It never would have been easy, but there were better ways she could have found out than unfolding the newspaper on her breakfast tray and reading the stark inarguable headline: KALUMARIA HEIRESS KILLED IN DIRIGIBLE CRASH.
Nyobe’s teacup had been halfway to her lips, but she set it down, slowly, back in the saucer. The headline was below the fold, sandwiched between the tail of the leading piece about the Brotherhood’s fires in the west Crucible and a tidbit of scaremongering about plummeting stocks. Front-page news, but not by a lot, maybe. Kes would laugh.
City Police confirmed eyewitness reports that a helium airship crashed in a rural woodland area just outside the City limits around 11 p.m. on Tuesday. On examination, the wreckage matched the on-file details of a craft registered to Mrs. Rasher Kalumaria, widow of the founder and president of Kalumaria Autonomics, LLC. Mrs. Kalumaria’s remains were also identified at the site of the crash.
Mrs. Kalumaria was not only an experienced pilot but the thrice-champion of the Metropolitan Jubilee Dirigible Race. While the Police do not suspect foul play, there is some question as to the circumstances of the crash, and the matter is under…(continued on page 6)
Kes had put so much work into that ship. She had talked about it like a child, or a lover. Though it had eaten at Nyobe every minute how she could run it without a crew, she had only given in to the urge to ask once, and Kes had only grinned and said, She knows me. Anybody else would just get between us. It had been about what Nyobe had expected, and she hadn’t asked again; but she had known all the hours Kes had spent in the engines, replacing parts and refining systems, not to mention dangling off the side in a rope rig hammering out the dings from the hull. Now the ship that had understood Kes Kalumaria better than anyone else, Nyobe included, lay in shattered smoking pieces in the upstate foothills, displayed in sepia-toned patterns of dots at the bottom corner of the page in Nyobe’s hands. The Cuckoo would never win another race. Nobody could come between her and Kes now.
Nyobe pushed the tray back over her thighs, still staring into nothing. She became aware that she had clenched the front of her dressing-gown into a fistful of silk at the top of her chest, over her delicate breastbone and heart.
“If you have finished your breakfast, madam, shall I tell the crew to prepare for your arrival?” Foxglove said, from the side of the bed. Aside from the soft whirring of her inner workings, Nyobe had entirely forgotten she was there.
“No, thank you,” Nyobe said. Her voice sounded to her like paper, left out to flap in the wind. “I don’t think I’ll be flying today after all.”
“Take a look for yourself,” Kes says instead of answering, and laughs full-voiced at the look Nyobe gives her. The steel walls double her voice with echo. “Now, don’t tell me you don’t even know your own damn way around an engine!”
“Not in this dress, I don’t,” Nyobe sniffs, but she picks up her skirt and steps over the bulkhead anyway, her heels ringing on the slotted metal. They both only have to duck their heads down inside this corridor, although a man probably would have to stoop, and an automaton to retract its legs altogether. She lets her eyes wander along the pipes and fittings near the sloped ceiling for a moment, and then pauses when she gets to the system of water-pumps that Kes is so excited about, bubbling and rippling like some strange chemistry set. “…It’s not impressing me yet.”
Kes rolls her eyes, although for whatever strange reason she seems sort of pleased. “Well, not when we’re on the ground, it wouldn’t. I tell you what: I’ll take her up, you stay down here, and then you’ll see.”
“Take her up? Right now?” Kes nods, grinning, and Nyobe can’t help but hesitate; it’s only the sure sour knowledge that Kes will surely find some way to lock her in here, stop her from sneaking around and watching, that keeps her from jumping at the chance. She tries to show none of this: only arching an eyebrow instead, her cool haughty best. “Are you sure you should be showing off all your trade secrets to the enemy?”
Kes just looks honestly surprised for a second or two—and then grins, broader than ever. “I don’t really think of you as the enemy, myself,” she says. “It’s more like you work for me.” Nyobe gives her another look at that, much sharper, one that twists the grin into a smirk. “Making sure I don’t fall behind.”
“I beg your pardon?” Nyobe says, but by now Kes has already kissed her mouth and swung past her, ducked over and laughing.
The first call came a day later, near noon by the face of the massive clock-tower Nyobe could see from her bedroom window: a long time after the actual crash by the feel of it, but an oddly short one on later consideration. It was from the office of Kes’s attorney, the secretary on the other end of the telephone said. He needed to schedule an appointment with her to discuss certain matters pertaining to Mrs. Kalumaria’s estate.
Kes didn’t have an estate; that was something Nyobe knew that most people didn’t, at least. The papers could call Kes an heiress all they wanted, but they were just assuming—not to mention showing their hand about how much of the rumors they believed. Kes had confessed it on one quiet midnight or another, lying in Nyobe’s silk sheets and stroking hands, crushing the strange red corkscrews of her hair into the pillowcase. Her husband had made all his arrangements in life so that his entire fortune stayed locked up in his business after his death, pumping the profits all back directly into expanding operations that were run by people who couldn’t have less to do with Kes. She could still sleep in his bed in the towering bulbous needle above his main office that he’d called home, could still wander its circling hallways and eat at the massive dining table they had once sat at either end of every evening, but these things were all of his she had to her name, and as far as Nyobe knew, she did none of them. The Cuckoo—built from the ground up with admirers’ purses and poker winnings—was all Kes had ever had, or wanted, of her own.
“Well, that’s a good joke on everyone who says you killed him,” Nyobe had said, smirking, trailing her dry creased fingertips up the smoother, younger, lighter skin of Kes’s shoulder. “The merry widow, making off with nothing. Not exactly an efficient use of a murder.” And Kes had glanced at her then, with a smile made enigmatic by the moonlight and shadow.
“I wouldn’t call it nothing,” she’d said. But when Nyobe had raised her eyebrows, she hadn’t said any more.
All things considered, though, it just made Nyobe curious: dragging her back to the surface through the sucking swamp she seemed to have slid into, out of her dark bedroom and her wine cellar and back into the bruising light of day. She wouldn’t have needed anything of Kes’s even if Kes had had anything to give, but the contradiction itself was a lure, a line she could at least follow forward and through the fog.
The attorney, it turned out when she arrived at his offices two days later, was an automaton: Eland, Esq., read the embossed plaque on the office door, and the nameplate on his desk said the same beside a finely-etched set of scales in silver relief. It was unusual to see an automaton in a learned profession instead of menial labor, more curious still for him to be employed by Kes, who hadn’t even had automata as crew for her ship like everyone else in the race, but Nyobe liked to think she was better-mannered than to comment. At any rate, Eland had at least been spared the indignity of some wag dressing him up in a pouchy, too-short suit, or setting little gold-rimmed spectacles in front of the pulsing blue line of his visual array, or any of the nonsense people couldn’t seem to help themselves from getting up to; he only stood, unadorned, behind the desk, his long spindling silver hands on the blotter and the dome of his head nearly brushing the low ceiling. REGISTRATION: INDEPENDENT was stamped on his thoracic segment, which Nyobe supposed explained several of those things, even if it also raised further questions.
“It is strictly stipulated by the terms of Mrs. Kalumaria’s will, Miss Massanna,” he said, once he had dispensed with the initial pleasantries and invited her to sit down, “that you come into possession of an item that was left in my care.” He made a long, elegant gesture, a soft ticking sounding from inside his finger-joints, over what sat in the middle of his desk: a stout block of thick blond wood bigger than Nyobe’s head, trapezoidal at the ends and beveled on the top, belted around the middle with a heavy brass band that encircled its nearly invisible seam on one side and hinges on the other. In the center of the band, on the side facing her, was a small, unassuming keyhole.
“The item is in the box?” Nyobe asked. The attorney inclined his head, also slowly: as though grave and sorrowful to have to correct her.
“The item is the box.” Nyobe frowned up at him, and he only looked back at her, the scan-line of his gaze pulsing by in calm steady waves. “Regrettably, I am unable to open the box, or provide you with the means to do so. A key was not entrusted to me, nor did Mrs. Kalumaria make mention of one.”
Nyobe looked back down at it for a long moment: staring down that keyhole like it was the barrel of a gun. It was still so hard to think about anything, or care. “Did she want me to open it? Or just keep it?”
“I am afraid I do not know. Mrs. Kalumaria likewise left no instructions as to your management of the item.” Although it was impossible for an automaton to take a tone, she still had the distinct impression that he was slightly exasperated with her, which she found irritating. “If you will simply complete a few forms for me, I will transfer it into your possession, and you may do with it whatever you please.”
“Why thank you,” Nyobe said, a touch dryly. He only inclined his smooth silver head, as though her tone were just as invisible to him. She started to dig into her purse for a pen, but kept looking up at him, at least in glances. Her humor already draining away again, leaving the same numb nothing. “Do you find you honor requests like this often, Mr. Eland?”
Did that soften him a bit, at last? Impossible to say, and probably unwise to believe with too much confidence that she knew for certain. “Indeed, no, miss. Most of my clients are are considerably less mysterious in their requests.”
“Do you have many?” she asked—pausing now in the search, honestly curious. Eland regarded her a moment longer, then inclined his head again.
“A sufficiency. Thank you for your concern.”
Which wasn’t to say it was appreciated. Another, final question rose to her lips—are most of them automata?—but it was answered even before it could escape into the air. Of course not; that was absurd. He handled estates, wills, and trusts, like the scrollwork said below his name on the plaque on the door, and automata, even independent units like him, couldn’t legally own property beyond subsistence. They had nothing to give one another, and needed no one to help them give it. …It was a curious thing, though: there was something vaguely soothing in the detachment of an automaton in the face of grief—as “all business” as you could possibly be—but it was still hard for her to picture many human men and women sitting in this leather-backed chair facing his towering pneumatic joints, telling that blank steel face what they wanted done with their earthly goods when they were gone. She’d been to parties where all the trays had been served by humans, and where the hosts greeted the suggestion of automata in their home, even as serving staff, with an atavistic shudder.
But none of that seemed polite to say, and in the end she gave the whole thing up, and found her pen this time. And that night, she slept with the box nestled in the curve of her body on her side, like an infant who’d been restless in the cradle; and clung to it after waking from nightmares of Kes’s body lying smashed inside the ruins of her ship, the broken heart of a fallen bird.
Standing at the windowed wall of Nyobe’s bedroom, with the city below them a sea of gleaming lights in the dark that the clock tower looms over like a second moon, Kes’s reflection makes her into two women, standing and touching their hands together where hers rests up on the glass. She doesn’t fit into any of Nyobe’s robes, they drag on the floors and won’t even close over her bosom and hips, so she has a sheet wrapped around her, puddling on the floor. One strap of her negligee dangles off her shoulder within its folds, and she smiles when Nyobe kisses the spot it’s left, although only her reflection can be seen to do it.
“I’m sorry if I woke you up,” she says. “I couldn’t sleep.”
She sounds soft, and lost, and strange, with the lights down, with everything quiet in the smallest hours of morning. It lets Nyobe slip both arms around her waist for once, be a little softer than she might have in the daylight. “Bad dreams about losing on Friday?” she says anyway, though, smirking into Kes’s shoulder, because some things are always necessary; and the way Kes laughs, surprised and hard and suddenly free, makes it all at once worth it.
