Chapter Twenty Three
On that day,
She answered me. “The poet,” she said, smiling lightly. “Del Tanich of Ariel. I admire your work. Though I fear you’ll turn me into some kind of prophetess.”
I put a hand out to steady myself against the valkyrie. “My work?” I asked. “What? – ”
I liked the way the creases went to her eyes as she answered. “Just before the fall of this world, Jerem Cozak sent a spikeship bearing many documents to Earth, describing the Augers and the threat they represented. One of the documents bore chapters from your journal – taken, I presume, when you were arrested by your Temple.”
I considered that, and nodded. “Were they any help?”
She smiled again, looking down and twisting and to brush sand from her trousers and sleeves. “I don’t know why Ship insists that I wear these white impractical things. Something about admittance. But I think he might be being a bit theatrical.”
“Ship?” I asked – then, considering, “He?”
“Well,” she said. “Now that you’re here, it’s almost time for the big reveal. But come,” she added, gesturing toward one of the groups of people, whom I now saw gathered around a bonfire, “you should eat something. You’re probably very hungry. So.” She started walking.
Thus, I said it to her back: “You died.”
She paused a moment, and looked back over her shoulder. “You did, too.” Her brow furrowed. “And it wasn’t even your first time. So,” she repeated, turning back toward the throng, “you must be very hungry.”
The people of the nearest group, I saw, were tearing legs from what looked like a mound of crabs roasting in a pit. I realized that I was hungry indeed, and quickened my pace to match hers as we approached. She knelt and pulled off an articulated and pinkish limb and offered it to me. I took it, and ate, juices running over my hands, and remembered the shellfish I had stolen when I was an urchin growing up in Ariel. It was my young awe of the market’s abundance that had led me to becoming a seller of seeds when the Temple finally released me from its service.
Strange memories, now. They could have happened to someone else. The other group watched us from the distance with silent intensity as they stood or sat together, and they seemed familiar in that way that men cannot explain.
“It took me a long time to understand,” said Cassan, “and I suppose it took them a long time, too. Two kinds of machines to copy over: one to preserve life, and another to restore it. Thus two Wells: the Well in which you lay in Ariel, and the Wells that we mistook for gases in the swamps of Redmarak, where I found Nogilian.”
“He was not dead, then?”
She shook her head. “He certainly seemed so, but the Swarm told me they learned from him what they had not learned from you. They promised Jerem Cozak that they would think in parallel, so that by the time we reached Kasora they would be able to save those who would be lost. Because there were always going to be many of those.
So while we were freeing the northern continent, Naraval, there were really two halves of the Swarm. Jerem Cozak’s half contemplated the healing that leads to resurrection. Mine considered the preservation that leads to a kind of eternal life. Learning from all the different machines in the plants and animals and earth was essential. But when the two halves of the Swarm met in Sepira, they were not yet able to complete the problem.”
I nodded. “So we delayed.”
She shook her head. “I stalled for reasons all my own, and they were not good ones. But that was also when the Swarm had synthesized enough information to propose a plan for the salvation of this world. They tried to tell me, but I didn’t understand. I was sick, and it is very hard for them to think as we do, to use language we can comprehend. The best they can usually do is images, urges, and repetitions of whatever we have heard or thought ourselves. It can seem like insanity. In fact, to us it may be a kind.”
“You were very brave, to throw yourself over the cliff like that, even if you knew you would be resurrected.”
She shook her head again, and laughed. “I didn’t know! At least, not until after I leapt. But I should stop doing that, or people are going to think I’m a one-trick pony. It was stupid, because it should not have been necessary. If I had understood what they wanted when we were in Sepira, we could all have sailed for Kasora together, and beaten them the way Jerem Cozak intended, in a siege. Then the Arks would have been ours, and fewer would have died.”
“But some would have needed to. Because that is the mark the Arks require. They only awaken for the dead.”
