“When man governed, there was food and peace. There were clockworks to hold the sun and twist the moon, and magic teeming in the crafts....”
The children huddled around Weaver’s crusty slippers, like they always did, listening to our myths. Humanity fell so long ago we’ve started calling the years “countless.” We’ve only been kept around because of our usefulness. People like the trains.
The children “oohed” as Weaver began the tale of Son the Carpenter and his thousand willow flies. Beneath the lure of the old man’s voice and the mudra of his hands, they forgot their empty bellies and the haphazard patches holding rags around their ribs. They were in the past.
The braces restricting the movement of my hands didn’t release me from the present, and so I envied them. I could not indulge in the mything voice, couldn’t lose myself to its words or pleasure.
“Honor, Twin,” Weaver said, prompting the children to mimic him in a caucus of falsetto warbles.
I returned their bows precisely, trying not to appear rushed. “Service, Weaver.”
He returned smoothly to Son’s story, reclaiming their attention and letting me walk on.
I cringe to think it, but I sped up considerably when nearing the exit. Being the Chief Engineer of Trahkander line meant I was often away. My ventures allowed me to forget how wretchedly we lived sometimes. This human race. Rag-patched, with latrines sloughing over thoroughfares and door-curtains woven from chickenbone and dust-curled moss.
I knelt in the guard post marking the transition between our caverns and the city outside. The walls were lined with jade-framed mirrors designed for a Dani’s sight. Any patterns or art that might be captured there looked more like shady clouds to me.
Two visimancers stood watch, waiting for me with mirror staffs gripped in all their hands. Their floor-length jade plate robes ground against each other in a continuous symphony of rock, hiding their rail-thin, transparent bodies from easy reach. Their ovular and almost featureless heads were uncovered. I’ve always thought they looked like teardrops.
Their Dani “faces” were barely grooved, and they had only the three arms of youth. I risked lifting my eyes to waist level to take in the familiar room; it was nice to be in a clean place again.
My fingers constricted in their leather bonds, pulling the sliver of jade scribed with my identity from my sleeve and into the open.
The Dani closest me, with a face almost tinted blue, released one arm’s grip from its staff and reached out with the vacuous webbing they use for hands. It ran one of its four tiny fins over the scrip, then formed a cone with the others.
Glimmery runes floated, light by light, from the tip of its hand to the air in front of my face. The Dani could hear, in a way, but they had nothing to form words for human ears. I read, they listened.
“You are late, Engineer,” it said.
I lowered my eyes again. “This servant is sorry, sae. This servant came as soon as he was informed.”
“You have a reputation for truth, obedience, Engineer. This is known. You are not at fault. The messenger will be punished.”
I tried not to tremble, waited. Nothing I could do. I felt sorry for the messenger—but not terribly. Punishments were to be lived through. They were part of being human.
There was a flash of light, much brighter than their speaking spectrum. It bounced a combination through the room until the panel wall that was a gate laid down and transformed again into a ramp. I didn’t need to be told to leave.
Kandor is breathtaking in any season, at any time. It began as a joint effort between Odrm and Dani to maintain control of Trahkander, the central service depot, and keep it from human hands, but if you leave the Dani anywhere long enough they’ll make something beautiful.
At first it had been small, mirror traps on roof tops catching the sun at certain heights and reflecting back spectrum arches in pretty shapes. Nothing unusual for a Dani city, until the Odrm joined. Visimancers, illusionaries, architects, docket men and equaters convened. They planned. They built.
The legacy of those plans, six hundred years later, raised Kandor to a singular state. A conglomerate of crystal lattices, mirrors and jade-sided towers, partly physical and partly chromatic, make up the city. Rivers of dancing light run through the streets. Ancient shadow-plays shimmer over the wall in progressively changing and erratic displays. Streets change and pulse with vivifying filters and patches of roaming drab or shaped temperatures. The city metamorphosizes hourly, and by season, and by year. Visitors rarely travel Kandor’s streets without a guide.
The only mar on the city’s graceful decadence is Trahkander itself, looming like a thousand-foot turtle above the plum and golden temple districts, smelling of static and coal. Once-shining brass filaments and iron cogs now grate with rust, turning beneath the corrugated tin overhang, almost concealing ragged steel or jade repairs.
