Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




The Engine at Heartspring’s Center

Let me tell you of a creature called the Bork. It was born in the heart of a dying sun. It was cast forth upon this day from the river of past/future as a piece of time pollution. It was fashioned of mud and aluminum, plastic, and some evolutionary distillate of seawater. It had spun dangling from the umbilical of circumstance until, severed by its will, it had fallen a lifetime or so later, coming to rest on the shoals of a world where things go to die. It was a piece of a man in a place by the sea near a resort grown less fashionable since it had become a euthanasia colony.

Choose any of the above and you might be right.

Upon this day, he walked beside the water, poking with his forked, metallic stick at the things the last night’s storm had left: some shiny bit of detritus useful to the weird sisters in their craft shop, worth a meal there or a dollop of polishing rouge for his smoother half; purple seaweed for a salty chowder he had come to favor; a buckle, a button, a shell; a white chip from the casino.

The surf foamed and the wind was high. The heavens were a blue-gray wall, unjointed, lacking the graffiti of birds or commerce. He left a jagged track and one footprint, humming and clicking as he passed over the pale sands. It was near to the point where the forktailed ice birds paused for several days—a week at most—in their migrations. Gone now, portions of the beach were still dotted with their rust-colored droppings. There he saw the girl again, for the third time in as many days. She had tried before to speak with him, to detain him. He had ignored her for a number of reasons. This time, however, she was not alone.

She was regaining her feet, the signs in the sand indicating flight and collapse. She had on the same red dress, torn and stained now. Her black hair—short, with heavy bangs—lay in the only small disarrays of which it was capable. Perhaps thirty feet away was a young man from the Center, advancing toward her. Behind him drifted one of the seldom seen dispatch-machines—about half the size of a man and floating that same distance above the ground, it was shaped like a tenpin, and silver, its bulbous head-end faceted and illuminated, its three ballerina skirts tinfoil-thin and gleaming, rising and falling in rhythms independent of the wind.

Hearing him, or glimpsing him peripherally, she turned away from her pursuers, said, “Help me,” and then she said a name.

He paused for a long while, although the interval was undetectable to her. Then he moved to her side and stopped again.

The man and the hovering machine halted also.

“What is the matter?” he asked, his voice smooth, deep, faintly musical.

“They want to take me,” she said.


“I do not wish to go.”

“Oh. You are not ready?”

“No, I am not ready.”

“Then it is but a simple matter. A misunderstanding.”

He turned toward the two.

“There has been a misunderstanding,” he said. “She is not ready.”

“This is not your affair, Bork,” the man replied. “The Center has made its determination.”

“Then it will have to reexamine it. She says that she is not ready.”

“Go about your business, Bork.”

The man advanced. The machine followed.

The Bork raised his hands, one of flesh, the others of other things.

“No,” he said.

“Get out of the way,” the man said. “You are interfering.”

Slowly, the Bork moved toward them. The lights in the machine began to blink. Its skirts fell. With a sizzling sound it dropped to the sand and lay unmoving. The man halted, drew back a pace.

“I will have to report this—”

“Go away,” said the Bork.

The man nodded, stopped, raised the machine. He turned and carried it off with him, heading up the beach, not looking back. The Bork lowered his arms.

“There,” he said to the girl. “You have more time.”

He moved away then, investigating shell-shucks and driftwood.

She followed him.

“They will be back,” she said.

“Of course.”

“What will I do then?”

“Perhaps by then you will be ready.”

She shook her head. She laid her hand on his human part.

“No,” she said. “I will not be ready.”

“How can you tell, now?”

“I made a mistake,” she said. “I should never have come here.” He halted and regarded her.

“That is unfortunate,” he said. “The best thing that I can recommend is to go and speak with the therapists at the Center. They will find a way to persuade you that peace is preferable to distress.”

“They were never able to persuade you,” she said.

“I am different. The situation is not comparable.”

“I do not wish to die.”

“Then they cannot take you. The proper frame of mind is prerequisite. It is right there in the contract—Item Seven.”

“They can make mistakes. Don’t you think they ever make a mistake? They get cremated the same as the others.”

“They are most conscientious. They have dealt fairly with me.”

“Only because you are virtually immortal. The machines short out in your presence. No man could lay hands on you unless you willed it. And did they not try to dispatch you in a state of unreadiness?”

“That was the result of a misunderstanding.”

“Like mine?”

“I doubt it.”

He drew away from her, continuing on down the beach.

“Charles Eliot Borkman,” she called.

That name again.

