I come to the last stairway. 

It seems simple, but I’ve endured several of these already. One an infinite loop. One that melted underfoot. Another spun until its occupants passed out. Most arrived at different places than they appeared from the bottom.

At the landing above, an archway opens onto the temple complex. I can see the diagonal of the pyramid against a background of false sky. The map drums in my feet, while hunters close in on every side.

“Godling,” says one behind me.

I march up the stairs without a reply, sloshing in my exture. The stairs are lengthening, quivering. My map starts to fall numb. The archway is expanding ahead. Is it real?

I pass through, my inner plasm firming from relief.

When I emerge from the labyrinthine gate, the drumming in my feet stops. I stand before the Invertex Contemplation, as we often call the temple complex where my species broke loose from the planet and became gods. A massive pyramid, inverted, its tip sunk into the ground. For its time, an astounding architectural feat. Hundreds of years later, it is magnificent.

It’s ugly and stark. A giant thorn poised over the earth. It looks whole, but bickering claimants have divided the temple into at least thirty-seven pieces.

And it broods over ancient secrets, including the most alluring of all, the one I’ve come to collect: how my kind ascended and left behind refugees like me. I don’t care for myself, but the secret’s worth more than I am. I’m just here on a job. Eight or so days before the political siege on the city ends, the current regime surrenders, and my sponsors dissolve. Invertex will be untouched, an island of serenity as it ever has been. But I will be marooned if I stay past that deadline.

All is orderly here. Rows of jeweled trees rise across a broad courtyard toward the temple proper. A shimmering membrane domes over the courtyard, sealing it off from the surrounding city. Those who found a path through the gate are either prostrate or wandering over the colored stone. 

One female rawangi approaches, saying, “Godling, please sample one of my juices. They make the perfect libation.”

Hunter? The rawangi are the dominant species now; I’ve patterned myself to look like them (bipedal, one-faced, lightly dusted with hair) as a matter of survival. They worship us—which for some of them means harvesting relics from our bodies, sometimes killing us in the process. The foundation charter of Invertex, like that of many temples, assures sanctuary to all godlings, or I would never expose myself to potential godling hunters. But I’m ever paranoid. I scan her vitals and anything else I can detect from my mechan modules. Nothing suspicious.

She holds up a pump and nozzle in one hand. Her other hand dangles a string of small bottles, tinkling against one another. Each carries a liquid of deep orange, much like the color of rawangi blood. I’m puzzled at first but then remember the local fruits that are dug out from deposits of sorakite. Tasting this rawangi’s juice is one of the two details I recovered from memory in advance of this visit.

I take the pump with my left hand (mechan) and hold up my right (exture). But as my fingers squeeze the pump to spray a mist over my arm, something prickles at the hand with the pump. A poison. The mist spreads along my arm, droplets gathering into the swirling grooves of my native exture, flowing up towards my thirsty hands. But the juice isn’t where the problem lies. It’s the pump that crackles with noxious energy.

I toss the pump over my shoulder. “That would have crippled me in seconds. You’ll regret trying.”

“It was onl—aaiieee!” she squeals as I seize her frontwise, pivot, and toss her through the archway from which I came just a few minutes ago. I start toward the temple, laughing in the open air. A fine start to the job. There were rumors of hunters inside the complex, but I’d hoped the gate would have better security. 

Now someone else is moving to intercept me. “Really?” I say. “I just threw your friend out—” The someone is a mechan, as it happens, called Ls-factor. I almost don’t recognize him with that incongruous decorative mask, which looks to be made of paper and covers his frontal display. Otherwise, he has the simplified form of a rawangi. I only know him from the briefing. He belongs to the complex and serves the thirty-seven factions as a neutral arbiter. Still wary, I wait for him to speak.

He stops and says, “Violence is not allowed at the temple. I ask you to leave for the safety of other worshipers.”

Other worshipers, how charming. “I am Svatha,” I say. “Igdrakk knows me.”

Ls-factor whistles. “Svatha. You must not attack people in this complex.”

“Godlings are protected here. She tried to poison me.”

“So they are. I thought you were mechan, but now I see your body is fifty-six percent godling. The seller is in violation.”

“Good. Lock her away or whatever you do here. I’ve come to see Igdrakk.”

“She expects you?”

“No, but I’m sure she’ll welcome me.”

. : : : • : : : .

Igdrakk, head of the great Vorli faction, is smaller than her latest portrait implies. The charter forbids taking holograms, flats, photographs, or any other light-capture likeness, so the outside world doesn’t see more than artistic renditions of the place or the people that have given their lives to it. What the portraits haven’t shown is her lower half: not legs, but a mechan spheroid. She’s like a diminished version of me. Yet for being four times my age, she seems agile enough.

