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Mulberry and Owl

Content Note: Death of Children

 

Year of the Âm Dragon, fifth year of the Peaceful Harmony Empress, Great Mulberry Nebula

 

Thuỷ stood in her cabin in The Goby in the Well, her bots arrayed on her shoulders and clinging to her wrists, and watched the heart of the nebula.

There was absolutely nothing remarkable about it: the Great Mulberry Nebula was large, sparsely dotted with nascent stars, and so remote that getting there, even via deep spaces, had required a three month journey. On the overlay in Thuỷ’s cabin—a thin sliver like a screen, showing her the merged data of all The Goby in the Well’s sensors—there was very little to see, either: a darkness that seemed to spread absolute from the centre of the overlay, and a corresponding gravity spike for the trapping of the light.

“I’m not going any further, child,” Goby said. The ship projected her avatar into the cabin: a smaller version of herself, the metal of her hull sheening with the characteristic light of deep spaces.

Thuỷ sighed. “I know, elder aunt,” she said. “That was the bargain, wasn’t it? Thank you for carrying me this far.” She fingered one of her bots, feeling the small, fist-sized body, the fragile metal legs spread all around its crown of sensors. It ought to have been comforting, but she was so far beyond comfort.

Getting there had required so much—not just the three months, but research, and stubbornness, and bribing a dozen officials all over the Empire, from the First Planet to the unnumbered stations and orbitals. Chasing a rumour so elusive it was almost a myth.

Thuỷ stared at her hand: faint traceries of light materialised the pass she’d bought from a drunk and demoted former Commissioner of Military Affairs. He’d said it would take her there, right into the heart of the gravitational gradients—and more importantly, get her back out.

“Do you—” Goby paused, for a while “—do you think it’s the right place? Do you think she’s there?” Goby used “enforcer”, a pronoun that carried both awe and fear.

“I don’t know,” Thuỷ said. “Do you want to find out?”

“You can always tell me afterwards.” The ship’s laughter was humourless and brief. “If you survive.”

Darkness, in the centre. A pointless chase leading to another black hole or some other phenomenon—or exactly what she was looking for, what she needed. What Kim Lan desperately needed.

Rehabilitation. Forgiveness.

“If,” Thuỷ said, very deliberately not thinking about it, and dismissed the overlay with a wave of her hands. “I’ll go get ready now.”

Twenty years ago

 

In the reaches beyond the numbered planets, rebellion against the Dragon Throne wasn’t so much an unspeakable crime as utterly banal—an act of despair, self-preservation, or rage against the unavoidable losses to the empire’s wars—a contagion like a match lighting up paper after paper, daughter following mother, sworn or gut-sibling following sibling.

Thuỷ fell into hers following Kim Lan, as she’d always done.

They were in the teahouse, having a drink and watching the poet in the centre moving through her performance—summoning ethereal overlays with every sweep of her sleeves, brief fragments of sight, sound and smells like other realities—ones in which war, food shortages, or network outages were utterly absent.

I need help, Thuỷ had said, when Kim Lan had asked how it was all going—and the thought of everything Thuỷ had been juggling—all the debts, the food shortages, her salary being worth less and less with every passing month—had all become too much, and she’d almost burst into tears.

Kim Lan had looked at her, thoughtfully. Wait here, she said, and came back with someone in tow.

“Here, lil’sis,” Kim Lan said. “This is my friend Bảo Châu. She can help you with those back taxes.”

Châu was an elderly, forbidding woman, like one of the aunties at the market who’d seen everything: a topknot with hairpins as sharp as daggers, bots the colour of rust and the darkness of space, almost invisible on the stark utilitarian robes she wore. “Thuỷ, is it? You trained for Master of Wind and Water, once.”

Thuỷ flushed. “Yes,” she said. “It was the year of the Dương Ox. When the schools burnt down.” They’d never opened them again after that, merely slashed the number of available slots—and people like Thuỷ had left. Coming from the margins of the empire and with no means to pay the gifts of the void to officials to grease their way through the system, they’d never stood a chance.

“Yes,” Châu said. She smiled, and it was grim. “I can sort things out with the Ministry of Revenue, but you’ll owe us, in return.”

Thuỷ would have asked who “us” was, but even at twenty-five she wasn’t that naive. “What do you want?”

“Nothing you can’t provide,” Châu said. “Expertise. Ships that need to be fixed. Systems that need to be… coaxed.” She said nothing: merely looked at Thuỷ, sipping her tea as if it were the greatest of delicacies in the imperial court on the First Planet.

Thuỷ looked at Kim Lan, who gazed levelly back at her. She raised her hand as if holding an invisible bowl of offerings—that same gesture they’d made in her mother’s compartment, entwining their arms at the elbow and making a binding, peach-garden oath.

Though not born on the same day of the same month in the same year, we hope to die so…

Standing by each other, and they’d always done so—through the years that got leaner and leaner, and the failings of the empire—through the death of Kim Lan’s mother, and Thuỷ’s failed engagement—through feast and famine and days of the war.

