Mycroft Canner is a convict. For his crimes he is required, as is the custom of the 25th century, to wander the world being as useful as he can to all he meets. Carlyle Foster is a sensayer—a spiritual counselor in a world that has outlawed the public practice of religion, but which also knows that the inner lives of humans cannot be wished away.
The world into which Mycroft and Carlyle have been born is as strange to our 21st-century eyes as ours would be to a native of the 1500s. It is a hard-won utopia built on technologically-generated abundance, and also on complex and mandatory systems of labeling all public writing and speech. What seem to us normal gender distinctions are now distinctly taboo in most social situations. And most of the world’s population is affiliated with globe-girdling clans of the like-minded, whose endless economic and cultural competition is carefully managed by central planners of inestimable subtlety. And in this world, Mycroft and Carlyle have stumbled on the wild card that may destabilize the system: the boy Bridger, who can effortlessly make his wishes come true. Who can, it would seem, bring inanimate objects to life…
Ada Palmer’s debut novel Too Like the Lightning—available May 10th from Tor Books—is the first entry in the Terra Ignota series, which mixes Enlightenment-era philosophy with traditional science fiction. Read Chapter 3 below, or head back to the beginning with Chapter 1!
Chapter the THIRD
The Most Important People in the World
Another car had touched down that same morning, March the twenty-third, before the same bash’house. Cielo de Pájaros blazes like a glacier on such mornings, white sun reflecting off the long rows of glass roofs which descend toward the Pacific in giant steps, like Dante’s Purgatory. The city is named for the birds, they say over a million, wild but cultivated, hatched and fed in the flower trenches that separate the tiers, so the flocks constantly splash up out of hiding and fall away again into the trench depths, like the wave crests of a flying sea. Cielo de Pájaros is one of Krepolsky’s earliest Spectacle Cities, much criticized for its homogeny, row upon row of homes with no downtown or shopping districts, but it has never lacked for residents. Critics claim that people tolerate living without a downtown in return for Chile’s perfect ocean views, or even that residents choose the city largely out of Hive pride, Humanist Members excited to think the great Saneer-Weeksbooth computers are humming away beneath their boots. But Humanists are not the only residents; one finds Cousins here, Mitsubishi, clusters of Gordian. I think Cielo de Pájaros is a success because it was the first city designed for those who don’t like city centers, whose perfect evening is spent by a window, watching gulls and black waves crashing down. What need is there for bustle in a city built for bash’es who prefer to be alone?
Martin Guildbreaker alighted from the car and crossed the gleaming footbridge over the flower trench to ring the main door’s bell. What could those inside see as he approached? A square-breasted Mason’s suit, light marble gray, and crisp with that time-consuming perfection only seen in those who perfect their appearances for another’s sake, a butler for his master, a bride for her beloved, or Martin for his Emperor. A darker armband, blackedged Imperial Gray with the Square & Compass on it, declares him a Familiaris Regni, an intimate of the Masonic throne, who walks the corridors of power at the price of subjecting himself by law and contract to the absolute dictum of Caesar’s will. Martin wears no strat insignia, not even for a hobby, nothing beyond his one white sleeve announcing permanent participation in that most Masonic rite the Annus Dialogorum. His hair is black, his skin a healthy, vaguely Persian brown, but I will not bore you with the genetics of a line that has not worn a nation-strat insignia these ten generations. There is no allegiance for a Guildbreaker but the Empire, nor a more unwelcome presence on this doorstep than a Guildbreaker.
“I’m looking for Member Ockham Saneer,” Martin called through the intercom.
The watchman of the house stayed inside, so only words met the intruder. “Is the world about to end?”
“Then go away. I have eight hundred million lives to oversee.”
“Not possible.” The Mason’s tone, if not his words, apologized. “I’m here to investigate last night’s security breach.” Martin let the computer flash his credentials. “I have a warrant.”
“I sent for our own police, not a polylaw.”
“I know this is a Humanist bash’, and I will absolutely respect your Hive sovereignty, but as a globally essential property you fall under Romanova’s jurisdiction. They assigned me.”
“You think just because your bash’ ponces around the Sanctum Sanctorum you can waltz in here and improve on my security?”
I don’t believe Martin had ever before heard his bash’mates’ positions in the Masonic Hive’s most honored Guard used as an insult. He managed not to flinch. “Are you Member Ockham Saneer?”
