Words: The Inventor (3a)

Prologue / 1a / 1b / 2a / 2b / 3a / 3b / 4a / 4b / 5a / 5b

First half of chapter 3, below!

3.

grayscale piano keys
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Stephen was kneeling on the floor beside his piano, doubled over with his left hand clutching his chest, a knocked stool on its side beside him. I noticed that he was missing the tip of his little finger, but that didn’t seem to be what was bothering him at this moment.

“Are you alright?”

“This… just happens sometimes,” he grunted. “Please, I’ll be fine.” He breathed consciously, deep and slow.

“What happened to your hand?”

That got his attention. His deep, steady breathing halted. He whipped his hand from his chest and used it to stand, clutching at his heart with his right hand instead.

I pushed a little. I wanted to know. “It must make playing the piano awkward.” Concerned social worker smile: engaged.

“Yes,” Stephen panted. “But you learn to cope. Play keys with a different finger. My fingers are pretty long, too, but I’ve got a prosthetic for it somewhere, if ever I need it. I see you’ve been cut, too.”

I felt my heart leap. Me too? I don’t think so. I would remember it. I tried to check myself nonchalantly, but Stephen’s gaze was fixed on me. I caught his face again, which looked a mixture of amused and troubled.

“Your ear. You didn’t know, did you?” More of a statement than a question.

“I… where’s a mirror?”

Stephen pointed to the corner of the room by the shower and wooden screen. Sure enough, the woman in the mirror was missing the lobe of her right ear. I pinched it gently and winced. This happened recently.

Stephen had backed away a pace or two, still pressing one hand, minus one finger, into his chest, still watching me, only now he was frowning. “Where exactly did you come from?”

“I’m from… the South.” The truth this time.

“Really. Which Outpost?”

“Southern Coast. I was born on a boat in the marina there. First five years on the boat, going out to sea for fish, then grew up in the city.” Truth again.

“You’re feeding me a cover story.”

“What?”

“That’s not your life. It’s someone else’s.”

He sat there staring at me, his cardiovascular episode now passed, his arms folded in triumph. Except I wasn’t lying. “I don’t think so. I would know if… I mean, I…”

“You know who gets their ears cut off when they fail a mission, don’t you?”

“I…”

“Aquatian spies.”

He stepped forwards a pace, slightly menacingly.

“But it’s only the lobe, so…”

“So who sent you?” Stephen didn’t sound at all like he cared about my response.

snow landscape mountains red
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“I really don’t…”

“No, you don’t know,” he sighed. “Which either means you’ve been exiled, or your mission is so secret that not even you are allowed to know it.”

“How do you know all this?” I mean, I was a photographer. Spies do that, don’t they?

“I used to be an engineer. That’s why my finger’s missing. And how I know you’re wearing some super-secret tech in your neck.”
“Does that mean you’re…”

“Exiled, yes, in a manner of speaking. I’ve been here for three years. Anyway. If you’re like that and I’m like this, we’re probably on the same side.”

The resistance. Trying to stop Aquatia from finalising its dominance. Unfortunately, most of the great and good were converted early on, only they’re not so good now. Sold out for the promise of the chance to start a brand new world. I did, once, and so did this guy.

But I hadn’t forgotten anything. I’d always been a photographer. I joined the resistance. I wouldn’t have known if he were telling the truth, necessarily. Most of us never met each other. Instructions were sent and received by the old SMS system. We could’ve been telling each other what to do, and we wouldn’t have known. Plus, my ear… they must have done that when they buried me alive. Perhaps they meant for me to live.

“Is that your horse outside?”

“Oh, Jessie. Yes.”

I wasn’t sure if that was the horse’s name, or if he was just trying not to curse.

“It looks pretty cold up there. Or at least, pretty lonely.”

“I go up every day and make sure she’s fine. She can’t go anywhere in this weather, and I can’t stay up there long enough to improve the shelter. She’s wearing her coat. Trust me, she’s warm enough.”

I glared at him, shaking my head. There’s more to a creature’s survival than warmth and nutrition.

