Chapter 1

From her desk in the archive chamber, Caulie Alexandrian watched the soldier edge through the door of her research lab. He was a Haphan, but there was nothing imperious in his bearing. He entered slowly, one shoulder first, his eyes darting through the space. She didn’t need the sash or its blood fringe to know what he was. It was in his caution, in the lean flesh that revealed every tendon in his neck. When he found Caulie’s main lab empty, he clenched his teeth, and the action played visibly across his temples.

“Some guy is here for you,” she whispered over her shoulder.

“Why do you think that?” Her friend Jephia didn’t look up from the glass book in her lap, but Caulie knew she’d already noticed and measured the man.

“Because he seems twitchy.”

“He’s fresh from the war,” Jephia said, turning a delicate page and running a finger over the glass. “Ed-homse province, to be specific—based on how he flips the collar of his coat.”

Now she was just showing off. Caulie turned back to her own glass notebook, which was much larger than Jephia’s. She had to keep it flat on the table to support its spine, so she couldn’t drape herself artfully across two chairs as her friend had. Not that she’d be able to pull it off anyways.

They were going through a collection of daggie memory glass that had finally arrived on loan from the Imperial Archive. Caulie’s notebook was a sheaf of ancient, paper-thin silicate that had once been a natural rock formation before its alien creator had peeled the stone apart and imprinted each layer with text and images. This notebook, along with three others, had been recovered from mountain caves several decades ago by archaeologists near Front East, but they were much older than that—older by nearly a thousand years. Reading and deciphering them was tricky; the memory glass had to adapt to the reader’s touch. Thus far, Caulie had managed to elicit a few snatches of daggie writing and only one moving image. For some reason, Jephia was much better at it.

Caulie couldn’t help herself. She glanced at the soldier again.

“He’s just standing there, Jeph. He knows you’re in here.”

“Ye gods,” Jephia mumbled, “it’s like I have a homing beacon. Unless he’s carrying a fresh brain stem from Ed-homse province, I’m not interested.”

Caulie watched as the soldier went stiff and turned her direction.

The man was frontline, so he’d spent time among the Polluted —the Tachba. Some of their mannerisms seemed to have rubbed off on him. It was almost as if a part of him wasn’t present in the room at all—as if his body was something he’d sent ahead to check for danger. Was that missing piece still at the front, or maybe floating around like a Tachba “ancestor”? Caulie knew about detachment syndrome from other behaviorists in her program who studied battle trauma. What if, until this soldier reintegrated into Haphan society, some fragment of his mind would always be searching, sensing, remembering?

It was irritating. He posed a question that Caulie couldn’t resist trying to answer, but she had no data to work with. She was bad with people, new people especially: she couldn’t simply dissect them, but she also couldn’t ask direct questions in polite conversation. She was further annoyed by whatever buried, unscholarly sensibility was causing her to waste time wondering about a random soldier—a soldier so intrusive that he was now touching her favorite Tachba skull—instead of getting on with her work.

She forced herself back to her notebook. The memory glass disliked new people as much as she did, and it gave only anemic responses. Were her fingertips not warm enough? Were all her sheets broken? Jephia’s notebook seemed more forthcoming. Was there something wrong with Caulie herself?

Jephia spoke: “Now he’s talking to your boyfriends.”

“Excuse me?”

“Your pet nervous systems.”

Caulie looked up and he was! The fibrous nerve mats were spread on display panels in the walls. They were kept alive in baths of nutritional broth and stimulated with recordings from the eternal front—shouted orders, artillery barrages, repeater rifles, the whole ambience—in order to keep them alert and engaged. The nerve tissue had been stained to increase its visibility, and the larger clusters were painted with an expensive nano-agent from the medical department that glowed to show metabolic activity.

The soldier spoke again. Caulie couldn’t hear what he said, but the nervous system nearest him flickered in response.

“He’ll confuse them!” she exclaimed. She jumped to her feet and made for the door.

Jephia turned a glass page slowly, saying, “That’s it, Caulie. Go give him what for.”

 

* * *

 

“These are still alive,” the soldier announced as she strode up.

“Of course they are, and I’ll ask you to kindly—”

“Watch this.” He turned to the panel. “Stop!”

Light played through the raft of nerves. If they had still been in their original body, the Tachba owner would have hesitated. No intervention from the brain was required, the larger clusters could make certain decisions independently. Stop was a useful word when a Tachba did something inadvisable—and if the textbooks were to be believed, they were always doing something inadvisable.

“Once they’re stop-trained, the Pollution takes over,” Caulie explained, instantly regretting her helpful tone. “You’ll forgive my incredible rudeness, but I must ask you to please—”

“Now watch this: Schaxx!”

