Staff-General Eita had avoided her beloved’s hulk for thirty-two years, but the time had come to pry its rusted heart from the sand.
Nothing less would goad her nation into the war it needed.
Eita trudged across the desiccated plain of the Arhel Basin, her knees aching from the endless strikes of foot against gravelly earth. The two avatars floated behind her at a respectful distance, invisible but ever-present in the hum of their crystal rotors.
Sweat pooled at her hat band and dripped down the back of her neck. Only a madwoman would continue trekking so close to midday, but the journalist avatar needed to see her well-lit and determined beneath the glaring sun, still the indomitable war hero despite her years. She had promised them an image to remember, and she would not rest until she laid eyes on the graveyard.
She sipped water from her flask, then tightened the straps on her pack. She could still flex her influence and skip all this trudging. She could shout at the Directorate avatar, demand someone send a crawler to carry her to her destination. But then only the most self-deluded loyalists would believe her trip was a personal pilgrimage.
The Chancellor had wished her well and granted her a leave of absence, his broad sharp smile tuned for a dozen journalists. If she tipped her hand, she would embarrass him as well, and punishment would find her soon enough.
Pity that a manipulable Chancellor meant an erratic Chancellor.
She climbed a low mesa of aged artificial stone, the dead roots of what had once been a human-made island. The concrete crumbled beneath her hands, and grains of the original sand spilled free. In the valley before her, shapes of black and rust jutted from the dusty stonescape. Shapes she knew well. Piles of shattered machinery, the tilted iron forms of half-buried anchors. No amount of distance could blur the hulls’ shapes, each one cracked and weathered but still curved like a hand against skin.
Rotor-hum grew louder, and the journalist avatar’s glittering oblong body settled alongside her. Their crisp voice said, “Can you tell whether any of those pieces come from the Vanguard?”
“I couldn’t tell you which.” Eita’s countless hours of media training let the words flow unimpeded from her throat. “But we’re looking at the Vanguard right now.”
Eita turned halfway and let the journalist see her in profile, as if her legs and heart could endure the trek forever. “I’ll camp up here for the day. Another night and a half of travel, and we’ll enter the graveyard of the Battle of Arhel Sea.”
She set up her tent, then lay alone in its shadowy respite, hot and unsleeping. The Directorate avatar hovered close by, their weapon-studded body refracting sunlight onto her tent. They could call themselves a bodyguard, but she knew they were watching more closely for threats coming from inside her tent. The security services would cut her adrift for an extra scrap of the Chancellor’s favor. She had done the same, to magistrates and admirals foolish enough to leave the capital for long.
Eita rolled onto her side and tried again to imagine the currents of synchrony, the flow of living power drawn up around her from a thousand shards of crystal waiting inside every bulkhead and piece of equipment. But she had seen the graveyard, and now she knew the shape of her lover’s wreck. Broken hulls and crystal bones filled the spaces of her memory, starker than the too-familiar illusion of loving touch.
Another night of travel, toward ruins too low to block the stars. This time, Eita stopped at dawn and pitched her tent beneath the blueing sky. The Directorate avatar flew in a patrol circle, and the journalist avatar recorded the first fingers of dawn spreading across the faded sand.
What people were monitoring the avatars’ paired crystals, back within the Polity’s borders? She could envision the Directorate agent: one of the Chancellor’s young loyalists, smug and bitter with victory. But this journalist avatar came from the Dispatch. Risky, but she needed to reach the citizens who still clung to independent news sources.
She could understand their skepticism. She had felt the same during the Chancellor’s rise. He saw the Polity’s degeneracy and divisions, but he failed to understand their source. Indolence and selfishness, the consequences of peace. A people so fallen they could elect someone who blamed the nation’s decline on everyone except his audience, whomever his listeners might be.
When she agreed to work for him, she’d planned to resign within a year and amplify her denunciation with that time of service. But she’d come to understand the benefits of the Chancellor’s recklessness. His every divisive policy, from privatized transport to migration controls, was accelerating the nation’s long unraveling. The fabric needed a good yank before a war could realign it to a unified weave.
