Where Thich Tim Nghe stands, there is no time; there is no noise, save for the distant lament of the dead—voices she has once known, Mother, Sixth Aunt, Cousin Cuc, Cousin Ly, the passengers—not crying out in agony, or whispering about how afraid they were, at the very end, but simply singing, over and over, the syllables of a mantra—perhaps they are at peace, lifted into one of the paradises—perhaps they await their rebirth in a red-lacquered pavilion by the Wheel, sipping the tea of oblivion with the same carelessness Thich Tim Nghe now uses to drink her water, drawn from deep spaces…
In the chorus of the dead, there is one large, looming silence; the voice of the ship, forever beyond her, forever impervious to her prayers and entreaties—but then, wasn’t it always the case?
From the planet, the mindship’s corpse had seemed to loom large enough to fill the sky—hugged tight on a low orbit, held back from plummeting towards the surface only by a miracle of engineering—but, once she was in the shuttle, Yen Oanh realised that it was really quite far away, the pockmarks on its surface blurred and hazy, the distorted paintings on the hull visible only as splashes of bright colour.
“How long until we arrive?” she asked the disciple.
The disciple, Hue Mi, was a young woman barely out of childhood, though the solemnity with which she held herself made her seem older. “Not long, Grandmother.” She looked at the mindship without any sense of wonder or awe; no doubt long since used to its presence. The ship, after all, had been dead for eleven years.
Grandmother. How had she got so old? But then Yen Oanh knew the answer: twenty years of marriage; and another few decades in the Crane and Cedar order, dispatched across the numbered planets to check the spread of the Blue Lily plague in sickhouses and hospitals and private dwellings across the breadth of the Empire, from cramped compartments on the capital to the luxurious mansions of the First Planet, from those who could afford the best care to those who couldn’t.
Fifty-six years; and only one regret.
“We don’t often get visitors at this time of the year,” Hue Mi was saying. She was looking at the mass of the ship, looming ever larger in the viewscreen—normally it would be a private display on each passenger’s implants, but Yen Oanh had asked her to make it public.
“Oh?” Yen Oanh kept her eyes on the ship. The Stone and Bronze Shadow had been small by modern standards. As they approached the sleek hull vanished from view, replaced by a profusion of details: the shadow of a pagoda on the prow; the red fan surrounding the docking bays, and then only splashes of colours on metal, with a faint tinge of oily light. “The order has been here before.” Twice, in fact. She could feel both Sister Que Tu and Brother Gia Minh in the Communion—not saying anything, but standing by, ready to provide her with the information she needed.
And Yen Oanh had been there too, of course—briefly, but long enough.
Hue Mi’s face was a closed book. “Of course.” In the communal network—overlaid over Yen Oanh’s normal vision—her hand was branded with the mark of the order, a crane perched in the branches of a cedar tree. Vaccinated then; but it wasn’t a surprise. Everyone was, those days; and it would have been Yen Oanh’s duty to remedy this (and impose a heavy fine), if it hadn’t been the case. “It was… different back then, I’m told.”
“Very different,” Yen Oanh said. People dying by the hundreds, the Empire and the newly founded order foundering to research a cure or a vaccine or both, the odour of charnel houses in the overcrowded hospitals; and the fear, that sickening feeling that every bruise on your skin was a symptom, a precursor to all the ones blossoming like flowers on the skin; to the fever and the delirium and the slow descent into death.
At least, now it was controlled.
Hue Mi didn’t answer; Yen Oanh realised that she was standing still, her eyes slightly out of focus; the contours of her body wavering as though she were no longer quite there—and that the colours on the viewscreen had frozen. A seizure. She hid them well; she’d had another one in the time Yen Oanh had been with her.
Yen Oanh’s own seizures—like Hue Mi’s, a side effect of the vaccine—were small, and short enough that she could disguise them as access to the Communion; not as bad or as long as the fits that had characterised the plague, the warping of realities that stretched over entire rooms, dragging everyone into places where human thoughts couldn’t remain coherent for long.
Yen Oanh waited for Hue Mi’s seizure to be over; all the while, the ship was getting closer—closer to the heartroom. Closer to Thich Tim Nghe.
She didn’t want to think about Thich Tim Nghe now.
At length, Hue Mi came back into focus, and opened her eyes; the viewscreen abruptly showed the docking bay coming into view, permanently open, with the death of the Mind that had controlled the ship. “We’re here now,” she said.
Yen Oanh couldn’t help herself. “What did you see?” It was borderline impolite, made only possible because she was much older than Hue Mi, and because she was Crane and Cedar.
