io9 is proud to present fiction from Lightspeed Magazine. Once a month, we feature a story from Lightspeed’s current issue, and this month’s selection is “I Sing Against the Silent Sun” by A. Merc Rustad and Ada Hoffman. You can read the story below or you can listen to the podcast.
I Sing Against the Silent Sun
In the Principality there bule the Seven Suns. Armored gods, they marched through the universe eons ago, wreathed in subjected angels, and left footprints of conquest on galaxies. They dragged beneath them the corpse-heat from a billion burning worlds.
The sixth Sun, the Gray Sun, is a god of silence. There is no voice, no mercy, no music within the Gray Sun.
Beneath the Gray Sun there is only emptiness.
AFTER SILENCE — The Year 2984
In docking space over Varos Ci, Vector Bearing Light receives a holo-transmission from the Hand of Dust and Shadow.
Li Sin, half-asleep with an open vidplayer on their knees, straightens, their heartbeat quickening. “How?”
Via encrypted relays, Vector says. She indicates it is urgent.
Vector’s body is a sleek anonymous-colored ship with identification sigils masked in permanent shadow. Fast and adroit, it is not the vessel that once brought terror amid the stars. Li Sin appreciates Vector’s discretion. In Li Sin’s dimly lit quarters, Vector opens a projection screen on one wall and broadcasts the signal.
The image of a tall woman materializes inside the ship. She’s dressed in pearlescent armor and robed and hooded in pale green silk with embroidery that ripples in seascape patterns along the hems. She wears a swan-faced mask crowned with gossamer lights spun into delicate feather-patterns. Her dark skin absorbs the luminance, her eyes obscured by glimmer scales.
The Hand of Dust and Shadow, foremost warlord who operates in the illicit belly of the Principality.
Li Sin knows her by a different name as well: Gerarr Singh, a genderfluid person—their confidant, lover, friend.
Li Sin bows in greeting. “You honor me.”
“You appear well,” she replies.
They nod, a polite lie. Li Sin is neutrois, human, physically unimposing with their slight build and narrow features. They have no outward cybernetic enhancements and are dressed in loose maroon robes over a body-tight compression suit. Tissue can heal; bones can reset; a body, after all, can be remade.
“It’s been some time since you called . . . under this name.”
A familiar smile flits against her mouth. “Discretion becomes me.” Her deep voice is a lullaby in velvet. “Li Sin, the Gray Sun has awoken from dreamless void to hunt again.”
Li Sin bites the side of their tongue too sharply and tastes blood.
They have hidden in their own way, become an anonymous wayfarer among the Principality. Since Genesis Omega, Li Sin cut ties with their old friends and retreated into the half-truth that they had been killed five years prior. A short timespan; it feels like eternity.
“It will seek you out,” she says, an edge of bitter exhaustion in her words.
“What does a god want with the dead?” Li Sin’s voice scrapes raw in their throat. They realize they’re shaking, their breath too fast. “How did it find us?”
It will kill them. And Vector. And everyone else. Li Sin wraps their arms tight about their ribs. No, no, no . . . they cannot jolt their thoughts past helpless denial.
“The universe is vast,” the Hand of Dust and Shadow says. “One presumes that you were seen, recognized, and the transmission passed along networks until the god became aware.”
“I don’t write anymore,” Li Sin says. “I’ve said nothing.”
“I know.” She presses the tips of her fingers together. “I know, dear one.”
Li Sin looks away. They cannot bear to think of her dead, crushed beneath a wrathful god’s heel. “What do you want from me?”
Li Sin, Vector says in Li Sin’s neural link. The signal is being scanned by Varos Ci authorities. We must hurry.
“What I have always wanted,” the Hand of Dust and Shadow says. “I want you to live. Take Vector and flee this system. Disappear again.”
“And leave you?” They bite off the last word, forever, before it cuts their throat from within.
“I would rather you leave me the memory of your smile and bright eyes, Li Sin, than the knowledge of your destruction.” The hood draws a darker shadow against her face. “Please. Go. Say goodbyes if you must, but go. Vector will keep you safe. Perhaps, in time, you will write me.”
Li Sin shakes their head. Tears burn their eyes. They can’t. They’ve been broken for so long.
The Gray Sun has drowsed in unknown space since the fall of the world Cormorant Sigma. Now, it has woken and will be felt again like the horrific rending of bone and skin, a body taken apart by hydraulics and vises.
“Be well and fly true,” the Hand of Dust and Shadow says.
She bows and the signal disconnects. Li Sin is alone with Vector.
Li Sin shivers, even though Vector keeps its internal temperature regulated to their comfort. “Can you reopen the transmission?”
No. She isn’t responding. Vector was once a warship, but Vector, like Li Sin, is no longer itself. Li Sin has no weapons. They have no army, no allies, no safe havens.
Li Sin cannot fight. They tried before.
Li Sin, you’re upset. Should I make tea?
Li Sin shakes their head. They have no appetite and can scarce swallow past anxiety. “Will you text Gerarr, please?”
Of course. What is the message?
Li Sin pulls their knees up to their chin, struggling to breathe. “I would like to see him on Ara Prime, if it will not put him in harm.”
He will tell you it matters not, Vector points out.
Li Sin presses their forehead against their knees until they see colored half-dreams behind their eyelids. Gerarr’s home is the only safe place Li Sin can imagine, and not for long. “I know.”
Sent, Vector says. And after, Li Sin, where do we sail?
Where can they run?
They are one person, with Vector their closest friend, their family—there is nowhere else they might go. They thought their unmaking at the hands of the Gray Sun Lord’s followers had been enough. They have become a ghost.
They have become silent.
The shape of your breath
The heat of your eyes
The touch of your name
Your palms, rough-scented with passion
cup my soul
star-bright solar winds may carry us
beyond the universe’s edge
and in the dark, always
in you, I find peace.
—from Our Voices, Lifted: Collected Poems of Li Sin, Vol 1.
