This is going to be a long post so I’ll be brief with my introduction. Some time ago I wrote a post about a talented young science fiction writer who had put his work in to be critiqued. That author was Hudson MacHeath and since then I have had the enormous pleasure of being allowed to read the first two books Mac has written. They have not been published anywhere because apparently science fiction doesn’t sell at the moment. So this is an excerpt from a manuscript that might win a Hugo* if it were ever published. My opinion only but once you read this you may think so too.
Pathfinder: Lost, excerpt from Chapter 2 : [editing convention : underlining denotes italics]
The Pathfinder came across the expanse of the Great Hall of the Autumn Palace like a ship long lost at sea finding its port at last: too weary for jubilation, and grateful simply to return at all. A brace of armored Batyr escorted him, skating the air on maglev boots while he walked with quiet steps.The Hall was otherwise empty but for the beacon of light illuminating the Diamond Throne and the Majestrix awaiting him in it, a shadowed figure behind her.
It had not been empty long, though. The Pathfinder swept the air with his cloak and tasted the spent breath and sweat and residues of a thousand people, at least, still lingering in the air. Some of the chemical moieties he recognized from his travels: sage-smoke from Tres Estaciones, mandarine from Qingming, a whiff of Hesperus’ hydrocarbon atmosphere. These were mixed in with the scents of khat and spilled koumiss and the ozone of the airscrubbers, but his cloak sorted them out with ease. The Hall was largely silent when he tuned the skin of his cloak into an array microtympana, and he didn’t care to listen to his own footsteps–he’d heard their lonely rhythm far too many times in his life–but when he lensed his cloak into a broad-spectrum sweep, he noticed a hundred x-ray lasers set in the ceiling all staring at his heart like so many hateful eyes.
The Pathfinder kept up his steady pace and smiled. How like a Khataan Queen, he thought, to dismiss the whole of the Qurltai of the Forty-four Found Worlds just to grant me an audience…and then to track me with so many guns, when just one would do the trick.
But then again, what I’ve got in my pocket gives her good reason to be terrified beyond words or reason.
I wonder if she’ll kill me for bringing it? Or once I’ve delivered it, just to keep its secret safe?
She might. She very well might.
And the Pathfinder was surprised to feel a warm drop crawl down his cheek, and then another on the other. He let them fall.
Foolish old man, he told himself, to grow so maudlin here at the end of a life’s quest! It’s been a century and a half since this Queen’s Grandmother sent us searching for her lost secret. Even if I die here in this hall in a matter of minutes, I’ve done amazing things, astonishing things! I’ve seen things that no soul alive can dream of. I’ve gone places only I know exist. If I were going to run away and abandon this Concordat, I’d have done it long ago. And Pathfinders don’t run. We find the lost, and we bring it home.
I’m at peace with my life, even if I’m at the end of it.
The tears dried. He walked on to the throne.
“Majestrix,” he said, stopping and bowing at a respectful distance when he’d crossed the final few meters.
The word echoed in all that empty space.
Majestrix Yesugeï Kököchü Bortei Khaan, Ruler of the Kingdom of Heaven and its Forty-four Found Worlds, nodded. The honor guard of Batyr turned as one and skated back they way they’d come. Hideo watched the play of tightbeam radio comms between her skull and theirs. Her head’s full of machines, he thought. In the infra-red, he could see waste heat radiating from the Queen’s brain. It gave her a blood halo. And the cranium of the woman standing behind the throne was positively incandescent; she had more silicon than carbon stuffed inside her skull.
The Batyr reached the far doors to the Great Hall and were gone.
“Librarian,” the Majestrix replied, breaking the silence. “Welcome. Or shall I call you Pathfinder?”
“Either, as you wish, Majestrix. I am both. But I was Hideo Mori before I was anything else.” He smiled faintly. “Although at times it is hard to remember that. I have been doing my duty to the Library for so long…it is hard to recall who I was. Or might have been.”
The Majestrix didn’t quite understand what he’d said, but she knew exactly what he meant. “We are not our titles, even if they define our lives. Hideo, please. Rise. And this,” she said, gesturing to the elegant and ancient woman standing half-shadowed by her throne, “is my Oracle.”
Hideo nodded to them both. “You have your grandmother’s eyes, Yesugeï. Pale gold. Wolf’s eyes. They see more than they show. And they know more than they see, I suspect.”
“What a strange and kind thing to say, Hideo! Do you know that of all the men and women in the Qurltai and the Conquest, not a one stands before me as honestly as you do now?”
He shrugged. “I’ve nothing to hide from you, Majestrix. I want nothing from you. I doubt any of them can say the same.”
