Fantasy Historical Romance steampunk fantasy romance cat

The Soul Jar

By Steven Harper · Mar 24, 2019
14,523 words · 53-minute reading time

B steampunk cat jpg 900 1

 

From the author: Last week, I posted "Thin Man," a dark fantasy set in Victorian London about a climbing boy named Dodd. Decades later, I was invited to submit a story to THE SHADOW CONSPIRACY steampunk anthology, and it occurred to me that Dodd's story wasn't finished yet. So I wrote "The Soul Jar." Out of all my short stories, this one is my favorite. See if you agree. THE SHADOW CONSPIRACY is still in print at Book View Cafe: https://bookviewcafe.com/bookstore/book/the-shadow-conspiracy/


THE SOUL Jar

by Steven Harper

The iron spider clicked across the table and delicately dropped the sugar cube into my cup. I stirred, careful to keep my cuffs away from the crumbs that littered my plate.

“They’re wrong, every one of them,” said Victor Kalakos from across the table. “From Archimedes to Newton.”

“I don’t see how.” I sipped. The tea was nicely sweet, but had gone lukewarm. “The laws of physics are inviolate. Two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time. If that weren’t so, my spider wouldn’t be able to walk across the table. It would sink into the surface instead.”

“But the physical laws ignore what makes it walk in the first place, and that invalidates even Newton!” Kalakos exclaimed with more enthusiasm than accuracy. His own cup was long emptied, as was the silver flask standing next to it. The spider skittered to the edge of the table, paused, and turned left. “There! You see? It turned left. Based on what? I’ll tell you, my boy: the sum of its experience. And there is no physical law to explain that.”

“Like John Locke claimed.”

“Exactly. We are the sum of our experiences. Let me give you an example. If you were to pull one leg from that spider and replace it, would it be the same spider?”

“Of course.” I turned the spider, and it clicked back toward the teapot.

“What if you replaced all eight legs?”

“More or less.”

“Would that spider turn left or right at the edge of the table?”

I shook my head and glanced out the car window. The train wasn’t moving. Clouds darkened above the River Liffey as the sun set, and Dublin lamplighters were making their rounds. One of our girls had already attended to lighting the car’s hanging lamps, which now shed a soft yellow glow.

Ringmaster Victor Kalakos had an entire train car for himself, a house on wheels. He had a large bed, comfortable chairs, two wardrobes, a small stove, full bookshelves, and a perfectly functional bar.

The wealthier performers usually lived in small wagons--we rolled them into the boxcars when it came time to move--while the poor ones pitched small tents behind the main one. I lived in a wagon myself, but as the ringmaster’s chief assistant, I came and went from Kalakos’s car as I liked. We usually took a late tea together after the Kalakos International Emporium of Automata & Other Wonders had shut for the evening.

“There’s no way to know which way a rebuilt spider would turn,” I said. “It would have different experiences and might make a different choice. Or it might not.”

Kalakos leaned across the plates a little unsteadily. He always got philosophical when his flask was empty. “There might be a place that does know which choice it makes. And I think you hold the key to it.”

“Me?” I was so startled, I forgot my hard-earned grammar. “How so?”

“You see the future.”

“I don’t, sir,” I reproved gently. “I sometimes see the choices people make and what will happen from them. Sometimes.”

“In other words,” Kalakos said with a vigorous nod, “when a man stands at a crossroads, wondering if he should turn left or right to get home, you can see that the right turn will take him safely to his family but a left turn will take him into an ambush of bandits.”

Automatically I looked down at my hands. My left has six fingers on it, but living among circus performers had long ago driven out any hint of self-conscious feeling. “That oversimplifies the case, but yes.”

“I maintain,” Kalakos continued, “that the man turns both ways. That in one place...call it a universe...he turns right and arrives safely home, while simultaneously, in another universe, he turns left and dies. The two universes exist, side-by-side, invisible and insensible to one another, but they exist nonetheless. Before the man makes his choice, there is a single universe. The moment he decides, the universe splits into two, one for each choice, each with its own set of physical laws, occupying the same space at the same time. This happens a million times, a billion times, every time something different could happen.”

“No, sir.” I shook my head again. “When the man makes his choice, the other possibility ceases to exist. I know.”

“Except you exist in this universe,” Kalakos said triumphantly. “So you are automatically unaware of the other universes and their outcomes. But you can see each universe a split-second before it is created. You--and your counterparts in the other universes--see the potentials.”

“Rubbish!” I cried, then added quickly, “Sir.”

“Have you ever held up two mirrors so they reflect each other?” Kalakos said mildly.

“Yes. It makes me dizzy.” As did this conversation.

“I’ve often thought that’s what it must be like for you.” Kalakos picked up the spider and idly flipped it over. It was the size of a saucer, with spindly legs. A key stuck out of its back, slowly unwinding. The legs quivered as if in fear or protest. “You stand in the middle and see infinite reflections stretching in both directions, but each one is a tiny bit different.”

“I wish you wouldn’t do that, sir,” I said, growing a little tired now. “The spider gets upset.”

“How so?” Kalakos brandished the little automaton. “Is it alive? Conscious? Did you give it a soul?”

I shuddered and wrapped my six-fingered hand round my cup. “You know I didn’t. I meant I’ll have to reset the flywheel, and it’s bloody difficult. What brought up all this talk of other universes, anyway?”

Kalakos returned the spider to the table and leaned back in his chair. He was a tall man, and rangy, appropriate for a circus ringmaster. His black hair had gone grey at the temples, and he wore the expected enormous moustache and sideburns. He probably used to be quite handsome in his youth, but the lines acquired in his forties weren’t kind to him, and I sometimes wondered if I would meet a similar fate, though I didn’t much look like him. I was shorter than he, with the lean, compact build of an acrobat. At twenty-one, I kept my sandy hair short, and my face clean-shaven because with facial hair I looked like an idiot.

“I’m remembering another time, I suppose,” Kalakos said as the spider skittered round in a circle. “And wondering how things might have been different if I had made other choices. Have you ever been to Geneva, Dodd?”

“No, and you keep asking questions you know the answer to. Why is that?”

He chuckled. “Perhaps it’s my own way of determining the future.”

A knock sounded at the door. Kalakos cocked his head, and I sighed. It was always something. No doubt the elephant had broken down. Or the wirewalker had gone into a whorehouse and needed bail money. Or the Great Sabatini had got drunk and made someone disappear again. I glanced at the car door, and felt a familiar sensation steal over me as my talent opened. My talent came and went as it pleased, and I never quite got over the unease it gave me. When I looked at the door, I expected my talent to show me a series of choices stretching out before me as it usually did.

My hand jerked spasmodically round my cup. It leaped from my grasp and shattered on the boards even as Kalakos called for the visitor to enter. Before I could react further--or even speak--the door opened and in strode a stranger--tall, broad-shouldered, in his late twenties. He had deep red hair under a high hat, a wolf’s grin, and wide blue eyes that sparkled in the lamplight. His long black overcoat hung open, revealing a white shirt, black Hessian boots, and a fashionably-cut brown waistcoat.

Kalakos’s face went instantly pale as milk, and he bolted to his feet. “Joseph Storm! As I breathe, can that be you?”

The man’s grin widened. “It can. I’ve just perfected a clown act, and I need a circus position. You can provide one for an old friend, I trust?”

“In the name of our Holy Lord and Father of us all, Joseph,” Kalakos said in a strangled voice, “where is your brother?”

“Am I being rude? Then, Mister Victor Kalakos,” said Joseph with overmuch formality, “allow me to present my brother, Nathaniel August Storm.”

Into the car came another man, one completely identical to Joseph. Red hair, blue eyes, tailored clothes, everything was exactly the same. Except this man wasn’t smiling. He kept his eyes down, and his posture was uncertain. I, for my part, found myself dizzy and confused, as if I were watching events through a funhouse mirror.

Kalakos inhaled and exhaled with quick and shallow breaths. He looked ready to faint. I didn’t feel much better, and I coped by focusing on something else.

“Mr. Kalakos?” I managed to say. “Are you ill?”

Kalakos seemed to remember that I was still in the car. “I...I’m fine, Dodd,” he stammered. “Perfectly fine. Would you excuse us?”

“Of course.” I snatched up the spider and all but bolted for the railcar door. In my haste, I tripped on an uneven board. A pair of solid arms caught me, and Nathaniel Storm pulled me upright.

“Sorry,” I muttered.

“Certainly.” Nathaniel’s breath came warm in my ear, and I found myself flushing. Confused, I fled out the door and down the three steps, the spider tucked under my arm. The two larger spiders that waited near the steps rose and skittered after me like obedient puppies.

One always had to consider a lifetime of hard labour in the most disgusting of prisons if we got caught following our natural inclinations.

The Irish summer evening was damp and cool, with a smell of coal and sulphur. Trolleys and horses and carriages clattered past in the street. Merrion Square, the park we had rented within Dublin, was already growing trampled and muddy from our presence, though the Emporium had only arrived last week. In the near distance, the Tilt rose up like a canvas tomb. Smaller tents huddled round it like gravestones. Behind me stood the train, a sleeping iron dragon with the Ringmaster’s car as its tail.