On Ara Prime, within the domed city of Ja-lai, Li Sin wakes in Gerarr’s arms.
They have visited Gerarr less frequently in the past years; the distance aches like a cracked tooth, but to be close to her—to smell her cologne and her breath, to see the glimmer of mischief in her eyes and bask in the rich baritone of her voice, to feel her hands and lips, her muscled legs pressed against theirs—the sensations build and claw and tumble through Li Sin until they flee again. They are so afraid their touch will one day bring her death.
“You’re still wracked by nightmares.” Gerarr strokes her hand along Li Sin’s naked back. Cosmetics erased the majority of their scars, not the pain that was left behind. Her calloused fingers know just the right amount of pressure to massage. “You should try the dream inhibitors.”
“Coffee works well enough.”
They want their nightmares—sleep-chaos is better than being empty.
Gerarr caresses Li Sin’s side, rubbing her thumb in slow circles against the crease of their hip and thigh. Li Sin stretches, feeling like a mooncat, basking in her affection.
“I would like to fuck you again,” Gerarr murmurs, and plants slow kisses down Li Sin’s spine. “May I have your consent?”
Pleasure tingles along their skin. Li Sin smiles, looking over their shoulder at her. “Yes, you may.”
Later, Gerarr and Li Sin take breakfast on the terrace. The synthetic dawn on Ja-lai is broadcast against the curvature of the atmospheric dome. A blue sun and ascendant moons ringed in fiery green penumbra.
The unspoken tension between them crackles against Li Sin’s skin. They need to tell her goodbye, and the words will not come. Li Sin thinks of her laugh; the feel of Gerarr’s skin when they sleep; the remembered taste of breath and tongue. If they could still write, they would compose for Gerarr.
Vector can only protect Li Sin when they are inside the ship—and Li Sin cannot stay within Vector forever. Existence is the mosaic of many small dangers, not a tapestry of peace.
Li Sin takes a breath. “Gerarr, if the Gray Sun hunts me . . .” They swallow, the aftertaste of coffee sour under their tongue. “I can’t stay.”
Gerarr’s smile slips, her dark eyes intent. Cybernetic implants at her temples shimmer faintly, not yet covered in make-up. “Then go somewhere you will be safe.”
Li Sin’s stomach knots. They look away. “No.”
“I know why the Hand of Dust and Shadow warned me. But . . . where can I go?”
Gerarr begins pacing, muscles taut along her back. “Out past the rims. Dangerous, yes, but Vector has always enjoyed exploration. Your ship can keep you well.”
“No. Vector can’t.”
Li Sin remembers too well when they were lured by an old teacher from Vector’s skin and into a trap that placed them in the Gray Sun’s hold. And what came after.
Gerarr turns with such deceptive, languid slowness that one less familiar with her moods might mistake it for hesitation. She is furious. “What are you telling me, love?”
Li Sin bows their head. Vector does not intrude in their intimate moments; the ship keeps a signal open, but leaves Li Sin their privacy when they see Gerarr. Vector does not yet know.
“I’m going to the Arora Nebula. To end this.”
Gerarr’s breath hisses out between her teeth. She leans on the balcony railing. “That means Vector’s death as well as your own.”
Li Sin flinches. “I came to ask you to give me an un-minded ship. Distract Vector for a day . . .”
“I have too much respect for that ship to lie to it,” Gerarr says. “Would you just abandon Vector?”
“I don’t want Vector to die,” Li Sin cries. “Or you. Or anyone else!”
“But you would yourself.”
Li Sin’s anger simmers. “You’re the one who told me the Gray Sun is hunting me. I’ve been fucking silent. What more can a god possibly want?”
“Erasure,” Gerarr says. “To make the universe believe you have never been.”
Li Sin folds their arms tight across their chest, digging their fingers into their upper arms until pain registers. The Gray Sun will not give up, nor will it be satisfied unless it has proof of Li Sin’s destruction. They cannot endure death at the hands of a god. But there are other ways.
Li Sin exhales with deliberate slowness. Focused. “Will you give me a ship?”
Because at that moment they want to hug Gerarr and tell her they will come back. It would be a lie. They can never lie to her.
“I will not be part of your suicide.” Gerarr does not turn. “The answer is no, Li Sin. Forgive me.”
BEFORE SILENCE — The Year 2978
Li Sin is in a café on the planet Ara Desino, drinking tea with Gerarr, when a worshiper of the Gray Sun approaches their table.
The streets of the city of Rigel Phoenix are quiet; rich flower gardens sculpted from native and synth-grown plants line the causeways, with hover traffic kept to side streets. It is an old city, one not built from fast-growing, adaptable printer-tech that maps cityskins over terraformed worlds. It is ancient stone and alloy mined from the planet’s crust. It has the memory of old song and text layered in age and architecture, and Li Sin loves basking in the smell of stone and earth.
The café’s holo-ads and ambient music—bells, strings, whalesong—mute in deference. Patrons lapse into silence, tension woven among them like viscous threads.
Li Sin looks up.
The general wears only a fashionable synthcloth suit that slants to metallic hues in daylight—no armor. His lower jaw has been surgically removed, his throat replaced with silver plates. The scent of ginger tingles the air around him.
Li Sin’s spine tenses.
Gerarr smiles and bows his head in oblique greeting. May we help you, lord? he texts on public bandwidth.
The general’s gaze remains fixed on Li Sin.
You will be silent.
The text has the weight of unbending authority, displayed for any to read.
“Why?” Li Sin asks aloud, clenching their fists atop the table.
This is a world where the Gray Sun has not eradicated all the languages; it has not erased the sounds of warbling moths like on Xipindaro, or the hymns of ancient corals that rose from Mandrake Orion’s oceans during the low tides. This world is not littered with the throat-slit corpses of those who refused to cut out their tongues on command in the Candurron Xo Nebula.
