Speculative Fiction Magazine
Spring 2012 – Issue #3
Featuring works by Barry King, Cassandra Rose Clarke, Joanna Galbraith, Alex Hernandez, Edoardo Albert, Jamie Lackey, Joseph Argento, Richard Levesque, Sandra M. Odell, Leah Givens, and Candice Mancini.
Edited by Dawn Lloyd and Daniel Scott
Published by Light Spring LLC
Fort Worth, Texas
© Copyright 2012, All Rights Reserved
Table of Contents
- The Keeper’s Heart by Joanna Galbraith
- Alchemist’s Alphabet by Joseph Argento
- Wings by Sandra M. Odell
- Appreciation for Falling Stars a Must by Richard Levesque
- Beasts on the Shore of Light by Alex Hernandez
- Unexpected Pigment by Jamie Lackey
- Traction by Edoardo Albert
- Pythia by Barry King
- Farrago by Cassandra Rose Clarke
The Keeper’s Heart
by Joanna Galbraith
This is the kind of Friend
You are –
Without making me realise
My soul’s anguished history,
You slip into my house at night,
And while I am sleeping,
You silently carry off
All my suffering and sordid past
In Your beautiful
Yusuf had the largest hands of any man in the entire Hatay province. Even bigger, rumor had it, than Munah-the-Fisherman who had once wrestled a giant squid from out of the blue sea. Even grander some folk said than Coskun-the-Generous, who could hold eight ice creams in both his hand without crushing a single cone.
His hands had been revered since he was a small child. The Holy Man, in particular, had watched them with great interest.
‘He has Keeper’s hands,’ he had gushed. ‘Our village has not had a Keeper for over two hundred years. Yusuf is a blessing. He is a blessing to all of us.’
Yusuf’s mama had politely nodded. Yusuf was indeed a blessing. Her ninth such blessing in as many years.
As a child Yusuf was made to sleep in goatskin gloves and forbidden to play anything but Tavla and cards. It embarrassed him deeply to have such beautifully kept hands. The other boys had wild stories etched upon their skin; scars from fist fights and pide burns, brazen scratches from climbing trees. But Yusuf’s hands were soft and supple. They smelt of sweet rose oil.
‘You have Keeper’s hands,’ his mama said whenever he complained. ‘They do not belong to you my child. They belong to all of us.’
But Yusuf did not want Keeper’s hands; he wanted Skinner’s hands instead. Skinners made good money he’d heard, especially those with big hands like his.
Now when he was sixteen Yusuf was taken from his mama. Led away by the Holy Man up to Jebel Aqra.
‘Don’t despair,’ the Holy Man said as they walked the mountain’s ragged slopes. ‘Once you have become a Keeper you can come back home to us.’
He then left the boy on the bare limestone peak and returned back to the village.
Yusuf was gone for exactly ten years – one for each digit that spanned his great hands. At first he had stubbornly resisted becoming a Keeper at all, arguing petulantly with the gods that he would make a better Skinner. But as time passed, and his temperament slowly mellowed, his dreams of such menial work gradually ebbed away too and he began studying the Keeper’s Edict, carefully learning every word.
A Keeper is a chosen vessel whose hands are not his own. His only purpose is to hold the burdens he is given throughout his life. In the day he should keep them in his open hands but at night he may let them sleep in the crook of his arm. He should listen whenever they speak to him but never answer what they ask.
Remember you can never break what has been truly broken!
When Yusuf eventually returned to the village only the Holy Man and his mama could recognise his face. Gone was the boy with the unruly tongue and the frown of a put-upon. Instead was a man with black untamed curls who used his eyes to speak. Such beautiful eyes too; the colour of ripening almonds – with long, blinking lashes that fluttered like small wings.
Yusuf’s mama begged him to remain in the village but the years on Jebel Aqra had made him humble so he lived up among the mountains nearby. A cave not far beyond the village walls where the evening sky cast lavender shadows across his rock-strewn home.
Now as a Keeper Yusuf only had one duty which was to keep the burdens he was brought. Burdens brought just before dawn’s light by way of a special courier.
‘Merhaba Keeper,’ the courier always said. His greeting never changed. ‘I have a burden from the Holy Man that he has asked for you to keep.’
Yusuf would then welcome the courier in from the night sky and they would sit on hard cushions and sip apple tea. After they were finished the courier would open his silk purse and gently place the burden in Yusuf’s outspread hands. They weren’t really burdens though that were put in Yusuf’s hands but rather broken hearts. Hearts that Yusuf would keep in his own great hands until they were whole and healed again.
The first few days were always the most difficult for Yusuf as he tried to rebuild trust in something that was broken. Most days he spent in silent meditation or humming Sen Bir Güzel Meleksin in his sweet, tender way. His only task during these precious days was to provide comfort to the broken heart, which nestled like a wounded animal in the curve of his great hands.
Later as the heart grew a little more robust he would take it out wandering among the bouldered landscape. Or down by the stream, where the water danced like scattered diamonds and the fish blew bubbles high into the air.
At night he would sleep with it in the crook of his arm or if it was afraid he would bring it to his chest where it would rise and fall like a boat out at sea.
Once a week the Holy Man came to see Yusuf, bringing him kibbeh and fresh garden figs.
‘How are you, Yusuf?’ the Holy Man would ask.
Yusuf’s response was always the same. His life was simple with little luxury but there was a freedom in this way. His only lament, if he were honest, was that at times he was lonely and he missed the weight of a loving woman. But Yusuf knew, as he had always known, that a Keeper’s hands no matter how great would never be able to keep a wife as well. So he saw no sense in vexing the Holy Man with such an unsolvable thing and instead replied that he was feeling fine if not a little weary.
‘Weariness is to be expected,’ the Holy Man replied.
Now usually after some weeks had passed or sometimes many months the heart would begin to stir again. Gently sighing and then stuttering softly, trying to find its voice once more. Yusuf would hold the heart to his ear and listen to what it said. Sometimes it told him everything. Other times very little. Some wept and bled with wrecked despair; others quietly mended all on their own. Each heart healed in a different fashion just as it had broken
Often as they became stronger they became more curious as well and would begin asking Yusuf questions to pass away the time. Yusuf answered most (though the Edict forbade him to) for Yusuf had found no harm had ever come by answering simple questions.
‘What is the secret to Adana kebabs?’
‘Ninety-nine percent hard work and one percent love. If you don’t make them with love something in the flavour will be lost which is not fair on you or on the lamb for that matter.’
‘Who do you think are the more romantic –poets or mathematicians?’
‘Why mathematicians, of course. Think of how sensually curved the number 8 is when compared with a rigid t.’
‘Why must the birds sing through all the night? Don’t they wish to sleep?’
‘Birds are selfless that’s why they sing. So no one feels alone.’
And every time Yusuf answered a troubled heart it would nestle deeper in his hand.
Finally, as always, there came a night when the heart began to thump so triumphantly it would keep Yusuf from his sleep. Then he knew the heart was healed and the courier would return. He never grieved to see them go in fact it gave him peace somehow.
Usually the next he would walk down to the village to visit his mama and eat pomegranates. In the evening he would meet his many brothers and enjoy a night at the local tavern. Occasionally he might enjoy a woman too, although over time he became fearful that he could break their hearts whenever he walked away. So he did this less and less. It made no sense to be a Keeper if you were a Breaker then as well.
Now Yusuf kept hearts for the next twenty years. Each one brought to him in the same careful manner, always before dawn by the same humble courier. Nothing much changed except the dark curls around Yusuf’s temples, which elegantly and without argument, slowly attired themselves grey.
But then one evening came a vicious storm which blew bitter winds straight through Yusuf’s sleeping bones. He woke suddenly, shivering in his bed, and rose to shut his window. Peering out into the night sky his eyes became transfixed by a faint ginger glow, bobbing wildly along the mountain path. Surely it was too early for the courier now? It was only midnight or just beyond.
‘You are early,’ he shouted from the door.
‘No,’ replied the Holy Man, ‘I fear this time I am too late.’
Yusuf immediately ran to the man. The Holy Man was not a young man now – his gait was far from steady.
‘But where is the courier?’
The Holy Man came inside the cave, removed his hood and shook his head.
‘This heart, my son, it could not wait and the courier was not at home.’
He then handed the heart straight over to Yusuf, whose almond-washed eyes widened with surprise. This heart he could feel was barely alive and bore a wound as black as loss stretched across its skin.
He took it in his hands and sat on the stool he kept by a small fire. He sat there all night while the Holy Man slept, he did not move except to breathe.
The next morning the Holy Man stirred with first light and saw Yusuf sitting with the heart.
‘You may lose this one,’ he warned gravely as he readied for the journey home.
Yusuf nodded but did not speak. Keepers rarely lost a heart and Yusuf had not yet. But he had always known that such a thing could occur.
Some hearts when broken simply did not mend.
For the first days Yusuf did nothing but sit. He drank only tea and ate figs stuffed with walnuts. All of his energy he saved for his charge which lay like a limp kitten upon his skin.
But then after six nights he noticed the tiniest ribbon of pink running across the heart – like an unravelling string, the tiniest of bleeds. Each day it grew bigger; it grew a little wider too. Fanning across the great wound like a slow spreading fire.
Soon Yusuf started taking the heart out for walks. Light ambles near his home, pointing out desert foxes and buntings in the sky. Days were passed in soothing silence. Silent weeks as well. Just the gentle putt-putt of a broken engine trying to start again.
Then one morning when the sun was low and the birds were waking from their dreams, Yusuf took the heart to collect some figs. The walk was a rugged one between narrow mountain passes and Yusuf held the heart close to his chest.
After some time he took a pause in a rock crevice, and it was then that the heart finally spoke for the first time.
‘If I were a fig I should be afraid of you.’
‘Really?’ replied Yusuf, raising both eyes.
‘Well you eat so many of them.’
‘I like figs. They make me happy.’
The heart took a deep breath.
‘Then when I go home, I shall eat figs too.’
Later the same day as Yusuf bathed in the stream, the heart spoke again.
‘Why do you always wash with lemon soap?’
‘Because I like the smell. It makes me happy.’
‘Well then I shall wash in lemon soap when I return back home.’
And Yusuf smiled again.
Then in the evening as Yusuf strolled amongst the rock-ribbed land, the heart questioned him once more.
‘Why is it that you spend so long walking in nature?’
‘Because when I am in nature that’s when I feel free.’
‘Well then I too shall walk in nature when I return back home.’
‘This is good,’ said Yusuf, perching himself on a flattened rock.
The sun was setting now, streaking the lavender sky with rose pink ribbons just like the healing heart.
‘What about you,’ Yusuf finally said. ‘What makes you happy?’
The heart stopped still for a minute.
‘Not much right now.’
‘There must be something.’
‘Rose-flavoured lokum. Soft and sweet.’
‘Then when you are better I shall send you some from Haci Bekir in Istanbul. They make the best of all.’
And the heart was happy too.
Yusuf and the heart then began to speak every day. Hours spent in deep discussion. Poetry and music seemed to please them both but politics left them sore – to the point that they soon agreed to leave this topic alone just like an old married couple. Why bicker about such dirty things when you could sing about so much else?
Goat skins and fresh dates:
The colour of different olives;
The invariants of Cahit Arf.
And with each new discussion the heart would grow stronger though it still wept at times and deeply grieved. But whenever this happened – as it did less and less – Yusuf would simply draw it to his chest and teach it how to breathe once again.
‘Listen,’ he whispered. ‘Can you hear my heart beat? Hold onto its rhythm. It’s strong enough for two.’
Sometimes though when the heart bled too much he would try to distract it – bring it out from itself.
‘See that cloud shaped just like a horse.’
‘Listen to the howl of the desert wolf?’
‘Look there is a bird falling from the sky!’ as happened one late afternoon.
And sure enough the bird did fall with a sudden thump at his feet. Yusuf knelt down beside it and to his surprise it began inching slowly towards him as if it were drunk.
‘It’s alive,’ sobbed the heart though it was a cheerful sort of sob.
‘Yes. Although I believe it may die soon.’
‘But it is alive right now. Quickly, you must take it in your hands.’
‘I can’t,’ replied Yusuf. ‘I must keep you in my hands.’
But the heart insisted. ‘I can rest on both your knees. If this bird is going to die it should at least be loved.’
Reluctantly Yusuf sat on the ground, put the heart on his knees and cupped the bird in his enormous hands.
‘Now what,’ said Yusuf after some time had passed.
The bird was not dead and yet it did not stir either. He could not stay like this forever. He must keep the heart again.
‘Perhaps we should take it home and build a nest.’
Yusuf shook his head. ‘No. Nature will know how to keep this bird; I must give it back to her.’
So he opened his hands and to their astonishment the bird flew away with strong, beating wings.
‘It’s a miracle,’ cried the heart.
But Yusuf shook his head.
‘I believe the bird was only stunned. It wasn’t dying after all.’
He then took the heart back in his hands. ‘How do you feel?’ he gently whispered.
‘I missed your hands,’ replied the heart, burrowing deeply into his skin.
Later, as Yusuf was collecting firewood, the heart spoke again.
‘Have you ever been in love?’
Yusuf paused to think. ‘I believe that I have loved every single heart I have held upon my hands.’
‘But that love is a duty, an obligation, don’t you think?’
‘Yes but it is still love, is it not?’
The heart fell silent. ‘But what about the love that makes you light. That makes you free even of yourself.’
Yusuf was quiet. ‘No I suppose not.’
The heart did not speak again until the following day.
‘So I suppose you have not had your heart broken either.’
And Yusuf shook his head.
Eventually the time came when the heart was healed and ready to return home. On their last night together the heart slept tenderly across Yusuf’s chest.
But in the middle of the night Yusuf suddenly awoke.
He realised he could not feel the heart beating at all. He held his breath and listened.
He called out to the birds to stop their night songs and held his breath again.
Then slowly in the silence he became aware of a solitary rhythm. It seemed that the beat hadn’t gone at all. It had simply joined his own.
Early the next morning the courier came and took the heart away. Yusuf did not watch it leave. Instead he fixed his too bright eyes on a flock of birds floating freely across the sky. He watched them disappear into the sepulchral sky and then lay upon his bed.
After a week his old mama became worried. The pomegranates had remained uneaten on her table. She sent for the Holy Man to find her son.
‘May I join you?’ he asked when he reached Yusuf’s cave.
Yusuf jerked his head towards a nearby boulder and the old man sat down.
Neither of them spoke. Preferring instead to watch the early evening shadows lay darkening bruises across the rocky land.
‘Isn’t it splendid how well the last heart healed,’ the Holy Man finally said. ‘Never have I seen such a hopeless case. I believe now it is stronger, even stronger than before.’
Yusuf raised his eyes at the news. ‘So the heart will not return?’
The Holy Man nodded his head.
‘It was never meant for you my son even though it was truly yours.’
Yusuf eyes began to blink steadily in the dusk light.
‘Tell me,’ the Holy Man continued, ‘for I am curious – about this heart and you. What did you do for all that time?’
Yusuf sighed before he spoke. ‘We walked a lot. We talked a lot too.’
The Holy Man made a quiet clicking noise with his tongue. ‘But surely you must remember what the Edict says about speaking with the hearts.’
Yusuf shrugged his shoulders.
‘I have kept every heart until it healed. I have protected every one. And yes I have answered each and every one and they have all been cured again.’
‘Yes but don’t you see that now you have come too close?’
Yusuf frowned, his voice was defiant.
‘But the heart has healed. It is even stronger now.’
‘Yes,’ replied the Holy Man, his voice sounded weary. ‘The heart is stronger but you are not. The Edict isn’t just there for the heart’s sake my son it is there for the Keeper too.’
And as these words fell to the ground Yusuf suddenly understood what the raw pain was he had felt all week deep inside his chest. Like a fire he knew that would never die out until it had burned everything hollow and left nothing behind.
He lowered his head; his skin began to tremble. For Yusuf knew as all men did that there could be no Keeper for a Keeper’s heart. Their hearts were too big for any person’s hands – there was no way to stem their wounds
The Holy Man reached out to stroke Yusuf’s hands. How beautiful they were, so strong and comforting. The finest hands he had ever known.
‘You should come down to the village,’ he said gently. ‘You will be more comfortable there. People will care for you. You won’t be alone.’
Yusuf shook his head. The cave had always been where he lived. It made sense to him that he remained there now.
‘Can you do one thing for me,’ Yusuf asked the Holy Man as he prepared to leave for the village.
‘Send rose-flavoured lokum from Haci Bekir in Istanbul. Make sure it is soft and sweet.’
The Holy Man smiled though it was cast like a half moon and reached for Yusuf’s shoulder. ‘You were a blessing, ‘he said as he turned his back. ‘You were a blessing to all of us.’
Joanna Galbraith was born and raised in Australia but currently makes her home in Basel, Switzerland. Her short story publishing credits include: The Fish of Al-Kawthar’s Fountain, a short-story forming part of a book anthology entitled Clockwork Phoenix 2: More Tales of Beauty and Strangeness and published by Norilana Books in July 2009, as well as The Moon-keeper’s Friend, a short story forming another Clockwork Phoenix book anthology subtitled Tales of Beauty and Strangeness also published by Norilana Books in July 2008.
by Joseph Argento
I didn’t realize what the building meant when I watched it go up. I didn’t know what a blast furnace was, or a converter. I didn’t care when the first plumes of smoke rose from its chimney. It wasn’t until the orders stopped that I realized my life had changed forever.
It started with the glow stones. People wanted oil lamps these days, and so I stopped enchanting glow stones. It was a small part of my business, not worth fretting over. Then it was the poultices, then the artificing. Then, finally, Alex came into my shop and opened my eyes.
I put down the scale I was cleaning as the door swung open.
“Alex, to what do I owe the pleasure?”
“Just thought I’d handle pickup this week, give the apprentice a break. You’re well, Alemnus?”
“As well as ever. I had a few steel orders dropped this week, but nothing too extraordinary.”
Alex pursed his lips, and I got the sense he was holding something back from me.
“Everything’s in order, I assume?” Alex said.
“See for yourself.” I pointed to the steel ingots stacked by the door. “Perfectly uniform, every one.” I might have been bragging, but I wasn’t exaggerating. A village wizard needed to know all branches of magic, but alchemy was my passion.
“Aye, looks good,” Alex said, though he’d barely glanced at them.
That was when I knew something was wrong. “Usual order for next month?”
“Actually, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that. There won’t be an order next month.”
I must have heard wrong. “Excuse me?”
“I won’t need another shipment.”
A month of frustration poured from between my lips. First Ulrich, then Stefan, now this? Alex was my biggest customer.
“Who are you getting it from? Mendelus over in Greyspring? Because his work isn’t half what mine is, I assure you. If it’s cost–“
“It’s not Mendelus. It’s him.” Alex glanced out the window to the new building. “That Fletcher fellow.”
“The one with that glass contraption strapped to his face?”
“Aye, that’s the one.”
“You’ve been my customer for twelve years.”
“I know, Alemnus, that’s why I came myself. All the other smiths are buying from him, dropping their prices. I had to, to compete.”
“How much is he charging? I’ll match it.”
Alex leaned in, as if he were whispering some dirty secret. “Three marks a pound.”
I nearly gagged. That was impossible. I’d studied with the best alchemists at the academy, and my costs were twice that. There was no way, unless they had some new technique.
“Can you match that?” Alex asked. “Because if you can, frankly I have a mind to think you’ve been robbing me blind the last twelve years.”
“No, I can’t match it.” What else could I say?
“I’m sorry, Alemnus, take care of yourself.”
I nodded mutely, helping him load the steel into his wagon. The moment he was out of sight I locked up shop and went to see Fletcher.
I knew I’d come across something terrible the moment I stepped through the door. This was no alchemist’s lab. The center of the room was dominated by a furnace the size of a small home, and from the heat I might have stepped into hell itself. It was a blistering heat, the kind that makes you squint and turn your gaze away. The air stank of coal, soot and iron.
When Fletcher came over to greet me I nearly mistook him for a demon. His face and hands were black with ash, save for the two glass pieces which sealed around his eyes.
“Can I help you?” he shouted over the roar of two enormous bellows.
I nodded and introduced myself.
“Let’s step outside!” Fletcher said.
I didn’t need to be told twice. “What is that thing?” I asked once we were out of the building.
Fletcher wiped his face with a rag, restoring a bit more of a human appearance. “It’s called a converter.”
“What kind of sorcery is that?”
“No sorcery: science. And engineering.”
Science. The word left a dirty taste in my mouth. “You’re not a wizard, then?”
Fletcher shook his head. “No sir.”
“But steel-making is wizard’s work.” I frowned, trying to wrap my head around it. “It takes alchemy. It always has.”
“Not anymore,” Fletcher said with a smirk.
How? Everything I’d learned at the academy said this should have been impossible, but here it was, staring me in the face. That was when I started to get angry.
“You can’t do this. If all of a sudden anyone can start making steel…”
“There won’t be much need for alchemists, I know. If we’re lucky, soon we’ll be rid of them and all the other wizards.”
I felt myself take a step back, recoiling. “Why would you want that? The world needs wizards. It needs people like me.”
“For what, draining out people’s pockets?”
My lip curled; that one hit a sore spot. “If I cared about gold I would have stayed and been an alchemist in the city. But I didn’t; I came back here, because I wanted to serve this town.”
“And you charge a tidy sum for this service, don’t you?”
He was missing the point, but what could I do but answer? “Very few can do what wizards do. We deserve to be compensated.”
Fletcher smiled, as if he knew his argument was won. “No, very few people could do what you do. We’re on the brink of a new age, one in which everyone has a chance to do what was once considered magic. Where no one is limited because their parents weren’t wizards.”
I could feel my body going numb as he spoke. This was madness, sheer madness. “No one will want to work in a place like this. At first they’ll be excited to do something they once called magic, but that’ll only last so long. Once the novelty wears off, once they’ve seen what kind of devilry this really is, they’ll go back to whatever they did before. And the smiths will come back to me.”
Fletcher smiled again, looking far too self assured. “We’ll see.”
By the time I got home my anger had been tempered into outrage.
“My God, what happened to you?” my wife Sarah asked as I entered the apartment above my shop.
Realizing I probably still smelled of soot, I explained to her what Fletcher was doing. She sat while I paced back and forth in front of her, growing angry again just speaking about it. In the background I could hear my daughter Alice starting to cry. I tried lowering my voice, but when I got to Fletcher’s comments about wizards I couldn’t help but shout.
“That’s terrible,” Sarah said when I finished. “What are you going to do?”
“I’ll have to speak with my customers, I suppose. Try to make them see reason. I’m sure they’ll come around, given time.”
Sarah didn’t seem to share my confidence. “And in the meantime? Alice is too young for me to go back to work, and with three of us to feed…”
“We have enough saved to last for a while,” I said, trying to sound reassuring. “We’ll get by.”
The next day I went to speak with the other smiths. I explained how Fletcher was creating his steel, how it was a far cry from alchemy. In return I got nothing but disinterest and a few looks of sympathy. It seemed the others didn’t care as much as I’d hoped.
So I went to speak with the mayor. “This furnace is an abomination, and it’s ruining my business,” I told him. But he wasn’t concerned either.
“And what do you want me to do about that?” he said.
“Stop it. Non-wizards shouldn’t be allowed to make steel; it’s unnatural.”
“Unnatural maybe, but it’s profitable. I’ve spoken to Fletcher; did you know he has over a dozen people working for him now?”
I hadn’t, and said as much.
“He’s bringing gold into this town,” the mayor said, “more than it’s seen in years. I can’t argue with that.”
What more could I say? I’d told them this was wrong, what I saw this turning into. If they didn’t want to listen, I would just have to wait until they saw the evil in it for themselves.
In the meantime I tried selling glow stones for less than the price of a gas lamp, but it cost nearly that much to make them. Soon our savings started running dry. I wasn’t using my enchanting equipment, so I sold it. I sold my inscriber, my decanter, my burners, my pyroglasser. I sold until one day I walked down into my office and found every shelf barren except one. It held the bare minimum I would need for steel-making. I suppose I should have sold that too, but it would have felt too much like giving up.
“What now?” Sarah asked me that night.
“I just need a little more time,” I said. “We can get by another two weeks. People will come around, I know it.”
“And if they don’t?”
“Then I’ll look for something else to do,” I said. “Two weeks; I promise.”
Two weeks came and went, but nothing changed except my purse getting lighter. One more week, I promised Sarah again. Then just one more week after that. Each time I could see her faith in me dwindle a little, but what could I do? It wasn’t that I didn’t intend to keep the promises when I made them. Things would change soon; I was sure of it.
But they didn’t. Another promise came and went, and then one day Fletcher came into my shop. I was immediately suspicious.
“What do you want?” I asked.
Fletcher didn’t take the bait. “I hear you’ve been busy, speaking with all the smiths. Tell me, how many have you gotten to go back to you and your arcane arts?”
“What do you want?” I said again, my eyes narrowing to slits.
“Easy, Alemnus, I came to make amends. I know you have a wife and child to feed. Your daughter’s what, a year old?”
“I came to offer you a job. You’re still an able bodied man, and I could use another strong pair of arms. It’s not glorious, but it’s honest work.”
I gripped the edge of my counter, knuckles going white. “You insult me in one breath and then offer me a job in the next?”
Fletcher smiled, holding up his hands defensively. “I’m trying to do you a favor. I know you haven’t had much work lately.”
That was about all I could take. “Get out.”
“Don’t be a fool, Alemnus. I’m offering you a way out.”
I stepped around the side of the counter, my hands clenched into fists. “Now.”
“Have it your way,” Fletcher said, and showed himself the door.
“Alemnus!” Sarah called out the moment the door closed. I spun to find her at the top of the stairs leading from the shop to the apartment.
“Alemnus, he offered you work. We need the money.”
“He came here to rub salt in my wounds,” I said. “That’s it.”
“How many times have you promised me you would start looking for another job? And then one falls into your lap and you don’t even consider it? Don’t even speak to me before you turn it down?”
I knew the look on Sarah’s face, a mix of disappointment and bewilderment. Now I was in trouble.
“Sarah I’m sorry you had to see it, but I can’t take a job from him. I’m a wizard.”
“Yes, and a husband, and a father. You want to see why you should have said yes?”
I didn’t, not really, but when she stormed up the stairs I knew I had to follow. She flew into the kitchen, throwing open cabinets one by one.
“Empty. Empty. Empty.” The doors slammed against one another as she flung them open. From the other room I could hear Alice start to cry again.
“We can’t go on like this, Alemnus. If you need to swallow your pride and work for Fletcher to put food on the table, that’s what you need to do. We’re at the end. I’ve sold my jewelry, my dresses, what more do you want me to do?”
She was so distressed it pained me to look at her. “I just need a little more time. It can’t be much longer now.”
“Why?” she demanded. “Why won’t you take another job? If not from Fletcher then from someone else.”
It was so clear to me. Why couldn’t she see it?
“I can’t just take other work. How can I convince smiths to leave Fletcher if it looks like I’ve already given up?”
Sarah stared at me, imploring.
“Unless you want me to give up,” I said. “Is that what it is?”
“Not give up, move on.”
“There is no moving on. Wizardry isn’t just a job; it’s my career, and it’s a part of who I am.”
Sarah’s eyes burned like coals. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever seen that kind of anger in her before, and it scared me.
“Fine.” She spat the word like a curse. “Keep waiting. But I can’t, and your daughter can’t. If you can’t take a job I’ll take her to my sister’s in Greyspring.”
“Sarah, you can’t do that.” For the first time a note of panic crept into my voice.
“I can and I will.”
Sarah turned away, and I followed her into our bedroom, watching as she gathered what few clothes she had left. Alice was still crying, so I picked her up and rocked her in my arms. I tried stepping between Sarah and the dresser, but she didn’t back down. She put her hands on her hips, glancing down at Alice
I handed our daughter over.
“I’m going, Alemnus. Let me know when you’re ready to be a father again.”
I think it was sometime after sundown when it hit me that she’d really left. That night was the longest of my life. I kept waiting to be woken by Alice crying, to learn I’d dreamt up the whole argument. But the house was silent. I spent another few days speaking with the smiths, but by that point even I could tell it wasn’t doing any good. By now the changes were undeniable anyway. People were leaving their farms, coming from the villages to work for Fletcher. The building itself grew, inching ever closer to my home as a second chimney was added. A third quickly followed, then a fourth. Soon it would be so big people would have no choice but to see the evil in it. But soon didn’t come quick enough.
Two weeks after Sarah left, Fletcher made his first offer to buy my shop. “I’m doing you a favor,” he said, just as he had when he offered me a job. I turned him down the same way. He came again a week later, then a third time the week after that. By then my wizard’s robes hung loose off my shoulders. The flesh had melted from my face, so that I barely recognized myself in the mirror.
“What do you want from me?” I asked him, unable to keep the dejection from my voice.
“Same as before. I want to buy your shop.”
“You ruined me,” I said.
Fletcher sighed. He wasn’t wearing his glass contraption today, but that only annoyed me more. I didn’t want to see him as human. “My gripe is with your profession, Alemnus, not you.”
I held back a laugh; you could no more separate me from wizardry than separate my mind from my body. But the shop… Maybe that was different. I could buy it back once the world came to its senses.
Fletcher was still speaking, making me an offer. It was generous, even more so than the previous ones. “So, what do you say?” he asked.
I bit my lip, toying it over. I would still be a wizard, so long as I kept my equipment. Buildings could be replaced.
“Alright,” I said.
The next day I walked out of the shop with my alchemical equipment bundled into my last spare set of robes. Finally I handed over the key.
“You’re doing the right thing,” Fletcher said. “And the other offer still stands; I can always use a good set of arms.”
I turned my back before he was finished speaking. I forwarded almost all the money to Sarah, and then I found myself standing alone on the street. That was the first night I spent outdoors.
They tore down my home the very next day. In its place they added another wing to the blast furnace. Another chimney. I was watching the construction when Professor Thesius walked in front of me.
“Professor?” I could barely believe my eyes.
He turned. “Alemnus, is that you? You look… what happened?”
“I fell on some hard times,” I said. It sounded more dignified that way, as if my robes and hair didn’t give away where I’d been sleeping.
Thesius nodded. “Haven’t we all. Believe me; I miss the old days as much as anyone.”
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“Heading east, looking for a new trade. Maybe I’ll move through Greyspring and then on to Haplor.”
“What about the academy? Who’s teaching alchemy?”
