This story is about the eschatology of shadow puppets.
This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by Tor Books executive editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden.
This story is about the eschatology of shadow puppets.
You’ve been a long time away from home with its vast, pale stage of textured silk and the queen’s everywhere garden. There is only a binary of colors in your existence, just as you are supposed to narrow everything into the binary of target and not-target. Nevertheless, your language has words for colors. They are not red or ochre or azure. They are not even white or black, the logical defaults. But there is a word for the color of a string just as it is slit. Another for the color of the queen’s favorite flowers, which coil so promisingly from each doorway. One for the color of fire. That last is rarely spoken, especially in the queen’s presence.
Your uniform is the same color as the queen’s gloves; it is defined that way. The queen’s hands, they say of her knights. And now you’ve come back to the court with its thorn-collared tigers, its hawk-headed courtiers, its endlessly thwarted geodesics. The summons didn’t give a reason why your return was so urgent, but you can guess.
The world-tapestry’s weave is replete with imperfections: stains scrubbed out, clots of thread, small tears subtly mended. Like the queen’s court entire, you glide frictionlessly across the tapestry’s surface. But you are always aware that there is a world beyond the tapestry, in three dimensions of space rather than two, and, perhaps, the pitiless audience; you are always aware of the faraway lanterns.
The queen’s court measures time by her smiles. Lately she has smiled less and less frequently. For the distinction between light and dark has been diminishing little by little, a phenomenon your soldiers observed even in the Knotted Reaches. And that means that the lanterns, little by little, are going out.
People quiet as you pass by them, lengthening and shortening in accordance to the laws of geometry, your position relative to the light sources. They have a name for you: the Knight of Pyres. It is not, despite the rumors, a reference to the nations you’ve torched, or even to the smoke like Cantor dust that drifts endlessly from your gun. You have never seen any point in telling them where the name comes from. After all, the queen would disapprove. Even in an airless world, a shadow-queen’s disapproval can suffocate.
You approach the throne. The queen is flanked by her guards, and her poets, and her bearers-of-flowers. The last scatter petals of grave’s-breath at your approach. They have a fragrance like sickle nights and slivered moons. You lay your gun before the queen, kneel, and wait.
It’s not a long wait, just enough to make the point that she commands your loyalty still. You have never liked the queen, but you concede her efficiency. Besides, you don’t have to like her to do her will. She made that clear to you a long time ago.
“I did not wish to recall you from a campaign where you were enjoying such success,” the queen says. Her voice is low, and sharp the way that ice is sharp. At least there is no rebuke in it. “I have another mission for you.”
Your lieutenant is competent enough. You have no doubt that she can finish the current war of subjugation to the queen’s satisfaction. There’s little left to do in any case. You could recite the figures readily enough. The houses slashed to tessellated debris, the number of knives, the dimensionless weight of ashes. But the queen has not asked about any of this, so you hold your silence.
“The lanterns are becoming exhausted,” the queen says. The courtiers stir like a tremor in the tapestry: she has spoken the unspeakable after all. “You know what happens when all the lights go out.” One of the tame tigers yawns; a poet mutters half a verse-of-warding in hexameter flattened to a scrap of desperation. The queen’s head turns slightly. The poet shivers and subsides.
The lights have gone out before, but they have always come back on. On those occasions she made use of you and your gun, too. You remember the last such nightplunge. In the darkness your face had no boundaries. You were unable to discern the scars in your history or the contours of your future. When the lights came back on, you had to rebuild yourself from ligatures of shadow and shapes whose names you had to mine out of convolute dreams. You started with your gun. The queen, it is said, started with her scepter. You remind yourself of this every so often, because it’s important to understand your adversaries, especially when you have something in common.
“You have only to command me,” you say, which is not quite the case. She’s not incapable of giving an unwise order.
The lanterns are an outside phenomenon, but it’s not entirely true that your people have no influence over the world beyond. You are the proof of that.
The queen’s smile in her oval face is a gash of light. “Then my command is this,” she says. “Travel to the eastern border and bring back the Jewel of Mirrors. You will have to fight the eastern philosopher-king for it. But if the lanterns are failing us, if the world beyond is starved of mornings, then we will have to feed the lanterns ourselves. A foreign jewel is a small enough sacrifice.”
It’s not the solution you had expected. In times past you have gone hunting in the world beyond. But the supply of prey is finite, and you are not surprised that she knows what to do after it is exhausted.
