The Bonedrake’s Penance

Issue #143 - Science-Fantasy Month 2

Growing up, it never occurred to me that everyone didn’t have a bonedrake mother, or, in the early days, that there was anyone else in the world. I say “mother” and “she,” although she was female or male, both or neither, as the occasion suggested or the whim took her.

Certain peoples, she explained later, found these distinctions important. I don’t believe she ever quite made sense of it, but accommodating others’ religious beliefs mattered to her; at least, she classified gender performances and the associated linguistic gyrations as religious. This was, at any rate, less interesting than other things about her, and when I began calling her Mother, she seemed content.

My mother was the keeper of the fortress at the center of the universe, where we are headed now. It was composed of spun metal and sibilant nanoparticles. I was not allowed outside, even if we had had a proper suit that fit me rather than the all-purpose protective mesh I used. She said I was too young, too fragile, and apt to forget even the simple principles of inertia and momentum. I was, however, allowed to poke around the storerooms where she kept the suits in pristine condition should anyone ever need them. They came in all shapes and sizes, and numbers of limbs, and some of them accommodated a head (or heads) and some of them didn’t. A few might fit you when you reach your adult phase. The materials they were made of varied. Later I learned something of their construction, and ways to repair them, but when I was a child none of this interested me. Instead, I marveled at the gold piping on one, or the crystal-dark displays on another, which flickered tantalizingly with iridescence when I angled a tentacle-gripper toward the light, or the way visors dimmed and brightened in response to my presence.

The most interesting suits were the ones I could imagine myself fitting into. This narrowed the field considerably. Not many were designed for bipeds with heads at the top, although I sometimes contorted myself upside-down trying to make my head emerge from my stomach. (Nothing worked. But it was entertaining, and in the meantime I became very flexible.) The majority were too big for me, and my mother had locked them down in some fashion so that I could touch them but not open them up to try on, or even poke my head in.

Most of them would respond to my prodding enough to allow their limbs to be repositioned, however, or even folded, depending on the particular material they were made of. Then I would go off and cut up rags—at least, I think they were rags, since my mother kept them in a heap and never seemed to care what I did with them—and stitch them together with great, clumsy child-stitches to make my own suits.

Second most interesting, although it took a few more years before I could formulate the question, was the absence of suits that looked like my mother. Granted, there were plenty of quadrupeds, but none that had her sleek serpentine grace, none that accommodated that heavy head with its skull-mask features, or her claws, which she kept sharp and yet was so gentle with. She could trim my fingernails with them yet keep from cutting me even as I struggled and squirmed.

The question came to me when I was perhaps six years old, by the calendar she used, when she caught me dressing up like her. “Dressing up” was a charitable way to put it. I had been raiding the pantry. My mother was a surprisingly good cook for someone who subsisted on, as she put it, “radioactive leavings and the occasional smashed atom.” (I was never sure how literally she meant this, since she prudently refused to let me examine her inner workings.) She knew I liked sweets, the more fancifully decorated the better. The previous week she had attempted to show me the nuances of cake decoration, which was more of an exercise in getting frosting and holographic sprinkles all over the table, but the results were sweet, crunchy, tender, and occasionally vision-inducing.

The pantry contained all the accoutrements of pastry decoration, some old-fashioned and some less so: serrated metal nozzles for sacks of frosting, powdered sugar sweetly scented with rose water or vanilla or (so my mother claimed) flavors she could sense but which I could not. And there was the frosting itself, most of it kept in a suspended state, no mixing required. I wasn’t allowed near the dangerous kitchen equipment at that age—the knives clattered at me and worse, lectured in high shrill voices when I reached for the drawer they were stored in—but I knew where the chopsticks were kept, and for all their sullen clicks and mutters, they didn’t raise the alarm. I grabbed one of the metal ones, prettily enameled with a fractal gasket, and used it to puncture one of the frosting bags.

Some of the frosting, which was blue with mysterious lavender-glow swirls, squirted all over my hands and shirt. I didn’t see this as a disaster but an opportunity. I licked it off my hands, although the stuff smeared all over my skin and left great gobs on my chin. It tasted like sugar and jasmine and firefly sparks, and tickled going down, making me giggle.

Then I remembered my original purpose, and I got to work. I stripped off my clothes and cheerfully traced my ribs with great streaks of frosting so they would look like my mother’s exoskeletal barding except, inevitably, mushier. The frosting developed interesting crusts as it hardened, causing it to flake off every time I moved. Lavender glitter drifted off in nebular swirls and meteor streaks, and the kitchen filled with shadows as deep as the lanterned night outside the fortress.

Not all my mother’s frostings were astronomically themed, but she had a weakness in that direction, and she herself had eyes that glowed in their depths like faraway stars. Sometimes I squinted as I looked at my reflection, hoping my eyes would do the same thing; no luck. At least I was old enough to realize that putting frosting in my eyes wouldn’t work.

I only realized my mother had entered the kitchen when I heard a sound that was part-wheeze, part-crackle. I started guiltily and scrabbled to hide the offending frosting paraphernalia behind my back, not that she was fooled.

My mother had a horrified tone that I later identified as meaning Am I doing this parenting thing wrong? but, at the time, I assumed she was upset with me. “Eggling,” she said, her voice rattling more than usual, “are you trying to persuade me to eat you?”

“I wanted to look like you,” I said, or something to that effect. That was the point of the exercise: drawing armor traceries over myself, and scribbly imitations of her electromagnetic banners, and putting the metal nozzles on my fingertips in imitation of her magnificent claws. (Even with the frosting, they kept falling off, but that was a game in itself.) Since I couldn’t play dress-up with a dragon-suit, I had to improvise.

I didn’t understand the way her eyes dimmed, as if in sorrow. She’d never minded my makeshift costumes before. Not that she was permissive about everything, but for a bonedrake she had sensible ideas about behaviors that did and didn’t harm human children. I especially remembered the way she had roared and clamored with laughter when I tried to glue myself, with leftover rice, into a caterpillar-priest outfit.

“Oh, eggling,” my mother said. She liked to call me that. “What’s wrong with the way you look?”