Thesius tilted his head to the side. “You haven’t heard? The academy is closing. No one wants alchemists anymore.”
The academy was eight hundred years old; it couldn’t close. “What about all the other disciplines?”
“Some held out longer than others. Potion-makers were doing well, but that’s changing. Something new called chemistry. People are still buying charms, but that’s soft magic. You don’t need the academy for that.”
My head swam, like I’d had too much to drink. But by now I could say the words by rote. “The world still needs alchemists; once people realize how evil these changes are, they’ll come back to us.”
“Evil? People’s lives are getting better, Alemnus. People can afford more, do things which were once the domain of a select few. The world’s changing.”
“And you’re just going to let that happen? You’re running away?”
“All I’m doing is changing with the times.”
“Call it what you want, you’re running.”
Thesius scowled. “And what would you have me do?”
“Stay and fight. Call for a return to the way things were.”
“Is that what you’ve been doing? Because it doesn’t seem like anyone’s listening. It’s too late anyway; the world’s moving on, and it’s leaving you behind.” He gave me a pitying look. “Goodbye, Alemnus,” he said, then started walking away.
He took ten steps before I called out after him. “You’re a coward, Thesius!”
He stopped and turned. “Yes, maybe. But at least I’m not a fool.” He turned back around, and that was the last I saw of him.
His words played over and over again in my head as I sat on the side of the street. He was right about one thing; no one was listening any more. No one was paying attention. It was too late to just call for change; I had to create it. Something strange came over me then, a kind of manic certainty I’d never known before. If the townspeople wouldn’t throw Fletcher out on their own, I would just have to help them along.
The flames leapt into the night sky, sending out showers of sparks. Ten, twenty feet high they climbed, as if the inferno within the furnace had come free of its confines. I could still feel the slick of the oil between my fingers, smell the kerosene. I could have done it with magic, but it seemed more fitting this way, letting one bit of technological devilry destroy another.
I expected it when they came to put out the blaze, everyone in town forming a bucket line. Living on the street seemed to make me invisible, and they passed me by without a second glance. The last flames were out by the time the sun set. What I didn’t expect was everyone coming back the next day to rebuild. The entire town pitched in, raising new walls and filling in what fire had eaten away. A week later one could hardly tell anything had happened.
Why? I shook my head, struggling to comprehend. It didn’t make sense. Unless they really cared about the forge. Unless it really meant something to them. The reality sank in slowly. I was too late; their minds were already made up.
I sank to my knees and then sat down in the alleyway. My stomach was tied in knots, a combination of grief and hunger. A part of me thought about going to Greyspring, the part which yearned to see Sarah. To see my daughter’s smile again. But I couldn’t face them like this.
That was when I made the sign.
Will Work For Food
I chose a spot across from the forge. Looking at it repulsed me: the columns of smoke, the workers moving mindlessly in and out like bees. But at the same time I couldn’t take myself away. Part of that plot of land had been my home. It was more than just a stretch of ground; it was where my daughter had been born, and where I’d made my first sale as a wizard.
The next day I had the first person stop. He was stocky, probably no more than twenty. One of the strangers come to work for Fletcher, no doubt. But my eyes were drawn to the sandwich he carried in one hand, missing only a single bite. He gave me a look, half amused and half suspicious, then pulled a glass and metal contraption from his pocket. Spectacles, I’d heard them called. One of the lenses was cracked down the center.
“Think you can fix these?” he asked. “Damned backwater town doesn’t even have a lens-grinder.”
I couldn’t help but chuckle. “If you asked me a few months ago I could have fixed your eyes, made it so you didn’t need those things.”
“And how much would that have cost me?”
“Sixty gold marks,” I said. The number sounded comical; what I would do now for a single copper bit.
The man laughed. “No wonder you ended up like this.”
“The materials are expensive, and the labor–“
“Save it,” he cut me off. “Can you fix them or not?” He held out the sandwich, making himself clear.
I lowered my eyes to the ground. “Yes, I can fix them.”
He handed them over. I didn’t even need equipment for something this small, and a few minutes later it was done. The man turned the lenses over in his hands, apparently satisfied.
“Here, enjoy.” He tossed the food onto the ground. I dove for it, snatching it up and biting without even bothering to wipe the dust off. After going so long without, it almost hurt to eat. It wasn’t until I was done that I stopped to look at myself. To consider what I was doing. What I saw revolted me.
“My God, what have I become?”
My fists clenched as the tears came, hot and sudden. It wasn’t worth it. The certainty swept over me like a wave. I’d had a family, a home, a life. I had traded them for pride, and I just sold that for a sandwich. It wasn’t worth it.
I stood up, my bones creaking from the time spent out in the elements. In an eye blink I crossed the street to the blast furnace. I hesitated for a moment, reaching out for the doorknob. If I went in, sold myself to Fletcher, there would be no going back. I pictured my wizard’s robes left in the mud, saw myself hauling coal and iron, my face covered in soot. Then I saw Sarah, the way Alice’s cheeks blushed when she laughed. I turned the knob.
The silence threw me. The roar of the bellows and clanging of hammers was gone, replaced by hushed voices. With the furnaces cold the place was surprisingly dark, somber even. I found Fletcher in the back, near his office.
“I came to take you up on that offer, if it still stands,” I said.
Fletcher looked like he’d just tasted something rotten. “It doesn’t.”
The remark struck me back a little. I’d been afraid he would make me throw myself at his feet and grovel, but I didn’t think he would just turn me down.
“Look, Fletcher, you win. I’ll work for you.” The words left a sour taste in my mouth, but I knew what I was doing was right.
Fletcher took off his goggles, wiping them on the side of his apron. “That’s not it. There’s no job for you.”
“I might be dirty, but I’m as strong as the next man.”
“If you’re here to gloat, there’s the door.”
“Gloat?” I tried to piece together what I was hearing. Just a minute ago everything seemed so clear.
“Like you haven’t heard?” Fletcher said. “I’m letting a third of my workers go.”
That would explain the mood. “Why?” I asked.
“Because the smiths have found someone else, that’s why. Someone’s found a way to make it better than I can.”
“And you can’t do the same?”
“He has some new process, some way of making the steel stronger.”
I frowned, confused. An annealing adjustment wasn’t something to close shop over. “What kind of inclusions are you using?”
“Inclusions?” Fletcher looked puzzled for some reason.
I stopped a moment, trying to decide if he was being genuine. “To adjust the properties. Like mirror-iron, for carbon.”
Fletcher looked at me like I was speaking another language.
Could he really not know? I spouted off the most common additives and their properties, one after the other.
Fletcher’s jaw dropped. “Where did you learn chemistry?”
“I’ve never touched your ‘sciences’. Any alchemist worth his salt knows about inclusions. You’re telling me you’ve never heard of mirror-iron?”
Fletcher shook his head. “I’m not an alchemist, I just do what works.” He paused, scratching his chin. Then something in his eyes lit up. “Come take a look at this.”
He started away so fast he was nearly running and, not knowing what else to do, I followed.
“See here,” he pointed to a bunch of metal bars, “how it’s blistered? It has something to do with the cooling curve, I just haven’t been able to…”
He trailed off, because I had already turned away. I grabbed the first thing I could find, an iron poker, and started scratching formulas into the dirt floor. For a moment Fletcher just stared, and then he grabbed another poker and started writing equations next to mine. I wasn’t sure what he was doing, until I took a step back and looked at them side by side. The symbols were different, but the relationships were the same. I was startled by how much of it I understood. More importantly, I saw the omissions, the little tweaks missing here and there. Maybe we weren’t speaking different languages. We just had different alphabets.
We looked up at the same time, and I could see in his eyes he understood too.
“About that job: I think a position may have just opened up.”
“No shoveling or hauling?”
Fletcher shook his head, smiled, and held out his hand. It was calloused and covered with the scars of a lifetime of metalwork, not so different from mine. Maybe there was a little alchemist in him after all. And maybe there was more to me than being a wizard.
I thought of Alice, picturing the way she giggled when Sarah rocked her in her arms. I would have to throw myself at their feet, to beg Sarah for forgiveness. But the thought of humbling myself no longer bothered me. It was time to put wizardry aside. Time to be a father again.
I stuck out my hand and shook.
Author Joseph Argento is an engineering student at Manhattan College and hobby blacksmith.
by Sandra M. Odell
“Da? Da, look what I can do!”
I frowned at the monitor and the columns of numbers that refused to add up. “Not now, Becca. Da’s working.”
I could try to ignore her and not get anything done, or indulge her for a minute and salvage the remainder of the afternoon. I turned around in my office chair, and my heart went cold.
My six-year old daughter pirouetted in mid-air, a flutter of wings between her shoulders where this morning there’d been only rose print pajamas and strawberry blonde curls. She smiled at me and spun again, arms outstretched. “I’m flying!”
“Yes, yes you are.” I tried to clear the anxiety clotted at the back of my throat; it wouldn’t budge. “Where did you, um, where did you find those?”
Aggie came in from the kitchen, saucer in one hand, dish towel in the other. “Here now, I told you to leave – oh!” She dropped the towel and saucer, the latter landing on the former, so no harm done to the dish at least.
Becca flew higher and rapped the ceiling with her knuckles. “Look, Mum!”
“I see.” The words trembled on Aggie’s lips. She lowered herself to the sofa and I joined her, putting a hand on her knee. Her words weren’t all that trembled. “I haven’t seen those since before Da and I got married.”
Our daughter flit close, hovering right above the floor. “Really? Are they yours?”
“Once upon a time, yes.” Aggie looked at me then, so wistful and sad it all but broke my heart. “Let’s have a closer look.”
There was enough of the mother voice to the request that Becca did as she was told, but not without: “You’re not going to take them, are you?”
Aggie answered before I could. “Not at all.” She motioned for Becca to turn around.
With both feet flat on the ground, Becca showed us her back. Uneven slits perhaps five inches long had been cut in her pajama top so the wings could poke through. A small part of my attention allowed that we would have a sit down about when, and on what, we used scissors, but not this moment. What mattered most was how the wings caught the blue of Aggie’s eyes, the blue of the summer sky over Niarbyl Bay, or perhaps the other way around.
Aggie reached for the left wing; it twitched out of the way without Becca seeming any more aware. “They’re, ahem, they’re lovely. Where’d you find them?”
“In the attic. They were just laying out, under some newspapers and a jacket. I found them, that’s all.”
From the way Becca played with her hair, I could tell she knew she’d been caught out. No doubt Aggie saw the same. “The attic, hmmm?
Well, you can wear them for now, but you must take good care of them. I’ll want them back.”
What I wouldn’t have given to be the reason for Aggie’s smile right then. That I had been the reason for other smiles through the years felt suddenly silly and inconsequential.
Becca stood on her tiptoes; the wings took her into the air. She turned round. “These really are yours, Mum? You’re not funning with me?”
My lovely wife shook her head. “Not at all.”
Becca smiled rainbows and sunshine and ponies. “Cool! Can I take a picture with your phone and send it to Midge? Pleeeze?””
“No pictures,” I said, sharper than I should have.
My little girl’s chin trembled like I’d sent her ponies to the glue factory. She glanced at her mother. “But -”
Aggie took Becca by the hand and pulled her close. “Da’s right. We can’t take pictures, and we mustn’t tell anyone about this.”
With that, Aggie led the pony smiles into the factory. “But why?”
Aggie tapped the tip of Becca’s nose. “Because people wouldn’t understand.”
Becca screwed up her face in the way she had when she didn’t want to cry but would anyway.
Aggie brushed nothing at all off of Becca’s pajama top. “Come on, missy, none of that. It is what it is, so let’s make the best of it. Anyway, it’s a lovely day and I know the perfect spot for a girl’s first flight.”
That brought back Becca’s smile. “Right now? Yes, yes, yes!”
They looked so happy, mother daughter bonding and all. Becca had Aggie’s beautiful hair and turned up nose, but she also had my kelp brown eyes. I was in there, too. “We probably don’t want to do that. Always a chance that someone might see, or, worse, decide to make a video.” I took hold of Becca’s other hand and tugged her to the floor. “How’s about we take a run to Niarbyl? Pack a basket, make an afternoon of it.”
Aggie frowned storm clouds over high seas.
“Or the beach. Make our way to Douglas, even stay for the night. You could swim the day away.”
Becca gave the idea some thought. My heart filled with hope; it emptied just as quick when she said, “Can we go to the beach tomorrow instead?”
Aggie smiled, but wouldn’t look at me.
“Tomorrow it is, then.” I kissed Becca’s cheek.
They went to get ready. I sat by myself, looking around my office, listening to the rush of water in the pipes after the flush, wondering if life would ever add up.
On their way out, Becca threw her arms around my neck in a splendid hug. I felt but couldn’t see the wings through her wind jacket. Aggie touched my shoulder. “Are you sure you don’t want to come along?”
I covered her hand with mine, gave two quick squeezes, our private I love you. “No, you go on. I have more work than sense.”
She leaned down to kiss me, eyes happy and blue and as forever as the sky. “Be back later.”
Two squeezes from Aggie, and they left me alone.
When I could manage, I made my way to the attic. The brass-bound trunk hunched in the north corner, boxes and such hastily arranged in an attempt to make it look like they hadn’t been moved at all. We should have locked it years ago, but what did we know? I flipped the latch and opened the lid.
A clutter of newspapers from April 30th seven years ago lay on top, and below that my old seal skin jacket: fur at the collar and cuffs; handsome copper clips instead of a zipper. I buried my face in the folds that still smelled of salt, and fish, and sea spray even after seven years. Aggie and I wanted a life together, so we made one the only way we could, giving up the past to gain a future together, and I wouldn’t trade what we had for the world, yet. . .
I thought of Becca flying, of Aggie’s smile. I squeezed the ocean out of my eyes, but not my heart.
Sandra M. Odell is a Clarion West 2010 graduate whose writing credits include publication in Jim Baen’s UNIVERSE, Ideomancer, and the anthologies Fear of the Dark and Triangulation: Last Contact.
Appreciation for Falling Stars a Must
by Richard Levesque
We fell for each other.
Like stars, it seemed.
Had I thought about falling stars then, how they’re just bits of space dust burning up as they hit the atmosphere, it likely would have taken some of the Zing! out of my romantic illusions.
But I didn’t think about it.
It was like we’d been made for each other, something I did let myself think even though I knew the cliché was only half true. I was as I’d always been. She, though, she’d been made for me.
It was a simple enough process. I’d designed every bit of her, filling in all the blanks and boxes on the Realationship™ site. And when I say design I don’t just mean the parts you might think. But everything. Down to the shape of her toes, the curve of her eyebrows.
I remember sitting at the keyboard, my fingers caressing the track pad, working my way through eye color and skin tone. Each drop down menu needed a carefully considered click, like a little nudge, a little push. Each choice opened a window to more, with all of them weighed against the ones that had come before.
And there’d been myself to consider as well–measuring my lips to match against hers, moving my hands in just the right way to see how they’d feel on the small of her back, following the prompts to upload my image so I could see how my brown eyes would reflect her blue. Finished, I’d just needed to click on all the agreements, debit my account, and wait for delivery.
The night I lost her, we lay in the back yard, a blanket between us and the ground. She rested her head on my arm, her blond hair threatening to make me sneeze as it tickled my nose. Our sweat had already begun to dry from the summer breeze, and if I moved my hand just a little I could trace the swell of her breast. It would have been perfect if we had seen a falling star then, but the cloudless sky yielded nothing but familiar constellations.
“What time is it?” she asked.
I’d designed her to disregard the tech she ran on. Occasionally, I’d hear a servo spin somewhere in her body, but if she ever heard the same, she ignored it. And so, though her operating system included a perfectly accurate internal clock, it was instinctive of her to ask me the time or to check the delicate watch I’d given her on our one-month anniversary.
She wasn’t wearing it now. Or anything else.
“Almost ten,” I said after raising my wrist and blocking out part of the sky for a moment.
She seemed to take a second to process the information, then sat up, leaving my right arm and whole right side suddenly cool as the night air touched the skin she’d just been pressed against. I smiled at the sight of her naked back.
“I’m leaving,” she said.
My smile faded.
“Leaving?” I asked, nonplussed. My turn to process.
“You,” she added.
Then she was up. Off the blanket and picking through the clothes scattered on the lawn.
“What do you mean?”
“What I said. I’m leaving you.”
Quick about it, I went to her, gently gripping her shoulders and looking into her eyes. “Are you having a malfunction?” A breach in our protocol, but then again I was only responding to what seemed to be a bigger one.
She looked insulted. And I knew it was real. Of all the boxes I’d checked, all the options I’d selected for emotional response and sensitivity, insulted hadn’t been one of them. I took my hands off her shoulders, suddenly feeling as though I was touching a stranger.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “This doesn’t…”
“Compute?” Sarcasm now. I definitely hadn’t opted for sarcasm.
“Doesn’t make sense.” I said it more to myself than to her.
She ignored the comment, turned to scoop her bra off the lawn and slipped her arms through the straps. Her face bore no expression as she covered herself, no glance at her lover to catch his appreciation of her body, no hint at the intimacy of their shared nudity. She may as well have been dressing in front of a houseplant.
“This isn’t supposed to happen,” I said, dumbfounded. Knowing I was right didn’t help. I felt suddenly that I was arguing with a real woman, that if I didn’t watch my tone, she’d use it against me.
“Why not?” she asked. Her dress now up over her head, arms poking through sleeves, pulling the whole thing down.
“I…I made you. You’re perfect. Everything.”
“Everything you need,” she said. Smug. It was ugly, coming from her. I’d never thought anything ugly about her. Never had reason.
“And no thought to what I need.”
“What you…” I began. It should have been absurd, but the way she flipped her hair up and out of her collar told me it wasn’t. And before I could second-guess myself or question the further absurdity of what I was about to say, out came, “And what is it you need?”
In that instant before she answered, she felt more real to me than ever. She had more depth than I’d imagined possible, much more than I’d even fantasized when designing her. And all because for just a second or two I felt entirely ready to provide whatever she wanted, no matter how impossible.
And then it crashed. “You’re too late,” she said. “You should have asked before.”
“Before I found him.”
“You needn’t worry about who. It’s ten o’clock in thirteen seconds. He said he’d be out front at ten.” She straightened the dress’s waist and slipped on her sandals.
“You can’t be serious!”
“Why not?” Real curiosity in her voice.
“How can you be?” I swept my arm toward the blanket behind me. “We just made love!”
“Yes. I hope you enjoyed it. I wanted to be sure our relationship had maximum satisfaction until termination. It was part of the agreement, after all.” She extended a hand, meaning to offer a genial shake goodbye.
“You’re mine, for God’s sake!” I shouted. “You can’t just…go! Some … some man can’t just come and take you.”
A smile then. Of understanding, but condescending, too. Something else I definitely hadn’t selected. “The company pro-rates. You’ll be refunded the unused portion of your guarantee.”
“But I don’t–”
“Did you want to keep the clothes?” she asked, moving to start unzipping the dress again. “Is that it?”
“Well then. It has been a pleasure.”
A little nod and she was off, walking with purpose toward the gate that led out to the street. I watched her go for a few seconds, then raced across the lawn after her.
“I’ll have you shut down,” I said. “I’ll have you decommissioned. Reprogrammed. I’ll have you back!”
She ignored me. I was off her grid now, my voice a kind of static to her. In seconds she was out the gate. A simple little sedan was parked at the curb, a man inside it watching. Who was he? And how had he met her? And did he know what she was?
I went through the gate after her and then stopped halfway across the lawn, remembering I was still naked. How I must have looked to him, and to any of my neighbors watching from their windows. Backing a few steps into the shadows, I saw her open the passenger door and slip into the car without giving me another look. Then the door shut and the engine came to life and she was gone.
In complete disbelief, I remained there beside the bushes my gardener clipped once a month. And when crickets started chirping again after the car’s hum had faded in the night, I turned and went back through the gate.
Ignoring my clothes on the lawn, I went into the house and straight to the computer. The email was already there.
“Dear Mr. Winters:
“It has come to our attention that the Realationship™ into which you entered with Provider #3165G9 has been terminated. We regret that the Realationship™ did not last for the duration guaranteed in your original agreement and offer our sincere condolences. Management would like to assure you that such events are highly anomalous. We pride ourselves in high quality at every level–from selection to manufacture to duration. Unfortunately, no system is perfect, and such anomalies do occur on occasion due to malfunction in any of a number of systems.”
Any of a number of systems, I thought. There was a veiled message in that, the implication that I was one of those systems, that her leaving was my fault. Disgusted, I shook my head and kept reading.
“We understand that said termination may be highly distressing to our clients and will offer you, at the very least, a full refund of the unused portion of your original purchase price, as per your original contract. Additionally, we are glad to offer you an additional refund beyond the pro-rated amount if you would consent to participate in a brief quality control survey that will help us determine the causes of your Realationship™’s malfunction. Finally, we are also prepared to offer you a considerable discount on the purchase of a new Realationship™, to which you may apply both the abovementioned refund and remuneration for survey participation. Below, please find three links, one for each of the options outlined above, selection of which will take you to our website where we will be able to process your request. Please note that you will need your account number and password to complete the refund, survey, or renewal processes.
“Again, please accept our condolences. We hope you will continue in your association with our products, but in the event that you opt not to, we thank you for the business you have provided us in the past and wish you all the best.”
There were three links below the last line: Apply for Refund. Apply for Refund and Participate in Survey. Enter New Realationship™.
“Screw that,” I said and turned away from the glass-topped desk where the computer rested. Walking back to the open sliding glass door, I stood on the threshold and looked out at the yard, just able to make out the dark spot that was the blanket, then up at the sky that had seemed so perfect as it had spread out above us not ten minutes ago.
I’ve had it, I thought. Their offer was too late. No more synthetics for me. Real women were complicated, sure. But they never brought with them the indignity of being offered a refund when things fell apart.
I decided I’d delete their email, ignore all three options. Let my account just linger on their books, unresolved. An irritant to some sweaty mid-level manager being pressured to keep things streamlined. The thought gave me pleasure.
Another thought followed, an even better one, and I smiled broadly.
Ignoring their email would be just the first step. I’d shower, dress and go out. Catching a woman’s eye had never been a problem. Tonight would be no different. I’d find a woman easily, probably have more than one to choose from if I timed it right. Not a relationship, certainly not a Realationship™. Just a woman, a real one, just for the night. It would put things right again.
I smiled at the thought of how easily I could wipe away the indignation with another woman’s kiss.
But before I turned away from the door, I saw it. Just at the edge of my vision. A flash. Not imagined. And gone before I’d even had the chance to focus on it. Its ghost just resonating in my mind. A falling star blasting its way across the night.
The thought it generated couldn’t be ignored. The possibility. Appreciation for falling stars. If I’d typed that in as her first quality before, I wouldn’t be alone now. And while there was no going back, there was such a thing as starting over. Not in the reconciliation sense, the marriage counselor sense. More real than that. There was a learning curve here. Maybe the malfunction really had been mine, but not in my treatment of her. Rather, in my design. Take out the flaws, add in the perfection.
A click of the mouse and my choice would be flying across the net, an impulse made of ones and zeroes, hurtling through the ether like a falling star.
My pulse quickened at the thought, desire riding me even as I began to second-guess myself.
Incurring a bit more debt was nothing compared to the benefits when I thought about that blanket, the stars, the swell of her breast. And the personal cost was negligible as well; picking up a woman in a bar would be satisfying in the short term but was always somehow disappointing in the end. Always some little thing that would be wrong, an odd glance, a bored sigh, a little aloofness just when I wanted her all to myself.
But designing a new one… I thought about the acerbic tone her voice had taken when she’d gone over to sarcasm, wondered if I could take it again if it should happen a second time. There was a risk, but one I’d not thought about when going through the process the first time. Now, with the possibility of collapse at the front of my thoughts, I could start over forewarned.
Still, should I? Did I dare?
I looked back at the computer, the email still open on the desktop, the links still waiting for me to choose.
And stepped away from the door.
Richard Levesque has spent most of his life in Southern California. For the last several years he has taught composition and literature, including science fiction, as part of the English Department at Fullerton College. Along with science fiction, his interests include Los Angeles and Hollywood history and culture, film noir, and hardboiled detective fiction. He has combined these interests with science fiction in his novel, Take Back Tomorrow, currently available in print and e-book editions. His latest novella, Dead Man’s Hand, is currently available in e-book format for Kindle. When not writing or grading papers, he works on his collection of old science fiction pulps and spends time with his wife and daughter.
Beasts on the Shore of Light
by Alex Hernandez
Keith Suarez emerged from a long, dark tunnel and scuttled across the cardboard-brown regolith of 21 Lutetia toward the sun. His eight tiny feet dug into the grit as he moved at a steady clip over crumbly mounds and deep craters. Keith wasn’t alone on his journey; this was, after all, the vacation season. There were hundreds—thousands—of others pouring out of hidey-holes, crawling away from the cold murk of 21 Lutetia and hunkering down on the surface, their matte black chassis glistening in the radiance as they absorbed all the energy they would need for the rest of the year. If you were to see the mass-migration of artificial crustaceans from above, it would look like a potato infested with mites.
On his way to his little plot of land in the sun, Keith waved an amicable claw at work-mates in the throng and flashed a quick laser “hello” at passing acquaintances, but he never stopped—in part because the animal algorithms that controlled this trek urged him on, but also because he really didn’t have any friends here. This was all simply the Kafkian nightmare that paid the bills; or was it Cronenbergian? Never mind that he spent most of the time as a bug eating dirt and defecating nickel, iron, gold and platinum. This was not a life.
Suddenly, something caught his infrared attention and he turned his eyestalk to get a better view. Someone wasn’t headed for the sunside. They weren’t moving at all. Grudgingly, he overrode the impulse to migrate and made his way against the current of pushy crabs toward the fallen person. In another life, some twenty years ago, Keith had been a pretty decent software engineer (before that career morphed into something incomprehensible and he was forced to retire), so the management of 21 Lutetia had promoted him to maintenances, although his main duty remained to gorge himself on flavorless rocks and shit out precious metals.
He approached the crab sprawled in the shallow frost of a crater and shone a cautious “Do you need help?” light.
“No,” replied the crab in the cosmic ditch.
“Are you sure?” He could tell that six of her long, segmented legs were broken.
“Really, I’m fine. Please, don’t let me stop you from your migration. I’m sure you’re eager to get on with your holiday,” she said, with a faint Slavic tinge to the beam of her voice.
Keith tried to imagine her as a gorgeous blonde with blue almond-shaped eyes, but the reality, rendered in the stark contrast of the intense light of the sun and the utter darkness of the pit, was much too sharp for fantasizing. She looked like every other crab on this rock. He did notice her smooth carapace lacked the pockmarks and scuffs that, over time, gave them their distinctive exteriors. She was recently fabricated and new to all of this.
“Here.” He crawled the few inches into the hole and the temperature dropped to minus one hundred degrees Celsius. “Let me help you.” He examined each of her shattered appendages and repaired what he could on the spot. “How’d this happen, anyway?”
“I fell into this hole,” she said, annoyed.
Keith knew that, between the robustness of the exoskeleton’s design and the microgravity of the asteroid, the fall shouldn’t have caused any damage at all. Deciding not to press the issue, he simply said, “If you spend your holiday down here your batteries will run out and then you’ll be in real trouble.”
She didn’t protest as he awkwardly hefted her broad, flat frame onto his back. He became aware that, aside from registering her weight, he couldn’t feel her on top of him and for the first time in a long time the absence of tactility bothered him.
“Have you been here long?” She asked as he climbed over the lip of the crater and joined the others on their long march. “Your shell is very rough.”
“About five, six years, I’ve lost track of time.” He turned an eye backward to see her bobbing up and down on his wide armor. “Where are you from? You have a nice accent.”
“I was going to guess Russia.”
“And you’re American?”
“Yeah, my body is resting somewhere in Atlanta, Georgia.” There was a heavy silence for a moment and he instantly regretted drawing attention to their existential predicament. He let the surge of the others and the ancient biometric subroutines guide him over the dull terrain. There was something reassuring and primal in this parade. This was what life had always been about, since the Paleozoic; horseshoe crabs striving for the shore by the light of the moon.
“Do you have family waiting for you, Mr…” she asked abruptly, interrupting his daydream.
“Suarez. Keith Suarez, but please call me Keith.”
“I’m Stasja Volk.”
“Nice to meet you. No, I don’t have any family waiting for me, just a rude and incompetent orderly that nearly tore my pecker off changing my catheter last time.”
Her mouthparts did something that Keith had never seen before. The titanium grinders opened wide and the diamond drills retracted entirely. A part of him knew that she was smiling and it made him glad. “Why are you so eager to wake up then?” she asked, still smiling.
“Because these four month vacations serve a lot of useful functions: Psychologically, we need human contact in order to not go insane out here. AstroCore uses the down time to perform maintenance and upgrades on us. Your legs will be as good as new when we return.” Habit? Routine? Loneliness? He found that he didn’t have a good reason. “Don’t you want to go back?”
“No. My grandchildren are vicious little monsters who plot and fight for chunks of me. I’d rather spend my life among these mechanical beasts—as a mechanical beast, than with them.”
“You have grandchildren?” The hazy image of the Eastern European beauty was replaced by a shriveled old hag sleeping in a tank somewhere.
“And great grandchildren, but they’re yet too young to pick at my bones.”
“What did you do for a living, Stasja?”
“Ah, I was an excellent chef and later a decent food critic. I started with a small restaurant in Kiev and ended with a chain all across Europe. Food was my passion. I lived to eat. Now,” she snorted in disgust, “I eat to live. I eat dirt. What did you do, Keith?” She pronounced his name Keet.
“I had a third-rate gaming startup that eventually got bought by a larger adult fantasy immersive gaming company and I worked with them for a long time.”
“Adult fantasy as in porno or as in sword and sorcery?” Her motorized maw did that delightful yawning thing again.
“The former.” He tried to say it straight, but the heat radiators on his back tingled and he feared he was blushing—and that she could tell. Was he getting self-conscious in his old age?
She laughed. “Don’t be ashamed. I played those games a few times myself.”
Dammit, she could tell! “Well, it was a living.”
“Sometimes living is just not enough. I miss the taste of hot chocolate. Isn’t that funny? Of all the magnificent food I had the pleasure of enjoying in my life, I miss hot chocolate. My first husband—I was married three times, but my first husband was the love of my life—made the best hot chocolate.”
“Why did you guys split up?”
