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The Smile

by Nick Tramdack

 

The tragedy was almost over when I saw the onion.

My gaze had wandered away from the stage and settled on our young hostess. Lady Periton was watching the players. She flared her nostrils, sniffled, and dabbed at her red eyes with a handkerchief. Then the cycle would repeat. But the delicate lace slipped once, and disclosed the white half-moon of that illegal vegetable.

Instantly she noticed and folded it up again. Then, sniffing and blinking, she scanned the room. I turned back to the drama. When I observed her again, her bare shoulders had relaxed, and she was crying as industriously as before.

The play closed with the familiar catastrophe of two hundred years ago. As usual, the city of Argitrav was destroyed in flame and the Duchess and her cavalier were never reunited. A totally unremarkable play, in my opinion. But the other guests applauded and sniffed loudly and cried bravo, and afterward a full half of them went to besiege the actors, crowding under the arch into that half of the salon which had served as their stage.

I got up, passed the buffet, and followed Lady Periton onto the balcony, where I lit a cigarette and pretended to be surprised when she approached.

“But you’re not eating, Mr. Saar. Doesn’t local cuisine agree with you?”

“Oh, I quite enjoy it,” I said. “The only thing I might confess to missing is… a certain plant of the genus allium.”

She blinked her damp red eyes.

“I take it you mean garlic?”

I blew smoke. It formed a shape in the windless summer air.

“I mean onion, Lady Periton. Do you like onion?”

“So you did see it.”

I put my hands in my pockets. “Someone told me I’d find a customer here tonight, if I knew where to look. But I hardly thought she’d be the wife of —”

“You’ll fix up palmers, then?”

I bowed. “And anything else my lady might desire.”

“This is hardly the place for a joke, Mr. Saar.”

But I was committed now. I shook my head.

She bit her lip, then took my arm and whispered, “There’s a door to the left of the coat closet. Slip in and lock it behind you. I’ll knock four times.”

“Very well.”

And she left. I kept smoking, watching the pink sky darken over the city-state of Second Argitrav. Past the hill and the vast Sepaton slums and the temple district, lights shone through tiny office windows in the fifty-story Pillar of Despondence, the Griever Party headquarters. They’d be brewing tea there now, fuel for the night-shift clerks preparing to sum the day’s take of tears.

I wondered which window belonged to Lady Periton’s husband.

Inside again, I said some goodbyes, only to find myself buttonholed by Rory Thalcan, the playwright.

“You must tell me what you thought, Mr. Saar.”

As a foreigner in Second Argitrav, I was so used to acting the hypocrite that I sometimes leapt at the chance to be honest. “To tell you the truth, I was preoccupied with business…”

“You’re in exchange, I believe?”

“Indeed.”

The poet had struck on the word I used myself. ‘Exchange’ described my little side business just as it did my day job, speculating on the conversion rate between the Argitravian dole (eternally standardized at one good solid sob) and foreign guilders, nails, shogin, and GP.

“My next play may hold your interest more,” said Thalcan. “A tragedy in the speculative mode. It’s set in the present day, but an alternate present, one where the Lost City, well — wasn’t.”

“Wasn’t lost?”

“Precisely.”

“Sounds interesting,” I said. “But is it really the thing to get your grant renewed? I mean, if there’s no disaster, where’s the tragedy?”

“Why everywhere,” said Thalcan. “Even more so with a comic plot, that’s the beauty of the thing. We put a splendid happy world on the sage, an empire that could have been, if only… Do you see? And the Tragedy Endowment board’s behind it all the way. It’s not just me, Saar, we’re a movement…”

And the state-supported writer began talking about how Second Argitrav was the best place in the world for a creative soul to work and how we were on the forefront of a “cultural and technical renaissance” that would shake the history of drama.

“I really must dash,” I interrupted — adding, for form’s sake: “Perhaps a moment for the lost city?”

