Main Machine's Last Testament

Machine's Last Testament

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Year:
2020
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Prime Books
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Machine’s Last Testament
Benjanun Sriduangkaew
Copyright © 2020 by Benjanun Sriduangkaew.
Cover art by Rashed Al-Akroka.
Print ISBN: 978-1-60701-539-0
Ebook ISBN: 978-1-60701-540-6
Prime Books
www.prime-books.com
No portion of this book may be reproduced by any means without first obtaining the
permission of the copyright holder.
For more information, contact: prime@prime-books.com

SAMSARA

Chapter One
Evening, verging on nightfall. In the sterile cleanness of Suzhen’s
office there is the smell of war, familiar and earthy: soot and sweat,
dried gore, sickness. Candidates are sent as is—a phrase that’s
always struck her as faintly mercantile, not for people at all—to give
them no time to prepare, and therefore no time to dissemble. She
gazes across her desk at a man from one of the asteroid colonies,
bent and parched, looking a decade older than he is. Frail from
starvation, scarred from combat or abuse: no telling which. In the
halfway houses and centers that accommodate refugees there is
little order, and the wardens who run them aren’t known for
gentleness. There are beatings, sometimes more. It is against
regulation but it is nevertheless an open secret; everyone knows
what goes on. There is nearly no point curbing or protesting it.
Beyond her purview in any case.
She continues to study the man, his blanched skin, the dark circles
under his eyes. The nose that broke and did not heal well, the
colorless clothes given to all arrivals that hang on him loose and
shapeless. Once she thought, entering this field, that she would be
crippled by sympathy. That to all who enter she would say yes, yes,
yes, you too deserve Samsara’s grace, we have so much, welcome
to Anatta. But the process dehumanizes. Each person becomes a
dossier, a collection of risk factors and potential to contribute, to be
weighed against one another and then weighed against Bureau
guidelines. And always at the back of her mind there is the quota. An
agent can accept just so many in a month; any excess she would
have to personally sponso; r, become responsible for. Excess, even
that is a measure which reduces personhood to quantity.
To be a citizen is to deserve.
Suzhen’s quota for the month is nearly over.

Even after two years in this post, she still doesn’t know how to
deliver judgment. She’s tried the slow approach, gently, but that
merely leads to her candidate trying to bargain—as though no is a
commodity that can be haggled over, bribed into a yes. They’d tell
her of their families and their tragedies, false or real, though there’s
never a shortage of real ones. None ever admits to what camp
wardens do to them and it is easy, she thinks, to take that as a sign
nothing untoward happens in the camps. The bruises, the wounds,
those could simply be a product of brawls between inmates.
Inmates. She has tried to find other words but this one sticks, the
official terminology. It used to be that she called them her clients, but
that was absurd. She does not serve their interests. She is their
enemy.
“I’m sorry,” Suzhen says, after one more nominal look at the man’s
profile. Even for a colony, his home was unusually poverty-stricken
before it was depopulated and annexed by a warlord. He is not
particularly educated, has little to offer Anatta, has a history of
misdemeanors while in detainment. Noncompliance, attempted theft
of food, physically unfit for factory labor either on-planet or on
Vaisravana. “I’ll have to put you on a waitlist. You can try again next
month.”
Sometimes they react in fury and attack her, and they’d be taken
away—truly away, cast out of Anatta. Sometimes their eyes would
glitter with the hope she’s raised with the words next month. A few
take it stoically. This man bursts into tears, there’s no transition
between his silence and the howling that erupts; he is on the floor,
hand over mouth as though he too is trying to stop the sound, but it
comes through loud, uncontrollable and inconsolable. A single
continuous scream, it is astonishing what the human throat is
capable of, all that raw noise. It vibrates through her bones,
impossibly seismic, until her temples ache. He is taken away by the
pair of drones that guard her room. She doesn’t like human security.
Drones use no more force than necessary.
What is it about desperation that takes away all dignity, what is it
about that lack of dignity that lowers a person in her regard. What is
wrong with her, she could ask of herself. Suzhen turns off the

channel that links her datasphere to her work terminal. In her ear her
guidance says, “Citizen, your stress indicators are elevated. You’ve
been granted two hours off and may leave early.”
Very nearly she laughs. She supposes it will soon ask if she
wishes to schedule a counseling session. Most selection agents
have to. They receive counseling and behavioral calibration more
frequently than most civil servants. For the average administrative
personnel their subjects are abstract, collated into numbers,
statistics. For Suzhen they are immediate, physical, hopelessly here.
Suzhen strides past the doors to her coworkers’ offices, then past
the lobby where candidates wait their turns. The same smell here.
Not entirely filthy, they’re screened for contagion and allowed a
minimum of hygienic care, but it is not the filth that thickens in her
throat like smoke. Rather it is desperation, the reek of broken things.
She meets no one’s gaze. The slightest eye contact is signal: they
will crowd around her, pleading, offering, grasping at her before the
guards restrain them. Hungry ghosts.
On the balcony she looks down at the expanse of city, this part
one of the neatest, despite the contents of the lobby she’s just left
behind. Her guidance murmurs to her, suggesting destress routines,
opening a submersion channel that promises deep, dreamless sleep
tonight. Instead she takes out her cigarette case. Half a dozen
cylinders, each prettily faceted, jewel-toned. Emerald, ruby, sapphire.
She lights a green one, waits for the substances within it to cook,
and takes a long inhalation. The smoke rises, inlaid with
phantasmagoria, snakes and rushing jade currents. Cosmetic—it
interacts with her visual implants—rather than hallucinogenic, since
her guidance no longer allows her to indulge in anything stronger.
Even what is in the cigarette is harmless, just sufficient to ease her
nerves, lowering adrenaline and cortisol. Her jaw relaxes. She didn’t
realize how hard she was grinding her teeth. By habit she hates
wasting anything, a bad habit inherited from her mother and leaner
times, so she extinguishes the cigarette and puts it back in its case,
the butt blackened and smeared from her mouth. She tracks the
trajectory of a taxi across the air, its lean segmented body gleaming
in the autumn light. It is a perfect evening, crisp and filigreed, the

building in which she stands and the building across a marvel of
Mobius arches, honeycombed windows, curlicue balconies and
inverted hanging gardens. On Anatta everything, every moment, is
full of grace.
“I’m taking a walk,” she says. “Find me someplace with minimal
foot traffic.”
“You ought to be home by nine, citizen,” the guidance chides, but it
obliges with a list of the nearest places where she can stretch her
legs. It doesn’t always. For every action it weighs the variables of her
well-being, even an act as innocent as taking a walk. There was a
time when it forbade her from going near any sort of bridge, high
roof, or exposed balcony. There was a time when all sharp things
were removed from her vicinity. Samsara’s wisdom protects every
citizen, especially from themselves.
Huajing Station is quiet this time of the day, alabaster floor thinly
peopled, pristine vending machines in hibernation. Refugees from
the halfway houses are flown in on secure vehicles, so that citizens
never have to catch sight of them on public transport. Her gaze
passes over the sparse crowd and her filters notify her—citizen class
prime, citizen class theta, probationary resident, citizen class
prime . . . She looks away; it isn’t a setting she can toggle off, even
outside the office. Agents from the Selection Bureau don’t enforce,
but they are duty-bound to report anything amiss, the ones who do
not belong, a noncitizen where they shouldn’t be. The nearest
Interior Defense officer would then take over.
Her carriage is all but empty, sparing her the requirement of
desultory interaction. She has been marked for asocial tendencies;
her guidance has warned her of the fact more than once. Ahead of
her a family has seated themselves, two spouses and one wife
talking of parental application in hushed excitement. Next to them
are three students, interning at a tax branch, in blue-and-white
academic uniforms. They mutter about their aptitudes. At their age
they will be receiving their third evaluation: the first early in life, to
measure character and inclination. The second to judge academic
and vocational training. The third to assign employment. Suzhen
imagines what it is like to receive all three, to have that certainty of

path from birth, lives laid out in a flawless map. To be called citizen
from the start.
“You’ve reached your destination, citizen.” Suzhen starts, at first
thinking her guidance means quite something else. But the train has
simply stopped.
Stepping out of the station there is a brief moment where she’s
met with bracing cold, before her clothes adapt and thermoregulate.
She has configured them so she’d feel the elements, another old
habit. There are no settings that would let her feel discomfort, even
then. She heads up the winding, blue stairs. Each step is gently lit,
and the metallic glass has more suction than it looks. Even a drunk
tourist wouldn’t lose their footing. She emerges. Salt in the air. The
night gleams wetly, the grid-lights limpid on the pavement.
She walks down the waterfront onto a bridge of steel cartilage and
porphyry, the railings black and high as walls. Underneath, ferries
speed by like jeweled sharks, loaded with commuters and travelers
from Yudhishthira or Khrut. Going too fast for Suzhen’s filters to
identify. She breathes more easily as she leans against the bridge,
forehead against frigid glass. Perhaps she needs more than a few
hours off. Her guidance would readily request a vacation on her
behalf: it pesters her to take just that, every other week. A hobby,
she needs one of those. A functioning social life. The stratum on the
hierarchy of needs that, however omniscient, Samsara cannot
entirely provide when the citizen is not willing.
On a nearby billboard, a Peace Guard feed plays. Dispatch from
the frontline, lately more frequent. Footage of combat in
thermosphere on one of the barren worlds that exist beyond
Samsara’s governance, the domain of warlords. A Peace Guard
hornet is engaging a locust formation, its aegis flaring as it dissipates
enemy fire, its bulkhead platinum against the planet’s clogged
atmosphere and wasteland clouds. The locust formation is quickly
broken and dismembered. Their components—armored hull, pilot
cradles—plunge through the atmosphere, cinderous as they fall.
This is might.
Next is a scene in a town blackened by artillery, the buildings in
ruin, shattered roofs and walls lying in pieces on the russet sand.

