Dust to dust.
Nicolai was three years dead when I lighted to EZ Aquarii to forget him. Naturally he came along too. Nicolai was never someone you got rid of easily. I still had the ring to prove it.
In the sun-speared and dusty-aired haunt of his killers I sipped a concoction of swirled beige and blue that the Spinies called alcoholic and my stomach called garlic-infused root beer, and I let him hold forth. “This isn’t the way, I-Chen,” he said, the sounds ee-zhen rolling from his lips like a lush mispronunciation of Eden and his rich, gold-brown eyes shining like the God-sized sunrises we’d see at the Epsilon Indi homestead. Dead, he was as apparent to me as the ruddy triple sunset flashing a crazy webwork across the contours of my glass. And just as blinding. “Violence only swaps one problem for another,” he pressed.
“You might’ve thought of that before,” I said.
That made him look away, toward shady nooks where cobalt-skinned Spine Flutists held forehands over flames. It looked like your classic cozy romantic restaurant—the kind Nicolai never took me to—the darkness cloaking the differences. Like the thurik, puzzle-pyramids of dried noodles whose collapse signaled who got the tab, and the mumwolka, bat-winged, bug-eyed scavengers gibbering in the roof’s arabesque lattices, conditioned to scavenge tables when the server snuffed the candles.
And those little whirlwinds meandering along the street outside and blowing dust through the curtains—dust that wasn’t all dust, dust that sparkled a little, dust that was half the cause of my problems.
“You’re right,” said the other half, “I wasn’t thinking at all.”
“Damn right you weren’t.”
Nicolai shook his head. His wavy brown hair was tangled, knotted, and utterly ignored, the way it always used to be, nothing idealized about it. “Had to stop them,” he said.
“You were never a fighter. I was there. Just meters....”
“You’re no marine yourself.”
There was also nothing idealized about his voice. It was always a bit hoarse and frog-like when he’d been drinking. My madness had drawn a glass beside his hand. Nothing ideal about that calloused hand either, or the way he wiped his forever-leaky nose, and the crooked shape of it.
He was dead. I was dreaming him up from dust. He farted, smiling apologetically. I could even smell it.
“I’ve got training,” I snapped at that smile. “Why couldn’t you wait?”
He shrugged. “I’m a man.”
He never changed. That was the problem. “So that’s it? You got killed to prove you weren’t a whipped husband? Bravo.”
That got through his calm. “Goddamn it. You want to drive me away, drive me away. Do it. Say I charged the Spinies because deep down I’m a coward. Say it.”
I whacked down my drink. Our barmates snapped alert.
One of the Spinies was older, more wrinkled, smaller than the others. He stood.He was the reason I’d come and now my heartbeat raced, outrunning my good sense. I said to Nicolai, “You did it because deep down you are a gutless, macho, idiotic, coward.”
Face scarlet, Nicolai stood and stalked out through a curtain of leather strips of dubious origin. He even disturbed it a little. My madness wasn’t just inventing props now but twisting my perceptions of real objects. Not a good sign.
My perceptions of the Spinies, alas, were quite accurate. Four more of them rose upon their three legs apiece to an average height of a meter-point-nine, glass bottles or obsidian swords in two of three arms. Not a good sign either.
Because my life might depend on it, I surrendered to the influence of the dust-like glinting Motes drifting here and there, dancing through the air and inside my body and brain.
That last category was the real issue here.
Mad mortal I, I linked into the immortal network that was the Spinies’ inheritance and curse.
Dust to dust.
Now I could detect my barmates’ thoughts, flickering all around me like a separate collection of candles, burning in some deeper end of the spectrum. I even sensed those thoughts quiver a little toward me as the Spinies detected me in turn. The flickers had an angry red billow about them, with a green tinge of fear. They surely weren’t worried by my appearance—a short Asian-European woman whose only modifications were harmless gills, webbed hands and feet, and ocean-rated eyes—but rather by my own mind-flame, proof that although human I, too, was a Mote-Dancer.
I decided to encourage that fear. I rose, my hands spread, but my old Survey sidearm visible.
