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Year:
2013
Publisher:
Wyrm Publishing
Language:
english
ISBN 13:
9781890464240
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CLARKESWORLD

— Year Five —


edited by

Neil Clarke & Sean Wallace




Copyright © 2013 by Clarkesworld Magazine.

Cover art Copyright © 2011 by Ferdinand D. Ladera.

Ebook Design by Neil Clarke.

Wyrm Publishing

wyrmpublishing.com

No portion of this book may be reproduced by any means, mechanical, electronic, or otherwise, without first obtaining the permission of the copyright holder.

All stories are copyrighted to their respective authors, and used here with their permission.

ISBN: 978-1-890464-23-3 (ebook)

ISBN: 978-1-890464-24-0 (trade paperback)

For Cythia, John D., Terra, Aimee, Jason, Jamie, Cheryl W.,

Rebecca, Halsted, Justin, Nayad, Daniel, Paul, and Sean M.

—Thank you!

Visit Clarkesworld Magazine at:

clarkesworldmagazine.com





Contents



Introduction by Neil Clarke

Ghostweight by Yoon Ha Lee

Perfect Lies by Gwendolyn Clare

Tying Knots by Ken Liu

Seeing by Genevieve Valentine

Salvaging Gods by Jacques Barcia

Laying the Ghost by Eric Brown

The Children of Main Street by A. C. Wise

Diving After the Moon by Rachel Swirsky

Three Oranges by D. Elizabeth Wasden

Matchmaker by Erin M. Hartshorn

Trickster by Mari Ness

The Book of Phoenix (Excerpted from The Great Book) by Nnedi Okorafor

The Architect of Heaven by Jason K. Chapman

Frozen Voice by An Owomoyela

Trois morceaux en forme de mechanika by Gord Sellar

Pack by Robert Reed

Semiramis by Genevieve Valentine

Whose Face This Is I Do Not Know by Cat Rambo

The Taxidermist's Other Wife by Kelly Barnhill

On the Banks of the River Lex by N. K. Jemisin

Signals in the Deep by Greg Mellor

The Fish of Lijiang by Chen Qiufan, translated by Ken Liu

Conservation of Shadows by Yoon Ha Lee

The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees by E. Lily Yu

About the Authors

Clarkesworld Citizens - Official Census

About Clarkesworld





Introduction

Neil Clarke



While collected here for the first time as an anthology, all of the stories in this book were originally published in Clarkesworld Magazine between October 2010 and Sep; tember 2011. This volume represents all of the original fiction from our fifth year of publication. If you’ve never read Clarkesworld, this anthology will serve as a good introduction to what you can expect to find in our monthly issues. More details about our magazine may be found at the end of this anthology.

While many of the stories in this volume have been honored as selections for Year’s Best anthologies, the two that bookend this anthology have received nominations for some of our community’s biggest awards:

“Ghostweight” by Yoon Ha Lee



Finalist: Sturgeon Award





“The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” by E. Lily Yu



Nominee: Hugo Award for Best Short Story



Nominee: Nebula Award for Best Short Story



Nominee: World Fantasy Award for Best Short Story



Finalist: Locus Award for Best Short Story



Nominee: WSFA Small Press Award





Congratulations to Yoon and Lily, and thank you to all our authors. We’re honored to have been entrusted with your work.

And now for the best part, let’s go read some stories . . .

Neil Clarke

August 2013





Ghostweight

Yoon Ha Lee



For Charibdys

It is not true that the dead cannot be folded. Square becomes kite becomes swan; history becomes rumor becomes song. Even the act of remembrance creases the truth.

What the paper-folding diagrams fail to mention is that each fold enacts itself upon the secret marrow of your ethics, the axioms of your thoughts.

Whether this is the most important thing the diagrams fail to mention is a matter of opinion.

“There’s time for one more hand,” Lisse’s ghost said. It was composed of cinders of color, a cipher of blurred features, and it had a voice like entropy and smoke and sudden death. Quite possibly it was the last ghost on all of ruined Rhaion, conquered Rhaion, Rhaion with its devastated, shadowless cities and dead moons and dimming sun. Sometimes Lisse wondered if the ghost had a scar to match her own, a long, livid line down her arm. But she felt it was impolite to ask.

Around them, in a command spindle sized for fifty, the walls of the war-kite were hung with tatters of black and faded green, even now in the process of reknitting themselves into tapestry displays. Tangled reeds changed into ravens. One perched on a lightning-cloven tree. Another, taking shape amid twisted threads, peered out from a skull’s eye socket.

Lisse didn’t need any deep familiarity with mercenary symbology to understand the warning. Lisse’s people had adopted a saying from the Imperium’s mercenaries: In raven arithmetic, no death is enough.

Lisse had expected pursuit. She had deserted from Base 87 soon after hearing that scouts had found a mercenary war-kite in the ruins of a sacred maze, six years after all the mercenaries vanished: suspicious timing on her part, but she would have no better opportunity for revenge. The ghost had not tried too hard to dissuade her. It had always understood her ambitions.

For a hundred years, despite being frequently outnumbered, the mercenaries in their starfaring kites had cindered cities, destroyed flights of rebel starflyers, shattered stations in the void’s hungry depths. What better weapon than one of their own kites?

What troubled her was how lightly the war-kite had been defended. It had made a strange, thorny silhouette against the lavender sky even from a long way off, like briars gone wild, and with the ghost as scout she had slipped past the few mechanized sentries. The kite’s shadow had been human. She was not sure what to make of that.

The kite had opened to her like a flower. The card game had been the ghost’s idea, a way to reassure the kite that she was its ally: Scorch had been invented by the mercenaries.

Lisse leaned forward and started to scoop the nearest column, the Candle Column, from the black-and-green gameplay rug. The ghost forestalled her with a hand that felt like the dregs of autumn, decay from the inside out. In spite of herself, she flinched from the ghostweight, which had troubled her all her life. Her hand jerked sideways; her fingers spasmed.

“Look,” the ghost said.

Few cadets had played Scorch with Lisse even in the barracks. The ghost left its combinatorial fingerprints in the cards. People drew the unlucky Fallen General’s Hand over and over again, or doubled on nothing but negative values, or inverted the Crown Flower at odds of thousands to one. So Lisse had learned to play the solitaire variant, with jerengjen as counters. You must learn your enemy’s weapons, the ghost had told her, and so, even as a child in the reeducation facility, she had saved her chits for paper to practice folding into cranes, lilies, leaf-shaped boats.

Next to the Candle Column she had folded stormbird, greatfrog, lantern, drake. Where the ghost had interrupted her attempt to clear the pieces, they had landed amid the Sojourner and Mirror Columns, forming a skewed late-game configuration: a minor variant of the Needle Stratagem, missing only its pivot.

“Consider it an omen,” the ghost said. “Even the smallest sliver can kill, as they say.”

There were six ravens on the tapestries now. The latest one had outspread wings, as though it planned to blot out the shrouded sun. She wondered what it said about the mercenaries, that they couched their warnings in pictures rather than drums or gongs.

Lisse rose from her couch. “So they’re coming for us. Where are they?”

She had spoken in the Imperium’s administrative tongue, not one of the mercenaries’ own languages. Nevertheless, a raven flew from one tapestry to join its fellows in the next. The vacant tapestry grayed, then displayed a new scene: a squad of six tanks caparisoned in Imperial blue and bronze, paced by two personnel carriers sheathed in metal mined from withered stars. They advanced upslope, pebbles skittering in their wake.

In the old days, the ghost had told her, no one would have advanced through a sacred maze by straight lines. But the ancient walls, curved and interlocking, were gone now. The ghost had drawn the old designs on her palm with its insubstantial fingers, and she had learned not to shudder at the untouch, had learned to thread the maze in her mind’s eye: one more map to the things she must not forget.

“I’d rather avoid fighting them,” Lisse said. She was looking at the command spindle’s controls. Standard Imperial layout, all of them—it did not occur to her to wonder why the kite had configured itself thus—but she found nothing for the weapons.

“People don’t bring tanks when they want to negotiate,” the ghost said dryly. “And they’ll have alerted their flyers for intercept. You have something they want badly.”

“Then why didn’t they guard it better?” she demanded.

Despite the tanks’ approach, the ghost fell silent. After a while, it said, “Perhaps they didn’t think anyone but a mercenary could fly a kite.”

“They might be right,” Lisse said darkly. She strapped herself into the commander’s seat, then pressed three fingers against the controls and traced the commands she had been taught as a cadet. The kite shuddered, as though caught in a hell-wind from the sky’s fissures. But it did not unfurl itself to fly.

She tried the command gestures again, forcing herself to slow down. A cold keening vibrated through the walls. The kite remained stubbornly landfast.

The squad rounded the bend in the road. All the ravens had gathered in a single tapestry, decorating a half-leafed tree like dire jewels. The rest of the tapestries displayed the squad from different angles: two aerial views and four from the ground.

Lisse studied one of the aerial views and caught sight of two scuttling figures, lean angles and glittering eyes and a balancing tail in black metal. She stiffened. They had the shadows of hounds, all graceful hunting curves. Two jerengjen, true ones, unlike the lifeless shapes that she folded out of paper. The kite must have deployed them when it sensed the tanks’ approach.

Sweating now, despite the autumn temperature inside, she methodically tried every command she had ever learned. The kite remained obdurate. The tapestries’ green threads faded until the ravens and their tree were bleak black splashes against a background of wintry gray.

It was a message. Perhaps a demand. But she did not understand.

The first two tanks slowed into view. Roses, blue with bronze hearts, were engraved to either side of the main guns. The lead tank’s roses flared briefly.

The kite whispered to itself in a language that Lisse did not recognize. Then the largest tapestry cleared of trees and swirling leaves and rubble, and presented her with a commander’s emblem, a pale blue rose pierced by three claws. A man’s voice issued from the tapestry: “Cadet Fai Guen.” This was her registry name. They had not reckoned that she would keep her true name alive in her heart like an ember. “You are in violation of Imperial interdict. Surrender the kite at once.”

He did not offer mercy. The Imperium never did.

Lisse resisted the urge to pound her fists against the interface. She had not survived this long by being impatient. “That’s it, then,” she said to the ghost in defeat.

“Cadet Fai Guen,” the voice said again, after another burst of light, “you have one minute to surrender the kite before we open fire.”

“Lisse,” the ghost said, “the kite’s awake.”

She bit back a retort and looked down. Where the control panel had once been featureless gray, it was now crisp white interrupted by five glyphs, perfectly spaced for her outspread fingers. She resisted the urge to snatch her hand away. “Very well,” she said. “If we can’t fly, at least we can fight.”

She didn’t know the kite’s specific control codes. Triggering the wrong sequence might activate the kite’s internal defenses. But taking tank fire at point-blank range would get her killed, too. She couldn’t imagine that the kite’s armor had improved in the years of its neglect.

