Salvage

Issue #77
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Colonel Dieterich closed the maintenance panel below the airship’s secondary propeller, sending a puff of gray dust cascading over the mesa. “Well, it looks fine, despite the rough landing,” he said. “I should be able to fly us out of here.”

I brushed dust from my trousers. “Not that I’m accusing you of hubris, sir, but I’m sure others have said the same thing, and, well—” I gestured to the shambles just beyond our little airship: the shattered undercarriage of a wrecked dirigible much larger than our own. The high, sagging dome scaled with thousands of bronze plates verdigrised by half a century’s disuse gave the derelict Chiaro the look of some great fish dragged from its home. Beside it, our little propeller-driven airship was no more than a sneeze.

Dieterich’s heavy brows lowered in an irritated glare. “Yes, well, they weren’t flying a ship of my design, now were they? Nor were the other idiots who tried to land on the far side of the wreck, with their ridiculous ‘salvage blimp’—” He stopped as a ramp unfolded from the side of our ship. “Don’t tell the Professora I said so,” he added in an undertone.

I nodded assent as Professora Lundqvist descended from our airship onto the mesa. Her tank sloshed gently as her wheels reached the uneven ground, and the sensor ring on top of her tank rotated one way, then the other. “Professora,” I ventured, “are you sure you ought to be out?”

“Quite sure,” she responded, her phonograph translating not only her words but her air of dismissal. “Would you rather I stayed put, like some kind of potted plant?”

“I’d rather you stayed back in town,” Dieterich grumbled, getting to his feet. “You have no business being along on this mission, Lundqvist; you’re too easily damaged.”

“Phidias was my student. That makes it my business.” She pivoted back and rolled some distance away. “If one of your students decided to go off on some harebrained salvage mission that then crashed in hostile territory, I’m quite certain you’d do the same.”

The Colonel sighed. “In that case, we’d best make our way around and examine where his blimp crashed. At the very least we can learn how they—damn it all, Lundqvist!”

The Professora had already moved on, trundling across the mesa. Grumbling about damnably stubborn brains in damnably stubborn jars, Dieterich followed after her, tugging his greatcoat over his shoulders, then paused as he realized I wasn’t following. “Coming, Charles?”

“In a moment, sir.”

I’ve traveled with the Colonel too long to keep certain moods secret. He turned back to face me, arms folded. “You’ve been out of sorts since... well, since we got word about Phidias, at least. Mind telling me what’s wrong?”

Since longer than that, to be truthful, but I didn’t blame the Colonel for looking to the proximate cause. “I don’t much like derelicts, sir.” Truth, if not the whole truth.

Dieterich chuckled. “Me either, honestly. They’re too strong a reminder of mortality. But,” he added, stumping after the Professora, “as I said, our little ship should be just fine. Don’t worry so.”

“If you say so, sir,” I murmured, gazing up at the plates that had once armored the Chiaro’s dirigible sac, now unhinged by time and age.

It was not that I held the misunderstanding against the Colonel. He might see it as a theoretical memento mori, but the shattered metal and gears of the Chiaro were a little too similar to the mechanical augmentations that ran through my own flesh. It was understandable that he would forget, given that for a number of reasons I had to keep my nature a secret from all but him and the Professora, but I was never unaware of it. I had been designed and altered with as much care as the Chiaro had been, and though I might no longer use my Merged elements in their original cause, I could not so much as draw breath or even blink without remembering them.

We left the sagging dome of the dirigible sac unexamined, since despite its awe-inspiring bulk it was no more than a shell. Instead we crept into what little of the undercarriage remained. According to the old broadsheets, when the pilot’s control over the mighty airship broke at last, giving way to the many wounds inflicted by the automata of Parch, the undercarriage had dragged along the top of the mesa and left nothing behind.

This proved only partly accurate; while the lower levels had been demolished entirely, a few of the higher ones remained. We wrangled the Professora over the shattered beams, ignoring her grumbling at having to be manhandled so, and I wrenched open a gap in what had once been the floor of the second-class compartments. “The gilding’s still in place,” I said as we clambered through. “It looks untouched.”

“Of course it’s untouched,” the Professora muttered. “Only idiots come up here. And yes, I am including Phidias in that assessment.”

She had a point. The Chiaro had remained undisturbed for two very good reasons: the bitter winds that wreathed the mesa and had given us such a rough landing, and the automaton town of Parch to the east. Automata, thinking machines, were not particularly bellicose, but they were fiercely protective of anything they considered their territory. The Chiaro itself had proved that by straying into Parch’s airspace, and that had been its downfall: the vaunted plating of the sac proved ineffective as armor but very effective as ballast. The wounded dirigible had limped away and crashed in disputed territory, so any official recovery attempts were scrapped.

Which left the unofficial, the underfunded, and, inevitably, the disastrous attempts. And, sure as gravity, people like the Professora to clean up after those attempts, bringing along people like me in her wake, who were just as adrift as the damaged Chiaro had been.

Behind me, Dieterich turned in a slow circle. “They still tell stories about the crash, you know.”

Lundqvist made a sharp, chattering noise, something her phonograph could not quite interpret into speech. “I’m sure they do. Charles, could you move this beam? Dieterich, do give him a hand; your valet can’t do all the work.”

