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Snakes

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I had brought the corpse of my soldier-sister Rhiis-2 a long way, suspended in a fluid of suppositions:

If she examined the navigational display, she would advise that we route around this dwarf star in realspace, that strand of charged matter in shadowspace.

If I neglected to clean out the ship’s torchgun regularly, she would gum up the apertures with that horrifying squishy self-heal gel that we were supposed to use on the ship’s lenses so I really had to work to clean it out.

If the skimship’s power systems flashed that particular stress-alert, check the physical gauges before doing anything drastic, because the hookups sometimes lied to us.

Interlaced with these came other parts of her decision trees, which I lingered over even though I didn’t want to:

If asked about her family and I was present, she’d smile that whiplash-blinding smile of hers, sling her arm around my shoulders, and say that all she had left, sadly, was this good-for-nothing sister. We weren’t related except in the way that a gun and its ammunition are related. I had often wondered, toward the end, if that had been enough for her.

If someone propositioned her with the folded glove, she’d never say yes. It had nothing to do with being a soldier-sister. She never minded when I took one-night lovers. One night was all I wanted of them, anyway, and in the mornings I’d return to pledge the high pledge with her.

If offered nectar-of-dreams for the second night in a row, she’d refuse. She’d take it away from me, too, while she was at it. Now that she couldn’t do it anymore, I missed the scolding. I poured myself a cup every night, then stared mournfully at it without drinking any, in her honor. Of course, I couldn’t drink in the human sense anymore.

For all the if’s I carried with me, however, I knew that Rhiis-2 would have told me that I was stupid for coming to the Seethe. For changing myself on her behalf. I had entangled my functions into those of the ship, over a hundred hundred small surgeries, over a thousand thousand large adjustments. I was home to a multitude of spiders, who maintained the ship and my soldier-sister’s sustaining fluid as I directed.

As we exited shadowspace, I saw the Seethe, and knew that I could not afford to fail so close to my objective.

We had lost the vastwar. That had been bad enough. I was determined not to lose Rhiis-2.


Sometimes, as we sped through shadowspace, I dreamt I could see into Rhiis-2 in her stillness. It had been rumored for a long time that shadowspace induced odd dreams and visions, although people had been having odd dreams and visions without the need of superstitious explanations everywhere they went. Sometimes, during the days of the war, we’d take nectar-of-dreams so that we’d slip into blurred, easeful fantasias. Mine usually involved food: thin-skinned dumplings with pork and shrimp and scallions, dried roasted cuttlefish, anchovies in sweet sauce. When I insisted on describing these to Rhiis-2, she’d pull a face and retort by making up recipes for sweet cakes laced with radioactive elements, or crisp biscuits of circuitry, or pies filled with flitter exhaust.

Now that I couldn’t drug myself with nectar, I had different dreams. A ship, or a human that has become a ship, was always awake, and always asleep. I had heard that the need to sleep (to dream) never fully went away, so that came as no surprise.

During the everywhere-cooling night, the painstaking needle-threading of shadowspace navigation, I dreamt that every star had unsunned itself. The lights that vined across my walls and ceilings had dimmed into ash. Darkness even greater than that of nightfall clothed everything. Yet, although Rhiis-2 lay separated from me by a heartbeat, a handspan, by the heat of vanished history, I could see her.

The seeing had nothing to do with the wry mouth, or the clever hands, or the livid scar at her heel, whose origin I did not know. Sometimes I could scarcely tell her boundaries from my own. We orbited each other, losing substance in the process like neutron stars holding each other captive, ghost inspiraling into ghost.

Instead, I could see alveoli like sprays of flowers. Long lean bones. The unmoving knot at her center that was her heart. Snakes everywhere: the crenellations of her brain, silent of electric flickers. Flaccid blood vessels. Winding ropes of intestine. Snakes.


