The Cartography of Sudden Death

The Cartography of Sudden Death

illustration by richard anderson

Time travel doesn’t actually solve problems. It just makes them more complex...

This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by senior editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden.

Ythna came to the Beldame’s household when she was barely old enough to walk. They took her from the nursery block in the middle of the night, with nothing but the simple koton robe she was wearing, and carried the tiny girl to a black shiny vehicle, a Monopod. Sitting in the back, wearing a neat gray uniform and matching black gloves and shoes, was an Officiator, who asked the young Ythna some questions. The next thing she knew, she was riding a white cage on a wire over the mountains, up to the gilded fortress where she would serve the Beldame for the rest of her days, if she was lucky.

Ythna forgot the Officiator’s face, or whatever else he said to her, but she would always remember what he said as she stepped, barefoot, out of the cage as the sun rose over the golden house. He knelt before her and spoke gently: “You are but one of a thousand retainers to the Beldame. But each of you is a finger, or a toe. Your movements are her movements. Do not make her a disgrace.”

Ythna lived in a tiny yellow dormitory room with nine other small children, all of them sharing white-and-red uniforms and eating from the same dispensary. Ythna learned to read and write basic Gaven texts, and worked in the cavernous kitchen and boiler room of the golden fortress, which was called Parathall. At night, the other children teased Ythna and pinched her in places where the bruises wouldn’t show on her golden-brown skin, under her retainer uniform. Two girls, the pale, blonde Maryn and the olive-toned Yuli, appointed themselves the rulers of Children’s Wing, and if Ythna didn’t please Maryn and Yuli she found herself sealed inside a small wooden linen box, suffocating, sometimes overnight.

Every moment people weren’t looking, Ythna wept into her loose sleeve. Until one day when she brought some hot barley wine to the Beldame herself, doing the five-point turn as she’d been taught, ending up on one knee with the tray raised before the wrought iron chair.

Ythna was eight or nine years old, and she made sure not to look at the Beldame’s white round face, as she knelt. But in Ythna’s eagerness to avoid looking on her mistress, she found herself gazing, instead, at the papers the Beldame was studying. Ythna started reading them, until the Beldame noticed.

“You can read that?” the Beldame said.

Ythna nodded, terrified.

“And tell me, what do you think of it?” the Beldame asked.

Ythna stammered at first, but at last she shared a few thoughts about the document, which dealt with the rebellious offworld colonists, and the problems with maintaining order in the fringes of the Empire here on Earth. The Beldame asked more questions, and Ythna answered as best she could. After that, the Beldame sent her away—but then Ythna found herself chosen to bring food and drink to the Beldame often. And sometimes, the Beldame would invite her to sit for a moment at her feet, and talk to her.

Years passed. One day, word came that the Beldame was going to be elevated to the Emperor’s Thousand, so she would be in the same direct relationship to the Emperor that the Beldame’s thousand retainers were to her. There would be a massive ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Emperor, at which the Beldame would be given a steel thimble, symbolizing the fact that she was becoming one of the Emperor’s own fingers. Ythna couldn’t even imagine that she could be one-thousandth of the woman who was one-thousandth of the Emperor. She watched the sunrise between the mountain peaks below the Beldame’s arched picture windows and laughed at the floor brush in her hand.

“A lot is going to change for all of us,” said Maryn, who had grown into a striking young woman who still bossed around the other retainers. “Strange foods, new places. All the more reason to keep our behavior perfect. The Beldame is counting on us.”

Ythna said nothing. She was still smaller than Maryn, barely noticeable except for her ribbons of long black hair, down to her waist, and the way she ran through the stone passages of the fortress, her bare feet as silent as snow melting, when nobody else was around.

The day came nearer, and they all traveled for a week by steam truck and Monopod to the Tomb of the Unknown Emperor. At last, they saw it in the distance, looming over the plains: a great structure, shaped like an old letter M, with two great pillars supporting the black canopy. The Unknown Emperor had lain in state for over a hundred years there, behind a faceless statue that raised one hand to the people who’d served him without knowing his name.

They all lined up in rows, the thousand of them, at the base of the Tomb, while the Beldame climbed to the very top. Some of the retainers were playing small bells, and sweet smoke was coming up out of brass pipes all around them. The Officiators were leading Ythna and the others in ceremonial chants. Ythna could see the tiny figure of the Beldame, emerging on top of the structure, as the Emperor himself bestowed the thimble on her. A voice, one of the Chief Officiators, spoke of the hundreds of years of tradition they honored today.