The punishment for rebellion was not just the slow death for her, but for nine generations around her. But she was Kim Lan’s oath-sister—and it was the fifth tax notification in as many months, food on the table was scarce, her aged parents getting visibly thinner, more and more of the compartment’s systems and bots failing.

“I’ll do it,” she said, and Kim Lan smiled.

“Welcome, lil’sis.”

Thuỷ had forgotten what it was like, to go out.

She’d been in a shuttle at first, and then, as the gravity increased, she’d had to abandon even that, and put on a shadow-skin to go out in order to avoid damaging the shuttle and incurring one more debt to Goby she wouldn’t be able to repay.

The shadow-skin’s thin and supple fabric was soaked, sticking to her own skin, even before she exited into the void, hands clinging to the small glider that helped her manoeuvre. Around her, light fell in swathes, but ahead of her was only that growing darkness, and her sensor bots reminded her with regular alerts that the gravity was increasing steadily.

As she went deeper in, they plotted her course. Space started distorting—time, too, the sensors making the depths of the distortion, how much slower than Goby she was going and what rate of correction her comms needed to be sent with. The mark on her hand started glowing as she navigated between rock fragments—nothing she could see, but a corridor opened ahead and behind her, a gentle coaxing of the gravitational gradient into a path that wasn’t an impasse.

The glider was impossibly heavy in her hands. The mark stung, and then faded: here, it seemed to say, without words.

Thuỷ hung in the darkness, in the void—weightless and with nothing but the sound of her own heartbeat in her chest and ears, her own breathing.

Here.

She’d been wrong: the darkness wasn’t quite that absolute. Distant stars glinted behind her—and ahead, in the shadows, was something—a hulking shape that suddenly loomed far too close, far too large, on the verge of utterly swallowing her in its folds.

It was true. Oh ancestors, everything was true: the pass, the jail.

The prisoner.

The Owl with the Moon’s Tongue. The enforcer of the Empress’s will—the ship that had roamed the borders of the empire, assassinating and executing rebels one after the other—in compartments, in teahouses, in the middle of crowds, sowing the terror necessary to end the rebellion.

Thuỷ thought of Hải’s face, of An’s face, the way they’d stood still for a blink moment after Owl’s scream had kicked in, the sheen trembling in the depths of their eyes, suddenly sweeping free and spreading in mottled patches over their entire skin, the patches sloughing off, bones melting and their entire bodies flopping like a coat suddenly emptied, the crowds on the concourse slowly backing away from the blood staining the metal floors, utter silence and on every face that blunt, inadmissible truth: how lucky they felt that they hadn’t been Owl’s target.

“A visitor. It’s been far too long since I’ve had company.” The voice was female, light and sarcastic; the pronoun used the one for “elder aunt”: an age and status gap between them both, but not such a large one.

“Enforcer.” Thuỷ used the same pronoun Goby had.

Laughter, echoing around her in the dark. “Enforcer? A title I’ve not had for a while. What brings you here, little one?” The pronoun she used wasn’t even “child”, but a subordinate one, of a subject before authority. “Why enter my orbit?”

“You have something I want.”

“Do I?” Something lit up, then: one light, then two, then ten thousand, and abruptly she was hanging, small and weightless and utterly insignificant, in the orbit of a ship that was the size of an entire city. The light was so strong it was blinding: even with her suit immediately moving to darken its visor, she could only catch a glimpse—a mere moment of clarity, of seeing sharp protuberances and the hull bristling with weapons ports—before all she could see was bright, painful light.

Kim Lan, laughing at her after they robbed the Granaries, their vehicles full of rice seedlings and cheap alcohol. Kim Lan, raising her arm in that ghostly toast, a reminder of the oath they’d sworn—downing the tea after they got word that Owl had killed Diễm My, and Vy too—and then that last drink they’d had together, her face flushed as she spoke of the imperial amnesty, how desperate and wan she’d looked.

“I have a friend.”

“Ah.” Owl’s voice was mocking. “Ah. A dead one, I imagine.”

She thought of Hải and An and Châu, and of the years on the run—being picked out one by one, killed one by one. “You killed them,” she said, her fists clenching. She used the plural pronoun.

“Oh, several friends, then. A little rebel, are you?”

“Once.” A long time ago, in another lifetime. The Mother Abbess would say that Thuỷ needed to let go—to stand unmoored from the troubles of her former life. The Mother Abbess meant well, but she didn’t understand. “It’s not relevant anymore.”

“Is it not?” Her laughter filled the space around Thuỷ. “Irrelevance. How quaint. I killed your friends then, and I enjoyed it. Every moment of it, from the imperial decree to their deaths, to tracking them down—to finally finding them—that long slow rise of power in the targeting system until it could finally fire—until I could feel them, torn apart and boneless—until I saw them finally collapse and it was all over. Tell me: is that all irrelevant?”

There was a reason why Owl was there, and it wasn’t just that the empire was at peace, it wasn’t just that there was a new Empress, one who was trying to knit the torn fabric of their society back together, to make former rebels inhabit the same stations and planets as loyal officials. Owl was there because she was a monster. Because there might be a time and place for a ruthless enforcer, but one that delighted in slaughter and pain…that one was best put away—made harmless and imprisoned, at least until she was needed again.

