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.