Cam finds Pham Thi Thanh Ha in her house, as she expected. By now, she doesn’t question the aunts’ knowledge or how they came by it. She does what she’s told to, an obedient daughter beholden to her elders, never raising a fuss or complaining — the shining example of filial piety extolled in the tales her girlfriend Thuy so painstakingly reconstitutes in her spare hours.
Thanh Ha is a big woman, who must tower over her extended family — though right now, her cheeks are hollowed with grief, and the black band of mourning on her sleeve seems to have sucked all joy from her. “Younger niece … Cam.” She hesitates over the name, a subtle way to make it clear that Cam had better get to the purpose of her visit quickly. “Be welcome here.”
They sit in Thanh Ha’s private rooms, away from the rest of the family — Cam has been doing this long enough to know what to pay attention to, and she’s made sure to mention private business, delicately enough that Thanh Ha has sent away inquisitive aunts and cousins, and that even the wall-screens and the implants have been turned off, all the network connections quiescent, with no spike of activity that could relate to a recording or the transmission of one.
Thanh Ha pours tea in a practised gesture, and the delicate smell of lotus flowers fills the room; Cam bows her head, acknowledging the hospitality. “My condolences on your loss, younger aunt.”
Thanh Ha bows her head, and says nothing.
Well, there’s nothing for it. Cam takes a deep breath, and says, “Heaven sends us wind and rain as it will, and we weather the storm as a family. Sometimes, however…” She pauses, then, as if questing for words. “Sometimes … the wind becomes trapped under our roof, and we must acknowledge the help of strangers to bear it away.”
Thanh Ha’s hand has stopped halfway to the cup; she raises her gaze, no doubt looking straight at Cam (Cam herself, of course, has remained properly respectful with her gaze cast down towards the table). “Your meaning,” she says, as harshly, as impolitely as a Galactic—using the familiar pronouns reserved for inferiors or servants. “In plain words.”
Not so traditional then—contaminated, as all of them, by the society they have found refuge in. Cam files the thought away for later, and says, simply, with the same brash impoliteness, “When your revered grandmother died, one of the doctors came to you — a Galactic one, with a face young enough to be one of your sons. He waited until you were alone, out of the presence of your elders. He said he was sorry, that perhaps it was inappropriate —”
She hears more than sees Thanh Ha’s sharp indrawn breath, and knows that she has her.
“— that he knew she’d refused perpetuation, but surely she’d made a mistake, that everyone wanted to live forever, and that she hadn’t been all right in the end, not in full possession of her mind …”
The noise Thanh Ha makes as she puts her cup back on its saucer is like a gunshot in the room. “I told him he was a fool. That my grandmother’s soul was in the Hell of the underworld, wending its way towards reincarnation, and that perpetuation was nothing but a record, a broken image of who she’d been, no better than a vid or a still.”
Cam puts her own cup back on the table, and leans with both elbows on the rough metal surface. “But still, you took the chip. You kept it, and breathed not a word to your elders. Not during the preparations, not during the procession or the burial, or the hundred days of burning incense for her soul.”
Thanh Ha’s hands shake, for a bare moment before she stills them. “Assuming this is true …”
Cam smiles. “Be assured that it is. I can produce the testimony of Doctor Elliott at the Marion Sims hospital, if this becomes necessary.”
Doctor Elliott meant well, Cam knows — they always do. He thought Thanh Ha would find a suitable virtual universe for her grandmother — give her a second life in which her grandsons and granddaughters could visit her, in a place where the rules are more elastic than in the physical world. For most Galactics, there is no shame in being a Perpetuate; or, indeed, much difference between Perpetuates and the living. Perpetuates hold bank accounts and run businesses; and even gather into families of their own. They can’t reproduce, or leave their host universes, but surely that’s such a small price to pay for life after death?
The problem is that Doctor Elliott isn’t a Rong — and didn’t see what someone like Cam or Thanh Ha would think.
“Fine. What is it that you want?” Than Ha asks.
She’s afraid — believing that Cam will give her away, denounce her to her elders, or hold this knowledge against her as blackmail. Cam breathes out, presents her blandest face to Thanh Ha. “You have no use for the chip.”
“You want it?” Thanh Ha’s laughter is as biting as lime juice on open wounds. “You think I’d give it up?”
“It’s a bother, isn’t it?” Cam keeps her voice pleasant, as if they were discussing the weather or their children. “You could snap it in two with a mere gesture, but that would be like tearing apart a picture of a revered ancestor — a sin that wouldn’t be forgiven. You could look for a virtual universe open to Perpetuates, and give her a new life, but you would have to admit to your elders what you have done …” And they both know, here in the sanctuary of this room, that Thanh Ha won’t do that. “Or you could give it to me.”
Thanh Ha cocks her head, watching Cam like a cock ascertaining a rival’s intentions. “I could. But I don’t know you, do I? You could take it apart as surely as I would snap it — selling memories and feelings piece by piece to eager Galactics, like bits of code or war stories.”
She doesn’t say it, but the name of Steven Carey hovers in the room like a white-garbed, unpropitiated ghost — all the interviews with Rong refugees Carey did, all the war memories he got out from elderly Rong, promising them something grand, something that would capture the experience of their loss—all that, culminating in the bitterness that is the Memorial. “I’m not like that,” Cam says, simply.
“And I’m supposed to trust you?”
She could say the truth, then; could say she doesn’t know who the aunts are, or why they direct her here and there; that she’s as beholden to them as Thanh Ha is to her deceased grandmother, except that the bonds are not of love or of filial piety, but something far coarser — greed and threats and the fear of losing everything. But the aunts pay her to lie, and so she does. “No,” Cam says. “You’re right that you can’t. But I’ll give you my word that I’m not after the chip to take it apart.”
