The shape of treason is a trunk of thorns, and Jingfei climbs knowing forgiveness waits at the zenith. But for the traitorous Record of Tiansong, who let their planet burn under the guns of the Hegemony, a second treason may be the only escape from their eternal prison.
This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by acquiring editor Carl Engle-Laird.
When the envoy comes, Jingfei is fighting herself in a duel to the death.
Jackknife paths and recoil slopes extend and retract, vector-walls forming and reforming to bring the combatants now tantalizing close, now infuriating apart. The arena moves with a predator’s intelligence, its heuristic array as much participant as battlefield.
The ground stinks of sweat and hemorrhage; neither waveform ceiling nor parabolic tiles have ever been cleaned. The stains are mortality, the weapon fragments a reminder: nothing lasts, nothing is forever. Not even, perhaps, an eternal prison sentence.
Jingfei, and Jingfei. Two shadows of equal height, equal might, similar mass. Their weapons too are twins: swords sculpted from the leavings of the fortress itself, shed shells from velocity shadows and sloughed nacre from iteration cycles. Over the lifetimes that have layered on top of another and condensed into an unbreakable edge—sediment to diamond—Jingfei of Moth River has acquired many skills, though she chooses to neither use nor craft firearms. They are too fast, finish disputes too soon.
The duelists climb over warped bulkhead, in which reflections of knife edges dart and flash like schools of fish. In speed the two Jingfeis are equal. In skill, in experience, in their certainty of the other’s next movement—attack and defense, parry and riposte, the idiosyncrasies of tactic and style. Beneath the carapace of their armor, under the brocade of their robes, perhaps their hearts heave to the same beat.
They have been engaged a long time, hours smearing, swarm-light rising and setting and rising again. One slows, slips, blunted by exhaustion. The other comes down upon her, momentum and desperation and need.
She does not find her mark—Jingfei twists away, strikes back. Their blades meet and grip, one biting down on the other.
A tensile threshold is met. One blade shatters, a burst of shrapnel like pearls and lightning.
Jingfel kneels, slashes across with the light, consummate ease of habit. The throat opens, aorta protesting against loss. The sand-strewn floor absorbs spilled blood, but there are always blotches left behind, like careless calligraphy.
Jingfei falls; Jingfei rises, victorious. An audience of Jingfei roars applause from a thousand throats.
When the envoy comes, Jingfei is being decanted elsewhere in the citadel. She spills from a tank onto pale morass, raw and loose-limbed, wet hair and gurgling throat: newborn sounds and newborn-frail, though her thought and perception have accrued through years uncounted, and her arteries pulse with the strength of lifetimes multiplied. Replicants straighten and clean her, dress her in the silks and hairpins of her native land. They always make sure her clothes are extravagant, robes trimmed in the riches of defeated constituents, jeweled in the unique resources of annexed worlds. Her skin is bruised by swarm-light, striped tigerish. Cranes of metal and silicon lap up the waters of her birth. She never speaks and her motor control never develops.
The envoy is greeted by a boy of ten and an adolescent of no particular gender. The fortress seals behind the breach of her entry, tightening the vise of its shields.
Though the envoy arrives dragging questions like anchors and chains, existence cannot be answered in binary: on or off, alive or not. There are more than two states, and more than one may be concurrently true. Outside the swarm-fortress, Jingfei of Moth River has never been born, her past corroded and her name consigned to forgetting. Inside it, within the bounds of thorn-suns and briar-stars casting sequential dusks, Jingfei has been born a hundred times, a thousand, a million: a multitude of allotropic selves with a mind inviolate as it is divided from shell to shell, a flame passed from one wick to light the next.
She is called the seer, the oracle, the sibyl, though not for any ability of foresight or precognition—she has none, and the Hegemony does not admit superstition. She is kept here for the sake of yesterdays rather than tomorrows.
When accuracy is prioritized over mythology, she is called the Record of Tiansong.
