their numbers wax and wane over time, but they are forever the watchers-in-the-dark, the living-shield-that-shelters, the ladder-which-humanity-will-climb-toward-rebirth. Inspiring campfire speeches are an endless fact of life, and they buoy her until she begins to recognize the leitmotifs of self-sacrificing heroism. Orin loves her leaders and friends; she loves her little ramshackle community... but she never wished to become soldier or symbol. Whenever they gather in the evening for dinner, she feels claustrophobic anxiety press around her. She is shackled to the wilds by all these people that she loves, and she has no words to explain her own restlessness. Alone on night watch, she tells Gol that she feels monstrous. Why doesn't she love this? Why doesn't she want to stay?
Question After Question
18. There are stories of a massive settlement in the far south. Rumors call it "The Last Safe City," a place of peace and prosperity guarded by indestructible Old Russian warriors who fight alongside twenty-foot-tall wolves (whatever those are). The Pilgrim Guard has heard of many so-called safe cities. They come and go, but mostly they go. Still, they reroute their caravan. The land down south is good: arable, temperate, and with too many indigenous parasites for the Fallen to wish it as a customary home. Even if there is no safe city there, it is a better place to guide civilians than the ravaged deserts and plains of the north. Orin hopes the rumors are true, but it is a selfish hope: If the city is real, and people are safe there, then maybe she can rest. 19. "City" is a misnomer; it has been a misnomer since this place's inception. It is a chaotic sprawl of tents and shabby lean-tos. There is not a single permanent structure among them. The streets are nothing more than muddy pathways that smell of waste and smoke. But the people! Neither Orin nor Gol have seen so many people in all their lives. Filthy children scream with laughter as they play tag around salvaged tanks. A civilian militia stands vigil over cassava farmers. Armored Risen bicker over where they should mark the city's borders and how best to defend them. The Traveler looms overhead as Orin wanders through it all, wide-eyed and exhilarated. 20. The Pilgrim Guard prepares to move out, provisioned to make an eighteen-month expedition through the far north. Orin stays behind. No one questions her decision, though they do grieve it. Each one of them cuts a notch into the grip of her war hammer until it reads I I I I I I I I I AM THE END OF ALL THINGS. 21. There are Awoken here in this safe city. They are uncommon, though Exos are even rarer. Most have Ghosts, as she does. A few do not, and it's these people that Orin is most fascinated by. She dogs them with relentless patience, asking question after question: Where did you come from? Why have you come here? Where are the rest of us? Where did you get that gun? What are those bullets made out of? Why doesn't everyone have those bullets? Do people ever move to avoid you? Do you hear voices when you are alone? Are your dreams ever like omens? If I was one of you, why didn't anyone ever come looking for me?
22. Namqi Sen is the first person to take her seriously. "If we're going to talk a while, we might as well sit down," he says, gesturing to a nearby stack of ammunition crates. He is a pilot from the Reef and he has been sent to recover downed surveillance drones he calls Crows. His Hildian sustained damage during a dog-fight with a Fallen skiff, and now an important pump is leaking. He cannot find the source of the leak, nor does he have the supplies to repair it. The rest of the Awoken are at home, in the Reef. The gun is a standard-issue Tigerspite AR; it uses cased telescoped rounds made of a proprietary plasteel-spinmetal blend. There are engineers hard at work on manufacturing techniques that will allow for widespread distribution of the weapon to Risen and civilian populations on Earth. People do avoid him. Earthborn and Risen Awoken almost never speak to him; he is surprised that she bothered. He does hear voices; he does have prophetic dreams. He describes it all in detail and she is shocked by how familiar it sounds. It is like listening to a recording of herself. At her final question, he hesitates. He runs a grimy hand through his hair and looks up at the stars. They have been talking a long time. "If we're going to talk some more," he says at last, "we might as well have a drink." 23. Namqi is not particularly tall, nor particularly handsome. Taken in isolation, parts of him are beautiful. His nose. His hands. The lines of his throat. The coruscating light that passes over his skin fascinates her; she watches to see if its patterns match her own. They do not. Most of all, Orin is struck by his ability to listen with empathy. He is quiet more often than not. Long silences don't frighten him. And when he speaks, he does it deftly, without condescension. 