My Problem and Yours
It was raining.
A short path of polished slabs lay black and fragmented as it led along a garden of silver pebbles. Miniature trees, gnarled and shrubby, populated the sides of the path while a clay wall blocked much of what would be behind that.
The path started at the only opening in those walls and led to where the Professor sat now. It was the only rabbit shrine in Jing Mon Ceros.
Rain reminded him of the Longhand of Five, though he did not know whether that was a good omen or bad. He slid his copper hands back on the cool wooden surface.
“Red would know,” he mumbled to the immutable rain.
A door slid behind him. The quiet creak of wooden floor boards followed. A man dressed in black robes marked by a white lining lowered to a seat beside him.
The stranger began nervously, “W-we are truly blessed to h-have--”
“No formalities required, mate. Let me see him.”
The Priest bowed his shaven head. His mechanization seemed to have been a clean one. Had it not been for the spotless tin skin, the Professor would have thought him a half turn. His plainness made him the ideal medium. He was a material waited to be molded and someone who had trained for exactly what the Professor required now.
“It won’t hurt,” said the Professor, “You’ll only sleep for a bit. Promise.”
The man nodded and the Professor reached for that peculiar tin head. The connection was immediate. The copper hand shifted white to the touch of it. White and furry.
A heavy wind blew and rain splashed the wooden floorboards.
“Red,” said the Professor, “Come to me.”
Two long and white ears sprouted from his natural ones and the man gasped. His head flung back. The ears vanished as did the man, seemingly, utterly.
Something flashed into existence within the still present clothes. A new man sat in the place of the priest. Red skin, red hair, red eyes and most telling of all, bushy brows. The robes settled over him. Red was quite skinny after all.
“So now you call me?” said Red as he glanced about himself. “On a sky whale city at the dead of night?”
“I need your advice, Red.”
The man nodded, “Whatever you wish, sir.” He shifted. “I’m glad to see my spell has kept up.”
The Professor smiled meekly. He was sitting back again. Once more his copper hands slid against the wood.
Red pinched the bridge of his nose and shook his head, “Oh no.. no no no. Don’t say it.”
“Oh very yes. A few of my, uh, companions saw me.”
Red stood up. The wood groaned beneath his borrowed weight.
“I’ll dispose of them at once.”
“Never one to wait, eh? Well I’d rather you not dispose of anything. Savy an ear, mate?”
Red looked at him with a multifaceted expression. He had his brows pushed out, his ruby eyes sincere, and his lipless mouth a slight frown.
The ear the Professor asked for stuck out sharply towards the ground. Red hair lapped behind it. That hair was not quite hair, the Professor thought. Rather fur as it joined directly with his skin. The hair like fur was styled back and composed, much like the man himself. Though he wasn’t always that way.
Once Red was a feral creature. Once he was lost. He was made cruel by a crueler world, the world of machines. He was a murderer, a monster, a vengeful hateful thing with more blood on him than oil. And he would have remained there had it not been for a rabbit in a blue hat.
The Professor shrugged, “They know and they don’t. Something complicated like that I think. The girl, she knows, but you know that. The others, well, all they’ve seen is a big dumb rabbit.”
“They’ll learn eventually,” warned Red, crimson eyes flicking about. “Especially here.”
“I think I’ve grown to like them.”
“Like… them...?” Red struggled at the words. “You forget your circumstance. If any of the Twelve learn of this they’ll turn against you. Must I remind you of the condition they gave you?”
The Professor waved him off, “Made of fear that. Don’t mind it, Red. This isn’t why I called you. “
The Professor thought long and hard. Even now the edges of his mind felt clearer. Sharper. It began in the islands of sand people, where for hours longer than he wished to remember, he relapsed. Everything was a dream and he had just woken up.
“I want to know if I should run,” he asked to the chorus of rain, “if I should fulfill this prayer by myself.”
Red’s expression shifted to ease as he settled back down, “this isn’t for you is it?”
The Professor laughed and rubbed the back of his spikey head, “figure me out, eh?”