The skeletons of houses stand bared and ruddy as raw skin. Their
tattered inhabitants have been herded out, lined up in the open.
They are tearing up images of their masked warlord—the Comet,
Suzhen recognizes from the design—and scattering the pieces to
the dust-choked wind. Peace Guard soldiers watch them as they do
this, soldiers who are not independent beings at all but appendages
of the vast intelligence that is Samsara. Soldiers who have one
purpose and one only, to abolish the warlords’ reigns and guide
humanity back into the fold, the unity of Anatta.
Samsara proper appears too, in its aspect of war: a woman of
brilliant crocoite and unforgiving geometry, robed in sun-gleam.
Larger than life, nearly four meters in height and with the breadth to
match, a figure that shines brighter and realer than any other on the
ground. The proxy body has its arms extended, elegant hands held
out. The civilians kneel to receive its touch, a golden finger brushing
a child’s forehead, a lustrous knuckle beneath an elder’s chin. They
kiss its sleeve.
This is mercy.
She watches until the end; a good citizen does not turn away. She
watches and remembers a time when she thought the Warlord of the
Mirror was a god. The mind of a child is a malleable construct, easily
impressed by size, by the polish of boots and the sheen of gunmetal.
But that was long ago, another life, before Anatta remade her and
reformed her, from vocabulary down to the myelin sheath. And now
she is here, she belongs; she is Samsara’s whole and entire.
Suzhen steps into her apartment; the lights come on in tide-green
sheets and particulate bettas swim up to her, nuzzling her with
duochrome fins. The floor is seabed-dark, soft, swallowing up her
feet. What an immense space it is, her home, and how empty. She
sheds her clothes as she goes, and in the shower she submits
herself to near-scalding water. Cilia scrub at her back, scraping away
the day, the murk of catastrophizing. “You’re not very happy, citizen,”
her guidance informs her between lathers.
Interacting with the limited AI is fruitless. It is many rungs below
Samsara in scope and parameters. There is no personality to it, only

surveillance. “I’m good at my job,” she says. But then they all are, it
is impossible to be incompetent in this position. A selection agent’s
success is measured by how well they follow regulations, how their
records are untarnished by failed sponsorship. For Suzhen that last
is easy—to date, she’s sponsored no one. The rest is a matter of
coping with the wear and tear of the position, and in that too she
performs well, requiring less counseling than some. Her heart has
been fortified.
In her bed, seafoam sheets and firm mattress, she slips into a
simulation. The lover she’s built for herself is a product of memory
and footage: a figure that looms above her in armor, face hidden
behind a mask and eyes glittering like knifepoints. On occasion she’d
browse through connected sessions, where the array of partners are
humans cloaked in anonymous avatars. Once she participated in
someone’s fantasy, with them playing the role of a halfway house
inmate, her the role of a warden. Uniform and baton and tactical
gloves. She’d thought this would somehow satisfy her, fix her even,
but it only left her feeling dirty and nauseated. She’s tended toward
solitary gratification since.
(Her guidance encourages her to seek out in-person intimacy,
develop an actual relationship. Save for one exception, she roundly
refuses. In the physical world, one-night assignations are difficult to
anonymize, and she’s not going to get temporary body mods for
strangers who might bring her home from a club. How to explain to
her guidance that she cannot connect with a born Anatta citizen,
those who have been class prime from their genesis within a wombtank. She used to seek the company of other refugees, or those
descended from refugees, and—again, save for one exception—
found even less to build on. Few admit to being class theta or a
probationary resident. Those who have transcended those miserable
states are more reluctant still to confess that they were ever anything
less. In the end she moved to this city, where few refugees—despite
proximity to the processing centers—are settled. Better to be a
thread in the velvet fabric of citizenship, better to act as though she
too has always been class prime.)

The AI lover is no more sophisticated than her guidance, but
specialized differently, all its heuristics devoted to learning her
pleasures and preferences. In virtuality she is transported to a
warship, the noises of a crew at work in the distance. The AI figure
hides her from view with its long cape and hefts her up against the
wall. It never takes off its armor or its helm. A warlord image,
rendered safe by artifice, far softer and gentler than the genuine
articles could possibly be, and far more obliging. A knee parts her
thighs, a hand works between her legs. She is veiled from the
imaginary crew; she pretends to stifle her sounds, moaning into the
AI lover’s gauntlet and clinging to its waist. She grips its angular jaw
with one hand, imagining that under the mask is a woman’s face of
surpassing exquisiteness, a full red mouth.
Orgasm is swift, uncomplicated, even if afterward it leaves her
faintly dissatisfied. The lack of a weight indenting her bed save her
own, the absence of a person waking up next to her in the morning.
But the sensory links satisfy her skin hunger, if only just.
Suzhen sleeps for seven uninterrupted hours, her optimal amount
of rest. Ninety minutes to spare before she has to leave for work.
She brushes her teeth, cleans, dresses. In the living room, she
raises her eye to the altar, a small shelf high up with a cup of
offerings and an image of her mother Xinfei. A snapshot taken long
before her passing: this was her at fifty-seven, newly arrived on
Anatta, body lean from difficult voyages and gaze heavy with the
weight of survival. Suzhen used to cry every moment she could find
the energy, unable to grasp why she was ripped from the life she
knew and forced into one of stunning misery. She’d spent much of
their journey here in suspension, curled inside a pod, and each
waking would introduce her to a new terror.
“Good morning, Mother,” she says as she changes out the
offerings—glutinous rice dusted in gold leaf—for a fresh dish of
oranges and a sprig of cherry blossom. Another point that makes her
appreciate living alone. The altar, her mother: neither of them is
something she wants to explain to a born-citizen partner or even
temporary bedmate. Never explaining anything, never admitting, is
the path of the least resistance but also the least pain.

She draws her coat around herself unnecessarily as she exits her
building’s lobby. The morning, like the morning preceding it, is as
flawless as AI synthesis. The weather is orderly, compliant with the
forecast. The climate grids never malfunction, as far as Suzhen
knows. On Anatta the rain falls when it is required, snow and sleet
when it is the least inconvenient and the most scenic. Her feet glide
along the pearly footpath. Not a single flagstone is out of place; a
cluster of maintenance drones whir past, scrubbing and polishing as
they go. Manicured trees rise to a uniform height, spaced at every
eight meters, dripping spindly leaves the color of blood and
candlelight. A few extend oblong fruits, matte black and rich,
available for any passersby to partake. She doesn’t—the color
makes her think of frostbitten skin, epidermis so charred it no longer
looks part of a human but instead a piece of earth. So easy for flesh
to become that on remote stations, the near-abandoned stops her
mother had to make on the way to Anatta. Suzhen remembers other
refugees who had even less than she and Xinfei did.
She does her best to forget the association of fruit and frostbite.
Small things remind, invoking the neural pathways years of
readjustments and counselors haven’t been able to defuse.
Suzhen is about to board the train when her guidance says, in a
voice quite unlike itself, “Agent Suzhen Tang, your presence is
requested in House Penumbra Zero-Seventeen.”
Her feet click, juddering, against the smooth floor. She looks down
at her reflection, a hazy blot on the tiles. She stands absolutely still
while her throat closes and her stomach plunges, her pulse stepping
up triple-time. Sometimes she thinks, when this happens, that her
skin and organs would succumb to gravity and fall away,
independent, leaving the rest of her behind. There she would stand,
rooted to the spot, a frame of hollow torso and bones stripped of
meat.
Ever since she left one, she has never been to a halfway house.
Not to visit, as selection agents can opt to do in a pretense of
humanitarian interest. Not to pass by and gawk, as though refugees
are zoo exhibits. There are two halfway houses in this city,
Penumbra Zero-Seventeen and Antumbra One-Eighty. The former

holds candidates that have been judged high-caliber, the ones with
no infraction on their profiles, the ones with high potential for
integration.
Perhaps it is routine.
She calls a taxi. It floats down, dragonfly body unfurling, gossamer
doors shuddering open. Chassis opacity toggles to full once she’s
inside. “House Penumbra Zero-Seventeen,” she says in a flat,
remote voice.
From afar the compound looks pleasant, situated in Indriya’s
outskirts and cupped in the palm of a sculpted hill. A civilized
purgatory, much kinder-looking than the one that kept her and her
mother all those decades ago. As her taxi descends, it becomes
evident that Penumbra is built into the hill so that the land itself
imprisons the compound, clutching it in a grip of earth and stone and
grass. There are no windows and, from the outside, just one door.
A warden receives her, conducting her straight from the vestibule
to a small waiting room: she does not get so much as a glimpse of
the inmates. The warden is dark, late seventies and plump, and
though she’s in uniform—that deep green found at the bottom of a
pond—there is to her an odd discomfort, as though she’s not used to
wearing it, to bearing arms. “We’ve got a particular candidate,” the
warden is saying, “and most agents have reached their quota this
month.”
So they have. So has she. She wonders at the warden’s point.
None is forthcoming: instead the warden disappears, presumably to
fetch the particular candidate. Suzhen leans back in the tight,
uncomfortable chair, and glances at the leaded pane which looks out
to and displays nothing. Because she has to, she listens and strains
her ears. Silence. The walls are entirely soundproof to ensure
solitude. It was like this for her, too, existing within a table of time
precisely allotted. This many minutes for a meal, this many hours for
sleep, all in complete isolation. Not even permitted her mother’s
company. Afterward, she learned that there was a possibility she
might have been adopted by Anatta parents to ease assimilation.
Only by an agent’s capricious mercy and outside intervention did she
leave the house with her mother. Two months in the halfway house

and she’d have done anything to return to the camp, where she slept
curled in her mother’s arms, where she had others to speak to—a
place where she’d still thought herself a person.
It is such a small room, the lighting an anemic silver: the chair, the
table and the floor are clean but empty. A halfway house does not
receive guests. It receives inspectors and inmates: this is not a
human place. And now she is on the other side of it, as despicably
unhuman as the rest.
The door slides. The warden precedes; behind her follows a figure
in an inmate’s shapeless smock. At the warden’s instruction, the
inmate steps forward.
They stand nearly two meters tall, broad-shouldered and paleskinned. This person’s eyes are alert, taking in Suzhen, a new
variable that must at once be incorporated into the formula of
survival. Calculation done at the velocity of machines, or feral things.
Their long arms and shins are bruised by restraints, injection sites
puckered like slag. Late forties or newly fifty, Suzhen judges, though
the camps make people look much older than they are.
“This is Ovuha,” the warden says. No last name. No refugee has
one—in the camps they are stripped of their past, rendered a blank
canvas on which Samsara may write. “I’ve sent you her profile,
Agent.”
Suzhen holds Ovuha’s gaze. The refugee is gaunt, cheeks
recessed and skin taut, and yet she recognizes that either Ovuha
was born of fortunate genes or she was tailored with no expenses
spared—such options are available even in the colonies. The
columnal neck the hue of fresh ivory, the wide generous mouth the
shade of pomegranates, the cut-glass jawline as accentuated as
statuary. Someone pored over her projected phenotype, going over
the shape of skull and the scope of brow, the cartilage that would
make up the nose and the ears. Each angle was deliberated upon to
ensure elegance. Malnourished and haggard as she is, still Ovuha
would stand out as a product of polished genesis.
“Hello, Ovuha,” Suzhen says. “Please, sit.”
Ovuha does. Her hands fold on the table rather than in her lap and
her gaze is steady, direct without being confrontational. She says

nothing and it occurs to Suzhen that she will remain silent until
prompted: that is a habit any refugee learns. Never speak until
spoken to. Any utterance may be used against you.
The woman’s file says she came from a world called Gurudah,
held by the Warlord of the Comet. She has incurred no infraction—
not even one—either in the camps or in Penumbra, having answered
neither provocation from wardens or other inmates. Her physical
condition is exceptional, apparently from hard labor: her interviews
indicate she used to work as a colony technician and agricultural
supervisor. Evaluations show that her knowledge bases, specialized
and general, match that assertion. This is a star candidate.
“Warden,” Suzhen says, “would you mind leaving her to me?”
They are left alone, if monitored. Suzhen’s guidance is providing
her with interview routines, the questions she could ask to break the
ice and begin the interrogation—why do you want to be here, what
do you see yourself giving to Anatta, why do you want to become
part of this world, do you know the prime directive of Samsara.
Cicatrices pock Ovuha’s collarbones and throat, sites of implants
that have long since been removed and left to badly scar. Scans
have detected no neural links or augmentations left on Ovuha, who
likely bargained those away for covert passage on a series of ships.
First material belongings, then body parts. Many arrive here missing
kidneys, lungs, limbs.
“Tell me something.” This is not part of the Bureau-mandated
script; Suzhen rarely follows those. “Pretend we are strangers at a
chance meeting, waiting for the same train. It’s running late. That
doesn’t happen much, and we’ve got time to kill.”
Ovuha regards her for a few seconds, the corners of her mouth
lifting. “In a bid to be interesting, I’d ask, Do you know anything about
hawks? I might show you this scar on my wrist—” She lifts her wrist,
turns it. There is a scar, one among many on her body, that looks to
have been the result of deep laceration. “Then I’d tell you a story of
how I was too stubborn to let my mentor handle this one bird. I was
determined to walk it that day, even though the poor animal was too
new, too nervous, and it kept digging and digging in. Talons can do a
lot of damage to human skin.”