The old Spiny, the one I’d marked earlier, stepped to one side. His only weapon was a sheathed dagger, and his backpack bristled with thick bone flutes. He said nothing, just rocked a little on one foot, watching.
He was about to get a show. One of the belligerent ones howled and squeaked, and the Motes supplied a translation like a whisper in my ear. “You are a noxious smoke. Take your diseased little dung-brain to the street.”
Another roared. The translation: “Siblings! Let us help it get there.”
Now, their looks didn’t bother me. I was comfortable with the wrinkled blue skin and the long black vision-slit in the mouthless head, the gummy maw in the chest and the rubbery third arm jutting beneath it, the prominent spine in back carrying a good half of the brain matter. I didn’t see the Spine Flutists as monsters anymore. I’d decided they had their species stupidities, just like us.
No, what bothered me was that these fellows were all too ready to demonstrate them.
Their weapons, dark or clear, glinted in the triple sunset, and their mental flames now flickered a private blue, suggesting an intimate discussion of just how damaged I ought to be when I left.
But first, they needed the right music.
So three new Spinies rose. Like the old guy, they wore backpacks and from these withdrew flutes fashioned of vertebrae bolstered with metal.
I’d seen this bifurcation of the warrior class before. The “Quixotes” advanced, while their “Sanchos” pressed flutes to their chest-maws and trilled a maniacal improvisation, to my ears something like Chinese opera filtered through jazz and spliced with a catfight. Not what I’d call music to die for, but my opinion didn’t count much.
Spiny Customs had generously allowed me to keep my pistol, after draining its battery to red. I had maybe three shots. Worse yet, if I killed someone, that was the end of my journey to sanity. I’d be deported or executed. And either way I’d had enough of dead people.
So I turned toward an empty table and shot the candle.
The laser pulse spattered wax; the flame went out. The mass of mumwolka on the ceiling screeched down to investigate.
I grabbed the candle from my own table and rolled it toward the lead Quixote, who was pirouetting backward away from the dark-winged beasts. I fired a second time, and the mumwolka dove for the obliterated second candle. The Spinies flailed with bottles and blades.
The old Spiny would have to wait. I fled the way Nicolai had gone. Had seemed to go.
Once on the dusty street, with its low aqueduct gurgling cool beneath baking desert air, I would not have paused had not the city of Gwumnok assaulted me.
Tornfar (the original Spiny word does something like that to my voicebox) is a roughly Earthlike moon but with lower gravity, and its cliffs soar higher. Whatever weaponry the extinct Glyph Lords had employed in branding planets with Mediterranean-sized symbols, it had exposed rich mineral veins here upon this coast, where waterfalls and a good harbor further ensured a near-vertical city would rise in a half-mile of zigzagging splendor. Twisted narrow streets crammed with spindly buildings made no concession to clumsy bipeds, except down in the reassuring grid of the harborside Earthtown.
Reaching Earthtown meant safety, of a sort, if Quixotes or constabulary or gravity didn’t catch me first. I had only one real advantage. The downside of the Motes was continual distraction from the physical world (as I knew too well.) Spinies relied so much on Motes and other legacies of the Glyph Lords that they underestimated human tricks, like our biotech.
Readying gills, I climbed into the murky aqueduct.
“I-Chen!” Nicolai shouted, as though standing above the water.
“Shut up,” I mouthed, and swam.
The current quickened and I shucked my shoes. I struggled at a switchback, limbs flailing, taking a beating from intricate stonework portraying the Sigil Sea. Sometimes I imagined I heard shouts, bells, scuttling feet in sets of three.
In a reverie, I swam other alien waters, the subsurface ocean of icemoon GX Andromedae d3, trying to rescue Nicolai and my other Grand Survey crewmates from lamprey-like aliens we called Naiads. I saw his helmeted face winking at me, mocking death and all toothy monsters; heard his crackling radio-voice cracking stupid jokes, making me laugh at our situation so my brain could reset and think of a plan. Which I did, because otherwise he was going to get himself killed. By the end of it I wanted to rip that helmet off and silence those jokes with my lips....
