Issue 192 – September 2022

5270 words, short story

Shining Bursa and the Listening Post


“Bursa,” Seafaring says, their hindwing brushing the bedding, their long abdomen sinking the mattress near Bursa’s feet. “Wake up, please.”

Bursa peers through one cracked eyelid and the remains of a dream about hollow spaces. His nictitating membrane diffuses the long-suffered intruder into stars. Above them both, his royal chamber vaults into a ceiling so high as to become darkness, the crystal hum of the ship’s Engine core somewhere higher still.

“I could have you executed,” he says. “How do you keep finding The Flagship Grim-Ascendent? How do you keep getting in?”

Seafaring scooches closer. “Redshifted photons. Radiation, waves like strings of diamonds. Ties the universe together.” Their beak shudders thoughtfully. “Ties me to you.”

Bursa, lips twisted, makes a note to fire the cargo manager. The forefleet’s only stop in the ship-days since subduing Castri VI had been to offload the honorably discharged and onboard ready-grain. Seafaring is as resourceful as they are obsessive, and their twiggy chitinous body could fold into a crate easily enough.

And yet, that explanation would be incomplete. Bursa knows that if he interrogates the guards posted outside his chamber, they’ll report seeing no intruder. Even threatened with punishment, with agony, their answer will not change: the ship’s halls were empty. Abrupt absence: a useful trick Seafaring has yet to explain.

“You’re here to trade intelligence. We’ve been over this. There are appropriate channels—”

Seafaring’s iridescent wings twitch. “Ties me to you,” they repeat scornfully. “Not to channels.”

“You try my patience. If you were anyone else—”

“The Weri’i muster forces in the fourth quadrant. A spy in your garrison at Madorex is passing them information.”


“Check the next tola-root shipment for the mess. You’ll see.”

Bursa has known Seafaring for ship-centuries. He’s met them at the rusted falls of Thulwe, dined with them in the salons of his capital city, encountered them against all odds during a conquest of the Kard jungle worlds. Interminable ages have dragged themselves by, and still Seafaring’s information has never been wrong. It’s timely, and exacting, and precisely what Bursa wants before he knows he wants it.

Bursa has lived long enough to see civilizations rise, then cause their fall. To see the collision of neutron stars. It’s not natural for Seafaring to predict so many patterns of empire before he can. Incomprehensible for the creature to find him in every dusty corner of the galaxy and dog him like a moon in orbit.

And yet.

He sighs. “What nebulous price will you ask of me this time?”

Seafaring snaps their beak once, practically a smile. They rest a foreleg on Bursa’s red hand. “A story. Tell me how to destroy the Prayer Engine. The one that took your heart.”

A chill lurches through the nagging hollow of Bursa’s chest. Something’s changed. Seafaring shouldn’t know about that. No one should.

He slips a hand to the trigger between the headboard and the mattress. “Too far. If you ever knew your place, you’ve forgotten it now.”

“I saw it,” Seafaring says, more excited than Bursa’s ever seen them. “On Pombane. The fog rises from the cave; shimmer-coats the planet. And inside, the great crystal Engine. It stole you from yourself and keeps you soldier-numb.”

Bursa hits the trigger; a sedative of his own design hisses from the walls. It doesn’t matter. Seafaring is gone. Like a stutter in reality.

Bursa had expected no better. Seafaring ignores even the cleverest of his poisons like so many diplomatic channels. Before he knew better—before the two of them had cultivated a wary trust—Bursa tried to press them into service as something covert, sliding, ephemeral. Hard to do to a creature who thinks the universe is whispering in their ear cavities. Hard to do when your soldiers barely believe such a creature exists.

He lies awake for a long time, searching himself for emotion and discovering, with relief, that any fear or rage is as muted as it’s been for centuries. Then he bows to sleep and dreams again of hollows.

Seafaring’s intelligence on the Weri’i offensive proves invaluable in more ways than one. On the thirty-fifth day of ship-year 942 of Shining Bursa’s reign-by-conquest, his forefleet descends on their secondary capital. His vanguard releases an aerosolized narcotic he’d customized to Weri’i genetics, designed to induce stupor. Then the ground troops crush anyone still standing.

