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By Elizabeth Hand
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1993 Elizabeth Hand
All rights reserved.
Dr. Luther Burdock's Daughter
"O MY SISTER KALAMAT. It is here again—"
The voice was that of my sister Cumingia, she who has engraved upon her breast the image of a shell from a sea we have never glimpsed save in our dreams. Her voice was strained with worry, as it had been for many weeks now, ever since our Masters had been given one by one to the Ether.
I smiled wearily and pointed to a cushion in the nav chamber where I was working. I was sifting through the records left behind by our Masters, hoping to find something that might explain the myriad strange wings that had entered our world these last months. "Sister Cumingia. Please, sit."
Cumingia gazed at the cushion and shook her head: it had been designed for one of our Masters, and so was much too small for her. "I will stand, Kalamat."
I glanced back at the monitor that I had been scrolling through, but after a moment felt Cumingia's gaze boring into me, anxious as a child's. I sighed and switched off the monitor, and turned my full attention to her.
"Yes, my sister."
Cumingia leaned against the curved wall of the station's nav chamber. The lines of her lovely face were drawn tight, so that she resembled one of the Masters more than she did a sister of mine and one of the children of Luther Burdock. She hesitated, her large strong hands crossed upon her chest, then finally began to speak.
"It is the little oracle, sister Kalamat. The one I told you about; the one that speaks of the thing called Icarus."
I pursed my lips and nodded. Those of us who still lived on the station called Quirinus had grown too familiar with oracles since our Masters began to die: random or not-so-random holofiled images generated in the wake of the deaths of the ruling Ascendancy of the HORUS colonies. Most of the oracles were merely warnings sent from besieged Masters on other space stations. Some were from cloned geneslaves like my sisters and me, who claimed they were members of a rebel Alliance; yet others appeared to be purely random images produced by the collapse of databases at Totma 3 and Helena Aulis and Hotei.
But the one that Cumingia had seen was different. She had first glimpsed it when she entered that part of the station library that had always been forbidden to energumens. Since then it had appeared three times in as many solar weeks, to Cumingia but also to others tending the 'files and records on Quirinus. I had never seen it.
"Its message has changed?" I asked.
Cumingia shook her head. "No. It is as always—but this time I had the chance to record it, sister Kalamat! Would you like to see it?"
I nodded eagerly, moving away from my sister to allow room between us for the holofile. Cumingia placed the recorder on the tiled floor and stepped back. An instant later an image appeared.
It appeared to be an eye, or rather, a simulacrum of an eye formed of light, with a pulsing darkness at its center where a pupil would be—a human's eye, and not an energumen's. Wispy threads that might have been mist or perhaps gray strands of tissue flowed behind it, and it was surrounded by the engulfing darkness that the HORUS colonies—the Human Orbital Research Units in Space—have yet to penetrate.
"What is it?" Cumingia's whisper made the hairs on my neck prickle. I shook my head, frowning.
"I do not know. It can't be a real eye—that must be some trickery of whoever originally 'filed the image. Is there a date, or name?"
Cumingia's hand pressed against mine. "Wait," she said. "You will see—there, now—"
Beneath the dully flickering orb, numerals appeared.
SAN ENCINO JET PROPULSION LABORATORY APOLLO OBJECTS TRACKING PROJECT 06262172, UNITS 729–843 SUBJECT: ICARUS
A 'filing date some four hundred years earlier, from the time when our father Luther Burdock first lived; a location on Earth that no longer existed. I leaned forward to read more closely, but the golden letters had already disappeared. Before I could ask Cumingia to scroll them for me again, a voice began to speak.
"... astrometric starplate at Mount Palomar shows parhelion passage at approximately 0818 June 29, with potentially catastrophic alignment of descending node at—"
A man's voice, speaking slowly and with great care, as though reading from a prompter.
"... it is of the utmost importance that the JPL Project permits immediate release of warning transcripts and all other information relating to this disastr—... "
A burst of static cut off the recorded transmission. An instant of silence, and the loop repeated itself twice more. Then, abruptly, the man's voice was gone. Instead there was a shrill, rather childish, voice, repeating the same word over and over and over again:
"Icarus. Icarus. Icarus. Icarus."
After about a minute it faded into eerie silence.
"Every time," Cumingia said softly, after we had stared into the empty air for several moments. "It is the same thing: the same image, the same two voices. I have tried to trace its origin, but the coordinates change." She tilted her head and stared at me, her huge black eyes beseeching. "What is it, O my sister Kalamat?"
I frowned and shook my head. I had her play the recording again, and again; as though some new wonder might be revealed, some new meaning teased from the nearly toneless voices with their garbled message. At last I bade her retrieve the recording and put it away.
"It is nothing," I announced. I could see relief and also disappointment clouding my sister's eyes, but she said not a word. "Another random transmission from one of the fallen colonies, like that call for help that was two years old."
