art by Liz Clarke
The Heartless Light of Stars
by Aliette de Bodard
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.