And Sneer of Cold Command

Premee Mohamed


After it was over, the city squares began to boast statues of our conquerors—hasty, ugly things cast in brittle bronze. The furnaces had been cold for months, then clumsily re-lit; the metal was so poorly tempered that when it dropped below zero that first winter, several smaller pieces exploded. At night, knowing the statues’ powers, those who can stay indoors. Those who cannot or will not—well, sometimes in the morning we find the bones and wet patches and shattered teeth, and sometimes we do not. We pray all the harder when no trace is left.

For a time, they became a popular method for suicide—always whispered, never spoken, so that the scraps could still be buried in consecrated ground. There is despair for the now, and there is despair for the life after.

The despair has not yet claimed me, so I live on, work on, within view of the biggest statue in town—a stone’s throw from my workshop, a twisted mass of limbs, wings, grimacing teeth, six faceted horns pointing skyward. Does it resemble one of Them? I could not tell you. Like most survivors, I made it through that night by staying underground with my hands over my ears.

“Mr. Mortin?”

I put down my shears and tipped my cap to the newcomer—a man my age, stoop-shouldered, moustached, with a week’s growth of black beard. From his face alone I would have known that he was an agent of Theirs, that anaemic emptiness that cannot be filled by food or company. But he took out the badge anyway, wrapped uselessly in a maroon-dotted handkerchief, small and vicious in his bandaged fingers.

“What can I do for you?” I said.

He looked around the yard, the shards and ribs of metal ready for smelting and recasting, the little piles of copper wire and broken glass. “Business is good?” he said. “You have all you need?”

“There are still customers,” I said cautiously. His accent marked him as one of the thousands that had fled to the city after that night, when the exposed farms and hilltops fell to Their depredations. The only place you can survive now is a city.

“Who?”

“You wish to see my list?” I said. “Very well; I do not wish to be known as unhelpful. Step into my office.”

Inside, I made tea while he flipped slowly through my records book, running a thick finger down the columns of names, dates, tonnes, his lips moving as he puzzled out the sounds. His metal mug cooled and pinged at his elbow as I waited.

“You sold to…Augusta,” he said, his voice rising in not quite a question.

“There are only two metal-sellers in this city,” I said. “Is that all you needed, Mister…?”

“Just Krystof,” he said, slumping over the book. “Listen. I must ask you to do something for me.”

“On Their behalf,” I said. “As Their agent. How could I say no?”

“No,” he said, his hand flat over the open pages, thumb resting on Augusta’s name. “And yes.”

Truly, he explained, to say ‘no’ to Them was never an option, since They had various gruesome ways of ensuring the obedience of Their human agents. But sometimes They chose agents who were unable to fulfil Their demands—and regrettably, such an agent sometimes had to be terminated. Publicly, along with their families, and the full details of their transgressions written in the Old Speech on the caved-in ribs, the mangled limbs. But all these things we both knew.

“Yes,” I said. “What I still do not know is why you are here.”

“I need you to find Augusta,” Krystof said. “She has gone missing.”

“Good,” I said. “May she run far, and may she run fast.”

“They will destroy my family,” he whispered, stroking his jacket, where the razor-edged badge of his office lay hidden, like a wasp. “They have them, Mortin. My wife, my two sons. My father. My sister. Hidden away in one of Their dungeons—you know the one, where the old silos used to be.”

“I am very sorry to hear that,” I said. My teeth worried at the inside of my mouth till I tasted blood, felt the salt sting of parted flesh. How had he even brought so many of his family with him, in the flight from the outer provinces? I had been in the city, and my own…but never mind. To accept the wages of sin, as they say. “But I only sold her metal. And I never met her. She always sent her assistants. I cannot help you.”

“But you were an investigator,” he said. “Before…”

I swallowed a rusty mouthful and put down my tea. “We were all something else, before.” He was right, of course. A federal investigator, an arm of the state, not so different from his employment as an arm—a tentacle—of Theirs. Perhaps not even less evil, only less hideous. The devil you know. And I was good, very good; I had worked in many regional offices; perhaps I had even investigated him, his family or his business, before the war.

