My story “If Only… ” appears in this collection. The story originally appeared in Nature 489, 170 (06 September 2012)
If you’ve been reading this blog you will be aware that in between Marching to Time I’ve been writing a serial, Cosmopolitan Predators! for Aethernet Magazine.
Aethernet Magazine was launched so that readers could rediscover the joys of serial fiction. One side effect has been that the writers are rediscovering the joys of writing to deadlines. Take, for example, Ian Whates who pulled out all the stops to complete the final part of The Smallest of Things in style, or Juliet E McKenna whose fascinating take on the process of writing The Ties that Bind is detailed here on her blog.
What has my experience been like?
I went into Cosmopolitan Predators! with the story half planned. This is my usual way of writing. I find if I’ve planned a story in too great detail I lose interest in writing it, besides which, my stories tend to have a habit of wandering off course when the characters take on a life of their own. Even so, my original aim was to keep two episodes ahead of the current issue, and I’m now barely one issue ahead. This is not so bad, as I tend not to write stories in a linear fashion but rather in a random order: filling in scenes that interest me here and there and adding them to the finished piece or dropping them as the mood takes me. This means that as deadlines approach I find that I’ve already got half the story written.
But what about the deadlines? I like to follow my subconscious – my muse clearly has a butterfly mind, but nothing focuses her attention like a deadline. Cosmopolitan Predators! is a better story for being written to a deadline, I’m sure of it.
Deadlines are a writer’s friend. Deadlines focus the mind. Deadlines get you writing. Deadlines are the difference between a completed novel and three years spent with nothing more than a file detailing your imaginary world and no actual story to speak of.
I sold my first SF short story ten months after I made an agreement with myself to write one 2000 word story a month. I wrote my first novel after making an agreement with myself to have it completed by the end of 2002. I only wrote Dream London, my first Fantasy novel, after realising that if I didn’t set a deadline I would just keep on piling up ideas indefinitely.
And now the deadlines on Cosmopolitan Predators! are bringing out the best and the worst in me. Have you read the latest episode? I originally had that final line pencilled in for the end of the penultimate episode. But as the deadline for Episode 7 approached something began bubbling inside me and little voice whispered “Do it now! Shoot him now!”
“But that’s too soon!” my sensible self replied.
“No it’s not. Listen to your subconscious. You know you should.”
So I did. And I think it was right. I got Episode 7 finished and I’m now working on Episode 8. All the balls of the plot have been thrown in the air and I’m working to catch them in their new order and go on juggling, but my subconscious is having a great time and my sensible self is reluctantly agreeing that it was right.
I just hope I can rely on it as the next deadline approaches…
One of the most creepily memorable stories in modern SF
-David G Hartwell
A bumper crop of 34 stories from authors who first came to prominence in the 21st century, compiled by two of the most highly respected editors in the business….Grab this book. Whether newcomer or old hand, the reader will not be disappointed.
–Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
In my more than 40 years working in the science fiction publishing industry, I’ve seen this notion crop up every 10 years or so: ‘Science fiction has exhausted itself. There are no good new writers coming along anymore. The genre is finished!’ Tor editors Hartwell and Nielsen Hayden thoroughly refute such claims….Twenty-First Century Science Fiction will certainly be recognized as one of the best reprint science fiction anthologies of the year, and it belongs in the library of anyone who is interested in the evolution of the genre.
Captain Jim Wedderburn has looks, style and courage by the bucketful. He’s adored by women, respected by men and feared by his enemies. He’s the man to find out who has twisted London into this strange new world.
But in Dream London the city changes a little every night and the people change a little every day. The towers are growing taller, the parks have hidden themselves away and the streets form themselves into strange new patterns. There are people sailing in from new lands down the river, new criminals emerging in the East End and a path spiralling down to another world.
Everyone is changing, no one is who they seem to be.
Crunch crunch crunch. Mmmmm, mmmmm. Crunch crunch crunch.
There was someone in my room, someone crouching at the bottom of the bed eating something. Enjoying it too, by the sound of it.
Mmmmmm, mmmmm. Crunch, crunch.
What time was it?
My mobile had stopped working months ago; I hadn’t bothered getting a clock. The threadbare curtains were lit by the yellow gas glow of the street lamps. I held my breath and listened for the knocking of the heating: the prehistoric machine that slumbered in the cellar woke me every morning, no matter how warm the night had been.
Silence. It could be any time between 10pm and dawn.
The bedroom door was locked, but things change in Dream London. I scanned the dim room through half closed eyes. The ceiling was a little taller, the room a little narrower then when I went to sleep. Ever so slowly, I slipped my hand under the pillow and found my knife, still the same knife, still in the same place.
The city changed a little every night, the people changed a little everyday. Christine had gone, and not one of the succession of women who crept into my bed had ever stayed more than one night.
Had I brought someone back to my room last night? Some woman drawn to the supposedly dangerous charm of Captain James Wedderburn? I had made some increasingly strange conquests in the past months, some I hadn’t always remembered making upon waking. Was one of those women now curled up at the bottom of my bed, crunching and slurping with every sign of enjoyment? I wasn’t going to find out by pretending to be asleep.
“Who’s that?” I said to the room.
The crunching paused, just for a moment, and then the lazy consumption resumed.
“Who’s there?” I raised my head and looked to the foot of the bed. I saw no one. I crept forward, the springs creaking beneath me, took hold of the brass rail and peeped over.
Two salamanders crouched on the floor, their bodies glowing red and gold with their own internal light. They’d got hold of a green beetle the size of a dinner plate and split it in two to lap at the yellow custard inside. One of them looked up at me with little jewelled eyes, licked its lips with a purple tongue and smiled in evident satisfaction.
Two salamanders were worth a fair sum of money. I was just wondering if I could move fast enough to catch them both when someone spoke up behind me.
“Good evening, Captain Wedderburn.”
