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The Broken Earth: The Fifth Season

Linked by Paul Ciano on August 2, 2017

Tell them they can be great someday, like us. Tell them they belong among us, no matter how we treat them. Tell them they must earn the respect which everyone else receives by default. Tell them there is a standard for acceptance; that standard is simply perfection. Kill those who scoff at these contradictions, and tell the rest that the dead deserved annihilation for their weakness and doubt. Then they’ll break themselves trying for what they’ll never achieve.

He wants everything silent.

“End,” he says. “Please.”

And then he reaches forth with all the fine control that the world has brainwashed and backstabbed and brutalized out of him, and all the sensitivity that his masters have bred into him through generations of rape and coercion and highly unnatural selection. His fingers spread and twitch as he feels several reverberating points on the map of his awareness: his fellow slaves. He cannot free them, not in the practical sense. He’s tried before and failed. He can, however, make their suffering serve a cause greater than one city’s hubris, and one empire’s fear.

So he reaches deep and takes hold of the humming tapping bustling reverberating rippling vastness of the city, and the quieter bedrock beneath it, and the roiling churn of heat and pressure beneath that. Then he reaches wide, taking hold of the great sliding-puzzle piece of earthshell on which the continent sits.

Lastly, he reaches up. For power.

He takes all that, the strata and the magma and the people and the power, in his imaginary hands. Everything. He holds it. He is not alone. The earth is with him.

Then he breaks it.

Tirimo has been your home for ten years. You only started to think of it as such— home— around the time of Uche’s birth, but that’s more than you ever expected to do. You remember chasing Uche across the green after he first learned to run. You remember Jija helping Nassun build a kite and fly it, badly; the kite’s remmants are still in a tree somewhere on the eastern side of town.

But it is not as hard to leave as you thought it would be. Not now, with your former neighbors’ stares sliding over your skin like rancid oil.

“Thanks,” you mutter, meaning for it to cover many things, because Rask didn’t have to help you. He has damaged himself by doing so. The gate-minders respect him less now, and they’ll talk. Soon everyone will know he’s a rogga-lover, which is dangerous. Headmen can’t afford that kind of weakness when a Season’s coming on. But for the moment what matters most to you is this moment of public decency, which is a kindness and an honor you never expected to receive.

“Over with,” he mutters. “Right.” The muscle in his jaw is practically jumping up and down, he’s grinding his teeth so hard. And— whoa. He’s not looking at her, and suddenly she’s glad. Because that’s hate, in his face. She’s seen it before in other orogenes— rust, she’s felt it herself, when she has the luxury of solitude and unfettered honesty— but she’s never let it show like that. Then he looks up at her, and she tries not to flinch.

“You weren’t born here,” he says, cold now. Belatedly she realizes it’s a question.

“No.” She doesn’t like being the one on the receiving end of the questions. “Were you?”

“Oh, yes. I was bred to order.” He smiles, and it’s strange seeing a smile layered over all that hate. “Not even as haphazardly as our child will be. I’m the product of two of the Fulcrum’s oldest and most promising lineages, or so I’m told. I had a Guardian practically from birth.” He shoves his hands into the pockets of his rumpled robe. “You’re a feral.”

This comes out of nowhere. Syen actually spends a second wondering if this is some new way of saying rogga and then realizing what he really means. Oh, that is just the limit. “Look, I don’t care how many rings you wear—”

“That’s what they call you, I mean.” He smiles again, and his bitterness so resonates with her own that she falls silent in confusion. “If you didn’t know. Ferals— the ones from outside— often don’t know, or care. But when an orogene is born from parents who weren’t, from a family line that’s never shown the curse before, that’s how they think of you. A wild mutt to my domesticated purebred. An accident, to my plan.” He shakes his head; it makes his voice shake. “What it actually means is that they couldn’t predict you. You’re the proof that they’ll never understand orogeny; it’s not science, it’s something else. And they’ll never control us, not really. Not completely.”

It’s somewhat flattering to think that despite her feral status, they actually want something of her infused into their breeding lines. Then she wonders why a part of her is trying to find value in degradation.

Her family has shown her that love is a lie. It isn’t stone-solid; instead it bends and crumbles away, weak as rusty metal.

“Why do you hate me?”

Syenite pauses, and considers lying for a moment. If this were the Fulcrum, she would lie. If he were any other senior, obsessed with propriety and making sure that Fulcrum orogenes comport themselves well at all times, she would lie. He’s made it clear, however, that he prefers honesty, however indelicate. So she sighs. “I just do.”

