Arkady Martine made a huge splash with her debut, A Memory Called Empire, racking up Hugo and Nebula nominations as well as tons of critical acclaim. Early next year, she’ll release a sequel, A Desolation Called Peace, but Gizmodo has the cover and a juicy exclusive excerpt to share today.
First up, here’s a brief summary, followed by the reveal of the full cover by artist Jaime Jones.
An alien armada lurks on the edges of Teixcalaanli space. No one can communicate with it, no one can destroy it, and Fleet Captain Nine Hibiscus is running out of options.
In a desperate attempt at diplomacy with the mysterious invaders, the fleet captain has sent for a diplomatic envoy. Now Mahit Dzmare and Three Seagrass — still reeling from the recent upheaval in the Empire — face the impossible task of trying to communicate with a hostile entity.
Whether they succeed or fail could change the fate of Teixcalaan forever.
Read on for the book’s first several dozen opening pages, including the prelude and first chapter.
“First, reality was suspended. All breaches to Inca protocol occurred at once: the rules governing personal contact (visual, oral, and corporal), drinking, and eating were broken. When Ciquinchara first met the conquerors he was allowed to do what no Indian could, and now the tables were turned. Since there was no signifying context to frame their interactions, the actors exposed themselves to limitless risk. Atahualpa could have been slaughtered or Soto and Hernando poisoned. . . .”
— Gonzolo Lamana, in Beyond Exoticization and Likeness: Alterity and the Production of Sense in a Colonial Encounter
“To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles — this they name empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace.”
— Tacitus (quoting Calgacus), Agricola 30
To think — not language. To not think language. To think we, and not have a tongue-sound or cry for its crystalline depths. To have discarded tongue-sounds where they are unsuitable. To think as a person and not as a wantful voice, not as a blank-eyed hungering beast, not as a child thinks, with only its own self and the cries of its mouth for company. To look outward from the two-ring or three-ring of one of our starflyers and see every pinpoint light, every fusion-heart star. To see the pattern these stars make in our eyes reflecting the pattern of our eyes in the dark on the old planet. How our eyeshine glowed in the dirt-home, the blood-home! How we closed them and were invisible, dark-scavengers, secret-hunters! How our starflyers glow in the void-home, the light-home of us! How we slip sideways, like a closing eye, and are invisible! To think as a person, with the singing fractal swarm of we, and see these places that we have not yet scavenged, not yet torn open, claws as delicate as surgeon-scalpels, for their secrets!
Oh, the other hunger, the hunger of we that is nothing to do with the body. The hunger of we to reach out.
This body or that body: flesh full of the genes for strength and savagery, flesh full of the genes for patience and pattern-spotting. This body a curious body, an observer body, trained well for celestial navigation and surveying, its claws laced through with the filaments of metal that allow it to sing not only to we but to any starflyer it touches. This body a body that almost did not become we, almost became meat instead, but is we, and sings we, and is a body for making other bodies meat, for making also other bodies with itself: this body full of kits and clever with its hands on the triggers of a starflyer’s energy cannons.
These bodies, singing in the we, singing together of the flesh of bodies who are not we, but have built starflyers and energy cannons. Bodies who are meat and cannot sing! Bodies who think language, who cry with their mouths and leak water from their eyes, who are clawless but vicious in their own hunger to reach out. Who have touched so much of the void-home already, and dwell in it, and have come so very close to the jumpgates behind which are all of our blood-homes, new and old.
These bodies sing: the clever meat dies like every other meat, like we do, but it does not remember what its dead meat knew. So we have brought down our sibling-bodies onto one of their planets, not a blood-home but a dirt-home, full of resources to scavenge, and we have rendered them up for usage, the meat and the resources both.
To sing — hunger satisfied. To sing — understanding. Except:
Another body provides counterpoint, a dissonant chord. This body a curious body, an observer body, a stubborn and patrolling body who has slipped sideways in and out of vision in the same sector of void for lo these many cycles and remains a curious body even so. This body sings in the we, sings of a few clever meat bodies that do remember what their dead meat knew. But not all of them. Not all the same knowing. Not like the singing of the we.
To think of a we that fragments! That does not flock, that remembers but could not hold the shape of a murmuration. We sing disturbance and we sing the hunger of reaching-out, to think of fragmentation! We sing, too: What does this clever meat have that we do not? What singing is their singing, that we cannot hear?
And we send our starflyers whirling, whirling close. Close enough to taste.
. . . INTERDICT SUSPENDED — For a duration of four months, extensible by Council order, the interdict regarding Teixcalaanli military transport through Stationer space is suspended; all ships bearing Teixcalaanli military callsign are permitted to pass through the Anhamemat Gate — this suspension does not authorise Teixcalaanli ships, military or otherwise, to dock at Lsel Station without prior visas, approvals, and customs clearances — SUSPENSION AUTHORISED BY THE COUNCILOR FOR THE MINERS (DARJ TARATS) — message repeats . . .
— priority message deployed on diplomatic, commercial, and universal frequencies in the Bardzravand Sector, 52nd Day, 1st Year, in the 1st Indiction of the Emperor of All Teixcalaan Nineteen Adze
Your Brilliance, you have left me with all the world, and yet I am bereft; I’d take your star-cursed possessing ghost, Six Direction, if only he would teach me how not to sleep.
— the private notes of Her Brilliance the Emperor Nineteen Adze, undated, locked, and encrypted
Nine Hibiscus watched the cartograph cycle through its last week of recorded developments for a third time, and then switched it off. Without its pinpoint stargleams and fleet-movement arcs inscribed in light, the strategy table on the bridge of Weight for the Wheel was a flat black expanse, dull matte, as impatient as its captain for new information.