The refugee’s voice has a smooth cadence, her Putonghua
melodious. It’s not an accent Suzhen has ever heard and it is
effortless, as though Ovuha often spoke it in her place of nativity.
“You’re getting ahead of yourself, you were going to start with what
hawks are like, the basics.”
“Of course. They’re some of the most difficult creatures to tame—a
little like people. My first was the bitterest animal I’d ever seen; it
hated me so viscerally, like my existence was this terrible injury, this
mortal insult. When you look into its eyes, it’s easy to forget you’re
both bigger and stronger. All that evolution as predator works in a
hawk’s favor. The inside of their mouths! Such monsters. They
almost don’t have any concept of fear. In that, nothing like people.”
She wonders if Ovuha has rehearsed this, though she can’t
imagine any refugee planning to entertain a selection agent with
anecdotes and factoids about hawks. “Are you more like a hawk, or
like a person?”
“I would point to my shoes to show that I haven’t any talons. No
wings or beaks. Yes, I believe I’m most like a person, if I am like
anything.”
What a surprise, Suzhen thinks, that Ovuha has such a pristine
record. It’s not that she is sarcastic or insolent, but Suzhen would
have thought someone like this would anger a warden almost at first
sight. The natural comportment, the lack of submission. This is a
person who acts as if she’s not gone through the camps, a person
whose dignity is preternaturally intact. The strength of feeling that
seizes Suzhen jolts her. It is not admiration; it is fury that freezes her
blood and thickens her gullet, irrational and cardiac. “And how is a
hawk tamed?” How calm she can make her voice.
Ovuha tilts her head. “When it is captured, the hawk
catastrophizes and prepares for the worst. In this moment of terror
its brain resets, becomes a blank state on which the trainer may etch
new neural connections, new associations. The hawk is exposed to
sensory overload. It is starved and deprived of rest. It is shocked into
obedience, and it learns to fear something as innocuous as a glove.
After, you’ll have a beast of a time flying the bird, and every occasion
you let it off the creance is a gamble. Will it return in submission, or

will it overcome the terror you’ve taught it at last and flee? But for the
most part this method works, and it is favored for speed. It is true:
there’s much more alike between hawk and human than I made it
out, and I haven’t been consistent. And so you, a stranger I’ve met at
a train platform and whose bench I’m sharing, have caught me out
on falconry.”
Is this true submission, Suzhen wonders, or just a gesture at
contrition. Ovuha knows she’s displeased the selection agent but
she is, still, not obeisant. As quickly as it came, Suzhen’s rage
dissipates. In its place, a nebulous thing that’s nearly like relief. Her
breath evens. Something inside her loosens. “You’re very odd,
Ovuha. But I’ll sponsor you. For the next six months I will be your
caseworker and you a probationary resident. I trust you will work
hard and not let me down. Welcome to Anatta.”
Finally, to say that.

Chapter Two
“Good morning, citizen. Today you have scheduled an orientation
with Potentiate Ovuha at ten thirty. She has been chipped and awaits
you at House Penumbra, and her assigned residence is at the
Jasmine. For the next seven days you are released from your duties
at the Bureau, and you may request more time as required to
optimize your potentiate.”
Suzhen lies in her bed, staring up at the soothing waveforms that
run across her ceiling, their dawn-gray lightening to match the
morning. Silver transmuting to faded bruise. She browses through
the guidelines of what she is supposed to do with a potentiate, not
that she hasn’t perused them many times to the point of fixation.
There is always that fantasy she’s harbored, of showing compassion
as she has been—only no, that is wrong; when it was their turn the
agent gave them nothing and it was her mother who wrung survival
out of stone, who carved so much out of so vanishingly little. “I’m
going to arrange her finances,” she says aloud, though the rest of
her wishes nothing more than to stay in bed. “Then I’m taking her to
shop for clothes and toiletries.”
At home her guidance manifests as a dollish creature the size of
her hand. Its fox face, an inverted isosceles, regards her with cool
patience. “The potentiate will need to prepare for her first test,
citizen.”
“I’ll drill her on civic duties soon enough.” Toiletries, clothes,
accessories, the essentials of personhood. To own things—the
frivolities most of all—is to feel human. Especially after that long in
detainment, though Ovuha’s file does indicate she’s been in the
camp for only a couple months, in Penumbra for one. Three months
in total, the fastest she’s ever seen any candidate get out and
permitted into civilization. Even then, three months in limbo, stripped

of name and belongings and wants. She thinks of what Ovuha said
about the taming of a hawk.
She has her guidance and house drone to prepare an outfit,
instructing it for semi-formal, slightly showy. When she’s done eating
breakfast, she comes back to her room to see a high-necked dress,
the upper half a complex honeycomb, the lower half a narrow skirt
that stops at her knee on one side and drapes over her ankle on the
other. It suffices. She turns to her cosmetics and animated tattoos,
and has the wall project her face. Bronze glaze for her eyelids, a
fluttering rose-gold flower on her right cheek, foiled-platinum eyelash
extensions. She continues until her cheeks are nearly as sculpted as
her guidance’s, her nose as sharp as a blade.
This time Ovuha is waiting for her in Penumbra’s lobby, a larger,
airier space than the interview cell. A different warden and two guard
drones flank her. They’ve put Ovuha in slightly less ugly clothes,
though still gray, and there is a patch of inflamed skin on her left
shoulder. The site where the tracker went in, there to monitor
everything she does for her probationary period. Where she goes,
what she eats, how many hours a night she sleeps. There the
tracker will remain for the next six to twelve months.
“You have been granted a stipend, by the grace of Samsara,”
Suzhen says as they leave Penumbra behind, and names the figure.
Ovuha looks over her shoulder, once, at the halfway house. The
prison. Her expression is bland and no frisson of emotion disturbs it,
no relief as having been liberated, no seizing terror at knowing she
might be sent back here any time. “It must be very generous, though
I don’t know enough what that’d buy. We don’t get updates on
exchange rates, out there.”
It is not in fact generous, and far below any citizen’s guaranteed
income. “Housing will be provided for you. The stipend will cover
power, food, utilities. I’ll help you set up an account—it’ll be linked to
mine, and I’ll be able to see all your transactions so keep that in
mind—and after that, we should get you certified for any skills you
have got. The sooner we can get you employed, the better.”
Her charge looks out the window as the taxi lifts off; she doesn’t
seem awestruck or even impressed by the architecture of Gweilan

District, the concentric circles that make up its center, the petalthoroughfares that radiate outward. Every curve and circumference
have been accounted for, the interaction of this spiral building with
the slant of that walkway. Windows are angled to catch and hold the
sunray so that every skyscraper has the fire of black opals. Each city
has its own gemstone, its own language of elegance. Ovuha turns
back to Suzhen. “You’re very brisk and efficient.”
“I’m a bureaucrat.”
At this Ovuha laughs, a low thrum. “Not the first quality one
associates with bureaucrats, efficiency.”
“I didn’t imagine bureaucrats were much in evidence in the
colonies.”
A strange expression passes over Ovuha’s features. “The
colonies. I’m still not used to them being called that. We call them
countries, if we call them anything. And anywhere there is human
society there is bureaucracy. We create rules, and rules convolute,
and there must be a steward to make sense of them.”
She knows, of course, that they don’t call themselves colonies.
Those barren, broken worlds. The settlements that abide under
heavy shielding, insulated against killing gases and lethal organisms,
or rotting stations orbiting a dead planet. Terraforming is an ancient
dream, as extinct as humanity’s predecessors. Suzhen does not
apologize or correct herself over the colonies. “Your skillsets, then.
Much of what you can do, we automate on Anatta. Some of your
technical expertise might transfer well here, pending certification.
You’ve got skill with heavy machinery and—cartography and
linguistics?” A surprise, but the colonies are not without their
stratification, their fine education. “Those are interesting, and could
have academic uses; your contribution potential is good there. Until
we can come to something better, you could look into service work.
Pricier establishments use human staff. Demanding but the money’s
fair, I hear, as long as you pass the training. I’ll put together a list of
options and we’ll work through them together.”
Ovuha remains quiet as they enter the commercial block, a series
of spheres nested against one another, the shops clinging to the
inside of each sphere. Advertisements from confectioners and

ateliers pulsate on the corridors, steps of concourse lighting up and
inviting shoppers to sample the latest in fashion, perfume, tableware.
Fragrances pursue them in clouds, cinnamon and passionfruit,
spiced grape and peach wine. Those with wealth wear it on their
hair, curls of circuitry and synthetic ivory, tortoiseshell notations
dangling from their ears. Some wear it more subtly, in luster lining
the hollows of throat or temples, tasteful but muted body mods—
scales strategically scattered, nacreous hairline, void-pearl earlobes.
Suzhen watches Ovuha observe; once more there is a lack.
Neither awe nor any admission that this is novel, full of extravagance
she could never imagine where she came from. She wonders, faintly,
if Ovuha would have reacted differently if they’d gone to one of the
utilitarian outlets. Extruded products, automaton service. It is not that
she means to impress her charge—or she does, she concedes to
herself, the vicious part that wants to witness Ovuha’s brittleness,
evidence that this person is more than her perfect candidate score,
her unshakable poise.
They slip into a boutique. The clothes come in preconfigured sets,
though for a little extra, modular pieces can be purchased and
assembled into custom outfits. An attendant greets them, and if
Ovuha’s status is obvious to them—the inmate’s rags—they pass no
remark. Once Suzhen has established that Ovuha is the one in need
of clothes, the attendant turns one of the mannequins into an image
of Ovuha. Inevitably it is more glamorous than the real thing, looking
better-fed and groomed, pores smoothed over by cosmetics. A
coquettish tilt of the head, fingertips coyly touching the chin, a red
smile that shows perfect teeth. Ovuha stares at the mannequin and
says to Suzhen in a low voice, “Should I be able to afford this?”
“It’ll come out of my salary, so yes. Tell them you need a couple
professional outfits.”
Ovuha gives her a startled look, but the attendant is already
pulling her away to take measurements. They leave with pleated
high-collared shirts, jackets with slashed sleeves and titanium
thread, angular trousers. Ovuha runs her hand down the fabric,
touching lightly, in something that at last resembles wonder.

