Monday, November 12, 2007

12. Ghost in the Machine

Like her parents, and her parents’ parents, and countless generations before them, she was born into noise and darkness.

The great fish-powered boilers that powered the Imperial Palace had been built in an age of reliable automation. They needed no living hands to run them. Machines could have tirelessly and efficiently performed the task, requiring repair not once in a thousand years.

Then again, the palace didn’t need to run on burning sea life, either. But Emperor Primus the Free-Spending felt that the appropriate amount of wastefulness was essential to preserving the image of the Imperium’s power. All-encompassing, near godlike empires of millenial duration should not be seen cutting costs or corners. It got people talking, and not in the good way.

The crew brought in to man the boilers upon the palace’s completion were fairly ordinary souls — hardy stock from the simmering volcanic mining planets of the Virgil system, used to hard work and high temperature. For a good century or two, they kept regular contact with the palace above, receiving shipments of wages, food, medicine, and other supplies. Like their more refined counterparts on the upper levels, they produced new generations of boiler-stokers and fluid dynamic technicians and seaweed-haulers. A thriving community sprang up in the steaming bowels of the palace, among the hiss and thunk and roar of the machinery.

Then came the rather unfortunate reign of Emperor Sanguinus the Deeply Troubled, and with it a high, execution-related turnover rate among the palace’s staff. Communication between the boiler crews and officials above became ever more infrequent, and then ceased entirely. The situation might have recovered if, following the merciful end of Sanguinus’s reign, he had not been replaced by Mercurious the Easily Distracted. In rushing to comply with his numerous and refreshingly non-murderous whims, the palace staff neglected crucial maintenance. Ducts fell into disrepair. Passages were hastily sealed off to make way for an Imperial amusement park — no, a ninepin alley — no, an entire garden made of candyfloss — no, maybe the amusement park after all.

Soon enough, the whole of the palace above simply forgot that anyone at all lived below Sanitation Deck. There were legends, of course — boogey-tales told to the new arrivals, to facilitate the playing of hilarious practical jokes. But that was all.

The world of the boiler crews contracted steadily with each passing generation, until the notion of a world outside became lost in the far reaches of their collective memory. They stoked the boilers and shoveled the fish and crabs and wrestled out the errant sharks out of ritual now, rather than duty.

Every few hundred years, some bold, shining-eyed youth — literally shining-eyed, as by this point, evolution had gifted the inhabitants with certain advantages related to seeing in the dark — would bid the others farewell in bold sign-gestures, set out on a quest to reach the mythical Blue Kingdom, and never be heard from again.

(Most of these would-be heroes made the mistake of heading down, not up. They all discovered their Blue Kingdom firsthand, in the form of a very long drop toward the ocean.)

None of them had spoken a name in hundreds of years — the noise of the boilers and pumps and engines drowned out all but the loudest yells — and the few written documents still surviving were preserved as holy relics, for the instruction of the children. (These included a copy of Digwell the Very Good Dog, an increasingly tattered copy of Aristocrat Fashion magazine which cycled in and out of fashion every hundred years or so, and Your First Incinerothermic Power System: A User’s Guide, helpfully provided by the manufacturer.) They shunted sea life from the boiler feeds for food, steaming and roasting it with the surplus heat of the boilers. Rare anemones and other arrivals from the deep were cultivated for their medicinal properties; seavine, properly dried and treated, could be woven into clothes. This was how they lived. This was the world into which she had been born.

Little Stone, daughter of Shovelfast, unofficial queen of the boiler-stokers, and Hurtswhere, the doctor; the third of their children, the first and only to survive past birth. She was a good baby, and a quiet one, and much loved. Her mother would sit up nights in the disused outflow pipe that was their home, cradling the girl in her muscular arms as mother and daughter rocked away the hours in a seavine sling. Shovelfast would hold Little Stone close and sing to her, the same song her mother had sung to her. She could not hear the song she sang, but her child could, humming through the flesh and the bones of Shovelfast’s chest, humming through her very heart.

Like all the children, Little Stone began work at five, pushing the carts, fixing the shovels, gathering piles of seavine. But she showed real promise as a pipeslink, slipping tiny and agile inside the smaller pipes to clear out clogs, to keep the Great Machines happy.

She would have stayed there, happy and ignorant with her family, till the end of her days, until the boiler fires claimed her as they claimed all things. But her life as she knew it, all seven years, four months, and fifteen days of it, ended in a matter of heartbeats, the day the palace danced.

Far above, unknown to the denizens of the boiler chamber, the Empress was celebrating a birthday. Which birthday, exactly, was not specified; it never was. Even the Emperor didn’t know, and didn’t dare ask. But from the heaviness of her sigh whenever he ventured to bring up the topic of a celebration, he guessed it must be a significant one, demanding a special event.

