imaginary archive (ib_archive) wrote,
imaginary archive
ib_archive

[story] love and hunting

author: thornsmoke (thornsmoke)
email: lasyungwen [at] gmail.com



Each day, he follows his uncles to the white room. He has always obeyed them. A long time ago, they'd promise that they would make him better, and that he would be allowed to see the sun again.

So he listens as they needle veins, feed him pills, thread earlobes with winking signals in the names of their experiments. He tries not to think of how, one by one, uncle is replacing uncle until he no longer recognises any of the uncles who attend to him.

The walls of the room are glass without translucence: mirrors without reflection. He is always a little afraid of them: partly out of human wariness, partly out of prophetic unease. He thinks at times that some machination inside him must have guessed at the future. Secretly, he knows that he could have never anticipated the day a man would walk out of the silver doors with his uncles' rings on his fingers and a murder's smile on his lips.




The man kicked open the door to the roof of the tower. Guards' bodies sprawled in their wake, dead as the scientists he'd left in the white room. The firewalls around the roof glittered a serene, disabled blue.

The boy was not crying, but was looking with quiet interest at the sky. His eyes grew luminous and blue as he stared at the enormous light. In it, he could almost see himself drifting away: a small, broken body with caustic red hair, his too-sharp eyes slowly closing.

The murderer's fingers caught at his chin, dragged it down and forced them to look at each other. "Hey, kid," said the man. "You okay? You're going to burn out your eyes."

"Y-y--" Even with the murderer's hand pinching tight on his wrist, he was not afraid. "You killed," the boy said in a low, clear voice, "my uncles."

"Oh, is that what they call them these days?" The man's tanned face split into a grin. "Funny. Didn't take you for being the nephew type."

"What's a nephew?"

"A very annoying species that shrieks whenever it wants something, and, if karma existed, would be frequently run over by men with large trucks." He curled a fist at the boy's throat; the pulse that spilled down his fingertips was hammering. "Huh," he said, sounding impressed. "You're a novelty. I expected good, but never thought it'd be this easy. And I never thought it'd be you."

"What?"

Abruptly, the man swung him over his shoulder. The boy kicked out his legs, but the man didn't stop. Together they rushed towards the closest firewall. His back struck the bricks with a sharp crack. Slowly, the murderer started to push him upward, inching towards the open space above the firewalls, where the outside air ran rusty and dark and tangled in poisons.

He started to pry desperately at the fingers clenched about his throat, coughing and choking, gasping by instinct for breaths that would kill him when the man managed to lever his head above the firewalls that purified the air. "N-n-n--"

"No?" The murderer smiled. "Are you afraid of dying? Weird kid." He shoved him, hard, and the boy threw back his head. The firewall offered no pressure at all; he passed through it easily, just in time to suck in a yellow lungful.

Then the man dropped him. He collapsed on the ground, wheezing. Beware the outside world, the uncles had told him; any human who breathes that air will die.

But the world was not dimming; the murderer's face was clear as ever. He was even starting to smile.

"Oh, hey, you're not dead." The stranger sounded pleased. "You must be the one. I'm Theseus. I've been looking for you for ages. Come on, we're kind of late. How do you feel about your dead uncles?"

The boy tilted his head to one side, considering.

Theseus grinned wider. "Definitely the right one," he said. "Only a robot could react like that. Let's go, then. Oh, and by the way," he added casually. "Don't even try to warn anybody, or I'll kill you."



The city of Shae shone slick and bright in the evening. The sunset, filtered through a thousand poisonous fumes, grew smokily colorful. Built on the outcroppings of a cliff, Shae was all plunging slopes and bone towers, sectioned off into squares: red for the urban districts, gold for the factories and crops, and a variety of other colors that blurred. Only the oldest parts of the city, where the desperate came were allowed to stay unpainted.

They stopped outside a spindling grey house, all turrets and broken shutters. It was a miserable, skinny thing with gaping windows and faded walls and a doorbell that squawked when pressed.

"Do you know what this was built to resemble?" Theseus asked as they waited.

