WITH THE CIELCIN BEHIND us stunned or dead and Bassander’s legionnaires hurrying to our aid, we pressed forward, following the vague instructions of the Cielcin, knowing it was likely a lie or a trap. I still held my Jaddian phase disruptor, slack now in my limp fingers, the brass stock glowing in the light from our suits. I watched it as we moved deeper in until the tunnels ran straight and strips of glow tape marked passages familiar to me.
We were near the sepulcher, the keyhole-shaped chamber where Anaïs had kissed me. The legionnaires met us at a juncture, and after a brief
explanation of what had occurred, Bassander sent four of his soldiers back up the tunnel to join Lieutenant Azhar and the mamluks Olorin had left behind to guard our three prisoners and the corpse of the Cielcin the
Maeskolos had slain.
“You all right, lord?” Bassander asked, having heard about my ordeal in the cave above.
I couldn’t say if it was concern or self-interest that motivated the question, but I nodded, murmured, “Hadrian. And yes. I’ll be fine.”
The Legion lieutenant nodded, face invisible behind that convex arc of jointed white ceramic. “Lead the way, then. You two!” He pointed at two legionnaires with heavy plasma rifles. “Take point—cover Marlowe and the swordmaster. They’re not kitted out for this.” As if to himself, he added,
“Bloody stupid risk.” Olorin, blessedly, did not hear him. He turned back to me. “How’s the charge on your shield?”
I checked. “Eighty-one percent.” “It’ll do.”
The approach to the sepulcher was a single level hallway, the walls
canted slightly inward, creating a trapezoidal cross section and a space wide
enough that three might walk abreast.
“Scanning,” one of the legionnaires said, stopping to check his suit’s built-in terminal. “No life signs.”
“They hid an entire shuttle,” Bassander said, signaling readiness and ordering more soldiers forward with a flash of his left hand. The mamluks moved seamlessly forward, some autonomic process in their homunculus brains telling them to slip into the gaps in Bassander’s formation.
Eyes still downcast, I offered, “There should only be seven. The one I spoke to said there were eleven of them.”
“Unless he is meaning there are eleven ahead.” Olorin looked round. “I am not liking this hall; it limits us.” I glanced back over my shoulder to
where five of Bassander’s men—three kneeling in front, two behind—had walled off the corridor. Somewhere in the chamber ahead, water was dripping, condensation from the humid sea air on the ancient, glassy pillars about the cracked altar structure. I felt transported. Ours was not a column of soldiers but the funeral procession for my grandmother descending once more into the underworld. Strange how such memories dominate our lives, echoing back through time to places where they have no business.
But for that faint noise and the sounds of quiet feet, a terrible hush lay on that darkened place. How appropriate that it should be there, of all the chambers in Calagah. The Quiet had built the tunnels with but one focus, a series of ascending and descending branches and loops and spirals that all led to this one dead end. As if all their alien musings circled back to this one thesis, this one idea. The Cielcin’s words rang in my head.
It is not for you.
For us? Humanity, it clearly meant. I had the sudden impression that I stood at the heart of a vortex, in the eye of a hurricane I could not see or understand.
“Marlowe.” Olorin nudged me. “Go on.”
I could have been safely on a shuttle back to Springdeep right now with Valka and Sir Elomas, could have been awaiting another fight in the
coliseum or another day of thievery in the canals. I could’ve been hunched over an index in a scholiasts’ scriptorium—as I am writing this account—or else bent over a prisoner in the bastille at Vesperad.
But I was there, almost crouching in a tunnel beneath meters of basalt upon the margins of a fickle sea, hunting xenobites amid ruins more alien still. The course of my life never did run smooth, its disjointed moments
collapsing inexorably toward this single one, caused by all that came before and by my single blunt declaration to the centurion upon the beach: I can help. My hands were still shaking. Help, indeed. But I found my voice, my words. “Kavaa . . .” Hello. The word was small, crushed by nerves and the bile rising in me at the thought of my little episode in the cave. I got my lungs behind me and tried again. “Kavaa, Cielcin-saba! Bayareto okarin’ta ti-kousun’ta!” Hello, Cielcin! You are all surrounded! I pressed forward, moving so that only a thin cordon of soldiers stood between me and the
entrance to the sepulcher.
It was not a literal translation, and I had had to make a presumption. By phrasing the statement as I had—passively—I was made to project the feminine, receptive gender on the group of Cielcin I hoped lurked in the
chamber before us. Being soldiers, I knew it was customary to use the masculine, knew I was being rude. Still in Cielcin, I added, “Nasca nietiri!” I want to talk.