“Stop,” Thuỷ said.

“Pleading?”

No, because that was never going to make her stop, was it?

“Because that’s not what I’m here for. You didn’t kill my friend.”

“Oh.” A silence, but she could tell Owl’s curiosity was piqued.

“You’re a witness.”

“Am I?”

Thuỷ forced herself to breathe. “She took the amnesty. You have her statement.”

“I was never much of a person for taking statements,” Owl said. “Is that what you’re here for? Go to the magistrate.”

“The magistrate is dead.” Incinerated in the same riots that had killed Kim Lan—but the archive she’d uploaded to Owl would still be in the ship’s memory. “There are no records.”

“And so you’ve come all the way here for mine?” Again, laughter, but it didn’t quite have that same edge. “What is it that you want?”

Thuỷ swallowed, tasted bitterness on her tongue. What was it that she wanted? Forgiveness. Atonement. A dead woman’s smile; a lie that everything would be all right again, a touch and a toast. Dead things, dead memories, dead feelings. “She died a rebel. Her entire family is still under an extermination order.” They’d fled, of course—outside the reach of the Empire, into the uncertain places, the isolated stations and orbitals, the small asteroid mining centres where people didn’t ask too many questions so long as you did the work. “I want it lifted.”

A silence. The ship in front of Thuỷ—large, massive, blinding and uncompromising—didn’t move. She didn’t have to: she was slowly drawing Thuỷ to herself, towards an inexorable orbiting of each other, an endless embrace. “I assume you didn’t come all the way here just to try and talk me into this.”

Thuỷ swallowed. “No,” she said.

“The keys to my freedom?” Owl’s voice was curious. “You won’t have that, will you.”

Thuỷ had a pass, and she had half-expected it not to work. It certainly would not let out the ship the prison had been built for. “No,” she said.

“I’m not interested in money.”

“I don’t have that.” Not anymore—not after coming back, bribing too many people, finding a mindship willing to bear her that far.

“And clearly you won’t give me your life, as it won’t help your friend if you’re dead. Not that it’s of much value, is it.”

That hurt. It was that life Thuỷ had run away to save—putting it above everything else, even ties of sworn-sisterhood—and to have it so casually dismissed was as if Owl were slowly, casually pushing down on old wounds until they split open.

“What is it you have that you think I desperately want?”

Thuỷ swallowed. “I can repair your weapons system.”

Owl’s laughter tore Thuỷ apart—as if her weapons system were still operational, as if she could still scream and make Thuỷ collapse the way all the others had collapsed. “My weapons. And leave me here? Why do you think I would even be interested in that?”

Thuỷ had had three months in deep spaces to think on it—and before that, in the monastery, when she’d first found out that Owl was still alive—that there might be a chance to clear Kim Lan’s memory. “They called that your scream. The weapons systems.”

Silence, from the ship.

“When they arrested you for the war crimes, they took it apart. It was too dangerous. Even in a jail. Even in the middle of nowhere.”

“Are you done telling me things I already know?”

Thuỷ plunged on. There was little choice left. “But that’s not what is it to you, is it? A scream is a voice. They took away part of your voice.”

“And you think I could use that part for something else besides killing?” Owl’s voice was light and ironic.

“I think you want it back. Even if you’re jailed. Even if it’s of no practical use. I think you want it back because it was always part of you.”

“Part of me.” A silence, but that one was barbed. “You haven’t answered my question, have you.”

“No,” Thuỷ said. “Does it matter? Who are you going to kill out there?”

The unspoken answer hung in the air: of course Thuỷ was the only living target. “I assume you’ll want some assurances that you’ll survive.”

“No,” Thuỷ said. She kept her voice light, inconsequential—but inwardly she saw An’s face, Châu’s face, heard the crumple of dead bodies on the floors. That was what everything that would happen to her, if Owl decided she wasn’t worth sparing. And when had an imperial enforcer and mass murderer ever decided former rebels were worth sparing? “I want to see my friend’s statement to make sure you do have it, but I don’t need your assurances. I came with a mindship.”

“I know. They’re much too far away to save you.”

Thuỷ smiled, beneath the shadow-skin. “You don’t understand. If I don’t come back, they’ll know you’ve killed me, and they’ll take the evidence to the Numbered Planets. Your jailers will know I fixed your weapons. How long do you think you’ll get to keep them?”

A silence. She could feel the gravity pulse around her, tightening—like a slow rising of anger. “Clever,” Owl said, and it sounded like nothing so much as a threat. Something shimmered within Thuỷ’s field of vision: not a file with its authentication, but a mere image of it. I, Phạm Thị Kim Lan, accept that I have erred, and that the Peaceful Harmony Empress has chosen to extend her infinite mercy the way she extends her grace, like a cloth covering us all with all the stars in the sky…

At the bottom, beneath the vermillion seal, was Kim Lan’s familiar and forceful signature, authenticated by her personal seal.

The statement. It was real. Owl had it. Thuỷ could—she could finally make amends for what she’d done.

