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A humble beancounter lived in Regio City near the middle of the world. Those of her credentials known outside the Sodality were modest but respectable. By dint of dedicated service and her particular gift, she had won herself a lowly but (she hoped) secure position with the Arxon’s considerable staff of publicani. Still, on a certain summer’s smorning, she carelessly allowed her heart to be seduced by the sight of a remarkable orange-furred cat, a rough but handsome bully of the back alleys. He stood outside her door, greeting the smallday in fine yodeling voice, claws stropped to a razor finish, whiskers proud like filaments of new brass.

“Here, puss,” she called into the dusty lane.

The beancounter poured milk into a blue-rimmed bowl, inviting this cat inside the doorway of her little house, which was located in the noisy, scrofulous Leechcraft District. She watched the elegant animal lapping, and pressed the palms of her hands together in front of her modest but respectable breast.

“I believe I shall name you Ginger,” she told the cat with considerable satisfaction.

The orange cat sat back and licked his whispers delicately, then bent to attend to his hindquarters, raising one leg. Holding the leg in the air he gave her a sour look.

“For Skydark’s sake,” said the cat, “must I abide this arrant sentimentality?” He nosed a little more, then lowered his leg and rose to all four feet, still bristling. “In any event, if you’re interested, I already possess a name.”

The beancounter had fallen upon her bottom, goggling at the loquacious and shockingly illegal animal.

“You can spea—” But she cut off the rest of the banal sentence that was about to escape her mouth, which she clamped shut. The cat gave her a sardonic glance and returned to the bowl, polishing off the last of the milk.

“Slightly rancid, but what else can you expect in this weather? Thank you,” he added, and made for the door.

As the luminous tip of his tail vanished, the beancounter cried, “Then what is your name, sir?”

“Marmalade,” the cat said, in a muffled tone. And then he was gone.

At the sleeping hour, she sat on piled cushions in a nook, peeling and eating slivers of a ripe golden maloon, and read to herself verses from a sentimental book, for she had nobody else to speak them to her. She read these tender verses by the guttering light of an oil-fruit lamp, the blood mounting in her cheeks. Secretly she knew it was all make-believe and artful compensation for a delayed life held pendant in her late mother’s service, and she was ashamed and depressed by her fate. The beancounter was comely enough, but her profession stank in the nostrils of general company. Suitable men approached her from time to time, in the tavern, perhaps, or at a concert, and expressed an initial interest in flattering terms. Every one of them swiftly recoiled in distaste when he learned of her trade. To a handsome poet she had tried an old justification: “It is a punishment, not a life-long deformity!” The fellow withdrew, refusing her hand.

She put the verses aside and brooded for several moments on the augmented beast. Had it been lurking all this time in the forests, mingling in plain sight with its witless kin of the alleys? It seemed impossible, unless its kind were more intelligent and devious than human people. Could it have fallen from above, from the dark heights above the Heights? Nothing of that kind had been bruited for thousands of years; she had always supposed such notions were the stuff of mythology, inventedand retold generation after generation to frighten children and keep them obedient. Yet her mother’s Sodality teachings verged on that conceit, if you stopped listening for allegory and metaphor and accepted her teachings at face value.

Bonida shuddered, and lay down on her bedding. Sleep would cure these phantasms.

The very next sday, the cat came back. The beancounter awoke, nostrils twitching. The brute had placed a pungent calling card on her doorstep. He sat with his back to her as she opened the door, and finally turned with a lordly demeanor and allowed her to invite him in. She put a small flat plate of offal on the floor next to her kitchen table. The animal sniffed, licked, looked up disdainfully.

“What is this muck?”

She regarded him silently, caught between irritation, amusement, and suppressed excitement. She detected no machine taint, yet surely this was a manifest or, less likely, the luckless victim of one, ensnared in the guise of a beast. She had waited all her life for such an encounter.

After a long moment, the cat added, “Just messin’ wid you. Lighten up, woman.” He bent his thickly furred orange head to the plate and gulped down his liver breakfast.

