GlitterShip

GlitterShip is an LGBTQ SF&F fiction podcast - bringing you audio versions of great queer science fiction & fantasy short stories!

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episode 56: GlitterShip Episode #75: "The Chamber of Souls" by Zora Mai Quýnh


The Chamber of Souls by Zora Mai Quỳnh     Today it is announced that our quarantine is over and our refugee camp sufficiently detoxified to enter the Waterlands of Lạc, the home of our rescuers. Cheers and song rise in the air as the airship descends from the sky. A magnificently carved rồng on the bow of the vessel glistens of lacquered red, orange and gold scales, as its body, decorated by gems, wraps under  the hull to reappear in a long curved tail on the other side of the vessel. Thirty days ago, our sinking fishing boat cramped with a hundred refugees fleeing Việt Nam emerged from a hidden corridor of the South China Sea. We were rescued by the Guardians who descended from a similar vessel that barely skimmed the surface of the water and we, arms waving and voices strained in desperation, failed to observe what should have been obvious — that our rescuers bore an element of foreignness that we were wholly unprepared for.   [Full story under the cut.] Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip Episode 75 for June 20, 2019. This is your host, Keffy, and I’m super excited to be sharing this story with you. Our story for today is The Chamber of Souls by Zora Mai Quynh, read by Zora and Rivia. Before we get to it, if you’ve been waiting to pick up your copy of the Tiptree Award Honor Listed book, GlitterShip Year Two, there’s a great deal going on for Pride over at StoryBundle. GlitterShip Year Two is part of a Pride month LGBTQ fantasy fiction bundle. StoryBundle is a pay-what-you-want bundle site. For $5 or more, you can get four great books, and for $15 or more, you’ll get an additional five books, including GlitterShip Year Two, and a story game. That comes to as little as $1.50 per book or game. The StoryBundle also offers an option to give 10% of your purchase amount to charity. The charity for this bundle is Rainbow Railroad, a charity that helps queer folks get to a safe place if their country is no longer safe for them. Zora Mai Quỳnh is a genderqueer Vietnamese writer whose short stories, poems, and essays can be found in The SEA Is Ours, Genius Loci: The Spirit of Place, POC Destroy Science Fiction, Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia Butler, Strange Horizons, and Terraform. Visit her: zmquynh.com. Rivia is a Black and Vietnamese Pansexual Teen who has a passion for reading, video games and music. She says “I’m gender questioning but also questioning whether or not I’m questioning…Isn’t gender just a concept?” You can hear her vocals on Strange Horizon’s podcast for “When she sings…”       The Chamber of Souls by Zora Mai Quỳnh     Today it is announced that our quarantine is over and our refugee camp sufficiently detoxified to enter the Waterlands of Lạc, the home of our rescuers. Cheers and song rise in the air as the airship descends from the sky. A magnificently carved rồng on the bow of the vessel glistens of lacquered red, orange and gold scales, as its body, decorated by gems, wraps under  the hull to reappear in a long curved tail on the other side of the vessel. Thirty days ago, our sinking fishing boat cramped with a hundred refugees fleeing Việt Nam emerged from a hidden corridor of the South China Sea. We were rescued by the Guardians who descended from a similar vessel that barely skimmed the surface of the water and we, arms waving and voices strained in desperation, failed to observe what should have been obvious — that our rescuers bore an element of foreignness that we were wholly unprepared for. “Where do you hail from? Are you in need of assistance?” a Guardian called down to us. The language spoken was Vietnamese, but it sounded as if the tongue of the speaker had been wrapped around a poem and restrung in curves back to us. A slight echo of melody lingered after each word. Silence spread among us at the strangeness of the dialect and though we could make out  the gist of what was spoken, it was interwoven with words and tones we did not recognize. Whispers of warning spread that our rescuers may be agents of the very government we fled. Tentatively, my mother stepped forward to speak what many had waited ten years to voice, “Yạ, greetings, we are refugees, fleeing our homeland of Việt Nam because of the cruelties we experienced there. We respectfully request