I slammed into a steel cap and clung. Apparently this portal could divert water somewhere deeper inside the cliff. Though connected by mechanisms to the surface, there was a manual release....
I yanked, and water sucked me into darkness. I barely managed to pull the cap behind me, scraping my wedding ring.
Down I went, riding a chute into muck. As a metaphor for how my life had been going, it didn’t stink. That was good, because everything else did.
I splashed into a gently-sloping track of foul water—nasty stuff, but the current was mild. Crawling onto a stone walkway, I switched over from gills and found my bearings. My eyes, crafted for deep-sea diving (thank you, Mom and Dad), perceived a tunnel goring the gloom. I’d be safe here a moment, if uncomfortable.
At least Spine Flutist sewage smelled a trifle better to me than the human variety. A hint of burnt onion about it, actually, and wet grass.
I recalled the scents of the island homestead at Epsilon Indi—the farmhouse, the goats, the hot sea-breeze, the rusty shuttle donated by our ex-crewmates aboard Nightgift. Never should have kept the creaking thing, even if Nicolai had torched a slice of metal from it to make the perfect wedding ring. It wasn’t spaceworthy but it flew, and the reminder of the past made us restless. Without it we wouldn’t have taken so many trips to the mainland, wouldn’t have been there when the Spiny warband landed to claim as theirs any world bearing Glyph Lord relics. Relics like the Motes....
I felt a hand on my shoulder. A human hand.
“That was fast,” I said, not turning around.
Nicolai sighed. “It was futile, goading you like that. Of course I’m still here. And I had no right to speak that way.”
“Of course you did. Damn it. You, you’re—”
“Your spouse?” Nicolai chuckled. “Forget it. He’s dead. Remember that sealant for bulkhead breaches? How the undertaker used it to reconnect his stubborn neck?”
“Can’t. He wouldn’t want you to hurt yourself. Don’t look for vengeance on Tornfar. Or a quick death.”
“Not vengeance,” I said. “It’s....”
A splash and a roar interrupted us.
A ghost-white, almost translucent creature sprang from the muck, whipped three tentacles around me, and yanked me in.
I passed through Nicolai’s nonexistent body on the way down. My brain was too shocked to preserve the illusion. Nicolai disappeared. Then light and air did too.
I switched to gills. I was in less danger of disease than if I’d frolicked in a human sewer, but this surely wasn’t good for my health. Even so, I had to fight on the thing’s turf. I strained to reach my pistol. Our struggle shoved me into the air again, and I got a better look.
The beast had a Spiny’s basic body plan, only swapping the pair of triple limbs for suckered tentacles, the head for a nub, and the gummy mouth-ridges for sharklike teeth. It snapped at my left hand, slicing my nerves with hot slivers of pain. I got my right hand around the pistol and pressed muzzle to maw.
There was a flash and a shudder, and a reek like a cookout at a garbage fire. The thing toppled backward as I teetered.
Screeching, it rose again, blue ooze burbling from the mouth. It looked near death but determined to go down eating.
I pulled the trigger again, was rewarded with a tiny firework spark. Further attempts yielded sad little clicks. Yup, I thought inanely, three shots left! That Fisher girl knows her gear!
I scrambled back; Toothsome advanced.
Then it shuddered as someone behind it stabbed once, twice, thrice, and upon the final thrust, cut sideways through unseen vitals. The sewer-thing collapsed, sinking into the murk.
Behind it stood the old Sancho I’d marked earlier, his obsidian dagger dripping blue.
“Thank you,” I managed.
The Spiny nodded to me in the human way. He helped me onto the walkway. There we sat like old friends at some polluted fishing hole.
“I-Chen Fisher,” he said. “I am pleased you have not attained your final glory.” He pronounced my name right, ee-zhen, and even strained to confine his voice to human listening range, so much that it came out monotone. Otherwise, his Chinglése was better than my Warrior’s Voice would ever be.
“I was told,” he said, “you wished to meet. I regret I did not introduce myself at once.”
“Well,” I said, trying to compose myself from battles both minutes and years ago, “at least this way we have a private place to talk. You’re the Sancho. Who....”