She nodded. “Or only for those who live again, to get to the point of it. Perhaps only those who have sacrificed themselves in battle. The Arks of Kasora sealed themselves when its Healing Well stopped working. Because of course, it did far more than heal, just as it did more for the first Faith.”
“It seems an odd requirement. And odd that the legend excluded something that had actually happened. One would expect adumbration.”
“The Profusion was not like us. People forget that. Humans once expected things quite different from what this world expects, and everyone sees what they expect. As for the requirement, I do not think the Arks of Kasora are of entirely human manufacture, any more than Healing Wells are.”
“How many are there?” I asked. “How many like us?”
She shook her head. “Five thousand. Five thousand only, these around us now. Most I led could not be raised. The fire and fall wreaked too much damage on their bodies.”
“But you fell—”
“Into the river, as did these, and the White Swarm slowed my descent. They saved everyone they could. And perhaps – ”
I waited, but she did not continue. “There are five thousand Arks,” I said, “or so the temple taught me. And you saved the Neverborn, and so many more, who did not have to be raised at all.”
“Yes,” She turned and squinted out to sea. “That was the exchange.” She let out her breath. “Well, if you are satisfied, we may begin the ceremony. I think you’ll find it interesting.” She smiled to herself, and I thought she seemed a little sad. “At least I know everyone else will.”
My mind filled with questions. I stopped myself from asking them.
She stood and faced the ocean, and I followed suit. She walked slowly down to the edge of the surf. The waves, shimmering in the noon light, were dazzlingly bright. All the eyes of everyone were upon us, though no one followed. Even Cassan seemed uneasy, as she drew the moment out.
Then she stretched out her hand, palm upward, and raised it toward the sky.
“Where would you hide your fantastic ships of light, if all the world was falling down around you?” she asked, as the waters began to churn. “In the mountains? Beneath a city?”
I knew better than to answer her. Dark shapes like whales lurked just beneath the waves, distorting them as shoals of rocks would.
“Or would you hide them in a place where most living men could not reach? In Wells beneath the ocean floor, where only those you wanted to could go?”
A tower reared up from the among the waves, then, smooth and curving and white and gold and as tall as many men. On the horizon I saw another like it, and then another still closer than the first, though it was shorter and thicker and the same hue as the sky. Soon, all along the shore, for as far east and west as I could see, loomed a forest of towers and lighted beacons and what my Temple education had taught me would be solar sails, allowing the ships to drift, when they chose, slowly between the stars.
“You must go down,” she said. “How many things can one phrase mean?” She shook her head. "Alternatively, let oceans swallow you, though Jerem Cozak insists he does not remember saying this. And he could not have known what he meant regardless."
“I don’t know why they never took them,” she said. “Maybe the end came too soon, or maybe they meant them for those who, at the end, could not be reached. Or,” she smiled, “perhaps they did not trust their own ideas, coming in dreams and urges and memories and different voices as they did.”
The lightships did not stop rising when their towers reached the surface but continued, showing curves of hull and sweeps of stern and bow. One seemed to be white and ovoid, another golden and elliptical, still another azure and shaped as a triad of spheres. Others were too far out to discern more than sleek silhouettes against the meeting of the water and the sky.
“If so, they were right to distrust, for their ideas were not their own. Behold the lightships, which must surely be, other than life itself, the greatest gift ever given to humankind.”
They were of various sizes. The smallest could not have held more than a crew of six or eight. The largest hulls, far out to sea, must have been meant for thousands. The one nearest the shore was not quite so large as that, probably only holding some hundreds, and shaped like a horseshoe and purest white, in the way that the buildings of Kasora now were white. I guessed that that was the one that had brought her up from the depths. A door opened in the center of its curve, just above the waterline.
“Given?” I asked, remembering Jerem Cozak’s admonition. “Given by who?”
She smiled sadly. “I believe Jerem Cozak would call them Changelings.”