asylum.” At that, three Guardians leapt onto our boat. Their long black hair, arranged in motley styles that interlaced colorful braided metallic strands with feathers, flapped in the wind as they examined us in our squalor and malnutrition. Their speech clearly carried Vietnamese tones, but their eyes and skin, the features of their faces, their height—they were as tall as the tallest American soldiers, if not taller, and their strange dark tunics, decorated with metallic accouterment, that sheathed one arm and left the other arm bare spoke of a culture completely unfamiliar to us. “Yạ, greetings, grandmother,” a Guardian with jet-black hair spiced with metallic blue said, bowing deeply. “The sea has brought you to us and you are now under the protection of the Waterlands of Lạc, we grant you all sanctuary. I am called ‘Jzan Nguyệt’ after the moon that once carried the tides of our Waterlands. And it is in my hands that you will rest the security of your people, for I am jzan who is the protectorate of these Waterlands.” We were delivered into quarantine soon after our rescue. It was Jzan Nguyệt who brought the news to us: “You will be taken to an atoll island where we will prepare you for entry into our Waterlands.” Mother’s forehead furrowed instantly with concern. I knew what she was thinking; I saw it in her eyes -- the fear of incarceration. So many stories carried their way back to us from people who made it to refugee camps in Malaysia and Thailand, -- stories of starvation, sickness, and festering away like prisoners while waiting for dreams that never materialized. “Are we prisoners?” Mother’s voice quivered. “No.” “Then why...?” “Because in our country, your senses are severely impaired. You must acclimate. Because you carry toxins and you must detoxify lest you bring death and illness to our people.” In that moment, in Nguyệt’s voice, I did not hear the graceful generosity we were accustomed to, but a fierceness that seemed immovable. Despite our fears, though, our “quarantine” was more like a paradise vacation. Instead of barbed wire fences, rationed food, and poorly ventilated stalls, we were surrounded by miles of green coral reef, a never-ending buffet of rice, nut dishes, fresh fruits, vegetables, and cool bamboo mats to sleep under the rounded canopy of the sky. Quarantine reflected the imagined freedom that many among us dreamed of. The freedom that I envision is different though. I want inclusion, to belong somewhere — to be valued – to be more than the label Việt Nam gave to me—the untrustworthy child of a political dissident. How that freedom will look in the rescuers’ land, I do not know. Would we be equal members of their society, or a relief effort from some war-torn country?   As we board their airship, I notice that our steps, frenzied and awkward when we entered quarantine, are replaced by lightness as children skip, lovers hold hands, and elders stroll side-by-side. My own mother is all smiles, her arm crooked unevenly through the arm of my aunt as they board together. Despite all of this, I can’t help but feel an odd mixture of excitement, anxiety, and remorse about journeying to a land that will become our new home -- to replace the one we lost. The airship picks up speed, rising into the sky and the Guardians pull on ropes and equipment, preparing for flight. I hear sobs break out as we watch them. It is not what they are doing that is disturbing; it is how fast they are moving. Our eyes can only catch their faces and limbs momentarily before they are in different locations on the airship. In quarantine, they had moved with languor and ease. The thrill of our trip is foreshortened as it becomes apparent that wherever we are going, we will not be among peers. “What is happening?” someone wails, “how is it that they can move so fast?” I reflexively dig my fists into my eyes to block out the movements of the Guardians. The sound of balloons filling with hot air and the smell of thick plumes of steam dominate my senses and I breath in the warm humid air wishing I were back home. When I finally lift my fists from my eyes, the vessel is surrounded by a blue film behind which the clouds move by at such a tremendous speed that they are just a blur. I not only see the movement but I also feel it in the gut of my stomach. It begins as a slow nauseous churning that becomes pain seizing my entire body. I fall over, buckling on the deck, collapsing alongside my countrymen whose kicking legs and flailing arms bruise my sides. In the din, I hear the gruff shouts of Guardians in their