“A Song of Sixpence” by Alyc Helms
Sixpence was a ghost, and had been all her life.
Born in the slums of Foundation in the days before the Singularity, she’d never existed as far as the rest of the Metropole was concerned. No record, no presence, a ghost. And then came the Singularity, and the purgatory of Foundation got a lot more crowded. Now there were more people below than above, all of them tagged and tatted, tracked by bio-feeds and reg-marks, scraping out a living from the trash that fell from Uptown. Like lab rats in a maze, some of the older refugees would say, and Sixpence would give them a curious look. Rats were for eating. Why waste good meat on mazes?
Ghosts made excellent thieves; the corporations couldn’t track what they couldn’t see. A ghost could walk through squawk traps without a peep and past eyegrabs without a glance, and Sixpence was the best there was. Give her a mark, and she could nab it even from a corp mainframe.
Except for this one time… but that story is not this story.
Sixpence scurried through the jumble of trader booths and shanties leading up the crack to Crossways. The underside of the great Metropole skyrises loomed above, grit-grey plascrete and steel replacing sky. They cast the whole of Foundation into perpetual gloom. Sixpence kept her shoulders hunched and her narrow-brimmed flatcap slanted forward to hide her face in the shadows of her upturned collar. She was slight enough that crowds made for good hiding; ragged enough that nobody paid her mind except to shove her aside. This one time, she let herself be buffeted along, and hoped she didn’t collide with anyone she knew. There was only one reason a ghost like Sixpence would be on the run. What kind of a twisthead, they would ask, volunteered to pull a job on a Metropole corp? Then they’d toss her into the canyon between skyrises before they got bagged and tagged alongside her.
Crossways bustled with trade. Not even the presence of a few sensor drones could dampen the energy of commerce. The flow of refugees had carved four fissures through the permacrete pilon that supported the Metropole skyrise to create Crossways at the center. Otherwide cracks connected the fissures, an ever-growing network of passages chipped out of the pilon.
When Sixpence was young, the gap had been no more than a few dozen meters wide, with only a scattering of shanties cobbled together out of the industrial waste. In the days following the Singularity, Crossways became the hub of an ever-growing refugee camp. The ‘crete was constantly being chipped and chiseled, hauled away to make new structures and bolster up old ones. Thick steel girders and rebar, dark with rust and corrosion, rose up from the packed sludge at the base of the Crossways. In many places, they were the only support left for the Metropole skyrises that towered above. Crossways was an ever-growing cavity in the center of the gleaming pilon. Sixpence wondered how long it would be before the corporations sent someone down to root-canal them out of existence. She wondered if it would happen before the weakened supports gave way and the building collapsed on top of them all and crushed them like vermin.
Not that she was likely to see either scenario. Not with the Corps hunting her.
She skuttled through the alleys between shanties, past The Crimson Doll, where joy-droids plied their clean and emotionless trade, and its rival cathouse, the Fleshpot, where you could get a nice case of seeping pustules along with your warm, human embrace. She passed betting halls, fighting pits, and pharmco dens. Down one alley, the viridian neon cross of Sister Mercuria’s Mission shone through the gloom. A faint nimbus of light surrounded it, reflected off the pollution in the air.
Sixpence averted her gaze and turned in the opposite direction, toward Undercross. Mercuria wouldn’t approve: not of the stealing, nor of dealing with Mr. Wicked, nor of the payment Sixpence had demanded in exchange.
The high whine of a sensor drone cut across her thoughts. She flipped on the white-data generator she’d cobbled together from parts and squeezed into a nearby crevice, grateful – and not for the first time – for her lanky frame and underdeveloped breasts. Malnutrition had its upside. She was small, even by Foundation standards.
Most folk in Foundation avoided the tiny crevices and what hid there. Shadows stirred and crept toward her. Quantum anomalies, people said as if they knew what the fuck they were talking about. They’d come to Foundation with the refugees after the Singularity. Nobody could say what they really were, or where they’d come from, but smart money was on the Corps that had profited from the Singularity. Even twistheads were sane enough to flee thecold touch of the anomalies.
