I slept with him. Not Nogilian, of course. I wanted someone who might laugh. I called Ash to me in the night, all eagerness and boyish credulity. Commanders have been doing this forever, a simple resetting of the chemistry. I stopped him while we were undressing in the flickering light a few candles gave my tent. I knew he’d wanted this forever, probably since Ariel. I made certain he knew it wasn’t anything else. We forsook most of the preliminaries. I have not been one for romance. Not since, well, I suppose it doesn’t matter when.
But that was only how it all changed, or started to. I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you how bad things were, or how long it went on. It was the blackbrain, of course, I knew that. I was not an idiot. The bacteria or virus or parasite wanted me to throw myself off the cliffs and down into the waves so the bloodfish could strip me to the bone. I surprised Ki by having sufficient awareness to ask the question: why? We were a long ways from Redmarak. That wasn’t swamp down there.
“Oh,” she said, her brow furrowing. “There are different kinds of bloodfish. In the ocean they form vast schools. They’re less of a problem than in Redmarak because if you’re on the ocean, you’re already in a pretty big boat. And of course there are larger fish that prey on them.”
I got the feeling they didn’t swim much for fun on this world.
Ki left after seeing I was medically sound. I wondered where her expertise came from. She seemed totally uninterested in my emotional responses. Only Nogilian was more brusque, coming each morning and evening to report and to ask if I had new orders. I didn’t. But hearing the disposition of the troops and of supplies and morale reminded me of my days in the Academy. It was the only break in my routine, the only time that felt less horrid than any other. Once, we argued fiercely. Nothing changed.
Days fled. It either rained or it didn’t. I sat beneath my awning at night when I couldn’t sleep. It seemed like it was always night. And I could never sleep. Funny, the only time I wasn’t consumed by the urge to throw myself in was when I was looking over the precipice. I could stare at the waves and pretend. Often, though, I did lean forward. Many times I felt my weight shift, teetering on the brink. I wouldn’t let them tie me like in Redmarak. I needed to learn how to do this.
I had all the symptoms. Not only the constant darkness, but I fell back inside myself. The world retreated. Sometimes I’d have to ask Ash to repeat something three or four times, his voice all tinny and remote. Like he spoke through water. I didn’t taste food, didn’t care about it one way or the other. I didn’t feel the famous ocean wind at all, it became a kind of series of whispers I couldn’t quite make out. I lay awake trying to puzzle out what they were. The names of all the men I’d commanded to their deaths. My dead husband’s name, endearments, promises I had not kept. Reminders of every time I’d gotten it all wrong.
Because I couldn’t sleep at night, I nodded off constantly during the day. Sometimes Ash would make me get up and walk about the encampment. I leaned on his arm. I told him it was so my army of the dead would see that I was only sick. I would not lead them to despair.
But truth was, it felt like I was always falling. That’s what I would think, sitting out there on the cliff in the hours just before the sickly light of dawn. You bastards, I would say to the waves and all the fish beneath them. Truth is I couldn’t fall far enough. Stripped to the bone, all awareness gone, I’d still bear responsibility. My husband wouldn’t live. The crewmen of the broken, burning hulls of ships would not climb back up out of Thaeron’s atmosphere. They didn’t get an exit. Why should I? Who did I think I was?
Still, I would lean forward. Mesmerized, I watched the waves churn, imagined my body crashing there, on those rocks, or there, on that sandy spit, or there, among those waves. Would I hit the cliffs on the way down? Or would I make it out far enough to just plunge below the surface? Would I scream? In my mind the whole thing happened without any sound at all, just an smooth and silent dive, elegant like the divers in the Academy gymnasium. Then slip, and I would go. Forever.
Suriel came to visit me, of course. Sometimes he was his familiar golden self. Other times he was dark, matte black, devoid of light, polluted by swirling, corrupting clouds of nightwind – or was it blackbrain? – or worse? Those were the times when I would not speak to him.