Startled, I turned to see the fat man lean from the shadows near the wall. He was balanced precariously on a little camping chair, the velvet clad expanse of his ample backside spilling over the sides. He unfolded a handkerchief and mopped at the sweat on his forehead.
“Luke Pennies,” I said. “How did you get in here?”
As I spoke a wave of nausea that had been building almost unnoticed in my stomach rose to overwhelm me. I swallowed hard against the bile that rose in my throat.
Luke Pennies held out a hand. We both looked down to the glass vial in his pudgy palm.
“Two salamanders, one antidote,” he said, and he turned to look at the red stain on the bed where I had been lying. I pressed a finger to my left shoulder and felt the sticky wetness of blood.
The fat man smiled. “One thousand sovereigns and it’s yours.”
“I don’t have a thousand sovereigns. I don’t even have a thousand dollars.”
Luke closed his hand over the vial. He waved a finger at me.
“We both know that isn’t true, Captain. They say you’ve got an interest in every young woman this side of the city.” He winked. “Aye, and a straight twenty percent from every transaction they make.”
“Nothing like so much as that.”
“You don’t deny you have money, though. It’s said that you can find a shop that will sell you anything in this city, Captain Wedderburn. I doubt you’ll find one in time to sell you the antidote you need. May I suggest that now would be the perfect time to start spending some of your ill-earned?”
I felt hot. Hot and sick. My nightshirt stuck to my body with sweat and blood, I had to fight not to throw up.
“Give that to me,” I said, reaching for the vial.
“Careful!” he warned. “This glass is thin. Any sudden shocks and I might accidentally break it.”
Slowly, I lowered my hand.
“This isn’t your style, Luke,” I said.
“Maybe not.” A spasm of anger on his face. “But you really pissed me off the other night, Jim. You crossed a line there.”
“Is there any point me telling you it wasn’t me?” I shook my groggy head. “Probably not,” I murmured. “Especially seeing as you’ve poisoned me.”
“I can see you understand,” said Luke Pennies, coldly. “So, which is it to be? One thousand sovereigns, or a slow death?”
He had a thin smile, a smile weighed out in ounces; it balanced a favour exactly with no warmth to spare. “That fire took half my property, Captain Wedderburn. It took three of my whores.”
The rent on the smile had expired. He leant forward, little eyes hard.
“Don’t play dumb with me, Jim. You could see the blaze clear to the docks.”
“My name is used a lot in this city,” I replied. “Used a lot by a certain sort of person anyway. Everybody knows that I would have chased the whores from the building first. You must know that, Luke.”
My vision was blurring now. I felt my hands starting to shake; the bite at my shoulder was throbbing.
“People change,” said Pennies, but I could hear the edge of uncertainty in his voice.
“People change,” I agreed. “This city makes people change. But not that quickly.”
Again the bile rose. This time I could not choke it down. I spat something yellow onto the bed.
Luke Pennies stared at the spreading stain. Red blood and yellow bile. His voice was cold.
“Time to pay up, Jim.”
“I don’t think so,” I said, my head spinning. “People don’t change that fast. Not even you, Luke. You wouldn’t come to my room to murder me. That’s not your style. You want me murdered; you’d get one of your men to do it. That way, if the police caught up with you, made you read the truth script, you could honestly say it wasn’t you.”
I retched again, caught the vomit in my mouth, gulped it down.
“No, not your style at all. But if you could get your victim to commit suicide? That would be far more poetic. What if you got them to swallow a vial of poison? What a laugh that would be. And much safer, should the police come calling.”
My head pounded, the sweat was cold on my skin. My tongue was thick and coated in bitter bile. Even so, I strove to speak normally.
“I think that the effect off this bite will be wearing off soon. In fact, I’m willing to bet my life on it. So I’m going to give you a choice. You see my jacket hanging on the rack there?”
Through blurred eyes, I saw him turn his head. My jacket hung there in green and gold glory.
“There’s a pistol in the pocket.” I said. “You want me dead so much, take the pistol and shoot me. Otherwise, I suggest you take your camp chair and your vial of poison and you get out of here, right now. Because if you wait too long, I’ll shoot you myself. What do you say?”
Luke Pennies didn’t say anything. Or if he did, I didn’t hear it. My stomach was rising once more and I dropped to the floor and scrabbled under the bed, looking for the chamber pot. I pulled it out and vomited, all in one movement. Curled up over the china pot, stomach heaving, I was only vaguely aware of his leaving, of him trudging past, camp chair in hand. I didn’t care, each spasm brought up more rainbow vomit. I felt as if I was dying.
Eventually there was nothing left in my stomach. Still I retched into the full bowl, until eventually this too ceased. I lay on the floor, waiting for the spinning to stop, lost in the middle of the night.
I forced myself up, looked at the blood stained bed, looked at the two salamanders now sleeping upon it, curled up around each other for warmth.
I needed to get outside. I needed some fresh air.
There used to be an underground station opposite my building. Over the past year it had metamorphosed twice: first into a railway station, and then into an inn. I remember the landlord holding court with his customers, telling us about the staircase leading down from his cellar into the tunnels through which trains had once travelled. The tunnels had shrunk, he said, tightened like sphincters. What remained of those narrowed, fat filled arteries was choked with black and green beetles, walking back and forth in long lines beneath the city, preyed on by silver snakes and cock rats.
“What about the railway lines?” I had asked. “Are they still there?”
That had been a quiet night, the few customers of the Recursive Lion had pressed up to the bar, glasses of gin and porter in hand. One of the other customers, a thin man with a huge red handlebar moustache, had laughed at my question.
“Haven’t you heard?” he said, his moustache dipped in white foam. “The railway lines have surfaced three streets south of here. They’re sliding sideways, heading towards the river. All the tracks in the city are moving!”
That must have been some time ago, I thought. Back when the changes were first taking effect and I was freshly returned from Afghanistan, a relative unknown. No one in that inn would laugh in the face of Captain Jim Wedderburn today.