Something changed, in the mass of light in front of Thuỷ: a slight adjustment, but suddenly she could see the ship—the bulk of the hull, the sharp, sleek shape with bots scuttling over every surface, the thin, ribbed actuator fins near the ion drives at the back—the paintings on her hull, which she’d half-expected to be blood spatters but which were apricot flowers, and calligraphed poems, and a long wending river of stars in the shadow of mountains, a breathtakingly delicate and utterly unexpected work of art. Something moved: a ponderous shift of the bots, drawing Thuỷ’s eyes towards a patch of darkness at the centre of the painting, between two mountains.

“Come in, then, clever child. Let’s see what you can do.”

Fifteen years ago

 

On the night after they broke Châu and An’s children out of imperial jail, they celebrated.

An and Khiêm were in the hideout—an empty compartment on the Apricot Đỗ habitat they’d hastily hidden beneath an overlay of a busy teahouse. Nothing that would stand up to close imperial scrutiny—but in the empty, desolate spaces of a half-destroyed habitat most of the inhabitants had evacuated, it would serve.

Châu and An got drunk, and made elaborate overlays as they did: seas of stars, ghostly dragons, spaceships slowly growing to fill the space—and An’s children laughed and danced and declaimed drunk poetry, their bots’ legs clicking on the floor.

Thuỷ ought to have felt relief they’d succeeded, but as the night went on—as she thought of the skirmishes on the numbered planets, of the litany of lost ships—not theirs, their little organisation barely had enough to have a few shuttles, but there were other splinters of rebellion elsewhere—as she thought of the Imperial Fleet—the tightness in her chest grew and grew, until the compartment felt too small, too cramped, and she went out for air, cradling the cold porcelain of her teacup.

Outside, the corridor was deserted, and it was silent—not just the usual silence of the habitats, with only the faint background hiss of the air filters and sometimes, the clicking of a bot’s legs on the floor as they scurried from one maintenance to another. This was a silence that sounded like a prelude to the end. The overlays were minimal: flickering displays of the vital statistics from oxygen to temperature, but no news, no vids of songs, no adornments from the other compartments: just fatigued metal that felt as bare as Thuỷ did.

“You look glum.” Kim Lan effortlessly slid in the space between them. “Here.” She had a basket of dumplings, which her bots handed to Thuỷ.

Thuỷ didn’t speak for a while. “Did you hear? There’s a rumour The Owl with the Moon’s Tongue is coming our way.”

“Mmm.” Kim Lan sat down, nibbling on a steamed bun. Her hair rested against a broken duct—it creaked, and her bots gently pushed it out of the way. “She is.”

“And you’re not afraid?”

Now it was Kim Lan’s turn to say nothing.

“We’re losing, aren’t we? We saved Châu and the children, but we’re never going to win. We’re never going to overthrow the empress.” Or even change the empire—or if they did, it was change that would bring about their destruction, and the extermination of everyone onboard the habitats in the belt.

“You assume this was about winning,” Kim Lan said.

“What was it about then?”

Kim Lan’s face was hard. “Survival.”

“How are we going to survive against Owl?” She’d heard the rumours. She’d watched the vids. She’d seen that it didn’t matter where the victims where—so long as the weapons system locked on them, they would die, as if a long finger of death were pointing their way from Owl’s orbit.

Them. It would be them dying, taken apart as examples for anyone who dared to rebel.

“I don’t know,” Kim Lan said. She sighed. “Do you think you could have survived a sixth tax notification? Do you think your parents could have?”

She had food for them. Alcohol and stolen meals. And the tax collectors and the officials had fled the system in the wake of their activities. And whatever her other faults were, she’d never been less than honest with herself. “No,” Thuỷ said.

“There you go.”

“How do you think any of that is going to protect us against Owl? How?”

“You don’t understand.” Kim Lan’s voice was soft. “The choices we made were we’d get there. One thing at a time.” She reached out, held Thuỷ’s hand for a bare moment. “I know you’re scared. That’s all right. I’m here. I’ll always be here.”

And for a moment they were both back in that kitchen compartment, flush with drink and youth, their paths now inextricably entwined by choice.

Thuỷ held her cup, staring at the exposed wires of the habitat. Bots scuttled, sad and lonely, as if ashamed of what it had come to. She heard the words of the oath of sworn sisterhood echoing in her thoughts. Though not born on the same day of the same month in the same year, we hope to die so…  “We hope to die so.” A peach-garden oath, now and forever. “Except the goal isn’t to die.”

Kim Lan smiled. “Exactly. We got this far. We’ll get further, you’ll see. There’s always a way out. Now come back inside, will you? They’re waiting for you before the next round of poetry holos.”

Year of the Âm Dragon, fifth year of the Peaceful Harmony Empress, Great Mulberry Nebula

 

Thuỷ had expected—actually, she didn’t know what she’d expected when she’d enter Owl—some kind of fanciful lair of blood-encrusted corridors and bones stacked in coffins, which made no sense, because why would Owl have any of that onboard?

