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By Elizabeth Hand
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1992 Elizabeth Hand
All rights reserved.
A BREACH AMONG ANGELS
THE SCREEN SHOWED A luminous formation like the cutaway view of a chambered nautilus. At various points blinking lights signaled the presence of the Wardens, the computerized guardians of the Orsinate's special entries to the gravators that shuttled them from one level of the Holy City to the next. In the very center of the nautilus a small rectangle glowed brilliant purple—the palace where the Orsinate Ascendancy and their staff lived and ordered the systemized destruction of the world outside the domes.
It was not really a nautilus, of course. Hobi knew that, as did his father, the Architect Imperator, whose long, thin fingers traced and coded new entries onto the screen. It was a bird's-eye view of Araboth; but Hobi was doubtful as to whether any birds remained Outside to see those radiant tiers beneath the domes. In fact, the discovery that there were still birds Outside would have disturbed Hobi greatly. Hobi was only seventeen. His education at the chromium hands of a Seventeenth Generation Tutorial Scholiast had taught him (as everyone in Araboth learned sooner or later) that the world Outside was a treacherous place, even a hellish one. Anything that survived Out There—birds, insects, viruses—posed a threat to the survival of humanity, humanity of course being best represented by those who lived beneath the Quincunx Domes, in particular the Orsinate and their cabinet. At any rate Hobi's education—heavily tilted toward the sort of effete skills (literature, calligraphy, computer programming) that young aristocrats had received for centuries, perhaps millennia—had fallen off in the last year, since his mother's murder. Standing now behind his father, staring at the nautilus on the bright screen, was the first time Hobi had looked at a monitor in months.
"Structural damage to Studio Ninety-seven, Grid Fourteen, Powers Level," a voice murmured. It was a mechanical voice, the voice of the Architects who had designed and now maintained the city, under his father's supervision of course.
"Very good," Sajur Panggang said softly. It was four o'clock, false morning under the Quincunx Domes. A porcelain cup of kehveh steamed on the desk at his elbow. It smelled of chocolate and bitter almonds and made the boy realize how tired he was. Sajur reached for the cup and sipped it absently. "Next level," he said.
Hobi yawned. He had been passing his father's workchambers on his way to the dining room and stuck his head in to say good morning. His father's disheveled kimono and the spent tabs of amphaze on the desk indicated that he had been up all night, again.
"Something wrong?" Hobi asked. He inhaled the kehveh's rich smell and wondered if he should have the servers bring him breakfast in here.
"Mmm? No, no." Sajur bent forward until his nose touched the screen, squinting as a red trail spun out from Powers Level down to Principalities. The Architects were centuries old. While they constantly reassessed and repaired themselves, the image quality on the monitors had been deteriorating for decades now. "Just performing a criterion, couldn't sleep."
"Oh." Hobi leaned against the wall and rubbed the scant stubble on his chin. Sajur had not slept well since his wife's murder, many months ago. The boy rubbed his eyes, stared more closely at the screen. It looked odd: something different about the configuration of the outer walls, maybe. "Is there a problem?"
Sajur Panggang shook his head, then listened intently as the Architects recited the inventory for Principalities Level. "Now Archangels," he commanded when the voice fell silent.
"Nothing has changed on Archangels," said the Architects after a few minutes. Hobi thought of returning to bed.
"Good," murmured Sajur Panggang. "Now Angels. Level One."
The light-trail that had marked the descent to the other levels darkened to violet. The nautilus on the screen disappeared, was replaced by a seemingly random series of reticulated squares and rectangles and triangles, crosshatched with a dizzying array of blinking lights. Hobi straightened, peered over his father's shoulders. Shivering he tugged his robe tighter about his narrow chest. He had never seen an enhanced image of Angels before. As far as he knew even his father had no business down there, and certainly the Architects had never renovated it. Only escaped rasas were rumored to live in the Undercity—if, of course, one considered them to be living at all. Hobi did not. Just thinking about them now was enough to make him wish he had stayed in bed. He rubbed his arms and leaned closer to his father, staring at the display. Even the model of the Undercity was disturbing: the frenetic lines and squares that had nothing of the exquisite order of the rest of Araboth; the black shapeless areas that showed where the ruins of the original city had decayed and even the Architects had failed to restructure them. Hobi had heard stories about people going to the Undercity. Nasrani Orsina, the exiled margravin who was a good friend of his father's, was rumored to have a mistress down there. It was just the sort of dreadful thing you'd expect of an Orsina.
The Architects hummed and whirred. "Diagnostic," ordered Sajur Panggang. Hobi was surprised at how impatient his father sounded.
Click. Click. Click. Hobi shifted his weight to his other foot, trying not to look too curious. After his mother died, his father had forbidden Hobi to spend time in his study. Before, the boy had liked to sip Amity pilfered from his father's cabinets, watching the flickers and faint jets of light stream from the Architects as they programmed renovations and repairs beneath the Quincunx Domes.
