An unctuous sychitin-garbed retainer of middling age led Zarya Cece from the massive vessel’s docking bay, up an expansive industrial lift where the floor was scuffed by constant transit of mining slag, through a series of short and twisting halls, to a wide, palatial gallery lined with albescent statuary of exquisite men and women in majestic repose. The ceiling was high and fluted as the folds of a rooted collybia and from them beams of illumination fell with singular focus upon each icon. Tributary baubles lay upon the pedestals of the effigies. Necklaces and bracelets, ornate vases and funerary urns and polished slipper shells and notes on sheafs of codium fragile. On the base of a cenotaph in the form of a solemn man in streamlined armor was a delicate blue flower. The woman strode to the monument, took in the masterworked contours of the proud, solemn face, and lifted the flower. A petal fell from the stem and floated to the plinth. Zarya frowned.
“Why must beautiful things be so fragile.”
The guide surveyed the woman’s elegant raiment. “You must be very fragile if that is so.”
Cece rolled her eyes. “How often do such lines work for you?”
“You’d be surprised.”
“I wonder. Tell me.” She looked to the name painted below left collarbone on the man’s ashen plate. “Audo. What do you do here?”
“I work on the docking module. Watch the ballast, pressure, which ships come and go. That sort of thing.”
“Don’t your systems do that automatically?”
“Course. But there’s always a chance of system failure. Its Kryos’ policy for all workers to create a secondary record, by hand, of all pertinent activity, in every module, on every deck.”
“Lot of extra work. Explains why there are so many people here.”
Groups of men and women, clothed as the guide, moved down the pass, talking with staid incision and inclined their heads to the newcomer. Cece watched her usher return the gesture and did likewise.
“You came at a busy time of day. A busy month, really. So many new kelp farms to install. But tell me, if you don’t consider it indelicate, what does Sodabrucke plan to do? Has a new government been formed?”
“I can’t answer that, handsome.”
“You mean you won’t. I shouldn’t have asked.”
The woman looked up to the ceiling where shifted small black clusters.
“What are those?”
“We call them SERIA sensors.”
“Sensors? Like cameras?”
Audo dipped a hand into a pack at his belt and removed a thin length of material whose composition eluded Cece’s ken. “The wearer senses what the array senses.” She reached forward for the artifact, but Audo withdrew it from her grasp. “That wouldn’t be a good idea.”
“To use it, one needs to undergo a tuning process. Those that don’t are at risk of seizure.”
“Goodness, why even bother with something that dangerous?”
“Direct telesensory inception has unique benefits. But frankly, I was of much the same opinion when Kryos and Straker came up with the idea. I was part of the original development team. When it became clear it was feasible, I told him it wasn’t worth the risk. He disagreed. He said: ‘Only the malformed are without fear. Only the cowardly shrink from it.’ Then he put the device on.” The man lowered his voice and leaned toward the woman. “Nearly killed him.”
The man nodded gravely. “Scared me half to death. Scared all of us. His whole body convulsed, and he made this… horrible noise. But then, right as his vitals we’re going south, he became quiet and slowly pulled himself up on the edge of the work bench. I asked him what he was thinking, told him it was crazy.”
“What did he say?”
“‘One cannot wring crops from halcyon earth.'”
The woman furrowed her brows and shook her head.
“Ah, but I’m taking up too much of your time with my stories.” The man pocketed the device and gestured down the corridor. “Shall we continue?” Cece assented and followed behind her guide beyond the crowded memorial chamber. When they were near the end of the corridor a boy at the threshold of maturity came plunging about the corner, bearing a object some three feet in length in his arms.
“Graf! You nearly ran into the good lady.”
The boy halted just short of the duo, his eyes low.
“No trouble. What have you got there?” Cece inquired, bending to the bundle.
Graf shifted the lump, prompting Cece to gasp and draw back in horror, for in the boy’s arms was a large, pale chitinous creature, with triangular charcoal eyes and four bony antennae that rose up nervously. Its many-legged underside was paler than its shell and at its rear was a thick mass of fins, wider than its head.
“What is that?”
