Michael Swanwick is a five-time Hugo winner, as well as a winner of the Nebula, the World Fantasy, and the Theodore Sturgeons awards. “The Very Pulse of the Machine” won the 1999 Hugo.
When I was a girl my sister Susanna and I had to get up early whether we were rested or not. In winter particularly, our day often began before sunrise; and because our dormitory was in the south wing of the house, with narrow windows facing the central courtyard and thus facing north, the lurid, pinkish light sometimes was hours late in arriving and we would wash and dress while we were still uncertain whether we were awake or not. Groggy and only half coherent, we would tell each other our dreams.
One particular dream I narrated to Susanna several times before she demanded I stop. In it, I stood before the main doorway to our house staring up at the marble bas-relief of a she-wolf suckling two infant girls (though in waking life, the babies similarly feeding had wee chubby penises my sister and I had often joked about), with a puzzled sense that something was fundamentally wrong. “You are anxious for me to come out of hiding,” a rasping whispery voice said in my ear. “Aren’t you, daughter?”
I turned and was not surprised to find the she-wolf standing behind me, her tremendous head on the same level as my own. She was far larger than any wolf from ancestral Earth. Her fur was greasy and reeked of sweat. Her breath stank of carrion. Her eyes said that she was perfectly capable of ripping open my chest and eating my heart without the slightest remorse. Yet, in the way of dreams, I was not afraid of her. She seemed to be as familiar as my own self.
“Is it time?” I said, hardly knowing what I was asking.
“No,” the mother-wolf said, fading.
And I awoke.
Last night I returned to my old dormitory room and was astonished how small it was, how cramped and airless; it could never had held something so unruly and commodious as my childhood. Yet legions of memories rose up from its dust to batter against me like moths, so thickly that I was afraid to breathe lest they should fly into my throat and lungs to choke me. Foremost among them being the memory of when I first met the woman from Sainte Anne who was the last in a long line of tutors bought to educate my sister and me.
Something we had seen along the way had excited the two of us, so that we entered the lesson room in a rush, accompanied by shrieks of laughter; only to be brought up short by a stranger waiting there. She was long-legged, rangy, lean of face, dressed in the dowdy attire of a woman who had somehow managed to acquire a university education, and she carried a teacher’s baton. As we sat down at our desks, she studied us as a heron might some dubious species of bait fish, trying to decide if it were edible or not. Susanna recovered first. “What has happened to Miss Claire?” she asked.
In a voice dry and cool and unsympathetic, the stranger said, “She has been taken away by the secret police. For what offenses, I cannot say. I am her replacement. You will call me Tante Amélie.”
“‘Tante’ is a term of endearment,” I said impudently, “which you have done nothing to earn.”
“It is not yours to decide where your affection is to be directed. That is your father’s prerogative and in this instance the decision has already been made. What are your favorite subjects?”
“Molecular and genetic biology,” Susanna said promptly.
“Classical biology.” I did not admit that chiefly I enjoyed the wet lab, and that only because I enjoyed cutting things open, for I had learned at an early age to hold my cards close to my chest.
“Hmmph. We’ll begin with history. Where were you with your last instructor?”
“We were just about to cover the Uprising of Sainte Anne,” Susanna said daringly.
Again that look. “It is too soon to know what the truth of that was. When the government issues an official history, I’ll let you know. In the meantime we might as well start over from the beginning. You.” She pointed at Susanna. “What is Veil’s Hypothesis?”
“Dr. Aubrey Veil posited that the abos—”
Susanna stared in astonishment, then continued, “It is the idea that when the ships from Earth arrived on Sainte Anne, the aborigines killed everyone and assumed their appearance.”
“Do you think this happened? Say no.”
“If it had, that would mean that we—everyone on Sainte Anne and Sainte Croix both—were abos. Aborigines, I mean. Yet we think as humans, act as humans, live as humans. What would be the point of so elaborate a masquerade if its perpetrators could never enjoy the fruits of their deceit? Particularly when the humans had proved to be inferior by allowing themselves to be exterminated. Anyway, mimicry in nature is all about external appearance. The first time an aborigine’s corpse was cut open in a morgue, the game would be over.”
Turning to me, Tante Amélie said, “Your turn. Defend the hypothesis.”
“The aborigines were not native to Sainte Anne. They came from the stars,” I began.
Susanna made a rude noise. Our new tutor raised her baton and she lowered her eyes in submission. “Defend your premise,” Tante Amélie said.
“They are completely absent from the fossil record.”