On the other hand, it had jerengjen scouts, and the jerengjen looked perfectly functional.

She pressed her thumb to the first glyph. A shadow unfurled briefly but was gone before she could identify it. The second attempt revealed a two-headed dragon’s twisting coils. Long-range missiles, then: thunder in the sky. Working quickly, she ran through the options. It would be ironic if she got the weapons systems to work only to incinerate herself.

“You have ten seconds, Cadet Fai Guen,” said the voice with no particular emotion.

“Lisse,” the ghost said, betraying impatience.

One of the glyphs had shown a wolf running. She remembered that at one point the wolf had been the mercenaries’ emblem. Nevertheless, she felt a dangerous affinity to it. As she hesitated over it, the kite said, in a parched voice, “Soul strike.”

She tapped the glyph, then pressed her palm flat to activate the weapon. The panel felt briefly hot, then cold.

For a second she thought that nothing had happened, that the kite had malfunctioned. The kite was eerily still.

The tanks and personnel carriers were still visible as gray outlines against darker gray, as were the nearby trees and their stifled fruits. She wasn’t sure whether that was an effect of the unnamed weapons or a problem with the tapestries. Had ten seconds passed yet? She couldn’t tell, and the clock of her pulse was unreliable.

Desperate to escape before the tanks spat forth the killing rounds, Lisse raked her hand sideways to dismiss the glyphs. They dispersed in unsettling fragmented shapes resembling half-chewed leaves and corroded handprints. She repeated the gesture for fly.

Lisse choked back a cry as the kite lofted. The tapestry views changed to sky on all sides except the ravens on their tree—birds no longer, but skeletons, price paid in coin of bone.

Only once they had gained some altitude did she instruct the kite to show her what had befallen her hunters. It responded by continuing to accelerate.

The problem was not the tapestries. Rather, the kite’s wolf-strike had ripped all the shadows free of their owners, killing them. Below, across a great swathe of the continent once called Ishuel’s Bridge, was a devastation of light, a hard, glittering splash against the surrounding snow-capped mountains and forests and winding rivers.

Lisse had been an excellent student, not out of academic conscientiousness but because it gave her an opportunity to study her enemy. One of her best subjects had been geography. She and the ghost had spent hours drawing maps in the air or shaping topographies in her blankets; paper would betray them, it had said. As she memorized the streets of the City of Fountains, it had sung her the ballads of its founding. It had told her about the feuding poets and philosophers that the thoroughfares of the City of Prisms had been named after. She knew which mines supplied which bases and how the roads spidered across Ishuel’s Bridge. While the population figures of the bases and settlement camps weren’t exactly announced to cadets, especially those recruited from the reeducation facilities, it didn’t take much to make an educated guess.

The Imperium had built 114 bases on Ishuel’s Bridge. Base complements averaged 20,000 people. Even allowing for the imprecision of her eye, the wolf-strike had taken out—

She shivered as she listed the affected bases, approximately sixty of them.

The settlement camps’ populations were more difficult. The Imperium did not like to release those figures. Imperfectly, she based her estimate on the zone around Base 87, remembering the rows of identical shelters. The only reason they did not outnumber the bases’ personnel was that the mercenaries had been coldly efficient on Jerengjen Day.

Needle Stratagem, Lisse thought blankly. The smallest sliver. She hadn’t expected its manifestation to be quite so literal.

The ghost was looking at her, its dark eyes unusually distinct. “There’s nothing to be done for it now,” it said at last. “Tell the kite where to go before it decides for itself.”

“Ashway 514,” Lisse said, as they had decided before she fled base: scenario after scenario whispered to each other like bedtime stories. She was shaking. The straps did nothing to steady her.

She had one last glimpse of the dead region before they curved into the void: her handprint upon her own birthworld. She had only meant to destroy her hunters.

In her dreams, later, the blast pattern took on the outline of a running wolf.

In the mercenaries’ dominant language, jerengjen originally referred to the art of folding paper. For her part, when Lisse first saw it, she thought of it as snow. She was four years old. It was a fair spring afternoon in the City of Tapestries, slightly humid. She was watching a bird try to catch a bright butterfly when improbable paper shapes began drifting from the sky, foxes and snakes and stormbirds.

Lisse called to her parents, laughing. Her parents knew better. Over her shrieks, they dragged her into the basement and switched off the lights. She tried to bite one of her fathers when he clamped his hand over her mouth. Jerengjen tracked primarily by shadows, not by sound, but you couldn’t be too careful where the mercenaries’ weapons were concerned.

In the streets, jerengjen unfolded prettily, expanding into artillery with dragon-shaped shadows and sleek four-legged assault robots with wolf-shaped shadows. In the skies, jerengjen unfolded into bombers with kestrel-shaped shadows.

This was not the only Rhaioni city where this happened. People crumpled like paper cutouts once their shadows were cut away by the onslaught. Approximately one-third of the world’s population perished in the weeks that followed.

Of the casualty figures, the Imperium said, It is regrettable. And later, The stalled negotiations made the consolidation necessary.

Lisse carried a map of the voidways with her at all times, half in her head and half in the Scorch deck. The ghost had once been a traveler. It had shown her mnemonics for the dark passages and the deep perils that lay between stars. Growing up, she had laid out endless tableaux between her lessons, memorizing travel times and vortices and twists.

Ashway 514 lay in the interstices between two unstable stars and their cacophonous necklace of planets, comets, and asteroids. Lisse felt the kite tilting this way and that as it balanced itself against the stormy voidcurrent. The tapestries shone from one side with ruddy light from the nearer star, 514 Tsi. On the other side, a pale violet-blue planet with a serenade of rings occluded the view.

514 was a useful hiding place. It was off the major tradeways, and since the Battle of Fallen Sun—named after the rebel general’s emblem, a white sun outlined in red, rather than the nearby stars—it had been designated an ashway, where permanent habitation was forbidden.

More important to Lisse, however, was the fact that 514 was the ashway nearest the last mercenary sighting, some five years ago. As a student, she had learned the names and silhouettes of the most prominent war-kites, and set verses of praise in their honor to Imperial anthems. She had written essays on their tactics and memorized the names of their most famous commanders, although there were no statues or portraits, only the occasional unsmiling photograph. The Imperium was fond of statues and portraits.

For a hundred years (administrative calendar), the mercenaries had served their masters unflinchingly and unfailingly. Lisse had assumed that she would have as much time as she needed to plot against them. Instead, they had broken their service, for reasons the Imperium had never released—perhaps they didn’t know, either—and none had been seen since.

“I’m not sure there’s anything to find here,” Lisse said. Surely the Imperium would have scoured the region for clues. The tapestries were empty of ravens. Instead, they diagrammed shifting voidcurrent flows. The approach of enemy starflyers would perturb the current and allow Lisse and the ghost to estimate their intent. Not trusting the kite’s systems—although there was only so far that she could take her distrust, given the circumstances—she had been watching the tapestries for the past several hours. She had, after a brief argument with the ghost, switched on haptics so that the air currents would, however imperfectly, reflect the status of the void around them. Sometimes it was easier to feel a problem through your skin.

“There’s no indication of derelict kites here,” she added. “Or even kites in use, other than this one.”

“It’s a starting place, that’s all,” the ghost said.

“We’re going to have to risk a station eventually. You might not need to eat, but I do.” She had only been able to sneak a few rations out of base. It was tempting to nibble at one now.

“Perhaps there are stores on the kite.”

“I can’t help but think this place is a trap.”

“You have to eat sooner or later,” the ghost said reasonably. “It’s worth a look, and I don’t want to see you go hungry.” At her hesitation, it added, “I’ll stand watch here. I’m only a breath away.”

This didn’t reassure her as much as it should have, but she was no longer a child in a bunk precisely aligned with the walls, clutching the covers while the ghost told her her people’s stories. She reminded herself of her favorite story, in which a single sentinel kept away the world’s last morning by burning out her eyes, and set out.

Lisse felt the ghostweight’s pull the farther away she walked, but that was old pain, and easily endured. Lights flicked on to accompany her, diffuse despite her unnaturally sharp shadow, then started illuminating passages ahead of her, guiding her footsteps. She wondered what the kite didn’t want her to see.

Rations were in an unmarked storage room. She wouldn’t have been certain about the rations, except that they were, if the packaging was to be believed, field category 72: better than what she had eaten on training exercises, but not by much. No surprise, now that she thought about it: from all accounts, the mercenaries had relied on their masters’ production capacity.

Feeling ridiculous, she grabbed two rations and retraced her steps. The fact that the kite lit her exact path only made her more nervous.

“Anything new?” she asked the ghost. She tapped the ration. “It’s a pity that you can’t taste poison.”

The ghost laughed dryly. “If the kite were going to kill you, it wouldn’t be that subtle. Food is food, Lisse.”

The food was as exactingly mediocre as she had come to expect from military food. At least it was not any worse. She found a receptacle for disposal afterward, then laid out a Scorch tableau, Candle Column to Bone, right to left. Cards rather than jerengjen, because she remembered the scuttling hound-jerengjen with creeping distaste.

From the moment she left Base 87, one timer had started running down. The devastation of Ishuel’s Bridge had begun another, the important one. She wasn’t gambling her survival; she had already sold it. The question was, how many Imperial bases could she extinguish on her way out? And could she hunt down any of the mercenaries that had been the Imperium’s killing sword?

Lisse sorted rapidly through possible targets. For instance, Base 226 Mheng, the Petaled Fortress. She would certainly perish in the attempt, but the only way she could better that accomplishment would be to raze the Imperial firstworld, and she wasn’t that ambitious. There was Bridgepoint 663 Tsi-Kes, with its celebrated Pallid Sentinels, or Aerie 8 Yeneq, which built the Imperium’s greatest flyers, or—

She set the cards down, closed her eyes, and pressed her palms against her face. She was no tactician supreme. Would it make much difference if she picked a card at random?

But of course nothing was truly random in the ghost’s presence.

She laid out the Candle Column again. “Not 8 Yeneq,” she said. “Let’s start with a softer target. Aerie 586 Chiu.”

Lisse looked at the ghost: the habit of seeking its approval had not left her. It nodded. “The safest approach is via the Capillary Ashways. It will test your piloting skills.”

Privately, Lisse thought that the kite would be happy to guide itself. They didn’t dare allow it to, however.

The Capillaries were among the worst of the ashways. Even starlight moved in unnerving ways when faced with ancient networks of voidcurrent gates, unmaintained for generations, or vortices whose behavior changed day by day.

They were fortunate with the first several capillaries. Under other circumstances, Lisse would have gawked at the splendor of lensed galaxies and the jewel-fire of distant clusters. She was starting to manipulate the control interface without hesitating, or flinching as though a wolf’s shadow might cross hers.

