We are the monsters they created, and more, but we will be the sort of monsters we wish to be, in death.
When we say that “the world has ended,” remember— it is usually a lie. The planet is just fine.
Can you truly understand what a nation is capable of, child of the Stillness? The entirety of Old Sanze, once it finally stitches itself together from fragments of the hundred “civilizations” that live and die between now and then, will be nothing by comparison. Merely a collection of paranoid city-states and communes agreeing to share, sometimes, for survival’s sake. Ah, the Seasons will reduce the world to such miserly dreams.
The Fulcrum is not the first institution to have learned an eternal truth of humankind: No need for guards when you can convince people to collaborate in their own internment.
Ah, my love. An apocalypse is a relative thing, isn’t it? When the earth shatters, it is a disaster to the life that depends on it— but nothing much to Father Earth. When a man dies, it should be devastating to a girl who once called him Father, but this becomes as nothing when she has been called monster so many times that she finally embraces the label. When a slave rebels, it is nothing much to the people who read about it later. Just thin words on thinner paper worn finer by the friction of history. But to the people who live through a slave rebellion, both those who take their dominance for granted until it comes for them in the dark, and those who would see the world burn before enduring one moment longer in “their place”—
That is not a metaphor, Essun. Not hyperbole. I did watch the world burn. Say nothing to me of innocent bystanders, unearned suffering, heartless vengeance. When a comm builds atop a fault line, do you blame its walls when they inevitably crush the people inside? No; you blame whoever was stupid enough to think they could defy the laws of nature forever. Well, some worlds are built on a fault line of pain, held up by nightmares. Don’t lament when those worlds fall. Rage that they were built doomed in the first place.
Hoa stands over you. It’s still a shock to see him like this: a mid-sized adult rather than a small child, veined black marble instead of white flesh. Somehow, though, it’s easy to perceive him as the same person— same face shape, same haunting icewhite eyes, same ineffable strangeness, same whiff of lurking whimsy— as the Hoa you’ve known for the past year. What’s changed, that a stone eater no longer seems alien to you? Only superficial things about him. Everything about you.
“There isn’t a single evil to point to, a single moment when everything changed,” she went on. “Things were bad and then terrible and then better and then bad again, and then they happened again, and again, because no one stopped it. Things can be … adjusted. Lengthen the better, predict and shorten the terrible. Sometimes prevent the terrible by settling for the merely bad. I’ve given up on trying to stop you people. Just taught my children to remember and learn and survive … until someone finally breaks the cycle for good.”
The stabbing is the outcome of an impossible choice he demanded of her: to be either his daughter or an orogene. She refused to commit existential suicide. He refused to suffer an orogene to live. There was no malice in either of them in that final moment, only the grim violence of inevitability.
To one side of this tableau stands Schaffa, Nassun’s Guardian, who stares down at what is left of Jija Resistant Jekity in a combination of wonder and cold satisfaction. At Nassun’s other side is Steel, her stone eater. It is appropriate to call him that now, hers, because he has come in her hour of need— not to help, never that, but to provide her with something nevertheless. What he offers, and what she has finally realized she needs, is purpose. Not even Schaffa has given her this, but that’s because Schaffa loves her unconditionally. She needs that love, too, oh how she needs it, but in this moment when her heart has been most thoroughly broken, when her thoughts are at their least focused, she craves something more … solid.
She will have the solidity that she wants. She will fight for it and kill for it, because she’s had to do that again and again and it is habit now, and if she is successful she will die for it. After all, she is her mother’s daughter— and only people who think they have a future fear death.
Orogeny is what the difference of us will become over generations of adaptation to a changed world. You are the shallower, more specialized, more natural distillation of our so-unnatural strangeness. Only a few of you, like Alabaster, will ever come close to the power and versatility we hold, but that is because we were constructed as intentionally and artificially as the fragments you call obelisks. We are fragments of the great machine, too— just as much a triumph of genegineering and biomagestry and geomagestry and other disciplines for which the future will have no name. By our existence we glorify the world that made us, like any statue or scepter or other precious object. We do not resent this, for our opinions and experiences have been carefully constructed, too.
We do not understand that what Kelenli has come to give us is a sense of peoplehood. We do not understand why we have been forbidden this self-concept before now … but we will.
And then we will understand that people cannot be possessions. And because we are both and this should not be, a new concept will take shape within us, though we have never heard the word for it because the conductors are forbidden to even mention it in our presence. Revolution.
Oegin and Ynegen, the twins, are the only ones who look at Nassun with anything resembling understanding. They were the first to come outside after Nassun snatched the sapphire out of the sky. While the others mostly saw Schaffa fight Umber, and Steel kill Nida, those two saw what Jija tried to do to Nassun. They understand that Nassun fought back as anyone would have. Everyone, though, remembers that she killed Eitz. Some have since forgiven her for that, as Schaffa predicted— especially shy, scarred Peek, who privately spoke to Nassun of what she did to the grandmother who stabbed her in the face so long ago. Orogene children learn early what it means to regret.
