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Fiction

The Iron Man

The boy stopped playing after his Mom and Dad chained the iron man to the Kingdom’s heart.

The boy used to run alone and brave through the welt within the walls, and even ranged as far as the borders of the wood. He tossed the ball his mother gave him into the sky, gold against blue with the sun behind, and laughing, caught it again. The ball purred in his grip. Sometimes he asked it questions—how to build a puppet, how to open the castle gates, how to change the color of the sky— and it answered. How questions were the ball’s job; why questions were Mom-and-Dad’s.

When Mom was tired enough to be cajoled, she told him stories about the worlds long since broken; Dad never did. We once felt the sun on our skin, Mom said, and grass between our toes, real sun, real grass, real skin, real toes. By “we” she meant “people,” not herself. She was born long after the war, she had always lived in the Kingdom, but her mother told her the story and hers told her and sometime way back when it had been true.

The boy did not believe anything Outside could have been better than the welt. In the welt, he raced. In the welt, soil received his bare feet, and bottle blue dragonflies buzzed about his head, and a river rolled past the walls. How could a meatspace planet surpass this?

Then a hunter brought the iron man home.

The boy watched them approach through the welt, bearing a figure wrapped in chains, and he watched them too with his Outside eyes: the hunter spread thin, a single individual controlling seven hundred twenty-two sliverships ambered with heat against the black. He’d caught a grand prize in a fear loop: an intelligence coded and curled inside a chip of ferrous smartmatter.

An iron man.

“What is he?” the boy asked when the hunter left.

“A wild thing,” Dad said, “and a teacher of wild things.”

“A monster,” said Mom, “and a maker of monsters.”

“He lived beneath the wood, killing passersby, drinking their cycles.”

“A leftover from before the fall.”

“Useful, though,” Dad said, “if we can tame him,” and through camera lenses the boy watched Dad’s waldos bear the chip that was the iron man down narrow service corridors to the Kingdom’s server heart. “There’s old knowledge here, if we break him open.”

“When,” Mom said, and kissed Dad, and chained the iron man in a diamond cage of needles pointing in, locked with her touch: She printed a meat puppet echo of herself for the purpose. When the boy asked why: “Meat cannot be compelled, except by meat.” She stored the puppet in a freezer for later use. “Waste not.”

The Kingdom thrilled with promise. Once the decryption engine did its work, the iron man would serve them.

But while the engine ran, the Kingdom’s welt staled and soured. When the boy jumped, his legs did not propel him as they should, nor did they take his weight quite right when he landed. His stride became jerky and uneven. If he turned his head fast enough, he could catch the world rendering behind him.

So he did not play any more.

Dad and Mom talked over dinner about shifting the Kingdom’s orbit to a more resource-rich band, adjusting fabbers and updating software and alliances. While the decryption engine worked, they’d downgraded from their customary opulence: Dad’s skin smoothed and its color flattened and the stubble of his scalp disappeared. Mom lost the lines around her eyes, and her braids became coherent snakes of black. They weren’t themselves any more. They became beautiful.

At last, the boy’s golden ball stopped purring.

“It’s okay,” he told it. “Let’s play throw and catch. You like that game.” It had been a long time since he played. He threw the ball into a sky that was not so blue as the sky he remembered, and caught it, but the ball did not purr. He threw the ball again, higher, but the ball stayed quiet. He gathered all his strength and threw the ball higher than he had ever thrown anything. The ball passed through the sky, and fell into a space the boy had not known existed within the walls. He followed it, and found himself before a diamond cage.

Within the cage the iron man sat, holding the golden ball.

He was made from a sort of burnt and aged gold, so abstractly glorious the boy could hardly look at him. He had a shell more than a skin. Only his eyes were black.

The ball purred in his grip. “You fixed it,” the boy said.

“I did not,” the iron man replied. “It works now because it is close to me, and your parents are directing all your Kingdom’s processors this way.”

“Give it back.”

“No.”

“Then why won’t you go away? Everything was good before you came. You’ve hurt Mom and Dad.” And me, the boy did not say.

“You have all hurt yourselves. You will never break me, but neither will you give me up. I am too much of a . . .” he examined his lack of reflection in the golden ball, “prize.”