twisted tongue as the vessel decreases markedly in speed. “Your people cannot travel at our speeds—it appears to result in severe internal degeneration,” a Guardian says to me and immediately my spirit sinks. What was it? What was it that makes us so different from them when they look just like us? When they speak our words? When they bear our faces? “We must leave you behind. At this decreased acceleration, we will be open to attack. We are charged to take Nan Ngọc swiftly back to the Guardian compound. We will leave behind sufficient Guardians to protect you.” “Protect us from what?” But the Guardian has already moved on. That sinking feeling lodges deeper inside me and I find myself wishing I were back on my dilapidated fishing boat where I felt, at the very least, human among human beings. I rise in search of Ngọc. Of all our rescuers, it is Ngọc that I feel the most connected to. Ironic since it was Ngọc that all of us feared the most at first. We all met Ngọc shortly after our rescue as they distributed tea and rice into our wearied hands. I was dumbstruck by their beauty. Underneath their skin, which wavered between translucency and unblemished coppery bronze, were several layers of rotating gears that intertwined with leafy vines and moss that made up the substance of their body. Their eyes, twin orbs of jade, were fanned by small turquoise and deep blue feathers that added softness to their human-like face. From the top of their head trailed braided branches and vines from which mahogany green leaves, mushrooms, and dark flowers emerged. “Yạ greetings, Nan Ngọc,” I said as they handed a warm gourd of rice to me, “that is also our family name.” The automaton made no acknowledgement of my attempt at familiarity. “Yạ, Nan Ngọc,” I began again, “please tell me again what it is that you do so that we may know what to call on you for?” “Yạ, I am here to provide you with food, water, and all that you require while you detoxify. And to collect your souls should you perish.” Their words silenced me and I was afraid to speak to them further. Many of us avoided Ngọc for fear that their intention was to take our souls like a demon. But Ngọc was boring for the most part, and I saw in their actions nothing mystical or magical. During our quarantine, they spent most of the time cycling through the preparation of nut dishes. Within their limbs were various sharp instruments that revealed themselves once their appendages were removed. With these, Ngọc chopped, diced, crushed and blended nuts with noisy vigor. When nightfall fell in the quarantine camp, Ngọc didn’t slept. Instead, they sat in the middle of camp, surrounded by four Guardians, as if in a meditative state. I laid silently on my bamboo mat studying with relish their every detail, the way the firelight bounced off their gears and the braid of vines down their back graced with small black flowers. “Is it a custom of your people to gaze at others for long periods of time?” they finally asked one evening. Startled, I blushed, feeling the heat of embarrassment from being caught. “Yạ, apologies, it’s just that -- we have nothing like you in our country.” “I am the only one of my kind.” “What are you?” I asked, slowly inching my way closer to them. “I am an automaton created to hold souls.” My face wrinkled in confusion. “Hold souls?” “Yes. In the catastrophes of this world, souls have been lost to the dark void that surrounds our world never to return from the void from which you emerged.” “You mean the South China Sea?” “If that was what it was for you. Our alchemists believe that the void is a transitory medium between universes.” “Universes?” I remember straining to understand Ngọc, feeling slightly abashed to have no knowledge of the world beyond my own country where I spent most of my youth serving in the Women’s Army. All that I knew was of war and fighting -- not of other worlds and universes. “In this void, we have lost valuable lineages, many of our people becoming ancestorless. I was created to preserve souls within the Waterlands until a new life is conceived.” “How can that be possible?” “Within the core of my body is a chamber made of the searing of air, fire, molten metal and the tears of the kin of those that have departed. When someone passes, if a new vessel is not available, those that guard over death ensure the soul’s safe passage into the chamber where it awaits rebirth.” Their words were a mystery to me and I stared uncomprehending at their chest, searching for the chamber that they spoke of. “It is protected, you will not be able to see it, try as you might.” “So if one of us dies…” but I left my question hanging, afraid to complete it and Ngọc offered no answer.   