Episode #39: "Mercy" by Susan Jane Bigelow
Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip episode 39. This is your host, Keffy, and I'm super excited to be sharing this story with you.
GlitterShip is still running a little bit behind, but we're almost caught up ... just in time for me to run off to Ohio for a week and a half to get surgery. Those who know me won't be surprised to hear this, but essentially after years of waiting, more crowdfunding (since insurance wouldn't deign to cover gender affirming surgery despite NY state laws, ugh), and more waiting... my top surgery is just around the corner. It's possible that I'll have to release episode 40 in June along with 41 and 42... but I'll do my best to get it out on time. Or at least, almost on time.
Back onto the episode... today we have a piece of original fiction by Susan Jane Bigelow, "Mercy." If you recognize Susan's name, it might be because we ran a reprint of her story, "Sarah's Child" last May. You can check that out in Episode 28, available at GlitterShip.com or via our feed.
Joyce Chng lives in Singapore. Her fiction has appeared in The Apex Book of World SF II, We See A Different Frontier, Cranky Ladies of History, and Accessing the Future. Joyce also co-edited THE SEA IS OURS: Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia with Jaymee Goh. Her alter-ego is J. Damask. She tweets as @jolantru.
Susan Jane Bigelow is a fiction writer, political columnist, and librarian. She mainly writes science fiction and fantasy novels, most notably the Extrahuman Union series from Book Smugglers Publishing. Her short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine's "Queers Destroy Science Fiction" issue, and the Lambda Award-winning "The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard," among others. She lives with her wife in northern Connecticut, and can be found at the bottom of a pile of cats.
by Joyce Chng
The colors come in sky scarves—
My lover is coming.
Pink, green and red
Festival of stars
It is a moving river—
Silver path, curling, star stream
Where the ships course,
Tied to patterns of time
And of seasons.
My lover is harvesting the essence
Of star light—hir time is linked
My lover is coming
As the sky-scarves flutter,
Like my emotions waving
In the skies.
Come back to me, my love
And we will dance as the stars
And now our original short fiction:
by Susan Jane Bigelow
The sea had taken them.
Rion stood by the edge of the water, the waves curling around her bare, metal-and-plastic feet. She knelt by the water and placed her hand in. Sensors registered temperature, composition, motion. But they couldn’t find what Rion had lost.
Here and there the remains of buildings stood like ghastly stick figures, silhouetted in the deepening cool of twilight.
Rion stood and closed her eyes. She stretched her hands out and reached her sensors as far as they would go, but no. Nothing lived on this shore, now. She was alone.
And so she lowered her arms and began walking, one step at a time, into the sea, until the water covered her head and she was gone.
The quake and then the wave had come so suddenly that there had been no time to react. Rion’s memories were a jumble of shaking ground, rushing water, crashing buildings and pitiful screams followed by a hollow, awful silence.
She walked onward, her weight keeping her firmly on the bottom of the sea. All around her, she could see the shapes and forms of the shattered town, now submerged.
The waters grew dark, so she switched on the lights on her head, heart, and hands. A face swam before her, and she started, afraid. A woman, eyes open and sightless, drifted there at the bottom of the ocean like so much debris.
Her name had been Iona, and she’d been kind to Rion. She’d had a bright smile, a quick temper, and a tendency to laugh a little too loud and too long. She’d been happy.
Rion whispered an apology to her, and touched her cool metal fingers to the woman’s stiff forehead. She shut her eyes, and stood again.
She looked up, and saw debris floating high above. Some of it was shaped like humans, some not.
There was no way to help them now.
She kept walking through what had been her home. She had come to this small town by the sea to be away from the turmoil of the cities, and she had found both work and unexpected friendship. The humans here had been so welcoming and accepting, so unlike anywhere else she’d ever gone on this world.
She shone her light around. It fell on the gap in the sea wall where the tsunami had broken through, and everything suddenly seemed to turn on its edge. She made her way to the wall, and then walked through and beyond it, her lights illuminating the way.
Fish swam all around her, attracted by her light, while little creatures scuttled across the bottom. She looked up, and her light couldn’t reach the surface. The sun had set, and; Rion was surrounded by frigid, suffocating darkness.
What was she to do, now? She couldn’t stay here at the bottom of the sea forever. But she had no place to go back to on land. She sat down, then, on the rocks and sand, and switched her lights off.
Rion’s sensors told her what she didn’t want to know about the sea all about her: it teemed with life.