“When they arrived in this star system, they had technology equal to or superior to our own which, due to some unrecorded disaster, they lost almost immediately. Otherwise they would have also been found here on Sainte Croix.” I was thinking furiously, making it all up as I went along. “They rapidly descended to a Stone Age level of existence. As intelligent beings, they would have seen what was going on and tried to save some aspect of their sciences. Electronics, metallurgy, chemistry—all disappeared. All they could save was their superior knowledge of genetics. When humans came along, they could not resist us physically. So they interbred with us, producing human offspring with latent aboriginal genes. They would have started with pioneers and outliers and then moved steadily inward into human society, spreading first through the lower classes and saving the rich and best-defended for last. Once begun the process would proceed without conscious mediation. The aborigines would not awaken until their work was done.”
“The policies of the government toward the poor suggest an awareness of this threat on their part.”
“I see that I have fallen into a den of subversives. No wonder your last tutor is no more. Well, what’s past is over now. Place your hands flat on your desks, palms down.” We obeyed and Tante Amélie rapped our knuckles with her baton, as all our tutors had done at the beginning of their reigns. “We will now consider the early forms of colonial government.”
Tante Amélie was the daughter of a regional administrator in a rural district called Île d’Orléans. As a girl, she had climbed trees to plunder eggs from birds’ nests and trapped beetles within castles of mud. She also gigged frogs, fished from a rowboat, caught crabs with a scrap of meat and a length of string, plucked chickens, owned a shotgun, hunted waterfowl, ground her own telescope lenses, and swam naked in the backwater of a river so turbulent it claimed at least one life every year. This was as alien and enchanting as a fairy tale to my sister and me, and of an evening we could sometimes coax her into reminiscing. Even now I can see her rocking steadily in the orange glow of an oil lamp, pausing every now and again to raise a sachet of dried herbs from her lap so the scents of lemon, vanilla, and tea leaves would help her memory. She had made it to adulthood and almost to safety before her father “inhaled his fortune,” as the saying went on our sister planet. But of the years between then and her fetching up with us, she would say nothing.
It may seem odd that my sister and I came to feel something very close to love for Tante Amélie. But what alternative did we have? We only rarely saw our father. Our mother had produced two girls and multiple stillbirths before being sent away and replaced with the woman we addressed only as Maitresse. None of the other tutors, even those who resisted the temptation to sample father’s wares, lasted very long. Nor were we allowed outside unaccompanied by an adult, for fear of being kidnapped. There were not many objects for our young hearts to fasten upon, and Tante Amélie had the potent advantage of controlling our access to the outside world.
Our house at 999 Rue d’Astarte doubled as my father’s business, and so was redolent of esters, pheromones, and chemical fractions, most particularly that of bitter truffle, for he held a monopoly over its import and used it in all his perfumes as a kind of signature. There were always people coming and going: farmers bringing wagons piled high with bales of flowers, traders from the Southern Sea bearing ambergris, slave artisans lugging in parts for the stills, neurochemists summoned to fine-tune some new process, courtesans in search of aphrodisiacs and abortifacients, overfed buyers almost inevitably accompanied by children with painted faces and lace-trimmed outfits. Yet Susanna and I were only rarely allowed beyond the run of the dormitory, classroom, and laboratory. Freedom for us began at the city library, the park, the slave market, and the like. Tante Amélie was a vigorous woman with many outside interests, so our fortunes took an immediate uptick at her arrival. Then we discovered quite by accident that she had opened a bank account (legal but interest-free) in hope of one day buying her freedom. This meant that she was amenable to bribery, and suddenly our horizons were limited only by our imaginations. The years that Tante Amélie spent with us were the happiest of my life.
For my sister too, I believe, though it was hard to tell with her. That was the period in which her passion for genetics peaked. She was always taking swabs of cell samples and patiently teasing out gene sequences from stolen strands of hair or nail clippings. Many an afternoon I trailed after her, in Tante Amélie’s bought company, as she scoured the flesh market for some variant of Sainte-Anne’s ape or rummaged in disreputable antique shops for hand-carved implements that might be made from—but never were—genuine abo bone. “You think I don’t know what you’re doing,” I told her once.
“Shut up, useless.”
“You’re trying to prove Veil’s Hypothesis. Well, what if you did? Do you think anyone would listen to you? You’re just a child.”
“Look who’s talking.”
“Even if they took you seriously, so what? What difference would it make?”
Susanna stared nobly into a future only she could see. “Madame Curie said, ‘We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing, at whatever cost, must be attained.’ If I could make just one single discovery of worth, that would atone for a great deal.” Then she lowered her gaze to look directly at me, silently daring me to admit I didn’t understand.
