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The Machine's Child
By Kage Baker, David G. Hartwell
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2006 Kage Baker
All rights reserved.
ONE EVENING IN 300,000 BCE
It was an undiscovered island in a shallow unnamed ocean, uncrossed yet by longitude or latitude. It was not large, no more than a few miles square. It had no topographical features of note, neither mountains nor cliffs. Its beach simply rose gradually from the water and, after a space of level rock and sand, sloped gradually down to the opposite shore.
There was a building on the island, long, low, and windowless, like a warehouse. It had one door, and beside the door was an old couch, and on the couch sat an immortal, watching the sunset thoughtfully.
If this has given the impression that the place was silent and still, nothing could be further from the truth.
He sat motionless in the midst of a flurry of wildly moving things, the immortal did, and have I mentioned yet that he was very, very large? Massively mighty, with great thick hands and feet, a nose so big it was nearly comical-looking, big pale eyes under a vast cliff of a brow. Not much else of his features could be discerned, hidden as they were by an enormous tow-colored beard. You wouldn't be looking at him anyway, if you were there, to wonder what his face might be like. You'd be looking at the things he'd made, the things that were moving without cease.
The things all seemed to be part of a perpetual motion machine, belts, wheels, and pulleys driving and charging a generator that was hooked up to a refrigeration unit. There were other, smaller systems going, too, that seemed to be powering other machines somewhere inside the building. The motive power for all of them was supplied by human limbs.
Legs mounted on a wheel ran frantically round, feet pounding endlessly on a treadmill. Arms thrashed and beat like hammers, their galvanic pumping harnessed to drive a complex geared mechanism. Flexible tubes supplied the parts with fluids to keep them from deteriorating. Creak, creak, thump, thump, round and round, and in the slanting light of evening, shadows circled like the shadows of birds across the old giant's face.
Presently he moved, too, reaching from the couch to open the door of the refrigeration unit. He brought out a beer, twisted its neck off, and settled into near-immobility again, now and then lifting the beer for a sip. The sun got lower and redder. It lit the emblem on the front of his coveralls: a clock face without hands. The immortal sat and thought.
Then, abruptly, his eyes brightened. He'd had an idea. He lifted and drained the beer; then flung the empty bottle away. It struck a nearby mountain of other such bottles, clattering and rolling down. He ignored it. Lithe as a big cat he was on his feet, stalking through the door into the building that resembled a warehouse. He pulled a chain and dim illumination began to fill the place, increasing steadily as the desperate limbs quickened their pace outside.
By the light of their effort was revealed an open work area, a steel table surrounded by unpleasant-looking machines, and by racks of gleaming tools and instruments. Against one wall, furniture had been arranged in a square to define living space: chair, table, bed, dresser, personal items, a place to prepare meals. Against another was a steel filing cabinet.
The work and living spaces occupied only the front quarter of the warehouse. All the rest was rows and tiers of shelves, stretching away into impenetrable shadows. As far as the eye could see, there were metal boxes stacked. They varied in size and shape, but none were larger than a coffin; none smaller, than, say, a hatbox.
The immortal (his name, by the way, was Marco) went straight across to the nearest row of shelves. Here he paused, cocking his head to listen.
You couldn't have heard the sound, if you'd been there. Perhaps you ought to get down on your knees now and give thanks that you couldn't, and weren't. Marco could hear it, however. He looked keenly along the shelf and went at last to a certain box. He pulled it down, as easily as though it weighed nothing, and carried it out to the steel table.
Here Marco punched in a combination of figures on a lockpad on the box's lid. With a hiss and a sigh the lid rose slowly, folded back slightly on itself. Marco looked into the box at its occupant, grinning. In his light pleasant voice he said:
"Hey, Grigorii Efimovitch, I've had an idea."
What had been an immortal named Grigorii Efimovitch could no longer see, but knew Marco was looking at him. The mouth was already open in a silent scream, the eyes wide and staring as eggs.
It might help you at this point to know that Grigorii Efimovitch was there because he deserved to be, or at least had felt he deserved it when he had gone voluntarily to this time, this island, this warehouse. He had willingly submitted to entering the metal box. Of course, he might have changed his mind since. Far too much time had passed for his fate to be altered now, however, even if he had been able to tell Marco.
Marco busied himself with arranging the table just as he wanted for what he had planned. He set out instruments, jars of chemicals; lifted Grigorii Efimovitch out to sprawl, trailing, on the steel surface. He pulled on a black rubberized raincoat, or something that looked a lot like one, and carefully worked transparent gloves on over his massive hands. He stepped out into the fast-fallen darkness and got himself another beer.
He drank, belched gently, and selected an instrument from the table. Grigorii Efimovitch had begun to twitch uncontrollably. Marco waved the beer at him in a consoling gesture.
