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Free Fiction: “The Black Abacus” by Yoon Ha Lee

We are pleased to be able to bring to you a story from Yoon Ha Lee‘s wonderful collection Conservation of Shadows. “The Black Abacus” is just one of the 16 stories in the collection.

The collection itself is described like so:

There is no such thing as conservation of shadows. When light destroys shadows, darkness does not gain in density elsewhere. When shadows steal over earth and across the sky, darkness is not diluted…

In this debut collection of short fiction from one of science fiction and fantasy’s most notable new writers, Yoon Ha Lee often integrates tropes of science fiction with elements of myth to create tales that are both wonderfully fresh and deeply ancient. No matter what the theme, her wide variety of stories are strikingly original and always indelible.

Enjoy the story…

“The Black Abacus”

by Yoon Ha Lee

War Season

In space there are no seasons, and this is true too of the silver wheels that are humanity’s homes beyond Earth and the silver ships that carried us there. In autumn there are no fallen leaves, and in spring, no living flowers; no summer winds, no winter snow. There are no days except our own calendars and the stars’ slow candles in the dark.

The Network has known only one war, and that war ended before it began.

This is why, of course, the Network’s ships trapped in q-space-that otherwhere of superpositions and spindrift possibilities-wield waveform interrupters, and why, though I was Rachel’s friend, I killed her across several timelines. But the tale begins with our final exam, not my murders.

The Test

You are not required to answer this question.

However, the response (should you attempt one) will be evaluated. If you decide otherwise, key in “I DECLINE.” The amount of time you spend will be evaluated. You cannot proceed to the next item without deciding, and there will be no later opportunity.

Your time remaining is: —:—:—

In her essay “The Tyranny of Choice and Observation,” Shinaai Rei posits a “black abacus” that determines history’s course by “a calculus of personalities and circumstances, cause and effect and chance.” (You are not expected to be familiar with this work; the full text is restricted.)

In light of this, under what circumstances is war justified? What about assassination? Consider, for example, Skorzeny’s tactics during World War II, police actions against the Candida Rebellion, and more recently, terrorists’ sabotage of relay stations. You may cite current regulations and past precedents to support your answer.

As you do, remember the following points:

  1. During the 76.9 years (adjusted time) that the Pancommunications Network has been in place, no planet- or station-born conflict has found expression in realspace.
  2. Because your future duty as a Network officer requires absolute reliability, treason is subject to the death penalty.
  3. Reductio ad absurdum is one of a mathematician’s finest weapons. It is a far finer gambit than any chess gambit: a chess player may offer the sacrifice of a pawn or even a piece, but the mathematician offers the game.”-G.H. Hardy (1877-1947)

The Results

57% of that year’s class declined the question, or so they thought. The computers recorded every keystroke and false start for further analysis. Of those who did respond, the ratio of essay length to time taken (after adjustments for typing speed) matched the predicted curve.

Rachel was the exception. Her answer took 5.47 minutes to compose (including one self-corrected typo) and three sentences to express.

The records knew her as Rachel Kilterhawk. Her comrades in command training knew her as the Hawk. In later times and other lives, they would call her Rachel the Ruthless. Neither of us guessed this when we first met.

White: Queen’s Gambit

Rachel was one of the first to leave the exam. Her cadet’s uniform was creased where she had bent over the keyboard, and even now her hands shook. I did what I could, she thought, and set her mind on other things: the spindles of growing plants, the taste of thrice-recycled water, the cold texture of metal . . . the sea, from her one visit to Earth, with its rush of foam and salt-sprinkled breezes.

She went to hydroponics, where water warbled through the pipes and the station’s crops grew in identical green rows, a spring without end. In a corner of the garden she picked out a bench and sat with her legs drawn up, her hands on her knees. Nearby was a viewport-a viewscreen, actually, filtering the stars’ radiation into intensities kinder to human eyes.

After a while her hands stopped trembling, and only then did she notice the other cadet. He had dark hair and darker eyes, and where her uniform was rumpled, his was damp with sweat. “Do you believe in angels?” he asked her.

Rachel blinked. “Not yet. Why?”

He gestured at the viewscreen, tracing unnamed constellations and the pale flash of an incoming ship’s q-wave. “It must be a cold thing to die in space. I like to think there are angels who watch over the ships.” The boy looked away and flushed.

