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Creatures of the Garden

Published by Charlie DeArmond at Smashwords

Copyright 2017 Charlie DeArmond



Smashwords Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share Creatures of the Garden with another person, please purchase additional copies for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the author’s hard work.



Table of Contents

Chapter 1 - Kiss of Death

Chapter 2 - The Wollenrach Case

Chapter 3 - Waymarks

Chapter 4 - The Blue Desk

Chapter 5 - Monkey in the Window

Chapter 6 - The Finger

Chapter 7 - Sun Casting

Chapter 8 - Red Rover

Chapter 9 - The Box

Chapter 10 - Hasp’s Vault

Chapter 11 - Sacred Shadows

Chapter 12 - Outside

Chapter 13 - Artemis

Chapter 14 - Trouble Never Sleeps

Chapter 15 - Shiner

Chapter 16 - The Sack

Chapter 17 - Secret Message

Chapter 18 - The Wrong Hands

Chapter 19 - The Salt Sea

Chapter 20 - The Scrapper’s Crucible

Chapter 21 - The Burned Gardens

Chapter 22 - Trust Officer Tennifer

Chapter 23 - The Pretender

Chapter 24 - Flowers for Alex

Chapter 25 - Headhunter

Chapter 26 - Thirty Thorns

Chapter 27 - Fall of the Marquis

Chapter 28 - Friend of a Friend

Chapter 29 - The Fury of Jesus

Chapter 30 - The Baby Books

Chapter 31 - Deep Run

Chapter 32 - The Drunken Fist

Chapter 33 - Indira

Chapter 34 - Internal Exile

Chapter 35 - The Mule Tender

Chapter 36 - The Maiden

Epilogue

End Notes



Chapter 1

Kiss of Death


Alex 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.

Alex’s 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 stopped.

Alex 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 stable boy?

Between 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.

“Why?” Alex asked, pain coursing through his guts with each throbbing heartbeat.

The boy’s expression flashed from rage to incredulity. “Why her?”

Who 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.

Alex 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 man.”

The 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.

“Stay, cousin! Don’t kill him,” Alex cried out, wincing in pain.

Gwent 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.

The 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.

Syrtis 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.

Gwent 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.

More 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 had lain.

Gwent 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 had.


* * *


Alex’s 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 will work?”

Towering 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.

Syrtis 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.”

“So there’s a chance?”

“Very slim. And we’ve no time to discuss it now.”

“But you’ll ask him, won’t you? I mean; he might not want to.”

“It 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.”

Gwent 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.”

Syrtis 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.”


* * *


Alex 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.

“Not 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,”

Syrtis 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.”

“If it can’t be done, then we’re the ones to do it.”

“Alex, 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,”

“There’s no other way.”

“I’ll 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?”

Alex nodded grimly. How many times had he foolishly risked his life? How had he never felt its value so plainly before?


* * *


Young 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.

“I 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.”

Diane adminstered another puff of the opium smoke.

Ivors 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.

Ivors 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.

Alex 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.

Alex 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.

The 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 this path.

Alex 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.

Alex 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.”

Ivors looked up from his parchment board. “Which shit-shoveler might that be, your honor?”

“Son of the shit shoveler Henson. That kid who killed me. I leave the rest of it to him.”

Gwent’s 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.

“No. 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 laugh.”

“But 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.”

“Gwen, 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.”

Gwent looked down at her feet, the weighted rope braids of her hair flowing over her face. “Alex?”

“Yes, Gwen?”

“I never saw this in you before. I don’t know why.”

Alex laughed, then winced, and coughed. “Easy to be generous when you are laid upon death’s hearth.”

Gwent 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,”

“Please don’t call him that.”

“He took his own life when he learned you’d been made Captain.”

This 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?”

“Everything’s ready.”

“And I will be like you?”

“You will like you; unique, to say the least.”

“But I will live?”

“Hopefully, Alex. Hopefully. If it doesn’t work and you find there is an afterlife, please forgive me.”