Words mean something; they weigh, like contracts between families in the olden times. Cam uses them cheaply, for they’re the weapon by which she makes her way in life.
Thanh Ha’s hands twitch; her face contracts — but Cam is used to reading the myriad ways of the human heart, and she knows how this will go, as inevitable as a flood — that Thanh Ha will argue and make excuses, and protest about being a filial granddaughter; but that, in the end, she’ll yield to temptation, and give Cam the chip with her grandmother’s simulacrum rather than be left with her silent, unshareable guilt. That’s how it goes; how it always ends.
This is all why she hates herself.
Cam comes home late, with the chip wrapped up in her handbag: an unwelcome reminder of what she’s doing — of everything she’s embroiled into, the lies she keeps telling, day after day; the fear of what the aunts are doing, taking apart Perpetuates for parts, for memories. There is a healthy market for all of these, not least of which is the sim-movies Galactics so love — Perpetuates are plundered for unusual, exotic memories that can give frissons to even the most jaded of immersed viewers. It’s illegal, but until Perpetuates have joined a virtual universe and submitted to its law strictures, there’s little they can do to defend themselves. It’s almost natural, the aunts would say.
Cam knows the truth: that none of it is right—that Perpetuates might just be echoes of real people, but that nothing justifies selling them. But she likes the money too much to give it up.
She finds Thuy at her desk: her girlfriend is sitting on her haunches before the low table, delivering a staccato report to Daphne Reynolds, a Perpetuate colleague at her workplace — she speaks at a speed that seems blinding to Cam, but must surely be slow by Perpetuate standards. The flat’s bots have already cleaned the place, and the jasmine rice in the cooker has scented the air with its rich, promising fragrance — overlaid with the mingled garlic and fish sauce from the omelette in the pan.
After a while, Thuy finishes, and looks up. “Lil’ sis.”
“Big sis. How did it go?”
“I think I solved the security flaw, but I could be wrong.” Thuy grimaces.
It never ceases to amaze Cam that Thuy — who has a doctorate in Network Security — can have so little trust in herself. By most standards, Cam is the one who is the family failure: she barely went past the minimum amount of studies Galactics impose on their citizens, and went from small, ill-paid job to small, ill-paid job in Landsfall. News trawler, compartment cleaner, low-level network support: she’s done them all, and has little to show for it but a memory of how much it hurts, to live cramped in a room with three other Rong students, and never knowing where the money is coming in.
“I’m sure it’s fine,” Cam says, coming closer and kissing her — drinking in deep from Thuy’s lips. “Did you see the physician?”
Thuy frees herself from Cam and shrugs. She grabs one of the two coconut water glasses on the table, and gestures to Cam to pick the other one — she’s older than Cam, and has always had a tendency to boss her around. “Of course I did. Everything is normal. You fuss too much.”
“It’s serious,” Cam protests.
“It shouldn’t be. Having a child is a natural process.” Thuy doesn’t really appear to be in a mood to discuss her pregnancy; she sips at her glass, her gaze lost towards the floor. “How did your day go?” she asks.
Cam shrugs, feigning a nonchalance she doesn’t feel. “As usual. Not much to tell.”
“You never tell anything anyway.” Thuy is convinced that Cam works for Galactic Intelligence; a lie Cam has carefully cultivated. Her other, outer cover for Mother is feeds writer, but any lie for Thuy has to be much closer to the truth. “Come on, drink your coconut water. I’m sure your day was as thrilling as usual.”
She looks at Cam with such love — with such unmitigated pride — that it makes Cam’s stomach churn. How can she tell Thuy that she does none of what her girlfriend imagines — that she’s a thief and a taker of lives, that she subsists entirely on deceiving others and taking advantage of their wrecked lives?
She can’t tell Thuy. She can’t tell the child; and she’s running out of options, as Thuy’s pregnancy becomes more and more visible, twisting every aspect of their lives like woven cloth. But still, she forces herself to smile, in a way she knows is unconvincing. “Thank you.”
As usual, Cam meets the aunts in the Memorial.
She doesn’t know why they insist on this meeting place; though she suspects that part of it is mocking her and the choices she makes — for, after all, what better place than the Memorial for accusation of betrayals?
She takes a circuitous route to go there, casting an eye over her shoulder for policemen. It’s absurd, but several times she’s had the feeling of being followed — of seeing the same face too many times in the crowds that brush past — and she can’t be sure, but there have been a few too many police aircars and shuttles parked near her. Or perhaps it’s simply her guilt, pointing out every police presence in Landsfall that it can see.
These days, entrance to the Memorial is free, its upkeep funded by donations from rich Galactic families. Cam joins the queue of Galactics at the entrance — not many Rong there, she might as well be the only one. It’s early morning on a day like any other; not the anniversary of any significant battle or the remembrance of any atrocities; and there are few people, all of them disinclined to make any conversation.
Good, for Cam doesn’t know if she could stand to speak.
In the physical reality, the Memorial isn’t much: a squat building crouching above the servers that keep it alive — like a toad over treasure. Inside, a long spiral wends its way to the access chambers — as the virtual reality gradually asserts itself, the Memorial reminds visitors of the war and the Rong exodus. It starts as images on wall-screens; and, by the end, has become full three-dimensional representations that presage the virtual universe. This serves two purposes: to place the Memorial in “proper” context, and to transition the visitors from physical reality to virtual universe in a soft, non-intrusive manner.
Both are failures.
The context, like everything else, has been provided by Galactics, and they so gracefully elide their own part in setting off tinder to the war between the Western and Eastern Continent, presenting themselves as heroes who failed to save the benighted locals, and deploring the exodus even as they hide their part in causing it, or the atrocities their own troops committed on Moc Hau Tinh under the pretence of keeping the peace.