He declares he will spare their library Engine if the engineers cooperate.

In truth, it’s an empty threat: he’s formulated no chemical compound that might eat through the hard mass of higher-form citrine protuberances or other Engines of the library’s scale.

Besides, its crystal form stretches to the ceiling and illuminates the building like a cathedral. Its dendritic branch patterns are shot with light, and its destruction would be a waste of beauty. The Weri’i don’t need to know that.

A drowsy library engineer tells him that while Seafaring’s species’ word for itself sends most translation programs into conniptions, the closest root may be listening post. The Posts claimed their grandiose impulses came from secret resonances; that they served “no master but the whole of everything.” This gibberish was apparently a strategic error: most contemporary sources consider the species extinct.

“Your own name,” she says with sudden lucidity—defiance or fascination or both, pinprick eyes tracing Bursa’s slender form, his red leathered skin clinging tight to ancient bones. Then she sinks back into herself, cowed. Her gaze sticks instead to Bursa’s golden fangs of state. His dark mouth.

“Finish the thought,” Bursa says calmly. Behind them, spires of crystal convert energy to arcane calculus to knowledge.

“It’s come to mean hollow in several language families in the fourth quadrant. Or lack.

Bursa terminates the interview. Only once the engineer’s led stumbling out the door does he order her name recorded for his personal aptitude registry. The meaning of his name isn’t new to him. The courage to tell him is.

He sees wings around a jut of crystal. Then nothing.

“Stop following me,” he bellows and feels the weight of his centuries, normally so heavy, lighten to nothing more than a baby’s blanket. Suddenly, he wants to run Seafaring down—to fight, to scream. To rip dangerous Prayer Engine knowledge straight out of their ganglia.

No one answers. His squires watch him, startled by an outburst that would have been more characteristic before his third century: when he was just an upstart on the cosmic scale. When strong emotion could still pierce the indifference the Engine had bestowed him.

Information about the Prayer Engine—from before its millennium of slumber, from the time it taught Bursa power and took his heart—may well be hidden here. The library is a much lesser Engine; maybe he should order it shot off-planet and execute its engineer corps. Maybe then he would be safe.

Instead, he takes the biological data he needs and leaves the crystal behemoth to its lovely intricacies. He processes with full fanfare into the streets of the subdued.

That night the weight of time wraps tight and sudden again, compressing his hollow chest, leaving him sweating in his sheets, and he understands: fear. He’s feeling fear. Like one of his own poisons. Like a cave on a dark planet, fog rising.

This cannot stand. Seafaring knows his greatest secret. For all their utility—for all their honesty and amity—they can’t be suffered to live.

“What specifically were you given in exchange for your heart?” Seafaring urges. “Intelligence? Your long life?” They had appeared with typical abruptness to follow him knee-deep through a river gorge on Pombane, the Prayer Engine’s planet, just as Bursa knew they would. Water roars down a cavern maw jutting from the stream before them.

A minor Engine, believed by the locals to be a totem purifying the fog spooling from the cave, dwarfs the sky. It hangs between granite cliffsides, a euhedral triangle of blue tourmaline. In reality, it’s a defunct magnetic field tuner. Through it, the stars are washed out. Hollow.

Bursa had avoided this, his birth planet, for many local centuries. He had faded, for a war-torn people who forgot they’d reached the stars, into mythology: a golem stuffed with marfruit rinds and nothing else, in some tales, or a beast who traded his guts to a sorceress to save his burrow.

Somehow, despite his precautions, Seafaring had found this place and the Prayer Engine with it. Cosmogonal mysticism. They could be mythology together, if things were different.

With every step the cave seems to grow.

“The Engine can’t be destroyed. Why bother trying?” Bursa says roughly, uncertain the answer matters in the face of Seafaring’s imminent death by his hands. “It’s dormant now, practically a fairy tale. Hasn’t answered a prayer since mine.”

