By Aliette de Bodard
The Hungry Coyote had been in deep planes for ten days, the whole journey between the planet of Quetzalcoatl and this lonely rendezvous place; and for ten days Acoimi had felt himself going subtly, irremediably mad.
In deep planes, everything was wrong on the ship: the doors shimmering as if in a heatwave, the control panels blinking on a frequency that hurt the eyes–the metal of the corridors twisting and changing appearances from an oily sheen to the brittle transparency of crystal. There were sounds, on the edge of hearing: whispers and voices, snatches of songs that seemed familiar but receded farther and farther the more he attempted to listen to them… But, worse than everything was the vast presence of The Hungry Coyote‘s Mind, its processes dwarfing Acoimi’s thoughts–like a black hole pushing against a vessel, compacting everything inside.
At least now they were back in real-space, in real-time; and everything seemed… almost normal, with just the spongy, elastic touch of quickened steel to the walls. And the presence, though it was muted away from the deep planes.
Acoimi shivered. Black One take me, I shouldn’t be here, he told himself, not for the first time. Not that he had been given much choice: he was ticitl, physician, and he served where the Lord of Men sent him. But still…
Still, his other title, the one whispered behind his back, was huecatl ahuiyal: “the sweet one, the deep one”, an inescapable reminder of what he had once been. Still, ahead of him was everything he had been running away from: the fears of his sweat-soaked nights, of his confused awakenings when he would find himself trapped in an unfamiliar body–before he realised it was no dream, that he had truly made the change…
The voice of The Hungry Coyote’s Mind tore him from his thoughts. “Linking complete. Disembark.”
Ahead of him, the tube had finished extending itself in the vacuum between The Hungry Coyote and the unborn ship–the one where he was needed. Acoimi crossed over, breathing a sign of relief in spite of everything else. Here, onboard the unborn ship, the walls were cool and hard, and nothing beat under his fingers, nothing twisted or yielded more than it should have.
“Transfer complete. Severing connection.” The Mind’s voice came from very far away, muted and almost harmless. Behind him, the walls sealed shut again; and the tube retracted back into The Hungry Coyote, even as the ship shifted further away. A small consolation, that: Acoimi wouldn’t have to endure the Mind’s presence longer than he had to. Minds were solitaries by nature; and ships only approached each other in extreme need–and not for long.
The unborn ship followed the classic layout of a Jaguar class: four arms radiating out from the heart-room; five corridors linking the arms–and so on, a mirror of the mortal World’s order–no, a reassertion, a reassurance that between the hungry stars, the order forged out of fire and blood remained, unassailable. The corridors were curved metal, intricately worked into a mass of warding symbols, from stylised knots to jade beads; their monotony broken here and there by frescoes: warriors extracting prisoners out of captured ships; women ascending into the Heavens, their hands pressed against their bloodied wombs; a procession of gods accompanying the sun on His journey amongst the planets.
Acoimi found the midwife, Xoco, in one of the rooms on the circumference: the north one, that of Grandmother Earth, of death and decay. Her face was still thin and sharp, though the rest of her looked more like a matron, with her waist overflowing her jade-coloured trousers. Her eyes were an uncanny grey, the same colour as the hollows of her face. “There you are,” Xoco said. “She’s all yours.”
All his. Acoimi stifled a bitter laugh. He’d avoided, carefully, looking at the third person in the room: the woman sitting cross-legged on the coloured mat bearing the design of a green-and-yellow jaguar. Her face was slack, her eyes as vacant as those of a corpse.