“Yes.” The Spiny’s third arm ended in sucker-studded wedges like the arms of a starfish, an evolutionary connection to the dead thing in the water. The wedges unfolded and plucked one of the many bone flutes nestled in his pack. “I am Omz—” he said, with a hesitation as if there was another, unheard syllable in ultrasound. “I am celebrant-and-psychopomp to Awo—” again his voice shifted beyond my hearing, “—nom.”
“Your Quixote,” I said, and Omz nodded.
“I-Chen,” Nicolai broke in, manifesting on the parallel walkway across the muck. “What do you want with him?”
Omz looked around, a full-body motion for a Spiny. “Yes, there it is. The anomaly in your mind. I sense another human nearby. Yet I see no one. Few Mote-Dancers can hide from me. Yet I barely detect his presence. Your mate?”
Omz was silent for several hissing breaths. “I had thought such survivals impossible among humans.”
“That’s usually true.” I twisted my ring and heard my voice go clinical, as Nicolai’s golden eyes shifted warily to me. “But among paired Mote-Dancers, sometimes a death-imprint appears in the surviving partner.” No one, human, Epsilon, or Spine Flutist, knew just how the Glyph Lords’ tiny computer nodes operated, whether they transmitted via gravitangles or warpknots or pinhead angels. We just knew they worked—for most of the Spinies, and for a handful of us. Nicolai had barely connected with the Motes, but my link had been strong, one of the strongest among humans.
I remembered standing beside him on top of a city-sized Glyph Lord mausoleum on Lacaille 9352 d, gold-glinting dust swirling around us in the aftermath of our shuttle’s landing. I remembered his wink as he popped open his helmet, and my foolish need to prove myself as daring, my exhalations making whorls in the dust like puffs of breath on a snowy day. I remember him grabbing for me as my vision blurred and the dead world spun. When I came to, his head was wreathed in a silver nimbus of concern....
It wasn’t quite the old fantasy of telepathy, but it was close. And the experience of sharing Nicolai’s thoughts had swirled together with my memories to concoct a strange brew of madness. A ghost too real to go away; almost a splitting apart of my own consciousness.
Omz was quiet for a while, except for his short, hissing breaths. “You are blessed,” he said.
“You think so?” My head ached; maybe I’d gotten infected after all. “He’s dead. He and I both know it. But I can’t forget, and I can’t grieve. I don’t have the real him, just a facsimile.” Like someone had shoved a knife into my gut, and there it stayed. I could walk around, pretend to be okay, but I didn’t feel much except the blade. I couldn’t get rid of it and I couldn’t bleed.
“I’m sorry,” Nicolai said.
“Not your fault,” I murmured.
“I can almost hear him,” Omz said. “He is very strong. It is strange.... He has nearly attained the firelife. Yet you both regret it.”
“What is this ‘firelife?’“ Nicolai said.
“Wait,” I whispered, and now my very own personal ghost looked angry.I knew he wanted to rifle through my mind now, but I had to hold him back.
“If you wish vengeance,” Omz said, “you must know that Mnat—” here the voice again squeaked out of human range, “—the Quixote who slew your mate, has already entered the firelife.”
“I know,” I told Omz, focusing on his gummy mouth, trying not to return Nicolai’s stare.
I remembered firing again and again into the mass of Spinies at Epsilon Indi, heedless of which were combatants and which not, the blue blood never spattering fast enough. I remembered rage that I hadn’t been the one who gunned down Nicolai’s slayer....
“Awo()nom,” continued Omz, “he who prevented our conversing just now in the House of Flame and Spirits, is my new charge. You cannot take your revenge on him either. And to harm a Sancho is a grave crime. Indeed, we have not forgotten that many Sanchos died at human hands.”
“It took us a while,” I said with great care, “to understand your customs.”
“And indeed, that was war, and you are barbarians. This time, however, you have no excuse.”
“I’m not out for revenge.”
“What are you doing, I-Chen?” Nicolai said, staring at the Spiny who’d been closest to his killer.
“What I have to,” I murmured low.
I bundled up my nerve. It was surprisingly easy, now that I sat beside the Sancho. “I didn’t want you for vengeance, Omz. I need you. As a bridge to the firelife.”
