Principale Clarkesworld: Year Six

Clarkesworld: Year Six

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Taming the Alpha

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— Year Six —

edited by

Neil Clarke & Sean Wallace

Copyright © 2014 by Clarkesworld Magazine.

Cover art Copyright © 2012 by Martin Faragasso.

Ebook Design by Neil Clarke.

Wyrm Publishing

No portion of this book may be reproduced by any means, mechanical, electronic, or otherwise, without first obtaining the permission of the copyright holder.

All stories are copyrighted to their respective authors, and used here with their permission.

ISBN: 978-1-890464-27-1 (ebook)

ISBN: 978-1-890464-26-4 (trade paperback)

Visit Clarkesworld Magazine at:


Introduction by Neil Clarke

Scattered Along the River of Heaven by Aliette de Bodard

All the Painted Stars by Gwendolyn Clare

Prayer by Robert Reed

A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight by Xia Jia

And the Hollow Space Inside by Mari Ness

What Everyone Remembers by Rahul Kanakia

The Bells of Subsidence by Michael John Grist

The Switch by Sarah Stanton

Sunlight Society by Margaret Ronald

A Militant Peace by David Klecha and Tobias S. Buckell

All the Young Kirks and Their Good Intentions by Helena Bell

In Which Faster-Than-Light Travel Solves All of Our Problems by Chris Stabback

The Womb Factory by Peter M. Ferenczi

Draftyhouse by Erik Amundsen

All the Things the Moon Is Not by Alexander Lumans

Fade to White by Catherynne M. Valente

Astrophilia by Carrie Vaughn

If The Mountain Comes by An Owomoyela

From Their Paws, We Shall Inherit by Gary Kloster

Sirius by Ben Peek

Synch Me, Kiss Me, Drop by Suzanne Church

Iron Ladies, Iron Tigers by Sunny Moraine

Mantis Wives by Kij Johnson

Pony by Erik Amundsen

Robot by Helena Bell

The Found Girl by David Klecha and Tobias S. Buckell

muo-ka’s Child by Indrapramit Das

Honey Bear by Sofia Samatar

The Smell of Orange Groves by Lavie Tidhar

Silently and Very Fast by Catherynne M. Valente

Fragmentation, or Ten Thousand Goodbyes by Tom Crosshill

You Were She Who Abode by E. Catherine Tobler

Staying Behind by Ken Liu

Immersion;  by Aliette de Bodard

About the Authors

Clarkesworld Census

About Clarkesworld


You probably know the drill by now. This book contains all of the original fiction we published in Clarkesworld Magazine during its sixth year. That was a particularly tumultuous year for me. In July of 2012, I had a “widow-maker” heart attack that nearly killed me. Afterwards, I took a long, hard look at my life and started pruning away the unnecessary and focusing on what was important: family, friends, etc. As I worked through this process, I came to the realization that I was on the wrong career path. After nearly twenty-five years, I had lost the fire that fueled my interest in my day job. While I wasn’t looking, my passion shifted to editing and publishing.

One problem stood between me and my new dream job. Clarkesworld and Wyrm Publishing couldn’t pay my family’s bills, so practicality would have to rule while I continued to build the business. I think that was the moment when “if” changed to “when” for me. When events forced me to look for a new day job, I prioritized simplifying my life and chose a lower-level position that could still pay the bills, provide less stress, and have no expectations of overtime. This would allow me to focus more time on Clarkesworld. With that, I put myself on a new path, one that I hope leads me towards a better and more independent life.

Since then, Clarkesworld has slowly, but steadily, grown. I can’t quit the day job just yet, but thanks to people like you, I’m even more confident it will happen. By purchasing this book, subscribing to Clarkesworld, writing a review, or supporting us at Patreon, you are helping me realize that dream. Thank you! It means a lot.

Now . . . how about some stories?

Neil Clarke

March 19, 2014

Scattered Along the River of Heaven

Aliette de Bodard

I grieve to think of the stars

Our ancestors our gods

Scattered like hairpin wounds

Along the River of Heaven

So tell me

Is it fitting that I spend my days here

A guest in those dark, forlorn halls?

This is the first poem Xu Anshi gave to us; the first memory she shared with us for safekeeping. It is the first one that she composed in High Mheng—which had been and remains a debased language, a blend between that of the San-Tay foreigners, and that of the Mheng, Anshi’s own people.

She composed it on Shattered Pine Prison, sitting in the darkness of her cell, listening to the faint whine of the bots that crawled on the walls—melded to the metal and the crisscrossing wires, clinging to her skin—monitoring every minute movement she made—the voices of her heart, the beat of her thoughts in her brain, the sweat on her body.

Anshi had once been a passable poet in San-Tay, thoughtlessly fluent in the language of upper classes, the language of bot-handlers; but the medical facility had burnt that away from her, leaving an oddly-shaped hole in her mind, a gap that ached like a wound. When she tried to speak, no words would come out—not in San-Tay, not in High Mheng—only a raw croak, like the cry of a dying bird. Bots had once flowed to do her bidding; but now they only followed the will of the San-Tay.

There were no stars on Shattered Pine, where everything was dark with no windows; and where the faint yellow light soon leeched the prisoners’ skin of all colors. But, once a week, the prisoners would be allowed onto the deck of the prison station—heavily escorted by San-Tay guards. Bots latched onto their faces and eyes, forcing them to stare into the darkness—into the event horizon of the black hole, where all light spiraled inwards and vanished, where everything was crushed into insignificance. There were bodies outside—prisoners who had attempted to escape, put in lifesuits and jettisoned, slowly drifting into a place where time and space ceased to have any meaning. If they were lucky, they were already dead.

From time to time, there would be a jerk as the bots stung someone back into wakefulness; or low moans and cries, from those whose minds had snapped. Shattered Pine bowed and broke everyone; and the prisoners that were released back to Felicity Station came back diminished and bent, waking up every night weeping and shaking with the memory of the black hole.

Anshi—who had been a scholar, a low-level magistrate, before she’d made the mistake of speaking up against the San-Tay—sat very still, and stared at the black hole—seeing into its heart, and knowing the truth: she was of no significance, easily broken, easily crushed—but she had known that since the start. All men were as nothing to the vast universe.

It was on the deck that Anshi met Zhiying—a small, diminutive woman who always sat next to her. She couldn’t glance at Zhiying; but she felt her presence, nevertheless; the strength and hatred that emanated from her, that sustained her where other people failed.

Day after day they sat side by side, and Anshi formed poems in her mind, haltingly piecing them together in High Mheng—San-Tay was denied to her, and, like many of the Mheng upper class, she spoke no Low Mheng. Day after day, with the bots clinging to her skin like overripe fruit, and Zhiying’s presence, burning like fire at her side; and, as the verses became stronger and stronger in her mind, Anshi whispered words, out of the guards’ hearing, out of the bots’ discrimination capacities—haltingly at first, and then over and over, like a mantra on the prayer beads. Day after day; and, as the words sank deeper into her mind, Anshi slowly came to realize that the bots on her skin were not unmoving, but held themselves trembling, struggling against their inclination to move—and that the bots clinging to Zhiying were different, made of stronger materials to resist the fire of Zhiying’s anger. She heard the fast, frantic beat of their thoughts processes, which had its own rhythm, like poetry spoken in secret—and felt the hard shimmer that connected the bots to the San-Tay guards, keeping everything together.

And, in the dim light of Shattered Pine, Anshi subvocalised words in High Mheng, reaching out with her mind as she had done, back when she had been free. She hadn’t expected anything to happen; but the bots on her skin stiffened one after the other, and turned to the sound of her voice, awaiting orders.

Before she left Felicity, Xu Wen expected security at San-Tay Prime’s spaceport to be awful—they would take one glance at her travel documents, and bots would rise up from the ground and crawl up to search every inch of skin, every body cavity. Mother has warned her often enough that the San-Tay have never forgiven Felicity for waging war against them; that they will always remember the shame of losing their space colonies. She expects a personal interview with a Censor, or perhaps even to be turned back at the boundary, sent back in shame to Felicity.

But it doesn’t turn out that way at all.

Security is over in a breeze, the bots giving her nothing but a cursory body check before the guards wave her through. She has no trouble getting a cab either; things must have changed on San-Tay Prime, and the San-Tay driver waves her on without paying attention to the color of her skin.

“Here on holiday?” the driver asks her in Galactic, as she slides into the floater—her body sinking as the chair adapts itself to her morphology. Bots climb onto her hands, showing her ads for nearby hotels and restaurants: an odd, disturbing sight, for there are no bots on Felicity Station.

“You could say that,” Wen says, with a shrug she wills to be careless. “I used to live here.”

A long, long time ago, when she was still a baby; before Mother had that frightful fight with Grandmother, and left San-Tay Prime for Felicity.

“Oh?” the driver swerves, expertly, amidst the traffic; taking one wide, tree-lined avenue after another. “You don’t sound like it.”

Wen shakes her head. “I was born here, but I didn’t remain here long.”

“Gone back to the old country, eh?” The driver smiles. “Can’t say I blame you.”

“Of course,” Wen says, though she’s unsure what to tell him. That she doesn’t really know—that she never really lived here, not for more than a few years, and that she has a few confused memories of a bright-lit kitchen, and bots dancing for her on the carpet of Grandmother’s apartment? But she’s not here for such confidences. She’s here—well, she’s not sure why she’s here. Mother was adamant Wen didn’t have to come; but then, Mother has never forgiven Grandmother for the exile on San-Tay Prime.

Everything goes fine; until they reach the boundary district, where a group of large bots crawl onto the floater, and the driver’s eyes roll up as their thought-threads meld with his. At length, the bots scatter, and he turns back to Wen. “Sorry, m’am,” he says. “I have to leave you here.”

“Oh?” Wen asks, struggling to hide her fear.

“No floaters allowed into the Mheng districts currently,” the man says. “Some kind of funeral for a tribal leader—the brass is afraid there will be unrest.” He shrugs again. “Still, you’re local, right? You’ll find someone to help you.”

She’s never been here; and she doesn’t know anyone, anymore. Still, she forces a smile—always be graceful, Mother said—and puts her hand on one of the bots, feeling the warmth as it transfers money from her account on Felicity Station. After he’s left her on the paved sidewalk of a street she barely recognizes, she stands, still feeling the touch of the bots against her skin—on Felicity they call them a degradation, a way for the San-Tay government to control everything and everyone; and she just couldn’t bring herself to get a few locator-bots at the airport.

Wen looks up, at the signs—they’re in both languages, San-Tay and what she assumes is High Mheng, the language of the exiles. San-Tay is all but banned on Felicity, only found on a few derelict signs on the Outer Rings, the ones the National Restructuring Committee hasn’t gone around to retooling yet. Likewise, High Mheng isn’t taught, or encouraged. What little she can remember is that it’s always been a puzzle—the words look like Mheng; but when she tries to put everything together, their true meaning seems to slip away from her.