East, right, away from the gates-ever-gaping; it’s a matter of cartographic convention, but the dawn-voyaging symbolism counts for something. What the queen isn’t saying is that the philosopher-king will have his armies, and his citizens, and his libraries of tomes inscribed in shadow-script as tiny and perfect as insects. What she isn’t saying is that she wants you to reduce his land to a rubble of pixels.
“Your will is mine,” you say, the old bitter formula. At least nothing more is expected of you.
The flower-bearers scatter petals of birds-ascending, so called because the flowers in full bloom resemble firebirds caught in the incandescent act of transporting themselves off the tapestry and into the impossible z-axis sky. You hide your cynicism; long practice.
The queen nods, and you take up your gun. “You will leave tomorrow,” she says, and you wish she had given you permission to quit her presence straightaway. But instead you bow, and linger in the court for appearance’s sake, never comfortable amid the shadow-edges of spear and vine and people who know better than to come too close to the queen’s unchancy favorite.
At this point, it may be fruitful to review facts of stellar evolution. Stars like our sun effloresce into red giants, then shrink into white dwarfs, and eventually cool; in an older universe, the resulting black dwarfs would lurk in the vast reaches like carrion husks. More massive stars singe the darkness with heavy elements as they crumple into neutron stars. More massive still, and stars swallow themselves, leaving only black holes.
What’s notable is not just the coruscating variety of colors, but the fact that each of these trajectories, while dependent on mass, eventually ends in darkness.
You know a lot of stories about the Jewel of Mirrors. None of them help you.
The Jewel of Mirrors is a necklace guarded by a bird that has been bricked up in a tower since the hour of its birth, and whose song can reduce shadow to the transparency of dew. To slay the bird, you must reflect its voice upon itself so that it boils away into formlessness. It is not known whether the bird would welcome this release.
The Jewel of Mirrors is a lock of twisting logic upon a starship’s carcass. If you remove the lock, the starship will rouse, and with it all its nine-and-twenty cannons, one for each bitter star in your world’s home constellation. The difficulty is not the lock, it’s preserving the astrology of oppression.
The Jewel of Mirrors is a painting upon glass by the only artist to retrieve colors from outside the world-tapestry. Colors like crimson and bronze and viridian. Its virtue is that you can look into the painting and find a portrait of yourself. Its curse is that you can never unsee what you have seen there.
You would much rather be studying intelligence on the philosopher-king than some gaudy gem wrapped up in folklore. But all you know is that he has given tribute dutifully year by year to keep the queen’s rapacious eye from turning in his direction. Indeed, some of those treasures decorate the queen’s throne room. Frogs composed of gears imperfectly meshed, who sing dolorous songs of ruination. Banners upon which eddies and curves of light depict thunderstorms, cyclones, the occasional stray dragon. Once, a lily with eyes blinking stutteringly in its petals. This one was not entirely successful: the queen liked the idea, but suspected the eyes of belonging to the philosopher-king’s sages or spymasters. Even now no one is certain how she disposed of the thing.
Before this day you knew the philosopher-king owned the Jewel of Mirrors, or at least, you knew that everyone said he did. You hadn’t expected the story to be put to the test. And for that matter, how is a necklace or a starship unlocked or a painting supposed to address the problem of the lanterns?
Although you could ask the queen, it’s unlikely that she would answer. It’s more likely that you will find out when everyone else does.
Logistics becomes easy when everything from tinned dehydrated meals to space suits collapses into darkness, and can be reconstituted as neatly as an ancient theorem. For this mission the queen has assigned you the greatest of her warships, the starscourge Stormrose. All the queen’s ships are named after flowers.
For most of her wars the queen accedes to her soldiers’ sensibilities and sends them out by foot, or sometimes in chariots drawn by horse or swan or slow-blinking lizard. This way they can breathe, in the way of shadow moving through an atmosphere of light. And this way they need not endure the starships’ claustrophobic nightcage.
The Stormrose, concocted of feral triangles and claw-projections, overgrown with guns, gives no hint as to its contents. No holes have been cut into it for people to look out of. It’s a single connected silhouette, representing massacre in the semiotics of inkblots.
The queen has come to the starport to see you off. There is a black arc above you both, and cut into it are diamonds, stars, ringed planets, the occasional prismatic flicker of meteorites flashing by. The tiger at the queen’s side sits back on its haunches and regards one of the diamonds as though it were prey for winter nights.
“My liege,” you say as you bow before the queen.
Her smile, you imagine, is every bit as sardonic as the one that you hide inside your heart. “I know that I cannot command you as I do the others,” she says, “no matter how disagreeable you find my presence. Nevertheless, good service is good service, and should be recognized as such. I expect nothing less of you now.”