“It stole you from yourself. You deserve a heart, Bursa.”

He stumbles in the stream. Offense spikes through him fast enough to choke on, and he nearly turns to attempt the deed early. “How dare—that’s a terrible reason! You don’t know anything, you don’t know me.”

“I know you care about this place. You were born here.”

“That doesn’t matter.” Petty, petulant. Unbecoming of his royal bearing. Seafaring has that effect on him. Few other creatures have lived long enough to see him young.

Seafaring’s wings spread behind him in an arc of shimmering droplets, cool spots on Bursa’s cheek. “I know you. I knew I’d find you here tonight. Truth is radiation waves. Diamonds. And the Engine a defilement between them.”

Bursa gives them a sharp look they don’t return. Their body glides into the cave’s dark mouth, down and down. A wet shiver works across Bursa’s skin as the fog envelops him, intimate. He recognizes the fear again, immediate as the rage had been before it. Personal.

There’s no latency here, he realizes. His heart is near enough he may as well have never removed it. He curses Seafaring for a hundredth time.

He considers calling down his transport, but that would be running away. Instead he follows Seafaring down the wet rockslide that shoulders the river’s underground channel. When he slips in the dark, a slender body steadies him.

“Careful, please.”

Unhand me.”

“I will.” Seafaring hesitates. “Unless you fall again.”

Bursa stubbornly scoots the rest of the way down on his backside, muddying his robes.

The river artery continues straight on into the rushing dark. Bursa instead follows the sound of wings to a crack in the limestone beside him, then squeezes through.

The subterrane ceiling rises like an inverse canyon wreathed in glowing fog, reaching up into an impossible space, taller than the cave’s height should allow. Jagged black ferberite looms, fifteen times the size of the Weri’i library, its surface like a map of a place untouched by civilization, valleys and hills, ridges, scars. Black spurs the size of jungle trees burst at strange angles from its surface, stabbing into one another. Crystal veins cling to cavern walls. Its core is hundreds of feet high and too wide to see the ending: a glacial wall. Dark. Deathless. Empty.

The chaos is a deception. Bursa knows the Engine’s atoms are chained into brutal symmetry, an endless lattice repeating in every direction.

But held deep inside—but at its heart—

“It still sleeps,” Seafaring says, troubled. Their voice doesn’t echo here. They sound small and mortal, and Bursa wonders for the first time which of the two of them is older. “I thought it would wake for you.”

“You want it awake?” The words taste bitter as a hollow. “No. It has all it wants from me.”

“But you woke it last time. With your prayer.”

“No,” he says again, but that may not be true—he remembers being young, the smell of burned flesh and laser discharge; the sewage-scent of massacre that becomes inevitable when one civilization cascades from the sky bent on annihilating another. He remembers thinking: they’re killing us. We won’t be people anymore.

He remembers crying out to no one, crying for death, his hand on his mother’s cold ankle. Then a light streaking down through the sky and the ground quaking beneath his prone body. The sudden dust plume was enormous, blocking out the stars. The battlefield grew cold enough to kill the wounded on both sides. Then the fog came.

He wonders how long it took for the impact site to become the gorge and for the cave to form around the Engine-meteorite. Its black surface glints at him, a surreal and uncaring ending to a war he shouldn’t have survived. Whoever built it—if it was built—could have died billions of local years before his own species clambered from the primordial ooze. It was not a gift.

“No one can control it,” he says slowly. “It just wants things. It takes things.”

Seafaring lets out a sharp, sympathetic breath. They touch Bursa’s hand, quick enough that he forgets to react. “I believe you. Engines have taken people from me, too. A great wandering nation of them.”

They step further into the fog. Their silhouette rubs its foreleg along a black facet that dwarfs them.

No use putting it off any longer. Bursa takes a glass bauble from the folds of his robe and crushes it in his hand. The Engine fog, reacting, begins to thin. It was designed as a chemical catalyst, discharge reconstituted into weaponry. The Engine told him this, and many poison-secrets more, the night it answered his prayer.

