"Look, I'm not just going to leave this thing alone."
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Liam drew on his cigarette and blew smoke against the mono glass. The smoke whirled away in a million perfect Fibonacci sequences. "I shouldn't have said anything."
"Yes, thank you." Liam frowned. "Bishop warned me against imprinting things like this."
"I thought you didn't take orders from him."
"I don't. But I do take advice, and only a moron ignores advice from a magician."
"Yes, thank you, yes." Liam put a hand to his forehead. "I am, in fact, fick as a brick. Might as well go ahead with it."
"Sod it, you'll hear about it sooner or later. First of all, there's the Empire. That's a catch-all term for the people who think having heirarchies is a good idea, and want to keep them in place. Which is a lot of people. Really, quite a lot. And their establishments, too. Lensmoor is somewhat independent, and Alteria is...contested ground, like...but just about everywhere else of importance is at least somewhat held by the Empire. The Arcanelle is all theirs, pretty as a fucking mechanical watch, and just as regulated. They're still dancing the Endless Waltz there, at least for now. We'll see." Liam trailed off.
"Then there's the Hive, I suppose. They started off in Midport back in the year dot, but only really took off after the eschaton. The happening, I mean."
"Enh. It sort of depends on who you are. I mean..." He trailed off again. "The Hive demands a bit of explaining, I think."
"If you'll talk, I'll listen."
"Just turning it around, looking for the best way to..." He stopped. He began grinning madly.
Isaac blinked. "What?"
"No, no, I'll get to it. Let me lead up to this. See, there was this sort of guild-family in Midport, back before it was even called Midport. This was the Knights of the Rose, from back when they were a city-state with a king. Very tight-knit, family lines, very into the whole honor-family-decorum trip. Living all together shut away in their estate like that; they got a bit weird, I suppose. Somewhere along the line, they decided they were above anything so petty as gender discrimination. Come to think of it, they were above gender itself. Why not? They were knights. They weren't like real people. Give someone a few hundred years and a stagnant society, and...well...you could say the Knights were early pioneers in gender engineering. By the time kings went out of fashion in Port Town or Portland or whatever Midport was calling itself at the time, they'd created an entirely new gender. Nons."
"It's not an original idea. I've seen it other places, though usually not so early on. But that's Midport. There's really no division between magic and technology for them. They had Ibraic, too, back in the day."
"The magical alphabet? I thought that was from-"
"It's from everywhere. Best not to talk about it here. So the Knights of the Rose are all nons now, a gender all their own. This takes about a generation to really sink in, but once the first generation of childen grows up with this sort of indoctrination, and it's good as sealed. All nons are called 'she' or 'her', regardless of whether they're an innie or an outie. They tend to avoid body hair, even on their heads. They're mostly fair-skinned, with an unusual proportion of albinos, and they've raised children in a sort of community-teaching environment. You see where this is going?"
Isaac shook his head. "No. Am I missing something?"
"We'll get there."
"This is weird enough already."
"This is nothing. The Sin Pit- that's in Midport, too- now, that's weird. But I was talking about nons."
"Can I have a cigarette?"
Liam reached into his coat pocket. "Thought you didn't smoke."
"I didn't used to, but a cigarette sounds good right now. Nicotine's a synapse enhancer, you know."
"Knew that, yeh." Liam opened his silver case and withdrew a hand-rolled. He made it dance over his fingers, then offered it out to Isaac from between thumb and forefinger.
Isaac took it, and touched it to the match Liam popped alight- like a magic trick- against his thumb. He drew in smoke and coughed.
"Yeesh." He coughed again. "Harsh."
"No filter. Better?"
"Yeah. Go ahead."
The mono track was slowly descening, the train gently angling toward the earth. Isaac could see an exoskeleton of bars rising up ahead to enclose them. Another tunnel. The city seemed to be full of passageways.
"Where it gets weird," Liam said. "Is when they started letting in outsiders. I don't mean you could stroll in off the street; apparently you had to more or less marry into the family, and then they did something else to you."
"Something else what?"
"I'm not quite clear on that, really. Something permanent."
"What it is," Liam said. "The Hive doesn't think of marriage in the same way other people do. Come to think of it, they don't think of most things the way other people do. They believe in body modification, and I mean that in every sense of the word. They don't recognize the same boundaries between people. And they're genetic engineers on a level no one else can approach. And, what it is..." He started grinning madly again.
"Come on," Isaac said. "What?"
"It's awful, really."
Liam looked up at him. He was biting his lip to keep from grinning. "If all men were brothers," he said. "Would you let one marry your sister?"
Isaac opened his mouth. Closed it. Opened it again. "You...can't be saying what I think you're saying."
Liam spread his hands.
"Look, that just wouldn't work. You'd have deformities, stillbirths, retardation-"
"Like I said, they're genetic engineers par excellence. They've made it work."
Isaac shot him an odd look, but said nothing. Then: "So, do all of them-" He made vague pushing-together motions with his hands.
"Once they reach adulthood, I think," Liam said. "Incest is a practical taboo, not a moral one. However they engineer their offspring- I don't really know- it's worlds more controlled than any other society. And they are a society, there's that many of them. And they've their own ideas about where people and consciousness should be going."
Liam shook his head. He dropped his cigarette to the floor of the train and crushed it out. "I don't understand a bit of it. Ask Bishop, if you like."
"This is our stop coming," Liam said. He held up a finger. "To be continued?"
"Yeah, all right."
The mono slowed, the motion slow and oceanic, swaying them gently back and forward as they pulled into the station. The doors whooshed open. Isaac saw, just beyond the raised platform, a large, open plaza with a three-tiered stone fountain standing in its center. He followed Liam outside.
"That's the Plaza of the Moon down there," Liam said. "I thought you should see this."
"Lot of lines meet and merge here. This is an important meeting place." Liam looked up at the stars. "I mean, really important. The fates of worlds have been decided here. And all that kind of bollocks. This thing is big."
The Plaza lay under the endless night of Lensmoor, the white stone showing silver in the starlight. There were no lights in the Plaza, but the starlight seemed enough to see by. It was a dim, misty light, turning everything it touched ethereal and evanescent.
"Why do I feel," Isaac said. "Like everything is so much larger than what you've described to me?"
"That's because it is. We're dealing with a Multiverse that's both nonlocal and fractal. The more you look at it, the more there is. The wider your vision becomes, the wider it becomes, world without end. You can't contain it in words. I can't contain it in words. There are worlds, and things that are not worlds, and things for which there will never be worlds- not just beyond number, but beyond the idea of numbers. There are games being played on levels we can't imagine, wars being fought in ways that define description. Right now, somewhere, somewhen, black ships are eating the sky. Great kings are being born. Red roses grow beneath a black tower. Thunder of horses, whisper of lovers, the rending, world-ending sound of the sky opening and the terrible light that pours through from the other side. Something is happening. Can't you feel it?"
Isaac closed his eyes. He felt the world moving beneath his feet. He thought: Wheels within wheels within wheels. Everything happens.
"Yes," he said. "I can feel it."
"Quit this world, quit the next world, quit quitting!" -Sufi proverb.