Instead, there was a corridor much like the one in the habitats—rundown, with too few bots, exposed bits of wiring and gaping holes where panels had fallen off, except the gravity wasn’t strong enough for her to be upright. It felt a little bit like the mining asteroids: a very faint sensation of weight in her bones, but nothing that prevented her from floating. Thuỷ held on to her glider as she moved through it.

As she did, the lights came on.

They were blue and red and gold, slowly cycling through the colours of some impossibly far away festival—weak and flickering, and the overlays in their wake were not opaque enough to mask the ruin beneath. But it had been beautiful once: those paintings of starscapes and temples on the First Planet, those holos of beautiful statues and teapots and jade figures, those faint, broken harmonics of a now unrecognizable music.

“This way,” Owl said, a scuttling of bots guiding Thuỷ onboard.

More corridors, more emptiness: gaping cabins with no adornments, looking like the looted compartments after the civil war—larger places that must have been like pavilions but now lay empty, with scuffed floors and floating debris. And a door, opening like magic in a wall like any other, behind a translucent painting of a dragon amidst the stars.

Inside, darkness, and then in the centre of a gradually widening circle of light, something that looked like a tree with sharp branches—and draped over it, a large and pulsating mass of flesh and electronics.

The ship. The Mind that drove the body, connected to every sensor, every room, every overlay onboard.

“Your weapons system is in your heartroom?” The ship’s most vulnerable place—like the brain to a human—and she’d just given Thuỷ casual access?

No, not that casual.

Because the bots—the ones missing all over the ship—were there. All there, a sea of gleaming metal between her and the Mind, legs bristling—a sharpness, a heaving multitude just waiting for a signal to swallow her whole. “Try anything,” Owl said, lightly and conversationally, “And I’ll choke you.”

Thuỷ tried to breathe, failed—all she could see was the bots, the way they’d rise, the way they’d swarm over her, slithering into her suit and breaking her visor, leaving her wide open to the drowning vacuum.

For Kim Lan. She was doing this for Kim Lan. For what she’d failed to do in another lifetime. “I want the proof,” she said. “The statement.”

“Before you fix me? I think not.”

“You’ll give me nothing afterwards.”

“Will I? Do you not trust me?”

“You’re a murderer. No.”

“I’m not the one who abandoned her friend.” Owl’s voice was malicious. “What worth are your promises?”

Though not born on the same day of the same month in the same year, we hope to die so…

The words burnt her. “I did not,” Thuỷ said, far too fast and far too painfully. “I did not!”

“As you say.” Owl’s voice was mocking. “Nevertheless…I’m not giving you anything until you’ve fixed it.”

And there was no way Thuỷ was going to fix it without any guarantees. She weighed options—negotiating tactics—and came up with little of interest. “Then I guess we’re at an impasse, because I’m not starting.” There was a hole in a wall, near the bots—and something glimmering within. When she came closer, she saw what was in the overlay: an illusion of what had once been there. Behind it, though…

Her intuition had been right: the jailers had been lazy. It was the end of the war, and they were in a hurry to put Owl where they didn’t have to worry about her. They’d just torn connectors and made a mess of control panels, but they hadn’t actually destroyed the system itself. They’d known they might need it again, in less peaceful days. “It was there, wasn’t it?”

Owl didn’t speak, but she could feel the temperature in the room shift. Approval.

Thuỷ let go of her glider, using its magnetised surface to stick it to the wall, and turned out the proximity nudgers on her suit. She flipped open the glider, opening its storage space, revealing row after row of spare parts and electronics—everything that had been on the schematics the military commissioner had sold her. The commissioner had thought it was only curiosity, secure in the knowledge Thuỷ wouldn’t dare do anything with these. The commissioner had been wrong.

Another shift of temperature: interest, tension. She knelt, peering at the inside. “It’s going to take me six hours to fix. Maybe eight.”

Silence, from around her. The Mind pulsed on her throne. The bots watched her, and she was at the centre of the attention of an entire ship, feeling the weight of it on her like lead.

Thuỷ considered, for a while. Owl didn’t really care about Kim Lan’s statement, one way or another: she just wanted to be fixed. She wanted the weapons back as part of herself, of her power. The main issue there wasn’t unwillingness: it was lack of trust, and Owl’s natural tendency to needle and inflict pain on others.

“Tell you what,” Thuỷ said, forcing herself to sound casual. “We could create a safehold. A place to hold my friend’s statement—and it would only send it out if the system got fixed.”

“I could stop that anytime, couldn’t I?”

Thuỷ shook her head. “A safehold where we both withdraw our access privileges in an irrevocable fashion. I can’t affect it, and neither can you. But it won’t send until this comes back online, so you get the system taken care of, and I only get paid, so to speak, if I successfully finish.”

“I’ve heard of such things,” Owl said. More silence. She was tempted, Thuỷ knew.

“Let me show you,” Thuỷ said, floating closer to the alcove and starting to put together the connections to create the safehold—and as the ship’s whole attention turned her way, she knew she had her.

Eight years ago

 

Thuỷ jerked awake. Someone was knocking insistently on the door of the safe house.

