Every ten minutes she took off her gloves and touched her fingers to the rails, and it was still there, every time, sometimes a mile back through the forest and sometimes five, sometimes running and sometimes walking and sometimes—worst of all—stopped, like it was sensing her through the metal just like she sensed it; as though it could tell all at once how cold and tired and terrified she was, how little she had left inside.
Once, squatting to touch the cold steel, exhaustion overtook her, a tiny blink-sleep that caused her fingers to rest on the metal for long enough that it could speak to her, like they were sitting in the same room together, its voice metallic and echoing—
Why do you run, Ashley? You know you can’t outlast me—
—and she had snatched her fingers back like she had touched the Furnace; wide awake again, fatigue momentarily pushed out of her body by the gurgle-croak of that horrible voice, distorted by the rails, sounding even less human than it had a day and a half ago, when it had sniffed her out in the middle of her crime and screeched her death sentence across the tiny workman’s tenement.
Yellow eyes watched her from the woods, the full moon lighting her up for every predator in the Northern Forest, yet when she thought of wolves all she could think about was the heat they gave off, the shaggy warmth of their pelts, and that’s when she knew she was in trouble, that the cold and her hunger were becoming dangerous, that she was more likely to make deadly decisions. It was the same in every adventure tale in her father’s library—when the body became stronger than the mind, you made mistakes. Mistakes like the one that had gotten her here.
Gabriel. She said his name to the wind and felt a flush of warmth, so she shut her eyes and walked faster, concentrating on the memory of his mouth, in the darkness, on her ear, and the feel of his rough hands, as they paused to caress even the most unremarkable parts of her body, and the sound of her name on his tongue—Ash!—in that last terrible moment before the door splintered off of its hinges and the dark came in.
From far away, she could feel it click its claws against the rails, an unrelenting chk-chk-chk-chk of steel on steel. The rails were Base Metal, of course, but by law a thin ribbon of Lustrous Metal had to run through every length of functional Metal—so cops and spies could keep an eye on Base activities. It was this Lustrous Metal that she read; this that connected her back to the metalman, and past it, to the City, to its sprawl of rusted pig iron, to Gabriel’s iron bedframe.
Gabriel: dark and beautiful, solid with the strength of all Base Metallics, whose bodies and souls reflected the coarse and unbreakable metals they could commune with. Gabriel, crowned with black curls, his face all dark stubble and blade-sharp eyebrows against pale firm skin. Gabriel was iron girders and lead pipes; the nickel jugs of water and the wild zinc ore that his miner father’s fingertips could follow deep into the earth. So unlike the boys in the City’s Upper Circle, Lustrous Metallics like her, whose hair was as bright and weak as the gold they worked. Ash was proud of her own ability to read gold and silver, to see the patterns it hid, to shape it with her mind, but Gabriel had swept aside all the lies she’d been told about the innate inferiority of Base Metal and the people who worked it. Gabriel’s work was as artful as her own, and her father’s. Gabriel’s fingers were sturdy but delicate, and when they probed her bare sides she felt as exposed as the metal he manipulated.
But strong as he was, Gabriel was weak. Blind, in an unyielding City where the blind and the deaf and the otherwise impaired rarely lived to adulthood. The City Fathers found few uses for someone broken. Even with his weight balanced expertly above her, even as his implacable hands pinned her down and the rhythm of his mighty hips became the only thing worth living for, she knew that she was the strong one. Which was why she’d done what she had done. Why she’d run. To save him.
Back there, in the dark, in Gabriel’s room, in the heap of ramshackle hovels built around the City’s central Furnaces, she had pressed her face into the heat of his neck and told herself that she would give it all up, for this, for him—her apprenticeship, her father’s support, the sweet comfortable life that was hers by Lustrous birthright—and now she had. The metalman had found them, somehow, maybe by smelling the forbidden intermingling of Base and Lustre; maybe because one of Gabriel’s nosy neighbors had snitched.
When it kicked down the flimsy door of Gabriel’s tenement and shambled forward to pronounce her sentence, she had seized a burning log from the fireplace and swung at it—only instead of it shrinking and screaming like in the stories, it had snatched the torch away in one filthy rust-and-iron studded hand and stabbed her in the shoulder with a Base Metal blade.
“Here!” she had cried when it turned toward Gabriel, when she caught one last look at his fragile perfect nakedness, damp with sweat and sudden fear above the sheets, and her heart was weak and begged her to stay so they could die together, but her body was strong and seized a second burning log and struck the metalman this time, and then dropped it and ran and heard the monster clattering after her, and she knew then that Gabriel would be all right. His father was strong and well-connected. He would get to his father’s, and his father would get him to safety.
