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art by Liz Clarke

The Heartless Light of Stars

The Numbers Quartet is a collaboration between Aliette de Bodard, Nancy Fulda, Stephen Gaskell, & Benjamin Rosenbaum

Aliette de Bodard lives and works in Paris, where she has a day job as a Computer Engineer. In her spare time, she writes speculative fiction--she is the author of the Obsidian and Blood trilogy of Aztec noir fantasies, and her writing has been nominated for a Hugo Award, a Nebula Award and the Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Visit aliettedebodard.com for more information.

Nancy Fulda is a Phobos Award winner, a Vera Hinckley Mayhew Award recipient, and a two-time Writers of the Future finalist. Her near-future space exploration story, "That Undiscovered Country," was jointly honored by Baen Books and the National Space Society. Nancy's writing has appeared in Asimov's, Apex Digest, Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, and many others. Her web site is nancyfulda.com.

Stephen Gaskell has published fiction in Interzone, Nature, and Clarkesworld, amongst other places. His SF novella, "Strata", a high-tech thriller set in the sun's chromosphere, co-written with Bradley P. Beaulieu, author of The Winds of Khalakovo, has just been released through Amazon and B & N. He is currently working on his first novel, a near-future SF tale set in Lagos, Nigeria. More of his work and thoughts can be found at stephengaskell.com.

Benjamin Rosenbaum lives near Basel, Switzerland with his wife Esther and his children, Aviva and Noah, who demand logic puzzles, classic rock, and childrens' suffrage . He's recently become Swiss, which means of course that he is on the board of a club (in his case, a little synagogue). The Swiss have a deep reverence for clubs; they consider them the backbones of democracy, and the constitutional "right to assemble" actually translates to "the right to form clubs". No lie. His website is benjaminrosenbaum.com.
speed of light: a physical constant denoting the speed of light in a vacuum, important in many areas of physics, and valued at 299,792,458 meters per second. It is the maximum speed at which all energy, matter, and information in the universe can travel--symbol c, postulated in Einstein's special theory of relativity in 1905 AD.

