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War of the Maps

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War of the Maps

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Author: Paul J. McAuley
Publisher: Gollancz, 2020
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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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Synopsis

On a giant artificial world surrounding an artificial sun, one man - a lucidor, a keeper of the peace, a policeman - is on the hunt. His target was responsible for an atrocity, but is too valuable to the government to be truly punished. Instead he has been sent to the frontlines of the war, to use his unique talents on the enemy. So the lucidor has ignored orders, deserted from his job, left his home and thrown his life away, in order to finally claim justice.

Separated by massive seas, the various maps dotted on the surface of this world rarely contact each other. But something has begun to infiltrate the edges of the lucidor's map, something that genetically alters animals and plants and turns them into killers. Only the lucidor knows the depths to which his quarry will sink in order to survive, only the lucidor can capture him. The way is long and dangerous. The lucidor's government has set hunters after him. He has no friends, no resources, no plan.

But he does have a mission.


Excerpt

1

Ghosts of Godlings

A lone tree leaned over the cistern, its bell-shaped yellow-leaved canopy dinting and swaying in the hot breeze, sprinkling coins of mirrorlight across the water and the effigy of a toad, carved from a knot of bonewhite wood, which crouched on a slab of rock at the water's edge. The lucidor picked up the stoneware beaker set between the toad's long-toed feet, left by some unknown traveller and used by many such since, and dipped it in the cistern and drank the measure of cool water straight down and refilled it and sat back on his heels. Sipping slowly, wondering if the toad was the avatar of a godling or the spirit animal of one of the vagrant tribes that wandered the borderlands, wondering if the bandits knew about the little oasis. Most likely they did. This was their territory and he was a stranger here, passing through on his way to somewhere else.

A school of desert minnows patrolled the cistern's square perimeter, flickering beneath the fleet of narrow inturned leaves adrift on the skin of the water, turning about the current of the spring that pulsed from a crack beneath the deity of their little map, scattering when the lucidor stood and unhooked the fighting staff slung slantwise at his back and shrugged off his black leather coat. The right side of his face darkly blushed, as if he had sat too long by a fire, his long grey hair, brushed back from his forehead and gathered into a coil pinned by a barrette, was scored by a crisp charcoal streak that ran above his ear, and the left sleeve of his shirt had been ripped off and tied around his upper arm. He used his teeth and right hand to undo the knot of this makeshift bandage and drops of fresh blood welled and ran when he peeled the cloth from the raw trough gouged in his biceps.

Out in the mirrorlight, the stolen warhorse caught the blood scent and stepped about and tugged at the reins that tethered her to a thorn bush. The lucidor paid her no mind, refilling the beaker and rinsing out the wound. Pinkish water dripped into the pool and the minnows flicked around and rose to the surface and snapped and fought over this offering.

The lucidor picked threads of cloth from the wound and washed it again and dabbed it dry. With a small ceramic knife he cut a strip from the shirt sleeve and folded it into a pad and laid it over the wound and tied the remainder of the sleeve around his arm and blotted sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand. He put the beaker back in its place and pulled on his leather coat and picked up his staff and walked up the stony slope to the crest of the ridge. It was high summer. Noon. The eight white points of the Skyday mirror arc strung across the crown of the blank blue sky, as hot and bright as they ever would be. The tawny plain shimmering in great falls of heat and light, stretching towards a chalky sketch of mountain peaks and the border between the Free State and Patua.

A minute feather of smoke slanted in the mid-distance, warping in the glassy air. The lucidor extracted his spyglass from the flap pocket of his coat and shot it to its full length and applied it to his right eye and studied the root of the smoke and the plain on either side. There had been no signs of pursuit when he had paused in his flight across the grasslands to bind his wound, and there were none now. None that he could see. But although the ambush had failed, he knew that he had not yet outrun the hunt. Even if the bandits had fled or had been captured or killed by the train's crew and passengers, the department knew where he was and where he was going, and would set other hirelings or agents on his trail. He had to get on, and make a new plan while he rode. The warhorse, a sturdy young piebald mare with plates of pale horn pieced across her shoulders and neck, was nosing for insects amongst the stones under and around the thorn bush. She bated and tried to bite the lucidor when he unhooked the canvas water bottle from the saddle horn, and tried again after he filled the bottle at the cistern and mounted up. He jerked the reins tight, told her that she had better learn to get along because he didn't intend to let her friends catch up, and heeled her into a canter. They rode down gravel and shale switchbacks into a slanting grassland dotted with weather-bent trees. Dry grass brushing the stirrups. At dusk the lucidor made camp in the lee of a slant of bare rock. He did not dare to light a fire in this open country, for a fire might attract any searching for him, and ate a meagre supper of smoke-dried meat he found in one of the saddlebags and wrapped himself in the saddle blanket and stretched out on the hard ground.

