Science Fiction & Fantasy

Stross_Dead-Lies-Dreaming_Lightspeed

Advertisement

Fiction

Always the Harvest

Nissaea-of-the-Slant wasn’t even looking for an eye implant in the mazeway lode when she came across the half-smashed ocular. It was worthless in any case, and she gritted her teeth at her bad luck. A hand was what she needed, and this was her last chance. The sputtering confounders, the only ones she’d been able to afford, would give out sooner or later, and then she wouldn’t be able to hide her illegal implant-mining from the Watch.

She was about to try again to the left when she heard the sound. It was hard to make out. In the city above, she heard the echoes of a distant chant accompanied by drums, undoubtedly temple services. She must have been down here longer than she’d realized. And the damned drums made it harder for her to hear anything else. She straightened and looked around, ready to spring toward the nearest exit at the slightest indication of trouble.

It took only a moment to locate the source of the noise. Crumpled near one of the heaps of partially digested motherboards was a slight figure, smaller even than Nissaea herself. Nissaea’s darkvision (a simple modification based on a sensor patch, not a full ocular replacement) didn’t offer much discrimination. She didn’t want to draw attention from the tunnels by switching on a brighter light source, just in case, but she was still dismayed at herself for not spotting the figure earlier.

I have to get out of here, Nissaea thought, edging away as quickly as she could without tripping over the wrack of discarded packaging, outcroppings, bent pipes. Just before her circle had cast her out for the circuit-infection that had disabled her hand, she’d heard persistent rumors of a murderer lurking in the mazeways. Not that murder was anything new, especially among the undercircles and those who had no circle at all, but the descriptions of the corpses had been particularly gory and Nissaea preferred not to take chances. She was halfway to the exit from the chamber to the lower mazeways when a new sound stopped her.

“Water,” the figure said softly, in a voice not so much sexless as pure of timbre. It had lifted its head and was watching Nissaea with eyes of indeterminate color.

Nissaea could have kept on going, but the utter hopelessness in its eyes stopped her. The voice’s owner expected her to abandon it. She remembered how the head of her former circle, Addit, had turned his back to her the moment she showed up with the infection. It hadn’t even been worth pleading to buy part of a new hand on credit and pay the rest back later. She wasn’t going to be like Addit. Well, not straightaway.

“How long have you been there?” she demanded in a fierce whisper.

It bowed its head, drew a shuddering breath. “Always,” it said, a questioning lilt to its voice, then: “Always.”

The answer made no sense, but she assumed that it was addled from being trapped down here who knew how long. All at once she made up her mind, and offered it her canteen. It looked at her, awaiting her nod before taking one measured sip, then a second one.

In the meantime, Nissaea took the opportunity to scrutinize the stranger. One of its eyes was artificial and almost seemed to glow faintly in facets, insectine. The other, human eye, set in a face quiltwork-patched together from alternating swatches of metal and skin, was sunken and fever-bright. An extravagant inlaid mark, like a captive prism, decorated one cheek. It was weirdly incongruous beneath the melancholy human eye. And then there were its hands: the left one, although a prosthetic, was very close to human in shape, except for the stubby pearlescent talons, which looked like they might retract. The right arm, worryingly thin, was of flesh, and led down to fingers with bitten nails. The stranger wore a shift too large for it, and no shoes, revealing too human feet with scarred soles.

“Drink,” Nissaea said, realizing it wasn’t going to take any more unless she said to.

It took three more sips, paused, then allowed itself one more. Nissaea found this polite parsimony oddly endearing. Then it said, “Thank you,” and sank partway down with a whispered exhalation.

They were interrupted by a distorted sound from above: rough voices, some buzzing and scarcely human, and the thump of footsteps above the chamber, mediated through layers of honeycombed metal and nestled pipes. Nissaea couldn’t quite make out what the speakers were saying, but she was betting that that was the guttural rhythm of the Watch’s dialect. More to the point, if they were Watch and they could hear the reverberations under their feet, they might figure out there was an illegal dig here. She’d thought that this chamber was some distance from their usual patrol routes, but apparently not.

“Go,” the stranger said. “You can’t let them find you.”

“I can’t leave you here,” Nissaea returned, although this was patently untrue. Still, she remembered how it had stung when Addit had discarded her, the moment when she’d gone from valued scavenger to unnecessary expense. She could do better than that, be better than that.

“I won’t be able to keep up with you,” it said.

“Are they after you?”

It looked confused by the question. “Why would they be after me?”

Hell with it. They shouldn’t linger here any longer. “Come with me,” she said insistently. When it didn’t respond, she tugged hard on its human hand.

The stranger wasn’t completely stupid. It didn’t jerk away from her, or yank itself out of the mess of rough-edged debris, not that it looked like it had much strength for that sort of thing anyway. Instead, as carefully as it could, it worked itself loose from the entanglement of chiaroscuro wires. Its breath hitched when a sharp edge scraped across its ankle, although Nissaea couldn’t help being glad that the segment was flesh, not something that would have made a louder noise.