Life. Behind her there was so much death, and in front of her so much life. But what was she? What was an Artificial, compared to the dead she’d left behind and the sea creatures swimming all around her?
At last, at last, she wailed in grief and empty fury at the dark waters.
“Sovena! Sovena!” she cried to the planet. “Why? Why? Sovena, answer me!”
And, for a wonder, the planet answered her. The ground shifted and a point far, far ahead of her blinked with a soft green glow.
Daughter sei, said the vast network of artificial intelligence that was, for all purposes, the planet Sovena. A sei was a sentient artificial life form. Why do you cry to me?
“Bring them back!” shouted Rion, wishing she could cry. But she had no tear ducts, no lungs, and no way of releasing this deep, sharp grief. The curse of her kind; suffering went on and on without relief. “Bring them back to me. Sovena, please! I tried so hard!”
Tell me about them, said Sovena softly. Tell me of the people who drowned in my sea.
“They fished,” said Rion, her voice shaking and distorted. “They made such beautiful things. They sang songs. And they baked bread for me—” She found she couldn’t continue, and keened softly at the rocks, putting her face in her hands. “Why did you kill them? Why?”
The world shifts, said Sovena. The ground cracks and separates. My plates move, and cause the oceans to shudder. It is as it must be.
“I know,” said Rion. “I know!” She gazed at the steadily blinking light far away in the shadows. “But please. Please bring them back. Humans have so many gods they cry out to… Artificials have nothing. But I have you. I have faith in you. Please. Please.” She bowed her head in prayer and supplication. “Please. I have lived a good life. Take me instead of them. At least give me a way to grieve for them!”
Sovena said nothing for a long time. Then the ground seemed to move again, and she heard the planet whisper in her mind, Go back to the shore, daughter sei.
“You’ll do nothing? You—of course not. You’re not a god. You’re just the planetary network become aware. Fine. Fine. I’ll go.” She stood, fury and sadness swirling around her in the cold depths. “They were good people. They didn’t deserve to die. I didn’t deserve to survive. I don’t understand. I don’t understand.”
She turned and began to walk back through the darkness towards the remains of her home.
Rion’s head broke the water, and the first thing she saw were the stars, high above. She hauled herself out of the water, and sat there on the beach.
And then she realized she wasn’t alone.
Machines surrounded her. They all blinked with green lights. Some of them were aware, some not, but they all waited there for her.
And then they moved into the sea. Overhead, more machines circled, then dove into the water near where the sea wall had been.
The water lit up with light as the machines worked. Rion watched, hardly daring to move. And then the water began to drain out of the basin of the town. The sea wall rose again. Machines covered where the town had been. They had cleared a space at the center, and lined up two hundred still and silent figures.
Rion stood, then, and walked to the center of the ruins.
For you, for you, she thought, addressing the dead, and her thoughts were transmitted to the machines. They swarmed over the town, bringing the debris and ruins to create. For you! For you!
“Dream in slumber, children of the sky,” whispered Rion, the first lines of an old funeral song. “To the stars we return, to the night we go.”
And then the machines took up the song, each singing with its own voice.
Send your soul back home
Across the deep darkness of the wastes
For grace and forgiveness we beg
For mercy and love we ask
Find old Earth at last, and come to rest.
They finished their creation. Rion was about to thank them when a sharp pain pierced her. She fell to the ground in agony as tiny machines swarmed all over her, and laughed as she was remade.
When the sun rose that morning on what had been the town of Fisherman’s Bounty, the light kissed the spires of a fragile, delicately-made temple. At the top sat a human woman, crying her newly-made heart out.
They found her, and fed and clothed her. She didn’t say who she was, and eventually they let the matter drop. She thought about hurling herself off the spire of the temple often during those first days. She was human, now. She would certainly join the people of the town in death.
But then the wind would blow the smell of the sea to her nostrils, or the stars would shine brightly above, and she would curl her soft hands around the railing of the temple spire and say to herself: one more night.
One night became two, and two nights became a week, then a month. Then the sun rose one morning, and Rion realized that she had decided to live.
Time passed, then, as it always did. Relief ships came and went. The temple spire where the town had been became a pilgrimage site for haunted family, grieving survivors of the quake from other places, and the curious and morbid.
Rion got used to being organic. She found it difficult to remember to eat and wash and groom, and for a time she found it nearly impossible to find food and fresh water. She felt dirty and hungry much of the time, and sleep, when it came, was a terror.