“Tell me how it spoke to you,” Seafaring says, all taut urgency and alien concern. “Did it understand language?”

“You’ve never learned your place.”

“What did it offer? How did—you—” A cough. They look back at Bursa in alarm.

Bursa grabs them by the neck and slams them against the Engine’s surface. “The library kept secrets. Your biology. Enough to make a poison that works.”

The creature’s eyes rove wildly, twitching from the walls to Bursa’s mouth to the passageway behind him. They meet Bursa’s gaze like a plea, hemolymph spreading through their sclera like burst capillaries.

Bursa presses harder. “What do you want? Why wake it just to destroy it? Why destroy the one thing I—”

A gasp that finds the air wanting. “It’s a taint on the macrocosm. A dark place. And you . . . ”

“Me,” he says with some desperation. “Why is this about me? Why do you—tail me? Find me? Give me what I want?”

Seafaring’s beak opens, then closes again. Their forelegs float forward; trace patterns on Bursa’s sleeves. The hairs catch in the fabric, tugging.

He sees in the motion a patient and idiosyncratic affection, drawn out against the backdrop of a lonely, lengthy universe. The kind of love that seeks a fellow strangeness. The kind of love selfish enough to attempt his repair.

Bursa recoils. He throws Seafaring to the ground, motes of chitin like static ghosting his skin.

A phantom-sense of himself lurks behind the crystal wall: a ceaseless pumping muscle, organic and rudimentary, by now crystalized. A chimera of ferberite and his flesh, proteins made orderly by vapor diffusion and time. It twists his chest to knots. A heart is a debt, a burden, a many-valved engine full of failure points.

The poison isn’t keyed to him. He knows it isn’t. He imagines he is choking anyway.

He crushes another bauble beneath his boot, hating his weakness all the while. The fog thickens again; congeals into chemical benignity.

“If I see you again, I will kill you.” He stalks to the crack in the limestone. Suddenly, he can’t stand to be in his heart’s proximity another minute—or to see Seafaring’s disappearing trick.

“The trade was for power,” he says bitterly. “The only thing I care about.”

Weakly, Seafaring tells him: “Power is a word.”

The falls of Thulwe ran iron-red when Shining Bursa first met Seafaring.

A fruiting algae suffused the water and coated the architecture crowding it. Bursa had ordered the Thul’s ancestral surveillance Engine removed from its place of pride over the rapids and scrubbed clean of holy pond scum. The weeping of the Thul’s advisors had echoed for hours. An upstart on the cosmic scale, Bursa was beginning to learn that such symbolic acts of dominance far outweighed base violence.

He stood, inattentive, on the Engine’s empty pedestal as his retinue declared his reforms: a network of cheap vacuum energy like an attractive noose, binding this planet to every other. Access to greater Engines of strategy and oversight and distribution. Telecommunications networks. Trade. Intricate webs of power, strands gathered up in his red hands. (Vulnerable to sabotage, it would be a pity if, etc.).

He felt no pride, no regret—a state of affairs that was recent enough at the time to bemuse him. Thulwe was halfway across the disk from Pombane, and the ping time between heart and self was enormous, enough for all but the strongest signals to dissolve into background radiation.

He hadn’t expected the boredom; the solitude. The Prayer Engine’s bestowal was immense and impersonal.

At the front of the narcoticized audience of government functionaries: a creature seated on the ground with their long legs crossed. They looked nothing like the locals. Strangely, Bursa’s own guards paid them no mind. Their wings shimmered like marfruit from his mother’s garden. Like mythology told to his brood on a long winter’s night.

They watched like they were waiting for him.

En route to the stellar port, Bursa caught soap-bubble wing-shine from the corner of his eye. He left the skimmer and told his retinue not to follow. A rubbled city alleyway, painted algae-red. A lanky creature sat at a table in what might have been a commissary, now open to the sky.

“You build strange lattices here,” they told him, eyes flicking from point to point on Bursa’s face. “Fragile on purpose. Easy to snap apart.”