Merrion Square was an ideal spot for a circus, since a rail spur ran right past it. In a few days, when the audiences began to dwindle, we would pack everything into the bright boxcars and clatter on to another town. Belfast, perhaps, or even London.

I moved a few steps away from the car, still feeling unnerved, and trying to sort out what was happening. When I looked at the door just before Joseph and Nathaniel Storm’s entrance, my talent had shown me two futures, but the power and fear in both had smashed me like a hammer and blinded me to the final outcomes in both. I did know I had seen both devotion and destruction, inextricably intertwined, and I couldn’t sort out which of the two futures would come to pass, or even which one to choose. I was a wirewalker balanced between two extremes, and I feared that I would fall at any moment. The shock of it continued to unsettle me, and I rubbed my extra finger with my left thumb.

“What should I do?” I asked the spider under my arm. It waved its legs without answering. On the ground, its brethren scuttled about my ankles. If they had no specific orders, they tended to run in circles. I had no idea why. It wasted the energy stored in the winding spring, but I couldn’t find a way to make them stop. If I changed the Babbage engines that controlled their actions and removed the tendency, they stopped working entirely.

“Dodd!” Kalakos stuck his head out of the railcar door. His face was still pale, but his nose was red with drink. “Mr. Storm parked his wagon near the Tilt. Have it moved to Clown Alley. We’re adding his clown spot to the main show.”

“What?” I said, startled. “We already have a full show. Who are we to drop from the schedule in order to--”

“Just see to it, Dodd.” And he slammed the door again.

All the next day, the ringmaster hid from everyone, admitting only the Storm Brothers to his locked train.  Once in his presence, they remained with him every moment.

“Who the hell are those two?” asked William Myrtle, our strong man. He was barely thirty, but was aging rapidly and looked closer to forty. Myrtle probably thought this was simply due to his nature. I knew differently.

“I have no idea,” I said, “but they open with us tonight.”

The show that evening was a near sell-out. The stands were crowded with families and courting couples and a few single people looking for companionship--the usual sort. Kalakos, in his red-and-white striped shirt and top hat, strode out of his wagon with a tempestuous expression, and no one dared ask him about the Storm brothers, who were nowhere to be seen. Once everyone was lined up outside the ring door curtains, the calliope started playing, and the Emporium processed into the ring.

We began every show with a parade. Kalakos stonily marched up front, waving his cane in time with the music. The great iron elephant followed, its heavy feet thudding on the packed earthen floor, then a rainbow explosion of clowns, then the brassy mechanical horses and their slender girls in white feathered dresses, then the muscular acrobats in their tight red shirts, and more. I strode in with my twelve spiders cavorting about my ankles. The smallest, painted purple, could sit on my hand, and the largest, painted red, was the size of a collie. The Storm brothers were still nowhere to be seen. Strange--most new performers want to be in the opening procession.

The audience applauded and cheered. Children pointed at the elephant. Everyone and everything marched thrice round the ring, and then the human performers scattered to do small spots for the crowd while the mechanical animals continued round the circle. My spiders amused the crowd with small tricks--plucking handkerchiefs from pockets, “kissing” girls and babies, making backflips upon command--while I answered questions. The young men always asked how they worked, and the young women always asked about me. I used to give them small paper flowers, but that annoyed their young men, so I’ve stopped the practice.

One young man with coal-black hair leaned toward me over his cane and murmured in my ear that he would love to discuss certain...automatic functions with me, if only I could meet him after the show? I considered the offer, but abruptly found myself remembering Nathan Storm’s arms around my body in Kalakos’s wagon. A bit flustered, I told the young man I had other plans and quickly moved on.

At last the automata pranced out and we performers cleared the Tilt so Kalakos could introduce the Flying Benjamins, our opening trapeze act. I waited outside with the other brightly-dressed performers, who stood or sat in silence or conversed in low whispers so their conversation wouldn’t carry into the Tilt. I rewound my spiders. Henry Wells, the chief ring groom, opened the side of the elephant to ensure the boiler was stoked properly. The smell of coal smoke mixed with a wet breeze from the River Liffey. My eyes strayed, searching for Nathaniel Storm but not finding him in the press of people. How had he and Joseph forced Kalakos to give them a spot without so much as an audition?

“Presenting,” Kalakos boomed from inside the Tilt, “the amazing Storm brothers!”

Two men darted through the ring door curtains into the Tilt. I ordered my spiders to stay and hurried round to the main entrance. Martha, the ticket girl, nodded at me as I dashed past her and found a place in the shadows near the grandstand.

Joseph and Nathaniel Storm had already leaped into the ring. Here they showed another oddity. In a clowning duo, one was usually a joey in whiteface makeup, and he dominated the other, who played the “smart” fool, or auguste, who wore makeup of simple wide circles round the eyes and mouth. Joseph and Nathaniel, however, both wore makeup in the auguste fashion.

The men wore identical baggy red polka-dot shirts, sagging blue trousers, and floppy purple shoes. They had artfully tousled their red hair, so there was no need for wigs. The only difference between them was that one twin wore a canary-yellow coat. I couldn’t tell Joseph from Nathaniel, and I was surprised at how much I wanted to. Both men cut handsome figures despite the clown makeup. For a moment I felt Nathaniel’s arms on me back in the railcar, and the crowded Tilt grew warm.

Joseph--I assumed he was the dominant one--paced about the ring, preening in his ludicrous jacket with obvious pride, then looked round in puzzlement and dismay. He had no mirror to see his fine clothes in! He turned to Nathaniel and, tapping one floppy foot, held out his hand with comic impatience. Nathaniel pulled an impossibly large hand mirror from one baggy pocket--and dropped it. The glass shattered.

Joseph furiously chased Nathaniel round the ring, shoes flopping, clothes flapping. Eventually, he caught his servant, trounced him soundly, and sent him away for another mirror amid laughter and scattered applause.

“They’re good,” murmured William Myrtle. I jumped--I hadn’t noticed the strongman sidle up to me. “I’ve never seen an act like this one. Did they invent it? Where’ve they worked a ring before?”

“I’ve no idea,” I said distractedly.

Joseph returned to his preening. A moment later, there was the sound of breaking glass behind the ring curtain, and Nathaniel slunk back into the ring with a horrified expression on his face. He was carrying a full-length, empty mirror frame. Nathaniel bit his nails and shot fearful glances at Joseph, who hadn’t yet noticed what was going on. My heart filled with pity for him, and I had to remind myself it was only a clown spot.

An idea seemed to strike Nathaniel. He set the frame down and hurried out of the ring. A moment later, he reappeared--wearing a duplicate of Joseph’s jacket. Once again, the clowns looked exactly alike.

Nathaniel picked up the frame and set it down with a thump behind Joseph, who jumped and spun round. In a flash, Nathaniel let go the mirror frame and duplicated his brother’s pose, as if he were the reflection. Laughter rippled through the audience, and I joined in.

Joseph narrowed his eyes, seeming to notice something was wrong. He leaned forward to get a better look at the mirror, but Nathaniel was ready for that and he copied the gesture perfectly. Joseph--and Nathaniel--shrugged and turned his back, whereupon Nathaniel stuck out his tongue over his shoulder. The audience roared. William guffawed and slapped me on the back with a heavy hand.

Joseph whirled round and pointed accusingly at the mirror, but Nathaniel was ready for him and pointed accusingly back. Still suspicious, Joseph wiggled his left hand while making a silly face. Again, Nathaniel simultaneously duplicated each move. As the spot continued, Joseph’s movements grew more absurd and more complicated, but Nathaniel copied him so well that I found myself wondering if there really were glass in the mirror after all. Abruptly, both clowns picked up the frame and, holding it between them, whirled round, faster and faster until I completely lost track of which twin was which. Finally, in disgust, the pair thumped the mirror down, straightened their respective collars, and stalked off in opposite directions. At the last moment, both looked back, waved to the mirror, and exited to thunderous applause.

“I’ve seen my share of good joeys,” William said over the noise, “and these two are fantastic.  The mirror work is brilliant. First new bit I’ve seen in ages.”

I stared after the brothers without answering, then ran backstage to find them. Joseph was already towing Nathaniel back to Kalakos’s railcar, and my own spot was coming up soon. In that moment, my talent opened up, and I saw that chasing after them would only end in humiliation. However, I did have another choice that would be less frustrating--at least for the moment.

I scrawled, Plans changed. Meet bhnd main tent aft show re: automtc fnctns on a calling card, handed the card to my littlest spider, and pointed out the young man with the coal-black hair. My spider scuttled away on its errand, and the other choices vanished. Some time later, a very intense discussion began behind the main tent. We were quite discreet, of course--Irish law was strict. The discussion ended in my wagon, as I knew it would. In the morning, the young man was gone.

I knew that would happen, too.

“Ferrous,” I said, “wake up.” Then I smashed him on the head with a sledgehammer.