“Huexotl, of the Atempan clan,” Xoco said. She shook her head, and there was a hint of–sadness, disgust?–in the tight arc of her lips. Atempan was one of the sixteen clans, one of the greatest and oldest, going back all the way to Old Earth. To find a member of the Old Nobility reduced to this, waiting in this impersonal room for the ignominious coda to her life…
“How long–?” Acoimi asked, carefully. The room was clean, smelling faintly of bleach, with not even a few bloodstains to bear witness to what had happened. What had he expected? Some writhing, pulsing mass of optics and flesh, flopping like a fish on dry land? As if they would leave such traces, days after the failure…
“The contractions started thirteen days ago.” Xoco shook her head. She’d have been there since the start, of course–since Huexotl had come to the ship, her belly distended by the mid-stages of the pregnancy, her face no doubt shining with the anticipation of her glory. Xoco would have cooked for Huexotl–combed her hair every morning; massaged the mound of flesh in which the Mind rested, snug and tidy–readying her for the last and most dangerous part of the quickening: the moment when the womb was breached, and the Mind punched its way out, seeking to tether itself to the core in the heart-room–breathing life into the ship, bending the rooms, passage ways and corridors to its will.
Unbidden, the words they’d sung at his sister’s funeral came back to him:
Spread your wings upwards, O Mother
O Giver of Life, O Yielder of Life
Spread your wings upwards, O Mother
Let Death be your passage into the House of the Sun, the House of your father and mother…
“I see,” Acoimi said. He looked again at Huexotl, and put his satchel on the ground with a sigh. “You’re free to leave.”
Xoco watched him for a while, her gaze uncannily piercing, as if she were trying to assess his worth. “You volunteered for this?” she asked.
Acoimi laughed. Once, it would have been crystalline, enough to turn men’s heads. Now it came out as rough and threatening. They’d rebuilt his throat and his vocal chords; but some things ran too deep to be disguised. Laughter ran too close to what he’d been, inside. “For determining whether she’s dead? Who would volunteer for anything like that?” he said. “I’m no executioner. I’m merely here as you are, sent where I am needed.”
Xoco didn’t move. Perhaps she’d missed it when he entered, but now her face was pinched, in the peculiar way of people hunting for something they’d missed.
“I wasn’t always thus.” Acoimi inclined his head; and, even now, it was absurdly easy to fall back into old patterns, to cock his face slightly sideways with fluid grace, to display a seemingly careless simper–but no, he wasn’t that anymore, not the flighty girl who’d watched her sister’s body for the four days of the vigil. That was done and accounted for; and the Duality had given him a new chance; a new life, one that wouldn’t involve Minds or deep spaces, or quickenings, not ever.
Or so he’d thought, until now.
“I see,” Xoco said, in turn. “It’s not always easy.”
“No.” He said nothing more; and she must have sensed she’d gone too far. She bowed to him, as one equal to another. “Acoimi-tzin,” she said. “I shall look forward to the results of your examination.”
He nodded, though the only thing he was looking forward to was the end of this whole sordid affair.
Alone now, he withdrew a small mirror from his satchel, resisting the temptation to stare into it. He had been a beautiful girl–fine-boned, with round, full cheeks and wide hips that promised strength and endurance, all that was necessary to succeed at bearing Minds. As a man, he was too… fluted, too fragile, with proportions that seemed always out of kilter no matter how much weight he put on or lost.
“Huexotl, of the Atempan clan,” he said, formally. “I am Acoimi of the Chimilco clan, ticitl to the Master of Darts, the Lord of Men, Southern Hummingbird’s Chosen. Will you submit to an examination?”
Huexotl didn’t answer, or move. Her eyes slid sideways, seemingly staring at the wall behind him. Dead, he thought, and clamped down on the thought. That was what he was here to determine: if there was still a chance she could be saved–fixed, in order to bear other Minds, to waste her blood and water birthing those monstrosities that moved in the planes between the stars…
And, if not… There was the rest of his kit: the injector at the bottom, with enough toxins to clog the lungs, to freeze the heart in the chest.
For an unarmed woman. What an honourable, soldierly thing to do. Acoimi’s regiment commander would have stripped him of rank, had he known; but he, too, was far away in the past, beyond recovery.
I’m no executioner.
How good a liar he’d become, over time.
He took a deep breath–feeling a quiver, a fear that shouldn’t have been there, and took out the rest of his equipment: the basin filled with water, which he set on Huexotl’s lap. She raised one hand–for a heart-stopping moment, he thought she was reacting, but it fell back, as listless as the rest of her.
