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Story Excerpt

Sisters of the Flare
by Stephen Case


What I learned is that the substance of time is laid down, like the weave of a tapestry, and we are always only on the leading edge where the threads come together. Once the moment passes, the structure remains, and it remains unalterable. To change the position of a single thread is as impossible as changing the course of a single lonely star—and as futile.

Events in the past, the sisters theologicia would tell me, have an ontological weight as significant and unyielding as objects in space. They are, and they offer no more explanation or justification than a stone or a planetoid does.

Why the rain of darkness first came to Corvus.

Why I lost Gethera in the storm of ice, when the grains kissed my hand like diamonds.

Why the empress called the Long Retreat the moment she did—not a month or a day or an hour sooner.

Why Petrachordia did not return to the interior for nearly thirty years.

*   *   *



Sister Myriam Tars-Tanarga stared at the unshielded woman as though at an apparition. It was unthinkable to see a human form here, bereft of the shelter of even the thinnest radiation suit.

“Prohibited area,” she barked, the amplifiers at her throat picking up the words and casting them across the burn-scoured chamber.

The woman flinched, fear raking her features.

“Rad-levels dangerous without shielding,” Tars continued, striding closer.

The woman, she saw, was young—young enough to lack the ageless veneer of the Calm. Her face was streaked with grit overlaid by tracks of tears. Signs of withdrawal? Tars didn’t know what leaving the Calm did to a body, but she understood radiation poisoning.

The woman was mouthing something, but Tars could not hear through the thickness of her faceplate and helmet. She glanced at the glowing sphere looming above them both like a tethered moon. Subcore 4.7 was quiescent while the Decalogue drifted. If they had been burning along at relativistic, not even Tars’s suit would have been enough to survive here.

“This way.”

The stranger flinched again, away from Tars’s outstretched hand, but let herself be led back toward one of the chamber’s entrances, a low arch that led into a cave-like corridor. Down here, within the ship’s honeycombed interior, the Decalogue’s inner structure was a maze of dense catacombs.

A few hundred meters down the corridor they reached a narrow iron access hatch. Tars spoke the clipped word of entrance, and it shrieked ajar. Within, a single fusion-brazier kindled, bathing the crowded maintenance warren in a warm glow. When the door sealed behind them, Tars depressed the lock releases on either side of her neck and removed her faceplate, breathing deep the chamber’s smell of oil and incense.

“What,” she said, looking at the stranger, “to do with you?”

The woman was bedraggled and sickly, visibly shivering. The robes she wore were those of a sister, though torn with portions burned. A long bench ran along one side of the small chamber, and Tars swept it clear of accumulated debris, then looked around for a blanket. When she turned back, the woman had already sunk onto it, knees pulled to her chin.

Her mouth still moved, and Tars bent close.


The workshop at the front of the chamber blended seamlessly into a tiny mess farther back, and Tars filled a metal cup from the tap, moving a small mountain of dishes to reach it. The stranger drained the cup, then held it out for more. When Tars returned with a third and a ragged blanket she had found beneath her hammock, the woman was curled on the bench asleep.

Sister Myriam Tars-Tanagra watched her sleeping form, muttering puzzled prayers beneath her breath and wondering at the path that had brought the stranger from the surface to the subcore chambers. The interior of the Decalogue was a wilderness. The arcades, cathedrals, spurs, and gardens of the ship’s crystalline outer layers were crowded with sisters, but the interior was a waste of stone, carved with passageways and the chambers that held the fusion subcores—the tethered, miniature stars generating the Decalogue’s heat and power and providing impetus for those relativistic strides across real space when the ship did not move in the Lattice.

The pathways of the interior were a mystery even to Tars. She was an eremite, isolated in the interior desert, passing her days in solitude. She had not been to the exterior for centuries, not since Sister Kahl-Lucinda had succumbed to a wasting illness and Tars had been given charge of her subcores. Since then, her world had been corridors of stone and fusion glow of starhearts, her only connection with the rest of the ship the commands that came as faint warbles of static from the Directrix Propulsa to stoke or stall the subcores.

Pilgrims did not pass this way.

Tars sighed. Silence was peace. Every conversation was a question, a testing, an uncertainty. This was something unexpected, surely, and likely a sign of the troubles that Sister Bessalarion brought nattering word of on her supply visits, the same troubles that kept the cores coiled and ready, but quiet and unstoked. Yet there were clear rules about hospitality.

