Today's Reading

It also made for a very striking sight, the big gun rising up out of the swaying grass, absolutely dwarfing the surrounding village. I'd estimate the population of the town at about twenty thousand or so, and based on my observation from the ridge above, I'd say it was a pretty representative species mix of the world as a whole. That meant that, in this area at least, the locals had outgrown the sectarian divisions that had defined them during the wars.

Peace through forcible disarmament. That had actually been the goal of the pulse. It had just very rarely worked out that way.

I made my way down the hill, sure to stow my rifle on my back and keep my hands to my side. The settlement looked plenty peaceful, sure, but if the bandits I'd encountered on the road were a regular threat, there would be sentries, and they wouldn't be very hesitant to shoot a lone stranger approaching with a gun.

Still, none stopped me as I entered the outskirts of the town, entering a bazaar where the locals were hawking their wares, likely where the poor Tyll farmer I'd encountered had been hoping to unload his own. I asked a vendor—a Tyll selling bowls of thick, leafy stew—where I could find Marza; she pointed me to a local watering hole built into one of the former supply sheds. They might have been thrown back to an age before electricity, but people would always find a way to distill booze.

The dim bar served various concoctions, marked clearly on the wall in chalk, the menu separated out by species preference. A human and a Tyll could drink much the same things and achieve much the same effect, though their different taste buds might prefer different flavors, but either of those species drinking something designed for a Wulf risked becoming violently ill, and drinking something suited to some of the other species—a Reint, for example, or Vyriat—would straight up kill them. Most of the seventeen species that made up the galactic population had certain biological similarities— carbon-based biology, the oxygen levels required for a breathable atmosphere—but the deviations among them were still important to keep in mind.

I asked the barkeep, a shaggy, canine-like Wulf, where I might find Marza; she barely looked up from the glasses she was cleaning as she nodded toward him, a human sitting at a corner table, chatting amiably with a few acquaintances. I approached and informed him of his friend's predicament, and he thanked me, passing along a few squares of rough stamped metal—presumably the local currency—as a way of paying me off. With that done, I headed back out into the town.

Where to find one human child in a city of hundreds of them? Especially a city with very few apparent species divides? Don't get me wrong, I was pleased as hell that everything was so peachy and racially integrated around here, but it did make my job harder—if there had been a "human quarter," it would have at least narrowed my search.

That lack of racial divide meant that there were two possible avenues of inquiry to begin my search: checking to see if some sort of local religion had grown up in the last hundred years, priests being valuable sources of information as long as you couched your question right, and if that didn't pan out, to see if there was some sort of local orphanage. This wasn't the first child I'd recruited, and for whatever reason, the gifts they presented—the very confirmation that they were what we thought they were—almost always emerged after tragedy or trauma.

I was pointed toward a temple by a man renting out the same strange beasts of burden I'd seen shot dead out in the grasslands, so that would be my first stop.

Religion had always been a...funny thing, even before the pulse. The intermingling of seventeen different species, plus the sectarian divisions that had come after, had meant a swarm of different ideas colliding in sometimes strange and unexpected ways, new religions commingling with old and forming all sorts of offshoots and clashes of ideology. Add the pulse on top of that—an event that, as far as these people knew, was some cosmologically unprecedented, completely inexplicable act that might have come from a divine hand—and all sorts of strange cults and beliefs had sprung up in its wake. Plenty of those were apocalyptic in nature, and the local flavor turned out to be no different.

The "church," insofar as that's what it was, had been built right up underneath one of the anti-aircraft guns, long silent now. They'd left the weapon as their roof, which meant they probably got rained on during services, the water dripping down all the exposed metal of the cannon to spatter on their heads as they prayed, but for all I knew that was part of their belief system, being cleansed by the wash of war or somesuch. I watched their midday services from just outside the door, trying to get a handle on how they'd translated the pulse into their beliefs.

The priest was a Barious. I hadn't been expecting that. For one thing, the machine race hadn't been present in large numbers on this world before the pulse; for another, the Barious, even more so than the other races, tended to keep to themselves, a side effect of both the massive physiological differences between them and the biological species, and also the fairly horrid memories of how they'd been treated even before the pulse.

Barious were odd in general. They were all that remained of a precursor race, one that had dominated the cosmos before any of the current species spread throughout the diaspora of stars had so much as discovered fire. Whoever that race was—generally referred to as "the forerunners"—they'd faded into nothing, the only remnant of their passage the servants they'd left behind, AI creations with no one to serve: the Barious. They'd even blanked the species's collective memory banks, wiping out all traces of who they'd been, why their creators had made them, or why they'd existed at all.

None of that was particularly relevant at the moment—but the pulse had been careful to leave all of the Barious's systems intact, which meant that the priest was liable to be both older even than me by a significant amount, and to have sharper senses and sensors than most of the locals I'd encounter. If anyone was going to cotton to the notion that I was from off-planet, it would be her.

This excerpt ends on page 23 of the hardcover edition.

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