There was none forthcoming. Nine Hibiscus didn’t need to watch the cartograph again to remember how the displayed planet-points had winked first distress-red and then out-of-communication black, vanishing like they were being swallowed by a tide. No matter how thickly laid the lines of incoming Teixcalaanli ships were shown on that cartograph, none of them had advanced into the flood of blank silence. Beyond this point, Nine Hibiscus thought, not without a shimmering anticipation, we are quite afraid to see.
Her own Weight for the Wheel was the second-closest vessel to the communicationless swath. She’d sent only one ship farther out than she’d take her own people. That was the hybrid scout-gunner called Knifepoint’s Ninth Blooming, a near-invisible sliver of a ship that slipped free of her flagship’s open-mawed hangar and into the silent black. Sending it might have been Nine Hibiscus’s first mistake as Her Brilliance the Emperor Nineteen Adze’s newest yaotlek — commander of fleet commanders, with multiple Teixcalaanli legions under her control. An emperor made new yaotleks when that emperor wanted to make a war: the one begot the other. Nine Hibiscus had heard that old saying the first time when she’d been a cadet, and thought it herself approximately once a week, absent confirmation of absolute observed truth.
Nineteen Adze, new-crowned, had very badly wanted to make a war.
Now, at the very forefront of that war, Nine Hibiscus hoped sending Knifepoint hadn’t been a mistake after all. It’d be useful to avoid unforced errors, considering how new a yaotlek she was. (It’d be useful to avoid errors at all, but Nine Hibiscus had been an officer of the Six Outreaching Palms — the Teixcalaanli imperial military, hands outstretched in every direction — long enough to know that errors, in war, were inevitable.) So far Knifepoint was running as quiet as the dead planets up ahead, and the cartograph hadn’t updated in four hours.
So that gambit could be going any way at all.
She leaned her elbows on the strategy table. There’d be elbowprints later; the soft pillowing flesh of her arms left its oils on the matte surface, and she’d have to get out a screen-cleaner cloth to wipe them away. But Nine Hibiscus liked to touch her ship, know it even when it was just waiting for orders. Feel, even this far from its engine core, the humming of the great machine for which she served as a brain. Or at least a ganglion cluster, a central point. A fleet captain was a filter for all the information that came to the bridge, after all — and a yaotlek was more so, a yaotlek had farther reach, more hands to stretch out in every possible direction. More ships.
Nine Hibiscus was going to need every one she had. The Emperor Herself might have wanted a war to cut the teeth of her rulership on, but the war that she’d sent Nine Hibiscus out to win was already ugly: ugly, and mysterious. A poison tide lapping at the edges of Teixcalaan. It had begun with rumours, stories of aliens that struck, destroyed, vanished without warning or demands, leaving shattered ship pieces in the void if they left anything at all. But there were always horror stories of spooks in the black. Every Fleet soldier grew up on them, passed them down to new cadets. And these particular rumours had all crept inward from the Empire’s neighbours, from Verashk-Talay and Lsel Station, nowhere central, nowhere important — not until the old Emperor, eternally-sun-caught Six Direction, died . . . and in his dying declared that all the rumours were true.
After that the war was inevitable. It would have happened anyway, even before five Teixcalaanli colony outposts on the other side of the jumpgate in Parzrawantlak Sector went as silent and dull as stones, just where those horror stories would have crawled out from, if they were going to crawl out of the black spaces between the stars at all. It merely might have happened slower.
Her Brilliance Nineteen Adze had been Emperor for two months, and Nine Hibiscus had been yaotlek for this war for almost half that time.
Around her the bridge was both too busy and too quiet. Every station was occupied by its appropriate officer. Navigation, propulsion, weaponry, comms: all arrayed around her and her strategy table like a solid, scaled-up version of the holographic workspace she could call into being with her cloudhook, the glass-and-metal overlay on her right eye that linked her — even here on the edge of the Teixcalaanli imperium — to the great data-and-story networks that held the empire together. Every one of the bridge’s stations was occupied, and every occupant was trying to look as if they had something to do besides wait and wonder if the force they had been sent to defeat would catch them unawares and do — whatever it was that these aliens were doing that snuffed out planetary communication systems like flames in vacuum. All of her bridge officers were nervous, and all of them were tired of being patient. They were the Fleet, the Six Outreaching Palms of Teixcalaan: conquest was their style, not massed waiting on the edge of the inevitable, paused in worrisome silence at the very forefront of six legions worth of ships. Nearest to the danger, and yet still unmoving.
At least when Her Brilliance Nineteen Adze had made her yaotlek to prosecute this war, Nine Hibiscus thought, she’d let her keep her own ship as flagship. Each of these officers was a Teixcalaanlitzlim she’d worked with, served with, commanded — each of them she’d led to victory at the uprising at Kauraan System less than three months ago. They were hers. They’d trust her a little longer. Just a little longer, until Knifepoint came back with some actionable information and she could let them loose a bit. Taste a little blood, a little dust and fire blooming from the death of an alien ship. A fleet could last a long time, fed on those sips of sugar-water violence, as long as they believed their yaotlek knew what she was doing.
Or that’d always been how Nine Hibiscus had felt, when she used to serve under Fleet Captain Nine Propulsion before Nine Propulsion had gone off to pilot a desk planetside in the City. She’d risen all the way to Minister of War under the last, dead, lamented emperor, and Nine Hibiscus — who spelled her name with the same number-glyph as Nine Propulsion used, and hadn’t yet regretted that late-teenage star-eyed choice — had thought she’d probably be Minister under the new one. Had expected that.
But instead, Nine Propulsion had taken retirement almost immediately upon Nineteen Adze’s ascension. She’d left the City entirely, gone home to her birth system — no chance yet for one of her old subordinates to drop by and ask her what for, and why now, and all the usual gossip. Instead, Nine Hibiscus, bereft of the comfort of mentorship (she’d been lucky to have had it so long, if she was being honest with herself) had woken up one shift with an urgent infofiche stick message from the Emperor Herself — a commission.
