20000 words, novella
Power to Yield
In memory of A
Oyārun closed her eyes to concentrate on the video she was viewing through her neural interface. She wanted to finish her civics homework assignment fast. Just a few more hours, and then she would be done with everything that wasn’t on the preengineering track. She could get back to what actually interested her, lose herself in that . . . Not now, she wrenched her thoughts back to her assignment. The attention shift was almost painful.
Pick a high-importance political event in recent history. List three major stakeholders and present their viewpoints, with special attention to conflicts. It sounded hard. She was a math person, not even sure where to begin. She picked this event because it had happened shortly after Independence.
The recording was three-dimensional, but relatively low resolution. Oyārun watched, trying to recall some context that she could use for her assignment. At the time the recording had been made, beat-up space transports carrying refugees from the Empire were still streaming into the small planetoid of Eren, and a vote had just been passed to increase ambient gravity in living areas. People were still hammering out the political details of the new state; the High Council was yet unformed, existing only as an informal social conglomerate of like-minded leaders.
These leaders were standing on a podium, surrounded by a vast crowd. Oyārun only recognized some of them from her previous studies, and the person now moving to the front to speak was unfamiliar to her.
She pulled up the annotations for the video, cross-referenced them with the Eren-wide social network. Aramīn, also known as Armyn, formerly of the Imperial House of Gubhas on the High Plains of Emek. Male, living alone, not interested in—she shooed away the panel. It was helpful to know he was still alive—he wasn’t in his elder years yet, but people had died in all sorts of accidents in the early days. She wasn’t interested in his personal circumstances beyond that. She suddenly remembered something. Wasn’t he one of the very few Imperial nobles who’d supported independence?
Aramīn looked mixed, Imperial and Plainsfolk, possibly also Northerner. She couldn’t make out the details of his face beyond his pale skin and his long black hair, carefully braided with thinner braids joining into three larger ones, hanging well past his shoulders on both sides, and—she’d seen when he turned around—also along his back. A symbol of nobility. The video did not allow her to zoom in further, and she resisted requesting an interpolation; she could pull up his profile again later.
She missed the first few sentences.
“ . . . denounce oppression. Denounce subjugation. And take a firm stand.” The crowd seemed restless, murmuring. Pulling at their scarves, scratching their heads under their caps. Aramīn went on, speaking firmly and loudly, his voice carrying even past the amplification. “Imperial Seers were subjugated and forced to labor for the Court, the very same Court that declared a major cognotype to be Undesirable, its bearers to be eradicated from the gene pool. The same attitude undergirds both: a greed to prescribe value. A greed to be the only source of truth and justice. A greed.”
The crowd was quieting down. Paying attention? Oyārun leaned forward, even though that wouldn’t help her see better. She was intrigued.
“We are all here together now. Undesirables and Seers, from all peoples of the Empire of the Three Stars, the Empire of Emek: Imperials, Worowans, Northerners, Plainsfolk, and more. And the people who have stood with Undesirables and Seers in solidarity.”
Aramīn paused. Took a deep breath.
“You all know that I am neither a Seer nor an Undesirable. Yet I chose to stand by the cause of independence. I am Armyn, formerly the head of a noble house, and head of the High Plains Research Institute. A surgeon, a medical scientist. I come from a high position. And more—I supplied young Seers for the noble houses, I trained them and let them be eaten alive by the insatiable hunger of the Court, always desperate for more magic. Until those young Seers said no more. Until I said no more. Until we said no more. They rose up and I rose up. They spoke and I listened.”
A chill ran along Oyārun’s spine. Aramīn spoke in an even tone, but he was brutally direct. People wouldn’t speak about the war in such a straightforward way anymore. He went on, not backing down:
“I cannot claim to know what it is like to be a Seer. I never had to wear Seer’s robes. I never had my head shaved, treated with a poison so that my hair would never grow out again, so that I would stand out in a crowd, so that I would not be able to escape, would not be able to hide.
“But now we stand all together. On this land, this planetoid deemed uninhabitable by the Empire, we are equal.”
Oyārun watched, entirely breathless, not even daring to fidget for fear that the magic of the moment would pass. Aramīn went on.
“Yet whenever you look at me, you see me—and you see a symbol of Imperial might. You see my hair past my shoulders. You see a man who was never tortured. And you remember your pain.” His voice lifted and lifted higher, working itself into a crescendo:
“I say we are equal, and my actions shall mirror my words. We shall all be equal, and I am willing to take the first step. We are not just Seer and not just Undesirable and not just anyone else—we are all this and more, we are a people, a people arising from murder and bloodshed, a people arising from genocide, a people who have fought hard for our freedom.” He dropped his voice abruptly, and spoke in a quiet, calm tone: “And I shall be just like anyone else.”
Aramīn raised a hand, a blade glinting into the camera for a moment. He cut off his thick braids, one by one, with motions that seemed impossibly practiced. With an economy of gesture. He turned to one of his fellow councilpeople, someone Oyārun recognized: Esokaruwe, a former Imperial Seer and a leader of resistance fighters. A fearsome warrior.
“Esteemed Esokaruwe, if you please.” He handed the blade to her. Esokaruwe seemed stunned, then began to cut his hair, confused, hands moving slowly, jaggedly. Oyārun thought she must not have been privy to Aramīn’s plan.
It took a while. Esokaruwe steeled herself, tensed her muscles as she worked, hacking away at the remaining hair, shaving Aramīn’s scalp. Then Aramīn turned to her and said something in an undertone, too quiet for the camera to pick up. She gestured for him to turn around and passed her hands slowly over his scalp. Oyārun could not sense it through the recording, but she knew that Esokaruwe was using the māwal to scour Aramīn’s head. He would not grow hair again. Oyārun ran a hand along her own hairless scalp, in an attempt to ground herself in physical reality. But she wouldn’t pause the recording. She had to see it all for herself.
The other councilpeople who hadn’t been Seers were already lining up, dazed and shocked, milling in place. Limbs twitching as they waited for their turn. Aramīn had not run this by them, Oyārun thought. But she knew this had been the moment when Ereni became Ereni; from the disparate groups of Seers and Undesirables and whoever else had escaped to the planetoid with them, one united people began forming at this very instant. Blades flashed here and there among the crowd, and slowly, people removed their head coverings. Some were bald former Seers, stunned by the sudden turn of events wrenched out of their course that even their precognition had not foreseen. Others were Undesirables of various ethnicities, uncomfortable, but willing to join the Seers. Cutting their hair in silence, with only the low murmurs of people asking each other for help. Making a point of solidarity. With all the weapons in the crowd, there was not a moment of violence. Oyārun watched, breathless, until the video finished playing.
It had to happen. Oyārun had read a lot about the tensions between the two groups, threatening to drive apart the newly founded Free State of Eren. But she’d never before realized that it was someone who was neither a Seer nor an Undesirable who’d forced the issue.
An Imperial noble who felt entitled enough to do so.
Who shaped history.
This was not the history Oyārun had been taught. And she needed, desperately needed, to know more.
“Aramīn is . . . people will say he’s a sadist and a Falconer, I know. And I suppose some of that is true. But he’s also a brilliant surgeon, and a researcher, and . . . [P: 0.8v] Not what you expect from a noble. We all . . . [P: 0.5v] [to say] liked him might be too strong . . . [but] we appreciated him, certainly. All the folk up in HPR.”
—Amasewun ta Yowasiru, Ereni Oral History Archives, War of Independence database, 32:11/23-EOF
Oyārun looked up from the database and sighed. Of all the topics in the world, her mind had to fix itself upon Aramīn, well after she’d finished her homework and garnered an uncommon amount of praise from her teacher. This went beyond usual abuwen, special interests like floater races, public transport, or space weather—no, it had to be a person, a living person, a public figure, and Aramīn at that. Oyārun knew some people had specific persons as their abuwen, and that this phenomenon was slightly more common among girls, but still she wished she could be somehow more ordinary. At least Aramīn did not displace her primary abuwen, paper folding. Yet.
Her fingers worked through the familiar motions and one of her special creations took shape in her hands—the paper airplane that set the Eren-wide record of time aloft. It wasn’t such a big deal: other than her, there were only seven people on the planetoid interested in paper airplanes, they didn’t have a large enough hangar to practice airplane throwing, the air conditions could not be adjusted precisely enough . . . and so on. Still, she was proud of the accomplishment. It wasn’t a special accomplishment—it didn’t improve on their living conditions or the volatile political situation, it didn’t garner a lot of public interest, it didn’t even help her find a career path. But at least it wasn’t actively harmful.
She was beginning to suspect that her interest in Aramīn would prove to be actively harmful. He was a Falconer, people said—another cognotype just as undesirable as the Undesirable one, the one that became the Ereni cognotype upon Independence. Her own cognotype. But Falconers were supposed to be dangerous in comparison, even if they weren’t formally persecuted; maybe only because the Empire could not quite pin down the genetic basis to do so. Or maybe because there were fewer of them? She didn’t know. She wasn’t sure where the name had come from, either—people commonly said that Falconers were more like falcons, merciless birds of prey. Cognotypes generally weren’t named after animals, though she wasn’t sure she could list some of the less common ones. She had never been interested in this topic. The Jaya cognotype was named after a researcher, but before that, hadn’t it been named after some kind of small animal? She vaguely recalled people protesting about that, and she agreed with them. But no one was protesting about “Falconer.” She felt uneasy that she hadn’t considered this before; she’d accepted everything at face value. Was this the goal of her civics assignments—questioning social assumptions?
She could not stop thinking of Aramīn. Was it this aspect of danger that he held in himself that allowed him to take that step? To force his will on a dithering, unformed High Council? Certainly, in the interest of equality and justice, but still . . . All that just to leave politics soon after?
Oyārun turned around in her seat and threw the plane at the wall. Hard. It crumpled and fell to the floor of her small room. She turned back to the wall, closed her eyes, and rubbed first her temples, then her scalp. She pulled her soft cotton cap back on, sighed, and submerged in the data supplied by her neural interface.
The more she read, the more certain she was that her abuwen was destructive and wrong. Most of the interviewees in the archives who talked about Aramīn were still alive, and she knew she could seek them out. Eren was a small place. They might even indulge her. But the interviews made her think it would be a bad idea to try to elicit information from these people. For the time being, she fiddled with the data at hand.
Interviews were the kind of soft qualitative data that were so hard to tackle, unlike air humidity or paper thickness. Still, she persevered. The interviews could be grouped into two categories, very sharply defined. People who said positive things about Aramīn and people who said negative things about him. There was very little in between.
She read the ones that seemed to be situated in this gray zone with especially strong interest. Amasewun, Inofu, Isanakewu . . .
She tried to bring up a social graph, but everyone was connected to everyone else—Ereni leadership had been a very tightly knit circle back then, just after the War of Independence. She wondered if there was a way to quantify social closeness with the data at her disposal.
She color-coded people: red for the ones who disliked Aramīn, blue for the ones who liked him, yellow for the ones who seemed to have mixed emotions about him. She hid the ones without interviews—mostly people who died shortly after Independence. Some people had oral history as their abuwen, and they jumped on the politicians as soon as the initial chaos wore off. In some cases, literally jumped on them. Oyārun smiled briefly.
She stared at the jumble of primary colors. There had to be a way to organize the data! She returned to the interviews, eager for inspiration.
“These days, people like to say that many of the nobility did support our efforts, quietly, from the background. I am skeptical. [P: 5v] During the months I was active in the resistance, I only met Armyn, and I hadn’t even heard of any others. Armyn made a clean break with his House when he left the planet with us, so I’m not even sure he should count. [P: 3v] But he was there, always.”