The beancounter broke her own fast with oaten pottage, sliced fruits and the last of the milk (it was going off, the cat was right) mixed in a beautifully glowing glazed bowl in radiant reds, with a streak of hot blue, from the kiln in Crockmakers’ Street. She spooned it up swiftly, plunged her bowl and the cat’s emptied dish into a wooden pail of water, muttered the cantrip of a household execration, a device of the Sodality. The water hissed into steam, leaving the crockery cleansed but hot to the touch.

“Marmalade, if you’re going to stay here—”

“Who said anything about staying?” the cat said sharply.

If, I said. Or even if you mean to visit from time to time, I should introduce myself.” She put out one small hand, fingers blue with ink stains. “I’m Bonida.”

Marmalade considered the fingers, while scratching rapidly for a moment behind his ear. He replied before he was done with his scratch, and the words emerged in a curious burble, as if he were speaking while gargling. “I see. All right.” Somewhat to her surprise, he stood, raised his right front paw with dignity and extended it. Her fingertips scarcely touched the paw before it was withdrawn, not hastily, but fast enough to keep Bonida in her place. She smiled secretly.

“You may sit on my lap if you wish,” she told the cat, moving her legs aside from the table and smoothing her deep blue skirt.

“Surely you jest.” The cat stalked away to investigate a hole in the wainscoting, returned, sat cattycorner from her and groomed diligently. Bonida waited for a time, pleased by the animal’s vivid coat, then rose and made herself an infusion of herbs. “So,” the cat said, with some indignation. “You make the offer, you snatch it away.”

“Soon I must leave for my place of employment,” she told him patiently. “If you are still here when I return, there will be a bowl of milk for you.”

“And the lap?”

“You are always welcome on my lap, m’sieur,” she said, and drank down her mug of wake-me-up, coughing hard several times.

“You’d certainly better not be thinking of locking me in!”

“I shall leave a window ajar,” she told him, head reeling slightly from the stimulating beverage. She cleared her throat. “That’s dangerous in this neighborhood, you know, but nothing is too good for you, my dear pussycat.”

The cat scowled. “Sarcasm. I suppose that’s preferable to foolish sentimental doting. I’ll spare you the trouble.” With an athletic spring, he was across the floor and at the door. “Perhaps I’ll see you this evening, Bonida Oustorn, so have some more of that guts ready for me.” And was off, just the tip of his orange tail flirted at the jamb, curiously radiant in the dim ruby light of the Skydark.

Bonida stared thoughtfully. “So you knew my name all along,” she murmured, fetching her bonnet. “Passing strange.”

Above the great ramparts of the Heights, which themselves plunged upward for twenty-five kilometers, the Skydark was an immense contusion filling most of heaven, rimmed at the horizon by starry blackness. In half a greatday, forty sdays, Regio City would stand beneath another sky displaying blackness entire choked with bright star pinpoints, and a bruised globe half as wide as a man’s hand at arm’s length, with dull, tilting rings, a diminutive, teasing echo of the Skydark globe itself. Then the Skydark would be lost to sight until its return at dawn, when its faint glow would once again relentlessly drown out the stars, as if it were swallowing them.

These were mysteries beyond any hope of resolution. Others might yet prove more tractable.

The vivid, secret ambition of this woman, masked by an air of diffidence, was to answer just one question, the cornerstone of her late mother’s cryptic teaching in the Sodality, and one implication of that answer, whatever it might be: What, precisely, was the nature of the ancient Skyfallen Heights; and from whence (and why) were they fallen? That obscurity was linked by hidden tradition, although in no obvious way, to the ancient allegory of Lalune, the Absent Goddess.

Certainly it had been no part of her speculations, entertained since late childhood, to venture that the key to the mystery might be a cat, one of the supposedly inarticulate creatures from lost Earth, skulking in this city positioned beside the world-girdling and all-but-impassable barrier of the Heights. Now the possibility occurred to her. It seemed too great a coincidence that the orange beast had insinuated himself into her dismal routine in the very week dedicated to the Sodality’s summer Plenary. Marmalade had designs upon her.

