You are the first to dream. In the dream, you are shaping coarse sand with your hands. You lift a handful, and it feels like the shifting of mountains. You drag your fingertip through the dirt to make a twisting line and hear the roar of moving water. You breathe and feel the rush of clean, bright wind in your hair. Suddenly, you are far, far, far up in the air, higher than you've ever been. You have gone to the very top of Freehold's tallest skyscrapers, but this is much higher, and you see the world below with much greater fidelity. It is a beautiful green world, much greener than any place you've ever seen before. It looks like home. --- I am the first to dream. The dreams can happen at any time. A veil drops in front of my eyes and I see strange, moving images. I am someone else, or I am myself, reimagined. I can't say. In the dreams, I shape planets with my own hands. At first, I believe I am mad. The clinicians at BrayWell call it "interplanetary relocation maladjustment psychosis": a psychobabble catch-all for mental disturbances that they can't explain. Other people, searching for certainty, call it "prophecy." But all I can offer is a loose, tangled connection that I painstakingly unravel when I dream. || I am drawn to a bright and attentive star. I speak to it through movement, through feeling. It understands implicitly. || Now, I stand before a crowd. Their murmuring is the bone-deep rumble of shifting tectonic plates. A screen behind me plays looping, blurry footage of the Traveler terraforming Venus. The images radiate with pale light. We've watched this footage many times. || I glide through space as if through water, tugged in nine directions by nine impulses. || In front of the crowd, I sway a little, a copse of trees bending in a dream-wind. I can't help it. I'm dreaming more often than not. || There is whispering from the deep-dark, alluring and terrifying—a reminder of things left behind, bittersweet and abhorrent. || A crackle of static on the screen behind me brings me back to earth, resettling my feet firmly on the ground. These people have come here for my insights. I lean forward and speak to the crowd. Four tenets, aching with truth: The Traveler is a force of benevolence. The Traveler is a sentient being with free will, dreams, hopes, and fears. The Traveler will save us. The Traveler will leave us.
You feel it before it happens. It has happened before. You feel deep in your bones that this thing has chased you across galaxies like an unshakeable dread. It strives to undo. It will undo you. It will undo all of us. First is suffocation, and then pain. The pain isn't localized to any part of you, but to all of you and beyond you. You want to run, but you are pulled in all directions by opposite and equal forces that hold you perfectly still. It is inescapable this time. You are losing everything that you were. You are bleeding silver into the air like the air is water, and you watch your silver-blood float away from your body. Empty. Empty. Empty. --- I am the Speaker who witnesses the end of the world. Through it all, I am overwhelmed by torrents of sharp, static images, sometimes so fast and constant that I can't see or hear. The Traveler is babbling: telling me everything and nothing all at once, in fast, stereoscopic, waking nightmares. I am myself and not myself. And I || am stuck in a web of black spider silk, frozen in the mind-numbing silence of space || have no answers. The fall isn't quick. It happens over weeks and months: cataclysmic disasters, natural and unnatural, flattening human settlements on every planet || that I have made, I have shaped, my work, laid flat ||. Earthquakes. Tidal waves. Solar flares. Cyclones, sinkholes, exploding lakes, wildfires. Unknown, untreatable plagues raze populations in hours. Water goes black with unknown poisons || forced down my throat ||. The ground opens up and swallows entire cities || and I am sick sick sick ||. This has happened before. I'd watched in my dreams the cities that fell, alien cities, torn down by a wind so fierce that it flattened an entire world || and it is not my fault ||. But this is different. The Traveler has not left us. Something new || half-remember and wished-forgotten, this false-sister || has arrived. I || don't want to abandon you || watch on crackling video feeds as people try to escape the outer planets. Exodus ships burn || like I will burn || up with thousands upon thousands of souls aboard. We gather in frightened, huddled || trapped, stuck, doomed || groups in relief outposts, hoping against hope. I try to aid the relief effort but my thoughts || run || become more and more scattered. I can't || run || keep separate my own mind || run || and the || run run RUN RUN || Traveler's. Then, suddenly, silence. And it's the silence that truly breaks me.
