Read Clarkesworld Anthology 2012 Online

Authors: Wyrm Publishing

Tags: #semiprozine, #Hugo Nominee, #fantasy, #science fiction magazine, #odd, #short story, #world fantasy award nominee, #robots, #dark fantasy, #Science Fiction, #magazine, #best editor short form, #weird, #fantasy magazine, #short stories, #clarkesworld

Clarkesworld Anthology 2012 (2 page)

BOOK: Clarkesworld Anthology 2012
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She’s never been here; and she doesn’t know anyone, anymore. Still, she forces a smile — always be graceful, Mother said — and puts her hand on one of the bots, feeling the warmth as it transfers money from her account on Felicity Station. After he’s left her on the paved sidewalk of a street she barely recognizes, she stands, still feeling the touch of the bots against her skin — on Felicity they call them a degradation, a way for the San-Tay government to control everything and everyone; and she just couldn’t bring herself to get a few locator-bots at the airport.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Excuse me?” she asks, in Mheng.

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

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

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

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

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

Xu Anshi.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summoning bots I washed away
Ten thousand thousand years of poison
Awakening a thousand flower-flames, a thousand phoenix birds
Floating on a sea of blood like cresting waves
The weeping of the massacred millions rising from the darkness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good.

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

Anshi. Anshi.

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

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

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

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

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

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

BOOK: Clarkesworld Anthology 2012
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