Omz’s eyeslit bulged a little around the middle, which indicated interest. Or maybe disbelief. Nicolai’s shock was easier to read.
“I want Nicolai to meet the one who killed him.”
The Memory Craft was a filigree behemoth, a ponderous double-hull sprouting teetering wooden towers like thurik, aquiver with sails and crisscrossed with rigging dangling flags and skulls. From a distance it resembled a Spiny brain (much like ours, but more oblong) as if sculpted out of twigs and spiderwebs. The structure seemed doomed to collapse, but this was a misperception. In the first place, Tornfar’s lower gravity assured the ragged fantasia held up better than it appeared.
In the second place, the thing was doomed to be torched.
No one hires a Memory Craft alone, so the evening after the fracas at the House of Flame and Spirits, Omz and I boarded with twenty-six other Sanchos, plus the friends and family of various deceased Quixotes. Our little band stood apart beside a lit brazier, as did the other knots of celebrants. Our steamer tug pulled us seaward in a twilight ruled by a dance of auroras beneath the gargantuan stormy disk of Tornfar’s gas-giant primary.Motes meandered like swarming fireflies.
The carnival kaleidoscope of the Spiny harbor and the cool subdued grid of Earthtown slipped past, and I hefted the Spine Flutist weapon required of my role. It was an obsidian sword somewhat reminiscent of an Aztec macuahuitl, but instead of a long blade studded with subsidiary spikes, it was one serrated triangular wedge with sharp flanges like a pair of mumwolka-wings. Obsidian blades are fragile but sharper than steel. If I knew what I was doing, I could behead an enemy. If I didn’t know what I was doing, I could behead myself. I was more in the latter category. I said as much to Omz.
He played a few trial notes on the flute made from Mnat’s spine.
“Cut your foe,” he said. “Do not get cut.”
“Also, we are more vulnerable than you to a spinal strike. Much of our brain is distributed down the upper vertebrae.”
It occurred to me the flanges might facilitate a back blow. “Thanks. Really.”
Omz snorted, which I believed amounted to a Spiny nod. Then he played graceful, eerie music, notes like pebbles plunked into still water, much of it barely tingling my eardrums. The tune was echoed in over two dozen places by the other Sanchos. Weirdly warbling, the Memory Craft sang its way toward the deep. Wood creaked beneath my sandals. I was dizzy, and my head throbbed. I’d rested the whole day in my narrow Earthtown lodgings but still felt sick. Humans lived in this alien city, after all, sharing food with the Spinies, and sharing microbes as well. Note for the future, I thought, only fight in the sewers of previously undiscovered planets.
“Foe?” Nicolai interrupted my thoughts, appearing on my left. “What foe?”
Here it was. “Mnat. You know. The one who killed you.”
He appeared to rest his hand on a nearby mast. “How does that work?”
“I’ll perceive an illusion of Mnat. Sound familiar? We fight. If she lands a blow, I’ll feel pain. Maybe worse.”
“I don’t like the sound of this.”
“If I understand right, I don’t have to win, so much as prove my spirit, my worthiness to commune with the dead. The Spinies respect courage as much as prowess. And it’s not all about combat—the Sanchos can enter the firelife too, becoming immortal through song.”
“The firelife again....”
I couldn’t put him off any longer. “Spiny Valhalla. The celebrated dead live on. In the Motes.”
Slowly he nodded. “I’m no Sancho. What am I supposed to say to Mnat?”
“That’s up to you....”
“Great. Very helpful.”
I shrugged, not wanting to add more. The imprint of Nicolai couldn’t read my thoughts. But he was still inside my head. “All right,” he said, searching my face, “but if I think you’re in trouble, we bail. Understood?”
All the Sanchos stopped playing at once, a Mote-enabled synchronization that made my heart skip. They all began chanting in Warrior’s Voice, speaking of their lost Quixotes. I had to tune out the babble, focus on Omz. I opened myself to the Motes, and as I beheld the gold intensity of the Sancho’s mind-flame, they whispered a translation.