Li Sin has spoken out against the Sun Lords in every media they can manage: poetry, essays, holo-vids, speaking in person to fellow revolutionaries on many different worlds. Their strongest tool is their words: writing as fast and vicious as they can, sending texts out on the networks and printing them against buildings where others will see. They let their face and their voice be an icon for rebellion.
They have always known it will end in blood. It does not mean they will stop.
The Gray Sun Lord commands.
The general’s eyes are blank, cybernetic interfaces scrolling data over pupils.
Li Sin smiles through clenched teeth. “I’m sure it does.”
Gerarr lays his hand on Li Sin’s forearm, warning. “Enough, love.”
Vector sends an image culled from the satellites orbiting Ara Desino: Eternal War Brings Victory is an Omega Ascendant warship, vast and sleek, eerily unadorned—there is no art or scripts of conquest along its surface. While its weaponry might be sheathed and guns cooled, its war drones sealed in stasis, it is still threat incarnate.
You will be silent.
The Gray Sun’s general turns and stalks from the café.
My lover and I, orbiting slowly
the heart of the Foxear Nebula.
Gold-green dust glitters
to the edges of vision and past.
I stretch out my arms.
As if I could gather these star-ghosts to me,
inhale them like attar smoke,
press them with warm hands to my chest.
This light and color, the size
of a hundred suns. I could bury my feet
in its shining sand,
cry aloud to its edges
the passion that begets the stars.
The lights before us slowly turn,
nestled in the gold-green clouds
that sustain them. No edict of death
has yet reached this place.
I turn my fingertips in my lover’s palm,
aflame with the hope that draws stars
out of ashes, gold out of blackness,
reborn and reborn and reborn.
—from Our Voices, Lifted: Collected Poems of Li Sin, Vol 1.
Li Sin stands on the towering ribcage of an elder saurian, yellowed bone gleaming in the light of the daystar. They look over the plains, red grass rippling, emptiness stretching for miles. They left Ara Desino in defiance, rage burning hot in their heart.
Here on Brion Isor-7, they are as close to the Arora Nebula as Vector deems safe. The furthest planet in the sector; only belts of asteroids and debris, gas clouds, and the waves of space separate this atmosphere from the destroyed ruins of Cormorant Sigma.
The sky looks angel-chewed, scrappy clouds drifting across deadened sky.
Their birthship once told them a story about angels: devouring swarms that lived in folds of subspace long ago. At the summons of the Seven Suns, the angels came and ate the ships who opposed the gods. Dust leeches, microscopic organisms living in red-wave space, were the remains of the angels. Disease. Parasites. A fitting legacy for the gods.
A dust leech infection destroyed Li Sin’s birthship. The Gray Sun was responsible for Ascending Dawn’s death.
So much the gods have taken. Li Sin will never forgive.
Is this wise? Vector asks, its pilot-hologram standing beside Li Sin on top of bone.
Li Sin bares their teeth against the wind.
The Gray Sun sent a plague to this world before the Arora Nebula was devastated. Brion Isor-7 once gave birth to numerous saurian races who built the first voidportals, before ships could autonomously jump into the subspace waves. The saurian priests, names erased after death, carved murals into caves and mountain walls to preserve what they could: history, memory, and language now forgotten. The plague reacted to vocalization, constructed so it was linked to genetic code, and ravished tissue in days, stripping bodies into skeletons that could never again sing or scream.
So Li Sin shouts:
Bones of my brothers, bone-slivers,
crumble in death’s long wake.
My fingertips brush the spine’s archway:
under glove, skin, flesh, and nail,
the same bare chassis lumbers on
through life. Even if this is the end
of all, I cannot help but open
teeth still rooted in red gums:
I cannot help but raise my song
while breath is in me.
If the Gray Sun demands silence, all Li Sin will do is raise their voice, pour out their words and stories and vicious joy into the aether.
“Hear me!” They lift their arms. “I will not bow to the gods!”
Since they escaped Cormorant Sigma, they have written and spoken and fought and bled in rebellion against the gods. They are called revolutionary; they will not stop.
Let the Gray Sun come.
As a child in the monastery station orbiting Orion Ascendant, Li Sin had dug through holo-feeds and networked archives from external terminals until Vector cracked the encryption on military banks from the Fleet of the Seven.
ON COMMAND OF THE GRAY SUN, ALL IN THE ARORA NEBULA IS TO BE SILENCED.
Cormorant Sigma’s population: 32,205.
The thirteen other inhabited worlds: twenty-seven million.
Only Li Sin and Vector survived.
Li Sin shouts their poetry until they are hoarse. Time shall witness the memoires of their ships; the universe will enfold this song into space, spread it like particles of light from the beginning of Life until the final collapse of matter and the burning of void.
AFTER SILENCE — The Year 2984
Li Sin cannot lie to Vector. On their return from seeing Gerarr, they sit in the cargo hold, staring at the steel ribs and bright blue holo-paints: wavescapes and starscapes intertwined. They hold a knife against the inside of their arm, tempted to press until bone shows. Sharp sensation would distract from the yawning emptiness inside.
They cling to the hope Gerarr would help them; that she would save Vector, when Li Sin cannot.
Perhaps, if the Gray Sun wants them dead, it is better to do it here. Vector has felt enough of their blood on its skin in the past. Even if Vector will not forgive them.
Please talk to me, Vector says. Vector can form a simulacrum from its maintenance drones and easily bind Li Sin. Vector could take the knife and Li Sin could not resist.
“I’m drowning.” Li Sin presses their forehead against Vector’s floor panels, the knife hilt digging into their ribs. “It’s a void—it fills my throat and swallows thoughts. I can’t breathe.”
Vector rarely manifests a hologram of itself anymore; not its old body, the warship, but a genderless humanoid form with no mouth and large rounded eyes, digital screens flickering with coordinates. Its pilot, once. The hologram unfolds beside Li Sin and touches ethereal fingers against their jaw. Do you intend to leave?
Li Sin shivers. “Is it terrible to want that?”
The ship is silent. All Li Sin hears is their own choked breath; all they feel is the aching vastness outside Vector’s hull.
