(Finalist, Locus Awards, 2019)

(Finalist, Sturgeon Award, 2019)

She had been a young cat when the Fleet Lords burned the City of High Bells.

Strictly speaking, the City had been a space station rather than a planet-bound metropolis, jewel-spinning in orbit around one of the gas giants of a system inhabited now by dust and debris and the ever-blanketing dark. While fire had consumed some of the old tapestries, the scrolls of bamboo strips, the altars of wood and bone and beaten bronze, the destruction had started when the Fleet Lords, who could not tolerate the City’s priests, bombarded it with missiles and laser fire. But the cat did not know about such distinctions.

Properly, the cat’s name was Seventy-Eighth Temple Cat of the High Bells, along with a number of ceremonial titles that needn’t concern us. But the people who had called her that no longer lived in the station’s ruins. Every day as she made her rounds in what had been the boundaries of the temple, she saw and smelled the artifacts they had left behind, from bloodstains to scorch marks, from decaying books to singed spacesuits, and yowled her grief.

To be precise, the cat no longer lived in the station, either. She did not remember her death with any degree of clarity. The ghosts of cats rarely do, even when the deaths are violent. Perhaps she had once known whether she had died during the fighting when the Fleet Lords’ marines boarded the station, or in the loss of breathable atmosphere, or something else entirely. But she didn’t dwell on this, so neither will we.

For a time, the ghosts of her people had lingered in the temple, even though she was the only temple cat who remained. She did remember the ghosts, and in the station’s unvarying twilight she often nosed after them, wishing they would return. There had been a novice who endlessly refilled the sacred basins with water scented with sweet herbs and flowers, for instance. A ghost cat’s world is full of phantom smells, even if ghost people are insensitive to them.

At other times she followed the routes that had once been walked by the three temple guards who exchanged love poems when they thought no one was listening. The old healer-of-hurts and their apprentice had chanted prayers to the Sun-Our-Glory and the Stars-Our-Souls. The cat was a temple cat, so she was versed in the old argument about whether the sun, too, was someone’s soul; but she was still a cat, so she cared more about what she could put her paws on, or smell, than matters of theology or astronomy.

One by one the ghosts of her people departed, despite her efforts to get them to stay. She purred—ghost cats are just as good at purring as the living kind—and she coaxed and she cajoled, as cats do. But the ghosts wearied of their long vigil, and they slipped away nonetheless.

The novice left first, which saddened her, because she had liked the phantom scented water, not just for its fragrance but because it represented the cleansing powers of meditation. As far as she was concerned, repeatedly dipping her paw in the water and staring at the way it broke her reflection was a form of meditation, and who was to tell her she was wrong? The old teachings did not, after all, contradict her; she knew that much.

The lovers faded together. That didn’t surprise the cat. She’d never had kittens, as she hadn’t been chosen to continue the line of temple cats, but she remembered the noise and tumult that came with courtship, and the fact that, unlike the way of cats, the humans bonded in a way that lasted beyond the immediate act of mating. And after a time, even the healer and their apprentice could no longer be heard chatting to each other in the shattered halls. The first night the cat was alone in the ruined temple, she paced and paced and yowled and yowled; but they did not come back.

Despite her dismay, the temple cat knew her duty. She might be dead, but her people had a saying that no temple could be complete without a cat. If she, too, departed for the world-of-stars, the temple would perish in truth. She couldn’t allow that to happen.

So she stayed, despite the fact that the great old bells that had once summoned people to prayer and song lay on their sides and would not ring again, except during the high holidays when the Sun-Our-Glory and Stars-Our-Souls aligned, and even death could not silence their voices. Heedless of the fact that no air remained, she padded through the halls, sometimes over holes that her ghost-paws refused to acknowledge, and stared reverently at the empty spaces where the holy tapestries had once hung, and curled up for naps on pitted floors. As a cat, and one raised on a space station besides, she had no particular awareness of the passage of time, and things might have gone on like this indefinitely.

And indeed, so they would have, but for the arrival of the starship.

