I‘ve been spoilt in recent times. I’ve been the recipient of a seemingly-endless procession of damn good short story collections by Australian writers, some of which I’ve reviewed for this august publication. Now I’ve received another, and it’s one that might just top the lot.
Geoffrey Maloney has been around for over a decade, patiently crafting superb stories that see the light in small magazines paying a pittance for the privilege. Winner of the 2000 Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Short Story, Maloney has carved out a reputation as a fine wordsmith, and a collection of his works has been due for too long.
The work in this volume falls into two loose categories: those tales that describe a future history, detailing a fascist Australia, controlled by an all-seeing, all-knowing government network of spies and informers; and those individual stories that spring from Maloney’s unconnected moments of inspiration. It’s up to the reader to decide which side of Maloney’s coin is their favourite. Lucky for you: it won’t be a decision based on the skill of the writing, because it remains high throughout, simply a matter of which way you like your flights of fancy to fly.
For me, I think Maloney is at his best when he allows his love of other cultures, particularly his knowledge of the Indian subcontinent, to transport us to genuinely speculative worlds. Perhaps being an Australian, with the all-too-real prospect of Maloney’s future visions turning true, drives me this way, perhaps it’s simply because they’re brilliant stories in their own right. Certainly, stories like 5 Cigarettes & 2 Snakes or Requiem For The General are excellent stories, exploring as they do the human cost of fascist utopias, and presenting a starkly realistic view of human emotions and reactions. That’s the secret to Maloney’s skills: his ability to draw believable human faces upon speculative actions.
But the stories that really sang for me were the ones in which Maloney allows his imagination to truly soar, in which he creates worlds and wonders unique to his own worldview. Able as he is to tap into the societal unconscious, it is in tales like the Aurealis Award winner The World According To Kipling, or my long-held favourite Maloney story The Elephant Sways As It Walks that the spiralling sense of wonder is truly engaged. Maloney would have us believe him a cynic, a disappointed optimist who must share his fears with us lest we help create the dystopic visions he fears. But it is in these stories, where he allows his mind to create unfettered by the need to warn of apocalypse, where the reader can ride the rising thermals of Maloney’s imagination.
It doesn’t happen often, and it is something to be treasured when it arrives: a collection that lets us tap into multitudinous facets of a writer’s personality. Geoffrey Maloney shows us that he is more than a skilled writer, more than an engaging teller of stories and translator of visions. He is a shaman, a dancer of tribal dances and howler at the moon. That he shares it with us is our good fortune.
A wedding, a wedding! Banns have been declared!”
Olla Podrida dialed in a tight zoom with her right eye to track Louie LeStrada’s dance down her worn metalloceramic street, deep within the Nikko Quarter. Billowing laundry clipped to aging fiberoptic trunks obscured her sight lines, but Olla could tell Louie wasn’t wearing his Messenger Guild jacket. He did this one for his own pleasure. It must be a joining of great families.
She yelled down toward Louie, “Who’s got the luck?”
He stopped and spun to look up toward her, flapping in and out of eyeshot between threadbare sheets and patched shirts. Louie’s ragged piebald hair whirled behind his head like a badly twirled dust mop, catching the formless light of the upward sky.
“Olla! Goodness.” Louie dodged about to see past the laundry. Olla stepped back slightly, lowering her target profile.
“Two nieuthalers for your trouble,” Olla called. She fished into her blouse and tossed two coins out the window. The plastic triangles ricocheted off the fiberoptic junction immediately below the sill, bouncing across a set of sheets before sliding down one leg of an old pair of workpants to rattle in the street in front of Louie. He tripped over himself picking them up, then sketched a scarecrow bow, folding at the waist as only a Meat man could.
“It’s Hoi Polloi, by Crew!” Louie called up to her. He performed an adequate pirouette. “Hoi Polloi is set to marry Knucklebone, Judge Barefoot’s youngest son. The banns were declared today in the Cathedral of Notions. Finally, a union of Clockwork and Meat! New times are coming in the city of Wos! Best of all, the Judge has called a prenuptial feast in the Circuit Market for tomorrow evening.”
Clockwork and Meat, united in public. Olla foresaw disaster. Below her, Louie danced down the street, vanishing among flapping laundry. Olla tracked him the way she would track any kill, until the echo of his voice faded, long away from her line of fire.
Olla faced the crumbling plaster wall, seeing data analyses and tactical models instead of cracks and stains. Her cobalt optics filmed with rear projections against their back-coated lenses.
She represented Implementation in Wos, the long arm of Crew, charged to guard against insurrection, systems sabotage, hull breaches and like catastrophes. Hoi Polloi wasn’t one of her concerns, but the girl was Clockwork, just like Olla, a cultured assemblage of fiberoptics and servos and biomech in close emulation of Meat. Olla saw the girl frequently about town, running errands for her family’s circuit tuning shop and chatting up the boys. Hoi’s family was rising in power and importance, but even with the girl’s shield of wealth, Olla knew how hard it was be Clockwork in a Meat world. Hoi Polloi reminded Olla of her youthful days, before she joined Implementation and experienced their Weapon programming.