He rolls onto his back, looking up at the sky, and she thinks that’s the end of the conversation until he says, “I think you hate me because… I’m someone you can hate. I’m here, I’m handy. But what you really hate is the world.”

At this Syen tosses her washcloth into the bowl of water she’s been using and glares at him. “The world doesn’t say inane things like that.”

“I’m not interested in mentoring a sycophant. I want you to be yourself with me. And when you are, you can barely speak a civil word to me, no matter how civil I am to you.”

Hearing it put that way, she feels a little guilty. “What do you mean, then, that I hate the world?”

“You hate the way we live. The way the world makes us live. Either the Fulcrum owns us, or we have to hide and be hunted down like dogs if we’re ever discovered. Or we become monsters and try to kill everything. Even within the Fulcrum we always have to think about how they want us to act. We can never just… be.” He sighs, closing his eyes. “There should be a better way.”

Ah. That does it.

Syen stumbles away to the nearest wall and retches up the dried apricots and jerky she made herself swallow a-horseback on the way to the station. It’s wrong. It’s all so wrong. She thought— she didn’t think— she didn’t know—

Then as she wipes her mouth, she looks up and sees Alabaster watching.

“Like I said,” he concludes, very softly. “Every rogga should see a node, at least once.”

“I didn’t know.” She slurs the words around the back of her hand. The words don’t make sense but she feels compelled to say them. “I didn’t.”

“You think that matters?” It’s almost cruel, the emotionlessness of his voice and face.

“It matters to me!”

“You think you matter?” All at once he smiles. It’s an ugly thing, cold as the vapor that curls off ice. “You think any of us matter beyond what we can do for them? Whether we obey or not.” He jerks his head toward the body of the abused, murdered child. “You think he mattered, after what they did to him? The only reason they don’t do this to all of us is because we’re more versatile, more useful, if we control ourselves. But each of us is just another weapon, to them. Just a useful monster, just a bit of new blood to add to the breeding lines. Just another fucking rogga.”

He laughs a little, opening his eyes to roll them toward her. She can tell it’s another of those laughs he does when he really wants to express something other than humor. Misery this time, or maybe weary resignation. He’s always bitter. How he shows it is just a matter of degree.

Crack glares around the room, defiant— until her eyes meet Damaya’s. Then Crack flinches.

Damaya stares back, because she’s too stunned to look away. And because she is furious with herself. This is what comes of trusting others. Crack was not her friend, wasn’t even someone she liked, but she’d thought they could at least help each other. Now she’s found the head of the snake that’s been trying to eat her, and it’s halfway down the gullet of a completely different snake. The result is something too obscene to look at, let alone kill.

This is what you are at the vein, this small and petty creature. This is the bedrock of your life. Father Earth is right to despise you, but do not be ashamed. You may be a monster, but you are also great.

“Sorry,” he says. He genuinely sounds it, so she doesn’t storm off right then. “I was just trying to make a point.”

He’s made it. Not that she hadn’t known it before: that she is a slave, that all roggas are slaves, that the security and sense of self-worth the Fulcrum offers is wrapped in the chain of her right to live, and even the right to control her own body. It’s one thing to know this, to admit it to herself, but it’s the sort of truth that none of them use against each other— not even to make a point— because doing so is cruel and unnecessary. This is why she hates Alabaster: not because he is more powerful, not even because he is crazy, but because he refuses to allow her any of the polite fictions and unspoken truths that have kept her comfortable, and safe, for years.

“You are a very good friend, I think.”

“Yes, I rusting am.” She rubs her eyes.

“Now, now. Everyone sees that you are the stronger of the pair.” Syenite blinks at this, but he’s completely serious. He lifts a hand and draws a finger down the side of her face from temple to chin, a slow tease. “Many things have broken him. He holds himself together with spit and endless smiling, but all can see the cracks.

Corundum is always clean and well fed. She never wanted a child, but now that she’s had it— him— and held him, and nursed him, and all that… she does feel a sense of accomplishment, maybe, and rueful acknowledgment, because she and Alabaster have managed to make one beautiful child between them. She looks into her son’s face sometimes and marvels that he exists, that he seems so whole and right, when both his parents have nothing but bitter brokenness between them.

“You’re always restless. What are you looking for?”

She shakes her head. “I don’t know.”

But she thinks, almost but not quite subconsciously: A way to change things. Because this is not right.

