Ambassador Mahit Dzmare arrives in the center of the multi-system Teixcalaanli Empire only to discover that her predecessor, the previous ambassador from their small but fiercely independent mining Station, has died. But no one will admit that his death wasn’t an accident—or that Mahit might be next to die, during a time of political instability in the highest echelons of the imperial court.
Now, Mahit must discover who is behind the murder, rescue herself, and save her Station from Teixcalaan’s unceasing expansion—all while navigating an alien culture that is all too seductive, engaging in intrigues of her own, and hiding a deadly technological secret—one that might spell the end of her Station and her way of life—or rescue it from annihilation.
A fascinating space opera debut novel, Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire is available March 26th from Tor Books. Read the prologue below, and come back tomorrow for chapter one!
Our memory is a more perfect world than the universe; it gives life back to those who no longer exist.
—Guy de Maupassant, “Suicides”
I would not have chosen life with Calypso rather than the smoke from Constantinople. I am absolutely possessed by the thought of the many sources of pleasure which are there on all sides: the size and beauty of the churches, the length of its colonnades and the extent of its walks, its houses and all the other things which enrich our image of Constantinople; gatherings of friends and conversation, and indeed the greatest of all—my gold-pourer, which is to say, your mouth and its flowers—
—Nikephoros Ouranos, doux of Antioch, Epistle 38
In Teixcalaan, these things are ceaseless: star-charts and disembarkments.
Here is all of Teixcalaanli space spread out in holograph above the strategy table on the warship Ascension’s Red Harvest, five jumpgates and two weeks’ sublight travel away from Teixcalaan’s city-planet capital, about to turn around and come home. The holograph is a cartographer’s version of serenity: all these glitter-pricked lights are planetary systems, and all of them are ours. This scene—some captain staring out at the holograph re-creation of empire, past the demarcated edge of the world—pick a border, pick a spoke of that great wheel that is Teixcalaan’s vision of itself, and find it repeated: a hundred such captains, a hundred such holographs. And each and every one of those captains has led troops down into a new system, carrying all the poison gifts she can muster: trade agreements and poetry, taxes and the promise of protection, black-muzzled energy weapons and the sweeping architecture of a new governor’s palace built around the open many-rayed heart of a sun temple. Each and every one of those captains will do it again, render one more system into a brilliantine dot on a star-chart holograph.
Here is the grand sweep of civilization’s paw, stretched against the black between the stars, a comfort to every ship’s captain when she looks out into the void and hopes not to see anything looking back. Here, in star-charts, the division of the universe into empire and otherwise, into the world and not the world.
Ascension’s Red Harvest and her captain have one last stop before they begin their trip back to the center of their universe. In Parzrawantlak Sector lies Lsel Station: one fragile turning jewel, a toroid twenty miles in diameter rotating around a central spoke, hanging in the balance-point between a handy sun and its nearest useful planet. The largest of a string of mining stations that make up this small region of space, a region touched by the reaching hand of Teixcalaan but not yet subject to the weight of it.
A shuttle spits itself from the station’s spoke, travels a few hours’ distance to the waiting gold-and-grey metallic hulk of the warship, deposits its cargo—one human woman, some luggage, some instructions—and comes back again unharmed. By the time it has returned, Ascension’s Red Harvest has begun ponderously to move on a vector toward the center of Teixcalaan, still subject to sublight physics. It will be visible from Lsel for a day and a half yet, shrinking slowly to a pinpoint of brightness and then winking out.
Darj Tarats, the Lsel Councilor for the Miners, watches that retreating shape: the vast slumbering menace of it, hanging like a weight and eating up half the horizon visible from the view-port of the Lsel Council meeting room. That omnipresent blotting out of familiar stars is to him just the latest evidence of Teixcalaanli hunger for Stationer space. There may soon come a day when such a ship does not retreat, but turns the bright fire of its energy weapons on the fragile metal shell that contains thirty thousand lives, Tarats’s included, and spills them all into the killing chill of space like seeds from a smashed fruit. There is, Tarats believes, a kind of inevitability to empire unchecked.
No star-chart holograph glows above the strategy table around which the Lsel Council sits at meetings: only a bare metal surface, polished by a multitude of elbows. Tarats contemplates again the simplicity of how that retreating ship still feels like such a present threat—and stops looking out the viewport, retaking his seat.