I am the first Speaker to see a Ghost. The way we tell it, after the Collapse, the Traveler cut itself into a thousand tiny pieces and sent them out into the world. These tiny pieces are drawn to me, and to others like me, like moths. The first time I saw them, I thought they were surveillance drones, but up close, they were nothing like our old technology, not really. The way they move seems organic and natural. They spin their shells like they are ruffling feathers; their little forward-facing lights blink like eyes. "We're called Ghosts," one of them said to me once, hovering at my shoulder as I tended a cook-fire. "Why?" I asked, gentle, casual. They're all different, these Ghosts. Many of them are like children, curious and friendly. Some are world-weary from the moment they're born. The Ghost spun his silver petals, considering. "Because we're searching, I think." It's a good enough answer for me. I'm searching, too. I let the little Ghosts follow me. We talk about what the Traveler was like before the Collapse. They like to hear it, and I like to remember. Deep in their core, they remember, too, I think. They remember a time when they were all one piece. Still, they like to ask what the Traveler told me, and I recount all the dreams I can still remember. I haven't dreamed since the Collapse, and this is almost—almost, almost—like dreaming again. Today, at twilight, one of the shy and quiet Ghosts who has been lingering at my side asks if I will follow her out into the valley. I should say no, but she sounds hopeful. And I am curious. We travel for several hours. The land here is recovering—not just from the Collapse, but from the time before it. Resources for our settlement are scarce, but nature is creeping back in, and nature is cruel now. It's been starving and confused for decades, jostled out of its natural order, and now we reap the consequences. Wolves steal our livestock. Mange-ridden bears wander through our compound late at night, pawing at our doors. The land is so thick with the memory of poison that it won't grow crops. We protect ourselves from this recovering world as best we can, and we rarely go out at night. But I'm drawn by a curiosity that feels beyond me. The Ghost leads me to a barn with a sagging roof. She asks me to wait out of sight—she says, "I think you'll scare her." I don't fully understand what she means. I crouch and watch as she hovers over the years-old remains of a person, barely recognizable as something that was once living. The Ghost floats over the body nervously, and then scans it with pale light. In front of my eyes, flesh grows over old bones and tattered rags stitch themselves together. The person, a woman, gasps and sits up. I can't believe it. The Ghost hovers close to her new companion and says something quiet and reassuring. I can't hear. I feel amazed, and then jealous, and then ashamed.
I am the first Speaker to be taken prisoner. The greatest surprise isn't being captured; it's being captured by a Dreg. In the end, when they drag me, tied and bound, into a damp cave miles out from my settlement, it's three Dregs. I look around for a Kell or a Priest—someone in charge—but we're alone. There are no Pikes or Ether tanks, no banners, no Servitors. I sit on a rock and look at my captors, more perplexed than afraid. The shame of being captured by something so little and young-looking, when for so long we've managed to defend our settlement from their hulking Captains, is a little bit humbling. The Dreg who grabbed me fidgets with a mask. One of his companions watches, while the other half-heartedly points an Arc spear at me. They seem uncertain. Nervous. Probably they weren't supposed to have done this. I wait patiently until the Dreg straps the mask to his face. "You," he says in a crackling, distorted voice. I'm floored. They've managed to make a translator. "You are the mouth of the Great Machine." There have been negotiations with the Fallen since they arrived on Earth. Never successful, nearly always fatal, but they've happened. So I'm aware that some of the Risen know their alien language, and some of the high-level Fallen know ours. Dregs, though. It's another surprise. And… the "mouth of the Great Machine"… Hm. "I was," I say carefully. The Dreg narrows all four of his eyes as his tech translates my words. If he understands the distinction between "I am" and "I was," he doesn't show it. Instead, he nods. "You will tell us the Great Machine's words." It doesn't actually sound like a command. I wonder if, with better translation tech, he would've said "please." I don't say anything. If I reveal what I can't do, what I don't know, they'll probably kill me. The other two Dregs gather around their companion, watching him eagerly. Now and then, they look at me. The one holding the spear has let her grip grow slack, and the spear is tipped down to point at the ground. The Fallen have surprisingly expressive faces. What I pick up from them is not aggression or hatred, but fearful anticipation. The Dreg with the mask nods again, not discouraged by my silence. This time, when he speaks, I can hear his hope, even through the mask: "Why did the Great Machine leave us?" I stare back at him. Any fear I felt before dissipates. Instead, what I feel is a grief partially forgotten in the chaos of trying to survive—and a deep and abiding kinship with the enemies who have pursued us. My voice is very quiet when I finally speak. "I don't know." The other two Dregs look at their friend, waiting. His expression twists with confusion, and then disappointment. There's anger there, too, but it's overpowered by something else. A very familiar sorrow. We sit in silence for a long time.
