Here’s a story Lan was told, when she was a child—when she lay in the snugness of her sleep-cradle, listening to the distant noises of station life—the thrum of the recycling filters, the soft gurgle of water reconstituted from its base components, the distant noises of the station’s Mind in the Inner Rings, a vast unreality that didn’t quite concern her, that she couldn’t encompass in words.
Mother sat by Lan’s side and smiled at her. Her hands smelled of garlic and fish sauce, with the faintest hint of machine oil. Her face was lined with worry; but then, it always was, those days. She wanted to tell a story about Le Loi and the Turtle’s Sword, or about the girl who was reborn in a golden calabash and went on to marry the king.
Lan had other ideas.
“Tell me,” she said, “about Lieu Vuong Tinh.”
For a moment, Mother’s face shifted and twisted; she looked as if she’d swallowed something that had stuck in her throat. Then she took a deep breath and told Lan this.
In days long gone by, we used to live in Kinh He on Lieu Vuong Tinh. It was a client state of the Dai Viet Empire, on the edge of the Numbered Planets—its name had come from the willow, because high officials posted there would part from their friends and share a willow branch to remember each other.
But we no longer live there.
Because one day the sun wobbled and quivered over Lieu Vuong Tinh, and grew fainter, and a dragon flew out from its core—large and terrible and merciless, the pearl under its chin shining with all the colours of the rainbow, its antlers carrying fragments of iron and diamond that glistened like the tips of weapons. And, because dragons are water—because they are the spirits of the rain and the monsoon, and the underwater kingdoms—because of that, the sun died.
The dragon had always been there, of course. It was nothing more than an egg at first—a little thing thinner than the chips they use for your ancestors’ mem-implants—then the egg hatched and grew into a carp. Carps don’t always become dragons, of course, but this one did.
No, I don’t know why. Who knows why the Jade Emperor sends down decrees, or why rain happens even when people haven’t kept up prayers and propitiations at the shrines? Sometimes, the world is just the way it is.
But when the dragon flew out, its mane unfolded, all the way down to Lieu Vuong Tinh, and into the ships that were fleeing the dying sun—and into the heart of us all, it marked us all, a little nick on the surface like the indent of a carver on jade. That’s why, even now, when you meet another Khiet from Lieu Vuong Tinh, you’ll instantly know—because it’s in their hearts and their bellies and their eyes, the mark of the dragon that will never go away.
“The whole dragon thing is ridiculous,” Tuyet Thanh says. “I mean, what did they do, have a little chat and agree to serve us all this load of rubbish?”
They’re in the communal network—each of them in their own compartment, except Lan has made the station’s Mind merge both spaces in the network, so that Tuyet appears to be sitting at the end of her table, and that the bots-battle they’re having in the free-for-all area of space outside the station appears in the middle, as a semi-transparent overlay.
“I don’t know,” Lan says, cautiously. Tuyet Thanh is older than her by three years, and chafing at the restrictions imposed by older relatives. Lan wants, so badly, to be like her friend, cool and secure and edgy, instead of never knowing what to think on things—because Mother is so often right, isn’t she?
“Fine.” Tuyet Thanh exhales. She rolls up her eyes, and her bots flow out into a pincer movement—slightly too wide of their reserved area, almost clipping a passing ship. “Deal with this.”
Lan considers, for a heartbeat that feels stretched to an eternity—then she sends her bots to drill a hole in the centre of the pincer, where Tuyet Thanh’s formation is weaker. “No, but I mean the story is right about one thing, isn’t it? The grown-ups—it’s like…” Adequate words won’t come. She makes a gesture with her hand, frustrated—cancels it from the interface, so that the bots don’t interpret is as a command. “They’re marked. They… Have you never noticed they can tell who was on those ships? It’s like they have a sensor or something.”
“It’s just clothes. And language, and the way of behaving.” Tuyet Thanh snorts. “A Khiet can tell another Khiet. That’s all.”
“I guess…” Lan says, feeling small, and young, and utterly inadequate.
“Look. There was no dragon. Just…”
This is what Second Aunt told me, right? She’d know, because she was twenty-five when they left, and she remembers them well—the years before the war, before the sun.
Anyway. There was the Ro Federation—yes, you’re going to tell me they’re at peace with the Empire now, that they’re all fine people. Whatever. Have you never noticed the adults won’t ever talk about them?
In those days, the Ro were our neighbours, and they wanted us gone. They were afraid of us because we were stronger; in the end, they thought that Lieu Vuong Tinh made quite a nice piece of space to have. And one of their—scientists, alchemists—I can’t remember exactly what they have out there—made a weapon that they said was going to change the way of things. Just point it at the sun, they said, and you’ll see.