“You must/go down,” he said one night, when he was his usual shining self. “They/will/have been coming soon.”
It was the same dumb thing he always said.
But I had him this time. “Bastards,” I replied. “You did it. I figured it out. Three winds,” I held up my hand, raised my fingers one by one. “Black,” one up, “That’s the nightwind, or the khrall, or both.” Two up. “And white, that’s the Swarm. They hid, but now they’re back.” Now the third. “And gold,” I said. “That’s you. The last ones. You and all your kin. You finished us off. You put pay to the Profusion. And it wasn’t even about us. It was about them.”
This, too, will take some explanation. The thing about the Niskivim is that they bend the rules. They can walk through walls. They hang suspended in mid-air. They survive in open vacuum. They have flexible relationships with both space and time. But they’re not the only creatures that can do that. There are also the khrall, as they have been rumored to be called on Thaeron and on Centauris and on Earth. And they do not come to annoy us with philosophical conversation.
I’ve seen the khrall, Elmy. And I never want to see anything like them ever again. They’re demons come to life, waking nightmares among the ranks. I know you’ve heard the rumors whenever a sortie went bad or it got frantic at the bottom of the wall. No one ever really saw them because they were too fast. But I did, the day we saved Cibolla, because they passed by me on the way to destroying thousands of my men. They’re huge, tall, more than three meters. Head like an animal’s skull, like a bull’s, curved horns. Broad shoulders, thinner torso like a man’s. Wings spread five, six meters, that are both there and not. Oversized thighs, like a goat’s. Black skin all over, but red, too - like fire for their veins. So maybe that isn’t skin, just muscle. And arms that turned into swords halfway down, curving each direction. They spin, they dance in battle like the Niskivim, they deliver death. And then they disappear.
Just like the Niskivim. It didn’t take too much to figure it out.
“There is another war,” I said. “Always has been. You followed the khrall here once, to this region of space. To kill them. But you failed. And now they’ve led you back.”
Suriel looked at me, eyes wide. I felt the grief of ten thousand years. Regret you can’t shake off. Remorse that nothing in the universe is ever going to expiate. It wasn’t unfamiliar. “We always/never knew you were/will be here.”
I thought about that. The Niskivim might have trouble understanding us. But they are not cruel.
I let out a breath. “Weren’t even on the map, huh. Okay. I believe you. I always thought your kin were holding back outside Cibola. I mean, hand to hand combat? You have to be more capable than that. But what are the khrall? And how the hell did they get away the first time?”
Shame washed over Suriel, and me, the darkness that hides all secrets. “There were/will be two/ powers. Niskivim share/grow stronger the more of /us/ there are/will be becoming. Khrall steal/get stronger/ the less of them there are/were begin to be. Only nine were/won’t remain.”
Less sense. There was something he wasn’t telling me. “I mean, what are you fighting for? What do you want? What’s it all about?”
Suriel ducked his head toward me, a strange sliding motion. “What/ was is will be/ ren’al?”
I knew that word. Memories of my dreams, my hibernation visions of Suriel sitting outside my cockpit on the way to Thaeron. Of being someone else. Malakan, the man who would bring the new Profusion. “A cube,” I said. “That contains many other cubes of identical size. Probably an infinite number. It unfolds like a flower. It promises the secrets of the universe. It seems to give them. It seems to have...strange relationships with both space and....it’s like you, isn’t it?”
Suriel sat back. “Time not/line/ not circle. More/ dimensions. /Sphere. /Irregular.” He reclined further, satisfied.
“That doesn’t help!” I said. “How does that connect to anything?’
Suriel looked frustrated. I felt dumb. “One/all can/not change the /center,” he said.
I thought about that. “The ren’al,” I said. “It changes the nature of time? Or of the universe?”
Suriel shrugged. Too close to call, he meant. Nothing you want in enemy hands regardless.
“I don’t get it,” I said. “You’re so powerful. A human has it. A human. It’s on Kalnar, out toward the galactic rim. Why don’t you all just go pick it up?”
