Since 2006,Clarkesworld Magazinehas been entertaining science fiction and fantasy fans with their brand of unique science fiction and fantasy stories. Collected here are all thirty-four stories published in the sixth year of this Hugo Award-winning magazine. Included in this volume are stories by Aliette de Bodard, Ken Liu, Catherynne M. Valente, Robert Reed, Carrie Vaughn, Tobias S. Buckell, and more!
Clarkesworld has been publishing great short fiction for a number of years. This particular annual from last year is one of my favorites because it includes top-notch stories from some of my all-time favorite writers. In the process, you get a snapshot of writers you really should be reading at the longer length, too. So, dive in and sample. You will find stories from Aliette de Bodard, Ken Liu, Catherynne M. Valente, Mari Ness, Ben Peek, Sofia Samatar, Lavie Tidhar, Kij Johnson, E. Catherine Tobler, Robert Reed, Carrie Vaughn, Tobias S. Buckell and many more. – Ann VanderMeer
Scattered Along the River of Heaven
Aliette de Bodard
I grieve to think of the stars
Our ancestors our gods
Scattered like hairpin wounds
Along the River of Heaven
So tell me
Is it fitting that I spend my days here
A guest in those dark, forlorn halls?
This is the first poem Xu Anshi gave to us; the first memory she shared with us for safekeeping. It is the first one that she composed in High Mheng—which had been and remains a debased language, a blend between that of the San-Tay foreigners, and that of the Mheng, Anshi's own people.
She composed it on Shattered Pine Prison, sitting in the darkness of her cell, listening to the faint whine of the bots that crawled on the walls—melded to the metal and the crisscrossing wires, clinging to her skin—monitoring every minute movement she made—the voices of her heart, the beat of her thoughts in her brain, the sweat on her body.
Anshi had once been a passable poet in San-Tay, thoughtlessly fluent in the language of upper classes, the language of bot-handlers; but the medical facility had burnt that away from her, leaving an oddly-shaped hole in her mind, a gap that ached like a wound. When she tried to speak, no words would come out—not in San-Tay, not in High Mheng—only a raw croak, like the cry of a dying bird. Bots had once flowed to do her bidding; but now they only followed the will of the San-Tay.
There were no stars on Shattered Pine, where everything was dark with no windows; and where the faint yellow light soon leeched the prisoners' skin of all colors. But, once a week, the prisoners would be allowed onto the deck of the prison station—heavily escorted by San-Tay guards. Bots latched onto their faces and eyes, forcing them to stare into the darkness—into the event horizon of the black hole, where all light spiraled inwards and vanished, where everything was crushed into insignificance. There were bodies outside—prisoners who had attempted to escape, put in lifesuits and jettisoned, slowly drifting into a place where time and space ceased to have any meaning. If they were lucky, they were already dead.
From time to time, there would be a jerk as the bots stung someone back into wakefulness; or low moans and cries, from those whose minds had snapped. Shattered Pine bowed and broke everyone; and the prisoners that were released back to Felicity Station came back diminished and bent, waking up every night weeping and shaking with the memory of the black hole.
Anshi—who had been a scholar, a low-level magistrate, before she'd made the mistake of speaking up against the San-Tay—sat very still, and stared at the black hole—seeing into its heart, and knowing the truth: she was of no significance, easily broken, easily crushed—but she had known that since the start. All men were as nothing to the vast universe.
It was on the deck that Anshi met Zhiying—a small, diminutive woman who always sat next to her. She couldn't glance at Zhiying; but she felt her presence, nevertheless; the strength and hatred that emanated from her, that sustained her where other people failed.
