Our final issue for 2011 speaks on a winter topic: connection, and isolation, for the months when we here at Ideomancer headquarters are hemmed in most by the snow and dark, and reach out most to each other for light.
Michael John Grist’s “The Orphan Queen” shows, slantwise, the terribleness of isolation and the terrible bravery it takes to conquer it; Kenneth Schneyer’s “Neural Net,” one of our first pieces of hyperfiction in much too long, echoes through its intertwined structure the ideas of withdrawal, and love, and hiding from the world; and Erica Satifka returns to our pages with “Signs Following”, a soft, edged story about faraway places and the things we will do when our ties to both friends and universe are threatened.
Poetry from Mary Turzillo, Brit Mandelo, C.G. Olsen, and David C. Kopaska-Merkel dips from relationships to houses to black holes, all places to be alone together, and as always, the usual book reviews.
We’d also like to note another staff departure: Marsha Sisolak has been a part of Ideomancer since 2002, as a junior editor, then publisher, and then the aesthetic eye behind the art that goes up with every story and poem we publish, and after almost a decade in the small press coal mines, she’s moving on to focus more on her own (excellent!) writing. Thank you, Marsha – you’ll be missed!
We hope you enjoy this quarter’s issue, and if so, please consider dropping something into our tip jar. Ideomancer relies on reader donations to pay its contributors for their excellent fiction and poetry, and even five dollars makes a big difference.
Happy holidays, keep each other warm, and have a wonderful winter.
Vol. 10 Issue 4
“The Orphan Queen” – Michael John Grist
“Neural Net” – Kenneth Schneyer
“Signs Following” – Erica Satifka
“Persephone in Autumn” – Mary Turzillo
“On Moving Into Your New Home” – Brit Mandelo
“The Cabin and the Stars” – C. G. Olsen
“Taking it Slow” – David Kopaska-Merkel
Terry Pratchett’s Snuff – Liz Bourke
Caitlin Sweet’s Pattern Scars – Leah Bobet
Editor’s note: This is a work of hyperfiction. To read it, click the link marked ‘Begin’ below. A window will pop up allowing you to click more links and experience the story as you choose.
“Neural Net”, by Kenneth Schneyer
Kenneth Schneyer was born in Detroit but now lives in Rhode Island with one singer, one dancer, one actor, and something striped and fanged that he sometimes glimpses out of the corner of his eye. You can find his stories in Analog, Abyss & Apex, Clockwork Phoenix 3, GUD, Cosmos Online, Daily Science Fiction, Bull Spec, Niteblade, The Newport Review, Digital Science Fiction Anthology 1, and the occasional index card stuck under somebody’s office door. He attended the Clarion Writers Workshop with the famous Class of 2009, joined the Cambridge Science Fiction Workshop in 2010, and Codex Writers in 2011. He also teaches stuff. He says:
I am fascinated by contemporary neuroscience’s assertion that there is no singular “mind” in the human brain, but rather a multitude of interconnected subsystems, each of which thinks that it is the whole “person.” At the same time, I like the AI theory that a complex series of interconnected memory locations could mimic the brain, and that the connections themselves — the links between different pieces of information — are what define a mind. It occurred to me that hypertext was the ideal (perhaps the only) way in which this atomization and interconnection could be expressed. The form allows me to exploit free association, drawing the reader from one thought to another in the seemingly random, but thematically meaningful way that our minds work. It also seems to me, as it seemed to Fred Pohl in Beyond the Blue Event Horizon (1980), that being uploaded into a form where your memories could never fade would be a little like Hell.
Bare willow branches drip with icy rain.
Mother warned her not to taste strange fruit
Half obsessed by summer, damp and drowsing half her year,
She wonders about her father — was it Zeus?
And what of Dionysos, the son she gave to Zeus?
She phones her mother sometimes, hearing desperation
Never Give me grandchildren — and now
Really, did she expect the father of Death
She grows old without growing up.
Mary Turzillo says:
A young woman caught in a Faustian contract with a powerful aging man: what could be a more classic tale? And yes, because she’s accepted his gift (delicious though fleeting, that taste of pomegranate), she cannot leave him. And the seeds, his seeds, bring her no joy of conception. Her mother warned her. Her mother lets her vacation summers in her country gardens. But if you think it’s simple, that Pluto/Hades is ugly and impotent, there’s another side to that. Take a look some time at the Bernini Properpina and Pluto: you can find images on the web. Better still if you are lucky enough to see that masterpiece in person, in the Galleria Borghese in Rome: the King of Hell’s curling axillary hair, the maiden’s helpless tears. Ah, still, even the tenderest of maidens grow up, and grow old.
Silently, they pass around the alien.
The meetings are held at the Eridani Colony Community Center. Shoved aside are the ping-pong tables (unused) and the motivational standees. A two-dimensional young girl in a hard-hat grins at the workers, tells them they’re doing an excellent job. The plastic chairs are set up in a circle, like they were during the “Imagining a Better World through Guided Visualization” group discussions (discontinued). The leader for the week, a man with a plastic name tag that informs Dennis his name is ROY, opens the box.
Sometimes it stings you. Sometimes it releases a cloud of gas that will choke you, but it’s not poison. Most of the time, the alien doesn’t do anything.
Dennis eagerly rubs his hands together, waiting for his turn. A few months ago, he was bitten by the alien. The alien’s sharp teeth dug like pushpins into the webbing of skin between his thumb and index finger. He carried his wound out in the open until it healed, remembering the thrill of the alien’s bite. His wish didn’t come true, but the wish doesn’t always come along with the bite. Not even usually.
Around him, he can feel the combined prayers and requests of the workers bubbling up, until the entire meeting almost sweats with concentrated yearning. Dennis keeps his own request at the forefront of his mind, a wish for a new set of bed sheets. It’s not much, but neither is it boastful. And he hasn’t gotten new bed sheets for seven years now, so it’s something he really needs. He feels positive about this one.
Dennis doesn’t know the name of the woman to his right, the woman currently holding the alien. She holds it at arm’s length, giving it a small shake, as she’s seen the others do. Might be new, Dennis thinks. The woman brings the alien into eye contact, trying to focus her two hazel eyes on its three tiny black ones. A lump of bile rises in her throat, and she struggles to push it down. Definitely new.