When he woke, the warhorse was cropping dewy grass and a mantle of cloud had stretched across the forest below, grey in the grey dawn light. By the time he rode into the beginnings of the forest the cloud had burned away and mirrorlight was hot on his back and his coiled hair. This was the northern edge of the high plain of mainland Patua, frayed by steep valleys that wound between knife-edged ridges. He followed the course of a dry stream down one such valley, tall conifer trees he could not name rising on either side. Ribbons of sand and gravel. Boulders thatched with glass moss that spun tiny rainbows from mirrorlight. A grassy clearing thick with saplings where one of the trees had fallen. The windless air heavy with heat and the buzzing song of some kind of insect, flavoured with a clean medicinal scent. Now and then the lucidor halted the warhorse and turned in the creaking saddle to look behind him. A lawkeeper fleeing retribution. A trespasser in this strange country, far from his desert homeland.

The forest was scarred by tracts of dead trees; the valley sides were cut by erosion gullies and long rockslides. The climate of the entire map was changing, altering its weather, disfiguring its land without regard for boundaries or politics. The heartland of the Free State endured long summer droughts now, and its winters were colder and wetter. And while most mirrors dimmed each winter, as they always had, some were permanently dimmer than they once had been, and one, at the tail of the Sandday arc, had in the last century shrunk to a faint red spark. Some said that the creator gods had stinted when making the world; others that the world's slow dying was part of their design. Yet still people met and married, and made babies and died to make room for the next generation. Life went on, somehow. Perhaps the creator gods had made people better than they had known or intended.

Many of their relics had likewise outlasted their passing. Once, the lucidor rode past a roofless circle of pillars rising out of scrub trees on a bluff above the dry stream. Once, he stopped to study with his spyglass a tall column that stood at the prow of a high ridge, decorated with carvings of some forgotten skirmish of the Heroic Age when godlings, autonomous shards of the creator gods, had walked new-made maps clad in the bodies of men and woman, and left behind monuments and temples and even entire cities, and rumours of places where time stretched from seconds to centuries between one footfall and the next, or where the unwary could be thrown into the sky or transported instantly to a map halfway around the world or to the bottom of the World Ocean. Places where rocks floated in the air. Places where the sick were healed. Places where the words of godlings still echoed and could drive the unwary mad or grant certain adepts disciplined by years of meditation a pure everlasting instant of ultimate enlightenment. How to measure the significance of this last assignment against any of that? The lucidor thought of an ant crawling across a child's balloon. Not even close.

Remfrey He had once told him that people busied themselves with habit and ritual to avoid thinking about the awful truth - that they were no more than discarded toys in an abandoned house, and only those who accepted that their world and their lives were a cosmic joke and laughed at it and found new games to play could be truly free. Not that Remfrey He believed any of that, of course. He did not really believe in anything, apart from the singularity of his genius. No, he had been amusing himself, the only kind of amusement he could manufacture after his arrest, by challenging and trying to undermine the lucidor's beliefs. A game he had continued to play long after he had been sentenced and exiled. Smuggling out notes commenting on disasters and crimes. Asking disingenuously, after the death of the lucidor's wife, if the lucidor still believed that his little life had any kind of meaning or structure.

Well, he still believed in the principles that had shaped his life. He still held them to be true. That was why he was here, and why the department wanted to hunt him down. Remfrey He would be amused by his persistence, no doubt, but it was all he had now. All he knew.