"Well, you never know. We just might do it, Grigorii Efimovitch. Wouldn't that be great?"
Grigorii Efimovitch's eyelids fluttered. If this was an attempt to communicate it was lost on Marco, who breathed deeply and stood straight, setting down the beer. A gleam came into his eyes, a sparkling and terrifying joy.
"Father of battles, Judge of the dead," he said, "grant that your servant may find at last the means to send your suffering children to perfect and irrevocable oblivion. Be merciful, Death."
He leaned down then over the table, raising the instrument he had chosen.
"It's showtime," he said.CHAPTER 2
ONE MORNING IN 2317 AD, MOUNT TAMALPAIS
The Rogue Cyborg begins his day.
Does he step out of a gleaming steel cubicle, flex his huge muscles, and pull on his skin-tight leotard? Nope. He yawns, unzips his sleeping bag, and crawls out, to sit on the edge of his camping cot, staring blearily into the dark morning and rubbing his unshaven chin. He hasn't shaved in a few days. Time kind of gets away from you when you're a Rogue Cyborg.
Thinking he should maybe grow his beard back, he pokes around for shoes, sticks his feet into them, and shuffles down a long dark corridor, leaning into an alcove as he goes to grab a teakettle. Farther down the corridor is an access portal, which opens to his groping hand. Sunlight floods in, and though it is filtered through fathoms of green leaves the Rogue Cyborg grimaces and blinks. He hasn't been topside on a sunny day in weeks. Spring must have arrived, he reflects.
After scanning carefully and finding no possible hazards, he emerges into a wilderness of fearful beauty. The precipitous slope is thickly forested, dark redwoods towering above oak and laurel. If he cared to glance out over the treetops below him he'd catch glimpses of green mountain meadows, steel-blue sea, even the distant spires of a magnificent city; but the Rogue Cyborg isn't a scenery man. All his attention is fixed on the stream, the little cataract of white water dropping from ledge to ledge.
Stepping carefully through the ferns, so cleverly he leaves no print, he leans over and fills his kettle. It's a big kettle and takes a while to fill. He looks about him the while, an edgy expression in his black eyes, and rubs his stubbly face with one nervous hand. There might be bears. There might be park rangers. There might even be Company security techs lying in wait. Life isn't easy when you're a Rogue Cyborg.
His name, actually, is Joseph, and on this particular day in the year 2317 he's just over twenty thousand four hundred years old, and he never, ever started out to be a Rogue Cyborg, but, well — shit happens.
Having washed, shaved, and made himself a mug of something that might pass for coffee if one needed it really badly, Joseph took the mug and wandered farther into the depths of the mountain that was presently his home.
He entered a vast cavern, smooth-sided and dry, stretching out over subterranean acres and lit by the blue radiance of five hundred regeneration tanks arrayed in tidy rows of vaults. A few of the vaults were unoccupied. Perhaps a dozen contained what appeared to be ordinary men and women, floating in sleep. All the rest were occupied by giants, hulking males seven or eight feet in height, massive of limb. Their skulls were broad-domed, helmet-shaped. Their brows were clifflike, their noses enormous. They drifted and dreamed in eerie silence. All of them, with one exception, wore circlets of copper on their brows, like drowned kings.
Joseph strolled along the aisles, sipping from his mug. He was making for one vault in particular, whose occupant differed slightly from the rest of the sleepers.
This was one of the giants. He alone wore no copper circlet, and he seemed to be recovering from terrible injuries. His great body was scarlet with new tissue, blood-charged where cruel wounds were in the process of closing over. There were cicatrices to indicate where parts had been reattached after avulsion: an arm, a leg, an ankle, and — unthinkably — his head. The face was nearly all healing scars.
Fearful as he was to look upon, his was the vault before which Joseph paused.
"You know, Father, if I didn't know better I might almost mistake you for one of the others now," Joseph told the giant. "I mean that. Seriously. You look great. Well, not great, but a hundred percent improved, okay?"
The giant, apparently lifeless, did not respond. Joseph had another sip of his not-coffee and nodded.
"Definitely on the mend. So! What's happening? Not much. Nobody's caught me yet. Abdiel left again last month, but I told you that already, huh? He didn't remember us this time, either. I wonder how many poor morons like him are wandering around, doing classified work for the Company? That's another dirty little secret we'll have to dig up one of these days, huh?
"Let's see, what else is going on? Looks like spring has finally arrived. Maybe I'll go down to the Pelican soon, catch up on the local news. Not that there ever is much up here, but that's okay with me, you know what I mean? Go down and maybe repair something for Mavis and get myself some cider ... or some of that special persimmon cider ... or some of Mavis maybe ..." Joseph sighed with longing. "I've told you about Mavis, right? Boy, you'd like Mavis, Father. She's got these —" He sculpted the air with his free hand in a vain effort to describe what Mavis had.
