Tag: &c.

Face

Got up this morning, stretched, cracked my back, almost scratched the space where my face wasn’t, hopped into the shower. Water streamed down. Splashed differently than it used to, before. Been six years and only mostly used to that. 

Dried. Some gel. Comb through the hair. No part, that wouldn’t work right for the mirror. Shaved. Hard to do the edges. Blade would dart away where the face disappeared, like a magnet being pushed. Most guys I see just grow beards, skip the hassle. I’m a creature of habit, though. Always kept a clean face before, always.

Held up the mirror, the special one that they give you when the change first comes. Hold it just so, get the angle right. It’s so important to have a steady hand. You get one chance, every morning. One chance to get it right. The woman in the green suit told him how it worked. Lots of words, didn’t make much sense. Didn’t explain why, why it had happened, what caused the change, why it kept happening. No one was telling. Just glad to live in a day and age where, if there was a change, at least there was a mirror. 

Hold it so. Reflect the face, get it symettrical. Then, locked in. No satisfying click,  no whiff of ozone, just a silence like a beat that your heart skips andsuddenly  flesh. Most people said you couldn’t tell, if it was done properly, which side was original. You knew yourself though. One side aching like a phantom limb, buzzing like pins and needles and making your fingers ache to even think of touching. People didn’t talk about it. 

Don’t think about getting it wrong. Miss the angle, the face bulges and warps out. A fairground attraction. If somehow you hold it so it doesn’t meet, the wind and cold gets in, drives you crazy. All for a day. You sleep, it resets. Face falls away. Wake up in the middle of the night, cradling your pillow all wrong. Shutting eyes so you didn’t see your lover, sleeping with backs turned, so that a sleeper’s stray hand doesn’t accidently reach out to caress that which was not there. 

The mirror made things better. No one wanted to go out with a halved face, displaying that nothingness, that absence to the world. Think of those in worse off places, without the technology. You’d see the appeals on TV, wonder why those in charge couldn’t do more. Their absent halves blocked respectfully by veils, gauze, pixelation. 

But yet. There was something wrong with what the mirrors gave. 
Walk down the street, everyone with their unnaturally symmetrical faces. Everyone all secretly buzzing and cold and not making eye contact. All staring off into the middle distance, to a horizon line behind everyone that surrounded the. All with their dead gazes. 

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Rust in my heart (Ehm-Ahl-ee’s story)

My name is not important. I am one of the youngest Arrivals, and like the rest of us Enjun-kin my mind is not built for proper Knowing. One day I will meet one of our brethren who thinks straight and true, like the holy tracks that stretch out before our eyes. I have travelled those tracks for countless cycles meeting Enjun and have not found one of us with that true understanding. Our minds too often travel in circles, like the gears in our innards. Like our massive feet that tread the tracks, moving us along around the Island.

There are three mysteries that I have found. I will tell you them.

First, how do we Arrive? The Island is our home, and our prison. None of us can remember existence before its shores. Even the most staid and unimaginative of the Enjun-kin now admit that something must exist beyond the waves. We see the new Soft Ones arrive in their sea-crafts, from Vikkarston and behind. The old belief that they spontaneously emerge from the water, as natural as the waves and weed and sand, looks to be built on feet of fog and mire. Not that we can check for ourselves. We could no more walk or float upon the churning water than we could fly like the squawking gulls above. Our way is bounded by the holy tracks, and by those tracks alone. Not for us the unblessed earth. Our feet touch only the sanctified metal. Metal upon metal, that is our way, and it has been that way forever, and for a million tomorrows.

If we arrive upon the Island fully formed, how are we constructed? Why cannot we recall the act? Is it to do with the water, of even the Island itself? The mystery of Arrival defines the hollowness inside ourselves, that can only be filled by Usefulness.

The second mystery is of the Soft. Where do they come from, and what Use do they fulfil? We are made for purpose, you understand. We are designed with intent. Not like the Soft, the changing things. Their feet are not circular, and they do not roll. They skitter, bend their bodies into new shapes, twist their form with hidden articulation. Their nature is almost liquid. It hurts our gleaming lamps to see them move.

HehnRee, one of the kin, says they are created to venerate us. Our form reflects that of the Creator (it must, he says, although there is an unthought there; who is the Creator, and how can we perceive its Form?), and so creatures with ever-changing shapes see us as vessels of the Creator’s will. They build great halls for us, he says. And HehnRee speaks truth; the Resting Place by the place we call TideMouth is a fine cathedral. The Soft bend the surface of the world, giving us material to build tracks and sidings, stopping-places and signal boxes.