“Of course,” said Thalcan. With a knife, he tapped his glass of Chateau d’Arlence 4679. The room went quiet. “Strength in grief?”

From all corners came the reply: “And in memory.”

Like the rest of the guests, I took my palmer from my pocket and pressed the square of its leather casing to my forehead.

Lost archive, shattered bridge, souls ablaze.

I winced. Long-practiced grief rose up in my mouth like the sour cud of a beast. I sobbed.

The sympathetic circuit inside my palmer responded to my brainwaves and activated the pair of silver needles inside the device’s ‘black box’. With a click like a fingernail on bone, the counter on my palmer advanced to 27. I sneaked a look at Thalcan’s; it read 71. In the country I come from it’s considered bad taste for poets to weep at their own plays.

I left the salon and locked myself in the chamber Lady Periton had mentioned. A room in sober taste: green felt card table, armchairs in red brocade, a shuttered hearth opposite a well-stocked bar.

I poured myself a brandy and examined the northern wall. It boasted a painting completely counter to the image one would expect in the house of the Griever Party’s premier bureaucrat. It showed Lady Periton — smiling.

A charming smile. Fascinating, seductive, indescribable. Words like that were all I had at first, words far more about me than about Lady Periton’s delectable lips. I tried harder. Relieved, maybe? Discreetly contemptuous? Burning with a sad secret? I wanted to know it.

On the opposite wall hung a matched image of the husband, blond beard and shovel-shaped face, gloved hand on the breast of his Party uniform. It sported the pentagonal medals corresponding to his rank, Prime Prompter. A recent image, then. I noticed that the artist had made no attempt to disguise the scar that split one of Brandt Periton’s heavy black eyebrows in half.

A war wound, I guessed; he’d probably been an officer. After the humiliating peace treaty of twenty years ago, most of the army had joined ranks with the Griever Party. I supposed it made sense for the government to fund Thalcan’s “speculative tragedy” project. Such an appealing fantasy: an Argitrav that had not only escaped inferno, diaspora, and resettlement on this continent, but a military trouncing in the bargain…

I sat down, choosing a chair pointing away from the husband and toward the wife, and smoked until the four knocks came. I opened the door and Lady Periton glided in, reaching up to release her stack of blond hair from its constraining wires.

“Phew,” she said, sinking into a chair. “You can’t fool them all, eh, Saar?”

Mister was gone now, I noticed. “The onion was the only tell, and I was looking for it. But what a risk!”

“I was caught short.” She took a cigarette from my golden case; I lit it. “Thanks. That skinny poet showed up early and I had nothing, no petals, no dust, no benzyl. Luckily my maid forgot an onion in her chamber…”

“She’s your fixer?”

“Was. The wretch wanted a payoff. Good riddance.”

“Did you like the play at least?”

“It really doesn’t matter. It’s the same every time, isn’t it? I did like the line when the knight thinks the Duchess betrayed him. What was it? ‘How black beneath…’? I can’t remember…”

“Something about a traitor swan. To be honest, I thought the line a little much…”

“Brandt — my husband — actually wants me on the Tragedy Endowment board. He doesn’t know, of course.” She ashed her cigarette and looked away. “I mean, obviously.”

“You fake it much of the time?”

She stubbed the cigarette out.

“I fake it all the time, Saar,” she said, staring straight ahead. “Ever since I got married, I mean. I don’t know what to say. I wish I could do it, get hysterical. But I just feel sick to my stomach.” She sighed. “Sometimes I hate them. All the people who died. I mean, really, what do they care now?”

Like many onion-sniffers, Lady Periton seemed ready to pour out her heart to anyone who shared the secret. I told her I understood completely.

She glanced up at the portrait of her husband.

“He’s so good,” she said. “I wish I didn’t have to lie to him. But it’s like being in love, you know, it just happens.”

“Yes, or else it doesn’t.”