—Inofu ta Afurawī, Ereni Oral History Archives, War of Independence database, 45:26/1-4
Inofu spoke carefully and precisely, but the council member called Aramīn by his old pre-Independence name, Armyn, and that annoyed Oyārun. She chided herself: That had to have been because they’d known each other for a very long time. Unlike many others, Aramīn had never disavowed his pre-Independence name, and even picked an Ereni name that sounded similar. Calling him Armyn was a sign of familiarity.
She bit her lower lip as she sat up straight. That’s it! She tried to list the interviewees who called him Armyn.
There were disappointingly few results. She suspected it wasn’t as much because of a lack of familiarity—most of his coworkers survived the war, up North at the High Plains Research Institute—but because most people were eager to get rid of every last bit of Emeki Imperial convention, from spelling to religious rituals. Still, she listed the ones who called him Armyn as close associates. She had to try a different tack . . .
His coworkers. Would they be the closest to him? Aramīn had no family, his family disowned him in his late teens—if they could’ve stripped him of his nobility and later his House leadership, they would’ve done so without hesitation. Oyārun had read the news articles from the period. Aramīn was disowned when he started to study medical science, a vocation entirely unbecoming to an Imperial noble. Blood and guts and tears . . .
She shivered, suddenly reminded of her own family. They never disowned her, but sometimes it felt to her that was because they hadn’t even cared enough to do that. This was unfair, she reminded herself. Both her parents were running themselves ragged working in the Civil Engineering division. So much to plan, build, maintain . . . It wasn’t fair to expect them to be in touch even after she’d moved out, old enough to have her own tiny living space.
She missed them, but she was frustrated. She had to get back to the data at hand. Even this qualitative analysis was easier than contemplating her own circumstances.
Did the Research Institute have some sort of organizational diagram? She had to dig hard to come up with the structure during Aramīn’s tenure, but eventually she managed. She could fill it with names, weight the links in the social graph with workplace closeness . . . would this work? She had no idea of knowing who met each other regularly after-hours, who liked to chat in the lounge . . . She knew it was a long shot, but she had to try.
She listened to Aramīn’s favorite music as she poked and prodded the data into shape.
In the power to yield lies liberation
We are here, resurfacing from the serpent seas
—Ephemera: Serpent Seas
The answer was unexpected to Oyārun, though she reflected that it would probably have been obvious to anyone who knew Aramīn in person. The māwalēni who were trained by him, operated on by him, these people had positive reactions to him. His fellow researchers and other employees of HPRI were more likely to be averse to him the larger the organizational distance.
They said he tortured his charges. He was cruel. He was heartless.
His charges said he was cold, but fair, always very fair.
The rest was history: he left the planet; he left the Empire. He had nothing in common with his new chosen people: he wasn’t a māwalēni himself and he didn’t have the Undesirable genotype either. He could’ve stayed on Emek, he wasn’t marked for elimination or a lifetime of servitude, like most of those who fled. He joined the refugees because of . . . his conscience?
Did he have a conscience? Could he have a conscience? She tried hard to bridge the gap between unfamiliar cognotypes and social classes. He was an Imperial noble, even if of Plainsfolk origin. Had been a noble. He had worked extremely hard for the cause of independence. He helped build the country. But even the people who had positive attitudes toward him remarked that he was a sadist; a Falconer, even . . . She felt bad that a people whose cognotype used to be so reviled were now reviling another cognotype in turn. There had to be some kind of expression for this, but a few quick searches did not turn it up.
She couldn’t wrap her head around any of this. She had to talk to some of these people to understand Aramīn. But was there a way to find an answer without talking to people, in general? She had to see for herself.
She could see him. From a distance. See how he acted. Feel the impression his mind made on her, for she was a māwalēni herself. For a moment, she reflected on how she had the Undesirable genes at the same time. The former Undesirables were in the majority on Eren, and they were free from the Imperial yoke of Emek.
She was everything he wasn’t. He was everything she wasn’t. She had to see him for what he was.
She kept on listening to the music as she snuck out of her living quarters.
The stream never-ending,
the overwhelming, the never-escape,
the pain all-encompassing,
everything is close;
you are close . . .
—Trees as Towers: The Never-Escape
Oyārun turned the music down only as she approached the block where he lived. A neighborhood quite far, but still looking much the same as her own; houses transformed from old miners’ barracks and office buildings, crammed full of rooms barely large enough for a bed across. Aramīn was still an influential figure, but Eren was a very equal society: there wasn’t much for anyone, and most resources went into maintaining life in a hostile environment. She’d heard enough from her parents to know that, from their arguments about a lack of resources in muffled tones well past her bedtime. There was never enough space.
She knew he was due back relatively soon. She sat down behind a chute and turned her attention inward. She read the latest paper-folding news, but her thoughts kept on drifting back to him. Besides, the latest talk about how to create large modular figures from oddly shaped packaging leftovers disillusioned her. Does freedom necessitate poverty, she wondered, and closed the news.
He was always spotlessly dressed. I used to work at HPR before the war, but when the hostilities broke out, I was stuck at the capital. And then I ran into him, just in, you know, this war zone. [P: 1.2v] In the middle of this war zone. [P: 0.7v] And he still looked, he was, you know, dressed unbelievably sharp. There was blood around and . . . [P: 0.5v] and dirt, and he was just there in the middle of it looking for all the world like, like he came from, I don’t know, a Court reception or something. No idea how he did it.
—Omoyedārō ta Beyun, Ereni Oral History Archives, War of Independence database 8E:2-8.
Oyārun glanced up at the sound of steps approaching, refocused her attention. She pushed herself between the chute and a wall, hoping the shadows would hide her. He passed by her without noticing anything, but she was too scared to breathe a sigh of relief.
He was still spotlessly dressed. He wore an aubergine-colored overcoat over his rather generic dark blue tunic and loose pants. She was surprised for a moment. Blue was the color of knowledge, information, the māwal, so it was understandable for him to be wearing it even if he was not a māwalēni himself—she wondered if that was what the dark shade signified. She never cared much about color symbolism. But aubergine, aubergine did not stand for anything. It was just a color, and an uncommon one at that. The cut of the coat suited him exceptionally well, she thought, then wondered if it was just her abuwen talking. Still, the coat looked custom-made, a rarity on the planetoid. How did he get ahold of it?
As the fear left her and her limbs slowly unfroze, she realized she had not paid any attention to his presence beyond the immediately prevalent visual details. She had to have perceived his mind, because she didn’t remember a lack, but she couldn’t recall any details. Just the coat, one of its corners almost brushing her feet. His regal bearing. His firm, purposeful steps. Again, she hadn’t even seen his face.
She called up his profile. His face was smooth and oval, his jawline small. He had single-lidded eyes, and eyebrows that might have been touched up with liner or just uncommonly sharp. His skin was pale shading to brown, not pink; somewhat lighter than hers. His expression was elegant, even a trifle haughty. The large skullcap covering his bald head looked hand-embroidered, the same aubergine color decorated with a thick grayish-blue thread.
She wondered how long he’d taken until his profile picture looked just right. His appearance was probably very important to him, if he could procure an aubergine overcoat. The colors of his Imperial house had been teal and lilac, and aubergine was close. But he had no love to share for the Court, and for him his house had only been a tool to achieve his aims. Maybe, she thought, the coat was a way for him to assert his uniqueness?
Her thoughts ground to a halt. Footsteps from the opposite direction. He was coming back! Did he just drop something in his room and then head out again? His tasks were finished for the day. Where was he going?
Her fingers gripped each other so strongly that for a moment she was afraid her bones might snap. She desperately tried to imagine herself invisible. He passed by her again without noticing and went down the alley, then turned right.
She forced herself back on her feet. Her muscles protested. She had to go after him!
The first two steps were the hardest. Eventually, she fell into a rhythm of following him, like a game: halting when he did, ducking into side alleys and doorways, even predicting his moves. She wondered briefly if she was supposed to be bad at this because of her cognotype. It went smoothly, even though it felt improper.
He passed through an industrial area, and for a while there was no cover that would hide her. She willed him not to look back. It seemed to work—he was increasingly lost in thought. He strode along thin, snaking corridors, and she was shadowing him without difficulty. He wasn’t paying any attention to his surroundings, she thought, but she kept herself as far from his mind as possible, due to some irrational fear that he might notice. He wouldn’t have a correct sensation of being watched. He wasn’t overly cautious either, at least as much as she could tell from the interviews. He himself had never been interviewed by the historians. Did he say no, or did no one ask him?
The corridor suddenly opened up to a large cavern—a hall, she corrected herself. He strode on. She halted just before the exit, peering outside. Memorial Park, she realized with a startle. But he had no family—?
Could she get any closer? She had to get closer! Fortunately, the carved memorial steles were chest-high and densely spaced. Many deaths in the war. She stepped among the steles and realized just what she had been thinking. Fortunately? She shuddered. Was Aramīn having a bad influence on her? She had to bring this to a close as fast as possible. Just as soon as she found answers to the questions burning inside her.
She weaved through the steles in a wide arc ending just behind Aramīn. She peeked out from behind a stele and could see his back. He was standing in front of one of the many war memorials. A long list of names was etched into the stone.
He took a step backward—her body froze again—then bent forward from the waist. Again, a step backward, again a bow. A third time. She didn’t recognize the ritual. Three steps forward, without bowing.
“In the name of the One Most High, exalted and elevated, transcendent and all-encompassing.” His voice was sonorous, but not particularly deep—just like in the rare recordings. She held on to the stele as she slowly, cautiously leaned out from behind it.
“You console the souls of the dead as you console the souls of the living. All the world is in the hollow of your palm, you, who inhabit the heights and the depths. I call out to you and beseech you, just as you called out to our ancestors to show them your paths.”
It didn’t sound like an Imperial ritual—the requests for the God-Emperor’s intercession were markedly missing. Was this a lesser House tradition? She called up her interface, tried to search for the phrases while he went on and on, at a slow but steady pace, with chant-like inflections. She found an exact match.
Mourning ritual for the head of the House, House Gubhas. Its origins are shrouded in mystery; its phraseology suggests that it was incorporated into Imperial lore from High Plains tradition. The performer of the ritual—in most cases, the new head of the House—directly addresses the One Most High, but despite this notable . . .
She skipped down.
The ritual is exceedingly lengthy—her heart sank—as it is meant to allow the new head to reflect on the transitory nature of their position. The full mourning cycle lasts an Imperial year,
She skimmed. How long would he stay here, reciting?
One performance of the ritual takes about an hour and a half. It is recited on alternate weekdays and certain Imperial holidays, most notably the . . .
She had time. She could wait. It was interesting, anyway. She made herself running subtitles and quietly lowered herself on the ground, behind her stele.
He went on, never halting, never hurrying. While she couldn’t see the text carved into the stele in front of him, the ritual frequently called for a mention of the name of the person. She just had to wait for it to come up.
“Ieyūni ta Enafisul, who died a violent death, who died at the hands of a murderer,” the ritual had multiple versions for natural deaths, accidental deaths, assassination attempts . . . she reflected on how many ways there were for a head of a house to die. “Your blood calls out to us. Aye, we say your blood has not been shed in vain. You, the most noble of us . . . ” She stopped paying attention as she frantically searched for the name. A secret lover? An illegitimate sibling? Or even a descendant? Court intrigue swirled in her head. And if the mourning cycle was only a year long, then why was he still saying these words? The war ended a long time ago.
Ieyūni ta Enafisul was apparently not a remarkable person, as Oyārun found very little data. She fought and died in the war. She had been a young māwalēni who managed to escape induction to the ranks of the Imperial Seers, then she went up to the High Plains and received some training at HPRI. She joined the Column-Tree Forest guerrilla bands and participated in several important strikes on the Southern Passageway and the neighboring towns south of the Forest. She died in an ambush alongside four of her comrades. There wasn’t much else.