They eat on the observation deck, in a restaurant where each
table has its own partition and privacy filter. The table is smoky
quartz and the window gives a clear, uninterrupted view of
Samsara’s order: the climate grid high overhead, yielding slow rain.
A city crow perches on the ledge outside, seeking shelter. Ovuha
cants toward it, watching it with interest, meeting its black-pearl
gaze. “Birds have perfect parallax vision,” she says, as though it is
the beginning or continuation of a conversation, but she stops there.
The food arrives. A pot of chrysanthemum tea for them both.
Suzhen’s pan-fried dumplings, stuffed with chives and meat. Ovuha’s
noodle soup, wiry yellow coils in thick broth, dusted in spring onion
and shredded pork. Good comfort food, Suzhen would say, but also
the cheapest dish on the menu, meant to cost Suzhen as little as
possible. Ovuha savors each spoonful, sipping the broth quietly but
deliberately; she is making every mouthful last, inhaling the steam,
letting the noodle sit on her tongue.
(Suzhen remembers this: the first taste of real food after exiting a
halfway house. A steamed bun. Even now that memory remains in
total clarity, the soft texture of the dough, the rich sweetness of the
lotus-seed paste, the punch of salt in the yolk. She wept as she ate.)
Over dessert—she leaves Ovuha the lion’s share of the steamed
cake—she opens a remote link to configure Ovuha’s account for
social, financial, and security uses. Because Ovuha has no active
neural link at all, the tracker being the only online component on her,
she will need an external device. Suzhen opens the kit that’s
standard-issue for a potentiate, takes out the slim portable and
synchronizes it. She hands this to Ovuha. “This is worn on the wrist.
You won’t need help learning to use this, I expect.”
“I do need to learn a great many things, officer. Only I do not wish
to impose so much on you, over and over.” Ovuha does not leave
crumbs. There is refinement to the motion of her fingers, even in
handling food. Those tapered, callused fingers which belong to a
laborer, a technician.
Despite herself, Suzhen speculates: who this woman was before,
what advantages she possessed, what gave her these manners and
this confidence. Not that status in the colonies means anything once

the person is on Anatta, reduced, pared down to Bureau
quantification. Previous wealth, previous position, all that is wiped
out. The process of asylum equalizes. “I’m your caseworker.
Whether or not you like it, I’ll be spending most of my time with you
for half a year. Less if you can become independent before then.”
Ovuha blinks at her slowly. “I said only what I meant. What you do
is above and beyond. I do not know how it is that I may repay you,
as the rodent does not know how to repay an elephant.”
Ovuha’s register has grown more formal as she speaks until it
reaches that, a proverb, her language turning as calligraphic as a
painting. Again Suzhen’s temper flares. She tamps it down. How
stupid, how petty. There is nothing in this foreign woman, this finely
made creature, that should provoke her. She is not a warden, she is
not one of those sadists. Taking her trauma out on a potentiate will
not ease her past, will not undo her own injury. “What I am doing is
my job. Your integration as a citizen who can serve Samsara is my
duty and priority.”
“Purpose shapes what we are. To perform none is to forfeit one’s
place in the human order.” Ovuha polishes off the last of the cake.
“The subtleties and contours of it all pale before that stark truth, don’t
they?”
The partition around them parts; the privacy filter toggles off. The
restaurant’s air turns to fragrant gold and the fresh dew of a new day.
Song fills the deck, silencing public feeds, suffusing both the
restaurant’s physical space and each citizen’s personal datasphere.
This is not a normal broadcast. It is Samsara, the deific force, the
supreme intelligence. That which encompasses.
The AI has chosen to manifest as a projected image, city-vast, a
presence of sheer scale. Behind its landscape body a single banner
flies, one that Suzhen has seen before, if not as familiar to her as the
Mirror. A lattice of thornworks, pointed inward to itself, the outside a
smooth hexagon. Sigil of one of the greatest wasteland rulers, the
commander whose armada is said to be numberless, the one
general whose force could breach the sanctity of Anatta. The
Warlord of the Thorn.
Behind Samsara, the banner burns, crisping to soot at the edges.

When Samsara speaks, its voice is petal-sweet. “Long ago the
great architects created me with one purpose: to serve and protect
humanity from the wounds it seeks to inflict upon itself, to kill the
seeds of its self-destruction before they can flower. To guide you
onto a path of peace is my greatest duty. Today another wall before
my prime directive falls. The Warlord of the Thorn has been
vanquished and humankind is one step closer to unity. The wild
dominions will soon end and all of Anatta’s children will be returned
to their rightful cradle.”
Diners and servers alike stop what they are doing; glasses and
cutlery are put down in sudden chorus, and as one they break into
applause that vibrates through the deck, an avalanche of voices and
clapping hands and stamping feet. Outside the window Samsara too
declares this victory, its image laying ownership to the sky, the
burning banner crumbling to ashes in its hands. There is no footage
of the warlord’s death or capture, a figure in armor lying in blood and
smoke perhaps, but later there will be. There must always be clear,
undeniable evidence, a grotesquerie of twisted limbs and melted
helm. But not now, in the moment of divine communion. The facts
and figures, how subjects of the Thorn will be dealt with, those too
will come in time—the mundane things, the moving parts that would
dilute the grand statement.
The high spirit goes on. Other tables call for liquor, a server arrives
to say everything is on the house. For politeness Suzhen asks for a
tigersmoke cocktail. Ovuha demurs. When the waiter is gone
Ovuha’s hand convulses on the table, her knuckles white. She
breathes deeply, in, out. In a few minutes she steadies herself. Her
neck is rigid, her expression wiped clean of feeling.
Suzhen sips her tigersmoke when it comes. The whirligig glass is
captivatingly pretty and the taste of the cocktail is just right, laced
with rose salt and gentle stimulants, a marvel of flavor notes. She
thinks to ask whether the Thorn was Ovuha’s warlord, whether
Ovuha was ever required to tear an image to shreds, but she does
not.
Here it is. Ovuha as breakable as anyone.

Taheen’s gallery sprawls across a terrace that stretches over the
largest lake in Huajing District. Being here gives the impression of
floating, the floor as translucent as jellyfishes and seemingly as
unmoored. There is no human help. The units that assist Taheen are
creatures with faceted faces, mouthless and spindly-limbed, with
semi-precious gemstone eyes: spinels and rutiles, turquoises and
aquamarines. Taheen has affectionately named each after its stone.
Mannequins line the windows, seated and standing, lying on their
side or their back. A few stretch in croisé devant, though what they
wear has nothing to do with ballet. Every shape is modeled, the
statuesque and the squat, tapering and flaring torsos, thin and bulky
limbs, and no two outfits are alike. One mannequin wears a waterfall
bodice, the left sleeve slender and piscine, the right broad and
draconic. The next is dressed in frosted glass and ceramic shards;
the next still is in a brocade of jagged granite, gray slashed through
with obsidian. There is a propensity for sharp things, as though the
outfits are meant to wound the wearer and then dispose of
themselves when that purpose has been fulfilled—assassination by
haute couture.
Most expect Taheen to be narrowly made, cadaverous, but they’re
broad and plump. Today they leave their heavy breasts bare, painted
in animated calligraphy that has been scripted against cohesion: it is
always gibberish that moves across fat and muscle and amber skin.
Gorgeous gibberish, cascades of fragmented code and kaleidoscope
poetry.
“You invest too easily,” they are saying as they light up. A ruby
cigarette. This has a much deeper aroma than those they give
Suzhen, oodh and sandalwood, a hint of camphor. Spumes of
bladed phantoms rise. “Is the refugee—sorry, the potentiate—pretty
to look at?”
“That’s a repulsive thing to ask, Taheen.” Suzhen picks at the
dessert one of the automata has brought. Chiseled ice pastry on the
outside, molten egg yolk on the inside, salt-sweet. It is peculiar,
slightly unpleasant, as all gourmet inventions seem to be. “I don’t
ever look at any of them that way. And I should say that you invest
nothing at all.”

They laugh around the cigarette, the cylinder effortlessly clasped
in their mouth. “Why, how should I invest myself? Donate my
income? Your Bureau neither needs nor accepts it, my delightful
friend; Samsara provides. You’ve misplaced yourself, you know.”
“I’ve got more paid vacation time than I could ever need.” This is
an argument the two of them have had many times. It is rote. Still
they continue to have it, insist on it, this routine between them as
tried as breathing.
“Yes, yes, paid vacation. Very nice.” Taheen takes a long drag of
the cigarette. The smoke they exhale is tinged red, strands of
asymmetric helices. “Changing the system from the inside never
works out, Suzhen. What happens is you become part of it, another
function in the system, while nothing changes at all. You really could
be putting your time elsewhere. It bothers me that you don’t sing
anymore.”
Another component. Another function. This point Suzhen never
responds to, on account of having no answer for it. To admit they are
right is defeat, to refute it impossible. “How does designing dresses
affect systems?”
“It doesn’t,” they say, laughing again. “But I’ve never set out to do
any such thing. I’m not a political person and don’t pretend to be.
What I want to do is create exquisite costumes to put on exquisite
bodies. Listen, I met an actor. She’s fantastic at what she does and
terribly your type, artistically and personally. Why don’t I set up an
introduction?”
“I’m busy.” In her ear the guidance pushes her to accept.
“Nonsense. I’m calling her. Hold on.”
Taheen disappears into their backroom, leaving her alone with the
mannequins, the excess of fabric and the gemstone assistants.
Aquamarine approaches, asking if she’d like a smoke or something
to drink. They all speak with variations on a single voice, the voice of
Taheen’s parent. Suzhen knows this because they sat in the same
selection lobby, the only two children there at the time. Taheen was
orphaned much sooner than she, left to fend for themselves while
still probationary, then adopted by an eccentric painter. Taheen
doesn’t speak much of those years, and Suzhen expects there is a

reason the automata do not speak with the painter’s voice. They are
the only fellow ex-potentiate she has stayed in touch with. Someone
to whom she can speak openly because there is no need to hide the
fact of her history.
(Not that they share with each other which wasteland world they
were from, what their parents used to do, who they used to be;
whether they left family or friends behind, inasmuch as children
remember those. Neither she nor Taheen shares whether their world
or station was conquered by the Peace Guard first or if their parents
preemptively fled. But otherwise, openly.)
When Taheen returns, it is with a triumphant smirk. “I’ve arranged
it. There will be a play and this actress is the lead. Seats are sold
out, but what do I care for rules? You’ll make time for it, yes?”
“You know I would because it’s you doing the asking. But I’d rather
watch you make clothes.”
They click their tongue. “Yes, I’m phenomenal and so are my
designs, but you need people. My clothes don’t talk. My drones don’t
count.”
She stares at Rutile, at its glittering gaze and the bland sweetness
of its countenance. “Don’t they? But they’re lovely.” As lovely as
Taheen, though she has never been able to say that, somehow; it
seems like belaboring the obvious—the way it would be to say the
sun is bright or that dharma is righteous.
“You’re looking sad again. I do hate that.” They sit by her, patting
their lap. “I’ll distract you and then you can go have a proper social
outing. Come here.”
Suzhen does. It is comfort offered, and she has never been able to
turn that away, not from Taheen. Rather the opposite. This is what
she hungers for, her only vice. The lines of their body are long and
patrician, and she falls into them as a puzzle-piece might fall into its
slot: such is the force of habit, of attraction. They kiss her gently,
they have always been careful as though they believe she is sugar
and fired earth, prone to cracking or dissolving at the slightest
pressure. She has never dissuaded them, has never admitted she
wants more force. That they would do this for her is boon enough, a