Day after day they sat side by side, and Anshi formed poems in her mind, haltingly piecing them together in High Mheng—San-Tay was denied to her, and, like many of the Mheng upper class, she spoke no Low Mheng. Day after day, with the bots clinging to her skin like overripe fruit, and Zhiying's presence, burning like fire at her side; and, as the verses became stronger and stronger in her mind, Anshi whispered words, out of the guards' hearing, out of the bots' discrimination capacities—haltingly at first, and then over and over, like a mantra on the prayer beads. Day after day; and, as the words sank deeper into her mind, Anshi slowly came to realize that the bots on her skin were not unmoving, but held themselves trembling, struggling against their inclination to move—and that the bots clinging to Zhiying were different, made of stronger materials to resist the fire of Zhiying's anger. She heard the fast, frantic beat of their thoughts processes, which had its own rhythm, like poetry spoken in secret—and felt the hard shimmer that connected the bots to the San-Tay guards, keeping everything together.
And, in the dim light of Shattered Pine, Anshi subvocalised words in High Mheng, reaching out with her mind as she had done, back when she had been free. She hadn't expected anything to happen; but the bots on her skin stiffened one after the other, and turned to the sound of her voice, awaiting orders.
Before she left Felicity, Xu Wen expected security at San-Tay Prime's spaceport to be awful—they would take one glance at her travel documents, and bots would rise up from the ground and crawl up to search every inch of skin, every body cavity. Mother has warned her often enough that the San-Tay have never forgiven Felicity for waging war against them; that they will always remember the shame of losing their space colonies. She expects a personal interview with a Censor, or perhaps even to be turned back at the boundary, sent back in shame to Felicity.
But it doesn't turn out that way at all.
Security is over in a breeze, the bots giving her nothing but a cursory body check before the guards wave her through. She has no trouble getting a cab either; things must have changed on San-Tay Prime, and the San-Tay driver waves her on without paying attention to the color of her skin.
"Here on holiday?" the driver asks her in Galactic, as she slides into the floater—her body sinking as the chair adapts itself to her morphology. Bots climb onto her hands, showing her ads for nearby hotels and restaurants: an odd, disturbing sight, for there are no bots on Felicity Station.
"You could say that," Wen says, with a shrug she wills to be careless. "I used to live here."
A long, long time ago, when she was still a baby; before Mother had that frightful fight with Grandmother, and left San-Tay Prime for Felicity.
"Oh?" the driver swerves, expertly, amidst the traffic; taking one wide, tree-lined avenue after another. "You don't sound like it."
Wen shakes her head. "I was born here, but I didn't remain here long."
"Gone back to the old country, eh?" The driver smiles. "Can't say I blame you."
"Of course," Wen says, though she's unsure what to tell him. That she doesn't really know—that she never really lived here, not for more than a few years, and that she has a few confused memories of a bright-lit kitchen, and bots dancing for her on the carpet of Grandmother's apartment? But she's not here for such confidences. She's here—well, she's not sure why she's here. Mother was adamant Wen didn't have to come; but then, Mother has never forgiven Grandmother for the exile on San-Tay Prime.
Everything goes fine; until they reach the boundary district, where a group of large bots crawl onto the floater, and the driver's eyes roll up as their thought-threads meld with his. At length, the bots scatter, and he turns back to Wen. "Sorry, m'am," he says. "I have to leave you here."
"Oh?" Wen asks, struggling to hide her fear.
"No floaters allowed into the Mheng districts currently," the man says. "Some kind of funeral for a tribal leader—the brass is afraid there will be unrest." He shrugs again. "Still, you're local, right? You'll find someone to help you."
She's never been here; and she doesn't know anyone, anymore. Still, she forces a smile—always be graceful, Mother said—and puts her hand on one of the bots, feeling the warmth as it transfers money from her account on Felicity Station. After he's left her on the paved sidewalk of a street she barely recognizes, she stands, still feeling the touch of the bots against her skin—on Felicity they call them a degradation, a way for the San-Tay government to control everything and everyone; and she just couldn't bring herself to get a few locator-bots at the airport.
Wen looks up, at the signs—they're in both languages, San-Tay and what she assumes is High Mheng, the language of the exiles. San-Tay is all but banned on Felicity, only found on a few derelict signs on the Outer Rings, the ones the National Restructuring Committee hasn't gone around to retooling yet. Likewise, High Mheng isn't taught, or encouraged. What little she can remember is that it's always been a puzzle—the words look like Mheng; but when she tries to put everything together, their true meaning seems to slip away from her.
