We unearthed the serpent’s corpse just before the Regina reached the first gun emplacement, ten thousand feet higher than the dirigible should have been and at least half a day out of our chosen path. The Regina’s captain grumbled about “sightseeing” expeditions, but she agreed to let us send up a dinghy to follow the reports from villagers on the border.
The serpent had crashed halfway up one of the snowcapped peaks that made all nearby terrain but the Sterling Pass impassable, and its desiccated carcass had only been revealed by the spring thaw. “Thaw, my arse,” Colonel Dieterich muttered as we disembarked from the gently bobbing dinghy. “It’s cold enough to freeze a thaumaturge’s tits off.”
“The villagers said that this is the first time it’s been warm enough to spend more than an hour on the slopes, sir,” I said, and draped his greatcoat around his shoulders, avoiding the creaking points of his poorly-fastened andropter. “For them I suppose that would constitute a thaw.”
“For them having ten toes is a novelty.” He snorted his pipe into a greater glow, then noticed the coat. “Ah. Thank you, Charles. Come on; let’s go see what the barbaric snows have brought us.”
The doctors Brackett and Crumworth were already wandering over the carcass, pointing and exclaiming. All of the Royal Society party (excluding Professora Lundqvist, who because of her condition could not leave the Regina) were in better spirits now than they had been for weeks, and I began to understand the captain’s decision to send us up here. Unusual as the moment of domestic accord was, though, it paled in comparison to the serpent.
The thing had the general shape of a Hyborean flying serpent, though it was at least twenty times the length of most specimens. It stretched out at least fifty feet, probably more, since the sinuous curves of the carcass obscured its true dimensions. It had no limbs to speak of, though one of the anatomists waved excitedly at shattered fins and shouted for us to come see. “Yes, yes, fins, any idiot can see that,” grumbled Dieterich. “Of course it had to have fins, how else could it steer? What interests me more are these.”
He nudged a pile of detritus with the end of his cane. Rotten wood gave under the pressure: old casks, long since broached. “Cargo, sir?” I said, hoping the possibility of commerce into Aaris might distract him from the carcass. “We may be able to figure out what they held.”
“Bugger the casks, Charles. No, look at the bones.” He knelt, cursing the snow and the idiocy of interesting specimens to be found at such a damnfool altitude, and tugged a few dirty-white disks free of ice and mummified flesh. “If these weren’t obviously bones, I’d swear they were gears.”
“I don’t see how—” I began uneasily, but a shout further down the hillside drew his attention. Crumworth had found what would prove to be a delicate ratchet-and-flywheel system, hooked into the beast’s spinal column. Abruptly the scientists shifted from a state of mild interest to feverish study, each producing more evidence from the carcass.
Made, some said, pointing to the clearly clockwork aspects of the skeleton. Born, said others, pointing to the harness and the undeniable organic nature of the carcass itself (the anatomist raising his voice the most on this subject). Myself, I considered the question irrelevant: the point was not whether the serpent had been hatched or constructed, but to what use it had been put and, more importantly, why it was here, on this side of the mountains from Aaris, outside the realm where it could conceivably have thrived.
It appeared to have carried a crew, though none of their remains were evident, and I could only assume they had survived the crash. I wondered whether they would have returned home over the mountains, or descended into the greater world—and if the latter, whether they would in time come home again. The thought was less comforting than I once had found it. I nudged a toothed segment with my foot and watched it tumble across the ice.
“What does your valet think, Dieterich?” one of the party called. “Since he’s taking his time looking at it.”
Dieterich paused. “Well, Charles? What do you think? Made or born?”
For a moment I considered answering “both” and confounding the lot of them, but such was neither the place of a valet nor for a man in my current situation. “I think,” I said after a moment, “that there is a very dark cloud two points west of us. I suggest we return to the Regina before a storm acquaints us with how this creature died.”