Trahkander is always suffering one crisis or another, the structure’s age exacerbated by understaffing and paranoiac overseers raised on nightmare stories of what an empowered humanity might do. I figured it would cease functioning entirely in another century or so. Hopefully not till after I was dead.
The southern service hatch at the base of the depot was only a few hundred feet from the caverns, close enough so I only had to bow a handful of times on the way there.
Rattle was waiting for me at the foot of the brass stair inside, squatting in greased leather coveralls and drinking pungent wine. Her hair looked like someone had copied her outfit, shredded it, and nailed it to the top of her head in loose braids. It fit the pocked and spark-burned appearance of her otherwise-young face quite well. She nodded at me and continued drinking.
If she’d been any less talented with her metal craft she’d have been killed years ago. The overseers kept her isolated, from her people and from them. She visited the caverns even more rarely than I.
“Service, Rattle. Which line needs work? Message didn’t say.” I closed the thick hatch behind me, letting a few operable ghost lights flicker into grey luminescence around us.
Her tongue pushed at the edge of her cheek from the inside, eyes not lifting from the bowl.
“None, fixed it hours ago,” she replied calmly.
Something was off. I tried not to get irritated, she was like that. Rattling cages, pulling at people’s bars. I didn’t quite succeed. “Then why?”
“Hail wasn’t up to inspection. Dreth threw her on the tracks, number-wove her onto them. She went thud. Maybe broke a leg. Eastbound passenger ran her down. Heard her last scream—sae. Felt her engine craft trying to stall the train. He laughed, that hissy fucker laughed.”
Her voice didn’t deviate a decibel from her usual monotone, but her hands shook gripping the bowl. A little wine spilled on the floor.
“Hail,” she whispered. My whole body was stiff.
The girl had been Rattle’s niece, one of the few relatives she’d known close or got to work with. Hail was a sweet girl, patchy-looking like her aunt. Had a scar from childhood running down the side of her face, a reminder of smacking into an iceblock as a child and screaming about the sky. She’d been young; everyone liked her.
I remembered when I was younger, there were a lot more punishment deaths then. Right after the Dagen riots. Bad times. There hadn’t been a killing in years, though. We’d forgotten.
I dropped to my knees, taking Rattle in my arms. We weren’t like that usually, but she needed it and I’d been there before. The wine spilled out of the bowl down my front and under my braces, but I didn’t care. Couldn’t believe we’d forgotten.
We shouldn’t have.
“It’ll be okay, everything’ll be good, sae.” It was my job to make things okay, to keep things level. Even when it meant with pretty lies. Lies weren’t much.
I’d already failed. We always failed. Failed, forgot, faded. Hail had been bright though, bright and sweet and the best of us in a kind way. I forget most of the dead, and punishments are part of being human—you just live on after. Live on, forget. But I wouldn’t this time, not now. Rattle was crying in my arms.
I felt something like steel begin to sharpen in me, like the tacks and winches in my braces had spilled into the blood. I took breaths and clenched my fists, the pain was heady.
“It’ll be okay.”
The room had space for maybe a dozen operators, though it was staffed by only four. Each human was dressed in a clean-pressed brown robe and seated in an astoundingly uncomfortable tube of metal. The tubes were square at the edges and fronted by old-craft screens of flickering silk, displaying shifting images of numbers and runes. Each was flanked by an Odrm, their length laid in serpentine coils against the operators’ backs. The one I’d come for had ripple band patterns of green and black feathers. His name was Dreth.
My fists clenched thinking of Hail. We hadn’t been any closer than the rest of the train staff, but I knew her family. They’d trusted me, everyone in the caverns trusted me. I’d stopped the deaths, when I took over. Bow deep, I said. Service and honor, I said. Bow deep, walk with quiet steps. Obey. Live. It worked, worked well enough that we’d forgotten how bad it could be. How bad they could be.
I bowed when entering the room, kept myself bent at the waist.