The imperials. They’d found them. They’d take them away and make them face Owl—or arrest them and publicly execute them, giving them the slow death that had haunted Thuỷ’s nightmares for the past few months on the run—the same death they’d given An’s children, bots slicing off one piece of flesh at a time, the smell of blood and the screams broadcast to the entire habitats…

Calm down. She got up, her bots arranging themselves on her shoulders, their sensors struggling to come online. They hadn’t been fixed in a long while.

The knocking had stopped. Thuỷ stepped over the others, who were sleeping huddled on the floor and barely starting to wake: Ánh Lệ was rubbing her eyes, Vy was struggling to rise, and it seemed as though nothing could really wake up Diễm My, who was merely mumbling and going back to sleep as if nothing had happened. The luck of youth.

“I’ve got it,” Thuỷ said to Ánh Lệ and Vy—with far more confidence than she felt.

She took a deep breath, bracing herself, and opened the door.

It was Kim Lan, wan, her bots pressing a bloodied cloth to her side.

“Big’sis!”

“It’s all right.” Kim Lan made a gesture with her hands, but she was shaking. “No one followed me. Can I come in?”

“Of course.” Thuỷ ushered her in, closing and bolting the door. The patches they’d made on the network and its surveillance cameras were still in place—she double- and triple-checked them as Kim Lan sat cross-legged in front of a low table, breathing hard. Her bots were peeling off the cloth; Thuỷ sent her own bots to fetch bandages from their meagre supplies.

“What happened?”

Kim Lan grimaced. “Had a skirmish with some of the militia a few days ago.” Up close, her skin was a network of small, red pinpricks. Burst veins. She didn’t look good. “They think me dead. I did have to plunge into space without a shadow-skin for a few blinks.”

Kim Lan sat in silence, sipping her tea. Ánh Lệ and Vy had joined her, and even Diễm My was groaning as her bots poked her into wakefulness.

“How long do we have?” Thuỷ said. The empire would find them. They would end them as they had ended all the others.

“We can still go to another one of the other habitats,” Vy said. Her voice was shaking. “Or leave the Belt, go into the Outside Territories or the Twin Streams.”

Kim Lan said, finally, “I didn’t come here to make you flee elsewhere. I came here because there’s news.”

“News?”

“You won’t have heard. The Calm Strength Empress is dead. Her heir will ascend to the throne as soon as the ceremonies have been completed. She’s offering an amnesty.”

“An amnesty?” Thuỷ turned the words over and over again. They made no sense.

Vy said, “They hounded us. They killed us one by one. Why would they—”

“They can’t keep fighting half their population,” Kim Lan said. Her voice was gentle. “Civil war is tearing the empire apart. They could kill us all. It’d be a lot of work. Hence the amnesty.”

“Never,” Vy said.

Kim Lan set her cup on the table. “I’ve told this to Thuỷ already. We’re not fighting to win. We’re fighting to survive. The new empress says she wants to make reforms. Make the empire a better place.”

“And you believe that?” After all this, after all the years they’d gone through…

“Maybe. Maybe not. I do know there’s fewer and fewer of us. We’re getting picked off one by one. I’d rather take the way out, before we all die. If we survive, we can always fight another day.”

“You want to take the amnesty.”

“Yes,” Kim Lan said. “It’s my choice. I won’t be selling anyone out.” Her eyes were hard. She was expecting a fight—but everyone around the table was tired, and scared, and drained—the light had gone out of them such a long time ago.

How could she—how could she believe them—how could she believe the people who’d starved them into rebellion, who had killed Châu and Hải and An and An’s children as casual acts of intimidation?

“They’ll kill us,” Thuỷ said. “An amnesty is just a way of letting us come to them. Owl is still in the system. Why would you leave your enforcer there if you’re going to let everyone live?”

Kim Lan said nothing.

“You can’t trust them!”

But she’d made her decision, hadn’t she. Thuỷ took a deep breath. “I need some space,” she said—there was no space in the safe house, it was so small, but she did manage to put together a few privacy filters that gave her the illusion of being alone: the sound from the others’ discussion muffled, and everything made to feel more distant visually.

How could she? How she could do this, how could she expect Thuỷ to follow, how could she–

“Lil’sis.” It was Kim Lan, gently asking to be let in.

“No.”

“You’re scared. I know you are. It’s all right to be scared.”

“I’m not scared,” Thuỷ said, dropping the privacy filters a fraction so Kim Lan could be included in them. They were having a semi-private conversation now, one that the others wouldn’t be overhearing unless they made a concerted effort. “I think you’re being thoughtless and imprudent.”

“And endangering you all?”

No, that wasn’t it. “I don’t want to lose you,” Thuỷ said, and it hurt to say it out loud.

“You asked me once if we were losing. We are.” Kim Lan’s voice was gentle. “I said it was about survival. And now it is. There is no survival in running from safe house to safe house, losing more people with every passing day.”

“I—” Thuỷ tried to speak, and found only the truth. “I can’t. I just can’t do it. I can’t follow you. I can’t walk into the possibility of wholesale slaughter.”

“You’re scared.”