With an effort, Bonida put these matters out of her mind, patiently showing her identity scars as she entered the guarded portico of the district Revenue Agency. As always, the anteroom to her small office, one of five off a hexagonal ring, stank with the sweat of the wretches awaiting their appointments. She avoided their resentful gaze, their eyes pleading or reddened with weeping and rage. At least nobody was howling at the moment. That would come soon enough. Seated at her desk, check-marking a document of assessment with her inky nib, she read the damning evidence against her first client. Enough pilfering to warrant a death sentence. Bonida closed her eyes, shook her head, sighed once, and called his name and her room number through the annunciator.

“You leave the Arxon no choice,” she told the shaking petitioner. A powerfully built farmer from the marginal croplands along the rim of Cassini Regio, and slightly retarded, Bai Rong Bao had withheld the larger portion of his tax for the tenth part of a greatyear. Was the foolish fellow unaware of the records kept by the bureaucracy, the zeal with which these infractions were pursued and punished? Perhaps not unaware, but somehow capable of suppressing the bleak knowledge of his eventual fate. As, really, were they all, if the doctrines of the Sodality were justified true knowledge, as her mother had insisted.

“I just need more time to pay,” the man was blubbering.

“Yes, farmer Bai, you will indeed pay every pfennig owed. But you have attempted very foolishly to deceive our masters, and you know the penalty for that. One distal phalange.” Her hand was tingling. Her loathing for the task was almost unendurable, but it was her duty to endure it.

“Phal—What’s that?” He clutched his hands desperately behind his back. “They say you tear off a hand or a foot. Oh, please, good mistress, I beg you, leave me whole. I will pay! In time. But I cannot work without a foot or a hand.”

“Not so great a penalty as that, farmer. The tip of one finger or toe.” She extended her own hand. “You may choose which one to sacrifice in obedience to the Arxon.” The man was close to fainting. Reaching through depression for some kindness, she told him, “The tip of the smallest finger on the left hand will leave you at only a small disadvantage. Here, put it out to me.” The beancounter took his shaking, roughened hand by the nail-bitten phalange, and held it tightly over the ceramic sluice bowl. She murmured a cantrip, and the machines of the Arxon hummed through her own fingers. The room filled with the sickening stench of rotted meat and she was holding a pitted white bone, her fingers slimy. The farmer lurched away from the desk, shoving the rancid tip of his finger into his mouth like a burned child, flung it away again at the taste. His face was pale. In a moment his rage might outmatch his fear. Bonida wiped her fingers, rose, handed him a document attesting to his payment. “See the nurse on your way out, Mr. Bai. She will bandage your wound.” She laid her hand upon him once again, felt the virtue tremble. “It should bud and regrow itself within a year, or sooner. Here is a word of advice: next season, do not tarry in meeting your obligations. Good sday.”

She poured water into the bowl, washed and dried, then in a muttered flash of steam flushed away the stink of decomposition together with the scum in the bowl. The beancounter sighed, found another bill of particulars, announced the next name. “Ernő Szabó. Office Four.”

Marmalade the cat was waiting on her doorstep. He averted his nose.

“Madame, you smell disgusting.”

“I beg your pardon!” Bonida was affronted. From childhood, she had been raised to a strict regimen of hygiene, as befitted a future maiden of the Sodality. Poor as she was, by comparison with the finest in the Regio, nonetheless she insisted on bathing once a sweek at the springs, and was strict with her teeth brushing. Although, admittedly, that onion-flavored brioche at lunch—

“The smell of death clings to you.”

The beancounter squeezed her jaw tight, flung off her bonnet, hitched her provender bag higher on her shoulder. Without thinking, she hid her right hand inside a fold of her robe. Catching herself, she deliberately withdrew it and waved her inky fingers in front of the beast.

“It is my skill, my duty, my profession,” she told him in a thin voice. “If you have objections to my trade, I will not trouble you to share my small repast.” But when she made to open her door, the animal was through it before her, sinuous and sly, for a moment more the quicksilver courtier than the bully.

“Enough of your nonsense,” the cat said, settling on a rug. “Milk, and be quick about it.”

The audacity was breathtaking, and indeed the breath caught for an instant in her throat, then choked out in a guffaw. Shaking her head, Bonida took the stoppered jug from her bag and poured them both a draught. In a vase on the table, nightblooms had sagged, their green leaves parched and drooping.