“Why are you carrying it?”
“Mr. Kryos gave it to me.”
The woman looked to her guide with utter bewilderment.
“They’re popular pets in the colonies.”
“We put them in the reservoirs to keep them clean. They’ll eat just about anything that falls to the bottom.”
The woman took a step back as the isopod raised its upper limbs in her direction. The boy laughed.
“Well, not anything. Don’t worry, lady, it won’t hurt you.”
The man gave the boy a reproachful look. “If he gave you that, I take it you’ve dispensed with the fighting?”
The boy worked his lower lip back and forth. Jubilance subsiding. “Yes, sir.”
“Good. Well, be on your way, boy.”
Graf adjusted the bottom feeder in his wiry arms and absquatulated.
The duo walked on.
Past the artful ossuary was a long, dark hall. The steward pointed to the recess at the far end of the protracted corridor. “His study is straight ahead. Be mindful of the water.”
Zarya Cece raised a brow, smiled and curtsied. The man nodded, turned and left off; footfalls and form swift-receding to shadow.
She watched him and paced into the black. A high aperture embowered by caliginous strands opened to an ersatz grotto. Long, high and pale as bleached bone, awash in dismal azure light. The blanched walls were composed of unreflective translucent material that revealed the complex clockwork of the great machine. High above, argent forms floated in torpid circles. At the center of the hollow, a pool, and dark shapes within it. Opposite the entrance, across the water lay a pale expanse of what appeared as variegated sand that rose up by subtle degrees to a brassy mass of jagged, scintillating scale-like structures, between which a man sat an ashen chair fused to the surrounding material. He wore dark, laminous clothes trimmed with gold that shone like his eyes. His posture bespoke detachment, yet his voice carried across the chasm with restrained intensity.
“Expectant of a wolf, I receive a fox.”
“Commissioner Kryos.” The woman curtsied.
“I am a commissioner no longer.”
“Chancellor Sodabrucke is reconstituting The Board. She thought that might interest you, given that your ship is still on the mainland.”
“It is where it belongs. For now.”
“That may be so, but by law its still under SecCom control. You want it back. Work with us.”
“As it was not Richter’s to take, it is not yours to give.”
“That’s not very diplomatic. We’re offering you aid.”
“Spermaceti is a pearly waxen substance derived from the head cavities of cachalots.”
Cece’s face creased with confusion. “And?”
“Do you know how many lumens a seventy six gram candle of this material affords?”
“No one uses candles anymore.”
“One. Each algae light-vessel in this chamber affords two hundred and thirty lumens. There are ten thousand five hundred of them. How many candles would I need to light this chamber?”
“I don’t know.”
“One needs knowledge of dimensions. Two million four hundred fifteen thousand.”
Luminance filled the cavity in tandem with his voice. Phosphorescent went ceiling and walls. The woman raised her hand, squinting against the sudden bluish glare until her eyes adjusted.
“That’s all very fascinating, but I don’t see what this has to do with anything.”
Kryos stood. “A single adult cachalot produces around one thousand nine hundred litres of spermaceti. One million nine hundred thousand grams.” He clasped his hands behind his back. “That’s roughly twenty five thousand candles per whale-head. Or, twenty five thousand lumens per whale. Seventy six grams of my algae produces seventeen thousand four hundred and eighty lumens, over half that of an entire adult cachalot, so tell me, Ms. Cece, what need have I of whales?”
“That’s an awfully long-winded way of calling us dim.”
“I did not say dim.”
Argent machines descended from the ceiling and arrayed themselves across the reservoir that separated host and visitor. Kryos moved from the ashen throne toward the pool and gestured for his guest to ford the watery expanse. The woman tested the metallic carapace of the first of the temporary platforms, which gave but slightly beneath her boot, then made her way across the wide pool. Striding with easy confidence toward the opposite shore.
