Truths can be hard to accept. Long ago, few scholars believed the world was infinite. They were sure its plane had an edge, even as explorers reported continents marching without end in all directions. The world’s infinitude made humankind feel insignificant—until we accepted it.
I once felt I was wiser than the ancients. Felt I could embrace any truth. But that has changed. After seeing what I have seen in the black Void above our sky, where the suns make their migrations, I know better.
I learned my lesson the year a fellow scholar asked me to help his research. Normally I would have declined. My work at the Academy of Natural Philosophy in Suyu-Paca, where I’ve spent most of my life, makes long absences difficult. But I had much respect for the man who sought my insight. And his offer was so generous—three silver links per day of absence—that refusal seemed absurd. Along with his letter, he sent a box of twenty silver links to prove the offer’s sincerity: ten for me, ten for my department’s seneschal so she might permit my leave.
“How long do you expect to be gone?” The seneschal was a thin woman slowly being digested by paperwork. She sat stiff and stark-lit in the dusty glare of her office window. “You have prentices in need of guidance, lectures I’ll have to fill…”
“No more than three months, including travel.” I fought the desperation in my tone, knowing she had every right to reject my leave. “But this is Wallaq Squechalwalaq, the finest scientist in the Ecumene. I doubt I’ll ever have a greater opportunity to distinguish myself.”
“That’s all very nice, Atapua, but it’s the Academy you’re obliged to distinguish. You serve the Academy foremost, do you not?”
“Of course, Madam Seneschal.”
“That is good.” She gave me a slow look before signing my writ of leave. “I anticipate your return, knowing you’ll have much to show for it.”
I gave a bow of gratitude. “I won’t disappoint you.”
“No,” she agreed. “Not if you want your contract renewed.”
The day before setting out, I traded two of my new silver links for a sack of bronze ones and gave these to the poor languishing in the streets of Suyu-Paca. Another two I spent on books. Three I sent to my beloved sister, who has been caring for my mother on my birth-continent since my father died. I’ve long been afflicted by the delusion that sending one’s family money can soothe one’s guilt for neglecting it.
With the last three links, I rented the healthiest cloudstrider I could find to fly me across the Ecumene. She was a lean beast with broad wings and a long graceful trunk. I had her tusks cleaned, but I washed her brown fur myself. They say grooming cloudstriders is the best way to bond with them.
The trip took a month. I followed one of the Imperial routes, flying twelve hours a day and sleeping each night in a waytown. Miles up, each continent I passed looked as artificial as sculpture. The cities shrank the farther I flew from the core of the Ecumene, eventually becoming sparse dots.
It was hard not to be overwhelmed by the world’s infinitude, knowing the Ecumene’s sixteen settled continents—not to mention the hundreds of mapped but unsettled ones beyond them—comprised little more than a pebble on a floor without end. If I’d known what lay beyond that pebble, as I do now, I might have been more reluctant to travel.
But I was excited then. And desperate to show the Academy it had chosen wisely in letting me go.
When I arrived, landing a short distance from the tiny windflogged town of Far Eye, Wallaq greeted me not as the highborn I knew him to be, but as a humble scholar, lifting his pointed brown hat for a bow.
“Welcome, Atapua.” His deep voice contradicted his small, slim frame. Handsome, with dark blue skin and silver spectacles, he looked as much younger than my thirty-eight as I looked older, though we were the same age almost to the day.
“Well met, Suz Squechalwalaq.” I unstrapped my flying mask and gave a bow of my own.
“Wallaq,” he corrected gently. “No point in first names if we don’t use them.”
I nodded, settling into a more casual mode. “I hope it’s not untoward to admit I would have taken your offer for a much smaller sum. My admiration for your work—”
“Yes, yes, likewise.” He smiled an easy smile. “We can flatter each other once your steed is stabled and we have hot food in front of us. I’ve toiled all day and I’m starved.”
“Dinner sounds lovely,” I said.
I had only a vague idea why he’d summoned me to the remotest town in the remotest continent of the Ecumene. His letter had spoken of a project to plumb the mysteries of the world that would require an interplay of our various strains of expertise in logic and science. All very cryptic.