One of the bigger Enjun, the Thunderer, calls them vermin. Or worse, slavers. He says that Usefulness does not exist and that we have been forced to servitude. No one else can think like him. It hurts to bend our minds in such a manner.

What is the third mystery? It is that of the Ever-Branching Pathway. We do not know how we came to roll across this ground, who laid the holy rails that lift us up above the shunned earth. (There is an under-mystery here, of how we know the rails to be holy. I cannot follow that thought in my mind. It slips and slides, like tracks covered with the first snowy downs of winter.) So, who laid the first tracks? It could not be the Soft. They give us the materials, but they cannot Make. They assist in our veneration (if HehnRee is to be believed) but are lower beasts. We Enjun-kin are created and have a Creator, but do not have a creator myth, do not have purpose. Who determines the paths that we travel? Why do the tracks finish at Arlsdayil, and what lies beyond Vikkarston? Put another way; why does the line branch just so? Who determined it thus?

The other Enjun do not ask these questions. They continue roaming the Island on the predetermined tracks. We all perform our allotted tasks; some of us shunt trucks, others haul freight. We are all similar and yet so different. Some of us Arrive in red or green, others in brown or blue. We all have different roles to play. And yet, few pursue the mysteries.

One day, many from now as you travel down the hills and round the bends, you may find the oldest of us. Our cousins, the Squarenjins, say he dwells by Hela’s Bridge, but it has been many cycles since I have seen him with my own lamps. Look for he whose name is the thrumming of the rails and an exhalation of steam. T’om-Ss, alone amongst us, may Know.

I am amongst the youngest of the Enjun, and I pass this knowledge onto you. My name is the hum of the lamp, the exhalation of vapour, the whisper of the Island’s breath. I will travel here in circles until I am rust and the rails take me. May your feet never slip upon the sky’s waters, may your boiler’s heart never dim. Travel fast and true, and may you be always Useful.

blusterings

“Bluster and Cabbage!,” boomed Imrus, trying the unfamiliar curse words on for size. I laughed out loud. The engineer’s voice filled the cramped cabin, and could add gravitas to even the most ludicrous of kennings. Most of the other crew were quiet though, and Barras just looked angry. “Don’t you dare throw those words around in here!,” he yelled at the engineer, leaning dangerously out of his hammock. “I’ve worked on too many ‘ships where fools like yourself have had to be Censored and surveyed. Save us all the trouble.”

Imrus should have looked chastened, but he wasn’t. He was too big and friendly for that, and even the threat of Censoring was a-nothing. Instead, it encouraged the man further. “Boom and sky! Grumbling Lazarus! Skylamp’s wrack!”

“Don’t you even think of conflating in here, you stupid bloody Unter-man!,” growled Barras. He was Uber-born himself, and even a lifetime on the air-wires was not enough to knock out an Uber’s natural tendency to look down on those born with insufficient verticality.

Lasker, the cabin-boy, chose that moment to come down barrelling down the ladder. “Line’s end coming up. Bare minutes away, now!”

You could almost feel the tension go out of the room in one great wheeze. We’d been chuggering through the skies for weeks now, line’s end always another hop away. I knew my opportunity was limited, and took the whoops and hoorays of the crew-mates as my chance to skeet out of the cabin, down the hallway, past the stairs that went out to the wheeze-engines and up rope-ladders to the helm above. Sure as bones, the Captain was there tending the levers, looking out at the clearing smug that clouded up the windowpanes. The wire was out there, somewhere in the misty nothings.

“Can I help with landfall, Captain?,” I asked, brave-like, like I hadn’t been secretly practicing in my cabin to ask that same question for days now.

The captain pondered my question thoughtfully, giving airs of due consideration as if he hadn’t already made his mind up as to who was fit for the landfall and who not. “Aye, Welyam,” he finally responded, “ye can go. Don’t tarry now, Sisters Candel and Fonten are already getting their equipment ready.”
I gave an aye-aye and raced out, up to the deck, skipping between the thick legs of crewmates. The Sisters were as the Captain Glass said, loading necessaries for the trip into their specially-padded crates, ready for tying onto the guiding line. The Brothers were there too, naturally. The Censors hadn’t told us to expect trouble but Brecken and Milinki always came anyway, there with glaive and fist if the locals were skewiff and the surveying turned claret.

