Winner of the 2020 Hugo Award for Best Short Story.
An alternate history short story looking at decisions and consequences, and what it takes to pull the trigger.
A growing crowd of protesters trudged doggedly through the flurrying snow, bundled up into roundness against the cold until they resembled determined beetles. Back and forth they went, marching in a wobbly loop, their heads down against the wind but their voices strident as they fell into a chant:
Don’t kill children, kill the seres!
Before we all destroy ourselves!
Up in the window of the garret three stories above, Nyma watched them trundle and call. They didn’t have a very good chant, she couldn’t help thinking. “Seres” wasn’t even a hard word to rhyme—fears, years, tears . . .
She leaned her forehead against the window pane. The glass was cold.
She hadn’t yet felt the presence of her tutor in the doorway behind her. In truth, Tej had opened his mouth to speak out several times, only to swallow back the frigid air instead. He was, if he were to scrape away any illusions—and Tej was not a man who lied to himself, when he could avoid it—trying to best himself in a moral struggle.
“You shouldn’t watch that,” he said to Nyma. Peace help him, but the garret was freezing. He folded his hands into the sleeves of his robe, wondering how Nyma wasn’t shivering.
Children were always so resilient. Too resilient.
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As the Last I May Know
“It’s my job now,” Nyma said into the window, the words fog on the pane.
“It doesn’t have to be.” Now that he’d broken, the words tumbled out of Tej like they wanted to barb into the child’s heart and keep her here. “You understand that, right? You can—you can say no.”
Nyma knew. Her tutors had taught her: she would always have a choice. But they’d also taught her why her duties were so vital, and why those duties had to be done by someone young, if not her then one of her classmates.
And she believed them. She believed in the Order and everything it stood for.
Dying scared her. A lot. The idea of it was so impossibly big and black that she couldn’t even hold it in her head. But it didn’t scare her enough to break the faith—not when her name had been the one drawn.
Of course, the news feeds said she shouldn’t be allowed to choose this life at all, blasting the Order for following the old ways. Ten-year-olds are too young to agree to this; they can’t make that decision for themselves; it’s inhumane! Some of those people wanted the Order disbanded. Some of them wanted only adults to follow its dictates, people who had passed the magic threshold of being able to say yes to saving the world.
Those same news feeds were markedly less certain whether butchering the Order’s traditions should also mean dismantling the nation’s stockpile of sere missiles.
“You taught me,” Nyma said to Tej. “It’s important. We’re important.”
Not as important as your life, Tej wanted to cry, wanted to fold her into him like his own daughter instead of one of his pupils, even as that betrayed every fiber of what he’d always fought for. “It doesn’t have to be you,” he managed instead. “We didn’t know it would be like—this. You can say no to it. To him.”
Nyma turned from the window, her freckles blotching dark on her pale skin, her eyes so large they took up half her face. “He’s scary,” she whispered. “Will you come with me? When I have to meet him?”
Tej had to turn away, then, because it wouldn’t do for Nyma to see one of her tutors weep.
Nobody thought Otto Han would win the election. He was the quiet outsider candidate, the one who’d kept pecking at his place in the polls until he rose up when all the others had shouted themselves out.
He wasn’t even the one who had most worried the Order, at first—that honor had gone to the demagogue candidate who fanned the flames of mounting war until her supporters screamed in violent ecstasy. She had burned out brighter and faster than the swell of rage she had dug from the populace. The tension in the Order had fallen into palpable relief when she’d plummeted in public opinion, even as she’d left behind a smear of angry demonstrators yelling, “We have seres, we should use them!”
They didn’t understand, those people. They had forgotten. The Order was built not to forget.
It wasn’t until two weeks before the election that a reporter asked Otto Han his opinion of sere missiles. “I think if it makes the most military sense for the protection of our nation, we need to use every tool at our disposal,” he’d answered. “We’re at war. Everything should be on the table.”
The reply sparked panic in the Order, but got far too little notoriety elsewhere. The Order Elders wired their contacts in the feeds, begging other newsfolk to press Han hard and ask the important questions, before it was too late:
How can you justify a weapon that will vaporize an entire city in a single instant—buildings, children, hospitals, prisoners of war, millions of innocent civilian people, everything for so many hundreds of miles—gone? How is that not a war crime?