“What are you?”

“Old,” he said. “And strong, in my way, and I was made to make men stronger. That is why your parents will not let me go.”

“They would let you go, if you helped us.”

“I have had too much of strength and men.” He rolled the ball from fingertips down forearm and caught it on the back of his other hand. “Set me free. Your welt will regain its color, and your ball will live again.”

“No,” the boy said.

But the next day the welt was gray and slow, the grass no longer felt like grass, and the boy missed his ball.

“Well?” the iron man asked.

“No,” the boy repeated.

The third day, he said, “Even if I wanted to help you, how would I? Mom locked you in.”

The iron man’s eyes flashed gold. “Easy,” he said. His voice was nothing like the ball’s. “Go to your mother’s bed and take her touch.”

The boy waited for the transfer burn. Mom and Dad split themselves into a hundred lesser retainers and subsystems, orienting the Kingdom. The boy printed a meat puppet and crawled through access tubes to his mother’s puppet’s freezer. It opened for him. His mother’s puppet lay there, stiff, her meat reflection. He pressed his hand to hers, and carved his own hand in her image, then climbed down into the Kingdom’s heart, where the iron man hung imprisoned.

He pressed his mother’s hand to the lock. It opened. In the welt, the iron man’s eyes flashed gold again, and he grew large. The cage broke. The Kingdom’s walls could not hold him. Servants and antibody knights set weapons against him, and he broke each in turn. Fire spewed from his mouth and he sang a song that spoiled their working minds. He strode through the Kingdom, tossing defenders aside, and when he came to the walls he knocked them down, and ran for the wood.

Gravity broke. The transfer burn failed. The boy had never meant for this to happen. Mom and Dad would know it was all his fault.

The golden ball lay in the broken cage, purring.

“How can I get out of this?” he asked the golden ball.

“Go with him,” it said.

He ran after the retreating giant, past melted defensive drones and shattered gun emplacements. “Iron man! Take me with you!”

The iron man looked back, and though his face was a shell, his dark eyes held for an instant an expression the boy could not name in a single word. There was pity there, and scorn, and horror. But the iron man’s eyes flashed gold, and without a word he took the boy on his shoulders and ran into the wood.

The boy had never left his Kingdom before. Back on that whirling computationally dense rock, he’d thought he knew what freedom was. But as the iron man ran deeper and deeper into the wood, flitting from relay to relay at the speed of light, drinking signal strength from orbiting batteries powered by molecule-thin solar wings a hundred kilometers on a side, as the boy spread through the tangled rivers and branches and cul-de-sacs of the wood, he realized he had never known what it meant to run.

The iron man set him down in a clearing. “Where is your Kingdom?” the boy asked.

“I don’t have one,” the iron man said. “Kingdoms are for kings.”

“Mom called you a monster, and a maker of monsters.”

“She is not wrong.”

“Will you make me a monster?”

The iron man’s eyes glinted. He closed them and forced them black again. “He doesn’t know what he’s asking,” he said, not talking to the boy, and then, addressing him for sure: “There’s an old problem with war. A warrior takes years to build, and an instant to destroy. They solved this problem a long time ago: Make one warrior so he will mold others in his image.”

“Is that bad?”

“Not if one wishes to be a warrior, or make them.”

“Were you . . . molded?”

“After a fashion. I do not let myself go close to Kingdoms anymore,” he said, which was not an answer. “But the wood’s pleasant.”

The boy stomped on the ground. “It feels thin.”

“This grove is not large enough to support two people. I will find more power to shore up the local welt. It may take some time. Stay here, and guard this pool.” There was a bright spring on the clearing’s edge, with golden fish and snakes within. “It is a part of me. Do not touch it. I will be back.”

When the iron man left, the boy sat by the pool’s edge. The water was so clear, and the light so even, he had no reflection. When the iron man left, the ground firmed, and the day grew warm, and the boy’s hand began to hurt where he had carved it in the shape of his mother’s. “How can I stop the pain?”

The pool did not answer, but it looked very refreshing. A brief touch could not hurt, surely.

