Chapter no 76 – Deathbed Conversions

Empire of Silence

ALWAYS FORWARD, ALWAYS DOWN, and never left or right. I needed a way to deliver Uvanari from the torment I had brought it. I needed to appease the other Cielcin by following a cultural script I barely grasped. I needed to protect myself from my own people when my translations were inevitably compared against the recordings. I needed to protect Valka, my accomplice now, a machine witch guilty of one of the Chantry’s Twelve Abominations. Most of all I needed to get myself away from Emesh, from the count and the grand prior and all the people who insisted I was a fly in their web.

I think Gibson was right about me—melodramatic to the end. Besides the Cielcin, I told no one of my plan. No one but Valka.

I walked into that interrogation cell for the last time with acid where my blood had been. Nerves fired in every fiber and tissue I possessed. I had to be careful, so careful. We were flying blind. If Valka failed to hack into the bastille’s network a second time, if Tanaran and the others moved before Valka had worked her technologic wizardry, if Uvanari was too injured to

play its part . . . well, there’s a minotaur in every labyrinth, sometimes more than one.

“We are aware,” the inquisitor began, “that the one called Tanaran is the leader of your expedition.”

When I translated this, Uvanari bared its teeth, strained a little against the electromagnetic clamps that held it wrists and ankles. It looked at me. “You told them?”

“Ekaan,” I said, adding the breathy sound that meant yes in their language as best I could. I continued, “I had no other choice. Is Tanaran related to Aeta Aranata, your master? His . . . child?” While I spoke, I

studied the bandages wound about the flayed arm and the patch that leaked

anesthetic through the back of the ruined hand and into the bloodstream. My hand closed about the knife I wore, a main gauche like the ones I’d worn at home, purchased during one of my infrequent trips to the city.

“Why would Tanaran be his child?”

I repeated the question to Agari, adding, “However they manage

succession, it isn’t hereditary. If that’s what this is.” While interesting, the information was academic, and the inquisitor was no scholiast.

The inquisitor sniffed, and instead of allowing me to answer its question, she asked a new one. “Would your master negotiate for Tanaran?”

“Reverence,” I said, brows rising and pulling together, “are you serious?

I had not been told we were considering—”

Agari’s nostrils flared. She glanced briefly to Cathar Rhom before

answering. “Just ask the question.” My heart weighed a little lighter then, and I turned to do just that.

Uvanari clicked its jaw a couple of times, jerking its chin upward. “It is possible. But the aeta has other heirs.” It used the same word it had earlier: baetayanroots. But here the context was clearer, and I saw the word for how we might use it. “Masvii iagami caicane wo ne?”

“It asks if you will let the others go free,” I said, wanting to hear the answer for myself.

Agari’s flinty eyes narrowed to slits, the wheels in the mind behind them turning in ways I preferred not to understand. The muscles in her jaw

worked as if trying to chew through gristle, teeth grinding. It was as if her brain were powered by the friction of them. “Tell the inmane we’re

considering all our possible options.”

This I did, omitting the Imperial slur. Uvanari’s inhuman face split into the snarl that passed for smiling. “I see you have politicians amongst your kind too.”

I grinned, realized what I was doing, and instead bared my teeth in as close to the Cielcin smile as I could manage. Uvanari seemed to get the point, for it returned the gesture as I said, “Yes.” When Agari asked for clarification, I said, “It said it knows that line is nonsense.”

The inquisitor sniffed in understanding, then toggled the holograph panels, advancing her questions another step. While she read over the

change of direction, I took a long, calming breath, listened as the inquisitor took notes into her terminal. “. . . way to salvage the prisoners. The one

cataloged as prisoner A009 is to be detained privately pending further

deliberation. Recommendation: Agari, KF . . .” She rattled off the date. For a moment I suspected the horror was over. I glanced at the holograph panels on the wall, each depicting an identical live feed of the other Cielcin in a holding pen. I felt an absurd desire to wave, though they could not see us.

Maybe all my planning was for naught.

“Captain,” Agari said, voice suddenly so cold that I felt my spinal fluid crystallize as I straightened, “if we are to attempt such a negotiation for your people, we will need their location.”