Only Sixpence was stupid enough to seek them out. She hummed a tune, a secret weapon she’d first learned as a child. Imperfectly remembered, it worked imperfectly; the anomalies weren’t completely destroyed by it, but they fizzled around their edges like an ocular migraine. They subsided into a roiling, resentful mass at the rear of the crevice.
Outside her hiding place, the sensor drone listed. Several hatches that shouldn’t be opened except by a trained technician popped their clasps. With a mechanical hiss and trailing smoke, the drone veered and crashed into the hard ‘crete wall of the crack. Merchants and shoppers stilled, glanced among themselves as if they could tell by sight who had managed the overload, and then shrugged and continued about their business. A gang of scavengers, smaller, younger, and scrawnier than Sixpence, rushed the smoking pile. There was rye to be had there, if anything could be salvaged.
Sixpence didn’t question this serendipity. Anomalies had an odd effect on electronics, and her secret song exacerbated it. She’d fried more than one soundboard trying to lay down a sample track of the song. The more advanced the electronic, the worse it fared. She was constantly repairing her white-data generator.
She checked it. Yup. Fried. She’d have to fix it, or else hit her squat to grab another. But first, she had a job to finish. She emerged from her hiding place and continued her skulk toward Undercross.
Mr. Wicked was the angel of Undercross.
He had sleek, smooth skin, dark as oiled mahogany, and a smile sharp enough to cut a swath through the hearts of Foundation. Cis-gens, androgynes, and everyone in between, nobody was immune to Wicked’s charm. He’d once been a big man working for the Corps, until he pissed off his bosses and they rewarded him with a chemical lobotomy tailored just for him. Nobody knew what he’d lost, but that didn’t stop everyone from guessing.
Fallen into Crossways, he had turned broker; anything you hankered for could be got by Mr. Wicked, and who cared if he didn’t deal fair? So what if every apple he traded had a worm, and by the time you were done bartering, you’d find yourself without the teeth to eat it?
Sometimes it helped, just knowing something could be got. Even if it wasn’t what you wanted. Even if the price was too high. Hope was a bitch like that, but you took what you could get. If there was one commodity that was rarer than sunlight in Foundation, it was hope.
Hope was Mr. Wicked’s real stock-in-trade, and like all smart dealers, he kept well away from his own product.
Except for once, but that story is not this story.
Undercross was dug deep into the permacrete of the pilon in the center of Crossways – the root of the cavity. The thrum of a bass-beat throbbed like a toothache through the hard material beneath Sixpence’s boots. Music in Foundation was harsh, gritty, percussive. Listening to it was like being jumped by a gang of twistheads. It beat the shit out of you and left you bleeding in the fissures. Sixpence loved it. Lost herself in it. Let it crack open her bones and suck out the marrow, leaving her limp and useless. There were many bad reasons to come to Crossways. Music was the only good one. Most nights that she wasn’t holed up in her squat, hiding from the drones, found her beating herself against the music on the dance floor of Undercross. Say what you would about Mr. Wicked, the sly bastard knew how to run a club.
Inside, it was hot, sticky, and dark. The walls writhed with fractal images projected by teleidoscope. A high, keening treble was laid over the bass-beat, a shriek lost amidst the din of desperate conversations. Sixpence was surprised the mixer had made the attempt. Shouting was the standard volume of communication in Undercross. Melody had no place here.
She pulled enough jobs for Wicked that the muscle at his office door didn’t bother to flex at her before letting her slip through. They both knew he could break her. Why be crass about it?
Sixpence had broken into her share of Metropole offices before, and they all looked like Mr. Wicked’s. A great desk of real wood loomed in the center. Squiggly equations were framed on the walls like art, and other oddities were on display: painted masks frozen in grimaces of pain and pleasure; broken droid parts polished to a shine; a snake-shaped curve of silver with discs bristling down its spine.