“To all who watch, here or ashore, or scrying through the Motes.... Welcome. We commune with Mnat the warrior, my sister in spirit. Born in the lowest slagtown of Gwumnok, she was the humblest of free women. For most slaglings, passage to the firelife is but a dream. For how many of us know, let alone celebrate, the downtrodden? Yet Mnat had the spark which ignites the fire.”
The spark which ignites gunfire, you mean, I thought. But I controlled my bitterness when Omz stretched his rubbery third arm across the brazier and splayed wedge-shaped fingers over the flames. In Chinglése he said, “Alien visitors, take my hand.”
Visitors. He was talking to Nicolai directly. I unwrapped my bandaged hand and took Omz’s cool, suckered grip, and Nicolai’s joined ours. Nicolai winced right along with me as we lowered our grasp to just above the dancing flames. The cuts from the sewer-thing screamed at me afresh. I held still.
“Mnat,” Omz said in Warrior’s Voice. “We call to you. You who labored long hours at the darkblade. You who struggled to pilot a Legacy Ship. You who sacrificed all for a chance at renown, to become a Quixote of the Outer Crusade. When we met aboard ship, you were all purpose and fire, and I knew you a worthy subject for song. We made a fine pair, you fighting duels all through the vessel, I your Sancho, drunkenly composing sagas to make you famous.”
I squelched my anger, concentrating on Omz’s voice, further opening myself to the Motes and the firelife. I sensed Omz’s mind, felt his proud ideals crackling like crazy orange lightning-strokes. Elsewhere, the other knots of Spinies celebrated the newly-dead they wished to install in the firelife or the honored dead they wished to summon.
I let Omz pull me and Nicolai closer to that other realm. Omz’s inner world burned into ours. All around us, sheets of rippling light, like luminous sailcloth, shuddered and seethed. The forms of Spine Flutists puckered the radiance like smothered things, yet I felt their exultation like an electric shock.
Then a shout arose in the ordinary world. It crossed the water from Earthtown.
Peering through all the glory, I spotted the source. A Spine Flutist wielding a darkblade rushed along the last of the docks, paralleling the Memory Craft. Blue-clad human security raced after.
It was Omz’s current Quixote, Awo()nom. He hadn’t been invited.
Awo()nom sprinted, made an extraordinary leap even for Tornfar, and caught the side of the Memory Craft. I had to give him points for style. He even managed to keep the blade. The humans lowered their weapons, forbidden to fire outside their territory. I caught the looks they threw me and didn’t need them to be Mote-Dancers to understand their thoughts. I was on my own.
Awo()nom screamed at his mentor, and with my mind so close to the firelife, I received voice and translation as one. “Blasphemers! Siblings, do you not see? This human will poison the firelife with her madness! Help me!”
As he scrambled onto the deck, some of the Quixotes took up the cry.
“Okay,” Nicolai said, “this is where we bail. Good thing you’ve got gills.”
I shook my head and saw Omz look disoriented, still reaching for the firelife. We were so close. Soon Mnat would manifest, and I could beg her for a boon. Just a few more moments....
“I-Chen,” Nicolai said. “Go!”
“What’s wrong with you? What does he mean, you want to ‘poison the firelife?’”
“It’s me. Isn’t it. You didn’t want me to talk. You wanted to turn me into ‘honored dead.’”
He yanked his hand away from Omz’s and mine.
Omz reeled back.
I snarled, schemes unravelling.
I wouldn’t give up now, not after light-years and burns and fever.
Awo()nom rushed forward. He wasn’t going after me but after Omz. Of course—I wasn’t going to breach the firelife on my own. He could finish me off later.
I interrupted his plans, by stepping in his way.
Darkblade in my right hand, I grabbed my pistol with the left. Awo()nom couldn’t be sure it was out of juice. He stopped and raised his own blade.
At least he was after me, now. I backpedaled toward one of the spindly sails. Judging the wind, I slashed lines with the darkblade.
A boom spun and smacked Awo()nom over. Three legs quivered in the air as he struggled to rise.
But now a trio of Spinies advanced on Omz.