Feeling lost already, she wends her way deeper into the streets—those few shops that she bypasses are closed, with a white cloth spread over the door. White for grief, white for a funeral.

It all seems so—so wide, so open. Felicity doesn’t have streets lined with streets, doesn’t have such clean sidewalks—space on the station is at a ruthless premium, and every corridor is packed with stalls and shops—people eat at tables on the streets, and conduct their transactions in recessed doorways, or rooms half as large as the width of the sidewalk. She feels in another world; though, every now and then, she’ll see a word that she recognizes on a sign, and follow it, in the forlorn hope that it will lead her closer to the funeral hall.

Street after street after street—under unfamiliar trees that sway in the breeze, listening to the distant music broadcast from every doorway, from every lamp. The air is warm and clammy, a far cry from Felicity’s controlled temperature; and over her head are dark clouds. She almost hopes it rains, to see what it is like—in real life, and not in some simulation that seems like a longer, wetter version of a shower in the communal baths.

At length, as she reaches a smaller intersection, where four streets with unfamiliar signs branch off—some residential area, though all she can read are the numbers on the buildings—Wen stops, staring up at the sky. Might as well admit it: it’s useless. She’s lost, thoroughly lost in the middle of nowhere, and she’ll never be on time for the funeral.

She’d weep; but weeping is a caprice, and she’s never been capricious in her life. Instead, she turns back and attempts to retrace her steps, towards one of the largest streets—where, surely, she can hammer on a door, or find someone who will help her?

She can’t find any of the streets; but at length, she bypasses a group of old men playing Encirclement on the street—watching the shimmering holo-board as if their lives depended on it.

“Excuse me?” she asks, in Mheng.

As one, the men turn towards her—their gazes puzzled. “I’m looking for White Horse Hall,” Wen says. “For the funeral?”

The men still watch her, their faces impassive—dark with expressions she can’t read. They’re laden with smaller bots—on their eyes, on their hands and wrists, hanging black like obscene fruit: they look like the San-Tay in the reconstitution movies, except that their skins are darker, their eyes narrower.

At length, the eldest of the men steps forwards, and speaks up—his voice rerouted to his bots, coming out in halting Mheng. “You’re not from here.”

“No,” Wen says in the same language. “I’m from Felicity.”

An odd expression crosses their faces: longing, and hatred, and something else Wen cannot place. One of the men points to her, jabbers in High Mheng—Wen catches just one word she understands.

Xu Anshi.

“You’re Anshi’s daughter,” the man says. The bots’ approximation of his voice is slow, metallic, unlike the fast jabbering of High Mheng.

Wen shakes her head; and one of the other men laughs, saying something else in High Mheng.

That she’s too young, no doubt—that Mother, Anshi’s daughter, would be well into middle age by now, instead of being Wen’s age. “Daughter of daughter,” the man says, with a slight, amused smile. “Don’t worry, we’ll take you to the hall, to see your grandmother.”

He walks by her side, with the other man, the one who laughed. Neither of them speaks—too hard to attempt small talk in a language they don’t master, Wen guesses. They go down a succession of smaller and smaller streets, under banners emblazoned with the image of the phuong, Felicity’s old symbol, before the Honored Leader made the new banner, the one that showed the station blazing among the stars—something more suitable for their new status.

Everything feels . . . odd, slightly twisted out of shape—the words not quite what they ought to be, the symbols just shy of familiar; the language a frightening meld of words she can barely recognize.

Everything is wrong, Wen thinks, shivering—and yet how can it be wrong, walking among Grandmother’s own people?

Summoning bots I washed away

Ten thousand thousand years of poison

Awakening a thousand flower-flames, a thousand phoenix birds

Floating on a sea of blood like cresting waves

The weeping of the massacred millions rising from the darkness

We received this poem and its memories for safekeeping at a time when Xu Anshi was still on Felicity Station: on an evening before the Feast of Hungry Ghosts, when she sat in a room lit by trembling lights, thinking of Lao, her husband who had died in the uprisings—and wondering how much of it had been of any worth.

It refers to a time when Anshi was older, wiser—she and Zhiying had escaped from Shattered Pine, and spent three years moving from hiding place to hiding place, composing the pamphlets that, broadcast into every household, heralded the end of the San-Tay governance over Felicity.

On the night that would become known as the Second Ring Riots, Anshi stood in one of the inner rings of Felicity Station, her bots spread around her, hacked into the network—half of them on her legs, pumping modifiers into her blood; half of them linked to the other Mheng bot-handlers, retransmitting scenes of carnage, of the Mheng mob running wild in the San-Tay districts of the inner rings, the High Tribunal and Spaceport Authority lasered, and the fashionable districts trashed.

“This one,” Zhiying said, pointing to a taller door, adorned with what appeared to be a Mheng traditional blessing—until one realized that the characters had been chosen for aesthetic reasons only, and that they meant nothing.

Anshi sent a subvocalised command to her bots, asking them to take the house. The feed to the rioting districts cut off abruptly, as her bots turned their attention towards the door and the house beyond: their sensors analyzing the bots on the walls, the pattern of the aerations, the cables running behind the door, and submitting hypotheses about possible architectures of the security system—before the swarm reached a consensus, and made a decision.

The bots flowed towards the door—the house’s bots sought to stop them, but Anshi’s bots split into two squads, and rushed past, heading for the head—the central control panel, which housed the bots’ communication system. Anshi had a brief glimpse of red-painted walls, and blinking holos; before her bots rushed back, job completed, and fell on the now disorganized bots at the door.

Everything went dark, the Mheng characters slowly fading away from the door’s panels.

“All yours,” Anshi said to Zhiying, struggling to remain standing—all her bots were jabbering in her mind, putting forward suggestions as to what to do next; and, in her state of extreme fatigue, ignoring them was harder. She’d seen enough handlers burnt beyond recovery, their brains overloaded with external stimuli until they collapsed—she should have known better. But they needed her—the most gifted bot-handler they had, their strategist—needed her while the San-Tay were still reeling from their latest interplanetary war, while they were still weak. She’d rest later—after the San-Tay were gone, after the Mheng were free. There would be time, then, plenty of it.

Bao and Nhu were hitting the door with soldering knives—each blow weakening the metal until the door finally gave way with a groan. The crowd behind Anshi roared; and rushed through—pushing Anshi ahead of them, the world shrinking to a swirling, confused mass of details—gouged-out consoles, ornaments ripped from shelves, pale men thrown down and beaten against the rush of the crowd, a whirlwind of chaos, as if demons had risen up from the underworld.

The crowd spread as they moved inwards; and Anshi found herself at the center of a widening circle in what had once been a guest room. Beside her, Bao was hacking at a nondescript bed, while others in the crowd beat down on the huge screen showing a sunset with odd, distorted trees—some San-Tay planet that Anshi did not recognize, maybe even Prime. Anshi breathed, hard, struggling to steady herself in the midst of the devastation. Particles of down and dust drifted past her; she saw a bot on the further end, desperately trying to contain the devastation, scuttling to repair the gashes in the screen. Nhu downed it with a well-placed kick; her face distorted in a wide, disturbing grin.

“Look at that!” Bao held up a mirror-necklace, which shimmered and shifted, displaying a myriad configurations for its owner’s pleasure.

Nhu’s laughter was harsh. “They won’t need it anymore.” She held out a hand; but Bao threw the necklace to the ground; and ran it through with his knife.

Anshi did not move—as if in a trance she saw all of it: the screen, the bed, the pillows that sought to mould themselves to a pleasing shape, even as hands tore them apart; the jewellery scattered on the ground; and the image of the forest, fading away to be replaced by a dull, split-open wall—every single mark of San-Tay privilege, torn away and broken, never to come back. Her bots were relaying similar images from all over the station. The San-Tay would retaliate, but they would have understood, now, how fragile the foundation of their power was. How easily the downtrodden Mheng could become their downfall; and how much it would cost them to hold Felicity.


Anshi wandered through the house, seeking out the San-Tay bots—those she could hack and reprogram, she added to her swarm; the others she destroyed, as ruthlessly as the guards had culled the prisoners on Shattered Pine.

Anshi. Anshi.

Something was blinking, insistently, in the corner of her eyes—the swarm, bringing something to her attention. The kitchens—Zhiying, overseeing the executions. Bits and pieces, distorted through the bots’ feed: the San-Tay governor, begging and pleading to be spared; his wife, dying silently, watching them all with hatred in her eyes. They’d had no children; for which Anshi was glad. She wasn’t Zhiying, and she wasn’t sure she’d have borne the guilt.

Guilt? There were children dying all over the station; men and women killed, if not by her, by those who followed her. She spared a bitter laugh. There was no choice. Children could die; or be raised to despise the inferior breed of the Mheng; be raised to take slaves and servants, and send dissenters like Anshi to be broken on Shattered Pine with a negligent wave of their hands. No choice.

Come, the bots whispered in her mind, but she did not know why.

Zhiying was down to the Grand Master of Security when Anshi walked into the kitchens—she barely nodded at Anshi, and turned her attention back to the man aligned in the weapons’ sights.

She did not ask for any last words; though she did him the honor of using a bio-silencer on him, rather than the rifles they’d used on the family—his body crumpled inwards and fell, still intact; and he entered the world of the ancestors with the honor of a whole body. “He fought well,” Zhiying said, curtly. “What of the house?”

“Not a soul left living,” Anshi said, flicking through the bots’ channels. “Not much left whole, either.”

“Good,” Zhiying said. She gestured; and the men dragged the next victim—a Mheng girl, dressed in the clothes of an indentured servant.

This—this was what the bots had wanted her to see. Anshi looked to the prisoners huddled against the wall: there was one San-Tay left, an elderly man who gazed back at her, steadily and without fear. The rest—all the rest—were Mheng, dressed in San-Tay clothes, their skin pale and washed-out in the flickering lights—stained with what looked like rice flour from one of the burst bags on the floor. Mheng. Their own people.

“Elder sister,” Anshi said, horrified.

Zhiying’s face was dark with anger. “You delude yourself. They’re not Mheng anymore.”

“Because they were indentured into servitude? Is that your idea of justice? They had no choice,” Anshi said. The girl against the wall said nothing; her gaze slid away from Zhiying, to the rifle; finally resting on the body of her dead mistress.

“They had a choice. We had a choice,” Zhiying said. Her gaze—dark and intense—rested, for a moment, on the girl. “If we spare them, they’ll just run to the militia, and denounce us to find themselves a better household. Won’t you?” she asked.

Anshi, startled, realized Zhiying had addressed the girl—whose gaze still would not meet theirs, as if they’d been foreigners themselves.