Vu had never been able to speak to Thuy. Even when they were children, he'd had got on well with the rest of his siblings--had chased lizards with them in the courtyard of their house, clung to them as the family scooter, laden with fish and fruit, wove its way through the congested traffic; and had breathed in their dreams, sharing their longings and aspirations as though they were his own.
Except for Thuy. She was the youngest child of their family, and she'd always been quiet and soft-spoken--almost a girl from another century, deferential to the point of muteness. The only one of her siblings she seemed to speak to was their eldest brother, Loi; but that was before the Exodus, before Loi went up into space--got himself frozen into cold storage and traveled all the way to some distant star Vu couldn't remember the name of, all in the name of spreading the shadow of Viet Nam's dragon among the stars.
After Loi's departure, Thuy had stopped speaking to Vu altogether.
Except that Thuy was there now: she'd bullied her way into Vu's house, telling him it was high time they had a family gathering, and that she would be there whether he wished it or not. And she'd come as promised, and Vu still didn't know what to say. He'd watched her for a while, and she'd stared back, not saying a word either--until sheer embarrassment won, and Thuy busied herself in the kitchen, scrubbing the skin of a chicken with rock salt in preparation for the banquet. She didn't look as though she needed help; and Vu found himself drifting back to the living room, where a blinking light on his console reminded him he had a message from Loi.
Vu sat down, and called it up with a flick of his fingers. The ghostly image of his elder brother flickered to life in front of the sofa--Loi looked worn, his face pale with some stress he couldn't name.
"You should see it, little bro. It's so beautiful out there--the ship's looking a bit worse for wear, because we took a section apart for materials, but the view... the view is still breathtaking. There's nothing and nobody but us--"
In space, distance is time. Radio waves travel at the speed of light, and the speed of light is finite--and Loi's message, relayed through the satellites into the network, came from so far away it was a glimpse of the past: the station he described would be complete now, glinting in the cold, unblinking light of the stars (there was no atmosphere in space, he'd explained, nothing that would cause starlight to twinkle as it did above the pollution cloud of Ho Chi Minh City). And, unless you could bribe an official for access to the only ansible station in the country--high up north, in Ha Noi--delayed messages were the only thing you ever got back from space.
Vu could hear Thuy in the kitchen--casseroles were banging together, and there was the familiar, hooting sound of the rice cooker bringing the water to a boil.
Loi was still speaking--waving his arms, pale and wan and looking so distant Vu wanted to hug him. "We woke up three more colonists this week--God, they're so thin, it makes you wonder how they're going to survive this. The schedule says we should be done on the second wing of the station by Tuesday." He shook his head. "You know schedules. Always an act of optimism."
Thuy was in the living room, pulling a table and arranging dishes on it. She came to stand by Vu's side, watching Loi's hologram. "You shouldn't have encouraged him," she said. Her face, too, was pale and wan.
Vu's hands clenched. "It was his dream. How could I tell him he should forget it?"
Thuy sucked in breath through her teeth--her hands smelled of garlic and fish sauce, a familiar odor that brought Vu back to their childhood, and to a time when everything had seemed so simple, so durable. "His place was here, among us. To abandon the ancestral tombs and shrine for a foolish vision of glory...."
"He's eldest," Vu said, and saw Thuy wince. "He took the shrine with him. Always, wherever he goes."
"Wherever he goes." Thuy shook her head, but when she spoke again it was of something else. "You have to stop living in the past, big bro. That's what, six years old?"
"Eight," Vu said, and he didn't look at her. "I've listened to all of them." And sent back answers, too, even after he'd realized the futility of it all--of eight years passing again till his messages reached the station.
"You know--" Thuy said, slowly.
"Don't say it," he said. "You've made your peace with it; I haven't."
"Only because you don't want to." Thuy's voice was tight.
"You're here," he said, simply. "Don't forget that."
"No. But--"
Eight years out; eight years ago. That was when the official letter from the government's ansible had come: it was somewhere on his desk, covered in dust--filled with elaborately couched words like "regrettable incident," and "sharing your great loss."
But Loi hadn't been lost, hadn't been dead--not for Vu, not so long as his transmissions came back home.
And now... his picture was on the table, above the fried rolls and the oranges, and the Hainanese chicken and the rice as white as pearls; and Thuy had lit a stick of incense--arranging everything the same way she'd done for eight years.
Eight years; and now Vu was eldest, and the ancestral shrine was in his home; and the sweet-smelling banquet from the kitchen was a death anniversary--the eighth such one.
The doorbell rang. "It's the others," Thuy said. "I'll get it."
His other, younger siblings and their families. He should remain sitting--he'd have time, later, to greet them. Loi's message was more important: he could replay it afterwards, of course, but it wouldn't be the same. It wouldn't have that bittersweet meaning it had, when it had just arrived, as fresh as slaughtered fowl from the market.
In the hologram, Loi's face was taut with worry; but still, his entire being seemed transfigured--he was doing what he'd always wanted to do, up there among the heartless stars. Had Vu been right, to tell him to go? Had he--
In space, distance is time. Radio waves travel at the speed of light, and the speed of light is finite--and Loi's message was a glimpse of the past, of what could have been, of what would never be. The last such glimpse.
Eight years.
Vu took a deep breath; switched off the console with a flick of his fingers. And as silence spread in the room as heavy as grief, he slowly walked into the hallway, to listen to the living.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, March 14th, 2012


I thought this one was going to be easy to write in a very SFnal mode, but it turned out to be quite a struggle. At first, I wanted to explore the effect the delays in retransmission would have on an intergalactic war; but this turned out to be way too complicated for a flash! In the end, I went for something much quieter, which turned out to pivot on the character of Vu and his relationship with his elder brother--a conflicted one given the importance of elders in Vietnamese culture.

- Aliette de Bodard

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