She gazed at the fingerprints he had left on the screen. “Angels’ wings.”

It was his turn to blink. “Pardon?”

“The q-waves,” she said. “Like wings.”

He might have laughed; others often did, when Rachel with her quicksilver thoughts and quiet speech couldn’t find the right words. She was startled when he rubbed his chin, then nodded. “Never thought of it that way.” He smiled at her. “I’m Edgar Kerzen. And you?”

She returned his smile with one of her own. “Rachel.”

Dawning realization: “You’re the Hawk. No one else would’ve torn through the exam like that.”

“But so did you.”

Edgar shrugged. “I aced math and physics, but they killed me on ethics.”

She heard the unsaid words: Let’s talk about something else. Being Rachel, she was silent. And found herself startled again when he accepted the silence rather than filling it with words. She would come to treasure that acceptance.

Black: Knight’s Sacrifice

The first life, first time I killed Rachel, it was too late. She had already given her three-sentence answer to the Pandect’s exam; won command of the starhiker Curtana, one of twenty-six ever built; and swept from the Battle of Red Lantern to the Siege of Gloria on the shredded wings of a q-wave. After Gloria, her name passed across the relays as both battle-cry (for the Network) and curse (for the Movement). In this probability-space, her triumphs were too great to erase, her influence too great to stop the inevitable blurring of murder and necessity.

After the siege, we had a few days to remember what sleep was, to forget the silence of battle. Space is silent, though we want thunder with our lightning, the scream of metal and roar of guns. I think this was true even for Rachel, because she believed in right silences and wrong silences.

By fortune or otherwise we had shared postings since we left academy, since that first meeting in hydroponics. Command was short on officers, but shorter still on ones who worked together like twin heartbeats. I stood beside her when she received the captain’s wing on her uniform and again when we learned, over the relays, that the scoutship Boomerang‘s kamikaze destruction of a station had plunged one probability-space into war. I stood beside her and said nothing when she opened fire on Gloria Station, another of the few q-space stopovers. It harbored a Movement ship determined to return to realspace, and so it died in a ripple of incoherence.

One people, one law, said the Network. There were too many factions at a time when humanity’s defenses were scattered across the stars: conglomerates with their merchant fleets, colonies defending their autonomy, freetraders who resented the Network’s restrictions. Once the Pancommunications Network had only been responsible for routing transmissions between settlements and sorting out discrepancies due to time dilation. Someone had to maintain the satellite networks that knit everyone together and someone had to define a law, however, so the Network did.

In light of this, under what circumstances is war justified?

A ship’s captain has her privacy, but we were docked and awaiting repairs, and I knew Rachel’s thoughts better than my own. She had her duty, and if that duty demanded it, she would pay in blood. Including her own, if it came to that, but she was too damned brilliant to die in battle. Because she was the Hawk, and when it came to her duty, she never hesitated.

5.47 minutes and three sentences.

I came upon Rachel deep in the ship’s hold, in an area closed off for tomorrow’s repairs. Her eyes, when she raised them to me, were the wild grey of a winter sky, unlike the carbon-scored grey of the torn bulkheads behind her. These days our world was defined by shades of grey and the reflections therein.

Soon we would be forced to leave the colorless haven of q-space, since the last few stations could barely sustain themselves or the remaining ships. For a while, the Network and the Independence Movement had cannibalized any new ships who entered q-space despite the perils of merging q-waves, gutting them of supplies, people, and news. Once a ship exited into realspace, our own fluctuating history would collapse into a single outcome, and nobody was willing to plunge the realspace world into war, especially one in the enemy’s favor. New ships no longer showed up, and God knew what we’d done to realspace transportation and logistics.

A few weary souls had tried to force the issue. Rachel shot them down. She was determined to win or stop the war in every life, every timeline, and she might even succeed.

She noticed my presence and, for once, spoke before I could. “Edgar. While I’m here, more people are dying.” Her voice was restless, like the beating feathers of a bird in a snowstorm.

“We’ll find out about it on relay,” I said, wishing I could say something to comfort her, to gentle those eyes, that voice, but Rachel had never much believed in words, even mine.

“Do you think angels fly between probability-spaces to harvest our souls?”

