(Finalist, WSFA Small Press Award, 2017)
Thuy’s hands have just closed on the gem—she can’t feel its warmth with her gloves, but her daughter’s ghost is just by her side, at the hole in the side of the ship’s hull, blurred and indistinct—when the currents of unreality catch her. Her tether to The Azure Serpent, her only lifeline to the ship, stretches; snaps.
And then she’s gone, carried forward into the depths.
On the night before the dive, Thuy goes below decks with Xuan and Le Hoa. It’s traditional; just as it is traditional that, when she comes back from a dive, she’ll claim her salvage and they’ll have another rousing party in which they’ll drink far too many gems dissolved in rice wine and shout poetry until The Azure Serpent’s Mind kindly dampens their incoherent ravings to give others their sleep—but not too much, as it’s good to remember life; to know that others onship celebrate surviving one more dive, like notches on a belt or vermillion beads slid on an abacus.
One more. Always one more.
Until, like Thuy’s daughter Kim Anh, that one last dive kills you and strands your body out there, in the dark. It’s a diver’s fate, utterly expected; but she was Thuy’s child—an adult when she died, yet forever Thuy’s little girl—and Thuy’s world contracts and blurs whenever she thinks of Kim Anh’s corpse, drifting for months in the cold alien loneliness of deep spaces.
Not for much longer; because this dive has brought them back where Kim Anh died. One last evening, one last fateful set of drinks with her friends, before Thuy sees her daughter again.
Her friends... Xuan is in a bad mood. No gem-drinking on a pre-dive party, so she nurses her rice wine as if she wishes it contains other things, and contributes only monosyllables to the conversation. Le Hoa, as usual, is elated; talking too much and without focus—dealing with her fears through drink, and food, and being uncharacteristically expansive.
“Nervous, lil’ sis?” she asks Thuy.
Thuy stares into the depth of her cup. “I don’t know.” It’s all she’s hoped for; the only chance she’ll ever get that will take her close enough to her daughter’s remains to retrieve them. But it’s also a dangerous dive into deep spaces, well into layers of unreality that could kill them all. “We’ll see. What about you?”
Le Hoa sips at her cup, her round face flushed with drink. She calls up, with a gesture, the wreck of the mindship they’re going to dive into; highlights, one after the other, the strings of gems that the scanners have thrown up. “Lots of easy pickings, if you don’t get too close to the wreck. And that’s just the biggest ones. Smallest ones won’t show up on sensors.”
Which is why they send divers. Or perhaps merely because it’s cheaper and less of an investment to send human beings, instead of small and lithe mindships that would effortlessly survive deep spaces, but each cost several lifetimes to build and properly train.
Thuy traces, gently, the contours of the wreck on the hologram—there’s a big hole in the side of the hull, something that blew up in transit, killing everyone onboard. Passengers’ corpses have spilled out like innards—all unrecognisable of course, flesh and muscles disintegrated, bones slowly torn and broken and compressed until only a string of gems remains to mark their presence.
Kim Anh, too, is gone: nothing left of Thuy’s precocious, foolhardy daughter who struggled every morning with braiding her hair—just a scattering of gems they will collect and sell offworld, or claim as salvage and drink away for a rush of short-lived euphoria.
There isn’t much to a gem—just that familiar spike of bliss, no connection to the dead it was salvaged from. Deep spaces strip corpses, and compress them into... these. Into an impersonal, addictive drug.
Still... still, divers cannibalise the dead; and they all know that the dead might be them, one day. It’s the way it’s always been done, on The Azure Serpent and all the other diver-ships: the unsaid, unbreakable traditions that bind them all.
It didn’t use to bother Thuy so much, before Kim Anh died.
“Do you know where she is?” Xuan asks.
“I’m not sure. Here, perhaps.” Thuy points, carefully, to somewhere very near the wreck of the ship. “It’s where she was when—”
When her suit failed her. When the comms finally fell silent.
Xuan sucks in a sharp breath. “Tricky.” She doesn’t try to dissuade Thuy, though. They all know that’s the way it goes, too.
Le Hoa attempts, forcefully, to change the subject. “Two more dives and Tran and I might have enough to get married. A real couple’s compartment, can you imagine?”