All night long she had been telling herself that as it chased her north, never slowing, never letting her slow, until she at times found herself walking while asleep.
She wondered if she had ever been truly cold before. Cold was different in the City. Not like this. The Furnaces were never far. Out here, every breath hurt. The track formed a tunnel in the trees, and the wind churned through like molten gold down a sluice. In the beginning her face had hurt, the only spot where her skin was exposed. Now her face no longer hurt, but her fingers burned inside her gloves and her neck clenched like cold hands were choking it. The rails looped lazily back and forth, a slow zigzag climb up the plateau that from her City window had always been a distant blue tumescence. The wind got worse as she went, and her thighs ached with the uphill slog.
The wound in her shoulder hurt worse as she went on; Base Metallic poisoning, in its early stages, was not so different from the pain of initiation, the ceremony that accompanied every birthday from twelve to sixteen, when she had been branded with one of the five Lustrous Metals. But unlike her native Lustrous Metals to which her blood and her body would swiftly adapt, leaving her with the ability to work that new metal, Base Metal would corrode her whole body and kill her, just as sure as the metalman would.
So what’s the point of running? Even if you manage to double back, and elude the metalman, and make it home, the healers will see how your wound was made, and they will not help you.
She had no answer for the nagging voice in her head, so she tried her best to ignore it. She ran because she couldn’t not run. She had been running her whole life, it seemed, now; the metalman had always been behind her, its steel hooks eager to split her open, for as far back as she could remember. That was life, in the City. They were always watching. Every decision she had ever made, she made because of what might happen to her if she didn’t.
Every five minutes, she reached into one pocket and held the rag to her nose. Gabriel’s flimsy undershirt; snatched on wild idiot impulse as she grabbed her clothes and fled, as if she knew, even then, that her old life was gone, that she had fallen so low that the sweat-smell of his clothing would be her only possible comfort.
They had talked about running away together; planned their journey along the rails, their flight from a society that punished intermingling such as theirs with death. Dumb young dreams: packs on shoulders full of dried meat and hard biscuits; moving south away from the high frozen plateau or climbing over it to the Autumn Valley; building fires beside the rails; making love by warm midnight seas. Looking back she could see it for the fantasy that it was. And Gabriel, who was no older than Ash but who she had always imagined to be so much wiser, was as naïve and dumb as she was.
Gabriel. She said it out loud again, but this time the name stung, a flash of warmth that only made the cold sharper. His body; its heat; the raw olive ridges of his shoulders; the tight black curls she loved to tangle her fingers in. Blind eyes opening wide in ecstasy. Memories flickered in and out of her nightmares, imagining what his body would have looked like if she hadn’t lured the metalman away. Skinned and broken, no longer a bronze statue; useless as a lump of inert ore. Every morning there were bodies in the streets, looking like something belched up out of a sausage grinder; poor fools caught by the metalmen in the middle of some transgressive act—alloying silver with nickel, or selling gold jewelry to the Base Metallics who craved the shiny stuff even though they could not work it. There were no written laws, no authorities to appeal to. Only the metalmen, who lived no-one-knew-where and who carried out the bidding of City Fathers, who were likewise inaccessible. Even the most upstanding Lustrous citizen might vanish in the middle of the night for a crime he hadn’t even known was a crime.
She stopped. She stopped whenever fear threatened to overwhelm her, as if to stand her ground and prove that fear would not be her master. She held his shirt to her nose, and breathed deep, and remembered his grin as he had peeled it off. Remembered the taste of him, the forbidden salt-and-metal musk of his most secret part. She took off her glove and touched her fingers to the cold metal rail.
Coming, came the scrape of its voice.
Coming for your head.
Ashley pulled her fingers away, stood up, kept walking. Anger dumped heat into her veins. Maybe you will catch up to me, she thought, and maybe I will kill you. Maybe you’re still a man, under all that. But metalmen weren’t men anymore, if they ever had been—jammed full of hooks and beams and chains and blades over time until they were clanking vicious monstrosities.
She looked at her fingers but could not tell, in the dark, in her ignorance, what frostbite looked like. She knew nothing. She didn’t know the landscape; whether she stood a chance if she stepped away from the rails and ran through the woods. The metalman would be unable to follow her there—she hoped—but the forest meant certain death, whereas she knew the rails would take her someplace warm. She just didn’t know if she’d live that long.