“Sir, for as long as I’ve known you, you haven’t changed once. You see danger in the path ahead and you walk it alone if only to spare the people you’ve come to ‘like’.” He frowned as he articulated that last word, only to press his chin down and hold it with a claw as he thought. “Let’s see. Yes, I think you should run. It’ll do neither party good should anything else of you be learned.”
The Professor nodded, slowly leaning forwards until his hat poked out the rafters. Droplets collected on the curled lip of the headpiece.
“One more thing,” said the Professor as rainwater trickled to his sides. “One of my companions, a half turn, real impressionable type, he reminds of the man who cured you.”
Red’s bushy brows cropped low, “The man who ‘cured’ me also damned me.”
The Professor smiled, “In a way, yes, I suppose he did. But that turn. If anything he’s the one reason I might consider staying.”
“Even after my council? He must be promising. Powerful. Do you see potential in him?”
“Tig?” laughed the Professor for the first time since they met. “Mate, he’s the least chosen out of any of us. But he has a power, aye.”
“What is it?” shook Red. “Time magic? Transformation? Explosive intellect?”
The Professor smiled at his standing companion, “He reminds me of yet another turn. Only,” he said with shrug, “a more docile version.” With goggle eyes retreating to the wetted slabs, the Professor strayed from the next bit. He had summoned his closest aide for another more pressing reason. It was a message that needed said and a bandage ready to open. And while he was not sure whether to rip that bandage open or to pry it slowly, he knew Red needed to hear it. He chose the former after a breath, “I told him to pray to the First.”
A gasp. Red’s gasp. It was a striking startled thing that caught the Professor off guard.
Red had flung forwards and his eyes balanced to the Professor’s. There was urgency in them.
“You… you did what?” spat red.
“Knew you’d be mad.”
“Sir, if he does just that then…then…”
“I’ll be found out,” finished the Professor.
Red sighed and plopped to a seat, “Damn that letter.” He muttered.
They sat there in silence as the rain filled the gaps. Even then the Professor was certain Red was deliberating a certain impressionable turn’s demise. He would stop the man if he had to, but he knew Red had to know.
“Eh mate, I trust you’ll prepare for the worst?”
Red let the rain answer for moments before he decided on his words, “This wasn’t just for advice, was it?”
The Professor smiled and tugged his head slightly.
“Very well,” grumbled Red, “I will take the appropriate measures,” he stood then sat back down a moment later, crossed legged this time. “Without killing the boy,” he added.
“Good. You may go. As will I when it’s a little drier.” The Professor leaned back and drooped the hat over his face.
“I believe you’ll do what’s best, sir.”
Red strayed a little while longer. The Professor could tell he was there by his scent and the faint rhythm of his heartbeat that was unlike any other. It was a war beat that drummed alone. The Professor was about ready to shoo him a third time when his aide spoke again.
“Sir, I take back what I said. You’ve changed.”
The Professor’s hat dropped the moment Red’s bright unturned flesh flashed to tin. He was gone then.
“Never one to wait,” murmured the copper man.
The priest started awake a moment later. He slumped forwards immediately, taking deep and erratic breaths. His breathing slowed as he postured up. His chest settled in one last troubled breath and he turned to the Professor hopefully.
“Did I… did I do well?” he asked.
The Professor seemingly ignored him as the rain cleared to mists and the remnants of it trickled from the rafters. He stood up. The wood creaked beneath him. He smiled dumbly and spun on his heel, teetering dangerously to the second step of three. Then and there he became the same drunk idiot the world knew him by.
“The wellest, mate.”
Jing Mon Ceros slept under the gentle shower of rain. A thousand thousand turns dreamt in harmony and enjoyed a deep slumber. Had they fallen asleep to the gentle chorus, they would stay so in the oil black skies that followed. So when the rain vanished, they kept dreaming. Some recalled the past days events, others saw nothing and few a hopeful future. But to those who braved the night out of merriment or fear, their eyes drifted to the speeding skies when the downpour ended. Sky whale rains ended for more than one reason. But whether the whale had swam passed the thundering clouds or whether the clouds had given up the downpour, Tig had work to do.
More and more night goers flocked back to the streets. Plans were re-established and venues revisited. Raibo’s Rats had one more performance that night and with the rain gone that performance would attract the largest crowd.