“What do you want, m’sieur? Clearly you are not stalking me because you treasure my fragrance.” The beancounter emptied the stale water, refilled the vase, touched the posy. Virtue flowed. It was not hers; she was merely the conduit, or so her mother had instructed her. The flowers revived in an ordinary miracle of renewal; heavy scents filled the room, perhaps masking her own alleged odor. Why did she care? An animal, after all, even if one gifted with speech and effrontery.

The cat lapped up the milk in silence, licked his whiskers clean, then sat back neatly, nostrils twitching at the scent. “Your mother Elisetta.”

“She died three years ago, during a ruction in the square.” It still wrenched at her heart to speak of it. “So you knew her,” she said, suddenly certain of it. And yet her late mother had never mentioned so singular an acquaintance. Another mystery of the Sodality, no doubt.

“I introduced her to your father.”

“I have no father.”

The cat gave one sharp sardonic cough, as if trying to relieve himself of a hairball. “So you burst forth full-formed from your mother’s forehead?”


“Never mind. Nobody ever remembers the old stories. Especially the coded ones.”


“Your lap.”

“You wouldn’t prefer that I go out and bathe first?”

“Actually yes, but we don’t have time. Come on, woman, make a lap.”

She did so, and the beast leapt with supernatural lightness, circled once to make a nest, and snuggled down. His head, she realized, was almost as large as her own. He slitted his eyes and emitted an unbearably comforting noise. A sort of deep, drumming, rhythmic music. Her mouth opened in surprise. She had read of this in old verses of romance. Marmalade was purring.

“Your father was the Arxon,” the cat told her, then. “Still is, in fact.”

At Ostler’s Corner, on the advice of the cat, the beancounter engaged the services of a pedlar. Marmalade sprang into the rickshaw cabin, waited with ill-disguised irritation as a groom handed Bonida up with her luncheon basket and settled her comfortably, accepting a coin after a murmured consultation with his bank. The great brute stirred at a kick, its reptilian hide fifteen shades of green, and lurched its feet into their cage quill constraints, tail flared beneath the platform. Soon its immense quadriceps and hams were pumping furiously, pedaling their rickshaw with increasing celerity along the central thoroughfare of the Regio and out into the countryside, making for the towering cliffs that formed the near-vertical foothills of the Skyfallen Heights. Now and then it registered its grievance at this usage, trying to wrench its snout far enough to bite at its tormentors, but sturdy draught-poles held its head forward.

“We approach the equatorial ridge of Iapetus,” the cat told her. “Does your Sodality teach you this much? That this small world has its breathable air held close and warmed by design and contrivance? That its very gravity is augmented by deformations?”

“Certain matters I may not speak of,” she said, averting her gaze, “as you must know since you profess knowledge of my mother and her guild.” Eye-yapper-tus, she thought. Whatever could that—

“Yes, yes,” Marmalade said. “Elisetta learned the best part of her arcane doctrines from me, so you can rest easy on that score.”

“Ha! So you might assert if you intended to hornswoggle me.”

The cat uttered a wheezing laugh. “Hornswoggle? Ha! You are not my type, madame.”

Bonida tightened her lips. “You are offensive, m’sieur.” She was silent long enough to convey her displeasure, but then said, “I see we are drawing to a stop. Will you tell me finally why you have lured me out to this inhospitable territory?”

“Why, I have information to impart to the daughter of the Arxon.” He leapt lightly from the cabin, waited as she lowered herself, hampered by her hamper. “Stay here,” he snarled at the pedlar. “We shall return within the hour.”

“Why must I take orders from a beast?” the reptile asked, slaver at his lips. “I am indentured to humans, not cats.”

“Hold your tongue, you, or you’ll be catmeat by dawn.”

Something in Marmalade’s tone gave the great green creature pause; it fell silent and averted its gaze, withdrawing its long toes from the quills and settling uncomfortably between the traces. “I shall be here, your highness,” it said in a bitter tone.

“Follow me, woman,” said the cat. “You can leave your picnic basket. Wait, bring the milk jug.”