“He already makes all the tea,” the Colonel said mildly, but winked at me. We heaved a large beam—glittering with fine strands of werglass—out of an arched doorway, now at a 30-degree angle. “Last time I was back home,” he went on, “they even made it part of the pantomime. Something about self-sacrifice, the men and women who’d signed on as thaumaturges giving their lives to keep the Chiaro aloft while the passengers evacuated. They’d even brought an actress from the Capitol to play Raisa the pilot, dying in her throne....”

I caught his eye, and he shrugged. “Melodrama, of course,” he added sheepishly.

“Good lord,” the Professora said, and when we looked up from the beam, we understood why. Even the most luxurious airship I’d traveled in was still at heart a transport, and so every space had been used. Here, the makers of the Chiaro had flaunted their wealth through empty space. Even though the walls had been twisted by the crash, this was unmistakably a ballroom. Parquet floors sloped from a low angle at one end to the opposite angle at the far end, like an ocean wave, and each inlay gleamed with gold leaf.

It was not the only mark of excess. “Look,” Dieterich said, pointing to the walls. High panels of molded werglass glowed weakly. “I haven’t seen this much waste since my brother’s wedding,” he added, but in a tone of wonder rather than condemnation as his reflection pointed back at him.

“There’s werglass spun through the whole thing,” the Professora said, rolling with some difficulty toward a broken gap in the wall. Dust from the mesa had sifted inside, limning the long, broken strands of glass that ran through the wall like horsehair through plaster. A faint, greasy glow sparked as she drew back, a sign of thaumic distillation worked into the glass.

“But that would make every wall worth a king’s ransom,” I said.

“Several kings,” she acknowledged, using one of her two styli to pry aside a fragment of werglass. “The thaumaturges who managed it must have been able to perceive the entire structure.”

I shivered, and not just because of the wind leaking through the broken walls. Airship thaumaturgy was based on the link between man and machine, a machine controlled directly by human concentration, by carefully trained experts whose mental discipline simultaneously kept them separate from the machine and cognizant of its flight. I was the opposite: my machinery was completely integrated, to the point where I no longer perceived it as something outside my self. My eyes itched from the pressure of multiple lenses behind them, and for a moment I was very aware of the thrum of the engines that passed for my heart.

My reflection watched me from a cracked werglass panel, streaked down the middle with blackish-green where the ore had seeped out from the crack and solidified. From outside I looked human, but only the same way that from a distance the Chiaro looked intact. But the thaumaturges of the Chiaro had not considered their airship any more alive than their pocketwatches. I smiled nervously, and after a second, the reflection smiled too. Werglass reflections, and their delay, will never cease to unnerve me.

“Halloo!” Dieterich yelled from the next room over, and I hurried over the warped parquet to reach him. Here, a small tea-salon had been turned on the opposite side from the second-class compartments, as if the whole undercarriage had been corkscrewed. A broad staircase had once been meant to sweep down into what I assumed had been passenger cabins; a smaller, less ornate one led to a more utilitarian door that still sported an embossed gold seal. “Halloo, anyone there?”

No answer. The Professora’s springs sagged. “I can’t make it over those stairs,” she murmured. “Charles, Dieterich, let’s go back outside and around to the salvage mission wreck—”

A tiny quad-bolt, no longer than the last joint on my little finger, dropped from the staircase above, coming to rest against the Colonel’s boot. Slowly, like a broken wind-up toy, a man’s face peered down from behind the little door with the gold seal. “Who,” he said, then blinked and donned a pair of cracked eyeglasses. “Professora? Is that you?”

“Phidias.” Lundqvist rolled to the foot of the stairs. “You are a royal idiot, first-class, do you know that? Come down here this instant.”

Her former student obeyed, still moving as if he was unsure how arms and legs worked. “Professora,” he said again, and smiled. Even with three weeks’ beard and a dry, unwashed aroma to him, his smile remained as brilliant as if we were at a Society function. “I’m so glad you came,” he added, resting his forehead against the top of her tank, sand-colored hair flopping lank over her sensor ring.

“So am I, Fiddy. So am I.” She was silent a moment, then rolled back. “Where are the rest of your team? What happened?”

“Windstorm?” the Colonel offered.

“Not quite,” he said, walking past us to a breach in what had once been the floor but now made one of the walls of the tea-salon. “We’re near Parch, remember? One moment we were about to land, and then—” He shook his head. “I thought I’d seen something on the ground, but it was too late—the first shot knocked us out of the sky, and the second finished the job. I’m surprised you made it past them.” He drew a shaky breath. “As for your other question—” He opened the window, then turned away. “There.”

I risked a glance over the Colonel’s shoulder. Six mounds of earth marked a line tucked against the side of the Chiaro. “Fiddy,” the Professora whispered. “I’m so sorry.”

He managed a shrug, but his eyes were red. “We knew it was a risk to come up here, but we thought those damned Parch clankers wouldn’t be guarding it. Most of my team died in the crash, and the ones that didn’t... I’m no doctor, Professora. I was never good at field medicine.”

The Colonel bowed his head. “You’ve been here alone, then?” I said.