And they saw, all right. It… it did something, to the atoms that made up the sun—accreted them faster than they should have, so that the star’s glow dimmed, and Lieu Vuong Tinh became… bombarded. Scoured clean and no longer fit for humans. So that we had to leave, because we no longer had a home.
And the Ro? Yes, today you’ll find them on the station, trading us their makings and their technology, as cosy as anything. But they’re out there too, in the ruins of Lieu Vuong Tinh, the red-hot slag mess that the Empire abandoned to them when they signed the peace treaty. No humans can go there, but they have bots taking it apart, mining it for precious metals and ice—so that, in the end, they still won everything they hoped for.
Don’t look at me like that. It’s truth, all right? Not the dragon crap—the thing that truly happened.
Yes. I hate them too.
Mother looks up from the dumplings she’s assembling. She only gets marginal help from the bots, preferring to do everything by hand. Once, she says, everyone would gather in the kitchen, helping others to put together the anniversary feast, but now, in the cramped station compartments, there isn’t enough space for that. The aunts and uncles each make their own fraction of dishes, and the meal is shared through the communal network, stitching together the various compartments until it seems like a vast room once more. “Yes, child?”
Lan weighs the words on her tongue, not finding any easy way to bring them up. “Why did you never tell us about the Ro?”
Mother’s face doesn’t move. It freezes in an intricate and complex expression—it would be a key to the past, if only Lan could interpret it. “Because it’s complicated.”
“More complicated than the dragon?”
Mother’s eyes flick back to the table; the bots take over from her, leaving both her hands free. Her voice is calm, too calm. “Lan—I know you’re angry.”
“I’m not!” Lan says, and then realises she is. Not even at Mother but at herself, for being stupid enough to believe bedtime stories, for not being more like Tuyet Thanh—smarter and harder and less willing to take things on faith. “Did they do it?”
“The Ro?” Mother sighs. “It was one of their scientists who destroyed the sun, yes. But—”
There are no “buts.” “Then it’s their fault.”
“Don’t be so quick to fling blame,” Mother says.
“Why shouldn’t I?” Because of them—because of the sun—they’re here, stuck on the station; in cramped compartments where it seems there’s barely enough room to breathe. “Are you making excuses for them?”
Mother is silent for a long, long while. Lan is sure that Tuyet Thanh would have left a long time ago; turned her face to the wall and ramped up the communal network to maximum, trying to fill her ears with sounds she can control. But Mother always has the right words, always does the right thing. Lan clings to this, as desperately as a man adrift in space clings to faint, fading broadcasts. At last she says, “No. I’m not. Merely saying they had their own motives.”
“Because they were afraid of us.”
“Yes,” Mother says. “And people seldom are afraid for no reason, are they?”
Of course they are, all the time. Like they’re afraid of Lan in class because she’s smarter than them—is there any justification for that? Lan knows prevaricating and false excuses when she hears them—has been she so blind all along? How can she have been so stupid? “Did we do anything to them?” she asks. “Did we?”
Mother’s face closes again. “We never did like each other… I don’t know, child.”
“Then we didn’t.” Lan calls up the communal network, lets it fill her from end to end—blocking out Mother and her feeble excuses. “You were right,” she tells Tuyet Thanh. “Adults are idiots.”
Today, on the Fourth Day of the Tenth Lunar Month, the Khiet community remembers the Dislocation of Lieu Vuong Tinh, and the Flight of the Evacuation Fleet to the Numbered Planets.
The war between the Khiet and the Ro lasted three years, though it had been brewing for years if not decades. The two had always been uneasy neighbours. While the Khiet rose to prominence with the help of the Dai Viet Empire, to whom they swore allegiance, the Ro were mired under a feudal regime and struggled to survive.
The Khiet’s harsh, authoritarian regime had been making the Ro uneasy for a while. The inciting event was the so-called Skiff-Ghost Return, in the year of the Metal Dragon, in which Ro citizens were discovered to have been mind-altered by the Khiet—which set off an ugly, protracted series of skirmishes in which little quarter was given on either side.
The Dai Viet Empire refused to get involved at first, but could not in good conscience continue to do so after the Dislocation. Refugees were so numerous that they had to be scattered to various places among the Numbered Planets—the Mind-controlled Stations on the edge of the Empire taking on the bulk of them. Today, Khiet culture is a vibrant and ubiquitous part of our own culture, nowhere more so than during the anniversary of the Dislocation, when entire communities will gather in large ceremonies to remember the thousands who were lost in the hasty evacuation.