Cumingia nodded, then added hesitantly, "None of our brothers or sisters in the other colonies have seen it."
I shrugged and returned to my desk, with its array of tiny, human-sized monitors and nav aids. "Obviously the transmission is carried only within our range. You have shown this to our other sisters?"
A pause before Cumingia answered. "Most of them."
"And what do they think?"
Cumingia bit her lip before replying. 'They think it is another omen."
"We do not know. But this name, Icarus—it is a man's name, a human name. We fear it presages some means of retaliation against us, some punishment for the rebel uprisings."
I laughed then, turning to look at my sister: so much taller than any human, and far stronger and lovelier, with the intricate crosshatch of scars where her breasts had been and the delicate wings of the shell that is her namesake etched upon her cheeks. "There are no humans left to fight us, sister! Not up here, at least. And below, on the Element—" I made a flicking motion with my fingers. "Below, our father awaits us. And he will not allow us to come to harm."
At mention of our father Cumingia blinked. The silvery pupils dilated in her glowing black eyes. I felt a flash of anger within me, like a tiny flame. Cumingia did not believe that our father still lived. Of all my sisters I was the only one who still carried the image of Luther Burdock in my heart, heard his voice as I lay in my bed and waited for sleep to find me in the station's false night: a voice that the centuries had not stilled. Because I believed that, like his children, Luther Burdock had not been allowed to die. I believed that he waited for us, waited for me, somewhere on the Element below, and that someday we would rejoin him, as he had promised.
"Of course, sister," Cumingia said at last. Her long fingers closed around the recorder, as tiny in her hands as a betel-nut from the station's foodstores. "I will tell my sisters that it is as you say. An anomaly; nothing more."
"A ghost," I said more gently, smiling as I reached to touch my sister's shaven skull. "And we are not human, sister. We have nothing to fear from their ghosts."
She nodded and left me alone with my work. A little later, of course, I was to learn how wrong I had been. Icarus was more powerful than ever I could have imagined. And ghosts—the dead and the living dead who populate the world of our Ascendant Masters—they are to be feared as well.
She remembered what he said to her moments before the anesthesia took effect.
"Will it hurt, Daddy?"
She lay on a table of glass and emerald-green metal, her head shaved of its dark corkscrew curls, her coffee-colored skin perhaps a shade paler than it had been. She was fifteen years old, the only daughter of the Ascendants' most renowned scientist, the geneticist Luther Ames Burdock. Her name was Cybele.
"It won't hurt, darling." Her father bent over her, his hands warm as they cradled her head, checking the filigree of wires and neural webs that covered her face and throat. "Of course it won't hurt."
She believed him; she had seen this procedure performed a hundred times. First on mice and rats, then dogs, then ibex and jaguars and other animals that had been saved from extinction by the Ascendants' passion for science, for coaxing new and strange things from nature as a man might wheedle them from a reluctant mistress. And indeed none of the animals had ever seemed to be in pain, and none of it was really very frightening, not once you got used to it. There were other things that went on in her father's work space that she was not permitted to watch. Men and women sedated and enclosed in plasteel stretchers, hurried through the doors by her father's staff; children, too, some of them much younger than Cybele, a pale arm or leg hanging limp where it had escaped from the stretcher's bonds. She never saw any of them again, although she tried to guess sometimes what they had become.
Because her father's house was like an ark, filled with all the strange creatures he had brought into being. He loved to think of it as such: the vast glass-and-steel mountain compound, with its roofs that swept up like wings and the high arched main entrance, like the prow of a Viking ship.
"My ark," he would laugh, Cybele walking beside him as he raised his arms as though to embrace the entire marvelous structure. "My ark and all my children!" And he would turn to kiss his daughter, at fifteen still slight, and as hesitant in her speech as a child.
His children: that was what he called them, all of them: Cybele and the others who populated Luther Burdock's compound in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The things he called aardmen: tall and immensely strong, they stood upright and had long sinewy arms and legs covered with short bristly fur. Their faces betrayed their canine origins, with blunt angry muzzles and sorrowing dark eyes; their faces and the vestigial tails that switched anxiously when they were frightened or excited. The aardmen were easy to live with, servile and fawning as they brought Cybele her breakfast or carried her to the waiting transport when it was time to accompany her father on one of his visits to the Prime Ascendancy in Wichita.
Others of the geneslaves were more disturbing. Like the hydrapithecenes in their crowded tanks, with the flat faces and narrow almond-shaped eyes they inherited from the Archipelagian prisoners who were their human progenitors. Or the argalæ, the bird-faced women whose sighs and restless hands shamed Cybele, because she knew her father had engineered them as sexslaves for the HORUS colonies. And there were countless others—tiny birds like wrens, but with human faces that wept and human voices that cried piteously for release. The dwarfish salamanders, eyeless men with moist, autumn-colored skin, designed to toil in the heat and darkness of the L-5 mineral mines. The equinas with their horse faces and human eyes. The huge, slow, but immensely strong starboks, like ponderous bulls, that could speak in deep, sonorous voices. They drank little and ate not at all, because they lived for only a few weeks, just long enough to haul their burdens across the pentecostal deserts of the western part of the continent.