At the ninth—

“Patrol,” the ghost said, leaning close.

She nodded jerkily, trying not to show that its proximity pained her. Its mouth crimped in apology.

“It would have been worse if we’d made it all the way to 586 Chiu without a run-in,” Lisse said. That kind of luck always had a price. If she was unready, best to find out now, while there was a chance of fleeing to prepare for a later strike.

The patrol consisted of sixteen flyers: eight Lance 82s and eight Scout 73s. She had flown similar Scouts in simulation.

The flyers did not hesitate. A spread of missiles streaked toward her. Lisse launched antimissile fire.

It was impossible to tell whether they had gone on the attack because the Imperium and the mercenaries had parted on bad terms, or because the authorities had already learned of what had befallen Rhaion. She was certain couriers had gone out within moments of the devastation of Ishuel’s Bridge.

As the missiles exploded, Lisse wrenched the kite toward the nearest vortex. The kite was a larger and sturdier craft. It would be better able to survive the voidcurrent stresses. The tapestries dimmed as they approached. She shut off haptics as wind eddied and swirled in the command spindle. It would only get worse.

One missile barely missed her. She would have to do better. And the vortex was a temporary terrain advantage; she could not lurk there forever.

The second barrage came. Lisse veered deeper into the current. The stars took on peculiar roseate shapes.

“They know the kite’s capabilities,” the ghost reminded her. “Use them. If they’re smart, they’ll already have sent a courier burst to local command.”

The kite suggested jerengjen flyers, harrier class. Lisse conceded its expertise.

The harriers unfolded as they launched, sleek and savage. They maneuvered remarkably well in the turbulence. But there were only ten of them.

“If I fire into that, I’ll hit them,” Lisse said. Her reflexes were good, but not that good, and the harriers apparently liked to soar near their targets.

“You won’t need to fire,” the ghost said.

She glanced at him, disbelieving. Her hand hovered over the controls, playing through possibilities and finding them wanting. For instance, she wasn’t certain that the firebird (explosives) didn’t entail self-immolation, and she was baffled by the stag.

The patrol’s pilots were not incapable. They scorched three of the harriers. They probably realized at the same time that Lisse did that the three had been sacrifices. The other seven flensed them silent.

Lisse edged the kite out of the vortex. She felt an uncomfortable sense of duty to the surviving harriers, but she knew they were one-use, crumpled paper, like all jerengjen. Indeed, they folded themselves flat as she passed them, reducing themselves to battledrift.

“I can’t see how this is an efficient use of resources,” Lisse told the ghost.

“It’s an artifact of the mercenaries’ methods,” it said. “It works. Perhaps that’s all that matters.”

Lisse wanted to ask for details, but her attention was diverted by a crescendo of turbulence. By the time they reached gentler currents, she was too tired to bring it up.

They altered their approach to 586 Chiu twice, favoring stealth over confrontation. If she wanted to char every patrol in the Imperium by herself, she could live a thousand sleepless years and never be done.

For six days they lurked near 586 Chiu, developing a sense for local traffic and likely defenses. Terrain would not be much difficulty. Aeries were built near calm, steady currents.

“It would be easiest if you were willing to take out the associated city,” the ghost said in a neutral voice. They had been discussing whether making a bombing pass on the aerie posed too much of a risk. Lisse had balked at the fact that 586 Chiu Second City was well within blast radius. The people who had furnished the kite’s armaments seemed to have believed in surfeit. “They’d only have a moment to know what was happening.”

“No.”

“Lisse—”

She looked at it mutely, obdurate, although she hated to disappoint it. It hesitated, but did not press its case further.

“This, then,” it said in defeat. “Next best odds: aim the voidcurrent disrupter at the manufactory’s core while jerengjen occupy the defenses.” Aeries held the surrounding current constant to facilitate the calibration of newly built flyers. Under ordinary circumstances, the counterbalancing vortex was leashed at the core. If they could disrupt the core, the vortex would tear at its surroundings.

“That’s what we’ll do, then,” Lisse said. The disrupter had a short range. She did not like the idea of flying in close. But she had objected to the safer alternative.

Aerie 586 Chiu reminded Lisse not of a nest but of a pyre. Flyers and transports were always coming and going, like sparks. The kite swooped in sharp and fast. Falcon-jerengjen raced ahead of them, holding lattice formation for two seconds before scattering toward their chosen marks.

The aerie’s commanders responded commendably. They knew the kite was by far the greater threat. But Lisse met the first flight they threw at her with missiles keen and terrible. The void lit up in a clamor of brilliant colors.

The kite screamed when a flyer salvo hit one of its secondary wings. It bucked briefly while the other wings changed their geometry to compensate. Lisse could not help but think that the scream had not sounded like pain. It had sounded like exultation.

The real test was the gauntlet of Banner 142 artillery emplacements. They were silver-bright and terrible. It seemed wrong that they did not roar like tigers. Lisse bit the inside of her mouth and concentrated on narrowing the parameters for the voidcurrent disrupter. Her hand was a fist on the control panel.

One tapestry depicted the currents: striations within striations of pale blue against black. Despite its shielding, the core was visible as a knot tangled out of all proportion to its size.

“Now,” the ghost said, with inhuman timing.

She didn’t wait to be told twice. She unfisted her hand.

Unlike the wolf-strike, the disrupter made the kite scream again. It lurched and twisted. Lisse wanted to clap her hands over her ears, but there was more incoming fire, and she was occupied with evasive maneuvers. The kite folded in on itself, minimizing its profile. It dizzied her to view it on the secondary tapestry. For a panicked moment, she thought the kite would close itself around her, press her like petals in a book. Then she remembered to breathe.

The disrupter was not visible to human sight, but the kite could read its effect on the current. Like lightning, the disrupter’s blast forked and forked again, zigzagging inexorably toward the minute variations in flux that would lead it toward the core.

She was too busy whipping the kite around to an escape vector to see the moment of convergence between disrupter and core. But she felt the first lashing surge as the vortex spun free of its shielding, expanding into available space. Then she was too busy steadying the kite through the triggered subvortices to pay attention to anything but keeping them alive.

Only later did she remember how much debris there had been, flung in newly unpredictable ways: wings torn from flyers, struts, bulkheads, even an improbable crate with small reddish fruit tumbling from the hole in its side.

Later, too, it would trouble her that she had not been able to keep count of the people in the tumult. Most were dead already: sliced slantwise, bone and viscera exposed, trailing banners of blood; others twisted and torn, faces ripped off and cast aside like unwanted masks, fingers uselessly clutching the wrack of chairs, tables, door frames. A fracture in one wall revealed three people in dark green jackets. They turned their faces toward the widening crack, then clasped hands before a subvortex hurled them apart. The last Lisse saw of them was two hands, still clasped together and severed at the wrist.

Lisse found an escape. Took it.

She didn’t know until later that she had destroyed 40% of the aerie’s structure. Some people survived. They knew how to rebuild.

What she never found out was that the disrupter’s effect was sufficiently long-lasting that some of the survivors died of thirst before supplies could safely be brought in.

In the old days, Lisse’s people took on the ghostweight to comfort the dead and be comforted in return. After a year and a day, the dead unstitched themselves and accepted their rest.

After Jerengjen Day, Lisse’s people struggled to share the sudden increase in ghostweight, to alleviate the flickering terror of the massacred.

Lisse’s parents, unlike the others, stitched a ghost onto a child.

“They saw no choice,” the ghost told her again and again. “You mustn’t blame them.”

The ghost had listened uncomplainingly to her troubles and taught her how to cry quietly so the teachers wouldn’t hear her. It had soothed her to sleep with her people’s legends and histories, described the gardens and promenades so vividly she imagined she could remember them herself. Some nights were more difficult than others, trying to sleep with that strange, stabbing, heartpulse ache. But blame was not what she felt, not usually.

The second target was Base 454 Qo, whose elite flyers were painted with elaborate knotwork, green with bronze-tipped thorns. For reasons that Lisse did not try to understand, the jerengjen dismembered the defensive flight but left the painted panels completely intact.

The third, the fourth, the fifth—she started using Scorch card values to tabulate the reported deaths, however unreliable the figures were in any unencrypted sources. For all its talents, the kite could not pierce military-grade encryption. She spent two days fidgeting over this inconvenience so she wouldn’t have to think about the numbers.

When she did think about the numbers, she refused to round up. She refused to round down.

The nightmares started after the sixth, Bridgepoint 977 Ja-Esh. The station commander had kept silence, as she had come to expect. However, a merchant coalition had broken the interdict to plead for mercy in fourteen languages. She hadn’t destroyed the coalition’s outpost. The station had, in reprimand.

She reminded herself that the merchant would have perished anyway. She had learned to use the firebird to scathing effect. And she was under no illusions that she was only destroying Imperial soldiers and bureaucrats.

In her dreams she heard their pleas in her birth tongue, which the ghost had taught her. The ghost, for its part, started singing her to sleep, as it had when she was little.

The numbers marched higher. When they broke ten million, she plunged out of the command spindle and into the room she had claimed for her own. She pounded the wall until her fists bled. Triumph tasted like salt and venom. It wasn’t supposed to be so easy. In the worst dreams, a wolf roved the tapestries, eating shadows—eating souls. And the void with its tinsel of worlds was nothing but one vast shadow.

Stores began running low after the seventeenth. Lisse and the ghost argued over whether it was worth attempting to resupply through black market traders. Lisse said they didn’t have time to spare, and won. Besides, she had little appetite.

Intercepted communications suggested that someone was hunting them. Rumors and whispers. They kept Lisse awake when she was so tired she wanted to slam the world shut and hide. The Imperium certainly planned reprisal. Maybe others did, too.

If anyone else took advantage of the disruption to move against the Imperium for their own reasons, she didn’t hear about it.

The names of the war-kites, recorded in the Imperium’s administrative language, are varied: Fire Burns the Spider Black. The Siege of the City with Seventeen Faces. Sovereign Geometry. The Glove with Three Fingers.

The names are not, strictly speaking, Imperial. Rather, they are plundered from the greatest accomplishments of the cultures that the mercenaries have defeated on the Imperium’s behalf. Fire Burns the Spider Black was a silk tapestry housed in the dark hall of Meu Danh, ancient of years. The Siege of the City with Seventeen Faces was a saga chanted by the historians of Kwaire. Sovereign Geometry discussed the varying nature of parallel lines. And more: plays, statues, games.

The Imperium’s scholars and artists take great pleasure in reinterpreting these works. Such achievements are meant to be disseminated, they say.

They were three days’ flight from the next target, Base 894 Sao, when the shadow winged across all the tapestries. The void was dark, pricked by starfire and the occasional searing burst of particles. The shadow singed everything darker as it soared to intercept them, as single-minded in its purpose as a bullet. For a second she almost thought it was a collage of wrecked flyers and rusty shrapnel.

