By Eric Gregory
3 August 2009
The ironmonger's shop stank of oil and smoke. For a time, the old man held his breath and browsed dismantled engines, but he wasn't Salt; he had little aptitude for machines. Finally he approached the shopkeep's boy, who was pale and thick-veined with the sap. The disease had already taken the child's left arm, and if his color was any indication, it would likely take more before the year was out.
"I need rust," the old man said gently, feeling guilty for his own good health. The boy stared past him. The old man turned around and found Yish, the ironmonger, speaking so quickly that it was hard to read his crusted lips.
"You're Salt's father," said Yish.
The old man smiled uneasily.
"Will you lay your hands on my son? I beg you."
Years ago, when rumors first began to circulate about Salt's origins, Salt commanded his father to disavow any relation to him. "If you can't lie," he'd said, "at least mistell the truth. When the lords and technocrats learn about you, they'll use you to get to me. And I won't be able to bear that. You must promise me that they'll never hear your name." And the old man had promised.
But the truth was known well and already.
The old man hesitated and then laid his hands on the boy. He knew none of the town's bell-prayers or recitations, so merely prayed that the boy live or die, whatever best pleased the Lord of Life. The merchant spoke at his side, a soft hum of gratitude. The old man didn't bother to read his lips.
In certain circles, in the Little City, Salt's name was dangerous. Deadly, yes. But in this backwater town, the truth made the old man a saint. If Salt brought war out to the waste—then he would worry. But while Salt's pistols stroked the chins of the lords of the Little City, the old man wouldn't live in fear, and he wouldn't lie.
He left the shop with a rucksack full of scrap and an old hardsuit shoulder brace; Yish told him to think of the goods as due payment. Salt would disapprove of his taking charity, of course, but the old man was no wealthier for his son's sacred wars. And the brace was a great boon: it would allow him to haul previously ungovernable old equipment in his Quonset hut. As he shouldered his way through the press of Market Square, he imagined the projects he might embark upon, the new range of his day-to-day grasp.
And then he stumbled over a body at prayer. All around him, merchants and beggars, drifters and children touched their foreheads to the dirt, then rose and intoned their recitations. The old man had heard neither the bells nor the cantor's song. He dropped his rucksack and struggled to remove the brace; its clasp was locked around his wrist. As he fought with the clasp, he glanced at the reverent faces below.
Many eyes were closed, or invisible under bowed heads. But others were open: fixed on him. The old man shivered and looked away, tried to focus on the hardsuit brace or the distant warble of the cantor's song. After some more fruitless struggle he gave up on the brace and knelt as low as he could, his muscles burning and his forehead much too far from the ground.
And still he saw the eyes of the townfolk, watching him with something like awe.
The brace whirred as he raised and tossed the rucksack into the Quonset hut. The hut was lit by a single floodlight, and the rucksack fell at the edge of shadow beside the old, disused converter. Two weeks ago that converter had been rust-caked; now it was run through with ragged holes and scrapes, broken but rustless. Salt's father waited in the doorway.
"All right," he called. "You can come on out."
For a moment there was only silence. The old man wondered if the servitor had died of hunger. (He wasn't certain that such things died—it seemed cruel for them to suffer two deaths—but imagined they must run down eventually.) Then it crawled out of shadow, its head swiveling left and right with a high, hurtful screech of metal on metal. The servitor walked on all fours, its human limbs bent at painful angles. Sensors and little pincers dangled out of its too-wide-open mouth; the pincers fussed in the dirt. As it came closer, the old man caught the chemical smell of preserved flesh.
The servitor clanked and screeched and clicked to the rucksack, wary but hopeful, then arched protectively across its find. Something in its rib cage whirred loudly as it fed, loud enough for him to hear. A smile slowly bisected the old man's face, wider and wider until he was embarrassed by his own pleasure. He'd been right to buy rust.
As far as he could tell, the servitor was wild. That was rare, but not unheard of; now and then an electrical storm mixed up the things' programming, left them running on instinct or wild AI or dead memories. Where it had come from was anyone's guess. Perhaps the estate of a nearby technocrat; perhaps the Little City itself. The old man had briefly (very briefly) considered asking around in town—had anyone heard about a lost servitor? But he was afraid it might be put down or recycled. Besides, it suited him to have something strange to care for.