But the town looked more suited to shellfishing than science. A stark foil to the warm, teeming city of Suyu-Paca, Far Eye sat on a chilly promontory overlooking a sea. The settlement consisted of nothing more than a dozen rickety jacals sulking beside Wallaq’s stone manse. The whole populace served him, I assumed, it being too far from others to have much trade.
As we neared the manse, I caught a muffled din from one of its turret windows, a mix of gruff talk and harsh clanging like in a blacksmith’s forge.
“What are you building in there, I wonder?” I asked, my curiosity briefly overcoming my manners.
He gave a casual shrug, his face betraying the tiniest flash of irritation. “Nothing you need to worry about just now.”
This only stoked my curiosity, but I had enough sense not to probe.
Dinner was sublime, a large brown vegetable that locals call a forest crab. I cracked its gravied casing with small metal jaws to reach the flesh beneath, relishing each bite as Wallaq’s musician, a slender Suyunen woman, played a flute by the crackling hearth.
The manse was huge but not cavernous, thanks to its compact rooms. Only the dining room felt spacious. Large windows looked onto a churning sea beneath a cloudy sky. Hundreds of books filled the walls. Numerous maps lay open on twin fogwood tables. After a sip of wine, I hazarded a guess that most of Wallaq’s rooms went to waste, since one could happily spend all their time in this one.
“Correct,” he said with a laugh, dismantling his meal with graceful precision. “It’s all a bit much for a hermit, I’ll grant. But in my defense, I plan to turn this place into an academy someday. When that time comes I’ll need every room.”
I raised my brow. “An academy? Here?”
He shrugged. “Life at the edge of civilization concentrates the mind. And once this continent is well-populated, in a few hundred years or so, this building will be the oldest around. It is good to leave one’s mark in stone as well as paper, I feel.”
“I suppose,” I said, sponging up gravy with a bit of forest crab. I never quite understood folk who cultivated their legacies with such obsessiveness, but perhaps that was just a certain parochialism stemming from my low birth.
“You must be curious why I brought you here,” he said with an air of significance.
“Not just food and banter, I trust.”
“To be perfectly honest, Suz Sque—er, Wallaq—whatever riddles of nature you think a journeyman scholar like myself can unravel, I have failed to guess.”
He pointed his crab-jaws meaningfully at me, staring over his spectacles. “Journeyman in station, perhaps, but not intellect. There, you are my equal.”
I was a bit startled by this. He didn’t really believe that, surely…?
“The riddle I have in store for us,” he went on, “is the greatest of all riddles. The very empress of logical conundrums. Can you guess what it is?”
I shook my head, at a loss.
“I bet you can if you think on it,” he said. “But that won’t be necessary. Tonight is for food and sleep. Only that. I want you rested for the work ahead.”
“No need to convince me,” I said.
Shattered from travel, I was eager to engage his ideas—but even more eager for rest. Now that I knew he fancied me his equal—an eccentric delusion, I felt, but a flattering one—I wanted to show him only my sharpest edge.
“Play us Pemac’s Fourth Jaunt, in honor of our guest,” Wallaq called to the musician, and she slid into the playful piece with exuberance.
Next morning, I met Wallaq at the edge of town. We strolled into the pine forest that cowled a third of the continent, I with a walking stick tucked underarm and he with his small, jeweled hands clasped behind himself.
After a brief interrogation to ensure my sleep and breakfast had been up to his standards, he started in.
“How long did you live on Maipo, may I ask?”
The question took me a little off-guard. Though my subtly striped pink skin marks me as a tribesman of that continent, most folk assume from my Imperial dress and manner that I’m diaspora-born.
“Until fifteen,” I said, “when I began to prentice at the Academy. How did you guess?”
He drew a pipe from his satchel and placed a small bit of moss in it. “One can always spot a native Maiponen from the pride they carry with them, thick as perfume.” He lit the pipe and puffed it. “I ask because I once spent several months on your birth-continent, studying its flora. Don’t these pines remind you of Maipo’s?”
I regarded the thick, ribbed trunks and yellowish needles. “Distant relations, maybe.”
He nodded thoughtfully. “It intrigues me.”
“Why is that?”
“Trees move between continents with an ease animals cannot match. Even cloudstriders, blessed with flight, spread to just four continents before we tamed them. Pines thrive on far more.”