“Ah, Pathfinder Hideo–you are a rare soul indeed!” She almost laughed but the mirth faded before it left her lips. “Do you have…what my Grandmother sent you for, Pathfinder Hideo Mori? Or is your silence failure’s bashful wrapping on an empty box?”
“Oh, I have it, Majestrix. Although there were times, and many of them, when I’ve wanted to throw the thing so far it might never be found again. Do you want it now?”
The Majestrix stiffened and pressed golden-nailed fingertips against her lips, as if she could push her question back and keep it locked there so that Hideo’s answer might never be given. But she had asked and now he had answered and she did not bother to hide the look of doubt and fear that stole across her face.
She could not bring herself to say ‘yes.’
“Let me see it,” she said instead. Hideo conjured a crystal datadrop from his cloak, holding it at eye-level between thumb and index finger. This ‘drop looked like any other ‘drop, a tear-shaped synthetic diamond catching the light like a chandelier’s dangle, gaudy and ostentatious. But no other ‘drop ever cast held secrets as precious–or as dangerous–as this one. Both Pathfinder and Queen knew it, both too well.
“I suppose that I should take it,” she said at length but made no move to do so.
“That,” said Hideo, still holding the crystal, “is entirely up to you. My job is done; I’ve brought this to you. That’s all the Concordat calls for. Your Grandmother paid the Library in full long ago.”
“Yes. With the schematics to construct our own transluminary drive.” The Oracle, whose own personality had been largely supplanted by the cold and analytic machines woven through her brain, still managed to choke and gasp at the shock of this news. The translume drive was the warhorse that the Queens of Steppe had ridden in the forging of their empire. Its secret was the source of their power and its reach was the might that held the Kingdom of Heaven together.
Hideo Mori simply nodded.
[Majestrix!] the Oracle ‘streamed across their shared dataline. The words sounded in the Majestrix’s skull, shared between them alone. [Is this true?]
[I’ve long suspected that it is. Now I know.]
“Your Oracle didn’t know of the payment, then?” Hideo asked.
And both Oracle and Majestrix stared at him, shocked. “How,” the Queen asked slowly and deliberately, “did you know we were talking?”
“I am a Pathfinder, Majestrix. My senses…are acute.”
“Enough to hear tightband radio transmissions?”
“That. And more. I lack the neural hardware to decode them, Majestrix, so I have intruded upon no secrets of yours. I guessed at the content of the Oracle’s message by noting the micromuscular movements in her face and hands betraying agitation or surprise. There’s a little of her left in there, amidst all that machinery…but I am not here to tell you what you already know. I am here to deliver the crystal your Grandmother sent me for and all its secrets. Once more, Majestrix: here it is.” He held it out again. “Will you take it?”
“Would you take it, if you were I?”
The start of a grim smile tugged at Hideo’s mouth. He killed it out of politeness and gently shook his head. “Pathfinders find, retrieve and retrace, Majestrix. We act, duty-bound. We are allowed no choices. Your question begs a judgment I’m both ill equipped and entirely unwilling to make. I am not you, and to be honest, I’m sweetly thankful for that. Take the ‘drop, and let me go, or let me go and cancel the Concordat and I will take this stone with me and you’ll need never trouble yourself with it again.”
“Fine! Yes, then! Bring it to me,” the Majestrix said simply. Her voice was dry when she spoke.
With exaggerated slowness so that nothing he did might be misconstrued as an attack, Hideo stepped onto the throne’s pedestal and put the crystal into the Majestrix’s hand with the utmost care.
When he stepped down again, he seemed lighter while Yesugeï felt the weight of understanding settle down upon her, pinning her to the spot. She closed her fingers around the stone and stared at her fist. A shiver passed through her, something akin to ecstasy, terror, or both. She did not know what answers the crystal held, but she knew the mystery it solved.
She had to know.
And she knew, just as certainly, that this would be a secret she would take to her grave. Wars had been waged for less. Worlds had burned. The truth that the crystal held could unmake her Empire. “Tell me, Pathfinder,” she demanded, her voice low and deadly, “who knows what is writ in my crystal? Who? Tell me this, and tell me truthfully.” And please, honest, brave Pathfinder Hideo, she thought, don’t tell me that you read it. Because I will kill you if you have, and although I will never forgive myself, I will do it without an instant’s hesitation.
And Hideo, somehow, knew this too.