Knucklebone on the other hand was pure Meat, from a long line of Meat, son of Judge Barefoot who was very successful, very important Meat. Was the Judge trying to unite traditional adversaries? For both cultural and command-and-control reasons, Crew would not appreciate such a public alliance of Meat and Clockwork –- ongoing tension provided a valuable check valve for cultural pressures that built within the constraints of Wos. Unlike her, Crew had the power to loose and to bind. Unfortunately Olla was Implementation’s asset in place, accountable to Crew for the caprice of outcome.
She cued a message, packetized it in her onboard systems and dropped it into the ambient dataflow. Crew would do what Crew would, when they deigned to notice. Which took ever longer as the years went by.
Olla began to worry about the upcoming feast. She polished Deruncinator, her Gun, and considered Meat’s dominance in Wos. Her heart ticked like thunder in the upward sky.
“Have you coordinated our time signatures?” Deruncinator’s voice whined in her inner ear, inaudible to any foolish enough to stand near Olla Podrida dressed in Implementation impact leathers. The Gun clung to her left hand, a complex metal glove quivering with sight-numbing topography.
Olla did not often work in uniform. It tended to worry the citizenry, who preferred to think of her as a pretty Clockwork girl of uncertain means and large muscles. She even more rarely worked with a Gun. Deruncinator had a reasonable personality for a Gun, but it had the single mindedness common to special purpose Weapons. Olla far preferred multi-role tactical Weapons like herself. Quirky changes overcame a personality that spent too long in offline storage.
“Yes,” Olla hissed deep in her throat. “We’re calibrated to each other and back to the dataflow.”
“I’m not getting a time base with your optical feed.”
“Use your own damned clock and shut up.” She was nervous enough without the gun’s edginess.
The crowd, standing back a few meters from Olla, awaited entrance to the Circuit Market. Temporary gates fronted with a line of bailiffs blocked the way. Everyone grinned at the mixed odors of roasting meat and high-grade lubricants. Olla stood alone among the crowd, Deruncinator tight along her hand like an armored glove. Storming a betrothal feast brandishing a fully deployed Gun seemed excessive.
“Why are we here?” asked Deruncinator. “I can’t detect any higher stage threat conditions.”
Olla couldn’t yet convince herself of her motives, let alone the Gun, but she had to say something. “This is a wedding that will unite two great families and advance the community. Retrograde elements may be malcontent.”
“You don’t deploy a Gun to break up a family spat. This is about Clockwork and Meat, isn’t it?”
“Shut up or I’ll power you down,” said Olla, listening as the tick of her Clockwork heart seemed to grow even louder.
“Ma’am.” A bailiff stood back a respectful two meters. “Judge Barefoot requires a moment of your time.”
Olla turned from her contemplation of the closed off Circuit Market and the crowd around her. “Now?”
The bailiff nodded, then turned to walk away. The crowd parted before him, then scrambled to avoid Olla.
Deruncinator’s voice buzzed in her ear. “Rapidly escalating threat condition.”
“He’s the Judge, by Crew,” Olla hissed. “We’ve both got official status. Spin it down, Gun.”
The bailiff slapped a keypad on the side of Judge Barefoot’s armored grav limo. Olla knew it was one of only three grav vehicles in Wos. The hatch slid up into the hull with a stuttering hiss. The bailiff, eyes averted, stood aside. Olla stepped into the limo.
The interior was dark, lit by blue and yellow LEDs. Small flatscreens showed the streets of Wos, the upward sky, the sideways sky, the great hatches around the limits of the city. Everything stank of sweat and alcohol, edged with traces of decay. Judge Barefoot sat with his back to Olla, in a contoured command chair. The chair creaked as he spun to face her.
The Judge’s three hundred kilos were tastefully clothed in tailored transparent polyurethane, reflecting scattered blue and yellow highlights. He displayed his Meat body to the world as a badge of power and pride in a place where almost no one could eat enough to grow fat.
The Judge’s lips, thick and slack like blood sausages, had been tattooed emerald green. They looked black inside the dim limo as his words spilled out between them. “I see you are present in your official capacity today.”
A slow smile spread like an infection across the Judge’s great face. “Good. I trust our working relationship will remain consistent.”
“You are City Magistrate, sir.”
He leaned forward, his command couch creaking with the shifting stress. “That’s right, tiktok. I am. You aren’t. Look all you want tonight, but don’t do anything. There are matters of economic realignment afoot. You may be assured such matters present no concern to Implementation or Crew.”
Economics, politics, family law, these were within the charter of Wos and the Judge’s commission, and thoroughly out of Olla’s hands. By meeting him now, Olla formally acknowledged the Judge’s authority to do things his way, the legal way. She hoped it was the right way, at least for Hoi Polloi.
Somewhere below her stream of consciousness Deruncinator grumbled quiet distrust and acute paranoia.
Walking in with the rushing crowd, Olla saw the Circuit Market had been transformed. For once, Judge Barefoot was uncharacteristically generous spending his nieuthalers, and had driven his bailiffs hard. Olla Podrida credited him for doing the thing well.