benison of touch that holds—for a time—the weight of her past at
bay. An aegis, a prayer, an act close to holy.
Taheen smells of lemongrass. A scent she’s come to associate
with good sex, the best sex.
Between their thumb and forefinger they roll one of her nipples,
and lick down across her collarbones. She cups their breast in turn,
kneading, then plunging her hand down to undo their jeweled
sarong. In nudity Taheen is a vision. On Anatta, citizens are entitled
to the body of their desire, skeleton and flesh and features
answering precisely to individual needs and wants. Whether Taheen
has received modification she will never know—and she will not ask
—but she’s always thought the shape of them is god-made, divinely
mandated. That glorious expanse of hips, those wide thighs
hardened from exercise, which she kisses and licks and worships.
More animated calligraphy shimmers around their knees, scrolling
round and round, distorting and warping into golden shadows.
Her eyes clench shut as they sip sweat off her throat, her nipples.
When they enter her it is slow and impossibly tender, and she
responds as she ever does, wrapping her limbs around them and
moving with them: two tides in concert.
Much better than the virtual lover, the simple AI. Much better than
anyone else she’s ever been with: they have the spark, the element
that is missing from any other, the fire that ignites her own. For a
time they lie entangled, Taheen still deep in her. Musk in the air.
Suzhen breathes deep and knows that she cannot have this person,
not beyond the physical—they are star-fire and she is clay. This is a
favor, an obligation, done for whatever reason that prevents Taheen
from dismissing her as a failed social appendage and at last casting
her aside. But they are so solid against her that she does not want to
think of that, not now, not yet. After a union like this, she wants to
whisper her gratitude like prayer. Except that would break the
delicate equilibrium between the two of them. Taheen would not
brook her thanks, might even be embarrassed by it.
They separate. Taheen lets her stay in the circle of their arms a
little longer and she nestles her cheek against the curve of their
throat.

“My clients would never expect me to do anything so vulgar right in
the gallery,” they murmur. Their chuckle travels down, vibrating
against her jaw. “They think I treat this place like a temple. I let them
—it’s more amusing.”
She wants, desperately, to keep them here. To remain against the
soft-hard planes of their flesh, to join them in the sheets. “It’s a good
thing you don’t have human help to walk in on such activities.” Which
they must do with plenty others: she knows for a fact that at any
time, they have four to five lovers, occasionally several at once in
bed. Most, she imagines, do not have her baggage.
Taheen rises, eventually: they have a project to complete. They’ve
never asked her to stay the night and she has taken the hint. If there
is anything she has learned on Anatta, it is to take what she’s given
and ask for no more. She pushes herself upright. The drone
assistants have discreetly disappeared, did not stay to spectate.
Suzhen turns to the news, for the same reason she might scratch
at a scab, push at an aching tooth. There, the facts and the figures.
How much incoming population they can expect from the Thorn’s
newly liberated subjects, how off-world facilities have been prepared
to hold them—most on satellites, a few on more distant outposts.
This will be the largest influx of asylum seekers in Suzhen’s lifetime
—she checks Bureau statistics and finds that it will be the largest
influx period. And if the Thorn’s fall means inevitable defeat of the
other remaining warlord, if that means more displaced
populations . . .
Is it any of her problem, she thinks, when she is no more than a
cog. She is not one of Samsara’s chosen administrators, she does
not make or modify policy. Her history is what it is: commonplace,
dull. It does not empower her or even equip her to do her work
better. It does not let her do good. There are regulations, there is
process, and she follows them like any other.
Perhaps Taheen is right; perhaps after Ovuha, she should
consider a career change.
On the news a human officer comes on, a man with a crooked
snub nose, dressed in Interior Defense black. In a tone of complete
piety, he announces that every last civilian freed from the Thorn’s

dominion will be made welcome, that the doors of benediction will be
thrown wide. A lie, but Suzhen never expects more.

Chapter Three
There is a solid delay between Suzhen ringing the door and Ovuha
answering it. Ovuha is in—she can track the potentiate’s location in
real time. She could simply override the door, but she opts not to.
The access she commands to Ovuha’s existence is comprehensive.
No point salting the wound.
She waits. A sound of something fragile breaking, down the
corridor. Domestic disputes are not uncommon in these places and
the walls are not soundproof. Growing up she came to regard the
noise as ambient, inevitable. Crying, adult or child. Screaming
toddlers. On occasion it spills into the hallway: tearful husbands in
disarray, adolescent children storming out, flights of dinnerware. The
lives here are both slow—waiting out the probation period, waiting
for the next caseworker visit, waiting—and fraught, existence
teetering on a cusp, uncertain and unstable. Probationary residency
can be snatched away at any time, or so it feels. The state stipend is
sufficient but only in the barest of ways, calculated for a definition of
enough that leaves no room for food that tastes like food, clothes
that make one feel human. This complex is called the Jasmine, a
name she finds repulsive in its euphemism, named after a pretty and
fragrant flower when the truth of such housing is anything but.
The door opens. Ovuha steps back, her head lowered as if to
nullify the twenty-five centimeters she has over Suzhen. The lighting
is dim, the window darkened, and the air thick with poor ventilation.
A bathroom, a bedroom, a corner partitioned off in pretense that the
occupant might get the chance to entertain guests or while away
their leisure. But Ovuha has kept it all clean, the mattress and sheets
straight, the hard floor smooth and unstained.
It takes a whole moment before she spots the bruises.

They are still new, still red, a patch of blunt trauma down the left
side of Ovuha’s face. Her lower lip is split. Now that Suzhen knows
what to look for, she realizes Ovuha is also moving oddly, as if
recovering from being winded. “You’re going to tell me what
happened.”
“It is nothing.”
“I decide whether it is something, potentiate.”
Ovuha smooths her hand over the uninjured side of her face,
fingers crooked briefly as though twitching to scratch the bruises. “A
spouse from the couple next door. I understand his wife has been
abusing him. The dysfunction had to go somewhere.”
“And so you let him vent it on you?” Suzhen opens her briefcase,
peels open the first-aid kit. She pulls on sanitizing gloves and
squeezes out the protean, spreading it on Ovuha’s jawline, up nearly
all the way to her temple. It will reduce inflammation, anesthetize,
and speed up healing. A panacea for surface wounds. “Take off your
shirt. You were punched or kicked in the gut.”
“This must be the most wholesome context for take off your shirt
I’ve ever encountered.” Ovuha unzips the shapeless top.
As Suzhen suspected, another bruise, this one purpling. To the
flank rather than to the stomach. She accesses the tracker’s
diagnostic: no fracture or broken ribs. Ovuha avoided the worst of
the damage, either shielding herself well or dodging while making it
seem as though the blow solidly connected. “I wasn’t notified that
you were in a physical altercation. You didn’t fight back.”
Ovuha lifts her arm, letting Suzhen coat her flank in protean. She
winces slightly at the contact of cold paste on skin. “I didn’t. If you
are asking whether I could have, yes, I suppose.”
Suzhen sheds her gloves and steps back. True to her professed
history, Ovuha has the physique of someone used to hard labor, to
the necessities that keep the body from softening. Detainment pared
her down to ribcage and jutting pelvic bones, but still she’s in better
shape than most. Ovuha could have handled herself, one on one. “A
citizen’s guidance would have prevented that from happening at all.”
The first sign of violence would have alerted the nearest Interior
Defense drone while the guidance warns the aggressor of the

consequences. “I’m not saying you should beat a teenage boy within
an inch of his life. But you could have alerted me. If not me,
someone will come.”
Ovuha leans back on the bed, her smile warped by hardening,
translucent protean. “If not you. Whoever comes wouldn’t
necessarily distinguish who began the fight. I wish to keep my head
down, officer, and be at my best. It’d be naïve of me to expect your
colleagues to be as empathic as you.”
“Don’t accuse me of empathy,” Suzhen says flatly. It may be the
dimness, the compressed space—the projects have such mean,
tight rooms, every floor partitioned into as many units as possible—
but she wishes she was back in the corridor. Noise or not, it is a
transitional place. The room is a terminus. “The first-aid kit I’ll leave
here. Your attacker will be dealt with by his caseworker, but I don’t
want to see a repeat. Next time anyone threatens you, you will report
it before it gets physical. How are you settling in otherwise?”
“I’ve made a few acquaintances, though most everyone here
keeps to themselves.” A pause. “Aren’t you going to ask whether I’ve
pawned off the clothes you bought me?”
“They’re yours to do with as you wish. I also think you’re more
sensible than that.”
“I worry,” Ovuha murmurs, “that your kindness would be taken
advantage of—but that is not my place. Would you like to see the
roof? It’s the building’s best feature.”
Which says little, but she is glad for an excuse to get out. Ovuha
shrugs on a loose shirt. The elevator is archaic, stale and rustysmelling, not because there are no funds allocated to upgrade it but
because they are on purpose kept this way. To be a citizen is to
deserve; to be a probationary resident is to deserve much less. The
privileges, the rights, the ability to experience joy without rationing or
compromise.
The rooftop is expansive, an open-air garden. Potted flowerbeds
white with arachno-floral hybrids that weave fragrant photosynthetic
web, waiting to ambush insects. Trellises in spheres and pyramids,
some thinly draped in skeleton vines, others smothered in clouds of
fire-roses with cinderous petals and thorns like blasted steel. The

result is strange and incoherent but, Suzhen realizes, untouched by
AI aesthetic. Samsara’s order does not reach here because it is
beneath notice.
The corner Ovuha has claimed is secluded behind spotted ferns. A
miniature stone garden—truly miniature, the shelf no longer than
thirty-five centimeters—where narrow vases hold stunted trees and
braided shrubs. Ovuha’s contribution is a titanium cage, tall and
polished, its luster as clean as new bone. The bird inside sports
plumage in scarab-blue, each feather hammered to razor thinness.
Bronze legs, crimson beaks. It bears no resemblance to hawks or
falcons, yet it is good craftsmanship, the sort Suzhen might see in an
eccentric’s collection. Quaint and expensive. It trills at her,
unmusically.
“It’s lovely,” Suzhen offers, wondering what Ovuha did to acquire it.
“One of the families on my floor can’t speak Putonghua very well.
I’m tutoring them here and there, not that I’m much of a teacher.
They gave me the bird.” Ovuha opens the cage and extends her
wrist for the replicant. “They brought it from their home, a station
hidden in an asteroid belt. I don’t know what you call it, but they call
the place Wyomere. Destroyed long since, caught in crossfire. The
family took the bird apart, smuggled the pieces separately so they
wouldn’t be confiscated. A leg held by a child, a wing secreted
behind clothes, a gyroscope cluster worn around the neck. Can you
imagine? The distance people will go just to keep a memento.”
“And they gave it to a near-stranger?”
“A total stranger.” Ovuha lightly strokes the bird’s back. “They felt I
wouldn’t be stolen from and wanted me to keep it as long as I live
here. Not an impression I ought to make after I let a scrawny
teenage boy beat me up. People are strange, don’t you think?”
People are drawn to strength, either because it is a threat or
because they see in it the promise of protection. Suzhen imagines
Ovuha through the lenses of the bird’s previous owners, this woman
who is so new a potentiate and yet self-contained. At ease within her
own skin, despite her status, despite being placed in this gray, worn
building. The dignity that does not yield. “What do you want out of
your life in Anatta?”