“I am.” Ockham pronounced with relish, as if, with all the lives in history laid out before him, he would have chosen this one.
Martin gave a suitably respectful nod. “This isn’t a simple security breach. You’ve been framed for grand theft. We have your tracker ID logged entering the crime scene in Tokyo late last night, and five million euros appeared in your bank account this morning. I know it’s absurd to suggest that anyone in your bash’ would commit a theft for profit, but I need your cooperation to find out why someone would set up something so implausible. The fact that there was also a break-in here last night can’t be coincidence.”
The door relented at last, revealing a man of dark Indian stock to match his sister Thisbe, and a physique beyond common athleticism. His shirt and pants, once plain, were now a labyrinth of doodles: black spirals, crosshatching, and hypnotic swirls, though he wore them as indifferently as if the cloth had never tasted ink. Only his Humanist boots mattered: veins of knife-bright steel framing a surface of pale, ice-gray leather, real leather which had once guarded the taut flanks of a living deer that Ockham slew himself. Like Martin, Ockham wore no sign of hobby or of nation-strat, nothing but his Hive boots and the overpowering self-confidence of a man who guards something so vital that the law will let him kill for it. Ancient civilizations, East and West, knew the special breath of power granted by the right to kill. That’s what made sword and fasces marks of dominion, lord over peasant, male over female, magistrate over petitioner. Our centuries of peace have so perfected nonlethal force that even police serve content without the right to kill. But we are not fools. To those who protect the commonwealth entire, the guards around the Olenek Virus Lab, the Sanctum Sanctorum, and to Ockham here we grant ‘any means necessary,’ a knife, a branch, even that deadly instrument the fist, to guard a million lives. Even if they never exercise this rarest right, still somehow every glance and gesture of such guardians still breathes the ancient force of knighthood. “I am Ockham Saneer. What is it that I’m supposed to have stolen?”
Martin nodded respect. “The unpublished Black Sakura Seven-Ten list.”
Scorn deepened on Ockham’s face. “Who’d pay five million for a vacuous editorial that goes to press in two days?”
“I could give you a nice long list. But I don’t know who’d pay five million to frame you. Did you visit the Black Sakura office yesterday? Have you ever dealt with them at all?”
Ockham still blocked the doorway, stubborn as a sculpture in its niche. “If I cared about newspapers I’d pick The Olympian or El País.”
“The paper’s absence was reported at seven o’clock p.m. Tokyo time, six a.m. your time. Any chance you might have taken your tracker off in the hours shortly before that?”
“Yes. The stolen list was a handwritten manuscript on paper. Black Sakura is antiquarian that way.”
Ockham’s face grew harder. “That’s what my breach was, an intruder left a piece of paper in the house, with Japanese writing on it.”
Martin swallowed. “May I see it? I do have jurisdiction.” He let the warrant flicker across Ockham’s lenses.
The Humanist drew back with a mastiff’s reluctance. “Don’t touch anything without asking.”
“Understood.” The Mason crossed the threshold with the tiptoe reverence he usually reserves for his own capitol.
There was little in the entryway apart from an ankle-high security robot, which let itself be seen to remind the visitor of its myriad hidden kin. As loyal Humanists, the Saneer-Weeksbooth bash’ did try their best to line the entrance hall with the traditional relics of triumphs, but since most of them do little but their work, and their celebrity member keeps his home a secret, their tiny spattering of diplomas and pictures—Thisbe’s trophies, Cato’s book cover—drowned on the walls like an unfinished mural. Is that judgment in the eyes of this young Guildbreaker? Smugness as he surveys the poor showing of the Saneer-Weeksbooths, whose name rivals his own in the triumphant annals of the bash’ system? I researched which of the two is really older, since so many bash’es form and dissolve with every generation that any famous bash’ which lasts more than three will spawn the rumor of antiquity. I found what I must call a noble tie. Regan Makoto Cullen broke with her great teacher Adolf Richter Brill on November fourth, 2191. “Break with” is easy to say, but not so easy to do, to face the man who has been your patron, teacher, foster father for twentyfive years, the man all Earth hails as the great mind of the century, who mapped the psyche in undreamt-of detail, who revolutionized education, linguistics, justice, to face him down and say, “Sir, you are wrong. So wrong that I shall turn the world against you. It’s not the numbers, not these rare psyches you’re charting that stimulate great progress. It’s groups. I’ve studied the same inventors, authors, leaders that you have, and the thing that most reliably produces many at once—the effect you’ve worked so hard to replicate—is when people abandon the nuclear family to live in a collective household, four to twenty friends, rearing children and ideas together in a haven of mutual discourse and play. We don’t need to revolutionize the kindergartens, we need to revolutionize the family.” This heresy, this bash’, which Cullen shortened from i-basho (a Japanese word, like ‘home’ but stronger), this challenge to Brill’s great system Cullen did not dare present without extensive notes. In those notes—still held as relics in Brill’s Institute—you will find the test bash’es Cullen set up in the 2170s, including both Weeksbooth and Guildbreaker.