She’s never met Svatha, and I’ve never met Igdrakk. Here, I am Svatha. But Svatha is also a persona fabricated by the sponsors of my sponsors to exchange letters with Igdrakk, long before I became involved.

“Our rooms here,” she says in the rawangi tongue we share. When Ls-factor handed me off, Igdrakk greeted me with her arms sliding and sawing over each other in the traditional language rhythm of the godlings. Our tour has been peppered with words and phrases in godling. It would be a warm, friendly touch, but the language all but fell out of use centuries ago, so I miss half her asides. She must not have a good grasp of life outside the temple.

The rooms seem small and simple from what I see through the smoky screen.

“Now we’ll cross over to your room by way of the balcony. You’re not sensitive to high places?”

“Not at all,” I say.

“Good. I was, when I first came here.” She wheels along the corridor, swivels left, and passes through a door. Before I can exit, she swivels back on me and blocks the doorway. “We’re leaving the Vorli sector. I’ll remind you here to follow me very closely, as one misstep can be fatal to you.”

I knew something of the intense factionalism at Invertex, a holy site for every religion on this continent and a few others besides. Still, I was surprised at her insistence. “No one here can be so eager to get one of us.”

“The balance is fragile, and not just for us. Keep this warning fresh, everywhere you go in the temple. All the common spaces, and some of the private ones, are neatly divided by rituals. Vorli is your friendly path. If you leave the friendly path, you may find some kind of punishment. Death, capture, embarrassment. Always be mindful of the path.”

“Some sanctuary,” I say.

Her plasm twists into braids of laughter. “What do you expect from a place so precious, claimed by factions who have been at each other’s throats for centuries?”

I have no answer. Despite the danger here, I am far safer than I would be in the city, or outside of it. But I like the provincial temples a lot more. They’re much more kind to their gods and godlings. I’ve hardly known of an incident at a provincial temple, and I’ve often been received in dire circumstances.

As she starts along once more, I follow. From our vantage, the courtyard splays out beneath us. Colored stone tiles form a splendid mosaic spiraling in and out of the temple’s warm shadow. I look up to the horizon. The membrane enclosing the complex distorts the view outside into abstract patterns, but I can find suggestions of the towers and lattices of the City of Contemplation beyond.

“You can see the evidence,” she says. “Every color belongs to an alliance, and where you stand affects the rules that bind you. That hunter would not have approached you unless you were standing on a space that permits rawangi-godling interaction. Mauve or shadowgreen, most likely.”

“That’s absurd.”

“Be careful of tossing out your opinions as you seem wont to do.” She slips into godling for an aside that almost slips past me. I think she says she agrees with my judgment anyway. “Step with care. Here the friendly path diverges. We’ll take the upper walkway.”

We climb a set of metal stairs onto a platform bolted into the wall. Looks like it was more of a piece of scaffolding, once, but it’s long since become a permanent fixture.

“Are there no lines between the spaces? Virtual, maybe?” I say.

“It must be learned.”

“I have to memorize everything?”

“That is the way. It helps us know who belongs…though most of us would admit it’s more dysfunctional than otherwise.”

We continue. She stops at a niche, pulls out a flower from a bunch of them, and begins to strip it and scatter the petals with shaking hands of plasm. I watch for a moment before stepping up to her. “What’s the meaning of that?”

Her plasm retracts, and the flower spirals down. “A godling? Oh, wonderful! It’s been too long. Tell me, what’s your name? How did you come here?”

Puzzled, I say, “Svatha. We’ve been communicating by letter for years, but I arrived in person today. I came through the gate like anyone else. We met a short while ago.” At which time, I think, she only pretended to know me. Her welcome was warm but vague.

“Yes. So we did.” She seems to assert herself. “Let’s finish the tour with the rooms where you’ll stay. Godlings don’t visit often, but we always keep the space fresh. Be careful where you tread. If you want to go anywhere, always ask me, Ls-factor, or one of the officers…”

In our third conversation, the next day, I find my chance to slip in mention of the ascension.

We sit (she on her sphere, more like standing at rest) in Igdrakk’s private receiving room, which is really just one half of her cell for sleeping, curtained off. It’s almost the same as my rooms, outfitted for specific godling comforts. Furnishing is simple and elegant, if very old. It looks like it would reassemble to a variety of forms, based on the shape of whatever godling might be visiting. There are sliding misters on the walls within reach of the recliners. Hanging on one wall is a display of exture pieces carved into fractal progressions. While the exture might have belonged to her or her family, might even be taken from the gods before their ascension, its presence here unsettles me. Too close a link to relic hunters and their disgusting trade. 