Carefully, he set the mirror floating in the water, and chanted a hymn to Jade Skirt, Goddess of Childbirth and Running Waters:
“Come, you my mother, stone of jade
You of the Jade Skirt, You of the Jade Blouse
Come, you my mother.”
The face that swam into focus in the mirror seemed no different than the one above it; but then the water quivered, and a shadow flowed across the cheeks, darkening the skin until it seemed the colour of the space between the stars.
And if the face should darken, then the tonalli, the spirit that is in the head, is gone, frightened away…
No; that was mere superstition, not fit for this day and age. Acoimi did the ritual because it was expected of him, not because he thought it was going to bring any conclusive evidence. The gods were distant, and never intervened in the human world, no matter how much blood mortals shed.
Acoimi unpacked the rest of his equipment–laid a band across her arm, waiting until the graph of her heart’s voice coalesced on the cloth, slow and steady. He withdrew thought-nets, which he wrapped around her head, and watched the myriad beads of light slide across the metal mesh, like rain falling upon the world. Animal reflexes, all: data sent from the eyes into the cortex, little spikes flowing through the muscles and through the brain. But the pattern he ought to have seen–the blazing array of lights flickering in the familiar dance of the tonalli spirit–never came up.
Through it all, she had no reaction. Her knee jerked up when he did the reflexes examination, but her face didn’t move, and she never spoke. And her eyes never did more than flicker.
He’d seen soldiers in shock in the sick-houses, faces as slack as this one: babbling idiots and screaming, bloody masses with only the rough shape of humanity. But never… never anything that seemed so final. Huexotl didn’t have the rigidity of a corpse, and there was the occasional movement; but nothing, nothing that could be called life under any definition of the word.
Perhaps the gods, after all, weren’t so distant. Perhaps Xoco was right; and there was nothing left in here. Perhaps she was cihuateteo already: a goddess with shield and spear, accompanying the sun in its endless rotation around the planets. Perhaps he should be on his knees, making offerings of blood–as if she’d ever take them, or see them.
Xoco was waiting for him in the corridor, looking more wan and tired than before. He wondered if she’d received any other communications; but no, that was impossible, no radio would travel anywhere until the ship was quickened; and that, patently, would not happen, not with Huexotl.
“So?” she asked, though she must have seen the answer in his face.
“She’s–” he almost finished it then, almost said the words that would seal her fate, make her death a reality. And then his sister Icxhel’s face swam out of the darkness–her eyes closed, her washed hair spread around her body like a fisherman’s net, her skin the colour of things that never saw sunlight–and her lips downturned, as if she already knew how harsh and lonely the afterlife would be, fighting the darkness around the sun as she’d fought the pain of birth. “I need more time. Just to be sure.”
“Suit yourself.” Xoco’s tone suggested this would make little difference, but there was no hostility in it, just bored indifference. And something else. He’d been good, once, at reading faces and emotions, but somewhere in his abortive career in the army, details had ceased to matter.
“You’re free to leave,” he said, finally. “I wouldn’t want to–”
Xoco made a small, weary gesture as they moved towards her own quarters. “I saw this from the beginning. I owe it to her to stay till the end. Whatever it is.”
Her own quarters were a riot of colours: an unexpected relief, after the bleach and the blankness of the other room. The walls displayed a slowly rotating array of frescoes, all of Jade Skirt, She who presided over childbirths, and of Her husband the Storm Lord, god of abundance and fertility–and of diseases, two sides of the same coin. A tortoiseshell pipe in the old style lay by the side of a disconnected terminal; and the vid Xoco had been watching was frozen on the screen.
She dismissed it with a flick of her hand, and set to brewing chocolate, which she poured into two small bowls. The smell of vanilla and spices wafted up, as familiar as home. They sat, for a while, in silence.