“Is that sound the computers?” Martin half-whispered, not daring to touch the walls, which hummed as if channeling some distant stampede.
“Generators,” Ockham answered. “We can power the system for two weeks even if main and secondary both fail. The processors are farther back.”
He led Martin on to the bash’house’s central chamber, a high, broad living room ringed with cushy gray sofas, with a glass back wall that looked down over the next tiers of the sloping city to the crashing blue of the Pacific. The western sunlight through the window cast a halo around the room’s famed centerpiece: the pudgy pointed oval silhouette of Mukta. You know her from your schooling, duly memorized alongside the Nina, the Pinta, and Apollo XI, but you do not know her as we who walked those halls know her, her shadow across the carpet, her texture as you coax dust from the pockmarks scored in her paint by the bullet-fierce dust of 9,640 km/h.
“Is that the original?” Reverence made Martin’s words almost a whisper.
“Of course.” Ockham gave Mukta a careful caress, as one gives an old dog, not strong enough to leap and wrestle anymore. “Heart of the family business. Coming up on four hundred years it’s never left the bash’.”
Martin gazed up through the glass wall to the sky, where today’s cars, Mukta’s swarming children, raced on, invisibly swift until they slowed for landing, so they seemed to appear over the city like eggs laid by the chubby clouds. “And the computers? How deep would an intruder have to get to reach them?”
“Deep,” Ockham answered. “Many stories, many tiers.”
Thumps through the ceiling made both glance up, the footsteps of a bash’mate upstairs.
“How about to reach an interface?” Martin asked.
“The next room has some interface nets.” Ockham nodded to his left. “But they’re set-set nets, Cartesian, no one who wasn’t trained from birth could get them to respond.”
Mason: “Your security is mostly automated?”
Humanist: “I could have fifty guards here in two minutes, three hundred in five, but human power is less than four percent of my security.”
Mason: “You think there’s no danger this intruder could return and cause a mass crash?”
Humanist: “A mass crash is not possible.”
Mason: “You’re sure?”
Are you disconcerted by this scriptlike format, reader? It was common in our Eighteenth Century, description lapsing into naked dialogue; to such Enlightened readers all histories were plays, or rather one play, scripted by one distant and divine Playwright.
Humanist: “A mass crash is not the danger. The system will ground all the cars if any tampering’s detected, and they can self-land even with the system dead. The problem is shutting down all transit on Earth for however long it took us to recheck the system, could be minutes, hours. The Censor told me a complete shutdown would cost the world economy a billion euros a minute, not to mention stranding millions, cutting off supplies, ambulances, police. That’s your catastrophe.”
Mason: “Or at the very least the century’s most destructive prank.”
Confess, reader, the name had risen in your mind too, conjured by stereotype, as talk of secret handshakes brings Masons before your eyes, or war brings priests.
Martin frowned. “Not Utopians necessarily, though such mischief is not beyond them.”
Humanist: “They have a separate system. They’re the only ones.”
Mason: “Do you think they’d reap a profit if they shut you down and then let the other Hives rent out their cars?”
Humanist: “They wouldn’t.”
Mason: “Rent their cars?”
“They don’t have the capacity to put that many extra cars in the sky, they don’t have the reserves we do. They’d be overrun.”