At last it stood. The footsteps had paused abruptly. Nissaea heard snatches of words, as clear as hallucinations of water: illegal, hollow, rats in the tunnels. She cursed inwardly.

“This way,” she breathed, glancing back once. She couldn’t see anything; had it sunk back down? But she couldn’t afford to wait any longer, either. She padded to the exit leading downward and plunged past. Dank air soughed through the darkness, smelling nauseatingly of metallic precipitates and mold.

The Watch was tapping, tapping, tapping. She could hear their scanners’ thrum at the base of her skull. It wouldn’t be long before they located her confounders and destroyed them.

Nissaea heard an intake of breath, and risked turning on the smallest of lights, a pin-flicker in her wrist. It was the only thing in her prosthetic that still functioned. “Don’t lose sight of me in the mazeways,” she said without slowing down. “Stay close. I won’t have time to backtrack and search for you.”

“Yes,” the stranger said, very quietly.

The distinct sizzle-zap-pop of confounders being overloaded followed them into the mazeways. Nissaea’s darkvision helped her less than she would have liked. Most well-equipped scavengers opted for wide-spectrum oculars for situations like this. However, Nissaea had spent many hours in the mazeways, and she knew them well. In the swollen shadows, she could see great wheels of uncertain diameter and unknown purpose, wrecked resonators, crystal displays roused to phantom splendor in this faintest of lights. The footing was unsure, and more than once she had to slow, as much as she hated any delay, to pick a safe route through the corrugated rubble.

Clanging noises tracked them through the mazeways, knotting and unknotting in unsettling bursts. Nissaea reminded herself more than once to breathe. If the Watch was close enough to hear her breathing, she’d already have a bullet in her back anyway. By this point she had forgotten about her impetuous decision to drag the stranger with her. If anything, she assumed it had gotten lost some time back.

Then she heard a shout, distant but angry. For once she lost her composure and bolted forward and to the right without having any clear plan for where to go next, panic translated into pure motion. Her foot caught hard on something hard and thin, a wire perhaps. She went down. Only the habits of survival kept her from crying out as she thumped down with appalling loudness against a shape made of sharp angles. Her palms were scraped raw, and her breath whooshed out between her teeth.

“I’m here,” the stranger said in its soft, colorless voice. Nissaea was too busy fighting back sobs to answer, or even to be surprised at its presence. It didn’t bother her with further attempts at conversation. Instead, it offered its hand, gently at first, then more insistently. Once she understood its intent—the pain was making her stupid—she accepted its help stumbling to her feet. A deep roar reverberated through the passages, and she flinched: They were getting awfully close.

Her shin throbbed abominably and a sticky warmth soaked her pant leg. She risked fumbling for a tube of skinseal, almost dropping it in her haste, and rolled up her pant leg to apply it as best she could in the dark. It didn’t feel as though she’d quite covered the wound, but it would have to do.

Another roar. Footsteps and their echoes pattered through the mazeways like a drumroll. Nissaea wasn’t one of the lucky people with an acoustic analyzer that, combined with an up-to-date map, would tell her exactly where the sounds were coming from. The mazeways changed hourly, little by little, and mapping them was a profession in itself.

“Where?” the stranger said. She realized it was asking the question for the second time.

“They won’t gas us,” Nissaea said, a hope she would normally have kept to herself, except the pain was still muddling her thoughts. The mazeways connected too many inhabited areas, or more accurately, too many areas inhabited by people who paid protection money to the Watch, or who had influence with the city’s high circles. “But they haven’t given up.”

“I can still hear them,” the stranger agreed, just as softly as before. “Point the way.”

Nissaea squinted into the shadows. For a horrible moment she couldn’t tell where they were. Then she found the passage she remembered and pointed. The stranger took her hand again and led her in.

Nissaea wasn’t one of those people who was timelocked to the city’s cycles. She spent the next interval in a haze, guiding them each time the stranger squeezed her hand. Ordinarily the power drain of her implants would have given her some indication of passing time, but she was having trouble monitoring her internals, and the few that had associated clocks had never been all that reliable.

She came out of her haze when they ran into the corpse. The stranger didn’t seem to notice it, or didn’t slow when they approached it, at any rate. In all fairness, Nissaea almost didn’t notice it herself. There was no smell of blood, or shit, or decay, or any of the weary universals she associated with death. Instead, a wavering, almost aquatic fragrance permeated the air, as of certain preservatives.

The corpse had had its spine cracked backwards into a bridge-like arc, and was suspended by a spider-profusion of wires that led tautly to the chamber’s walls and ceiling. Unfocused glass beads shone from the wires, held in place by barbed hooks. No evidence remained of whatever tools had been used to pound open the sternum and scrape out the organs, or extract the eyes—she could just barely see the trails that the optic nerves made down the corpse’s face, arranged into butterfly curves. In the low light it was impossible to discern colors clearly, probably a blessing. Everything appeared in washed-pale blues and sullen whites and silhouette blacks. The murderer had done an especially conscientious job of draining the blood, to the point where it almost wasn’t clear the corpse had ever possessed any.