She took another cigarette. “I’m babbling. In short, Saar, I doubt I’ll shed another tear in my life, and I’m prepared to pay what it takes to make that possible.”

“What day is your palmer due?”

She removed the square from her neck and dropped it on the table as if it were a dead animal.

“Tomorrow. But Brandt checks my total every night. This week I’ve pretended to be ill, but…”

Nosy bastard! I thought, saying, “We’ll switch your palmer for a double. One with a counter you can set yourself. You’re in charge of the day-to-day totals — whatever seems natural. Once a week your real palmer will come to me. I’ll fix it up and give it back; you’ll turn the real one in… I guess the simplest hand-off would be—”

“For you to be a constant guest at my Saturdays?”

I grinned. “If you’ll have me!”

“Do your homework and you’ll fit in just fine.”

“So I suppose this brings us to the topic of payment.”

“What?” She gave a brisk laugh. “My invitation’s not enough?”

“Not quite.”

“Well, what do you think would be appropriate?”

“It depends partly on you, my lady.” I put my hand on hers. “Everything is negotiable with me. This time, I might accept a kiss…”

Lady Periton took my meaning, because she removed her hand from under mine and laced it with the other.

“I’m afraid that’s just not possible, Mr. Saar. I happen to love my husband.”

“Of course you do. He’s so attentive to your daily quota. How could anyone compete with that.”

“My private life really has nothing to do with this…”

“But it does, my lady. You’ve been deceiving your husband for years.”

“I’ll put it this way. Do you want my business or not?”

“To tell you the truth,” I said, “What I want is information.”

“Not money?”

“You know I don’t need it. Grief’s a seller’s market in this town. And I think Brandt Periton’s sweet, faithful, and intelligent wife could find out a lot if she tried.”

“About what?”

“How things stand inside the Pillar.”

“You want to know who the auditors are watching? For what? So you can tell them first?”

“Lady Periton, I’m afraid you misunderstand me.”

I took a cigarette, mouthed it, hit the lighter, closed my eyes. The crackle of ignition.

“What is that thing in the basement?” I said.

When I opened my eyes, the lady’s cheeks had changed color.

“I know the rumors,” I said. “Grief-elemental. Psychic singularity. Portal to hell. But I don’t believe a single one, and I see you don’t either. Difference is, you know the truth, and I don’t.”

“But I don’t,” she said, looking away. “I don’t know.”

“Ask.”

“I don’t dare.”

“Then find out. What’s down there. That’s the price I charge. For the refill service, for an onion hookup, for benzyl chloride drops, for perfect discretion. I’ll throw in some trading tips at your salon, your guests’ll make money if they can listen and move fast. Three years and the deal is over. I’ll teach you to fill your own palmer and you won’t need me anymore. And in exchange…”

“But what if I can’t find out anything?”

Tenderly, sensually, I patted her hand.

“Then you and I will arrange an alternative payment.”

She thought for a long time.

“Saar,” she said. “Can’t you please help me out?” And she widened her eyes into an adorable look that almost made me back off.

“I made my offer,” I said. Take it or don’t, it’s up to you.”

And after a while she nudged her palmer over to me.

I removed a black glove from the inner pocket of my coat, letting its red electrical wire unspool back to the battery, a thin plate holstered under my vest.

“This is called a cestus,” I said, pulling the glove on. “We use it at the office to check coinage. I must ask you to stand back a little, it’s magnetic.”

“So?”

“So, your hairpiece and dress and I don’t know what else all contain metal wires. On highest power the cestus will attract all ferrous objects. It’ll cut flesh if you’re not careful.”

Lady Periton rose and circled to the far side of the table, watching closely as I adjusted the dials on the glove.

“Oh, it’s quite safe,” I assured her. “Like a gun is safe, if you respect it. That far should be fine…”

I held the glove exactly six inches above the palmer and I hit the switch on the battery. A circuit formed. Current flowed through the wire that ran through the glove and looped dozens of times around each finger to form five solenoids. I flexed my hand just so. The five magnetic fields summed, canceling each other out, forming a peanut-sized deadzone six inches below my hand.