Hue Mi nodded—she didn’t seem to mind. Possibly her teacher was even more impolite than Yen Oanh. “I was older. And back on the planet, watching children run to a pagoda.” She shrugged. “It means nothing.”
It didn’t. The visions of Blue Lily came from the mind being partially dragged into deep spaces, where time and space took on different significances. Different realities, that was all; not predictions of the future.
Except, of course, for Thich Tim Nghe. Yen Oanh forced a smile she didn’t feel. “Your teacher does it differently, doesn’t she?”
Hue Mi grimaced. “Thich Tim Nghe doesn’t get seizures. It’s… you’ll see, if you make it there.”
“Most people don’t like being onboard.”
No. She hadn’t thought it would be so easy, after all; that Thich Tim Nghe would be so readily accessible. “Brother Gia Minh?” she asked.
The Communion rose, to enfold her; a room with watercolours of starscapes and mountains, the walls of which seemed to stretch on forever—the air crisp and tangy, as if she stood just on the edge of winter—and the shadowy shapes of a hundred, of a thousand brothers and sisters who had gifted their simulacrums to the Cedar and Crane order, their memories of all the Blue Lily cases they’d seen.
Brother Gia Minh was young; perhaps as young as Hue Mi; wearing not the robes of the order, but the clothes of a poor technician, his hands moving as if he were still controlling bots. “Sister,” he said, bowing—then frowning. “You’re on the ship. The dead one.”
“Yes,” Yen Oanh said. “I need you to tell me what happened, when you were last here.”
Brother Gia Minh grimaced, but he waved a hand; and the room faded, to be replaced with the arid surface of the Sixth Planet. “Eleven years ago,” he whispered.
Eleven years ago, Gia Minh was called because he was nearest; and because he could handle bots—he was barely more than a child then, and not yet a member of the Cedar and Crane; merely a frightened boy with the shadow of Blue Lily hovering over him like a suspended sword.
He’d seen the ship, of course. It was hard to ignore as it slowly materialised above the planet—not all in one go, as he’d seen other mindships do, but flickering in and out of existence, as if not quite sure whether to remain there, as if it still had parts stuck in the deep spaces mindships used for travel. As if…
He hadn’t dared to complete the thought, of course. But when he’d boarded the ship with Magistrate Hoa and the militia, it came to him again. The corridors felt wrong—he wasn’t sure why, until he ran a hand on the walls, and found them cool, with none of the warm, pulsating rhythm he’d expected. The words in Old Earth characters should have scrolled down, displaying the poetry the ship loved, but they’d frozen into place; some of them already fading, some of them—
There were marks, on the wall—faded, dark ones, like giant fingerprints smudging characters.
“Magistrate,” he whispered.
Magistrate Hoa was watching them too, her eyes wide in the weary oval of her face. “It can’t be.”
Bruises. All over the walls and the floor and everywhere his gaze rested—and that uncanny coldness around them; and faint reflections on the edge of his field of vision—the characteristic delirium, the images and visions that spilled out from the sick to everyone else present.
“Plague,” he whispered. “This ship died of Blue Lily.” But mindships didn’t die of Blue Lily; they didn’t die at all—shouldn’t even fall sick unless they were countless centuries old, far beyond what mortals could remember…
Magistrate Hoa’s face didn’t even move. “Gear,” she said, to one of the militia. “No one is going any further until we are suited.”
Gia Minh wanted to ask why she’d have gear onboard the shuttle, but of course he knew—all the sick and the dying and the dead, the houses that had become charnels and temples to fear; Seventh Uncle, lying in a room no one dared to enter for fear of sharing his final delirium, the disjointed hints of ghosts and demons, the shadows that turned and stretched and saw you; Cousin Nhu, too young to talk, whimpering until she had no voice left…
“We’ll have one for you,” Magistrate Hoa said. “Don’t worry.”
But of course they were already contaminated, possibly; or worse. No one knew how Blue Lily was contracted, or how it spread—breath or touch or fluids, or Heaven knew what. Everyone knew the Empire was foundering; its doctors and apothecaries overwhelmed, its hospitals overcrowded, and still no cure or vaccine for the disease.
The gear was heavy, and as warm as a portable glasshouse. As they went deeper into those cold, deserted corridors, Gia Minh caught the first hints of the mindship’s delirium—a glimpse of something with far too many legs and arms to be human, running just out of sight; of an older woman bending towards a fountain, in the light of a dying sun…
Everywhere silence; that uncanny stillness; and a feeling of being watched by far too many eyes; and the sense that the universe was holding its breath. “They’re all dead,” he said; and then he heard the weeping.