There was less argument after that, though Doctor Brackett and the anatomist insisted on bringing so many bones with us that the dinghy sagged dangerously. The results were presented over supper, and a detailed report made to Professora Lundqvist.
The Professora, of course, could not show emotion, but her tank bubbled in an agitated fashion, and her cortex bobbed within it. “I believe perhaps we have left the Sterling Pass closed for too long,” she said at last, the phonograph flattening her voice into dry fact.
I privately agreed.
In the morning, Professora Lundqvist insisted on taking the bones to the captain, and borrowed me for the purpose. I piled the serpent’s jawbone on her tank, secured the lesser fangs to her braking mechanism, and accompanied her up to the lift. Lundqvist, lacking either an andropter or the torso around which to fasten one, could not venture to the open decks, and thus we were limited to the helm room.
We found the captain, a small blonde woman with the gait of a bear and the voice of an affronted Valkyrie, pulling lens after lens from the consoles and giving orders to the helmsman-automaton. “Captain, if I might have a word,” the Professora said.
“We don’t have time for more of your eggheads’ interpersonal crises,” the captain said without turning around. “I chose my crew carefully to avoid such disagreements; it’s not my fault you didn’t take the same care.”
“It’s not about that,” the Professora said with a hint of asperity. “Charles, show her, please.”
I hefted the jawbone and presented it to the captain. She glanced at it. “Hyborean air serpent. I’ve seen a few.”
“Of this size?”
“Not much smaller. You can put that down, man; I’m not in any need of it.” I did so and, perceiving I was so much furniture in this situation, edged closer to the lenses, trying to catch a glimpse of the pass below.
“The serpent appeared to be domesticated,” Lundqvist insisted. “And there were gears among its bones, gears that may have grown there. As if it were some sort of hybrid.”
The captain shrugged. “There’re ‘naut tales of serpents broke to harness and pirates said to use them to attack ships like the Regina. As for the gears.” She turned and favored us both with one of her slow, vicious smiles that the crew so dreaded. “I expect that if we were to crash and the Aariscians to find your body, Professora, they’d be puzzling over whether you were some hybrid of glass and brains and formaldehyde.”
“It’s not formaldehyde,” Lundqvist sniffed.
“And I’m not speaking hypothetically.” The captain pointed to a lens behind the helmsman. A gray cliff face, cut into deep letters of ten different scripts, receded from our view. “We’ve just passed the graven warning.”
I peered at the bow lenses, trying to get a better look at the warning itself. When I was a child, I’d heard stories (all disdained by my teachers) that the warning had been inscribed into the side of the mountains by an automaton the size of a house, etching the words with a gaze of fire. When I was older, my age-mates and I played at being the team engineered solely for the job of incising those letters, hanging from convenient walls and making what we thought were appropriate rock-shattering noises to match. After such tales, small wonder that my first view of the warning, some twenty years ago, had been so disappointing. Yet I could still recite by heart its prohibition against entering the valley.
The lenses, however, showed no sign of it. Instead, most displayed the same sight: a confection like matching wedding cakes on the mountainsides flanking the pass, the consequences for those who defied the graven warning. Thousands of snub spouts pointed towards us, ranging from full cannon-bore to rifle-bore, the latter too small to see even with the ship’s lenses. My eyes itched to adjust, and I felt a pang just under the straps of my andropter harness, where most men had hearts.
“Ah,” said Lundqvist. “Well, it seems my timing is to its usual standard. I’ll leave you to your evasive maneuvers—”
The first of the large guns swung to bear on the Regina. Excellent work, I acknowledged with a smaller pang; the automated emplacements were more reliable than most human sentries. “Climb, damn you, climb,” the captain snarled at the helmsman. “We should already be at twice estimated safe distance.”
“—although I do hope you will keep our discovery in mind. Come, Charles.”
“Oh, yes,” the captain said over her shoulder. “I will most certainly keep the possibility of attack by serpent-riding air pirates in mind.”
