The Hill. Where? When?
Baby was born and, surprise! She was a little girl. There was great rejoicing in the hill about that, because girls don’t happen very often. Quean Barbie was elated, enchanted: to have produced a wonderful baby girl made her feel very grand. The Uncles were all very happy, too, especially Uncle Ratlin, who was the cleverest person living in the hill.
But Baby’s novelty wore off fairly soon, and it wasn’t long before Quean Barbie got tired of carrying her around and irritably handed her off to the poor stupids to be cared for. If they hadn’t been so stupid, they could have told Baby not to feel too badly about this: Quean Barbie loved having babies but always tired of them quickly, and always forgot about them in the excitement of making more.
Baby figured this out for herself, however. Baby wasn’t stupid.
No, Baby was clever, like Uncle Ratlin; like Quean Barbie, she could make the stupids do things for her. So life wasn’t so bad for a while, in the hill. The stupids brought Baby nice things to eat when she told them to, and made things to amuse her when she told them to, and every so often Uncle Ratlin would notice her when he wasn’t busy, and though she couldn’t make him do things very easily he was always nice, telling her stories about what fun they’d have when Baby was the new Quean.
Once Baby understood that she was going to be Quean, her life became much more complicated. All of her vague feelings of dislike for her mother had a center now, and her sense of herself was strengthened. She was more than Baby who was a girl, who was clever and gave orders. She was Baby who ought to be Quean! She had hair, as Quean Barbie had hair, though not so much. Quean Barbie had a vast bouffant of crystalline tresses, carefully woven up for her by the stupids every morning, while Baby’s was cobwebby and thin, stuck up like little bushes and weeds.
Quean Barbie had clothes, too, of every color and description, brought back for her by Uncle Ratlin when he had time but most frequently by the stupider Uncles, who were easier for Quean Barbie to order around. It was hard for them to find the sort of clothes she wanted. The big people of the houses didn’t seem to keep many gowns like ladies on the holoset wore, which was what Quean Barbie preferred, and the Uncles sometimes had to break into four or five houses in a night before they could get a pretty gown for the Quean.
Baby didn’t need to do that. She simply sent one of the stupids to fetch her one of Quean Barbie’s dresses, and as an afterthought ordered him to bring Quean Barbie’s hairbrush, too. For about an hour Baby was very happy, turning this way and that in her new finery and swept-up do, admiring her reflection in the stupids’ big black eyes.
But then! Quean Barbie came raving out of her chamber, flailing away at the poor cowering stupids who attended her, screaming for her hairbrush. When her wide gaze fell on Baby, what shock! What slit-eyed rage followed, what hissed nasty names like Slut and Whore! Fortunately Baby was very fast, and the stupids too stupid to get out of the Quean’s way as she chased after Baby, so that Quean Barbie fell down and Baby got away.
Baby was on her own after that, hiding out in the parts of the hill where no one ever went. It was a very old hill and the kin had been there a long time, so there were tunnels and rooms long forgotten, heaped to the ceilings with trash, vacated when they’d become too full to use. Plenty of room for Baby to hide and never get caught. More: there was a forgotten tunnel to the outside, giving Baby her own private exit.
The first time she ventured up and out, she expected to see a maze of houses and streets. That was what the Memory insisted was there, a town full of brutal big people, the hairy ogres who were the hereditary enemies of Baby’s race. No; only a sky sparked full of white stars and a hillside all bushes, and a long way off across fields a yellow spark from one little house, and beyond it the mounds where houses had used to be.
Baby crept out in the cold, shivering in her little rag of a dress, and ventured all the way across the fields to the house. It was much bigger once she got there, edging her way around the cattle pen and the big muddy transport parked outside. She looked through the windows and saw the big man who lived in the house, sprawled before his holoset with his big muddy boots off, just watching the holo slack-faced the way Quean Barbie did.