The nervous system lit like a flare. The Tachba ex-owner would have locked solid and immobile, like a cleaning bot with its power switched off.

“The young man speaks Tachbavim,” Caulie said.

The soldier grinned at her. She stepped back.

“Well, miss, I know how to say stop. Or more commonly, ‘Oh gods, for all love, please stop.‘”

Schaxx doesn’t translate to stop,” she informed him. “That’s a common error. It’s more like ‘be receptive’ than ‘stop.’ Like opening a command prompt on a computer. You must follow up with more directions or the subject will gather environmental cues instead, and that’s a bad idea. You never know what the Pollution might decide.”

“Interesting.” The soldier studied the nervous system. “Where’s his brain?”

“For me, the brain only gets in the way.” Caulie flushed when the soldier raised an eyebrow. “I mean, brains are complicated. Hard to study. You never get clear data, and you have to talk to them. The Pollution is distributed processing, though. Those big clusters are rudimentary brains, and they’re all over the place like logic gates. At the top, those two strands plug into an auditory receptor. That’s all I’m interested in.”

The soldier was suddenly solemn. “This is the Pollution?”

“Some of it. The easiest part, maybe. Now again, I must please insist that—”

“What was his name?” This soldier was awfully good at interrupting her.

“You mean the name of the sample?” Caulie glanced at the fibrous tangle.

“I mean the name of the Tachba who once felt these nerves,” the soldier said softly, as if he was correcting her.

She puzzled for a moment, then shook her head. “I guess I assumed there was a warehouse somewhere.”

He seemed disappointed. “This one was from Ed-homse province, a clapper-dancer, a descendent of Queen Culleyho’s people.”

How did he know that? Caulie said, “You wouldn’t know him.”

“Ah, miss,” the soldier said. “I would know him precisely.”

Silence bloomed between them. The soldier moved down the line of display panels, his boot heels clicking on the tile floor. He walked past the nervous systems as if he was at a memorial rather than looking at lab samples.

Caulie couldn’t help herself. “A person might wonder how you knew the sample came from Ed-homse.”

“An educated insight. He’s obviously a clapper-dancer, and the clappers are all from Ed-homse province. A fat lot of inbreds.”

It was exactly as she feared: no answer and more questions. “Now the person wonders the same thing about how you knew he was a ‘clapper-dancer.‘”

The soldier returned to the first display panel. He raised his hands and beat out a soft rhythm, fingers against palm. The nerve tissue flickered.

“I saw it when I walked in. This fellow noticed my gait. The Tachba men in my unit—boots, we call them—told me about it. They told me how everyone has a signature stride, and that’s how they know when a Haphan overlord is approaching and they should make themselves presentable. With practice, I was able to change my gait and give them a few surprises. It was useful.” He shrugged. “You wouldn’t believe what the Tacchies get up to when they think they aren’t being supervised.”

Caulie already knew all this from her research. What was interesting was that the soldier knew it too. It was as if her hard-won insight was commonplace knowledge at the front. More questions, more and more, all of them proposing to steal time and attention she couldn’t spare. Caulie let her curiosity take hold. “I wonder what that rhythm was, which you just tapped out.”

“A mountain song. The Ed-homse Tachba are highly attuned to rhythm, all of them. Makes the feet move, the arms twitch. If you believe the folk tales, they don’t even have to be alive to make them dance. Their music up in those mountains is like nothing you’ve ever heard. When it gets them dancing for real”—his eyes flickered—”it’s a goddamn nightmare to see.”

The door to the archive chamber slammed open and Caulie jumped. The soldier, for all his earlier tension, swiveled smoothly toward the sound.

“Stop pestering those poor nervous systems,” Jephia snapped, striding forward. “The whole point is to isolate their inputs so she can study their response to stimuli.”

“Then turn off their audio receptors,” the soldier suggested.

“They need environmental exposure or they go wonky. You’re interrupting their playtime.” Jephia’s frown was replaced by a gleaming smile, but only for a moment. “Why are you here, soldier, and why don’t you have insignia on your coat? What are you trying to hide?”

“I’m not permitted to answer questions.” The man let that hang a moment. “If I wore my insignia, I’d be deflecting questions all day.”

“So instead you chat with nerve clusters in the wall?”

The soldier tipped his head as he regarded Jephia. Caulie imagined what this man had been like before the eternal front. He was tall for the average Haphan, but still several inches shorter than Caulie. Cute in a ruffled way, one of those almost-handsome guys you see with eyes that are just slightly too round. With his unimposing presence and slim body, he would have mixed unremarkably into the university crowds, was it not for those eyes. On a student, they would give the impression of permanent exam-day anxiety. On this soldier, they seemed to see everything.