"And, uh, maybe it's a good idea to go down there anyway," Joseph continued, after a poignant silence. "For a reality check, huh? Make sure they're all still alive. Because, Father, sometimes when I wake up ... Sometimes I get scared I've been asleep up here too long. Like, I'll go down there some night and the place will be in ruins, all the mortals dead long ago. You know?"
He shivered extravagantly, his whole body shook.
"Oh, yeah, absolutely," he said. "Time for some cider."
He turned and bustled off to begin his day at one of the data terminals, probing randomly through the files of Dr. Zeus Incorporated for dirty little secrets.
Hours later Joseph emerged from his access portal and picked his way down the slope, until he found an ancient strip of cracked asphalt that wound along the face of the mountain. In the red light of the waning day he thrust his hands into his coat pockets and marched along cheerily.
He felt swell. All dressed up for a night on the town! Most of his clothing was a little out of date, but clean and presentable. All the same, he made a mental note to hike into San Francisco soon and hit another clothing store. How long since the last nocturnal raid now? Five years? Ten? Of course, it wasn't smart to steal things too often. Sooner or later he was going to make a tiny mistake, miss some surveillance device and blow his cover. Then he'd have to run again, and running would be pretty damned awkward right at the moment.
Still, he hated looking like a bum.
Winding and switching back, the road took him steadily down, in and out of ravines dark with evergreens and across broad slopes purple with heather. Bone-chilling wind blew in off the gray sea, but as he descended Joseph saw the yellow lights of the little farms and shacks where the mortals lived, and that warmed his heart. So did the yellow lights of the boats moored in Muir Harbor. In the twilight gloom he found at last the nearest fragment of what had been California State Highway 1, and strode along it through the alder forest to that intersection with the harbor road where stood the Pelican Inn.
The Pelican had been there a long time. It was rumored to have been transplanted, brick by brick, from some English village, back in the twentieth century when wealthy men still did things like that. It was named for the ship in which Sir Francis Drake had set out when he'd sailed off to loot the Spanish Main.
It had once been a very expensive bed-and-breakfast hotel, bar, and five-star restaurant. Various wars, political secessions, and natural disasters had altered its fortunes. Over three centuries it had been successively a triage hospital, a barricaded freeholding, a farmhouse, a partial ruin, and other things. But, situated as it was at a crossroads in a picturesque cove, as soon as civilization had reasserted itself enough to provide some traffic, the Pelican had evolved back into an inn.
Even a reasonably prosperous one, in this year of 2317. Plenty of trade from the local farmers and fishermen. Plenty of real money from the rich people who moored their pleasure boats in Muir Harbor, eager to get away from the General Prohibition in San Francisco.
Not that there was anything all that immoral to be had at the Pelican, of course, beyond homemade ciders and ales and fish dinners. Mavis paid a fortune in bribes to local law enforcement to be able to serve even those; but the people from the big boats wanted the thrill of the forbidden, and spent hugely for it.
Sometimes Mavis paid the local law enforcement to dress as picturesque smugglers, too, and they would lounge in her bar and leer pleasantly at the guests, or tell stories about desperate chases over the hills with kegs of mead. The guests would buy them drinks and would usually stay over an extra night. The local economy thrived to no end.
Joseph saw the amber windows as he pushed forward through the dusk, heard the chattering mortal voices, breathed in the sea air and wood smoke. He felt again the surge of relief that they were still there, not yet dead, not yet receded into his interminable past. He was singing as he sprinted across the lawn and up the flagged steps, under the wooden sign with its carved enigmatic seabird.
As he sang he nearly ran into Keely, one of the waitresses, who was making her way through the passage between the bar and the main parlor with a tray of drinks. She was a nice girl, bosomy, looked like a timid swan. He grinned at her.
"Hi there, sweetheart."
"What kind of song was that?" she said, not quite trusting him not to grab her and turning so as to put the tray between them.
"What?" "That song you were singing when you came in."
"That? That was a marching song, honey. Real old. 'If I had one denarius, I'd buy us all a round of drinks; if I had two denarii, I'd buy myself a pig; if I had three denarii, I'd hire somebody to kill the Decurion,' and so on and so on," Joseph said, grinning again, so happy to be there in the warmth and the smell of food and musty old booze. She knit her brows.
"What's a D-Decurion?"
"Oh, just some jerk," he said. She rolled her eyes at him and turned to resume her progress toward the main parlor.
"The holoscreen needs tuning again," she told him over her shoulder.
Excerpted from The Machine's Child by Kage Baker, David G. Hartwell. Copyright © 2006 Kage Baker. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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