Chapter 1

My family named me Ithriiks—"sturdy heart"—and held me aloft in the shadow of the Great Machine. My birth name was chosen to extol my strength as a hatchling; my chosen name would be aspirational. On my third molting, I chose the name Inaaks, "gentle hands." I would be the greatest weaver our house had ever known. I was so sure of it.

Then our world ended. Then… I was sure of nothing.

The end of our civilization came from the outside in, like a hand slowly closing around a throat. At first, it didn't feel real: Riis was gone, and my House was trapped aboard a Ketch, knowing that there was nothing at our backs. For so long, we broadcasted distress calls into the dark, hoping for others on the Long Drift to find us and offer succor. Help never came. Every satellite world we visited, the story was the same: desolation, death, despair. Weeks of searching turned into years, and I feared we were the only ship that slipped between those proverbial fingers of destruction. Were we the last? We had to continue hoping it wasn't so.

As we drifted among the stars, we inevitably lost members of our House along the way. I wove the finest memorial shrouds for our dead, so that they could rest in security and peace. Then, as the eggcloth ran out, we could not give them the dignity of binding. My gentle hands were eventually used to separate dead meat from carapace. We would not starve in the dark.

My son was brought into a world of isolation, abandonment, and suffering. I should have crushed his egg and woven it into cloth; a regret I will always carry. My sentimentality for the old world won out, and bitter hope for the future stayed my hand. I named him after my father. I did not know if we would carry on our House's tradition of birth names and chosen names. What purpose did it serve now? What did it matter?

My son's father died weeks after the birth. He was not missed. It was better that way. His death was something I did not regret.

It would be years before we encountered another Ketch. It bore the sigil of the House of Dancers, renowned for their skill with machines and their generosity to those in need. Their Kell agreed to send an emissary to discuss our needs. I knew this emissary, Eramis, when we were children. All I knew of her in adulthood was that she had a wife and hatchlings.

I had hoped the Whirlwind had taken it all from her. I hated myself for wanting that.

Eramis was no longer the meek child I once knew; that much was certain when I greeted her aboard my Ketch. She brought two hatchlings with her, just barely old enough to walk on their own. They were mischievous little things, the round one constantly trying to tug the taller one's arms off until Eramis disciplined them. I carried my son, swaddled to my chest, as a show of trust.

Negotiations between us were tense. I quickly realized that the House of Dancers had no interest in sharing their resources, but rather in assessing our own vulnerabilities. When it was clear to Eramis that we could not be easily disabled and stripped of our Ether, we found a "compromise." House of Dancers would be supplied with materials for repairs and, in turn, we would take on some of their people, along with a fractional store of Ether. She was sending them to die, with us, rather than condemn them to the cold and uncaring depths of space where her people could see. I learned who Eramis had become, and what ideals she lived by: "Two hands in greeting, two hands concealed."

It was an inequitable deal, and Eramis knew it. "Your alternative is death," she offered me.
A coward's voice slipped out of my mouth when I declined that choice. I asked her where her wife was, hoping I would inspire her to feel, for a moment, as hopeless as I did. She did not so much as flinch, then foisted the two hatchlings onto me. They were not hers, as I had assumed, but the first of the House of Dancers that we would take in the exchange.

Too many hands and not enough Ether to go around. The simplest solution was also the most difficult one. We had to find a way to thin our numbers again.