“Anyway. Show me your wrist. I’ve got an old scanner around here somewhere. Not that it’s conclusive proof, but…”

Shit. If he scans me, he might find my real name.

“Speaking of scanning, what’s in my neck?”

“Not sure. If you hop up here, I can take a look. But… you had better put some clothes on first.”

Stephen pointed to the wooden screen. He had laid out a clean set of clothes, presumably for me. A set of joggers and a t-shirt – appropriately soft clothes for someone as beaten up as I was, and well fitted. Stephen’s t-shirt was labelled ‘muscle fit’, which meant that it was a little stretchy and there was a little extra room in the top for a woman’s figure. This, plus not having to look at my wounds anymore, made the pain a little more bearable.

“So, I know something, then. Why wouldn’t they just kill me?” I asked, hopping up onto the worktop Stephen had indicated.

“You might be more use to them alive, they might be using you to spy on someone in the resistance – not that I care anymore, so fuck knows why you’re in my place. Or, it might be this… if you open your mouth as wide as you can… I’m just going to spray an anaesthetic on your throat so you don’t gag. Right. This won’t take long… what do you remember?”

I gurgled as Stephen’s left hand was holding down my tongue with a metal implement and his right was angling something down my throat.

“Oh. Sorry. I’ll ask you again in a minute.”

I watched his eyes as they focused on the back of my throat. They were dark, not quite black, rather a dark brown that wrapped around the edges of his pupils, which had grown to look in her mouth. I had to supress a laugh. It was like being at a dentist’s. There was a click, a flash of white in Stephen’s black eyes. Then another.

“I should’ve said. I’m just taking some images of the component so I can classify it. Nearly done,” he explained.

I must’ve looked quite alarmed in those dark brown eyes of his.

Click. Another flash.

“I’m done.”

He withdrew, and I pushed my tongue around her mouth, a bit like when a prisoner feels their wrists when the handcuffs are removed.

“I was trying to say… I remember… pretty much all of my life – so I don’t think I was ever…”

“Yeah, yeah. Okay. What’s your full name?”

I put my hands back in my pockets, feeling the familiar pieces of metal together. The ironic softness in a weapon. This weapon. My weapon. Jaycee’s weapon. Sweet, small mercy. J. C. Stots.

“Katie Joy Paloma.” Jax’s next-door neighbour was like an aunt to her when she came to the city. Later, an aunt to me. Or a great-aunt, I suppose. She was called Joy. When she was young she used to go over for tea and biscuits and charades. Geisha parlour games. She always used to say I was a cheater and how much I over-exaggerated when I told stories.

white dove on white bird figure stand
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The reader made a ‘bip’ sound, while Stephen frowned. “Right.”

“You don’t believe me?”

“No, I do. I mean, a good enough spy would be able to make up detailed memories to prove their stories. It’s either real or…”

“…or what?”

Stephen clicked and scrolled on a handheld screen I couldn’t see, while his face clicked and scrolled through a series of emotions I couldn’t understand. Perhaps he was learning how talented I was.

“I might have understood why you would have wanted to lie to me, I mean, maybe you don’t know who I am, but this makes it… it’s, well, weird. Maybe you don’t even know… I mean, I didn’t know until…”

He trailed off into his head. I didn’t interrupt him; he looked like someone asked to multiply thirteen by twenty-six in his head. Doable, just needing concentration.

It’s three hundred and thirty-eight, by the way.

“Katie,” he finally said. “Here.” He offered me the screen. I took it from his hands, almost letting it fall in the exchange; he let go a little too soon and turned, going to a cupboard and pulling out a bottle of a golden liquid. Whisky, perhaps. I looked at the results. Stephen had pulled up a family tree.

“We’re… related.”

“Indeed we are.”

“To our unexpected reunion,” Stephen returned with two tumblers half-full of whisky.

“Sure, okay.”

“Katie Paloma, my half-sister.”

“Stephen Black, my half-brother.”

Hěn gāoxìng rènshí nǐ,” I said. Pleased to meet you.

“What you said.”

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