But it had been months since Hobi had slipped in here. He wondered, sometimes, just what his father was up to in his study; but he didn't dare ask him. No one disturbed the Architect Imperator. He was too important, the only person in Araboth who truly understood the workings of the Architects. Even the Orsinate's murder of the Architect Imperator's wife had been carefully scheduled to coincide with one of Sajur's interminable love affairs, so as not to unduly disturb his work. Hobi thought that perhaps the Orsinate had misjudged his father. Certainly Hobi himself had been surprised by the intensity of Sajur's grief, which had taken the form of a nearly monkish solitude. As for Hobi, Angelika Panggang had always been a somewhat mythic figure to him. He identified her more with figures from poetry—Medea, Anne Sexton, Quisa Helmut—than with flesh-and-blood women or even certain replicants. So Hobi could only assume that his father's arcane doings in his study were somehow tangled up with his grief.
Now, gazing at the flickering screen in front of him, Hobi still could not imagine what the Architects were doing. Perhaps the Orsinate had commanded a new wing be added to the palace. Perhaps the Undercity had flooded—people were always predicting that; it was a favorite sport in Araboth, along with timoring and guessing who would be the next of Shiyung Orsina's lovers to die a horrible death. The boy nibbled his thumbnail thoughtfully. His father only stared at the screen in silence, tapping one finger against his porcelain cup.
"There is a breach in the fundus of Angels," the Architects replied at last. "The rift at Pier Forty-three is spreading."
"Thank you. Indoctrinate Pier Forty-four."
Hobi glanced sideways at his father. In profile Sajur Panggang resembled his dead wife, the same fine features and sharp nose. They had been first cousins. Like nearly everyone else on the upper levels of Araboth, they were distant relatives of the Orsinate.
"A breach?" Hobi asked, a little uneasily. "What's that mean?"
Sajur Panggang started, looked at his son as though noticing him for the first time. He shook his head. "Nothing. Routine maintenance. Aren't you up a little early?"
Considering how late you were out last night, Hobi thought. He grinned and shrugged. His father frowned and flicked at one corner of the screen. The monitor went blank. Sajur leaned back in his chair, the long ornamented sleeves of his kimono brushing the floor. "Would you please ask Khum to bring some more kehveh? Or no—I'll go with you."
The Architect Imperator stood and stretched. The brocaded sleeves slid from thin wrists to show the emerald mourning bands he still wore. Hobi noticed how his father's hand shook as he picked up his porcelain cup, and how Sajur looked back at the empty screen, the banks of ancient monitors like the walls of a tomb. On one of them the image of the Undercity still lingered, its web of ruined roadways and empty channels glowing faintly. The Architect Imperator stared at it for a long moment while his son waited, puzzled. Then he carefully closed the door and turned down the hall.
Behind them in the empty chamber the other screens slowly started to glow, blue and gold and violet. The Architects began to click and whisper, doing their master's work.CHAPTER 2
THE GREEN COUNTRY
IN A RICKSHAW ON Thrones Level, Ceryl Waxwing watched a moujik girl die. The child's arms had been pinned to the seat, the skin folded back and neatly pierced with slender spikes as long as Ceryl's finger. As the girl moaned the exposed veins and muscles quivered like taut yarn, and blood seeped onto the seat's verdigris leather. For nearly an hour now Ceryl had stared expectantly at her face, waiting for the look Âziz Orsina had told her would come—"When the timoring is successful and they know they're dying," the margravine had said. Every word she uttered always sounded as though she were somehow managing to suck it from the air. Ceryl hated her voice, her face (the same blade of a face she shared with her sisters Nike and Shiyung and their exiled brother Nasrani, the same face that appeared on the devalued currency that Ceryl had used to buy the moujik), the way she smelled, of cunt and sweat and opium sugar—but Ceryl was too close to them now, the Orsinate, to afford such simple prejudices. "They get this look when they know, children especially ..."
That was why Ceryl had bought the moujik girl on Principalities Level, knowing she stood a good chance of having her throat slashed while she was there. As it was three moujiks had surrounded the rickshaw, gibbering at the rickshaw driver and spitting at her as she clambered back in, the sedated girl in her arms. It was nearly two hundred years since the particular conflict with the Balkhash Commonwealth that had brought the moujiks here, peasants who were ostensibly prisoners of war but really slaves put to work in the medifacs, the great abattoirs on Principalities. Nothing went to waste in Araboth: the bodies of the dead were processed as efficiently as the vegetable and animal proteins manufactured in the vivariums on Dominations. Only members of the Orsinate and their cabinet received the honor of a funeral pyre. And so the moujik peasants proved an ideal resource, a ready labor breeding pool that did not deplete the Orsinate's own population.
Despite their centuries of servitude, the moujiks had never lost their belligerence, or their distinctive appearance. Tawny skin, flat face, round eyes the color of honey. Not as fair as Ceryl was, with her close-cropped sandy hair and blue eyes. But certainly darker than the Orsinate, although the Orsinas' long alliance with the religious fanatics from the East had left its own imprint—one could tell an Orsina bastard by its doe eyes, just a little too close-set, and its dusky skin.