As a child, I’d been taught not only to speak but to orate, and as I had grown, my voice had filled out. I had been groomed to sit in that black chair in Meidua, to sit beneath the Dome of Bright Carvings and rule a continent. I had a good voice, and that night it resounded in that quiet space, rebounding off walls. When I think of myself, oft times it is thus: standing in that darkness, lit from behind by the suit lights of the legionnaires and mamluks. Yet also I feel a shadow fall across that scene, cast not by myself and the shapes of the two soldiers beside me but by the sun of Gododdin,
which I would destroy. Sometimes I feel that standing at the mouth of that hall was to stand on the bridge of the sojourner and watch that sun explode. In memory it is not the white suit lights that bathe the scene but the light of that murdered sun, cast backward across time.
I repeated my declaration a couple of times, my voice rebounding off the hard walls of that airy chamber. After the third time, I tapped the disruptor
against my shoulder, rested it there, and shouted in Cielcin, “Is anyone there?”
“We are here.” And from the dark it came, a voice like the end of the world. “You are few.” The alien voice that replied was higher than that of
the one I’d questioned. “And you are small. Some of us might escape.”
“Past all my soldiers?” I must have sounded like a primitive to them, a child, like Makisomn had said. “I don’t like your chances.”
A high, cold sound went up from the darkness ahead, like wind brushing through the crenellations at Devil’s Rest in the dead of a Delian winter.
Involuntarily I felt myself shiver. Then the speaker spoke again, starting
with a long and sibilant hiss like gas escaping a dirigible the size of a small moon. “Canasam ji okun ti-koarin’ta ne?” Are you threatening us?
“Canasa ji ne?” I repeated, genuinely incredulous, unsure if the
emotion would translate well. Threatening you? “Of course I’m threatening you!” I shot a glance over my shoulder at Bassander and Olorin. “Put down your arms. Surrender.”
“Surrender?” Again, the high, cold sound. Outrage? Laughter? I couldn’t say. “Why would we surrender?”
“Siajenu iagari o-peryuete, akatha.” I opened my hands in a sort of
shrug, letting the weapon go slack in my hand. Because you have nowhere to go.
“The People do not surrender to animals!” shouted another alien voice, deeper than the first.
“Be silent!” a third speaker hissed, followed by something I couldn’t quite catch.
“Listen!” I cried out in Cielcin. “Ubbaa!” The alien voices were silent. I had an insight, a growing realization, a sense of what they might be feeling. “Whatever you’ve heard of my people, whatever stories . . . I will not harm you.” I tried not to think of the Cielcin I’d tormented with the phase disruptor on the floors above.
“You lie!” the second speaker called down.
“If you fight now,” I replied without hesitation, “you will most certainly die.” I pushed past the two guards holding position at the end of the hall, took a halting step into suit-lit gloom. “You’ve come this far, soldiers. Don’t throw it all away in some mad final push. Throw down your weapons, and I will see to it personally that each of you returns home alive.”
At last I saw one of them clearly as it stepped from the inner darkness, disgorged from the shadow like a child of night, all flanged black metal and rubber, face blessedly hidden behind a mask. Too tall, too thin to be real.
“And who are you to promise anything?”
“I have a clear shot,” one of the nearer soldiers said to Bassander Lin. “No!” I hissed in Galstani. How did I answer the Cielcin? What could I
say to it that would mean anything? I thought of stories I’d heard as a child. Stories about travelers who gave their names to the Cielcin only to be bound in servitude, tricked the way Faust was tricked by the cunning devil into signing away his soul for all time. Only the Cielcin were not devils. I was. Even so, something stopped me from giving my name out immediately. “I am someone fighting a war he did not begin. This is no more my war than it is yours, soldier. We inherited it from our parents,
same as you. Surrender and we can make an end of it.”
That high, cold sound filled the air between us. “Are you a soldier or a priest, creature?”
“Only a man!” I replied, not stopping to think about my answer. “But I’m the only one here who can speak your words.” In the Cielcin language the word for man, active-gendered, implied a doer of deeds, a creature of action, not merely a sex.
“A man?” A new voice rang out. “What is this? A joke?”
“No joke,” I replied, and I threw down my disruptor toward the soldiers and the tunnel at my back. “Only the truth. Will you not treat with me?”
The muttering reigned above again. Then the fourth voice sounded. “I will treat with you. We will speak.” I noted a shift in that instant, not in the alien’s tone of voice but in its choice of words. Until it spoke, the
conversation had been ill-matched, each side using the masculine-active gender to describe itself, describing the other with the feminine-receptive. But in that last statement, the fourth voice—the commander, I guessed— had used the feminine to describe itself and its soldiers. How telling that
shift was, I realized, how truly indicative. They had lost the upper hand. Until that moment I had not realized how the shape of the language might show agreement, everyone speaking in the same mode. The would-be
scholiast within me was quietly fascinated, but the part of me that thought in my father’s voice silenced the fascination. There would be time for it later.
