The vultures had colonized the shell of her ship. The largest and bravest perched on Yagmur’s chest, its talons caught in the straps of her pilot’s harness. She watched it unblinking, as if she was already carrion, as it lunged and tore a fleshy strip from her cheek. It swallowed her down in bobbing gulps. Her blood tasted of copper and the last of the chryochem, sluggish as it flooded her mouth.
She was not quite a corpse. Nevertheless, she made a corpse-sound when she tried to shout, a deathrattle croak. The vulture cocked its head at her, one glittering eye bright and intelligent. Yagmur struggled to shift inside the harness, managing a graceless shudder of one arm.
“Not yet,” she said, pawing at the broad sweep of wings. The vulture considered her: desiccated from preservative cryosleep and trickling blood down her jaw, cradled in the scorched remains of her ship like a chick inside the inner-curving cup of its egg. It hopped off. The force of its talons against her pectorals would leave bruises.
Took you long enough, princess, said the leftmost of her ghost-companions, leaning hipshot and translucent against the open bay door.
We were taking bets on whether you were finally joining us, the rightmost added.
They were taking bets, said the smallest, unbuckling her transparent harness from the wreckage of the co-pilot’s seat and clambering out. I was being bored. If you were going to die you’d die somewhere far away from the worldship, just for spite. Her feet, one of them bare, passed through the burst-open metal panels that had previously been the floor of the ship.
Yagmur tongued the hole in her cheek. She had imagined coming back whole, if she came back at all. He hands were numb lumps on the harness buckle. The ghost-companions watched her fumbling with the irritable patience of the deceased.
“How long was I unconscious?” she asked them.
Oh, days and days, said her leftmost companion.
“And no vulture-breeders found me?”
There are no vulture-breeders, said her rightmost companion. Only vultures. The worldship is full of carrion.
Yagmur had not thought she had been travelling long enough for the worldship to be empty – only long enough for her companions to get themselves killed, one after another, in her defense. Yet, after emerging from her ship’s shell she found that the vast and airy chamber of the dead into which she had crashed was too vast and too airy. The worldship-lights were out, and what Yagmur could see by starshine were long rows of the dead, stretching out to the limits of her vision and beyond.
The nearest were correctly prepared: unclothed, disemboweled, and mostly devoured to bones. But no vulture-breeder had come to grind those bones with meal-powder, and further down the line the bodies remained dressed, haphazardly piled on one another. Their stink was dim, unfresh by months or more.
“There are too many dead,” said Yagmur, who had been a prince of the worldship once, when it ranged the wide void unchallenged.
The stars do not move, said her smallest companion.
The engines are quiet, said her leftmost companion.
You really ought to have come back sooner, said her rightmost companion. This is going to take a lot of work.
If Yagmur had returned to the worldship when her rightmost companion had first desired it – approximately one month after her exile – she would have had to beg the khagan for forgiveness on her knees. She would have given up forever the whirling joy of travel unbound amongst the stars. Thus while her rightmost companion lived, she had denied him. Now, realizing that the thousand thudding horsehoof beats of engine-sound did not pulse next to her heart, she wondered if he had been right all along.
Silent, all the worldship seemed to be made of hunger hollow and waiting to be filled. Quietude weighed on Yagmur’s heart like a grounding chain. But her companions were ghosts, and she did not know how to bury ghosts in the blackness of space, and so she had come home.
The chamber of the dead was built like a road on a mountain, a great spiraling funnel that led down into the belly of the worldship, topped with a vault of stars. It kept planet-normative gravity for the sake of the vultures, and spun around the worldship’s core at speeds that Yagmur had memorized once, her head bent over screens at the foot of the khagan’s pilot-chair. Now she and her ghost-companions walked down the spiral, passing the dead as they went. The ghost-companions trod upon them. Yagmur did not, except when it was required.
The bodies near the vault door which led into the rest of the worldship were heaved into a great heap. Some of their faces remained recognizable. Yagmur lifted the head of the nearest by its hair. It was the flesh of her brother-by-adoption, the khagan’s middle son. His flesh had been wrent open at the gut, and his innards lay around him, looping over the shoulders and backs of the flesh of his companions. His blood had been spilled on the ground. Yagmur knew it to be a sacrilege.
Her smallest companion said: He ought to have made better friends.
“Ones that would not rip out his intestines?” Yagmur asked.
Ones who would have gotten up and followed him home, said her leftmost companion. Yagmur had left his body on the bare desert floor of an alien world, gutshot while keeping her safe, and found his ghost waiting for her at the shuttleport. He knew from following. All her companions did.