“War /diminishes/ everyone. We were/are so many/then. Now/we will be less. They/are less. When he dies/ they will be/did take it.”
“And you can’t stop them? You said there were only nine of them. How many are there of you?”
Suriel’s eyes met mine, broad pools of limpid light. “/Three.”
I thought about that, too. “But there had to be thirty when...” I trailed off. My own eyes went wide. “Just to save my city, you sacrificed the last thirty of your entire species?”
“We/ owe. We/ fail. We/ did not see you. When Malakan will have/came/ we/ do not see him. We were/will not be ready.”
I could see it, then. I don’t know if it was something Suriel sent or not. A nameless, barren rock of a world without atmosphere, the last Niskivim defending their memorial post, golden forms shining against the darkness. Through the centuries, through the calm ages after the war that shook the stars. A few dying, a few being born, most just waiting, keeping watch. Then the sudden absence of the treasure that they kept, because the creature that took it was too simple and weak to be perceived. They expected the khrall. They never suspected a human being to come there.
“Wait again,” I said. “You guarded them after the war. But I’ve seen the star fields. They’re still changing. And it’s coming this way.”
Suriel started to fade. “The war that will/have always/never been shaping the universe will not end/has already ended until it/will/already have consumed all things. It waxes/and it wanes.”
Just like you, I thought. Already I could see clear through him.
“Then that means its more than just you and the khrall. There are other species. How many ren’al are there?”
He was almost gone.
“As many as were/will be are necessary now/then.”
“Necessary?” I asked. “For what? What are they for? I know what they can do, but you never told me what you used them for.”
But I was talking to my tent. The wind whispered its names against the walls. I wept, not knowing why. I’d gotten information but no more answers. I’d asked the wrong questions. I’d found out more about the war among the stars and nothing about the one inside my skull. I still hadn’t sorted out if I was talking to Suriel or the Swarm or the blackbrain or only to myself – or if that difference mattered.
Three of them, I thought. One for me, one for Jerem Cozak, one for someone else. Who? I wondered. Who was the other one for? And what would another Niskivim be like? The ones I’d seen on the battlefield all looked like Suriel, but in person he felt utterly unique, like there could not possibly be another of his kind.
A ghost of a thought. I didn’t feel awful at the moment. I had been too caught up in everything. Distraction helped. That’s when I conceived of sending for my personal aide. The next night, we wrestled almost till the dawn. He had the youth and stamina, I had the inchoate yearning. Flip the damn switch. A couple times. It took a while. And didn’t feel like much anyway.
After, I went to resume my customary vigil. He slept. I let him be. There are no secrets, anyway, not among the army of the dead. The White Swarm won’t allow it. I slid through the tent flap to see a mournful fog. Warm air come from the waist of the world. There was no sound. It was like the earth was wrapped in gauze. The dripping awning remained high enough to permit standing, if one was of no more than ordinary height. I stood. I saw little further than the edge of the cliffs.
Yeh qualgum penjur, Jerem Cozak had said, back in the Well of Faith’s Healing. Let oceans enfold you. Good thing I studied those documents they sent us, way back when. It’s not a hard language to pick up, basic Thaeronian.
But no one else had ever said that to me here: let oceans enfold you. And I couldn’t recall that phrase from anywhere in the archives. Not a farewell, then. Not ritual at all.
Your enemies are not of this world, he had also said. The Augers are opposition only.
Yeah, right. I shivered. If the equatorial air was any warmer, I surely did not feel it.
Ki shaking her head. You have blackbrain, Cassan Vala. And you’re going to have it for the rest of your life.
You must/ go down, said Suriel the Niskivim.
There are too many voices in my head! I’d yelled at Ash.
There are different kinds of bloodfish, Ki had said. In the ocean they form vast schools.
Yeah. I just hadn’t seen any, not in all this time.
And why the hell was it so damned cold?