Without putting her glove back on, she reached into her pocket. Her fingers closed on the flint that Gabriel had given her, at their first clandestine rendezvous, the meeting; that simple gift that had made her blush with excitement and fear and guilt. A butterfly: gold wings and a steel body that clasped the flint itself. Press its wings together and metal rasped against metal, spraying sparks. She ran her finger along the alloy point where forbidden metals melted together, and she felt the same warmth from when he touched her. She had never dared to use it; had only held it in her hand. But it was useless now, when she needed it, for she had nothing to burn. She was not skilled enough to make a fire on bare wood, and she had no tinder or fuel to help kindle one. So she held the flint tighter, walking faster, feeling it warm in her bare hand.
A mound of snow shaped like a man caught her eye, stark as an omen. Kicking it did, in fact, reveal a foot. She dropped to her knees and swept snow away with both arms, certain she could wrap his clothing around a sturdy stick and set it on fire and make a torch—keep herself warm—have something in her hand when the metalman found her.
But the man was naked, and partially eaten by something that might not have been animals. A stick was still clenched in one frozen hand; a book lay beside the body. Sadness flooded her, wondering what had happened to him—if he too had fled the City and its hundred secret rules punishable by death, or if he had been stripped and thrown from an ore train, or if he was part of an itinerant gang of dispossessed Base peasants, or had fallen afoul of one. Ash could not tell if he was Base or Lustrous. She wondered if, in death, it mattered.
Had there ever been real butterflies? Had there ever been anything other than this? Cold and fear had wiped her mind clean, shattered every memory of warmth and love. How they had met, how they’d fallen in love, but further back, too: her mother’s cooking, her father’s cologne when he picked her up and spun her around when she was small enough to be spun.
From each pocket, she pulled what was left of Gabriel. His flint and his shirt.
This man would not give up his stick easily. She fought for several minutes but could not pry open his fist without thawing it out. So she broke the stick off above his hand and was left with a respectable three feet. And then, as if from guilt, she took the book as well.
No! she thought, as she tied Gabriel’s shirt around the edge of the stick. If you burn that, you’ll have nothing.
She chuckled, to find herself arguing with herself. Loneliness and exhaustion had driven her mad.
If I don’t burn it, I’ll die.
What kind of life would it be, without him?
Ash had no answer for herself, so she squatted away from the rails and flexed the butterfly wings together. Metal struck metal; sparks fell, then died before reaching the coarse cold cotton. She stooped lower, and the sparks lived long enough to touch the fabric before flickering out in the cold. So she struck it again and again and again. The shirt resisted burning, but she used a crumpled page from the book.
It’s catching up to you. Every minute you spend here is a minute less between you and death.
Minutes or hours later, her arms aching but warmed slightly from the effort, a burning page kindled the shirt into flames. She hurried on without touching the rail to feel how much ground the metalman had gained.
At first, the torch made the going easier. Its heat let her focus on things other than the cold, such as her own hunger and exhaustion.
Once I had this fire I should have stayed and cooked and eaten that man.
You see? You burn his shirt and everything good in you immediately dies and you become a savage cannibal.
Ash laughed out loud.
Laughter answered, from the darkness behind her. Harsh, metallic laughter, distorted by wind and distance; impossible to tell how far away.
She froze, then tensed to run. Before she had gone five steps she saw that running threatened to blow out the torch, and she slowed.
How close is it? How good are its eyes? Can it see in the dark? Can it see me? Can it smell me?
Another hour passed, maybe more, walking as fast as she could without risking losing her fire, and there was no further sign of it. She fed the torch at regular intervals, feeding pages into the flame until the book was two empty covers.
The trees fell away slowly, growing thinner and farther between; she must have crested the plateau at some point and begun the descent back down its other side. Soon she was definitely moving downhill, the incline sloping down into open prairie stretching in all directions away. The Autumn Valley, Ash thought, feeling its wind. The air was warmer here, and drier, above freezing but not by much. Grey light had begun to tint the sky the color of ashes.
Her heart sank at what she saw. The rails continued on, winding slightly to accommodate the steepness of the grade and then flattening out at the bottom, falling into step alongside a frozen river and following it off into interminable distance. While the rails were hidden in spots by small hillocks, she could see at once that the landscape would offer her nothing. No lights of human settlement, no fire or promise of heat in that whole wide wild expanse. It would take her at least a full day to walk that far, and she did not think she had a day left in her.
