The Seduction of a Very Special Music Box
by Kris Saknussem
Fragments of the mysterious tune came back to him, but he could not hold them in his mind, and he wondered what effect they still had. What effect had they had?
For a few moments Lloyd listened to his parents’ emphatic whispering, trying to clear his head—trying to feel the protective presence of Lodema—and to imagine where his beloved Hattie was—hoping she was out of danger, knowing that almost certainly she was not. It was in this anxious, exhausted, wondering state that a dream began to enfold him, richer and more detailed than all the others.
He had the idea that he was hunting for Hattie, trapped inside a giant music box. The inside of the box was like an empty theater he had peered inside in St. Louis. Hattie was hidden somewhere within but he could not find her, she was being held prisoner by a man like Junius Rutherford with mechanical crab claw hands. Then into the darkness of the empty seats there came a weird wind that brought with it a cloud of what looked like fireflies, luminous tiny insects that were so beautiful to behold he wanted to reach out and touch them. But when he did, they burned his hand like cinders. He swatted at them, trying to escape, and when he readjusted his eyes, he saw that on every empty chair there now burned a sleek candle with even flames rising from them like the voting hands of some dire and unanimous congress. A door opened and he saw a figure he took to be Hattie dragged from the theater and out into the light. He raced after, feeling the scorching flecks of the insects against his face, hearing the hissing of the candles, like a religious chant.
He knew that he was still inside the music box, but it was much larger than he had first thought. The door of the theater opened into a street of a town, a ghost town lit by unknown means, like the lights he had seen in Mother Tongue’s grotto. Dead people were walking about as if in a trance. Skeletons and mechanical men and women, like a vast fair of haunted machines. There were folks dressed in historic costumes and all manner of fantastic creatures from out of fairytales—while women in hoop skirts with the same porcelain mask for faces paraded in silence past.
In the dark of the windows he ran by, he glimpsed things like torture chambers—people getting their limbs removed—human bodies with the heads of other animals, pits full of reptiles with the faces of children. On and on he ran, trying to catch the man who had Hattie—or was it his sister?
Gradually, the light began to change, and he saw that the music box that he thought was a theater and then a town was like another kind of theater yet again. There were living people watching, pointing, ogling the sights—as if the entire maze he was lost in was but one huge medicine show. The people were in costumes of a type he had never seen before. Bright artificial colors, ridiculous shoes. Many of the women were baring obscene amounts of flesh and everyone seemed obese. The more frantically he explored, the more disgusted he became, for he came to see and smell the overpowering aromas and quantities of the nauseous, tempting food they were devouring. Gorging like maniacs.
In the labyrinth of the automata ghost town, there were islands and lagoons where machine men dressed as pirates fought with swords and fired cannon. Somnolent blank princesses sang to birds and squirrels whose mouths opened on hinges in perfect time. He saw riverboats like the kind he had ridden on, filled with talking dolls. All of the living people were laughing at these distractions, stuffing food into their mouths like they had never eaten before. The horror of it almost made him forget why he was there, what he was chasing—for he understood in some unspoken way that it was the mechanical creatures and the fantasies unfolding all around that were driving the living people mad with gluttony. Everywhere he turned, there were more frightening visions.
The giant music box theater, which had turned out to be inside a town, which was really a bigger theater, revealed itself to be a city, swirling and swarming with bloated people in insane colors with masks like clock faces. Hunkered in doorways, like beggars, were rodent forms and filthy derelicts with the tails of lizards. There were trains that whisked by as if they ran on light, and carriages without horse or oxen that looked like eggs or beetles. In the sky overhead were flying machines like those he had envisaged, but inside them were just more people eating and drinking. The women wore next to nothing and yet street corner preachers set fire to random passers by. Bodies and baubles hung from the street lanterns—a murder and a sale of some kind was transacted on every corner. And all the time Lloyd told himself, “The oddest thing of all is that I know I am still inside the music box.”