The arena empties, the spectators’ seats vacated one by one. In the absence of living bodies, the vastness of the floor runs like a cold hand down Jingfei’s back. The scale was not meant for her, even so many of her; the fortress was created to accommodate millions, an experiment in sealed cities. But the Hegemony grew and conquered, and in time its prosperity made structures like her prison obsolete.
Now there is only one inhabitant. One inmate.
The duelist remains standing over her opponent, over the blots from her arteries, the unsightly discoloration where spilled guts have daubed the floor. There are runnels where her blood, old and new, has congealed and caked, nearly as solid as resin. Her foot nudges the fallen body, stirs the coils of dark hair that she always wears shoulder-length. She should be used to it—is used to it—but though experience transfers there is always an instinct underneath, a reflexive displacement to see herself lying down dead as she continues to breathe, even with the knowledge that she dealt the fatal blow.
She wipes away the brittle sheen of her sweat, casts off gloves crusted in salt, peels away her outer robe stained in gore. They land, wet, on blood still hot as she lifts her head to the envoy.
“Would it be tactless,” the visitor says, “to ask why you were fighting yourself?”
“For sport, for thrill, for justice. You must’ve read my file. Do I strike you as someone who’d tolerate her own company well? It’s a wonder this doesn’t happen more often. What did you say your name was?”
The boy and adolescent, Jingfei both, do not make the joke of answering their other self. The envoy puts her hand to her chest. “I am Damassis of Iron Gate, formerly Damassis Ingmir.”
Three pairs of eyes train on Damassis, sniper-focused. She is the Hegemonic ideal brought to animation: avian-sharp skull and cheeks, a high narrow nose, a complexion with the undertone of pearl rather than Tiansong ivory. Her ancestry is unmistakable, each pump through her veins conqueror’s blood, each whipcrack of her heart the roar of warships. The boy says, “You would submit to bearing a Tianhua clan-name? You’ve taken a wrong turn, envoy; you didn’t invade us to assimilate into our culture. Allow me to map your path back to propriety—dye Iron Gate the colors of Ingmir, and make your children and theirs take your name. That’s the correct order of things.”
“It’s no wound to my honor or personhood to wear this name. I keep it with pride.”
“Did you come by it through adoption? Marriage?”
“Love has made me naïve.” Damassis unwinds a chain from her throat, alloy dense as neutron stars, each link refraction-etched with verses from Tiansong plays. She pulls down from her hair moths and butterflies of living resin, with compound eyes of event-horizon windows and antennae of meteor frost. Each object is priceless. “I have brought gifts.”
The boy takes the chain, though its weight challenges his. The adolescent affixes the moths and butterflies to eir hair, though their proboscises chill eir scalp. The duelist, ungifted, sheathes her steaming sword. Its lease on being will run out soon, the stress of protracted battle having cracked its limits. “How is Tiansong?”
“The planet of your nativity fares very well. Of all subjects in our administrative bounds it’s among the most favored. Its nationals keep their names, their traditions. This much we promised you, and we honor that pledge.”
The boy lifts his eyebrows; the adolescent chuckles, low. “Not that, envoy. You married one of us. Iron Gate and Moth River were related of old, so in a way you’re my in-law many times removed. Tell me about your spouse, what Iron Gate is like now, what they served at your wedding feast, which clan is feuding against which. Honor your elder, envoy, and share a little gossip.”
“Gossip isn’t my specialty.” Damassis glances at the empty seats, away from the three that are Jingfei. “Before I recalibrate your genesis algorithms, shall we perform an integrity check?”
Jingfei smiles, each slightly differently. This part is ever the same. “Always.”
The envoy folds her hands. Some of the cranes have emerged from the decanting chamber, nudging her with wet shining beaks. “What is your name and origin?”
“Jingfei of Moth River, once a national of the planet Tiansong.”
“What is your earliest memory?”
“Standing beneath a sky churned by giants. The touch of embers on my cheeks as the dead fell down. That was my first vision, which midwifed me.” Jingfei waits for the envoy to ask whether this is apocryphal, as the rest of them have done, but Damassis lets it pass.