He turned his single multi-faced eye towards me, and I struggled not to launch myself at it, fingers extending like claws to rip. Braces be damned, I’d tear out his eye and burst it on the ground. Dreth was the cruelest of them, we all knew that, but he hadn’t gone this far before. Hail was obedient, unobtrusive. She even liked a few of the overseers—not Dreth, but a few.
Dreth remembered the long before, the stories of what we could be, what we had been. He hated us for it, lashed us with number-magic and the cruelest deadlines. But this....
“This servant has assembled a report concerning the cracked rails. This servant has determined his craft is necessary for full repair, and requires supervision before its employment.”
“Iss thiss sso engineer?” he asked, slithering closer through the room. Tempting me more to violence. I’d never felt like that, never really understood tempers and fistfights down in the cave. I’d gotten angry, sure, but never wanted to hurt someone. Not since I was old enough to really fight.
“Yes, sae.” I bit over my lip, glad they had trouble reading our tones. He slithered near, wrapping himself slowly over my arms and torso, I stiffened. He was heavy, and the feathers itched. Every one of my muscles tensed and coiled, which was normal with them. Good.
“Proccceed,” he hissed. I did.
Walking with an inconsiderate Odrm wrapped around you is a little like wrestling and a lot like a game of chance. Their weight shifts on a coinspot; they never stay still. Walking down a few flights of already-straining stairs while carrying Dreth was not a pleasant proposition.
Failing was decidedly less pleasant, and as I did with Rattle an hour ago, I steeled myself.
I was going to die for my craft.
The thought didn’t bother me significantly. I was always resigned to it, but I’d hoped it would be less violent than my mentor’s... or my sister’s. Seemed like it wouldn’t. With thoughts of her, and Hail now too, I felt familiar pangs. My braced hand touched my chest. Not on the heart, I’ve never had much opinion of hearts, but on the ribs. They were already a cage; they might as well capture memories. The thought made me smile, anger forced it wider.
There are some things that won’t ever change about humans.
The stairs took nearly twice as long as they should have. Dreth shifted continuously from limb to limb, taking pleasure in the way his length draped across my arms. The screws pressed deeper every time.
I was sagging, listing in pain, by the time I could see Rattle and the crew. They were waiting on the Eight-B platform, a sporadic circle of friends near the engine console. The mirror-sided cage containing it served as a hub, routing the wires for every ghost light, dismantled travel-aid, and railing mechanism on the platform. It was operable only by the engine-crafts, like most of the depot. It was the best place for repair work, especially on Eight-B.
Eight-B was an older line, from the first refurbished set. The original grating had worn away from rusty tiles, so you had to leap or use a lead-ramp to board most cars. It was passenger and courier only. No freight. The line had a rust-and-people smell that mingled into a peculiar musk. I imagined the stench of Hail’s blood and body beneath the usual platform scents. From Rattle’s face, I knew she didn’t have to. Everyone was tense, bowing stiffly and a bit more slowly than they should have as I stepped down level with them.
“What are the damagesss?” asked Dreth, expedient and without nicety.
I took a breath, wavering. Rattle answered.
“The third gear is clogged, the mainstay pipe is cracked up and down half the length of the platform. Too delicate to meld piecemeal, too big to do it in one go.”
It sounded credible at least; enough to get him off me so I could work. This was good – it’d be hard enough without his weight. If I didn’t want them all to die in an hour’s time, my hands needed to be free. It would give us a chance to fight at least, if not win. A chance beyond Dreth.
We waited, Rattle fidgeting with a pocket on her coverall, more hole than cloth. Dreth nodded, shooting himself from my chest without warning and landing in a squirming mass on the tiles. I staggered, suppressed a sigh rising up from relief.
“You are credited. Engineer, your ssservicesss are necessssary. Your crew will be rationed meat tonight. Isss thisss all of them that will be required?” He turned his eye on each of us, pulling his head two yards from the ground—almost half his length. The bribe-reward of meat would usually have us salivating. Instead I found myself imagining what an Odrm would taste like over a spit.
Not civilized thoughts, but then, who threw a young one on the tracks to die? She’d have been six and ten. Birthday last month, I think. There was a candle gift, a new story about her explorations as a child, and a scarf almost free of grease. She hadn’t taken the thing off since.
Rattle had missed the celebrations.