A warbling chirp at her wrist queried status, and she slowly tapped out a reply.

Query meant it was approximately mid-cycle—midday in the archaic convention—which meant time for prayer. She donned her faceplate and gauntlets, cycled the heavy door open, and stepped into the corridor beyond. Prayers could be said in her quarters, but they always seemed richer in the chapel, and, besides, she couldn’t pray the litany in her rooms now without disturbing the sleeper.

She paused as she shut the door, considering. If the stranger left while Tars was away, Tars would be responsible for her wandering farther into the interior without shielding.

After a brief hesitation, she locked the door behind her.

*   *   *

There is a story they tell aboard the Decalogue, of a girl who watched the moonless sky of her world for the great ship’s appearance. The sisterships came to the worlds of the Instrumentatum as angels from ancient myth, with visitations separated by decades or by centuries, and no one knew their transits but the empress herself. The girl learned so well the contours of her world’s sky as it swung around its gold-and-topaz twin star that perhaps—apart from the astronomers of her planet—she was first to notice a new star that grew in brightness until it rivaled all others and took its own track against the night.

The girl did not study its path, for as soon as she saw it, she set off through the forests of her world to the city where she knew the sisters’ lander would descend.

The journey was a long one, and she had no way of knowing how long the sisters would linger on her world, testing and recruiting potential novices. Each night she would look for the star passing through the black net of branches overhead. When she found it, she knew the ship remained in orbit, and the next day she would venture on.

One morning, when the mist was still thick between the trees and they had yet to fully unfurl their day-leaves, she met a fellwolf on the path.

“Whence are you bound, forest-maid?” the fellwolf asked, for it had feasted on many from the forest villages and added the semblance of their thoughts to its own.

“To the city, grandmother-wolf,” the girl answered with careful courtesy. She knew that at times the ghosts within the fellwolf’s mind did not know they were but memories in a beast and could—were they not hungry—be reasoned with.

“Why the city? The forest is wide and provides for all. The city is narrow and full of clenched fists.”

“The sisters of mercy have come,” the girl said, inching her hand toward her belt as though to adjust her tunic. “I would join them.”

The fellwolf smiled, showing teeth tangled as a thicket.

“Our world is warm and fair and you would abandon it for empty wastes? Don’t be foolish, child. Even if they would take you, space is cold.”

“Still,” the girl began, but the fellwolf was already bounding forward.

Her first shot took it in its side, and it stumbled but came on. When the second bolt glowed along the barrel, the fellwolf stopped.

“I hold a hundred stories within me,” it said, licking its lips. “A hundred stories still speak in my mind. If you kill me, they will vanish.”

The girl pulled the trigger.

She paused that day and built a fire and scraped the wolf’s pelt until it was clean and dry. The star was still in the sky when she reached the forest’s edge and saw the city, with the white fin of the sister’s lander rising above the outer wall. There were only a few, she saw, who had come from her own world to join them. Still, the tall sister who stood before the lander and who had skin as blue-grey as the fellwolf’s fur stopped her.

“There are tests within the ship,” the sister said, gesturing to the stairs that rose to the lander’s ivory bulk. “Not all pass, but if you do you will be offered a place in the novitiate, and when we depart you will come with us. We may never return here. Why do you wish to leave your homeworld?”

“Each village holds a hundred stories,” the girl said, drawing the fellwolf’s pelt more closely around her, “and the forest holds a hundred villages. A lifetime would not be enough to learn them all. But they say the sisters of mercy live forever.”

The tall sister, whose eyes were the hue of leaves in autumn, inclined her head in assent.

“That may be enough time for me,” the girl said, and she climbed the steps into the lander.

*   *   *

When Sister Myriam Tars-Tanarga returned from her prayers, she found the stranger awake.

“I don’t understand,” she whispered when Tars swung the door shut behind her and removed her faceplate.

Her eyes were open, but they seemed cloudy, unfocused. Tars stepped closer, trying not to loom. The stranger’s gaze fixed on Tars’s broad gauntlets, and Tars unfastened them and slid them off, hanging them over their hook near the door beside her wide faceplate.

“Understand?” Tars prompted.

“The stars? How can there be stars here?”

“Fusion subcores.” Even without the amplification of her rad-suit, Tars’s voice sounded rough, like treads across rubble. When she saw no comprehension on the stranger’s face, she continued. “Sustained fusion cores. Miniature, stabilized stellar cores.”

