of the Garden
by Charlie DeArmond at Smashwords
2017 Charlie DeArmond
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1 - Kiss of Death
2 - The Wollenrach Case
3 - Waymarks
4 - The Blue Desk
5 - Monkey in the Window
6 - The Finger
7 - Sun Casting
8 - Red Rover
9 - The Box
10 - Hasp’s Vault
11 - Sacred Shadows
12 - Outside
13 - Artemis
14 - Trouble Never Sleeps
15 - Shiner
16 - The Sack
17 - Secret Message
18 - The Wrong Hands
19 - The Salt Sea
20 - The Scrapper’s Crucible
21 - The Burned Gardens
22 - Trust Officer Tennifer
23 - The Pretender
24 - Flowers for Alex
25 - Headhunter
26 - Thirty Thorns
27 - Fall of the Marquis
28 - Friend of a Friend
29 - The Fury of Jesus
30 - The Baby Books
31 - Deep Run
32 - The Drunken Fist
33 - Indira
34 - Internal Exile
35 - The Mule Tender
36 - The Maiden
bashed his forehead into the stable boy’s thin dirty face and cried
out as the knife ripped from his belly. The boy went staggering
backward. Alex fell hard upon the stable yard. He drew the service
pistol from his great coat, cocked it and leveled the fat barrel at
his attacker. The disheveled boy steadied himself and stared past the
pistol into Alex’s eyes, blood streaming from his nose. Defiance,
Alex thought. Loathing. And that pistol would make such a pitiful
mess of him.
shoulder buckled. He fell back upon his side with a fresh jolt of
pain. The smell of stale dust and damp manure filled his nostrils. He
raised his head, feeling the grit upon his cheek, seeing the cold
steam of his breath by the pale light of the lantern that lay broken
and just beyond reach in the stable yard. The boy took a step back
toward him and the lantern, his long shadows flitting across the
distant wall. Alex again raised the single shot pistol and the boy
couldn’t hold that pistol forever. It had never seemed so heavy. He
knew that he should shoot the boy. But there was more than anger in
that face. This attack was personal. But what had Alex ever done to a
them Alex’s broken lamp still glowed, dispelling the darkness with
its pale yellow light. He stared at the boy over the wavering barrel
of the gun, thinking that he knew the boy from somewhere.
Alex asked, pain coursing through his guts with each throbbing
boy’s expression flashed from rage to incredulity. “Why her?”
could the boy possibly mean? The war had claimed so many lives, but
none of them by Alex’s hand. The stable boy was clearly confused.
Killing him would be pointless.
took his finger from the trigger guard and let the muzzle fall to the
ground. “By the gods and monsters, son; you have kill’t the wrong
boy pivoted sharply, turning his head toward a new sound. It was
Alex’s cousin, Gwent; running. When you know someone from your
childhood, have spent countless hours exploring with them, you know
their footfall as surely as you know their face. Her weighted rope
braids pattered across the back of her uniform jacket. She was sure
to kill the stable boy. Alex opened his mouth to call out for her to
stop, but before he could speak she ran past him and kicked the boy
squarely in the crotch. Then, with her braids fanning out behind her,
she kicked the boy in the gut, dropping him on the hard-packed dirt.
cousin! Don’t kill him,” Alex cried out, wincing in pain.
took several steps away from the boy and turned toward Alex, her
broad nostrils flaring above tense lips. Then she looked beyond him,
toward the approaching whirr of the robot, Syrtis. Syrtis would spare
the boy. Their time together had changed the machine as surely as it
had changed Alex. Hell of a partner for them to stick him with, but
Syrtis was a good detective, even among men.
head, Alex thought. The boy must have stabbed him to steal the
severed robotic head he was carrying to Syrtis’ pack mule. But the
head was still there in the paddock, not far from the lantern, and
the boy had not touched it.
snatched up the severed head, held it up in clear contemplation of
crushing the boy's skull with it, but then let the head fall to his
side and dejectedly turned to face Alex. Gwent stepped on the stable
boy’s back and leaned in to whisper something to Syrtis. Her
expression fell to sorrow. She took a deep breath, knelt down, and
spoke to the boy in a voice too low for Alex to hear.
stood up and stepped back from the boy. “You understand?” she
asked him. He nodded his head, lifted himself to his elbows, then
looked over at Alex; and turning away in shame, he began to cry.
people arrived at the paddock. They carried Alex into a stable and
put him on a bed of sweet-smelling hay. With luck, he thought, they
would stop moving him now. He’d been Assistant Death Investigator
for eight years, so he knew there was no chance of his survival. He
felt cold. He had seen the pool of blood left in the dirt where he
spoke to him, but he understood little of what she said. The
gray-haired police midwife, Diane, cut away his coat and shirts to
examine the knife wounds. Slipping in and out of delirium, he called
for his old Nanna, knowing, but not caring, that she was already long
dead. Diane took a cheek-puffing drag on the stable master’s water
pipe and brought her lips to his in the kiss of death. He breathed as
deeply as he could. Opium. Thank the gods. When you are in great
pain, opium clears the mind; a thing only good when desperately
needed. Again, Diane’s kindly face swam before his eyes. Again, the
tender warm lips and the smoke of the poppy. Diane’s eyes twinkled
in a wrinkling of crows’ feet. She was always like this with the
dying. “While you’re alive, live!” she’d once said to him.
Diane had often teased him that she’d kiss him one day; and now she
cousin Gwent walked briskly across the stable yard to the White
Street Service Gate a short time later; rope braids dancing across
the back of her dark officer’s great coat with every step. Her
smooth Asiatic face was drawn taut with concern, flattening her broad
nose. Recessive echoes of ancient peoples, her mother had been told.
