“Are you sacred?” Golden Shine asked.
Yes, I was.
“Which parts of you?”
My hands. I inspected each carefully: left, right, centre. I clenched my right hand and ran the fingers of my left along each knuckle—slowly, so that I could feel each ridge, so that I could cross each peak and valley in one unbroken line. My third hand, emerging from my chest—a long, thin pole, curving into a sharpened hook. I tapped its end with a nail and waited for the hollow, exacting click in response.
My knees—those were sacred too. I bent and unbent them slowly, with only a whisper of the softest, most loving creak. And my shoulders, which I rotated in tight circles, pleased by the gentle hum of heat and motion.
My face. I placed an eye on the tip of a finger so that I could scan it over my face, observing the bumps, the pimples, the sensors, the many small hairs. All of it, sacred.
Only two thirds of my body, all told. Not ideal.
“But not a problem,” Golden Shine said softly. “You’ll be well, Ester. You always are.”
I always was. Always when I had Shine next to me, always when she was safely woven into every sacred bit of me.
She took the flying vehicle down, kept it in a low hover above the billowing sand dunes.
“You’ll find the archivist,” Shine said. “You’ll ask her to describe the colour of the reckoning. When you have an answer, you’ll come straight back to the Manta. Does that sound right?”
“Good. And I’ll be right there with you. Love you, Es.”
I leapt from the Manta to the amber sands below, absorbing the shock of the impact with my sacred knees. I took one look above me as the flier departed for safer ground: flat, with wings spread wide like a ray. Its topside was a proud gold, fading to a smooth grey underneath. Shine was in there, but she was in me, too. She was wherever I needed her to be.
I followed a sloping dune downward, sand shifting underneath my feet (not sacred). I supported them with a team of searching flagella that sprouted from my ankles, carefully gripping the ground beneath me. I followed a path to firmer sand, compact and stable beneath me.
Eyes, as I needed them, wherever I was sacred. On my face to see in front, my shoulders to see behind, my hands to see around and beneath. They captured a stream of composite images, all surrendered willingly to Shine, who knit them into a coherent panorama of the world around me. There, above: a small desert bird, a scavenger. Small providence—the bird was just the least bit sacred. An eye, then, on the underside of its wing, and Shine offered me a top down view of the sands. In front of me, not far from where I stood, a flat layer of sand revealed a glimpse of the stone beneath.
Hard ground underneath my feet—I retracted the flagella. I knelt down, touching sacred body to the stone. With two hands I swept away the sand, and with my third I prodded gently at the surface. It was reddish in colour, lined with cracks and weathered with age. I fit the blade of my hand into a round indentation—it pressed down with a click. A hole opened behind me, revealing a stairway beneath the stone surface.
I thanked the desert bird, and the eye on its wing shrunk to nothing. I stepped down through the stairway.
I shed golden light from my sacred hands to ease the descent. My scent sensor was weak, but I picked up earthy notes: petrichor and nurturing decay. I dimmed the light when I reached the foot of the stairs, letting the soft, lavender glow of the room beyond show me what I needed.
Mushrooms growing through cracks in the loamy floor, covered in a thick layer of moss. Ivy coating the walls like reams of paper. Clay pots holding withered flowers, their whites and yellows shrouded by that purple light, coming from no obvious source, which bathed the room. And swarms of insects, so small as to be featureless, hovering in neat clouds.
None of it sacred. None of it the least bit golden, not a speck.
The archivist sat with her back against a flower pot, nudging a clump of moss with a smooth stick. She turned to face me as I approached, but did not stand up.
“Traveller,” she said, voice scratchy and thick. “Who are you?”
She was old: an augmented human with bushy white cat ears and a thick tail. Her face was creased and weathered, violet eyes shining with fierce intent. She wore a grey robe, its hood down. An oval-shaped silver locket hung around her neck.
“My name is Ester,” I said. I had no mouth, and so the sound came from inside and through me, my voice as sacred as my hands and face. “You’re the archivist?”
“Well, who else?” Her voice carried a wry buoyancy. She stood up slowly, dropping the stick. She was taller than me when she stretched out to full height.
“I haven’t seen those mods before,” she said, looking at my face, and then at my third hand. “Human?”
I consulted Shine. I was too far away from the Manta, and not sacred enough, to hear her voice. But I translated her bursts of emotion and feeling. I could be as honest as I needed to be.
“A long time ago,” I said.
“I guess that’s the way of it, these days.”
She gestured at the room around us. “I’m sure you’re here to learn something.”
“You’re in luck. I’ve been in the mood for company. Stay, if you like. If you eat, I’ll make you some food. Then we can get you sorted out.”