The alien is covered with short gray fur. Its mouth opens to a black hatch through which Dennis can see the rippling of the alien’s esophagus. The alien is slightly wet at all times.
Suddenly, the woman gasps. The alien has stung her with its back claw. A cheer rises up and Dennis joins in, thrusting his hands in the air, giving thanks. The alien doesn’t attack him that day–there are rarely two attacks in one day–but it hardly seems to matter. At this moment, they are free.
Dennis holds a small blue plastic chip to the air, inspecting it. A small reflective panel on its side mirrors back the face of his supervisor as she trundles behind him, tapping him on the shoulder.
“Get out of line. I need to talk to you.” His supervisor’s arms are ropy with muscle; her face is runneled with sweat.
The supervisor takes a small blue plastic part from the pocket of her overalls. “You let this get through. Look,” she says, running her thumbnail down a microscopic crease in the curved side of the tiny radiation filter. “No pay for today.”
Dennis nods, unconcerned. He’s thinking only of the Community Center meeting that will come together in three days. He has a good feeling about that one. He’s already been working on his wish. The bed sheets were a bit much to hope for, now that he really thinks about it.
Dennis slides into his workstation next to Ellen, who has been here even longer than he has. Together, they sort components for robot-guided exploration rockets for the next colonization effort. A new rocket is completed every six months and is launched. Dennis has been employed at the factory for the past twenty-three years as a quality control worker, and is thus responsible in some small way for the launching of forty-six rockets.
They work in silence for an hour until Ellen speaks. Her voice cracks like cement. “They denied me again.” Ellen has been trying to get away for years now, writing pleas to the administration as well as praying to the alien. “I don’t think I’m ever going to leave.”
“Well, you just have to keep trying.”
Ellen’s eyes gleam. “I know. I’m already starting the next appeal. And I’m always asking for it, every week.”
“Well, that’s great.” Dennis throws another piece of blue plastic into the sorting tray.
Gingerly, with the rough tips of her index finger and thumb, Ellen plucks a component from the tray and holds it up to the light. It shines, a tiny gem. “Broken,” she says, tossing it into the rejection tray behind them.
I loved you, Dennis thinks.
For every broken component Ellen takes out of commission, Dennis lets two go through. When he thinks of the rockets lifting off at the colony’s port, imagines them breaking up in mid-flight, he feels like pumping his fist in the air and yelling for joy.
When the noon buzzer rings, Dennis leaves for his lunch break, pulling on his dust mask on the way out. The sky over the colony is a dark orange today. A lighted walkway illuminates the way to the canteen, cutting a path through the dust.
The girl who runs the canteen nods as she gives him his boxed lunch. Dennis sits on the benches, whipping off his mask. He always eats alone. Today, though, he feels another body slip next to his.
“Mind if I sit here?” It’s the woman from the Community Center, the woman who was stung. She doesn’t wait for an answer. “I just transferred. I used to work at the purification center, but they don’t need as many people there anymore.” She chomps on her sandwich, chewing it slowly with her mouth open.
“Oh, that’s interesting,” Dennis says, even though it really isn’t. There’s been a lot of transfers lately.
“I don’t like it here. The work is boring. The pay isn’t so good. And at the purification center, they didn’t make us eat lunch outside in the dark.”
Dennis blinks. “Okay.”
She swallows, a gulping sound. “That meeting was weird.”
“Weird.” He grunts.
She squares her shoulders and cocks her head at him. “What is that thing, anyway?”
“It’s a being. It was here when we got here.”
The new girl makes a sound that might be giggling, or a snort. “And what does this being do?”
“You can ask it for help. Sometimes it answers.” This was typical. New transfers always trashed the meetings, until they had a chance to see the alien’s power for themselves. Or they didn’t, and stopped showing up. Either way worked for Dennis. He sips his water. “You’ll get used to it.”
She crumples the remains of her lunch and stands up. “I can’t wait to be reassigned. It’s only temporary. Maybe I’ll go back to Earth.”
“I’m sure you will.”
“This place smells too.” She turns on her heel and strides back down the walkway.
Dennis has lost his appetite. He returns his untouched lunch to the canteen girl and waits a few beats before returning to the factory. He doesn’t want to take the chance of running into her there.
It was wasted on her, Dennis thinks. She didn’t even have a wish. Of course, she didn’t know she needed one. Someone would have to teach her about the alien and its power. But it won’t be Dennis. He has his own problems to worry about.
In the factory, Dennis searches for his supervisor. He finds her on the loading dock, reassembling an engine.
“I need to talk about the new girl.”
The supervisor’s arms are streaked with engine lubricant, like a second set of veins. “Why?”
“I don’t want to take my lunch with her anymore. Let me switch my schedule around.”
She rolls her eyes and circles back to the engine.
“Are you listening?” After thirty seconds of waiting for an answer, Dennis shakes his head and leaves.
Thanks, he thinks.
Nobody remembers who found the alien. It was discovered underneath a buggy three years ago, and unresistingly scooped up by a group of workers. Dennis wasn’t there, but he knows people who were.
Of course, they planned to send it to the science department. No native life existed on Eridani, and life in general across the universe was sparse. The bounty from the discovery of the alien could keep the workers in imported food and happy pills for a year.
But then, they learned the alien’s secret.
Against advice, a man named Daniel brought his son to the colony with him. The child became very sick from expired meat, and wasn’t expected to survive the next two months. While handling the alien one day, Daniel prayed for his son to hold out until a medic ship could arrive.
He not only survived until the doctor arrived, but he didn’t need her at all.
More tentative wishes followed: an accidental double shipment of grain, a dust storm significantly less harsh than predicted. The colonists had found a receptacle for their desires, one that seemed to listen, almost to care. The price comes in the form of bites and stings, but they never really hurt. Meanwhile, spirits at the colony improved. No longer did the workers stumble through the dusty landscape, scowls on their lips. The Eridani government took notice, but most workers didn’t care for a government commendation. They had another force to please.