The blow rang with the clang of a church bell. The great iron dragon’s eyes cranked open. He sucked in air and expelled soft steam through the horns on the top of his head. His boiler fires were banked, which always made him sleepy, and the blow I had dealt him was barely powerful enough to get his attention.

Ferrous was a huge black beast, a combination of dragon and locomotive, with wheels instead of claws and iron skin instead of scales. His strength was powerful enough to pull the massive circus train, and his codex complex enough to negotiate the maze of railways that snaked through the British Isles and the Continent. Kalakos had coded his cards, but I had modified them several times.

“Yes, Dodd?” Ferrous hissed. His mouth was fashioned just above the cowcatcher, giving him the appearance of possessing a beard.

It was two days later, a Monday, and the Emporium was closed. The Storm brothers had performed four more times--matinees and evenings--to great success, but they always vanished afterward to the ringmaster’s railcar. Today, however, things had changed. Kalakos remained closeted in his railcar with Joseph, but I’d caught Nathan strolling toward the wagon he shared with his brother. On impulse, I had asked if he wanted a tour of the Emporium. To my relief and pleasure, he most certainly did. Since the day was fine, both of us were wearing flannel trousers and pullovers, with the fisherman’s caps so common here in Dublin.

The headlamps that made up Ferrous’s eyes were now staring down at us as we stood on the track before him. Nathan--he preferred that name over Nathaniel--stepped back. I took him by the shoulder and gently brought him forward again. He took off his cap.

“Ferrous,” I said, “allow me to present Nathaniel August Storm. He’s just joined the Emporium and will be riding with us. With your kind permission.”

The eyes swivelled down in Nathan’s direction. Nathan swallowed but remained still. Ferrous stared at him, then swung his gaze back to me. “He is trustworthy to ride?”

It was his standard question. One quirk of Ferrous’s Babbage engine was that he never allowed strangers to ride with him, so all new employees of the Emporium needed to be introduced before their first transport. “He is,” I said.

“And you are close to him, Dodd?”

That question startled me. Ferrous had never asked it before. “I...I feel he is worthy of--”

“Very well.” Ferrous yawned. “I will go back to sleep now.” And he did so.

“That was...quite amazing,” Nathan said in a quiet voice.

It was then that I noticed my arm still lay round his shoulders. Nathan hadn’t drawn away, either. My face grew hot with embarrassment and I quickly pulled back. Nathan continued to stare at Ferrous’s sleeping form as if the little affair between us had been perfectly unremarkable. My eyes stayed on Nathan. His hair, red as an autumn leaf, was slightly tousled from removing his cap, and a few freckles sprinkled his nose.

“Well,” I said with a slight cough, “now that you’ve seen--”

“Does he have a soul?” Nathan asked, his eyes still on the iron dragon.

An image of a strong man strapped to a table flashed through my head. Metal helmet. Electric wires. Leyden jars. My mouth dried up.

“What makes you ask?” I said.

“There are stories. Rumours that an automaton can become complex enough to house a soul, one stolen from a human being. Or that they even create their own, spontaneously.”

I laughed, but it sounded forced. “The church doesn’t like that sort of talk.”

“I’ve seen automatic locomotives before, but never one complicated enough to speak,” Nathan said. “Does he really think?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “John Locke claimed that any living creature that is aware of its own thinking must have a soul, but that was long before the first Babbage engine. Ferrous’s codex is very limited. It doesn’t go much beyond timetables and the type of coal he’s given.”

Nathan put out a cautious hand and touched the sleeping dragon. No reaction. “So this isn’t magic.”

It had been a statement, not a question, but I answered it anyway. “No,” I said, on safer ground now. “It’s science. All automata are animated through a combination of electricity, mechanics, and a bit of chemistry.”

“I’ve seen real magic, you know.”

Another image flickered. Cold thin fingers caressed my cheek and a soft voice whispered icy words in my ear.

“It’s rare and difficult,” I said woodenly, “but it’s out there. Where did you encounter it?”

“China, Borneo, Japan.” He glanced at me with a small smile that made me hunger to see more.

“I’ve never been that far East. What’s it like?”

“People are much the same, though customs are very different. In many cases, certain ideas that make people angry here are ignored or accepted there.”

He looked at me with guileless blue eyes, and I couldn’t break away. Was Nathan thinking the same way as the young man with coal black hair? I wasn’t quite sure, and there were so many risks in finding out. If I made a mistake with a total stranger, a fistfight might erupt, but we would ultimately part company. Nathan I would see every day. And rejection from a stranger meant little, while rejection from Nathan would destroy a billion branching universes.

At that moment I wanted very badly for my talent to open up, but the wretched thing had abandoned me completely.

“I see,” was all I could say. I felt stupid and foolish. “Um...you’ve seen the rest of the Emporium. Do you want to see the Black Tent?”

Nathan looked a little disappointed, or perhaps it was only my wilful imagination, and I was seized with an overwhelming desire to grab him by both shoulders and ask obvious and powerful questions. But I didn’t.

“Yes,” Nathan said. “Very much.”

We threaded our way through the complex of tents and wagons that made up the Emporium. Cooking smells mingled with scents of animal manure and sawdust. Monday might have been a day off from performing, but that only created a day of maintenance and rehearsal. Ida and Mary Edgewood tried new additions to their wirewalking routine on a low rope they had set up. Carl Greene, a.k.a. the Great Sabatini, stood near his wagon, talking to an invisible audience as he pulled brightly-coloured handkerchiefs out of nothing. Aleksandr and Maksim Danylchuk coaxed Natasha, the World’s Biggest Automatic Elephant, onto a tiny iron platform. Barbara Bellington Jones sat beside her tent with a plate of food, tossing titbits to the dozen poodles sitting in her ample shadow. Henry Wells supervised his two sons as they scrubbed and polished the six automatic horses that cantered in perfect circles for every show. All the performers except the children looked rather older than they were, and all of them except the children had a faintly mechanical air to their movements, a vague listlessness that only vanished when they entered the ring. Outsiders simply assumed the circus life was a draining one. I knew better.

Our progress through the Emporium was slow--several people stopped Nathan to praise his performances. Nathan accepted their words with an embarrassed flush. They all smiled at me but instinctively avoided engaging me in conversation because of my connection with Kalakos. I was long used to this and barely noticed.

“Where did you learn to clown like that?” I asked after William Myrtle stopped Nathan for congratulations, the fifth person to do so. “I’ve never seen anyone perform the mirror spot so well.”

“Joseph and I are very close. He’s been obsessed with that spot his entire life, so we do it.”

The thick, sugary scent of caramel wafted by, mixing with the smell of soap as we passed old Margery Mays, who was kneeling behind a tub of water and indifferently scrubbing a bright blue shirt against a washboard.

“What are you obsessed with?” I asked, a little playfully. “What do you like to do?”

Nathan halted and looked at me.

I stopped, too. “What’s wrong?”

“No one’s ever asked me that before,” he said. “I like it.”

I felt discomforted, but in a way I enjoyed. His eyes were so blue. Cloth continued to slap against water as Margery did her washing. “So what’s the answer?”

“You should know,” he replied. “You see the future.”

Now it was my turn to stare, but in shock. “Who told you that?”

“My brother. Or perhaps it was Mr. Kalakos.”

I couldn’t respond. Nathan noticed my distress, and his expression became instantly contrite.

“I’m sorry, Dodd. I didn’t mean to hurt you. Really.” He put a brief hand on my shoulder. His touch, light as it was, seared my skin through the cloth like a branding iron fresh from the forge.

Henry, the ring groom, led the two newly-scrubbed mechanical horses around one of the tents. They snorted steam and smoke as they passed. I tried to keep the memories back, but Nathan’s touch and the smell of coal smoke broke barriers. Sudden loneliness washed over me, even though Nathan stood not a foot away, and I didn’t want to keep anything from him.

I held up my left hand, the one with six fingers. “I see things. Not just the future, but also...things.” My eyes lost their focus and I forgot where I was. “I started life as a climbing boy, back before automata put the chimney sweeps out of business. My friends and I squirmed into tiny spaces with little brushes, and Scar--the man who owned us in all but name--forced us to scrub them clean. The chimneys were narrow and black as night. It was hard to breathe. Sometimes you got stuck. Trapped in the black bricks with no way to move.”

Nathan shuddered. “It sounds horrible.”

“And then there was the Thin Man,” I whispered.

“Who was he?”

“I still don’t know. Sometimes I think he was just a figment created by my own mind, a personification of the terrible futures I saw for my friends. Sometimes I think he really existed.”

“But who was he?”

The whole world faded away now. For a moment, I felt poised again, held between devotion and destruction as I had outside of Kalakos’s wagon, unnerved and unsettled. Nathan stood before me, solid and complete, and I turned my focus on him, ignoring the other sensation, refusing to examine the choices. Nathan’s blue eyes and sunset hair became my universe. Words poured out of me, desperate for something to connect with. Nathan drank them in for me, and I felt grateful for his presence.