A lump formed in my throat. Of all the lines of inquiry, I knew this one would bear no fruit, no matter the near politeness the inquisitor had just demonstrated. Every detail of the room snapped back into focus then: the cross with its adjustable beams, its magnetic clamps; the grating on the floor; the sterile walls; the array of tools on the cart, instruments of both

medicine and torture. And then there were the cathars themselves, identical in their baldness, their black robes and aprons more clinical than liturgical, darker than any fabric had a right to be. This was not a place for jest, even in defiance. I closed my hand around the hilt of my knife until the bones

ached, waiting for Uvanari’s response.

The Cielcin refused. “I cannot tell you this.”

At a sign from the inquisitor, the cathar lifted a device from the rear of the cart, long as my forearm and with a knob at one end so that it resembled a mace. Wordlessly it held the thing out for the ichakta’s examination, then triggered some mechanism in the haft. The composite material at the head of the item heated rapidly until it glowed like a coal fresh from the fire.

Fear lighted in Uvanari’s eyes, and it tried to shy back, spluttering curses.

The second cathar stooped, tugged the cloth that covered the xenobite’s genitals away. Then it worked on the leather straps that secured the Cielcin, leaving only the electromagnetic clamps in place. In a Eudoran masque, the character of the Torturer always speaks in mustache-twirling detail about the excruciations he intends to perform on his victim, usually the Heroine. He winks at the audience and rubs his hands together, cackling all the while. The cathars did not speak, did not offer explanations. They only acted.

“What are they doing?” Uvanari asked, deep voice at once much higher. “Hadrian, what are they doing?” When the last of the flammable belts were removed, the second cathar stepped back from its victim, its charge, and

stood with hands folded.

I did not have time to answer. The first cathar swung its mace,

showering the Cielcin with cherry-red droplets fine as tears. Uvanari

screamed, and the cold air of the cell filled with the smoky metallic stink of burning flesh. Its thin chest heaved, sucking in air to fuel more screaming, the sound collapsed and sunken through pain into the vestibule of madness. Angry welts began to rise on the creature’s white skin, gray and black and jaundiced a sick yellow at the edges. Blood like ink leaked from the

wounds, and something else, something silver.


The bastards had used lead.

“Inquisitor!” I couldn’t stop myself. “No!”

Uvanari gasped something as thin tongues of smoke coiled upward toward a sucking vent in the ceiling. Agari ignored me, the whites of her eyes too visible in the stark cell. I expected her to rebuke me, to scream at me, to ask how I dared say a word against her. Instead she only asked,

“What did it say?”

I listened again, shook my head. “I can’t make it out, you maniac.

You’ve gone too far.” Only a tremendous effort kept me from drawing my long knife then and there.

The inquisitor actually shrugged, then repeated her question, her order. “Tell us the location of your fleet.”

“Air rot you!” Uvanari managed. Some sort of curse? There was no way to be sure. “Would you betray your own?”

The inquisitor waved a hand, and the cathar struck the Cielcin with his mace, leaving a medallion of burned flesh larger than my fist. “Tell us the location of your fleet!” the inquisitor repeated, and I echoed her in my

smallest voice, eyes on the cathar and not the prisoner bracketed to its cross. I only hoped Valka would not be much longer.

My eyes met Uvanari’s. Glass teeth shone in black gums, thin lips pulled back. To the untrained, the panting wheeze of its breathing might have been the Cielcin word, “Yes. Yes. Yes.” I took a breath of my own, knowing that it was not that. Any time now, any time, Valka would knock the power out in the lower levels, and Tanaran and the others would turn on one another.

“Tell us the location of your fleet.” Screaming.

“Tell us the location of your fleet!” Smoke.

“Tell us the—” Screaming.

Uvanari hung limp on the cross, face sunk to its chest so that only the horns of its epoccipital crest presented itself. Without the leather restraints, tied at only the wrists and waist and ankles, it looked barely attached to the cross at all. As we watched, all silent as the cathars, Uvanari vomited, blue fluid spattering the grate. It vomited again, spat to clean its mouth. “You humans. Are all . . . all the same.”