He halted once more, tracing lattices with his stick, poking out a design in the sand.

Then, “Why did you say that?” he asked.

“It is your name, isn’t it?”

“No,” he said. “That man died in deep space when a liner was jumped to the wrong coordinates, coming out too near a star gone nova.”

“He was a hero. He gave half his body to the burning, preparing an escape boat for the others. And he survived.”

“Perhaps a few pieces of him did. No more.”

“It was an assassination attempt, wasn’t it?”

“Who knows? Yesterday’s politics are not worth the paper wasted on its promises, its threats.”

“He wasn’t just a politician. He was a statesman, a humanitarian. One of the very few to retire with more people loving him than hating him.”

He made a chuckling noise.

“You are most gracious. But if that is the case, then the minority still had the final say. I personally think he was something of a thug. I am pleased, though, to hear that you have switched to the past tense.”

“They patched you up so well that you could last forever. Because you deserved the best.”

“Perhaps I already have lasted forever. What do you want of me?”

“You came here to die and you changed your mind—”

“Not exactly. I’ve just never composed it in a fashion acceptable under the terms of Item Seven. To be at peace—”

“And neither have I. But I lack your ability to impress this fact on the Center.”

“Perhaps if I went there with you and spoke to them . . .”

“No,” she said. “They would only agree for so long as you were about. They call people like us life-malingerers and are much more casual about the disposition of our cases. I cannot trust them as you do without armor of my own.”

“Then what would you have me do—girl?”

“Nora. Call me Nora. Protect me. That is what I want. You live near here. Let me come stay with you. Keep them away from me.”

He poked at the pattern, began to scratch it out.

“You are certain that this is what you want?”

“Yes. Yes, I am.”

“All right. You may come with me, then.”

So Nora went to live with the Bork in his shack by the sea. During the weeks that followed, on each occasion when the representatives from the Center came about, the Bork bade them depart quickly, which they did. Finally, they stopped coming by.

Days, she would pace with him along the shores and help in the gathering of driftwood, for she liked a fire at night; and while heat and cold had long been things of indifference to him, he came in time and his fashion to enjoy the glow.

And on their walks he would poke into the dank trash heaps the sea had lofted and turn over stones to see what dwelled beneath.

“God! What do you hope to find in that?” she said, holding her breath and retreating.

“I don’t know,” he chuckled. “A stone? A leaf? A door? Something nice. Like that.”

“Let’s go watch the things in the tidepools. They’re clean, at least.”

“All right.”

Though he ate from habit and taste rather than from necessity, her need for regular meals and her facility in preparing them led him to anticipate these occasions with something approaching a ritualistic pleasure. And it was later still after an evening’s meal, that she came to polish him for the first time. Awkward, grotesque—perhaps it could have been. But as it occurred, it was neither of these. They sat before the fire, drying, warming, watching, silent. Absently, she picked up the rag he had let fall to the floor and brushed a fleck of ash from his flame-reflecting side. Later, she did it again. Much later, and this time with full attention, she wiped all the dust from the gleaming surface before going off to her bed.

One day she asked him, “Why did you buy the one-way ticket to this place and sign the contract, if you did not wish to die?”

“But I did wish it,” he said.

“And something changed your mind after that? What?”

“I found here a pleasure greater than that desire.”

“Would you tell me about it?”

“Surely. I found this to be one of the few situations—perhaps the only—where I can be happy. It is in the nature of the place itself; departure, a peaceful conclusion, a joyous going. Its contemplation here pleases me, living at the end of entropy and seeing that it is good.”

“But it doesn’t please you enough to have you undertake the treatment yourself?”

“No. I find in this a reason for living, not for dying. It may seem a warped satisfaction. But then, I am warped. What of yourself?”

“I just made a mistake. That’s all.”

“They screen you pretty carefully, as I recall. The only reason they made a mistake in my case was that they could not anticipate anyone finding in this place an inspiration to go on living. Could your situation have been similar?”

“I don’t know. Perhaps . . .”

On days when the sky was clear, they would rest in the yellow warmth of the sun, playing small games and sometimes talking of the birds that passed and of the swimming, drifting, branching, floating, and flowering things in their pools. She never spoke of herself, saying whether it was love, hate, despair, weariness, or bitterness that had brought her to this place. Instead, she spoke of those neutral things they shared when the day was bright; and then when the weather kept them indoors, she watched the fire, slept, or polished his armor. It was only much later that she began to sing and to hum, small snatches of tunes recently popular or tunes quite old. At these times, if she felt his eyes upon her she stopped abruptly and turned to another thing.

