I went blind. When the walls shone brilliant gold and the street flashed incandescent yellow, I temporarily ceased to see. I could not comprehend the sky. It should not have been so white. It shook, it rattled, it split, it did many things no sky should ever do. Light burrowed into my brain. It crawled inside my skin. It raised my hairs on end before it glowed inside my bones. I saw buildings through my eyelids.
And then for a moment I did not see at all. But I still knew what was coming. A wall of enemy humanity encased in self-healing armor and raised by the timeless tectonics of fanaticism. Perhaps that flash of light had been a favor.
The siege of Cibola had lasted five hundred and thirty five days. The largest city in known human history and the heart of the Renaissance of Revelations would not last one more. Nearly two years of bombardment by pure energy from the Augers’ artillery disks had done Cibola little good. Our golden city no longer triumphed. It endured.
Cibola had once looked like a mountain, metallic golden peaks and canyons jutting irregularly from the surrounding alluvial plain, sitting astride two desiccated rivers in the middle of Earth’s sole and massive continent. Now it looked like a ruined paper sculpture.
Its first walls, three hundred meters high with bases just as thick, burned rust-orange from the bottom to the top as the microscopic machines inside fought their wars for structural superiority. All its outer edifices bore craters from energetic impacts, and some cornices slumped where their supporting sides had melted. This time, the barrage that burst around me and brought about all that light had punched through the outer wall. And the wall’s own nanites didn’t repair it right away. They left a gaping maw two meters in diameter.
Worse, I knew, standing there in the slightly curving street between Cibola’s tallest buildings and the northwestern curve of wall, that I, Cassan Vala, aged thirty five, a woman of moderate military experience in spite of her presumable expertise, was the highest ranking officer remaining. Not in Cibola, and not even on Earth, or what remained of it, but in all of free humanity. The emergency fleet had perished with all of its command a year before. Political assassins had offed Cibola’s president just last month. And the Academy itself staggered under internal purges that produced no one capable of high authority.
So I came to lead the last defenders of free humanity within its one remaining bastion. Whatever else you said about them, our opponents had been effective. Everything we did against them was just another move in a losing game, one big long stall. And we barely knew who they are.
Oh, we knew our enemy believed they were restoring the interstellar civilization that had once given humanity all its fabled better days. They even called themselves the New Profusion. But watching them rape entire worlds to feed the ever-expanding maw of their aggression, we decided to call them something more appropriate.
We named them the Augers. As I understand it, they had once all been untrained, unimproved civilians. By the time they got to Earth, they were tactical equals with supreme endurance, accelerated muscle growth, and the ability to go without food and water for weeks on end. Their nanites taught them well. The Augers had been augmented, and they weren’t bothering with ordinary conquest. No, they had much more elegant means in mind.
They were going to infect us with their fanaticism.
Seeded in the ground by the long-departed Profusion on most all its worlds but Earth, the psychological nanites of the nightwind wait dormant for their use. Present them with the right Profusionist relic, and billions of the machines burrowed up through the soil to cloud the air, flying by infinitesimal propulsion. At least here on Earth the Augers had had to import them.
Some comfort. This artillery impact hole – and all the others that soon would appear just like it –would soon let in the pure desert wind of what we now called the dead man’s land. But they also would let the nightwind in, still flying in its ever present swarms a kilometer outside the city wall.
Of course, it’s when the nightwind stopped flying that it got you.
Like all of the most banal evils, its machines only need an opening. They don’t await an invitation. Unplug your ear with their black swarm rising around you some starless night when you couldn’t see them, get your energy shell punctured by one stray bolt as your squad stormed out to crack a relic, get sniped by the wrong cocktail bullet, any of these, and they were in.
They dropped you right away. I find something profoundly unsettling about machines that enter your bloodstream through a bullet hole, ride the circulating fluids until they find the seat of your consciousness, and turn you off as though you were a kitchen lamp. But then I did not invent them. The nightwind doesn’t kill a soul. Its nanites only black you out so they can rewrite you. And the nightwind understands personality. It does not override whatever programming parents, genetics and divinity have managed to imbricate inside you. In fact, the nightwind does less manipulating than all of the above. It lets you make your choices. It let you be yourself.
This, precisely, was our problem. The alterations of the nightwind are not obvious. Waking, you feel disoriented, weak, and vaguely hungry, but if someone happens to ask your name, you can usually remember it. Your brief unconsciousness was only the nightwind inside you siphoning your metabolic energy to supply its side of the cellular war. That never lasts long. The Augers can take a world in under a year; the nightwind can take a soul inside twenty-four hours. You suppose you have had a concussion, and you go back to duty.