Ythna thought that she could not be any more deliriously proud than she was at this moment, watching her friend and mistress elevated. Her only wish was that she could see the Beldame Thakrra up close at this moment, to behold the look on Thakrra’s face.

A second later, Ythna had her desire. The Beldame lay on the ground directly in front of her, lying on her back, her small body broken by the fall from the top of the structure. Her gentle, lined face was still recognizable, inside her brocaded robe and twelve-peaked silken hat, but she had no expression at all, and blood was leaking out all over the ground, until it lapped against Ythna’s bare feet. She could not help but panic that maybe her selfish wish had caused this to happen.

Next to Ythna, Maryn saw the Beldame’s corpse and began wailing in a loud, theatrical fashion. The other retainers heard Maryn and followed her lead, making a sound like a family of cats. Ythna, meanwhile, could barely choke out a single tear, and it hurt like a splinter coming out.

Frantic to avoid seeing the Beldame like this, Ythna looked up—just as a strange woman stepped out of the nearest pillar in the Tomb. The woman had long curly red hair under a pillbox hat shaped like one of the lacquered discs where the Beldame had kept her spare monocles. She had a sharp nose and chin, and quick gray eyes. And she wore a long black coat, with embroidered sleeves and shoulders, and shiny brass buttons with cords looping around them. She looked like a commanding general from an old-fashioned foreign army.

The red-haired woman stepped forward, looked around, and took in the scene. Then she said a curse word in a language that Ythna had never heard, and slipped away around the side of the Tomb, before anybody else noticed her.

 

Hours went by. Ythna felt as though her ribcage were as barbed and twisted as the ends of the Beldame’s beloved wrought iron chair. She knelt on the ground, in the Beldame’s dried blood, weeping, though the Beldame’s body was long gone. Nearby, Yuli and Maryn were making a huge show of singing the Bottomless Grief Spiral chant along with the Officiators. But Maryn kept whispering to Yuli that maybe they should make a break for it—retainers whose mistress died could not count on being given new positions elsewhere, and the alternative was Obsolescence.

“We can’t escape,” Yuli whispered back. “Not with everybody watching. And where would we go? There is no place to hide in the entire Empire, from sea to pole to sea.”

Ythna couldn’t stop wondering about the red-haired woman, who wore no uniform Ythna recognized, and who had all but spat on the ground on seeing the gathered retainers and Officiators. She finally crept over to the pillar she’d seen the woman step out of, and started feeling around for a hinge or join, some evidence of a passageway. The Tomb had many hidden ways in and out—that was how the Emperor’s body had been deposited there without anyone seeing his face—but if there was a doorway here, then Ythna could not find it. She tried to shake the granite edge of the pillar with her fingertips, as if she could bring down the mighty Tomb by herself.

“What do you think you are doing?”

Ythna turned to see one of the Obfuscators watching her. Trex. He’d arrived with the others, to take charge of the scene, and keep the retainers in order. He was a tall, solidly built man with a sallow face and black hair and eyes. And he was holding a fully charged valence gun, aimed at her. She could smell the burnt-shoe odor from a few feet away, and if he fired she would be a pile of dust in seconds. He had the black chestpiece and square helmet that indicated he was one of the Emperor’s personal Obfuscators, empowered to create order in just about any way he deemed necessary.

Ythna backed against the pillar, stuttering and trying to think of what to say. “There was a woman, a stranger. Not one of our party. She came out of this pillar right after the Beldame was killed.” She described the woman and her clothing as best she could, and the Obfuscator Trex seemed to be listening carefully. At last, he nodded and indicated for her to rejoin the others.

“Tell nobody else what you saw,” added Trex. Then he stalked away, his back and legs as stiff as one of the supply robots carrying fuel and food up the mountainside to the Golden Fortress.

The retainers all started to freeze as the sun got lower on the horizon, since they were wearing light koton ceremonial gowns designed for comfort in the noon sun. The patch of dried blood had gone crisp, but the smell of newly slaughtered cattle still hung in the air. Nobody had yet decided what to do with these surplus retainers. Yuli and Maryn still debated running away.

Someone gave the retainers hot barley wine, to warm them up, which just reminded Ythna of the Beldame Thakrra all over again, and she found herself crying harder than ever as she drank from the communal jug. Some time later, she needed to relieve herself, and couldn’t bear to soil the same ground where the Beldame had bled to death. She begged an Obfuscator until he gave her permission to go around the Tomb to the front entrance, where some simple latrines had been set up. Ythna thanked him profusely.