She had never asked that before. I gaped at her, confused.

My mother huffed, and vapor whistled out of her sides, through apertures I had looked for but had never been able to find. “Come here,” she said.

I knew better than to argue, although I glanced back at the crumbling bits of starry frosting that I was leaving on the floor. She huffed again, and the vapor came once more, stronger. It felt warm and damp, and it carried the effervescent scent of limes, if limes grew on trees bright as suns. Then she retrieved a sponge and methodically began cleaning me off.

I wriggled, the way children do, and at the time I thought nothing more of it. But perhaps some lesson stuck with me anyway: I never again attempted to dress up as my mother.

Let me tell you more about my mother. She liked music, and she mixed musical traditions without having much ear for the harmonious. One of her favorite instruments was a great wind-harp concocted upon hollow bones of translucent metal. Wind in our fortress was necessarily artificial, but it came when she called it, and she did so to a schedule, as with most things. In the mornings (for there were mornings, the way there were mealtimes and evenings and year-festivals), I woke to the sound of the wind roaming through the pipes, moaning threnodies and the jangling accompaniment of wires stirred to unrhymed arpeggios. At times I took mallets or brushes to the pipes to bang out my own counterpoints, always scurrying away whenever her shadow crossed the threshold, as if the strings could hide me. She only smiled her inscrutable smile.

My mother had an obsession with neatness, as befitted a keeper of calendars and archaeological details. I asked over and over what she did here, and she never tired of answering me. The fortress was filled with clocks of all kinds and from all eras, some of which I was allowed to take apart, and some of which she walled up behind meshes of incandescent force. Clocks that dripped sand of silver and clocks that uttered relativistic syllables, clocks with gears that bit my clumsy fingers and clocks that tolled whenever a civilization devoured itself.

“What’s a civilization?” I would ask next, trying to get the pronunciation right. That was another thing. My mother spoke to me in a language of up-and-down tones and varied sibilants, but she was fluent in anything you cared to name, including a number of tongues that were no longer spoken anywhere else.

She gave me the word in many languages, and showed me paintings, holographs, maps, shards scavenged from ruins long swallowed by bloated red stars. She explained how most sentients developed some form of society, hierarchical or otherwise, and built edifices both material and metaphysical. Cities woven in and out of the rings of spinning worlds, or propagating across vast empty stretches soliton-fashion, or created out of nerve-flicker impulses webbed together across brightly beaded networks.

“Are we a civilization?” was the question after that, most days.

My mother retracted her claw and tapped me on the head, thoughtfully, as though I might make an interesting sound. (The one time I protested, “My head isn’t empty!”, her laugh thundered through the halls. She teased me about it for weeks.) “Can you have a civilization of two?” she asked.

“Two is more than one,” I said, holding my fingers out to prove it. I was eight then, old enough to count without my fingers, but I liked the visual aid. “We even have a city.” Then I frowned. “Is a fortress a city?”

“If you want it to be,” she said unhelpfully, and grinned at me.

My mother had not always been the fortress’s keeper. She alluded occasionally to her predecessors. I never asked, on the grounds that I couldn’t imagine a time before I existed, let alone a time before my mother’s stewardship of our home. She never referred to them by name, and she didn’t tell me what they had looked like. But she kept a shrine to them anyway.

Little-known facts about bonedrakes, before I tell you more:

They are, indeed, made of bone. Mostly. I never acquired the technical specifications. Whether the bones were laminates harvested from lesser creatures, or derived from drakes slaughtered for the purpose in the days of long-ago devas and paladins, the pallor of a bonedrake is unmistakable. The silken, chilly touch of death leaves its traces wherever a bonedrake goes, all the way down in the universe’s marrow, an absolute zero signature. Yet this is not all that terrible, when you think about it. After all, time’s arrow pierces everything that lives, and nothing is undying forever.

There are sagas written about bonedrakes, and incantations, and dry academic treatises. (There is nothing in the world so dull that a dry academic treatise cannot be written about it, and bonedrakes are far from dull.) The taboo against depicting them in the visual arts is not universal but widespread nonetheless. After all, if carcass-armor could be animated by the will of distant warlords and descend roaring from skies whose constellations were tattooed over by explosions, who was to say that sculptures and paintings could not also turn against their makers?

Bonedrakes are good at computations. My mother’s favorite instrument was the abacus, even if she preferred using it as a percussion instrument. It wasn’t as if she needed something as primitive as an abacus for arithmetic she could do in her head. She always said I was missing the point and that creative tool-use was its own pleasure.

It’s not true that only four bonedrakes ever existed, four for the dimensions of space and time, or four for death, or four for the elements. The number of base elements varies so widely among belief systems anyway, and my mother once mentioned that her predecessors believed in atomic configurations rather than the poetry of stone, acid, vortex, plasma.

Most words or gestures of warding against bonedrakes are sheer superstition. I once sat on a cushion stuffed with firebird down—it was unusually cold in that chamber, to accommodate our guests’ preferred environment, and I liked the extra heat source—and watched, resisting the urge to pick at my fingernails, while my mother listened patiently to emissaries filling the fortress with the wave-like overlapping of barrier-chaconnes before they presented her with defanged artillery pieces. I played the chaconnes back later, because the rhythms were oddly soothing. My mother never showed any sign of discomfort.

On the other hand, because bonedrakes are essentially creatures of war, they are designed to follow orders. Because my mother’s original commanders were dead, and because she was the only one of her kind left, it took me a long time to grasp this essential point.

For the longest time, I didn’t realize that my mother’s duties involved emissaries. On occasion she disappeared, and I wandered around looking for her, or not, if I was too engrossed looking at pictures or picking berries. Among her several gardens was one she had designed to be “friendly to creatures who put everything in their mouths and have delicate stomachs.”

When I was very young I cried for her, and this triggered messages telling me to be patient until she could take care of my needs. In the meantime, since she was able to manipulate multiple bodies at once—another knack I never picked up, as you’ll find—she dispatched one of her marionettes to handle the immediate problem, whether that was feeding me rice porridge or reading me a book. As I grew older, I could tell I didn’t have her full attention, and at last, when I was twelve, I demanded to know where she went when she wasn’t really with me.