Distinctive, her teachers had said. But the other children just
thought she was a freak. Only Alex had stood by her in those early
years. Approaching the gate, she caught Syrtis by his cloak as he
entered with an armload of electrical equipment. “Are you sure this
over her by two heads, Syrtis shifted his grasp on the armload of
equipment and bent down to her level, his battered war mask in her
face. “No,” he said.
stared at Gwent, his yellow irises the only color in his scuffed
aluminum face. His was the unsmiling face of Mars; the Cydonia mask.
It was a mythological boogeyman born of human misperception. Only
robots wore them now; those ancient human masks of fear and ritual.
“Look, this has been tried many times,” Syrtis said. “But no
one’s even thought to try it without wires.”
there’s a chance?”
slim. And we’ve no time to discuss it now.”
you’ll ask him, won’t you? I mean; he might not want to.”
was his idea. But you’re right, of course. I’ll make sure he
understands what this would mean. Oh, shit-rust, I don’t know what
it will mean myself. But it has to be done. My council refuses to
intervene. Alex’s survival is too political. And he can’t make it
to any of the landers in engineering. There’s no suit; no time.”
eyed the robot with frank suspicion, “So his family ties have
nothing to do with it? I know who he is, Syrtis. I know who he really
is, and what that means to you.”
tensed, almost dropping one of the strange devices he was carrying.
“You have no idea what Alex means to me, or what a dangerous bit of
knowledge that is you're throwing around. We’ll talk. But not now.
And certainly not here.”
looked up as Syrtis entered the room where he lay smoking the stable
master’s water pipe with Diane. “Is she here?” he asked. Death
had stripped him of inhibition. He would see her one more time.
Janetta would do that much for him, if she had ever been sincere.
yet,” the great robot said, dark sinewy muscles rippling over metal
bones as he worked to sort and connect the equipment he'd laid out on
the floor. “A sergeant heard you were looking for her and said he
had one of her cousins in his company; Naman Areshkin. Gwent sent
Hasp to find him,”
fussed over the dish antenna. “Alex, I have something very serious
to discuss with you before you die. What you’ve asked me to do for
you. It’s never been done before. Not successfully.”
it can’t be done, then we’re the ones to do it.”
I want you to understand that you could be held as a static charge
for years before I can make an attempt to revive you. I don’t know
what that will be like. I’m hoping it won’t be a negative
sensation, but there is a fair possibility,”
no other way.”
need your body, Alex. You’ll have to will it to me before you die.
Your genetic code only has instructions for building the infant
brain, not the final architecture as it stands. I could try dumping
you into a standard robotic mind, but the distortion would be great.
It could lead to insanity. So let’s try to get as close to the
original as possible, right? Take a chance on a few bad years while I
work things out?”
nodded grimly. How many times had he foolishly risked his life? How
had he never felt its value so plainly before?
Quarter’s Master Ivors sat down by Alex’s straw bed to record his
last will and testament. His was a gaunt and sallow face. “I am
told you are an old believer,” Ivors said.
know the truth,” Alex said. “And the truth is that we were sent
here by men. No god would wish this journey on his children.”
adminstered another puff of the opium smoke.
said nothing. Clearly, he was an adherent of Originalism, which held
that the starship was in fact made by a singular god at the center of
the universe and that this starship comprised the totality of useful
creation. Even now, Alex could not forgive the Originalists for
alienating Janetta from him. But this man had never had a direct role
in that old disappointment.
closed his eyes and began with the formal recitation of the details
of the starship’s voyage of colonization to the distant worlds of
the Sisters’ System. He spoke hurriedly, making the standard
appeals to the old gods and goddesses and praising the leaders of the
Great Revolt for their wisdom in overthrowing their robotic masters;
then he opened his eyes and asked if Alex had any particular
instructions to record.
looked at Ivors and exhaled slowly, shrouding his face in opium
smoke. Then he began to swear out his will, beginning with the bodily
bequest to Syrtis. Ivors’ quill hesitated at that point, but Alex’s
cousin Gwent placed a callused hand on Ivors’ parchment board, and
he continued. “Affix my seal to that provision now, in case I die
before the rest may be completed,” Alex instructed.
made provisions for his family’s cook, Jonrai, next. Then he
accepted a few more puffs from the water pipe. Diane smelled faintly
of garlic, cannabis and something else; rosemary, perhaps.
old house staff had raised Alex, and Jonrai was the last of them now.
But what of the rest of his fortune? Jonrai had no need of the
apartment building on Yellow Street. Who knew what debauchery the old
man would spend it on, he wondered, and smiled crookedly at the
thought of his moldering old cook descending into a spiral of drink,
horse-gambling and loose women. For a moment, he considered enabling
stared at the low timbers of the room a moment, considering the fact
that it was the last room he would occupy as a man. Trees. They took
so very long to grow, and this is what we made of them when there
were so many, in the beginning; when we were created prematurely by
our robotic companions on this journey. How he had hated the robots
once. How he had never known them before Syrtis. He thought of the
boy who had taken his life. He was one of the Henson boys. Alex
couldn’t remember his first name, but it was the one who had fallen
in love with Alex’s young tenant, Kim Russett. In the tumult of
victory, Alex had forgotten that he’d been accused of murdering
Kim. He hadn't even bothered to try to dispel that rumor. Now this
false accusation had cost him his life.
licked his lips, terribly thirsty. Diana had denied him water. “I
leave the remainder of my estate and all rights to my inheritances;
to the shit shoveler’s son.”
looked up from his parchment board. “Which shit-shoveler might that
be, your honor?”
of the shit shoveler Henson. That kid who killed me. I leave the rest
of it to him.”
nostrils flaired in indignation, her eyes glittering in the harsh
light of a small LED lamp. “It’s not your fault that girl was
murdered,” she hissed.