The latrines were lined up like sentry boxes, perpendicular to the front pillar of the Tomb. Beyond them, there was the edge of a dense forest of oaks, birches, and pines, stretching all the way to the distant white mountains. A chill wind seemed to come from the woods as Ythna slipped inside one of the latrines, hiking up her shift. When she came out again, the red-haired woman was there.

The woman gestured for Ythna to be silent. “I’ve been observing you,” she whispered, with an accent that Ythna couldn’t place. “You’re cleverer than the rest. And you’re actually grief-stricken for the poor dead Beldame. All your friends are just pretending. I want to help you.”

“You killed her,” Ythna said. “You killed the Beldame. I saw you step out of the tomb right after she fell.”

“No, I swear I had nothing to do with her death,” the woman said sadly. “Except that it created a door for me to step through. That’s how I travel. My name is Jemima Brookwater, and I’m from the future.”

Ythna studied the strange red-haired woman for a moment. Her black boots were shiny but scuffed, her puffy pants had a grass stain on one knee, and her fine velvet coat had a rip in the side, which had been hastily sewn and patched. Whatever this woman was—crackwit, breakbond, or something else—she was not an assassin. But maybe Ythna should tell Trex in any case.

“It was good to meet you, Jemima,” Ythna said. “I should go and rejoin the others. Be safe.” She turned to go back around the tomb toward the other retainers, whom she could hear chanting the grief spiral with dry, exhausted throats.

“Let me help you,” Jemima said again.

Ythna turned back. “Why would you want to help me?”

“I told you, I travel by using the openings created when someone important dies unexpectedly. And I feel bad about that. So I made a vow: every time I travel, I try to help one person, one deserving person.”

“And how would you help me?” Something about this woman’s way of speaking reminded Ythna of the Beldame, except that Jemima was more animated and lacked the Beldame’s dignity.

“I don’t know. You tell me. It’s not really helping if I decide for myself what sort of help you need, is it?”

Ythna didn’t say anything for a moment, so Jemima added:, “Tell me. Your mistress, Thakrra, is dead. What do you want to do now?”

Nobody had ever asked Ythna what she wanted, in her entire life. But more startling than that was to hear Jemima say Thakrra was dead, by name, because it hit her all over again: the feeling of hopelessness. Like she had swallowed something enormous, that she could never digest even if she lived forever. She heard the droning chant from the plains on the other side of the tomb, and all of a sudden the voices sounded genuinely miserable instead of forced and dried out.

“There is nothing you can do for me,” Ythna said, and turned to leave in the shadow of the great criss-crossing limbs of the Tomb.

The woman chased after her, speaking quickly. “That’s just not true,” she said. “I really don’t want to tell you what you should do, but I can help with anything you choose. For example, I can get you out of here. That forest is full of landmines, but I know a secret underground passage, which archaeologists discovered hundreds of years from now. And I could forge whatever documents you might need. Your Empire outlawed proper computers. They keep obsessive records on paper, but with a few major flaws. You can be anyone.”

Ythna turned back one last time, tears all over her face. “I cannot be anyone,” she said. “I can only be what I am: one small piece of the Beldame. Who do you belong to? Are you completely alone? You seem like someone who just comes and goes, like a ghost. And you want me to become a ghost as well. I can’t. Leave me alone.”

“Listen.” Jemima grabbed Ythna’s arm. They were almost back within view of the massed group of retainers, Obfuscators, and Officiators. “This is not going to go well for you. I’ve read the history books, I know what happened to a retainer whose master or mistress died suddenly, without making arrangements first. If you’re lucky, you get reeducated and sent to a new household, where you’ll be the lowest status and they’ll treat you like dirt. If you’re unlucky . . .”

Ythna tried to explain, with eyes full of tears and a voice suddenly hoarse from crying and chanting, that she didn’t care what happened to her. “I can’t just dishonor the Beldame by running away. That would be worse than enduring any abuse. If you know so much, then you have to understand that.”

At last, Jemima let go of Ythna’s arm, and she turned to go back to the others before she was missed.

“At least I tried,” Jemima said. “I do admire your conviction.”

“There she is,” a voice said from behind them. “I told you. I told you she was conspiring. All along, conspiring. And scheming.” Maryn stood at the edge of the tomb, pointing at Ythna and Jemima. Beside her, Obfuscator Trex advanced, raising the brass rod of his valence gun. Maryn was a foot shorter than Trex and wore simple robes like Ythna’s next to Trex’s bulky chrome-and-leather uniform. But Maryn’s excitement and triumph made her seem twice as big as the strong, fussy man.

