Held to High Standard

In the thick of the fighting all that long summer: a leather-lunged voice raised in stern dispute, and a pen worn down to the rachis with writing, Pythia of Mericourt is hounded on all sides, by those who love her as much as those who hate her. “Whore of the people,” they call her. “Every son’s mother.” She rattles her saber against her thigh, and keeps her guns loaded and lashed against her side.

In the long march to the palace, she is there at the front, high and mighty and furious on a horse, whipping them on, a voice crying out for justice. She has herded cattle and sheep; revolutionaries are no harder.

There is a moment — just one, not long — when they break down the doors, where she feels the world shudder and tilt toward change. For that heady second, all seems possible, everything become thinkable.

Alas, no: the world is vast and the groove of history is deep. Twenty years later they have locked her away, “for her own good,” and she bears them prophesy; witness of another world, where the women she led were armed and unbroken, where the banner of empire was never sewn from the skin of revolution.

Above Their Heads Tongues of Fire

She has forgotten — for the moment — that life exists beyond the many-curved wheel of the hull. She has written a word in the false sand beside the reservoir, without meaning or import, washed away by a regulated tide.

Pythia shivers, the deep heavy tone that means — she feels the memory stirring — that the shield has fallen away at last. The universe beyond the shipsoil exists once more. She sinks her fingers into the shaggy trunks of Pythia’s cedars and climbs beyond the spinning clutch of gravity, climbs to the endless, spiraling fall of the hub.

She kneels as well as she can in weightlessness, tucks her clothes in tight. “Oracle,” she cries, “Snake eater!” A pealing as of many bells. Incense, mountain air, the taste of laurel. She nearly chokes on nutmeg. The hub irises open and she shudders before the many blazing eyes of the universe, stares out at stars — stars, she remembers now — never seen before.

“O all your wonders,” she whispers, and Pythia tolls in sympathy.

Locusts and Honey

Alarm bells; real ones. Automatic lights snap on across the colony. Not one of the blackouts, then. They flail out of their sheets, hurry shambolically toward the raid cabinet. They are more than half-asleep, but well-rehearsed: armor slides on with the ease of long practice. Prick of wakeup going in, caffeine, adrenaline, taurine. Spines straighten, eyes brighten. Pythia speaks in three dozen delicate ears, many-voiced, polyglottal.

Outside the sky is coolly luminous, casting a light without shadows. It is very seldom truly dark here. The crops, Pythia’s children, their sisters, which sustain and feed the colony, must be defended: malefic drone of wings thrumming over the hills, out of the high places. They have no plenipotent weapons but have armed themselves, armored themselves, grim scarecrows, sealed against unkind air and digestive juices. They array themselves among the fields and wait, bristling with spikes and venom. They will be swallowed down, bitter pills, and choke the throat that takes them.

Thus survival.


She takes a moment to catch her breath, and take in the view. The curve of the ship is obvious here, trees hanging dizzily overhead, deep silence of growth and running water. She breathes deeply, shinrinyoku, letting the forest fill her lungs, then digs bare feet into shipsoil and continues climbing.

There is a cave at the top formed in the trunk of a massive red cedar. She worms her way inside, scraping blood, hair, skin off on shaggy bark, an offering to the oracle. Wood breathes her in. Once past the gates it opens up. She blinks her lights on. Dry earth and the terminal rising out of it. She runs her fingers over its face.

“Speak, O Pythia,” she tells it. Shipquake. Dirt rains down from cave roof. She lowers her arm. “Speak, O Pythia!”

The ship’s logo—a pair of crossed escherichia coli—appears briefly, then fades. “Speak!” Logo stutters, then resolves. Pythia speaks, vast and intimate, many-voiced, bark to branch. Status report. Thirty years out. Sustain, develop, germinate.

The colony ship sails on.


Pythia crouched over the vent that led below. Hot humid air rose into the room, filling it with thick white mist. She breathed the mist, stirring it with the bellows of her leather lungs. Apollo was singing to her, favoured priestess, sanctified maiden, blind lover, own own own as acid through her legs. Hot and cold she ran dreaming. Music and voices came through the vent. Male voices, impassioned voices, rhythmic voices, questioning voices. The air pushed her back in the mist. Glass vials cracked and rolled together beneath her. Her knees slammed together and bounced apart, bones jangling. She drowsed.

When she awakes, a man of mist stands above her with the blank face of the god. She cries out and opens her arms to him, paper thin and groveling, hips raised provocatively. Her ilia poke through the skin of her thighs, rough freckled things, she is thin-groined as Sweeney astray. The mist bends down and breathes wetly upon her. She swells open. She collapses. The glass runs into her back. The room is full of dry leaves slowly decaying. A handful goes into her mouth and out again, one word on each. A puff from her lips spins them through the room, unknown, indecipherable.