Without pause, the boy answered: "18th-century Victorian style on the original planet. The windows are of an older Gothic tradition--"

"It's okay, you don't have to give me the full report. I just wanted to see... Your memory banks. They're fine, aren't they? Everything's intact?"

"I have a brain, not a memory bank," the boy said sharply. "I'm not a robot."

"You certainly don't act like one," Theseus agreed. "I read the papers and still can't believe it. Of course, you don't talk like a real person, but that's to be expected."

"You don't talk like a real person, either. Does that make you--"

"Well, technically, I'm not a real person." He leaned on the doorway. "Real persons are legally registered to be citizens. And since legally registered means 'entertains the officials at the border with sexual favors and money', I'm not one of them. I just come in and out of the city on business; besides Shae, there's not much point to being on this damn planet. And have you ever seen those border guards? Faces like a guarro-beast's dam." He tilted a slow, wicked grin down at the boy. "Bet you don't know what a guarro-beast is."

"You made the word up," the boy said dispassionately.

"Of course," Theseus said. "Human ingenuity, and all that." Abruptly he turned to pound on the door. "I'm bored," he declared, "and my patron has abandoned me on his doorstep. Woe. And after I brought you all this way as a show of my good will. Do you know how many people I had to kill to get you?"

"Five hundred and sixty-two."

"Heh." He shook his head. "Robot."

The door creaked open before the boy could answer. They went in. Automatically, the boy fell into step behind Theseus. He was no longer thinking about escape - though he had never really begun. Where would he have gone? They had made no plans beyond letting him see the sunlight once he had been perfected, and he had never asked for anything else. It was easy to sleep all day, letting their lessons filter into his mind--

They stopped at a set of double-doors painted with thorny vines. Theseus pushed the door and went in; after a moment, the boy followed.

The room was a dank library, or had been once -- most of the shelves were empty. The boy could smell a light, ingrained pipe smoke mingling with the harsher ashy scent of an enormous fire.

Unexpectedly, an accented voice snapped out of the darkness: "And where the bloody hell's my cure?"

"Relax," said Theseus. "You'll have it. I bought the car - a nice truck deal that could run a girdle three times around the planet. Very, very slowly, but it could. I just wanted to bring you proof of my plans, since you said you wanted it last time."

"Right, proof. Instead you bring me a little ponce in tights. Practically naked, poor lad. Bringing me evidence of your tastes is not--"

"Oh, for God's sake, does everyone in this city have an inhumane mind? Look at him carefully," Theseus bit out. He added, "Sir."

The room went silent. Then another man, paler and smaller than Theseus, stepped out from behind a shelf. He was dressed all in white - a strange, dusty suit - and peered at the boy as though examining some kind of peculiar specimen. "A T-3985 model?"

The boy opened his mouth to protest this, then closed it again; some quiet instinct was saying: shut up. There seemed something deadly about the quiet, luminous eyes and the soft way his hands fluttered as he spoke - some sense that this was the guise, and what lay beneath had too many teeth for anyone's comfort.

And that kind of man, who could look at a murderer like Theseus and command him, was certain that he was a robot.

It made sense, he supposed. He had simply never thought of it that way before. It was instinct to think of oneself as human, and ignore the parts of one's brain which were lecturing on about architecture without ever yielding up the memory of where one might have learned that.

"...which is, in a lot of ways, better than the T-3985 model, and in conclusion, I am a gigantic geek for science," Theseus finished.

The man hadn't missed a beat. "Is it good enough to get what you need past the border guards?"

"Yes."

"Then I don't care what it is. Get me my cure, and I'll tell you where I stashed your fees, you exorbitant mercenary. Was that all?"

"Well, I thought that we might haggle a little more--"

The little man whirled on him, mustache bristling and yellow eyes wide. He strode up to Theseus, spitting the words in his face: "Ditch-brained idiot! My sister's dying. There's no cure for death! I will not be paying you if she dies." He pulled away, panting hard; nothing in the library moved but him. "Now get out of the city and bring it back to me. Have we a deal?"