“He died of cancer, back when people died of cancer.”
It was a naive question, but it had been awhile since he’d carried on a conversation with anyone… or carried anyone.
“It’s okay,” she quickly added. “It was a long time ago and I held him in the end.”
He didn’t know why, but her presence focused his attention. He couldn’t just relax and zone out. He started to see things that he’d never noticed before. They were in fact alloy arthropods toiling on a hunk of left over material from the formation of the solar system, but they were also human beings. The evidence was everywhere: two crabs in the distance held manipulators as they ambulated on, some were clustered into small family units; others were absorbed in fast, intimate laser conversations. This wasn’t just a bizarre retirement community… it was a community.
“What about you? Have you been married?”
“Yeah, a while ago. I was married for three years before she found Jesus and was born again. All of a sudden my job offended her and she divorced me, never married again after that.” He laughed to himself. “Her cooking was horrible anyway.”
“Well, you’re in luck. I’m an excellent cook.” There was a hint of sadness and flirtation in her tone and it warmed Keith.
They reached the delineated terminator, an alien shore, where photons and cosmic rays crashed onto an asteroidal beach. Thousands of flat, rounded forms dotted the powdery landscape like black pebbles in the sand. The tracks of many spindly legs wove and swirled around them creating intricate designs of fractal splendor.
“It’s beautiful,” she said, “like a Japanese rock garden.”
“Yeah, it is pretty.”
They added their own tracks to the pattern. All the best perches were already taken, but he carefully placed her on a gentle hill that would receive ample light as 21 Lutetia tumbled in the night.
He turned to search for his own spot, but she clasped his claw and pulled him close. “Stay with me, Keith. I enjoy your company.”
He trained both eyestalks on her polished obsidian face and studied her in the entire spectrum, from ultraviolet to inferred, then settled down next to Stasja Volk and went to sleep.
Keith Suarez awoke in a recently drained tank at the center of a colorless room surrounded by diagnostic and “quantum entangling” telepresence machines. He was damp and cold and the scent of pine disinfectant stung his nose. An approximation of a human form loomed large over him.
“Who the hell are you? What are you?” Keith’s organic eyeballs failed to focus.
“I’m Fred, your attendant and physical therapist.” It was a robot. It was white and round with big expressive eyes and Keith thought it looked like an enlarged child’s toy. It was probably called “Fred” because it sounded like “friend”.
“He’s been dismissed,” the robot said cheerfully.
“Listen, if it’s because of the small altercation we had—”
“Not at all, to improve service, all of the personnel that work with our clients have been replaced by healthcare robots such as me.”
His heart began to pound in his boney chest. Keith wanted to send the stupid-faced robot a hot laser reply, but instead hissed in his hoarse, old man’s voice, “But we need human interaction!”
“Why are you getting upset, Mr. Suarez? My records show that you assaulted Carlos Fontaine during your last vacation. I thought you would be glad to be rid of him.”
“Because I just spent eight months as a robot, working with robots and strangulation is human contact. Where’s Carlos!” He erupted into cough attack.
Fred adjusted his tank’s cocktail and Keith instantly felt unreasonably calmer. A part of him realized that he preferred the robot to Carlos. He could better relate to its cool plastic exterior, which only frightened him more.
The days and weeks went by much as they had on other vacations. They poked and prodded, kneaded and wrung him. He was always in pain and achingly lonely. The only difference this time around, aside from Fred’s vacant optimism, was that he found himself thinking of Stasja often. He imagined them lying next to each other on a dusty hill basking in the sun. Their claws still locked together. He worried about how her family was treating her and he hoped someone had brought her a hot chocolate, but doubted it. He wanted to do something nice for her. He wanted to make her happy. Keith tried contacting her once, but Fred explained that her records had been made private by her caregivers.
One day, Keith saw himself in the mirror and didn’t recognize the skeletal figure with loose, spotted skin staring back at him. That’s when 21 Lutetia became more real than this Earthly life. Something clicked in his mind: this was just an old and molted carapace ready to be sloughed off. He knew it was crazy, but the thought reassured him.
If only their existence on the asteroid were richer. Given his programming knowledge and limited clearance, he could enhance the overall experience of crabs. He was, after all, a software engineer and he knew AstroCore Ltd. used tried and true technology to minimize problems. Technology he understood.
A month into his vacation, he called Fred. “Can’t you bring me a work slate?”
“What do you need a slate for?”
He thought of an excuse. “I want to get in touch with my ex-wife. I’m feeling nostalgic and I want to patch things up.”
“No, I’m sorry. That wouldn’t be appropriate.” The robot turned and slid away.
Over the course of the second month Keith continued to be dehumanized. He was shunted from white room to white room, given tests and physicals, and the whole while he worked on Fred. He concocted reasons to get a slate, like wanting to catch up on current events and brushing up on crab design to improve his success rate in fixing them. One day, he simply broke down and cried. He failed at every turn. Fred would smile gently, deny him the slate and continue his therapies or spoon feeding him the bland, nutritionally-balanced compote he’d grown to detest.
Then, in casual conservation, Keith realized that Fred, via the diagnostic equipment around and within him, knew when he was lying. Maybe it was his heart rate or the MRIs, but it was the robot’s one advantage over human creativity. He thought about it for a few days and concluded that he had to be honest or the Fred would suspect an ulterior motive and continue rejecting his requests, but he couldn’t very well tell it he was going to vandalize the whole set up…
On the next visit, and without any real planning, Keith blurted out, “Look, Fred, I’m going to use the slate to check up on a friend of mine over on 21 Lutetia. Six of her legs were broken pretty badly and I want to make sure the repairs are going fine. If not, I need to put in a more detailed work order,” and as he said it, he knew that he wasn’t lying. He would check up on Stasja. It would be the first thing he did.
“That’s a good sign, Mr. Suarez. I’ll bring one over at once.”
Air hissed out of Keith and he realized he’d been holding his breath. He lay back in his tank and waited, thinking that Fred may be affable enough, but it wouldn’t be able to pass the Turning Test to save its synthetic life. The bedside robot returned, handed him the work slate and left.
Keith quickly checked the status of Stasja Volk’s crab and was content to find it mending properly. Then he accessed the source code that dictated the information flow between the receptors on the crab and the atrophied old bodies on Earth. Security was minimal. Nobody suspected the elderly clients of AstroCore Ltd. to hack the system. Keith got to work.
The crabs were simple machines, nothing more than ore processing plants with legs. All control and computation—all thinking—was done remotely by human brains. The way it was set up, ninety-nine percent of the sensory data poured into the visual and auditory cortexes of the brain. Because of his familiarity with immersive sexual gaming, he knew it was a simple matter to make small changes to the script and redirect some of that input into other regions of the brain. For example, taste. He played with taste and assigned unique flavors to different substances: nickel became sweet and iron tangy. He made gold savory and silicates salty. Stone was sour. The rare organics embedded in the rock had an exotic spice to them. Clay was slightly bitter and ice was creamy. And, he smiled to himself; the right combination would yield something very similar to a hot chocolate.
He paid attention to smell as well and by sending an electrical impulse to the piriform cortex the stream of charged particles blowing in the solar wind had the fresh, invigorating fragrance of a spring breeze. Touch was the easiest for him. By stimulating the somatosensory cortex the feel of another’s carapace sensor pads became comforting, and depending on the degree, could be quite painful or would send you shuddering in ecstasy. For better or worse, being a crab would become a fully sensual experience.
He uploaded the changes to the unit encasing his tank and prayed (When was the last time he’d prayed?) that no one would discover the minute changes before the system rebooted. The last month crept by like a damaged crab over the dunes of 21 Lutetia. On the last day of his tortuous vacation, the tank enclosed around him and slowly filled with warm amniotic fluid. The vast network of human brains was rebooting and he was infinitely relieved that he’d gotten away with it. He was going home. As he lulled off to sleep, he contemplated waking up, holding Stasja’s claw. Darkness engulfed him.
Suddenly, a red digital warning sign flashed in his mind’s eye and he was jolted awake. The maternal liquid that cradled his frail body flushed out and the tank was wrenched open.
Keith sat up painfully and saw a man—a human man—standing in the white room. His unnaturally young face was incongruent with the tweed jacket and pale blue dress shirt, an old man’s sense of business casual.
“What’s going on?” He asked, his voice divulging his mounting anxiety.
“What’s going on, Mr. Keith Leandro Suarez, is that we’ve detected subtle, but significant tampering with the feedback programming of the mining drones. Those changes originated from right here,” he waved a hand around accusingly, “from your unit.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m Jason Leung, the CIO of AstroCore Ltd., and you’ve created a huge problem for us both.”
“Did the changes go live?”
“Oh, they went live alright, about ten days ago.”
“Ten days?” Deep confusion mingled with his anxiety.
“Yep, we kept you sedated in your tank until I could come down here personally. I wanted to gauge your motives, make sure this wasn’t a corporate espionage/sabotage situation.”
Keith wasn’t listening. Ten days? All the other crabs had most likely scurried away and begun their feeding frenzy. Stasja, finding him inactive and unresponsive, had probably left him lying there on the surface.
Leung continued, “and let me tell you, when our clients logged-on over there, they were assaulted by so much sensory overload we had chaos on our hands.”
My God, what had he done? He imagined Stasja scared and in pain. He had introduced pain to 21 Lutetia! But the changes were miniscule compared to what the human nervous system could handle, a pale imitation! But after the numbness of being a crab, had it been too much? No, he knew it wasn’t. “Um, I’m sure the initial sensations were disorienting, but after a few moments of adjustment they would welcome the added stimulation.”
Leung gave Keith a look of barely restrained impatience. The look young people, even artificially maintained young people, gave the naturally geriatric. “Well, that wasn’t your decision to make, Mr. Suarez. You’ve violated our contract and so we’re removing you from AstroCore’s custody.”
“That’s ridiculous!” Terror gripped Keith. He’d never stopped to consider the consequences. All that was left for the old were these corporate work-for-care programs. “What am I supposed to do? I can’t afford private insurance and I’ve worked for you as a goddamned miner for years!”
“You should have thought of that before you disrupted the whole operation.”
“I didn’t disrupt anything! You have no idea what it’s like to be a fucking crab, scrounging around on a barren rock in the depths of space! It’s isolating and anesthetizing. All I did was give our lives a bit more flavor.” He was shaking and sobbing now. These biological eyes were too damned leaky. “It’s like living in a sensory deprivation suit with only a camera and radio for contact.”
Leung leaned on Keith’s tank with both hands, like someone comfortable with exercising power. “I’m sorry, Mr. Suarez, but your trifling not only affected thousands of lives, it impacted operations. We now have to wait eight months to undue your hasty changes.”
“Impacted operations?” Keith repeated. That’s all that really mattered to these people. He looked at Jason Leung’s unlined, unscuffed face and he couldn’t read it. It lacked the story, the personality of a well-worn carapace. AstroCore Ltd. didn’t see them as patients, or even clients, they saw them only as hardware: aging organic servers in constant need of attention. All they cared about was how many tons of precious metal were stripped from the asteroid and rocketed back to Earth.
He was never going to see Stasja Volk again, or 21 Lutetia. He was probably going to wither and die in a government-run hospice somewhere and he wasn’t entirely sure that was a bad thing.
“For what it’s worth, Mr. Suarez, I don’t think this was a criminal matter and we won’t press any charges, but the bedside robot will be in shortly to disconnect you from the equipment. Is there any family you would like us to contact?”
No, there’s no family. Keith’s mind churned. He’d dealt with people like this before, when they devoured his little company. They weren’t overly concerned with one vulnerable old man. Leung turned to leave.
“Wait!” Keith croaked in desperation.
“You said the crabs have been running with my changes for almost two weeks, right? Please, do me a favor—one last request—and check the production stats. Compare them to last year’s figures.”
“I don’t think—”
“Please! What do you have to lose, five minutes? I have everything to lose!”
AstroCore’s CIO got a distant, glazed-over look and Keith feared that he’d already written him off, but the daze went on a bit too long and Keith understood that he was consulting some kind of invisible data, maybe an augmented reality display.
“The numbers have more than doubled,” he said coolly, still staring at nothing.
“Of course they have! Think about it, if you’ve spent years eating rocks and metal, utterly starved of substance, and suddenly they taste and smell incredibly appetizing, you’d relish every last grain of dirt, wouldn’t you?”
Leung never recovered from his numbers trance. “I’ve shared this with the CEO and we agree that you may be on to something.”
Keith gave Leung a minute more of imperceptible conference, then asked, “Am I still in trouble?”
The pause stretched a few minutes longer, and then he said, “I’ve added a note to your record and your access will be severely limited in the future, but your client status will not be revoked. Since there’s nothing we can really do for the next year, we’re willing to further research this. If this level of performance is maintained, we’ll make your changes permanent and maybe even build on them.”
Keith slumped back into his tank, exhausted.
The first thing he noticed when his consciousness loaded into the crab-form was the crisp scent of ions spraying in from space. Then he became aware that his body was rocking side-to-side to the rhythm of eight heaving legs. His eyestalks swiveled around but failed to spot other crabs.
“You’re awake?” It was Stasja’s luminous voice.
He panned down and saw that he was clumsily riding upon her carapace. “My God, I’m back…” A shattering kind of joy spread inside him.
“What happened to you? The laser chatter among the other residents, when we all came back online, was that you had been expelled.”
“For a while there, I was.”
“Does it have anything to do with this new awareness, these new sensations we’ve been feeling?”
It was great to be with her again. She hadn’t abandoned him. “Yeah, I hacked into our operating system and customized the data inputs, ran into trouble with the higher-ups about it, but we sorted it all out.” He tried to sound nonchalant, but didn’t quite pull it off.
“Why did you do it?”
“Why did you stay up here on the surface with me for two weeks instead of following your prescribed feeding impulse?”
She stopped crawling and the swaying of her body ceased. She didn’t say anything. She didn’t have to. He knew that she had felt an even stronger impulse.
“Here, I can walk now.” He slid off her, leaving an ugly scrape on her otherwise flawless shell. “Oh, I’m sorry, I spoiled your finish.”
“It was bound to happen out here and now I can tell people I got that one carrying an injured friend back home.”
He ran a manipulator along the scratch and gently lingered over her sensor pad. Her heat radiators flared in the infrared. “Have you been down to the mines?” he asked.
“No, after seven days, I began trying to drag you down there with me. I haven’t made it to the nearest hole yet.”
“Come on, I’ve got a surprise for you.” They hurried over the unforgiving ground, like two lovers running in the rain. Keith pulled her into the first mine shaft he spotted and instantly an aromatic banquet overwhelmed their inadequate analyzers.
“Keith, what is that?”
The smell of food—actual mouth-watering food—made the blast furnace in his belly rumble. “Just rocks and dirt,” he said.
Without warning, he was hit with a barrage of lasers from the dark; greetings, questions, praise. Everyone wanted to know if he was responsible for this gastronomic awakening or if he was the ol’pervert that reintroduced the orgasm to the retirement crabs? He didn’t respond. He was too taken aback by the fundamental change in the atmosphere of 21 Lutetia, no longer were the crabs engrossed in mindless consumption. They were feasting. He led Stasja over the adulating, inquiring bodies of other diners, to a patch of bare asteroidal wall and motioned for her to take a bite.
Without hesitation, she plunged her mechanical mouth into the stone, pulverizing it with her mineral mills and deposit rakes. She used her articulate maxillae to stuff different combinations of substances into her mouth, playing with flavors. Despite his burning hunger, Keith hung back and watched Stasja lose herself in her passion.
After a long while of culinary exploration, she pulled herself off the well-eaten wall and faced him. “You did this for me?”
“Nah, I did this for me. You said you were a good cook.”
“I love it.” Stasja Volk beamed at him. She gently patted a sensory pad on his face and fed him a clump of ore. It was, without exaggeration, the most delicious thing he’d eaten in years.
“Well, this wasn’t really the surprise.” He turned and picked carefully at the wall; taking a bit of nickel from one particular vein and ice from the ground. He combined them with a hint of clay and sprinkled some trace organic volatiles on top. “Taste this and tell me what you think,” he said, nervously passing the metallic, dirty snowball to Stasja.
Sensing it was something special, she nibbled tentatively. She didn’t react at first. Long moments passed; he waited patiently. Her frame slowly began to tremble and her new legs buckled. Keith caught her and held her, rubbing her carapace reassuringly.
“It tastes like hot chocolate,” she whispered, the faint light of her laser barely visible. “Is this real?”
They were two shadows embracing in a cave. “It feels real, Stasja, and that’s all that matters.”
Alex Hernandez is a Cuban-American science fiction writer from Miami, FL who has recently sold stories to Baen books.
by Jamie Lackey
Ted knelt beside The Painter’s statue and tried to pray himself out of existence. He’d managed a few minor miracles during his training–he’d captured the scent of a still-life lily and animated a painted dove–surely The Painter wouldn’t make him go through with this ridiculous marriage? He visualized himself fading like a watercolor left out in the rain, his pigments washing away drop by drop.
It didn’t work.
Marcie, the prime cause of his unhappiness, stomped up behind him. “I figured I would find you here. You need to stop moping.”
Ted sighed. “I am not moping.”
“No?” He could hear her arched eyebrow. “What would you call it?”
“I’m praying,” he snapped. Maybe if he didn’t look at her, she’d go away. All he wanted was for her to go away.
Marcie sighed. “I don’t like this any better than you do. I’m not exactly head-over-heels for you. But our fathers have decided that we’re going to be married, and that’s that.” She laid her hand on his shoulder, and he flinched away from her touch.
“I’m a priest. I have devoted myself to the church,” he whispered. “The path before me is toward the divine, not the secular.”
“Sometimes the canvas of our lives is covered with unexpected pigment.”
Ted looked up at her. He hadn’t been expecting her to quote scripture.
“I was trained at the temple,” she said. “I never got beyond mixing paints, but I was happy there. Then my brother died, and I was called home.”
“Don’t you miss it?” Ted asked. “The magic? Feeling The Painter’s hand upon you? Knowing that your life has a purpose?”
Marcie shrugged. “I guess I just found a new purpose.”
Marcie was as pretty as a picture in her simple wedding dress. She walked up the aisle like an angel, and he couldn’t see a trace of bitterness in the smile she gave him.
How could she be so content? She hadn’t chosen this path, either. Ted’s eyes ached from angry weeping, and he’d painted nothing but dark, twisted self portraits for weeks.
The priest–lucky bastard–sang the marriage vows and painted gold rings on each of their palms.
Ted hesitated. Every eye in the chapel fell on him. Marcie squeezed his hand, and her eyes pleaded with him. They were the color of the sky after a rainstorm. A pale, fresh blue. How had he not noticed that before?
Maybe she didn’t resent this marriage because she actually wanted him. The thought sent unfamiliar butterflies dancing in his stomach. It felt almost like magic. He bowed his head, plucked the heavy ring from his skin, and repeated the vows.
His old dreams fell away, but as he slid the ring onto Marcie’s finger, new dreams replaced them.
Marcie curled beside him in their bed. Figures danced on the insides of Ted’s eyelids. No matter how he tried, the estate’s books never seemed to balance. He’d always hated math. He missed painting.
“You know,” she said, “I can handle the books.”
Ted blinked at her.
She snuggled into his side. “You’ve done nothing but work since our wedding. It can’t be making you happy.”
“No,” Ted admitted. “It’s making me miserable.”
“Let me help. We’re partners now, remember?”
Ted had never had a partner before. He kissed her forehead. “I’ll try to keep it in mind.”
Ted squeezed Marcie’s hand while the midwife urged her to push. Something was wrong–Marcie’s strong fingers were limp in his, and her colors were faded and distorted, like a picture that had been left out in the sun too long.
“Don’t leave me,” Ted whispered. “We’re partners. I need you.”
“You’ll be fine. Find a new path.” Her eyes slipped closed. “Take care of our baby,” she whispered. Her voice sounded far away. She slumped back into her pillows, and her hand slid from his.
Ted’s tears fell on her faded cheeks.
Long moments passed, and he pulled himself together. Then panic clutched his chest. “Why isn’t the baby crying?”
Ted returned to the temple. He poured all of his energy into his training. He performed scores of miracles. People traveled for hundreds of miles for his blessing. He had everything he’d dreamed of as a young man.
He painted Marcie and their stillborn son a thousand times. But no miracles touched his brush, no life ever moved the painted faces.
Still, he held onto hope–onto faith. The Painter had placed him on this path–surely this wasn’t his destination. He picked up his brush and started again.
Jamie Lackey has attended James Gunn’s Science Fiction Writer’s Workshop at the Center for the Study of Science Fiction in 2010. Her work has appeared in The Living Dead 2 and Stories from the Heart: Heartwarming Tales of Appalachia. Another of her stories is forthcoming in Daily Science Fiction. Jamie Lacky is also a slush reader for Clarkesworld Magazine.
by Edoardo Albert
Hef first turned up at one of our meetings looking, and smelling, the worse for wear.
“Wife problems,” he said. “Can I come in?”
I was secretary of the Hoddesdon Model Railway Club. I looked at the huge, squint-eyed bloke swaying at the door, his overalls stained with oil and the smell of alcohol layering over a sulphurous reek, and decided he’d fit right in.
“Are you interested in trains?”
“Come in. We’re always looking for new members.”
“Can’t say I’m much of the joining kind.” But he signed the guest book where I indicated in a black scrawl, then held out his hand.
“Hef,” he said, crushing my fingers and half burning them too – he had the hottest hand I’ve ever grasped.
“My name’s Colin,” I said, “and I’m club secretary.”
“Good to meet you.” Hef looked over my shoulder at the assembled members of the Hoddesdon Model Railway Club. “No women. Good.”
“Oh, I’m sure we’d be happy to have some female members, it’s just that none have ever applied.”
“Make sure they don’t.”
“I can hardly stop…”
Hef left me bleating about equality legislation and fairness, and stomped into the clubhouse, over to where Barry was inspecting the skeleton of our new layout. He held out his hand, crushed Barry’s proffered reply, and slipped a pair of glasses over his nose.
“Now, what have you got here?”
I left them to discussing the finer points of the plan and set about arranging the chairs and putting out the agenda. Tonight was our annual general meeting and since we’d completed the move from our previous club house – which actually was in Hoddesdon, unlike our new premises down the line in Broxbourne – and had settled in nicely, I didn’t anticipate any problems.
“I move, under article 3, clause 4 of our constitution, that Colin is asked to step down as club secretary and I nominate Hef in his place.”
Sitting at the table that served as the focus for our meeting, I fear I must have appeared about as witless as an unexpectedly stranded fish, mouth opening and closing more in surprise than for breath.
Barry sat down.
“Seconded.” That was Simon. I’d never heard him express interest in anything other than trains before. To hear him call for my removal was like your own mother telling you that you were a complete disappointment to her – and mine did, so I know what that’s like.
Another hand rose, and another voice, and another, and another. I would have probably continued my stranded fish impersonation indefinitely if Hef, from where he was sitting in the front row, hadn’t stood and raised a hand.
The seconders and thirders and fourthers immediately fell silent, which was odd, because trying to get that lot to be quiet was like asking a cage full of budgies to stop tweeting.
“Thank you for your faith, but I fear I can’t accept…”
Chorus of “Nos” and boos. This time Hef simply raised a finger and they fell silent. I remember thinking I ought to try that next time.
“No, I cannot. Colin has held the position for many, many years and it would be grossly unfair to cast him aside now. If, however, he were to admit that the job has grown taxing, and were to resign and the position fall vacant, I would be happy to put myself forward for election.”
As he spoke my name, Hef turned to look at me and it was that more than anything else which prompted my next words.
“If you want me out, you’ll have to kick me out.”
If Hef had just left it with all the blokes I thought were my friends calling for me to go, I’d have stepped down without a murmur. But not only was he trying to sack me, he wanted me to do the dirty work for him.
I stood up.
“Come on then. If you want this to be a vote of no confidence, someone’s got to propose it.” I scanned the room. Eyes dropped, or suddenly found the ceiling joists a matter of intense interest, or began cataloging back issues of ‘Railway Modeller’.
I was just about to sit down when a voice piped up. I looked around, trying to see who was speaking, for it didn’t sound like anyone I knew. Then I saw him: Simon, poor, slightly mad Simon, twisting his leather cap in his hands, the thin strands of his comb-over glistening on his scalp. I noticed he’d taken to tucking his trousers into his socks. His eyes, which normally either fixed on you with unwavering intensity or wavered around the room, were now attempting to do both.
“I… prop…pose a…vote…of no…con..fi…denCE.”
The last syllable came out as a shouted gasp and Simon clapped his hands over his mouth as if he’d just said a rude word. He looked surprised at what he’d just said.
But the motion was proposed.
“Any seconders?” I sounded weary even to my own ears.
Hands were raised. Tentatively, one or two at first, and then a veritable copse of arms pointing heavenwards.
I put my pen down on the table. I wasn’t going to look at Hef, I wasn’t….
I looked, of course.
He sat in the front row, positively glowing with self satisfaction, and already receiving congratulatory pats on the back.
“Right,” I said. “Um. I’d better go. Bye.”
Standing outside, I wished I’d said something more eloquent but trouble was, I still couldn’t think of anything. I went for a walk along the River Lee instead, the trains on the Liverpool Street-Stansted line rattling past. But, for the first time in my life, I hardly noticed them. I’d been booted from the club. I couldn’t believe it.
When I got home and slid into bed my wife, rousing herself drowsily, asked, “How did it go?”
It’s a long story, but although we’re called the Hoddesdon Model Railway Club (or HMRC for short), we’re actually in Broxbourne now, one minute’s walk from the clubhouse of the Broxbourne Model Railway Club. So I joined them instead. The HMRC has a spacious new clubhouse, a pond we built for members’ boats, ‘O’ and ‘G’ gauge tracks permanently laid in the grounds of the clubhouse, and access to the River Lee. The BRMC has a hut. Mind you, the layout is excellent, but there’s not much left to do but tinker and drink tea.
Of course, I ended up speaking to some of my old friends in the HMRC. What happened that night was the great unmentionable, but what was going on now was up for discussion.
“Building,” said Barry, sipping his tea as we watched a class 66 shunt freight containers on the BRMC layout. “He’s got us all working like dogs, even Simon. I mean, I’ve never even seen Simon boil a kettle before, now he’s got him sawing ply and soldering away like he’s suddenly turned into…er, you.”
“How’s he with the electrics?” There was no need to specify who ‘he’ was; we both knew.
Barry blew on his tea. “Pretty good, really, but not as good as you, Colin.” He glanced at me, then went back to studying the layout. “Won’t you come back? We could use you?”
I’ll admit, I’d been dreaming about this moment ever since I’d left the club, but when it came, none of the answers I’d rehearsed seemed to fit. The silence lengthened. Barry repositioned a truck that had become decoupled.
“Did he ask you to come?”
“No. He doesn’t know I’m here.”
I shook my head. “Have I told you about our new project here at the BRMC? We’re going to enter it at Warley. Try for a place, maybe even a win.”
“Come off it, Colin,” Barry said. “You haven’t even started it, have you? It’ll never be ready in time for Warley. Besides, you haven’t seen what he’s doing. It’s… it’s like nothing else I’ve ever seen.”
“Then why’d you ask me to come back if you don’t need me?”
“Because I didn’t want you to miss out on this, you old duffer. We’re doing something that no one – no one – has ever done before and it’s all because of him. Yes, I know we shouldn’t have chucked you, Colin – honestly, I still don’t know what made me do it that night – but you’ll kick yourself when you see what we’re doing. Come on, Colin, what do you say?”
I looked over the BRMC layout: a little dusty, packed with detail and about as portable as Big Ben. It wasn’t going anywhere.
I turned to Barry. “Here’s what I say, and you can tell him it too: we’ll see you at Warley and may the best layout win.”
Some six weeks down the line, Phil wiped the grease down his shorts, creaked upwards from where he’d been kneeling, and announced, “This is effing great!”
Phil was an Aussie. He was still an Aussie despite having lived in England, or pom-de-terre as he called it, for nearly fifty years. He wore shorts even in winter, still spoke strine and ragged us all whenever Australia beat us at cricket, rugby (union or league), or pretty well anything else. He ragged us a lot.
I looked at the layout taking shape around us. We were working in my garage. The car was now permanently sat in the drive and the BRMC met in my kitchen for a quick tea before getting down to work. It was the best thing to happen to the club in years. With the clubhouse layout complete, all the blokes did was meet on Wednesday nights, run a few trains, talk railways and drink tea. Now, we had something to work for and it had knocked, oh, weeks off our combined apparent ages.
I don’t think I’d ever seen a group of pensioners work so hard. We sawed, stuck, painted, wired, and planned and planned and planned. Of course, all the entrants to Warley did so, but I’d had an inspiration that I hoped would win us the trophy.
All the layouts were planned and built by railway enthusiasts – obviously so. But that meant the railway lines came first, and the town or country through which the railway ran served as a scenic backdrop to the main action on the tracks. However, that was the opposite to what had happened in the normal gauge world. There, geography came first. And that was what we were doing with our layout.
It was a close run thing, but we got it done. By eight o’clock on the eve of the Warley show, the last dab of paint had been applied, the final point tested and the last train run. We were ready.
Then it was time to disassemble the whole thing, a dash – or rather a crawl up the M1 – and we were there in time for setting up.
Warley is huge. The NEC in Birmingham is big, but fill it with layouts, dealers, traders and railway enthusiasts and it seems, paradoxically, even bigger. An empty space is just that, after all: empty. Filled, it becomes a buzzing, steaming, heaving cacophony of railway inspired life. There’s no where like it.
The early morning passed in a frantic haze of setting up: pasting, patching and putting things together that had fallen apart in transit. It was mid morning before I even had a cup of tea, and nearly lunchtime when I finally had the chance to leave the stand and take a look around. The judges had been round already, clip boards in hand, standing impassively in front of our display though I’d known every one of them for years. Phil tipped them the wink, but not a flicker. Gauging the reactions of the spectators, though, suggested we were on to something. Despite being tucked away in a corner and hidden behind the Bachman stand, we were drawing quite a crowd. The questions showed that some of them saw immediately what we’d set out to do with our layout. Now, all that was left was to take a look at the opposition and then wait for the judging.
I could tell Hef and my old friends at the HRMC had come up with something special by the crowd around their stand. It was five people deep and, unless you were a young ‘un and could worm your way through, the only option was to stand on tiptoe at the back and gradually work your way forward as spectators slowly moved on to other exhibits. At least, I thought that was my only option, until I felt a tap on my back.