I did not eat. But if spending time with the archivist was her price for information….
“That’s very kind, archivist,” I said.
“Just Iris, if you don’t mind.”
Iris led me deeper inside to a rickety table, two stools, and an old stove. There were no rooms—nothing to divide the kitchen from the rest of the archives. The space was enclosed by walls on either side of us, but none to the back, which went on until it dimmed to nothing. I wondered how far the archives extended—wondered if even Iris knew.
The archivist put a kettle on the stove and prepared a plate of seed crackers. She offered a seat to me, and I took it. While the kettle boiled, she took two porcelain cups from a ledge next to the stove, sprinkled into each a blend of dried herbs, and poured two cups of tea. She brought both to the table along with the crackers.
“You don’t really eat, do you, Ester?”
I had no mouth. I could try to form one, but with Shine’s light so far away I had my doubts. I picked up one of the crackers with my right hand and broke off a small chunk with my left. It had been a long time since I was human, but I hadn’t forgotten food, or the sensation of taste. I worked the chunk of cracker between my fingers, ground it into tiny pieces and then to a fine dust.
“Thank you,” I said.
Iris grinned. Her back teeth were sharpened—a predator’s teeth. “You’re very kind, to humour a lonely record keeper.”
I stuck one finger into the teacup. It was pleasantly warm. I kept it there while Iris dipped a cracker in the tea and chewed it slowly.
“What’s your story, Ester?” she asked me between bites.
“I don’t have a story,” I said.
“Well, bullshit. Everyone’s got something. Tell me a little more about yourself.”
I reached tentatively for Shine. Her response back was strained, somehow difficult to interpret. Something sharp and uncomfortable churned inside me, a human anxiety I hadn’t felt in years.
Where are you, Shine?
“I…” I stammered.
“It’s alright, it’s alright.” Iris waved a hand. “Don’t want to make you uncomfortable.”
She sipped her tea. The room fell silent, save the faint buzzing of the insect swarms in the garden behind us.
“How long have you been here?” I asked. The question surprised her and me both. I pulled my finger out of the teacup, folded left and right hands over my lap. There was a thrill to acting out a conversation. I felt a faint warmth from Shine, as if she, too, wanted me to continue.
“Oh, a long time now.” Iris stretched her arms high above her head. “I moved in a short while after the reckoning. Thirty years now, at least.”
“And it’s been only you, this whole time?”
“Well, at first I was here with my wife. Mia. But she got quite sick. You understand how the reckoning works.”
I nodded. I knew little from my own memory, had been lucky enough to avoid the worst. But Shine knew. She had shown me every detail of how it had happened to her.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
She waved my concern down with a flick of her tail. “It’s fine. Old history, now. It’s just nice to know she’s still with us, in a way. These archives are rather analog, but they can still support her. And her light.”
Violet. Violet, from every nook and every crack.
“After that?” I asked. I picked up another sliver of cracker and crushed it in my hands.
“After that? I’ve had travellers stay with me. Some for days, some years. I grew fond of some. I’ve taught many. But even when I’m alone, I like it here.”
She shrugged and scratched at her jawbone. “I like to know that I’m maintaining something. I remember way back, to the early days of augmentation, when we were still fitting it into a long history of freedom and transformation. But I don’t think any of that memory I’ve built up is mine. I’ve loaned it. I’ve borrowed it from every teacher and every mentor, kept it safe, passed it along to those who needed it. And now I’m here, in the archives. It’s very similar. You understand.”
“It sounds like a lot of work.”
“It’s enough. Keeps me busy. I take on an assistant, every now and then.”
The words passed around and through me. An assistant. It sounded like work someone might enjoy.
She finished the dregs of tea with a quick gulp. “I’m sure you want to see how it works.”
I nodded. She stood up quickly, pushing the stool back with a sharp crunching sound that my sensors read through a halo of static. Interference. Shine’s voice even further away. I tried to ignore the sensation of disconnection.
Iris picked up her smooth stick next to the flowerpot and carried it toward one of the swarms of tiny insects.
“Biological information storage,” she said. “Top of the line pre-reckoning tech was pretty impressive, but this? Something else.”
She extended the stick, gripping it tightly between subtly clawed fingers. A handful of the insects landed on its end. A moment later, when she stepped away, there were at least a dozen. Iris walked over to one of the flowerpots and I followed.
“What do you want to know?” Iris asked.
“What was the colour of the reckoning?”
Iris gave me a look, oddly reproachful, but dipped the walking stick into the pot. It buzzed for a moment, the drone of the insects amplified by the hollow centre.
“Golden,” she said, a slight tremor in her voice.