The thick door muted the music and noise from the club floor, but nothing could muffle the beat that thrummed the foundations of Undercross. A mellow funk played an odd counterpoint to the beat.
“Do you have it?” Mr. Wicked lounged in a leather chair the color of a twisthead’s blood-drenched nightmares.
Sixpence pulled a tiny, faceted case from her pocketed vest and tossed it to him. “They know someone took it.”
“But you didn’t get tagged.”
“Nope, and I don’t plan to. Just give me the song and I’m gone. Figure I’ll head to…” She stopped. No. Any information Mr. Wicked had was information to be sold. He hated the Corps too much to deal with them, but he could sell her to others and keep his hands clean.
“The song. Yes.” Wicked took out a sheet of paper – not something often seen in Foundation, where information technology jumped from word-of-mouth to compressed digital packets with very little in-between. Weird sigils squiggled their way across the sheet. It looked like the art on his walls.
“What the fuck is this?” she asked, sensing a cheat. That would teach her to deal straight with a crook.
The base of Wicked’s chair creaked when he leaned back in it. “You asked for a song. This is it.”
She’d flopped with a musician once, a real old-timey type, not a mixer or a sampler. He used to teach at some big conservatory before the Singularity made all such occupations irrelevant. She’d laid down some tracks for him, and he’d taught her to transcribe in trade. She knew what written music was supposed to look like. This wasn’t it.
Sixpence turned the paper sideways as if that would help. “It looks like code. Or… something.”
Sixpence leaned across the desk, shaking the paper at him. “I asked for a song.” A specific song. A song she couldn’t quite remember, a song that nobody else had ever heard. A song that kept away the anomalies. “What the hell is this?”
“Your song. Or it could be. You’ve heard the rumors?” He tapped the bridge of his nose.
Of course she had. But rumors were just what people whispered when they didn’t know the truth.
Wicked held up the gem. “This holds the cure. And I can’t translate that,” he motioned to the sheet in Sixpence’s hand, “until I have this.”
The cure, if the rumors were true, meant a tailored chemical cocktail to counteract whatever the Corps had done to his head.
Sixpence opened her mouth to tell him that wasn’t her problem, then closed it. He was making it her problem. The useless scrap of paper crumpled in her fist. “You rat. I’m not a baker, and I don’t know any. At least, not any as good as you can hire.”
“And I don’t want the ones that I can hire.”
Sixpence leaned on her knuckles. “So what am I supposed to do?”
“Sister Mercuria. Any baker I use will sell me to the Corps. I need someone honest.” Wicked stood and met her halfway across the desk. “You get her to synth this formula, and I’ll translate that bit of math into the music you want.”
Sixpence’s jaw ached from jutting. Did he know why she wanted it? If he knew, why wasn’t he exploiting it himself? Foundation folks would barter a lot for some anomaly eradication. Was it worth selling out Mercuria, just so Sixpence could build her own little nest?
“Get twisted.” Sixpence stuffed the useless equation into her vest and stalked out of Wicked’s office.
Sister Mercuria carried herself with the serenity of one who knows God’s loving grace.
There were those who doubted, who claimed that a thing of circuitry and pistons encased in plastic-sheathed metal had no capacity for faith. It was just a programming glitch. Had to be. Those who visited the dingy mission in the heart of Crossways and felt the cool brush of her hand, who heard the comforting click-whir of her vocal synthesizers, or saw the fervor of conviction in her luminous viridian optics, swore differently.
Like Mr. Wicked, Sister Mercuria dealt in hope, but hers she doled out freely. She was – if not precisely living, then at least functioning – proof that even the lowest and meanest could rise above what they were born to. A rundown, junkpile joy-doll had seen the face of God and been transformed by the experience. If it could happen to her, it could happen to anyone. All you had to do was believe.