His serpent tongue worked a number, thrust it dull and flat against the air. The equation wormed itself into my braces. Screws biting at my flesh loosened. Straps fell away, the wood warping into curls and dropping to the ground. I was free to work.
I looked at him, then the others. They bowed their heads, I returned their acknowledgment. This was most dangerous for me. They’d be killed, but I’d be kept for my replacement.
I remembered my mentor; of all his limbs they left one arm. One hand. What was necessary to teach but not to work. He had to train me fast, in case there was emergency. They’d found ways to motivate him. I had no family left. That was good.
Breathe. Remember. Breathe, I let out the tension of my body. My shoulders slumped, relaxing. My eyes went far away. I pulled up memory from my ribs, good ones. Bad. They soared.
Rattle whispered something across the platform; again when I didn’t hear.
The pangs were still there, as they always were in my name, but different now. They serviced rage. Service and something else, what fire was this I had not known. I asked myself a question, staring at this snake.
Where was my sister now?
“Service, Rattle. And—”
My head bowed, Dreth’s didn’t. There was nothing after the exchange of Honor and Service. Nothing to say. My speech was unusual. Cruel he was, but not stupid.
Where was my sister?
I reached inside, rolling my shoulders and flicking open the folds of my robe with calloused fingers. To work craft, you form fingers into shapes. You learn the mudra of working from those gone before. You make new what has been forgotten.
First form, hands spread. Press down my doubt.
I remembered my predecessor, remembered Weaver’s ever-moving hands embedded in the stock of his work. Remembered teaching Hail and so many others the first shapes to make with tiny fingers. Remembered Rattle’s first day, when she nearly ripped a hole in the roof. Remember. Breathe.
Second form, fists closed. Raise them to chest. Drawing blood.
My eyes closed, heart pounded. Dreth was whisking numbers from his tongue, darting toward me with maths. I laughed, time slow in the Craft. In this craft that they, our masters, so suppressed. They feared my work, feared the workings of Man. It was good to be feared, to hear a copper and wordless hiss from that monster’s mouth.
Third form, extended with fingers. Thumb back to bind. Arms wide. Calling brothers.
I felt them, felt my kin. Felt humankind exploding into me. Breaths were coming quicker. Wasn’t sure, had Dreth bitten me? His braces were slapping at my hands, they’d return the second I paused. So I didn’t pause. Couldn’t stop, my hands moved. I saw my sister dying, again. Felt her leave me, felt that connection shatter and extend. Craft born along the edge of a name.
Final form, fingers loose, hands relaxed. The Crafts of man.
Rattle. Calm. Welder. Tin. Lards. Seven. I crafted them, pulled them into me and bound us tighter than I’d ever dared. My mind saw through seven sets of irises, my hands moved with the strength of seven arms. I gloried in it. My work, my crafting. The place I met my sister in, without words, inside the ribs.
I was unfinished; something remained. Yes, that was what it was. That fire caught in Weaver’s hands. Rekindling.
We killed Dreth with the screws from my hands; they knew the taste of blood. We slashed them through his body with metalcraft; we stopped his number-making by cutting out his tongue. He did not beg for life. I think I might have. I didn’t know. All of it was new, making harm with the craft.
Standing over his corpse, nothing was right. Hail wasn’t back, we were going to die, but we were still smiling. I looked at them, still wrapped in power. I did not feel the fear Dreth had died in, didn’t feel the rage and sorrow of Hail’s passing. I knew I would in moments. For now, all I felt was pride.
It was new too, unhidden pride. It was new to see friends looking up without feeling nervous for them. Nervous they’d be disciplined, nervous someone might see. It was new, needing to think of what was next. Not just fearing, but knowing I would die soon. None of it tempered the pride I felt in them.
I would live a horrid death, but I always would have. The end of my sister and teacher assured me of that. The scars running the length of my fingers and arms proclaimed what and who I was and how I would surely end. There was not escape from that, but for them—they could live, breed, grow old and die. They could choose to be small. Small as humans were. They had chosen to be greater.
Our pride sang along my work, between us. I crafted it, hammered it deep. This was the work of man. More beautiful than the shining rivers of Kandor, more terrible than the numbers prompting an overseer to act.