Ones who know how to open codelocked doors, said her rightmost companion, pointing to the vault door’s control panel with an insubstantial hand. Get over here and press some buttons, princess.
Yagmur did so. Her rightmost companion’s fingers fit over hers exactly, and chilled her hands as if she had stuck them out an airlock. Hers depressed the keypad, her knuckles rising and falling through his palm.
The door irised open with a rush of stale air that buffeted Yagmur’s hair across her face. There were no bodies in the corridor beyond, only flickering lights that ought not have flickered and metal walls that ought not have bent as much as they were bending. Yagmur’s boots clanged on the corridor’s floor. The worldship was not dead yet, but it was rotting. Great patches of the walls were thin and buckling with rust, eaten away. Yagmur could push her hands through them, or her elbows, without much effort.
The scale of required repair baffled her. She did not understand how the worldship had been allowed to arrive at this state.
After the fourth turning, when Yagmur was occupied with hand-over-handing her way down a ladder through an area which had never been subject to artificial gravitiation, her smallest companion inquired with some trepidation, Has the khagan died?
Yagmur grunted, and swung her hips laterally, sliding into the maw of a new corridor and letting the ladder go.
Some khagan we’ve got, if he hasn’t, said her leftmost companion.
Her rightmost companion was silent, in the aggressive fashion which implied he knew the answer and was not going to give Yagmur the chance to get out of saying it herself.
“He isn’t dead yet,” Yagmur said. “There’s still oxygen.” Her rightmost companion shot her a grin, and she considered expending the effort necessary to gesture obscenely toward him, but concluded that he would most likely take it as encouragement, as he always had before. Instead she began to crawl on her knees down the new corridor, which was unrusted but also part of the ventilation system and not more than two feet on a side.
Her smallest companion, who in life had cared little for anything but Yagmur and the void between the stars, and was thus inexperienced with politics, went on: Well, someone ought to do something about that.
She had died of asking similar questions of men and women who did not want to answer them: they had locked her in an airlock and vented the atmosphere, and Yagmur had found her ghost waiting with the others in her ship when she fled that station’s retribution.
We could start by turning the engines back on, said her leftmost companion, pointing down one of the branches of the corridor through which they crawled.
“I did not come here to turn the engines on,” Yagmur said.
Her rightmost companion looked her in the eye with resignation, and said, You did not. Doing so would have required a foresight you refuse to exhibit.
At this, Yagmur felt ashamed.
She took the corridor her leftmost companion had indicated, though it required her to wriggle on her elbows like a snake. Her torn cheek left bloody drips on the metal walls. The shame ate at her stomach and nestled between her floating ribs. She had taken exile as her prize, but what she had left behind her had withered. She would turn the engines on. She could at least do that, before finding some death for her companions more deserved than endless following after her.
The khagan’s notice came in a slow warming of the chamber Yagmur crouched in, the long muscles of her thighs burning. She was wrist-deep in the circuitry of the secondary engine’s control block, shifting wires by the feel of her rightmost companion’s chill guiding fingertips, her eyes shut. Their shoulders and ribcages overlapped, though her was the only one that moved. She was so cold that it took her a long time to notice the life-warm flush of the walls: heat like a womb. The regard of the lord of the worldship.
Her hand slipped. A thin edge of metal sliced into her palm, sipped at the welling droplets that beaded along her flesh.
The voice of the khagan could shake the walls with its thunder, if the khagan chose so. Instead, it resonated in Yagmur’s skull, a bone-conduction sound that chattered her teeth.
“I unprinced you, Yagmur,” it said, “and threw you to the void. Yet you squirm on your belly through my heart, an unhorsed worm. Your ship is bones. Turn back. Come no closer, unprince.”
Yagmur flexed her fingers in the wires. Distant and below by miles, the secondary engine stuttered to life, jittering undirected.
“My companions are dead, my khagan,” she said. “I have brought them home.”
The voice of the khagan said, “How dare you pollute the system of the world? Exile is burial enough for those who belong to the void.”
“What else can I do?” Yagmur said. “The worldship rots. I am alone within it as I was alone outside it. You have stilled us, my khagan, and we were meant to travel the stars forever.” Where it was torn, her cheek hurt from grimacing.
Now he is very angry, said her smallest companion.
Connect the last two wires, here, said her rightmost companion. His chest expanded alongside Yagmur’s in unnecessary solidarity. Quickly.
Yagmur did so. Her hand slid, slick with her blood and a fearstruck sweat, but the wires held, and a current passed from one to the other. The worldship trembled with the power of the unguided engines, both primary and secondary reawakened and hungry.