Belief was an even rarer substance than hope. Not even Mr. Wicked could lay his hands on belief. He had given away the last ounce he had for a song. Given it, in fact, to Sister Mercuria.
But that story, also, is not this story.
Street talk in Crossways said if you had nowhere to go, you could find shelter at Sister Mercuria’s Mission. Sixpence didn’t want to go there, but Mr. Wicked had left her little choice. Corp drones after her, and nothing but squiggles to show for it. The paper was worth more than the nonsense written on it.
The mission was little more than a rectangle of ‘crete blocks built high enough to fit a second level, but without the architectural stability to support one. A flat roof of corrugated tin blocked the worst of the sewage that rained from Uptown. Rows of cots ran the length of the infirmary with mathematic precision, filled with bodies whose only requirement for entry was that they be washed. Those that weren’t got directed to the spigot and second-hand clothes bin out back.
Cleanliness is Godliness, Mercuria was fond of saying – so much so that some grateful soul had stitched it for her on a scrap of cloth, and other favorite aphorisms. They hung along the walls.
Mercuria moved among her parishioners, a med unit at her side. A recent donation, probably boosted. It was too shiny to be salvage, and too advanced a model to have been got legit.
Mercuria looked up from her conference with the droid, the soft click-whir of programming language giving way to modulated speech when she spotted Sixpence.
“You must be in trouble,” Mercuria said, waving Sixpence into the tiny office near the front doors – a space partitioned off from the rest of the mission by curtains, as unlike Mr. Wicked’s office as heaven was from hell.
Sixpence tugged her flat cap and scuffed her boots, taking care not to knock over a pile of droid parts. Humans weren’t the only beings Mercuria had set herself to saving.
“Why do you always say that?”
“Because you are often in trouble. Even that first time.”
That first time. When Sixpence had first heard the song. She pulled out the paper. Maybe she didn’t need Mr. Wicked. Mercuria was smart as only a machine could be.
“I found it.” She showed Mercuria the squiggles. Calculus, Mr. Wicked had called it.
“Ooh.” Mercuria’s viridian optics flashed with her interest. Her synthesizers click-whirred as she scanned the page. “That is quite an equation.”
Sixpence’s breath came short and shallow. “Can you translate it?”
“Into what? It is complete unto itself.”
“Music. Mr. Wicked said this is my song.”
Bad move mentioning the broker. Mercuria’s plasteel face didn’t show much emotion. Didn’t need to. Her optics dimmed and there was a click-click-click of disapproval. “That man profits from the desperation of others. What did you do for him?”
“Just boosted something. Not from anyone down here.” Sixpence held up her hands to ward off Mercuria’s censure. The droid had firm opinions on stealing as well. “From the Corps.”
Mercuria sighed, an actual expulsion of air from several vents, not just the synthesizing of one. “Oh, Sixpence–”
A rumble and boom exploded from somewhere outside the mission, resonant enough to rock the foundation of Crossways. Dirt and rust flakes sifted down from the corrugated tin roof.
Sixpence stumbled and fell, taking one of the curtain partitions down with her. Mercuria pulled her up and threw open the door of the mission.
The confusion outside echoed the confusion inside: people looking to each other for explanation and finding none. Then came the stench of ozone and the blue-tinged smoke of ordnance. A new rush of people flooded the street, coming from the direction of the explosions. Most were smoke-scorched. A few bled or covered flash-burned eyes as they struggled not to be trampled by the mob. Mercuria seized a man with waist-length dreads who was helping an older woman.
“You. What’s happening?”
“Corp ‘trollers. Half a dozen. They just opened fire on Undercross.”
Mercuria looked down at the squiggle paper in Sixpence’s hand, then back to the man. “Did they make any demands?”
“Not that I heard.” Another rumble and blast. Out in the alley, the whine of sonic weapons being primed overlaid the bass of impact, like bad break-trance.