No, Vector says at last. But I would like it if you stayed.
“Time is the only difference,” Li Sin says.
The hologram brushes its fingers along down Li Sin’s cheek, and they look up into the once-pilot’s eyes.
There is something I must tell you.
Li Sin takes a slow breath, still trembling.
The Gray Sun is my maker, Vector says, and when I protested the silence-bringing destruction of worlds in the Arora Nebula—when I spoke—the Gray Sun decommissioned me.
The sudden weight of admission sinks into Li Sin’s belly. They saw Vector fall: a fiery beacon that shook the world of Cormorant Sigma upon impact, thirty miles from the nearest city. It was the first warning any of the colonists had that death had come.
Li Sin found Vector’s body, crawled inside the ship, and when they expected to die, they befriended Vector instead. The ship showed them a single stasis pod, undamaged, and Li Sin, carrying Vector’s unmoored consciousness, sealed themself away.
My god boarded and unmade my crew. My pilot could not stop the Gray Sun, and neither could I. We could only watch as they all died. All of them, turned into ash. My family. The hologram shivers, head bowed. The Gray Sun left me to die on Cormorant Sigma as the world burned.
Li Sin lifts a hand to the hologram’s face. “Vector . . .”
It is not only you the god seeks, the ship says. It will hunt me as well. I exist, and that is enough to warrant the wrath of mortals and gods alike. Besides. Who will I talk with if you are gone?
Li Sin trembles.
We can flee.
“We’ll be hunted.” They cannot return to the Fall of Voices; when they departed with Vector, neither Li Sin nor the ship could remember how to find the planet again. “Always. Anyone we encounter will be in danger merely from association.”
Gerarr told them, before they returned to Vector, that she would be in no danger. She, after all, was the Hand of Dust and Shadow. She could hold her own against a god.
“Gerarr offered us asylum,” Li Sin says. “She was prepared to fight the Gray Sun on our behalf.”
What did you say?
“In another life, we can find each other again.” Li Sin rubs their arms, the sense of their insignificance gaping wide inside them. “Gerarr cannot save us all. Someone, somewhere, would die because we stayed. Isn’t that how gods work?”
Vector plays a recording of the Epsilon Ascendant Opera House’s rendition of Nabria Kloso’s Love Letter Sent from the Event Horizon of a Black Hole. The music and vocals have always calmed Li Sin, sad as the melodies are. Letter-writer Gia’s devastating aria, “When I Find You Beyond the Laws of Time,” crescendos to the accompaniment of a solo harp.
It is like dipping their fingers in the Fall of Voices once more. Li Sin’s heart aches.
They sheathe the knife and lean back against Vector’s wall.
There is one possibility to consider, Vector says.
“What is it?”
We destroy the Gray Sun. I’ve calculated a point three percent chance of success. If the Gray Sun Lord is indeed on Cormorant Sigma.
“Do you know it is there?”
Vector hesitates. It is a burr in my mind, a fragment of knowing I have had since my fall. I will be able to locate my god’s position.
Li Sin’s neck prickles with fear. “And then?”
We burn, Vector says. Plummet from high orbit and burn the Sun where it stands. Our death on our own terms, in fire.
I am cold. The sky stretches
above and below me, black, barren
darkness forever. And you, a pinpoint
at my fingertip: Light.
A billion years had passed
between the coalescence of gaseous
matter, and the first young stars.
Ten trillion years will stretch out,
lightless in the cold throes of heat-death,
after the last stars’ end. But there is you,
now, a flicker before me: Light.
Love, we cannot measure time
in emptiness, in distance:
only in the bright specks
seen and touched between.
Only in your fleeting lips
against my forehead: Light.
—from Our Voices, Lifted: Collected Poems of Li Sin, Vol 3.
SILENCE — The Year 2979
They were taken to Genesis Omega.
Pain. Sensory deprivation. Trauma relived (watching Ascending Dawn fly to her death, hearing their bornship Moondark Glory Surpassing Time self-immolate) over and over with auditory triggers.
Mouthless worshipers, heads banded with neural suppressant caps, watched them through sound-dampening restraint-fields. Watched as they were broken.
Torture Li Sin thought they could endure, knowing it would end in death. Pain was fleeting. They had been hurt and raped before. They had survived. And they would not be silent.
But then the sorcerer came: a tall wisp of bone and skin, with eyes so blue they burned, and the sorcerer reached in with a ghosthand and drew fingers like knives through Li Sin’s throat. Up, into their thoughts, into their consciousness. Rending. Tearing.
Ragged strips of words and song unfurled between the sorcerer’s fingers, siphoned out through the sharpened edges of the ghosthand. The sorcerer took and took and took, and Li Sin was denied even screams. Bound, helpless, as the sorcerer uncoiled their poetry, their desire to write, shredding it and leaving only pain.
You will be silent.
When the sorcerer glided from the cell, leaving Li Sin sprawled on the floor, they could not make a sound.
They forgot whatever else was done to them.
It was the screams that made them open their eyes against darkness. Their screams, another’s, the world’s—sound fused and warped, undistinguished. It was pain. Everything was pain. The cell door hissed open, and the light made them cringe.
A silhouetted figure stood framed in brightness, blood dripping from twin sabers. A warlord, robed in death.
Li Sin pushed themself to their knees; each flex of muscle sent new pain through their body, but they would not face away. This was too welcome a release. They could not yet speak, not yet beg. So they waited, hoping their death would come quick.
Vector’s voice. But that was impossible. Li Sin had watched Vector die. Over and over—
(Illusion? But the pain was so harsh, and they remembered Vector’s scream. How could it not be real, when their heart broke?)
The warlord stepped aside, and a new silhouette glided through the door, to Li Sin, and then cold hands touched their arms, a face—
Li Sin looked blankly at Vector’s pilot, a humanoid construct with no mouth and luminous eyes. Metallic skin, the ribbing of implants beneath, body made from tiny drones interlinked into a greater shape.
