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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Online Story from the Clockwork Phoenix 3 Anthology, edited by Mike Allen: Lineage by Kenneth Schneyer

INTRODUCTION: Clockwork Phoenix 3 (order HERE), edited by Mike Allen, was released from Norilana Books earlier this month.

Subtitled Tales of Beauty and Strangeness, the Clockwork Phoenix anthology series gathers offbeat slipstream, sf, fantasy and cross-genre tales, some of which have been nominated for the Nebula and Shirley Jackson awards and reprinted in several Best of the Year anthologies. Jeff VanderMeer has written that each book in the series comprises "a heady mix of the new and the familiar, and an anthology willing to take chances."

In a starred review, Publishers Weekly says that with Clockwork Phoenix 3, "Allen's third volume of extraordinary short stories reaches new heights of rarity and wonder," concluding, "Without a wrong note, all the stories in this anthology admirably fulfill Allen's promise of 'beauty and strangeness.'"

Kenneth Schneyer's "Lineage" from Clockwork Phoenix 3 mixes elements of science, fantasy and history in a tale that's both epic in scope and intimate in scale.

About the Story Author: Kenneth Schneyer's stories have appeared, or soon will appear, in Analog Science Fiction & Fact, GUD Magazine, Nature Physics, The Drabblecast and The Newport Review. He is a graduate of Wesleyan University, the University of Michigan Law School and the Clarion Writers Workshop at UCSD.

During his strange career, he has worked as an actor, a dishwasher, a corporate lawyer, an IT project manager, a college professor, a file clerk, and the assistant dean of a technology school, though not in that order. Born in Detroit, he now lives in Rhode Island with the ritual artist Janice Okoomian and their children.


Kenneth Schneyer

And yet I know so little. I feel the soil of a hundred lands under my feet, look into ten thousand frightened eyes, grasp uncounted brittle strands of hope between my fingers. But I cannot answer so simple a question as this:

What am I, when I am not one of them?

* * *


I think your excitement is premature. If I understood your report (and it could have been clearer) there is a lot of work to do before you can approach the conclusions you're suggesting.

Let's stick to the facts. I'll accept your statement that you've found identical resonance patterns in seven different artifacts from disparate periods and points of origin, representing four continents and more than three millennia. Having said this, and understanding that I don't doubt your word, please run the resonance tests again.

I will also accept your assertion that each of these artifacts appears to display a similar visual marking or design—although, to my eye, the similarity could be coincidental, and the pattern is so rudimentary (even childish) that one could imagine it arising by chance.

Even if both of these statements are true, it is an heroic leap to infer that somehow the artifacts are associated with the same individual. You admit the extreme improbability that this is true; why bring it up at all?

However, I think that we can settle the matter easily. You did not mention running a DNA echo series on any of these artifacts. Do so now. If there are traces, and they're similar for two or more of the artifacts, then you'll have something meaningful to say. Otherwise we need to look for other (more plausible!) explanations.

Don't worry; everybody leaps to conclusions early in her career. If we didn't get excited about this work, why would we do it at all?


* * *

Raisl had nearly calmed the baby to sleep when Jan slammed open the door. The sudden noise and light frightened Bella, and she started whimpering all over again. After a weary evening—Bella was cutting a tooth and keeping the two older children awake—Raisl's first urge was to snarl at Jan, if Moishe didn't take his head off first.

But Jan's grey, sweaty face told her that he hadn't intruded needlessly into their cramped, musty alcove. The balding little man's agitation was clear even in this bad light. His eyes bulged; he was out of breath. Raisl knew what he was going to say before he spoke.

"They found out; they're coming," said Jan, looking at Moishe, not at Raisl. "I saw them coming down the street, a whole squad of S.S. I ran back, they didn't see me, but they're not far off. It won't take them long to get here."

Moishe, dazed, rose slowly from his chair; Yakov and Dvora sat upright on their cot. "How?" asked Moishe. "How could they find out?"

Jan bent over and took Raisl firmly by the elbows, impelling her and Bella up. "It doesn't matter how," he said. "Go. Go in the next ten minutes or you'll all be in Oœwiêcim by morning. Get out of Krakow, however you can."

"But the plan won't work on a Sunday night," said Moishe, yanking clothes onto Dvora as Raisl wrapped the baby. "The children can't—"

"Forget the plan," Jan said. "Go. I recommend north, then west, but go."

