Originally Published: Apex Magazine, May 2009
Jackson said she’d been hanging with the Corvidae before he found her, that she was one of those girls that bounced between gangers named Jackdaw6 or Raven8. They’d pumped her full of genemorphs laced with avian DNA, hoping she’d be lucky and avoid the bad reaction. It had already affected her teeth, turning the molars into rotting shards. Her lips were growing hard, thickening into dark cartilage, and I could see the shadow of her organs beneath the bleached skin stretched across her ribcage. Jackson said he found her wandering in the alley behind the crow boy’s nest, trying to staunch the fluid seeping from her fresh-plucked eye-socket. He brought her home, patched her up, and turned her over to me for safe-keeping while he went downstairs to work. I stood over her and watched her, letting the hours tick by, and eventually I kissed her.
My kiss didn’t wake her, though she stirred a little at my touch. Downside is not a place where fairytales happen, and no-one would mistake me for a handsome prince. It was a clumsy kiss, as you’d expect, but a kiss. A kiss!
When she did not wake I stood, resuming my vigil. I could feel myself blushing, my right cheek warm. I turned my other cheek towards her, hiding behind the copper mask.
Even now, looking back, I’m still not sure why I did it. It’s not as if she was a pretty thing, with her bruises and her missing eye, but there was still some remnant of beauty beneath the blue stitches of Jackson’s repair. She was a creature of the Downside streets, all feral promise and rough allure. I didn’t love her – that would be unseemly for a half-man like me – but I envied her, desperately, for the blue stitching that held her together and the heart that still beat in her chest. I wished, for just a moment, that Jackson had done the same for me. I could feel the steady flick of that pulse when our lips touched. It was alive; faint, but eager to exist. My own heart ticked on, steady and regular, the soft tick-tock marking a regular beat as it pulped blood through those veins I still possessed.
Jackson wanted to be a hero, I knew that without asking. When I was little, just after he took me in, Jackson used to tell me stories about heroes, about knights and princes and ducks that turned into swans. I would listen to his stories, curled up in bed, crying as the pain of a new graft wracked my chest and shoulder. I had to ignore the sound of the gangs and the crowds that filled the Downside streets, the occasional brawl or gunshot cutting through the din. Jackson would fill my head with heroes, with worlds where heroes still existed. I never believed in his stories, but I always believed in Jackson. It was easier, cleaner, but it was just as dangerous in the end.
The girl slept for three days, sedated and monitored. I spent my nights watching her fight against the painkillers, twisting against the thin sheets in Jackson’s cot. I was afraid to move, afraid the grinding cogs in my arms would disturb her bad dreams. I dreamt of kissing her again, dreamt of her waking up and looking on my copper mask and grafted limbs without the inevitable shudder. It was not to be. She woke in the dim light of the third morning, jettisoned from her nightmares with a gurgling scream. She cast about the room with her good eye, looking for something familiar, but all she got was me, and the mangled nubbin of flesh that had been her tongue started making strangled sounds that could have been words. I knelt beside her, putting my good hand on hers, making sure there was contact between her flesh and mine.
“It’s okay,” I said. “You’re safe here.”
She struggled and I held her down, the steady tick-tock of my heart frightening her more than the cold grip of my hand. She had a coppery, nervous scent and I saw blood stains on her bandages. Her good eye stared at my face as I leaned in to check the stitches. She waited, trembling and sluggish, still woozy from the barbiturates. I pulled back and limped away. She was scared of me, so scared her fear emerged through the painkiller haze, and I couldn’t calm her down.
“You’ve pulled your stitches,” I told her. I couldn’t make my voice sound soothing, no matter how hard I tried. “You’re bleeding. Wait here, I’ll go get Jackson.” And I ran, fleeing the bedroom, as she let loose an angry gurgle that should have been a scream.
There was comfort in the clutter of Jackson’s workshop downstairs; the overburdened workbenches piled high with bits of clockwork and old tech and equipment we scavenged from the burnt-out hospital on the river. I followed the sound of Jackson’s snoring through the cramped maze of junk and spare parts, found him in the overstuffed chair he left by the boiler, soaking up warmth as he slept. He looked old, even for Jackson, the wrinkled features like the grooves of a thumbprint, the wisps of hair hanging limp around his face. I leant over and shook him, letting the metal fingers close over his shoulder. “Jackson,” I said. “Jackson, the girl’s awake.”
He slept, stubbornly, until I placed a cold right hand against his bare forehead. Jackson had built me that arm from scratch, and the one I’d worn before it, and the one before that. Its touch woke him faster than any jostling or loud noise ever could. “Randal?” he said, blinking. His eyes were never good, especially in the dark. I lifted the notebook off his lap and helped him to his feet, setting his journal on a nearby bench while he straightened himself up.