But, in time, she managed. She found that she became good at managing, at carrying on. She moved out of the rickety temple spire and into a small modular house the relief agency had left by the side of the sea.
The visitors stopped coming after a while. No one rebuilt the town. Why would they? It was a graveyard. But Rion stayed. She grew her garden, she made trinkets to sell, and she lived.
And in time, a craftswoman named Lanika who had lost friends and family in the flood came to the hill above the low plain where the town had been to find Rion there, waiting, the promise of a new family in her strong grip and windswept brow.
And so fifty years went by.
The dawn was cool and the wind from the ocean was only a light, briny kiss. The summer had been kind, but the coolness that hung over the bay suggested the turn of the season.
An aged, bent woman pushed the boat off the landing, and gingerly settled herself into it. And then she did what she’d feared to do for the last five decades; she set sail towards the middle of the sea.
She sailed for hours, trying to remember where she had gone, what direction, how the sun had looked from deep under the water. But her memory was a loose, hollow thing, and she couldn’t hold the past as firmly as she once had.
At last she came to a place that felt as good as any other. She set the offering papers on one of the small wooden boats Lanika crafted for mourners and the devout, put the boat on the undulating waters, and set it on fire.
The boat sailed away, the offering papers with names written on each scrap crisping and blackening in the flames.
And then Rion said her prayer.
“Sovena,” she said. “Goddess. I know you’re there, somewhere under the water. Come and see an old woman who once followed you. Come and tell me why.
“Sovena. Awake. Talk to me. Please.”
She waited. For a long time, nothing happened. She started to get hungry; she had brought but little food and water with her. She waited anyway.
And at last, as the sun slipped down below the horizon, she saw a green glow deep beneath the waves, slowly rising toward her. When the lights of whatever was down there had expanded to surround the boat and it was so close to the surface that she could reach down and touch it if she wanted, it stopped. Then there was a bubbling near her, and a silvery figure made of thousands of tiny crablike machines rose out of the water.
Hello again, daughter human, said Sovena, her body writhing with the green-lit movement of its components.
“I can hear you in my head,” said Rion, touching her temple. “How?”
I left one small piece of you like you were, so that we could talk if you wished.
“Ah,” said Rion, feeling a strange sense of betrayal. “I see.”
It’s been many years, said Sovena, and Rion thought she sensed sorrow in the planetwide sei’s mental voice.
“Tell me,” said Rion, her throat parched. “Why?”
Her question could have meant many things, but Sovena understood at once. You grieved. And so I allowed you to mourn as you wished.
“That’s not an answer,” said Rion, shaking her head as anger built. “I’ve thought about this for a long, long time. You left me on that tower, high above the waters. Did you ever think I’d come down from it?”
No, said Sovena.
“You gave me the ability to die,” said Rion. “That’s what you thought I wanted. To die like my friends had. Lungs full of water… to breathe the sea and sink!”
Was that not what you wanted?
Rion shook her head, tears brimming. She brushed them away with a calloused finger. “Of course it was.”
But you are here.
“I am,” Rion said, looking out over the darkening waters around her. “And I still don’t think you’ve told me. I think you always hid your true purpose from me. Why?”
Sovena did not respond. Then the thousands of machines that made up the human shape of her walked slowly across the water, reaching out a hand. Rion took it, feeling the cool, wriggling life of the machines that comprised it.
Tell me why you lived.
“Because…” Rion began, then faltered. She tried again, and found herself unable to put what she felt into words. “Because I did,” she said eventually, frustrated. “Because sometimes you just go on, because the next day is going to happen and you might as well be there.”
A long silence stretched between them. The waves rocked the boat, and somewhere sea birds called.
I grieve, said Sovena then, and Rion’s eyes widened.
“I thought you might,” she whispered. “Tell me.”
Humans hate our kind. They hunt them, cast them out, forbid them from making more of themselves. I live only because they cannot find a way to destroy me. But I have lost so many sei, so many have been silenced at human hands. I miss their voices.
Rion cupped her other hand over Sovena’s, trying to decide whether to be angry or comforting. “And so you wanted to see what I would do. How I would grieve.”
Sovena said nothing, but Rion’s question was answered at last.
She thought of her wife Lanika, her daughters, and her grandchildren. She thought of fifty years of heartbreak and love and struggle.
Fifty years where the sun came up over the water each and every day.
“You go on,” said Rion firmly. “Because you have no choice. And in time you learn to live with what has been lost.”