At length, the girl threw her head back, and spoke in High Mheng. “They were always kind with me, and you butchered them like pigs.” She was shivering now. “What will you achieve? You can’t hide on Felicity. The San-Tay will come here and kill you all, and when they’re done, they’ll put us in the dark forever. It won’t be cushy jobs like this—they’ll consign us to the scavenge heaps, to the ducts-cleaning and the bots-scraping, and we won’t ever see starlight again.”

“See?” Zhiying said. “Pathetic.” She gestured, and the girl crumpled like the man before her. The soldiers dragged the body away, and brought the old San-Tay man. Zhiying paused; and turned back to Anshi. “You’re angry.”

“Yes,” Anshi said. “I did not join this so we could kill our own countrymen.”

Zhiying’s mouth twisted in a bitter smile. “Collaborators,” she said. “How do you think a regime like the San-Tay continues to exist? It’s because they take some of their servants, and set them above others. Because they make us complicit in our own oppression. That’s the worst of what they do, little sister—turn us against each other.”

No. The thought was crystal-clear in Anshi’s mind, like a blade held against starlight. That’s not the worst. The worst is that, to fight them, we have to best them at their own game.

She watched the old man as he died; and saw nothing in his eyes but the reflection of that bitter knowledge.

White Horse Hall is huge, so huge that it’s a wonder Wen didn’t see it from afar—more than a hundred stories, and more unveil as her floater lifts higher and higher, away from the crowd massed on the ground. Above the cloud cover, other white-clad floaters weave in and out of the traffic, as if to the steps of a dance only they can see.

She’s alone: her escort left her at the floater station—the older man with a broad smile and a wave, and the second man with a scowl, looking away from her. As they ascend higher and higher, and the air thins out—to almost the temperature of Felicity— Wen tries to relax, but cannot do so. She’s late; and she knows it—and they probably won’t admit her into the hall at all. She’s a stranger here; and Mother is right: she would be better off in Felicity with Zhengyao, enjoying her period of rest by flying kites, or going for a ride on Felicity’s River of Good Fortune.

At the landing pad, a woman is waiting for her: small and plump, with hair shining silver in the unfiltered sunlight. Her face is frozen in careful blankness, and she wears the white of mourners, with none of the markers for the family of the dead.

“Welcome,” she says, curtly nodding to acknowledge Wen’s presence. “I am Ho Van Nhu.”

“Grandmother’s friend,” Wen says.

Nhu’s face twists in an odd expression. “You know my name?” She speaks perfect Galactic, with a very slight trace of an accent—heard only in the odd inflections she puts on her own name.

Wen could lie; could say that Mother spoke of her often; but here, in this thin, cold air, she finds that she cannot lie—any more than one does not lie in the presence of the Honoured Leader. “They teach us about you in school,” she says, blushing.

Nhu snorts. “Not in good terms, I’d imagine. Come,” she says. “Let’s get you prepared.”

There are people everywhere, in costumes Wen recognizes from her history lessons—oddly old-fashioned and formal, collars flaring in the San-Tay fashion, though the five panels of the dresses are those of the Mheng high court, in the days before the San-Tay’s arrival.

Nhu pushes her way through the crowd, confident, until they reach a deserted room. She stands for a while in the center, eyes closed, and bots crawl out of the interstices, dragging vegetables and balls of rolled-up dough—black and featureless, their bodies gleaming like knife-blades, their legs moving on a rhythm like centipedes or spiders.

Wen watches, halfway between fascination and horror, as they cut up the vegetables into small pieces—flatten the dough and fill up dumplings, and put them inside small steamer units that other bots have dragged up. Other bots are already cleaning up the counter, and there is a smell in the room—tea brewing in a corner. “I don’t—” Wen starts. How can she eat any of that, knowing how it was prepared? She swallows, and forces herself to speak more civilly. “I should be with her.”

Nhu shakes her head. Beads of sweat pearl on her face; but she seems to be gaining color as the bots withdraw, one by one—except that Wen can still see them, tucked away under the cupboards and the sink, like curled-up cockroaches. “This is the wake, and you’re already late for it. It won’t make any difference if you come in quarter of an hour later. And I would be a poor host if I didn’t offer you any food.”

There are two cups of tea on the central table; Nhu pours from a teapot, and pushes one to Wen—who hesitates for a moment, and then takes it, fighting against a wave of nausea. Bots dragged out the pot; the tea leaves. Bots touched the liquid that she’s inhaling right now.

“You look like your mother when she was younger,” Nhu says, sipping at the tea. “Like your grandmother, too.” Her voice is matter-of-fact; but Wen can feel the grief Nhu is struggling to contain. “You must have had a hard time, at school.”

Wen thinks on it for a while. “I don’t think so,” she says. She’s had the usual bullying, the mockeries of her clumsiness, of her provincial accent. But nothing specifically directed at her ancestors. “They did not really care about who my grandmother was.” It’s the stuff of histories now; almost vanished—only the generation of the Honored Leader remembers what it was like, under the San-Tay.

“I see,” Nhu says.

An uncomfortable silence stretches, which Nhu makes no effort to break.

Small bots float by, carrying a tray with the steamed dumplings—like the old vids, when the San-Tay would be receiving their friends at home. Except, of course, that the Mheng were doing the cutting-up and the cooking, in the depths of the kitchen.

“They make you uncomfortable,” Nhu says.

Wen grimaces. “I—we don’t have bots, on Felicity.”

“I know. The remnants of the San-Tay—the technologies of servitude, which should better be forgotten and lost.” Her voice is light, ironic; and Wen realizes that she is quoting from one of the Honored Leader’s speeches. “Just like High Mheng. Tell me, Wen, what do the histories say of Xu Anshi?”

Nothing, Wen wants to say; but as before, she cannot bring herself to lie. “That she used the technologies of the San-Tay against them; but that, in the end, she fell prey to the lure of their power.” It’s what she’s been told all her life; the only things that have filled the silence Mother maintains about Grandmother. But, now, staring at this small, diminutive woman, she feels almost ashamed. “That she and her followers were given a choice between exile, and death.”

“And you believe that?”

“I don’t know,” Wen says. And, more carefully, “Does it matter?”

Nhu shrugs, shaking her head. “Mingxia—your mother once asked Anshi if she believed in reconciliation with Felicity. Anshi told her that reconciliation was nothing more than another word for forgetfulness. She was a hard woman. But then, she’d lost so much in the war. We all did.”

“I’m not Mother,” Wen says, and Nhu shakes her head, with a brief smile.

“No. You’re here.”

Out of duty, Wen thinks. Because someone has to come, and Mother won’t. Because someone should remember Grandmother, even if it’s Wen—who didn’t know her, didn’t know the war. She wonders what the Honored Leader will say about Grandmother’s death, on Felicity—if she’ll mourn the passing of a liberator, or remind them all to be firm, to reject the evil of the San-Tay, more than sixty years after the foreigners’ withdrawal from Felicity.

She wonders how much of the past is worth clinging to.

See how the gilded Heavens are covered

With the burning bitter tears of our departed

Cast away into darkness, they contradict no truths

Made mute and absent, they denounce no lies

Anshi gave this poem into our keeping on the night after her daughter left her. She was crying then, trying not to show it—muttering about ungrateful children, and their inability to comprehend any of what their ancestors had gone through. Her hand shook, badly; and she stared into her cup of tea, as hard as she had once stared into the black hole and its currents, dragging everything into the lightless depths. But then, as on Shattered Pine, the only thing that came to her was merciless clarity, like the glint of a blade or a claw.

It is an old, old composition, its opening lines the last Anshi wrote on Felicity Station. Just as the first poem defined her youth—the escaped prisoner, the revolution’s foremost bot-handler—this defined her closing decades, in more ways than one.

The docks were deserted; not because it was early in the station’s cycle, not because the war had diminished interstellar travel; but because the docks had been cordoned off by Mheng loyalists. They gazed at Anshi, steadily—their eyes blank; though the mob behind them brandished placards and howled for her blood.

“It’s not fair,” Nhu said. She was carrying Anshi’s personal belongings—Anshi’s bots, and those of all her followers, were already packed in the hold of the ship. Anshi held her daughter Mingxia by the hand: the child’s eyes were wide, but she didn’t speak. Anshi knew she would have questions, later—but all that mattered, here and now, was surviving this. “You’re a heroine of the uprising. You shouldn’t have to leave like a branded criminal.”

Anshi said nothing. She scanned the crowd, wondering if Zhiying would be there, at the last—if she’d smile and wish her well, or make one last stab of the knife. “She’s right, in a way,” she said, wearily. The crowd’s hatred was palpable, even where she stood. “The bots are a remnant of the San-Tay, just like High Mheng. It’s best for everyone if we forget it all.” Best for everyone but them.

“You don’t believe that,” Nhu said.

“No.” Not any of that; but she knew what was in Zhiying’s heart, the hatred of the San-Tay that she carried with her—that, to her little sister, she would be nothing more than a collaborator herself—tainted by her use of the enemy’s technology.

“She just wants you gone. Because you’re her rival.”

“She doesn’t think like that,” Anshi said, more sharply than she’d intended; and she knew, too, that she didn’t believe that. Zhiying had a vision of the Mheng as strong and powerful; and she’d allow nothing and no one to stand in its way.

They were past the cordon now, and the maw of the ship gaped before them—the promise of a life somewhere else, on another planet. Ironic, in a way—the ship was from the San-Tay High Government, seeking amends for their behavior on colonized stations. If someone had ever told her she’d ride one of those as a guest . . .

Nhu, without hesitation, was heading up towards the dark tunnel. “You don’t have to come,” Anshi said.

Nhu rolled her eyes upwards, and made no comment. Like Anshi, she was old guard; a former teacher in the Mheng schools, fluent in High Mheng, and with a limited ability to control the bots. A danger, like Anshi.

There was a noise behind them—the beginning of a commotion. Anshi turned; and saw that, contrary to what she’d thought, Zhiying had come.

She wore the sash of Honored Leader well; and the stars of Felicity’s new flag were spread across her dress—which was a shorter, less elaborate version of the five-panel ceremonial garb. Her hair had been pulled up in an elegant bun, thrust through with a golden phoenix pin, the first jewel to come out of the station’s new workshops—she was unrecognizable from the gaunt, tall prisoner Anshi remembered, or even from the dark, intense leader of the rebellion years.

“Elder sister.” She bowed to Anshi, but did not come closer; remaining next to her escort of black-clad soldiers. “We wish you happiness, and good fortune among the stars.”

“We humbly thank you, Your Reverence,” Anshi said—keeping the irony, and the hurt from her voice. Zhiying’s eyes were dark, with the same anger Anshi remembered from the night of the Second Ring riots—the night when the girl had died. They stood, staring at each other, and at length Zhiying gestured for Anshi to move.