Under the dim evening lights of the upward sky, braziers and arc lamps lit the Circuit Market. The usual booths had been collapsed and stored to block the mouths of the alleys surrounding the market, clearing an open space and blocking unwanted entrances in one measure. The network of power cables that normally ran helter skelter across the worn ceramic tiles were coiled back to their junction boxes. Somehow Barefoot’s servants had even gotten Sol Beltran’s multi-ton capacitor stack moved to the aftward side of the Circuit Market. The slippery tiles reeked of solvent and soapy water.
Rows of tables filled the open space. Every other row was loaded with hanks of meat-pig and generous slabs of poultry. Bowls of sweet mash and root stew stood between the platters. The alternating rows of tables supported vats of high-grade lubricant, along with snifters of exotic fuel, colored by class and toxicity. Waved along by the bailiffs, the mixed crowd of Meat and Clockwork rushed the tables, driven into a frenzy by the sight and scent of food better than most had in any given month of their lives.
Olla strolled as the crowd flowing around her. Wrapped around her left hand, Deruncinator clicked and twitched, nervous for a more aggressive format among the shoving people. Bailiffs either nodded gravely at her or pretended she was not there.
Olla thought it odd how locals everywhere resented the rumored powers of Implementation. Her responsibilities to the Crew did not conflict with the authority of the Judge. With a smile for the bailiffs, Olla worked her way through the crowd. She passed behind the public tables, approaching the Judge’s dais on the porch of the Electro Guild Hall.
Maybe things would go well, she thought.
Judge Barefoot sat in magisterial splendor at the center of his dais. To his left were two of his wives, clad like him in transparent polyurethane to display the bulk of their Meatish wealth. The Dean of the Electro Guild sat between the Judge’s wives, looking somewhat distressed in his insulated Guild robes. The Judge’s son Knucklebone sat beyond, in the more ordinary linen robes of a city franchisee. Knucklebone still had the pleasing proportions of a fit young man, but a frame of sufficient size to fulfill the weighty promise of his progenitor.
Olla scanned to the Judge’s right, looking for the Clockwork people of Hoi Polloi’s family. The girl was there, but instead of family by her side, Hoi Polloi was seated between two bailiffs. Olla could not imagine a bride-to-be attending her betrothal feast without her family. What was the Judge up to?
The bailiffs that flanked Hoi Polloi wore formal stiff board collars and wooden chest plates. They sat with their heads bowed, as if in prayer. Like all of Judge Barefoot’s bailiffs, they were Meat, but their heads were newly shaved and tattooed across the crown with the escapement gear that was the common heraldry of Clockwork families. Olla saw blood spotting the fresh tattoos.
“Has he enslaved bailiffs to a Clockwork?” A tone of horrified fascination replaced Deruncinator’s usual whine.
“That’s what the tattoos are supposed to mean. Clockwork property.” Olla looked at Hoi Polloi for a reaction, a clue. The Clockwork girl wore a sickened smile, like someone trapped into reasoning with an armed madman. “But look at Hoi. The expression on her face, I’d think she has been enslaved to them.”
Olla dialed in a tight zoom with her right eye, studying Hoi Polloi’s face for signs of mechanical or chemical coercion. Her left eye scanned the dais and the crowd, looking for trouble. She downlinked her scan data to Deruncinator’s shared bandwidth, the better to profit from the Gun’s inbred paranoia.
Hoi was nervous, which was logical enough. Apparent optical function was even. Skin temperature and ambient voltage were peaking, characteristic of Clockwork stress response.
Olla scanned the bailiffs next to Hoi Polloi. As she swept by the tattooed head of the bailiff to the girl’s left, Olla felt a nagging sensation of wrongness. She studied the tattoo more carefully. The ink glistened slightly, small islands of blood pooling on and around it.
Deruncinator buzzed in her inner ear, “Those tattoos are fakes.”
Heat. The skin was not inflamed. The tattoos had been painted on, crafted to look like recent needle work.
“What in the name of Crew is the Judge up to?”
The Gun clicked through a series of abstracted sounds. “I cannot calculate a tactical benefit to these actions. He has no need to infiltrate his own forces.”
“Not tactics. Strategy. The Judge plays at political theater in his search for economic realignment.”
“I understand Hoi’s family has risen to wealth.”
Olla stroked the Gun’s warm metal skin with her other hand. “That is what the Judge seeks to make a point about.”
Olla reset her eyes and worked her way through the crowd closer to the dais. She watched Hoi cast a desperate glance at Knucklebone across the table. The Meat boy matched Hoi’s gaze. Olla could see that the relationship, whatever else it might be, was real to the two principals. The Clockwork girl certainly did not deserve whatever Judge Barefoot planned.
Olla remembered her own early years. Clockwork and Meat often experimented in the blush of youth. There was no risk of reproduction, and few infections could be passed. Everyday needs and living habits were so different that these throwaway relationships rarely lasted. They were never formalized. Olla remembered lectures on rule, law and custom forbidding such unions. She had thought that perhaps the Judge was building a strategy of alliance between the two folk, against established precedent. That might have been a danger to Crew. It was now obvious that he had another purpose.
