Chapter no 20 – Off The Map

Empire of Silence

“WE READY TO SHIP out?” a husky, feminine voice asked when Demetri and I finished wrestling my trunk into a space amidst wooden crates and steel drums in the low-ceilinged hold. The air aboard the Eurynasir was frigid, as the air aboard so many starships is, and the lights were dialed low and golden, casting dim highlights on the black walls and scuffed metal floors.

The place smelled like spent gunpowder, like engine grease and burnt metal. Rust. Not a clean smell, and not one that inspired confidence. The ship had been around a long time—decades at least, and perhaps longer.

Turning, I saw a woman in a dull gray jumpsuit approaching. She had the same bronze skin as Demetri, the same star-bright hair, though hers was nearly twice as long and waved almost to her elbows. So similar were they that they might have been cousins, siblings, were it not for the way

Demetri’s face opened up as he bounded to her and gathered her into his

arms, making a low sound in his throat as he pressed his lips to hers. “Juno! Come and meet our new friend!” He stretched an arm toward me. “Has

Bassem got the engines ready? I want to dust off at once.” The woman, Juno, followed Demetri and extended a hand. I looked at it a moment,

confused. Into my confusion, Demetri said, “This is Hadrian Marlowe, my lady.”

“My lady?” I bowed, my confusion temporarily forgotten, adhering to an almost genetic need for propriety. The lady’s hand waited another moment

—I knew not why—but after a few more seconds she let it fall.

They both laughed, but the woman said, “I am no lady; Demetri here is only trying to be charming. He is like this.” She put a hand to her breast.

“No noble blood here.” She could have told me she was a princess of Jadd, and I might have believed her. In Jadd the eugenic obsession with beauty

was raised to a moral imperative, and even their middling classes bred themselves to beautify and so glorify their people. Neither her nor

Demetri’s hair could have been natural. It must have been an aftermarket modification, the first sign that I was leaving the tightly tended garden of Imperial life.

“Except for him,” Demetri said, one hand close to his mouth, thumb tracing the line of his lower lip. “The lad is royalty. Son of some archon or other.”

The woman brightened, eyes shining amber in the yellow light from overhead. “Really? I’ve never met an Imperial palatine before.”

Abashed, I looked away. “I’m not a palatine any longer, madame.”

“Juno, please,” she said, moving forward to have a look at me, squinting up in the dimness. I had thought Demetri tall when we’d met in the quayside bar, but neither of the Jaddians was tall as I was. I did not know how to categorize them by Imperial standards. The hair bespoke some

changing in the blood, so I could not call them plebeian. Patrician, then? Augmented like Sir Roban and Father’s other knights?

A series of rising notes chimed through the ship’s speakers, slowly ascending like the peal of a clock striking the hour. Then a voice rang

through: deep, masculine, thickly accented as Demetri’s. “Is the passenger aboard, Captain?”

“Aye, Bassem!” Demetri called out. He started off toward the rounded bulkhead and out of the frigid hold. “Don’t waste time asking for permission to take off—just go. Out to sea and up. You know the way.

We’ll be right there.” He turned back in the doorway, both hands pawing the metal frame like an actor preening onstage. “You’ll want to see this.”


The word resonated within me, humming in spite of all the things that could still go wrong. I grinned and followed after the trader, through the bulkhead and up a rattling metal stair, past the sealed glass door to the

ship’s infirmary. A pair of pale women, their faces streaked with grime, peered out from the shadow of one cabin, and someone called a question to the captain in what I thought was one of the languages of the Tavros

Demarchy, but Demetri let it stand unanswered.

“How many crew have you got, messer?” I asked.

“Call me Demetri,” he corrected, leading me into a low common room, “or Captain, if you like.” An ellipsoid metal table dominated the low space,

its benches crudely welded to the deck. The place was completely bare, the random items of human habitation squirreled away and packed up. “Only

six, not counting yourself.” He indicated Juno, following hard on my tail.