As usual, on the occasion of this anniversary, Scholar Rong Thi Minh Tu, the Voice of the Empress, has extended the Empire’s sincere condolences, and their wishes for continued prosperity for the Khiet.
“So…” Professor Nguyen Thi Nghe says, pursing her lips. “What am I to make of you?”
“He started it!” The words are out of Lan’s mouth before she can think.
Beside her, Vien shifts uncomfortably in his chair—at least he has the decency to look guilty. But then he opens his mouth and says, in Viet with the barest trace of an accent, “I… should have phrased my words more carefully. I apologise.”
Lan remembers the words like a kick in the gut—the smirking face of him, asking if she was all right, if she’d adapted to life on the station—as if he didn’t know, or care, that his people are the reason she was here in the first place. “Professor—” She can’t find words for her outrage. “He’s Ro.”
“Yes.” Professor Nghe’s voice is quiet, thoughtful. “The Empire and the Khiet signed a peace treaty with the Ro more than thirty years ago, child.”
Leaving them the ruins of Lieu Vuong Tinh—not that they would have known what to do, with the ruins of what had been their home, but still.
Still, it is wrong. Still, it shouldn’t have happened.
“You’re my best two pupils,” Professor Nghe says. “Your aptitude with bots—the creativity you show when designing them…” She shakes her head. “But it’s all moot if you can’t at least be civil to each other.”
“I know,” Lan says, sullenly. “But he shouldn’t have rubbed it in my face. Not now.” It’s the anniversary of the Dislocation; soon she will walk home, to Mother’s kitchen and the dumplings filled with bitter roots—to the alignment of aunts and uncles that all seem to be in perpetual mourning, as if some spring within them had broken a long time ago.
Vien shifts again, bringing his hands together as if to press a sheet of paper utterly flat. His eyes are pure black, unclouded by any station implants—they say that the station’s Mind won’t allow the Ro standard access to the communal network, because they cause too many problems. “I didn’t mean to.” He winces, again, rubbing his hand against the bruise on his cheek. “Yelling at me was fine. The slap…”
The slap had been uncalled-for. Mother would have had her hide, truth be told. She didn’t like Ro either—Tuyet Thanh was right; none of the exiles had forgiven them, but she would have said it was no call to be uncouth. She—
Lan finds herself rubbing her hand against her cheek, in mute sympathy with Vien. “Forget it,” she says, more harshly than she intended to. “I won’t do it again. But just stay away from me.” She won’t talk to him again—she doesn’t want to be reminded of his existence—of his people’s existence.
Professor Nghe grimaces. “I guess I’ll have to be content with that, shall I? Out you go, then.”
Outside, Vien turns to Lan, stiff and prim and with the barest hint of a bow. “Listen,” he says.
“I won’t bother you again after this.”
We didn’t mean to do any of it. I realise it’s not an excuse, and that it won’t mean much to you, but I have to try.
We’d been at war for years by then. You were modifying your own people—sending them to camps and facilities. Have you heard of skiff-ghosts? You were the ones who made them—because the soul went on, down the river to the afterworld, and the body remained, with no awareness or affection. You made thousands of them, and not even for soldiering, merely so they would be obedient citizens.
We… we were scared. It wasn’t smart, but who knew when you would decide that your own neighbours didn’t suitably conform? You’ve always thought of us as amusing barbarians—with uncombed, uncut hair that we let grow because we won’t use scissors on the body that is the flesh of our fathers, the blood of our mothers—and, if you were ready to do this to your own, why should you hesitate with ours?
There was… There were incidents. Ro coming back with a little light missing in their eyes, with movements that were a little too stiff. And one of those incidents pushed us over the edge.
I know you’re angry. Just let me finish. Please.
Lieu Vuong Tinh was small, and isolated, and we thought it would only be a matter of time. If we sent enough fleets, enough ships, then the Dai Viet Empire wouldn’t support you anymore.
But then the war dragged on, and on, and more ships didn’t make any difference. Our soldiers bled and died on foreign moons, suffocating in the void of space, felled at the entrances to habitats—and some came back but never the same, emptied of all thoughts and all feelings, a horde of skiff-ghosts pushing and tugging at the fabric of our life until it unravelled. So, a man named Huu Quang had an idea for a weapon so powerful that it would end things, once and for all.
I’m not trying to excuse him or the people who funded him. They all went on trial for war crimes, after the peace treaty was finally signed. We all saw what happened to the sun. We all saw the ships, and the fleet, and what happened to those who didn’t manage to leave in time. We—
I’m sorry, all right? I know it doesn’t make a difference. I know that I wasn’t even born, back then, but it was a stupid, unforgivable thing to do. Most of us know it.
