Read Clarkesworld Anthology 2012 Online

Authors: Wyrm Publishing

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Clarkesworld Anthology 2012

BOOK: Clarkesworld Anthology 2012
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Clarkesworld Magazine

Issue 64

Table of Contents

Scattered Along the River of Heaven

by Aliette de Bodard

What Everyone Remembers

by Rahul Kanakia

All the Painted Stars

by Gwendolyn Clare

The Future Sounds of Yesterday: A Sequence of Synthesizers in Science Fiction

by Christopher Bahn

Things You Will Never Understand: A Conversation with Robert Jackson Bennett

by Jeremy L. C. Jones

2011 Reader's Survey

by Neil Clarke

Rockman

Art by Arthur Wang

© Clarkesworld Magazine, 2012
www.clarkesworldmagazine.com

Scattered Along the River of Heaven

Aliette de Bodard

I grieve to think of the stars
Our ancestors our gods
Scattered like hairpin wounds
Along the River of Heaven
So tell me
Is it fitting that I spend my days here
A guest in those dark, forlorn halls?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BOOK: Clarkesworld Anthology 2012
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