The transition, if one isn’t paying attention to the context, is anything but seamless, the virtual universe replacing reality in a series of jerks; and, at the last, the slimy, cold feeling of electrodes being fitted over one’s head by bots; the uncomfortable sensation of every muscle crumpling at once, as if one were a tree that had just been felled.
And, at last, Cam stands in the Memorial, shivering and shaking and attempting to bring numbed muscles back to wakefulness. Around her, the other visitors are straightening: carrying flowers or paper cards in their hands, little keepsakes bought from the online vendors as they wended their way upstairs; offerings to honour the dead veterans, the innocent victims of the exodus — dead children, Cam’s history teachers used to say, as if dead children were somehow more worthy of remembrance and pity than everyone else who perished in the fall of Xuan Huong, in the invasion of the Eastern Continent.
Cam’s hands, as usual, are empty. She leaves the arrival area without a backward glance, heading deeper and deeper into the Memorial.
In a way, the Memorial is Xuan Huong — it’s the city on the eve before the war, its streets crisscrossed by a flood of aircars and private shuttles, its buildings rearing upwards, like gilded spears held against the Heavens — and the shadow of the orbitals overhead, the houses of the rich and powerful looking down on the planetary bustle with amusement.
In so many ways, it’s not Xuan Huong.
It’s not the city that Cam’s grandmother waxed lyrical about, not the memories that her mother carried away when she left as a child in her parents’ arms. It’s a city of fashionable, glitzy hotels frequented by the Galactic expatriates; of quaint and exotic temples, with Buddhist rituals described by someone who couldn’t understand what it means to believe in the bodhisattva Quan Am, in the weight of one’s sin and in reincarnation. Its family feasts are seen through the eyes of Galactics, who cannot comprehend the value of food or of filial piety; even its small alleyways are sordid and unclean instead of being families’ beloved homes — in every way it’s subtly and jarringly wrong, a travesty of what the Rong deem precious.
He meant well, is what the Rong will say about Steven Carey when they feel charitable. He genuinely thought that his project would help the Rong exiles, that it would bring their plight to the knowledge of the world (as if their plight wasn’t real until the world learnt all about it, all its sordid details and secrets shrouded in grief).
Cam walks up Le Loi Street, with its overblown temple to the God of War Quan Vu; and its ghostly Galactic women shadowed by their Rong attendants — towards her meeting with the aunts.
They’re always in the same place: in a small alley behind the old Galactic Ansible Station, seated on plastic chairs in the small, battered stall of a food-seller, with bowls of steaming soup in front of them — the food smells of beef and anise star, the only thing within the Memorial that doesn’t feel processed through a Galactic mindset. They’re squat and dark-skinned, with the reassuring solidity of visitors to the Memorial — not the ghostly, shimmering avatars that are part of the virtual universe.
Of course, they’re not aunts — probably not Rong, and maybe not even women. The Memorial, like all virtual universes, comes with avatar options, and it’s an easy enough thing to colour flesh differently, give a different timbre to a voice or even change one’s species entirely and appear as a winged horse or a lion, though Cam has never seen the point of any of it.
“Child,” the eldest aunt says. “Sit down.”
Cam doesn’t. It’s such a small, pathetic gesture, such a doomed attempt to assert her authority on them. “I left it in a holding box at the shuttleport. Number 868.”
“As usual.” the eldest aunt smiles, an expression that doesn’t quite reach her eyes. “Well done. You’re worth every credit we pay you, child.” She gestures again to the chair, the only one unoccupied — it’s red, the colour of good fortune and good news, an uncomfortable reminder of New Year’s Eve and family reunions. “Won’t you sit down? The soup is good, here.”
“Which can’t be said of many things here,” a younger aunt says, her face set in a frown.
“Now, now, ssh,” the eldest aunt says. “This child doesn’t need to hear old women complaining, she’s too young.”
Cam isn’t young anymore — past the age to contract a marriage, past the age to straighten her life — past the age where she’d swallow lies, unthinkingly. But she says nothing of that.
“I trust everything went well?” the eldest aunt inquires, conversationally, with the same casualness Cam’s own aunts use when asking about her work.
Cam thinks back to Pham Thi Thanh Ha — to the expression on her face as she handed over her grandmother’s chip against Cam’s payment — that face twisted halfway between guilt and fear — knowing Cam, in spite of her sweet words, couldn’t be trusted. “It went as expected. There was no particular trouble.”
“About payment …” Cam says.
They smile at this, as if they knew exactly how she felt inside — all twisted up and nauseous, taking that kind of pay because she has no choice. One of the middle-aged aunts opens her hand, presenting to her a sheaf of paper notes: the old ones with the image of the President stamped upon them — a sharp-faced man, wrinkled and bowed with the knowledge of the impending war. “All there,” the middle-aged aunt says. “A million credits, as we agreed.”
It’s good money — very good money, when Rong struggle to make even a hundredth of this — when so many of them hold dingy restaurants in dingy parts of Prime, or work as private cooks for the richer exiles, saving every single credit to make their children’s lives better than their own. It’s hers, under two conditions: that she do her job, and keep her mouth shut about the aunts.
Both of which, of course, are getting harder and harder.
Cam reaches out for it, closes her hand over it — feeling, for a second, the coolness of the aunt’s skin against her own, as dry as the scales of a snake. The notes melt like sugar onto her skin, and she doesn’t need to connect to the network to know it’s gone into her bank account.
“Don’t thank us.” The middle-aged aunt sounds amused. “Now, we have another job coming up, but it won’t be for a week at least, which should please you. Time for you and your girlfriend to enjoy yourselves with your family.”