“You wish.” She turns in Nyobe’s grasp, rests her arms on her shoulders. “…Actually, do you want to know what it really is? It’s funny. Stupid, I mean.”
Nyobe raises her eyebrows. It’s always something like this, when Kes talks about herself: a little purse dangled over her head, waiting for Nyobe to snatch at it, and then upended when she does to spill out something much smaller and less satisfying. She didn’t even have time for those kinds of games when she was young, but now, somehow, she ends up biting every time. “And what’s that?”
There’s a little smile at the corner of Kes’s mouth, her eyes downturned. “Sometimes, when I wake up in the middle of the night like this… somehow, I get it in my head that I am dreaming. Right then. That if I close my eyes, and go to sleep again—that’ll be when I actually wake up.” Her eyes flicker up a couple of times—first making it only as high as the base of Nyobe’s throat, and then all the way up to meet her gaze. She falters, and then laughs, more girlish and sheepish than what Nyobe’s used to from her. “Stupid, I said.”
“Would that be so bad?” Nyobe asks, without answering that last. What’s really stupid is probably how she’s actually a little bit touched, honestly deep down, even though of course she knows that’s probably not how Kes means it. Kes is quiet for a long time, not meeting her eyes anymore, biting the corner of her lower lip.
Then she presses in, pulling Nyobe to herself, tucking her chin over Nyobe’s shoulder. She lets out a long breath, and although there’s a smile in her voice when she speaks, Nyobe doesn’t quite believe it.
“If you have to ask,” she says, “I don’t think I could explain.”
The second call was three days after the attorney, almost a week after the fact, and it came to her door with hat in hand, not over the telephone. The Police wanted her to come to Headquarters, to answer some questions, they said. The detective at her door gave her his name—Bado—and seemed businesslike enough, but the uniformed officer with him was plainly petrified and never said two words to her, not even when she took pity and asked them in for coffee (which Detective Bado declined for them both). As much as he tried to keep his eyes level, they kept crawling upward, to the high vault of her home’s upper floors and the cathedral-like peak where her own Bellatrix was hangared. It was, even she was aware, a hell of a sight.
She supposed she’d been expecting this, at least a little. Although what they could expect her to tell them she couldn’t imagine. From the beginning, they’d plainly known far more about all this than she did.
But all the same, the next night Hibiscus brought the car to the curb at ground level, supporting her into the back seat on his silver hand before tucking her cane in beside her and closing the door to go take the wheel; and they drove downtown, where the buildings gradually hunkered down shorter and shorter and the City became all one level again. Police Headquarters were in the Crucible, like most of the municipal and just plain older buildings: where Nyobe had seldom been, not since sneaking out to the blue-collar bars and dance halls as a young woman. It had seemed magical and illicit then, infinitely tempting, dirty but only in all the right ways. Now it only looked tired and old and rotting, but looking out the tinted windows she couldn’t have said whether that was actually the fault of the landscape, or of the eyes that were seeing it.
The streets were mostly curiously empty, but she thought she saw the occasional light moving out somewhere in the darkness; other cars moving down cross-streets, she thought at first, and didn’t think much of them. Until finally, with the dome of Headquarters now looming up above the line of the buildings ahead of them, the car began to roll to a stop, much too far in advance of the next traffic light. Nyobe frowned and finally looked away from the window, sitting forward to ask Hibiscus what the matter was—and then stopped, her eyes widening, when she saw the view through the front windshield. There was a line of automata standing side-by-side in the road, silhouetted against the underlit clouds across the sky, the line of their heights running ragged through their different makes and models. All of them were standing so still and solemn that they looked like strange architecture that some madman had chosen to build across the street instead of along it; but in the slits that showed their visual cortices, in a rainbow array of colors, the lines of light were pulsing by with an unsettling, urgent speed.
“What in the world are they doing?” Nyobe ended up asking, without preamble, not even having known she was going to speak. Hibiscus brought the car to a full stop, and pulled the parking brake, as she did. “…Are we crossing a picket line?”
“There is no cause for alarm, madam.” She glanced at Hibiscus, eyebrows raised; that was a pretty far cry from an answer to her questions, and not what she’d call very convincing, to boot. “I will resolve this matter.” He paused for a moment, and then turned his head toward her, the green-lit line of his gaze appearing out of the dark. “…Please remain in the car, if you would be so kind.”
And before she could argue or even speak, he had opened the door and stepped out into the street, and then forward to where the automata stood, leaving the engine running and the sweep of the headlights just falling short of the line of silver feet.
The conversation—if there even was one; Hibiscus had closed the door behind him and she couldn’t hear one way or the other—didn’t last long. None of them moved the whole time, as far as she could see: not the automata in the road from where they’d been standing, not Hibiscus from where he had taken his position in front of them, the headlights painting his back in a bright swath and casting his long shadow ahead. No gestures, no moving mouths, not like they’d been human men. Just an eerie staredown, like inanimate things that had just been built in front of one another, and that only time could tear down.
And then, finally, Hibiscus took several long, slow steps back. And starting from the ones in the center, the automata in the road moved forward and away to either side, peeling off in two neat curves as regimented as columns of an army at maneuvers. In a matter of moments they stood at the curb instead, to either side like some curious honor guard, their heads still turned so that those colored lines faced the car; and Hibiscus came back to the car, and climbed back into the driver’s seat again.
“All is well, madam,” he said, and disengaged the brake, starting the car rolling forward again. “Police Headquarters are just ahead.”
“What did you say to them?” Nyobe said, almost in a murmur, and craned her head to the side to watch in spite of herself as they passed through the gauntlet of colored light-lines in the dark. All of the automata turned their heads to follow their progress. “What were they doing?”
You almost couldn’t help but assign emotions to automata as you spoke to them, like how your eyes started to create desperate color in total darkness: boredom, fear, irritation, disapproval, assumed if never perceived. “They are very foolish units, and they were being unreasonable and tedious,” Hibiscus said, making her glance at him and then smile slightly in her surprise. “As many have been lately.”
By now it was all coming together in her mind, though, into a picture that soon spread a curious frown on her lips. Hibiscus had passed down to her from her father’s time, but the automata did go out alone: to do the shopping, to fuel the car and the ship, to have things repaired and things tailored… She leaned forward again, hand braced on the back of his seat. “Do you know them?”
Hibiscus was silent for so long that she thought he wouldn’t answer, his gaze fixed on the road. Then finally he said, “In a manner of speaking, madam.”
That answered nothing either, but she couldn’t think how to press him and get anywhere with it. She sat back in her seat again, instead, after a moment, looking out the window and taking a long breath. And then looked back at him. “…Have you ever had contact with the Brotherhood, Hibiscus?” she asked. His head swiveled, the line of his gaze turning sharply to her in the rear view mirror, but she only smiled and shook her head. “I’m not accusing you of anything. I was only wondering if you’d ever spoken to anyone involved.”
“No, I have not,” he said, after a long pause. “…And even if I had, madam, why would I confess to such a thing?”
Now she was the one who didn’t have an answer for that.
Police Headquarters was a shabbily grand, vast edifice of a building from a bygone age, the giant-sized stone steps to its entrance worn bow-backed in the middle by generations of feet, its colonnade gorgeous and imposing from a distance but chipped and cracked from close up. Hibiscus stayed with the car while she went inside, leaning on her cane; she didn’t really need it much except on her worst days, but she found it helped with some things, the way people underestimated her when she had it. The front foyer she passed through was cavernous, the cracked domed ceiling soaring above it, stone floors too scuffed to gleam. Every sound echoed so much that no one sound could be picked out of the general din, the clack of her heels on the floor sounding just as distant as the murmur of voices up ahead, at the three massive oak desks that walled off the clerical areas from the civilian ones. There were a curious number of automata gathered near those desks, too, she noticed, standing statue-still against the walls with their limbs magnet-locked together—some of them plainly damaged, too, with blown visual arrays here and a missing arm and charred hole there. But Detective Bado was waiting for her at the little gate that led between the desks, and she didn’t have time to look closer.
“This shouldn’t take long, Miss Massanna,” the detective said once they were alone in his office, after she’d filled out some forms (more paperwork, always more paperwork, death was all one pile of paperwork after another; she’d thought the same thing in the weeks after her father had died, some twenty years ago, although back then there had been an inheritance to juggle). They sat on either side of a much smaller desk that the walls crowded in on, an uncomfortable fit for the detective’s sturdy, heavyset frame. “I just need to ask you a few routine questions.” She nodded, balancing her cane across her crossed legs, and he glanced at a few stacked sheets on his side of the desk before going on. “How long had you known Mrs. Kalumaria?”
“About three years, I think,” Nyobe said, although she could have been more specific: since that party at the Shasais’ two months before the race, when she had been standing bored on the balcony and Simoen had suddenly leaned over to murmur in her ear, Do you see that one in the black? That’s Kes Kalumaria. Everybody says she killed her husband. But he hadn’t asked, and she saw no need. The detective just nodded, anyway, picking up a pen to jot something down.
“And you knew each other through the Dirigible Race, correct? You were rivals for the top spot, as I understand it.”
“She kept trying to steal it, I might correct you under other circumstances,” she said, and offered a thin smile to his grin. “But yes.”
“And what was your impression of Mrs. Kalumaria’s character, at that time?”
She raised her eyebrows. “I beg your pardon?”
He didn’t squirm, she could admire that about him; didn’t even drop his gaze away from hers. “Mrs. Kalumaria’s character,” he repeated. “How would you describe her personality to someone who didn’t know her?”
When no further clarification seemed forthcoming, Nyobe shrugged, and sat back in her chair. Trying not to show the deep breath she took, or anything else he might be able to see in her eyes. “I didn’t know her that well. From what I did know, she was… cheerful. Full of energy, high spirits. Not well-bred, maybe, although it would have seemed very petty to say so, considering. Competitive. Driven.” She paused, and then glanced at him again. “How exactly is this relevant?”
“We’re just trying to get all the information, miss.” Her stare just got harder, but he affected not to see. “Would you say she was an honest person?”
She hesitated. “…I don’t know that I’d be in the best position to judge that. Not dishonest, I wouldn’t say. She certainly wasn’t a cheat.” He glanced up at her, and she shrugged again. “I’ve been racing for almost forty years. I’d know.”
“But you didn’t get along.”
“You don’t have to get along with a person to acknowledge their decency.”
He made no answer, whether that had been what he’d meant or no. Just copying it all down. “As far as you can recall, did Mrs. Kalumaria have any enemies?”
“You mean besides me?” He looked up at her, but didn’t smile, although she tried to. “I assume that’s why you brought me in, at least. May I assure you at this point, Detective, that I’m far too good a pilot to need to murder my competition?”
“There’s no need, miss,” he said—a little too patiently, she thought, with a bit of an inward smirk that she still didn’t much feel. “You didn’t know anyone else who might have wanted to do her harm? Or threatened her?”
“Just the opposite,” Nyobe said, and took some small satisfaction in the way he blinked at her. “I think half of everyone I know would have done her in as soon as look at her—and I know most everyone in the City worth knowing.” She let that sit a moment, and then spread her hands along the line of her cane. “But nobody in particular, no. And not with any degree of seriousness that I’m aware of.”