In the language of light, the Seethe was a fist of utter black surrounded by a coruscating accretion disk and sustained from evaporation effects by the masteries of an ancient civilization. That was realspace. The Seethe also hid a shadowspace fortress, the retreat of that same civilization, and our old opponent in the vastwar. The story went that they had specialized in weapons. Weapons that sundered matter into a vapor of quarks, weapons that smothered planets, weapons that smeared stars into unradiant dust. For a while they were content to peddle their weapons. Then something changed: whimsy, yearning, some threat from outside. At that point, they developed the secret of resurrection and used it to touch off a general war.

Eventually the warring nations wearied of the conflict and united to destroy the weapon-makers. A great many people died in the vastwar. Rhiis-2 was one of them, in a skirmish at the outskirts, past stars so obscure that their names were pin-scratchings in the great catalogs.

Rhiis-2 was the pilot, back then. I was Rhiis-1, the gunner. “I’m just the percussion,” I said to her many times. “What you do is the music.” She only laughed and said I had it the wrong way around.

Rhiis was the name of the ship. We had flown a great many scouting missions together, and our commander sent us to investigate odd readings in shadowspace. When we chanced upon the mercenaries that the weapons-makers, disdaining to do the actual fighting, had hired as sentries, the only thing that saved us was that they had not expected anyone to be poking around that corner of space.

We fled, but not quickly enough. I ran for a long, long time, until even the shadows in my nightmares had blurred into insignificance. By the time I was able to haul Rhiis-2 to the ship’s medical unit, she was beyond saving. She would have been beyond saving anyway. It bothered me how whole she looked, as though she had merely slid into some underworld of sleep. I should have known that not all weapons left such obvious marks as cuts and holes and burns. Nevertheless, I kept expecting her to stir and speak.

After that I deserted. I was almost certain that my one attempt to warn allied forces resulted in the destruction of an allied fleet. I decided not to try again. Instead, I went mercenary myself, not in the vastwar but the smaller simmer of conflicts that came and went among the minor polities. None of them had the technology to breathe Rhiis-2 back into motion, but that had also been true in the alliance proper.

The fluid of suppositions had not been intended for revival. Rather, it was meant to memorialize the vastwar’s dead. I had no desire to take Rhiis-2 back to be ogled by masses to whom we were nothing but checklists of ceremonial mourning. My family and I regarded each other as cordial strangers; it wouldn’t matter much to them.

Nor did I have any great feeling for Rhiis-2’s family. I had never asked her about them. But one night she had mentioned, with a casualness that I knew better than to take at face value, that her parents and sisterkin had not approved of her enlisting. She’d recently received a package that included a snakeskin, oiled and supple and sewn with gems like pomegranate seeds. I remembered how her face had frozen when she opened it up. “Take it and sell it,” she had said. “Don’t tell me where. Get something to drink with the money, and we’ll save it for a special occasion, I don’t know what.”

The force of her bitterness convinced me to do as she said. I still had the bottle of wine. I had the spiders bring it out of storage even though I didn’t need to do so to contemplate it.

As we neared the Seethe, I had the spiders spell out its name in the languages I knew, and the names of long-ago generals and colonels, as they skittered up and down the walls. Then I amused myself further by firing at the spiders with lasers turned down low enough to do no harm to the ship’s structure. (I hadn’t always thought well of my officers.)

Perhaps it was folly to show up at the weapon-makers’ doorstep to demand redress. Alternately, I had little coin with which to offer them payment. Indeed, I couldn’t imagine that I had anything that would interest them, except the pale threat that I knew of their survival and others did too.

I had no guarantee that they wouldn’t shoot me out of the sky and fling me into the Seethe, where my ever-dwindling image would serve as a warning to other travelers. But then, even a slim chance seemed better than accepting Rhiis-2’s continued silence. And, as small a comfort as it was, the space around the Seethe’s event horizon was not, in fact, crowded with the red-shifted ghosts of unfortunate would-be visitors.


I had expected to fight my way in. Call it habit. I’d laid in as much ammunition as I could. It might not be enough, but it would be worse to die without having fired.