There was no hope now of meeting Mnat. It seemed I should simply jump. I’d be safe enough in the Sigil Sea, and Nicolai came with the package. Really, how bad could madness be?
I shook my head and rushed back to Omz. Sometimes that’s the only real freedom you get in life: to choose your own craziness.
I toppled the brazier with my foot, sparking the ceremonial conflagration an hour early. Hot coals scattered across the deck, igniting the wood. That distraction bought us a moment, so I got an arm around Omz and tugged him toward the rail. Born in higher gravity, I had raw strength at least. Omz protested but came along. Nicolai paced us, shouting warnings. He seemed to perceive things I couldn’t, as if he was spreading out his consciousness via the Motes.
Awo()nom was back, intercepting us at the rail. His darkblade lashed, and Omz, teetering at the brink, blocked with the bone flute.
The polished spine of dead Mnat shattered, and a streak of turquoise blood appeared on Omz’s chest, just above the mouth.
I tackled Awo()nom, losing my pistol overboard.
We each struggled to position our blades. I was a higher-gravity fighter, but Awo()nom had six limbs to my four. It would have made an interesting wrestling match, but unfortunately it was more a knife-fight. There came an almost gentle slice, and then a searing line of pain burned my right arm. Confused, I thought for a giddy moment I’d managed to cut Awo()nom too, as I spotted blood all over him; but it was red.
He scrambled away, balanced himself on one foot, and kicked with the other two. I whoofed and groaned and fell. Things went hazy. Disoriented, I heard my blade clatter, and I was mighty annoyed with whatever idiot had allowed herself to drop it.
Awo()nom raised his.
As he began the killing blow, Nicolai got in his way.
The Spiny didn’t appear to see him, but Nicolai screamed, “No!”
Awo()nom paused mid-swing, looking around for the source of the ghostly voice.
Screams erupted behind him.
I made myself rise, wobbling, clutching my bloody arm. The blaze crackled along the deck, hissing up the masts and roaring amidst the sails. Awo()nom, Nicolai, and I stood within a lucky pocket of safety, but everywhere else surged the dancing weave of fire. In my sight it intermingled with the Mote-visualized veils of light and the radiant ribbons of the aurora, until it seemed all the world ahead and above was a hysteria of light while behind and below writhed the dark chuckling sea.
In the midst of luminous chaos the three Quixotes who’d joined Awo()nom’s cause paused in shock. For beside them a spectral curtain of light intersected a wall of fire, and at the conjunction a figure emerged.
It was a Spiny, luridly lit by flame and sunset, an eerie gold nimbus all around.
“Mnat,” I heard Awo()nom gasp.
As if the spoken name were a signal, the ghost-Quixote raised a darkblade and slashed at one of the living. Her target fell, unmarked and yet quivering in pain.
The other two dropped into sudden three-kneed genuflection. I had never seen abasement so perfectly executed.
Mnat ignored them, strode toward us.
“You cannot approve!” Awo()nom screeched. “Humans must not defile the firelife!”
Omz, crouching by the rail, said, “It is dishonor that defiles the firelife, not the forms we are born with. You have proven that, my former student, by attacking a Sancho.”
Awo()nom looked all around him and snarled, swinging his weapon toward me. He reminded me of Toothsome, dying back in the sewer. I couldn’t move.
Simultaneously, Nicolai punched him and Mnat speared him with her darkblade.
There was no physical wound, but Awo()nom convulsed from this assault of ghosts. He staggered to the rail, toppled over.
Mnat took Nicolai’s hand.
“Yes,” Nicolai said. “I understand.” He turned to me. “I-Chen... she says I’m honored dead now. They’ll take me....”
“Nicolai,” I managed to say, “I can’t make you go. It will be an alien place. I don’t know if you’ll be happy. Do you want to stay?”
He watched me silently, then finally reached out and touched my shoulder. “I think, deep down, you know the answer, I-Chen. I was a navigator on Nightgift, remember, before you talked me into settling down. I like seeing new places.” He smirked. “But you have to tell me what you want. For your own sake.”
I closed my eyes, then made myself open them and meet his gold-brown gaze. Like the sunrise. “Nicolai. Please. Go into the firelife.”