“Please,” he said. “I…listen. You see this as my problem. But They want her back, They will destroy much to get her back.”

“Why? There are many sculptors. Any child could mock up a monster in clay and put it on a plinth.”

“They are not monsters!” he hissed, lunging across the counter to seize my jacket; I smoothly knocked his hands free and took my machete from its shelf.

“I am sorry I cannot be of assistance,” I said, raising the gleaming blade. “Drink your tea, Mr. Krystof, and get out.”

“I will find you metal,” he said, staring fixedly at the machete, perhaps at the stains on the blade that could have been oil, or rust, or something else. “You always need more, I know. You scavenge for hours. I can go outside the city—find metal in the outer provinces. I know where the landfill is buried. I can help you. If you help me.”

I put the machete back. If he could make good on this promise, how much easier my life could be! It was a dog’s work, walking for hours in the ruins, picking up forks and bits of fencing and eyeglass frames and broken screws, always on the lookout for the sun, the approaching reminder of our conquerors. And what of this missing sculptor? I could always say that she was dead, or had run to ground outside the city, where he could not possibly expect me to go. It would be easy enough to lie. Or would it?

* * *

I mulled it over as I put up the closed sign, sat down for a moment, then wandered out, notebook in my pocket. Would he watch me? Would They? I had heard stories, barely credible—agents found where they could not possibly be, minions appearing in locked rooms, acts apparently witnessed through concrete walls. But after two years, the stories had begun to wear thin in the handling, like a gold coin. I believe only what my eyes show me now.

The sculptor’s workshop, as I had expected, was abandoned, a faint pall of grey dust and metal shavings on everything like snow. Near the door sat a wooden crate containing their books, neat stacks of incoming and outgoing items, invoices for my metal and a few from Eres, the other seller on the far side of town. Who was this sculptor, the prodigy who had cobbled together the scraps and bits of metal, and the few shreds of talent still left in the wrecked city, to create this studio and put up dozens of statues? What had she wrought? An empty green-painted cash box similar to mine lay open, dustily lined with the scrabbling marks of fingers scooping out the last small change.

Tarps flapped as I walked through the maze of rooms, some of which were merely scaffolding overlaid with plastic. They had been working on a dozen half-finished clay pieces, not moist to the touch but still damp and pliable. I pictured them saying—or just her, perhaps—”If we go, then we go together.” Too foolhardy to call brave. Had I not seen myself what happened when people fled in a group? There was no safety in numbers. It merely drew Their attention.

The neighbours claimed to know nothing, staring curiously at my clay-stained fingers, as I was clearly no artist. “Two days ago it went quiet,” the old lady said, not looking up from her goat. I looked away, oddly embarrassed, as the milk spurted into the wooden pail. “They left nothing, no notes to even cancel the milk. You are who? The father?”

“Pardon?”

“Alina’s father, the little one?”

“Ah, Alina,” I said. “Yes.”

“Well, if it’s the boyfriend you seek, I haven’t seen him. Ghastly boy. I knew his mother.”

This was an opening I knew well, from the old days. “Of course,” I said. “They had the house on Old Parade Street.”

“No,” she declared. “Not when the war began. It was on Knifemaker Street—the big pepperflame tree in the front, that was her pride and joy. More than that boy. Tch.”

“Who could blame her,” I murmured, and bade them farewell, feeling their eyes on my back as I walked back east.

Pepperflame trees were hard to grow, of course; you had to coddle them to keep them alive more than a few years, and then you had to prune and train. They must have been a rich family, had a gardener. The splendid house was still standing, easy enough to identify even with the few other trees on the street. Who was Alina? Must be one of the assistants, gone with Augusta. But had the boyfriend gone too?

