Thousandth Night

Thousandth Night

by Alastair Reynolds

It was the afternoon before my threading, and stomach butterflies were doing their best to unsettle me. I had little appetite and less small talk. All I wanted was for the next twenty-four hours to slip by so that it could be someone else’s turn to sweat. Etiquette forbade it, but there was nothing I’d have preferred than to flee back to my ship and put myself to sleep until morning. Instead I had to grin and bear it, just as everyone else had to when their night came around.

Waves crashed a kilometre below, dashing against the bone-white cliffs, the spray cutting through one of the elegant suspension bridges that linked the main island to the smaller ones surrounding it. Beyond the islands, the humped form of an aquatic crested the waves. I made out the tiny dots of people frolicking on the bridge, dancing in the spray. It had been my turn to design the venue for this carnival, and I thought I’d made a tolerable job of it.

A pity none of it would last.

In little over a year machines would pulverise the islands, turning their spired buildings into powdery rubble. The sea would have pulled them under by the time the last of our ships had left the system. But even the sea would only last a few thousand years after that. I’d steered water-ice comets onto this arid world just to make its oceans. The atmosphere itself was dynamically unstable. We could breathe it now, but there was no biomass elsewhere on Reunion to replenish the oxygen we were turning into carbon dioxide. In twenty thousand years the world would be uninhabitable to all but the hardiest microorganisms. It would stay like that for the better part of another hundred and eighty thousand years, until our return.

By then the scenery would be someone else’s problem, not mine. On Thousandth Night—the final evening of the reunion—the person who had threaded the most acclaimed strand would be charged with designing the venue for the next gathering. Depending on their plans, they’d arrive between one thousand and ten thousand years before the official opening of the next gathering.

My hand tightened on the rail at the edge of the high balcony as I heard urgent footsteps approach from behind. High hard heels on marble, the swish of an evening gown.

“Don’t tell me, Campion. Nerves.”

I turned around, greeting Purslane—beautiful, regal Purslane—with a stiff smile and a grunt of acknowledgement. “Mm. How did you guess?”

“Intuition,” she said. “Actually, I’m surprised you’re here at all.”

“Why’s that?”

“When it’s my turn I’m sure I’ll still be on my ship, furiously re-editing until the last possible moment.”

“That’s the problem,” I said. “I’ve done all the editing I need. There’s nothing to edit. Nothing of any consequence has happened to me since the last time.”

Purslane fixed me with a knowing smile. Her hair was bunched and high, sculpted like a fairytale palace with spires and turrets. “Typical false modesty.” She pushed a glass of red wine into my hand before I could refuse.

“Well, this time there’s nothing false about it. My thread is going to be a crashing anti-climax. The sooner we get over it, the better.”

“It’s going to be that dull?”

I sipped at the wine. “The very exemplar of dullness. I’ve had a spectacularly uneventful two hundred thousand years.”

“You said exactly the same thing last time, Campion. Then you showed us wonders and miracles. You were the hit of the reunion.”

“Maybe I’m getting old,” I said, “but this time I felt like taking things a little bit easier. I made a conscious effort to keep away from inhabited worlds; anywhere there was the least chance of something exciting happening. I watched a lot of sunsets.”

“Sunsets,” she said.

“Mainly solar-type stars. Under certain conditions of atmospheric calm and viewing elevation you can sometimes see a flash of green just before the star slips below the horizon…” I trailed off lamely, detesting the sound of my own voice. “All right. It’s just scenery.”

“Two hundred thousand years of it?”

“I’m not repentant. I enjoyed every minute of it.”

Purslane sighed and shook her head: I was her hopeless case, and she didn’t mind if I knew it. “I didn’t see you at the orgy this morning. I was going to ask what you thought of Tormentil’s strand.”

Tormentil’s memories, burned into my mind overnight, still had an electric brightness about them. “The usual self-serving stuff,” I said. “Ever noticed that all the adventures he embroils himself in always end up making him look wonderful, and everyone else a bit thick?”

“True. This time even his usual admirers have been tut-tutting behind his back.”

“Serves him right.”