Jemima grabbed Ythna and pushed her behind herself, so that Jemima could take the brunt of Trex’s first shot and Ythna would have an extra few seconds to live.

“The penalty for conspiring to assassinate a Beldame is death,” Trex said, chewing each syllable like a nugget of fat. “I am mightily empowered to carry out the sentence at once.”

“I don’t want any reward,” Maryn said. Everybody ignored her.

“Wait,” Jemima said. “You are being duped here. I know you’re an intelligent man, I’ve read about you. Trex, right? I know all about your illustrious career. And I have a perfectly sensible explanation for everything you’ve witnessed.” Jemima was reaching into a tiny holster hidden in the braided piping on the side of her velvet coat, reaching for a object the size of her thumb. A gun.

“Please,” Ythna said to Trex. “We didn’t conspire. I only just met this woman.”

But Trex aimed his valence gun, sparks coming from the connecting tubes, and said, “You are both found guilty, and your sentence is—”

Ythna closed her eyes, waiting for a sizzling noise and the acrid stench of Jemima being torn molecule from molecule. Instead, she heard Maryn scream and thrash the air. When Ythna opened her eyes, Trex’s headless body was falling to the ground, and Trex’s head was rolling to a stop at Maryn’s feet, an expression of supreme disgruntlement forever sealed on Trex’s face.

A man wearing a black uniform, as simple as Trex’s was ornate, was running away, sheathing a bloody sword of a curved design that Ythna had never seen before. An opaque helmet, shaped like a teardrop, obscured the man’s features.

Jemima gave another one of her foreign cursewords and ran after the man. Ythna took one look at the headless Obfuscator and the wailing Maryn—whose screams were likely to bring everybody running—and followed Jemima.

The man with the sword reached the outermost pillar of the M-shaped tomb, and ran through the wall without breaking stride. One moment he was there, the next he was gone. Jemima and Ythna reached the wall a moment later, and Jemima ran straight for the spot where the man had vanished. And then she, too, was gone. Ythna’s momentum carried her forward before she could even think about the insanity of what she was doing. She hit the massive-blocked granite wall at the same point as the other two, and felt a sensation like a million tiny hands tugging at her. And then her senses were stolen away, one by one. But not before she had a glimpse of a million bright threads of different colors, crisscrossing around her in the midst of infinite darkness.

 

Ythna foundered, unable to see, hear, or touch anything for an age, until those same tiny hands grabbed her and shoved her forward, into the light.

For a moment, Ythna was dazzled and had pins and needles in her hands and feet, then she slowly regained her sight. She was lying on the floor of a long high-vaulted chamber, open to the air on one side and closed off on the other. A giant terrace, or balcony, then. The walls to her left were incredibly ornate, with what looked like molded silver encrusted with countless priceless jewels—and yet, someone had gone to great trouble to make that opulence look as ugly as possible. The silver was smudgy gray, the rubies and diamonds were as dull as you could make them. To Ythna’s left, past the railing, she could see an endless phalanx of people in retainer outfits, not all that different from what she wore every day, marching forward to the grim, repetitive droning of horns.

Next to Ythna, Jemima was on her knees, covering her face with one hand, and saying “No, no, no, no, please no,” over and over again.

“What is it?” Ythna said. “What’s wrong?” She put one hand on Jemima’s epauletted shoulder.

“This is the worst place,” Jemima said, uncovering her face and gesturing past the balcony at the thousands of people walking in neat rows. “I’m sorry. This is my fault. I shouldn’t have brought you here. I wanted to help you, and I’ve just made everything worse.”

“What place? Where are we?” Ythna was still having a hard time thinking straight after the disorientation of passing through the senseless tangle of threads.

“Roughly seventy years after your time. The Glorious Restoration. The worst period in the history of the Gaven Empire.” Jemima straightened up a bit on her haunches. “An attempt to restore traditional values to an empire that had grown decadent. They’ve probably executed another Chief Officiator, and that’s what made the door we just came out of. And those people down there? They’re marching to the death camps.”

We’re in the future,” Ythna said, and now she was pulling her own hair to try and get her head straight.

The whole thing sounded mad. But they weren’t at the Tomb of the Unknown Emperor any more, and the more she looked at the scene outside, the more she noticed little incongruities.

