Alastair Reynolds


Taken from the Short Story Collection “Galactic Empires” (2008) edited by Gardner Dozois

We had been riding for two hours when I tugged sharply on the reins to bring my pony to a halt. Tenger, my escort, rode on for a few paces before glancing back irritatedly. He muttered something in annoyance—a phrase that contained the words “stupid” and “dyke”—before steering his horse back alongside mine.

“Another sightseeing stop?” he asked, as the two mismatched animals chewed their bits, flared their nostrils, and flicked their heads up in mutual impatience.

I said nothing, damned if I was going to give him the pleasure of an excuse. I only wanted to take in the view: the deeply shadowed valley below, the rising hills beyond (curving ever upward, like a tidal wave formed from rock and soil and grass), and the little patch of light down in the darkness, the square formation of the still-moving caravan.

“If you really want to make that appointment—” Tenger continued.

“Shut up.”

Tenger sniffed, dug into a leather flap on his belt, and popped something into his mouth.

“On your own head be it, Yellow Dog. It certainly won’t be my neck on the line, keeping the old man waiting.”

I held both reins in one hand so that I could cup the other against my ear. I turned the side of my head in the direction of the caravan and closed my eyes. After a few moments, I convinced myself that I could hear it. It was a sound almost on the edge of audibility, but which would become thunderous, calamitous, world-destroying, as they drew nearer. The sound of thousands of riders, hundreds of wheeled tents, dozens of monstrous siege engines. A sound very much like the end of the world itself, it must have seemed, when the caravan approached.

“We can go now,” I told Tenger.

He dug his spurs in, almost drawing blood, his horse pounding away so quickly that it kicked dirt into my eyes.

Goyo snorted and gave chase. We raced down into the valley, sending skylarks and snipe barreling into the air.

* * *

“Just going by the rules, Yellow Dog,” the guard said, apologizing for making me show him my passport.

We were standing on the wheeled platform of the imperial ger. The guard wore a knee-length blue sash-tied coat, long black hair cascading from the dome of his helmet. “We’re on high alert as it is. Three plausible threats in the last week.”

“Usual nut jobs?” I said, casting a wary glance at Tenger, who was attending to Goyo with a bad-tempered expression. I had beaten him to the caravan and he did not like that.

“Two Islamist sects, one bunch of Nestorians,” the guard answered. “Not that I’m saying that the old man has anything to fear from you, of course, but we have to follow protocol.”

“I understand fully.”

“Frankly, we were beginning to wonder if you were ever coming back.” He looked at me solicitously.

“Some of us were beginning to wonder if you’d been disavowed.”

I smiled. “Disavowed? I don’t think so.”

“Just saying, we’re all assuming you’ve got something suitably juicy, after all this time.”

I reached up to tie back my hair. “Juicy’s not exactly the word I’d use. But it’s definitely something he has to hear about.”

The guard touched a finger to the pearl on his collar.

“Better go inside, in that case.”

I did as I was invited.

My audience with the khan was neither as private nor as lengthy as I might have wished, but, in all other respects, it was a success. One of his wives was there, as well as Minister Chiledu, the national security adviser, and the khan was notoriously busy during this ceremonial restaging of the war caravan. I thought, not for the first time, of how old he looked: much older than the young man who had been elected to this office seven years earlier, brimming with plans and promises. Now he was graying and tired, worn down by disappointing polls and the pressures of managing an empire that was beginning to fray at the edges.

The caravan was supposed to be an antidote to all that. In this, the nine hundred and ninety-ninth year since the death of the Founder (we would celebrate this birthday, but no one knows when it happened), a special effort had been made to create the largest caravan in decades, with almost every local system commander in attendance.

As I stepped off the ger to collect Goyo and begin my mission, I felt something perilously close to elation. The data I had presented to the khan—the troubling signs I had detected concerning the functioning and security of the Infrastructure—had been taken seriously. The khan could have waved aside my concerns as an issue for his successor, but—to his credit, I think—he had not. I had been given license and funds to gather more information, even if that meant voyaging to the Kuchlug Special Administrative Volume and operating under the nose of Qilian, one of the men who had been making life difficult for the khan these last few years.

And yet my mood of elation was short-lived.

I had no sooner set my feet on the ground than I spied Tenger. He was bullying Goyo, jerking hard on his bridle, kicking a boot against his hocks. He was so preoccupied with his business that he did not see me approaching from behind his back. I took hold of a good, thick clump of his hair and snapped his head back as far it would go. He released the bridle, staggering back under the pressure I was applying.

I whispered in his ear. “No one hurts my horse, you ignorant piece of shit.” Then I spun him around, the hair tearing out in my fist, and kneed him hard in the groin, so that he coughed out a groan of pain and nausea and bent double, like a man about to vomit.

* * *

Some say that it is Heaven’s Mandate that we should have the stars, just as it was the will of Heaven that our armies should bring the squabbling lands of Greater Mongolia under one system of governance, a polity so civilized that a woman could ride naked from the western shores of Europe to the eastern edge of China without once being molested. I say that it is simply the case that we—call us Mongols, call us humans, it scarcely matters now—have always made the best of what we are given.

Take the nexus in Gansu system, for instance. It was a medium-sized moon that had been hollowed out nearly all the way to its middle, leaving a shell barely a hundred li thick, with a small round kernel buttressed to the shell by ninety-nine golden spokes. Local traffic entered and departed the nexus via apertures at the northern and southern poles. Not that there was much local traffic to speak of: Gansu, with its miserly red sun—only just large enough to sustain fusion—and handful of desolate, volatile-poor, and radiation- lashed rocky worlds, was neither a financial nor military hub, nor a place that figured prominently in tourist itineraries. As was often the case, it was something of a puzzle why the wormlike khorkoi had built the nexus in such a miserable location to begin with.

Unpromising material, but in the five hundred years since we first reopened a portal into the Infrastructure, we had made a glittering bauble out of it. Five major trunk routes converged on Gansu, including a high-capacity branch of the Kherlen Corridor, the busiest path in the entire network. In addition, the moon offered portals to a dozen secondary routes, four of which had been rated stable enough to allow passage by juggernaut-class ships. Most of those secondary routes led to stellar population centers of some economic importance, including the Kiriltuk, Tatatunga, and Chilagun administrative volumes, each of which encompassed more than fifty settled systems and around a thousand habitable worlds. Even the routes that led to nowhere of particular importance were well traveled by prospectors and adventurers, hoping to find khorkoi relics or, that fever dream of all chancers, an unmapped nexus.

We did not know the function of the ninety-nine spokes, or of the core they buttressed. No matter; the core made a useful foundation, a place upon which to build. From the vantage point of the rising shuttle, it was a scribble of luminous neon, packed tight as a migraine. I could not distinguish the lights of individual buildings, only the larger

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