After the mirrors had dropped one by one behind a high ridge and shadows began to deepen and spread beneath the trees, the lucidor made camp beside a pool at the bottom of a dry waterfall. Someone had been there years before, had left a hearth circle of stones, and a carbine that leaned against a juniper close by, its wooden stock grey and rotten, the hard plastic of its chamber and barrel dulled by weather and cracked in several places. The lucidor squatted on his heels and studied it for a little while, wondering if its owner had left in a hurry because they had been running from an attack, or if they had been ambushed and killed, and their killer had overlooked the weapon they hadn't had time to use.

So many stories in this world. So many stories lost to time.

A rat snake fled from the lucidor when he went to fill his water bottle at the stream, and he stalked it through the sparse undergrowth and spiked it with his staff. He eaten nothing all day but the last handful of dried meat, and lit a small fire in the old hearth, telling himself that he was screened by trees and the risk of discovery was smaller than the risk of infection, and butchered his kill, throwing the head and guts to the warhorse and threading fillets of pale meat on a stick and searing them over the flames. After he had eaten and stamped out the fire, he climbed the tumble of house-sized boulders at the top of the waterfall and looked out across the dark tree-clad slopes. Far off in the dusk a shimmering twist of red and orange veils marked the carved pillar he had passed hours and leagues ago. Indistinct figures moved inside the light. Luminous ghosts of godlings eternally playing out a small episode in one of their games. No other sign of life anywhere. No sign of pursuit.

Back on the train, yesterday morning, he had guessed what was about to go down when he saw through the carriage window three bandits on warhorses scramble up from a gully beside the track. He'd been expecting something like it ever since he had glimpsed one of his former colleagues in the crowded market of the border town, just before he had crossed over into Patua. As he stood up, the woman two seats behind him rose too, fumbling in her reticule, jerking out a blazer, and he whipped his staff up and sideways in a short arc that struck her shoulder. The blazer's tight bright beam scorched his face and crisped his hair and set the carriage ceiling aflame, and before the woman could fire again he lashed her with two quick blows, knocking her down as one of the bandits burst through the door at the end of the carriage. The man, brandishing a pistol and shouting the lucidor's name, was shoved backwards by the panicky throng of passengers trying to escape the spreading fire, and the lucidor kicked out a window and clambered onto the roof of the carriage.

The other two bandits were cantering alongside the carriage, chased by a riderless warhorse, as the train braked in a shuddering scream of ceramic on ceramic. One stood on his stirrups and grabbed the balustrade of the platform at the end of the burning carriage and swung onto it, and the lucidor made a swift calculation and slung his staff over his shoulder and jumped. He landed with a rushing jolt on the riderless warhorse and grabbed up the reins with one hand and swung his staff as the second bandit cut towards him, smacking the man in the face and bowling him clean from his saddle. The bandit on the carriage's platform shot wildly, two rounds snapping wide, the third grazing the lucidor's arm, and the lucidor spurred his mount and raced away from the train, out across the gravel flats beyond the tracks.

The lucidor had no doubt that his mission had been uncovered or betrayed before it had scarcely begun. He feared for his old boss and anyone else who was in on it, knew that he couldn't turn back even though it was most likely that he would find nothing but trouble ahead. He'd been lucky that the department had sent bandits instead of his fellow officers to capture or kill him after he had crossed the border; lucky that only four had come after him. Four that he knew of. The department must have thought him an easy target because he was old and disgraced, and he knew that it would not make that mistake again. Knew that he couldn't rely on luck to see him through.

2

Cement Works

He fell asleep in a hollow he scraped in silky sand, wrapped in the saddle blanket with his head pillowed on his leather coat and the clash of stars burning in every shade of red beyond the saw-toothed silhouettes of the trees, and woke to a dull, cloudy dawn and the sound of rain pattering on a thousand thousand needles in the forest canopy. His bones ached in the chill damp; his wounded arm tenderly throbbed. Watched by the warhorse, he gathered fallen branches and built a new fire, wove a small basket from the ribs of fern fronds and filled it with water that he heated with pebbles plucked from the heart of the fire, dropped several pinches of glass moss into the water, and unknotted his makeshift bandage. The skin around the wound was hot and tender and there was a seepage of straw-coloured liquid. The lucidor plugged it with the boiled glass moss, cut and folded a fresh cloth pad and retied the remnant of the sleeve around his arm, shaved as best he could with the curved blade of his little knife, peeled and ate a couple of lobes of paddle cactus, and kicked apart the fire and saddled and mounted the warhorse.