Like, the retainers marching forward across the square wore simpler uniforms than she’d ever seen before, with a different insignia. The banners hanging on the outer wall of the courtyard, opposite the balcony, listed a different Imperial Era: the Great Rejoicing Era, not the Bountiful Era that Ythna was used to. So there was a different Emperor on the throne. But the banners looked old. And the Obfuscators herding these retainers across the courtyard wore helmets with weird spikes on them, and their chestpieces were a blockier design as well, aimed at protecting against a different class of weapons. Their valence guns were much smaller and could be carried with one hand, too. There were other details, but those were the ones that jumped out at Ythna.

“How did we get here?” Ythna said.

“I told you,” Jemima said. “That’s how I travel. But I’ve never killed anyone to open a portal. Trex was supposed to live another few decades, and become the Chief Obfuscator to the Emperor Maarthyon. And I’m sorry, but Beldame Thakrra always died on that day. Her death is in my history book, and I’m pretty sure it was an accident.”

Jemima was searching the terrace for clues to the exact date, while trying to stay out of sight from the people below, or on the other balconies further along. “If we know what day this is, then we can know when the next significant death will be,” Jemima said. “We need to get the blazes out of here.”

“And any death of an important person will make a door?” Ythna said.

“It must be an unexpected death,” Jemima said. “Something that creates a lot of causal torsions.” Ythna must have looked confused, because she added: “A lot of adjustments. Like ripples.”

“So you really are a ghost,” Ythna said. “You belong to no one, you travel through death, and you come and go without being seen. I feel sorry for you.”

Jemima didn’t have anything to say that For the second time in half an hour she had lost her unflappable good humor. She stared at Ythna for a moment.

Then she turned and pointed with one slender gloved finger. “Over there. He’s making for that dais. We must stop him, or he’ll ruin absolutely everything.”

The man with the opaque tear-shaped helmet had his sword out again, with traces of Trex’s blood still on it. He was running along another terrace, just around a corner of the giant building from the one where Jemima and Ythna stood. And when Ythna leaned dangerously out into the open, over the stone railing, she could see the man’s destination: a dais facing the courtyard, where a bald, sweaty man sat watching the thousands of people being herded away to the slaughter. The man’s robes, dais, and throne were like the walls of this chamber: ornate, but ugly and drained of color. Everything about him was designed to show off wealth, without sharing beauty.

At least twenty Obfuscators and Officiators stood between the man with the sword and the man on the throne, who had to be a Vice Emperor. They all aimed their valence guns at the assassin, who raised a long metal brace strapped to his left forearm, which he held in front of him like a shield. The valence guns made the scorching sound Ythna had heard before, but without effect. The man’s forearm glowed with a blue light that spread in front of him and seemed to protect him. He reached the first of the Obfuscators, and put his sword through her stomach in an elegant motion that did not slow his run at all.

“How is he doing that?” Ythna said. “With the valence guns?”

Then she turned and realized Jemima wasn’t next to her any more. She was already at the far end of the terrace, opening a hidden door she’d found, which led to the next terrace along. Jemima was rushing toward the assassin and the Vice Emperor. Ythna did her best imitation of Jemima’s strange foreign swear word—“fth’nak”—and ran after her.

In the next terrace, a group of Officiators were holding up ceremonial trowels, symbolizing the burial of the past and the building of the future, and they gasped when two strange women came running into the space, a tall redhead in a fancy coat and a small dark girl in old-fashioned retainer clothes.

“The Vice Emperor,” Jemima gasped without slowing her run. “I’m the only one who can save him.”

For a moment, Ythna thought the Officiators might believe Jemima and let her pass. But they fell back on an Officiator’s ingrained distrust of anyone or anything that didn’t instantly fit, and reached out to try and restrain both Ythna and Jemima. They were too slow—Jemima had almost reached the far wall, and Ythna was slippery as a wet goose—but they called for Obfuscators to help them. By the time Ythna reached the far wall, where Jemima was trying to open the next door, people were firing valence guns at her from the courtyard below. The balcony next to them exploded into chunks of silver and bejeweled masonry.

“Don’t worry,” Jemima said. “They mass-produced those guns cheaply in this era. At this range, they couldn’t hit a Monopod.”

She got the door to the next terrace open, and they were facing three Obfuscators aiming valence guns. At point-blank range.

