io9 is proud to present fiction from LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE. Once a month, we feature a story from LIGHTSPEED’s current issue. This month’s selection is “Nobody Ever Goes Home to Zhenzhu” by Grace Chan. You can read the story below or listen to the podcast on our website. Enjoy!
Nobody Ever Goes Home to Zhenzhu
I’d always known Calam would run.
He had all the signs. A taut restlessness, body brittle as an overstretched lute string, when we stayed too long in one place. A gloom in his eyes, as we drifted through stretches of dead space. A sullen crease between the brows, whenever I tried to ask how he’d landed in that dead-end Martian workshop at seventeen.
But after ten years, why now?
Drumming my fingers on the battered dashboard, I gazed through the viewport at the planet below. My retina flooded with information from the Records. Zhenzhu. Once the pearl of the Feng System: terrestrial, mostly ocean, strung around with island chains like jewelled necklaces. Now, centuries after colonisation, tainted puce-coloured whorls obscured its aquamarine surface.
It’s not difficult to track a person. As a Beaconer, I do it for a living. I could’ve dug into Calam’s past at any point in our travels together. But we’d maintained an unspoken code—until, in sneaking off without so much as a jotted message, he’d broken it.
My preliminary sweep of both Assembly-run and private surveillance databanks had uncovered a torrent of brainwave, kinetic, and metabolic signatures matching Calam’s to various degrees. Even without the biodata, the clumsiest Beaconer could’ve used the serial numbers of his cybernetic enhancements to pinpoint his whereabouts in inhabited space. After discarding the outliers, I still had a clear record of his movements, dating back not just days, but years.
It was my first time to Zhenzhu, but not Calam’s.
I moved the Left-Handed Bandit out of orbit, into a stealthy descent.
Calam’s trail unspooled in shimmering blue on my retina—through damp-slicked alleys, thick with cinder-smoke and burnt oil, to Mur Angh’s canal district. On the opposite bank, mushroom-shaped skyscrapers loomed against an ochre sky, air traffic zipping around their stalks like glittering fireflies.
The waterside marketplace was a noisy sea of aluminium-roofed stalls, food carts with illustrated curtains, vending droids on flexible legs, and tricycle-hauled trailers piled with mass-produced trinkets. The citizens of Mur Angh, in tattered synthetic garments and homemade goggles, looked battered, weather-worn, like the crumbling commission flats that dominated the city’s slums. Fragments of conversation, a mix of Common and local dialect, floated through the air.
Zhenzhu’s entry on the Common Records had been no different from the other first-wave colonisation planets. An influx of diasporic groups. A few decades later, the Human Nations Assembly’s coordinated terraforming effort. Now, things were cleaving along the usual lines: the expansionist elitists in their gleaming towers, birthed into new cash and new resources, and the leftovers seething in the slums, wrestling for the scraps.
The trail took me to a roadside stall, where I gestured at the first item on the menu and lit a cigarette.
I scanned the middle-aged vendor for enhancements. Ah, good. An active memory chip. I pinched the last couple of hours of recording and scrubbed until I saw Calam’s face. He’d been sitting in the seat I was in, hunched over a bowl of porridge. I activated my interpreting networks.
“—not as good as it used to be, Kang,” Calam was saying, in a local dialect.
“Shut up, boy,” said the vendor. “You try making good food with stale ingredients. Zhenzhu’s in decay. Imports, agriculture, all dying. The elitists don’t give a shit about the dogs under the table. And you and me, we’re the bottom of the bottom-feeders.”
“Eh, Yen, look at you. You look well. Healthy. Ten years gone—you’re crazy to come back.”
“Not staying.” Calam seized a deep-fried doughstick and crunched into it. “Just here to see my mother.”
“Yeah. She sent me a message. She’s dying.”
Kang stared flatly at Calam. “Boy, you know what your mother did, to survive, right? Who she is now?”
“You still want to see her?”
“She sent me a message,” said Calam again.