Phidias started. I regretted speaking up; my status with the Colonel and Professora might be more informal, but to the Society at large I was still only the Colonel’s valet, no more than a fixture in the background. “It wasn’t so bad,” he said, turning to the Professora. “And we’d brought enough rations and water for seven... I haven’t even really put a dent in that.”

“Yes, well, we’ve come to take you home, Fiddy. I can cover your debts, and then you and I are going to have a long talk—”

“Home?” He looked up, alert for the first time. “No, no, I can’t go home yet. You don’t realize what they did when they made this ship.”

“What, burned heaps of money in a furnace?” Dieterich muttered.

Phidias shot him a glare. “No, you—no, nothing like that.” He held up a thin sliver of werglass so dark it practically stank of thaumic contamination, then fumbled in his coat and produced a folded blueprint. “Raisa, the pilot—you remember the stories? She wasn’t just the pilot; she designed the whole thaumaturgical linkup, and she was so ahead of her time I can barely decipher her work. But the linkup is entirely different—it’s based on parallel, rather than serial mode.”

I glanced at the Colonel, since most of that had gone over my head. To my dismay, he looked thoughtful, and the Professora’s tank had begun to bubble. “You mean a multiply enhanced link,” he said, tugging at his mustache. “Compartmentalization.”

“Exactly!” Phidias beamed at him. Myself, I was still lost. “Exactly. They haven’t tried to make anything on the scale of the Chiaro since the crash, but if a parallel link process could be developed, it would revolutionize airship design. I’m almost on the verge of deciphering it—please, just a little longer, and I’ll have it. You can even take the credit before the Society if you want, I don’t mind, it’s not as though they’ll have me back—”

“Don’t talk like that, Fiddy,” the Professora said. “If you make a discovery, you claim credit. Simple as that.” She rotated to face Dieterich. “We’ve got the provisions. And don’t worry about me; I had my tank changed before we left.”

“Then it’s settled!” Phidias clapped his hands. “I’ll bring down the unit log—”

A thump and rattle sounded from the depths of the Chiaro, and Phidias froze. “Not another one!”

“Another—”

Phidias paid no attention to the Colonel. “They’ve been coming here, coming to steal her—” He clenched the banister so tight his fingers turned white, then clambered up the skewed staircase and returned with several loops of heavy cable. “Help me. If we trip it, we can tie it—”

The Colonel glanced at me and nodded to the Professora. She made an irritated noise, but I put my back to her tank, ready to defend her.

Since Phidias wasn’t looking, I leaned over and exerted some of my Merged strength to wrench a bent pipe from what was left of the wall. But as I straightened up, a glimmer flickered in the corner of my eye—not from below, but behind, in the ballroom.

“There!” Phidias whispered. “Do you see it?”

“Yes,” I said, but in truth I wasn’t sure what I saw—something like the reverse of a shadow, a glimmer of reflected light passing from one pane of werglass to another. Sunlight, I told myself despite the heavy cloud cover outside, or some Merged reaction to the werglass. Shivers running down through my bones, I raised the pipe, backing up against the Professora—

A shriek and clatter echoed behind me, and I spun to see Phidias clinging to the back of what looked like a four-legged metal spider. Dieterich swung his end of the cable and lassoed the thing’s legs, and the whole mess toppled over, chattering in a blur of unintelligible static. “That’s it!” Phidias yelled, scrambling away. “That’s one of them!”

“An automaton?” the Professora said. “From Parch?”

The machine looked up at her—a strange gesture from something that had neither head nor eyes. Instead, something like a scarab had been welded onto the front of it, and this rotated as it got a better look at us. “Parch,” it repeated in a surprisingly dulcet voice.

“Oh, this isn’t good,” Dieterich muttered.

I was not accustomed to the sentient automata that populated the Hundred Cities, and had always assumed they would be larger. This one, however, stood only about a foot taller than me, its legs folding out from a central core as wide as the Professora’s tank. The speaker at the base of the machine’s “head” thrummed, and a stream of atonal syllables issued forth.

Dieterich shook his head. “None of us speak Lower Kingdom.”

The automaton clacked, a sound that somehow echoed one of Lundqvist’s irritated sniffs. “I speak Imperial. Not well.”

“I thought this was off-limits to both sides of the border,” said the Professora.

“Rule of Parch, yes. Rule of earth, no. I follow rule of earth.”

Dieterich drummed his fingers against the crumpled samovars, scarred brown digits tapping out an irregular rhythm. “So you’re here in violation of Hundred Cities law?”

Its central column swiveled in place. “Rule of Cities, rule of earth. I am here for, hhhnn,” the speaker twitched as it thought, “pilgrimage.”

“What?” I took a step closer, forgetting that I still held the pipe, and the automaton twitched, focusing on me.

“That’s ridiculous.” Phidias got up from his place at the foot of the tilted staircase, his fists clenching and unclenching.. “Ridiculous. And the ones who shot us down, were they on ‘pilgrimage’ too?”

It swiveled again. “Might be.”

Phidias’ lips curled. “Then they’re in violation too,” the Professora said smoothly. “In the meantime, I intend to stay put.”

“And for better reasons than that—thing,” Phidias snapped. “It’s a machine. Machines don’t have a religion. If you believe that ‘pilgrimage’ rot, then you’re—”

“Belief isn’t the matter here,” Dieterich paused, glancing at the automaton. “Do machines have a religion?”