Jawbone slung over my shoulder, I accompanied the Professora back towards the lift. “Charming lass, our captain,” she said. “Had I both a body and Sapphic inclinations, I do believe I’d be infatuated.”
I glanced at her, trying to hide my smile. Full-bodied people often expressed surprise that acorporeals or otherwise mechanically-augmented persons could harbor such desires. I, of course, had no such false impression, but preferred to maintain the illusion of one. “If you say so, Professora.”
She laughed, a curious sound coming from her phonograph. “I do say so. Don’t be a stick about it. Why—”
A concussion like the heavens’ own timpani shook through the ship, followed by a sudden lurch to the right. The Professora’s tank slammed first against a bulkhead, then, as the ship listed deeply, began to roll down the hall towards the empty lift shaft. The first impact had damaged her brakes, I realized, and now she faced the predicament of a glass tank plus high speed.
I did not think. Dropping the serpent’s jawbone, I ran past the Professora and flung myself across the entry to the lift. I was fortunate in that the ship’s tilt eased just before she struck me, and so I was not mown down completely. Instead I had to shift from blocking her passage to hauling on the tank’s fittings as the ship reversed its pitch and the Professora threatened to slide back down the way we’d come.
A second concussion rumbled below us, this one more distant, and from down the hall I heard the captain’s cursing take on a note of relief. For a brief and disorienting moment, I felt almost as if I’d seen a childhood hero fall; those guns were supposed to be perfect, impassable, and yet we’d sailed by. That their perfection would have meant my death was almost a secondary concern. I caught my breath, shaken by this strange mental dissonance.
“Thank you, Charles,” Professora Lundqvist said at last. “I see why Dieterich prizes your services.”
“I am rarely called upon to do this for him,” I pointed out. “Shall I call the lift?”
At that point, the lift’s motor started. It rose to reveal Colonel Dieterich. “Good God, Lundqvist, what happened? Are you quite done molesting my valet?”
Lundqvist chuckled. “Quite. Do give me a hand, Dieterich; I’m going to need some repairs.”
Dinner that evening was hardly a silent affair, as we had reached the second of the three gun emplacements, and the constant barrage made the experience rather like dining in a tin drum during a hailstorm. As a result of the damage to her brakes, Professora Lundqvist’s tank was now strapped to the closest bulkhead like a piece of luggage, which put her in a foul temper.
Unfortunately, every academic gathering, regardless of size, always has at least one member who is tone-deaf to the general mood of the evening, and tonight it was one of the anatomists. He had a theory, and a well-thought-out one it was, that a serpent of the kind we’d found could be grown in a thaumically-infused tank—one similar to the Professora’s, in fact. (The comparison amused only Colonel Dieterich, who teased Lundqvist about her stature as a Lamia of science.)
By the time I came to offer coffee and dessert, this anatomist had reached the point where, if our projector had not been packed, he would have been demanding to show slides. I paused at the door, reluctant to be even an accessory to such a discussion, but it was clear that the rest of the party was humoring him. Either encouraged or maddened by the lack of response, the anatomist continued his tirade as I poured, his voice rising to near-hysteria as he argued that what could be created for a serpent could be replicated on both larger and smaller scales, down to minuscule creatures and up to gargantua. Raising his cup, he predicted an Aariscian landscape of clockwork serpents, clockwork horses, clockwork cats and dogs, all living in a golden harmony devoid of human interference. I held my tongue.
“Oh, for the love of God,” Crumworth finally burst out. “Has no one taught this idiot basic thaumic theory?”
“It could happen,” insisted the anatomist. “Aaris does have the thaumic reservoirs; the ones on the pass, the ones in the Mittelgeist valley—”
“It doesn’t work that way.” Doctor Brackett stirred cream into her coffee until it turned beige. “Yes, there are the reservoirs under the gun emplacements and elsewhere. But they’re the wrong kind. You couldn’t use them to power something like an air serpent.”