He stepped closer, fascinated despite himself. There was no fear in the creature’s posture; their calm buzzing speech. He hadn’t seen that in the entirety of his hundred-ship-year reign: already long enough for generations of his advisors to have aged and died, terrified of him all the while.

“Insurance. The people will obey me, or they’ll feel my power. Now I can destroy them without poisons or pain.” The words tasted sour on his tongue.

“Power is a word. A gestalt of causalities. Not a creature of its own.” They cocked their head. “Whose creature are you?”

Bursa loomed over them, shocked into dignity for a moment. Then a laugh burst from him, echoing from ruined walls. He collapsed onto a chair.

“Your brain must be hollow. You’re nothing, yet you speak to me this way.”

“Nothing,” Seafaring said, epochs in their eyes, “is a word.”

Five hundred local years later, the algae of the Thulwe waterfalls succumbed to extinction as the climate changed. Sometime after that, the people there began using bursa as a word for hollow.

Centuries further on that scale—now—Seafaring’s sharp and adoring face appears in Bursa’s mind unbidden, and he finds himself grasping for details like a creature drowning—holding their body to his in a dream.

It’s just ping times, he knows. Latency. A signal he can almost outrun.

A squire delivers a message from the Weri’i library: the engineer from his aptitude registry requests an audience. Her audacity would be stunning, if she didn’t reference Seafaring by name.

“A chemical reaction,” she says gravely. “That’s all it would take to destroy even the greatest of Engines.” Her hologram is slumped in deference, her tail wrapped meekly around her ankle. Performative, Bursa thinks. She wants something.

He’d cleared his retinue from the bridge, erected a sentry force field, and closed all surveillance channels. Experience with Seafaring still makes him feel watched.

“You expect me to believe that this information sat unnoticed in your library for lifetimes?”

A pause: ping times again, less esoteric ones, as his words carry. Then she speaks to the floor: “No. Or—not quite. Seafaring . . . brought things. Lattice maps diagnosing crystallographic disorder. Religious texts. Mythologies.” Her lips twist brutally. “Testimonies of battle from planets laid low by Shining Bursa’s poisons. Sources the Engine could cross-reference with its own archives.”

“That impertinent creature was courting you as an ally the day I arrived.” His stomach shifts strangely at the thought. He’d believed Seafaring was following him—him alone.

“Me? No.” Her pinprick eyes dart to meet his, suddenly furious: a flash of the daring he’d seen masked by her earlier sedation. “They asked nothing of me. They communed directly with the library Engine.” Her tail lashes. “And then, one early dawn, they doused it in a ferocious acid.”

His breath catches. Seafaring had called the Prayer Engine a defilement. They’d tailed Bursa across the galaxy, offering intelligence like courtship tokens, taking whatever abstract answers they found in return.

Surely access to Bursa’s chemical formulas wasn’t all they’d wanted, not for all those centuries. Surely—

“It wasted from the inside out,” the engineer says flatly. “Melted. My acolytes woke to the walls burning. We couldn’t save it, couldn’t try. Seafaring tricked it into synthesizing its own butcher.”

A spike of anger takes him: incongruous, impossible, throbbing in his hollow chest. He grips the arms of the captain’s chair. “Why would they destroy an Engine so inconsequential? Did it ask something of them?”

“The library asked nothing of us. Took nothing.”

“Nothing yet,” Bursa says before he understands why.

He imagines a lattice mind, enormous, every atom symmetrical with every other. A crystal asteroid pushing between the light of stars. Striking a planet in the throes of annihilation and offering relief to a weeping child. Sending him out to lay planets low in perfect endless symmetry. He holds this image in his head.

Next, he imagines a meteor shower.

“They are not a gift,” he says darkly. “Seafaring knows that.”

For the first time, real understanding of Seafaring’s agenda raps against his conscious mind. He’d thought they were after only the Prayer Engine, some vendetta against a single machine: a useless contest for Bursa’s heart. Now, their plans look closer to a crusade against crystal. How many Engines hold the galaxy together? How many did Bursa circulate as rewards of empire?