How can you reconcile that with history, our history, as the only country in the world who has had sere weapons used against us? How can you do what we have always considered the unthinkable?
And, the most relevant one to a ten-year-old Order girl and those who knew her:
Do you truly wish to use such weapons so badly, that you would be willing to do as the law requires and murder a child of your own land with your own hands in order to gain access to them?
But there hadn’t been time. Nobody had asked Han any of those questions until after he’d already won.
The poem Nyma returned to most often had been written by Akuta Myssoutoi two hundred years ago, after he’d lost everyone in his family in the destruction of the Capital.
The snow falls over nothing.
I beg three small graves to place incense
But echos have no tombs.
The bleakness of it had been a touchstone for the beliefs she’d been raised with, a reaffirmation of the Order’s righteousness.
Now the words of that final stanza kept circling in her head, echoing dully. Behind them loomed the granite image of President Otto Han, standing above her with a knife, his hands soaked crimson with her blood.
She gripped Tej’s hand. Fear made all her senses too sharp.
It was okay to be scared, right? As long as she did her duty. Her chest ached over the scar where the surgeons had put the capsule in. It had been over a month ago now, after the election but before Han’s induction into office. In that time, the ache felt like it had become a part of her.
She and Tej walked together down the long archways of the Capital, the metal and stone gleaming into the sky around them. One tall dark man, one small pale girl, and no one could have said who was grasping whose hand more tightly.
When they reached the Tower, the new president did not keep them waiting. A series of smartly dressed staff showed them in with no delay, not even a question as to who they might be. Even if their robes had not marked them out, their faces were already known here.
Otto Han rose from behind his desk to greet them in a stiff but polite bow. Tej bowed equally stiffly in return.
He’s so much bigger in person, Nyma thought numbly. And he was hard. Like if you touched him, your hand would break.
“Elder Rokaya,” he said to Tej, in something that passed for a greeting. “And this must be my carrier.”
“Yes, sir,” said Nyma. “My name is—”
“I don’t want to know your name.” He turned back to Tej. “You Order priests are animals. This is barbaric.”
“Her name is Nyma,” Tej said quietly, but his thoughts were not so calm. Seres are what is barbaric. Whether to engage in such barbarism is your choice, not ours. The president could say, right now, that he would not use the weapons that defied all humanity and could spell the end of every life on their world. He could proclaim that Nyma would be safe and that the position would be as ceremonial as it had been in the past.
He was the one who refused.
“I’ve been briefed,” Han said. “And I said to my generals, it’s hundreds of years later, surely we have a better way of doing this. But you people have embedded yourselves right in the roots of our laws, haven’t you?”
“We think it’s the best way, sir.” It wasn’t Tej who had spoken, but Nyma, forcing the words around the dryness in her mouth. You must talk to the president. You must be a part of their mind, their life. Her tutors’ words were a drumbeat in her head.
Han wrested his attention around to her, and Nyma quailed.
“Of course you do,” he said. He turned back to Tej. “You people teach her to say this, and then if I need the codes for the weapons that could protect us all, you put them inside a child and tell me I have to slaughter her. You’re despicable.”
Tej had to force his expression to stillness. “Sir.”
“Do you know what the Baron Islands are doing to our people in the southern territories right now? Do you know what they’ve promised to do to the people of Koivu and Mikata? Koivu has sere missiles themselves. If the Islanders get a hold of that technology . . . trust me, they won’t force their leaders to kill little girls in order to use them. Even if they did, those leaders wouldn’t hesitate.”
Tej could have argued every one of those points for hours. He could have pointed out balances of power and morality, or expounded on the Order’s core belief, that no one should be able to push a button from the sanctuary of an office and kill so many faceless children far away if they could not see the justification to execute the one in front of them.
Without such a burden, how would any president fully understand what he did when he asked to use such weapons?
“I’m told she’s to be a bodyman to me,” Han said. “I’m told I can’t say no.”
“That’s correct, sir,” Tej answered. The carrier had to be always physically nearby in case she was, Peace forbid, needed. That part was for the president. But if she could also form an emotional closeness, it might save not only her life but the lives of millions, and that was the mission of the Order.