Standing in the sallow street, gazing at repeated figures on the sign of the Recursive Lion opposite, I felt the nausea receding in the cold night air. I still had no idea of the time. The life of the inn gave no clue.
What is it that gives a building the feeling of life? There were people in there, I could tell, but that meant nothing. In the morning the place is packed with porters from the flower markets and the beery air is heavy with the scent of pollen. In the evenings the clerks and accountants line the tables in neat black velvet rows. The owners of the workhouse round the corner follow them in at about nine o’clock, propping up the bar as they raise a glass to other people’s industry. After midnight the ladies and gentlemen appear, slumming it after the opera or the ballet. Later come the stevedores and the butchers, hooks and cleavers tucked in their jackets, ready for trouble. And at any time there could be sailors and matelots, making the most of their time on land and looking for the sort of produce that Captain Wedderburn supplies.
There was a clock in the bar that hadn’t stopped working, despite the changes. A big white face with black Roman numerals and the name of its maker written on the front in curly script. I could stick my head around the door and see the time. I began to make my way forwards when a triangle of light swept into being across the road.
The door to the inn opened and Christine stepped out into the street. She saw me right away and gave me a tight little smile.
“Hello, Jim,” she said.
“Not you, too, Christine.” I said, tiredly. “Please, call me James.”
We looked each other up and down, checking out how the other looked. She won that battle. Her tailored suit was well made, her dark silk stocking tops visible just beneath her too short skirt. Her makeup was immaculate: bright red lips and highlighted eyes stood out against her smooth, almost imperceptible foundation. And there I stood in my frayed grey trousers, my leaking black brogues and my gaudy military jacket.
“Found a husband yet?” I asked.
“Not yet,” she said brusquely. “But I keep working my way through the list. Still giving candy away?”
“Do you want some?” I asked. “I have some in my pocket.”
I meant the offer kindly, but she gave me a withering stare.
At that point my stomach rumbled, and I realised that I didn’t want her to see me like this.
“Do you know what to do about salamanders?” I asked. “There are two on my bed.”
“Speak to Fran,” she said. “She’s got a shop down on Holcomb street. She’s good with pests and vermin.” She reached into a pocket and pulled out a velvet purse.
“Here, I got you something.” she said. “I was going to leave it with Second Eddie, but as you’re here…”
“I don’t need any money,” I said.
“I wasn’t offering you any.”
She looked so smart and confident, dressed like that with her little piece of parchment in her pocket, ticking her way through the items on the list of men she had purchased, searching for her ideal husband.
She had bought the thing as a joke, back when the little shops were just beginning to appear here and there around the old city. Back when James Wedderburn was trying to live an honest life and had decided that he needed the love of a good woman to save him. Christine had been that woman, an old flame that had reignited.
Back then it was almost a joke to push your way from the summer streets into the dark, poky interior of one of the quirky little shops that seemed to grow in the glass and concrete façades of the city. I remember the little woman sitting in the armchair by the counter, how overdressed she had seemed, with her petticoats, her grubby skirt, her knitted gloves. The effect was exaggerated when viewed next to Christine in her shorts and crop top, her sliver flip-flops; all tanned flesh and confidence. Christine had handed across the money, all in coins, and the woman had given her a sheet of yellow parchment. We pushed our way back into the sunshine and Christine unrolled her purchase.
I remember the look on her face when she realised that my name wasn’t on her list. I was expecting shock, disappointment, annoyance. Instead, she just smiled, rolled up the parchment and slipped it into her shoulder bag. She’d looked at it over the next few weeks, always when she thought I wasn’t watching. I didn’t realise she was taking it seriously, but, little by little, she had been changing even then. We all were: we just didn’t realise it.
Now, one year later, and look at us all.
“What happened to you, Christine?” I said, softly. “You were training to be an actuary. What are you now?” I didn’t say what I thought: more honest than a gold digger, less honest than a whore.
She paused, one hand in her purse, and looked down at herself, her smart suit, her silk stockings.
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” she said, and then she shook her head. “But what about you? What’s happening to you, Jim?”
“I told you, it’s James.”
She shook her head. “James, Jim, whatever. I heard what you were doing now. It isn’t… nice.”
Christine always knew how to push my buttons. If her aim was to lock me up in sullen silence, then she succeeded.
“See?” she said quietly. “Who are you to tell me how to behave?”
“Things have been hard since I left the army,” I said. “I have to earn a living somehow.”
“You could be better than that, James.” She spoke the words softly, and for a moment there was some of the old affection in her gaze.
“I used to feel as if I was, when we were together,” I murmured.
We both stood in silence for a moment.
Then she remembered her purse. She pulled out my gift. A tiny roll of parchment.
“Here,” she said. “This is for you. Don’t dismiss it out of hand. It cost me a lot of money.”
“What is it?”
Something about this gesture hit my like a blow to the stomach.
“Christine,” I said, sadly. “Why did you waste your money on this? You know I don’t believe in that nonsense.”
“Just take it,” she said. She couldn’t meet my gaze.
“Is your name on it?” I asked.
“No,” she said, looking at the ground.
I took the fortune and unrolled it just enough to read the first line.
You will meet a Stranger…
Just as I suspected. People were still preying on Christine’s gullibility.
“It’s so vague, Christine. Of course I’ll meet strangers. This is a city.”
“This Stranger will be special.”
“Can’t you see, Christine? This is all made up. You’ve been going downhill ever since you bought that stupid parchment. Why did you bother? We had everything we needed.”
She looked at me with real pity then.
“James,” she said, sadly. “Don’t you see? I didn’t buy the parchment to confirm that you were going to be my husband. I bought it to confirm that you weren’t.”
I couldn’t meet her eye. I felt sick and lost and detached from everything. She folded her hands over the parchment in my own.
“Promise me you’ll read it, Jim. It will help you. I still worry about you.”
“The parchment is just stories. It doesn’t mean anything!”
She fixed me with a gaze. Memory imposed the blue of her eyes over the dim light.