Caulie also noticed Jephia’s appearance going to work on the man. He studied her, then latched and didn’t turn away. Jephia was more than the university’s most important graduate assistant; she was also the acknowledged beauty of the campus. Her silver-blonde hair, the stylish outfits, the understated jewelry that a professor’s salary couldn’t buy, those cheekbones, that figure—all of it made for a captivating presence. It was as if her friend elicited a kind of benign Pollution in everyone she met. Her saving grace, in Caulie’s opinion, was how she quickly made others look past her beauty.

As she did now: “Stop leering at me and stop trying to impress my friend, you twitchy scarecrow. Your sash and your sob stories about the front will get you nowhere with us. Isn’t there a college bar nearby where you can impress some coeds?”

“I’m sure there is,” the soldier said, “but I’m here on business.”

Jephia looked him up and down. “You don’t seem to be festooned with body parts from the front. Unless you have a delivery for my friend to sign, I’ll kindly ask you to get the fuck out.”

To Caulie’s surprise, the soldier seemed indifferent to Jephia’s tirade. Her friend’s brand of talk was simply not heard in Haphan society, and certainly not with that aristocratic accent. She had cultivated a reputation for bluntness, though “cultivated” was the perhaps the wrong word.

“You remind me of the war, miss,” the soldier told her genially. “You’d be wonderful on the line. You already talk like a Tachba, and you’re a woman, so they’d treat you like a minor god.”

“There’s nothing minor about me,” Jephia snapped, though the hint of a smile touched her lips. Caulie knew that was calculated too—the man was supposed to gather that he was on the right path.

“Indeed not,” the soldier grinned back.

Caulie saw where this was going and was grateful, mostly. She’d be able to return to her memory glass notebooks soon. On the scale that balanced a peculiar soldier who spoke a few words of Tachbavim and a text written by an alien who had dominated a kingdom of Tachba a thousand years ago—well, she knew which would pay off down the line.

“You must be Dr. Caulie Alexandrian,” the soldier said.

“I must be?” Jephia traded glances with Caulie. “I wonder why a handsome young warfighter would think I am Dr. Alexandrian?”

“The students up the hall said I could find you here. They told me to talk to the social misfit.”

Jephia laughed outright.

“That would be me,” Caulie said, blushing. “They meant me. I’m Caulie.”

If the soldier was embarrassed, it didn’t show on his face. He turned back to her and gave a shallow bow from the hip. “My name is Lieutenant Seul Tan Luscetian, lately tasked to Front East, in Ed-homse. Acquaintance.”

Caulie had no choice but to curtsey in return. “Acquaintance. May I introduce my assistant, the Lady Jephesandra Liu Tawarna.”

Lady?” The soldier finally looked surprised. “I would have never guessed.”

Now would have been Jephia’s chance to blush, had she been the blushing type.

“Dr. Alexandrian,” the soldier said, turning back to her, “I must speak with you in private.”

“Private?” Caulie’s knees trembled. “But why?”

Luscetian took her hand and looped it through his arm. Before she could understand the gesture—this sort of thing didn’t happen to her—he was already guiding her to the hallway outside the lab. She shot a frightened glance at her friend, who understood and nodded.

“Lieutenant, a moment!” Jephia said. “You noticed our clapper-dancer … that bundle of nerves over there.”

Luscetian’s eyes returned to the display. He raised an eyebrow.

“Caulie didn’t know this man, but I did,” Jephia said. “He was a young Tachba afflicted with exceptionally high levels of Pollution. He volunteered out of the trenches to be our test subject. He worked with my research group.” She touched the display briefly with her fingertips, as if she were stroking memory glass. “He was sweet. Baffling but sweet. He killed himself. I mean, he jumped off a twelve-story building, but we think he meant to kill himself. It wasn’t the regular daredevil sort of thing. He had complained earlier that the university was too quiet.”

“Quiet is a euphemism for crowded,” Luscetian said. “He meant the air was crowded with ancestors.”

“We didn’t realize at the time. Our building is beside the parade field where the drummers practice. Someone left a window open.”

“Ah,” was all the soldier said.

Jephia said, “We called him Pherrie. His name was Phalantic Pherrusan.”

“Thank you,” the soldier said. “That’s a proper Ed-homse name.”

“It is.” Jephia’s softness evaporated. “Now that I’ve shown a moment of friendliness, I’d like to know when I’ll get little Caulie back? We’re in the middle of delicate and long-overdue research.” She gave a wicked smile. “When will the young man be done using her?”

Caulie felt her face grow dangerously hot.

“I’m afraid Dr. Alexandrian won’t be free for further research,” he replied. “She’s been called to service by the army. She’s going to the eternal front.”