“Guh,” Jemima said. “Listen. That reprehensible man over there is about to assassinate your Vice Emperor.” By now they were close enough to have an excellent view, as the last few of the Vice Emperor’s Obfuscators fought hand-to-hand against the sword-wielding assassin, surrounded by the fresh corpses of their brethren. “I can stop him. I swear to you I can.”

These Obfuscators hesitated—long enough for Jemima to pull out the thumb-sized gun hidden in her coat’s braid and shoot them all with it. There was a bright pink flash in front of each of them, just before they all fell face down on the ground.

“Stunned,” she said. “They’ll be fine.”

Then she lifted one arm, so that a bit of lace cuff flopped out of her velvet sleeve, and aimed at the top of the ceremonial gate between the courtyard and the Vice Emperor’s dais. A tiny hook shot out of her lace cuff, with a steel cord attached to it, and it latched on to the apex of the gate’s arch, right on top of the symbol for Dja-Thun, or the unbroken chain of thousands from Emperor to gutterslave. “Hang on tight,” Jemima said, right before she grabbed Ythna’s waist and pressed a button, sending them sailing through the smoky bright air over the men shooting valence guns at them. The sun lit up Ythna’s face in mid swing, the same way it once had from the Beldame’s window.

By the time they reached the dais, dismounting with only a slight stumble, the assassin had killed the last Obfuscator, and was advancing on the Vice Emperor, who cowered on his massive gray-gold throne.

“Listen to me,” Jemima shouted at the man. “You don’t want to do this. You really, really do not. Time-travel via murder is a dead end. Literally. You’ll tear the map apart, and none of the major deaths of history will happen on schedule. You’ll be every bit as lost as I will.”

The man turned to salute Jemima. “Professor Brookwater,” he said in a low voice, only slightly muffled by his milky helmet. “You are one of my all-time heroes. But you don’t know the full potential of what you discovered. I sincerely hope you do get home some day.”

Jemima shot at him and missed. He spun, low to the ground, and then pivoted and took the Vice Emperor’s head clean off. Almost at once, Ythna could see an indistinct doorway appear on the elaborately carved side of the gray dais: like a pinwheel with too many spokes to count, opening outwards and showing a secret pathway through death and time. Somehow, Ythna couldn’t see these doors, until she had already passed through one.

The assassin ran into the pinwheel and vanished. The remaining Obfuscators and retainers were crying out from the courtyard below, and a hundred valence guns went off all at once. The dais was collapsing into rubble. Ythna was paralyzed for a moment, until Jemima grabbed her and threw her into the doorway the assassin had created.

 

The next thing Ythna knew, she landed facedown on a hard cement surface, outdoors, under a nearly cloudless sky. In front of her was a big chain-link fence, with men in unfamiliar uniforms walking past it holding big bulky metal guns. She heard a voice saying indistinct words over a loudspeaker. She turned and saw a row of giant rocket ships looming in the distance, with a flaming circle painted on each gunmetal shell and a mesh of bright scaffolding clinging to their sides.

She couldn’t see the assassin with the sword, but Jemima was crouched next to her, looking pissed off and maybe a little weepy.

“It just gets better and better,” Jemima said. “This is—”

“I know where we are, this time,” Ythna said. “The Beldame showed me pictures. This was the last great assault on the Martian Colony. The Emperor Dickon’s great and glorious campaign to bring the principle of Dja-Thun to the unruly people on Mars. This happened decades before I was born.”

“It’s happening right now,” Jemima said, looking in all directions for the man they’d been chasing. “I wonder who just died here.”

“What did you mean, about the map?” Ythna said. “You said he was tearing the map apart.”

“I’ve got a history book,” Jemima said without pausing her search. “I know the major deaths, down to the exact place and time. Every time I travel, I chart where each death leads. I’m deciphering the map slowly, but this cad will render that impossible. I’ve done twenty-eight trips so far, including today.”

“How many people have you helped?” Ythna said. “Twenty-seven?”

“Twenty-five,” Jemima said.

“And how did that turn out for them?”

“No idea. People like you don’t get mentioned in the history books, even if I found an updated version. No offense. But if I ever get home, I can try to look up some detailed records, and try to find out what happened to all of you.”

Jemima cursed again in her own language: “fth’nak.” An old-fashioned wheeled vehicle was rolling toward them, with figures in bulky black armor, holding big oily guns. The jeep rumbled, a cloud of dust in its wake, as it grew bigger until it was right in front of them. On the side of the jeep was the round, fiery insignia of the Age of Advancement, the Emperor Dickon’s era. The men in the front of the truck wore the same image on their helmets.