That doesn’t mean they don’t still fear Nassun, though, and fear lends a clarity that cuts right through childish rationalizations. They are not killers at heart, after all … and Nassun is.
Schaffa regards the children for a long, thoughtful moment. His fingers twitch, perhaps remembering another life and another self who could not have endured the idea of unleashing eight young Misalems upon the world. That version of Schaffa, however, is dead. The twitch is only reflexive.
“Yes,” he says. “That is what I want you to do, if you need to hear it said aloud. You have a better chance in a large, thriving comm than you do on your own. So allow me to make a suggestion.” Schaffa steps forward and crouches to look Deshati in the eye, reaching out also to grip Shirk’s thin shoulder. He says to all of them, with that same gentle intensity that he used before, “Kill only one, initially. Pick someone who tries to harm you— but only one, even if more than one tries. Disable the others, but take your time killing that one person. Make it painful. Make sure your target screams. That’s important. If the first one that you kill remains silent … kill another.”
They stare back at him. Even Lashar seems nonplussed. Nassun, however, has seen Schaffa kill. He has given up some of who he was, but what remains is still an artist of terror. If he has seen fit to share the secrets of his artistry with them, they’re lucky. She hopes they appreciate it.
He goes on. “When the killing is done, make it clear to those present that you acted only in self-defense. Then offer to work in the dead person’s place, or to protect the rest from danger— but they’ll recognize the ultimatum. They must accept you into the comm.” He pauses, then fixes his icewhite gaze on Deshati. “If they refuse, what do you do?”
She swallows. “K-kill them all.”
He smiles again, for the first time since leaving Jekity, and cups the back of her head in fond approval.
Unconsciously, Nassun bares her teeth and clenches her fists. “It isn’t right, Schaffa. It isn’t right that people want me to be bad or strange or evil, that they make me be bad …” She shakes her head, fumbling for words. “I just want to be ordinary! But I’m not and— and everybody, a lot of people, all hate me because I’m not ordinary. You’re the only person who doesn’t hate me for … for being what I am. And that’s not right.”
“No, it isn’t.” Schaffa shifts to sit back against his pack, looking weary. “But you speak as though it’s an easy thing to ask people to overcome their fears, little one.”
And he does not say it, but suddenly Nassun thinks: Jija couldn’t.
Nassun’s gorge rises suddenly, sharply enough that she must clap a fist to her mouth for a moment and think hard of ash and how cold her ears are. There’s nothing in her stomach except the handful of dates she just ate, but the feeling is awful anyway.
Schaffa, uncharacteristically, does not move to comfort her. He only watches her, expression weary but otherwise unreadable.
“I know they can’t do it.” Yes. Speaking helps. Her stomach doesn’t settle, but she no longer feels on the brink of dry heaves. “I know they— the stills— won’t ever stop being afraid. If my father couldn’t—” Queasiness. She jerks her thoughts away from the end of that sentence. “They’ll just go on being scared forever, and we’ll just go on living like this forever, and it isn’t right. There should be a— a fix. It isn’t right that there’s no end to it.”
“But do you mean to impose a fix, little one?” Schaffa asks. It’s soft. He’s guessed already, she realizes. He knows her so much better than she knows herself, and she loves him for it. “Or an end?”
She gets to her feet and starts pacing, tight little circles between his pack and hers. It helps the nausea and the jittery, rising tension beneath her skin that she cannot name. “I don’t know how to fix it.”
But that is not the whole truth, and Schaffa scents lies the way predators scent blood. His eyes narrow. “If you did know how, would you fix it?”
He kisses her forehead. “Make the end you need, my Nassun.”
“I don’t want.” She has to swallow. “I want you to— to be alive!”
He laughs softly. “Still a child, despite all you’ve been through.” This stings, but his meaning is clear. She cannot have both Schaffa alive and the world’s hatred dead. She must choose one ending or the other.
But then, firmly, Schaffa says again: “Make the end you need.”
Nassun pulls back so she can look at him. He’s smiling again, clear-eyed. “What?”
He squeezes her, very gently. “You’re my redemption, Nassun. You are all the children I should have loved and protected, even from myself. And if it will bring you peace …” He kisses her forehead. “Then I shall be your Guardian till the world burns, my little one.”
It is a benediction, and a balm. The nausea finally releases its hold on Nassun. In Schaffa’s arms, safe and accepted, she sleeps at last, amid dreams of a world glowing and molten and in its own way, at peace.
“You’re a thinker,” she says. I’m not sure what that’s supposed to mean.
“We all are,” I say. I allow a brief rumble of nuance. We have to be.
“Exactly. You think more than you have to.” Apparently a bit of brown near my hairline is especially stubborn. She wipes it off, grimaces, wipes it again, sighs, rinses the cloth and wipes at it again.
I continue searching her face. “Why do you laugh at their fear?”
It’s a stupid question. Should’ve asked it through the earth, not out loud. She stops wiping my face. Remwha glances at me in bland reproach, then goes to the entrance of the alcove. I hear him asking the guard there to please ask a conductor whether we are in danger of sun damage without the protection of the paint. The guard laughs and calls over her companion to relay this question, as if it’s ridiculous. During the moment of distraction purchased for us by this exchange, Kelenli then resumes scrubbing me.