He keys a destination on the helm. It would take a merciless kind of creature to burn the framework of the galaxy down—Bursa’s galaxy—to save it. And now Seafaring has the means.

He should’ve killed them in the cavern. He should’ve killed them in the alleyway the first time they met. He should’ve held them close, their hard head against his hard heart, and talked with them about the scale of the universe and all its obscurities until the two of them became as fellow travelers and found a kind of peace.

He will not reach Pombane in time to stop the Prayer Engine’s destruction. Not unless Seafaring waits for him.

“I came to you,” the engineer says and swallows. She tries again, pulling herself to her feet. “I came to ask you to rebuild the library. Just—just to try.”

Bursa laughs his approval of her idiot courage before he can stop it: bubbling up his throat like poison, sending her hologram flinching back from him.

You’re nothing, yet you speak to me this way.

There’s the rub of a creature who believes the universe is whispering grandiosities in their ear cavities. They don’t know how to compromise.

“Find a new master,” he tells her. “Your Engine is dead.”

Her cheeks flush green with rage as the hologram dissolves. Her voice unspools into digital chaos, a curse in her native tongue: “Shining hollow.”

The Flagship Grim-Ascendant is still ten ship-days from Pombane, bearing down full speed, when Shining Bursa is laid low.

One moment he is shut up in his laboratory, poring over poisons with dulled panic throbbing behind his temples. The next, despair wraps around his body and he falls, weeping, to the floor.

His head aches, hot and sharp. His hands curl of their own accord against the tile. He drowns in every sob.

Poison, he thinks. I must have been poisoned, like I poisoned those poor people. Like I crushed their legacies and salted their fields and razed their cities down. Like I killed them, quick and then slow.

This isn’t right. Regret after latency has never felt like this.

His chest hurts and hurts like drowning, like he hasn’t felt since he was a child, his hand on his mother’s cold ankle, as the light streaked through the sky and spoke to him, images fluttering in his mind: pray to me ask me wish me anything anything.

And without meaning to, without thought, he had clutched his chest as an answer: a plea. An abdication. And the light said I will give you mercy I will relieve the burden.

Relief. Precious apathy. He took his hand from his mother’s ankle and felt nothing more.

And then he had seen the price for his prayer: an empire, a lattice of control and command so taut and fragile that it could sicken and die at his word. So that every life in the galaxy might come to hate him, and depend on him, and so that after long and lonely centuries he might doom them all by gumming the gears of his own empire. So that the Engine might one day bid him to kill them all, or work them to death, or tear civilization down.

Seafaring had been wrong. They’d thought Bursa’s heart had been the cost and power his reward. They’d gotten it backward.

Still, power is just a word. What the Engine gave Shining Bursa was poison-knowledge, chemical consequences for any inconvenience he might encounter in its service. Then it sent him out to lay planets low.

Now, he lies with his knees curled to his chest and waits for relief that does not come. He knows poison. Knows it by its every form and secret name. This isn’t poison.

Seafaring had wanted to wake the Engine before destroying it. Why bother, without a wish to make? Without a desire worth more than victory?

Only: Seafaring had wanted to return Bursa’s heart.

“What did you trade for it?” he grits, furious, his longest canine scraping the floor. “What did you give away?”

Then he pictures Seafaring’s sharp face and the tears come again. This time, the taste is bittersweet.

When he can stand, he commands a bewildered squire to make ready a vanguard ship, fast and sleek. He stumbles into the cockpit like a youth learning to fly for the first time, letting the cocoon wrap and pierce his flesh. He dismisses the clamor of his retinue; the buzzing generals in his earpiece. None of it matters.

Seafaring has the pull of the universe to guide them; their sidereal certainty. And they still risked everything—gave up everything, or else the Engine would not have woken—to reverse Bursa’s own trade. To return Bursa’s heart.

To make him into someone who could love them back.

The impudence of them. The cruelty.

He hallucinates through ship-days in the cockpit: visions of sweating quartz and ammolite, with cheery little bubbles interspersed between them like heat haze. Sometimes, Seafaring is with him: helping him down a steep slope, or traveling with him through the Jaharya Ruins, or telling him a story of their people: Listening Posts, sentries of the cosmos, long dead.