Jemima started to try and explain their presence to these men, but they cut her off.

“Desertion is a capital crime, as you are no doubt aware,” the man in the truck’s passenger seat said. “But you’re lucky. The Dauntless is short-crewed and ammunition is precious. So I’m going to pretend you didn’t just try to run away. That’s a one-time offer, good only if you come with me right now. Your new home lifts off tomorrow morning at oh-five hundred hours.”

And that’s how Jemima and Ythna found themselves in a bare gray cage with a tiny window that gave them a partial view of the nearest rocket, a snub-nosed, squat monstrosity with nine thrusters arrayed like petals. Ythna rubbed the bruises she’d gotten from the guards’ rifle butts and rough hands.

“At least they don’t think we’re spies,” said Ythna. “Or they’d have just executed us.”

“They assume that nobody could ever get this far inside their security perimeter undetected,” said Jemima. “So they reached for the next logical explanation: we must be members of the galley crew, who tried to make a break for it. Instead of executing us, they’ll just send us up in one of those ships, probably in irons in case we actually are saboteurs.”

“The Beldame told me that this campaign was a terrible waste. The whole assault force died without ever reaching Mars, because the colonists had superior weapons. They used technology that the Empire had rejected as impure,” said Ythna. “It was one of the Beldame’s lessons that she liked to tell: A just cause becomes unjust when it costs too much human life.”

“The Beldame sounds like she was a wise woman,” said Jemima.

Ythna was sure she was going to look up and see a sarcastic leer on Jemima’s sharp face, but there was none. Instead, Jemima just nodded, then walked to the window and studied the rocket they were soon going to be chained up in the belly of.

“I don’t want to die in a pointless war that was lost before I was born,” Ythna said.

“Really? I thought you didn’t want anything, one way or the other,” Jemima said, still facing the window. “Isn’t that what you said? And how is this different from what would have happened to you if we had never met? You would have been sent to work for some new master, who might have worked you to death in a year or two. Or you could have been marked for Obsolescence, and died sooner. This is the same.”

“It’s not the same at all,” Ythna said. Just when she had thought Jemima was starting to treat her like an adult.

“Isn’t it?”

Ythna changed the subject. “So if everybody on board the rocket ship dies, can we use that to escape?”

“No,” said Jemima. “Their deaths won’t be significant. Or terribly unexpected. I can only use a single sudden death that changes lots of other people’s fates.”

“That’s a stupid rule.”

Jemima shrugged. “It’s a science that won’t exist for hundreds of years. Like I said: causal torsions. Think of causality as a weave that holds all of us fast, and occasionally gaps appear that you can slip through.”

“So how are we going to escape before they put us on that rocket?”

“First things first.” Jemima came and stood in front of Ythna, so she was silhouetted by the setting sun through the small window, and put her right hand out, palm up and at an angle. “I really do want to help. So far, all I’ve done is make things worse for you. If you’ll let me, I’ll do whatever I can. You’re a smart person and you care about other people. You deserve better. And the Gaven Empire could use a million more like you.”

“How does the Empire end?” Ythna said.

“It dies,” Jemima said. “Everything dies eventually. You were born in the Golden Century, which was a relatively stable era. After that, there was a twenty-year fall into decadence and social decay, followed by the Glorious Restoration, which you saw. That lasted about fifty-seven years, and was followed by the Perfect Culmination, the most exact implementation of the ideal of Dja-Thun on Earth. Which lasted about as long as you’d expect. After that, there were about 150 years of slow decline, until the whole thing fell apart and your people begged the off-world colonists to come and save them. That’s the executive summary, anyway.”

“Okay,” Ythna said, taking Jemima’s hand in both of hers. “I want to make a difference. Give me a new identity, and put me where I can make a difference.”

“Very well,” Jemima said. “Done.”

Jemima searched through what seemed to be a million hidden pockets sewn into the lining of her giant coat until she found a device, perhaps twice the size of your fingernail. With this gadget, she opened the lock on their cage, and then she used her tiny stun gun on the two guards in the hallway outside, who were already half asleep in any case.

“Now what?” Ythna said. “Do we wait for that man in the helmet to arrive and murder someone else?”

“He’s long gone, whoever he was,” Jemima said. “But we don’t need him to kill anybody. The Dauntless is launching tomorrow, which means I know what day this is. And someone very famous is going to die, all on his own, in the next couple days. Come on.” She unlocked the front door of the holding facility with her lockpick. “We’ve got a lot of distance to cover. And first, we have to break out of a maximum security launch site.”

