In a futuristic, fascistic Rome, a brilliant, unstable scientist proves that she can transcend the human body's limitations. The test subject? Her own daughter. A mother-daughter mad scientist story, THE DESTROYER asks how far we'll go to secure our own legacies -- and how far we'll run to escape them.
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|Publisher:||Tom Doherty Associates|
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About the Author
Tara Isabella Burton's fiction has appeared in Shimmer, PANK, Daily Science Fiction and more. Her nonfiction, essays, and travel writing can be found at National Geographic, National Geographic Traveller, Al Jazeera America, The Atlantic, and more. In 2012 she received The Spectator's Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing. She has recently completed her first novel.
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By Tara Isabella Burton, Ashley Mackenzie
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2016 Tara Isabella Burton
All rights reserved.
Long before my mother destroyed the world, her experiments were quieter, more contained. They did not obliterate continents. They did not rack up the dead.
She began as a domestic researcher in the household of an Umbrian merchant, engineering fish with mirrored scales. She told me how he loved to see his own face reflected, one and then a thousand and then another hundred times; how he filled the fountains with so many that there was no room to breathe or swim; how she woke up one morning to find that they had devoured one another, and left the fountains overflowing with blood.
He did not recognize her genius. For him she was only a carnival magician: a maker of flower stems that shattered like glass, and three-headed dogs, and the many-faced prisms that years later gave me nightmares of mirrors that did not end. Women's work, he said. Not science.
So she moved on. She spent five years in Friuli, making nuclear lamps that waxed and waned with the moon, and another three in Milan, where she throttled sunflowers until they bore fruit. She sold the formula to a senator's wife, and in six months' time the whole Republic stank of them: of that peculiar mixture of honey and raw meat that I associate with her even now.
"All idiots," she told me once. "They'd have slurped slop from a trough if they thought I'd invented it."
She worked for provincial governors, for senators; she sold drugs to generals that lured soldiers into the fata morganas of the sands; she provided one of Caesar's chief ministers with a device that would allow him to press his ear against a cube made of glass, and through it listen to his enemies' dreams.
"They didn't understand," she used to tell me as she tightened the bolts in my shoulder. "They patted me on the head, slipped me some money. They thanked me and went on their way — and didn't even think to tell Caesar what I'd done. But I showed them, didn't I?"
In me she found an outlet for her genius. Into me she'd poured all her knowledge, molten with need; she had taken cells from her ribs and fiddled with them under a microscope; five months later, gelatinous and gasping for breath, I was. It made the papers — I was the first parthenogenesis, the daughter without a father, the flesh of my mother's flesh. I was proof of her greatness.
From the beginning, I was taller than she was.
For the first six months there were papal picketers outside our laboratory, demanding that I be drowned, and old women in the marketplace swore that when my mother passed them by, they developed boils on the soles of their feet.
"Of course, they all wanted to know how I'd done it," my mother said to me. "But I never told them. You're mine — and only mine. Nobody else knows how to make you." She used to cradle me against her breasts; it calmed me long enough for her to clean the copper at my wrist.
Within three months she had been offered a state position in one of Caesar's laboratories on the outskirts of the city.
"It took us five years," she said. "But he noticed me at last. You see what you've done?" She kissed me on the forehead. "You are my greatness. And I love you for it."
So she loved me. On Saturdays she took me to the Hippodrome; she sat in the umbrella shade and watched me as I chased eagles and got mud on my shoelaces. Her suit was blue and her hair was long and light behind her, and when her gaze enveloped me, I knew there was no other woman in the world.
My eyes were her eyes. My lips were her lips and my shoulders, too, were hers, and so the world was geometrically composed, and everything I ever was or would become was threaded in me already, and manifest in her.
One day she took me to lunch at the senatorial haunt on the Capitoline, where the names of Caesar's chief scientists were inscribed upon the ministry gates. We sat together in silence, staring at our unfilled plates, and watched the servants scurry as they ferried platters into the back room.
"Caesar's in there, I suppose," my mother said. "They're always so nervy when he's around." She fingered the rose the waiters had left on the table for us, divesting it of thorns.
"They want to impress me," she said to me. "They must know who I am." She considered it. "They think they can impress me with this?" Her laugh was hollow and cruel. "It doesn't interest me. Just think if each petal were a different color — how much better it would be, then. One lime colored, one magenta, one orange, one black." She tore them off and pressed them into my hands, and my fingers grew sticky and sickly with the smell. "Get these out of my sight."
That night I crept out of my bedroom and made my way to the garden of our courtyard, and there I uprooted every stem and set them all on fire before the statues of the household gods. My mother found me in the morning, smeared in ash; she said nothing but made us breakfast and spooned extra honey onto my plate.
On Sundays we went to the Forum. We sat together on the pillars; she spread cheese on bread and commanded me to play. I clambered over the columns, tripping in the enormity of the spaces between them. We played hide-and-seek around the arches of the Colosseum; she always found me, and there gathered me in her arms.