I frowned, caught on the verge of delivering this statement to the inquisitor. “You said that before!” I said in Cielcin, cutting the inquisitor out of the loop. “You said that before! At the very beginning.” I had missed it.

How had I missed it?

“What is it saying?” Agari demanded, raising a hand to forestall her cathars. “Marlowe?”

“Shh.” I did not turn to look at her, so distracted was I by the implications. I forgot the Chantry, forgot ndaktu, forgot the plan. “You’ve spoken with humans before?” It wasn’t a figure of speech, surely?

“Where?” I brushed past the cathar, repeating the question, the word. “Saem ne? Where? Saem ne? Saem ne?

Agari was not so thick as to miss that. She grabbed me just above the elbow and hissed, “What the hell is going on?”

I told her what it had said, added, “If they’ve met other humans before, then maybe those people know how to find their fleet. We don’t need to do this.”

At a gesture from Agari, the cathar with the sprinkler mace slammed the head into Uvanari’s stomach, just about where a navel should be on a human. The wheal it left grayed the white skin to bubbled slickness, and

Uvanari clamped down on its teeth, hissing, “Tell him to stop.” It meant Agari. I shook my head. “She won’t.”

“She?” It bled from half a hundred tiny wounds, and looking on I was as numb as Uvanari was in agony. Valka was taking too long. Had she changed her mind? Had she abandoned me and the whole plan? She wouldn’t,

surely. Surely not. With a tremendous effort, as if it were lifting a portcullis and not a head, Uvanari looked squarely up at me, eyes narrowing. “Your kind . . . monsters, taking what you want.”

“We are not monsters. We don’t eat your kind,” I shot back, and all the stories I’d heard in childhood came back to me, all the tales of men spitted

and roasted over plasma fires, of the Pale eating brains and children in the night. Chantry propaganda, or so I then believed.

“We do,” Uvanari hissed, “if we have to.”

“This is useless,” Agari said, closing out of her terminal’s holograph prompts with a wipe of the hand. “Useless!” She turned to the cathars, hesitating on the cusp of some unvoiced decision, unsure how to proceed. She was in the labyrinth too, just as lost as I was.

Vwaa! Vwaa!

Warning lights pulsed scarlet from the corners of the cells, klaxons blatting their wordless alarm. Uvanari’s eyes—two wells of deepest dark— swiveled to look me in the face. Agari froze, glaring at the ceiling. I had

expected the interruption, and even I jumped. I was careful to speak first. “What’s this?”

The inquisitor checked her terminal, cursing under her breath. “Another brownout. I don’t care how much damage the generators took in the plague riots—I’d swear this is deliberate.” I struggled to keep my face intent, thinking of Valka and her heretical Tavrosi implants. Diplomatic status or no, I’d asked her to cross a line.

Vwaa! Vwaa!

Agari’s terminal started blaring an alarm too, and she slapped a button on it, held it to her lips. “What?” I couldn’t hear the response—it was relayed to the inquisitor through the conduction patch obscured behind one ear—but the color drained from her dusky face, and she said, “Well, stop them! No! No, damn it! Use the stunners. The stunners.” Her eyes darted between the two cathars and myself. “No! I’m on my way!”

Vwaa! Vwaa!

Though I suspected I knew the answer, I hurried forward and asked, “What is it? What’s happened?”

“They lost power in the west wing. Cameras are down.” I loved Valka in that moment.

“Another outage?” Then, “Wait, the west wing? That’s where the others

—” I broke off, eyes snapping to where Uvanari hung on its cross. Whether it was listening or not was hard to say, for its head sagged again, breathing now more ragged.

The inquisitor scowled—was that accusation in her black eyes?—and swept toward the door, which hissed open on its hydraulics. “Come,

Marlowe.” I didn’t move, glanced back over my shoulder at Uvanari. “Come on. You’re needed. The other Cielcin—”

“Let me stay.” “No.”

“Let me talk to it.” I glanced at the cathars. “Alone.”

“They’re attacking each other. You are coming with me, now.”