As usual, I find Ngọc surrounded by four Guardians. “Perhaps this will calm the nerves of your people,” Ngọc says, deftly pouring tea into small gourds. I have always thought it a bit funny that the Guardians would be entrusted to guard someone whose main function is to brew tea and prepare snacks. “Can I help?” I offer, finding immediate comfort in being near Ngọc. A tray of gourds filled with hot tea is pushed my way. Lifting the tray, I follow closely behind Ngọc to the chaos of the upper deck. My people are huddled sobbing and shaking, some still writhing in pain. Without warning, their screams of pain are replaced by terror as a loud explosion tears through the air. Beside our vessel where once there is empty sky, a large ebony creature appears roaring like madness, encircling our vessel, its long body oscillating in waves of shimmering green. I am so filled with astonishment that I forget to be afraid, marveling at the sheer beauty of it. Its large red eyes glow as it circles the boat with a large ocular device on its left eye. From its serpentine back, several people flip and rotate onto the deck, transforming into flashes of light that flit about in all directions. Immediately I find myself thrust against Ngọc as Guardians press their backs to us. My tray tips over spilling hot tea onto my chest and I howl at the scalding water, falling to my knees at Ngọc’s feet. The Guardians spring into motion, forming layers of protection around Ngọc. Their movements are so fast that dizziness besets me. Above me Ngọc’s arms cross into a protective stance. The air moves around me and I feel something graze my side. The Guardians dance in rapid spins, jabs and thrusts, slashing at a force I cannot make out. The shine of blades I have never seen them carry send sparks into the air. In the distance, I hear my mother scream and I attempt to dart out from under Ngọc  towards the sound of her voice only to find myself slam against an invisible barrier. For long moments I claw and pound at the blue aura that surrounds Ngọc. Only when I feel Ngọc’s body fall hard against me, am I finally able to move. Then it is the circle of Guardians that serves as my obstacle. Around me, Guardians continue to clash their swords with an enemy whose face and body I can only glimpse, metallic gears in segments on their limbs and their naked torsos. I cradle Ngọc in my arms, quivering in fear at the bloodshed all around us. Then a Guardian howls, landing on the deck in front of me, leaving me face to face with a person whose chest and torso is torn, frozen gears underneath flesh instead of muscle, tissue, and blood. The person lunges at Ngọc, moving faster than I have ever seen anyone being move. I crouch, bracing myself for impact. Light surrounds me and I feel the brace of a death grip on my arms. I cling tighter to Ngọc, feeling their softness give way to a cold hard outer shell incapable of responding to my embrace. Pain rips through me as if I’m being torn molecule by molecule and darkness engulfs me.   When I awake, I am laying in a corner of an unfamiliar dark room. Voices swirl around me, echoing indistinctly. I attempt to rise but vertigo grips me as a sharp pain throbs in my head. My stomach begins to rumble dangerously and bile rises in my throat making me keel over,  vomiting to my side. I hear scuffing near me. Above me are stalactites, their drippings falling to a small puddle beside me, and I realize that I am inside a cave. I feel the splash of cold water on my face, startling me. Beside me kneels a woman, gears and pulleys curl within her right eye, sliding down her neck and shoulders to her torso, the blue and red of veins snaking around the gears. I reel at the sight of her, hitting my back hard on the rock wall behind me. Sounds of a blade slicing into metal come from behind the woman where, on a table lit  only by a few torches, lies Ngọc, still as death, a man hovering above them with a round swiveling blade in his hand. I call out to Ngọc, but my own voice comes out hoarse, barely audible. The man at the table turns towards me, diving down towards me faster than I can catch my breath. He pulls my head back and stares at me, his eyes boring through me. On the left side of his bare torso are gears that run the length of his chest and down his left arm. He shakes me violently and I attempt to push back at him only to find my wrists and ankles bound. “Who are you?” he asks