Thuy forces a smile. She hasn’t drunk enough; but she just doesn’t feel like rice wine: it’ll go to her head, and if there’s any point in her life when she needs to be there; to be clear-headed and prescient... “We’ll all get together and give you a proper send-off.”
All their brocade clothes retrieved from storage, and the rice wine they’ve been saving in long-term compartments onboard the ship taken out, sipped at until everything seems to glow; and the small, round gem-dreams dumplings—there’s no actual gems in them, but they’re deliberately shaped and positioned like a string of gems, to call for good fortune and riches to fall into the newlyweds’ hands, for enough that they can leave the ship, leave this life of dives and slow death...
Kim Anh never had a chance for any of this. When she died, she’d barely begun a relationship with one of the older divers—a fling, the kind that’s not meant to last onboard The Azure Serpent. Except, of course, that it was cut short, became frozen in grief and regrets and recriminations.
Thuy and Kim Anh’s ex seldom speak; though they do get drunk together, sometimes. And Cong Hoan, her eldest son, has been posted to another diver-ship. They talk on comms, and see each other for festivals and death anniversaries: he’s more distant than she’d like, but still alive—all that matters.
“You’re morbid again,” Xuan says. “I can see it in your face.”
Thuy makes a grimace. “I don’t feel like drinking.”
“Quite obviously,” Le Hoa says. “Shall we go straight to the poetry?”
“She’s not drunk enough,” Xuan says before Thuy can open her mouth.
Thuy flushes. “I’m not good at poetry, in any case.”
Le Hoa snorts. “I know. The point isn’t that you’re good. We’re all terrible at it, else we would be officials on a numbered planet with scores of servants at our beck and call. The point is forgetting.” She stops, then, looks at Thuy. “I’m sorry.”
Thuy forces a shrug she doesn’t feel. “Doesn’t matter.”
Le Hoa opens her mouth, and then closes it again. “Look...” she says. She reaches inside her robes and withdraws something—Thuy knows, even before she opens her hand, what it will be.
The gem is small, and misshapen: the supervisors won’t let them keep the big, pretty ones as salvage; those go to offworld customers, the kind rich enough to pay good money for them. It glistens like spilled oil in the light of the teahouse; and in that light, the dumplings on the table and the tea seem to fade into the background; to recede into tasteless, odourless insignificance. “Try this.”
“I—” Thuy shakes her head. “It’s yours. And before a dive...”
Le Hoa shrugs. “Screw tradition, Thuy. You know it’s not going to change anything. Besides, I have some stash. Don’t need this one.”
Thuy stares at it—thinking of dropping it in the cup and watching it dissolve; of the warmth that will slide down into her stomach when she drinks; of the rising euphoria seizing all her limbs until everything seems to shake with the bliss of desire—of how to step away, for a time; away from tomorrow and the dive, and Kim Anh’s remains.
“Come on, lil’ sis.”
Thuy shakes her head. She reaches for the cup of rice wine, drains it in one gulp; leaving the gem still on the table.
“Time for poetry,” she says, aloud. The Azure Serpent doesn’t say anything—he so seldom speaks, not to the divers, those doomed to die—but he dims the lights and the sound as Thuy stands up, waiting for words to well up from the empty pit in her chest.
Xuan was right: you need to be much drunker than this, for decent verses.
Thuy knows where her parents died. The wreck they were scavenging from is on her ancestral altar, at the end of the cycling of holos that shows First and Second Mother go from newlyweds flushed with drink and happiness, to older, greyer women holding their grandchild in their arms, their smile cautious; tentative; as if they already know they will have to relinquish her.
Aboard The Azure Serpent, they’re legends, spoken of in hushed tones. They went deeper, farther into unreality than anyone else ever has. Divers call them The Long Breathers, and they have their own temple, spreading over three compartments and always smelling of incense. On the temple walls, they are depicted in their diving suits, with the bodhisattva Quan Am showing them the way into an empty cabin; where divers leave offerings praying for good fortune and prosperity.
They left nothing behind. Their suits crumbled with them, and their bodies are deep within the wreck of that mindship: two scatterings of gems in a cabin or a corridor somewhere, forever irretrievable; too deep for anyone to survive retrieval, even if they could be located anymore, in the twenty-one years since they died.
On the altar is Bao Thach: her husband, not smiling but stern and unyielding, as utterly serious in death as he was mischievous and whimsical in life.
