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worm alchemy

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The filaments of the king morph flaked off Aurash’s arms as she walked into the throne room.

Empty. All empty, the gray-blue floor untrodden. Echoes of small footfalls rang deep into vaults. In front of the throne: a long, tall war table and a white scale, as flaking and translucent as the loose layer of Aurash’s skin. The pieces representing the Osmium Court and the Helium Drinkers had been scattered, the little bone figures tossed at random across the map. 

Idly, Aurash began setting them up again, arranging her armies as they were. Her siblings and the Worms held the Court and the shore, and were expanding rapidly toward the Engines, the Bone Plaza, and the Star-surgery. Only the Hydrogen Fountain area put up any resistance, so there she placed the little stone carvings of the Helium Drinkers. 

She chose one of the identical figures at random to pretend it was Taox, and looked at it for so long her skin started to itch.

Hatred and love mingled in her, and wasn’t that good? Wasn’t that right? Or was the mix of hatred and love, like so many other things since she had dove to the Deep, more complicated than she had ever imagined? More complicated than she had known at five years of age, more complicated than she would ever know, even if she lived to be nine? 

No, another part of her said. Taox would as soon have seen her eaten as talk to her. Now was not the time to philosophize. Sathona, the wisest of them, would soon take the mother morph and wrest the technology she needed from the engines and the Osmium Court’s enemies. If she was working on this effort and had not turned back, why would Aurash?  

And Taox was a herald of worse coming. Thanks to the Worms, Aurash knew the hierarchy of calamity. The Helium Drinkers had themselves been just thralls of the Leviathan, itself a thrall of the Sky.

She needed to destroy it. It arrayed the moons like cannon on a shoreline. 

The people of Fundament know gravity, know the great swells and unmapped currents of brine and warm waters and dead waters, the corpses at the bottom where self-sufficient communities of animalcules that swam up from the murk and fell down from the moons competed for supremacy and join in symbiosis. 

They knew it, but they had not mapped it. The krill had always been engineers of the unknown, Aurash now knew. The engines worked. They knew how and why. But they did not know what great wave would come next, which of the 52 moons and the gas giant might inject a significant amount of chaos into the n-body problem of the Fundament system. They, all of them, grew up under forces they could know and name but never predict. System-scale volatility governed by King Time.

Speaking of absent parents …

Aurash dropped the figure and picked up the scale. 

My father’s worm. Long dead now, never alive in our memories. Was it once the same as the Worms we worship? Was it one of their larvae, escaped in another of their grand plans and here too early to live? Missed opportunities, all of it. She threw the scale down among the bone krill, where it clattered and sat sideways against a carved flank. The echo it made was much smaller, disappearing as if shushed under the feet of the ghosts of a dozen courtiers. 

Should I use this throne room? If she did, the krill would feel they had voices in the war. They would feel their king was open-hearted and opened doored. He would be an Osmium King as unlike the last as storm and calm, his court quieter, but with far, far more truths spoken there.

But being a soft ruler would not defend against the Refusalists, the unnervingly organized rebellion fomenting around the Hydrogen Fountain. 

“Yul,” the future king said. She looked up toward the vaulted ceiling and shouted. “Honest Worm. Take this throne. Take from me the burden of having to rule as my father did.

“Tell me I have done well. Tell me I’m delightful.” 

Her own worm bloated in her gut. It has taken time to grow accustomed to the sensation, and still she was not used to it. Sometimes she knew the worm was feeding by the rumble against her abdominal wall. There was something comforting about it, though. Some reassurance that the worm would be with her every day of her life, that it could not — will not choose to — leave her. It made her feel warm and held.

(Later, the Light will suppose this is the great codependency of the Hive, that the Osmium children wanted too badly to hold and be held by something that told them it was powerful. Later, Oryx will dust the influence of the Light off his shoulder. Later, Oryx will die a final death.) 

Aurash turns and walks away. The loosening skin on her shoulders and her arms feels heavy. She is ready to be rid of it. To go into a morph chamber and rest for days with her needs attended to, and grow and change. She has chosen an adult name. 

Behind her, the Worm crushes a wall. Yul had not been waiting for her permission, she knew. Instead, it was with a distinct sense of drama that the Worm threw the spiked coils of itself against the walls such that it bit and chewed and churned through. Dust rose up. Aurash did not look back. She could pretend all she wanted that she knew the distinct sound of the throne room’s cornerstone coming down, the roar of it, the smaller avalanche of the stone throne under the Worm’s jaws, the ringing like bells as the bone figures bounced across the floor, then finally rolled and chipped and smashed. Aurash did not look back as she commanded the destruction of her childhood home.

After all, there were other maps. She had copies of this one, plans made by Sathona and inventories by Xi Ro. Dimly she thought of an alternate world where she had taken the Knight morph instead and served the small and scribbling Osmium Court, and never known the Wave was coming. Her skin would have peeled the same, her bones ached with growth the same. The difference was in her purpose. Next she would unite the people of Fundament, so that the Worms and the krill might escape the Wave on their backs. 

She would be a strong king.

And she would change her people, because she believed only worm alchemy would save them now.