The voice of the khagan rattled Yagmur’s cervical spine and made her eyes spot with blanknesses. “You are no child of my blood, Yagmur. Crawl no farther! My sons are dead by each other’s hands and none remain to ride across the void with me.” Yagmur felt as if she would shake apart. Pressing her hands to her cheekbones and to the sides of her head helped not at all. The khagan’s voice vibrated in her jaw and through her sternum, as if it arose from within her. “If the worldship is stilled it is stilled for my dead, not yours.”
Yagmur staggered to her feet and stumbled for the hatch in the floor of the engine control chamber, nauseated. Her ghost-companions scattered from her like debris, huddling against the chamber walls. Her leftmost companion was weeping colorless dry tears: in life he had been blood-kin to the khagan, and now in death he was orphaned.
Yagmur scrabbled at the hatch lock. “I will crawl anyway,” she said, and found she was crying as well. She wanted to creep into the heart of the worldship and make her lord command the engines forward again, finished with his willful sloth.
“Crawl and bury nothing,” said the voice of the khagan. The room lit with a thunderclap of electric fire, bright and bluewhite and devouring. It oozed from the open panel of the engine-control tower and caught Yagmur’s rightmost companion in its annihilating grasp, a thin loop of flame around his wrists, viscous ozone spilling from his mouth and eyes and ears. He did not scream. He guttered and went out, like a blown torch.
Scorchmarks covered the wall where he had leaned. Scorchmarks covered Yagmur, too, blistering her shins and forearms and lips, searing the hole in her cheek to cauterization.
It was not at all like he had died before. There was nothing left of him.
In the core of the worldship the jutter of engine-noise dimmed to a pulse. It ran through the thick cables that coated the walls and the floors, lit up their cords and protuberances with electric life, circuits singing to each other the oldest story: motion across the face of the void, forever. Yagmur walked along the central cable, balanced on its back, the great curving sides of it bowing out like the belly of a gravid horse. Her remaining companions followed behind her, tearstreaked. At each moment she feared the power of the khagan: when she had been a prince, the lord of the ship could have vented the oxygen, or sent a swarm of poison microbes to roost in her lungs, or burnt the corridor with radiation’s invisible fire. But no such dangers descended upon her. She approached the pilot’s heart-throne chamber as if she was sneaking up on the burrow of a spider.
Tentatively, Yagmur’s smallest companion said, If the people of the ship are vulture-carrion, then the vultures can feed the ship, and Yagmur will tell the ship to make new people. Won’t you, princess? It was a childish sentiment, but Yagmur understood her smallest companion’s desire, just now, for an easy and circular resurrection.
“A great horde of new people,” she said, and she said it to the khagan, who she knew was listening.
She imagined what her rightmost companions would have said, even though he would never speak to her again: A whole horde? They will eat each other up, and you will have to argue with them about treasures and oxygen allotments and whose job it is to power-wash the rust off the corridors, and it will be very boring for you. You never wished to be a very good prince.
It would have been a true criticism. Yagmur ached to hear it and to refute it with the newness of her bloody-minded determination. But her rightmost companion had gone to light and electric dust.
Her leftmost companion did not speak. He pointed down the corridor to where the vast cable they walked upon joined up with all the other cables and became the door to the heart of the worldship.
It was necessary for Yagmur to turn sideways and press, shoulder-first, into the small space between the cables. They were overgrown from when Yagmur had been a prince, tangled and obstructionary. Their metal caught at her clothing and at her flesh, tearing small pieces of her away for some use of their own. She felt the bruises from the vulture’s talons press anew into her chest, and could not draw in enough air to breathe. She popped through like a squirted seed, landed on her hip and rolled to her knees, and came face-to-face with the khagan.
He lay cushioned in the pilot-throne, a bundle of stickthin limbs under the wide cheeks and hooked nose of all the blood of the khagan’s line. His hands were still on the controls and his eyes, hollow and golden, watched Yagmur where she crouched. The coils and cables had eaten his belly and battened to his skull; they had long ago consumed his genitals and the muscles in his shins and his forearms.
Out of instinct, Yagmur said, “My lord,” and the khagan shook with laughter.
“Poison worm,” he told her, very gently, his unamplified tongue moving dryly in his own mouth, “there is nothing for you here.”
Walking towards him was a fight against the spinning fiction of gravity under his command, dragging her down at three atmospheres or more.
“Go back to your little ship and ride through the black forever,” said the khagan.