me, “why can’t we map you?” “What?” I respond confused. Then the sharp sound of blades begin again and I can see that the woman has resumed their attempt to cut into Ngọc’s chest. “What are you doing to them?” I demand. The man shoves me against the wall. “Why can’t we map you?” he yells. “Map me? I don’t know what you are talking about.” He strikes me hard, flat across my face. I spit at him in frustration, unsure of whether I understand his odd accent correctly. I draw back and flail my body attempting to strike at him, but I only manage to tumble over, sliding down the slippery rock floor causing my rubbery bindings to tighten. Waving an impatient arm my way, the woman calls out, drawing the man back to the table where together they pry open Ngọc’s chest. Sobs I cannot control pour from me as Ngọc’s beautiful braided vines and gears are torn from their innards leaving their hull barren, protruding with jagged edges of cut metal. Over the next few days, frustration and anxiety begins to build between my captors as they dig with more and more ferocity into Ngọc’s chest. Watching their dissection piece-by-piece kills a part of me. Their chest is now completely bared, their side panels torn aside to reveal a thick inner metallic cylindrical core. “It’s too thick, it’s impossible to cut through,” I hear one of them say. “Maybe there is a way to bring jzan soul to prominence,” the other replies. Their arguments are punctuated by moments when I am dragged to the table and thrown over Ngọc. Their movements are as swift as the Guardians, and every time I am moved, I feel as if I am being torn from the inside out, my vomit becoming filtered with my own blood. “Open the chamber!” they demand, pointing to Ngọc’s chest. “I can’t!” I say over and over but their eyes show only disbelief before flinging me against the wall.   Days I cannot track pass. Perpetual darkness shrouds the cave. Dehydration causes my lips to crack while hunger continuously tears at me and I have soiled on myself more times than I can remember. My stench must have become ripe because one day I awake to being dragged across the cave floor and thrown into water. I startle awake to find myself drenched and sitting in a pond of water in the shadows of the cave. In its depths I see what looks like an opening into an underwater tunnel. Underground caves! Near our fishing village was an entire vast network of them. From time to time I swam through them. I had never swam more than a mile—but if that was the only route of escape I had… A thought comes to me. I cannot move as fast as they can, I can never outrun them, but I can swim. I can swim as far as my strength can take me. And I can disappear into the water, into mud, into dust. I have done it time and again in the war—and when I fled my country. I begin watching Ngọc with more vigilance. The woman often takes to napping, laying her head on the table, as the man continues to tinker with Ngọc. From time to time he too would doze, leaning back in his seat and crossing his arms. Then they’d wake and circle around Ngọc, fervid expressions on their faces. On the fourth observation of this cycle, I decide to act. I wait until the woman lays her head down in exasperation. The man always follows soon after her. When he lifts his legs to the table and his chin comes to rest on his chest, my heart begins to beat wildly in anticipation. When I hear his light snoring begin, I roll quickly to the table and reach up to slip my bound arms around Ngọc’s neck. Pulling Ngọc towards me, I brace for their weight, but they are not as heavy as I predicted; they had been severely hollowed out. With them resting on me, I scuttle to the edge of the pond and slip silently into the water. Through the opening of the tunnel, I swim like a dolphin, my arms and legs still bound, holding Ngọc at my side in a chokehold. Where the tunnel will lead me, I do not know. How much I will have to swim before I find air, I do not know. At this point, I no longer care. I swim as far as I can, allowing the opening to pull me. Darkness surrounds me and my lungs begin to burn but still I swim. My instinct is to go upwards so I pump until my head hits the top of a rock ceiling. I search for air pockets and find several small ones where I swallow mouthfuls of air. Time begins to fail me and after a while I begin to feel as if an eternity has passed as I meander through the water endlessly and desperately searching for air pockets. I do not know how long I have been swimming, whether it has been hours or days—I only know that my ability to swim