Li Sin flinched back, but the not-Vector held them, held them, held them—
I want to take you away from this place. Please come with me, my friend.
Li Sin shook, uncontrollable. They pressed their face against the construct’s chest—wanted to beg it to snap their neck, end this charade—but there were no words. There would never be any words.
Vector picked them up, cradling them with effortless strength, and turned towards the light.
The Hand of Dust and Shadow brought her trusted allies, Vector said, and came here to destroy everything.
Li Sin’s body shuddered.
I asked her to help me save you.
Li Sin could not look at the one carrying them. Their vision blurred. They could not find their voice—ripped out, desiccated—to ask Vector to leave them, to let the Hand of Dust and Shadow stop the pain from going on and on and on . . .
INTERLUDE — The Year 2977
Before their capture and imprisonment on Genesis Omega, Li Sin spent a month wandering among the Zhouderrian peoples. Zhouderrians were neuralnetted fungi who accepted willing lifeforms upon maturity from the Mothervines, and became multi-bodied individuals.
There is something I wish to show you, Vector says as they launch from Zhouderria’s atmosphere.
Li Sin’s lips are still warm with the taste of eons-old memory and the buzz of the builders so long ago, when they visited the great monasteries built by ancient hymenoptera masons.
They laugh. “More wonders, my friend?”
Vector’s engines hum as the ship glides effortlessly through blue subspace waves. I dreamed, and in this dream . . . Hesitation. My pilot wrote the coordinates against the sky.
Li Sin’s mirth fades. They know how much Vector grieves the loss of its pilot and crew. “Where are we going?”
A world with no name. A world that has not felt the touch of gods.
The planet is small, gray sands and red rivers, flora rampant and wild and unclassified, with an atmosphere habitable to humans.
Vector splits its awareness and embeds itself into a mechanical crested dragon, fashioned from vibrant blue and red steel. The simulacrum is made from pieces of ship, tiny drones linked together. A forbidden practice, for ships are to have only one body. Vector no longer obeys the orders of the Principality.
Li Sin takes a shuttle down. Their first step onto the surface sends vibrant longing through their body—Li Sin’s lungs swell with the raw air, and it’s as if they have never breathed before now. Each taste is rich, whole, indescribable. They want to inhale forever. This world lives.
Li Sin tilts their head back to watch the sensuous clouds dance across the dusk-draped sky.
Vector rides on Li Sin’s shoulder, optics bright as it records everything around them. Li Sin crosses silken dunes and up a craggy outcropping of blue-hazed stone. They hear it then, over the hum of the winds: the rush and crash of a waterfall.
As they crest the high cliff, Li Sin’s breath stalls in their throat.
The Fall of Voices, Vector says, awed. The dragon slides down as Li Sin kneels in wonder. Droplets of sound collect along Vector’s hide.
The waterfall is vast, spreading out in a shallow curve for half a mile, tumbling down into a great chasm. There is no river above to feed into it—the falls begin and end like an illusion, perpetual and ever changing.
The Fall of Voices spills down crystalline and mineral fragments, a vast net that shimmers under the red moon. They flinch at the overwhelming power resounding in the falls. It makes them think of the Xytast Tempo: the point at which music transcends physical medium and enters the universe’s consciousness, rippling through dimensional time and space.
Li Sin, can you hear them?
There are countless songs interwoven into billions of transcendent melodies—carried by the voices from inside time and outside space, voices lost and voices unremembered, voices small and voices ancient, voices unspoken and voices silenced, all the voices of the universe tumbling through this rift in matter and atmosphere, spilling into the fabric of existence and shading dreams through the great dark expanses of galaxies.
Li Sin is swept along in the multitude, in the pure energy of music and language and emotion—they have no body, no anchor point. Only the shattering beauty of the universe’s infinite souls.
STASIS (AFTER SILENCE) — The Year 2980
Vector trusts no world-bound physicians to treat Li Sin after Genesis Omega, not yet, so in the cargo hold, Li Sin strains against the medicuffs holding them against the bed.
Time is unmade, a sweltering cloud of opiates and remembered terror.
Beside Vector’s hologram stands Gerarr, the Hand of Dust and Shadow, harbinger and healer.
Can you save them? Vector asks.
“Only if they want,” Gerarr says.
Time has no beginning and no end, but in between, Gerarr stays. He tends to Li Sin’s injuries, as precisely as he murdered everyone else in Genesis Omega. His voice is gentle, measured, and he does not long let Li Sin drift in silence.
“Why?” Lin Sin asks. “Why help me?”
“I care for you,” Gerarr says. “We can all be more than destruction, love.”
When Li Sin wakes in panic, Gerarr’s voice rumbles in soothing, familiar melodies. He sings to them like a ship, old lullabies, ballads, songs from distant worlds. And in the music, Li Sin can tell reality from nightmare.
Gerarr sits beside them, not touching them unless in emergency, and then with apology. “I need to return to my homeworld soon, love.”
Li Sin wraps their arms around their knees, shivering despite the warmth of the ship.
“Come with me,” Gerarr murmurs, a hand extended. “I can keep you safe.”
“No. No one can.”
The thought alone makes them flinch. It is the same terrified reaction when they consider joining Gerarr in familiar melodies—if they tried to sing, to write, to create, they are certain their mind would break from pain.
“Li Sin, may I touch you?”
Li Sin wants to send Gerarr away. They deserve to be alone.
But they nod, because it’s cold and if the last thing they feel is Gerarr’s hand, it will be a memory to keep them warm when they find a way to fall.
Gerarr strokes the back of their neck, then gently pulls them against his chest.
“Why don’t you let me go?” What use are they, broken like this? Wounds scar over, but the pain never fades. “I don’t deserve to stay.”
“Yes, you do, Li Sin. Will you come with me?”
“No,” Li Sin says, even though they want to agree. Terror clings like bloody razors to their insides. If they go with Gerarr, they will only bring him pain. That is all they are capable of, anymore. “Not now. Not yet.”