Feeling lost already, she wends her way deeper into the streets—those few shops that she bypasses are closed, with a white cloth spread over the door. White for grief, white for a funeral.
It all seems so—so wide, so open. Felicity doesn't have streets lined with streets, doesn't have such clean sidewalks—space on the station is at a ruthless premium, and every corridor is packed with stalls and shops—people eat at tables on the streets, and conduct their transactions in recessed doorways, or rooms half as large as the width of the sidewalk. She feels in another world; though, every now and then, she'll see a word that she recognizes on a sign, and follow it, in the forlorn hope that it will lead her closer to the funeral hall.
Street after street after street—under unfamiliar trees that sway in the breeze, listening to the distant music broadcast from every doorway, from every lamp. The air is warm and clammy, a far cry from Felicity's controlled temperature; and over her head are dark clouds. She almost hopes it rains, to see what it is like—in real life, and not in some simulation that seems like a longer, wetter version of a shower in the communal baths.
At length, as she reaches a smaller intersection, where four streets with unfamiliar signs branch off—some residential area, though all she can read are the numbers on the buildings—Wen stops, staring up at the sky. Might as well admit it: it's useless. She's lost, thoroughly lost in the middle of nowhere, and she'll never be on time for the funeral.
She'd weep; but weeping is a caprice, and she's never been capricious in her life. Instead, she turns back and attempts to retrace her steps, towards one of the largest streets—where, surely, she can hammer on a door, or find someone who will help her?
She can't find any of the streets; but at length, she bypasses a group of old men playing Encirclement on the street—watching the shimmering holo-board as if their lives depended on it.
"Excuse me?" she asks, in Mheng.
As one, the men turn towards her—their gazes puzzled. "I'm looking for White Horse Hall," Wen says. "For the funeral?"
The men still watch her, their faces impassive—dark with expressions she can't read. They're laden with smaller bots—on their eyes, on their hands and wrists, hanging black like obscene fruit: they look like the San-Tay in the reconstitution movies, except that their skins are darker, their eyes narrower.
At length, the eldest of the men steps forwards, and speaks up—his voice rerouted to his bots, coming out in halting Mheng. "You're not from here."
"No," Wen says in the same language. "I'm from Felicity."
An odd expression crosses their faces: longing, and hatred, and something else Wen cannot place. One of the men points to her, jabbers in High Mheng—Wen catches just one word she understands.
"You're Anshi's daughter," the man says. The bots' approximation of his voice is slow, metallic, unlike the fast jabbering of High Mheng.
Wen shakes her head; and one of the other men laughs, saying something else in High Mheng.
That she's too young, no doubt—that Mother, Anshi's daughter, would be well into middle age by now, instead of being Wen's age. "Daughter of daughter," the man says, with a slight, amused smile. "Don't worry, we'll take you to the hall, to see your grandmother."
He walks by her side, with the other man, the one who laughed. Neither of them speaks—too hard to attempt small talk in a language they don't master, Wen guesses. They go down a succession of smaller and smaller streets, under banners emblazoned with the image of the phuong, Felicity's old symbol, before the Honored Leader made the new banner, the one that showed the station blazing among the stars—something more suitable for their new status.
Everything feels... odd, slightly twisted out of shape—the words not quite what they ought to be, the symbols just shy of familiar; the language a frightening meld of words she can barely recognize.
Everything is wrong, Wen thinks, shivering—and yet how can it be wrong, walking among Grandmother's own people?
Summoning bots I washed away Ten thousand thousand years of poison Awakening a thousand flower-flames, a thousand phoenix birds Floating on a sea of blood like cresting waves The weeping of the massacred millions rising from the darkness
We received this poem and its memories for safekeeping at a time when Xu Anshi was still on Felicity Station: on an evening before the Feast of Hungry Ghosts, when she sat in a room lit by trembling lights, thinking of Lao, her husband who had died in the uprisings—and wondering how much of it had been of any worth.