The penultimate performance turned into the fourth to last. They were stopped on two different occasions to the anxious crowds, and on both Tig toiled tirelessly with understaffed crews to set up the stages, even whilst the rain hammered down.
It just so happened he was good at it. Stage set up and takedown required management, proper planning and organizational skills, all of which the Rats lacked spectacularly but Tig exceeded in. He thanked Marici’s hard lessons for that. Hardwork and preparation, as Mr. Marici always said, those were steps to success.
The moment a performance ended in earnest, he’d split the assisting members of the troupe into three teams. He had Lucy and her musicians guide the guests out, directed the dancers Welt and Zhe on takedown and worked with Tang the painter for moving. He would personally organise the goods on the prop cart. Fragile props tucked beneath costumes and heavier equipment, the stage itself, tied down. They agreed to his plans at first thanks to Lucy’s testimony, then followed handily when they witnessed his success. Faster takedown meant more shows. One extra show was a blessing, two was unprecedented.
The real penultimate performance had just come to a close, and with the crowds diminishing, Tig began immediately. Lucy helped.
“You’re quite skilled at this, lad. Done it before?”
Lucy was a walking tower next to his half made height. He took two steps for every one of hers and both walked side by side as they carried boxes of props to the caravan. Tig carried his with both hands diligently. Lucy held hers with one.
The street they had just performed in was a narrow one. Houses hugged either side of the road and the outline of the city walls could be seen against the brightening sky.
“A little,” he admitted, “back when I cared for my family’s estate and before that when I lived with my mother. She relied on me much since I was little. I also had a prude for a teacher who made me plan everything.”
“Family, eh?” she said thoughtfully. “Well good to have that I suppose. Bile, Koto and the crew are my family and before that the Capicho’s fighting school.”
“You were a fist fighter?” said Tig, craning up to Lucy. Tig frowned to her blissful grin, “Why does that not surprise me?”
“Heh, not just any fist fighter, but Master Capicho’s best,” she declared triumphantly.
“I don’t understand,” he said as he nearly tripped in the underlit pathway.
“Why did you quit for this? Aren’t fist fighters venerated here?”
Lucy let her tin head tip up as they walked. In that angle she reminded him of Wilma. The same Wilma that told him about the above lander traditions. He had asked once about Kura and that led to a lecture on how the martial schools opened were there by up-lander nobles.
Fistwork and the movement of the body was sacred to the above landers. Both as body guards and artists. Movement, especially in combative form, was considered the ultimate patronage to the twelve divine beasts, since every form mimicked the posture of a beast. A fist fighter had the same value as an advanced written magician in the world above the world. Tig found it absurd. There was nothing to be venerated in one turn viciously beating another.
“Music,” said Lucy after much deliberation.
Tig lowered the box onto the caravan as she said that. He frowned to that answer. Musicians, on the other hand, had less value than a porter. In both worlds.
“There is freedom in music,” she continued as she dropped her box onto the tightly packed prop carriage. “I couldn’t explain it without my flute. Though it doesn’t matter how or what you do with music, just that it makes a sound. You could tap or hum or whistle. Every feeling, every thought can be made with music and what’s better, people will listen to it.”
They were heading back for more boxes now. Music was not a concept he had much of a luxury of admiring. Not while growing up atleast.
“And of those who can’t hear?” he asked off mindedly.
Lucy hummed to that, “They’ll listen with their eyes.”
“I don’t think it works that way.”
“Just how many deaf turns do you know these days?”
“I…” he struggled to answer that.
“Oi Lucy, managers wants to see you,” called an on-coming Bile.
“Now? But I’ve to help our new member here.”
“You’re here to play, Lucy, not lift, no matter how muscle bound you are,” said Bile.
“You’re one to talk, Bile.”
“Go, will you?”
Lucy gave the boy a heavy shrug and turned dramatically to the caravan. The two watched her as she marched off like a toy soldier, each step fixed and rigid.
“I see you’ve been getting to know our flutist,” said Bile.
“She reminds me of someone,” he said with a smile, “two people actually.”