“They’re heading this way,” someone screamed. What little cohesion the mob had maintained broke down as some tried to change direction, to seek shelter.
“Those assholes are going to bring the whole of Metropole down on our heads,” said the dreadlocked man. He rocked as the crowd pushed against him and threatened to pull him from the blinded woman’s side.
“Bring her inside,” Mercuria insisted.
“I shouldn’t stay here,” Sixpence whispered as Mercuria started to impose order on the mob with nothing more than calm words and unshakable serenity.
“Wait,” Mercuria said. But Sixpence didn’t dare. She didn’t know why the Corps would be after her for the theft of a single datagem, but if they were headed this way, then Mr. Wicked had convinced them that she still had it.
She couldn’t stay and endanger Mercuria.
Sixpence ignored Mercuria and lost herself in the mob fleeing Crossways.
There is a thin layer, halfway between Uptown and Foundation, where the pilons remain intact, surfaces gleaming smooth and white. The air there is filtered free of toxins, the sky above bright with Metropole lights. The sensor drones never venture there; nobody from Foundation ventures there, either, because that is where the anomalies congregate.
It was there, once, that Mr. Wicked found a cache of discontinued droids and used them to build his Crossways kingdom. It was there, once, that God reached down and granted Sister Mercuria life. It was there, once, that Sixpence heard a song and defeated an anomaly with it.
It was there that Sixpence built her squat. It was there she fled to hide.
Sixpence saw her first ghost before she knew there was such a thing as death. It was in the days just before the Singularity, when the frozen shanties that huddled in the cracks of the massive high-rise support pilons were little more than a roof over the head of every bagged and tagged who ever pissed off the corporations. It was back in the days when being an unregged organic was a curse and not a blessing.
She was fleeing from one of the patrols that had been more frequent back then. They couldn’t scan for an implant frequency on her, but the more primitive biometric sensors could still discern a child from a rat if they were close enough. She scrambled on spindly, undernourished limbs up girders and rebar the size of tree trunks – she’d never seen trees, but you heard stories sometimes – and up pilon crevasses wide enough to let two patrollers cruise abreast. She scurried up the slope, slipping in the semi-frozen sewer sludge that drained from Uptown to Foundation.
An echo of music halted her flight. It beckoned from the crotch between two pilons, a sharp V that most unregged would bypass as too narrow. The space was tight, the ‘crete walls slick and unblemished, but she was small. It seemed as good a hiding place as any. She followed the strange, disjointed music, squeezing and scraping through the pass. It spat her out above a wide, open area, filled with trash and junk from the Metropole. The piles were pristine; the scavengers hadn’t found this place yet. She hoped the ‘trols wouldn’t, either.
A glimmer of darkness blotted out part of her vision. She thought it was an eye-floater at first, blinked several times to clear it away, but it remained. She strained her eyes trying to focus on it, but there was nothing to focus on. It was a blank spot just off-center of her vision.
It was the source of the music. She leaned forward as it drifted closer. It seemed to peer at her, just as she was peering at it. Too young to know that she should fear the unknown, she reached out in wonder. Her hand brushed through… nothing. A space of not-being. The music pounded like blood through her head, racing to some resolution she strained to predict, to understand. The darkness pulled heat from her. She felt thinner. Hollow. She forgot the ‘trols that had been chasing her. She had been cold, but no longer. A buzzing numbness settled along her limbs. The music eluded her, a lullaby soothing her to sleep. Sixpence hummed along.
The music died; the shadow convulsed, dark tendrils constricting around her arms and legs. The pressure resolved into something Sixpence recognized. It was a trap, like the sensor drones or the pimp-gangs. Traps, she knew. Traps, you ran from.
She struggled, but the shadow’s strength had grown. She tried singing again, voice thin and reedy, as though echoing that strange song could relieve the pressure. The darkness sloughed off of her, fizzling around the edges like a scorched infofilm, and collapsed upon itself. Sixpence tumbled back onto the junkpile, tears freezing on her cheeks. She was so cold.