Salt's father knelt and crept forward as the servitor fed. Soon he was much closer than he'd managed before. He still couldn't tell if it had been male or female in life; its flesh was so deflated, its protruding bones were so tangled with wire that the thing seemed pre-sexual, a sort of ur-human on perpetual life support. Its skin was pale, its eyes sewn shut, fingers long and greedy.
"What was your name?" he said. The servitor looked up from its rust, regarded him through cameras in its open mouth. The old man asked again, not really expecting an answer, surprised by the thing's attention. It returned to its meal, whirring.
The last time Salt had visited he brought an electronic seed. He held it between his thumb and forefinger, a tiny bead that shone many-colored, like oil in water.
"You put it in your ear," said Salt.
The old man took the bead between his fingers, careful not to break it. The device was warm to the touch, featureless except for those nervous oil colors. He eyed his son once more; there was a scar along the side of Salt's neck, and he'd grown a thin black beard.
"Which one?" he asked.
Gently, anxiously, the old man pressed the seed into his right ear. Sound unfurled, awful and noisy and beautiful, stupid senseless sounds like the hot-iron and the lightbulb and the wind-rattled window. The old man cringed, and as if in response, the noise softened.
"You like it?" asked Salt, smiling.
The old man's eyes watered. His son's voice was deeper than he remembered. I don't know, he nearly said, but caught his tongue. He closed his eyes, opened them again. "Where did you get it?" he asked. His own voice startled him as much as Salt's had; it was made of gravel, sharp and ugly.
Salt frowned. "The City."
"You can afford this?"
The frown hardened. "You know I have no use for money, Papa."
"Then you stole it?"
"I assure you the previous owner didn't need it anymore."
There was a curious ferocity in his eyes. Shivers ran along the old man's arms and fingers; suddenly the seed was hot in his ear. Salt wouldn't lie, but he would mistell the truth.
"Thank you," said the old man.
And when Salt was gone, he took the seed out of his ear and locked it in a box of precious gifts from his children.
Ordinarily, the old man counted the days between visits from Lurh. She came to see him more often than his own children, and though he still didn't quite understand her motivations, she seemed, at least, to sincerely enjoy his company. She brought him gifts from her garden and gossip from town, and ordinarily he listened with great interest. Today he longed for her to leave.
"He wants to go to the City," said Lurh, eyes on the window.
Her son Salien yanked weeds outside. Sullen but polite, Salien had lost two fingers on his right hand to the sap when he was a child. The old man disliked using him for work, especially work he could manage himself, but on their occasional visits the young man usually set about some chore or other without instruction from his mother.
"They always do," said the old man. Even Salt, in his own earnest way. He spilled coffee beans onto the hot-iron and turned up the heat. The woman's face was creased with concern, laugh lines twisted into a frown. It was hard to read her lips in the half-light of the homestead. The iron glowed.
"It'll eat him alive," she said.
Salien had two fistfuls of weeds now. He circled around to the back of the homestead, where he'd started a fire in the trash barrel. The old man swallowed his nervousness, told himself not to worry.
The barrel was beside the Quonset hut.
"It may be a new city when he goes," said the old man. Lurh's expression sharpened into something bemused and opaque. She knew, of course, that he was Salt's father. But Lurh was not particularly religious, and never fawned over him; it was a habitual, unspoken rule between them that they didn't speak of Salt.
"Perhaps," she said.
Salt's father opened the window and stuck his head outside. Salien hadn't returned yet. The old man closed the window, excused himself, and hurried out the back door. The boy stood beside the fire-filled barrel, weeds unburnt in his hands.
Salien turned around. "I heard something," he said.
"It sounded big."
There was a small, grilled window above the door to the hut. It wasn't large enough for a body to pass through—not even a thin, disjointed body—but one could certainly see inside. The old man silently begged the servitor to keep still. Ordinarily it didn't move except to feed.