24. It takes eight weeks to repair the leaking pump. In that time, Orin convinces Namqi to break queenslaw and smuggle her and Gol beyond the Vestian Outpost. She is determined to understand why she revolted against her own people. They are scarcely a half-day's burn toward Interamnia before they are intercepted by Galliots painted in the Queen's colors. 25. "Woof," Sjur Eido says when she sees Orin for the first time, "Mara's gonna hate this." She crosses the detainment cell to get a better look at Gol. "Figured this might happen eventually, but I'd always hoped..." She pulls at the nape of her neck, then gives a little half-shrug: well, what can you do. Turning, she looks at Namqi. "You know you broke the law, right?" He nods. She claps him on the shoulder and smiles. "My man." 26. Two Paladins deliver her to Mara Sov. Gol is not permitted in the court, nor is Namqi. "I knew you," Orin says before Mara can speak. It is uncourtly etiquette, she supposes, but they are alone and she is too bold to fear offense. "What do you remember?" Orin gives a slight shake of her head. Moments pass. Mara, too, is comfortable with silence. Behind her mask of composed indifference, her eyes are sharp with curiosity. "Why did I leave?" Orin asks. "You wished to be my emissary." "And you banished me for it?" She squints. "That doesn't seem like something you'd do..." Mara smiles faintly. "No." 27. They have several more conversations. The revelations are absolute in their terror. Orin has never felt such a profound sense of schism—not when learning that most mortals would sooner swallow cyanide pills than come face-to-face with a Risen, nor that the Eliksni were once abandoned by the Traveler, nor that almost all Warlords are Lightbearers. 28. But the queenslaw is, of course, the queenslaw. It must be upheld—but the spirit of the law often differs from its letter. Namqi accepts a sentence of five years' indentured servitude to the crown for smuggling Orin into Reef holdings. They let him pick his detail and negotiate his salary. Orin's case is not so simple. She is not who she was, so after vigorous philosophical debate, it is decreed that she cannot be held accountable for her past oaths. But she engaged in witting trespass, aided and abetted by a learned civilian, and for that, she must sacrifice a boon: an unnamed future debt of the crown's choosing. Orin accepts the sentence gladly and returns to Earth to mend her wounds. She needs to think. She needs to talk.
29. It seems everyone knows the Pilgrim Guard now. Their numbers have quintupled, and only continue to grow. The grateful civilians of the Last Safe City style them Guardians, and they wear the title well. Orin is glad to see her friends doing so well. She does not rejoin them. 30. During his sentence, Namqi maintains daily contact with Orin via vidcom and holoprojection. When he is released, she begs him to come get her. She wants to understand what humanity was trying to achieve before it stooped to setting off nuclear warheads in order to steal a few cows. They scour the inner planets in his Hildian. When parts of it break down, they work odd jobs. They are deliriously happy. Centuries pass. 31. On the day that Sjur Eido dies, she receives a call from Mara Sov. "I would ask for my boon," the queen says with shaking voice. It is the first time she dares to trust a Guardian. It will not be the last. 32. The Queen paces as Orin leans on her war hammer. "I need to know who killed her," Mara says. "To know, or to see them killed?" Mara's grief and anger blaze across her face. She looks out at the Reef as she struggles to master herself. Orin imagines Namqi dead and clenches her war hammer a little tighter. At last, Mara says, "First, to know." She gives Orin the strange coin that the search party found on Sjur's body. "I'm not sure it was a murder." 33. The search sends her deep into a sublunar cavern where she finds no enemies, but instead clouds of steam and a half-man with grasping tentacles where his face should be. "Forgive them," he rasps as she crushes his windpipe in her fist. "Who?" she snarls, tightening her grip. His face writhes with growing urgency. Reminding herself that she came here for answers first and vengeance second, she pushes him away. He staggers, steadies, reaches into his robes to draw something out— "Orin!" Gol warns, but she's already seen it. She hefts her war hammer and strikes him hard in the chest. It is like hitting a ball off of a tee; there is no resistance. He caroms off of a dewy boulder with a sickening crunch—that is his spine; he will never stand straight again—and as he hits the ground, a tarnished silver jar slips from his fingers. The sound echoes as it bounces away into the dark. 34. Orin uses a hunting knife and brute strength to puncture the jar's dented lid. She turns it over and pours a thin stream of pale grey powder into her gloved palm. "Dust returns, it ever returns," the man chuckles wheezily. She looks up and he is gone.