He had not, as it happened, and was terrified to discover a stranger in his family home—ruined, almost unlivable, probably what he wanted people to think. I studied the photos on the walls while he gibbered in the corner behind his gag. Nothing useful. And the house had long been stripped for anything that could be bartered, sold, or repurposed. I knelt next to him, tapping the machete on the black-and-white tiles. “You’re all that’s left, hm?” I said sympathetically. “You were not invited to go with them? If I take this off, you must tell me about Alina.”

Unbound, he sobbed as he rubbed his wrists, a pool of urine spreading on the floor. “Are you her father?” he said. “She said…she said he was dead…”

“Tell me about Alina,” I said again, putting a little extra emphasis into the next tap. A ceramic chip flew up and hit him in the ear, and he screamed as if he had been stung. “Tell me.”

* * *

In the old days, you did not need to kick down a door, you did not need to stand over a man with a kettle of boiling water. It was enough to have the hat and badge, which told informants that something large and heavy stood behind me, and should they push me, we could push back, and much harder. Now, I had to feel my way through the investigation, if that’s what it was. I had no authority, not even Their insectile token that cut the fingers. I had no covering story. I was looking for people who did not want to be found. And all for the promise of metal, the hope of a bright new day in which perhaps for a week or a month I could simply work at smelting and sheeting, and not clamber around in the ruined city like a mountain goat. That was a younger man’s work.

The trail eventually led me to what even before the war had been a bad part of town—flimsy, ramshackle buildings put up too quickly, burned in moments when their panicked occupants fled the attacks. Now their shells were so decrepit they resembled black lace, ruined down to the studs. A place for the poor and the desperate, a place even the criminals left as soon as they could afford it. As I walked I picked up screws and wires by habit, till my coat pockets were bulky with it. Good. Could use the illusion of a bigger man.

Tamecov, the last person to give me any useful information, had warned me that the artists’ hideout—”If that’s where they are, which I doubt!”—would not easily be found, and had been shored up, as only sculptors and metalworkers could, into something closer to a fortress. “I will be able to find a fortress, Mr. Tamecov,” I told him, and ignored his eye-rolling. He is a relic from my old job, a reliable source of gossip and news, as if he is a small strong magnet that collects even the finest filings. He likes, I think, that I am fallen so far—a mere merchant, my prestigious employer replaced by Them and Their downtrodden agents.

In a fortress, you can stockpile food, but we all discovered how precarious the water situation was when things began to come down. And this neighbourhood, so close to the old city wall, has a well—muddy, much-graffitied, no doubt filled, that night, with burned and crushed bodies—but deep, and working when I’d last been here. The fugitives would be nearby. A bucket brigade would not have far to walk.

I glanced up: five or six hours of daylight. In the past week I’d scurried back to my workshop before night fell, but the routes I had been taking each day had gotten longer, the margin of safety smaller, and my feet and legs were tiring; I was moving at a snail’s pace now. Perhaps tonight I would be able to make it back. If not, there were places to hide here. It would be an uncomfortable night, but for a man to be uncomfortable tells him also that he is alive. And I would sleep well after the job was over, in my own apartment above the workshop. Well and richly compensated.

As all jealous conquerors do, They had knocked over the statue of the old mayor and left its bare base, the concrete pocked here and there where scavengers had pulled the plaques off. I wondered if any had found their way into my smelt pile, and been turned into a vile new statue. No matter; I found a good vantage on top of the mayor’s marble head, tucked in between his ear and a windowsill, and settled in to wait.

I didn’t know who I was looking for, but I knew at once when he came to the well, after a long and expected procession of silent children and chattering mobs of powerful old women with pails and plastic bladders. He moved like a dancer on the uneven cobbles, tall and delicate, his hands like clubs swinging his two buckets. I slid down from the ear and followed him through the empty streets till he ducked out of sight into an old pumping station. Ah—it would have sturdy underground control rooms, concrete tunnels to protect the piping, a dozen different exits in case of flooding. Very wise. I should have guessed earlier.