But I did not encourage the boy; didn’t help him win her. Could
have. Always too busy for the likes of him. No wonder he was
confused. He thought I, he thought. Oh, by the gods, it hurts to
he will have to be punished. Surely he cannot be your heir. People
will think you really did kill the girl. They’ll say you had a
dirty corner to clean before you died.”
the boy is not to be punished. He is to be educated. Let someone
stand as his treasurer. Write this down Master Ivors, with Gwent as
my witness. I pardon the boy for my murder. Fully and,
unconditionally. And cut down the robot dead from City Hall. Send
them, home to their makers.”
looked down at her feet, the weighted rope braids of her hair flowing
over her face. “Alex?”
never saw this in you before. I don’t know why.”
laughed, then winced, and coughed. “Easy to be generous when you
are laid upon death’s hearth.”
threw back her hair and knelt beside him, taking his hand in hers,
enveloping it in the fancy cuff of her battlefield-scavenged coat.
“Alex, you have the right to know. Your father,”
don’t call him that.”
took his own life when he learned you’d been made Captain.”
news hurt more than the knife, but he would not show it. “Might
have saved himself the trouble if he could see me now. Ah, you must
think me a monster, speaking of him in this way. Better that you
cannot understand it. Syrtis?”
I will be like you?”
will like you; unique, to say the least.”
I will live?”
Alex. Hopefully. If it doesn’t work and you find there is an
afterlife, please forgive me.”
he choked. His every breath was arduous now.
about your mother? You left no provision for her in your will. I have
heard a rumor that your father left everything to your sisters. And
you know how they are. They’ll leave her to starve.”
tried to protect you. I don’t have time to explain this now, but
please don’t leave her to beg. I would have to take her in myself.”
I leave her a maid’s salary and pension. No more.”
I leave it to you to decide, within ten percent of the value of my
estate. I cannot, I cannot; understand.” Ivors’ quill scratched
feverishly upon the parchment.
hands and feet were cold. He lay still on the bed of hay, not wanting
to expend his last spark. Gwent looked as if she might protest, but
said nothing. It was too late to amend his will any further now.
Ivors gathered up his things and quietly departed.
began to sing a sad, sweet chorus in Robot. It was like thousands
upon thousands of ghostly greetings, all winding around each other
like eddies in a stream. Alex had heard the song once before, at a
horse rode hard into the livery yard. Its rider dismounted with a
grunt. Gwent looked nervously toward the door, then back to Alex.
Alex exhaled a whispy cloud of opium smoke. “What of your father’s
associates?” she asked.
could have them swear a loyalty oath. Some of them meant well, I’m
you pardoned the boy.”
pardon them when you’re made chairman. I cannot.”
pardon me,” a soft voice said. A willowy woman in an indigo
housedress appeared at the doorway. She drew a braided ponytail of
black hair over her left breast, looked nervously at Gwent, then to
Diane. She was pretty; pretty enough for a young man to believe she
was flawless if he loved her.
nodded gently. “I’m unescorted. You understand?”
need of that with me,” Gwent said. Then she gave Syrtis a hard
did I do?”
woman is not here, Syrtis.”
humans and your ridiculous sexual contrivances. Very well. What
woman?” he asked, and turned away.
tensed her beautiful face into a fierce storm cloud, glaring at
fast,” Gwent said, standing to place a hand on her shoulder. “We're
all a bit unhinged.”
slipped past Janetta, out into the hall to speak with the sentry.
Their low voices could barely be heard in the room where Alex lay
confidence was legendary and needed no request. Janetta knelt beside
Alex. She took his hand and clasped it over her heart. He worked his
fingers into the weave of her braid and his breathing began to even
gazed at Alex. His jaw was strong, eyes clear and smiling even now;
dark matted hair betraying a curl at the edge of his cap. “Handsome,
as always,” she said.
now do you see?” he teased.
what? You have no compliment for a lady?”
are, for me, beyond words, I'm afraid.”
glanced away. Her face settled into a darkness. “Alexern, I know
this place. I’ve seen it in my dreams for months, not understanding
why. When I heard what had happened, I came straightaway. Forgive me.
And live, so that I may live also.”
will not be a man.”
welled up in Janetta’s eyes. “Be a toad. Be a gnat. I will still
love you,” she pleaded.
entreaty was against the fates. Nothing remained in their hands now
and even if it had, they would have gone on as before; pretending to
be powerless to have each other. “We are forever and done, my
love,” Alex said, and drew a deep, stuttering breath, eyes wide in
the pale light.
your father. You should know.”
Alex moved only once more, as if to start breathing, then lay
perfectly still. Janetta grimaced, furrowing her brow. She looked to
Diane, who merely shook her head ever so slightly.
told him,” Gwent said from the doorway.
his mother never spoke a word of it to anyone but me. Not even Jonrai
knew for certain if the rumor was true.”
is true,” Diane said, already slowly and methodically gathering up
her things and placing them neatly in her bag. “Detective Syrtis,”
she added. “I imagine you will want to preserve him. Bring him
‘round to the clinic as soon as possible. I will fetch the whiskey
for his veins.”
nodded and gently closed a cover on one of the black boxes by his
feet. Then he looked over at Janetta and lowered his gaze. “How is
it you married another?”
filled Janetta's face with horror. Gwent embraced her and drew close,
“Pay no mind to the robot,” she said. “What does such a thing
know of a woman's heart?”
I did love him,” she sobbed. “I did. And I am nothing now.”
are a mother and a lady and you will stand up, go home and carry on.
That is what we do,” Gwent said, casting Syrtis a reproachful look.
