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Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Clockwork Dragon #10: The Truth is Unkind


The gleaming brass dragon torso was already taking shape—it was growing. And Zefir couldn't help but keep sniffing at it, eager to remember the similar-yet-not-similar scent that mirrored-yet-didn't-mirror his own smell. Even as he watched Seren hunched over the form, microfyer goggles strapped over her eyes, she was muttering to herself, "Ach, no, no no. This way is better. Certainly."

The brass pseudo-flesh was knitting itself into a larger whole, still inching along and growing before his eyes; he watched in fascination as she began to piece together his sibling dragon's heart-mind.

Seren had beamed at him with those goggles intensifying her eyes, saying, "It's telling that your heart is also your mind, and your mind your heart. If only those were the same in humans, maybe we could learn something."

After listening in rapt concentration to his heart ticking in his chest, Seren kept muttering to herself. He worried as Seren's grumbles devolved into outbursts that frightened him.

"No!" she snarled. Throwing off her microfyer goggles, she pressed the palms of her hands to her eyes. "The variables! They're too beautiful, too achingly exquisite. Gods of the Forge, is this what you saw, Mirena? No wonder you're failing!"

"Seren," Zefir said gently. "Perhaps you need time to—"

"No!" she shrieked at him. "There's so little time!"

She sank to her knees and instead of drawing upon her schematics, she began to trace numbers, letters—symbols?—with her bare fingers on the stone floor. She scratched so hard at the ground that her fingertips were torn and bleeding.

"Seren!" he called, his voice buzzing with his fear.

"Listen to me, Kirwen," she said sharply, not looking at him. "Lissteri, trust me, please. If we do this together, we'll survive."

Was she trapped in her own memories, reciting her own words? It seemed so as she continued scratching at the ground frantically as if trying to claw her way out. "It should be we three together. That's how we were made, to be parts of a whole. Whatever this trial holds, we cannot abandon one another. That's what they want us to do."

Terrified now, Zefir wondered what he could do to break her from this memory. He reached for her and when he touched her, she screamed. Fighting against his gentle hands, she kicked, spat, and punched at him. He'd never seen her grow violent, his most gentle of friends. He didn't know what to do.

"Mirena, no! Join us! They can't kill us for failure if we survive together—" and a horrible wail of anguish came hoarsely from her throat.

What had Mother done to gentle her mirror?

Softly, Zefir began to sing the song that he recalled his Mother singing. Lilting and powerful as it thrummed its way from his chest and out through his throat, rendered in a baritone caress.

Seren blinked and her eyes filled with tears. She stopped struggling and went limp as a rag, so Zefir cradled her close. He continued singing, even though there were no words to his song, even when Seren continued to weep.

Slowly, he became aware of another presence. Standing in the doorway, maskless and quiet, Kirwen was watching them, a pained furrow to her brow.

Zefir stopped singing, gently rocking Seren in his arms. He watched Kirwen warily, silently pleading with the wolf leader not to tear them apart. He couldn't stop her if she wanted to rip Seren from his arms, not unless he was willing to strike the wolf leader. And his parole would be broken and the squad would die.

He was powerless.

"Please," Zefir croaked, everything cold inside. He felt no shame in begging, only the fear of losing her. "Please don't hurt her. Don't take her away from me. I beg of you."

Kirwen walked forward with a gliding motion. The pain on her face was unmistakable, and she trembled. "I would never hurt her."

Zefir shook his head. "You threatened her."

"No...I..." Those all too familiar eyes regarded him in earnest. "In a way...I did.  Because I threatened you with destruction. Because anymore that's the only thing her mind will focus on to allow her to stay in the present. Is you, child."

Seren was still weeping, but had buried her face in Zefir's chest.

Zefir wanted to close his eyes, to curl up with Seren in his arms and to sleep away the worry and hurt. That magically somehow she would be fine. But he wasn't a child any longer. That was a child's want. "What is wrong with her?"

The silence stretched so long that he was certain Kirwen wouldn't answer. Instead, she let out a weary sigh. "You must know, child," said Kirwen, the timbre of sorrow in her voice, "Seren is dying."

Zefir's throat felt dry, his thoughts whirling.

He wanted to breathe out a denial, wanted to believe that this wolf woman—this self professed enemy—was lying. But he couldn't hear a stutter of the valves of her mechanical heart, nor a held breath, or even a flicker of the eye that would signal a lie. The shock of it made him cold, and everything inside ached in pain; his legs seemed like they wouldn't support him, so he sat on his haunches, still holding Seren pressed to him.