"They'll be right behind us!" said Raisl, her own eyes as wide as Jan's, her legs wobbly.

"No, they won't," said Jan. "I can stall them, talk to them, maybe as long as ten more minutes. If you hurry, if you're lucky, you'll slip by."

"You can't stay and stall them," said Raisl. "They'll kill you!"

"Maybe. It's been done before," said Jan. All of a sudden he grinned—and he didn't look like Jan anymore. The grin was feral, like a madman or a criminal; it transformed him from the timid clerk Raisl knew into something fey and reckless.

Then she saw that he had scratched something onto his forearm, with a pin or a knife. It looked like three circles in a row, and it was very recent: blood welled from the shapes. She was afraid of him.

"Done before? What are you talking about?" demanded Moishe, who hadn't noticed Jan's face or arm, jerking on his thin coat and checking Yakov's buttons.

"Never mind," said Jan with a stranger's cheeriness. "I wish we had some apples, though. I have a taste for yellow apples right now."

"Apples?" said Moishe, his voice now rising in panic. "Apples? Are you out of your mind?"

Jan set his hand on Yakov's small shoulder, his mad eyes on Moishe and his face still in that weird grin. "Moishe, this is my house," he said. "Get the hell out of it and let me do what I want with the trespassers." From his gay tone, he might have been asking to stay a little longer at the card table.

That was the end of the discussion. In the next three minutes, Moishe, Raisl, and the children grabbed the few extra clothes, supplies, and precious things they could carry, embraced Jan in fear and confusion, and stumbled down the back stairs.

So began the first of many dreadful nights, the twisted dream of flight, starvation, and exhaustion that lasted for more than a year. Somewhere in those bitter forests and barren fields, Yakov died holding his father's hand; somewhere else Raisl let in the chronic, painful illness that would never leave her. She was still wincing from it, an irritable old woman in a stupid pink suit, when she watched Bella's youngest daughter stand under the wedding canopy in Ohio.

Jan outdid himself in wit and misdirection, clowning and practically singing to the soldiers for not ten minutes, but twenty. He was still grinning his infuriating grin when Lieutenant Haupmann gave the disgusted order to shoot him.

* * *

Again and again, like a banquet, comes the heady inhalation of destruction. The choice, the leap, the delicious farewell, the sweetness of oblivion. Greater love hath no man than this. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. Hear, O Israel: the Lord thy God, the Lord is One. Come on, nobody lives forever.

But I am still here. If this is somewhere.

* * *


I'd already run the resonance tests three times before I made my report; I understood how unlikely the data seemed. Nevertheless I ran them a fourth time per your instructions. The results were consistent: each of the seven artifacts has the same resonance pattern, the identical sequence over all eight reference points, each point similar to four decimal places (data analysis attached).

I understand what you're saying about the design, and yes, I suppose it could be "in the eye of the beholder." But that peculiar pattern of three circles in a row, each with its own perpendicular "arm" or "stem," just seems too regular to be coincidental. It was the design, after all, that drew me to these artifacts to begin with; I saw two with the same device, then a third, and that persuaded me to run the resonance test and look for similar items. Also there's the fact that each of the designs seems to have been added hurriedly, not using optimum materials or craftsmanship. If I were at home and these objects were contemporary, I'd say this was a gang sign.

As you requested, I ran the DNA echo series. There are distinguishable echoes on all of the artifacts, but none of them match. The people who left genetic residue on these objects had no common ancestors for at least six generations (full report attached). I realize that this datum may seem dispositive.

But looking at the literature, I can't find a single recorded case where two different individuals left the same resonance pattern. Not one. The energy signatures are supposed to be more unique to the individual than fingerprints, retinal patterns or voiceprints. If you can find a confirmed exception, then please show it to me; I know I'm relatively new at this, but I think I know how to read.


* * *

From inside the still, musty storehouse, the noises outside were strangely louder, as if they thought he was hiding and were calling to him. Thomas heard every mournful, futile whisper of the breeze, every restless complaint of the birds. Naturally he couldn't avoid hearing the groans and thuds of the wagon and its two horses as they drove up the hillside from the west.