And the tip of the tiniest leaf on the thinnest vine. Just there. Was sacred. From it I grew a speck of a hand, curved and lovely like my third.
And I reached, pulled, gripped my way along the vine, until it was sacred in its entirety, reached along to the next, grabbed fistfuls of plantlife with greedy, sacred intent, until they belonged to her, to us, and I could finally feel Shine’s warmth, and my eyes glistened with sparkling tears—
“What have you brought here, Ester?” Iris snarled. She gripped the walking stick with both hands, bent her knees slightly—like she hadn’t been in a fight in some time, but still had the muscle memory.
“You’ve done a wonderful job,” Shine said, a whisper in my heart.
I missed her.
“I missed you too, Ester.”
“Whatever you’re doing, stop it!” Iris yelled.
The mushrooms and mosses, sacred. The flowers in their pots, sacred. The insects in their neat swarms—
The room pulsed violet. Once. Twice. Iris’s eyes glowed with it; colour dripped from the wings of the circling bugs and encircled the plants and fungi. Iris clutched the locket around her neck.
“Oh, Mia.” She shook her head.
Hers was a fragile presence, compared to Shine’s radiance. It would not have taken much effort to expunge the purple light and turn the whole of the archives sacred. But I paused, and through me Shine paused, and in a gentle cocoon of gold, what was delicate and lavender—
“It remains,” Shine said. “You hesitated.”
“Why?” she asked, but did not admonish. I had no answer.
I turned to Iris. She leaned heavily on her walking stick now, locket hanging loosely. The confidence and power she’d carried in her stance faded away.
“What do you want with this place? Why try to take it away?”
“Golden Shine,” I whispered, struggling to form the sounds.
Shine held me close. Through me, she spoke.
“I’m not someone who takes,” she said. My body hummed with her strength. “The world is dangerous, and so much more complicated than you remember, Iris. My calling is bringing people together and making peace, and I’m very good at it. If you offered your knowledge—”
“So now it’s an offer,” Iris grumbled. She clutched the locket tightly. “We clearly can’t stop you. If you need something, take it quickly. Just let the two of us go in peace.”
The golden light moved in again, cornering the violet aura, closing in, collapsing the space. But again, I hesitated. Acting without thinking, I stopped the advance. Shine—
“I won’t force you to do this. But Ester, I need you to—”
“Let me be your assistant,” I said.
All things froze. I had shocked Shine—had shocked myself too—and together we gave up the ground we had won, sacred touch fading, gleaming eyes and golden luster retreating. I had apparently shocked Mia as well—the violet glow made no move to fill the space left behind.
Perhaps I had not shocked Iris. She grinned, front teeth bared.
“Why?” Shine asked me, tender and curious.
There was something in the archives worth preserving. Something beyond its accumulated knowledge.
“And what is that thing?”
I did not know.
Iris walked up to me, tapping her stick on the earthen floor.
“You want to be my assistant.”
“I think….” The words came thick and rough. I was not familiar with expressing thoughts like these. “I think that if you share the knowledge of this archive, it could help many people in many ways. Save lives and bring peace. But if that knowledge is taken from here, out of context….”
“I haven’t made up my mind yet,” she said.
Silently, I urged her to.
“It would take a long time to train you. Months, at least. A year, maybe more.”
Time was long. Shine was patient, and so was I.
She stood for a moment, picked the locket up in her hand. Stared at it, turned it over to the other side.
“She vouches for you,” Iris said under her breath. I barely heard the words. Perhaps they weren’t meant for me to hear.
Then Iris flipped the walking stick up into her hand and pointed it at me, as if this settled the matter.
“A year, then. If you agree. A year, and we go from there.”
Would I stay connected to Shine? I reached for her, felt her golden embrace reach back. Lifting, buoying, surrounding. Would I lose her?
“No,” Shine whispered. “Take time. Take all the time you need. You know I’ll still be with you, Ester.”
I reached out to Iris. Extended one sacred hand, then a second, then a third. She took my left and right hands in hers. Then released them and nudged my third with her stick. A hollow click echoed through the archives.
The golden light, in slow oscillations, filtered out of the room. It left the fungi and the mosses until they were no longer sacred, left the vines hanging loosely on the walls. Shine pulled back from her embrace around me, her thoughts fading away, until her presence was only a distant hum. But she left me with those sacred parts of myself. Hands, knees, face. And it was enough, because she was enough, because she would always be enough and more.
“We should begin,” I said.
With voice my own, and sacred. With palms spread wide, and with eyes, many eyes, taking in a world of new unknowns. With sacred glow fading to a soft glimmer beneath me, and with violet light rising, pushing at my back, urging me forward.