She has nothing left of him, either.
Kim Anh... Kim Anh is by her father’s side; because she died childless and unmarried; because there is no one else who will mourn her or say the prayers to ease her passage. Thuy isn’t the first, or the last, to do this onboard the ship.
There’s a box, with enough space for a single gem. For what Thuy has earned the right to salvage from her daughter’s body: something tangible, palpable that she can hold onto, not the holos or her own hazy-coloured and shrivelled memories—holding a small, wrinkled baby nursing at her breast and feeling contentment well up in her, stronger than any gem-induced euphoria—Kim Anh at age ten, trying to walk in a suit two sizes too big for her—and a few days before her death, the last meal she and Thuy had in the teahouse: translucent dumplings served with tea the colour of jade, with a smell like cut grass on a planet neither of them will ever live to see.
Kim Anh isn’t like Thuy’s mothers: she died outside a different mindship, far enough from the wreck that it’s possible to retrieve her. Tricky, as Xuan said; but what price wouldn’t Thuy pay, to have something of her daughter back?
In the darkness at the hole in the ship’s hull, Thuy isn’t blind. Her suit lights up with warnings—temperature, pressure, distortions. That last is what will kill her: the layers of unreality utterly unsuited to human existence, getting stronger and stronger as the current carries her closer to the wreck of the mindship, crushing her lungs and vital organs like crumpled paper when her suit finally fails.
It’s what killed Kim Anh on her last dive; what eventually kills most divers. Almost everyone on The Azure Serpent—minus the supervisors, of course—lives with that knowledge, that suspended death sentence.
Thuy would pray to her ancestors—to her mothers the Long Breathers—if only she knew what to ask for.
Thuy closes her hand over the gem. She deactivates the suits’ propulsion units and watches her daughter’s remains, floating beside her.
Gems and more gems—ranging from the small one she has in her hand to the larger, spherical ones that have replaced the organs in the torso. It’s a recent death compared to that of the mindship: the gems still form something vaguely like a human shape, if humans could be drawn in small, round items like droplets of water; or like tears.
And, as the unreality readings spike, the ghost by her side becomes sharper and sharper, until she sees, once more, Kim Anh as she was in life. Her hair is braided—always with the messy ends, the ribbon tied haphazardly; they used to joke that she didn’t need a tether, because the ribbon would get caught in the ship’s airlock in strands thick and solid enough to bring her back. Her eyes are glinting—with tears, or perhaps with the same oily light as that of a gem.
“Child”, Thuy whispers, and the currents take her voice and scatter it—and the ghost nods, but it might as well be at something Thuy can’t see.
Long time no see.
They’re drifting apart now: hurtling down some dark, silent corridor into the wreck that dilates open like an eye—no no no, not after all of this, not after the certainty she’ll lose her own life to the dive—and Thuy shifts, making the propulsion units in the suit strain against the currents, trying to reach Kim Anh; to hold her, to hold something of her, down there in the dark...
And then something rushes at her from behind, and she feels a sharp, pressing pain through the nape of the suit—before everything fades away.
When Thuy wakes up—nauseous, disoriented—the comms are speaking to her.
“Thuy? Where are you?” It’s Xuan’s voice, breathless and panicking. “I can help you get back, if you didn’t drift too far.”
“I’m here,” she tries to say; and has to speak three times before her voice stops shaking; becomes audible enough. There is no answer. Wherever she is—and, judging by the readings, it’s deep—comms don’t emit anymore.
She can’t see Kim Anh’s body—she remembers scrabbling, struggling to remain close to it as the currents separated them, but now there is nothing. The ghost, though, is still there, in the same room, wavering in the layers of unreality; defined in traceries of light that seem to encompass her daughter’s very essence in a few sharp lines.
Thuy still has the gem in her hand, tucked under the guard of her wrist. The rest of her daughter’s gems—they’ve fallen in and are now floating somewhere in the wreck, somewhere far away and inaccessible, and...
Her gaze, roaming, focuses on where she is; and she has to stop herself from gasping.
It’s a huge, vaulted room like a mausoleum—five ribs spreading from a central point, and racks of electronics and organics, most of them scuffed and knocked over; pulsing cables converging on each other in tight knots, merging and parting like an alchemist’s twisted idea of a nervous system. In the centre is something like a chair, or a throne, all ridges and protrusions, looking grown rather than manufactured. Swarms of repair bots lie quiescent; they must have given up, unable to raise the dead.