For half the day he rode down trackless slopes of trees and mossy boulders, and at last the land bottomed out and he crossed a broad shallow river, the rain-pocked water no higher than the warhorse's hocks, and rode on through stands of tree-sized seed ferns. Rainwater guttering from the tips of drooping fronds, rain pattering on his hair, beading on the upturned fox-fur collar of his leather coat, soaking the knees of his trousers and trickling into his boots.

On the far side of the fern forest, the lucidor urged the warhorse up a shallow slope of sand and brush and reined her in at the top and for several minutes sat in the saddle looking out at the sprawl of the old port town of Roos and the grey flood of the Horned Strait. More water than he had ever before seen in his life, easily a hundred times wider than the Great River that wound through the fertile plain of the Free State. A desert of water stretching away under a low sky to a misty glimpse of land on the far side: a faint line that was the southern coast of the Big Island where most people in Patua lived. Where Remfrey He was somewhere going about his business.

'Think what you could do with all that water,' he told his wife. She had died six years ago, and although the curses and raging disbelief and self-pitying sorrow of his grief had long ago calcified he had not yet shaken off the habit of talking to her, especially when he saw something that might have caught her interest. He still carried her in his heart. He always would.

A river channelled by stone embankments divided the town into two unequal parts. On one side buildings like stacked sugar cubes climbed a hill crowned by a citadel built of black stone; on the other was a silted harbour and an industrial sprawl dominated by the overgrown wreckage of the iron ore works. The railway line on which the lucidor had been travelling had once transported ore from the mines in what was now the Free State to Roos, where it had been processed, and carried the slaves who had worked in the mines - the lucidor's ancestors, the ancestors of almost everyone in the Free State - in the other direction.

He had been intending to take the ferry from Roos across the Horned Strait, and on the other side catch another ferry that followed the coast of the Big Island north to the twin cities of Delos-Chimr. Where, according to the intelligence he'd been given, Remfrey He was supposedly helping the Patuan army devise new tactics against alter women and other monsters of the invasion.

A simple plan, thrown over when the bandits had ambushed the train. The lucidor reckoned that agents from the department, and bounty hunters and thief-takers hunting him for the price the department had put on his head, might well be watching the ferry now, so after scanning the shore with his spyglass he cut west, riding down the slope and finding a service road that ran between fields of electrical flax and regimented stands of ironwood trees. He paused to watch a work crew fell one of the trees. Men and women standing at a respectful distance as a charge of GPX, the gravity-polarised explosive which departmental assault teams sometimes used to take down doors, flared in a brief disc of red flame around the base of the trunk. The tree shivered, but it did not fall until a team of horses harnessed to rope pulleys surged forward and its long straight trunk, topped by rags of foliage, crashed down between its neighbours.

The lucidor rode on in the thin rain, passing a farm with plastic tunnels crammed with green crops running between rows of tilted light-collecting panels, riding through a sprawl of small factories, warehouses, and abandoned lots overgrown by volunteer saplings and ox grass and tumbles of kudzu. At a roadside stall frequented by workpeople and cargo-wagon drivers he bought a paper cone of something called popcorn squid - nuggets of salty flesh fried in breadcrumbs and doused in sweet chili sauce - and ate quickly, aware of the curious glances of the other customers, who were no doubt wondering who this stranger was, with his warhorse and his foreign clothes. He licked his greasy fingers clean and rode on, past two barges moored beside conical hills of sand and gravel, past the dusty silos of a cement works and a fan of railway sidings, crossing a narrow causeway to a long spit of land on the far side of a milky lagoon, where he had spied what looked like a fishing village.

The short row of single-storey houses, built of planks painted with black tar, squatted on a ridge that overlooked the pebbly beach where boats were drawn up along the water's edge. One boat in particular had caught his attention. It was more than twice the size of the rest, its hull moulded from some kind of plastic rather than shaped wooden planks, and there was a big square tent on the shore in front of it, open on one side, with lights shining inside and several people busy around tables and plastic tubs. As the lucidor rode up a woman stepped out and asked him what he wanted.