I pushed away a low branch with my walking stick. “Seeds are simple vessels. They can survive on the open sea for many days.”
“Yes,” he said eagerly. “Animals are not simple. They need stable environments. Stable food, competitors, climates. Their complexity makes them fragile.” He pushed up his spectacles. “Which makes me wonder, of course, about civilizations.”
“Are they robust like trees,” I guessed, “or fragile like animals?”
“Precisely.” He gave a heavy sigh, as if confronting a notion he would rather not. “We seem to be alone in this vast world. Where are all the other civilizations? Did they reach a limit to their growth that no technology can surmount?”
I smiled. So this was the riddle he had in mind: the Great Contradiction. I should have guessed. I knew from my reading that the problem had vexed him for some time.
The question behind the Great Contradiction is simple: Given the world’s vastness, why has no other sapient race been found?
First, some background. Countless species have been discovered in the sixteen settled continents and in the seas between them. Dozens of those species show keen intelligence. Yet none wield tools or use language as humans do. On the strength of our cleverness, humankind filled its cradle-continent of Suyu in one millennium. From there it spread to two more and filled those in the same span. From there to six others, filling those likewise. And so on. The pattern is clear. From civilization’s birth, we have grown exponentially. At current rates, we will fill several hundred continents in a few more millennia. In another few, many thousand.
The riddle arises when one considers that our world, according to geologists, is several million years old. Consider how far a species such as ours could spread in that time. Theirs would be an Ecumene of staggering immensity. Yet we have seen no such thing. Why not? Are civilizations so rare, or do they collapse after a time, done in by wars or plagues or something else?
Ten scholars will give eleven explanations for the Great Contradiction, but Wallaq, I knew, had never found one satisfactory.
“Maybe civilizations are simply that rare,” I speculated.
“How rare can they be if they grow exponentially?” he asked. “You’ve read Suz Huanya Veriyal’s treatise on the fate of the world, I assume.”
“She thinks the suns will gutter in ten billion years, stranding us in eternal night.”
“Many agree with her estimates, including me.”
“Her calculations are compelling,” I admitted, “however much the thought of a finite future saddens me.”
“If she is right, ten billion years await. Plenty of time to thrive. And yet, if our world is millions of years old, as also seems true, there is something deeply strange and suspicious about the timing of our race’s emergence.”
It took me a second to grasp where he was headed. When I did, I felt a small swell of pride at figuring it out.
“If the emergence of civilization is randomly spaced in time,” I said, brushing pine needles from my poncho, “any one civilization should expect to be born near the middle of the world’s lifespan.”
“Yes.” His delight that I could keep pace was palpable. “A straightforward application of Chezaqual’s Rule of Banality: Observers should assume they are not special. An emergence as early as ours is wildly unlikely.”
“Maybe ours is the first,” I suggested.
“Or the pessimists are right,” he said. “Civilizations reliably destroy themselves.”
“A pleasant thought for a pleasant walk.”
“I have others.”
We returned to Far Eye at twilight. Though my mind was drained and we had made no progress on our subject, I was relaxed and content knowing I’d made a good impression.
“It’s quite pleasant,” he said, “having someone to discuss these things with. Most folk here, bless their hearts, don’t have much taste for high theory.”
“They’re not deranged, you mean.”
He nodded solemnly.
Approaching his manse, I heard that odd clangor from the turret again, but I was too spent to think much of it.
In the dining room, he showed me his collection of maps. These replenished my energy, as beautiful things do. Maps of cities and provinces, seas and continents. Maps of the entire Ecumene, painted and printed and sketched. Even a few crude efforts at charting the lands beyond. Though the atmosphere blurs the Ecumene’s margins, even for those who dare skirt the Void’s Edge for the highest view, explorers fill the gaps by ranging far and sharing their sketches in the Cartographer’s Quarter of Suyu-Paca. Like many restless provincials, I once had ambitions of doing such work, but quickly abandoned them when I considered the merits of living past thirty.
“Have you ever wondered whether it’s possible to fly above the Void’s Edge?” he asked. He was stoking the hearth as I admired a delicate print of Heaven’s Glory, one of the oldest maps known.