“Captain said I could come,” I panted at them, my words bubbling out from all that run, leg’s a-shaking.

“Glass said that, did he?,” responded Sister Fonten, crooking her brow at me. “Wanted you out from underfoot here on the ‘ship, and down messing up our business instead?”

“It’s not like that, Sister miss,” I exclaimed. She hadn’t forgiven me since the first days of the tour, when I’d scumbled her belongings on a bad winching.

“Leave the boy alone, Fonten,” said Candel. She was always the nicer of the two.

“I’ll treat the boy as I wish, Candel. The Great Plan doesn’t resolve with jumblers like this one. The rituals need rigour, not some great woody-head.”

“Oh hush, dear. If you had your way we’d never have left Central. If I say Welyam can come and witness the vox, then witness he will.”

Fonten supressed an eye-roll but knew she’d lost the argument. Candel was the nicer and softer one, but firmer deep down. Imrus called her a flicky-knife once, able to show steely edge when needed but hiding it away for unsuspecting types.

There was a grumbling and moaning off-deck; the crew were attaching the cabin to the new wire, testing for tautness. The Sisters breezed past. The Brothers picked up the crates. I followed behind, obediently.
With some ricketing and racketing we were launched, off on the wire and out of the blooming shadow of the ‘ship above. The line was quick, and in under a minute the cabin had cleared the smug and was in clear sky. ‘Ships like ours always hung higher than normal over uncharted ground like this. It was out of respect for the process, for the interviewee. We did all we could to not distort the readings. A stray glance up, and theologies were made.

It was good to be in clear sky again, but we were far out from normal paths here. We had veered close to the Bruise, somewhere in the clouds. The air was clear blue in most directions, but out widdershins-way it purpled dark, ugly veins stretched across the vista. I’d never been this close before, not to those skeevy buboes of night that bubbled in slow-motion. I shuddered and averted my eyes down, just as the landing came into sight below. A little scurrying of floaty rock, from this distance. Scabs of trees and foliage only, with a few stray shacks around a clearing. I could see how the Censors would have perceived it; isolation breeds belief, and this was deep into the never-wheres. The architectures were all a little off. Classic enough build, like the stoat trader settlement we’d left last, circling somewhere by Ashen Sound, but tweaky at the edges, like it had been built and re-built by someone who’d forgotten the exact ways. That was a sign of drift, of difference, and that was the sort of thing Censors buzzed at. They’d have spotted those wonky architraves from a distance, logged and measured it all, then tracked it all with vectors and skymarks for later.

“Now then, the most important thing of all is to not pass judgment. You’re here to set up the capture-boxes and record the vox, and that’s the extent of it. Not a glance or murmur from you, young man. A single frown out of place ruins it all. We’re here for consistency and the Plan, not jiggery-poking at strangers.”
I nodded wordlessly at Fonten. I knew what it meant to step out of line.

The cabin hit ground on an outcrop of weasel-rock. A little slippery and treacherous, but the wire took us where it took us. Brother Brecken stepped out first, looping the anchor around a barnacley tree that twisted up close by. It was a nonsense really; the wire was strong and taut, and always would be, but spending enough time on a ‘ship made you want a little extra tying you down to the world. We were all floating, really; floating ships amongst gloamy clouds, stepping down onto driftrock. An extra tie or two would never hurt.

Sister Candel put a hand firmy-gentle on my chest as I stepped out of the cabin. “Whatever you hear today, remember to not remember. Memory like this is for the vox, and the peepers at Central. You’ve got to compartmentalise, or you’ll end up creating your own beliefs out of scrap.”

“I don’t want to be interviewed, ma’am,” I replied. “Not that.”

Fonten cleared her throat behind me. I looked up, and saw a figure shambling toward us out of the trees. It was a he, so that meant we’d probably landed in a patriarchy then. He’d be the head priest, judging by the woad and staff. Assuming that the houses we saw were the only ones on this rock, he was probably the father or grandfather of most of the inhabitants too. Maybe a few generations of family, stranding themselves here after some falling out. A rump of a rump of belief could have easily started here, isolation warping thoughts and creating new motivations.