The lover theory looked the most likely—but wasn’t Aramīn aromantic and asexual, like Oyārun herself? His profile clearly said so; this was one of the very few commonalities between the two of them. Oyārun bit down on her lower lip. She would have to ask around. Maybe someone remembered her. Maybe there was no more data because someone had been going around deleting information. Was that even possible?
She sat in silence, listening. After a while, her teeming thoughts quieted down, and she was drawn into the ritual. He recited with grace and precision. Whoever this mysterious Ieyūni was, her soul would clearly be satisfied. Even the One Most High would be satisfied.
She could feel herself slipping into a trance, but she didn’t mind. The world narrowed down to Aramīn, to the sound of his voice. She thought she’d like him to pray for her, too; then she didn’t think much at all.
The ritual came to a close, she noticed with an unexpected wave of sadness. Everything was transitory—eventually, even mourning came to an end. He hadn’t arrived from the direction where she was presently standing—if she was lucky, he wouldn’t notice her at all on his way out. Still, better get some distance between them—she got slowly back up on her feet—
Instead of turning around, he took a step back, then bent forward from the waist, beginning anew. She was so surprised that her legs tangled together, seemingly of their own accord, and she toppled forward and hit the ground.
He turned around. Looked at her lying in a heap. She glanced up at him. He raised an eyebrow.
“Have you been spying on me?”
“I—no—I mean yes, but not like that—” She could feel her face redden as she babbled.
He chuckled softly. “Security does not seem to be running at peak capability today,” he said, clearly amused.
She got on her knees. “I’m not a danger to you.”
She got back up on her feet, brushed off her clothes with shaking hands. Looked at him. “I’m not a danger to you,” her voice trembled just as strongly, “so the fact that they didn’t catch me means they were performing well, not the opposite.” Why was she saying this? Why was she saying anything? She wanted to run away, but she felt rooted to the spot, and her mouth wouldn’t stop blabbering.
He looked surprised for once, then . . . pleased? “Technically, yes,” he said and adjusted his overcoat with a minimal, automatic gesture, “but that’s of course only true if you are indeed not a danger to me.”
She had no idea what to say next. She had not even known he had a security detail! There was so much she didn’t know about him. Her mind seemed to seesaw between trying to say everything at once and being so terrified she couldn’t get a single word out. Her mouth opened, then closed.
He nodded slightly. “I suppose you’re not a danger to my person.” He paused. “Did you mean to talk to me?”
She nodded, speechless.
“Come closer, I don’t bite.” He held up both hands. “I won’t touch you without your permission, I promise.” He glanced around. “There is a bench toward the back, we can sit. Or we can go for a walk.”
She held her ground.
“You know I’m not lying to you,” Aramīn said. “You’re a māwalēni, you can sense it.”
She blinked. “How did you know?”
“I can recognize the signs. I’ve seen many people like you.”
“And then you tortured them?” She felt like her entire body was on fire.
“I would not do anything to anyone without their consent,” he said. He was telling the truth. The way he saw the truth, at least. After all, he didn’t force the High Council to do anything either; he just shamed them into following him, she realized. But she did not share that shame, that Imperial guilt. Before independence, she would have been labeled both a Seer and an Undesirable. She stepped closer.
“A walk?” He turned around and strode ahead. She tagged along, still silent.
“What’s your name?” He could’ve checked her profile for the answer. He was trying to make small talk, she realized with a sinking feeling.
“Oyārun,” she said.
“What are you studying?”
“Preengineering subjects.” She swallowed. She was so afraid of him, and he looked nonchalant. Patient with her. “A lot of math and physics, mostly. I’m almost done with General Studies.” She tried not to think of her civics homework.
The paths among the steles were narrow, and she was glad she could only see his back. It made talking a lot easier.
“Which branches of engineering are you interested in?”
“I don’t really . . . know, yet.” Another swallow. “I like aircraft. But they don’t really . . . don’t really . . . ”
“See much use on Eren, you mean?” More of a statement than a question. With no hint of mockery in his voice.
“Yes, yes. So I don’t really know. I thought I’d . . . look around. See what there is to do. Maybe something related to space travel.” She sighed. “I’ve been putting it off.” Why was she telling him this?
“I could invite you to my workplace,” he said. “Plenty of work for engineers. Especially bioengineering, neuroengineering, but a little of everything. It might be something to aim toward. You will need to find an internship placement soon, and you might like this.”
“S-sure. Thank you.”
They walked ahead in silence. The hall was larger than she’d remembered. Eventually he offered, “That’s not why you’ve sought me out.”
“I . . . I just wanted to know.” He didn’t respond. “ . . . About you. What kind of person you were. I read . . . a lot.” She took a deep breath. “I couldn’t make sense of it.”
He turned left. “That’s the bench I was talking about. If you would like to sit.”
They sat with more than enough room between them. She stared straight ahead, at a small empty space in the maze, and a small fountain in the center of it. There were more steles in the hall than she’d thought, and only a few scraggly trees.
“This is the only fountain on Eren,” he said, not looking at her.
“You know this place very well.” She felt foolish for saying such a triviality.
“I come here every day.”
“Who was Ieyūni?”
“One of my charges.”
She blinked, stunned. When she’d stumbled, he was about to start the whole ritual over again with a different name. “Do you say prayers for every one of them?”
“I try to.” He leaned back. “I aim to finish in this lifetime.” For a moment, sorrow and regret tinted his voice. Just for a moment.
Her thoughts raced. He had to have trained hundreds of people. He surely didn’t only mean everyone he had commanded, because he had never commanded a unit where Ieyūni was serving.
“You’re very . . . different from what I’d expected,” she said.
He raised an eyebrow again—she could tell without looking at him. He waited for her to speak.
“People said you were a Falconer,” she said after some hesitation. She didn’t know of a less harsh term, the way Ereni cognotype had supplanted Undesirable.
“Oh, I suppose I do have those tendencies.” He looked up at the domed ceiling high above. “It’s a spectrum, you know. Just like the Ereni cognotype.” So eerily calm, she thought. “I never even hunted for sport. I don’t go around murdering people. We are all different.”
It was out of her mouth before she knew it. “Would you like to?”
“To murder people?” His calm did not waver.
She was sure he’d take offense. Then she realized that everything she could say, everything hurtful, someone must have said to him already. She saw those people in the archives. She felt her face burn in embarrassment. He went on, and she was sure he was only pretending not to notice her reaction.
“I’m not interested. If I were to murder someone, it would be all over,” he said.
He closed his eyes. She turned to look at him. “Control,” he said after a while. “I need control.”
“Yes.” He opened his eyes and turned his head slightly to look at her, a gracefully understated movement. He had known perfectly well that she’d look at him—he had known it so well that he didn’t even need to think of it. He automatically adjusted his behavior to take advantage of his situation. To reach his aims.
“Complete control,” he said, his gaze fixed on her.
She looked away, flustered. She tried to sound similarly nonchalant. “So . . . do you enjoy causing people pain?”
“Yes, I do.” As if he was being quizzed by a teacher. An easy question. “I’m a sadist, after all. That’s different from being a Falconer. People of any cognotype can be sadists.” He paused a bit. “Even yours.”
Was he goading her? She had to stay calm, calmer than this. Her mind held on to that template of question and answer, of education and teachers. She could get through this conversation without her heart jumping out of her chest if she thought of it as quizzing him. She went on.
“And you did cause them pain.”
“I do cause them pain,” he corrected her.
“Why are you answering my questions?”
“I have time, and I find them interesting.” So detached. That was the word—he felt permanently detached. And yet probably more in tune with his surroundings than she herself ever would, she suspected.
“So you . . . ask them to allow you. To cause them pain.”
“And they allow you.”
She could feel he was about to say What do you think?, but he changed his mind at the last moment.
“I want them to be perfect.” He leaned forward. “I can improve on them. The best they can offer—I can help them achieve it. I want my charges to be perfect, you see?” A glimmer of eagerness. She realized he didn’t have very strong emotions, in general. She nodded.
“So we make a deal. They give themselves over to me. And I make them perfect. As much as I can.” He did not take his eyes off her. “Everyone benefits.”
It did make a twisted sort of sense to her. “But there is pain.”
“No transformation is ever without pain,” he said. A quote from somewhere?
She blinked. “You’ve found your niche.”
“I have.” His gaze seemed questioning. “Are my answers bothering you?”
She returned his gaze. “Why are you so honest?”
“I have always been honest.”
“I thought people like you often lied.”
A trace of a smile. “I have no need to lie.”
Oyārun knew all too well that she should study—she had quite an amount of math to review for her next meeting with her teacher—but instead she just sat, alone and in silence, replaying her sensory logs of the conversation with Aramīn.
Her tiny living quarters were like a shirt, overly tight around her body.
Did she finally understand what kind of man he was? She only knew that her abuwen showed no signs of subsiding. The more she knew about him, the more she wanted to know. Then again, this was a common characteristic of abuwen even when they were not person focused. Would the process ever run its course?
Aramīn had invited her to see his workplace, reiterating the offer when the two of them had said goodbye. She had to overcome her fear of unfamiliar situations and make that visit; her own mind would not give her rest until then.
She would love to work with him. As an engineer. As—
She swallowed hard.
Her fingers folded and unfolded a scrap of paper, over and over again.
Her mind stopped. Time stopped.
She had to make that visit.
She took a deep breath, shut down playback, called up her organizer. On top, the random quote of the day from her favorite poems said, “Rip open the seal release the magic.”
She blinked. She was sure the random quote had been something completely different just a moment ago. Had she overlooked it? She checked her system logs. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
She closed the organizer, got up—the chair toppling over—and rushed out, the echoes of the poem reverberating in her head.
Rip open the seal release the magic;
everything I can offer to draw you close
is in the tiniest inflections of my voice—
I am myself, and you—you abide in me
until even the sunsets turn into dust;
—The Blessings of the Path by Omasārun ta Idarawul, third stanza
It was early in the morning; Oyārun was stunned to realize how early. Sleep and wakefulness had blended together. How much time had passed since her meeting with Aramīn? Three days—it was hard to fathom. Three days spent in a daze. If anyone had tried to contact her, she hadn’t noticed. She had to bring this to a close; force it if need be.
She struggled to keep herself from breaking into a run. Her muscles were taut and rigid. The Institute was close by. After all that time, it was still called the Institute, a reminder of the High Plains of Emek forever and ever. A place of sanctity, a place of pain and blood and sacrifice. The High Plains far away, on another planet, in another solar system. The Institute remained, carrying the name ever onward into the future.
She walked right in, no one stopping her. She halted to check—the place was still restricted-entry. Someone had put her onto the visitor list. Did Aramīn seriously think she would come to see him? Did he truly want that? Did he expect her?
She ran along white corridors, without realizing where she was going. She only stopped when she painfully bumped into someone—
The young māwalēni stared at her in surprise. Oyārun opened her mouth to apologize, but the māwalēni held up a hand, silenced her.
“Are you looking for some—oh. Aramīn? I can show you the way to his office.”
Oyārun nodded, then belatedly closed her mouth.
“I am Emien,” the māwalēni said. She was young- and exhausted-looking, maybe just a year or two older than her. Dark semicircles stood out on the pale skin underneath her eyes. “Sorry, apparently someone forgot to clear you for the floor plans.” She closed her eyes for a second; when she reopened them, a craving for sleep hit Oyārun. “All done.”
Oyārun murmured thanks, then called up a copy of the floor plans.
“I can show you the way,” Emien said. “I’m going in that direction anyway.”
Oyārun nodded gratefully.