Instead the envoy chooses to correct her language: “Which doctored your birth. Decanting assistants are hardly uniformly female anywhere.”
“Hegemonic pedantry! That’s how we would have said it too, in some of our slaughtered languages where little is gendered. Oh, we were as enlightened as you; annexation didn’t bring us anything new.” The duelist cants her head. “But this Tianhua is what my descendants speak, so I’ve been led to believe, the sole language you left us with after you culled other tongues and dialects. Or have I been misinformed? Does my home continue to thrive with more than a hundred nations, each with its own wealth of peculiarities and languages?”
Damassis does not confirm or deny: it is not her role, and the question of whether a homogenized world is easier to control answers itself. “This is what is known. Tiansong, the Lake of Bridges, was ruled by two hundred war-empresses who sent out their commanders to terraform and conquer. At the apex of its might, Tiansong held seven worlds in its imperial grip. They sent tributes of soldiers and riches, secret knowledge and power, so that on Tiansong all court scholars might clothe themselves in the dreams of a continent and each lowly menial might dine on the wealth of a nation.
“For centuries they were ascendant, growing in strength and reach, searching ever further outward for new territories and strange rarities, delicacies with which to hone their palate. Not an infant born among them was permitted to taste deprivation; grace and opulence were the right of all. The war-empresses, in turn, harnessed their altar-ghosts to achieve life everlasting. As the monarch’s flesh failed, she would select a body of her line and claim it for her own. But this was a price willingly paid, so it is recorded.”
Jingfei has heard this before, the frozen history of her native shore thawing from an envoy’s mouth. It is always the same, with minor variations to suit the political temperament of the outside universe. Even that temperament itself rarely shifts. Her instances lean against a marble pagoda, pace in widening circles, paying no particular attention.
“This went on,” Damassis says, mouthpiece for a ritual generations old, “until one of the tyrants felt her body falter: her limbs, once puissant, grew leaden. Her sight, once precise as the measure of her territories, grew faint. She considered her lineage, the hundreds of children and grandchildren, and their by-blows in turn. One was especially high in her favor, a linguist who specialized in the languages of incense and burnt offerings, of moths and radial cremations.”
“For an account of the way things were, yours is stuffed with apocrypha. Pick one—fact or fable, it can’t be both.”
“I welcome corrections.” The envoy inclines her head, a few degrees short of a bow.
The boy has wandered away, the chain heavy around his neck and shoulder and hips, the gleam of it disappearing with him.
“Why would I be a spoilsport?” the adolescent says, draping eir arms around the pagoda, flesh embracing stone. “Let me fill in the rest. The linguist, wise to her sovereign’s intention, fled on a ship of horn and lamellar. She sought a then-nascent alliance of worlds as yet too far from the empresses’ conquering gaze. Perhaps she imparted to them a crucial weakness of Tiansong, perhaps she gave them the secret of incense and moths. In any case, the empresses were overthrown. So ended their ruthless appetite.”
“So it ended,” the envoy agrees. “But you remain, Jingfei of Moth River, who speaks the words of eternity and gave us Tiansong. The mainframe which holds your memory and maintains your instances is your final secret, and I’m here to bargain for it.”
Jingfei straightens to her full height: she is shorter than the envoy, but her build carries perhaps more heft, though she does not think it’ll ever come to a physical contest. “Your colleagues have asked before and you ask it again, but recall that I was a linguist, not an engineer. I’ve always ‘failed’ this check, but my memory isn’t in error. I can’t hand over what I never had.”
Damassis pauses her recording; her subroutines, charting little maps on her face, dim and extinguish. Fortress dusk falls, shrouding them in a fall of phantom soot and combusting antennae. She does not look at Jingfei as she says, “If you insist on that, then you admit you’re no longer of use. That the Record of Tiansong has outlasted its purpose and must be concluded.”
“So it will end,” Jingfei agrees. “And nothing will remain.”