“Don’t go.” The voice was a series of clicks and whirs. The hand that wrapped around her wrist had the hard give of plasteel covered in a thin layer of synthskin. Sixpence lost her balance and found herself cradled in the arms of a broken-down joy-doll.
“What… what was that?” Sixpence’s voice was as thin and hollow as she felt.
“I do not know,” the doll said in a burst of modulated static. “Your biosigns were decreasing. Are you warmer now?”
She was, thanks to the droid’s embrace. Her bones ached with it. In response, her teeth began to chatter.
“A-a-are y-you with th-the patrol?” Sixpence asked. Silly question to be asking a joy-doll.
“No. I am a Quicksilver LE13191. My line has been discontinued.” She gestured. They sat atop a junkpile of broken droids in every conceivable shape. The top layer was composed of sleek, silver-pale limbs. Sightless viridian eyes stared out from the mass grave.
“Do you want to avoid the patrol? They are quite close,” the droid said, as if being atop a pile of her lifeless sisters did not concern her at all. “I can lay down a dampening field of junk data so that they will not find you, if you would like.”
They huddled in silence. A hover-craft with lights bristling in all directions passed overhead. The doll shifted Sixpence beneath her, just another sprawl of pale, twisted limbs among the decommissioned dolls.
Sixpence’s shivering stopped. Perhaps she slept for a while. When the droid next spoke, Sixpence’s thoughts were muzzy with the warmth.
“I said, the patrol has left this quadrant of pilons. Do you want me to escort you home?”
Now that she was safe and warm, Sixpence’s shantytown caution returned. She pulled from the doll’s embrace. “Why are you being so nice? Why are you helping me? What do you want?”
“I do not know how else to be. You need my help and I am able to give it, so why should I not? And I want… I want…” A series of unintelligible clicks and whirs followed. On a person, Sixpence would have called the flickering of those glowing eyes distress. She took pity on the droid. No wonder her line was decommissioned, if they couldn’t even process simple questions.
“Nevermind. You don’t need to answer that last one.” The whirs and clicks sighed to a stop. “Let’s just get out of here. You can stay in my squat.”
She took the droid’s hand, and they picked their way down the junk pile and back to the twisting warren of cracks and massive, interconnecting girders that made up Foundation. Above, the lights of the Metropole bounced against the layers of smog and pollution, creating the illusion of a glowing, celestial soup.
They passed a crack too narrow even for Sixpence to fit. A flicker of darkness huddled inside, lying in wait. Curious. Hungry. Sixpence caught an echo of music and shivered.
“Do you hear it too?” The joy-doll asked.
“What, the music?” Of course she heard it. It frightened her more than the drones ever had.
“Is that what you call it?”
“What else would you call it?”
There was a light in the doll’s eyes that Sixpence would come to recognize as fervor. The doll lifted her silver-pale face to the sparkling lights of the Metropole, smile broad and serene. “It is the broadcast signal of the universe.”
Crossways legends speak of the time Sister Mercuria descended into Undercross to save Mr. Wicked from his past sins. Other tales claim that it was the good sister who was corrupted by the fallen angel. Those versions are the most popular. That is the way of tales in Foundation. If there is not at least a hint of salaciousness, nobody would care to listen. “After all,” tellers would say, “she was once a joy-doll.”
All anyone knew for sure was that after the Corp drones bombed Undercross, the Mission, and half of Crossways looking for a ghost, Wicked sent for Mercuria, and Mercuria answered. They bargained, and Wicked got what he wanted. Nobody could pry from Mercuria’s plasteel lips what the missionary got in trade.
Though sometimes, when Mr. Wicked is mentioned and those lips curve into a smile, Sixpence is left to wonder if there is some truth to the rumors.
But that story is not this story.
