Authors: Penny Publications
Tags: #Asimov's #456
Aliette de Bodard lives and works in Paris, where she has a day job as a system engineer. In her spare time, Aliette writes speculative fiction. Her latest tale is part of her ongoing alternate history universe of Xuya, which includes previous
publications—"The Jaguar House, in Shadow" (July 2010), "Shipbirth" (February 2011), and "Starsong" (August 2012)—as well as the Nebula and Locus Award-winning "Immersion." Her latest release is the Xuya novella
On a Red Station, Drifting,
which is available as a paper book through Immersion Press, and as an ebook through all major retailers.
Cam finds Pham Thi Thanh Ha in her house, as she expected. By now, she doesn't question the aunts' knowledge or how they came by it. She does what she's told to, an obedient daughter beholden to her elders, never raising a fuss or complaining— the shining example of filial piety extolled in the tales her girlfriend Thuy so painstakingly reconstitutes in her spare hours.
Thanh Ha is a big woman, who must tower over her extended family—though right now, her cheeks are hollowed with grief, and the black band of mourning on her sleeve seems to have sucked all joy from her. "Younger niece... Cam." She hesitates over the name, a subtle way to make it clear that Cam had better get to the purpose of her visit quickly. "Be welcome here."
They sit in Thanh Ha's private rooms, away from the rest of the family—Cam has been doing this long enough to know what to pay attention to, and she's made sure to mention private business, delicately enough that Thanh Ha has sent away inquisitive aunts and cousins, and that even the wall-screens and the implants have been turned off, all the network connections quiescent, with no spike of activity that could relate to a recording or the transmission of one.
Thanh Ha pours tea in a practiced gesture, and the delicate smell of lotus flowers fills the room; Cam bows her head, acknowledging the hospitality. "My condolences on your loss, younger aunt."
Thanh Ha bows her head, and says nothing.
Well, there's nothing for it. Cam takes a deep breath, and says, "Heaven sends us wind and rain as it will, and we weather the storm as a family. Sometimes, however..." She pauses, then, as if questing for words. "Sometimes... the wind becomes trapped under our roof, and we must acknowledge the help of strangers to bear it away."
Thanh Ha's hand has stopped halfway to the cup; she raises her gaze, no doubt looking straight at Cam (Cam herself, of course, has remained properly respectful with her gaze cast down toward the table). "Your meaning," she says, as harshly, as impolitely as a Galactic—using the familiar pronouns reserved for inferiors or servants. "In plain words."
Not so traditional then—contaminated, as all of them, by the society they have found refuge in. Cam files the thought away for later, and says, simply, with the same brash impoliteness, "When your revered grandmother died, one of the doctors came to you—a Galactic one, with a face young enough to be one of your sons. He waited until you were alone, out of the presence of your elders. He said he was sorry, that perhaps it was inappropriate—"
She hears more than sees Thanh Ha's sharp indrawn breath, and knows that she has her.
"—that he knew she'd refused perpetuation, but surely she'd made a mistake, that everyone wanted to live forever, and that she hadn't been all right in the end, not in full possession of her mind...."
The noise Thanh Ha makes as she puts her cup back on its saucer is like a gunshot in the room. "I told him he was a fool. That my grandmother's soul was in the Hell of the underworld, wending its way toward reincarnation, and that perpetuation was nothing but a record, a broken image of who she'd been, no better than a vid or a still."
Cam puts her own cup back on the table, and leans with both elbows on the rough metal surface. "But still, you took the chip. You kept it, and breathed not a word to your elders. Not during the preparations, not during the procession or the burial, or the hundred days of burning incense for her soul."
Thanh Ha's hands shake, for a bare moment before she stills them. "Assuming this is true..."
Cam smiles. "Be assured that it is. I can produce the testimony of Doctor Elliott at the Marion Sims hospital, if this becomes necessary."
Doctor Elliott meant well, Cam knows—they always do. He thought Thanh Ha would find a suitable virtual universe for her grandmother—give her a second life in which her grandsons and granddaughters could visit her, in a place where the rules are more elastic than in the physical world. For most Galactics, there is no shame in being a Perpetuate; or, indeed, much difference between Perpetuates and the living. Perpetuates hold bank accounts and run businesses, and even gather into families of their own. They can't reproduce, or leave their host universes, but surely that's such a small price to pay for life after death?
The problem is that Doctor Elliott isn't a Rong—and didn't see what someone like Cam or Thanh Ha would think.
"Fine. What is it that you want?" Thanh Ha asks.
She's afraid—believing that Cam will give her away, denounce her to her elders, or hold this knowledge against her as blackmail. Cam breathes out, presents her blandest face to Thanh Ha. "You have no use for the chip."
"You want it?" Thanh Ha's laughter is as biting as lime juice on open wounds. "You think I'd give it up?"
"It's a bother, isn't it?" Cam keeps her voice pleasant, as if they were discussing the weather or their children. "You could snap it in two with a mere gesture, but that would be like tearing apart a picture of a revered ancestor—a sin that wouldn't be forgiven. You could look for a virtual universe open to Perpetuates, and give her a new life, but you would have to admit to your elders what you have done...." And they both know, here in the sanctuary of this room, that Thanh Ha won't do that. "Or you could give it to me."