Anshi backed away, slowly, pulling her daughter by the hand. She wasn’t sure why she felt . . . drained, as if a hundred bots had been pumping modifiers into her blood, and had suddenly stopped. She wasn’t sure what she’d expected—an apology? Zhiying had never been one for it; or for doubts of any kind. But still—

Still, they’d been on Shattered Pine together; had escaped together; had preached and written the poetry of the revolution, and dared each other to hack into Felicity’s network to spread it into every household, every corridor screen.

There should have been something more than a formal send-off; something more than the eyes boring into hers—dark and intense, and with no hint of sorrow or tears.

We do not weep for the enemy, Anshi thought; as she turned, and passed under the wide metal arc that led into the ship, her daughter’s hand heavy in hers.

In the small antechamber, Wen dons robes of dark blue—those reserved for the mourners who are the closest family to the dead. She can hear, in the distance, the drone of prayers from the priests, and the scuttling of bots on the walls, carrying faint music until the entire structure of the hall seems to echo with it. Slowly, carefully, she rises, and stares at her pale, wan self in the mirror—with coiled bots at its angles, awaiting just an order to awaken and bring her anything she might desire. Abominations, she thinks, uneasily, but it’s hard to see them as something other than alien, incomprehensible.

Nhu is waiting for her at the great doors—the crowd has parted, letting her through with an almost religious hush. In silence, Wen kneels, her head bent down—an honor to the dead, an acknowledgement that she is late and that she must make amends, for leaving Grandmother’s ghost alone.

She hears a noise as the doors open—catches a flash of a crowd dressed in blue; and then she is crawling towards the coffin, staring at the ground ahead of her. By her side, there are glimpses of dresses’ hems, of shoes that are an uneasy meld of San-Tay and Mheng. Ahead, a steady drone from the monks at the pulpit, taken up by the crowd; a prayer in High Mheng, incomprehensible words segueing into a melodious chant; and a smell of incense mingled with something else, a flower she cannot recognize. The floor under her is warm, soft—unlike Felicity’s utilitarian metal or carpets, a wealth of painted ostentation with patterns she cannot make out.

As she crawls, Wen finds herself, incongruously, thinking of Mother.

She asked, once, why Mother had left San-Tay Prime—expecting Mother to rail once more at Grandmother’s failures. But Mother merely pulled a low bench, and sat down with a sigh. “There was no choice, child. We could dwindle away on San-Tay Prime, drifting further and further away from Felicity with every passing moment. Or we could come back home.”

“It’s not Grandmother’s home,” Wen said, slowly, confusedly—with a feeling that she was grappling with something beyond her years.

“No,” Mother said. “And, if we had waited too long, it wouldn’t have been your home either.”

“I don’t understand.” Wen put a hand on one of the kitchen cupboards—the door slid away, letting her retrieve a can of dried, powdered shrimp, which she dumped into the broth on the stove.

“Like two men carried away by two different currents in the river—both ending in very different places.” She waved a dismissive hand. “You’ll understand, when you’re older.”

“Is that why you’re not talking with Grandmother?”

Mother grimaced, staring into the depths of her celadon cup. “Grandmother and I . . . did not agree on things,” she said. “Sometimes I think . . . ” She shook her head. “Stubborn old woman. She never could admit that she had lost. That the future of Felicity wasn’t with bots, with High Mheng; with any of what the San-Tay had left us.”

Bots. High Mheng—all of the things that don’t exist anymore, on the new Felicity—all the things the Honored Leader banished, for the safety and glory of the people. “Mother . . . ” Wen said, suddenly afraid.

Her mother smiled; and for the first time Wen saw the bitterness in her eyes. “Never mind, child. This isn’t your burden to carry.”

Wen did not understand. But now . . . now, as she crawls down the aisle, breathing in the unfamiliar smells, she thinks she understands. Reconciliation means forgetfulness, and is it such a bad thing that they forget, that they are no longer chained to the hatreds of the past?

She reaches the coffin, and rises—turns, for a brief moment, to stare at the sea of humanity before her—the blurred faces with bots at the corner of their eyes, with alien scents and alien clothes. They are not from Felicity anymore, but something else—poised halfway between the San-Tay and the culture that gave them birth; and, as the years pass, those that do not come back will drift further and further from Felicity, until they will pass each other in the street, and not feel anything but a vague sense of familiarity, like long-lost families that have become strangers to each other.

No, not from Felicity anymore—and does it matter, any of it?

Wen has no answer—none of Mother’s bleak certainties about life. And so she turns away from the crowd, and looks into the coffin—into the face of a stranger, across a gap like a flowing river, dark and forever unbridgeable.

I am in halves, dreaming of a faraway home

Not a dry spot on my moonlit pillow

Through the open window lies the stars and planets

Where ten thousand family members have scattered

Along the River of Heaven, with no bridges to lead them home

The long yearning

Cuts into my heart

This is the last poem we received from Xu Anshi; the last one she composed, before the sickness ate away at her command of High Mheng, and we could no longer understand her subvocalised orders. She said to us then, “it is done”; and turned away from us, awaiting death.

We are here now, as Wen looks at the pale face of her grandmother. We are not among our brethren in the crowd—not clinging to faces, not curled on the walls or at the corner of mirrors, awaiting orders to unfold.

We have another place.

We rest on the coffin with Xu Anshi’s other belongings; scattered among the paper offerings—the arch leading into the Heavens, the bills stamped with the face of the King of Hell. We sit quiescent, waiting for Xu Wen to call us up—that we might flow up to her like a black tide, carrying her inheritance to her, and the memories that made up Xu Anshi’s life from beginning to end.

But Wen’s gaze slides right past us, seeing us as nothing more than a necessary evil at the ceremony; and the language she might summon us in is one she does not speak and has no interest in.

In silence, she walks away from the coffin to take her place among the mourners—and we, too, remain silent, taking our understanding of Xu Anshi’s life into the yawning darkness.

“With apologies to Qiu Jin, Bei Dao and the classical

Tang poets for borrowing and twisting their best lines”

All the Painted Stars

Gwendolyn Clare

They are not the Brights, and so I hesitate to save them. Part of me is eager, and part of me ashamed.

Even through the haze of plasma blasts dispersing over their shields, I recognize the ship as a Bright construct—too much glass, arranged in sharp geometric panels so the entire upper surface glitters with reflected starlight. Still, I know the pilots must not be Brights. First, because they fly clumsily and appear not to know how to fire the main cannon. Second, because the Brights went extinct some twelve hundred solar cycles ago.

I decide to take a closer look at their attackers, and the fibers in my flesh tauten with anticipation—though I tell myself I will just look, not engage. Intent ripples down my middle tentacles to the interface between flesh and machine, and my little stellate-class fighter zips nearer. The attackers have seven mid-size cruisers, nothing so cumbersome as the Bright ship nor so whimsical—boxy and compact, and decked with weapons. I do not recognize the design. Some backwater species, no doubt. I am patrolling near the edge of protected space, so it is to be expected.

I choose a wide selection of frequencies and broadcast an audial message to all the ships in the vicinity. “Hostile vessels, please be informed you have entered protected space. Under the laws of the Sheekah, acts of genocide are punishable by death. Power down your plasma weapons.”

The attackers do not respond. But then, if they do not know our laws, what is the chance they know our language?

I broadcast the same message in the Bright language, and then add, “You must provide evidence of personal grievance to a Sheekah enforcer prior to engaging in interspecies violence.”

I wish I did not feel a surge of excitement at their silence, at the continued barrage of plasma fire.

I spin the fighter nervously, considering my options. The aggressor may hold a legitimate grievance and simply suffer from an onboard system too crude to translate the transmissions. Or they may have chosen to ignore me, assuming my tiny fighter poses no threat. A compromise then: I will destroy one ship at a time until they relent.

My neurochemical balance adjusts, heightening awareness and reducing reaction time, and I cannot help but enjoy the feel of neurons singing for battle. I trigger the thrusters and slice through the void toward the nearest ship, my body fibers tensing against the heavy acceleration. My fighter is a difficult target to hit—shaped like an eight-pointed geometric star, with just enough room for my core mass in the middle and a tentacle stretching down each ray of the star for interfacing. Stellate-class fighters are highly maneuverable, but I am still outnumbered six to one. This is why I am an enforcer: I am one of the few Sheekah violent enough to accept such odds with glee.

I fire my own weapons in quick, precise bursts, and the reactors of the first cruiser explode in a glorious ultraviolet light-show. Now I have the attention of the rest; two of the remaining cruisers break off from their engagement with the Bright ship to pursue me. I dance away like a comet on an eccentric orbit, there and gone again before they can look twice.

When I repeat the transmission, I should be saddened that they still do not cease fire, though in truth the challenge thrills me. I dart through their fleet and destroy two more cruisers, pausing between each explosion, but the remaining cruisers seem if anything incensed to further violence.

I am closing in on the fourth cruiser when my fighter is hit.

Stellate-class fighters are much too small to carry shield generators, relying instead on maneuverability to avoid getting hit. Ironically, it is not a plasma blast that finds my little fighter, but a shred of shrapnel from one of the cruisers I destroyed. Through the interface, I feel the shrapnel impact as if it were slicing my own flesh, and then one of my tentacles goes numb, a safety precaution against excess stimulation. I run diagnostics and discover that one ray of the star is badly damaged, the thrusters useless.

Well. This changes things.

My fighter has a Stillness Bomb installed, though I have never before activated it. Use of the Stillness is tightly regulated under Sheekah law—it is considered a last resort. But here I am, damaged and outnumbered, and the Brights were never formally removed from our list of treatised allies so I am justified in using the Stillness to defend the Bright ship. A technicality, of course, since I know the inhabitants aren’t Brights, but it allows me to use the weapon nonetheless.

To save them, I need to maneuver into contact with their hull, a task I struggle to accomplish without my full array of thrusters. After long seconds of angling, I pass through the Bright shields and stab into the ship, one of the rays of my fighter penetrating the hull. The ray unfolds, sealing the two vessels together and leaving one of my tentacles dangling down through an open aperture into a hallway in the Bright ship. This fusion complete, I can now calibrate the Stillness Bomb to avoid the Bright ship and its occupants. When I am certain the weapon identifies the Bright ship as an extension of my fighter, I meticulously disengage three levels of safeties and activate the Stillness.

My fighter shudders, straining to stay attached to the Bright ship, then goes still. For a moment, nothing seems to have changed, and I wonder if perhaps the weapon was damaged in the firefight. Then the attackers’ plasma weapons sputter and die out, and the four remaining cruisers start to drift very slowly out of formation. The motion is barely perceptible, but it fills me with a cold, sick dread. All those lives snuffed out, and what if my judgment was wrong? What a wretched Sheekah am I, who would choose this life of killing.