“Why not laugh at it?” she says.
“They would like you better if you didn’t laugh.” I signal nuance: alignment, harmonic enmeshment, compliance, conciliation, mitigation. If she wants to be liked.
“Maybe I don’t want to be liked.” She shrugs, turning to rinse the cloth again.
“You could be. You’re like them.”
“More than me.” This is obvious. She is their kind of beautiful, their kind of normal. “If you tried—”
She laughs at me, too. It isn’t cruel, I know instinctively. It’s pitying. But underneath the laugh, her presence is suddenly as still and pent as pressurized stone in the instant before it becomes something else. Anger again. Not at me, but triggered by my words nevertheless. I always seem to make her angry.
They’re afraid because we exist, she says. There’s nothing we did to provoke their fear, other than exist. There’s nothing we can do to earn their approval, except stop existing— so we can either die like they want, or laugh at their cowardice and go on with our lives.
I think at first that I don’t understand everything she just told me. But I do, don’t I? There were sixteen of us once; now we are but six. The others questioned and were decommissioned for it. Obeyed without question, and were decommissioned for it. Bargained. Gave up. Helped. Despaired. We have tried everything, done all they asked and more, and yet now there are only six of us left.
That means we’re better than the others were, I tell myself, scowling. Smarter, more adaptable, more skilled. This matters, does it not? We are components of the great machine, the pinnacle of Sylanagistine biomagestry. If some of us had to be removed from the machine because of flaws—
Tetlewha was not flawed, Remwha snaps like a slipstrike fault.
I blink and glance at him. He’s back in the alcove, waiting over near Bimniwha and Salewha; they’ve all used the fountain to strip off their own paint while Kelenli worked on me and Gaewha and Dushwha. The guards Remwha distracted are just outside, still chuckling to themselves over what he said to them. He’s glaring at me. When I frown, he repeats: Tetlewha was not flawed.
I set my jaw. If Tetlewha was not flawed, then that means he was decommissioned for no reason at all.
Yes. Remwha, who rarely looks pleased on a good day, has now curled his lip in disgust. At me. I’m so shocked by this that I forget to pretend indifference. That is precisely her point. It doesn’t matter what we do. The problem is them.
It doesn’t matter what we do. The problem is them.
When I am clean, Kelenli cups my face in her hands. “Do you know the word ‘legacy’?”
I’ve heard it and guessed its meaning from context. It’s difficult to pull my thoughts back on track after Remwha’s angry rejoinder. He and I have never much liked one another, but … I shake my head and focus on what Kelenli has asked me. “A legacy is something obsolete, but which you cannot get rid of entirely. Something no longer wanted, but still needed.”
She grimace-smiles, first at me and then at Remwha. She’s heard everything he said to me. “That will do. Remember that word today.”
Then she gets to her feet. The three of us stare at her. She’s not only taller and browner, but she moves more, breathes more. Is more. We worship what she is. We fear what she will make of us.
“Come,” she says, and we follow her out into the world.
I frown at Kelenli, who’s watching me. “This should not exist,” I say. Words only. I don’t know how else to articulate what I’m feeling. Shock. Disbelief? Fear, for some reason. The Plutonic Engine is the most advanced creation of geomagestry ever built. That is what the conductors have told us, over and over again for all the years since we were decanted … and yet. This tiny, bizarre engine, sitting half-forgotten in a dusty museum, is more advanced. And it seems to have been built for no purpose other than beauty.
Why does this realization frighten me?
“But it does exist,” Kelenli says. She leans back against the railing, looking lazily amused— but through the soft shimmering harmony of the structure on display, I sess her ping on the ambient.
Think, she says without words. She watches me in particular. Her thinker.
I glance around at the others. As I do, I notice Kelenli’s guards again. They’ve taken up positions on either end of the balcony, so that they can see the corridor we came down as well as the display room. They both look bored. Kelenli brought us here. Got the conductors to agree to bringing us here. Means for us to see something in this ancient engine that her guards do not. What?
I step forward, putting my hands on the dead railing, and peer intently at the thing as if that will help. What to conclude? It has the same fundamental structure as other plutonic engines. Only its purpose is different— no, no. That’s too simple an assessment. What’s different here is … philosophical. Attitudinal. The Plutonic Engine is a tool. This thing? Is … art.
And then I understand. No one of Syl Anagist built this.
I look at Kelenli. I must use words, but the conductors who hear the guards’ report should not be able to guess anything from it. “Who?”
She smiles, and my whole body tingles all over with the rush of something I cannot name. I am her thinker, and she is pleased with me, and I have never been happier.
“You,” she replies, to my utter confusion.
“Can I ask you a question?”
He bites his lip. “What’s going on? It feels like … Nothing that’s happening is normal lately. I mean, it’s a Season, but even that feels wrong. Guardians not taking roggas to the Fulcrum. Roggas doing things nobody’s ever heard of them doing.” He chin-points toward the pile of Jija. “Whatever the rust went on up north. Even those things in the sky, the obelisks … It’s all … People are talking. Saying maybe the world’s not going to go back to normal. Ever.”