Phidias snorted, and for the first time I found myself in agreement with him. Obviously, machines didn’t bother with such matters; the idea was as foolish as... as life remaining in a derelict airship. I cast a glance over my shoulder at the empty ballroom, shivering.

The automaton’s insides churned a moment, an unpleasantly grinding noise. “No,” it said finally. “But this one will make her circuit regardless.” It rose up, snapping the cable as if it were no more than frost-killed straw. “This one is Transit-born, chosen female, designated Chaff.”

Though he’d flinched back at the sight of the cable breaking, Phidias snorted at the “chosen female” bit. “Some automata do choose a gender,” Dieterich pointed out.

Chaff nodded. “Stayed female fifty years. Before that, neuter. Considered gender a fad for younger mata. Changed mind before beginning Path.”

“You don’t look much like a thresher,” I said.

Chaff’s eyes swung toward me. “Do you look as you did when natal?”

“Charles,” the Professora said softly, and I quieted. Behind her, a faint glimmer passed over the shattered werglass in the wall, gone before I could be sure that anything had provided that reflection.

I shivered and glanced again at the empty ballroom, trying to convince myself that I’d seen nothing, a task that might have been easier had I not known I’d been designed to notice unusual things.

The next few days passed far too slowly for my tastes. Phidias scrambled all over the remnant of the Chiaro, ranging from his little nest in the pilot’s cabin with cutting torches and saws in hand, claiming that the residue of Raisa’s work remained in the werglass logs in the “unnecessary portions” of the ship. I couldn’t argue with the fact that much of the Chiaro seemed unnecessary, but as wall after wall gave way to his incessant banging, the resulting headache seeped into my skull and would not leave. It didn’t help that he liked to sing as he worked, and though I couldn’t make out the tune, the echoes of it were deeply unnerving.

Dieterich, for his part, proved much the same as his role at the Society: place a puzzle in front of him, and he was happily enthralled. Occasionally, he tried to find a way into the thaumaturgy chamber, since airtight emergency doors had shut that section off, presumably so that any fires that started in the airship would not affect the thaumaturges. Since the Professora was limited to those parts of the wreck that her wheels could traverse, she spent much of her time in the tea-salon, brooding.

Myself, I tried to find reasons to stay out of the wreck. But there were few other places to go—our cramped propeller ship, the smeared wreckage of Phidias’ salvage expedition, or the barren mesa itself. Cold, dry wind drove grit into my eyes when I ventured outside, and though the heavy gray sky above threatened rain, I knew anything that fell would evaporate long before it reached us.

The Chiaro wreck itself was little more hospitable: at one end was the uncanny ballroom, at the other a nest of airtight doors blocking off the thaumaturgy chamber. The pilot’s cabin itself was Phidias’ domain, though I hardly grudged him the space, since that must have been where Raisa herself had died. To reach the Professora, I had to cross that warped parquet floor, and every time I entered the ballroom I had the sensation of being watched. My mechanical reflexes remained alert, but with nothing to lash out at. And though I had passed for human for decades, here I was far too aware of what ran in my bones as surely as thaumic distillation ran through werglass. I slept poorly, dreaming of the metal inside me, of the airship coming alive around me as my own body betrayed and devoured itself, and woke to a ship that should have been empty and dead. But the occasional glimmer, trick of the light or my eyes or something more, made that “should have” more of a hope than a statement.

If Phidias had been through three weeks of this on his own, no wonder he was such a wreck.

My nerves went from unsteady to outright paranoid when, late one afternoon, I heard a tenor voice, clearer than it had ever been, echoing from the Chiaro. I picked my way through the second-class cabin, gooseflesh prickling my skin. It was a sentimental love song, the kind to which swains add their beloved’s name: even the wind follows your steps/but not as close as I/Raisa, Raisa....

The name sent a fresh shiver down my back, and I stumbled, knocking over a broken bench. The singing stopped, and quick footsteps receded. I hurried through the door in time to see the glimmer shivering across the panes on the far side of the ballroom. To either side Phidias’ reflection, slower than he was, turned and ran. But deeper in the glass, held in the reflections of reflections, he was still dancing, arms extended to nothing.

I started after him, then stopped as I realized the light in the room was dimmer than it should have been. I turned to the gap in the wall, only to see a blank scarab-face staring back. “Chaff,” I breathed, but the automaton turned away, its shadow following.

I squeezed out through the wall, werglass bristles dragging at my trousers, and landed on the uneven mesa with a thump that sent dust spiraling out. Chaff made no move to elude me, forelegs folding to bring it closer to the earth. “Chaff,” I said as I reached it. “What did you do to him?”

It leaned further, tapping its body against the ground, then rose. “Specifics?”

“The glimmer—Phidias. What he was dancing with. You’ve been projecting that, haven’t you?” A coil tightened, somewhere in my gut. “You did, didn’t you? You did something to the werglass, made that glimmer. He was dancing with it.”

Chaff was silent a moment. “I am not so strong,” it said finally. “Nor so active.”

I caught my breath, startled no less by the machine’s serenity than by its tacit agreement that the glimmer was not my imagination.