“Please, James. Promise me you’ll read it.”
“I promise,” I said. Not that a promise from Jim Wedderburn means anything.
She gave me a brittle little smile.
“I have to be off,” she said. “I’ll see you around.”
I watched her walk off up the street, leaving me alone and lost in the middle of the city, uncertain even of the time of night and, now that the poison was sweating from my system, with an empty stomach that was telling me just how hungry it was.
It growled at a changing world, one which was moulding me into someone I didn’t want to be.
I took another look at the top line of the parchment.
You will meet a Stranger.
I shook my head sadly at the words, and pushed the parchment into my pocket.
Just then the door of the inn opened once more, and the stranger who was to change my life stepped out into the night.
The man was unmistakably a Molly. Framed by the light of the door I could see his dark red velvet suit, the striped golden shirt and tie. His red top hat was tilted at a rakish angle, but it was the foundation, the hint of eyeliner and lipstick that confirmed it. He was a good looking man, in an effeminate sort of way. And he was gazing right at me.
“Captain Jim Wedderburn, I believe!” he said, holding out a hand for me to shake.
“It’s James Wedderburn,” I replied, but I took his hand anyway. It was warm and smooth.
“Jim, James, what’s a name to a Jolly Japer like you, eh? Jim, I’d like to invite you to dinner. What do you say? A little convivial company and conversation over comestibles?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I was thinking of heading for bed.”
My stomach rumbled, making its own views known.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “In fact I know that you weren’t. I’ve been watching you, my Jolly Jim. Seven nights now, I’ve come to this pub, sat in the seat by the door through the lost hours, looking through the glass, just waiting to see if you would step into the night. Six whores have come and gone from your room, but no sign of the gallant captain in the night hours. Then finally, this very evening, I saw Luke Pennies enter your building, half hidden by a glamour, and I knew that this night would be make or break. I had a bet with myself that you would survive his dreadful attempts upon your person, and look if I wasn’t right!”
“What do you want with me?”
“I want your help,” he said.
“Help with what?”
The Molly waved a hand around the elongated buildings of Dream London, stretched out thin and sharp against the deep purple sky, the moon an over-large crescent that threatened to impale its horns on the city itself.
“Look at this place,” he said. “I want you to help me to find out what happened to us.”
I’m currently just over half way through Cosmopolitan Predators! and I can’t help thinking what a different story it is for being written as a serial.
The big thing that I’ve noticed is how much the serial form encourages plot. I’d originally intended the story to be much looser, a collection of characters who touched on each others lives to a greater or lesser extent. Yes, there was a back story to the founding of Eunomia, the asteroid where the action takes place, and yes, there was an ending in sight. What I hadn’t planned for is on just how intricate the plotting would become. There seems to be something about the serial form that encourages me to pick up old points and to explore them further a couple of episodes down the line. Perhaps its something to do with the urge to include a cliff hanger at the end of each part. After all, if you’ve set one up, you have to resolve it next time.
Is Cosmopolitan Predators! a better book for being written in this way? It’s hard to be objective about this. The book that it might have been will never be written now. I can’t compare the two different stories, as one of them doesn’t exist. Naturally, though, I think what I’ve done is a better story, I wouldn’t be writing it otherwise. Now, though, I’m too close to it to see all its faults. Maybe in a couple of years time I’ll have a better idea.
What I do know, however, is this: I’m very tempted to write my next novel as a serial. To commit myself to writing 12 parts over twelve months, and to give those parts to my first readers for comments. Yes, I’ll rewrite the whole thing at the end of the process, but my next novel will be heavy on plot, and I think this approach may well benefit it.
We shall see…
STORIES FROM THE NORTHERN ROAD features four interlinked stories set in the Penrose Universe.
The following is the first of those four stories.
Four Blind Horses
John Bull came walking into town, leading four blind horses, and all the robots came out from the forge to see him.
“Ho, there stranger,” said Smith, taking in the worn brass of the other man’s hands and feet, the tin solder at his seams. There was a faint squeaking of joints as John Bull turned to the leading horse, and Smith thought that at the very least this man would be in want of lubrication. “Come into the forge, traveller, and let us see what we can do to make good your tired body.” And though his words were full of welcome, both Beth and Nel noted the way he looked at Reynold as he spoke.
Now, John Bull did not answer straight away, rather he turned and whispered something into the leading horse’s ear. The assembled robots listened hard to hear what he said, but the words they could not hear. Still, the lead horse halted, as did those that followed behind, and their metal heads were lowered as they rested, and finally John Bull turned to greet them.
“Well met, good fellow,” he called. “My name is John Bull, and I’m looking for a robot who can service these four fine animals!”
At that he stood aside and invited the robots of the forge to come forward and inspect the beasts. This they did, running their hands over the fine metal of the horses’ bodies.
“I can service these horses,” said Smith, thoughtfully, “but my work will not come cheaply.”
“There is a fine line to these creatures,” interrupted young Nel, running his hand down a steel flank. “Who built them?”
“I did,” said John Bull.
“Did you now?” said Reynold, who had never amounted to much himself, and so was always willing to believe as little possible of others. He gazed tellingly at the poor quality of John Bull’s panelling, at the sloppy beading of the solder that held the mismatched metal of his body together. “And yet you present yourself to us dressed in this way?”
John Bull shrugged; the metal at his shoulders squeaked and scraped as he did so.
“It would be a poor master who put his own needs before that of his animals,” he said.
At that the other robots laughed loudly.
“Caught you out there, didn’t he?” laughed Midge, who didn’t like Reynold. “Caught you out good and proper!”
Reynold scowled, and as he did so Beth noticed what they all had missed. She leant closer to the animals’ heads and asked the significant question.
“Why are they all blind?”
“They are,” said Nel, “They are, an’ all.”
The assembled robots pushed closer to examine the horses’ eyes for themselves.
“Blind,” said Midge. “No glow to them at all! Why?”