She worked her way to the front of the common tables, just below the dais near Knucklebone’s seat. One of his mothers simpered toward Olla, shifting her great breasts within their transparent wrappers. Olla stared up at Judge Barefoot, who favored her with a brief wink and an indulgent smile of his pulpy green lips. He pushed back his great chair and stood.
As heavy as he was, Judge Barefoot towered to two and half meters of height. In the bright lights of the Circuit Market, Olla could see his feet were swollen like misrisen loaves of bread, while his face sagged as if it meant to flee his skull. The Judge’s sheer physical size projected more force and power than any normal person could hope to.
“People of Wos.” The Judge’s voice echoed through the Circuit Market in a slow rumbling rush. “I have called this feast tonight to recognize the banns of marriage published between my son Knucklebone, a Meat man, and Hoi Polloi, a Clockwork girl of our great city.”
The tables of common folk erupted into cheering. Calls of “Barefoot, Barefoot, Barefoot!” chased themselves through the crowd.
The gnat voice of Deruncinator whispered in Olla’s ear. “He’s lying.”
“We know that, from the fake tattoos.”
“Now we have proof.” The Gun twisted around her left hand. “At this range I can scan excellent biometrics.”
“Why, though? What does he hope to do?”
The Gun was quiet. Olla listened to the speeding clatter of her own heart for a moment, louder than ever, wondering who might be scanning her biometrics.
Judge Barefoot waited out the cheering and clapping crowd. After a time, he raised his hands for silence.
“As you know, I wish the best for my son. I wish the best for all the people of Wos, Meat, Clockwork and Virtual. But ancient rule, law and custom bind us all.”
He smiled, his good cheer transformed to the sorrow of a predator for its prey. “I have neither power to loose nor to bind, save what Crew has granted me in the Charter of Wos and in my judicial commission.” Olla watched in fascination as the Judge’s smile broadened into a grimace.
“My son and his beloved have the best wishes of a father, a friend, and a fellow citizen of Wos. As Judge, however…” Barefoot’s voice dropped in artful sorrow as he bowed his head. The crowd began to grumble, caught somewhere between elation and confusion.
Deruncinator chirped in Olla’s ear, a tactical warning. She glanced around. Bailiffs and a number of street toughs, all Meat, filtered into the back of the Circuit Market from the one open gate. They took positions behind the crowd, out of the sightlines of everyone but those on the dais, and Olla herself as she looked past the crowd. She glanced back up to see the Dean of the Electro Guild gape in panic. Judge Barefoot raised his head and spoke again in a rolling voice.
“Love is well and fine, and youth has many trials, straying into error that must be corrected. The rules of Crew, the laws of Wos, and the customs of our race tell us their young love is just such an error.” The Judge pounded one massive fist into the other giant palm. “Today, we will affirm rule, law and custom. All will obey!”
Both fists pumped the air. The Meat men in the crowd cheered, while the Clockwork milled around, worried. A few noticed the blocked exit from the Circuit Market and began to push away from the tables. Olla smelled panic, the sharp sweat of a building mob.
“Estimate riot conditions in forty seconds,” Deruncinator said in Olla’s ear.
“He’s handling matters alright,” she muttered. “He’s pushing them to riot against Clockwork. That he’s going to wipe out the effort a generation of Clockwork, feed their fortunes to Meat. And destroy Hoi Polloi.”
The Gun whined in protest. “This is a civil affair, the Judge’s prerogative. I strongly recommend an immediate withdrawal for both of us. This is outside our mission parameters.”
Olla was not going to let the Judge use up the Clockwork girl. She grinned up at him, absorbed in building his mob. “Not if I determine that he’s going to start an insurrection.”
Deruncinator sounded worried. “Precipitate action now may be an irrevocable violation that we would regret.”
“We would regret doing nothing even more. I’ll show him economic realignment, by Crew.” Olla shouted, “Gun, deploy.”
As she vaulted onto the dais, Deruncinator extended from her left hand, ramified and unfolded itself, encasing her forearm in webbed metal mesh while sprouting blades, antennae and multiple barrels. Olla Podrida felt the Gun’s personality merge into her own, sliding in at a layer just below consciousness, Weapons-level encoding interfacing directly. Even without line of sight surveillance she became aware of detailed threat analysis and targeting data on every individual within a twenty-meter radius of her, with probability matrices assessing more distant potential opponents.
Olla shook off the tactical flood. She needed logic and persuasion now, to prevent the ruin of a girl and the likely massacre of hundreds. The Gun prepared her for war, not treaty.
“I challenge,” Olla boomed, amplifying her voice to match Judge Barefoot’s massive natural volume. Around her, the riot slowed, the riot condition counter pausing then slightly reversing. The Gun made her aware that the bailiffs behind the crowd pulled back. “I challenge,” she continued, “your right of judgment.”