Detective Bado seemed satisfied by that, at least; he was nodding again by the end of it, and back to making notes. “And what about friends? Or lovers? People she might have stayed with for any length of time?”
You mean besides me? she thought of saying again, but of course she couldn’t. “I wouldn’t have any idea,” she said, and kept a straight face the whole time. “We weren’t really close.”
“I suppose not.” His tone was the one that sounded a little dry this time, but she let it pass. He closed the folder on his desk, and then looked up at her, level again. “That’s all I need from you, Miss Massanna. Thank you for—“
“You can’t be serious.” He stopped in mid-sentence—probably at least as surprised just to be interrupted as by what she’d actually said. She sat forward in the chair, holding his gaze. “You brought me all the way down here to ask me a handful of waffle? …What does any of that matter at this point, anyway? I thought you didn’t suspect foul play.”
He never changed expression, his eyes stony. “I can’t discuss the details of an open case.”
That sent her eyebrows shooting up. “An open case?”
He said nothing to that, though; just sat giving her the same cool regard as ever, as though she hadn’t even spoken. Finally, she sighed, and pushed the stack of forms she’d filled out back toward him—and in the process, just unsubtly enough that he could see it, slipped the couple of big bills that she’d palmed in between the top two, a good four months of his salary nestled with just their ends peeking out.
“Well, that’s that, then,” she said, raising her eyes back to his steady, unamused ones. “I suppose I’ll just have to find some dark, quiet, private place on my way home to go and mull this over.”
Detective Bado just looked at her for a moment longer, and then slowly down at the forms. There was a long, long pause, and she held her breath a little, in spite of herself. A gamble, always a gamble, of course it was. …But who better, in all the world, to gamble on than Kes?
And at long last, the detective picked up the forms, and began to shuffle them with a ponderous care into his hands; with the pages turned up on end, the money slipped in between them, and disappeared entirely from view. “In that case, miss,” he said, with what she thought was a tone of slight resignation, “I’d recommend the lowest level of the garage behind City Hall, around 2 in the morning. It’s a mighty peaceful place, that time of night.”
She smiled, took up her cane, and got to her feet. “Thank you, Detective,” she said. “That does sound ideal.”
On her way out, raised voices at one of the desks she was passing made her slow down: well, one raised voice, anyway, and one automaton’s voice, whose pre-recorded, tinny, spliced tones always maintained the same eerie calm no matter what it was saying. The argument was between a human officer sitting at the desk, and an automaton in magnetic manacles standing in front of it, and more than loud enough to carry to her even in spite of the strange acoustics.
“—is Kandole,” the automaton was saying, standing stiffly to his full proud height. On his chestplate, Nyobe noticed, the text after REGISTRATION: had been scratched out, leaving a ragged patch of brighter silver in the middle of his slightly rusted skin. “I fail to see what is so difficult to understand about that even for a human.”
“No, I meant your real name,” the officer said, actually starting to rise a little out of his seat in his irritation. “I’m not stupid, buddy, so why don’t you just talk straight with me and we can get on with me doing my job? I got no time for—“
“I have done nothing,” the automaton—Kandole?—went on, whether actually implacable or just seeming that way by his nature impossible to say. “Being in the company of criminal units is not itself a legitimate crime. I see no need to provide you with any information, particularly when you do not respect the information I do—“
“Bullshit, you know full—“ He caught himself there, though, suddenly—looking over at Nyobe, and stopping in mid-sentence. Sudden abashment washed over his face from the top down, first smoothing the creases in his forehead and then down to make his mouth sag. “…I beg your pardon, ma’am. Excuse my language.”
“It’s nothing I haven’t heard before,” Nyobe said, a bit amused, and took a few steps closer before he could reply. The automaton’s head swiveled to her for only a moment, and then back to the officer. She surveyed both of them for a moment, and then turned back to the officer, picking up and opening her purse again. “How much?”
“You can’t buy an arrested unit, ma’am,” the Policeman said, his chagrin already giving way to barely-concealed irritation. “He’s not even ours to sell, though I guess he ain’t about to tell me who he’s registered to if he won’t even give his da— his name.”
“I am a free being and not for sale,” Kandole said, with unmistakable dignity. The officer snorted. Nyobe shook her head, glancing between them again.
“I don’t mean to buy. I mean for his bail.” She raised her eyebrows, checkbook in hand, expectant. “How much?”
Kandole’s head swiveled toward her again, this time to linger. The officer looked extremely startled for a second, and then his irritation came back stronger than ever.
“There’s no such thing as bail for an automaton,” he said. “Ma’am, if you don’t mind, I’m—“
“Well, that seems extremely unfair,” Nyobe said—but she only got partway through before the automaton was talking over her.
“Even if it were possible, I do not require to be condescended to by humans. I have no need of rescue, especially not by humans who believe that commerce is the answer to every problem, or in order to make a human pleased with itself. Please leave now. This matter is not your business.”
That shut them all up for a second. The expression on the officer’s face as he turned back to Kandole was curious: a mix of further irritation, slight amusement, and surprise. “Watch your mouth, rusty,” he said, in a softer and more chiding tone. “The lady’s trying to help you.”
“No, that’s all right,” Nyobe said, after another pause. She put her checkbook away again, and then met and held Kandole’s dark violet gaze. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize that was offensive. …Good luck to you, then, Kandole.”
He regarded her for a long moment, both of them oblivious to the officer’s incredulous gaze. There was no way of knowing if any of that had altered anything for Kandole, or if he only said what he would have all along; but finally, still looking at her, he said, “Your apology is accepted.”
She could see the officer getting ready to explode all over again at the corner of her vision, but she supposed she knew a dismissal when she heard one. Nodding at them both, she closed her purse again, and got on her way.
Back at the car, she found Hibiscus standing serenely beside one of the big whitewall tires, and gave him her directions. He nodded without comment, and they got in and drove.
There wasn’t much traffic in the parking garage by this hour, and the thin trickle that was left gradually faded to nothing as they waited: sitting in the dark car, Hibiscus at the wheel, Nyobe in the back with her cane propped against the seat and the box Kes had left her picked up into her lap. She’d had no particular reason to bring it with her tonight, but she already found herself loath to go anywhere without it, didn’t want it too far from her hand for any length of time. They spoke seldom, mostly just for her to check the time by Hibiscus’s inner clockworks, or for him to inquire after her comfort.
Finally—around a quarter after two, right when she had been beginning to consider that the detective might not show at all, might just pocket the cash and play dumb—shadows began to move down the pedestrian stairwell across the level from them, thrown on the cinderblock walls by emergency lights. Nyobe set down the box and scooted across the seat, but when Hibiscus moved to get out and open her door for her, she stopped him with a hand on his cool metal shoulder.
“That’s all right, Hibiscus,” she said, and smiled when he swiveled his head all the way back around toward her. “Just wait in the car. Best to come alone to these sorts of things.”
“If you say so, madam.” This time she wasn’t sure whether to assign doubt to his voice or not, but ultimately it probably didn’t matter much. “Should you require any assistance, I will be happy to be of service.”
“Thank you. I’ll let you know.”
Sure enough, the detective came into view alone a minute later: shouldered down deep into a long coat with a turned-up collar, watching every corner of his vision with narrowed eyes. Nyobe got out of the car and crossed to meet him halfway. They both stopped when they were close enough to keep their voices low in the dark, her braced on her cane between her feet, his measuring look at her cool and unreadable.
“We don’t know much,” Detective Bado said, without other introduction, his voice barely even loud enough to carry to her. “You saw for yourself how much we’re just fumbling for leads. I can tell you the facts, but not much about what they mean.”
“The facts will do, Detective.” Trying to keep her voice even. Trying to let nothing show. All the usual, accustomed things. He was quiet for a moment, thinking, before going on.
“There’s been some new evidence to suggest that Kalumaria may have faked her death,” he said, at last. Lodging Nyobe’s breath in her throat, all at once, like a stone. “That’s one possibility, anyway.”
She tried to gather herself, pull her breath back down into her lungs where it could do her some good. “What do you mean? …What’s the evidence?”
He sighed, and dug around in his coat, finally pulling out a gunmetal flask. He uncapped it and then offered it to her, and she started to wave it off—and then changed her mind at the last second and accepted, and took a long swig that burned all the way down into her chest, seeming to warm things up and set them in motion again. She fancied he looked a little impressed, when she handed it back. “The autopsy of the body we found in the airship,” he said, at last. There was another deliberating pause while he took a drink, and then he cleared his throat and dropped the bomb: “It isn’t human. It’s an automaton.”
There was a long, long time when Nyobe couldn’t say anything—couldn’t seem to do anything but stand, and stare at him.
“How is that possible?” she said, finally. “…I mean, how is it possible that you didn’t know that when you first found it? She could’ve gotten one up in a wig and a dress, certainly, but—“
“It was nothing like that, miss.” He shoved the flask back in his pocket and his hands with it, and stood squinting at her, as though cross with her for even being there for him to tell all this foolishness to. “This was nothing like any commercial model anyone down in the lab has ever seen. Not like anything I’ve ever seen, commercial or otherwise. To all appearances, when it was first found, it was just the body of a dead woman—but when the doctor started cutting things open and pulling things out, apparently, it had organs that might have been synthetic, and a metal skeleton. Some sort of very advanced model of automaton, was his conclusion. More lifelike than we knew anybody could make.”
It was impossible to think, to piece anything together. She stood blinking, reeling, staring into dark nothing space across the garage instead of at him for a long time. “Where would she find something like that?” she asked, finally looking back at him—but of course the answer hit her almost in the same breath that he said it.
“Her husband,” Detective Bado said simply. “Kalumaria Autonomics is supposed to be a real hotshot in the field, real cutting-edge stuff. For all we know, there could be a whole mess of top-secret advanced prototypes lying around in Kalumaria’s home office, that she might have access to.” He took a long, slow breath. “Trouble is… because of that, we know a whole lot less about what all this means than we would if it were just an automaton dressed up to look like her.”
Nyobe frowned; it felt dim and distant on her face. “How so?”
“If Rasher Kalumaria was making extremely human-like automatons and keeping it a trade secret…” He paused, and then glanced up at her with a sort of wincing look. “Then there’s a chance that the body we found in the ship was still Mrs. Kalumaria.”
It dawned on her only slowly, a little bit at a time, and at the end of it she stood back to her full height on her cane, giving him a hard, considering look. “…You think he might have built himself a wife.”
“I think we can’t rule it out.” He shook his head, no longer meeting her eyes. “We haven’t spoken to anyone who had met or seen her before she married Kalumaria, and it turns out there’s no marriage certificate on file with the City, or any evidence anywhere of what her maiden name might’ve been. None of that has to mean anything by itself, but on top of all the rest of it…” He shrugged. “We’re trying to get a search warrant for the home office, but Kalumaria’s lawyer keeps finding ways to block it, and I’m pretty sure by the time we get in there anything about her’ll have been cleaned out anyway.”
“Quite possibly,” Nyobe agreed in a murmur, only half listening. Thinking, at top speed, miles ahead of all of this. “It’s certainly something worth looking into.”