The alien doesn’t eat. At least, it doesn’t eat anything on the colony, which may or may not be its natural habitat. Dennis has researched it, and the alien is not listed in any guides to animal or plant life. He thinks it’s an animal. It just looks like one.
And outsiders dare to call the meetings “weird.”
It’s not weird. It’s what we need.
Dennis sinks into his seat across from Ellen. Blissful Ellen, nodding her head as she sorts, hums a tune to compete with the machinery’s clang. Dennis throws a chip with a broken-off corner into the bin. A few moments later, Ellen taps on the table.
“Are you okay? You put this one in.”
“Huh?” Dennis feigns stupidity. This is the first time Ellen’s noticed what would be called sabotage by the supervisors, if his pattern were discovered. “Oh, right.”
She grins, blushes, and tosses it into the trash bin. “I won’t tell. But just this once.”
Dennis’ heart lifts. He knows the time when he could have had a relationship with Ellen has passed. But she’ll always be here, sitting across from him, with her warm voice and sturdy hands. The alien didn’t give him Ellen’s love, but it’s not going to take her away either. Of this, he is sure. “Thanks. You’re a good friend.”
Above, ventilation fans churn their wide arms, gathering dust.
The new girl doesn’t show up at the next meeting. Neither does Ellen. It’s a sparse group, possibly owing to an increase in dust. Dennis spent all this week’s salary (minus the unpaid day) on a buggy to the Community Center. There’s one grizzled old man, plus a lead supervisor in the engineering department. The supervisor’s eyes dart around. He doesn’t want to be seen, and Dennis does him the favor of pretending he’s not.
Dennis takes the initiative, releases the alien from its cage. He hands it to the supervisor, who inspects it with shifting eyes and shaky fingers. In the first half-hour of passing the alien, nobody is bitten. Nobody is attacked. Even the feeling of goodwill one usually gets from handling the alien is absent. Dennis regrets coming.
Then, he feels a brush of hot air over his cheek. He looks over his shoulder. A cloaked figure, covered in thick brown sand, is stumbling through the door.
“Dammit!” says the old man. “Close the door.”
The figure removes its cloak and face mask. It’s the new girl. She skips toward them, bringing a folding chair from the pile near the door. “How’s he doing today? Can I hold him next?”
Even though Dennis hasn’t been very invested in the alien today, he’ll be damned if she’s going to hold it. “I’m afraid we were about to leave. You’re a little late. Maybe next week.”
A flash of lower lip. “Please?”
“Give it to her,” says the supervisor. He frowns at Dennis.
Dennis hands over the alien, keeping contact with it for as long as possible even though it is already delivered to the girl’s arms. For thirty seconds they are both gripping the alien, she softly, he for dear life. She called us weird. Finally, after it is clear that he can no longer protect the alien in this very small way without attracting attention, he lets it go. And of course it bites her.
“Oh,” she says, and for a minute it seems like she’s experiencing the bite the way it’s meant to be experienced, as a religious experience, not a rush of pure dumb dopamine into the organic machinery of the brain. “It tickles.”
Dennis stands up, knocking his chair behind him. Both of the other workers are swaying in time with the new girl’s pathetic little epiphany. He wants to slap them, snap them out of it. “Okay, I think it’s had enough,” Dennis says.
“I think he likes me.” Dennis can’t determine whether she heard him or not.
It doesn’t like anyone, you moron. It doesn’t feel anything for you, or for me, or for anyone. But especially not for you. Am I the only one who realizes this? “I think,” he says, voice wavering with the struggle to control his words, “that you should leave now.”
She doesn’t respond.
Dennis growls, cat-like, and advances on her. The alien squeaks, the barest noise, more indicative of a rusty hinge than a living thing, and burrows into the girl’s collarbone.
The nervous supervisor’s mouth gapes. “It talks.” He and the grizzled man go up close to the girl and the alien, in amazement at the first noise they have ever heard from the alien.
Dennis feels a draw toward the alien, too, a straight line of energy reaching from it to his heart. As he reaches out his right hand to touch it, the six eyes of the other colonists blaze at him. He drops his arm. Pulling his hood over his face, he walks out into the storm. He walks the seven kilometers back.
The next day, as Dennis fumbles for his access card in his satchel, the new girl appears at his side. He jumps a little; she’s come right out of nowhere.
“Went to the infirmary,” she says, holding up a bandaged wrist. “That monster really got me good this time.”
Dennis grunts. “I doubt it was that bad.”
“Are you calling me a hypochondriac?”
“I’m saying that it’s not a monster and it won’t hurt you.”
Hands on hips. “You don’t like me.”
“I don’t know what gave you that idea,” Dennis replies. “Can’t you leave me alone right now? My shift is about to begin. I’d be happy to talk to you later.” His mind rushes for ways to avoid seeing her after the shift. He might ask for overtime.
“Maybe I should ask it to get me out of this crummy place, with all these people that hate me,” she says.
“Yes, that might be a good place to start. Well, see you around.” He rushes with exaggerated speed onto the factory floor, making a beeline for his work station. Surprisingly, Ellen isn’t hunched over the component tray, but is instead pacing, a giant crooked grin on her lips. She dashes over to Dennis and gives him a hug.
“They said yes,” Ellen says. She bites her lower lip, though that doesn’t stop it from trembling.
“I mean I’m leaving. Aren’t you happy for me?”
Dennis’s head spins. He slides from Ellen’s arms into his chair, putting his head into the palm of one hand. “Sure. It’s great.”
“The letter said I can leave two weeks from now. The next routine flight to Mu Arae. They’re promising a job at a hospital there. They have houses, parks, schools.”
“I’m very happy for you.” Dennis swallows. “Very happy.”
Ellen bounces in her seat, unable to keep still. “I have so much to do! I’ll have to get rid of most of my things. Will you help me pack?”
“Sure,” Dennis says.
“Praise the alien.”
“Yes, praise it.” At least, he thinks, this wish is going to someone who deserves it.
Dennis prayed to the alien so many times. Only little things, always trying to be humble. A day off. A short vacation at the planet’s polar hotel, a tiny oasis he’d only ever heard of, never seen. For Ellen to love him back.