“Chained.” The eyes slid away again, and Tars checked her temperature. Fever. And no way to tell whether it was withdrawal or radiation sickness or both.

“Look at me.” The head nodded back toward her. “Did you pass many subcores before I found you? Other chambers before you came here?”

The stranger seemed not to have heard. “How? How do you keep them tethered? And not consume the ship. How can you have stars here?”

Tars sat beside her, feeling the workbench give slightly with the weight. Questions seemed to focus the stranger. Tars decided to follow that curiosity, hoping that if she was indeed suffering withdrawal from the Calm the words might help distract her.

“What holds you to the floor?”

“Guiding hands,” the stranger murmured, furrowing her brow.

“Correct. Same as guides a shuttle into the Prime Narthex. Or in the Great Concourse, where sisters glide down from the habitation spires? The hand there is gentle and balanced, guiding without acceleration.” It felt strange to be speaking so many words without the staggered, familiar rhythm of prayer. When Sister Bessalarion called, Bess did almost all the speaking. “Or where two corridors come together at an angle and you step across, guiding hands catch and reorient you across the threshold. On planets, they have gravitas. Here, we have guiding hands.”

She felt she was orienting a freshly arrived novice, something this girl could not be if she had indeed taken the Calm. A recently vowed sister then, perhaps from one of the last planets they had visited before the Long Retreat. Serving in computation or astrometrics, Tars would guess. Or perhaps archives. If the stranger still had her hood, the color of its lining would have made her vocation clear.

“The chamber you were in holds Subcore 4.7.” Tars did not speak the core’s true name, known to none but herself and perhaps recorded in some mislaid archive in the Mother Superior’s chambers. “There are guiding hands there as well, of much greater intensity than throughout the rest of the ship. They pull inward—a thousand binding cords.”

“It’s how you turn the ship,” the stranger said. “How we move through space. Without the—” She let fall the hand she had lifted.

“Without the Lattice,” Tars finished for her. “Correct. Subcores provide inertial ballast when we move relativistic.”

Tars was suddenly tired of speaking. She could not remember the last time she had strung so many words together outside of the litany. She hoped the stranger would not ask how the subcores made relativistic motion possible, but speaking seemed to have exhausted her as well.

“But we’re drifting,” was all the stranger said.

Tars almost ventured to say that was the only reason the woman was still alive, but her eyes were already closing again.

*   *   *

“How can you?”

The fever had passed and the stranger could walk now, but Tars still worried she bore damage from radiation deeper than the scanners in Tars’s quarters could show. Tars wanted her to return to the exterior for treatment, but she knew the woman was frightened and as likely, when she had regained her strength, to set off deeper into the interior, where she would certainly be lost or burned.

“How can I what?”

Tars worked at the crafting table, the largest piece of furniture in the narrow shaft-like maintenance warren, used for both crafting and to take her meager, solitary meals.

The stranger sat opposite, blanket pulled up to her chin.

“Live here so far from the Lattice.”

“Entire ship sails within the Lattice,” Tars said, bent over her work. She held slender ribbons of polysheeting in one hand while the tiny fabricator in her other melded them together.

“But up there . . .” The stranger trailed off. Her wide brown eyes were still ringed with circles of fatigue, and the skin around them seemed thin and stretched. “When we traveled in the Lattice, it was like the ship was swimming in light. And the sounds, like space itself was singing.”

“I have been near the exterior during Lattice transit.” Tars flipped the stitched polysheeting over and switched the fabricator to etch, tracing a network of silver on the surface she had created.

“But here, you don’t hear the harmonies of space. See the light of transit.”

Tars shook her head in assent. “No.”

“It was why I joined.” The stranger’s voice was not as ragged as it had been, and Tars could hear what it might have sounded like as a novice singing her first prayers among the slender columns of the Central Sacristy. “When the Decalogue came to my world. I had heard of the Lattice, the conduits the empress carved beneath the skin of night. That when you rode within them, you could hear the thoughts of the galaxy itself, that you were carried within the empress’s mind.”

Tars continued etching circuits on the flexible fabric. It was the most the stranger had spoken since Tars found her.

“To be here, in the interior. In the silence . . .”

“We have the same prayers,” Tars offered. “We have our light.”

“The cores, you mean.” Her face twisted with something like bitterness, and Tars was reminded of her childhood, when raw emotion could be glimpsed disfiguring the face of anyone—family, friend, stranger. The expression, flashing across the woman’s features like a spasm, convinced Tars the rumors Sister Bessalarion carried on her visits were true.

