“Name for me a higher art than that of salvage. It is the caste system writ small, into desirables and undesirables, but across laterals lacking the moral implications of bigotry. Look behind you later, and read the epitaph you left for denuded relics.”-Tuoamas Pennat, The Cleaning of Pennat Gate
Dead people. Dead people everywhere.
Ktsn and Eihks stood still while the world’s metaphysical tendrils flailed and wicked around their fortress of two people. Theirs was a fortress impermeable to truly dire consequence, knowing that – regardless of what should happen – they might at any time retreat to some place far from the troubles circling their shadows. She and he embodied the concept of “complete isolation” like none besides perhaps Carline Sandany understood.
Yet, if that were the whole of the matter, why did this hurt like they had also lost something great and terrible?
She lived in spurts of coherence in an ocean of bladed numbness, waiting in the mouth of the stairs down to the semi-sacred pool, a whole city’s plugged aorta. Many bodies still littered the plateau below them in the permanent rest of entropy. Others moved the corpses, or restrained and deported rebels as stunned-looking as they. The scene ought to have been a screaming mayhem, with passions overflowing their vessels and leading to spates of short-lived fury or disgust. Instead, the people who raised their voices in the massive chamber did so sparingly, only stepping on each others’ aural feet infrequently.
Part of her fog-edged mental remove had to do with the soundscape below her – more than five sets of vocal apparatus working in tandem had made a horrible horrible racket the few times the participants had gotten into an argument. For some reason, those voices spiked her head with sleepy punches. Part of it was the presence of mind brought by success, or failure – the realization that life continued in some form even after truly momentous occasions. But the largest share of that strange floating laxness?
The largest share of it came from the cored-out bedrock of Eihks Richard’s face.
A couple of briskly walking guards escorted a sagging man up past the alien pair. He had unusually neat facial hair, and weird edema-like bulges at his cheeks. His clothing had heavy red-brown staining, and the increasingly familiar stench of iron followed him like a curse. Ktsn noted how her partner’s expression grew thorny as he considered the man.
“We… don’t have to worry!” the man said as he drew level with them, gaze focused entirely on something which wasn’t there. “It will all be better now. We’ve pulled the weeds, and… if we wait long enough, we can replant. We can make…”
He trailed off, an idiot grin almost dripping from his face.
“We’ll be remembered as heroes,” he said, and his body softened like a half-full waterskin.
“You’ll be forgotten entirely,” Eihks told him.
The guards looked at each other, and decided to slow long enough to hear what the stringy man felt needed saying.
“Oh, people might remember your names,” he said with something akin to apathy.
The dismissive finger-wiggle he made at the escorted rebel got through his shell of not-quite-there. It evidently struck harder than any hammer blow.
“But when they compare names to deeds? When they write the annals of today’s history? You’ll become a symbol, an icon. You will be an individual who guided the future of this kingdom in the direction of misery.”
Somewhere in the words, the maddened fellow’s brain caught some hint of… something. That something brought his smile back, hesitant and slight and genuine and questioning. Before he could continue his rambling soliloquy, Eihks leaned forward. It was sudden and harsh, as if he were using his cranium as a battering ram.
“You’ll be made into a cipher, and as far as the world is concerned, you won’t be a person at all.”
Eihks stared at his blank slate skull with its blank slate skin for several seconds longer, then blinked long and hard precisely once. He squared his shoulders, looking back down at the water chamber.
Reality hiccuped, and everyone moved. The guards and their captive were nowhere in sight. Only a handful of bodies remained in the water chamber, and just about as many detained insurrectionists. On top of the pool’s surface stood a cluster of intelligent and bookish types. In their center an elderly sort of figure jabbed the dead-water with a crook of some kind.
“Such a mess,” Eihks whispered.
“What are we going to do?” she asked. She didn’t have the slightest clue what requirements and resources they’d be saddled with, but she tried to at least herd her mind into the right territory. Thoughts of how to balance a daunting project zipped here and there. She picked up and arranged different methods of optimization for a supermassive farm. She didn’t understand much of finance, or civics, but maybe her understanding of mustering energy and limited space for work could come in handy.