Candel drew herself up a little and strode toward him, her hand clutched on the ritual tools. Time to begin.

watch your step

We were all peg men back then. By Sky and Ceiling both, we knew to judge our distances and mind our footing. It was harder in Unter than the cities above, of course, but we were low born and had little in the way of sayings on such matters. Borned low didn’t mean raised stupid though, and we’d adapted fast and early. Anything to avoid the Cracking.

Our tellers would spin us all sorts of tales, of cobblestones and broken brick. We shudder-laughed, made the drake-signs and tried to imagine what living would be like in places such as those, riven by shatters. The tellers would say that Cracking didn’t happen in places like that, but that was like saying the bogwaters weren’t black or the rain not a burning poison. A falseness, clear and simple. We knew from young years not to trust the idle gaps and had been carried upon our family’s backs until we knew to step true. Maybe the Cracking in places like that were hushed up or it happened slow and subtle.

Old Nurser had seen that happen, once. A teenling from Grand Rising had come down on a mine ‘spection, not watched his steppings. The Unter-men had hissed and spat, making the Signs, but no bubbling shadows came. But, Nurser said, by the time the upsider returned up the iron staircases there was a clear split up through his foot and leg; a hairline crack, to be sure, but a split nonetheless. The Granders had bound it tight, but there was no undoing what had been done. Nurser had never seen the teenling again – few Highs slummed it more that once – but his fate was sealed. He might have lasted an hour, day or a year if he was careful, but sooner or later the darknesses would claim him.

On clear nights, youngers like Wrack, Grail and I would lay upon the tin roofs of Unter and stare up to the cities above. If there were no clouds about to blot the lights, we could trace the shapes of Uber, Bordru, Grand Rising and perhaps even Home Above with a bit of squintering. The sky was thick with wires and like, but we could still recognise their glimmers. Seeing the lights made us forget the darknesses for a while. We’d kenned that the Higher cities called it the tenebrus, scribbling death, arrimani, a dozen other. Rare sightings they had, although growing ever-common if the stories were true. Whatever naming they gave it, however much more the Cracking seemed to happen, we were the ones who had to live with it daily. Those bubbling shadows were always hungry for us, always looking to come sniffing their way out of splices they’d scribed into our flesh.

Fairy Flosstoevsky

I’ve got a special spot for you, if you have a moment. If you find yourself standing on Borodinsky Bridge at twilight, on a night like this one, turn and walk toward the great arching road of Bulvarnoye Koltso. Count your steps, it’s important.

At one hundred, you’ll find yourself in Dorogomilovo’s lee. The Station has been recently redesigned to fit the changing requirements of the city. The sky-rails all meet here. During the day, the air is thick with ‘ships. It gleams even at night, a beacon to the Tsarina, Blessed Be She. When the spotlights switch on, those marble statues can be seen for miles.

At two hundred, you’re past the Station. The streets get bleaker here, in the shadow of the rails. This is the winter to the summer of Dorogomilovo. Move on quickly, before the Witherers come and steal you away. Still counting? Good.

When you reach three hundred and three steps, turn left. You’ll find yourself in a small plaza. Gogol Square, the locals call it. On the far side there is a small shop – if you were here an hour earlier, you would see the sun’s dying light will catch it, just so. Never mind the cobwebs in the window. It’s the one I’ve told you about. ‘Berries Karamazov’.

It’s a sweet shop, but different than you’d expected. The owner is passionate about literature in the way that only a Russian can be. But Volodya, as he’s affectionately called by his sister, has his unique take. The stories of the Empire are the inspiration for his art, his desserts.

I tried the Pecan Pushkin on my first visit. Sublime. Complex and sublime. The flavours, untranslateable.

He won’t disclose his secrets. He has his own Sweet Tooth Manifesto – that’s what Anyuta, his sister, calls it – but he doesn’t share it. I think he used to be someone. Remember the Troubles that your mother may have told you about, back during the War? All that chaos of the Provisional Government and the Fifth Duma? He was there, during that One Bad Year. A revolutionary, if I judge right, simply because he doesn’t talk about it. Not directly.