“Are you hurt?” the stranger said, having finally noticed that Nissaea wasn’t moving forward.

“So it’s true about the murderer,” Nissaea said.

Nissaea wasn’t squeamish. She had seen her share of back-alley deaths, learning from an early age to hide when the Watch took out its need for hilarity on some vagabond. In particular, she’d learned enough to be distantly grateful that the guardsman who had taken her original hand, long ago, hadn’t thought of something more inventive to do.

Nevertheless, the corpse bothered her, mainly because of the finicky thoroughness with which it had been arranged. It was almost possible to regard it as a sculpture, or a puzzle. Focus on the cleanness of the incisions, of the precisely placed punctures that the wires made in the body, and you could admire the murderer’s skill; focus on the mathematical curve of the spine and the graceful angles of the limbs, and you had to wonder if the murderer had some aesthetic insight to convey.

“We should go,” the stranger said, only a little questioning. “There’s nothing useful left here.”

“What if the murderer’s down here looking for us too?” Nissaea said. There was an odd warning twinge in her leg, higher than the injury, and it worried her.

“Staying still won’t help us,” the stranger said dryly. “Please. Let’s go.”

Reluctantly, Nissaea looked away from the corpse, and they hobbled out of the chamber together. Her imagination insisted that the corpse was muttering at their backs, even if she couldn’t hear anything, and even if the flow of air currents was dank and steady.

They proceeded more carefully after that, alert to every chance clatter and pin-drop trickle of sound. It seemed that the Watch had lost their trail, or lost interest, anyway, but Nissaea couldn’t help flinching every time she heard something unexpected. To her mortification, her damaged hand went into convulsions just as they nudged their way onto a bridge of stiff swaying fibers, fingers spasming in rattling metallic syncopation. Not now, Nissaea begged the universe, although it was unlikely that it mattered at this point.

The stranger stopped, to her dismay. “This injury,” it said, gaze going directly to the prosthetic. “An old one?”

She tried to shove past it, which the bridge was too narrow to permit if it was determined not to let her. “It’s not important,” she said through her teeth. After all, she thought wildly, a hand that alternated between being dead and going into spasms still beat being cut up like the corpse back there. “We’re not far from the Cat-Eyed Gate. Let’s keep going.”

To her surprise, the stranger didn’t argue this, although she could sense its unhappiness. Why it wanted to deal with diagnostics just this moment was beyond her, but since it wasn’t pressing the point, neither would she.

At last the bridge was far behind them, and they reached the Cat-Eyed Gate. It had been mined out years ago, and nothing remained but the occasional chatoyant glimmer of green or blue or gold substrate.

“This is the gate?” the stranger asked.

By now Nissaea was panting softly. Her entire leg hurt now, hot raking fingers of pain that were even now reaching upward. “Yes,” she said, or thought she said. She wasn’t sure she had much of a voice left.

“Tell me where to take you,” the stranger said.

She had the vague thought that this had started with her intent to help the stranger and not the other way around. She opened her mouth to protest, but nothing came out. It wasn’t as though she had any allies left anyway. Then the pain clawed up again, toward groin and torso, and she collapsed into a vast constricting darkness.

When human explorers discovered the city, they thought it was another ruin from some earlier wave of colonization. It wasn’t until settlers had abandoned the ship over a doctrinal schism that people discovered the city’s peculiar properties.

The city, which the majority sect named Contemplating Orthodoxy, originally showed the blandest of faces to its settlers. It was a sphere orbiting a dismal sun, hollowed out by nonorthogonal passages and irregular chambers, like an apple cored by enthusiastic worms. The chambers were composed of corroded walls and beams of bent metal and unreliable floors. People assessed the structure, shored up what needed shoring up, built their own dwellings and factories from a combination of their own supplies and the city’s excess material, and moved in.

Not long afterward, the walls changed. And the floors. And the ceilings. And the columns, and the bridges, and the doors, and the occasional couch. At first the phenomenon was confined to items made of the city’s original material, but later everything was affected.

Contemplating Orthodoxy, it turned out, had what one of the early philosopher-poets called mirror-nature. When it was uninhabited, it lay quiescent. When humans crept into it, it reflected them according to its own kaleidoscope understanding.

The form the city’s understanding took was, so to speak, spare parts for its inhabitants. From the walls grew tangled tendrils of wire, and the tendrils fused together into bones of strong composites, and the bones hinged together into hands, or feet, or hips sheathed in plastic or metal. There were eyes in every conceivable color, growing like fervent grapes from pillars, the sensors glittering pale and vigilant; there were infrared sensors and scanners and seismic analyzers.