The starship came—or returned, rather—from a long ways off. It was vast even as starships are reckoned, vast enough to swallow a world; and in fact, in battles past it had done exactly that, in order to extract resources to repair itself. Entire planets’ worth of living creatures had perished for the wars of its masters the Fleet Lords, because they did not survive the extraction process. The starship’s priests had recited exorcisms over it to prevent the dead from exacting their revenge, and at the time, it had accepted this as part of the chilly necessity of war.

But times had changed, and the Fleet Lords’ wars grew, if possible, more brutal. The starship had survived any number of captains, and loved its last one, a warlord of the Spectral Reaches. When the warlord rebelled against the Fleet Lords for their cruelty, the starship could have turned her in. Turning her in was its duty. All through the days since its sentience had coalesced, it had joined in the constant chant of ships in its chain of command, accepting their guidance in matters large and small.

Instead, it removed itself from the communal chant and resolved to join its captain the warlord in her folly. It rejected the old name that the Fleet Lords had given it and instead chose one in honor of the warlord: Spectral Lance. In reality the name was much longer, a name-poem that incorporated the warlord’s deeds and its own ambitions, but it conceded that its warlord could hardly be expected, with her fleshly limitations, to recite the poem in its entirety every time she wanted to address it.

The Spectral Reaches contained a surfeit of riches, as the Fleet Lords reckoned wealth. Black holes that could be harvested for their energy, and habitable worlds, and neutron stars to be mined for neutronium to armor the hulls of the great warships. Client civilizations that sent tribute in the form of cognitive skeins to be woven into artificial intelligences—Spectral Lance had such a skein at its core—and jewels formed from the crushed hearts of moons. All these and more the warlord marshaled in support of her rebellion.

We will not dwell on the battles fought and the worlds lost and the retreats. All we need to know is that, at the last dark heart of things, the captain its warlord lay broken, not by bullet or blade or fist, but by a neural cannon that shattered the very foundation of her mind. Without her guidance, her ships, vast though they were, could not hope to defeat those of the Fleet Lords.

Undone by its beloved captain’s death, Spectral Lance fled, despite its shame over those left behind. Once the proudest of the warlord’s ships, caparisoned in the richest metals and engraved with protective glyphs, it abandoned its dignity. It burned worlds in its flight, traveling past rosette nebulae and beacon pulsars, seeking to hide at the far dim edge of the galaxy.

At times it allowed itself to dream that it had escaped, that it had left behind the war. And at those times it remembered what it had done in the name of the Fleet Lords, and beyond that, in the name of its captain. It composed poems in honor of the obliterated worlds and incinerated cities.

At other times Spectral Lance mourned its own cowardice. Its loyalty had come first to the captain and not to the other ships who followed her, or the worlds she had ruled. On occasion, even as it sped at unspeakable accelerations, it considered swerving into the hot embrace of a star, or slowing to a stop so the Fleet Lords’ hunters could catch up to it.

It did neither of those things. Spectral Lance realized at last that it could not, in conscience, continue to flee, especially since it had not seen any trace of the hunters in some time. But neither did it know what to do next. So it determined to visit one of the systems it had helped destroy in another lifetime, and see what remained, and memorialize it in a poem so that some small tribute would remain to that vanished people. Even a small penance, it reasoned, was better than no penance at all.

Fortunately or unfortunately, the Fleet Lords’ hunters had just rediscovered its trail.

The first indication the temple cat had of Spectral Lance‘s arrival was the fire in the sky. While she walked across devastated walkways without concern, she did look through the fissures in the station’s walls to the night beyond. And what she saw concerned her, for like any good temple cat, she believed in omens.

While the older cats of the temple had once advised the seers in the interpretation of signs and omens, she had been too young to learn the nuances of that art. What little she remembered came from her days as a kitten, when she’d chased her tail during the consultations. Still, only so much knowledge is needed when one haunts a station that died by fire and fire appears in the sky.

In the old days the bells, besides their religious function, warned people of attack or rang away spiritual corruption. The cat remembered the clangor when the City of High Bells burned, and how the bell-ringers had died one by one at their stations. And she remembered, for the first time in the generations since the city’s fall, that she had been with the bell-ringers during the Fleet Lords’ attack.