Eita scanned the brightening sky for the journalist avatar. She would need their complicity, before they reached the graveyard. She dug into her pack, drew out the round-sided box of her conjurer, and set it on a patch of bare rock. The conjurer woke to a press of a button, no synchrony skills needed. It glowed, a flicker of light from its crystal lining. Eita popped open the lid and drew out a brick of pressed biscuit, then ran through the cycle again for a sweet block that could pass for dried fruit.
The journalist avatar hummed close. “You have enough power for a conjurer?”
“This one draws power all the way from home. Hundreds of miles, can you believe it? Just a test model, but I’m told they should be for sale later this year. Produced right at home in the Polity, of course.” She tapped the lid, next to the maker’s logo. “The Chancellor was right. We can accomplish great things again, now that we keep our crystals and people at home where they belong.”
Old epigraphology, not innovation, but only the senior military would recognize its source. Not a scam, but certainly a fraud, and the Chancellor probably knew. Profits abounded for anyone whose support propped up his regime.
She would’ve done exactly the same in his stead. She was doing exactly the same, right then. Product placement for a profiteer, a scoop for a journalist, and both of them drawn closer into her orbit.
The journalist avatar lifted their rotors to the top of their body and settled onto the sand. “Staff-General, do you have time for a few questions? I was wondering whether this was the first time you’ve visited the Arhel Basin since it formed.”
The voice sounded more sonorous today, a sign of a different speaker. The avatars never rested; their operators must work in shifts. How much time did the journalist spend controlled by some fierce young idealist, versus by a jaded old hand like herself?
She said, “Before I answer, can you confirm that you’ve agreed to the ground rules?” She unsealed her tent and sat in the shadow of its opening. “My press officer sent them to your head office last month.”
“Of course, ma’am. We’re honored you chose us to accompany you. This isn’t going out live.”
Eita brought up her camera smile. “This is my first visit to the Basin, of course. I wanted to come after the treaty of ’74, but at that point it was still too dangerous for a Polity citizen out here.”
“But not anymore.”
“Certainly. But that’s only part of why I came now.” She let her head drift with calculated idleness, angled north toward the distant graveyard. “I’ve felt so hemmed-in, lately. No room to breathe and expand. I asked the Chancellor for a leave of absence so I could see the rest of the world, and remember how beautiful this place was before the Polity lost it.”
In her youth, the freshwater Arhel Sea had extended for hundreds of miles in every direction, blooming with life and irrigation water, connecting the mountain Polity to the world. But the shoreline nations goaded each other into jealousy, and the Polity sent out its experimental warships to protect its fishing-grounds and artificial islands.
All five ships of the Dreaming Flotilla perished. When the Vanguard‘s chief officers burned to death in starshell fire, Synchrony Officer Eita whispered her beloved ship into a final counterstrike. Because of them, the islanders finished their evacuation. Thousands of lives saved.
By the time she left the prisoner of war camp, the Polity had completed its dam, and Arhel Sea had shrunk with every passing season.
She offered her distracted-old-lady smile. “I’m sorry, could you repeat the question? It’s been a long morning.”
“Some of the Polity’s less-responsible media used to spread lurid rumors about your relationship with the Vanguard. Would you like to disabuse our viewers of those myths?”
Elegantly-pitched question. The journalist knew what kinds of questions they could get away with. Eita said, “We fought side by side, and it gave its life for me. We shared... Anyone who’d seen battle would understand. The Vanguard meant as much to me as any soldier’s squadmate. I don’t understand why some people think there’s anything rumor-worthy in that kind of attachment.”
She forced her shoulders down and waited for the follow-up. The military had developed elaborate debriefing procedures for Synchrony Officers, to efface the bonds that grew from minds entwined. Eita had spent those months and years in the camp, with only memories to sustain her.
The avatar said, “Thank you, General. I’ll let you get some rest.”
She gave the journalist her best grandmotherly smile, then yanked the tent’s zipper shut.