Baby knew what to do then, all right; the Memory served her well. With just a little coaxing the man yawned, got up and opened the door to her, and never even saw her as she walked in at knee level and followed her nose to where he kept his food. She wandered through his kitchen, poking into things, nibbling idly, helping herself to what was nice, spitting out what wasn’t. She carried away a bright printed paper box of biscuits, marching back to the big man where he still stood, staring vacantly out at the night through the half-open door.
Before she left, however, Baby spotted something else she wanted: there on the back of the big man’s chair was a crocheted afghan, made long ago, pink and green acrylic fiber. Baby thought it was beautiful. She took it, wrapping it about her little shoulders as she left the house.
The big man closed the door after her and returned to his chair, where he yawned again and frowned at the holo program, thinking he must have nodded off for a moment.
Baby stopped on her way back, diverted by the big beasts in the cattle pen. They were even easier to coax than the big man, and it took her only a minute to find the right ones and get a nice hot drink.
Full and warm and very pleased with herself, she started back to the hill as the eastern sky was paling. She could do everything now! Really, she ought to have a proper name, the way Uncle Ratlin and Quean Barbie had. What was the grandest possible name for such a clever little girl? The Memory helpfully served up fragments of talk, big words with a vague sense of meaning.
She decided on Princess Tiara Parakeet.
But later, huddled in her own private warren, Tiara had to admit that she didn’t have it all yet. A Quean didn’t curl up alone in her chamber, all by herself. A Quean had lots of kin around her, and a bright-glowing holoset to watch, and Uncles and the occasional big man to talk to. When Queans cried, they cried proudly, noisily and angrily, because they hadn’t been given enough presents, and not because they were little and alone in the dark.
It was the Memory that sent Tiara poking through the trash rooms, where the panel light was dimmed because of all the piled clutter. One of these rooms had been, long ago, where the Queans’ big men were thrown away when they died. Tiara knew you couldn’t talk to big men anymore when they turned into bones, but she might play that they were still alive and talking to her, telling her how clever and pretty she was.
All thought of this particular game vanished, however, when Tiara finally pushed the door open and got into the bone room.
There were plenty of old bones, nasty rattly pieces of big men that Tiara didn’t much like the look of, and she saw at once that they wouldn’t do at all for pretend kin. But there was also a whole big man sprawled there, discarded like the rest!
No . . . not exactly a big man. Tiara stood and stared at him, and gradually the Memory told her everything: this was one of the big people’s slaves, the clever immortal machines that looked just like them. Cyborgs. They worked for the Uncle of all the big people, who was called Dr. Zeus Incorporated.
The slaves were evil; the big people sent them to plunder poor little kin and steal their clever works. They had always done this, and the kin hadn’t ever been able to stop them until one day, at last, a clever Uncle had devised a way to break the slaves. He’d even succeeded in catching one; though the slave had gotten away after. Such a long time, then, the Uncles had hunted for the slave, trying to catch him again, and many Uncles had been lost. It had become one of the epic stories of their race.
Though he had been finally captured, of course; kin never gave up when they wanted something. It was one of the things that made them better than the big people.
Why, it had been Tiara’s own kin who had captured the slave at last, famous Uncle Zingo! Though he was dust now, poor old thing, but famous dust anyhow. And Uncle Ratlin himself had been the one to kill the slave, trying and trying with the different inventions until he’d made one that was deadly enough to do the job. Tiara didn’t understand the big words and concepts that the Memory gave her, about biomechanicals and electromagnetic pulses and disruption, but it had been a great day indeed for Uncle Ratlin when he’d finally killed the slave.
Ever since, Uncle Ratlin had gone more and more among the big people, about his business in broad daylight even, and brought home wonderful presents for Quean Barbie. There was a great plan that was going to make them all very happy one day, that would avenge the kin and bring about the ruin of the big people and their slaves forever, and it all hinged on Uncle Ratlin’s invention.