“You can take up quarters of your own for the night,” Xoco said. “Unless you want to call back the ship you came on–”
No. Ten days aboard that one had been more than enough–ten days of feeling the walls move around him, shifting every time he turned his back–ten days of slow dislocation as the Mind drew them further into the deep planes, into the lands of light and fractured colours that lay between the stars. Every time he did this, he remembered the first time: taking a quickened ship with his parents, to claim Ixchel’s body from the faraway place where she’d died giving birth–the grief and rage coiled within him, unable to find their release.
It wasn’t a good place. It wouldn’t ever be.
He ran a hand on the wall behind him, finding it slightly warm, and frowned. “It’s dead, isn’t it? The Mind she–birthed.”
Xoco’s gaze flickered, for a brief moment. “It wasn’t stillborn. It tried to drag itself through the heart-room, to project its essence into the ship’s core. But it wasn’t strong enough. Nothing happened.”
An image leapt into his thoughts: some large and dark thing, dragging its way out of the womb, struggling to reach the centre of the heart-room–extending glistening protuberances, desperately trying to cling to the core of the ship with the last of its strength, the same thing that had killed Ixchel…
He clenched his fists, and did not move until the image faded into insignificance. “Except that it took her sanity as it left.”
“It happens.” Xoco’s voice was quiet, that of a teacher to their pupils. “Minds aren’t only in the womb. They’re in the body and spirit, in a very real sense. Sometimes, they can’t disentangle themselves from their bearers.”
Acoimi shivered. “So this ship is still unborn.’
Xoco shrugged, a little sadly. “There are echoes, in places. Odd noises, things that shouldn’t be here. But they’re just ghosts. A memory of dead things.”
“I see,” Acoimi said. “I’ll sleep in Huexotl’s rooms. Just in case.” Too late, he realised it was Xoco ‘s responsibility: to watch over the pregnant women in her charge from beginning to end.
Xoco’s lips were a thin arc–of anger, disgust? “You take your work to heart, ticitl.” It seemed almost a curse in her words, not a measure of worth.
“I do what is needed,” he said, as he’d said to her before.
She wasn’t looking at him, but at the frescoes. Jade Skirt stood tall and proud, Her clothes turning into water from the waist down; and tiny babies swam in Her stream, the colour of jade and turquoise, the most precious things in the mortal World. “Tell me what it is, being a man.”
“Everything I wanted,” he said. A path to the blood-wars, to the glory of successful warriors, the riches showered upon the victors. Even if–
Her lips quirked up again, as if she were amused. “At first, I should imagine. But it’s hard, isn’t it?”
She watched him, a vulture about to pounce on a dying animal. “How many have you captured in battle?”
She knew the answer to that; she had seen his middle-aged face, the lock of hair falling down his back: that of the unproved warrior, the one who had taken no ships captive, and had sacrificed no prisoners.
“None,” he said, and met her gaze, defiantly.
He’d expected to make progress through the ranks, just as his brothers had, laughing their way to finer clothes, larger rooms and more privileges–but found himself, inexplicably, lagging behind his peers. Perhaps ruthlessness and fanaticism were a man’s province, after all. Perhaps women just weren’t suited for the blood-wars, no matter how far they’d come. Perhaps that was the reason he’d become a physician, nurturing patients back to health.
Or killing them, when the need warranted.
Enough. He wasn’t going to wallow in self-pity forever. He had to–strike back. That was what a warrior would do. He asked in turn–knowing the answer already, knowing it would wound her as deep as her questions had. “How many Minds have you borne?”
She didn’t move, for a while. Then she inclined her head, in that effortless grace they taught in all the girls’ school: a caged bird presenting itself to a master. “I’m afraid I’m sterile. Nothing can quicken in my womb, neither Minds nor children, for that matter.” She laughed, a little bitterly. “What a pair we make. I watch women ascend to glory, and you minister to the fallen warriors, the sons of the Fifth Sun. The watchers in the shadow.”
We make no pair, Acoimi thought. The chocolate was warm in his hands, like the touch of a woman. “You could have asked for a gender-change.”