A hand gripped his shoulder, and he twisted to meet it.
"Is everything all right?" Lurh asked.
"There's something in the Quonset hut," said Salien.
The old man shook his head. "It's fine. Come on inside."
"Do you have a gun?" asked Lurh. "Salien can look for you."
"It's fine," said the old man, more forcefully.
"Man got killed by dogs last week," said Salien.
"Come on inside."
Lurh and Salien exchanged glances. The boy dropped his weeds in the fire, hesitated, and then headed toward the homestead. Lurh returned inside first, then her son. Finally Salt's father started to pull the door closed, peeking once more at the Quonset hut. This time the servitor's face was behind the grille, pale and taut.
Cameras clicked in its wide-open mouth.
The old man shut the door. Salien faced him, eyes wide.
The boy took a step backward, and then ran.
That night, there were howls. Ragged, angry, loud even to him. Howls out of the Hundred Hells. The old man sat up in bed for many minutes, eyes shut, waiting for the violence to subside.
Still, there were howls.
Anxiety welled in his chest, and eventually he could bear it no longer: he took his rifle from its rack by the bed and climbed down to the den. The homestead was lit by the soft, orange light of the iron. Hands shaking, he eased open the back door. Night breeze slipped inside, fussed with his bedclothes. Now the door swung wide, and he saw the dogs by blue starlight.
Six of them. Each stood as tall as his chest.
They barked and howled and battered the Quonset hut. They'd already ripped several small gouges in the hut's metal skin. Now they worked at those tears with claws and saber-teeth. If they heard the door open, if they saw the old man in the soft orange light, they weren't interested. He cocked his rifle and aimed at the dog farthest from the hut. He pulled the trigger.
There was an explosion of blood and bone. There were yowls. The dogs scattered, and the old man fired after them. He thought he caught two more, but couldn't be certain in the dark. The old man opened the Quonset hut, flicked on the light, and walked inside.
The servitor cowered in the back of the hut. It curled into shadow, its limbs bent at painful angles. Light glinted in its lenses, but there was no emotion in its pale open face.
"They're gone," said the old man.
The servitor whirred.
"Do you want to come inside with me?"
The servitor unfolded a bit. It cracked the joints of its long, dead fingers—a human tic so unexpected it sent chills down the old man's neck. The thing looked preoccupied, crouched deep in thought. He took a step forward, thinking he might tell whether it was male or female, but the servitor flattened itself back into shadow.
And then he understood. He hurried to the front of the hut and turned off the lights. "Is that better?" he called. There was a moment of silence, then clicking motion in the dark. The thing stopped midway, beside the old man's broken down tractor. Its lenses shone, three pinpricks of light.
The old man beckoned it forward. "Come on."
And the servitor followed. It kept its distance at first but then slowly closed the gap, so that by the time they reached the homestead, the old man had only to open the door, turn off the iron, and back up a few paces. The servitor crawled inside, twisted its head left and right, then hooked a leg around the ladder.
The old man started toward it. "Are you—"
The servitor scurried up the ladder to the loft.
"Are you taking my bed?" he laughed.
He slept that night on a pile of old blankets.
The old man smacked a nail with the flat of his palm. The brace buzzed hot against his arm as the nail dug into his half-finished bedframe. He would have to go to town for a mattress, of course, but in the meantime he'd continue to make do with blankets.
He slept well enough.
They both might have slept in the loft, it during the day and he at night, but the old man couldn't coax it down the ladder. It spent the dark hours perched on the edge of his bed, watching him from above and whirring, now and then cracking its joints. Once or twice he thought he caught it picking through his mother's old books.
He didn't hear the door, or the footsteps, but started when he saw the shadow. It was in the shape of a man. For a moment no one seemed to cast it. Then, abruptly, Salt was there. He wore a gas mask and cloak and black military armor. The same outfit he always wore. There were little bone charms and colored knots tied in the frills of his cloak. He took off his mask.
"Papa," he said, quiet and stern. "Where is it?"
The old man felt his eyes moisten.
"The Quonset hut, yes? Speak, Papa."