For a moment I thought I’d misheard. Everyone knew such a feat could not be done. The Void above our world is airless and shatteringly cold. An infinite vacuum where the world’s gravitational hold on its atmosphere loses out to the collective gravity of the suns. He knew flight was impossible in vacuum. Was he testing me?
“Folk have tried,” I said. “And paid the price.”
He held his hands to the fire. “Maybe they went about it wrong. Imagine if we could reach that abyss above the clouds. Reach it and gaze on the world as the suns do. What would we see? Other civilizations? Things unguessably strange?”
“Well,” I said, my tone dipping into gentle mockery, “if you find a cloudstrider that can fly through the Void, you should go up and find out.”
That night, after a bowl of salty soup and a warm slice of butterbread, I lay awake, steeped in thoughts of flying through the Void as the suns do, millions of miles up. I imagined the world as an endless floor spangled in continents of every hue. I imagined the dark flecks of cities swelling into splotches, swelling and slowly merging into one vast metropolis.
Was this how the Ecumene would look in a million years, I wondered, an insatiable lichen of steel and stone? It seemed inevitable. The thought of such dense, hungry life made me shiver, even as it filled me with a certain grim wonder.
The days passed pleasantly. Sometimes we talked in the dining room, other times in the forest or along the coast. We circled the same ideas, hunting for new insights into the Great Contradiction. A small part of me worried that Wallaq would send me home in disappointment, leaving me nothing to show the Academy. But he was optimistic and seemed indifferent to the lack of progress. He was used to it, he said.
But I was getting itchy. I read all I could from his library, nodding off each night with a book on my chest.
Ten days in, my efforts proved worthwhile. I found a slim, unassuming volume by the scholar Suz Icholaya Inuya, whose name I knew dimly. It was a commentary on the works of the ancient scholar Reva, who made many notable predictions about the fate of civilization based on his study of history. In her book Inuya argued that such predictions were warped by the predictor’s context, a bias she called Observer Blindness. A predictor is unusual, the bias said, because their existence depends upon historical accidents they cannot know. The future will not resemble the past should those accidents cease to shape events.
I bridled. If she was right, then how was any prediction possible? Her reasoning held a fatalism that threatened to unravel all efforts to solve the Great Contradiction. Yet it had merit. I granted that.
After pondering her work a bit longer, I stumbled upon an idea so interesting I almost sprang a muscle rushing to my desk. I wrote furiously before the thought could fade.
The idea was this. Suppose some span after the world’s beginning, say ten million years, civilizations merge to engulf the world. Afterward, no room will remain for new civilizations to form. All of nature will have been used up. Thus anyone pondering the Great Contradiction, like myself, must inhabit that slice of cosmic history before such a phase-change has occurred.
This was the solution to the Great Contradiction.
My heart raced. The implications overwhelmed me. With some statistical juggling, my insight let me calculate not just when humankind was likely to meet other civilizations but, through parallel reasoning, how far away they should be.
Carried away by my excitement, I felt an urge to share my insight immediately. I put on my slippers and hurried to Wallaq’s room, wending through a labyrinth of torchlit corridors, my head humming with adrenaline.
En route, I heard an odd, metallic tapping that seemed to come from a nearby stairwell; I assumed it was the sea wind rattling something outside the manse and went on.
Reaching Wallaq’s chamber, I was disappointed to see no candlelight below his door. I had a thought to wake him. Surely he’d forgive me under the circumstances. But common sense restrained me. I would tell him tomorrow, I decided, and headed back to my room.
I paused at the stairwell, puzzled by that strange tapping. On a lark, I followed the sound to a higher level, realizing it was the din from the turret I’d been hearing. The building’s thick walls had kept the noise from reaching my chamber.
As I neared the source, a shut room at the end of a corridor, I grew amazed that any stone could muffle such a racket. And more amazed that anyone would be tinkering at this hour.
Four or five voices wove through the clanging. They spoke Imperial Suyunen, so I was able to parse the few words I caught. It seemed the builders were making a machine, or several machines, but I struggled to tease out much more than that. One builder complained of a deadline; another reminded him how much they were being paid. A third mentioned the Void.
My pulse rose. What did their work have to do with the Void? Did the deadline have to do with me? Did Wallaq want the project done before I went home?