The ghost cursed. Lisse startled, but when she looked at it, its face was composed again.

As Lisse pulled back the displays’ focus to get a better sense of the scale, she thought of snowbirds and stormbirds, winter winds and cutting beaks. “I don’t know what that is,” she said, “but it can’t be natural.” None of the imperial defenses had manifested in such a fashion.

“It’s not,” the ghost said. “That’s another war-kite.”

Lisse cleared the control panel. She veered them into a chancy voidcurrent eddy.

The ghost said, “Wait. You won’t outrun it. As we see its shadow, it sees ours.”

“How does a kite have a shadow in the void in the first place?” she asked. “And why haven’t we ever seen our own shadow?”

“Who can see their own soul?” the ghost said. But it would not meet her eyes.

Lisse would have pressed for more, but the shadow overtook them. It folded itself back like a plumage of knives. She brought the kite about. The control panel suggested possibilities: a two-headed dragon, a falcon, a coiled snake. Next a wolf reared up, but she quickly pulled her hand back.

“Visual contact,” the kite said crisply.

The stranger-kite was the color of a tarnished star. It had tucked all its projections away to present a minimal surface for targeting, but Lisse had no doubt that it could unfold itself faster than she could draw breath. The kite flew a widening helix, beautifully precise.

“A mercenary salute, equal to equal,” the ghost said.

“Are we expected to return it?”

“Are you a mercenary?” the ghost countered.

“Communications incoming,” the kite said before Lisse could make a retort.

“I’ll hear it,” Lisse said over the ghost’s objection. It was the least courtesy she could offer, even to a mercenary.

To Lisse’s surprise, the tapestry’s raven vanished to reveal a woman’s visage, not an emblem. The woman had brown skin, a scar trailing from one temple down to her cheekbone, and dark hair cropped short. She wore gray on gray, in no uniform that Lisse recognized, sharply tailored. Lisse had expected a killer’s eyes, a hunter’s eyes. Instead, the woman merely looked tired.

“Commander Kiriet Dzan of—” She had been speaking in administrative, but the last word was unfamiliar. “You would say Candle.”

“Lisse of Rhaion,” she said. There was no sense in hiding her name.

But the woman wasn’t looking at her. She was looking at the ghost. She said something sharply in that unfamiliar language.

The ghost pressed its hand against Lisse’s. She shuddered, not understanding. “Be strong,” it murmured.

“I see,” Kiriet said, once more speaking in administrative. Her mouth was unsmiling. “Lisse, do you know who you’re traveling with?”

“I don’t believe we’re acquainted,” the ghost said, coldly formal.

“Of course not,” Kiriet said. “But I was the logistical coordinator for the scouring of Rhaion.” She did not say consolidation. “I knew why we were there. Lisse, your ghost’s name is Vron Arien.”

Lisse said, after several seconds, “That’s a mercenary name.”

The ghost said, “So it is. Lisse—” Its hand fell away.

“Tell me what’s going on.”

Its mouth was taut. Then: “Lisse, I—”

“Tell me.”

“He was a deserter, Lisse,” the woman said, carefully, as if she thought the information might fracture her. “For years he eluded Wolf Command. Then we discovered he had gone to ground on Rhaion. Wolf Command determined that, for sheltering him, Rhaion must be brought to heel. The Imperium assented.”

Throughout this Lisse looked at the ghost, silently begging it to deny any of it, all of it. But the ghost said nothing.

Lisse thought of long nights with the ghost leaning by her bedside, reminding her of the dancers, the tame birds, the tangle of frostfruit trees in the city square; things she did not remember herself because she had been too young when the jerengjen came. Even her parents only came to her in snatches: curling up in a mother’s lap, helping a father peel plantains. Had any of the ghost’s stories been real?

She thought, too, of the way the ghost had helped her plan her escape from Base 87, how it had led her cunningly through the maze and to the kite. At the time, it had not occurred to her to wonder at its confidence.

Lisse said, “Then the kite is yours.”

“After a fashion, yes.” The ghost’s eyes were precisely the color of ash after the last ember’s death.

“But my parents—”

Enunciating the words as if they cut it, the ghost said, “We made a bargain, your parents and I.”

She could not help it; she made a stricken sound.

“I offered you my protection,” the ghost said. “After years serving the Imperium, I knew its workings. And I offered your parents vengeance. Don’t think that Rhaion wasn’t my home, too.”

Lisse was wrackingly aware of Kiriet’s regard. “Did my parents truly die in the consolidation?” The euphemism was easier to use.

She could have asked whether Lisse was her real name. She had to assume that it wasn’t.

“I don’t know,” it said. “After you were separated from them, I had no way of finding out. Lisse, I think you had better find out what Kiriet wants. She is not your friend.”

I was the logistical coordinator, Kiriet had said. And her surprise at seeing the ghost—It has a name, Lisse reminded herself—struck Lisse as genuine. Which meant Kiriet had not come here in pursuit of Vron Arien. “Why are you here?” Lisse asked.

“You’re not going to like it. I’m here to destroy your kite, whatever you’ve named it.”

“It doesn’t have a name.” She had been unable to face the act of naming, of claiming ownership.

Kiriet looked at her sideways. “I see.”

“Surely you could have accomplished your goal,” Lisse said, “without talking to me first. I am inexperienced in the ways of kites. You are not.” In truth, she should already have been running. But Kiriet’s revelation meant that Lisse’s purpose, once so clear, was no longer to be relied upon.

“I may not be your friend, but I am not your enemy, either,” Kiriet said. “I have no common purpose with the Imperium, not anymore. But you cannot continue to use the kite.”

Lisse’s eyes narrowed. “It is the weapon I have,” she said. “I would be a fool to relinquish it.”

“I don’t deny its efficacy,” Kiriet said, “but you are Rhaioni. Doesn’t the cost trouble you?”

Cost?

Kiriet said, “So no one told you.” Her anger focused on the ghost.

“A weapon is a weapon,” the ghost said. At Lisse’s indrawn breath, it said, “The kites take their sustenance from the deaths they deal. It was necessary to strengthen ours by letting it feast on smaller targets first. This is the particular craft of my people, as ghostweight was the craft of yours, Lisse.”

Sustenance. “So this is why you want to destroy the kite,” Lisse said to Kiriet.

“Yes.” The other woman’s smile was bitter. “As you might imagine, the Imperium did not approve. It wanted to negotiate another hundred-year contract. I dissented.”

“Were you in a position to dissent?” the ghost asked, in a way that made Lisse think that it was translating some idiom from its native language.

“I challenged my way up the chain of command and unseated the head of Wolf Command,” Kiriet said. “It was not a popular move. I have been destroying kites ever since. If the Imperium is so keen on further conquest, let it dirty its own hands.”

“Yet you wield a kite yourself,” Lisse said.

“Candle is my home. But on the day that every kite is accounted for in words of ash and cinders, I will turn my own hand against it.”

It appealed to Lisse’s sense of irony. All the same, she did not trust Kiriet.

She heard a new voice. Kiriet’s head turned. “Someone’s followed you.” She said a curt phrase in her own language, then: “You’ll want my assistance—”

Lisse shook her head.

“It’s a small flight, as these things go, but it represents a threat to you. Let me—”

“No,” Lisse said, more abruptly than she had meant to. “I’ll handle it myself.”

“If you insist,” Kiriet said, looking even more tired. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” Then her face was replaced, for a flicker, with her emblem: a black candle crossed slantwise by an empty sheath.

“The Candle is headed for a vortex, probably for cover,” the ghost said, very softly. “But it can return at any moment.”

Lisse thought that she was all right, and then the reaction set in. She spent several irrecoverable breaths shaking, arms wrapped around herself, before she was able to concentrate on the tapestry data.

At one time, every war-kite displayed a calligraphy scroll in its command spindle. The words are, approximately:

I have only

one candle

Even by the mercenaries’ standards, it is not much of a poem. But the woman who wrote it was a soldier, not a poet.

The mercenaries no longer have a homeland. Even so, they keep certain traditions, and one of them is the Night of Vigils. Each mercenary honors the year’s dead by lighting a candle. They used to do this on the winter solstice of an ancient calendar. Now the Night of Vigils is on the anniversary of the day the first war-kites were launched; the day the mercenaries slaughtered their own people to feed the kites.

The kites fly, the mercenaries’ commandant said. But they do not know how to hunt.

When he was done, they knew how to hunt. Few of the mercenaries forgave him, but it was too late by then.

The poem says: So many people have died, yet I have only one candle for them all.

It is worth noting that “have” is expressed by a particular construction for alienable possession: not only is the having subject to change, it is additionally under threat of being taken away.

Kiriet’s warning had been correct. An Imperial flight in perfect formation had advanced toward them, inhibiting their avenues of escape. They outnumbered her forty-eight to one. The numbers did not concern her, but the Imperium’s resources meant that if she dealt with this flight, there would be twenty more waiting for her, and the numbers would only grow worse. That they had not opened fire already meant they had some trickery in mind.

One of the flyers peeled away, describing an elegant curve and exposing its most vulnerable surface, painted with a rose.

“That one’s not armed,” Lisse said, puzzled.

The ghost’s expression was unreadable. “How very wise of them,” it said.

The forward tapestry flickered. “Accept the communication,” Lisse said.

The emblem that appeared was a trefoil flanked by two roses, one stem-up, one stem-down. Not for the first time, Lisse wondered why people from a culture that lavished attention on miniatures and sculptures were so intent on masking themselves in emblems.

“Commander Fai Guen, this is Envoy Nhai Bara.” A woman’s voice, deep and resonant, with an accent Lisse didn’t recognize.

So I’ve been promoted? Lisse thought sardonically, feeling herself tense up. The Imperium never gave you anything, even a meaningless rank, without expecting something in return.

Softly, she said to the ghost, “They were bound to catch up to us sooner or later.” Then, to the kite: “Communications to Envoy Nhai: I am Lisse of Rhaion. What words between us could possibly be worth exchanging? Your people are not known for mercy.”

“If you will not listen to me,” Nhai said, “perhaps you will listen to the envoy after me, or the one after that. We are patient and we are many. But I am not interested in discussing mercy: that’s something we have in common.”

“I’m listening,” Lisse said, despite the ghost’s chilly stiffness. All her life she had honed herself against the Imperium. It was unbearable to consider that she might have been mistaken. But she had to know what Nhai’s purpose was.

“Commander Lisse,” the envoy said, and it hurt like a stab to hear her name spoken by a voice other than the ghost’s, a voice that was not Rhaioni. Even if she knew, now, that the ghost was not Rhaioni, either. “I have a proposal for you. You have proven your military effectiveness—”

Military effectiveness. She had tallied all the deaths, she had marked each massacre on the walls of her heart, and this faceless envoy collapsed them into two words empty of number.