Still, knowing this did not help him find Hattie. Then he peered out beyond the festering false face emporia and saw something that held his eye. It was in the shape of an enormous building, like a cathedral. Limestone and metallic green it towered in the distance. Until he saw it was not a citadel of some kind, nor was it human made. It trembled rhythmically like some deep music. It was laced with lighting and rainbows as dark as the skin of the fish he remembered catching in the Licking River back in his other life. Hovering on the horizon like an omen and a promise, he saw in its inverted pyramid shape—the complexity of the Ambassadors’ master symbol. It was a tornado—heaped and spiraling chaos that somehow retained its form. And at the base, in the gorgeous crisis that anchored it to the earth was a door…and in the doorway…was a girl. Then the shadow of a jeweled claw reached out to him.
He turned to run and headed for one of the riverboats, for they seemed the most familiar to him. He chose the one that seemed the most authentic—and to his astonishment, he found himself confronted by his old comrade, St. Ives. The gambler seemed lost in reverie, smoking a cigar and staring down at the water.
Everything was just as before…the night St. Ives told him the story about the hand. “You wonder about it, don’t you boy? St. Ives asked and tapped an ash. “How I came by the hand—and how I came to lose my own.”
“Y-yes,” Lloyd found himself saying, as he had done before. “There’s no hiding there’s a story behind it.” Yet there was something different about this scene. Indefinably different. Was the boat moving?
“Well put, lad,” the gambler nodded. “And well spoken. Like a gentleman. But I fear if I tell you the truth, you will think me mad. Still, you have been an excellent partner. I believe you deserve my trust and may reward me with your discretion.” St. Ives lowered his voice and glanced around to see if any other passengers or crew were within earshot. He had not been wearing a hat the night before, but now he was—and a very stylish hat too.
“A little over ten years ago I used to be the secretary to a very rich man in the east. He valued my memory and my head for calculations. That may be hard for you to imagine, given your skills, but I took the bait. Phronesis Larkshead, or so he called himself then, but that was not his real name I am sure. Owner of the Enigma Formulary and Gun Works in Delaware. An inventor, a wirepuller. A formidable figure.
“He had the tinge of some sort of acid burn on his face and wore a flat-brimmed hat pulled down low, with a veil, which he claimed offered protection from all his ‘substances.’ He always kept his skin covered as much as possible in a dark suit without buttons. I used to fancy that his body was riddled with unnatural signs and scars. My initial belief was that one of his experiments had backfired on him. He was forever fiddling with new combinations of chemicals—schemes for weaponry. And other things. Weirder things. He was far, far ahead of his time, was Mr. Larkshead. He had designed and built a mechanical manservant. A sort of a butler named Zadoc. What it was powered by I do not know, he would not reveal it—but it was not steam. The device had an almost blank, bland face, and but I suspected he had other faces baking. How the thing could see or navigate I have no idea. This was the first of many things I wish I had not discovered, but my fascination got the better of me. His estate was like nothing you can imagine. He called it the Villa of the Enigmas.”
“Go on…” Lloyd said, feeling the hairs on his neck rise. This was like what had happened before—but not the same. Not the same.
“Well…I know this will sound like utter flapdoodle, but he had a colony of live ants from the jungles of South America, in a great glass nest. I could not guess why or how he came by them…but I know that he spent a good deal of money keeping them alive in the northern climate…and that as outrageous as it sounds, he had some notion of communicating with them. I could see that he was at work on a grand scheme. There was a whole wing of the estate I was never allowed to enter…and frankly I had no wish to, given what was in evidence around me.”
“How did you really come to work for someone such as that?” Lloyd asked. “Such a person would need no hired head for figures.” He had not thought to say that before. But it struck him now.
“Indeed,” the gambler smirked. “I wanted to think then that it was because of my abilities. Now I know I was a fool. I believe I was one of his test subjects without knowing it.”
“Test subjects?” the boy queried.
“Aye. I believe I was lured to the estate with the offer of employment, but I think I was given drugs…some kind of powerful narcotic that nevertheless did not disrupt all perception…but yet was responsible for visions. I cannot explain the things I saw else wise. I witnessed a meeting. Whatever they were—or are—I suspect it is the real force behind his company and his wealth…behind a great deal of other things too…things we would do well not to know about.”