longer distances is becoming shorter and that the slow creep of panic is beginning to overtake me. A few more circles through the tunnels and I begin to get dizzy, feeling as if I have been turned around, afraid that I would swim back into the cave that I escaped from. Time and again I find myself slamming my fists at finding the same pocket of air—feeling the crude markings I had scratched with my own nails on the rock ceiling. Then the moment came, as I knew it surely would—when my bound ankles cannot pump any longer, when my arms begin to resist pushing through the water, when I am too weary to hold my head high enough to breathe. I feel myself sinking, Ngọc still locked in my arms. Weariness from somewhere deep in my bones overcomes me. Stranded in a large air pocket that I seem to keep coming back to, I begin to sob. My bound fingers feel all over Ngọc’s shorn jagged parts. There is no button that I can push, nothing to flip, nothing to switch on or off. Frustrated, I throw myself against them, banging their head against the top of the air pocket. “Wake up damn it!” I sputter, water beginning to seep into my lungs. Then I laugh. I laugh at the absurdity of my journey. At the flight in the dead of night from our fishing village, at the days lost, dying of starvation in the South China Sea, to being rescued and stationed in an island paradise by the oddest people I’d ever met, to being taken by an air serpent and machine people and bound wallowing in my own filth in a dark cave with an automaton made of pieces of a clock and leaves. I laughed at how ludicrous it all was. “I am unsure whether you expressing happiness or grief.” Ngọc’s voice startles me and I turn them over. Their eyes light up and for the first time in what feels like days, light painfully dilates my eyes. The gears along the side of their head, which was sliced open, rotate a few clicks. “Ngọc!” I say, excitement and adrenaline rushing me. But then their jade eyes fade and I am left in darkness once again. My fingers fumble along their head, searching for the gears I just saw. Once I feel them, I manually rotate them. “It appears that we are situated in a very precarious position.” The air pocket illuminates with the green glow of Ngọc’s eyes. “We’re in an underground cave system. We need to find a way out.” I watch as the gears on Ngoc’s head rotate. “I can map us, but it will make our position known.” Their last words wind down slowly and I immediately rotate their gears. “Map us? What does that mean? They kept asking me why I could not be mapped.” “In our world, all living creatures exist in a vast Fabric.” I reach out to wind their gears before they slow down. “I am equipped to connect to a wavelength that is receivable upon the Fabric. It is not a direct link because only those who follow the jzan path can open a direct channel. I will use the organisms in this pond to relate us.” “Jzan Nguyệt will be able to receive it and locate us?” “Yes. You cannot be mapped because you are not from our world.” “Not from your world?” That same sinking feeling came back to me. Am I a ghost?  “I can instruct you on how to enable it but once it is on, I will be open to both the Guardians and the Machinists.” “Machinists?” “Those that brought us here.” “What choice do we have? We will die down here.” “You will die.” I sigh. “But what I hold is of great importance. I cannot remain here lost in this cave.” “How do I turn it on? But first, tell me how I can get one of your blades.”   After I enable the mechanism, Ngọc directs our course through the tunnel until we reach a river. Relief fills me as I roll onto my back and swim with Ngọc strapped onto my belly. Inhaling deeply, I can taste the difference in the air. “Who are they? The Machinists—they had machines in their bodies.” “They are not made of machines. What you saw were brandings that were inscribed on their bodies.” “Drawn on them?” “Yes, for their beliefs, in opposition to the Guardians’ markings.” I hear a hint of resentment in Ngoc’s words and I wonder if that is even possible for an automaton. “What are their beliefs?” The river narrows into an enclosed tunnel. “This is a question better suited for another time. This will be your last swim before we reach the opening of this cave. Beyond it is a waterfall.” “How long will I swim?” “Approximately two minutes.” “Two minutes Ngọc? I can’t hold my breath for two minutes!” “Midway through, the current will strengthen, increasing your speed.” Ngoc’s words are not reassuring. “I don’t have two minutes,” I say sadly. “If you activate my