None of my requests were answered. Not one. But he can’t stay angry at the alien. He can, however, stay angry at the new girl. She curried its favor so quickly and so easily, like they were meant for one another.
Put it out of your mind, he thinks. You’re supposed to go over to Ellen’s place and help her tie things up here. Ellen needs you.
Ellen’s request, at least, had been answered. Dennis considers the possibility that the alien didn’t have anything to do with Ellen’s imminent departure, but dismisses it. Has to be the alien. Ellen’s been a true believer since day one.
Not like Dennis. Not anymore.
As he swipes out his lock, Dennis catches a glimpse of his face in the mirrored glass of the corridor walls. Tiny lines circle his eyes and mouth, like a series of cracks in a plastic component.
On the day before Ellen’s departure, there’s a special meeting at the Community Center. It’s a packed house, and some of the attendees have to stand. Ellen is given more time with the alien than anyone, in hopes that she’ll receive one last bite or sting. Even a faint kick would be a fine send-off.
Ellen hugs the alien, tickles its belly, blows on its fur. All the things you’re really not supposed to do. There’s only the faintest crack in her smile when she hands the alien off, unattacked, unselected. “Oh, well,” she whispers. “I already got my wish, anyway.”
Dennis could throttle the alien. He could rip it to shreds. Instead, the alien plops into his lap. It’s his turn.
He stares at it, his two gray eyes against the alien’s three black pebbly ones. He wants to feel something like faith. He looks up at Ellen’s round, expansive face. Grinning wide with gapped teeth, she nods at him. Make a wish.
I wish Ellen hadn’t gotten that letter, Dennis thinks. I wish she weren’t leaving.
The alien doesn’t do anything.
Dennis passes the alien to his left and leaves the room.
He sits on a bench, fists balled. When the calls of happiness and pain come from the community center, he doesn’t have to guess which colonist was chosen.
It’s her. It will always be her. It’s made its choice. Dennis kicks at the dust, and squints through the darkness until he can see the lights of the colony’s port, where he can see tomorrow’s rocket, gleaming blue and silver, proud and strong. The rocket that Ellen will take to Mu Arae less than twelve hours from now.
Dennis can’t go back to the center. Instead, he hails a buggy back to the colony dorms. As it speeds away through the gathering dust, he feels a tremor rack its way through his body. Putting his face in his hands, he remembers the feel of the alien’s fur between his fingers, the sharp bite of its fangs.
Dennis gets up early the next morning to see Ellen off. Above, Eridani is at its high point for the year, optimal time for a launch. Today the sky is purple. The beige-red ground glitters and it’s almost pretty. She stands at the mouth of the port, two small leather bags in tow.
“You too.” He reaches out to brush a strand of hair from her face. He has taken a half day off of work. This is too important to miss.
“You need to keep trying.”
“I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t think so.”
“I’ll see you again. I know I will. Keep wishing… it worked for me!” A final broad smile. Christ, she actually believes it.
The pilot places a palm on Ellen’s shoulder and motions for her to get into the rocket. She smiles with closed lips and ascends the stairs. One of the security guards shoos Dennis away from the rocket, like he’s a stray cat.
The rocket climbs a few meters into the air, and explodes.
Blue shards of rocket rain down on Dennis and the three dozen other panicked onlookers. A siren wails. Dennis gapes open-mouthed at the sky until the dust swallows it completely.
Erica Satifka lives in Baltimore, MD. Her fiction has previously appeared in Ideomancer, as well as Clarkesworld Magazine and Electric Spec. She also writes the blog and zine Breakfast at Twilight. She says:
A few years ago, I read up on Appalachian snake handling religions in preparation for a possible novel. The novel hasn’t happened (yet), but I still wanted to use the concept of “snake handlers in space” for something. As an agnostic, I’m also obsessed with the idea of free will, and the impossibility of knowing whether we have it or not.
The orphan Queen slumped like a toad atop her throne, and commanded us to build her a father.
“Gentlemen,” she said, her voice tart as a raspberry in the late winter air, “you ought build him neither too short nor too stout, but strong. He ought stand wholly apart of other men, yet speak with a voice his own, of civilized and consequential matters.”
As she spoke the dead body of her court jester Antonio twitched by her side. He was her latest toy, a corpse hung on strings like a puppet, to twitch and jerk at the whim of her fingers.
I swallowed back my disgust, and raised my hand to speak.
“Levetti,” said the Queen coldly. “What would you know?”
“Majesty,” I began, bowing deeply, “do you seek a puppet able to locomote himself, entirely independent of support? One that will move in the absence of strings?”
The four other masters in that grand chamber turned their fearful gazes from the Queen and her dead jester to me. I was the puppeteer, after all, and once the orphan Queen’s favorite.
“That is correct,” she replied tersely, “as any father ought.”
“Then you ask an impossibility, for such a thing cannot be done. The enlivening spark cannot be pressed into the puppet’s limbs through any other means than the strings of the puppeteer. It is not possible for a puppet to stand alone.”
The Queen regarded me sourly. The men nearest me leaned away, as though I was enplagued.
“I had thought to receive better tidings from you, Levetti,” answered the Queen. “Were you not amenable to my every desire a year hence? Did you not once bring me every silly little toy I wished for?”
I bowed my head.
“I brought toys for a child, then,” I replied quietly. “Not a torturer.”
“What are you muttering, Levetti?” she snapped, her nose wrinkling in distaste. “Should I have your tongue plucked that I might hear you better? I cannot abide mutterers.”
I looked up to face her. “Was Antonio a mutterer also, my Queen?”
She followed my gaze to the jester on her strings, then laughed without humor. It was not a pleasant sound. She wiggled her hand, and Antonio danced accordingly.
“Yes, poor Antonio. He spoke treason behind my back, did you know? I asked but a small test of his loyalty, and he denied me. I asked only that he excise a finger. Just one finger! Is that too much loyalty for a Queen to demand? I should have stopped him, had he bent to it. Rather he did not, and proved himself false.”
“As would have I, Queen,” I replied. “As any man would. How can excising a finger prove loyalty? It cannot. Who has told you such things?”