Empire unchecked might be inevitable, but Darj Tarats has within him a quiet, determined, and conniving optimism that unchecked is not the only option available, and has not been for some time.
“Well, that’s done with,” says Aknel Amnardbat, the Councilor for Heritage. “She’s off. Our new Ambassador to the Empire, as requested by said Empire, which I sincerely hope she keeps far away from us.”
Darj Tarats knows better: he’s the man who sent the last ambassador from Lsel to Teixcalaan, twenty years ago when he was still middle-aged and enamored with high-risk projects. There is nothing done with about sending a new ambassador, even if she’s already been packed off in a shuttle, irretrievable. He puts his elbows on that table, as he’s been doing for all of those twenty years, and rests his narrow chin in his narrower palms. “It would have been better,” he says, “if we could have sent her with an imago that wasn’t fifteen years out of date. For her sake, and ours.”
Councilor Amnardbat, whose own imago-machine, a precisely calibrated neurological implant which allows her to carry in her mind the recorded memories of six prior Councilors for Heritage, passed down the imago-line one to the next, cannot imagine standing up to someone like Darj Tarats without the benefit of the most recent fifteen years of experience. If she was a new member of the Council, and fifteen years out of date, she would be crippled. But she shrugs, not precisely minding the idea of the newest ambassador to the Empire being so deprived of resources. She says, “That’s your problem. You sent Ambassador Aghavn, and Aghavn hasn’t bothered to come back here more than once in his twenty-year tenure to give us an updated imago-recording. And now we’ve sent Ambassador Dzmare with only what he left us fifteen years ago to replace him just because Teixcalaan asked—”
“Aghavn’s done his job,” says Councilor Tarats, and around the table the Councilors for Hydroponics and for the Pilots nod in agreement: the job Ambassador Aghavn has done is keeping Lsel Station, and all the rest of the little stations in their sector, from being easy prey to a Teixcalaanli expansionist agenda, and in return for this they have collectively agreed to ignore his shortcomings. Now that Teixcalaan has abruptly demanded a new ambassador, without explaining what has become of the old one, most of the Council are delaying an accounting of Ambassador Aghavn’s flaws until they know if he is dead, compromised, or simply fallen prey to some internal imperial shakeup of politics. Darj Tarats has always supported him—Aghavn was his protégé. And Tarats, as Councilor for the Miners, is first amongst the six equals on the Lsel Council.
“And Dzmare will do hers,” says Councilor Amnardbat. Mahit Dzmare had been her choice, of the possible new ambassadors: a perfect match, she’d thought, for the out-of-date imago she’d carry. The same aptitudes. The same attitude. The same xenophilic love for a heritage that was not the heritage Amnardbat protected: a documented fascination with Teixcalaanli literature and language. Perfect to be sent away, with the only copy of Ambassador Aghavn’s imago that existed. Perfect to carry that corrupt and corrupting imago-line away from Lsel— perhaps, for good. If Amnardbat herself had done right.
“I’m sure Dzmare will be adequate enough,” says the Councilor for the Pilots, Dekakel Onchu, “and now can we consider the problem currently before the Council, namely what we are going to do about the situation at the Anhamemat Gate?”
Dekakel Onchu is exceptionally concerned about the Anhamemat Gate, the more distant of Lsel Station’s two jumpgates, the one that leads into parts of space unclaimed by Teixcalaanli hands. Lately, she has lost not one scout-ship— which could have been an accident—but two, and both in the same spot of black. She has lost them to something she has no way to talk to. The communiqués sent back before those ships went dark, garbled and staticky with radiation interference, have made no sense; worse, she has lost not only the pilots of those ships, but the long imago-lines of memory that they belonged to. The combined minds of those pilots and their imago-lines cannot be salvaged and placed into new pilot-minds without the recovery of the bodies and imago-machines that had been destroyed—and that is impossible.
The rest of the Council is not so concerned, not yet, but they will be by the end of this meeting, after Onchu has played them the remains of the recordings—all but Darj Tarats. Darj Tarats has a terrible sort of hope instead.
He thinks: At long last, perhaps there is an empire larger than the Empire that has been devouring us by inches. Perhaps now it comes. Perhaps now I will be able to stop waiting.
But this he keeps to himself.
Excerpted from A Memory Called Empire, copyright © 2018 by Arkady Martine