Once, Seafaring sets the crystals to boiling like a pastel potion. Except it can’t be Seafaring anymore, because it wears Bursa’s fangs of state and clutches its crystal-studded chest like stoppering a wound.

He wakes clutching his own chest in sympathy, as automatic as the night the meteor had taken the motion as consent.

When he is lucid, the pain behind his ribs becomes physical, like a mutant animal trying to fit back into its parents’ burrow. He orders the cockpit to perform an X-ray and finds strange diffractions: more crystallography than radiology, now. His heart is a hybrid creature, flesh and crystal, a lattice all its own.

When he reaches Pombane’s star system, a data packet dated from months ago lights up the cocoon’s surface. It contains the formula for a powerful reagent, purpose-built for one of Bursa’s toxins and the Engine’s own foggy discharge.

The message: whose creature are you?

Bursa laughs, bitter, until his voice breaks.

Atmosphere, then the gorge, then the river—then the mouth of the cave all wreathed in fog. Bursa crashes through the dark, slipping on stones. He falls heavily at the bottom, pain wrenching his hip and stiffening his knees. It fades quickly. Seafaring is as ancient as he is; even now the thought makes him feel young.

He stumbles through the crack in the limestone, cutting himself on something, and the Engine greets him with a note so low and broad it vibrates his chest. His vision shakes with it: black spurs blend together like snow in water. The behemoth rising, awake.

The fog burns in his lungs. He looks away on instinct, only to see that the crystal matter has spread to coat the cavern walls. He’d cut himself on a spike of it.

pray to me, the Engine says, wordless: concepts and images and a purring sense of relief that infects him from the outside. ask me wish me anything anything.

“Where are they?” he grits out instead. No soap-bubble wings flittering in the corner of his eye. No gentle touch to his hand. “What did you do to them?”

i can give them to you i can pull them from nothing just ask me just ASK me.

“You took them into your service,” Bursa says slowly. It’s becoming difficult to think. “That was the price for their prayer. You’re going to use them. Like you used me. Like you made me—”

Fire and poison in alien atmospheres. He swallows bile.

Seafaring’s insight, bent to conquest. Bent to another’s purpose. The changes might come slowly: another thousand ship-years or a million of them. But in the end, no power in the universe would stand a chance. Everything would fall to a lattice brutal and amaranthine as the symmetry of crystal.

His own power would remain intact, of course. More than a word. As long as it suits the Engine’s purposes.

Unless he uses the bauble in his cloak. Unless he uses Seafaring’s reagent and burns the Engine down to its core. But where does that leave his empire, his blessed indifference? All this for Seafaring’s freedom, who’d stolen his poisons and destroyed the apathy he’d hidden beneath like a child under sheets?

Who’d told him nothing but the truth from the day they’d met. Who’d bargained with their greatest enemy for Bursa’s heart. Who left him the final decision so that he himself might be free.

Who, if saved from the Engine’s service in this way, would never allow Bursa’s heart a moment’s peace. Who would drag him along in a fool’s crusade. Who would meet him in every system and share gentle stories until Bursa could almost remember how to see his pain as pain instead of poison.

i can relieve the burden, the Engine says. i can give you mercy.

One hand twitches, drawn toward his chest like a marionette—like a hollow thing. It would be easy. It would be shrewd.

The other hand hovers over the bauble in his cloak.

tell me what you want, the Engine says. just speak it think it power is a word.

So Shining Bursa’s red right hand grasps tight—

Author profile

Sarah Pauling spent several years sending other people to distant places for a living as a study abroad advisor in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She’s now in Seattle, graciously sharing her home with two cats and a husband. A graduate of the Viable Paradise workshop, her stories have appeared in places like Strange Horizons, Escape Pod, and Diabolical Plots. If approached without sudden movement, she can be found at @_paulings on Twitter, where she natters on about writing, tabletop gaming, comics, and books.

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