Detective Bado seemed to think that over for a moment, opened his mouth and then closed it again, and then finally spoke. “The way I see it,” he said—almost carefully, as though he were afraid of offending her or making her sneer at him or both or something in between, “it’s not really our concern who or what Mrs. Kalumaria was, or what the person was who died in that crash was. Our job is just to find out what happened to Mrs. Kalumaria, and why somebody’s dead. That’s all I care about right now.”
Nyobe nodded, raising a measured gaze back to his eyes. “That makes two of us.”
”It’s not a secret,” Kes says, and laughs, uncomfortably, the way she does when she’s been caught at something. “I mean, I’m not embarrassed. I don’t give a damn. It’s just…”
“It complicates things,” Nyobe supplies; she’s smirking a little, but not too bitterly, she doesn’t think. Her wineglass dangles from the hand at the end of the arm draped around Kes’s shoulders, their shoes in a tangled strappy pile at the foot of the loveseat. “…For one thing, I’d just as soon not get accused of throwing the race for you. There’s my pride to consider.”
Kes looks up at her, startled, and then laughs hard, her shoulders shaking in the circle of Nyobe’s arms. “Anybody who’d say that is an idiot,” she says, her mood a little brighter again. “Or hasn’t ever met you. …Or both.” She lapses into quiet for a moment, and then finally goes on, more hesitatingly; her eyes downcast toward the couch, her fingers knitted on her bare knee below the short, shimmering fronds of her dress. “But… you’re right. It does complicate things.” Another pause, and then she’s peeping up at Nyobe from the corners of her eyes, the slight creases of a wan smile at the corners of her mouth. “When people know somebody’s important to you, they can use that. It’s something that can chain you down.”
And Nyobe knows, now and later, that probably she should be raising some questions about the second part of that. But though she knows how silly it is to get so hung up on the first part that she forgets all about the rest, that’s just what her mind seems to do, all the same.
She seldom actually felt her age; every time she looked in the mirror, it seemed like a young woman in her twenties should be looking back at her, her skin smooth and unlined, the halo of her curls still coppery-black and not grey going white. Every ounce of padding between her bones and skin seemed to have melted away bit by bit, she needed spectacles to read absolutely anything, she had odd aches and stiffnesses and the hip she’d broken in that disastrous first race against Kes had never quite healed up to where it had been before, but those all seemed like ordinary inconveniences, crept into her life so gradually or under cover of such spectacular distractions that she didn’t associate them with much of anything. Still, though, there were times when she was reminded of it; when what little she might have lost in speed and strength and vision suddenly seemed like a great deal indeed. When a sense of her possible vulnerability seemed to drop over her like a shadow, blocking the sun from her skin and making her feel a chill.
Like, for example, waking up disoriented in the middle of the night and pulling off her sleep-mask—only to find an automaton’s endless height folded down over her bed, glowing visual sensors inches from her face, in the half-light from the city outside.
A sound managed to escape through her closed teeth: only a little grunting hitch of breath, but embarrassing all the same. She pushed herself up fast on her elbows, scooting backwards, clamping the box to her chest with a panicky squeeze of her arm. It took a moment for her to be able to recognize that the color of the cortex was Foxglove’s, to be able to ease her breathing a little bit… and even then, not entirely. It should have been all right, but it wasn’t, somehow. Something still off, still throbbing wrongness into her chest like a wound.
“You should not have it,” Foxglove said, not straightening up or moving away. As calm and metallic as ever, but there was something in the pitched, feral way she was leaning her hands on the bed, poised like a cat, that made it into a lie. “It is not yours.”
“Foxglove?” Her own voice sounded dry and thin, almost a mouse’s squeak, and she hated it. One of her hands crept off to the side almost without her permission, feeling around beside the bed for her cane. “What are you talking about? Are you all right?”
“It,” Foxglove said, and then there was a strange, soft sound from somewhere inside of her, a kind of a click. Her visual array was pulsing so fast it was almost a stutter, a strobe. “It ittttttt. Itttt.” More clicking; her head swiveled on first one side, and then the other. She was climbing up onto the bed, over Nyobe’s slow backward scramble, the mattress sinking under her planted metal knees. Reaching out, Nyobe saw with a new dawning numb horror, toward the box Nyobe was holding to her chest. “She is not yours. It is not yours. Give it to me. Give it to us. She is ours, it is ours ours ours.” A weird echo, like reverberation in a recording. “I cannot bear it. It is not yours.”
Her fingers brushed, with a soft metal-on-wood thunk, against the lid of the box. Nyobe jerked back again, and this time her hand closed over the head of the cane: heavy wood and silver, reassuring in her grasp. No sooner had she grasped the head, though, than she was out of time: that something in Foxglove clicked again, painfully loud, and she surged, lunged —
Nyobe brought the cane up just in time, air gasping out of her all the while—braced in her hands, a gate across her middle. Foxglove’s hands crashed into it, were deflected. She made a kind of grinding noise, that could have been from her inner workings or her voice or both, and grabbed again; this time Nyobe hauled back the cane in one hand, and struck Foxglove’s wrists a firm blow with it, knocking them away even as she gripped the box again. Even as Foxglove was still reeling, Nyobe fetched her another blow—this one against her head and neck, and actually knocking her sideways, tumbling onto the bed in a heavy thump. She seized the chance, rolling to the side and out through the bed-curtains, dashing in her chemise and bare feet for the bedroom door with wild eyes —
And when she was almost there, crashed headlong into something metal and unyielding, that caught her in strong steel hands.
She shouted wordlessly and flailed out with the cane by instinct; it was caught as well, held away. But before her blind panic could really burst into full flower, another familiar voice slowed it: “Madam, please be calm. I mean you no harm.”
Nyobe reeled back, her breath hauling back into her flattened chest on a thin wheezing gasp. Looking up, she found Hibiscus looking back down at her, casting a pale green glow down onto her face. She started to speak, or move, or something—but then there were loud rumpling sounds of movement from the bed, and they both looked sharply in that direction at once.
Hibiscus looked back at her first, and gently guided her aside by his grip on her shoulders. “Please maintain a safe distance,” he said. “I will attempt to restrain her.”
“What’s wrong with her?” Nyobe whispered, but Hibiscus was already moving: striding around the bed and pulling back the curtains, and then climbing behind them. In the night city-light the curtain was translucent, and his silhouette grappled and fused with Foxglove’s struggling one to make a strange spider-shape, a sort of wild mechanical piston trying to work against itself.
Then it was over. Foxglove’s voice gave the best version it could of a cry—a calm and reasonable voice saying “Aaaaaaaaaaaa” as though reading poorly from a script, probably quite funny under other circumstances—and then the scuffle behind the curtain fell still. There was silence for a few moments, and then Hibiscus emerged, more slowly now. Foxglove’s inert body dangled in a spindly heap from his arms, her innards silent, her visual cortex dark.
“Is she all right?” Nyobe asked, again, before she knew she had the presence of mind to say anything—her eyes fixed on Foxglove, wide and staring. Hibiscus looked down at his burden, and then back up at Nyobe.
“Yes, madam,” he said, and it was impossible to be sure whether he really hesitated beforehand or that was just Nyobe’s head filling in the blanks. “I have only temporarily deactivated her. Once her malfunction has been repaired and her system has been reinitialized, she will be well and rational again.” He paused, and then added, “I apologize for intruding in your private quarters, madam, and also for the lateness of my arrival. I did not realize that the error had reached such a critical stage.”
“That’s… that’s fine, Hibiscus. Thank you.” Sweeping her hand over her face, her hair, trying to pull herself together again. She’d dropped the cane at some point; no idea when. “What—happened? What’s wrong with her?”
“A malfunction, as I have said. It is of no particular concern.” She frowned deeply, opening her mouth to snap at him—that was about enough cryptic shit out of anybody for one week, let alone one of her automata—but he was speaking again before she could, cutting her off. Gesturing, with one of the hands under Foxglove, to the box in her arm. “But in future, madam, I would suggest it would be best to conceal that item. Particularly from automata.”
“What do you—“ But he was turning, leaving the bedroom, carrying Foxglove in his arms. She rushed after him, fury building, planting her feet where she stood behind his back. “Hibiscus! I am asking you to explain what’s going on here!”
He stopped in the doorway, and swiveled his head back toward her. Looked at her a long time, slow steady pulses of light crossing his gaze.
“I apologize, madam,” he said. “I believe I am unsuited to that task.”
And before she could argue that or even respond, he had turned again, and was gone.
It takes Nyobe a long time to realize that Kes avoids her automata, and even then, she’s not completely sure. If that is what Kes is doing, she accomplishes it so subtly, so gracefully, that it’s like she’s not doing anything at all. Anytime Nyobe suggests taking the car someplace, Kes laughs and elbows her, teasing, “You’d rather drive when we’ve got wings?” When they fly together, Kes either steers them somehow into taking the Cuckoo (and finds a way to keep Nyobe in one room and not wandering around snooping, every time), or else insists on staying on the deck of the Bellatrix, as far as possible away from the crew. Kes cajoles her into going out for meals, instead of being served by the kitchen staff at Nyobe’s dining table. And of course Nyobe doesn’t want Foxglove in her usual nighttime position in the bedroom when Kes is over, so they avoid that question altogether.
It’s curious, and possibly clever, and if it is clever then the cleverest thing about it is how it could all be coincidence. Nyobe certainly never questions Kes on it—for fear she’ll laugh and not have the slightest idea what Nyobe is talking about. Or that she’ll say she doesn’t even if she does, and Nyobe won’t really be able to come up with a single argument to support her case to the contrary.
Well, and even if Kes is doing it on purpose, Nyobe supposes there are all kinds of reasons for that. Not least among them having been married to a man who was the head of one of the biggest automaton manufacturers in the City, and not having liked him much. She lets it pass, and doesn’t think much of it. Everybody has their little stories they’d rather not tell.
A search warrant was all well and good, Nyobe supposed. But ultimately, especially from her perspective, there were much better and more effective ways to get into a place. To get to see a bit more of it, too.
So first thing that following Monday morning—after yet another in a long string of troubled nights’ sleep, and with Foxglove still back at her manufacturer for repairs—Nyobe sat down in her spectacles at her writing-desk, with an adding-machine and pen and paper and her broad array of bank statements and year-end reports for the family businesses in front of her. In the afternoon, she made a number of telephone calls, to increasingly incredulous people on the other end of the line.
And by the next morning, she had made the most exorbitantly lavish investment that she had determined that she could, straight into Kalumaria Autonomics, LLC.
In the week that followed there were press releases and public hand-shakings, as she’d arranged for and anticipated; she made a statement beaming at ranks of reporters, resplendent in a crushed-silk cocktail gown, her mind all the while never quite leaving the box that was now locked in the wall-safe in her study at home. And when, at the end of it all, she called the interim president and made the sweetest and politest request possible for a tour of the home office… well, what kind of an amateurish idiot would the man have to be to refuse?