I would have listened longer, but one of the builders mentioned turning in for the night. That was my cue to return to my room.
I lay in bed for hours, pondering Wallaq’s mysterious project even more than my discovery. Piecing together all I’d heard, I began to suspect what he was building.
We broke fast near a tide pool several miles up the coast. I wanted to discuss my thoughts right away, but Wallaq insisted on eating first.
We munched sour seedpods while watching the wildlife, sleek gray animals with otter bodies and cuttlefish heads. They were foraging dark strands of kelp that had tangled on the rocks. The air was cool and salty.
I was nervous. What if he found my ideas absurd? What if they were? I needed something to take back to the Academy, something to impress the seneschal. Neglecting to renew my contract had been no idle threat.
But I was getting ahead of myself. I took a breath to still my nerves.
When we finished eating, I proposed my explanation for the Great Contradiction.
Wallaq puffed his pipe in silence. My nervousness grew as the silence stretched. I wrung my hands, waiting for him to tear apart my theory. Waiting for him to realize I wasn’t his equal, I was a fraud and he’d been a fool to bring me here and—
“They build them clever on Maipo,” he said, nodding. “I think you may have solved it.”
Sighing inwardly, I veiled my pride with calm detachment. “Writing a treatise will take time. Weeks, at least. Then there is the Academy’s process of review, which my theory may not survive.”
“If it is correct, we will know soon enough.”
“What do you mean?”
“What I mean,” he said, “is we will fly as high as needed to search those distances likely to harbor other civilizations. Thanks to your calculations of how far away they should be, we have a notion of how high we must go.”
My hunch was right. “You’re building a device to leave the atmosphere.”
“Devices,” he said proudly, appearing to enjoy the emotions on my face. “Shall I show you?”
“God’s mercy, yes.”
The first thing he showed me resembled a suit of armor with a barrel fixed to the back. Twin tubes ran from the barrel to a glass-visored helm. The builders massed at the edge of the workshop watched with prideful protectiveness while I studied their work. The craftsmanship of the steel surpassed anything I’d seen in my life.
“The armor’s insulated against cold,” Wallaq said, “and retains air spectacularly well. The air is stored in that barrel.”
“Yes. Four and a quarter-hour’s worth. One tube brings air into the helm. Another draws carbon dioxide into a chamber at the barrel’s base, where a sieve of minerals traps it.”
He showed the second object, a bulky canvas-and-steel harness containing a parachute and joined by ropes to several winches. He pulled a cord to make the parachute retract.
“These ropes tether the voidfarer—my term—to four attendants’ cloudstriders. Once you’re done surveying, the attendants winch you back into the atmosphere, where you then release your parachute for easy wrangling.”
“How does one enter the Void to begin with? The air is too thin at the Edge for cloudstriders to near it.”
“That’s the best part.”
He showed the last device, a cross between a saddle and a catapult. It too was jellyfished with ropes and winches.
“It wasn’t easy, calibrating the force needed to fling one past the Edge without breaking the tethers.” He twisted one of the saddle-catapult’s knobs to tense the device, then pulled a lever. The catapult portion sprang upright, making the table shudder. “As you might expect, a fair number of wooden dummies are hurtling through the Void as we speak.”
I shook my head in awe. “How long have you worked on all this?”
“For fifteen years, I’ve tested things of this kind, but only the past three have borne fruit. In a few days, the work will be done. Thanks to you, we know how high the voidfarer must rise and thus how long the tethers should be. I’ll be making the inaugural journey myself.”
I was startled. “If I’d known that was your plan—”
“The pressure would have hurt your concentration,” he said, and he was right.
“Can’t you send someone else? Someone whose death, God forbid, would not be so…?”
Tragic? Disastrous? Words failed me. There is a certain callousness in assuming anyone’s death could be less terrible than anyone else’s, and an extra callousness in suggesting he put another soul at risk in his stead. Yet I could not help myself, knowing what the Ecumene would lose if he perished.
He shook his head. “I cannot. I could not live with others dying for my vanity. Less altruistically, I wish to be remembered as the first soul to reach the Void. After all my struggle, I cannot let another claim that legacy.”