That hope quickly deflated.
“Not what you’re hoping, I suspect,” he sighed.
She flinched, half-stunned. Her words came out shiny with the glaze of anger.
“They will lose everything they have won over the course of their lives. These people, at least – maybe those even farther afield, maybe-”
“They’ve already lost it.”
If words could be called animals, the sentence was a collection of old pelts so dirty that even burning them would be a form of depravity. She’d never heard him talk like that before. She desperately hoped she never would again.
She gave him the most fiery glare she could call into being. It didn’t have the longevity of truly sustainable ambition, but the spirit she injected almost made her quiver.
“You have said you are interested in magic. You… we, do we not have access to the sort of knowledge that would explain how to undo this sort of travesty?”
Ktsn pointed at a nearby bamboo pipe sprouting from the wall, now bone dry. It seemed oddly relieved to finally have completed its never-ending task of storing-and-releasing.
“You have mentioned an affinity for magic on several occasions. Even if it is impossible to simply wave a hand and restore water to this city, surely you have some idea of how to undo the spell causing this disaster!”
She felt her insides clench as the tall man’s teeth visibly ground in his mouth, and he lowered himself to a sitting position right there.
“I’ve got an idea. In fact, I’ve got a good idea of what could be done to restore the dead-water that’s now locked up tight. It’s not that simple, though.”
He covered his mouth with one hand, and then closed his eyes.
“The Hiek machines that govern this facet’s magic usually operate on an exceptionally piecemeal basis. It’s a bit like they’re a huge interlocking series of spells working together. When they’re altering the… I suppose you can just call it an allotropic interpretation of water, they subdivide it almost fractally.”
A hand ventured into his clothes and came out with that little bag of sand or whatever it was that he used for lessons on his name’s pronunciation.
“Imagine that you wanted to break open a bag of seeds, and didn’t really care if you ripped up the bag, or destroyed it.”
His digit traced a line down the bag’s side, and mimed the spray of sand trickling out in an uneven gush.
“It’s all well and good in theory, but suppose that you open the thing and discover that the bag is actually a series of incredibly tiny pouches all knitted together. Suppose that you can’t just open the bag’s guts without meticulously cutting it apart again, and again, and again, and again, each time spilling the tiniest portion of its contents.”
The digit started hauling itself across the fabric, first this way and that, then speeding up, coiling back on its own path with such speed she half expected it to actually rip.
“That’s what the magic here does to dead-water. Not all of it – the stuff you can turn back into regular water or convert to living-water and back instead is more whole, easier to manipulate. This material, though? It’s… practically inert as regards local magic, to the best of my understanding. I don’t actually think this culture has ever managed to pull off a working like this before.”
He gave her an almost amused look.
“It’s possible to convert the aquifer back to a water storage layer instead of what it is right now… again, in theory. It also wouldn’t be trivial – all those isolated cells need to be individually deconstructed. I don’t think many people anywhere besides myself – let alone the locals – could accomplish it within a year. Even that would probably require going outside the standard Hiek machine model of this facet for alternative tools. That’s also not bringing its reproductive nature into account.”
His hands clutched together. The digits clawed around each other like teeth on age-warped gears.
“It’s twisty and thorned compared to most of this facet’s magic, like it’s meant to be self-perpetuating first and practically useful second. The Beings of Old, or highly-placed extrafacetary governance, I could see them with the know-how and resources to wipe out the problem pretty much whenever they wanted. For us, it’s on the near side of ‘possible’ and the far side of ‘feasible.’”
A slightly damp-eyed look.
“And not to put too fine a point on it, but until the king and his advisors make substantive changes, I could foresee another group of fanatics doing this again even if the current source is excised. At a bare minimum, the king needs to partition the whole water system to an almost demented level, then find a way to easily monitor those partitions. He’s probably got engineers working on it this instant.”
He sighed, and not for the first time Ktsn wondered how deeply the psychological effects of that mannerism ran. No need to breathe, yet he made expressions like this consistently.