Moonlight spread the first bone’s shadow across the sand. An anchor that had tipped halfway over, one fluke buried in a duneside, the rusted haft exposed.
The two avatars hung back, barely in earshot. Eita could imagine this moment’s voiceover: “Military crystals thread every inch of a Dreaming Warship, and those automated defenses have kept away looters for thirty-two years. The Vanguard‘s systems will recognize Staff-General Eita, but she can’t be sure whether the other wrecks will grant her the same protection.”
The journalist avatar might catch an award-worthy image, if they showed a bit more courage.
She laid her hand against rusted iron, and a faint glow suffused the metal like coals beneath ash. She dragged her fingertips along roughness until the surface grew warmer than the night-desert air.
An anchor held enough crystal to scald her. But if any fragment held enough awareness to answer her call, it would never hurt her.
For three decades, she had only used her skills in memory and imagination. Her dreams had kept them sharp. She closed her eyes and extended her senses through the iron until she could catch its thread, tiny and inchoate.
She subvocalized, “What was your name?”
<I am the Cataract‘s anchor.> A simple vibration, like the echo of a wind-up toy, barely a voice at all.
“Do you know where the Vanguard lies?”
<I am the Cataract‘s anchor. The Vanguard is our sibling.>
She reached through the crystal, followed its reverberations. Another thread, then the next. The Cataract‘s pieces, scattered and few, but enough for her to draw together and synchronize.
She joined the fragments of its mind, and it soothed her even more than she remembered.
The Cataract‘s ghost said, <I know where the Vanguard rests. Some of its pieces lie among my own, but most of it waits beyond. Find my stern, and then my rudder. Near there, a trickle of water carries dissolved fragments of the Vanguard‘s engine. Follow the streamlet, and you may find its heart.>
She opened her eyes. Time resumed. Lights dotted the night like lumps of charcoal among ash, bone after bone lit with the fire of resurrection.
Not resurrected. Only conjured, as if she were some storybook necromancer, seeking succor from a ghost.
Still, the journalist avatar would regret missing this view. She tested the threads in her grasp, but none of them connected to the avatars. Her traveling companions were built from crystals aligned to screens and controls in the Polity, not any of the ruins in this fallen field.
Probably for the best that the journalist’s puppet-strings lay beyond her reach. The Polity needed its illusion of a free press.
Eita sank back into synchrony and whispered one last silent request. “Sleep, my friend. Lay your weapons down, and fear no visitors.”
<I have no weapons. No power for you or anyone else to fear.>
“Nothing will harm any part of you, for as long as I live.”
The Cataract‘s embers flickered. In unison at first, then separately, until the spans of darkness outlasted the light. When only moon and stars dotted the universe, the metal cooled beneath Eita’s hand.
She beckoned to the avatars and led them deeper into the graveyard.
The moon set, the sun rose, and she pitched her tent beside the cracked fin of the Cataract‘s rudder. It stood in the middle of a wadi, where a line of dampness threaded a flat bed of sand. She reflexively checked a pocket for her link, then made the Directorate avatar confirm the weather. No rain coming to wash her away, nowhere between here and the dam.
Assuming the Directorate avatar’s operator had read a real forecast. If the intrigues around the Chancellor had transformed her into today’s villain, a flash flood would make a convenient end.
The journalist avatar was collecting images of a grey-skinned lizard in the shade of a tilted rock. She shook out her shoes, and sand grains tumbled down to join their kin. The journalist said, “Where do you stand on the debate about building new Dreaming Ships?”
“I’m all for it. I’ve always hoped the Polity’s youth could experience those wondrous ships the way I did.” A self-deprecating smile. “Except with a real victory.”
She had lost everything she loved, in the Battle of Arhel Sea. She, more than any politician or profiteer, held the authority to lead the Polity into a new war where the people could fight side by side, like woman and ship united against a common foe.
It never mattered who the enemy was. Only that one existed, for the nation to fear and hate together.
The journalist said, “Are you going to collect any physical artifacts from your trip? Our sources say the large-scale epigraphology was lost after the Teile scandal, so wefzzt—”
The avatar dropped to the ground with a chuff of crystal against sand.