Thich Tim Nghe watches her attendant Vo clean the heartroom; tidying up the cloths wrapped around the empty throne where the Mind once rested.
“There’s someone coming?” she asks.
Vo nods. “She’s with Hue Mi now.” He’s a teenager, but he still has ghosts with him—flickering realities around him, the shadows of his own dead, of his own losses—he’s never had Blue Lily, but it doesn’t matter. The virus left its mark on him all the same, through the vaccine he received as a child. Thich Tim Nghe could reach out, and pick images like so many strands of straw from a child’s hair; could disentangle the skeins of his past and follow them forward into his future; tell him if he will find what he has lost; or what he needs to do to regain the happiness of his childhood, before his uncle left his aunt and tore two households apart.
But Vo has never asked her to see into his future. He knows the cost of it. She gives people what they need, not what they want; and she does it, not to impress people, but to atone, even though there is no atonement for what she has done. To lay the dead to rest, even though they are not her dead; to give hope, even though she has none to share.
She has helped a scholar find the grave of her lost love; whispered to a bots-handler the words he needed to grasp a career-changing opportunity and leave the planet where his daughters are buried; told a painter when and how to meet his future wife, to found the family he so bitterly missed—given so many things to so many people, a countless chain of the living freed from the weight of the past.
She doesn’t know why she has those powers; though she suspects, that it’s the ship, the death that they almost shared; the deep spaces that still remain accessible onboard, even though The Stone and Bronze Shadow has since long departed.
It doesn’t matter.
Her own future doesn’t exist. There is only the past—she watched Mother die, shivering and wasting away while Thich Tim Nghe was still onboard the dying ship; and saw Sixth Aunt’s face change and harden—if she were still alive, she would have cut Thich Tim Nghe off, but she’s dead too, touched by Blue Lily—her face curiously slack and expressionless, all the bitterness smoothed away under the bruises; and Thich Tim Nghe doesn’t know, anymore, what to think about it; if she should weep and grieve, or if she’s simply grown too numb under the weight of her litany of losses to care.
There is no happiness for her, and no future. She’s here now, in the only time and place that make sense to her; and Sixth Aunt’s voice is within the chorus of the dead—and Mother is dead too, forever lost to her, her only presence in memories that are too raw and too painful—limned with the bitter knowledge that Thich Tim Nghe will miss her; that, at the one time in her life when Mother would have had need of her, she won’t be there.
She closes her eyes—and steps away, into the past.
“She was in the heartroom,” Gia Minh said to Yen Oanh—the images of the past fading, replaced by the room of the Communion—everything was suffused with a warm, red light: a shade that was no doubt meant to be reassuring, but which reminded Yen Oanh of nothing so much as freshly spilled blood. “Wrapped around the connectors of the Mind as though it was a lifeline. Covered in Blue Lily bruises.” He shivered. “I don’t even know how she survived.”
Who knew, Yen Oanh thought, but didn’t say. They might have a vaccine; and a better understanding of Blue Lily; but survival in those first few years had been left to Heaven’s Will. The younger and fitter people had more chance, obviously; and Thich Tim Nghe had been young—thirteen, a child still.
And The Stone and Bronze Shadow had been dead. Quite unmistakably so—a miracle that she had survived far enough to exit deep spaces; to deliver her cargo and passengers to the Sixth Planet, even though it hadn’t been her scheduled route.
In the end, there had been only two survivors: Thich Tim Nghe; and an older boy, twenty years or so, who had walked away with the scars of the disease all over him—back to the Twenty-Third planet, and his decimated family.
Thich Tim Nghe had not walked away; as Yen Oanh knew all too well.
“Grandmother?” Yen Oanh tore herself from the Communion, and looked at Hue Mi—who was waiting for her in front of an open door—the arch seemingly leading into darkness. “She’s ready for you now.”
But Yen Oanh wasn’t ready for her—she never would be, not across several lifetimes.
She took a deep breath, and stepped into the corpse of the ship.
Inside, it was dark and cool; with that same feeling Gia Minh had had—he’d described it, but there was no way to get it across—that disquieting sense that someone—something—was watching. Normally it would be The Stone and Bronze Shadow, making sure that everything was right onboard—controlling everything from the ambient music to the temperature of the different sections—but The Stone and Bronze Shadow was dead. And yet…
“You feel it,” Hue Mi said. Her smile was tight; her eyes bruised—not the Blue Lily bruises, but close enough, something that seemed to leech all colour from her skin—until it was stretched as thin and as fragile as the inner membrane of an egg—until a careless finger pressure or a slight sharp breath were all it would take to break it.