“The Thin Man killed you,” I said. “He hid in the dark places and made you slip and fall three stories into a stone fireplace. He loosened bricks that crumbled under your knee so you dropped downward a little and became wedged in place until you suffocated. He started chimney fires that roasted you alive. All the climbing boys told stories about him, but I was the only one who could see him. I was the only one he talked to in the dark. Finally he burned one of my best friends to death, and I realized running away was safer than staying. Just before I scarpered, the Thin Man begged me not to go, so I knew it was the right choice. Maybe he only existed because I could see him. I haven’t seen him since.

“In the meantime, I had to eat, and climbing boys make good thieves. We can get into all sorts of places. I never got caught, either--I knew when the mingers were coming.  But I was still living in shadows. Then I came here, to the Emporium, looking for something to steal. Kalakos caught me, but instead of beating me or arresting me, he put me to work. I swept his forge and cleaned his workshop and even learned to be an acrobat. But with the automata I found my true talent.” I remembered where I was and shook myself free of the memories and of Nathan’s blue gaze. “Sorry. I ramble sometimes.”

“You needed to. I like listening to you, Dodd.”

He was so ingenuous, so calm and carefree. I envied and desired it at the same time. “Come along,” I said. “I’ll show you the Black Tent.”

The Black Tent was always erected some distance from the main Emporium due to the risk of fire. It was called the Black Tent not for its colour, which was canvas grey, but because Kalakos and I did a fair amount of blacksmith work there. I held the flap aside for Nathan, my eyes on his face so I could catch his reaction.

Nathan didn’t disappoint. His expression lit up with wonder, like a josser in the front row. The Black Tent was lined with machines of all shapes. Gears spun, keys twirled, steam puffed, whistles peeped, wheels whirled. The half-completed elephant head I was working on opened and closed its mouth. The iron cat batted at the bars of her cage. Other animals--goats, dogs, rabbits, frogs, even a small dragon--lay on the ground or on shelves, waiting to be repaired or activated for a performance, but a few pairs of eyes summoned the energy to swivel sleepily in our direction. Most were prototypes--the working automata were housed elsewhere in Henry’s care.

Worktables, benches, storage cupboards, trunks, and tool racks occupied the central area of the Black Tent, and a serviceable forge with a carefully-designed chimney took up part of one wall. Beside it stood a tall rack of Leyden jars, each labelled with letters in Kalakos’s careful handwriting: WM, CG, MD, HW, AD, though several jars along the bottom were left blank. Beside that stood a long table with an electrical apparatus attached to it.

My windup spiders, all twelve of them, skittered across the ground and various work surfaces to greet me. The two smallest clambered up my trousers into my arms like small children wanting a kiss from Papa while the others leaped and cavorted round my ankles. I reached down to pat the big red one and give it a windup.

“Hello, Red,” I greeted it.

“I always miss the main show,” Nathan said. “Joseph runs us back to Kalakos’s railcar or the wagon.”

“Why do you stay in there all day?” I asked.

Nathan hesitated just noticeably enough. “Joseph isn’t sociable. I finally persuaded him to let me out for a while. Do your spiders perform?”

A pointed change of subject, and I couldn’t resist showing off. I said, “Juggle spot three!” All the spiders but Red rolled themselves into little balls. Red snatched his brothers up with his forward legs and juggled them. He bounced them off the ground or off his own body, and they leaped back into formation. Ten of them linked themselves into five balls in mid air, let Red toss them about again, and they split back into ten.

“End!” I said, and they all dropped to the ground. “Bow!”  The spiders turned to Nathan and bent their legs.

“Amazing!” Nathan applauded, and I felt more pleased than if I’d received a standing ovation from the Royal Court. “And you invented them?”

“I did.” An idiot grin spread across my face at his enthusiasm.

“You’re a genius.” Nathan put out his hand and a spider scuttled toward him to investigate, its key spinning merrily. “What are all those jars on the shelf for?”

At that my face hardened. “They belong to Kalakos. They store...electricity. I prefer spring and steam, myself.”

“And this one?” He reached for the lynx-sized cat in her cage. Quick as a flash I grabbed his hand and yanked him away. The cat lunged, her sharp iron claws swiping the air his flesh had occupied a split-second before. She hissed angrily and lunged again. The metal of her flesh rattled against the scratched and battered bars of her cage. Nathan went pale.

“What happened?” he asked, backing away.

“Kalakos created her years ago, but she became more and more unstable,” I said. “Now she threatens to disembowel anyone who opens the cage.”

“Why not destroy it?”

“It’s...complicated.” In that moment I realized Nathan’s hand was still in mine, warm and strong. Our eyes met, and he made no move to withdraw. I started to do so myself, then my choices opened up in front of me. If I pulled away, I saw myself frightened and alone. If I kept his hand, I saw myself frightened and not alone.

I kept Nathan’s hand and squeezed it. Nathan squeezed back, and the other choice vanished. We didn’t say a word about our new arrangement as I went on explaining different aspects of the Black Tent--the forge where Kalakos and I created our own gears, the ink-stained tables where we drew plans and made calculations, the intricate workings of half-built difference engines of the sort first built by Charles Babbage and perfected by Ada Lovelace. He kept my hand throughout, and I thought my heart would burst from that tiny gesture.

“But what’s it all for?” Nathan finally asked.

“For?” I echoed. My mind was mostly on the fact that I was still holding his hand.

“Why do you build these machines for a circus? Surely you could find a position at a large shop or even a university.” He touched one of my spiders with his free hand, and it bobbed up and down for a moment. “The same applies to Kalakos. Why does he spend his time here?”

“I never thought about it. Kalakos has always been here. And he took me in and educated me, and so I stay. Without him, I’d still be dodging mingers.”

“What’s Kalakos dodging?”

I pursed my lips in puzzlement. Nathan had the disconcerting habit of asking simple questions that required complicated answers. “I’ve never--”

“I want the other half now, damn it!” The tent flap burst open and Joseph Storm strode in, closely followed by Victor Kalakos. I dropped Nathan’s hand as if it were poisonous and stepped away from him.

“And I’m telling you,” Kalakos replied, “the procedure should be spread out among at least three sessions. Doing it all at once creates an enormous risk.”

“I don’t care. Do it all now.

“Mr. Kalakos?” I said uncertainly.

“And you,” Joseph growled at Nathan. It continued to astound me how exactly alike they looked. “I’ve been looking everywhere. Didn’t I tell you to go to the wagon?”

All of Nathan’s earlier charm and inquisitiveness drained away. “I...I didn’t...”

“As for you--” He stabbed a finger in my direction. “You will do as you’re told and help Kalakos.”

My mouth dropped open at his audacity. “Remember your place, Mr. Storm,” I snapped, “or perhaps you’d like to find another position?”

“Would that please my brother?” Joseph countered in an oily voice, and my blood chilled. “There’s so much you don’t know, Dodd, so keep your mouth shut and remember your place as street trash.”

My fists were already up. The spiders, sensing my agitation, surrounded me like a pack of iron dogs. Their claws clicked in a sinister chorus that didn’t seem to bother Joseph in the slightest. He snatched up the smallest from the ground and held it pointedly before him. The spider struggled in his grip like a kitten, its delicate legs waving impotently in the air. I froze.

“Joseph,” Nathan pleaded, “don’t.”

Kalakos, apparently ignoring us, had moved behind the table near the Leyden jars. “Mr. Storm. If you please?”

I turned to stare at him. His deferential tone frightened me more than the possibility that Joseph might destroy my beloved spider. Kalakos, meanwhile, took up a blank Leyden jar from the bottom shelf and a fountain pen from the drafting table. A cold draft washed over my body as he wrote “NS” on the label. I now knew what Joseph Storm meant when he said I would “help.”

“No,” I said. My teeth were chattering.

“Yes, Dodd.” Kalakos replied, his eyes boring into me. He hadn’t spoken to me in that tone since I was a youth. “I will perform the procedure, and you will assist, just as Mr. Storm says.”

I moved toward him, my spider forgotten. The other spiders hovered between me and Joseph, uncertain what to do as I grasped Kalakos by the elbow. “You promised you wouldn’t do this any more,” I whispered hoarsely. “You know what it does to people. Leave Nathan alone.”

“I brought you up from the gutter, Dodd,” he said.

“Please!” I was begging now. “Not him. I...I care about what happens to him.”

Kalakos’s eyes softened. “I know.” Then they hardened. “Now do as you’re told or I’ll put you on this table as well.”

I wanted to refuse him. I looked to Nathan and then to Kalakos, caught between them. I remembered Nathan’s hand in mine. But I also remembered the way Kalakos rescued a street thief worth less than the clothes he wore.

Woodenly, I accepted the Leyden jar Kalakos handed me. I connected it to the casing while Kalakos had Nathan remove his pullover and shirt, exposing a sleekly powerful chest and abdomen. He lay down upon the table and let Kalakos strap him down. Joseph watched, still holding my spider. Nathan accepted the treatment without comment, obeying his brother here just as he did in the ring, but with none of the sly digs. I wanted to ask why, but I couldn’t even bring myself to meet his eyes.

