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Fiction

Flower, Mercy, Needle, Chain

The usual fallacy is that, in every universe, many futures splay outward from any given moment. But in some universes, determinism runs backwards: given a universe’s state s at some time t, there are multiple previous states that may have resulted in s. In some universes, all possible pasts funnel toward a single fixed ending, Ω.

If you are of millenarian bent, you might call Ω Armageddon. If you are of grammatical bent, you might call it punctuation on a cosmological scale.

If you are a philosopher in such a universe, you might call Ω inevitable.

#

The woman has haunted Blackwheel Station for as long as anyone remembers, although she was not born there. She is human, and her straight black hair and brown-black eyes suggest an ancestral inheritance tangled up with tigers and shapeshifting foxes. Her native language is not spoken by anyone here or elsewhere.

They say her true name means things like gray and ash and grave. You may buy her a drink, bring her candied petals or chaotic metals, but it’s all the same. She won’t speak her name.

That doesn’t stop people from seeking her out. Today, it’s a man with mirror-colored eyes. He is the first human she has seen in a long time.

“Arighan’s Flower,” he says.

It isn’t her name, but she looks up. Arighan’s Flower is the gun she carries. The stranger has taken on a human face to talk to her, and he is almost certainly interested in the gun.

The gun takes different shapes, but at this end of time, origami multiplicity of form surprises more by its absence than its presence. Sometimes the gun is long and sleek, sometimes heavy and blunt. In all cases, it bears its maker’s mark on the stock: a blossom with three petals falling away and a fourth about to follow. At the blossom’s heart is a character that itself resembles a flower with knotted roots.

The character’s meaning is the gun’s secret. The woman will not tell it to you, and the gunsmith Arighan is generations gone.

“Everyone knows what I guard,” the woman says to the mirror-eyed man.

“I know what it does,” he says. “And I know that you come from people who worship their ancestors.”

Her hand—on a glass of water two degrees from freezing— stops, slides to her side, where the holster is. “That’s dangerous knowledge,” she says. So he’s figured it out. Her people’s historians called Arighan’s Flower the ancestral gun. They weren’t referring to its age.

The man smiles politely, and doesn’t take a seat uninvited. Small courtesies matter to him because he is not human. His mind may be housed in a superficial fortress of flesh, but the busy computations that define him are inscribed in a vast otherspace.

The man says, “I can hardly be the first constructed sentience to come to you.”

She shakes her head. “It’s not that.” Do computers like him have souls? she wonders. She is certain he does, which is potentially inconvenient. “I’m not for hire.”

“It’s important,” he says.

It always is. They want chancellors dead or generals, discarded lovers or rival reincarnates, bodhisattvas or bosses—all the old, tawdry stories. People, in all the broad and narrow senses of the term. The reputation of Arighan’s Flower is quite specific, if mostly wrong.

“Is it,” she says. Ordinarily she doesn’t talk to her petitioners at all. Ordinarily she ignores them through one glass, two, three, four, like a child learning the hard way that you can’t outcount infinity.

There was a time when more of them tried to force the gun away from her. The woman was a duelist and a killer before she tangled her life up with the Flower, though, and the Flower comes with its own defenses, including the woman’s inability to die while she wields it. One of the things she likes about Blackwheel is that the administrators promised that they would dispose of any corpses she produced. Blackwheel is notorious for keeping promises.

The man waits a little longer, then says, “Will you hear me out?”

“You should be more afraid of me,” she says, “if you really know what you claim to know.”

By now, the other people in the bar, none of them human, are paying attention: a musician whose instrument is made of fossilized wood and silk strings, a magister with a seawrack mane, engineers with their sketches hanging in the air and a single doodled starship at the boundary. The sole exception is the tattooed traveler dozing in the corner, dreaming of distant moons.

In no hurry, the woman draws the Flower and points it at the man. She is aiming it not at his absent heart, but at his left eye. If she pulled the trigger, she would pierce him through the false pupil.