All very sound science, of course, and the Mobility/Sufficiency Paradox was the basis of at least one Society lecture. I turned away to hide my smile, and caught a glimpse of Dieterich deliberately tapping his pipe with the careful concentration that meant he was thinking about something else.
“It’s like the difference between a geothermic station and a boiler,” Crumworth went on. “One’s much more powerful than the other, but it’s no good if you’re too far away from the steam for it to power anything.”
One of the Terranocta astronomers at the far end of the table nodded. “Is why no one give a shit about Aaris.”
Several members of the party immediately busied themselves with their coffee. It didn’t take much to guess why, and as the person who’d handled most correspondence on this expedition, I didn’t have to guess. After all, no one noticed a valet, especially not if he was there to take care of simple administrative tasks as well, and if some codes were childishly easy to crack, that was hardly my fault.
While the Royal Society’s ostensible reason for the expedition was to offer the hand of friendship and scientific inquiry to their poor isolated cousins, any idiot could see that it was also to assay whether air power could bypass the gun emplacements. Thaumic reservoirs might be useless for certain engineering methods, but that hardly made them worthless, as the Royal Society well knew.
At least half of the party were spies (Brackett and Crumworth in particular, each from a rival faction in the same country, which explained their mutual antagonism and attraction), and I had suspicions about the other half. To take the most cynical view, the ship was like any other diplomatic mission in that absolutely no one was as they seemed.
I knew the captain had signed on as much for the adventure as for the money, and I believed the same was true for much of the crew. After all, the forgotten land of Aaris—forgotten mainly because just after the first isolation guns were erected, the Great Southern rail line obviated the need to even come near the Sterling Pass—was a story even jaded ‘nauts revered. Most of the crew would have signed on in hopes of trading on this story for a month.
As if perceiving my thoughts, Dieterich glanced up and met my gaze, and the trace of a smile creased the corners of his eyes. Yes, he was an exception to that. As was the Professora, though all of us had our reasons for being here—Dieterich for the Society, Lundqvist for the prestige, the spies for their countries, the non-spies for curiosity. As for me, I’d been valet to Dieterich for ten years, in general service for ten before that, and I was homesick.
The sound of guns below us faded into the distance, as if the lull in our conversation had reached them as well. Two down, one to go, I counted. That was if the landscape hadn’t changed, if my memories of the pass still held true.
The anatomist cleared his throat. “A serpent could—”
“Oh, do shut up, Klaus,” Lundqvist snapped.
What happened the day after was pretty much inescapably my fault, in both the immediately personal and the greater sense. We had passed the third emplacement in the very early hours, and while that had been a near thing—scuttlebutt had it that the charts had been wrong, and only the helmsman’s reflexes had saved us—the mood today was light, and the general consensus that we would clear the pass by noon.
I served breakfast to those of the party who were awake by eight (Dieterich, one of the astronomers, and the immobile, sulking Professora), then made my way up to the observation deck, where I had no business being. It was not the safest place, even with the security of an andropter across my shoulders, but I hoped to catch a glimpse of Aaris before our mission began in earnest. The thaumaturges whose duty it was to keep the Regina airborne were changing shift, each moving into his or her mudra in what an ignorant man might have called clockwork regularity. I exchanged nods with those leaving their shifts and headed for the open-air viewing at the bow.
The morning sun cast our shadow over the mountain slopes so that it seemed to leap ahead of us like a playful dog. A dozen ornamental lenses along the lower railing showed the landscape in picturesque facets. I risked adjusting my eyes to see ahead.
Something twinkled on the high peaks that marked the last mountains of the Sterling Pass, and I focused on it just as the captain’s voice roared from the speaking tube. I had enough time to think Ah, so they did get my report on the Society’s air capabilities before I realized that the guns had already fired.