The Queen sighed. “I wouldn’t expect you to understand. You are but a toy-master. Still, I have heard rumors about you. That you are disloyal to the crown.”
“I am loyal to the last!”
She smiled with gloating eyes. “Good. But muttered words shall not suffice, Levetti. I require of you a greater proof. You come to me and say a puppet cannot be made to stand alone. Would you follow my jester in your denial?”
“I only speak of what is possible, Queen.”
She snorted. “You have no imagination, man. Lucky for you I once favored you. It is why I have brought you these others.” She gestured to the other four men standing beside me. “Here is Caliarch of the Teslic coils, who once built me a sparking model of the sun. With his aid you will build my father’s heart and motive force. Andale here will craft the cords of his throat, that he might sing as sweetly as the organ in Mellorvici cathedral. Gregorii the clockworkist will harness his Teslic heart to the locomotion of his frame, and Aspidarci the abicist will fashion his brain. You, Levetti, will bring these pieces together and birth the soul into my father’s body, that he might advise me true and plain, as none here seem able.”
My mouth was dry. There beside the throne hung the last man to deny her. Yet I could not lie.
“I know nothing of souls, Queen, or of Teslic hearts and brains. I know not how it can be done. I am but a puppeteer in the Queen’s chamber.”
She smiled coyly, a joke we had once shared, and for a moment I thought I saw a glimpse of the child I had once known. Then it was quickly buried.
“Then you had best learn, Levetti, hadn’t you? You taught me that lesson yourself. We all must learn to adapt.”
I bowed, feeling the bite of my own words. There was no thing I could say in reply, and no thing I could do.
“Then I beg a year, Majesty. There is much to be done.”
She sniffed. She tugged on Antonio’s strings, and he jigged sickly.
“You have one month. I am not the patient little girl you once knew. I am the Queen now, and must be obeyed.”
I bowed. I nodded. In my heart I knew that in one month’s time I would be hanging in Antonio’s place.
I sent the others to their workshops, to build what they might to a simple specification.
“Small,” I warned, “and plain. If I am to understand your works and unite them, they must be within my ken. We come together within the week.”
They nodded acquiescence, though their eyes were haunted. I felt I saw the image of Antonio hanging within each one of them.
I returned to my belfry garret in the dun-colored old abbey of San Fossecia. The abbot met me as I climbed the winding stairs to the room that had once been his pigeon loft. He didn’t speak, only gazed soulfully into my face. Perhaps he read well therein what was before me, and let me pass without comment.
I stood in my garret, dappled with bright swathes of warm light shot through the collary-windows, and looked over the life I had built for myself. Everywhere were puppets; some of wood and others of leather and fur, some dressed and painted, others bare Tulsa wood, lying in heaps like dried out victims of the Mantuan plague.
“From this I ought fashion the Queen a father,” I murmured, feeling foolish even as I spoke. There were none to hear, only myself. Then I steeled my nerves, and began.
From a long log of stout oak I fashioned the two halves of the puppet’s torso, larger than any man, large enough to hold within it Caliarch’s Teslic heart. From flexible yew I shaped a lattice of faulds for its stomach, within which would be encased Gregorii’s mechanic clockworkings. From tempered iron rods I pounded out a skeletal frame that ran up its back like a spine, to which would be attached its limbs, its head, upon which its torso would be hung like a cavaliere’s breastplate.
From hardest ash I lathed the arms, legs, feet and hands that would provide the means of its locomotion. I linked them each with joints of polished marble wrapped in oiled swine-heart valves, hollow through their centers that cords of puppetry string might pass.
Out of reverberant tin I shaped its throat, broad enough for Andale’s pipes to lie abreast, deep enough for a bonded-air sac to squat above its heart and breathe life across them.
Lastly, from an ancient block of pounded Balsa, I carved its head, larger than a helmet, that Aspidarci’s abacal brain might fit, with five palanca, or levers, worked through the back of its head, that its locomotion might be controlled.
Hung on a frame it seemed monstrous. It was nothing like the toys I had built before. It was a mad thing, a thing not meant to be, conjured from a mad child’s mind, and I deplored it for that.
The week ended, and the others came; Caliarch with his heart, Aspidarci with his mind, Andale with his voice, Gregorii with his locomotive force. I greeted them at the old abbey’s gate, and exchanged small pleasantries that held no pleasantry for any of us. Gregorii’s wife was well, Caliarch’s boy was off to fight the Kaiser, Andale’s work was to be featured in the grand halls of the English King’s palace. The words were empty beside their sallow cheeks and hunted eyes. Even fat old Aspidarci seemed pinched somehow, his jovial flab turned pasty and stretched.
“Let us begin,” Andale said, after only moments, the fear plainly greatest in him. “Let us not tarry further.”
I enlisted the aid of the abbey monks to winch their works up to my garret. Together we pulled their varied contraptions to stand beside my puppet body, and consider how the impossible might be attempted.
Gregorii had brought with him something resembling a taxidermied midriff, a rough leather skein standing in for a man’s innards, with hanging catgut straps emergent from the four points where limbs would emerge. From its back jutted a large hump of slowly rotating cogwheels like some hideous mechanical cancer. This was to be the manner of locomotion.
Caliarch’s offering was a large ovum of moulded iron hung by a thick wire of zinc coiling, along which bright Teslic sparks of light crackled and hummed. At times it flashed with a sputtering inner light, and from within its casements issued a deep rumbling burr, as of distant thunder.
Aspidarci’s creation was a simple excavated head, resplendent upon a large wooden wardrobe, from within which came a ceaseless clanking of steam pistons revolving and abacal beads clanking back and forth, the noise of thought realized.
Andale had prepared a delicate array of miniature air bladders bundled as though wood faggots, set beside a waxy leathern bag I took to be a cured stomach. He demonstrated the use of it by triggering a valve and squeezing the air bag, which blew a thin stream of compressed air over the finely tuned accordion pipes, producing a ghostly high music.
The innards that rested beside my puppet shell were large enough to fill it three times over. We stood together and surveyed the impossible task before us. Andale began to softly weep.
“We have yet three weeks,” I said to them, perhaps hoping to buoy myself in speaking, though the edge of fatality was clear in my voice. “If it can be done by any, it will be done by us.”
