The Stars that Bore Us

This is a short story by Jonathan Edelstein. It’s set in the same literary universe as his published works, “First Do No Harm” (Strange Horizons, 2015), “The Starsmith” (Escape Pod, 2016), “Iya-Iya” (Kaleidotrope, 2019) and “The Stranger in the Tower” (Andromeda Spaceways, 2019) . Here’s a brief backgrounder on the Mutanda-verse. I am grateful to Jonathan for sharing this new entry with the public and encourage everyone to read the rest!

     Chifwe, 31,868:

     When Mwema came out of the ichiyawafu, the station was in front of him, and below it, the world.

     The station’s name was written across its length in bold letters: Ngoma, after the drum it resembled. To one side were the cranes and grapples of what had been a shipyard. On all other sides were the inkunka, the huts – modules, derelict ships and abandoned containers that were jerry-rigged to the station’s framework and in which most of its citizens lived. Below and further ahead, the surface of Chifwe stretched in all directions, and Mwema was just close enough to see the muddy delta of the Ogowe and the city lights beside it.

     But what caught his attention, even more than the world, was the stars. Ahead, beyond the curve of the world, thousands could be seen: that way lay the heart of the Orion Arm, filled with light and color. But above, at the edge of his vision, there was nothing. Chifwe was near the edge of the galactic lens, and the great black ocean beyond the galaxy washed on its shores.

     The idea was a chilling one even to a man who had spent a lifetime moving between the stars, and Mwema looked above his instrument panel to the ghostly image of his twice-great grandfather. We’ve reached the edge of everything, he thought. If we don’t find him here, he’s surely gone…

     “Unidentified ship, please identify yourself,” said a sudden disembodied voice in an accent that was hard to understand. “I repeat, unidentified ship, state your name and registry.”

     “The Ushiku, out of Mutanda,” he answered. “Last come from Masilo.”

     “Your cargo, Ushiku?”

     “Enriched uranium. Precious stones. Industrial tools. Books. Sundries.”

     There was a pause as the disembodied voice did whatever such voices do, and then a response: “Come in, Ushiku. Bay two. Have you been here before?”

     “No,” Mwema answered, but he had no trouble seeing the bay he had been told to enter. It lay open before him, and he guided the Ushiku toward it.

     The stories said that in the old days, the computer would have steered the ship into the dock. But computers were made to hear the language spoken sixteen hundred years before, and even with the archaic pronunciation passed down among the merchant clans, they often misunderstood. They couldn’t be used for things that required split-second decision. It was for Mwema and his instruments to bring the Ushiku through the port traffic and the warren of inkunka to the bay, and he looked to the piece of space rock that was his ubwanga against collision and the fragment of a dead ship that protected him from piracy.

     But he got there. His hand and eye were almost faster than his mind, and they threaded through the inkunka with a sureness born of experience, and this wasn’t one of the lawless worlds where pirates lurked in the detritus of old stations. The bay grew before him, and then the ship was inside.

     There were still inspections and port taxes to worry about, and storage fees besides, but those were worries he’d had before.

#

     Mutanda, 31,816:

     As a child on Mutanda, Mwema went into Chambishi Port every chance he could. Sometimes he ran errands for his mother or one of their shopkeeper neighbors in exchange for a few indalama, and sometimes he went in on mornings he should have been in school. When he had money, he’d go to one of the plazas where ranks of scooter-taxis waited for passengers, and when he didn’t, there were always delivery trucks floating in through the new city, and their back gates had no shortage of handholds.

     He could see the port even from where he lived. Its cream and glass towers, two and three and four kilometers high, stood as beacons to the people of the new city, guideposts as clear as the northern star. They were derelict now, with forests in their upper stories – the citizens of Mutanda had only just begun to learn how to build such things again – but they were a reminder of what the ancestors had built in ancient days. Some, it was said, dated from the time of Lukwesa the Great, if that king in fact existed outside myth.

     The great buildings loomed over everything along the axial road: the apartment blocks and water towers; the roadside animal and furniture markets; the poor people who lived in discarded containers or on boats in the lagoon; the shrines to the orishas and other, older gods; the ancient bridges with their modern shoring. And they stood above everything in the port itself. The elegant shops and tawdry stalls, the twenty-thousand-year-old Central Registry, the awamulaye – street doctors – and street tailors, the piles of electronic components in the tinkerers’ market, the placards for the election of ifapemba, the smells of pepper and incense and ionized air, the kaleidoscope of patterned dashikis and women’s hair-ties, the landing-fields and warehouses where workers unloaded cargoes beyond belief: all these were between the towers, and the people swirled around them, rarely looking up.

     Mwema looked up sometimes. Like other children, he’d tried climbing the towers, and once he’d got more than two hundred meters high before a shifting girder had warned him that it was best to go no higher. But more often, he lost himself in the chaos of the port, watching the sailors and their cargoes and imagining the worlds from which they must have come.  He did the jobs he’d been sent to do; looked for discarded things from other worlds that he could fashion into ubwanga charms and sell; looked on as the off-duty crewmembers cast ifipa for small stakes and listened to their conversations.

     It was on one of his errands, when he was eight years old, that Mwema met a white-haired, white-robed old sailor sitting on a berm at the edge of a landing field and drinking a shake-shake beer. He asked to share the drink, bought the man another for a half-ndalama, sat and watched the stevedores unload pallets of shimmering cloth, and waited for stories.

     “If you wait till nightfall, you can point at every star in the sky, and I’ve been there,” the old man said after half an hour of companionable silence. “But I don’t like to tell those stories. Too many times through the ichiyawafu.”

     Even young as he was, Mwema had heard of the ichiyawafu – the non-space through which ships traveled between the stars, named after the ancient land of the dead. Those who lived their lives on one world often spoke of it with fear. To most of the sailors, it was nothing, but sometimes, as now, even one who’d made hundreds of journeys became drawn at the mention of it.

     “My shikulu goes through the ichiyawafu,” he said. “He’s not afraid of it.”

     “Your grandfather hasn’t seen the mhondoro.”

     “What are they?” It was a word Mwema had never heard in any of the dialects spoken at Chambishi Port, and one that sounded somehow ancient and forbidding.

     “The mhondoro are what the Shona called their greatest and most powerful ancestors, long ago before the migrations.”

     “Who were the Shona?” he began to ask, and the old man said something about a people lost to time, distant relations of their own remote ancestors, but that wasn’t the answer he truly wanted. “The dead are really there, then?”

     “Most sailors will tell you no – your shikulu too. He’ll tell you that I’m imagining things. But those who’ve seen… they know the ichiyawafu isn’t only that in name.”

     “Who do they see? Chinkonkole? Mwata Lukwesa?”

     “Them, maybe – and others who no one knows.”

     “Can we talk to them?”

     “We can’t. But they say there’s someone out there who can…”

     That was the first time Mwema heard of the mhondoro-man.

#

     Chifwe, 31,868:

     In the days of the Union, Chifwe station’s main concourse had been a place of hostels and offices and shops stocked with the cargo of ten thousand worlds. Now, it was a place of market stalls, divided by patterned tapestries of dark red and brown and ochre, with brightly-lit images above them advertising their wares. Some sold power plants and laser tools and communicators; others sold parts and made repairs; there were awamulaye with their nanocures and imfwiti who claimed the ability to alter the body and mind. The air carried the smell of roasting ulumombwe caterpillars and locusts, both far easier to farm on a station than chicken or goat. There were trinkets, jewelry, artwork, music-boxes and songs to load into them, books; there were fortune-tellers and spirit-raisers. Beyond them, unseen, was the beat of ingoma and the smell of cooking beef and bread and beer from the shebeens within the walls.

     Mwema would return here tomorrow to sell his cargo. The market-people were only the tip of something unseen: many of them had interests in the deep parts of the station where the warehouses and farms and energy-rooms lay, and those that didn’t might work for or have clan connections to someone who did. Mwema had been in many stations, and the merchants always preferred business to be done here first: if there were a reason, and only then, would it go to other places.

     But now, he was looking for something else: the clan-sign of the Black Hole. He might have clansmen here of any nation: birth-clan was inherited from the mother and nation from the father, and after this much time, the clans were spread among all the peoples of the galaxy. He looked, even, at the flat-featured fortune-teller who had come from very far, and who was dressed in the white and blue of Yemoja, orisha of the oceans and of space. Her people lived at the other end of the known worlds, and the language here must be very strange in her ears, but they too had become part of the clans.

     She wasn’t from the same one as Mwema, though. The patterns on her necklace gave away that she belonged to the Leopard clan instead: one of the ancient ones that traced its roots back before the migrations. It was the man next to her, an imbote-seller wearing dark blue geometric patterns and with his head shaved so that a single wall of hair formed a visor above his forehead, who wore the Black Hole sign.

     Mwema paid two indalama for a skewer of roasted locusts and a cup of imbote, and let the taste of the honey-beer fill his mouth before he spoke. Then he gave the clan lineage, the naming of ancestors and precepts that he’d learned when the Ushiku belonged to his grandfather. The imbote-seller recognized it – he, too, had learned, as all the clansmen in the many worlds had learned – and repeated it. I am of the people of Nkonde, the people of Chibala, the men of the Black Hole who dare all and fear nothing

     “All right,” said the imbote-man, demonstration done. “We know each other now; why have you come?”

     “I am looking for someone deep in the station, a man called Tsanganayi. Do you know him?”

     “The mhondoro-man? I don’t know him – no one does. But I know of him.”

     Mwema had looked for Tsanganayi on many worlds, and rarely had anyone known the name. That the imbote-seller not only knew, but had repeated his title unasked…

     “Do you know where he is?”

     “Yes, but he isn’t deep in the station. He’s deep outside – very, very deep in the inkunka. You’ll need a guide. You’ve come to the right place – I can find you one who isn’t afraid of him.”

     If people were afraid of Tsanganayi, Mwema thought, then the mhondoro-man might indeed be the person for whom he’d searched forty worlds. He drank another cup of imbote to fortify himself for the negotiation to come, and exhaled deeply. “I have a cargo,” he said. “What price for the guide?”

#

     Ibengwe, 31,823, and after:

     At fifteen, Mwema reached fostering age. He could have gone to stay with his mother’s father, a mechanic, or with his uncle the umulaye or his father’s cousin the ironworker. But everyone knew he would choose none of these. He went to his father’s father Nsemba, and to the Ushiku.

     The ship had been in the family for eight generations, and before that, had been owned by others for years uncounted: its fading Union registry number meant that it was more than sixteen hundred years old, and probably much older than that. Ships like the Ushiku were another thing that Mutanda was just now learning to build again, and that most other worlds still couldn’t. Its cabin and bridge were full of the detritus of prior owners and past voyages, and more than that, they were full of memory.

     The image of Mwema’s twice-great grandfather flickered over the instrument panel on the day he first left Mutanda. The journey through the ichiyawafu disappointed him: it was dreamlike, but it carried little sense of time or travel, and none at all of communion with the dead. But the world beyond made up for that.

     Most of the ships that called at Chambishi Port made the rounds of the nearer worlds, all of them settled in the First Migration. Shikulu Nsemba preferred to go to the worlds of the Second and Third, which were further from the heart of the Union and had lost more when it fell. This one had no station – the landing-field was truly a field – and at the welcoming feast, there were dancers in masks and robes woven from broad leaves and nkisi power-figures of polished hardwood. And along with the people, there were awantu – non-humans – whose grainy features looked almost like hardwood themselves.

     “On some worlds, the people and the awantu fight,” Nsemba whispered after they’d finished a bargain for venoms and plant compounds that the inganga and awamulaye on Mutanda could make into potent medicines. “It was like that here, before the dark age. But now they live in the same villages – even marry, though that’s more ceremonial than real. They want to unite their ancestors.”

     “Maybe they’ll all find each other in the ichiyawafu.”

     Mwema had meant to make a joke, but his grandfather looked at him sharply. “Are you one of the people who sees the dead there?”

     “No, but I’ve heard stories.”

     “I’ve heard them too – more than you, I suspect. When you’re in the ichiyawafu, you pass through everything at once, and it affects the mind the way dreams do. Some people see the dead, some see other things. The ancestors aren’t there, I don’t think, but the folk-memory is.”

     “Folk-memory?”

     Nsemba waved a hand at the people sitting on the other side of the fire. “You know from the ceremonies tonight that these awantu believe they own their ancestors’ spirits. We believed that too, back before the Union and the Commonwealth and the Association and the Accord – if you’d lived then, you’d have thought that your father’s spirit was yours, for you to take care of and ask advice from…”

     “Sometimes I ask myself what he would do.”

     “It was closer than that. We don’t believe that anymore, but in a way, everyone owns the ancestors now – we have their books and their stories, the worlds we live in are made by their deeds. They’re a part of us still, and in the ichiyawafu, that may be what some of the sailors see.”

     Mwema looked into the fire for a moment, searching for patterns among the flames. “If they’re part of us, I wish we could talk to them,” he said. “Then we’d know everything they knew. We could rebuild Mutanda now.”

     “They say that’s what the mhondoro-man wants to do.” It was the second time Mwema had heard that name. “I don’t think he can. The folk-memory forgets, just like any other. But we have all the worlds before us. We can learn what the ancestors knew, and more, all in time.”

     In the years that followed, Mwema saw many of those worlds. He learned how to navigate and trade, how to fight the ship when pirates attacked, how to make repairs, how to smuggle. He learned to speak to the computers in the language that the ship-clans had inherited from the Union. He learned well, and in the fourth year of his apprenticeship, Nsemba told Mwema to call him mukulu, elder brother, rather than shikulu. This was what a young man traditionally called the person from whom he would inherit.

     At twenty, his apprenticeship over, Mwema signed on a freighter that plied the nearer worlds and was initiated into a ship-clan and a ship-marriage. When he was thirty-seven and Nsemba was a hundred and twelve, the old man died and he came into possession of the Ushiku.

     His next voyage – his first one alone – was the one where he first felt the dead.

#

     Chifwe, 31,868:

     The guide proved to be a girl of eight named Nkowo with dark eyes beyond her years. “She goes to school, and she stays with the mechanics – they foster younger here than where you come from,” the imbote-seller explained. “But she’s a member of the clan, and she runs errands for me sometimes. She’s a true daughter of the Black Hole – she fears nothing.”

     Mwema paid the fee to the imbote-man and made sure he shared with Nkowo, and then the girl led him away. The concourse led to a side corridor, and a ladder, and an echoing hallway of root-farms and another of locust-tanks, and crowds of people on a myriad of jobs and errands, and then to one of the many entrances to the inkunka. From there, they swam rather than walked. Few of the nkunka-dwellers could afford gravity for themselves, let alone for the tubes and passages that connected them. Many of them could scarcely afford power, if the number of clandestine hookups were any sign. Nkowo was an expert swimmer, and she dodged the red-clad, beaded children playing ball games in the tubes and laughed when they complained.

     “What language is that?” Mwema asked. The children spoke a language he couldn’t understand, and after most of a lifetime traveling between stars, he’d thought there were few of those. “Do they come from the fortune-teller’s world?”

     “No. They’re the settlers who live below us – the ones who call this world Shinyanga rather than Chifwe. They lived here before the station, before the Union fell, even before the Union ever was. They came in the First Migration, all this way.” The look on her face was one of pure fascination, but she added, “the ones who come up here speak our language well enough.”

     They were past the children and in another tube, with more smells of cooking and snatches of conversation from the inkunka connected to it. Nkowo chattered excitedly of the chores she did at the mechanics’ stall, how she was learning to fix machines and make new ones from parts, how she was starting to discern how the parts worked with each other. She was even learning the language of the computers, she said – she spoke it with Mwema when she learned he understood it too, and whispered that this must be the mhondoro-man’s native tongue.

     And then, suddenly, the man was there.

     His nkunka had gravity, and Mwema stumbled momentarily as the unexpected weight took hold. The capsule was a small one, with woven mats on the floor and a small hot-pot in the corner, and half or more of it was filled by the computer. It was like none that Mwema had ever seen: it seemed to have been made of dozens or even hundreds of separate machines, with keyboards and switches and levers to move the memory-cards from one module to another. Beside it, almost insignificant next to his machine, was a white-haired ancient, dressed in striped cloth of subtle reds and purples and blues.

     Mwema sat cross-legged on the mat and clapped his hands, and Nkowo did the same. “My greeting to you, Tsanganayi,” he said, “if that is who you are.” He held out the book-card that he’d carried with him from the Ushiku, and made an offering of it.

     The mhondoro-man, for that he indeed was, took the gift with both hands, and offered shake-shake beer in return as any other host might do. Nkowo took her cup at once, with thanks; a moment later, Mwema did as well, feeling odd about doing such a natural act in such a place.

     “So tell me,” said Tsanganayi when all had drunk. “You’ve finished finding me. Where did you start?”

     “Mutanda.”

     Tsanganayi raised an eyebrow. “That’s a very long way.”

     “Yes. My ship-clan has probably cast ifipa by now to see if I’m alive or dead.”

     “Ifipa are nothing. What you’ve come here for, on the other hand… You’ve heard I can raise the ancestors, haven’t you?” He waited for an answer and got none. “Well, haven’t you?”

     “That’s what they say, yes.”

     “The awantu below us think computers have souls – that the ancestors reside in them. Do you agree?”

     “I’ve seen many computers. I haven’t seen a soul in any of them.”

     “But you haven’t seen this one.” The mhondoro-man suddenly took a needle from a shelf, cleaned it with alcohol, and grasped Mwema’s hand. “You’ll have to trust me,” he said, and at Mwema’s nod, he pierced his finger.

     The barrel of the needle filled with blood, and Tsanganayi squeezed it out into a glass tube attached to the machine. His hands were a blur as he manipulated the keys and levers, connecting test strips and memory cards and wires. It all seemed like a ritual, and it suddenly occurred to Mwema that any use of a computer took on aspects of ritual. You had to do everything correctly and in the right order for it to work, and even when you did do everything right, you all too often didn’t get what you wanted.

     That seemed to be little concern to the mhondoro-man as his machine’s parts changed position, and suddenly a ghostly head and shoulders appeared above its projector. The face was long and thin, with sharp features; the dark brown scalp was shaved except for four tightly-curled nodules of hair, and he wore what appeared to be a uniform.

     Nkowo gasped, and Mwema had to consciously stop himself from doing the same, especially when he realized how much the phantom face resembled his.

     “Who is that?” he asked.

     “Why don’t you ask him?” the mhondoro-man answered.

#

     The Outer Worlds, 31,845 to 31,866:

     Mwema would never be sure what he’d really sensed, that first journey on his own. He hadn’t seen the faces of the ancestors and he hadn’t heard their voices, but when he came out of the ichiyawafu-dream, he felt somehow that they had been there. Maybe the folk-memory had touched him, as his grandfather had said, but it seemed that there was something more.

     He didn’t feel them on his next voyage, but he did on the one after that, and on many of those that followed – always something below the level of the conscious, always leaving the sense of something unsaid.

     He found he had a fascination for them – for the people who had come before, the men and women who had made the worlds what they were. He thirsted, as he’d said to his grandfather, to know what they knew. He visited libraries and archives on the planets where the Ushiku called; he collected books of history for the Ushiku’s cabin and combed through records from the time of Chinkonkole the Navigator and even before.

     But the records of the ancestors’ knowledge were imperfect, as he knew they would be, and all his roads eventually led him back to the mhondoro-man.

     He didn’t realize at first that he had taken on a quest, but as time passed, he returned to Mutanda less and less, and ranged farther into the regions that had been lost when the Union fell. He aided his ship-clan and birth-clan when there was need, as he was oath-bound to do, but he was absent from their meetings and he crossed their paths less often. The children of his two ship-marriages were grown and living on their mothers’ freighters, and he never married under the civil law.

     In the outer worlds, the stories of the mhondoro-man became more detailed, and for the first time, Mwema heard a given name attached to them: Tsanganayi. It was unlike any name he’d heard before, and he remembered what the old sailor had said about the Shona: maybe the mhondoro-man was from that ancestral people, as some of the stories said he was. There were those who said that Tsanganayi had lived forever or that he’d been born in the ichiyawafu with gods as parents; for him to come from a Shona enclave somewhere was almost plausible compared to that.

     By the time Mwema was fifty, he was a familiar presence near the edge of the galaxy where trading ships seldom came. His unconscious quest had become a conscious one, and the people of the outer worlds knew he traded for stories as well as merchandise.  Those few who knew them, told them.

     As he listened, it seemed that he was getting closer.

#

     Chifwe, 31,868:

     It was impossible, but Mwema turned toward the ghostly head that stood above the mhondoro-man’s projector, clapping his hands once and talking as if to a person rather than a machine. “Who are you?” he asked. “When were you born? When did you die? What uniform are you wearing?”

     “I am Kamwendo. I was born in the first month of 17,848 and I died in the seventh month of 18,016. I was in the Fifth Fleet of the Commonwealth.”

     More than fourteen thousand years – older than the Union, born in the days when the Second Migration was nearly living memory…

     “Is he an ancestor of mine?”

     “There can be no doubt. Your twin-helix and his are the same in the right places.”

     “How could you compare… The Central Registry! You have their records?”

     “A copy of them.” Tsanganayi nodded as Mwema fell silent. “They made copies, and some of them were lost when the Union fell. I had to fight a badigui, a water-serpent, for it. I had to become a sea creature myself to get it.” For the first time, Mwema noticed that the marks on the older man’s cheeks were not scars but gills.

     “But there was more,” the mhondoro-man continued. “Once, in Kamwendo’s day and the time of the Union, the Central Registry learned of all births and deaths. In these times… maybe it will take decades or centuries to hear of them, maybe not at all. I had to find records of other worlds where I could, and helical records so that blood could bridge the gaps between the missing ones… and I had to make them all work together.” He gestured at the myriad of wires and cards.

     “But why are you here?” Mwema had recovered the power of speech. “Why aren’t you on Mutanda? Why are you at the edge of the worlds, not the center?”

     “The Registry might not care for me breaking their monopoly. And in these times, even in Mutanda, there are too many who believe in witchcraft.”

     Mwema bristled at the insult to his homeworld. “So you came here, where even more people do?”

     “Here, they fear me enough to leave me alone. And there is another reason… What did you hope to do here, Mwema of Mutanda?”

     Wasn’t that obvious? “To speak with the ancestors. To bring the elders back into the community. One people, across space and time. One people, even after everything falls apart.”

     Tsanganayi nodded. “Of course. But I can’t do that. I have a store of records. I can find names if they are recorded, and faces if there are records of them or if there’s enough of a helical profile. And they can tell you… what is in their records. I can’t reconstruct the people. They can’t truly talk to you, advise you, be part of us all.”

     “If you found more records, more computers…”

     “That’s what I thought when I started building this machine.  But I’ve learned how complex a computer has to be to model a person, how much power it would need to do that… This machine isn’t enough.  A hundred like it wouldn’t be enough.”

     “And here, they have one that is?”

     “They did, once. The awantu say that, many ages ago when they had computers and starships and empires, they had a computer that could take life-records and helical profiles and recreate a personality. It’s why they believe computers have souls. Some of them have come here and looked for the soul in my machine, and they say it almost has one – almost.

     “If we can find their computer, and teach it the language of our machines or teach our machines to learn its… but first we have to find it. The awantu know where it is, and neither they nor I can go there, but maybe you can.”

     Mwema, for the second time that day and one of the few times in his life, found himself with nothing to say. It was Nkowo who answered instead, and as the imbote-man had said, she feared nothing.

     “Can I guide you? I’ve been down there, and I speak the language. You need to be careful with the awantu – break their custom and it will go badly for you…”

     For a second, Mwema said nothing, and then a burst of laughter escaped his lips. Nkowo would never admit it, but her reasons for asking had been written across her face since she’d first set eyes on Tsanganayi’s machine: she wanted to apprentice to the mhondoro-man and be the one who would combine the histories of human and awantu. Eight years old, he remembered, was a time to be drawn into old men’s stories.

     “Will they miss you at the merchants’ stall?” he said.

     “I’ll give them a share of the fee.”

     “Very well, then,” he said. “It seems I have another journey to make.”

#

     Masilo, 31,867:

     On Masilo, there was war, and visiting traders were conscripted along with the citizens. The Ushiku served as a scout ship for a year, and Mwema, as its pilot, was commissioned a lieutenant in the Masilo navy.

     In the eleventh month, as the war drew to a close, Mwema found himself at a repair depot with other officers who had been similarly recruited, waiting for the mechanics to refit their ships. There was food and imbote in a shebeen just off the corridor that led from the garages, and where there was imbote, there was conversation.

     “Where will you go when they release us?” asked Mtwata, the free trader from Mapitashi. It was a favorite topic of discussion now that their conscription would soon end, and amid the woven hangings and candles, others were asking the same question.

     “Chifwe,” Mwema answered, and savored the others’ look of surprise. “It’s at the edge of everything, but they say the mhondoro-man is there. I want to learn what the dead know.”

     “It’s nonsense,” said Keleka Mayi. “If we learn to raise the ancestors, then we’d already have surpassed them. What would they have to teach us?”

     “We’d have surpassed them in that,” Mtwata objected. “Maybe not in other things.”

     “And even if we did, that wouldn’t mean they had nothing to teach,” added Chinyanda. “We’ve never met a race of awantu that had their own starships, and we still learn from them.”

     “As I said,” Mtwata repeated, “they surpass us in other ways.”

     Mwema drank another cup of imbote, and let his eyes go out of focus: in the flickering light, with ingoma beating and music playing and hangings swaying between the tables, it seemed almost that he was in the ichiyawafu. If – when – he found Tsanganayi, would the mhondoro-man have surpassed the ancestors? The stories said he could do something they couldn’t, but did his ethics surpass those of the great teachers, and could he rebuild Mutanda as it had been in the time of its glory?

     He remembered another thing he’d heard on the world before this one: that Tsanganayi was an ancient Shona word, just as mhondoro was. It meant unity. That was something that the ancestors had achieved, but never for long.

     “Could the mhondoro-man make a greater one?” he murmured, and wondered how many days it would be before the war was over and he could learn.

#

     Chifwe, 31,868:

     Mwema sold his goods first, but he made the journey down to Chifwe’s surface. There was a shuttle rank in Bay Five, and he and Nkowo joined the crowd pushing into one. The airlock sealed, and it fell away from the station, freefalling toward the surface, glowing red as it forced its way into the atmosphere. At the last possible moment, the engines cut on, and it leveled off and made its descent to the port.

     Shinyanga Port was not a large town: the people who had settled this world were not fond of cities. Some were there, in the red robes and beads that Mwema had seen in the inkunka; they had game and hides to trade, or mielies, or crates of squawking chickens, or beef and milk, or precious stones. These they sold to the merchants from the station in exchange for tools or comforts to take back to the countryside, and when they’d done so, they left.

     A few did live in the town all the time, and one of them had a shop near the port offices where Nkowo insisted they go. “He has charms for the awantu,” she said, and she was right: he sold them pieces of iron twisted into geometric knots, which they could offer the natives as gifts of welcome.

     “You have to be careful with them,” he said. “Do things their way, and they’ll treat you like clansmen – but you have to do things their way.” Mwema nodded and went to find a pirogue across the delta.

     The ferryman proved to be an awantu, the first he had seen on this world: a deep blue mantis-man seven feet tall. Mwema offered him one of the pieces of iron along with his fare, and the awantu’s jaws clicked something that Nkowo assured him was gratitude. He settled in back of the pirogue and watched birds circle over the muddy water and come to rest on the reed islands.

     They were now truly in awantu country, and they saw more soon after they disembarked on the far shore: hunters of blue, yellow and pale green, armed with lightweight laser weapons and mounted on giraffes. The settlers had brought the giraffes along with gazelles and elands to hunt and lions and leopards to test the hunters’ mettle; the awantu had tamed them where people never could.

     It was a mokele-mbembe they hunted now, a great swamp-lizard twenty meters long, and the lasers could only scorch its thick hide; they charged with iron spears as it turned at bay, making haste to dodge its snapping jaws as they struck. It seemed that the spears would have no more effect than the guns – the mokele-mbembe was stung, but no more – but then, suddenly, the lizard fell. There must have been a poison on the spears, Mwema realized as the awantu drove in to finish it off.

     “Honor to the hunters!” Nkowo cried, walking toward them with hands held out; Mwema took up the cry and showed them one of the iron knots. The awantu looked at them curiously, noticing them for the first time, and one raised his weapon in challenge.

     “We are peaceful,” Nkowo said quickly. “We have come with gifts to speak to your wisdom-keeper.”

     The hunters conferred among themselves briefly, and their chief turned back to Mwema, speaking, surprisingly, in his language. “Chkwawa will take you, then. He’s going to the royal village while we guard the kill, to get others to bring it home.” At that, Chkwawa made his giraffe kneel, and to his surprise, Mwema found that he and Nkowo could ride behind.

     The savanna stretched for kilometers, and they passed herds of imported animals with four legs and native ones with six. There were small villages scattered around, but Chkwawa stopped at none of them; instead, after three hours, they reached a broad expanse of farms surrounding a walled compound with a great thatched hut in the center.

     They made their way past the small huts that clustered just inside the gates. A large clearing stood beyond, and across it, the great hut, where awantu worked in the garden while they waited for the chief to judge their cases. To Mwema’s surprise, Chkwawa didn’t lead them there, but instead took them to a smaller house next to it, from which issued smoke and the smell of molten iron.

     “The uwufushi’s house,” Chkwawa said. “He has magic. He has stories.”

     It took only a second for Mwema to realize that the awantu word for blacksmith came from his own language. These awantu may once have had a star empire, but they’d fallen so far that we had to teach them to work iron again. No doubt ironworking was four parts sorcery to them, as, so the most ancient stories said, it had been to his own remote ancestors.

     Maybe they keep memories in more ways than one.

     And they were inside, and Chkwawa clapped his forelimbs and made their introductions to the blacksmith. The smith was old – Mwema could tell that somehow – and his shell was so deep green as to almost be emerald. He bade them sit and gave them a tea boiled from some bitter herb; it was deathly hot in the smithy, but the tea made it no more so, and the drink was strangely soothing.

     “Have you come for iron, or for stories?”

     “For stories. The mhondoro-man on the station sent us to you,” Mwema said, gambling that the smith would have heard of him. “He says that long ago, your people had a computer that could reconstruct souls.”

     “Oh, yes. That is a very old story, maybe even the oldest.” The blacksmith put his hammer down. “Once, every star you can see was part of our empire, and the computer was in its capital. It held records of all our kings and all our great men, and the emperor and his council would seek their wisdom. But the people on that world became evil and proud, and they broke the commandments and made great oppression, and they stopped listening to the voice of their elders.”

     The story was hard to follow, even with Chkwawa and Nkowo interpreting, but its outline was clear. At some time in the distant past, another star had passed close to the awantu capital – the Creator’s punishment, the blacksmith said – and it had devastated the capital world and sent its sun spinning off into the void.  There had been death and madness, and then there had been nothing.

     “We marked its place in the sky each year until it was gone.”  The smith pointed to a tapestry that was hanging behind his anvil, which showed a curve over the horizon, passing between the sparse stars and vanishing to a point. “All our tapestries preserve those markings,” he said. “The weavers have kept them without error.”

     “For how long?” asked Nkowo. She feared nothing, but her voice trembled.

     “Eight million years.”

     A year on Chifwe, Mwema remembered, was half again as long as the standard year his people used. He knew how to find the exact date when the stars shown in the tapestry had held those positions, nor would it be impossible to plot the runaway star’s current position: he could buy a keyboard from the tinkerers’ market and there would be time to use it, so there would be no need to worry about the computer misunderstanding his speech. But to go find a star twelve million years gone into the intergalactic void, thousands of light-years from anything else warm or anything that could be used for navigation, and to search there for a machine that may have been destroyed along with its empire…

     His mind rebelled at even saying as much. Mention a lion and shut the door, the proverb went. But he saw no other way, and the prize was too great for him to turn back now.  If the machine were still there, it might unlock architects who could rebuild Mutanda in decades rather than centuries, doctors who could add fifty years to his people’s lifespan, giants on whom they could stand while they reached even higher.  In a way, Mwema was the mhondoro-man now: he must pass through the ichiyawafu, the land of the dead, and bring the ancestors back through it from beyond the galaxy.

     “Another trader once told me that, to raise the ancestors, we would have to surpass them,” he said. “If nothing else, it seems we’ll have to go where they never did.”

     “Madness is there,” the uwufushi said, but Nkowo’s eyes were shining, and Mwema knew she wanted nothing more than to go, as he would have at her age. At eight years old, one thought only of glory and not danger. He was sixty.

     His eyes traveled to where the blacksmith was still standing. “Maybe,” he said, “maybe I have come for iron after all. What is your price for that wrought knot?”

     He would buy the knot, and on the way back to Shinyanga Port, he would fill its interstices with mud from the delta. The soil of the world, the thing its people had wrought – they would tie him to the stars, they would be his ubwanga against being lost beyond them.

     Where he was going, he hoped it would be enough.

#

     The Galactic Halo, 31,869:

     The ichiyawafu-dream was the deepest Mwema had ever known.  The dead, not only of his own people but of the myriad awantu races in all their shapes and colors, surrounded him and clamored in a million million voices.  It was impossible to pick any one voice out of the multitude, and slowly they fused into a chant.  Some of the awantu had voices like drums and others like horns, and behind them the people chanted a dirge, melancholy yet triumphant.  There was something behind and within them as well, something unseen whose presence was felt far below Mwema’s dream-consciousness.

     When the ship came out of the ichiyawafu at last, he understood why.  He had felt no passage of time – no one did, on journeys through the non-space – but the chronometer next to his twice-great grandfather’s image showed that more than a year had passed since his departure from Chifwe.  “In the ichiyawafu, you are everywhere at once,” he remembered his grandfather saying, “but the ship takes time to find the place where it must come out.”  Always, before, that had been days or weeks – sometimes even hours – but he’d never before come this far.

     Nkowo had already come out of the ichiyawafu-dream, and she was staring out the window that stood above the instrument panel.  The ship faced the galactic lens, and while they hadn’t gone far enough to see the galaxy in its glory, the Orion Arm seen from six thousand light years away was quite glorious enough.  It filled Mwema’s field of vision as far as his eye could see, a misty blue-white stream streaked with red and containing all the worlds he had ever known.  He felt a stab of fear as he looked for familiar stars to guide the Ushiku home and saw none, but the fear dissolved in the view laid out before him.  He had telescopes and computers, and there would be time.

     “Is that where we’re going?” Nkowo asked.  He looked where she was pointing, and for a moment saw only the river of stars, but then he saw it: another sun that was barely more than a point of light but was plainly much closer.  In all other directions there was nothing: an emptiness deeper than Chifwe’s winter skies, a sea of black with a few white specks that might be stars or distant galaxies.

     “It has to be,” he said, and then, “did you see the dead?”

     “No.”  She was silent for a moment, looking again at the sweep of the Orion Arm.  “I dreamed of machines.  Vast ones with millions of parts, all made from other machines.  I could follow them all the way to the first machine, their first ancestor.”

     “You did see the dead then, if the mhondoro-man is right.”

     That won a laugh from her.  “Do you always see things like that in the ichiyawafu?”

     “No,” he said.  He wondered if she’d seen the chronometer.  If not, there would be time to tell her.

     The Ushiku swept around to approach the orphan star from below, and as the glare of the Orion Arm disappeared, they looked for the world.  It took three days to find.  It was much farther from its sun than a habitable planet should be, pulled from its orbit by the star that had expelled the sun from the galaxy.  As they came closer, they saw that it was frozen and stripped of its atmosphere.  Whatever might be on its surface, no awantu would be there to greet them.

     On the fifth day, they entered orbit around the ancient awantu capital, and on the sixth, they saw the city.  It had been twisted and torn by the catastrophe that had ejected it from the known worlds, but otherwise it was eerily well preserved.  There was no wind or rain to erode it and collisions were rare here beyond the galaxy; a few craters pitted the land around the city, but all else looked like it had twelve million years before.

     They landed on the seventh day, and the twisted landscape that had looked daunting from space seemed even more so now that they had to cross it.  They used cables and spikes to climb streets that rose crazily into the sky; their boots crunched on nitrogen ice on the walls of upended buildings.  The shards of the ancient awantu were everywhere: a mantis-idol, pieces of metal incised with triangular characters, fragments whose purpose was unguessable.  And in the center was a great stone house that, alone in the city, stood almost undisturbed.

     There were more of the strange characters on the walls, and with the door ripped from its hinges, others could be seen inside.  Above where the door had once been, there was a carved pattern that looked strangely like the wrought-iron charms the awantu made.  Mwema stood just outside, suddenly hesitant to go in.

     “The mhondoro are guarding this place,” Nkowo whispered.

     “Not after twelve million years,” Mwema answered, and realized he was speaking as much to himself as to Nkowo.  His conscious mind told him that there could be no guards after so long a time – the awantuwho had lived here were long dead, and there was nothing left to power a machine – but below the conscious level, he’d been thinking the same thing.

     “We came this far,” he said.  “We have to go in.”  He took a cautious step and then another, and she followed.  No guardians barred their way, and the only sound was their footsteps on the drifts of snowy air.

     The corridor that led from the doorway opened into a single vast room, and within it was the remains of a machine.  Enough of it was intact to make clear that, like the mhondoro-man’s computer and like Nkowo’s dream, it had been built in layers around an ancestral core.  Far more of it wasn’t intact.  There were parts and fragments scattered everywhere, some with connections to give a clue as to where they fit and others not.  That this was the ancient awantu computer was beyond doubt, and also that it was a puzzle with tens of thousands of pieces.  It would take a month to load all the parts into the Ushiku, and putting them together…

     “Look,” said Nkowo.

     Mwema followed her eyes to a corner of the room, where a drift of nitrogen ice had gathered.  There was something under the surface – something large, and seemingly intact – and it was still faintly glowing.

     What could it possibly be, after this long? he wondered.  Where is it drawing its power?  But he was already chipping the ice away, and so was Nkowo.  Their work revealed a cylindrical shape – one that looked oddly like the navigation module on the Ushiku– and the light seemed to be coming from the center.

     Before Mwema could think not to, he looked in.

#

     Afterward, he would never be able to describe what he saw: no human language, and no known speech of the awantu, had words for it.  The light was larger than he could comprehend, larger than worlds or even universes, but though there was no sense of distance between its parts.  It was dense beyond imagining, so dense that it should have been crushed into an indistinguishable mass, but it wasn’t: Mwema could discern pieces within pieces, their complexity continuing on levels too small to be seen, and what might be shapes and patterns.

     He knew somehow that he was truly seeing the ichiyawafu for the first time, not mediated by dreams.  He was looking at everything at once, seen through the space between space.  But he was also lost, more lost than he had been when he first saw the Orion Arm from outside the galaxy and realized that he couldn’t find his home.  Where he saw shapes, they were nothing comprehensible; where there were patterns, they broke down.  He was watching entropy increase, seeing chaos where it ruled, and it was destroying his mind.  “Madness is there,” he remembered the uwufushi saying, and now, in the very place, he fought for sanity.

     Had he not passed through the ichiyawafu hundreds of times before, he would have been defenseless before the onslaught.  But his mind, trained on a level below consciousness, turned the sight before him into a dream.  Patterns came together, lines moved and rearranged, and his shikulu was suddenly before him.

     “Are you there?” Mwema said.  “Is your spirit alive?”

     “Of course I’m not.  You are modeling me.  But I live in memory.”

     “Memory has gaps.”

     “It can also be built on.  And if that’s what you want to do, you should look away.”

     Mwema’s body seemed to be in another place, but he found it, and with an effort he turned his head.  Grandfather and ichiyawafu disappeared, and he was in the ancient room again, with nitrogen pooling and steaming around the warmth of his boots.

     “Nkowo!” he cried.  The child had only been through the ichiyawafu once, and he worried that a look into it might have blasted away her mind.  But she was moving naturally, and when she looked at him, her eyes were lucid.

     A child’s mind is malleable: maybe it can look on the infinite without fear.  A true daughter of the Black Hole, indeed.

     “What did you see?” he asked.

     “The engine.”

     It took a moment for him to understand, but he was suddenly sure she was right.  “Every place, every time – that’s where it draws its power, and why it still can.  That’s how a computer can be powerful enough to model the dead.  The mhondoro do guard this place, like you said.”

     “Can we talk to the ancestors?  Ours and the awantu?”
     Mwema swept his hands around the room.  “I don’t know.  Maybe if we learn how to use that engine, and if we can put all these pieces together…”

     The task seemed scarcely less impossible than it had before, but Nkowo, oddly, wasn’t disappointed.  “We knew we’d have to learn its language to get it to work,” she said.  “Now we know we have to learn to build it too.”

     The light from Mwema’s helmet glinted on a tangle of wires half-hidden by ice, and he had no choice but to agree.

#

     Chifwe, 31,871:

     On Chifwe, and on all the worlds of the Migrations, the day of the Ushiku’s return was the first day of 31,871.  The air in the concourse was filled with music, incense and stronger things, and light played among the masked dancers who threaded between the market stalls.  Thousands of people in festival clothes – from the station core, from the inkunka, red-robed surface dwellers and even awantu – ate and drank and sang hymns of past and future, and images of orishas and ancestors appeared in their paths and flickered out just as suddenly.

     It took hours for Mwema and Nkowo to make their way through the crowds and out to the deserted passageways of the inkunka.  The mhondoro-man, he suspected, wouldn’t be part of the celebration, and even after two and a half years’ absence, he knew somehow that the old man’s nkunka would be as they had left it.

     The module was still there, and the computer with it; even the mat and the hot-pot were in the same places where Mwema had last seen them.  But the mhondoro-man wasn’t with them.

     “He’s dead, you know,” came a sharp voice, and Mwema turned to see that not all the nkunka-dwellers had gone to the celebration.  The woman who had spoken was nearly as old as Tsanganayi had been, her dark face framed by white hair, her plain blue dress a contrast to the revelers in the concourse.

     “He’s been gone a year,” she said, “but he asked me to take care of the place in case you came back.  If your name’s Mwema, he left something for you.”

     Mwema, beyond speech, looked where she was pointing and saw a small box resting behind the hot-pot.  Nkowo opened it and removed a memory-card accompanied by a handwritten note.

     “It’s his helical profile and life-record,” she said.

     If the awantu stories were true, and if the computer in the Ushiku’s hold could be restored, it could use those records to reconstruct the person.  The mhondoro-man could no longer help to unlock its secrets, but if someone else did, he would be there to guide them deeper…

     “I can help,” Nkowo said.  “All the mechanics can.”  Since they’d found the machine, she had spoken of little else. Finding the truth of the awantu legend had become the challenge of her lifetime: it would in time be the culmination of her mechanical apprenticeship and the beginning of her mastery.

     She knew how the price would be paid, too.  There were other artifacts from beyond the galaxy in the Ushiku’s cargo hold: some to be given as gifts to the awantu, some to study, and some to sell.  In the inner worlds – on Mutanda – they would fetch a price sufficient to pay the mechanics for a labor of years, even after the ship-clan took its share.

     “And then…” said Mwema out loud.  And then, if the power source could be understood and connected, if the parts could be put together and new ones made to replace those that were beyond repair, another labor of years would begin.  At the university in Chambishi Port, they would try to decipher the ancient computer’s language, teach it to interact with the mhondoro-man’s machine and others yet to be built, and restore its ultimate function.

     Mutanda and its sister-worlds would come out of the dark age on their own – Mwema’s shikulu had been right about that.  Maybe not until then, lifetimes from now, would the awantu computer do what Tsanganayi had hoped.  Maybe it never would – maybe the awantu legends were only that.  But regardless, they would learn much in trying.  And if the stories were true – if the dead were made one with the living, if their memory were never lost – then neither humans nor awantu might see a dark age again.

     “There are many more miles to the journey,” Nkowo said.  But this part of it, at least, was over, and the two went back to the concourse to join the festival.

What do you think?