Speaking Galstani now, I turned and called past the soldiers to
Bassander and Olorin. “I’m going to speak with their commander by the altar.”
If they were at all surprised to hear my news, they didn’t show it. After a second Bassander Lin pressed past his soldiers and said, “I’m going with you.”
I nodded. “Yes, of course.” I looked down at my hands. The shaking had stopped. “I think this is going to work.”
Eternity is in silence. It is in the quiet of the world, in the darkness and
solitude of the heart. These are the things that make forever out of instants. These are the things that turn the time it takes to walk across forty feet of bare floor into eons. As I walked slightly ahead of Bassander Lin, it seemed as though I could feel the weight of those alien eyes on us—on me. If the
Cielcin objected to the lieutenant’s presence, they gave no sign. They held their silence close, watchful as the ever-present stars that lurked somewhere beyond the stone that formed the roof of our world. Bassander and I
stopped, alone in that empire of silence.
Then a heavy foot fell. Another. A third.
The Cielcin captain lumbered out of the dark, leaning hard against one of the slanting pillars around the altar, one leg weak beneath it. The alien carried its helmet in the crook of its man-long arm, and it pulled its lips back from its sharp teeth as it appeared. No words of scholiast wisdom
came to mind, nothing to stem the tide of rage or fear. But I didn’t need them, for there was no rage. No fear. I felt clean. Unclouded. Ready. As I plunged into the dark, away from the light and order of the world in which I had toiled for so many years, the concerns of that ordered world dropped
“I forget”—the Cielcin sounded dry as straw, as bone, pressed of vitality
—“how small your people are.” This one was shorter than the one I had shot with the disruptor in the cavern above, but it still stood nearly eight
feet high. The features of its strange face were more pointed than those of that other, its eyes more slanted than round, hair braided at the left shoulder.
I stopped before I spoke, noticing the hand the creature pressed to its
side just below where the kidney would be if it were a human being. “Tuka okarin ikuchem.” You are injured. I used the feminine-receptive, passive
construction. The alien did not argue.
“Eka,” it agreed with a clockwise roll of its head. I am. Then it added, “It is nothing serious. The suit took the worst of it. I can speak for my men.”
“I believe you.” I gestured to the lieutenant beside me. “Cielcin, this is Bassander Lin, a . . .” I cast about for a word that would encapsulate what “lieutenant” meant. “He is a small captain.” When Lin noticed my use of his name, I repeated the words in Galstani for him, then turned back to the Cielcin. “My name is Hadrian Marlowe.”
“Hadrian . . .” The xenobite attempted to wrap its toothy mouth around my alien name. “Marlowe.” It pulled back its lips again, and in the stark white light of Bassander’s suit I saw that its gums were black. “I am Itana Uvanari Ayatomn, once ichakta of the ship you shot down.” Ichakta was captain. It pointed one finger at the roof above our heads, groaned, hissed like a wounded cat, and slumped against the column.
Still in Cielcin, I replied, “Will you surrender?”
“Can you ensure the safety of my men?” It looked me up and down. I knew what it saw: a small man not dressed for war, haggard, his hair tangled across his face. The details of my dress must have collapsed into some clearer understanding, bridging the gulf between species. I was no soldier and would never be.
“I cannot, no.” I knew I had said otherwise moments ago, so I curbed this revelation, saying, “But I can try. Will try.” I glanced at Lieutenant Lin and relayed the Cielcin’s concern.
The lieutenant shook his helmeted head. “I don’t know what the knight-tribune will do with them, Marlowe.”
Shifting to Galstani in order to better reply to the man, I said, “I can’t tell it that.” He only shrugged, face invisible through his helmet, hands ready on the stock of his plasma rifle.
“What choice does it have?” I could almost hear the eyebrows rise behind Bassander’s helmet mask.
I repeated this question for the Cielcin ichakta, who bared its glass-
splinter teeth again in a venomless snarl, rolled its head counterclockwise on its neck. “There is always a choice.” It tipped its face skyward, toward the confusion of crooked pillars and black archways that supported the distant arc of the ceiling. “The People never forget how to die, yukajji-do.” It was strange hearing the word People—Cielcin—pronounced in context. They said it differently than we, the consonants hard and grating. Strong.
“You want to die?” I asked.
Uvanari looked down on me from its height, lips stretched only a little, like a dog on the edge of growling. Its slitted nostrils flared, and it looked away again. “U ti-wetidiu ba-wemuri mnu, wemeto ji.” It sounded like
poetry, like scripture. I was slow to translate it: In the time of dying, we will die. I stifled a groan. If it wasn’t poetry, it was certainly a quotation. Earth and Emperor, it was like talking to myself. I struggled to incorporate this newfound philology into my understanding of the alien captain, who seized my studied silence as an opportunity to add, “There are worse places and
ways to die.”