“It’s almost as though it’s still alive.” There were tales, on the planets; of the unburied dead, the ones without children to propitiate them, the hungry, needy dead roaming the fields and cities without surcease. But The Stone and Bronze Shadow had had a family—she remembered seeing them, remembered their wan faces; the sheer shock that a ship should have died—the same shock they’d all felt.
Hue Mi was walking ahead, in a darkened corridor where doors opened—cabins, probably, the same ones where the passengers had died. Too many ghosts here.
“There is a shrine, isn’t there?” Yen Oanh asked. There would be, as on all dead ships: a place to leave offerings and prayers, and hope that the soul of The Stone and Bronze Shadow was still looking fondly on them. “May I stop by?”
Hue Mi nodded, barely hiding her surprise. “This way,” she said.
The shrine was at a crossroads between five corridors: a simple wooden table (though the wood itself, fine-grained and lustrous, must have come all the way from the outlying planets); framed by two squat incense burners; and a simple offering of six tangerines in a bowl. The smell of incense drifted to Yen Oanh; a reminder of more mundane temples, cutting through the unease she felt.
She stood in front of the altar, and bowed—unsure what she could say, or if she should say anything at all. “It’s been too long,” she said, at last, in a low voice. “I apologise if it’s not what you wanted—and I ask your forgiveness—but eleven years is enough time to grieve.”
There was no answer; but then Yen Oanh hadn’t expected one.
“Yen Oanh,” a voice said—from deep within the Communion.
Que Tu. She ought to have known.
In the Communion, her friend was unchanged; middle-aged, with the casual arrogance of the privileged, her topknot held in place by thin, elegant hairpins, tapering to the heads of ky lan—she’d worn them eleven years ago, an odd statement to make, the ky lan announcing the arrival of a time of prosperity and peace—nothing like what they had, even now.
“You’re on the ship,” Que Tu said. It wasn’t a question.
“Yes,” Yen Oanh said. Que Tu was a living legend by now, of course; though it hadn’t changed her either. “What do you want?”
Que Tu smiled. “Nothing. Just to remind you.”
Que Tu came to the Sixth Planet because she had once been a biologist, a rarity in the field branch of the Cedar and Crane: most biologists were closeted in the order’s labs, desperately trying to find a cure. She stayed a week; interviewed everyone from Gia Minh to the survivors on the ship; and retreated to Magistrate Hoa’s library to compile her report.
Her most vivid memory is of an evening there—sitting at the foot of a watercolour of temples on a mountain and trying to pretend she was back at the order’s headquarters on the First Planet; working on reports and statistics that couldn’t touch or harm her.
She considered the evidence, for a while; the bruises on the ship; the bruises on the humans. The countless dead—there was no need for her to write the obvious, but she did, anyway.
No one knew how Blue Lily was passed on, or had managed to isolate the organism responsible for it. Only the obvious had been eliminated: that it wasn’t food, or sexual contact. Airborne or skin contact, quite possibly; except that outbreaks had happened outside of any contact with the sick—as if there had been a spontaneous generation, which was impossible.
Que Tu sipped her tea, and thought on the rest of what she knew. What she’d gleaned from the Communion—the detailed database of the order’s memories, available to her at a moment’s glance.
The inexplicable outbreaks, many of which bore some connection to mindships.
The symptoms of Blue Lily: the fever, the bruises, the delirium that seemed to be contagious—but only until the person died or the attendants contracted Blue Lily—as if all the visions were linked to the sick, or the sickness itself.
Deep spaces: the alternate realities explored by mindships to facilitate space journeys. Most people in the Empire knew deep spaces as a shortcut which avoided months or years on a hibernation ship. But they were more than that—places where time and space, compressed and stretched, had become inimical to human life.
The similarities seemed obvious in retrospect. Not delirium, but the materialisation of other, less accessible realities; of places in the past or in the future, or nowhere at all.
Deep spaces. Mindships.
Que Tu hesitated for a while. Then she closed her eyes, and wrote in a strong, decisive hand—she could have composed her report in the communal network, or even on her own implants, but she’d got used to the unreliability of both, in the age of the plague.
I think the order should consider the possibility that Blue Lily originated in deep spaces, and still abides there. The organism responsible for it seems to bear an affinity for mindships; though it would seem it has become capable of infecting them now.
Her report was short, and to the point; but it would change the world.