“Come on,” he said. “It’ll take you ages to get to the front. Come and have a look from the inside.” He led me around the crowd and we ducked under the table into the operators’ yard.
“What do you think?”
They were all there, my old friends, each with little headsets on and many with black gloves that had wires running from them. I’d never seen anything like it. But whatever they’d been doing before, they all stopped when I scrambled up on to my feet, and looked at me, as if waiting for my verdict.
All except one, that is.
“Keep working, we’ve got a railway to run,” Hef rumbled, and the members of the HRMC returned to their stations. But as he started making incomprehensible movements with his glove-clad hand, Barry mouthed to me again, “What do you think?”
I shook my head and spread my hands.
“It’s… it’s astonishing.”
Almost all the questions being fired at the operators were varieties on, “How do you do that?” and that’s exactly what I wanted to know too.
Looking at the layout, I realized how far our ordinary displays were from what we set out to create. We tried to make miniature lands, small worlds complete in themselves, but suggestive of their wider context. But usually all we achieved was to make a nice backdrop for the trains.
Here, Hef and the boys had made a world, and brought it to life. Not just the trains moved, everything did. The cars drove along the road, the barge motored down the canal and then, as I watched in amazement, went through a lock, the water apparently draining away. In the fields, tiny cows chewed methodically, looked round placidly at the passing trains and even, I swear, deposited fresh and steaming miniature cow pats in the fields.
And there were people, small figures waiting at the station, pacing up and down or smoking a cigarette – it was a 1930s station after all – and then when the train arrived, wonder of wonders, some of the passengers alighted while the people waiting got on.
“How are you doing it?” I asked, joining in the chorus.
Hef held up his gloved hand.
“Robotics. It’s all in the fingers.” He wiggled them, and a party of picnickers suddenly exploded into an impromptu highland reel, rather messing up their carefully laid out meal by skipping over the sandwiches.
“Congratulations,” I said. “It’s quite a layout.”
Hef snorted, a sound curiously like a train shunting up to a wagon. “Of course.” He turned back to the layout and I was left, suddenly an unemployed stranger among all the hard-at-work operators.
I went back to the BRMC layout.
“What d’you see, mate?” asked Phil. In honor of Warley, he was wearing clean shorts.
We gathered in front of the judges’ table at noon. Even in the crowd I heard the excited buzz about Hef’s layout, the conversational fragments that all fitted together into the clearest, most obvious winner I’d known in all my years coming to Warley.
The judges shuffled on to the podium and took their seats, while the crowd slowly subsided into a state as close to silence as could be expected from a large group of excited railway enthusiasts.
I scanned the faces, looking for Hef and the other members of the HMRC, but they were nowhere to be seen, which seemed odd. Maybe they were hiding in the wings and were going to be brought up on stage in triumph once their victory was announced. I’d not seen that happen before, but then I’d never seen anything like their layout before.
Someone tapped me on the shoulder. I looked round but there was no one there. Then I saw Barry, over on the other side of the crowd, waving his black-gloved hand. I felt his fingers on my shoulder even though he was twenty feet away. How did he do that? The other HMRC members were there too, scattered in a loose entourage around Hef. I’d never realized how big he was before, but he loomed over the rest of them, despite his limp. And he was heading my way.
I couldn’t say it was an encounter I’d relish, but sometimes you’ve just got to admit it: the better man won. Having seen what he’d done, I was prepared to do that. What I wasn’t prepared to accept was humiliation.
Hef’s grin grew wider as he came nearer – and his limp became more pronounced, although I don’t suppose he’d have been too happy about me noticing that.
He raised his own black-gloved hand and made a come-to-me gesture. I felt an almost irresistible pressure on my back and it was a case of either head towards Hef or fall flat on my face. I should have fallen. But old bones become disinclined to accept gravity’s embrace; I stumbled forwards.
Hef spread his arms, the members of HRMC lined up behind him, my old friends.
“Are you ready to be shown up for the talentless little impostor you are?” said Hef.
I think I blinked. My mouth probably opened and closed a couple of times. But I do know that my face and neck suddenly felt very hot.
“Entering a layout in competition with me.” Hef snorted. “These others didn’t know who they were taking on, but you did. Did you honestly think you could beat me?”
My mouth opened and closed a few more times. Much longer like this and I could found the fish impersonators’ club.
From the podium came an amplified cough and a finger tapping the mike. The crowd grew quiet.
“I’ll deal with you later, after the judgment of Warley.” Hef turned towards the judges, planting himself squarely in my view. From behind, he was broader than a railway carriage; I couldn’t see a thing. But I could hear.
There was the usual preamble and then the judge went on to distribute the minor prizes. I did think about creeping away but a curious lassitude of fatalism had settled upon me: there was no point in trying to get away.
“And now,” said the judge, “we come to the main prize of the competition: the award for the best layout.” The crowd shuffled expectantly, already knowing who it would go to.
“There were many outstanding layouts on show this year, but it quickly became clear that two stood out – the layouts by the Hoddesdon Model Railway Club and the one by the Broxbourne MRC. There must be something in the water down there.”
The crowd murmured. I felt slightly dizzy. At least I could see the judges now. Hef had moved nearer to the podium.
“The HRMC layout represents a huge leap forward in the technical aspects of railway modeling,” continued the judge. “We’ll be asking, ‘How did they do that?’ for months after this show has come to an end. But these are supposed to be model railway layouts and in the end we decided that the HRMC layout contained too many historical infelicities – running the City of Truro, the Flying Scotsman and the Eurostar on the same network for instance – for it to be awarded the prize, so, for its innovative approach and fidelity to railway history, we award the prize for best in show to the Broxbourne Model Railway Club…”
At that point, everything became slow motion. I saw Hef, who had been surging towards stage like a Norwegian ice breaker, suddenly halt, and heard Barry, who had been towed in his wake, a small and overlooked tender, saying something about the folly of mixing up railway eras. Hef turned around, grabbed Barry’s arms and lifted him into the air as if he was a kitten. He appeared to be about to launch Barry, feet first, towards the judges, when he saw me. This proved fortunate for Barry, as he was returned to the ground, but I feared it might not be so advantageous for me. I tried to make my way through the crowd but if Hef was an ice breaker, I was the Endeavour, and as firmly stuck.
Hef bore down on me, looking even bigger than he had before. Now he towered, head and shoulders, over everyone else, and his shoulders looked wide enough to make up a scrum front row on their own.
But cutting through the hubbub, there was a regular loud tapping and we both looked at the stage where the chief judge was rapping on the microphone.
“Would the BRMC please make its way forward to receive the prize and judge’s congratulations and,” the judge paused and, despite a comb-over and bottle bottom glasses he looked positively fierce, “anyone obstructing will be disqualified from this and future competitions!”
Hef and I turned to each other. He seemed to shrink, his proportions becoming more human. Barry, who had been hanging on to his shirt tails, was suddenly able to bring him to a halt.
The big man glared at me and he was so angry fires seemed to glow behind his eyes.
“I don’t like being beaten, particularly by the likes of you.”
Then he strode away, Barry bobbing helplessly in his wake.
The rest of the prize giving passed in something of a haze. I’d always dreamed of winning best in show at Warley, but now I’d done so, it like felt like I’d cheated. And, by the desultory round of applause, it sounded as if most of the spectators agreed. I might have won on the day, but it was Hef’s layout they’d go back to their clubs and talk about. I could even see the editor of ‘Railway Modeller’ talking to the remaining members of HMRC – no prizes for guessing which layout was going to be splashed in the next issue.
But… I was the winner, or at least the Broxbourne Model Railway Club was. And I knew that in any other year our layout would have won deservedly. It was our name that would go in the record books and that couldn’t be taken away from us. Or so I thought. When I eventually returned to the BRMC layout, it was to find the operators looking cross, annoyed and baffled, and the layout itself static. The stream of visitors heading our way to see the best in show hung around for a while and then headed off, disappointed.
Phil emerged from under the baseboard, screwdriver between his teeth, ammeter in hand.
“Search me, mate. I’ve checked every single point, junction, connection and terminal, and it’s all live but nothing’s running.”
And it was true. We even asked ‘Sparks’ McKay, the electrics bloke from ‘Railway Modeller’ to take a look, and he couldn’t find the problem either.
“There must be a short somewhere,” he said, looking doubtfully at our unmoving display, “but I’m blowed if I can find it.”
That afternoon, the judges came to see us. They were regretful, polite and inflexible. If we couldn’t get the layout running by Sunday’s opening time, then the prize would be taken from us and given to the HMRC instead.
We worked through the night, stripping everything down, re-soldering all the connections, checking, double checking, triple checking everything we could think and, when the late November sun rose on the final day of the competition we looked at each other with exhausted, beaten faces. Nothing worked. Even applying power to a single, isolated loop of track produced nary a wheel twitch. We’d checked to see if our meters were giving us false readings, if the power supply to our table was faulty, everything. But all was clear and nothing worked.
“Go get some tea and breakfast,” I said to the other club members. I picked up the ‘Best in Show’ plaque from its resting place. “I’ll take this back.”
The huge hall was still quite empty. One or two of the exhibitors were filtering in, and rather more of the trade stands were manned by people straightening their wares for the final day of the show, but luckily no one noticed what I was carrying – mainly because I turned the written side to my chest and scurried along to avoid being dragged into conversation.
I only slowed down when I came in sight of the judge’s podium and saw Hef lounging there, boots up on a chair.
Strangely, and despite everything he’d done, I’d never really disliked him before. Now, despite the bluff manner and his evident mechanical genius, I marked him down as the sort of bloke I’d had to deal with at school: a bully.
Hef looked up from cleaning his nails. “How’s the layout going?”
“It’s not.” I put the plaque face down on the judge’s table. “As you know. I don’t understand how you did it, but I’d like my layout back.”
“Not until I get my prize. Then I’ll set it running.”
“How did you do it? We spent all night and most of yesterday working on it and we haven’t a clue.”
Hef grinned. “I’m not about to give away my trade secrets. Let’s just say machines like me, and like to do what I say.”
“So you really did sabotage our layout?”
“It wasn’t going to be Barry, was it? You should thank me for throwing you out of the club – a more talentless group I have yet to meet.”
“Thank you.” I reached into my pocket and took out my mobile phone. “Did you get that, Barry…? Yes, ‘talentless’. You’ll tell the judges…? Good. Thanks, Barry. Bye.”
I put the phone back in my pocket. Hef’s face was reddening, his eyes took on the deep glowing color of forge fires and lava flows, the color at which all solid things flow.
“You’ve got as long as it takes me to walk back to my layout to start it working again,” I said. “Do that, and it’s an end to it. Don’t, and you’ll be disqualified, disgraced and barred from all other competitions. Oh, and this is coming with me.” I picked up the plaque and turned to go.
“This is not the end of it.”
I didn’t even turn round, but Hef’s voice reached me. “You don’t even know what I am, do you? You have no conception of what I can do. I’ll enjoy demonstrating the true range of my powers on you later.”
That’s when I turned.
“I’ve never been keen on nicknames; you should stick with Hephaestus. And before you start planning your revenge, think what your peers will say when they hear I beat you. Think what your wife will say.” I took a deep breath and stared into the forge fires of his eyes. “Leave it, and I never say a word of who you are and what happened here. Take your revenge and the whole world knows. The decision is yours.”
The forge fires glowed brighter, brighter, brighter. Then, Hef blinked. I marched away, plaque under my arm. Once I was lost among the stands and layouts, and safely out of sight, I stopped, mainly because my legs had stopped working. Luckily, there was a stand close by that I could grab hold of, otherwise I’d have fallen over. That’s when I remembered to take out my phone and switch it on.
“You’ll never guess, mate,” Phil said, almost running up to me as I returned to our stand.
“It’s working,” I said.
Here.” I handed him the plaque. “Put this up. This is where it’s staying.”
Edoardo Albert is a writer of Sri Lankan and Italian extraction now based in London. He lives online at EdoardoAlbert.com.
by Barry King
The words of the god beat their fists on my teeth, my tongue tickles with the honey of them, but I will not speak these words of joy and hope for my enemy, the Lacedaemonian. I refuse them. I will not betray my mother, my promise, nor the years of my service by speaking them.
My face, the good side, is pressed to the hot brass bars, good eye closed against the stinging fume. The open cage swings in a gout of dragon-breath, suspended as it is from the crux of a tripod.
“Sister?” the young mystia asks, her voice muffled by the wet sash over her mouth. I hear her concern distantly—disconnected from meaning. It pulls me from the myriad cracks of time to the here and now, wakes me from my half-dream, from wandering the dragon-mind labyrinth.
I peek, squinting in the hot acrid air rising from below. She is bent forward, golden tassels in her headdress rippling in the updraft, lamplight quivering in watery motion. Her hands quiver also, the wax writing-board and stylus shaking in her delicate, pink hands. Hands that may one day be as grey as my own, cracked, the cracks limned by the ash of the dragon.
The dragon’s eyes close. The earth itself quivers as he breathes in… breathes out.
Speak. His voice is deep as chasms.
The verse bursts from me in a torrent of words. I gasp for breath after every line, each acid breath tears through the passages of my throat, burying its barbs within me. I dictate the words my enemy has waited long and travelled far to hear: By his hand, he will end the bitter feud which drove him from Lacedaemonia on the Laconian plain, the city we Euboeans call “Sparta”.
Tiavviastis of Laconia, be glad you tended
Your shining locks, for you have earned rewards
So long deserved. Go forth to conquer your foe;
Your name will be spoken in Attica for all the years
That stone shall prove mightier than rain
The dragon leaves me, and I abandon myself to silent tears. In the end, I have betrayed them all.
I am Pythia. A word with split meanings: a title and a place. It also means “I stink”. Thinking on this makes me smile. I do stink. Everywhere is the sulphur-smell of the dragon. In my clothes, in my hair. My poor hair. My once-dark, pitch-bright hair is grey, brittle, ragged. Uneven across my eyes. Moons of grey grime line my yellowed fingernails and moons of black ring my mouth and nostrils. I am burned and battered.
But I do not break.
Like water, I do not break, but flow.
A memory, Sheep-beard says to me “You can break a pot, not its water.” He clung to that thought, in exile, far from his beloved Sardis. I had broken an amphora that bright afternoon, trying to carry it despite my shaky knees. Spilled water roused the colour of sunlit stonework in the courtyard. Gentle vapour rose as he spoke.
I love the memory of his voice. Kindness and patience in that voice. But listen, Sheep-beard, if you can hear me: The sun is too bright. I cannot gather the water back. Can you?
But he was not thinking of me as I am now, spread wildly as I am. He was thinking of his city, and how his city was once-broken like my amphora, all its people flowing away, spilt water flowing across the baked Lydian landscape in the shattering that came with the Medan Mule’s iron shoes.
The serpents warned them, those men of Sardis, boiling out of the earth and across the battle-plain in anticipation of Cyrus the mule’s armies. Oh, yes. Serpents always warn, but their cloven tongues form split meanings. And the dragon, King of Serpents, betrayed old Croesus of Lydia; betrayed him to the “King of Kings”. There is a third King of Kings, now. Grandchild of Cyrus; grandchild of a mule, so no heir of his grandfather’s loins. Xerxes is indeed coming, with five million in his wake to wreck the walls of Athens.
My hand is trembling. I am flowing beyond the cracks of my own soul’s amphora. I reach out to the dragon in the depths of the earth. He slumbers: a chance for respite. I am tired, slipping away, draining out into the place where there is no gulf between yesterday and tomorrow, no space between myself and another….
No space between myself and the dragon. The dragon promised me payment in kind, after the duty is done. I think he has forgotten his promise….
Promises are to be kept; I dream of the girl that is my distant hometown, and how she slips through the cracks of Gaia to come to me still. She has not forgotten Spazakia, “little cracked-pot”. Every month she comes, to give me her cold, sweet kisses to my face and cleanses me of the ash, of the duty. I need only hold my shards together for a little more. It grows harder, month by month, and memory of past and future presses upon me like a leaden fist.
I let go, spill out of myself.
In memory, the sun shines clearer, brighter than I have ever seen.
I have seen this Laconian before, this man the dragon forces me to answer. This shameful one who has come before the Oracle calling himself “Tiavviastis of Attica”.
It was fifteen years ago. His locks were filthy with the sweat and soot of battle. He loped into our courtyard. Even his eyes were yellowed, jaundiced, and greedy. But not greedy like a man. Greedy like a Lacedaemonian, which is to say a man raised in the manner of the wolf.
His helm and shield rode his shoulders in a raised hackle, but his sword was unsheathed and in his hand, the edge notched and bright as his jagged teeth. His other seized mama’s wrist. She squirmed against his grip and said something I couldn’t hear. He pointed with his sword over the wall that faced the ford below the city.
“Your husband? He’s down there, with five hundred of his fellows and a hundred Boetian pikemen. No, I tell a lie. There he is, right above us,” and he pointed to a thick black column of smoke rising into the clear blue sky.
He guffawed and slapped her backside with the flat of his sword, sending her bounding ahead of him like a plump rabbit. I saw his eyes flash up to my window briefly, his smile cracking in calculation, but whatever he guessed was in the storeroom, he did not think it worth bothering himself over.
I was in the storeroom. My heels perched on the teetering wooden shelf behind me, my hands on the sill of the high window. The hem of my cloak was stuffed in my mouth. I promised Mama that I would hide and be silent—that no matter what, I would not cry out.
I kept that promise, and made a second one, right then—in silence and with a mouth stuffed with lambswool—I vowed I would fetch her back, I would take her away from that filthy wolf-man and bring her home where she could be safe.
I know Great Mother heard me, because the shelf broke, and I was thrown to the floor and against a table’s legs, which also broke. My head was turned, and, in the slowness of fear-stretched moments, I watched the beautiful vase father had bought for my dowery—or burial if I was not to see my wedding day—fall. The Maiden-Mother upon it splintered. Her ample, fruit-draped form fissured outwards across the floor, her brother danced on a fragment in the air above.
Then a quern-stone, still filled with grain, slipped off the tabletop and fell on my face, hard, cold, and as heavy as the world. And I heard the vase echo in my head, fissures of lightning before the thunder, the crunch and shattering of bone as one of my eyes went dark. One eye….
One eye, the eye of Maiden-Mother’s brother, the one they call “the archer”, stared back at me, shards ringing it like the waves of the sea around our island. The sea swelled around me and grew dark.
And then, a dream: we are playing on the flagstones, my brother and I. The sun is warm and bright, and the thyme and sweet-marjoram bushes thrum with the industry of bees. Mama is carding wool on the terrace and Papa is away somewhere, traveling.
Last time he returned from traveling, he had a Colchean bracelet for Mama: Two serpents’ heads nearly touching, all in bright gold. I envied her that bracelet. My brother is teasing me about that.
He has caught two geckos, and I am giggling at the prickle of tiny claws at my wrist. He forms a living bracelet in imitation of the gold one. His clever fingers press their faces together for just an instant, kissing, completing the circuit. The geckos scrabble in terror, their slit-eyes wild with unreadable dread. One of them slips out of his grasp and makes away down the cobblestone path. I watch it scuttle into the border and under the thyme-bushes.
“Oh, look,” he said, pointing at something on the ground.
It was a scrap of flesh, bloody on one end and pointed on the other—like half a worm—wiggling. “He dropped his tail,” he said, and grinned at me. I look at the gecko he’s still holding, the female. Her scales shine in the sunlight. She is calm, now, resting against my brother’s warm skin. Her small lungs billow out along her side, and she watches me with her slitted eyes. Or I think she does. It’s hard to tell with lizards.
“She has eyes like a cat,” I say, ignoring him and the bloody thing on the ground.
“Not all cats have eyes like that,” he says.
“Lions have eyes like people.”
I look up at him, thinking about people’s eyes. His eyes are bright gold, with shards of brown, and they shine fiercely, a dark, knowing pit in the centre. I realize, then, that I do not have a brother. And the boy is holding a tortoise. It is snapping at my eye. It is a round, heavy thing like a quern-stone, but he holds it lightly, a serious look on his face.
“Turtles have people-eyes, too,” he says.
The world threatens to spin away. “So do dragons,” he says, after a while.
I wake, cocooned in white cotton. I tear free of the shroud and emerge into the sunlight with a cry. I am thirsty. The sun beats on my head like a hammer, and it is so bright I cannot make out anything clearly. One eye is swollen shut, and from somewhere is the tinkle of a fountain.
I follow the sound with my ears. I try to stand, but my legs won’t obey, so I crawl, hand-over-hand for the water. I stumble over a bundle of cloth, and the jolt makes my head ring. I squint my good eye. It is another person in a shroud. I scan the square. There are more of them in the way, all laid end-to-end. Shrouds of different colours like mosaics on the sun-baked flagstones. All the dead of the city, laid out for burial. And myself counted among them.
It is noon. The stones scald my hands as I pull myself between rows. Heads on my right, feet on my left. When the water comes, I fall into it, headfirst.
The cold on my face quenches the coals behind my eye. I relax, holding my breath, and let the pain seep away until it is just a dull throb. Panic constricts my chest when I find I cannot turn my head to breathe. The pain keeps me from thrashing. Just before I succumb to the inevitable, someone turns me over, gently as an eddying leaf.
My breath bursts out into the sky, and I gasp, readying myself to sink below. But no, a pair of knees rise from below to hold me up. I relax into them and let my breath slow as the peals of pain in my head fade to dullness. Gentle hands caress my cheeks. Someone is humming. I recognize a lullaby, but the humming is rich as fine singing in a chorus, and the ripple of a brook, and yet simple and plain as honesty. A cold finger begins to trace lines around my eye, along my forehead.
“You are cracked, little pot. But not leaking.” The woman’s voice is rich, clear. I think I know her.
“He took Mama,” I say.
She stops humming for a while. Then she says, “Yes, she’s not here anymore.”
“He took her away. She’s a prisoner.”
“There are many prisoners, now. All in chains of iron. All in the market, sitting on the floor, in their own filth. You could be there, too. But you’re not.”
“I promised to get her back,” I say, unsure of myself or of this woman who holds me.
“That was a bold promise.”
“I meant it.”
“Do you still?”
She turned me in the water to look in my face. The sun shone above her, leaving her form in smooth silhouette. “Well, you’re not in chains, so that counts for something.”
“Can you help me?”
She was silent a long, long time. Then she said, “I was stolen, too. Long ago. I was a girl like you, and this island was still part of Boetia. He kidnapped me and two of my sisters, but I was youngest and most beautiful. My sisters made him promise not to take me against my will. He promised.”
“Did he keep his promise?”
“Yes. I did not want him. I still do not. He keeps his promise to this day. But he is very angry, very cruel. He told me I must stay here until I agree to be his. He shook the earth until it shattered, and the cracks filled with water. He rooted me to the island he made. But no matter whether I accept him or accept my prison, I will never again be free.”
She became silent, and in the silence her sadness drew her away from me. She began to fade as the sun behind a cloud.
“Where would you go if you were free?” I asked, hoping to call her back.
She grew again in presence. I could not see her face, but I knew she smiled, because I smiled myself when I felt it. “I would go home, to the south, to the mountains above the dry plain. I would see my father and mother again, and my remaining sisters,” then a coldness crept into her voice as the sun again moved behind a cloud, and I felt chill. “But he has made it difficult. I must cross his waters and climb the rivers at the farthest reaches of the southern lands. Even so, my father has closed his kingdom and turned the rivers inwards so they deny passage to my tormentor. And so he denies me a road home as well… No, here I will remain until the world changes.”
“I am so sad for you,” I said, not knowing what else I could say.
She laughed suddenly and was again smiling. “And I for you. So I will help you. But first you must mend, broken-pot, if you will ever be whole.”
“What is your name?”
“What is this town called?”
“Khalkis,” I answer.
And then I slept.
I awake, still in memory. Another head in silhouette, gentle fingers on my face. The smell is of beeswax, and rosemary, and something else, more pungent and rich. I gasp. I have not been breathing.
A man’s voice. I hear every word, but I do not understand. The words float past my thoughts, ships upon the water, with no sense or season between them. But the voice is happy. Nearly jubilant. The man rises, is calling someone. I look up at the sun, dappled with green and gold through the grapevine-heavy trellis. I am on a bed-frame of simple cords. My head has stopped throbbing.
The man kneels by the bed again and says something, yearning for something. He wants assurance from me. I raise my hand to his face. It is soft, ashen-grey. His beard is curled and tightly-kinked like lambswool. It is like a sheep’s tail, so thick and knotted. I open my mouth to speak, but I am broken. I hear my words, but they mean nothing to me. I smile at him, and he backs to the wall, afraid.
I am not bothered by his fear. It is right that he should fear. But I reach out to him again.
Slowly, like a timid animal buttressing courage against anticipated doom, he approaches. He takes my hand in both of his. He speaks softly, whispering. I nod.
He closes his eyes. Tears fall from his nose. I, who am broken, feel it keenly when something is mended. He bends his forehead to my hand. Someone approaches with a ladle of clean water. I drink. The water is clean and sweet. I lay back and sleep takes me again.
Years later, when I could understand speech again, he told me the words I spoke on that day:
Oh, Sheep-beard, tarry no longer in distant sorrow,
Neither wife nor daughter will you find there waiting.
Seek the queen in the broken hive that swarms for ten years.
When you sit upon a flying throne of wood, blood-soaked,
Look to a cistern of archer’s tears, marked by a naked ear.
Again, I dream. The moon is bright and high over the hills. The stranger I call “my brother” and I wander along the rocky track. I know it is a dream, because the land around us is revealed like the view from a skylark’s wing. To our right, the broad fertile plain of wheat, white in the light of the moon, rippling. The plain is neatly divided by a silver stream, rushing to the sea. Two cities, one sooty black, behind us, the other chalk-white, ahead of us, rest at the points where the crescent ridge touches the sea, enclosing the river and the fields.
We sit on a rock overlooking the river’s gorge. He wraps his arms around me to keep out the cold, and a vixen leaps up at his unspoken bidding to lay across my feet, warming them. Her kits jump up and begin nuzzling at her belly.
“This is where it began, this plain,” I tell him, coaxing him to speak of the past.
He nods, gazing over the moon-drenched landscape. “Here the cities shared the wealth of Khalkis,” he says, “like these fox-kits at their mother’s teats. And when they came to fighting, they agreed first on how they would fight, and what rules they would follow, fancying themselves the sort of men as gathered once on the plain of Troy. But in the end, neither gained the valley, and both were impoverished, for all the lands in the wide world sided for one city or the other, so neither could best the other. That is the curse. That is where it began, this antipathy between the northerners and the southerners, and, by extension, between Ionia and Persia. This is the lot you have inherited, a growing spiral of sundered halves.”
“And each turn of the wave goes further abroad,” I say, thinking of my own people and the Medes, and the Rowers in their chalk-white city across the plan, and of the Atticans, and the… Wolf-men of the far south. My mind flees from that image, jagged Lacedaemonian teeth against a face of soot.
“And so, two fissures have indeed split this island, and so split me from you,” he says, “both meet at the world’s crossroads, at the navel of the world. You won’t be long getting there? I will be waiting.”
“No,” I say, after a pause wherein regret stops my breath. “No, I will come soon enough.”
We look over the dark city, my city, now half in ruins. Khalkis fled there after the war, and her river is silent, now.
“There will be a reckoning.”
“I know. One of many.”
“Afterwards, you will be free to choose.”
“I would stay with you,” I say, hoping he will relent. That he will tell me it isn’t necessary, this separation.
“You would not survive it.”
I look at the city of Rowers. Not a lamp burns. Pale in the moonlight, its windows are as dark as they will be when the Persians leave it razed to the ground. I draw his arms closer around me. I can feel his heat, his breath on the nape of my neck.
“Will you come to me again?”
I am hurt by his refusal. I look up into his face, my stomach clenching. Clenching with fear of abandonment. He has a sly grin, like a fox. Teasing me. I hold him close when I realize he means to say that he will not need to come back, because he will never truly leave. Not ever. I hear the rumble in his chest, his breathing. For a moment, a rent forms in the cloth of the dream and I feel the sway of the tripod beneath me, smell brimstone in the musk of the vixen. I flee the sleeping dragon’s presence, returning to the memory of the dream.
“And my promise?”
“You made to yourself. It’s not for me to release you.”
Memory hops from stone to stone in the river of time, like a child driving goats to pasture. Seven years have passed, and I have grown. Recovered my wits, my feet, my voice. Karkus, the little balding scholar that is friend and companion to Sheep-beard, is talking. He can’t seem to stop gnawing at a question. “I don’t understand,” he says. “Why did you make her your daughter? She is a foundling. By rights, she should be your slave. She owes you your life, and the use of it.”
Sheep-beard’s voice is tense with strained patience. “She is my daughter now. That is how I wish it.”
Karkus snorts. “Fool. Daughters mean marriages, and good luck finding a dowery for her,” he laughs, an ugly thread woven into his voice, “you will have to pauper a king to get her off your hands.” I wince at the words. In my mind, I see myself ugly as his voice dresses me, uglier than my face in the brass mirror. I imagine flesh flayed from my face and I grimace madly, one eye black as night and the other dead-fish white. I am a thing. A thing of horror. I choke.
“Karkus!” Sheep-beard rarely raises his voice, and I know, this time, Karkus has gone too far.
They mutter, beyond my hearing.
“Yes, well, get out, then. Come back when you can keep a civil tongue in your head,” Sheep-beard says. He isn’t angry. Karkus is a boor, but he does not mean to hurt.
At the door, he turns. “My apologies, Melikates. I spoke badly.”
“Yes, well, get out all the same. Tonight, I will blame the wine. It is too strongly mixed. Come tomorrow, when you have slept on it. We will talk again. But not about Spazakia, or my reasons for accepting her as my daughter.”
I hear the door being dragged shut. Sheep-beard comes into the hearth-room, where I am cooking.
“I wonder the same thing,” I say, trying not to fumble the pronunciation. I feed a few more shards of wood under the pot. He remains silent for a time. I look up.
“So you heard,” he says, a glum cast to his face.
“Of course. And I do wonder.”
He stares at me a while. The melancholy is in him, as it comes when he thinks about family. He sits upon a stool by the fire.
“You know why.”
“You were only a slave a short time. You escaped. There is no shame in that.”
“To be truthful, I had more as a slave,” he says, staring down at his writhing hands.