chamber, I will be ready to collect your soul.” I turn toward them, horrified. It registers my horror without response. Closing my eyes, I prepare myself. I can swim, I tell myself. If nothing else, I can swim. Then I grab Ngọc and propel myself off the top wall of the cave. Making broad strokes, I scale the length of the tunnel as fast as I can. My unbound hands and legs move water past us with all the velocity I can manage. I cannot move as fast as them, I cannot see, hear, nor speak like they do, but I can swim. The current does begin to pull us forcefully, but not soon enough as the burning in my lungs begins to give way to darkness. Consciousness begins to leave me and my arms and legs slow down, unable to respond any longer. Just as water begins to fill my lungs, blinding light stings my eyes and air rushes at me, clear beautiful fresh air. Wrapping myself around Ngọc, I brace myself as we plummet down a waterfall. A load blast ruptures the air followed by a flash of light that whizzes past us. Jzan Nguyệt’s airship appears and beside it, the Machinists’ enormous raven beast carrying several Machinist’s on its haunches. Both trail beside us as we plummet. Tumbling through the air, Nguyệt leaps from the ship to seize us, side-sweeping the blows of three Machinists who also plunge towards us. Guardians fling themselves from the airship after the Machinists who twirl in the air as they are falling. In flashes and streaks their blades meet as I am catapulted back onto to airship in Nguyệt’s grip, landing in a painful thud on the floor of the deck, my limbs still wrapped around Ngọc. Immediately I feel my insides resist the speed of the movement and I dry heave onto the deck attempting to grasp onto a reality that refuses to remain still. Pain cleaves through my mind, searing my body as the ship maneuvers towards the waterfall below the tumbling Guardians. Deflecting the Machinists, the Guardians tumble onto the airship and, before I can even register their appearance, the ship spins wildly and leans sharply to the left. A hand grabs me as I rocket down the deck and Nguyệt’s palm comes to rest flat against my forehead, flooding me with calmness, taking my pain—and my consciousness.   When I awake, Ngọc is beside me, their face and chest barren. Jagged cuts jut from all angles of them where the Machinists’ blade has sawed through them. “We have arrived,” Nguyệt approaches me, bowing, “You have our deepest gratitude for returning Ngọc to us.” Around the ship is the sea and in the distance along a foggy horizon is the outline of a mountain with the vague rings of a city encircling it. Near it are a dozen or more narrow mountains that jut above the fog, some connected by a thin bridge. “Yạ, please accept our apologies for your troubles,” Nguyệt says, “It was our intent to acclimate your people slowly to our world, to find ways to address the limitations of your senses. I regret the difficult introduction you have all had.” “They are safe?” I ask, ignoring jzan inferences about my abilities, feeling a twinge of humiliation. “Yạ, yes, and awaiting your arrival.” “The Machinists—they were tearing Ngọc apart—why?” Nguyệt turns to look at me, jzan eyes thoughtful with concerns that stretched far outside the scope of the question. I can feel the ship rise gradually and I cannot help but wonder if we are traveling slowly for my benefit. Chagrin fills me. “The Machinist have attempted many times to take Nan Ngọc. It is the chamber within nan body that they seek. Ngọc carries the soul of one of their deceased, a truly gifted alchemist and warrior. We believe they are attempting to secure certain reincarnation of that soul.” “That,” I hesitate, “Can be done?” “It cannot be done, but there are those that believe it possible. The Machinist believe many things that are not possible.” The clouds part and we pass a mountain of elegant green rice terraces. I feel as if I am returning home, nostalgia thick in my throat. Turning from the majestic countryside towards the mountains looming in the distance, I expect to see meandering rivers, urban roads and the signs of a civilization. But instead what I see is each mountain island, unconnected to each other, standing solitary, floating by itself surrounded by nothing but the air. “Where...” I turn to Nguyệt, “Where is the rest of the ocean?”   