No one would ever mistake a moujik for one of the ruling caste. They lacked the Orsinate's cunning and sophistication, and even the most rudimentary reading skills. But enough belligerence remained in the moujiks to impel them toward the body riots of the Third Ascension, when they had seized Principalities Level and murdered three Ascendant Governors who happened to be touring the medifacs. Since then, the Orsinate maintained an uneasy truce with the medifacs. Among other things, they allowed the moujiks control of the city's black market body trade, for those on the lower levels who could not afford prosthetics. This same truce allowed for a brisk barter in moujik children for timoring, children not as highly prized as those from the upper levels, Thrones or Dominations say.
It had been Ceryl's first solo attempt at timoring, her first trip down to the medifacs. She had felt more terror taking the gravator to Principalities than at gazing upon the moujik child's contorted face. She turned to stare down at her again, then hastily looked away and groped at her pockets until she found a candicaine pipette. She broke it and inhaled, let the cold rush calm her. There had been no sublime wave of fear as she stared at the pathetic thing beside her. Oh, the child had struggled and screamed enough before the morpha set, there was no doubt that she was afraid. But Ceryl herself felt only disgust, and shame: the child looked so small and white against the dark leather. Blood had pooled on the seat beside her, staining Ceryl's catsuit. She leaned over to touch one of the pinions of flesh gleaming slightly in the purplish light. The rickshaw driver had pulled down the plastic shades before they went down to the medifacs. Now the smell of blood and meat filled the inside of the tiny wooden car. Suddenly she felt sick.
"Stop—" she gasped. The rickshaw shuddered to a halt. The driver turned to stare at her blankly, spat a wad of betel juice onto the pavement. "Just wait," Ceryl choked, and opened the door.
Violet light spilled onto her, the perpetual dusk of the upper levels. She smelled the warm mist heavy with the scent of the sea Outside. Despite the thousands of filters humming and doing their best to dispel it, the smell and damp of the sea still got in. Lately it seemed inescapable. Those members of the pleasure cabinet who were more superstitious than Ceryl shook their heads and whispered about bad omens—strands of kelp found floating in filtration chambers, the odd bit of mussel shell clogging a drain. Certainly Ceryl had noticed the smell more lately, but she attributed that to the fact that Æstival Tide was less than a week away.
Now it was that smell that made her feel better. She breathed deeply, eyes closed. A vague impression of warmth and green flooded her, a memory of the sound of birds. She had seen the ocean, of course, ten years earlier at the last Æstival Tide, when they finally opened the Lahatiel Gate. The sight of that restless sea had terrified her, the closest she ever came to the holy terror of timoring. Ever since then she had wondered whether you would always feel like that, if you lived near it. Really lived near it—on real sand and smelling real air and tasting brackish water—and not within this unimaginably vast and intricate labyrinth of a city, dying beneath its domes between the blasted prairie and the threatening sea. Maybe, if she lived by the sea, she would not be plagued by nightmares and forced to spend much of her monthly salary on pantomancers, those quack dream-merchants.
Her cheeks grew cool with mist and she sighed, opening her eyes. The rickshaw had stopped at the outermost rim of the Thrones Level Grid. The avenue here was in blessedly good repair, the surface beneath her feet smooth and cool. Only, behind one of the rickshaw's wheels, she noticed a crack in the pavement, like a thread of water running down the avenue.
"That's odd," she said aloud. The rickshaw driver cocked his head at her and shrugged.
"Something new," he said, spitting a crimson mouthful of betel juice onto the ground. "Cracks. I had to repair a wheel bearing twice in three days."
"Cracks," Ceryl repeated softly, and stared down at the ground.
Behind her were the broken spires and crooked facades of Thrones' residential neighborhoods. Like everything else on the upper levels of Araboth, these apartments were prefabricated by the Architects. Over the last few centuries the metal and plasteel structures had cracked and buckled under the weight of the levels above, until all of Thrones seemed to be caving in upon itself, albeit in a subdued, almost genteel manner. Although of course living quarters here were a vast improvement over the dayglo ghettos of Virtues, where the hermaphrodites lived, or the grim cubicles that housed the 'filers and media crews on Powers. At least on Thrones the roads had always been in good repair.
Ceryl sighed and rubbed her nose. A few yards in front of her, a shimmering heat fence crackled and sparked as moisture filtered down from the Quincunx Domes. Beyond the fence was nothing, a dizzying plunge to the next level, Dominations, and thence to Virtues, and Powers, and so on down to the lowest level of the crazily layered ziggurat that was Araboth. If one could see the city from above (but of course you could not, unless you were an Aviator), it would resemble a huge and living pagoda, its vaulted domes rearing above the nine levels like the chitinous shell of some monstrous arthropod. And Outside, the sea: smashing against the domes during the months-long storm season, whispering through the dreams of the Imperators' children as they slept in their gilded beds on Cherubim.
Excerpted from Æstival Tide by Elizabeth Hand. Copyright © 1992 Elizabeth Hand. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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