Cam isn’t surprised — of course they would keep a tight watch on her and her life. Of course they have other agents, to pick up the chips from the holding boxes. Of course they’ll know about Thuy; that the day after tomorrow is her grandmother’s death anniversary; that, like every year, Cam and Thuy are headed towards her family’s home in Greenhaven, to pay their respects at the ancestral altar.
What comes next, though …
“And the baby,” one of the younger aunts says. “Don’t forget the baby!”
The baby. How do they know —? The baby is a secret; something not even Cam’s mother knows about, a fragile promise, a prayer for a better future. Cam’s hands clench, a movement she can’t control. “How — how do you know?”
“It’s all in your files, dearie,” the middle-aged aunt says. “Don’t worry, we won’t tell anyone.”
They’ll hold this, hoard it like a tool they might use — they’ll feed on anything, any scrap of Cam’s life that they can turn against her. “I know you won’t tell,” Cam says, drily, fighting back anger.
The middle-aged aunt laughs, a rasping sound like leather tearing itself apart. She gestures towards the soup. “You should eat that, before it grows cold.” Another of the aunts is noisily slurping noodles from her bowl, with an expression of satisfaction; it would make Cam hungry herself, in other circumstances.
“I don’t want soup,” Cam says.
“Oh yes, I forget,” the middle-aged aunt says. “You’re always angry after your jobs.”
“I’m not angry,” Cam says.
“Leave the child alone.” The eldest aunt frowns. “Forgive us. You know the old can be … intrusive. Of course, we have no lives of our own anymore, so we take what distractions we can, child.”
A ghostly waiter brings three-colour dessert pudding in glass cups — the mixture sports a lurid, aggressive green, nothing like the appetising colour of pandanus leaves, and even its red beans are the dark colour of blood. The smell is … off, somehow, though Cam would be hard pressed to pinpoint why; and, as the bowls of soup are swept up, only that sense of wrongness remains.
Not for the first time, she curses Steven Carey and all his work.
The eldest aunt dips a spoon in the cup, twirls it around an invisible axis. Cam hears a sound like ice cubes crushed together, though it’s impossible anyone could have such strength. “You don’t see,” the eldest aunt says. The colours of the pudding are melding and running together, the green fracturing into a dozen disharmonious threads, reminding Cam of nothing so much as network cables cut off at the root. “But never mind, child. I’ll tell you about this next job, it’ll keep your mind nice and sharp.”
“I don’t —” Cam starts, and then stops, aghast at what words might come out of her mouth. I don’t want my mind sharp. I don’t want to hear about this next job. I want to be rid of you.
The eldest aunt is watching her; and so are the others — cruelly amused, like birds of prey watching a mortally wounded tiger stumble and pick itself up, time and time again.
No. She can’t afford to antagonise them. Slowly, carefully, she says, “Fine. Tell me about the next job.”
Cam leaves late for Greenhaven — not a surprise, as the meeting with the aunts took more time than expected. She’d expected Thuy to still be around in the flat; but she’s gone, leaving a message on the console that she hitched a ride with Cam’s mother, and telling Cam not to forget the basket of fruit they special-ordered from the spaceport.
Cam is past the Lynbrook Bridge and into Westborough province before she notices the police shuttle trailing her. At first, she thinks nothing of it; traffic is dense, and the police are everywhere. As she veers upwards, onto the high-speed lane, Cam sees the shuttle do the same; and when she lowers her altitude again, to catch a bite at a rest area halfway up a skyscraper, the shuttle is still there.
It’s nothing unusual — Cam has been stopped more times than she can count, simply because she looks different, because she’s driving a new, expensive car that most Rong shouldn’t be able to afford. Mother always hunched over when that happened — speaking in short, heavily accented sentences; consumed by the fear that Prime would send her back. Cam isn’t afraid; or she wouldn’t be, if she was at ease. If she didn’t know in her heart of hearts that she walks enshrouded in lies, every word that she utters lengthening the shadows under her feet.
She sits at the terrace of the skyscraper, watching the dance of aircars below her — dense traffic towards Landfall, as always, people going to their jobs, to the Festival of Arts in Lynbrook, to white-walled, disinfectant-clean supermarkets where the smell of bleach overpowers that of meat or fish.
“Excuse me, miss?”
Towering over her is the figure of a police officer — one and a half times her size, easily, with flaming hair and a spattering of freckles, with skin so pale and translucent it’s tinged with the red of blood vessels. Her heart leaps in her throat — remains stuck halfway there, beating at a frantic rhythm. “Yes, Officer?”
The policewoman — who introduces herself as Lieutenant George — sits down, putting her coffee cup by Cam’s right hand. Cam inhales the sickening, bitter smell of the coffee at the table, stifling an urge to retch or run away.
“What do you want, Lieutenant George?”
“To speak of Perpetuates.”
“I don’t know what you mean.” Cam has been lying for long enough not to let anything she feels show on her face.
Lieutenant George’s eyes narrow. “Let’s not be coy with each other, Miss Nguyen. I am speaking of Rong Perpetuates — rare and precious by the standards of those who trade in memories.” She smiles. “I’m sure you know what I’m speaking of.”
It’s a dance that’s all too familiar to Cam — she’s done it so many times she knows it all by heart. But knowing doesn’t help, doesn’t do anything save make the ending more inevitable — for, in the end, this is no bluff — this is all about who holds power over whom.
She forces herself to sip at her tea — sip after sip after sip, burning her lips and her tongue, the bitter taste sliding down her stomach.
Lieutenant George says, “Rong Perpetuates, as you can imagine, are eagerly sought after — they fetch high prices on the black market, and I’m sure you’re well aware many of the recent releases in sim-vids were enhanced by Rong, especially the older generation. There’s something about the anguish of war that makes them … irresistible.”