“It’s morning, Jackson,” I told him. The left side of my mouth twisted into a wry smile. “She’s awake and she’s pulled some stitches. I think I might have frightened her.”
“She’ll calm down,” he said. “And pulling the stitches won’t harm her anymore than she’s been harmed.” Jackson rubbed his eyes with one hand and smiled his forlorn smile. “How is she?”
“Struggling to speak.” I clenched my fist, metal straining against metal. “They took her tongue, Jackson. The crow boys, they cut it right out.” It was a mistake to mention the tongue. Jackson nodded, eyes growing distant, and I knew that I’d lost him, that his mind had the association it needed to turn towards to his beloved work. Jackson picked up his notebook, finger tracing the anatomical sketches and blueprints. He was making plans, figuring out a way to replace what was lost. I touched his arm again.
“We should run,” I said. “We can. She’s awake now. We should run before they come for her.”
Jackson looked up and shook his head. “It would kill her,” he said. “To move her now, so soon, so soon after…” He shook his head again and sighed. “We need a week. Maybe two. Enough time for her to heal. Then we can leave. Then we can run.” His eyes dropped to the notebook as he said it, the blue-and-black plans and the detailed annotations. There was a thump upstairs as she fell out of bed. A loud moan of pain filtering down through the floorboards. I thought of the mangled face, the blue stitching and the scars. Beaten by the Corvidae, Jackson had said. We both knew what would happen when they realised the girl had lived.
“They’ll find us before then,” I told him.
“I know.” My heart beat, tick-tock, tick-tock, as I watched Jackson blink back tears. His face set, trying to hold back a shiver of fear. The Corvidae were bad news; both of us knew that. He put his hand on my shoulder, fingers wrapping across the scars. “But I’m going to take care of her,” Jackson said. “She didn’t deserve this, Randal.”
No-one ever does. Jackson didn’t look at me, just tore a page from his notebook and held it out. It was a list of parts, carefully annotated, written in Jackson’s sloppy script. I ran down the list, noting the unfamiliar names. They were small parts, tiny. Expensive, too, with our finances.
“I’ll take care of her stitches,” Jackson said, limping towards the stairs. “It will be okay, Randal. We’ll get away before you know it.”
I double-checked the locks as I left, nervous about leaving him alone. Most of the time, shopping for Jackson takes effort rather than money. This time he was working small, and that meant parts with names I didn’t recognise. Technology; state of the art; the kind with names that read like a secret code. Finding those parts meant someone with black-market contacts. It meant shopping fast and getting off the streets before someone noticed what I was doing. It meant Jackie Pelican.
I went down to the river and found him sitting near the harbour tunnel, hawking cheap tech to Cityside tourists heading home after a day in their favourite kink-house. There was an art to the way Jackie worked, pretending to thumb a ride and then hustling the drivers with cheap promises and stolen tech the moment the car stopped. Pelican always said that anyone stupid enough to stop for a Downsider wearing six jackets as he thumbed a ride was going to be an easy mark for his patter, and it turned out he was right more often than not.
He was cutting a deal when I found him, a lump of layered coats and furs pushing data-chips through the window of a Cityside Lexus. I hung back, out of sight. The Pelican didn’t need me interrupting his business, and I knew better than to get in his way. It took him five, maybe six minutes to close the deal. Money changed hands and the Lexus sped off, threading into the tunnel that linked the Downside grime with the towers and gleaming lights of the city. The Pelican stood by the side of the road, shuffling through his bills, then nodded and slipped the cash into the pockets of his second jacket. I lumbered across the concrete, coming up behind him. Pelican heard me coming, recognised the tick and the steady thump of my limp. “Randal,” he said, making a wide turn, his small face beaming among the layered jacket collars. I clapped Pelican on the shoulder and the gears in my arm groaned. He feigned a shudder at the noise. “Clockwork was a bad fad, Randy. When are you going to let me fix you up with something a little less retro?”
“I don’t have money for your upgrades, Pelican. You know that.”
“You could work it off, Randal,” Pelican said. “You’re a good kid, talented, and you’re wasted in Jackson’s workshop. I’m sure I could find a job for you.”
“I like the workshop,” I said. “It’s homey.”
Pelican rolled his eyes and laughed, the thick layers of coats wobbling, his throat swelling up as his humour boomed out. “Fine,” he said. “If you can’t be lured away from the aging reprobate, why don’t you tell me what the Pelican can do for you? I assume Jackson’s sent you on another shopping trip?”