These, then, were Cybele's world-mates—her family, as it were. Her father raised her by himself—hers had been a glass birth—and except for the rare excursions to various Ascendant sites (and one to HORUS), she never left the compound. She trusted her father as each morning she trusted the sun to rise above the hazy bulk of the Blue Ridge. And so, when he told her that he would be performing an operation upon her, she was not afraid, even though she had heard how others screamed before the sedatives took effect.
"It's very simple, really," he had soothed her as he carefully clipped her hair, preserving some of it in glass vials for further work. "And this way, darling, we will always be together, somewhere."
"We won't die?" Her fifteen years in that near-solitude had left her oddly childlike; and so she had a child's odd blend of fearlessness and terror when it came to death.
"We will die," her father said in his soft voice, "but then we will be regenerated, because of that—"
He inclined his head to the wall opposite their seat, where vials and globes and steel chambers contained the essence of himself, culled through several years of painstaking operations.
"And it won't hurt," the girl said knowingly.
"Do not fear the dark, my darling. It may hurt, but we won't remember. Only this, darling— you'll remember only this—" And he stroked her bare head tenderly, tilting his own so that she wouldn't see the tears in his eyes.
In the end it did hurt, for Luther Burdock, at least. The next Ascension, while brief, lasted long enough for its fundamentalist leaders to attempt to destroy all remnants of the flourishing bioengineering industry. Luther Burdock was executed, but only after the geneticist was tortured and forced to watch his daughter's death, over and over and over again, as Cybele and all her cloned twins were murdered.
This short-lived Ascendancy knew nothing of the subtleties of science. While meticulous in their murder of the geneticist and his cloned children, they failed to dismantle his laboratories. They did not even approach the compound in the mountains, where Dr. Burdock himself hid within twisted strands of DNA and several frozen canisters stored in a bomb shelter. And they could not destroy all the geneslaves already loosed upon the world; they could not even hope to begin to do so.
But there were too many industries already dependent upon Luther Burdock's biotechnology. After a few brief skirmishes, the members of this Ascension met their own unhappy fates in chambers they had designed for others. Their successors found in Dr. Burdock's laboratories an elaborate and detailed series of holograms explaining his work. They also found a vial of tissue and neurological fluid labeled KALAMAT 98745: the miracle, the clonal replica of his beloved only child.
These Ascendants were neither fearful nor hesitant when it came to matters of science. Kalamat they explored, refined, developed as though she were a new and fertile country—as indeed she was, in a way—and while she never forgot her father, it is doubtful if ever he would have recognized her in the thing that she became.
It was this same sister, the one we call Cumingia, who first told me of the plague, several months before I saw the image of Icarus flickering in the air of the nav chamber.
She said, "O Kalamat, a strange thing has come to Quirinus. The Tyrant Medusine Kovax has been given to the Ether—"
(—that is, her corpse had been thrust through the air locks into the void, because there is no room within the HORUS colonies for the dead—)
"—and many others of our Masters are sick, or mad. I think they may be dying." She looked around anxiously, fearful of being heard by a Master who might mistake her message for one of treason. "Please, Kalamat—"
I was bent over a console, supervising the repair of one of the solex panels that give breath and light to Quirinus. It was my duty, an important one if tedious. I knew that I was supposed to feel honored to have such a task. On Quirinus lived members of the Ascendant Autocracy, who from the relative safety of their orbital stations ruled what remained of the poisoned Element. Those of us who served them were constantly reminded of our great fortune, that we would live our thousand days in HORUS and never have to look upon that blighted world.
Still I dreamed of it, and was dreaming now even as I worked. So when Cumingia crept up behind me, at first I did not hear her. When I turned, it was as though I turned to gaze at myself in a mirror—eyes, hands, face, mouth, all save the spot where Cumingia had carved her left breast and upon the smooth scar that remained incised the image of her inner self, the Cumingia, a shell from the seas of the Element. Cumingia's duty was to guard the docking chamber of Quirinus. So she had been the first to greet the delator Horacio Baklas when he arrived, ostensibly to serve our Masters as psychobotanist.
But his true mission soon became known to us. He was one of those humans who had joined the geneslave rebellion, though at that time we knew nothing of the Alliance. Under pretense of carrying with him a new shipment of spores for our pharmacy, he had instead brought irpex irradians, the radiant harrowing, one of the thousand Tyrant plagues that have been set loose upon the Element. But we did not know that yet. We had yet to hear of the Asterine Alliance; yet to hear of the Oracle, or the rumors that our father finally had risen from his long sleep to reclaim his enslaved children.
Excerpted from Icarus Descending by Elizabeth Hand. Copyright © 1993 Elizabeth Hand. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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