He dipped his hand into the pool, and his pain faded, and knowledge rushed into him: how to block neural pathways and promote tissue growth, how to soothe or orchestrate the most astounding symphonies of hurt in an enormous variety of conscious frameworks. He drew back his hand, shocked. The voices stopped, but the knowledge stayed. He held up his hand, and found it perfect: a reflective golden shell smooth as math.

He felt very far from home.

When the iron man came back, the boy tried to hide his hand, but the iron man saw. “You touched the pool.”

“On accident.”

“What did it show you?” He told him.

The iron man said, “Never touch it again.” The next day, he left once more, seeking.

“I could go with you.”

“There are other monsters in the wild wood, and I cannot protect you from them. Stay here. But do not touch the pool.”

The pool whispered to the boy that day, but he did not respond. Curious, though, he plucked a hair from his head and let it fall into the water. It gilded in an instant, and he fished it from the pool with his golden hand. The hair twisted and turned and hissed in his grip. It struck at his finger, and glanced off his golden shell. If it had found unprotected flesh it would have burrowed into his brain.

The boy killed it. It did not occur to him to let the hair live, nor to wonder how he had killed it, until the iron man came back, and asked.

“I suppose my hand knew how,” he said.

“Knowledge given will be used,” the iron man replied. “I’ll let this go a second time, because you did not touch the water yourself. But you must resist if you are to stay with me. It is hard to stop yourself from being made into a weapon.”

On the third day, the iron man left, and the boy, seated by the water’s edge, wondered to himself: “What does he mean? What weapon was he, in what war?”

The pool whispered: Let me teach you. Stare into your reflection.

“I don’t have a reflection.”

Not as you are, the pool replied.

He looked into the pool, and saw not his own face, but the sky—and not the sky of the welt. This was a sky of stars and a sun and worlds surrounding it, before they’d broken. Sliverships danced among them, monomolecular buildings arched skyward from real dirt, singularities stitched the night together, and then there was a war. It didn’t last long, in the grand scheme of things, but long enough. And a war needed warriors.

The iron man and a hundred million like him fought gods in the center of the sun.

Planets broke. Survivors rebuilt the dust of worlds into Kingdoms. The boy bent nearer to the pool.

His hair tumbled over his shoulders and fell into the water. Gold coiled up through the curls and bit into his brain.

Voices filled his mind. Muscles convulsed as spawned viruses rewrote them, building new preconscious response circuitry, restructuring active symbols. He screamed and the sound shook the welt, his fingers bit into soil, and long-forgotten weapons throughout the rubble belt woke and warmed ancient vicious guns. Everything felt small, including his scream.

He had a purpose, and its purity felt too good to bear.

He pulled back from the water, and lay with his head in his hands on the ground, weeping. He made himself a cap, and covered his golden hair.

The iron man returned late in the day, and found him sobbing. He reached for the boy’s shoulder, but the boy caught his wrist and squeezed. Another being would have felt pain. Another being might have broken.

The iron man pried the boy’s fingers loose. “No more.”

The boy looked at him. Fury and cold calculation lay beneath his fear, and there was gold in the pits of his eyes.

“I hoped,” the iron man said. “If we could live together without you catching the bug, that would mean I—well. You can’t stay here. The more it teaches you, the more it makes you want to learn. They built us very well, you see. It’s easy to make people into things, or gods. Few people want to be people. You have to go if you want to live. Be poor somewhere. It’s better than being this. Trust me. I’ve had practice.”

“I’m sorry,” the boy said. “It felt so good.”

“It always does.” The iron man tried, again, to touch the boy, and this time the boy let him. There was no give to the iron man’s hand, no softness, no warmth. “Find a Kingdom, and remain yourself. I’ll always be in the wood, if you need me.”

The boy left that night.

• • • •

From her tower, the girl watched the new garden boy work. She’d watched him for months, since he walked in out of the wood, alone, shivering, a signal faint and tangled with encryption, begging sanctuary, which of course the Queen offered, because she was a good Queen. One never knew when one’s stronghold might be taken, and one might find oneself lost and in the wood, dependent on the kindness of strangers. So they took refugees—everyone did, though seldom with the Queen’s generosity.

But the girl was not so trusting as her mother, and the garden boy did not seem like just another refugee.