The next few minutes were a confusion of pain and shrapnel. I was later to learn that the captain’s quick thinking had kept the Regina’s dirigible sacs from being punctured, but at a loss of both the observation deck and the forward hold. What struck me at the time, though, was a chunk of werglass from the lenses, followed by a broken segment of railing that pinned me to the deck. Splinters ground under my fingers as I scrabbled at the planks, first to keep from falling through the wreckage, then out of sheer agony as the railing dug deeper. A detachment borne partly of my nature and partly of my years of service told me that there had been substantial but not crippling damage to my internals, and that the low insistent sound I heard was not mechanical but one of the thaumaturges sobbing quietly as she attempted to keep the Regina aloft.
There are times when detachment is not a virtue.
With a rattling gasp, I reached down and pulled the railing from my side. Only blood followed it, and I yanked the remnants of my coat over the gap in a futile effort to hide the wound.
The hatches from belowdecks slammed open. “Charles? Where’s Charles?” roared Dieterich, and I flattened myself against the boards, hoping to remain unnoticed. “There you are, man! A stretcher, quickly!”
In short order I was bundled onto a stretcher and carried down to the lab, where Dieterich had me placed on the central table and my andropter unstrapped. The Society party’s pleas to have me taken to the ship’s sawbones were refuted with the quite accurate observation that he already had enough patients, and that furthermore no one was going to lay hands on Dieterich’s valet but Dieterich himself. Crumworth and Brackett exchanged glances at this, coming as usual to the wrong conclusion.
Dieterich ordered everyone out, then turned on Professora Lundqvist, who observed the whole enterprise from her place by the door. “And you, too, madam!”
“It will take you a full half hour to attach me to a more convenient bulkhead,” she retorted. “Besides, I have more medical experience than you.”
Dieterich muttered something about idiot disembodied brains thinking they knew everything, but he let her remain. “Hang on, Charles,” he said. “We’ll soon have you right as rain—”
He paused, staring at the open wound in my side. I closed my eyes and cursed myself for ever having the idiot sense to join this expedition.
“Lundqvist,” Dieterich said softly, “your phonograph, please.”
The Professora acquiesced by extending the horn of her phonograph to the lock on the door and emitting a blast like an air-horn. Cries of dismay followed, and Dieterich kicked the door as he went to pull on sterile gloves. “No eavesdropping, you half-witted adjuncts!”
He returned to my side and with a set of long tweezers removed one of the many separate pains from my side. “Well,” he said in a voice that barely carried to my ears, “do we need to discuss this?” And he held up the bloodied escapement that he had extracted.
I opened my eyes and stared at the ceiling. “I don’t think so, sir,” I finally managed. “I expect you can infer the meaning of clockwork in your valet.”
Dieterich reached for his pipe, realized he didn’t have it, and whuffled through his mustache instead. “That’s loyalty for you, eh, Lundqvist?” he said over his shoulder. “Man even ascribes this discovery to me. Very flattering.”
“I suspected a while ago,” Lundqvist said quietly, turning her phonograph to face us. “When this expedition was first floated.”
“Eight months past? Pah, woman, you only told me three weeks ago.”
I stared at her. “How?” I choked, realizing a second later that I’d just confirmed her suspicions.
“Your transmissions to Aaris. I monitor the radio transmissions from the Society—never mind why, Dieterich, suffice it to say that I had reason—and after some time I noticed your additions. Very well encrypted, by the way; I’m still impressed.”
The thought came to mind that had I been only a little slower yesterday, I might have been rid of one of those who knew my secret. But the Professora, as usual, gave no indication of what she was thinking, and Dieterich only set the escapement in a sterile tray and began a search for the anesthetic. “Merged,” I said at last. “In Aaris we’re called merged citizens.”
“Citizens, hm? Looks like the sociology department’s theory about rank anarchism in Aaris had some foundation.” Dieterich extracted another chunk of shrapnel, this one three-fourths of a gear from my recording array, nestled just below what passed for my ribs. “Charles, if I describe what I’m seeing here, can you tell me how to repair you?”