She smiled. “I could. But not everyone has your courage.”
Oh, but it wasn’t courage, not at all. It wasn’t blood-lust, or the desire to fight, or even ambition. What it boiled down too–once the skin had been flensed, the bones picked clean–was a simple enough matter.
It was just fear.
That night, he dreamed of Ixchel–or of Mother, he wasn’t sure–a confused mixture of faces distorted in the agony of birth, of ceremonies praising the women who gave their time and their lives making starflight possible. There were drums echoing in the emptiness of his ribs, and screams that might have been those of prisoners, but were not.
Mother moved through the glass panes of their home, the way she always did carefully and quietly, as if every gesture might break an unexpected bone; and the three Minds she’d borne lurked in the background, dark and distorted. He chased them, but they fuzzed out of focus, carried away between the stars like dandelion seeds in the air. Ixchel coalesced into being, fragile and insubstantial, a ghost with clawed hands–a warrior with spear and shield–a woman screaming in pain as her womb was torn apart. She lay quiet for her vigil, and the midwife whispered the prayers, over and over, assuring them that she was with the Sun now, that her fate was glory and light. And he looked upon her, ice slowly creeping around the hollow in his chest–and thought, one day, I’ll lie here as well–and doubled over in pain, as if something were already in his womb, already trying to claw its way out…
Acoimi, someone said, and it was the voice of The Hungry Coyote‘s Mind, echoing under ceilings vaster than any planet. Acoimi.
He woke up, heart hammering in his chest. The room was silent… No, wait. Something was wrong.
The room was empty. Huexotl was gone.
Where could she have gone?
He got up, hastily slipping into a formal cloak over his suit, and went in search of her. She might have gone to Xoco’s room; but no light or noise came from inside, and he could not face waking up the midwife, and admitting to his failure. Accursed men’s pride. At least, if nothing else, he’d got that from the gender-change.
Instead, he wandered the wide, bending corridors, desperately cocking his ear for any sound, any noise. Surely she couldn’t have gone far. Surely–
Wall followed wall, a mass of protective symbols all jostling each other, piled atop each other like offerings in the storeroom of the Great Temple: human hearts, sleek eagles, curved, fanged snakes. There was nothing but his own panicked heartbeat; and the single, wryly amused thought that at least she’d reacted to something. But surely that, too, was no more than an animal frightened by an unfamiliar face, running away without a destination in mind?
The corridors blurred and merged into each other, seemed to become those of the other ship, The Hungry Coyote and its Mind, piercing even his thoughts.
He should have known he’d never be rid of them. He should have known that, just as one of them had killed Ixchel, they would–
Faint snatches drifted towards him: the echo of a song, coming from very far away. “Huexotl?” he called. His voice echoed under the vast metal arches, coming back without warmth or substance.
The corridor flared open like a split ribcage. There was light ahead, the bright, harsh yellow of suns and corn. Everything seemed to bend and run together: crooked walls, doors twisting out of shape like melted metal, odd scratching noises as if rodents were onboard.
Ghosts. Memories. There was nothing here…
The song insinuated itself into his thoughts: a wordless rhythm like drums in a temple, like the hymns at a sacrifice, a plaintive litany that wouldn’t leave his mind. Under his hands, the wall was warm, and a faint heartbeat throbbed under his fingers, a mirror of the one in his veins. His head was light, insubstantial, as if they were no longer in the mortal world…
He came to with a start, his hand still clenched against the curvature of the wall. It was cool now; and nothing remained save for the song, coming from somewhere ahead of him. For a brief, timeless moment, he’d hung suspended away from real-time and real-space–as he had, in the deep planes onboard The Hungry Coyote.
Dead. The Mind was dead; and whatever small part had leaked into the metal was dead, too. He was letting his imagination play tricks on him.