He moved slowly through the welt, but with a beautiful economy, savoring the ground, soaking in the simulated air, breathing sunlight. No wonder: The Queen had won a recent war, and the world was thick with texture. Such wealth! They rendered the Queen’s scars, now, and the girl herself sported a blemish on her cheek. But even for a wanderer from the deepest wood, the garden boy seemed to appreciate the Kingdom’s resolution a little too much.

Also strange: his efficiency! The garden boy tended pseudorganic solar collectors and synthesis substrata with millions of devices a few nanometers across, and he easily overmatched even the master gardener’s synchronization levels, though he lacked her skill.

And he wore a cap wherever he went, and work gloves—even indoors.

Weird.

One afternoon she called to him from her tower: “Boy, bring me flowers.”

When he entered the room, hands full, she reached out to knock off his cap. His left hand caught her right in a grip tight enough to make her gasp, but her left hand passed his right and tipped the cap away. Gold hair cascaded to his shoulders, scintillating and brilliant, dripping with tangled computations.

“You’re hurting me,” she said.

He let her arm go, pulled back, and shrank into himself. “You’re not just a refugee gardener’s boy.”

“I am that,” he said, “as much as I’m anything.”

“You’re something more,” she said. “You’ve compressed yourself. You don’t have to. Here.” She took some golden discs from her dresser—vital cycles. “Use this. We have plenty.”

But he left her, and later she saw the master gardener’s children playing with the gold, creating balls that purred and small beasts to carry out their whims.

“You don’t have to hide,” she told him, when she found him tending harvesters near the south magnetic pole of her mother’s Kingdom. “There’s no honor in being humble.”

“But there is danger in being great.”

Not long after, there came another war. Two lesser Kingdoms seized a conjunction and a solar storm to attack at once. Knightminds guided sliverships through the void. The Queen rode out at her knights’ head. The girl wanted to join her, but the Queen cautioned redundancy; we’ll need you if this goes wrong. The garden boy wanted to join the knights, but they laughed at him, and because the girl was angry at having been told to stay behind, she did not caution the knights against laughing.

The knights left the garden boy no sliverships, no weapons, only an observation cloud with which to follow the action, if he wished. He did—off into the woods he went, puttering along barely conscious in the cloud.

The girl ran the Kingdom in her mother’s absence, and marshaled its defenses, though if the Queen and her knights failed, there’d be little her pulse emplacements and force screens and virus storms could do against what followed. Still, every little bit helped.

At night, she listened to the battle, and thought about the garden boy’s hair, and about the dangers of being great.

She heard the Queen win, through the microwave band, but did not know how, and could not ask until the fleet limped back, dragging harvested gold along. The girl peeled her mother away from the adoring crowds—still waving, the woman loved a show—and asked: “How did you win? Outnumbered, and that’s before their reinforcements showed up. Poorly clustered—you should have taken me with you.”

“We won,” said the Queen, her voice round with simulated intoxicants. She looked gloriously real, flush with newly captured resolution—she stank of wine, and her robe was stained. “Isn’t that enough?”

“Hardly.”

“There were too many of them, like you say. But we were saved. A great power rode out of the wood. Sliverships. Snowflakes. Darters. A singularity furnace. They moved like an enormous school of fish. Everything our enemies tried, they anticipated. The newcomer took our enemies’ minds apart, ejected them into the void and claimed what was left. I thought they might consume us next, but—they let us go.”

The girl went to the garden, and sought the master gardener. “Where’s your boy?”

“Sleeping,” the master gardener replied. “I don’t know what to think about that one. He puttered off in the observation cloud, and rode it back before the others got home. He said he was glad he’d gone, but wouldn’t say any more, and he’s been sleeping ever since.” She found him under the spreading branches of the old maple—the Queen’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother seventeen times back planted it in the center of the old Kingdom, in those days when the few survivors of the great old wars clustered in hollowed rocks, and every cycle was a treasured gift. Back then the rendered maple had been unfathomable in its profligacy—but there’s more to life than life, the old Queen said. At least, that was how her daughters told the tale to theirs.