You’re staring at Jija, but you’re thinking of Alabaster. Don’t know why.
“One person’s normal is another person’s Shattering.” Your face aches from smiling. There is an art to smiling in a way that others will believe, and you’re terrible at it. “Would’ve been nice if we could’ve all had normal, of course, but not enough people wanted to share. So now we all burn.”
He stares at you for a long, vaguely horrified moment. Then he mumbles something and finally goes away, skirting wide around Hoa. Good riddance.
“What have I done?” you ask. “What have I made her?”
Hoa’s toes have appeared in your peripheral vision. “Strong,” he suggests.
You shake your head. Nassun was that on her own.
You close your eyes again. It’s the only thing that should matter, that you’ve brought three babies into the world and this one, this precious last one, is still breathing. And yet.
I made her me. Earth eat us both, I made her into me.
And maybe that’s why Nassun is still alive. But it’s also, you realize as you stare at what she’s done to Jija, and as you realize you can’t even get revenge on him for Uche because your daughter has done that for you … why you are terrified of her.
And there it is— the thing you haven’t faced in all this time, the kirkhusa with ash and blood on its muzzle. Jija owed you a debt of pain for your son, but you owe Nassun, in turn. You didn’t save her from Jija. You haven’t been there when she’s needed you, here at the literal end of the world. How dare you presume to protect her? Gray Man and Schaffa; she has found her own, better, protectors. She has found the strength to protect herself.
You are so very proud of her. And you don’t dare go anywhere near her, ever again.
Hoa says to your slumped back, “I can’t die.”
You frown, jarred out of melancholy by this apparent non sequitur. Then you understand: He’s saying you won’t ever lose him. He will not crumble away like Alabaster. You can’t ever be surprised by the pain of Hoa’s loss the way you were with Corundum or Innon or Alabaster or Uche, or now Jija. You can’t hurt Hoa in any way that matters.
“It’s safe to love you,” you murmur, in startled realization.
Surprisingly, this eases the knot of silence in your chest. Not much, but … but it helps.
“How do you do it?” you ask. It’s hard to imagine. Not being able to die even when you want to, even as everything you know and care about falters and fails. Having to go on, no matter what. No matter how tired you are. “Move forward,” Hoa says.
He’s in the middle of raising the canteen again when he pauses. Something flows over his face. She’s learned to read this look of his in particular, despite the fact that it’s such a rare one. Sometimes he’s forgotten things he wishes he could remember, but right now, he is remembering what he wishes he could forget.
Nassun frowns. “What’s genocide?” He smiles again, but it is sad. “If every orogene is hunted down and slain, and if the neck of every orogene infant born thereafter is wrung, and if every one like me who carries the trait is killed or effectively sterilized, and if even the notion that orogenes are human is denied … that would be genocide. Killing a people, down to the very idea of them as a people.”
His arms tighten for an instant, with a hint of his old strength, and it is the most beautiful feeling in the world. She knows in this moment that he will never falter, never not be there when she needs him, never devolve into a mere fallible human being. And she loves him more than life for his strength.
She leads us through the house. A den of stunning comfort: every surface soft and sittable, even the floor. What strikes me is that nothing is white. The walls are green and in some places painted a deep, rich burgundy. In the next room, the beds are covered in blue and gold fabric in contrasting textures. Nothing is hard and nothing is bare and I have never thought before that the chamber I live in is a prison cell, but now for the first time, I do.
How did it begin? You must understand that fear is at the root of such things. Niespeople looked different, behaved differently, were different— but every group is different from others. Differences alone are never enough to cause problems. Syl Anagist’s assimilation of the world had been over for a century before I was ever made; all cities were Syl Anagist. All languages had become Sylanagistine. But there are none so frightened, or so strange in their fear, as conquerors. They conjure phantoms endlessly, terrified that their victims will someday do back what was done to them— even if, in truth, their victims couldn’t care less about such pettiness and have moved on. Conquerors live in dread of the day when they are shown to be, not superior, but simply lucky.
If the Niess were merely human, the world built on their inhumanity would fall apart.
So … they made us.
We, the carefully engineered and denatured remnants of the Niess, have sessapinae far more complex than those of ordinary people. Kelenli was made first, but she wasn’t different enough. Remember, we must be not just tools, but myths. Thus we later creations have been given exaggerated Niess features— broad faces, small mouths, skin nearly devoid of color, hair that laughs at fine combs, and we’re all so short. They’ve stripped our limbic systems of neurochemicals and our lives of experience and language and knowledge. And only now, when we have been made over in the image of their own fear, are they satisfied. They tell themselves that in us, they’ve captured the quintessence and power of who the Niess really were, and they congratulate themselves on having made their old enemies useful at last.
But we are not the Niess. We aren’t even the glorious symbols of intellectual achievement that I believed we were. Syl Anagist is built on delusions, and we are the product of lies. They have no idea what we really are.
It’s up to us, then, to determine our own fate and future.