“The cores,” Tars agreed, moving to another piece of polysheeting.

“I thought . . .” She trailed off again and took a steadying breath. “Thank you. I had been wandering for days.”

“The sisters in your hypogeum will be worried.”

“I’m not the only one who left.” Her face darkened. “There were several. Only one or two, at first. Sisters who didn’t show up for prayers. Empty places at nocturne. Others who gave up their duty shifts. The Mother Superior posted ostiaries in the corridors. In other spires, they said they were beginning to patrol the corridors.” She laughed bleakly. “Where would we go? We thought . . .” Again she paused. “A group of us descended together. We were separated in the maintenance catacombs.”

“Sickness of spirit?” Tars asked, the sheathing of a polyflex gauntlet taking shape on the table before her. “Mutiny?”

Again the laugh, as unsettling as if the stranger had beat the table in a rage. “It was nothing. It was nothing, day after day after day, and the thought of nothing year after year. It was the thousands of light-years of nothing stretching beyond every window, in every direction.”

Tars set her work to one side and folded large hands on the table before her. “It must be frightening facing that without the Calm.”

The stranger seemed drained by her outburst. “I won’t take it, if that’s what you mean. Even if you would share it with someone who has broken her vows. I won’t take it again.”

Tars waited in silence, and presently a modulated tone warbled at her arm. She studied the screen there before tapping a response.

“What was that?”

“Status update,” Tars said. “I need to check the cores.”

It felt odd, explaining her actions to another person like she was a novice again. She stood and looked down at the stranger for a moment. “Sister Bessalarion will bring supplies soon. She would . . .” Tars paused. She had been about to say Bess would be the best route back to the surface, but she could read the thoughts in the stranger’s frightened eyes as if they were written in script. “She takes a meal here before she moves on to the anchorites of the southern reaches. If you want to remain hidden, you can stay in my chambers until she passes.” Tars gestured to the narrow doorway beyond which her hammock hung between rock walls. “She will not bother you there.”

*   *   *

There is another story they tell on the Decalogue (and no doubt every other sistership as well) of a novice who regretted departing her world to join the order. She was from, they say, a vast ocean world, or a small desert world, or one of ice, or of jungles and noticeably curved horizons, towering clouds, and bare rocks. Or perhaps a world with all these. To her, the stretching corridors of the sistership were too hot or too cold, too moist or too dry. The prayers of the sisters fell from her lips like dirges, and the ship felt like a tomb around her.

The novice went to the mistress of novices, a woman who was old when she took her vows and first tasted the Calm and so was now locked in an eternal agedness of warm eyes and weathered face and furrows along a hairless brow.

“I have made a mistake,” the novice told the mistress. “My heart is not here. It remains in my home.”

“We all lose our hearts to the empress,” the older woman said softly, for she had told many novices who wished to return that there was no way home, and she had once been one of them herself.

The novice, who may have had the smooth ebony skin of Proctor or the wide purple eyes of the twin worlds Mau and Kahu, began to weep.

“Forgive me, mother. I don’t know if I even believe in the empress, if I ever did. Holy Hearth is far, and I feel nothing within me when we sing.”

“And what do you think we feel, bathed in the Calm?” The mistress bent her lips. “Belief is not essential. Obedience, patient cultivation of virtue—these are the life of a sister.”

“But I want to go home.”

“We all do,” the mistress of novices whispered. “The Universe wants to go home.”

After a time, the novice’s tears passed, and she asked the older woman’s forgiveness.

“There is nothing to forgive. The heart that yearns for home is one that can learn love. Better a heart in pain than one in pride, arrogant or hardened.”

The novice shook her head in confusion, thinking of the Calm that grants emotional equilibrium and immortality to all who take their final vows.

“A heart must be healthy before it can be purified,” the old woman said, following the novice’s thoughts. “We must build on a firm foundation, set the right trajectory, before we remove the friction of emotion and let the heart move forever in the inertia of Calm. Let me tell you a story.

“Once there was a novice who asked to be released before taking final vows. This was granted, and as her sistership was in orbit around a trading world the girl was given passage on a cold-sleep freighter of the sort that travel outside the Lattice. Before she slept, the captain of the ship, who recognized the novice’s robes, asked if she had been a sister. The girl explained, and the captain smiled and said she had herself left the sisterhood. Eventually, the freighter called at the novice’s home system and she was awakened by the captain who, the girl was surprised to see, was now an old woman—for off the Lattice travelers can live out their entire lives traveling between two stars.