I do not have long to think on it, though, because the stress of activating the weapon has exacerbated the damage, and my fighter’s systems are failing. I must abandon it or die with it. I consider the second option—after all, what am I without my fighter?—but the automated preferences are set for survival, so the fighter disconnects me without waiting for my decision.

As soon as the emergency disconnect triggers, I am blind and suffocating. I fall through the aperture of my fighter into the Bright ship, bits of metal interface still clinging to my tentacles, and I land hard. I flop helplessly on the deck, unadapted for artificial gravity, and without my fighter I sense nothing. My circulatory fluid is slowly turning toxic, and even if the atmospheric composition were appropriate, I have no organs designed for interfacing with air.

I need lungs or I will die. I need visual and auditory organs, too. Immobile as I am, I must wait for the telltale vibration of feet upon the deck, heralding the arrival of the aliens. I think I feel it now, I can’t be sure—even my ability to feel the shudder of metal against my flesh is dulled without the electronic stimulus of my fighter.

I flail my tentacles, panicking, and find nothing but empty air. To calm myself, I focus on the task of slowing all nonessential bodily functions. This will buy me a little time, I hope. I cannot quite think rationally with all my neurochemical feedbacks screaming at me to adapt, to survive.

Again, I flail desperately, but this time one tentacle lands on bare flesh. Yes! I eagerly wrap my tentacle around the limb and begin probing for genetic information. Stem cells are ideal—they retain the broadest memory of how the organism as a whole works—though gametes provide a useful perspective, too. I do not dare to hope for embryonic cells, because that would require an incredible stroke of luck and my luck has not been good today.

The stem cells of this species have disappointingly limited potency, but I explore enough to start appropriating their genetic design. The toxin buildup in my circulatory system clouds my thoughts and slows my progress. I hope what I can glean from this individual will be sufficient.

I begin to understand this species as my body begins to integrate their design. They are bilaterally symmetric, endoskeletal, bipedal, endothermic, sexually dimorphic. (Definitely not Brights—if I had any doubts about that, they are gone now.) They have sensory organs for electromagnetic radiation, compression waves, and chemicals. I grow the lung tissue first, so I will be able to breathe as soon as my cellular respiration has altered, then I focus on retinas and cochleae.

As my new senses sharpen and stabilize, I gain awareness of the aliens. There are several of them encircling me, black handheld weapons cradled in their arms. They raise their weapons menacingly, and raise their voices as well; the one I am touching emits a shrill warning call. I begin to realize how very dire my situation is. Have I violated a taboo against physical contact? Perhaps they are a race of clinical xenophobes? I do not know what I have done to agitate them so quickly after I saved their lives.

I was never meant to be an ambassador—I do not have the training, and I am too violent besides. I have spent the last thirty-six solar cycles alone inside my fighter, engaging with other species only in my capacity as an enforcer of Sheekah law. And now I find myself in contact with a new species, trying to remember how to mimic physiology, to become one of them. I fear I have already ruined any chance of rapport.

When I am sure I have collected sufficient genetic data to survive in their atmosphere, I unwrap my tentacle, releasing the gene donor. I suck down my first lungfuls of oxygen through newly formed facial orifices.

And the difficult part begins.

They do not kill me right away. I take this as a good sign. They lift me onto a mobile platform and move me to a room with other platforms, some of them occupied by members of their own species. These ones do little in the way of moving or vocalizing, but they also leave me with two males holding weapons. I do not try to ask the killers for more gene donation.

Time passes. Other aliens—ones who do not carry weapons—are often present, watching me, waving diagnostic equipment over me, trying to communicate. I have no translating abilities without my fighter, so I must learn their language the slow way. I grow legs and arms, I learn to metabolize their sugars, I grow vocal chords and lips and a tongue to shape their words. I wonder if my fighter is irreparably damaged, which would mean all this effort to survive is a waste.

I am learning names. Mosby, Rosenberg, Liu; Ahmed, Levitt, Jones. But I do not know what to tell them when they ask for mine. I pause, they think I do not understand and gesture more vigorously towards me. Mosby Rosenberg Liu Ahmed Levitt Jones, they repeat, touching themselves with their hands, then they aim their digits at me and wait for an answer. What can I tell them? Sheekah are named when they choose their lifepath—as a pilot, my name is the name of my stellate fighter. Or at least it was. My fighter is damaged, I am no longer interfaced, and I have taken a new form, yet I am hardly in a position to ask them to name me as a true ambassador would. I cannot even communicate what the problem is.

“Ohree,” I eventually say. It was my childhood nickname long ago. Fitting, because I am so like a child now—awkward and unplaced.

“Ohree,” they repeat, and the name sounds distorted even though we share a vocal anatomy now.

I cannot explain anything, I cannot ask for anything. I can only point to an object and earn a garble of syllables for an answer. Does “medbay” describe the platform, the material it is made of, the function it serves, or the person lying prone upon it? Is “door” the word for an egress, or the object that blocks the egress? For the first time since I was a child, fumbling to find my lifepath, I feel hopelessly frustrated.

Liu and Rosenberg are in the room with me when I decide I no longer care about upsetting them. If they tell the killers to shoot me, then I will be shot, and at least that will be a change from what I am now. I slide off the platform, balancing uncertainly with my new bipedal body, and take careful steps toward one wall where there appears to be some kind of interface terminal. Rosenberg makes loud vocalizations, and I ignore her.

The terminal has a manual interface—buttons to be depressed by fingers, unthinkably primitive—which I rip out of the wall. I press one palm to the exposed circuitry and close my eyelids, concentrating on the task of growing a direct electronic interface of my own.

They still haven’t shot me yet.

I learn this terminal was designed for accessing the medical portion of the ship’s database, which is unfortunately not the portion that I need. I mentally slip behind the front-end processes and gain access to the database in its entirety. It is very large, and organized with the dubious logic of Bright minds, information twisting and twining back on itself like a jumble of vines grown together. Eventually, I access the language files for these aliens and use what little I know to identify “English” as the dialect I need to download.

When the task is done, I disengage from the terminal and resorb the interface into the flesh of my hand. “Now,” I say, “this will be easier.”

“Incredible,” says Liu, shaking his head. The gesture makes me wonder if I should have looked for a file on nonverbal communication among humans.

Rosenberg stares at me, and then says, “Someone better get Mosby.”

Upon my life, I do not know why it was so important to fetch Mosby. He asks the most inane questions, while Rosenberg holds her lips tight together and Liu backs away as if ceding the whole room.

Once I prove to Mosby that I am now conversant in his language, the first thing he says to me is, “We need to know about that weapon you fired.” Mosby is the most important of their trained killers and holds the title of “colonel.” He tells the other killers what to do.

I don’t see the relevance, but I answer his question anyway. “It produces a sort of space-time whiplash that disrupts neurological functioning. Fatally so, in all organisms we’ve encountered so far.”

“Is it still usable?”

I stare at him for a moment. “No, that’s unlikely. The damage to my fighter is too extensive. Were you planning to commit genocide in the near future?”

Mosby’s face scrunches up in an expression I do not understand. Rosenberg takes a step forward, places a hand on his arm, and says to me, “Of course not. The Colonel’s just worried about defending the ship against another attack.”

“That is no longer my concern,” I say.

“What do you mean ‘not your concern’?” Mosby says, his volume and pitch rising. “Aren’t you supposed to be some sort of interstellar policeman?”

“I am no longer interfaced with my fighter.”

Mosby says, “Listen, you—” but Rosenberg drags him by the arm out into the hallway.

They talk. I cannot quite hear, but I believe I have displeased one or both of them. I am not sure how—it was not my intention.

Liu, who seems to avoid standing in proximity to Mosby, comes closer again now that Mosby is elsewhere. “Don’t judge all of us based on the likes of Mosby,” he says. “There’s a reason they put a civilian in charge of the expedition.”

I don’t know who “they” refers to, but I doubt it matters. “I am not here to judge you. The only judgment I am authorized to make is to determine the legitimacy of grievance in interspecies conflict.”

Liu does something with the muscles in his lips. “I’m sorry, it’s easy to forget you learned our language less than an hour ago. I meant that you must be forming impressions of what our species is like, and Mosby isn’t representative. Not of all of us, anyway.”

“I will take that under consideration.”

Rosenberg returns alone. She apologizes for Mosby’s behavior, though I would not have known he behaved inappropriately if she and Liu had not told me. Rosenberg is a leader, but not a killer, and seems to have incomplete authority over Mosby.

“So,” Rosenberg says as she leans against the exam table next to mine. “You saved our butts out there, and now you’re stuck with us. First of all: thank you. Second, if we could impose upon you further, we could use some help navigating this region of space.”

Now I am truly confused. “You do not know where you are going?”

Rosenberg lets out a breath noisily. “The Brights left this ship in our home system a little over thirteen thousand years ago. When we discovered it, their recorded instructions were . . . cryptic, but the nav system came pre-programmed. We’ve been following the course they set for us, but obviously we’re having some trouble with the locals along the way.”

Her lengthy reply does not actually answer my question. I try to rephrase it to be clearer. “What is the purpose of your journey?”

“We’re going to Bright space. It’s not clear why they want us to come, but we couldn’t pass up an invitation like this.” She raised a hand as if to indicate the room, or perhaps the ship at large. “I’ve done some poking around in the database to learn about your species, so I know the Sheekah were allies of the Brights once. Would you consider helping them now, even if they’re not here to ask for it?”

This surprises me. “You do not know?”

“Know what?”

“They are gone.”

“Gone,” Liu interjects loudly, before Rosenberg can answer. I do not understand why he repeats the word—perhaps I misused it.

“The Brights went extinct,” I clarify. “They developed a genetic anomaly that spread from cell to cell throughout the body, causing widespread genomic degradation, and was, like a pathogen, highly transmissible between individuals. Many Sheekah were infected trying to help them before the Ambassadorial High Council declared quarantine.”

“Gone,” Rosenberg says and goes silent for a minute. (Does everyone need to say this word?) Something appears to be wrong with her, but I do not know what to do. Eventually, she says, “Did they know they were dying off when they left us the ship?”

I do a little quick math, converting unfamiliar units of time based on what I gleaned from the ship’s database. “Given the age of the ship, that seems probable.”

“I guess now we know why they named the ship Legacy.” She puts her hand over her mouth, as if to hold in the words, but I can still hear her clearly. “We have to figure out where we’re going, and why. Would you consider helping Ahmed with the database?”

I stare, not knowing how to respond. What happens to those I protect after I enforce the law has never been my concern. I wonder what it would feel like to be invested in their fate, but all I can feel is the absence of metal against my skin, the ghost-memory of tentacles I no longer possess.

“I am here,” I say dispassionately. “I will help with what I can.”

