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 (3 page)

BOOK: Clarkesworld Anthology 2012
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“Good,” Zhiying said. She gestured; and the men dragged the next victim — a Mheng girl, dressed in the clothes of an indentured servant.

This — this was what the bots had wanted her to see. Anshi looked to the prisoners huddled against the wall: there was one San-Tay left, an elderly man who gazed back at her, steadily and without fear. The rest — all the rest — were Mheng, dressed in San-Tay clothes, their skin pale and washed-out in the flickering lights — stained with what looked like rice flour from one of the burst bags on the floor. Mheng. Their own people.

“Elder sister,” Anshi said, horrified.

Zhiying’s face was dark with anger. “You delude yourself. They’re not Mheng anymore.”

“Because they were indentured into servitude? Is that your idea of justice? They had no choice,” Anshi said. The girl against the wall said nothing; her gaze slid away from Zhiying, to the rifle; finally resting on the body of her dead mistress.

“They had a choice. We had a choice,” Zhiying said. Her gaze — dark and intense — rested, for a moment, on the girl. “If we spare them, they’ll just run to the militia, and denounce us to find themselves a better household. Won’t you?” she asked.

Anshi, startled, realized Zhiying had addressed the girl — whose gaze still would not meet theirs, as if they’d been foreigners themselves.

At length, the girl threw her head back, and spoke in High Mheng. “They were always kind with me, and you butchered them like pigs.” She was shivering now. “What will you achieve? You can’t hide on Felicity. The San-Tay will come here and kill you all, and when they’re done, they’ll put us in the dark forever. It won’t be cushy jobs like this — they’ll consign us to the scavenge heaps, to the ducts-cleaning and the bots-scraping, and we won’t ever see starlight again.”

“See?” Zhiying said. “Pathetic.” She gestured, and the girl crumpled like the man before her. The soldiers dragged the body away, and brought the old San-Tay man. Zhiying paused; and turned back to Anshi. “You’re angry.”

“Yes,” Anshi said. “I did not join this so we could kill our own countrymen.”

Zhiying’s mouth twisted in a bitter smile. “Collaborators,” she said. “How do you think a regime like the San-Tay continues to exist? It’s because they take some of their servants, and set them above others. Because they make us complicit in our own oppression. That’s the worst of what they do, little sister — turn us against each other.”

No. The thought was crystal-clear in Anshi’s mind, like a blade held against starlight. That’s not the worst. The worst is that, to fight them, we have to best them at their own game.

She watched the old man as he died; and saw nothing in his eyes but the reflection of that bitter knowledge.

White Horse Hall is huge, so huge that it’s a wonder Wen didn’t see it from afar — more than a hundred stories, and more unveil as her floater lifts higher and higher, away from the crowd massed on the ground. Above the cloud cover, other white-clad floaters weave in and out of the traffic, as if to the steps of a dance only they can see.

She’s alone: her escort left her at the floater station — the older man with a broad smile and a wave, and the second man with a scowl, looking away from her. As they ascend higher and higher, and the air thins out — to almost the temperature of Felicity — , Wen tries to relax, but cannot do so. She’s late; and she knows it — and they probably won’t admit her into the hall at all. She’s a stranger here; and Mother is right: she would be better off in Felicity with Zhengyao, enjoying her period of rest by flying kites, or going for a ride on Felicity’s River of Good Fortune.

At the landing pad, a woman is waiting for her: small and plump, with hair shining silver in the unfiltered sunlight. Her face is frozen in careful blankness, and she wears the white of mourners, with none of the markers for the family of the dead.

“Welcome,” she says, curtly nodding to acknowledge Wen’s presence. “I am Ho Van Nhu.”

“Grandmother’s friend,” Wen says.

Nhu’s face twists in an odd expression. “You know my name?” She speaks perfect Galactic, with a very slight trace of an accent — heard only in the odd inflections she puts on her own name.

Wen could lie; could say that Mother spoke of her often; but here, in this thin, cold air, she finds that she cannot lie — any more than one does not lie in the presence of the Honored Leader. “They teach us about you in school,” she says, blushing.

Nhu snorts. “Not in good terms, I’d imagine. Come,” she says. “Let’s get you prepared.”

There are people everywhere, in costumes Wen recognizes from her history lessons — oddly old-fashioned and formal, collars flaring in the San-Tay fashion, though the five panels of the dresses are those of the Mheng high court, in the days before the San-Tay’s arrival.

Nhu pushes her way through the crowd, confident, until they reach a deserted room. She stands for a while in the center, eyes closed, and bots crawl out of the interstices, dragging vegetables and balls of rolled-up dough — black and featureless, their bodies gleaming like knife-blades, their legs moving on a rhythm like centipedes or spiders.

Wen watches, halfway between fascination and horror, as they cut up the vegetables into small pieces — flatten the dough and fill up dumplings, and put them inside small steamer units that other bots have dragged up. Other bots are already cleaning up the counter, and there is a smell in the room — tea brewing in a corner. “I don’t — ” Wen starts. How can she eat any of that, knowing how it was prepared? She swallows, and forces herself to speak more civilly. “I should be with her.”

