Three days before Eliana Stein found the girl made from bronze, the stocky Botanist noted the passing of her twelfth year living in the Aremika Shaft, though she did not celebrate it. That was the kind of woman she was: pragmatic because she lived alone, modest because her vanity did not extend to her celebrating her own successes, and fatalistic, because surviving the passage of time, she believed, was an act of submission, not rebellion.
The Shaft (so shortened by all who lived in it) was best described by what it was not: an immense absence of soil. On the yearly journeys Eliana made outside the Shaft and into the low, sprawling, ash stained Aremika City that circled the Shaft, she told those few who asked that she could not describe the huge emptiness of the Shaft. Rather, she could only explain by its horrific absence. The Shaft, she said, was a deep, burnt scar and was like the woman who had lost an arm: you did not describe the missing limb to friends, but instead noted its loss, and the way in which that loss cast a shadow over the remaining parts of the individual, and rendered them out of harmony with the whole. That is what Eliana felt when she stood in the dark, endless, windy hole that dove through the Earth. The pressure of the disfigurement was always present in the hole: it was the walls, the ground, and the wide emptiness before her. She could feel it constantly, and knew if any part of the Shaft broke, that it would collapse and smother her. There would be nothing that she could do in that eventuality. Even the shifting collection of faint, glowing dots that were scattered further up along the Shaft—the dots that signalled other Botanists who, like herself, wore the luminous clothing of the trade so not to be lost or forgotten by the Botanist Counters outside—even they were nothing against the deep wound that was the Shaft.
For her part, Eliana felt it more than others Botanists did, since she had gone deeper than any other had. It had not been asked of her to do this, but she had chosen the depth through some yet fully self-explained reason. Still, without knowing the reason, she performed her job of monitoring the soil and helping it heal and grow in density and strength with the pellets that she planted. At her depth, the soil around her alternated between dark, brittle burns and thick, healing brown of varying types; but if she could have gone down further, where there was less life and that the soil was hard and brittle like tightly packed blocks of cinder, she would have. The Department of Botany had told her it was simply not safe to go beyond her depth, however, and that they could not lower the unit for her to live in or hook up a cable for her to leave, not until the soil further up was stronger.
On the day that Eliana found the girl made from bronze, thick black ash had fallen into the Shaft during the night. Smoke rose from the factories outside Aremika City daily, and it was perpetually in the sky and ground, but the ash was only thick enough to bother her when all these elements combined. When they did, the ash fell so prodigiously that when Eliana awoke, she found the pathway around her slim, bronze unit coated in black, and the pale fungi that grew across the walls and which served as the only natural light was dim beneath it.
It was the ash, however, that led her to the girl.
When Eliana stepped from the unit, she did so holding a thickheaded broom. A brass track ran around the Shaft’s circumference like a tarnished halo. Her unit was mounted on it, and from inside, a gear system allowed her to move manually along the track. However, at the moment, she walked, and swept the paths she did. If she didn’t clean straight away, the ash would contaminate the soil and leave a horrid stink, especially since it took her a day to walk the circumference of the Shaft. She had no complaints, however, and dutifully followed the path that ran to a bronze plate that anchored a thick, taunt cable into the ground. The cable led up into the dark, joining hundreds of others the disappeared in thin lines up to the surface and the hint of a scabbed red sky that sat at the start of the Shaft. Through the cables, a Botanist received mail and food and, in a swaying, narrow bar that served as a chair, was raised out of the Shaft. Eliana had no mail, left the Shaft only once a year, and was not due a food drop for another two weeks, so it was only by her attention to the detail of sweeping that she found the girl, who had fallen next to the cable. The truth of it was, if the ash fall had not been so heavy, the girl might not have been found alive at all.
But she was.
* * *
The girl made from bronze, the Returned, since she was not a real girl, this artificial girl had a loud, irregular moan in her chest: a broken machine whine that announced itself in a grinding of gears. It was loud and troublesome to the woman who held her and every now and then, it stopped, as if in death.
When Eliana, holding the heavy, broken figure, first experienced the pause, she did indeed think of it as death, so long and final did the lack of life seem. She stepped to the uneven edge of her path in the Shaft, ready to release the body. To dump the refuse. But with a ragged howl that gargled and coughed life back in a spasm through the girl’s body, her heart returned to its stuttering, moaning journey. Still holding her, Eliana watched as the girl’s eyes flickered open, met the Botanist’s, and then drifted shut.