The anguish of war — how casually she dismisses everything that Cam’s family went through, in a single, weaselly Galactic word that means nothing. “I don’t watch sim-vids,” Cam says. She forces herself to remain still in her chair, but she sees Lieutenant George smile — showing her teeth like a shark that has sighted prey.
“You don’t say.” Lieutenant George pauses, nudging her coffee cup out of the way — as if imparting a secret confidence to Cam. “Anyway, there have been … rumours in the black market. Rong Perpetuates being harder and harder to find — which leads to my presence here; and to you, Miss Nguyen.”
Cam says nothing. She’s seen the trap; perhaps, if she holds still for long enough, she might dodge its jaws — perhaps … Foolish, Thuy would say, but Thuy isn’t there no matter how desperately Cam wishes for the weight of her presence.
“I’ll be blunt,” Lieutenant George says — as if she weren’t blunt enough already, with all the subtlety of a bomb. “You run errands for a well-organised gang, Miss Nguyen, and I have enough evidence to send you to Active Re-education for a while.”
But she won’t. An icy clarity descends over Cam’s world, each thought as clear and as brittle as pulled sugar. “What do you want, Lieutenant?”
Lieutenant George smiles. “I have no interest in the riffraff. I want the people who pay you; and you’ll help me.”
This is a dance Cam has done often enough, with so many other people — enough to know every one of its steps by heart. “Why should I help you? I’ll end up in Active Re-education anyway, and it’ll be far less danger to me. As you said — they are a well organised gang. I doubt they are fools.”
Lieutenant George shakes her head, drily amused — she’s not stupid, else they wouldn’t have sent her. “There are … dispensations that can be made. Ways and means of acknowledging your help to the Galactic police.”
“Immunity,” Cam says, putting both elbows on the table.
“I can’t offer immunity. As I said — I have evidence. You can’t erase that.”
A bluff. “A police lieutenant is a powerful individual. I’m sure you can arrange things.” Cam keeps her voice even. “Evidence — assuming there is any — can be lost. Destroyed.” If it were just her, she’d give herself up, to atone for what she’s done — but there is Thuy. There is the unborn child.
Lieutenant George grimaces. “Six months in Active Re-education.”
“Two months,” Cam says, reckless — and, when silence stretches, knows she’s gone too far.
“Three months. Far less than you deserve, Miss Nguyen.” Lieutenant George’s voice is filled with disgust. “The offer is as it stands.”
Three months. It’s not so much, all things considered — three months on some deserted planet, away from all communications—from Thuy, from the baby. But it’s still time that will appear on her papers; that will hamper her in her search for another job — of course, supposing the aunts don’t take her down with them. She wouldn’t be surprised to know they have a contingency plan for everything from sickness to betrayal.
When Cam doesn’t answer, Lieutenant George shakes her head. “Think on it. Three months, and some risk to your precious person. Or five years without risk — that’s the minimum you’d get for trafficking in Perpetuates, and I would be pushing for more than this, personally.” She rises, cradling her coffee cup against her chest. “I’ve left you my contact details. Tell me within the week what your life will look like in the next few years, Nguyen Thi Cam.”
Cam arrives late, and finds the family gathered in the kitchen. Mother is putting the last of the rice cakes into boiling water with Father by her side, who interjects advice and reproaches as she slides each cake into the huge cooking pot. Thuy and Cousin Hanh are rolling up the twine that served them to wrap the cakes, while Cousin Vien is putting plates and bowls into the automatic washer. The uncles and aunts are nowhere to be seen — probably they’re in the living room, tidying up offerings on the ancestral altar.
“Lil’ sis.” Thuy nods to Cam. “Sorry for not waiting.”
Cam shakes her head. “No, it’s me. I had an appointment I couldn’t put off.” She puts the basket of fruit on the table, and greets her mother and father, and then the cousins in order of age. “Sorry for arriving late.”
Mother snorts. “Plenty of hands to help with the cooking, even though most of them are rather clumsy.” She peers at the basket, curious. “What did you girls get?”
Dragon fruit, and mangoes — fruit that have grown ever so expensive as the years pass, making the exodus a distant memory in the minds of the elders. None of them grow well on Landfall, and it takes a dedicated environment and a crew of biologists to make sure the other crops don’t cannibalise them before they have a chance to grow. “Oh, you shouldn’t have. It’s too expensive, children,” Mother says. Cam knows she’s well pleased in spite of her protests, to see her daughters and nieces cajoling her with delicacies; all the signs of happiness that Heaven has decreed, the rewards of old age.
Father peers at the fruit, and nods, gruffly. “Go put a few in a plate, would you? Your grandmother could use nice things.”
After Cam has left her offerings on the ancestral altar, everything seems to dissolve in a whirl of activities: she walks the gardens with Mother, seeing how the bots prune the trees and collect herbs from the hothouses; she and Cousin Vien help Father install his newest network connection, and get a membership into a virtual universe for Encirclement fanatics. And, all the while, she skirts around the truth, jokingly speaking of security contracts to Mother, just as she does with Thuy — lies, every word out of her mouth, every rivet in the wall of her life.
On the second day, they hold the remembrance of Xuan Huong.
They stand in silence, bowed before the altar — watching the holo of Grandmother’s face, the furrows of grief traced on her skin; the bowed shoulders, as if she still labours under the weight of exile even among the ancestors. “We thank you for your blessings,” Mother says, lighting a stick of incense and bowing three times. “For the gift of food, which we took with us to a new planet. For the gift of money, which gathered us all to escape the war. For the gift of love, which did not die with Xuan Huong.”
