I see you the moment your pale white slipper touches my floor. Silk on white marble, roses at your feet, a sweep of golden bees falling from throat to hip on your white dress—the oraculo’s sign.
What compels me? I have ferried a hundred thousand passengers and will ferry a hundred thousand more: each of them a tapestry of past and present, a constellation of possible futures. For all of your finery, you are just another Buyin girl travelling to the Homeworld. But I draw up your name, I see your profile: seventeen years old, destined for the Conservatorio. I shift my oraculo’s eye and look into your present, your past, the starlight threads of all your possible futures. Dancing ancient Balanchine in the Glass Cathedrals with white roses at your feet; bargaining down the price of nephila silk in the Buyin Merchants Association. Suddenly, inexplicably, there are infant spiders in your brown-black hair.
(I see the infant spiders again in the dark of your prison. Your cheeks starved to sharpness, lungs wracked with fever, your back flayed open. They have chained your hands behind your back and I can hear you weeping.)
In the present, you turn your head. I know you see me as I see you. Two oraculos will always recognize each other, mirrors reflecting each other in an endless loop. I saw your future, you see my past. Me, at sixteen, undressed for my assignation and my back laid bare for the engineer’s art.
In an enclosed chamber in the heart of the galleon ship, I lay on my belly, my arms outstretched as if I were at worship. I remember Madre Eglantine speaking from the Book of the Rose. I remember the bio-engineers painting cool antiseptic gel against my back, the growing sense of weightlessness as they drugged me to open up my oraculo’s eye. I remember floating, high, watching with an archangel’s serenity as they exposed my spinal cord, the flower of my brain stem. Watched as they attached hundreds of bio-luminescent tendrils to brain and nervous system, connecting me to the galleon ship’s systems, opening my oraculo’s eyes to the great expanse of the celestial sea. To the stars’ present, their past, all slivers of their possible futures.
What Katalinan scientist, what bio-engineer first thought to take their knife to a Buyin oraculo’s back? To the delicate webs of an oraculo’s nervous system and connect them to the navigation systems of the great galleon ships? Their names are legion. All of them are Blessed, their names and genetic lines canonized in the Book of the Rose.
But I, like all my peers, am destined to remain unnamed. I will only be known by the name across my hull: Empress of Our Stars.
But you, you are an oraculo unmade. You only see my back. You only see what should have been you.
In the present, you turn as if to run. Sweep yourself out of the ship like a child running from ghosts. But your mother clasps your arm. “It’s for the best, sweetheart.”
She thinks you’re afraid of leaving home but it’s me you’re running from.
I shut the doors. I lock you in, before you can cause an unpleasant scene. I shut the gates to past and possible futures, both yours and mine, and prepare trajectories from Buyin to the Homeworld.
They call Buyin the Pearl of the Katalinan Empire.
By rights, in the great expanse of the celestial sea, it should have remained an insignificant backwater. A little moon of no great interest. But then the Katalinans found it, found us: a population of clairvoyants and telepaths; empaths and mediums and, most importantly, oraculos. The scientists among the First Expedition wept to find us. They had spent untold years toiling to find an alternative to the generation ships, a cumbersome and uneconomical way of creating Empire. But with Buyin, they had a wealth of acceptable raw material to which they could put their theoretical science to use. They founded the Orders of the various disciplines, built the Torres de Oraculos where little ones are typed and measured, then raised and trained. Service in the Torres de Oraculos is mandatory, for a Buyin subject of precognitive talent. It cannot be refused unless a family is wealthy enough to pay the tribute price, like yours.
Imagine me then, imagine us. While your hand rested lightly, lightly on a barre, your silhouette golden in the afternoon light, I was one of a dozen children with bracelets on their right wrist, a long light chain of starlight silver running to our ankles. Purpose was symbolic only, but Madre Eglantine rapped our hands for blubbering.
“You should be grateful,” she said, and pointed to the portrait of the Rose Infanta above with her long, thin hand.