“Then you’ve a knack for meeting strange turns.”
“A curse really.”
Bile gestured towards the boxes and the two walked.
“I know what you’re thinking,” she said as they walked, “you’re thinking I’m a hypocrite who sent our dear Lucy away to do exactly what I told her not to. Well I’m different. My music requires timing and strength hers relies entirely on her fingers.”
“I’d think a fighter would have sturdier fingers,” said Tig.
Bile smiled and paused by the stack of boxes, “She told you about that, huh? Well she’s a fighter no longer. She’s one of us, as is Koto,” she said turning to the aloof girl sitting on the edge of the second cart. “As could you.”
Tig blinked. His hands had just curled under the bottom of a crate, “Me? I barely know you I can’t--” He thought back to the night he left with Verace and his finger tensed around the crate, “I can’t just leave with strangers…”
With her own crate lifted up, she bumped shoulders with him. He caught the slightest smile below her mechanized bangs, “You’ve two feet. Two hands. Not to mention you seem quite capable of managing the stage setup.”
“I’m to leave this city in a week.”
“And who says you got to do that?”
Tig laughed meekly. He hadn’t the heart to say ‘one of the four admirals of Imperial Navy’.
“A convincing old turn,” he decided.
“So you’d rather follow some crumpled elder then three astonishingly beautiful women?”
“We—I --owe him for even getting here. It wouldn’t be right to deny him.” Nor would it be possible.
“Which brings me to my next point,” she said turning abruptly, “How did you get here?”
Again he felt at a loss. He glanced instinctively at where he thought the great closkship docked. He saw the constantly moving sky shift lazily to twilight oranges as he did. Dawn was fast approaching. And with it the end of this strange turn of events. He kept moving, a little faster this tiem to catch up to Bile who had gone ahead.
He thought it the end but he knew he’d be there for a week at most. Just as he spent a week at Kura he realised.
“Kura,” he lied cleverly again by her side. “I came here as a student from Kura.”
“Well you do seem the scholarly type,” she dipped her chin. “Right, I won’t pry anymore.”
That decleration came with a drop of her box on the amassed pile of Tig’s efforts. He eyed the neatly packed thing with pride. In the short hours he had spent setting up two shows and taking down three, he had utterly rearranged the troupe’s packing system.
“I’m good at this,” he thought out loud. He found it strange how often he became tangled in his own thoughts.
He heard balljoints pop and caught Bile cracking her knuckles.
“One more show, eh?” she said with a smile.
“One more show,” he nodded back.
They boarded the first carriage shortly after. It was half a barrel fashioned with wrought iron rimmed wheels and drawn by two mechanized cows. Four cows in total sicne there were two carriages. One for people and the other for props.
Tig sat straight in his spot at the edge of the carriage next to Koto. The prop carriage bounced along the path behind him, but never too high as he expected. Wilma had told him why. The above landers fashioned springs at the connections of the wheels. Some had even begun to experiment with rubber wheels. It reminded him of a paper he wrote once. He delayed in producing it and so Wilma lent him a hand. They had stayed up all night cooped up in Marici’s personal library until Wilma was satisfied with what Tig concocted: Modern Technology: This Land and Above. He had not thought that report would ever be more than a hassle. But here he was proven wrong.
The carriage was not the end of the above landers’ innovations. Even then the shadows of flying umbrellas passed over them. Full turns pushed small yet noisy carts up and down the expanding road sucking up litter along the way. And over the tops of the houses he saw plumes of steam escaping newly awoken households and mingling with the first signs of morn. Nearly every house here used steam power. He thought back gingerly to Verace and remembered his dorms’ stubborn reliance on an outdated fireplace even during the colder months. Steam was much more efficient, a sign of the times. It was the raw power of water made manifest.
Tig watched the last traces of steam plumes expand into the fiery sky.
A new dawn was coming and the land above the clouds would always be closer to it. Their own carriage bounced lightly. He heard the rattle of wheels beneath him. He thought back to what he was sitting on. It was a strange thing that carriage. The cows that pulled it were stranger still.
They were made of tightly slung steel plates with the darker plates forming the spots a cow would normally have. Their eyes were yellow gaslamps.