If this war is winnable, I want you to win it. The Emperor’s dark cheekbones like knives, like the edges of the flares of the sun-spear throne she sat on.
And now, calling her back to herself in this present moment, a low voice to Nine Hibiscus’s direct left: one that wouldn’t startle her at that distance. (The only one who could sneak up that close, regardless.) “Nothing yet, then, sir?”
Twenty Cicada, her ikantlos-prime, highest-ranking of all the officers who served directly under the Fleet Captain and not in another administrative division. He was her adjutant and second-in-command, which was one of the ways that rank could be used — she couldn’t imagine having anyone else in the position save for him. He had his arms folded neatly across the cadaverous thinness of his chest, one eyebrow an expressive arch. As always, his uniform was impeccable, perfect-Teixcalaanli. He was the very image of a soldier in a propaganda holofilm: if you ignored the shaved head and how he looked like he hadn’t eaten in a month. The curling edges of green-and-white-inked tattoos were just visible at his wrists and throat when the uniform shifted as he moved or breathed.
“Nothing,” said Nine Hibiscus, loud enough for the rest of the bridge to hear. “Absolute quiet. Knifepoint’s running silenced, and at their usual speed they’re not going to be back for another shift and a half, unless they’re running from something nasty. And there isn’t much Knifepoint would run from.”
Twenty Cicada knew all that. It wasn’t for him. It was for how Eighteen Chisel in Navigation’s shoulders dropped an inch; how Two Foam, on comms, actually sent the message she’d been hesitating on for the past five minutes, reporting continued clear skies to the rest of their multilegion fleet.
“Excellent,” said Twenty Cicada. “Then you won’t mind if I borrow you for a moment, yaotlek?”
“Tell me that we are not still having problems with the escaped pets in the air ducts on deck five, and I will not mind being borrowed,” Nine Hibiscus said, widening her eyes in fond near-mockery. The pets — small furred things that vibrated pleasantly and ate vermin, a peculiar variant on cat that was endemic to Kauraan — had come aboard during their last planetfall there, when she’d still been Fleet Captain Nine Hibiscus of the Tenth Legion, not yaotlek yet. The pets had not been a problem — or something Nine Hibiscus had even known about — until they had decided to reproduce themselves, and moved into a Deck Five air duct to do it. Twenty Cicada had complained vociferously about how they were disturbing the homeostasis of Weight for the Wheel’s environment.
“It is not the pets,” Twenty Cicada said. “That I promise. Conference room?”
If he wanted privacy to discuss whatever it was, it couldn’t be good. “Perfect,” Nine Hibiscus said, pushing herself upright. She was twice as wide as Twenty Cicada, but he moved around her as if he had solidity enough to match. “Two Foam, your bridge.”
“My bridge, yaotlek,” Two Foam called, and that was as it should be, so Nine Hibiscus went to see what was wrong with her ship — her fleet — now.
Weight for the Wheel had two conference rooms right off the bridge — a large one, for strategy meetings, and a small one, for fixing problems. Nine Hibiscus had repurposed the latter from an auxiliary weapon-control station when she’d first been made captain. A ship needed a space to have private official conversations, she’d thought then, and she’d been largely right; the small conference room was the best place to solve personnel issues, recorded on the ship’s cameras, visible and invisible all at once. She took Twenty Cicada inside, cuing the door to open with a micromovement of one eye that directed her cloudhook to talk to the ship’s algorithmic AI.
Twenty Cicada wasn’t given to preambles; Nine Hibiscus had always known him to be efficient, brisk and clean and mercilessly direct. He preceded her through the door — and to her surprise, did not turn to give his report. Instead he headed directly for the room’s narrow viewport, and put a hand up against the plastisteel separating his body and the vacuum. Nine Hibiscus felt a flicker of warmth at the familiarity of the gesture, warmth mixed with uncomfortable dread: like her, Twenty Cicada touched the ship, but he touched it like he was longing for space to come in and take his hand. He’d done that for as long as Nine Hibiscus had known him, and the two of them had met on their very first deployment.
Which was long enough ago by now that Nine Hibiscus didn’t particularly feel like counting the years.
“Swarm,” she said — the nickname he’d gotten back on that deployment, the one she had mostly given up calling him for the sake of officer hierarchy — “spit it out. What’s going on?”
“Sir,” he said, still staring out at the black, gentle corrective for the cameras, even if the recordings of this room would never be seen by anyone but her: who outranked a yaotlek? But he was so correctly a Fleet officer, a Teixcalaanlitzlim’s Teixcalaanlitzlim, seamless in the role of ikantlos-prime and adjutant, a man who could have walked out of The Expansion History or Opening Frontier Poems, except that the system his people had come from hadn’t even been absorbed into Teixcalaan when either of those works had been written. (Except that he still kept up some of that system’s peculiar cultural-religious practices — but hesitance wasn’t one of those, either. At least not one she knew about.)
“Yes, ikantlos? Report.”
Finally he turned, widened his eyes in wry and resigned amusement, and said, “In about two hours, sir, you’re going to get an official communiqué, addressed to you specifically as yaotlek in charge of this combined fleet, from Fleet Captain Sixteen Moonrise on the Parabolic Compression of the Twenty-Fourth Legion, demanding to know what the delay in action is. It will be countersigned by Fleet Captain Forty Oxide of the Seventeenth and Fleet Captain Two Canal of the Sixth. We have a problem.”
“The Seventeenth and the Sixth?” Nine Hibiscus asked. “They hate each other. That rivalry is two hundred years old. How did Sixteen Moonrise get them both to sign?”
They absolutely had a problem. Her combined fleet was six legions strong: her own Tenth and five more, each with its own Fleet Captain newly subordinate to her authority. The traditional yaotlek’s six, both tactically effective and symbolically sound — if a somewhat limited amount of manpower to win a war with. Enough, though, to start a war, which Nine Hibiscus understood her purpose here to be. To start, and then to win with whatever resources she would need to call up from the core of Teixcalaan, if such resources were necessary.