Theseus stood where he had before, his eyes flat and cool. "Always, sir."



They drove to the borders of the city and there idled, waiting for the lines out of the city to wane.

"I was sure that something would happen if I showed you to him," Theseus said. "I thought I'd get better pay, at least. Stingy, stringy bastard. Oh, hello, sir border guard! Might I mention how very un-guarro-beast-like you look in the face today?"



As the days went on, he began to notice a sharp, foul odor in the car.

"Oh," Theseus laughed when he told him. "I didn't think that you'd have been installed with scent recognition. It doesn't seem practical, somehow."

The word 'installed' struck him like a blow. He shut his eyes, grinding his teeth against it. When he was able to speak again, he said, "What is it?"

In answer Theseus seized his hand, sinking his nails in. The boy yelped and struggled, prying at Theseus's wrist. He stilled when he realised that there was no pain.

Theseus smiled. His fingers flexed a last hard time, then dropped away.

Gingerly, the boy picked at his own hand. Silver shone out in small, smooth crescents beneath the yellowing flesh.

"Your human cover is starting to rot," said Theseus, making a sharp turn. There was a crunch of something horribly like bones in the wheels, though no outside sound filtered into the car. "That one breath outside the firewall poisoned your flesh, but underneath you're circuitry and metal, so you should be fine, if a little tarnished, by the end of it. You should find your senses heightening in the next few days. The flesh will stop bothering you with its separate signals, and we can lose the last of its muffling effects by washing it off in the Styx." He touched a panel; a map flickered on in the glass before the boy's seat. "Here," he traced a livid green line, which blushed bloodily wherever his fingertip touched, "we'll rest for a few days. You'll need the time to recuperate and understand what's happened to you."

"You just told me," the boy said stiffly. "If I am what you say I am--"

"If?" Theseus made a half-laughing noise, but the shadows of his face deepened into an ugly scowl. "What do you think you are, then? Some sort of miracle with silver plating on his bones and a smell like a century-old rhinocerous?"

He clenched his eyes shut, and went doggedly on: "If I am what you say I am, then I should understand immediately. Otherwise you wouldn't have brought me along. A man has no need of boys on a perilous trek like this one."

"Do you think so?" Theseus's lip curled. His hands danced a wild tangle of code across the keyboard; on the screen before him, the clouds of text cleared up all at once. The car went on driving by itself - doubtlessly programmed to run over small animals in passing - as he turned to the boy. He had fine bones - an aristocrat's delicate, vivid impression - and eyes like raw glass, so utterly colorless and clear that they were frightening. Slowly, he reached out with a long-fingered, slim hand, marked with an intricate pattern of scars and tattoos that winked in the thin light.

Even through his dead skin, the boy could feel Theseus's deliberate, purposeful gentleness. In spite of himself, he shivered.

After a moment, Theseus pulled away. The boy felt something sharp and irrevocable turn in his chest (a gear-wheel, he thought bleakly, or something just as mechanical), but did not speak. "You really are kind of naive, aren't you?" he heard Theseus remark. "I don't think we'll be able to get the Styx to wash that off."

The boy turned a look at him. There was something glittering in his eyes, hard and remote and simple - some goal Theseus was looking for whose name he could not speak.

Then he got it.

"Shut up," he said clearly. And Theseus threw back his head and laughed.



They came to the river after several days of travel, most of which had been unexpected and unnecessary.

("I told you not to chase that wingy snake-thing. Your penchant for running creatures over is going to get us killed."

"Well, how was I to know that it was going to have a den of angry in-laws waiting to eat our tires?"

"Maybe from the enormous bulging pouch? Something had to impregnate it."

"Oh, was it pregnant? I thought that it might just be horizontally challenged."

"And you wanted to see if the bulge made an interestingly-colored splat across the road. Didn't you."

"Ah, you know me so well!")

He only recognised the river when Theseus stopped the car by an outcropping of lustrous rock and said, "Well, we're here."

"The river out of hell," said the boy, remembering classics that he had never been taught.

"Most of your ear is peeling," Theseus observed. He pushed the boy lightly down the slope. "You'd better hurry. It looks painful."

