Edition 4: Down In The Ship Mines by Jay Lake
A great science fiction short by renowned writer Jay Lake. The women of the world once lived among the stars, but have been worn low by their unwanted masters. Their stories tell them their way back, but do they have the strength and knowledge to make their way back. SY
We work the ship mines like our mommas did before us. After we’re gone, our girls and grandgirls will be at their turns. We break our backs, a line of women stretching far across the fallen years, to keep something alive under the evil that lives in the night sky.
That something is hope.
It’s dark up there, all the time. Naturally we got sunlight in the day. That’s what makes it the day. How you can tell day from night. But the sky otherwise is empty and cold as a man’s heart.
The grandmommas tell stories about the night, when it was different. We can tell you one now, best as we recollect. It goes like this:
Once upon a time when the world was free and no one yet knew their own price, the women of a certain country lived in a high tower they had built among the granite peaks of their mountain ranges. This tower had roots that delved deep into the fires of the world, so that the heat below could warm their lodges and boil their water and make their little light-fires glow merrily all through the nights. This tower had a roof so high up in the air that it wasn’t even in the air any more. Anyone who climbed all the way to the top to have a look or do some necessary errand could no more breathe outside than a fish can when we bring it up from the mossy bottom of a pond.
In those times the fire in the sun was just as hot and bright as it is today. The women back then used their tower to reach up to the sun and make trips to explore the silent oceans of the sky. They went to the Mother Sun and back, and to the other worlds of the sky, all by launching themselves from the top of their great tower, and always remembering the way back home.
But in those lost years, whenever the sun was hidden, the night was filled with a thousand more suns, each a tiny midge of light compared to the burning face of the Mother Sun. There were more of these Daughter Suns than there are flowers in the garden outside. More even than there are petals on the flowers in the garden outside. And from the top of their tower the women could name each Daughter Sun and number it and take a measure of its girth and color and manner.
From the bottom of the tower, from the ground below, these suns looked like snowflakes on black velvet. They were the gown and beauty of the sky, wrapping the world close and cold and glorious. Every girl and grandgirl who was born to these women was given a Daughter Sun of her very own, to bear her name and she to bear its name, to guide her in the heavens through the courses of her life and loves and sorrows and triumphs, and finally to shed a last, celestial tear upon her grave when she went to live among the great-grandmommas.
When the tower fell and those Daughter Suns were forever shuttered, the women of this certain country knew their souls had been ruthlessly pruned and the secret hearts of each was stolen away. But still they remember what was, and so do we.
Even now, do you have a secret name? Every girl does, though not every momma tells her child at the same time of life. That secret name is one of the Daughter Suns, to burn brightly in the girl’s breast now and evermore.
Father Sansome is the counterman. See him there? You know his type. Red of face, fat of belly, skinny legs set apart so that if he weren’t wearing his counterman’s gown he’d look like a turnip on two sticks.
Just as that belly grew while we skimped on beans and barley and missed a few meals so’s the more deserving could eat, look at that gown. Not your roughspun nor ours, is it? No, that’s redcloth traded up from Fort Resolution down along the Ninefingers River, where the belching waterboats come up from Mother Sun only knows where, bearing fine weaves and lace trims and worked leather and jars of wine and pickled fish and all manner of things you will never wear nor touch nor taste.
And some momma sewed that counterman’s gown with bright needles come off the same waterboat, on account of our bone needles would be too coarse and tear the noble fabric. She used thread off the same waterboat, to be fine enough for the folds and drapes of the gown. She trimmed it with lace and bells, just like you see. Do you suppose she got time off from her duties to do this? No. Every girl and woman’s got to make her count every day, or have it made up by her sisters, no matter her other duties or if’n she was sick or hurt.
See his hat? Flat leather, with a little dome at the top all tasseled and beaded and smart looking. Sansome made that himself. Every counterman does. It’s one of the mysteries of their guild. And he will tell you that the hat is much harder work for the week it took him than the two months taken by others to fit and make his gown. Just like he will tell you that the work of counting is much harder than the women who go down into the ground and shatter their fingers against clay and rock and metal.
Anyone can dig, or sew, but it takes a leader with great resources to lead and count.
That’s what the countermen say, anyway.