Judge Barefoot laughed for the crowd, a noise like falling boards, while his eyes narrowed at her. “I am the Judge here. You have no right of challenge in the lawful affairs of Wos.”
“I am of Implementation, and Implementation is of Crew. I claim right of challenge.” Invoking Crew was serious business, all the more so when she was breaking the rules.
The Judge glanced around the Circuit Market, giving a brief nod to his bailiffs. “I do not recognize your right of challenge, but will extend you the professional courtesy of a provisional hearing.”
“Now what?” asked Deruncinator as he rose into her consciousness. “The Judge gives way, because he knows he can best you in open argument. Crew has not responded. You have postponed the riot. What basis of challenge do you propose? Or are we deeper in trouble?”
Gun conscience discharged, Deruncinator fell away again to the tactical minutiae of survival.
The clicking of her heart echoed in Olla’s ears. A thousand feasters, Meat and Clockwork, stared at her. Half a hundred thugs, bailiffs and street toughs, stared at the Judge. She heard Hoi Polloi crying, a soft sniffle that carried on the wind. She had no idea what to say, how to save the life and fortunes of Hoi, and many more Clockwork besides. The moment began to slip away as the Judge smiled in contempt.
“Here is my challenge!” Olla shouted. As her words echoed around the Circuit Market, she dropped her amplification. The back of the crowd pushed forward. Olla reached over the table on the dais, grabbed Knucklebone by the arm, and dragged him toward her. Knucklebone scrambled across the table to keep from pushing it over and came to Olla’s side as his mothers screamed.
Olla drew a breath. There had to be a way out, to save the girl, save the city, even save the Judge from himself. “If Meat cannot marry Clockwork, and Clockwork cannot marry Meat, then let us close the gap. Your complaint against the lovers will be null, and your judgment without grounds.”
“And how do you propose to close the gap?” sneered Judge Barefoot as his son struggled within Olla’s grip.
Olla raised her left hand, wrapped within the fully deployed Deruncinator. She reversed the tactical integration process, downloading her consciousness from her Clockwork body into the Gun, carrying her sudden plan with her. They boosted their collective time signature. Deruncinator collapsed into an angry forest of knives and hooks. The Gun swung around, dragging her arm with it, and stabbed into the chest of Olla’s newly vacant body.
Lubricant and fuel sprayed across Knucklebone and the Judge. The Judge’s sneer collapsed into horror as he wiped the mixture from his face. Olla used her hooks to pull the ticking heart from her own dying Clockwork chest. Grippers spidered her shared Gun chassis toward Knucklebone, who stared in shock as her right hand dropped away from him. Together, she and the Gun dragged the dead weight of her left arm along until Deruncinator’s gripping mesh released it.
Behind them, Olla’s abandoned leather clad body slammed into the dais. Working from within the chassis of the Gun, Olla tore open Knucklebone’s robes and sliced into his chest. Tractor arms morphed to spread the ribs as Deruncinator continued to pull medical programs from the dataflow. The Gun handed off process chunks in realtime as Olla’s perceptions sped to her newly adopted hardware.
Knucklebone’s mouth opened to scream, so slowly Olla could see the stretching ropes of saliva that clung to his spreading lips. Metal fingers twisted to surround Knucklebone’s Meat heart, slitting the pericardium, slicing and pinching the pulmonary artery, the ascending aorta, and various veins as they moved. Another extensor brought the dripping Clockwork heart into the expanding chest cavity. The saliva ropes broke as Knucklebone’s mouth spread into a full-throated scream. A rumbling heralded the beginning of a shout from the Judge.
Following Deruncinator’s hurried process chunks of medical instruction, Olla continued the heart transplant. It was the work of objective seconds to pull the beating Meat heart from Knucklebone’s chest and insert the Clockwork heart. Their shared metal chassis extruded filters that would clean the blood entering and leaving the ticking heart, bonded those filters with aorta and the vena cava, settled the heart into the serious pericardium, then the fibrous pericardium, and finally retreated. Microbursts from targeting lasers sealed just-opened wounds, teflon threads reattached severed tendons and muscles in the rib cage.
Before Knucklebone’s body hit the dais next to Olla’s, she and Deruncinator had finished the transplant. They injected stimulants and anti-rejectants into Knucklebone. The boy’s pulse restarted as he fainted, breathing still strong.
The Gun clutched the twitching Meat heart as their shared chassis dropped at the feet of the Judge. Olla used the ambient dataflow to pirate the audio feeds on every speaker within earshot of the Circuit Market. Her synthesized voice boomed across the shocked silence in the Market.
“My challenge is done, Judge Barefoot. The lovers both have Clockwork hearts now, and may marry under rule, law and custom. You of Meat have a Clockwork son. Your complaint is null and your judgment without grounds.”
The dataflow showed them the crowd as it fled the Circuit Market, pushing past the dumbfounded bailiffs. The street toughs dropped their weapons and merged with the crowd. Clockwork and Meat ran together, mob animosity collapsed into the horror of their shared tale. Judge Barefoot stood above them, thick green lips gaping apart with no words to slip between them.