The musician continues plucking plangent notes from the instrument. The others, seeing the gun, gawk for only a moment before hastening out of the bar. As if that would save them.

“Yes,” the man says, outwardly unshaken, “you could damage my lineage badly. I could name programmers all the way back to the first people who scratched a tally of birds or rocks.”

The gun’s muzzle moves precisely, horizontally: now the right eye. The woman says, “You’ve convinced me that you know. You haven’t convinced me not to kill you.” It’s half a bluff: she wouldn’t use the Flower, not for this. But she knows many ways to kill.

“There’s another one,” he says. “I don’t want to speak of it here, but will you hear me out?”

She nods once, curtly.

Covered by her palm, engraved silver-bright in a language nobody else reads or writes, is the word ancestor.

#

Once upon a universe, an empress’s favored duelist received a pistol from the empress’s own hand. The pistol had a stock of silver-gilt and niello, an efflorescence of vines framing the maker’s mark. The gun had survived four dynasties, with all their rebellions and coups. It had accompanied the imperial arsenal from homeworld to homeworld.

Of the ancestral pistol, the empire’s archives said two things: Do not use this weapon, for it is nothing but peril and This weapon does not function.

In a reasonable universe, both statements would not be true.

#

The man follows the woman to her suite, which is on one of Blackwheel’s tidier levels. The sitting room, comfortable but not luxurious by Blackwheeler standards, accommodates a couch sized to human proportions, a metal table shined to blurry reflectivity, a vase in the corner.

There are also two paintings, on silk rather than some less ancient substrate. One is of a mountain by night, serenely anonymous amid its stylized clouds. The other, in a completely different style, consists of a cavalcade of shadows. Only after several moments’ study do the shadows assemble themselves into a face. Neither painting is signed.

“Sit,” the woman says.

The man does. “Do you require a name?” he asks.

“Yours, or the target’s?”

“I have a name for occasions like this,” he says. “It is Zheu Kerang.”

“You haven’t asked me my name,” she remarks.

“I’m not sure that’s a meaningful question,” Kerang says. “If I’m not mistaken, you don’t exist.”

Wearily, she says, “I exist in all the ways that matter. I have volume and mass and volition. I drink water that tastes the same every day, as water should. I kill when it moves me to do so. I’ve unwritten death into the history of the universe.”

His mouth tilts up at unwritten. “Nevertheless,” he says. “Your species never evolved. You speak a language that is not even dead. It never existed.”

“Many languages are extinct.”

“To become extinct, something has to exist first.”

The woman folds herself into the couch next to him, not close but not far. “It’s an old story,” she says. “What is yours?”

“Four of Arighan’s guns are still in existence,” Kerang says.

The woman’s eyes narrow. “I had thought it was three.” Arighan’s Flower is the last, the gunsmith’s final work. The others she knows of are Arighan’s Mercy, which always kills the person shot, and Arighan’s Needle, which removes the target’s memories of the wielder.

“One more has surfaced,” Kerang says. “The character in the maker’s mark resembles a sword in chains. They are already calling it Arighan’s Chain.”

“What does it do?” she says, because he will tell her anyway.

“This one kills the commander of whoever is shot,” Kerang says, “if that’s anyone at all. Admirals, ministers, monks. Schoolteachers. It’s a peculiar sort of loyalty test.”

Now she knows. “You want me to destroy the Chain.”

#

Once upon a universe, a duelist named Shiron took up the gun that an empress with empiricist tendencies had given her. “I don’t understand how a gun that doesn’t work could possibly be perilous,” the empress said. She nodded at a sweating man bound in monofilament so that he would dismember himself if he tried to flee. “This man will be executed anyway, his name struck from the roster of honored ancestors. See if the gun works on him.”

Shiron fired the gun … and woke in a city she didn’t recognize, whose inhabitants spoke a dialect she had never heard before, whose technology she mostly recognized from historical dramas. The calendar they used, at least, was familiar. It told her that she was 857 years too early. No amount of research changed the figure.