Nhu shakes her head. Beads of sweat pearl on her face; but she seems to be gaining color as the bots withdraw, one by one — except that Wen can still
see
them, tucked away under the cupboards and the sink, like curled-up cockroaches. “This is the wake, and you’re already late for it. It won’t make any difference if you come in quarter of an hour later. And I would be a poor host if I didn’t offer you any food.”

There are two cups of tea on the central table; Nhu pours from a teapot, and pushes one to Wen — who hesitates for a moment, and then takes it, fighting against a wave of nausea. Bots dragged out the pot; the tea leaves. Bots touched the liquid that she’s inhaling right now.

“You look like your mother when she was younger,” Nhu says, sipping at the tea. “Like your grandmother, too.” Her voice is matter-of-fact; but Wen can feel the grief Nhu is struggling to contain. “You must have had a hard time, at school.”

Wen thinks on it for a while. “I don’t think so,” she says. She’s had the usual bullying, the mockeries of her clumsiness, of her provincial accent. But nothing specifically directed at her ancestors. “They did not really care about who my grandmother was.” It’s the stuff of histories now; almost vanished — only the generation of the Honored Leader remembers what it was like, under the San-Tay.

“I see,” Nhu says.

An uncomfortable silence stretches, which Nhu makes no effort to break.

Small bots float by, carrying a tray with the steamed dumplings — like the old vids, when the San-Tay would be receiving their friends at home. Except, of course, that the Mheng were doing the cutting-up and the cooking, in the depths of the kitchen.

“They make you uncomfortable,” Nhu says.

Wen grimaces. “I — we don’t have bots, on Felicity.”

“I know. The remnants of the San-Tay — the technologies of servitude, which should better be forgotten and lost.” Her voice is light, ironic; and Wen realizes that she is quoting from one of the Honored Leader’s speeches. “Just like High Mheng. Tell me, Wen, what do the histories say of Xu Anshi?”

Nothing, Wen wants to say; but as before, she cannot bring herself to lie. “That she used the technologies of the San-Tay against them; but that, in the end, she fell prey to the lure of their power.” It’s what she’s been told all her life; the only things that have filled the silence Mother maintains about Grandmother. But, now, staring at this small, diminutive woman, she feels almost ashamed. “That she and her followers were given a choice between exile, and death.”

“And you believe that?”

“I don’t know,” Wen says. And, more carefully, “Does it matter?”

Nhu shrugs, shaking her head. “Mingxia — your mother once asked Anshi if she believed in reconciliation with Felicity. Anshi told her that reconciliation was nothing more than another word for forgetfulness. She was a hard woman. But then, she’d lost so much in the war. We all did.”

“I’m not Mother,” Wen says, and Nhu shakes her head, with a brief smile.

“No. You’re here.”

Out of duty, Wen thinks. Because someone has to come, and Mother won’t. Because someone should remember Grandmother, even if it’s Wen — who didn’t know her, didn’t know the war. She wonders what the Honored Leader will say about Grandmother’s death, on Felicity — if she’ll mourn the passing of a liberator, or remind them all to be firm, to reject the evil of the San-Tay, more than sixty years after the foreigners’ withdrawal from Felicity.

She wonders how much of the past is worth clinging to.

See how the gilded Heavens are covered
With the burning bitter tears of our departed
Cast away into darkness, they contradict no truths
Made mute and absent, they denounce no lies

Anshi gave this poem into our keeping on the night after her daughter left her. She was crying then, trying not to show it — muttering about ungrateful children, and their inability to comprehend any of what their ancestors had gone through. Her hand shook, badly; and she stared into her cup of tea, as hard as she had once stared into the black hole and its currents, dragging everything into the lightless depths. But then, as on Shattered Pine, the only thing that came to her was merciless clarity, like the glint of a blade or a claw.

It is an old, old composition, its opening lines the last Anshi wrote on Felicity Station. Just as the first poem defined her youth — the escaped prisoner, the revolution’s foremost bot-handler — this defined her closing decades, in more ways than one.

The docks were deserted; not because it was early in the station’s cycle, not because the war had diminished interstellar travel; but because the docks had been cordoned off by Mheng loyalists. They gazed at Anshi, steadily — their eyes blank; though the mob behind them brandished placards and howled for her blood.

“It’s not fair,” Nhu said. She was carrying Anshi’s personal belongings — Anshi’s bots, and those of all her followers, were already packed in the hold of the ship. Anshi held her daughter Mingxia by the hand: the child’s eyes were wide, but she didn’t speak. Anshi knew she would have questions, later — but all that mattered, here and now, was surviving this. “You’re a heroine of the uprising. You shouldn’t have to leave like a branded criminal.”

Anshi said nothing. She scanned the crowd, wondering if Zhiying would be there, at the last — if she’d smile and wish her well, or make one last stab of the knife. “She’s right, in a way,” she said, wearily. The crowd’s hatred was palpable, even where she stood. “The bots are a remnant of the San-Tay, just like High Mheng. It’s best for everyone if we forget it all.” Best for everyone but them.

BOOK: Clarkesworld Anthology 2012
11.57Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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