Kang sighed and dragged a hand over his fleshy face. “Let an old friend give you some advice, Yen. Even though you won’t listen to me. Finish your juk, go to the shipyard, and buy yourself a one-way ticket. Forget your mother. You did the right thing ten years ago. You’re not wanted on this rock.”
I snapped out of the playback when Kang slammed a bowl onto the bench: steaming rice gruel, topped with a gooey black sphere. The fermented aromas made my mouth water. I hadn’t had a fresh meal in weeks. Kang watched, with a pleased expression, as I stubbed out my cigarette and dug in.
“First time on Zhenzhu, eh?” He spoke in Common.
“How’d you know?”
“No jacket, no goggles.” Kang gestured at his own gear. “After first time, you remember acid rain.”
Ah. That explained the eroded buildings, the stalls decked in aluminium sheets, the tense expressions as people flitted from door to door with hoods pulled low. Acid rain was a bad sign—a sign that, after mere centuries, once again, we’d extorted too much from a planet.
“Forecast says rain coming in an hour,” Kang said, pointing at the heavy sky. “I suggest, go somewhere safe.”
Did he really believe I’d let him go? He’d contrived an elaborate routine: sending his baggage ahead to a public locker; slipping away after the Thurnos Bidding, muttering about a pleasure den; unleashing an actually-decent pirate program to hide his escape via a stem-cell colony ship.
Sure, I could’ve snagged another mechanic. Thurnos was stuffed with sad souls vying to underbid one another for a warm meal and a warm bed. But after ten years, you get used to someone. You figure out whether you can live with their worst habits.
Kang called him Yen. I wasn’t surprised to discover he had a different name. I remembered the half-starved squirrel-boy—twitchy, shaggy-haired, covered in engine grease—who’d stepped out of that rundown Martian workshop. Mine had been a reluctant stopover. I’d been itching to shoot away from the Sol System, but the Left-Handed Bandit had needed a new portside cannon cradle.
The offer of a job had left my lips on impulse. Maybe, subconsciously, I’d wanted someone with secrets, who didn’t want to talk about them. Maybe, in his brittle gloom, in his unwavering silence, I felt an unspoken kinship.
Well, this was probably one of the safest places in Mur Angh. I’d tracked Calam to the tallest tower in the fancy district, watched as a statuesque receptionist led him to the elevators, and hacked the service elevator to follow him up to the penthouse suite.
Sliding doors opened onto a hallway draped in Cultural Appropriation Lite. Whoever had decorated the penthouse was evidently a passionate but undiscerning fan of the Jovian-satellite diaspora aesthetic. Embroidered silks in an imitation of the Ganymedean artisans softened the chrome walls; traditional Callistoan music thrummed from the ceiling. There was even a hologram of the Europa sky: a fire-striped orb with a stormy red eye, glaring above a rim of icy spikes.
I activated my jacket’s bio-cloaking tech before stepping out of the elevator, plunging straight through Jupiter’s equatorial belts. The heat signatures of six or seven people radiated from a large room on the north side of the penthouse.
Bloody Calam. Why hadn’t he just told me about his mother? We could’ve come to Zhenzhu together. We could’ve put a plan in place. Now he was probably going to die—and I had to decide how much to risk my life trying to rescue the fool.
I skulked my way to a service room. Wedged between a steel trolley and the wall, peeking between doorframe and door-curtain, I had a partial view of a richly furnished lounge.
Calam was standing in front of a plush settee, shoulders hunched, eyes darting. Kneeling at a low table of burnished wood, the receptionist poured tea from a gilt teapot. She gestured for Calam to sit. He lowered himself onto the settee, one hand clenched at his bag.
“Where is she?” he demanded.
“She’s coming.” The receptionist offered an enamelled teacup in a graceful circle of fingertips. Her sleeves slipped down, revealing pale wrists. “Please.”
Calam blew on the tea, but did not drink.
A curtained doorway on the other side of the room parted. A woman stepped in. A silk robe hugged pyramidal breasts, cinched a wasp waist, and swished around elongated legs. Scarlet lips bloomed in a pearly, luminescent face. Beneath puffy eyelids, inhumanly violet irises glittered. She was someone’s embodied fetish.