My mother was in the middle of organizing a shelf full of curios. The “shelf” wasn’t so much physical as a ladder-basket of lines of light suspending the contents, everything from grinning railcars carved from driftwood to upside-down bottles in which raged storms of oil particles and petals. “Where do I go?” she echoed, not paying attention as she tried to decide whether she wanted the ice sculpture facing left or right. “I don’t leave the fortress, eggling. I’m always right here.”

“But sometimes I can’t find you,” I said, more insistently. “Where do you go then?”

She fixed me with an interested stare. I was reminded that, as well as I knew the fortress, there were yet crevices and nooks and closets that I had never been permitted to explore, and would never be able to break my way into. Then she sighed, and this time the vapor that whistled out of her side-vents had a metallic quality. “You are old enough now,” she said.

“Sometimes people send emissaries with items for the fortress. We are a repository of sorts, a museum. It is only courteous that I deal with them and their artifacts personally, if they so desire. Not all of them do.”

I studied the shelf with new interest. Come to think of it, I’d never seen the railcars before. I had assumed that they came from her usual inexhaustible trove of treasures. She liked to rotate her decorations, from tapestries of rustling leaves with couplets chewed into their edges, to strands of beads carved from the remains of exploratory probes and painted with representations of their solar systems of origin. But where, after all, had all those treasures come from? Although my mother had her hobbies—cupcakes as a case in point—I didn’t think her own capabilities were so varied. Nor were mine. And matter, let alone matter in the shape of grinning railcars, or even sad railcars, didn’t spontaneously come from nowhere.

“Do you require their artifacts?” I asked, trying to imagine my mother demanding tribute, a figure crowned with whorls of plasma perilously contained. It was absurd.

She snorted. The walls vibrated, although the fragile trinkets she was arranging showed no sign of being affected. “Yes and no,” she said. “It is good to study the march of history, but we lack little here.”

“I want to meet the emissaries too,” I said impulsively.

“There are none right now,” she said, tail flicking idly back and forth.

“But more will come, won’t they?”

“Very likely so,” she said. “Not to a schedule, mind. One thing you must understand about the outside world is that its modes of recording history, including calendars, change and shift as different nations rise and fall and conquer each other. Even matters like timekeeping are an expression of power. In any case, if you are old enough to want to meet visitors, you are old enough to learn the protocols for dealing with them.”

“Protocols?” I asked. My schooling, to this point, had consisted of my pointing at things that caught my eye and my mother figuring out safe ways of indulging me. Disciplined tutelage was foreign to me, but I had no prejudice against it, either. Moreover, the thought of meeting other people, like the ones for whom the mysterious suits had been designed, was so exciting that my mother could have, if so inclined, probably have gotten me to scrub the fortress clean with my hair in exchange for the opportunity.

“Protocols,” she said firmly. “Of which the first one is, there’s never only one right way to handle a first contact. Or a seventh, or a twenty-fourth, if it comes to that.”

One of the earliest lessons she imparted to me, in preparation for my first such meeting, was that you could also never guarantee that nothing would go wrong, no matter how experienced you were or what your best intentions were. I was incredulous about her claim that some of the most vicious encounters occurred between members of the same species, even the same communities within those species.

“How is that possible?” I demanded. We were walking through a kaleidoscopic panorama depicting the outbreak of the 3.72nd Arrazhed Civil War. The nomenclature was an approximation for my convenience: the Arrazheds had numbered their conflicts with real numbers rather than strictly with natural ones, since history did not consist of discrete events but cause and consequence bleeding into each other. My mother was able to remember the number entire, but she said that for our purposes I could round it off to the nearest hundredth.

The Arrazhed conflict had involved atrocities of all sorts. By then I was old enough to have been introduced to the concept. While my mother was no great believer in the innocence of childhood, neither did she prod me to deal with the realities outside our fortress, or even the ones memorialized within it, until I showed an interest in them.

For instance, my mother said, with a certain irony, that for many cultures, set definitions were of particular importance, especially in instances where multivalence was devalued. You could define sets as desired, then exclude based on your criteria. (The obligatory digression on set paradoxes only lasted a day or two, although she would have spent longer on it if I had cared to.)

One of the Arrazhed factions, the Oethred, was particularly literal-minded. They retaliated against a more powerful aggressor by releasing a plague that edited the enemy’s spawnlings to exhibit physical traits most commonly associated with the Oethred themselves: carapaces with an ultraviolet shimmer rather than iridescent green, smaller lens-clusters, a tendency toward polydactyl grippers. The Oethred’s enemies purged their spawnlings, as was intended, but retaliated by infecting Oethred religious wind-paintings with nanite sculptors, so that their masterworks collapsed into hyperstable vortices whispering heterodox teachings.

“But shouldn’t they have realized that no one was winning?” I said, craning my head to catch a better glimpse of a preserved Oethred corpse.

“If only politics were that simple,” she said.

There were more atrocities, whole abecedaries of them. Our attempts at a taxonomy were sputtering and inconsistent, like candle flames. I started a list, written in clustered photons unhappily pinned to a sheet of sheer plastic. By now, at fourteen, I was literate in a simplified version of my mother’s native tongue as well as several interlinguas. My mother would cheerfully translate anything else for me, knowing that my capacity for fluency was less than hers.

I didn’t like my list, and I didn’t like the way it glowed at me. The pictures are real, they seemed to be saying. The recordings are real. It wasn’t so much that I doubted as that the outside world was too different to imagine as a solid, moving entity.

The next principle my mother was adamant about was our absolute neutrality.

“Absolutely absolute?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. “I am afraid I will have to insist on this point.” And she looked very grave as she said this, with all her status lights going gray-blue. The vapor she exuded was like copper gone sour.

“What if—”

“Stop,” my mother said, even more gravely. “You’re already thinking of counterarguments and edge cases. That is perfectly fine if you are a mathematician or a philosopher. The fortress is not about ensuring justice, or righting wrongs, or even compassion. It is about enduring and remembering all the things that people bring us to safeguard for them, the histories and the artifacts. Justice, for the things they remember—that’s something that civilizations have to negotiate for themselves.”