But the damage, or, as you will soon call it, the glory, has already been done.
You are no longer alone. It starts with your whispers. Those are the flat monotone you always hear, the unceasing, inane babble of your thoughts. You don’t notice them, especially when you have other things on our mind, such as the un-ending grind of defending a city of one billion peaceful souls. We are not wired to notice changes in ourselves.
All of this, I should add, is merely the result of inquiry. I personally had not had the honor, though the black dust drawing close across the gap obviously had designs about that. As did the Augers, breaking into a run toward this Cibola’s lowest and breaking wall, arms holding their gravswords aloft as they ran.
But we are always changing. We’re creatures of disparity. Even doctors find no single stream of thought. They find several that are contradictory. We diverge inside. What can we do? We choose and name our reasons afterwards. Blindly, we orchestrate our lives.
The nightwind alters all of that. As time progresses, the nightwind gets your thoughts flowing in one direction. It smoothes more and more discord. The machines have discovered your most dominant traits. They’ve begun to mimic you. The whispers solidify, cohere. You sense a shadow. You start thinking in third person. Occasionally, you repeat yourself. Others would only notice a flatness in your conversation, or that you were tired and easily distracted.
That's just the nightwind learning the right notes. They could be anything, really, childhood failure, your first professional success, some injury-induced trauma. Your shadow guides you through them. It corrects what happened. You come to trust that guide. You experience bursts of irrational exuberance, make unlikely and intuitive leaps. You stand on the edge of universal truth. You have visions, extraordinarily strange and lucid dreams. And your instincts tell you to keep this very, very quiet.
The nightwind had specific plans for you. You are happy to oblige. You face the nightwind as often as you can. Those machines have provided something precious: they have given you yourself. The figure that shadows you is you, as you believe you should have been. The nightwind doesn't lead anyone into the new Profusion. Its leads you home. All the rest is incidental. It doesn't have to convince you that you want a part of interstellar glory. It only has to convince you that that's the only thing that doesn't threaten you.
If no one noticed, that’s how you sabotaged the wall that had kept you alive for the last three hundred days, how you killed the girl who spread flechette fire last week for cover while you charged the dead man’s land, and how you turned your back on your commander to run out into the night and embrace the ones who sniped you in the first place. That’s how you enlisted in the Augers.
And that proselytizing shit was about to get inside my walls. As the Augers closed, the nightwind neared the maw. Its black dust surged forward across the battered earth, forming a fist before my face. I neglected to wake my energy shell.
Quite often no one could tell before it was too late. Cocktail bullets, concussion grenades, and others nasties contained chemicals that induced human unconsciousness. It seemed part and parcel of the very remnant Profusionist technology that had been barraging and defending Cibola more or less continuously for the last two years. If we had killed or detained every guardian who blacked out or lost time or acted strangely, all Cibola’s defenders would be down, enemy artillery disks would have pounded its walls to rubble long ago, and the nightwind would have long since come pouring in to manifest our destiny.
True, attrition was going to break us anyway. Daily, death and induced disloyalty drained our numbers. But with every trained and standing soul at the walls, we’d lasted nearly two years, fighting dawn till dark or dark till dawn, longer whenever alternates went down. We fought by twos, in twelve hour shifts. We all had each other’s backs.
It’s just that we weren’t going to last another day.
A tech came back with a nanopack, one of our very last measures of structural triage. I stopped waiting for my exaltation to punch me in the face. He slapped the mesh in place over the man-sized hole. Luckily, and thanks to some brilliant defensive counter-strikes from our own artillery Disks atop the wall above, no other burst had found the breach to broaden it. That would have ended this section, not to mention me.
The gold goop spread immediately and fast. It looked like your breath fogging up a windowpane, only this time your breath was gold. And there was black breath outside, waiting to get in.
The nightwind wasn’t going to have to wait much longer.
I leaned back, uncertain what else to say, what came next.
“I believe that will be enough for today, Miss Vala,” said Ship, in a reassuringly rolling male melody. “Your memories are cohering nicely. That was almost a narrative. We must acknowledge this breakthrough. You’re making excellent progress.”
“You annoy me, Ship,” I said. Ship ignored me, as Ship always does when I make such feelings known. Not that it isn’t all recorded somewhere. My emotional reactions, Ship has said, are almost mathematically predictable. This journal feels like contrarian revenge, because Ship can’t read it. I get to keep at least some internal workings to myself.