“You see yourself as one of these … truth-tellers?” I ask.
“Lorist. The last Niess lorist, if I have the right to claim such a thing.” Her smile abruptly fades, and for the first time I realize what a wealth of weariness and hard lines and sorrow her smiles cover. “Lorists were warriors, storytellers, nobility. They told their truths in books and song and through their art engines. I just … talk. But I feel like I’ve earned the right to claim some part of their mantle.” Not all fighters use knives, after all.
How can we prepare for the future if we won’t acknowledge the past?
You’re half-asleep, because of the sex. It’s an anticlimactic thing now that it’s finally happened. What you feel for Lerna will never be intense, or guilt-free. You’ll always feel too old for him. But, well. He asked you to show him the truncated breast and you did, thinking that would mark the end of his interest in you. The sandy patch is crusty and rough amid the smoother brown of your torso— like a scab, though the wrong color and texture. His hands were gentle as he examined the spot and pronounced it sound enough to need no further bandaging. You told him that it didn’t hurt. You didn’t say that you were afraid you couldn’t feel anything anymore. That you were changing, hardening in more ways than one, becoming nothing but the weapon everyone keeps trying to make of you. You didn’t say, Maybe you’re better off with unrequited love.
But even though you didn’t say any of these things, after the examination he looked at you and replied, “You’re still beautiful.” You apparently needed to hear that a lot more than you realized. And now here you are.
The vehimal’s inner skin gives off no heat, though she knows they are already at a level underground where human flesh should burn up in an instant. When she touches the image on the forward view, it ripples ever so slightly around her finger, like waves in water. Putting her whole hand on a roil of brown-red color, she cannot help smiling. Just a few feet away, on the other side of the vehimal’s skin, is the burning earth. She’s touching the burning earth, thinly removed. She puts her other hand up, presses her cheek against the smooth plates. Here in this strange deadciv contraption, she is part of the earth, perhaps more so than any orogene before her has ever been. It is her, it is in her, she is in it.
When Nassun glances back over her shoulder at Schaffa, he’s smiling, despite the lines of pain around his eyes. It’s different from his usual smile. “What?” she asks. “The Leadership families of Yumenes believed that orogenes once ruled the world,” he says. “That their duty was to keep your kind from ever regaining that much power. That you would be monstrous rulers of the world, doing back to ordinary folk what had been done to you, if you ever got the chance. I don’t think they were right about any of it— and yet.” He gestures, as she stands there illuminated by the fire of the earth. “Look at you, little one. If you are the monster they imagined you to be … you are also glorious.”
Nassun loves him so much.
And oh. Does Nassun not understand this? Her hands tighten in Schaffa’s shirt, trembling as her hatred wavers. Can she not empathize?
For the world has taken so much from her. She had a brother once. And a father, and a mother whom she also understands but wishes she did not. And a home, and dreams. The people of the Stillness have long since robbed her of childhood and any hope of a real future, and because of this she is so angry that she cannot think beyond THIS MUST STOP and I WILL STOP IT—
—so does she not resonate with the Evil Earth’s wrath, herself?
Earth eat her, she does.
I am sitting near Conductor Gallat. I notice how the other conductors’ disdain actually increases his tension, making anger radiate off his skin like the residual heat of sunlight from a rock, long after night has fallen. There have always been odd dynamics to the conductors’ relationships; we’ve puzzled them out as best we could, while not really understanding. Now, however, thanks to Kelenli’s explanation, I remember that Gallat has undesirable ancestry. We were made this way, but he was simply born with pale skin and icewhite eyes— traits common among the Niess. He isn’t Niess; the Niess are gone. There are other races, Sylanagistine races, with pale skin. The eyes suggest, however, that somewhere in his family’s history— distant, or he would not have been permitted schooling and medical care and his prestigious current position— someone made children with a Niesperson. Or not; the trait could be a random mutation or happenstance of pigment expression. Apparently no one thinks it is, though.
This is why, though Gallat works harder and spends more hours at the compound than anyone, and is in charge, the other conductors treat him as if he is less than what he is. If he did not pass on the favor in his dealings with us, I would pity him. As it is, I am afraid of him. I always have been afraid of him. But for Kelenli, I decide to be brave.
“Why are you angry with her?” I ask. My voice is soft, and hard to hear over the humming metabolic cycle of the vehimal. Few of the other conductors notice my comment. None of them care. I have timed the asking well.
Gallat starts, then stares at me as if he has never seen me before. “What?”
“Kelenli.” I turn my eyes to meet his, although we have learned over time that the conductors do not like this. They find eye contact challenging. But they also dismiss us more easily when we do not look at them, and I don’t want to be dismissed in this moment. I want him to feel this conversation, even if his weak, primitive sessapinae cannot tell him that my jealousy and resentment have raised the temperature of the city’s water table by two degrees.