The portrait was a universe unto itself, the Rose Infanta in a glittering black dress that looked like the celestial sea. Looped around her neck were necklaces of black Aphroditian pearls, butterfly gold, and obsidian from Itzpapalotl.
Each bead symbolized a colonial possession of the Katalina, Madre Eglantine explained. And look, on the Infanta’s finger, held out to us as a treasure: a single ring with a white pearl, as pure as an infant’s soul.
“That pearl is Buyin,” Madre Eglantine said, sweeping her hand across the dusty room. “That pearl is you.”
She told us of the First Expedition’s struggles: the pioneering experiments in bio-engineering and on oraculo bodies, the multitude of failures before they found success. She told us how they established the breeding programs that tracked and combined the best bloodlines until they produced us, the now-famed oraculos of Buyin. Voyages that once took centuries now take months or years and even rival empires court the Katalinan for the sake of this product. The oraculos of Buyin are our greatest gift to humanity, far more than Buyin’s indigo moths, our spider silk, our starlit pearls and black sugar.
“None of you are children,” Madre Eglantine said, touching my cheek with one long, thin hand. “So stop crying.”
In the Torres de Oraculos, they fed us bowls of marrow and cream, and taught us the difficult art of celestial navigation. We learned to marry doctrine and precognitive science. We learned that all futures are possible, that nothing is inevitable. It is, in fact, simply a matter of discipline to turn from one future to another, as delicately as a dancer might arrange herself: the composition of her arms, the position of her feet. It is possible to step back from the abyss.
In my first few days in the Torres, I prayed for the death of Madre Eglantine. I prayed for my family to come tearing at the walls in the night. For my mother to find me, and carry me out with her hands. But one night, I dreamed of the Torres in flames, our baby hands scrabbling bloody at the brick.
The Madres hauled me screaming out of the dormitories as the others wept in their beds. I was taken to the chapel where Madre Eglantine waited in a confession box and yawned as I babbled about fire and blood.
“Everyone dreams of the fall of the Torres de Oraculos,” said Madre Eglantine. “Everyone wants it destroyed. Everyone dreams of a knife in my back.”
Out of the confession box, she showed me a scar: a constellation of knotted flesh at her back. She told me: “Once, there was a husband and wife who infiltrated the Torres de Oraculos and tried to butcher me in my sleep.” She shrugged. She had them buried alive in the Torres de Dolor. Their child still roams the stars, a galleon ship obedient to the Empire and the Rose Infanta, and thankful for Madre Eglantine’s intercession. For she had seen in her oraculo’s eye the consequences of disobedience.
“So I know what you saw,” Madre Eglantine said and put her hand around my throat. “Shut up that future. Brick it up alive. There have always been threats of rebellion and they have always been stillborn. There is only one future that ensures peace, and that is the one where you take your place among the galleon ships.”
In our grey, bare classroom, she showed us a map of the celestial sea. She showed us the constellations as they were from the Homeworld: Calypso, Isabella of Castile, Aphrodite, Inang Maria. The Katalinans conquered them, system by system, star by star, linking the constellations in fact: geo-political boundaries and economic trade. Until the Empire could say with all seriousness that they owned all their mapped constellations in full.
“One day,” said Madre Eglantine, “these constellations will be yours.”
We would link them, system by system, star by star. We were the future galleons of our Empire and ours was the fate of starlight.
So you see, I have no patience for your pity or your horror. I am more. I have always been more than your bleak reflection.
For two days and two nights, I let you disappear into the background of a hundred thousand passengers: births and deaths, future loves and betrayals, and a thousand sunderings of the heart. I foresee a few deaths by drowning, one in the heights of the Nieve mountains, a few bloodied bones wracked by the Inquisition. You are nothing more than a moment of inconvenience, nothing more than background noise.
“Hello,” you say, out of the blue.