“‘I have learned that space is vast and black,’ the captain said, ‘and that light and warmth should be embraced, wherever they are found.’

“The girl knew then that she had made a mistake, that her world was aged beyond recognition.”

“You want me to be humble,” the novice murmured to the old woman. “You want me to remain here from fear of the vastness that lies beyond us.”

“The Universe demands humility anywhere,” the old woman answered, and continued her tale. “When the ship reached orbit around the novice’s homeworld, there was a sistership waiting, and the novice saw it and trembled, taking it for a sign there was no escape from her vocation. But the captain laughed and told the girl to go home, find the descendants of her family on the world below, and live a good life. ‘The ship is for me,’ the captain said, ‘if they will take me.’”

“And the old captain was you?” the novice asked.

“The captain,” the mistress of novices answered, “is us all.”

*   *   *

Sister Bessalarion came sooner than expected. Tars could always smell Bess’s na-beast before she saw it, a pungent, burnt-cinnamon scent that carried over the ozone of the corridor and through the filters of Tars’s rad-suit. Tars was returning from the cores and nearly to the doorway of her cell, her back to the hot, dry wind of the tunnels, when she caught whiff of it. Turning, she saw Bess in her mottled brown and grey rad-suit and the na-beast with its long neck and shaggy beard pacing along behind.

She raised an arm in greeting.

As Tars waited at the doorway for them to approach, she worried about the stranger inside. If she opened the door now and gave warning, Bess would know someone was there. But if she did nothing, there was the chance that entering together they would surprise the stranger. Tars found she wished to protect the woman’s right to decide, to determine for herself whether she would go back to the surface or . . . what? If what she said was true (and no doubt Bess, who shed words like sweat in the warm tunnels, would tell her for certain), then there was indeed nowhere to go.

The beast gave warning for her. Catching scent of Tars, it let out a bellow of greeting that echoed like a bronze bell down the tunnel.

They entered together, and Bess began speaking even before she removed her faceplate. “Three bodies. Burned to a crisp in a corridor junction at the edge of Sister Eldriot’s desert, not far from subcore 8.3. Long road from here, but Eldriot hadn’t seen them. I’ll load them on my way back, take them up to the surface for interment.” Bess squinted and wiped the sweat off her face while Tars brought water. “They must have passed through a chamber just as a core was flaring. Eldriot didn’t know. Who would? Imagine, sisters wandering in this far.”

Bess formed words as though they were as important as the supplies she brought, which she and Tars would soon unload from the na-beast’s back, as though she had been saving them the full thirty-day since she had last passed and needed to deliver them now all at once.

“Sisters?” Tars set food on the table between them.

“Not anymore, I suppose you’re right.” Bess snapped off her gauntlets and tossed them onto the bench where the stranger had slept. “Not sisters anymore. Abandoned vows. You’ve heard?”

“I know we are adrift—”

“I imagine you would, the cores being so quiet.” Bess had the ability to interrupt even the shortest statement. “Adrift, yes. The empress did the unthinkable, bless her name, and it was no doubt wisest, shutting the Lattice and preventing the spread of that . . . of that. You saw the feeds. We all did.”

Tars had not.

“Whole planets consumed. So I understand all of it—the interdiction, the Long Retreat, closing off the Lattice. Even if it left us—and who knows how many others—marooned. I can understand the despair, too, what it might drive some of us to, I can.” Bess plucked dried mushruck curds from her bowl and continued talking around them. “But to decide in the face of all that that the only response was to give up, abandon the Calm, abandon the sisterhood, wander the interior when there is still work to be done?”

Tars thought of the stranger’s empty eyes, ringed with weary desperation.

“But to be marooned forever—” Tars began.

“Forever is what we signed up for. System after system, world after world, century after century. What difference does it make whether that’s spent spiraling from one end of the galaxy to the other or drifting in this corner of space?”

It seemed to Tars it would make a difference. “My universe is this cell, my subcores, and the corridors between them—”

“Exactly, Tars.” Bess held up a finger and nodded sagely. “You understand exactly. You serve the empress here, faithfully, eternally, wherever the Decalogue is, just as I pass down these leagues of corridors whether or not we ever make it to another world, whether we ever return to Holy Hearth. You understand exactly.”