The queen taps your shoulder with the scepter. Long practice: you don’t shudder as your shape is joined to hers, shadows merging for a moment. You don’t need the reminder, but the ritual has to be observed, even if you are the one person who has nothing to fear from the scepter. “Go,” she says. “Bring the jewel back to me.”
It won’t be the only thing you bring. Neither of you needs to say it, though.
A law of etiquette in the world of puppets: You may gesture, you may intimate, but you do not touch. You do not intersect shadow upon shadow, especially when the shadow is a person. Even lovers exchange their caresses through some intermediary: handkerchiefs of filigree lace, tangram poetry, perfectly useless masks. To touch is to become conjoined. It is not something you do where you can be seen, and everything on the world-tapestry can be seen.
The queen with her scepter is one exception. Not only does she touch people with it, she also commands them. It is not entirely accurate to call it a scepter. Rather, it is a rod of puppet-strings, condensed to hungry facets. You have never seen your string, but you can feel it like a flickering ember even when you are far from the queen’s presence. Doubtless her other subjects experience something similar.
The other exception is travel in conveyances: carriages that admit no windows, submarines scarred by battles with gnashing kraken, starships like the one that you will command against the philosopher-king. Leisurely journeys, foregoing such vehicles, are fashionable for a reason.
Another law of etiquette in the world of puppets: you do not speak of the ligatures fraying, of the paper shedding its fibers and the limbs worn thin, of the scalloped edges after encounters with water. (After fire, water is the element that puppets fear most. Glue is not well-regarded, either.) You do not speak of the fact that the queen’s favorite tiger smells incongruously of tangerines and cloves and amber after a mishap with a perfume bottle, or the stiffness of the queen’s hands, which she makes no attempt to disguise, and which no one is foolish enough to remark on. Everything is smoothed over by shadow.
This is probably the only reason nobody asks how it is that you are char-marked, fire-scarred, and whole of form; how you survived.
We are the Stormrose. Within this warship’s boundary crenellations, we are one weapon and one will. A single burnt knight stands apart; but the knight’s mission is ours, and in any case it is not for us to question the queen’s dictate.
In times unwritten, we have punched holes like arpeggiated quavers into crowds that flee, but never fast enough. We have called down fire as sudden as cardiac failure upon citadels new-crowded with ghosts. We have cultivated flowers whose radiations exhale calligraphy-splashes onto the threadbare cloth.
In times unwritten, there were no graves and no pyres, no corpses and no epitaphs, only bland expanses of background fabric where shadows once moved. Our orders this time are different. So the queen said. So the knight says now.
The ship breathes with one breath, strikes with one hand. At some later time we may disembark and become individuals again. We will not concern ourselves with this until it becomes necessary.
We do not know what the knight thinks of this, except that this is a familiar story to it, possibly unworthy of special attention. We do not ask.
It’s not a coincidence that the knight has a gun the way the queen has a scepter.
On the last day that his capital stands, the philosopher-king sets free his flocks of origami birds, crane and goose and extravagant peacock. He sends all his servants home, and persuades the courtiers and guards and alchemists to follow them. The guards, like the soldiers, may keep their weapons, but he makes it plain, without words, that those weapons are unlikely to bring them any profit. The great towers of the palace fold in upon themselves so that the band of sky with its cloudscatter and raindrift can be seen without obstruction. The Stormrose, too, can be seen as it eclipses the cut-out sun in its descent.
Then the philosopher-king sits in his study and writes. He writes upon a shadow-book with shadow-pages, incising words of light like the bite marks of didactic snakes. For years he has been adding oddments of lore, fragments of story: everything he has heard about the Jewel of Mirrors, including a few divertissements of his own.
On this last day, your soldiers march through the streets with their thorn-swords and bramble-nets to collect the philosopher-king’s former subjects for removal. In the meantime, you walk unimpeded through the mazy passages of his palace and come upon him, still sitting, still writing. You wait patiently while he finishes the page that he is working on.
“I had expected you to fight,” you say. The queen had said he would. Instead, he has done anything but.
The philosopher-king laughs softly. “I am unlike your queen in most matters,” he says, “but like her, I know the name of your gun. If I saw some escape for my people, I would have taken it. But I have read the signs in the sky, the world-tapestry’s inexorable dimming. It’s one death or another, however you figure it.”
He closes the book and holds it out to you. You eye it askance. “This is the Jewel of Mirrors,” he says. “A collection of fables. I imagine your queen will find it entertaining bedtime reading for the sleep she never indulges in. Go on, you may as well ask the obvious question.”