But if three of her initial yaotlek’s six were already willing to sign an opening salvo against her authority as yaotlek . . . She didn’t need to say it; both she and Twenty Cicada knew what a letter like this one meant. It was a test, a press to check for weak spots: a light barrage to find the best point to concentrate a wedge attack. It was bad enough that she’d been given both the Sixth and the Seventeenth Legions as part of her fleet, but she’d expected any ensuing conflict to be between them, something to carefully manage by doling out the best assignments equally. Not this surprising show of political unity through displeasure.
“From what information I’ve received from my associates on their ships,” said Twenty Cicada, “Sixteen Moonrise appealed on the one side to Forty Oxide’s long experience compared to yours, and on the other to Two Canal’s vehement wish that she had been made yaotlek instead of you, and neither of them knew the other one had agreed until right before they agreed to send the message.”
There were reasons that Twenty Cicada was nicknamed Swarm, and it wasn’t just his peculiar name: a name with a living creature in it instead of a proper object or colour or plant. Swarm was Swarm because he was everywhere at once: he knew someone on every ship in the Fleet, and those someones tended to keep him well-informed. Nine Hibiscus clicked her teeth together, considering. “Politics,” she said. “All right. We’ve had politics before.”
Nine Hibiscus had had politics come after her more than once. Anyone who made Fleet Captain did. Anyone who made Fleet Captain and meant to keep the position and win victories for her legion — well, that sort of Teixcalaanlitzlim made enemies. Jealous ones.
(Every time there’d been politics before, though, Nine Hibiscus had also had Nine Propulsion in the Ministry as a threat of last resort. The new Minister of War, Three Azimuth, was no one’s friend in particular — or at least she wasn’t Nine Hibiscus’s friend.)
“Two Canal and Forty Oxide aren’t the point anyhow,” said Twenty Cicada. “Sixteen Moonrise is. She’s the instigator — she’s the one you’re going to have to defuse.”
“Perhaps she’d like the point position when we do make our approach.”
Twenty Cicada said, dry as processed ship air, “So direct, sir.”
She couldn’t help grinning: teeth bared like a barbarian, a savage expression. It felt good on her face. Felt like getting ready to act, instead of waiting and waiting and waiting. “They are insinuating I’m over-hesitant.”
“I can have that order composed. The Twenty-Fourth will be cast shouting into whatever void is eating our planets by shift-change, if you like.” One of the problems with Twenty Cicada was that he offered her exactly what she wanted, for precisely long enough for her to remember that it was a bad idea. It was the kind of problem that ended up being one of a thousand reasons Nine Hibiscus had never thought of replacing him with a soldier who came from a more assimilated world.
“No,” she said. “Let’s do one better. The glory of dying first for the empire is too good for Sixteen Moonrise, don’t you think? Invite her to dinner instead. Treat her like a favoured colleague, a prospective co-commander. A new yaotlek like me needs allies, doesn’t she?”
Twenty Cicada’s expression had become unreadable, like he was adjusting some value in a vast calculation of a complex system. Nine Hibiscus figured that if he was going to object he would go ahead and object, and went on assuming he wouldn’t.
“Fourth shift — that’ll give her the travel time to get over to Wheel. Her and her adjutant. We’ll have a strategy discussion, the four of us.”
“As soon as the letter officially arrives, sir, I’ll send that invitation back — and alert the galley that we’re expecting guests.” Twenty Cicada paused. “I don’t like this. For the record. It’s too early for anyone to be pushing you like this. I didn’t expect it.”
“I don’t like it either,” Nine Hibiscus said. “But since when has that made a difference? We persevere, Swarm. We win.”
“We do tend to.” A flicker, again, of that dry amusement. “But the wheel goes around — ”
Nine Hibiscus said, “That’s why we’re the weight,” like she was one of her soldiers in the mess, ship-phrase slogan, and smiled. Game on, she thought. Sixteen Moonrise, whatever it is you want from me — come play.
Over the comms, then, Two Foam’s disembodied voice: “Yaotlek, I have visual on Knifepoint. Three hours early. Coming in fast. Coming in — hot.”
“Bleeding stars,” Nine Hibiscus spat a quick, instinctive curse, just for her and Twenty Cicada to hear, and then signalled her cloudhook to patch her into the comms frequency. “On my way. Don’t fire on anything until we know we have to.”
Lsel Station was a sort of city, if one thought of cities as animate machines, organisms made of interlocking parts and people, too close-packed to be any other form of life. Thirty thousand Stationers on Lsel, all in motion, spinning in the dark in their gravitational well, safe inside the thin envelope of metal which was Station-skin. And like any other city, Lsel Station was — if you knew where to go, and where to avoid — a decent place to take a long enough walk to exhaust yourself out of overthinking.
Mahit Dzmare, by certain technicalities still the Ambassador to Teixcalaan from Lsel, even two months returned in quasi-disgrace from her post, had perfected the art of thinking the sensation of rolling her eyes. I haven’t walked far enough yet, she said to her imago — to both her imagos, the old Yskandr and the fragmentary remains of the young one. Give me time.
Yskandr said — he was mostly the young Yskandr today, arch and amused, experience-hungry, all bravado and new-won fluency in Teixcalaanli manners and politics. The Yskandr-version she’d mostly lost to the sabotage of the imago-machine that had brought him to her in the first place, nestled at the base of her skull, full up with live memory and the experience she’d needed to be a good Ambassador from Lsel, on the glittering City-planet heart of Teixcalaan. Sabotage executed — possibly, she remained unsure — by the very Councilor she was due to have dinner with in twenty minutes.
There was another life, Mahit thought, where she and Yskandr would have been in the City still, and integrated already into a single continuous self.