How would I get in, though? Did they have enough people to post guards, lookouts, at every exit? Perhaps if I—

“Don’t move, mister.”

I nodded against the knife at my throat. “This will do nicely.”

* * *

“Why, that’s Mortin, the metal-seller,” said Augusta—without an introduction I still knew her, would have known her anywhere—a heavyset brunette with penetrating dark eyes and the same muscular hands as their water-carrier. “What’s the matter, did we not pay our last bill?”

“Don’t joke,” said the girl who had captured me—surely Alina, small and ferocious as a street cat, with the same sharp white teeth. “Should we just kill him?”

“Not till we know why he’s here,” said the water-carrier. He lounged against one of the control consoles, not quite camouflaging his height in the low-ceilinged room. The other artists, a ragtag group, dusty and hungry-looking, had ranged themselves around the hexagonal tables which had probably once been used for computer consoles. Augusta’s chair creaked as she peered at me in the candlelight.

“A man came to me,” I said. “One of Theirs.” It was never necessary to explain what was meant by the collective preposition now; it was as if people could hear the capital ‘T.’ “A Krystof, a Mister Krystof. Who asked me to find you, as he could not do it himself, and They were most concerned about your disappearance.”

“I daresay They were,” Augusta said.

“Augusta,” said another man, half-panicked, not quite warning her off; I got the sense that no one dared go that far.

“Well, if we are going to kill him anyway, as Lina has suggested,” Augusta said. “Bramwell, Poldo, go guard the door; he may have been followed. The rest of you, go.”

“But—!”

“Take his weapon,” she said. “I like it. Go. Shut the door. Watch the exits.”

When they had filed out, grumbling, Augusta invited me to sit at her plastic table. There was a strong odour of old mould long dried up without water, and something light and familiar, like fresh clay. “Perhaps it was put about that people wanted us dead simply because we made statues for Them,” she said.

“No. No one says that. People know how things are now.”

“People know their place, you mean,” she said, a barely-restrained growl. “Well, we discovered something—that we, perhaps just I, have the ability to use Their magic in those statues. And I learned how to turn it.”

The words made no sense. I sat dumbfounded for a moment till she laughed at me, not maliciously. “So you vanished,” I said.

“Yes. I have a portion of Their power now. I know what I’m doing, though I still don’t understand why. The statues are key. We have hidden here to continue making statues to combat Them. This is the revolution, Mortin.”

“It cannot be.”

“Every conquered people has a revolution,” she snapped. “You read enough history as a young man. You needed it for the federal entrance exams. Did you not?”

I shrugged, hoping to indicate that I was not as embarrassed by my past as she hoped I was. Of course I had taken the entrance exams; I had had to prove I had a brain to be a public servant. I might have even known as much history as her, classically trained in the big university down the river. We were not equals, but we both knew much about the past—that was her message.

She sighed exasperatedly. “We will let you live; it’s too suspicious for you to go missing, too, and it will draw unwanted attention. But you are bound to keep our secret now. Do you understand?”

“I understand only that I promised to deliver you unharmed to Krystof,” I said. “They have hostages, you know. His family. Wife, children. Father. Sister. He told me the whole list. If you come with me, perhaps They will… an understanding can be…”

“Yes, perhaps,” she said. “They like deals, They like to make deals. Sometimes They even keep them. But it is not guaranteed. I am very sorry about Krystof’s family. But you understand, don’t you, that you cannot bring me in.”

I began to protest once more that I had made an agreement, and moreover, aside from the blasted family, there was the metal to consider, but my words shriveled in my throat. The fire in her eyes was so genuine—I had seen enough liars in my time. It would explain, anyway, the behaviour of the things at night; we had known from the start they were not inanimate blocks of metal. In the intense silence I heard stifled breathing from the far side of the door. In front of them, could I truly say “Too bad; got mine”?

“His family is at the new dungeon,” I finally said. “They will be killed if he fails. They are all he has left.”