Later, Shiron deduced that the man she had executed traced his ancestry back 857 years, to a particular individual. Most likely that ancestor had performed some extraordinary deed to join the aristocracy, and had, by the reckoning of Shiron’s people, founded his own line.

Unfortunately, Shiron didn’t figure this out before she accidentally deleted the human species.

#

“Yes,” Kerang says. “I have been charged with preventing further assassinations. Arighan’s Chain is not a threat I can afford to ignore.”

“Why didn’t you come earlier, then?” Shiron says. “After all, the Chain might have lain dormant, but the others—”

“I’ve seen the Mercy and the Needle,” he says, by which he means that he’s copied data from those who have. “They’re beautiful.” He isn’t referring to beauty in the way of shadows fitting together into a woman’s profile, or beauty in the way of sun-colored liquor at the right temperature in a faceted glass. He means the beauty of logical strata, of the crescendo of axiom-axiom-corollary-proof, of quod erat demonstrandum.

“Any gun or shard of glass could do the same as the Mercy,” Shiron says, understanding him. “And drugs and dreamscalpels will do the Needle’s work, given time and expertise. But surely you could say the same of the Chain.”

She stands again and takes the painting of the mountain down and rolls it tightly. “I was born on that mountain,” she says. “Something like it is still there, on a birthworld very like the one I knew. But I don’t think anyone paints in this style. Perhaps some art historian would recognize its distant cousin. I am no artist, but I painted it myself, because no one else remembers the things I remember. And now you would have it start again.”

“How many bullets have you used?” Kerang asks.

It is not that the Flower requires special bullets—it adapts even to emptiness—it is that the number matters.

Shiron laughs, low, almost husky. She knows better than to trust Kerang, but she needs him to trust her. She pulls out the Flower and rests it in both palms so he can look at it.

Three petals fallen, a fourth about to follow. That’s not the number, but he doesn’t realize it. “You’ve guarded it so long,” he says, inspecting the maker’s mark without touching the gun.

“I will guard it until I am nothing but ice,” Shiron says. “You may think that the Chain is a threat, but if I remove it, there’s no guarantee that you will still exist—”

“It’s not the Chain I want destroyed,” Kerang says gently. “It’s Arighan. Do you think I would have come to you for anything less?”

Shiron says into the awkward quiet, after a while, “So you tracked down descendants of Arighan’s line.” His silence is assent. “There must be many.”

Arighan’s Flower destroys the target’s entire ancestral line, altering the past but leaving its wielder untouched. In the empire Shiron once served, the histories spoke of Arighan as an honored guest. Shiron discovered long ago that Arighan was no guest, but a prisoner forced to forge weapons for her captors. How Arighan was able to create weapons of such novel destructiveness, no one knows. The Flower was Arighan’s clever revenge against a people whose state religion involved ancestor worship.

If descendants of Arighan’s line exist here, then Arighan herself can be undone, and all her guns unmade. Shiron will no longer have to be an exile in this timeline, although it is true that she cannot return to the one that birthed her, either.

Shiron snaps the painting taut. The mountain disintegrates, but she lost it lifetimes ago. Silent lightning crackles through the air, unknots Zheu Kerang from his human-shaped shell, tessellates dead-end patterns across the equations that make him who he is. The painting had other uses, as do the other things in this room—she believes in versatility—but this is good enough.

Kerang’s body slumps on the couch. Shiron leaves it there.

For the first time in a long time, she is leaving Blackwheel Station. What she does not carry she can buy on the way. And Blackwheel is loyal because they know, and they know not to offend her; Blackwheel will keep her suite clean and undisturbed, and deliver water, near-freezing in an elegant glass, night after night, waiting.

Kerang was a pawn by his own admission. If he knew what he knew, and lived long enough to convey it to her, then others must know what he knew, or be able to find it out.

Kerang did not understand her at all. Shiron unmazes herself from the station to seek passage to one of the hubworlds, where she can begin her search. If Shiron had wanted to seek revenge on Arighan, she could have taken it years ago.