It continued walking, stopping every five paces in what I assumed was an approximation of prayer. “Pilgrimage of the Path is not worship, but consideration. Meditation on the liminal states. Here, on sin as well.” It bent again, this time murmuring a chatter of machine-talk. “I contemplate the echo of flesh in machine and the great sin behind it. Contemplation is not what that one wants.”

The echo of flesh in machine. I put one hand to my chest, very aware of what passed for a heart there, of the thaumically infused flesh that kept me alive and running. Chaff’s life, if it could be called that, sprang from the residual thaumic infusion of her body; I was not so different, for all that I counted myself mostly human. “But if you truly mean what you say,” I went on, not quite able to believe I was entertaining the possibility, “then why did you tell the Colonel that the machines had no religion?”

Chaff’s central column pivoted, the result very like a person cocking her head to one side. “Because he used the singular.”

It took a moment for that to settle in. “You mean there’s more than one?”

Chaff made a winding-up noise, and abruptly I recognized it as a chuckle. “One? That is like saying, hhhhn,” she paused to consider, “all flesh has one favorite music. Many kinds. And some prefer no music, or pictures instead.”

“Many kinds,” I echoed.

“Many and many.” Her scarab tilted. “Path of the Earth, best. Noughts, fine but talk too much, do little. Monastic Column, broke off from Path some time ago, idiots. Way of the Steel Emperor, all stripped gears, bent ratchets... also smug. Yes. Smug is right.” Chaff chuckled again. “In Parch, ninety-two sects, three hundred mata. Interesting conversations. Of those ninety-two....”

She went on, speaking more quickly, interspersing automata chatter and Lower Kingdom words. I could already feel my eyes glazing over at the thought of an hour-long discussion of sectarian beliefs among the automata.

Chaff turned to face me. “You would hear Path of the Earth?”

“I—” Although proselytizing automata might be worse.

“Charles! A word with you!” Dieterich emerged from underneath our little airship, then paused as he saw Chaff. “Now, please, Charles.”

I followed Dieterich behind our airship. “Yes, sir?”

“Get Lundqvist and young Phidias. Make him pack up every last splinter of glass if that’s what it takes, but we’re leaving as soon as I get this repaired.”

“Gladly, sir,” I began, then stopped. “Repaired?”

“Yes.” He opened a panel under the propeller mount and gestured at the cables within—and the very noticeable gap where the cables ended. “Repaired. The motivating element’s gone. As well as half our fuel—enough that descending will probably be interesting.”

“Stolen? You’re sure?” Dieterich gave me a look. “Sorry, sir. But who—”

He chomped on his pipe thoughtfully. “Phidias is too scatterbrained, I think, to manage any real sabotage. Chaff, though... I rather like automata, Charles, but they don’t think the same way we do.”

I thought of Chaff’s meditation on sin. I’d been so baffled by her that I hadn’t asked why she had been watching Phidias, or what the glimmer really was. I pushed away my lingering unease over the glimmer to concentrate on the more real, present problem. “It’s possible.”

“More than possible. And certainly it would be convenient for the Parch automata if we did not return.” He ran one hand over the fringe of tight gray curls that was all that remained of his hair. “I can rig the ship to fire without it, but I don’t want to risk another sabotage. We’re leaving now.”

I hurried back inside the wreck, scrambling over splintered benches, casting glances over my shoulder for Chaff. “Professora! Phidias!”

“Here, Charles.”

I paused at the door to the ballroom. The Professora stood before one of the mirrors, her brain reflected as no more than a pale smear against the glass. “Professora,” I said, not liking either how my voice echoed or how my reflections bent one after the other to follow her. “How soon can you pack up?”

“Hm? Oh, a few minutes, I suppose.” She didn’t move, though. “Charles, could you do me a favor?”

If it would get her moving, I’d do anything. “Certainly, Professora.”

“I know you can see properly. Would you do so now?”

I hesitated. The Professora and Dieterich both knew my nature, knew that my eyes were only one of the many parts of me that no longer had a claim to being human.

“Your secret will be safe. Phidias is off cutting through walls to get to his lost Raisa, so he won’t see you.”

At that I started. “You knew?”

She let out a long, slow noise, not unlike a sigh. “Fiddy and were close once. I can tell when he’s in love. Please, Charles.”

I blinked, then focused, lenses sliding in front of my eyes as they adjusted, the pressure in what in humans was the sinus cavity building into a slow headache. “What exactly am I looking at?” I said, flicking from lens to lens.

“The glass, Charles. And I think you’ve seen it too.”

My mouth was dry, and I forced away the memory of Phidias dancing with nothing. “A ghost?” I managed, failing to imply that the idea was foolish.

“That’s what Fiddy thinks,” the Professora said simply.

I shifted the last lens into place and caught my breath. Through the altered lenses of my Merged physiognomy, the werglass to every side flared and flickered, energy chasing through it like a flock of birds in the air, like fire across a grass plain. “There’s a trace of power still moving through the glass.” Not a ghost, after all, but residual energy, something left over from its former use. No more a ghost than the lenses I used were an intruder in my body. “It’s not coherent, though. The glass isn’t in use, it’s just still powered. Somehow.”