Yskandr told her, and that was the other Yskandr: twenty years older, a man who remembered his own death well enough that Mahit still sometimes woke up in the night choking on psychosomatic anaphylaxis.
Mahit was too many people, since she’d overlaid her damaged imago with the imago of the same man twenty years farther on down the line. She’d had a while to think about it. She was almost used to how it felt, the fault lines between the three of them grinding together like planetary tectonics. Her boots made soft familiar noise on the metal floor of the Station corridors. She was out near the edge of this deck — she could just barely see the curvature of the floor, here, stretching up. Walking endless loops around the Station had started as a refamiliarization tactic and turned into a habit. Yskandr didn’t know the geography of the Station any longer — in the City he’d been either fifteen years or three dead months out of date, but here at home he was just a long-exiled stranger. In fifteen years the interior, nonstructural walls moved around, the decks were repurposed, little shops opened and shut. Someone in Heritage had changed all the fonts on the navigational signs, a shift Mahit hardly recalled — she’d been eight — but she found herself staring at them, a perfectly innocuous medical sector: leftward sign suddenly compulsively fascinating.
We’re both exiles, she’d thought right then, and had hated herself for thinking it. She’d been gone a few weeks. She had no right to the name. She was home.
She wasn’t, and she knew it. (There was no such place any longer.) But the walking was a semblance, and she did remember where some things were, the shape and rhythm of the Station, alive and full of people — and she and Yskandr both had the same joy in discovering new places. On that, the aptitudes had gotten them entirely dead to rights.
This deck — which contained Heritage offices, if a person kept walking through the residential section Mahit was traversing, everyone’s individual pods hanging in warm bone-coloured rows, interspersed with common areas — wasn’t one she knew well at all. It was full of kids; older ones, three-quarters of the way to their imago aptitude tests, sitting easily on top of bulkheads and clustered in chattering groups around shop kiosks. Most of them ignored Mahit entirely, which was comforting. Two months back on the Station and half the time she ran into old friends, her crèchesibs or classmates, and all of them wanted her to tell them about Teixcalaan. And what could she say? I love it; it almost ate me and all of you together; I can’t tell you a single thing?
You died there rather than coming back to share your plans with our Station, and you’d like to lecture me on silence? Mahit snapped, and felt her smallest fingers go to fizzing sparkles: neurological afterimages of sabotage. That side effect hadn’t stopped. It was more obvious when she stumbled into one of the places she and Yskandr hadn’t managed to integrate yet, at all. But her sense of his presence withdrew to a banked and observant simmer. She’d ended up next to one of the kiosks, while she was too busy talking to her imago to notice where she was going. (Probably she should mind those slips more than she did. The slips where she wasn’t quite her, in her body.) Ended up next to a kiosk, and in a line for what it was selling.
Which seemed to be hand-bound literature. The kiosk was labelled adventure/bleak publishing. Its display was full of graphic stories, drawn not on ever-changeable infofiche but on paper, made from flattened rag pulp. Mahit reached out and touched the cover of the nearest. It was rough under her fingertips.
“Hey,” said the kiosk manager. “You like that one? The Perilous Frontier!”
“The what?” Mahit asked her, suddenly feeling as adrift as she had the first time anyone had asked her a question in Teixcalaanli. Context failure: What frontier? Aren’t they all perilous?
“We’ve got all five volumes, if you’re into first contact stuff; I love it, the artist on volume three draws Captain Cameron’s imago like Chandra Mav’s only visible in reflective surfaces, and the linework –”
The manager couldn’t be more than seventeen, Mahit thought. Short tight-curled hair over a bright-toothed grin, eight hooped earrings up the side of one ear. That was new fashion. When Mahit was that age everyone had been into long earrings. I’m old, she thought, with a peculiar delight.
Yskandr agreed, dust-dry and amused. He was years older.
I’m old, and I have no idea what kids on Lsel like to read. Even when I was a kid on Lsel I didn’t know, really. It hadn’t seemed important, before her aptitudes — why bother, when there was so much Teixcalaanli literature to drown herself in? To learn to speak in poetry for?
“I haven’t read them yet,” Mahit told the manager. “Can I have the first one?”
“Sure,” she replied, ducked down underneath the counter, and produced one. Mahit handed over her credit chip, and the manager swiped it. “They’re drawn right here on this deck,” she said. “If you like it, come back on second-shift two days from now and you can meet the artist, we’re having a signing.”
“Thanks. If I have time — ”
“Yeah,” the manager grinned, as if to say, Adults, seriously, what can you do. “If you have time.”
Mahit waved, went on. Walked a little faster. The Perilous Frontier! fit in her inside jacket pocket like it was a political pamphlet. Exactly the same size. That was interesting, in and of itself. Even if it turned out to be a horribly dull story, that was interesting.
The Heritage offices were a neatly labelled warren, seven or so doors on either side of the deck corridor, which had narrowed from the wide residential space to something more like a road. Behind those doors, all the extra space would be full of the offices of people assigned to jobs in Heritage: analysts, mostly. Analysts of historical precedent, of the health of art production and education, of the number of imago-matches in one sector of the population or another. Analysts and propaganda writers.
How Teixcalaan had changed her, and how quickly. The last time Mahit had come to the Heritage offices, for her final confirmation interview before she received both her imago and her assignment as ambassador, she’d have never thought about Heritage as being in the business of propaganda. But what else were they doing, when they adjusted educational materials for one age group or another, trying to have the aptitudes in five years spit out more pilots or more medical personnel? Changing how children wanted to be.