“No. I mean, yes, I can, but—” I stopped, the full explanation of merged versus autonomous citizenry and the Aaris monarchic system trembling on my tongue. Had silence really been so intolerable these last years, so much that the first opportunity made me liable to spill all I knew? “If you extract the broken bits and stitch me up, I should be fine,” I told him.
The Regina lurched beneath us. Dieterich caught the side of the table and cursed. “You’re self-repairing?” he asked as he righted himself, the tone of fascinated inquiry one I knew well.
I couldn’t say I was happy about being the focus of that interest. “No, I heal up. There’s a difference. Sir.”
“Thaumic reserves,” the Professora murmured. “Infused throughout living tissue—I did wonder, when I heard about the serpent, whether it was possible. We may have to revise our definition of thaumic self-sufficiency. Dieterich, you’ve missed a piece.”
“I haven’t missed it; I was just about to get it.” Carefully, with hands more accustomed to steam engines, Dieterich pulled the last damaged scrap from underneath my internal cage and began sealing the wound with hemostatic staples. Each felt like a dull thump against my side, muffled by the anesthetic. “Springs, even... do you know, Charles, if word gets out that I have a clockwork valet, I’m never going to live it down.”
“I suspect I won’t either, sir.” I took the pad of gauze he handed me and pressed it into place while he unwound a length of burdock-bandage. The pain eased to a dull ache. “What will you tell the captain?”
“Nothing, I expect,” Lundqvist said, and Dieterich grunted assent. “What did your Aariscian counterparts ask you to do on this voyage, Charles? From our continued existence, I presume your purpose here wasn’t sabotage.”
I closed my eyes again, then gritted my teeth and attempted to sit up. Dieterich had done a good job—as well he should, being an engineer of automata on a grander scale—and the edges no longer grated, though it was a toss-up whether I’d have recording capabilities again. One more rivet in the vault of my espionage career, I thought, and here was the last: “They didn’t tell me anything,” I croaked, eluding Dieterich’s offer of help. “They haven’t told me anything for fourteen years.”
And there it was, the reason I’d come with Dieterich on this expedition when it would have been so easy to cry off: not just duty, not just homesickness, but the need to know what had happened in my absence. I covered my face, hiding how my eyes adjusted and re-adjusted, the lenses carrying away any trace of oily tears. I did not normally hide emotion, but I could at least hide this mechanical, Merged response.
The Regina shuddered again, followed by a screech that sent shivers up to my medulla. Dieterich glanced upwards, pity temporarily forgotten. “That wasn’t a gun.” He stripped off his gloves. “Lundqvist, keep an eye on him.”
“And how am I to do that?” Lundqvist asked as he unbarred the door and ran out. “Charles? Charles, do not go up there, you are not fit to be on your feet—”
I might not be fit, but both my employer and my home were now up there. I yanked Dieterich’s greatcoat on over my bandages and followed.
We had passed the last of the guns, truly the last this time, and the sunlight on the decks burned clear and free of dust. Just past the bow of the Regina, I caught a glimpse of Aaris’ green valleys.
Between it and us hovered a knot of silver, endlessly twisting. Serpents, I thought first, and then as the red-cloaked riders on each came clear, Merged serpents.
I had been a fool to think that the fourth set of guns would be the only addition to Aaris’ defenses.
“Come no farther.” A serpent glided closer with the motion of a water-snake, and its rider turned in place to address us through a megaphone. “None may enter the Aaris Valley on pain of death.” Familiar words—the same that had been cut into the stone at the far end of the pass, to proclaim Aaris’ isolation to the world. The same that I had memorized as a Merged child. Here they were spoken, recited in a voice that bounced off the mountains.
“We are a peaceful mission!” Dieterich yelled back, then cursed and repeated his words into the captain’s annunciator.
The captain stalked past him to a locker by the helm. “You’d do better arguing with the graven warning,” she muttered.