No matter how sharp my combat maneuvers are or how well synchronized my movements through the Bronze Drum choreography is, it is evident that I lack the basic abilities for candidacy as a Guardian. The taste of my own blood from hitting the ground after missing the inaudible cue of the young Guardian leading the entrance trials still lingers in my mouth. I was disqualified immediately, as were about a hundred and fifty other natives. I walk slowly back to the home we had been granted by the Guardians, ignoring as much as I can of the world around me that I fail to fully experience. Jzan Nguyệt’s words come back to haunt me, “in our country, your senses are severely impaired.” I am only beginning to brush the surface of the meaning of these words. “How were the candidacy trials?” mother asks me when I return home. “The trials were difficult. What it is that they see, I do not know and I can’t figure out fast enough to respond. I cannot hear what they are saying half the time and they have to make special hand signals just to make sure I can detect the nuances of their speech. Only those that move like lightning have a chance and even they have a second trial to undergo.” I cannot finish, feeling frustration welling inside of me. I rise instead, and retreat to my bamboo mat, feeling the weight of my mother’s sympathy behind me like an unwanted embrace. I lay my head down only to hear moments later a familiar voice at our rooftop entrance. I rise instantly, walking quickly to the courtyard where I am met by Ngọc, fully restored and followed by four Guardians who graciously entertain mother’s discussion of our region’s dishes. Upon seeing me, Ngọc excuses themself to greet me, leaving the Guardians behind to sample mother’s experimental recipes. “I have come with condolences for today’s trials.” I feel embarrassed at their words. “You did not need to do that.” “It is only reasonable that someone capable of escaping the Machinist, even given your limitations, would aspire to be a Guardian.” I don’t know whether to take their words warmly or to be offended. “I have something to show you. Somewhere private?” I am confused. I have not known Ngọc to ever require discretion; nevertheless, I direct them to my bamboo mat. “What you have, no other Guardian candidate can match.” “What’s that?” I asked, unconvinced. “Your knowledge, your memories.” At these words, Ngọc taps their chest and a small panel slides out. “What do you remember of this?” they asks as I stare at the handcrafted instrument in the middle of the panel. It is made of the finest bamboo embellished with an intricate metallic circular design; its handle displays ornate carvings and its series of bronze gears are polished to a shine. An intricate eyepiece is mounted on top of it to increase its accuracy. Though its machinery is different, the addition of gears and gadgets here and there adding some element of functionality I do not understand, it is, in essence, not unlike any other pistol I have ever seen or fired, though the barrel could probably stand to be improved to increase bullet speed. I do know about this. I knew about when it had been pointed at me and when I had held it in my own hands in the war. I turn to Ngọc. “Is this something the Guardians want? Or Jzan Nguyệt? These can bring death and violence. I thought they were all about nonviolence and peace.” “It is for neither.” “Then who—?” I stopped mid-sentence and drew back from Ngọc, wondering for the first time whom I had really rescued. “It is time for a new era, a new focus, one that will bring us back where we belong. Your memory and your contribution will be priceless, and your place among us cemented.” “Us?” I ask. Ngọc makes no reply. I reach for the pistol then, feeling its weight in my hand, stroking its intricate gears, and its handcrafted eye scope. With the exception of Ngọc, it is the most beautiful thing I have ever laid eyes on.   END   “The Chamber of Souls” was originally published in The Sea Is Ours and is copyright Zora Mai Quynh 2015. This recording is a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license which means you can share it with anyone you’d like, but please don’t change or sell it. Our theme is “Aurora Borealis” by Bird Creek, available through the Google Audio Library. You can support GlitterShip by checking out our Patreon at patreon.com/keffy, subscribing to our feed, leaving reviews on iTunes, or buying your own copy of the Autumn 2018 issue at www.glittership.com/buy. You can also support us by picking up a free audiobook at  www.audibletrial.com/glittership. Thanks for listening, and we’ll be back soon with a GlitterShip original, “Of Clockwork Hearts and Metal Iguanodons” by Jennifer Lee Rossman.


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 20 June 2019  39m