He kissed me gently, feather-light.
Then he turned and followed Mnat into the conflagration. She raised her blade toward me as she back-stepped into the fire, blurred, and vanished.
I pulled off my ring and hurled it after them. It tinkled as it skittered into the flames. It seemed to me Nicolai knelt beside it within the blaze, as he too faded from view.
It was like a spike come loose from my skull, that reeling moment upon a hulk shaped like a burning brain when I gave my husband to another world.
In the dark before firstrise I sat dozing in the House of Flame and Spirits, wrapped in bandages, draped in intricately embroidered blankets portraying ancient Spinies and fanciful Glyph Lords. Our table nestled beside the kitchen, and the vinegar smell from the greenish soup Omz held beneath my nose made me gag, and gagging made me alert. Everything, body and mind, ached.
“Thank you ... Omz,” I was finally able to say. Rubbing my forehead, I looked up.
There was Nicolai, smiling beside the Sancho.
“No,” I said. “No....” Had it all been for nothing?
“I-Chen,” Nicolai said, “just stay calm.” He winked. “You forgot that the Motes aren’t really telepathy, and I’m not really a ghost. I’m a manifestation of your own thoughts. I belong to your brain. The most you could do is copy me, imperfectly, into the firelife.”
Omz said, “Now there are two of Nicolai, yours and ours.”
“Damn you,” I said to Omz, knocking the soup away. “Spiny bastard. You knew this would happen all along—”
I sensed Spiny minds nearby, flaring to red attention. But this time no one rose to throw me out. They were waiting, watching, giving me another chance.
“Yes, I-Chen Fisher.” Omz offered me a human nod. “You deceived me, secretly planning to offer Nicolai to the firelife. When I understood this, I chose not to enlighten you of the result. For I realized we had a chance to bring our peoples together, if only in this small way. I took that chance, for the sake of much more than your sanity.”
“I-Chen,” Nicolai said, just as kindly as before, but stopping me from striking Omz, before I got myself killed. Which maybe was what I wanted, just then.
“Look at me.”
I did. Now that I watched him carefully there was something different. There was a glow about him, not otherworldly glory of the firelife but a gentle haziness that smoothed away the snarls of his hair, straightened his posture a little. He sat carefully, like he was posing for a painting, and it was hard to imagine him wiping his nose.
“I’m not the same, I-Chen. You copied me, true. But you did more than give the other Nicolai to the firelife. You told him to go. You said goodbye.”
“Goodbye,” I whispered.
His image softened some more, and when he smiled, it was like Nicolai, yes, but it was also a little like my first love when I was eighteen, and like an old classmate from the academy, and maybe just a bit like a hunky model I’d seen in Epsilon Indi advertisements. I was losing him, had lost him years ago, but the message was now catching up to me like the final light from a dying star. My hands began to shake. I braided my fingers, feeling for my ring and finding only skin. The shaking moved up to my chest.
“I’m still here, I-Chen. But not like before. You broke something in me.” There was no recrimination in his voice, and no regret. “I’m less of an imprint and more of a memory, and I’ll get more that way all the time.”
I made myself breathe, slow and deep. It might be true. It might be terrible, maybe for a long time, but....
“It’ll be terrible,” Nicolai said, “maybe for a long time, but you will get better.” And I knew for certain then, that he was right about this.
That I was right about this.
I stood, somehow keeping my balance. Nicolai kept sitting, making no move to follow. To Omz I said, “I need to go look at the sea for a while. But I’ll come back. And if you’re still here I’ll buy you a drink. And then, if you don’t mind, I’d like to talk to you. About... people we’ve shared.”
Omz snorted. “It would please me.”
He looked up, and I said silently, I’d like to talk to you again too. Just for a while. But not right now. I want to be alone, now.
I wasn’t even pretending to send a message through the Motes. I was only thinking to myself. But I thought he said, “Whenever you want,” before he just wasn’t there anymore.
I nodded to Omz and walked past all the staring Spinies, out into the lights and scents and confusion of this mysterious city poised between night and dawn where I would never find him, even though every last skull held a piece of him, including my own. And that hurt like hell.