I held out the list and pointed at the items I needed, letting the Pelican study them through the cracked lens of his glasses. He puffed his cheeks out as his read, fleshy jowls ballooning as he chewed on the air. “That’s a strange list, Randal. What’s Jackson up to?”
“I don’t know, but if I had to guess…”
I shook my head and shrugged. “If I had to guess, I’d say he’s building someone a tongue.”
The Pelican’s eyes went narrow and his teeth clicked together. He breathed in, hissing. “A tongue for whom?”
He was standing straight now, drawing up to his full height, bulging jowls starting to quiver. I stumbled backwards, putting weight on the bad leg. Jackie didn’t move to help me, he just settled back into the seat he kept near his hitching spot. “I don’t know,” I said. “Some girl he found.”
The Pelican whistled through his yellowing teeth. “Jackson and his strays,” he said. “Fuck.” He closed his eyes and quivered. I knelt down next to him, waited for him to explain, watching the watery eyes that refused to meet mine. I put the clockwork arm on his shoulder, let him feel its weight.
“What do you know, Jackie Pelican?”
The Pelican let out a soft snort, glancing to either side. “Nothing, kid,” he said. “I know nothing. Just be careful, okay?”
He smiled at me, cheeks rosy, and named me a price. I paid it and collected the parts, lugged them home, worrying.
Jackson had the girl awake by the time I made it back, the steady patter of his speech broken by the stilted syllables of a synthesizer linked to a touch pad. I listened to the dead, cold voice as it answered questions, carrying on her half of the conversation. It was raspy, empty. There were better programs available, but Jackson preferred the retro feel of passive inflections and static. I put the supplies down on the nearest workbench and locked the door, double checking all three deadbolts before stepping back. The alleyway outside was empty, dark even during the day, but talking to Pelican had left me feeling anxious and worried about what was coming. I’d stumbled down three or four different alleyways on my way home, backtracking and cutting through side-streets. I wondered how long it would be before I was actually being followed; sooner or later the news that the girl had survived would filter its way to the Corvidae and they’d come looking for her. I contemplated pulling a workbench in front of the door, damn the mess that moving one would make.
“Randal?” Jackson’s voice floated down the stairwell. “Randal, is that you?” There was fear in his voice, but he disguised it well.
“It’s me.” I limped to the stairwell and waved.
“Randal,” Jackson said, “Come up and meet our guest.” I shook my head and Jackson frowned at me, his thick eyebrows drawing together. I pointed to the lopsided mask, the arm that had frightened her earlier, and Jackson snorted
“Randal,” he said, and I lowered my head. I started climbing up the stairs, my right foot thumping on the wood. Jackson smiled and took my arm as I reached the top, leading me into the room. The girl was still limp, still caught in the numb painkiller haze, she shuddered when she saw my face. Jackson led me over and sat on the corner of the cot. “This is Randal,” he said, keeping his voice calm and low. “You’d call him my assistant, I guess. He took care of you during the evenings.”
“Hi,” I said. I gave her a lopsided grin. “You look like you’re healing well.”
She was pale now, paler than when I’d left the workshop, and there were bloodstains on her bandages. Jackson had been drugging her, prepping her for more surgery, re-working the lines of blue stitches that held her battered body together. There were sutures on her cheeks that hadn’t been there when I left. The girl scratched her hand across the touchpad, letting the computer beside the cot translate the movements into speech. Thank. You. Randal. My. Name. Is. Rose.
There was something lucid beneath the drug haze, something aware of where she’d found herself. She studied my face with her good eye, following the lines of steel and scarred skin, suddenly focused on what those scars could mean. “It’s an old job,” I said. “And I’m too cantankerous a patient for Jackson to replace things or make them pretty. Don’t worry; he’ll make sure you’re still beautiful when he’s done.”
She smiled at me then, a terrible expression on her broken face, and winced as the smile tugged at the sutures. Jackson slipped a hypodermic into her neck, easing opiates into her bloodstream. I stepped back, giving him room, watching as she went under.
“Sleep now, Miss Rose,” Jackson said. “We’ll have you up and talking soon.” She shook her head, fingers fumbling for the pad, but the drugs hit and she faded. Her hand went limp again.
Jackson stood up and ran his fingers through the pale wisps of his hair, looking pensive as she studied the ruin of her face. “She isn’t going to be pretty, Randal. You shouldn’t have lied to her.”
I turned around and walked towards the stairs.
“She’ll be pretty enough,” I said. “You’ll rebuild her and she’ll be pretty enough.”
We both knew he planned to install the tongue before we ran away.