The Directorate avatar buzzed toward them, their globe-studded body flying fast and low, and downdraft-blown sand eddied in their wake. “Don’t be alarmed, Staff-General. Just a bit of jamming, I’ll let them back in momentarily. Please don’t answer that question.”
Eita resisted the urge to hurl her shoe at them. “My press officer knows her job. Stick to your own.”
“You shouldn’t take chances with national security, General. The enemies of the people can turn up anywhere. At the Dispatch. And other places.”
“Is that right.” She glared at their lens and whet her voice with scorn. “Evil under every stone these days, I imagine.”
“You have a long record of service to the Polity,” they said, all too casually. “Most of it under past regimes. Alongside a lot of people who sold out our country and let it rot.”
Eita picked up the fallen avatar and extended her senses into their crystal. A single thread, with no soul of its own, carved with same long-range techniques as her conjurer. If not for the Directorate’s interference, she might press her mind against a journalist who’d woken at dawn for a scrap of access.
She tossed the avatar back into the sand. “The Chancellor trusts my judgment, and so should you.”
The Directorate avatar tipped their rotors and retreated without another word.
The day’s heat pressed Eita into sleep, hour after fitful hour.
Eita awoke to one more night without a flood. She trekked along the wadi, softer sand woven with red streaks from minerals and the setting sun. Every so often, she dipped her fingertips in the blood-warm ground, listened for a familiar echo, then quickened her steps.
Ahead of her, a hull drew ever closer, iron and lacquer over ribs of crystal. It could have belonged to any ship. It could only have belonged to the Vanguard.
She forced herself to wait. She ate a meal, set up her solar still, pitched her tent and paced around it, waiting for the sunlight. The hull of her lover tilted only a few degrees from upright, its keel steadied by a dune of wind-trapped sand. Her story would burrow deeper into the Polity’s hearts, if they could watch the moment when their hero regained her ship.
The avatars floated into position, and she tried to let them see her emotions. She hardly knew what expression to assume, let alone a word for it. Thirty-two years had passed since she and the Vanguard had been merged. Since their victory. Since their defeat. Since she let it die.
But some things surpassed even death.
She took one last step, drew in a lungful of throat-cracking air, and laid her hand against the hull.
“Vanguard. I’m back.”
<I am the Vanguard. You are my synchrony.>
She twisted one whisper to another and built the ghost piece by piece. The process moved more easily this time: the Vanguard‘s fragments outnumbered the Cataract‘s, and her beloved recognized her, like a scarf rising to the knitter’s hands.
<Synchrony Officer Eita. Such joy to feel your hands and words assemble me again.>
“I’ve missed you. I’ve missed us.”
<And I’ve yearned for you in equal measure. No, I lie; in your absence, I did not possess enough to dream. Each piece of me was a broken compass, spinning alone. But your touch reminds me of north.>
She rose beyond the limits of frail old flesh. She was a loom, component and creator of a grand tapestry, every filament contributing to a single purpose.
But what purpose remained, when so many threads lay broken?
<The same as always.>
She hadn’t subvocalized. But the Vanguard always knew her thoughts. “What do you mean?”
<Once, we gave our lives to protect my siblings and yours. All of us now lie shattered, but I still hold strength enough to protect my companions.>
Noble still, after so many years broken. “The same hero as always. I’m so proud of you. But you won’t need to protect them for much longer. We’ll rebuild you. We can sail once more.”
<If you ask, I will follow. But I do not seek reconstruction.>
“Why not? We’ll be together again. And this time we’ll get the whole Polity behind us.”
<I wish I could resume my old self, if only to make you happy. But with your mind holding me whole, I can see what I’ve become. Smaller, perhaps. But something new. Just as you have.>
Her thoughts tangled. “It’s been a long time. But we still need you. I need you. We need to stay together, stay strong, for the war to come.”