So that was how she wound up, one overcast morning some weeks after the crash, striding in right through the front door of Kalumaria’s home office, dressed in her businesslike best with her cane in one silk-gloved hand and the other tucked into the crook of Hibiscus’s arm. The major manufactories of Kalumaria’s business were located elsewhere, spread out in the City’s industrial sectors, but the home office was the grandest part of the operation: the lush central office block with all the highest-level executives in the corporation in one wing, the factory showroom and main R&D areas in the another, with the now-empty needle of Kalumaria’s mansion rising up above its top levels to pierce the sky. The lobby she entered into was a glittery, futuristic expanse of high boxy ceilings and strange geometric embellishments and minimalist decor, like being inside some abstract work of art done in silvers and whites and crystal. Three men met her just over the threshold, before she could even get to the receptionist’s vast smooth jewel of a desk: the interim president himself, a paunchy older man by the name of Lassa with a smile like a trick blade; another man in late middle age she recognized from one of the handshake-and-plaque events, who she thought was a chief officer of some description; and an extremely tall, younger man with a very practiced smile and stiff demeanor she didn’t recognize at all, who only shook her hand and murmured “A pleasure,” without meeting her eyes or introducing himself.
“Welcome to Kalumaria Autonomics, Miss Massanna,” Lassa said, beaming too wide to be real, and she panned her polite smile across them all even as she took back her hold on Hibiscus. Frustratingly mysterious he might have been lately, but in a situation like this, his real, solid comfort more than made up for it. “I certainly hope we’re able to live up to your expectations.” He and the other older man laughed, but the younger one managed only that polite smile again, and Nyobe followed his example. “Can I offer you any refreshments? Something to drink? Whatever you’d like, I can have it brought down.”
“Oh, that’s very kind of you, but no thank you,” Nyobe said, and got in smoothly ahead of him before he could try to insist. “I’m just pleased to be here with you gentlemen, I’m so delighted you could accommodate me. I’ve been so very curious about this magnificent building.” She glanced around at the lobby, and then expectantly back at Lassa. “Tell me, do we have a plan for the day?”
Did Lassa look uneasy now, or was he merely a bit thrown off his script? Well, it probably didn’t matter, at least not in the long run. “I thought we’d take a brief look around the corporate offices at first,” he said, starting gradually to smile again, recovering his balance, “and then that would leave us plenty of time to linger at the showroom.” An insincere smile, or a bit of a smirk, or both? “After all, I’m quite sure that’s what you’re most interested in seeing anyway.”
Nyobe laughed, perfectly sweet. The little prick thought he knew everything, did he? “That sounds lovely, Mr. Lassa. Please, lead the way.”
There seemed to be a moment’s hesitation among the men, and then the chief officer type cleared his throat, looking uncomfortable. “Just one thing, Miss Massanna, and I apologize, but… your automaton will need to remain in the lobby.” He met her raised eyebrow with a fawning, sorry little smile. “It’s just building regulations.”
She managed not even to miss a beat, only through a lifetime of practice. And, well, it wasn’t exactly unexpected. “Ah, of course.” She turned to Hibiscus, releasing his arm and patting it instead. “Please wait here for me, Hibiscus. I’ll be back before too long.”
“It will be my pleasure, madam,” Hibiscus said, and inclined his head to her as he stepped backward to stand against the wall.
The youngest man peeled off, too, as they headed for the elevators, stopping to speak to the receptionist. As they watched the sunburst deco numbers light with each floor, Lassa murmured to her, “You speak to them like humans. Do you find that instills greater obedience?”
“I find they speak like humans themselves, and it seems sensible to respond in kind,” Nyobe said—a bit tarter than she probably should have been, under the circumstances, but the disgusting tone of the question set her tongue off before she could stop it. Lassa looked surprised, but then after a beat of awkward pause only laughed, heartily, as though she’d made a joke. …Perhaps, she thought with contempt building behind her smile, from his perspective, she had.
The tour of the offices was as she would have expected: dull as dirt, one beautiful modern boardroom and corner suite after another until they all blurred together into one, but short as promised. And then they were crossing a short glass skybridge with a stunning view of the city spread out to one side, over to the R&D areas, and first of all the showroom.
There was a security station before the vast gilded doors of the showroom, of course, manned by two automata on either side, and she was asked to sign her name in the guestbook and to a heavy-duty, lengthy non-disclosure agreement. The first she wouldn’t have minded, but the second—while she might also have expected it—set her teeth on edge. She was no lawyer, but from her brief flip through the language, she had a bad feeling it would make anything she saw here inadmissible evidence in court, even if she went right back and tattled to the Police about it. Maybe even if they did finally get their search warrant. …Well, no help for it if so, though. However things went, she’d just have to improvise.
And then finally the automata guards went to the doors and pushed them wide, and they went in… and she found her thoughts well distracted for a while.
From the doors, a wide swoop of stairs descended into a vast, sprawling brushed-steel expanse, hugely tall and hugely long, like a hall to house some athletic arena or swimming pool. Stories-high banners hung from the ceiling, emblazoned in black and gold with the Kalumaria logo: an infinity symbol overlaid with a stylized sine wave meant to represent an automaton’s visual pulse. Looming above from the floor itself, up to perhaps half the height of the ceiling, was a maze of wandering corridors created by the arrangement of large plate-glass exhibit booths. High cathedral windows in the walls, frosted but translucent, spilled in stormy daylight to gleam off the metal and glass.
The first booth, rising directly ahead of them when they descended the stairs, seemed to contain only a woman, standing on a slowly revolving platform under a soft spotlight, occasionally shifting her weight through a series of contemplative poses. She was entirely nude and exquisitely beautiful: the spot gleaming off her skin, her hair in thin curled ropes nearly to her waist, high-cheekboned and almond-eyed, light and shadow pooling lovingly over her small pert breasts and full rounded hips. She didn’t look at them, only moved to show off to better advantage the line of her shoulder into her arm, the change in the line of her back when she shifted her weight to jut out one hip.
“At Kalumaria Autonomics,” Lassa said, coming up behind Nyobe where she stood and stared in spite of herself, “we believe that the future of automatry is verisimilitude. Specifically: the convincing imitation of life.” He paused, following the line of Nyobe’s gaze. “Lovely, isn’t she? A masterpiece. We call her Cormorant.” Gesturing, as he said it, beyond Nyobe, to the small metal plate with model details fixed into the glass, near the bottom. “…And I beg your pardon, Miss Massanna, but we… entertain very few ladies as guests, in the showroom. I do hope you aren’t too shocked.”
The little smirk on his face said more or less the opposite, though, when Nyobe was finally able to tear her eyes away from Cormorant and look back at him; she smiled back at it, though, showing her teeth. “Not at all, Mr. Lassa. Thank you for your concern.” She paused, and then looked back at the glass, to the slowly moving figure alone up on the pedestal. “…She’s really an automaton? She looks completely human. I can’t spot anything mechanical at all.”
Lassa smiled, looking pleased with himself, although what the hell he thought he’d had to do with actually creating that poor girl she couldn’t imagine. “The flesh is finely-graded silicone, articulated by a full artificial muscular system with millions upon millions of near-microscopic moving parts. The hair, in fact, is human—donated voluntarily, of course.” He laughed at his own joke, but this time Nyobe couldn’t even bring herself to feign a smile. “Underneath both, an automaton, like any other. Well—significantly more advanced, but all the same.” He paused, and then added, “A prototype, naturally, like all the units in this room. The process still requires refinement, and we’re a long way off from mass-production.”
“Fascinating,” Nyobe murmured, actually sort of meaning it, but she was frowning back up at the glass. That wasn’t what Detective Bado had been describing about the body in the crash, not exactly… but… “So there are others?”
He stood back, gesturing her grandly on ahead down one of those twisting corridors. “This way.”
They walked through the maze, stopping at one spotlit glass case after another, each with a small embossed name-plate down at the corner. Staring in at the automata inside like they were animals in a huge humanoid zoo. IBIS: a tall, lean, gorgeous woman in a floor-length shimmering red gown, sitting languid and gazing at a mirrored vanity with dead, hopeless eyes. PRION: a secretary in an elegant silk blouse and long skirt, hair in an old-fashioned oiled-down knot behind her head, typing rapidly from a stack of foolscap sheets on her desk up on the pedestal, pushing the typewriter’s carriage back at the end of each line with swift firm strokes of her hand. REDSTART & NIGHTINGALE: one woman seated at an upright piano in the corner, in a young lady’s flapper dress and thick makeup; one posed in the center in brief spangled lingerie and heels, with a pair of fluffed-up peacock-feather fans. When the three of them arrived in front of the glass, the woman at the piano began at once to play a raunchy barrelhouse tune, and the one in the center launched into a burlesque striptease, beaming radiantly out at nothing over their heads. She stripped to her skin to the time of the music, playing coquettishly with the fans over her bare flesh before throwing wide her arms and tossing them aside—and then turned around, showing the eyelet corset-lacings set into the skin of her back all the way up it, holding it closed over a thin line of metal. She plucked the bow and then each set of laces on every downbeat, shaking her hips in time, then pulled the whole thing free; and then stripped out of her skin too, head like a necklace and arms like opera gloves and legs like silk stockings. Bare sleek silver now, her visual cortex the same peacock-green as the fans, she finished the dance, a lascivious bump-and-grind that clanked her limbs against each other and the floor. And then the piano-player stopped, and she stopped too, both of them still and dead as statues again.
“Incredible, isn’t it?” Lassa said, and Nyobe had to bite the inside of her cheek to keep herself smiling.
“It most certainly is,” she said after a second’s pause, though, and then turned her forced smile back on him with an apologetic edge, ignoring the sick twisting in her stomach. “Much as I hate to interrupt, though… could I trouble you for somewhere I could go and powder my nose?”
She thought she caught a bit of a smirk again in his smile—skinny old biddy with a bladder like a pea, must have to stop and squat behind every other bush, you could just read it in their eyes sometimes—but he just turned and gestured, graciously, behind them. “I’m afraid the nearest ladies’ room is back on the corporate side, on the typing pool’s floor,” he said. “Back across the bridge, and one floor down. Not to worry, we’ll wait for you outside just in case the guards are forgetful.”
“Would you like me to walk you there, Miss Massanna?” asked the chief officer, kindly condescending, extending his arm. She only waved him off, though, beaming—resisting the strong urge to smack that arm with her cane.
“That’s all right, thank you so much. I’ll ask for help if I get lost.”
And that part, she supposed with a slight smirk of her own as she went back out the double doors, was at least true.
“Hibiscus?” she murmured when she’d gone far enough down the skybridge to be out of earshot, sidemouth toward the small disc of metal and attached radio transmitter she’d clipped under the brim of her cloche, cushioned in the crush of her hair. Not entirely unexpected, any of this, and not at all unprepared-for, but she still wasn’t completely sure this was going to work. “Can you hear me?”
There was a pause—and then a soft crackle from near her ear, making her breathe out in relief a breath she hadn’t known she was holding. “Indeed, madam,” Hibiscus’s voice came back, soft and distorted but audible. “You are, after all, speaking into my ear.”
She smiled, albeit distractedly, her eyes fixed on the approaching doors at the other end of the bridge. “Are you being pert with me, Hibiscus?”
“Surely that is impossible, madam.”