We argued after that, Jackson and I. Argued about running, about rescuing the girl, about trying to install a new tongue while we both knew the Corvidae were coming to find us. Jackson won, as always; he’s a smart man, and he has arguments aplenty when he needs them.
“We shall stay,” he said. “Who would find us, if they looked for her? Who would even consider looking for a girl in a place like this?”
“Pelican knows,” I told him. “He knew the moment I asked for the parts. He knows, Jackson, and they’ll know to ask him. They’re looking, Jackson. They’re going to come.”
Jackson shook his head, his eyes sad. “We are safe enough, Randall. She’ll heal before they find us, and there is always the tunnel if she does not. Pelican knows many things, but he does not know about that.” He settled down behind his workbench, sitting in the battered hardwood chair with its back stiff and straight like a throne. Jackson, king of clockwork, master of the world he surveyed. I didn’t share his faith in the tunnel. We could get out if we used it, yes, but we still had to run. And the tunnel has been here longer than I have, longer than Jackson and his towering piles of junk. He always told me it was a service entrance, built in the days when the workshop was home to grander creations than ours. It wasn’t a secret then, and it was barely a secret now.
That night I took a lantern and walked down the dark length of the tunnel. We had used it as a graveyard, a crypt for the gutted husks of grandfather clocks we’d salvaged for parts. The slow tick-tock of my heart echoed against the stones, mocking the dead clock-faces.
“Safe enough,” I told myself, and the words echoed off the walls. It took hours to clear a path, to make sure the tunnel was ready if we needed it. I checked the locks and the keys at the far end, just to be sure. I ambled down the narrow corridor. It would be a short sprint, if running was needed, but I’m not built for speed and Jackson was old. My faith in his plan waned as I contemplated the possibilities.
They found us the day after Jackson installed Rose’s new tongue.
Jackson and Rose were asleep when it happened. He, lost in a quiet slump beside the cot, she, twisting and turning through another night of medicated slumber. I stood by the doorway, my heart a metronome beat beneath the steady rhythm of Jackson’s snoring, and I heard the muffled thump in the workshop downstairs. I thought it might have been an invention, or a pile of Jackson’s parts collapsing in the night. Such things weren’t unheard of in a workshop such as ours. It wasn’t until the second thump, and then the third, that I realized what it was: someone kicking, hammering, trying to batter down our door. I heard the wood give way, the locks bending inwards, the soft crunch of someone walking across the workshop floor.
We had an intruder, and that wasn’t a pleasant thought.
I heard the glass face of Jackson’s second-favourite clock shattering beneath a heavy fist, and I allowed myself a few seconds to consider the merits of cowardice. It was tempting; I am ill-equipped for stealth, what with my steel-shod limp and the endless tick-tock tick-tock eliminating the possibility of approaching unannounced. Investigation meant a confrontation, facing the intruder down, and I was coward enough that the thought gave me pause.
I picked up Jackson’s poker, a cast-iron antique he’d acquired at an auction. I’d scoffed at him when he bought it, claiming it was useless, but it felt comforting to have a weapon in hand. The poker felt solid, weighted for a quick swing should I need to bludgeon a potential thief, and I held it before me as I limped down the stairs and switched on the workshop lights.
There was a Corvidae in the workshop, languid and ready for my approach. He was an angry snarl of a boy, just like the rest of them, black-feather hair, fingers like raptor talons, eyes as smooth and dark as marbles. He stank of carrion, thick and overripe. I raised the poker, holding it like a sword, ready to cave in the boy’s skull with its iron head. The Corvidae sneered. “Ya bully dreaming, Tick-Tock. Me-and-I pluck your vitreous; squish-squish, sweet’n’juicy, yum-yum-ha.” He cawed then, cackling. He had a crow’s laugh, a harsh croak. “Where da patch?”
I charged him, swinging the poker, a futile gesture fuelled by anger and fear. He moved fast, a dash of shadow against the sulphurous yellow light. It didn’t take long, no more than three ticks of my heart, and it was over. I saw him move, felt the poker rip free of my hand, then he crashed backwards with his hollow weight bearing me to the floor. I looked up into a wicked grin, grubby talons hovering over my eyes.
“Where da patch?” he croaked. He kept his voice low, all secret whispers. I shook my head. “Gone,” I said. “Jackson’s gone. He isn’t here.”
His talons wove an eager pattern in the air as a narrow, black tongue licked pointed Corvidae teeth. “Where da girl den, Tick-Tock? You hide our pretty-pretty, our little birdy-bird? We want her back, Tick-Tock. Gotta finish what we started.”
“She’s not hiding.” My treacherous voice quavered, just a little, giving away my fear. “She’s not here, she ran away.”