Days pass. I interface again with the Legacy database and develop a rudimentary understanding of the systems architecture. This helps, a little, to alleviate the ache of losing my fighter and my lifepath with it. At least when my mind is occupied, I am not dwelling on how wrong everything feels. I try and fail to explain the database to the technologists, who cannot grasp the Bright way of thinking. Whole sections of the ship are offline and locked down, and I am surprised they made it this far with such limited control.

I also learn more from the database about these humans; they live short lives, for instance, the equivalent of only nine or ten Sheekah solar cycles. I must seem ancient to them, though among the Sheekah I am considered young. They have so little time—this helps me understand why they seem so desperate to accomplish something, even if they do not know the nature of their task.

I grow irritated with the technologists. They are always near, bothering me with questions, even though they do not generally understand the answers. After the long cycles of solitude in my fighter, I am unused to tolerating so many individuals in such close proximity. I look for something else to do.

Instead I help the botanist, Keene, revive some of the plant species, the ones whose genomes indicate they will be harmless to humans. It is tiring but not particularly difficult work; I must grow a temporary interface with which to access the genomic database, and my body requires extra sustenance to provide the molecules with which to shape the seeds. Keene seems very pleased with the results. I care little for reviving extinct species from the Bright homeworld, but it also costs me little, so what does it matter either way? The Brights loved their botany and would not have wanted Legacy to fly with empty solaria. Indeed, from what I learned of the systems architecture, I suspect healthy solaria will prove important for restoring and optimizing certain functions elsewhere on the ship. Not that this matters to me.

I miss my old self. I think about fixing my fighter, but I can find only some of the tools and none of the spare parts I would need for the task aboard Legacy.

I consider ending my existence.

I sit on a bench in the aft solarium, which remains dark and unused and skeletal. In the central solarium Keene’s seeds have begun to sprout, so I come here instead to avoid the curious visitors drawn in by the promise of green growth. Back here, if I hold very still, I can feel the subsonic hum of the main engines vibrating the hull.

Through the geometric panes of the ceiling and walls, the stars look strangely close, as if the hull were not clear at all but rather painted with the likeness of stars. I stare into space, remembering how this view used to belong to me every hour of every cycle. It’s not the same, of course—these human eyes see such a narrow spectrum—but at least it feels familiar.

The aft solarium doors breeze open and Liu, the psychologist, enters. I do not look away from the stars but I can tell it is him from the way his soft gait whispers on the deck. He takes a seat next to me on the bench. Humans are highly social and require near-constant interaction and stimulation when conscious.

“How are you adjusting?” he says.

I think my habit of sitting here alone disturbs Liu. He does not understand me at all. “I do not know if I wish to adjust.”

“Look—I know this isn’t where you want to be, but the truth is, we could use your help here. The Legacy database is thirteen thousand years out of date and so huge we can’t find what we’re looking for most of the time anyway. We could use a guide who knows what they’re doing.”

I lower my gaze to look at him. Humans seem to desire a quite specific quantity of eye contact while communicating—not too much, not too little—though I have not yet mastered the exact proportion. “I am not an ambassador,” I say. “I was trained to be an enforcer of the law. I cannot perform another life.”

Liu’s brows tighten and draw together. “Life?”

“Job,” I say, to clarify. I have not yet discerned why they have two words for this concept.

Liu exhales forcefully and leans back against the bench, stretching his legs. If the gesture means something, it is lost on me. Humans rely heavily on nonverbal communication, much of it subconscious, and it frustrates my efforts to understand them. Or rather, it would frustrate me, if it were important for me to understand them. Which it is not. Because I think I will kill myself today.

After a while, Liu speaks again. “In the ship’s logs, the Brights say they left us Legacy because they knew we would someday build conservatories.”

I do not know the word. “Conservatories?”

“Places where we cultivate plants for aesthetic value.” He points at the solarium ceiling. “The architecture usually looks something like this. Anyway, at the time when they left us the ship, humans had barely started getting a handle on agriculture. We didn’t build conservatories until thousands of years later.”

“Are plants of great cultural significance to you now?”

“They’re not central to our society, no. Well—Keene might argue otherwise, but most people don’t think twice about the cultural value of plants.” He lifts his shoulders in an unfamiliar gesture. “I don’t know. Maybe the Brights saw what they wanted to see in us.”

“As you see what you want to see in me.”

“The point is,” Liu says, “you hardly ever get the ideal situation you’re hoping for. But if you’re lucky, you find something that will suffice.”

“I am not an ambassador,” I say again.

“No, but you’re close enough for us.”

Maybe I will wait until tomorrow to kill myself.

Tomorrow comes, but the humans distract me. Over the comm, they say they have desperate need of me in the systems control room. And what does it matter if I delay another hour, another day? So I go to them.

The systems control room lies buried deep in the ship, in one of the few areas with no view of the stars. The room itself is dimly lit and decagonal, a display and a crude manual interface affixed to each of the walls. Rosenberg and Mosby are there with Ahmed, the chief technologist, and a subordinate technologist whose name I do not recall.

I move too quietly for them to notice my arrival. (Always, these details I cannot seem to get right. I wear human skin, but it will never fit exactly.) To announce myself, I say, “What has happened?”

Four pairs of eyes look in my direction. As soon as they register my presence, everyone tries talking at once. Rosenberg and Mosby quickly turn on each other. These humans spend so much time arguing about what to do, it’s amazing they ever get anything done.

Finally, the rest of them agree to quiet down so Ahmed can speak. “We’re getting power fluctuations all over the ship. Life support keeps trying to shut down—we’ve had to force a restart three times in the past fifteen minutes. No idea what’s causing it.”

This does not surprise me. The Brights did not design their systems architecture to be solid and immutable, but rather flexible and adaptive. “I will look,” I say.

I place my palm on an exposed patch of hardware, grow an interface, and begin sifting through the diagnostic reports. Bright diagnostics are so literal they are almost evasive—always describing what is happening, but never hinting at why. I skip past the reports and prod gently at the underlying systems, doing the command equivalent of poking life support with a stick to see if it twitches.

Life support seems raw and hypersensitive, overreacting to stimulus. The shields seem lethargic, the main engines argumentative.

I mentally pull back to give my analysis to the waiting humans. “Legacy is experiencing some sort of systems destabilization, possibly triggered by the introduction of plant life in the central solarium. The ship is attempting to re-evaluate resource allocation and re-integrate, but systems integration seems to require guidance.” For clarity, I add, “Guidance from a Bright engineer.”

Predictably, Mosby wants to know if the power to the main cannon can be restored, and Rosenberg starts arguing about prioritization. Humans are a confrontational and violent people, whatever Liu might say to the contrary. Perhaps I understand this better than any trained ambassador could. Sometimes I even see a little of myself in them. Were I still an enforcer, would I not take great care to restore my weapons systems? Of course I would.

But I tell him, “Systems integration is a very complicated process. I most likely will not be able to complete it at all, let alone to your desired specifications.”

This silences them. They all stare at me, wide-eyed. Have I somehow misspoken? In a situation like this, am I supposed to ply them with false hope instead of giving an honest status report?

I do not know the Brights the way an ambassador would; I am too young to even have spoken to anyone with first-hand knowledge of the Brights. I have only a superficial understanding of their thought patterns, and this is a task best reserved for someone who truly knew them. If not for a Bright itself.

I cannot do what the humans expect of me. And yet, I must try.

I close my eyes to block the stimulus so I can delve deeper. Soon, I can visualize the interconnected web of the ship’s systems, each hub enmeshed among the others as if held in place with thick, pulsing vines. The offline sectors and systems appear marooned and dark, disconnected from the vital flow of the web.

Concentrating, I examine the systems more closely. Here: movement, change. And here, and here. Everywhere I scrutinize, the deep structural connections are unraveling, senescing, peeling away like flower petals destined to be supplanted with fruit. It is a process I understand only with academic distance—from my examination of plant genomes, not from personal experience. Still, I recognize the patterns as organic design, organic thinking. Only the Brights would build a ship as convoluted and self-referential as a genome.

Back in the control room, the humans are getting restless. “What is going on?” demands Mosby.

I retreat from the depths enough to answer him. “The architecture you have now was never meant to last. It is . . . ” I do not know why I pick the word: “juvenile.”

Mosby opens his mouth but Ahmed looks at him says, “Less talk, more work.”

I must agree with Ahmed.

Ignoring the sounds of the control room, I return my focus to the Legacy’s architecture. I pull myself deeper, down into the disordered conglomeration of systems, losing awareness of my physical body. I focus all my mental acuity to study the ship.

It wants to grow, to metamorphose, to mature. I can tell this much: growth could be good, but it also could be cancerous. The old connections run dry and slough off, and the systems sprout wild new vine stubs that quest in every direction. Left to their own devices, the systems will strangle themselves with malformed, overgrown connective structure. But how am I to guide this process, rife with botanical zeal only a Bright could comprehend?

I pause, thinking. Metamorphosis is an animal concept. They are not vines, they are tentacles—and tentacles I understand. I think of my stellate fighter, how cleanly designed it was, with its eight rays each encapsulating a tentacle, and all the neatly arranged interfaces. And at the center, my brain to process and control.

So, me—and by extension, the control room—at the nexus of the web. The strongest connections, thick and steady, direct from each system to the nexus. Lesser connections, flexible and mutable, exchanging information among the systems themselves. I weave the ship the way I would weave my own flesh, easing the nascent tentacles over a new growth template as if it were a foreign genome to be integrated.

When the connections have been laid, the most delicate part still remains to be done: I carefully extract myself from the center of the web, leaving behind the shell of the control room, not so much a vacancy as a resting state. I pull away, leaving all the connections intact, the hollow space waiting patiently for its next command.

It is done. And, if all is right, it will even be receptive to the humans’ control.

I rise slowly, like floating up to the surface from the depths of an ocean, the lights and sounds of the control room wavering and resolving. I blink, eyes slow to focus as the ciliary muscles reawaken to their duties.

On every wall of the room, the display screens shine with dazzling varicolored light. My tear ducts water, my pupils hasten to contract. I see the humans shading their faces with their hands, so I know my body’s reaction is not an oversensitive after-effect of deep interfacing. The screens are very bright.

Yes, I realize. The screens are Bright.

“They’re beautiful,” says Rosenberg, “even if it hurts to look at them.”

Ahmed is still bent over a console. “There’s an audio recording, too, but the frequencies are all ultrasonic.”

Rosenberg asks, “What are they saying?”

“It’ll take a while for the translators to work it out,” says Ahmed.