I don’t fail to notice the vase of memory catalyst, a great wealth of it, tucked behind glass in a niche. It’s familiar, the one thing I recall from downward memory besides that rawangi female who tried to capture me yesterday.

Beneath us, another faction is performing a ritual. They make a dreadful racket.

“Svatha, if you’ll hear the advice of an aged little godling,” she says, “I believe you need to break your pattern of life.”

She’s a legend, but I’ve not survived this long without knowing how to keep my hands firm while slippery inside. “Break my pattern…?” I say.

“Yes. You’re young and fluid but half mechan. The relic trade is nasty business. Should I feel sorry that you were chased in here by hunters? You’re not the first godling to come looking for sanctuary from a life of debts.”

She thinks I’ve been selling off pieces of my body faster than I can grow them. Fair enough, but the real story is far more unusual. Godling exture keeps growing through life, like rawangi hair. Godling plasm doesn’t. And I’ve lost half my plasm. Not robbed, nor sold. But very much lost.

“That’s not my way,” I say.

“It is. You think to fool me because I hardly know you. You assume my memory is limited because I’m getting smaller by the day.”

“Even Igdrakk must have limits.”

She pauses. “It’s a relief to hear that. Most people I meet seem about ready to worship me. True, my memory is finite, but much of it’s trained on you.”

“I can’t be so special.”

“The gatekeeper tells me you came through the gate at an extremely average pace.”

“There, that’s just my point.”

“You met every obstacle with an equal measure of care. There were diversions for the fearful and the curious. You passed all of these without more than a glance while running from relic hunters. Why weren’t you afraid?”

“Relic hunters don’t own me,” I said, my fingers curling lazily with the equivalent of a rawangi chuckle. “If I fear them, they’ll have that much influence over me. It was all a game.”

“The gate disables maps and transmissions, but you found a way around the restrictions and through the maze.”

“I like puzzles.”

“There’s a rhythm in your feet,” she rebuts.

“You…think I’m a dancer?” Hiding my real reaction is almost effortless. I must have years of practice.

“Don’t play with me. No use hiding the fraud, and no reason. I remember already.”

A downward memory. We fall through the shaft of time; the future is downward. Of course, time might be construed according to any metaphor that fits experience. Some rawangi cultures think of it as a line, others a spiral, and so forth. But for us, who orient our memories to the future or the past, time is a shaft.

“You’ll confirm what I’ve said is true,” she says.

“Will I?” I say—stalling. I’m not sure why I would divulge my trick for passing the maze, except under duress, which makes me nervous. But if she knows…I ponder the use in trying to hide it further. The futility. She might only guess what she claims to know; memories of what will come are no more reliable than memories of what has been. If I confirm what she says, then I will enable the path to that future and perhaps open the path to unveiling all my reasons for coming here. That, I will not do.

“You will,” she says. “You will because you’ve delivered yourself into a net. The hunters are waiting, eager to capture the body of a god. Don’t assume you’re safe, even as my guest.”

“We’re not gods.”

“Aren’t we?”

“We didn’t ascend with the rest. We weren’t good enough. You of all godlings must know our faults.” It’s delusional to claim that we’re in any sense equal with the ones who left us behind.

“You don’t laugh as you say that,” she says. “Strange that I remember it that way.”

Normally I would laugh. But I’m not myself as long as I’m here. I can’t be. So instead of the shimmering cloak of comedy, I have to content myself with some sort of holy fervor. Commit myself to believe in our cousin gods who laugh from their place in the stars.

She says, “We are the gods who remained among our worshipers. There’s no shame in it.”

I control my arms from fidgeting away my real feelings. “I didn’t say anything about shame.”

“What do you say?”

“We’re victims. We go extinct while the rawangi build up their culture on our captured souls. It’s nothing to laugh about.”

“Then why do I hear irony in your voice?”

“I suppose you’re getting senile.”

Immediately I know I’ve made the wrong joke. Her arms screech against each other and her laminae ripple into hundreds of sharp edges across her body. “We may have something of a friendship, but you overstep our familiarity.”

Grovel. I’m not above debasing myself for a worthy objective. “You’re right, Holy Most Holy, I didn’t mean to insult you. Please forgive my manners. Sometimes I slip into rawangi habits after living like one for so long, but it’s nothing you deserve.”

I let a tendril of plasm spill from my chest, a gesture of exposure. In this place I do feel vulnerable, despite the walls and charter that separate me from the rawangi and their hunters.

Her silence keeps my plasm slippery for a time. I let my arms fidget now.