At Ockham’s signal the house summoned its second showpiece: a projection of the Earth in her slow spin, with the paths of the cars’ flights traced across in threads of glowing gold. Hundreds of millions crisscrossed, dense as pen strokes, drowning out the continents so the regions of the globe were differentiated only by texture, oceans smooth masses of near-parallel paths, like fresh-combed hair, while the great cities bristled with so many crisscrossing journeys that Earth seemed to bleed light. Each car’s position en route was visible like a knot in the thread, crawling forward as the seconds crawled, so the whole mass scintillated like the dust of broken glass. The display is functionless, of course, a toy to dazzle houseguests, but a Humanist bash’ must make some amends for a shabby trophy wall.
Humanist: “Gold is my system. The Utopian cars are blue, and Romanova’s Emergency System cars are red. Can you see them?”
Martin squinted as the end of a baseball game in Cairo made the city blaze with fresh launches. “Not a trace.”
“Exactly. I have eight hundred million passengers in the air at a time. Making them compete for thirty million Utopian cars would do a lot more harm than profit. A shutdown helps no one.”
More footsteps on the stairs above. “¡Ockham!” a voice called down in Spanish. “¿Can you come help move Eureka’s bed? A mango fell behind it. Well, most of a mango. ¿Can you bring a sponge?”
“¡Busy!” Ockham called back. “¡Ask Kat or Robin!”
The click of Ockham’s boots erased the interruption. “I didn’t catch your name, Mason.”
“Martin Guildbreaker.” His eyes widened as he realized his mistake. “I mean Mycroft, my real name’s Mycroft, Mycroft Guildbreaker, but everybody calls me Martin. But I’m not in a cult or anything, it’s just one of those nicknames that happens.”
Ockham nodded. “And Mycroft isn’t an easy name to live with anymore.” He was unable to resist glancing at the corner, where I sat on a work stool, picking away at a scrubbing robot whose self-cleaning function was not quite equal to the combination of gum and doll hair.
“Martin is worse, actually, but…”
Words died. Martin’s eyes had followed Ockham’s to me: my uniform, my ear, my face. Martin froze. Ockham froze. Both held their breath in a kind of stalemate, searching each other’s faces as the questions flowed: Does he know? Why does he know? Does he know I know? What can I say when he asks me why I know?
I tried to ease it for them, interrupting with motion, though I dared not speak first. I rose and bobbed an awkward half-bow to Martin, reaching by instinct to remove my hat, though it was already on the ledge beside me. Ockham caught the gesture, and his face relaxed into the first expression that morning which one could call a smile. “Have we both been feeding the same stray?”
Martin gave a laugh, a quiet one, politely brief, but enough to make his stance less tightrope-rigid. “So it seems. Good morning, Mycroft.”
I renewed my half-bow. “Good morning, Nepos.”
Ockham frowned at Martin’s title, an unwelcome reminder of this Mason’s intimacy with his distant Emperor. “Of course, Mycroft was also a Familiaris.” He nodded at Martin’s armband. “You know them from that?”
“Yes and no.” Martin had no obligation to be so honest. “I commission Mycroft frequently.”
“Mostly languages. Hive-neutral translators aren’t easy to come by, and a sensitive case like yours may turn up documents in any Hive language, or all of them.”
I fidgeted with the robot in my hands as I stared at Ockham’s feet. “Nepos Martin is as fastidious about Latin as you are about Spanish,” I began, “and… I do have some functional knowledge of poly-Hive criminal law.”
Ockham gave a snort that verged on laughter. “True enough. And will you have Mycroft working on my case? An unreasonable investigator for an unreasonable crime.”
The Mason smiled, “I’d be eager to have Mycroft, if you’re comfortable with it.”
“If I trust a person with my dirty underwear, I’ll trust them with my irritating interruption.”
Martin blinked. “You commission Mycroft Canner to do your laundry?”
Ockham paused a moment, weighing, I think, whether this Mason would be easier or harder to get rid of if he told the truth. (Or rather what he believed.) “Mycroft is my sibling Thisbe’s lover. They manufacture odd jobs as excuses.” He nodded at the robot in my hands.
I feigned appropriate embarrassment.
Martin’s lenses flickered with fresh files. “Thisbe Saneer?”
Ockham nodded. “I know there are many ways it could be unhealthy, but I watch the psych profiles of my bash’ as strictly as any other aspect of security. A Servicer has nothing to gain by exploitation, unlike most people one of us could date.”