“Ah.” Legacy. Of course.
“Naturally,” he said, waving his hand, “you will be free to make a survey of the Void as well. It is only fair.”
The thought chilled me. I was intensely curious about the Void, like any scholar. But I was also a bit of a coward. I did not like to put myself in danger when I did not have to.
Disappointment came into his eyes at my hesitation, subtle but sharp enough to sting my pride. “My devices have been tested exhaustively. I assure you, they’re quite safe. Are you not eager to see your ideas vindicated?”
“Yes,” I said with a nervous swallow. “Of course.”
He smiled and clapped my shoulder. “Good.”
The evening he returned from his survey, I was deep in my treatise, my head heavy with numbers and hands smudged with ink. The sound of cloudstriders through my open window tore me from my work. I put on my boots and hurried out of the manse.
Wallaq removed his helm. His face was flushed. His eyes looked far away.
“Wine first,” he said.
I did not argue.
We drank in the dining room. A servant brought tubers diced over black moss and drizzled in oil. He touched none of it. Just gazed at the darkening sea, hearthlight playing over his spectacles like an errant thought.
I felt him struggling with emotions and did not speak for some time. Finally I could not help myself. “What did you see?”
“I don’t think you’ll believe it,” he said. “I did not, at first.”
He spread his small hands on the table like an augur laying out bones.
“Truthfully, I’m not sure. Only that they must be the work of a sapient race.”
“I will tell you. But you must promise something.” His tone went low and his gaze turned grave and steady. “You must promise to believe that what I saw is what I saw, believe I am telling you the truth as I perceived it. Do you promise?”
“I promise,” I said, forcing calm into my tone even as my heart banged my ribs in anticipation.
He gave a nod and looked down at his hands. “I saw tendrils.”
“Do not speak until I’m finished.” I shut my mouth. “I saw tendrils, on the horizon. Black tendrils that have captured a sun.”
He paused as if summoning the memory took physical effort. I learned forward slightly, the hair on my neck standing straight.
“Digested may be more apt,” he went on. “They rise hundreds of miles above the atmosphere, these tendrils, their contours just visible in their captured sun’s red light. The land at their base is paved in darkness. A great darkness that throbs with strange lightning.”
He kept looking down as he spoke, as if afraid to find disbelief on my face.
“That is what I saw,” he said. “Whatever race built them must hold unimaginable power. But what frightens me most is their—strangeness. They seem nothing like us, Atapua. Their works look so sterile, so cold.”
At last he stared at me again, and his expression was such that I knew—simply knew—he was telling the truth.
A dozen emotions warred in me. There was joy in my vindication. Feelings of awe and wonder. There was curiosity, confusion. Most of all, dread. A dark ashplume of dread that settled over my soul in slow waves.
The scholar in me had expected this news, or something like it. The rest, the human part, had not. Had never fully absorbed the implications of my theory.
“These—tendrils.” My voice was brittle at the edges. “How far away?”
“Millions of miles, at least.”
“What else did you see?”
“The light of the captured sun blocks much of the horizon. I did spy other things—a mountain that pierces the atmosphere, for instance—but nothing so clearly artificial as these—these sun-eaters. Even at that height, one can only see so much.”
It is rare to hear a thing which you know will change humankind forever. This was such. I considered it carefully.
The first thing that came to mind, small and selfish though it may seem, was that my contract at the Academy would never lapse now that I was tied to the most important discovery in the Ecumene’s history. I would be raised to masterhood overnight, no doubt, and would never want again for respect or money. A delicious thought.
My next thought was less so. When the populace learned what Wallaq and I had discovered, how would they react? He and I were jaded scholars, not easily flustered, yet this discovery put fear in both of us. Surely ordinary folk would fare worse. Much worse. Along with their peace of mind would go a certain innocent confidence in the rightness of their beliefs. A hundred gods would be cast down. The very gearwheels of human morale might shriek to a halt.
For the first time in my life, the fate of humankind no longer felt abstract. It felt personal.
“Do you still wish to go up there?” he asked.
I nodded. “I must see the truth, however much I fear it.”
The air-suit was warm and heavy. The tube filtering my breath tasted like salty leather. The visor bent sunlight strangely, spraying brief rainbows. Too cumbersome to carry unaided, my telescope was joined by several articulated rods to my breastplate.