Squinting with his bad eyes in the painful sunlight, he saw a straight grey blur with spots of cream and a coppery halo atop the wagon. It was Anne, her fiery hair under a cap. Though he couldn't make out the details, something in her posture told Thomas that she was holding the reins with more force than was necessary. The horses shook their heads nervously.

"Not the usual time for you to visit the storehouse," Thomas said, wondering what the horses knew that he didn't.

Without introduction or greeting, Anne's flat, practical voice said, "I'll need you to give me as many of the food stores as you can, Thomas."

"Give?" He shaded his eyes with his hand. "Give, for charity?"

"Aye, it should be for charity, you hard man, but I know you'll not give a crumb unless it's paid for. So here." She threw something at him; he had to stumble forward to catch it in his hands with a heavy chink. It was a bag of coins—a lot of coins. He counted them quickly with his fingers, his eyebrows lifting to his hairline.

"This would buy all that's inside," he said. "It won't fit on the wagon, all that." Anne's farm was no smaller than anyone else's, and she had no family to feed, but these coins must represent nearly all she had in the world. It made no sense.

She answered, "Well, then consider it your best bargain of the season. Lord knows you need all the help you can get."

"There's no need to insult me, is there? Tell me, what'll you do with what you've bought so dearly?"

There was a pause. Then she said, "Drive to London."

Involuntarily Thomas stepped three paces forward; now he could see the expression on her face. But it did him no good; her face told him as little as her voice. "London? You'll drive a cart of food into the middle of a plague city?"

"Aye, if they'll let me in. They're starving."

"They're dying of the Black Death, woman! You'll have no trouble getting in. It's out that'll be the problem."

"The ones who aren't dying of the Black Death are starving. No one will go into the city."

"And for good reason! Those that go in don't come out."

"We'll see."

"Will you throw your life away?"

"I'd not call it 'throwing away,'" she answered. Then a strange, wide grin came over her face, a grin that he'd never seen on her before, reminding Thomas of a wolf on the hunt. It made him draw back, so that she was a comforting blur again. "Besides, it's been done before," she added.

"No doubt," he grimaced, moving into the storehouse.

"Have you any apples in the storehouse?" she called

after him.

"Apples? No, they were gone a month ago."

"Pity, that. I have a real craving for a yellow apple; came on me all of a sudden."

Thomas found that he was reluctant to emerge again from the storehouse. When he came out with the goods, Anne had dismounted and took the first sack from him. So close as that, he could smell her sweat and the rosemary on her breath, and could see that she still wore that weird smile.

As he came close enough to hoist the sack, Thomas saw that there was a sign scratched on the wagon's side, using a bit of chalk or stone, or possibly a metal tool. It was three circles in a row, each with a tiny stem over it. It hadn't been there when Anne drove up, he was sure. A witch's mark?

He did not have long to ponder the question. She gave him an unexpected kiss on the forehead with her dry lips before ascending again and geeing up the horses. Back inside the building he couldn't avoid the odd, foreign melody of her whistling as the cart rumbled back down the hill.

It took a long time before the sounds were gone.

For the rest of his life, Thomas listened half-hopefully for the sounds of Anne's horses. But they never came.

* * *

Instantiation, substantiation, manifestation, possession? I am no one, if more than nothing; years pass, but not for me. Then I feel, like an embrace, the fear and devotion—the lifeboat overflows, the enemy surprises the patrol, the burning wall begins to collapse, the asteroid approaches the shuttle, the dike bursts.

And I walk the earth again.

* * *


You have no call to be offended. You are presenting unusual conclusions to the principal investigator with very little to back them up. You have to expect to be pressed on your hypotheses if you're going to stay in this business.

Yes, I do find the disparate DNA echo evidence "dispositive." If the same individual actually handled all seven objects, then that individual would have left an echo on each of them. Maybe it wouldn't have survived, but somebody's echo survived, since you found it on the artifacts. The fact that it shows seven distinct, unrelated individuals seems to decide the matter.

As you say, I don't know of any recorded cases in which different individuals left the same resonance pattern. Perhaps we've found the first one. Or perhaps we've found evidence that resonance patterns normalize or disorganize under certain conditions. Each of those would be a meaningful discovery, would it not?

Let's not forget that our object is to collect meaningful data and find the explanations that most satisfactorily explain it. We're not after ultimate "truth."