“Alex?” Gwent said.

“Yes,” he choked. His every breath was arduous now.

“What 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.”

“And?”

“She 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.”

“Fine. I leave her a maid’s salary and pension. No more.”

“She deserves more.”

“Then 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.

Alex’s 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.

Syrtis 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 robotic funeral.


* * *


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.

“What of them?”

“You could have them swear a loyalty oath. Some of them meant well, I’m sure.”

“They did, ill.”

“Still, you pardoned the boy.”

“You pardon them when you’re made chairman. I cannot.”

“Then 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.

“Janetta?” Gwent asked.

Janetta nodded gently. “I’m unescorted. You understand?”

“No need of that with me,” Gwent said. Then she gave Syrtis a hard look.

“What did I do?”

“This woman is not here, Syrtis.”

“You humans and your ridiculous sexual contrivances. Very well. What woman?” he asked, and turned away.

Janetta tensed her beautiful face into a fierce storm cloud, glaring at Syrtis.

“Hold fast,” Gwent said, standing to place a hand on her shoulder. “We're all a bit unhinged.”

Gwent 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 dying.

Diane’s 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 out.

Janetta 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.

“Only now do you see?” he teased.

“And what? You have no compliment for a lady?”

“You are, for me, beyond words, I'm afraid.”

Janetta 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.”

“I will not be a man.”

Tears welled up in Janetta’s eyes. “Be a toad. Be a gnat. I will still love you,” she pleaded.

Her 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.

“Alex, your father. You should know.”

But 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.

“We told him,” Gwent said from the doorway.

“But his mother never spoke a word of it to anyone but me. Not even Jonrai knew for certain if the rumor was true.”

“It 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.”

Syrtis 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?”

Shame 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?”

“But I did love him,” she sobbed. “I did. And I am nothing now.”

“You 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.

Janetta 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.

There, 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.



Chapter 2

The Wollenrach Case


The 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 pre-industrial state.

Detective 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 butcher’s.

Gouges 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.

This 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?”

“Gone home.”

Alex 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.

“Did he say anything when he left?”

“He told you he’d seen enough. Remember?”

Alex 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.

Better 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?


* * *


Back 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 barred shut.

He 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.

Syrtis was tinkering on something in the main guest room. Alex heard a snap and a rattling of tools. “Good shift to you, Seer.”

“Syr-tis,” his roommate said in his gravelly tone.

Alex 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 bulb anyway?

Across the hall, Syrtis appeared at the doorway of his darkened room. “I see you’re basking in high technology again.”

“Black grackle,” Alex said under his breath.

Syrtis 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?”

Syrtis shifted in the doorway, his armor plates rustling like a sack of coins. “You and your filthy little slaughterhouse.”

“Gossips give you any trouble tonight, Seer?”

“They were too frightened. All except that Friar woman. Getting rid of her is like trying to shake off your own hands.”

Alex 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 is.”

“So how did she become a gossip?”

“One of the few things an outcast wife can do, isn’t it?”

“Humanity,” Syrtis hissed from the darkness of the hall.

“You have your ways, we have ours.”

“You really should remember who you represent out here, Alex.”

“What? In this flying hat box?”

“More like a ball of ice on a stick. But yes, you should respect the values of Earth; even here.”

“Earth. Whatever,” Alex said. “I’ve never seen Earth, and I’ll never see the Sisters System, either.”

“No, I suppose you won’t. It’s a shame, really, to die in deceleration after such a long voyage.”

“That was your choice, not mine.”

“I 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.”

“That’s not the point.”

“Then you have no point. Were the gossips still out front when you came in?”

“Dunno, Seer. I came in the back way, through the Russett place.”

“Mother Russett still trying to marry you off to her daughter?”

“You might say that.”

“Why don’t you do something with the girl?”

Alex grimaced. “Because she’s just that, Seer; a little girl.”

“You’re all so young, really. I don’t see what the problem is. She’s sexually mature. I can smell it.”