“Ah,” said John Bull. “There lies a tale. Perhaps if you could see fit to service these animals, and maybe offer some meagre repairs to my body, I could tell that story? For I cannot pay by any other means, as I have no money. The only possessions I have are these horses.”
The robots looked at Smith, who made a show of inspecting the lead horse. It was taller than him, made of good grey iron plates that slid smoothly over each other as the animal moved. He placed a hand on a flank and felt the pulse of the electromuscle beneath. Truth be told, these creatures were built with a skill that surpassed his own, yet he would not admit that to the townsfolk. He looked again at John Bull and the cheap plating of that robot’s body and doubted very much his claim that he had built these beasts. Stolen, he guessed. Well, he wouldn’t be the first to fall under the spell of well engineered metal.
Or the last.
“Well?” said Beth. The young woman couldn’t keep the excitement from her voice. Smith shook his head.
“Service these four fine horses for a story?” he said. “That is too low a price, when a smith must pay for coal for the fire and metal for the forge. It would ill serve my reputation, or my self respect to grant my services for such a fee. But I am a charitable man and this forge has ever been a welcome place to the traveller. So for the price of a story I will fix the solder on your joints and I will darn the knots in your electromuscle.”
And at these words, he looked significantly at Reynold and Maggs, who smiled and gave him a slow nod in return.
“A fair price!” agreed Reynold loudly. He held out an arm in welcome. “Come into the forge, John Bull, and sit down! The day is spent, and night is on, and the ghosts roam the land. Come in here where it is safe and the metal is warm and ready to pour.”
John Bull looked to his four fine horses.
“I’ll look after them,” said Beth, eagerly. “They’ll be safe with me.”
“Very well,” he said, though he hesitated before he answered. He whispered something into the lead horse’s ear that none of them caught, and then stepped from the deepening twilight into the red glow of the forge. The other robots closed in around him from behind, and it was as if he were being shepherded through the gates into the final forge of life itself.
Alone outside, Beth admired the four blind animals.
John Bull sat down on a stone chair and watched as Smith drew a glowing iron from the fire and used it to melt away the tin solder from his body. He lifted his arms and legs as Smith and Reynold removed the cheap iron plating and laid it on the ground. The assembled robots looked with wonder at the electromuscles revealed beneath.
“Whew,” whistled Nel. “Maybe you did build those horses yourself!”
“That’s good work there,” said Smith, now feeling a little unnerved at the thought of what John Bull would think of his own workmanship. Then he remembered that it wouldn’t matter in the end anyway. He looked up at Reynold and Maggs who gave him a slow smile, then he turned back to the stranger.
“Well, John Bull, I’ve begun my part of the bargain. What about you? Where is this story of yours? Why are those four fine horses blind?”
John Bull settled back in the stone seat as Smith set to work. He began to tell his story.
“A long time ago, when this land was still untouched by robot and the trees and the plants still grew in profusion across the honest stone, a man walked through the wilderness. And this man sensed that there was iron beneath the ground, for this man’s father knew the way to build a son, and had built a compass into his son’s body and taught him how to use it.
Now, this man sensed the iron in the ground, and he wondered what to do with it. For he was too mean to share it; he was too scared to share it; for he feared that other robots would rob him of his claim, and maybe he was right, for in those days, robots would rob and even kill each other for the metal to make their children. And it is so even now.”
John Bull didn’t notice the look Smith and Reynold and Maggs gave each other at his words. He continued his story.
“But the man was mean, and meanness does not only make one hoard what one has, but it infests the spirit and causes one to resent the hoards of others. And so that man thought long and hard on what to do with this bounty, until he decided upon a plan.
That night, he fashioned his hands into shovels. And he began to dig, down through the soil and down through the rock. Day after day he laboured; shifting pebbles and stones until eventually he reached the lode. Iron, almost pure, red and rusting, a dark slug sleeping beneath the earth.
He peeled away the iron and made himself two bodies thereof, to someday be a son and a daughter.
But only when he looked at those two bodies did he realise what will have been obvious to you all, that he could not make children alone. For it was only then, such was the hold that that lust for iron had over him, that he remembered that he would need a woman to twist the wire for his children’s minds.
And so he crept back to the places where other robots lived and worked, and he lay in wait for a woman to come walking past. And a women came walking by, and he captured her, and he brought her back to the wilderness where he kept her as his prisoner.
He chose well in his captive, for the woman was weak and mean, just as he was weak and mean, and she too fell under the spell of the great lode of iron. Soon she began to think like the man, and so they both sacrificed their lives to wealth that they could never spend.
The woman twisted the man’s wire and made minds for the children. And then they dug down into the earth again, and left those two children alone in the dark.
“Listen to what I say, good robots, that you can understand the true horror of what those two parents had done! That they left those children to grow up alone in the dark, where they would know each other and no others. And what of the parents? They crept away, leaving their children forgotten, leaving their precious lode forgotten, for they could not get it themselves and they could not bear to see it spent by others.
“Now listen to my story: the boy and the girl grew in darkness, knowing nothing but the feel of soil and the heat of the underground, and above all else, they felt the rich tang of the iron. It was a constant presence as they grew until the day came when the urge to reproduce was upon them. And so the maiden knelt and twisted the wire of the boy and they made children, only they made them without the ability to see. And why not, for what reason could one have for seeing, who lives their life in darkness?
Now they were man and woman. And they raised their children in that plentiful world of darkness, and their children had children of their own.
This is the way they reproduced in the dark, using up the iron from the great iron slug, until it was all gone. But still the race lives down there, building robots out of dead robots. And they are down there still, having adopted themselves to their unnatural life, with their smaller arms and legs, and no eyes, but with larger hands so they can feel. And their minds are stunted, because a mind made only from iron is not a healthy mind nor a full mind, and the life force cannot be magnified by such a mind.
And someday, someone will turn the soil and dig down, and disturb that dark nest and they will come boiling out into our world, black and stunted and ugly.
And this is the story of the cripples under the world.”