“The jars all contain the souls of your performers, is that right, Doctor?” Joseph said.

“Doctor?” I asked.

“They do not.” Kalakos drew a buckle across the smooth skin of Nathan’s chest. “It isn’t easy to remove a soul from a human being and house it in something else, either organic or automatic. Most say it can’t be done.”

I glanced involuntarily at the cat in her cage. Kalakos took up a helmet-shaped device made of copper netting and fitted it over Nathan’s head while I took a metal plate and pressed it against his breastbone. Nathan looked at me with that strange child-like acceptance in his eyes, and I looked away. I had wiring to connect.

“You said your device can do it,” Joseph accused.

“It can,” Kalakos replied. He set straps round Nathan’s ankles. “A soul is nothing more than a form of electromagnetic energy. Babbage and Lovelace’s difference engine allowed us to calculate the exact frequency for the soul. A sufficiently complicated electrical device” --he gestured at his machine-- “has the power to move a soul from one place to another, just like we can move current from a generator to a Leyden jar.”

“I like that you keep their souls in jars,” Joseph said pleasantly. “It’s a brilliant way to keep them under your thumb.”

“I told you those aren’t souls,” Kalakos said. “They’re pieces. I once had a machine in Geneva that would transfer a complete soul all at once, but that device was destroyed. I did rebuild, but without the proper inspiration--”

“His name was Georgie Byron, as I recall,” Joseph interrupted. I stiffened and turned to stare at Kalakos.

“--without the proper inspiration, I couldn’t get it right,” Kalakos continued as if Joseph hadn’t spoken. “My new machine failed to transfer the subjects properly, and they were...damaged. Then I realized I could simply dial back the voltage and not take the entire soul. It does no immediate harm to the owners, though they tend to age faster and die sooner. And it does make them more pliable. I don’t worry about them snooping among my machines. Or asking questions about my past.”

“I’ve noticed. How did you get them on the table in the first place?” Joseph said.

 “I tell them I just need a small reading for an experiment.  Afterward, they don’t have the wherewithal to ask further.”

“Since I’m not so accommodating, I will ask--what do you use the soul pieces for?”

“Why do you think my automata work so well?” Kalakos countered.

Joseph nodded. “One soul bit per automata these days then. So what about your sweet little cat?” Joseph pointed at her with his free hand. She made a metallic hiss. “Do you call her Patches? Or Legion? What a terrible experiment that turned out to be.”

“A sad miracle,” Kalakos said grimly. “More than a dozen souls inside will drive anything mad, I know that now. She needs no power source, for all the good it does her. My penance is to look after her.”

“And what about this spider?” Joseph brandished the little automaton, and his tone grew suggestive. “Whose partial soul does it house? That strapping strong man? The sword swallower?”

I didn’t dare speak. Anger made my hands shake, and I found it hard to keep connecting wires.

“Dodd doesn’t need my machine,” Kalakos said. “He doesn’t even know how to operate it. His Babbage engines are beyond brilliant. Sometimes I think his automata generate little souls of their own.” He went to the control panel on the casing, which was covered in switches and dials. Opening it, he thrust a hand inside to check something, then withdrew it. “Dodd, I don’t need you for this part. Go now.”

I looked at Nathan, strapped shirtless to the table, wires sprouting from his head and chest. “Will it hurt?” he whispered.

“A bit,” I murmured. “You’ll convulse for a moment, but it’ll be quick.”

“Go, Dodd,” Kalakos repeated. “Out.”

I turned on my heel and strode past the brothers, refusing to meet Nathan’s eyes, my spiders trailing after me. Joseph’s voice stopped me at the tent flap.

“You forgot one.” He held up the littlest spider. I reached for it, but he deliberately bent one of the delicate legs backward with the thin screeching sound of tortured metal. Then Joseph tossed the creature to me and turned away. Caught between fear and anger, I snatched my twitching creation out of the air and left.

The long, chill Irish twilight had descended over the Emporium. Lamps and candles glowed within tents and wagons. I walked quickly, dodging tent stakes and heavy ropes that smelled of tar and refusing to think about what was happening on that table in the Black Tent, refusing to see Nathan strapped to table, refusing to look at the future pathways that diverged before me. My troop of spiders kept pace. I set the broken one on Red’s back for him to carry.

The wagon Nathan shared with his brother loomed ahead of me like a wooden beast. Perhaps my feet had taken me to it of their own volition. I glanced at the other wagons parked in the vicinity. No one seemed to be looking, and I doubted anyone would have the temerity to say anything if they were. I climbed the short creaky steps to the rear door. The wagon was boxlike, and brightly-painted with large wheels. Two hooks hung at the top of the door, which was locked. A snap of my fingers brought one of the spiders to me.

“Open!” I ordered.

The spider climbed the wood to the doorknob. From its underside extruded a set of small tools that served a multitude of functions. With a click, the lock scraped open and I was inside.

“Light!” Two spiders produced phosphorescent spheres to illuminate the interior. Like all of its kind, the wagon was compact and efficient. A pair of bunk beds took up the front. Shelves folded down from the side walls to serve as tables, and storage boxes with cushions on top created seats. One shelf was currently in the down position. Newspapers and a few books lay scattered across it. A coal stove the size of a hatbox near the door allowed heat or, in bad weather, cooking--most performers prepared meals outside or visited the Emporium’s food tent. A scent of cedar hung in the air.

My spiders clattered inquisitively about the wagon as I touched the lower bunk, where I was sure Nathan slept, and noticed something--the bed had recently been altered. The upper bunk was new, as were the mattress and counterpane and pillow. The lower was much more worn, and the blankets were patched.

The bottom of the bunk was a built-in drawer. Inside, neatly folded, lay clothes that smelled like Nathan. I pressed a nightshirt to my face, seized with the overwhelming desire to run for the Black Tent, snatch Nathan up, and run with him until the Emporium vanished beyond the horizon.

But would Nathan go? Leave his twin brother and pieces of his soul behind?

My talent opened up, and several reflections stood before me, mirrors within mirrors. In all of them I asked Nathan to run away with me, and in all of them he said--

I slammed my eyes shut and clapped my hands over my ears. I didn’t want to see. I didn’t want to know. Eventually the vision faded, and I blinked down at the half-open drawer. Something at the back caught my eye. Uneasily, I extracted a rolled-up canvas tube. A painting. I unrolled it, and my spiders gathered round as if they, too, wanted to see.

At first it seemed to be a singularly well-done portrait of Joseph--his proud expression gave him away--dressed in a fine suit with an old-fashioned cloak draped over his right shoulder. As the painting unrolled further, revealing more of him, my skin prickled and my breath tightened. Arching downward from the side of the man’s stomach was Nathan. His body lay face-up, his arms dangling like fleshy tubes, his blue eyes vacant. A bit of silver drool ran from his open mouth. His single leg went round Joseph’s chest while the other remained buried in his brother’s body, as if he had tried to escape but didn’t quite make it. Nathan was naked, his ribs gaunt, his red hair unkempt.

At the bottom of the painting was a sign: THE BROTHERS LAZARUS AND JOANNES BAPTISTA COLLOREDO NOW ACCEPTING VISITORS. ENQUIRE WITHIN. The top of the painting had two grommets in it, ready to hang on the two hooks I’d seen outside on the door.

Fear chilled my stomach and made my bowels watery. My heart thudded hard. I had encountered dozens of freaks in my time, but this one made every bit of my flesh crawl.

“I’ve seen real magic, you know. China, Borneo, Japan.”

I shoved the painting back into the drawer and fled, barely remembering to lock the door behind me. The moon lit my way as I ran all the way back to my own wagon with my heart in my mouth.

Nathan was sitting on the steps. The horrible painting rose in my mind, and my first response was to turn away from him. Instead, still standing, I embraced him where he sat in the silver light. He pressed his face to my stomach and wrapped his shaking fingers in mine. The spiders formed a half-circle guard of honour round us, the injured one still on Red’s back. I stroked Nathan’s hair, and felt surprise at how powerful such a small thing could feel.

“I’m sorry about what Kalakos did to you,” I said hoarsely. “He won’t do it again.”

“It’s not your fault,” he replied. “And I don’t mind.”

I backed up and stared. “How can you not mind? He strapped you to a table and put a piece of your soul into a jar!”

“My soul doesn’t belong to me.” Nathan rose. “It never did.”

“Don’t give me that shit about souls belonging only to God,” I said, pushed into cursing. “The church uses that lie to keep idiots under--”

“My soul is Joseph’s,” Nathan interrupted. “And he wants it back.”

I want the other half now, damn it!

My legs weakened, and I grabbed at Nathan for support, which he gave. “I don’t want to talk out here,” I said. “Let’s go inside.”

My wagon was much like Nathan and Joseph’s--bed at the front, fold-up tables, tiny stove. The spiders stayed outside, and I locked the door. For the first time, we were completely alone and in a place where no one could walk in unexpectedly. I was aware of Nathan’s scent and the heat from his body as I lit a lamp and we took up seats.

“I know your real name is Colloredo,” I said. “And I know what you used to...be.”