 

Beldame Thakrra’s grave wasn’t nearly as fancy as the Tomb of the Unknown Emperor. They had built her a big stone sphere with a metal spike sticking through it, befitting the rank she’d attained in the moment just before she died. And there was a bust in front, with a close enough likeness of her face, except that she looked placid and sleepy, instead of keen and on the verge of asking another question. The sphere was a little taller than Ythna, and the spike soared over her head. The tomb was surrounded by other, grander memorials, as far as Ythna could see.

The sphere and the bust of Thakrra were both covered with a thick layer of grime. Nobody had visited the Beldame’s tomb for decades. Maybe never. Ythna pulled a cloth out of her new, sharp-creased black uniform trousers and started to wipe the tomb so it looked fresh and clean, the way the Beldame had always kept her house. “It’s good to see you again,” she whispered.

Jemima came up behind Ythna while she was still wiping. “Here.” She handed Ythna a stack of official-looking cards. “It’s all correct. You’re a Vice Officiator named Dhar. That’s your name from now on. You were part of a secret mission for the Vice Emperor Htap, and everybody else who knew about that mission is dead now. Such things were common in the final days of the Perfect Culmination, sad to say. In any case, you can present these anywhere and if they need a new Vice Officiator, they’ll take you on.”

“Thank you,” Ythna said. “But I can’t go anywhere until I finish the ritual of mourning for the Beldame. I’ve waited much too long as it is.”

“There’s no rush whatsoever,” Jemima said. “In fact, if I were you, I would lay low for a few more weeks before trying to travel. Oh, and if anybody asks you about the past hundred years of history, just pretend you have a head injury from that secret mission.”

“What about you?” Ythna said. “Are you going to risk traveling right now?”

“Can’t hang about,” Jemima said. “This is the furthest forward in time I’ve reached in forever. And there’s a death next week that I’m hopeful will send me even further ahead.” She looked out at the rows of ziggurats, spheres, and statues, stretching out past the misty horizon. “I’ve jumped through time twenty-nine times. Twenty-nine times, and each time I find myself stuck in the Gaven Empire. There’s something I’m doing wrong, and I can’t figure out what it is.”

“Maybe if you find that man with the helmet,” Ythna said, “you can ask him.”

“If I find that man again,” Jemima said, “I shall have to kill him. Goodbye, Ythna. Have a great life. For me.”

They embraced. Ythna watched Jemima walk away across the rows of memorials and reliquaries, the rulers and saints of the Empire resting in glory. Jemima’s long black coat swished as she strode, jauntily, like someone who knew just what she was about. One arm swung back and forth, as if she had an invisible cane swatting aside the ghosts of this place. Ythna stared until all she could see was Jemima’s red curls and black hat amidst the big gray shapes. Then she turned back toward the Beldame, whose stone face still looked much too complacent. Ythna wiped the bust down one more time, then sank to her knees and began the slow, mournful chant of indelible grief.

 

“The Cartography of Sudden Death” copyright © 2013 by Charlie Jane Anders

Art copyright © 2013 by Richard Anderson

10 comments
Michael Walton
1. tygervolant
What a sad ending for a tale that ends well -- as well as can be expected, anyway.
Heim Kirin Grewal
3. kei_rin
That was one of the more interesting futures that I've read about in a long time.

I would be interesting in seeing what Ythna made of her future and if she ever become someone who makes a difference. If she did would that make her a traget for the man with the helmet?
Nizlemia
4. Nizlemia
Charlie Jane Anders is one of the few authors I wish would write a giant 20 volume epic. Until then, her wonderful short fiction will suffice. :)
Bruce Arthurs
5. Bruce-Arthurs
As a short story, this didn't really satisfy me. Considered as the opening section of a longer work, or series of stories, it's very intriguing.
Maria Stahl
6. MariainIowa
I thought for sure she'd end up being the Unknown Emperor.
Nizlemia
7. wr4ith0
But if she did, that would probably imply a time loop. The fact Jemima can't get out of the Empire anymore might imply Ythna did something to improve/stabilize it.
Cassie G
8. iliadawry
Thank you. This is really quite lovely, and I'd enjoy the opportunity to read more.
Nizlemia
9. cropette
Well done story. Really like the time travel theme. Need ... the rest of the story.
Nizlemia
10. Marx
Kinda ended flat. More like a story excerpt than a completed work. It'd be an interesting start to a larger work

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