She was hesitating, poised outside the middlemost door with its neatly signed (in the new font, and when will I get to stop noticing the fucking new font, Yskandr, it isn’t actually a new font, it’s only a new font for you) nameplate reading aknel amnardbat, councilor for heritage. Hesitating because she hadn’t seen Councilor Amnardbat since that last confirmation interview, and hesitating because she still couldn’t understand why the woman she’d met then would have wanted to sabotage Mahit’s imago-machine. Ruin her before she could even attempt to do right by the imago-line she was part of. If Amnardbat had even been responsible — Mahit only had the word of a different Councilor, Dekakel Onchu, Councilor for the Pilots, on that. And Mahit had that word because she’d received letters, while embedded in the Teixcalaanli court, that Onchu had meant for Yskandr.
She missed, with an ugly and sudden abrupt spike of feeling, Three Seagrass, her former cultural liaison, the woman who was supposed to make incongruous experiences make more sense to the poor barbarian in her charge. Three Seagrass would have just opened the door.
Mahit lifted her hand, and knocked. Called out her own name, “Mahit Dzmare!,” a Lsel-style appointment-keeping: no cloudhooks here, to open doors with micromovements of an eye. Just herself, announcing herself.
Yskandr said, a murmur in her mind, ghost-thought: almost her own thought.
No, I’m not. And Amnardbat doesn’t know there are two of you — three of us — which is its own problem —
The door opened, so Mahit stopped thinking about dangerous lies she had told. Not thinking about them made them easier to hide. She’d learned that somewhere in the Empire, too.
Councilor Amnardbat was still slim and middle-aged, her hair worn in a spacer’s cut of silvering ringlets, narrow and long grey eyes in a wide-cheekboned face that always looked like she’d been exposed to too much solar radiation — chapped, but in a rugged sort of way. She smiled when Mahit came in, and that smile was welcoming and warm. If she’d been working with her staff before Mahit’s arrival, they weren’t immediately visible. Heritage was a small operation, anyway. Councilor Amnardbat had a secretary, who wrote her correspondence — he’d been the one to send Mahit this invitation through the intra-Station electronic mail — but Mahit saw no one in the office at all. Just chairs, and a desk with infopaper piled all over it, and a screen on the wall showing some camera’s view of what was outside Lsel just now. A slow rotation of stars.
“Welcome home,” said Councilor Amnardbat.
It’s a gambit, Mahit thought, and besides, I’ve only been back on-Station for four weeks, the rest was travel time. She felt Yskandr subside into a watchful, attentive hum. More awake than he’d been in a long time. She felt that way, too. More awake, more present. Having a dangerous conversation with a powerful person in their offices. Just like she was supposed to do, on Teixcalaan.
“I’m glad to be here,” said Mahit. “What can I do for you, Councilor?”
“I did promise to have a meal with you,” Amnardbat said, still smiling, and Mahit felt an echo of Yskandr’s flinch, his remembered fear: the Minister of Science in Teixcalaan, offering him food as a pretext to poison. She shoved it back. Not her endocrine trauma response. (She wished that she trusted Lsel’s integration therapists with the secret of what she’d done when she’d overlaid two imago-Yskandrs. Mahit didn’t have memory-linked trauma responses — probably — but Mahit and Yskandr were blurred, blurring more all the time, and she didn’t know what to do with his.)
“It isn’t that I don’t appreciate that,” Mahit said, “but I am sure you’re busy enough to not just want to share some food with a returned ambassador.”
Councilor Amnardbat’s expression didn’t change. She radiated pleasant, brusque good cheer, laced with an almost parental concern. “Come sit down, Ambassador Dzmare. We’ll talk. I have spiced fish cakes and flatbread — I figured you’d missed Lsel food.”
Mahit had, but she’d fixed that the first week back, gone to one of her old haunts and eaten hydroponic-raised flaky white fish stew until she’d ached from it, and, feeling entirely ill, fled the place before any of her friends could show up accidentally and welcome her back with their questions. Something about Councilor Amnardbat’s emotional timeline was skewed. Perhaps skewed on purpose. (And what purpose would it serve? Checking for some Teixcalaanli-derived corruption of taste? And what if Mahit had been one of those Stationers who hated fish cakes, it was a preference — )
“It’s very kind of you to have it brought,” she said, sitting down at the conference table across from the Councilor’s desk and tamping back (again) on her imago’s frisson of adrenaline signalling. The danger here wasn’t going to come from the food. In fact, it smelled good enough to make Mahit’s mouth water: the flaky fish spiced with red peppers, the carbon scent of slightly charred flatbread, made from real wheat and precious thereby. Amnardbat sat across from her, and for a good two minutes they were just Stationers together: rolling flatbread around fish, devouring the first one and making another to be eaten more slowly.
The Councilor swallowed the last bite of the first flatbread she’d rolled. “Let’s get the awkward question out of the way, Mahit,” she said. Mahit attempted to not let her eyebrows climb up to her hairline and mostly succeeded. “Why did you return so soon? I’m asking this in my capacity as the Councilor for Heritage — I want to know if we didn’t give you something you needed, out in the Empire. I know the process of integration was foreshortened. . . .”
Yskandr said, and Mahit was worriedly glad that he was inaudible unless she let him be audible. Or slipped.
Possibly she sabotaged us, she reminded him. If we believe Onchu. Who we also haven’t spoken with —
She’d been too afraid to. Too afraid of Onchu being right, or Onchu being wrong, and too exhausted by the sudden and irrevocable strangeness of what had been home to get around that being-afraid.
“No,” she said out loud. “There wasn’t anything I needed that Lsel didn’t try to give me. Of course I’d have liked more time with Yskandr before we went out, but what happened to me wasn’t the shortest integration period in our history, I’m sure.”
“Then why?” asked Amnardbat, and took another bite of fish. Question over, time to eat, time to listen.
Mahit sighed. Shrugged, rueful and aiming for self-deprecation, some echo of how uncomfortable she imagined Heritage would like a Stationer to be with things Teixcalaanli. “I was involved in a riot and a succession crisis, Councilor. It was violent and difficult — personally, professionally — and after I secured promises from the new Emperor as to our continued independence, I wanted to rest. Just for a while.”