I didn’t believe it. I am sure the others did not either. Yet to work we bent.
We worked through the month, and when our time came to an end, we returned to the palace, pulling our puppet on a cart. Its heart had been installed, and its voice, but much of the cogwork of its locomotion had yet to be fitted, and rested in a wooden casement by its side, along with half of its abacal brain. It was heavy as an ox, and even with its skeleton torqued rigid could barely stand under its own mass. The palanca-levers in its skull were operative, but controlled only the pipes in its throat, and the fingers of its left hand.
It could sing, and stand alone, as the Queen had specified. Neither was it short, or too stout. But it was not powerful, nor civilized. It was far from finished.
As we walked across the Savinci bridge, over the moat towards the gates, I spied something dark hanging from the central castle turret, like a dark rag.
“It is Antonio,” said Andale, his voice high and afraid. “On display. For shame.”
I realized it was true. The jester hung naked down the turret wall with a rope about his neck, his skin dark from a month’s corruption.
“Don’t look at him,” I said, turning my eyes away, focusing on the rumble of the cart wheels as we pushed our failure closer to the Queen. “Do not think of his fate.”
Andale began to breathe in fast little pants. I glanced in his direction, and saw the sweat pouring down his cheeks, though it was but early spring.
The throne room had changed. In place of Antonio there hung a pale-skinned girl, her body covered in welts and weal’s, strung to the Queen just as the jester had been. I could not imagine what sin she had committed to find herself in such a position.
Before the throne stood two Balustrone guards, long swords held unsheathed in their hands, their backs to the Queen. Beyond them she spooned tapioca curds into her mouth with one hand, rippled the puppet-strings with the other, and the puppet-girl beckoned to us awkwardly.
“Levetti, bring my father closer,” she said, her voice thick and glottal with the syrupy curds.
I bowed, and advanced. We stopped before the Balustrones, and waited as she surveyed our work. It did not take long.
“This is it, Levetti?” she asked. Flecks of thick spittle spat from her lips. “This is your best work, and you bring this to me with no shame?”
She pushed herself to her feet. In the month since I last saw her she had grown even colder, a mask of cruelty hiding better the child that she yet was. A dangerous glint shone in her eye, as she looked from me to the other four around me.
“You have the impertinence to bring me this heap of junk and seek to call it my father? Do you think me a Queen worthy of as shabby a thing as this?”
Andale’s panting grew more rapid. He was near entering a fit with fear, his eyes fixed on the still bleeding wounds of the puppet-girl strung up by the throne.
The Queen saw his terrified gaze.
“You, Andale,” she snapped. “Does my father at least have a fine voice? Did you at least follow my command, and build it to rival the Mellorvici cathedral?”
Andale gulped, and jerkily moved to the puppet. He reached to the back of its head, and tugged the first palanca.
The puppet’s mouth open, and it sang. The sound was high and sweet, a simple ditty of four pipes played in turn. For a moment the Queen’s anger softened, and I again saw her as she had once been; lonely, afraid, overwhelmed by the loss of her parents, lost in the creeping tendrils of courtiers worming themselves around her.
“Very good,” she said. The angry mask slotted back into place, and she turned to the man by his side. “And Gregorii, can it walk?”
Gregorii shook his head. “The weight, majesty,” he answered, his eyes to the ground. “It can stand, but should it walk, it crumples under its own mass.”
“I should like to see that for myself.”
Gregorii turned to me, as though for confirmation.
“Why are you looking at him, Gregorii?” The Queen asked in soft, brittle tones. Gregorii’s eyes widened as he realized his error. He turned quickly back to face her.
“It will break if it falls, Queen,” he said in a quiet voice. “All our work will be undone.”
The Queen ignored this. “That does not answer my question, Gregorii. Why do you look to Levetti, do you think him your Queen?” He shrank before her, but gave no reply. “Answer me, man! Do you think him the Queen?”
“No, majesty, no.”
“Then show me! Have my father walk. Show me his strength.”
Gregorii stepped forwards uncertainly, and unclasped the supports holding the puppet rigid. It rocked as it found its own balance. He pulled the second palanca, and its left leg lifted up.
The Queen’s eyes opened with expectation, again that expectant joy, but the footfall didn’t land. Rather, the puppet began to lean to the side, thrown by the impetus of the raised leg. It canted further until its tilt became a fall. It crashed against the stone flags. The clacking of pistons from within stilled. Its throat gave a last warbling breath, then it was silent.
“Pathetic,” snarled the Queen. I could feel the anger boiling up in her, and remembered how she had once raged at the death of her parents, how the only thing that had stilled her was the gentle touch of my puppets on her face.
I had failed again. This time my failure would kill us all.
“Your majesty, we had not time,” Gregorii implored. “If we were given but a month longer, I know it can be done. Your father will walk again, I know it.”
The Queen ignored him. “Pathetic, I say. You have disobeyed a direct order from your Queen. You, Levetti. I expected better of you. Why have you not done as I asked?”
I heard through the anger a plea. I heard it even as I had no answer for her. I was only a man. I was not a God, to breathe life into dull wood. I wanted to take her anger and gentle it away, but she was the Queen, and I was but a puppet master. I could do nothing. I cast my eyes down.
“You asked the impossible, Queen,” I answered. “Any man would fail.”
She hawked and spat. She would have never have done such before, and the improperness of it shook me.
“I expected so much more of you, Levetti. For my favor, I grant you one more chance. Only tell me which man here failed you. Tell me which man you are shielding, that you could not obey my command?”
I heard the yearning in her voice, but I could not give her what she asked.
“Then blame me,” I said, “for you gave charge of the task to me. I failed you.”
She shook her head, smiling sickly. “I am not yet done with you, Levetti.” She turned her gaze. “What of you, Gregorii, what say you? Are each of you equally responsible? Should I punish you all?”
Gregorii gulped, but said nothing.
“Aspidarci, what of you? I am the Queen, and I must have order. No secrets shall be kept. Which man disobeyed. Tell me!”
None of us spoke. The Queen simply stared. The moment stretched, grew pregnant, until at last the Queen broke it with a flicking of her pinky finger.