But she will not be like Arighan. She will not destroy an entire timeline of people, no matter how alien they are to her.

Shiron had hoped that matters wouldn’t come to this. She acknowledges her own naïveté. There is no help for it now. She will have to find and murder each child of Arighan’s line. In this way she can protect Arighan herself, protect the accumulated sum of history, in case someone outwits her after all this time and manages to take the Flower from her.

#

In a universe where determinism runs backwards—where, no matter what you do, everything ends in the same inevitable Ω—choices still matter, especially if you are the last guardian of an incomparably lethal gun.

Although it has occurred to Shiron that she could have accepted Kerang’s offer, and that she could have sacrificed this timeline in exchange for the one in which neither Arighan nor the guns ever existed, she declines to do so. For there will come a heat-death, and she is beginning to wonder: if a constructed sentience—a computer—can have a soul, what of the universe itself, the greatest computer of all?

In this universe, they reckon her old. Shiron is older than even that. In millions of timelines, she has lived to the pallid end of life. In each of those endings, Arighan’s Flower is there, as integral as an edge is to a blade. While it is true that science never proves anything absolutely, that an inconceivably large but finite number of experiments always pales beside infinity, Shiron feels that millions of timelines suffice as proof.

Without Arighan’s Flower, the universe cannot renew itself and start a new story. Perhaps that is all the reason the universe needs. And Shiron will be there when the heat-death arrives, as many times as necessary.

#

So Shiron sets off. It is not the first time she has killed, and it is unlikely to be the last. But she is not, after all this time, incapable of grieving.

Ω

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Read the author spotlight with Yoon Ha Lee

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Yoon Ha Lee

Lee, Yoon HaYoon Ha Lee’s work has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, Fantasy Magazine, Ideomancer, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Farrago’s Wainscot, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Electric Velocipede, and Sybil’s Garage. She’s also appeared in the anthologies Twenty Epics, Japanese Dreams, In Lands That Never Were, The Way of the Wizard, Year’s Best Fantasy #6, and Science Fiction: The Best of 2002. Her poetry has appeared in such venues as Jabberwocky, Strange Horizons, Star*Line, Mythic Delirium, and Goblin Fruit. Learn more at pegasus.cityofveils.com.

Stories by Yoon Ha Lee

7 Responses »

  1. Very interesting story. I wasn’t sure I was following exactly what was going on in the meta-story (what with the recursive timelines and ramifications) but really enjoyed the pacing, tension and overall story.

    I especially appreciate a newer fiction story that has characters who actually do things and carry on a dialogue. (Rather than just a dense description prose piece that’s missing those elements).

    I like your writing, I’ll have to watch for and read more of your stuff.

  2. This is the most think-about-it-piece I’ve read in some time. Thanks, but so many questions! The Flower only erases the known historical lineage, yes? Otherwise why would the first execution stop at 857? But Shiron destroyed the human race so that argues for actual, genomic ancestry which feasibly would only need one kill shot? So Shiron must kill living descendants of Arighan to protect Arighan, to protect the gun, to insure Shiron’s stewardship of the gun, to maintain what she has culled (selected for?) in the universe, to make sure humans do not exist again, why?
    The only hint is her words, “unwritten death in the history of the universe” So unwriting the human species removed a burden from the universe and she wants to keep it that way? The ultimate god-like peacekeeper? Nice.

  3. Ah, that was great, as usual! I’ll have to reread and rethink it for sure, but the premise is quite twisty and interesting, and I love the many details that bring it to life.

  4. thank you for the wonderful story, the narrator gave an extraordinary performance.

  5. there are many aspects of style in this tale, i loved the many stylistic tricks used here. its a really good story. i find meself coming back to it.
    Also, Stefan Rudnicki’s voice is captivating – thank you LIGHTSPEED MAG and JJA.

  6. wow! what an awesome story!!! thank you so much for this!

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