The heartroom. The centre of the ship, where the Mind once rested—the small, wilted thing in the throne is all that’s left of its corpse. Of course. Minds aren’t quite human; and they were made to better withstand deep spaces.
“Thuy? Please come in. Please...” Xuan is pleading now, her voice, growing fainter and fainter. Thuy knows about this too: the loss of hope.
“Thuy? Is that your name?”
The voice is not Xuan’s. It’s deeper and more resonant; and its sound make the walls shake—equipment shivers and sweats dust; and the cables writhe and twist like maddened snakes.
“I have waited so long.”
“You—” Thuy licks dry lips. Her suit is telling her—reassuringly, or not, she’s not certain—that unreality has stabilised; and that she has about ten minutes left before her suit fails. Before she dies, holding onto her daughter’s gem, with her daughter’s ghost by her side. “Who are you?”
It’s been years, and unreality has washed over the ship, in eroding tide after eroding tide. No one can have survived. No one, not even the Long Breathers.
Ancestors, watch over me.
“The Boat Sent by the Bell,” the voice says. The walls of the room light up, bright and red and unbearable—characters start scrolling across walls on all sides of Thuy, poems and novels and fragments of words bleeding from the oily metal, all going too fast for her to catch anything but bits and pieces, with that touch of bare, disquieting familiarity. “I—am—was—the ship.”
“You’re alive.” He... he should be dead. Ships don’t survive. They die, just like their passengers. They—
“Of course. We are built to withstand the farthest, more distorted areas of deep spaces.”
“Of course.” The words taste like ashes on her mouth. “What have you been waiting for?”
The ship’s answer is low, and brutally simple. “To die.”
Still alive. Still waiting. Oh, ancestors. When did the ship explode? Thirty, forty years ago? How long has the Mind been down here, in the depths—crippled and unable to move, unable to call out for help; like a human locked in their own body after a stroke?
Seven minutes, Thuy’s suit says. Her hands are already tingling, as if too much blood were flooding to them. By her side, Kim Anh’s ghost is silent, unmoving, its shape almost too sharp; too real; too alien. “Waiting to die? Then that makes two of us.”
“I would be glad for some company.” The Boat Sent by the Bell‘s voice is grave, thoughtful. Thuy would go mad, if she were down here for so long—but perhaps mindships are more resistant to this kind of thing. “But your comrades are calling for you.”
The comms have sunk to crackles; one of her gloves is flickering away, caught halfway between its normal shape and a clawed, distorted paw with fingers at an impossible angle. It doesn’t hurt; not yet. “Yes.” Thuy swallows. She puts the gem into her left hand—the good one, the one that’s not disappearing, and wraps her fingers around it, as if she were holding Kim Anh. She’d hold the ghost, too, if she could grasp it. “It’s too deep. I can’t go back. Not before the suit fails.”
Silence. Now there’s pain—faint and almost imperceptible, but steadily rising, in every one of her knuckles. She tries to flex her fingers; but the pain shifts to a sharp, unbearable stab that makes her cry out.
At length the ship says, “A bargain, if you will, diver.”
Bargains made on the edge of death, with neither of them in a position to deliver. She’d have found this funny, in other circumstances. “I don’t have much time.”
“Come here. At the centre. I can show you the way out.”
“It’s—” Thuy grits her teeth against the rising pain—”useless. I told you. We’re too deep. Too far away.”
“Not if I help you.” The ship’s voice is serene. “Come.”
And, in spite of herself—because, even now, even here, she clings to what she has—Thuy propels herself closer to the centre; lays her hand, her contracting, aching right hand, on the surface of the Mind.
She’s heard, a long time ago, that Minds didn’t want to be touched this way. That the heartroom was their sanctuary; their skin their own private province, not meant to be stroked or kissed, lest it hurt them.
What she feels, instead, is... serenity—a stretching of time until it feels almost meaningless, her five minutes forgotten; what she sees, for a bare moment, is how beautiful it is, when currents aren’t trying to kill you or distort you beyond the bounds of the bearable, and how utterly, intolerably lonely it is, to be forever shut off from the communion of ships and space; to no longer be able to move; to be whole in a body that won’t shift, that is too damaged for repairs and yet not damaged enough to die.
