A child was not to blame for the death of a parent.

It helped, and the River helped too. Swimming its currents wasn’t really like flying—no one who had ever had wings of her own would make that mistake, or use that metaphor. But the warm water was a comfort, and the River was a place where she could be alone—Perceval, just Perceval, and not the Captain. Not in command. This was a place where she could shut out the voices of her internalized ancestors, their wisdom and advice and the constant need to integrate herself while still maintaining connections to their memories.

She carried a council of elders in her head and in her hardware—with all their egos and all their expectations. And, sometimes, a girl just wanted a minute to herself.

She missed Rien so much. She had needed Rien so much—needed someone to whom she would always be herself, and not a commander or a tool. But she couldn’t have that. Rien was gone, consumed by the ship’s revenant Angel, and fighting to bring her back or to remake Nova into something more like Rien would lead to the kind of destruction that Perceval’s aunt and enemy Ariane had caused, before Perceval consumed her. But here at least Perceval could have some of what she wanted—the silence inside her own mind, the peace to dwell there, and the smooth tug of water flowing over skin.

Even to wings, air never felt like something you could grasp and haul yourself up on. The viscosity was too low: it was slippery stuff, running away between your feathers just when you needed it most. But here, she was surrounded, immured, in a substance she could pretend was as solid and protective as the skin of the world.

Everyone knew to leave the Captain alone while she was swimming. Even the Angel.

So when Nova’s voice broke through her reverie—not so much a sound carried by vibration as a tickle in Perceval’s awareness, urgent with latent information—Perceval felt the sting of adrenaline through every vein.

The contact unfolded, expanding from a shimmering thread to a landscape of information. Perceval quit stroking forward, allowing the buoyancy of her body to carry her to the surface. She did not bob up as she once would have. Hollow bones served no purpose in a girl with no wings, and now she was stronger and heavier than ever she had been when she was a flyer.

As she broke the surface, her head came back, mouth open, lungs expanding her deep chest as she filled herself with air. Her body—flesh and symbiotic colony—took care of that automatically. Which was as well, because Perceval’s awareness was half a hundred miles away, spun out through the fabric of motes, colonies, and electromagnetic webs that made up the ramscoop and nervous system of the Jacob’s Ladder.

The world was braking sharply through the gravity well of the first stellar system she had encountered since leaving the shipwreck stars the better part of fifty years before. Perceval bestrode the vast construction-toy webwork of the world’s frame—its spokes and wires and the baubles of habitats strung between them—and she watched the distant stars turn in the cold dark on every side.

Only one, the destination sun, was close enough to seem warm, and even it was but a brighter mote, alight on the Enemy’s black bosom. Somewhere between here and there lay the potentially habitable world—with its massive satellite—that they had come to colonize.

Astrogator Damian Jsutien, who had plotted their course, relying on information gleaned from an alien prisoner, had taken to sardonically calling it Grail, and the name had stuck.

Perceval’s crippled artificial world was limping to drink from a healing cup. The creature—Leviathan—that had given them the data on where to find this planet had also almost destroyed the Jacob’s Ladder. And given what the Jacob’s Ladder, in the person of Cynric, had done to Leviathan—enslaving it, creating symbiotic nanocolonies from the corpse of its mate—Perceval did not blame the monster for waging war on them.

Perceval found herself conflicted. This—the Jacob’s Ladder, the world she had been trying to teach herself to think of as only a ship, only a temporary haven until they found some planet full of trees and rocks and oceans and solid, reliable gravity that nobody ever had to twiddle with— this was all she’d ever known. The Jacob’s Ladder had brought Perceval and her people all this way, through the claws of the cold and cunning Enemy, even though she had been designed by the treacherous Builders to fail and kill them.

The Jacob’s Ladder had borne Perceval and her family through coups, wars, and internal conflict. Through the civil war waged between Perceval’s aunt, Ariane Conn, and the fallen-Angel remnant of an artificially intelligent library, Jacob Dust, that had left Perceval Captain. It seemed somehow disloyal now to contemplate abandoning her.

Perceval was about to protest Nova’s interruption of her recreation—they weren’t scheduled to make orbit for several thousand hours—but in that instant she recognized the object that had gotten caught up in the Jacob’s Ladder’s ramscoop and retrieved by alert drones before it could feed the maw of the world’s engines. It was a spiky, fragile, sensorladen probe with copper-colored solar wings slightly crumpled by its rescue. Something made by intelligent life.

“Somebody lives here,” she said. “Somebody intelligent enough for space flight already lives on Grail.”

Somebody who uses Arabic numerals and the Roman alphabet, Nova said inside her head, and rotated the perspective to show her the markings on the probe’s flanks, between the solar wings. Somebody who got here first.

“Oh,” she said. “This is going to start another fucking civil war, if we’re not careful. The Go-Backs are not going to love this.”

   The bright particle winds of a star caressed his sleeping awareness. The long, deepening slope of a gravity well dropped away under him and, as his program demanded, he awakened.


The body they gave him was broken. A crimped and crooked thing, not so much discarded by the small pseudo-life that had inhabited it as shattered beyond that life’s capacity to repair. But him—he was stronger than the remnant, and he displaced it with ease. He limped into its cramped spaces like a wind into a cavern, so constrained by its limits that even his shredded self would not entirely fit and still more rags and tendrils had to be shed, cut away by the Procrustean limits of this metaphysical form.

It had fallen far, this construct. Literally and figuratively. And so had he.

But it was a body. It was a beginning. He was a seed. He could grow.

What had been Dust awakened in darkness, a monster. And there at the bottom of the world, he began to plot his revenge.

   Caitlin Conn was a lousy liar. In her father’s house, refusing to learn to lie had been a rebellion, and under those circumstances the small rebellions kept one sane. You asserted any control you could; you defended any part of your identity that you could own. Lying would have been safer; it would have diverted Alasdair’s attention.

Being a truth-teller set her apart. She had learned the trick from her oldest full sister, Caithness, who was also the least impressed with the pathologies of personality that made up Alasdair Conn. Caithness had been possessed of a sense of honor as quirky as it was unbending, and it had been the death of her. Caitlin suspected that she herself had escaped with only exile in large part because Alasdair considered her Caithness’s smaller, paler shadow—a kind of inferior copy of his admired and hated child.

Once Alasdair killed Caithness and exiled Caitlin, the lousy lying and the brusque disregard for politics and manipulation had only solidified in her character. What had been defiance was now a memorial; what had been a guarded border became a refuge. Caitlin had succeeded fairly well in her chosen field. She was Chief Engineer, after all, and acknowledged liege of Engine—despite her refusal to play politics.

Or to placate her father.

But the one she loved had not allowed himself to be swayed by such qualms. Together, she and Benedick had created a daughter—and thinking of Perceval now, Caitlin felt they had done quite well in that regard. But Benedick had also agreed to father a child on Arianrhod, for reasons of negotiating peace through hostage-sharing, and that Caitlin had been unable to abide.

They had barely spoken for fifteen years, and only the mortal peril engendered by the Angel Dust’s interest in their daughter had brought them back into alliance again. And now—

Now Perceval was Captain of the Jacob’s Ladder, and Caitlin was still Chief

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