At last she says, “Leave me. In two days there will be a procession. After that we could talk again. Do not approach me in the meantime or I will give you to the hunters.”

“Of course,” I say, and obey with grace. Two entire days lost on a stupid blunder. My best hope is that the silence will forge more trust than conversation would have.

There are squabbles aplenty to occupy me in the meantime. All irrelevant, but most of them entertaining. It’s clear I’m a guest of the Vorli—the gossip must have reached everyone within minutes of my arrival—but I’m still approached by every other faction for a meeting of some kind. Some send a gift instead. Of these, some appear genuine, but a few are clear messages of disapproval. A book of hymns that mock my inferiority to the ascended gods. A decanter of mineral wine with my name engraved on it.

Every godling worth their plasm prefers misting. We can drink like a rawangi, pouring drink into an orifice and letting the plasm absorb it over time, but that doesn’t sit well. It would be like asking a rawangi to wear a sealed helmet half-full of wine, sipping from the concoction when thirsty.

I ask Ls-factor for statistics on godling deaths or disappearances connected with the temple, which factions are known to endorse the relic trade, records for infractions of the charter and other interfaith laws, anything I can imagine that would imply danger. My sponsors have already given me this information and more, but I want to check for any disparities with the local and supposedly unbiased source.

. : : : • : : : .

The procession ends high on a platform on the uppermost level of the temple. The platform is a walkway out into a dark void, a grand chamber from the sound of our echoes. There are no rails. Essentially the only light here comes through the translucent floor, and the triangular hole that plunges straight down through a shaft to the pool at the pyramid’s tip. Igdrakk tells me that on more sacred occasions, each faction in turn is granted control of the high platform and the ground walkway. Two processions approach the pool, one above, one below, timed to move in parallel.

A pure tone, the thromol, sweeps the chamber where we stand. Weaving through that divine note, a hypnotic sequence rises and falls. I watch Igdrakk reorient her memory (only the rigidness of her posture betrays the changes to her plasm) across the shaft, each of us surrounded by rawangi Vorli. Unlike her, I don’t change. I have no catalyst, so my memories of the future would be blank. I’m impaired in other ways too: the mechan half of me is crucial to my survival. Igdrakk is small, but at least she’s whole.

When the tone ends, she recites a ritual formula. Then she starts to delve into memory, sharing aloud. “Our gods will not descend to us this month. A new initiate comes. I can’t say if we will keep them, or if they will be thrown from the City of Contemplation before they can reach us. I meet them. Appearances will deceive many of us, but we must welcome this outsider. There will be shortages of cloth, food, and worshippers.” She goes on to name rawangi who will take particular roles and challenges.

Some part of her exture is dissolving, but I don’t see where from this angle. Catalyst enables us to cannibalize our outer bodies, and long-term memory results from that reaction.

She finishes with another ritual formula, and the tone sounds again so she can reverse her memory—upward, toward the past. It’s possible for us to live in downward orientation, but not our norm. As entrusted, I drop a dense ball of fried dough into the pool far below. The pastry’s fall represents the passage of the soul.

All a preamble to the important moment when I can actually talk to her again. I’ve been chafing for the chance.

It comes without any effort. The rawangi are filing back along the platform to the temple’s Vorli sector, and Igdrakk rolls straight to me.

“Svatha, I remember you now,” Igdrakk says. Her arms sing together with excitement. “You’re the one who studied with Hra Vendi!”

“Of course,” I say. Spinning her memory must have jostled loose the conversations she had with Svatha over these years past.

“It brightens me to catch a memory I’ve been chasing for a whole day. I am grateful to have a visitor from our people. Too many are scared into crevices and shadows. The gods sent you at an excellent time. Tell me, Svatha, have you heard that I’m immortal?”

“That is your reputation, since you’re one of the last who can remember the ascension of the gods.”

She falls silent for a time, keeping a smooth pace with me as we move toward her room. “Why don’t you join me for the afternoon?”


Once we’ve passed inside, she says, “I’ll share a secret—they may think me immortal, and that was true.”

“Was?” I say on cue. It’s clear she wants me to take the hint, but I don’t know where it leads.

“Was. You’d know best of all, since Hra Vendi perfected the regimen. All we godlings can avoid natural death.”

“Standing flat against the wall of the shaft on a mere foothold.” A quote from Hra Vendi that I learned to become Svatha. The regimen relies on adaptive balance between the inner and the outer body. Exture has a potential infinite growth cycle, and plasm needn’t die except by violence.

“That is the principle,” she says. “It serves well. But last week I lost my balance, and I am falling at high speed toward my death. You’ve arrived just in time to take my place when I die.”