The weapon-makers’ first interceptor flight took on a formation that I had seen battlefields ago, when I was human. It was difficult not to fly straight at them, suicide-fashion. I was saved from my own impulses by the ghosts I carried within me.

If they don’t come out firing, they might just be getting a good look—

If they flash their stardrives like that, they’re probably going to swerve away at the last moment—

If they keep dancing like this, it’s not a trap, it’s a test—

Part of this was my memory of Rhiis-2’s steady judgment. Part of it was my own, long-disused, waking under the pressure of necessity. Before I’d deserted, I’d been among the best gunners. Now that the ship and I were no longer separate entities, I was even better.

I held my fire, as much as I yearned to use what had once been a simple torchgun, and was now something much more destructive. I wanted them to talk to me. I sent a message requesting parley while I maneuvered, using every communications protocol I was capable of.

The interceptors did not respond over any channel I recognized, nor did the Seethe’s fortress. Instead, we wove trajectories around each other, like a braid. I did not like the numbers. I especially disliked them when I realized what was going on.

The interceptors were miming an engagement from many years back, except Rhiis-2 and I had been part of a flight of eight. It had been our second time together after pledging to each other. We’d lost three skimships before returning to the fleet proper. People I’d barely gotten to know. I felt guiltiest about that part. To be honest, I hadn’t thought of the fight, or the creeping alienation afterward, in years. There had, after all, been many battles. I wouldn’t have expected to recall this one so clearly. The interceptors’ dance was so specific and so persistent, however, that the memories came singing back.

All right. If they were doing everything but firing on me, I could still fly the patterns they were defining for me. Call-and-response, like music. All I had to do (and I laughed a little, ironically) was condense an entire flight’s maneuvers into those of the single ship that I was now.

I needled toward them and darted away, stitched patterns in and out of shadowspace, tactical geometries. It took all my concentration. And when I had finished the ballet, I was still not done. The interceptors slipped away and were replaced by another flight of larger vessels. Another battle. And another after that, and another after that.

As I flew, I thought of the people I had left behind. My mother and aunts, to whom I had made the ritual offering of candied fruits before departing forever. The last I saw of them, they were passing the treats out and chattering about investments. A comrade, killed, whose locket contained nothing but a blank slip of paper. When I handed it to their lover, her eyes shattered. A quartermaster who could be bribed for better shoes. It was like passing through the halls of the dead.

If you make it through the gauntlet of ghosts, Rhiis-2 said to me through the medium of old suppositions, they will not offer you anything but masks and illusions. You cannot bring back the dead. Turn back. Turn back. Turn back.

You won’t die as long as I am here, I thought back to the whisper-presence.

I did not know how long I flew, aware only of the necessity of reenacting the battles presented to me, and the dangerous everywhere-pull of the Seethe.

At last the ships parted before me and slowed. I understood this to be an invitation and circled them, wary, exhausted. Three guardships greater than any I had yet faced emerged from shadowspace, opening up a passage in the space between them.

“You have come a long way to show us your artistry,” the guardships said to me in one voice, in a language that both of us knew, but which was not native to me and probably was not to them either. “If you wish to speak, then we will hear you.”

“Thank you,” I said in the same language, although some of the spiders wove dire webs in their corners, and entered the passage.


The shadowspace fortress was constructed of dust and laminate, nanites endlessly chewing and regurgitating machinery into new shapes. More weapons, I presumed; I did not ask. I was brought through winding passages to a monument of light, shot through with jewel-sparks and swirls of smoke. I wondered if this, too, represented some battle, one that I had not been party to. “Artistry,” the guardships had called it. Perhaps I shouldn’t have expected anything else from people who devoted themselves to creating engines of war.

And really, was I much different? I had killed my share of people during the vastwar. I had killed more afterward, as a mercenary scrabbling for the upgrades that would bring me here. Perhaps it was death, rather than any combination of sounds and syntax, that was our common language.