The female puppet by her side beat herself across the breast. She cried out. I watched a fresh welt rise across her sternum, a thin bead of blood inch down.
“Answer me,” said the Queen, so soft now she was barely audible over the whining of her doll. “Unless you wish to all hang as she hangs, answer me.”
None of us spoke. The Queen flicked her finger again, and the woman lashed herself again, and screamed piteously again.
“Answer me. Or would you have your wives hang here, and your children?”
She made the woman beat herself again, and I could watch no more. My Queen, once such a sweet and lonely child, had become a monster in the hands of the court.
“Stop this, Majesty,” I demanded. “You are better than this.”
But she did not stop. I started forward, and a Balustrone held out his blade to bar my path. I pushed it away and strode by. A flash of surprise ran across the Queen’s face, then my head was abruptly jolted forwards and I was falling. I hit the floor face first, unable to pull my hands up before me in time.
Pain burst in the back of my head, and I struggled to lift myself. Had I been struck with the edge of the blade, and was even now bleeding to death? I wasn’t ready. Wild thoughts rushed through my mind, visions of the Queen as she once had been, as she was now, and a hopeful voice told me that perhaps the Balustrone had hit me with the flat of his blade, had not cut open my mind.
I heard the screaming of the poor puppet woman, pushing itself into my ears, and it rang with the spreading pain in my head, pulsed with the pulse of the thickening grey.
At last Andale’s voice rose through it, echoing strangely as though I were underwater.
“Gregorii!” he cried. “It was Gregorii.” The cries of the puppet woman calmed away, like a swelling of tides. “He failed to locomote your father, Queen. Hang him. Hang him!”
Gregorii’s protests rose up like grace notes on the Mellorvici pipes, but to no avail. I watched the Balustrones stride towards him as ripples ran in the grey. The last thing I saw before darkness fell was them leading Gregorii pale-faced and resisting to Queen’s side, where they cut the puppet woman down, and began stringing Gregorii up in her place.
I woke to the cool balm of a healer’s poultice, lying abed in a spartan palace ante-chamber. None spoke to me. A day later I was dismissed from the palace, with the broken body of my puppet on a cart before me. I pushed it out. While crossing the Savinci bridge, I saw an extra body hanging beside the black rag that was Antonio; the puppet girl.
Soon Gregorii would join them. Soon I would join them, and the three others.
They were waiting for me in the abbey, vacant-eyed. They had watched Gregorii dance for the Queen, beat himself bloody to the tune of her strings. We had been granted 5 days to make the puppet walk. They sat in silence in my garret, condemned men serving out their time.
That night I dreamed of other times. The Queen and I were within the folds of my puppeteer’s screen, all the toys I had built for her scattered around us, lit by the warm flickering of a single candle. We had played with the puppets for hours, had given a show to several ladies of the court together, and now she was falling asleep, wrapped up in the thick velvet screen-cloth.
I rose and began to pack the puppets into their chest quietly.
“Daddy?” she whimpered, eyes half-closed.
“No, it is I, Levetti,” I answered softly.
“Levetti, don’t go,” she mumbled. “Don’t leave me.”
“I have to go, Queen,” I answered. “It is hardly seemly for the puppeteer to overnight in the Queen’s chambers.”
She smiled, though her eyes were closed. It was a jest she first made herself, but one that had grown heavier in my mind. I was a man of toys, of childish things, and she was now the Queen. Soon she would be a woman. It was no longer fitting for me to be in her chambers alone, or perhaps to be in her court at all. I knew nothing of state or governance.
“Stay a little while longer,” she whispered. “I won’t tell.”
I smiled down on her. I thought to stroke a lock of hair from her face, but stopped myself. She was the Queen.
“Soon,” I whispered, as I packed the last of the puppets into the chest. “You’ll see me tomorrow, if you like. We’ll play again.”
I stepped out from within the velvet tent we had created, and stood in the cool and dark space of her chambers. Once her mother and father had called this regal place their home. Now it was cold, and smelled of polish and ghosts.
I thought then that I would see her the next day. I thought she would summon me in the morning and together we would bound through the lands of knights and maidens once more.
But she did not call the next day, nor the day after that. I continued at my business, and began to hear whispers of the grudges being enacted within the palace, the stories of old scores being lanced, with the Queen wielded as the cutting blade. I wondered that she was young to be so involved in court gossip and politics, but I put the thoughts from my mind. She was a Queen now. She had no need of her puppeteer.
I woke in a sweat, despite the chill air. Around me were the three remaining others, sprawled in their sacks. We had worked late into the night on the job of making the puppet walk. The task had been impossible before, with a month allotted us. Now, with less than a week and no Gregorii, we could not even make it stand.
I dressed myself in my finest puppeteer’s garments, gathered up my whittling blade, display table, and left the garret. The abbot was in the grounds, raking gravel. He saw me and nodded gravely. I nodded back, and walked from the place for the last time.
Florence was quiet in the pre-dawn, and I walked as though a man to his death. Every sound, smell, and sight was heightened. As I crossed the Savinci bridge to the palace my heart leapt that Gregorii was not yet strung up beside the other two rotten bodies. Perhaps there was hope for him yet.
Balustrones saw me to the throne ante-chamber. I stood before the closed doors and waited, table by my side. She kept me waiting until noon, but the time seemed to pass quickly, as I relived again all the moments we had shared.
At last the Balustrones admitted me. There she was, upon the throne, Gregorii by her side. His tunic was ripped, his face bloodied, but he lived.
“Where is your puppet, Levetti?” called the Queen imperiously as I approached. “I had not thought you impudent enough to return without it.”
I approached the throne, to the point where the Balustrone had struck me before, and stopped. I laid down my display table, and bowed deeply.
“I will be your puppet, Majesty.”
The Queen looked at me for a long moment. Then she laughed. “You presume too much, Levetti. See, I have a puppet of flesh already.” She made Gregorii dance. He seemed barely conscious. “You were bid to build a father for me. But you are not my father.”