Ovuha continues to groom the bird, running an oiled comb through
its feathers. “I’m not a person of ambition. I’ll prioritize repaying the
generosity that’s been shown me, first.”
“I’m asking what you want. Not what you can do for Anatta.”
“It is your kindness that I meant, not that of the world at large.”
Ovuha wipes off excess oil, checks under the coverts. She scrapes
off gritty rust and nods to herself, satisfied. “What I want is a life
where I make no enemies, where I don’t bend myself toward
anyone’s destruction. And if that is not possible, nevertheless I’ll live
as though it is. But—” She makes a low chuckle. “You must not take
me seriously.”
Statement or request: there is no telling. It is not that Ovuha is
unbreakable, rather that she evades so skillfully that the qualities
confuse. Seeming is not the same as being, even so, and Suzhen
imagines herself on the edge of a cliff. To fall is to admit to Ovuha
what she is, that mere decades separate them, probationary resident
to Selection Bureau worker. Who were you really, what did you do,
did you leave behind family: these things she wants to shout. But
under Samsara’s gaze there is no room for an exchange of secrets,
least of all the ones her mother took with her to the grave, and which
with Suzhen intends to do the same. When she is ashes, if anyone
survives her, perhaps it will be safe to tell. “You are full of noble
ideals, Ovuha.”
“Not in the least, I just prefer to keep out of trouble. Could I have a
surname soon? Having a legal identity without one feels so odd.”
Suzhen pulls up a list before remembering that Ovuha lacks the
visual augmentation to see it. She switches on a display, projects it
on the ferns. “Here are the available ones, pick what you like best
and I’ll have it registered.”
Ovuha studies the names, perhaps counting the syllables and
sounding each out in her head, measuring the meaning of each
character. After a moment she says, “If it’s not too much trouble, you
could choose it for me.”
She has assigned surnames to candidates before, it is not new or
even strange, a favor she does for probationary residents whose
grasp of Putonghua doesn’t extend to the nuances in a name. But

this feels almost too intimate, somehow, too close. No: that’s only
imagination, her runaway mind seeking connection and common
ground. “Sui,” she says. “How’s that sound? Ovuha Sui.”
“A monarchic name,” Ovuha murmurs. She sweeps into a deep
bow, as if she’s been handed a gift, as if this signifies anything more
than a caseworker’s routine task. “It is incandescent. Thank you. Let
me show you this.”
They walk to the rooftop’s edge, Ovuha’s hand held out, the bird
gleaming in the sun. She whispers and flings it outward. With a cry it
takes flight, a blazing titanium vector, a flash of bronze talons across
the clear, radiant sky. They watch it climb higher and higher until it
disappears.
It will come back, Ovuha says. Tame birds are precisely like
humans in that way. The pathological sense of home, the inability to
let go.
Within a day, Ovuha’s bruises have faded to faint smears. Suzhen
covers them up with a thin layer of tinted emollients, adds pigment to
Ovuha’s hairline and under her cheekbones so that the gauntness
seems intentional and sophisticated, rather than a byproduct of
privation. Mauve lips, ombré-black in the center. To the steel-gray
angular clothes, Suzhen adds a scarf Taheen gave her that she felt
too refined to wear herself. The fabric is slick and opalescent, the
texture like faceted fur as though it was shorn alive from a jewel
animal. Ovuha wears it noose-tight: on her it sits just right. She turns
slowly, studying her reflection. “I look expensive.”
“That’s the idea.”
Away from the Jasmine and what it signifies, Ovuha is a
chameleon. She wears the fine clothes, the haute-couture scarf,
without doubt or effort. She belongs. In the train, among the crowd,
down the thoroughfares and across the corkscrew bridges. The only
tell is that Ovuha does not react to guidepost hubs at points of
gravitational shift on the bridges; she wrong-foots, often, and laughs
as she finds herself falling upward.
At the Selection Bureau, Ovuha is escorted into her preliminary
session. Suzhen takes to a balcony, lighting one cigarette, snuffing it

out, lighting another one. She tries to refrain from turning on the
interview feed—she is entitled to—and after a third aborted cigarette,
she gives up resisting. The channel comes on. Ovuha is seated
alone in a room, surrounded by starless dark, some void far from the
lights of Anatta’s satellites and helix-gates. The blackness covers
nearly everything, swallowing up floor and ceiling and furniture, as if
Ovuha is sitting on empty air. A voice as neutral as a guidance’s
speaks. “What is the imperative that informs every human choice?”
“Conflict,” Ovuha says to the dark, “the basal urge. To fight or to
take flight: that is the binary which preoccupies the human intellect.
No veneer of civilization may tame it, no eons of refinement may
clean the dreams of blood, this hunger to see the inside of another
person’s guts.”
“What is Samsara?”
“Limitless and true. The splendor that permeates. The custodian
unmarred by desire or impulse.”
Suzhen bites down on the dead cigarette. It tastes charred,
papery. Her guidance notifies her of her heightened pulse and blood
pressure. When it was her turn the room was merely sterile, done in
the muted half-colors of grief and ennui. She was in that borderland
between childhood and adulthood; her mother was dying, and in
bureaucratic terms that meant it was time for her to test for
citizenship of her own. Suzhen acquitted herself as best she could,
by then used to reciting the right responses, the correct amount of
conviction. Her gorge rises. She bends over the balcony, gripping the
railing, and dry-heaves. In the void-shrouded room the interview
goes on, and now comes the crucial response.
“Samsara is the anatomy of forgetting,” Ovuha says. “Under its
guidance we cast out the knowledge of main force and our animal
instincts, our taste for devastation, our need to salt the ground and
glass the earth. Samsara is the bulwark between us and the
extinction we would bring upon ourselves. Beyond its gaze, entropy
awaits. Outside its bounds, there lies only ruin.”
All that eloquence, and perhaps—What I want is a life where I
make no enemies—Ovuha even believes in it, the ideal refugee who
seeks safety as well as ideological compatibility. How absurd.

Suzhen wipes her mouth and composes herself. By the time Ovuha
emerges, she is halfway through another cigarette, not aborted this
time.
Ovuha looks wan from the exit decontamination, her system
freshly cleansed of the trance drugs, her pupils dilated. She blinks
blearily at the light. “How did I do? I don’t remember much of what I
said.”
No question as to whether Suzhen observed, merely an assumed
default. “You were entirely articulate.”
“What a thing to say,” Ovuha murmurs.
That a refugee can be eloquent, articulate, precise with words in
Putonghua. “That’s not what I meant.”
“No. That is true. My apologies—I’m being unfair.”
“The world is unfair,” Suzhen says, and she could finish the
thought—that the world has been unfair to Ovuha specifically, as it is
unfair to those descended from exiles who forsook Samsara—but
she refrains. Too mollifying, too apologetic, when she does not owe
Ovuha that. “Do you feel up to job interviews or shall we call it a
day? I’ve already registered your certifications. You’re technically
equivalent to a citizen who’s received ten years of basic education.”
An underestimate, but there is an upper limit for how far a candidate
can be certified. Nothing tertiary, even when Ovuha’s skills are well
beyond that.
“It’s remarkable that the possibility of me getting work is legal.”
The potentiate loosens her scarf and reties it into a complicated,
rosette knot. “Truly Anatta’s magnanimity is boundless. I’m up to it. I
don’t wish to be difficult.”
“I should tell you that if your neighbors—or that family you’re giving
language lessons to—offer you help finding work, it’s best to turn
them down politely. Even if they insist it’s better money than anything
you can officially get.” A market for refugee flesh; there is always
one, always thriving.
“No one’s offered, but I will keep that in mind.”
Their first stop is at an ornithology lab, where bird cultivars are
made to order. They wait in the showroom where sample birds sing
in faultless harmony, preening, their plumage in every shade. There

are openings for janitorial and menial work—the facility’s run by
someone who prefers human hands over drones—and at first Ovuha
is received warmly enough, despite her status. The interviewer sours
at one point and Suzhen, again monitoring at a distance, thinks she
knows why. Ovuha’s fineness, the absence of abjection. It is not that
Ovuha is impolite, rather the opposite, but the interviewer expected a
charity case, an object on which pity can be visited upon. Yet Ovuha
resists both being an object and being pitiable. She should have left
her potentiate in terrible clothes, Suzhen thinks, grimed and bare of
cosmetics.
Next they visit a teahouse. Kitchen work, away from the view of
diners. Here it goes even more poorly, the interviewer asking outright
what Ovuha is doing here. “I’m in need of work,” Ovuha says mildly;
it earns her a request to leave.
Ovuha looks over her shoulder as they exit. “Perhaps I should’ve
shown up in rags.”
“It’s only been two places.” Suzhen consults her list and requests
navigation from her guidance. “Be patient.”
The third and fourth don’t proceed much better. A citizen is
evaluated and given a choice of assignments: none of this reliance
on human caprices, the surface compassion that can turn into petty
cruelty at the flip of a coin. Making the process the same for
potentiates would have been far more efficient, more humane.
Suzhen once asked her mother why. Mother folded her hands.
Samsara is intimately familiar with human nature. When life is
otherwise perfectly manicured, precisely arranged by machine, you
lose your agency. But if you cannot control your fate, still you can
seek to control another’s. In this way you may retain an illusion of
power, of being master of your own life, and so continue to be
complacent. And contented subjects are easy to govern.
What would happen, Suzhen wonders, when there are no more
warlords and no more war-torn seekers of asylum; when the colonies
have been disbanded or annexed under Samsara rule, humanity set
on the path to paradise. All then would be citizens, all would be—in
name—equal.

Before she sees Ovuha off, she says, “We’ll get you employed
before the month is out. No matter how tempting, don’t take on work
that sounds too good to be true.”
“Such as being research subjects?”
“Someone did offer to help you then.”
Ovuha half-chuckles. “I’m not a child, officer. When one’s skills are
not suitable, and few options are open, what remains but to sell the
flesh? Organs, pharmaceutical and cybernetic testing, other things. It
is not that any of them is lesser work. They fulfill a need. But I do
have particular ideas on the autonomy of my body, even if I can’t
afford to. You needn’t fear.”
The things one can afford and the things one can’t. When she is
home, Suzhen double-checks the altar to her mother, to make sure
the offerings she left have not faded into motes of dust.