A deadzone that surrounded the silver needles inside Lady Periton’s palmer.

As if scratching a pussycat, I tickled the air. The contours of the deadzone warped. The twin needles met the edge and were seized by magnetic influence, robust enough for control, but not so strong as to trip the anti-tampering switch.

The needles took the threads and tied them in a knot that was an Argitravian state secret.

Click. The counter on Lady Periton’s palmer snapped from zero to one. I grinned.

Click. Click. Click.

• • •

If others wondered why an individual with few artistic pretensions — excluding, I’ll confess, a certain fastidiousness in clothes — became a fixture at Lady Periton’s salon, they didn’t show it. In that refined atmosphere I learned more than I’d ever wished to know about metrical theory, the chemistry of paint, and how to orchestrate music in a minor key. Some took me to be Lady Periton’s financial advisor; others, her lover… illusions which I did nothing to shatter.

Perhaps as a result, both sides of my business flourished.

The lady did pay me, piecemeal. With words her husband let slip smoking and playing cards with his colleagues. Mentally, I capitalized them all: “Frame-Shrugging,” “Warp-Weft Uptake,” “Hypostatic Tunneling”.

Fourteen months into our deal she showed me a photograph. It was taken from hundreds of feet above and enlarged by a factor of four. It showed a soft shape, white as a bloodless brain. It floated in a bubbling pool of what looked like acid, but which we had reason to suspect was an oxygenated saline bath.

It had bilateral symmetry. Its major axis measured seven meters. It looked like an egg cooking in hot fat.

“The Vector,” she said. “That’s what the memo calls it.”

Hands on green felt, I stared down at the image as if into a well.

“But what is it?”

“They’re trying to find out.”

The Party’s counterintelligence office had confiscated the photo from a spy. It had made its way to her husband’s desk so he could assess the consequences of its exposure.

I vaguely remembered prep school math. A vector was something with quantity and direction. But in this case, a quantity of what? And aiming toward what?

False starts, dead ends. For two years things went like this. Then I got arrested.

I’d like to report that it was due to a crazy coincidence; that I chose to sacrifice myself to defend the honor of my numerous clients; that I was a martyr for a robust undercurrent of critical resistance to the Party’s grief-regime. But in fact, I just got careless. One day at the collection booth I handed in someone else’s palmer instead of my own. The checksum didn’t match my brainprint.

That night seven men in white Party Forensics jumpsuits were waiting for me inside my flat. They tackled me before I could shut the door.

The interrogation took place in my study. I tried to sound nonchalant, and succeeded enough to confuse Justina, the young mid-rank Prompter running my case. Because after she’d finished the first round she said,

“You’ve got too much courage for a man facing the gallows, Saar.”

I tried to shrug. The handcuffs made it hard. “Maybe I’m counting on the voice of the people to pardon me.”

“Rich and foreign’s not a popular combination right now.”

“I know. Rich and foreign? That’s almost always who the Party hangs. A cynic might think you were trying to distract the mob from all their problems…”

“Saar,” said Justina, getting up and thrusting her hands in the pockets of her robe, “I’m trying to understand your kind, what makes you tick, and I’m well aware I don’t…”

“My kind?”

“Counterfeiters, don’t be dense.”

“I thought you might’ve meant gentlemen with a certain degree of style and learning.”

She glanced at my bookshelves. “Pretty collection, I’ll admit.”

“I try.”

“And that’s just my point, in fact. What I don’t understand about you. We lost so much. Not just the coffeehouses, not just the gardens. I’m talking about the libraries. The records in the Divinatory Archive, thousands of years of fortunes, all gone. So much data in the Lost City…”

“Sometimes I’m the type who throws out the newspaper.”