After what he’d been through to reach it, the heart-room seemed almost disappointing. It was a perfect circle, almost bare, save for the contraption set at its centre: oily metal twisting upwards towards the ceiling, a mass of angles and rods poking like bones out of Lord Death’s throne. The light reflected itself on it like a hundred distant stars–but did not quite hide the darker patches on the floor, the memory of what had happened here.
He shivered, in spite of himself. The image of a Mind crawling across the floor was a hard one to banish.
Huexotl knelt in a corner, her gaze on one of the stains. She was the one singing, a hymn that he thought wordless at first; but then he recognised in the mangled, halting syllables familiar sentences.
“Spread your wings upwards, O Mother
O Giver of Life, O Yielder of Life…”
“Huexotl,” he said.
She jerked up, her gaze dark and frightened, and pressed herself closer against the wall.
More higher functions and more emotion than he’d seen over the past day. Perhaps there was still hope.
Perhaps he was trying to solve the problem the wrong way. She might have retreated inside herself, so deep all he could see was the veneer, like the layer of chalk over a sacrificial victim, disguising the man into the incarnation of a god. And, if that was the case… He had to draw her out.
“I’m here to help you,” he said, kneeling by her side. She watched, eyes wide, as frightened as a cornered deer. Black One take him, what would it take? She hadn’t been frightened of Xoco, or even of his examination. But it was night on a dead ship, with only the two of them in this wide, strange place where her mind had scattered. And he was a man.
Carefully, he relaxed, groping for memories that seemed to have fled. It had been instinct, once: something he’d never stopped to think about, just as the swagger and the urge to impress had come with the gender-change. Or so he’d thought. But, really, they hadn’t rewired his brain, or remade his heart. His tonalli was still there, the spirit still the same. He could remember. He–
He thought of a time, so far ago it might have been another age: Ixchel and the girl he’d been, sitting together watching a vid of suitors fighting for a woman’s hand–smiling, bragging to each other of how many Minds they’d bear–of the beautiful cloaks, of the jewellery and the land holdings that were the rewards for the enduring, for the brave. They had been young, then. They had been fools.
Ixchel had held herself that way: slightly hunched to disguise her size, turning her head carefully, deliberately, her lips slightly parted, as if to smile or blow a kiss.
“I’m not as I once was,” he said. His voice slid and slipped, all the careful work he’d put into pitching it low and grave gone the way of fallen warriors. “You have nothing to fear.”
Huexotl turned, slightly. Her eyes were blank again.
“I don’t know what you’re going through,” he said, slowly. “I don’t think anyone can, who hasn’t, not even those who’ve borne Minds. But I lost–someone, once, and I know how much it can hurt. I guess you’re even worse than that.”
“Spread your wings upwards.” Huexotl’s hand rose, pointed at the metal at the centre of the room. “Wings.”
“That’s good,” Acoimi said, soothingly. “But you have to do something else. You’re alive in there. I know it.” He wished the conviction in his voice were also in his heart, but he couldn’t. He’d seen Ixchel; and he’d seen Mother; and he had known that bearing a Mind took something out of women, something that would never be recovered. He had known that he was more than a womb–and he’d thought, foolishly, that he could be a weapon, take the men’s way into the Heavens. “Show me. Please.” He held out his hands, palms out, like a man, showing he had no weapons. He shifted, bent closer to Huexotl, a sister sharing secrets, a friend confessing a crush: the woman he’d been, no more than a veneer of his own, indeterminate self.
Huexotl watched him, as imperturbable as an effigy of the goddess Jade Skirt: eyes shadowed, crouching against the wall like a hurt child, mumbling the same words, over and over, while her hand trailed over the metal as if its coolness were a comfort.
Who was he fooling? It was hopeless. “Come on,” Acoimi said, straightening up. “Let’s get back to our rooms.”
He thought he’d ease back into the male stance; but, as they walked, he found he couldn’t. Was it because of Ixchel? Huexotl didn’t look anything like her, but still, she could have been her. But for an accident of fate…
That was the problem; that was why he couldn’t let go of her. He didn’t know how men hardened their hearts; how they could kill, ruthless, for the good of abstract, distant ideas like country, like gods. He could only see the small things: men and women, each different from each other, each enclosed within their own worlds and their own rules. He’d have killed for Ixchel; but it was too late.