But in the meantime, the dead slave had been thrown in here and utterly forgotten. Kin never wasted thought on that for which they had no further use. That was another of the things that made them better than the big people.
Tiara picked her way into the room and stood looking down at the dead slave critically. Really, he didn’t look very bad; much nicer than all those old bones. He would do, she decided, for pretend kin.
But what could you play with a thing that couldn’t talk back to you? Tiara thought about it and her little face brightened. She ran off to her own hiding place and returned in a moment, carrying the pink and green acrylic afghan and a beer bottle she had filled with spring water. Sitting down beside the dead slave, she pulled his head and shoulders into her lap and awkwardly wrapped him in the afghan; then she tilted the bottle to his lips, pretending to feed him, spilling water down his waxen face.
“Pretty little baby, pretty little baby,” Tiara crooned. “Drink your nice milk and go to sleep.”
She had, like all the rest of her race, the power of absolute concentration on what interested her at the moment, fixation to a degree that would baffle one of the big people. So intent on her game was she, it mattered nothing to her that the dead slave trembled abruptly, that his mouth opened and fastened on the neck of the bottle, that he proceeded to gulp down the water.
“Good little baby,” Tiara sang approvingly. “Such a good baby, he drinks it all gone. Isn’t he clever! Mummy’s very pleased with him.”
The slave lay still, gasping for breath. She lifted the bottle away and he moved his lips as though he were speaking, but Tiara couldn’t hear anything. “Oh, he’s parched, he’s parched and dry, he needs a whiskey to tell that story!” she sang. “Does he want a whiskey, then?”
The slave might have nodded, or it might have been a shiver. Tiara decided to play it for a nod and jumped up, running off to the spring for more water. She returned in triumph and settled back down, lifting his head and holding the bottle for him. “Drink, drink!” she chanted. “And grow up big and strong.”
He finished the water and sighed, and his head sagged back on her arm. His lips moved again and this time she heard him speak, distinctly, a whisper of thanks.
“He can talk to me,” she squealed in delight. “Talk to me more, slave!”
His eyes opened. She exclaimed, and leaned down to peer into them. They were a lovely shade of twilight blue, the prettiest eyes she had ever seen. All the kin had eyes like black water, except for some of the smarter Uncles; none such a nice color as this slave’s eyes. They did not seem to see her, though. His lips moved again and the voice was clearer:
“. . . I have been a word in a book,
I have been an eagle,
I have been a ship on the sea,
I have been the string of a harp,
I have been bespelled a long year in the foam of the sea . . .”
“Oh, no you haven’t, silly,” said Tiara. “You’ve been only here for years.”
The slave blinked, looked confused. At last, “Little girl?” he inquired.
“You have to call me Princess Tiara,” she informed him.
“Princess Tiara,” he repeated. “Where are we?”
“You’re in my hill, slave-baby,” she said.
His face screwed up as though he were going to cry. “God Apollo, help me,” he moaned, turning his face away. She took his chin in her hands and turned his face back.
“Don’t cry, little baby. Mummy will take care of you. And we can play kin and you can talk to me and get me presents.”
He took a deep breath, blinking his eyes. “Why, I would love to, Princess Tiara,” he said at last. “But I’m hurt, you see. I can’t move my arms or legs, and I’m afraid I can’t see you, not in any spectrum.”
“Oh!” Tiara dropped the game. “You know why? Because Uncle Ratlin killed you.” She leaned back and studied him, puzzled. “How did you come alive again, slave?”
He appeared to be thinking about it. “I must have reset, or rerouted, and I’ve been in fugue all this time,” he guessed, as though he were talking to himself. He turned his head in her direction. “Little girl? Princess Tiara. Are we in your uncle Ratlin’s room?”
Tiara shook her head and then remembered he couldn’t see. “Oh, no. We’re in the room where the dead big people get thrown away.”
“Ah,” he said, shuddering. “So I’ve been thrown away? How long have I been in here?”