“All right, Elder, you’re dismissed. Nyma, was it?” He towered over her.
“I hope you know. I don’t want this.”
Nyma didn’t know how to reply. Did she want this, just because she had chosen it? Did the Order want it, because they believed it was necessary? Did anybody want it?
Another verse from the same Myssoutoi poem swirled through her head.
I listened to us surrender on the wireless.
No choice, they said.
They said the same when we went to war.
Nyma sat in the corner of the president’s Tower office, biting the end of her stylus. It was a bad habit of hers, one her teachers had tried hard to break her of but had always failed. She wore Tower livery now, her thin hair braided neatly like the ushers and servants, but everyone still knew—she saw it in the way they walked in arcs around her, or whispered while not looking her way.
“What are you thinking about so hard over there?”
Nyma jumped. Try as she had to engage him, Otto Han had barely spoken to her if he could avoid it. He thanked her when she brought him files or drinks or carried his things, but he’d certainly never asked her a question.
“I’m trying to think of a rhyme, sir,” she answered honestly.
“A rhyme? Whatever for?”
“I like poetry.” She closed her pad and turned so she could face where he sat at the wide presidential desk. “I know it doesn’t always have to rhyme. But I’m not a good enough poetess yet to do the unrhyming ones.”
“Poetess, eh? All right, let’s hear one.”
A warm flush crept up Nyma’s neck. Her Order tutors had encouraged her interest—it was always good for carriers to be full people, they said, children with personalities who would be missed if they were gone, and besides that, the hope was that even those chosen would always have an adult life to grow into. But Nyma had never recited one of her poems aloud before.
Most of the ones she’d written lately were bleak. Just yesterday she’d composed a verse titled “Next Year?” with the lines, Peach petals drift down / Cheerful pink snow / And I clasp them to me / As the last I may know.
The president was still far too intimidating to share that one with. What if he shouted at her? Worse, what if he brushed it off, or laughed, when he was the one who held the answer to the question in his hands?
“Here’s one I wrote when we were visiting the farming country a few weeks ago,” she said, after rapidly deciding what might be harmless to recite. Pretty farms were safe, right? She took a breath and plunged in before nerves could steal her tongue.
She managed to get through all five stanzas, but trailed off as she got to the end. Otto Han was smiling. She hadn’t known he could smile.
“You made that up all by yourself?” he said, when she had stopped.
“Well, I’ll be.” He rose and came over to stand next to her, staring out the Tower windows to the shiny quilt of the Capital below. “I love our people, Nyma. Can you understand that?”
“I think so, sir.” Nyma loved their people too. She’d been taught their nation’s history since before she could walk. “I think I love all people. But one thing I love most about us is how important other countries’ people are to us, too.”
“Ah. Your Order.” He rested a brief, rough hand on her shoulder. “I still don’t agree. But I’d be more than glad for you to grow up to argue with me about it.”
His mouth quirked. “I shouldn’t say, but—you deserve to know. The war’s going well. It’s all going well. We got news today that—mmm, let’s just say I don’t think I’m going to have to make any decisions nobody should have to make.”
A queer, swoopy feeling fluttered through Nyma’s stomach.
“Mind you, I still think you being here is barbaric,” Han continued.
In a burst of courage, Nyma slipped to her feet and grabbed the president’s arm. “What do you see?” she said. “When you look out these windows at the Capital, and all the people and buildings, what do you see?”
He glanced down at her, surprise writ clear on his expression. “I suppose I see . . . progress. Prosperity. Things worth protecting.”
“In the Order they teach us to look at the city and imagine it . . . imagine what happened two hundred years ago,” Nyma said. “They say not to think about the whole city, that’s too big. You have to look at the small things.” She pointed at the streets that crisscrossed below them. “Like that woman in the green coat. Just—gone. She’s gone. The couple holding hands over by the pigeons. They’re gone, too. All the pigeons, and the street, and that shop selling flowers, and the kids playing in front of it. And then you think about your family. If you have parents, or friends, anyone you love—how they could also just be gone, all at once.” She licked her lips. It was the longest she’d ever talked in a row to the president. “The whole city. Two hundred years ago, that happened. The Havenites did that to us. That’s what I see. And I can’t bear the thought of it happening again, to anyone.”