All around me, the fog sat on its haunches. The haze shone a little lighter now. Came the dawn, then. Hours I’d been standing there. Time to get Ash up. He had work to do. I slipped back in the tent to find him snoring luxuriously. Men. No matter what, they think they’ve accomplished something. He stretched out across my sheets like an animal king. I clapped and kicked, enjoying myself. He came up showing me entirely the wrong kind of eyes.
“Lieutenant!” I said. “Get my valkyrie. And Nogilian.”
He looked at me like I was mad. But he pulled his clothes on. I said no more. Exeunt my personal aide and senior intelligence officer.
Funny, on Thaeron they hadn’t even known other people could handle your valkyrie so long as you didn’t bring it to full wakefulness. They thought it was a lifetime bond or something, like with the mastodons. While I waited, I walked around my tent, thinking Thaeron had strange damned ideas sometimes.
Their reverence for machines. The lack of desire of most people to understand them. The endless hoarding by a few of the most ubiquitous power on this world. How do you let that go on? I mean, you couldn’t really go anywhere machines weren’t. Not here. Not in this place.
He came back leading my silver craft, a palm upon its nose. Nogilian stalked behind him. In the mist we could have been the only three people on the planet. I wondered for not the first time if this fog was water all the way through. He stopped the valkyrie just in front of me. I had walked my way almost full circle, stood beside my awning again.
“Nogilian,” I said. “What day is today?” Ash looked funny at that.
Nogilian mentioned the day of the Thaeronian week.
“I mean from one hundred,” I said.
“It is the eightieth day, Guardian. Jerem Cozak left ten days ago for Nesechia. He has not returned. He has sent no word.” Gruff, the man was. He could have been giving me the casualty report. In a way, I suppose he was.
“On our own then,” I said. No one argued. “What were our options?”
“Go to Kasora ahead of him. Prepare for the siege of the city. Or take the Shuni Plateau for the Swarm, and hope to reach Kasora by the time its walls are breached. But he has left no greatships. We have missed our opportunity.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I suppose so. Anything tactically interesting about the plateau?” I walked over to my valkyrie.
“There is one entrance. A machine gate they call the Stair. It consists of tiers of cliffside emplacements separated by collapsible ramps. It is readily defensible.”
Reaching out, I woke my valkyrie the rest of the way.
“Yeah,” I said again. “Sounds like.” They both were looking at me strangely. “Is there a beach, nearby, at the foot of the stair? A harbor maybe, some place for fifty thousand valkyries?”
Nogilian nodded. “A long and sandy spit reaches out into the ocean. Many armies staged there, during the wars between the cities.”
I nodded, too. “You know, I saw those leviathans in Redmarak. Pretty damned big. Hard scales, too. You’d think if anything was big and bad enough to take on the bloodfish, it would be one of them. Just swam away, though, didn’t they?”
Ash radiated concern. Nogilian furrowed his brow. I think he was starting to get it.
Now the last piece. “Nogilian,” I said, “you’re from around here. You ever see fog banks this dense before? So far into the day?”
He scowled, more suspicious still. “No, Guardian, I have not. Such weather is foreign to these lands.”
I smiled. “You know, it’s funny. I’ve spent this whole time, all these days, trying to figure out the voices telling me what to do.”
I mounted up atop my valkyrie, felt its sides give against my thighs, that cold metal embrace. It would never let go. It would not let go unless I asked it to, or unless I were dead.
“Which was the Swarm? Which was the Niskivim? Which was the blackbrain? Which was the voice of Jerem Cozak?”
More bafflement. I’d told no one about Suriel. I turned my valkyrie in a slow circle, so that its nose faced the precipice.
“But you know what I figured out?” I asked them. I believe I may have grinned. “You know what I know now? It doesn’t matter who is saying what. Not when everyone is saying the same damned thing.”
I sped forward. I believe I knocked a leg out from under the awning. Ash tried to jump in front of me. But he was too late. The valkyrie surged forward. I got up a good run.
And rode my valkyrie right off the cliff.