“I know. I am sorry. It is cruel to take so much from him, when he has managed to keep them this long. But we could fight Them, Mortin. This is our chance to fight back. Do not take that from us.”

I got up slowly, my hands and feet buzzing as if they had been asleep. There would still be time to return to my workshop for the night—shortcut across Midnight Avenue and then down the dry canal up to New Parade Road, then—

“Mortin,” she said.

“You have my word,” I said finally. My stomach roiled as if I were about to be sick. Later, there would be time to think about this moment, the moment I said the opposite of the thing I meant to say. Was that her doing? Magic? Something else? The years of guilt, silence, the years of blood on my hands? “I ask no payment for keeping your secret, damn you. But if you…if you do anything, if there are enough of you to do anything, go take down the dungeon.”

“We intend to do something. Tonight. But we cannot promise you anything else.”

“You can promise to try.”

* * *

Back outside I wondered for a moment why I felt so naked, then realized that my machete had been left with the rebels. Too late now. There was always the axe back at the office, and all the hammers in the workshop, if I could reach it in time. The spring sunlight grew long and amber across the shattered buildings, casting sharp black shadows across the broken bricks. I walked my shortcuts as fast as I could, lungs burning, stopping frequently with stitches. A younger man’s work.

With two blocks to go the last of the sun died, and I froze for a moment in the darkness, like I used to when I was a child, my sister and I seeing the first stars coming out and panicking, knowing we were past curfew. But that had not been a curfew like this. Already I could hear scraping and screeching from the square, the sounds of whatever unholy magicks drove the statues to kill. My breathing wheezed so loudly it sounded like an idling truck, a sound no one heard now.

I buried my mouth in my sleeve and ducked into a nearby doorway, hiding in an awning’s shadow, watching the last coral stripe vanish from the horizon. One star. Two. Stealth, now? Or a mad dash to the door? I fingered my keys, and decided on stealth; if I could get to the door silently, I could be inside before the monster was alerted by the noise of the lock.

Even so, it was a very near thing; I slammed the door and dove behind the counter as it hit, momentum carrying it into the metal with a sound like a church bell. Its shrieked snarl split the air as I scrabbled for the axe, sharpened to an edge you could shave with, the handle stickily wrapped with old leather. Through the high, small windows, the thing’s brass legs were visible, pacing with deliberate menace. A handful of glowing red eyes appeared for a moment in the window nearest my head, making me yelp. But it was too big to get in even if it broke the glass. I hefted the axe so it could see it.

That was it, though, wasn’t it? What the vanished sculptors had realized, what everyone else had, and only I had not, stupid and greedy as I had become. That at the end, it is terrible to fight alone. That if you must fight, it can only truly be done shoulder to shoulder, even if there is no hope, even if your enemy will crush you. One man and an axe was no revolution. It was one man and an axe. And what had I done today? Not even moved myself, a pawn, on Their chessboard.

And yet, whatever tonight would bring, at least I had not moved a single pawn to help Them. At least there had been that.

The door rang again, a clear, high sound as the statue’s brass body met it. The glass trembled in the frames; my mug fell from the desk, spilling an inch of cold tea. I put the axe over my shoulder like an American baseball player. “Come on!” I shouted. “Come on, if you’re coming! Come taste!”

It crashed once more, then fell silent, listening—incredulously, like me—to the impossible sound of explosions. Then its claws scraped across the cobbles as it raced away. I pressed my face to the window, holding my breath. A ring of people, masked, shouting—was that Augusta herself, in the middle?—and great fireballs of blue and green splashing down upon the advancing statues, and behind the ring, indistinct in the shadows, waited things I could not even name—unfamiliar monsters of hammered metal, advancing step by step.

I lowered the axe and laughed, half a sob. So they had indeed spoken truth. I should have known. And later, if anyone survived, I might be able to say that I had witnessed the beginning of Their downfall.


Premee Mohamed  is a scientist and spec fic writer working out of Canada.