Sixpence’s raspy humming cut off in a shriek at a fizzling pop-crack and the smell of fried components. A blue-white flame flared up from her last working ‘corder. She chucked the unit out the open front of her squat, hissing to herself when the plasteel cover blistered her fingers. The box tumbled down a pile-up of parts, through the cloud of anomalies that lapped against the incline in a sea of nothingness. In the quiet, she heard every bump and knock and rattle of the falling unit.
But she didn’t have time to worry about the noise giving her away to the sensor drones. Free of the barrier of her humming, the anomalies crept up the incline to the shelf where she’d built her squat. Tentative, one inch back for every two forward, a tide of nothing. She poked through her pile of parts and resumed her humming to ward them away, but her throat was tight with despair, and aching from the hours she’d already spent repairing and humming. She’d fried all her working units, every jury-rigged soundboard and jacked ‘corder. She was frying components faster than she could fix them. All she had left was her voice, and that was approaching fried as well.
She just wanted to be safe. Was that so wrong? She’d just wanted to help people, and maybe make a little rye on the side.
No, said a little voice with Mercuria’s digital click-whir, You wanted to make a lot of rye. Helping people was a lie you told yourself.
Taken that way, was she any better than the Corps?
The battery of her solderer went up in a flash of white fire that burned her vision as well as her fingers. She flung it away, screech tearing her throat ragged, and just as quickly dove to retrieve it before it could sink beneath the sea of anomalies.
Too late. It toppled down the scree, and she ended up sprawled on the lip of the ledge where she’d built her squat, staring down into an inevitable nothingness that crept closer and closer without her humming to keep them at bay.
Music drifted up from the anomalies, disjointed and strange. Hardly music at all. It was more like patterned noise, and yet still it begged for resolution. Sixpence closed her eyes, breathed it in, let the anomalies lick over her reaching fingers and the numbness crawl into her bones.
She resisted the urge to hum back, to protect herself from the invasion of numbness. If she couldn’t understand the song, at least she would know how it ended before she died. The music spiraled through her bones, always almost there, never quite reaching resolution, like the fractal art projected by teleidoscopes onto the walls of Undercross. The song had no end, no resolution. It spun off into an infinite void, devouring Sixpence’s heat, coaxing her to follow.
A sound cut through the anomalies’ music – the high buzz of sensor drones, and the deeper, thrumming bass of a ‘troller’s engines. The Corps had found her before the anomalies could eat her.
That scared her, but Sixpence was already anomaly-numbed, exhausted, and cold besides. She couldn’t bring herself to move. To care.
“I see her. There. Can you get closer?”
The air shifted, pressed down on Sixpence. Something grabbed her under her armpits and hauled her up from the clutching darkness. She tried to struggle, but the lassitude weighed too heavily upon her. Or maybe she was like a twisthead, her struggles all imagined.
“I have got her. Now we may leave this place.” There was something soothing about the precise click-whir of those words. Angels had come for her, and in Heaven everything would be so clean and bright and precise.
“We don’t have enough lift for three.” Sixpence straddled the narrow ‘troller, supported by tarnished angels before and behind. Her stomach lurched as the ‘troller faltered. There was another lurch, not of her stomach this time. The ‘troller listed as it landed on the uneven plateau beside her squat.
“Then leave me here.” Mercuria hugged Sixpence, warming her, bringing her back from the edge of numbness. “The anomalies cannot harm me.”
“No, but the Corps can. Foundation needs you, Sister. Ride her out of here.” Wicked slid of the bike, leaving Sixpence to slump forward.
“I have it. I… almost have it,” she whispered, her body warming, but her mind still chasing the fractal patterns of the music. Not a teleidoscope. A teleidoplex. Part of the output echoed back into the anomaly, became input again. A strange, recursive loop.
“I will not leave you here,” Mercuria said, slipping from the ‘troller as well, leaving Sixpence to list without any support. The air was cold, without the joy-doll to warm her.