The boy touched the side of his head and looked bemusedly at his sticky fingers. "It doesn't hurt at all," he said, but walked the rest of the way.

For a moment on the shore, seeing the waves roil past like molten electricity, he was nearly afraid to go in. Humanity had evolved on a planet where water ran slow and and thin and easy, and this was nothing like what might have been found there. The river was a dark metallic red, the color of a fire's edges, and parted with a cut noise when he reached to touch it.

"Why are you poking the river?" Theseus said by his ear. With a yelp, the boy tumbled in. The water swallowed him in a huge sigh. "Unless I miss my guess, that's not a ritual to start scrubbing off your rotten flesh," he continued, as the boy surfaced, sputtering and blinking, feeling the water embrace his flesh. The currents grazed flapping bits of loose skin, and he shuddered in horror and relief. "Are you afraid? You're an advanced model, and waterproof."

"No," said the boy, and no more. He stared up at Theseus, outlined against the sun in a great shadow. What little there remained of whole flesh crawled with something he didn't understand: a restlessness that wracked him like a fever as he looked at the murderer who had dragged him to the brink of hell. It was not bloodlust, he thought, which was the reasonable, human reaction. So then, what?

"What a coherent answer," said Theseus, after a brief wait. "Come on.You're taking better to the idea of being a robot than I thought, and we're late. We don't have the time for those extra resting days. You need to hurry. Wearing cotton is no protection against rot, and I've had to put up with air fresheners for the past several days. Haven't I been punished enough?"

The boy said, "Please." His hands splayed over his bare collarbones, where the flesh was falling apart. "Don't look at me. I promise I'll hurry if you don't--"

"Oh, God," said Theseus. "Don't be modest, we've got things to do." He reached out. One hand seized the boy's arm; the other buried in his hair. The boy turned up to fight, but Theseus was taller and stronger, and the water was deep and tempting. He was still shaking and crying as they plunged into the water together.



Later, sulking wetly, he sat in the car and examined his new skin. His hands were silver, nails flushed with a pale, glassy hue. His whole face was alight with it, as if it were a kind of new makeup rather than something true and integral. Theseus hadn't looked at him once after they'd come out of the river; merely handed him a towel, told him not to drip too much on the seat, and gone back inside.

When the river was only a winking thread behind them, he said to Theseus, "What do you think I am?" It was easier to turn to look at him with the last of the flesh gone, with no temptations to things he had no name for. Still he could place no name to the hunger that had devoured his concentration whole and yet been left unsatisfied, but it did not matter; that was past.

"And why does that question come up so suddenly?"

"Well," said the boy. He fiddled with the drawstrings of his hood; Theseus had produced clothes for the boy out of his own luggage, though most of them were too large. Still, the gigantic warmth of the sweatshirt was comforting. "You talk to me."

"An astute observation!"

"Shut up. You also talk to the radio. And the trunk of the car."

"I do not talk to the trunk of the car," Theseus said. "I curse it. Loudly. Which a boy of your age really shouldn't be listening to. All those words could stunt your growth."

Ignoring this, the boy said, "But you know that I'm not real."

A long silence followed this. A flash of fur and fangs darted through the underbrush. Theseus chased it idly for several miles before giving up on the potential target for his daily roadkill count. "And what makes you say that?" he drawled.

"I--" He drew a deep breath. "Would you really have scrubbed the flesh off of a human boy in the river?"

"If I thought the human boy needed it, and if the human boy was being unnecessarily mopey all over my car."

"I wasn't--"

"Look," said Theseus. All the laughter had fallen from his voice; his eyes - the still, precise color of blindness - grew dark and grave and purposeful. "I think there's a point that you're missing, here. I stole you. I didn't steal you for the companionship, I didn't steal you for your scintillating conversation - although you have considerably more of it than I expected. I stole you because there," he tapped a point on the boy's chest, "is a compartment for a gear that hasn't yet been invented. You aren't complete, you know."