Chapter Four
Being in a theater reminds Suzhen that she has not been in one for a
long time or consumed any entertainment that requires in-person
presence. It is small, exclusive, the kind of establishment that invites
people like Taheen rather than people who work in bureaucracies.
Taheen has come with her but has lingered at the reception and so
Suzhen sits, alone, among the empty boxes that revolve slowly
above the stage. Her friend encouraged her to mingle, but theirs is
not company she enjoys. Even if Suzhen had tested into such fields,
she doubts she’d belong with career artists, who universally have a
particular temperament. The easy assumption that what they do
matter the most: more significant, more brimful of meaning than
clerical or administrative or menial work. The subsuming of identity
and personality into passion.
Taheen arrives in their shared loge, wreathed in a cloud of
cocktails and perfume. “I finally figured out how this new painter got
a spot at Kufreabasi’s gallery. Apparently zie slept with Kufreabasi
while they were at this artists’ retreat. So tawdry.”
Suzhen has no idea who the painter or Kufreabasi is, or why
Taheen should take an interest, given that they don’t paint and
neither person could possibly be competition. “You slept with plenty
of people.”
“Well sure, everyone does that, but you’re supposed to be subtler
about it when you’re starting out. Besides, zie is an obvious
sycophant and zir work’s far too pandering. Painting about being a
painter, art about being an artist, that sort of thing. I can’t bear the
type. Here, I got you a glass.”
She takes the drink—more tea and fruit than alcohol, the way she
likes it—and watches the light around them dim, the other boxes fill.
“You still haven’t told me what the play is about.” She could have

looked it up, but that would have made Taheen sulk, and in any case
she prefers to hear it from them.
“Political allegory. No plot—literally, not just me being catty.”
Taheen empties their glass in a single gulp. “We aren’t here for the
quality of the script, you understand, just for the quality of acting.
Vipada’s the lead.”
The auditorium deepens from white to the turquoise of sunlit sea,
gold-green. Stimulated water laps and pushes against the glass of
their loge. For a time—two solid minutes—nothing else happens
save this gentle rocking motion and a few piano notes, muted and
distant. The loges tilt backward, directing the audience’s gazes to the
ceiling.
From overhead a body is falling, facedown, limbs spread. The
descent is slow, resisted by the currents and the white funeral shawl
that it wears. A woman with immense dark eyes, hair behind her like
a comet, her expression glazed with the blankness of the dreaming
or the dead. The ambience darkens, shedding the gold of daylight. “I
am dead,” a voice says, “and I’m not awake.”
A second voice: “Perhaps you have never been.”
The body—the woman—stirs, shaking her head, righting herself in
the water. She touches the shroud she wears, the soft material, and
in distaste tears it off. Underneath she is not bare but armored, torso
clad in red steel, limbs sheathed in shadow iron. “I am the Wayupuk,
bird of war. Even in death I know no defeat.” Freed of the shroud,
she sinks faster, feet first. She reaches into the deepening currents
and draws from them a gun, the weapon phenomenally made, the
black-pearl luster evident even in the dim.
Suzhen suspects she knows where this is going. But Vipada plays
the part with sharp conviction, the warlord in the afterlife passing
through her spiritual judges and inquisitors, remorseless even as she
is pulled down to the ocean floor. “It is the human condition to be
culpable in evil,” she says as the dark swallows her. “Great or small,
the sole difference is the extent. Life is a slaughterhouse. You take
charge of it or you’re swept away by it; you are the butcher or you
are the meat.”

The irredeemable monster, admitting no regrets and making no
apologies. Yet proud to the end. Perhaps intentional, perhaps not,
though Suzhen expects it would have been more politic to portray
the analogue for the Warlord of the Thorn with a less comely face, a
more pathetic mien.
At the afterparty Taheen introduces her to Vipada, who alone of
the cast has already shed cosmetics and costume, fresh-faced and
incongruously mortal amidst a crowd of ghostly magistrates and
afterlife demons. When she hears what Suzhen does for a living, she
breaks into applause. “Thank goodness. I was going to throw up if I
had to meet one more critic or really anyone who breathes the arts.
The arts, even that sounds so nauseating, don’t you think? What a
relief to see a person who lives in the real world.”
“Vipada is an artist who can’t stand other artists.” Taheen leans
toward Suzhen, faux-conspiratorial. “Especially other actors.”
“Oh, Taheen, you can’t stand us either. Creatives excel at one
thing and that’s being insufferable—if I have to hear one more writer
claim they spin lies for a living! They think it’s such a charming joke
instead of absolutely trite. If only my final evaluation had given me a
choice of profession in accountancy or biochemistry . . . ” Out of
character Vipada is animated, expression mobile, hands moving
fluidly as she talks. None of the cold solemnity of the dead general,
the sheer heft of presence. “Tell me about your work, please,
Suzhen. Everyone in here wants to talk nothing else but the play.”
She’s caught off-guard; there is no script for being asked about
her work as though someone is taking a genuine interest. “It’s fairly
mundane.” The rapid desensitization to suffering, the numbing of
procedure. “Most people would agree the things you do here are far
more interesting. Ideas are potent. Carrying out regulations isn’t.”
“No, no. That’s the self-serving loftiness artists want to sell you.
Ideas are fine. Ideas can affect. But doing is important—more
important than thinking about it. Experience is what makes a person
interesting, not ideas, and you must’ve accrued a stunning wealth.”
It is easy to be flattered, charmed. But as Suzhen speaks of
Bureau work and attempts to make it sound exciting, she realizes
that the actor wants to be thrilled. Vipada expects Suzhen to share

the tragedies of those who enter and exit her office, their hard-won
triumphs, their humility and simplicity. The lives of those born in a
dominion of ruin. It is a safe thrill, a reminder that on Anatta
deprivation is a remote concept, improbable and impermissible—as
long as one is a citizen. Vipada may claim her heart bleeds for those
in need but nevertheless she belongs to the norm, the default, and
how much better it is to be so; how wondrous it is to haverather than
to lack.
Suzhen finds herself almost speaking of Ovuha, that finely made,
immensely educated potentiate. The one who would not have
required entry to Anatta if her home had not been destroyed by the
Peace Guard. The one who could be in this room and join the
conversation as gracefully as any, whose bearing is as sophisticated
as Vipada’s. She refrains. Ovuha is not a story or a character; she
doesn’t exist as a vehicle through which Suzhen can deliver an
argument. In the end, to shift the subject, she says, “You were very
believable. The Wayupuk, bird of war.”
Vipada laughs. “Not my usual thing, but I try not to get typecast.
Taheen—” She points; they have wandered off to hold court among a
group of playwrights. “Taheen would tell you I tend to play flighty
gods or devious ingénues—vixens, you know—and they aren’t
wrong. So I was going to challenge myself. Getting into character for
this one took incredible research. I watched interviews with refugees,
read their biographies. For their perspective of the warlords, you
understand.”
The perspective of being at gunpoint, tearing up images of revered
symbols. The perspective of being made to fabricate miseries and
terror under a warlord’s iron heel. And Suzhen would be the first to
admit that not all warlords are benevolent with their own people, but
—she tamps that down. Even indulging that line of thought will make
it express on her face, like pustules. There’s so much she must keep
to herself. “Was the character meant to be any particular figure or
just an amalgam?”
“Ah, I’m not the author, but I expect the script’s meant to be . . .
topical. There were some last-minute changes to my character—”
Vipada flutters her fingers. “But that’s all backstage and the changes

improved the play, if I may say so myself. They’re such mysterious
creatures, the warlords, I’ve always wondered how they can keep
their faces and identities such perfect secrets. Maybe in a few years
we’ll uncover it all. True, they’re monsters, but there’s
anthropological value to the culture, isn’t there? The history, the
mystique. It’s surely worth studying once they’re no longer a threat.”
“It must be fascinating,” Suzhen agrees, wondering whether
Taheen has been exposed to this particular side of Vipada. Probably
they have, and they would say Suzhen takes the actor’s fetishism
too seriously, that it doesn’t matter. What matters is to seize the life
she has, to thrive.
They continue to talk, and Anthropological value, isn’t there? or
not, Vipada is an easy conversationalist; the actor waves away her
admirers, the few critics who’ve been allowed into the afterparty, and
plies Suzhen with more tisane cocktails. “Let’s meet again,” she says
before she departs to mingle.
On her part, Suzhen cannot imagine what Vipada could find of
interest in her. But the actor is not unpleasant and Suzhen tells
herself this is progress, this is a step out of her shell. She doesn’t
have to commit to anything. Taheen sees her off—she wants to tell
them she’d rather have spent time with them but keeps that to
herself. No point being their burden, latching onto them like a
barnacle; she has been that long enough.
Compulsively she checks on Ovuha. The tracker points to a park
several blocks from Gweilan Station. There are restrictions on how
far Ovuha can travel, how long she can spend away from her
housing or work, and so far Ovuha has complied without fail. A
model candidate. Her supervisor Nattharat congratulated Suzhen on
her first sponsorship going so well, but not before offering unsolicited
advice. Early days yet, my dear. Plenty of them behave for six
months and the minute they’re out of sight, they turn to drugs and
petty theft. They sell their children. You can’t trust them, honestly
probation should go on for a year minimum. Six months don’t tell you
a thing.
What are you here for, Suzhen wanted to ask, why are you in this
line of work when you loathe them so desperately, when you think of

them as less than animals. The Selection Bureau doesn’t screen for
empathy in its personnel: if it did, there would be maybe a dozen
agents assigned per city, twenty at most. She turns back to Ovuha’s
vital signs—all fine—and double-checks the alerts she’s set in place.
More than anything she’s wanted to stay hands-off, granting Ovuha
total privacy, but after the beating she’s started to monitor risk
indicators. Her potentiate will survive and gain citizenship, come hell
or high water, Suzhen is determined in that much.
Against her better judgment—and against years of habit otherwise
—she wends her way toward the section of Gweilan where new
citizens live, not around the projects but the residential blocks for
those who have achieved class theta. Achieved, she catches herself
thinking that word, as though this is a status earned by merit and
earnest labor. Not by precarious luck and a caseworker’s caprices.
Officially there is no demarcation between theta and prime, one can
live wherever one wishes provided one meets the criteria: income,
evaluation scores, criminal record. But those newly out of
probationary residency have less of the first and the second, nearly
always a blemish on the third. The potentiate’s stipend is so
vanishingly little and when one has nothing, something is worth any
cost—even if it incurs a criminal record. The petty thefts Nattharat is
so worried about, the ones that mean a difference between a good
meal and pap.
She enters the kind of shop that she used to know well, where a
little of everything may be found, cheaper than elsewhere. Dried
foods heavy on starch, packets of synthetic flavoring, raw ingredients
for communal meal fabricators. It is closer to rations on starved
territories—the ones unclaimed by warlords and therefore fair game
for all—than it is to food, but it stretches further than real meat.
Diluted protean, thinned liquor, mass-produced academic uniforms
that don’t quite fit and would have to be altered at home. Hairpins,
combs, soap that will clean well enough but smell of wax. Cheap
animated one-use cosmetics, bits and bobs for repairing household
appliances. A miscellany for those who lack, who can’t afford any
better, and who want to acquire what they can afford in one place
because it is convenient and most days they don’t have the energy