Thich Tim Nghe stands in the past—in the belly of the ship, staring upwards. The heartroom is now a maelstrom of conflicting realities; half into deep spaces already, the mindship’s throne of spikes and thorns all but vanished. Her own reality is wavering around her; the onset of fever—the same fever that killed Cousin Ly, sending her mind wandering into a delirium it never returned from.
“Vu Thi Xuan Lan,” The Stone and Bronze Shadow whispers, her voice like the boom of thunder on uncharted seas—calling her old name; and not the new one she gave herself—“Listening Heart,” as if she could make herself wise; could make herself caring and compassionate.
“Ship,” she whispers. She’s shivering—holding onto reality only with an effort, and even then she can’t be sure that this is real, that the ship is real—looming large over her while the walls of the heartroom recede into nothingness and shadows like those of nightmares start moving in the darkness—far away like bleeding stars, and then closer and closer, questing hounds, always there no matter where she turns her head…
“Why?” The Stone and Bronze Shadow twists; or perhaps it’s the realities around her. “Why come here, child?”
She—she dragged herself out of her cabin—into corridors twisted out of shape; into air that felt too thick, too hot to breathe, searing her lungs with every tottering step—leaning on the walls and feeling the ship wince under her hands—and trying not to think of the other passengers moaning and tossing within their own cabins, each lost in a Hell of their own—the ones she killed as surely as she killed the ship. “I’m here. Because—”
She wants to say that she knew when she boarded The Stone and Bronze Shadow—that she’d woken up in her student garret on the evening before she left; shaking off confused nightmares in which Mother screamed for her and she was unable to answer—with sweat encasing her entire body like a shroud. That, as she ran through the spaceport, she felt the growing pains in her arms and legs; and the first bruises, barely visible beneath her dark skin. That she said nothing when she came onboard; because it was nothing, because it had to be nothing; that she needed to get home fast—to be by Mother’s side—that the ship was the only way to do that.
She didn’t intend to infect the ship, of course—mindships are old and wise, and invulnerable—who had ever heard of one catching Blue Lily? She thought she would keep to her cabin until the journey was over—not passing on a contagion, if there was one—all the while believing that she was fine, that everything would be fine. But, when the first bruises bloomed on the floor of her cabin, she had to accept the inevitable reality—the weight of her guilt and shame—because Mother didn’t raise her to be a coward or a fool.
She didn’t speak up; and now, days later, it’s much too late for her to speak at all.
“I—” her tongue trips on the words, swallows them as though they were ashes. “I came because you shouldn’t die alone. Because—”
She’ll die, too. One chance in two, one chance in three—statistics of Blue Lily, the faceless abacuses of fear and rage and grief. In the intervals between breaths, she can see the shadows, twisting closer and closer, taking on the leering faces of boars and fanged tigers—the demons of the King of Hell, waiting to take her with them.
The Stone and Bronze Shadow doesn’t move, doesn’t speak—there are just shadows, spreading to cover her entire field of vision, blotting out of existence the watercolours and the scrolling texts; an oily sheen, and a noise in the background like the chittering of ten thousand cockroaches. “It’s kind of you, child,” she says at last. Her voice comes back distorted—like the laughter of careless deities. “Come. Let us face the King of Hell together.”
It’s been eleven years since that night; but it’s the only place where Thich Tim Nghe can hear the voice of the ship—the last, the greatest of her dead, the weight that she can never cast aside or deny.
Yen Oanh’s strongest memory of the Sixth Planet isn’t of the ship, or of the sick—she arrived much too late for that, when the paperwork was already done, and the dead buried and propitiated—but of an interview she had with Magistrate Hoa and Que Tu, at the close of Que Tu’s investigation.
They didn’t know, then, the storm Que Tu’s report would ignite—the back-and-forth of memorials and reports by enraged biologists and civil servants—the angry declarations she was mistaken, that she’d gone into the field branch of the order because she had no competence in science—the Imperial Court itself getting involved; and all the while, the order tearing itself apart while Que Tu struggled to hold her ground.
Back then, it was still possible to pretend that everything was normal; insofar as anything could be normal, in the age of the plague.
They sat in Magistrate Hoa’s library—surrounded by both the old-fashioned books on rice paper, and the communal network with its hint of thousands more—and drank tea from celadon cups. Yen Oanh inhaled the soft, flowery fragrance from hers, and tried to forget about her bone-deep weariness—if she closed her eyes, she’d see her last patient: Lao Sen, an old woman whose death-delirium had created a maze of illusions—ghostly figures and landscapes superimposed over the confines of the sickroom until Yen Oanh wasn’t quite sure of what was real, spending an hour talking with a girl who turned into a fox and then melted back into the shadows…
She’d monitored her vitals since Lao Sen’s death—no change, no fever, nothing that indicated Blue Lily might be within her. She wasn’t sick.
