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On a Red Station, Drifting

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On a Red Station, Drifting

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Author: Aliette de Bodard
Publisher: Immersion Press, 2012
Series: Xuya Universe

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Book Type: Novella
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Alternate History (SF)
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(32 reads / 21 ratings)


Hugo- and Nebula-nominated Novella

For generations Prosper Station has thrived under the guidance of its Honoured Ancestress: born of a human womb, the station's artificial intelligence has offered guidance and protection to its human relatives.

But war has come to the Dai Viet Empire. Prosper's brightest minds have been called away to defend the Emperor; and a flood of disorientated refugees strain the station's resources. As deprivations cause the station's ordinary life to unravel, uncovering old grudges and tearing apart the decimated family, Station Mistress Quyen and the Honoured Ancestress struggle to keep their relatives united and safe. What Quyen does not know is that the Honoured Ancestress herself is faltering, her mind eaten away by a disease that seems to have no cure; and that the future of the station itself might hang in the balance...


Linh arrived on Prosper Station blown by the winds of war, amidst a ship full of refugees who huddled together, speaking earfully of the invading armies: the war between the rebel lords and the Empire had escalated, and their war-kites had laid waste to entire planets.

Linh kept her distance, not wanting to draw attention to herself on the way there; but, when they disembarked from the mindship and joined the immigration queue, she found herself behind an old woman in a shawl, who glanced fearfully around her, as if she expected soldiers to come out of the shadows at any moment. Bent and bowed, she looked so much like Linh's long-dead mother that Linh found herself instinctively reaching out.

"It's going to be all right, Madam," she said.

The woman looked at her: past her, in that particular way of old people whose mind wasn't steady anymore. "They'll come here," she whispered, her eyes boring into Linh's, uncomfortably bright and feverish. "There is no escape."

"We're safe," Linh said.

The woman looked sceptical. Linh drew herself to her full height, calling on a hint of the dignity and poise she'd taken when heading her tribunal sessions. "We are the children of the Emperor, and he will protect us."

The old woman looked at her for a while, as if seeing her for the first time. "If you say so, child."

"I know it to be true," Linh said. She mouthed the words, the platitudes, effortlessly, as though she believed them: a good scholar, a good magistrate, able to engage in any argument, no matter how trivial or nonsensical. Of course she knew the Emperor had no desire to engage the rebel lords; that he was young, and badly advised, and would prefer to retreat. She knew all the words. After all, her denunciation of that policy was what had tarred her with the red ink of criminals; sent her on the run to this spirits-forsaken place with nothing but her wits to rely on.

The old woman had turned away. They were almost at the beginning of the queue now, and Linh could see three men in livery, checking papers and directing refugees into the station itself. Linh took a deep breath, bracing herself. Every instinct she had called for her to slip through like the other refugees.

Every instinct but one, and she could feel, through the mem-implants, her First Ancestor Thanh Thuy's presence, the old woman as strong and querulous as ever, reminding her that ties of blood held up Heaven and Earth; that even though Linh didn't know Prosper Station and had never met the family, they were still relatives, and entitled to far more than minimal courtesies.

And, of course, as usual, First Ancestor was right.

Linh shook her head, shaking off the slight dissociation that always came with mem-implants. It was becoming harder and harder to tell implants from her own mind, a side-effect of being so good with them.

She waited until they'd checked papers, and given her the permissions that would allow her to access the trance, Prosper's internal network. Then, when the queue of refugees had wandered away in search of their fortune, she sought someone in charge, who turned out to be a young man with a quivering voice, barely old enough to have passed his exams.

"I am Lê Thi Linh," she said. Lê, like all Dai Viet names, was common. But the way she held herself, and her utter certainty, was enough to shake him.

She stood silent and unmoving as he dragged her into the trance: she got a brief flash of his credentials as Keeper of the Outer Gates for Prosper Station, and an even briefer flash of his family tree, the line of his greater ancestors lighting up in red, warm tones, all the way up until it intersected her own lineage. A cousin, somewhat removed. Hardly surprising, as most of Prosper Station came, ultimately, from the same stock that had bred her: Lê Thi Phuoc, who had borne in her womb the Honoured Ancestress and Her four human siblings.

"I see." She could see him swallow, convulsively, could track the beads of sweat on his pale skin: everything thrown into merciless clarity, as if he were a witness before her tribunal. "Welcome, Aunt Linh. I'll take you to the Inner Quarters."

She followed him, not into the refugee hall, but into another, smaller corridor and then another, until they seemed to be wandering into a maze; and, like a maze, Prosper Station unfolded its wonders to her.

In many ways, it did not belie its name. The corridors were vast and warm, decorated with hologram works of art, from images of waterfalls on the Fifth Planet, to a lonely house clinging to the mountain, lost in morning mist. Here and there, quatrains spoke of the wonders of coming home, of the sorrow of parting and the fall of the Old Empire...

In other ways...Linh had once been to the capital, and had seen the epitome of refinement there--the inlaid marble panels, brought all the way back from Old Earth, the exquisite calligraphy that breathed and seemed to move with a life of its own, like a coiled dragon hidden within text. For all its wealth, Prosper Station remained a small, isolated station at the back end of nowhere, on the edge of the Dai Viet Empire. The poems were quotations taken from old books, and not the vibrant, searing words traded in the literary clubs on First Planet; the paintings, too, were old, and looked like they hadn't been refreshed for a while; and the architecture of the corridors was a little too bulky, a little too clumsy, lacking the effortless flowing grace of more central habitats.