The Corvidae gave me a harlequin’s smile, leaning forwards to run his long tongue across the tender flesh of my good eye. “Tell da patch I came, Tick-Tock. Tell him Rook3 wants ‘is dolly back, no matter what.” And I nodded, stiff-necked, my eye following the pointed claw dancing a hair’s breadth from my pupil. Rook3 laughed, drunk on my fear. He floated to his feet in a flurry of limbs, dancing and spinning his way to the gaping maw of our broken doorway. “Me-and-I be seeing you, Tick-Tock,” he said, and then he was gone, nothing more than a caw of laughter on the wind.
I lay on the floor for a long time.
Jackson had shown me his blueprints for my arm and chest, the detailed plans and notes he’d compiled explaining how and why they work. I know that there are three-hundred and fifty-seven cogs and gears in my arm alone. I lay on the ground and listened to my heart, the steady tick-tock that never felt the surge of adrenaline, never sped up when danger loomed. When I flexed my fingers, pondering their movement, I knew that another hundred and twenty cogs came to life. I tried to console myself with this knowledge, telling myself that clocks are works of precision and delicacy, that they do not lend themselves to strength, or violence.
It didn’t help.
Jackson unlocked the bedroom door; his feet padded down the stairs. My good arm trembled. Jackson stood next to me, staring at the broken door. “They came,” he said.
“Just one.” I stood up, busying myself clearing a bench, moving the junk onto the surrounding piles. When I was done I tipped it on its side, pushing it against the doorframe to replace the door. I leant my weight against it, holding it secure. “He’s fast and he’s angry. I’m sure he’ll collect the rest of them.”
Jackson clucked his tongue and forced me to sit, fussing with my arm. He checked mechanisms and servos, double-checking to be sure. He always worried when I fell, always wanted to make sure that I hadn’t damaged the intricate parts of his creation. “They want her back, Jackson,” I told him. “They want us to hand her over, or they’ll kill us both. Kill us and eat our eyes.”
Jackson bowed his head and kept his attention on the arm. His face pinched, locked into a frown of concentration. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “We’ll keep her safe, somehow.”
“We need to run. Tonight.”
Jackson shook his head, closed the casing on my arm. “If they found us, it’s too late. They’re expecting us to run and she still needs rest, another day or two at least. We need to stay, keep them out somehow. Give her time to heal, then use the tunnel to sneak away.”
I looked at the upright bench, thinner and weaker than our stout wooden door. “How?”
“Somehow,” Jackson said. He rapped my arm with a sharp knuckle, the soft echo filling the room. “We haven’t got a choice here, Randal. We must do the best we can.”
I went back to Pelican the next morning. I bought the best security system our money could afford. “Lethal or non-lethal,” Pelican asked me.
“Whichever you’ve got,” I told him. “As long as I can walk away with it today and have it installed by nightfall.” He gave me a queer look and a price, and I gave him the money. It took the better part of a day to get the workshop straightened out and the new locks installed, repairing the door and barricading the windows with steel bars and old workbenches I bolted into place. I spent the afternoon installing Pelican’s toys: taser banks and motion detectors; thick Kevlar sheets that sat over the doorjamb, securing it against gunfire and battering shoulders; voltage packs that would pass a charge through anything metal that was tampered with on the exterior of the workshop, leaving a claw blackened and the man behind it stunned. Jackson was upstairs while I toiled below; he checked his work on Rose’s prosthetic tongue.
I finished the security job after sunset, just in time for the first Corvidae’s croaky laughter to echo at the end of our alleyway. Jackson came down as I was making dinner, flinching at the distant laughter outside. “Done,” he said, wiping his hands on a rag. His blue, worn overalls stained with patches of rust. “She can talk.”
“Can she eat?” I ladled soup into a bowl and pushed it towards him, then filled a second when Jackson nodded. I started limping towards the stairs, bowl on a plastic tray.
“She’s probably sleeping,” Jackson said. “And she’ll be groggy, even if she’s not. Make sure she doesn’t choke, Randal – she’ll need some practice before she’s used to swallowing with the prosthetic.”
The whole gang arrived while I was climbing the stairs, loud caws and laughter shrill in the alleyway. I ignored them and kept climbing, opened the door to Rose’s room. She wasn’t sleeping, but her eyes were glassy from Jackson’s painkillers. She was insulated by the drugs, able to look into my face without flinching. She seemed numb to the point where even the noise outside was absent. I sat down next to her and she smiled at me, wincing. “Randal,” she said. Her new tongue stumbled around the name, blunting the n, but I could recognise the word through the awkwardness. “Your name is Randal.”