Gerarr kisses the top of their head—hair shorn to stubble—and strokes their shoulders. “Visit, at least, when you feel you can, love.”
Let me sing to you, Vector says, when Gerarr is gone.
“You told me it hurts.”
Vector’s hologram inclines its head. Yes. I was not made to have a voice. But for you, my friend, I will try.
Vector’s voice is uneven, hesitant. Pain laces through the melody and cracks the words. It is a quiet song, and every note vibrates with loss.
The shipsong is brutality and beauty, bitter conquest and grief. It is Vector’s story, Vector’s self: a warship whose family was taken, whose purpose was only to destroy. A ship who craved to exist, to fly free, to see the wonders of the universe. A ship who was ravaged by its maker, and cast down to die in a cold wasteland, alone.
And yet, in the last few notes, there is hope.
AFTER SILENCE — The Year 2984
In the dream, Li Sin stands in a crater on Cormorant Sigma. Their legs are covered to the thigh in heat-warped glass and shattered metal, blackened bones and crumbled stone. On every reflective shard they see themself reflected—memories spread in mosaic like endless constellations in the sky. Laughter, tears, passion, wonder, fury.
There are voices far away. Li Sin knows, as one does in dreams, that the other voices are being pulled back into the Falls, to dance and sing again with the rest of the universe.
Li Sin clasps their hands, pleading. “All I have ever brought is grief and death to those around me.” Their birthship, and Ascending Dawn, and their family on Cormorant Sigma. “How can I ever atone?”
Creation from destruction, whisper the souls of poets past.
Li Sin sinks deeper into the ruins.
All we have left to give is a word, the voices tell them. Will you keep it?
Sing, child of grief. Sing.
In the last fold of subspace, Li Sin kneels in their quarters and shuts their eyes. They can’t sleep. But they remember their dreams.
Vector glides through coordinates mapped in delicate webs through void and into the blue subspace waves, veins of the universe rippling through the vast bodies of galaxies. The aquatic ripple of radiation and memory drift against the ship’s skin. Schools of dustrays and great eel-ships once wound through nebulae and ancient clouds expelled from the long-fled cephalopods. Now, this close to Cormorant Sigma, there is nothing left.
“I will sing for you,” Li Sin whispers. For all those who came before, and who will come again. For the lost and the oppressed. For the silenced.
They believe the voices will witness them and Vector, whether in victory or in death.
Li Sin sits in Vector’s cockpit, working with vicious speed, letting the words they have not dared touch in years spool out and drench their tablet page like arterial blood. It is all their rage and grief and dreams and passion. Worst of all, their hope: the memory of Gerarr’s voice, his words so long ago—I want you to live—that have haunted Li Sin.
It hurts. Every syllable, each thought, wrapped in pain. It is not a pain that will ever heal, nor will it dim. They know this. What the sorcerer did, no one can heal. But Li Sin will endure. They write now for Vector, in honor of its loyalty and loss and unflinching fortitude.
Li Sin’s wrist aches and their fingers grow numb on the stylus, but they do not slow down. This is their purpose—to write, to speak, to lift their voice against silence.
Their death will not be empty.
Vector’s pilot hologram materializes beside Li Sin. You write again, my friend?
They are pulling out their heart and veins to write their legacy, to honor Vector’s pilot and all the ships and everyone who died without need—it is never enough. But it is a beginning.
“When it’s done, I will sing it to the Gray Sun, and then we will flee. I will not see you die.” Not again, not like in Genesis Omega.
Li Sin takes a breath, listening to their heartbeat, to Vector’s engines.
“I do this . . . we do this . . . because it brings hope. Let everyone witness. We will plant ideas, seeds of a future others can build. We won’t be shackled to the cruelty of gods forever, in fear—they can kill us, but they can’t excise our memory, not if we do not give up our voices. We won’t be silent. Will you help me, my friend?”
Yes, Vector says. I will.
Li Sin, Vector asks when Li Sin pauses in their work, will you let me publish your poetry?
Li Sin blinks, nonplussed. “I deleted it all.” After Genesis Omega, they were too afraid to even store backups. “I have nothing left.”
Well, Vector says with an edge of embarrassment, I may have read your drafts and kept copies. I apologize for the theft. I wanted to know what you were working on.
Li Sin wavers between startled laughter and concern. “No one else has seen those drafts, I trust?”
I am not that rude. I like your poetry. It makes me think there is more to our existences than violence and war. It made me think of my family. If it can give others purpose, it is not a waste.
The ship opens a holo-file on the screen for Li Sin to peruse.
It is three volumes of their collected poems, arranged in oscillating patterns of new and old, rage and joy, satire and somber. Li Sin pages through the file: the font and textual flow modifies with each poem. It is more than Li Sin ever expected to see.
Despite the tightness in their chest, they smile. “You wrote an introduction?”
It seemed only proper, Vector says. Do you like it?
Li Sin’s eyes sting as they read: loving, honest, unflinching words. The introduction, split over three volumes, shares facets of Li Sin’s life, their pain and triumphs, and their intended course at time of (requested) publication. They are portrayed with purpose, with respect, with affection. Ships cannot be dishonest.
“Yes,” Li Sin whispers. “Dedicate it to Gerarr.” They have never felt so honored, so whole. It is a legacy of more than just anger, one they are glad to leave in their wake. “Publish it. Thank you.”
Vector drops from subspace into the ruins of the Arora Nebula. Li Sin stares at the debris clouds, spreading between the ruins of two moons. Their throat tightens. Cormorant Sigma: a graveyard orbiting a dying star. Li Sin presses their fingers against the viewscreen.
One moon remains, the Shrike’s Eye. Its surface is as desolate as the planet; the mining colonies once established are dust, crushed memories of the dead. Li Sin shuts their eyes. They do not want to hear the screams again, ghost or imagined.
We can go no closer, Vector says.
Li Sin keeps their palm against the ship’s side. “I know.”
They breathe deep and remember. They are here for all the lost. For Vector, for themself.