“I thought so. My senses aren’t exactly the same as yours, Charles, but I could still tell something about the glass....” She sighed, her springs relaxing. “Do you know what they warn us about in theoretical thaumics?”

“It’s not my department,” I said, still staring.

“Embodiment. Loss of self. It’s worst for the thaumaturges; there’s a reason most airships only keep them on short shifts. When you’re using your mind to control an entire airship, it’s easy to lose oneself in the body of the machine.” She flexed her each of her styli in turn, like an artist examining her hands. “It’s almost the opposite of what they tell anyone going through the acorporeal treatment.”

Echo of flesh in machine, Chaff had said.

“They’ve tried to transfer the human mind to automata, you know. Failed, repeatedly. You and I are as close as they’ll ever come to that, and my position is hardly enviable.” She chuckled, sadly. “But dying while linked isn’t yet fully understood. And now Fiddy... Fiddy believes he’s fallen in love with a ghost.”

“An echo,” I said. And a sin? What was sin to machines?

“Charles, I need you to do one more favor for me.”

I adjusted my eyes back to normal, wincing at the pressure. “Professora, the Colonel has said we need to leave immediately.”

“So we shall. This will only take a moment. And it will make the leaving easier.”

The favor in question was simple enough: put down a ramp so that the Professora could finally reach the little pilot’s cabin where Phidias had been working. She waited in the salon, listening to the muffled cacophony as Phidias cut yet another section of undercarriage away, while I wrestled several fragments of benches into place and helped her wheel onto them.

The cabin was the one part of the Chiaro that resembled any other airship: crammed with equipment, werglass consoles on swinging frames so that a quick pilot could shuffle between them when needed without bothering to consult the thaumaturges—the ones who must have been on the far side of the sealing door at the end of the chamber, I realized. Instinctively, I turned to the heavy chair built into the wall: the main throne, from which the pilot could run the whole dirigible in case of thaumaturgy failure. It was empty. “Raisa—she should be—”

“Fiddy probably buried what was left,” Lundqvist said absently, turning over lenses. “If there was anything—it looks like the fire came through here, even if Fiddy’s been polishing it up.” She motioned to blackened, ashy marks on the werglass, the crazed and leaking lenses.

Phidias’ blankets and foul-smelling clothes lay in a heap, swaddling shards and irregular blocks of werglass. “This can’t be his research,” I murmured. “I don’t think even the Colonel could draw anything from this.”

“Which is why he kept Dieterich working on the larger pieces,” Lundqvist said over the growing din of Phidias’ work. “Poor Dieterich. He might play the hardened military man, but he’s too trusting.” Her lower stylus lifted disintegrating leather straps and dropped them again. “The werglass is useless, Charles. There is no hidden breakthrough.”

“Then why stay?”

The Professora hissed. “Charles, look.” She glided back half a pace. “This throne is not meant for proper thaumaturgy. No one in a meditative mudra could sit here. Nor would they need to be strapped in.”

I got to my feet. “You think—”

“There are scratches on the armpieces. Small, but present. And the neural tap—” Her stylus drew back, as if fearing contagion.

I looked where she gestured. Near the top of the throne, where Raisa’s head would have rested, there should have been a werglass knob. Instead, a dull metal spike gleamed with tracings of glass. I shuddered at the sight of it.

“That is anything but temporary, Charles. I always wondered how the Chiaro even got airborne—it was too big, you’d need dozens of thaumaturges on repeated shifts, not the six plus Raisa that the broadsheets lauded. And with the werglass—that would just make things worse, the thaumaturges would have been aware of the entire damned ship, not just the propulsion. Unless they weren’t kept on shifts. Unless they were irrevocably wired into the machine.”

I adjusted my eyes to see the scratches better. Heroic sacrifice, Dieterich had said of the pantomime back home. But what worth was a forced sacrifice?

The scratches on the throne became clearer, as did something else. The tarnish of fifty years’ disuse had been scraped away. “Professora, these scratches—”

The constant clang of Phidias’ investigations suddenly turned deafening. I spun to see the airtight door opening, a cloud of dust—no, not dust, but smoke—

I may have lost much that made me human, but my lungs are as weak as any man’s. I fell back, coughing, and only briefly caught a glimpse of Phidias, masked, raising a bent pipe and bringing it down across my temple.

I woke to pressure across my chest and waist and outright pain at my extremities. My head ached, more from the smoke than the blow, and now my eyes refused to focus on even such a nearby thing as the straps holding my wrists in place. I started to struggle, then froze as a voice made it through the fog in my brain. “. . . simple enough,” Phidias said. “Cut away the dead weight, and the structure is still good.”

A dull pain throbbed at the back of my neck, like a bruise but pressing, though I clearly remembered Phidias striking me on the temple. And besides, my hand looked wrong. I tried twitching my fingers. Nothing. And it looked... wizened, somehow. There was a smell in the air, like dried meat, like lizards in the sun....

Phidias stalked past me, and I froze again, but he paid no attention to me. “Residual energy and pattern transfer did only so much, though. So as I said, I’m very glad you came.”