Syrtis shrugged and began to disconnect the antenna array from the
black box he'd just closed.
wiped her face on her sleeve. “Horrid beast! He's your
responsibility now,” she said. The soft light of Syrtis's eyes
dimmed to amber but he did not answer. She distractedly gathered her
things and left on unsteady feet with Gwent by her side.
in the silent little room, Syrtis sighed in his spooky electronic
rasp, one hand cradled in the other. “Time to go home, my young
companion,” he said, and reached for the coarse cotton funeral
shroud the police midwife had brought. He began to methodically,
almost ritualistically, unfold the shroud beside Alex's body. “You
will be my son now,” he whispered. “And no gods will stay my hand
against your enemies.” Then Syrtis took off his mask and smiled at
the shattered man. All of his heart was worn upon his dark face. And
that is why it was so carefully hidden from men.
trouble began in earnest the season before Alex’s demise. Margot
Wollenrach was dead. Her bloody handprints streaked the white walls
of the master bedroom in the stately White Street home she shared
with her husband, Pete, and their servants. Their home had originally
been a medical clinic, but like much of the biozone, it had been
stripped of its contents in the early days of the Great Revolt; just
before human society aboard the starship fell to its current
Alex Lindscomb pocketed his sketchbook and knelt on the oak floor by
Margot’s naked body. The sickly-sweet smell of fresh gore invaded
his nostrils. He hated that smell even more than the stench of decay,
because it made him think of the dead whenever he went to the
and punctures broke the soft lines of Margot’s back and shoulders.
Her face, considered by many the fairest of her generation, was in
ruins. He had known her best as a child. The boy who would one day
marry her, Pete Wollenrach, had once been Alex's best friend.
was a textbook robot murder, though the first in several generations
aboard ARC. And yet, the scene felt oddly familiar to Alex. He
glanced down at his heavy mule-hide boots. In the doorway behind him,
Diane, the police midwife, shifted on her feet. These long hours were
taking their toll on her, no matter how she protested to the
contrary. He could hear her steady breathing. Conspicuously absent,
however, were the odd noises that attended his robotic partner.
“Diane, where’s Syrtis?”
glanced at Diane. She smiled faintly at him, her blue eyes flashing
pale green in the sickly light of their lanterns. She flicked a
strand of white hair over her shoulder and pursed her lips, but said
nothing. Her medical bag sat on the floor by her feet, with her
woolen coat folded neatly on top of it.
he say anything when he left?”
told you he’d seen enough. Remember?”
shook his head and looked back at Margot’s body. He knew it was
time to hand the scene over to Diane, but it was hard to give up his
irrational hope that Margot would suddenly draw a breath. She didn't.
And she wouldn't.
she didn’t linger, Alex thought. He looked past the body, to the
section of baseboard lying on the floor and the hollow in the wall
that it had concealed. Something was taken. Documents, most likely.
But what would a robot want with human documents?
at his apartment building on Aft Yellow Street, Alex set his
bioluminescent brine lantern down in the hall and took a ring of
tarnished keys from his great coat. The wooden faces of his ancestors
stared at him from the door, wicked in their long shadows. There were
eight such doors on the tenth story hallway. All were his. But as he
needed only one entrance to his sprawling suite, the others were
hung his coat and lantern in the vestibule, then unlocked the inner
door to step into the apartment. There, he slipped out of his pistol
harness, wrapped the leather straps around the holster and cartridge
box, and tucked the gun into the hat cubby in the hall wardrobe.
was tinkering on something in the main guest room. Alex heard a snap
and a rattling of tools. “Good shift to you, Seer.”
his roommate said in his gravelly tone.
went to the kitchen humming a tune and twisted the wall-mounted knob
for the electric light above the table. He used the electric lights
sparingly, remembering his grandfather’s admonition that every
incandescent bulb was worth more than his coat. Now LEDs were
available once more, the robots having found a way to produce them
cheaply enough, but the habit was long-ingrained. And why waste a
the hall, Syrtis appeared at the doorway of his darkened room. “I
see you’re basking in high technology again.”
grackle,” Alex said under his breath.
emitted a low growl that sounded like a yard full of dogs, but Alex
was too hungry to care that he had offended him. He opened his late
grandmother’s pie safe and served himself a plate of salted fish,
pickled eggs and black bread. Then he plucked a beer jug from the
cold windowsill, poured himself a mug, and sat down at his table
alone. “Want a beer?”
shifted in the doorway, his armor plates rustling like a sack of
coins. “You and your filthy little slaughterhouse.”
give you any trouble tonight, Seer?”
were too frightened. All except that Friar woman. Getting rid of her
is like trying to shake off your own hands.”
swallowed a bite of fish and washed it down. “Gwent ran wild when
we were kids; when she wasn’t pig hunting with her father, that
how did she become a gossip?”
of the few things an outcast wife can do, isn’t it?”
Syrtis hissed from the darkness of the hall.
have your ways, we have ours.”
really should remember who you represent out here, Alex.”
In this flying hat box?”
like a ball of ice on a stick. But yes, you should respect the values
of Earth; even here.”
Whatever,” Alex said. “I’ve never seen Earth, and I’ll never
see the Sisters System, either.”
I suppose you won’t. It’s a shame, really, to die in deceleration
after such a long voyage.”
was your choice, not mine.”
tried to discourage the council from creating your ancestors, Alex. I
told them something like this might happen. Surely you don’t wish
that you were never born.”
not the point.”
you have no point. Were the gossips still out front when you came
Seer. I came in the back way, through the Russett place.”
Russett still trying to marry you off to her daughter?”
might say that.”
don’t you do something with the girl?”
grimaced. “Because she’s just that, Seer; a little girl.”
all so young, really. I don’t see what the problem is. She’s
sexually mature. I can smell it.”
making my skin crawl.”
made it crawl this time? My comment upon the girl’s scent? Surely
you must have noticed. That boy who lives down the hall from her
seems to have noticed.”
Henson boy? Now there’s a son of a shit shoveler for you. He’s on
his own if he hopes to pick that high apple. Any more ideas about
heard Syrtis’s heavy footsteps in the hall and looked up to see him
duck through the doorway. He still couldn’t bear for Syrtis to
approach him unseen, wearing that heavy-browed, open-mouthed mask of
the Mars face.
stars, that’s revolting,” Syrtis said.
turning off my nose.”
you like, Outsider. Have a seat?”
it will make you more comfortable.”
took one of Alex’s wooden chairs in his rubbery black fingers and
lowered himself onto it with a chorus of deep whirring noises and a
squeaky slipping of muscles. Syrtis wore armor plate, not skin. Skin,
he had explained, was terribly hot to wear in the biozone and just
made it harder to perform repairs in the field. This was typical of
Syrtis’s thinking. The robot was a chronic, habitual warrior in a
deep way that Alex had never expected when they were first
tell me, Alex. This is difficult to do.”