“You’re making my skin crawl.”

“What 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.”

“The 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 Wollenrach?”

Alex 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.

“Black stars, that’s revolting,” Syrtis said.

“Pickled eggs.”

“I’m turning off my nose.”

“As you like, Outsider. Have a seat?”

“If it will make you more comfortable.”

Syrtis 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 introduced.

“Better?”

“You tell me, Alex. This is difficult to do.”

“What? Sit?”

“Sit? I have to hover over this pile of sticks or I’ll wreck it.”

“Fine. Stand, then. You’re dripping all over it anyway.”

Syrtis stood, towering over the table. “I wouldn’t collect so much condensation if you’d just turn off the heaters.”

“I 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 now.”

“I was only trying to make you feel at ease by taking a seat for you.”

Alex bit his lip, resisting an urge to ask what else Syrtis was doing to placate him. “Listen; there’s something wrong with the Wollenrach case.”

“I’m glad you can see that. Any idea what it is?”

“No,” Alex said, and tore off another bite of fish. “You?”

“I’ve 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?”

“Salt fish. Have a sniff.”

Syrtis 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.

Syrtis stretched, his scuffed belly scales rippling. “Meat. Guts. Bone. What’s the difference?”

Alex 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 dead.”

“Probably the same way you got to be Joint Trust Officer. How did you get to be Joint Trust Officer anyway?”

“Best man for the job, Seer.”

“Don’t suppose it could have anything to do with your fa-”

“Oh, no you don’t. I haven’t asked my father for anything since I was six. Understand?”

“I 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.”

“What 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.”

“Old? And how old do you suppose I am?”

Alex 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?”

“Six 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.”

Syrtis 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.

Alex 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.

He 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.

Two 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.

Alex 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.

Sitting 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.

As 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.

“We 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.”

“Certainly, Master Hasp. But can you confirm the assignment of this case to the Joint Trust Project?”

Alex 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 speculation.”

Alex exhaled. Investigating Margot’s murder would be hard enough without the public interest that a robotic suspect would generate.

Alex 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.

Alex 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.

He 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 children.

Memories, 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 Margot’s body.



Chapter 3

Waymarks


Alex awoke to the grating sound of Syrtis’ voice. “Power up.”

“The dead can wait, Seer.”

“No. The dead are restless. Their truths grow cold.”

“Not as cold as this apartment. Do you sneak in while I’m asleep and open my windows as well?”

“Alex, we need to find Margo’s murderer before things get ugly around here.”

“Things are already very ugly around here.”

“You would know. And speaking of ugly, could you please do something about your dirty clothes? At least get them off the floor.”

“Yes, Nanna.”

“You do need a nanny. Dirty, dirty dirty.”


* * *


The 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.

Syrtis waved a hand in the air. “Walls need whitewash.”

“Fifty seasons to live. No one cares about painting a hall they can’t even see.”

“I can see it.”

“And they don’t care a knot’s twist for you, either.”

“What do you paint these places with anyway?”

“Guano.”

“Guano? 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.”


* * *


The 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 Lindscomb.”

“Good shift, Lenner. And for the fortieth time, it’s just Alex, if you please.”

“Certainly. 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.”

Alex 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.”

“Certainly, Master, ah, Alex.”

“Have 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.”

“I tried to warn him, your honor.”

Alex 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.

“For the love of the ancients, Alex; my eyes are fine.”

“Sorry. Hand of habit. I was just,”

“Trying to be helpful.”

“Yes.”

Alex’s 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.

Gwent 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.”

The corners of Gwent’s mouth sagged. She took a step back to let him pass.

“At least she listens to you,” Syrtis said.

“I 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.”

“Is she with child?”

“No, no. Nothing like that.”

“So, what’s this Kelvin doing now?”

“Still working the Hellbrandt vegetable market, I suppose. She’s my cousin, by the way.”

“Who, Kelvin?”