He’d thought it was only his own uneasiness at the way things were. Men fought men to take prisoners; they didn’t kill defenceless women. But it was more than that, a deeper revulsion in his gut, the same one that had sent him running away from himself. Perhaps, in the end, he was no more than a woman–betrayed here, then, as he had been in the regiments, by what the gender-change couldn’t erase. By tenderness, and by sisterhood.
No, Black One take him, no. He wasn’t that weak. He’d been betrayed once. It wasn’t going to happen a second time.
Acoimi knocked at Xoco’s door early the next morning, and found her sitting, bleary-eyed, before a bowl of synthesised maize porridge. “You’re right,” he said without preamble, blunt and aggressive, like a true warrior. “She’s gone. Nothing we do is going to bring her back.”
She cocked her head, thoughtfully. “The night changed your mind, then?”
“In a manner of speaking.” The old him would have offered explanations and excuses, or at least felt embarrassed. No such thing here.
Xoco shrugged. “Fine. I’ll pack my belongings, then. You know what you have to do.”
“Yes.” He’d thought he would feel fear, or unease, or remorse; but there was nothing in his chest but a growing hollow. He glanced around the room, saw what he had missed on entering: the neat boxes, the folded clothes on the sleeping mat. “You knew.”
“I told you. I’ve seen many births.” Xoco spread her hands. “Her soul died, out there on the floor, trying to reach the ship’s core. You can’t get it back, no matter what you do.”
Alone once more, he walked back to his room. Huexotl was still waiting where he’d left her: sitting on the floor, her hands trailing on the mat, drawing random patterns that might have been glyphs, or merely the ramblings of a madwoman. Her vacant eyes moved to him, and held his gaze for a brief moment.
She could have been his sister.
But, if he had been her brother, he would never have let her get that way.
Acoimi knelt, and withdrew the injector from his satchel. He entered, by blind instinct more than anything else, the correct dosages for someone of her mass and build: enough to send her gently into the night of the underworld, but not so much that the components would react together and induce conscious paralysis. Then he sat by her side, and bared her arm, watching the veins bunched under her skin.
The hiss of the injector echoed in the room as loudly as a gunshot. He clenched his hand, half-expecting her to choke and keel over; but of course it wasn’t instant. She still had a handful of minutes, perhaps as much as a quarter hour, depending on how the toxin spread in her system.
“Say something. Please.”
She watched him, imperturbable. At length, Acoimi was the one who couldn’t bear the silence anymore. “Spread your wings upwards, O Mother,” he whispered, his voice breaking on the last word–picking up strength, climbing higher than it should have. “O Giver of Life…”
Huexotl’s hands clenched, slightly. “Spread your wings upwards,” she repeated, and, gently, carefully, she unfolded her body, shivering as she moved. “O Mother…”
Acoimi jerked back in surprise. But she was utterly unaware of him: merely moving upwards, making her slow way to the door and the corridors that lay beyond.
He knew where she was going: back to the heart-room, whatever its significance was in her diminished mind. He could have shoved her down, forced her to sit still. But to what end? He’d already done enough by killing her; why would he prevent her from choosing the place of her death.
Huexotl walked, swaying, going more and more slowly as the corridors twisted and bent around them–shining metal–beating carbon fibres–and the echo of her song, coming stronger and stronger as she faltered, until it seemed the ship was filled with the hymn.
At length, she reached the heart-room; stopped in the frame of the door, breathing hard, her hands clenched. And then she toppled like a felled tree, her hands still extended towards the ship’s core–as if she were the Mind herself, still struggling to find the ship.
“Please… help…” she whispered. Her voice shocked him out of his immobility; it was the first coherent sound he’d heard from her, the first speech that wasn’t madness or half-remembered scraps. Before he could reflect on the consequences of what he’d done to her, he was bending–lifting her up, her full weight resting on his arms–and, stumbling, carrying her to the core.