He glares at me. I gaze impassively back. I sense tension in the network. The others, who of course have noticed what the conductors ignore, are suddenly afraid for me … but I am almost distracted from their concern by the difference I suddenly perceive in us. Gallat is right: We are changing, complexifying, our ambient influence strengthening, as a result of the things Kelenli has shown us. Is this an improvement? I’m not certain yet. For now, we are confused where before, we were mostly unified. Remwha and Gaewha are angry at me for taking this risk without seeking consensus first— and this recklessness, I suppose, is my own symptom of change. Bimniwha and Salewha are, irrationally, angry at Kelenli for the strange way she is affecting me. Dushwha is done with all of us and just wants to go home. Beneath her anger, Gaewha is afraid for me but she also pities me, because I think she understands that my recklessness is a symptom of something else. I have decided that I am in love, but love is a painful hotspot roil beneath the surface of me in a place where once there was stability, and I do not like it. Once, after all, I believed I was the finest tool ever created by a great civilization. Now, I have learned that I am a mistake cobbled together by paranoid thieves who were terrified of their own mediocrity. I don’t know how to feel, except reckless.
None of them are angry at Gallat for being too dangerous to have a simple conversation with, though. There’s something very wrong with that.
Later, when we process all this, I will tell the others, She wants to be a person.
She wants the impossible, Dushwha will say. Gallat thinks it better to own her himself, rather than allow Syl Anagist to do the same. But for her to be a person, she must stop being … ownable. By anyone.
Then Syl Anagist must stop being Syl Anagist, Gaewha will add sadly.
Yes. They will all be right, too, my fellow tuners … but that does not mean Kelenli’s desire to be free is wrong. Or that something is impossible just because it is very, very hard.
He clasps your hand lightly. It’s been fascinating to realize that he never initiates contact between you. He waits for you to offer, and then he meets your gestures with as much or as little intensity as you’ve brought to the effort. Respecting your boundaries, which are sharp-edged and hair-triggered. You never knew he was so observant, all these years— but then, you should’ve guessed. He figured out you were an orogene just by watching you, years ago. Innon would’ve liked him, you decide.
You look up and then, for only maybe the second or third time, you think you understand him. He knows you’re pregnant. Maybe he knew it before you did, though what that means to him, you cannot guess. He knows what underlies your thoughts about Alabaster, too, and he’s saying … that you aren’t alone. That you don’t have nothing. You have Hoa, and Ykka and Tonkee and maybe Hjarka, friends, who know you in all your rogga monstrosity and accept you despite it. And you have Lerna— quietly demanding, relentless Lerna, who does not give up and does not tolerate your excuses and does not pretend that love precludes pain.
Steel’s face, which has been tilted up toward the Moon even as his eyes watch her, now slowly pivots to face her. It’s always unnerving to see him move slowly. “Do you know what it feels like to live forever?”
Nassun blinks, thrown. She’s been expecting a fight. “What?” The moonlight has transformed Steel into a thing of starkest shadows, white and ink against the dimness of the garden. “I asked,” he says, and his voice is almost pleasant, “if you know what it feels like to live forever. Like me. Like your Schaffa. Do you have any inkling as to how old he is? Do you care?”
“I—” About to say that she does, Nassun falters. No. This is not a thing she has ever considered. “I— I don’t—”
I would estimate,” Steel continues, “that Guardians typically last three or four thousand years. Can you imagine that length of time? Think of the past two years. Your life since the beginning of the Season. Imagine another year. You can do that, can’t you? Every day feels like a year here in Corepoint, or so your kind tell me. Now put all three years together, and imagine them times one thousand.” The emphasis he puts on this is sharp, precisely enunciated. In spite of herself, Nassun jumps.
But also in spite of herself … she thinks. She feels old, Nassun, at the world-weary age of not-quite-eleven. So much has happened since the day she came home to find her little brother dead on the floor. She is a different person now, hardly Nassun at all; sometimes she is surprised to realize Nassun is still her name. How much more different will she be in three years? Ten? Twenty?
Steel pauses until he sees some change in her expression— some evidence, perhaps, that she is listening to him. Then he says, “I have reason to believe, however, that your Schaffa is much, much older than most Guardians. He isn’t quite first-generation; those have all long since died. Couldn’t take it. He’s one of the very early ones, though, still. The languages, you see; that’s how you can always tell. They never quite lose those, even after they’ve forgotten the names they were born with.”
Nassun remembers how Schaffa knew the language of the earth-traversing vehicle. It is strange to think of Schaffa having been born back when that tongue was still spoken. It would make him … she can’t even imagine. Old Sanze is supposed to be seven Seasons old, eight if one counts the present Season. Almost three thousand years. The Moon’s cycle of return and retreat is much older than that, and Schaffa remembers it, so … yes. He’s very, very old. She frowns.
“It’s rare to find one of them who can really go the distance,” Steel continues. His tone is casual, conversational; he could be talking about Nassun’s old neighbors back in Jekity. “The corestone hurts them so much, you see. They get tired, and then they get sloppy, and then the Earth begins to contaminate them, eating away at their will. They don’t usually last long once that starts. The Earth uses them, or their fellow Guardians use them, until they outlive their usefulness and one side or the other kills them. It’s a testament to your Schaffa’s strength that he lasted so much longer. Or a testament to something else, maybe. What kills the rest, you see, is losing the things that ordinary people need to be happy. Imagine what that’s like, Nassun. Watching everyone you know and care about die. Watching your home die, and having to find a new one— again, and again, and again. Imagine never daring to get close to another person. Never having friends, because you’ll outlive them. Are you lonely, little Nassun?”