Hope fell away, then, the thin thread of it that she had been clutching to, that had pulled her so far. The brutal reality of her situation finally hit. She was going to die, out there.
You don’t know that. Anything could happen. A merchant caravan on ice sledges could come down the river five minutes from now, bringing you food and fire. You have to keep going. There is no alternative.
And it doesn’t matter what happens to you. Gabriel will live. Because of you.
Ash could no longer tell which of her inner voices was the crazy one. A wash of agony swept over her, originating in her shoulder wound, and a series of violent retches dropped her to her knees. She spent a long time there, producing nothing but a small delicate handful of golden bile.
But when she stood—the pain was gone. Like a curtain lifted. How could this be? Touching the skin near the wound, she felt none of the heat or redness of infection. Her cold and her hunger and her fear were all still there, but she saw now how easy it was to set them aside. Her exhausted body, giving up the fight.
Turning in a slow circle, she took stock of her position. She would go no further. She would wait here, for the monster that was coming behind her. Hiding herself in tall dead prairie grass, she would watch it emerge from the forest and follow the rails down. It would assume she was still there, still going, hidden now by one of the hillocks below. She would sprint down from behind, using the torch as a weapon. Having the high ground on the hill slope would give her a slight advantage.
But it will smell the smoke of your torch; it will know you have left the rails behind and it will come to you.
“Good point,” she said, out loud, to herself.
So give it more smoke to smell. Confuse it.
Ash picked up a handful of dead leaves and let them fall, to assess which way the wind was blowing. The dry and slightly warmer air would help. Then she ran a few hundred yards down the hill and turned to the left, the direction the wind was coming from. Halfway to the treeline she touched the torch to the dead grass in slow circles. Black smoke rose. No way to control the burn; she had to hope the metalman would come before she had a full-fledged forest fire on her hands. Returning to the rails she ran back up the hill and hid herself on the opposite side of the track from her burgeoning bushfire.
You can’t kill it. It’s too big, too strong. It’s made of Base Metal.
I’d rather have it kill me quick than freeze or starve to death out here.
She held her hands to the torch. If any of the shirt was left, she could not recognize it.
Gabriel. I will come back to you. I—
She touched one finger to the fire, to punish herself. If she was going to survive this, she would have to set him aside with the cold and the hunger. Love or lust or anger or sadness could only slow her down, make her make a mistake. Shocking, how easy it was.
Come on then.
The grey sky brightened while she watched the mouth of the forest. Geese flew by overhead. A deer moved mournfully through the tall dry grass. So much meat that she had no way of eating.
And then: it came.
Sunlight made the metalman more frightening, not less. She could see how it had been assembled; could trace the human form inside that blasphemy of metal bristles and blades. It was naked—no human clothing could ever fit such a jagged and monstrous silhouette, although shreds of filthy rags still shivered in the wind at the base of some spikes. She saw the iron rods added over time to stretch bone and muscle, giving it longer arms and an extended spine that formed an impressive hunchback and would surely have had it standing well over seven feet tall if it ever stood up straight. The legs were shorter and resembled tree trunks in their sturdiness, solid muscle to carry the weight of so much metal. Straps of leather crisscrossed its body, some of them holding additional blades and leather bags. What she had initially thought was fur was actually chestnut hair, cascading down from its head and knotted into every dark place where metal met flesh.
It stopped at the sight of the smoke and sniffed the air. Her clumsy approximation had been close enough: the wind blew the smoke right over her, and the day was already bright enough that it could not see the light of her torch. The metalman laughed and dropped to all fours to follow the rails down.
“You gave up?” it called, in the direction where it thought she was. “The cold became too much for you?”
Ash moved too, slowly and carefully coming closer to the rails.
Suddenly, it stopped. She was close enough to know that it could see the bushfire, raging out of control, too big and wild to be a campfire. She was close enough to see the muscles in its legs twitch as it realized something was wrong; as it wondered what to do, what direction the attack would come from, how to defend itself.
She was close enough to leap straight at it, as it whirled around in surprise at the sound of her, and jammed the torch into its underbelly. It swung one enormous arm, so hard it would have bent steel and broken every bone in a mere human’s body, but it was off-guard and bewildered and she was able to duck, step to the side, stab the torch into its neck.
The metalman howled. She had not reckoned on that; had not been able to imagine how a mere sound could hurt her. It did hurt her, to her soul, how much pain was packed into that wail: the screech of steel on steel, of lovers ripped apart, of a lifetime in shadow, of destroying beautiful things.