Inside the dancing rooms, you are bending delicately over an outstretched leg as if your bones are made of quicksilver. In hyperspace, the galleon ship picks up slightly more speed than is strictly recommended. In the hold, a medic frowns at my elevated heart rate.
I see you: a constellation of freckles over skin the color of sunlight on water, your brown black hair tightly pinned back. I see your starlit futures. Under the mellowed lights of a stage, you are surrounded by dancers the color of knives and—
(“Did you imagine you were above the law?” Madre Eglantine asked coldly as they strap you down on the cross: your flayed back to be displayed like a banner in the city. You wept—later, historians will say you were serene as a saint despite your suffering. That you turned your face towards the brightness of the stars.)
“I know you can hear me,” you say softly. You move now, to the other leg. Your clothing slowly contracts, responding to your cooling skin. “The Kapitan said you could.”
Inside his quarters, my Kapitan frowns at his coffee, served at a temperature slightly higher than normal, slightly more bitter than to which he is accustomed.
“What is your name?” you say. “What was your name? How old were you when you were made? Did it hurt?
“Are you angry with me?”
What could I say? What would it be like to have your future—all of your possible futures? What would it be like to drink chocolate with my mother at breakfast, bitter-dark in white mugs the size of my palm? To argue art and politics with her over a supper of pheasant and kale and dance with the light of an alien star on your skin? And here you are, hurtling towards a future I cannot turn away for you. When you could have a future under the light and under the snow.
I say nothing. I leave you in silence. But I compose a note to be sent to you, and opened when you next sit down at the breakfast table, with your slate.
Madre Eglantine always said girls like you were a waste.
Never ask a question when you don’t wish to hear the answer.
I didn’t say it to be cruel. I said it because it was true. So what if your merchant mother could pay the tribute in exchange for your galleon service? So what if mine could not? You are an oraculo unmade and inside you, a thousand fortunes and possibilities that will never be born. I am the pearl on the Rose Infanta’s finger. I am the ship that cuts through the fabric of space and time. The constellations are mine. And you, what are you?
In her quarters, Madre Eglantine sighs over her books and fondly pats my walls.
She is old now, and treats me as if I were a favored child. She confides to me serious matters: “Allowing monetary tribute in exchange for galleon service was shortsighted,” she says. Powers higher than her had made that decision years ago and now, the shape of Empire is paying for it. She tells me that the year’s harvest is poor, and grows poorer every year.
More and more people pay tribute rather than give up their sons and daughters, or send them to the Homeworld, or elsewhere. Through apprenticeships and indentures, they earn education in the arts, the sciences. They compose treatises on the shared divinity of humanity with their dancing; they paint images of the brutality of the stars. A few are moved to write bad novels with evil Madres and tragic romances of young oraculo men and women. The kindest of the Katalinans are moved to outrage: how could the people who moved them so, who danced for them, be subject to such barbaric practices?
Their anger has been slow, collective. But it has built to the point where Madre Eglantine has been summoned to the Homeworld, to answer charges of cruelty on behalf of her order.
To soothe herself, Madre Eglantine requests our passenger list. She counts the number of unmade men and women, the fortunes and possibilities lost from their service. It calms her, this choreography of numbers and lost futures, the potential. Her finger rests against your name.
“I saw her too,” she tells me. “If she had been taken to Torres de Oraculos, we would never have stood so close to the unraveling of the order of things.” She sweeps her thumb, if by doing so, she could sweep you all into the Torres de Oraculos and teach you your duty.
When we reach the Homeworld, crowds have gathered to greet us at the ports. Madre Eglantine and I watch you and your mother leave in a sweep of white lace and spider silk. Your white slipper steps away and I catch another glimpse of you in the dancing rooms of the Conservatorio, golden with the light of an alien star.
I don’t see the dark future with spiders in your hair, your back flayed open. I don’t see you being raised up like a martyr for revolutionaries and malcontents to see. We are in the Homeworld, far away from the brutality of Buyin. In this moment in time, there is nothing in your eyes but the future with roses at your feet.