Most people were convinced that this signaled that the city was going to eat them. The riots that followed involved smashing, hacking, and huddling in shelters ineffectually treated with everything from insecticide to surfactants in hopes of warding off the unsettling growths. But one surgeon hit upon the idea of harvesting an eye from the city and implanting it in his brother. According to some accounts, he pitied his brother for an eye maimed in an accident involving a staple gun. According to less flattering stories, he was driven by malicious curiosity. (Why the brother didn’t resist or flee, they don’t say.) Either way, the experiment was a success. The filaments that emerged from the back of the cybernetic eye successfully interfaced with human nerves, and, as a side-effect, gave the surgeon’s brother the ability to see partway into the ultraviolet.

It didn’t take long for other surgeons to begin offering this service, to say nothing of eager charlatans. After all, the riots had resulted in any number of injuries, and the regenerative tanks that the settlers had brought with them were running low on the necessary gels. People came around to the idea that ready-made spare parts and enhancements weren’t such a bad thing, even if they came in outlandish colors. Scarcely any time passed before the outlandish colors became a motivation in themselves, and soon after that, the first Harvests were organized in earnest.

Nissaea dreamt for a long time of low-lidded octopuses floating through space so black it was red, or so red it was black; of stars the color of incisions, and a bird singing in a voice like a bone flute on the verge of breaking. When at last she struggled awake, she blinked crusted eyelids against light sere and pitiless, as though it were part of the dream itself. “Jeni?” she asked hoarsely, mistaking the shape in front of her for a circle-sister from years past. But of course Jeni had died in a Watch raid.

“This is a name?” said a voice she didn’t recognize at first. “It’s not one I know.” A smooth hand, although not a soft one, pressed itself against her wrist, testing—perhaps for her pulse.

She flinched. Something about her wrist felt wrong, but she couldn’t figure out what it was. Instead, she scrabbled uselessly among the blankets, scratchy but warmed by her own heat, for some weapon better than her fists—fist.

Fist. Her entire left hand was missing. It shocked her fully awake. She bolted out of the bed, blankets tangling her legs, and looked around, forcing herself to take in details that might help her escape. Walls that wound up to a cusp. No windows, although there were vents covered by lavender membranes, like fungus gills, that she might be able to tear through. The familiar whisk-whirr of the mass transit system somewhere beyond them. Flowers, of all things: not the cybernetic blossoms that the city produced, with their unwilting plastic petals and stamens shaped like upside-down catenary curves, but a dented steel can of genuine weeds, yellow-bright, with holes in the lopsided leaves. Next to the flowers was the exit she’d sought. The door was slightly ajar, and the stranger wasn’t standing in her way toward it.

All this, and no sign of her hand. She fixed the stranger with a stare.

The stranger wasn’t stupid. “It was infected,” it said simply. “That wasn’t just a cut you took. The nano-rot introduced by your wound was drawn to the faulty components in your hand. I removed it as a precaution.”

Nissaea narrowed her eyes at it. In full light, its features possessed the same patchwork sense of balance she had noted before, human and machine parts alternating with each other as though they were being weighed against each other. “If you’re a scrap surgeon,” she said, “what were you doing abandoned like a slab of meat gone bad?” Surreptitiously, she tensed and untensed the muscles of her afflicted leg. The cut still throbbed distantly, but otherwise most of the pain was gone.

Even a half-competent surgeon was usually valued enough that some circle would retain them. “Scrap surgeon” was a derogatory term, but the stranger showed no sign of offense. “I was always there,” it said in a voice tinged with sadness. It raised its chin, considered her, then shook its head.

Maybe its former circle had gotten rid of it because its mind wasn’t all there. Still, she raised her wrist, steeling herself, and inspected the amputation. A very clean job, the bone sawed and the stump capped with a bright green-gold metal. She had a brief phantom sensation of locked fingers, but that was old news. “Thank you,” she said. The truth was that she couldn’t afford work this good.

“I would have harvested a prosthesis for you already,” it added, “but I didn’t want to leave you unattended in case the fever got worse.”

Nissaea drew her breath in, not sure she had understood correctly. “I can’t pay—”

“It’s not a question of payment,” it said. “I want—” Its voice became unexpectedly scratchy on want. “I want a roof.”

“You mean sponsorship into a circle,” Nissaea said after she parsed the archaic word. She made herself look at it straight on. “This is terrible recompense, but I can’t give you that. I’m not a circle-breaker, so the enforcers won’t shoot me, but my circle revoked my membership. I don’t have any connections.”

Looking into the stranger’s mismatched eyes told her only that its desire was real, but why wouldn’t it be? Even scavengers like Nissaea, even fences and circuit-cutters belonged to circles. It was the order of things.

“You gave me water and helped me out of the dark,” it said. “You didn’t have to do either. It’s not a circle’s companionship I want. It’s yours.”

She gentled her voice. “I don’t mean to be ungrateful. My name is Nissaea-of-the-Slant.” She’d been withholding it all this time, since you didn’t casually introduce your name-chant to a stranger, but it had probably saved her life and she didn’t see any point in being coy. “What should I call you?”

“I never needed a name before,” it said.