And indeed, the response was much the same as the cliff face would give: silent, anticipatory, the perpetual knotwork of the serpents writing a sigil of forbidding in the air. “Turn back now, or you will die,” the spokesman finished. I focused, and focused again, trying to see his face.
Dieterich glanced at the captain. “If I tell you to turn back—”
“Can’t. Not without going straight through them. The Regina’s got a shitty turning radius.” The captain yanked her annunciator from his hands. “We demand safe passage!”
The rider did not answer, but raised one hand, and the pattern unraveled toward us. True to their nature, the serpents did not attack the dirigible sacs, but went for the shinier, more attractive target below: the ship itself. A gleaming gray ribbon spun past the remains of the observation deck, taking a substantial bite out of the woodwork and doing much greater damage with a last flail of its body in passing.
“Small arms! Small arms!” The captain produced a crank-gun from the locker and took aim at the closest serpent. She tossed a second gun to Dieterich, who cursed the air blue but took it, leveling it at the rider instead. A second serpent undulated up to the very decks of the ship, knocking several ‘nauts aside in its wake. Those who could handle a weapon ran to the lockers; I lurched out of the way, landed heavily on my wounded side, and cried out.
At the rail, Dieterich turned—and the last flick of the serpent’s tail lashed out and knocked him over the railing.
There was no outcry; the chaos was too great, and Dieterich not the only one to go over the side. The snap of andropters opening added a new, percussive voice to the tumult.
I will not explain my actions then; certainly I knew that Dieterich’s andropter was in good condition, as I had tended to it only that morning. Nor did I have any fear for him in particular. Nor was I so foolish as to forget that my own andropter was back in the lab with Lundqvist, and so any slip on my part inevitably meant a fall that would not just kill me but reduce me to a splash on the rocks below. Still, some remnant of instinct propelled me forward despite better sense and burgeoning pain, and I ran to the railing.
The serpent whose rider Dieterich had pulverized writhed near the bow, devoid of instructions and therefore meaning. I leapt onto the railing, crouched briefly to secure my balance, and flung myself at the beast, trusting in my Merged brain to calculate the proper angle.
I caught the first set of fins and was dragged alongside the ship, long enough for me to force a hand into the soft tissue behind the fin and fumble about, searching for the controls that had to be there. Merged pack animals had always had secondary controls near their braincases; surely this part of the design would not have changed.
It had not. With one hand “plugged” into the serpent’s controls and one clinging to its fin, I wrenched the beast away from its attack on the Regina and followed the sound of Dieterich swearing at his andropter. It had opened enough to keep him from plummeting to his death but had the unfortunate side effect of wafting him directly toward the mouth of another serpent.
I wrenched my serpent into a helical dive, wrapped my legs around the closest fin, and stretched my arm out as we coasted past. My serpent smashed through the silk and framework of Dieterich’s andropter, and I caught Dieterich himself by the harness as the jolt briefly tossed him aside. My arm went numb with the shock, and the staples holding my wound shut tore apart, but it was enough: I used Dieterich’s momentum to swing him aboard, onto the serpent’s flat head and out of danger.
Dieterich stared blankly at the sky for a moment, apparently having difficulty understanding that he was still alive. “Good show, Charles!” he croaked after a moment. “Very good show. You’ve got a knack for this.”
I kept hold of his harness and didn’t answer. One slip, I thought, one simple yank on the harness and I’d have disposed of half of the people who knew my Aariscian nature. And the only other led a fragile existence in an easily-broken tank....
It didn’t matter. Or it would have mattered, in another world, one where I was actually the spy I’d been built to be. I clung to the serpent’s head and whispered to it as I worked the controls, blood seeping through the bandage and slicking my side. “Forward. Take me to Aaris. Please.”
Pleading, as the captain had said, had no effect, but direction was easy enough to communicate and the serpent’s reflexes simple to control. We veered away from the knot of gunfire and scales and out of the smoke, toward the valley. None of the other serpents followed. Dieterich, still pinned in place by the remnants of his andropter, craned his neck around. “What is it? The battle’s over there—damn it, Charles, I did say I’d keep a secret. You know I’m a man of my word, now take me back!”