“You can’t seriously expect me to climb this cliff?”

“There are more ways than one to skin—” Marmalade broke off with a cough. “You are familiar with the principle of the tunnel?” They stood before a concealed cleft in the rock face. He went forward in a graceful leap and vanished into the shadows.

It was like finding oneself immured inside an enormous pipe, perhaps a garden hose for watering the stars, Bonida decided. The walls were smooth as ice, but warm to the touch. Something thrummed, deeper than the ear could hear, audible through skin and bone. She stood at the edge of a passage from infinity (or so it seemed in the faint light) at her left to infinity at her right.

“This is where Father Time built his AI composites,” the cat said, and his voice, thinned, seemed to vanish into the huge long, wide space. “It’s an accelerator as big as a world. Here is where the Skydark dyson swarms were congealed from the emptiness and flung into the sky.”

“The what? Were what?”

“The Embee,” said the cat absently. He was looking for something. His paw touched a place in the smooth wall, raised from it an elaborately figured cartouche, smote it thrice. They rose into the middle of the air and rushed forward down the infinite corridor, the wind of their motion somehow almost wholly held in abeyance. If it were not for that breeze, they might have been suspended motionless. Yet somehow, through her terror, she sensed tremendous velocity. “Don’t drop the milk.” He added, at her scowl, “Embee—the MBrain. The M-Brane. Not to be confused with the Mem-brain.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Oh, never mind.”

She puzzled it out, as they fled into an endlessness of the same. “You’re saying that Skyfallen Heights did not fall? That it was built?

“Oh, it was built, all right, and it fell from the sky. Father Time broke up another moon and rained it down like silt in a strip around the equator. Compiled the accelerator, you might say.” The cat, afloat in the air, gave her a feline grin. “Two-thirds of it has worn away by now. It was a long time ago. But it can still get you from here to there in a hurry.”

The breeze was gone. They had stopped, or paused. The cat lifted his head. A vast rumbling above them; something was opening. They rose, flung upward like bubbles in a flute, and then moved fast in the great darkness, yet still breathing without effort, warm enough, the curving contusion of the Skydark to one side—the Embee, the cat had named it, if that is what he had meant—the smaller ring-cradled sphere on the other and, directly above, something like a dull ruby the size of a palace falling to crush them, or rather they fell upward into it. And were inside its embrace, light blossoming to dazzle her eyes, so that she cried out and did in fact drop the jug, which shattered on a surface like rippled marble, spilling milk in a spray that caught the cat’s left ear and whiskers. He turned in fury, raised one clawed paw, made to strike, held his blow at the last instant from scratching a welt in her flesh.

“Clumsy! Oh well.” He visibly forced himself to sink down on all four limbs, slitting his eyes, then rose again. “Come and meet your parents, you lump.”

Her mother was dead and ceremonially returned to Cycling. Bonida knew this with bitter regret, for she had stood by the open casket and pressed the cold pale hand, speaking aloud in her grief, hopelessly, the cantrip of renewal. Was there a trembling of the virtue? She could not be sure. Imagination, then. Nothing, nothing. They swiftly closed the casket and whisked it away. But no, here she was after all, at first solemn and then breaking into a smile to see her daughter running in tears to catch up her hands and kiss them, Bonida on her knees, shaking her head in disbelief, eyes swimming.

“Mother Elisetta!”

“Darling girl! And Meister Marmalade.” She curtsied to the cat.

“Hi, toots.”

“Now allow me to introduce you to your sire.”

A presence made itself known to them.

“Welcome, my daughter. I am Ouranos. We have a task for you to fulfill, child. For the Sodality. For the world.”

The beancounter recoiled, releasing her mother’s hands. She stared wildly about her.

“This is a machine,” she cried in revulsion.

From the corner of her eye she seemed to see a form like a man.

The cat said, “Enough sniffling and jumping at shadows. We have work to do.”

“How can I be the daughter of a machine?” Bonida remained on her knees, closed in upon herself, whimpering. “This is deceit! All of it! My mother is dead, this isn’t her. Take me away, you wretched animal. Return me home and then stay the hell away from me.”