Baffled and resentful, I lapsed into silence.
I did not notice the change in my sister at first. By slow degrees she became sullen and moody and lost interest in her studies. This, for an irony, happened just as I was growing serious about my own and would have welcomed her mentorship. It was not to be. A shadow had fallen between us. She no longer confided in me as she once had; nor did we share our dreams.
Rummaging in her desk for a retractor one day, I discovered the notebook, which previously she had kept locked away, recording her great study. I had never been allowed to look at it and so I studied it intensely. Parts of it I can still recite from memory:
This implies a congeries of recessive sex-linked genes; they, being dependent on the
X chromosome, will necessarily appear only in women.
Under the right conditions, activating the operon genes in the proper sequence, the
transformation would occur very rapidly, even in adults.
Colonization of the twin planets entailed an extreme constriction of genetic plasticity which renders heritability of these recessives at close to one hundred percent.
And most provocative of all:
All this presupposes that abos and humans can interbreed & thus that they spring from a
common star-faring (most likely extinct) race. H. sapiens and H. aboriginalis are then not
two separate species but specializations of the inferred species H. sidereus.
The bulk of the notebook was filled with gene sequences which, despite Susanna’s tidy schoolgirl script, I could barely make sense of. But I journeyed through to the end of the notes and it was only when I fetched up against blank pages that I realized that she hadn’t added to them in weeks.
That was the summer when Susanna conceived a passion for theater. She went to see Riders to the Sea and Madame Butterfly and Antony and Cleopatra and The Women and Mrs. Warren’s Profession and Lysistrata and Hedda Gabler and The Rover and I forget what else. She even got a small part in The Children’s Hour. I attended one rehearsal, was not made to feel welcome, and never showed up again.
Thus it was that when I had my first period (I had been well prepared so I recognized the symptoms and knew what to do), I did not tell her. This was on a Sunday morning in early spring. Feeling distant and unhappy, I dressed for church without saying a word to my sister. She didn’t notice that I was withholding something from her, though in retrospect it seems that I could hardly have been more obvious.
We went to Ste. Dymphna’s, sitting as usual in a pew halfway to the altar. Tante Amélie, of course, sat in the back of the church with the other slaves. Shortly after the Mass began a latecomer, a young woman whom I felt certain I had seen before, slipped into our pew. She was dressed in black, with fingerless lace gloves and had a round, moon-white face dominated by two black smudges of eyes and a pair of carmine lips. I saw her catch my sister’s eye and smile.
I endured the service as best I could. Since the rebellion, the Québécois liturgy had been banned and though I understood the reasons for it the vernacular sounded alien to my ear. Midway through the monsignor’s interminable sermon something—a chance shift of light through the stained glass windows, perhaps, or the unexpected flight of a demoiselle fly past my head—drew my attention away from his impassioned drone, and I saw the stranger stifle a yawn with the back of her hand, then casually place that hand, knuckles down on the pew between her and my sister. A moment later, Susanna looked away and placed her own hand atop it. Their fingers intertwined and then clenched.
And I knew.
The components for a disaster had been assembled. All that was needed was a spark.
That spark occurred when Susanna returned from cotillion in tears. I trailed along in the shadow of her disgrace, feeling a humiliation that was the twin of hers though I had done nothing to earn it. Nevertheless, as always happened in such cases, as soon as our escort had returned us to our father’s house and made his report, we were summoned as a pair before Tante Amélie. She sat on a plain wooden chair, her hands overlapping on the knob of a cane she had recently taken to using, looking stern as a judge.
“You spat in the boy’s face,” she said without preamble. “There was no excuse for that.”
“He put his hand—”
“Boys do those things all the time. It was your responsibility to anticipate his action and forestall it without giving him offense. What else do you think you go to cotillion to learn?”
“Don’t bother sending me back there then. I’m not going to become that kind of person.”
“Oh? And just what kind of person do you imagine you can be?”
“Myself!” Susanna said.
The two women (it was in that moment that I realized my sister had stolen yet another march on me and left her childhood behind) locked glares. I, meanwhile, was ignored, miserable, and unable to leave. I clasped my hands behind my back and let my fingers fight with one another. The injustice of my being there at all gnawed at me, growing more and more acute.
Angrily, Tante Amélie said, “I despair for you. Why are you behaving like this? Why can’t I get a straight answer out of you? Why—”
“Why don’t you ask her girlfriend?” I blurted out.
Tante Amélie’s lips narrowed and her face turned white. She lifted up her cane and slammed it down on the floor with a thump. Then she was on her feet and, with a swirl of skirts, was gone from the room, leaving Susanna shivering with fear.