“I brought you food,” I said. “Something soft. Soup. Jackson wants you to practice swallowing.”
“I can hear birds,” she said. Her face turned towards the window, towards the aftermath of sunset lingering behind the skyline. The song of the Corvidae filled the air.
“Nothing to worry about.” I tried to look her in the eye. “You should eat.”
I held a spoon before her face, the soup steaming and thick. I watched the patchwork plastic and Kevlar move when she opened her mouth, the faint flicker at the base of her throat as Jackson’s prosthetic worked with the torn scraps of her real tongue. Jackson was right – it was ugly work, but Rose remained beautiful. I fed her a spoon at a time, using my good hand to guide the spoon. The crow calls grew louder, cutting through the groggy haze. She stopped eating and turned to the window, shuddering.
“It’s them.” She said. “They… hated me. They told me to leave. Why are they here?”
“No-one likes to lose,” I said.
She blinked back tears, remembering. “Why am I here? Why aren’t I dead?”
I thought of Jackson, sitting downstairs, working his way through a bowl of soup. “Jackson likes old stories,” I told her, and she frowned. “Fairytales and stuff. You needed help and he helped you.” I clenched my fist, listening to the gears creak. “He does that, sometimes.”
The painkillers kicked in, responding to her stress. She drifted off, unable to fight Jackson’s drugs, and I went downstairs to listen to the bird calls. Jackson was by the stove again, hidden in the corner of the workshop. He cradled a half-full bowl of soup in his lap. The Corvidae were right outside now. I turned the lights off, one by one, relying on the shadows to give us some cover.
“She’s scared,” I said, settling into the stool next to him.
“She’s a smart girl,” Jackson answered. He lowered his head and stared into the murkiness of the soup, wispy hair falling in front of his face. Something thumped hard against the front door and the charge went off, filling the air with ozone. We listened to something young and birdlike squeal in pain, then the sound of a limping body retreating into the distance. “We should have closed-circuit,” Jackson said. “I don’t like hearing them without seeing what they’re up to.” The second thump was more solid, prepared for the shock that followed. The sound echoed across the workshop as the taser’s hiss cut through the darkness.
“Pelican didn’t have any cameras,” I said. “It’d take at least a week to get some in.”
Jackson slept in his chair, fitful, flinching with every measured assault against our doorway. I stayed awake, keeping vigil, the poker gripped in the clockwork hand. My slow hand, the hated hand, but it was strong enough to shatter bone if I could land a solid blow. Jackson used to tell me stories about a broken boy who was put back together by kindly elves with a talent for magic and clockwork. He would tell me the boy’s arm was magical, that his heart was a wonder in a world where hearts rarely beat, where all too often hearts were lost for no reason. Love was a powerful thing in Jackson’s stories. It could conquer armies and rewrite time. It could make the broken whole again.
I passed the time by counting the thumps of Corvidae against the door, the rattle-rattle-buzz of claws against the window bars, the electrified charge sending bodies reeling back with scorched hands and strangled cries. They paced themselves, syncopated the assaults, used the silence as a weapon to keep us on edge. I counted the thumps, one after the other; one bird, two birds, three birds burned. Four birds, five birds, six birds harmed. Occasionally I stood by the doorway, listening to the quiet scuffle of clawed boots against the concrete. Sometimes they were swift and raucous, using the echoes of the alley to their advantage. They filled the air with birdcalls, making it impossible to be sure of their numbers. Other times they were silent, murmurs in the darkness. I figured there were twenty three of them out there, including those who’d been shocked by the taser bank on the door, birds shocked by enough voltage to leave them twitching and stunned until morning. Sometimes I pressed my weight against the door, keeping it steady against the assault.
Around 2 a.m. it all went quiet. I listened to the steps of someone loping up to the doorway, leaning in without touching it. “We know you’re in there, Tick-Tock,” Rook3 whispered. “Me-and-I hear your heart; tick-tick-tick.”
“No-one here but us chickens,” I told him, voice cracking. I picked a spot by the door, raising the poker high, just in case. “Bars on the windows and steel plates on the doors. Go bother someone else, little bird.”
Rook3 knocked, three sharp raps that echoed on the steel. The air filled with a whiff of ozone and Rook3 screamed, then cawed and cackled as his screams turned to laughter. “Nothing save you from me-and-I, Tick-Tock,” he said. “You come out, sun or no-sun, and Rook3 be waiting.”
There was no more knocking after that, no more electrical discharge or rattled windows to break the silence. Later, as the sun rose, I peeked through a crack on a second-floor window and watched the Corvidae perched on the fire-escape next door, waiting and watching like an army of twisted shadows. I woke Jackson and pointed. “We’re locked in,” I said. “It appears they’re laying siege.”