35. Orin begins to experience waking hallucinations. Immaterial strangers speak to her in unrecognizable languages. When she reaches for Namqi, she feels as if she is falling into him, being pulled through him, sieved into smaller and smaller scarves of some atom-self that he breathes into the blood of his bones. When she continues her hunt for the Queen, she feels a crushing fist around her windpipe. There is something she must say, but she has no words to say it. There is somewhere she must go. Someone she must be. It is not horrifying, though she thinks it should be. Instead, it is unspeakably lonely. 36. It grows steadily worse, until it is not possible to tell the difference between day and dream. She tries to describe her number-color synesthesia to Gol, to Namqi, to Mara. She sees green and thinks "nine." She reads "purple" and tastes nine. They all tell her to stop. To rest. To be still. There have been other breakthroughs. Other messages. The Nine are known. She cannot. She hunts for the man with the writhing face. She hunts for herself. 37. On the day that Namqi dies, no one can reach her or Gol, though they do try. She does not find out for months. 38. On the day she meets Wu Ming, she is on Bamberga. She has just left a Gensym lab. She has just read a transcript of Namqi's last words. Her hands are shaking. She feels nauseous. She feels she can see herself in third-person, tottering to a safe place to sit and cry. Wu Ming is a bonfire in the darkness, and she crawls toward his warmth. 39. Wu Ming is ravenous for her stories of the Nine. He asks whether she's met them, whether they can give a man power, whether they know a way out of this solar system. Orin cannot answer any of his questions but she cannot keep her own stories down. She is sick with them; they come out in a compulsive bilious stream and when she is emptied, she talks of herself. Of her grief. Of her restlessness. How she feels the most alive in the empty spaces between blinks. How she feels she is a snake perpetually sloughing away its skin, except this last molt is all wrong and she is caught in the ghost-throat of her old self. Wu Ming leaves his questions by the wayside as he is drawn inexorably into the gravity well of her desperate honesty. Her confessions lower his defenses. He talks of himself. Of his fear. Of his loneliness. How he feels he is one fingernail away from plummeting into an abyss. How he feels vicious resentment every time he is brought back from the dead: He never asked for the gift of the Light. 40. They make excuse after excuse to meet again. Every conversation is colored by excavated truths; every day they feel they will reach some bedrock that will break them to pieces. It is as frightening as it is intoxicating. 41. Lies! Lies! Lies! He is not Wu Ming—he is a man named Eli—a man named Dredgen Hope—a man named the Drifter— He is not vulnerable—he is a paranoid con man—he is a dead-hearted murderer—he is a cowardly liar— He is not her friend—he is waiting to make his move—he has ALWAYS been waiting to make his move— She is stupid; she is so stupid to have fallen for his lies! She cannot mend this! 42. She leaves and so too does the Light. The severance is absolute in its terror. She has not felt such a profound sense of— S C H I S M? it can be mended Orin is not your name.
43. On the day she leaves to find the Nine, the Techeuns name her Orin the Lost. She raids a storeroom in the Vestian Outpost, stuffing into her knapsack digital schematics for a phaeton backscatter scanner, a jade coin, several bundles of dried queensfoil, and nothing more. 44. She goes beyond the heliopause. It is a long walk. A sudden death. 45. She sheds herself and emerges anew in the glimmering scales of her old lives: an immigrant, a translator, an emissary, a hammer of judgment. They expect to claim her will, but she clenches it a little tighter. Her gifts can end wars.