That was a mistake, giving me something easy to respond to. Aware of the other Cielcin lurking in the dark, I said, “That may be, but not today! None of you has to die today. Surrender!” I injected as much urgency as I could into my tone, praying to I-know-not-whom that the emotion might cross the gap between species. Let Plato be right. “Surrender, throw down your arms, and we will not hurt you. You can walk out of this place. None of you has to die here.” I wanted to explain that I was a lord, that I could offer my protection, such as it was. But if the Cielcin had equivalent
concepts in their culture, I did not know them, and so I was mute.
I heard a stirring in the shadows, a congress of whispers. Uvanari glanced back over its shoulder, shouted something coarse and inchoate to
silence them. The one with the deep voice answered back, too fast to catch. “What’s going on?” Olorin called from the doorway, seizing his
opportunity to mirror the actions of the Cielcin across the way.
Bassander shouted back, “I don’t know.”
I waved them both to silence, took a step forward. “This is not our war, Captain. We inherited it, you and I and all of us. It will go on only so long as your people and mine are willing to die for it.”
“Not one of the People has surrendered to your kind, not in all our generations.”
“Then it’s time to start.” I said the words without hesitation, without thought. With conviction. “Your sacrifice and the sacrifice of your men will change nothing.” And then I did perhaps the stupidest thing I’d done in all my life—I walked around the captain. I stood between it and its lurking people, whether six or ten I did not know. Bassander made a strangled
sound, shocked, but did not move to follow me. I hoped the soldiers’ plasma rifles were more effective against the Cielcin than the stunners had
been in case I needed them to be. “Lay down your weapons, Captain. Please.” Briefly Uvanari made that high, cold sound I had heard earlier. It winced, clutched its side.
I moved forward to catch it before it fell to its knees. Behind me the other Cielcin hissed, and one hurried forward even as Bassander shouldered his rifle and shouted, “Stay back!” The other Cielcin took his meaning, held its long, six-fingered hands up to show it was not armed.
Mirroring the lieutenant’s order, Uvanari hissed, “Lenna udeo, Tanaran-kih!” The other Cielcin—Tanaran, I guessed—froze where it stood. It was different from the others I had seen, dressed not in an ungainly armored suit like the captain but in a form-fitting wraparound with tight sleeves that reminded me of the combat robes I had once seen on a visiting Nipponese gladiatrix in Meidua in my youth. Its white hair was wild, hacked roughly off at the shoulders, and its mouth hung open, uncertain. Something in the geometry of its face, in the tightness of the skin at the base of its epoccipital crown, perhaps, told me this was a very young Cielcin. When it did not move, Uvanari repeated its command. “Stay back!”
“Tuka udata ne?” I asked, settling the captain back against the pillar that had taken its weight.
“It’s nothing, a broken rib.” Black blood, still warm and cloying, clung to the layers of cloth insulation visible between the carbide armor plates.
The technology on display in that suit really was ancient, centuries behind
anything we had. That struck me as wrong. Surely any species so dependent upon star travel as the Cielcin would work harder at developing their suit technology? The creature might have had a broken rib, but I accounted that the least of its worries. I was no doctor, but it looked like something had punched through suit and skin and meat, pierced the torso and crushed one of the translucent bones.
I looked up at the Cielcin Tanaran. I wanted to call for a med kit, but I didn’t know the word. “Panathidu!” I snapped, reaching up a hand to the other xenobite, who stood there confused at my inane babbling. “Medicine! Medicine!” I turned to Bassander, who was still crouched, and spoke past him to the soldiers in the mouth of the tunnel. “Bring a med kit! Their
captain is wounded!”
Tanaran looked at Uvanari, massive black eyes narrowing to canted slits.
It rolled its head clockwise, said, “What does it want?”
“He,” Uvanari answered, using an explicitly active-gendered pronoun to refer to me, “is trying to help me.” It turned its attentions back to me. “We have nothing, yukajji-do. Leave it.” It grunted, forced itself to sit up a little straighter. “Perhaps I will die here, peace or no peace.” The alien face
composed itself into an expression of nearly human solemnity. “And we were so close . . .”
“Close?” I asked. “Close to what?”
Uvanari screwed its eyes shut before answering, and its words grew thin as ghosts and whispers. “They are not here . . . not here.” It rested its head against the pillar, prompting the other Cielcin, Tanaran, to hurry to its side. “You can have your peace, little human.”
Tanaran sucked air past its teeth. “Veih, no. Captain, you can’t.”
“Eka de,” Uvanari said. I can. It opened its ink-spot eyes. “Uje ekau.” And I will. It crossed its closed fists over its chest. A salute? A surrender? A gesture of fealty? I couldn’t say. “We surrender, human.