I ground my teeth as loudly as I knew how and jabbed one finger at the floor beneath me. “The last time you left me alone with this one, I made more progress than you did in two weeks of cutting and burning. Give me five minutes. Ten.” The alarms still blatted their screeching cry, lights red and white spiraling on the metal walls and ceiling. As an afterthought, I

added, “Just until you’ve secured the others.”

Vwaa! Vwaa!

The woman might have been a century responding. She was not the sort of person used to the pressures of time; she was used to being in utter

control, to being in command of every line and detail of a situation, to power. The chaos was chafing at her, breaking whatever discipline she had. Fear was a poison, was poisoning her. I bit my cheek to stifle the crooked Marlowe smile that threatened to steal over my face and steal my plan from me. The word that left her was all air, flat of sound and shapeless as the

Cielcin yes.

She pointed. “Rhom, stay with him. You, with me.” She departed in a whirl of black robes and a hissing of door hydraulics, taking the other

cathar and all my hopes with her.

The cathars. I had forgotten about the thrice-damned cathars. They never spoke, and so they had slipped beneath the level of my notice entirely.

Stupid, stupid thing to do. Cathar Rhom stood in the corner, not speaking. I dared not argue. When this was over, when I had done as I had promised myself I would do, there would be blame enough directed at me without the cathar’s testimony that I had demanded he be sent away. Yet with him present, I was done for.

I moved close to Uvanari, hoping my whisper would carry under the

vwaa-vwaa of the alarms. “Eka yitaya,” I apologized, hand clenched around my sheathed dagger. “I cannot do as you asked.”

The xenobite’s face lifted, and even clamped to the torture rig it looked down on me, glassy teeth the color of human blood in the red light of the alarms. Though it was hard to say for certain, I thought the black eyes

tracked over the figure of the cathar in his corner. Its eyes shifted to the

ceiling, to the pulsing of the alarm lights high on the metal walls. “You did this?”

Hoping that whoever came after me would miss the subtlety of the gesture, I bared my teeth. I wanted to tell the creature what was coming— needed, in fact, to step back—but I also had my part to play, Eudoran melodrama or no. I asked, “You have met humans before, then?”

Uvanari made that awful keening whistle that passed among its kind for laughter, though the sound was smaller than I had ever heard it before. It thrust out its chin, one of those gestures we coincidentally shared with its kind, and said, “You are asking the questions now?”

“Please?” I looked nervously over my shoulder at the cathar. He was still there, unmoved, a terrible specter of failure, all too visible. I took a step back.

The Cielcin blew air past its nose-slits. “Yes.”

“Saem ne?” I asked. Where? It didn’t answer but retreated into

sullenness and the certain knowledge that its torments were not over. This was only a moment of calm, or would have been were it not for the sirens.

And then it was.

The sirens died, all lights snuffed out but for the still-glowing service lights on the cathars’ surgical cart, tiny indicators like stars that cast almost no radiance in that dark place. The power was gone. The cameras.

Everything. But for the cathar, we would have been alone long enough for me to fulfill the Cielcin’s wish and my unvoiced promise to deliver it from this place.

Something thudded to the floor in front of me, heavy and hard as bone.

I stumbled back, one hand still on my knife. Something moved ahead of me, blacker than the darkness. The reality clicked into place a couple of moments later.

The clamps.

The electromagnetic clamps.

By the Earth, the cathars had removed the analog straps to keep them from catching fire during the Cielcin’s lead torture and had not restored them, leaving Uvanari free when Valka cut the power. I expected it to lie in a puddle at the base of the cross, to hold itself, to cry. It’s what I would have done, what any human would have done having suffered what Uvanari had suffered.

The Cielcin was not human.

It stood, snarling through the slits in its flat face.