She has forgotten her anger. “Yes,” she admits, before she can think not to.
“Imagine being lonely forever.” There’s a very slight smile on his lips, she sees. It’s been there the whole while. “Imagine living here in Corepoint forever, with no one to talk to but me— when I bother to respond. What do you think that will feel like, Nassun?”
“Terrible,” she says. Quietly now.
“Yes. So here is my theory: I believe your Schaffa survived by loving his charges. You, and others like you, soothed his loneliness. He truly does love you; never doubt that about him.” Nassun swallows back a dull ache. “But he also needs you. You keep him happy. You keep him human, where otherwise time would have long since transformed him into something else.”
Then Steel moves again. It’s inhuman because of its steadiness, Nassun finally realizes. People are quick to do big movements and then slower with fine adjustment. Steel does everything at the same pace. Watching him move is like watching a statue melt. But then he stands with arms outstretched as if to say, Take a look at me.
“I am forty thousand years old,” Steel says. “Give or take a few millennia.”
Nassun stares at him. The words are like the gibberish that the vehimal spoke— almost comprehensible, but not really. Not real.
What does that feel like, though?
“You’re going to die when you open the Gate,” Steel says, after giving Nassun a moment to absorb what he’s said. “Or if not then, sometime after. A few decades, a few minutes, it’s all the same. And whatever you do, Schaffa will lose you. He’ll lose the one thing that has kept him human throughout the Earth’s efforts to devour his will. He’ll find no one new to love, either— not here. And he won’t be able to return to the Stillness unless he’s willing to risk the Deep Earth route again. So whether he heals somehow, or you change him into one of my kind, he will have no choice but to go on, alone, endlessly yearning for what he will never again have.” Slowly, Steel’s arms lower to his sides. “You have no idea what that’s like.”
And then, suddenly, shockingly, he is right in front of Nassun. No blurring, no warning, just flick and he is there, bent at the waist to put his face right in front of hers, so close that she feels the wind of the air he’s displaced and smells the whiff of loam and she can even see that the irises of his eyes are striated in layers of gray.
“BUT I DO,” he shouts.
There are stages to the process of being betrayed by your society. One is jolted from a place of complacency by the discovery of difference, by hypocrisy, by inexplicable or incongruous ill treatment. What follows is a time of confusion— unlearning what one thought to be the truth. Immersing oneself in the new truth. And then a decision must be made.
Some accept their fate. Swallow their pride, forget the real truth, embrace the falsehood for all they’re worth— because, they decide, they cannot be worth much. If a whole society has dedicated itself to their subjugation, after all, then surely they deserve it? Even if they don’t, fighting back is too painful, too impossible. At least this way there is peace, of a sort. Fleetingly.
The alternative is to demand the impossible. It isn’t right, they whisper, weep, shout; what has been done to them is not right. They are not inferior. They do not deserve it. And so it is the society that must change. There can be peace this way, too, but not before conflict.
“The garden,” I repeat, at last. This will be my grand adventure, my escape. I consider laughing, but the habit of appearing emotionless keeps me from doing so. I don’t really want to go anywhere, to be honest. I just want to feel like I have some control over my life, if only for a few moments. “I want to see the garden for five minutes. That’s all.”
Stahnyn shifts from foot to foot, visibly miserable. “I could lose my position for this, especially if any of the senior conductors see. I could be imprisoned.”
“Perhaps they will give you a nice window overlooking a garden,” I suggest. She winces.
Slowly, though, she unbends. Ducks her head, pretends reluctant capitulation, says something back. It isn’t real. The earth reverberates with her anger and fear and unwillingness. Still, some of the stiffness goes out of Gallat’s back. He smiles, gestures more broadly. Comes back to her, takes her by the arms, speaks to her gently. I marvel that she has disarmed his anger so effectively. It’s as if he doesn’t see the way her eyes drift away while he’s talking, or how she does not reciprocate when he pulls her closer. She smiles at something he says, but even from fifty feet away I can see that it is a performance. Surely he can see it, too? But I am also beginning to understand that people believe what they want to believe, not what is actually there to be seen and touched and sessed.
And then, several nights after we return from Kelenli’s tuning mission, the ember catches fire in all of us.
It is the first time that all of us have come together since the trip. We entwine our presences in a layer of cold coal, which is perhaps fitting as Remwha sends a hiss through all of us like sand grinding amid cracks. It’s the sound/ feel/ sess of the sinklines, the briar patch. It’s also an echo of the static emptiness in our network where Tetlewha— and Entiwha, and Arwha, and all the others— once existed.
This is what awaits us when we have given them Geoarcanity, he says.
Gaewha replies, Yes.