She was pretty, Eliana thought as she turned, and continued down the rough path, even now. It was a created beauty, however, for Eliana doubted that she had been born with such a cute face, and such smooth, white skin and large, dark eyes. The girl’s short black hair did not feel right against her skin, either: it was too dry, too hard to be real hair, even if it was tangled and dirty, and a patch on the back of her head had been torn away to reveal the bronze skull underneath. There were cuts down her pale face and neck and her clothing was torn, though neither cuts nor clothes showed sign of blood. Not all the Returned bled, however, and in this case, Eliana was pleased. The girl had lost her legs in the fall: they had splintered and broke upon landing, leaving a sharp, twisting mess of jagged bronze and internal silver and bronze wiring dangled out of her open thighs. Eliana had left a single, preserved foot back at the cable. There was no way to reattach it, and the girl weighed so much already that there was no point in bringing it. In addition to the loss of her legs, the girl had also lost her left hand. It had been torn off from just above the wrist, perhaps as she had grabbed at something, perhaps the cable that ran down to Eliana’s level, the cable that the girl frantically reached for as she fell, as the desperation forced her to struggle to touch it, to grab it, but where the speed of her descent—
Well, who knew?
A cold fluid from the girl was staining the Botanists hands, but Eliana ignored it. Worse had touched her hands in her life, but still, she hoped it was not urine. There was no smell to the girl, but Returned ate, drank, and pissed and shat, simulating the life that they had been born into, once, so it would only be a matter of time before the internal parts of her body began to fail if they were as broken as the external parts.
Ahead of her, the slim, pale lit, shadowed outline of her unit drew closer. Eliana thanked the God That Could Not See Her that she knew the narrow tracks of the Shaft’s circumference so well that she need not look down, that she did not need her gaze to direct every step. Though she did wish, squat, and strong as she was, that she had not aged so much in the Shaft; that she still had the strength of the thirty year old woman who had descended so long ago and who could have carried the girl without the strain she felt.
In the end, Eliana was forced to set her down to gain her strength before continuing. She sat, for a few minutes, on the path, in the pale glow of her uniform and a brighter cluster of fungi. She was used to seeing things in that eerie glow, but even so, the girl did not look healthy, or functional, or whatever other term you might use for a made person. Did a Return die like her? Did they go pale and cold? Well, perhaps not cold. The Returned were always cold to touch. With a grunt, Eliana resumed her sure walk with the girl. If she had not been so close to the tarnished, bronze door of her unit when the strain began to tell again, she would have had to rest a second time. Instead, her muscles burning, the Botanist shouldered her way into the narrow unit and, thankful for once that she did not keep her bed upstairs, placed the girl down on the dark blue sheets.
In the bright, yellow light inside the unit, Eliana could see that the girl was made, not just from bronze, but brass as well. The darker and lighter colouring that shone through the tattered remains of skin around her arms and legs suggested imperfection and sickness that had existed long before her fall. The girl’s clothes, which were made from red and brown likewise hinted at blood and defecation. As if listening to her morbid thoughts, the sick machine moan of the girl’s heart grew louder, as if threatening to burst from its casing, struggling, pushing… and then silent, silent, silent, before with a spasm and a cough, it started again.
Though her arms still ached from carrying the girl, Eliana descended to the bottom level of her unit. It was, like all single Botanist units, made from three narrow floors, linked by a set of rungs down the middle. The centre floor was where she slept: there were tall, narrow closets and a comfortable chair that she sat and read in. The top floor held a small kitchen and the single, narrow table that she ate at. The knives and forks and cooking utensils were suspended from the ceiling and dangled like pit of spikes reversed. When strong winds buffeted the unit, they swayed dangerously and occasionally fell—she had been hit more than once, though thankfully she sheathed all the blades. There was an opening up there that she could push open to release smoke and odours from cooking. On the bottom floor was the workbench where she kept her samples, notes, and where she could manufacture pellets. There was also a tiny shower and toilet, the drains of which opened out into the Shaft in what she considered a small contradiction to her work of healing. In the opposite corner was a large cage that ran from floor to floor and which held a single, medium sized crow, all black and smooth, and who watched her with cold glass eyes.
Under those eyes, she sat at her workstation and pulled free a piece of paper. In a thick, bold script, she wrote to the Department of Botany and explained what had happened. In her opinion, Eliana stated, she did not believe the Returned had much time left. She did not ask how the girl had come to be at the Shaft, or how she fell, though she might have, since it was difficult to do either without help; but she did not ask because she was afraid of upsetting someone, which would result in aid not being sent. In her own mind, Eliana had decided that a Botanist had let her through, and the resulting theories of murder and mystery flowered in her mind. Who knew if they were true, however.
Once she had finished the letter, she placed the note in a small brass case and walked over to the cage. The crow slipped out and perched on her arm with cold claws. It waited patiently as she attached the case to its leg. Once that was done, she climbed up a floor, and released it into the dark of the Shaft.
When Eliana could no longer see the crow, she turned and regarded the girl who lay on her bed, slowly staining her sheets. A smell had begun to emerge: an oil machine mix of urine and shit and something as equally unpleasant. The girl’s body was still moaning, though it reminded her of growling, now, as if were fighting for life while the rest of it lay dying.
* * *
When the girl made from bronze awoke that night, she did not scream.
Eliana had expected her to. She spent the evening in her narrow kitchen, expecting the cry at any moment. Returned or not, the Botanist believed that the sight of shattered limbs and torn skin would be reason enough for horror. At the very least, she had expected tears. But the girl gave neither. Instead, she pushed herself into a sitting position and waited, quietly, until Eliana descended from the kitchen. Having placed her flowing, luminous Botanist uniform in the closet, she now wore a blue shirt and a pair of comfortable, faded black pants. Her tattoos, words and patterns made from red and black ink, twisted along her thick left arm, and around the exposed left-hand side of her neck and foot. It was not until that foot, with its slightly crooked toes, and the nail missing from the smallest, touched the cool bronze floor of the unit, that the girl spoke:
“I appear to be broken.”
Her voice was faint, but purposefully so, rendering it a pampered girl’s voice, the quality of which instantly annoyed the other woman. “Yes,” Eliana replied, curt where she had not planned to be. “You fell.”
“This—this is the—”
The girl spoke slowly, each word a chore, the stuttering moan in her chest causing her to pause after every short sentence. “Yes, I fell.”
“You remember falling?”
Eliana approached the bed. The noxious odour grew, and she struggled to keep it from showing on her face. Folding her thick arms in front of her, Eliana gazed down at the girl, but the latter did not return her gaze. Finally, she said, “I have sent a bird to my department, telling them of you—”
It was her turn to be cut off now, her turn to pause. Her thick eyebrows rose in her only hint of surprise. Before her, the girl, the fragile, lost girl who had fallen, and who had sat before Eliana in a confused haze, disappeared. Evaporated like water beneath the hot red sun. In response, the pity that Eliana had meant to be feeling, but which she could not, for reasons she had not been given time to explore, was no longer required, and her dislike, her hostility, which she had been ashamed of, had sudden reason for purchase inside her.
The girl spat out, “Why did you do that?”
“Who are you?”
“Of course I am!”
Eliana had no reply, had not expected that.
The girl made from bronze gave a coughing splutter of a laugh. It was caught between self-pity, self-hate, and desperation, and it ended raggedly as the struggling moan in her chest choked it off. Finally, pushing her single good hand through the tattered remains of her hair, she said, “I won’t be thanking you for this.”
“I think,” Eliana said slowly, out of her depth, trying to find a way to understand the situation. “I think you best explain to me what is going on here.”
“As if I would explain anything to someone marked like you are!”
The tattoos. Of course, it was the tattoos that spoke of Eliana’s religion, of where she had been born. The clean skin of the Returned did as much for her as the tattoos did for Eliana. The intricate words and designs that ran across the Botanist’s body recorded the forty-two years she had been alive. Parents, siblings, her growth into adulthood, her failed jobs and relationships: the words of each ran beneath her clothes and spent most of the time on the left-hand side of her body, before crossing at her shoulders and neck and descending down her right side. Once a year she left the Shaft for those markings. Once a year a Mortician’s needle and ink set down her life so that when she died, God would be able to read her body, her life, and judge her, for Life, for Heaven, for Damnation, for Obliteration.
“There is no God in the Shaft,” Eliana said, finally. “Have you not heard that?”
The girl laughed, again, but this time it was forced, angry, and each broken movement she made in the laughter stripped the appearance of youth from her. Finally, when she could force no more out, the woman, the woman who was much, much older than Eliana, and who smelt of decay, lowered her head. With her very real eyes staring at the woman who looked her senior, she said, “I need a drink. Do you have one?”
* * *
It was cheap wine that Eliana bought down for the Returned. The bottle was green, the label plain and simple, and she had used a quarter of it some weeks back in a meal that had not been improved by its inclusion. It was not an act of friendship, nor was it an act of trust, but it was a signal that the Botanist was, at the very least, understanding of the situation. No woman was at her best while dying. When the Returned took the bottle with her one good hand, she did so quickly, snatching it, ripping it from Eliana’s strong, blunt fingers, before taking a long drink—and that helped too with her decision.
“How old are you?” Eliana asked, watching. She held a second, unopened, good bottle of wine in her hand, and did not bother to hide it.
The Returned swallowed, then said, “This is like vinegar.”
“You didn’t answer my question,” Eliana repeated.
“No, I did not.” Her good hand placed the bottle between the shattered stumps of her legs. Loose silver wiring was reflected dully against it. “My name is Rachel, by the way.”
“I didn’t ask that.”
“No.” Her dark eyes met Eliana’s. “You’re too busy trying to figure out what I am, rather than who.”
The Botanist unscrewed the cap off her wine bottle, said nothing.
“I’m one hundred and twenty-eight,” the Returned said, a hint of defiance in her tone. “Happy?”
Eliana didn’t say it, but the Returned’s—Rachel’s—words had affected her. She had turned, given the back to her after she had replied, but the Botanist knew that she had been treating the woman as a thing. She thought that she had left that kind of prejudice behind when she had entered the Shaft, but Rachel’s words suggested that she had not.
Grabbing her orange chair that had a colourful array of patches over it, she swung it round and dragged it near the bed. Once it was close enough, but not so close that the stink of the girl assaulted her overly, she sank into it, propped her feet up on the edge of the bed, and took a long drink in front of the other woman.
“I bet yours tastes better,” Rachel said.
“Let that be a lesson.” Shame had not made her more sympathetic. “Politeness has its rewards.”
At that, the Returned laughed: a short burst, different from the earlier laughter, natural this time. A faint, unwilling smile creased Eliana’s face in response.
“This is going well, don’t you think?” Rachel asked. Her broken arm lifted, paused. She grunted and her good hand picked up the bottle. “When I was standing on the edge of the Shaft, Joseph—do you know Joseph?”
A tall, thin, white, clean skinned man on the Department of Botany’s Board of Directors. He had a stylish bronze eyepiece that recorded everything. “I know him,” Eliana said, and not kindly.
“Yes, that was my response, too.” Rachel lifted the bottle, drunk. Around the stumps of her legs and the torn pants of her genitals, the stain was refreshed in both wetness and odour. “I’ve known worse, mind. Much worse. He showed me the Shaft when I asked, at least. Was more than happy too. I was his student for a little while. It turned him on, I think. He told me the Shaft had been made by lava—that the centre of the Earth had ruptured, leaving the heat nowhere to go. So it burst out. It scarred the world, he said. Such a dramatic boy. I still remember that little drop in his voice. Scarred the world, he said quietly.”
“That’s the theory,” she said.
“No one has seen the centre.”
“No.” She fell silent. Then, “No, he said that. He said that some had journeyed down. He said that they had never returned.”
“And you?” Eliana pulled her legs off the bed, leant forward.
“What was your plan? Were you running from Joseph?”
Rachel let out a breath, half a laugh, half a grunt, and rubbed her chest as if it were in pain. Perhaps it was. “Joseph was just a man for the night.”
She frowned. “You’re a prostitute?”
“Yes.” The Returned lifted the bottle, regarded her with the defiance she had shown earlier. “I’m a prostitute. A dirty whore. Are you morally outraged, now?”
“I’ve known whores.”
The other woman started at her.
“Just not Returned whores,” Eliana finished. “I’ve never heard of it before.”
“You live in a giant hole in the ground.” Rachel took a long drink and the dark stain across the bed sheet increased. The wine was going right through her—her thirst, her need, would never be sated by it. Seemingly unaware, she added, “In this case, however, I do admit: there aren’t many of us. It’s expensive. Being Returned is expensive. You have a body partly carved and partly found. It has to look real. That’s not cheap so to buy us is not cheap. No.”
Eliana did not know how to respond. She was not, and had never had been, a woman who could connect with others quickly. She responded to situations better and was able to meet a moment with the appropriate emotional response without difficulty. But sitting in front of Rachel, watching the wine stain her bed, trying to hide her growing revulsion at the smell that was growing stronger, and aware that the woman’s voice was not really focused on her, Eliana was being asked not to react to the moment, but to the person; and here, she did not know what to say. Fortunately, she did not need too:
“I have over a hundred years of being fucked,” Rachel said. Her good hand tightened around the neck of the bottle and a faint cracking followed. “In eight days, I will have been a Return for a hundred years. Another month, and I’ll have been working for a hundred and seven years. Working! Do you know what that means? Do you have any idea? How many men and women have fucked me? How many have looked at me as if I was nothing—as if I was an object!
“My boss looks at me just like that. She organises who sees me. She keeps me in drugs. She makes sure I get what I need to live. She’s surely a lot better than some of the pimps I’ve seen, but she doesn’t see me. She doesn’t talk to me. She talks about me. She talks around me.” She stopped, gave a faint ha, then fell silent.
“She’s my eleventh boss,” Rachel said, not even noticing that she interrupted the other woman. “My eleventh pimp. I hate that old term. But she’s my number eleven. I have watched ten others get old. I have watched clients get old. I’ve watched them all go grey and small. It doesn’t matter how rich, how intelligent, how whatever they were. They each faded, they—
“I had worked for two years before I was Returned.” The woman switched topics without pause, her mind erratic. “I wanted money. I had plans—plans. The world—this world—I wanted to see it. With the money I had left I could buy a house. I wouldn’t owe anything to anyone. But there was a problem. I got sick. I had a hole in my heart. A hole. Surgeons told me I wouldn’t live past twenty-eight unless I got it fixed. And you can earn a lot of money on your back, but it’s not enough to get a new heart. No. You need help for that.
“The man who paid for my Return ran The Brothel of Exotics. That’s what he called it. He was a Returned himself: Baron De’Mediala. His real name was Gregory. I—I didn’t want to die. Twenty-eight is too young to die. He sat me down in his office. It was filled with statues of birds: flamingos, cockatoos, seagulls, and dozens of other birds, coloured yellow and green and pink—every colour but black and red. If there was a hint of black or red in it, it wasn’t there. I later learnt that he had a strange obsession with bright colours. Bright colours meant life. He had even dyed his hair a shocking lemon.
“He said to me, ‘The price, it is great.’ He had that way of talking. A theatrical way. I heard a rumour that he had once been a stage magician. I told him that no price was too high, that I would pay it. Even if it meant a hundred years on my back, I would pay. He told that I wold probably never be free from the debt. He said, he said, ‘M’dear, m’dear, each year a repair must be done, a part of you fixed. Each year you will have to fix your appearance. Each year your living tissue will require ointments. Each year the wires in you will need to be cleaned. Each year your look and fashion will need updating.’ Each year, he said. But it didn’t matter—I told him it didn’t matter. I was so afraid. I didn’t see endless service as a problem. I thought, ‘What’s so different about that to the life I currently live?’
“I learned. The Baron—that’s what I called him, The Baron—he knew. He had Returned himself. He knew the cost. He kept himself free with our servitude and—and—” Rachel’s voice trailed off for a moment. Eliana, having not moved once during her speech, shifted her bottle, but did not drink. Opposite her, the Returned lifted the bottle, took a short, sharp drink, then said, “He was killed for bodysnatching. They caught him one night standing in an open grave. That’s what I heard. There were eight of them and they burnt the skin from him. When he didn’t die, they removed his organs. You only need the heart—” she tapped her chest, rubbed the spot where the moan gurgled “—that mechanical heart to live. I don’t know how long it took them to get to that. I know you can live without everything else. I once had lungs. A liver. I had all my organs, and they worked—but now? Now, now I have supplements. I can’t afford real livers, real replacements. I have fakes. I have simulations for sensations. I simulate. I—
“The Baron was right. There’s no end to your debt. The debt—it is to a Surgeon, or a Hospital, but it’s not just for one job. Not just for the Return. It’s for every day of living you do after it. Every day is debt. My debt would be passed from boss to boss, and I would work to pay it off, and I would work to make sure that I was kept alive.
“It wasn’t such a bad life in the start. There is an attraction to be exotic. A power. Ha. A power. I’ve wanted to stop so many times. One boss even let me. She was terribly obese woman, caught in her own addictions. I think she understood it. I had been working for fifty-six years, by then. I—there are no jobs that will pay a Returned what she needs. I was free for two weeks before I went back to her. When I got back, I decided I would train myself. I enrolled in a college, but I never finished any course. I kept telling myself I would. I kept telling myself I could. I said it for forty years. I said it in four different cities. I said it with five different bosses. Eventually, I just—I had to just admit that I couldn’t change. I hated that.
“It was simple, really. I told Joseph I wanted to see the Shaft—I used my best girl’s voice.” The last of the bottle was tipped into her throat. She did it roughly, angrily, and wiped her mouth with the back of her good hand after. When she spoke, there was only self-loathing in her voice, “It’s hard to kill yourself when you’ve already died once. A girl I—A girl I was friends with did it. Not so long ago. A month. We’d—we had known each other for sixty years. The night before we got drunk and talked about how you would do it. You couldn’t cut veins, we said. You couldn’t poison yourself. You couldn’t drown. You couldn’t suffocate. There was only the heart and the head. It was like a nursery rhyme. Do you know what she did?”
There was a pause, but not long enough for Eliana to answer.
“She paid a man to cave her head in with a hammer. A hammer! A hammer! I—I saw her the day after. She had had the man chain her to a chair. He had left her in the basement—and—and—
“I figured the Shaft would be a good choice. That was my idea. The Shaft. All you had to do was to jump. I could never sit there and let a man cave my head in. That waiting, that—no. No. All I had to do was push Joseph back—let him get me in close, first, tell him I wanted to stand on the edge, tell him it excited me. That was all. Then I could just push him back. Then I could just jump. Then—then—I would free, then.”
Rachel stopped, her good hand releasing its hold on the bottle.
In the silence that followed, it occurred to Eliana that it was now her turn to speak, that she should say something. She should offer sympathy. Understanding. At the very least she should acknowledge the other woman. But she couldn’t. The silence between the two stretched until it was taunt and Rachel’s eyes closed slowly and her head sank and Eliana looked down at the smooth floor and tried to find words…and had almost succeeded when a faint scratching at the door interrupted her.
* * *
It was the crow: its sharp, glass beak was pecking against the door.
When Eliana opened the door, it flapped through to the cushioned armchair silently and sat, shaking flakes of ash out of its black feathers. They fell over the fabric, over the floor, the residue of its journey outside the Shaft and beneath the red sun. Once it had done that, it waited, patiently, for the Botanist to open the brass casing on its leg.
Across from it, Rachel gazed at the crow in what Eliana considered a sudden lucidity that was inspired by apprehension and fear. There was no resignation in her gaze, however; no sense that she had accepted her fate, or even knew it, though it was impossible that she could have imagined that the tiny scrawl on the tiny note on the crow’s leg brought her any news that she would want to hear. The Department of Botany would send a man or woman to repair her. At the very least they would stabilise her before she was taken out of the Shaft.
Surely, she could not hope.
“I don’t want to hear,” Rachel said. “If they are coming for me, don’t tell me.”
Eliana picked up her bottle of wine from next to the couch, ignored the crow, and passed it to her.
“Don’t waste it,” the other said, quietly. Her gaze never left the bird. “It just goes right through me.”
“Take it, anyway.”
“I want to—”
“They were always coming.” She thrust the bottle a little. “Take it.”
“Okay.” Rachel’s voice was quiet with submission. Instinctively, her broken arm reached up—she must have been left handed—but a moment later, her good one found the bottle. The first one, made from cheap glass, lay on the bed, the neck splintered in a web of cracks. When she took the bottle, Rachel’s eyes, the eyes she had never been born with, but which had been born to someone else, those dark, dark eyes held Eliana’s with a terrible fragility. “Please read the note to me.”
Eliana approached the crow. It scratched gently at her hand and she rubbed its cold, bronze head through its feathers. The crow had been in the Shaft as long as she had—had, in fact, come down when the unit was lowered and put into place. It had been her only companion for the years, but she had never named it; nor did she know if it were male or female. The crow was, as Rachel had said of herself, an object, a thing. It responded to Eliana’s touch only because it had been taught to do so when it was alive. At least, that is what she told herself, though she was unable to fully believe it.
