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By Jay Lake
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2010 Joseph E. Lake Jr.
All rights reserved.
And I will break the pride of your power; and I will make your heaven as iron, and your earth as brass. — Leviticus 26:19
Red-brown Ethiopian dust blossomed under British artillery shells, furrowing the violently turned earth as if by the plow of God. Overpressure from the explosions buffeted the Brass man like angry fists. The British were standing off to take their vengeance for ships lost and the city of Mogadishu half-burned, one whistling projectile at a time. Fear glistened on the grim faces of the Chinese air sailors who had taken him prisoner long weeks ago.
His kind did not know fear. Fear was an animal emotion, a rush of hot blood driven by squalid monkey unreason. Boaz was heir to an unbroken line of cool precision, the Brass race first created in ancient days by the wisdom of King Solomon and since perpetuated in magnificent perfection.
Or so he told himself as the man Lu Hsu screamed in terror just before a whistling shell dropped into his sheltering hole. Bloody spray erupted laced with rock fragments. Chin Yuen, the surviving petty officer, bawled a Chinese order that Boaz had learned meant "move out."
Boaz once again considered simply walking into the rain of hot steel and lead. Brass were not invulnerable. Solomon's First Seal glowed within his head as with all his fellows, but even it could not remake severed limbs, shattered chest, or tangled clockwork.
He realized Chin Yuen was screaming at him. The little man had much in common with Boaz' closest friend, Angus Threadgil al-Wazir. Those two shared a petty officer's view of human frailty, the idiocies of command and the general uselessness of civilians. That came through from Chin Yuen even without a language in common.
The Chinese shouted, his face flushed a dusky rose as his dark eyes glittered. Boaz just stared, wondering what the man was about, until a bullet spalled off his own shoulder with a sound like a flat-toned bell.
Chin Yuen shook his head and raced off bent low, as if incoming fire could distinguish between a man walking tall and a man scuttling.
Boaz decided that the Chinese petty officer was right. This was not a good day to die. The Brass walked after Chin, passing through smoke and fire and boiling dust as if he were the hollow wraith that his heart had become in the absence of Paolina.
Memory is perfection.
To misremember is impossible, in a proper man.
To misthink is impossible, with proper memory.
To act imperfectly is impossible, with proper thinking.
Logic flows in ratios, the magnificent alignment of radii and teeth and the tiniest cuttings of gear trains creating inconceivable precision. Events are captured to be ever available, ever ready.
Until someone reaches into your head and tweaks the crystals. Stores them in the archives of Authority without leaving a record of where the memory has gone. Undoes the mighty power of the Seal and replaces it with monkey unthinking and the wretched errors to which flesh is prone.
Until someone touches you with a bowl of oil and pronounces a name you never knew you could have, then flies away in a cloud of canvas and hydrogen and newborn regret and you are left among shouting madmen who labor like ants at the will of their distant, bloated queen.
Self is a flaw in the patterns of memory, errors in the unbroken chain of reason stretching back through time. Imperfection is unthinkable, literally.
Until you have been broken beyond repair.
Chin Yuen's band of air sailors and marines once more slipped the British trap. They were being driven north, repeatedly forced inland. Their sole blessing was that the Royal Navy could not field sufficient airships to harry them effectively. The fires at Mogadishu had reduced the fleet until reinforcements could arrive.
Only one sailor in the contingent spoke English — Chin Ping, no relation to Chin Yuen. He was small, as most of these Chinese were, his blue quilted uniform torn and patched and smeared with grubby dust until he seemed a soft, mobile part of the landscape. His eyes retained the midnight purity that Boaz had come to associate with these people.
"He ask you," Chin Ping said. He was always Chin Yuen. Beyond that, the sailor's grasp of English pronouns was shaky, as if the entire class of words existed only to refer to his commander, or Boaz himself.
The Brass man sat in the shade of a thornbush. The westering sun cast long shadows — his blended with the tree's. The air was still miserably hot for the humans. Dust grated in his joints and scarred his body and sometimes clouded his vision. They were safe enough; no Englishman could approach their rocky highland without being observed long before his arrival.
At least the total lack of water offered little risk to him.
"What does he inquire of me?" Boaz finally responded, speaking to Chin Ping's air of expectancy.
"He ask you find direction."
"Each point of the compass is accounted for." Boaz could scan three-quarters of the circumference of the horizon from where he sat. "Every possible direction."
"Ah ..." Chin Ping tried again. A few swift, liquid syllables of Chinese spilled from his mouth, with neither the emphasis of a curse nor the resignation of despair. Then, in English: "Path. To big water. Make fire for help."
"The British continue to drive us inland."
Chin Ping nodded vigorously. "Time now, time now."