Her hands wrapped around a jutting bit of metal; and a slow smile spread across her face: not the blissful one that should have been induced by the drugs, but something far more primal, a fierce, brash joy that made him feel sick to his stomach.
“Spread your wings upwards,” she whispered. Her breath was the only sound in the air, slow and laboured, her lungs slowly filling up with fluid, her muscles seizing one after another. “O Giver of Life…”
Huexotl’s hands fell back from the metal. Her gaze, roaming, found his, and there was something in her eyes–love, hunger, possessiveness, all of it merging into a feeling so alien and so strong it burnt him like acid thrown into his face, flensing all pretences, all lies and evasions from him.
“Please…” she whispered. She dragged herself up, curled her body against the ship’s core, her face resting against the metal, her breath fogging it. “Help…him…” She fell silent, the last of her muscles locking into paralysis. Her eyes closed. He couldn’t have told at what point she died; but at some point, her immobility became the familiar one of a corpse, and the last of the colour drained from her face, leaving her small and pathetic–and yet curiously human. In death, she was no longer blank or mad, just diminished the same way as everyone.
“I’m sorry,” Acoimi whispered, knowing it wouldn’t atone for anything. The fog of her breath moved across the bars and the tubes, sinking out of sight. He heard nothing but his own heartbeat, thudding painfully against his ribcage.
And, gradually, he became aware he was no longer alone. It was a vast, numinous presence–something that distorted the space around them, gave an oily sheen to the metal, quivered in the air like a heat-wave. The room buckled and shuddered, trying to fit itself to new forms, new rules; and the presence brushed him, light and fractured colours, a plane that hadn’t been meant to open to him.
Mother, it whispered, or wept, or screamed. Mother!
A ghost. A memory, Xoco had said. But Acoimi was ticitl–physician, from beginning to end–even here, even now, in the face of…this; and he saw, not a ghost, not a memory, but a crippled being, dragging itself upwards in agony and grief.
It hadn’t been strong enough to quicken the ship; but something had leapt across, all the same. Something, slowly spreading in the corridors, slowly trying to gather itself together, until the final shock of Huexotl’s death forced it to coalesce into being…
He tasted bile and blood in his mouth.
A Mind. A crippled, incomplete Mind, trying to control the ship, to put everything together–like a wounded warrior trying to fight, rising again and again, falling again and again, the assault gun quivering in their hands, readying for a shot that might kill an enemy, or bring the coup de grace to a friend. In its convulsions to imprint itself on the core, it would disrupt the ship’s equilibrium–take all or part of it into deep planes that couldn’t sustain human life, leave them stranded in the midst of the void to choke, or starve to death…
He should run; that was what he should do. Get up and run, and find Xoco before that thing could do its damage. They could call on The Hungry Coyote, ask its Mind to blast this crippled, non-functional monstrosity out of existence, out of misery. He should–
He didn’t move. The room shivered again: remodelling itself everywhere he watched, the walls receding further and further away, the metal changing to crystal to fibres and to metal back again. The air smelled of spilled oil and blood.
Help him, she’d asked. Her last wish; her last conscious thought.
What if in the end, it could gain control of the ship, just like any other Mind? What if–
In the end, he was a man–unable to bear the shame of killing an unarmed woman. In the end, he was a woman–made to give life, to yield life, but never to take it. In the end, everything betrayed him; or perhaps nothing did. Perhaps he was simply himself again: the girl who had wept over her sister’s corpse, eaten inside by fear and grief; the man who had walked away from the blood-wars, sickened by the slaughter. Perhaps…
“Upwards,” he whispered. And he didn’t know, not anymore, if it was a prayer against the inevitable, or–Black One help him–an encouragement.
First appeared in Asimov’s, February 2011
Picture credit: Matthew Hadley (Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)
Read the story notes, with background explanation, here.
Liked this? Try “The Shipmaker”, another story set in the same universe.