Purslane looked out to sea, through the thicket of hovering ships parked around the tight little archipelago. A layer of cloud had formed during the afternoon, with the ships—most of them stationed nose down—piercing it like daggers. There were nearly a thousand of them. The view resembled an inverted landscape: a sea of fog, interrupted by the sleek, luminous spires of tall buildings.

“Asphodel’s ship still hasn’t been sighted,” Purslane said. “It’s looking as if she won’t make it.”

“Do you think she’s dead?”

Purslane dipped her head. “I think it’s a possibility. That last strand of hers… a lot of risk-taking.”

Asphodel’s strand, delivered during the last reunion, had been full of death-defying sweeps past lethal phenomena. What had seemed beautiful then—a whiplashing binary star, or a detonating nova—must have finally reached out and killed her. Killed one of us.

“I liked Asphodel,” I said absently. “I’ll be sorry if she doesn’t make it. Maybe she’s just delayed.”

“Why don’t you come inside and stop moping?” Purslane said, edging me away from the balcony. “It’s not good for you.”

“I’m not really in the mood.”

“Honestly, Campion. I’m sure you’re going to startle us tonight.”

“That depends,” I said, “on how much you like sunsets.”

* * *

That night my memories were threaded into the dreams of the other guests. Come morning most of them managed to say something vaguely complimentary about my strand, but beneath the surface politeness their bemused disappointment was all too obvious. It wasn’t just that my memories had added nothing startling to the whole. What really annoyed them was that I’d apparently gone out of my way to have as dull a time as possible. The implication was that I’d let the side down by looking for pointless green flashes rather than adventure; that I’d deliberately sought to add nothing useful to the tapestry of our collective knowledge. By the afternoon, my patience was wearing perilously thin.

“Well, at least you won’t be on the edge of your seat come Thousandth Night,” said Samphire, an old acquaintance in the line. “That was the idea, wasn’t it?”

“I’m sorry?”

“Deliberate dullness, to take you out of the running for best strand.”

“That wasn’t the idea at all,” I said testily. “Still, if you think it was dull… that’s your prerogative. When’s your strand, Samphire? I’ll be sure to offer my heartfelt congratulations when everyone else is sticking the boot in.”

“Day eight hundred,” he said easily. “Plenty of time to study the opposition and make a few judicious alterations.” Samphire sidled a bit too close for comfort. I had always found Samphire cloying, but I tolerated his company because his strands were usually memorable. He had a penchant for digging through the ruins of ancient human cultures, looting their tombs for quaint technologies, grisly weapons, and machine minds driven psychotic by two million years of isolation. “So anyway,” he said, conspiratorially. “Thousandth Night. Thousandth Night. Can’t wait to see what you’ve got lined up for us.”

“Nor can I.”

“What’s it going to be? You can’t do a Cloud Opera, if that’s what you’ve planned. We had one of those last time.”

“Not a very good one though.”

“And the time before that—what was it?”

“A re-creation of a major space battle, I think. Effective, if a little on the brash side.”

“Yes, I remember now. Didn’t Fescue’s ship mistake it for a real battle? Dug a ten-kilometre-wide crater into the crust when his screens went up. The silly fool had his defence thresholds turned down too low.” Unfortunately, Fescue was in earshot. He looked at us over the shoulder of the line member he was talking to, shot me a warning glance then returned to his conversation. “Anyway,” Samphire continued, oblivious, “what do you mean, you can’t wait? It’s your show, Campion. Either you’ve planned something or you haven’t.”

I looked at him pityingly. “You’ve never actually won best strand, have you?”

“Come close, though… my strand on the Homunculus Wars…” He shook his head. “Never mind. What’s your point?”

“My point is that sometimes the winner elects to suppress their memories of exactly what form the Thousandth Night celebrations will take.”

Samphire touched a finger to his nose. “I know you, Campion. It’ll be tastefully restrained… and very, very dull.”

“Good luck with your strand,” I said icily.

Samphire left me. I thought I’d have a few moments alone, but no sooner had I turned to admire the view than Fescue leaned against the balustrade next to me, swilling a glass of wine. He held the glass by the stem, in jewelled and ringed fingers.

“Enjoying yourself, Campion?” he asked, in ...

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