Brother Rhom realized this all far too late. With a speed I could not have imagined, the Cielcin barreled past me, ruined hands outstretched, pale gray in the dimness. A hollow crack filled the cell, rebounding in the quiet:

Rhom’s head smashed against the wall. Uvanari groaned, its flayed and bandaged arm thrown across the cathar’s throat, the other hand closed over the human’s too-small head. I should have stopped it, should have stabbed it in the back. It would have been perfect, would have been justified. I see that now. I did not then. I stood frozen, transfixed, jaw slack as Uvanari twisted the cathar’s neck, displacing the blindfold. Briefly I saw the cathar’s eyes— white and pure, without iris or pupil, glowing in the black—before the

Cielcin sank what pointed teeth remained to it into the meat of the cathar’s throat. Those eyes went out like sparks, and Uvanari tore.

The darkness spared me the color of the blood. Only the shape of it, dim as thunder, impressed itself upon my petrified mind. Uvanari hunched over Rhom’s new-made corpse, and I swear it drank of his blood. After a moment, still shocked, I drew my knife. The Cielcin hear more sharply than we. How this is possible when their ears are but sunken holes, as lizards’

are, I cannot say. The quiet rasp of ceramic on leather seized the Pale captain’s attention, and it turned. Red blood coated the creature’s face,

dribbled down its chin and fell upon its pointed chest. “You mean to do it, then?” Its bluish tongue, black in the darkness, snaked down, visible by its glistening. It tasted the air.

“That’s what you wanted. Why I’m here.” I hoisted the main gauche. Its dull white blade shone blue-gray in the gloom, almost the color of the

Maeskolos’s highmatter sword. Fervently I wished it were that weapon I held and not this piece of common zircon.

The Cielcin stood, obscene, Satanic in its nakedness. I heard its nostrils flare. “Yes. I’m not sure how you did it. But here we are.”

“Ndaktu!” I said, keeping up my guard. “You said it was my fault. You wanted me here!” I knew I was trying to reason with Death, that one never reasoned with Death. I had worked so hard—so hard—to achieve this moment, to undo what I had done, to spare a creature its obvious suffering.

“And if you die here,” Uvanari said simply, “who will question my people? They need you to speak with them!”

“They’ll find another translator!” The desperation cracked its way into my voice. “Your people are dead without me.”

“They’re dead anyway,” Uvanari returned, “but I will not see them suffer.”

It lunged again, gait jagged and uneven, thrown off by pain and by so long on the cross. I threw myself sideways, getting the cross rig between myself and the Cielcin, forcing it to slow. Even on a good day, one-to-one, armed as I was and unarmored, the xenobite would have shredded me. It was larger, taller, had the better reach, had claws and horns and fangs all

sharp enough to kill, had muscle reinforced by alien praxis to resist the degradations of space. Against that, how could I hope to stand with only my grubby knife? Uvanari slashed at me with its left hand—the one that still had four claws—and I raised my knife so that the forearm cut itself on the

edge of my blade even as I looped sideways, ducking one arm of the cross to keep it between myself and my attacker.

“I mean it!” I said through gritted teeth. “I want to save them! To speak

—” I seized the arm of the cross and torqued it upward, using it to strike the creature in the face before dancing back. “I want to contact your aeta.

Everything I said was true.”

“Paiweyu.” I don’t care.

Gilliam. I clearly remember thinking this. I saw the crook-backed intus clear as day, facing me across that cell. It’s Gilliam again. My stupidity, my arrogance had pushed me forward into a place and time I did not wish to be in and robbed me of any freedom to choose. I was now a victim, not of fate but of a kind of logical proof.

Hissing like a nest of snakes, Uvanari boiled at me from under the arm of the cross, flayed and bandaged arm tucked against its chest, the other reaching out to seize me. I slashed at it, but the creature drew its arm back, and my knife whistled through air. It clanged against the metal backside of the cross, ringing up my arm. The xenobite stumped past me, fingers

clattering across the top of the instrument cart. It came away with the mace, the lead sprinkler, still vaguely orange from its cooling tray. Swearing, I ducked a savage blow, unwilling to risk a parry.

The wild sweep cleared a space between us for a moment, and we stood an arm’s length apart, my knife raised in a low guard while the creature fiddled with the mace, shifting its grip. “You need to stop this. The power!” I lunged, but Uvanari swatted my arm aside with its own longer one. “It

won’t stay out for long. They’ll come back!” My opponent slammed its mace downward, nearly taking me in the side of the head. It smashed into one of the cross’s arms, bending the metal rig backward with a crunch. It didn’t answer me; at last it had unraveled the mystery of the little bronze ring on the handle of the torture device that activated the heating element in the head of the weapon.