We’re not monsters.
Lan stands, breathing hard—staring at Vien, who hasn’t moved. She’s raised her hand again, and he watches her with those impossible black eyes, the ones that are too deep, that see too many things. She realises, finally, that it’s because he’s unplugged to most station activity, that he only has the barest accesses to the communal network and therefore so very few community demands on his time. Mother’s eyes, Tuyet Thanh’s eyes—they always shift left and right, never seem to hold on to anything for long. But Vien…
“It’s not true,” she says, slowly—breathing out, feeling the burning in her lungs. “It’s—all a lie.”
Vien brings the palms of his hands together, as if he were going to bow. “Everything is a lie,” he says, finally. “Everything a fragment of the truth. Don’t you have relatives who remember?”
Mother, in the kitchen, saying she didn’t know what they had done, and looking away. “I—” Lan breathes in again, everything tinged with the bitterness of ashes. “I don’t know,” she says, finally. It’s the only thing that will come to mind.
“Look it up,” Vien says, almost gently. “There’s no shortage of things on the network.”
Written by the Dai Viet Empire, the hegemony’s stories about her own people—what does it mean, if it means anything at all? She’s called on the network before she’s aware she has—and “skiff-ghosts” brings up all kinds of hollow-eyed, shambling monstrosities in her field of vision. “I don’t know,” she says, again, and inwardly she’s calling for Mother, who is as silent as she ever was. Tales for children. Bedtime stories: the only narratives that can be stomached.
Vien says nothing, merely watches her with a gaze that seems to encompass the entire universe. She’d rage and scream and rant at him, if he did speak, but he doesn’t. His mouth is set. “I’ll leave you,” he says, finally, and walks away, his back ramrod straight, except that in the communal network, a little icon blinks, something he has left her, as a farewell gift. Forgive me—this is all I can give you, on this day of all days, the message says, and Lan archives it, because she cannot bear to deal with him or the Ro.
At home, Mother is waiting for her. The compartment smells of meat and spices and garlic. Everyone else is shimmering into existence, the entire family gathering around the meal for the ancestors, for the dead planet. “Child?”
Lan wants to ask about skiff-ghosts and the Ro, but the words seem too large, too inappropriate to get past the block in her mouth.
Instead, she sits down in silence at her appointed place, reaching for a pair of chopsticks and a bowl. As the Litany of the Lost begins, and the familiar names light up in her field of vision—the ones who are still there, still dust among the dust of Lieu Vuong Tinh—she finds herself reaching for Vien’s gift and opening it.
A blur, and a jumble of rocks; then the view pans out, and she sees a scattering of rocks of all sizes tumbling in slow motion, and bots weaving in and out like a swarm of bees, lifting off with dust and fragments of rock in their claws.
The view pans out again, until it seems to rise from behind the bots, slowly filling her entire field of vision—a corona of light and ionised gases, a mass of contracting colours like a stilled heart; a slow, stately dance of clouds and interstellar dust, blurred like the prelude to tears.
A live link to a bot-borne camera; a window into an area of space she’s never gone to but instantly recognises.
What else could it be, after all?
Lieu Vuong Tinh: what is left of the planet, what the Ro are scavenging from the radiation-soaked areas. The place her people came from, the place her people fled, with the weight of the dying sun like ghosts on their backs.
She wonders about the dead, and the skiff-ghosts—and mind-alterations and who bears what, in the mess of the war—and who, ultimately, is right, and justified.
The grit of dust against her palate, and the slow, soundless whistle of spatial winds—and, abruptly, it no longer matters, because she sees it.
The dragon’s mane streams in the solar winds, a shining star at the point of each antler; the serpentine body stretched and pockmarked with fragments of rock; the pearl in its mouth a fiery, pulsing point of light; its tail streaming ice and dust and particles across the universe like the memory of an expelled breath—and its eyes, two pits of utter darkness against the void of space, a gaze turning her way and transfixing her like thrown swords.
The mark. The wound. The hole in the heart that they all want to fill, she and Tuyet Thanh and Mother—and Vien—all united in the wake of the dragon’s passage like farmers huddled in the wake of a storm, grieving for flooded fields and the lost harvest, and bowed under the weight of all that they did to one another.
Mother is right, after all. This is the only story of the war that will ever make sense—the only truth that is simply, honestly, heartbreakingly bearable.
© 2017 by Aliette de Bodard. Originally published in Cosmic Powers. Reprinted by permission of the author.