Tars had been going to say that if she suddenly found herself confined to a single corner of her cell, unable to leave or tend the cores, trapped on a few feet of ground where before she had been able to pace down the long empty corridors, she might go crazy. Eternal life might start to seem an impossible burden.

She might begin to look for a means of escape.

Tars did not say this, and she listened and ate as Bess talked of events on the exterior levels of the Decalogue, of fruitless efforts to locate their position in the galaxy, of acolytes pouring over ancient star maps. Bess offered her own evaluation of the sisters who left their vocations, either confining themselves to quarters, wandering the ship, or even in some tragic cases taking their own lives. Despair, unbuffered by the chemical Calm, could be savage. Bess shared her opinions on the senior sisters in council, on the Mother Superior’s words and consolations. She spoke with the steady, unexcited cadence of a sister in the Calm, but Calm brought clarity and equilibrium, not always dearth of words or bounty of silence.

Finally, the meal was finished, and they put their suits back on and unloaded the na-beast, who had curled into a woolly ball that took up most of the corridor. It scarcely stirred as they unfastened containers of nutrients for the mushruck vats, matrix for Tars’s printers, air filters, and dried fruit. The whole time they had been eating, Tars listened for sounds from her chamber but heard nothing. She heard nothing now as Bess helped her stow the supplies in the galley, but Bess pointed to the jumble of fabrics and conduits taking shape on the workbench.

“No wonder you’re going through so much matrix, Tars. Looks like a whole new rad-suit.”

“Spare,” Tars said, flexing her arm. “Caught this one in a snap.” It was not a lie.

“Tars, you haven’t seen any of these unvowed sisters, these women, in your desert, have you?”

If Tars had not been at the core that day, had not seen the stranger and gotten her to shelter, would she have eventually found a body in the corridors, wracked by radiation?

“I have found no bodies,” Tars said.

“When I’m back to the surface, I’ll ask for patrols down here. Mother Superior can spare some ostiaries. They’re not criminals; they shouldn’t be left to wander alone down here till they die. Though maybe that’s what they want, or think they do. Sister Hekkeron—she’s nearest the exterior on the spinward reach, though she tends only one core—she said she thought maybe they were on pilgrimage. Said since the Decalogue was no longer pilgrimaging through the heavens they had to travel themselves, but if that’s true why leave the Calm and their vows? Hekkeron said on the planets of the Instrumentatum there were trillions who served the empress and never took the Calm, who serve her every day within the storm of passion and grief and death. But if that’s true for us now, Tars, then we’re not a sistership anymore, we’re just a world, a tiny world alone in the night.”

Tars did not say it, but it was as though she could hear the stranger whisper: we are.

*   *   *

The day after Sister Bessalarion left, the stranger was at the sink peeling one of the long tubers Bess had brought with the supplies, her thin shoulders rising and falling with the motion, when she began to laugh. Once started, it seemed to build, a stream and then a cataract, laughter like Tars had not heard since she was a child, bursting out of the stranger’s throat until she was doubled over, gripping the sides of the sink.

“I’m sorry,” she finally gasped, wiping her eyes.

Tars felt a satisfaction watching her, recognizing it meant she had regained much of her strength.

“Oh void,” the stranger breathed when she had breath again. “Bess—that woman. Like a caricature. Were we all like that, like women play-acting the parts of sisters? The dour acolyte, the gossipy meddler?”

Tars felt the ghost of a smile touch her lips. “Sister Bessalarion is a unique character.”

“I don’t know.” She straightened and went back to peeling. “I feel like I knew plenty like her, before. There was one . . .” She shook her head. “How much else do we lose, do you think, buried in the dead of Calm?”

“Some welcome the loss.”

The stranger placed the tuber on a slate beside the sink, selected a larger knife from the few magnetized to the wall above, and began slicing. Tars poured some of the oil Bess had brought—a precious commodity, perhaps a single vial every ninety-day—into a wide skillet.

“It made sense, before,” the stranger was saying. “Everything did. But now?”

“You feel the Universe is broken.”

The knife came down hard on the slate. “It is broken. Entire planets ripped apart, trillions of souls reduced to nothing. Hearth itself lost to us. The entire Instrumentatum fragmented. And the Lattice . . .”


“Gone,” the stranger echoed. “Erased.” She stared down at the slate. “I wanted to grieve. I wanted to feel something. Peace felt like a lie. To be deadened to the pain, to passively accept it, to be like . . .”

“Like me.”

She shook her head, still staring down at the slices of tuber. “Not like you.”