The two of them walked without saying much, Oyārun behind Emien. The māwalēni was wearing a long-sleeved white smock, matching trousers, and a white bandana. The smock had a turtleneck collar—Oyārun strained her eyes trying to see the implants peeking out from underneath the fabric. She stopped when she realized Emien had noticed; Oyārun didn’t mean to be rude, she was simply curious. Anything to take her mind off the constant, immense fear.
Emien suddenly halted; Oyārun almost fell over her. “His office is at the end of this corridor,” Emien said and pointed right. “I’m going left here.”
Oyārun wanted to say something, but the words wouldn’t come out. Emien was about to walk away but noticed her distress and stopped. She looked at Oyārun, head tilted to one side. “Mhm?”
“I—What do you think of him?”
“Huh? Oh, he’s all right. A bit on the strict side, but all right.” Emien looked concerned all of a sudden. “You heard those stories? That was just Imperial propaganda.” She rolled her eyes. “Trash for the yellow rags. Trust me, he’s all right.” She spoke with conviction and made no attempt to hide or camouflage her feelings.
Oyārun gulped. They said goodbye and Oyārun walked down the corridor. Twenty-one steps altogether; twenty-one steps of mind-numbing fear.
Oyārun pushed the door open. It yielded and she realized she had forgotten to knock. Embarrassment froze her and she stood still, unthinking. The walls were thick, and the doorway surrounded her. She felt boxed in.
“Do come in,” Aramīn called out to her.
When she didn’t move, he got up from his seat and walked toward her. “I thought we’d already established that I’m not one for eating people,” he said cautiously.
She walked in, her legs stiff like wooden sticks.
She was frozen.
“Here, I have a chair for you,” Aramīn said and stepped to the wall, picked up one of the chairs, and put it behind her. “You can sit now.” His voice was smooth and reassuring. She sat.
He sat on top of his desk; it was mostly empty. He threaded his fingers together. “So you’ve come to see the Institute for yourself. I’m happy to show you around. A little good-natured propaganda is not beneath me,” he said with a small, sarcastic smile.
She nodded, one of the vertebrae in her neck cracking. She could see he was trying to put her at ease.
“I was just reviewing a new procedure proposed by one of our surgery teams. It’s probably not really up your alley. We can go and look around, I can show you the—”
She broke in. “No, no, it’s all right—” She didn’t want to keep him from anything, especially not his work. Besides, everything he said was interesting.
“Oh?” He raised an eyebrow. “Would you be interested?” He smiled again, a hungrier smile. Just for a moment. “Ah, is it that everything about me is equally fascinating to you?”
She had a hard time believing he was not a māwalēni himself. Were her reactions to him so transparent? They probably were, she decided. Or maybe he had just a little grasp of the māwal but used that to all its worth.
When no answer was forthcoming, he said, “Well then. I cannot promise this will hold your attention, but I’ll do my best to explain everything.” He leaned back and shared his mental workspace with her with a command.
It was just a casual gesture for him, but for Oyārun it carried an intimacy beyond what would usually be attributed to it. Maybe because for her, there was no clear-cut division between input from her computer interface, input from her senses, and input via the māwal—it all blended together, and thus even when he simply shared something with her via purely technological means, it was as if he’d opened his mind to her, without hesitation.
She was touched, even though she felt that was unreasonable. He didn’t seem to notice. She leaned forward as he began his explanation.
“I should offer some context first—my apologies if we tread familiar terrain, in the beginning at least.”
She nodded again to show it was all right. She appreciated his consideration.
“All right. Eren is an extremely high-māwal zone and we need to spend a lot of effort on maintaining a habitable environment,” he said. It sounded like a quote from a lecture. He probably lectured often, she thought. “We need a large contingent of māwalēni whose primary task is to make sure no serious problems occur. This is why the Empire originally abandoned Eren, even though it was set to be a lucrative mining colony. It’s necessary—”
He got up and began to circle her chair, talking all the while. The effect was mesmerizing.
“It’s necessary to loosely bind together and harmonize the minds of everyone in general society and exert a stabilizing influence. In an environment that can be shaped by people’s expectations and fears, a single person’s panic can cause runaway reactions if precautions are not taken.”
He stopped, directly behind her, the tone of his voice abruptly changing.
“Did you know the first people to live here were devoured by monsters?”
She offered a weak no.
“It’s not hidden from those who choose to investigate, but it’s generally held that it’s for the best if people do not investigate.” He sighed and began his circle anew. “These days we can prevent such large-scale disasters without inhibiting māwal use. But it takes a lot of effort, and all too many of our māwalēni are busy with this constant struggle. We’re trying very, very hard to make sure that people who choose to join us can perform to the best of their ability, and possibly beyond. We are very short-staffed. It’s the only way. This is the System of Eren, not as you’d hear of it, but as it is. And if people had not already worked their hardest, I would not have had my moment of fame.”
Oyārun thought back on the video. All the weapons in the crowd. The emotions running high. And yet, the quiet, the people turning to each other to help. She nodded.
He looked at her and his gaze went to her marrow. “We only take volunteers. We are very firm about this. Believe me.” He looked away. “Still. I’m not proud of some of the things we do. We take people and squeeze them dry.” His gaze flickered around the room, as if searching for a window to stare out. There was no window, and outside—she knew—no nature to behold, only a desert of rocks and silt. No air above the thick roofs of the domes.
He spoke with his back to her. “They die far too young. And they die all spent. Back on Emek, when the Imperial Seers were all spent satisfying the whims of the noble houses, my blood had boiled with righteous anger.”
She couldn’t imagine him boiling with anything, but she could feel there was indeed an undercurrent of emotion beneath the surface; not particularly strong, but steady and never ceasing. He went on.
“Now we do the same ourselves. Do you understand that?”
“There’s no place for us to go,” she said after she could overcome her hesitation. “This is our planet now . . . this is the price of independence.” She wished she could believe that herself.
“But this is too high a price. I do not want to see them die. I made an oath I would dedicate all my efforts to this. I cannot—” He didn’t finish the sentence.
Suddenly, a flash of insight struck Oyārun—Aramīn could not stand to feel useless. He wanted to be in control. Was all this about him and his mastery of his surroundings, by proxy? Even if it was, his efforts were still for a worthy cause, Oyārun decided.
“Let’s get back to the diagrams,” Aramīn said and turned around. His face was inscrutable. “These are quite drastic procedures.” Did he have trouble speaking?
“To amplify the māwal?” she offered.
“No, no,” he shook his head. “On this planet, we have all the amplification we need, and then some more. And with the people we recruit, lack of power is simply not an issue. This is all for regulation.”
She didn’t really get the idea. They hadn’t gotten to anything similar yet in her classes.
“Many māwalēni can raise a large amount of māwal, here on Eren. Training or no training, implants or no implants. But that’s just a burst, or some kind of runaway reaction, a positive feedback loop that runs until some limiting factor is hit. What we need is constant, steady high throughput.”
She had heard of positive feedback loops, but not too much—she knew “positive” didn’t mean the loop was desirable, only that it was amplificatory. Still, she got the gist of what he was saying. She nodded, her neck no longer clicking and creaking.
“This necessitates constant control and considerable effort. Especially since ideally, there should be a division between power raising and power direction.”
“Power raising and power direction, at their most focused, are hard if not impossible to do concurrently for a single mind. It is much more fruitful to split the functions, assign them to separate people.”
He breathed out. She breathed out too, then blinked; had their breaths unconsciously synchronized? Was that a good sign, or the exact opposite?
“This helped us to persist here,” he said, suddenly aloof. He held up one hand, looked at it. Showed it to her. “You know, my hands are bloody.”
She sat in silence. She knew that—everyone knew—everyone knew everything. Back then, politics, now, history. She didn’t know how to react. Independence had been hard-won.
He looked upward, toward a nonexistent sky. “And yet you still come to me.” Then he shook his head and cleared his throat. He didn’t speak for a long time.
Her mind spun. Was this a prescheduled confession? Or was it more spontaneous? She could not tell. His sadness, however, was genuine. Not strong, and mixed with a kind of self-reflective amusement—“am I really feeling this?”—but genuine nonetheless.
“Enough,” he said. “We have a task at hand.”
Oyārun sat, looking at the little fountain—the only one of its kind. She felt empty, and at the same time, weighed down, as if something were steadily pressing on her shoulders, pushing her chest cavity inward . . .
Aramīn had shown her the schematics, explained everything in detail. But when it was time for her tour of the building, he demonstrated a curious reluctance.
She was turning her mental impressions around in her head; it was all surprisingly difficult. Eventually, she concluded Aramīn had assumed she would be discomforted. That she would disapprove. But why would that bother him?
She was an outsider. She was not one of his charges and was not slated to become one.
Maybe he was afraid of—
She could not pursue this train of thought any further.
She clutched her arms around her chest, hugged herself tightly. She didn’t, she didn’t want to think of it—she knew, knew for once that he would not want her to think of it—she squeezed her eyes shut.
Then she blinked. How had she gained so much insight into one person? Certainly, via the māwal . . . but the Ereni cognotype did not lend itself to such approaches. She could perceive the māwal, and that probably helped, but still . . .
“It’s the sheer effort I put into it,” she said out loud. “Into understanding him.” No one was there to hear her. Her voice sounded too low and deep for her ears. “It’s the sheer effort,” she repeated.
This took her mind away from the rest.
Oyārun tried to wrangle Aramīn into an internship placement—she was surprised by her own audacity. It was all just text messages sent back and forth, and not very long ones at that, but this was not something she would’ve imagined herself capable of doing.
It’s the fear, she thought, without pausing to examine the source of her fear.
Life sped up and she moved through it in a daze, staggering from one day to another. Her conversations with the people she’d met through paper folding lessened, then ceased. Her meetings with her teacher were shorter and shorter. She wasn’t sure when she’d last talked to her parents.
She would start her internship at the end of the short cycle. Just a few more days.
She felt a craving, and yet she did not know what it was that she craved.
They were not, strictly speaking, visions; they only had a tactile component. Oyārun felt herself strapped to some kind of—machine? frame?—then she felt the straps tighten. A warm, dry hand smoothed over her brow. Then she was lying in bed, a soft, firm bed, and all around there was white—that emptiness was the only thing she saw.
She wondered if she should seek help. Ask for a counseling appointment—but what would she say? That something was swimming below the surface, waiting to break out, and she had glimpsed the shadow of its body, rising from the depths to lurk just below the edges of her consciousness, a sea monster determined to ascend? How would she say that? And was that even a problem in itself, or was it something she simply needed to come to terms with, something perfectly natural and right, if somewhat unusual?
The māwal would give her visions. Surely this was expected, especially on this planet, and especially given that she was sensitive to it.
Then why the sense of urgency?
Her time frame shortened. She counted every hour until the day she would set foot in the Institute again. She kept on feeling, then rejecting the feeling, that her life would be over.
This was to be a simple junior internship in medical engineering, nothing more.
She tried to tell herself that.
That was before she came face-to-face with Aramīn and found herself making that unspeakable request.
Aramīn suddenly went pale, all the blood draining from his cheeks. Yet he kept his composure. “Sorry, would you please say that again?” he said with such forced evenness in his voice that a chill ran along Oyārun’s spine.
“I want to join the System,” she said.
There. She had done it. Even that morning when she woke, she had told herself she wouldn’t. It was impossible that she would even entertain such a thought.
But she wanted to, she craved it so much it was impossible to describe—
“You only say that because you are obsessed with me,” he said with cruelty sharp like a knife. He wanted to push her away.