Not this time; but there was always the next—and the next and the next, an endless chain of the sick and the dying, stretching all the way across the Empire.
Que Tu was her usual self, withdrawn and abrasive; Magistrate Hoa looked tired, with deep circles under her eyes, and flesh the colour of wet rice paper—showing the shape of her cheekbones in translucency. “Long week?” Yen Oanh asked.
Magistrate Hoa shrugged. “No worse than usual. There was an outbreak in Long Quang District, in addition to the other seven that I’m currently managing.”
Que Tu looked up from her report, sharply. “Long Quang. That’s near the spaceport, isn’t it?”
“Yes.” Magistrate Hoa didn’t speak for a while; but Yen Oanh did.
“I don’t have much time,” she said. The order had rerouted her from her original destination—a large outbreak of Blue Lily in a minor official’s holiday house on the First Planet—to here, the site of the unimaginable, universe-shattering death. She was meant to take Que Tu’s report back to the order’s headquarters; and all she could focus on was a bed, and some rest; and a place free of the fear of contagion and the bone-deep weariness of staying by sickbeds.
“You never do have time.” Que Tu said it without aggressiveness. They’d worked together at a couple venues: small hospitals and private sickrooms. Yen Oanh would have liked to believe their presence had made a difference—that the drugs and the care they provided had helped. But, in her heart of hearts, she knew they didn’t. They’d made people more comfortable; had knocked others insensate: a kindness, in their last hours. But it was hard to fight a disease they knew so little about. “But I’m going to need you to pay attention.”
“Fine,” Yen Oanh said. She took a sip of tea, bracing herself for Que Tu’s dry recitation of facts.
Her colleague surprised her by not doing that. “I want to know what you think.”
“What I—I barely arrived, Sister.”
“I know. Bear with me.”
“I—I don’t know.” Yen Oanh looked at Magistrate Hoa, who was silent. “Plague onboard a mindship isn’t unusual, per se. But the ship… doesn’t usually die.” Mindships were engineered to be all but immortal—all five khi-elements stabilised to grant them long, changeless lives. They didn’t age; they didn’t fall sick. And they didn’t die of Blue Lily.
Yen Oanh closed her eyes. “We’re dealing with mindship-human contagion, aren’t we?” It wasn’t the shock it should have been, but that was because she’d had time to think it over on the shuttle. Mindships weren’t human; but they were close enough: the Minds were organic constructs modeled on the human body. Diseases could leap from birds to humans, from plants to humans; why not from humans to mindships? “Who fell sick first?”
Que Tu shook her head. “The ship.” Her lips were two thin, white lines; her tea lay untouched by her side. “But you know the incubation period varies.”
“Fine,” Yen Oanh said. It was late, she was tired; and she still had a long way to go before she could finally rest—if she got to rest at all. “Just tell me. Please.”
Que Tu said nothing. It was Magistrate Hoa who spoke, her voice low, but firm. “I think a passenger fell sick first. Given the timeline, they were incubating before they even boarded—showing a few symptoms, perhaps, the more discrete ones. They probably didn’t suspect the danger.”
“They knew they would contaminate people,” Yen Oanh said, more firmly than she’d expected. How were they meant to check the progress of Blue Lily, if people stubbornly kept insisting on life as usual—taking long journeys in cramped quarters, and congregating in droves at the temples and teahouses? Could no one think beyond themselves, for once?
“You know it’s true.”
“And I know you’re being too harsh.”
Yen Oanh exhaled; thinking of all the sick—all the rooms in which she’d sat, trying to decide if more saline solution or more ginseng and cinnabar would make a difference; entering the Communion and comparing the patient’s symptoms with the experience of others in the Cedar and Crane, seeking whether anyone’s remedies had made a difference. “No. I’m trying to be realistic. Trying to…” She closed her hands into fists. “There are too many dead. You can’t expect me to rejoice when people get deliberately infected.”
Que Tu grimaced. Too harsh again; but then wasn’t it the truth? The disease wasn’t going to burn itself out—not while there still were warm bodies to infect.
“We don’t know how the sickness is passed on.” Que Tu snorted. “Not with enough certainty.”
“Well, you can count that as new data,” Yen Oanh said, warily.