Tars lifted the slate and tipped the slices into the oil, where they hissed and sputtered. There were two battered cubes of black and white spice, which Tars sprinkled over them.

“I take the Calm,” Tars said. “I tend the fires. I say my prayers. I obey and abide.”

“Your work is important.”

“Yours was not?”

The stranger sat at the table, drawing her shoulders together, looking into herself. Her face, Tars thought, seemed aged already, etched by the passage of emotion.

“I processed data,” she said, as though recalling it slowly, like it had been a dream that was only now returning in pieces. “Piped in from all the corners of the Instrumentatum. I read through reports, flagged and classified information. The Decalogue had a mind, and I was a single neuron within it.”

Tars flipped the slices, watching them thin and curl.

“Then it all went dark.” The stranger’s voice was flat again. “There was nothing to see, nothing to hear, no word to receive.”

“No work to be done?”

The barking laugh again, harsh this time like a curse or the magnetic snap of a subcore. “There was. They sent us looking through ancient star maps. To find out where we are. The only data was millennia out of date, nothing but original relativistic surveys from the dawn of the Instrumentatum. Our superiors wanted us to determine our location, like trying to find the metaphorical shadow in the hayfield at midnight.”

Tars divided the slices, fried now to a deep umber, between the two plates, giving more to the stranger.

“You stopped.”

The stranger waited for Tars to continue, and when it was clear Tars was not going to say more or insist on a prayer over the meal, she began to eat.

“This is good. Thank you.” She chewed in silence for a moment. “It was obvious they were giving us tasks to keep us occupied, and just as obvious that locating ourselves in space was a job no human mind could accomplish. And that they were going to keep us at it indefinitely.”

“Dripping water can carve through rock.”

“And a relativistic ship might make landfall in ten thousand years if pointed in the right direction.” She took another bite. “But we’re not machines, even in the Calm. We’re not meant to operate at these scales. We can’t pretend any more that we have forever.”

Tars had asked Bess about the tubers, which had a pleasant smoky, peppery flavor if fried just right. They grew in one of the agricultural vesicles, under light piped from the cores. They were original to a planet the Decalogue had visited not long before the Retreat sounded, though genetic plans were no doubt held in the ship’s database.

“Now that you see the futility of all our endeavors,” Tars asked, wondering mildly if the other would find her words flippant or abrasive, “you are content?”

A sudden rueful smile transformed the stranger’s features. “No.”

“Where will you go next?”

“I assumed you would send me back to the surface.”

“You are not my subordinate,” Tars said, heaving her bulk from the table and taking the empty plates. “I do not control where you go.”

“I can’t go back into the corridors because of the radiation. I realize that now. I assumed I was more or less your prisoner.”

“Patient, perhaps.” Tars set the plates in the sink and walked to her workbench. When she returned, she was holding a rad-suit.

“This is what you’ve been working on?”

Tars nodded. “Rudimentary. But it should protect you, if you use caution.”

The stranger’s mouth worked silently.

“I recommend returning to the exterior,” Tars went on. “I can send you with food, but I do not know the pathways of the interior desert. Fatigue and hunger can kill even with a suit.”

The stranger ran her fingers along a gauntlet and sleeve. “You never even asked my name.” She paused. “It’s Petrachordia. And I came here for a reason. I wasn’t just running away. I thought there was something I could do.” She paused again, a silence that seemed heavier and weighted with something Tars could not perceive. “Something a vowed sister, with the Calm ensuring obedience, could never do.”

Tars waited. She considered pointing out that taking the Calm did not ensure obedience but rather gave clarity and peace, not compulsion, but she was suddenly unsure. It had on occasion occurred to Tars to disobey an order from the Directrix Propulsa when she believed they were misinformed of the capacity or condition of her subcores. She had even, on rare occasions, chosen to obey the spirit of a command rather than the letter. Yet outright disobedience or refusal of an order was as difficult for her to contemplate as loosening the guiding hands that bound her tame suns, and she could not honestly say whether that was the action of the Calm, her vows, centuries of habit, or all three.

Tars listened.

She listened to the stranger—to Petrachordia—tell her story as she had spent her life listening, as she listened to the strains in the stone that stretched around them, to the snap and boil of her tethered stars, to the dry wind blowing down the long corridor beyond her doorway.