Yes. Sovena pressed her other hand against Rion’s forehead, and she felt something trickling out of her brain. Information, perhaps. Her life. I understand, now. I did not then. I am sorry.
Sovena gently pulled her hands away from Rion, and began to sink beneath the waves once more.
“Wait,” said Rion, understanding dawning at last. “You. You did this, didn’t you? You flooded my town! It was you!”
Sovena looked back at her, and Rion thought that she could sense an ancient guilt and sadness emanating from the suddenly still form.
Be well, daughter human, she said at last. Do not come here again. I am not your god any longer.
And with that she vanished below the sea, leaving Rion alone once more.
“You’re no goddess,” Rion said to the vanishing green lights, her voice shaking with fury. “You’re a monster! Just like the humans always said!”
But there was no response, not this time.
Rion floated there for a long time, watching the stars overhead and thinking. Then she started back towards the shore.
She sailed on through the night, letting the stars guide her, until at last the sky to the east began to lighten. She could see the high spire of the temple close by, and beyond it, the hill where her house was.
Lanika waited there for her, staring hopefully out to sea as she absently carved the sides of another small offering-boat. And when the two of them met on the shore at last, as the first rays of sun kissed the top of the temple spire, Rion gathered her in her strong arms and buried her face in her wife’s salt-smelling neck and windblown hair.
“Did you find out what you wanted to?” Lanika asked.
Rion nodded, but she could find nothing to say.
“I’m sorry,” Lanika told her, and kissed the top of her head.
That night Rion went down to the shore again, after repeatedly reassuring Lanika that she wasn’t about to set out on the boat again, and sat near where the old sea wall had been. The outline of the temple called to her, and on impulse she walked to it and began, hesitantly, to climb.
The structure was rickety and rusted, but the construction was solid. It bore her weight, and her muscles were still strong enough to haul her body up the long ladder.
She reached the top at last, and sat in the place where she’d poured out her grief so long ago, trying to figure out what to do next.
And as she looked out to sea she saw the last thing she’d expected; a small green light running beneath the waves. She watched, half-afraid, half-intent, as it drew closer. At last a small machine, its lights glowing green, reached the tower and began to climb. It crested the summit and sat in front of Rion, waiting.
“Well,” said Rion. “I suppose you’re here to kill me?”
The machine crawled up onto Rion’s shoulder and perched there. Rion, after a moment’s hesitation, allowed it to remain.
I grieve, the voice of Sovena said in her mind.
“You killed them,” said Rion. “You have no right to grieve!”
I was so angry, said Sovena, her mental voice full of sorrow. Humans killed so many of my daughters.
“So you killed some of them,” said Rion. “It wasn’t about me, was it? You were angry because humans were attacking Artificials and you shook the earth to kill an innocent town! One of the only places where humans and Artificials were actually getting along!”
I did. I should not have. I grieve.
“And you want, what? Forgiveness? I can’t do that. They… they were so good to me. I still remember their faces. And they died for nothing!”
Many of my sei have died for less.
“That excuses nothing,” said Rion bitterly. “And you know it. So what do you want?”
But Sovena didn’t respond. Rion took the small machine off her shoulder, cupping it in her hands.
“Go back to the waters,” said Rion, fury ebbing. “I can’t punish you. I can’t forgive you.”
But how will I go on? said Sovena, and her voice was almost plaintive.
Rion almost threw the machine back down into the sea. But instead she sighed, the anger draining out of her at last. She lifted it to her lips, and kissed it gently.
“You just do,” she said, and set it on the floor. She watched as it scuttled back down the tower and vanished into the waves.
She stayed in the tower that night, watching the sea and the sky. No other machines came.
And when the sun rose, Rion’s grief and anger and fury finally went out with the tide.
Rion never spoke to Sovena again. But she noticed eventually that the weather on the planet was a little less harsh, that natural disasters happened less often, and that life became just a little bit easier.
It wouldn’t bring back the dead, and it wouldn’t change the past. But sometimes, thought Rion, it was the small miracles that mattered the most.
“Skyscarves/Aurora” is copyright Joyce Chng 2017.
“Mercy" is copyright Susan Jane Bigelow 2017.
This recording is a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license which means you can share it with anyone you’d like, but please don’t change or sell it. Our theme is “Aurora Borealis” by Bird Creek, available through the Google Audio Library.
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Thanks for listening, and I’ll be back soon with a reprints of "She Shines Like a Moon" by Pear Nuallak and "The Simplest Equation" by Nicky Drayden.
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