“You’ve met my lovely wife. And there’s Bassem, the twins, Doctor Sarric, and old Saltus.” He stopped short, frowning. “I guess I make seven, sorry.”

A starship. She was a true starship, not one of the suborbital shuttles I was used to; those were barely fit to scratch the top of the sky. My heart pressed against my throat. A true starship. And I was on it. I had dreamed of this moment since I was a boy, since I’d learned that Delos was not the world but a planet island in it. The Eurynasir lurched beneath us, and I

could make out the muddy sound of water churning below. I stumbled at the movement, thrown against the concave wall of the corridor, and nearly tripped down an open hatch descending to the floor below.

“Hey!” A small face, shriveled and with skin the color of ash, peered up from a hatch in the floor to one side. At first I thought it was a child, though no child had so wizened a countenance. Even Gibson, whose life had retreated so far into age that it was lost within it, looked young next to the little goblin. Surely he was a homunculus: a gene-tailored replicant like the little herald Father kept or my mother’s blue-skinned houri. The gaunt

creature spoke again, his voice improbably high. “Are we underway, Demetri?”

“Aye, Saltus.” The Jaddian turned. “Best strap yourself in. We’re for the up-and-up.”

The little man pulled himself up and out of the hatch, wrinkling his

already wrinkled face. At his full height, the man could not have been more than four feet tall, and he was built in a way that recalled the orangutans I’d seen in my grandmother’s menagerie. His arms nearly dragged on the ground, and there was thick gray hair on them and on the backs of his hands. His legs were short and bowed. Saltus smiled, running one of those huge, wrong hands over his hairless scalp until he grabbed the gray-black queue that sprouted from the base of his skull. He twisted the rope of hair in his hands as he spoke. “This the passenger?”

“Of course he is, haqiph,” Juno put in, voice scathing. She sounded as revolted by the creature as I was myself, though there was a worn quality to her disgust.

The homunculus, Saltus, squinted up at me, twisting his hair in an awful parody of a little girl. “You didn’t say he was like me.”

I started, nearly jumped out of my skin, hackles rising. “What do you mean?” I had to will my fists to unclench. We couldn’t have been less alike if the little monster had been Cielcin. Homunculi weren’t human, not truly. They represented a loophole in the Chantry’s technological regulations— their religious decrees—and like all loopholes, greed and human cruelty poured into that space like wine. Homunculi were bred for tasks that normal men, even the planetbound serfs, found distasteful. To have one compare itself to me . . .

“We are both homunculi!” he said brightly, and he offered me his hand as Juno had. I didn’t take it, not then understanding the gesture. “Both

children of the tanks.”

Aristocratic reflex made me lunge forward. “I’m not a homunculus!” I couldn’t keep the disgust from my voice.

Demetri cut in, “Quiet, Salt. We’ll be having no lip. The man pays better than you.”

“Smells better, too,” Juno put in with a rounded grin. Beside and behind us, the Eurynasir began to whine, her engines shifting from a low and

crunching growl to something high and steady, as if deep water were coursing through the veins of the world. “You would best be getting comfortable, Salt,” the sailorwoman said archly, crossing her arms.

The homunculus grumbled something, and the woman urged me on after her brightly dressed husband to the end of the corridor, down a short flight of stairs, and out into the forward-facing glass dome I’d seen from outside. The bridge—for bridge it surely was—was arranged on an outthrust finger of steel in the center of that dome so that the glass blister stretched out and around us on all sides, according us an equal view of the silver sky and sea. Saltus had vanished back down its hatch in the floor, and a huge, broad-

shouldered man with skin and hair black as my family’s banner sat behind the controls in a seat far too small for him. As I entered, the ship crossed one of the sea’s rare swells and bounced, throwing me against the padded ovular entryway and thence into a bank of quietly blinking instruments.