It refers to a time when Anshi was older, wiser—she and Zhiying had escaped from Shattered Pine, and spent three years moving from hiding place to hiding place, composing the pamphlets that, broadcast into every household, heralded the end of the San-Tay governance over Felicity.
On the night that would become known as the Second Ring Riots, Anshi stood in one of the inner rings of Felicity Station, her bots spread around her, hacked into the network—half of them on her legs, pumping modifiers into her blood; half of them linked to the other Mheng bot-handlers, retransmitting scenes of carnage, of the Mheng mob running wild in the San-Tay districts of the inner rings, the High Tribunal and Spaceport Authority lasered, and the fashionable districts trashed.
"This one," Zhiying said, pointing to a taller door, adorned with what appeared to be a Mheng traditional blessing—until one realized that the characters had been chosen for aesthetic reasons only, and that they meant nothing.
Anshi sent a subvocalised command to her bots, asking them to take the house. The feed to the rioting districts cut off abruptly, as her bots turned their attention towards the door and the house beyond: their sensors analyzing the bots on the walls, the pattern of the aerations, the cables running behind the door, and submitting hypotheses about possible architectures of the security system—before the swarm reached a consensus, and made a decision.
The bots flowed towards the door—the house's bots sought to stop them, but Anshi's bots split into two squads, and rushed past, heading for the head—the central control panel, which housed the bots' communication system. Anshi had a brief glimpse of red-painted walls, and blinking holos; before her bots rushed back, job completed, and fell on the now disorganized bots at the door.
Everything went dark, the Mheng characters slowly fading away from the door's panels.
"All yours," Anshi said to Zhiying, struggling to remain standing—all her bots were jabbering in her mind, putting forward suggestions as to what to do next; and, in her state of extreme fatigue, ignoring them was harder. She'd seen enough handlers burnt beyond recovery, their brains overloaded with external stimuli until they collapsed—she should have known better. But they needed her—the most gifted bot-handler they had, their strategist—needed her while the San-Tay were still reeling from their latest interplanetary war, while they were still weak. She'd rest later—after the San-Tay were gone, after the Mheng were free. There would be time, then, plenty of it.
Bao and Nhu were hitting the door with soldering knives—each blow weakening the metal until the door finally gave way with a groan. The crowd behind Anshi roared; and rushed through—pushing Anshi ahead of them, the world shrinking to a swirling, confused mass of details—gouged-out consoles, ornaments ripped from shelves, pale men thrown down and beaten against the rush of the crowd, a whirlwind of chaos, as if demons had risen up from the underworld.
The crowd spread as they moved inwards; and Anshi found herself at the center of a widening circle in what had once been a guest room. Beside her, Bao was hacking at a nondescript bed, while others in the crowd beat down on the huge screen showing a sunset with odd, distorted trees—some San-Tay planet that Anshi did not recognize, maybe even Prime. Anshi breathed, hard, struggling to steady herself in the midst of the devastation. Particles of down and dust drifted past her; she saw a bot on the further end, desperately trying to contain the devastation, scuttling to repair the gashes in the screen. Nhu downed it with a well-placed kick; her face distorted in a wide, disturbing grin.
"Look at that!" Bao held up a mirror-necklace, which shimmered and shifted, displaying a myriad configurations for its owner's pleasure.
Nhu's laughter was harsh. "They won't need it anymore." She held out a hand; but Bao threw the necklace to the ground; and ran it through with his knife.
Anshi did not move—as if in a trance she saw all of it: the screen, the bed, the pillows that sought to mould themselves to a pleasing shape, even as hands tore them apart; the jewellery scattered on the ground; and the image of the forest, fading away to be replaced by a dull, split-open wall—every single mark of San-Tay privilege, torn away and broken, never to come back. Her bots were relaying similar images from all over the station. The San-Tay would retaliate, but they would have understood, now, how fragile the foundation of their power was. How easily the downtrodden Mheng could become their downfall; and how much it would cost them to hold Felicity.