Cops are an expensive proposition in Downside, but Jackson tried calling them anyway. His first attempt got him a busy signal, the second just the hazy buzz of a scrambler attached to the line. The third call was answered by Rook3’s croaking laughter. “Nobody going to help you, Patch. You goin’ to die if you don’t give me-and-I back da girl.” Jackson hung up. His knuckles were pale and his hands trembled, but he drew himself straight as he glared at the door. Defiant, angry, but that wouldn’t last. I could see the fear there, lurking behind his eyes.
“We should go,” I told him. “Use the tunnel, get out while we can.” Jackson didn’t answer. He went back to his chair and rocked, his face pinched so tight I could barely see his eyes beneath the press of wrinkles. Small, gentle Jackson, determined to do what was right. “So many of them,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting there to be so many.”
I left him there, huddled against the darkness, and checked on Rose myself.
“I couldn’t sleep,” Rose told me, fighting against the painkillers. “All the noise, it was like being back there. Like living with them.” She was still weak, barely able to lift her head off the pillow, but there was life in her cheeks. She winced with every s she used, a sting of pain from the sutures as the tongue touched her teeth. It gave her voice an old lilt, at odds with the face full of bruises and patchwork stitches. So many grafts, so many repairs.
“No-one slept,” I said. “Don’t worry, they can’t hurt you here. We’ve locked the place up tight, and we’ve held off worse than this.”
Rose pursed her lips and frowned at me, the patchwork tongue bulging against her cheeks. It was a little too large for her mouth, the mechanism heavy against her jaw. She would never look right with her mouth closed, but at least she could speak.
“How…” She shook her head, trying to dislodge the question, but her hand reached out anyway. The dark nails and fingers withered into claws, hovering over the steel, preparing to stroke it. I pulled away, the cogs grinding.
“Jackson found me when I was a kid,” I said. “Beaten, cut up, almost dead. He put me back together, the same as you. Replaced the parts as I grew older so I didn’t get lopsided.” I raised the arm and looked at it, flexed my fingers and took her withered claw in mine. “He’s a good man. Foolish, really, and stubborn, but a good man nonetheless.”
Outside there was a loud caw, the fizzing snap of a rock thrown against the windows. Rose flinched. “You never… there are other options,” she said. “You could get it replaced.”
I shook my head. “Jackson calls it his finest work,” I told her. “The arm, the heart, the knee. Replacing them would break his heart.”
I stood there until Rose gave in to the painkillers, drifting off into sleep with a frown across her face. I held her hand, studied her scars, wondered how far she could make it. Jackson was wrong; we could move her if we had too. Slowly, using a gurney, with enough drugs to keep her sedated and free of pain. We could run if we had to, but we might not get away. The tunnel could get us out, but they would have someone watching. Just in case we had allies, on the off chance someone heard the noise and could be bothered to investigate. If we were spotted as we left, if they saw us sneaking out…
I went downstairs. Jackson was huddled in his chair, shaking. “They won’t stop,” Jackson said. “They’ll never leave us alone, Randal. They just won’t stop.”
“Then we run,” I told him, and I laid out the plan. Jackson listened, eyes flat, and nodded when I reached the end. I sent him upstairs to get things ready. When I was alone in the workshop I let myself shake, skin crawling against the prosthetics. I tightened my grip on the poker, steel grinding against steel. My heart tick-tocked, slow and steady, heedless of my fear.
The Corvidae left us alone during the day, disappearing into the shadows or lingering in knots of two or three, hanging on the fire escapes like birds on a wire. I spent the afternoon taking practice swings with the poker, trying to get comfortable with its leverage and its weight. Violence is easy to practice: swing, parry, thrust; make use of my longer reach. Don’t let them get close enough to use speed against me, try to take them down before they rip me apart with their claws. Jackson watched me, lips drawn, trying not to state the obvious.
“You’ll need food,” he said. “Sooner or later, you’ll run out of food.”
“I won’t run out of food,” I said. “And you’ll need it more than I do.” I smiled at him, awkward and lopsided. Jackson hugged me and patted my arm.
“It’ll be dark soon,” I said. “You should get ready.”
“Sit,” Jackson said, and he waited until I did. He told me a story. “It’s easier,” he said, in the silence at the end. The shadows inside the workshop were growing longer and darker. “In the stories, it’s always easier.”
“We should get her ready to move,” I said. “You’ll need help with the gurney, for the first part at least.