“You’re late,” the man said, deep voice rumbling beneath the sound of the music thrashing from his command console. “We’re almost to speed.”

Demetri took the chair beside him, strapping himself in even as the huge man keyed a series of red switches above his head, moving left to right.

“Any trouble from traffic control?”

“In a pissy little backwater town like this?” The helmsman snorted. “Not that I heard.” He turned and grinned at Demetri. “But then again, I closed the comms. Got sick of all the chatter.” He broke off a moment, calling up a glittering line of blue-white holographs in the air before him. With the ease of long practice, he looped his finger through a glowing reticule and spoke into the air before him, voice carrying over the ship’s sound system for the benefit of the homunculus and the others we had passed. “If you bastards

aren’t belted down, now’d be a real good time.”

The ship bucked again, bouncing out of the waves for a good two

seconds. When it hit, I fell sideways onto one of the low crash-couches

waiting there. Juno tried to catch me—somehow she’d kept her feet. Things were relatively smooth for a stretch thereafter, long enough for me to turn

around and strap myself into my seat.

“Closing the dome!” Demetri said, reaching across his massive copilot to throw a small lever. Fingers danced across his arc of console as if it were a piano, the music still blaring and rattling as outside huge flower-petal-

shaped pieces of hull closed over the dome, leaving us in darkness. So

enthralled was I by this mechanical precision—and at such speed—that I failed to note that I had seen the surface of my world for the last time, vanishing as light does through the aperture of a camera: split into wedges, then slivers, then darkness. And Delos was gone, the inside of the dome filled instead with the holograph model of flight trajectories, ship’s telemetry, and the pulsing sound of Bassem’s grindingly metallic song.

And there it was: the faint sensation of my stomach dropping away through blind depths, the rage of the twinned fusion drives far to aft. We were flying. Rising along the curve of an invisible chain through air and darkness toward a darkness greater still. What I would have given for a window in that moment. “You’ll be really feeling it in a second, boy!” Demetri called over the music and the howl of fusion fire.

He wasn’t wrong. Acceleration fell upon me, a terrible boot grinding me into my couch. I was seated facing the middle of the ship at a right angle to the axis of thrust, and so I was pressed sideways into the headrest of my

seat. I felt my flesh hanging on my bones, felt the weight of it as hooks in the meat of me; Delos would not let me go. My vision blurred and spat,

eyesight guttering like candles. I groaned, but the sound was lost in the thrashing of artificial guitar and the growling of foul tongues from the ship’s console.

And then it was over, vanishing into nothing. Even the music stopped. “Hey!” the helmsman snapped, punching his captain in the arm. “I was

listening to that!”

“And we need to make sure no one is sore about that unauthorized dust-off, and I can’t focus with that skubus you call music in my ears, Bassem,”

Demetri snapped, using the Jaddian word for shitHe danced through a series of commands at his controls, hunched to study the readouts. “Not seeing anything that flags. You?”

Bassem shook his head. “Nothing yet. We’ve got a few hours before we can get to warp, though.” He glanced back at me, speculation in his eyes. “I hear you say something to Salt about the boy being royalty?” He

swallowed, throwing the lever Demetri had moved back into place before unlocking his own chair and half turning to better look at me. “You don’t think the ODF will be on us?”

“The Defense Force? Not if the codes that lady passed us check out,”

Demetri shot back. “Keep them on reserve in case someone flags us. Don’t want to draw attention early.”

I almost heard none of this. I was distracted—not by what was happening but by what was gone. Gravity. I floated in my restraints and relaxed my arms to watch them drift, stick-like, in the air before me.