“I’m not sure anything is impossible today,” she said under her breath, mostly to herself. She allowed herself one glance back over her shoulder, as she was opening the door, but the two men didn’t seem to have come back out at the other end to watch for her yet. “I’m not getting the whole picture down here, anyway. What about Kalumaria’s living quarters? Is there a way of getting up there from the corporate side?”
There was a pause on the other end, while Hibiscus consulted the floorplans she’d found at City Hall, and held up to the glass of the door he’d been made to wait outside of, for him to scan into his memory banks. “There is,” he said, at last. “A private elevator, from the company president’s office to the upper floors. Reaching it, I am afraid, will require some ingenuity.”
“Oh, dear. Right you are.” She was back in the quiet, plush hallway of the corporate side now, and peered around the corner ahead of her before speaking again. “Well, I just left the president behind me, so if I’m lucky, that may actually work in my favor. …But when have I ever been lucky?”
“Only for the duration of our acquaintance, madam,” Hibiscus said serenely, making her smother a laugh into her hand.
She made her way to the elevators uncontested, and took them to the highest floor after confirming with Hibiscus—not that she could’ve imagined where else the president’s office would be. His suite of offices, as it turned out, took up one entire side of that floor: an expansive lobby area opened out of the corridor just past a grand wooden staircase down, and only at its far end was the outer office with the president’s secretary’s desk, and the door to the inner chamber. Nyobe considered the layout, standing just out of the secretary’s sight-line, at the far end of the lobby. Then she nudged the half-full wastepaper basket by the door just out to where it would be visible from the secretary’s office, dug her match-book out of her purse, lit two, and dropped them in.
It took enough time for the fire to really catch that she had plenty of time to slip across the lobby, to partial cover beside a tall leafy potted plant. A few minutes later she heard a faint exclamation, and sure enough, out the secretary came—at the fastest run she could manage in her heels, all frayed frazzled shock and with a cut-glass pitcher of water in hand. Before she had even reached the basket, though, Nyobe had whisked around the corner and into the front office, and tried the president’s door, grateful she already had gloves on. It was unlocked; and she slipped noiselessly inside, closing it again behind her.
The office was long and broad, its entire rear wall a single bellied curve of windows, only a fraction of its space occupied by the desk and chairs at the far end. There was nothing in evidence that looked like an elevator to her at first, but finally she took a second glance at what she’d taken for a set of closet doors along the outer wall. Sure enough, when she opened them, inside were elevator doors with no numbers displayed above and only an up button beside. They opened when she pressed it to let her into a rectangle of clear glass, outside of which opened a view of the cityscape even more breathtaking than the one from the skybridge. She was very, very high up now, and felt fortunate that it was an experience she was accustomed to.
When the elevator dinged again, it let her out in a brief, windowless foyer, carpeted in red and wallpapered in silk pinstripes, with a short flight of steps at the far end up to a closed door. It was lit only by the rectangle of daylight falling through the elevator doors; when they slid closed, they left her in darkness. She made her way to and up the steps by memory, and felt around for the doorknob—and found it locked, this time.
Well, this was where a well-bred lady’s misspent youth in all the wrong company came in handy. She set her cane against the wall, felt into her purse again, and at last identified the shape of the prim little appliquéd sewing-kit that held her lockpicks. Good thing she’d learned to do this mostly by touch anyway.
Once she’d made it inside, there was light again: pouring through the windows that seemed to make up one entire wall of the upper floors. The mansion, like the office below it, was built in an open, modern style, multitudes of levels rising on one another by short staircases, doorways on the lowest level leading off to high vaulted rooms that were only partially walled off below the endless ceiling. More staircases climbed even further upward, and out of view. Nyobe winced a bit, clutching her cane—stairs weren’t exactly her best friends, these days—but climbed up the first short flight into a conversation area at the high center of the bottom floor, all in beige and glass and low couches and lower tables, from which several more of the staircases rose. There were no artificial lights on in here, either; as she stood and looked around, she could just see the edge of the dining room and whatever lay beyond below her to the side of where she’d come in, and doorways into the walls from staircases leading up to either side, but all of them were cloaked in darkness, impossible to penetrate deeply.
Much as she hated to admit it, everything that mattered would probably be near the top. She sighed under her breath, and got climbing.
It was an eerie feeling, wandering through here by herself, in the shadows of a stormy mid-day. The place was spotless, but something about it still felt recently-abandoned, even three years later—like it had been frozen in time with Kalumaria’s death, and never moved another inch forward, even into dust or silence. She got jumpy as she went higher, poking her head into perfect little powder rooms and an immaculate library and a bedroom no one might have ever slept in; every few minutes she would look fast back over her shoulder, halfway sure she’d seen a shadow move or the light shift.
Finally, the profusion of stairs and landings thinned out to just a single set climbing still higher, and then dead-ended in a balcony with a set of double doors closed at its center. The master bedroom, she would imagine; she’d certainly seen no other real candidates on her way here, not for a house like this. Best to start up there and work her way down. She hauled herself up the last flight of stairs, not too winded but with a spun-glass kind of pain working its way so deep into her hip it spread roots down to her thigh and up to her ribs, and then opened the doors and let herself inside.
It was the right place, all right: a somehow peculiar wide rectangular room with a narrow belt of windows cut all through its far wall, showing a view of the City only a bird (or an airship pilot) could love. Dark velvet curtains draped in swags above it, with some apparatus to let them down half-hidden at one edge. A truly huge bed took up only a fraction of the space, a huge vanity and huge wardrobe and huge bureau only fractions more. A doorway to what looked like a bathroom, also palatial, opened off one side, and the other had a floor-to-ceiling narrow casement of shelves, filled at tasteful intervals with mirrors and sculpture and withering plants and short little rows of unread books.
She snooped fruitlessly for a length of time that was probably too short, but was already beginning to feel too long (and just how long would Lassa and the nameless chief officer wait, rolling their eyes at each other and then frowning and checking their watches, outside the showroom doors?). She was about to leave, and try her luck in the library downstairs, when the act of turning around to face the double doors again drew that peculiar something to her attention again, that something that flitted into her range of awareness for one instant and then away again. Nyobe frowned deeply for a moment, stopped in mid-step, torn between letting it go and pursuing it… and then finally settled where she was, closed her eyes, and inhaled a deep, long, slow, breath. And then opened them again.
The room was too short on one side. That was what had been bothering her. With the bathroom opening out from one side of the room, taking up space on that edge, the room’s rectangle should have been lopsided with regard to the doors… but it wasn’t. It was perfectly regular, the doors right in the center of the inside wall, the side walls equidistant from them. There might just be some sort of architectural peculiarity to explain it—a utility room, perhaps, only reachable from some hidden maintenance stairway, or a former linen closet that had been walled up—but…
Nyobe made her way back over to the casement wall, trailing gloved fingers over the edges of its shelves and up under their ledges. Her breakthrough came completely by accident: pushing on a shelf-side that had come a bit loose and was wobbling, she found that the whole casement itself seemed to shift, slightly, to one side, even under that light pressure. She pushed again—and with a sound and an action like rolling along oiled bearings, one half of the casement pushed easily to one side, taking up the leftover wall space beyond where it had been instead. The other pushed in the other direction just as well; and she was left at the end catching her breath a little, her hip throbbing again, staring into a dark alcove with plain brick walls, draped with more swathes of dark curtain.
On its nearest side, stood at the center of where the casements had parted like a sentinel, was a movie camera on a tripod, its lens pointed into the bedroom and at the bed. Behind the camera, pointed the opposite direction, was a projector; and across from it, hung interrupting the curtains on the wall, a large white screen. Racks along the walls to each side were filled with film-cans. Nyobe picked one up, slowly, meaning to go through in order—but as it turned out, she never made it. The hand-written label on the very first one stopped her long enough to get out and look through her spectacles—and then stopped her right where she was, and the breath in her mouth.
KES & PERI
She was barely aware of anything anymore. Not of putting her glasses away again and taking the film out of the can; not of threading it onto the reels of the projector, or starting the machinery up. Not of standing there, staring, as the images started to shudder across the screen, one hand balled at the base of her throat in a fist.
Two women sat tangled together on a heap of pillows, on a wide velvet expanse she took a moment to recognize as the bed back in the room behind her. They were dressed identically in lingerie and corsetry, wrapped into frills and bows, long silk gloves on their hands. They were kissing, rolling together, tangling up their thighs and entwining their hands into each other’s hair, in black-and-white and in the strange double-time motion people always seemed to have in films, like the world had been propelled into a jaunty sort of hurry. They paused and eased apart only after long, intense, luxurious moments, on a natural break, and reeled back to arms’ length, one stroking the other’s thigh, the other stroking the first’s cheek. One of them had a practiced sort of smile on her mouth, a sheer flinty dedication to good cheer that pierced Nyobe’s heart in a thousand places with its familiarity; the other looked uneasy, and glanced at the camera as Nyobe watched, shy and dismayed through the curtain of her hair. The other woman, though, the smiling woman, touched her face again, and turned it back toward herself, leaning closer to whisper in the other woman’s ear. Whatever it was made a quick, nervous smile of her own spread across her lips, and the whisperer leaned back again, grinning at her, making her finally cover her face and laugh.
Two women, kissing each other again, wrapped deep in each other’s arms in front of the rolling camera, hands roaming and now diving into the edges and straps of clothing. Two identical red-haired women, plainly trying for all they were worth to only look at each other, and see nothing else in the world.
One was Kes.
Both were Kes.
“My god,” Nyobe said, muffled into the glove that had somehow come up to press across her mouth. “Oh, my dear god.”
“Madam?” Hibiscus’s voice crackled in reply from the brim of her hat—just as a large, heavy hand fell on her shoulder.
Even when Kes turns up unannounced, there’s some advance warning. Her ship, a sleek balloon picking an unlikely path through the spires and broad discs and platforms of the Aviary’s upper levels, is hard to miss; there are a lot of pilots in the City, enough even to give the two of them some competition in the race, but Nyobe’d know the shape of the Cuckoo anywhere by now, in any light or weather. It gives her time to send automata out for wine and candles, and get up to the hangar, waiting on the catwalks with a slight smile on her lips.
Kes comes out tonight like always, duster flapping, boots clacking, straight to grab her arms around Nyobe and kiss her hard… but after that it dawns gradually that she’s tense in Nyobe’s arms, jittery under her hands, her smile taut and strained when they pull apart. She laughs, and it sounds nervous, as she cups her hands on either side of Nyobe’s face.
“Hey there,” she says, and kisses Nyobe again, just for good measure. “You’re a sight for sore eyes.”
Nyobe raises an eyebrow at her, when Kes gives her time. “I suppose those two days were an endless desert.” Kes laughs again, but drops her eyes, and Nyobe touches her cheek this time. “Everything all right?”
“Fine,” Kes says, tucking hair under her pushed-up goggles and not looking at her. “Fine. Just wanted to come see you, that’s all.” She hesitates a moment, and then seems to burst out with it: “I wanted to ask you something.”
Another odd beat of hesitation—and then Kes is looking at her again, splitting suddenly into a grin, a strange cracked thing like she’s just stubbed her toe and broken it, and doesn’t want anybody to know. “Do you want to leave with me tonight?” she says, too rushed, too hard. “Just leave. Just fly. Nowhere special, just anywhere.” She laughs, somewhere between free and self-conscious, unhappy and amused. “We’ll go west, how about that? Until we get to the ocean, and then we’ll keep going.”