“I should have been,” I said, and felt the words catch in my throat. Before me was a child who had tortured and killed, who had hung Gregorii the master by her side like a puppet clown, but I sought to see past that. They were only layers, piled upon her by the whisperings of those in the court, those who had used her as their puppet, those who had taken an innocent child and made her something filthy, and dark.
I held in my mind the last image I had seen of her, that had broken my heart even then; a child wrapped up in velvet, surrounded by toys, begging me not to leave her alone.
I had left.
I imagined that child on the throne before me, though it cut me to the quick to do so. I imagined her lost and weeping.
Then I drew out the knife.
A Balustrone sword was at my throat immediately. The Queen flinched.
“What is this, Levetti?” she demanded, some of the haughtiness in her voice rubbing out, replaced by genuine surprise, perhaps even fear. “Do you seek to kill your Queen?”
I shook my head, and held the knife out between finger and thumb. Strangely, I felt tears well to my eyes.
“Never, your Majesty,” I insisted. “I am first and always your most loyal servant. I am here because I cannot build the father you asked for. I have failed you, for I cannot replace a dead father of flesh with a dead one of wood and clockwork.”
I thought I saw her eyes glimmer with emotion, but the cold mask still held firm.
“You speak far beyond your place, puppeteer. You admit to your failings, though I have granted you 4 days yet. Are you so eager to replace your fellow hanging on my strings?”
I dropped to my knees. “Yes. And to obey your every command.”
I did not wait for her reply. I laid my left hand palm-down upon the display table by my side. The Queen’s eyes widened as she realized what I was to do. I laid the knife against my smallest finger, by the knuckle, and pressed down.
The skin slit easily. I pushed harder, and felt the bone shear under the pressure. Blood gushed out, splashing over the surface top and down onto the floor.
I had cut off my finger.
The Queen paled, but held firm.
“You asked this of your jester,” I said. “And he failed you. You asked more of me, and I failed you too. This is all I know to do.”
I laid the knife against the second finger, pressed down until the bone crunched, and cut it free. More blood gushed out, and two of my fingers lay in the red before me, disconnected, like marionette limbs, cut from their strings.
“This is not what I asked,” said the Queen, uncertain now, her tone faltering. I watched her, saw the image I had painted of her as an innocent child bubbling through the facade she was wearing. “I did not seek this.”
“But you sought it from Antonio. What crime did he commit, Queen?” I pointed to the old beaten clockworker hanging by her side. “What crime did Gregorii commit? If you seek to punish any, punish me, for I left a small child to harpies and buzzards, who have picked over her bones for a year, and perverted her.”
“Levetti!” she barked. “That is enough.”
I ignored her, laid the knife against the third finger, pushed down, and felt the crunch of my bone snap. The finger rolled free and fell to the floor. The nearest Balustrone took a step back, a look of disgust on his face.
“I command you to stop Levetti,” said the Queen again, and I turned to face her. She was still cold. I had cut three of my fingers away and it wasn’t enough. My blood was pooling on the floor. I felt a cold nausea rising through me, a revulsion at what I would do, an acceptance that I would do it.
“My Queen,” I replied, and laid the knife against my index finger. I pushed down, and it seemed as though the knife hurt for the first time. As I cut down, slicing through the tough outer layer of skin, through tendon, down to the bone, I was coolly aware that I would never craft puppets with that hand again.
The Queen was calling my name, shouting commands, but I ignored her. My index finger clung to my palm by a few raw pink threads. I slit them one by one, and they popped in my head like Chinese fire.
“My Queen,” I repeated, and set the knife mechanically against the base of my thumb. My hand seemed a strange thing before me, flowing with blood, shorn of all its fingers. My vision blurred and doubled, until two palms lay there, with two knives and two thumbs. The Queen was standing now, and gesticulating wildly, causing Gregorii to dance and jiggle.
I pushed down. The knife slit through the thick base of my thumb. How many puppets had that thumb held, moulded, sculpted? The bone broke, cut through, and as a new welter of blood poured out, bright light-headedness overcame me.
“Levetti, stop!” shouted the little Queen. I thought that in that voice there was something familiar, like the voice of an old friend, back from distant travels overseas, changed, matured, but still a friend. I looked around for a moment, dazed with loss of blood, unsure for the moment of where I was. Then I saw her face, saw Gregorii hanging slack and beaten beside her, and remembered.
“My Queen,” I said a third time, and laid my wrist down upon the table. I set the knife to the skin. For abandoning a child to animals I deserved this. To reach back to the sweet little girl I once knew, it was necessary.
I sawed at my skin. Blood was everywhere, sloshing on the table top, riming my remaining hand, everywhere I looked. The knife slipped in my hand as I sawed at my own arm. The pain was a crutch I used to ground me, to keep me from fainting dead away.
“Levetti, stop, please,” came the voice of the little Queen, so close I thought she was speaking in my ear. Then she was. She was by my side, dirtying herself with my blood, prising my remaining fingers open, pulling the slick knife from my hand. Her touch felt like forgiveness. Her voice was so kind again. As I staggered into unconsciousness, I felt her guiding me, holding me as I once held her, steering me down into the warm thick velvet that awaited.
“My Queen,” I whispered, in her ear, a final time.
Michael John Grist is a British author and ruins photographer who lives in Tokyo, Japan. His short stories have been published in Aoiffe’s Kiss, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Something Wicked, and he is currently writing an epic fantasy novel titled Dawn Rising. He runs a website on the ruins or ‘haikyo’ of Japan; filled with photographs of abandoned theme parks, military bases, and ghost towns. His day-job is teaching English at University.
The original idea for The Orphan Queen came from watching too much reality TV; weekly knockout shows like The Apprentice and Masterchef. The story started life as a longer haul knockout between ten puppet masters, with aspects of Robot Wars thrown in as the puppets fought each other for survival. Each week/month one of the puppets would lose, and the master would get dispatched in a horrible way (far worse than “You’re Fired”), and the Queen would correspondingly sink lower and become more evil. That structure only survived in the present story as an implication. Gregorii is the first to be ‘knocked out’, then Levetti steps up and takes matters into his own hands.
As to the idea of puppets, I can’t really say where that came from. From the back of my mind where an interest in Pinocchio and Artificial Intelligence come together, I suppose.