I have to hover over this pile of sticks or I’ll wreck it.”
Stand, then. You’re dripping all over it anyway.”
stood, towering over the table. “I wouldn’t collect so much
condensation if you’d just turn off the heaters.”
don’t have to. You turn them off for me whenever I’m out. Or did
you think I wouldn’t notice? And all this time I thought I was
being a good host by offering you a chair. You should have said
something. By the gods, Seer, you’ve been with me over four seasons
was only trying to make you feel at ease by taking a seat for you.”
bit his lip, resisting an urge to ask what else Syrtis was doing to
placate him. “Listen; there’s something wrong with the Wollenrach
glad you can see that. Any idea what it is?”
Alex said, and tore off another bite of fish. “You?”
got my suspicions. But I’d rather wait and see if the same things
occur to you on their own. And must you speak with your mouth full of
that dead animal?”
fish. Have a sniff.”
sighed. Before meeting Syrtis, Alex would not have supposed that a
robot could sigh. But the static hissing was only one of many sounds
Syrtis made that seemed part of his native robotic tongue, rather
than an attempt to emulate human speech. And as with most robots,
Syrtis habitually gesticulated, as if to make up for the rigidity of
his mask. Even this sigh had an accompanying hand gesture. Some of
the human border traders could speak this robotic sign language, but
Alex had never studied it.
stretched, his scuffed belly scales rippling. “Meat. Guts. Bone.
What’s the difference?”
set down his beer mug. “How did we wind up with a murder case,
anyway? This was supposed to be a clean assignment. Talk to a few
businessmen, tea at the customs house, maybe catch a few tax cheats.
Eight years as a death investigator; I thought I was done with the
the same way you got to be Joint Trust Officer. How did you get to be
Joint Trust Officer anyway?”
man for the job, Seer.”
suppose it could have anything to do with your fa-”
no you don’t. I haven’t asked my father for anything since I was
never said you asked him for it, Alex. But he is Council Chairman. It
seems too much of a coincidence that you, his only son, was made
Joint Trust Officer. Or is the rumor; oh, never mind.”
rumor? Look, you don’t understand my father. It’s a wonder I
didn’t lose my job when he was made Chairman, the old goat.”
And how old do you suppose I am?”
tried to formulate a guess based on what he knew of Sun City’s
history. It was supposed to be about a five hundred-year journey and
that was almost over. Or so they said. And what exactly a year
amounted to in standard seasons Alex was always a bit uncertain.
They’d learned the conversion factor in school, but references to
years were rarely encountered oustide of old texts. Four and some odd
fraction, as best he could recall. Syrtis often talked about living
on Mars. He thought of the antiques in his study and the entries in
his great grandfather’s diaries. “Six hundred?”
hundred? Six? In all my years I have never been so insulted by a
human being.” Syrtis ducked out the kitchen doorway, then stopped
and looked back. “Try three thousand, four hundred and fifty three.
Martian years. Not those stupid Earth Years your people still use.”
locked the door to his room. Alex knew he would not emerge until next
shift. “Blessed robots,” he muttered. He took off his indigo wool
cap and looked at the badge pinned on it, a fourteen-point star
bearing his name and the inscription SUN CITY TRUST. Each point on
the star represented one of the strips of field, city, sea, or glass
that formed the biozone cylinder. There were only fourteen years left
before the crush of primary deceleration would kill them all.
Fifty-something seasons. Implacable doom.
tried telling himself that Margot’s murder didn’t matter in the
big picture, but the thought was ridiculous. Then he tried to
remember Margot as she had looked when they were childhood friends,
but the image of her battered corpse would not yield.
finished his meal in silence, considering what Syrtis had said about
his age. If Syrtis was more than three thousand years old, then he
was much older than the starship itself. And Syrtis would live to see
the new system as well, of course. Primary deceleration would be
nothing but an inconvenience to ARC’s robots.
stars, and worlds so great that even a starship like ARC could be
lost at the bottom of one of their seas. That’s how Syrtis had
described the Sisters System. But then again, Syrtis had told some
wild lies in the time Alex had known him. The worst story so far was
the one about air moving so fast on Earth that it sometimes knocked
down houses and licked the water from large ponds.
thought of losing a horse race to a breeze, and smirked. Then he
stood and walked to the cupboard along the wall opposite his kitchen
door. There he flicked a small knife switch, wedging the blade into
the contact to energize a collection of electrical components laid
out on one of the shelves. He took care not to let his fingers stray
into the bare wires, as the radio had once given him a nasty shock.
back down at the table, he rubbed his upper right jaw. He could feel
the onset of a toothache. It had been 24 seasons since he’d last
had a tooth pulled. At least he hadn’t lost any front teeth yet. As
they say, ladies prefer a paved smile.
Alex’s radio warmed, his second cousin Gwent Friar’s velvet
baritone voice rose in volume. Syrtis was right. She was hard to
shake. And now that she was on the radio, she seemed to be
everywhere. “… hearing rumors that a robot is suspect in the
murder of Councilwoman Wollenrach,” Gwent said.
have no suspects at this time,” a man replied. It was Alex’s
superior, Sun City Police Chief Martin Hasp. “I’m sorry, but
these things require patience. As an experienced gossip, I’m
confident you understand.”