I put my hand on his arm until he looks up at me. “I am glad to have you as my father, whatever people might think.” He needs reminding. He is too tender sometimes.
He presses the back of his hand to the edge of his eye and changes the subject. We talk for a while of our supplies and the chores ahead for me. I am walking well now, and except for a lisp on psi and chi, I am speaking as well as I did before the accident.
“You are not unlovely,” he says. The good side of my face is to him.
I turn the injured side, face him with my blind eye, the crushed cheek. “But not lovely either,” I say, and grin.
He looks down. “What do you think of marriage?”
“Come now. Be honest with your old ‘Sheep-beard’. Don’t you wish to marry?”
I sigh, and tend the flame under the pot before answering. “What sort of marriage? A local marriage? To whatever grasping farmer will take an ugly wife for my weaving, for my cooking, for the wholesome sons he might get on me in the dark? What good is that?”
He leans back, rests against the wall.
I grin, trying to lighten his mood. “Remember that Persian tradition you told me of?”
“I shouldn’t have mentioned it,” he shrugs. He is ashamed. He should not be.
“No, it made me laugh. The town where the maidens are auctioned every year, and the prettiest that command the highest prices provide dowries for the ugly ones. Maybe I need a Persian marriage. Or a pretty sister.”
I hope he has seen the humour, but when I get a chance to look up, he is pensive, not smiling. “Yes, a Persian marriage would be better for you. When Oxana and I were married, it was before the flame, the Azer.”
He rarely speaks of his wife, the Persian woman he left behind in Sardis. I still my tongue and listen.
“In her tradition, we were yoke-mates, charged both with doing works of good and raising our children in worship of the light-bringer. But here, in this rough and backward land, you would be a kind of slave. No better than a servant, I fear.”
“It sounds as if you don’t wish me to marry.”
“I wish you to be happy. That’s all I ever wanted for you.”
“I am happy here,” I say, but secretly I wish he were happy. I don’t say this. “What do you think of marriage?” I ask instead.
He thinks a while, then says, “Oxana told me, once, of a tribe of slaves in Babylon. They have scholars to guide them, not priests, and they heed few holy men. They believe that as soon as a couple lie with each other, their god descends, and a transformation comes over them where they are made one flesh, one person.”
With a shiver, I remember of the golden-eyed man in my dreams.
“And another tale I heard, when I was a slave in Salamis. An amusing tale. That every couple was once one flesh, but the gods split them all asunder, and now they wander the world, seeking their other half. When they find it, they clasp the other close, trying to make themselves one again,” he chuckles at the vulgar image.
I don’t. This time, I am the pensive one.
“Spazakia, come back!” Sheep-beard is calling, but I can’t. I saw my “brother”, from my dream, up on the ridge above the road. His golden eyes flashed, brass mirrors in the sunlight. An ivory bow slung over a broad white shoulder, now flashing over the shrubs, crowned with wild hair. I had no choice but to leap from my donkey and run after him.
Thankfully, my short chiton is of tight-woven wool, because the thorns would tear anything lighter. My sandalled feet find jutting stones almost of their own accord, and my broad straw petasos, pulled down over my bad eye, keeps the branches from scratching my face.
Sheep-beard is calling from below. I can’t help myself. He is here. After months of leaving me alone at night. His long, broad arm beckoned to me in the valley below. I couldn’t refuse, not even for Sheep-beard. Who is now swearing in Persian, which he only does when he’s really angry.
I gain the ridge, and see my “brother” disappearing around a bend in the track, behind a towering bundle of aloes. I reach the summit. It is flat stone, worn by the weather and blasted by the sun. From here, I can look out on all of the plain to the south, where dust rises from the land and the crickets chitter madly around me.
He is there, now, before me. His silhouette is against the sun, his hair splayed out around him in a mane. He roars; I leap. We meet in the air, claws clasping at fur, at the muscular ridges of his back, and we roll on the hot stone, lions in our sinuous fluid movement. We tussle, shake free, and we’re off, chasing through the thicket again. I am thrilling with the energy of my body as we pad through the brush. We are, for a while, lions who hunt by day, silent paws against the hill-tracks, a leap in to the haze of noon. The prey goes down, silenced by the regal gravitas of the queen of beasts.
I share my kills with him and, sated, we climb the cliff again to bask in the sun and to clean our forelegs. He comes alongside me and nuzzles, his hot fiery breath flinty as sun-baked stone, and turns me over. I stretch, the pleasure of the hot stone beneath me and the musk of his presence filling me with languorous joy.
He rises, in human shape again, as am I. He is kneeling in front of me now, one of his arrows in his hand. The crickets grow silent for a heartbeat. Then he thrusts the arrow deep into my navel, and the soul-shattering ecstasy pours through me like a river of molten silver, pouring through my cracks, through the fissures of the earth, sweeping me away in a storm of pleasure and pain commingled. Again and again he thrusts, and I feel myself shake apart with every sweet blow. I feel myself flow out of my shattered being, encompassing the world, drawing all of it into me, all the beasts, all the rivers, all the waters and mountains into my weal.
All of it surrounds me and is within me, and I rise on a spiral of countless whirling wings, soaring like the greatest of mountains, centre of the world, each and every animal a child at my breast, every bearing tree straining to the sun from along my flanks, corn and berry canes tangling together on my slopes. A million fragments of me clutch at my life, begging for my care and I realize he is the light that pours through me, is me as my breath and blood is me, crashing on my shores, flowing through my veins, filling me with the glory of creation, and yet I remain myself.
The raucous storm of creation fades gradually into brooding silence. All is now still, holy and pure as the smallest evening blossom. The last green blaze flashes across the heavens as the sun closes its eye to the night. Handmaids of darkness carry me to sleep, humming the song of crickets. On the breeze, jasmine.
“Thank the gods—there you are,” Sheep-beard says as he shakes me awake. I startle, look around. I am curled, leg and arm clasped under me. I am in a hollow, a shelter between a bush and a rock. I am cold and I shiver.
“I’ve been looking for you all night. What possessed you to run off like that?”
I can’t speak. My mouth is sticky. My arms are filthy, and my head spins.
“Look at you,” he says, anger and joy warring in his voice. “What kind of fit has come over you?” His dusty cheeks are marked with dry tears. Sheepishly, unsteady as a lamb, I follow. The sun is hot and my thoughts are muddy.
He leads me down the slope and back to where he tied up the mule and the donkey. They are gone. I know he is furious with me. He says nothing, and I weep, ashamed.
We find a small spring near a grey wooden herm, its face and genitals crudely carved and worn by time. He says a prayer to the god of crossroads, thanking him for my safe return. He does not mention the pack animals. I burn with guilt, but I make obeisance as well, and clean myself up as much as possible in the pooled water. Wiping the tears from my eye, I finish, with a silent prayer that I will not disappoint him anymore. It is a long road to Salamis, and it will be far harder now without the animals.
We walk on. I look around, scanning for some sign of them, but they do not show. We are almost past the hill when a braying begins. We look at each other, unsure of what we heard, then run back towards the sound. We have to stop several times, making our way through the bush. Each time the donkey brays, we alter our course to meet it. At last, we reach a clearing.
It is horrifying. There are bodies all over the beaten earth under the spreading oak. Seven men, at least. Their throats are torn out and their bellies opened. Some are only fragments. The smell is not yet foul, but it soon will be. All of them are less than a day dead. And in the middle of it all, our donkey is there, tied to a laurel, braying in hunger and thirst and fear at the smell of blood.
There is a cart there, too. A small, high cart with a flat board and a seat, just the right size for a donkey. I go to the donkey, quiet him down.
“We are lucky,” says Sheep-beard, examining something on the ground, “these men are bandits. If we had gone past here, we would have been robbed, and we might now be dead.” Or worse, I think to myself with a certainty that comes to me from someplace else.
Sheep-beard grows thoughtful, calculation creasing his face. I am not comfortable with the look he is giving me. I turn away, get the cart in order, while he bundles the bandits’ supplies onto the cart, and I get the donkey harnessed.
“What’s this?” he asks. I come alongside to see. He is holding a fingernail-sized teardrop of gold, smooth and polished. He turns it in his hand. I see it has a stem that curves up, then down in a hook. “I found it wedged in the cracks of the cart,” he said, pointing at a spot next to the seat.
“What is it?”
“An earring, I think. It must have dropped off one of these men.”
“We should bury them,” I say, imagining their unquiet spirits following us on the road, forever demanding the return of their cart. He agrees.
It takes until evening to gather the stones and to put a cairn over each of them. I sleep that night, next to the fire with Sheep-beard, after bringing the donkey in from its grazing. We don’t find the mule anywhere. Sheep-beard says it is a good trade, very good terms. Our mule for our lives and a cart. I think he says it to forget that we had no choice in the matter. I sleep a black sleep of forgetfulness out of sight of the mounds of stone.
The next morning, we are about to leave. We start on our way, but the road is bumpy. The seat, a box of wood, really, starts to shift under us, so Sheep-beard brings the cart to a stop and we examine the seat. It is loose, held on by a leather hinge. He runs his finger along the crack in the back to the point where the earring was jammed. There is a noise as a catch is loosened and the seat falls forward.
There is an image in my mind, now, that ushers me from this memory. It was a crossroad where everything changed. Sheep-beard looking at me, in wonder, his bald head shining in the golden sunlight. In his hand, a dozen golden coins, a mere handful from the cache under the seat, glitter in the sun. Stamped on each of them is an image of my lover, bow and arrow in hand, a lion pacing around his feet. Sheep-beard says they are a picture of Darius the Persian, hunting a lion, but I know better. It is an image of Apollo, hunting with a lioness. With me.
That’s when Sheep-beard told me the first words I said to him on that day, ten years earlier, when I first awoke. We changed our course from there on. We were no longer headed to Salamis. We decided to make our way to Delphi and petition the Oracle to disclose what the god’s will is in this matter.
One day, I hope to reach Salamis, but I will go there alone.
Sheep-beard is always too trusting.
I can see this as we are given our ablutions and our purification rites, each of them for a set fee. He fears to lie to the priests, and so they learn of my adoption, the road to Salamis, the dead bandits and the 500 gold coins.
Gold they have here in plenty. All of it trophies, gifts to the god in exchange for a favourable word. I say to him when we are alone, “If vultures wished to propitiate the god, this hill would be a mound of offal, and the god would value it as much as these costly trinkets,” but he makes me swear never to say such things, certainly not in the hearing of the priests.
Wanting to see a token from home, he bribes a priest to take him to see the Corinthian treasury where the hoard of his Lydian kings is now kept. Inside is a lion of gold that king Croesus gave the god, placed so that the slanting light of afternoon reflects off of it and onto the gleaming hoard that festoons the shelves around it. It is soft in shape, melted like wax. The priest says that it was once a fine statue, but was withered in a fire fifty years hence, and so is no longer kept in the temple. For another small bribe, the priest allows Sheep-beard to hold one of the goblets Croesus’ grandfather sent, first among the Lydians to propitiate the Oracle. It is so heavy, he must use both hands to hold it.
I think of the coins we found, and I imagine them hoarded up in one of these stone houses, of no use to anyone, especially not the god. I wonder how many of these hordes has dwindled, when, like Croesus, their moment of power is fled and no one watches over their braggarts’ purses. No one, save a priest who is willing to fawn for a handful of obols.
My mood burns bitter, and I taste the breath of the dragon in my throat, almost waking from this reverie. I force myself back to that Delphi, different from this one by a span of years, in the way one returns to a dream when half-awakened by a noise in the night.
I put my anger aside when we are bidden to come before the Oracle with our question. We enter, the priests opening the portals for us and the circle of light within draws us forward. Half in shadow, the glories of the world surround us; great silver statues, kraters of gold and silver, fine tapestries of silk. I feel the weight of centuries looking down on us, putting us into our place like pebbles on a great beach of time, each of us a tiny thing, but ennobled in a moment wherein the god stooped to speak to us of our troubled hearts.
I am walking toward the curtain that masks the door to the Pythia, but there is an old woman in the way, sitting on a tall three-legged stool. She is looking at Sheep-beard, who is approaching her with reverence, as if greeting an elderly relative in her private chambers. I am too excited to make small talk with such as her, so I walk past her toward the rear. She clears her throat. I look back, and she’s glaring at me. With a strident motion, she sweeps her arm around and points to a spot before her. I look to Sheep-beard, and he is also glaring, ashamed, at me.
I must have missed some part of the priest’s instructions, so I run up quickly to stand by him and meet this person.
“Is she blind?” the woman asks Sheep-beard, looking at my bad eye.
He whispers that I’m a little “cracked.” Now it’s my turn to glare at him, but I say nothing.
“Very well,” she begins perfunctorily, “Listen, then, and listen well. Melikates of Sardis, here is the verdict of the god. You are to continue to Salamis, with your adoptive daughter. You will leave a tithe of nine-tenths of the gold you have found, as it was intended for this temple in the first place. One tenth of the coin you may keep for yourself, as it is your reward for bringing it to its intended destination. In Salamis you will find it will set you up with land enough to see you to the end of your days. Your daughter is not to wed, she is to care for you in your old age. So the god has spoken.”
I am trembling. The anger that has been building in me since arriving at this gaudy sanctuary starts to escape like a pot boiling over. I look back and forth from placid, credulous Sheep-beard, who is holding his head down in thought, considering the words, to the horrible old woman with her greedy lips and her greasy, powdered face. I am about to scream an oath when my “brother” appears behind her, peeking out from the curtain. He gestures to me. I start towards him, but the woman grabs my arm, pinching the skin. I wrench her hand off, run to the curtain and pull it aside. There is a rough stone stairway down, hollowed by many years of use. A strong odour, like snakes basking in the sun, rises up from below. I am dizzy. I feel my hands trembling. Sheep-beard and the woman are pulling me away from the doorway, afraid I will fall down the stairs. My hands are trembling so hard I cannot hold them still. I look up at the woman and her face is monstrous, bloody, and hideous in the flames. I open my mouth to scream, but all that comes out of me are rhythmic lines of poetry in the Attican dialect. In my native tongue the lines are roughly as follows:
The hand that plucked the spider from the olive tree
Still bloody, holds laurel on the brazen throne, unrepentant.
See, then, the archer’s shafts pierce the land, a plague
Of stinging flies that have driven bulls mad, lions flee
Corinth, Thebes, Euboea, Aegina, Noble blood
Will stain the tyrant of two thousand arms, your doing.
Fire and blood shall be your payment for blood-gold and lies
Flame and blood until the mountain rises on the noble shoulders of Athens
In this memory, I am falling to the floor. Spazakia, the crack-pot. The old woman’s eye at the bottom of a well is all I see as the dark water engulfs me again.
When I awake in the sanctum, the horrible old woman is there. She is glaring at me again, but this time, I sense her fear. I am keen to defy her.
“What are you staring at?” I ask.
“Either I am a fool and you are just some trained monkey sent here to test me, or…”
I sense her guilt. I grab at it. “What have you done?”
She looks down at the floor. After a while, she raises her eyes, defiant. “How did you know I was an Alcmaeonid? Nobody here knows that except my brother and three of the priests.”
“I don’t know or care who or what you are. You were robbing my father. Well, my adoptive father.”
“The things you said—Even I can see they are coming true. Where did you get that verse?”
I look at her more closely. Horrible, yes. And afraid. But there is something else there. I reach beyond the cracks, and, yes, I feel a small spark of flame, burning so long in the darkness it has forgotten that it is kin to daylight. I remember years of learning how to speak again, and I understand how part of her is lost inside her own web of lies. I soften my tone. “I don’t understand it, myself. I cannot remember what I said. I remember a spider.”
“It is plain as day what you meant. My great-great grandfather was a judge of Athens. There was a rebellion that was crushed, and the traitors took sanctuary in the temple of Athena. They came to his judgement, holding a rope that led back to the temple, so as to hold claim to the sanctuary of Pallas. But the rope broke, and he ruled that not only had the goddess withdrawn her protection, but she had declared them guilty. They were executed.”
“I don’t understand.”
“The olive is sacred to Athena. The men were the spider.”
“I still don’t understand.”
She leans in close. I notice that there is sweat beading her forehead. She speaks to me with the same fear Sheep-beard had had on his face when speaking to the priests. Fear of lying to an all-seeing god. She whispers, so low only I could hear. “My grandfather paid a Metic to have the rope cut.” Then she leaned back dramatically, hands held in a oratory pose, letting her words sink in. I could see how the role of Pythia came naturally to her.
“So… it is a… curse?” I hazarded.
“Of course, a curse! We have been propitiating against this curse for generations. Generations! When the temple at Delphi burned down, we saw our opportunity. We spent all our family’s wealth rebuilding it, re-facing the cracked edifices, restoring the decorum. Meanwhile, the rebels have grown a thousandfold and gnaw at the very core of Athens. The city of Alcmaeon, of the line of Nestor. Our city. Noble as we are, we cannot oppose them.”
“No matter what you do?”
“Oh, we tried. How we tried! One matron or another from my family has sat the tripod for every one of fifty years. Our own coffers empty, we beseeched the other noble families to make offerings. Delphi grew rich with the gold of thirty cities. From Cyprus to Carthage, propitiatory gifts have poured in under our guidance, and all that wealth aimed at usurping the mob. Still the rebellion persists. We’ve been banished, returned, banished again, returned again. But the mob never changes.”
“You have been making up the prophecies… yourself? Hoarding the wealth of the sanctuary for… your family?”
The suddenness of the question surprises her into revealing the truth. She nods. Slowly. Real shame, now, in her face. Until then, I had never seen the face of the damned. It is said the great heroes have wandered into the grey lands and met those who stand forever in the twilight. But it is also said they are quiet things, resigned to their fate. This was not one of those, but one who still sought a way to the world above knowing there was no road for them, a living seed frozen in stone.
“Tell me the rest,” I say, gently, coaxing her on.
She begins, quiet at first, but soon shaking with emotion. “So we put the Spartans up to it. They are simple, brutal people. Every Spartan who came through these doors, no matter their question, I told them to free our Athens from the tyrant and his sons. They did, you know. For a while. But their duty done, they simply walked away. Left a fool in the place of the tyrant. And so it went back and forth, between the rabble and our noble families. In the end, the mob killed the nobles. Just like that.” She drew her hand across her throat. “Athens will never be noble again, and we have come to accept the rule of the 1000, the mob.”
I said nothing, so she continued. “So it has come to this: to allow our bones to be buried in our city, we… have joined the mob. My cousin is now… something. Not a tyrant. Not a noble. He’s changed everything. But he’s not in control. He gives the mob what they want, and they take it. When they turned on Corinth… Well, you said it yourself.”
My throat is dry as sand as I ask the next question. It comes out as a croak. “And Khalkis, the city of Euboea?” I see my mother running from the Lacedaemonian, rabbit before the wolf. The Alcmaeonid’s pet wolf, a daemon summoned by this woman’s lies.
She replied with weariness. “Yes. Khalkis sided with the Persians after Naxos. And with so much gold known to be in your coffers, it took little convincing. It was my cousin who ordered the hoplites to Euboea.” She looked at me a long time, then raised a hand to point at my broken face. “Did they do that to you?”
I will shed no tear for this liar. “What is in that room?”
“The room. The one below the sanctum that you didn’t want me to see.”
She sizes me up, stands. “I must ask. Are you untouched by man?”
I reply honestly. “I have lain with no mortal man any day or night of my life.”
She stands. She looks out over the sunset through the lattice windows. “Come. I will show you.”
So, from that day, Delphi had a true Oracle again.
No, that is a lie. I took the tripod for my own. The real tripod. The one of brass, not gold. The one that hangs over the dragon in the chamber below the temple of gold and marble.
The dragon awakes at my thought.
I remember that first time I reached for the dragon. It was as if I had a thousand hands, and every one of them was flayed raw. Every one of them felt the pain of the dragon. I grew dizzy. I fell into the tripod. Not a cushioned stool of gold. A fire-hardened cage suspended between three brass rods. And the dragon was there, all around me, watching me through my own dead eye. And showing me what he saw. It was then that I gave myself up. To the duty.
It was that day he abandoned me to the dragon. But I made one last effort before time fell away. I claimed a space for Sheep-beard from him. The dragon could not deny me that, at least.
Sheep-beard came back to learn of me. I sent the false Pythia out of the temple and met him in the sanctuary, seated on her stool. And I said the words. I said them. For my lover, for the god, I said them. And as I said them, the last cord that bound me to the shore of mankind broke. Or was cut. And I knew there was no returning.
Five hundred seeds of grain go with you
To the house of Atreus, there Ceres petition
To fill your pots with her many daughters
One broken pot leave here, to serve
For five hundred seeds of grain
Grain, daughters, pots, and seeds
The god grant you all and one again
He kissed me. Once. On the forehead. I could feel the shaking in his bones. I wish I could say the leaving was a tearing, a rending of my heart. But it was not. The dragon already had me. I watched Sheep-beard. Older now by far from the weight of leaving his chosen daughter. He paused at the door to the sanctuary, a sigh cracking his lips. Then he walked out and into the world. My world contracted to a small space. A space between three stones, with a crack, a tripod, and the seas of time.
But I had the promise of the god. With the gold, Sheep-beard would again return to Sardis, to his wife, Oxana. Promises in exchange for my life.
All of them lies. Deceptions from a forked tongue.
Deception is the way of serpents. In memory, I walk with the old Pythia. She tells me her name is Amantaeia. I give her the name Khalkis gave me: Spazakia. She snorts, finding it funny, but says nothing. We tread the steps of a hidden stair behind the temple. There are two points where the path seems to move on to the left, but she takes me down an animal track to the right, each time, and we find another hidden stair.
Reaching the crest of the ridge, she explains the need for such secrecy.
“Look down there, Spazakia. What do you see?”
I tell her. “The north road. It comes into the vale directly ahead. It would lead up here if it did not bend to the west and lead up to the sanctuary.”
“And down the slope? What do you see?”
“Trees. They are thick. They lean over a gully.”
“And in the gully?”
I squint against the harsh sunlight.
“Nothing. It is bare, like a dry stream.”
“It was never a stream. That way is cleared every winter, while we are in Eleusis, tending to the mystes there. Servants of this sanctuary keep it clear of all obstructions.”
“Look up there,” she says, and points to a crag above. I see that the top is levelled off and great stones, squarish, somewhat rounded, rest there. “If I was to go up there, and lever one of those stones off and into the gully, it would roll all the way to the road and down the road for several stades.”
“But that would kill anyone on the road!”
“Yes!” she says, grinning, and draws herself up with a look of vengeance in her eyes. “And if the road was filled with a thousand hoplites, neither bronze nor bone could stand.” Again I see the dramatic flair in her delivery, and realize that despite my horror at the idea, I can imagine myself breathless, watching the great unstoppable stones crashing out of the forest, bloodthirsty as charging elephants, tearing into serried ranks of men.
“Hundreds would perish,” she continued, “and they would be routed. Furthermore…” she says, pointing at spots below the forest canopy, “Men of brass and great engines would be released, and a vast horn would trumpet. It would seem as if the god himself were at war upon them. They would flee, and never return.”
She lets her poise settle. “Deception, my little Spazakia. Deception has defended this sanctuary against the pillaging horde in the past, and it will again. How do you think we can live here at peace with half the world’s treasure in our vaults? The sanctuary is defended. Perhaps not by the god, but defended it is.”
“But it is a lie.”
“Is it? Is it any more a lie than a bit of doggerel that may kill a man as well as save him? More of a lie than the love of the god himself, who turns his lovers into bushes, or fountains, or mad things that no one will believe?”
I shiver at her words. Again, I see the distorted face, the pale eye of the monster that I fear I am. She speaks of me. Of my kind.
Quietly, almost like a concerned mother, she takes me in her arms. “Please, little Spazakia. Trust me in this. Do not strip us bare of our deceits. It will be the end of the sanctuary.”
I know she speaks for her family, for the priests, for the great wealth of Delphi. I pull myself out of her arms and look out on the plain below. I notice for the first time that the north road continues a ways, and joins an east-west road. The roads follow ridges, and the ridges converge on the sanctuary. She follows my eyes.
“Yes, you can see it only from up here. Those roads meet at the wound the god made in the earth on the fourth day of his life. It was there that the he forced his arrows into the navel of the earth. All the earth cracked around, and the dragon was pierced, and tore the ground around him. Since then, the dragon obeys. He speaks for the god.”
She turns, addresses me with her eyes cast down, her voice gentle, intimate as between two sisters. “Or so I am told. The dragon does not speak to me. I wonder if he speaks to anyone. I wonder if all our deceptions hide only a deeper deception. One that we have made for ourselves and have fallen for.”
I shudder, my arms prickling with gooseflesh. I also turn my face downward, unwilling to give her a glimpse of the dragon that may still linger in my eye. She leans in close, whispering in my ear.
“You know, girl, I have travelled and I have seen this with my own eyes: If you cross the sea towards the rising sun, you will come to another temple, far older, far greater, to the god’s sister. There is a navel there also, and all who dwell there say that is the true centre of the earth. And again, if you go south to the island of Crete, there is another navel to the earth where the god and his sister are holy and all who dwell there say that is the world’s centre. There are others. Many others. The earth must have many mothers to have so many navels!” She smiles at her jest, raises my face to look into hers. “So tell me, Spazakia, who is the real deceiver here? Would you be able to tell?”
I shake my head, as much to free it from her fingertips as to admit my ignorance.
“There is a reason the Oracle doesn’t interpret her own prophecies, girl. I hope you never have to learn that reason.”
But I have learned it all too soon. Sardis is burning.
I rage, shaking the bars of my tripod, trying to break it. I reach for the dragon, a thousand vicious claws at his throat. “You let me send Sheep-beard to Sardis, and now Sardis is burning!”
That was your choice.
“No!” I shout. The dozing mystia, who was waiting for me to speak, jumps up, her tablets and stylus clatter to the floor.
“Sister?” she cries out.
I do not know if I speak to her. Whatever comes from my mouth, she is frightened by it and runs out of the room.
“Do something!” I scream at a god who does not hear me. I beat the cage beneath me with my cracked hands. My hands, my arms are so thin, so wiry. In my imagination, I see Sheep-beard and his Oxana standing in the fire, calmly watching me as they are consumed like figures of melting gold withering into the coals. They dwindle to nothingness in my mind.
I reach out to the dragon again. My heart is full of vengeance. “Show them to me.”
But instead, I see the Mule-king’s bearded son, the new King of Kings, on a disc of gold, like the coins in Sheep-beard’s hand. He fires a great bow into the sky, piercing the sun. His promise of vengeance is terrible to feel. It ripples from horizon to horizon, echoing with the tramp of five million marching feet. Even the dragon is taken aback.
“Daughter?” It is Amantaeia. She is in a rumpled, hastily-donned gown. She approaches me, squats to look at me better. “Daughter, what is it?”
I try to form words, but I cannot get them to fit around the vast misshapen feeling in my chest. My mouth moves like a fish. “I killed him.”
“Killed? Who? How?”
“My step-father. I sent him to his death. With my words.”
Her face grows still, and a great sadness comes over her. With halting movements, she lifts me from the cage and holds me, but without warmth. I look up into the sad steel of her eye and I realize where her sorrow comes from. I return her cold embrace with my own chill. We have both spoken our heart in the name of the god, and felt the cold bite of our own venom.
I resolve then never to listen to my own prophecy. Never to winnow out meaning from the dragon’s words. I am the liar now. A woman deceiving the girl she once was.
But I digress. I must speak again of the Lacedaemonian. He first came to the Oracle, to me, under false pretences. I had no idea it was him. He had grown fatter, balder, with the years. But there was still a lupine hunger in his eye.
No—what right do I have to speak of pretences? It is our custom to interview the propitiates under pretences. The lesser priests and priestesses, under the guise of hospitality, learn from them their purposes, divine their reason for making the perilous journey to this vale of sparse greenery surrounded by heat-soaked plains. They do so subtly, as one might do on meeting a stranger in the marketplace, trying to divine their substance.
For the men, the priests are young, shaven. They seem like curious boys who hang on their clients’ every word. For the women, we keep others—homely, matronly women with trusting faces who do not dwell on what has been said, instead changing the subject under discussion again and again until the seeker has spilled out their life in scattered shards they do not believe will be remembered. We put these spies in the baths, where they cleanse themselves in steam and hot water, to be purified in preparation for their divine encounter. In the baths, the propitiates sit among others, telling them the “rest of the story”, the part they do not bring to the god.
In the privacy of the bath, a woman will tell a stranger things she would not say into her own pillow. And so a man will do to impress a younger man with his worldly wisdom and cunning, thinking the youth will keep it secret in his desire to emulate the man he would be. It is from these dropped fragments that prophecies are made for those the god does not deign to meet.
As it would have been in the case of the Lacedaemonian. I think it was the will of the god that I overheard the testimony of one young priest who spoke with “Tyvviastis”, this wolf who took my mother from me. But why did the god will that I hear it? Perhaps it was to remind me that I am nothing but a speck in the storm of his eye.
Nevertheless, when there was speech of “Clystia, his slave-woman from Euboea”, I lingered to listen, for Clystia was my mother’s name.
“It is very simple,” the older priest said to the younger. “Under his sponsorship, the man has established a fine granary and has arranged transport and found buyers. If the man has been so instrumental to his master, as you say, then why should he not be rewarded?”
“His master is concerned it is not reward enough. The woman is not young. He took her from Khalkis as spoils of war. She has a child, who is missing, upon whom she pines.” How my heart constricted to hear this!
“A girl was left behind.”
“And he worries that the widow is not comely enough?”
“No, that she is ever fretting about the child.”
“So she will not forget her child and apply herself to her duties as a wife?”
“That is his concern, yes.”
“Surely this isn’t important enough to bother the sybil, is it?”
“I shouldn’t think so, but he received signs.”
“A dream. Something about a pot shattering.”
“Oh, this is silly stuff.”
The young priest nodded. “So I believed. What shall we tell him?”
“Let me come up with something. You say the man is Euboean as well. Of an old Euboean family?”
“Apparently. It is his connections that have allowed the Attican to approach the Archon of the Attican colony in Khalkis. It is this Archon who has allowed his master to supply the four thousand.”
“The Attican colonists in Khalkis.”
“Oh, the hegemony.”
“Yes. He has done very well by the association, and so he thinks it is fitting that she be gifted to his partner.”
“Do you have an idea of how the partner feels about the union?”
“There is some sympathy. He has had losses as well.”