“So you came home.”
“So I came home.” While I still wanted to.
“You’ve been here for a month. And yet you haven’t had yourself uploaded into a new imago-machine for your successor, Ambassador. Even though you know quite well that our last recording is extremely out of date, and we don’t have one of you at all.”
Fuck. So that’s what she wants. To know if the sabotage worked —
. . . at the moment I do.
“It didn’t occur to me,” said Mahit. “It hasn’t even been a year — forgive me, this is my first year having an imago at all. I thought there was a schedule? With appointment reminders?”
Refuge in bureaucratic ignorance. Which would also act as a shield — however temporary, however flimsy — against Amnardbat finding out that she had two imagos. Uploading would make short shrift of that little deception. And Mahit had no idea what policy there was on Lsel about doing something like what she’d done. Or if there even was any policy. She expected there wasn’t. It was so clearly a bad idea. It had certainly given her enough squirming, revulsive qualms, before she’d done it.
No. I needed you. I still need — us.
“Oh, of course there’s a schedule,” Amnardbat said. “But we in Heritage — well, I specifically, but I do speak for everyone here — have a policy of encouraging people who experience significant events or accomplishments to update their imago records more often than the automated calendar suggests.”
Politely, Mahit took another bite of her flatbread wrap. Chewed and swallowed past the psychosomatic tightening of her throat. “Councilor,” she said, “of course I can make an appointment with the machinists, now that I know about your policies. Is that really all? It’s a kindness, to have this much fish cooked for us, and real flatbread, just to ask for an administrative favour that you could have written to me about.”
Let her deal with the suggestion that she was being profligate with food resources. Heritage Councilors had been removed for lesser corruptions, generations ago. That imago-line wasn’t given to new Heritage Councilors any longer. Mothballed, preserved somewhere in the banks of recorded memories, deemed unsuitable: anyone who would serve their own needs before the long-remembered needs of the Station shouldn’t be influencing the one Councilor devoted to preserving the continuity of that Station.
Some very nice Teixcalaanlitzlim and my imago have conspired to teach me to weaponize references.
But Amnardbat was saying, “It’s not a favour,” and as she said it Mahit realised that she’d underestimated her, was underestimating the reasons for her behaviour, expecting that she could be manipulated like a Teixcalaanlitzlim could be, with allusion and narrative. “It’s an order, Ambassador. We need a copy of your memory. To make sure that whatever it was that made Yskandr Aghavn stay away so long from the uploading process hasn’t spread to you, too.”
Fascinating, really, how she felt so cold. So cold, her fingers gone to ice-electric prickling, no sensation around how she held the remains of her flatbread. So cold, and yet: hummingly focused. Afraid. Alive. “Spread?” she asked.
Yskandr whispered, and Mahit ignored him.
“It is a terrible thing, to lose a citizen to Teixcalaan,” Amnardbat said. “To worry that there is something in the Empire that steals our best. The machinists and I will be expecting you this week, Mahit.”
When she smiled again, Mahit thought she understood what made the Teixcalaanlitzlim so nervous about bared teeth.
Knifepoint was in visual range when Nine Hibiscus made it back to the bridge, briefly out of breath from the speed of that short transit. She took deep inhalations like she was an orator, settled her lungs, tried to keep any adrenaline response limited. It was her bridge now, her bridge and her command. All her officers rotated toward her as if they were flowers and she was a welcome sunrise. For a moment everything felt correct. And then she noticed how quickly Knifepoint was approaching the rest of the fleet, growing in size even as she watched through the viewports. They had to be burning the engines at absolute maximum to be coming in this hot. Knifepoint was a scout — it could hit that speed, but not maintain it for very long, it was too small and would run out of fuel — and if its pilot had decided to run as fast as possible, then they were absolutely being chased.
“Do we know what’s following them?” she asked, and Two Foam shook her head in swift negation from the comms chair.
“Everything’s blank,” she said. “Just Knifepoint and dead void behind them — but they’ll be in hailing range in two minutes — ”
“Get them on the holograph as soon as you can. And scramble the Shards. If there’s something after them we’re not going to let it get far.”
“Scrambling, yaotlek,” said Two Foam, her eyes flickering in rapid motion behind her cloudhook. All around them the high clear whine of the alarm rose through Weight for the Wheel. A fleet’s first line of defence, and most mobile: a swarm of single-pilot small craft, all weaponry and navigation, short-range and absolutely deadly. Nine Hibiscus had been a Shard pilot herself, on that long-ago first deployment, and she still felt the scramble-alarm like a delicious vibration in the marrow of her bones: go, go, go. Go now, and if you die you die star-brilliant.
With the alarm singing through her, Nine Hibiscus said, “And let’s charge up the top two energy cannon banks, shall we?” She settled again into her captain’s chair. Five Thistle, the duty weapons officer, gave her a bright, wide-eyed grin.
“Sir,” he said.
They all wanted this so much. Her, too. The fire and the blood of it, something to do. A proper battle, blue and white energy weapons arcing through the black, shattering and scorching.
Just as the first Shards spilled sparkling into the viewport’s visual range, the thing that Knifepoint was running away from appeared.
It didn’t come into view. It appeared, as if it had been there all along, hidden in some kind of visual cloak. The black nothingness of space — this sector had so few stars — rippled, squirmed like a nudibranch touched by a finger, an enormous and organic recoiling, and there it was, the first ship-of-their-enemy any Teixcalaanli eyes had seen. (Any Teixcalaanli eyes that had lived to describe it, at least.) Three grey hoops, rotating at speed around a central ball. It was hard to look at and Nine Hibiscus didn’t know why — some of that recoiling, squirming visual distortion clung to it, made the grey metal of its hull seem oil-slick and unfocused.
It had been not-there, and now it was there. Right up on Knifepoint’s tail, just as fast, and closing — “This is the yaotlek Nine Hibiscus,” she said, wide-broadcast. “Cut that thing out of its vector and surround it. Hold fire unless you are fired upon.”