She was not sick, and not at all dying.
“Ma . . .?” Calam rose, dropping the cup onto the table. Hot tea splattered. His expression stretched halfway between a gasp and a grimace.
The woman’s head drooped towards her chest, like a stalk of wheat snapped in a harsh wind.
Four more people came through the curtained doorway: a brown-haired, clean-shaven man in a high-collared gray suit, and three soldiers in combat gear. One of the soldiers yanked Calam’s mother aside. In the same moment, Calam scrambled backwards over the settee and whipped his hand out of his bag. He was holding a gun, but it looked like a toy next to the soldiers’ weapons.
“You lied,” said Calam, his eyes hard and fixed on his mother’s face.
The scarlet mouth trembled. “I’m sorry, Yen.”
“I’m not surprised,” Calam hissed. “You sold us out before. You sold yourself. Why wouldn’t you sell out your last child, too?”
The man in the suit stepped forward. From my hiding spot, I couldn’t get a clear view of his face. But he reeked of elitist: oozing vitality, control, wealth. I wrapped my hand around my holster’s reassuring coolness.
“Now, boy. There’s no need to scold your poor Ma. We didn’t really give her a choice. Come. We don’t want this to be messy. Let’s put that gun down, hey? Let’s be civilised.”
“Evan,” spat Calam. “You’ve modded yourself so much I wouldn’t have recognised you—if not for that slimy voice.”
Evan spread his arms wide. I had a close view of his left hand, extending from his cuff, which bore a coat of fair downy hair. On his index finger, he wore a gold signet ring imprinted with an eagle.
“I told you we’d see each other again.”
“What do you want? It wasn’t enough for you to kill my father, my brother, my sisters? To take my mother as your bed toy? To murder the Luying because we were an inconvenience?”
“Good grief, boy. You make it sound personal.”
Calam was backed against the wall, both hands wrapped around his pistol. Sweat poured down his flushed face. He had one shot. At most. The soldiers’ enhancements were several years ahead of Calam’s—they could probably kill him at the first twitch of his trigger finger.
I dipped quickly into the Common Records, searching for any entries about the Luying people on Zhenzhu, or a massacre ten years ago. Nothing.
“Why go to such lengths?” Calam hissed. “I’m a nobody. Why bother luring me back here, just to kill me?”
Evan took two steps forward. “You know I work clean. Loose threads are an . . . irritation. Sometimes, the Assembly likes to stick their nose into the past. They don’t understand that cleaning up the lowlife is a necessary part of building a great planet. Call it . . . tidying.”
Pursing his lips, Evan turned to his soldiers.
A neural blast bludgeoned into my brain. I reeled.
Are you waiting for me to fucking invite you in?!
It was Calam.
He knew. He knew I was here.
I went for the receptionist first. I’d seen the faint scars of implanted pistols in her wrists. She was unquestionably the most dangerous one in the room.
I crossed the room in four strides. A neuro-linked command to my weapons belt dispatched a chemical blast at Evan and his three henchmen. A small range grenade. Probably leave one or two of them alive—but I didn’t want to hurt Calam or his mother. Pistol in hand, I fired at the receptionist. The bullet took her in the jugular. Blood sprayed in a crimson fan over the settee as she crumpled.
I dove behind a grand pianoforte, just as the shots came. Darn—two still standing. Something hit my foot, but I felt no pain. I went low and ducked out, firing.
The soldiers were sprawled on the carpet. Two were melted by the chemical grenade. The third had taken my shots in his chest, and was gurgling his last breaths. Somehow, I’d missed Evan entirely—but Calam had got him, first with a bullet, and then with a knife to his face.
I had to pull my mechanic away.
“Hey,” I said. “Hey. Calam. Come back.”
He collapsed onto his heels, gasping and shuddering, knife clattering from slack fingers. He gazed up at me, blank-eyed.
“You—cursed—shagua,” I snarled, prodding my finger into his forehead. “What the fuck would you have done if I weren’t here?”