“I’m rational!”

“And I’m not?”

“You—you keep setting the terms and expecting me to keep up.”

“Because of the oath?” Kim Lan laughed, and it was sad. “I release you from the oath. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to.”

“It—it doesn’t work like that!” Thuỷ had done things—so many things, raided so many places, gone so far against the will of the empire, and throughout it all, she’d had the comfort of knowing she wasn’t alone. That Kim Lan was there. That they were here for each other. But now that had become shackles: a gravitational well that drew her in regardless of whether she wanted to, just because Kim Lan had gone ahead of her. “I can’t just break that oath!”

“Of course you can.” Kim Lan scratched her bandages between the swam of bots, and then got up. “As I said: you do what you want.” But she sounded angry and disappointed.

Thuỷ sat down, trying to be kind. Trying to follow Kim Lan as she’d always meant to.

But everyone was dead, because the empire had killed them. Owl was prowling the habitats, waiting for a chance to find their signatures and target them; the militia was on the lookout, and the execution racks had been readied in every tribunal of the belt. The amnesty was never going to happen, and even if did, they’d get killed by some overzealous militia person before they ever got a chance to accept it.

She’d sworn an oath, with Kim Lan.

I’m here. I’ll always be here.

We got this far. We’ll get further, you’ll see.

And Thuỷ knew, then—sitting small and scared and angry in that safe house that was no longer one—she knew that she couldn’t go any further.

Year of the Âm Dragon, fifth year of the Peaceful Harmony Empress, Great Mulberry Nebula

 

Fixing the systems was slow and painstaking: taking out connectors, finding new, compatible ones, taking care of the exposed wiring.

“You said I didn’t kill your friend.” Owl’s voice swam out of the morass of her thoughts. “How did she die?”

Thoughtlessly. Carelessly. “There was a skirmish in the Lotus Vũ habitat. One of the militia got scared and killed her.” Thuỷ had learnt of this only afterwards—after she’d left in the dead of night, after she’d joined the monastery and severed all her familial ties, to make sure the Empire couldn’t find her or hold her family responsible for her acts anymore. After she’d changed her name and laid low for years, and thinking Kim Lan’s silence was due to anger—never realising she was dead and her family in hiding.

“Ah. The riots. The same ones that destroyed the tribunal. War is never kind.” It sounded almost companionable.

Thuỷ slotted a cylindrical piece into place, her bots swarming over it to check the connections. “Did you lose anyone during the war?”

A silence. Owl laughed. “My freedom.”

“You must have a family,” Thuỷ said. It felt…wrong to say that, as if to acknowledge that monsters were people was to grant them forgiveness.

The lights pulsed, softly, as Thuỷ added another connector to the rack in front of her. “I’m old enough to have lost them all. Not that it matters.”

“It should,” Thuỷ said.

Laughter, bitter and wounding. “Feeling pity?”

“I don’t know if I would call it that,” Thuỷ said. “It doesn’t change what you are, or what you did. Or that you enjoyed all of it.”

“Pity but not forgiveness, then.” The lights flickered on in Owl’s heartroom, and those same sickly, diminutive overlays came on, but this time they were people: a sea of faces and bodies walking and talking and laughing. Thuỷ wasn’t sure who they were at first, and then she saw An’s face, Hải’s face, Châu’s face. All of the people Owl had killed. Some kind of mocking memorials, surely—except the overall impression was one of profound loss. “As I said: not that it matters.”

“They keep you company,” Thuỷ said, finally. She wasn’t sure whether to feel anger or sadness.

“Alone in the dark and in the silence.” Owl laughed, but her voice was tinged with old hurt. “I guess they do.”

One last piece: not a connector but one Thuỷ had had made based on the schematics. It was long and sinuous, and it went from the capacitors to the targeting system—and once she’d put it in and checked the connections, it would be fixed, and Owl would be operational again, alone in the darkness. It felt both incredibly portentous and anticlimactic.

She put it in, checked the connections—breathing in, trying to steady her nerves. “Here,” she said.

The lights came on. Not weak, not sickly, not translucent, but strong and unwavering. There were vibrations, like these of a motor accelerating—or a heartbeat—so strong that Thuỷ could feel them through the suit. The safehold released Kim Lan’s statement, automatically transmitting it to Thuỷ, and from Thuỷ to Goby.

Big’sis.

It was done. She had all the evidence she needed to exonerate Kim Lan, to restore her name, her family’s name. “Here,” she said, again—and reached for the glider, to head back to Goby and the world that waited for her. “I’m done.”

She felt light-headed, and limp, and the future was uncertain.

I’m done.

More than done, wasn’t it? She’d set up the safehold, the transmission back to Goby. She’d made the arrangements for Goby to pass the statement on, to deal with the magistrate who would restore Kim Lan’s name. She’d made herself unnecessary to the whole process.

The lights blinked, on the restored weapons system, and somehow she was not surprised when Owl laughed. “Yes, it’s finished, isn’t it?”