She half expected him to tell her this was only what she had been taught from the mouths of meddling grown-ups. But he didn’t. Instead he said, “Do you have a family, Nyma?”
The question surprised her. “My parents were both in the Order, sir. They were raising me that way too, but they died in a tram crash when I was a baby and left me with the Elders. It’s a good education.”
“With a price. Do the Elders let you have friends?”
“Of course. My friends can’t visit me much here, but we write to each other.” The writing had dropped off of late. It made Nyma’s heart give a funny little twist. Her classmates didn’t seem to know how to speak to her now that she had been chosen—now that she had been chosen and they hadn’t. “And some of my tutors are my friends. Like Tej.”
Han made a noncommittal sound. “Tell me, Nyma. Do you write poetry about all this?”
“Peace knows you shouldn’t have to listen to anything I say, but I think . . . I think you should keep on doing that. Is that all right?”
“Yes, sir.” It had never occurred to her to stop.
Nyma was off with the presidential cadre on a diplomatic trip the day she turned twelve years old, but when she returned the following week, Tej brought a box of birthday teacakes to their class session.
“You remembered!” she said, delighted. The Tower staff kept a log and the ushers had made sure she got very traditional, professionally sugared teacakes on the day, but it was different when someone thought of you.
“How was the trip?” Tej asked.
Nyma closed the box and set it aside, careful not to drag her dagged sleeve in the sugar. She’d asked to stop wearing Tower livery of late—she wasn’t required to, and she found she liked having a say in designing outfits for herself. All under the watchful eye of the Tower communications staff, of course.
Besides, she was grateful to find one more distraction from the ever-pressing weight of the air around her.
“The feeds aren’t always right, you know. About the war.” She played with the hem of her sleeve instead of looking at Tej. “But I can always tell when it’s bad, because he stops talking to me.”
Cowardice, Tej wanted to say, but didn’t. They’d all been so hopeful this war would end two years ago. Instead it had dragged. And dragged.
And now the murmurs were becoming pointed shouts, and the editorials kept mentioning the words “land invasion.” Their nation hadn’t suffered a conflict on its own soil in two hundred years.
Tej was of the opinion that they’d earned that tranquility by striving so hard to be a force for peace. His countrymen didn’t seem so certain. Nyma’s ear might be on the feeds and the president’s mood, but Tej’s was on the populace, the growing rumbles of anger and discontent. That was what he feared most of all.
“Nyma,” he said. “I had a thought while you were away. Are you still writing?”
Her head came up in surprise. “You mean, writing poetry? Of course.”
“I think,” Tej said, “that we should publish some of it. A book.”
“My poems? But I’m—” Not good enough, still a child, still learning? “I’m not sure I’m—that’s like a dream, to be published, but Tej, I don’t even know if I have enough. I’m already embarrassed of what I wrote last year.”
“The ones you gave me last year for composition lessons were quite impressive,” he said, truthfully. It had still perhaps been obvious they had been from the hand of a child, but the emotion that bled between the lines had wrenched him. “We’ll have an editor help you. What do you think?”
“I don’t . . . I mean, I . . .” She couldn’t have said why, but it didn’t feel right. It was all too easy. If she weren’t the president’s carrier, she’d have to keep working at it, scraping and practicing until her verses caught the eye of a professional, wouldn’t she?
But if she weren’t the president’s carrier, she’d have a lifetime of years for that.
“All right,” she said to Tej. She felt real and unreal, excited and not excited, all balled up like twine in her heart.
He flashed her a quick, tight smile. “Good. You know, Nyma, it takes more than soldiers to win a war.”
She blinked. “But the Islanders won’t even be able to read my poems. Unless they’re translated or something.”
“That’s not the only war we’re fighting.”
Whether from morbidity or compassion or their own ideological motivations, the nation’s people devoured the book of poems titled The Girl in the Tower. Presses clacked overnight, every night, binding up more copies, and Nyma’s name fell in too-careful droplets from everyone’s lips.
She thought she’d become used to the stares and whispers, but now public focus riveted on her like it wanted to drag her under the waves. The Tower communications staff had to block out a cascade of interview requests; the few profiles Nyma did do exploded and thrived across the feeds. Her photograph seemed to be plastered everywhere—almost always a solemn portrait that had been taken with dark lighting over a sea-green dress. It made her appear a waif. Nyma hated it, but candid captures of her laughing in the sun and wearing gold or pink seemed not to fit the feeds’ narrative.