I considered the implications of that. “Do you remember what it was like? Death?”
She turned and squinted at me in the sunlight. “Oh,” she said. “You know. Yes and no. At least I don’t have blackbrain anymore.”
I didn’t understand the last, but nodded. I remembered, and did not. A great deal of pain, agony brief and unimaginable. An even greater deal of the coldness and darkness that many men describe. But all that is only the violent end of life, which the Historians of my Temple have understood for centuries.
“I was surprised it seemed so familiar,” I said. “As I waited for that pike’s head to fall, or waited to breathe my last after it impaled me, I can’t say which. I was struck by how old and comfortable it seemed. How close it had come to me, so many times. Those childhood illnesses, all the hungry, lonely nights when I was on the streets of Ariel. The riots when my city fell. It’s always been so close.”
She nodded and waved her hand again, and the ship – or Ship, I suppose – extended a ramp toward shore, sliding out from its concealment within the hull and ending a pace or two within the lapping of the surf.
“Well,” she said, looking down at her clothes. “That figures. I’m going to get these all wet again.”
“You will lead this fleet against the Black Orchids?”
Now when she laughed she threw back her whole head. “Ha! Of all who could, I’m the least capable. And far less willing. No, I will not. Jerem Cozak will come when all is ready here.”
“Then you will lead the Arks in battle? They seem quite potent, and Nogilian’s retired.”
She shook her head again. “No. They are potent, I mean. Quite powerful, much as these ships are. Perhaps Ki, when she finally arrives. Word has been sent, after all. But I’m retired, too. At least for a while. I don’t know. There’s something I need to...I don’t belong here.”
“You’re leaving?” I asked. “Before the war is even over?”
She blinked once, startled. “It’s not my world.”
“But you saved it!”
She smiled again, softly. “I need to go. I won’t abandon Earth. But before I do, I’ve remembered. Jerem Cozak left instructions! There is something you need to do.”
From a pocket of her robe she took out a knife. I was startled to see that it was my own. She held it out to me, its handle first.
“The other group are the ones you call the Neverborn. He said to tell you it was time they found their center.”
“I don’t understand.”
She smiled gently. “He said that that was the most predictable of all. You are omnifex. The ship needs crew. Share your blood. Make them omnifex, too. The Swarm will help you. You’re their priority, now.”
“But I’m only a spearman! All their experience, so many lives, I don’t have that.”
She reached out to take my hands, which had come up to grasp the sides of my head. “Shhhh. Did I say that you were to share your blood only? The one who comes bears a metal cup. All bear lifetimes, as you know. Jerem Cozak said that he had once asked you if you were an orphan, or the culmination of much prophecy.”
I had turned and could only stare at the man of the Neverborn who did approach. She went on.
“But the universe itself asks you to answer now: because you had a childhood, does that mean that you were born? Or have you always been something else? Why did you have more affinity with the Blood of History than anyone else? The Swarm will help you. It is no longer preoccupied. It’s time to decide.”
The man did indeed carry a small metal cup. He hesitated, and I stepped toward him. “But if I take the cup,” I asked, “and all their memories, what will happen to me? And if they take my blood, what will they become?”
I turned to ask Cassan another question, but she spoke first.
“There is another world,” she said. “Kalnar, out on the galactic rim. Where the nightwind began. Jerem Cozak knows. He’ll lead you there. This needs ending.”
She turned and started walking away.
“And you?” I asked her, just as she reached the foot of the ramp, spray kicking around her feet. “You’ll meet us there?”
She did not reply. The Neverborn coughed to signal his approach. I turned and watched him near, but just as he arrived remembered a final question to ask her. And turned again to see the ramp already vanishing, Ship’s door closing quickly behind her, a flash of bare feet disappearing. I rolled my eyes and swore at the sky. I took a deep breath, and held it.
After a while I let it out, all at once. And turned back to him.
“Well,” I said. “Let the ritual begin.”