I thought for a moment. “Could you right wrongs, if you wanted to?”

At least she didn’t hide this information from me. “Sometimes yes,” she said. “Sometimes no. And sometimes they’re the same thing, but you can’t tell until the end of time anyway, and even I won’t survive that singularity accounting. But the point is that we won’t, because that’s not what we do here. We are guardians, not historians interpreting the weight of years.”

“Does it ever bother you only being a guardian?” I asked. Later the question would become, Doesn’t it ever bother you? She must have known it then, even if I did not.

“Eggling,” my mother said, now amused, “for all the evil in the world, even this has its compensations. Do you imagine I chafe at the restrictions? I’m the one who set them, after all. The only chains are the ones I put on myself.”

I didn’t understand that at all, so I averted my eyes. The movement of my head triggered a cascade of rubato footsteps and the lapping of water, and the wailing of a membrane-flute.

“You can live without rules, too,” she added. “That’s a choice you will have. But while you dwell here, as my ward and not yet an adult, you will have to abide by mine.”

I was appalled that she felt the need to make this explicit. I continued to avert my eyes, but all the sensors in the fortress were linked to her systems, and she knew I was frowning.

“Come on,” my mother said coaxingly. “You have time yet to think about it.” She did not say what we both knew, that for all the protections she had given me, she could not make me quite as long-lived as herself. “You’re ready now to run through training scenarios with the game generators. You’ll like learning about the Mirre-ai-rah. Aquatic societies can be so interesting.”

Something prompted me to ask, “Do they still exist?”

She was silent for a moment, then said, “None of the peoples you will meet in the scenarios still exist. If you think about this, you will realize why I have set this restriction in place, even if you may not agree with my reasoning.”

I thought this a ridiculous way to ensure the neutrality that she was so insistent upon. After all, it was impossible to avoid having some preconceptions about the things I perceived, based on the sum of my experiences, however attenuated and secondhand.

But I reasoned that it was better to prepare under my mother’s guidance than not at all. She had promised that I would speak with emissaries in due course; I had no doubt that she would keep her promise.

My first three encounters with emissaries went awkwardly, but no catastrophes ensued. Indeed, I was sorry when our guests left, and I moped around the fortress drawing portraits of them in the vapors of the cloud chambers, which were as evanescent as you would expect. My mother couldn’t help but be aware of my mood and wisely left me alone except to provide the perennial tray of cupcakes. She would have been baking even without me there, I knew. Still, it made me feel better, especially when she decorated the cupcakes with quirky eyestalks and the occasional constellation-sprinkle of crushed pearls.

None of the emissaries knew what to make of me. Their histories spoke of my mother as a solitary guardian. The first set treated me as an interpreter, which was harmless enough, as my mother could understand everything they said without my help. At least they interacted with me, very politely at that. They seemed distressed that, along with their offerings for the museum, they had not brought gifts for me. I had to assure them that they had not caused offense, especially once I figured out that the offerings were holy instruments of torture. My moral convictions were diffuse in those days, yet still I had no great liking for pain unasked for, and no great animus for anyone either. I half-expected my mother to scorn the items set down before her, with their cunning barbed filaments and aberrant hooks. Instead, she thanked the emissaries graciously and placed the instruments in a case rimmed with gold. When I later tried to open the case, I couldn’t, and felt reassured after all.

The second set pretended I didn’t exist. At first I was baffled, then infuriated, and then I came to the conclusion, based on some of the cultural artifacts they shared with my mother, that they regarded me as a type of ambulatory furniture.

After that, I understood my place in the masque and did my best to play the part. Some of them hung their personal library-strands around my shoulders, spinning superstates of beaded condensates dark and dazzling. I drowsed to the strands’ hum and daydreamed of exploring the mysterious interior of the palace-ship they had traveled here in.

The third set was preceded by what I first mistook for fireworks. My mother liked to mark the New Year and other anniversaries—both celebrations and mourning days; the color schemes were quite distinct—with spectacular displays of ghostly lights. She said that everyone grew a year older on the New Year, although there were other ways to reckon age. On this occasion, we walked along one of the promenades and I pressed my face up against the viewport, marveling that the glass felt neither cold nor hot but was simply smooth and kind against my skin.

My mother studied my face, then said, without the slightest trace of alarm, “This is something you must learn to recognize, eggling. We are under attack.”

I began to shake. I’d had my disputes with my mother. As a child I had done my share of kicking and screaming and biting. (Biting a bonedrake, even one who is doing her best not to do you injury, is a bad idea. My jaw hurt for the next week. I never did it again.) But I had never been the target of serious hostility.

“These are merely temperamental chemical compounds,” she added. “I have faced far worse.”

“How often does this happen?” I asked.

She eyed me sideways. There was an odd odor, which I identified as that of smoke. But it was a smoke of pyres, rather than a smoke of pastries overbaked. (A rare occurrence. She was attentive to her craft.) “I could give you the percentages,” she said. “About 47% of them come in with guns or missiles or something of the sort. It depends on how you define ‘weapon,’ and that’s as difficult as you’d expect any semantic question to be.”

“How do you know we’re in no real danger?” I said, unable to hide my apprehension.

“The fortress has survived this long for a reason,” my mother said, “and I’m not averse to putting in upgrades as they occur to me.”

So my mother’s fondness for redecorating had a purpose other than the aesthetic. “I suppose,” I said, “this isn’t the worst form of danger anyway.” I was learning.

Her smile was bonier than usual. “Indeed.”

The third set of emissaries eventually became satisfied that they couldn’t crack the fortress unless it wanted to be cracked, and they asked to parlay. The parlay itself was aggressive, and quite enjoyable once I got into the spirit of it. The emissaries, from an alliance of several species with wildly differing homeworlds, spoke to us with endearing frankness. They told my mother she was a terrible cook, which by their standards she probably was. They also gave us suggestions on how to improve the suits she had provided for their use.