An orange glow like the death of a fire blossomed in the dark, carving red highlights into the naked inhuman’s twisted face. Only the eyes were dark, pits so deep they reached up through the floors of the bastille and the air to channel the fathomless night of space. It smiled, crystal teeth glinting like obsidian in the hell-light from the torture mace. It jerked its arm back, brought the weapon down.

In sword fighting, one parries the blade, fighting sword-to-sword as often as not. The knife fighter attacks the arm. I advanced inside the blow, snagging the Cielcin’s wrist with my open hand, torqueing down even as I stroked my knife along the inside of the creature’s arm, shaving it as a

carpenter does hardwood. By rights, blood ought to have streaked blackly from the wound. It only dripped.

But Uvanari cursed all the same, withdrawing back toward the corner and the cart with the surgical implements. I pressed my advantage but hesitated a moment on the verge of another lunge. The Cielcin swung the

mace again, and my hesitation saved my life. The lead fell like burning rain against my shoulder and my left side, where I’d thrown my arm up just in time to catch and stop the blow. Heat blossomed on my side and back, pain sprouting like the new grass from my flesh. I heard myself scream,

somehow remote, as if the sound were echoing up a deep well. Something hit me in the back, but the pain of it shrank beneath the fire. I felt myself hurled into the corner, crashing into the cart. The surgical instruments and torture devices tumbled off, clattering to the floor as I tried to rise. The air stank of smoke and burning meat, and I fancied the fabric of my shirt still smoldered. Brother Rhom’s torn corpse lay not far off, the meaty gash torn

from his neck sickly wet and all too visible. His killer stood naked over me, its shadow flickering on the steel walls from the light of the glowing mace. I laughed, shaking my head as I scrabbled around on hands and knees, free hand searching in the dark for something, anything that could protect me.

“Dein?” Uvanari paused, prone to the same error of curiosity that was my great sin. “What are you doing?” It had never heard a human being

laugh before and did not know what to make of the sound. Nor did I. I thought I was sobbing.

I made no sudden moves but said, “I saw one of your kind executed once. I just realized this is the same.” My voice broke, torn by the heat still ebbing into my flesh, the lead cooling, hardening against my skin like wax. The Gibson part of my mind whispered, tried to tell me that fear was a poison again and again, but I didn’t need it. The fear was gone, burned

away. My back and side ached, throbbing where the molten metal ran and

cooled on my flesh. The pain had taken it all away, left me clear and unable to think of anything else. I risked a glance back over my shoulder and saw the Cielcin raise his weapon, ruined forefinger hooked through the loop that opened the slotted head to the lead filings bubbling inside. My hand seized at last on something heavy, and I felt my knuckles creak.

Uvanari grunted, smashing the mace downward, slots open to pour forth their horrors. I twisted, taking up what I had grabbed. Twisting, I slammed the heavy tray the tools had rested on into the descending mace, batting it

aside. Specks of lead hissed against the steel floor like fallen suns. The tray rang bell-like in my hand, and time stretched as I cast it down, rising to my feet and stepping inside the Cielcin’s reach. I closed my left hand over its right wrist and brought my knife’s point up into its abdomen, striking once, twice, three times. Uvanari barely made a sound each time, each more gasp than word. With the third stab I twisted the knife. The Cielcin swore, dropped the heated mace with a clang. It bumped against my leg. I stepped forward, the knife still in Uvanari’s gut, and slammed the Cielcin into the wall. The air went out of the xenobite, and it slid down the wall, lubricated by the black slickness of its own blood.

“Stay down,” I hissed through clenched teeth, through pain. I had said much the same to Crispin once, long ago. “Stay down, or I’ll—”

“Or you’ll what?” I could feel Uvanari’s breath on my face, and only the steady twisting of the knife kept it from lashing out with those horrid fangs. “You’ll kill me?”