One night, I thought I saw him crying. When I offered him a handkerchief, he waved it away. It was his latest recipe, he told me. Fairy Flosstoesvsky, with its surprising aftertaste of ashes that will bring tears to the eyes. He offered me some, his face gleaming in the lamplight. “Any cook should be able to run the country,” he told me. “Anyone.” Across the rooftops, the spires of Dorogomilovo stretched up into the night. The spotlights caught the face of the Tsarina staring down at us, the marble statues of her face endlessly repeating, all detail washed out in the glare.

strap on those brass goggles

 “We’ll require a dozen men, split into three teams, and they’ll need to move quickly. The first group lets the primary tethers loose from the mooring mast. Don’t worry about the secondary ropes; you can easily cut those from the gondola’s balcony once you get some initial lift. The second group secures the main cabin. They’ll need to slowly vent air from the ballonets so that the hydrogen in the envelope can expand. Shift the levers slowly; the propellers don’t respond how you’d expect. Think of it like a boat, pushing through waves you can’t see.

You’ll need the final group in the engine room; two feeding the furnace, another one keeping the clockwork turning over. The gears aren’t much good to you later on, but a good kick-start now will inject the hydrogen where it needs to be and make your getaway all the faster. You can’t muffle the gears at this point, so keep a fourth man on look-out on those catwalks with a steam-rifle. That’s just in case any of the ‘ship’s crew is still on board. It sounds unlikely, sure, but many balloon-heisters have had their career come to an early end thanks to a light-sleeping Sikh holed up in the bosun’s cabin.

Once you’re in the air, redistribute ballast, then man the pumps on the fore and aft ballonets to stabilise the ‘ship. And like that, you’ll be gone, at cruising altitude in under an hour.”

Dirigible theft in London went down by 47% when Randall ‘Zeppelin’ Raines walked away from the balloon-life. But Zep Raines got dragged back into it all when his brother screwed up a deal for Robur, master-criminal and self-styled ‘Maître du monde’.

Robur sets an impossible task; steal 50 exotic airships and have them across the Channel to Franco-Bavarian airspace by 8AM Friday morning, or the Raines brothers are dead. And it’s already Monday, and Head Inspector Strock and his unit of bobby-golems are breathing down Zep’s neck.

With less than a week to pull off the biggest heist of his life, Zep assembles his old crew and attempts the impossible. Gone… in 60 minutes.  

The Stranger

Further away than you could imagine, circling a dying star, is the greatest library that ever existed. It had been a forest planet once. But, millennia ago, the trees were cut down and great halls rose in their place, covering the surface of the entire world. The darkness ruled it now. The archives were governed by the shadows, and the halls of scrolls had no witness save the dust and the silence. Except one.

The shadows, the Vashta Nerada, had no voice except for those that they could steal. If they could talk, the shadows would have praised and pitied in equal measure. If the darkness could name, it would have been Stranger. Or, perhaps Witness, Changer, Trickster or Saviour. The language of the lightless was imprecise and defied translation.

He had been there for centuries, trapped in the countless pathways. An ancient pact – the shadowkin couldn’t remember why, whether it was born from fear or respect, scorn or some twisted mercy – held that no Vashta Nerada would ever devour the stranger.

He had lived in the library for lifetimes. The stranger’s kind, it was said, were near-to-immortal, and could reknit flesh, body and bone to recover from grievous injury. Even as the body regenerated, though, the stranger’s mind waned. The fire that had driven him for centuries had dipped low, wanly guttering like a candle’s flame. Each subsequent regeneration became instead a degeneration. Eventually, without that spark of intelligence, the physical form had begun to follow the mind’s atavistic descent. He was now but a shambling creature, showing no sign of the grace or intellect that had saved and damned so many.

The stranger could barely remember his former life. Words would come to him now – Skaro, Gallifrey, Tardis – but they were rendered meaningless without context. He knew the library and his den, a blue box that was bigger on the inside. He was too far gone to even contemplate the paradox.

MOON, the Nth-level intelligence that orbited the forest-planet, would talk to the stranger. It had originally been a protection and countermeasure system, designed to protect the long-faded artificial intelligences that powered the library. Now it comforted the stranger at night, calming the beast during its occasional, terrifying moments of lucidity. MOON would sing the Goodbye Song to the creature, farewelling each melancholic remembering. Such times were thankfully brief, and growing ever further apart.

The shadows could not speak, so the stranger hallucinated others like him. Companions, to keep him company. He found a primal joy in naming things – Pip, Pop, Tree-Low, Tutter – when his own name had been lost so long ago. Sometimes, at night, he wonders if he had ever even known it. He’d cast it aside centuries before. Now, he was just like a bear, a bear in a blue house.