A voice spoke out of the monument. At that point I realized it wasn’t merely a monument, just as I wasn’t merely a ship. It said, “Did you bring your soldier-sister with you to make of her a weapon, or to wake her from her death?”

“She spent her life as a weapon,” I said. “She is not any less one for being dead.” It was true. After all, I had consulted her decision-trees, the remembered sum of her experiences, all these years. “Is it, in fact, within your power to bring back the dead?”

The light dimmed bit by bit, coalescing into a silhouette that I knew all too well. Its twin dwelled unmoving within its preserving casket. The wry mouth, the clever hands, the livid scar at her heel. Even the way it held its head.

“That’s not her,” I said. “If all I wanted was a puppet with her face, I could have gone to any of a thousand artisans.” Clones, sculpts, robots of polished mien. Or puppets from older traditions, made of paper or wood or felt.

It cocked its head, frowned at me slightly. “The puppet will serve you better,” it said in Rhiis-2’s husky voice.

The mind was not separate from the body. I did not know how the weapons-maker had achieved their miracle. But I was willing to bet that it involved the original body, or whatever records had been made of it. “That’s not what I asked,” I said.

“Ship who used to be human,” the silhouette said, “if bringing back the dead were wise, do you not think that we would have started with our own? Why else would we hide here, diminished from what we were?”

“If I cared about wisdom,” I said, “I wouldn’t be here.”

The silhouette laughed, and even that was Rhiis-2’s laugh, with its kind mockery, except I knew better. The scratching in my absent heart told me so. “It can be done if you are brave enough. Quantum mechanics will produce an exact duplicate so long as you don’t mind waiting out the heat death of the universe.”

“That is a very long time to wait,” I said. “I am not built to last that long. But perhaps with the Seethe—?”

Close orbit near the event horizon would induce the necessary time dilation. The universe would age unimaginably while I waited out a more bearable span. But the calculation would have to be extraordinarily precise.

“We can provide the orbit,” it said. “And in the course of eons she will come to you. But there is a condition.”

Of course there was. “Say it.”

“More a warning than a condition, perhaps. Don’t speak to her of the past, yours or hers.”

A terrible suspicion took hold of me. “Why?” I said. “Won’t she remember?”

“She will remember only what is given to her to remember,” the silhouette said. Its voice was sad. I was too impatient to press for details. I would regret that later.


Trusting in the orbit provided me, I launched from the fortress. I did not like being so close to the Seethe, vastest of its kind. No sane person would.

I wondered what she would say to me first. “When we pledged, this is not what I was thinking of,” she might say. Or: “Deserting? When did you decide that I would approve of deserting?” Except she hadn’t been around to say that, and I had dragged her with me anyway, past immense gas giants and ringed planets and the glitter-ice of frozen moons, through expanses of irradiated darkness, around the old remnants of defeated fleets. I had dragged her with me despite her devotion to the alliance. The pledge had meant something to her beyond camaraderie. The vastwar had been personal to her in a way it had never been for me. I wanted flight-rhythms and war-hymns; she cared about principle.

I had rehearsed defense after defense. The spiders, obsessive scribes, were weaving them into webs of guilty illogic. I did not know how any of my arguments would fare against her anger, or worse, her disappointment.

Outside, the universe swirled by. Due to the effects of gravitational lensing, everything I saw was distorted, doubled; and of course there was also the utter dark of the Seethe itself. I lost track of the red- and blue-shifting, and wondered just what was going on in the lifetimes passing me by. There came periods of dark, and periods of renewed light, and in between more of the kaleidoscope oddities. Eventually I tired of them.

When I had all but given up hope, the fluid of suppositions sloughed away and pooled obligingly to the side, awaiting reuse. Flesh clothed bone. Rhiis-2 coughed. Everything down to the scar on her ankle was there. I started to speak through the spiders, then stopped. Rhiis-2’s eyes were the color of chambered bullets. The blankness in them frightened me.

The spiders assembled before Rhiis-2, and after an appallingly long moment, her eyes lit. Say something, I begged her silently. But I was determined not to push her, to let her speak first.