“No. Kelvin’s a man’s name. I mean Gwent Friar. She’s a second cousin.”

“That figures.”

“What figures?”

“Well, 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.”

Alex 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?”

“Visions?”

“Yes.”

“While she’s awake?”

“I believe so. And strange dreams.”

“Did she ever have a high fever when she was a small child?”

“Perhaps. I know she was terribly sick once, when I was five.”

“Mmmm.”

“What?”

“Nothing. Well, nothing I can do anything about.”

“You’re terribly strange, you know. Even for a robot you seem a bit, well, a bit uneven.”

“Speak for yourself; eater of guts and bones.”


* * *


Reaching 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.

“Definitely. 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.”

Alex 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?”

“Just a hunch. You got a hunch?”

“No.” 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 Avenue.

However 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 human ignorance.

“Thrush 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.

He 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.

Then 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.

“You all right?” Syrtis asked. “You look pale.”

“I’m fine. Just groggy.”

Alex 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.

Distant 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.

Alex 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 own?

“What’re you thinking?” Syrtis asked.

Alex 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.”

“At least it’s not another sack of dead rabbits you’re after.”

Alex 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.

According 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.

The 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.

“Tell 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?”

Alex 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?”

“I’m 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.”

Syrtis 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.

Syrtis laughed again, but darkly.

“What’s so funny?”

“Nothing. Well, he's on that damned wall of yours now. Stibnite. Along with my son.”

Electric 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.”

“The one with blue feet?”

“No. The one next to him, with the, well, all,”

“Right. 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.

“I dreamed him up, labored over his construction; taught him everything I could.”

“But The Great Revolt; that was over six hundred seasons ago.”

Syrtis 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 city.

Countless 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 bustling people.

A 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?”

“Yes?” Syrtis asked, seeming to speak from the back of his head.

“You were here in the beginning?”

“The beginning of this place?”

“Yes,” Alex said, painfully aware of the fact that he’d just started a pointless conversation.

“ARC 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,”

“Yes?”

“Damned 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?”

All Alex felt certain of was that Syrtis was still upset with him. He had to keep him talking. “What was Bauxin?”

“You 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.”

“But don’t people make robots in the Home System?”

“Humans, 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?”

“I know we’re too far to hear them on the radio. But what about this robot that people built?”

“Emma.”

“A woman built the first robots?”

“Your 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.”

“Do you honor him?”

“Yes, 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.”

“Dirty? Seems to me we’ve had that conversation.”

“Yes, I suppose so. But all I was,”

“What about that hunch of yours; that Wollenrach hunch?” Alex asked, finding their conversation worrisome.

“Give me some time on that.” Syrtis said stopping to pick something from one of his toe joints and handing it to Alex.

“Mint,” Alex said, and tucked it into a pocket of his woolen trousers.

“Oh, so that’s mint? I had wondered. You know, for something so acrid, it’s quite pleasant.”

A 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.

“Good shift to you, officers,” the teacher said, nervously tucking a folio under one of her arms as she passed.

“Good shift,” Alex and Syrtis said in unison. Somewhere in the bushes a girl squealed in fright as they passed her hiding place.

“Children; who can tell me what this arrow means?” the teacher asked.

Alex heard a soft voice, but could not understand it.

“Correct. This is a waymark. Now come out; all of you.”

Alex glanced back at the waymark stamped into an aluminum column by the trail, where the children were cautiously returning from the brush.

Navigating by waymark was one of the lessons repeated throughout primary school.

“Waymarks 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?”

“Aft,” replied a timid chorus of children, whose voices were now fading with distance.

“Correct. 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.”

Alex 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.

If only life could be read by waymarks, Alex thought. If only he could ask the Mainframe what,

“Daydreaming again?” Syrtis asked.

“No. 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.

“What are you daydreaming about?”

“Nothing, Seer.”

“Focus, Alex. Nothing’s gonna get you killed someday if you’re not careful.”



Chapter 4


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