“If you wish,” you say. No harm in accommodating a man whose realm you have so thoroughly ruined, especially when you can sieve him dead at any moment. In the distance you hear silence baked upon silence as your soldiers staple their captives’ mouths shut. The queen despises screaming and lamentations. “Where do the fables come from?”
“The same place any riddle comes from,” the philosopher-king says. “I have spent a lifetime collecting them. Not enough of a lifetime finding answers. It appears my turn is done and your queen may have much joy of this endeavor. Call it a final gift.”
“You don’t expect to be spared,” you say, because you have to be sure.
“Of course not.”
“Why bother?” you ask. “If she appreciates the gift, it will be to lock it up in a cage of shelves, to be admired but not perused.” She has received you in her library before. Sometimes she studies the intricate spiraling designs stamped across the books’ covers, but it is rare that you catch her reading.
The philosopher-king shrugs. “Oh, I’m not concerned with her. I am, however, pleased to have this small opportunity to talk to you.”
His calm makes you wary. This entire conversation could be a trap. Still, surely he realizes that the queen has other knights, and that her soldiers will carry out their orders whether or not you’re there to supervise them? “One captive more or less will make no difference to the queen,” you say. Indeed, she made it explicit that she has no particular need for the philosopher-king’s carcass. “You cannot hope to dissuade me. I have no heart to appeal to.” One more thing the queen made certain of.
He stirs slightly at that, as if he had begun to smile. “In that you are mistaken,” he says. “I have no doubt that your queen knows the truth, even if she has misled you. A heart isn’t what you have. It’s what you do.”
Not just the palace but the capital entire is cloaked in strata of silence. The only sounds now are the words that pass between you and the doomed king. You listen for heartbeat drums and hear nothing. Even your soldiers are escorting the captives back to the Stormrose without sound.
“Take the book,” the philosopher-king says. “As a souvenir if nothing else.” And then he tells you something unexpected: “Try not to think too harshly of your queen. She is something of an expert on difficult choices.”
You accept the gift, tucking it into folds of shadow. The snakebite words pass into you; you ignore the scour of stories freeze-dried. “It’s your turn now,” you say, and raise your gun.
The queen’s people know your gun as Candor. The queen’s idea of a joke, a gift to someone who rarely has the opportunity to speak freely.
You and the queen know the gun’s true name. It is called Combustion.
As a point of fact, the gun’s incomparable lethality is only tangentially related to the vulnerabilities of paper or cloth.
The Stormrose bears you and the soldiers and the prisoners back to the queen’s starport. You are the first to disembark. The queen awaits you with her customary tiger. “What have you brought for me?” she asks. “The smoke-skeleton of a bird? A scintillant circuit? A mirror of undesired insights?”
“A book,” you say as you salute her, attempting to not express your doubts about the whole endeavor. You produce it for her inspection.
The queen laughs and returns your salute with a mocking wave. “Of course. He always did believe that everyone could be educated. It isn’t the worst fallacy I’ve ever encountered.” She takes the book from you and sets it before the tiger. The tiger bats at it experimentally. Probably just as dubious as you are.
“The disposition of the prisoners?” you ask. What was the point of ferrying them all back here, anyway? The queen has occasionally taken interest in gladiatorial amusements, but she is unlikely to be frivolous at a time like this.
“In your absence I have prepared a dungeon,” the queen says. She gestures, and you see it in the distance: an obtrusion you had mistaken for some recent fantasia of topiary. “The prisoners can reside there for the moment.”
You give the necessary orders, and the soldiers and their freight of unspeaking captives begin to march toward the dungeon. “I don’t understand what use you have for these people,” you say.
She doesn’t smile. “Book, jewel, bird, it’s immaterial,” she says. “The people were the point of this exercise in numbers.”
You should have figured it out earlier. She was never interested in refueling the lanterns through some treasure contrived of riddles, although in a land where starships coexist with chimeras, it wasn’t impossible that such a treasure would perform as specified. No: she means to use the captives as fuel.
“You have never approved of me,” the queen says dryly, “but then, I have never required your approval. It has only been enough that what I do is for the preservation of the realm; any ruler’s duty.”
“You’re going to run out of prisoners,” you say. “The supply of foreigners is finite. And after that, what then—your own people? Incompetent chefs? Birds that sing too early in the morning? Overly demanding consorts?”
“I almost wish you’d lose your temper more often,” she muses. “You’re not incapable of wit.” Her regard narrows. “But the world is dimming, and I have need of you yet.”
The world beyond has lanterns, which are called stars. Nuclei strike each other, overcome the forces that would repel them from each other, and form new nuclei. Just as shadows can be crushed together, so can particles, and in the process they dance a fury of light. Yet no star burns forever, and no universe warms its inhabitants forever, either.