“—quite thoroughly. We are in need of a strong sword. What is your price for hire, Commander Lisse?”

“What is my—” She stared at the trefoil emblem, and then her face went ashen.

It is not true that the dead cannot be folded. Square becomes kite becomes swan; history becomes rumor becomes song. Even the act of remembrance creases the truth.

But the same can be said of the living.





Perfect Lies

Gwendolyn Clare



The only enjoyable part of my daily meeting with Losin was the view. One large panoramic viewport made up the far wall of his grandiose office—a perk of being the Director-General of the UN Interworld Relations Organization. Losin sat facing the door instead, so while he talked I stared over his right shoulder at the starscape beyond.

The Mask People’s starship floated in the distance, gargantuan yet fragile, a city-sized architectural latticework sprawling in three dimensions. The vessel had synchronized its trajectory with our station’s orbit, so it seemed to hang motionless against a backdrop of crawling stars. I loved the look of it—so still, so stoic. A massive, involuted shell to hide the Mask People and all their teeming emotions.

Not that it mattered how I felt. I would do my job.

Losin paused. “Are you listening, Nora?”

I don’t generally look at people’s faces unless I have a specific reason for reading them. Too late, I remembered how little Losin cared for my natural stoic demeanor.

I shifted my gaze to make eye contact and twisted my mouth into a reassuring smile. “Of course, sir.”

“It’s critical to reach an agreement with no alterations to the trade proposal. I don’t care what you have to do to convince them, I want signatures on that document as is.” He was in his third decade of politics and had both the gray hair and the attitude to match.

I played a quick microexpression of surprise across my face, followed by half-concealed disagreement. “With all due respect, sir, we’re at the start of what will likely be a long and complicated interspecies relationship. Pushing too hard at this juncture could have unforeseen consequences.” Not to mention the consequences of deliberately misrepresenting our intentions, outright lying to them, and attempting to steal from them. All of which I would soon facilitate.

“You’ll play the game the way I tell you to,” he said, flashing an unconscious sneer. He thought of me as his puppet, a glorified translator and nothing more.

A now-familiar flame of spite flared in my chest. To be fair, “puppet” was pretty much the job description I signed up for. I wore the title of ambassador purely to avoid insulting the Mask People with my negligible political status. Problem was, I couldn’t seem to shut off my brain quite the way Losin wanted.

I also couldn’t help needling him. “What shall I tell the Prime Judge if he asks to meet with you?”

Losin flinched slightly from fear of the Mask People’s hyperobservant abilities. “That might be unavoidable.”

“Maybe we could arrange a social event,” I offered, raising my eyebrows with the suggestion. “Some polite conversation but no politics beyond ‘we’re glad you’re here.’ A short introduction would be enough to set their minds at ease.”

Losin stood and poured a drink from a bottle on the credenza as an excuse to not look at me. At the same time that he resented me for every scrap of limelight he had to share, he understood I was necessary. Me with my unique deficiency, my talent for inexpression.

He swirled his scotch, trying to hide his reluctance. “Not a bad idea. I’ll have my secretary put it on the schedule.”

Out the viewport, a fleck of movement caught my eye. Sunlight reflected off an approaching short-range transport, the shuttle dwarfed in comparison to the Mask ship from which it came. They were coming, eager and well-intentioned. For a fleeting moment, I wished I’d quit politics and taken up life as a hermit.

“One more thing,” Losin said. “We’ve had a rise in threats against Mask People and the Interworld Relations Organization since the trade talks were announced. Central security has cordoned off an area of the station for the Mask People, but I want you to be extra careful, especially when you’re outside the secure zone.”

“Of course, sir,” I said, and smiled a professionally fake smile—lips a little too tight, eye muscles not quite scrunched enough. “Will that be all?”

The newest member of my personal security detail, Iman Amiri, waited outside Losin’s door. He fell into step beside me as I strode down the hallway. He had a restless bounce in his step, and after a moment he asked, “What’s our status?”

“The Prime Judge should be docking soon,” I said. “Time to meet your first Mask People.”

Protocol demanded that two more security officers meet us at the Bay Two entry hall to be present during interspecies contact. They weren’t two I was particularly fond of. They belonged to the camp who referred to me as “the robot” behind my back, as if I wouldn’t find out about something so inane. Amiri either hadn’t picked up on the nickname yet, or had decided it wasn’t worth pissing me off just to fit in with his coworkers. I hoped it was the latter; I could use someone smart to balance out these meatheads.

“New kid gets the screen,” I declared, and the meathead named Gorsky passed the large, round holographic projection screen to Amiri. I controlled the screen’s image wirelessly, which was very convenient for communicating with Mask People, but the chip behind my ear did little to alleviate the robotic reputation.

To Amiri, I said, “You can talk to them but they won’t be listening to the words—they’ll get the meaning from reading your face.”

He nodded, quick and nervous. Nervous was okay—not anything the Mask People hadn’t seen a hundred times before. Hostile would’ve been a problem, but I didn’t read any of that in the microexpressions he kept trying to cover up. The trying was okay too—they would hardly notice the false stoicism overlaid atop the true emotions.

At the opposite end of the hall, a light on the wall flashed green to indicate their arrival, and the doors slid silently open to admit the Mask People.

The first feature anyone notices about the Mask People is their enormous faces. To say that a Mask Person has an enlarged face is like saying that a giraffe has an elongated neck or a blue whale is a bit heavy. Mask People are mostly face by volume, the round surface covered in feathery, dexterous appendages that they use as their primary means of communication. The facial feathers come in bright, carnival colors—tourmaline green and iridescent violet, sanguine red and sunlit yellow—though that’s not why they’re called Mask People. Still, the feathers are hard to miss.

Most of their musculoskeletal effort goes into supporting their massive faces, with mobility only earning a distant second place, so the Prime Judge and his entourage shambled forward in a zigzag of awkward steps. I’ve overheard the spaceport brats making Mask-People-tipping jokes the way my great-grandparents may have joked about cow-tipping as children. They did look rather like it wouldn’t take much of a push.

Despite their innocuous appearance, the Mask People were far from harmless. Their starship came equipped with technologies that made humankind’s ventures into space look like monkeys throwing sticks in the air. Nothing like an imbalance of power to make trade negotiations a little too interesting.

Humanity’s only advantage was that they had me.

Following the Prime Judge, the Mask Ambassador, and their personal staff came the Mask Bearers, carrying the unwieldy cultural artifacts from which their species took their name. The masks, unlike the Mask People’s true faces, bear no resemblance to carnival dress—they are plain and blank, expressionless, and large enough to entirely cover a Mask Person’s face. Even the eye holes have one-way reflective glass, so the wearer can look out without anyone seeing their eyes. For a race of hyperexpressive beings, masks provide the only means of privacy.

The Prime Judge extended one long, skeletal arm to clasp hands in the standard human fashion, and I wrapped my fingers around his skinny digits with an appropriate level of solemnity. Their upper limbs always put me in mind of starvation victims. Good thing I never show what I’m thinking.

The Prime Judge greeted me in his native language, facial feathers dancing. Well met, Human Ambassador. Reading their language required a somewhat diffuse gaze; if I stared at any particular spot on their face, I would miss subtleties elsewhere. He was testing me, curious to see how well I understood him.

Welcome to Sol System, Prime Judge, I said, mentally puppeting the holographic Mask Person face projected by the screen in Amiri’s arms. I tailored my answer to be formal and respectful but with undertones of warmth and gladness. After years of training to be able to puppet my own body, it hadn’t been much of a stretch to adapt to the screen instead. The feathers on the Prime Judge’s cheeks smoothed flat, surprised and impressed with my grasp of his language’s emotive subtleties.

Mask Ambassador, I said, looking at the Mask Person on its left, may I present New Security.

I translated the Mask Ambassador’s laconic greeting for Amiri and he replied with a simple “Hi.” He tucked his chin and glanced up at them and down again several times, awkward and anxious for their approval. I read amusement in the slow twirl of their feathers.

The introductions continued until everyone in the room had met everyone else down to the last Mask Bearer. In their culture, ignoring someone with an unmasked face was a terrible insult—even if that person, say a human security officer, would prefer to fade into the background. The custom also meant I had to shake the hand of each person I would shortly be backstabbing during the trade talks.

By the end, I was thankful that no actual discussion of policy was planned for the day, simply a mutual confirmation of the schedule for days to come. Once the introductions were completed, the Prime Judge seemed eager to move on to his private quarters; sometimes I think they visit purely to meet new people. Did I mention how very much they enjoy their introductions? It’s the people they’ve already met they grow tired of.

Not me, though, they don’t get tired of me because they can only read what I give them. By the end of the meeting, the Prime Judge left feeling reassured and a little intrigued. An excellent first impression. I earned their trust and felt sick all the while, knowing what was to come. If my face were chained to my innermost thoughts like a normal person, I would have grimaced.

Of course, if I were a normal person, the UN never would have slapped the ambassador label on me and shipped me up here. They hired me for the job because I was the only human they could find with the capacity for becoming fluent in the Mask People’s language. Also, because I was the only human who could successfully lie to them.

We had the rest of the day free, while the Mask People settled in to their temporary accommodations aboard the station. I dismissed the two meatheads and took Amiri with me when I left the entry hall. At the first major corridor junction, I turned toward the public sectors of the station.

Amiri raised an eyebrow at that, and I said, “We’ve got to make a stop.”

The Dark Moon Café offered garish décor and mediocre-to-awful food. More cafeteria than café, it was noisy, crowded, exposed, and I loathed it. We were served lunch, and I hoped my other purpose would be served as well.

“What exactly are we doing here? This is hardly a secure location,” Amiri said from across the table, displeasure showing in the crease of his brow.

“We’re fishing for extremists. If they’ve managed to get on board, I want to know about it.” The desire to do the exact opposite of what Losin instructed me to also may have contributed slightly, I admit.

“Draw them out using yourself as bait?” Amiri thought about it. “That’s nuts, but it’s my kind of nuts.”

“If they’re here, I’d rather we find them before they get a shot at the Mask People.”

I watched the crowd, scanning for tell-tale microexpressions of hate or disgust. We both picked at our food. Stake-outs weren’t a part of my usual repertoire, and this one gave me a strange combination of boredom and anxiety.

While he kept an eye on the exits, Amiri tried making conversation to relieve the tension. “Did you hear about the new Castillo Method results?” He’d been on the job for three weeks and hadn’t yet figured me out—though he kept fishing for clues.

“Nope,” I said, giving him none.

“They’re having some luck with sociopaths.”

I moved my gaze from the other patrons—none of whom displayed hostile intent—down to my half-eaten slice of quiche without making eye contact. “You’re suggesting I might be interested in the procedure, with regards to my condition.”