Boaz stared eastward across the miles toward the sullen glint of the sea. The thread of Earth's orbital track gleamed crisply in the sky. The Wall loomed to the south, rising like a woman's hands to —
Boaz forced himself to stop. Some memories were too difficult. Not painful, for he was no monkey to live on the frothing edge of emotion, but difficult. Paolina had given Boaz to himself, conquering his will like an invading army.
"Tell," Chin Ping was saying. His fingers touched Boaz' forearm, tracing the textured brass greave. "Tell, ah, then have problem no more."
"No more problems," Boaz echoed. He stood, not worrying if the last of the sun would flash bright off his body to catch the eyes of distant watchers. "You have need to reach the sea soon, and avoid the British."
Oddly, something in this high, wasted terrain did stir memories. Africa had its secrets, just as did the Wall. Boaz held the merest fraction of either of those books of knowledge, but his sliver of wisdom was the only sword these lost Chinese could wield to cut their way back to freedom.
Later, there was more labored conversation around a smoldering fire. Chin Ping served as the mouth for two dozen anxious pairs of eyes. They'd cremated seven of their fellows thus far, and a pair of the wounded were not likely to last another day.
"Need tall place," Chin Ping told him. "Tall place close to big water, ah."
"For your signal fire," Boaz said. "At some arranged moment."
Chin Ping nodded vigorously. His shipmates stared like wolves.
"We make for east of north," the Brass intoned, one hand out to point the way. "Past that ridge of rocks we will find a drainage course. We may follow that off these highlands and so approach the sea."
He wasn't sure why he knew this. Another imperfection of memory, surely, for he had never before traveled so far north of the Wall.
Chin Ping translated quietly. Chin Yuen stared across the fire at Boaz. Some of the others spoke softly.
Later they heard the distant cough of airship engines. Boaz couldn't tell the type from the sound, but the unseen vessel passed overhead with a steady grumble. The sentries stirred and watched the clouded darkness, but they raised no alarum.
You will have no secrets of me, Boaz soundlessly told the night. You who snatched her away from my arms just when I had reached her side once more.
He didn't know who he hated worse, the Chinese or the British. At least the Chinese were trying to keep him alive, while the British pursued him with fire and sword. For now, he held his own counsel and despised them all.
Bernard Forthright Kitchens, special clerk to Admiralty, checked himself in the mirror clipped above the chipped basin in his rented room.
His shave was impeccably close. One advantage of having learned the quiet work with a blade was the improvement to this morning ritual that set servants of the Empire apart from the coarser run of men.
Kitchens picked up the straight razor again. Sharp enough to slice muscle down to bone almost unnoticed, as a good blade should be. He worked the edge across his skin, now dry from the earlier shave, to address a few errant whis kers just above his starched collar.
The tug of the metal against his pores was a caress. The danger of such a fine edge near the arteries was a tonic. No hired doxie could approach the passion that a simple length of honed steel inflamed within a thoughtful man.
Closing the razor, he slipped it into the sleeve pocket of his morning coat. The train to Oxfordshire left at 9:07, and he must be aboard or forfeit everything he had worked for. The Queen, the real Queen, not that hired actress who stared from the windows of Buckingham Palace, expected him before noon. The ninth Duke of Marlborough protected his royal charge sans peur and sans pitié.
Kitchens picked up his bowler with the weighted brim and retrieved his umbrella from the stand. As usual, he made a final check before departing. A bed, a clothes press, a small writing desk. The sole luxury was a rack with the adventure magazines that were his quiet vice. Only a destructively thorough search would turn out the room's darker secrets. Fingers would be lost and blood poisoned in the process.
Or so he intended.
Out into the press of the crowd, Kitchens became merely another whistling, anonymous man on the London streets, business on his mind.
With one change to a local line, he arrived at Woodstock well before noon. A tiny English town, unremarkable save for the Cameron Highlanders at every corner. A stranger would have been stopped and not so politely questioned.
Kitchens was expected.
No one asked his name, because no one needed to. He walked briskly along the carriage road leading southwest out of town toward Blenheim Palace. Every one of the Admiralty special clerks knew of this drill, for any of them could be called upon to deliver some report to the Crown in person.
They almost never were, however.
A gentleman did not traffic in rumors, but Kitchens was not a gentleman; he was a clerk. Rumors were his stock in trade, under the name of intelligence. As he passed among the grasses fading to autumn, watching the starlings whirl and chirp overhead, he wondered what the truth was of the Queen.
Many were aware of the woman acting out the role of a lifetime in Buckingham Palace, whom those in the highest levels of Government referred to as "the other Mrs. Brown." Too many for Kitchens' taste, but the security of the Crown was not his concern. Not directly.
Some understood that the Queen was in retirement at a country estate. Various locations were bruited about. Kitchens was certain there were more "other Mrs. Browns" in the world.
A very few knew that Her Imperial Majesty had taken up residence at Blenheim, a palace so large that an entire corps of crowned heads could be mislaid within its labyrinthine architecture.