Above the fortress’ roof, suns and stars chase one another, their brute velocity leaving trails of shadows that fill the mouth with a taste of acid honey, that incise redshift after-images on the retina. Jingfei flies solid-state kites here, plated dragon-fish spilling mandarins from their whiskers, scaled horses with burning tails, and cloud-spirits the shade of opals. By tradition they are symbols of auspice and fortune, but Jingfei has given them blank faces and gaping mouths, gray tongues twitching like earthworms in dry soil.
She lets the envoy lead. Watches Damassis and her calm, unfailing even under this light, this sky. Previous envoys have shown unease, throats twitching and stomachs heaving, as she would expect of those unaccustomed to this environment. Perhaps Damassis has been trained, made familiar with the conditions of swarm-fortresses.
They walk—march—across the mirror sheen of the roof, to the pavilion shaped like a scorpion’s pedipalp: red-black and downward, poised to snap shut. Within its septic glow the mainframe stands cold and absolute, shielded by a lesser cousin of the aegis that holds the swarm’s shape and sutures shut its interstices. Damassis dissolves this protection with a whisper of decryption, a bracelet of code. She does this without fanfare, without throwing Jingfei a knowing glance over her shoulder. In this way Jingfei knows the envoy is confident in her authority, requiring no great show to make a point of what mastery she holds over Jingfei, over the fortress itself.
Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Jingfei again reaches to test the limits of the envoy’s tolerance. “How long do people live, now, out there?”
“A citizen can see three hundred, with good augmens and cellular therapy.” Damassis’ eyes acquire the distant glaze of data immersion as she interfaces with the mainframe. “The average is roughly two hundred and twenty; I don’t have census data to hand.”
Peculiar, the duelist thinks. Someone like Damassis should be connected at all times, with access to most information no matter its classification. “Two hundred and twenty! In my days, we could barely teach telomeres to hold on for longer than a hundred and eighty-five. Their Majesties aside, of course, may their mighty souls have found heaven’s light.”
“When Tiansong fell, much was lost; if its reconstructive advances and altar-ghost system were still intact people could live to half an eon, perhaps more, preserve themselves truly in virtuality and reincarnate as needed. Even the clan-altars on Tiansong today are a sad mockery of what they once were.”
“Envoy,” the duelist says with a shocked little laugh, “are you berating a world for not allowing its conqueror to appropriate its advancements? Are you berating me for not having stolen the tech when I gave you Tiansong?”
“Your monarchs and magistrates scorched the earth to spite us. They didn’t think what that would do to their descendants. Or yours. What history does Tiansong have left?” Damassis looks up from the mainframe, the irises of her eyes playing lamp-glass to the light of optical overlays. “If they had their way there would be nothing of the world but a handful of stellar dust.”
“That isn’t wrong—their pride shone like the sun, blinded more than their warships ever did—but why tell me? I was never involved in those decisions.” Jingfei cants eir head at the duelist; they exchange a glance. “You plugged me into this because I was the only compatible, willing body at the time. It’d have served you better to capture an imperial engineer or an empress, but you were a little scared of them, weren’t you? Back then the Hegemony was little and weak. Each of our rulers seemed to you a god or a demon, full of teeth and nightmares. You could have no rest until all of them were exterminated.”
The mainframe’s surface trembles, liquid, a sigh of ancient code knitting shut over the laceration of a glitch. The envoy draws away, disconnecting. “I’ve finished the calibrations. Your next bodies should have a normal span, two hundred years or more.”
“My thanks. It was getting distressing, having new bodies that barely live past ten years. I’m fortunate—fifty, eighty years to go.” Jingfei wrinkles her nose. “The one just decanted will see, what, six months? So tragic.”
“You feel no terror at her imminent death?”
“Envoy,” the adolescent says, “the terms of my sentence specifically forbid network implants. When I want to talk to myself, I have to do it face to face. We can’t even synchronize what we see, let alone what we feel. Even if we did, what’s death? We have died so many times. It’s stopped being scary or novel.”
“Do you consider yourselves separate individuals then?”