Thanh Ha cocks her head, watching Cam like a cock ascertaining a rival's intentions. "I could. But I don't know you, do I? You could take it apart as surely as I would snap it—selling memories and feelings piece by piece to eager Galactics, like bits of code or war stories."
She doesn't say it, but the name of Steven Carey hovers in the room like a whitegarbed, unpropitiated ghost—all the interviews with Rong refugees Carey did, all the war memories he got out from elderly Rong, promising them something grand, something that would capture the experience of their loss—all that, culminating in the bitterness that is the Memorial. "I'm not like that," Cam says, simply.
"And I'm supposed to trust you?"
She could say the truth, then; could say she doesn't know who the aunts are, or why they direct her here and there; that she's as beholden to them as Thanh Ha is to her deceased grandmother, except that the bonds are not of love or of filial piety, but something far coarser—greed and threats and the fear of losing everything. But the aunts pay her to lie, and so she does. "No," Cam says. "You're right that you can't. But I'll give you my word that I'm not after the chip to take it apart."
Words mean something; they weigh, like contracts between families in the olden times. Cam uses them cheaply, for they're the weapons by which she makes her way in life.
Thanh Ha's hands twitch; her face contracts—but Cam is used to reading the myriad ways of the human heart, and she knows how this will go, as inevitable as a flood—that Thanh Ha will argue and make excuses, and protest about being a filial granddaughter; but that, in the end, she'll yield to temptation, and give Cam the chip with her grandmother's simulacrum rather than be left with her silent, unshareable guilt. That's how it goes; how it always ends.
This is all why she hates herself.
Cam comes home late, with the chip wrapped up in her handbag: an unwelcome reminder of what she's doing—of everything she's embroiled in, the lies she keeps telling, day after day; the fear of what the aunts are doing, taking apart Perpetuates for parts, for memories. There is a healthy market for all of these, not least of which is the simmovies Galactics so love—Perpetuates are plundered for unusual, exotic memories that can give frissons to even the most jaded of immersed viewers. It's illegal, but until Perpetuates have joined a virtual universe and submitted to its law strictures, there's little they can do to defend themselves. It's almost natural, the aunts would say.
Cam knows the truth: that none of it is right—that Perpetuates might just be echoes of real people, but that nothing justifies selling them. But she likes the money too much to give it up.
She finds Thuy at her desk: her girlfriend is sitting on her haunches before the low table, delivering a staccato report to Daphne Reynolds, a Perpetuate colleague at her workplace—she speaks at a speed that seems blinding to Cam, but must surely be slow by Perpetuate standards. The flat's bots have already cleaned the place, and the jasmine rice in the cooker has scented the air with its rich, promising fragrance— overlaid with the mingled garlic and fish sauce from the omelette in the pan.
After a while, Thuy finishes, and looks up. "Li'l sis."
"Big sis. How did it go?"
"I think I solved the security flaw, but I could be wrong." Thuy grimaces.
It never ceases to amaze Cam that Thuy—who has a doctorate in network security— can have so little trust in herself. By most standards, Cam is the one who is the family failure: she barely went past the minimum amount of studies Galactics impose on their citizens, and went from small, ill-paid job to small, ill-paid job in Landsfall. News trawler, compartment cleaner, low-level network support: she's done them all, and has little to show for it but a memory of how much it hurts, to live cramped in a room with three other Rong students, and never knowing where the money is coming in.
"I'm sure it's fine," Cam says, coming closer and kissing her—drinking in deep from Thuy's lips. "Did you see the physician?"
Thuy frees herself from Cam, and shrugs. She grabs one of the two coconut water glasses on the table, and gestures to Cam to pick the other one—she's older than Cam, and has always had a tendency to boss her around. "Of course I did. Everything is normal. You fuss too much."
"It's serious," Cam protests.
"It shouldn't be. Having a child is a natural process." Thuy doesn't really appear to be in a mood to discuss her pregnancy; she sips at her glass, her gaze lost toward the floor. "How did your day go?" she asks.
Cam shrugs, feigning a nonchalance she doesn't feel. "As usual. Not much to tell."
"You never tell anything anyway." Thuy is convinced that Cam works for Galactic Intelligence; a lie Cam has carefully cultivated. Her other, outer cover for Mother is feeds writer, but any lie for Thuy has to be much closer to the truth. "Come on, drink your coconut water. I'm sure your day was as thrilling as usual."
She looks at Cam with such love—with such unmitigated pride—that it makes Cam's stomach churn. How can she tell Thuy that she does none of what her girlfriend imagines—that she's a thief and a taker of lives, that she subsists entirely on deceiving others and taking advantage of their wrecked lives?
She can't tell Thuy. She can't tell the child; and she's running out of options, as Thuy's pregnancy becomes more and more visible, twisting every aspect of their lives like woven cloth. But still, she forces herself to smile, in a way she knows is unconvincing. "Thank you."
As usual, Cam meets the aunts in the Memorial.
She doesn't know why they insist on this meeting place; though she suspects that part of it is mocking her and the choices she makes—for, after all, what better place than the Memorial for accusation of betrayals?
She takes a circuitous route to go there, casting an eye over her shoulder for policemen. It's absurd, but several times she's had the feeling of being followed—of seeing the same face too many times in the crowds that brush past—and she can't be sure, but there have been a few too many police aircars and shuttles parked near her. Or perhaps it's simply her guilt, pointing out every police presence in Landsfall that it can see.