He had stiffened at the touch, feeling the warm point of a fingertip flaring through the thin cloth of his shirt. It cost him several seconds while he gathered his thoughts to speak. "What do you mean?"

"You were meant to be a human boy," said Theseus. "Much more advanced, but you were meant to think like one. Humans are... fallible. Except for me, because I'm wonderful." (The boy rolled his eyes.) "But you can't build something out of machinery and programming and expect it to think as incompletely, as faultily and creatively as a human. The closest that they could get to the faults of a human involved clockwork. They stole their idea for the main gear, the gear that would have introduced a logical randomness into your system, from a shape in nature. They didn't realise just then that it would need the material, too. But the point is that there's a perfect space in your chest designed for something that's not allowed in the city. There's a law against letting the guards inspect people like you, because those morons graduated university with a degree in Advanced Muscle Flexing and they can't touch anything delicate without breaking it. It'd be detectible if I tried to smuggle it in any other way, but inside you no one will notice."

Questions tightened in his throat: what would he be like if he operated with the missing piece? Would he think cloudily? Would he be more afraid? Would it be easier to be in pain? Would he be too afraid to let it change him?

"So, then," said the boy, after another moment, "what's the material that we need?"

This time, Theseus's grin was a thin, delighted sliver.

"You'll see," he said.



They arrived several days early, which the boy knew because Theseus did an unholy little dance as he stepped outside the car.

"Sorry," he said, sounding less than apologetic as he caught the boy's horrified gaze. He went around to the trunk and began to hum cheerfully the notes of a deeply obscene song as he unlocked the trunk and extricated a heavy black bag. "I should have remembered how easy it is to traumatise someone your age. What are you, three, four--?"

"I'm six," the boy said, flushing for no reason he could understand. "My mind has been designed with the learning patterns of a six-year-old, though I have been instilled with a far greater knowledge and in addition--" He broke off, noting the twisting curl of Theseus's lip. "Why, how old are you?"

"You sound so accusatory," Theseus said. Idly, he pulled his fingers across the prongs of a triton tattooed to the back of his other hand as he swung the pack onto his shoulder. "Nineteen."

"I would have never guessed." The boy glanced away. A cavern mouth loomed opened before them, gaping with broken stalagmites and scattered, glinting fragments of things that shone like jewels.

"I'm sure you wouldn't have. Robots aren't made for guessing." He clicked through several dials on his watch, twisted a few, then smiled. "We're just into the last hour. Perfect timing. Come on," and recklessly, Theseus beckoned the boy into the cave.

As the last of the light behind them faded, a new illumination blazed dazzlingly into the caves. He felt Theseus's hand close about his throat, slamming him against the wall, before they both realised what it was.

"You're a flashlight and an encyclopedia all in one?" Theseus inquired, peering at the winking lights embedded in the boy's ears. "Do you have any other special features you'd like to tell me about? For instance, do you play both DVDs and video tapes?"

"Your knee is somewhere impolite," the boy informed him breathlessly. Theseus looked down.

"Oh," he said in tones of surprise, unmoving. "So it is." And anything that he might have said was cut off by a sudden roar behind him. Theseus whirled, shoving the boy along the wall, sending lights skidding over the cavern ceiling. "Go hide somewhere and try to cover your ears so that you don't look so much like an obvious walking lightbulb," he hissed. "I can fight in the--"

But the boy could see the monster looming over the sharp line of Theseus's shoulder. His voice was high and trembling. "A dragon? You came out here to hunt a dragon?"

"How awfully human you sound," Theseus panted, pushing him on as the dragon roared at their backs. "It's not as dangerous when its dragonets have just taken off for the hunt, which they do with clockwork regularity every year at this hour. It's not a dragon. It's an alien creature that happens to resemble the original mythical dragon a lot. I think they called it a Draconis yungus."

"Right, like names are going to--"

A sudden burst of fire scorched away all his words. Without thinking, the boy seized Theseus's hand and started to drag him down the passageway where they had come. His feet retraced the path, though they stumbled more now on stones and jutting points that he had not remembered in entering. Behind them, he could hear the enormous steps of the dragon lumbering, the snort as it - she - tasted their scent.

