In retrospect, dear reader, it was a mistake.

I should have known. Mere days after I finished the mech-monkey, I found it dissecting its real-life counterpart. Pinned it to the table with my set of German-engineered scalpels, and taken it apart. The dirigible from Stepney Marsh was running late, so when I arrived home with a sack of new books, the deed was almost done. I should have disassembled it then, but I thought I saw something in its eyes, something human. A desire to know, to learn, to understand why it was different to the soft, furry mirror that wailed and squealed and gave up life so quickly.

All I could hear was my father’s voice, heavy with disappointment but no real surprise: Oh, Phineas. You’re so careless. Look at the mess you’ve made.

So I tidied up the sticky, stinking corpse and threw it down the chute. I listened as it clanged along the shaft, whirled around the spiral bits, thudded into the sharp bends, then came the faint whomp as the flames gobbled it up.

I was careful to clean all the bevelled and engraved edges of the mech-monkey, and under his glass nail (which I realised were too sharp by half). I checked his insides to make sure the clockwork mechanisms were all working, not misfiring in a way that might cause a psychotic episode. Turning him around, I opened the little hatch in his lower back where, each morning, I scooped three small loads of coal to feed his tiny internal furnace. The emissions came out as small, popping farts and, if I forgot to open a window, my workshop filled up very quickly with a nasty charcoal smoke.

I kept it – it was useful for fetching and carrying, and it opened cans terribly well. Then one Tuesday I found it reading; it saw me and threw the book away, but it was too late by then. I knew.

It probably would have been okay if I hadn’t got the next idea. I had been thinking about making a Galatea, but then I read about some sailors who’d caught themselves a mermaid and tried to bring her back to Portsmouth. They kept her in a barrel of seawater on the deck, but it seems she jumped ship just out of harbour, waved goodbye and ducked under the dark, cold sea.

            And I thought ‘What if?’

Follow the pieces of me down — yes, yes, bare-footed and leaving toe- and heel-marks behind you like a carpet — follow my steps, let your hand slide down my rail. Don’t stop. Don’t climb, don’t reclaim the things you left behind.

“It is a long way down,” she said quietly, lingering on a step engraved with sirens. “Such a long way.”

Had Suriyen known it would take this long? Had he told her? She could not remember — but that was the point. The spreading gaps in her past made truth of the tales sung by the mountain-dwellers about their magical staircase.

She still remembered Suriyen, and that meant she had descended not nearly far enough.

You’re a feast of stories, my pale-ankled lady. The scandals of a court are variations on motifs — but oh, they entertain!

I will devour the reports your lover-spy shouldn’t have told you, I will help you keep him safe.

Her legs and feet ached, but she continued down. Here the steps were painted yellow and slick with moisture that ran down the side of the mountain. One bore wedge-shaped markings, indecipherable.

She had been ordered to do this. Though she could not remember why, she knew there had been an order, a secret journey from her bedroom to the top of the mountain, a threat followed quickly by a promise.

“If I am ordered,” she said to the stairs, “then I must obey.”

They did not respond. Of course they could not; metal had no mouths. “What is it like to be so silenced?”

So full of your life — I am gorged, pale-ankled lady, crammed with you.

Ahead of her lay grass and tall trees, a stream, and a man standing beside the water. A broad, tall man, scar-faced and smiling, who called out to her.

It took a moment for her memory-stripped mind to process the words. The stairs had left her language, at least. “But so much else is missing.”

“Come on!” the man shouted. “You’re almost done! Four more steps, darling, and we can be together again!”

“But why is so much gone?” Tears ran down her face. She could not remember the reason — just that she felt so empty, stripped of things she had cherished, and it hurt.

“You had to do it, it was for your own good, oh Iya, no!

Her legs hurt with each step that she climbed, leaving the man — Suriyen, her lover — behind, re-learning her self.

Will you leave me something? You were delicious before I ate too much.

“I will carve mouths into you, stairs,” she panted, almost collapsing onto a step as long and wide as a table.

And I will speak.

by David C. Kopaska-Merkel, Daniel Braum, and Luc Reid

This is an exquisite corpse. Each of us wrote 1/3 of the story.

Joe wanted to blink. His eyes were shriekingly dry. He tried to focus. Bundles of dried wass reeds, a wall of them. Hung on the wall: stone-tipped spear, leather sack, dried Tolin head. He was in a native hut, but somehow things seemed to be too low. If he was standing on something, he couldn’t feel it. Holy crap! He couldn’t feel anything below his neck! Was he paralyzed? His mind ran panicked circles in his head.

A Tolin stood in front of him. It was a short one. They stood eye to eye, but most of the aliens were at least 7 feet tall.

The creature spoke.

“Death is not the answer,” it said.

Joe’s mind filled with a mechanical buzz. Sensation began to return to his limbs. Cold and stiff.

“Contact with you and your kind was too important to just let you die,” the Tolin continued.

Joe looked down and realized why he was able to understand its speech. His body had been replaced with artificial mechanisms. Parts of his new body looked like wreckage from his ship mixed together with the rudimentary Tolin technology.

But they couldn’t be that primitive, could they? Not half as primitive as he and his superiors back on Earth had thought … Joe dug into his memory, trying to recall. One of the top-heavy Tolin trees had crushed his chest. Had they really brought him back to life? Or had they just done some kind of radical surgery to save him?

“We want to understand your species,” the Tolin said, his voice a low hum that Joe could feel in his bones. “We know more than you imagine, and your computer video records are very easy for us to view, but we don’t speak your language yet. We thought perhaps if we took apart your brain, we would find your language in the pieces, but it was not there.”

Joe began to remember a little more now, disturbingly more. Yes, the tree had fallen on him: but now he remembered a group of Tolin standing in the shadows behind the tree as it fell.

“No, death is not the answer,” the Tolin said, “but that’s all right. We’ll just try something else.”

– end –

Santa checked his list a second time. Cargo on board, ship sealed, launch tube filled with water, pressure equalized. He was off.

As it cleared the sea surface, Santa’s sleigh sprouted wings. Powerful engines coughed to life and plasma kissed the frigid Arctic water.

“Look ma! It’s a flying fish!” “It’s a plane!” “It’s Santa Claus! ” “Hush, children. Chew your blubber.”

Acceleration pegged, he’s fast. Damn fast. Actually, they call him the streak. You gotta admire his physique.

Santa fired up the Chronotron when he hit cruising altitude. Psychedelic colors out the wazoo. His sleigh fugued. S l e i g h s. T o y s t o o.

2048 Santas disbursed toys with manic speed. But for every stocking filled, 1.17 babies gave out their first cries.

10,000 elves worked for Polar Enterprises. World population growth had forced Santa into an “arms” race he could not win. Corners were cut.

“DaAaaAaD! Santa left me a game console carved from a bar of soap!” “Wadja expect for free?”

Presents rattled down the chimney. “Ho ho ho” blue-shifted into the supersonic shattered windows and the fish tank. “Sorry,” drifted down.

Genevieve tore open the white package, ensanguined in the red-litten den.”You shouldn’t have!” Whips and cuffs: just what she’d asked for.

Unidentified blip, fighters scrambled, just after pilots smoked surprise holiday presents.

The jet fighters, their hash-powered pilots drifting in and out of consciousness, lost the rocket in a mysterious polar fog.

Plunging into the Arctic Ocean as dawn broke, Santa had one last gift in the back. Mrs. Claus did look good in Victoria’s Secret. Ho ho ho!


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