“Always,” Tiara said. Her tiny brows drew together in a frown. “Uncle Ratlin will be mad. You were supposed to be dead.”
“Oh, but—” How rapid the slave’s breathing became. “You don’t want him to be mad, do you? And if you tell him I’m still alive, he’ll want to kill me again. And if he does that, I won’t be able to talk to you. You see?”
Tiara saw. “It’s a secret,” she decided.
“Oh, yes, Princess Tiara, it’s our secret. Please?” The slave’s voice shook. “You won’t tell anyone I’m alive in here, and I can talk to you, and play all the games you like.”
“But you’re broken,” Tiara pointed out.
“Well, that’s true, but I might get better. I’m sure I would, if I had enough time,” the slave argued earnestly. “I couldn’t even talk or think before, and then you gave me water to drink, and just listen to me now! I’m talking and thinking like mad.”
“I’ll get you more water,” Tiara announced.
She got up and ran from the room, not noticing his cries of: “Wait! Little girl! Princess! Oh, please, for gods’ sake, don’t leave me!” When she came back after refilling the bottle, he turned his face at once as he heard her come in. “Princess Tiara?” he called desperately.
“Don’t cry, little baby,” she said, putting the bottle to his mouth. He gasped and drank again, so quickly some of the water spilled and ran down like his tears.
“Thank you, sweet little princess,” he gasped.
“I like that.” She smiled. “Tell me I’m a sweet little princess again.”
“Oh, you are! You’re the dearest, sweetest little princess there’s ever been.”
“Tell me you love me.”
“I love you!”
“And I love you,” she emoted, clasping her hands together and tossing her head back. “You are my perfect treasure, and I die for wanting you!”
The slave’s mouth worked oddly. “My dearest love, you must never die,” he cried. “Surely if you die the stars will all go out!”
“That’s nice,” she told him, her eyes shining. “You talk beautiful.”
“I will always talk beautifully for you, Princess, I promise,” said the slave. “I just wish I could sit up and play, too. If only I could see! Will you look for me, dear little princess, and tell me: have I still got both my legs?”
Dutifully Tiara leaned over and looked, though she knew perfectly well. “Yes,” she sang. “Ten fingers and ten toes, why, he’s perfect!”
“Both my feet are still there, then? And my arms and hands?”
“Yes, my treasure.”
“Apollo be thanked. Am I cut, my dearest? Have I wounds anywhere?”
“My poor brave hero.” Tiara pretended to weep. “They have murdered you entirely, there is blood in your beautiful golden hair.”
“Is there?” The slave blinked, frowning. “Yes. I remember that. He tried to open my skull. So there’s a wound in my head, my love?”
“Ha. Well, don’t trouble your heart, my darling.” The slave ran his tongue over his lips. “If you’ll look after me—if you’ll bring me water and food—my body will have what it needs to begin repairing itself. I don’t know how badly I’m damaged, but if I can regain some function—any function—” The slave began to tremble, and calmed himself. “Why, what a grand time we’ll have. And I can tell you stories—do you like stories, Princess Tiara?”
“Oh, yes,” she assured him.
“Well then! Do you know, I was a Literature Preservation Specialist—” The slave’s voice broke. He swallowed hard and went on, “And what that means is, I know every story in the wide world. I will be your own storyteller, princess dear, and nobody else will have such fine stories told. Only to you will I tell them. Will you like that?”
“More than anything, my prince,” said Tiara and sighed. Then, in a completely sensible voice, she added, “Except you aren’t really a prince. You’re just my slave.”
“Ah! Yes, but only your slave,” he insisted. “I would be slave to none but the beautiful Princess Tiara. I’m afraid if you tell anybody I’m here, they’ll come take me away from you.”
“Nobody will do that,” Tiara told him, patting his cheek. She knew how to keep secrets.
Copyright © 2007 by Kage Baker. All rights reserved.