John Bull smiled as he finished his story and held his hands out wide.
Smith looked up from where knelt at John Bull’s feet, pretending to tune the stranger’s body. Truth be told, the weave of the stranger’s electromuscle was beyond his skill to repair, so he lubricated and tightened, tuned and greased what he could.
“I don’t get it!” said Nel. “Is that why the horses are blind? Are you saying they came from that underground world?”
“Not at all,” said John Bull. “Listen on. For some say that this story is but a parable, and that really it reveals a truth about us who live above ground. Perhaps we, who walk in the sun, have long forgotten the real world, and when we build our bodies we unwittingly cripple ourselves. We make our arms to reach a few feet when perhaps once we reached to the top of the trees, or maybe to the mountains, or even to the stars. We build our eyes to see in the day, but we have forgotten how to see at night. And, just as the cripples under the world had only iron for their minds, perhaps we too are lacking the true metals and so our minds are dim and the life force has grown weak inside us.”
“The lifeforce is strong enough in me!” laughed Reynold.
“Aye! And me,” agreed Maggs.
“I’m sure it is,” said John Bull, “But I do not intend to insult you. Rather, I say this, that maybe someday we will see a true robot. It will descend from the stars and walk among us, and we shall see once again how a true robot is shaped, and we shall learn to build ourselves anew.”
“Or maybe we will see a true robot and we will turn on it, and destroy it out of fear or jealousy.”
“Why should we do that?”
“And some say there is no true robot, there are only robots.”
At this Reynold grew angry, and why should he not? Because Reynold was preparing great to do great harm to John Bull, and when robots do evil, they seek excuses to justify their actions.
“John Bull!” he declared in disgust. “You have come here into our forge and accepted our hospitality in return for a story, and this is all you give us?”
John Bull looked down at where Smith was failing to read the pattern of the weave in the electromuscle of his calves.
“This is poor hospitality indeed,” he announced to the forge at large. “This man is a poor smith, who cannot mend my legs.”
“Mend your legs? What sort of a man are you? I have never seen such work before! And as for your horses!” Smith rose to his feet. This was a signal for Reynold and Maggs to do the same, the latter sliding a black awl from within his body, and holding it tight in his palm. The three of them moved towards the stranger, who did not seem to realise the danger he was in.
“Where did you find those horses, stranger? Did you steal them or make them yourself?”
“I made them.” John Bull remained seated, seemingly unconcerned by his nakedness.
“Hey,” said Nel, seeing the awl in Maggs’s hand, jet black with wickedness. “Hey, what are you doing, Maggs? Leave him alone! I want to know about the horses!”
Smith looked at Maggs. He wanted to know about the horses, too. There was something about John Bull and the way he had spoken to the lead animal that unnerved him. He gestured for his partner to hold off for the moment.
“Okay stranger. Maybe you don’t like my work, but I’ve lead and iron and copper to forge. Aye, and even a little silver and gold. I can’t fix your electromuscle but I will melt two buckets of lead and hammer out your panelling and seal up your body well against the winter rain. That should be ample payment for the tale you promised us. Is that not fair?”
“That is fair.”
“Good. So, tell me then, why did you build those horses, if it was you that built them?”
John Bull settled himself back into the stone chair. The forge was untidy, full of broken metal and clinker. He stirred a rusty piece of wire with his foot.
“Why would anyone make a horse?” he asked. He tapped at his head. “The wire in a robot’s mind can think, it has strength of its own, but sometimes more strength is required, so a robot will twist metal that is strong but can think only poorly, and so he will make an animal. This is what I did, for I heard the story of the cripples under the world, and I wondered that if any robot was to find those robots, then why should that robot not be me? And so I travelled, and I asked questions, and eventually I found a place where the plants and trees grew in profusion across the honest stone, and I placed my ear to the ground. And what did you think I heard?”
“What did you hear?” asked Nel.
John Bull lowered his voice.
“Shouting. Crying. Screaming. Terrible, terrible screaming. I heard voices below the ground and the sound of fighting. I heard the sound of people locked in war.”
“What was happening down there?” asked Nel, horrorstruck.
“How long would it take a group of robots to mine all that metal?” asked John Bull. “Fifty years? A hundred? And then, what would they do? Living in a world surrounded by stone, knowing no better? They fought! They were fighting each other for metal! Tearing each other apart to make their own bodies!”
“That’s horrible!” said Nel.
“The imagination magnifies what it cannot see,” said John Bull. “There I squatted, my ear to the ground, and such pictures arose in my mind. What was I to do? Well, back then I only had one fine horse. It took us a week to clear a way into that world. There were rocks so large that it tore the electromuscles in the legs of the animal as it fought to move them. My horse struggled in the harness under a blazing sun, the metal of its back so hot that the plastic on my fingers melted to touch it.”
Nel looked at John Bull’s bare copper fingers, the plastic from the tips long gone.
“I spent the nights under the glow of Zuse, the night moon, doing what I could to repair that horse of mine, but metal was scarce out there. Still, I comforted myself with the thought of what I would find when I broke into that underground world. Metal enough to mend my horses. Metal to make me rich! Metal to make a thousand children! But I was a fool. I didn’t know the hell that I was about to enter.”
John Bull looked across at the old and badly maintained forge, where two buckets of lead solder were now bubbling, silvery patterns dancing on the surface of the molten metal.
“The solder is ready, Smith. Will you begin your work?”
With bad grace, Smith picked John Bull’s chest panel and took it to the anvil. He began to beat out some of the dents with a hammer. The clang of metal on metal filled the forge with a homely sound.
“And so, finally, on the eighth day, I made an entrance to that world. Drove a spike into the rock and heaved with all my strength. Gradually I forced a hole wider and wider, and for the first time, I let sunlight into that underground place. A single yellow shaft, fallen unnoticed into that blind kingdom. Can you imagine it? A widening band of yellow light, a circle on that forsaken crowd, and not one of them knowing it?”