“Majestrix?” he began, “first, know that I never read the data contained in that damned crystal, not once. Not once! I obeyed the law of the Library and my duty to the Concordat: I sought for, found and returned that crystal, but I did not steal the nature of its contents for myself, for my Guild or for anybody. That datadrop is inviolate, Majestrix. I ascertained its authenticity by analyzing the photon-tunneling used to encode it and yes, I saw the holoform that proves its authorship, but nothing, nothing more than that!”
“Then who else, then, Pathfinder? Who else knows?” She was very nearly shouting, the demand repeated a dozen times in echo.
“Majestrix, not a living soul. The rest of my team is dead. You and I and your Oracle are the only souls left alive who know that this datadrop exists at all. The contents have not been accessed in well over two thousand Years. See for yourself, Majestrix! Look into your crystal. The truth of what I say is written in its register.”
“Registers can be rewritten.”
Hideo shook his head. “Not without leaving a trace of the old electron spin-clock, Majestrix. Forgers could fool most folks, but not a Pathfinder, and not your technicians, surely. They will confirm that what I say is the truth! I probed its age and its nature but not its contents or its records.”
“You would not lie to me, would you, Pathfinder?” she asked, testing him. “I could open you up and spill you out to know the truth, if I cared to.”
“Majestrix, I have learned that, at times, to stand open and exposed is far safer than to remain armored and hidden. You have brought me into your sanctum, alone, without your guards and generals and courtiers. I offer you that same respect, Majestrix, with my honesty. Your grandmother paid for it; I am bound by promise, and more, not to withhold it. There are secrets in that crystal,” Hideo said, pointing at the Majestrix’s hand with a finger that trembled despite his will, “that could unmake all our lives. We both know this, even though you do not know what they are yet and I will never know. No, I would not lie to you. I know what question that crystal answers but I do not know the answer itself.”
[He is not lying, Majestrix,] ‘streamed the Oracle, who, in the absence of her own emotional responses, was exquisitely sensitive to the emotions of others. The Queen didn’t need her confirmation. She already knew that Hideo Mori was not lying to her. She’d seen a lifetime’s worth of liars and schemers during her time on the throne. Hideo had a dignity in his honesty that she understood and respected.
“Where did you find it?” she asked, staring at the crystal, turning it in her fingers.
“Farther away than I care to recall, Majestrix. Before you ask further, your Grandmother made it explicit that its location, and the route taken to find it, were not to be revealed. She understood the value of secrecy in this matter.”
“As do I,” the Majestrix said quickly, “but just tell me–”
Hideo shook his head. “I did not find lost Earth, if that is your question, Majestrix. No, not at all. The location of humanity’s home still remains a perfect mystery. More than that, I cannot say.”
Majestrix Yesugeï nodded, then closed the crystal in her fist and held it tight. She looked directly at Hideo again. “Good Pathfinder Mori. You have done me and your Library the greatest of honors. You are a great man, to have completed this Concordat. I am in your debt.” She stood and bowed to him; it was the first time in her life she’d done so to any soul. “May I offer you food, drink, a place to sleep?”
“Majestrix…if you plan to kill me to keep the secret of your secret safe, I’d prefer that it come quickly. I appreciate your kindness, but I’ve no need for the lie.”
“I’m not going to kill you, Pathfinder. Although I should, with all regret and shame to my name. I surely should. Wouldn’t you, in my place?”
“Yes. I might.”
She nodded thoughtfully. “Another honest answer. Good. I trust you, Pathfinder. You are not that different from me, I think. We are both bound to duty, aren’t we? No matter what the cost…your service is not something I will forget. Good Pathfinder, you are free to go. Your Concordat is complete.”
Hideo smiled. “Majestrix, I thank you. It was the journey of a lifetime.” He turned to leave.
“But Pathfinder Mori–wait!” He turned back. “How did you cut your way through the palace security so easily? Is it…true, what is whispered about you?”
“Do you mean–this?” Hideo asked. And his cloak moved, then; it shivered and crawled up over his face and sealed itself over his shirtfront and slid down his legs. For less than a heartbeat, he became a blob, protean before resolving into a person once more…but not the person he’d been. Now his hair was golden and curling, his eyes the eyes of a wolf, his clothes silken and regal and his face, hers. Then he became the Oracle; a Palace guard, a third cousin of the Queen, a Conquest courier, a cleaning automaton and finally himself again. “I have been so many people over the long course of this Concordat, Majestrix, that I look forward to being just Hideo once more, and until the end of my days. That is my greatest reward: to know that, no matter what else I have achieved, when I die I will have been true to my duty and my Library…but more than that, to myself.”
He bowed, smiled and left.
* There are two prestigious science fiction awards – the Hugo and the Nebula. For a science fiction writer, winning either would be like winning a Nobel prize.