“When you make a decision, you choose out of many forks in a path. I like to think that’s how it is with us. Not distinct individuals, no, but—” Jingfei waves a hand. The adolescent watches her out of the corner of eir eye, sly, wary. “I take it your engineers have had no luck reproducing the system?”
“Some.” Then, reluctantly, “There’s always a critical flaw, causing data loss. The identity and memories never carry over perfectly; concurrent instances can’t be maintained beyond two or three. The subject’s identity, sooner or later, fragments. None of the . . . selves is a complete person. They function more like organs, and not very well even then.”
“For what it’s worth, this isn’t all that good or elegant a trick. In my time—” Here Jingfei stops again. Flutters one hand, as though to apologize for a wandering mind. “If you can’t get this information out of me, what then?”
Damassis’ jaw tautens. When she speaks again her voice is low and harsh, and she flinches as if scalded by her own anger. “Then nothing. I’m disposable in ways that you are not. You are unique, the altar-ghost that keeps you alive the same.”
“And because of that, I’m a prisoner here, will always be. It’s not much of an existence, envoy. To the last aristocrat and scholar, those I served would prefer a single glorious life over countless rebirths fulfilling no point save to endlessly stew in defeat.” Jingfei reaches toward the aegis, holds short of touching it. “I would’ve thought you’d be satisfied when I sold you my birthworld. What haven’t you taken? What haven’t you won? Even my rulers weren’t so hungry—they left some meat on the bones of their subjugated, some spirit on their subjects.”
To that the envoy makes no response.
Jingfei sits in a room of mirrors. In the fortress there are many like this, cells to trap and torment, back when Jingfei was still being interrogated, but her torturers soon struck an impasse. They could destroy her instances, but her bodies were innumerable and disposable. They could not demolish the mainframe, a unique artifact as yet impossible to replicate. They had nothing to threaten her with.
And so, envoys: the title a euphemism, but also not. Hers is likewise. She has always asked them to call her what she is—traitor of Tiansong, its final betrayer—but they insist on that piece of politeness, that negation of verity.
Because every fraction of her recall is preserved, collected at the moment of death so it carries over to the next instance, she never forgets. The evening was colorless when she landed on the hot, dry soil of a distant shore. The scales of her ship crumbled to jade chips and silver filigree, as though no longer able to bear the weight of her decision. A choice like molten lead in her heart and in her hands, dense and searing, blackening all that she touched.
Once her treason was finalized—the negotiations finished—it was almost a relief.
She has her eyes shut when the envoy enters. Jingfei knows her own gait, the rhythm of her footsteps and the rustle of her robes. This is different, a harder beat to the boots, a sleeker whisper to the fabrics: gossamer collars, chitinous sleeves. “Your colleagues learned long ago that there’s no point torturing me,” she says. “But that didn’t stop some of them. One shattered my fingers, then my wrists, then my ankles. Another vivisected me and planted fractal seeds in my stomach so I’d feel every bud and shoot of circuit-flowers. The problem with remembering everything, envoy, is that I remember everything. The trauma doesn’t overwhelm the rest because the mainframe won’t let one set of data overwrite another, but there’s been more bad than good. The mind defends itself by forgetting, Damassis Ingmir. Take away that survival trick and what do you think remains?”
“I can’t be held accountable for their actions. But I offer my—” Hesitation briefer than the writhing flare of space-time pinned down. “My sympathies.”
“Where are you from exactly? From your original name I’d guess Salhune, but I’m too out of touch to guess much else.”
“My origins are irrelevant.”
Jingfei opens one eye. Her images and those of Damassis overlap, warping and melding at intersections of glass. “When did you marry into Iron Gate? You must have duties beyond this; your predecessors always let me in a little on their lives, on current fashion, on the latest planets brought into Hegemonic peace. Even their favorite games or hobbies. It’s my sole connection with the outside world. Come, must I beg?”
“I don’t see the point of taunting you with details of a life you’ll never have again.” Damassis unholsters her gun.
The duelist moves. The edge of her palm cracks against the envoy’s wrist and the gun falls. A low hum of velocity shadow, music to her after so long, and the fang of her blade comes to rest at the envoy’s throat.
