Chapter Twenty Four
So that’s my big dumb trauma: I died. That’s what caused my psychosis, and these months postponing the completion of my journey. But as I think about this, Ship and I are careening into Sol system. In a few hours, now we’ll pull up in discreet orbit about the Earth. And see what there is to see. I hope Cibolla endures. I’m terrified it won’t, that I’ll gaze down upon a black sea of nightwind crawling across the Earth, and roiling around my city. I hope you’re alive and in a position of command. That way I can walk up to you behind your desk, give you the gift I’ve carried across five light years, and finally retire. Jerem Cozak can do without one officer and her small hospital ship.
But even as I write this it seems unlikely. The Nightwind Wars, as I understand them, do not end that way. They may not end at all. Consider poor Thaeron. They thought the first of the battles that would eventually bring their planet down were some kind of local religious uprising. And yet, lo, the conflict soon consumed their world and dragged them into a fight centuries long that had already swallowed countless millions of lives across dozens of planets, a war for the freedom of our species. Yet now that they have discovered an ally and freed their home, we all find that at the same time humanity itself may well have accidentally become a bit player in a war about the shape and nature of the universe, a contest that consumes whole galaxies and has lasted the length of time itself.
One is not even sure how big a role the Niskivim play. How many allies do they have? The khrall? How many ren’al have been found? How many lost? Who else is fighting? Are there agents with no loyalty to anyone but themselves, true nature unknown? War makes such creatures ubiquitous on Earth. They would surely reappear upon a canvas many times larger than the Milky Way.
No, the Nightwind Wars do not end. They unfold until everything’s exposed. We just roll ourselves out until there’s nothing left inside. That’s when we know who we are.
And that’s when we find that we are glad. I omitted this when I told Del Tanich. I didn’t lie that my death was too swift to remember. But I do remember my dying, because it stretched all the way back to the top of the pass. And I was so elated it cannot be described. I knew to the tips of my toes that I was doing the right thing, laying down my life so that even more might live. I let go of every doubt I ever had.
Now I pick them up again. I don’t know what’s happened to you or our world. I don’t know the effects of my abandoning you. Statistically, it is most likely you have been taken by the nightwind and I will never find you amidst the millions. It is only slightly less likely that you have died in combat, your body lost to the soil or the elements. Far less likely, that you have imprisoned and not executed by Lero Bukes, who would have not doubted your loyalty to me. Least likely of all, of course, is the happy scenario outlined above.
And in hardly any case do I know what I’ll do once I find you. I told them that I won’t abandon Earth. But I’m telling you I can’t abandon them. I had Ship check, and it appears my suspicions were correct. The other war has advanced precipitously. That’s the trouble the Niskivim were having. The galaxy so long on course to strike our own has lurched perilously near. The stars shift and wheel. The first collisions may already be beginning. The subtle shifts of vista so long available only to the telescope can now be seen by the naked eye. Ship could not explain the data. For such drastic change, there would have actually had to be large-scale shifts in both space and time.
Shifts in space and time. It only makes sense, I suppose, if you believe in Niskivim. Doubt and darkness everywhere.
Like I told the poet, there is another world. Kalnar. Far out on the galactic rim, at the edge of anything even the Profusion considered civilized. Out where strange solar systems now smack into each other, to what ends I do not know, the eye of a storm of almost unimaginable power. Home to a madman who lives in a cloud of nightwind, who is half made of the crawling black machines himself. Priest Malakan, the cold beating heart of the New Profusion.
I saw him, once, in the message of a linking sphere, threatening, warning, declaring, the conquest of the earth. Sheathed in liquid matte-black armor, pale and thin as death itself. I have been him in my dreams. Finding in exile, on a barren worldlet far from even Kalnar, the cube within cubes, the wonder within mysteries unknown that was a lost ren’al, the instrument that woke the nightwind and restored him to power among his people. Feeling his brittle arrogance, his impotent rage, his ubiquitous contempt. Thank the heavens that Suriel sent me no vision of whenever the nine khrall broke free of their prison, and came to serve unwilling at his feet.
Doubt and darkness. I don’t know what to do. Nothing will be easy. Priest Malakan was a paranoid narcissist before he discovered the artifact that gave him inhuman immortality, before he discovered the nanotechnology that’s let his rule devour entire planets, and before he enlisted the servants who defy the ordinary rules of this universe and would claim his artifact as their own. One imagines he will not have left his homeworld undefended. Perhaps that is what the hurling of another galaxy is for, if it is in fact his doing, though I suspect it’s not. In any case he’ll have seen Jerem Cozak coming, and he’s already fooled him once.
I used to resent this, I know, stepping out again into the murky cosmos of the living. That’s what Ship says caused my psychological crisis, out there in that asteroid field, after Thaeron. Not so much the dying as the getting up again. Everything felt wrong, after dying felt so right to me, so complete. Now I want to feel that I was being petty, then. How many have gotten the chance to walk back into the light, obscured as it may be? I was dead. Really dead. I mean the notify-my-kin, make-me-a-memorial, put-me-in-the-ground, cold, hard kind of dead. How ungrateful does one have to be to rue another opportunity? After that? I didn’t see Nogilian or Del Tanich complaining about their second chance, let alone Jerem Cozak.
But Ship says that such resentment, too, is understandable. I face struggles – all the reborn face struggles – for which we are not necessarily equipped. Life is not obviously pleasant even to infants, who know nothing of its deepest hurt. Light itself can be harsh and abrasive, even in its beauty. And there is nothing, even in new life, to prove to us that we are not alone. My most significant companion during this sojourn has been a sentient computer thousands of years old but never woken before, lying inert for untold centuries on the ocean floor, who cannot feel a thing. My last human conversations, with both Jerem Cozak and Del Tanich, were not of the consoling kind. I only tried to help them, when I could have expressed the desolation of my soul.
Well, I have certainly now done enough of that. This unburdening, too, feels complete. I approach a different simplicity, the austere consolation of the living. So. I trust you. I trust that you’ve found a way to stay alive and uncorrupted. I trust that even if you haven’t, the universe will shepherd me toward another appropriate destination, another completed act. I trust that, wherever I go, there I will be needed. I will make a change in things. The perverse effect of the Nightwind Wars, conflict nested in conflagration, is that the effects of all our actions stretch outward, both in time and space, further than we ever could have foreseen, to realms we do not yet understand, with effects greater than we could have imagined.
So I don’t know what I’m going to do. And I don’t know what you will do. But behold, I come. I'll do something, and it’s going to matter. I will not be undone.