Their purpose, now that they had established that they could not defeat her, was to recruit her. Their logic confused me. Exactly what did they think they could offer her? As the conversation wore on and I nibbled on crackers—every so often I needed a break from cupcakes or fruits or porridge with mushrooms—it transpired that they thought my mother was bored.

Once they mentioned the idea, it bothered me more and more. She had been here so long that I could scarcely conceptualize the span of time. What if she was, indeed, bored? What if she was going to leave the fortress behind and—and what? I couldn’t imagine what would happen to me.

After surviving an attack, even one about which my mother was so unconcerned, I was certain that our next encounter with emissaries couldn’t go any worse. At least, it would be no more than another assault. Just to prepare myself, however, I threw myself into the study of conflagrations. The simulators left me with nightmares of coagulated fluids and unfoul vapors; I rarely smelled anything in my dreams. I emerged drenched with sweat and wracked by pains from the way I tensed up imagining the sounds of puncture, or ambush, or venom hisses.

My mother encouraged me to take sand baths and steam baths, or to meditate in the gardens. She was a great believer in sand baths. I chafed at being offered such mundane comforts. She only harrumphed and said that the young had no appreciation for the value of ordinary things. To please her, I lingered in the baths and the gardens. Neither helped much.

The fourth set of emissaries came five days before one of the anniversaries that my mother observed. Granted, she was not inflexible. If courtesy required, she would simply put off the observance until a better opportunity came along. This was one of the sadder ones, where she retreated to light incense in a plain dark shrine. In years past she had permitted me to help her, and the sweet, woody smell of the smoke would cling to my clothes and hair and follow me into my sleep. I never smelled the blend on my mother; no matter what she did, she had a curious odor of marrow and melting wax.

In any case, my mother made her preparations for the anniversary as usual. In retrospect, I should have apprehended that these next visitors were unusual even by my mother’s standards. When the fleet showed up on the far-scryers, her status lights changed to a colder and more melancholy blue than I had ever seen before.

“What is it?” I asked, shifting the great facets this way and that so I could view the fleet from different angles. Besides the far-scryers, the fortress had a staggering array of early warning systems. I could work most of them well enough to satisfy my basic curiosity, although I was reliant upon my mother’s experience and the fortress’s tutorial systems to guide me through the more complex commands.

My mother was silent, statue-like. My heart stuttered. It was unlike her to deny me answers, even the infuriating riddling ones she sometimes gave to encourage me to figure out what she really meant.

When she answered, it was very literally. “It’s quite a fleet,” she said, “with a formation similar to one I knew in the past. The flagship is a work of art, isn’t it? I wonder if that’s what they want me to add to the collection.”

I examined the flagship. As starships went, it had a certain grandeur. It was the fleet’s largest ship by far. The golden armor was, incredibly, decorated with fantastical treasures: cameos of queens and knights carved from mirrorstones, rubies and spinels glimmering with the bloodlight of small sacrifices, knives in caskets welded in archaeological splendor to the hull.

“Are the weapons—”

My mother spoke over me, as though she had heard another question entirely. “That one, in the rear guard,” she said. Her voice was becoming clipped, distant, like bones clacking together.

Obligingly, I viewed the ship she had indicated. At first I scarcely recognized it as such. The flagship, for all its gaudiness, was an ellipsoid, a solid shape. This other ship looked more like a seethe of insects beneath the surface of the night, elusively visible even with the far-scryer’s customary adjustments for the limitations of human perception.

“That is the pleasure-wrecker Five Hundred Stings and One Chalice,” my mother said. I was becoming increasingly unnerved, yet all I could do was look from her dimmed eyes to the ship, from the ship to her eyes. “Even here I have heard stories of its exploits. At full capacity, it carries over a million of its people. In the old days those would have been sculptors, calligraphers, perfumers, cooks. They designed ships to go to war for them—”

“Aren’t these all warships?” I had gone on to examine the armaments on the others. Bombs, mines, putrescences (I wasn’t sure what this meant, except that I didn’t want to be hit by them), the occasional canister of apiarist’s fire. No two were the same, which struck me as strange.

“They are indeed,” my mother said. “Well, we will send out the welcome-banner, and see what they have for us. I hope we can accommodate them all.” The fortress had its secrets of involute geometry, but so did the fleet we beheld.

The welcome-banner changed not at all with the calendar’s groanings. My mother said that sometimes constancy was a virtue. It consisted of a pattern of particles, a display of dappled light. In it I often glimpsed the coalescence of stars, the alchemical nature of metals noble and otherwise, the asymmetry of yearning.

The flagship asked for permission to send a single visitor, using an old protocol. My mother granted it. I hadn’t expected otherwise. The two of us went down to one of the fortress’s many antechambers, this one hung about with violet-green fronds and filled with a dense, cloying steam. I wore the minimum of protection necessary, the usual mesh. The steam would not do me lasting damage, but there was no need to be reckless.

The visitor was a robot, darkly iridescent, with a shape not unlike my own. I envied it its sleek limbs, the precise joints, the sheen of its crested head. It and my mother rapidly agreed to switch to a different interlingua, one that better reflected the robot’s needs. Then it introduced itself as Hauth of the Greater Choreographical Society.

By now I knew of dance, so I mistook Hauth for a form of artist. That wasn’t entirely inaccurate, at that. But Hauth would, it emerged, be better described as a historian or propagandist.

At no point was Hauth’s manner anything but polite. It had come, it said with its buzzing accent, because it wished to interview my mother personally and incorporate the results in its chronicle.

“If that is your wish,” my mother said, still burning with that sad blue light. “My hospitality is yours.”

Hauth explained its recording instruments and editing procedures and the musical conventions by which the final work would be scored. Then it looked at me. I had lost interest and was examining a fern’s spores. It added, smoothly, “I would like permission to interview your ward as well.”

“Eggling,” my mother said when I didn’t react; I hadn’t been paying attention. “I advise against it—”

“Is she old enough to make this decision for herself?” Hauth interrupted.

My mother sighed. “She is.”

“Then I wish to hear her answer.”

“Mother?” I asked waveringly.

“I advise against it.”