'I'm looking for someone who can take me across the Horned Strait.'

'You've come to the wrong place, friend. The ferry's in the old town.'

'I know where the ferry is. I'll give you this horse and her saddle in exchange for a ride on that big boat of yours.'

'We aren't in need of a horse, and we won't be going anywhere for a while,' the woman said.

She was in her early forties, a tall sinewy woman dressed in a denim work shirt and leather trousers, with a bush of wiry hair and a sharp, canny gaze. A long knife sheathed in an ironwood scabbard was suspended from a baldric slung over one shoulder, and she had stopped a sensible distance from the lucidor and the warhorse.

'What you need to do,' she told him, 'is turn around and ride back over the causeway and head along the coast road to the old town. Keep going west, you won't miss it. It's the place with the old ruin up on a hill by the river. The ferry terminal's directly below it.' 'What about the villagers?' the lucidor said. 'Might any of them take me across?'

'I can't speak for them, but I can tell you it isn't likely. Fisherfolk don't like to go too far out from shore these days.'

One of the people watching this exchange from the shelter of the tent, a young woman, stepped out into the rain and said to the lucidor, 'The fur trimming your coat is fox, isn't it? Desert fox. And that staff at your back is what certain lawkeepers carry in the Free State instead of pistols.'

'I was a lawkeeper before I retired,' the lucidor said. 'Now I am hoping to make myself useful in the war against the invasion, which is why I am looking for the fastest way across the Strait.' That was the cover story he had worked up before setting out, based on conversations with an acquaintance who had spent two years fighting against insurgents in Patua; his boss had supplied a fake letter of recommendation decorated with a genuine seal, and a letter of transit and identification documents made out for Saj Orym Zier, a former sheriff for the court of magistrates who otherwise exactly resembled the lucidor.

'From what I hear, a fair number of would-be mercenaries from the Free State are on the run from all kinds of trouble,' the first woman said. 'Maybe that's why this jasper wants to avoid the port and the scrutiny of the garrison.'

The young woman ignored that and said to the lucidor, 'You are no ordinary mercenary. You are gifted. A muzzler. I am not sure what they call you where you come from, but that's what we call your kind here.'

Her square pugnacious face was framed by long black hair parted down the middle, and like the half-dozen men and woman watching the exchange she wore a long white cotton coat. There were iron and copper rings on her fingers, and her bold gaze suggested that she was used to command.

'We are mostly called suppressors in the Free State,' the lucidor said, trying to hide his surprise. 'If you know what I am, you must be gifted too. You, or one of your friends.'

'I am a map reader,' the woman said. 'As are two of my assistants. We felt our gifts dimming as you approached.'

'If I am interfering with your work, I should ride on,' the lucidor said.

'What do they call you, in the Free State?' 'Saj Orym Zier.'

He had practised saying his alias, but it still felt strange in his mouth.

'I recall how they greet guests in your country, Saj Orym Zier. My home is your home, hearth and heart. I am Orjen Starbreaker. This is my steward, Lyra Gurnek,' the woman said, laying a hand on the tall woman's arm, 'and these are my assistants. We have no hearth, but we are in good heart, working hard to unravel the true nature of some of the invasion's little monsters. And while we cannot help you make the crossing, I think I know someone who might be able to help you. Come in out of the rain and we'll discuss it over a cup of chai. I will show you a little of what we are doing here, too. I am sure you'll be interested, given the kind of employment you are seeking.'

Orjen Starbreaker's rings were made of rare metals, her name was old and honourable, one of the names of those who claimed direct descent from men and women ridden by godlings in the dawn of the world, and she was a map reader, working on creatures of the invasion. She might know where Remfrey He was and what he was doing, might even have met him. And besides all that, the lucidor had ridden most of the day and was cold and weary, so he climbed down from the warhorse and tethered her to one of the stakes that anchored the tent and followed Orjen Starbreaker inside, with her steward close behind.