He’s always good at guessing her thoughts. “You can’t make anything better,” he says, heavily. “The world is what it is. Unless you destroy it and start all over again, there’s no changing it.” He sighs, rubs his face against her breast. “Take what you can get out of it, Syen. Love your son. Even live the pirate life if that makes you happy. But stop looking for anything better than this.”

She licks her lips. “Corundum should have better.”

Alabaster sighs. “Yes. He should.” He says nothing more, but the unspoken is palpable: He won’t, though.

It isn’t right.

You’re not used to having a life follow you when you leave it behind.

He moves off, past the bath area, and after a moment you sit back down and finish washing. No one else bothers you while you bathe, although you catch some of the Castrima people eyeing you with increased curiosity now. Less hostility, too, but that’s not surprising; you don’t look especially intimidating. It’s the stuff they can’t see that will make them hate you.

“We are Misalem, not Shemshena. You’ve heard that story?”

Syenite’s fingers twitch in remembered pain. “Yes.”

“From your Guardian, right? They like to tell that one to kids.” ’Baster shifts to lean against the bedpost with his back to her, relaxing. Syenite thinks about telling him to leave, but never says it aloud. She’s not looking at him, so she has no idea what he does with the bundle of rings that she didn’t take. He can eat them for all she cares.

“My Guardian gave me that nonsense, too, Syen. The monstrous Misalem, who decided to declare war against a whole nation and off the Sanzed Emperor for no particular reason.”

In spite of herself, Syenite frowns. “He had a reason?”

“Oh Evil Earth, of course. Use your rusting head.”

It’s annoying to be scolded, and annoyance pushes back her apathy a little more. Good old Alabaster, cheering her up by pissing her off. She turns her head to glare at the back of his. “Well, what was the reason?”

“The simplest and most powerful reason of all: revenge.

“Orogenes built the Fulcrum,” he says. She’s almost never heard him say orogene. “We did it under threat of genocide, and we used it to buckle a collar around our own necks, but we did it. We are the reason Old Sanze grew so powerful and lasted so long, and why it still half-rules the world, even if no one will admit it. We’re the ones who’ve figured out just how amazing our kind can be, if we learn how to refine the gift we’re born with.”

“It’s a curse, not a gift.” Syenite closes her eyes. But she doesn’t push away the bundle.

“It’s a gift if it makes us better. It’s a curse if we let it destroy us. You decide that— not the instructors, or the Guardians, or anyone else.”

She has come to realize over the past three years that most Meovites regard her and Alabaster as something like wild animals that have decided to scavenge off human habitations— impossible to civilize, kind of cute, and at least an amusing nuisance. So when they see that she obviously needs help with something and won’t admit it, they help her anyway. And they constantly pet Alabaster, and hug him and grab his hands and swing him into dancing, which Syen is at least grateful no one tries with her. Then again, everyone can see that Alabaster likes being touched, no matter how much he pretends standoffishness. It probably isn’t something he got a lot of in the Fulcrum, where everyone was afraid of his power. Perhaps likewise they think Syen enjoys being reminded that she is part of a group now, contributing and contributed to, and that she no longer needs to guard herself against everyone and everything.

They’re right. That doesn’t mean she’s going to tell them so.

You nod to her, anyway. It’s the polite thing to do, and there’s still a little left of you that’s the woman the Fulcrum raised. You can be polite to anybody, no matter how much you hate them.

Do the obelisks come when you call?”

You don’t want to understand, but you do. You don’t want to believe, but really, you have all along.

You tore that rift up north,” you breathe. Your hands are clenching into fists. “You split the continent. You started this Season. With the obelisks! You did… all of that.”

“Yes, with the obelisks, and with the aid of the node maintainers. They’re all at peace now.” He exhales, wheezily. “I need your help.”

You shake your head automatically, but not in refusal. “To fix it?”

“Oh, no, Syen.” You don’t even bother to correct him this time. You can’t take your eyes from his amused, nearly skeletal face. When he speaks, you notice that some of his teeth have turned to stone, too. How many of his organs have done the same? How much longer can he— should he— live like this?

“I don’t want you to fix it,” Alabaster says. “It was collateral damage, but Yumenes got what it deserved. No, what I want you to do, my Damaya, my Syenite, my Essun, is make it worse.”

You stare at him, speechless. Then he leans forward. That this is painful for him is obvious; you hear the creak and stretch of his flesh, and a faint crack as some piece of stone somewhere on him fissures. But when he is close enough, he grins again, and suddenly it hits you. Evil, eating, Earth. He’s not crazy at all, and he never has been.

The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin

Paul Ciano

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