He summoned the family to a secret meeting, during the Empress’s weekly session on Restorative Deck, and solicited ideas.

“Fill the arena with beasts,” offered Pug, “and I will slay them all for her.” He couldn’t bring himself to suggest his real idea, a lovely garden party with engraved invitations and finger sandwiches and discussions about etiquette — the sort he enviously imagined his mother and father were having all the time, without him.

Lis exhaled wearily, prepared to take one for the team. “I could get a few courtesans together and, I dunno, do the Dance of the Eighteen Progressively Smaller Scarves?” she offered. Lis had considerable skills in the way of entertainment, but few of them were suitable for family parties. “She liked that a couple years back.”

“Yes, daughter,” sighed the Emperor, moving thumb and forefinger in circles at his temples, feeling a headache coming on. “But mostly because Ambassador Kellel’s heart gave out when you got down to scarf number five. She never liked him.”

“Oh,” Lis said, and folded her hands and sat quietly, hurt but not surprised.

“What about another kind of dance?” eight-year-old Dent suggested, failing to see the appeal of a performance centered around scarves.

“Who let you in here?” the Emperor groaned. From the hallway outside, a clack-clack-clacking sound passed, and a muffled screech of “Death! Colorized, motivated death!”

“She likes the Misertine, right?” Dent continued, undaunted. However hostile things might get for him in here, they were guaranteed to be a picnic compared to the hallway outside. “I saw her one time yelling at the Fleetfeet girls from Amusement Deck after they did a recital for her, about how they were getting the steps all wrong.”

His family members rarely told him anything about themselves, so when Dent learned something of their inner selves, he memorized it, and kept it special in his mind. In that regard, these facts were not unlike his treasures — just not stolen.

“The Misertine,” the Emperor mused fondly, as if someone else entirely had brought it up. “We danced that at our wedding…” Dent filed this away, too.

The Emperor had dismissed his family, and also Dent, and summoned his best engineers and mechanics. Discussions were had, involving ancient and only mostly accurate schematics of the palace. Heads nodded, partly out of fear that they might be severed if they didn’t, but mostly because what the Emperor proposed seemed more or less doable. Or at least a fun challenge amid the dreary monotony of maintenance.

On sunset, on the evening of her birthday, the Emperor and the Empress took the pneumovator up to the veranda. She was in a foul mood that day, as at least three of her servants had discovered in an unfortunately permanent fashion.

“Well?” she snapped, when they stepped out onto the palace roof, the whole of the sea and sky a gorgeous shimmering gold. “Where’s dinner?”

The Emperor just smiled. Five bells sounded through the palace; up here, the vibrations made the scale-shingles chitter and chime like falling icicles.

In the palace control center, Mechanic Doren shouted a command. Mechanic teams deployed throughout the chamber hauled on massive valves, opening up channels unused in centuries, drawing on more power than the palace had ever previously used.

Deep below, in the squashed, fish-stinking darkness of the long-abandoned master outflow conduit, seven-year-old Little Stone had just finished chipping away a crablog at a bend in the piping. She made ready to slither back down the piping and report success to her mother, when the rumbling began, rising through the metal of the pipe around her. Little Stone froze; her experience contained nothing like this.

Had she kept moving, she might just have made it out in time.

The boilers roared to violent life, steam bursting and hissing from pipes long patched and repatched, scavenged and salvaged. The boiler crews found themselves screaming unfamiliar screams of pain and terror as their entire cosmology upended itself. Even as her husband tried to tug her to safety, Shovelfast stood in the midst of the chaos, scalded but unmoved, gripped by the most terrible fear.

The world began to move in unfamiliar ways.

The Palace, on its eight water-striding legs, danced the delicate circles of the Misertine.

“Happy birthday, my love,” said the Emperor tenderly, to the woman he’d fought a galaxy for, and who did not entirely terrify him all the time. Anymore.

The faintest ghost of a smile, an actual smile, haunted the Empress’s lips, as the palace beneath them glided across the sea in half-mile strides, out and around, out and around.

“It’s not nearly as good as I was,” she said.

“No one could be,” the Emperor replied, and offering his hand. And for five blessed clicks, they danced together in the deepening twilight, and the palace danced with them.

And far, far below, the overtaxed boilers switched to emergency measures to keep up with the power drain, diverting vast shunts of cooling water to counterbalance the rising temperatures. This water needed somewhere to go when it had done its job, and the automatic system gave it one. Rusted, crusted grates yielded to mechanical force, shrieking open.

Little Stone felt the coming water before she heard it, and tried to slide back to the nearest junction. Then a blast of hot liquid suffocation hit, throwing her back, slamming her tiny frame thoughtlessly against the walls of the pipe, carrying her up, up, up. To the Blue Kingdom, where the angels lived.