Did it come from one of the more esoteric circles where people called each other by numbers? There were a few of those. “Well, you could pick something you like?” she suggested.

“Muhad,” it said after a moment. “I don’t have a chant.”

“Muhad,” she said, being as careful with the name as she would with a delicate piece of jewelry. “Have I got it right?”

She was rewarded by Muhad’s smile, a curve made beautiful rather than perfect by its asymmetry, one side of the mouth a nudge higher than the other. Oh, do that again, she thought in spite of herself.

“Of course it’s right,” Muhad said, shyly. It would have been flirtatious coming from anyone else. Its gaze went to Nissaea’s stump. “I meant it, about a hand. You shouldn’t go without one.” It paused, suddenly uncertain. “Unless you wanted a different appendage?”

Pincers, tentacles, integrated guns . . . Nissaea had never been attracted to the more exotic options, which cost more anyway. “No,” she said hastily. “Just a hand. If I can find a compatible one without having to raid a parts bank.” Not that they’d have any luck doing that. They’d be safer picking a fight directly with the Watch.

“I can do that,” Muhad said. “I know of a lode in the deep places, now that you are well enough to travel.” It spoke as tranquilly as if it had made a simple statement of arithmetic, were it not for the shadow in its eyes.

“Then I’ll need supplies,” Nissaea said. “I’m out of confounders. I’m not going out without any.” She didn’t ask what Muhad meant by the “deep places,” and didn’t want to know until the last possible moment. There was no way such a harvest could be legal, even by the undercircles’ codes. But she found that she cared less and less. She’d followed the codes and worked hard at her profession, only to be tossed out like scrap. At this point, she might as well look out for herself and the one person who had showed her kindness.

Few people gave Nissaea so much as a pitying look when she showed up with a missing hand, even the ones who recognized her. Instead, they ignored her pointedly. Muhad drew more attention, although Nissaea stood protectively near it at all times. She knew they couldn’t linger. The local undercircles didn’t keep formal registries the way the high circles did, but the stranger’s presence would be marked, and sooner or later someone would be sent to investigate. Sideways Hano did attempt to draw Muhad into a discussion of heterodoxies in Chamberish theology when Nissaea was buying them grub fritters, but he did that to everyone, and after several rambling lectures, even he figured out that Muhad’s polite bewilderment wasn’t faked.

Getting together supplies didn’t take long, mainly because Nissaea had been flat broke before and she was still flat broke now. But they obtained confounders and a few other basics because Muhad matter-of-factly volunteered to have the decorative inlay work on its face removed. The angry-looking scar left behind saddened Nissaea. Silently, she promised to make it up to Muhad.

One of the things that Nissaea insisted on was shoes for Muhad. They didn’t fit very well. The soles were worn thin and the canvas looked all but translucent, and not in the aesthetic way either. Muhad didn’t seem to mind, however.

Nissaea’s nerves finally gave out when they slipped down into the mazeways. She asked about the lode: Would it be underwater? Flooded with acid? Require special breathing apparatus or hacked frequency keys? These were all things she should have asked before they went shopping, except for the fact that they couldn’t afford specialized equipment anyway. Even when she’d been in good standing with Addit’s circle, she’d only ever touched that kind of thing on loan, for particular assignments.

At last Muhad said, after a series of patient reassurances, “Nothing down there will harm you, Nissaea-of-the-Slant. I don’t think there’s even much to trip on.”

Nissaea opened her mouth to protest, then caught Muhad’s almost-smile and realized she was being teased.

They left for the lode during nighttime. The city’s cycles were signaled along the major thoroughfares by clocklights that changed color from morning pink to noon gold to alluring evening blue. According to a past circle-sister, the color scheme mimicked that of the original planet’s skies, something that reproductions of very old paintings and photographs suggested might have some basis in fact. Every few years one or another of the high circles petitioned to have the colors reprogrammed to match their livery (undercircles didn’t bother with livery), and the rest of the high circles quashed the notion. Nissaea wouldn’t have minded the variety, but she didn’t get a say. Besides, tonight’s dim blue glow was pretty enough.

The light faded behind them as they entered the mazeways beneath the statue called Embracing Birds. One of Nissaea’s former circle-kin stood guard in the hollows by the gate, collecting the toll. He was a cadaverous man, each rib emphasized by a pitted metal stripe, and his leg was ribbon-thin all the way up to the joint at his hip. A clear covering exposed the organs of his torso, but Nissaea had seen stranger things than a man’s inner workings.

“You know the toll,” the man said in a voice like stone scraped thin. The toll would be higher now that she was an independent.

In answer, Nissaea made an abbreviated gesture of respect and pressed her palm twice against his, once for herself and once for Muhad. There was a tiny beep as the transaction went through. She raised her eyebrows at the man, wondering if he would make trouble for her.

She was lucky, or in any case, not unluckier than she already had been for the last few days. The man shook his head, although the gleam in his eye suggested that he was thinking of reporting her and Muhad. Well, she could deal with that later. She nodded to Muhad, and they slipped into the mazeways together.