“I can imagine it!” said Nel.
“I worked to widen the hole. Smashing away yellow rock around the lip with a hammer, and then I fell prey to my own foolishness.”
“Those robots may have been blind. They were not deaf! Hands came reaching up from the rock. Not silver grey polished hands, such as you and I may wear. These hands were red and rough, metal and stone mixed together. There was no smelting done, down there in that dark and fireless world. Such metal as they had was crushed and squeezed directly from the rock. And now those horrible red hands were reaching out into the sunlight, reaching for me and my horse, seeking to drag us down! The horse was screaming, panicking! Two red hands grabbed my legs, you can see the dents on the panelling still…”
The robots in the forge all looked down at the battered half tubes that lay on the floor, their imagination filling in the details.
“…and those hands began to drag me down, down, into the world without light. Fresh metal to be torn apart and woven to make their children. The horse was backing away, terrified. I only just managed to grab onto its hobbles, I held on tight as it backed away, kicking as I did so, managing to shake myself free as I was dragged clear. And so I found myself fetched up at the top of the pit that me and my fine horse had dug, looking down at those red hands, watching them, fearful at what was about to emerge from that world.
“And what came?”
John Bull looked slowly around the forge, meeting the eyes of each of the robots in their turn.
“Nothing!” he said. “Nothing. The hands withdrew. I waited and I waited, and then it gradually came to me what I was seeing… Rocks and stones were being slotted into place from beneath. And I understood. Those robots were sealing themselves up again! They wanted no part of our world!”
He looked around the dirty, squalid forge again.
“I waited, watching to be sure, and night fell. Night fell and the moon arose, and I brooded. I had not come so far, sacrificed so much, to go home empty handed. I needed to enter that world again. That world where red robots who had never seen fire spitefully fought each other. Aye! Selfish and spiteful and cowardly they were, because I realised now that they knew of the world outside, but they preferred to stay locked in their tiny world where they felt strong.”
At this John Bull looked deliberately around the forge. Looked at Smith and Reynold and Maggs.
“But why?” asked Nel. “I can’t believe they would do such a thing! Not when they knew there was a world outside!”
“Ah, but there’s more,” said John Bull. “Remember, they were blind! Have you not noticed, that when a wicked deed that passes unseen, the perpetrator is emboldened? A robot may sell shoddy goods, or perform second rate repairs, or exploit his fellow robots in mines deep beneath the world, if he thinks his deeds pass unnoticed by his peers. And he will go on doing so, as long as no one comments upon what he does.”
He paused, but if Smith and Reynold and Maggs looked at each other for even a moment, if they took their hands from their weapons or they felt a moment’s shame at their thoughts, then no one noticed.
“Consider my fine horse,” said John Bull. “I tried to lead it back into that pit, but it refused. It screamed and pulled and panicked and refused to take but one step forward. But after I had blinded it, it allowed itself to be led.”
“How did you blind it?” asked Nel.
“With an awl. I stuck it into its eyes and ground the glass and the electric cells behind them with the hard tip. I could have unscrewed the eyes, but it was panicking. This was the quickest way.
“And so I harnessed my fine horse and unhobbled it and I led it further along the ground, listening all the time, trying to find another suitable point to enter that underground kingdom.”
At that he fell silent, lost in thought.
“What happened then?” prompted Nel.
Smith had finished hammering away John Bull’s panelling. He brought it back to the robot, fitted it close around him. Maggs brought the bucket of hot lead solder from the fire.
“What happened?” asked Nel again.
Reynold gave a thin laugh. “And then he broke his way back into that kingdom with his blind horse and he stole away the people, one by one. Ain’t that right, John Bull?”
“But I don’t understand,” said Nel, suddenly. “Where did the other horses come from? And why are they all blind?”
“Oh, that’s easy,” said John Bull. “Because animals and robots prefer not see the truth. When a horse is blind as to where you are truly leading it, it will follow you anywhere. Is that not right, Smith?”
At that moment, on the signal from Smith, Maggs tipped the bucket of molten lead, sending it running down the criss-crossing electromuscle in John Bull’s legs. The robot screamed as the heat surged through his electromuscle, but now Smith and Reynold pinned his arms, and Maggs was running the stone bucket back and forth over the other leg, sending silver grey lead running down inside the woven metal of his thigh electromuscle, to burn it and short it and to harden it so that he could not move.
John Bull screamed, and he struggled, tried to pull his arms free, but Smith and Reynold held on too tightly. Maggs dropped the first bucket on the floor and headed back to the fire to retrieve the second one.
John Bull tried to kick his legs, to shake out the lead that was poured inside them, but the metal was already tacky, gumming up his works, pouring its heat into him.
“Not so clever are you now, John Bull?” hissed Smith in his ear, holding onto the stricken robot’s arm with all his considerable strength. “All that rust about robots under the earth and blind horses. That sort of thing may play well out on the Zernike Plain, it may get you a bit of free lead or tin in those mined out parts, but not here. This is Stark. We know about good machinery in this State. Well, those four fine horses outside are good machinery, and we’re going to have them.”
Maggs had taken the second bucket of lead from the fire, and he was bringing it up to John Bull.
“A head full of lead,” said Smith. “Pour it over the twisted wire of his mind!”
“No!” called Nel. “You’ll kill him!”
“Quiet Nel. This does not concern you!”
“But he’s done you no harm!”
“Get outside, Nel! And if you speak of this to any robot, it will be you next in the stone chair!”
The young robot looked at John Bull, and then at Smith, and then he ran from the forge, leaving the wide door slightly ajar.
“All fine,” said Smith. “Now Maggs, pour the lead, and then we’ll take those horses, thank you very much.” Smith grinned. “I’ll fit them with eyes and sell them off at a fine profit.”
John Bull laughed. And it was such an unexpected sound in that dim untidy space that everyone held still for a moment.