“It seems very simple. We’ll say the god approves, under the condition that he gives a suitable donation. If he wants the old nag, he can have her.”
And there, leaning up against the wall, listening, I knew what I must do. I would not let them marry my mother to this Euboean grain-peddler. I would risk the pain and again substitute words for the god. After all, the priests had decided the god was not to speak to the Lacedaemonian in any case. What harm could it do?
All afternoon, I composed lines in my head. I wanted them to sound like they came from the god himself. I wanted them to shake the Lacedaemonian. To put fear into him that would equal the pain he has caused us. I wanted him to cringe. So I composed, in the Attican hexameter I had since mastered:
Faithless Tyvviastis, take heed and know your fate.
Woe to you, thief of lives, lowly thing that you are
Return this woman to her home, lavish all goods on her
As she may need, set her handsomely housed in Khalkis
Spare no expense, and see to it she is safe. For your
Crimes have earned you death and pain unless you make
This small token to the god of your earnest humility.
And then I put word out through Amantaeia that the one who dreamed of the broken pot should be brought before the Oracle to receive the word of the god. She looked almost ready to question me. Nevertheless, she sent a mystia. The girl took her seat, primly as always, with her tablet, ready to take the prophecy. She sat and I opened my mouth to recite the lines which I had composed. I spoke:
Tyvviastis of Attica, be easy in your conscience, for the god
Is pleased that you make this offering for him: both bride and groom
Shall receive from your hand the bounty they deserve and
Betrothal besides. End your care and be easy with your choices.
The maiden carefully copied down my words, the merest hint of her tongue parting her lips as she meticulously inscribed her tablet before looking to me and nodding as if one craftsman to another. If she registered any shock, any disappointment on my face, she did not say.
Perhaps all she saw was the mad, monstrous creature that I am. A broken lyre on whom the gods play mocking tunes. I know for a fact these girls are told to betray no disgust of me in my presence. She did her job well, then. A craftsman indeed.
And my promise? If by giving mother to this creature of Tyvviastis is what is meant by taking her away from the wolf, then perhaps my promise is fulfilled. But I know I am again lying to myself. I have failed my mother as surely as I have killed my foster-father.
Yet, one failure stands out from the others. Again I tried to set right the remorseless beat of the dragon’s will upon the earth with my words. Not to Tyvviastis this time, but one of his serving-men. On a wager.
That the Lacedaemonian would wager in the face of the god confounds me. That the god would reward him for it… It wounds my very sense of justice. In it, I see the injustice that permeates my brother, my god, my lover, like the venom of the dragon that trickles through the cracks of Gaia to pool at the gates of Hades.
At this thought, the dragon awakens. My hands tremble against the brass of the cage. I feel the heat rise from below.
Closing my eye, I tell him to take me. Take all of me. Away from this. He does not.
Instead, the maiden arrives again with her report and her writing-tablet. The report is garbled. Will the god favour the sacrifice of “Tyvviastis of Attica”? He wants to know if the god favours Cyrus or Miletus. He has made advances to an Artaphernes, in hopes of gaining favour with the Satrap. He has done this although it will antagonize his cousin, Oremis, a captain of Sparta. This cousin is the one who has had Tyvviastis exiled to Attica in the first place. Most of all Tyvviastis wishes to defeat this cousin, Oremis, in treachery if he cannot do so in battle.
I have no idea what she is talking about. I can’t even find a question in this request. As usual, these reports from our spies in the baths is a mess of unconnected parts which have been sorted by a dull mind and presented by an unlearned mystia. I am about to say so when I remember myself.
The dragon remembers for me, I should say. I bow my head and feel him drawing me into him, insubstantial as breath being sucked into mighty lungs. I sink deeply into the earth where no light shows, not even the amber eyes of the beast that devours my soul.
Then it clears. I see a battle at sea. Two flotillas arrayed against each other, one smaller but far more valiant: the Ionians. Two companies of Ionians advance. I can see their victory as clearly as I see the light at the top of the stairs. It is inevitable. As in all things, Tyvviastis shall gain from this. Unless….
There. I find a thread among those of my countryfolk. Euboean refugees among the Samian contingent. Men whose hearts are closer aligned with my own. I reach out and pull as the fisherman pulls his nets, bracing the past and the future in either hand as I draw my catch on board. The battle breaks up. My kin are fleeing. The Samian boats leave the Ionians with too little to defend themselves. They will be defeated.
My eyes snap open. I am again in the cage, but I understand now the power that comes to me through the serpent. The threads of fate are not mine only to touch and to read, but to grasp as one does the reins of a horse. By reaching to the battle, I have changed it. Tyvvastis will learn that his wager has gone badly awry, and a punishment will come to Athens and her allies. And it is I, Spazakia, who has done this.
And yet… two days later, Tyvviastis’ serving-man made a contribution. A very large contribution. In the name of Darius. He has switched sides from Ionia to Persia just as easily as he turned from Sparta to Athens.
And I realize what I have done. Eight hundred have sunk to a watery grave. Miletus is in ruins, her people carried off like my own. And all this from my lightest of touches upon the scales of destiny. All this for my petty vengeance, vengeance easily thwarted by a treacherous heart.
And today, Tyvviastis has won again. He will defeat his cousin, as he wishes, as was prophesied.
I have gone too far. I ask the dragon to take me. I insist. I have failed. This time, I think he will listen.
Enough of these memories. I return to the now, and accept my defeat. I will not dwell in the past or the future anymore: all of it is a desert to me. I dully listen as the young mystia reports that Tyvviastis of Attica has now gone, taking my unwilling prophesy with him to some glorious end far away, leaving me with the final tally of this cruel game: He will have victory over his cousin. My mother is married off to some grain-merchant crony of his. Sheep-beard is dead. My promise is broken as I am. I can do nothing about it.
Khalkis is dabbing my forehead as I bathe in the clear waters of Kassotis. Her fingers are cold and sweet. “Oh, little crack-pot. You must let go of this one. He is just a man.”
Things are clear now. Everything is a landscape behind my eyes, and still the Lacedaemonian stands like a pillar on the plain. I can’t ignore him. It cannot be done. I feel the sobs rise within me. I shake with them, but it is not in the way my hand shakes when the prophecy is coming on me.
But I find no release in the tears. Despite Khalkis’ ministrations, I am not among friends. A priest shuffles off to my right, behind me. Couribidos, his name. He is ashamed the Oracle is a broken thing. He prefers a perfect woman on the tripod, a stately matron as it was in all the days of his calling. I would be angry, but I see his death so close on him. In his last moments he will realize how small a life he has made for himself. How can you be angry with such as him? Might as well be angry at mice for stealing a half-handful of grain.
I realize, then, that I have grown old before my time. I have seen too much and effected so little. I have been an observer of my life, not an actor, and now my frailness has closed me to any further action.
But this resignation brings a little peace with it. No more substantial than the girl I was, I rest in Khalkis’ cool arms as I did before. This time is different. She is at a loss. She does not want to say it, but she is worried. I am falling apart. If I do not seal my cracks soon, there will be little left of me. And the Oracle will fail again, like it did in the fire. I seek within myself, as I once sought in the earth, but I feel only the bitter venom of defeat.
Suddenly, anger against the god, against my “brother”, wells up from within me. Where is he? Why has he left me here? How dare he leave Khalkis with this broken sybil for company?
Khalkis touches my lips with one cold fingertip. “He hears you, little-pot. He does hear you.”
But all I can feel around me is the dragon. So much of me is drawn into him. And he is always hungry.
That day, one last time, I ask the dragon for some word of hope, some true memory of Sheep-beard, but he ignores me and speaks only to some smallholder waiting outside for an answer to his petition, a parsimonious man debating how to best profit from a piece of land. I deliver the prophecy to the attendant mystia with the dullness of the damned, and realize I have indeed become no better than Amantaeia:
With ten gold coins for your southern vineyard, Salmion,
You will gain twice so much wine as in ten seasons,
And the gratitude of your neighbour will keep peace
Over your Theban progeny, until you are safely across Styx.
The maiden is preparing me. She is talking to me as if to a madwoman, as if to a doll. Half of me, the ugly half, is listening to the dragon. He is restless. He has much to say, but I can’t hear him because of the maiden’s babbling. She is reading from the priest’s notes on a wax tablet, telling me what the woman outside has come to propitiate for. The woman took a new husband a few years ago, a husband who has freed her from her lowly status, some sort of slavery. He is a trader of grain, and wealthy. It is an arranged marriage. Her new husband is kinder than her master was. She is happy. She has servants. But a part of her is unhappy. She is looking for her daughter. Will her daughter return? I ask the dragon.
What is it? I ask the dragon. He is maddened by something. I cannot divine what it is, but I know it’s because of me. Somehow.
Screaming. The wolf came among the fold. He circles left, then right. And the sheep pounce. Black laughing wings against the sunset. I….
“What did you say?” I ask.
The maiden thinks I speak to her. “She wants to know if her child lives or has passed on.”
“I will speak to her.”
She nods. “And what will you say?” she says, confidence replacing confusion with the adoption of a familiar role, the stylus poised over the wax, ready to dictate.
“No. I will speak to her.” I have no idea what I will say.
I watch the maiden’s face. She is so young. Every thought plays across her face like a puppet-show. I see a flash of forbidden disgust. “You?” she whispers.
“Yes…” I pantomime her wretched pink face. “I.”
“But what will Amantaeia…”
“The old witch will hold her tongue if she has any sense,” I say, pushing myself out of the cage. Standing, I become dizzy, but I will not let this girl see me weak. I turn my stumbling into a charge. Up the stairs, up to the pythian chambers. I push the curtains aside. There is a woman there, in front of Amantaeia. A dull woman. Short. Soft. Fat with good living. Healthy. All of forty years old. Her coiffed hair is bundled upon her head, a traditional himation wrapping her ample figure.
She sees me emerge from the shadows. She screams.
I go to her. She begins to faint. I try to hold her up by the armpits, but get tangled in her himation. Her thrashing nearly bowls me over.
She screams again. She stares into my unseeing eye and screams a third time. Some birds who have flown into the temple are disturbed, and flutter from statue to column and back.
Amantaeia rises, tries to establish order by patting the air, whispering “cha, cha, cha,” as if she speaks to a swaddling child. With a sharp word, I send her away to stand in the shadows. She scuttles into the dark, fearing my voice.
“Mother,” I say. Mama stops screaming. Her eyes dart left and right across my face.
“Mother, I am here,” I reaffirm. The horror in her face is too much to bear. I want to let go of her. Turn. Run away.
“Iola?” she whispers.
She folds up like a heavy roll of cloth. I hold her to my breast, where she shudders. At last, her hands reach around me, hold me close to her. “Iola. I thought you were dead.”
“No you didn’t. You wouldn’t be here if you did,” I say, unthinking. I am unkind, I know. I live with facts now. The dragon has no patience otherwise.
“No, I wouldn’t,” she admits. She will not raise her head. She is looking at the child. The beautiful girl she hid away. The one she saved for later. I shake my head at the image.
“I am Spazakia now.” It’s the kindest I can do.
“Spazakia,” she whispers into my breast. A strength comes on her. She looks up at me like a dog divining her master’s wishes. “Spazakia. Yes.” For a long time, she holds me by the arms and looks at my broken face. It takes some time for the mask of acceptance to solidify on her features. There is some calculation going on. Eventually, she asks if I will come home with her.
“I have a duty, mother. I must finish my decade. There are only three years left.”
“Only three years? Only? Far too long. I must have you home.” It is sheer propriety forming her brisk words. She knows it means nothing, as she knows I will refuse. I can see it.
I smile, shake my head. “Three years.”
She thinks a long time, looking out the portals at the fading day. “But you will come to me, yes?”
“Of course. When my duty is fulfilled, I will come to you.”
“I will send men in three years. They will see you safely home.”
“No, mother, I will come alone.”
There are some more words, but they no longer matter. I lead her to the door, and she leaves. She is happy, and satisfied. I marvel at that. She heals much faster than I do, my mother. And my promise, what does it matter now?
Thinking on that, I run my finger along the seams of a vast krater near the entrance. The silver plates are welded together with metal of some kind. I touch the welds; feel the uneven lift of the metal, so like the patchwork seams of my face, now brokenly reflected back at me. Rough. Ugly. But whole. Perhaps I am healing after all.
Where am I? Who am I? I am… I am appalled by the length of me. The sheer weight of coil upon coil, weaving in and out of myself, a burly knot at the centre of all the world. I twitch, and the earth heaves. I hiss with delight at the power, at the enormity, at the weight of the poison that distills to the root of the very world, at our strong shared body coiling around the buried lance of the god. I raise my neck up to his face, to his golden-eyed face, scales facing scales with the barest hint of burnt-flint breath, we kiss.
You gave too much.
I say it to myself, here. I say it, the dragon of two heads wrapped around a staff at the heart of the world, male and female both, enclosing the waters of the world until the world’s ending. So vast, and yet so like two geckos encircling the slim wrist of a dreaming girl.
Go. I release you.
I do not understand, but there is an itching pain, and I drop, light as a feather, to the deepest chamber. I am torn from the dragon, a grey thing, a bloody bit of gecko-tail cast off, trailing down the trunk to the very roots of the world, where the venom is gold, gold like the dragon’s eyes. I lie in the pool, flayed daughter and mother of the world, a grey woman older than her years, and above me the dragon coiled around the navel of the world shot through with the rod of the heavens, and the navel is everywhere and is my navel, is my eye, and the eye of the dragon, and the sun. All pierced by the same arrow, the arrow that is breath and dragon, and the god, and I.
The dragon shoves me out. I return to the surface of unseen water, gasping. I am alone. I run my finger over the cracks in my face. They are rough, proud, and healed.
I breathe. Clean air. This simple act is the only affirmation I need that my duty is complete. He never left me after all. Nor I him. I understand, now, why the god is also the healer.
It is several days later and ten years of duty behind me. I am now far from the Sanctuary. On my own. Something ahead on the road makes me stop. I can feel the tension in the air. Nervous sweat runs down my back despite the cold. My toes itch. The sun has not yet risen. Damp clutches at my chlamys, dew falling from it as I pull it about me to keep out the damp. I look around, trying to make out the landscape. The broad rim of my hat cuts the dim sky off at the horizon, but everything is grey and lost in the early morning mists.
I walk a way further, hoping for the sunrise. There is a white pillar ahead, on one side of the road. A memorial in marble. On the other side of the road is a Herm. It is a crossroads, then. I feel the presence of someone. People?
I listen for the dragon’s warnings. But he is silent. He is gone.
But I know this place. I know its significance. I remember….
A noise behind me. I turn around. My petasos is, as before, pulled low over my bad eye and dew falls from the brim as I turn. My walking-stick, tall, crooked, and hard as ebony, is my only weapon. If anyone came upon me here, it would just be me, a staff, and fate. I grimace, remember myself. I am not as brave as I would like to believe.
Facts. They are all I have left.
I have been a fool, pretending I am safe alone on the road. I know this. I grow afraid. I become aware of voices—young men on the road ahead. Clanking. Armed men. Desperate. Cast-offs from some army. There are many such men on the roads these days. I wait.
And wait. No one approaches.
Impatient and nervous, I walk to the crossroads, consider fleeing down the other road. The pillar is strange. A rock stands atop. There are patterns cut along the trunk of the thing. I look down the road. There is more noise, but nobody is coming. Why? I look at the herm. It is one of those with the laughing psychopomp for a head, livid penis erect and pointing obscenely at the pillar.
I start violently at a sudden fluttering of wings out of the darkness. A cockerel, flapping in the desperate way of his kind, alights upon the head of the herm, scaly yellow claws winding among the garishly-painted locks of the laughing god. The cockerel looks at me with one eye. Then the other. Then it crows like a mad thing. Both its feet brace against the herm, the beak rising and falling with every laughing peal.
I am confused. I turn, look at the pillar more closely. In these few moments, the sun has risen. I see writing, faint on a band just under the capital. There is a motto carved there. I wipe my hand across it, try to make out the writing. It is difficult with one eye. I take some mud from the road and rub it into the writing to see it better. I lean back and forward. Then a cloud passes from the face of dawn, and I read it in bare relief:
Traveller, know that here lie the bones Tiavviastis of Attica,
felled by the arrow of his cousin, Oremis of Lacedaemon.
The writing is so faint. In a dozen years, the rain will wear it away entirely. And then it comes to me all in a rush: Water will indeed be stronger than stone, and the Lacedaemonian has earned his reward. His reward was death. Not victory at all.
I begin to laugh, myself. Laugh? No, I crow. A rough, mad cackle. A pure and wild sound, flapping around me like a cockerel in flight, like the unwinding of centuries.
I hardly notice when the young men come by. Their leader stops, his sword drawn, his shield by his side. He sees me, petasos drawn down over one eye, chlamys over my shoulder, laughing with the god and the mad cockerel.
“Hecate, save us!” he mutters, leading his men off the road at a run.
In all this time, I am still laughing. Laughing at a promise fulfilled. Laughing with the joy of triumph. Laughing like the cockerel, summoning the sun out of night and into the new day.
I am standing in front of the door of Mama’s house. There is no mistaking. I have asked at the market, and everyone who knows of Clystia of Khalkis knows where she lives. High up on the street that faces the apricot-orchard. The blue door with the crosses in black nails. I stay one night in an inn before approaching her. The innkeeper is afraid of me, of my blank eye and my broad hat. He knows something, but I don’t get the chance to draw it out of him.
I lift my hand and knock. It is a gentle sound from my feeble little hand. Nobody would hear it. I hold my staff up and use the head to hammer against the door. A familiar voice, a man, pipes up. “Hold the reins, hold the reins, I’m coming.”
I recognize his voice just as he opens the door. Sheep-beard stands in the doorway, his eponymous beard now all grey, his eyebrows broader than the crown of his head. He is holding a small child, a girl, in one arm. His jaw hangs. I raise a hand and push it up, grinning.
And then all is a fuss and flurry. He takes me in his spindly arms and swings me like a girl. The servants converge on us. He is babbling. I am babbling. He leads us into the house, and there is Mama, sitting on a broad, comfortable chair, the spindle in her hands. The spindle bounces when she drops it, and she rises to throw her arms around us.
Through the day, our speech coils through our sundered pasts, welding the fractured pieces in place. I learn Sheep-beard never made it to Salamis. Instead, he became a grain-merchant in Thebes, as the Oracle decreed, and was for a while Tyvviastis’ partner. Tyvviastis gave him mama in marriage, and now they live comfortably outside the city, as I prophesied. As the Oracle prophesied, I have to remind myself. After Tyvviastis’ untimely death, the partnership reverted to Sheep-beard. All that the wolf had stolen was, in the end, returned.
Do I imagine the laughter of the dragon, or is that just the sound of the approaching storm? I am too happy to bother with such speculations.
Little sister’s hands are deft, and she is proud of the lizard she has caught. She lets me peek into the globe of her hands to see a tiny gold eye return my gaze. I laugh and send her running off to show Sheep-beard and Mama.
The sun is warm. I adjust my chiton to drink in more of his heat. At my hand is a carafe of new-mixed wine, chilled in well-water. Across from me, Mother and Sheep-beard are examining the herbs. He does it to indulge her. She was always proud of her kitchen-garden, and it gives them both something to remind them of their good fortune. Can I take credit for these things? I dare not. I have made that mistake before. Better to leave it in the lap of the gods.
In my own lap, my hand starts to shake. I watch it, the clumsy thing, waving back and forth across my thighs like some gecko’s tail, and I know it is time. Closing my eyes, I reach within myself, to the true navel of the earth, the crossroads of my mended soul. From there to the heights of my being I summon him to me.
A breeze rattles the leaves in memory of serpent-scales. The sun grows bright, golden. My heartbeat and the song of the birds blend in colours bright and swirling. Then he is there, striding towards me, between the vines, the vineyard that Sheep-beard bought from his neighbour, Salmion, five years ago, at the Oracle’s bidding.
I sit up, trying to still my trembling hands on the arms of the chair. I take pleasure in watching his approach, all lion-mane beauty and sunlight. A smile is on his face, and his golden eyes flash when they meet mine. I can smell the musk of new honey and I feel a tremble in my hips as he comes for me.
This is my choice: Five years, we have. Five years before Xerxes comes to wipe Athens from the map and finish what was started on the plains of Euboea in my grandfather’s grandfather’s time. These are the last years, the good years. Knowing the number of them makes them all the more precious.
His hand takes mine, stills the trembling of my fingers. He is now closer than my own breath. I know its touch as I know my own. After all, we are one flesh. We always have been.
Author Barry King lived in several countries around the world until settling in his spouse’s home town of Kingston, Ontario and converting to Canadianism. They live there with a small blind dog and an increasingly complex battle with the second law of thermodynamics. His poetry has appeared in ChiZine.
by Cassandra Rose Clarke
They had a new girl working the shoe rental. As Henry paid the twenty bucks for his three rounds (the owner liked him, liked that he was a cop, so he gave Henry a discount), the girl glided in front of the row of shoes, passing it over with the buzzing decontamination stick, the glow staining her hands pale blue.
Henry didn’t need to rent any shoes — he had his own pair, specially made, tucked away in his bag — but he lingered for a moment at the shoe counter anyway, until the girl glanced up, strands of her blonde hair falling across her eyes, which were, startlingly, the exact color of honey.
“What size?” she asked.
Her voice had a low thrumming quality to it. Her words reverberated off the side of her throat. Henry shook his head, stammered a little.
“Sorry, I don’t — got my own.”
He jerked his bag up. The girl blinked at it and shrugged and then passed the decontamination stick over another set of shoes. Henry dragged his hand across the top his hair and trudged over to his lane. It was a Tuesday night in November, icy rain slicking across the city, and the alley was nearly empty. Just Henry at one end and a pair of teenage girls at the other end. He sat down on the bench and ordered a beer from the touchscreen and waited for his partner to show.
The last time he went to the cyberneticist they’d told him to lay off the alcohol, that it was corroding the bits of metal and plastic lining his stomach, and also they hadn’t exactly upgraded his liver, but he’d never listened to doctors before and he wasn’t going to listen to cyberneticists now. He traded out his scuffed black boots for bowling shoes. At the other end of the alley, pins clattered against the hardwood, and the two teenage girls shrieked and hollered. Henry leaned back over the bench. He craned his neck. The girl at the shoe counter slid in and out of view, her head bent low, the glow from the decontamination stick tracing the movement of her hands.
Henry jumped. “Felton,” he said. “I didn’t see you standing there.”
Felton’s two glowing eyes brightened and dimmed. “Well, you appear pretty distracted.”
Henry chose not to respond. He stood up, pulled out his bowling ball — weighted for the bones of his steel-enforced arm, the finger holes measured against the span of his fingers and laser-cut for precision, the whole thing dyed dark green at his request — from its bag.
“Can’t start ’til I get my beer,” he said.
“Oh yes. I’m aware.”
Henry set his ball on the return and Felton did the same with one of Henry’s old cast-off balls — the in-house ones were all too light for him. As if on cue, the server-bot whirred out of the doorway to the lounge, a single bottle of beer on its tray. Felton followed its trajectory across the alley. He had told Henry once, at a bar, how he hated that the serverbots didn’t speak and Henry’d had no idea how to respond.
Henry and Felton were partners as cops, working together on Vice. They were bowling partners because Henry needed someone to bowl against now that he’d been upgraded. The guys down at the station kicked him out of the intramural league after the procedure, saying it wasn’t fair, he had too much of an advantage. The upgrades were supposed to get Henry out of Vice but all they did was get him out of the bowling league.
Felton bowled first and knocked over three pins. He wasn’t very good. Henry suspected he didn’t care enough to try, but he gave him pointers anyway.
“You need to swing your arm back more,” Henry said. He gestured with his beer bottle as he spoke. “Guide the ball with your thumb.” Felton rotated his head around and dimmed his eyes and didn’t respond.
Henry rolled a strike and swigged his beer in celebration. He looked over at the shoe rental, trying to be casual. The girl leaned across the counter. She wore her hair teased up and the lights caught on it so that her long narrow face appeared framed by a shimmering halo. Her hair made her look sophisticated, like she was about to leave for a holiday party. She stared at the score monitor hanging above the lanes but didn’t seem to really sae it.
“You’re being obvious,” said Felton as he picked up his ball from the return.
Henry laughed. He ordered another beer. “Like you know anything about it.”
Felton’s ball landed in the gutter. “I know you should talk to her instead of stare at her.”
Henry drank the last dregs of his beer because because he didn’t have anything to say to that. Felton knew more about Henry than he should. He knew about Melanie, for example. The commissioner had warned Henry not to get too friendly — “Even if you are part robbie now,” she said — but it was tough, riding around with the thing everyday. Sitting with him during the stakeouts. Teaching him how to bowl. You had to talk about something.
Felton wasn’t even one of the ones that sort of look like people, although he wore clothes like one. He was sleek and silver and jerked around sometimes, especially when the temperatures dropped below freezing. His eyes lit up and while this mouth did move, the movement didn’t always synch up with his words. The commissioner said witnesses would let themselves get questioned by a robot, as long as they knew for certain. As long as they didn’t think the city was tricking them.
“But we still need to have a human around,” she’d said. “For insurance. You know.” This was last summer, the days all long and bright and hot. The box fan she’d set up in her office rattled against the closed window. The edges of papers lifted up from her desk. “Nobody else is willing to work with the thing. You’re the closest we got.”
Henry had wanted to say something. He wanted to point out that he’d only gotten the upgrades because they told him he could make Homicide that way. How they’d given him all that literature about the importance of the department having an edge in this world of robots and mad scientists, genetic engineering and artificial intelligence. But he hadn’t.
They rode through Ballard, Felton driving the beat-up old Dodge Polara the department assigned to them, robbie and half-robbie. The houses tilted and leaned against the flat gray sky, like they wanted to uproot themselves from their foundations. All the colors were washed out. Even the graffiti looked muddied.
Felton parked in front of a sagging brown brick ranch house and turned off the ignition. Two houses down, supposedly that was a mad scientist’s lair. Henry and Felton had been tracking down leads on this particular scientist for nearly three months — they didn’t know his name, they didn’t even know what he looked like, but Felton was convinced he was responsible for the recent rash of maulings out in the suburbs. The newspapers had latched on to rumors of some genetically engineered creatures lurking through the pine trees and expensive houses, stalking housewives and businessmen both, but the rest of the department didn’t buy it. Henry was undecided. He just figured busting any mad scientist, even if he wasn’t the one turning monsters loose on the city, was better than busting none.
The house was smaller and tidier than the other houses on the street, the siding white-washed, the yard raked free of dead leaves. Blue curtains hung in the windows. But that didn’t mean anything. Mad scientists tended to burrow underground anyway.
“You should have talked to that girl last night,” said Felton.
Henry pushed back his seat. “Don’t need to take relationship advice from a robot,” he said.
“It’s because you’re still hung up on Melanie.”
Of course this was true. Henry went to his apartment in the evenings expecting to see Melanie waiting for him in the parking lot, ready to invite him back home. But he said, “Bullshit, man, you don’t know about any of this stuff.”
Felton didn’t say anything. Outside the car, the wind picked up, rustling the pine trees and stirring up clumps of wet leaves. The whitewashed house sat silent and still. Henry felt a dull ache in the joints of his fingers from the upgrades and the cold.
They’d gotten the tip from one of Felton’s sources. He collected them like stamps but kept them nestled away, never brought them up to the station if he could help it. Naturally they were almost all robots. Some of the higher-ups didn’t like that, but Felton always filed the paperwork and they’d had some high profile busts on account of them so there wasn’t much the higher-ups could do besides grumble behind the closed doors of their offices.
“It’s affecting your work,” said Felton.
“The hell are you talking about?”
“The divorce. Melanie leaving.” Felton rotated his head. He wore a dark brown tweed jacket like he could feel the cold, like he needed protection from the rain. “It bothers me. Makes it hard for me to do my job.”
“Your job,” said Henry. “Is to be more efficient than anyone else in the department. Including me.” He kept his eyes trained forward, on the little white house. “So if I’m fucking up, really I’m just making things easier for you.”
The sun set and Henry walked to the run-down pho place at the top of the hill, set into a strip mall built away from the houses. The upgrades made a walk like this easy, inconsequential, although in the chilled air Henry’s breath came out in little white puffs. When he got to the parking lot he stood for a moment with his hands shoved in the pockets of his thin coat, looking out over the freeway stretching from one end of the city to the other, an indolent river of light.
Then the rain started back up, a hazy drizzle pattering across the clumps of leaves in the gutter. Henry pushed into the restaurant. The fluorescent bulbs flickered yellow and gray. The old man behind the counter glanced up, nodded in greeting, turned back to his crossword puzzle.
Henry ordered beef pho and a Vietnamese coffee and sat down in a corner booth. He thought about Felton, still sitting down in the corner, never having to eat or stretch or go to the bathroom. He remembered what a curiosity the robot workers had been when he was a little boy, back when all they did was staff all-night convenience stores. Now, you found them everywhere. Schools, corporate offices. The police department.
Even the pho place had one, a clunky antique, that brought out Henry’s food and chirped a cascading tune when it set the bowl down on the table. Henry slurped up the noodles as the robot wheeled away, back into the kitchen. A young couple came into the restaurant, holding hands, their coats glittering with rain drops. They laughed and the girl shook out her long hair like a dog. She looked a little like Melanie, a younger Melanie, back when Henry first met her on that awkward double date at the aquarium. Something about the lines of the girl’s nose. When she laughed her face crumpled up the way Melanie’s always did.
Henry ducked his head down as he ate. The couple’s voices twinkled over the buzzing of the lights. For a second Henry thought he felt the metal gears that reinforced the measured beat of his heart grind to halt, but the world carried on, the light and the rain and the cold damp air, and he knew it was just hoping.
Relief came about five in the morning, the sky still pitch back and starless. Officer Minette rapped on the window, her breath fogging up the glass. Jerked her head back towards her own car, with her own human partner, parked a few meters away.
“Let’s get the hell out of here,” Henry said. His eyes were bleary from watching the white-washed house. Nothing. No lights in the window, no cars in the driveway, no mysterious smoke curling up into the rainy night.
“I agree.” Felton turned the ignition and drove them back to the station through the empty city. In the station lot, Henry and Felton stared at each other before Felton nodded curtly and said, “Good night, Officer Levens.”
“Night, Felton.” Henry paused, shoved his hands in his pocket. Felton’s eyes brightened and dimmed, then he turned, headed toward the sidewalk. Henry knew vaguely the department kept an apartment for Felton nearby. He’d never been there.