“They must be making progress if they can correct sociopathy now. And neural pathway realignment is noninvasive and very low risk. So why not?”

“I’d be out of a job, for one thing,” I said. And then, when he didn’t get it, “That was a joke.”

“Oh,” he said, and let himself grin.

I took another bite, chewed, swallowed. “I wonder how the sociopaths felt about the treatment.”

He grinned again. It wasn’t a joke this time.

I scanned the crowd once more. Either there weren’t any extremists on board, or they weren’t eating lunch at the Dark Moon like half the station was. It was frustrating not knowing, one way or the other. The last thing these trade talks needed was another element of uncertainty.

I forked one more mouthful, surgically removing the filling from the soggy crust, and slid the plate away. “Come on, new kid. There are other places to check.”

My parents thought I was a sociopath for a long time.

I hardly ever cried as a baby, and I never once smiled. It almost would have been a relief, I think, if I’d turned out to be severely mentally retarded. But as it was, I developed more or less normally, except that I utterly failed to express emotional responses or recognize them in others. My parents went through an endless stream of baffled child psychologists, all the while waiting for the tortured animal carcasses to start showing up.

But the problem wasn’t a lack of healthy emotions, simply an inability to communicate them. Finally they found a school—a special and very expensive school—that claimed to be up to the challenge, and they shipped me off. I never interacted with them outside of mandatory holidays after that. To this day I don’t know if they were ashamed of me, or ashamed of themselves for assuming their own daughter was a budding serial killer for so many years.

In school, I learned most of the regular drivel, but the classes that mattered were all about facial anatomy and body language and verbal inflection. I learned how to recognize emotions analytically, piece by painstaking little piece, and how to make my own muscles mimic them.

To everyone’s surprise, I got good at it—really good at it. Like an ESL student who knows better English grammar than a native speaker, I became more fluent in emotional expression than most of the people who use it naturally. The government recruited me when I turned eighteen.

Around one in four hundred people has a natural ability to read microexpressions and body language such that they can reliably tell when someone is lying. These people have been called “Truth Wizards.” I can do what they do, but I can do the opposite just as well. I suppose that makes me the “Falsehood Wizard.”

After a fruitless afternoon of scanning for extremists, I ate dinner in the security lounge with my staff so we could go over the work schedule for tomorrow. With each successive meeting between humans and Mask People, the anti-alien factions have spewed their xenophobic propaganda louder and louder. The station’s central security screens for anyone who poses a threat, but that just means the extremists need to act smarter to slip through.

Toward the end of the meal, I was finished with the business part and the men were chatting and joking among themselves.

“Hey Amiri, check this out.” Gorsky leaned over and poked me in the arm with his fork. It hurt. They all laughed when I didn’t flinch, all except Amiri who looked distinctly uncomfortable.

I stared at Gorsky, and my lack of expression set them to laughing for another round. That sound filled me with a black hatred for humanity.

I picked up my own fork and jabbed it down into the meat of his thigh, metal tines sinking into flesh. Gorsky’s eyes flew open with surprise and he howled his pain.

“You’re fired,” I said and stood to leave. “Amiri, come with me.”

Amiri seemed frozen in his chair for a moment before he scrambled to fall in step behind me. As we left, I heard Gorsky yell, “It was a joke, you crazy bitch!”

I thought about re-hiring him just so I could fire him twice. I should have put that whole situation to rest much sooner, before it got out of hand. Not very diplomatic of me. I’ve gotten so used to being isolated and ostracized that I suppose I stopped recognizing it for what it was: suffering in silence.

Story of my life.

“That was sort of amazing, what you did,” Amiri said later. It wasn’t technically his shift anymore, but I didn’t feel like facing the others.

We were in the sitting room of my suite—him fiddling with the settings on his standard-issue stunner and me reviewing the hundred-page-long trade proposal I’d be discussing the next day.

“It doesn’t concern you that your new boss stabbed one of her other employees?” I kept my eyes on the document, half-listening for his answer.

“No offense, but if the guy can’t defend himself against a pissed-off lady with a fork, he’s not much of a security officer.” He paused. “Why’d you do it, though?”

“I decided it was time to make a point,” I said, scrolling through to the next page.

“More like four points.” I could hear the grin in the timbre of his voice.

By page seventeen, I was treading water in an endless sea of legalese. The Mask People want to purchase asteroid mining rights, which is complicated enough on its own given that no one actually has a legal claim to the asteroid belt. And if they agree to trade their propulsion technology, then the very same mining resources suddenly become accessible and potentially desirable to humans, too.

Amiri interrupted again. “Wouldn’t things be easier if you pretended to be normal all the time? I’ve seen you working, you can mimic expressions perfectly. Why not just do that with everyone?”

“Because the act is a lie.” I set aside the document and looked up at him, curious to see how he’d react to my answer. “I never feel like smiling—I feel happy, and then I switch on a smile, like a robot executing an if-then command. It may look all warm and fuzzy and genuine to you, but it’s not.”

He cringed slightly at the robot reference, but he said, “If nobody can tell it’s a knock-off, what does it matter that it’s not the real thing?”

“I would know.” Sometimes it made me angry—the constant expectation that I pretend to be someone I’m not for the comfort and convenience of everyone else—but not right now. He was new and still trying to figure me out, which was more than meathead Gorsky ever did for me.

In the morning, I went early to the reception room to see Director-General Losin before the Mask People arrived. His back was to the door when I came in, but I caught him unconsciously wiping clammy palms on his trouser legs. Terrified. I held out a hand to tell my security detail—Amiri and Wellinger—to hang back, and I walked up beside Losin.

“They’re not psychic, you know.”

He jumped, then glared down at me for startling him. “What?”

“They can’t read your mind, just your face. All you have to do is stay focused on safe thoughts, safe emotions.”

“I know what I have to do, Nora.” Losin shifted his weight, restless, probably wondering how badly he could screw up his precious trade agreement with a single expression.

I admit, I was enjoying his discomfort. “Don’t worry. They’ll get bored with you pretty quick, so long as you don’t look like you’re hiding something,” I said and smiled sweetly.

Losin got back at me by assigning one of his own security detail to hold my screen, effectively tethering me to his side to serve as his personal translator for the morning. A small crew of central-security-approved caterers were already set up, and the other human guests began to arrive in ones and twos—whatever dignitaries Losin could manage to round up on short notice.

The Prime Judge, the Mask Ambassador, and their sizeable entourage arrived at the reception hall precisely on time. Within minutes, a few of the Mask People tired of Losin’s dignitaries and began to harass the caterers for introductions instead, offending the former and confusing the latter. I wished I could kick back and watch the hilarity ensue. But given that the average person could learn to recognize only a few of the most basic expressions in the Mask language, I was needed for any complicated interactions. My duties occupied my full attention.

Or almost all of it.

A movement in my peripheral vision distracted me. Across the room, one of the caterers walked with too much tension in his step and clutched his tray nervously. He was not here with the sole intention of serving appetizers.

I caught Amiri’s eye, then transferred my gaze quickly to the suspect and back again. He quirked a questioning eyebrow, not able to see the signs I saw. I widened my eyes and tilted my head down, insistent. A twitch of his shoulder, ceding the point, and he slid through the crowd in pursuit.

Amiri attempted to escort him out quietly, but the caterer stood his ground and started making a scene. The room fell silent as all the humans craned their necks to see what was going on. A couple other security officers descended on the caterer, and the ruckus ended with him stunned and dragged out of the room. At the door, Amiri turned to give me a slight nod, confirming that the suspect had something on him. Not a weapon, from Amiri’s expression. Poison, maybe. I’d have to ask him later.

I turned around again, intent on resuming my translator duties, but I froze when I saw Losin. His expression screamed, That moron is going to ruin all my plans.

I kept my own expression impassive and leaned in close to him. “Take a walk. Your face is a mess.”

He scowled, I met his gaze with an expressionless stare, and after a moment he relented. He wandered off and found a group of humans to socialize with until his thoughts were back under control. Relief washed through me. At least Losin had the sense to listen when it counted.

I caught the Prime Judge watching me, and the feeling of relief evaporated. My screen-holder in tow, I closed the distance to speak with the Prime Judge.

You saw all of that, didn’t you? I said, chagrined.

It rippled its facial feathers in the Mask Person equivalent of a wry smile. Of course.

Why didn’t you point out the threat before I noticed it?

I was curious to observe how your species would handle the situation.

And? I resisted the urge to look for Losin and check whether he had his expression under control yet.

The experience was informative, the Prime Judge said with a hint of cautiousness, almost suspicion.

I wondered whether the cautiousness was a response to the threat itself, or to Losin’s too-revealing reaction. Bluntness was often seen as a virtue in the Mask culture, so I said, It is not entirely safe for you here.

Yes, it said, at once resigned and forgiving—Losin had insisted on hosting the trade talks on the station. It would have been safer to meet on the starship, where we have adequate protection.

Doubt made me pause. This was supposed to be a social gathering, not a political tête-à-tête, but I needed to know more about how they viewed their own technology. Just “adequate”? Your species could sterilize the surface of our planet if you so desired.

The Prime Judge’s feathers smoothed with genuine surprise. Possessing the ability and possessing the intention are entirely different matters, Ambassador.

Indeed. If only that answer would satisfy Losin.

I knew that it wouldn’t. Losin was committed to a course of action, and I had no choice but to proceed as he’d planned.

The afternoon was reserved for the real work: trade negotiations. Amiri waited for me to finish lunch while Wellinger went ahead to secure the conference room. This arrangement was fine by me, since meathead Wellinger wasn’t likely to forgive me the Gorsky incident any time soon. I emptied my coffee cup, tucked all the necessary documents into a slim shoulder-bag, and made eye contact with Amiri to tell him I was ready.

Before Amiri joined my staff, I used to prefer multiple escorts. They talked among themselves and I could disengage, mentally withdraw from their company. Now it seemed almost comfortable, having Amiri all to myself.

We walked the spaceport corridors toward the designated meeting space, Amiri unconsciously matching my stride. Out in public, half his attention focused on scanning and evaluating—not too vigilant to hold up a conversation, but I wasn’t exactly feeling chatty with the trade negotiations only minutes away, so we walked in silence. The hallways seemed ominously long today.

I told myself I was just doing my job. The decisions had already been made by people more important and more knowledgeable than me. I was only a messenger, and none of it would be my fault. Not really.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Amiri tense in a way that shot adrenaline through my veins, and then all hell broke loose. The first two men closed with Amiri before he could unholster his stunner. The third and fourth stepped around them to come at me from both sides.

The one on my left said, “Eat this, bitch.” The one on my right fingered the handle of his shiv and said nothing. My own fingers tensed around the strap of my shoulder bag, readying to use it as a shield.

The sound of punches landing emanated from Amiri’s general direction, and his assailants fell to the ground, first one and then the other in rapid succession. He spun to face me, threw up his arm, and the other two dropped to the floor unconscious.