“Why?”

“Because you can’t unknow things once you know them,” she said. “Because you can’t return to being a child once you become an adult.”

I should have been paying attention to her phrasing here; I was not. Not that I was the first to make such a mistake, but I hope you will grow to be wiser than I was.

“I would prefer,” Hauth said, even more crushingly polite, “that the decision be wholly her own.”

“No decision is wholly anyone’s own,” my mother said, “but I take your point. It’s up to you, eggling. I will not send our guest away. However, if you would rather not hear what it has to say, I must insist that you not be further involved in its investigations. I will handle them myself.”

This made me stubborn. She gave me a warning look, which I ignored; I had gotten to that age. At the time, I thought only that Hauth might be able to tell me things about my mother that she hadn’t wanted me to hear. I didn’t realize my mother was more worried about the things that I would have difficulty facing.

“I will be available whenever you need me,” my mother said, addressing Hauth. “Ask what you will of my child, if she consents to answer. Eggling, if you want this to stop at any time, you know how to find me.”

I watched as she snaked around toward one of the two doors out, her status lights flaring bright, then dimming almost to black.

Hauth stood with its masked face, its edged patience. I stared at it, then said, “I can show you around the fortress.”

It spoke. This time the buzzing accent sounded more harmonious, but that might have been my imagination. “I would be grateful if you would show me the places that make you think of your mother,” it said.

What a peculiar request, I thought. Still, surely there was no harm. I glanced at the door where my mother had just left. “Come with me,” I said.

These were the places I showed Hauth, and which I hope to show you:

First was the kitchen. Well, one of the kitchens. There were multiples. For the purposes of baking cupcakes for me, my mother only used one kitchen, even if she occasionally strayed to the others if she thought I needed fish stew in my diet. I had to explain cupcakes to Hauth. It didn’t eat. I worried about what to offer as refreshments.

I didn’t know whether Hauth never laughed, or robots in general never did, but it said, gently, “You will have figured out that I don’t metabolize the way you do. I am well-supplied for this visit. I appreciate that you are thinking of my needs, however.”

Hauth asked me what cupcakes tasted like, perhaps because the chemical analysis was lacking in metaphor, or else because it was amused by how much I had to say about different flavors and textures. I believe its interest was genuine.

Next came one of the gardens. Not my favorite one, because that wasn’t what Hauth had asked about, but the one where my mother spent the most time. I rarely went there unless specifically invited to. My mother had never forbidden my presence. Rather, the pillars of ice, the ashen winds, and the metallic light like bronze wearing thin, filled me with a tremulous unease. It was difficult to convince myself that I felt no physical chill, that my billowing mesh gave me plenty of protection. Yet this was where my mother came for the unnamed anniversaries that meant so much to her.

The floor was raked by claw-marks, which formed sinuous and self-intersecting trails. Ordinarily my mother sheathed her claws. Even on those occasions when some accident necessitated scratching up the fortress, she was assiduous about repairs. Here, however, she wanted to leave some trace of her agitation.

Hauth approached the shrine that formed the centerpiece of the garden and peered at the burnt-out stubs of incense sticks. Ash and sand stirred slightly, glimmered palely. It did not touch anything. “What does this mean to you?” it asked.

Not: What does this mean to your mother? I supposed it already knew the answer to that. I was seized with the simultaneous and contradictory desire to know and not to know. But Hauth had asked first. I explained about the anniversaries. “She comes here at such times,” I said, irrationally convinced that I was betraying her. Surely, though, she would have told me if there was anything I should refuse to answer? For that matter, I couldn’t imagine that she wasn’t monitoring us anyway, or incapable of intervening if she needed to. “I don’t often accompany her here.”

Hauth walked around without fitting its footsteps to the claw-paths. I wasn’t sure whether I liked that or not, for all its respectful demeanor. “You don’t know why she comes here,” it said.

“Do you?”

“She hasn’t told you?”

“I’ve asked,” I said. “Her answers are vague. I don’t want to hurt her.”

“I can tell you,” Hauth said after a pause, “but I will keep it to myself if you prefer.”

It was too much, especially combined with my mother’s mysterious behavior earlier. “I want to know.”

“Around now,” it said, “she is remembering the deaths of her comrades.”

Comrades? I wondered. Certainly my mother could defend herself, but I rejected the image of her fighting alongside others of her kind—if, indeed, they had also been bonedrakes.

“The most important one,” it went on, as if it had not noticed the way I was shivering, “commemorates the day she deserted.”

“I can’t imagine—” I stopped. My mother, who loved cupcakes and carillons. I could see her as a deserter more easily than I could see her as a warfighter.

Hauth turned away from the shrine. “Many people died,” it said.

“Let’s go somewhere else,” I said, before Hauth could tell me anything else. “I can show you the observatory.”

Hauth was amenable. Doubtless it sensed that it had me trapped, and all it had to do to wait for me to succumb. The observatory didn’t have much to offer someone who had, I presumed, traveled a great distance to visit the fortress. Still, Hauth admired the telescopes with their sphinx-stare lenses, and the way a particular view of a nebula complemented mobiles that spun this way and that, catching the light. It told me about sites it had visited in the past: symphony-bridges of tinted ice, to be ruined attractively whenever the universe exhaled; stars in the process of colliding and merging; moons turned into sculptures exalted by sgraffito depictions of elemental valences.

As the day wore on, I showed Hauth everything I could think of. Inevitably, I thought, it would demand to speak to my mother. But no: it listened to everything I had to say, however hollow it started to sound.

Finally I cracked, and asked what it had not volunteered to tell me. “Why are you really here?” I said.

“I came to find out more about your mother’s past,” Hauth said, “just as I told her. Since she still lives, it seemed appropriate to seek her out.”

“Then why talk to me?”

“Aren’t you a part of her life, too?”

I bit my lip. I hadn’t seen her in all this time, showing Hauth around. We were sitting in the kitchen because I needed to be in comforting surroundings. For the first time, I didn’t feel comforted at all. The kitchen had been designed, I saw now, so that it could accommodate both a bonedrake and a human, for all that my mother could compress herself astonishingly when she had to. When had she thought to do that? And when, for that matter, had she fixed on cupcakes as her hobby of choice, when she didn’t eat them?