The saddle-catapult creaked each time my cloudstrider beat her wings, creaked and shuddered as she pushed higher into the heavens. The ropes tying my saddle-catapult to my four attendants—who flew in a wide, ragged ring around me—began to tauten as they cranked their winches.
I’d never flown as high as I was now, perhaps fifteen miles above land. The clouds had thinned to milky threads. The nearest sun, a glut of golden flame now migrating over the continent of Yaro thousands of miles to my left, outshone by several orders of magnitude the next-nearest, whose path lay countless miles outside the Ecumene.
By now my terror had faded to resignation. If I was to die, at least I would die in service to the truth.
But I was not going to die. Wallaq had survived. I would survive as well.
Up I climbed, until the sky’s blueness grew brittle. Once my saddle-catapult’s tethers were taut enough to support me, I uncoupled the saddle-catapult from my cloudstrider, who descended back toward Far Eye.
Now was the moment.
I licked my lips, bracing myself. I twisted the knob of my saddle-catapult, felt it tense, and pulled the release lever.
The Void’s blackness crashed over me.
I was weightless, rising like a bullet shot into a vast night, my air-suit’s own set of tethers, mercifully joined to my attendants far below, following me ever upward.
Once free of the atmosphere, I saw the world as no human but Wallaq had seen it: a bright mosaic chased with the white of clouds and the gray-blue of seas. Continents shone like topaz and amethyst and emerald.
I rose and rose until the ropes wrenched me back, and then I started falling, then rising again, my motion slowly stabilizing as my kinetic energy dissipated, leaving me held by the collective gravity of the suns. My guts did a slew of gymnastics all the while. Wallaq had warned me about this part, but it was no less unpleasant for that.
As my stomach stilled, my senses sharpened. The world’s enormity filled me with a cold loneliness, a stifling vulnerability. The thought of my ropes snapping sloshed thick in my head, but I shook it away. I had to concentrate, I told myself. Had to focus or I couldn’t do what was necessary.
I looked through the telescope and scanned the horizon.
After about ten minutes, I found it.
I’m not sure what I’d been expecting. Perhaps part of me hoped Wallaq had misperceived.
I dialed the aperture with gemcutter care. There. Countless continents away, untrammeled by atmosphere, sat a red sun tangled deep within scores of black tendrils.
My body reacted several ways at once. My pulse rose. My skin began to slicken with sweat. I prayed a Maiponen prayer I had not used in two decades of godlessness.
The tendrils were artificial. Unmistakably. Their trunks had a metallic sheen and their forking branches a flawless symmetry. The violet lightning at their roots surged in orderly grids instead of stochastic squiggles. It was like the disembodied eyeball of a dead god, cataracted with rot yet still smoldering with divine energy. A voice in me said to look away, said this was not something I was meant to see. But I could not.
I found Wallaq at his hearth, winecup in hand. He and wine had seldom been apart of late, and his slight slur suggested this was not tonight’s first drink.
“Cursed together,” he said, cup raised in greeting. “Cursed with the truth of our insignificance.”
I am not much of a drinker, but for once I understood that timeless thirst for oblivion. I poured a cup and sat beside him.
“It was more incredible than I expected, and more terrible,” I said.
“Do you regret it?”
I shook my head. “Yet the sight will haunt me, Wallaq. For a long time.”
“As it will me.”
I could not sleep for two nights.
What I saw in the Void changed me. In my religious youth, the high god of the Maiponen faith had seemed too distant to matter in worldly affairs, and so I was free to imagine that humankind determined its fate, a freedom I carried happily into adulthood. It gave me comfort. A sense of purpose.
Now I knew the truth. Gods were no myth. Humankind was not the cynosure of reality. It was only a small—perhaps transient—participant.
What will befall humankind when it meets the sun-eaters? I wondered with fear in my marrow. When the ambits of both civilizations converged, in who knew how many centuries, would there be war? Mere devourment? What happens when a god meets an insect?
I could not begin to guess, no matter how hard I tried, and this tortured the part of me that yearned to know all.