The tourists did not disturb us; Caesar's guards did not disturb us. Nobody existed there but the two of us, who were really one. In our happiness everything outside us, everything alien to our secrets, was blotted out — or else I do not remember it.
When I was thirteen my mother developed an artificial arm. It was opal-pale and gleamed; it could bend without breaking. It could lift four or five hundred kilograms without effort; knives slashed forth from a slit in the palms on command.
"For protection," my mother said. She took my hand in hers and pressed the palm to her lips. "I was never so strong, you know," she said. "My arms were never beautiful. They were freckled." She turned my hand over, feeling her way through my knuckles. "Yours will be too, in this heat. You'll have to wear sleeves like mine." I let her run her fingers through my hair. "You're so lovely," she said. "When I was fourteen, maybe I was so lovely too. I don't remember. It was a long time ago, and I try not to think about it much. But there's so much I want to give you. If you wanted. Only if you wanted."
I could see no fault in her, nor any ugliness, though I stood naked all night in front of the mirror, looking at my arm from every angle, pressing it up against my ribs to spread the fat like soft cheese across my side. I kneaded the flesh and picked at the skin and in the morning I asked her to give me the arm she had made.
She kissed me. "I knew you would understand," she said.
The operation went quickly. I felt nothing, but through the haze I remember that I heard her singing, a song in the vulgar tongue that was spoken only in the provinces, which she must have known as a girl.
Fa la ninna, fa la nanna
nella braccia della mamma
Fa la ninna bel bambin
nella braccia della mamma
When I woke, she was holding a hand that now belonged to me — though I did not feel it — and stroking my forehead with the back of her hand.
"You're so lovely," she said, and took me in her arms.
She taught me how to use it: how to hoist myself up single-handed on bars of steel, how to throw javelins made of osmium and catch discs weighted down with lead. She watched as I grew coltish and strong, as I shook out my hair and my cheeks flushed pink with intoxicating strength; she watched me and took photographs, measurements, and hung these on her laboratory walls.
She sent Caesar a diagram of the arm. Two weeks later he replied — on official letterhead, with the eagle on the seal — to congratulate her.
"You see what we've accomplished?" She framed it on the wall.
When I was fifteen, she created an artificial leg.
"You're so intelligent," she said. "And I'm so proud of you. There's so much you could do, if you only cared a little more about yourself. If you were only willing to put in the time."
I came to her that night and asked her to build me one. It was long and slim, turned up at the heel and impervious to pain.
It proved too long — the false foot dragged a few millimeters behind the real one — and so we amputated the other. I grew two inches overnight and found I was taller than she was.
My mother supervised my rehabilitation. She took me daily to the Forum, where now I could leap and somersault over the ruins, and challenged me to run faster, to climb to the top of Trajan's Column, to jump from the three-story Triumphal Arch without wincing in pain.
My mother filmed it all and sent the footage to Caesar.
This time his answer was handwritten. He thanked my mother for her service and invited us both to a reception on the Capitoline the following Kalends.
My mother put her hands on the sides of my face; she tightened at my screws until I yelped; she checked the circuits at my shoulder and polished the metal eagle branded into my forearm.
"Don't fidget." She slapped my left wrist, which was the only one capable of feeling pain. She considered my neck, my breasts, my waist. "It's only ..." She passed her fingers over my eyelids. "They're brown, like mine. You could fix them, you know. If you wanted to."
I told her I didn't want to. My eyes were her eyes; for her sake I loved them.
"But you can barely see!" She pulled them open with her fingertips. "You could see perfectly, more than that — we could put a camera in, another lens or two, so you could see things up close ..."
There was nothing noble about my refusal. I was afraid of the pain.
"Whatever you want," she said. "It's none of my business. But when Caesar sees you, don't blame me if he isn't impressed with us. He doesn't invite just anybody to these things, you know."
It wasn't easy to get an invitation. Caesar didn't ask people twice. She'd worked so hard — she'd been so proud of me, of my strength, of my speed, of the swannish way I could dance, balancing my whole weight upon a single metallic toe. She only wanted Caesar to see, in his majesty, what she saw already, and what I refused to see.
She gave me two blue eyes to replace the ones she had taken out.
That night I danced with Caesar. He slid his hand up the side of my thigh; I did not feel it. I let him take me to one of the back chambers, and there I let him open the various panels on my legs, on my forearm, in my back. I showed him where my mother had fused wires together, and where they snaked into veins. He asked me to show him my strength.
The next day a member of the senatorial science council was found poisoned, and Caesar offered my mother his place. The following month she improved upon my spine.
There was only one part of me my mother refused to operate upon. She would not risk my ability to bear children. "It is the greatest thing I have ever done," she said to me. "It is the only way I know I am truly alive, knowing that I will live on in you. It means that I will never die."