The tattooed bailiffs stepped over their shared Gun chassis, carrying Knucklebone at Hoi Polloi’s direction as the girl grasped her lover’s hand. She looked down at the bloodied Gun, the looked away, shuddering.
Deruncinator showed Olla how to collapse the chassis of the Gun, rolling into a metal ball with an ungrippably smooth surface. Olla kept Knucklebone’s Meat heart clasped close inside them as they increased their mass through a Higgs transformation until the dais cracked beneath their weight.
“We interfered with the affairs of the city.”
“We did the right thing.” Sharing the same processors, the same memory space, Deruncinator’s reply was in a voice far more rich and full than his usual whine. Olla realized this was how the Gun heard itself.
Olla wondered how she sounded to the Gun. “Crew will be angry.”
The Gun sounded soothing. “Crew may never come. It has been a long time since they were last here.”
Olla smiled in her mind. “At least they can bicker in peace.”
She wasn’t sure which of them asked the last. Together, Olla and Deruncinator clutched the still-warm meat heart within their metal core.
There is a tower of spun glass at the seam of the world, where heaven joins earth. It perches atop the highest peak of a nameless mountain range, lashed by frozen winds, a spike of purest light when the sun shines. At night it glows, but softer, with its own spectral radiance, like a creature from the ocean depths. Within, behind a rosewood door, a princess sleeps eternally, dreamless, guarded by clanking automatons of black iron. She waits for a savior, for one who would be king. Harpers sing her sad tale, and young men take up swords and quest, but fruitlessly. Someday these men will settle to till the earth or shape metal, wed and raise children. They will be content, but at times their eyes will stray to the star-spattered darkness, and they will wonder what might have been.
The once-baker’s boy pauses outside the rosewood door. He has ascended the great spiraling staircase for days now; he looks down and sees, far below, the tiny shattered hulks of the tower’s guardians. They had rolled towards him when he first entered, hissing steam and gnashing metal teeth, but his sword Bright had passed through them as if they were flesh and blood, spilling gouts of oil that had slid along the glass floor and stained his boots black.
Inside, he knows, a princess sleeps, her perfect rosebud mouth slightly parted, awaiting the brush of a hero’s lips. Her eyes will flutter open and see his face — a good face, not beautiful, perhaps, but strong, creased by the cares of his journey and rubbed raw by the winds that batter the tower. She will smile like the dawn breaking, and proclaim him king, and together they will travel to the castle that has lain empty since her father died so many centuries ago.
His heart beats quick as he raises his hand and lays it against the door. The hand, too, has been scarred by his long quest; his smallest finger ends just above the knuckle. It was given freely for passage across the Skirling Plains, a blood-price for protection against the winds that churn and scour endlessly. The gray priest had taken it with one quick twist of his quartz dagger. The once-baker’s boy remembers the fierce pain, but he also remembers the sound the roiling elementals had made as they bellowed in frustration above him, and he is glad for making that bargain.
He opens the door. He sees the silver casket and the sleeping princess, veiled by a silken canopy, but before him, in the middle of the room, a creature of glass shards uncoils, shimmering in the sunlight pouring through the walls. The once-baker’s boy draws Bright, which flashes with its own brilliance as it leaves its golden sheathe, and meets the creature as it lunges towards him. They dance: the creature’s arms, long slabs of jagged glass, flicker and stab, but the once-baker’s boy deflects its thrusts, slicing off fragments that spin away to tinkle against the floor. Within the creature’s body, etched in every glass shard, he sees a tiny reflection of himself; and yes, the creature’s movements seem familiar, as graceful as his own.
A feint fools the once-baker’s boy, and he twists to avoid a slash that nearly disembowels him. Glass tears his tunic and pierces his leather cuirass. He stumbles away, clutching his side. The creature rushes to press it advantage, its red-streaked arm upraised, but now the once-baker’s boy has fooled it, and he blocks its killing blow and drives Bright hilt-deep into its chest. A spider-web of cracks appears, and then the creature shatters. The sound is almost musical.
The once-baker’s boy retreats outside the princess’s chamber to examine the wound. The cut is not deep, but it is layered over an old injury, which has split open. He slices a strip of cloth from his tunic and binds it around his waist, wincing. He remembers other fingers gently probing the older wound, delicate fingers that had washed it clean, smeared poultices on it. The whey-haired girl had found him sprawled among the tangled roots of a great elm, deep within the Wilds, surrounded by the bodies of a robber prince and his brigands. She had taken him back to her cottage and nursed him to health, and come to love him. He still remembers her smell, lilacs and dried herbs, and the old sadness briefly rises.
He pushes it down. He must revel in the present, in this moment of final triumph. Glass crunches beneath his boots as he crosses the chamber and slips within the hanging silks. His breath catches, for she lies so still that at first glance she appears dead, or else carved from marble. Amber curls frame her milk-white face and tumble over the lacy fringe of her high-necked dress. The faintest blush stains her cheeks; her lips are a deep red. She is perfection, frozen.