“No, I—” How was she supposed to respond to that? To such a slur? Yes, she was indeed obsessed if that was the word he wanted to use, instead of something like special interest that was more neutral, or abuwen, actually positive; but—“I am, I am, I admit that, but that has nothing to do with this—”
“No?” He leaned forward. Eyes narrowing. “The way I see it is, you grew up, acquired enough of a grasp on the māwal to be able to function, and you never felt attracted to it. You knew what it was, but it was not your path.” Longer and longer pauses between words. Not. Your. Path. “And then all of a sudden,” his words hissed, “you become obsessed with me, and you realize this is what you need to keep me close. Suddenly, you want to join the System.”
He stood, right in front of her. He was taller than her, and she had to arc her neck uncomfortably upward.
“Let me tell you something,” he said. “We fought so that you would not have to do this. We fought so that no one would be forced to do this. We fought for your right of choice, many of us died for your right of choice, we fought, and we won. I will not—I will not allow you to throw that away.”
She took a step back, and her feet tangled in the chair behind her, sitting there unused. She lost her balance and fell—
He grabbed her arms and steadied her. Then he dropped his arms and looked away.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have acted in a threatening way. But I can only say this much, and I can only say it thus. For you this is history, but for me it was my entire life.”
“I’m sorry—” she began, then stopped, not knowing how to continue.
“We fought so that the Imperial Seers would not have to live their lives in servitude to the Court. We fought so that the Undesirables would not be eradicated. You are both, and yet you would throw this freedom away.” End of the sentence. End of the line. He paused. “I will not allow it.”
She braced herself. Then she stepped around him, in his line of sight, and stared him in the face. “This is what I want to do.” She saw something there, and she added, on impulse—“This is what you want to do.”
He looked as if slapped.
She went on, just as merciless as he had been.
“This is what you want to do.” She imagined her eyes piercing his, she put force behind her gaze, willed it to be so. “You are flattered.” She started to walk around him, in a tight semicircle just like he had done, but a little too close for comfort. She kept up eye contact all the while, in a mechanistic but still all too effective manner. “I know how you see me. I’m young. I’m ideally suited to this. You are permanently, desperately short-staffed. I’m here to give you just what you want, and if my reasons are less than pure, so are yours. You might want to save the settlement, but that’s not what drives you. What drives you is my obedience, the obedience of people like me, and now you are torn—turn me away and enjoy my obedience for a moment, or keep me close and enjoy it for as long as I live.”
He looked—taken aback?
“That . . . ” He cleared his throat. “That might not be long.”
She would not take her gaze off him, she would not let up for an instant—and he, he could not look away.
“I am here for you to do as you please. I know the risks. I know what’s involved.” She took a deep breath. “Let me help.”
“You don’t know,” he said, looking away for a moment. Reminiscing? “You think you do, but you don’t. You might understand the process, but you’ve never experienced the pain.”
Despite his words, she could feel that inside him, something had given way; yet she was too caught up in her own fervor to rejoice.
He looked at her again. He had apparently used that moment to regain his composure, for he was just as forceful as before, and probably twice as forceful as she had just been.
“I can take you. You are right; I am flattered, and you are well-suited to this line of work. But that’s not why I’m taking you.” His eyes bore into hers. Was he miming her? “I’m taking you because we, the collective we, do not have the luxury of turning any suitable person away. I have slapped you in the face and you have slapped me in the face; we are even.”
His tone was abrasive, but she felt it was only an act. Inside, deep down inside, he was relieved. He was looking forward to this. He was—may the One Most High help them both—hungry.
“We’ll also need an endorsement from your closest relatives,” the brown-skinned young man with Worowan features said and scratched his hairless scalp under his cap. Oyārun was surprised to see the gesture in someone so young-looking—he must’ve been born off-Eren, he must’ve had ample time to get used to the feeling of hair covering his head to feel the lack so acutely.
Oyārun transferred the documents. Her father had approved everything; on the call, he had looked even more tired than Emien. She felt the planetoid was eating everyone alive.
The man nodded to himself as he examined the documents. She looked at his profile—his name was Isinaiyu, and he had indeed been born elsewhere. He was also older than she’d guessed at first.
“Everything looks all right,” he finally said. “I assume you haven’t changed your mind . . . ?”
She sighed. “It has been two weeks. I haven’t changed my mind in two weeks, I’m not going to change it now.”
He shrugged, and she felt that he’d seen that already, people changing their minds at the very last instant . . . ? It was a complicated feeling and she had trouble parsing it.
“All right, I’m clearing you for the medical,” he said. “Go on ahead. Third floor, the corridor on the left.” He made a little gesture with his fingers and a path traced itself on her interface overlay. Such a deeply ingrained gesture, she thought. None of the stiffness of those born off-Eren, the older generation. How odd. But some people were more flexible than others.
She followed the path.
The doctor running the checks also looked Worowan; a short, stout woman with a spring in her steps. Her skin was much darker than Oyārun’s. She introduced herself as Esesewi, and they greeted each other in the Worowan manner, grabbing the forearms and bowing their heads. Oyārun’s family were mostly Plainsfolk, but she knew the basic Worowan customs from their neighbors in their housing unit.
Oyārun could feel the doctor making a preliminary assessment based on that single greeting: the texture and temperature of her skin, the steadiness—or, rather, unsteadiness—of her movements, the strength of her grip. All with effortless expertise.
“The examination is not particularly invasive,” Esesewi said. Her voice was warm and deep, a welcome feeling among the cold walls. “Your interface gathers most of the relevant information already, I just need a data dump. Give me root?”
She did. Esesewi went on talking while she examined the data. She described the additional tests—just a few simple cognitive tasks, as the detailed workup would be done concurrently with the new set of modifications once Oyārun passed the medical. Then the doctor looked directly at her, away from the readouts supplied by her interface. “By the way, you know I’m supposed to dissuade you?”
Oyārun shrugged. “You’re the second person today.”
Esesewi chuckled. “No point in it, then?” She grinned at her. “I haven’t said I wanted to dissuade you, or that I would attempt to dissuade you, only that I was supposed to dissuade you. As far as I’m concerned, if you want to do this, that’s just fine.” She focused on the data again. “You will want out, but that will happen after the point of no return, you know?”
A wave of sudden fear ran through her. “I’m—”
“Look, it happens to almost everyone. I’ve been here a long time. It happens over and over. Now you’ll just have to decide whether to go with your true will as opposed to your will at a given moment.”
She wasn’t sure she understood that. “ . . . Decide?”
“That happens right before the point of no return. You decide your true will and hand us the ability to enforce it. Even against yourself.” The doctor sighed. “We wouldn’t do this if the process was reversible, or if it could be stopped, paused. But once started, it needs to run its course. It’s dangerous to interrupt—dangerous for you, for us, for everyone. You can say no before, you can say no afterward, you can quit at any time, but you can’t say no during the process itself.” She spread her hands. “I’m sorry.”
Oyārun hugged herself. A cold sensation was forming inside her, pulling her innards together like a black hole. “I’m—” She looked down. The floor was smooth and gray. “I mean that makes sense. I’m just afraid.”
Esesewi glanced up. “We expect people to be afraid. I’d be worried for you if you weren’t.”
Aramīn looked down on his bare desk, his expression contemplative. He was mulling over the data, Oyārun knew. The medical, the more recent tests, her former data back from when she’d decided she would not train as a professional māwalēni. Such a long time ago, shortly after her power had begun manifesting in earnest. They had taught her how to channel it away in safe ways, how to ask for help, they had set up a few simple mechanisms in her mind so that she wouldn’t be troubled by the power she’d been born with but that had never particularly interested her. She had had free choice every step of the way, and she had said no. But then, she changed her mind . . .
“This was a very clean job,” Aramīn said, looking up at her. “You had no trouble in everyday life, is that correct?”
“It was fine.” She felt embarrassed for a moment. “Sometimes I’d have these odd feelings, not even premonitions . . . foreboding, maybe? But it was fine. Also, I had enough to help me make sense of what people were thinking, but not so much to cause problems, so . . . the helpful parts without the troublesome parts?”
Aramīn nodded gravely. “Most people come to us when the bindings wouldn’t hold, or the power becomes unmanageable for some other reason.” He stood and began to pace again. “I have to say I’m troubled by that. It mars the quality of consent. It’s also a failing on our behalf.”
“I didn’t come because of that,” Oyārun said. “I was fine.”
“I know. Your motivations trouble me for other reasons.” He was with his back to her, but she could feel his consternation, drawing from a source deep enough that she couldn’t sense it without prying. She wouldn’t pry.
He went on. “You’re here because of your interest in me. It appeals to me, I must say. And I can certainly train you, as I’ve trained many others. But I don’t think I can truly give you what you desire.” He stopped right behind her. “I don’t have abuwen. I have a different cognotype, so I don’t know this from personal experience. But I know that despite their intensity, sometimes they pass, all of a sudden. The impact of the decision you are making now will last much longer.”
Oyārun looked up at him, craning her neck. “Are there people who . . . ” She wasn’t even sure how to phrase it. “Who want to do it for its own sake?”
Aramīn stepped away from the chair and she couldn’t follow him with her gaze. “Oh, yes,” he said. “Some even have it as their abuwen. But let’s get back to you.” He circled her and sat back up on the top of his desk. “You are good at power raising. Not much at control, of course, since you haven’t trained at all. So we’ll emphasize power raising, if that’s agreeable with you.”
She nodded eagerly. Aramīn looked at her askance. “I suspect that at this point, everything I say is going to be agreeable with you.” He shook his head. “What shall I do with you?”
She was dressed in a plain white shirt and pants. She’d expected she’d have to wear something more ornate for the initiation. Many, many people had formal dress as their abuwen, and it showed. Every single function or event on Eren had its complicated rules of dress, every little fold and embroidery carried reams of meaning.
White symbolized emptiness.
She took a deep breath and opened the door to the small waiting room.
Aramīn was waiting for her, standing up from one of the many cheap mass-produced chairs littering the HPRI building. Aramīn followed her gaze to the chair. “We make do with what we have,” he said gravely. “Come.”
She stepped closer and saw he was holding a roll of some kind of tape or ribbon in his hand.
“This is to symbolize your submission to my will and my control,” he said. “For the duration of our cooperation. That is, if you are still willing.”
“It’s why I’m here.” Her words felt too overwrought, too verbose. She took a breath. “Yes,” she said.
Aramīn didn’t miss the subtlety. He nodded appreciatively and smiled, a brief interruption in the ashen solemnity of his emotions.
She did so.
“Your hands, please.” After a moment of confusion, she put her hands behind her back and he tied them together, the fabric of the red ribbon adhering seamlessly to itself. It didn’t stick to her skin. She experimentally pulled her hands apart, but the ribbon held.
“This might be intense,” Aramīn said, but he didn’t pause. He put another strip of red ribbon around her neck. Her breath caught and she didn’t understand why—the ribbon wasn’t tight, it fit just the right way—
It seemed right. It seemed proper.
She could feel Aramīn’s hands, hesitating midair for a moment. Then he cleared his throat and led another red strip down her back along her spine, tying the loops around her neck and hands together. Finally, he made a handle for himself at the end of a long strip, affixed between her hands, and he led her out into the hall.
The white hall was smaller than she’d expected. She recognized some people: Esesewi, standing to one side, the bright white lights overhead creating highlights on her now-serious face. Emien, gangly and sleep deprived. People she’d come across in HPRI, casual acquaintances, always glad to see her even if weary and exhausted.
Aramīn walked up to a small dais with Oyārun, then stood in front of her.
Two large, muscular people stepped to her sides and one person walked up behind her. She was surrounded.
“Why have you come here?” Aramīn asked, so softly and gently that she yanked her head up and stared at him in amazement.
Then she realized she didn’t know the words of the ritual. She shuddered. She opened her mouth, but she didn’t know what to say.
“Just answer with your own words,” Aramīn added and nodded encouragingly.