*   *   *



There is another story they tell aboard the Decalogue of the first hull-walker who planted the first sensor-garden on a sistership. She was from a worldlet in a system now lost to memory and of a genotype altered to endure the vacuum of space and the kiss of unshielded radiation. The halls of her sistership were too thick with light, she felt, and so she wandered the outside walls of the great vessel, where the battlements of the hull rose up in plains. She loved the clear cold of the exterior, the miles of ship’s surface that belonged to her alone. But in time she grew weary of the featureless grey.

One day she asked one of the sisters xenobiologia whether the ship carried seeds of forests that could grow in the cold of space.

“Our ships carry every seed,” the sister said.

So the girl went to the keeper of stores and asked whether she might have seeds to sow along the outer skin of the ship, so she might walk there as she had in the forests of her homeworld.

“It would take a hundred years for such forests to grow,” the store mistress said, “and no seeds can be drawn from deep freeze without permission of Mother Superior. You must ask the chief hull engineer whether she would allow such a thing.”

So the girl went to find the chief hull engineer, whose chambers near the outer walls smelled of stone dust and were cold with chill that leached in from space.

“Growing plants on the hull?” The engineer raised the crystal goggles from her eyes and pulled at her long chin. “They might shield the hull from micrometeors, but they might also crack the stones with their roots—though they would take a thousand years to grow. Such a thing could be done, if Mother Superior allowed.” She paused, then snapped fingers long and pointed. “But a forest on the hull would blind the ship and choke our sensors. No, you must ask the communications chief.”

All this took time, for there were slender margins in a sister’s life for walks on the hull or conversations with senior sisters who lived and worked in the different caverns and quarters of the ship. The girl who had been a novice longing for dark forests was herself a senior sister by the time she spoke to the communications chief in her slender tower that rose along the ship’s back.

“Forests covering the hull? They would take a hundred centuries to grow, with only the light of the stars. But when they did, the ship would indeed be blind. My lenses look out from every surface of the ship. Shaded by a forest I would see only darkness.” She paused as though listening. “Unless the forest itself became our eyes and ears.”

“How would this be done?” the hull-walker asked.

“Sensors in the leaves, antennae in the branches. You would need to talk to the bioengineer. But any adaptations must be approved by Mother Superior.”

The bioengineer, in her chambers near the computational heart of the ship where the walls were a matrix of data so dense as to be solid intelligence, leaned forward with delight. “It can be done and would be perhaps an improvement. Sensor gardens. Forests of antennae-trees drinking and parsing radiation. Roots a network of conduits piping light. Yes. If Mother Superior gives approval. But it would take a thousand years before such a thing was ready, and another ten thousand before it was grown.”

By now the corridors of the ship no longer felt so cloying or bright to the sister, and despite the chemical tincture of Calm, slight lines of age showed at the corners of her eyes. She had charge now of the training of all novices, but even a senior sister did not have free access to Mother Superior to bend her ear with dreams of forested walls and hanging gardens in space.

In those days, more frequently than today, the sisters of mercy were at times required to be the empress’s shield, and Mother Superior led a legion of sisters martial into battle and was lost. So it was the girl who had walked the barren hull-stones became in turn Mother Superior of the ship she had called home for centuries. When the time was right, she summoned the xenobiologist, the mistress of stores, the chief hull engineer, the communications chief, and the bioengineer.

“You said it would take centuries,” she told them, “and it has. Now make the hull of our ship a garden.”

They designed and they sowed and they made ready to wait for the tiny black saplings with leaves darker than night to grow over ages across the hull. When all was ready, a sister theoretician called on the Mother Superior, and the Mother Superior, who had a different policy than her predecessor on accessibility, listened to what she had to say.

“The physics of superluminal transit,” the theoretician explained, “the wash of light from beneath space. It will flood your garden when next we enter the Lattice.”

The Mother Superior felt the shadow of dismay. “Then it was futile? The Lattice will kill what we have sowed?”

“No.” The theoretician shook her head with its feathered crest. “It will make them grow. Time and energy within the Lattice flow differently. By my calculations, it will take days.”

And indeed, when the ship emerged from the Lattice at its next port of call, the forest had spread to engulf the stony plains of the ship’s exterior, and the Mother Superior walked the hull amidst garden forests and beneath black arching branches of sensor-trees.

Soon all the empress’s ships were planted, and the gardens grew and evolved each time a ship passed through the Lattice, and the ships shared seed each time they came together.

Thus did the woman’s dream of dark forests spread across the entire Instrumentatum.

Read the exciting conclusion in this month’s issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2024. Sisters of the Flare by Stephen Case

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