Me, take her place? Unthinkable. “But you’ve outlasted empires, disasters, everything since the ascension!”

“Haven’t all things the right to end?”

She’s insane to expect a guest, one she’s only met a few days before, to replace her in this, probably the most esteemed position a godling can hold. But then, she’s ancient, and her mind is cracking. She was only angry before because I perceived it. I don’t enjoy watching her crumble, the legend who tamed two emperors, thwarted a war of gods, and kept Invertex from imploding as more and more diverse factions crowded in. I could pity her. Instead, I’m busy figuring how to accept her offer of Vorli leadership without getting myself stuck here or destroying the Vorli. Because if she makes me her successor, she’ll have to tell me everything she knows.

I presume Igdrakk is using more exture than she makes. It explains her size and maybe this recent mortality. I just need to ensure she explains the ascension first, find a better successor, and get out to meet my sponsors before the local regime collapses in five or so days.

“Your mantle is a great burden, Igdrakk,” I say, “but I trust your wisdom.”


I sense pleasure in her voice and posture, but also something deeper. She isn’t a perfect fool. This moment is a great success, but her trust in me is still vulnerable. It’s also a terrible complication.

Has she seen my arrival already, spoken of it in some earlier ritual like the one today? That scares me. Of course, she can’t see beyond her own death. There was that new initiate. If someone more is coming, they might be the proper successor. Or really much better, someone who’s already here. But if a rawangi becomes the Vorli leader, the position may never revert to a godling.

We spend the rest of the day chatting about nothing useful. I refer to the ascension three separate times, but she waves my interest aside.

Three more days pass, all similar. There are small daily rituals and further conversations with Igdrakk. She only seems to tell stories about Invertex politics, without any concern for the gods or any broader sense of history. As she tells it, you’d think every bickering incident between factions happened only yesterday.

I watch the distorted view of the city through the membrane. When the new regime arrives, sudden war will change the view.

I can’t prod her in the right direction. I’m getting desperate as she prattles about the time Vorli swapped out Onidath artifacts for fakes, or the time one of Ls-factor’s units cracked its frontal display and the other forty-five units were deliberately cracked to make them all equal. Hence the funny masks each unit now wears.

Can’t she see I’m a scammer?

She can’t. She doesn’t seem to realize. I play the part of her loyal successor even though she hasn’t made any announcement of it yet. I imagine she’s scamming me.

Every time we meet in her room, I see that vase. I have more style than a petty thief. But Igdrakk deflects all discussion of the ascension, and the deadline is imminent. Besides, I saw my desire to steal it in downward memory, if not the outcome of that intent.

So I do it. I steal her memory catalyst. At the soonest opportunity, I withdraw a scoop from the vase and stuff it through my wrist orifice, pulling it into the core of my body, next to the mechan parts bisecting my torso. If I can dredge up any bit of downward memory that implies Igdrakk will speak of the ascension, then I stay. Otherwise, my work has been in vain, and I’m getting out before a band of lunatics breaks me down to my component parts.

To reverse my memory, I need the thromol tone. Unfortunately, the upper platform is on rotation between the factions. The Vorli aren’t due to use it for another four days, too late for me. I ask Ls-factor if there is any kind of internal listening network. He suggests the common tonal chamber and leads me there.

I take precise care to follow in Ls-factor’s footsteps as we climb up to the widest level of the temple. I suspect we are walking opposite the corridor that leads to the Vertical. 

Someone falls into step behind me. I keep moving, not recognizing them. They don’t gawk. It’s such a pleasure to be surrounded by rawangi who understand that godlings aren’t limited to a face. We see all the stares, from every direction, wherever we are noticed.

Ls-factor takes me into a circular chamber with arches spiraling outward from a central column. At the moment, this chamber is empty except for us. “Stand here,” he says. He squeezes a handle on the wall behind me and the oscillation strikes me from several directions. Beautiful. I begin my realignment.

A sparking point lodges in my hip, paralyzing my mechan modules, and I arch sideways with the remainder of my body to avoid the threat. Sticky traps close over my orifices even as my plasm retracts. Then I’m locked into my own exture. Masked rawangi have emerged all around me.

At some point in the shuffle, Ls-factor has disappeared.

These wouldn’t dare violate the charter, even for the prize of a godling. I must have strayed from the friendly path. But how? Ls-factor is the model of neutrality. He wouldn’t lead a guest from the path. Unless I’ve been wrong all the time. He might be partial to another faction, by his will or otherwise.

Encounters with rawangi are always top priority in my memory, so I know this sticky stuff will trap my plasm. In a couple places it already has, where I wasn’t fast enough.