“If we are candles,” Cece began with a tinge of ire as she forded the makeshift bridge. “To continue your analogy,” she stepped off the last SIKARD and tilted up her head at the black garbed man before her as the insectal machines crested the edge of the tranquil liquid and spiraled in the air about the speakers. “Its only a matter of quantity and time before we’re brighter than the sun.” The woman reached for her affin module, the top half detaching to a hand-held device which she raised and clicked. The SIKARDs trilled and spasmed and fell from the air. Kryos grit his teeth and fell to one knee, muscles twitching unnaturally.
The woman raised the device to the beleaguered man’s head. “The woman who attacked you in Gild’s office had an orbital implant. I saw it all. Your telesoma. The good chancellor, foolish girl that she is, let me into the Board archive. I read your file.” She gestured to the downed SIKARDs. “Knew about your little friends. So I had a field disruptor installed in my cutter and the cutter fitted to my affin module, in case you had your men search me.”
Kryos, inhaled sharpely, rose and surveyed the woman’s device briefly, before his heliodoric gaze returned to her face.
“I ordered them not to.”
“A snow-buried blade is useless if the fox cannot lick it.”
“I don’t see a blade.”
“You are preoccupied by looking.”
“Forgettable, far as final words go.”
Without compunction, Cece raised the modified cutter and fired a pulse through Kryos’ chest. He looked down at the void where his heart should be and spun to the pale throne, which bubbled with the residue of the blast. With a muffled cry, he wavered unsteadily on his feet and slumped against the unadorned chair, his head lolling lifelessly.
The lights dimmed. Murk re-enveloped the chamber.
The woman looked to the corpse with triumph.
“Should have pulled your magic trick.”
The corpse’s eyes swiveled to the woman, its mouth forming a thin smile.
“What prompted you to think I hadn’t?”
In tandem with the woman’s breathless gasp, the pale-throned figure contorted and dissolved to an amorphous mass and seeped to the floor as a voice echoed from above.
“Revenge is a greater motor to man than amity, for the latter is a burden, and the former, a pleasure.”
The woman cast her eyes up to the ceiling and took a step backward. There, Eidos Kryos stood. She looked to the left wall and beheld, some fifteen feet up, another Kryos, then to the right wall, where, at similar height, yet another facsimile of the man gazed down upon her, his irises glinting in the gloam. The Kryos upon the left wall continued where the ceiling-borne one had left off.
“I induce this wolf you’ve bound yourself to does not desire vengeance against my person, but the whole of society.”
The Kryos upon the right wall spoke next. “This person was the same who slew The Board.”
The Kryos on the ceiling continued the oratory cycle. “This predator weaves a grand tapestry. Perhaps, from it, your master sought to pluck an errant strand. And so sent you here.”
“He would never-” Too late she realized the error.
“So it is a man.” The three visages spake in unison. Those left and right began to walk down from the walls toward the woman as the spectral orator on the ceiling dripped piece by piece to her feet. Recomposing.
The woman backed away from the apparitions toward the pool. Mind reeling. Hands quaking on the useless cutter.
“Stay away,” she howled, as the figures closed the distance.
From the depths of the reservoir a dark hand emerged, gripped Cece by the ankle and tore the balance from beneath her. She shrieked and fell to the floor, weapon flying from grasp, brow colliding with a small mineral tumulus in the sandy expanse and dripping red. She clawed blindly at the silt-strewn floor, vision blurring as the sound of a surfacing form and dripping water preceded a rippling shadow.
Kryos stood at the edge of the artificial pond, a breathing apparatus affixed to his face. He reached up and removed the mask with methodical familiarity, revealing a slender silver device that wrapped about the left temple. He surveyed the female placidly. Eyes and half-diadem gleaming. As footsteps closed upon her, Cece scrambled for her weapon. A dark heel descended upon it. With bloodied brow and locks in disarray, Cece looked up to behold the dour face of Ermin Gild gazing upon her with reproach. The man retrieved the device from the ground and switched it off. The SIKARDs hummed to life and rose into the air as Kryos knelt and took the woman’s face in his hands.
“Ash is more beautiful than a painting scourged. For it is pure as the fires that birthed it. But to purify iron, mere flame is not enough. A furnace is required. Whose glow illuminates the slag of the soul. It is a pity that you shall never see it.”