His eyes stung, feeling hot. He could barely find the breath to ask, "Why is this happening to her? Like this?"

Kirwen regarded him without sign that she was moved at all by his obvious pain. But he could hear her holding her breath, see her lips pressed together tightly. Almost like Mother.

"Can...can I help her?" Zefir asked. "There must be a way."

Silence fell once again, and Zefir heard Seren's weak voice, "Tell him, lissteri. He deserves to know. Please tell him...for me."  

Zefir looked down and watched as Seren wiped at her bloodshot eyes, and moved as if the world itself were weighing her down. He still wouldn't release her, and she didn't seem inclined to move from the confines of his arms.

Kirwen remained fixated on Seren for an interminable span of time, Zefir resisting the urge to prompt her, before she placed a brass hand up to halt her mirror's pleading.

Zefir remained very still, listening to the cadence of Seren's human heart.

"Are you certain you wish to know, child?" said Kirwen at last. "The truth is unkind."

"I—I do."

"Then so be it." Her sour smile twisted into a bitter grimace. "Let us say what mirrors truly are—exact physical copies vat-grown from the blood of the First Inventrix of our Clan—and yes, I was once of your Clan." She heard Zefir's dubious grunt, but ignored it. "But that matters not. What does is that we mirrors have a set period of time to live. It's the way our flesh is constructed. Barring a violent death, it's two hundred and ten years. Near our end date, we begin to fail. Like pieces breaking apart before we shatter. The first to crumble is the mind."

Zefir clenched his jaw, wishing he didn't believe her words. "So her memory locks..."

"Have always happened. One of her unique defects altered by our predecessor, who meddled criminally in the design of our blood." Kirwen sighed. "But Seren's memory locks have never been so...debilitating. It signals that the end is near. She doesn't have long. And there's nothing that can stop it."

"How long?" Zefir managed, holding himself against the stinging in his eye.

"Were we normal mirrors, we would know to the minute. As none of us were created within normal parameters, I'm uncertain." 

Zefir's mind connected what she was truly saying: Seren was dying. Mother was dying. And Kirwen the Wolf was too.

The pressure built within him and he released a low, mournful sound.

"If she has so little time left," said Zefir, steadying his voice, "then why are you forcing her to do this?" He pointed with his snout to the growing dragon form on the tabletop. "Do you hate her so much?"

"I'm not forcing the act of creation on her." Kirwen regarded the growing brass flesh upon the table and she moved to study it, touching it in surprised wonder with a disbelieving shake of her head. "Completely denying her the Inventrix instinct, her obsession to build, would only harm her more." She flicked her gaze up to meet with his. "And no, I've never hated Seren. The mere idea is inconceivable. She is mirror-kin. She's...lissteri. A bond stronger than blood-sisterhood. You can't even begin to understand."

Zefir lowered his face closer to hers, studying her intently. "Mother...Mirena is your mirror-kin too. Why do you bear such hate for—?"

Kirwen's fist came down hard upon the table top, and Zefir flinched. Her breathing increased, hissing through her clenched teeth. The growing brass flesh of the dragon-sibling seemed to tremble near her hand.

"Ask me that again, child," she said deceptively quiet yet her voice quivering with anger, "and you'll see just what the extent of my wrath looks like."

Seren stirred, but Zefir was reluctant to set her down. "Kirwen—"

The wolf leader growled out an animalistic sound and spun around, heading for the door. Before Zefir could decide to clamp down on his thoughts, the words slipped from his mouth, "You hate me too."

It wasn't an accusation. Merely uttering the bare truth.

Kirwen halted in her tracks, brass hands clenched. Her voice was taught, like a string ready to snap. "I don't hate you, child."

Zefir gently settled Seren in the chair near the lab table, and the woman smiled mildly up at him. He walked around the wolf leader, and she allowed him to step in front of her, blocking her path. "You do. Because I call her Mother. Because she made me. Because she's your enemy, and so am I."

"I don't hate you," she repeated. "No, I hate that she dared to make the one thing I've yearned for my whole life. That which she stole from me."

Zefir didn't understand, but before he could ask she skirted around his bulk, her movements sure but hurried, and was gone.