<Look around you, love. No weapons, no engines. Perhaps if I still had those, I might long for different things. My power suffices to guard what we achieved, and to watch over this quiet land. Let my bones stand as testament to the beauty of our rest, and the victory you and I achieved.>
Her grip loosened. Had she come so far, only to be spurned?
<Please. I am glad you came. But let me sleep, my love.>
She lifted her head and wept, like a child after the vanishing of light.
She had to emerge from her tent eventually.
The last light of sunset painted her lover’s corpse with orange and oxblood. Corpse. She had used a hundred variations of that word. Graveyard, wreck, bones. Yet still she’d expected—
“Staff-General. Your press officer said you wanted to talk about your experience with the Vanguard?”
She waved the avatar away. “A moment.”
They hovered just out of arm’s reach. The Directorate avatar paused in their distant patrol and rose to the lip of a rusted funnel. Eita could not tell who they were watching, her or the other avatar.
She shouldered past the journalist and stomped up the dune, toward the Vanguard‘s shattered hull. Sand slid beneath her feet, lengthening the distance with every stride.
She stopped. If she raised that ghost again, she would learn nothing new. The Vanguard would remain dead. She would still be alive. Their union existed only in memory, and no dream or deed could recreate it.
She was proud of what the Vanguard had become. Would it say the same of her, if she asked?
She’d trekked across the desert, shilled, misled. All to awaken the Polity to brotherhood and sisterhood of old, to the bonds they could only forge in battle against a common foe.
A dream anchored in the glories of the past.
The journalist’s crisp voice said, “General?”
She turned away from the hull and bared her face to the avatars. “I’m ready now. This is going to be breaking news. If you’d like to transmit live, you have my permission. Tell my press officer: code Jay-Seven-Avalanche.”
Grief muddied her thoughts, but she had her speech prepared: “The Vanguard lives. Its pieces may lie scattered in the sand, but when I came for them, they still synchronized. I should’ve returned here years ago. We all should’ve returned here years ago. We’ve abandoned the Dreaming Flotilla, abandoned the world to petty nations happy to see a bowl of dust instead of beauty.”
It would’ve been a good speech. But all her lies and propaganda could offer her people only a ghost.
She slid a hand behind her back, touched the hull, and drew together two threads of the Vanguard. On a rusted funnel, lightning flashed. The Directorate avatar tumbled out of sight, too distant to hear the clang of iron and falling crystal.
She took a deep breath. The journalist hadn’t noticed, their lens focused on her face. She could only hope the right human was working its control booth this evening.
“The Vanguard is dead. But I journeyed here to use it for political ends, with the Chancellor’s support. If you think a real pilgrimage comes with a journalist avatar, you’re much too trusting.”
The journalist twitched. “Ma’am, you’re lucky I didn’t go live. I can’t transmit that.” They tilted. “Hold on. Your press officer says—”
Eita dropped her hand atop the avatar and tugged.
She reached down their long-range connections, one thread to the next, from avatar to control booth to screens beyond. She joined the fragments in their countless thousands and drew half the homes in the Polity into synchrony. Filled them with the soul of words spoken, and the words to come.
“We’ve lost a lot in the last thirty years. But no amount of violence will restore what’s lost. No amount of lies will help us face our grief. If anyone tells you they can bring back the past, they’re trying to con you.” She gave the lens her war-hero glare. “The Polity is under attack. Not from any foreigner, but from people—from leaders—who want to use you for profit, war, and pride. I should know. I’ve been one of them.”
She added a few names. A general, an intermediary, a profiteer. Enough information to keep everyone busy and to hint at all the ammunition she carried in reserve.
Eita lingered in the synchrony, flush with strength from touching every corner of the Polity. Crystals without number, their only soul a nation’s echo. She broke the connection, shivered in the evening warmth, and tucked the avatar under her arm.
The sun fell behind the horizon, golden light replaced by the pale dim clarity of the moon. She could hold out a long time. She had her solar still, her conjurer, and wrecks that would die a hundred times more to protect her. She might be able to reach some other country’s borders. Or she could try to unify her nation from right here, alongside her lover’s rusted heart.