Anshi wandered through the house, seeking out the San-Tay bots—those she could hack and reprogram, she added to her swarm; the others she destroyed, as ruthlessly as the guards had culled the prisoners on Shattered Pine.
Something was blinking, insistently, in the corner of her eyes—the swarm, bringing something to her attention. The kitchens—Zhiying, overseeing the executions. Bits and pieces, distorted through the bots' feed: the San-Tay governor, begging and pleading to be spared; his wife, dying silently, watching them all with hatred in her eyes. They'd had no children; for which Anshi was glad. She wasn't Zhiying, and she wasn't sure she'd have borne the guilt.
Guilt? There were children dying all over the station; men and women killed, if not by her, by those who followed her. She spared a bitter laugh. There was no choice. Children could die; or be raised to despise the inferior breed of the Mheng; be raised to take slaves and servants, and send dissenters like Anshi to be broken on Shattered Pine with a negligent wave of their hands. No choice.
Come, the bots whispered in her mind, but she did not know why.
Zhiying was down to the Grand Master of Security when Anshi walked into the kitchens—she barely nodded at Anshi, and turned her attention back to the man aligned in the weapons' sights.
She did not ask for any last words; though she did him the honor of using a bio-silencer on him, rather than the rifles they'd used on the family—his body crumpled inwards and fell, still intact; and he entered the world of the ancestors with the honor of a whole body. "He fought well," Zhiying said, curtly. "What of the house?"
"Not a soul left living," Anshi said, flicking through the bots' channels. "Not much left whole, either."
"Good," Zhiying said. She gestured; and the men dragged the next victim—a Mheng girl, dressed in the clothes of an indentured servant.
This—this was what the bots had wanted her to see. Anshi looked to the prisoners huddled against the wall: there was one San-Tay left, an elderly man who gazed back at her, steadily and without fear. The rest—all the rest—were Mheng, dressed in San-Tay clothes, their skin pale and washed-out in the flickering lights—stained with what looked like rice flour from one of the burst bags on the floor. Mheng. Their own people.
"Elder sister," Anshi said, horrified.
Zhiying's face was dark with anger. "You delude yourself. They're not Mheng anymore."
"Because they were indentured into servitude? Is that your idea of justice? They had no choice," Anshi said. The girl against the wall said nothing; her gaze slid away from Zhiying, to the rifle; finally resting on the body of her dead mistress.
"They had a choice. We had a choice," Zhiying said. Her gaze—dark and intense—rested, for a moment, on the girl. "If we spare them, they'll just run to the militia, and denounce us to find themselves a better household. Won't you?" she asked.
Anshi, startled, realized Zhiying had addressed the girl—whose gaze still would not meet theirs, as if they'd been foreigners themselves.
At length, the girl threw her head back, and spoke in High Mheng. "They were always kind with me, and you butchered them like pigs." She was shivering now. "What will you achieve? You can't hide on Felicity. The San-Tay will come here and kill you all, and when they're done, they'll put us in the dark forever. It won't be cushy jobs like this—they'll consign us to the scavenge heaps, to the ducts-cleaning and the bots-scraping, and we won't ever see starlight again."
"See?" Zhiying said. "Pathetic." She gestured, and the girl crumpled like the man before her. The soldiers dragged the body away, and brought the old San-Tay man. Zhiying paused; and turned back to Anshi. "You're angry."
"Yes," Anshi said. "I did not join this so we could kill our own countrymen."
Zhiying's mouth twisted in a bitter smile. "Collaborators," she said. "How do you think a regime like the San-Tay continues to exist? It's because they take some of their servants, and set them above others. Because they make us complicit in our own oppression. That's the worst of what they do, little sister—turn us against each other."
No. The thought was crystal-clear in Anshi's mind, like a blade held against starlight. That's not the worst. The worst is that, to fight them, we have to best them at their own game.
She watched the old man as he died; and saw nothing in his eyes but the reflection of that bitter knowledge.