“Fit eyes if you want, Smith,” laughed John Bull, “But you’ll never see them again if you do. They’ll run away, back to the places where I found them. You heard what I said. People will follow you quite happily as long as you don’t let them see the truth. People don’t want to know where they’re going!”
Maggs hesitated, the heavy stone bucket swaying in the tongs.
“Don’t just stand there!” called Smith. “Get the skull off him. Pour the lead in his brain!”
“Can’t you hear this out there?” John Bull shouted. “How will you ever get home without me to lead you?”
“No one to hear you out there,” said Reynold, with grim satisfaction, and then he froze. There was a banging on the door. The sound of hooves on metal. It came again.
“In you come!” called John Bull. “In you come, my four fine horses.”
The four blind horses came stamping into the room, their metal hooves ringing on the stone floor. They skidded on the rusty scraps of old metal that littered the forge, they tipped over the racks of tongs and hammers. They whinnied and reared, and sent hot colas scattering across the room.
Maggs dropped the bucket on the floor, sent hot lead splashing in a silver grey stream across the floor that set as it ran. Smith and Reynold let go of John Bull, they seized hammers from nearby to defend themselves against the horses that set about wrecking the forge.
And in the confusion John Bull pulled an awl from inside his casing and stabbed Reynold in the skull. Stabbed up under the chin, deep into the brain where he twisted the awl around the wire of his mind and then pulled it out in long blue loops, stretching his thoughts and robbing him of his life, his empty body falling to the floor in a clatter of metal. Then John Bull turned to Smith, cowering in the corner, trapped by the horses. John Bull’s legs didn’t work. He had to drag himself towards him by his hands.
“Now them,” he said, as Smith turned towards him, face split with fear. “Let me tell you about the horses.”
As for Maggs, he cowered in the far corner, waiting his turn
Beth and Nel waited outside the forge that night, listening to the ringing of the hammers coming from inside.
“You go in,” said Nel. “They’re killing him! They’re killing poor John Bull.”
Beth shook her head, too afraid at what was going on in the Forge. Smith had a quick temper. He was swift to attack those that criticised his work and, shoddy and second rate though it was, he was still the only smith in these parts. You didn’t cross Smith the cruel and spiteful.
And so they turned their ears right down and sat outside in the night, the cold stars passing above them, the dark clouds making bars across the night moon, until the dawn approached and the dew began to condense on the metal shells of their bodies.
And with the dawn, as the first yellow of the sun melted its way into the iron dark night, the hammering finally ceased. They stood up as the heavy iron doors of the forge were swung slowly open.
And into the morning they heard the ringing of metal hooves on the ground, and first one, then two, then three, then four and then five fine horses came walking into the breaking day. And following them all was jolly old John Bull, walking stiffly on newly woven electromuscle.
Beth and Nel looked at each other.
“You ask,” said Nel. Beth climbed to her feet, the dew running down her chest plating as she did so.
“Hey John Bull. Where’s Smith?”
“Oh, he’s still here,” said John Bull, and he leant forward and spoke in the ear of the last horse, this time just loud enough for Beth and Nel to hear.
“Come on there, my fine horse,” he said. “Follow me, and maybe some day there will be a body for you once more.”
The horse made a noise, a little like a whinny, a little like a voice. It turned its blind head towards Beth and Nel.
“Come along,” said John Bull, and he hit the horses flank with a clang, sending it trotting off along the street, its shadow stretching out before it.
The above story appears in the collection STORIES FROM THE NORTHERN ROAD by Tony Ballantyne
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Cosmopolitan Predators! appears in Aethernet Magazine
Billy Bunyan: teenage boy living in the skin of the Rock with his two fundamentalist fathers. Billy has a radio hidden behind his locker which he uses to listen to the spaceships that pass by outside. If his fathers ever find out he will be in big trouble…
Chelio: had his neocortex altered so that he can be friends with many, many people. He knows everyone on Eunomia and has slept with about half of them. So far.
The young man: wants to be the man with no name. He insists he’s not an assassin, even those he’s carrying several intelligent, high cachet weapons, and despite the fact he’s already killed two people.
Eli: legendary invincible soldier. He wants to be left alone to search the libraries on Eunomia for a particular book.
Mary-Ann Hodgson: naive new arrival on Eunomia Everyone exploited her back on earth, does she really expect things to be better on the Rock?
Jenny Solzhe: knows Mary-Ann from back on Earth (and has a tattoo just like hers). Very intelligent – she’s up to something.
Cosmo Lyttleton: devastatingly attractive, breathlessly charming and frighteningly intelligent. Ebony skin, a chiseled jaw and eyes so dark you can see your own reflection in them, eyes in which you could watch your own eyes melt as you lose your heart to him… He’s the new head of Buziness
Piper #320: engineer. She wants to get the job done properly, unlike most of her colleagues…
Graham Ian Stains: not really worth knowing. Don’t bother remembering his name.
Damon Masterson: The Open Source Detective. He’s interested in the young man, but why…?
Otis Memphis: Teenager. Earns money incubating viruses in his body
Lisa Mortis: Professional Gambler
Szent-Gyorgi: One of the second tranche. Owns a cafe in the Zoshull district
The Backpack: Former Security AI working in a jetpack. Saving money to buy a ship to inhabit.
The Founding Family
Lipton Mercedes: Buziness
Brandy Marsalis: Zoshull
Mary Kenton: Civics
McConnel Hudson: Engineering
Josephine “Farmer Joe” Daniau-Beauchene Wong: Agropower
The Seventh Founder: Doesn’t exist. Never has existed.
The bankers and the moneymen have been selling off our property and debts to other worlds. Half of the city is already in the hands of strange powers.
It’s time to fight back. Come and join us!
March to Time!
Date: October 2013
Muster: Snakes and Ladder Square
Dress: Full Uniform
New short story, appearing in Nature 498, 6th June 2013
Date: October 2013
Muster: The Egg Market
Dress: Full Uniform
Crunch crunch crunch. Mmmmm, mmmmm. Crunch crunch crunch.