I am the first Speaker to never dream. At least, I think that's true. In the days following the Collapse, any Speakers who survived were scattered to the wind, traveling with groups of refugees across the ruined wasteland that Earth became. Aside from the man who taught me, I've never met another Speaker in my life. For all I know, I'm the last one alive. Before the Collapse, Speakers were chosen for their ability to hear the Traveler through detailed, lucid dreams. Since the dreams have stopped, there are other signs. Ghosts follow us. When we do dream, we see a strange and blinding white light. We are prone to headaches. My mentor couldn't teach me how to interpret dreams, so he taught me in hypotheticals. I had to imagine what the dreams might be like. I had to speculate why the Traveler might come back to us and when. Like all Speakers, I memorized the four tenets: The Traveler is good. The Traveler is sentient. The Traveler will save us. The Traveler will leave us. Sometimes I worry the Traveler has already left us. My mentor died of a wasting sickness two years ago, and I've tried to live as his replacement. But where he was a living memory of when the Traveler was awake, I have only his memories, secondhand, imperfectly understood. I can't give answers. I can't make the Traveler speak. Or, at least, I couldn't. For weeks, I have worked in secret on a project, gathering scrap metal and old, broken things left over from the time before. I've cobbled it together, tinkered with the mix of strange and half-understood technology, tried to calibrate it to my needs. A long time ago, long before the Collapse, astrophysicists recorded sounds from the planets in our solar system and turned them into music. They translated plasma waves and radio emissions into eerie, musical rumbles, roars, whistles, and hisses. The Traveler makes sounds, too. Speakers have listened to its music for many years, in the form of dreams. Carefully, lovingly, I build a mask. An amplifier. No one knows about it but me. I won't get their hopes up, even though mine are sky high as I put the finishing touches on it. It's not beautiful like our old technology was. It is scuffed and bent and rusted, like everything we own now. But if I'm right, if I can do this, it will do beautiful things. I can't bear to fail. I have failed at everything else so far. When I'm finished, I wear the mask. Pieces of it, not sanded down, are rough and sharp against my face, but I dream for the first time in my life. || I have cried out unheard for so long that my voice is raw. ||
You are the last remaining star. In your dreams, you see yourself suspended in bright but flickering Light, staring out over a world half-destroyed. You see thousands of pieces of yourself in that world, stumbling through it like infants, wandering in labyrinthine ruins they don't understand. For a moment, you feel in your body everything that they feel. The elation of success. The pain of failure. The candle-snuff of death. The gasping of rebirth. You feel it all at once. --- I am the last Speaker. I am the child of two self-exiles, and I live in a settlement in the shadow of a looming mountain. There are about three hundred of us, and we've lived here for nearly seven years. When we first arrived, we were under the jurisdiction of a Warlord named Cathal. He offered us protection for a high price, requisitioning a third of our supplies and conscripting nearly half our people to his cause. The actual protection he provided was limited. The Warlords used our valley like a battlefield, crashing through like giants who couldn't see the lives they were ending. But they could. They saw us. They just didn't care. The Iron Lords drove Cathal out nearly a year ago, and we've lived in comfortable independence since then, with little oversight from our Risen saviors. Our people voted for that. The Iron Lords saved us, but they would be no different from the Warlords if they also wished to rule us. Now I sit in negotiations with one of them, a woman named Lady Efrideet. "You're free to decide either way," she says. "But if you say yes, you'll have an armed escort." Three other people sit with me: our elected mayor, our most experienced physician, and our oldest resident. We are the people our settlement chose as representation. Beside