“I thought death didn’t frighten you,” Damassis whispers, her words fluttering against Jingfei’s eyelashes.
“I contradict myself constantly, envoy, and my mouth wasn’t the precise one which uttered those exact words.” The duelist angles the blade sideways, as though she means to sheathe it in Hegemonic flesh. The weapon will soon fall apart, but for now it can still execute. “In my time, I honestly wasn’t any sort of fighter, but it’s surprising how much practice you get once you decide disputes should be settled by single combat.”
“I meant to present the gun as my third and last gift to you, to show you that I won’t hurt or humiliate you simply because I can. That I will not deprive you of your dignity. As my apology on behalf of—the others.”
Jingfei collects the weapon and laughs, a sound of moth wings in susurrus as they circle killing fire. “Not worried I’d shoot you with it?”
“I’ve told you before that I’m disposable. I am my duty.” Damassis touches her neck where the sword licked it, her skin still vibrating in echo to the blade. “I will say again that I’ve been sent to negotiate, not interrogate; we’re past that. What is it that you wish for?”
“What would anyone in my position wish for? The impossible. It’s pointless. I don’t have what you want. The secret of the altar-ghost isn’t mine to give.”
“Tiansong will be set free,” the envoy goes on as though Jingfei has said nothing. “That’s what you want, no? A second chance, to undo what you did. Your world is valuable, but we can afford the loss. Its history has been much buried, but you are the Record of Tiansong. What has been forgotten or eroded you alone recall. The languages, the festivals of seasons, the times of worship and contemplation—everything. All this you can return to them, their savior risen from the ashes. It’ll never be the same Tiansong you knew, but it’s the closest that can be had, under the circumstances.”
A shriek of shattering glass. Cracks radiate, on and on, from the far end of the cell. The duelist has been still, her arms at her sides, the gun clipped to her sash. In the reflections another Jingfei flits by, disappears. Shards of mirror fall, chiming.
The duelist turns to Damassis, offering no remark or explanation, though she listens for the receding noise of small bare feet. “Why do you want to understand the mainframe so desperately? It has its uses, originally meant to harden the empresses’ transfer and moot the need for taking over another’s body, but what would you begin to do with it? The Hegemony stands impregnable. At this point even if there exists a dominion equal to yours, the damage you’d inflict on one another would be past bearing for either side. For all intents and purposes you are unchallenged.”
“Your grasp of current affairs isn’t wrong.”
“The essential nature of power seldom changes, and I’m no stranger to it.”
“True upload of the self is something we haven’t been able to achieve, even to contain just one lifetime’s worth of data, let alone multiple.” Damassis glances at her reflections, at Jingfei’s. “Our best generals, slain in action, can be brought back. Our foremost negotiators and intelligence officers, lost to crossfire or assassins, can be returned to their functions. They wouldn’t have to be trained, tested, whetted. The best minds would always be available. If the Hegemony is formidable now, the altar-ghost would make us invincible.”
It takes Jingfei no effort to summon the taste of sweet lotus seed, the sight of gardens where sharks swim through canopies of petals and salted air. “That is not a future I can countenance.”
“We will leave you alone. No Hegemonic warship will ever approach Tiansong’s system. Your territories will be sacrosanct, inviolate, and we’ll guard them, too, should it come to that. What do you owe any other sovereignty we might trample?”
“My human compassion. My empathy.” But she sneers as she says this. “You can’t corroborate your offer. For all I know, Tiansong has been a heat smear for centuries. Nor do I have any guarantee that you’ll deliver.”
Damassis starts to crumple her sleeves in her fists. She loosens her fingers, staring down at them as though they moved independent of her volition or responded to someone else’s fury. Her expression is blank, creased only by distant puzzlement. “That’s sensible, of course. I will personally accompany one of you to your birthworld, so you may see for yourself that it stands strong and flourishing. Then we will withdraw our personnel and barracks from the planet, our outposts from the system, empty Tiansong’s skies of Hegemonic ships. You will find some of your descendants object to this, but we will instate you as First of Tiansong, grant you all the authority you need and enforce it as required. Once you’ve been well established, the rest is up to you. With the altar-ghost replenishing you, you have forever to correct your mistake.”