to trawl a hundred boutiques. Suzhen browses the shelf of software
modules: bootleg navigation and assistive algorithms, month-tomonth access to entertainment. These niceties, excluded from a
theta-class citizen’s guidance, are manufactured scarcity even more
so than the food.
The other shoppers give her wide berth, a reminder that she
should’ve gone home to change before setting foot here. The clothes
Taheen made her wear—their design, an affair of periwinkle-gray
shards and ember fragments—give her away at a glance. A
slumming voyeur, smelling of expensive theaters and debonair
actors and absurd cocktails. She used to hate those misery tourists,
the sight and scent of them filling her with rage; even young it was
fully-formed rage and she imagined their flesh bursting like ripe
papaya, citizenship spilling out of them like rotten seeds.
She rubs her hands together, fingers tingling with nervous energy,
with remembered anger. She meets no one’s gaze as she exits,
knowing she won’t remember their faces; that like the Bureau has
trained her to, she will abstract them to category tags and then forget
about them entirely. Citizen class theta, citizen class theta, citizen
class theta. She will not wish to recall them.
“You should not enter this area again, citizen,” her guidance
murmurs. “It causes you undue distress.”
That one thing she misses from her time as probationary resident.
The blessed, total silence. The freedom from this vapid nagging
voice, this panoptic chaperoning presence.
Sunset strikes the roof. The arachno-floral hybrids are in a frenzy,
their web thick and shivering. Nocturnal insects have emerged,
moths and mosquitoes and fireflies. They swarm the flowerbed, a
feast that serves itself, drawn by scent and sweetness and color.
Ovuha watches and compares real insects to replicant ones, the
actual to the artificial—she has always found real insects difficult to
tolerate, faintly repulsive. The lymphatic fluids they hide, purulent
despite the sleekness of carapace, of wings. She watches them fall
into the web and sink, thrashing, trapped. There is a metaphor. She

refrains from thinking on it; too obvious, too elementary, and she
would be the bugs rather than the web.
She goes to the replicant cardinal, tending to it as she ever does.
As yet, it hasn’t yielded its secrets. She touches its flanks, looking for
a feather that doesn’t seat quite right, an activation mechanism.
None has evinced so far, and knowing her predecessor—the one
who set all this into motion—it would fall upon her to find the right
phrase, the right code. Only she does not have the luxury to stand
there and whisper scraps of poetry one after another until the correct
one occurs, this chasing of a riddle whose shape she does not even
recognize. And, always, she is watched.
Ovuha returns the replicant to its cage. Unnecessary, when all’s
said and done; it is not equipped with free will, an instinct for the
skies, and will stay where it is put. The cage is salve to human
insecurity. Birds belong in cages, that is the assumed default. A city
crow flits by, basalt against the deepening blue, against the limned
clouds. Perhaps it sees her, perhaps not. There is no telling which
animal is true and which a replicant slaved to Samsara’s awareness,
eyes and ears for the vast intelligence. Even the ground on which
she stands may collaborate. By all accounts, the AI controls every
square centimeter of every city.
But even that is not impenetrable or infallible, and there are parts
of Anatta sealed to Samsara’s sight. This she knows for a fact.
The Luo children are emerging onto the rooftop. She counts two.
The other two are absent today, the ones least interested in getting
along with her, whatever their parents’ instructions. Their parents,
who were most likely paid and given passage in exchange for
carrying out a small, specific task. Bringing this bird all the way and
handing it to the person who offers to give their children language
lessons. Ovuha was surprised they held up their end at all, but
perhaps her presence—that she proved to be real—brings with it an
implicit threat. A debt must be repaid, or else.
She asks them, in slow careful Putonghua, how they are coming
along with their conversational language. “The important thing,” she
tells them, “is to pick up vocabulary through context clues. You don’t

need to understand the whole sentence, just three words—or even
two—out of five.”
“Good day, uncle,” the youngest says. They’re seven or ten, she
judges, inexact; she is not good at children’s ages, is far more
accustomed to ones who are well-fed and well-provided for.
Malnourishment makes them look younger than they are.
“Auntie,” she corrects. It does not always matter, but to an Anatta
native any linguistic error from a potentiate’s child is cause enough
to be petty, and maliciously so.
“Younger-sibling Natelia didn’t come today.” The child, whose
name she never quite remembers, looks up at her with large eyes
the color of faded radium. “Couldn’t come. He was brought away
yesterday.”
This surprises Ovuha. Even the Bureau is usually not so
remorseless as to separate a child from their family, as far as she’s
aware. Perhaps she is not aware enough, having not had to concern
herself with such ancillary attachments. “To where?”
“To a new Papa and Mama.” The child does not sound as though
they entirely comprehend the concept. “They said we can visit and
Natelia will have lots of sugar to eat.”
Sweets, she presumes that means, a malapropism. “He was
adopted out?” Some citizens are denied a parental license—Ovuha
suspects the reason is psychological incompatibility, an aspect of
character or personality that makes them unfit for child-rearing. But if
they want to adopt a potentiate’s offspring, the barrier might be
lower, if at all extant. She tries to remember. Natelia is probably five,
young enough for the new parents to see as malleable. One less
mouth to feed for the Luo spouses.
“We can visit,” the child insists.
Ovuha does not dispute—there is no point—and simply moves on
to a vocabulary quiz. By her judgment most of the children are as
well-equipped as they can be, they will pick up Putonghua in time,
they’re young enough and their language centers still plastic. None
of them received in utero cognitive stacks, cerebral links that would
teach them language in the womb and enhance memory: Wyomere
is not that kind of place. All things there are unregulated and the

Luos were able to have as many offspring as they wanted. To poor
results, she would judge, but such is not her business. Wyomere
was a wild territory, outside the control of any warlord not because it
was good at defending itself, but because it had nothing to offer.
Sawdust and cinders.
The children, as one, pause in their reciting of a Putonghua rhyme.
Around them, the Jasmine’s other residents drop what they are
doing, whether that is watering plants or handling laundry. Almost
apologetically her students put their heads down before darting out
of sight, down the staircase, evacuating the rooftop with the rest.
Very quickly she is alone, save for a deeply tattooed person
advancing upon her.
They are openly armed, a coppery gun strapped to their hip,
theatrically long in the barrel. The kind of firearm one uses on an
armored vehicle or a large animal—Ovuha suspects its owner has
given it a name. She can almost hear the tug and push of a passing
crow’s ciliary wires, or the whirr-click within the minuscule, sizzling
brain of a moth trapped in the spider-flower web. Apparatuses
through which Samsara may survey its domain, reading sight and
sound, emissions and heat. In theory that means everyone is
protected at all times, even non-citizens. In practice, she knows no
Interior Defense will be dispatched, for the same reason that camp
wardens are free to exercise petty tyranny on the bodies of their
charges. Bodies without personhood are no more remarkable, and
no more deserving of mercy, than a cut of chicken or a handful of
offal.
Even so this thug, or whoever their master is, makes her curious:
they are not Bureau or Interior Defense. Institutional cruelty is one
thing. Privatized is quite another.
“You’re new here,” they say.
“I’m afraid so.” She doesn’t assay witticisms, something clever.
Instead she looks them over, evaluating as they draw near and then
stop a few paces from her. A threat on account of the gun, but also
because they’re wiry and move like someone who understands
impact, understands the workings of human muscles and alimentary

channels. Where to hurt to disable, where to inflict permanent
damage.
The thug lights a cigar. The reek of it overwhelms the air. “It is
dangerous to be without friends, Ovuha Sui. You may find yourself in
want of things, in need even, of ways in or ways out. People need
people. United we stand . . . ”
Ovuha is almost moved to smile at this cliché, at how meaningless
it is, at the way it is uttered as a taunt. At the theatrics of this
person’s tattoos, their elongated firearm. Every aspect is rote. “I
would not mind friends. What do I have to do for friendship,
stranger?”
“With information, stranger, or a fraction of your potentiate’s
stipend.”
“I haven’t any information to offer, and a fraction of almost nothing
is a small fraction indeed.” She spreads her hands. “At the present I
don’t find myself pressed with any need, and so I’ll have to ask you
to come some other time with this offer of friendship.”
The thug rushes her. She could foil the charge, it is easy enough:
as they accelerate she can kick their knee, or she can grab an
elbow, potentially break it. This is a combatant, but not one of any
particular ability. But she has learned to take blows since she came
to Anatta, has learned to accept and tolerate pain within reasonable
bounds. She permits it to happen. They slam her into the wall—
potted bonzais shudder; by luck the vases do not teeter and topple.
There is no blow forthcoming. Instead they’ve slapped something
into her inner elbow, a jab of heat. The thug backs away, has—
despite the routine—not even drawn their gun. “Don’t bother calling
Interior Defense. This is a warning,” they say and turn on their heels,
their business done. A gangly silhouette stalking off.
She stares after them, then at the dermal patch on her skin.
Mottled gray, adhesive: it has drawn blood, has punctured with tiny
needles, nearly painless. It does nothing at all, she feels only the
faintest sting, less than the bite of an ant. In a few seconds heat
overtakes her, total, and warps her entire limbic response. She
staggers backward and a pot does fall this time, spilling twisted
shrub and crystallized fertilizer and gray soil. Her back cracks

against something hard. Her vision turns liquid, as though she’s
viewing the world from deep undersea.
One of her implants quickens.
A contact toxin, but one that is also a puzzle for her—and only her
—to solve. Strands of ancient math unfurl before her, roiling unkempt
equations. Beneath them, a part of code. It is a game of memory
more than anything, except the last time she saw the set was five
years ago, maybe eight, and she lacks the array of mnemonics or
recording that she once had. Her naked brain, for the most part, is
the only aid and tool left to her. Any other she cannot yet make use.
She has fifteen seconds.
Flip the strands. Reverse the order of code. Match them to what
she remembers. There is no confirmation whether she has done
them half correct or a quarter or none at all until the heat relents and
the poison subsides. The reward is her continued breathing when
otherwise she would have gone into anaphylaxis.
Ovuha draws herself up, peeling off the dermal patch. It has been
spent, but she’ll find a way to dispose of it later so that no trace will
be left. Had she died here, all the rest would have died with her,
unless her replacement has been trained in secret—secret even
from her, a contingency for a contingency. That is possible, knowing
her predecessor, a woman who liked schemes within schemes. Who
liked to be absolutely, utterly sure, a habit Ovuha has inherited
herself.
Best to act as though she is the last, all the same. No slack. No
mistake.
She inhales the air, which still carries the stench of cigar, and in
her head a map expands and pours. Information like a virus, which
she will need time to detangle and absorb, make a part of herself.
But from the shape of it, she is sure that what needs preparing has
been prepared; the seeds have been planted, and now she must
reap the harvest.
On her knees, she gathers up fragments of pottery and rubs the
dry soil between her fingertips until it is fine powder. She glances at
the sky. It is empty and growing dark. In her imagination, it is
incandescent and subjugated, blotted out by golden ships.

Chapter Five
The dead of night, blackly quiet. Suzhen jerks awake from a dream
of silence tolling like bells, a dream of her birthplace. It has not made
an appearance in a long time. The halls that stretched on without
end, the faceted roofs and nested windows that looked out to red,
naked earth.
She reads the alert and swears through her teeth. As quickly as
she can she puts on her clothes, sending out a call as she does.
She’s notified that first response has already been dispatched, and
the nearest Interior Defense patrol will soon be about. Soon being
subjective, from wit