This process, while it lasts, is known as fusion. A form of combustion, if you like.
You don’t like the queen, yet she has this virtue: she has always looked out for the best interests of her realm. If the rest of the world has to burn for her people’s welfare, so be it. It is this knifing purity of purpose that has kept you by her side all this time.
“A lesson for you, if you will,” the queen says. She sounds quietly exhausted, and that faint vulnerability alarms you. You do not wish to see weakness in her. It implies weakness in yourself, to the extent that you are her instrument. “There is no convenient isomorphism between the physics of the world beyond and the laws by which we live here. People are shadows, and shadows are souls. Unlike nuclei, they will burn forever: the perfect fuel. Even so, I sought to spare people—not just our people, but our enemies as well—as long as possible.
“Look up—not toward the cut-out shapes of star and crescent, but up out of the plane of the world-tapestry, up along the perpendicular. All the stars out there have burned out. Everything is cooling. We have denuded a universe of lanterns for our own survival. The only ones left to us are those we nourish ourselves.”
You are learning to ask questions too late. You look up, then back at the queen. “There weren’t just lanterns in that universe,” you say.
Civilizations come to terms with the heat death of the universe in various ways, if they do at all. A small selection of possibilities:
Some of them attempt to rewrite the laws of entropy, as though statistical mechanics were amenable to postmodern narrative techniques.
Some of them research ways to punch through into other universes, anthropic principle notwithstanding. It is rarely the case that other universes are more hospitable than the current one.
Some of them build monuments of the rarest materials that they can devise, even knowing that everything will be pulverized to the same singularity punctuation. Not all of the art thus created is particularly worthy of the effort put into it, but neither will there be anyone left to judge.
And some of them simply commit mass suicide, on the grounds that they would prefer to choose the manner of their passing. At this end of time, weapons of incandescent destruction are commonplace. We may assume that a sufficiently determined civilization can contrive to obtain some.
Each of these trajectories ends in darkness.
“You want the captives to burn forever,” you say. “Then, as a corollary, the people you put into those lanterns will never escape through death.”
“You’re learning about consequences,” the queen says. “Yes. That’s exactly what I’m saying.”
You know why the queen chose you for this task, and not some other, although it’s not inconceivable that there are backups. She cut you from the paper of a lantern, sacrificing its light forever. You remember being raked by fire, and the shearing scissors. You remember being constructed without a heart.
Knight of Pyres. Combustion. She needs you to light the lanterns for her.
A heart isn’t what youhave. It’s what you do, the philosopher-king had said. You wonder what would have happened if someone had said it to you a lifetime ago. It’s unlikely that you would have listened. Only now, as you behold a universe comprehensively dissipated, do you realize what service you have rendered all this time.
“I can’t do this for you,” you say.
“So you are no longer content to be a knight,” the queen says, unnervingly composed. The queen’s hands. “I advise you to consider your decision carefully. Once you start making choices of your own, you move into the realm of consequence, and in most matters you cannot erase mistakes, or responsibility. Are you certain this is what you want? Our world slowly waning to a forever black?” Her mouth curves as you hesitate.
You raise your gun.
She raises the scepter.
You’re faster. And you don’t shoot her, anyway. You shoot the scepter. It goes up in a hellscream of fire and smoke and uncoiled volition.
The queen doesn’t let go, and the fire spreads to her hand. “In the darkness you will be outnumbered,” she says, raising her voice over the crackling. “People will attempt to relight the lanterns themselves. They will seek weapons deadlier than Combustion. They will come to you and beg in words like broken wings for any pittance of light. You will have to stand vigil alone in the forever night, listening, in case someone in the mass of shadow is clever enough to undo what you have done and start the furnace of souls.”
“Drop the scepter,” you cry. The gun is specific in its effect. This is an airless world and all fire is, in a sense, artificially sustained. She could survive a little while yet, one-armed.
“The realm of consequence,” she says remindingly.
Time does not pass here as it does in the world beyond, but it passes quickly enough when it cares to. The queen burns up like a candle, like a torch, like a star of guttering ambitions.
The queen’s people haven’t yet figured out what has transpired, but they will know soon enough.
You settle back, gun smoking endlessly, and wait as the darkness settles over the world by smothering degrees. You have a long vigil ahead of you: time to begin.
There is nothing left of this story but a whispering condensate of shadow, and a single unknight standing apart.
“Combustion Hour” copyright © 2014 by Yoon Ha Lee
Art copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey Alan Love