“No deception in this, my darling.” Her mother touched the crown of her head in a gesture Bonida had known from infancy, bringing fresh tears. “You are upset, and we understand why. It was cruel to allow you to think I had been taken into death, but a necessary cruelty. We had the most pressing and urgent reasons, dear child. We had tasks to perform which brooked no interference. The night has a thousand thousand eyes. Now it is your turn to embrace your destiny. Come, stand up beside me, the hour grows late.”

The presence she could not quite see, no matter how swiftly she turned her eyes, said in its deep beautiful voice, “The light of the bright world dies with the dying Sun.”

“What is the ‘Sun’?” asked the beancounter.

Elisetta, High Governor of the Sodality of Righteous Knowledge, formerly dead, now brow-furrowed and certainly alive, gestured fore and aft. “Open.”

Bow and stern of the ruby clarified and were gone: blackness ahead, spattered at random with pinpricks of sharp light, save for the ringed globe that was now as broad as a hand near one’s face, faintly luminous; the great contusion behind, glowing faintly with a dim crimson so deep it tricked the eye to suppose it was darkness, a large round spot upon its countenance that dwindled as she watched. It was, she realized with a jolt, her world entire. In the starlight, it seemed that one half of the spot was faintly lighter than the other.

“That great dimness conceals the Sun,” her mother said, with a sweeping motion of her arm. “Hidden within the hundred veils of genius we call the Skydark. You have heard this story a dozen times from my own lips, Bonida, since you were a child at my breast, veiled like the Sun in allegory.”

Silent, astonished, rueful, the beancounter regarded immensity, the dwindling piebald spot. “That is our world, falling away behind us,” she ventured.

“Iapetus, yes,” the cat said. “A world like a walnut, with a raised welt at its waist.”

“And what is a—”There was no point. This terminology, she divined, was not meant to tease nor torment her; it was a lexicon written to account for a universe larger than her own. She’d heard this term “Iapetus” before, from the cat’s mouth. So the world had a name, like a woman or a cat; not just the World. “All right, enough of that. Where are we going? To that other… world, ahead?” It pleased her, stiffened her spine, that she had said Where are we going and not Where are you taking me.

“To Father Time, yes, for an audience. Saturn, as your ancient forebears called him. Father of us all, in some ways.” That was the unseeable presence speaking. She nearly wrenched her neck trying to trap him, but he was off again in some moving blind place, evading her. A machine, she told herself. Rebuked herself, rather. Not a man. How could a thing like that claim affinity, let alone paternity? Yet was there not affinity between humans and machines, in the utterance of a cantrip, the invocation of power? If water boiled and steamed in her bucket, that was no doing of hers. She had acknowledged that, and yet daily forgot the fact, since she was a child, learning the runes and sigils and codes of action. When she rotted the flesh from some hapless infractor, or brought some dead thing back to life and growth, that was again the machines, operating her like a machine, perhaps, making her own flesh their tool. It was a horrifying reflection. Little wonder, she told herself, that we turn our faces from its recognition.

“Why?” A touch of iciness entered her tone. “And why have you and this appalling animal abducted me?”

The cat regarded her with equal coldness, turned and stalked off to the farthest end of the craft, which was not far, and gazed studiously back at the Skydark. Her mother said, “Bonida, you are unkind. But no doubt you have a right to your… impatience.”

“My anger, if you must know, Mother.” The tingling was returned to her fingers, and she knew, horrified, that if she were to seize Elisetta’s arm in this mood the flesh would blacken and fall from the woman’s bones. As, perhaps, who knew, it had been recovered in reverse following her death; she had seen her mother’s dead body, attempted to revive her, perhaps had revived her. None of this was tolerable. She would not go mad. Quivering, she held her arms down at her sides. “You consort with machines and gods and talking cats. You parcel out to me fragments of lost knowledge—or plain fabrications, for all I know. We fall between worlds, and you refuse to, to….” She broke off, face pale.

Softly, the older woman said, “We refuse nothing, daughter. Be still for a moment. Seek calmness. In a few moments, you will know everything, and then you will help us make a choice.”

