And from behind the curve of the large gaseous planet at coordinate B5682.76R1, the Emperor Twelve Solar-Flare arose on the bow of her ship, and she was a radiant blaze flooding all of the void. The rays of her light, reaching outward like the spear-spokes of her throne, struck the metal shells which were the dwelling-places of human beings in Sector B5682, and illuminated them brightly. The sensors of Twelve Solar-Flare’s ship recorded ten of them, each alike to the other, and this number has not increased since. Within the shells the men and women knew not seasons nor growth nor decay, but lived endlessly in orbit without benefit of a planetary home. The largest of these shells called itself Lsel Station, which in the language of its people meant a station that both listened and heard. But the people there had grown strange, and cleaved to themselves, though they were capable of learning language, and immediately began to do so …
—The Expansion History, Book V, lines 72–87, anonymous but attributed to the historian-poet Pseudo-Thirteen River, writing in the reign of the Emperor of All Teixcalaan Three Perigee
* * *
In order to expedite your travel into the Imperium, Teixcalaan requests the following as proofs of identity: a) a genetic record stating your sole possession of your own genotype, unshared with clonesibs OR a notarized document stating that your genotype is at least 90 percent unique and that no other individual holds LEGAL claim to it; b) an itemized list of goods, chattels, currencies, and objects of idea commerce which you intend to bring with you; c) a work permit from a registered employer in a Teixcalaanli system, signed and notarized, with salary and maintenance information, OR a record of superlative performance on the Teixcalaanli Imperial Examinations OR an invitation by a person, governmental entity, bureau, ministry, or other authorized individual specifying your entrance and exit dates from Imperium space OR evidence of sufficient self-supporting currency …
—Form 721Q, Visa Application Made from Foreign Sectors ALPHABETIC LANGUAGE VARIANT, page 6
MAHIT came down to the City, heart-planet and capital of the Teixcalaanli Empire, in a seed-skiff, a bubble of a ship hardly big enough for her body and her luggage both. She squirted from the side of the imperial cruiser Ascension’s Red Harvest and burned atmosphere on her planetward trajectory, which distorted the view. Thus the first time she saw the City with her own flesh eyes, not in infofiche or holograph or imago-memory, it was haloed in white fire and shone like an endless glittering sea: an entire planet rendered into an ecumenopolis, palatially urban. Even its dark spots—older metropolises not yet clad in metal, decaying urban blight, the harnessed remains of lakes—looked populated. Only the oceans remained untouched, and they gleamed too, a brilliantine blue-turquoise.
The City was very beautiful and very big. Mahit had been on a fair number of planets, the ones closest to Lsel Station that weren’t completely inimical to human life, and she was nevertheless overcome by awe. Her heart beat faster; her palms went clammy where they gripped her harness. The City appeared exactly as it was always described in Teixcalaanli documents and songs: the jewel at the heart of the Empire. Complete with atmospheric glow.
<That’s what looking at it is meant to make you think,> said her imago. He was a faint staticky taste on the back of her tongue, a flash of grey eyes and sun-dark skin in her peripheral vision. The voice in the back of her head, but not quite her voice: someone around her age, but male, and quicksilver-smug, and as excited to be here as she was. She felt her mouth curve in his smile, a heavier and wider thing than the muscles in her face preferred. They were new to each other. His expressions were very strong.
Get out of my nervous system, Yskandr, she thought at him, gently chiding. An imago—the implanted, integrated memory of one’s predecessor, housed half in her neurology and half in a small ceramic-and-metal machine clasped to her brainstem—wasn’t supposed to take over the host’s nervous system unless the host consented. At the beginning of the partnership, though, consent was complicated. The version of Yskandr inside her mind remembered having a body, and sometimes he used Mahit’s as if it were his own. She worried about it. There was still so much space between them, when they were supposed to be becoming one person.
This time, though, he withdrew easily: sparking prickles, electric laughter. <As you will. Show me, Mahit? I want to see it again.>
When she gazed down at the City again—closer now, the skyport rising to meet her skiff like a flower made of scooping nets—she let the imago look through her eyes and felt his rush of exhilaration as if it were her own.
What’s down there, she thought. For you.
