YOON HA LEE
Yoon Ha Lee’s work has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, Fantasy Magazine, Ideomancer, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Farrago’s Wainscot, and Sybil’s Garage. She’s also appeared in the anthologies Twenty Epics, Year’s Best Fantasy #6, and Science Fiction: The Best of 2002. A new story is forthcoming in Electric Velocipede.
Lee says that she plays several instruments and composes as a hobby. Learning to use a piece of music software called Logic Studio gave her some ideas about how musicians in the future might compose, which helped in the development of this story. “Swanwatch” is about the intersection of life and music and black holes. In the story, Lee explores the notion of an interstellar society that holds suicide art in high esteem. And what could be more perfect for that purpose than a black hole?
Officially, the five exiles on the station were the Initiates of the Fermata. Unofficially, the Concert of Worlds called them the swanwatch.
The older exiles called themselves Dragon and Phoenix, Tiger and Tortoise, according to tradition based in an ancient civilization’s legends. The newest and youngest exile went by Swan. She was not a swan in the way of fairy tales. If so, she would have had a history sung across the galaxy’s billions of stars, of rapturous beauty or resolute virtue. She would have woven the hearts of dead stars into armor for the Concert’s soldiers and hushed novae to sleep so ships could safely pass. However, she was, as befitted the name they gave her, a musician.
Swan had been exiled to the station because she had offended the captain of a guestship from the scintillant core. In a moment of confusion, she had addressed him in the wrong language for the occasion. Through the convolutions of Concert politics, she wound up in the swanwatch.
The captain sent her a single expensive message across the vast space now separating them. It was because of the message that Swan first went to Dragon. Dragon was not the oldest and wisest of the swanwatch; that honor belonged to Tortoise. But Dragon loved oddments of knowledge, and he could read the calligraphy in which the captain had written his message.
“You have good taste in enemies,” Dragon commented, as though Swan had singled out the captain. Dragon was a lanky man with skin lighter than Swan’s, and he was always pacing, or whittling appallingly rare scraps of wood, or tapping earworm-rhythms upon his knee.
Swan bowed her head. I’d rather not be here, and be back with my family. She didn’t say so out loud, though. That would have implied a disregard for Dragon’s company, and she was already fond of Dragon. “Can you read it?” she asked.
“Of course I can read it, although it would help if you held the message right side up.”
Swan wasn’t illiterate, but there were many languages in the Concert of Worlds. “This way?” Swan asked, rotating the sheet.
“What does it say?”
Dragon’s foot tapped. “It says: ‘I look forward to hearing your masterpiece honoring the swanships.’ Should I read all his titles, too?” Dragon’s ironic tone made his opinion of the captain’s pretensions quite clear. “They take up the rest of the page.”
Swan had paled. “No, thank you,” she said. The swanwatch’s official purpose was as a retreat for artists. Its inhabitants could only leave upon presenting an acceptable masterwork to the judges who visited every decade. In practice, those exiled here lacked the requisite skill. The captain’s message clearly mocked her.
Like many privileged children, Swan had had lessons in the high arts: music and calligraphy, fencing and poetry. She could set a fragment of text to a melody, if given the proper mode, and play the essential three instruments: the zither, the flute, and the keyboard. But she had never pursued composing any further than that, expecting a life as a patron of the arts rather than an artist herself.
Dragon said, kindly, “It’s another way of telling you your task is impossible.”
Swan wondered if Dragon was a composer, but would not be so uncouth as to ask. “Thank you for reading me the letter,” she said.
“It was my pleasure,” Dragon said. It was obvious to him that Swan was determined to leave the Initiates and return home, however difficult the task and however much home might have changed in the interim. Kind for a second time, he did not disillusion her about her chances.