The Palace stopped its dancing, settling back to its normal motion (and not a moment too soon for countless unbalanced stomachs within its decks). The ancient gates creaked shut again, once more sealing the works of the palace above from the boilers below. In the darkness, a mother cried for her child, over and over, and received no reply.

And Little Stone woke, spitting up lukewarm seawater, in an unfamiliar, strangely dry, and odd-smelling duct. Silence attacked her ears, and then the duct filled with sudden sharp cries and thuds as she scrabbled and panicked and flailed. And then she realized the sounds were coming from her, and her terror redoubled.

She searched for hours, lost in the palace’s miles upon miles of ductwork, searching frantically for a way back, and finding none. At last, exhausted, she curled up in a junction where comforting warm air blew, and cried herself to sleep, humming the same tune her mother hand long ago sang to her into the metal against her cheek.

She learned, because she had to. She taught her eyes to adjust to the light coming in from the not-world outside the tubes, the little cages into which she could peer. She listened to the strange people in their odd clothing come and go, flapping their lips, making strange sounds, and never once using their hands. She tapped potable water lines to drink. She stole fresh clothing from the hampers on laundry deck, helpfully left beneath the vents of drying air. She followed one set of smells to the sanitation ducts when nature insisted, and another, more pleasant set of smells to Culinary Deck, to steal food.

Sometimes she could reach through the vents to grab it; other times, she had to brave the terrifying emptiness of the not-world, venture outside the pipes, stuff the pockets of her coveralls with strange un-fish and green crunching things, unfamiliar but good.

For six long months, she watched, and listened, and searched. She spoke to no one. Sometimes, at night, she cried; the sound carried eerily through the ducts. Mechanic Doren had to scoff more than once at the timid greaseheads, and tell them in rough and burly terms that there was no such thing as ghosts. But he’d heard it once, too, walking the mains one night; singing, in a little girl’s voice, a strange and haunting tune. He chalked it up to insufficient sleep.

And then one day she woke from a nap to find a little boy in her vent, flattened against the wall, peering out through the grate. Outside, she heard the Shining Thing pass; she’d seen it before, around this time of day, making the rounds, squawking to itself in high, singsong tones, and snapping the pincer end of one of its four arms rhythmically.

The little boy waited, holding his breath, until it passed, then started to fiddle with the vent cover. Her foot slipped, squeaking against the metal of the duct, and he turned and saw her.

“Oh,” he said, though she didn’t understand what that meant. “Hello.” He waved to her a little bit, and that she understood. That was the greeting sign, or some form of it. Cautious, she waved back. He smiled. She frowned, and spit. He laughed, and made a face. It was the first time she’d ever seen and heard laughter simultaneously, ever made the connection. It amazed her.

He dug into his belt, and she scrambled away, halfway into darkness. She stopped when he held out food, one of the square layered meals she’d seen and often stolen, cut into halves. He set down one half, and she advanced slowly, and took it, sniffed it. It was good. It tasted a little like something her mother had made.

They ate together, saying nothing. After he was done, he reached to his belt again, and took out a book. Her eyes widened, and she grabbed at it. The light was still too bright, and she squinted, and puzzled out the words on the cover: Escape From Killgrave Keep. They were strange words, but she knew them. She opened the book, reading greedily, avidly.

The boy tapped her on the arm, and she flinched; her first human contact in half a year. He held up a little square of metal, and the front of it glowed words at her: YOU CAN READ?

He showed her how to erase the words, write new ones. And she did, and gave it back to him.


Things got a lot easier from there.

That night, as Story helped him straighten the tent and fluff the cushions, Dent told his friend all about the girl in the vents.

“I congratulate you, young master,” Story said gently, his reference files indicating this was fairly common for children of Dent’s age and circumstance. “You have a magnificent imagination.”

“But she’s real, Story!” Dent pleaded, tugging at one of the same hands that had spent the afternoon trying to kill him. In the high ventilation duct that peered into the ceiling of his room, something rattled faintly. Dent looked up and waved again.

“See?” Dent said. “That’s her! I told you she was real!”

Story engaged his diplomacy protocols. “I’m certain that she must be,” he said, “but I am also certain that particular noise was not her. This is a very old palace, and sometimes, I am told, a stray pebble may get into the ducts.”

Dent looked up at the vent a minute more, squinting. He thought he could just about see the reflective gleam from a pair of small, strange eyes, looking back at him. Somehow, it made him feel less alone.

He let Story tuck him in, and switch off the light. And he lay there in the blue darkness of his tent, touching each of his treasures one by one with the tip of a finger. And when he finally shut his eyes to drift off to sleep, a single word escaped his lips, with a smile:


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