She swallowed. Her throat felt completely dry. “I’ve come here to join the System,” she said, as simply as she could. Fewer possibilities for error that way. She struggled to think clearly despite the all-consuming fear.
“Is it your true will to join the System?” he declaimed.
She nodded, then said yes.
“Do you give me the ability to enforce your true will upon yourself, when it is perilous to stop?”
She was about to answer, but he held up a hand. “Wait. After you’ve said yes, there won’t be any turning back. I want you to know that.” He looked at her like—like a daughter? No, something else, some other relation. Her head swam. “Do you understand?”
She nodded silently.
He raised his voice again. “What is your answer?”
“My answer is yes.”
Aramīn nodded to the assistants. They stepped to her and gripped her arms, her shoulders. They held her in place.
“The people of the Free State of Eren support you,” he went on, “the people are here to catch you if you stumble and fall. You will not have to face the pain alone.” He paused.
She shuddered. The assistants held her strong.
“With the power vested in me by the people of Eren and the Ways,” he stepped forward and placed a hand on top of her bare head, “I take control.”
His voice had—if not his own māwal—the power of the ages and the expanses behind it. Her legs gave way. The people didn’t allow her to fall to her knees. Her shoulders hurt as she was held up.
Aramīn went on. “I swear I will only act for the benefit of all sentience. I swear I will only cause pain when necessary, and I will not subject you to anything beyond your capacity to handle, as far as I can estimate.”
He took his hand off her head and pulled out a small implement from the folds of his clothing. A—dagger of some sort? With some kind of force field in place of the blade. Her eyes flickered to the blade, to his face, to his fingers gripping the handle all too strongly—
“This is to remind me of my oath,” he said and rammed the blade into his open palm.
Her breath caught. The field did not wound, there was no blood, no scar—but a whip of pain ran through his entire body, so intense that Oyārun could not help feeling it herself.
“I know what I demand,” he said in an undertone. “Remember, always remember, I will only cause pain when necessary.”
He yanked her chin up and pushed the blade into the middle of her forehead.
She screamed, her screams resonating inside her skull, and she fell, fell into darkness, and the people held her strong, and would not let go.
Oyārun was floating, her body out of sync with her mind. Was she lying on a bed? Was she—
Aramīn’s words circled in her head; she knew she had to hold on to them, preserve their meaning at all costs. The scene played in her head, over and over, in a loop. She no longer understood the words.
Spiders, insects, mythical aliens of yore, he had said. Symbolic of the phylogenetically oldest parts of the nervous system, the ones most inaccessible to acting consciousness. Aversion is normal; in general, one does not want the acting consciousness to trespass there.
Most of the time, that is. A flicker of a smile. You will need to go there; you will need to welcome these parts into yourself. Give yourself over. We will keep you safe.
We will keep you safe.
She made an attempt to reach out. Her arms were tied down with wide straps and the feeling of the out-of-phase representation of her hand reaching out and passing through the straps spooked her. Where was she? What was going on? She knew she was supposed to remember. Was this an out-of-body experience? Could she simply float away?
She found it harder and harder to keep a hold on her consciousness, until it simply drifted away, her drifting away with it, floating on the streams, bobbing up and down.
It was black and gleaming like chitinous shapes; it was white and porous, desiccated; it was metallic quicksilver, protean, ever changing. It was translucent.
It reached out to Oyārun with sharp thin legs, and as she moved closer, she saw the legs ended in talons, but she knew it was good this way. She did not feel the supposed aversion.
Ten-eight, looking nominal so far.
Still, keep an eye on sub-layer E for adverse reactions.
She only knew, with a certainty of ages-old declarations, the bedrock of civilization, that while it was fundamentally alien and inhuman, it was a part of her, now and forever, extending into all dimensions of time and space.
If it was her, then the only natural impulse was to unify, merge, draw it close.
It wanted to eat her, and she knew she had to be cut apart and consumed, that was why she was there, in this fogged-over landscape extending into infinity—
It needed to devour her, and she could feel its urgency inside herself, in her stomach, in her chest. In the core.
It needed to flay her, first of all.
So many sharp legs!
Spiking over F2. Looks nice and clean.
Yes, excellent response . . . very clean so far.
Cutting and slicing, holding fast.
Blood flowing ever so slowly, as if time itself gradually came to a halt.
The pain was there, but the pain was good, it was only a part of the process and it showed the process itself had not ceased to move along;
it wanted to merge, to pull apart the muscles and nestle close—
bursting out into millions of tiny tendrils, lodging itself in the flesh—
pulling apart the spinal column, running up golden yellow and burning hot into the brain, all of a sudden very fast—
searing mere thought with its touch, and she screamed, screamed, and screamed—
Of course, proceeding as planned.
There was only her and the being, alien and immense, an impenetrable monolithic sentience come face-to-face with her. There was nothing else.
It was so much bigger than her!
Yet she could not shirk away. It was inside her, it was her, it was beautiful and hungry.
She gave in.
Oyārun was lost in the moment. How much time had passed? She was still there, face-to-face, merging, howling in pain and in raw, bare need, holding it close and being cut apart. People were speaking, passing messages. So many levels of the real, and she could pass between each of them with the barest thought, the faintest gesture . . .
She was tied to a machine, some kind of complicated apparatus, with many thin-limbed surgical instruments issuing forth from a central hub—
the spider was eating her, feasting on her, embedding itself into her—
She’s taking well to the implantation. Switching to DF for some testing.
Take it slow, there’s no need to hurry.
She was yanked back into her physical body with a suddenness that took away her breath; all around her everything was white and spotless and metallic and clean, more unreal in its sharpness than anything she’d experienced.
She was being disassembled, reassembled—her thoughts were crystal clear.
She looked down on her left arm, flaps folded apart like in some medical demonstration, skin flayed. She felt no horror, no apprehension, but no detachment either; she was there, in the moment, and the moment was there for her.
Someone was monitoring her mind, from up close. She reassured the person and the person reassured her in kind. She felt a vague urge to merge, but instead she floated, floated high, drifted away . . .
I’d say she needs a break, one of the voices said, and she wished to respond that everything was all right, but then there was no more of her, and no more of the voice.
Oyārun was lying on a hospital bed, all very white and clean and comfortable. She sank into the pillow and the shape-forming mattress. She was tired like generations, her body heavy as stone in a bed of white fluff, in a white room, completely surrounded, wrapped in a thick blanket . . . was it all really so white, or had her mind stopped making sense of her surroundings altogether? Was it only a simulation or a mindscape?
Either way, she relished the soft sensation all over her body—calming, relaxing, peaceful. Her skin felt raw, chiseled away until it was the thinnest film covering her self.
She made an attempt to tilt her head—so hard. Her skull felt filled with sharp-edged objects sliding on each other.
Her left arm was lying on top of the blanket. She was wearing a long-sleeved shirt of some sort. Her skin looked unchanged. She tried her hardest to lift her hand, but she could only rotate it a little; still, she got a better view. As the muscles in her hand shifted, she noticed the faint lines embedded in the flesh—or was she imagining things?
She sighed a hoary, raspy sigh, and relaxed, her body giving up in exhaustion even though she was no longer in pain.
Aramīn was sitting by Oyārun’s bedside. Mentally checking some kind of computer readout? He glanced up when he noticed she’d shifted in bed.
“How are you feeling? All the parameters we’re monitoring are well within boundaries.” He nodded at a corner of the ceiling.
She still felt very weak, but no longer heavy as stone. She could speak. “I’m fine,” she said with only a modicum of effort.
“Don’t overexert yourself.” He paused. “It all went very smoothly.”
She wanted to laugh, but she could not manage more than a cough. “It didn’t feel that smooth to me.”
“Trust me, we’ve seen worse.” Did she glimpse a twinkle in his eye? He looked down and ran a hand over his overcoat, even its muted aubergine a burst of color in the bare white room. When he spoke again, his voice was sober. “You are well-suited for this kind of transformation. I’m very satisfied with the results so far.”
“You mean, we should’ve done this sooner?” She fought an urge to grin at him. She felt giddy.
He cleared his throat. “We could’ve done this sooner, yes. Still, I am satisfied.” Again, a pause. “There is attrition at every stage. Every stage you pass is an accomplishment in itself.”
She closed her eyes. “I didn’t really do anything.”
“That’s precisely the point. You did not offer resistance. It will only get harder.”
She thought of all the recordings, the logs in the Oral History Archives, running them through her mind. She finally grinned as the familiarity of the situation dawned on her. “Is this the point where you ask how well I can tolerate pain?”
“You know I only ask that to get a rise out of people.” He sounded vaguely entertained; or was she imagining it? She opened her eyes to look at him. Still she wasn’t sure.
“To get a rise out of people and to watch for their reactions,” she remarked. Watching for his reaction.
“That too.” He was unperturbed.
He leaned back in his chair, stretching. “So, tell me, how well can you tolerate pain?”
Oyārun was still slightly unsteady on her feet; her body was still slightly unfamiliar. Heavier, but just a little; definitely firmer. She still habitually poked at the implants protruding from her skull, her spinal column. Not enough space to squeeze everything into the body, she surmised. She didn’t change the way she tied her headscarf. Some of the protrusions showed, but she didn’t particularly mind. She had not ventured outside yet, and she was curious about the looks she would get, if also somewhat intimidated. Admiration mixed with apprehension? Patriotic pride? She could not begin to guess at people’s complicated feelings.
Aramīn pushed her to start practicing almost as soon as she could get around unassisted. He came for her, led her into a small room designated for the purpose.
“I’ve seen the results of the tests, but let’s just do another round,” he said in a way that sounded oddly measured, even from him. He instructed her to raise māwal, focus it in specific parts of the body, outside the body. She complied. What was he getting at? Her apprehension grew, even though everything he asked for she could do with ease, and with a smoothness that surprised even her. Maybe this really is my path, she thought. She was caught up in the routine, at home within it, fitting in.
He came to an abrupt halt, fell silent. “I should’ve tried to get a rise out of you,” he said quietly.
She blinked at him, feeling her eyes grow large. “Yes?” What was he getting at?
“There are many kinds of pain,” he said, his words cautious, feeling their way ahead. “Most we can decrease, manage. But there is a kind of pain that is tied to the essence of the self, and that’s intractable to medical manipulations. It’s tied to the māwal, and . . . ” He looked down at the mats covering the floor with no gap between them, fitting together like puzzle pieces. “The only way is to simply get used to it. Nothing else can be done. It cannot be minimized.”
She didn’t understand his distress. “I’m all right with that,” she reassured him, to no effect.
“Not everyone can get used to it.”
“You expect me to fail,” she said with forced nonchalance.
“You’ve done well so far,” he said, a trifle too fast. “But even the . . . exercises we can perform do not compare to a live run.”
He really did expect her to fail. He thought he’d been too lucky to have her? Things had gone too smoothly so far? She didn’t understand. He’d done this so many times before. What was different this time? On occasion he felt weary to her. Was it the repetition? Was he feeling his age? It puzzled her, and she grew impatient.
“Expectations shape reality,” she snapped.
He looked up, stared at her dead on. “Then show me you’re stronger than me.”
This time she was the first to look away.
She could feel his disappointment; faint, but still present. I’ll show him, she thought and gritted her teeth.
“We can induce this kind of pain. Gradually at first, as much as this can be done gradually. As we raise the thresholds, we can get more and more māwal throughput. Until you’re ready for a live run.” He rubbed his face. “As much as people can be ready for a live run. Nobody is.”
I will show you, she thought at him with newfound ferocity.
He opened a section of the wall. She could see the equipment stored inside. “You might’ve noticed that this room was soundproofed.”
“Most rooms in the Institute are,” she said.