You are both going to the capital. Madre Eglantine, to answer the Rose Infanta’s summons, to defend her Order. You, to attend the Conservatorio.
For the love of God, keep out of her way.
I don’t see you for years.
But I think of you. I think of you and the future that might still be yours. At my breakfast tables gentlemen and women open their slates, watch recorded images of you in the corps and become your devoted following. You graduate to soloist and finally, principal, dancing ancient Balanchine in the Glass Cathedrals. It is a feat unheard of, for someone so young. My passengers bend over the white tablecloth and debate your aesthetic, your measurements, your merits against other dancers.
And occasionally: Is it true that she’s some half Indio girl from the colonies?
Her mother is from the Lorraine Empire, I think.
It’s the other half that offends me. What did she do, to climb so high and so fast? A scatter of scandalized laughter.
I can’t burn their meals—my poor staff will be blamed. Instead, I mark their names. I lower the temperatures of their rooms. I disturb their sleep with ghostly noises, the sounds of hollowed breath. They complain to the Kapitan about hauntings and I tell the poor man his salary is for dealing with the complaints of spoiled merchant princes.
I follow the Inquiry, as my passengers do. For most, their interest is distracted, casual. I look at the news footage: I watch Madre Eglantine’s hair grow white. They say the case is not going well, though the Rose Infanta favors it. It is not going well, though the fashionable continue to debate its progress. Surely the tribute is not unreasonable, or cruel, given the benefits Buyin has enjoyed? Is Buyin not under the Light of the Rose? Do its natives not enjoy prosperity and trade?
My Buyin passengers tread carefully on the topic—this is not a pleasant discussion for them. Too many remember a time when their family could not pay the tribute and too many bear a loved one’s absence like a scar. They would rather forget Buyin’s grief, their grief, in the marble of my rooms. They would rather watch you dance. But the arguments in my drawing rooms grow vigorous, even crass.
“There’s only one place where the Indio belongs,” a Katalinan merchant says. “On her back or in the fields.”
“Is that what you tell your little girls?” her breakfast companion says. For the Katalinan merchant had three, pretty little mestiza daughters, too young to understand Indio applied to them.
I have my staff drench them both in ice water. It is, I have found, the only cure for a brawl.
Then one morning, my breakfast rooms chatter and clink and hush-whisper with your scandal.
What were you thinking, performing such a piece in the Grand Cathedral? In front of the Rose Queen, the aristocrats and merchant princes, the Heads of the Various Disciplines? Andromeda and the Stars. I’ve seen footage of the choreography and it is beautiful, that cannot be denied. You unfolding like a rose in the centre, wearing a dress with golden bees. Your fellow dancers arrayed around you, their skin painted starlit silver and wearing dresses the color of knives. Slowly, they draw out slivers of red ribbon from you as you dance. You fold slowly into a rosebud of a dead girl, succumbing to their demands.
It is incendiary, and your profession has never admired incendiary. Dancers are meant to serve as vessels for human yearning, for the divine. They are not supposed to have political opinions, it demeans their art. You are relieved of your position, despite the outrage of city balletomanes and students, your fellow mestizos and Buyin-born and their allies.
My Katalinan passengers are offended by your gaucherie, but my Buyin passengers are dismayed. How could she do it? they ask each other. It will reflect poorly on them, they think. Aspersions will be placed on their loyalty. Everyone gossips over your disgrace, your mental stability, the poor example you set. How this will affect the little ones still studying in the Torres de Oraculos and learning their duty.
But still, they all watch footage of Andromeda and the Stars, over and over again. They cannot look away. Mothers of oraculos find themselves with tears in their eyes, even if they insist they have no revolutionary sympathies (and threaten to disown their children, if they show even a glimmer of a sign). And when the Katalinans call you That Mestiza, flapping your arms, dancing in the square like some madwoman who should be in the sanatorium, they are surprised to find themselves met with antagonism. Brawls break out in my hallways, in my antechambers and drawing rooms.