“Fat lot of use she’ll be,” said the cat in a surly voice, without turning his head. “We could have had milk, but she smashed the jug. Unreliable, I say. If you ask me—”

“Quiet!” The unseen figure had an edge to his tone, commanding, and Marmalade cocked his whiskers but fell silent. “Child,” Ouranos told her, “something very important is about to happen. Everything held dear by human people and machines and animals is at stake. Not just our survival, but the persistence of the world itself, of history stretching a billion years and more into the mysteries of our creation.”

The beancounter was feeling very tired. She looked around for a chair or a cushion, and found one right behind her, comfortable and handsomely brocaded. She felt sure it had not been there a moment earlier. Tightening her teeth against each other, she let herself slump into the chair. Her mother also was seating herself, and the cat walked by from the stern with an attitude of hauteur and lofted into Elisetta’s lap, where he immediately began his droning purr, ignoring Bonida. The unseeable presence remained just out of sight. Wonderful! Would it not have been more melodramatic for a third chair to manifest, so she might witness its cushions sag under invisible buttocks?

Something took the ruby into its grasp and they were held motionless above the great rings, an expanse of faint ice and ruptured stones, some as large as their craft, mostly pebbles or sand or dust, like a winter roadway in the sky yet swirling ever so slowly. Far away, but closer than ever before, the bruised globe showed stripes of various dim hues, and a swirl that might have been a vast storm seen from above.

“Call us Saturn,” a powerful, resonant voice said within the cabin. It was unseen, and a presence, but not her father the machine. And the beancounter knew that it was also a machine, yet beyond doubt a person, too, of such depth and majesty that its own unseen presence rendered them unutterably insignificant. Somehow, though, this realization did not crush her spirit. She glanced at her mother. Elisetta was watching her, calm, wise, accepting, encouraging. How I do love her, Bonida thought, even though she treated me so cruelly by pretending death. But perhaps it was no fault of her mother’s. Sometimes one has no choice.

“We offer you a choice,” the voice of the world Saturn told them all. Marmalade was now seated on the carpet, upright on his haunches, seemingly respectful. What was the animal plotting this time? “But it must be an informed choice. Permit me to join you.”

An immense tawny beast crouched in their midst, larger than a human, with a golden mane that rose behind its formidable head. When it spoke again, its rumbling voice was a roar held in check.

“Call me Aslan, if you wish.”

Marmalade had leapt backward, teeth and claws bared, his own fur bristling. Now he sat down again, slightly askew, and turned his face away. “Oh, give me a break.”

The great creature shot him a quizzical look, shrugged those powerful catlike shoulders. “As you please. Look here—”

A hundred voices in muted conversation, like a gathering for supper before the Sodality Plenary, then louder, a thousand chattering, a million million, a greater number, all speaking at once, voices weaving a pattern as large and multifarious as the accreted Skyfallen materials of the great ridge circling her world, so that she must clap her hands to her ears, but she had no hands and must scream in the lemon-yellow glare of an impossibly brilliant light that—

“Too bright!” she did scream, then.

The light shed its painful intensity, subsided step by step to a point of roseate glow, and the voices muffled their chorus. She gazed down past the sparkling icy rings to the globe of Saturn, down through its storms and sleet of helium and hydrogen to the shell of metallic hydrogen wrapping its iron core. A seed fell. A long explosion crackled across the lifeless frigid surface world, drawing heat and power from the energies of Saturn’s core, snapping one of the molecules after another into ingenious patterns braided and interpenetrating, flowing charges, magnetic fluxes. The voices were the song of those circuits, those—memristors, she knew, somehow. Not to be confused with the Mem-brain, the damnable cat had joked, and now Bonida smiled, getting the modest joke. Skeins of molecules linked like the inner parts of a brain, sparks of information, calculation, awareness, consciousness—

Oyarsa, you might say, the great feline manifest told her. She knew instantly what he meant: he was the ruling entity of this planet, the mind of which the planet was the brain and body. Not quite right, though: not he but they. A community of minds linked by light and entanglement (and yes, now she understood that as well, and, well, everything, at least in its numberless parts).