“Exactly.” He pulled out a red ring of tape. He opened it, clapped it around his wrist. “We can be explicit about everything, we need not have smoke screens and obfuscation, like in the times of the old seers and magicians. More understanding doesn’t break the process.”
He walked to one end of the room, opened another segment, and pulled out a tall, thick pole of some sort, almost like a column. He walked with it to the center of the room and began to affix it; there was a shape precut into the mats that he could simply pop out to fix the pole to clamps on the floor below. He twisted and something popped out on top, attached itself to the ceiling. He grabbed the pole and pulled at it strongly. It held.
“I have no wish to humiliate you, to degrade you. I only need to cause you pain. Unlike the people of old, we know this is sufficient. What they did to the Imperial Seers was not only inefficient but actively harmful.” He unclasped the ring from his wrist. “This time, I’m going to tie you to the pole.” He gestured for her to step closer.
She stepped to the pole, put her back to it, obediently allowed him to tie her hands behind the pole. “The world axis, if you will,” he said. “The tree connecting the worlds. Many mythological parallels.”
He proceeded to make sure she would not be able to slump and injure herself when her muscles gave in.
“Inisayu’s ordeal,” she offered weakly.
“Inisayu was hanging from the tree upside down, according to legend. I’d rather not risk popping a blood vessel in the brain, it’s still quite soon after surgery.” He turned away and went back to the locker, behind her. “Before you get carried away, know that I have knives and a whip, and I intend to use them.” A sound of cloth on cloth—what was he doing?
When he walked again in front of her, she saw. He’d removed his trademark overcoat. He still wore a richly decorated dark blue vest over a loose shirt and implements like knife handles hung from his belt. A harness was also hanging from it, housing what looked like a long, yellow, softly glowing tentacle.
He unclipped a handle from his belt and grabbed it in his palm. A glowing blade—some kind of force field?—sprung from it. She recognized the tool as the one he’d jammed into his palm. His own reaction had been strong enough that it physically hurt her, even though his face had remained impassive. “I can see you remember this,” he said.
Her muscles spasmed. Her body remembered it before her mind.
“Yes.” He smoothed over her forehead with his free hand. “You definitely recall that.” The touch strengthened the memory, and it hurt—
“Focused pain can throw the system off-balance in the desired way. It can overactivate the māwal-raising process . . . ” His voice drifted away. “We can try. We will go slowly at first. Allow me to demonstrate. Very slowly at first. I am going to put this into the chest center.” He indicated the position in the middle of her chest with a long finger. She knew he could not see the way the māwal flowed throughout her body, but he must’ve done this so many times it was second nature. He pointed at just the right spot. “Then we can do the other centers, but first I want you to be familiar with the sensation.”
She nodded assent. He plunged in the blade, through her clothing—the force field did not wound, only—
She screamed, strained against the bindings.
“I’ve pulled it out. That was the lowest setting, and only for a moment. We will need to increase both the duration and the amount, slowly, but surely.”
Her entire torso felt like it was on fire.
“Do you think you can take that for a bit longer?”
Her thoughts clumped together, and her tongue tripped over the sounds she wanted to make.
“Excellent.” Did he sound more satisfied than ever before? “Then let’s do it again. Eight seconds, do you think you can take eight seconds?”
She gasped for air once it was over. Her limbs twitched.
“Once more. Maybe we can try sixteen seconds. I’m counting.”
She drew in a deep breath.
“Exhale. If you keep in air, it makes it worse. Try to breathe slowly, evenly. A few breaths before we start . . . ”
She exhaled. Inhaled. Exhaled again. Inhaled.
“Good. Not very deep, you don’t want to hyperventilate. That can come in handy at times, but it can also cause unwanted complications. It’s best to be careful.”
“I’m starting. One . . . two . . . Breathe evenly. Four. Five.”
Her entire body was tense like a closed fist. The world narrowed to one burning point in her chest. Her consciousness floated, back and forward, out of sync with her body.
She could do this. She could do this.
The māwal ran through her in large shudders, the air thickening. She found it harder and harder to breathe. Fire to rend the flesh from the bones.
She could do this. She had to. She struggled to build a balance. She thought she could take this for longer. Not indefinitely, but longer. Longer.
Almost over. Almost over.
“Fourteen. I think you can take more.”
She nodded, genuinely believing she could. Aramīn pulled up her chin with one quick and practiced movement, pushed her head against the pole. Her eyes widened in surprise.
Aramīn stabbed another dagger into the middle of her forehead.
Later, she did not even know if she had screamed. The world collapsed around her, the searing and yet immaterial flames of the māwal licking at the walls, filling the chamber with a ferocious thundering noise. Everything rushed through her, all at once, and her consciousness blinked out.
When she came to, she was still tied to the pole.
“There, that was doable, wasn’t it?”
For a long while, she was unable to respond.
Oyārun was lying on a slab, tied down tight. The right sleeve of her white shirt was rolled up above the elbow.
Aramīn was putting daggers through her right arm, one after another. He kept up the talk.
“The first one goes into the center of the palm. An important location. The second just below the wrist, where the radius and the ulna meet. Another in the middle of the forearm. Yet another in the inner elbow. Remember, it works through fabric, but this time I want you to be able to see the sites.”
She was taking short, gasping breaths.
“Good, you are doing good. I’m not going to do anything sudden this time. You’ve made a lot of progress. It’s time to rest.”
Tears were streaming down her face.
“This is something you can do for yourself. Just one arm. Either the right or the left. I’m going to take these out and untie you, and then you can try.”
She sat up, trembling. Her fingers closed around the handle of the dagger, but without any force, and she dropped it in her lap, wincing even though it was turned off.
Aramīn picked up the dagger, handed it to her again. Calmly, patiently, without any urgency.
She fumbled the catch again. A sob wracked her.
“There’s no need to hurry. Take your time.”
She managed to hold the blade on the third attempt.
“Good. That’s a good first step.”
She turned on the field. Pushed the blade into her palm, all the way to the hilt. Her fingers closed around the handle automatically.
“It’s not going to come out unless you pull it out. You don’t need to worry about it. I can give you another one . . . Here. There, I can show you the spot.”
He gently guided her hand. “Good, now push.”
“Two more. All right? You could take that when I was doing it.”
She nodded, forcing out her words from between clenched teeth. “That was . . . easier.”
“Yes, passivity is easier for some people, and that’s fine. I’m making you do this for a reason.”
She nodded again, her neck muscles painfully spasming. She pushed away the impulse to rub her neck. Two more.
She looked at her arm, the hilts of the four daggers poking upward. She held down her arm with her other hand, tried to steady the shaking. Tried to calm the māwal, reroute the disrupted flow, deal with the excess.
“Great.” He praised her so much these days, she thought, but always in such a detached manner . . . She cradled her arm to herself. It felt like it was becoming a burning white conduit for all the power in the universe. She wasn’t sure she could keep this up for much longer.
“Relax. Just a few moments . . . Good. Now you can try to remove them. Very slowly. One by one. No rash movements. You know what rash movements lead to, right?”
The inside of her forehead lit up with the memory of an excruciating feeling. She was very, very cautious.
“There. Now you see you have control over the process.”
“I—I thought I was supposed to be helpless,” she offered. Even her lips felt numb, worn out from stimulus overload.
“You’re going to be helpless, that’s inevitable. Nothing can persist in the face of the raw stream.” He glanced away for a moment. “But it’s imperative for you to understand that you do have control, as much as it’s possible, even if you are helpless, even if you are made helpless, you have some measure of control.”
He had taken to repeating himself, she thought. Was this some kind of technique, too?
“I am going to give you that control. And then I’m going to make you helpless, and you’re going to hold on to what you have left. Once this is over and you’re standing in that point, nothing of you is going to remain, nothing, except this. This will remain. This will remain.”
“The—the shaking isn’t stopping,” she said, and he sat next to her, held her trembling body to himself.
“It’s going to pass,” he said.
She broke down in sobs.
“Shh.” He cradled her head in one hand. His touch was unexpectedly soothing. “It’s going to pass.”
Eventually, it did.
“I’m always worried that one day you’re going to just walk out, leave me there when I’m all tied up and the blades are in,” Oyārun said as they were preparing for another session. He was busy with the pole—the bottom catches did not want to hold.
“I’m not leaving,” he said. “I’m going to be here. Even when you’ll have to face the stream, I’m going to be there.” The catch finally clicked in place. “I cannot be there in the mind, but I can be there, taking care of you, what of you exists in physical reality.” He straightened up, looked at her. “That’s going to make it a fraction easier. Just a fraction, but easier.”
“Thank you,” she offered in a wavering voice, even though she knew he was not doing this for her sake—he was doing it for the sake of success. Or was he?
Her world was the chamber, poles and slabs and circular and rectangular frames and the four walls. Chained to a wall. Tied to a frame.
Sometimes she threw up, sometimes she spat blood. Her blood was no longer red; it was opalescent and colorless.
The floor drank up everything, the stains disappearing at a speed discernible to the naked eye.
The world was a burning tree of fire and she was chained to the tree and stabbed with knives of ice. The world was a swirling circle of storm clouds and she was tied to the circle and whipped with lashes of lightning.
She lost control. Over and over again. At times they had to interrupt—the first time it happened, Aramīn said the wards in the walls wouldn’t hold, and she realized there was some kind of māwal technology inside the walls, hidden from casual observation, redirecting the excess. She only hoped the walls wouldn’t come down one day. Surely Aramīn would not let that happen—he had control over her nervous system, he could shut down her consciousness if the immediate need arose.
“You won’t allow me to bring down the Institute, right?” Oyārun was feeling especially discouraged that day.
“Hmm?” Aramīn turned to her. “What do you mean?”
She spread her hands. “There’s . . . there’s so much destructive power.” In me. She could not bring herself to finish the sentence, say the words out loud.
“You were not built to destroy,” Aramīn said. “You were built to sustain.”
Oyārun lifted the whip, a long plastic tentacle, gingerly wrapped it around her lower arm—it didn’t have a handle. The pain burned, but it was manageable.
A thought struck her. “With this one, the user can’t help to feel pain, either.”
“Exactly.” Aramīn nodded.
She made a little lashing motion, little more than a wave. “But that means . . . ” She pursed her lips.
“Yes, I also feel pain when I’m using this one.” His face was smooth, unexpressive.
“You don’t mind?”
“It is a reminder.”
Oyārun was tied to a circle frame, handles sticking out of all the primary and secondary māwal centers of her body. She was breathing slowly, evenly.
“Thirty-two minutes,” Aramīn said and put the whip back into its holster. “This will have to be enough.”
She grunted, beyond speech.
“If you cannot pass the initial acclimatization in this amount of time, it’s over,” he said, more abruptly than usual.
Was he afraid?
He began to remove the force field blades, quickly, as if urged on by someone else. “I have given you this amount of time, now you have to do something with it.”
She stumbled forward as he untied her, her muscles giving. He cradled her, but she felt hesitation in his posture.
“Thank you,” she said.
Aramīn stared into her eyes, then something intangible swooshed across his face, and his expression changed. “You’re welcome.” He helped her to the slab, sat her down on the ground with her back to one side. “May the universe itself forgive me, you’re welcome.”
There was an entire team standing by.
“Let’s go over this once again,” Aramīn said. “We need constant high throughput. I know you can induce it, but for the first time, I’m going to override some functions and induce it in you myself. Less room for error. The goal is not the pain. The pain is initially inevitable, but it is not desirable. I have given you the ability to manage it. Your mind will tune into the raw stream of the System and you are going to acclimatize. You are going to belong, to attach. You will need to learn how to process your new sensory environment, how to interact with it. Avoid your usual patterns. Try not to hold on to things, try not to treat them as conventional objects.”
Emien helped him out; she was standing by in case of an emergency that might need a māwalēni. “This cannot be explained; this can only be experienced,” she said.