Nathan looked down. “You think I’m a freak.”

“No!” I grabbed his hand. “It startled me, yes, but I’m past that. How did you separate?”

Nathan dropped my hand and breathed hard. “It’s difficult to talk about. Even with you.”

“If you can’t, I under--”

“No, no.” He waved my objections away. “We were born attached to each other like that, but Joseph was fully formed while I was...not. It was as if I were some sort of parasite, draining the life out of him. I only had a rudimentary consciousness and no intelligence to speak of. I flopped next to my brother and drooled while he tried to go about a normal life. People mocked him when we were children until our mother hit upon the idea of covering me with a heavy cloak. Old-fashioned, but it worked. Still, there was no way for him to learn a trade. Eventually, Joseph was forced to travel the country, exhibiting himself to any who came to look with coin in hand. He did quite well, actually--Joseph is very intelligent. He’s had dinner with kings, you know. But through it all, he wanted a life of his own, one without a parasitic brother growing out of his side.”

“You’re not a parasite,” I said earnestly. “You’re a person.”

He nodded grimly. “Still, Joseph deserved to be free of me. Doctors said it couldn’t be done, not even with the help of automata, so he looked to magic. It was easy enough to find magicians--Joseph had exploited his contacts at court very well, and sorcerers were fascinated by us in any case. But none in this hemisphere could help. We travelled to the Orient, to India, China, and Japan. Eventually we came to Borneo, and there we found a circle of witch doctors.” Nathan’s eyes grew hard. “For three days they did terrifying and painful things to me--to us. In the end, they drew us apart and brought my body to full strength. But powerful magic always comes with a powerful price.”

“Which was?” I didn’t want to hear, but knew the answer would come.

“The magicians said we shared most of a body because we only had one soul between us. No man can live long without his soul, and rather than leave one of us to die, they cut our soul in two, leaving half for each.”

“Dear God,” I whispered.

“If either of us strays more than a few miles from the other, it means instant death for us both. When one of us dies, the other will follow within weeks.”

“Did the magicians tell you that?” I asked sharply. “Or did you hear it from Joseph?”

A small bubble of laughter burst out. “You’re as intelligent as he is. The magicians told us, actually, after they pulled us apart. And I can feel it. It hurts when we separate too far, like I’m tearing in two.”

“So Joseph is hoping Kalakos and his machine can restore him,” I said.

He nodded, and I wanted to gather him into my arms. Something held me back, however. Old habits? Fear? I wasn’t sure. This conversation, confession, felt a little off. “How did Joseph even know about the machine? How did he meet Kalakos?”

“That happened years ago, in Italy. Joseph was exhibiting us, and the man you call Victor Kalakos befriended us. He had an iron cat, half a dozen Leyden jars, and a machine that barely worked. You can imagine my brother’s interest when we ran across him here in Dublin, though he’d changed his name--and profession.”

“What was his name then?” I asked. “Joseph called him Doctor.”

“His name was John, I think. John Polidori. He was heartsick over a poet, or something.”

“Polidori,” I repeated, tasting the name and trying to attach it to the man I knew as Victor Kalakos. He had lied to me for years, and I felt betrayed. You lied to the flatties in the audience, not to other circus folk. Not to me.

Nathan sighed. “I love my brother, Dodd. I wouldn’t even exist without him. All his life, I held him back, dragged him down. I have to give him what he needs. He deserves that.”

“Your brother wants Kalakos to hand him your soul piece by piece,” I scoffed. “No one deserves that much.”

“There’s so much you don’t know, Dodd.” Nathan took a deep breath. “Kalakos did it all at once. My soul is already gone.”

A crushing weight slammed over me and the cold returned. I tried to speak, but my voice wouldn’t work. Nathan took my hands in his. They were warm.

“He didn’t,” I finally croaked.

“He did. Kalakos put my half of our soul in that jar. The machine will recharge soon, and then he’ll give the soul to my brother.”

“But you’ll die!”

His voice grew soft. “Then we should make the most of what time we have.” He leaned forward, intending to kiss me. My hands shook and my heart raced like an overwound automaton as I leaned toward him, smelling his scent. A coppery taste came to my mouth. Our lips brushed--

--and he broke away. Nathan shot to his feet and turned his back.

Sudden anxiety made me ill. Had I done something wrong? “What’s the matter?”

“It still doesn’t work.” He was shaking all over. My first thought was that he was weeping, but I quickly saw he was holding in silent laughter. I couldn’t understand why. Then things fell into place and I felt dropped into a tub of ice water.

There’s so much you don’t know, Dodd.

“Joseph!” I said hoarsely. “You son of a whore!”

He turned. Nathan’s gentle tenderness was gone from that handsome face, replaced by Joseph’s sneer.

“Remember your place, Dodd,” he said, “or perhaps you’d like to find another...position.” His kick slammed into my stomach. The unexpected move caught me by utter surprise, and the air burst from my lungs, leaving me gasping on the hard wagon floor. In an instant, Joseph was sitting atop me, my arms pinned beneath his knees. A straight razor flicked open in his hand and he set the blade against my neck. My eyes went wide. I tried to control the terror that made my heart jerk beneath his weight.

“Do you know what it’s like to share your soul?” he hissed. His eyes had gone hard and flat as blue glass. “All my life I’ve wondered what it is to think as other people, feel as other people. I’ve lured people into my wagon on the pretence of gawping at me and then done fantastic things, intense things, trying and trying to understand what they feel. But it never worked. Now I’ve taken my twin’s soul for myself and kissed his catamite, and I still feel nothing. Something’s wrong.”

“I don’t doubt it,” I gasped. The blade pierced the skin on my neck and I flinched. Warm blood oozed round the razor. “If you’re going to kill me, just do it.”

Joseph shook his head. “It would be too hard to explain your disappearance. And I don’t need to kill you. Not while I have a firm hold on you.” He reached behind himself with a free hand and grabbed my groin in a strong fist. The leaden pain that twisted in my lower gut made me cry out. “I know what you are, and I know what you want. You’ll do everything I say, now and forever, or I’ll reveal your filthy nature to the world. You’ll spend the rest of your life chained to a prison treadmill, letting the guards fuck you for a chance to see the sun.”

“What do you want?” I wheezed.

“Nothing at the moment,” Joseph said. His tone had turned pleasant, as if we were discussing automata gears. “But when I come for you, you’ll be ready. Just as Kalakos was.”

He gave me another hard squeeze, and then he was at the door. “I have my brother’s soul,” he said over his shoulder. “You can have his body.” And he was gone.

I lay gasping on the floor for several moments, then sat up to press a handkerchief to my neck. Fear and pain wound iron bands around me. Then I thought of Nathan, and I was out the door, rushing through the early night to the Black Tent, my spiders behind me. The flap already lay open, and I burst inside.

Nathan was gone. Kalakos sat on the empty table of his machine, face long. Beside him stood the Leyden jar with the stark initials NS inscribed upon it. The tent smelled of ozone.

“I knew you’d come,” Kalakos said. “Nathan’s in his wagon, if you want to know.”

Enraged, I rushed across the tent and grabbed him by the lapels of his jacket. “Tell me Joseph was lying. Tell me Nathan still has his soul and I’ll let you live!”

“I’m sorry.” Kalakos was limp and soft in my grip. “I’m not proud of it, Dodd, though the fact that I extracted Nathan’s entire soul without harm to him should be--”

“Without harm?” I cracked my fist across his jaw. The cat yowled appreciation from her cage. “How’s that for ‘without harm’?”

Kalakos rocked back on the table and put a hand to his face. “I deserved that. You may hit me again, if you like. I won’t stop you.”

I pulled back my fist again, and dropped it. The anger drained out of me. “Why did you do it?” I asked instead. “Why didn’t you just refuse him?”

“After all these years, I thought I’d left Dr. John Polidori behind me,” he said. “Dr. John Polidori and his gambling debts and his failed experiments and his involvement in that young baron’s death and his wonderful faked suicide. But Joseph Storm remembered me. He has letters in my own hand confessing my love for a...certain awkward person and detailing our more intimate moments. I expect he stole them when we first became friends and held onto them all these years.”

“The awkward person was George Byron?”

He looked even more pained. “I hope you, of all men, can understand. At any rate, Dr. Polidori is wanted for questioning by a number of courts--or he would be if anyone found out he was still alive.”

Trying to remain calm, I picked up the Leyden jar as if it were a priceless jewel. It was strangely light. “He’ll never let you alone, you know. Blackmailers never do. Once you do this, he’ll want something else, and then something else. You may as well put this”--I brandished the jar--”back into Nathan’s body. I need you to do it. I can’t operate your damned machine.”

“No.”

The anger swelled again. “Why not?”

“I’m weak, Dodd.” He looked close to tears. “I face life imprisonment at hard labour if I don’t obey Joseph Storm.”

“I know the same secrets,” I said cruelly. “What if I tell you to restore Nathan’s soul or I go to the police?”

