Titles by Kij Johnson are available for purchase online

The background for this story came from an soon-to-be-published novel by writer Chris McKitterick. This was first published in Tales for the Long Rains in 2001. 

We tell these tales, we who lived on the Ship. We do this so that our home planets and our time on the Ship will not be forgotten — so that we will not be forgotten. To the men of the Ship, our planets were once disobedient fiefs, then nonrenewable resources. Our grandmothers and mothers were objects to fight over, breeding stock. But we have always been more than this.

It has been more than six hundred years since this story was first told, by my twenty-seven-times grandmother, Dia Chjermen. The way it is told, she cried silently for a month after Delmoni was destroyed and she was taken aboard Empire Ship Delta. And then she stopped crying, and wiped her eyes, and told this tale to the women of the Ship. And now I tell you, so that Dia and Delmoni will not be forgotten.

My planet was Delmoni Prime. We were a beautiful world, fourth from the amber-colored star, also called Delmoni. We turned on the very edge of the galactic disk, and depending on the season, our night sky was just a thin scattering of stars, like a pinch of salt thrown on a black skirt; or it was a varied shell, striped with bands of light. Our trees had leaves so dark they looked black, but our lichens (and we had many of them) were bright, green and gold and pink, glowing as if lit from within. Most of our insects and animals were brightly colored, as well, with many legs.

We knew we had been claimed by the Empire, almost an accidental addendum to some declaration covering our entire sector. But why should they care about us one way or another? We had no resources not readily available closer to the Empire’s core. Faster-than-light travel would have made us more accessible to them, but FTL was an unattainable dream: men and women were not meant to travel through warping time. Space could be warped, but only the Empire Ships were large enough to carry the black hole necessary to do so. No one else could afford Ship technology, even if they could steal it somehow: it would cost a wealthy world a century’s worth of revenue to build such a vessel. Even ansible communications forwarded along the pipeline from the Empire’s heart took many years to get to us, so no time was wasted on politics or power. Communications were all of technology and trade. The Empire offered us information that would improve our food production, our trade potential. Everyone was always grateful for the Empire’s help. That is how they had grown so great and powerful.

Because of this, and because we were just one of ten thousand planets in their domain, we foolishly thought the Empire did not care about us. So we minded our business and sent occasional unmanned ships off toward the core of Empire, filled with whatever tax they demanded. Mostly we forgot about them.

And then we found a drone in our solar system, sent — not from Empire or the galaxy’s cluttered heart — but from outside, apparently from a star beyond what we thought of as the Edge. It was an alien drone, and, from certain symbols carved along its shell, appeared to ask for a benign exchange of information between them and ourselves. We deliberated for half a century and agreed, sending a radio message in response.

We did not bother to tell Empire of this, of course. We didn’t want to pass on news until we had something back from the aliens. They might have died off since sending it; they might be from another galaxy altogether. And, to be honest, we might not want to share what we found, if it actually was useful. We had elected a new ruler in the last decade of this time, and he began building a small spacefaring force, suitable for impressing the aliens.

Perhaps it was this handful of ships that attracted the Empire’s attention somehow, because that’s when the message came. My twenty-seven-times grandmother Dia Chjermen did not hear it, of course; but her great-grandmother did. “Empire Ship Delta here. Delmoni, we are on our way.”

That was it. There’s never any more to the messages — no accusation, no judgment, no verdict, no threat — just a handful of words. This message came in the Year of the Empire 3658.

We knew of the Ships, and called them Blood Ships. They existed only to punish. They traveled to a recalcitrant planet, and they destroyed that place, and they moved on. Depending on where it was when it started its trek toward a planet, a Ship might take years to arrive, or decades or centuries; but it would inevitably arrive. It was said that each Ship carried a hundred thousand fighting men, or a hundred million, or a billion. There was one Ship, a dozen Ships, a hundred. What did we know except horror stories?

Worldwide riots began immediately, as if we were unwilling to wait for the Ship to arrive and chose instead to destroy ourselves. Even before the message was verified as coming from a real Empire Ship, the people revolted and the leader who had built the space force was quartered in the streets. Dia’s great-grandmother killed five men with a cooking knife, escaping from the silver-walled city of Telete with her two daughters.

For years, we sent countless messages down the pipeline to the galaxy’s heart, pleading with Empire to forgive us. We heard nothing. Others among us sent panicked requests for aid to any world in range. The nearest human planet responded twelve years after the Ship announced itself to us. They were very sorry, of course, and wished us luck. But, they said, please don’t try to seek refuge here. We heard the threat beneath the polite words and turned to other options.

We scrambled to establish communications with the aliens, who, it turned out, were alive and located around the star we had anticipated. Our linguists rushed to establish a workable, mutual language. Messages whirled back and forth. Their technology, it turned out, was considerably advanced compared to ours, but centered entirely around agricultural technology and weather modification. They had nothing to help us fight the Ship.