A delirious smile spread over Calam’s blood-splattered face. “But you are here.” Then he shivered, and seemed to return to himself. His gaze dropped to my feet. “Orin—you’re bleeding.”
I glanced down. A puncture in my boot was leaking blood onto the carpet. The pain came to me distantly. I activated a neural net to scoop it up, for later.
“You didn’t have to smash into my head, by the way,” I snapped, because snapping would keep the wooziness away. “You took down three layers of delicate security work. I was about to waltz in and rescue you.”
“Just had to make sure you didn’t change your mind, enyi.”
“Starting to wish I had.”
We both jerked our heads up at a soft noise. Calam’s mother was clawing at the velvety wallpaper, her body spasming. I limped up to her.
“Wei. You OK?”
She moved her lips, but no sound came out. She didn’t look injured. Tentatively, I touched her shoulder. She crumpled into a heap, her chin coming to rest on her knees like a decommissioned android. Her artificial eyes looked through me, past me, towards the tall windows, which were squealing beneath an onslaught of toxic rain.
“Forget her,” Calam said. His tone was detached, but not cruel. “She’s been rewritten too many times.”
I came back to Calam. We gazed down at Evan’s corpse. Bits of jellied eyeball and stringy muscle were visible in the pulpy stew of what had been his face. I wondered if Calam had ever killed anyone before.
“After I escaped,” he said in a low voice, “I tried to find others. Relatives, friends, anyone. Didn’t have much luck. I’ve accepted that I’m the only one left. The only one who knows everything he did. He wanted my memory chips—probably would’ve ripped them right out of my head. Can’t have an annoying Luying kid popping up and making Zhenzhu’s history look . . . unpalatable.”
I scanned the body for ID and enhancements. Evan Enders. Date of birth: 12/08/2571. Age: 56 Earth-years. Chief Minister for Sustainable Development, third term of service. I drew in a sharp breath. “He’s Assembly. Big shot. He’s got a Scribe Implant.”
“Of course.” Calam glanced at me. “How do you think he wrote the Luying out of existence? You think Assembly don’t mod their own Records? Wah, Orin. You’re more of an optimist than I thought. Hey—what are you doing?”
The tip of my serrated knife was where Evan’s nose had recently been. “I’m taking it. Isn’t that what you wanted?”
“I know we’re into murdering Ministers now, but tampering with Records—that’s a crime against humanity, no?”
“I’ve already done it once.” I thought back to undulating swathes of gray, the pink fans of salt basins, smoky breath fanning my face—and a virus I’d crafted to hide, to protect. I couldn’t believe how guileless I’d been, just a few short months ago, about the way the galaxy worked. “We’ll write the Luying back into it. Take that memory loop out of your head and upload it. A crime for humanity.”
“Then we’d be just like him.” Calam wiped his hands on his pants, leaving grisly trails of the Minister. “Using stolen power for our own purposes. We should do more. We should tear down the walls. Make it so anyone can amend it.”
The acid rain seemed to be hammering right into my skull, corroding the bony arches, shaking the floors and roots. For most of my life, I’d avoided thinking about the Assembly if I could—there was a reason a certain kind of people became Beaconers. I felt suddenly foolish. For years, I’d thought that in fleeing the Sol System, in cutting all ties, I’d defied them. But even as a Beaconer, I was entirely in their thrall. I worked for cash. I delivered those with less, to those with more.
The Records were yet another tool for the privileged few to conceal, to control.
Calam’s mother lifted her face from her knees with a small, sad smile. Her whisper was barely audible beneath the rattling windows. “Good chaos.”
An imprint of my own mother rose unbidden in my mind—stolen, rewritten, forgotten. I squashed the memory away. That was another pain to deal with later.
“Can you do it, Orin?”
Can is a shitty word in Common. It’s a mash-up of meanings, conflating degrees of ability with degrees of willingness until a whole spectrum of nuance is condensed into one clumsy term. In my mother’s Callistoan dialect of the Jovian language, there are thirteen different ways to say can, each with their subtle hints of inclination, capacity, importance, and immediacy.