There was a low buzzing within the shadow-suit, an impossible whistling that ramped up in intensity—the same vibrations she’d felt before except these burrowed into her until the bones in her body vibrated in sympathy, a red-hot rhythm that caught hold of her and was playing itself on her ribs, on her pelvis, on her skin—louder and louder until everything hurt, and still it didn’t stop…

The Owl’s scream. The punishment for rebels, for the disloyal to the empire. For those who had abandoned their friends.

Thuỷ had chased atonement all the way into that nebula, and on some level she’d known, she’d always known, that she didn’t expect to come out after fixing Owl. “I am,” she said. “Do you think it’s worth it? They’ll just dismantle it, after I’m dead.”

“Oh, child. You’re the one who saw so much, and so little. It’s my voice. It’s part of me. I’d rather scream once more in all my glory rather than leave it forever unused. It will be worth it. All of it.”

You saw much, and so little.

But on some deep, primal level, she’d seen all of it already.

The pressure was building up and up within her. Her bots popped apart, one by one, like fireworks going off—there was nothing in her ears now but that never ending whistling, that vibration that kept going and going, her bones full to bursting, her eyes and nose and mouth ceaselessly hurting, leaking fluid—and her lungs were shaking too, and it was hard to breathe, and even the liquid that filled her mouth, the blood, salt-tinged one, felt like it was vibrating too—and all of it was as it should be—

Thuỷ laughed, bitterly. “I saw so little? I chose to come here. I knew.”

“Ha. All your own choices, then. Always leading back here, to atonement and death.” Owl’s voice was mocking. Thuỷ could barely see the heartroom or the Mind: everything was receding impossibly far away. She was curled up on herself, struggling to keep herself together—to not give in to the quivering, because the moment she did everything would fly apart and all her bones would pop like her bots had, one by one until nothing was left… “The final appeasement for your friend’s soul. Justice.” It was a word that seemed to tear through her.

All her own choices. All her own life.

And yet…

I release you from the oath.

You keep setting the terms and expecting me to keep up.

It had been Kim Lan’s own choices, too.

You assume this is about winning. This is about survival.

She’d always followed Kim Lan, and yet it didn’t have to go that way. It could have been different. Kim Lan could have asked before accepting the amnesty. They could have discussed; come to a joint agreement. They could have done anything that didn’t involve Kim Lan’s pulling at the oath-bond until Thuỷ couldn’t take the consequences anymore. They had an oath of sisterhood, not obedience—and she wasn’t the only one who had broken it.

“She could have asked,” she whispered, through the red haze.

“You said something? Hush, child. It’s almost over.”

She could have asked.

Thuỷ had come here to atone for a death she’d caused, but the truth was—Kim Lan, too, carried the responsibility of what had happened. Of her own death.

The truth was—Thuỷ deserved to live, too.

“It is not over,” she said, slowly—and when that elicited no response, “It is not over!” screaming it through wrung lungs and burst ribs.

The thing holding her—Owl’s scream—paused, for a bare fraction. Interest, again. “Why?”

She deserved to live, and there was only one way she would survive, if it worked at all.

“Because—” Thuỷ forced herself to breathe, swallowing up bile and blood, “That would be too easy.”

A silence. She was held in that embrace of collapsing bones and organs, struggling to move—and said, “You enjoyed it. Killing them. Causing pain. Suffering.”

“Always.” Owl’s voice was malicious.

“Then tell me. Is my guilt or my death easier?”

Silence, again. The embrace flickered, but did not vanish.

“You want to release me, go ahead. Death is cheap.”

“You wanted to die,” Owl said, and she could feel the frustration. The pondering on how most to inflict hurt.

“I did. I do,” Thuỷ said, and it wasn’t quite a lie; just an uncertainty. She thought of the row of faces in the heartroom—not a memorial but an inadequate shield against loneliness. “You should know how much of a punishment solitude is.” She said nothing more, waited.

The room distorted and buckled, and the pressure in Thuỷ’s bones spiked, wringing a scream of pure pain out of her as everything felt about to shatter. Then it was all gone, and she was curled up in the vacuum, gasping and struggling to come together.

“The weight of guilt,” Owl said. Her voice was vicious. “Go. Since you’ve been so good at making your life a living hell.”

Thuỷ uncoiled, muscle after muscle—reached for her glider, shaking, the taste of blood and salt in her mouth—powered it in silence, going through the cloud of debris from her burst bots.

Go.

Death is cheap.

Go.

Thuỷ clung to her glider as she passed out of Owl, out of reach of all the faces of the dead in the heartroom—with Kim Lan’s face in painful but fading memory—and headed towards Goby and the long trip home, to give meaning to the rest of her life.

 

(EditorsNote: Mulberry and Owlis read by Joy Piedmont on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, 42A.)

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Aliette de Bodard

Aliette de Bodard writes speculative fiction: she has won three Nebula Awards, a Locus Award and four British Science Fiction Association Awards, and was a double Hugo finalist. Her most recent book is Fireheart Tiger (Tor.com), a sapphic romantic fantasy inspired by precolonial Vietnam, where a diplomat princess must decide the fate of her country, and her own. She lives in Paris. Visit https://www.aliettedebodard.com for more information.

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