<The world,> said her imago, who had been Ambassador from Lsel in the City when he was still a living person and not part of a long chain of live memory. He said it in the Teixcalaanli language, which made it a tautology: the word for “world” and the word for “the City” were the same, as was the word for “empire.” It was impossible to specify, especially in the high imperial dialect. One had to note the context.
Yskandr’s context was obfuscating, which Mahit had come to expect of him. She coped. Despite all her years of studying Teixcalaanli language and literature, his fluency had a different quality than hers, the sort that only came from immersive practice.
<The world,> he said again, <but also the edges of the world.> The Empire, but also where the Empire stops.
Mahit matched his language and spoke out loud in Teixcalaanli, since there was no one but her in the seed-skiff. “You’ve said something meaningless.”
<Yes,> Yskandr agreed. <When I was ambassador it was my habit to say all sorts of meaningless things. You should try it. It’s quite enjoyable.>
In the privacy of her body, Yskandr used the most intimate forms of address, as if he and Mahit were clonesibs or lovers. Mahit had never spoken them out loud. She had a natural younger brother back on Lsel Station, the closest she would ever get to a clonesib, but her brother only spoke the Stationers’ language, and calling him “you,” intimate-otherself in Teixcalaanli, would have been both pointless and unkind. She could have said “you” to a few people who had been in those language and literature courses with her—her old friend and classmate Shrja Torel would have taken the compliment correctly, for instance, but Mahit and Shrja hadn’t spoken since Mahit had been picked to be the new Ambassador to Teixcalaan and carry the imago of the previous one. The why of that little breakage between them was obvious, and petty, and Mahit regretted it—and it wasn’t something she was going to get a chance to repair, except by apologetic letter from the center of the Empire both she and Shrja had wanted to see. Which almost certainly wouldn’t help.
The City had come closer: it filled up the horizon, a vast curve she was falling into. To Yskandr, she thought, I am the Ambassador now. I might speak meaningfully. If I wanted.
<You speak correctly,> Yskandr said, which was the sort of compliment the Teixcalaanlitzlim gave to a still-crèched child.
Gravity caught at the seed-skiff and sank into the bones in Mahit’s thighs and forearms, giving her the sensation of spin. It was dizzying. Below her the skyport’s nets flared open. For a moment she thought she was falling, that she would fall all the way to the planet’s surface and smear to paste on the ground.
<It was the same for me,> Yskandr said quickly, in that Stationers’ language that was Mahit’s native tongue. <Don’t be afraid, Mahit. You are not falling. It is the planet.>
The skyport caught her with hardly a bump.
She had time to gather herself together. There was some business with the seed-skiff being shunted into a long line of other such vessels, moving along a great conveyor until each one could be identified and come to its assigned gate. Mahit found herself rehearsing what she would say to the imperial citizens on the other side as if she was a first-year student preparing for an oral examination. In the back of her mind, the imago was a watchful, thrumming presence. Every so often he moved her left hand, the fingers tapping along her harness, someone else’s nervous gesture. Mahit wished they’d had longer to get used to each other.
But she hadn’t undergone the normal process of having an imago implanted, complete with a year or more of integration therapy under the precise care of one of Lsel’s psychotherapists: she and Yskandr had had a scant three months together, and now they were approaching the place where they’d need to work together—work as one person, compiled out of a memory-chain and a new host.
When Ascension’s Red Harvest had arrived, hanging in parallel orbit around Lsel Station’s sun, and had demanded a new ambassador to take back to Teixcalaan, they had refused to explain what had happened to the previous one. Mahit was sure there had been a great deal of politics on the Lsel Council as to what—and who—to send back, and with what demands for information. But this she knew was true: she herself had been one of the few Stationers both old enough for the job and young enough not to have already been brought into an imago-line—and one of the fewer still within that group who had any of the appropriate aptitudes or training for diplomacy. Of those, Mahit had been the best. Her scores on the Imperial Examinations in Teixcalaanli language and literature had approached those of an imperial citizen, and she’d been proud of that—spent the half year since the exams imagining that she would come to the City, sometime in her middle age, once she was established, and collect experiences—attending whatever salons were open to noncitizens that season—gathering up information for whoever she’d share her memory with after she died.
Copyright © 2019 by AnnaLinden Weller