Kitchens knew there must be more beneath even that. He would find out very soon.
The submarine Five Lucky Winds pitched, even beneath the waves. Captain Leung had been running at snorkel depth until the Indian Ocean storm had come upon them, but the weather was far more dangerous than a black-line squall.
They should submerge, Emily McHenry Childress knew, but there was some problem with their batteries that defied even Leung's efforts at translation into English. Chief al-Wazir was no help. The gruff, improbably named Scotsman was an experienced air sailor, but never an engineer, and knew almost nothing of the ways of the navy of his lifelong enemies. All Childress herself understood of sailing and les sous-marins had been learned aboard this tiny, creaking vessel as it carried her out of her old life in New England and into the world of Chinese court politics, divine magic and ancient secrets.
"They'll be taking her down, soon," growled al-Wazir. He and Childress crowded in the tiny wardroom. The only place where the Scotsman could stand upright was the laddered tube leading up to the conning tower, but at least here he could sit against a bench and brace his great legs across the cabin. He cradled the stump of his left wrist against his body, as if he still expected the lost hand to grow back.
Looking away from him for a shameful moment, Childress once more thanked her luck at not getting seasick. A lifetime spent among books had hardly prepared her for such adventures. "Captain Leung needs air for the diesels," she said.
"Not unless they be amphibious." When al-Wazir was ner vous, his dialect slipped.
"My friend." Childress forced herself to meet the chief's haunted eyes, ignoring the missing hand and the wounded soul. "This brave ship has carried me halfway around the Northern Earth without mishap."
The hull shivered like a struck gong. They both stared up at the seam joining the wardroom overhead and the starboard bulkhead. As always when the submarine ran deep, water trailed in sweaty profusion down the blackened metal.
Her nose remembered that the ship stank — of fuel and brackish water and unwashed coolies and that vile paste with which the crew polished the brightwork. One grew accustomed to such smells, until they vanished from awareness.
It's the water, Childress thought. Water makes me think of light and life when I am trapped at the bottom of a steel-jacketed well beneath the desert of the ocean. At least she was not seeing ice creeping on frost-fingers across the bulkhead, as it had when Leung had caused a ghost to be set upon their political officer Choi, back in the Nipponese port of Sendai.
No more political officers here. Five Lucky Winds sailed without a flag, since the girl Paolina Barthes had destroyed an entire flotilla of the Nanyang Fleet to stop the massacre of the submarine's crew. In doing so she had called down the Silent Order's vengeance upon them all. Enemy to Her Imperial Majesty's throne in distant London, traitor to the Son of Heaven in Beijing, the surviving crew were friendless and alone in the stormy waters of the Indian Ocean.
The only purpose remaining to them was Childress' own — stopping the Golden Bridge project, that Chinese effort to cross the Wall using the ancient magics found in Chersonesus Aurea.
"She may be brave, but a smart captain won't be sailing into a storm like this." Al-Wazir's voice had dropped to a rumble that matched the groaning of the hull.
"We're safe from pursuit, I think."
"Aye, till them Silent bastards set a watcher or two upon us. Them as has ways of knowing, ma'am."
He held the right of that. But with secret societies, how could one know?
Timing her movement to the roll of the hull, Childress reached for the chart drawers and tugged out the too-familiar map of the Indian Ocean. Thus far their only course had been to steam north and west, making a furtive landfall at some white-beached islet in the Maldives while endlessly arguing about where to head next. Water was taken on, fresh fruit and fish, but no answers.
She had a purpose, but no goal yet. Where to lever what strength she had?
Childress stared at the map, feet propped up against the little fold-down table. Blue pajamas, she thought. All her life she'd have rather been caught dead than wearing pants, and now she shared a room with this great brute of a man, she clad only in blue silk pajamas.
"There must be more to this ocean than storms," she mused aloud.
"Chinese, coconuts and sharks," al-Wazir offered.
"Chief, your wisdom would challenge even the ancients."
He chuckled. She glanced up again to see an unfamiliar gleam in his eyes.
This man had loved Paolina unreasonably. Childress suspected he mourned the girl more than he mourned his lost left hand.
Childress turned the map in her hands. She had all but memorized the ports of this ocean, the little picture-words of their Chinese names dancing in her head as she placed them in her ars memoriae. Al-Wazir had filled in a few for her in English: Aden, Mogadishu. Leung had filled in others: Phu Ket, Penang, Colombo.
A long way from New Haven.
"Chief," Childress asked. "What's this place on the west coast of India? I cannot tell if it's colored differently, or if that's just a stain on the map."
"On this vessel? They'd have the midshipmen inking a new chart before they'd leave a soiled one in the drawer." Al-Wazir had acquired a grudging respect for Chinese seamanship that ran deeply against the grain of all his years in the Royal Navy airship service.
Excerpted from Pinion by Jay Lake. Copyright © 2010 Joseph E. Lake Jr.. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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