They’re meant to meditate on Xuan Huong: Mother and Father and Cam’s aunts and uncles all have tears in their eyes, thinking of a city they knew that is now cut off from them; and of all the dead littering the streets like rice shoots cut off before they could bear food.
Cam finds her mind drifting to the Memorial; to the aunts and the sound of ice being crushed against a glass, faster and more casually than should be humanly possible … She wonders what Grandmother would have thought of her, of what she does; if she’d have forgiveness in her heart for her wayward granddaughter. But, of course, there’s only the darkness of her own thoughts, and her own worries about the future.
On the last evening of the death anniversary, Cam and Thuy find themselves alone in the living room, scraping food off plates before piling them into the kitchen.
She wants to tell Thuy about Lieutenant George, about the choice between flood and fire; but she can’t — she’s trapped by her own lies, by the weight of her own failures.
Thuy, though, is nothing but observant. “Is anything wrong?”
“It’s work-related,” Cam says — and watches as the words dry up in Thuy’s mouth.
“Oh. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.”
“No, it’s all right.” Cam hesitates. “Only — I might have to go away for a while.”
“On a mission?” Thuy’s eyes gleam with that painful, earnest enthusiasm that Cam finds hard to bear.
“Of a kind.” Cam sighs. Nothing will be pleasant in the future, no matter how she turns it. “I — It might be a long while. The child —”
Thuy’s hand strays to her belly, rubs it as if for luck. “You won’t be back for the birth.”
“I don’t know.” Cam feels as if she wants to cry, but all water seems to have been wrung out of her. “Ancestors, I don’t know.” Her hands are shaking, so hard that the plates she’s carrying chink against each other.
“I see.” Thuy says nothing for a while; she doesn’t look happy.
As they take the last of the plates out, Cam steals a glance at the ancestral altar — Grandmother’s gaze seems to follow her, wherever she goes. “Do you think —” she pauses, hesitating. Grandmother scrapped and begged and did what she had to, to get her family out of Moc Hau Tinh before war made the planet inaccessible — in so many ways, they know that they’ll never be as worthy as her. “Do you think she’d approve of us?”
Thuy gathers chopsticks in her clenched hand, weighs them, thoughtfully. “Of what we’ve grown into? Every generation is less than the one who came before them; and more, too. Every chain of hands, reaching back to the beginning of time …” She frowns, rubs her belly again. “Lil’ sis …”
“About the birth — we’ll talk about it later. I know it’s not easy.”
You don’t know anything, Cam thinks, and blinks furiously, to make the world clearer. “I’m sorry.” The plates are wobbling in her hands; carefully, she sets them on the ground, and stares at the ancestral altar, seeking words that have deserted her.
“Oh, Cam.” Thuy covers the space that separates them in a heartbeat, and kisses her, hard. “You’re a fool.”
“So are you,” Cam says, struggling to smile.
They finish the rest of the cleaning in silence, and tiptoe back to their room. Later, Cam lies in bed by Thuy’s side, staring at the ceiling, and thinks of what lies ahead. She thinks of Lieutenant George; of the Memorial and the aunts — and it all slides with her into sleep, melds and merges into a confused jumble, with the noise of bombs and the sound of spaceships lifting from the spaceport, instants before the Western Continent soldiers march through the streets of Xuan Huong — into Grandmother’s face, the old woman staring at her as if weighing her worth; before she turns away, and walks ahead into darkness …
Cam wakes up with a start, shaking her head to dismiss the last of her nightmare. Outside, it’s still night, and she can smell the just-cooked rice porridge from the kitchen, and hear Mother shuffle about, no doubt looking for a bowl and a spoon. She’ll get up and go into the kitchen, and say more lies about coming back home for work, that she has an important job to do at her company, that they need her to save the project …
But not for long; not anymore.
It’s all the same, the same as it ever was: Cam walks down the streets of Xuan Huong, breathing in the sweet, sharp smell of apricot trees — garlands of Tet yellow flowers drape the streets, and the year is that of the Yin Wood Tiger, the year of the fall. She brushes past young girls in five-panel costumes, giggling at Galactics in shirts and trousers: the streets are pristine, not even stained by flower petals, unreal — as ghostly as the artificial intelligences populating them.
She can’t help but glance at her hands as she walks: the sniffer Lieutenant George has given her is invisible in the Memorial, though it glowed red against her skin when George injected it into her palm. Transfer it with a thought sequence, George had said — running through the steps of it with Cam, over and over again. It’ll embed itself in the target’s hand, and start emitting—we’ll be able to follow them wherever they go. We’ll arrest them when they exit the Memorial.
She didn’t tell Cam to be careful, or to come back safe — of course she wouldn’t. Of course she doesn’t care, one way or another.
In the alleyway behind the Ansible Station, the aunts are waiting for her, though there are no bowls of steaming soup in front of them. They’re dressed differently, too — wearing what looks like Galactic garb, long flowing dresses that hug their frail bodies, outlining curves they ought not to have. It feels …
Wrong, Cam wants to say, but the words don’t get past her lips. Instead she wonders, for a heart-stopping moment, if she’s given herself away; if George’s sniffer can be detected on her, if that’s the reason why the aunts have changed their behaviour. But no, that is impossible; she hasn’t activated it yet. The aunts can’t know …
She pulls a chair; hearing it scrape against the pavement. “No soup today?” she asks, keeping her voice light.
“It’s too early for soup, child.” The eldest aunt smiles, as toothy as a tiger on the prowl. “Tell me how it went with Nguyen Thi Sao.”
Cam shrugs. “There isn’t much to say. I left you the chip in the shuttleport. Holding box 121.”
“Good.” the eldest aunt frowns, and the air around her seems to tighten in menace. “That certainly was fast. I expected you to have more difficulties.”