Eight years after the message, the aliens offered to take refugees. Perhaps they did not understand the full power of the Ships, or what the Ship might do to their own planet; or perhaps they didn’t believe the Ship would care about them. Or perhaps they did not have the nightmares we did, raised as we were for millennia with tales of the Blood Ships ringing in our infants’ ears.

This lasted until the aliens realized that it was not a thousand or a hundred thousand people who craved sanctuary, but a billion. Panicked at what this might do, they closed communications with Delmoni. We did send our embryonic space force there to beg or force them to accept us; ten years later, we received an ansible message — human screams, and another message from the aliens: so sorry, we have been dishonored by behaving like this, but our people must be first in our concerns. That was the last we heard from the aliens.

We agonized about what we had done. Was it the radio message to the aliens? The tiny space fleet? Electing an ambitious leader? Was it because the aliens had contacted us, instead of Empire? Empire was silent, so we never found out, and this made it somehow worse.

After twenty years, the Ship had not yet come. The riots had formalized themselves into gangs that alternated between ritualized but bloody combat among themselves, and killing sprees. Thirty-four years after the message, Dia’s great-grandmother was raped and killed by a handful of boys from one of these gangs; Dia’s grandmother was barely twenty, and she killed three of them before she was herself killed, leaving a sister who would start screaming when she heard certain noises&mdash a door being opened, a light going on &mdash and a baby girl abruptly weaned by circumstance. Dia’s mother.

The people of Delmoni Prime settled into a desperate clawing depression. Like animals in a trap, they alternated between flailing furiously against the jaws of the planet that held them for the hunter who crept closer, and biting at themselves. Those who could afford to do so built personal spaceships and bolted for anywhere in the galaxy but Delmoni’s lavender skies. Some of those ships were shoddily built and exploded during liftoff.

Decades passed, and the Ship did not come. Children were born and grew up in its shadow and died. Dia sometimes told her daughters — and they their daughters, down to me — the stories she read as a girl, when Delmoni still lived. There were two sorts: airy bright fantasies filled with miraculous rescues, and the other ones, the realistic ones, grim lightless tales about how it feels to be living dead. Sex became a subdued instinctual thing, joyless. Rape became common.

After a time, a small but vocal group began their talk. Perhaps, they said, the Ship would not come after all! Decades had passed and there had been no sign of it; perhaps the crew had mutinied, or the vessel had been destroyed or ordered elsewhere. Perhaps the very notice of its coming, and the outside verification, had been a clever trick. No one would come; it was time for us to put our fear behind us, to build a glorious new future with the wealth our murdered ruler had provided. Churches sprang up, and new benevolent societies, and then trickled into silence, to be replaced by new groups. In our hearts we knew they all lied, but we cheered and pretended to forget the fear. Hope, even a hope built on impossibilities, was the only luxury we could afford. The Ship would come. The Ship always came.

Eighty-four years after the message, Dia Chjermen was eight. That was the year the first wave began. Every tale we women tell has this part in it: the millions of microscopic drone fighters that churned out of a wormhole into the system. The drones ate the home-guard ships we had been able to throw together, then settled, not on Delmoni, but on our asteroids and moons and the other planets of the solar system, shredding the crusts to supply materials to build more microrobots. When there were enough, they gathered in the skies over Delmoni, a haze like the gauze of darkmatter between us and the sun.

And then they fell in shimmering curtains, like rain a long way away, or a dark aurora trailing onto the ground. The microrobots didn’t kill anyone, not yet: only ate our electronics and refined metals, turning them into still more robots.

Some of the robots targeted concretes and even fired bricks — anything we had touched, altered for our convenience — but nothing harmed the people’s flesh. Half-naked and unsheltered, we starved and we fought. There were no means of gathering crops, no roads and nothing to travel on them. We thought the riots would be the worst: after all, we had seen men and women tortured and killed, buildings smashed into shards of metal and earth. But nothing prepared us for this. There was no one visible doing this. Our world dissolved into dust and mist, filling the sky with bots, and leaving a glittering layer of dead robots carpeting Delmoni.

Dia had a little radio she used to listen to speeches; she told of watching its surface seethe, like a body covered with vermin. Its shape softened and shifted and began suddenly to mist away, like fog rising from water. She watched closely — she was a small girl — and saw tiny, tiny bits zip into the air. After a time, there was no radio left. That’s when she realized her synthetic parka had also been eaten away.