“That sounds like something far better to know about than not,” Lloyd replied.
“Just the kind of young-headed notion that got me into the mess,” St. Ives lamented. “What I saw was a group…of people, if you like. Who all looked like him. I can’t explain it. There were twelve of them in total! Yet, they did not seem like individuals. They seemed as One. They had a kind of diagram they conjured out of the air—a mosaic-like puzzle…and they were engaged in some type of ceremony…or strategy planning session. I swear I have never told anyone else this!”
“Where were you hiding while you were watching?” Lloyd wanted to know.
“Well, this may be the most miraculous part!” the gambler whispered. “I saw the whole thing through a bewitched glass cube I found in the library. I had seen the cube before, but it had always been clear and empty…I had assumed it was just some type of mirror made into an art object…there were so many peculiar artifacts about the place, I gave it no special thought, until that day when it came alive. As the scene unfolded, I could not but conclude that Larkshead and the others were assembled in the forbidden wing of the mansion and that I was somehow eavesdropping on them. The images could not have been inside the cube. It was some kind of window.”
“An interesting deduction,” Lloyd wheezed, his mind churning like the river, which was flowing now. “What did you witness?”
“Oh, my young friend…I hesitate to tell you. They took off their hats and veils. They were not men, or women either. They were…I know not what. Creatures. Ghosts. Their apparent bodies were but masks, camouflage. Their true forms were hideous and impalpable. As absurd as they appeared, there was a malevolence about them…as if their forms were punishment. I felt that malignance radiated through the cube. Their resentment, their envy. Their relentless hunger for other shapes. But I felt that they were still somehow human. Not demons, not inhabitants from some distant star. They were…”
“Shadows of the mind…from out of time,” Lloyd said, as a nightjar sounded in the distance. “Please tell me all that happened next—and I must know everything that happened.”
The gambler dropped his smoldering cigar into the river, but regained his composure when he stared at the boy again in the pale light.
“I grew…so hypnotized by what I was observing…I did not hear that repugnant Zadoc sneak up behind me. The machine subdued me with some kind of sedative delivered by a needle…and I was brought before that unholy tribunal…awake, but unable to resist or escape…oh, lord…”
“As painful as it is to recall,” Lloyd said, squeezing the mechanical hand. “You must tell me everything that transpired. Please.”
“They reinstated their body cloaking,” the gambler answered, staring down at his boots. “I could not stand to look at them without it—and they seemed to understand this. I could not understand their words, but I gathered that my witnessing their congregation had not been intended. It was some mistake. The cube was fetched. Zadoc was disabled. Things beyond my reckoning were transpiring in that secluded wing of the mansion.”
“Be as precise as you can,” the boy pleaded.
“I could not look upon their mosaic puzzle and see it clear and whole—but it was certain they could. It wavered and vibrated like something that was alive. It was like a cyclone…a labyrinth…”
“What happened then? What were you allowed to see—and why?” Lloyd asked with growing impatience.
“What I saw was like some jumble of alchemist’s dens, a brewery and an insane asylum. I do not know how to put the rest…machines I have never known. I have the frightening idea…”
“You think they were making people—or what resemble people,” the boy filled in. “You believe you saw a man, with multiples of himself, who was not a man…but not female either, for those gathered were revolting jelly-like forms that you nonetheless regard as human, who were nurturing the growth of some kind of tissue as both a means of concealing themselves to normal eyes…and cultivating others…beings who would be taken for people if you passed them in the street…but that were not people…the way we like to think of them.”
“Exactly!” St. Ives exclaimed, catching himself. “This is the strangest thing of all! That you should know! How is it possible? Have you…?”
“No,” Lloyd answered. “We have seen some of the same magic lantern pictures. But it was no magic lantern image that took your hand.”
At this, the gambler broke down weeping, although he made an effort to stifle himself. “Too right, my young friend! I was experimented on like a dumb animal! I was made to…to…oh!”
“Tell me,” Lloyd commanded.