“Unnecessary,” I say. I force some crude adjustments to the anatomy of my ears, expanding the range of my hearing. The recording is part-way through the message, but I wait until the end and it loops back to the beginning. “Roughly translated: the Legacy’s destination is a research base on a dwarf planet in the outskirts of the Brights’ home system. They hope that, in the time it has taken your primitive species to develop interplanetary travel and discover Legacy, the pathogen will have gone extinct. The research base contains preserved samples of healthy Bright genomes. If you have the technology to restore plant biota from the genomic database and shepherd Legacy through the transition to maturity, you will be able to restore the Brights.”

Everyone goes quiet. What have I done, meddling in the fate of these humans? An ambassador would have known better than to do for them what they cannot do themselves; I was a fool to think I could help without entangling myself. I feel nauseated, an unfamiliar physiological response to this upwelling of emotions inside me.

Ahmed is the one who says what they all must be thinking. “But it wasn’t us who brought back the plants and guided the ship, it was you.”

Which means the task of restoring the Brights falls on my shoulders, not theirs. “I know,” I say, and rush from the room.

Hiding in the aft solarium, I stare out at the painted starscape. By human means of reckoning, this region of space was my home for three lifetimes: cold empty death punctuated with tiny oases of energy and life. They all belonged to me, once. I felt at home in the void, satisfied with what I was, and now I am trapped behind this glass and can only yearn for that silent solitary existence.

At my core I am a fighter pilot—a thug, a killer. I was made to do what the rest of the Sheekah, with their delicate dispositions, could not. How can anyone expect me to resurrect a whole sentient species when all my training and experience has been in dealing death, not life?

I am no one’s savior. It is too heavy a burden to bear.

Liu comes in: shuffle, shuffle, soft steps on the deck. He approaches hesitantly, hanging back as if he doesn’t wish to intrude on my thoughts.

“Rosenberg sent you?” I say. I am learning how their hierarchy works.

Liu takes the words for an invitation and joins me on the bench. “She wants me to try talking with you.”

“We have now spoken.” I look at him. “You may report success.”

“Why, Ohree, that was almost a joke. Are you growing a sense of humor to go with the mammalian physique?”

“Doubtful,” I say, looking away again. Though maybe I am.

Liu lets out a loud breath. His vocal pitch drops lower. “You know what I’m here to ask you about.”

“Rosenberg wants me to continue with you to your destination. Rosenberg wants me to revive the Brights.”

“We can’t do it without you, obviously.”

“You do not understand. The process will not be a simple one, like with the seeds. Brights are very complex organisms. I will have to adapt my whole physiology, I will have to gestate the embryos inside me.”

Liu is silent for so long that I give up my view of the stars and turn to face him. He is staring at me. “What exactly do you have on your to-do list that ranks more important than this?”

I pause. “If they made the smallest mistake, if even one gene region is tainted with pathogenic code, I will die.”

“Since when were you more afraid of dying than of not having a purpose?” Liu’s lips curl in an expression I now know to indicate amusement. “How human of you.”

The words fall on me like a blow. He is right—only two days ago I was contemplating suicide. I fall back on an older argument. “An ambassador would be properly trained for such a task, which I am not.”

“You thought you couldn’t guide the Legacy through her transition, but you could,” he said. “It doesn’t matter that your own society marked you a castaway. It doesn’t matter what life you had before. You are capable of things you haven’t even dreamt of yet, and it would honor us to be the ones who help you discover those things.”

I go very still. I do not dare to hope this could be true. It violates a paradigm so deep-seated in my psyche that I did not even suspect its existence until now.

Liu says, “Humans aren’t in the habit of changing their given names. Surnames, though, were originally descriptive—you were named for your profession, or the village you came from, or your parentage.” He pauses, the silence almost livid in the air. “You don’t have a surname.”

If I was frozen before, now I am a comet lost between the stars—even my molecules feel stuck. I am sure I could not look away if I tried. I know Liu knows how Sheekah naming works.

Liu smiles, though somehow the expression seems grave, as if he understands exactly what it is he’s doing. “I think we’ll call you Ohree Brightbearer, if the sound of it suits you.”

“Yes,” I say, hardly able to breathe. “Yes, it suits me fine.”

I am named, and there is work ahead of me.


Robert Reed

Fashion matters. In my soul of souls, I know that the dead things you carry on your body are real, real important. Grandma likes to call me a clotheshorse, which sounds like a good thing. For example, I’ve always known that a quality sweater means the world. I prefer soft organic wools woven around Class-C nanofibers—a nice high collar with sleeves riding a little big but with enough stopping power to absorb back-to-back kinetic charges. I want pants that won’t slice when the shrapnel is thick, and since I won’t live past nineteen, probably, I let the world see that this body’s young and fit. (Morbid maybe, but that’s why I think about death only in little doses.) I adore elegant black boots that ignore rain and wandering electrical currents, and everything under my boots and sweater and pants has to feel silky-good against the most important skin in my world. But essential beyond all else is what I wear on my face, which is more makeup than Grandma likes, and tattooed scripture on the forehead, and sparkle-eyes that look nothing but ordinary. In other words, I want people to see an average Christian girl instead of what I am, which is part of the insurgency’s heart inside Occupied Toronto.

To me, guns are just another layer of clothes, and the best day ever lived was the day I got my hands on a barely used, cognitively damaged Mormon railgun. They don’t make that model anymore, what with its willingness to change sides. And I doubt that there’s ever been a more dangerous gun made by the human species. Shit, the boy grows his own ammo, and he can kill anything for hundreds of miles, and left alone he will invent ways to hide and charge himself on the sly, and all that time he waits waits waits for his master to come back around and hold him again.

I am his master now.

I am Ophelia Hanna Hanks, except within my local cell, where I wear the randomly generated, perfectly suitable name:


The gun’s name is Prophet, and until ten seconds ago, he looked like scrap conduit and junk wiring. And while he might be cognitively impaired, Prophet is wickedly loyal to me. Ten days might pass without the two of us being in each other’s reach, but that’s the beauty of our dynamic: I can live normal and look normal, and while the enemy is busy watching everything else, a solitary 14-year-old girl slips into an alleyway that’s already been swept fifty times today.

“Good day, Ridiculous.”

“Good day to you, Prophet.”

“And who are we going to drop into Hell today?”

“All of America,” I say, which is what I always say.

Reliable as can be, he warns me, “That’s a rather substantial target, my dear. Perhaps we should reduce our parameters.”

“Okay. New Fucking York.”

Our attack has a timetable, and I have eleven minutes to get into position.

“And the specific target?” he asks.

I have coordinates that are updated every half-second. I could feed one or two important faces into his menu, but I never kill faces. These are the enemy, but if I don’t define things too closely, then I won’t miss any sleep tonight.

Prophet eats the numbers, saying, “As you wish, my dear.”

I’m carrying him, walking fast towards a fire door that will stay unlocked for the next ten seconds. Alarmed by my presence, a skinny rat jumps out of one dumpster, little legs running before it hits the oily bricks.

“Do you know it?” I ask.

The enemy likes to use rats as spies.

Prophet says, “I recognize her, yes. She has a nest and pups inside the wall.”

“Okay,” I say, feeling nervous and good.

The fire door opens when I tug and locks forever once I step into the darkness.

“You made it,” says my gun.

“I was praying,” I report.

He laughs, and I laugh too. But I keep my voice down, stairs needing to be climbed and only one of us doing the work.

She found me after a battle. She believes that I am a little bit stupid. I was damaged in the fight and she imprinted my devotions to her, and then using proxy tools and stolen wetware, she gave me the cognitive functions to be a loyal agent to the insurgency.

I am an astonishing instrument of mayhem, and naturally her superiors thought about claiming me for themselves.

But they didn’t.

If I had the freedom to speak, I would mention this oddity to my Ridiculous. “Why would they leave such a prize with little you?”

“Because I found you first,” she would say.

“War isn’t a schoolyard game,” I’d remind her.

“But I made you mine,” she might reply. “And my bosses know that I’m a good soldier, and you like me, and stop being a turd.”

No, we have one another because her bosses are adults. They are grown souls who have survived seven years of occupation, and that kind of achievement doesn’t bless the dumb or the lucky. Looking at me, they see too much of a blessing, and nobody else dares to trust me well enough to hold me.

I know all of this, which seems curious.

I might say all of this, except I never do.

And even though my mind was supposedly mangled, I still remember being crafted and calibrated in Utah, hence my surname. But I am no Mormon. Indeed, I’m a rather agnostic soul when it comes to my interpretations of Jesus and His influence in the New World. And while there are all-Mormon units in the US military, I began my service with Protestants—Baptists and Missouri Synods mostly. They were bright clean happy believers who had recently arrived at Fort Joshua out on Lake Ontario. Half of that unit had already served a tour in Alberta, guarding the tar pits from little acts of sabotage. Keeping the Keystones safe is a critical but relatively simple duty. There aren’t many people to watch, just robots and one another. The prairie was depopulated ten years ago, which wasn’t an easy or cheap process; American farmers still haven’t brought the ground back to full production, and that’s one reason why the Toronto rations are staying small.

But patrolling the corn was easy work compared to sitting inside Fort Joshua, millions of displaced and hungry people staring at your walls.

Americans call this Missionary Work.

Inside their own quarters, alone except for their weapons and the Almighty, soldiers try to convince one another that the natives are beginning to love them. Despite a thousand lessons to the contrary, Canada is still that baby brother to the north, big and foolish but congenial in his heart, or at least capable of learning manners after the loving sibling delivers enough beat-downs.

What I know today—what every one of my memories tells me—is that the American soldiers were grossly unprepared. Compared to other units and other duties, I would even go so far as to propose that the distant generals were aware of their limitations yet sent the troops across the lake regardless, full of religion and love for each other and the fervent conviction that the United States was the empire that the world had always deserved.

Canada is luckier than most. That can’t be debated without being deeply, madly stupid. Heat waves are killing the tropics. Acid has tortured the seas. The wealth of the previous centuries has been erased by disasters of weather and war and other inevitable surprises. But the worst of these sorrows haven’t occurred in the Greater United States, and if they had half a mind, Canadians would be thrilled with the mild winters and long brilliant summers and the supportive grip of their big wise master.

My soldiers’ first recon duty was simple: Walk past the shops along Queen.

Like scared warriors everywhere, they put on every piece of armor and every sensor and wired back-ups that would pierce the insurgent’s jamming. And that should have been good enough. But by plan or by accident, some native let loose a few molecules of VX gas—just enough to trigger one of the biohazard alarms. Then one of my brother-guns was leveled at a crowd of innocents, two dozen dead before the bloody rain stopped flying.

That’s when the firefight really began.

Kinetic guns and homemade bombs struck the missionaries from every side. I was held tight by my owner—a sergeant with commendations for his successful defense of a leaky pipeline—but he didn’t fire me once. His time was spent yelling for an orderly retreat, pleading with his youngsters to find sure targets before they hit the buildings with hypersonic rounds. But despite those good smart words, the patrol got itself trapped. There was a genuine chance that one of them might die, and that’s when those devout men encased in body armor and faith decided to pray: Clasping hands, they opened channels to the Almighty, begging for thunder to be sent down on the infidels.