“Imagine it, Saar. I can. I made the pilgrimage, I’ve been to the ruins, I’ve worn the shielding suit. The Archive was near ground zero and at its distance the temperature went up two hundred degrees in five minutes. That’s fast, but not that fast. You’d have a bit of time to think…”

I just stared past Justina, past our warped shapes on my office windowglass, into the cold street and its ginger-colored light.

“Imagine you’re in the Divinatory Archive reading room.”

“I’ve never been.”

“The picture’s on the back of the ten-dole note. Try it, Saar. You’re a scholar up from the Imperial University and you’re hard at work and suddenly it becomes oppressively hot. You loosen your collar. No good. People start to get up. The underground levels burn first. You’d smell the smoke. Scrolls and tortoiseshells bursting down in the racks. Ever burn a tortoiseshell, Saar? It stinks. It makes a noise like popcorn.

“Out on the street it’s a firestorm. You’d be wearing a wig then, a gentleman would. Shake it off and it burns. The sweat on your face turns to steam. The lamps on the street start to explode. For minutes you’d be awake, you’d be alive. Watching it go up, everything you love, for no reason at all…”

Justina sighed and pressed her palmer to her forehead and grieved into it very correctly.

“We need to remember,” she said. “We need to grieve.”

“Why?”

She waited for about ten seconds before she said:

“Saar, what if I told you grieving was the only way to get it back?”

“I’d probably advise psychological help.”

She slapped the desk with her hand.

“You’re a classic, Saar. Type III Memory Traitor. The madman who believes he’s sane.”

“All this Party jargon is opaque to me, Miss Justina.”

“I’m asking you, Saar. What kind of person doesn’t care? When we don’t even know what happened? When it could happen again?”

“Will you give me a cigarette?”

One of the forensic techs got one started and put it in my mouth. I shifted it to the side.

“Why don’t I care,” I said, blowing smoke, an intentional provocation. “Several reasons. The first? Everywhere I go, I find people are basically the same. At this instant, my feelings toward ninety-five per cent of the people in Second Argitrav could be called indifferent. If I’d been around two hundred years ago, I doubt it would be otherwise.”

“Maybe foreigners just can’t understand.”

“Oh we can. Provided we abandon any standard of taste. But for me all this grieving is like a child playing a dirge on a piano, over and over again — and badly.”

“I don’t believe you,” said Justina. “You’ve grieved before. In earnest. I’ve got a file on you, recorded brainwaves from your palmer that prove it. You may be a hypocrite, but you’re not completely gone. It wasn’t just about the money, right?”

I had to sigh. “That’s true.”

“So what aren’t you telling me?”

“How about this. I detest grieving because it’s easy. Like going to a tragedy. Anyone can sit in the audience and feel elevated, feel moved. How much harder to imagine it’s you onstage holding the bloody knife. I mean, the theories you hear in this city. What caused the disaster? Solar hurricane, magical attack from Kalvenis, judgment from God. So convenient. Look. Try this. Try, ‘we ruined our own city.’ The one thing people just won’t say.” I watched the look on her face. “Can you say it, Justina?”

The young Prompter shut her binder.

“We’re done here,” she told the techs. “No saving this one. Take him to the Pillar.”

“On the contrary,” I said. “I’m going to make a deal for my life and walk out of the pillar quite free. I guarantee it.”

Justina snatched the cigarette from my mouth and ground it under her bootheel and didn’t blink as I was hauled out of my office.

I was blindfolded. Then came a bumpy carriage ride down the hill and a cold evening in a cell in the Pillar. I was still awake when someone opened the iron door.

Featureless against bright light, he asked:

“Mr. Thorgan Banderthip, cloth merchant?”

“Oh yes,” I called. “That’s definitely me.”

“You’re free to go.”

Lady Periton was hardly the only person of influence who relied on my discreet services. Someone else must’ve feared exposure and sent the right person the right bribe.

When we got to the front door, the guard — who clearly understood what was happening — gave me the parting gift of a kick in the ass.