This time the bird calls started right on sunset, a whole murder of Corvidae starting their mockery at once. I sent Jackson upstairs with two bowls of soup and a pair of spoons, keeping up appearances in case their spies had an angle to see into the house. He pretended he was weary, stomping as he climbed the stairs. He snuck back down quietly, taking each stair with a graceful limp. The wood didn’t squeak beneath him, and perhaps the ruse was pointless at this late hour; the plan would work or it wouldn’t, whether we maintained the ruse or not. He nodded at me, eyes shining. We turned out the lights.
“Tick-Tock,” Rook3 said, calling through the door. “Hey, Tick-Tock? We-and-I getting bored. We be cracking your cage tonight.” I heard the regular chk-chk-chk of the taser discharge, the sharp squeal of nails against the metal bars over the window. “Insulated, Tick-Tock,” Rook3 taunted. “Me-and-I saw your little friend, saw the fat little Pelican. Got me what I need to break down your little toys.” He knocked on the door again; rap-rap-rap. This time it wasn’t followed by a scream.
I heard the door to the tunnel slide shut, the quiet click of a lock settling in place. “Me-and-I eat your eyes tonight, Tick-Tock. Eat your eyes and taste the sweet-meat upstairs, after we gut da patch. He shouldn’a saved her, Tick-Tock.” Chk-chk-chk as the taser spluttered, useless, against the claws sliding over the door. Nails on the metal, sharp squeal like a knife to the gut. The sound drew goosebumps from what flesh I still possessed.
I readied the poker and stood next to the door; if I was lucky I could brain one as he came through, crack his head open like a stale egg and be done with it before the others swarmed. Maybe I could frighten the rest of the pack off, make them think we were dangerous, better equipped than they’d suspected. They struggled with the windows and kicked at the doors, insulated against the taser discharge but still struggling to break down the barricade. It would take time, but not a lot. I waited. I waited, and the minutes ticked by. I thought about Jackson and his stories, about Rose and her mangled tongue, the patchwork scars that will cover her body when the stitches are pulled out and she’s finally healed for good. Jackson was right, she wouldn’t be beautiful, but I was right too. I knew it.
Jackson is in the tunnel now, waiting for his chance to run. I wish that I were with him. I wish that I had kissed Rose, just one more time. I wish so many things.
I can hear the Corvidae outside now, a murder of thugs and runaways, hungry for a fight. They’re almost in. It’s time. I think about Jackson, about his stories. Outside the Corvidae gather, jangling the windows and kicking the door. Four-and-twenty skinny boys, their flesh twisted by drugs and designer mutagens, black claws ready to rend and tear until I’m nothing but blood and parts. I can hear something hissing, see sparks underneath the doorjamb. I hold my breath, waiting for the inevitable. My heart tick-tocks, measuring out the silence. I repeat the same phrase like a mantra, reminding myself why I’m staying: Downside isn’t a place where fairytales happen. I hope I’m wrong. I know I’m right.
The front door slides sideways, hinges and locks worn down by the careful application of a blow torch. The first of the Corvidae comes in, a smaller bird with a nervous tick, his caw humming in the back of his throat. “Tick-Tock,” Rook3 croons, calling through the open doorway. “We coming to get you Tick-Tock.” The smaller bird hasn’t noticed me lurking in the darkness; the clockwork arm steady, the poker raised and ready to strike.
I can buy some time. They’re going to need it. Jackson isn’t fast, and he certainly can’t fight, and the gurney will slow him down even if they don’t spot him the moment he breaks cover. Downside is not a place where fairytales happen, but maybe just this once we can sneak one by.
The Corvidae scout takes a few steps into the room, hunched over and eager. He sniffs the air, cocks his head to one side. He can hear my heart ticking, low and ominous in the darkness.
“Go,” I whisper, “Please Jackson, get away,” and I swing the poker down. It bites into the feathered scalp of Rook3’s scout, sends him sprawling to the floor in a pile of blood and skewed limbs. My heart beats steadily, no adrenaline can speed it up. Steadily like a clock, dependable and slow. Jackson isn’t fast, but he’s always been faster than me. I can hear Rook3’s keening, the murder of black figures joining his angry scream. They surge, a dark cloud of anger. I think I can hear my pulse, roaring in my ears. I raise the poker. I wait for them. This is not a place for chivalry, but I can pretend I’m a champion. I can stand against the tide, for a few moments at least. I can buy time for Jackson and Rose. I can. She is not a princess, but she deserves this chance. My kiss did not wake her, but she can still be saved. She deserves this. She does. I hope I’m right.
My pulse rattles in my ears as they swarm in, swarm over me, clawing, slashing; Tick-tock. Tick-tock. Tick-tock. Tick-