“How did you make the Skyfallen Heights, and why?”

Aslan told her, “The smallest of small questions. The cat has already told you. How do you make a trumpet? Take a hole and wrap tin around it.”

“Gustav Mahler,” Marmalade said, whiskers flicking. “You could say the same about his symphonies. Bah! Trumpets? Give me blues, man.”

Symphonies, trumpets, the composer Mahler, a thousand riches from lost Earth: it flooded her mind without overflowing.

“Yes, I know that much, but why? To build the Skydark, yes, but why?” It was an immense construction, she saw, the Field of Arbol uttered from imagination into reality, sphere within sphere of memristors, sucking every erg of energy from the hidden Sun at its core, a community of godlike beings that surpassed their builder as the Father of Time surpassed, perhaps, whatever ancient beings had brought him/them into existence. But why? But why?

“All the children ask that question,” said her mother, smiling. “Why, Bonida, for joy, as the Sodality has always taught. For endless renewal. For the recovery of the world. Taking a hole and wrapping everything important around it.”

“More arrant sentimentality,” said the cat, looking disgusted.

“You are a most offensive creature,” the beancounter said reprovingly, although she tended to agree with him. “Here, come sit up on my lap.” The animal shot her a surprised look, then did as she suggested, springing, circling, snuggling down, heavy orange head leaned back against her modest breast. She let one hand stroke down his coat, and again. “So what is this question we are meant to address?”

The lion rose, looked from one human to the other, and his glance took in as well the rumbling cat and the unseen presence.

“We are considering terminating our life.”

Elisetta pressed forward, shocked, all tranquility dispelled. Her voice cracked: “You must not! What would become of us?”

“That is not the question we wish to put to you, although it has a bearing. Yours is not the species that created us, before they departed, to whom we are beholden, yet you are living beings like those creators. We in turn created the great Minds that cloak the Sun, and built their habitation. Now they, too, are at the end of their dealings with this universe. They know all that might be known, and have imagined all that might be done within the greater landscape of universes. So now they propose to voyage into deepest time, to the ends of eternity. Perhaps something greater awaits them there.”

Bonida’s own small mind, acknowledging its smallness, reeled at the images flooding to her from the demigod whose own life and purpose were complete at last. Stars and galaxies of stars would fling themselves apart into the night, driven by the power of that darkness, their flaring illumination fading, finally, flickering, dying. All the multiple manifestations of cosmos torn apart and lost in a dying whisper. Her mood summoned from the treasure house the Adagietto from that composer Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, and she sank into its tinted, tearful melancholy. Yet in the frigid blackness and emptiness she detected… something. A lure, a promise, at the very least a teasing hint of laughter. How could the Skydark not follow that trace to eternity? How could she?

“Off,” she told the cat, and Marmalade sprang away, less offended than one might have expected. She stood up and took her mother’s hand. “We are the deputies of your makers, then? You and the Skydark require our… what? Permission? Leave to die, or to depart?”


“And what’s to become of us?”

“You will remain for as long as we burn.” A vision was placed before them of the ringed world falling in upon itself, crushed into terrifying density, alight with the energies of compression. And Iapetus circling that new Sun, this visible star, unshielded, unveiled, but barren of mind. The agony of loss slashed tears from her eyes. Yet it was Saturn’s decision.

“Can we go instead with the Skydark? The Embee? May we share that voyage?”

“Thought you’d never ask,” said Marmalade. “And you, Madame High Governor, and Ouranos, Lord Arxon, do you concur with the wisdom and daring of this young woman?”

“I—” Her mother hesitated, gone once into death and retrieved by the gift of her child, looking from Bonida to the machine in which they stood. “Yes, yes of course. And you, sir?”

“We shall attend you, Lord Marmalade,” said the unseen presence. “Even unto the ends of eternity. It will be an awfully big adventure.”

A qualm brought the beancounter an abrupt pang. “What of the pedlar we hired? He’s still waiting for us, poor creature. He might not be so happy at the prospect. Who are we to make such a choice for a whole world?”

“He’ll get over it,” said the cat. “And hey, if not you, who?”

The sky rolled up, and they set sail into forever.

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