Three thousand years ago, the Deep appeared without warning. This alien life form was quickly put to service teleporting people and cargo across great distances, which allowed mass colonization throughout the galaxy. It has also allowed Lancaster, the organization which controls access to the Deep, to grow wealthy and powerful. Cross Lancaster, and you are forced to travel between planets using standard faster-than-light technologies. Nobody wants that!
Tembi Stoneskin is having a very bad day. A Witch in service to the Deep, she spends her time disarming bombs in shipping stations. On her way home to Lancaster, the Deep shows her the aftermath of a weapons test powerful enough to slice a moon in half. While the Deep is a vast intelligence, it is a terrible communicator, and relies on its Witches to translate humanity's requests into thoughts, moods, and impulses that it can understand. Tembi is a young Witch, but she is a skilled translator and she has learned how to speak with her powerful alien friend.
As they set off to find the source of the weapons test, Tembi and the Deep are pulled into the ongoing war between Earth-normal humans and genetically modified humans. But all wars are founded on excuses, and the Blackwing army has much more to hide than a simple shattered moon.
"I never feel as if I've read one of her books. I feel as if I've fallen into one of her worlds, only to emerge a few hours later, blinking and bewildered and a little changed."– Amazon reviewer Kara Coryell
Three thousand years ago, there had been Earth. One crowded planet, drowning within a sea of humanity. They were beginning to expand into space, but it was too late for them. Their ships were too slow, the space between habitable worlds too vast. They would have died, crushed beneath the hubris of their own greedy selves, were it not for the sudden appearance
of the Deep.
It took time for the humans to realize they were no longer alone in the galaxy. The Deep didn't have a body, after all, and humans are prone to ignore that which they can't measure. Except the shipping lines between Earth and Mars kept reporting packages disappearing, reappearing, disappearing, reappearing…utter chaos at the docks. For some time after that, humans still believed they were alone, testing those who worked in the supply lines for latent psionic abilities.
Myopic species, humans.
Then, finally, the Deep found people who were able to translate for it.
The first Witches thought…well, there were no good records of what they thought. Everyone was obsessed with the Deep. Extra-terrestrial life—sapient life!—which seemed to enjoy teleporting objects between planets.
Hmm. How…useful. And what did the Deep want in exchange? Nothing?
Are we sure? We are?
First came the Deep. Then came its Witches. After that came Lancaster, and a great wave of humanity crashed across the Milky Way. Then, three thousand years later, came Tembi Stoneskin. She had no illusions about her significance in this long and complicated mess. If the Deep wanted to show her a broken moon? She would listen to her friend, and do her best to understand.
Down to the moon.
Tembi chose to take the long way, to fly instead of teleport. Down, swooping and dodging to avoid chunks of displaced rock, down to where the moon's thin, shattered gravity managed to catch hold of her bare feet. She landed as lightly as she could within the middle of a dusty maelstrom, a sphere of cleansed air surrounding her. Beyond the invisible edge of the sphere was dust, dust everywhere, gray dust, black dust, blue dust, a whole dull rainbow of the stuff, all of it trying to settle into new homes.
It was also reflective, which was unnerving. She saw a dozen fragmented versions of herself keeping pace beside her, their heads and gracefully tapered ears held high, their dark brown skin and the silhouettes of golden birds painted on their cheeks the only source of living color for hundreds of kilometers in any direction.
"Deep?" Tembi asked, more to cut the eerie silence than in hope of an answer. "Why did you bring me here?"
"Let me know what it tells you."
The voice came from the reflective dust cloud. For a moment—one heart-stopping moment—Tembi wondered if she had finally snapped under the strain, if all of this jumping about the galaxy with her near-omniscient invisible telepathic alien friend had finally broken her understanding of what it meant to be real. Maybe, instead of standing on this strange half-moon, she was, oh, say, crumpled on the floor of a restaurant where she had been enjoying a nice bowl of soup before she had become mentally and spiritually unmoored, and maybe the faint tingling sensation in her fingertips was the result of the local law hitting her with several thousand volts of well-placed popstick.
Then she recognized the voice, and wondered if it would have been better to lose touch with her sanity after all.
"War Witch," she said, nodding politely.
Her on-again, off-again, currently extremely-off-again boyfriend emerged from the dust, wincing at the nickname. "Tembi, don't."
She relented. "Kalais."
They stared at each other. She hadn't seen Kalais for the better part of a year. He was living on Earth these days, trying to convince the Earth Assembly to do this and that and the other on behalf of Lancaster. Life on Earth seemed to suit him. He wore a blue uniform with silver bands along the sleeves, colors which matched the swirling silver-blue patterns the Deep had painted on his cheek to mark him as one of its own. His brown skin was a few shades lighter than her own, and he appeared to be Earth-normal except for his nearly white eyes.