Master Hasp. But can you confirm the assignment of this case to the
Joint Trust Project?”
swallowed hard. He and Syrtis still comprised the entire staff of the
Joint Trust Project. “Councilman Wollenrach requested the presence
of Trust Officer Lindscomb at the scene. As many of your listeners
will no doubt be aware, the Wollenrachs share business and social
ties with Officer Lindscomb’s family. And, of course, it is only
natural to call on your friends in time of trouble. Any speculation
of Outsider involvement is for the time being just that; pure
exhaled. Investigating Margot’s murder would be hard enough without
the public interest that a robotic suspect would generate.
heard a distinctive click over the radio and imagined Hasp taking a
pinch from his metal coca box. Then he heard Hasp snort it up. Gwent
hurriedly thanked Hasp for speaking and invited her next guest to the
stage of the Central Band Theatre. It was Master Dack Jarman, with
his review of Lenard Tumansk’s modern adaptation of the classic
play, Green Pear Woman. Alex had meant to attend, but not now; not
with so much on his mind.
had performed in a school production of the original Green Pear Woman
and was curious to see this revised form. Why had their teacher
chosen Bixt Fairtiller to play the role of General Deitermag, anyway?
Alex felt that he had looked more the part of the dashing Deitermag
than Bixt had. And that was only natural, as Alex’s maternal
grandmother was a Deitermag. Alex laughed at himself for caring about
such a small slight so many years gone.
thought of the opulent Central Band Theatre, where Gwent now sat at
her announcer’s desk behind stage left. No one else had even
thought to ask if they could be a radio gossip when Alex’s father
set up the station four years ago. Gwent had invented her own
profession; but not entirely on the spot. He seemed to remember her
saying something about wanting to be on the radio when they were
clear as they may seem, could not always be trusted. Alex unbuttoned
the flap of a pants pocket and took out his note pad. Untying the
leather cover, he laid several pages of Margot’s death sketches on
his precious walnut table and frowned down at them. He stared across
the room at the swirling pattern of holes in the doors of his
grandmother’s pie safe, tapping the edge of his notebook cover on
the tabletop. There was something wrong about the disposition of
awoke to the grating sound of Syrtis’ voice. “Power up.”
dead can wait, Seer.”
The dead are restless. Their truths grow cold.”
as cold as this apartment. Do you sneak in while I’m asleep and
open my windows as well?”
we need to find Margo’s murderer before things get ugly around
are already very ugly around here.”
would know. And speaking of ugly, could you please do something about
your dirty clothes? At least get them off the floor.”
do need a nanny. Dirty, dirty dirty.”
halls of Alex’s building were empty, except for a few people
returning from work. His tenants knew the sound of Syrtis’
footfalls and took great pains to avoid the terrifying machine.
waved a hand in the air. “Walls need whitewash.”
seasons to live. No one cares about painting a hall they can’t even
can see it.”
they don’t care a knot’s twist for you, either.”
do you paint these places with anyway?”
Oh, I have just, just nothing more to say to that. Fine, then, don't
repaint them. I can only imagine the stench. And it’s fifty three
seasons, by the way; before you all die.”
watchman stood as Alex and Syrtis approached his desk. He slicked
back his dark hair and slipped something into his pocket. Alex
supposed it might be a deck of playing cards. “Good shift, Master
shift, Lenner. And for the fortieth time, it’s just Alex, if you
Begging your grace, Alex, if you have a moment, the ledgerman says
not to worry about the Asagis’ rent. He has them on a payment plan,
and he’s retained their instruments as collateral.”
closed his eyes for a moment. “Tell Master Parste he is to return
the Asagis’ bowthroats, chord boughs, and anything else he’s
taken from them; immediately.”
Master, ah, Alex.”
Parste clear their account with me through the end of next quarter.
By the gods and monsters, they’ve got a date to play the Lower
Central Symphonium in three shifts. Hasn’t he ever heard them play?
They are a treat, sir. A genuine earful. Buy him a damned ticket, on
my credit. Buy yourself a ticket as well. You’ll go deaf sitting
here all alone. Hire an assistant if you like. Someone who knows how
to whitewash a wall.”
tried to warn him, your honor.”
glanced past his watchman to the gossips waiting on the front steps.
“Good man, Lenner,” he said distractedly. Then he walked past the
watch desk, toward the grand foyer, holding his lantern out so that
Syrtis could better see in the dim lobby.
the love of the ancients, Alex; my eyes are fine.”
Hand of habit. I was just,”
to be helpful.”
cousin Gwent approached them as they entered the grand foyer. Her
coarse hair was drawn back in a broom-head ponytail. She grinned
broadly, her nostrils flaring.
never faked that incredibly-wide grin of hers, but Alex knew the
pointed questions that lay behind it, so he gave her a hard look.
“Not this time.”
corners of Gwent’s mouth sagged. She took a step back to let him
least she listens to you,” Syrtis said.
gave Kelvin Shoni a story once, just to pinch her for hounding me on
another case. Kelvin and Gwent were both just wall chalkers back
then. Ate Gwent up. But I haven’t done that since. I learned that
Gwent wakes up worried every morning and vomits. Terrible headaches.”
she with child?”
no. Nothing like that.”
what’s this Kelvin doing now?”
working the Hellbrandt vegetable market, I suppose. She’s my
cousin, by the way.”
Kelvin’s a man’s name. I mean Gwent Friar. She’s a second
you're a shameless nepotist. But it's more that. You have a similar
smell. But her skin is much darker than yours. You’re more what
they call olive-skinned; what you’d expect a human to look like.
And that African nose of hers; on an Asiatic face? I wonder.”
gently swung his brine lantern, agitating the phospho-luminescent
creatures that lit the water. They were not so bright as an oil lamp,
but you never had to worry for burning yourself on brine; and
starting a fire was a serious offense. He hadn’t known that there
were words to describe Gwent’s peculiar features. He considered
asking Syrtis what those words he used to describe her meant, but
didn’t want to admit his ignorance. “Gwent’s unusual,” he
said. “Always was. She has visions, you know?”
believe so. And strange dreams.”
she ever have a high fever when she was a small child?”