“Yes, thank you,” Aramīn nodded. “Any last-minute advice you could offer?”
Emien shrugged. “It’s ineffable. I don’t think I can say anything about it. Try not to resist it; it resists back.”
Oyārun was strapped down, but she could breathe freely. This was the moment she had practiced for, all the time spent in that chamber with its walls drinking up the māwal, its floor drinking up her blood.
“All parameters within nominal range,” a tech said, looking up from her instrumentation. “Say the word and it’s a go.”
Aramīn stepped to her. “Show an Enāyūwē transform.” He paused, examining the image with the aid of his interface. “Mm. Looks neat.” He began to pace. “Let me look at the settings . . . I’d prefer a smooth buildup, avoid the exponential. B-W of around five.”
Nods around the room.
He turned to Oyārun. “We are ready whenever you are.”
“Go ahead,” she said, and Aramīn raised a hand—
The māwal rushed up her spine, faster, faster, forced by her systems controlled externally for the time being. She did not mind being taken over in this manner—one less thing to track, to manage, to maintain.
There was more and more. It seemed to her that the room had become transparent, and she could see through everything, even though her eyes were closed.
No pain so far. She was so used to this, her pain threshold was considerably elevated. Yet it did not come as a relief. She’d gotten used to pain to the point that it was comforting, and the lack nagged at her.
“Tell the System they can begin syncing,” Aramīn said outside. She was inside looking out, inside her own body, yet her mind was expanding, ballooning outward—
And it was there, the stream of the System, faster and more powerful than anything before, and she struggled not to get swept away.
The waves of power battered at her, and as she tried to pick out individual details, they rushed away from her. It was like sitting on the overhead train that passed just below the canopy and staring out—if she tried to focus her eyes on anything nearby, it would get yanked out of sight and her eyes would almost hurt from the effort of the tracking.
Everything all came at her, at the same time. No rest. No reprieve. She could not hold on to anything, there was always something more, something new and searingly bright and manifold. She could not cram it all into her skull.
She was trying to relax, trying to keep herself from hyperventilating, but it wasn’t working, her fingers were tingling—
“Override the voluntary respiratory control,” Aramīn yelled outside. “We cannot risk any more vasoconstriction—”
The systems clamped down on her hard, overrode her pattern of breathing. Momentary respite.
Inside, the stream still ate away at her. How could she ever get used to this? She struggled, to no avail. She held on for dear life—
“Let go,” Aramīn spoke right next to her body outside, and it took her some time to realize that he was talking to her, firmly, ordering her. “Do not resist. Do not resist.”
I’m not resisting, she wanted to say as she hung on with tooth and nail, I’m trying—
Then, an image of the train hurtling past and her sitting on board, staring out, eyes relaxed and taking in the cramped vista passing by without trying to fixate on any single object.
A letting go.
Something shifted inside her and there was no more pain, no more of the onslaught, just ceaseless joy and the smooth motion of coasting along the stream.
She did not remember anything else.
Oyārun was close to tears. “I—I know I was there, and it was beautiful, but I don’t remember—I don’t remember anything else—” She gestured broadly with her arms.
“The two kinds of sensory environments are absolutely different and ineffable from the point of view of each other,” he explained slowly and carefully. “Your self here has little to no access to your memories there, and vice versa, your self there has little access to your memories here.”
He went on. “It’s a quite extreme version of state-specific recall. We’ve been through this before.”
She looked at him, her eyes pleading, and she would have inwardly shuddered at how she might appear to him, begging thus, had she not been past shame. He had seen her screaming in agony, certain the next moment was going to be the last—and he had always been there for her.
Would he desert her now? Would he fail to help her?
“Is it always like this?” she muttered.
“Eventually there’s some cross talk. You remember more. But it’s always in the form of vague impressions, at most. Relatively few substantial memories carry over.”
“It was beautiful—”
“And it’s going to remain so, and you’re only going to see more of it, not less.”
Her face crumpled up. She couldn’t help herself. “But I can’t remember—”
“You remember a little. And what you remember is beautiful.” He drew back from her. “Is that not so?”
She lowered her head. “It’s true. But I—” She couldn’t find the words.
“You crave it.”
She looked up, surprised. Did he know her better than herself? Of course, she reminded herself, he’d seen this over and over. He’d seen many people go through this when they joined the System.
“I crave it!” She threw her words in his face. He did not flinch. “I crave it and I need it and I—” She was shaking, not with the māwal, but with desperation. Was there a difference? Power crested in her.
“Shh.” He drew her to himself. She sniffled into his overcoat. “And you will receive it. Perpetuate it. It’s yours.”
And yet behind his words was the awareness of time ticking down, of life ebbing away. The transformation shortened the life span. Everything had a price.
She clutched him and shook with tears.
“The first time it took us two days to get you back to your baseline state, after just an hour of being in the System. Expect the same this time around as well. It takes a long time to work up to the norms.”
“It’s all right,” Oyārun said, resigned. She was bone weary, more despondent than exhausted. “I’m sorry.”
Aramīn remained silent, but he beheld her with a quizzical expression.
“You were right. About every single thing you’ve ever told me.”
He didn’t say I told you so. He didn’t even think of it, she could tell. He looked at her with sadness, or only exhaustion? Probably the latter, Oyārun decided. “Do you regret your choice now?”
“No,” she whispered. “No, and that’s the worst part of it.”
He sat down, heavily. “Hate me. I can be easily hated. After all, I am generally considered a monster.”
“Hm?” Was that actually unpleasant news to him, Oyārun wondered—did he want to be regarded as a monster?
“I’ve read the testimonials of your coworkers. In the Oral History Archives. Did you know . . . ” She felt too tired to speak. “The closer someone was to you during the War of Independence, the more likely they were to speak highly of you.”
He leaned forward slightly. “You ran correlations on that? ” Then he shook his head. “You shouldn’t have chosen this path. You should’ve chosen something . . . anything.”
“This was what I wanted. It’s not negotiable.”
“Not any longer, definitely. Even if you were to walk away from the System, the transformation is irreversible.”
Aramīn spoke up first. “You’re only going to grow farther away from me. You went through your transformation, I helped you go through it, but my task is done for the most part. I taught you what I could. I try to keep an eye on everyone, check in from time to time, but that’s basically it.” He spread his hands. “My time is finite.” Was he pushing her away? Some part of him was, she decided. But was that the entirety of him?
“I can pray with you,” she offered.
Aramīn startled, for once. “Excuse me?”
She tried to backpedal. “Or just listen to you praying. I find it beautiful.” She swallowed, something uncomfortable occurring to her. “Will you pray for me too, once I’m gone?” I will leave this world before you.
He understood the implications. “I can, I definitely can.” He bowed his head formally—in the new Ereni manner, she realized. “I take solace in the fact that you desire that.”
They strode along the snaking, winding corridors of the industrial area surrounding Memorial Park.
“So how are you faring? The reports only say everything is in order, but they cannot tell me about how you feel.” Aramīn lifted a hand and adjusted his cap just a little. “You’re up to the ten-hour limit now.”
“Yes, and . . . it’s fine. It still takes a bit long to recuperate after my shift, they’re telling me that it should go faster . . . ”
“I can look at the logs,” Aramīn offered. “See if anything jumps out to me, anything that could be adjusted.”
“Thank you, that’d be great.” Oyārun smiled—a carefree, relaxed smile despite the circles around her eyes. “Otherwise it’s going well.”
“And how do you like it?”
“I like it . . . ” She paused, took a deep breath. “Let’s not try to evade this? Let’s be honest. It’s vast, it’s gigantic, and it’s tearing me apart. And despite that I’m always back for more.”
“I’m sorry about that.” Was he really? Did she want him to be sorry, at all? “That’s the way things are.” This much was true.
“I love it. The worst part is the switchover when I realize I’m out, out of the stream, and I want to claw my way back in . . . ” Her voice sounded all too loud in the deserted, echoing corridor. “I want to go back, I crave it, every single moment. It never goes away. I can push it back, but it never goes away.”
He nodded. “It’s not easy, I know.” He pulled at his left sleeve, to make it look just right. “How much do you actually remember?”
“It’s not . . . it’s not really remembering. But more carries over. It scares me a little. I’m not supposed to be able to do that, and yet.” She hesitated. It seemed like too large a thing to say, too large for words. “I’ve been wondering about it. Maybe it’s because I’m . . . maybe it’s because I was born planetside? I always had my interface, and that was also very seamless for me. Maybe the two could be combined?”
Aramīn frowned, and in that instant he appeared more like the scientist he was than ever before. “The planetary computer networks and the System?” He considered it seriously, Oyārun could tell. He was taking her seriously. “Information is information, after all. Maybe in a few generations.”
Oyārun nodded cheerfully. “They could be combined somehow. I think that would be great. Sometime down along the line.”
“Is that you saying that, or is that the System?”
She stopped dead in surprise.
“The connection goes both ways,” he said, stopping just a fraction of a second after she did. Always keeping an eye on her. “The influence goes both ways.”
“I—You’re right.” She massaged her face. “I don’t know.” She lowered her hands and looked at him, entirely clueless. “I don’t know.” Then a torrent of words poured out all of a sudden: “How much of me is me? It’s inside me but I’m also inside it, I help making it what it is, and it also makes me into what I am, and I—”
“Shh. I know. Let’s walk.”
She obediently fell into pace next to him.
“I have been suspecting that the System is trying to pass me messages,” he said. “I get small signals. My environment changing in subtle ways. Trees dropping their leaves, lights flickering when I pass by. People blurting out sentences they themselves cannot explain. The way the māwal is supposed to operate. A lot depends on the carrier; with most people, complex information just doesn’t make it across. So far, all I had were fragments, but now some of them at least have fallen into a pattern. A pattern I can understand,” he emphasized, and there was something in his voice that for a moment did not bridge the gap between the two of them.
“A pattern you can understand?” she asked, uncomprehending.
“I can understand the hunger to control.” There, a piece of the puzzle she’d been looking for. Right there. “I can understand the hunger to expand.”
“It’s . . . shaped by us, but in turn it’s shaped by you,” she offered weakly.
“What do you mean?”
“Indirectly. We are affected by you because you trained us, and we are in the System, so it makes sense . . . for the System to be affected by you.” Your cognotype. The words remained unspoken.
He laughed all of a sudden, his laughter shrill and sharp like knives. Like the crack of a whip. “By me? Oh yes! A thousand times yes! But it makes perfect sense—oh, the irony!”
She thought back on the Archive logs. People will say he is a sadist and a Falconer . . . Some of that is true . . . and him saying I suppose I do have those tendencies, nonchalant, even satisfied.
He quieted down abruptly. His brow furrowed. “Are you bothered by this?”
She considered it for a moment. “The System is standing between here and the abyss.” She closed her eyes briefly. “I have seen the monsters. Some of me has. Inside.”
“What you’re doing . . . it’s necessary. I understand that.”
“But do you understand the implications?” Again, the old debate; this time about a different topic, but the patterns were the same. “Maybe the way this country will turn out will make people wish it had not come into existence in the first place. Maybe people will curse Eren for centuries to come.”
“Do you really think that?”
“I hope that’s not going to be the case. But I don’t know.”
“There’s more of us than there is of you,” she said. With some of his merciless nature inside her.
He stifled another laugh. “Indeed.”
The corridor opened to the familiar cavern. A gust of air caught at their clothing, made Aramīn’s overcoat billow, deposited a large leaf on the top of his cap. A sign? A gesture from the System?
Aramīn removed the leaf, then turned it around in his hands. He was about to tuck it into a pocket, but then changed his mind and handed it to Oyārun.
“Well then,” Aramīn said, “let us pray.”