* * *

Nicander could still smell the smoke from the campfires that had been put out. Pacing steadily over the cold, rocky ground, he saw the faintest blue traces over a few remaining spots. He nodded with approval. The enemy almost certainly knew their position and their numbers, and so the men had been allowed a little warmth and a chance to cook some meat, but there was no point in being reckless.

Now they were all at work, whetting swords or repairing armor. Any talk was so low he could barely hear it, which was as it should be. They knew their business. A full night's sleep, and they'd be ready for—well, perhaps not ready for what was coming, but readier than any other army would have been. The twilight would end soon, and the night would be cold.

Nicander stopped at his captain's tent, cleared his throat, and said his own name loudly enough to carry. There was no reply, which he safely interpreted to be an invitation to enter.

A single lamp lit the space, granting Alexandros the look of a shadowy giant. He was oiling the straps of his armor and humming to himself, that same annoying marching tune he'd had on his lips for a month.

"Yes, Nico?" said Alexandros, who hadn't looked up when his enomotarch came in.

"One of the men can do that for you," said Nicander.

"Yes, and they can do their own, can't they?" said the captain. "Have you urgent tasks to take me away from the work of an honest soldier?"

"No, sir."

"Well, then. How are the men?"

"Calm, sir, for the most part. Some are edgy because they don't like the terrain."

"Ah now, the terrain is perfect." Alexandros spoke as if he were a connoisseur tasting a rare wine. He set down the armor, rubbed the excess oil on his arms, and picked up his sword like a father holding his infant son. He took out a whetstone and began to sharpen the blade, beaming at his handiwork.

Nicander said, "Gates of Fire."

"Delightful name for a battlefield," said Alexandros. "Makes you feel like you're already doing something great."

There was a pause. Alexandros seemed to know that Nicander had more to say, but he didn't ask him to continue. He ran his finger along the blade, nodding. Then he blew the iron dust off it; but he did not set down either the sword or the whetstone.

Nicander cleared his throat again. Alexandros looked up, amused.

Nicander said, "Sir, what in name of the Dog we are doing here?"

"Obeying the King."

"And what is he doing here?"

Alexandros seemed to consider whether this was insubordinate talk. Then he answered, "Having a drink with the Persians."


"What is it you want to know, Nico?" The captain paused, glancing over at a bowl of golden apples on a small table. "The tactical situation is obvious. When you have a small force and the enemy has a large one, you choose the narrowest place possible. Can't get any narrower than this." He looked pleased with himself. "We'll hold them off all day. Several days, maybe."

"And then?"

"One of two things happens: either they'll go away, or we'll get to meet Charon face to face. Prissy fellow; he's probably Athenian."

Nicander ignored the blasphemy. The captain delighted in shocking him. "You think they'll go away?"

"Persians? They might. They dislike getting bloody noses."

"And if they don't?"

"I just said."

"But if we know we're going to lose—"

"It's not a loss. Lose a few hundred to save a few hundred thousand? Any trader in the market knows what a bargain that is."

"And we just make the trade?"

For no apparent reason, the captain's whole demeanor changed. He grinned, the wild, hungry grin of battle that Nicander knew so well. Using the whetstone, he slowly scratched three circles on the blade of his sword, near the hilt. Then he finished with a tiny line on each of the circles. Finally he lifted his sword to his face and kissed it.

Alexandros asked, "You were saying, Nico?" His voice had changed too, becoming hoarse; his eyes were dilated and the irises looked darker. Nicander fought an unreasonable urge to flee.

"I was saying, sir—I was saying, will we just make the trade? Give up all our lives without even a victory?"

Alexandros picked up one of the golden apples from the tray, tossed it into the air, caught it, and brought it to his mouth.

"Why not? It's been done before," he said, biting into the crisp, sweet fruit.

* * *

For a moment, I am Anne; for another, I am Krikor. I am Dzuling, Juan, Mbogo, Alexandros. There are a thousand crucial moments, but always the same choice. I do the only thing I know how to do.

Do I change anything? Brave men and women who never met me nonetheless offer their last breaths at the feet of their friends; I have seen them do it. So too Dzuling might have given herself for the shuttle unaided; maybe Jan would have faced the S.S. alone. Perhaps I do not forge their courage.

Perhaps the only gift I bring is joy.


Merc said...

Awesome story. Thank you for sharing!


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