“But… they could protect it better!” she protested. “If we spend the time to return it to normal then the well could be buried under an incredible amount of soil and rock to keep it from tampering. It would not even require the aquifer to be accessed from the water chamber!”
“No, it wouldn’t. In fact, they could protect the water chamber by just collapsing that cavern – the outgoing channels are mostly under the palace anyway. This thing is like a virus, Ktsn. Pretty much dormant right now, granted, but it’s ready to wake up if people start trying to modify it without proper precautions. My guess is it wouldn’t, and couldn’t, get much worse – and yet, it could make full elimination impossible unless you scraped up every scrap of the infectious material. Besides, what they did here was essentially a completely successful full-scale proof of concept. I don’t know how long, but they must have spent quite some time trying and discarding variations in their ritual. Now that Sginer or whoever it was that put this together knows it worked, they could do this again by reenacting the ritual in a cave, or a well, or just a deep enough rain puddle on sufficiently porous ground. It’s like a body, and this magic is a poison of sorts. If you can’t access the heart, you can still kill a body by introducing toxins through a foot, or a shoulder, or a flank.”
He traced the slope of a vein on his arm.
“It would take much longer to affect the whole water supply, yes. But Goeyren can’t just compartmentalize the city’s water system with locks and segregation pockets overnight, and until that happens, allowing this kind of sabotage to recur is a serious danger. If I were a paranoid man – and I am in many many ways – I’d say the rebellion’s inspiration for this sort of magic is superlatively suspicious. You don’t just randomly stumble upon this sort of working some fine afternoon on a whim, but that’s what it sounds like they did.”
He got a narrow sharp look to his face, squeezing his features tighter together.
“… I think we’ve witnessed the birth of a whole new branch of warfare.”
Her exclamation met the palm of his outstretched hand. He leaned forward, almost double.
“Three days, Ktsn. The human body needs water every three days.”
His palm-forward hand’s digits became claws. She wondered, slightly quavery at the prospect, if his docile exterior was actually a front for boundless rage.
“Everything I’ve said is accurate, but this is where it falls apart. As of now, this problem can’t be solved in the blink of an eye. That means everyone, or most everyone, in this city will be leaving. If the aquifer isn’t restored by tomorrow, the rapidity of the decision process means little will be gained from fixing the water anyway… at least until a good long while after Ronnin-Sōlsig-Adur’s residents are resettled. There’s nothing we can do here.”
He let a puff of air out of the corner of his mouth, started to add something else, stopped. His body acquired a rhythmic rocking motion, and it upset her. With eyes closed, he turned his face in her direction.
“Remember what I said about thinking beings posing the greatest of possible dangers? This, right here – this is why. This is why they should have more potential to thrill or frighten you than anything else.”
Ktsn had a moment to cast back to a scene with a not-quite-bird thing holding her rapt in its ethereal power. She danced the edge of that scene again; at the time, by far the most thoroughly terrorizing experience of her life.
Then she focused on the now lifeless water far below her, and reconsidered.
Reality hiccuped again.
The king stood before them, pacing at the foot of his throne. His garb differed little, if any, from his subjects’. His teeth and hands described a depth of emotion reserved for those who held many other people in their ring of responsibility. His circular traveling suggested that he was distraught. The guards in the room kept considerably closer to their lord than they had during Ktsn’s last visit to the throne room.
“What in the name of the blessed dead happened?” Goeyren asked. Oddly enough, though his sober gaze met Ktsn’s angled-forward eye, it sounded like he barely registered his own voice.
Feeling like she would be swept into the current of time and carried away, unless she anchored herself, Ktsn answered him. Her words were woody beat-up vines that somehow managed to reach across the gap between two people.
“Your Highness, we were in our quarters when the invasion started.”
She gestured at her partner.
“We investigated the matter almost immediately, and deduced that your person was in danger.”
She cut off at the sound of a commotion behind them, as Sandany strode into the chamber. She had an unreasonable ability to remain quiet while wearing half a mine’s worth of metal. Her eyes and weapons brandished themselves in every direction at once.
“Approach is clear,” she said, though she unhappily eyed the windows and other open-air apertures in the room as she said it.