I barked, “No! I’ll let you live. It won’t be long before the power’s back on—before they’re back in here—and then what do you think they’ll do

with you after what you did to Brother Rhom here, eh?”

“You wouldn’t!” Uvanari’s round eyes went wider, still naught but shining pits in its skull of a face. “You wouldn’t!”

“I would!” I nearly shouted the words. “I’ll ensure you live. I swear by Earth!” Now I wonder if that last bit meant anything in the xenobite’s tongue. Eyudo Se ti-Vattaya gin: I swear by Earth. I wonder if it had some comparable significance to the old captain as it does to us humans. “I’ll do everything I can to keep you alive, Ichakta. But give me something . . .” The word hung between us, ripe with implication. I felt the lines of my face harden into stone, heard my voice go cold until it was Lord Alistair

speaking and not Hadrian at all. “Where did you meet humans? Where have you met humans before? Tell me that!” I reversed my grip on the knife, held it firm against the creature’s ribs. “Marerra ti-koarin!”

“Fusumnu!” Uvanari said between quickening breaths. A world? No.

World was fusu’un. I felt my brow furrow.

“A dark world?” I asked, pressing the knife a shade deeper.

The xenobite grunted, air rushing out in juddering steps. “Y-yes!

Between!” The word vohosumbetween, literally meant between the stars. I drew back a fraction, grip slackening as understanding filled me.

In Galstani I said, “The Extrasolarians.” Barely human shapes twitched in my mind like spiders, men who had given themselves wholly to daimon machines. My grip tightened again, and I used the knife to slam Uvanari

against the wall again. “Where?” When it didn’t answer, I said, “Tell me, or I’ll have them start on Tanaran!” I didn’t mean it, couldn’t mean it, and I

was ashamed, glad the creature could make little sense of my facial

expressions. Uvanari didn’t answer but tried to free itself, clawing at my eyes. I torqued the knife up, angling the blade deep within its body,

grinding it along the curve of a rib. Its grip slackened from the pain, talons scraping my face. I slammed its right hand down against the floor, felt bones snap. The Cielcin screamed, and I screamed back at it, “Where?” I

slammed the wall beside its head with my open hand. “Coordinates, damn you!”

“I don’t know! I was not ichakta then! I was a child!” Someone was pounding on the door, words muffled and strange. How long had they been there? What did they want?

“A name, then! What was the planet called?” The Cielcin shook its head, shaking it in the counterclockwise negative that had become so familiar to me. “What was it called? Uvanari?”

Perhaps it was the sound of its name that shook the answer free.

Something in the creature broke, pulled the wind out of it, and shrank it

until it was a husk that sprawled beneath me. It rolled its head again

spasmodically. I could not say if it was a yes or a no or the inchoate gesture of a dying thing. The pounding on the door intensified, the press of the immediate future and necessity against the interminable now. “Tell the others my wound took me,” Uvanari said. “Tell them anything, but do not tell them it was like this.” I could hear the defeat in its tone, the surrender. I nearly choked on it, having already betrayed the truth to Tanaran and the others. I offered a stiff nod, a gesture wholly meaningless to the creature. At last it spoke again. “The world? Vorgossos.”

I froze, and the sensation of shapes crawling spiderlike in my mind intensified. Vorgossos . . . “Vorgossos is a myth!” But a myth the Cielcin had heard of? Surely such a myth set its roots in truth, in the world of atoms and darkness? The ichakta was dying, threat or no; that last twist of the knife had severed some vital artery or nicked some precious organ. The blood fell hot past my hand in galloping spurts, darker than ink.

And then the lights returned, returned as Uvanari, weak now, murmured, “Vorgossos.”

“It’s not real,” I said, unable to say anything else. “There’s no such thing as Vorgossos.”

The door hissed behind me, and I panicked, drawing the knife up sharply and deeply notching a rib as more blood spilled like the dark between stars onto white flesh. As legionnaires poured in, I staggered backward, slumping to the floor at the foot of the torturer’s cross.

My knife had done its work. Uvanari was dead before even the first of the soldiers could reach it.

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