“I…was introduced to a…woman…an auburn-haired beauty with eyes like sapphires. She was lovely. They wanted me to…to mate with her. They wanted to watch. It was so unthinkable! Because I knew—that they had made her. Why I was chosen I have no idea.”
“That may be the most hopeful thing so far,” Lloyd remarked.
“Hopeful! Of what?” the gambler moaned.
“Their technology of survival lags behind their technology of manipulation,” the boy replied, gazing out over the flattening water. “If they have to employ animal methods of reproduction…and yet can project images by stealth over distances…that shows they have vulnerabilities. Somehow they need to maintain form, human flesh. It’s not sufficient to their purposes to influence and direct…they need to manufacture new vehicles, and any manufacturing process is a continual one. They have not perfected theirs. As monstrous as they may seem to you, they are engineers…and that is something I understand. They still have problems to solve, whatever their religion. That is the hope.”
“You scare me Lloyd. Not like they do—but still…the student has become the teacher,” the gambler gasped.
“We teach each other,” the boy responded. “And some fears are good, if they lead to the truth. Now finish your story.”
“I was allowed to enjoy the beauty…and then…they seized me,” the gambler winced. “Their forms were flesh and blood enough for that. I felt them searching my mind. They wanted to know what they looked like in their other guise to me. Then they performed surgeries, Lloyd…they took my hand…and gave me this artificial claw…”
“How did you escape?” the boy asked.
“The most unthinkable part of the whole story!” St. Ives coughed. “Zadoc, the mechanical thing reactivated. He, it, released me while they were in another chamber one afternoon—perhaps vivisecting some other poor victim—like a rabbit. I was torn. I was bandaged. But I fled—as fast and as far as I could in that state. I owe my life to the mercy of a machine!”
“Machines that have mercy are hard to think of as machines,” Lloyd replied. “The question is—did you escape or were you allowed to escape?”
“I have wondered that myself ever since,” St. Ives rasped, still blinking. ““But…are you not horrified by all that I have told you?”
“I see hope in what you have said—as well as horror,” Lloyd replied. “It may be that what happened to you had been planned—still it somehow sounds that it did not go quite according to their plan. If things can go against their desires in the heart of their control, that reassures me. And I think it a very encouraging that they are worried about physical survival.”
“You, young sir,” the gambler shrugged—and then could not control a crest of emotion. “Are the son I’ve never had. Always raising the ante. And then some.”
“You taught me what an ante was,” Lloyd replied.
“Friends always?” St. Ives said, offering up his mechanical hand once more.
“Partners,” Lloyd answered, squeezing down on the metal digits. “This is the biggest mystery of all. Why do you think they gave it to you?”
“Who can say?” the gambler grumbled, a storm of anger and grief filling his eyes. “I would not rule out pure cruelty as their motive. I sensed it in them. Some conspiracy of hatred. A mania. What does your intuition say?”
Lloyd frowned and then stared out across the river to a stand of cottonwoods. “I feel that they are One…a different kind of creature than we are familiar with. Of one mind. I sense this being or beast is some holdover from long ago…and I feel some shadowy sympathy with all that you have related, which raises the question if I am in fact who I believe myself to be—or as young as I appear.”
“But you are just a child! A boy!”
“Am I? I know how many syllables you have spoken in the last minute. Give me the materials and a bit of time, and I could make this hand. But that is not all. Do you see the dog I am thinking of? Boomer. That was my old dog, buried back in Zanesville. Smell his ragged blanket.”
“Oh…” the gambler shivered, seeing in his mind…smelling… “How did you do that?’
“I cannot say,” Lloyd answered. “It has something to do with the rapport we have. This is one of the reasons we have done so well at the tables. Seeing the others’ cards through my eyes. It is a species of communication like unto the cube you discovered, but the mechanisms that underlie it are obscure to me. I’m now thinking of a number between 1 and 1000. What it is?”
“What?” the gambler squawked caught off-guard. “Uh, 73.”