He turned to Seren when she began to absent-mindedly hum to herself, that same song that Zefir had sung to her. Shaking himself of the aching feeling inside, disturbed by the wolf leader's obvious pain and anger, he approached his dying friend and nudged her oh-so gently with his nose.

She began to sing:

Hush child, we are here
Three against the world
Hush child, don't you fret
Three to protect your dreams
Cry and One will know
Hurt and Two will soothe
Fall and Three will catch you

"Two will sing you to sleep," she said tiredly, stroking his cheek. "Sleep now."

And she sang until she grew hoarse, repeating the same words over and over. It wasn't until Zefir curled up at her feet and feigned sleep that she stopped.

#

For the fourth time, Valin jumped his spot in the assembly line and dashed down to his squad to correct them. He was trying hard not to be frustrated by their mistakes; they made errors that a techworker child would've laughed at. Wryly, he realized that this was the very same response his own squad had when Valin made errors in the air that even a Navigator not yet old enough to fly would've never made.

He moved around Nyru, who kept grunting in frustration as she affixed the pieces on the line, and had let far too many pieces go by her.

He slapped down the pieces in his hand next to Jarre. The eternal rotation of the assembly line made its accustomed whirring sound, the din echoing through the massive workspace filled with its techsuited workers. Automatically, Valin raised his voice just enough to be heard over the whomp-whomp-whomp-hiss of the line's movement.

"These are the size three pieces." And he pointed again, making sure the other Wheelteeth second-level techies saw his admonishment. "This line requires size two pieces from the box on your left." Then he said lower, so no one else could hear, "If you can't keep up at a basic pace..."

Then they couldn't hide their true motives in being the forge caves.

Already, Valin's absence would be noted by the man standing further up the line, and if this continued, the Director would mince words with him. If they drew too much notice, then Valin and his squad wouldn't be able to steal the necessary parts for building a modified firebomb, something of his own experimental imagination.

"No problem, O First Leader of our Techie Wing," Jarre drawled nonchalantly, and surreptitiously palmed the pieces, placing them in his pocket in a deft movement.

"Keep up, blood-cousin," Ferrei crowed, her hands moving like she'd been born to such work. "Don't let techwork best you, or you'll never live it down."

Ferrei's quickness had impressed Valin enough to where he couldn't help but praise her. She'd scowled at him, and then swallowed whatever derisive reply she'd been about to utter. Instead she'd said, "It's a lot harder than I'd guessed. And oddly soothing, this work. It's like gliding...you kind of forget what you're doing and you're just in the moment."

He didn't point out that where they were in the line was usually reserved for the techworker youths entering the forge caves for the first time.

Had they been at home, back among the Cog Clan, the Director would've moved Ferrei to the quality checkpoints where Valin was even now supposed to be.

He turned to dash back to his spot in line, the heat of the forge caves pressing against his cooling-insulated techsuit in the exact way he remembered. Before he found his spot again, noting the glare of the man forced to pick up Valin's slack, a stern voice called from behind him, "A word with you, if you please."

 Valin turned to see Director Lyth eyeing him as if he weren't almost twice her small, hunched height. The Elder of the Lyth, eyes flashing, motioned him away from the din of the assembly line. Closer to the unmoving final prep tables—which at home was the domain of first-level techs only—the heat abated and the noise died down, but he could see the end result of their work: new ketch-gryphons being placed together, ready for battle.

Without preamble, Elder Lyth said, "In my cave, no one, and I mean absolutely no one jumps the line this much. Not even for correction."

Being admonished by a Director would've once filled him with a base kind of shame and dread. Even now embarrassment wormed its way through him before he batted it aside. "Apologies, Director. Back home I'm not on the lines, but in the chemical caves."

The lie almost stuck in his throat. He needed just one day—no, one hour among the chemical vats, the glassware and funnels, siphoning off the solvents...

Only the concoction he'd take away in separate vials would be...dangerous. And explosive once mixed.

"Ha," the Elder barked. "I'd rather put you in the kitchens. Then at least one of you Cog Clan scum could learn to make a decent flatbread."

Valin didn't want to admit he liked Elder Lyth, because she reminded him of all his own bloodline's Elders. "Your flatbread tastes just like my bloodline Seven's. Reminded me of home. Extra spiceberry and all."