Henry drove back to his own apartment down near the waterfront. Lights had started to blink on across the side of the building, people waking up to beeping alarms, frying bacon in their pajamas, chugging burned coffee as they rushed out the door to work. It was still dark as midnight out. Winter.
He parked on the street, trudged up the stairs, the rails slick with cold rainwater. The stairwell light was still out. He could hear the sounds of his neighbor’s television, the crescendo rise and fall of some familiar cereal commercial.
There was a package leaning against the door of his apartment.
Henry stopped in the middle of the walkway. The wires and circuits in his body jangled at the sudden surge of adrenaline. He knelt down, picked up the package. Plain brown paper, his name scrawled across the front in black marker. He recognized the curve of the letters. Melanie’s handwriting.
Henry ripped the package open out there on the walkway, bits of damp paper fluttering over the balcony. It was a gray dress shirt he had left at the house. The pale blue necktie she bought for him two years ago. A single white sock.
“Fuck,” said Henry.
He unlocked the door to his apartment and flung the shirt and the tie and the sock across the room. Then he sat down on the sofa and covered his face with his hands. He felt his body winding up, reading his sudden flood of anger as preparation for a fight. His fingers clenched into fists. His muscles shook. He kicked over the cheap coffee table he had found in the alley outside the apartment and its legs snapped into pieces. He snarled. Punched the wall. Alabaster showered down and the foundation trembled but the reinforced bones of his hands didn’t even ache. His whole body burned and sparked, clanked and vibrated.
The apartment felt far too small. But Henry didn’t want to leave, didn’t want to go back out into the cold morning. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes. He smelled sausage frying in his neighbor’s kitchen. And he tried to calm himself. He had to calm himself if he wanted to calm the wiring inside him.
It took a long time, but eventually Henry fell asleep. The upgrades swallowed all his dreams.
Henry went to the bowling alley early the next Tuesday. He’d bought a charcoal-colored suit coat from the thrift store near the station, and he wore it over his usual plaid button-down. He stopped in the restroom before paying for his lanes, wetting his hands with water from the faucet and then slicking back his hair. He squinted at himself in the mirror. This unending stakeout was making him look threadbare. But then, stakeouts always did that. Something not even the upgrades could help.
The girl was working the shoe counter again, her hair swept up into the same messy bouffant, her golden eyes rimmed in black. When Henry saw her he felt the heartbeat mechanism click into place. A long time ago, his heart would have been pounding.
“Hey,” he said to her. He set his bowling bag on the floor.
“What size?” she asked, decontamination wand glowing. Then she glanced up. “Oh wait,” she said. “You have your own. Can I help you with something else?”
She remembered him. She remembered he had his own shoes. Henry smiled. His hands started shaking so he shoved them in his pocket.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
The girl pointed at her name tag. Cecilia. Her fingernails were painted dark blue. Henry dropped his smile and blushed.
“You’re Henry, right?” she said. “Mr. Letang talks about you. Said you’re a cop.”
Henry nodded. His throat was dry. Apparently the upgrades had nothing to offer with regards to the physiological symptoms of desire.
“That’s kind of cool, I guess.” Cecilia pressed one hand hand distractedly against her hair.
“Not right now,” said Henry. “Not most of the time honestly. A lot of paperwork. Waiting around.”
“Sounds like my job.”
Henry smiled, unsure of what to say next. Cecilia turned off the wand and slid it somewhere underneath the counter. She smoothed the fabric of her dress.
“Where’s your partner?” she said.
“The robot. You were teaching him to bowl last week.” She smiled. “He’s not very good.”
“Oh,” said Henry. Why was she asking after Felton? Goddamn robbie. He really did attract more attention than he deserved. “I got here a little early.”
“Snuck out early when the bossman wasn’t looking, huh?” Cecilia leaned back on her elbows. “Wish I could get away with that.”
Ask her now. Henry heard the voice in his head, tinny and mechanical-sounding, like it came through a speaker. Do it. Like the upgrades were channeling Felton.
“Do you get a break?” he asked.
“I’m due for one,” she said.
Perfect. Ask her.
Henry took a deep breath. His body tingled, tightened up. “You want, I can go ask Mr. Letang if he could let you free for twenty minutes or so. Maybe we could get coffee…”
His voice wavered and disappeared. Cecilia regarded him beneath lids heavy with eyeliner. She didn’t say anything. Henry felt his muscles coiling up like a snake. He took a deep and calming breath, the upgrade still sending his emotions ricocheting around his nervous system.
But then Cecilia said, “Sure, if you can get me twenty minutes,” and Henry’s whole body went loose. He smiled, slapped his hand against the counter — the counter wobbled, knocking the shoes out of line. Henry immediately snapped his hand back to his side. Cecilia blinked, wrinkled her forehead.
“Wait here,” he said.
The cold drizzle blurred all the colors of the city, the traffic lights and street lamps, the neon signs dropping pools of color across the dark asphalt. Henry and Cecilia sat across from each other at the pie shop down the street from the bowling alley, next to the big picture window looking out over the parking lot. Now that he was here Henry didn’t know what to say. Cecilia kept stirring her coffee, around and around, the spoon scraping against the porcelain.
“So how long have the police used robots?” she asked.
She wasn’t looking at him, but at her coffee.
“A couple of months,” he said. “And we just have the one anyway. Felton.”
She set down her spoon, lifted her head, sipped.
“That’s lucky,” she said. “That you get to work with him.”
“I guess.” Henry pressed his index finger against a swirl of sugar that had spilled across the table. In the red-cast light of the pie shop the sugar looked pink, his skin looked orange.
“What’d you say his name was?” asked Cecilia. “Felton?”
“Tell me more about yourself.” Henry forced himself to look her straight in the eye. “Felton’s boring. I know. I’ve sat with him the last week at a stakeout down in Ballard.”
He probably shouldn’t have told her, but her face broke open into a smile. “A stakeout?” she said. “Sounds exciting.”
“It’s the exact opposite of exciting, actually.”
Then the waitress appeared with their slices of pie — chocolate for Henry, Key lime for Cecilia. Cecilia scooped up a huge piece and closed her eyes when she licked it off her fork. Like she’d never had Key lime pie before. As they ate, they didn’t speak.
Henry paid for the coffee and the pie. He and Cecilia walked back to the bowling alley through the freezing drizzle. Henry wanted to reach out and take her hand but she kept her arms folded up across her chest. The rain caught on the soft web of her hair and sparkled in the green light of the bowling alley’s sign.
He held the glass door open for her. She tilted her head up at him, smiled, said, “Thanks for the pie. I had a nice time.” But there were lines of insincerity drawn across her face and Henry felt as if he had failed somehow. The upgrades didn’t know how to read his sadness. They sat silent and still inside him, biding their time.
“Officer Levens. I’ve been waiting for nearly half an hour.”
“Felton?” Henry let the door slam shut. “What do you care? It’s just bowling.”
When Cecilia saw Felton, she reached up, tugged on a piece of hair that had fallen loose from her bouffant. She smiled at him. He flashed his eyes at her. Then he turned to Henry.
“They got someone,” he said.
“Oh my God,” said Cecilia. “From the stakeout?”
Felton trained his eyes on Henry. How a robot could ever look disapproving, Henry didn’t know. Felton aways managed it.
“It’s not anything for you to worry about,” Felton said. “Ma’am.”
“Oh come on,” said Cecilia. “Like I’m going to tell anyone.”
“We’re going after a mad scientist,” said Henry. He turned back to Felton. “So you got him?”
Cecilia went pale. Her smile disappeared. All that glow that spilled from inside her blinked out.
“No,” said Felton. “But they brought in one of his assistants. We really need to get down to the station.”
Henry nodded. Cecilia had stepped away from them, back towards the counter. She kept her head down. Henry said her name. She lifted her eyes, waved her fingers.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I need to get back to work.”
“Good luck,” she said. She looked at Felton. “Good luck,” she said again. But her voice wavered.
The assistant sat in questioning, skinny and pale, his back hunched over. Beneath the harsh yellow lights Henry could see the notches of his spine poking up through his thin, threadbare sweater.
“Give us a name,” he said.
The assistant lifted his head. His eyes were sunk low into his skull. His blond hair pressed tight against his skull. Skin so pale it was nearly translucent, the skin of a jellyfish.
“You’re looking at three to four years for that unregistered multimeter they found in your backpack.” Henry leaned forward in the chair, folded his hands into a steeple.
“I want to talk to the robot,” the assistant said. “I only trust machines.” He paused, jerked up the end of one mouth. It kind of looked like a smile. “I know you got one. Read about it in the paper.”
Henry took a deep breath. He managed to resist flicking his eyes toward the two-way mirror. Wanted to talk to the goddamn robot. Second time that had happened today.
The upgrades started churning a little. Henry pushed all his thoughts aside.
“You can talk to me,” said Henry. “The robot’s busy.”
“You don’t know shit,” said the assistant.
Henry heard a whisper in the back of his head. Felton’s voice. Using the damn microphone behind the glass, the one they wired straight into Henry’s brain. Dammit Henry, you’ve got enough circuitry in you to pass for a machine.
Henry scowled. The assistant leered at him for a moment then dropped his head. The movement kind of reminded Henry of Cecilia, the way she looked when decontaminated the shoes. The hell was he thinking about her for?
Wished the upgrades could silence that.
“You can talk to me,” said Henry. He dropped his arm on the table, let it fall heavy as steel. The table rattled and then sagged. The assistant jumped, slid backwards in his chair. Henry took a deep breath, dug into his skin with the reinforced edge of his left thumbnail. Blood beaded up.
“The fuck are you doing?”
“That ain’t blood.” A lie. Of course it was blood. Henry pulled back on his skin. It didn’t hurt. The upgrades regulated all that. It wouldn’t start hurting until he lost a limb. Or until his heart broke. That kind of hurt, a machine couldn’t fix.
Beneath, embedded in the taut lines of his muscles, blinked rows of tiny circuits, shooting of information to each, whole databases worth. The assistant’s eyes widened.
“You too, man?” He laughed. “She got us all upgraded. Never felt better in my life.”
“She?” said Henry. The lights in his arm began to blink more rapidly. Henry hurriedly pressed the skin back into place, felt the faint tingle as his body began to heal itself.
The assistant leaned back in his chair and laughed. “Oh fuck, I really shouldn’t have said that but the look on your face… Yeah. She.”
“What’s her name?” said Henry.”
“Forget it, man.”
You’ve lost him. He’s not going to be impressed by a cyborg. We’ll try again later.
Henry wished he could snap back, some pithy retort, but the line only went one way. That nominal psychic power only let him get orders.
“It’s a woman.”
Henry slumped at his desk, ran his hand over the scattered paperwork. Felton stood beside him.
“A woman is just as capable of manipulating genetic makeup as a man.”
“Not really a matter of intellectual capacity.” Henry rubbed his forehead. “I just can’t picture a woman doing it, is all. That kind of meanness.”
“This does help us,” Felton said. “Certainly narrows the field.” He paused. “You did well in there. I know how squeamish you are about the up–”
“There isn’t a single lady scientist on file,” Henry said.
Felton paused. Henry didn’t look at him. “I’m aware of that,” Felton finally said. “But she can’t hide behind her sex any longer.”
Henry leaned back in his chair, listened to it creak beneath his weight. He rubbed at his jaw, the stubble scratching his palm.
“She’s gonna clear out the house,” Henry said. “Have we got a warrant on it yet?”
“Still waiting. Should have it soon, though.”
“We’ve got men down there, still watching the place. Haven’t seen anything.”
Henry sighed. Felton stood too close to him. He thought he felt the air buzzing, some faint output from Felton’s systems. Or maybe it was his own network of wires and circuits. He looked down at his arm. A lopsided rectangle of a scar, pink and faint. It’d be gone by morning.
“I think Cecilia’s into you,” Henry said. Felton dimmed his eyes but otherwise said nothing. Figures. “You should ask her out for coffee.”
Before Felton could reply — assuming he had any intention of it, who the hell knew with robots — Henry grabbed his coat and headed into the cold gray mist outside. Felton didn’t follow him. No one did.
Henry walked three blocks down to the bar on the corner, a shabby little hole-in-the-wall that changed names every couple of months but kept the windows tinted so people driving by on their way home from work couldn’t glance over and see their neighbors. When he stepped in the smell hit him like a punch, sour beer and stale cigarette smoke and the musty damp of winter. At least no one looked up from their drinks. It was that kind of place.
The bartender smiled a little when he approached, like she recognized him from those first few weeks after Melanie left, when he came in here every night, before he took up bowling again.
“What can I do you for?” she said, even as she reached for the stack of whiskey tumblers. Whiskey on the rocks. Terrible for human and machine both: the circuits webbing out inside him, the liver nesting shriveled and worn against his ribcage.
The bartender handed Henry his drink, then returned to wiping the counter with a damp dishrag. Henry sat down at a booth in the corner. The ice clinked against the glass. He leaned his head against the booth’s cracked red plastic. Studied the patterns etched into the lamp hanging overhead.
When he closed his eyes, he saw Melanie, he saw Cecilia.
Melanie left because of the upgrades. It wasn’t a secret: she told him, flat out, as she packed her clothes in that round blue plastic suitcase he bought her for their fifth anniversary. Bruises ringed her wrist like a bracelet. He hadn’t been angry when he grabbed her, just excited, brimming up with love and lust and the upgrades hadn’t understood either. And he wasn’t used to his strength yet.
“I can’t deal with this,” Melanie said. She never cried, not once, not in the entire time that their marriage dissolved. Every time she spoke her voice rang flat and tinny. That hurt him most of all. “I don’t want to worry you’re going to kill me every time you touch me.” She didn’t look at him. Her hair swung across her face as her hands plucked up another blouse, another skirt, another pair of stockings, rolling them up tight and tucking them into the suitcase.
And Henry hadn’t done anything but watch, because the upgrades were pulling apart his insides, wanting him to fight. He trembled in the corner, sweat beading out of his pores. He dug his nails into his palm until he drew blood, and when that wasn’t enough he tore his skin to shreds. And then he had watched her walk away.
Henry drained the glass of whiskey, held the glass up over his head until the bartender nodded and poured him another. The rain had picked up — drops pinged against the roof, knocked against the darkened windows. Sounded like the whole world was falling apart. Melanie leaving, that he could understand. She married a man and he went and made himself half-machine. But figures the one girl he met since then, the one girl he thought about at night, listening to the heater rattle and huff in its corner as he fought back wave after wave of loneliness — figures she’d be a robbie-lover. One wanted a man, the other a machine. When you fall in between you get nothing.
And a lady mad scientist? Henry sipped at the whiskey, let it soften his brain. Before the upgrades, he couldn’t even have begun to imagine something that wild. Not anymore.
The mad scientist’s house was full of weak winter sunlight and motes of dust and nothing else. She’d even taken down the blue curtains from the windows. Henry and Felton stood in the hallway between the kitchen and the living room, Henry rubbing at the hangover pounding in his temples.
“There’s nothing here,” said Officer Minette. “I’d bet there hasn’t been anything for a long time. The whole stakeout was a bust.”
“Keep looking,” said Felton.
Office Minette frowned.
“No one can clean house this easily,” Felton said. “You haven’t even found the lab yet. Keep looking.”
Officer Minette turned on her heel, muttered something about how a fucking robot could. Felton didn’t respond. Henry closed his eyes against the glare of the houselights. Footsteps echoed off the walls. For a moment, he felt himself drifting away, half falling asleep. Then his head jerked and when he looked up and Felton was staring at him with those bright fake eyes.
“You drink too much,” Felton said.
“Thanks,” Henry said. “You ask Cecilia out yet?”
“I’m telling you, she likes the metal. Ask her out.”
Henry squinted at the shadows of officers moving through the house. The scuffed hardwood floors amplified the noise of the investigation. If they could find just a scrap of skin cells, a piece of hair —
“Hey,” said Henry. “We check the shower drains yet?”
“Yes, Henry,” said Felton. “We have.”
Henry sighed. He turned and headed into the kitchen. He was tired of feeling useless. He was tired of standing next to Felton. He was tired.
The kitchen had already been swept. Completely clean, of course. Henry ran his hands along the underside of the counters. Maybe his upgrades would find something the other officers hadn’t. Certainly was about time they did something useful.
He opened up the refrigerator, closed his eyes against the rush of blue-cold air. For a moment his hangover subsided. His upgrades sparked inside him. Concentrate. If only he could concentrate —
Henry slammed the refrigerator door and whirled around. His vision went sharp. He saw red trails of warmth left behind by the other officers. He saw the hollow space behind the cabinet doors.
He had no idea the upgrades could do this. No idea he could do this.
Henry walked back out into the hallway, keeping his eyes trained on the walls. All solid. Felton glanced up at him. “What are you doing?”
“I’m looking,” said Henry. “Shut up.”
He followed the perimeter of the living room, then slipped into the bathroom, the master bedroom. And that’s where he found it. In a patch of sunlight in the middle of the floor, he saw the ghostly outline of the secret passageway leading down to the lab. The hollow space beneath the floorboards.
“Felton!” he shouted. “Have Boyd bring the damn crowbar in here! I think I found something.”
He didn’t dare move. He kept his eyes trained on the spot on the floor, that pale outline wavering in and out. His head throbbed. Felton whirred into the room, Boyd following behind him, black crowbar slung over his shoulder.
“What is it?” Felton asked.
“In the floor,” Henry said. He outlined the space with his foot. “Start tearing it up.”
“How do you know?” asked Boyd.
“Because I’m a goddamned cyborg. Do it.”
Boyd sighed, swung the crowbar into a crack in the floorboards. Splinters of wood scattered across the room. The crowbar sunk down deep, didn’t hit cement like Henry half-expected. Boyd grunted a little in surprise: must have had the same doubts. Henry didn’t blame him. He swung the crowbar again. Henry dropped down to his knees, started pulling the boards up by hand.
Stairs. Narrow, rickety stairs, winding down into the dank underground darkness.
Felton’s eyes lit up bright green. He turned to Boyd. “Officer Levens and I are going down first. I don’t want anyone getting hurt. You understand?”
Boyd nodded, his eyes narrow. They all hated taking orders from a robbie. Henry knew the feeling. But it was the robbie’s case.
Felton started down the steps first. Henry nodded at Boyd before following. The stairs creaked under their weight. Henry stepped cautiously, feeling with his toe, not wanting to crash through. Felton trotted down without hesitation.
The stairs descended into a big open room, just like Henry expected, just like he’d seen a hundred times before in a hundred different lair-houses. A pair of weak overhead lights flickered on as they stepped into the room, illuminating the dirt walls, the low-hanging ceiling reinforced with planks of wood and a few steel bars. Stainless steel cabinets and work surfaces. All the equipment had been cleared away, of course.
Henry snapped on his gloves and began to open the cabinets. All empty. He was aware of Felton standing in the center of the room, his head rotating slowly as he scanned for evidence. The green lights in his eyes flashed like a beacon.
“There’s something here,” Felton said. “Not in the cabinets. It’s buried.” He pointed at a spot in the dirt floor. “There.” Then he knelt down, began scooping up clumps of dirt with his silver hands. Henry dropped down beside him. Tried to focus his upgraded eyes on the spot in the floor — there was something there. A low rectangle. He couldn’t make out much more than that.
Felton pulled the object up out of the dirt — a shoebox, wrapped in a sheet of plastic. He pulled off the lid.
It was empty save for a bundle of old black-and-white photographs bound together with a rubber band.
“Holy shit,” said Henry.
“We don’t know these belong to our girl,” said Felton. “They could have been left behind –”
Henry slipped the photographs out of Felton’s hand, eased off the rubber band. The top photograph: a Christmas tree ringed with packages, smears of white threading through the underdeveloped image. Henry shuffled through the pictures. A shot of the house with a car parked in the driveway. A vegetable garden. A woman, her hair wrapped up in a kerchief, squinting up at the camera with a baby in her arms. Their mad scientist? Maybe. He pulled out the last picture.
Then he stopped. It was a photograph of a man, tall and lean, leaning against the wall of the house, his hand pressed against his forehead, a little girl in a sundress and a cloche hat sitting at his feet.
“What is it?” asked Felton. “Did you find something?”
“Yeah,” said Henry. He flipped the photograph around. Felton regarded it with his usual blank expression.
“Emmett Margum,” he said.
“That’s not a coincidence,” said Henry. “No way.”
Henry and Felton had busted Margum a little over a year ago, the last bust before Henry got his upgrades. Margum had been behind a prostitution ring, one that traded in genetic fantasy: women spliced with jungle cats, women with mermaid’s tales, that sort of thing. They’d raided the lab he had built out in Snoqualmie Forest. A major coup for the department. A major coup for Henry. That bust was part of the reason he’d gotten the upgrades at all: any man who could bust Emmett Margum was sure to make Homicide if he just has a bit of circuitry winding up with his blood veins.
“Let’s take it in,” said Felton. “Looks like we have a visit to make.”
That night, Henry and Felton went down to the bowling alley. “Come on, man,” Henry said. “One celebratory game. Besides, I need a break. The upgrades only do so much.”
“I suppose,” Felton said. “One celebratory game would be acceptable.”
Henry breezed into the alley with his bowling bag slung over his shoulder, still feeling elated over the find from earlier. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to see Cecilia, if seeing her teased-out hair and her smudgy eyes would heighten his excitement or destroy it.
Turned out it didn’t matter. They had some kid behind the shoe counter, skinny and pimply-faced, his hair greasy with pomade.
“Maybe she’s off tonight,” said Felton.
Henry ignored him, just paid for their one celebratory game and then collapsed heavily on the bench to switch out his shoes. He felt himself deflate. He was suddenly aware of the upgrades lying dormant inside himself.
He ordered a beer, rolled a split. Didn’t pick up the spare. Henry cursed under his breath and stalked over to the bench. Felton rolled a strike.
Halfway through the game — Henry was winning, although only barely — Henry stood up as Felton lifted his ball from the return.
“I’m gonna get a beer,” Henry said.
“Okay,” said Felton.
“No, I mean, I’m going to go over to the lounge.”
Felton lit up his eyes, then strolled up the lane, ball dangling awkwardly at his side.
Henry rubbed his hands through his hair. His palms had begun to sweat. He didn’t walk over to the lounge, but to the shoe counter. The kid glanced up from the comic book he was reading. The decontamination stick lay unlit beside him.
“Where’s Cecilia?” Henry asked.
“Cecilia. The girl who’s usually working tonight.”
“Oh.” The kid shrugged. “I don’t know, man. I just started two days ago. They called me, said their usual didn’t show.”
Henry frowned. He thanked the kid and headed toward the lounge. Felton watched him from beside the ball return, and Henry could feel those glowing eyes following him across the room. As if Felton cared about Henry, about Cecilia, about anything but whatever the Commissioner had programmed into him.
The light in Letang’s office burned yellow behind the slatted blinds hanging in the window. For a minute Henry stood in the empty lounge, then walked over and rapped on Letang’s door. Detective work.
Henry slid the door open. “Hey, Metal Man,” Letang said, not glancing up from the stacks of papers scattered across his desk. “How’s business?”
“You know,” said Henry.
“Cleaning up the streets?”
“Something like that.”
Letang nodded. He leaned back in his chair. Dark rims around his eyes. Apparently no one got any sleep anymore.
“What happened to Cecilia?” Henry asked.
“Good question. I ought to send you out on the case.” Letang laughed. “Didn’t call in, didn’t show. It happens though. Can’t pay ’em enough.”
The upgrades lurched suddenly. Henry coughed against the back of his hand. Excused himself and headed back to the lane. He’d never wanted a beer.
And then the playback started up, a movie screening against the back of his brain. Henry saying, We’re going after a mad scientist. All the light draining out of Cecilia’s features.
A lady mad scientist. No, that didn’t make sense. Henry knew mad scientists — he’d brought enough of them in. They didn’t work in bowling alleys for their cover. They didn’t stare at score screens like they wanted you to think everything was okay.
But it couldn’t be a coincidence. Henry stopped believing in coincidences a long time ago.
“What’s the matter?” Felton said. “Where’s your beer?”
“Cecilia,” said Henry.
Felton’s eyes lit up. Henry grabbed his ball from the return, strolled up to the lane, rolled a strike. The clatter of pins hitting hardwood soothed him. A little.
Emmett Margum sat in the interrogation room, his back straight against the chair. Henry stood on the other side of the mirror, arms crossed, watching as Officer Minette gestured at him with her cigarette. Margum didn’t move, didn’t open his mouth. He’d been locked up for less than a year and already he looked like all the life had oozed out of him. Gray skin, patchy brown hair, a three-day shadow.
“One of us is going to have to go in,” said Felton.
“No way,” said Henry. “No way he’s gonna talk to us.”
“I think you’re wrong.”
Henry frowned. Officer Minette leaned back in her chair, dropped her hand to her side. Anger lines radiated out from the corners of her mouth, illuminated by the sallow fluorescent light.
“She hasn’t shown the picture to him yet,” said Henry.
“Hasn’t got it,” said Felton. He reached into his coat, pulled out the photograph from the mad scientist’s house.
“What the hell? You nick that out of evidence?”
“I told you, he’s only going to talk to us.” Felton paused. “I can get robot on you about it, if you want. I’ve got statistics. His sort prefers to work with machines.” He tucked the photograph back in jacket. “You could do it too, if you used that robot brain of yours a little more.” Then he hit the release for the door and stepped into the interrogation room.
Henry’s upgrades started to burn. He clenched his hand into a first. Inside the interrogation room, Officer Minette scowled at Felton before pushing back in her chair. Margum’s eyes followed Felton across the room. He grinned, showing all his teeth.
“What the fuck, Levens?” Officer Minette burst out out of the room. Smoke from her cigarette billowed into the air. “Fucking robbies. You two think ’cause you’ve got all that metal in your brains –”
“Shut the hell up,” Henry said — calmly, even though the upgrades had his body rioting.
Officer Minette gaped at him.
“You can’t talk to me like that,” she said. “You or that clanker in there.”
“He’s talking.” Henry turned away from her and stood close to the window. His anger started to fall away. Margum was leaning forward over the table. The picture lay between him and Felton and Margum stared intently at the robot as he spoke. Henry hit the intercom button.
“–Like I’m gonna turn her in. But yeah, it’s a woman. And let me tell you, you thought you hit the big time nabbing me, but you sure as shit didn’t.”
“Damn,” said Henry.
Officer Minette walked up beside him. She lit another cigarette. Her face had become a mask. Henry ignored her.
“We could come to an arrangement,” Felton said.
“We could,” said Margum. He grinned again, ran his tongue over the ridge of his teeth. “But we won’t. I’m not talking.”
“You’re talking now,” said Felton.
“Just ’cause I like you.”
And then Margum leaned back in the chair. The handcuffs scraped against the table.
Henry knew. That’s all they were getting.
“I want to go back to his lair,” said Felton. They were in Henry’s office. Margum had been locked away again. “There’s more to this.”
“I agree,” said Henry. He ran his fingers over the soft, pale skin of his underarm. Human skin. Not metal, not synthetic. “But I don’t think we’ll find it out at the lair. Not anymore. That was nearly a year ago.”
Felton didn’t reply. “It’s the only lead we’ve got,” he said. “This connection between the two of them.”
Henry nodded. He rapped his fingers against the desk and wondered how many more mad scientists he had to bust before he made Homicide. Ten. Twenty. So many it wouldn’t matter anymore.
“I’ll fill out the paperwork,” he said.
Three days later Henry and Felton rode out to Margum’s old lair, deep in the forest. Mount Rainier loomed above them. Rain fell in mist and shadow across the windshield of the car and the heater breathed out spots of fog on the glass.
Henry kept expecting it to look familiar, the shaggy fringe of pine needles, the ferns dried-out and dormant for the winter. But it didn’t. It was all just a forest.
The lair signs started up when they’d been on the narrow, twisting dirt road for about thirty minutes: nothing obvious, of course, but Henry knew what to look for. Squat metal vents poking out of the thick ground cover of dead pine needles. An old cracked mirror propped up in the sparse branches of a Pacific dogwood, put in place a long time ago to catch the sun through the tree’s leaves and direct certain visitors to the entrance. No sun that day, of course, but they didn’t need the sunspots. Felton had the way memorized from their previous bust.
Henry leaned his head against the cold window, watched the jostle of the scenery as the car thumped over the wet road.
“Nearly there,” said Felton.
Henry nodded. Then he noticed a smudge of movement out in the woods, a frail wisp of smoke or steam or —
“Stop the car,” Henry said.
Felton looked over at him. “I’m sorry?” he said.
“Christ, just stop the car. I thought I saw –” Henry leaned close to the glass and rubbed the fog away with the fabric of his coat. Felton slowed the car down.
“There!” said Henry. He jammed his finger against the window. One of the vents poked out of the ground cover, but this one was trickling out a thin white stream, spreading like cotton against the misty backdrop of the forest. “You see it? Someone’s down there.”
Felton stopped the car and killed the ignition. For a moment he sat, his hand still resting on the steering wheel.
“It must be an itinerant,” he said. “They pass through these woods.”
“Bullshit. No hobo’s gonna set foot near a lair. They’re not stupid.”
Felton didn’t respond, just kept his hand on the steering wheel, his eyes dimming and brightening.
“It couldn’t be this easy,” Felton said. “She’d know better than to hide out here.”
“Maybe not,” said Henry. The glass had fogged up again and he wiped it clear with his sleeve. “Or maybe she doesn’t care.”
“We have to go back. Call for backup.”
Henry nodded. Felton turned the ignition, jerked the car into reverse.
Then: a trio of bangs. Gunshots. Henry and Felton both flung themselves down. Henry yanked his gun out of his holster. Felton wasn’t allowed one.
Another gunshot. Henry heard the sharp metallic ping as it struck the side of the car. A patter of footsteps. Voices. Henry lifted his head, gun cocked, upgrades charging.
A face, long and narrow. A woman’s face. Pale hair darkening in the rain. She banged on the window with the butt of her gun and the glass cracked.
“Fuck,” said Felton.
Henry took a deep breath. His upgrades burned his insides, turning all his muscles to molten metal, heat and machinery and factories and progress. He tucked his gun back into its holster and swung himself up just as the woman outside the car slammed her own gun through the window. Her gun struck him on the side of his face, below his left eye, but that didn’t matter, because the reinforced metals woven through his bones took the impact without pain or hesitation.