me, a silver Ghost spins his shell, floating at my shoulder, watching Efrideet. He's followed me for over a year now, and still hasn't found his chosen. He's good company. || I have given so much of myself already, but I give more. I become a beacon. I call my children home. || "A consolidated population like that, all in one place," our mayor says. She sounds weary. She's been in her position for nearly sixty years. "It would draw Warlords to us like flies." "Don't worry about the Warlords," Efrideet says, with the cool assurance of someone who only half-understands our worry to begin with. "Their days are numbered. Their way of life is incompatible with the Iron Decree, and so…" She shrugs. Her nonchalance is unrelatable, but I think I trust her. I trust the Iron Lords. They've given us little reason to doubt them. "How would the city be governed?" I ask. Efrideet shrugs again. "That seems like the kind of thing you put to a vote." She taps her fingers on the table, impatient, but only a little. "We'll just build the place and bring people there. We can defend the walls, but we're not going to dictate what happens inside them. This is a joint venture. A collaboration." My companions exchange looks, considering. Efrideet watches us. Like most of the Risen, she tries to look impassive. Unaffected. But if you listen closely, she's trying to convince us. She wants this. "Listen," she says. "Risen and non-Risen have lived in their separate corners for too long. We're all people. That's all the Iron Lords are trying to say. We should live together." She pauses. "There are things we can teach each other." Two weeks later, once we've packed up everything we can carry, we leave for the place where we'll build the Last Safe City of Earth. || I wish for something to grow in my shadow. ||
You are waiting for something to happen. You are suspended and weightless, but so heavy in your heart. You have a child's voice: quiet, easily lost in a crowd. You try to shout and be heard, but there is only one little star in a sea of thousands that can hear you. It only understands a fraction of your words, but it tries, and that has to be enough. Life goes on beyond your control, as it always has. That is the curse of your creation. The things you build are not your own. And then another star blinks into existence. --- I am the last Speaker, and I sit at a table with the Vanguard while the City around us fights over nothing. "We built this City to find some kind of unity," Tallulah says. She has her hands on the table and is leaning forward, like she might jump over it. "We're breaking apart from the inside." Silence falls over the room. I am trying to think. "What does the Traveler say?" Saint-14 asks, quietly. Everyone looks at me. I breathe in through my nose, breathe out slowly. "About the factions?" I ask. "Or about people killing each other in our streets? This is not what the Traveler wanted. That much I can tell you." "That was the direct result of creating us," Osiris says, leaning back in his seat. He is stone-faced, as always. "Violence. Does the Traveler truly know what it wants?" I try to hide my frustration, and I'm glad my face is hidden by my mask. The truth is this: I cannot say for certain what the Traveler wants, or whether it knows what it wants. The Traveler does not speak to me in words, but in dreams. Dream language is cramped. The messages come from the Traveler, disintegrate on the way to me, and reform into something else. I am an interpreter more than a Speaker. But uncertainty has been the death of us before, and it will be again if we are not vigilant. So what I say is, "The Traveler has always wanted to protect humanity, on its own or through Guardians. We need to enact that will." "With all due respect to both of you," Tallulah says, eyeing Osiris and me. "This isn't about the Traveler. This is about what happens when people come together without anyone to really lead them." She taps her foot. She's nervous. Unusual for Tallulah. "Let this go on a little longer, and this is the same as the Dark Age. It's just Warlords, packed into a tighter pen." "A body of representatives would help," Saint-14 says. "Something to allow all sides to be heard." "Every side has a voice, but not all voices should be given the same weight," I say, shaking