Kalakos snatched the jar from me. “Don’t talk nonsense.” He set the jar behind him and grabbed my shoulders with both hands. “You’re like a son to me, Dodd. Your machines are more brilliant than mine, and you see into universes I can’t comprehend. You’ll go further than I ever did, and what father doesn’t want that for his son?”

It was the first time he had ever said such things to me, but rage overwhelmed tenderness. “What kind of father destroys his son’s chance for happiness?” I snarled.

He turned away from me then. “Trust me, Dodd. Go now. Go to your friend and tell him how you feel. Things will look different in the morning.”

“Do go, Dodd,” Joseph Storm agreed, from the open tent flap, and I wondered how long he’d been standing outside, listening. Had Kalakos known he was there? “The good doctor and I have a process to finish.”

Resolve filled me. “I’m not leaving without that jar.”

“Then I’ll go to the police.”

“I’m not Kalakos,” I growled. “I don’t care about the police.”

“Dodd,” Kalakos interjected feebly, “please.”

“In that case--” Joseph gestured and two large men in black coats entered the tent. One of them had a metal arm with claws on the fingers, the other wore a large eyepiece which I recognized as a small codex that would enhance reflexes. “Perhaps my friends here can persuade you.”

The two men moved toward me. I pulled a whistle from my pocket and blew. Instantly, my spiders swarmed into the tent. “Defend!” I ordered.

The spiders leaped. Red knocked the man with the metal arm flat on his back, and the injured spider attached itself to his face. He screamed. Eyepiece-man glided aside and flicked one attacking spider to the ground, but two more swarmed up his coat, and a third bit the back of his neck. The man grunted and snatched the biting spider, intending to fling it away, but it wrapped all eight legs around his wrist. Blood ran down his neck. The cat screeched in her cage. I reached for a heavy lead weight.

“Stop!”

I spun. Joseph was standing over the Leyden jar with a hammer.

“I’ll smash it,” he said.

“That might kill you.” I said, though my mouth had gone dry. “Or send Nathan’s soul back to his body.”

“It might send Nathan’s soul to eternity. Let’s find out.” He raised the hammer, and my talent crashed over me, showing destruction and devotion again, and I couldn’t tell them apart. Cold fear tore through me. I didn’t understand what I was seeing. Worse, I didn’t know what would happen if the futures were resolved, but Nathan was clearly bent on resolving them.

“Don’t!” I cried.

Nathan paused, and the vision vanished. “The spiders, then.”

“Come!” I ordered. Instantly, the spiders left the struggling men and surrounded me. Shuddering, the man with the metal arm got to his feet while the eyepiece man wiped blood from his neck and glared murder at me.

“Shut them down,” Joseph ordered.

Hands shaking, I pressed the switch on each spider that disengaged its spring mechanism. They went still.

“Hold him,” Joseph said to his men.

“What are you doing?” I gasped as iron-hard hands grabbed me on both side.

Joseph towed an unresisting Kalakos to the table. “You’re going to watch the final process. You deserve it, Dodd.”

I fought again, but the men were too strong. Joseph lay on the table and Kalakos, working alone, connected man and jar to the machine. When I tried to close my eyes, my captors pried them open. Joseph grinned the entire time, even when Kalakos threw the final switch and he convulsed hard. The jar snapped with current, then went quiet.

I vaguely remember howling like a dog. The hired men shoved me out of the Black Tent and tossed my dead spiders after. I stumbled to my feet, feeling numb inside. By now it was nearly midnight, and barely enough yellow gaslight leaked into the Emporium from the street lamps to illuminate my way. Someone shouted in the street, and a hiss of steam gushed wetly from a distant pipe. A few sallow faces looked out of wagon windows doors or peeped through tent flaps as I ran past, but no one spoke, and I ignored them. Nathan drew me inside the wagon he shared with his brother and shut the door. The smell of cedar surrounded us.

“How do you feel?” I demanded.

“Much the same,” he said, and I touched his face. Then his chest and his arms and his hands. I thumped his sides, gently and first, then harder and harder. I slammed his shoulders. I beat my fist upon his body until he caught my wrist.

“I’m here,” he said. “I’m real and solid.”

And then he was kissing me. I kissed him back, and our arms went round each other for a long, long time. His large hands ran down my back and pulled us together. My heart swelled up and I pressed against him, trying to go into him, through him. Occupy the same space.

“We don’t have much time left,” I said when we separated. My breath was coming in short gasps. “In a few weeks, you’ll age and die.”

“I know.”

I felt strangely free of a sudden. “We should do something fun. Fuck Kalakos and fuck the Emporium and fuck your brother.”

“Do you know what I want to do?” Nathan asked with a mischievous air. “I want to go into town and get drunk and kiss you with ale still in my mouth and then I want to go with you into a room with a big bed and watch you take your clothes off one bit at a time.”

“Mr. Storm!” I kissed him again, and licked his teeth. “You took the words out of my mouth.”

We stole two live horses from the stable tent and rode up Merrion Street to Westland Row and turned down George’s Quay on the River Liffey. The cobbled streets were deserted except for the occasional carriage or pedestrian, but the closer we got to George’s Quay, the busier the city became. People and horses and automata crowded the streets and walks. Light and music and drunks spilled out of open pub doors. A circle of people cheered as four men fought a brass automaton. Deep-cleavaged prostitutes called out to us. Scents of garbage and manure and piss all mixed with the wet smell of the Liffey. I guided us down a side street, where I happened to know of a series of inns and pubs that catered to men of a certain type.

Fuck that. They catered to men like me. And Nathan.

I paid a boy to watch the horses and led Nathan into the common room of the Standing Stone. The drinking was in full swing, and smells of stout and sweat hung in the air. Sailors from ships in dock mingled with tradesmen and well-dressed gentlemen in booths, at the bar, and at tables. The wooden floor was sticky, and conversation was loud. Nathan drank it all in like a boy allowed at his first grown-up party, and I loved that about him. I wanted to show him the whole world so I could see that joy cross his face every day.

I found two chairs at an already-crowded table and ordered a round for everyone seated there, which made me popular. Nathan sat down, and I flung an arm across his shoulders. He grinned.

“I’m Dodd,” I said, “and this is Nathan. We’re going to get drunk because he doesn’t have a soul.”

“Hell, I don’t either,” said a man sitting across from us, and with a start I recognized him as the man with coal-black hair. “Priest took mine years ago in a confessional.”

“And I left mine with that boy in New York,” said an older sailor. “Cheers!”

We all clanked mugs and drank. Nathan kissed me with the taste of Guinness still dark in his mouth, and the others roared their approval.

An hour later, the two of us stumbled upstairs together. In a room with a big solid bed, Nathan had everything he had wanted, and so did I. At last we lay back sleepily, our bodies dimly reflected in a cloudy mirror that hung over the wash stand. Nathan smiled in the soft light, his arm heavy across my chest.

“I never want to leave you,” he murmured. “For the rest of my days.”

In the morning, I woke up and rolled over. The mattress beside me was empty, and Nathan’s clothes were gone. I sat up, holding my head. It throbbed only a little, but it hurt with more than a hangover. So much for promises.

The door opened and Nathan came in, fully dressed, with two mugs of tea. Behind him, the mirror showed his back. “Get up, lazy!” he said. “I want to see more city.”

I smiled so hard, my face was like to split in half. “There’s a performance tonight. We should be there.”

“I’m quitting,” he said. “What’s Joseph going to do to me? In a few weeks, I’ll be dead anyway.” He set the mugs down and jumped on the mattress. “I want all the fun I couldn’t have before. Starting with this.” He kissed me, and the tea he’d brought went stone cold before we managed to leave the bed again.

While I was dressing, I said, “Your brother told me about Borneo and everything else. How much do you remember of your life...before?”

Nathan was looking out the window at the noonday sun as if he had never really seen it before. “I remember everything Joseph did, everything he learned,” he said. “I suppose that’s for the best. I wouldn’t know how to speak or read or even walk otherwise. But it’s like remembering a dream. Every time I eat or drink or touch you, it’s like I’m doing it for the first time.” He grabbed me in a rough embrace and lifted me off the floor. “I’m so alive when I’m with you, Dodd. I know I’m going to die, but that’s all right, as long as you’re here.”

When I got my breath back, I said, “There’s another option.”

“What do you mean?”

“The machine. It could still save you.”

Nathan shook his head. “Joseph won’t give any part of the soul back. There’s nothing left for me.”

I laid his hand on my chest. My heart beat beneath his palm. “I’ll give you half of mine.”

A moment passed, and Nathan looked at me for a long time. His fingers closed over mine. “No, Dodd. You’d age faster, and if you ever left me, you’d die. We’d be chained forever.”

My stomach dropped. “Don’t you want to be with me?”

“More than anything,” he laughed. “That was never a question.”

“Then why--?”

“Because I won’t have a choice. Do you see? It’s the difference between wanting to be with you and having to be with you. The mirror’s broken, Dodd. The spot is ended.”

I opened my mouth to reply, then cut myself off. I didn’t want to understand, but I did. “So what do you want to do?” The lump in my throat made it difficult to speak.