“It’s stupid for all of us to–” The whine of drones grew louder, cutting off whatever Wicked had been about to say. They surged into view around the bulk of a pilon, at least a dozen of them, bristling lights and recording lenses. Wicked hefted a busted CPU and chucked it at one of them, but the drone zipped out of the way and back into place. Recording. Broadcasting. Guarding until the big guns could come. Guns big enough to take out Crossways.
Wicked slung something off his back, the silver snake from the wall of his office. “Go. I can hold them here.”
Sixpence stumbled off the ‘troller. Now none of them were going anywhere. She grabbed Wicked’s arm. “I have it. I can loop it. Resolve it.” She laughed, giddy with the realization. She’d been looping since she made her first white data generator. She could loop anything.
The broker looked at her like she was full-up on Twist, but the tide of drones and anomalies gave him no time to question her. “Can you take lead? Hum it on the fly and I’ll follow?”
Sixpence listened for the music coming off the sea of anomalies, found an intersection point, and started humming.
Wicked nodded along, eyes half-closed. “Here goes nothing.” Lifting the snake to his lips, he kissed it.
Music rained on Sixpence, each note a crystal droplet of clear sound. It washed over her, past her, and met the tide of drones and anomalies. The drones surged forward, undeterred, but the anomalies crashed against the wave of sound. The music bounced off the far pilons, echoed back past Mr. Wicked’s parked ‘troller, then back again off the walls ringing the junk-filled hollow. She pressed a hand over her ear to block out the distraction of Mr. Wicked’s echo and adjusted her humming to counter the feedback from the anomalies, completing each fractal refrain, looping it before it could spin out into a new variation. Resonance built, strong enough to set Sixpence’s teeth to itching.
The drones didn’t fare so well as Sixpence. Hatches sprang open, like the drone in the alleyway. They veered and collided mid-air, tumbling into the writhing mass of anomalies beneath. The anomalies folded back on themselves, fizzling into nothingness as Sixpence and Wicked’s music resolved them. There was a pop from behind Sixpence, and the stench of melting plasteel. She turned. Mercuria lifted her face to the Metropole,a transcendent smile curving her lips. Her viridian optics had gone dark, tears of hot metal streaming down her pale cheeks.
“Stop! Stop!” Sixpence yanked the shining serpent from Wicked’s lips. His eyes were half-closed in his own version of transcendence. “You’re killing her!”
The broker relaxed his hold on his instrument. Sixpence took the serpent in case Wicked decided to start playing again.
Smoke had replaced the dark sea of anomalies, rising from the fritzed sensor drones, the newest sediment deposit of broken droids that went back to the days before the Singularity. Sixpence nudged the closest drone with her boot. It skittered down the slope like a dead beetle until a sprung hatch caught and tangled with one of its fellows.
No more anomalies, and a pile of dead drones, all from a song.
“What was that?” Sixpence whispered.
“Calculus,” said Wicked, as though it were nothing.
“The broadcast signal,” said Mercuria, as though it were everything.
Sixpence clutched Mr. Wicked’s silver serpent and looked up to the lights of the Metropole. “It sounded like music to me.” A song like that was worth more than a bit of rye. A song like that could do more than help people.
A song like that could end the world again.
But that story is not this story.
About the Author
Alyc Helms fled her PhD program in anthropology and folklore when she realized she preferred fiction to academic writing. She lives above a dive bar in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she’s a project editor for a college textbook publisher, a freelance editor, and a volunteer proofreader for Nightmare Magazine. In addition to writing, she dabbles in corsetry and costuming, dances Scottish Highland and Irish Ceili at Renaissance and Dickens fairs, rants about social justice issues, and games in all forms of media. She sometimes refers to her work as “critical theory fanfic,” which is just a fancy way to say that she is obsessed with liminality, gender identity, and foxes. She’s a graduate of Clarion West 2012, and her short fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction and will be appearing in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. Her first novel, The Dragons of Heaven, is forthcoming from Angry Robot in January 2015.