“All I have is in the report; I expect the order’s research labs will have plenty to work with. The place will be swarming with their teams before we’re through.” Que Tu set down her cup, and looked at the bookshelves, her face set.
“You said ‘a passenger’,” Yen Oanh said. “You know which one.”
Magistrate Hoa turned, to look at Que Tu; but Que Tu said nothing.
“One of the dead?”
Still nothing. One of the living, then; which left only two—and she didn’t think Que Tu was going to be moved by a twenty-year-old boy, no matter how pretty he might have been. “The girl in the heartroom.”
“Yes,” Magistrate Hoa said, at last.
“Where is she?”
“She wouldn’t leave the ship,” Que Tu said. “Word came through when we were processing the corpses—her mother died of Blue Lily, six days ago. Oanh…”
Yen Oanh knew what Que Tu would say—that the girl was young and lost, barely confident enough after her ordeal—that she needed reassurance. “She knew.”
“You can’t know that for sure,” Magistrate Hoa said. Her face was set. “I certainly wouldn’t prosecute her on that basis.”
“Fine,” Yen Oanh said, keeping her gaze on Que Tu. “Then look me in the eye and swear that she didn’t know.”
“I—” Que Tu started; and then stopped, her teeth white against the lividness of her lips, as if she were out in glacial cold. “I can’t tell you that.”
“Then tell me what you suspect.”
Que Tu was silent. Then: “I think the incubation time is shorter in mindships. Or that symptoms are more visible because they’re so large, who knows. Will you talk to her, Oanh?”
“And tell her what?”
«Comfort her,» Que Tu said. «She’s thirteen years old, for Heaven’s sake. This requires a deft touch; and we both know I don’t have it. Whereas you—you were always good with people.»
Comforting the sick and the dying; keeping them on the razor’s edge of hope, no matter how much of a lie it turned out to be. Yen Oanh took a deep breath; thought, for a moment, of what she would tell a thirteen-year-old about consequences; of the lessons learnt in months of sickrooms and ministering to the dead—of the stomach-churning fear that it would be her that fell sick next; that she’d have to lock herself in, and pray that someone from the order came, so she wouldn’t have to die alone. That anyone would choose to pass this much agony, this much fear onto others… «She killed people, Que Tu. She killed a ship. She’s old enough to know better. Besides, she’s fortunate—she’s alive.»
Que Tu said nothing, for a while. Then she shook her head. «It’s not always good fortune to survive, is it? Forget I asked.» Her voice was emotionless, her face a careful mask—and that should have been the end of it; but of course it wasn’t.
“I remember that evening,” Que Tu said to Yen Oanh. Within the Communion, she was smaller and less impressive than Yen Oanh remembered; though her anger could still have frozen waterfalls. “When I asked you to talk to the girl.”
Yen Oanh said nothing.
“It wasn’t much to give her, but you didn’t.”
“I couldn’t lie.” Yen Oanh has had this conversation before: not with Que Tu, but with her own treacherous conscience. What would have happened, if she had been less tired; less overwrought? Would she still have judged Thich Tim Nghe’s actions to be a crime, would she still have blithely moved on? “And do you truly think I would have made a difference?”
Que Tu’s smile was bitter, but she didn’t answer. She didn’t need to: it wasn’t the answer that mattered. It wasn’t whether Yen Oanh would have made a difference, but that she hadn’t even tried.
“We’re here, Grandmother,” Hue Mi said.
Startled, Yen Oanh looked up from the Communion, Que Tu and the others fading into insignificance; and saw a door in front of her, adorned with faded calligraphy—it seemed like she should be able to read the words, but she couldn’t. The swirl of realities was strongest here; that crawling, disorienting sense that she hadn’t been meant to be here; a sheen like oil or soap over everything; and shadows that were too long, or too short—turning, stretching, watching her and biding their time…
It was no longer the time of Blue Lily; and this was no longer a sickroom.
A young man was waiting for them, carrying a white cloth which he handed to Yen Oanh. “Put this on. She’s waiting for you.”
Mourning clothes; or novice’s robes—Yen Oanh wasn’t sure, anymore.
“Grandmother?” Hue Mi’s voice, in a tone that Yen Oanh couldn’t quite interpret.
“Why are you here?”
“What do you mean?”
Hue Mi smiled, and didn’t answer—her arms folded in barely appropriate respect. “To change things,” Yen Oanh said, finally. She’d never been able to lie; as Que Tu well knew.
“You knew the ship,” Hue Mi said.