I barely heard him. Below me were the green fields of Aaris as I remembered them, the mesh of white roads stretching from the Mittelgeist hills into the fragments of arable land that were so assiduously tended, the clutter of houses, even the sheen of Lake Varno where I was born, where I was decanted, where I swore citizenship....
The serpent’s hide below me rippled, and I followed it with a shiver of my own. No. Not as I remembered. The roads, long irregular from necessity, had been smoothed out into a patterned web, and the hills and rivers that had blocked them smoothed away into similarly perfect shapes. I adjusted my eyes again and again, as if a more magnified landscape would show not just what had happened but why. Nothing but the same iterated regularity; nothing of what I remembered as home.
I shook my head and shifted my eyes back to their normal state, then leaned back, trying to take in the whole valley. My breath caught with a crackle.
It was as if I gazed upon a great green clock, a hybrid land that was not just land nor automata but both. Every part of the landscape bore a design I knew from study of my own inner workings. The slow motion of it—even the patterns of glaciers sliding down the mountains—communicated a vast unfathomable purpose. A purpose of which I was no longer a part.
And in the fields and villages and kennels and stalls, eyes all like mine, adjusting as they looked up, lenses shifting to see one of their own above them. No full automata. No full humans. Only the same Merged calm on every visage.
I shuddered, viscerally aware of the hole in my side, of the mess of blood and bandages so at odds with the careful, clean lines of this new Aaris. “Home,” I whispered. “Home. Please.”
The serpent, either wiser than I or interpreting the indecision of my hands, curved into a wide arc. I heard Dieterich gasp as we turned away, but I did not turn to see his reaction. Instead I gazed ahead, to where the Regina, spilling smoke and the telltale glitter of lost thaumic power, was limping away back down the pass. Its decks were a flutter of rescued andropters and wreckage, but though the mass of serpents parted to let their brother through, it did not fire upon us as I guided my serpent back to it.
For the first time in twenty years, I did not have to make the tea. Dieterich brought a tray down to the remains of the observation deck, where the Professora and I sat in silent contemplation of the receding Sterling Pass. Below us guns boomed, unaware that they had failed in their work of keeping us out but that their greater mission had succeeded. I got up from my place on the deck (the benches having been used for temporary hull patches), but Dieterich waved me back to my seat.
He poured two cups, then tipped the contents of a third into the Professora’s nutrient filter. She murmured thanks, and I took the offered cup gratefully.
“You needn’t worry,” Dieterich said after a moment, “about the, hmm, shrapnel I extracted. I disposed of it among the bits we took from that first dratted serpent’s carcass.”
One set of gears in among the other. Fitting. “Thank you, sir.”
“You’re welcome. Don’t let that sort of thing happen again, hm?” He gave me a searching look, but whatever doubts he’d harbored had been erased when I brought us both back to the Regina’s splintered decks. “Good man,” he said, drained his tea, and returned to the depths of the ship.
I took a sip of my tea. He’d made it well. “How much time do you think we have?” Lundqvist asked softly.
I attempted a shrug, winced, and settled for shaking my head. “There’s no indication that Aaris intends to undo their isolation. They may be content to stay in the valley.”
“You weren’t,” she pointed out.
“No.” I gazed back into the smoky pass, thinking of the great clockwork of the valley, the machine that it ran, of serpents on the wrong side of the mountains, and lensed eyes looking back at me. “Ten years, perhaps. Five if we’re unlucky.”
The Professora was silent, though the constant hiss from her phonograph resembled a slow exhalation. “Well. We’ll just have to hope we’re lucky.”
Five years. I’d been in service for twenty; perhaps a different service was needed for the coming five. I got to my feet, glanced behind me at the pass, and began setting the cups back on the tea-tray.
“Yes. We’ll hope,” I said. “More tea?”