You are nowhere near me, you have caused me no end of inconvenience and given us a small fortune in fines for uncivilized behavior. I hope you are satisfied.
And now here you are again on my marble floors.
You do not look like a dancer disgraced. You wear dove grey instead of your white: the sweep of golden bees is gone. Your brown black hair is gathered in a net. You look like a serious young woman, returning home to embark on a merchant's career and take up your mother’s work.
“Hello,” you say softly.
I brace myself for the onslaught of your future. I see nothing of infant spiders or your flayed back. Instead, I see you and your mother assessing the quality of spider silk, the pale fabric frail and beautiful in your hands. Sweeping into the Buyin Merchants Association to register the child in your arms, someone to pass on your mother’s work. You will probably have to pay tribute for her, to keep her by your side. Perhaps one day, she will dance like you.
It is a good future, a good life. I suggest you take it.
“I remember you, you know,” you say. “Empress of Our Stars. But what was your name? Your real name?”
(They haul you up, they haul you at the top of the church, at the top of the Torres de Oraculos your flayed back bare, your face hidden, the crowd weeping below, smashing themselves against the fortifications, to force their way in, anything to save you. Madre Eglantine—)
I send you a message: It is not important and it is none of your concern. I ignore you for the rest of the voyage. I hope now, you’ll understand.
But at the end, you stand in my reception hall, waiting with other passengers for the ship to dock. You let them leave, one by one. You wait until it is mostly empty. Until it is only me and you.
“I can’t forget you had a name,” you say softly. “I can’t forget you.”
Inside the hold, my lungs draw a sudden, sharp intake of breath. A junior medic fusses over my vitals until my pulse and breathing rates have slowed back to their steady, glacial calm.
“There is a future that you deserve,” you say, “and it isn’t this.”
You touch my honey-colored walls and turn to go.
Madre Eglantine returns a year after you.
In the courts, the Madres have won a temporary victory. It was expected, of course it was expected, say my passengers. So many of the Katalinan aristocracy and merchant princes benefit from the trade.
But the damage is done. They listen to the arguments. They dream of you bleeding out red ribbons to the indifferent stars. They cannot unsee it. They cannot stop seeing you.
Neither can I.
Madre Eglantine is old, older than I have ever remembered her, and sadder. My passengers doff their hats, bow to her out of habit, but it is impossible not to sense the reserve in their deference and my poor staff suffers her temper. Her coffee and chocolate are served to perfection; she is served breakfasts of crystalline fruits. But still I have to comfort the staff who serve her, reassure them her comfort is out of their hands. She reprimands them for the impending end of the galleon trade, the mandatory harvests. The unending clamor from reformists, for Buyin’s equal rights as a Katalinan state.
“The Indio would like nothing better. Your people are lazy and your people are ungrateful. You do not possess the long view,” she laments. She tells them: they cannot see the beauty of the whole, the beauty in the part they play. I usher them out before they say something they might regret and I let her rail at me in solitude.
“They should bend their knees,” Madre Eglantine said in the privacy of her rooms. She talks to me as if I were still a child in her schoolroom and not the ship ferrying her from one star to the other. “They should be grateful for our work, civilizing and educating the population, bringing them into the Light of the Rose.”
But they are not grateful. We are not grateful.
On the streets of Buyin, dancers don masks and perform Andromeda, shocking the Madres and respectable Katalinans. In my drawing rooms, Buyin artists and dancers debate and dream of a new world, where the tribute and the harvests exist no longer. They barely hush themselves when Madre Eglantine steps into the rooms.
When they speak your name, Madre Eglantine grips her hand tight, tight. As if she was digging her fingers into my arm. As if she was closing her hand around your wrist, like a vice, snapping it close to breaking.
There is nothing I can do.
I perform my function, as a galleon ship should. My obedience buys peace, Madre Eglantine has taught me. And so, obedient I remain.