God, he was fast. I never even saw him draw the stunner.

Back in my suite, I sipped from the glass Amiri gave me, hand shaking. Adrenaline—one of the few biochemicals I can honestly express, since it bypasses the brain and acts directly on muscle function.

I set the glass down so I wouldn’t drop it. “We need to reschedule the meeting.”

“Already done,” said Amiri.

“And have Gorsky forcibly removed from the station.”

“Gorsky?”

“They were waiting for me. There’s a short list of people who could’ve told them my schedule, and only one who recently took a fork in the leg.”

“Point,” he said, and dialed central security on his comm.

When he finished the call, he sat down across from me and leaned forward in the way people do when they’re trying to read someone. Force of habit, I suppose. He said, “You okay?”

“Yes.” The adrenaline high was fading and I felt too worn out to put on an act for him. “Honestly, I’m grateful for the delay.”

“Uh-oh. That doesn’t sound good.”

I paused, considering how much to tell him. He’d saved my life; it seemed absurd to distrust him now. “In exchange for the asteroid mining rights they’ve requested, human technicians will be given full access to their onboard systems in the starship. And we promise not to copy any of their offensive technology, of course.” I looked up, to see if he got it.

“You’re kidding,” Amiri said. The kid was smart, I’d been right about that. “They’re going to trust us not to steal their weapon designs? That’ll end well. And you’re supposed to be selling this as a good plan?”

“We’re trying to establish a relationship of trust.” Trust we could exploit, of course. Never mind that, in the process of ensuring our martial adequacy against the Mask People, we might accidentally start the very war we sought to avoid. “Besides, our technicians are scrupulous and beyond reproach. That’s the party line.”

Amiri threw me a skeptical look. “The problem with telling perfect lies is that you might start believing them yourself.”

I would have winced then, were I normal. Amiri had no idea how close he came to hitting the mark—there’s nothing I fear more than the thought of the lies starting to control me, and not the other way around.

I didn’t share that with him. It was my right not to. I’m a professional at leaving things hidden and I don’t regret it—I tell myself I never regret it. I tell myself I like holding the world at arm’s length.

“You should call Wellinger. He’s probably still waiting in the conference room,” I said, ending the conversation.

The next morning, Amiri was on duty again for the rescheduled negotiations with the Mask People. We arrived at the conference room without incident. Wellinger reported the room secure and I told him to wait outside the door, which was against protocol but he did it anyway. I needed complete control over the negotiations, and I didn’t want his negative expressions cluttering up the room. Might give the Mask People the wrong impression about me—or the right one.

The Mask People entered through a door at the opposite end of the room, a small entourage preceding the more important political figures. The Prime Judge came in last, and he was wearing his mask.

I glanced at Amiri, who watched the masked Prime Judge with curiosity smeared all over his face. I said, “Think about something else.”

“What?”

“It’s extremely rude to inquire about mask wearing.”

“I wasn’t—”

“Your face was,” I interrupted. “Think about anything else. You can think about screwing your girlfriend for all I care, just don’t wonder about the masks.”

He hunched his shoulders a little, embarrassed, and covered it up with a wry answer. “No pink elephants either, huh?”

I couldn’t blame him though. Secretly, I liked seeing them with their masks on, peaceful and flawlessly impassive. I am like a Mask Person who can’t take off the mask. I can never have an honest conversation with my own species; either it’s not honest, or it’s not a conversation, not the kind they want anyway. At least the Mask People understand the virtue of being hidden. Safety in isolation.

The Prime Judge’s mask came off and was passed to a Mask Bearer. Then the usual extensive greetings were exchanged all around, and we settled down to business.

The first hour or so of the meeting was an overview of the trade proposal, each party confirming that we understood all of the major points. Though I didn’t look at Amiri, his presence weighed on my awareness. Finally I couldn’t stand it anymore, I couldn’t stand not knowing what he was thinking. I threw him a sideways glance.

He smiled back at me with his eyes. It was only a momentary tensing of his lower lids, but I read warmth and confidence there. It was a smile that said, I’m not worried because I trust you’ll do the right thing.

The smile hit me like a punch, and I was yet again grateful my reaction stayed internal. The Prime Judge only saw Amiri’s half of the visual conversation. But beneath my silent face, Amiri’s words from last night echoed around my brain.

I was born to lie, that much was inescapable. But Amiri had been right: I should make the lies, not let the lies make me. Even a liar can sometimes show the truth about themselves, embedded in the rhyme and meter of their falsehoods.

As the meeting progressed, I meticulously emoted a fraction less enthusiasm than formal Mask-Person etiquette dictated. Not enough difference for my human overseers to detect, but then the Prime Judge was ever so much more sensitive than they were. All I needed was to light a spark of suspicion.

We reached the end of the document and the conversation floated away from the particulars to less concrete matters. The Prime Judge asked, How do your superiors feel about this agreement? A question that would have seemed odd between human ambassadors, but Mask People are accustomed to always knowing how everyone feels.

They are very eager to establish economic relations, I said. Entirely true, and beyond reproach from the viewpoint of a human negotiator. But on they, I gave a subtle emphasis of detachment, expressing a desire to disassociate myself from them.

The Prime Judge paused, considering my meaning. They come with honorable intent?

They will thoroughly fulfill their trade obligations—which was also true, but not the same as a “yes.”

We are concerned that trade remain peaceful and amicable.

Your offensive technology is far superior. How could humans pose a threat to you?

The Prime Judge rippled his feathers thoughtfully. Thank you, Ambassador. I believe we have reached an understanding.

The thing about perfect liars is they can fool anybody. You can never be sure whose side they’re on.

Director-General Losin was, needless to say, extremely displeased. Shall I describe his anger? The deep scowl, the tight jaw, the jutted chin? Anger is a simple emotion to read—it so rarely tries to hide itself.

“What happened in there? You seemed to be doing an acceptable job at the start.” He’d been watching on the security cam, of course. “Then suddenly they want to back out and redraft the agreement? Explain that to me!”

I shrugged, lacing the gesture with nervousness and confusion. “I don’t know what happened, sir.”

“You damn well must’ve screwed something up.”

“They changed their minds. I have no idea why.”

“And you’re going to tell me with a straight face that you did everything in your power to convince them to approve the proposal?”

“Yes,” I lied with ease. “Now that is something I can do.”





Tying Knots

Ken Liu





(In ancient times, there was no writing. When people needed to make a contract or pact, they tied a big knot on a string for a big matter, a small knot for a small matter. The number of knots depended on the quantity under contract. That was sufficient to provide a record.)

— (Jiujiayi, a Chinese philosophy text on the study of the I Ching, probably composed during the Eastern Han Dynasty, 25-220 AD)


Sky Village:

The spirits like to play jokes on us. I have seen more in my lifetime than any Nan in recorded history, and yet I am also the most shortsighted, practically blind.

Five years ago, when two Burmese traders climbed up the mountain for their annual trading trip, their hair dripping with water from the hard hike up through the clouds, they brought a stranger with them.

The stranger was unlike anyone I had ever met, and there was no record of anyone like him in our archive of ropes. He was tall, taller than my nephew Kai by two feet, and Kai was the tallest man in the village. His face was pale, florid and ruddy, like a statue of an arhat with a painted face. He also had blue eyes and golden hair, and a nose so sharp and stuck so far out of his face that it was like a bird’s beak.

Pha, one of the traders, told us that the stranger’s name was To-mu. “He’s from far away.”

“As far away as Rangoon?” I asked.

“Much, much farther. He is from America. Headman Soe-bo, that is so far away that you cannot imagine. Not even a hawk flying nonstop for twenty days can reach it.”

That was probably an exaggeration, as Pha liked to tell tall tales. But To-mu spoke to Pha in a harsh, staccato language that held a kind of music I had never heard, so he was certainly from no place I knew of.

“What is he doing here?”

“Who knows? I don’t understand anything he does. Westerners are all strange, and I have met many. But he is even odder than most. He walked into Man-sam two days ago, carrying that pack on his back, which seems to hold everything he owns. He asked me and Aung to bring him to places no Westerner had been to. He offered us a lot of money. So we said we’d take him to Sky Village. Maybe he’s running and hiding from an opium lord.”

Pha would do anything for money, even incurring the wrath of a general with opium fields. Sometimes we sell the rice for money too, to save up for a lean year when we might not have enough rice to trade. But we don’t pine after it the way Pha does.

If To-mu was trying to hide from an opium lord, then we wanted nothing to do with him. I had to watch him carefully, and make sure he left with the traders.

But To-mu did not act like a man on the run. He was loud and rude, and smiled at everyone and everything. He was always asking one villager or another to stand still while he held up a small metal box to his eyes and made clicking noises with it. He walked around and examined our huts, the narrow terrace fields, the wildflowers and weeds, and even the children shitting in the bushes. Pha translated for him as he asked the stupidest questions: What did we call this animal? What was the name of that flower? What foods did we eat? What crops and vegetables did we grow? To-mu was like a child, and did not know the most basic facts. He acted like he had never seen people.

He sought out Luk, the medicine man, and waved a stack of money at him.

“He wants you to tell him about sicknesses and how you treat them,” Pha said.

The traders sometimes asked Luk for tips like this too, so this was not such a strange request as To-mu’s other questions. Luk shrugged away the money, and patiently walked around with To-mu, pointing at herbs and insects and explaining their uses. To-mu held up his metal box and clicked at everything, and wrote in a notebook, as he collected the herbs and insects and stored them away in small clear bags he took out of his backpack.

We Nan have lived on this mountain for thousands of years. The oldest books passed down in the village—copied and reknotted with fresh hemp rope every few generations—tell the origin of our people. Long ago, our ancestors lived many days to the north, in a small Chinese kingdom. A war came, and invaders on horses tore through the rice fields, burning down our houses. The brave Elder San-pu led the survivors on a desperate run until we could no longer hear the horses’ hoofbeats, and we kept on walking for another moon. We climbed onto this mountain, and made our home above the clouds. We do not bother the world, and the world, for the most part, leaves us alone.

I say “for the most part” because every year, a few traders make their way up the mountain and bring us medicine, iron tools, silk and cotton cloth, and spices from far away. In exchange, they want one thing: our rice. The large, smooth grains, unlike anything the Burmese villages at the foot of the mountain grow, are hawked by the traders as “sky rice” in the markets.

They tell their customers that sky rice is fed with the pure essence of clouds and grows in air. When I heard this, I explained to the traders that the rice comes from the terrace fields on the mountainside, and we water it by irrigation ditches, no different from how our ancestors used to do and no different from the villages below. But the traders laugh. The buyers like our story better. They are willing to pay more because of our idea. You can never trust traders to tell the truth.