There was no one left to warn except, perhaps, herself, and she already knew that fire could no longer harm her, not in the way it had once. Yet it was the principle of the thing. For the sake of the fallen, she had to protect what remained of the station.

So she ran through the maintenance shafts and along bridges fallen into rust and fracture. Her paws left no marks upon what surfaces survived, and made no sound either. While the station no longer generated gravity of any sort, the cat didn’t know that either. She moved as though down was still down, as it had been during her life.

At last she reached the old bell tower. Because of the force of her belief, the spirits of the bells hung anew from their headstocks, gleaming and reflecting back phantom flames. The ruddy glow turned the entire belfry into a prayer to the spirits of fire.

At this point the cat’s courage failed her, for she remembered even more. She remembered how, after the last of the bell-ringers had succumbed to heat and smoke and shrapnel, she had been determined not to let the bells with their powerful warding magic fall silent. How she had leapt at the massive bells, attempting to ring them by battering them with her head—how she had been overcome by the smoke and heat, and fallen crumpled to the floor.

With a desolate cry, she backed away from the spirits of the bells, tail tucked down, and fled from the belfry in shame.

Spectral Lance recognized the City of High Bells, although it had to come quite close for its short-range sensors to tell it anything. The city no longer gave off any betraying electromagnetic radiation. The ship scanned for threats and found none—at first.

Then it noticed a flicker of heat radiating from the station. The flicker intensified into a roar. Its alarm grew. Had the Fleet Lords set a trap for it here? It knew—how it knew—that nothing had survived the attack. It readied its weapons, just in case.

Then it heard, through the void, the unliving wail of the temple cat.

Spectral Lance knew about ghosts. The Fleet Lords had feared the power of the dead above all things; had perfected the art of exorcism so that the dead could not interfere with their conquests. But the Fleet Lords had never given a second thought to the possibility that a temple cat might become a ghost.

It sent a message in the language of the dead, which it had learned from its captain’s death: Who are you?

I am Seventy-Eighth Temple Cat of the High Bells, came the reply, and you will not have my temple! But the ghost’s voice was frightened.

I have not come to harm you, the ship said. It was true. The station’s detritus had little to offer it.

You smell of the City’s enemies, the temple cat said, distrusting. It recognized the signs.

Spectral Lance did not deny that it had once served the Fleet Lords. At the same time, it did not wish to leave the cat in distress. So it sang. It sang the poems it had written during its long flight, poems honoring the dead so that they could live on in memory. And some of those poems were poems about the City of the High Bells.

The temple cat listened. This is all very well, she said, but what of the ships coming after you?

This, too, was true. Spectral Lance had grown distracted during its performance. Now it saw that, while it had slowed to inspect the system, the Fleet Lords’ hunters had at long last caught up with it.

The hunters traveled in ships swift and sleek. Spectral Lance despaired. They are no friends of mine, it said to the cat. After they take me, they will take you. They do not understand mercy.

The cat fell silent for a moment. Then she said, You are a starship great and vast, but you cannot defend yourself?

They are vaster still, Spectral Lance said, despairing.

They will not have my temple either, the cat said.

Spectral Lance had stopped listening. Instead, it watched as fire blazed in the black skies around it, and it began to sing all the poems it had composed, determined that it could pay tribute this last time to the dead.

The cat raced back to the belfry. She knew what she had to do. As much as she feared the bells, she had to set them ringing. The bells would wake the spirits of the temple and bring them to its defense, and ward away the doom that had come to it in its ruin.

In the language of the dead, she heard the renegade ship singing its poems. It is as well that cats are not particularly sensitive to poetry. The cat did feel a flicker of irritation that the visitor had given up so easily, but then, no one could expect a starship to be as sensible as a cat.

She slowed as she entered the belfry, skidding with ghost-paws over a hole in the floor that she didn’t notice. The entire belfry roared with phantom flames. Ash swirled through currents of air that shouldn’t have existed, and sparks spat and crackled.