I don’t know how many people died during that twenty years before the microbots at last died and settled ankle-deep across the surface of Delmoni. More than in the eighty before, I suppose. Dia lost her aunt, her cousins — everyone in her town. She was claimed by a strong man who defended them both until he died trying to trap something to eat; Dia never told what it was, but we have told these tales enough to guess. By then she was old enough and strong enough to tend to herself. After that, she was alone in what had once been her village, the only person alive for a day’s walk in any direction. She knew this because she walked a day out once, and circled back in, a giant spiral closing on the place where her village had stood. She saw no sign of anyone as she waded through the dust of dead microrobots, pulling and eating the struggling plants as she walked.

Dia was twenty-eight when the Ship itself came through the wormhole and settled into orbit. She didn’t know this, of course. A terrible wind started and she ran for the cave she had been living in. She watched lights on the horizon, and clouds that moved too quickly toward her. What looked like sheets of black rain fell from them, darker than the first fall of microrobots years before. The wind that blew in her face stank of heat, and she realized at last that it was the start of the Bombing. She ran as deep into the cave as she could, hiding in a hollow beside an underground stream.

She stayed there for forty days and nights, a magic number the Ships chose for the length of their bombings. The earth shook overhead; flame-scented winds snaked through the narrow passages to find her. The only food she had was an animal she had captured just before the bombing had begun, and a creature which she found after a few days, hiding close by. The water she drank from the river was good at first, but after a time chemicals from above leached into it, making her sick. She had wood and torches enough for a week; after that they were gone, and she lay in absolute darkness, wrapped in her furs and trying not to scream. The bombing overhead seemed to come in regular waves; after a time, she slept through them, not because she was accustomed to them, but because she could not stay awake and sane. She slept curled tight in a fetal position, waking every eternity to drink more of the water that made her sick. One of these times, she noticed dully there wasn’t any bombing overhead, and she crawled out of the darkness.

The light blinded her at first; hungry as she was, she couldn’t go out into the world until night fell. At first she thought everything was absolutely gone: all she saw was ashes and broken charred trees. After a time, she saw that there was still some life, animals that looked as stunned and shock-struck as she stumbling across the wasteland. She caught one and ate it alive, blood sweet as rain on her tongue.

Then nothing happened for a time in Dia’s world. She didn’t know that a hundred million Empire Shipmen had landed. They established what they called a One-Generation Punitive Governorship, killed most of the remaining men, and enslaved the rest. During this time they buried their stored dead in elaborate stone tombs carved from living rock by the slaves, took on fresh water and food plants, mined nuclear materials for their onboard power supply. They recruited the few surviving men to renew their numbers, and the men were oddly grateful: at least they would live this way. Shipmen were always looking for men to replenish their losses; they were not kind, even to themselves.

And they took the women of Delmoni, the strong women who had survived the twenty years of destruction and the Bombing, for breeding stock, to strengthen the Shipmen of the future. A group of Shipmen happened upon Dia hiding with a stone knife. She gutted one and slashed another across the face before, laughing, they disarmed her and told her she would be taken to the Ship. She was raped fifteen times in the first two days, though that word was meaningless aboard Ship. She memorized the faces of the men who raped her, swearing to kill each of them. Dia did not, of course. Few do.

Dia was one of the last Delmoni women to be pulled onto the Ship. Shortly after the arrival of her group, the Punitive Governorship was recalled and the Ship crammed itself and its horde of surviving microrobots back through the wormhole.

Dia’s story ends here. Many of our tales end that way, with our capture, the sight of our planets dwindling in the aft screens. After that we were Shipwomen. We learned to survive in the Ships, raised children. A few of us grew to love the fierce Ship’s men and the sharp edge of Ship life; some of us rebelled in secret ways. Most of us hunkered down, numb when we needed to be, and passed to our daughters the tales.

I do not know what happened to Delmoni. There were people still alive there, and perhaps they interbred with the Shipmen left behind as permanent occupation forces and became ardent supporters of Empire. This is what the men of Blood Ship Delta told us. Perhaps only a handful still live; perhaps more. Perhaps none.

But I am the twenty-seven-times grandaughter of Dia Chjerman, and I know many tales about Dia and Delmoni, and of others: of Jennhl and her home, the satellite half lost in Parucek Tertia’s rings, and her poems, written by pressing thorns into her skin to save their words; of Constanzia Allameda, who dared the Ship’s captain to single combat under the red skies of Li Po; of Meg Winden of Archimedes 6, who had twelve children when the drones began and kept them all alive. There are a thousand tales: a million.

All our stories end thus: when the Empire Ship at last died, we of Delmoni and all the other conquered places walked free from the ruins, and felt sunlight on our faces again. They still exist, Parucek and Li Po and all the others. And Delmoni exists still, in Dia Chjermen’s tale and now in your memories.

© 2001 Kij Johnson
Tales for the Long Rains, 2001 
Introduction from Tales for the Long Rains, 2001