(Her traitor brain reminded her that she was ten different exotic varieties of scruffy in her bomb disposal uniform, which she hadn't washed in weeks, not even after that scene with all of those skittering creatures that weren't quite spiders. She mercilessly crushed that thought down and shoved it aside so the Deep wouldn't pick it out of her head and slap a fancy set of dress robes on her. Today didn't need to turn into the most embarrassing day of her life on top of everything else.)
He smiled at her. The small frown lines at the edges at his mouth disappeared. "You look good," he said. "New earrings?"
She held up a hand before he could finish. "Stop," she told him. "Let's figure out why the Deep brought us here, and then we can leave."
Kalais hesitated, his smile fading, and nodded.
They fell into step beside each other, the sounds of their footsteps muffled by whatever the Deep had done to create a portable atmosphere. The dust had finally been caught up in the low gravity, and was settling around them in dense drifts. The only visual sign that they were still surrounded by a sphere of breathable air was the path it cut in the dust as they walked, the small hillocks falling in on themselves once the edge of it passed them by.
"How long have you been here?" Tembi asked.
"Arrived in time to see the moon split open. You?"
"Same. Do you know what happened?"
"No." He knelt to scoop some of the moon's foamy dust into his hands, and swirled it around as if searching for clues before letting it fall.
"Is this one of the Deep's hallucinations?"
"Visions," Tembi corrected him. "Not hallucinations." She paused and shut her eyes, her hands extended, her toes set deep in the dust. The Deep's visions were almost indistinguishable from reality, but if you paused, if you allowed yourself to be still and be present within the moment, you could always find your way.
The skin on her feet was as hard as the rest of her, but she was sure she could still feel the shape of the moon.
Not sorrow, not pain…no emotions at all. A moon was a rock. A chunk of mass, floating in space. It still shook with the residual energy of an event not of its own making, but it didn't care. It could be crushed down until nothing remained but the dust, and it wouldn't care.
"Real," she said, certain that the Deep couldn't invent anything that wasn't grounded in emotion.
Kalais took a deep breath, as if expecting the small sphere of air around them to vanish.
"Relax," Tembi said. "The Deep isn't going to yank it away."
"Maybe for you! You're its favorite. If I soss it off, it might decide to let me die in space."
"Don't." She shook her head. "The Deep wouldn't do that."
He glared at her. "We've heard the same stories, Tembs."
"I'm not having this fight with you again."
He opened his mouth, their old argument ready and waiting, but chose to nod instead.
They resumed walking. With the dust finally clearing from the sky, Tembi could make out the small planet, strange in its colors. A storm appeared to be roaring across its surface, clouds as crimson as blood moving quickly towards the horizon.
Kalais stopped to watch, his pale eyes fixed on the storm.
"See anything?" Tembi asked. He came from a low-light planet, and his nearly white eyes were designed to function in settings like this. Similar to this, she reminded herself. Kalais had described his homeworld as slow, peaceful. A drowsy place which basked in the glow of an old red sun. Not this broken moon hanging next to a bloody planet.
"No," he replied, shaking his head. "Do you know where we are?"
"Deep?" Tembi asked.
Eight small rocks shot up from the surface and began to orbit a large central rock. A pebble circled around this, with a long tail of dust trailing behind it. The comet was the detail needed for Kalais to put a name to the planetary system: "Stross cluster."
"That's next door to Vega." Tembi glanced towards the black sky around them, as if she could see the enormous shipping hubs which dominated her home system.
"Stross is uninhabited," Kalais said. "No native life forms, not enough water on a Goldilocks planet to make terraforming worth the cost."
"Seems like a good place to set off new a weapon…" Tembi replied, the words coming out slowly as she considered each one. "…uninhabited, but close enough to Vega be discovered by smugglers using FTL ships."
"Rumors start to spread, word gets back to Earth that someone's blowing up moons," Kalais agreed. "But if that's what happened, why are we the only two people around?"
"FTL ships leave traces," Tembi guessed. "If it were me, I'd plant the weapon, abandon it for as long as I could, and then wait to hear what happened."
"No," Kalais said. "If you're testing a weapon for the first time, you need to gather data. This place should be swarming with people and 'bots."
"I didn't say they were testing the weapon," Tembi replied, her face pointed towards the bloody planet so Kalais couldn't see the edges of her mouth twist. This wasn't the time to count points.
"Small gods," he said quietly. "You think this is a message?"
"You're the War Witch," she replied. "You tell me."
The nickname didn't reach him: Kalais had already leapt into the sky.