The fog in my brain was clearing, enough that I could see that the hand I’d been concentrating on was a left hand, even though it was on my right. The pressure on my neck worsened, as if something were trying to push through my skull. I was hanging—no, not quite suspended, locked into a sitting position, as if I were a harvest effigy in a wicker chair, ready for the bonfire.

At the far end of the room, the Professora’s tank had been nestled among dozens of werglass lenses on swinging frames—the pilot’s cabin, I thought, then rejected it, since these were in much better condition, unmarked by fire. Phidias moved between us, pacing, checking the panels as if he were beginning an experiment. Not Raisa’s cabin, then, and that was a relief of sorts....

“There’s no saving her, Fiddy,” the Professora said at last.

“You don’t know that.” He moved past me again, this time carrying a piece of machinery, too new to be the Chiaro’s. The motivational element from our little airship.

“I meant the ship,” Lundqvist said tartly. “Raisa’s been dead for decades.”

“She’s in the glass, Olga. She’s in the glass and I can bring her out.”

He probably buried what was left, I heard the Professora say in memory, and reflexively jerked away. Leather stretched and tore, and I finally realized whose hand I’d been staring at, why the scratches on the throne in the pilot’s cabin had seemed fresh, what that dry-lizard smell was, and worse, worse—

I was in another thaumaturge’s throne, the link jammed against the base of my neck. And to either side of me were the other members of Phidias’ salvage team, dead and desiccated, hanging in thrones of their own. The hand beside mine was twisted into a claw, still grasping futilely at the strap that held it in place.

He hadn’t buried his team. He’d buried the original thaumaturges, and replaced them with his team. Residual energy and pattern transfer.

I screamed, my voice giving way to the Merged cry I’d first used as a child, grating forth in a howl. At the other end of the chamber—the main thaumaturgy chamber, I realized, the place that had been sealed off—Phidias leapt up from beside the Professora. “What? He should be linked—”

“Charles is a little different when it comes to these things,” the Professora said, her phonograph barely flattening the relief in her voice.

That was one way to put it. Phidias must have tried to link me in, as he had with all the members of his team—maybe those who survived the crash, or maybe none had survived, maybe he had linked them dead—but my Merged physiognomy did not mesh with Society thaumaturgy, the metal woven through my skull did not permit a full link, and I remained unlinked, if mildly concussed.

I yanked at the straps on my wrists, and decades-old leather began to fray. Where was Dieterich? Struck down the same way? Linked already? The room seemed to lurch as I tore one hand free.

“It doesn’t matter,” Phidias said. “All I need is you.”

The Professora’s styli drew back. “Fiddy—”

“You’re used to it,” he said. “You’ll be fine. And once I carry the glass out of here, I can find a way to bring her out too.” He took hold of the Professora’s upper stylus as if to shake hands, then jammed it into a socket on the console.

A strangled noise—not a scream, nothing with as much thought behind it, but a horrible chattering cacophony of garbled phonemes—emerged first from her phonograph and then from the walls themselves.

The strap on my left wrist snapped. A bang echoed my cry, loud as Phidias’ work in the struts. But the Professora’s scream went on, and the pounding continued, till I no longer knew what was in my head and what was real. I tore open the last strap and dropped to the floor, then rolled as the floor changed direction entirely.

The entire room seemed to pulse in time with the clamor—from the closest wall, I realized, and saw the weathered steel dent inward. I stumbled forward, but Phidias stood between me and the Professora, one hand gently patting her tank as if to encourage a pack animal. “Professora!” I yelled.

She didn’t answer, or couldn’t. But a rack of lenses swung forward, against the pull of gravity, and struck Phidias first across the jaw, then in the gut as he staggered back. A second lens flailed against him, shattering over his head, and the keening from every wall took on a harsher, furious note.

The lenses continued to strike as I leapt over Phidias. I wrenched Lundqvist’s stylus from the socket, heedless of the damage I did to both. “Professora Lundqvist!” I shouted, peering at her sensor ring and the brain beyond. But the walls continued to keen, and Lundqvist’s phonograph remained silent.

The closest wall dented and caved, tearing apart, and the noise cut off abruptly. Fresh air poured in, driving werglass splinters over me and revealing the rest of the Chiaro falling away around us. Chaff and Dieterich peered through the gap, clinging to what was left of the Chiaro’s structure. “Dammit, Charles, I told you we’d be taking off, but I meant in my ship!” Dieterich roared as Chaff tore the rest of the wall free as easily as I might tear paper.

I was in no mood for wit. “The Professora,” I gasped, dragging her tank along—then stopped dead as I saw the mesa sinking below us. We were already six feet up and rising. “We can’t leave her—”

Instead of answering me, Chaff leapt onto the Professora, knocking me aside. She pinned the Professora’s tank between her forelegs, as if she were a vessel to be borne, then tumbled back, out of the diminished compartment. Still clinging to the wall, Dieterich reached in and caught my sleeve. “Mind the fall, Charles, and don’t waste time!” he shouted, and leapt into the cloud of dust and splinters that hid Chaff and the Professora from view.

Phidias moaned behind me, and I glanced back. The werglass still glimmered, but in every panel now, glowing unmistakably. I adjusted my eyes, heedless of Phidias’ presence, only to see a pattern blooming in the glass, fragmented and uncertain but present. But compared to the Professora, even to the machine in my own flesh, it was only a trace, an echo, swallowed up by the horror of the dead in that room.