Still smiling, Nathan stepped forward and kissed me. Behind us, his ghostly reflection in the wash stand mirror copied the gesture. “Do you know no one’s ever asked me that question before? I told you--I want to spend the rest of my time with you. In this city. Because I want to. I’ll die here because it’s where I want to die.”

With that, Nathan reached out to run a warm hand through my hair. I shivered, trying to soak up Nathan’s gentle touch and store it away before--

My talent opened up, and choices echoed in front of me. But this time, I didn’t bother to look. I savagely snatched Nathan’s wrist in an iron grip, and all other universes vanished before I even saw them.

“Horseshit!” I snapped. “You don’t know what the hell you’re saying.” Nathan’s blue eyes widened and he tried to back up, but I refused to let go of his wrist. “That business about being chained is an excuse. The world is enormous. We might find another scientist with a better machine, or a circle of druids with a better spell. Hell, I might figure out what to do, given time. You’re just afraid of all those choices you haven’t been able to make, so you’re choosing not to choose.”

I released Nathan’s wrist. The expression on his face was at the same time apprehensive and accepting of my words. He stared at me for a long time as stale air crept round the room.

“You don’t know what it’s like,” Nathan said at last, his voice all but inaudible. “The mirror is broken. I never know what’s going to happen next.”

A bark of laughter at the irony of his statement escaped me. We were more alike than Nathan knew. “You can be trapped in that or freed by it,” I said. “Come on. Let’s find Kalakos and get you half a soul.”

Nathan stayed silent for the entire ride back to the Emporium, and I didn’t ask what he was thinking. When we arrived, William Myrtle rushed up to us, his large muscles unmistakable, though he wasn’t wearing his strongman costume. He was looking more lively, his eyes more energetic. “The mingers are at the Black Tent!” he said. “Mr. Kalakos--there’s been a murder.”

Cold fear slid down my spine. Without a word, Nathan and I rode hard to the Black Tent. My spiders sat outside where I had left them, their winding keys run down and motionless. We abandoned the horses, and inside the tent we found two constables and a tall, gaunt police detective in tweed. Kalakos stood calmly near the forge, his silver flask in hand. Behind him, every Leyden jar had been smashed, and I knew the source of William Myrtle’s energy. Clearly, shattering the jars reunited souls. Had I known, I would have broken Nathan’s jar myself.

On the ground lay Joseph Storm, clothes torn, his eyes wide and glassy. A dozen enormous wounds slashed his flesh. Scarlet blood soaked everything. It was dripping down the worktables, it had spattered the canvas, it had splashed the automata. In her cage, the cat was drenched with it, and bits of meat clung to her iron claws. She hissed at me. The smell of a slaughterhouse lay thick on the air.

“There you are, Dodd,” Kalakos said cheerfully. A bloody scratch marred his face. “This is Detective Flint. I’ve already told him who I really am.”

“What did you do?” I gasped.

“He’s gone off his nut,” one of the constables muttered.

“I realized you were right about blackmailers, and decided to end it the only way possible. That cat never changes. Once you open the cage, it all ends.” He drank deeply from his flask. “I loved George Byron, and lost him. I loved the baron’s son, and killed him. Devotion and destruction, inextricably intertwined.”

I stared in utter shock. My thoughts fled all the way back to the moment that terrible and wonderful knock had come at his railcar door. Devotion or destruction. Those unnerving choices, the two I had been unable to sort out, had stood open and unresolved all this time, and I hadn’t noticed because I couldn’t bear to look closely. Devotion or destruction. Which one would come to pass?

I whispered, “Oh my God.”

“Which will you choose, Dodd?” Kalakos looked pointedly at his bloody machine. “Which universe will you create and which will you destroy?”

“Sir,” Detective Flint said to him, “you’ll have to come with me now.”

“Afraid not,” Kalakos said. “I’ve one more life to destroy.” His breathing became laboured. He dropped to his knees, clutching at his throat. By the time I reached his side, he was dead. A smell of almonds hung in the air.

“Cyanide in the flask,” Flint pronounced. “Damn it.”

I fell into a haze. The detective asked questions, but they were perfunctory. The bodies were taken away. Hands and arms guided me out of the Black Tent. I came to my senses in my wagon, sitting on my bed with Nathan beside me. My face felt hot, and I knew I’d been crying.

“They hired some women from town to clean up,” Nathan was saying.

“Did they cancel the show tonight?” I asked.

“No. Myrtle volunteered to be ringmaster until something more permanent can be decided. News of the murder gave us a sold-out house.”

“Mr. Kalakos would be happy about that, I think.” I rubbed my hands over my face. “How are you handling it?”

“Perfectly well. It comes with not having a soul, I think. And now I’ll never have one.” He gave a harsh laugh. “If Kalakos hadn’t taken my soul, I’d be dead, do you realize that? Joseph’s half would have fled when he died, jerking mine out with it and killing me with the shock. By making me a soul-less automaton, he bought me a few weeks’ life.”

Kalakos’s last words to me played over and over in my head, gnawing at me like a worm. “Nathan, who told you that you’d die if your brother did? Do you actually remember the witch doctors saying so?”

“No,” Nathan said. “Joseph told me. After we were separated and we stopped sharing memories.”

“Except before he attacked me in your wagon, he said the magicians told you both. He lied to me.” A bit of hope flickered like a small star. “I think he lied to you, too. I think Joseph lied about a number of things.”

“And why would he do that?”

“He needed to keep you close, keep your soul in a living jar until he could get at it. But he was afraid you might kill him first. He himself killed easily, and he couldn’t see that his twin brother wasn’t like that. He couldn’t see that you’re the same but backward. So Joseph told you that if he died, you died. But it was a lie. Nearly everything he said was a lie. Come on!”

I pulled him from my wagon and all but ran for the Black Tent. The Emporium was in an uproar. Performers rushed about, chattering and shouting with newfound enthusiasm, despite the ringmaster’s death. The shattered Leyden jars had repaired their souls. The calliope hooted, and sausage sizzled in the food tent. People plucked at my sleeve, offering sympathy or demanding information. I shook them off more rudely than I intended and kept going, towing Nathan behind me.

The hired women had done a good job with the Black Tent, but the canvas was still stained red-brown in places. The machinery and automata were all clean, except for the cat, who wouldn’t let anyone touch her. I avoided treading on the spot where Kalakos had died and headed straight for the table with Nathan at my side. The dials on the apparatus seemed to stare at me.

“Tell me,” I whispered.

And for once, my talent opened at my command.

“What do you see?” Nathan whispered.

“Two possibilities.” I shut my eyes. “When I was strapping you to the table, Kalakos reached inside the machine for a moment. There are two explanations. Either he made a minor repair, or he disabled the machine. If he made a repair, the machine stole your soul and you’re going to die. If he disabled the machine, the soul transfer didn’t work and you’re going to live.”

“Which possibility will come true?” His voice was hoarse.

“I don’t know.” I opened my eyes and looked at him, his face pale beneath autumn hair. “They’re both equally possible. Kalakos cared about me and wanted me to be happy, but he was equally frightened of Joseph. In order to find out what Kalakos did, we have to open the case and look. Once we do, the two possibilities will collapse into a single path. You have half a chance of living once we open that case.”

Nathan swallowed. “Oh, God.”

I suddenly couldn’t stand still. I dashed outside, snatched up the broken spider, and brought it back in. A bit of rummaging through the workbenches turned up a spare leg. “Remember when we were talking to Ferrous?” I said.

Nathan was still standing by the table. “You quoted John Locke.”

I unbolted the bent leg and slipped the new one into place. “So are you thinking?”

“I’m thinking,” he said. “I’m thinking that I love you.”

My hand jerked spasmodically and I almost dropped the spider. I recovered myself and finished installing the leg. “I...”

“Can you say it, Dodd?” Nathan asked. His back was to me. “I think the final outcome is based on what you say next.”

My mouth was dry, my hands were sweaty. Devotion or destruction. I still hadn’t chosen. “I love you, Nathan,” I said. “In this and every universe.”

Nathan grinned over his shoulder at me, and my heart raced. Then he picked up a heavy hammer from the forge and smashed the machine. He hit it again and again, until it was nothing but a pile of wreckage. Nathan tossed the hammer aside.

“If the possibilities are never resolved,” he panted, “what happens then?”

I wound up the spider and set it on the table, pretending nonchalance but unable to keep the enormous grin from creeping across my own face. “It means we’ll have to have faith that a man as good and fine as you has a soul, and to hell with any machine.”

Nathan strode toward me, and I opened my arms, aching for his touch. But he halted a scant foot away. He raised his hand, pressing the palm to an imaginary pane of glass. Without thinking, I matched the movement. Nathan raised his other hand. Mystified, I did the same. Then a sudden light sparkled in his eyes and he yanked me into his arms, bringing my space into his.

“Ha!” he growled in my ear. “Broke it!”

Beside us, the little spider skittered to the edge of the table, paused, and turned right.

 

 

 


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Steven Harper

Steven Harper is well-known for his fantasy, science fiction, and steampunk.

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