Cam shakes her head, not trusting herself to speak. It was hard, in truth — harder than it’s ever been, to sit in a chair and lie and cajole, knowing that all she had to do was wait a few more days, a few more hours — and that she would finally be free of them.
“About payment,” she says — and waits, her heart hammering in her chest, for the eldest aunt to extend her hand across the table, for the exchange of money to take place. She doesn’t glance at her own hand.
The eldest aunt does not move. That’s it, then; she’s overplayed it; been too flippant, too confident — she’s given the game away. She shouldn’t have …
Finally, the eldest aunt shakes her head, and slowly extends her hand to her, with old-fashioned notes on her palm. Bracing herself, Cam reaches out — there’s a tingle as the money changes hand, and another tingle as the sniffer leaves her and attaches itself to its target.
The eldest aunt is frowning, looking at her hand as if something were bothersome — there’s nothing here, she can’t possibly see it — it’s impossible …
“Mmm.” The eldest aunt compresses her lips — tightens her hand hard enough to crush whatever is inside it. “Is there anything else you want to tell us, child?”
Cam clamps down the first flippant response that comes to mind; and says, instead, “No. What about the next assignment?”
“We’ll contact you.” The eldest aunt is still staring at her hand, as if she could actually detect the sniffer; which is impossible. She and her companions rise, and walk away without a backward glance.
Cam remains behind, struggling to control the mad drum beats of her heart. They haven’t seen anything, they can’t possibly have seen anything …
She waits for the aunts to drop out of sight — then she takes a deep breath, and activates the sniffer.
Nothing happens — at least, nothing that she can see, but she knows that outside the Memorial, something has come online in Lieutenant George’s van — that her team is now assembling, ready to track the aunts; to make the arrest George hungers for, the one that will make the world a little safer for Perpetuates. Cam has done her part. She can turn back, and leave the Memorial much as she came into it — empty-handed, braced for the worst to happen to her.
And yet …
And yet she has to know. And yet, somehow, she finds herself walking after the aunts — hearing the same litany echo in her skull until it takes the place of everything else. She’s in the Memorial. In a virtual universe with no set rules for death. There’s nothing they can do to her; nothing that will terminate her existence or harm her for more than a few transitory moments. Nothing. Unless …
Unless they’ve managed to hack into it.
No. That’s impossible. No one can …
But they’re the aunts — whoever they are, they know everything, have access to all the files, to all the details of Cam’s life. Surely, hacking into a virtual universe, even one so tightly circumscribed as the Memorial, isn’t beyond their powers?
She walks in sunlight, into little alleyways filled with compartments — with houses that advertise their wares on battered holo-screens, past bots that scuttle into bolt-holes. A sleek aircar zooms by, stopping briefly to extrude a counter and dispense some crab noodle soup to a middle-aged woman.
This far into the simulation, Galactics are not there at all — there are only Rong, from the mechanic who carries bots slung over his shoulder to the seller of barbecued pork sandwiches; from the young man lost in his virtual games, to the old woman descending from an aircar, attended by her whole family.
The smell of food is overwhelming — of steamed rice and garlic and fish sauce, of broth simmering away in the myriad restaurants she walks by. Cam should be on her knees by now, gagging with the wrongness of it — but she’s not.
Cam turns a corner, still struggling to work out what is wrong, what she’s not seeing — and all but bumps into the aunts.
They have stopped — are waiting for her, their arms crossed over their chests. The eldest aunt is a little apart from them, holding out her hand, in which flashes a red light — George’s tracker made manifest.
It’s impossible — they shouldn’t …
“Did you think we wouldn’t see, child?” The eldest aunt asks. Her voice is deceptively mild; she might have been talking about the weather.
Cam stops — no use waiting for help, for it won’t come. She’s alone now, and in spite of the innocuous environment she’s never been so frightened in her life. “I had no choice. I could come down with you, or I could follow their orders.”
The eldest aunt peers into her hand, thoughtfully. “I see. Galactic police coding. Shoddy work — you can tell, it’s full of corrupt packages.”
Abruptly she’s standing by Cam’s side, pressing down on her shoulder with what seems like little strength; but it feels as though something is tearing inside her. The eldest aunt is only a small, diminutive woman; how can she be so strong — how can she —?
“You know I can’t stand on your side.” Cam forces the words out between clenched teeth — the eldest aunt is still pressing on her, and gradually her body is buckling, her knees giving way, bowing her closer to the ground. “For Heaven’s sake, you buy Perpetuates to take them apart!”
“And you’re nothing.” The eldest aunt’s voice is contemptuous. “You were happy enough to take our money, and ask no questions, and all of a sudden you decide to betray us? That won’t do, child.”
Cam is kneeling on the ground now, brought down by the weight of the eldest aunt’s hands on her shoulder; and her breath comes in gasps and shudders. She’s truly, desperately alone — Lieutenant George, even if she suspects something is wrong, won’t react, won’t do anything to save her—she’s made it clear enough what she thinks of Cam’s acts.
As Cam struggles for breath, for words, she sees everything with preternatural clarity — every detail of her surroundings, the bystanders throwing curious glances at the group stuck in the middle of the wide, paved street — the eldest aunt’s robes, billowing in the breeze; every little stitch of the cloth, every cut of the scissors and every little embroidery on the hem of the sleeves — they’re not Galactic patterns, but rather a thin chain of lotus flowers, going all the way around the hem like prayer beads.
Rong. They’re Rong patterns.
And she sees, then — not with her eyes, but with her heart and mind. She sees that the aunts are wearing the clothes her grandmother wore, every day of her life — a melding of Galactic and Rong influences. Those are the clothes her friends’ grandparents wore, the ones they brought from Moc Hau Tinh when the planet burnt in civil war.