“No. I’m not her family, and I never saw her before…” She closed her eyes, feeling the weight of years; of decisions made in haste. “Your teacher changed the world,” she said. Because she boarded The Stone and Bronze Shadow. Because Que Tu made her report—because Professor Luong Thi Da Linh’s teams read it, and finally isolated the virus responsible for Blue Lily, giving the Empire the vaccine they so desperately needed. Because it was all the small things that bore fruit; all the insignificant acts put together, at the close of one’s existence.
One of these insignificant acts was Yen Oanh’s; and it had destroyed a life.
“She needs to know,” Yen Oanh said, finally. “I want to tell her—” It was a truth; what she could give Thich Tim Nghe in all honesty; in the hope that it would get her out of the ship’s corpse; that it would atone for Yen Oanh’s mistake, allow Thich Tim Nghe to build a life again.
“My teacher changes lives.” Hue Mi sounded mildly amused. “She lays the past to rest. She gives hope. But the world? Don’t grant her powers she doesn’t have.”
Yen Oanh didn’t. She knew that, deep within Thich Tim Nghe, there was a frightened girl; a thirteen-year-old still carrying her own dead. “I want to help her.”
Hue Mi sounds amused, again. “She doesn’t need your help.”
Even outside the Communion, Yen Oanh knew what Que Tu would say. We don’t get what we deserve, or even what we need.
The door opened, slowly agonisingly slowly; revealing the heartroom—not much that Yen Oanh could see, amidst the swirling of deep spaces; the tight smell of ozone and incense mingled together; fragments of faces mottled with bruises; of eyes frozen in death; of children running and screaming, overlaid with the shadow of death…
And, in the midst of it, Thich Tim Nghe, turning towards her, stately and slow; and then startled, as if she’d seen something in Yen Oanh’s face: she wasn’t the girl of Yen Oanh’s nightmares; not the emaciated child from Que Tu’s report; not the rake-thin ascetic from the vids Yen Oanh had gleaned online; but a grown woman with circles under her eyes like bruises—as if she still had Blue Lily.
And Yen Oanh realised, then, that she was wrong: this was a sickroom; and that this was still the time of Blue Lily; not only for Thich Tim Nghe, but also for her.
Hue Mi had been right: she carried her past, and she had come to lay it to rest—and it might work or fail abjectly, but she would have tried—which was more than she’d done, eleven years ago.
Within the Communion, Que Tu said nothing; merely smiled, the ky lan on her hairpins stretching as though they were live animals, heralding the age of peace and prosperity—the age of change.
Thich Tim Nghe moves out of the past, beyond the voice of the ship. Everything is silence as the door opens; Thich Tim Nghe tenses, ready to reach out to the supplicant—her own moment of peace and serenity, blossoming within her with the certainty of the plague.
“Teacher,” the supplicant says. She moves forward, detaching herself from Vo and Hue Mi—and, though Thich Tim Nghe has never seen her in her life, she knows the woman’s ghosts—because they’re her.
“I—” she stops, then; stares at the supplicant, who hasn’t moved. Around her, in the swirling storm of realities that have been, that might be, The Stone and Bronze Shadow falls sick and dies; a younger Thich Tim Nghe curls around the throne, clinging to the The Stone and Bronze Shadow’s Mind as though she could prevent her death—and there are other images too; a vid of Thich Tim Nghe putting on the robes of an ascetic, pale and composed; documents gleaned from the communal network of the First Planet; and an older woman in the robes of the Cedar and Crane, smiling sadly at her. “I—I don’t understand what you want.”
“I want you to come out.” The supplicant’s voice is low, and intense. “Please, child.” There are other images around the woman; words about mindships and vaccines, and Blue Lily in deep spaces, and how none of it would have been possible without her—without the death of The Stone and Bronze Shadow.
This doesn’t matter—this can’t atone for anything. She killed a ship, unknowingly. She killed people, knowingly—she failed Mother, and the countless dead, and nothing she does will ever atone for this.
“Please. Just look.”
It’s what she does. It’s what she’s always done—she helps people; lays their dead to rest, shows them their future beyond the shadow of the past; the shadow of the plague.
But this time, the shadow is hers—the restless ghost is her.
There is nothing around her but the silence of her dead; and the larger, expectant silence of the ship.
She should refuse. She should lock herself in the heartroom, plunge back into her visions—listening to nothing but the voice of the ship, the song of the dead.
Slowly, carefully, Thich Tim Nghe reaches out, on the cusp of her past, in the belly of the dead ship—to see the shape of her future.
© 2015 by Aliette de Bodard. Originally published in Meeting Infinity. Reprinted by permission of the author.