In the end it didn't matter. When I was sixteen, one of her refurbishments resulted in infection, and to save my life it became necessary to remove my womb.
"Never mind," my mother said then. "I'll build you a better one tomorrow."
When I was seventeen Caesar's chief scientist died; my mother replaced him. We moved to the official residence: a glass-fronted monolith just outside the city walls. From the top floor we could make out the old city in the distance — the Colosseum, the Triumphal Arch, Trajan's Column — swarming with tramcars. With my new eyes I could even make out the stray cats.
"It's happened at last," my mother said. "This is what we've been working toward. They know now what we can do." She considered me. "You've gotten so beautiful, you know."
I was not beautiful; nevertheless, I commanded attention. Men stared at my legs in the street, marveling at their symmetry, sometimes suspecting. There were rumors among the political classes — whispers of senator's wives with false hands or bionic ankles, minor modifications among the Praetorian Guard — but the totality of my replacements was unheard of, even here. My appearance in the marketplace prompted whispers, dark looks, greengrocers crossing themselves and lighting candles to the saints. By now my mother had replaced every part of me, with the exception of my left arm.
This, I had informed her, would remain precisely as it was.
My mother and I still took our walks around the Capitoline, where men bowed to us when we passed them by. My mother's name was inscribed upon the ministry walls, now, for services rendered to Caesar; she liked to go there each morning at breakfast time, to make sure that it was still there.
"All fools," she said. "The whole lot of them."
"I've done so much, now. I've been cleverer than they were. The others: they made toys, children's games. I made things for men. And, you see? Now they know. It was the least they could do for me, given all that I do for him."
She wrapped her arms around me and kissed my forehead, and in the warmth of her, nothing else existed. There was only that double strand of our being, our arms twining into one another. There was only her face in my face, her voice in my voice, and so she did not realize that I was lying to her.
It was a lie of omission. I had taken to wearing a shawl, as peasant women did, to cover the falsity of my face, and in that anonymity I had begun to wander the insalubrious alleyways of the city, like the palm readers and chicken sellers, uniformly made of flesh. There I walked for hours, in the fruitless hope of blistering my feet, of starting to smell. Alone I went across the river into Trastevere, and there I wandered anonymous in the back alleys of the marketplace.
One day I went, head covered, to the fishmonger on the riverbank; he pressed live squid into my hands and commanded me to feel their freshness; I squelched the tentacles between my fingers and marveled at how easily I crushed them.
I took my left hand out of its glove and carried it bare-handed to the bridge; there I tore at it with my teeth; there I swallowed it raw. I spit the ink out into the river and thrilled at my transgression.
I had even taken to going to church. I wasn't sure if I believed, but my mother set no store by it, and so I took perverse pleasure in listening to the old rites, in the incense that clung to my clothes. I never took a cushion for my knees when I knelt to pray — I did not need one — but the old women of the congregation took this for penance, and thought me the most pious of them all.
I lit candles for my mother, and left them burning. I took communion, and sanctified whatever parts of me could still be sanctified — five of my fingers, the wrist of my left arm. In those moments, I used to imagine that I was transfigured and that my body was neither mechanical nor flesh, but something ethereal and else, some yet-undiscovered material that my mother had not learned the secret of creating. Those parts of myself, incense doused and made whole, were all that did not belong to her.
My mother sensed this. She caught me on the stairs, twenty paces ahead of my bodyguard, and knew where I had been; she sniffed the incense that had settled on my hair.
"What must people think of you?" She stood with her arms crossed and laughed. "What must Caesar think? The senators? They probably think you're mad — or doing something political."
"Nobody goes to church."
At last she forbade me to go. It wasn't right for me to be seen there, she said — anyone who knew anything at all knew the story of her parthenogenesis; my existence routed all faith. Hadn't she done herself — simply and without any trouble — what was prophesied? In any case, Caesar would think us no better than peasants.
She asked me why I wanted to go out into the dirt, into the soot, why I wanted to smell of sweat and fruit and onions, of the filth of the world.
"It'll get into the wiring," she said, and began to scrub at my ankles with steel wool. "I'll have to spend hours fixing it for you, and then where will we be?" Her laugh was long and high-pitched and hollow. "I don't know why you insist on going out among them," she said. "It's only the unloved that need to go to those places, and you're the best-loved girl in Rome." She began tinkering with the panels on my back. "Don't you think?"
I had grown used to nodding. The panels at the nape of my neck often triggered it a half step ahead of my own thoughts.
I went anyway, sneaking out at strange, orange-lit hours, lingering in the marketplace. Sometimes I bought prayer cards from the women who sold reliquaries on the church steps and took them home, just to annoy her.
Excerpted from The Destroyer by Tara Isabella Burton, Ashley Mackenzie. Copyright © 2016 Tara Isabella Burton. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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