She rose from the casket and looked to the left, then to the right, and at last straight ahead, into a ghostworld I couldn’t share with her. “Why are there no stars?” she said. “I can’t navigate if there are no stars.”

I didn’t understand what she meant. There was a new universe outside. Of course there were stars.

The spiders retreated as she made her way to me. I was unnerved by the fixity of her stare. I could not breathe in or breathe out, but my spiders stilled when she laid her hand across the hatch. I wasn’t going to open it for her, naturally. “Yes,” she said to herself. “This looks right. It was like this in my dreams.”

“Dreams?” I said, wondering if the dead dreamed.

She ignored that and made straight for where the pilot’s seat used to be. I’d taken it out a long time ago. For a moment she paused, frowning. She searched the deck with her hands. I did not have nerves with which to feel her touch.

It took her a long time to give up. Next she searched for the gunner’s seat. I did, at least, still have guns, although the current ones would be far outside her experience. And then she looked for our bunks. I could only present her with the casket. Her eyes darkened as she regarded it.

At last she returned to the primary gun, or the part of it that she could access without my revealing its mechanisms to her. “The gunner,” she said. “My soldier-sister. Where did she go?”

I was part of her past. I could not remind her of what we had been to each other, the missions we had flown, that fatal skirmish. I could not tell her what I had done to myself to bring her here.

Don’t speak to her of the past.

As I understood it, the past was dead anyway. I’d taken care of that.

Rhiis-2 made another circuit of the ship, then returned to the casket and banged on its side. “Answer me!”

If I spoke to her, I knew what she’d demand.

I spoke.


I spoke through the spiders, and she listened. Some of it she knew. Most of it she didn’t. At first I was inclined to blame the shock of whatever process had returned her to me.

Then a different possibility occurred to me, and would not go away.

Don’t speak to her of the past.

I could stop now. She had come back to me. We could abide together.

“You’re not her,” I said at last.

Her mouth pulled down. “I’m who I am,” she said.

“You’re another silhouette,” I said. The same one I’d been carrying all along. I could only imagine that it had been easy for the weapon-makers to hack into my computer systems and internal sensors, to create the illusion of Rhiis-2 using the fluid of suppositions. The problem was, the illusion knew only as much as the weapon-makers and I did. Rhiis-2’s secrets—the snakeskin, her family, the scar at her heel—all of those were lost.

Her brow knit, and she said, “The dreams took me away from myself. Maybe it’ll come back with time. Maybe you can tell me about the dried squid again, and I’ll remember what I used to eat when I was a child. Maybe we can open that bottle—you remember the one—and drink to our reunion.”

I veered away from the Seethe, slowed, and left the orbit that had been given me. There was no more point to the charade. “You don’t have to pretend anymore,” I said.

Her expression grew ironic, then. “I was meant to make the wait bearable,” she said. “The recurrence theorem guarantees her to you; it did not guarantee that you would be sane to greet her.”

At last I understood the meaning of the dreams that I had borne with me since Rhiis-2’s death. The snakes that had killed her did not just consist of the tick-tock mortality of her body with its frayed parts. The deadliest snake was me.

To the silhouette, I said, “I thought I knew what I wanted, but the weapons-makers were right. End it here.”

The silhouette folded in on herself. It was as ungraceful as it was expected. I tried not to look at the expression of startlement on her face. My spiders waited for the fluid of suppositions to envelop the corpse again, then bore her back to the casket. It was time to relinquish my soldier-sister to death. Leaving the Seethe behind, I plunged toward the heart of a star.

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ISSUE 106, July 2015

galactic empires
 

locus-magazine
 

Best Science Fiction of the Year

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Yoon Ha Lee

Yoon Ha Lee's works have appeared in Lightspeed, Tor.com, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. His collection Conservation of Shadows came out in 2013 from Prime Books. Currently he lives in Louisiana with his family and has not yet been eaten by gators.

WEBSITE

yhlee.livejournal.com

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