When had she decided to rear a human child?

“What are you going to do with your chronicle?” I said.

“Share it,” it said. “With everyone.”

“I want to see it,” I said.

“Yes,” it said. “Yes. When it’s done. But it’s not, yet.”

I knew what it was asking. “I will take you to my mother now.”

We found her in the shrine of ashes, naturally. There was no incense. The place was as ethereally cold as ever, a cold that sapped the place of color and settled over me in a gray pall even as my mesh kept me incongruously comfortable.

Hauth bowed to my mother. It looked both awkward and serious, because the length of its limbs weren’t right for the gesture. “Guardian,” it said, or an approximation thereof.

“Say it,” she returned. “You know my old name as well as anyone.” She was coiled around the shrine, eyes slitted. If possible, her status lights were bluer than ever, almost to the point of being shadow-silvered. The tip of her tail lashed back and forth like a clock’s tongue. I could feel the seconds crumbling away.

“Unit Zhu-15 Jiemsin,” Hauth said. “You haven’t answered to that name in a long time, but I imagine even now you remember the imperatives programmed into you, and the importance of rank hierarchy.”

I didn’t know anything about imperatives. Military hierarchy, on the other hand, was a reasonably common concept. This intruder had come into our home and accused my mother of being a deserter, had made her sad and strange. If I had known that that was going to upset her like this, I would have begged her to turn it away, no matter how splendid the grave-offering of museum-ships it had brought.

“Mother,” I said. She wouldn’t look at me, and I spoke again, louder. “Mother. Tell it to leave.”

She shook her head. “Ask your questions, Hauth,” she said wearily.

I wanted to grab one of her legs and shake it. It was a wonder that I restrained myself.

“I will tell this side of the story too,” it said, as though an entire conversation to which I had not been privy had passed between them already. “I know the rest already.”

“The rest of what?” I asked.

Hauth turned its regard not on me, but on my mother.

“Go ahead,” my mother said, “and tell her what you will tell the world, if she wants to know. It is not, after all, any news to me.”

Hauth’s mask grew translucent. “Do you want to know?”

“I cannot fail to know forever,” I said unsteadily.

“Your mother is one of the greatest war engines ever devised,” Hauth said. “She was not the only one. The bonedrakes’ creators slaughtered their way into an empire. But the creators had not been as careful with their imperatives as they thought, and eventually the bonedrakes turned on their masters. Then they fought over their masters’ leavings.”

“This means nothing to me,” I said. It was almost true.

“There was one exception,” Hauth said. “Unit Zhu-15 Jiemsin, who did not turn against her masters, and did not turn against her comrades, and did not do anything but run.”

I opened my mouth, resenting the critique implied in Hauth’s tone.

Hauth wasn’t done. “Of course, she had few options, and all of them were bad. So she ran and hid and didn’t emerge until nothing was left but the smoke of legends. And then she retreated to this fortress, to guard the fossils of history even though no one was left to put them in any context.”

“Which is where you come in, I suppose,” I said. I meant it to be savage. My voice betrayed me. “Mother, is this true?” Do you want this to matter to me?

All she had to do was say something calming, call me “eggling” the way she always did. She had raised me. I owed nothing to this robot and its stories of a world that I needed not involve myself with. Besides, it itself had described the past as the “smoke of legends”; what did it matter anymore?

“It’s all true,” my mother said. “I learned that there were things that mattered more than war. I did not want to fight anymore. So I left. But that can’t be the sum of your purpose, Hauth.”

“I want to ask you to add my chronicle,” Hauth said. “To persuade your visitors of the futility of war. Which you know about better than anyone else.”

My mother blinked at it. “Yes to the first, no to the second,” she said, crisp, sharp, unfailingly kind. “The fortress is neutral in all matters. I will answer questions if asked. I will accept new artifacts for the collection. But I will not press any viewpoint on another. That is all.”

“I must insist,” Hauth said. “The Greater Choreographical Society, as an ally of the Everywhere Pact, feels strongly about this point. Already the Pact would see you brought down. I was hoping to save a valuable historical repository by persuading you of the rightness of our cause.”

My mother’s only response to this was a snort.

“In that case,” it said, “the Everywhere Pact will have no choice but to turn against you. And my chronicle will only rally more to their cause.”

“And you came here looking for help finishing it?” I demanded incredulously. My heart was thumping horribly.

“Your fleet can’t do anything to me,” my mother said, “and nor can anything else that you care to throw at the fortress.” She had not moved, except that her tail-tip continued to lash back and forth. “But you’re right that I won’t keep you from departing, or sharing your chronicle with everyone who wants to hear it. With people who want to think of us as a monument to war rather than a simple collection of things that happened, good or bad or indifferent.”

“Don’t be absurd,” I said, appalled. “Stop it from leaving.”

“Why?” she said. “It is my choice.”

Her agitation was palpable, however. The tail lashing was one thing, but her claws came out with a snick and the gun mounts at her sides coruscated.

“I had originally thought you would have figured out this part of your mother’s past,” Hauth said. “In my interactions, however, it became clear that you had no idea. In all this time, then, you had no idea that your mother was a soldier, and that she had masters, and what kinds of orders they gave her.”

My mother reared up to her full height. The ceiling was far above; nevertheless, her shadow fell over me like a shroud. “I don’t take orders from children,” she said to me, very quietly. “My masters were not that stupid. Adults are another matter. You were the last one. Your parents had put you in an ice-egg before they were obliterated; the other egglings didn’t survive. You slept for eons while I deliberated and gathered my strength. I thought enough time had passed that we could start over.”

I had no weapon on me, nothing that had any chance of harming an entity of metal and shielded circuits. But I launched myself at Hauth anyway, then choked back a shriek as something slammed into me and knocked me aside: my mother’s tail.

My side hurt and I couldn’t breathe. My mother stood between me and Hauth. She was crowned in blue fire, and she resembled nothing so much as a skeleton stitched together by sinew of shadows.