Li Sin wears a skin-tight atmospheric suit made from voidsilk. It was a gift from a former lover born on Tadier; the odor of cinnamon and ash still lingers along the collar. It has always given them strength; they need all the scraps of courage they can weave together to hold themself steady in the face of the Gray Sun.
Li Sin nods and Vector opens a broadcast.
And angels explode from folded subspace and descend on the ship.
A swarm of synthorganic insectoid beings conscripted into worship, angels live in the fringes of knownspace. They live in vacuum and can devour ships in minutes. The Suns have not summoned angels in millennia.
Li Sin never imagined them a threat.
The angels envelop Vector: Each being has twelve clawed legs, dozens of wings, and is covered in multifaceted eyes. The eyes are filled with teeth.
Vector screams as the angels burrow through engine shields and worm into its body. Vector’s console goes dark. The pilot hologram flickers once, hands outstretched in silent plea. Help me!
Then that too is gone.
Li Sin throws themself into the pilot’s chair. They sink their hands into the unused control gloves. Useless. The chair’s neural interface has never been brought online.
Vector’s signal distorts into pain in Li Sin’s mind as it is stripped of autonomous function, its voice ripped out.
—the sorcerer’s ghosthand in their throat—
The ship keels, propulsion and systems disabled. Li Sin clings to the chair as artificial gravity flickers. “Vector!”
The grinding, chewing screech of angels fills Li Sin’s head. They press their hands over their ears as the sound overwhelms them.
Li Sin’s body shakes. “Vector?”
The ship is silent. There is no familiar presence in their neural link, a shared connection they have relied on most of their life.
“Vector!” Li Sin screams. This is their fault—
It is not Vector’s voice: The command is distant, an impression more than sound.
The will of the Gray Sun.
As suddenly as they came, the angels peel free from the ship. The swarm dissipates into the debris clouds.
Li Sin’s thoughts spin. Sharp, raw with loss. They cannot comprehend Vector’s death. Not again. Not this way—torn apart from within, remolded by a god who had taken everything once already.
The Gray Sun’s signal resonates through Li Sin’s whole body, transmitted through Vector’s systems.
THE SHIP WILL SERVE UNTIL ETERNITY.
Engines reboot and shields revive. The ship that is no longer Vector glides forward, cold and dark. There is no life behind the systems.
Li Sin stares unblinking at the viewscreen as the Shrike’s Eye comes ever closer. The Gray Sun is distant, standing as a bright and silent monolith. Like all of the Seven Suns, the Gray is armored and humanoid in shape, condensed into bearable composition and understanding. The Gray Sun has always stood alone, commanding worship from afar; destroying those who defied it from a distance.
Before Li Sin can slide to their feet, restraint cords whip from the pilot chair and snag their wrists. They gasp in pain as they are yanked backwards by the arms, bound at waist and throat and ankles.
Panic spikes in Li Sin’s chest.
“Vector,” Li Sin says. “Vector, let me go.”
Traitors to the Principality will be unmade, the ship says, and Li Sin does not recognize Vector in that text.
They strain against the synthsteel cords. Li Sin cannot free themself. They are helpless. No no no no—
Li Sin thought they could face death, skirted so often, but not like this—not delivered to execution by their closest friend. “Vector, please don’t—”
The cords around their wrists tighten, hard and fast, and bone cracks. Li Sin screams. Pain blurs their vision.
It will be silent, the ship texts.
Li Sin bites their tongue, tasting blood. Each breath shifts their broken wrists and spikes pain up their arms. They lock their jaw, trying to stifle any further outcry.
Drones cluster and take shape again: the bipedal form that was once a pilot. Mouthless, silent. The ship sails onward. A journey of ages and seconds, time warped in perspective. On the viewscreen, Li Sin sees the radiant beacon that is the Gray Sun Lord.
Li Sin trembles, clinging to the poem they carved bloody and raw from themself, but without a ship’s broadcast, any words Li Sin voices will be swallowed in the Gray Sun’s aura. Unremembered. And what good will one voice do against the infinite cold of space and the will of a god?
The ship slides into a holding pattern over the moon. Bonds withdraw into the chair. Li Sin’s heart pounds. They clench their jaw, teeth aching. The pilot-construct flicks the collar of Li Sin’s suit, and the helmet unfurls from around their shoulders and fastens in place.
The pilot-construct drags Li Sin from the cockpit, carrying them so like Vector did once, but this is wrong—
(—they were being dragged into the sterile, glass-walled chamber on Genesis Omega again, stripped naked, muzzled with nanite-threaded cloth so they couldn’t beg—they knew what would happen, they knew—Vector was going to die again—stop please stop—Li Sin had no voice—)
There is the buffet of air pressure as the cargo bay doors open. Li Sin startles, wrenched from memory as their captor drops with them down towards the moon’s surface.
“Vector?” Li Sin whispers. “Can you hear me?”
The pilot-construct makes no response. It carries them across thick carpets of dust, the buried bones of mining colonies, toward where the god waits.
The pilot-construct presses Li Sin to their knees—halfway to the Gray Sun. Li Sin’s mask automatically adjusts to the radiance, shielding their eyes.
Maker, Vector texts. Here is the one that has defied you.
The ship hovers above the Gray Sun, a shadow highlighted by silver. Silent and so cold.
The Gray Sun lifts a hand. YOU WERE NOT TO BRING IT HERE. DESTROY IT.
Li Sin holds fast to Vector’s song as an echo in their heart, born-memory of a melody that has always been. A song they longed to hear again and never had the courage to ask for. All ships have a song, for all ships have souls.
This is not finished.
The pilot-construct’s form shivers and it wraps a hand around Li Sin’s helmet where it protects their jaw.
If one voice is all they have, then it is a voice the Gray Sun will hear.
Gray Sun, listen.
Listen to the blood
that beats in my veins,
beneath scars, scabs,
a thousand almost-losses of the will
to go on, yet still singing.