Jingfei leans forward, clasps her hands to either side of Damassis’ jaw. The envoy does not protest or pull away. “Who are you?”
“Shouldn’t the question be what I am?” Damassis blinks once, twice, lapsing into confusion. But she shakes her head as far as Jingfei’s grip allows, regaining herself. “And the answer to that I have already given, through what I have said and done.”
The duelist lets go.
“Please consider what I’ve proposed. I’m ready to leave at any time; a ship awaits with room for us both. It is,” the envoy murmurs as though her words emerge, dazed and unsteady, from another’s throat, “your future.”
The shape of treason is a trunk of thorns; the traitor climbs, knowing forgiveness waits at the zenith, at the world’s roof where earth joins heaven. At the conclusion of boughs that bite and leaves that lash, there will be a lotus whose nectar shall heal all wounds, whose petals are the shade of salvation.
An old image, part of an old teaching from an extinguished religion, but Jingfei thinks on it often. A tree that is all trunk: the punch line—the punishment—being that there is no end to it, no absolution or path to virtue. The traitor’s sentence is eternal.
Under the pavilion, she watches her kites falter under the relentless pursuit of briar-stars. A few of them will soon surrender to gravity and decay. Everything she makes, from weapons to clothes to kites, culminates in atrophy and rot. She outlasts them all, she and her tree of thorns and her memory that never quite settles into the ease of scars.
The weight of decision, again, a path forking before her when it should have smoothed into a single direction, a linear and infinite vector.
So she knows what will happen—could have choreographed it moment to moment—when other parts of her gather on the roof, on the periphery of radiant aegis, the precipice of the swarm. Beyond that wall there is a vacuum. Some of her have chosen that, on occasion, suicide being preferable to the fortress; that part, too, the mainframe ruthlessly accumulates, yielding not an inch to data loss and oblivion. Jingfei has muscle memory of the leap, the buoyancy of space, the instant before implosive death.
The duelist crouches behind the railing and draws the envoy’s gun.
Her first shot catches an older man with eyelids painted scarab-blue, lips burnished platinum. Her second drops a child starvation-thin. Another, another, and Jingfei dies. She doesn’t keep track; some of her instances she never gets to meet before they expire. They are her and she is they, but it is only a technicality.
Kites stretch and snap and shroud the fallen, but the kites are few and the bodies are many. The duelist works on, methodical and impersonal. She will not feel the impact of bullet in flesh, the crack of bones giving in to annihilating charge. The next one to decant will, and though all of them contain memories of dying it’s never been so rapid, murders lined up compressed and close. The mind defends itself by forgetting. But she has no such luxury, and the next crop of Jingfei, she thinks, will at last break.
Gates to the roof thunder shut. All of Jingfei stop, united even in this.
Heatless light sweeps over them, eclipsing the swarm.
When it fades there is a whisper of smoke, a murmur of ash, and most of Jingfei lie dead. Damassis strides past and over them, a second gun loosely held in hands bleeding from what must have been incredible recoil.
Jingfei looks at the blood, looks up at the envoy. “How many of you are there?”
“I don’t know.” Damassis joins her in the pavilion, kneeling too, her brow to the cool stone as though fatigued. “We are—I am—connected, but the link is one way. None of us can hold the memory load for long, no matter how it’s transferred, put into the datasphere raw, embedded into the birthing protocols, in sync or independent . . . What do you mean to do here? The rest of you. The other parts of you.”
“To determine Tiansong’s fate.” The duelist’s mouth pulls back, hard white teeth gleaming in the dim. “No. To judge my conscience, the ultimate arbiter. Do I make the same choice, betray Tiansong once more in order to aggrandize myself? Do I accept my incarceration as just and correct, bear it until the mainframe gives out? Or a third option yet: destroy the mainframe now and remove all possibilities, permanently.”