Her mouth opened in surprise for a moment, before she closed it in a hesitant frown. She gestured him down to her level with a curt motion, and Valin immediately acquiesced—though he realized belatedly he shouldn't have given an enemy such respect—and knelt until she grasped at either side of his face; she studied his features intently, peering into his eyes, poking at his cheeks. Uncertain what she was doing, he remained still, muscles rigid.

"Double spiceberry," she muttered, "two pinches of fenu seed to give it that sour flavor, and three pinches of cinna powder?"

The secret to the Seven line's flatbread. All of the blood knew it and the proportions by heart.  

"Y-Yes," he blurted. How would a Wheelteeth know it?

Her gaze narrowed, still studying him so fixedly that he had to fight not to squirm. After a long silence, the Elder scowled at him and waved him back to his feet. "Back to the line with you, Seven. You're slowing up my production. You and those other Cog scum. If Kirwen would let me, I'd toss you all in the deepest, darkest pit we have."

And the look she gave him was so full of anger, that he stiffened his spine. "Kirwen?"

"Our leader, idiot boy."

Ah, he had a name for the Wolf at last. "I wasn't aware of her name. Your Inventrix Kirwen neglected to introduce herself properly."

"She's no Inventrix." Elder Lyth curled her lips up in disgust. "We've not had an Inventrix for over three hundred years. And a what a boon it's been to let our mirrors die out, let their vat-kept blood dry and turn to dust, to destroy our Clan's rebirth machines once and for all." Her voice rose, eyes narrowed in bare hatred. "We don't need an Inventrix telling us how to live and die, how to breed and work. They're made not to care overmuch about anything other than order, building, and having their underlings obey their grand scheme. So why, Seven, would we allow such a heartless creature to be our overlord?"  

She made his way of life sound so...pointless. As if he were no more than a thrall, destined only to obey the order of things that had been set forth since the First Inventrix of the Cog Clan. Her words made his hands curl into fists, as if he could strike such scathing ideas about his people. He wanted to argue that she spoke falsely...but something inside him rebelled, knowing there were truths uttered among Elder Lyth's hate.

"We don't allow it. It simply is." Even as Valin said it, he wanted to cringe at how empty and weak that statement. "And our Inventrix isn't heartless—"

Her harsh bark of a laugh interrupted him. "A heartless wretch, your Inventrix. She wages a never-ending war upon us. Your people are destroying us, killing my family, my people. And you probably don't even know why."

"Your Clan attacked first," he said, remembering that he'd said the same thing to Leader Kirwen. And how she'd scoffed at the rote regurgitation of his history lessons.

Elder Lyth's wrinkled face screwed up in fury. "We had no choice!"

Valin fought to tamp down on his own rising anger, remembering the Wolf's response: What is it that you think she did with our children?

He hissed in a breath, his techworker mind forming connections, yearning to put the pieces together in the proper order. "The children...your children..."

"I'll not have you gloat," she snarled. Gesturing to the line, and thrusting a finger into his chest, she growled, "Back to your place, and any more jumping the line and I swear to the Forge Gods that I'll take all of you Cog scum and throw you from the highest ledge."

He wouldn't accede, wouldn't bow to another's will. Not now. Planting his stance firmly, interlacing his fingers in front of him respectfully, Valin stated, "Our Inventrix isn't heartless. Your children, the ones from long ago—"

"She murdered them when she took them." Elder Lyth lifted her chin, glaring into his eyes.

"No, she didn't. Your children didn't come to harm." He still wasn't certain of his Inventrix's motives, but he was certain he had the truth of it. "Your children became us. They were taken into the Clan. They became new bloodlines, new—" the Wheelteeth woman didn't want to hear of bred bloodlines, so he used the more neutral, "families."

The hesitation marked its way across her face, but she shook her head. "No."

That's why she had been studying him, he was sure of  it. Looking for some lost familial feature? "How else would I know the secret to the Lyth family flatbread?"

Elder Lyth turned to the side, and made a gesture he didn't recognize. Neither a Navigator sign, or a techie command. It didn't seem vulgar. But after a moment two men detached themselves from their work on the ketch-gryphons and came to her side, promising violence with their gazes.

"Take Seven Valin here, and make certain he stays in line."

One of the men touched her shoulder. "Did he threaten you grandmere?"

"No." And she gave Valin another appraising look, hesitant. "But keep an eye on him anyway."

Valin was escorted back to his place in the assembly line, his head full of his new revelations on the past.  

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