She saw its face for the first time, the dense nest of piercings and studs, the sharp triangular set of shiny metal plates—silver?—around the eyes that magnified poor light and helped it see in the dark. Steel fangs shone in its mouth. It stumbled back, and she stepped forward, grabbing for one of the many weapons that protruded from its body—
Maybe I can break it off, maybe I can hurt it, maybe I can use it against—
Her hand closed on a rusted steel blade that jutted out of its shoulder.
And Ash saw.
She worked the steel as effortlessly as gold. She saw the twisted blackened tunnels where the metalmen lived, and the cruel tortures the City Fathers inflicted on them to keep them obedient. She saw this one, following her from her father’s house to Gabriel’s every day for a week. Saw it watching them—saw herself, saw Gabriel, his hairy legs lit by firelight; felt all over again the hot rush of desire and despair.
How can I read Base Metal?
She thought of the healed infection from the steel blade, her deepening ability to work the steel rails... and the bliss when she and Gabriel embraced, the heat of him, how natural it felt. And then she understood.
People who can work both Base and Lustrous metals become metalmen.
The metalman didn’t move. Barely human eyes widened, and she thought maybe it was smiling. Or nodding. For the first time she could see its pain, under wounds healed over after decades of torture. How much every motion hurt.
People like me.
Fear spread through her like nausea, harsher and colder than the steel infection had been.
Only we can survive the horrific process of making a metalman. Only we can see everything, know everything, work every piece of metal in the City.
Ash’s grip tightened. The metalman lowered its head, as if yielding. She tugged, and it groaned, and she tugged harder. She felt the steel obey her, shifting beneath her fingers and yielding up its secrets. And then the blade was in her hand, long and cruel and dripping black blood. But she felt only pity for it now, this twisted monster that was once a man, or a woman.
It scanned her face, saw her pity, and frowned.
Still staring her down, it unbuckled one of its leather straps; let two heavy leather pouches drop to the ground. It picked one up with one foot and tossed it at her feet.
Ash squatted and untied it and opened it and turned it upside down, so Gabriel’s head could fall to the earth.
Tears fogged her eyes, so swiftly they surprised her.
The voice was small and weak now. She had none of the rage and furious anguish she needed. Only exhaustion. The true deep-down full-body fatigue she had been fighting for so long.
For as long as I thought I was keeping him alive.
“Why?” she said.
“Ask the steel,” it gurgled.
Ash gripped the blade and read it deeper, continued past where the sight of Gabriel had stopped her before. Saw her own fight with it, saw it follow her out into the street, saw it turn back, saw it pause in the doorway and watch Gabriel fumble for his clothes. Saw it wrestle with itself. Saw what it was afraid of, what the City Fathers were afraid of: a resistance, back in the City. Full of brave strong boys and girls who knew the truth. Who it was obliged to kill.
Ash saw its weariness, but also its fear. Of what would happen if it ever failed.
How they would hurt it: the Fathers.
Her pity deepened, then, seeing it scream and writhe across decades of torture, even as her hate for it swelled. She saw it step forward, close gnarled metal talons over Gabriel’s head and lift him up by it, saw the squirming frailty of his naked body. Saw the blade whoosh out and sever his head. Saw his body fall.
The thing did not step aside when she lunged forward; did not try to stop her from thrusting the same blade up into the narrow exposed spot where no metal protected its neck. It welcomed death. Because it hated what it was? No, she saw, behind the weariness in its eyes. It welcomed death not because it was tired of being a tool for hurting, but because it was weary of suffering. It didn’t hate the City Fathers for what they had done to it. It didn’t dare dream of running away.
She and it were not the same.
When it was dead, Ash sat down on the wooden rail ties and opened up the other pouch. Tear-blind, she fumbled through its contents barely seeing a thing. Food, water, furs. Money. Then she sat back and gripped the freezing rail with two bare hands. Felt herself transported back, back, back, all the way to the City, her vision so much clearer and broader now that she allowed herself to see through Base steel.
Her mind balked at the volume of unknowns. Could she return to the City? Keep moving away from it, hoping to come to some other, better place, that might not even exist? Live in a world without Gabriel? Deep into her pocket, her hand tightened on the butterfly flint. Felt how strong it was where the metals alloyed. Felt where she too was alloyed, now; where his strength bonded with hers.
Ash took the furs and built herself a cocoon. Inside, she touched her lips to Gabriel’s butterfly. She fell asleep with her mouth still full of the warm sweet gone metal taste of him.