He hisses again. I have never sessed him so angry. He has spent the days since our trip getting angrier and angrier. But then, so have the rest of us— and now it’s time for us to demand the impossible. We should give them nothing, he declares, and then I feel his resolve sharpen, turn vicious. No. We should give back what they have taken.
Put enough lives into a storage matrix, and they retain a collective will, of sorts. They remember horror and atrocity, with whatever is left of them— their souls, if you like.
So the onyx yields to me now because, it senses at last, I too have known pain. My eyes have been opened to my own exploitation and degradation. I am afraid, of course, and angry, and hurt, but the onyx does not scorn these feelings within me. It seeks something else, however, something more, and finally finds what it seeks nestled in a little burning knot behind my heart: determination. I have committed myself to making, of all this wrongness, something right.
That’s what the onyx wants. Justice.
…this is what the Sylanagistines truly made us for: to affirm a philosophy. Life is sacred in Syl Anagist— as it should be, for the city burns life as the fuel for its glory. The Niess were not the first people chewed up in its maw, just the latest and cruelest extermination of many. But for a society built on exploitation, there is no greater threat than having no one left to oppress.
We are such small, hard-to-grasp creatures, otherwise. Such insignificant vermin, apart from our unfortunate tendency to sometimes make ourselves dangerously significant.
As big as the world is, Nassun is beginning to realize it’s also really small. The same stories, cycling around and around. The same endings, again and again. The same mistakes eternally repeated.
“Some things are too broken to be fixed, Schaffa.” Inexplicably, she thinks of Jija. The ache of this silences her for a moment. “I … I can’t make anything better. But I can at least make sure the bad things stop.”
It’s dawn when you decide to change the world. You’re still asleep in the bedroll that Lerna has brought up to the roof of the yellow-X building. You and he spent the night under the water tower, listening to the ever-present rumble of the Rifting and the snap of occasional lightning strikes. Probably should’ve had sex there one more time, but you didn’t think about it and he didn’t suggest, so oh well. That’s gotten you into enough trouble, anyway. Had no business relying solely on middle age and starvation for birth control.
He watches as you stand and stretch, and it’s a thing you’ll never fully understand or be comfortable with— the admiration in his gaze. He makes you feel like a better person than you are. And this is what makes you regret, again, endlessly, that you cannot stay to see his child born. Lerna’s steady, relentless goodness is a thing that should be preserved in the world, somehow. Alas.
You haven’t earned his admiration. But you intend to.
Nassun has heard from Schaffa of what he was like, before Meov. She knows, intellectually, that the Schaffa you knew and the Schaffa she loves are wholly different people. She’s seen a Fulcrum, and the ways in which it warped its inmates. She remembers how you used to go stiff, just the way you are now, at even a glimpse of the color burgundy— and finally, here at the end of the world, she understands why. She knows you better now than ever before in her life.
And yet. To her, Schaffa is the man who protected her from raiders— and from her father. He is the man who soothed her when she was afraid, tucked her into bed at night. She has seen him fight his own brutal nature, and the Earth itself, in order to be the parent she needs. He has helped her learn to love herself for what she is.
Her mother? You. Have done none of these things.
And in that pent moment, as you fight past the memory of Innon falling to pieces and the burning ache of broken bones in a hand you no longer possess, with Never say no to me ringing in your head, she intuits the thing that you have, until now, denied:
That it is hopeless. That there can be no relationship, no trust, between you and her, because the two of you are what the Stillness and the Season have made you. That Alabaster was right, and some things really are too broken to fix.
It listens at your touch, far away above the ashscape of the Stillness. You fall into it, diving desperately into the dark, to make your case. Please, you beg.
It considers the request. This is not in words or sensation. You simply know its consideration. It examines you in turn— your fear, your anger, your determination to put things right.
Ah— this last has resonance. You know yourself examined again, more closely and with skepticism, since your last request was for something so frivolous. (Merely wiping out a city? You of all people did not need the Gate for that.) What the onyx finds within you, however, is something different this time: Fear for kin. Fear of failure. The fear that accompanies all necessary change. And underneath it all, a driving need to make the world better.
Somewhere far away, a billion dying things shiver as the onyx utters a low, earthshaking blast of sound, and comes online.
Her brow furrows. You look up at her, and it strikes you. Your little girl. So big, here beneath the onyx and the Moon. So powerful. So beautiful. And you cannot help it: You burst into tears at the sight of her. You laugh, though one of your lungs has gone to stone and it’s only a soft wheeze instead. So rusting amazing, your little girl. You are proud to lose to her strength.
Still there physically, a brown sandstone lump frozen on the lower steps, with only the barest suggestion of a smile on half-formed lips. Your tears are still there, glistening upon stone. She stares at these.
She stares at these and sucks in a long hollow breath because suddenly there is nothing, nothing inside her, she has killed her father and she has killed her mother and Schaffa is dying and there is nothing left, nothing, the world just takes and takes and takes from her and leaves nothing—
But she cannot stop staring at your drying tears.
Because the world took and took and took from you, too, after all. She knows this. And yet, for some reason that she does not think she’ll ever understand … even as you died, you were reaching for the Moon.
And for her.
The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin