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Too Like the Lightning, Chapter 4


Too Like the Lightning, Chapter 4

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Too Like the Lightning, Chapter 4

Mycroft Canner is a convict. For his crimes he is required, as is the custom of the 25th century, to wander the world being as useful as he can to…


Published on April 14, 2016


Mycroft Canner is a convict. For his crimes he is required, as is the custom of the 25th century, to wander the world being as useful as he can to all he meets. Carlyle Foster is a sensayer—a spiritual counselor in a world that has outlawed the public practice of religion, but which also knows that the inner lives of humans cannot be wished away.

The world into which Mycroft and Carlyle have been born is as strange to our 21st-century eyes as ours would be to a native of the 1500s. It is a hard-won utopia built on technologically-generated abundance, and also on complex and mandatory systems of labeling all public writing and speech. What seem to us normal gender distinctions are now distinctly taboo in most social situations. And most of the world’s population is affiliated with globe-girdling clans of the like-minded, whose endless economic and cultural competition is carefully managed by central planners of inestimable subtlety. And in this world, Mycroft and Carlyle have stumbled on the wild card that may destabilize the system: the boy Bridger, who can effortlessly make his wishes come true. Who can, it would seem, bring inanimate objects to life…

Ada Palmer’s debut novel Too Like the Lightning—available May 10th from Tor Books—is the first entry in the Terra Ignota series, which mixes Enlightenment-era philosophy with traditional science fiction. Read Chapter 3 below, or head back to the beginning with Chapter 1!



Chapter the FOURTH
A Thing Long Thought Extinct

The Simile of the Three Insects was originally about knowledge, not wealth. Our age’s founding hero, Gordian Chairman Thomas Carlyle, stole the simile from Sir Francis Bacon, the founding hero of another age five hundred years before. In Bacon’s 1620 version the ant was not yet the corporation, stripping land and people to hoard wealth within its vaults, but the encyclopedist, heaping knowledge into useless piles, adding nothing new. The spider was not yet the geographic nation, snaring wealth and helpless citizens within the net of its self-spun borders, but the dogmatist spinning webs of philosophy out of the stuff of his own mind, without examining empirical reality. Bacon’s ideal, his scientist, was then the honeybee, which harvests the fruits of nature and, processing them with its inborn powers, produces something good and useful for the world. Our Thomas Carlyle, genius thief, co-opted the simile in 2130 when he named the Hive, our modern union, its members united, not by any accident of birth, but by shared culture, philosophy, and, most of all, by choice. Pundits may whine that Hives were birthed by technology rather than Carlyle, an inevitable change ever since 2073 when Mukta circled the globe in fourpoint-two hours, bringing the whole planet within comfortable commuting range and sounding the death knell of that old spider, the geographic nation. There is some truth to their claims, since it does not take a firebrand leader to make someone who lives in Maui, works in Myanmar, and lunches in Syracuse realize the absurdity of owing allegiance to the patch of dirt where babe first parted from placenta. But there is also a kind of truth the heart knows, and that is why our Age of Hives will not strip Thomas Carlyle of the founder’s crown. Nor do I mean him any dishonor by calling him a thief. Hive is a stolen name, born from a stolen simile, but the Three Insects which Carlyle stole from Bacon, Bacon had in turn stolen from Petrarch, Petrarch from Seneca, and Seneca perhaps from some more ancient ancient swallowed since by time. There is no more shame in reusing such a rich inheritance than in knowing other kings’ hands held this sword before you drew it from the stone.

Night overtook me on my flight from Chile’s coast to Indonesia, or rather I overtook the night, racing in two hours so far around the planet’s curve that I half caught up with tomorrow. Tōgenkyō’s lights skitter far across the night-locked ocean, boats like sparks schooling among the lines of reflected brightness which calligraph the waves for a kilometer around the island. Here seven perfect lotus blossoms rise against the sea, glowing from within with clean, warm light like happy ghosts and dusting the ground around their roots with shimmer. Only as the car curves down to land does the eye realize each petal is a skyscraper blazing with commerce’s neon fire, while the shimmer around their roots is the pulsing streetscape of a metropolis. It is a double compromise, this Mitsubishi capital: a compromise between the twin aesthetic loves of Eastern Asia, towers of glass and steel and tranquil nature; and a compromise among the Hive’s three dominant nation-strats, since China, Japan, and Korea all feared to let another host the capital, so the three agreed on neutral Indonesia as the Hive’s heart.

The summons gave my car clearance to touch down on the eastmost tower of the westmost blossom, where the Mitsubishi Executive Directorate enjoys the best view of city and sea. My drab Servicer uniform felt drabber in these hallways. As March became ever more a lamb, the Mitsubishi were showing their spring colors, time-sensitive dyes within the fabrics of suits, haori, cheogori, and sherwani changing, so winter’s deep hues brightened to cyans and yellows, while leaves and floral patterns bloomed through simple stripes like morning glories through their trellises. Perhaps you too have felt the itch of rebirth and festivity the Mitsubishi carry to every corner of the earth. Even in islands without seasons, or in Cielo de Pájaros, where March means summer’s end, still we all liven with anticipation as the Eastern cherries bloom. And why not? Maybe Earth’s oldest living poetic tradition, the Asian cycle of plants and seasons, cannot be truly translated, but the cunning of fashion surpasses even language. It is spring in China, Korea, and Japan, so spring everywhere.

“Not the Executive Chamber, Mycroft. This way.”

I followed a soft-footed clerk, feeling fear’s prickle on my neck as we passed the meeting rooms and the computer lab where I was sometimes put to work, entering instead a bash’apartment which sat above the chambers like the control room above a factory.

“The Servicer you summoned has arrived, Director.”

“Send them in.”

I removed my hat as I entered, which fear of recognition forced me to keep on even in the corridor.

「We expect promptness when we call.」Before the door had closed behind me, Chief Director Hotaka Andō Mitsubishi lashed me with harsh Japanese which made my greeting bow into a cringe.

「Apologies, Chief Director. I should have fought harder to break away.」I answered him in Japanese, and bowed anew with my apology, but dared raise my eyes enough to count the pairs of legs around me. There were five in the room, but four wore the familiar deep green of Mitsubishi guards, so, for an audience with the Chief Director, we were practically alone.

Black Sakura. You know what’s happened?」

「Partly yes, Chief Director. I’ve been assigned to the case.」

I straightened now, and verified my fears. Directorate Guards wear whatever cuts of Mitsubishi suit jacket match their nation-strats: Chinese closed at the front with braided frogs, Korean tied across the chest like cheogori, Indian long and buttoned like sherwani, sometimes Western blazers, or the Japanese style, crossing at the front like kimono. Today there was no such variety: all Japanese suits with Japanese faces, several familiar, children of executives who held high office in the Hive through Andō’s patronage. This was an inner circle, then, gathered for that special kind of meeting where, if there are bruises afterward, no one will dare ask why. The Chief Director himself stood in the center, Hotaka Andō Mitsubishi, to use the customary English ordering of his names. Today’s suit was blue-black with a pattern of plain reeds appearing for spring, fine cloth but no finer than his guards’, while his simple shoes and plain short haircut proclaimed the supreme confidence of a ruler so secure he can afford to dress no better than his subjects. He was not always so. In our kind age no face (beside the Major’s) is truly battle-hardened, but Chief Director Andō’s is at least conflict-hardened, with a handsome severity earned over decades battling to break the Chinese factions’ hold on the Chief Director’s chair. Even our anti-aging drugs, which keep the strength of thirty alive in him as he approaches sixty, have not kept stress from silvering his temples.

He addressed me in Japanese, but for you, good master, I shall render what I can in common English. 「The thief used the Canner Device.」

My tracker bleeped alarm as my pulse spiked. 「I don’t have it!」I cried. 「I don’t have any idea where it is! I don’t know anything! It was thirteen years ago! I don’t have the remotest connection to anyone who might have ended up with it!」Only this far into my reflexive protest did I realize I was cowering, my arms over my head to stave off blows, though no guard moved. 「Please believe me! I don’t know anything!」

As Director Andō stared me down, I could read in his face the evidence against me massing, ready to draw into a phalanx: my presence at the house, my fingerprints on the paper. 「Where did you hide it?」he asked.

「It… I don’t… 」

「Where did you hide the device?」

「Maybe there were two?」Even I could hear the foolish desperation in my voice.

「There were not two. There was one. Who did you give it to?」

「No one, Chief Director! No one! It…it couldn’t have been the CannerDevice!」The words were as much for myself as the Director. 「The device could swap tracker signals and make someone else’s tracker register as if they were Ockham Saneer, but it couldn’t get through the rest of the security. I don’t know what security Black Sakura has, but there are systems at the Saneer-Weeksbooth bash’ that nothing I know of could get through, certainly not the Canner Device. It was only for the tracker system, for swapping two signals, nothing else! It can’t have been—」

「Martin sent this to you, too.」The Chief Director brought an image before my lenses, Martin’s scan of the paper I had found in the trash that morning, which I had hardly glanced at among the many messages that had chased me through my ride. The reconstruction was meticulous, rendering the paper fiber by fiber, showing how it had indeed, as Martin said, been crumpled around something. In the next instant the Director filled in that something: the unmistakable, sleek, fishlike tapered body of the infamous device which the hysterical public never should have named for me.

「You had it last,」Andō accused. 「You know who has it now.」

「I don’t know! It was years ago. It’ll have been sold on to someone else by now.」

「Sold? Did you sell it to someone?」

「No. Yes! I mean, sort of. I left it… 」Plausible-seeming lies multiplied in my imagination, but as I started to voice one I could see Chief Director Andō’s face tighten. It wasn’t plausible. None of this was plausible, least of all my innocence, though innocent I was.「I really don’t know what happened to it. Please believe me. I was arrested. I don’t know what happened after that. The police say the case for the device was empty when they found it, but anyone could have it: crooked cops, organized crime, kids who stumbled on my hideout, anyone!」

「You can’t have been that reckless with it.」

「I was a child!」

Andō did not need to do more than glare.

Genuine faintness made it easy to fall to my knees before him. 「Please believe me, Chief Director. I don’t know anything about what’s happened. You know I have no way to prove my innocence, but you’ve trusted me a long time and I’ve never betrayed that, I never would. Even this morning, I could have told Martin the truth about the Seven-Ten list, but I didn’t.」

His glare changed. 「What truth?」

「That Tsuneo Sugiyama didn’t write that list.」I saw the Chief Director flinch, and I clung to the new topic like a lifeline. 「Sugiyama always writes Black Sakura’s Seven-Ten list, but they think the pen should be wielded like a sword, especially the most publicized article of the year. Sugiyama would never have produced anything so uncontroversial, and, when they listed the top seven, they would never have referred to you as Hotaka Mitsubishi, they would have included your birth bash’ name.」

Hotaka Andō Mitsubishi hissed under his breath, and my tracker finally stopped worrying about my heart rate.

「Masami Mitsubishi wrote this list, didn’t they, Director?」I tested. I waited. 「Masami is still interning with Sugiyama, yes?」

The Chief Director scowled down at me, then turned toward the rear of the room, where a partition, patterned with a calligraphic scene of frogs and goldfish holding congress in a waterfall, separated this outer chamber from an inner one.

A new kind of shiver touched me as the partition opened. I cannot date the beginning of the tradition wherein queens and warlords surround themselves with fawning predators: hounds, lions, serpents on silken cushions, ready to loose their savagery at the master’s whim. Chief Director Andō has chosen a more dangerous predator: adopted children, ten in all, foxcunning and ambitious, just finished with school and ready to carve their names into the world. Six were present in the inner room then, sprawling on the floor like cats, and, as the door yawned wider, they watched me, as cats watch a twitching toy they have not yet made up their minds to chase. They all come from one bash’, a batch of ba’siblings who lost the older generation and had been scattered to distant foster bash’es before the childless Andō-Mitsubishi bash’ welcomed them all. They were just starting to cross from teens to twenties now, and the three eldest had recently passed the Adulthood Competency Exam, one donning Humanist boots, another a Mitsubishi suit, the third a Hiveless sash, but the rest had not yet chosen, so wore only minors’ sashes over soft pajamas, and the sloppy sweaters their adopted mother knitted herself.

Masami Mitsubishi was not among the lounging ba’sibs, not today. Instead a different figure rose to join us, pausing first to set down with loving care the branch of plum blossoms she had been about to trim: Danaë MarieAnne de la Trémoïlle Mitsubishi, Princesse de la Trémoïlle et de Talmond, sister of Humanist President Ganymede Duc de Thouars, and wife of Chief Director Hotaka Andō Mitsubishi. She wore a kimono here in her husband’s capital, not the unisex kimono one sees on Mitsubishi streets but a woman’s antique kimono, birds and blossoms in golds, peaches, and blues, the fabric thick with labor like a tapestry, the obi sparkling around her stiff waist like a puzzle box of silk. She approached with the small, shuffling steps which in Japan code feminine, her white hands nested pale against the cloth like doves. So perfectly anachronistic were her dress and poise she might have been the model for an antique woodblock print, except for her hair, which sparkled in its cage of hair pins with all the rebellious wheat-lush gold of Europe. I will not call Princesse Danaë the most beautiful woman in the world, since that title doubtless belongs to some obscure person, living happily indifferent to the doors of fame that might be opened by the blessings of anatomy. But I do know who would win a worldwide vote for the face on Earth most likely to launch a thousand ships.

「What good luck, that we have an investigator so perceptive, and so discreet.」Danaë’s Japanese is elegant and beautifully accented, but too meticulous, the over-perfect Japanese of one who learned it in adulthood and remains self-conscious, even as the decades mount. 「Surely Mycroft will protect our Masami.」

Her words opened an aspect of this I had not seen before, the poor young intern, still a minor just whetting his eager pen, swept up in a storm of probing questions, which bitter politics would whip into a hurricane to levy at the whole bash’. Suddenly the wide eyes of the lounging siblings watching from the back room felt like fear. 「Do you think this is directed against the Chief Director, Princesse?」I asked.

「I don’t know.」Danaë came to her husband’s side. Do not chide me, reader, for using the gendered ‘husband’ when she stands so close, sheltering against him as she gazes up into his face with her brilliant, pleading blue eyes edged by maternal fear. Our age’s neutral ‘partner’ rings false when her every touch and gesture makes such intentional display of ‘wife.「’ Masami was so excited by this job at the paper—their dream job. I hate to think someone would destroy that just to get at us.」

「I’ll do everything I can to protect Masami, Princesse.」I said it almost without thinking, or with no thought beyond the desire to drive the sadness from that perfect face.

Princesse Danaë rewarded me with a smile, warm, her right cheek framed by one stray golden curl, and I relaxed enough to slump back on my haunches.

「Poor Masami is quite innocent, but I fear they will seem guilty when the public finds out the truth.」

「Finds out what?」I asked.

She sighed, brushing back the wayward curl, and the passion rising in my breast split between the impulse to leap between her and the sources of her grief like some white knight, or to freeze that moment like a portrait so I could feast my eye forever on her face. I should add, reader, that I hold no particular lust for Danaë. Rather her arts—mastery of poise and gesture—can inflict these feelings on almost any victim, and when she sighs thus in the council chamber where the Nine Directors meet, one sigh can trump a hundred thousand votes. 「As I understand, Sugiyama pulled out of writing the list just a few days ago, and had Masami finish it, but the editor wanted the famous name, so was going to release Masami’s list pretending it was their teacher’s. Masami’s just a junior intern, they had no way to object.」

「Of course not,」 I answered instantly. 「Don’t worry, Princesse. I’m sure we can protect Masami. I’ll do everything I can, and Martin, too, Martin will understand. Martin understands better than anyone how important it is to keep press and public from hounding Hive leaders’ children. We’ll keep Masami out of the limelight, I promise.」

「Thank you, good Mycroft.」 Danaë’s smile washed over me like sunlight, and she even reached down with those pure alabaster fingers and stroked my hair, as one might stroke a faithful hound. 「What did you do with the Canner Device?」

You, distant reader, and I now thinking back on this scene with the distance of weeks, we two can see Andō looming behind his wife, watching in calculated silence as this exquisite tool extracts what he desires. But the Mycroft who kneels before her, he sees nothing but those eyes, keen as blue diamond, which slice even as they sparkle. 「I… I never had the Canner Device, Princesse.」

She cocked her head like a bird. 「You never had it?」

「No. I’ve never even seen it. I only ever had the packaging. I bought the empty box from some arms smugglers. I’d heard about the device from the news back when it was stolen from the lab, everyone did. I wanted the police to think I had the device so they’d think that was how I was sneaking around. It was just a trick to keep them from looking any deeper.」It all poured out of me, years of careful silence melted by that coaxing face. I had been close to breaking already, really, the truth brought to my tongue’s tip by the fear that being incriminated in this theft might cost me my parole, but if Andō’s intimidation was a cudgel, Danaë was that perfect scalpel touch against the artery that makes the blood flow free.

She smiled—what sweet reward, that smile!—and chuckled like a teasing child. 「Then why didn’t you just say so, you little silly?」

「I… didn’t want anyone to think I still… I can… 」

Her smile turned from teasing to forgiveness. 「You can still do it, can’t you? You can still trick the tracker system, however you did before?」

「Yes, Princesse. Please don’t tell anyone! They’ll lock me up again, I know they will. But if I’d told them they would’ve taken the means away, and I didn’t want to lose it, I need it in case… in case I need it someday to help…somebody…」

The mercy here was that she instantly assumed my ‘somebody’ meant her own bash’.「Of course.」She gave my hair a second stroke. 「You did very well to protect that ability. I’m sure it is of great service.」

「Thank you, Princesse.」

Danaë turned back to her husband now, freeing me to look down at the hat in my hands. The sight of it kicked off one of those chains of association which leads in an instant through five links to realization, or, in my case, horror. What had I done? How could I have betrayed so much, so fast? The threat of the device, of being implicated in this theft, it had seemed overwhelming, but I was innocent, and Martin would have believed me. I was not innocent of deceiving the tracker system whenever Bridger or other necessity required. Now, and forever after, Danaë could hold that over me. And so could Andō. I cursed myself inside, although, looking back, I forgive myself now. She was irresistible. Remember, reader, though I use archaic words, I am not from those barbaric centuries when men and women wore their gender like a cockerel’s plumes, advertising sex with every suit and skirt. Growing up, I saw gendered costume on the stage, in art, pornography, but to see it in real life is unbearably different: her shallow breaths within constricted ribs, her round French breasts threatening to overflow the low Japanese silks. Here, as Andō wraps his arm around her waist, the costume makes me see them in my mind: the husband wrenching the kimono back to bare the honey-wet vagina. You see now, reader, why, to tell this history, I must say ‘he’ and ‘she.’ Danaë is a thing long thought extinct, reviving out of time ancient venoms perfected by a hundred generations of gendered culture. We around her—from my weak self to the gaping guards—grew up with no inoculation against this pox we thought our ancestors had vanquished. Movies and histories gave us just enough exposure to learn these ancient cues, weakness without resistance, and we can no more unlearn them than you could unlearn your alphabet when facing an unwelcome word.

Andō took control now, stepping forward so his shadow fell across me. 「You will write up everything you know about the smugglers you bought the packaging from. Thirteen years ago is not beyond the possibility of reconstruction.」

「Yes, Chief Director.」

「I hold you responsible for this. If you had made it known in the first place that the device was still in dangerous hands, I would have worked to track it down. I expect a prompt solution if you want me to conceal this… error… from the Commissioner General.」

So fast, the price of my indiscretion. 「I understand, Chief Director. I will take responsibility. Should I report my findings to Martin, or to you?」

He weighed that for a breath. 「Did these smugglers have a nation-strat?」

「Japanese, Chief Director. I suspect the original thieves were Japanese as well.」I hesitated, but it was better now to say things openly. 「Like its makers.」

His face both darkened and calmed. 「Then bring the report to me first. Martin I trust, but, within the strat, my own inquiries will open more doors than a Mason’s.」

「Yes, Chief Director.」

He peered down at me. 「Who do you think had the Canner Device built in the first place?」

「Please don’t call it that.」

More firmly「, Who had the Canner Device built?」

I kept my eyes on the floor. 「I know you are innocent, Chief Director.」

「That isn’t what I asked.」

I squeezed my hat. 「I believe the project was ordered by the previous head of the Japanese voting bloc, but your predecessor’s guilt doesn’t make you guilty.」

「It will in China’s eyes,」he snapped. 「In India’s, Korea’s. In the other Hives’. The accusation alone would be enough to shatter the strat’s hopes, and without a strong Japan the Hive will go back to being brawled over by Shanghai and Beijing, not just at the next board selection, but for a generation.」

「You think one of the Chinese blocs planned this?」

「To scare the world with what the device we made can do.」

It was a possibility, now that I mulled it over. The thief must have folded the stolen paper around the device on purpose, to let us know they had it. In my selfish panic I had assumed they only meant to target me, not the greater forces that had created the Gyges Device—that’s what I call it in my mind, after the invisibility ring from Plato’s fable, which tempts even the most virtuous to crime.