I tumbled down the long cathedral-style stairway and came to rest on the deserted flagstones of Inenublia Court. I got up, dizzy, and walked past boxed acacia trees and fountains clogged with ice.

A cold autumn wind seemed to blow straight downwards, changing the shape of my shadow as I turned into the Portico of the Eternal Flame and passed its stand of weeping jack-o-lanterns. They grimaced, miming howls, as if the candles in their pumpkin heads represented the light of some unbearable gnosis. I lifted the lid from one to light a cigarette and stayed there, warming my hands.

There was just one proper move: leave Second Argitrav tonight, before someone discovered the switch.

Except I wasn’t going to make that move.

Thus my prophecy to Justina had failed in every particular. I didn’t make any deal, I didn’t ‘walk’ out of the Pillar (I rolled), and I wasn’t free, not in any real sense. I was a prisoner of the greatest jailer of all, love. They would reconstruct a list of my clients from the papers in my apartment. I had to warn Lady Periton.

One o’clock AM. Brickpaved streets deserted, windows shut, no help anywhere. I wanted to despise Second Argitrav, all the complicity and spleen. But I knew the grief-tithe had an upside. The arts were flourishing. Crime, suicides, and asylum admissions were all low. Foreign tourists paid good money to try the “grieving cure” for their foreign ailments. Sometimes it really was like the tears purged something from the people, making them gentle, industrious, inclined to retire at 9 PM…

Unfortunately, the lack of an Argitravian nightlife became my bane that night, as I was forced to walk almost a mile before spotting a cab. Naturally, its horses were unattended. I found the cabbie in a bar called Variations, drinking applejack and playing trey-go-bet. The promise of an immense tip coaxed her away from the cards. Only when we reached the Periton house did I remember I had no money on me. But I told the woman to wait, things would work out.

They did. Only not the way I expected.

• • •

I used my key to get inside. No servants were around. In the portrait room a fire was blazing in the hearth. Bad sign: I’d have to get rid of the evidence fast. I went to the false panel I’d secretly installed in the liquor cabinet and removed the cestus I’d hidden there. An elegant white glove, solenoids charmingly done in filigree, a top-of-the-line ceramic battery. I’d intended to present this feminine tool to Lady Periton.

I’d pocketed the thing and crossed the room when the door opened before me.

“Mr. Saar,” said Brandt Periton. “Am I correct? I don’t think we’ve ever met.”

“Er, quite,” I said.

“Eugenia tells me you’re a forthright man, so I’ll get to the point. We’ve been expecting you.”

My face felt very hot.

“You don’t say much, Saar. But of course, the affair is perfectly clear…”

“I imagine it must be.”

“Except for one thing.”

“Oh?”

Periton put his hands on the back of a chair. “Why look in our reservoir?”

So he knew everything.

“Do you mind if I have a drink?” I asked.

“Please. You’re my guest, after all.”

I poured a brandy just short of the rim and sipped it and turned round again. Periton was closer now. “Well, sir, if you’re hoping to hear I’m a spy or a republican sympathizer, I’m afraid you’ll be rather disappointed…”

Periton raised an eyebrow — the one without the scar.

“Because I respect you, sir,” I went on, “I’ll be honest. I’ve merely a tourist’s interest in that… object… in your reservoir. I only gave your wife the task I did because I thought she wouldn’t manage it.”

“So she’d have to do something else for you?”

“I see you take my meaning,” I said into my glass.

Periton said, “I do.”

Then he punched me in the stomach.

I doubled over. The glass of brandy shattered. He pummeled my chest, my knee, my ribs. I fell to the floor.

“Get up,” said Periton.