The heads of several of the king’s protectors tracked her approach. A couple tried to interpose themselves. Others shot belligerent glares at Eihks and Ktsn, clearly urging them to shut up and get involved.
“Keep your distance,” said the most heavily scarred among them.
Something obviously far more pungent was about to follow, when Goeyren pushed a hand against something invisible in front of him.
“No, let her approach.”
“She’s proven herself worthy of service, and moreover, of trust. We think that we have been given a protector of supreme capability, and moreover wasted her potential.”
He smiled at his staring guards, at the phlegmatic Sandany, at the two aliens.
“To be perfectly frank, we would almost prefer being carried into the ranks of the blessed dead over this present trial.”
Gasps carried fervent denials. Ktsn didn’t quite know what to make of one person outside the ranks of attendants, when they gave a sob and rent their tunic from neck to nearly navel.
“No, peace, peace. There’s far too much to do. Departing now would make us no better than our brother.”
The king’s finger swung on a hinge of power. It landed on a cluster of his retainers.
“We must make plans to remove ourselves. Interim government should probably be based out of Henigdita, given the city’s closeness.”
His advisor-or-something Ledwinsōr coalesced behind him.
“What does Your Highness advise we do?” he asked.
“Everyone who wishes to see whatever comes next for Dōdielnan, be ready to depart tomorrow. We have things to pack in the meantime.”
With that, Goeyren waved, smiled, and just walked off. Some of those present stood lashed to the floor, while others began flashing across the throne room with statements and stage whispers and bellows.
Again, the world flexed and deformed, then returned with strength and sharp presence-of-self.
Eihks was slumped partway over his bed. She’d laid herself down with such bonelessness she might have thought Gegaunli had cursed her. Their quarters filled with the noises of waiting.
Finally, he stood up, and every scrap of tissue and biology that composed his bodily form pointed straight at her. He gave her his attention more unambiguously than he’d done for the majority of the time they’d known each other.
“We were interrupted last time, but I do have something important to say. Something that ought to have been discussed a good long time ago.”
He took two deep breaths, and then (after savagely saying something too quietly to really hear) explained himself in a monotone. He talked about a message he’d received from the tenuous filament of a thing that was their connection to the Monolith. He described the way it contained very serious libel – and he assured her in extensive detail that the story threatening him with the prospect of publication was entirely manufactured. He waxed almost masochistically verbose about how thoroughly the matter could destroy his character and catch her up in the destruction’s proximity. She stopped being relaxed.
To her relief, he did not at any time apologize, or beg her forgiveness. If he had, she would have left, and started running, and maybe never stopped.
Looming from the mind’s grief-cold preserve, she saw that face of Thomas the Librarian, his words trying to nurture her trust in the man now before her. Manipulative? Her partner was that, but he ostensibly acted so for her benefit rather than his. Whether that was better or worse, she couldn’t say.
His eyes wobbled in a way that distracted her from that contemplation.
“While you ponder your response, we should get ready. It’s time to move on from this realm. We’ve got more than enough information to finish this production.”
He rubbed his hands together, then became hard and polished as any basalt.
“And it’s our best opportunity to make a clean exit.”
When her shock registered, he swept his thumb sideways over the top of his face.
“You and I, even when we make an effort to blend in… we’re poles of power and change, just because of what we know, and where we’re from. What Dōdielnan’s about to experience will probably shape this world’s history in ways that will only be obvious hundreds or even thousands of years from now. We two would help carve a gargantuan slice of that history, but…”
She sat back on her haunches when he started searching the palms of his hands.
“Meddling and more meddling. How long and how far do you want your influence – good, bad, completely unintentional – to be felt? If we stayed as small-part figures, constantly moving to avoid reputation and notice, maybe we could also avoid introducing exotic ideas: weapons, powerful rhetoric, worldviews so alien they shift and transform whole communities. That’s a big chance to take, though. A clean exit is almost completely better. Maybe not convenient for us.”
Not a happy exit, or a painful exit, but a clean one. She thought, and realized that that was perhaps the best sort of arrangement they could have asked for. “Clean” was in short supply.