I finished my treatise a few days sooner than hoped. Wallaq helped me revise it a dozen times, scrawling notes in each draft, smoothing the language. I knew it was the most important thing I’d ever write. Maybe the most important thing anyone would ever write. Yet I felt detached from it. Stripped to cool spareness, my words failed to touch a tenth of the import of what I sought to explain.
Words are dead things. Some truths can only be seen. Yet words were all I had.
Done with the work, I had my first deep sleep in days. I did not look forward to leaving Far Eye, not a bit, but I had struggled long and hard with the treatise and I was glad to have it behind me.
The night before I left, we feasted. We ate butterbread bowls brimming with molten beans, crackers tucked in mashed spicecorn, plump mauve vegetables marinated to soupy softness. We had devil’s dowry, a red Yaronen fudge laced with a subtle euphoric. We drank and talked deep into the night. My pleasure was tinged with sadness, knowing my taste of the highborn’s life would soon be over, along with my new friendship.
A servant opened a finely wrought folding-case on the dining table. Inside was a long chain of silver links. I’d never seen so much money in one place.
“Thank you,” I told Wallaq. “Thank you.”
He waved aside my bows of gratitude. “You earned every mote. Truthfully, after all your help, I should be paying you double.”
“There’s always time to repent.”
He smiled. “Good try.”
We clinked cups and drank. He’d saved his best wine for last.
“I’ll miss your company,” he said. “It will be hideously dull around here without our discussions.”
“I’m sure you’ll be plenty busy fending off scholars when they come swarming to verify our discovery,” I said.
He winced at the thought. “Or those who’ve come to vent their hatred over it. No doubt I’ll have to quadruple my security. Are you concerned for your safety?”
I shook my head. “Only worried for the Ecumene’s sanity. Worried what will become of faith and purpose, what will become of folks’ trust in the Empress to protect them, what will become of the things that hold a civilization intact.”
“We’re scholars, not priests,” he said testily. “Our loyalty is to truth, not the comfort of three billion souls. Best not forget that.”
This rankled me. Was he so distant from ordinary suffering that he could not appreciate the pain our discovery would bring?
“Your loyalty may be to truth,” I said as calm as I could, mindful of the emotions my wine was trying to draw from me. “Mine is to civilization.”
“The two are not at odds,” he said.
“Perhaps, in this case, they are.”
He frowned. “What are you suggesting, precisely? That publishing this treatise would be a mistake?”
I laughed. Wallaq, I saw then, was the emotional equivalent of a child. Not in any simple or disparaging sense—merely in the sense that he could not appreciate any considerations outside his appetites, which in his case were wholly intellectual. He was a child, yes, who ate knowledge for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and to whom morality was a bowl of tasteless vegetables. I knew such people at the Academy, of course, though none half so intelligent or resourceful, so it had been easy to overlook this tendency in him.
He’d been wrong to suggest I was his equal. I could never be his equal, as I did not have the childlike singlemindedness that his cast of genius requires.
“What I am saying,” I said flatly, “is that publishing the treatise might very well be a mistake. What I am saying is that I might spare us both a good deal of misery by—well, throwing the damned thing into the fire.”
I gave the roaring hearth a small salute with my winecup.
His face showed no amusement. “You’re drunk, friend. Don’t say such nonsense.”
“I’m serious.” My annoyance was bubbling to anger. I set down my cup, intending to walk to the table where my treatise lay, but he must have sensed this because he placed a gentle hand on my arm before I could stand.
“Listen,” he said. “You underestimate people.” His hold was surprisingly firm for such a small man. “The truth is inevitable. If you were to burn that treatise, which of course you won’t, it would only be a matter of years before others learn what we’ve learned. Don’t you see? You cannot burn the truth, Atapua. But people will adapt, as they always have.”
His soft voice held reassurance. His face was calm, understanding. Yet there was a marked tension in him, as if he were ready to do anything to stop me from burning that document.
He was right, as he so often was. He was right. I could not have burned the treatise no matter how drunk I got. I was proud of my work, unreasonably so, even as I feared it.
“Yes,” I sighed, relaxing a little. “People will adapt.”
I did not wholly believe it, but it was not beyond possibility either. People accept many painful truths. Mortality, for instance. Injustice. Why couldn’t they accept the truth of the sun-eaters?