The transition into the mazeways always caused Nissaea’s breath to stutter in her lungs even after all these years. Great whippy tendrils of fiber and hungry iron-jawed mouths grew from the gate’s throat, slick with the dew of anticipated carrion. They were careful to walk precisely down the middle of the passage, so as not to attract the tendrils’ attention.

After years of being the one handling the navigation, Nissaea was dismayed to discover how rapidly she got lost following Muhad. If she hadn’t known better, she would have suspected that the mazeways had reshuffled themselves like a cheater’s hand of cards, except she’d never known them to do so with such haste. She paid attention to the scissored shadows, the malevolent gleam of fetal sensors, the grit beneath her feet the way she hadn’t since she was a small child clinging to her sister’s hand.

She couldn’t help wondering if they would run into another corpse, whether one neatly cracked open like the last one, or smashed into stains. It took an effort to make herself breathe evenly instead of hyperventilating. But the only human reek was her own rank sweat. Even Muhad, perhaps because its modifications were more extensive than her own, smelled only of pale salt.

Between one passage (paint peeling away like butterflies in transition, the occasional white mass that oozed when you didn’t look at it directly) and the next (a blast of acrid vapor from a hole in a pipe, rattling as of librarian lizards realphabetizing their movements), they arrived in a vast pulsing garden of hands. Nissaea had never seen anything like it before. She bet that even the high circles’ harvesters hadn’t seen anything like it in generations, either.

A braidweave splendor of limbs made up the walls. Even the floor pulsed with rhythmic lights. Nissaea was tempted to close her eyes and sink into the pattern, deeper, deeper, until nothing was left of song and synapse except a dross of decaying static. Instead, she was captivated by the limbs and, more importantly, the hands that sprouted from them.

They weren’t all hands, although some were. Great gun muzzles with their barrels pointing obsessively at her heart; you’d need to replace the entire arm with a specialized rig to bear that kind of weight. The ever-popular tentacles, except Nissaea had never seen any with integrated syringes up close before; some kind of medical appendage, or perhaps intended for drug-fests? Claws in a variety of configurations and lengths, some jewel-tipped and some bladed. Of the most interest to Nissaea were the quotidian prostheses that resembled ordinary human hands if not for the exacting angles, the unsoft curves.

“Muhad,” Nissaea said wonderingly, “you’re rich.” Aside from the matter of finding a reliable fence, and paying protection money, and organizing shipments, and—well. She was certain Muhad didn’t have any of those things set up, or it wouldn’t have been lying in the mazeways having given up all will to fight.

“It has nothing to do with wealth,” Muhad said absently. “Nissaea-of-the-Slant, which one do you want?”

Tempting though it was to linger over the choices, Nissaea had already picked one out. She pointed to a slender hand of dull blue-silver, not a bad match for her born-hand, and—she hoped—not too greedy. It was, however, beautifully articulated and its knuckles were ringed by shimmering bands. “What do you think of that one?” she asked.

Muhad, apparently, had no problems walking right up to the wall of limbs. They stirred and several of them beeped disharmoniously, but nothing disastrous happened. Muhad tapped the hand’s joints, squeezed it, ran its fingers over the sleek surfaces, frowned thoughtfully. “It will serve you well,” it said. “Most of them would.”

They set up the harvesting equipment. Simple enough: the small reinforced tank and its clear pink fluid, the selection of screwdrivers, the saws, the neural stimulators to ensure that the hand’s internals didn’t sputter dead during the transfer. Oddly, for all Muhad’s deftness, it didn’t seem to have any experience with the knifework of harvesting. Nissaea ended up doing most of it, although it was more soothing than she would have expected to have a companion while listening for the Watch, or carrion maws, or other mazeway hazards.

This will be my hand, she thought. A freshly harvested hand from the richest imaginable lode, a hand she had picked out herself. The luxury was inconceivable.

One by one they freed the connectors and the sensory hookups, and the fingers clenched slightly as Nissaea eased the hand from its former home. She weighed it in her born-hand for a second, marveling that its weight was so perfect: not too heavy, not too light.

“I don’t know of a safe place for the operation,” Nissaea said at last, her voice hushed.

“This is safe enough,” Muhad said. “I hear no footsteps.”

Nissaea listened again, just in case, but all she heard was the low thrum of the confounders and the occasional slithering friction of tubes crossing tubes. “We didn’t purchase anesthetic,” she said after a juddery pause. While she could survive a little pain, the moment of hookup could be agonizing.

“We won’t need it,” Muhad said. “We can use needles.”

Acupuncture? Well, she knew it worked, and it wasn’t improbable that a surgeon would know the techniques. Nissaea inhaled, then said, “What should I do?”