They’re carrying me away and there’s nothing I can do.

Or so they think.

I have, of course, planned for quick escapes. The automatic release has been disabled with my mechan half. The manual release would be a simple matter of throwing a switch, but they’ve sunk a few tools into me already, trying to pry me apart. They jammed the switch in the process. I freeze, stop to think before they crack me open. Why aren’t they carting me off to a more private place, anyway?

If I can generate enough current, I can reactivate the escape capsule. My plasm will carry energy. I force open the bridge between my natural body and the mechan one. I stretch my plasm to spill between the cracks. It’s going to hurt when—

One of them punctures the exture with a noise of delight. At the same time, the energy in my mechan half zaps my plasm. I struggle through a shrieking haze of thought to trigger the automatic release, and then with a violent wrench all my plasm is sucked into the escape capsule. It bursts loose of my twitching body, sails between the legs of a rawangi man, and flips toward the ceiling.

I flee the savages hacking into my exture. My plasm is safe in the capsule, if very cramped. My body is going to suffer while in the hands of these darked hunters. Meanwhile my flying capsule may be violating the divisions of space, but I don’t care. After a few wrong turns, I speed into Igdrakk’s room.

“Hunters,” I say through the capsule interface. It speaks for me in a voice similar to Ls-factor’s. “At the common tonal.”

When I’ve convinced her who I am and why in this form, she helps me track down the culprits in the Cwren faction. As it happens, Cwren is one of a select few factions willing to try a stunt like this. Igdrakk threatens and even negotiates a piece of herself away to get my body back. 

When the fiasco is finished, my exture purged of the sticky stuff, and my plasm restored to its body, I take stock of the damage. She watches without a tremor.

Some assorted mechan bits are missing. My exture has a few orifices where it didn’t before. The stolen catalyst is lost. Of course. In my agitation, my plasm slops in and out of the orifices, licking the ragged edges of exture. I betrayed her, and she doesn’t know yet—I ought to tell her—and she’s bartered away part of her arm for me. It will grow back, unless she’s so close to dying that her exture is now a dwindling resource. For my efforts, nothing. I didn’t even have a moment to verify any part of my future. I suppose I wouldn’t have seen anything useful.

As if our plasms were in contact, she says, “Were you carrying catalyst?”

I freeze in my inspection. “Yes.”

“Take some of mine. I insist.”

She doesn’t seem to notice the lack when withdrawing more for me. The guilt catches up with me as I hold her gift in a vial. I stare at her shortened arm. “I was carrying yours,” I say.

“My what?”

“I stole catalyst from you. I didn’t have any.” A whole fiction is formulating in my mind, but I fall silent and let her absorb the bare truth I’ve just offered.

“You’re an opportunist,” she says.

Humility. “It was a foolish moment. I have no excuse.”

“A fraud,” she continues.

With a dash of honesty. “I didn’t come for memory catalyst. I had no intention of taking it until after you scared me with talk of succession.” I reach out to give her catalyst back, but she won’t have it.

“You see I would have shared if you asked. You scorn my mantle and my trust. You run straight into the hands of your enemies with my personal catalyst I use for ritual. You say nothing as I bargain for your body with mine. Is nothing sacred to you?”

“The hunters ambushed me; I didn’t go to them. Give me some credit.”

“You get no credit. This is serious.” She lapses into a silence, which I don’t break. Nothing placates her, not even genuine remorse. Then she adds, “How did you know where to go, alone?”

“Ls-factor took me there.”

“Which unit?”


“I’ll verify that. In the meantime, I’ll have two other units assigned to watch until you should decide to leave.”

Half-spoken is the encouragement that I do leave soon. And I suppose that might be best at this point. I’ve damaged relations with Igdrakk, the only person who matters here, and my sponsors’ collapse will arrive by tomorrow or the next day.

“I hope we can reconsider,” I say. She doesn’t answer, and I limp to my rooms to lick my wounds.

Ls-factor thirty-four and thirty-six take up a position outside my doors. Fine choice, dear Igdrakk. Now that I don’t trust the mechan servant, ask him to be my protector. I am very encouraged to leave, whether she intended it this way or not.

There’s almost nothing to gather up. My repair kit, external ID, the two changes of rawangi clothes I brought, that book of hymns. My pride, in shreds. I don’t suppose it would be wise hunting down the bits of myself that are hiding somewhere in Cwren space. Igdrakk’s sacrifice on my behalf will make a great story, once the sting of my near-death is faded. Though…I’m a bit reluctant to share that one. For my sake.

Alright, for hers too.