I know she was terribly sick once, when I was five.”
Well, nothing I can do anything about.”
terribly strange, you know. Even for a robot you seem a bit, well, a
for yourself; eater of guts and bones.”
the foot of the stairs in front of his apartment building, Alex and
Syrtis turned left. They walked forward on Aft Yellow Street, toward
the unseen ball of iron and ice at the bow of the starship. “Should
we begin with the neighbors?” Alex asked.
We’ll start with the bordering properties, then question everyone
with homes or shops between the Wollenrach house and the stairs at
White and Aft Band.”
bit his lower lip, wondering why Syrtis was interested in the garden
stairs. A fleeing robot would most likely have struck out for the Mud
Fort, where they might make a border crossing before the body was
discovered. “You think the murderer went below?”
a hunch. You got a hunch?”
Alex drew his coat tight around his waist, then wished he’d pulled
his cap down over his ears first. Sun City wasn’t supposed to be so
cold. He thought of his childhood watercolors of ARC’s biozone,
with sunlight streaming in through the windows. His Grampa Thrush
told him those windows were twelve hundred paces long, and would have
been three thousand if they weren’t interrupted by Central Band
long the windows were, everyone in Alex’s watercolors was always
smiling in the sun. And he had painted the starship as if from the
outside as well, inspired by the charcoal drawings of the ship in his
grampa’s study. In those paintings ARC was a great ball of ice,
hurtling through a sea of stars with the stick-like can of the
biozone trailing behind it. He supposed that was a true
representation. He had often been tempted to ask Syrtis if this was
accurate, but preferred not to heighten the robot's estimation of his
Fields Lindscomb,” Alex whispered. Twenty seasons ago he had
inherited the sketches that had inspired his youthful watercolors,
along with A36 Yellow Street and its contents in entirety. His father
hated him for being Thrush’s favored heir, but Alex was powerless
to change that.
thought again of Margot Wollenrach, whom he had last seen alive in
the lobby of the Central Band Theatre. She was still turning heads at
nearly a hundred and fifty seasons. He had been a groomsman at her
wedding. But that was long ago, when high society still considered
him one of their own.
he thought of Janetta and the heady smell of crushed grapes. They
were so young then and they had come so close to making love in the
grape arbor. Her legs had quivered with excitement, stained to the
knees from the grape vats. She had almost overpowered him, mind,
body, and soul. If she had, he would have relented and married her
despite his vow not to bring children into a generation destined to
die young. Still, it had only been a hesitation. He knew he would
have relented. But then her mother and the damned Originalists had
twisted her mind and suddenly she was to be married to another.
all right?” Syrtis asked. “You look pale.”
fine. Just groggy.”
shook his head and needlessly checked his lantern. She’s married,
he reminded himself. She has children. And she’s happy. But he
didn’t entirely believe that she was contented. Or perhaps he
didn’t want to believe that she could be without him.
cries of the shift change drifted through the city, passing him in a
wave from window to walk to rooftop. A broken chorus of Dreamland
Lovers filtered down from an open apartment window. Even Syrtis
hummed along this time. His soft polyphony added a spooky dimension
to the song that Alex would never have imagined. Dreamland Lovers was
a common tune to sing at the change of shift. His Nanna had sung it
to him and his three sisters at bedtimes.
had often wondered what would happen if his mother were to fire Nanna
and he ran away to be with her. Would Nanna have taken him as her
you thinking?” Syrtis asked.
faked a cough. “Need to pick up some onions on the way home
tonight. Shy Alley has green onions in. They did two shifts ago.”
least it’s not another sack of dead rabbits you’re after.”
thought of Margot Wollenrach. The police midwife had ruled out rape.
But she still might have hidden love letters in that hole behind the
baseboard that Pete had not known about. Or did he? The compartment
was only discovered when Syrtis arrived, so it was even possible that
Margot was unaware of it herself. Then again, it may have been her
husband, Pete, who emptied it in the first place.
to the deposition, Pete returned from his rubber plantation, found
her body and ran to his servants’ quarters for help. There was
nothing in the evidence to cast doubt on his account. Not so far.
image of Margot’s shattered body returned to Alex. He drew his
butternut-colored great coat tighter against the chill, but the ice
was in his heart. What disturbed him the most was not her death, but
the idea of discovering Janetta similarly murdered. He shook his
head. It was indecent of him to feel more affected by an imagined
personal loss than Pete’s genuine misfortune. “Makes no sense,”
he muttered, side-stepping a mud hole.
me about it,” Syrtis said. “Just look at this place. We’ll
never replace your ragged tribe with competent astronauts. And I
can’t help but wonder; how does it feel to know that you have only
fourteen years before primary deceleration?”
nearly called Syrtis a shit-sniffing moron. The words were almost out
of his mouth before he thought better of it. “Bull’s balls,
Syrtis. How can you ask a question like that?”
sorry. The Mistake Humans. That’s what my people call you now.”
Syrtis laughed his hollow, breathless laugh. “My old fleet master
Stibnite argued for your creation before the Council. The Interim
Field Worker Program. A good name will often sell a bad idea like
that. ‘What harm can a few ignorant humans do?’ Ah, if he had
only suspected; or listened to me.”
stopped at the corner of Yellow and Central Band, and stared across
the avenue at City Hall. An old man with an apple cart hurried across
the avenue and began to bicker with the people at curbside who were
blocking his way. A bearded young monk in coarse penitence robes
cleared the way for him, then eyed Syrtis and Alex with open disdain.
laughed again, but darkly.
Well, he's on that damned wall of yours now. Stibnite. Along with my
torches lit City Hall’s imposing fascade, where the remains of one
hundred and fifty three robots hung in dead-eyed silence. Syrtis
pointed up at them. “There. Fourth row up, seventh from the left.”
one with blue feet?”