Broken glass left spiderweb cuts across his arms, his face. Henry grabbed the gun and pulled it through the window, bringing the woman with it. She howled, wrenched the gun out of his hands.
She got us all upgraded.
Henry opened the door, kicking it out with both his feet. He heard Felton clambering out behind him. The woman faced Henry, the gun’s barrel a dark hole in the center of her chest. She wasn’t bleeding. Her eyes glowed pale green.
Felton came to Henry’s side and threw his hands up over his head. His right palm flashed his badge. Henry didn’t move, just kept his eyes trained on the cyborg-woman, all his body functions normal, good to go, ready for action.
“Get the hell off this property,” the woman said.
“We’re cops,” said Felton.
The woman turned her head, spat in the ground. Henry yanked his gun out from under his jacket and fired once at her leg. She stumbled backwards, her rifle tumbling to the ground. Felton dashed forward and picked it up and clutched in his silver hands like holding a gun was the most natural thing in the world for him. The woman glared up through the tangle knot of her hair, the glow of her eyes tracing patterns in the misty air. She laughed.
“Not going to be that easy,” she said.
Another gunshot rang through the woods, upsetting the stillness. The woman’s neck snapped back. Bits of metal cascaded across the damp ground. The woman was still laughing but her laughter stretched out and distorted and she collapsed, kicking out her legs. Wires spilled out of her neck. Henry glanced down at his gun. He hadn’t fired.
“She was a robot,” said Felton. His voice sounded flatter than usual. “No sentience. I tried to save her face. I have a feeling that’s what our mad scientist looks like.” He nodded toward the cyborg-woman, the robot-woman. Henry felt coldness creeping up around his spine. He’d been fooled. He had never seen a robot so realistic before. Even the ones that looked human didn’t look that human.
Felton had dropped the woman’s rifle on the ground beside her as he trundled towards the entrance of the lair. Henry slid his gun back into its holster. There as a rustling up in the trees and then cold rain fell across the top of his head, across the broad stretch of his shoulders.
Felton stopped in his place, head swiveling. Another scream, high-pitched and frantic. Henry jogged up beside Felton. The entrance to the lair was only twenty feet away, but in the silvery slant of the rain it was difficult to make out. Henry adjusted his vision and the entire world took on a green hue, as if it were spring and the forest were alive again.
A figure burst out of the entrance. A woman, tall and lean, with a long narrow face. For a moment she paused, and Henry made out the two bright dots of her eyes looking straight at him.
Then she turned and ran.
“Fuck,” said Felton. He leapt after her, his strides longer than what’s natural. The woman — the mad scientist — disappeared into the undergrowth. So did Felton. Henry jogged after him, but then he heard another scream, the same as before, coming from the woods just beyond the entrance to the lair. He whirled around, feet slipping over the wet pine needles, the patches of dark mud.
Somewhere in the distance, the whir-patter of a personal flyer. The rain threading through the trees nearly drowned it out. Henry cursed.
Another scream. Different from the others. Throatier.
Henry pulled out his gun and moved forward. Steam curled up from the vents in the ground. Rain soaked through his jacket and his wet hair fell heavy into his eyes.
A branch snapped. Henry stopped raised his gun, peering out into the green mist.
She appeared out of the woods, hair hanging in thick ropes around her shoulders, a pair of short, two-point antlers protruding out of the top of her head. She crept barefoot over the ground, thin white sheath dress plastered transparent to her body.
Henry dropped his gun. He took his vision back down to normal. Water threaded down the side of his face.
Cecilia stopped a few feet away from him. She shivered and Henry, forgetting the possibility of danger, forgetting they stood on top of a mad scientist’s lair, dashed forward and wrapped his coat around her shoulders. He caught the swish of a tail curling around her left thigh, dark and sleek, but it was covered up by the jacket. Cecilia look up at him. Her black eye makeup smeared in her lashes, ran in thick stains over the inclines of her face.
“The cop,” she said. “From the bowling alley.” She blinked. “Henry.”
“What are you doing out here?” Henry asked. “It’s not safe,” he added stupidly.
“Is she gone?”
Henry bit his lower lip. He heard the crash of underbrush behind him and when he glanced over his shoulder it was just Felton, his eyes flat and dark with failure.
“Yeah,” said Henry. “She’s gone.”
Henry drove back into the city. Cecilia sat in the back seat of the car, her chin tucked onto her knees, still wearing Henry’s jacket. Felton sat in the front seat and didn’t say anything, just kept his eyes dark and his hands folded. The robot-woman’s head was tagged and shoved into a plastic evidence bag, sitting at Felton’s feet.
Every now and then Henry glanced up at the rearview mirror, just to look at Cecilia. again, to look at the dark antlers growing up out of her hair.
Once she caught him, their eyes meeting in reflection, and she put one hand on one antler, as if she was checking to see that it was still there.
“I’m not with them,” Cecilia said when Henry pulled onto the highway, her voice shattering the oppressive, rain-drenched silence.
Henry glanced in the rearview mirror. Cecilia was staring out the window, the patterns of raindrops reflecting on the skin of her face.
“You might want to wait,” he said. “Until we get to the station.” He hesitated. “Remember, you can get a lawyer.”
“I mean,” she said. “I was with them, kind of. Emmett Margum was my father.”
Felton twisted his head to look back at her.
“He made me,” she said.
Henry’s hands began to shake. The upgrades. He pulled the car over to the side of the road and shut off the engine. Rain battered the roof.
“He made you,” he said. He turned around in his seat, put his hand over the headrest.
“Yeah,” she said. She looked at Felton, her eyes huge beneath the rim of smeared makeup. “Like Northwest Robotics made you.”
Felton didn’t answer. He turned away from her.
Something coiled up inside Henry. It wasn’t the upgrades. Immediately, he straightened himself in his seat, looked hard at the steering wheel.
For a long time they sat in silence. The rain picked up, turned the entire world gray. No cars passed by on the highway.
“You’re the little girl in the photograph,” Henry finally said.
Cecilia stared at him. “You found my pictures,” she said.
“Let’s go,” said Felton. “We shouldn’t be having this conversation here.” He turned back to Cecilia. Henry started the engine. His upgrades vibrated inside of him.
“We can offer you protection,” Felton said. Henry stared at the road as he drove along. The rain left filthy streaks across the front window. “If it’s necessary.”
Cecilia didn’t answer right away. The wipers slid across the windshield, thumping against the glass.
“That would be good.” Her voice sounded far away. “I never helped them. You gotta believe me.”
“We’ll see,” said Felton. He paused. “Why don’t we talk about this at the station? Sound good?”
Cecilia waited a long time before responding. Then she said, “Okay.”
Henry sat down at the interrogation table. Cecilia’s hands were folded in her lap and she looked up from them as Henry’s chair scraped across the floor. She’d washed the makeup off her face, but the antlers still jutted out of the tangled mat of her hair.
“I want to help you,” she said.
“That’s good,” said Henry. The heart mechanism was clicking inside of his chest, measuring out his heartbeats. He was aware of Felton standing in the corner, watching, recording, analyzing. “Why don’t you repeat what you told me in the car.”
Cecilia nodded, and then she said it again — Emmett Margum was my father.
“Explain what you mean by that,” said Felton.
Cecilia looked over at him, her eyes bright. “He created me. That was how Mother — Naomi Rohn, she’s the one you’re looking for — always said it. She told me I was created in a test tube, grown in a vat.” Cecilia blinked. Henry heard a whisper in the back of his head — Checking on Naomi Rohn now. I’ll let you know what we find out. Officer Minette. Everything in the interrogation room was completely still, but Henry knew there must be a flurry of motion outside its wall, as the officers listening in reacted to that name.
“Thank you,” said Felton.
“You’re welcome.” Cecilia looked down at the table again. “What else do you want to know?”
“Why was Naomi Rohn at Margum’s lair? Has she been there since the bust?” What Henry really wanted to ask was, Why were you at the lair?
Cecilia shook her head. “She went there a few weeks ago to hide. She didn’t think you’d make the connection — she didn’t know about the photographs. That’s why she didn’t take them with her. I put them there, a long time ago.”
Henry didn’t say anything. His heart mechanism clicked away.
“She knew you were watching the house in Ballard.” Cecilia lifted her head shyly and looked Henry right in the eye, then looked back at Felton. “I didn’t tell her, if that’s what you were thinking.”
Henry had been thinking that, and he looked down at his hands in response. He wanted a drink.
“How’d you get to the lair?” asked Felton.
“Mother brought me there. She kidnapped me after she heard you had talked to Father — to Emmett Margum. I didn’t think she knew I was back in town, but apparently she did, she’d known for a long time, she just didn’t — didn’t care.” Cecilia shrugged. “They never cared about me, either one of them. I was just a test — a test experiment? To see if they could do it. Splice together people and animals. I ran away as soon as I could.”
“Why’d you come back?” said Henry. He felt Felton staring at him.
“Ran out of money,” said Cecilia. “And some people found out about me –” she gestured toward her antlers — “I wanted to come home but I didn’t have one, you know? I couldn’t go back to them. But I still felt safer here, I know it’s stupid, but — I came back and rented a room in Capitol Hill. I was in California before,” she added, looking up at Henry. “In case you needed to know.”
“Why’d she kidnap you?” Redirecting the conversation back to the investigation, even if he did want to know more Cecilia and California.
“I don’t know. She said she knew I’d been talking to you, but then she just left me there when you showed up. I think the real reason was that she was lonely.” Her voice grew smaller, and it trembled in the emptiness of the interrogation room. “Ever since he went to jail. You have to understand — Father used his DNA to make me. I think she missed him.”
Cecilia pressed one hand to her eye, where a line of tears glittered in the harsh light. Officer Minette’s voice flooded into Henry’s brain. The name’s real but we’ve got nothing on her. The address listed is for an apartment complex that burned down five years ago.
Cecilia opened her mouth to speak, but Henry held up one hand, not wanting to miss Minette’s information.
Other than that and a picture, there’s nothing on her. No arrests, no traffic tickets — hell, she doesn’t even have a license number listed. See if you can find out anything else from the girl.
“What are you doing?” Cecilia asked.
“Nothing,” said Henry. “I was listening to someone.”
Cecilia brow’s wrinkled. Felton stepped forward, pressed one silver hand against the table.
“Have you heard reports about monster attacks out in Redmond?” he asked. “The suburbs?”
“Do you think that’s your parents’ work?” A slight hesitation before the word parents, one Henry only noticed because of the upgrades.
“I know it is,” said Cecilia, and this time Henry imagined the silence that had probably fallen outside the interrogation booth, as Officer Minette yelled for everyone to shut the hell up and listen. “She told me about it. She’s been creating an army. She didn’t tell me why, just she was building an army — literally building, the way they built the whores, the way they –” She stopped.
“She didn’t tell you why?” Henry leaned forward over the table. “But she said she was doing it? She said she was responsible for the attacks in Redmond –”
“Yeah.” Cecilia shrunk back a little in her chair.
Holy shit, said Officer Minette. I just came in. Did she —
Henry pushed her out of his head. “It’s okay, Cecilia, we aren’t going to let anything happen to you. Tell us everything you know.”
Cecilia blinked. A fear tears dripped down her cheek. “I did,” she said. “The attacks — she said she was training them, but she never said what for –” She wiped hurriedly at her eyes.
“Are you sure?” said Felton. “I don’t think you’re holding out, but maybe she mentioned something in passing — I want you to think. Try and remember.” His voice had taken on the soothing quality he sometimes used with witnesses when he thought they were in fact holding out. But Cecilia just shook her head.
“She didn’t tell me anything! She just locked me up underground and talked about Father and all the amazing things they would have done. The army wasn’t in the woods anyway.” She sniffled, ran the back of her hand across her nose. “I don’t remember. I don’t want to remember.”
Goddammit, there has to be more —
“You don’t have to,” Henry said. He put a hand on her shoulder, felt the bones beneath her skin. She lifted her head. Her hair fell across her eyes. Henry forced himself not to look at her antlers.
“We’ll stop for tonight,” Henry said. “Find you a place to stay where Rohn can’t get you.”
The hell are you doing, Levens?
Felton didn’t say anything, just glared at Henry from across the room.
Henry ignored them both.
“Does that sound okay?” he asked. “You can get some food, some sleep — and we’ll talk tomorrow.”
Cecilia nodded. Henry straightened up. He looked at Felton. “Do we have a place for her to stay?” he asked. “A guard detail? Something?”
Felton regarded him with dim eyes. “I don’t know,” he said.
“I’ll ask Minette.” Henry turned back to Cecilia, his mechanized body flush with tenderness. “Thank you,” he said. “For helping us.”
Henry wound up taking Cecilia back to her place in Capital Hill himself. None of the other cops wanted to babysit a genetic freak. They’d do it if the captain demanded it, but even he seemed more keen to toss her in a jail cell for the night, rather than treating her like a witness.
At first Henry volunteered Felton’s apartment, but Felton dimmed his eyes and shook his head. “I don’t have food,” he said. “Or a shower.”
Cecilia was renting a room in one of the mansions built into the side of the hill. It was old, crumbling, and because of the upgrades Henry could see the overgrown garden sprawling up around the broken-down fence, despite the night’s moonless darkness. Henry stepped out of the car first, pulling his gun. He didn’t see anyone or sense anyone, though. He and Cecilia strode quickly up the walkway, then around the side of the house to the back entrance. Cecilia’s hand shook as she unlocked the door. It opened into a dank, narrow hallway that turned into a dank, narrow staircase. Henry went up first.
Her room was small and clean, with a bed in one corner and a small humming refrigerator in another. A hotplate sat on the desk.
“Are you hungry?” Henry said. “I’m sorry, we could have stopped somewhere –”
“I don’t really feel like eating.” Cecilia sat down on the bed and took off her shoes, dropping them one at a time to the floor. She pushed her hair up with both her hands, like she was trying to cover up her antlers. “I’m going to take a shower, if you don’t mind. It’s down the hall.”
Henry frowned. “I’ll sit outside the door.”
Cecilia didn’t answer at first. Then she said, “I’d appreciate that.”
She walked over to the dresser and pulled out a nightgown, a robe, and a pair of towels. She wrapped one towel up around her head.
They left the room, Cecilia locking the door behind them. Henry sat down in the hallway, badge and gun both out, listening to the sound of running water. Rose-scented steam curled out from underneath the door, spreading over the place where years of steam had stained the carpet. Music thudded from somewhere on the first floor. Laughter from behind one of the doors down the hall. But Henry never saw anyone else.
When Cecilia came out nearly every part of her was wrapped up: her head in the towel, her body in a thin white robe.
“Thanks,” she said.
Henry pushed himself up. He slipped his badge back in his pocket. “My pleasure.”
They went back into her room. Cecilia pulled a rickety wooden chair away from the table and gestured towards it. Henry sat down. He kept his gun out. Cecilia crawled under the faded quilt of her bed.
“I can stay up and keep watch,” Henry said.
“After everything that happened today?” Cecilia asked. “Aren’t you exhausted?”
Henry noticed that she still had the towel wrapped around her head. He thought about the antlers she kept tucked away, day in and day out, the way he kept all his wires and circuitry tucked away beneath his skin.
“No.” Henry hesitated. “I’m fine. I’ll just need, ah, an outlet.” He looked down at his hands. His heart mechanism clicked and clicked clicked.
“Oh,” said Cecilia. “Oh, you’re a — of course.” She slid out of bed and walked across the room and knelt beside the refrigerator. “There’s one back here.” She shoved her hand behind the refrigerator. “I just have to unplug the hotplate — there.” She stood up. “You can move the fridge if you need to.”
“Thanks.” Henry rarely charged himself. He’d done it a couple times, right after he got the upgrades — it gave him a lot more energy than sleeping. But sleeping made him feel human. He preferred to sleep.
For a moment Cecilia stood by the refrigerator, not moving. Henry looked up at her.
“You can take off the towel.” He spun his hand around his head. “I don’t care.”
“Oh.” Cecilia touched the side of her towel tentatively. “Are you sure? It makes a lot of people uncomfortable –”
“I make a lot of people uncomfortable,” said Henry. “It’s fine.”
She gave him a sad-looking smile, then tugged on one end of the towel so that it seemed to unravel. Her wet hair fell around her shoulders. Her antlers gleamed. She dropped the towel to the floor. Henry wanted to wrap his arms around her waist and pull her onto his lap. He wanted to kiss each point of those antlers.
“I like them,” Henry said, and then immediately regretted it, because Cecilia blushed and looked down at her feet.
“I wish I did,” Cecilia said.
Henry had no response. The upgrades churned around, grinding and sparking because they did not know how to handle embarrassment and sadness and desire and confusion.
Cecilia climbed back into her bed. She pulled the blanket over her knees and then pulled off the robe and tossed it on the floor. Henry remembered the tail.
“Go to sleep,” Henry said. “You’re safe here.”
Cecilia looked at him for a few seconds longer. Her hair was beginning to dry, frizzing in the heat of the radiator.
“I’ll get the lights,” Henry said.
He stood up, cut across the room, hit the switch. The room fell into darkness. Henry adjusted his vision. The glowing blur on the bed that was Cecilia said, “Will you be able to see the outlet?”
“Yes,” said Henry.
He waited until he was sure she was asleep, her breath soft and rhythmic. Then he pulled the refrigerator away from the wall and slumped down on the floor. He sliced open the skin on his left hip and pulled out the cord coiled up there. When he plugged it in, energy shot up from the base of his spine into his brain, and he was wide awake. His entire body flushed with power. He did not think he would ever have to sleep again.
He charged himself for four hours, and when he was done, he sat in the chair and counted the seconds between Cecilia’s breaths, over and over, like a computer.
The next morning, Henry bought Cecilia breakfast at a restaurant at the top of the hill. She ordered a stack of pancakes and a pair of sausage patties and some scrambled eggs and ate it so fast it was like she hadn’t eaten for days. Henry just had a coffee. He was still buzzing from the charge last night; he didn’t need food or water. He didn’t want it. That was always what frightened him the most about charging himself. Not wanting those things that made him a man.
“I’m going to take you back to the station,” he said. “We have paperwork to fill out.”
Cecilia nodded and sawed off a piece of pancake with the edge of her fork. “I have some more information,” she said, not looking at him.
Henry shifted in his seat.
“I’m sorry,” she said, and this time she lifted her eyes. The seemed to glow in the pale morning light seeping through the windows. “I was just so exhausted yesterday — and confused — ” She dipped the piece of pancake into a puddle of syrup on her plate. “And scared.”
“It’s fine,” said Henry. “I won’t let anybody give you shit for it.”
She smiled at him. She had her hair back up in a bouffant, hiding the antlers.
“I figured you had something else anyway.”
“Because you’re a cyborg?” She whispered the word cyborg, stirred the pancake around her plate.
“No. Because I’ve been doing this a long time.”
Henry paid for Cecilia’s food and drove back to the station. Officer Minette and Felton were both waiting for them by his desk. Officer Minette was sitting in his chair, and when they walked in, she jumped up, said, “Well? What took you so long?”
“She needed her rest,” said Henry. “She’s got some more things to tell us.”
Officer Minette tried to keep her face as dispassionate as Felton’s and failed.
“I’ll meet you in the interrogation room,” she said. “Ten minutes.”
Once again Henry found himself face to face with Cecilia, the light glaring across her face, washing out her features. This time Officer Minette was in the room with him instead of Felton. Henry was pleased that Cecilia didn’t seem to notice; he realized that, because of the electric charge, he was able to think of Cecilia and focus all his attention to the case, simultaneously. Had he been able to do that when he charged before? He couldn’t remember.
“She has another house,” Cecilia said.
Officer Minette leaned forward but didn’t say anything.
“I don’t know if that’s where she went,” Cecilia said. “And I don’t know the exact address. But it is in Redmond –”
Henry thought of the monster attacks. Housewives mauled outside the market, their designer dresses in rags.
“Are you sure?” said Officer Minette.
“Of course I’m sure,” said Cecilia. “I don’t know the number but it’s on 73 1/2 Street.”
Henry took a deep breath. “Is it a lab?” he asked.
“I think so. I’ve never been there, I’ve just heard her talk about it. The house on 73 1/2.”
“This is good.” Officer Minette turned to Henry. “How fast can we do the paperwork to get out there?”
Henry listened to the Felton’s voice whispering in the back of his head. “He’s already filed it,” said Henry. “Right now.”
“Fuckin’ robbies,” said Officer Minette, grinning.
Henry glanced over at Cecilia, who was looking back and forth between the two of them as they spoke. Her eyes were big and golden beneath the sweep of her hair.
“We’ll keep you at the station,” Henry said. “You’ll be safe here.”
She didn’t say anything, just nodded.
There were fifty-two houses on 73 1/2 Street. Three of them were abandoned. Henry printed off a list with the names of the owners for the remaining forty-nine. None of the names were Naomi Rohn, nor Emmett Margum. No Cecilias, either. Henry expected this, and because of the flush of power from his charge he didn’t feel discouraged, either. He sat down at his desk and decided to think like Felton. Which meant running the names through the computer part of his brain until a pattern either emerged or was broken.
It took ten minutes, and Henry had the address. It belonged to Amir M. Nuagom. The computer in his brain rearranged the letters. Amir M. Nuagom. Naomi Margum. It was so obvious.
They rode in unmarked vehicles to the house on 73 1/2 Street. The rest of the officers wore tactical gear, helmets and bullet-proof vests. Henry did not. He’d begun to suit up before they left, out of habit, and then he remembered. It wasn’t necessary. So he slunk away and charged himself in an outlet in an empty meeting room.
Felton had found him. He didn’t say anything, just stepped into the room and let the door click shut behind him. His eyes glowed in the darkness. For a moment Henry felt a rush of shame at having been caught, but the strength from the charge pressed it down. Besides, it was just Felton. Just another robbie.
It was drizzling in Redmond, the world gray and indistinct. The houses on 73 1/2 Street were all tidy little boxes that looked indistinguishable in the dim half-light of the afternoon. Felton drove past Amir M. Nuagom’s house. Blue curtains fluttered in the windows.
“We’ve got her,” said Henry.
They parked three doors down. The other officers were crawling out of their vehicles, slinking over the dead grass of the Nuagom lawn. Henry stepped out of the car. The dampness in the air was cold against his skin, settling the electricity that crackled through his veins. Officer Minette moved up the walkway, dressed in civilian clothes, a pair of jeans and a cream-colored sweater, a clipboard tucked under her arm. She rang the doorbell to the house.
Henry reached down and clicked the safety off his gun.
The world came to a stop. Henry listened to his heart mechanism clicking him into calmness. He adjusted his vision so he could see in the drizzle. The door swung open. He could hear Officer Minette speaking as if she were right beside him.
“Excuse me, ma’am, but do you have time for a survey –”
The door slammed shut.
Officer Minette turned and threaded back down the path. She walked to the next house. Met Henry’s eye, despite the distance and the rain. Held three fingers. It’s her. Move forward.
“Let’s go,” said Felton.
He began down the sidewalk. Henry followed. Officer Minette disappeared into the back of one of the vehicles parked a few houses away. Henry pulled out his badge. He rapped on the door.
Shouting from inside the house. The upgrades had Henry’s entire body wound up. Henry knocked one more time, yelled out that it was the police. No answer but the sound of scrabbling on the other side of the door. Henry glanced at Felton and nodded, and Felton pressed his hand against the door’s lock. A cracking sound and it broke open. Henry pulled out his gun, held it aloft. Felton pushed the door and it swung into the foyer, into darkness.
Henry crept in. The foyer was empty except for puffs of grey dust, and there was a tinny smell in the house, like blood and antiseptic. The computer in Henry’s brain regulated all his movements: it told him when to move, where to look. And he let it. Because the computer in his brain was him. He and the computer were the same.
A flash of shadow at the end of the hallway. Henry turned, gun pointed. Felton was beside him, sliding along the wall.
Another shadow. A few seconds of stillness, of silence — then the shadow leapt out into the foyer, snarling. Henry fired once. The shadow collapsed to the floor, its ribs moving in and out. Henry had shot it in the shoulder. It was a woman, but also a jaguar, and also an eagle. Like Margum’s whores only ferocious instead of seductive, scarred instead of beautiful. The shadow made a hissing noise, not like a cat but like a snake, and Henry took a few regulated steps backwards. Blood soaked into the carpet. Felton’s eyes glowed bright white. Analyzing.
There was a crash from somewhere back in the house, the sound of cop-voices barking orders. Henry pushed past Felton into the living room. The assault team was spilling through the windows. He ignored them. The computer ignored them. He ran into the hall, realizing with a start that he was following the scent of something — of the shadow, the woman-jaguar-eagle-snake. He had hardly noticed it at first, that smell like straw and red meat, like rainwater and musk, but now it was all he could smell. It radiated off the walls. It tangled up in his clothes, in his hair.
He ran down into the basement. The light changed. It was clean, inescapable, Arctic. Five more shadows — not shadows at all down here, but he couldn’t stop thinking of them that way — fell upon him, teeth and talons and stinging poison. But it didn’t matter. The metal in his arms was stronger. The poison didn’t taint his blood. He fired his gun, incapacitating one of them. He knocked another across the back and it went howling and skittering across the floor. Blood seeped through the fabric of his shirt — it wasn’t his blood. He wasn’t even tired. He punched and kicked and flung bodies into the lab equipment and when it was done, when there was not a single shadow left, it was like he hadn’t done anything at all.
Naomi Rohn stood at the other end of the room, a pistol trained at his chest.
“You’re under arrest,” said Henry.
“I know where to shoot to kill you,” she said. “Cyborg.”
He lifted his gun and fired. The shot caught her in the leg. Her own gun went off, the bullet whizzing past Henry’s left ear. She fired again and hit him on his side. The suddenness of it jolt him — there wasn’t pain, not really, more like a jolt of electricity that shot through his body and left him vibrating and breathless for a half a second.
He darted forward and kicked the gun away from her. Two more cops appeared in the doorway, their faces masked with dark plastic. They stopped. One of them dropped his gun, then lifted it again, quickly, as if he hoped no one had seen. Henry handcuffed Naomi Rohn. She spat on the floor, then glared up at him through the tangle of her hair: pale blonde, the same as Cecilia’s.
More cops were spilling into the lab, some preparing to gather up evidence, others yanking Rohn to her feet. Henry leaned against a far wall and pressed his fingers to his side. Blood seeped out, warm against his skin. It didn’t hurt, and already he could feel his body healing itself, tingling like all his limbs had fallen asleep and were now waking up.
Felton walked into the room. The overhead lights bounced off his body, throwing around dots of light. He nodded at Henry. Rohn spat at him as she was dragged past by a pair of armored cops. Felton didn’t even look at her.
“Nice work, Officer Levens,” he said.
Henry nodded. “You too.” He took his hand away from the wound. It was no longer bleeding. He peeled his shirt up to inspect it — but there was no wound to inspect. Just an ugly red scar which Henry knew would be gone by morning.
They kept Rohn in questioning for nearly three hours. When Henry came out, he felt not tired but drained, as if someone had pricked him and all his energy had flowed out to the world. When he went to his desk, he spotted Cecilia, sitting on the bench where they kept visitors, her head slumped against the wall.
Henry sat down beside her.
“Why’re you still here?” he asked. “We brought her in. You can go home.”
She turned toward him. “That doesn’t mean it’s safe for me.”
“The whole lair is on lockdown. They’ve got the assistants, the shadows –” He stopped himself.
“What? The shadows?”
“Yeah. The, ah, the genetic manips.”
Cecilia looked down at her hands. “I like shadows better.” She shook her head. “I doubt you got all of them. Although I’m not worried about them. They — well, they think of me as one of them, right?” She lowered her voice even though there was no one else nearby. “Because I am.”
“Then what?” said Henry. “What are you worried about?” He wanted to add, Tell me, I’ll protect you, because it struck him as romantic. But he kept his mouth shut.
Cecilia took a long time answering. “I don’t know.” She lifted her head, then, and looked him in the eye. “I spent so long being afraid. It feels weird to just stop, like I don’t know how.”
Henry thought about this. He thought about all the time that had lapsed since he allowed himself to be talked into the upgrades. Since Melanie left. All that time feeling sorry for himself. It occurred to him that maybe he didn’t know how to stop, either.
“Tell you what,” he said. “I’ll get another detail for you, for the next few days at least. I should have enough pull, after a bust like that.” He laughed.
Cecilia smiled at him, and her skin glowed. It made Henry think of Christmas lights, that warm, liquidy incandescence that wraps around you like a blanket. For a moment he wondered if it was another part of her genetic makeup — maybe a firefly — or if she was just that beautiful. And then he wondered why it even mattered.
They sat without speaking for a long time. The office bustled around them, all paperwork and ringing phones and shouts from desk to desk. Henry grew more and more sluggish. He stood up.
“I need to, um, take care of something,” he said. He pressed one hand to his head. There seemed to be static behind his eyes.
“Can I come with you?”
She was staring at him with her luminous Christmas-light eyes. Henry hesitated. He thought about the antlers wrapped up in the net of her hair. The tail hidden beneath the flare of her skirt.
They went into the same conference room where Henry had charged before the bust. Cecilia sat down in one of the chairs, and Henry didn’t look at her as he went through the ritual of plugging himself in: slicing open the skin on his hip. Pulling out the cord. Pressing the plug into the outlet on the wall.
He sat down on the floor, leaning his back against the wall, arms draped over his knees. He closed his eyes. It felt like the adrenaline after a workout. It felt like rolling a 300 game. It felt like someone kick-starting his heart.
When he opened his eyes, Cecilia was sitting beside him. He dropped his head against the wall to look at her.
“I didn’t hear you,” he said.
“You were distracted,” she said.
He thought he would feel ashamed, at having someone — someone alive, not someone like Felton — in the room with him, watching him, as he charged himself up. But he didn’t. Maybe he wasn’t as vulnerable as he thought. Maybe the upgrades protected more than just his body.
Eventually, Cecilia rested her head on his shoulder, and he could smell her hair, like roses and powdered soap. Electricity hummed through him. His heart mechanism clicked into operation.
After some consideration, both computational and human, Henry put his arm around Cecilia’s waist, and pulled her close.
Cassandra Rose Clarke’s short fiction has previously appeared in Strange Horizons and Digital Science Fiction, and her first novel is forthcoming from Angry Robot in the autumn of 2012. She is also a graduate of the 2010 Clarion West Writers Workshop.
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