Midway on the path back, Theseus stopped, shaking off the boy's hand. "What are you doing?"

"Making a strategic retreat," the boy said. "I'm -- I'm not... You're human. A fire of the temperature that Draconis yungus provides is not one that you could survive."

"And yet somehow I doubt that running away is going to get me paid," Theseus said, as the dragon screamed in the background. This time, when the boy reached out and yanked, he did not move. "What's your plan?"

"You run," the boy said. "I go back and kill it."

"How admirably sentimental," Theseus said. "Then I get stuck in the middle of a cave with no way out because I'm hell with directions, and while I have the necessary component, even if I make it back to the city I'll have no way to get it inside to my patron. Clever. No, I have a better idea--"

But he could not finish the words, for at that moment the dragon burst into the open chamber behind them. She was great and glittering in the dim light, her scales like carven panes.

The gears. "I'll distract her," the boy cried. "You hack off one of her scales, and--"

He had only an instant to see Theseus's astonished look. "You idiot," he said. "It's not her scales I'm--"

Then the dragon, roused by the boy's high voice, exhaled a gigantic arrow of flame at him.

He sprang out of the way just in time, skidding behind an boulder, and saw Theseus ducking behind several pillars of rock, weaving through the caverns towards the dragon. He had said nothing about approving of the boy's plan, but there seemed nothing else likely to be successful. A fragment of fear lodged in the boy's throat; he cleared it, and the resounding echo whipped the dragon's attention to his hiding place.

Deliberately, he stepped out into clear view.

"Here I am," he said, and the fire roiled up around him in a towering inferno.

It was not unlike being in the river again, with the world drowning deep in silence all around him. The temperature was mildly uncomfortable - he could not imagine how terrible the sensation could have been with flesh still attached - but he recorded it with little difficulty. Theseus was not with him this time, and in a sense that renewed the strangeness of the moment - as if he had, by chance, fallen into a separate world where nothing existed but this vague sense of burning...

A tremendous explosion shattered the fiery stream, and the ground rushed up to meet him. Even then, nothing cracked or shattered. The scientists had promised him perfection, and came dangerously close. He had stepped in and out of a dragon's flame unharmed, given Theseus the opportunity he needed--

Abruptly, Theseus was above him, hand warm and solid behind his head. There was a glass vial in his hand, and little bits floating in the ruby liquid within. "Dragon's blood," he was saying, in a voice that was strange and distorted. "Your throat has the ability to go different notes even though your lungs can't expand as a human's can because of the shapes that it creates; a dragon's blood runs molten. If you drink enough of it, when it cools, it will take the shape of the gear that we need."

The boy reached out. He said, "I--"

"Shut up," Theseus said gently, still bent over him. He lowered the vial, and the boy drank.

It tasted of flame and ash and terror: the taut brilliance of it, burning behind one's eyes at night. It tasted of the memory of the river as it could have been: a hot, brittle rush, stark as bones in its revelations. It eased down his throat as fire might, and settled, burning in his heart.

He reached up, seizing a startled Theseus's shoulder. The vial landed elsewhere with a sharp and terrible clatter. His eyes, he knew, were unnaturally alight, clear with a demand he didn't speak.

Theseus's mouth curled. Slowly, he bent down.



Several days later, battered and grinning, they were standing in the patron's library again. The boy kept his hand steady at Theseus's elbow until Theseus shook him off, with an irritable glance back. The boy settled; his eyes were wide and brutal as he watched the patron pace and speak.

"And where is my cure?"

Theseus waved a hand at the boy. "You're looking at him."

The patron sneered. Lines spiderwebbed across his face in a quick film of age, inhumanly quick. "He looks much the same shape as he did before. A little more silver, of course, and scruffy around the edges... And how will this save my sister?"

"That's not my business," Theseus said. "You asked for dragons' blood, I brought you dragons' blood. Do you want it, or shall I go sell it? The gold square's open in two days, and there are certain people who have expressed a great deal of interest in having the blood from a..."