Hypnotized, I obeyed, only to be struck in the face. I whirled round, catching myself on the marble mantelpiece, and spat. Blood and false teeth fell, red ink on the hearthstones. A hot seam of pain ran along my jaw. I looked over my shoulder, hoping to dodge the next blow…

It was then that Lady Periton came in. She looked at me for an instant, then turned to her husband. He had wound back to strike me again, but noticing her, held off. Time slowed, time froze. Their gazes locked: frown and smile, sword and scabbard. Exact copies of the expressions in those matched portraits. Two people deeply in love.

Finally Brandt turned to me. “Well, Saar, you’ve been good enough to arrange for a cab. Tonight we satisfy your ‘tourist’s interest’. We’re going.”

“To see the thing?” I mumbled, hand on jaw.

Flat face, flat personality — so I’d thought. But I had misjudged Brandt Periton. His eyes lit with an intense, fanatical delight.

“I’d put it differently, Saar. To see the god.”

• • •

“It was a memorial first,” said Periton, inserting a punchcard into a wall-mounted reader, while his other hand kept a pistol trained on me.

The heavy door ahead split apart, halving the first E in TOP SECRET. A vaulted tunnel into darkness was revealed. Green lights appeared pair by pair on its sides, as if evoked by our footfalls. I glanced back at Lady Periton. During our trip to the Pillar she had not said a single word.

“A palmer’s processed just like mail,” Periton went on. “Accounting happens upstairs. Past here at the top of the reservoir we release the knots…”

We came to a catwalk above a familiar vista. By a trick of the dim green light the bottom seemed miles distant, though it couldn’t have been more than three hundred feet. Stamped metal stairs helixed down to a ring of bubbling liquid, breached by the broad white blob of the Vector. But the photo hadn’t suggested its smell: a cross between pickle brine and rancid fat.

“They brought Memory Traitors here once,” Periton went on. “Exposure to the raw grief might convert them, the theory went. Then one day a prisoner broke free and jumped over the rain and fell. When they went to remove the body they found it had changed. Transformed. Maybe he was carrying the seed of the Vector inside him. Some people believe that. Others say something happened, way down there in the quiet and the dark. Like a prayer got through. Like all the dice came up six. The grief had an organizing effect on organic material…

“The Vector was still little then, size of your hand. Fragile, sensitive to noise. We installed the pool and the oxygenation systems and the soundkill field so we could study it…”

“So good of you to explain it all.”

“Not at all. Everyone we execute gets to see the reservoir.”

“And why?”

“So they see what they’re going to become.”

I looked down at the shape. My eyes watered.

“Dear me,” I said.

“The Vector was tiny for years,” said Periton. “Until someone suggest we feed it another Memory Traitor…”

“And the name? Why the Vector? Did it introduce itself?”

Periton smiled.

“Hands up and walk, Saar, and you’ll see.” To his wife, he asked, “Will you stay up here?”

She shook her head. “I want to get near it again.”

Hands over my head, I led us down the stairs.

“You never needed me at all,” I yelled backward. “Did you, lady?”

“We needed you for your client list.” Like my footfalls, her voice was noticeably softer now due to the soundkill field, which strengthened as we descended into the cylinder. “You’ve given Brandt a nice little list of traitors.”

“So you really can grieve,” I yelled without looking back.

For a long time, she said nothing, then:

“No. I can’t. Not at all. That part was true. But my husband understood.”

At a corner I managed to glance back. Periton wasn’t looking at his wife, but his lips were pursed tenderly. And the lady was smiling too, as if her beauty had exceeded itself to become an idea, which for the first time I thought I could define…

Echoes had ceased. Our steps came soft, as if against carpet. We were halfway down; talking was useless now. My arms ached above my head. When I lagged, Periton prodded me with the pistol.

I fell to watching the fat-white Vector, buoyant in its bath, involuted like a brain or a lung or one of those figures mathematicians call fractals. Soon that thing would absorb my corpse. You may find it odd to learn I wasn’t horrified, not really. I’m a materialist, death is death, it’s always disgusting, at least this would be unusual, in life as well as art that counts for something.

That’s what I was thinking when it happened.