I closed my eyes and saw the afterimages of a ship’s waveform disintegration, translated into images the human mind could interpret. “I wish I knew.” I was tired of fighting and forcing myself to remember that the bright, undulating ribbons on the tactical display represented people and what had carried people. I wanted her to say that we would leave and let the multiplicity of battles end, but I knew she wouldn’t.

For a long time Rachel said nothing, lacing and unlacing her fingers together. Then her hands relaxed and she said, “How did you know to find me here?”

Nothing but curiosity from a woman who had killed civilians, whom I had always followed. Her duty and her ruthlessness were a greater weapon than any battleship the Network had left. My angel, an angel of death.

My hands were a weapon and her trust, a weakness.

“I’ll always find you, my dear,” I said, reaching out as though to massage her shoulders, and interrupted the balance of her breath and brain and heartbeat. She did not fight; perhaps she knew that in other probability-spaces, I was still hers. I thought of Red Lantern. My memories held lights and lines in red or amber, autumn colors; tactical screens, terse voices. My own voice, saying Aye aye, sir.

After she stopped moving, I laid her down. I was shaking. Such an easy thing, to kill. Escape was the hard part, and I no longer cared.

The Darkest Game

Schrödinger’s cat has far more than nine lives, and far fewer. All of us are unknowing cats, alive and dead at once, and of all the might-have-beens in between, we record only one.

We had the catch-me catch-me-not of quantum physics, then quantum computers, oracles that scanned possibilities. When we discovered a stardrive that turned ships into waves in a sea of their own-q-space-we thought we understood it. We even untangled navigation in that sea and built our stations there.

Then, the echoes. Ghosts in probability-space, waveforms strung taut from waypoint to waypoint, snapshot to snapshot. Enter q-space and you throw a shard of the universe into flux. Exit it, and the shard crystallizes, fixing history over the realspace interval. Shinaai Rei-philosopher, physicist, and sociologist-saw it first.

Before the Boomerang, there had neither been a war nor ships that interrupted the night with their flashfire battles. Then she destroyed a civilian station, and the world shifted into a grand game of chess, probabilities played one on the other, ships that winged into q-space never to return. Why take risks in war when you can try everything at once and find out who will win?

White: Candles

Theirs had been one of many patrolships guarding the satellite network. Sometimes threats breathed through the relays, but nobody was willing to disrupt the web of words between worlds. Rachel had known Network duty was tedious, but didn’t mind. Edgar was with her, and around they went, never twice tracing the same path. Their conversations, too, were never twice the same.

Everything had turned awry, but when smoke seared her lungs or she had to put the crew on half-rations again, she remembered. Edgar was all that remained from that quiet time, and when his back was to her as he checked a readout, she gazed fondly at the dark, tousled hair and the steady movements of his hands.

On patrol, through the long hours, Rachel had come to trust his motions, his words, his velvet voice, and the swift thoughts behind them. Even his smile, when smiles often made false promises. But there came dark moments, too.

Once, after watching a convoy of tradeships streak by, Edgar said, “What would happen if all the satellites went out?”

She explored the idea and found it sharp to the touch. “Candles.”

He understood. “Only a matter of time before everything fails. Imagine living in a future when the worlds drop silent one by one.”

Rachel reached out and stroked his hand. “It won’t happen yet,” she said. Not for a long time, and we are here; the Network is here.

He folded her hand in his, and for a moment his mouth was taut, bitter. “War would do that.”

“The exam.” Years ago, and she still remembered the way her hands had shook afterward. What Edgar had said, she never asked. He gave her the same courtesy.

She wondered now if he had foreseen the war and chosen to make himself a part of it, with the quicksilver instinct she treasured. She suspected that his dreams, his visions of other probability-spaces, were clearer than hers, which spoke merely of a battle to be won, everywhere and when. Rachel decided to ask him the next time they were both awake and alone.

In some of her lives, she never had the opportunity.

Black: A Riddle

How long can a war go on if it never begins?

White: The Bloody Queen

The Battle of Seven Spindles. The Battle of Red Lantern. The Siege of Gloria. The Battle of Crescent. Twenty-one stations and four battles fought across the swirl of timelines. Rachel counted each one as it happened.