One night then, when the fire had burned low, as she sat buffing his plates, slowly, quite slowly, she said in a soft voice, “I believe that I am falling in love with you.”

He did not speak, nor did he move. He gave no sign of having heard. After a long while, she said, “It is most strange, finding myself feeling this way—here—under these circumstances. . . .”

“Yes,” he said, after a time.

After a longer while, she put down the cloth and took hold of his hand—the human one—and felt his grip tighten upon her own.

“Can you?” she said, much later.

“Yes. But I would crush you, little girl.”

She ran her hands over his plates, then back and forth from flesh to metal. She pressed her lips against his only cheek that yielded.

“We’ll find a way,” she said, and of course they did.

In the days that followed, she sang more often, sang happier things and did not break off when he regarded her. And sometimes he would awaken from the light sleep that even he required, awaken and through the smallest aperture of his lens note that she lay there or sat watching him, smiling. He sighed occasionally for the pure pleasure of feeling the rushing air within and about him, and there was a peace and a pleasure come into him of the sort he had long since relegated to the realms of madness, dream, and vain desire. Occasionally, he even found himself whistling.

One day as they sat on a bank, the sun nearly vanished, the stars coming on, the deepening dark was melted about a tiny wick of falling fire and she let go of his hand and pointed.

“A ship,” she said.

“Yes,” he answered, retrieving her hand.

“Full of people.”

“A few, I suppose.”

“It is sad.”

“It must be what they want, or what they want to want.”

“It is still sad.”

“Yes. Tonight. Tonight it is sad.”

“And tomorrow?”

“Then, too, I daresay.”

“Where is your old delight in the graceful end, the peaceful winding-down?”

“It is not on my mind so much these days. Other things are there.” They watched the stars until the night was all black and light and filled with cold air. Then, “What is to become of us?” she said.

“Become?” he said. “If you are happy with things as they are, there is no need to change them. If you are not, then tell me what is wrong.”

“Nothing,” she said. “When you put it that way, nothing. It was just a small fear—a cat scratching at my heart, as they say.”

“I’ll scratch your heart myself,” he said, raising her as if she were weightless.

Laughing, he carried her back to the shack.

It was out of a deep, drugged-seeming sleep that he dragged himself/was dragged much later, by the sound of her weeping. His time sense felt distorted, for it seemed an abnormally long interval before her image registered, and her sobs seemed unnaturally drawn out and far apart.

“What—is—it?” he said, becoming at that moment aware of the faint, throbbing, pinprick after-effect in his biceps.

“I did not—want you to—awaken,” she said. “Please go back to sleep.”

“You are from the Center, aren’t you?”

She looked away.

“It does not matter,” he said.

“Sleep. Please. Do not lose the—”

“—requirements of Item Seven,” he finished. “You always honor a contract, don’t you?”

“That is not all that it was—to me.”

“You meant what you said, that night?”

“I came to.”

“Of course you would say that now. Item Seven—”

“You bastard!” she said, and she slapped him.

He began to chuckle, but it stopped when he saw the hypodermic on the table at her side. Two spent ampules lay with it.

“You didn’t give me two shots,” he said, and she looked away.

“Come on.” He began to rise. “We’ve got to get you to the Center. Get the stuff neutralized. Get it out of you.”

She shook her head.

“Too late—already. Hold me. If you want to do something for me, do that.”

He wrapped all of his arms about her and they lay that way while the tides and the winds cut, blew and ebbed, grinding their edges to an ever more perfect fineness.

I think—

Let me tell you of the creature called the Bork. It was born in the heart of a dying star. It was a piece of a man and pieces of many other things. If the things went wrong, the man-piece shut them down and repaired them. If he went wrong, they shut him down and repaired him. It was so skillfully fashioned that it might have lasted forever. But if part of it should die, the other pieces need not cease to function, for it could still contrive to carry on the motions the total creature had once performed. It is a thing in a place by the sea that walks beside the water, poking with its forked, metallic stick at the other things the waves have tossed. The human piece, or a piece of the human piece, is dead.

Choose any of the above.

Roger Zelazny

Roger Zelazny (1937 – 1995) was the legendary author of such books as The Chronicles of Amber, Lord of Light, and This Immortal, as well as many other classic novels and nearly one hundred fifty short stories—including classics such as “Damnation Alley,” “The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth,” and “A Rose for Ecclesiastes.” He’s a six-time winner of the Hugo Award, a three-time winner of the Nebula Award, and is in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.