Salt's father seized his son and embraced him. The brace buzzed, and the old man realized he was squeezing much more tightly than he intended. "I thought you—I thought it might be—I thought they might have caught you and—"
Salt held his father's embrace for a moment and then separated.
"You need to show me," he said.
The old man pointed up at the loft. Salt's eyes widened, followed his finger, and then slowly returned.
"You let it in the house."
"There were dogs," the old man whispered.
"Idiot." Salt produced a pistol from beneath his cloak. He was flushed, scared. "You think it's coincidence such a thing came here? A slave of the Little City? They belong, almost by definition, to my enemies. You ought to be dead, Papa. Dead as that damned monster. Your stupidity should have killed you. Thank Salien next time you see him, for his modicum of sense."
The old man flattened himself against the wall. The tears in his eyes brimmed and flowed, collecting in his beard. He didn't know if he wept pain or relief. Salt mounted the ladder, his pistol raised over his head and angled into the loft. The servitor peeked out, cameras spinning, sewn-shut eyes fixed on the ceiling.
But Salt didn't fire.
"Who sent you?" he demanded. The servitor clicked and whirred.
Salt thrust the pistol in its face. "Who sent you?"
The servitor's head cocked violently to one side, as if in sudden contemplation. Then, in one swift motion, it wrapped its mouth around the weapon and yanked it from Salt's hand. Sparks dripped like spit from its mouth as it chewed.
Salt slid down the ladder and backed up against the wall.
"Where's your gun?" he asked.
The old man nodded toward the floor beside his bed frame.
"Pick it up."
The old man sidestepped along the wall and, eyes always on the servitor, kneeled and picked up the rifle. He didn't believe the servitor would hurt him. He didn't believe it would hurt either of them. But he wanted Salt to know that he was careful, that he could protect himself and his boy if necessary.
"Now point it at the damned thing."
The old man looked sidelong at his son.
"I won't ask you to shoot it," said Salt. "Not unless it moves on us." The servitor perched like a gargoyle at the edge of the loft, limbs quivering, cameras spinning. Salt pulled a computer from his cloak and tapped rapidly on its little blue window, looking up every few seconds at the servitor.
"What are you doing?" asked the old man.
"Making a mistake, I expect."
"Will you spare it?"
Salt pressed his lips tight. "We ought to shoot it this moment, and I'm sure we'll have our reward for hesitation any second now. But the Lord favors the bold, and this is an opportunity."
The old man's shirt was sweat-soaked. He shifted the rifle's weight onto his braced arm. "What are you doing?" he asked again.
"Writing command code," said Salt. "I'm going to send the lords' little weapon back to them. With a bit of fire and brimstone in tow. You've oil enough for a crude bomb, I think. If they're expecting this one back, if it's a scout of some sort, maybe it'll even do some real damage."
The servitor's head swiveled from side to side. The old man wondered how much language it understood. Whether it knew what Salt meant to do. He'd thought more than once that the thing understood him, that it had followed when he beckoned.
But perhaps not.
Salt wrote commands in his palm, his blue-lit face cold with concentration. Now and then he bit his tongue or stopped to watch the dead thing that watched him from above. Wet-eyed and shaking, Salt's father held the gun while he worked.
"Salien is gone," said Lurh.
The old man spilled coffee beans onto the iron. The beans hissed as he stirred them. "They always go," he murmured after a while, taking particular care with his tone.
"Number of the kids in town left last night," she said. Lurh fussed with the skin around her fingernails. "Some older folks, too. There's talk your boy was here."
The old man watched the coffee roast and absentmindedly stuck his finger in his ear. He sighed, sat down across from Lurh, and met her bloodshot eyes. She knew the truth well and already.
"Yes," said Salt's father. "He was here."
There were thin lines of blood around the edges of Lurh's nails. She bit her lip. "Is he kind to his own?" she asked. "I just want to know that he'll do well by those kids. By Salien."
The old man confused himself by crying. Harder and more suddenly than he had done when Salt was with him. The tears came thick; they fell and stained the old, scarred wood of his table.
"Yosha?" said Lurh. "Are you okay?"
He didn't answer.