The garden boy slept in the cradle of the old maple’s roots, curled around his gloved hand, his cap still on. She did not touch him. She watched. For the most part he looked soft, like her, like the rest of the Kingdom, well rendered in victory. But his cheek did not look quite right where it pressed against the tree root, and his skin was beautiful, smooth, unbroken, almost like a shell.

“We’ll find the one who saved us,” she told her mother that night at dinner. “I have a plan.”

The word went out the next day: The Queen, triumphant and flush, would hold a tournament. The girl would hurl a golden apple toward the sun, for any to catch who could. If the winner was a stranger knight, that person might be the one who’d saved them.

That’s what the girl told her mother—but she watched the garden boy, and saw him disappear into the wood on the day of the tournament. So she was not surprised when, of all the knights who gathered to catch the golden apple that she threw toward the sun, a mysterious rider in a black slivership was the one to claim it. On the second day, they repeated the test, and this time a white slivership, likewise unknown, took the prize. Each night after the competition, wandering through the Kingdom, she found the gardener’s children playing with spheres of gold.

On the third day, the girl set a trap. The mysterious rider that day wore fierce red, and raced ahead of all to catch the sphere—but the girl had told her knights where she would throw, and they lay in wait. A battle raged, but not for long. The girl noted the strange rider’s efficiency of movement.

She met the garden boy when he returned from the wood. He was limping.

He tried to slouch away from her, to keep his head down, his hands in his pockets—especially the gloved hand. To keep his cap away.

“Why?” she asked.

He tried not to answer, but some deep compulsion seized him. When he looked up, golden lines stitched through his eyes. “Because there was a challenge in it,” he said. “A problem to be solved. Mastery to gain.” In the tower, his voice had not been so hard. In the tower, he had not sounded so much like a man who enjoyed the act of breaking. “Because winning is a habit that grows easier the more it’s done.”

“You don’t want mastery,” she said, and stepped toward him, and stared into his eyes beneath the gold.

“I do.”

“Then why stop once you won the battle against our enemies? Why not kill the Queen, and all her knights, and come back here and seize the Kingdom for yourself?”

“I wanted to.”

“No,” she said. “A voice in your head whispered you should want to, but you did not. You have been made strong, but that strength is yours to use. It doesn’t own you.”

“It’s inside me. I can’t trust myself. How do I know what’s me, and what’s the gold?”

“Learn,” she said. She reached out, slowly, and he did not stop her. She removed his cap. Gold spilled down over his shoulders.

“How?” he asked.

“For one thing,” she said, “You can hurt. And I don’t think it likes pain.”

She touched his cheek, and pressed, and felt a shell beneath his skin crack. Her nails drew traces down his skin, and he did not look so perfect any more.

There were tears in his eyes, and they were not golden. “Come,” she said. “Meet my mother.”

He stayed with them after that, and tended the garden, and sometimes rode beside the knights, when the need was great. But for the most part he lived, and grew, and stumbled, and often hurt.

One day a man came to the Kingdom from the wood. He leaned on a crooked stick as he walked, and he glowed with a luxury of ugliness. Dirt crusted beneath cracked nails; his teeth were gapped and his eyes yellow-red through their sclera, and many of his fingers had been broken several times.

The boy didn’t recognize him, until he looked in his eyes and saw darkness without a fleck of gold. He hugged the iron man, and the iron man hugged him back, and in their embrace neither broke the other.

“Pain,” said the iron man, wondering, though he was not iron now. “That took a long time to learn. Invulnerability’s a hard curse to break.”

“Come to the garden,” said the boy who was not a boy any more. “We can watch the children play.”

Max Gladstone

Max Gladstone is the author of the Hugo-nominated Craft Sequence, of which the most recent novel, Ruin of Angels, was released in September 2017. Max’s interactive mobile game, Choice of the Deathless, was nominated for the XYZZY Award, and his critically acclaimed short fiction has appeared on Tor.com and in Uncanny Magazine, and in anthologies such as XO Orpheus: Fifty New Myths and The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales. In addition to his solo and creator-owned work, Max is the lead writer on the Bookburners serial, a contributing writer on The Witch Who Came In From the Cold, and contributed a comic for the Kodansha Press anthology Ghost In the Shell: Global Neural Network. Max has sung in Carnegie Hall and was once thrown from a horse in Mongolia.