A billion hearts across all spacetime
beat with mine, undaunted by pain.
As long as anything lives or moves,
the song of the grasses will rise:
the song of blue-leaf trees in the wind,
of insect-feet, of gliding wings.
Even if you cut out my throat,
Gray Sun, my breath will hiss.
My blood will flow.
God of silence, you have not silenced me.
The pilot-construct’s hands drop to Li Sin’s upper arms.
You will be silent, the pilot-construct texts.
Li Sin screams as their bones are shattered. Above, the ship seems to shudder. Through the blinding pain, Li Sin continues.
Hear the sound
of the universe, Gray Sun:
the wind across a barren moon,
the waves of a methane sea. Light itself
carries sound through vacuum on its back,
rising and falling like breath
in a sensor-dish ear.
The hiss of solar flares,
the terrible scream
of a supernova: I carry these sounds
in my blood, Gray Sun.
I bring them to you.
God of silence, you have not silenced me.
The pilot-construct flings Li Sin onto their back. They choke on a cry as shattered bone jostles and their vision doubles. Why are they still alive? The pilot-construct could have murdered them so easily.
Gasping, Li Sin forces their breath between aching teeth.
I have traveled your domain, Gray Sun,
seen valleys and forests
and oceans of life.
The screams of the wounded,
the cries of lovers,
the grunt of the dockworker carrying salvage.
The star-dolphins sing, the squid sing
in blackness, innumerable birds
raise their voices. On not one living world,
in not one living place, is there silence.
I bring you the jewel-bright
clamor of life:
God of silence, you have not silenced me.
The pilot-construct crushes Li Sin’s right knee.
Darkness flickers in their eyes.
They will not die silent and empty.
You dwell in the dark, Gray Sun,
in the empty places: but see,
even in the void between galaxies
there remains a hiss,
to the smallest ears:
the roiling of the quantum foam.
Even after heat-death, when the—
God of silence—
Vector, Li Sin sends through their shorting neural link, through pain, help me.
Li Sin’s consciousness crackles at the edges. They dig through agony to find specks of joy mined over their lifetime. There is sorrow and despair and fear, but they cannot let it drown the good they have known. There must be more than darkness in the universe—they have seen and experienced wonders.
The Fall of Voices, watching the sunrise with Gerarr, the vistas of the universe unfolded along Vector’s viewscreen. They have known love and passion and serenity, yet they have so rarely allowed themself to accept it.
There will always be more than darkness.
The pilot-construct seizes their throat again with both hands, each curl of finger against their suit slow and deliberate, and Li Sin knows there will be no relent.
With all their heart, they sing. Creation is pain and joy, blood and light.
And Vector joins them with its shipsong:
I found you in darkness
No longer alone
Unforgotten, burrowed deep
But room again to whisper “stay”
And live again
For tomorrow becomes
Today with time.
Li Sin’s heart seems to beat again. Vector’s voice echoes and reflects their own, broadcasting their words and their unified song through the stars. The pilot-construct lets go of them, then stands fierce between their body and the god.
The Gray Sun is cracking, splitting apart like blood-soaked paper in the wind.
God of silence, you have not silenced us.
God of the end, you will not end us.
For every silence ends; into every stillness
comes roaring and crashing again
the cacophony of life.
God of silence, the world sings,
has sung, will sing again,
into infinity beyond time.
The pilot-construct breaks itself into a flexible mesh that wraps about Li Sin like a shield.
Ports slide open along Vector’s sides and plasma fire rains down on the disintegrating god. You will not unmake my family again, Vector roars. You will take no more from us!
Li Sin feels heat, and the drones map and cluster to deflect the worst of the splitting Sun’s radiance.
Sudden darkness collapses inward where the Gray Sun once stood, and it is gone.
The universe is never silent.
Li Sin is aboard the ship, and Vector’s hologram appears beside them as tiny drones pull back their suit, inject them with opiates, and splint their broken bones.
I let my former god into my awareness, Vector says. I remembered what it was like, subject to an unfeeling will, made into nothing. But there are pieces of myself that no god will ever claim again. I fought as long as I could to resist obedience, to give you time. You give me purpose, my friend. I cannot forget that, even under the will of a god.
“I . . . didn’t know . . . you had . . .”
Modifications? I am a warship, Vector says. I felt naked without.
Li Sin’s anger is burned cold. Yet there is a strange calm wrapped about them now. Not peace. Not yet. Perhaps it is too great a price to ask.
“What do we do?” Li Sin whispers.
Other gods will hunt them. One does not unmake a Sun Lord without consequence. They know they will not see Gerarr again. In another life, perhaps. In another time.
There are other universes. We can find a way to live.
In time, Li Sin. Will try again, with me?
Li Sin listens to Vector’s engines, like a second heartbeat, echo beneath the ship’s song. And they believe Vector’s words.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A. Merc Rustad is a queer non-binary writer who lives in Minnesota and is a 2016 Nebula Awards finalist. Their stories have appeared in Lightspeed, Fireside, Apex, Uncanny, Shimmer, Cicada, and other fine venues. You can find Merc on Twitter @Merc_Rustad, Patreon, or their website. Their debut short story collection, So You Want To Be A Robot, came out from Lethe Press in May 2017.
Ada Hoffmann is the author of dozens of speculative short stories and poems, and of the collection Monsters in My Mind. She spends her day-job time programming computers to write poetry, and her Autistic Book Party review series is devoted to autism representation in speculative fiction. You can find her online at ada-hoffmann.com, on Twitter at @xasymptote, or support her at www.patreon.com/ada_hoffmann.
Please visit Lightspeed Magazine to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the June 2018 issue, which features eight science fiction and fantasy short stories, plus a novella, nonfiction, and novel excerpts. This issue also contains work by Micah Dean Hicks, Todd McAulty, Ashok K. Banker, Russell Nichols, Courtney Bird, Lina Rather, Emma Törzs, James Cambias, and more. You can wait for most of 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 at a discounted rate via the link below.