「Bury this, Mycroft,」Andō ordered. 「You have Martin’s ear, and the Commissioner General’s. Bury this before it plunges the Hive back into Chinese monopoly for another fifty years.」

「I’ll do my best, Chief Director.」

「And keep Tai-kun away from the members of the Saneer-Weeksbooth bash’.」

You may not recognize this Mitsubishi nickname, reader, but by ‘Tai-kun’ Andō means the Head of Martin’s team, J.E.D.D. Mason. Since there are too many reasons for Andō’s nervousness to list here, I will say simply that J.E.D.D. Mason is trusted of Andō, trusted like a son, but still a bit too close to Martin’s Emperor.

「I’ll do my best, Chief Director, but you know I only serve, I have no power to decide.」

Danaë broke in「, We know you’ll always do your best for us, good Mycroft.」I can’t express quite how, since there was no threat in her words, but something in her tone, her smile, spoke of my parole, how now she could shatter it any instant with just three words to the Commissioner General: “Only the packaging.”

I shuddered, and the Chief Director seemed contented by my fear. 「Then you may go begin.」

「Thank you, Chief Director.」I scrambled up and bowed, but felt my failure as the couple turned away, the new leash around my neck called blackmail. I could not leave myself, or those who depended on me, so deeply in their power. There was no resort but French. «Do you know who else came to the bash’house today, Princesse? Apart from Martin?»

Both turned, and the princess relaxed at the music of her birth bash’ tongue, returning slow French syllables which flowed from her lips like kisses. «There was someone else?»

I could not guess whether her ignorance was feigned or real. «There was a certain sensayer.» I scanned the back room to confirm that Michi Mitsubishi—the one adopted child interning with Europe and likely to know French—was absent. It was safe to press on. «A foster child. Dark blond. Blue eyes.» I searched Danaë’s face, but the illusion of eternal youth which masks the matron’s decades masks fear lines also. «A Gag-gene,» I added. «Twenty-eight years old.»

A statue of cream-white marble seemed to stand before me in that instant, so rigid she became. I felt my hands twitch with the impulse to catch her should she faint. «What a marvelous world.» She whispered it, less to me than to the world itself, and her lashes fluttered, fighting back a tear.

«You did not know? I have to ask, Princesse, I’m sorry.»

Danaë stepped toward me, away from her husband, who frowned but backed away, respectful of his bride’s right to her separate tongue, and separate sphere. «I have never known him.» She brought her alabaster hands up to her breast, as if cradling an infant, real again in her fingers’ memory.

I glanced back to the inner chamber, where her many adopted children sprawled and stared, all so different: Hiroaki Mitsubishi with Thai features, Jun European pale and freckled, Ran with Middle Eastern tints like Martin, but none like their mother. No one had been surprised when Andō—proud of his pure Japanese breeding—and Danaë—just as proudly French— had adopted instead of mixing their blood. But still, to have held a child of her body for a day and never again, even imagining it made me ache.

«You must at least have asked where he was taken to be raised?» I asked. «What Hive he joined?»

Another tear-gilded blink. «No, nothing. It was judged kindest that way.»

«Who took the child away? His Grace your brother? Your honored husband?» I avoided the French for ‘Chief Director,’ since even Andō could recognize that.

«He was handed to the doctor.» The ghost of a smile softened her sadness. «He didn’t cry. Brave little one.»

«I told him nothing. I’m sure he doesn’t know.» It was the best comfort I could offer.

«Thank you.»

Her thanks warmed me, made me bold. «I found it hard to believe that he, of all sensayers in the world, would be sent to that bash’ by chance. Can you think of anyone who might have traced him? Any reason anyone could have to dredge this up after so long? To embroil him in this mess with the theft and the device?»

Three times she parted her lips, a different syllable shaped each time, but only the third time did she voice it. «Is he happy?»

I lowered my eyes. It was the right question, the only real question a loving heart would ask. And had she had a different upbringing it might have been hard to answer. «The Patriarch wrote that the halfwit is always happier than the philosopher, but the philosopher would not trade knowledge for ignorance, not for all the happiness in the world. Your son seemed to me half a philosopher, but still half happy.»