The white-faced man rushed at him, stopping just short of running his nose into Theseus's jaw. He snorted, but not a hair on Theseus turned. "Enough with the threats, you're appalling at them," he said. "Give it to me, then. All of it."

The boy, who had been relatively disinterested up to this point, started. His hands flew up to his throat, feeling the pound of something new - something easily lost. "Not--" he said, glancing quickly at Theseus. "Not all?"

But Theseus was looking at him coolly, pitilessly. "The patron asks," he said. "Dragon's blood is good for two things in particular. One is to strengthen a weak heart. The other is as a gear in the lasers for heart surgery, for instinctual precision. The gears were prevented from being manufactured because so often the lasers were modified and sold in gold square for gang wars; the moulds and plans for the exact shape were destroyed. None of the other gears invented afterwards were as intricately precise... until they designed you."

"An explanation won't soothe me," the boy said, still shaking. Only a few days before, Theseus had killed all the men who had raised him in a single swathe, and he had hardly batted an eye. Faced with the loss of something that he had never been intended to have terrified him. "I'm not just a machine anymore, you can't distract me like this."

Theseus's lips quirked in that familiar wry twist. "I wasn't planning on distracting you," he said, and snatched up his wrist, twisting it. The boy cried out by instinct. By the time he remembered himself, Theseus had already moved to jerk him off-balance. They tumbled to the floor together, rolling wildly. At length, Theseus came up again, and stayed there. He planted one knee on either side of the boy. "Be happy," he said, smoothing out the metallic hair. "It won't hurt after it's over."

As the boy squirmed, he turned a wintry, idle look back to his patron. "And while I'm doing this, you might as well give me the directions to my fees."

With raw eyes and a hard line for a mouth, the patron lifted his chin. Quietly, with a voice withered to a whisper as he watched the boy writhe on the greying carpets, he told Theseus where the money had been hidden.



"You tore my heart out," the boy said, once they were in the car and driving far from the house. The worst part might have been how it hardly mattered; the remembrance of the pain and the fierce passion in thinking of Theseus's face had cooled to something mechanical and solid as fact. Experimentally, in a voice like clockwork winding down, he said, "You - tore - my..."

"And you sound so terribly worried about it," Theseus said. "What would you have done with a heart, anyway?"

Loved you.

"I'd rather not talk about it, if you don't mind," he went on. His eyes, the boy noticed, were a little more the color of hollowness - less blind now than empty of anything to see. "Ask me something else."

The boy thought. Deep inside, there might have been a fragment left, shrieking and screaming and demanding to be reformed. But it was illogical, and as it happened, he did have more questions. He pushed away the screams. "The man,."

"The patron."

"Yes," he said, then hesitated. But the memory of the white-faced man breathing on Theseus and Theseus being unmoved stood stark and clear in his memory.

"What?"

"He had no substance," the boy said, delicately.

Theseus shrugged. "So?"

"And all along you knew?"

"'Course I knew it. I've been milking him for a while. He was a rich old man when he died - he didn't die young like that. But his sister must have had more of an effect on him than he thought; he keeps asking for things that might cure her. So," he shrugged, "I go out, I get them, and he tells me where he stashed some of his money. Nice little deal."

"For all except the ghost."

"Well, I can't please everybody."

"Are all your clients ghosts? Is it... natural?"

"Being a ghost is natural eventually." Theseus grinned, raking a hand through his dark hair. "It was natural for the patron's sister, and it'll be natural for me, someday. A very long way from today, one hopes. Won't happen to you, of course," he added as an afterthought. "Aren't you lucky."

The boy leaned back in his seat. The city spun out around him, a web of wires and steel and glass. He thought of it: an eternity of its sand-dry streets, of seeing the ghosts drift by in the streets, of learning eventually to pick out the faces of those he once knew among them because there was nothing else he could, by logic, do. Nothing could change the stories of ghosts.

"Yes," he said, seeing the structure of the future: full of death and bones and endless disinterest. "Aren't I lucky."

the end
Tags: author: thornsmoke, book 05: ghost story, story
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