His breath quickens as he leans closer. He finds that he is trembling. “My queen,” he murmurs as he gently strokes her hair. How many times has he imagined this moment? He remembers the first, crouched at the feet of a wandering minstrel, listening rapt as the shivering notes and mournful voice revealed a world beyond the kitchens and pitted streets he knew so well. A world of mystery and magic and beauty, where a boy once beaten for singeing bread could grow up to become the greatest hero of his age.
No doubt some of his adventures have already been spun into song. There had been many bards trapped within Caer Calan during the black days of the siege, and they must have watched from the walls as he led the final sortie that shattered the Pashqua’s silken horde. Or perhaps a follower of the Mirthful One has brought to verse the tale of how he had rescued the Laughing God’s crystal eye from the sunken city of Kabal-Zann. And the half-men tribes of the Burning Lands have their own songs, after a sort, but any concerning him would be a lament for the death of their great warlord and prophet, whom the once-baker’s boy had slain under a molten sun while pillars of steam vented from the cracked and broken earth.
Will he sit in his great hall and listen to bards recount his deeds? The once-baker’s boy sees himself at the head of a long oaken table, in a hall so high and vaulted that the ceiling is lost in shadows. A burnished circlet of gold rests on his head, gleaming in the reflected light of the fireplace. Nobles garbed in a panoply of colors surround the table, laughing and jesting and toasting to him with silver goblets sloshing over with wine, and across from him, at the table’s far end, sits his alabaster-faced wife, watching him with the slightest of smiles. His eyes are on his beautiful frozen queen, but his ears are only for the words of the bard strumming his lute by the fire, words that carry him back to a time when he was free, when the wonders of the world lay before him, waiting to be explored.
The scene dissolves in the brilliant daylight flooding the glass room. His lips are almost brushing the sleeping princess; he hesitates, pulls back. The once-baker’s boy lightly touches her forehead, watching the gentle rise and fall of her chest. Then he turns and leaves the chamber, and sets his foot upon the first step of the great spiraling staircase.
As he descends he considers what he has done, knowing that it might have been some final sorcery that compelled him to abandon his quest. But he does not think so. Soon he will saddle his charger and ride south; he will dine on hard biscuits, and sleep under the stars, and dream, perhaps, of a whey-haired girl.
A family of breasts. Bras on chair backs, towel rods, floor. Defeated. Lace. Flowers. Cotton. Snaps and straps. A history of fingers doing and undoing. Pale, slender and sure fingers. Bored fingers. Fumbling, thick and hot fingers. Long fingers. Faintly scented of Old Spice fingers. Fingers slick with the oily scent of released peepers that chirp in the pond at the foot of the driveway those dark nights of early spring, car windows rolled down slightly to relieve the steam. Yawning Sunday morning in with stretch of limbs and breasts, a house of daughters. All of them wild and uncertain as black butterflies.
He sits at the kitchen table and drinks coffee flavored with chicory. Who can sleep in a house of girls? Their dreams find him in bed or couch, recliner. Wherever his head rests in sleep, the dreams find him, with their scent of orchids, crushed in back seats of leather coat dates, breath of cinnamon and cigarettes and Schnapp’s. He rubs his temple. Well, this is what his own mother foretold when he brought home Elspeth in her lace and painted boots, feather earrings and wild hair a flame of red that lit her face. “She’s a witch,” his mother said. “Only trouble will come of her.”
He married her beneath a full moon in a garden planted with Night Blooming Jasmine and chocolate mint, so sweet he was dizzy throughout the ceremony and can only remember parts of it; the scent, the weight of moon, the honey he licked from her fingertips, the sound of laughter, the blink of fireflies, the yellow in her eyes.
Seven daughters and his mother was right. He had everything to lose and the losing had already begun.
Soon the kitchen will be full of them. Their hair a tangle of curls and smoke, barefoot with pink painted toenails, or in white socks scrunched around ankles, in cotton pants and skinny strapped T shirts, in pale yellow robe, in shorts, long shirts, long legs, long arms, yawning and stretching, fighting over coffee mugs, laughing wildly at whispered words, kissing him on cheek, chin, or forehead, rubbing his hair with a quick swipe of hand, leaning into him with many shapes of breasts. Their night scent. “You should get some sleep,” they’ll say with milk breath, peach breath, dark and hot breath. “You look wiped out.”
He tries to sleep in the crook of his hand. The chicory cools in the mug. And he does sleep. For a few minutes. His daughters’ dreams, used and discarded, find him. The pull of zipper. The scent of leather. Heat. Wet. He wakes with a start. Through the kitchen window he sees the dreams float over the quiet yard of pecking robins, shoots of daffodils, tulip stems unflowered. He picks up his mug. Turns.