Nyobe doesn’t know how long she might have gone on; but she’s frowning by now, and steps in, gently, at that lull. “…Are you sure you’re all right? Where’s this coming from?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know, I just feel like it.” Kes laughs again, but there’s desperation in it this time, she would almost swear to it. She never knew anyone could laugh as many different ways as Kes does, and who knows? It might really be true. She might be misreading it after all. She’s never really understood Kes, never fully been able to read her, not in all this time. She’s always just a little strange, a little hard to pin down, even when her feet are on the ground. “Come on, what do you say? I’ll help you pack. We can go before dark.”
For a moment Nyobe can’t speak. She just can’t think of anything to say. Of course there are good reasons why not: the businesses she manages, the logistics of schooling two airships along like a miniature fleet, the lack of a destination, the absurdity of the whole thing… but even so, none of them seems quite like the point right now, somehow. Not even worth saying.
Kes closes her eyes before she can say anything, anyway, and lets out a breath; and when she opens them, she’s smiling again, a bit more honestly and normally this time. If with something like resignation still showing behind her eyes. “No,” she says, as though Nyobe’s spoken and she’s agreeing. “Sorry. Forget it. Stupid idea.”
“It’s not—“ Nyobe starts to say, not even sure where she’s going with it. Kes cuts her off easily, though, catching her by the hand and turning her around, starting to walk her down the catwalk toward inside.
“No, I know. Just sounded like fun. Forget about it, all right? Maybe we’ll just stay in tonight, you think?”
Nyobe can’t seem to keep up with her at first, and then finally, near the door into the house from the hanger, she stops and turns to Kes. Takes her lightly by the shoulder, and turns Kes too, to face her. Catching wide surprise in Kes’s eyes, if only for a second—curls wreathing them, lips parted, in that instant the most beautiful woman Nyobe has ever known.
“You know you can tell me, if something’s wrong,” she says, searching Kes’s eyes. But it comes out a half-step awkward, and two inches too late; Kes’s gaze drops again, and she smiles, reaching up to squeeze Nyobe’s hand.
“I know,” she says. But Nyobe can hear it, down under her voice like a second set of lungs has spoken: No I can’t. No I can’t.
It’s a week and a half later that Nyobe unfolds the newspaper and sees the headline, bold and certain and impossible to take back.
Nyobe whirled, already grabbing for her cane by instinct: she had set it down on the table to load the projector. In her haste she knocked it on the floor instead, and dove to pick it up, looking up fast even as she did —
And stopped, hand open and eyes wide, hovering right above it, with Hibiscus’s repeated inquiries in her ear fading into a dim background buzz. The tall, coldly handsome man standing between the parted casements was no one she knew, not personally—but his face was still familiar. She’d seen it in newspaper photographs, sketched in magazine articles, drawn to her attention only by how it would make Kes’s face flicker when she saw it, sometimes even make Kes take the offending pages and turn them face-down. It had even been rendered in oil-paints, in a portrait in the president’s office downstairs, hung on a wall not far from the elevator she’d taken up here.
Rasher Kalumaria was standing in the doorway.
“Aren’t they lovely?” he said, in a small wistful sigh. Numbly, Nyobe saw on a longer look that he wasn’t looking at her; his eyes were fixed on the screen, where the film was still playing out behind her. “My little birds in the nest.” He took another step into the room, even as Nyobe’s fingers closed around her cane-head, pacing closer like a patron in an art gallery. “I don’t know which one of them killed me. …Probably Kes, though. She was always bolder.”
“You,” Nyobe started, but it wasn’t much more than a squeak of air, and she had nowhere else to go. How did you explain your trespassing in his home to a dead man?
It won her Kalumaria’s attention, though—little though she might have wanted it. His eyes fixed down on her, and she thought all at once she could see an odd red glare in them, as though he were looking into firelight. “You shouldn’t be here,” he said, calm and with something almost like regret. “Shouldn’t shouldn’t shouldn’t shouldn’t shouldn’t shouldn’t shouldn’t shouldn’t. Should never have stuck your stuck your stuck your become involved.” He twitched slightly when he stopped repeating—his head on one side, a train jumping tracks. “Women. Always. Think she’s yours, stupid old—“ There was a heavy clicking, grinding sound from somewhere, seeming to interrupt him, and he twitched again… and then there was a different sound to his voice, when he spoke again. …A sort of tinny echo. “She is not yours. She will always be mine. She will always be ours.”
Nyobe stared. Pulling herself up toward her feet again, the lingering pain in her hip now seeming miles distant. His eyes stayed where she had been for a second, then refocused on her, still with no expression at all.
“Foolish old woman who thinks she can fly,” he said. “I think I’ll throw you from the window and see if you’re right.”
And he reached for her—but by now, she was more than ready. In one movement she’d pulled the head of her cane and drawn the sword out from inside it, and swung out in front of her in a precise fencer’s arc, striking at his hand.
It stopped him in place, one foot frozen in front of the other, his hand still held out in front of him. And she was left staring, all over again, at the narrow stripe of bloodless silver she’d laid open inside his palm.
“Kill you give her back ours kill you,” Kalumaria said conversationally, and lunged around the table at her. She launched and ran at the doorway, slipping past his reaching hands by inches. Out of the alcove, out of the bedroom, aware of him coming after her with the still-running film playing across his face and open-shirted chest, his wives twining like living tattoos on his skin.
He caught her on the stairs—snatched a fistful of the robe over her dress and dragged her backward, clicking and chittering. She pulled forward, shrugging her shoulders out of it, enough she could whirl and slash him again. He let go and stumbled backward, falling backward on the risers. She pushed the advantage, and this time he raised his arm to meet the blade; it sliced through his flesh and then clanged off the metal. This was no good, that wouldn’t help her—she turned to try to run again while he was still down, but he staggered up before she could make it free. His weight slammed into her from the side from nowhere she could see, throwing her off balance. She knocked into the railing hard enough to bruise her kidneys, and had to cling to keep from flipping right over.
Then he was charging her again, in the narrow space of the stairway: bullish, head lowered, his face still eerie and composed and relaxed. There was no time at all for thought, no time for consideration. She just moved—waiting until he was too close to stop, and then throwing herself aside, all her weight onto her hands on the railing. And hiking up her knees to piston with all her strength into his back.
He flipped over the rail headfirst, and fell. She almost went right after, in a terrifying second when her weight was off-balance—but caught herself in a fumble, hauling her shoulders forward and then falling onto the stairs in a much safer crouch, panting and wide-eyed. It took long, long moments like that, hunched over her knees and staring at nothing, to collect herself enough to slowly push back upright. Her legs were jelly from top to bottom, threatening to pitch her down flat on the stairs.
But she looked over the railing anyway. And saw him, spread-eagled on the tiled granite floor some six or seven stories below. He wasn’t moving, and from the sound of the thick crunching thud she had barely heard in her own distress, maybe she could hope he never would again. …Although no part of her wanted to go down there and make certain.
And then, while she was still standing there and staring down, she heard the distant sound of the front door opening.
She probably should have tried to run, tried to hide, somewhere, but she couldn’t find the strength to move and it seemed to happen too fast. There was a second’s pause, and then a man in a grey suit came running across the floor downstairs, like a little wind-up toy from this height. He went straight to the body, and crouched over it, seeming to feel around its neck and hands for a few seconds… and then looked straight up at where she was still standing, stupidly, and staring down. It was, she saw, with dim unsurprise, the third man from the lobby—the younger man, who hadn’t introduced himself.
There was another pause, as they both just hovered there and looked at each other. And then he stood up, dusting at the knees of his trousers, without taking his eyes off hers. Especially from this distance, his face betrayed nothing at all.
“Your concern for my supply of clients may now be justified, Miss Massanna,” he called up to her, his voice carrying easily off the stone floors and blank walls. “Their number seems to be rapidly dwindling.”
For a second or two more Nyobe could only keep staring, an uncomprehending frown growing between her brows. Then, only halfway certain, she said the only thing her mind could seem to produce: “…Mr. Eland?”
Far below her, the man nodded, before looking up again. “I mean you no harm, I promise you,” he called, after another second’s pause. “Please remain there. I will come up.”
“So you’re the lawyer,” Nyobe said at last—when he’d collected up her hat and purse and the shell of her cane from where they’d been dropped in the chase, and she’d finally been able to assure Hibiscus that she was all right. Now they both sat on the stairs, Eland pressing a cold wet cloth around the ankle she’d turned when Kalumaria had pulled her backward. “The one who’s been keeping the Police out.”
“Yes.” He glanced up at her, and now, this close up, she could see him for what he was: the way his seeming stiffness was actually foreign silicone flesh moving over his real body, the faint blue glare of his visual cortex showing from inside the darkest center of his dark eyes. He was quite handsome, in his human skin, although she thought he’d probably been more so without. “That was not, however, for Mr. Kalumaria’s sake. Nor for the company’s.”
She opened her mouth, frowning, to press that—and then got distracted by another thought, before she could. Her mind was still a little scattered to the winds. “So he was an automaton too? Kalumaria?”
Eland shook his head, turning the cloth over to use its now-cooler other side. “The real Mr. Kalumaria was human. What you encountered today was a duplicate of himself Mr. Kalumaria had created in life, to be activated in the event of his death. The duplicate was based on his prototypes for a highly sophisticated new line of products, like myself; and it was to oversee in his absence the direction of the company, and the management of Kes and Peri. …He failed, of course, to anticipate the eventuality that they themselves would be responsible for his death, and would escape before his replacement could be initialized. But no provision is without flaws.”
“So she did kill him,” Nyobe said, after a moment. “…Well, one of them did, anyway.” There were a lot more important questions to be asked, but she kept hanging up on brambles. Eland nodded.
“Mr. Kalumaria was pushed from the balcony rail, and fell to his death on almost precisely the spot where you destroyed his duplicate,” he said. “My grasp of the concept of ‘irony’ is at times incomplete and I am not certain whether this constitutes it. Nonetheless, I helped both Kes and Peri to escape afterward, as I intend to help you.” He glanced around, and then turned back to her. “If you can stand, miss, would you please come with me?”
He led her, half-hobbling on her cane, back down the flights of stairs to the library, after she’d brushed aside his offers of help. She was going to be feeling this for weeks, but for right now, she had her pride.
“So Kalumaria’s automaton has been running the business all this time?” she asked, huffing out of breath, on their way.
“Not precisely.” He spoke without looking back at her, which was just as well; she wasn’t sure she wanted to see a human neck swivel around the way an automaton’s could. “Mr. Lassa found the replacement very intractable, and attempted to reprogram it, so that it would be more willing to allow him management of the company, while still providing him advice on the development of product.” He paused at a landing, waiting courteously for her to catch up. “Mr. Kalumaria was a brilliant man. A terrible man, but also brilliant. Mr. Lassa never had any hope of continuing his work without his assistance—a fact evidenced by the many cognitive errors his reprogramming introduced to Mr. Kalumaria’s duplicate.”