The protesters called her out by name now. It wasn’t only abstract carrier “children” they chanted and opined about, but Nyma, the Poet in the Tower, who deserved to grow old, who was the fire and rallying symbol of everyone who opposed the use of seres.
President Han wasn’t happy.
He was a good enough man that he did not lose his temper to Nyma about it, though he might have glowered in her direction more than a few times, after interviewers asked him with appalling directness whether he could truly imagine himself sliding a blade between her ribs and tearing open her heart. But he did summon Tej to him.
“You’re using her. You’re despicable.”
Tej kept his hands folded before him, a picture of tranquility he hoped would be maddening. “Nyma believes in what we do. Would you really be so heartless as to tell her she can’t speak for herself?”
“Damn you, man! Do you think I’d ever use the blasted things if I thought I had a choice? And you want to pinch us between annihilation from overseas and a bloodbath in our own country if I have to dirty my hands the way you people set me up to? You think that won’t be the hardest day of my cursed life already?”
“I feel little pity for that,” Tej said dryly, “seeing as it would be the last day of Nyma’s.”
Had Nyma herself heard the conversation, it only would have intensified the confused resentment that had been building in her toward both men. It sat in her throat, an unhappy lump. She’d always remained a little afraid of the president, no matter how much time she’d spent with him, but the anger edging her fear—that was new. Wasn’t this her duty? But what right did Han have to react so blackly to her having spoken what she felt?
Didn’t she deserve to be her own person, for whatever time she did have?
Her ill will toward Tej was more complicated. He cared for her, that she knew; and he had always been so careful in reminding her she had choices, even more than the other Elders. But . . . she didn’t want to be the trapped waif who emerged flatly from his campaign, either.
She didn’t know how, after so many people had read what was in her heart, she could feel so much like she had no voice.
Nyma made it two months past the day she turned thirteen before the air raid sirens screamed into the night and the first shelling rocked the Capital.
She followed what they’d drilled so many times now, quickly and automatically, her pulse hammering her ribs and chasing out any emotion. Only minutes later she huddled in the shelter, still in her nightdress, between the Minister of War and the Chief Transportation Administrator. She hugged her hands under her arms, but her palms wouldn’t get warm.
The Minister of War was called into the next room for a council with the president. Nyma hunched against the wall. There were no windows. Like a prison cell, she thought. Trapped inside our own safety.
But she wasn’t safe here. She was all inside out, waiting for her own death when everyone else sighed in relieved protection.
There was a poem in that, but she couldn’t concentrate to draw it out.
She put a hand over her thudding heart. She fancied she could feel the capsule with the sere codes pushing against her fingers.
But the president didn’t summon her that night. Or the next. Or the next, when the air raid siren klaxoned again. It took seventy-four days, the fall of three strategic outposts, and an occupying force on the outer peninsula for the call to come.
When Nyma entered the room, President Han was alone, and he was crying.
He took her hands. His were wet with his own tears, but Nyma was numb.
“I’m sorry,” he said, through hiccuping breaths. “I’m so sorry.”
Nyma’s whole face began to prickle then. She wanted to have some deep, profound last thoughts, but her mind was a blank.
She tried to keep breathing. It was hard.
“If you want—some time, to say goodbye to people, or—”
“Get it over with now, please.” She could be brave, if he did it now. She didn’t want to live one more afternoon with this miserable finality crushing her.
The president detached his hands from hers as if he had to unclench them. He went to his desk and opened an ornate, ceremonial box.
Inside was a dagger. Its sleek blade hooked into Nyma’s gaze and wouldn’t let her go.
The president pushed a buzzer. Several advisors and generals came into the office. Tall, unsmiling, faces grave.
“Witness,” the president mumbled. “As signed by the Council . . .”
He reached for the dagger’s hilt. His hand shook.
Nyma felt no sympathy. She hoped his hand would shake so much he dropped it.
And then—it did. He did.
The dagger clattered to the desk.
“Find me another way!” The words tore forth, bowling into his generals, and Nyma had never seen him so angry. He whirled on Nyma. “Get out!”
She didn’t stop until she was back in her quarters, and then her legs went out on her, all wobbly and backward, and she collapsed on the woven floor mats, shuddering. Her breath heaved in and out, too fast and too ragged, and then the breaths caught and turned to ugly, wrenching sobs, and she couldn’t stop trembling.
He’s going to call me back, he’s going to call me back, he’s going to call me back and he’s going to do it—
But he didn’t. The sun set, and Nyma couldn’t sleep, and the next day Tej came to see her.
He burst into her suite and gathered her up in an embrace so tight she couldn’t breathe.
“Nyma, I—I heard, I came as soon as—”
She pushed out of his grasp. She didn’t want to cry again. She couldn’t comfort him on top of herself.
Tej had a wildness in his eyes. “I have, I have a plan. I’m one of the Elders who—when a new president is elected, and a new carrier chosen, we have to, the codes have to be reset and a new capsule made, and I have access—Nyma, you can run away from this. I’ll help you. We can do it tonight.”
She fought the sudden urge to vomit. If she ran, it would just be one of her classmates chosen instead. Why would he ask that of her?
“Who would you choose instead of me, then?” she cried. “You think I would pick someone else to die?”
“No. No.” The wildness burst from Tej’s face like he had lost reality. In truth, he hadn’t slept at all, frantically preparing, sneaking every piece of groundwork into place, half hoping he would be caught while simultaneously terrified of the consequences of his treason. All that remained was for Nyma to agree. And still, trying to speak these words aloud was beyond the worst hell he’d ever conceived. “We won’t put the codes in anyone else. I’ll reset them from yours and deliver them to the president. Nobody—nobody needs to die for this. Not you, not anybody. Please.”
She recoiled from him. “What?”
“I’ve arranged security so—I can do it. Please, Nyma, I’m begging you.”
Fury welled up in Nyma, eclipsing her feverish panic. How dare he? How dare he offer her a way out, a way to gallivant off into the night, and still give the president what he wanted? It wasn’t right, that was why there was a carrier, so there was a cost, and hadn’t Tej been the one who taught her so? “You can’t do that!”
“No, it’s different now.” He turned his face away from her. He’d never questioned the mission of the Order, not once—not until he stood here on the precipice of destroying it. “Maybe sometimes—this decision—people are dying, Nyma. You’re here in the Tower and all the security and you don’t see—I walk through the streets, and there aren’t even enough hands to carry away the bodies. Rubble everywhere, and the dust, and the fear, and—I’m afraid. I’m afraid. Nyma . . .”
He closed his eyes. They hadn’t stopped burning for weeks.
“You think we should use seres,” Nyma said slowly. “You think we should use them.”
“I don’t—I don’t know.”
His eyes were still closed, but he felt her hand on his sleeve.
“That’s why there’s a carrier,” she said “That’s why we didn’t just get rid of them all—in case we ever do have to. But it should be—it should be desperate. Right? That’s why I’m here. To make sure.”
“I don’t know what’s right anymore,” Tej whispered.
Nyma wondered if this was what it felt like to stop being a child.
“It’s not about right and wrong,” she said to him. “It’s about making it hard.”
Nyma sat in her quarters in the Tower, waiting.
The klaxons rang out every night now. Smoke and dust masked the Capital streets, but whenever the wind whisked it away, the soaring arches and towering buildings had crumbled into successive layers of ruin.
She gazed out the window and wondered if her death could save them all, or if it would only lead to so many mirrors of herself being massacred, all for the crime of a birth on enemy land.
Or maybe this was the end of everything. Their enemy didn’t have seres themselves, but they had allies who did. If the president . . . it didn’t comfort her, thinking of her own death as only the first in senseless billions, imagining that the world would outlast her by mere weeks before becoming a blank wasteland.
Why? she wondered emptily. Nobody wins.
She smoothed the press of her skirts and picked up her stylus. Opened her pad.
She didn’t feel like searching for rhymes, today. But maybe she was past needing to.
I’m here to make you doubt
You wish I weren’t.
I hold no answers in my loaded heart.
I only sit
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As the Last I May Know
“As the Last I May Know” copyright © 2019 by S.L. Huang
Art copyright © 2019 by Scott Bakal