Elspeth. The flame of her hair, gone. She stares at him with yellow eyes. He walks past her to dump the coffee down the drain, brushing her shoulder when he does. She smells like old wood, the autumn forest behind the house. But this is spring! The coffee leaves a brown circle on the porcelain. He turns to fill his mug with fresh. She moves to the stove. Lifts the teakettle to check its weight for water. Sets it on the burner. Turns the switch to high. Opens the cupboard for a jar of tea, dried from garden herbs. She looks at jars of cat’s claw, dandelion, rosehips, burdock root, chamomile, peppermint. She stares and stares until the teakettle whistles. She takes it off the burner. Reaches up. Opens another cupboard. Takes out a bottle of red wine.
“What are you doing?” he says.
She finds the corkscrew shaped like a man with a tremendous and strange cock. She pierces the cork. Screws it. Ha!
“You shouldn’t,” he says.
She brushes past him to reach for a wineglass.
She smells of dirt and sun, heat of a large animal. She pours red wine. The kitchen smells of chicory, the sweet wine, and her. He will go mad. He will go crazy holding all of it in. Soon the girls will wake and fill the kitchen with their young breasts and sleeping voices and laughter and he is drowning, a dry drowning, unexpected so far from water.
“You are still having their dreams,” she says. It is not a question. She gulps the wine, staring at him.
He sits at the kitchen table again. Defeated. “I can’t stop them.”
The ceiling creaks with the weight of footsteps. A door opens and shuts. They are waking up. They will fill the kitchen with their own brand of innocence, the scent of exploration on fingertips and skin, so soft, bra straps and T shirts always seem to be sliding off.
“You wouldn’t believe the things they’re dreaming,” he says.
She grunts. Takes another gulp. “You’ve got that wrong.”
The ceiling creaks and pounds. Those little feet sound like sons up there! Doors open and close. A radio is turned on.
He covers his face with his hands and sobs.
She sets the glass on the counter and walks over to him. He wraps his arm around her hips, buries his face into the smoked fish scent of her. Reaches up.”They’re coming,” she says.
He parts her robe and reaches to touch the breast with blue lines webbing to aureole. His hand moves across to the flattened space, the bone they left her with, the smooth planed skin as if she is both, girl and woman.
Footsteps pound down the stairs. She steps back. Shuts her robe.
They are everywhere. The kitchen fills with them. Wisps of discarded dreams cling to them like smoke. They do not notice the wineglass or the way their parents look at them, as if they are ghosts they’ve learned to live with. They make toast. Leave crumbs on the counter. Put feet up on chairs. Insult each other.
Then, for a moment, as if the whole family is enchanted, the kitchen quiets. There is only the sound of juice glass set on table, clank of butter knife. A sigh. They stare out the window at the spring grass, thatched with unblossomed flowers, and try to remember the dreams, the perfect dreams they had.
The Fish opens his runny eyes. He sees the world as if through fried eggs, yellowed in the center with pale, brown-streaked overtones radiating away. All around him flowers bloom. Their thick green stems tower over him like impossibly tall crayons terminating in an explosion of colored petals.
Mauve, thinks the Fish.
He fears his memory, but the words spin into his mind of their own accord without the effort of recall. Rhodamine. Chartreuse. Umber, ochre, cornflower blue. Color names are poetry in their own right, little words fallen through the cracks between parts of speech. Are they adjectives? Nouns?
He will be the Prince of Colors, the Fish decides. He will found his own kingdom among the flowertops. Delicately balanced pistils could provide defense of the realm while stamens served as proud policemen at the busy junctures where the ladybugs and aphids crowd together.
The Fish stands, breaking through the bustle of color and life that have informed his fancy until his runny eyes squint against the sun. Butterflies dance around him, mobile flowers unmoored from their stems. If the colors of the flowers are quasinouns, the butterflies are all verbs.
Like a butterfly of another order of magnitude the Fish dances away from painful memories. Colors are safer, except for sanguine red and bruise purple. Bone splinter white is unlucky, too. The safe, colorful flowers are his fair weather friends. Their woody stems and skeleton burrs will keep him company in the long-coming fall, before he burns them for his winter warmth.
Time is not his friend, either.
“Whan that Aprille, with his Shoures soote!” shouts the Fish. But the flowers do not care. Neither do the butterflies. None here is toilsome nor spinning, except the Fish himself, who constantly is called back to tend the engines of memory.
Those engines are hard-edged, blade-sharp, red and purple and white. They are marked with sigils warning of dire consequences, signs of fear and pain. The Fish approaches them carefully, drawn by their ineluctable summons.
“April is the month of opening,” whisper the engines. “Open for us.”
“No,” says the Fish. He longs for the simple beauty of the flowers. Their pigments are smeared upon his toes, their green sap rotting on his ankles. The engines of memory corrupt everything they touch.
“Open, little man, and tell us your secrets.”
There are secrets everywhere, thinks the Fish. Flowers have their secret day to bloom. The moon has her secret place to hide in the dark quarters. People have secret words and deeds.
He thinks of color, his fried-egg eyes tinting everything a cowardly, gloomy shade of yellow. Fish swim in water, but the Fish swims in a sea of colored memory.
April, the month of opening, is forever rooted in his mind. Long after the engines of memory have ground down to time-locked rust, the Fish will forever dance among flowers. He never told his secrets, not even to the butterflies.