The one next to him, with the, well, all,”
I see him,” Alex said, assuming that Syrtis’ difficulty in
speaking stemmed from the remarkably flattened and dismembered state
of that particular set of remains. He had not supposed that a robot
could have children. Or that they would think of them as such.
dreamed him up, labored over his construction; taught him everything
The Great Revolt; that was over six hundred seasons ago.”
did not answer. Alex turned to look for him, but he was gone. A
laughing trio of young bordermen passed by just then, encrusted with
glittering brass buttons and buckles. Alex stepped into the street
after them and spotted Sytis just disappearing into the crowd at the
nearest stairwell leading down to the tropical gardens below the
bats flew over the stairwell’s entrance, hunting insects in the
updraft. Alex struggled through the pungent crowd on the flight of
worn stairs beneath the gyrating bats, catching glints of Syrtis’
metal armor in the shafts of light that filtered up through the
vendor cringed as Alex passed him by on the stairs. Alex rolled his
eyes. Stolen vegetables were hardly the domain of a seasoned
detective. He lost sight of Syrtis again for a moment, then spotted
him in the temperate pocket at the bottom of the stairwell, where the
cold city air invaded the artificial tropics. Syrtis was walking down
a narrow path among the leafy oxygen plants on the public
right-of-way. As the crowd fanned out into the gardens and thinned,
Alex was finally able to catch up with him. “Seer?”
Syrtis asked, seeming to speak from the back of his head.
were here in the beginning?”
beginning of this place?”
Alex said, painfully aware of the fact that he’d just started a
set out on this journey four hundred and seventy nine years ago, when
I was already two thousand, nine hundred and seventy four. I don’t
believe I’ve ever bothered to tell you; my full name is,”
berry patch.” Syrtis stopped and carefully untangled a mass of
blackberry briars from the muscle and armor-encrusted mechanism of
his right knee. “My name is Syrtis of Cydonia, Product of Bauxin of
Dioscuria. I could go on, but I doubt you’d get much of it. Does
any of that mean anything to you?”
Alex felt certain of was that Syrtis was still upset with him. He had
to keep him talking. “What was Bauxin?”
mean who is Bauxin. Bauxin is my creator. He was, and most likely
still is, Governor General of Greater Cydonia. Bauxin himself was
created in Dioscuria, which is another region of Mars. But he moved
his manufacturing concerns to Cydonia after being appointed Governor
by the Centuriate.”
don’t people make robots in the Home System?”
you mean. Robots are people, Alexern. No. Not autonomous analog
robots. But they did make the first few of us, of course. Only one of
those man-made robots survives today. Or should I say, the last time
I knew. Do you have any idea how far we are from Mars, Alex?”
know we’re too far to hear them on the radio. But what about this
robot that people built?”
woman built the first robots?”
assumptions get the best of you all the time. Women did build robots.
But Emma was not one of those women. Emma of North Carolina, Product
of Irving of Pennsylvania, is the senior member of the Centuriate.
Irving, however, was a man like you. Well, no, he was a man very
unlike yourself come to think of it, though he was pre-durensis; a
homo sapiens. We modeled your people after his species. So, in that
regard you are not so very dissimilar.”
you honor him?”
we do. I do, at least. Others may do as they wish. I think you’ll
find many of the newer robots would just as soon forget their origins
in man. It makes them feel dirty and base.”
Seems to me we’ve had that conversation.”
I suppose so. But all I was,”
about that hunch of yours; that Wollenrach hunch?” Alex asked,
finding their conversation worrisome.
me some time on that.” Syrtis said stopping to pick something from
one of his toe joints and handing it to Alex.
Alex said, and tucked it into a pocket of his woolen trousers.
so that’s mint? I had wondered. You know, for something so acrid,
it’s quite pleasant.”
group of children appeared on the trail ahead and stopped, staring at
Alex and Syrtis a moment before melting into the trailside brush.
“Class, greet the Joint Trust Officers,” their spindly young
teacher instructed. A faint murmuring followed.
shift to you, officers,” the teacher said, nervously tucking a
folio under one of her arms as she passed.
shift,” Alex and Syrtis said in unison. Somewhere in the bushes a
girl squealed in fright as they passed her hiding place.
who can tell me what this arrow means?” the teacher asked.
heard a soft voice, but could not understand it.
This is a waymark. Now come out; all of you.”
glanced back at the waymark stamped into an aluminum column by the
trail, where the children were cautiously returning from the brush.
by waymark was one of the lessons repeated throughout primary school.
have two parts: an arrow and an alpha-numeric code,” one of the
children said. “Correct, Simorre. The arrows always point forward.
And the opposite direction?”
replied a timid chorus of children, whose voices were now fading with
Now remember; each of the fourteen numbered strips are divided into
fore and aft sections. But the streets named Fore, Aft, and Central
Band are the rings that connect those strips.”
thought back to his own teacher, who had scolded him for pointing out
that people favored informal landmarks, even in the light of the
gardens where the codes could easily be read. The grand houses of
White Street made Alex’s old neighborhood unmistakable, for
example. And the Lindscomb house was one of the more distinctive
homes in that district, with its curved ten-story plastered wall
encircling the front court. Still known as the Tutt house despite his
father’s insistance that it bear his name, the estate was inherited
by Alex’s mother shortly after their marriage. If only his father
could have been content with that. But his grandfather Thrush’s
favoritism for Alex was an issue beyond wealth.
only life could be read by waymarks, Alex thought. If only he could
ask the Mainframe what,
again?” Syrtis asked.
What?” Alex asked. Looking up from the trail, he saw they were
almost at the stables. A little black horse cart trotted past them,
carrying a lady wrapped in a colorful shawl. The pale driver nodded
smartly to Alex, but pointedly ignored the hulking robot.
are you daydreaming about?”
Alex. Nothing’s gonna get you killed someday if you’re not