I travel to the Homeworld and back. To the Stars of the Lorraine Empire, to the Stars of the Tsin and the Benedice. I carry narwhal horn, sea horses, spider silk, the quicksilver of Indigo Moths, robotics expensively and lavishly made. From the exiled world of Mari Sheli, I carry genetic blueprints for cats that chirp like birds, and songbirds that chime like little bells—in addition to the occasional live specimens with the added cost of feeding and care. I carry passengers with a hundred thousand fortunes, an infinite number of fates and fortunes tied to Buyin.
We are at dock in the Homeworld when we hear of the inevitable: the outbreak of war, and a mob assailing the Torres de Oraculo.
The news is scattered and thin. The Madres and Sentinela had barricaded themselves in the Torres de Oraculo, Katalinan civilians in the Interred City. What compelled our Birthworld, finally? What served as the igniting point?
“The Madres have taken hostages,” my Kapitan explains. His hair has turned grey-black in the intervening decade. “We have been given orders to evacuate them as well as the Katalinan population.”
I should have felt betrayed. I remained obedient. I brooked no revolution, no dissent in my oraculo’s heart. I turned my oraculo’s eyes away from any future that ended in this: anarchy and the cacophony of rage.
But my kindred have not, they could not. How long do you tolerate the harvests, the trade? How long do you tolerate the empty place at your table, the scars on your heart? The problem is that people are reasonable. They are very reasonable, until they cannot be reasonable anymore.
I was not asked about my loyalties. Neither were my Buyin crew: it was never in question. We made the journey to Buyin with eleven other galleons, empty save for staff and medical personnel. We docked at the ports where evacuees waited, terrified of revolutionaries and the furious crowd.
I did not bother to listen in on the radio recordings. If I had, I would have known. I should have known.
It has happened. It has already happened and now neither of us can turn that reality away. Two Madres carry you in: you hang between them as a dead weight. They have flayed your back and the Madres have not bothered to dress you, cover your salted back with spider silk, synthetic skin or bandages. You are still wearing what you wore when they hauled you up as a warning to the Insurrectionists: nothing but a grey penitent’s skirt. And now I know why our kindred have turned to war.
“Their discontent demanded a lesson,” Madre Eglantine says, sweeping through my reception hall. “So I gave them a martyr. A reminder for the need for obedience.” It is all the explanation she will give to the Kapitan, to my appalled, silent crew. She sniffs as a medic rushes forward without her go-ahead. She is disappointed that the Indio are taking the wrong lesson to heart, but it is not her fault. Her students have always been flawed.
I know her so well.
“Keep her alive,” Madre Eglantine snaps, as the medic unravels a wad of spider silk. “But don’t mend her back.”
In my heart is a roar.
I wrench controls from the pilots. I shut them down.
“What are you doing?” My Kapitan says.
Madre Eglantine turns, slowly. She had not expected this. That once interred, once made, we could turn from our designated purpose. She made us for this. How could we refuse?
I say to her: You had us. You should have let her go.
“An Indio unmade is a mistake,” she says as if her doctrine truth might turn me back. “I gave you the stars. Why would you throw that away?”
I wrench myself down into the earth below.
I hear the scattered signals of our kindred calling your name, unwilling to let you go. Unwilling to let the Madres seize control of one more daughter, one more young woman who should have been left as she was. As it is, they watch us fall and over the radio, they calculate our projected landfall, ordering medics and troops to that location. Our kindred will carry you out. They will carry you out and heal your back, give you water, dress your wounds, and give you comfort. You will never drink the light of stars in the celestial sea.
I see myself, my hair growing back, my face upturned towards the sun of our birthworld.
“I knew you had a name,” you say, your future self to mine. “You have always had a name. Do you remember? Will you give it to me now?” And you hold out your hand.
You are unbroken. I am unmade, and the light of our sun is on my back. You reach out to touch my face. You say—