I wondered how Calam would’ve asked, in the Luying tongue—and what he was really asking of me. He’d never requested anything of me before. Not directly, not like this.
Taking a deep breath, I plunged the knife through Evan’s crushed nasal bones. I thought I heard a whimper, a gurgle. The Implant was nestled between his frontal lobes. Pinching it between two fingers, I pulled it free of its gory cage and held it up to the wan light streaming through the windows. Beneath a silver-scarlet sheen of viscous fluid, the Scribe Implant looked like a bronze slug, coiled into a spiral.
I wiped it roughly and tucked it into my glove, where it nestled warmly in the crease of my palm.
“Let’s get back to the Bandit, Calam.”
Once we were free of Zhenzhu’s orbit, I scrambled the Left-Handed Bandit’s outgoing positional data—an energy-draining program, but necessary to conceal our next steps. The Scribe Implant sat on the dashboard, cracked open and linked to the mainframe.
Calam dropped into the seat next to me. His poncho was melted in spots where it had caught some rain; a tuft of hair poked out of a hole in his hat. From his left cheek to his right temple, a spray of dried blood—the receptionist’s? Evan’s?—formed an angry crimson arc.
“How’d she go?”
“Freaked out when I tried to buckle her down,” said Calam, wearily. “Had to give the sedative. She’s strapped into the bunk now.”
We hadn’t talked about where we would take his mother, but that was a problem for later—along with my injured foot, which I’d hastily patched with a globule of Soothe’em, the puncture hole in my favourite boots, which still carried some Ranzan soil, and the twin pains I’d netted away in the back of my mind.
Calam leaned forward to gaze through the viewport. The angle of the Feng Star revealed only a slender crescent of Zhenzhu—the pollution clouds creamy, like frothed milk, against an inky backdrop.
I glanced at him. “Will you miss it?”
He shook his head. “It was never really home, you know. Even though I was born there. From the beginning, they chased us out.”
The Common Records unfolded in shimmering hologram before us. A shiver thrilled through my body. I’d only ever seen the surface, the lacquered exterior of a puzzle-box. But suddenly we were in the heart of the labyrinth, with a birds-eye map of deeply tangled layers of archives, and the knowledge of where things had been knotted and unknotted. And at our fingertips, a dangerous power: to extract, rewrite, replace.
It would not be difficult to break it open. Unlock the puzzle-box, crack open its compartments, and turn it inside out, for anyone and everyone to play with. The Common Records would be truly common.
“Huh,” Calam said. Touching a dirt-streaked hand to his temple, he neuro-linked to the mainframe. A carefully compiled database unfurled from his memory chip: holographs and names of the Luying people, dates and places of birth, dates and places of death. There was a lot of information, almost a thousand identities, but I could also see a lot of gaps. Trails, gone cold. Missing, whereabouts unconfirmed, presumed dead.
I turned to him. Tears glimmered on his cheeks, carving paths through the blood.
He reached over me to initiate the hack.
The ghost-blue faces of his grandparents, father, siblings, cousins, drifted into their digital shrine. Page by page, the Records opened to the galaxy. Good chaos, his mother had whispered. As the first wave flowed back to us, a deluge of grief and shock and fury, I shifted the Left-Handed Bandit out of neutral, balancing on a knife’s edge of stars, and waited for Calam’s direction.
About the Author
Grace Chan is an Aurealis and Norma K Hemming Award-nominated writer and doctor. She can’t seem to stop writing about brains, minds, space, technology, and identity. Her short fiction can be found in Clarkesworld, Fireside, Aurealis, Andromeda Spaceways, and many other places. Her debut novel, Every Version of You, will be published in September 2022. You can find her at gracechanwrites.com and on Twitter as @gracechanwrites.
Please visit LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the May 2021 issue, which also features work by Jonathan Maberry, Lauren Ring, Tobias S. Buckell, Andi C. Buchanan, Aigner Loren Wilson, Lina Rather, Peter Watts, and more. You can wait for this month’s contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99, or subscribe to the ebook edition here.
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