Today, insofar as there were days in q-space, she faced the forty-fifth ship. The Curtana was a hell of red lights and blank, malfunctioning displays; she had never been meant to go this long without a realspace stopover. The crew, too, showed the marks of a long skirmish with their red eyes and blank faces. They saw her as the Hawk, unassailable and remote; she never revealed otherwise to them.

The communications officer, Thanh, glanced up from his post and said, “The Shanghai Star requests cease-fire and withdrawal.” A standard request once, when ships dragged governments into debt and lives were to be safeguarded, not spent. A standard request now, when ships were resources to be cannibalized after they could no longer sustain life.

Rachel did not hesitate. “No.” The sooner attrition took its toll, the sooner they would find an end to this.

Her crew knew her too well to show any surprise. Perhaps, by now, they were beyond it. After a pause, Thanh said, “The captain would like to speak to you.”

“You mean he wants to know why.” For once words came easily to her: she had carried this answer inside her heart since she understood what war meant. “Tell the Shanghai Star that there’s no easy escape. That we can make the trappings of battle as polite as we like, and still people die. That the only kind end is a quick one.”

Rachel heard Edgar approach her from the side and felt his warmth beside her. “They’ll die, you know,” he murmured.

She startled herself by saying, “I’m not infallible.” Battle here, like the duels of old, was fast and fatal. A modification of the stardrive diverted part of the q-wave into a powerful harmonic. If an inverse Fourier breakdown of the enemy ship’s waveform was used to forge the harmonic, and directed toward that waveform, the stardrive became an interrupter. The principle of canceling a wave with its inverse was hardly new, but Edgar had programmed the change to the ship’s control computers before anyone else did. A battle was 90% maneuver and data analysis to screen out noise from other probability-spaces, 10% targeting.

Her attention returned, then, to the lunge-and-parry, circle-and-retreat of battle.

At the end, it was her fifth battle and victory. Only the Curtana remained to tell of it.

Black: The Traitor Knight

Time and again, Rachel’s crew on the Curtana speculates that she dreams of Fourier breakdowns and escape trajectories, if she dreams at all. The Hawk never sleeps, they say where Rachel isn’t supposed to hear, and so she never corrects the misimpression.

Sometimes I was her first officer and sometimes her weapons officer. Either way I knew her dreams. In a hundred lives, they never changed: dreams of the sea and of the silver ships, silver stations, that were her only homes; dreams of fire that burned without smoke, death that came without sound.

In a hundred lives and a hundred dreams I killed her a hundred times. Once with my hands and once with a fragment of metal. Sometimes by betraying her orders and letting the ship hurtle into an interrupter’s wave, or failing to report an incoming hostile. On the rare instances that I failed, I was executed by her hand. We knew the penalty for treason.

Several times I killed her by walking away when she called out to me as the ship’s tortured, aging structure pinned her down. Several times more I died, by rope or knife or shipboard accident, leaving her behind, and took her soul with me.

I have lived more probabilities than she will ever dream. Doubtless the next will be similar. I know every shape of her despair, every winter hymn in her heart . . . why she looks for angels and only finds me.

I am tired of killing her. Make your move and end the game.

White: A Change in Tactics

When it was her turn to sleep, Rachel dreamt: constellations of fingerprints, white foam on the wind, ships with dark wings and darker songs. But she woke always to Edgar’s hand tracing the left side of her jaw, then her shoulder, and that touch, like her duty aboard the Curtana, defined her mornings. It was the only luxury she permitted herself or Edgar. The rest of the crew made no complaint. His were the hardest, most heartbreaking tasks, and they knew it.

His dreams were troubled, she knew. Sometimes they surfaced in his words, the scars of unfought battles and unfinished deaths, merciless might-have-beens. Stay here, she thought. Of all the choices, one must be a quiet ending.

Perhaps he heard her, in the silence.

Black: Check and Mate

Rachel’s response to the ethics question took 5.47 minutes and three sentences. Mine took more lives, mine and hers and others’, than I can count.

Rachel’s Season

In space there are no seasons, and this is as true of the ships that cross the distances between humanity’s far-flung homes. But we measure our seasons anyway: by a smile, a silence, a song. I measured mine by Rachel’s deaths. Perhaps she will measure hers differently.

Your move, my dear.

[The End]

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.
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