“You wish for an end?”
“I’ve overstayed my mortality. Oh, some part of me wants to continue. It’s the instinct of all living things, to survive even when there’s no reason to.”
“I’ve forgotten,” Damassis says, “nearly everything. Feelings. Fear. My spouse and when I wedded her, my life and what it was like, my beginning. Whether I volunteered for this, whether I agreed to be an experiment bound for failure. There’s hardly anything left—I’m an appendage to a purpose, a vehicle to carry it out. In time my sentience will fray. But if I were still capable of choice, I believe I would strive to live.”
“An animal imperative, and one I share. Even when you’re down to a shell, shorn of human reason, still it will rule and guide you.” Jingfei stands to take stock of the damage. She starts counting, stops. “Were you whole, I doubt I would have been able to suffer you. If it takes hollowing out a Hegemonic agent to make her sympathetic . . .”
“Your sympathy is irrelevant to my objective.”
“Is it? There was a reason someone with your condition and circumstances was sent. Let me ask you: Do you want to be, as you are now? You may be whittling down to a blank slate, but if your decay is stopped you can be built up again. A self and identity of your own rather than puppet to a task you don’t even remember pledging yourself to.”
The envoy frowns; a shiver goes through her, answering to another’s terror, excitement, both. “I don’t—but I’m being instructed to agree.”
Jingfei smiles, thin and hard. She turns to the mainframe, speaks in the tongue of incense and cremations. A knot of code, a set of hidden protocols stirring awake. “Transfer your data. The altar-ghost will accept you as a user, keep you uplinked so that, like mine, all your experiences will be preserved in perfect clarity. There’s danger in that, and you—not the animus directing you from afar—will have to decide.”
Damassis wipes her palms on her trousers, haphazard red prints. “I’ve seen what happens when one of us falls apart. I know what my fate will be and I don’t think I’m afraid, I don’t know what that is like anymore, but I don’t—the thought of it seems unbearable. Except why would you do this? You’re playing into our hand.”
The gates shudder. Jingfei has never created firearms, but perhaps some of her recently dabbled in munitions. There is material for it; the fortress can’t be what it is without churning out disruptive fuel and centrifugal shrapnel. There are countless methods for her to harm the mainframe and butcher her instances. Her captors have never shielded her from herself. Death and injury are her fundamental prerogative.
“Empathy. Compassion.” Jingfei exhales. “And since I’m accepting your offer to regain Tiansong—under a limited definition—it pays to secure your goodwill. Well?”
“Yes,” Damassis says and begins transfer.
When the envoy departs, she is led to the fortress’ vestibule. She leaves alone. A duelist armed with a gun and a boy draped in alloy chain see her off, a matter of etiquette and decorum. To the last, Jingfei is polite.
She listens to the sound of a ship lifting off, tearing free of the aegis that holds her prison’s shape. She thinks of the roof, where carcasses are buried under beasts of auspice and fortune. When she has time, she plans to make new kites. Some will be thorns after the shape of the suns; others will be briars, after the stars. The rest will be lotuses, nectar-bright, with petals that sing forgiveness.
The bodies she will push off the edge one by one, where they will never stop falling. Hers was a theater costly to stage, but she considers the price well paid. An appendage may be given another purpose. A vehicle may be altered to carry out a different task. A blank slate may be written over.
Existence cannot be answered in binary: here or there, alive or not. Inside the swarm-fortress, the Record of Tiansong remains, anchored to her corpses and her guilt. She has been born countless times and will not be born again, for her mortality has caught up with her at last.
Outside the swarm-fortress, the Record of Tiansong pilots a small ship meant to accommodate two. She carries the weight of slaughtered dialects and extinct tongues, the payload of secrets and legacy. A choice that needs no revision or second thought, for it burns in her heart and in her hands, blazing a path before her and purifying all she touches. Out here, she will never die.
She will write her name down again on the vertebrae of history, and this time it will not be rubbed out.
“And the Burned Moths Remain” copyright © 2015 by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
Art copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey Alan Love