Do you know the reference, reader? Or does your age, forgetful of its past, no longer know Le Patriarch by that worthy epithet? Have you forgotten the first pen stronger than swords? The firebrand who spread Reason’s light across the Earth, battled intolerance, religious persecution, torture, forced kings to bow before the Rights of Man, and introduced wit into philosophy again? Is Aristotle not still known by the honorable title of the Philosopher? Shakespeare the Bard? Brill the Cognitivist? How then can you forget the Patriarch? Perhaps you protest, Thou accusest me unjustly, Mycroft. History has not swallowed this great man, rather he has swallowed history. I do not know who created the first government, or built the first wheel—it is so ubiquitous that I do not need to. Just so, my better era does not teach me who first fought for these good heresies you list, for they are now Truths, and the blind age that doubted them is well forgotten. Perhaps you are right, reader, it is honor, not dishonor, if you forget the Patriarch. We now doubt Aristotle, understand Shakespeare only with footnotes, poke holes in Brill, but the Patriarch, whom all Earth follows without thinking there could be another way, he has indeed swallowed us up. But he has not so swallowed Danaë, reared, as she was, as if in his own age, when he—her Patriarch—needed defending. Voltaire, reader, the Patriarch of the Eighteenth Century, the era which has just remade your own, it was Voltaire.

A Lady of Danaë’s education knows the corpus of the Patriarch by heart. «A good answer, Mycroft.» Heartache’s remnants gave her French a somber tint. «Thank you. If he has been drawn into this by some cruel manipulator, I know you will protect him.»

I had meant to trade blackmail for blackmail here, but instead found myself drawn into pity, for Danaë, and for young Carlyle, too. My mind buzzed with measures to protect them, the lady from the enemies of Mitsubishi and Japan, the sensayer from the stern Major, from overcautious Thisbe, from himself, mistakes he might make in the first giddy hours after meeting Bridger. That thought warmed me, the strange, sideways kindness of Providence, which had stripped the Gag-gene of bash’ and past and family, only to give him a treasure which was, to any sensayer, a thousand times more precious: a miracle. «Actually, Princesse, I think he has both much knowledge and much happiness, at least where it matters.»

If some brave painter captured her smile on canvas it would draw crowds down the centuries. «Thank you.» Then again in Japanese, for all to hear「, Thank you, Mycroft. And we must thank my dear brother for calling you and Martin in to solve this. I know all feel safer in your hands.」

Director Andō nodded my dismissal, and Princesse Danaë passed me my Servicer’s reward at last, a round lunch box, tied and too heavy to be anything but sushi. My many masters don’t always remember they must feed me, that their toil-earned handouts are the only sustenance permitted to we the unfree. But Danaë—this monster from a more barbaric time— always remembers the protocols of servitude.

Excerpted from Too Like the Lightning © Ada Palmer, 2016

About the Author

Ada Palmer


Ada Palmer is a novelist and historian. Her internationally award-winning Terra Ignota series (Tor Books) explores a future of borderless nations and globally commixing populations. She teaches history at the University of Chicago, studying the Renaissance, Enlightenment, heresy, atheism, and forbidden ideas. Forthcoming in 2025 is her nonfiction book, Inventing the Renaissance: the Myth of a Golden Age (Head of Zeus), and in 2026 her next novel Hearthfire (Tor Books), the first of a new based on Norse mythology. Her current scholarly project is the book, Why We Censor, from the Inquisition to the Internet, which uses examples from many times and places to expose patterns in the motives and ideas which make people assent to and support censorship. Along with Cory Doctorow and Adrian Johns, she produced a series of video discussions on "Censorship and Information Control During Information Revolutions". She is also collaborating with Jo Walton on the co-authored essay collection Trace Elements: Conversations on the Project of Science Fiction and Fantasy (Tor Books) coming in 2025, and Children of Abaia, a novel about an exoplanet terraforming mission. She composes music including the Viking mythology cycle Sundown: Whispers of Ragnarok, and performs with the group Sassafrass, studies anime/manga, especially Osamu Tezuka, post-WWII manga and feminist manga, and consults for anime and manga publishers. She is a columnist for Strange Horizons, blogs at, and she and Jo Walton have a joint podcast about the craft of writing: Ex Urbe Ad Astra.
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