“It won’t matter if you kill me,” Hauth said. “I am not an entity like you or your mother. My experience-sum is copied to alter-selves at regular intervals. The same mechanism suffices to distribute the chronicle.”

It said something about Hauth that it expected an appeal of pure reason to sway me, and more about me that the appeal moved me not at all. The irony was that my mother and Hauth fundamentally agreed on the value of peace; but she would not impose it, while Hauth would. And Hauth now returned her hospitality with a threat. I could not forgive that.

I did not know how to fight. I did not know how to use my fists or feet, or any of the guns or knives amenable to human hands. My teeth, as I had learned early in life, were practically useless. But Hauth’s remarks, and my mother’s hints, had given me to understand that I had one weapon after all: my mother.

“You were waiting for me to grow up all that time,” I said to her. “To see if you had raised me true.”

She gave a terrible cry. For all the defenses the fortress boasted, she was its greatest one. “If you kill it,” she said in a tattered voice, “then we have nothing more in common. But I will not fight you either, weapon though I am.”

“Then what will you do?” I said. I didn’t recognize my own voice. I might have been crying.

“I stopped fighting so many years ago the number has no meaning to you,” she said. “I am not going to start again now. It is always possible, of course, that my imperatives are stronger than my ability to resist them even after all my edits, and that I will do as you order anyway.”

She did not say: I thought I had taught you better than this. We were beyond that now.

My hatred for Hauth was passionate and sharp-edged and did not hurt nearly so much as the grief in my mother’s eyes. I whirled and fled as fast as I could, down the corridors I had grown up in. No one came after me.

I could not go back to my mother after that. The fortress was closed to me now. I was given time to adjust to the idea that I was to leave. Only certain doors opened to me, for all that meals were provided, along with any other diversion I asked for.

Eventually I came to a small ship, as beautiful as a flowerbud. When I finally brought myself to enter it, knowing that I must then depart for good, I found waiting for me a single cupcake decorated with azalea-pink frosting. I made myself eat it, and never managed to remember how it tasted.

My exile was a centrifugal one. Any path was open to me except the one I wanted to take, curving back home. As you grow older, I will tell you of the times I almost died, and the lifetimes I spent in ancestral halls looking for mentions of my mother’s origins, however thready, not already discussed in Hauth’s chronicle. I took lovers who murmured poetry-of-absences into my dreams, and wept when I left them; I learned everything from surgery to cloud-gardening. One thing I never took up, however, was baking.

I have told you all this as we travel, as you curl your cilia inquisitively within the birthing sac, listening even unborn. I can only hope to be as good a mother to you as my mother was to me. It would have been preferable to return you to your people, had any remained, but by the time I passed by their system, they had destroyed themselves in an ecological collapse that left entire worlds pitted with corrosive seas. I salvaged what I could, alone. We carry with us their songs and histories and genealogy-braids, the possibility of future generations of your kind, so that you may decide what to do with them when you are older.

Long years have passed since I left the fortress behind, having broken the rules that my mother laid down. She had already forgiven me when I left; I needed all this time to forgive myself. In the meantime, I see the fortress’s welcome-banner streaming out toward us, luminous like an effusion of flowers, and I imagine that your grandmother will be pleased to meet you.


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Yoon Ha Lee's short fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Clarkesworld Magazine, and multiple times previously in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, including "The Bonedrake's Penance" in BCS Science-Fantasy Month 2. His first novel, Ninefox Gambit, is forthcoming from Solaris Books in June 2016. He lives in Louisiana with his family and an extremely lazy cat, and has not yet been eaten by gators. Visit him online at www.yoonhalee.com.

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15 Comments on “The Bonedrake's Penance”

15 Responses to “The Bonedrake’s Penance”

  1. Gabrielle Peralta says:

    What a beautiful story…you really brought the heart of “motherhood” to life for me. Thank you.

  2. Robin says:

    I found this story enchanting, sorrowful, and optimistic at once. It was a delightful read. Thank you.

  3. […] Beneath Ceaseless Skies, editado por Scott H. Andrews […]

  4. […] su lugar las cosas más raras. “The Bonedrake’s Penance” que se acaba de publicar en Beneath Ceaseless Skies,  incluye la decoración de cupcakes porque mi madre estaba obsesionada con esta decoración cuando […]

  5. […] su lugar las cosas más raras. “The Bonedrake’s Penance” que se acaba de publicar en Beneath Ceaseless Skies,  incluye la decoración de cupcakes porque mi madre estaba obsesionada con esta decoración cuando […]

  6. […] Fantasy: “The Bonedrake’s Penance” by Yoon Ha Lee […]

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  8. […] Barry King, “Something In Our Minds Will Always Stay” Yoon Ha Lee, “The Bonedrake’s Penance” Yoon Ha Lee, “Wine” Rose Lemberg, “Stalemate” An Owomoyela, […]

  9. […] “The Bonedrake’s Penance” by Yoon Ha Lee (novelette), Beneath Ceaseless Skies — a mythical Bonedrake raises a human orphan in a fortress at the center of the universe. […]

  10. […] from Beauty and the Beast to Bluebeard, relentlessly questioning the basis for them. -Yoon Ha Lee, “The Bonedrake’s Penance”: bone drakes, weapons of mass destructions, cupcakes, and the bittersweet act of growing up. […]

  11. […] The Bonedrake’s Penance by Yoon Ha Lee – a beautiful mix of fantasy and SF. This bonedrake is the keeper of the fortress at the center of the universe. […]

  12. […] “The Bonedrake’s Penance” by Yoon Ha Lee (Beneath Ceaseless Skies) – In a story whose detailed, imaginative […]

  13. […] The Bonedrake’s Penance by Yoon Ha Lee (Novelette, ~9800 words) ( * ) […]

  14. […] “The Bonedrake’s Penance” by Yoon Ha Lee […]

  15. […] su lugar las cosas más raras. “The Bonedrake’s Penance” que se acaba de publicar en Beneath Ceaseless Skies,  incluye la decoración de cupcakes porque mi madre estaba obsesionada con esta decoración cuando […]

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