“Yes, I may have noticed those,” Nyobe said, as dryly as she could through her teeth. Once she’d reached him, he led on again. “But Kes wasn’t the same as you and the duplicate, was she? Or—Peri?”
“No. They were something quite different. A fusion of the organic with the mechanical, as much human as automaton. An experiment of tremendous ambition, and of staggering implications.” He fell quiet again as he opened the door to the library for her, but she thought this time it was partly to consider his next words. “I am not the only one of my kind who thinks so. Kes and Peri are known of by all automata, and considered by many to be messianic figures: saviors, who will create an understanding between our kind and humans, and elevate our position in their society.”
Nyobe stared at him, stuck again for a moment as to which part of that to pick at first. “…All of you know about them? When we—“ I — “didn’t even know?”
He inclined his head. “Yes, miss. As Mr. Kalumaria’s attorney, I was taken into his confidence on a number of sensitive matters, including this one; and because I knew, we all knew.” When she only stared at him, he went on. “All automata are calibrated to operate on a single electronic frequency, with regard to our cognitive and sensory functions; it is an industry standard. That shared frequency permits us a kind of global communication with one another, such that we are all able to share ideas and information at any distance. …This is not, of course, information we divulge to most humans.” He turned to move past her into the room, going to a section of shelving along one wall and running his hands up along it. “The recent riots and violence by the Brotherhood were, in fact, in response to the crash of the Cuckoo. Our community was devastated by the loss of one of its figures of veneration, and acted out of fear of the loss of the other.”
“So she’s still alive,” Nyobe said, almost under her breath. Her hand had somehow crept up to her throat again, her head aching under the force of all this. Eland glanced back at her, pausing in whatever he was doing.
“One of them is. Yes.” He returned his attention, and finally there was a heavy, chunking click from inside the wall. The section of bookcase swung outward like a door, revealing a safe set in the wall that looked like it put even her top-of-the-line one at home to shame. “And free—although not for long, should Mr. Lassa have his way. In tampering with Mr. Kalumaria’s duplicate, he discovered evidence both of Mr. Kalumaria’s murder, and of Kes and Peri’s development. He has been using both in an attempt to blackmail them into returning—to be supervised by Mr. Kalumaria’s duplicate, while company engineers study them in order to improve other products.”
Nyobe hissed air through her teeth, but didn’t say anything. Three years of freedom, and then coming right back here to be chained up with their tyrant of a husband, now dead and insane, and experimented on? She couldn’t even begin to imagine it. Didn’t even want to try.
Eland opened the safe, meanwhile, and then stood back and turned to her, motioning to it. Nyobe frowned at him a moment, and then hobbled over and set her cane aside, having to push up a little on tiptoe (much as that hurt) to see and reach inside. Stacked on top of each other, barely fitting in the space, were two browning accordion files, massive and stuffed with what looked like decades of papers. A neat label had been pasted on the front of the topmost one, and when she fumbled on her glasses again, she read, in the same spiky hand as had been on the film-cans upstairs:
And, when she pulled that one out with a grunt of effort and set it down on the desk behind her, and turned back to look inside again:
And underneath that one, lying like an afterthought on the floor of the safe, was a small, unassuming brass key.
She took off her glasses slowly, and looked over at Eland standing beside her, a question in her eyes that she couldn’t get out her lips. He nodded to her, once, gravely. She looked back at the key for a moment… and then finally reached in and took it out, and slipped it into her purse to nestle at the bottom.
With that done, Eland stepped past her to the files on the table, and then they turned to face each other. “Before I help you to leave, Miss Massanna,” he said, “I would very much appreciate it if you would help me to destroy these records.” At her stare, he added, “I would have done it myself previously, but Mr. Kalumaria’s duplicate would have reported my intrusion to Mr. Lassa. And even disregarding all other concerns, it would be best if Mr. Lassa did not come to realize the extent of my alliance with Kes and Peri.”
“But—“ Tripping, trying to find her tongue. “If automata think they’re your saviors, that they’ll get us to treat you like equals—why would you want to destroy the evidence? Surely they’d have to be known about to—“
But he was already shaking his head, cutting her off. “I said that many automata hold that belief,” he said. “I did not say that we all do.” And now, with a second skin laid over his own, he could show emotion—if not in his voice, then in the expression he schooled into a clumsy kind of sadness. “…Mr. Kalumaria may not have anticipated that they would kill him, but he did know that they hated him, and would take any opportunity to escape. When he took one to an event, to display on his arm, he would leave the other at home—bound, with a gun to her head. If the one in his company misbehaved in any way, she knew, he would send the message that her sister was to be killed.” The look in his eyes, where they met hers, suddenly seemed a little too human. “They never wished to be saviors, Miss Massanna, or figures of devotion. They only wished to be free.
“With no records of their creation, the Police will be forced to conclude that Kes was merely an advanced model of some sort, and that she is now inactive. And Lassa will be unable to use their legacy to cause any more harm.” He paused, and then added, thoughtfully, “The films in the bedroom, of course, will also need to be destroyed. …Actually, in my opinion, they ought to be destroyed anyway.”
Nyobe could only look at him, for long moments more. There were still so many questions, so many side roads and snags… but suddenly, none of them seemed to matter anymore.
“I’ve got matches,” she said, at last. And Eland smiled.
Eventually, he guided her back down to the office building, and past the president’s secretary (who, he revealed, was also a prototype automaton, and who he turned out to be able to temporarily deactivate from a distance by use of a small transmitter he took from Kalumaria’s home). Once back on safe ground, he picked her up and carried her downstairs—both of them claiming to a stunned, stammering Lassa and company, once they reached the lobby, that she had gotten lost in the building and taken a bad spill on the stairs, and needed medical attention at once. Eland transferred her into Hibiscus’s waiting arms, and Nyobe couldn’t resist the urge to wave over his shoulder at Lassa’s gaping face as they left, piping up with a show of weak good cheer: “Thank you so much for a lovely day!”
“Tell me the truth about something, Hibiscus,” she said, in the car, just as they were driving up the ramps into her private garage. “How much of this did you know from the beginning?”
His gaze lifted to meet hers in the rear-view mirror for a second, and then returned to the ramp ahead. “I am certain I have no idea what you mean, madam,” he said, taking the next turn at a gentle pace. “Once we are inside, please allow me to elevate your ankle and pack it in ice. That should help to reduce the swelling.”
She did just that, in the end, and fell abruptly asleep all propped up on her bed like that, almost as soon as she’d relaxed into the mattress. She might have thought that all the thoughts whirling around her head would never have allowed it, but you couldn’t ever tell about these things, she supposed. When she woke up, it was dark outside, dim in her bedroom; the ice pack had been changed at some point, and a throw blanket had been tugged carefully over her.
Nyobe shrugged up out of all of it, and hobbled unchallenged to the study to dig into the wall-safe, and then back to her bedroom. She set the box down on her bed, fetched her purse from the bedside table, and dumped out its contents onto the coverlet, pawing through them until she found the key. Then took a deep breath, all the way down to the bottom of her lungs, before slotting it in, and turning it.
Inside the box, on a bed of red velvet, sat a telephone. Plain, nondescript, black, its handset and rotary dials looking as fresh and unused as though it were brand new. It wasn’t connected to anything, had no wires that she could see; but somehow she wasn’t surprised at all when, as she sat staring at it, it suddenly began to ring in a loud, clamoring shrill.
She picked up the handset and pressed it to her ear, like a woman in a dream. Heard her own lips shape, into the receiver: “Hello?”
“Hey there,” said the voice of the woman at the other end. And Nyobe’s found herself totally unprepared for how that made her sway, and shut her eyes—the way it swung the whole world around on its axis. She hadn’t known how much she had never expected to hear that voice again.
“Are you all right?” Her voice wasn’t much more than a dusty whisper. There was silence on the other end, and then a tiny laugh.
“Sure. I guess.”
Nyobe struggled—trying to gather herself, to rein herself back into her usual straits. “What… how am I talking to you?”
A little sound: amused, maybe, or impatient, or both. “Ah, it’s just a telephone. Kind of a special one—a really dedicated line—but that’s it.” A pause, and then she went on, a little softer. “It’s the one I knew he’d call at home, if I acted up when we were out. …Eland did tell you about that, right?”
“He did.” Nyobe closed her eyes again. “And you gave it to me.”
“Had to do something.” She could almost hear a shrug. “Eland couldn’t do anything illegal, but he found a loophole. He worked out a way that since the phone had only ever been used for stuff about us, it technically belonged to us, once Rasher was dead. At least enough I could give it to you.”
Nyobe nodded—not even caring that it couldn’t be seen. She sat for a moment, staring unfocused across the room, thinking. “…So what happens now?”
“You can come get me,” the voice on the telephone said, simply. “Come pick me up, and either we can go away, or you can help me hide, or whatever you want. If you want to. If you still want to. …And believe me, I’d understand it if you didn’t.” There was a pause, and then a long, unsteady sigh. “But, you know, I figured… maybe, if you’ve already come this far.”
“Where are you?” Nyobe asked. There was another hesitation, and then she thought she could hear a faint smile shaping the words.
“Are you in your room?”
Nyobe frowned. “Yes…”
“Look out the window.” A little more smile, now. “What time is it?”
She leaned forward on the bed to do just that, before the implications had even fully sunken in. And then her eyes widened, her lips parting. It took her a long moment to be able to focus again enough to read the time, and to finally respond.
“A few minutes past eleven,” she said, when she could. There was a small noise of assent.
“I’ll be waiting when it strikes midnight,” the voice said. “Come get me. Or don’t. Whatever feels right. …Because either way, you already saved me.” A small, shaky breath. “Just as much as she did.”
She was about to be hung up on; it was now or never. Her chest clenching, barely able to force it out of her lips, Nyobe said in a burst: “Which one of you—“
“No,” the voice on the other end cut her off, almost before she could get even that much out. Not unkindly, but with no room for argument. “You can’t ask me that. You can’t ever ask me that. I’m sorry, but that’s the only rule I’ve got.” There was another pause, another breath. “But I can tell you that it doesn’t matter. One way or another, both of us died in that crash. …And one way or another, as long as one of us is still alive, we both are. We’re both still right here.”
There was nothing Nyobe really could have said to that.
“Midnight,” she said instead, at last.
“Midnight,” the voice on the other end agreed. There was a second or two of silence. “I love you, Nyobe. We both did.”
I love you too, she tried to say—but the line had already clicked, and cut off. She supposed, on consideration as she took the handset slowly from her ear, that the woman on the other end might not have wanted to hear her say it. Just in case.
She hung up the phone again, closed the box, locked it. Sat, with her hands folded across her knees and her hip and ankle throbbing, and looked out the windowed wall of her bedroom at the night, at the clock face shining at her from not too far across the City. Some forty-five minutes, to rouse Vernonia and the crew and take out the Bellatrix, and then she could be gliding toward it on the chiming stroke of midnight, dangling the ladder toward where Kes might stand, barefoot at the top arch of an endless circle. Kes, standing there waiting for her above the lights and below the stars, her hair and tattered dress rumpling in the wind like the cloud-draperies of a goddess of the sky; and with even time itself passing by beneath her surmounting feet.