Phidias got to his feet, sobbing, reaching out first for the glimmer in the glass and then to the empty throne. “Phidias!” I called.

He ignored me, clutching the arms of the throne, clinging to the frayed leather as he tried to fit himself where I had been, then throwing his head back—

I turned and leapt. An unMerged man might have died in such a fall. But I was wholly Merged, wholly myself, with machinery as much a part of me as my brain, and I could trust those reflexes to minimize any damage. That didn’t keep it from hurting, though; I hit the ground, bearings shifting and tendons parting even as I rolled. I came to a halt at last, one ankle badly twisted and my nose and mouth full of gray earth.

“Charles.” The Professora’s voice, weak but present. I turned to see her, still held by Chaff, her wheels askew and styli dangling useless, but her tank uncracked and marvelous brain unhurt. “Look.”

I rolled over to see. The great arch of the Chiaro, those green-blue panes gleaming like cabochon gems, rose in a slow curve above the mesa. Below hung truncated fragments of the undercarriage: the pilot’s cabin alone. No, not alone—the ballroom as well, those endless werglass mirrors no doubt reflecting us in miniature. Raisa, Raisa, even the wind follows your steps....

A gust of wind rattled across the ground, sending debris whirling past us—but above, the toll was greater. One by one at first, then more as the corroded bolts gave way, the bronze plates reduced to paper-thinness by time and corrosion trembled. Like petals from some strange tree, they scattered to reveal only rusted mesh below.

For a fraction of a second, even the air stilled, as if to preserve the Chiaro in place. A breeze reeking of hot tin and broken stone and the horrible mummified scent of the dead salvage team wrapped round us. Then, so slowly it was almost gentle, the Chiaro fell, this time shattering itself against the side of the mesa, crumbling against it till there was nothing left.

We offered Chaff a lift off of the mesa, but she rejected it. “The Path of the Earth should remain on the earth,” she said. “I have already sinned once by leaving it.”

Though we were all glad she had done so, none of us were up to debating the philosophy of transgression with her. Instead, Dieterich shepherded us back to our little ship and took off, guiding us through what was left of the wind.

“I followed Chaff at first,” he said finally. “Found the wreck of Phidias’ airship... it hadn’t been shot down at all. No, it looked like they’d tried to take off, only to crash again.” He let out a long breath. “That told me I needed to find you, and I’m just sorry it took so long.”

“You could tell that just from the crash, sir?” It had looked like any other wreck to me.

“I’m insulted you even need to ask, Charles.” He was silent a moment, then began patting his pockets, searching for his pipe. The airship lurched, and he stopped. “Lundqvist—”

“I should be flattered,” she said quietly. “He thought enough of my intellect to let me be the linchpin of his plan to bring Raisa back.” She let out a long sigh—imitated it, I thought, clinging to human mannerisms as if to remind herself what she was. “I should be, but I’m not.”

“It was an insane plan,” Dieterich grumbled.

“Perhaps not, depending on which branch of theory you follow,” the Professora said, a little of her didactic nature reasserting itself. “If he was the man I taught, if he remembered anything of my lessons, then he would have linked himself in as a last effort. But that would have lasted just long enough to be part of the ship, to feel it come apart around him. If I wanted revenge, that would be it.”

I thought of Phidias flinging his head back against the throne, felt the still-raw wound pulse at the back of my neck, and kept silent.

“And if you didn’t?” Dieterich asked.

“If I didn’t.” Her phonograph thrummed with another imitation of a sigh. “If I didn’t, I’d remember how it felt to be—be part of all that. Integrated, even imperfectly. I’m still not sure whether I struck him, or whether....” She caught herself, then began again. “I think if he linked, he found more than he expected.”

“He did,” I said quietly. As had all of us. I put one hand to my forehead, feeling the pressure of lenses behind bone, the glimmer of life in both, the echo of machine in flesh.

Below us, Chaff continued her trek across the mesa, cutting a new path. I watched her go as we descended, down into the lands far from Parch.


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Margaret Ronald's short fiction has appeared in such venues as Fantasy Magazine, Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, and ten times in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, including a series of stand-alone stories set in the same steampunk world that began with “A Serpent in the Gears” in BCS #34 and includes “Salvage” (BCS #77) and “The Governess and the Lobster” (BCS #95) along with four others, as well as a ongoing series of fantasy mysteries beginning with “A Death for the Ageless” in BCS #134 and continuing in "Sweet Death" in BCS #161 and "Murder Goes Hungry" forthcoming in 2015. Soul Hunt, the third novel in her urban fantasy series and the sequel to Spiral Hunt and Wild Hunt, was released by Eos Books in 2011. Originally from rural Indiana, she now lives outside Boston. Visit her website at mronald.wordpress.com.

If you liked this story, you may also like:
“A Serpent in the Gears” by Margaret Ronald
“The Motor, the Mirror, the Mind” by T.F. Davenport

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1 Comment on “Salvage”

One Response to “Salvage”

  1. Atsiko Ureni says:

    09-11-2011, 03:02 AM
    Atsiko Ureni

    A really fun story. And creepy. Which is a compliment, I hope.

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