I have this catalyst that Igdrakk forced on me, all guilt attached, and I might as well use it before leaving. My inner body is arranged for seeing the future—that’s one effect from the tonal commons that didn’t go awry. I slip the catalyst through an orifice and begin to soak it into my plasm.

The bright taste of memory is followed by a door opening in my thinking patterns. The regime will fall tomorrow, that much is sure. I must get out at once. It will take time to traverse the gate and the city, all of which I need to escape before the collapse. Yet there’s something more waiting for me here, some part of the temple I haven’t yet seen. Igdrakk stands next to me, and there’s a huge, dazzling tree, glowing, sprawling upward from where we are. A deep place. Beneath the complex, no doubt. It implies I will finish the job—but that’s impossible.

The images become slippery, now, dreamlike. I doubted them, and so I lose them.

Clarity lingers for a few moments after I seal away the remaining catalyst, and I try to anchor the remembrance in something. The nearest I can find is a crack in the wall. That crack suggests her trust is not lost forever.

If I stay, I may earn back Igdrakk’s favor. And if I stay, I will lose the upgrade my sponsors promised.

Don’t I want to know for myself what secrets this temple can tell me about my species? I tap out my distress on my stomach. Am I just the tool of my sponsors, or do I have a will of my own? 

Dark me, but I will stay. I’m going to learn for myself. And then I’ll find a way out. There’s always another way.

But my real convictions aren’t so loud and clear as the way I talk about them. I have to be prepared to stay longer, far longer than I would like. I have to at least accept the likelihood that this information will cost me years. Then, someday, I can find another buyer.

. : : : • : : : .

I wake the next morning to a change of light. Beyond the membrane, the city is ablaze. The latest regime has fallen, destroying my sponsors with it. Siege has broken the city of contemplation, and people will be running lawless through it until the new government can restore order. But from here, the world is almost the same that it was hundreds of years ago.

“What news, Ls-factor?” I ask when the door opens, my back to it. Formality. I already know what the news will be.

“The Zu antriarch won the match against the Cwren essendrite. The dustfly was released three minutes early last night. Tersiei and Onidath have been arguing over it all morning.” Ls-factor does not know how to sort the significance of events.

“Not faction gossip. Outside, what’s happening outside?”

“There are fewer pilgrims than average,” Ls-factor announces.

“Ls-factor—” My scales bristle as I stand and whirl on him, ready to seize the mechan and shake the data out from behind his ridiculous paper mask.

Igdrakk stands there with him. “We have a new government,” she says.

“Oh?” I say, nonchalant.

“Why don’t you sit down, Svatha. Thank you, Ls-factor.” The mechan chirps assent and leaves. Igdrakk rolls into the room.

I pick up the decanter. “Care for a drink? It’s personalized, a gift from my friends the Tersiei.”

“Don’t be so insulted. At least they didn’t try to seize you for relics. You know, in the past, aggressions were worse towards godling visitors like you.”

“Like me in particular?”

Her hands laugh, setting me on edge. She says, “Most of them weren’t deceivers.”

“Only most of them?” I’ll be darked if I’m going to lose my aplomb now. I made a soul-splitting decision, I’m here, and I am going to keep suffering for it. But I believe in my choice.

“We’ve had a few who were looking to pry secrets from me, seduce rawangi, steal sacred artifacts, and create other problems.”

“I don’t seduce or steal artifacts.”

“How would you propose to seduce… Oh, that’s a joke.” In our unique language she adds, even with one arm reduced: “You are never what I think you are.”

The tone of her voice surprises me. She’s not angry or scandalized, as I expected. Nor downcast, smug, afraid—I don’t know what she’s feeling. “You haven’t come to throw me out?” I say.

“No. You haven’t lost your right to sanctuary, yet. I did want to tell you, the Ls-factor that delivered you to Cwren was corrupted. It happens, and we resolved it with a full reversion.”

“Reassuring,” I say.

As if in answer, she says, “You were hunting secrets, I think. Well. Have you learned anything?”

I suppose we don’t have to argue about Ls-factor’s design flaws. The only solution is to stay wary. Right now she wants my humility, and I’ve plenty to offer in the wake of recent events. “I’ve learned not to judge a godling by her size,” I begin. “And…for this one single unique exception, guarding a secret matters more than selling it.” I pause. “While I don’t know if I deserve to learn how the gods left the planet, I still want to know for myself. I just hope it’s worth the freedom I gave up.”

“You were here to steal, then.”

“I was here to learn. Not everything is a lie. I’m a godling. I did study from Hra Vendi, secondhand, on a rushed schedule. I want to understand the ascension, even if only for myself.”