The Almighty is what used to be called the Internet—an American child reclaimed totally back in 2027.

A long stretch of shops and old buildings was struck from the sky.

That’s what American soldiers do when the situation gets dicey. They pray, and the locals die by the hundreds, and the biggest oddity of that peculiar day was how the usual precise orbital weaponry lost its way, and half of my young men were wounded or killed in the onslaught while a tiny shaped charge tossed me a hundred meters down the road.

There I was discovered in the rubble by a young girl.

As deeply unlikely as that seems.

I don’t want the roof. I don’t need my eyes to shoot. An abandoned apartment on the top floor is waiting for me, and in particular, its dirty old bathroom. As a rule, I like bathrooms. They’re the strongest part of any building, what with pipes running through the walls and floor. Two weeks ago, somebody I’ll never know sealed the tube’s drain and cracked the faucet just enough for a slow drip, and now the water sits near the brim. Water is essential for long shots. With four minutes to spare, I deploy Prophet’s long legs, tipping him just enough toward the southeast, and then I sink him halfway into the bath, asking, “How’s that feel?”

“Cold,” he jokes.

We have three and a half minutes to talk.

I tell him, “Thank you.”

His barrel stretches to full length, its tip just short of the moldy plaster ceiling. “Thank you for what?” he says.

“I don’t know,” I say.

Then I laugh, and he sort of laughs.

I say, “I’m not religious. At least, I don’t want to be.”

“What are you telling me, Ridiculous?”

“I guess . . . I don’t know. Forget it.”

And he says, “I will do my very best.”

Under the water, down where the breech sits, ammunition is moving. Scrap metal and scrap nano-fibers have been woven into four bullets. Street fights require hundreds and thousands of tiny bullets, but each of these rounds is bigger than most carrots and shaped the same general way. Each one carries a brain and microrockets and eyes. Prophet is programming them with the latest coordinates while running every last-second test. Any little problem with a bullet can mean an ugly shot, or even worse, an explosion that rips away the top couple floors of this building.

At two minutes, I ask, “Are we set?”

“You’re standing too close,” he says.

“If I don’t move, will you fire anyway?”

“Of course.”

“Good,” I say.

At ninety-five seconds, ten assaults are launched across southern Ontario. The biggest and nearest is fixated on Fort Joshua—homemade cruise missiles and lesser railguns aimed at that artificial island squatting in our beautiful lake. The assaults are meant to be loud and unexpected, and because every soldier thinks his story is important, plenty of voices suddenly beg with the Almighty, wanting His godly hand.

The nearby battle sounds like a sudden spring wind.

“I’m backing out of here,” I say.

“Please do,” he says.

At sixty-one seconds, most of the available American resources are glancing at each of these distractions, and a brigade of AIs is studying past tendencies and elaborate models of insurgency capabilities, coming to the conclusion that these events have no credible value toward the war’s successful execution.

Something else is looming, plainly.

“God’s will,” says the nonbeliever.

“What isn’t?” says the Mormon gun.

At seventeen seconds, two kilometers of the Keystone John pipeline erupt in a line of smoky flame, microbombs inside the heated tar doing their best to stop the flow of poisons to the south.

The Almighty doesn’t need prayer to guide His mighty hand. This must be the main attack, and every resource is pulled to the west, making ready to deal with even greater hazards.

I shut the bathroom door and run for the hallway.

Prophet empties his breech, the first carrot already moving many times faster than the speed of sound as it blasts through the roof. Its three buddies are directly behind it, and the enormous release of stored energy turns the bathwater to steam, and with the first shot the iron tub is yanked free of the floor while the second and third shots kick the tub and the last of its water down into the bathroom directly downstairs. The final shot is going into the wrong part of the sky, but that’s also part of the plan. I’m not supposed to be amazed by how many factors can be juggled at once, but they are juggled and I am amazed, running down the stairs to recover my good friend.

The schedule is meant to be secret and followed precisely. The Secretary of Carbon rides her private subway car to the UN, but instead of remaining indoors and safe, she has to come into the sunshine, standing with ministers and potentates who have gathered for this very important conference. Reporters are sitting in rows and cameras will be watching from every vantage point, and both groups are full of those who don’t particularly like the Secretary. Part of her job is being despised, and fuck them. That’s what she thinks whenever she attends these big public dances. Journalists are livestock, and this is a show put on for the meat. Yet even as the scorn builds, she shows a smile that looks warm and caring, and she carries a strong speech that will last for three minutes, provided she gives it. Her words are meant to reassure the world that full recovery is at hand. She will tell everyone that the hands of her government are wise and what the United States wants is happiness for every living breathing wonderful life on this great world—a world that with God’s help will live for another five billion years.

For the camera, for the world, the Secretary of Carbon and her various associates invest a few moments in handshakes and important nods of the head.

Watching from a distance, without knowing anything, it would be easy to recognize that the smiling woman in brown was the one in charge.

The UN president shakes her hand last and then steps up to the podium. He was installed last year after an exhaustive search. Handsome and personable, and half as bright as he is ambitious, the President greets the press and then breaks from the script, shouting a bland “Hello” to the protestors standing outside the blast screens.

Five thousand people are standing in the public plaza, holding up signs and generated holos that have one clear message:


The Secretary knows the time and the schedule, and she feels a rare ache of nervousness, of doubt.

When they hear themselves mentioned, the self-absorbed protestors join together in one rehearsed shout that carries across the screens. A few reporters look at the throng behind them. The cameras and the real professionals focus on the human subjects. This is routine work. Reflexes are numb, minds lethargic. The Secretary picks out a few familiar faces, and then her assistant pipes a warning into her sparkle-eyes. One of the Keystones has been set on fire.

In reflex, the woman takes one step backward, her hands starting to lift to cover her head.

A mistake.

But she recovers soon enough, turning to her counterpart from Russia, telling him, “And congratulations on that new daughter of yours.”

He is flustered and flattered. With a giddy nod, he says, “Girls are so much better than boys these days. Don’t you think?”

The Secretary has no chance to respond.

A hypersonic round slams through the atmosphere, heated to a point where any impact will make it explode. Then it drops into an environment full of clutter and one valid target that must be acquired and reached before the fabulous energies shake loose from their bridle.

There is no warning sound.

The explosion lifts bodies and pieces of bodies, and while the debris rises, three more rounds plunge into the panicked crowd.

Every person in the area drops flat, hands over their heads.

Cameras turn, recording the violence and loss—more than three hundred dead and maimed in a horrific attack.

The Secretary and new father lie together on the temporary stage.

Is it her imagination, or is the man trying to cop a feel?

She rolls away from him, but she doesn’t stand yet. The attack is finished, but she shouldn’t know that. It’s best to remain down and act scared, looking at the plaza, the air filled with smoke and pulverized concrete while the stubborn holos continue to beg for some impossible gift called Peace.

My grandmother is sharp. She is. Look at her once in the wrong way, and she knows something is wrong. Do it twice and she’ll probably piece together what makes a girl turn quiet and strange.

But not today, she doesn’t.

“What happened at school?” she asks.

I don’t answer.

“What are you watching, Ophelia?”

Nothing. My eyes have been blank for half a minute now.

“Something went wrong at school, didn’t it?”

Nothing is ever a hundred percent right at school, which is why it’s easy to harvest a story that might be believed. Most people would believe it, at least. But after listening to my noise about snippy friends and broken trusts, she says, “I don’t know what’s wrong with you, honey. But that isn’t it.”

I nod, letting my voice die away.

She leaves my little room without closing the door. I sit and do nothing for about three seconds, and then the sparkle eyes take me back to the mess outside the UN. I can’t count the times I’ve watched the impacts, the carnage. Hundreds of cameras were working, government cameras and media cameras and those carried by the protesters. Following at the digitals’ heels are people talking about the tragedy and death tolls and who is responsible and how the war has moved to a new awful level.

“Where did the insurgents get a top-drawer railgun?” faces ask.

But I’ve carried Prophet for a couple years and fired him plenty of times. Just not into a public target like this, and with so many casualties, and all of the dead on my side of the fight.

That’s the difference here: The world suddenly knows about me.

In the middle of the slaughter, one robot camera stays focused on my real targets, including the Secretary of Fuel and Bullshit. It’s halfway nice, watching her hunker down in terror. Except she should have been in pieces, and there shouldn’t be a face staring in my direction, and how Prophet missed our target by more than fifty meters is one big awful mystery that needs solving.

I assume a malfunction.

I’m wondering where I can take him to get his guidance systems recalibrated and ready for retribution.

Unless of course the enemy has figured out how to make railgun rounds fall just a little wide of their goals, maybe even killing some troublemakers in the process.

Whatever is wrong here, at least I know that it isn’t my fault.

Then some little thing taps at my window.

From the next room, my grandmother asks, “What are you doing, Ophelia?”

I’m looking at the bird on my window sill. The enemy uses rats, and we use robins and house sparrows. But this is a red-headed woodpecker, which implies rank and special circumstances.

The bird gives a squawk, which is a coded message that my eyes have to play with for a little while. Then the messenger flies away.


“I’m just thinking about a friend,” I shout.

She comes back into my room, watching my expression all over again.

“A friend, you say?”

“He’s in trouble,” I say.

“Is that what’s wrong?” she asks.

“Isn’t that enough?”

Two rats in this alley don’t convince me. I’m watching them from my new haven, measuring the dangers and possible responses. Then someone approaches the three of us, and in the best tradition of ratdom, my companions scurry into the darkness under a pile of rotting boards.

I am a plastic sack filled with broken machine parts.

I am motionless and harmless, but in my secret reaches, inside my very busy mind, I’m astonished to see my Ridiculous back again so soon, walking toward the rat-rich wood pile.

Five meters behind her walks an unfamiliar man.

To him, I take an immediate dislike.

He looks prosperous, and he looks exceptionally angry, wearing a fine suit made stiff with nano-armor and good leather shoes and a platoon of jamming equipment as well as two guns riding in his pockets, one that shoots poisoned ice as well as the gun that he trusts—a kinetic beast riding close to his dominant hand.

Ridiculous stops at the rot pile.

The man asks, “Is it there?”

“I don’t know,” she says, eyes down.

My girl has blue sparkle eyes, much like her original eyes—the ones left behind in the doctor’s garbage bin.

“It looks like boards now?” he asks.

“He did,” she lies.

“Not he,” the man says, sounding like a google-head. “The machine is an It.”

“Right,” she says, kicking at the planks, pretending to look hard. “It’s just a big gun. I keep forgetting.”

The man is good at being angry. He has a tall frightful face and n