A thin laugh escaped me, and I hid my face in my hands. Juno had

strapped herself into the couch beside mine and peered around the headrest to look at me. “Why do you laugh?” Her brow furrowed, and she glanced over to Demetri for support. The captain did not see her, as he was entering the commands to open up the dome’s shielding again. For the first time I noticed that the whine and roar of the engines was gone, the silence punctuated by deep-boned metallic clanking as the fusion reactor quieted

and the radiation sinks opened. I had not heard them earlier, but with all sound fled into that endless night, they rang clear as Chantry bells in my ears. And where minutes before that iris had closed out the light of my home world, here it opened onto a blackness total and absolute.

I dragged my hands down across my face, hoping to still the emotions there. Gibson’s voice rasped in my ear, so close I almost felt him at my

shoulder. Joy is a wind, Hadrian. It will pick you up only to smash you against the rocks again. I latched onto the beginning of that statement, murmured, “Joy is a wind.”

“Excuse me?”

The feeling of weightlessness vanished all at once as the suppression field slammed on. I had never before felt one without the influence of

Delos’s gravity—I had only ever experienced the Royse field effect as a means for counteracting inertia in high-acceleration flights—and so I was unprepared for the queasy feeling of it. My arms fell to my sides, and my weight collapsed back into the seat. It felt as if a stiff, wet blanket had been draped over me. The few loose items in the air—a light pen, an empty drinking can, a box of playing cards—all fell, but I still felt weightless. The suppression field was not proper gravity or even true artificial gravity. It only pinned us to the deck as butterflies are pinned under glass.

I felt suddenly green, mumbled, “Think I’m going to be sick.” Instantly Juno produced a paper bag, which I held before my face, breathing


“The hell was that about winds?” the big helmsman asked, turning about and unbuckling his restraints.

I looked past him, out at the untellable beauty of the cosmos: eternal, untouchable, and clean. “Something my tutor used to say,” I replied. When the three merchanters kept watching me, I added, “He was a scholiast.”

Bassem looked startled, but Demetri and Juno both nodded. The captain spoke, saying, “That would explain our destination.”

“What’s that?” the helmsman asked.

Demetri pointed a finger at my chest. “Boy’s going under the ice until we make planetfall on Teukros.”

“I know that shit,” Bassem snapped, standing and stretching out his back with a groan. No matter his blood, the man was certainly taller than me— was nearly as tall as my father—and he knew it. You could see it in the way he looked down at his captain beside him and at me. “What’s that got to do with the hudr?” That made me blink. I’d never heard the scholiasts called that before. Greens.

“We’re supposed to drop him at Nov Senber,” said Demetri, switching to Jaddian, then back to Imperial Galstani as he swept a hand to encompass me. “Our friend here is to join the hudr.”

Bassem frowned at me, deep creases framing his gray lips. “Why?” The disgust in his voice was so thick it was almost solid, hitting me like a slap.

I did not speak at once. Somehow I couldn’t really see the big man but rather saw past him to the disc of the planet visible through the clear dome. Delos. Her gray seas stretched away wide and wild below us, the

monochrome more pronounced by the pitiful contrast accorded by the white smattering of cloud. Only the land relieved it: here brown, here green-black or ochre. Here dun, there an angry red or burning umber. I imagined Father’s globe, the one floating on his desk in the prefectural capitol building. From our high orbit it was easy to imagine that it was only that globe I saw, not the world. It felt as if at any moment, Father would strike me across the face again, and it would not be my crash-couch I fell into but his desk, the bloodwood chair splintering beneath me.

At last I shrugged. “Better them than the Chantry.”

“You want your brains scooped out?” Bassem asked, disgust curdling his momentarily friendly face. “You want that head of yours stuffed full of kit?”

“That isn’t how it works!” I stood then, looking up sharply at the huge sailor. “They aren’t demoniacs. They just study for centuries. Train their minds to work better, more efficiently.”

“By turning themselves into fucking soulless pricks, that’s how.” He glared down at his captain. “I don’t like it, boss.”

Demetri shrugged, wrung his hands like Pilate over the water basin.

“You don’t have to like it, Bassem. We’ve got nine thousand riding on it, and all we need to do is drop him off.”

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