And, around her …
She doesn’t look around her. She doesn’t need to. She knows that everyone she saw-the noodle soup seller, the seller of sandwiches, the housewives in the aircar — they all have the solidity of real, living people.
“You’re Rong,” she says. “You’re all Rong.”
“Of course we’re Rong,” the eldest aunt says. “What did you think we were, child?”
Cam kneels, breathing in the smell of garlic and fish sauce and all the myriad things of home. Everyone in the street seems to have gathered around them, a circle of pressed people that is making her dizzy — she catches bits and pieces, fragments of faces that look familiar and yet are not —
She sees them. She sees all of them, clustered at the back of the crowd — Thanh Ha’s grandmother, and Pham Huu Hieu’s brother, and Le Thi Quoc’s mother, and all the others she’s bargained away from their families, given flesh and blood in the Memorial, a feat that should have been impossible.
“Perpetuates,” she breathes, knowing that this, too, is true. “You’re all Perpetuates.”
“This is our home,” the eldest aunt says. “The place we have made for ourselves.” She’s withdrawn from Cam; stands staring at the streets around her. Cam sucks in breath through burning lungs, struggling to make sense of what she’s seen.
They… they have hacked the Memorial from within. They have hidden themselves in its codes and processes, and built their own enclave. They have …
They’re not supposed to be here at all. No wonder they hide; no wonder they tell no one what they are or what they are doing. The Memorial is not a virtual universe open to Perpetuates. It is a museum: a place to visit, not a place to live in or be hosted — not a place where you’re allowed to painstakingly build your own home city within the city, year after year —
The enormity of it shocks her — that Perpetuates should have the power and desire to take the Memorial back; to expand, layer after layer, into Steven Carey’s masterwork, and claim it back for themselves … That she should have helped in that, all the while thinking that she was helping the aunts taking Perpetuates apart. That she …
That she sold the aunts out, just as she sold off the chips; gave them away with scarcely a thought to ensure her own, selfish future …
It’s too much to take in all at once.
“I’m sorry,” she whispers — in Rong, using the pronoun reserved for young, ignorant, children. “I didn’t know.”
One of the middle-aunts speaks, in the growing silence, “Not so easy, is it, to find out what you have done?”
“I’m sorry,” Cam says, again, knowing the words to be meaningless — cheaply bandied weapons, promises as brittle as burnt clay.
She stands, shivering, in bright sunlight in the city of Xuan Huong — not the quaint place of Steven Carey’s fantasies, not the poverty-ridden, powerless victim of the war seen through Galactic eyes; but the home of Mother and Grandmother and all her ancestors; the bustling, multifaceted city that shaped her people and her family, the continuation of the history that she and Thuy carry with them, words and images carved into the grooves of their hearts.
And she knows, then, with a certainty she’s never felt before in her life — she knows that she’ll pay whatever price needs to be paid to preserve this; to make sure that the Memorial still contains that corner of living history; the thread, elusive and thin and yet more solid than any steel, which still binds the Rong to their homeland — the thread which is the truth of the war and the truth of their past.
Cam holds out her hand to the eldest aunt. “Let me make this right.”
The eldest aunt turns; the sniffer glowing in the palm of her hand — the colour of maple leaves and New Year’s lanterns. “Let me help,” Cam says, again. “If I take it from you —”
“Why should we trust you?” the eldest aunt asks. “You’ve amply demonstrated that you’ll betray us, time and time again, when your own life hangs in the balance.”
Betrayals — of the Rong, of the Rong Perpetuates, not once but many, many times — selling her people to what she thought was a criminal ring, time and time again — betrayals, and selfishness, and greed …
Cam spreads her hands — speechless, for once.
“What do you advocate?” the middle-aged aunt says.
“Isn’t it obvious?” The eldest aunt is standing once more by Cam’s side, one hand casually raised, only a few inches from her throat. With a mere gesture, she could crush Cam’s windpipe — this deep into the Memorial, Cam doesn’t doubt that she’d die for real. That Thuy would wait and wait, and raise a child on her own — and be unable to tell that child anything, anything at all about Cam that would be meaningful. “Silence is gold; and the only silence we can trust is that of the grave.”
“She’s Rong,” the middle-aged aunt says.
“She’s nothing. She lies and cheats for a living.”
“We all do, don’t we? We all lie and deceive and cheat, elder sister — as we did to this child.”
“Not for selfish motives.”
“Our own survival, you mean?” The middle-aged aunt’s smile is bitter. “Tell me that’s not selfish. Look me in the eye and tell me it’s not.”
The eldest aunt says nothing.
“Please,” Cam says. “Else they’ll come in and find you.”
The eldest aunt’s gaze turns to her; and its Grandmother’s gaze, dark and unfathomable, weighing every inch of Cam’s life from beginning to end. “Do you know what you’re asking for, child?”
Cam thinks of Lieutenant George; of re-education — and of Thuy and their child, and of each generation being less and more than the one that came after them. She had so many ideas of what she wanted; and all of them, after all, turned out to be wrong. For, when she does this — when she walks out of the Memorial with the sniffer still in the palm of her hand, looking properly downcast and ashamed and afraid for Lieutenant George — her life will once again revolve on lies; once again be shrouded in the half-truths and evasions she’s become so good at.
What matters is this: they won’t be the shadow lies, the worms eating at her from within, but the other kind of lies — the ones that give weight and heft and meaning to the secret part of her life.
“Yes. Of course I know what I’m doing.” And, reaching out, she takes the eldest aunt’s hand in her own; and stands in sunlight on the eve of the war, in the city of her ancestors — feeling the dried, gnarled flesh against hers like a fount of strength for the future.