my head. "Some of these ideas are dangerous. We should determine which factions can continue to exist, and give them an official channel through which to air their grievances and pursue their needs." "Which ideas are dangerous, Speaker?" Osiris asks. He is watching me, steadily. "And who decides that?" "This is not a fight," Saint-14 says. "We have enough of those ahead of us." "We will hear from each of the factions," I say, ignoring Osiris. Some decision is better than no decision. "Give them the opportunity to plead their case, save for those who have resorted to outright violence." "Well, then we've got to get rid of Echelon South, for one," Tallulah lists, counting on her fingers. "And those Binary Star idiots, too. Trinary? Binary? Whatever. Anyway, there are plenty of fingers pointed at this new group, too. Monarchy something." "If anyone can prove the rumors, we exile their leaders," I say, holding up my hand. "The factions that stay will argue their case. Of those that have a valuable viewpoint to bring to the governance of the City, we create a council." "This sets a dangerous precedent, Speaker," Osiris says. We will have this argument again later, I can already tell. "I hope you're prepared to walk this slope." We vote. Osiris is the only no. Then, after an inquiry into the violence, we form the Consensus.
Somewhere, the other tiny star is calling out. You try to answer, but it cannot hear you. Not without help. You want to help, but you are paralyzed. Your limbs are crushed and your heart beats so slowly. You've never known weakness so intimately as you do now. You can only wait. --- I am the last Speaker, but I have been searching for the next. I stand on the balcony of my small apartment with Lady Efrideet, who wishes to leave the Last Safe City of Earth. "I suppose I can't convince you to stay." Efrideet stands with her arms crossed, looking out over the City. "No," she says. "And you certainly don't need to ask permission." She laughs, just a little. "No." She leans out over the balcony railing, looking down. Guardians have no fear of heights. She would probably happily hang over the rail by her ankles if the mood struck her. "But I was thinking about what you said before." She turns to look at me, but the featureless mask serves me once more, betraying nothing. "About finding the next Speaker." Ah. I've been waiting for decades for someone to come to me, to tell me their child is having strange, blinding dreams and headaches. To see a Guardian stroll through the Tower, flocked by unpaired Ghosts. I've interviewed hundreds of people via long-distance comms. I've consulted the Traveler. I've walked daily among the crowds of civilians and Guardians at the entrance of the City. And still, I've found no one I can hand down my mask to. Before Saint-14 left for Mercury, I'd thought that maybe he could take my place. That I might be able to teach him. That's not the way it's usually done, but he has such a gentle heart. He has the right temperament. Sometimes I think he's better suited to it than I am. But he hasn't come back. I clear my throat. "Yes," I say. "Right. I still haven't found them. But I know they're out there." "Well," Efrideet says. "I'm going 'out there.' I can look." It's a good offer. But I am still waiting for him to come back, all the same. "That's why you want to leave the City?" I ask instead of condoning the proposal. "You're the one who convinced me to come here." "I'm glad I did," she says, lifting her chin. "But no, that's not it. There's something about this life that isn't… working for me. Seems to me that a Guardian should have more ways of marking this world than with a gun." "That's not how I think of you." She pauses, then leans on the railing. "Sure," she says. "But it's stuck in my muscle memory, all the same. Hundreds of years of pointing and shooting, Speaker…" She shakes her head. "I don't know what it is yet, but I want to find a different way." This conversation feels so familiar. I was so young the last time we had it. "I understand," I say, softer now. "That's a noble cause." She shrugs. "And maybe I come back with a little baby Speaker." She doesn't say it, but the "if I come back at all" hangs in the air between us. "I would appreciate your help," I say finally. "I can't wear this mask forever."