There was a faint music of zither in the background, which got stronger as they crossed room after room; and a faint smell, like the one after the rain. The walls flared out, and they were walking through carefully preserved gardens, with the smell of bamboo and phuong grass heavy in the air, a luxury that must have all cost a fortune in air and water and heat.

Linh felt a thread at the back of her mind: Fifth Ancestor Hoang, trying to push her into reading the poems which named each area, to admire the designers' culture, their clever allusions to the poets of the past. Fifth Ancestor, ever the poet, ever the lover of history. She pushed him back, gently, ignoring the suggestion. It wasn't time for cleverness or beauty; though Fifth Ancestor whispered in her mind that there was always time for beauty, that one who did not pause to admire beauty might as well be dead to the world.

At length, they reached a room almost hidden away amidst the greenery. The door slid open at a touch of the young man's fingers; he moved away to let Linh in.

Within, everything seemed almost bare, until she realised that the shimmer on the red walls was text. Word after word scrolled from top to bottom, almost too fast to read. Linh caught fragments about moonlight, and jade, and wild herds of trau cho soi over the plains; verse after verse, more clever allusions than her mind would ever hold, even with her mem-implants.

A woman was waiting for her there, frozen in the uncertain land between youth and old age, too old to be patronised, too young to be respected. Behind her was a younger girl, waiting with her head bowed, though everything in her spoke of arrested flight. "Be welcome here, cousin." A brief burst of trance, and Linh was tracing the trees. Yes, they were indeed cousins, through her maternal grandmother, and the woman's marriage to Lê Nhu Anh, and...

The world wobbled and crumpled, as if it were a sheet of paper the spirits had punched through. There was a presence in the room; the text shimmered, the letters becoming subtly distorted, the red of the walls taking on an oily sheen, like fish sauce mixed with grease, and a wind too cold to be any draught. It was all she could do not to fall to her knees, her mind struggling to cope with it all...

She hadn't come unprepared, of course. She'd read all about the stations, all about the Minds that held and regulated them, all about stations like Prosper and its Honoured Ancestress, and the family that peopled its core. But the truth of a Mind's presence shattered the easy descriptions, the facile, clever similes written as glibly as inferior poems: it was its own self, the vast, dark presence that seemed to fold the air around itself, wrapped around the contraption in the centre of the room that might have been a throne, that might have been a tree with too many thorns; metal, twisting and buckling like a fish caught on land, its shifting reflections hurting her eyes...

"Welcome home, child," a voice said, filling her ears to bursting.

"Great-great-grandmother." She forced herself to get the words out, even as the trance went wild, seeking a pathway that would connect her to the Mind, ancestor after ancestor overlaid over the twisting texts. "I apologise for disturbing you."

A sound which might have been laughter. "Nonsense. Whenever did my children ever disturb me? This is your house, and you're always welcome here."

Even the words were wrong, subtly off, evoking a burst of recognition from First Ancestor Thanh Thuy, vocabulary and phrases reminding Linh of old memorials, not used for many generations. She triggered her mem-implants, letting First Ancestor's mem-fragments flood her mind, picking out words as they surfaced. "Heaven and Earth have overturned for me. I seek refuge in the embrace of my family."

Another vast, ineffable sound: a chuckle or a sniff of anger? The pressure against her mind didn't seem unfriendly. "This was your great-grandfather's home. It's also yours, should you wish it. What is it that you seek refuge from?"

Linh hesitated a fraction of a second, as all six ancestors in her mind howled at her for daring to lie to a superior; and then said, each word as dry as sun-baked chillies on her tongue, "War has come to the Twenty-Third Planet, and to the province of Great Light. My tribunal burns in the riots, and lawless soldiers scour the streets with their war-kites, raping and pillaging as they go."

It was untrue. The news of the war had reached her only after her ship pulled itself out of the deep planes: pictures of her tribunal in flames, the litany of the dead, of the missing she couldn't trace. All because her first lieutenant Giap had tricked her into running, into abandoning her own people...

For a moment, a bare, agonising moment, a suspended breath, she thought the Mind had caught her. She felt her pulse race in its wide-spectrum vision, caught the sheen of sweat on her brow, or ten thousand other ways she could have given herself away. But at length, the pressure retreated; and in the centre of the room, the core was inert again, and the only memory of the Mind's presence in the room was a faint whisper: "You have my

blessing, child."

Linh bowed, very low, as low as she'd have bowed for the Emperor, letting a dozen heartbeats pass before she rose again.

The woman, Lê Thi Quyen, was waiting for her, as unmoving and as expressionless as propriety required. "Come, Cousin," she said. "We'll see you settled properly." But as she turned away from the core Linh caught the slight, impatient shake of her head, and knew the Mind might have believed her, but Quyen would be watching, and waiting, on the lookout to expose her lies.

She might be family, as the Mind had said. But she wasn't welcome on Prosper Station.

Copyright © 2012 by Aliette de Bodard


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