Long tables overflowed with the kind of organised clutter that reminded him of the city morgue's laboratory. Microscopes, centrifuges, glass dishes and flasks and beakers, bottles of reagents, dissecting trays half-full of black wax, some with small creatures slit and splayed in them like the leavings of some unholy feast. In one corner, an electric still dripped distilled water into a plastic jerry can. The stout-walled ironwood bomb of an autoclave crouched in another. A rank of plastic tanks stood at the back, and the salt tang of seawater mixed with the prickling odour of formaldehyde and other chemicals.

A young man fetched graduated glass beakers of clear amber chai. The lucidor took a dutiful sip, tasting mint and sugar, and warmed his fingers on the beaker while Orjen told him that she and her assistants were documenting the spread of known invader species, searching for new kinds, and trying to find out how they lived and reproduced.

'I visited the Free State once,' she said. 'Years ago, travelling with my father. We were taken out into the desert to watch a display of hunting with raptors, and there was a visit to a floating village in the marshes where the Great River drains away into the desert. But because my father was there on official business we spent most of our time in the capital, and most of the people I met were either government officials or security officers or lawkeepers. That's why I recognised your staff. It's carried by a particular type of lawkeeper, those who work for the Department for the Regulation of Applied Philosophy and Special Skills.'

'As I said, I'm retired now,' the lucidor said, unsettled by the young woman's sharp gaze.

'Lucidors. That's what they're called. That's what you are.' 'It's what I once was.'

'"Lucidor" means "one who seeks light". Light being knowledge, wisdom, understanding. But you don't seek it out because you want to understand it, do you? You don't want to learn from it or find a use for it or discover what it tells you about the world. You want only to suppress it.'

The lucidor could have told her that the Free State was a poor country. Landlocked, mostly desert, its only cultivatable land lying along the Great River. He could have told her that although it lacked many of the resources possessed by Patua, its people shared what little they had and made sure that it was put to the best use, and thought carefully about what they needed and what they did not. The People's House planned and policed every part of the economy, but no one went without food or shelter, and after its War of Independence the Free State had enjoyed two hundred years of peace and stability, while at this very moment a popular rebellion in the south of Patua was taking advantage of the chaos after the government had been forced to abandon the capital.

He could have told Orjen Starbreaker all that and more, but it would have been impolite, and he wanted to stay on the right side of her because of her offer to help him find a way across the Horned Strait, and because he wanted to ask her about Remfrey He. So he said, 'It's true that the department helps to regulate applied philosophy, and hunts down bandits who try to smuggle drugs and other contraband across the border, but that isn't all it does. You said that you visited the marshes. I was once sent there to investigate the rumour that a necromancer was at work in its far reaches.'

That got Orjen's attention, as he hoped it would.

She said, 'This was someone who could raise the dead?' 'Someone who was said to be creating monsters from parts of the dead, but turned out to be an old woman who had a glimmer of the healing touch, just enough to keep alive the birds she caught and sewed together. She couldn't explain why she did it, but the doctors who examined her were able to prescribe a physic that helped her to overcome her compulsion. Finding people who misuse their gifts is also part of our work. As is searching out gifted children, so that they can be helped to put their talents to best use.'

'You also serve a single-party government that controls every aspect of philosophical research, and suppresses or censors anything that conflicts with its ideology,' Orjen said. 'Could it have mobilised against the invasion as we have? Would it approve of the work we are doing here?'

'That would depend on the work, of course.'

'It's right here, in these tanks,' Orjen said. 'A sampling of the creatures that are displacing and destroying ordinary life.'

She called them her little monsters, and showed them off with enthusiastic pride and no little affection. 'Look at this!' she said, as she led him from tank to tank. And 'You see? You see?' And 'Isn't this amazing?'