“Correct,” Lloyd replied. “The odds are very long against you getting that right. I suspect you may have hidden talents, Mr. St. Ives…which is why we work so well. That may have something to do with why you were chosen. And it may provide some hint as to their larger purpose. You said you could not see the gathering’s mosaic diagram whole and clear—yet they or it can. Perhaps the Adversary is working to a plan we cannot perceive…and that we are a part of that plan. The hunger for human form may be part of the struggle to endure so as to fulfill that plan. What I find puzzling is that your hand is baser technology than what you described in the female you were offered. If they can cultivate a fully fleshed human, real enough for you to find attractive, why bother with these metal joints and hinges?”
“Well, the hand is useful,” the gambler shrugged. “For years I hid it in a glove and loathed it. Resented the sensation of being able to direct it. I have no idea how I am able to make it work. It is a part of me though.”
“To graft nerves onto raw metal is no small feat,” the boy agreed. “But this may be another hopeful sign—that they have had to become more mechanically ingenious because of some other lack. In any case, you have not finished your story. I can see that the oppression did not leave you when you fled.”
Rage gripped the gambler’s face. “Too true,” he sighed. “I went to Boston and into hiding. Two weeks later I read that an enormous conflagration had swept through the estate. Whether it was an accident or a strategic retreat I cannot say. And what would provoke the need for retreat? It seems like an extravagant price to pay to withdraw, but who knows what resources such an organization or entity has at its disposal?
“Not long after, I learned that the Enigma Formulary and Gun Works had been acquired by a European consortium based in London calling itself the Behemoth Innovation Company. They have empty offices in several American cities but there is no information about any of their directors. I poked and sniffed around a bit—made inquiries and checked records…but there were so many bank ledgers and writs and decrees…deeds and lawyer’s gobbledygook there was no way to find the end of the knot. I withdrew and took up banal bookkeeping for the most colorless mercantiler I could find in Baltimore, where no one knew me, and I kept the hand concealed as much as I could. In time I came out of hiding enough to migrate west, using what wits I still had left to pursue the trade you found me in. I came to make peace with the hand, though it is an abomination and a constant reminder of the brutality. But it has often saved me from harm, as you have seen, and so it may be an unexpected and unintentional gift.”
“Up to now,” Lloyd answered. “Get as far away as fast as you can. Somehow I sense I am a lightning rod for these people—this other creature—whatever.”
“Say it is not so, Lloyd, please!”
“You may have gotten lucky before, although I understand you may not think so. But your luck may run out at the next encounter. Go far.”
“What about you?” the gambler garbled, the hand opening and retracting.
“I am destined for some confrontation of my own. Sooner rather than later I believe. If you are my friend, you will take my advice and keep the hand hidden.”
“I know not what to say,” the gambler replied after a moment’s pause. “You have shed light brighter than any moon or candle. And you have cast shadows darker and more supple than I have imagined. What should we do if this…thing…is among us?”
“There is no ‘if,’ Lloyd answered. “You told me at the start there was a time to cut and run. That time has found you. It’s possible, that there are many people throughout the world who have similar stories to yours. Our insane asylums, prisons and military hospitals may be full of them. But there are chinks…like the need to find human form. And they, or it, have some mission of destiny—a master stratagem. That is a strength and weakness too. Great plans usually fail. On that, we can perhaps hang our hats in hope.”
“Here’s to that then,” said the gambler and tossed his fine brim into the river. “Good night, my friend, however old you are. Tomorrow we will play our last hand…and this hand will be kept under wraps. Perhaps when I reach my new destination I will find someone with the skill and discretion to remove it, as was my first inclination years ago. Sleep well and may the dreams that find you be your own.”
The gambler headed for his stateroom. Lloyd remained on deck, watching the hat floating away in the moonlight. He had forgotten all about the music boxes…he was taken by the vividness of the hat bobbing along on top of the water. It was the vividness of the hat in the river that finally caused him to wake.
About the Author
Kris Saknussemm is the author of the novels Zanesville and Private Midnight (which became a bestseller in France). This piece is an excerpt from his latest book, Enigmatic Pilot due out from Del Rey in March, 2011.
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