Like they were extensions of her will, of her exhaled breath, the Shards flew outward on a fast approach toward the foreign object that had dared come so very near. It took them a moment to orient themselves around the alien ship; it wasn’t a shape they knew, and it moved in unexpected ways, a slippery roll like a greased ball bearing. But the Shards were smart, and they were interlinked — each ship providing positional and visual biofeedback not only to its own pilot through their cloudhook, but to all of the pilots in the swarm — and they learned quickly. Knifepoint shot out between the glittering sparkle of them like a shuttle breaking atmosphere, and was caught safely by the outreaching net of Weight for the Wheel’s hangar bay.
Two Foam had gotten Knifepoint’s captain on holo: he looked harried, wild-eyed and breathing hard, his hands visibly white at the knuckles as he gripped the controls of his ship.
“Well done,” Nine Hibiscus said to him, “not a scratch on you — give us a minute to deal with this thing you brought us and I’ll bring you right up to debrief — ”
“Yaotlek,” he interrupted, “they’re invisible until they want to be, that might not be the only one, and they have firepower — ”
“Stand down, Knifepoint,” Nine Hibiscus said. “It’s our problem now, and we have firepower too.” They did. The energy cannon, and the smaller, more vicious, more ugly power of nuclear core-bombs. If necessary.
“I intercepted a communication,” he said, as if he hadn’t heard her at all.
“Excellent. Put it in your report.”
“It’s not language, yaotlek — ”
“Two Foam, deal with this? We are a little busy just now.” The alien ship did have firepower — what looked like a fairly standard but very precise suite of energy cannons, arrayed on the outmost of those three spinning loops. Soundless bursts of light blinded her through the viewport, and when she blinked the afterimages away there were three fewer Shards. She winced.
“All right, containment is no longer the protocol — Five Thistle, tell the Shards to clear a path for cannonry.”
At their best, Nine Hibiscus’s officers didn’t need to confirm they’d heard her — they acted. Five Thistle’s hands gestured inside the holographic workspace of the weapons station, moving ships and vector lines in the embedded starfield, a miniature version of her own cartograph table — and the Shards moved in response, forming a new pattern, clearing a space for Weight for the Wheel’s main cannon banks to aim, and fire.
Electric blue. The light that Nine Hibiscus had always imagined a person saw if they accidentally stepped inside an industrial irradiator, in the brief moment they’d have to see anything at all. Deathlight, with its hum like a scramble-alarm, as familiar as breathing or ceasing to breathe.
(For a fraction of a second, she wondered if she oughtn’t try to capture the thing first — shut it down with targeted electromagnetic pulses while it was still far away enough that EMP wouldn’t fry her own ships, pull it on board — but Knifepoint had said they had an intercepted communication, and this thing had killed three of her own soldiers already. Four — another Shard winked out in a silent shatter of flame, a candle going up and going out in rapid succession.)
Full cannon power lit the alien ship like a beacon, shook it, peeled some of that slick and squirming visuality away from it — the parts of the outer ring which had been blown off looked like metal, like space debris, entirely standard. But full cannon power didn’t destroy it. It spun faster — it whirred — Nine Hibiscus imagined she could hear it spinning, though she knew that was impossible — and just before the second cannon barrage struck its inner ball, smashing it open into nothingness and destruction entire, it emitted from the second of its damaged rings some dark viscous substance that fell through null-grav in strange ropes.
Spit, Nine Hibiscus thought, repulsed.
Five Thistle was already calling, “Get away from it,” on all channels, and the great reactor-fuelled engines of Weight for the Wheel flared into life, pulled them backward, away from how the ropes tangled like a liquid net where the alien ship had been. What fluid moved like that? As if it was — seeking, mobile, far too cohesive. The surface tension on it — not so much that it clung together in a ball, but enough that it spun itself out in thinning, reaching strings — One of the Shards, a glittering wedge tumbling easily onto a new vector, vernier thrusters firing, intersected with one of those spit-strings. Nine Hibiscus watched it happen. Watched all the gleam of the little fighter vanish, slicked over with alien ship-saliva, a fractal net of it that stuck and clung even when the Shard pulled free of the string. Saw, disbelieving while seeing, that net begin to bubble its way through the Shard’s hull, corrosive, eating its metal and plastisteel like some kind of hyper-oxidizing fungus.
The Shard’s pilot screamed.
Screamed on the open channel Five Thistle had used, screamed and then shouted, “Kill me, kill me now, it’s going to eat the ship, it’s in here with me, don’t let it touch anyone else,” a controlled and desperate spasm of bravery.
Nine Hibiscus hesitated. She had done many things she’d regretted, as a pilot and a captain and as Fleet Captain of the Tenth Teixcalaanli Legion — uncountable things, she was a soldier, it was the nature of being what she was to commit small atrocities, like it was the nature of stars to emit radiation that burned and poisoned as much as it gave warmth and life. But she’d never ordered her ship to fire on her own people. Never once yet.
On that same channel, a chorus of anguish: all the Shard pilots, linked together by biofeedback, all of them feeling the death of their sibling-ship, devoured alive. Sobbing. The sound of snatched breath, hyperventilation. A low moaning scream, that echoed, was picked up by other voices — “Do it,” Nine Hibiscus said. “Shoot her. As she asked.”
Deathlight-fire, precise and merciful. A burst of blue, and one Teixcalaanlitzlim rendered to ashes.
Silence on all the comms. Nine Hibiscus heard nothing but the hideous pounding of her own heartbeat.
“Well,” said Twenty Cicada, finally — sounding as shaken as anyone, but briskly shaken — “that’s approximately eight new things about these people we didn’t know ten minutes ago.”
Except from Arkady Martine’s A Desolation Called Peace reprinted by permission. Copyright Tor.