There was one advancement the people below made that those above hadn’t. Mechanobiology. He had grazed over the subject in his paper and after two years he had forgotten it. It would have remained that way had it not been for the scientist on Mor’de’s ship.
When living things turned into machines they could be used as parts. That was as potent as steam if done correctly. Powered limbs, immortality, clock ships… The clever tinkerers of homeland and the next concocted all manner of devices using mechanized animal parts. Though he wondered if that stopped at animals….
He shuddered as something warm touched his shoulder. He saw Koto looking his way. It was a welcome sight. She was all flesh afterall.
“You think too much,” she said simply, “Relax.”
He tried that for a moment and for the moment the rest of everything distracted him instead. He had drained out much of the cart’s noises as it traveled. There were eight others including the carriage driver, Bile, Koto and Lucy. They had been sitting in various positions as they talked amoungst themselves. Laughter often spiked from their spots. He recognized one man, a short and chubby turn, to be the manager as he nodded silently to Lucy’s recollection of something that made Bile shake her head.
“I, uh, yeah not enough sleep is all,” said Tig, returning to Koto.
“They say when people turn into machines they sleep less.”
“They can sleep less, yes. Like eating it’s optional...” Too close. He slid away. The cart had distracted him from who he sat next to and more importantly, how close she sat. He could practically smell the floral shampoos waft from her, hear the beat of her heart, her breath.
He thought of the bathhouse and swallowed. He smiled at her briefly before sliding some more in a tactical maneuver. She destroyed the distance.
“You know,” she said to his frozen expression, “I’ve been thinking too.”
The idle converse stopped. Bile, Lucy, the manager—all of them—turned to Koto with raised brows and open mouths splattered on their faces.
“You?” said Bile. “Thinking?”
“Oh yes,” she said happily, “I would very much like to do this ‘mechanization’ thing. Where do I sign up?”
“Koto,” said Bile, “you… you don’t sign up for it.”
“What then? It seems awfully convenient.”
The quiet manager and the dancer next to him, Zhe, rumbled a laugh. The chuckle spread until it caught all except Koto and Tig in its infectious grasp. A full turned man sitting next to Lucy offered a bottle, still stifling his own laugh.
“A drink to Koto?” said the man.
“You’d drink to anything, Tang,” laughed Lucy.
“Ahem,” heads turned to the stout man on the other side of Lucy. The manager was bald with bolted iron skin and little black eye glasses. “Tang, not until we’re done. That’s the rule.”
The bottle dipped, “Yes manager.”
“Awfully convenient?” scoffed Bile, redirecting them to the girl’s words, “Koto, the fact that our bodies turn into machines is anything but! We are fragile when we still have flesh and everything felt in that state is so much more… more real. Eating, sleeping, touching, smelling, all the other animal sensations we take as a given when we’re half turns, you miss it all the more when it’s gone.”
“Bile’s right,” said the manager. “Enjoy life while you’re still a half turn or a no turn in your case.”
“No turn?” asked Tig.
“Ah you don’t know.” Lucy leaned over with her long limbs. “Koto’s not from around her.”
“Though her head’s in the clouds,” muttered Bile.
A smaller laugh rumbled through.
“Then where are you from?” said Tig.
Koto flung her arm towards the horizon where streaks of red sliced the sky. For a moment he thought she’d say what the Professor said that day.
Squint really hard and you might see it.
But then she swivelled that arm in the opposite direction, almost slapping Tig in the process.
“West. Far west. Really far west,” she answered.
“Aye, she’s not exaggerating,” said Tang with a swish of his bottle. “So damn west none of us know where it is.”
Tig made a weak smile. They had not known of Verace either. “Give me a name,” he tried.
“Red’s Song, capital of the Final Verse.”
Tig blinked, “What…?”
“Told you,” snickered Tang.
The cart bounced a bit and Tig felt her warm weight press against him. She wasn’t mechanized. Not one bit. His throat clicked. Was that even possible? He had to ask.
“Then the people there… they’re not mechanized like we are?”