Still and all, Father Sansome isn’t such a bad one. He leaves the smaller girls alone, and allows a half-day off every fortnight for illness or catch-up work, which the laws don’t require him to do. And since he’s been here, the Skybiters have come twice–once on the hunt, and once looking for whatever those glittering eyes go looking for in this world of ours. Both times Father Sansome stood and spoke for us mommas and girls of the mines. This he did instead of pointing out a few guilty to be taken away and rendered like old Father Barton used to do, just to keep them from looking at him too long.
Skybiters, their gaze will rend your skin to bone and give you the crab disease inside, so that a month or three later you’re all lumpy and sick and then you made your last count and you’re all dead.
But Father Sansome ain’t died yet, and still we go down into the earth every day of our lives while he sits in a sweetly padded chair and sucks on his herbal tea and makes little checks in little boxes on a little piece of paper sent up by the counterman superior down in Fort Resolution every other fortnight.
You’re new here, we know, and Father Sansome doesn’t notice so much as he might. We can walk you down into the mines, show you what we do. Our work as the counterman counts it, and our work as we count it.
Except we don’t count it. We got no countermen down below. No counterwomen either. Just us.
But you’ll see, won’t you?
Step over here. Put on this here smock and pull the cowl up. No, just that far. No more. You want to be modest, not seem to hide yourself.
Going in, Father Sansome don’t care so much. Women are women, after all. No count going down really except heads. It will be harder to get you back out, but we have our ways.
Now watch the path we walk. Some places you can see the old metal from when our great-grandmothers had carriages that ran on fire and steam. They ran twice everywhere they went once, left and right like the wheels of the scrap carts.
See there, that stub poking up under the false trillian? It’s almost gone, but once it was copper surrounded by some kind of tree sap. We don’t know any more, we’ve lost so much. Another thing of our great-grandmothers.
Now hush a moment and walk like we do. Father Sansome is dozing, likely he won’t notice.
Well, if he does, you’ll be shot and so will we. What did you think, coming here?
Only weapons the Skybiters allow a man to have are those needed to keep women in line. They don’t seem to notice that a blade or a bullet don’t care who it cuts or crushes or smashes open. Only weapons the men allow us women to have are our wits. And we’re supposed to hold them sheathed tight. Legs open, mouth shut.
Now here inside the mountain, you can see the old bolts where once there was more machines. But we’re going down these ladders. We hope you aren’t afraid of heights.
Anyway, it’s all just fine. Too dark to see the bottom. They say if you fall you’ll never know when the end is coming. Just like the night sky outside, with the edge of the world made invisible.
That’s right, we’re going to climb a while. Wait until you make the climb back up with the basket on your back.
What? Of course you are. Do you think we’d waste good labor down here? Some woman might need that basket soon, to pass by the counterman again. Consider it your pittance for our time spent.
We don’t ask for nothing, you see.
When you came to us, you saw our lodges. Long, low houses of wood and mud. We work to keep them up when Father Sansome gives our half-days off. If we need a new one, happens every few years, the counterman superior sends a crew up from Fort Resolution to log out fresh timber and grub a hole for the setting in of the walls. Not even men are quite foolish enough to think we women have time to build anew while still working down in the ship mines ten hours out of every day, seven days a week.
Skybiters, they don’t care about lodges or repairs or who sleeps by the fire. They care about the tribute we bring up. Nothing more, nothing less. Got as much compassion and sense as a shovel.
Stole the Daughter Suns from the night sky, they did. And gave the world to men.
Down here, there ain’t no men. Haven’t been since the Skybiters came. Our great-grandmothers won’t let them climb into this place and live to tell the tale. Come over here and set your hand on this cable. Feel it? Good. That’s your life line. We don’t use any more light than we have to. Flames breathe the same air as we do. No sense in losing your lungs to light your eyes, is there?
Follow this way. Right so, just behind the whisper of our voices. Pretty soon you will understand. We promise this, swear and swear again.
Yes, you’re right. That’s a cable bundle. They get thicker through here. Notice how the floor’s gone smooth? Stop a moment and sweep your foot back and forth to clear the grit.
Yes, this is the ship mines. Remember that, when you go back to wherever it is you came from.
Here now. Feel how the room opens up? The air? See those faint lights over there? These are the galleries.
Let go of the cable and walk toward the light.