“Very true,” Martin acknowledged. “Mycroft is most trustworthy, and dangerous to no one. I’m glad they’ve found another bash’ that sees that.”
Ockham cocked an eyebrow. “Now you’ve got me imagining Mycroft wolfing down leftovers in the Guildbreaker kitchen.”
“There is not no truth in such speculation,” Martin answered, with that awkward precision which infects his speech sometimes, and makes more sense when you remember he’s thinking in Latin.
The two men looked me over now, and the surreality of it swept over me like headache, the wrong sides of the Earth together, as in some dream when a long-dead friend and some recent celebrity stand impossibly side by side. But this was no dream. “If I may add something, Members?” I waited for approving nods. “I think it would help, Nepos Martin, if you told Member Ockham that your team isn’t Masonic, it’s—I mean, when you do this work it’s for Romanova directly, yes? It wasn’t the Emperor who sent you.”
“Correct,” Martin confirmed. “In fact, I believe Caesar is not aware of this particular errand. I’m here as a personal favor for President Ganymede.”
Ockham’s face brightened instantly. “The President sent you?”
“Yes and no,” ever-honest Martin answered. “Your President is not aware that I’m doing this particular favor at this particular time, but they know me very well, and they’ve used me often in cases like this. My team and I are not police detectives. Romanova sends us when polylegal tangles require an investigation but the place is sensitive, high-level, a Senator’s personal bash’house or the Sensayers’ Conclave, situations where all seven Hives need to be satisfied but the affected Hives’ privacy must remain inviolate, or the investigation itself might cause more harm than the original problem. We solve things while leaving as many feathers unruffled as we can. When your name came up in the Black Sakura tracker log, Commissioner General Papadelias had the warrant sent to me immediately, to make sure your doorbell wasn’t rung by someone your President trusts less.”
As the Mason finished it was my face, not his, that Ockham studied, and I nodded eager confirmation. Ockham’s curious expression made me bold. “If… if a little of my own opinion wouldn’t be unwelcome?” I waited for him to nod permission. “Now that the hand of law is moving, Member Ockham, I think you’re not going to get a gentler touch than Nepos Martin’s. I’ve seen their work before; they really do focus on delicate situations like this, turning only the stones that must be turned. You’re seeing it already: they have a warrant, they don’t have to be this accommodating. You can trust Martin. They’re a good person, genuinely good. If you can trust anyone Romanova might ever send, you can trust them. May I show them the paper?”
Ockham paused, and we all heard the scraaaa-thump of failed bedmoving upstairs. “Fine. Through there.” He gestured to a side door. “And I do appreciate your courtesy, Mason. But I’ll feel better when I’ve spoken with my President myself.”
I led the way from the Mukta hall to a warmer room with practical chairs, neglected dishes, and an unfinished game of mahjong. As we left the front rooms’ No-Doodling Zone, spirals and zigzags like those on Ockham’s clothes flowed over the cushions, the wooden chair backs, even up one wall, like lichen starting to convert a bare island to soil. I think Martin did notice napping Eureka Weeksbooth, visible only as feet protruding from disordered cushions in the corner, but he made no comment, and moved only in Ockham’s wake. “Your bash’ has nine members, yes?” he asked. “Yourself, your spouse Lesley, Thisbe Saneer, Cato and Eureka Weeksbooth, Sidney Koons, Kat and Robin Typer, and Ojiro Sniper.”
“Nine-and-a-half counting Mycroft.”
Martin smiled. “Any other frequent guests?”
“Our regular guards and maintenance people, plus Kat or Robin bring a revolving array of dates home, Thisbe sometimes too. I’ll send you a list of recents.”
We reached the fatal spot. “Here it is, Nepos. Untouched, just as ordered.” I showed Martin the trash bin beneath a corner cabinet, where the paper marked with kanji protruded like a flag between an ancient manikin hand and most of a plastic horse.
Martin moved carefully around the bin to let his tracker image every angle, then pulled out a pocket scanner to search for fingerprints and DNA. “Is this a household trash bin?”
“The trash mine delivery bin,” Ockham answered. “There’s ten million tons of dump under the city. Aluminum and plastics mostly, nothing older than turn of the millennium. A lot was hollowed out to make space for the computers, but the city’s still mining the rest, and every bash’house has a right to rent a bot to look for particular types of items if we want. Thisbe has a thing for ancient toys.”