“What does it say?” Rachel said, her voice still quiet, still soft.
“It is from Callagary,” she began, then stopped. She had her back to the other woman and, conscious of it, she could not continue. She turned. “Joseph. He wrote this. He said that there was an accident on the top. That they had feared the worse. A Surgeon is on his way down as he writes.”
“Yes.” Silence. The crow’s cold claws pulled at the fabric of the chair. Awkwardly, Eliana added, “I’m sorry.”
Still, Rachel did not reply.
“How do you live here?”
“What?” Rachel had spoken hard and quick, as if she was accusing her, and it caught Eliana off guard. “What are—”
“It’s awful, down here.” Her voice softened and took on, once again, the tone that a woman might use when she talked to herself, and did not require an answer. In her hand, the bottle lay still, drunk only by Eliana; but the stain, still growing in size and accompanied by an ever growing sharp odour, had finally began to drop faint traces of discoloured red wine on the bronze floor. “There’s no fresh air. It’s so dark. Your light—it’s not like the light up there. It’s harder. Brittle. Everything feels like it is burning. How can you stand it?”
“No one watches down here.” Eliana hesitated. Rachel’s eyes were not focused on her: they wandered about the narrow unit, as if everything was new, and slippery, and she could not grasp it. Her good hand no longer gripped the bottle, but rested on it. Quite clearly, the strength, strangely for a body made, and without muscle, was gone. She’s dying. She might not be alive by the time the Surgeon arrives. Quietly, Eliana said, “On the surface, all we worry about is life. Who comes back. Who has what rights. Who is dominant. We fight, because we think God is watching. Or God isn’t watching. The world is dying around us and we fight and we try to make people live a certain way never understanding that it doesn’t matter. That the world we live on is—”
Rachel’s eyes focused, suddenly, on her, and Eliana’s voice faltered, the last word unspoken on her lips.
“Don’t let them take me,” the dying woman said.
* * *
A single luminescent dot was descending towards her.
Eliana shifted. In her straining arms, Rachel was heavy, and the stuttering, gurgling moan of her chest was the only sign that she was still alive. She spoke softly, now, a continual murmur as if she were speaking to a mother, or an older sister, and her cold, hard head was pressed in to Eliana’s neck and shoulder, as if she were a child. Because of this, the Botanist did not tell her of the figure that rode the thin bar down her cable, and who, in an hour or so, would be upon her unit. She wondered if he—it would be a he, she decided, on instinct—she wondered if he could see her, standing bare foot in her faded black and blue, her hard, bare feet walking off the dirt trail and to the edge of the path. The pale glow of the fungus around her did light the area, if poorly, and yellow light did fall out of the unit’s doorway. It was possible that he could see her, if he was looking.
It didn’t matter. It simply didn’t. A stone stabbed into the sole of her foot, and she grunted from the pain, but kept walking. The moan in Rachel’s chest began to grow louder. It rattled as if she was empty. As if all she was could be described by a heart that had been made from bronze. Perhaps, even, that was true, as the sharp, putrid smell that had been about her in the unit when Eliana picked her up had all but disappeared in the Shaft. Perhaps all that was left of her was a struggling, dying heart.
The Shaft was before her. Its emptiness yawned wide and full, and she could see the track that ran its circumference like a giant, fallen halo; a broken halo, for she could not see the wall on the opposite side. It was as if, on her ledge, she stood at the very edge of a burnt, broken world, and that there was just nothing, an absolute nothingness in before her.
Rachel’s whisper barely rose over the sound of her heart. If her cold lips had not been so close to Eliana’s ear, the dark wind of the Shaft would have stolen it, the now grinding growl of her heart smothered it. When Eliana met her gaze, she found Rachel’s eyes open, partly lucid, partly aware, but not fully. She was not gone, but she was going.
“It’s okay,” Rachel repeated. “It’s okay—God is not watching, not down here.”
“No. He never is.”
And she let go.
Ben Peek is the Sydney-based author of the new novel Black Sheep from Prime Books, as well as an autobiography, Twenty-Six Lies/One Truth, from Wheatland Press. His short fiction has appeared in Leviathan, Polyphony, Agog!, Full Unit Hookup, and Aurealis, in addition to Fantasy Magazine.