But when I tried to comfort my sister, she pushed me away.
The summons came later than I expected, almost a week after Tante Amélie’s abrupt cane-thump and departure. Tante Amélie escorted us to Maitresse’s austere and unfeminine office—she had been the company doctor, according to gossip, before catching father’s eye—and with a curtsey abandoned us there. Maitresse was a pretty woman currently making the transition to “handsome,” very tall and slender, and that evening she wore a pink dress. When she spoke, her tone was not angry but sorrowful. “You both know that your place in life is to marry well and increase the prestige of our house. A great deal of money has been invested in you.” Susanna opened her mouth to speak, but she held up a hand to forestall her. “We are not here to argue; the time for that is long past. No one is angry at you for what you have done with that young lady. I have performed for your father with other women many times. But you must both learn to look to your futures without sentiment or emotion.
“We are going out. There is something you must see.”
Into the lantern-lit night streets of Port-Mimizon we sallied. This was a pleasure I had almost never experienced before, so that my apprehension was mingled with a kind of elation. A light breeze carried occasional snatches of music and gusts of laughter from unseen revelries. Maitresse had dressed us in long cloaks and Venetian carnival masks—undecorated voltos for us girls and for her a medico della peste with a beak as long as Pinocchio’s—as was the custom for unescorted females.
The slave market at night was dark and silent. No lanterns were lit along its length, making the windowless compound seem a malevolent beast, crouching in wait for unwary prey to chance by. But Maitresse did not hurry her step. We turned a corner and at the end of an alley dark as a tunnel, saw a bright blaze of light and well-dressed men and women hurrying up the steps of a fighting club.
Maitresse led us around to the side, where we were let in at her knock. A dwarfish man obsequiously led the way to a small private waiting room with leather armchairs and flickering lights in mother-of-pearl sconces. “We’ll have tea,” she told the little man and he left. While we waited, for what I could not imagine, Maitresse addressed us once again.
“I spoke of the trouble and expense that went into your educations. You probably think that if you don’t make good marriages, you will simply be sold for courtesans. That was a reasonable expectation a generation ago. But times have changed. Male infants have become rarer and even the best-brought-up girls are a glut on the market. Increasingly more men have taken to pederasty. The reasons are not well understood. Social? Cumulative poisoning from subtle alien compounds in the environment over the course of generations? No one knows.”
“I will not give up Giselle,” Susanna said almost calmly. “There is nothing you can do or threaten that will change my mind. She and I…but I imagine you know nothing about such passion as ours.”
“Not know passion?” Maitresse laughed lightly, a delicate trill of silver bells. “My dear, how do you think I got involved in this mess in the first place?”
Our tea came and we drank, a quiet parody of domesticity.
What felt like hours dragged by. Finally, there came a roar of many voices through the wall and the dwarf deferentially reappeared at the door. “Ah.” Maitresse put down her teacup. “It is time.”
We entered our theater box between bouts, as the winner was being wrestled to the ground and sedated and his opponent carried away. Susanna sat stiffly in her seat, but I could not resist leaning over the rails to gawk at the audience. The theater smelled of cigar smoke and human sweat, with an under-scent of truffle so familiar that at first I thought nothing of it. As I watched, people wandered away from their seats, some to buy drinks, others retiring by pairs into private booths, while yet others…. My sight fixed on a large man as he snapped a small glass vial beneath his nose. His head lolled back and a big loutish grin blossomed on his heavy face. I had never witnessed anyone sampling perfume in public before but having seen it once I immediately recognized its gestures being repeated again and again throughout the room. “Your father’s wares,” Maitresse observed, “are extremely popular.” I was not sure if she wanted me to feel proud or ashamed; but I felt neither, only fearful and confused.
After a time the audience, alerted by cues undetectable to me, reassembled itself in the tiered rows of chairs wrapped around a central pit with canvas-lined walls. The loud chatter turned to a dwindling murmur and then swelled up again in a roar of unclean approval as two girls, naked, were led stumbling down opposing aisles. Their heads were shaved (so they could not be seized by the hair, I later learned) and one had her face painted red and the other blue. Because they were both of slender build and similar height, this was needed to tell them apart.
Several slaves, nimble as apes, lowered the girls into the pit, then jumped down to rub their shoulders, chafe their hands, speak into their ears, and break vial after vial of perfume under their noses. By degrees the fighters came fully awake and then filled with such rage that they had to be held back by four men apiece to keep them from prematurely attacking each other. Then a bell rang and, releasing their charges, the slaves scrambled up the canvas walls and out of the pit.
The audience below came to their feet.