There’s another story you should know. We don’t tell this one to the girls and grandgirls. Not until they’re old enough to know not to play it out skipping and throwing pebbles against the counterhouse hall, nor to sing it in rounds at the bathing stream come Sunday afternoon. This story ain’t too different from our others, but we don’t want the counterman to hear it, nor any of the men that come up here to roam among our lodges taking their rewards for service:
This happened once upon a time not long after the night had been stolen away from all of the women of the world. We tell you true, because we know it is true from the lips of our great-grandmommas to the ears of our grandmommas, and from their lips to our mommas’ ears, and from our mommas to us, and from us to you. Pay attention, because truth is the first thing to die when the fires rise and the lights go out. Just like truth is the last thing to be reborn when the world settles once more from madness, which it ain’t done yet.
Back then the Skybiters hadn’t yet brought everyone under their claws. Men hadn’t yet realized that their dominion over women was utterly restored. Not everywhere, at any rate. The women of that certain country where the tower had reached to the heaven still had a ship.
This was a special ship, not of wood to float upon the waters of the world, but of metal to float upon the airs. The metal was so special that it would sail through the sky like a cloud, and rise to the top of the tower, and come back down again. Imagine if a boat was a bird, but with no legs at all and more air inside it than any of us could ever need.
We are told there were once more of these ships, but they fell or were burned when the Skybiters came. These women who knew the secret words of the tower had kept the last ship hidden, along with all the wood needed to burn in its engines and water needed for its tanks. But they knew they could not fly the ship into the air to escape, for the Skybiters had already stolen the night even then. Already it was clear that if they asked men to help, the ship would be taken from them because some man would certainly know better how to use it than any woman possibly could.
So these women took their ship apart and carried it down into the earth spar by spar, plank by plank, bolt by bolt, port by port, piece by piece. They had a place beneath the earth, you understand, where not too long before they had controlled the tower, speaking into tubes to make lights and work the winches that raised and lowered people between the earth and the sky.
These great-grandmommas hoped that someday they could bring their ship back up out of the ground and build it anew and surprise the men and the Skybiters both in the lazy indifference of their later years. No one expects women to plot revolution or raise the bloody knife. Not smart enough, not capable enough, no ability to see something through. We would permit ourselves to be guided until our guides forgot who we were and what we could do.
The tower is gone now, erased from the face of the land as surely as any field sown with salt. We bring up pieces from the old place beneath the ground where the counting machines and far pictures of those days still rest quiet in their coats of dust and rust. We call that place the ship mines, hiding our secret in plain view of all the world.
They think we are stupid, so they have never noticed. But we know that deep below the shadowed stone of the world stands our salvation.
All we need now is someone to show us how our great-grandmommas took the ship apart. The puzzle is too great, too terrible, to be put back together again on its own.
Come into this gallery. In this place we keep the old lights going, that work by bottled lightning and sparkfire. The old lights don’t eat the air as flames do. You can breathe without losing your sight, see without robbing your breath.
Yes, and that.
And those long stacks behind.
And there in the shadows.
A woman can walk for an hour in here and not reach the other end.
We tell you true, this is our ship. Our hope. Our future. We show it to you now because we know you came down from behind the empty sky to see what has become of our world.
We want you to know that if your people come to rescue our people, we will help. We will bring our ship back up from beneath the stones and put it back together and fight the Skybiters and slay the men and make the world whole once more.
Just one thing before you go…
You do know how to put this together, right? You do know how to stoke the engines and work the sails and set the courses through the sky? Because we do not understand how these metals which are heavy as steel under the heft of a woman’s hand can rise into the air and fly.
Our stories tell us how light this ship was. Our muscles tell us it would sink even on the water, let alone be able to drift through the vault of the sky. We need to know how it works. We have kept this secret with blood and bone down the generations, but we seem to have forgotten the answers to how it works.
Why do you weep now? You are from beyond the sky. You must know everything, how else could you be here?
You say you weep for us.
Where have we gone wrong? We held on to our hope.
Where did we go wrong?
Jay Lake is an:
- Award-winning author of ten novels (nine in print, one forthcoming) and over 300 short stories
- Cancer survivor who blogs about politics, technology and health
- Frequent headliner at conventions, conferences and workshops
- Acclaimed anthology editor
- Winner of the 2004 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer
- Multiple Hugo and World Fantasy Award nominee
- Published by Tor Books, Night Shade Books, MonkeyBrain Books, Fairwood Press, Wheatland Press and Subterranean Press
- Represented by Jennifer Jackson of Donald Maass Literary Agency