Here was a scaly worm, as long as the lucidor's forearm, which shot out a hundred sticky venomous threads when Orjen prodded it with a stick. A creature with pairs of spines on its back patrolling the bottom of its tank on stiff prop-like legs tipped with claws, tentacles writhing around its blunt head. A small school of leaf-shaped creatures the colour of graphite, with sucker mouths filled with rasping teeth; Orjen said that they bored their way into fish and ate them from the inside out. A creature with a fat segmented body and half a dozen eyes set on short stalks around the base of a single long tentacle that ended in a snapping mouth crammed with crooked needles. A darkly translucent creature like a long flattened arrowhead that swam by flexing its body in sinuous curves, with two combs of stiff grasping poison-tipped spines around its mouth. A fist- sized creature that sculled to and fro on three pairs of paddles, its body like a streamlined helmet with two enormous eyes where the visor would be. It seemed to be the juvenile form of something much larger, Orjen said, known only from the tip of a claw-tipped tentacle embedded in the hull of a boat it had attacked; the life maps of the swimming helmet and the frag- ment of tentacle were identical.

Other tanks contained tangles of fast-growing red weed, or were filled with milky water from the lagoon, in which intricate lacework spires and plates and pebble-shaped structures sat like miniature cities sunk in fog. These were a kind of calcareous weed not found elsewhere, its growth apparently encouraged by the effluent discharged by the cement works. According to Orjen these weeds and every kind of little monster were the radically altered offspring of ordinary species which had been infected by microscopic pathogens called tailswallowers, because of their looped and knotted life maps.

'The tailswallowers are the root and heart of the invasion,' Orjen said. 'We are a long way from understanding how they take over the life maps of their hosts, but we are beginning to understand what we need to know.'

The lucidor felt a tingling unease and said, 'If these creatures are infected, could they infect us?'

'Don't worry. The tailswallowers which created these little monsters aren't the kind which infect people, and are in any case woven into the life maps of their hosts. And that's the most interesting and important thing about the invasion. The life maps of its tailswallowers are made of the same kind of stuff, and contain the same kind of patterns, as ordinary life maps, which means that we have a better chance of understanding and overcoming it before it spreads too far. Especially as our work is not hampered by the kind of cumbersome regulations and oversight demanded by your government.'

'I would hope that the people of the Free State would mobilise every necessary resource if the invasion threatened to cross the border,' the lucidor said. 'And I know that an acquaintance of mine would very much like your work. Remfrey He. Perhaps you know the name?'

Orjen gave him a sharp look. 'Is he someone you arrested for the so-called misuse of philosophy?'

'He crossed into this country a little while back, and must have passed through Roos on his way to the Big Island. Had he heard of your work, I'm sure he would have paid you a visit.'

'We have not been here long. And in a few days we will strike camp and move further west, where I hope to locate the leading edge of the invasion. Meanwhile, we have to get back to work, but first I'll point you towards someone who might be able to help you cross to the Big Island. You see, I hadn't forgotten about that.'

Orjen asked her steward for paper and brush, and in neat flowing characters wrote a short note - Please give all the help you can to this traveller, so that he may continue his education across the Horned Strait - and folded it and sealed it with a drip of wax melted over a ceramic burner and pressed her iron signet ring into the warm wax and handed the note to the lucidor. She waved away his thanks and told him to think about what she had shown him.

'If you survive combat with alter women or rebels and return home safely, tell your colleagues about what we are doing here. Tell them about the power of philosophical investigations that are not policed and regulated.'

Outside in the rain, the steward, Lyra Gurnek, gave directions to the house of a trader who had supplied reagents and equip- ment vital to Orjen's work. 'She's mostly honest, but she has connections with people who work on the shady side, and she's keen to keep up a relationship with someone like the boss, if you know what I mean.'

'Because your boss comes from a rich family.'

'Rich, and old, and influential,' Lyra said. 'She doesn't have to be working here. She doesn't need to do any kind of work at all. But here she is all the same. And she just did you a big favour. Not only the letter, but also by taking the time to show you a little of our part in the war against the invasion.'

'I am grateful for the favour. And for the demonstration of Patuan applied philosophy.'

'She's right to be proud of her work,' Lyra said. 'And she wouldn't have taken the trouble if she didn't think you might learn something. As for me, I reckon you have the look of a man who can't help but find trouble wherever he goes, so I hope you repay that favour by getting across to the Big Island soon as you can. Because when you do find trouble, or when trouble finds you, I'd like it to be somewhere so far away that we never get to hear about it.'

Copyright © 2020 by Paul J. McAuley


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