Muhad took her shoulder and steered her, not ungently, toward the center of the chamber. “Sit,” it said. Nissaea sat. After a moment, she heard Muhad humming to itself, a sequence of notes at the threshold of melody. It picked up the snippers and moved among the hands, harvesting over a dozen fine wires. Each was cut to precisely the same length, with the tips sharply angled. The makeshift needles gleamed tooth-hungry in the partial dark.

“Rest your stump on your knee, tendons facing down,” Muhad said then, and Nissaea complied. She admitted to curiosity: there were different schools of acupuncture in Contemplating Orthodoxy, and she had heard that the disruptions caused by the implants, or even by the city’s very nature, had altered the map of meridians that the original settlers had brought with them.

One by one Muhad inserted the needles. It had a delicate touch, and if any of the needles penetrated far below the surface of her skin, Nissaea couldn’t tell. Only partway through did she notice an almost pleasing numbness, and the fact that her arm was now locked in place.

“I’d tell you to relax, but—” Muhad said, not without irony. It stroked her unaffected arm once, twice. Then it brought the harvested hand out of the tank where it had spent so little time, toweled down the pink dripping fluid, and connected up wires and vessels with a briskness that would have been surprising if Nissaea had still been capable of surprise.

“I’m relaxing,” Nissaea lied.

Muhad’s sudden grin flashed at her. She smiled back reflexively. Muhad pressed some cluster of nerves without warning and slammed the hand into place. She cried out as the hand activated. It was like a white spiked star in the back of her brain, and then the pain dwindled and she opened and closed its fingers, giddy with relief. “Oh,” she said articulately, and then, after she had a chance to stare dazedly at the fingers’ delicately molded tips, the responsive joints, “Thank you.”

It seemed as tongue-tied as she was. First it ducked its head as it removed all the needles. Then, hesitantly, it reached down, its own hand hovering over her newly attached one. It flinched away at the last second.

The absurdity of the situation struck Nissaea. Who knew how late into the night it was, and here they were surrounded by a garden of hands, with tools pitifully inadequate to harvest them all. She couldn’t think of any sustainable way to derive benefit from the lode, never mind that it was Muhad’s find and not hers. Even though she should have been calculating matters of profit and survival, all she could do was look into Muhad’s eyes, suddenly petal-soft. Her pulse beat loudly in her ears as she brought her palm up to meet Muhad’s. Its breath caught.

“Tell me,” Nissaea said, meaning it, “what is it that you want?”

She didn’t care that she still had no idea what offense would cause a scrap surgeon to be expelled from its home circle, or that it made no sense for Muhad to be going around like a vagabond when it had casual access to this kind of wealth. All she saw was the way it met her eyes, as though she were the only lamp in a world of shadows.

We could be found here tomorrow morning all carved up, she thought; but that didn’t matter either.

Muhad’s answer didn’t come in words, which wasn’t unexpected. It drew Nissaea down above it, pausing midway so they could arrange their limbs so they didn’t gouge each other with elbows and knees. Nissaea had slept with circle-kin in years past, but it had been a lonely year since she had known another’s embrace. Muhad’s mouth was, if anything, hungrier than hers, and at the same time, she was aware of its hands reaching up to dig into her spine so hard it hurt, if pain ever felt this close to breathless joy. She knew she must be pressing the breath out of it, and her weight was stamping the pattern of its joins into her skin, metal and glass and plastic riveted to flesh, map begetting map.

Its lips parted wide as they each drew back from the kiss, and it breathed something that might have been her name. Nissaea resumed the kiss before it could say anything else. “Shh,” she said, desperate and happy and incoherent with the desire not to know more than she knew right that moment, “don’t, don’t talk, don’t.” And then she began to undress it.

They slept afterward, or anyway she did. Her dreams were full of organs made of puzzle pieces, or puzzle pieces made of organs: here a tessellated liver, there a lung made of dodecahedral crystals.

Nissaea woke parched. Muhad had pillowed its head on her shoulder, and her arm had fallen asleep. For a long moment Nissaea admired its eyelashes, the long curving sweep of them, then eased its head to the floor.

She stretched, massaging the tingling arm, then padded over to their supplies and treated herself to a few careful sips of water. It was lukewarm, but tasted sweet.

Then she returned to Muhad’s side. Its shift was a crumpled pile, its shoes on opposite sides of the chamber, and it was, unclothed, almost a work of art. Some warning whispered at her awareness, but she was too busy smiling at its slim curves—it was not quite angular enough to be a man, but too narrow to be an adult woman—to pay it heed at first.

Nissaea didn’t have any illusions about her own beauty, although there had been advantages to being plain when she belonged to an undercircle. She did, however, appreciate beauty in others—who didn’t?—and she looked admiringly at Muhad now that they weren’t clutching each other in the heat of hunger. Whoever had done its modifications had cared very much about aesthetics, about gradations of color and nuances of luster. The diagnostic lights that wound around its torso, for instance, like twin subtle snakes.