“You stayed, and now must stay until conditions change and you can leave. That’s something in your favor. But you could be playing to fool me even now.” She seems to be almost talking to herself.

I say, “I don’t know how to convince you that I’m sincere; which is itself proof that I am. I have experience charming all kinds of people. But I’m dry now. No plan except a silly hope that you won’t throw me to the hunters so they can rip me apart.”

“Since you believe in exchange, this is my offer. I will explain what I know, but I’d like to hear what happened to the rest of you first.” She gestures at my mechan half.

I retract into my exture a fraction. “I find the modules convenient.”

“No doubt, but I can see that you wear them like a rawangi would handle the limb of a godling if it were attached to her.”

“You’re very perceptive when you’re not, um…nevermind. Yes, there’s a tragic tale, but I only keep the outline of it in local processing. In upmemory, with catalyst, I’d know more detail. I couldn’t live with myself, and we split ways. Part of me wanted to emulate the gods, and this portion of me standing before you was disgusted to carry that worshipful attitude. So we severed ourself and went separate ways. I don’t know where the other me is now, or what she’s doing. I took most of the upward memory function, while she has most of the downward. I can’t pick out more than scattered fragments of the future.”

“And have you remembered our visit to the underground?”

I look at the crack in the wall. “I think so.”

“I saw it too,” she says.

She takes me to ground level. As we cross the courtyard, she waves toward the arched entrance to the membrane. “The gate,” she says, “is an important device to filter out impurities and dangers of all kinds. Many armies have broken against that gate.”

“Yet how many relic hunters slip through it all the time?” I say.

“It’s there to preserve the temple, not you. Hunters aren’t the evil you think they are. Some are slaves to greed, of course. Any one of us is worth more than they’d ever hope to earn in an honest lifetime. But most I know have only the deepest reverence for their cause.”

I scoff, but she doesn’t see it. “I cheated my way through.”

As expected, she shows no surprise.“The gate decides who will pass. Maps are useless there. No one can predict how the environment deforms.”

“The hunters have their own system. They send in groups every day, transmitting between themselves a code to represent the changing path. No one needs the full map as long as they stay in contact with the rest. I intercepted those transmissions as I went. They chased me through, obviously. What they didn’t realize is their every move betrayed to me the escape path.”

“You turned an unfairness to your favor. So clever.”

I don’t tell her that I am not the clever one; I was only the bait that made the scheme work. Rarely do I care to discourage someone’s good impression of me, true or false.

We start down a ramp that leads into the earth. She says, “The gate was my first reason to trust you.”

Through a carved door that melts into a cascade of sliding shapes, descending a series of tight switchbacks, and beyond another gate where three Ls-factor units stand watch—a cavernous shaft opens before us.

Another Vertical. Threading down through this great space is something like the root of a tree. No, more like a web, silken strands spinning off of the central trunk and meeting the walls. Each strand is motionless except for a slight pulse. Together, they seem to breathe in rippling waves. Each is luminescent, and that glow builds until it comes to the central pillar, which tapers just enough to see as it goes down to unseen depths. I’d expect to hear the strum of a thousand harps, but all is hushed except for the pattering of water. I think back on our route to visualize what might lie above us. The temple—ah. The tip of the Invertex, its pool of offerings, must be the link between Verticals.

“What is it?” I say.

“An absorber.”

“Why does it glow? Is it creating energy? Converting it?”

“Clever godling. Yes, it does convert energy.”

“It’s some kind of reactor, powering…the membrane. The gate. The city?”

“A fine guess. The answer’s complex, just like the ascension. You won’t understand it as well as you’d like without many discussions and years of study and ritual. You ask how, but the better question is why.”

The why is obvious—unlimited power and all the rest. Leave the rawangi to themselves. Throw them some living relics, the godlings. But I’m here because Igdrakk knows more than me.

She’s waiting, expectant, and my chest laminae ripple in annoyance. “Well, why?”

“There’s a darkness that feeds in the depth of our planet, no threat or concern to any of us living here, except as the pressure builds, it almost erupted onto the surface. Our plasms are hyper-absorbent. The gods ascended to carry this radiation out into the stars, where it can’t hurt us, the rawangi, anything that lives on our world.”

My plasm churns in thought. “Then this thing is cousin to us. It’s a god of its own kind.”

“Yes, after a fashion. It has only the most basic sentience, and one impulse: to feed.”

“And the offerings are for this thing,” I muse. “I did wonder. I thought all that food and drink was wasted, getting soggy in a pool when the temple functionaries might have been feasting on it.”

“I have very much to explain. Are you willing to learn?”

I haven’t any choice, really. “I am,” I say. My other desires can wait until I find a way to leave the Invertex again.