I didn’t know, she wants to say, but the words won’t come out of her mouth. The ship, of course, doesn’t answer.
Behind her, the swarms of bots rise—cover her like a cloud of butterflies, blocking off her field of view; a scattering of them on her hand, and a feeling of something sucking away at her flesh, parting muscle from bone.
When The Boat Sent by the Bell releases her, Thuy stands, shaking—trying to breathe again, as the bots slough away from her like shed skin and settle on a protuberance near the Mind. Her suit has been patched and augmented; the display, flickering in and out of existence, tells her she has twenty minutes. Pain throbs, a slow burn in the flesh of her repaired hand; a reminder of what awaits her if she fails.
On the walls, the characters have been replaced by a map, twisting and turning from the heartroom to the breach in the hull. “Thirteen minutes and fifty-seven seconds,” the ship says, serenely. “If you can propel fast enough.”
“I—” She tries to say something, anything. “Why?” is the only thought she can utter.
“Not a gift, child. A bargain.” The ship’s voice has that same toneless, emotionless serenity to it—and she realises that The Boat Sent by the Bell has gone mad after all; cracks in the structure small and minute, like a fractured porcelain cup, it still holds water, but it’s no longer whole. “Where the bots are... tear that out, when you leave.”
“The bots could have done that for you,” Thuy says.
If the ship were human, he would have shaken his head. “No. They can repair small things, but not... this.”
Not kill. Not even fix the breach in the hull, or make the ship mobile. She doesn’t know why she’s fighting back tears—it’s not even as if she knew the ship, insofar as anyone can claim to know a being that has lived for centuries.
She moves towards the part the bots have nestled on, a twisted protuberance linked to five cables, small enough to fit into her hand, beating and writhing, bleeding iridescent oil over her fingers. The bots rise, like a swarm of bees, trying to fight her. But they’re spent from their repairs, and their movements are slow and sluggish. She bats them away, as easily as one would bat a fly—sends them flying into walls dark with the contours of the ship’s map, watches them bleed oil and machine guts all over the heartroom, until not one remains functional.
When she tears out the part, The Boat Sent by the Bell sighs, once—and then it’s just Thuy and the ghost, ascending through layers of fractured, cooling corpse.
Later—much, much later, after Thuy has crawled, breathless, out of the wreck, with two minutes to spare—after she’s managed to radio Xuan—after they find her another tether, whirl her back to the ship and the impassive doctor—after they debrief her—she walks back to her compartment. Kim Anh’s ghost comes with her, blurred and indistinct; though no one but Thuy seems to be able to see it.
She stands for a while in the small space, facing the ancestral altar. Her two mothers are watching her, impassive and distant—the Long Breathers, and who’s to say she didn’t have their blessing, in the end?
Kim Anh is there too, in the holos—smiling and turning her head to look back at something long gone—the box on the altar awaiting its promised gem; its keepsake she’s sacrificed so much for. Someone—Xuan, or Le Hoa, probably—has laid out a tray with a cup of rice wine, and the misshapen gem she refused back in the teahouse.
“I didn’t know,” she says, aloud. The Azure Serpent is silent, but she can feel him listening. “I didn’t know ships could survive.”
What else are we built for? whispers The Boat Sent by the Bell, in her thoughts; and Thuy has no answer.
She fishes inside her robes, and puts Kim Anh’s gem in the palm of her right hand. They allowed her to keep it as salvage, as a testament to how much she’s endured.
The hand looks normal, but feels... odd, distant, as if it were no longer part of her, the touch of the gem on it an alien thing, happening to her in another universe.
Her tale, she knows, is already going up and down the ship—she might yet find out they have raised her an altar and a temple, and are praying to her as they pray to her mothers. On the other side of the table, by the blind wall that closes off her compartment, her daughter’s ghost, translucent and almost featureless, is waiting for her.
She thinks of The Boat Sent by the Bell, alone in the depths—of suits and promises and ghosts, and remnants of things that never really die, and need to be set free.
“Hello, child,” she whispers. And, before she can change her mind, drops the gem into the waiting cup.
The ghost dissolves like a shrinking candle-flame; and darkness closes in—silent and profound and peaceful.