The Engineers of Radiance (Excerpt)

Early in the morning, while Alisar was still asleep, Kai went down to the garage and signed out a skimmer for his trip to Pasmenna. It was a cool, grey day, with the road still wet from the predawn rain, but Kai found he didn’t mind the chill as much as he’d expected. The breeze helped to wake him, and he needed all of his attention to navigate Pasmenna’s winding streets.

Humans preferred to build city streets in ruler-straight lines; Ki Tuum followed the natural flow of water downhill. Kai wasn’t sure what logic guided city planning for the Unaig, but he got lost three times even with his datapad pointing out traffic signals and turnoffs.

It wasn’t a bad time of day to be lost. The rain had softened the scent of industrial exhaust, and now raindrops beaded on every leaf and flower; water dripped in pearls and diamonds from rust-stained awnings. Kai had always thought that Pasmenna’s architecture had a kind of brusque, muscular style, but now and then he glimpsed traces of delicacy: a gate wrought of brass and crystal, a hanging glass chime that sang in the wind.

He felt better today. A night of being held and kissed had done much to calm his nerves, and the prospect of going back to Tu Kinam with Bex had done still more. The sense of being on the verge of a breakdown had faded, washing back from the high-tide mark of Kai’s mind and leaving him dry.

What he felt now was nothing he couldn’t bear. Did he really need to see a counselor, if he was better now?

You aren’t better, he told himself as he pulled up in front of the counselor’s building. He parked his skimmer just off the street, letting it sink down to the concrete in a groan of cooling metal. You’re just more afraid to let yourself be helped than you are to suffer.

Kai descended the stairs to the building’s entryway, which lay beneath a stone arch dripping with mosses and red and white flowers. Like most buildings in Pasmenna, this one had been constructed half-underground to preserve heat. Entering the front room felt like stepping into some long-forgotten cavern. The lighting inside was dim and intimate, and the windows lay close to the high ceiling.

He found the counselor’s door and stood there a moment, checking the nameplate against his datapad. Genina Cadeg, the brass letters read; it had been transliterated into Human Space Standard for her clients’ convenience. He wondered what kind of clientele she had, besides Crane—whether anyone else at the research complex needed a listening ear sometimes, or whether she spoke to spacefarers on their way between far-flung worlds.

He was delaying, and he knew it. Before he could talk himself out of it, he knocked.

“Come in,” came a low, warm voice. Kai took a steadying breath, turned the handle, and pushed open the enormous door.

On a cushion near a sitting desk, an Unaig woman was waiting. If she’d been standing, she would have been at least half again Kai’s height and easily five times again as broad, and her tough winter fur still lay thick upon her neck and shoulders. Her horns were very long and twisted over many times, which made Kai think she must be very old. She looked like nothing so much as a benevolent wall. “Kai dil Vo?” she asked, and gestured him to a cushion across the desk from her.

“That’s me,” said Kai. He tried to mimic the greeting-gesture he’d seen a few times on the street—the polite touch of his fingertips to his mouth, then his chest. “Thank you for meeting with me. I know it was … sudden.”

“Not at all! A pleasure, truly, a pleasure. Sit, drink with me. My nephew brought me herbs this morning. He picks them on the plains. Very fresh, very sour; good for the lungs.” She poured herself a cup of steaming tea from a fine enameled pot, then hesitated over a second cup.

“Thank you,” said Kai, and sank down onto the pillow. It was wonderfully soft beneath his sore hips and thighs.

Genina passed him the cup. It had looked small and delicate in her enormous hand, but Kai found he had to hold it in both palms. The drink inside tasted sweet and astringent, like lemons and quan, and the warmth of the steam soothed his nerves. “What herb is this?” he asked. “If I see it, I’d like to recognize it.”

“This little friend here,” Genina answered, rising to her knees to pluck down a bouquet of leafy yellow flowers from the windowsill. “We call it mazig. A troublemaker in the garden; it grows where it likes! But a friend in the wild, along the roadside.” She sat back, settling her hands on her knees. Her eyes were very kind. “So. You’re here because you have some hurts that aren’t healing.”

“I am,” said Kai. She sat in silence for a while, drinking her tea and giving him space to go on—but he had already come farther than he was ready to go, and he could find no way forward from here. He looked down so that he didn’t have to meet her eyes. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what I should say.”

“Then let me start,” said Genina. “I am a student of Haleval, of the Lanegens. There will be no quiz!” she said, with a sharp, fluting honk that must have been laughter. “No quiz. The Lanegens believe that we heal the past by making a good life in the future. Okay so far?”

Kai glanced down at the cup in his hands. The steam sifted gently toward the ceiling. “It wasn’t what I was expecting,” he said eventually. “When I talked to a counselor, after the war, they wanted me to talk about what happened. Put it into a story I told about my past.”

“Aaah, I’ve heard of that way,” said Genina. “It may help. Not my specialty, but if you want it, we can try it.” She tilted her chin up and looked down at him along her cheekbones. “Do you know what you want?”

Kai shook his head. “I want it to stop hunting me,” he said. Grief was a knot in his throat. “There’s nowhere I’m safe from it. Not even with the people I love. It can be a—it can be the most ordinary day, and then all of the sudden I’m back there. And there is no reason for it.”

As he spoke, Genina rocked gently on her knees. From anyone else, Kai might have found it distracting, but from her it felt like the soft flicker of flash that meant someone was listening. “Your mind built these thoughts to protect you, when you were in danger,” said Genina. “It said, ‘Kai dil Vo, I want you to be alive, so here are your fastest running legs and your best listening ears. Here is a fist for punching and teeth for biting.’ And you’re alive, so your mind sees that it must have been right to give you them.”

“How do you stop being at war?” Kai asked. “How do you convince yourself that you don’t need those things anymore?”

“If that were an easy answer, there would be no need for listeners,” said Genina, rumbling low in her chest. “We will try a few ways. Learn where the pain lives, and what it eats. Make friends with it and lure it into the open. And maybe then we can talk about where you want to go, when you start to leave the war. Still okay?”

Kai swallowed. The idea of befriending his pain repelled him. His pain reminded him that Soon was gone; to make a truce with his pain felt like forgiving his loss, and that, Kai could not do. “I can try,” said Kai cautiously. “It will be difficult.”

“Many things worth doing are,” Genina answered. “So, my friend, let us get into the deep grass. Will you tell me about yourself? Not only the things that hurt. But also the things that hurt, when their time comes.”

And, over the next hour, Kai told her everything, from the grass lakes where he’d hatched to the blasted streets of Qin Dara. He spoke until his mouth was dry and his eyes and throat were wet, and all the while Genina listened and rocked.