Some organ of Yagmur’s, spleen or stomach or lung, stuttered and failed under the rising pressure of the atmospheres, and a bloom of pain filled her up; she stumbled, one dragging step after another, the longest walk of her life.
“The worldship is still,” she said, and also “Where else could I go?”, and then she had her hands about his neck, the cords of it soft and stringy, crepelike with age. The khagan bared his teeth.
Yagmur said, “You have no right to determine the worthiness of my dead.”
All the lights exploded, a shattering fall of overloaded filaments and smoking glass. She squeezed, and squeezed. The gravity squeezed her back. Her remaining companions, fleshless, did nothing to help. She did not know how to stop.
The small bones of her fingers were pulp by the time the gold of the khagan’s eyes had dulled to emptiness. She leaned across his corpse and wished she was also one, as corpseflesh felt no hurt at all.
After some time, her leftmost companion came close, and touched the khagan’s cheeks with his translucent fingertips, dipping them just beneath the surface of his skin. He was quiet for a time. Then he said, All right, princess. Are you going to lay there til you rot?
Yagmur levered herself up with her elbows and put her ruined hands against the controls of the worldship. Her flesh shifted sickeningly. She grasped them mostly with palm and knucklejoint and tried not to vomit up the empty chryochem-laced bile in her stomach. She pushed with the heels of her hands, but the worldship did not open for her, did not turn for her, did not ask her for her name. There was not even an error message to guide her. She was the only living thing within the worldship now, and it did not know her. She thought she might as well lie back down.
You are not the child of the khagan, said her smallest companion.
“All the children of the khagan killed each other,” Yagmur said, between gritted teeth, and kicked the console, once. It did nothing but hurt the instep of her foot.
Worldships are stubborn, said her leftmost companion, and clannish. Had he lived, his blood would have woken the worldship to his hand, despite him merely being a cousin of a cousin of the khagan; he knew this and Yagmur knew he knew it, and was not saying so because there would not really have been a point.
Eventually Yagmur grew tired of waiting to see if she would become a corpse. “All right,” she said. “If it wants the blood of the khagan, it will have the blood of the khagan.” She held out one hand to her smallest companion, who obligingly numbed what was left of it between her calloused and insubstantial palms. Then she took from the remains of her flightsuit a knife, and with her eyes shut against the pain of gripping it, she sliced open the khagan’s belly between the cables and the ports. She kept the cut narrow and deep so that the blood did not well out. Instead she forces the sacks of meat that her fingers had become into the hole she had made and withdrew them coated red.
The worldship shimmered to life when she touched the console. It whispered to her of coordinates and the capacity of the engines and a long list of the names of the dead. It hummed and glowed and asked where, my lord, shall we ride. A hollowed-out keen came from Yagmur’s chest: the worldship lived, as she lived, still.
The khagan’s blood tried, tacky on her fingertips. The console dimmed in slow retreat. She turned back to dip them again, deeper and wetter, up to her wrist, the phalanges nestled between the arcs of his ribcage.
It won’t last, said her smallest companion. Yagmur paused.
You brought him down, said her leftmost companion.
Where her rightmost companion would have been, Yagmur saw and heard only darkness, the silence of the void and an end to all motion.
“It is not what I meant to do,” Yagmur said. “I meant to render you up for the vultures and then go away again.”
Princess, said her companions in chiming unison, and Yagmur looked up unthinkingly in answer.
Vulture, her companions said again, their mouths hollow black holes in their familiar dead faces, the worldship has eaten you already.
It was true.
Yagmur reached up through the cage of the khagan’s ribs, and closed her fist around the muscle of his still heart. She ripped it from its prison, and pulled it into the air. She paused, her eyes closed so as not to see it: she thought, not without regret, of being young, and alone, and leaving everything behind her.
When she bit into the heart of the khagan, tearing a long strip from its side and gulping it down, Yagmur held it over the hole in his belly so none of his blood would spill on the ground; and after she had swallowed, and swallowed, and swallowed, she found she fit precisely into the pilot-throne.
Lying there, she plotted a course.
“Nothing Must Be Wasted” came out of reading an article about modern vulture-breeders and sky burial on the Indian subcontinent. Due to egg-thinning pesticides, vulture populations have severely declined in the past few decades. Bodies left for sky burial are now often undevoured, leading to vast ecological and social consequences, including the development of vulture-breeding as a conservation effort. This story considers the responsibility owed to the dead, and the process of devouring.
“Green Mile Tunnel”, photographed in Ukraine’s “Tunnel of Love” in Rivne, Ukraine by serhei, is used under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.