Martin leaned close. “It’s certainly the right kind of paper.”
Ockham glared at the crumpled sheet as if it were a spider he would squish if not for poison. “Do they really write their articles in pen on real paper? That must take forever.”
“Actually, Members,” I ventured, “as I understand, they just do it for the notes for the most important article each week.” It felt warm, being among men who knew me well enough that I could safely share my newspaper geekery.
“It’s Black Sakura’s titular tradition,” I answered. “The folklore is that the sakura cherry tree blooms pink because its roots drink the blood of the dead, so the premise is that a dedicated reporter is so steeped in ink their veins would stain the blossoms black.”
Ockham gave an approving nod.
Martin did not, and I caught his eyes straying from the alien characters on the envelope to me. Martin does not acknowledge Machiavelli. When a wrong action will yield a good result, even so small a wrong as breaking the taboo on translating another Hive’s language, he halts like a parent unwilling to admit to a child that its favorite toy is lost. It is not that he fears dirtying his hands, nor even that the wrong itself deters him. Rather, I think he hates admitting that this world contains such shades of gray.
Ockham doesn’t mind gray. “Earn your supper, Mycroft. What’s it say?”
Reconciled to the practicality, Martin scanned the paper’s internal contents and brought the Japanese before my eyes. “Don’t translate everything, just enough to verify that it is a Seven-Ten list.” He hesitated. “And tell me the last three names. The motive may lie in them.”
Ockham cocked his head. “I thought the big money was people betting on the order of the big seven.”
“That’s the bulk of the money, yes, but the three unpredictable names at the bottom, numbers eight, nine, and ten, are about to skyrocket in celebrity, so if investments can be made, interviews or contracts set up in advance, five million is nothing against the potential profit.”
“Yes, Cardie does get a rush of calls whenever their name makes a list.”
Martin frowned. “Cardie?”
“Sniper,” Ockham answered. “Ojiro Cardigan Sniper.”
I don’t know that I’d ever seen Martin snicker before, but everyone snickers the first time they learn that the legendary Sniper answers to ‘Cardigan’ at home.
“Read it, Mycroft.”
I cannot unlearn the skills of my youth. I may let them rot, as a retired boxer sets aside his gloves, but I cannot unsee the words couched in the strokes of languages I have no right to know. I feel guilt, if that consoles you, reader, when I eavesdrop unwillingly on Masons, or Humanists, or Japanese Mitsubishi chatting in their private tongues. I can at least do some penance by sharing my skills on those occasions when translation is a benefit to all.
“It is a Seven-Ten list,” I confirmed. “Just names, no notes. The top seven are the standard seven. The final three are”—I wrestled with the less familiar transliterations—“Darcy Sok, Crown Prince Leonor of Spain, and Deputy Censor Jung Su-Hyeon Ancelet-Kosala.”
“Crown Prince Leonor?” Ockham repeated. “Not the king? That’ll ruffle feathers.”
Martin was still leaning close. “This has been crumpled around something, but there’s nothing inside.”
His scan was at work, re-creating the paper fiber by fiber on our screens, but whatever beginning of a shape the crumpled paper might have traced was erased for me by the scream, three voices at once, which came through my earpiece at the same moment that it echoed up the stairs from the lower floor. “Mycroft!”
I knew those voices. I would have charged headlong across a battlefield to answer them.
Now comes my confession, reader: in the crisis with Carlyle and Bridger I forgot Martin completely, and did not think to check in with him until I was already in the car soaring my way across the broad Pacific toward Tōgenkyō. My pretend affair with Thisbe was the only thing which saved me from questions I could not have answered. Martin was still at the house, combing the room for every hair and flake of skin that might identify the intruder, but finding nothing. After apologies I asked Martin for fresh orders. I had not felt fear yet, reader, not upstairs, not when I found the suspicious stolen paper, not when Martin came. Now, though, the command he gave made two vaguenesses congeal into one threat, distant, amorphous, but unmistakable, as when, against a background of city dawn and back alley clatter, one click and one clack come together into the telltale clickclack of a ready gun, and echo won’t tell you whether the enemy’s perch is left, or right, or high, or low, only that it is near. “Go to Tōgenkyō.”
Excerpted from Too Like the Lightning © Ada Palmer, 2016