Koto shook her head then caught her chin in a pinch, “Well no, not really. In fact it surprised me when I first saw machine people in my travels. Though I got used to it as I saw more and more. City’s worth, countries worth. Empires. Really was a lot more common than I thought. But, oh that’s life I guess.”
The cart began to slow. He saw walls stretch high and far in his peripherals, but it was the girl who remained in his focus.
“How long have you been traveling?” he asked at last.
“Four years I think.”
“One with us!” said Lucy.
He nearly tumbled over the cart to her listless nod. While that time could have been spent in one or two places rather an unimaginable distance, her casual recollection of an Empire’s worth of turns made him think otherwise.
Koto Tet was more a foreigner than he.
Somewhere, four years to the west, there was a land untouched by mechanization and Koto knew all about it. He thought for a moment of how Kura would eat her up. There was no mention of land further west on any maps, in any books. He had not even met a turn who mentioned it. In the East lay the Mad Tinker. The south, the endless deserts of the Hourglass, to the north the wintery version of that. The west was a mystery. The cart continued, the walls in his sights grew and larger until a shadow overtook them for a good minute and they re-emerged to unhindered light. Tig craned about with his sights half blocked.
No longer were there houses there, nor were the umbrella fliers, nor the steam plumes. That was behind him encased in a wall as high as two houses.
Rolling green hills stretched ahead and beyond that, white. Something black and enormous burst through the white and slowly sunk back in.
It was a flipper. He had almost forgotten that he was on the back of a floating mechanical whale.
“This is fairly far out,” said Lucy. “Are you sure we’ll get much reception, manager?”
“Rest assured, girl, this inn has been very popular as of late. The sights alone invite much of the stationed soldiers to spend a night there.”
“Sights, huh?” said Bile, “Sure it has nothing to do with above lander girls who do not want to be seen with their foreign lovers?”
“I try to be more discreet than you girls,” scoffed the manager.
Bile grinned to that, “Well, you certainly try.”
The manager puffed and flipped his head away with crossed arms, “Well of course you would know, Bile, what with your connections to the other band of up-to-no-goods who frequent this place.”
“My old crew is here!?” she chirped, leaning forwards.
“I thought you cut ties,” said Lucy.
Bile sat back down, “I did. Been a long time is all. While I’m sure most of em’s changed in the ranks, there might be one—maybe two remaining I might know.”
“Well,” said Tang, “Might introduce me to some, eh?”
Bile frowned, “They’re all men.”
The inn in question came into view seconds later. It was a two story place with designs more reminiscent of veracian architecture. Tig could almost imagine the vines that marked its limestone walls. Or its watery reflection that splayed the red sidings in full glory. The crowds gathered at its front spoke of a popular stop worth of the Rats’ final performance.
“Ah here we are,” said the manager as the cart began its slow, “the Heavy Hare the finest inn in... in… oh beasts.”
Bile and Lucy were the first ones to leap off when the cart finally stopped. The crowd Tig noted was full of city guards. Some had books out while others were hoisting stretchers with bodies covered by linens.
Tig dared to see where the bodies were transported and saw lines of them just behind the building. He felt sick. His burning village flashed in his mind.
“You alright, Tig?” asked Koto.
“Fine just… bad memories,” he saw Lucy and Bile talking to a guard a few strides from their cart. Bile glanced back with her hair covered face. She was frowning. Troubled.
She made her way back with Lucy minutes later.
“Show’s canceled,” she said with a sigh, “happened yesterday evening. Some foreigner dressed in red came in and wrecked havoc. Guards say he killed everyone who fought him. Even … even… ”
“Get this,” interjected Lucy. “He wasn’t alone. They say he had a girl with. Little one too. I couldn’t imagine why. Nor could the guards by the sounds of it.”
The manager had his arms crossed tightly. He looked up with his black specs and gave a decisive nod, “Sad as it may be, we have no time to rest. We’ve been traveling through the night telling all manner of turns to meet us here. Now we must do the opposite. I’d rather not have any poor half turn traumatized thanks to us.”
“Good call, manager,” said Tang.
The others nodded their affirmation.
But not Tig.
He had been fixed on a single word that would not leave his mind.
“Did you say Red?”