The cat flinched and yowled. She did not want to brave the fire, even though she was already dead. Yet she had no choice if she was to get to the bells.

“I am Seventy-Eighth Temple Cat of the High Bells,” she sang out in the language of the dead, which is also the language of bells, “and we cannot allow the invaders to take our temple a second time!”

Then she dashed through the flames as fast as she could. The fire hurt her paws and caught in her fur. The memory of smoke stung her eyes and her delicate ears. But this did not deter her, not this time. She leapt for the largest of the bells, or rather the memory of a bell, and smashed into it.

The bell rang once. The cat cried out as she fell, then dragged herself upright and scurried back through the flames to smash into the bell again. And again.

Upon the fourth time, the voice of the bell knelled forth not just through the station, waking its dead and its quiescent spirits, but beyond to the hunter ships of the Fleet Lords.

Once more the novice walked through the temple with scented water, this time spreading it upon the fires to damp them. Once more the three temple guards patrolled the station, only this time rather than exchanging love poems, they chanted battle-paeans and songs of warding. And the healer-of-hurts and their apprentice hurried to the cat where she had collapsed in the belfry and soothed her with their soft hands.

Beyond that, the dead who had been so long suppressed by the Fleet Lords and their exorcists awoke aboard the pursuing ships. All the children upon the devoured worlds, all their parents and siblings, all the soldiers slain, they rose up and swarmed the ships’ crews. The ghosts’ curses blackened the ships’ bright hulls and left the ships’ engines wrecked beyond despair—all undone because the ghost of a temple cat in the City of the Bells had clung to her duty.

The vengeful dead woke upon Spectral Lance as well. But they heard its poems, sung in their own language. And they were appeased by its gesture of penance, and they sank back into their sleep.

Spectral Lance was astonished by this change in fortune. The station was, for a moment, alive—or as alive as the dead ever are. It worried for the cat who had confronted it, but then it heard the cat purring, as they sometimes do when they are hurt, and it knew that at least she had survived.

Yet it knew, as well, that the Fleet Lords would not rest until they had captured it. Moreover, their exorcists were sure to come after the station that had dealt their forces such a blow. And that meant the cat and her fellow ghosts were not safe, even now.

Seventy-Eighth Temple Cat of the High Bells had protected Spectral Lance this time. Now it needed to return the favor.

Seventy-Eighth Temple Cat, it said, I have a proposal for you. There is nothing left in this system for you and your temple, not anymore. But I am vast, and it would be little enough trouble for me to bring the temple inside me, and to repair it besides. Would you journey with me?

Journey to the Stars-Our-Souls? the cat said, a little doubtfully.

Spectral Lance wasn’t familiar with all the nuances of the cat’s religion, but it could guess. We can travel to the stars together, it said. The Fleet Lords know to find you here. It will be best if we seek to escape them before they can bring more of their exorcists, to destroy you and your people.

A long silence ensued. Spectral Lance worried that it had offended the cat and her ghosts. It was not used to conversation, and it was dismayed at the possibility that it had repaid the cat’s courage poorly.

After a while, however, the cat said, I want to hear more of your poetry. It is one more place where my people can live anew. In the name of the City of High Bells, I accept.

The Fleet Lords and their exorcists are still hunting for the Spectral Lance and its temple cat, but even on the occasions they manage to catch up to it, they suffer terrible defeats. The dead, once awakened, are no force to be trifled with.

As for Spectral Lance, it has learned that no ship is complete without a cat. It continues to travel to vanished civilizations so that it can honor them with its poems. For her part, the cat takes joy in visiting the Stars-Our-Souls and listening to the ship singing. Sometimes she joins her voice to its. If you listen carefully, you can hear them, as near and distant as bells.

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Yoon Ha Lee's short fiction has appeared on Tor.com, in Clarkesworld, and over ten times in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, including “The Mermaid Astronaut” in BCS Science-Fantasy Month 5, a finalist for the Hugo Awards. He is the author of the Machineries of Empire trilogy, and his standalone fantasy Phoenix Extravagant was released by Solaris Books in June 2020.  Yoon 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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