“Do not look away,” Maitresse said. “If you have any questions, I will answer them.”
The two girls ran together.
“How do they get them to fight?” I asked even though I was certain I would be told simply that they had no choice. Because were I in their place, knowing that the best I could hope for was to survive in order to undergo the same ordeal again in a week, I would not fight someone of my trainers’ choosing. I would leap up into the audience and kill as many of them as I could before I was brought down. It was the only reasonable thing to do.
“Your father creates perfumes for myriad purposes. Some cure schizophrenia. Some make it possible to work a forty-hour shift. Some are simple fantasies. Others are more elaborately crafted. Those below might think they are dire-wolves fighting spear-carrying primitives, or perhaps abos defending their families from human ravagers. Their actions seem perfectly rational to them, and they will generate memories to justify them.” As commanded, I did not look away but I could feel her gaze on the side of my face nonetheless. “I could arrange for you to sample some of your father’s perfumes, if you’re curious. You would not like them. But if you persisted, after a time you would find yourself liking them very much indeed. My best advice to you is not to start. But once would not hurt.”
I shook my head to blink away my tears. Misinterpreting the gesture, Maitresse said, “That is wise.”
We watched the rest of the fight without further comment. When it ended, the survivor threw back her head and howled. Even when burly slaves immobilized and then tranquilized her, her mad grin burned triumphantly.
“May I stop watching now?” Susanna asked. I could tell she meant it to be defiant. But her voice came out small and plaintive.
“Soon.” Maitresse leaned over the rail and called down to the pit-slaves, “Show us the body.”
The pit workers started to hoist up the naked corpse for her examination.
“Clean her up first.”
They produced a dirty cloth and rubbed at the girl’s face, wiping away most of the red paint. Then they lifted her up again. In death, she seemed particularly childlike: slender, small-breasted and long-legged. The hair on her pubic mound was a golden mist. I could not help wondering if she had experienced sex before her premature death and, if so, what it had been like.
“Study her features,” Maitresse said dryly.
I did so, without results. Turning to my sister with a petulant shrug, I saw in the mirror of her horrified expression the truth. There came then a shifting within me like all the planets in the universe coming into alignment at once. When I looked back at the dead fighter I saw her face afresh. It could have been a younger version of my sister’s face. But it was not.
It was my own.
Susanna said nothing during the long walk home, nor did I.
Maitresse, however, spoke at length and without emotion. “Your mother made many children. You—” (she meant Susanna) “—were natural. You—” (me) “—were the first of many clones commissioned in an attempt to create a male heir, all failures. When your mother was sent away, your father resolved to get rid of everything that reminded him of her. I argued against it and in the end we compromised and kept the two of you while selling off the others. I have no idea how many survive. However, the economic realities of the day are such that, were either of you to be sold, you would fetch the highest price here.” She said a great deal more as well but it was unnecessary; we already well understood everything that she had to tell us.
When we arrived home, Maitresse took our masks from us and bid us both a pleasant good night.
We went to sleep, my sister and I, cradled in each other’s arms, the first time we had done so in over a year. In the morning, Tante Amélie was gone and our formal educations were done forever.
Last night, as I said, I returned to my old dormitory room. It took me a while to realize that I was dreaming. It was only when I looked for Susanna and found nothing but dust and memories that I recollected how many years had gone by since my childhood. Still, in the way of dreams, there was a pervasive sense that the entire world was about to change. “You know what to do now,” a rasping whispery voice said. “Don’t you, daughter?”
I turned and the she-wolf was not there. But I felt sure of her presence anyway. “Is it time?” I asked.
She did not reply. Her silence was answer enough.
I grinned, for I now understood where the she-wolf had been hiding all this time.
Not so much awakening as taking my dream-state with me into the waking world, I got up out of bed and walked down the hall to my husband’s room. Then I paid a visit to the nursery, where my twin sons were sleeping. Finally, I went out into the night-dark streets to look for my sister.
The night is almost over now, and we must hurry to finish what we have begun. At dawn we will leave the cities behind and return to the swamps and forests, the caverns and hills from which the humans had driven us, and resume our long-interrupted lives. I have taken off my skin and now prowl naked through the streets of Port-Mimizon. In the shadows about me I sense many others who were once human and I devoutly pray that there are enough of us for our purpose. In the back of my mind, I wonder whether all this is real or if I have descended into the pit of madness. But that is a minor concern. I have work to do.
I have freed the she-wolf from within her hiding place and there is blood on her muzzle.
Only…why does the world smell as it does? Of canvas and bitter truffle.
Copyright © 2013 by Michael Swanwick