The rice harvest had not been good for a few years. It did not rain as much as it used to, and the springs that flowed down from the peak of the mountain slowed down to a trickle in the summer. Young men with keen eyes said that they thought the snowy peaks far to the west were losing their white hair, like old men going bald. Families were now eating a lot more wild vegetables and the children helped by hunting birds and treeshrews. But even these sources of food seemed to be in decline.

I had consulted the records of rainfall and harvest for past centuries, and a drought such as this had never been recorded. Could something in the world below the mountain be causing all of this?

I asked the traders for their thoughts.

They shrugged. “We hear the weather has turned strange everywhere, drought up north in China and cyclones down south in the Irrawaddy. Who knows why? It is just the way it is.”

I offered to have To-mu and the traders stay with me for the night, before their long climb down the mountain the next day. Pha and Aung always had good stories to share of the world below, and To-mu seemed a man full of interesting tales too.

I served them the last of my rice with sweet bamboo shoots and pickled ginger. To-mu smacked his lips and praised my cooking. I laughed, embarrassed. After the meal, we sat around the fire drinking rice wine and chatting.

I asked To-mu what he did. He sat quietly for a bit, scratched his head, laughed, and then said a long string of words to Pha. Pha seemed puzzled. He shrugged, and said to me, “He says he studies sicknesses and invents proteins—I guess that’s a kind of medicine—to treat them. It’s very confusing though. He says he doesn’t see any sick people or make medicine. He just comes up with ideas.”

So he was a healer, of sorts. That was certainly an honorable calling, and I had respect for anyone who wanted to heal others, no matter how strange he was.

I asked To-mu if he wanted to hear some of the old medicine books of the Nan. Even Luk, skilled as he was, couldn’t hold all knowledge in his head. He often consulted the old medicine books when he encountered a disease he hadn’t seen. There is much wisdom passed onto us from our ancestors, some of it bought with the lives of brave men who ventured past the line between medicine and poison.

To-mu nodded after Pha translated my offer. I got up, and retrieved the knotted clumps of the medical books. Stretching out the rope, I ran my finger down the line, and read out the symptoms and cure recipes.

But instead of listening to Pha’s translation, To-mu was staring at the knotted books, his eyes wider than teacups. He interrupted Pha and jabbered at him. I could tell he was extremely excited.

“He’s never seen knot-writing before,” Pha said. “He wants to understand how you do what you do.”

The traders have seen the Nan knotting for years, and grown used to it. I have also seen them record their purchases and inventory with markings on paper—Tibetan, Chinese, Burmese, Naga—different traders use different scripts. As different as they look though, the ink markings always seem to me dead, flat, ugly. The Nan do not write. We knot.

Knots have allowed us to keep alive the wisdom and voices of our ancestors. A long hemp rope, supple and elastic, is stretched and twisted to give it the right amount of tension and coil. Thirty-one different kinds of knots can be made on the rope, corresponding to the shapes of the lips and the tongue in making different syllables. Strung together like Buddhist prayer beads, the knots form words, sentences, stories. Speech is given substance and form. Run the hand down the string, and you can feel the knotters’ thoughts in your fingers and hear their voices through your bones.

The knotted string does not stay straight. The knots put tension on the rope. It coils in on itself, twisting, bending, yearning towards a shape. A book of knots is not a straight line, but more like a compact statue. Different knots give you different shapes in the coiled-up rope, and at a glance you can see the flow and contour of the argument, the tangible rise and fall of rhythm and rhyme.

I was born with bad eyesight. I can only see clearly a few feet away, and my head aches if I strain my eyes for too long. But my fingers have always been nimble, and even as a child my father said I was a quick learner of the properties of different ropes and knots. I had a talent for seeing in my mind the way the knots would change the tension on the rope, the way the little forces pulled and pushed it into its final form. Every Nan can knot, but only I have the eye for seeing the final shape of the rope before even a single knot has been made.

I began as a copyist, taking the oldest knotted books that were fraying and falling apart, feeling and memorizing the sequence of knots, and then recreating them with fresh hemp rope so that every knot, every twist would be faithfully reproduced, until the rope coiled in on itself, an exact replica of the original, so that the village’s children and their children would also be able to feel and learn from the voices of the past.

And later, after I became Headman and the record keeper after my father’s death, I knotted my own ropes. I knotted practical things, like the prices charged by the traders from year to year so that we wouldn’t be cheated, the new uses for old herbs discovered by the medicine men, the weather patterns and planting times. I also knotted other things, just because I liked the way the knotted ropes looked after I was done. I knotted the songs of the young men singing to the girls they liked, the feel of fresh spring sunlight on my face after the dark winter, the flickering shadows of the Nan dancing by the bonfire at the Spring Festival.


Route 128, Greater Boston:

It took a year of begging, expensive lawyers, bribes—excuse me, extraordinary processing fees—and even getting back in touch with acquaintances I hadn’t spoken to since college who now work at the State Department to get Soe-bo the right travel documents.

He doesn’t have a birth certificate? No last name? Does he grow opium for the warlords up there? Do you know anything about this guy? I gotta tell you, Tom, I’m pulling in a lot of favors for your native witch doctor. This better be worth it.

It is amazing how a few pieces of paper can generate so many headaches. Made me wish that it was still Victorian times, and I could just bring a “native” from the jungle back home without dealing with a thousand bureaucrats in two governments who didn’t much like each other.

“That is a very long journey,” Soe-bo had said, when I tried to convince him to come back with me on my second trip to Sky Village. “Too far for me.”

The Nan had no interest in money. I knew that it would be useless to promise him rich rewards.

“If you come with me, you can help heal many people.”

“I’m no healer.”

“I know that. But that knot-writing thing you do . . . You can help a lot of people. I can’t explain it. You have to trust me.”

He was moved, but still uncertain. Then I played my trump card, something I knew was on his mind, the only thing he might want.

“Your rice crops are dying because of the drought,” I said. “I can help you get new rice that will thrive with less water. But you have to come with me, and then I’ll give you new seeds.”

Soe-bo was not as terrified of the airplane as I had expected. He was such a small man to begin with, but huddled in his seat, his movements cautious and slow, he seemed even more like a child. He was calm though. I think the bus to Yangon shocked him a lot more. After sitting in one metal box that moved on its own to get you from one place to another, I guess a box that flew wasn’t much stranger.

As soon as I settled him into the studio suite at the hotel next to the GACT Labs campus, he fell asleep. He didn’t use the bed; instead, he curled up on the tile floor in the kitchen. Closer to the hearth, I suppose, an instinctual urge that I had read about in old anthropology books.

“Can you knot the rope so that it ends up in this shape?” I pointed to a small model sculpted out of clay. It looked vaguely like the head of a dragon. The Burmese college kid we were using as a translator shook his head—this whole set up must have seemed crazy to him; heck, it seemed crazy to me—but he translated my question.

Soe-bo picked up the model, turning it this way and that. “It doesn’t say anything. The knots will be nonsense.”

“It doesn’t matter. I just want you to make it so that the rope folds up naturally into this shape.”

He nodded, and began to twist and knot the rope. As the rope coiled in on itself, he compared the result to the model, pulled the rope straight and let it coil back again. He shook his head, and untied some knots and retied new ones.

In the lab, five different cameras were recording his progress, and on the other side of the one-way mirror, a dozen scientists leaned in to watch the tiny man and the zoomed-in image of his nimble fingers.

“How do you do it?” I asked.

“My father taught me, as his father had taught him. Knot-writing is passed down to us from our ancestors. I’ve pulled apart and retied a thousand books. I feel in my bones how the rope wants to tie itself.”

Proteins are long chains of amino acids strung together, their sequence dictated by genes in living cells. The amino acids, knotty with their hydrophobic and hydrophilic side chains and differing charges, pull and push at each other, forming local secondary structures like alpha helices and beta sheets through hydrogen bonds. The long chain of the protein is an unstable, writhing, jiggling mass agitated by millions of minuscule force vectors until it “folds,” coils in on itself to minimize the total energy in the entire chain, and thus settles into its tertiary structure. That final, stable, native state gives a protein its characteristic shape, a tiny three-dimensional clump, a modernist sculpture.

A protein’s shape is what gives it its function. The “proper folding” of a protein depends on many things: temperature, solvent, chaperone molecules to help things along. When proteins fail to fold into their characteristic shapes, you get diseases like mad-cow prions, Alzheimer’s, cystic fibrosis. But with the right-shaped proteins, you get drugs that can stop the uncontrollable division of cancer cells, block the cellular pathways needed for HIV to replicate, and cure all kinds of difficult diseases.

But predicting the native state of a sequence of amino acids (or, the converse, designing a sequence of amino acids that will fold into the desired protein shape) is harder than particle physics. A brute-force simulation of all the forces acting on the atoms in even a short chain of amino acids and a search through the free energy landscape will bring the most powerful computer to its knees. And proteins are composed of hundreds of amino acids, sometimes thousands.

If we can find an accurate, fast algorithm to predict and fold a sequence of amino acids into its native state, medicine will have taken the largest stride since the discovery of antibiotics. It will save countless lives—and be very profitable.

Once in a while, when Soe-bo seemed tired from the work, I would take him on an excursion into Boston. I looked forward to these excursions myself. My globe-trotting had made me into something of an amateur anthropologist, and I liked to observe the reactions of those outside of our world to the things we took for granted. It was fascinating to see the world through Soe-bo’s eyes, and to discover what shocked him or didn’t.

He accepted the skyscrapers as attributes of the landscape, but he was frightened by escalators. He took the cars and highways and crowds of people of all colors towering over him in stride, but he could not get over his amazement with ice cream. He was lactose intolerant, but he would endure the stomach aches for the pleasure of two scoops. He avoided dogs, even when they were on leashes, but he enjoyed feeding the ducks and pigeons in the Common.

Next, we moved to simulations on computers. Soe-bo could not learn to use a mouse effectively, and the screen tired his eyes. So we had to rig up a 3-D simulation system, complete with gloves, goggles, and adequate tactile feedback.

Now he was no longer working with his familiar knots. We had to see if his ability to predict the final shape of the chain was just the result of rote memorization of rigid folk traditions, or if the techniques could be generalized and mapped into a new domain.

Through a video feed from his goggles, we observed him manipulating the models of amino acids floating in air, learning their properties when placed next to each other. He jiggled the chains, pulled some strands apart, pushed some strands together, tucked in the side chains. To him, it was just playing a strange game.

But he did not have much success. The amino acids were too different from his knots, and he could not solve even the simplest puzzles.

The Board grew impatient and skeptical. “You really think this illiterate Asian peasant is going to provide a breakthrough? If this fails and it gets out in the papers, investors wouldn’t touch us with a ten-foot pole.”

I had to bring up, yet again, my track record of mining pre-industrial peoples for medical knowledge. Within the mess of old wives’ tales and