The chime was sudden, ludicrous. A zing along a xylophone. My vision gashed apart, a sluicegate flood of rosepetal impressions…

Spring, night, courtyard, brick the smoky shade of tea, laughter, roses and ivy adorning walls, a party in full swing…

Everyone wore swords. Every breast bore sashes, medals. Every face was bright, stamped with ideal beauty. Somewhere an orchestra was playing a tango. Wineglasses met in toast. Napkins ruffled in the gentle wind; acacia trees and observatories and arches stood out against a sky of ten thousand stars…

Lost Argitrav.

It was here. It was real. It was gone. I coughed hard, soundlessly, back in the green gloom of the reservoir. Periton’s weapon prodded me again.

I kept treading down the stairs. The white shape lurked, ever closer. Words came from it now, not by the air but some profounder route:

I mean really, Duchess, all she said was… if he remembers the time… but I really shouldn’t, no, I mean…   

What had Justina said? Grieving was the only way to get the city back?

And so, the Vector. Quantity and direction. A quantity of tears, of wishes. An arrow back to the past. And the Griever Party as secret theocracy, priests of this gatekeeper god…

I almost wept.

Almost.

For, nearing the bottom, twenty steps from death, I heard, for the second time in my life, the words:

Cry, treason! O! Vow broken and forgone!
How black beneath her quills the traitor swan!

Which was of course a couplet — and an unfortunate one — from Rory Thalcan’s second-rate tragedy.

After that my mind was made up.

Five steps from the bottom I pretended to stumble, and fell. Before I stopped rolling my hand was in my inner pocket. Periton reacted late. That a man with a weapon might still allow himself to be beaten and captured, would have scarcely been conceivable to that hidebound ex-officer. His first shot went wide, chipping a spark from the wall.

I jabbed the safety on the cestus. Five magnetic fields propagated through the soundless air.

Periton’s next shot would have hit me. But the gun had already left his hand.

His flat face froze: amused, baffled. His scar-torn eyebrow trembled. Widened. Then the metal plate that had been installed there burst out of his flesh.

He fell forward and landed on his jaw and was still.

Blood dripped from the forehead of the Prime Prompter, spilling over the lip of the landing, darkening the oxygenated bath surrounding the white monstrosity. The Vector was pulsing now, as if breathing to scream, and I felt my head tunneled through with further words that were like white worms scrabbling in that compost pile of nostalgia for an imaginary past…

Lady Periton’s hands climbed each other like spiders and rose to a mouth emitting a silent wail.

I grabbed the gun. I looted Periton’s pockets. I looked at the woman one last time. She was sitting on the stairway and tears were rolling from her eyes, fresh, unfeigned, too late. I left her behind.

Before the sun came up I was outside the city.

Of all the images that passed through my head that autumn night — Justina’s true-believer face, the howls of the jack-o-lanterns, the fight in the card room, the horror in the reservoir, those rendered glimpses of a City so beautiful it could never come back, so beautiful it could never be the truth — just one remains in perfect clarity. Lady Periton’s face. Not as I saw it on the stairs, battered by the shocks of the first grief in her life. (I sensed it would be her last.) But smiling. As she’d smiled at her husband’s words, as she’d smiled in that picture on their wall.

Incisive smile! Proud and pitiless, self-mocking, overflowing with love for the most powerful man in Second Argitrav — the judge who forgave her lack of tears.

I will never cease to cherish that contradictory image, that beauty.

The rest of the affair I would prefer to forget.

 

 

Nick Tramdack attended the University of Chicago and is a recent graduate of Clarion West. His short fiction has appeared in Schlock and Eschatology and he also contributed an item to the Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities. By day he works in a Chicago research library searching for vanished books. His ideal of fantastic literature would be a mecha story in a style of overheated Balzacian realism, with the formal structure of a transforming robot. You can follow him on Twitter @swordsnsolvers.


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ISSUE #21

September 2011

FICTION

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