Not that hese scribblings, too, were not Ship’s idea. They’re supposed to help with my memories, the lack of which seems the bulk of my predicament. When I think of my recent past, I don’t remember more than a few months back. I remember yesterday, and weeks before. I even recall, in rare moments, the first few days when I woke up aboard Ship, not really knowing why. Before that, I’m not sure I want to remember. It’s like I’m coming up on a waterfall I once saw from overhead, when I was little. The river looked like it had a hole, and all the water vanished into it. I thought I might disappear too.
But it was Ship who got me to see the river the other way, forward from precisely such memories of childhood. That much I could remember, in fits and starts – more vividly, truth be known, than anything I’ve lived through since. But those memories, while full, are disjointed images, without context or order. Working through them takes forever. We have to keep going back and forth. This today was as far as we’d ever gotten, perhaps because each step brings me closer and closer to facing that waterfall. Only, I guess Ship would say, I’ll be going up it rather than falling down.
I sighed and leaned back on my one and only canvas cot. Ship says I take so long answering questions because I’m trying to avoid confronting harder truths. I just say that I’m perpetually exhausted.
I write a highly sanitized account. My actual recollections come through hours of halting, meandering, labored conversation, most of which I here omit. I appear more patient this way, less petty and irritable. And Ship assures me that scrawling gives my thought and feeling more certain form. I just know it helps me keep the stories straight. Ship always keeps at least two strands going, because, he says, it’s not so much our narratives that grant our lives meaning as it is the connections between them. Whatever that means. For a machine, Ship can be damned elusive.
His very voice snapped me back to the present. “In fact,” Ship was evidently saying, “you’re doing so well that tomorrow I would like to move away from the siege. I feel you may be using the nightwind to distract yourself from more important subjects.”
The oxygen light on the console over the bed blinked normal. I sank all the way down on the cot. “I think the people in Cibola would say the nightwind’s the most important subject in the universe.”
Ship clicked, another habit that annoyed me. Ostensibly, there were systems that had to turn over, maybe even the sensors I kept going. But that short, sharp sound only came across the speakers when Ship was about to disagree. I felt like I was being primed for something.
“Those people are not you, and they are not here. You are. And the nightwind didn’t send you here, to this empty and desolate place. And it doesn’t ask me to spend months sweeping vast fields of interplanetary debris with my sensors. It does not keep you aboard, and it does not make you uncomfortable around certain subjects, or hesitant to use particular words.”
Despite myself I sniffed. “What subjects? Which words? Maybe you’re just more annoying when they come up.”
“You avoid the subject of death. Your pupils expand and your skin temperature increases whenever I approach the topic.”
I folded my arms. “Doesn’t death make everyone uncomfortable?”
The oxygen exchange whirred, sounding like a cat’s breath. “Does it? You may not remember them, but in your initial interviews I asked you if you had ever been involved in a sexual relationship. You said a name, then lapsed into silence. You would not answer. Since, even the name has vanished into your amnesia. So our question for tomorrow is: who was Marque, and what did he mean to you? As always, journaling might help you to remember.”
I debated that, looking all around Ship’s pale brown and white interior. It had never been designed for aesthetics. Ship is a hospital, with all the amenities contained except an actual nurse or doctor. Still, Ship does what he can. He always ends with questions like that. Their hooks are supposed to dig inside my brain and dredge up something useful, which is another purpose of my journal. Ship has urged that I come to sessions ready. It has been the most neglected component of my regimen. On the whole, I think I would rather not be prepared. Some things, you don’t face before you have to.
“Or,” I said, “or, you can pipe the sensor feeds into the overhead console like I have you do every other godsdamned day.”
I planned to fall asleep watching the sensor readouts again. Viewing the surrounding cloud of rubble often soothes me. Sometimes I find things, pieces of old hulls preserved in vacuum. No matter what happens, the slow tumbling of the rocks that make up most of the field lures me toward unconsciousness. So watching the images of that cluttered star field on the monitor would have been an excellent strategy.
Except that when Ship did it, I got confused about what I was watching and thought it was one of Ship’s recordings of me. So that the distance between the pinprick stars became the tiny span between my own cells. That frightened me nearly as much as my sudden horror that the actuality was reversed: I contained a heatless universe, and every miniscule part of me was separated by billions upon billions of lightless miles.