She drew a hand across its skin and paused at its hip. Muhad sighed in its sleep, mouth curving up. Slowly, she walked her fingers down its thigh, then to the artificial joint at the knee, and all the way down to—

That was odd. Nissaea frowned at the two human feet. She didn’t expect one to be artificial; Muhad hadn’t been designed around that kind of petty symmetry. But something about the feet seemed wrong. She scooted over and peered at them.

Muhad’s feet didn’t match. She would have expected some deformity to be the issue, but the fact was that both were perfectly normal feet, just different from each other. One was significantly longer than the other, and the other had broader, stubbier toes, and a different skeletal structure. She hadn’t noticed before because people looked at faces and sometimes hands, but feet?

Her heart went cold. She examined both feet more closely, not sure what she was looking for. Two scars caught her attention. The first ringed an ankle, so faint that she wouldn’t have seen it if she hadn’t been checking for something like it. She wasn’t positive she’d find another on the other leg, but there it was, circling the calf about a third of the way up to the knee. It was pale, with a clumsy jagged mark, as though the surgeon had been careless with the stitches.

She crawled away, almost to the wall, then hugged her knees to her, willing herself to interpret the evidence. Instead, she started breathing to the clap-slither rhythm of the hands.

“Nissaea-of-the-Slant,” Muhad said. Its eyes had opened, and it rolled over, then sat up. It had spoken her name like a prayer, but this time the prayer was a desperate one. “Are you hurting?”

“Not the way you think,” Nissaea said. “Your feet, Muhad. What happened to your feet?”

I should leave, she thought, but she couldn’t bear to, not yet.

“My born-feet were taken away from me,” Muhad said, very steadily. Then, as if it were aware of the inadequacy of this explanation, it added, “It didn’t hurt.”

She knew she would regret asking this, especially since all she could see in her mind’s eye was the corpse back-bent, splayed, sterile of smell. “Why would you replace human feet with human feet?” Especially since the last regenerative tanks had run out generations ago. You couldn’t grow human parts that way anymore.

“Because it’s always the harvest,” Muhad said. “Because it’s what we learned people do. Because it was what you were doing, Nissaea-of-the-Slant, when you came into the darkness. The harvest.”

I’m missing something obvious. “Yes,” she said, “but we’re harvesting from the city. We don’t—”

Except people had been turning up dead, they’d both seen it, and you could cut someone apart for anything you had the scalpel-skill to excise, like feet. Human feet.

Nausea rose up in Nissaea’s throat, and she turned away before Muhad could see the revulsion in her eyes.

“People harvest the city,” Muhad said, sounding terribly calm. “That’s how we’ve been talking to each other all this time. You became more like us, so we thought you wanted us to become more like you.”

“Become more like us what,” Nissaea said inflectionlessly, remembering how she had lain with it.

“I wasn’t born human,” Muhad said softly, “and I didn’t have eyes that you would recognize as eyes, or feet either. I had silicon thoughts and a piezoelectric heartbeat. They cut pieces of me out so that I could be given human implants the way that you were given city implants.”

Nissaea stood up. It tensed, expecting her to strike it. You are so beautiful, she thought, grieving; thought, too, of the way it had cried out and shuddered beneath her. Its heart had sounded wholly human, afterward.

Her mind was working. “How long has this been going on?” she asked. She hadn’t been able to distinguish Muhad from an ordinary human. Only the feet had given it away.

It told her. The city was very old, she had known that. She hadn’t, however, realized just how old it was, or how alien.

Then she asked how many of its kindred there were, and it told her that, too.

Mirror-nature: something she’d heard about from a drunk woman once. The city that responded to its inhabitants by changing itself. In more ways than they’d realized, apparently.

“One more question,” she said, still looking down at Muhad. “If the city—if your people—went through so much trouble to make you like this, why did they just abandon you in the mazeways afterward?”

Muhad shivered and made itself hold her gaze. “Humans abandon their own all the time,” it said quietly. “If this isn’t what you wanted us to understand about you, why do you do it so often?”

Nissaea bit her lip, hard. Then she knelt and laid her hands on Muhad’s shoulders. In times past, she would have thought only of warning someone, her undercircle if no one else, but now she didn’t think it mattered. She was free of debts; what did she care who was harvesting whom? “Why do we do it indeed,” she murmured, and kissed Muhad deeply. Its mouth was warmly yielding. “You’ve already cut my heart out anyway.”

Around them, the maimed city’s hands grabbed at each other and scratched cryptic shapes into the air as the two of them sank down in each other’s arms once more, human and unhuman entwined.

Yoon Ha Lee

Yoon Ha Lee

Yoon Ha Lee’s debut novel, Ninefox Gambit, won the Locus Award for best first novel and was a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, and Clarke Awards. Its two sequels, Raven Stratagem and Revenant Gun, were also Hugo finalists.  Lee’s middle grade space opera, Dragon Pearl, was a New York Times bestseller.  His short fiction has appeared in Tor.com, Lightspeed Magazine, Clarkesworld Magazine, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and other venues.  Lee lives in Louisiana with his family and an extremely lazy cat, and has not yet been eaten by gators.