THE PRINCESS AND THE ORRERY
The strange, blue-skinned creature was crumpled on the floor, clutching its head, back curled, breath coming in short gasps. It reminded Naima, strangely, of a horse her father had once ridden too hard. The horse, however, had not emanated a freezing aura so bitter that she had to wrap her hands in her sleeves.
“That’s it? It can’t leave?” she asked, her breath clouding.
“Not without my permission.”
“Does it... is it in pain?”
“Not precisely.” Joseph’s gloved hands gripped a golden necklace shaped like a snake, with an opening between the head and the tail so that, when worn, the head would sit just above the collarbone. “From what I understand, they get some enjoyment from the process.”
It didn’t seem to be enjoying itself. Naima knelt beside it, pulling her jacket closed against the cold. It wasn’t what she’d expected. She’d imagined something bigger, stronger. Something marvellous. But it just seemed like a man—a strange man, certainly, but just a man.
“Are you sure it’s what you think it is?” she asked.
Joseph tutted, which turned into a cough. He covered his mouth with his forearm, holding the necklace tight. “Quite sure. Of course, if you’re having doubts, I can find someone else willing to work with me. Who’d appreciate what I can offer.”
Naima wet her lips, regretting it instantly as the cold bit against the moisture. “No, my Lord,” she said, not certain of her honesty. “No doubts. I just didn’t expect it to react that way. It seems so fragile...”
She reached out to the creature and—
Her body went rigid, muscles she didn’t know she possessed cramping as a heavy wave of emotion hit her square in her chest, stealing the air from her lungs and sending her flying backwards, hands at her breasts, clawing desperately at her skin.
Memories, images, smells, senses, feelings all crammed into her mind, a storm of long-forgotten needs, repressed desires, hidden wants. Everything she had ever put aside or grown out of, everything she had dismissed as unnecessary or distracting, rose up from the depths of her. Things she pretended didn’t matter, things she’d always believed she was better than, she knew with sudden clarity she desperately needed.
Cold burned her body. Her eyes fluttered and closed. She toppled over, hitting the flagstones next to the creature with a heavy thump.
A voice in her ear—in her mind? In her soul?—soft and reassuring, a dream...
“Everything you want, I can give you. All you need, all you desire. What is it you crave... Respect... Recognition…. To be remembered. Let me help you. Are you not magnificent? Are you not exceptional? Who is this man to make demands of you? Petty he is, with his childish dreams of power, his wicked little mind, his pretense at intellect. Stand on your feet, lift your hands to his face, scratch and claw and bloody him. Take the necklace from him, give it to me, and in return, I will give you what you deserve, what you have always deserved. I will complete you. All you need to do is stand and—”
The voice cut off, and with its end, she found she could think again, that her mind was her own.
Naima opened her eyes and rolled on to her back, dragging deep breaths of chilly air into her lungs. Joseph appeared in her vision, pale eyes watching her with curious, calculated interest.
“What did it say to you? I couldn’t hear.”
Her head rolled to the side. The creature was prostrate next to her, unconscious. Black liquid oozed from its nose and a heavy bruise was darkening its forehead, turning it from pale cornflower to midnight blue.
Naima turned away, closing her eyes. For the first time in almost forty years, she wanted to cry.
Amelia shifted from her dreams into the so-called real world with a jolt. The General Administration’s rules for the running of successful Plots state that no scene should begin with someone waking up. But then, Amelia was human and thus not privy to the strict rules governing story management; whereas she was keenly aware that something was wrong.
The orrery was malfunctioning.
She sat up in bed. The click-clack-clack of the cogs and the gentle, lulling whirl of the planets had taken on a desperate edge, filling the observatory with the low scream of metal suffering. She stared, horrified, as the enormous device sped up, the planetary spheres spinning much too fast. The main axle would break, the rotor arms holding the planets would buckle, they would crash into each other, the gears would grind and shatter—two years of work, lost in a moment!
Jumping out of bed, Amelia ran across the observatory, grabbing her toolkit as she flew past it, her feet slipping on the cold stone floor.
Then, as suddenly as it had begun, the malfunction ceased. The spheres slowed down, settling back into their normal speed, rotating in gentle circles around the main column, weaving in and out, over and above each other.
Amelia caught her breath, which hung in clouds of condensation. She shivered. It was late autumn, and the middle of the night; but should it be so cold? Her feet paled as she watched the orrery, counting quietly under her breath, checking each of the rotations.
The orrery towered in front of her, beautiful in brass and iron, glass and crystal, wood and stone. The circular base took up almost half of the vast domed observatory provided to her by her the Sisterhood of Cultivators; when all the planets were attached, it would probably fill the whole room.
Amelia liked living with the Sisters. They knew to leave her alone unless she requested something—and the orrery always needed something new. The larger it grew, the more complex the various components had to be to keep it working. It had taken her the past two years to work out the plans for a structure strong enough to support the planets—not only the four she had already attached, but also the ones she aimed to add in the future—as well as an engine that could power it. A tiny miscalculation in even the smallest cog or the length of a brace, even by the width of a sheet of paper, could ruin the whole thing in moments.
And something had just gone wrong. Luckily, the orrery had righted itself, but Sisters shouldn’t be lucky. They had to be knowledgeable.
Her counting finished, she darted into the orrery itself, ducking under the planets so she was standing at the base of the device, and checked the engine and the main shaft. All seemed in order. Next, she climbed the narrow ladder attached to the main shaft and, with painstaking precision, began checking each set of gears, rods, and connections. She had built small platforms, encircling the large central column, which allowed her to pause at various intersections to check the mechanics. Each platform was little more than a ledge able to accommodate one person standing carefully but, as she was the only one responsible for the orrery, they were perfectly serviceable.
Two hours later, and she was happy it was working. Once again outside the orrery, she stood back for one last visual check. The four spheres were turning correctly around the central column, each affixed to their own network of cogs and rotor arms which jutted out at different heights and lengths, guiding them on their complex, intricate journeys.
The middle sphere, one of the smaller ones, represented Thaiana, the world Amelia called home. It spun now as it should, diving under and swooping over the others, all turning endlessly on their arcs thanks to a steam engine of her own design, which recycled the wasted steam back into water.
Of the four planets, by far the largest was the darkest sphere, which she had come to think of as the ‘black planet’. It had been the first one she completed, and it spun, glacial, on the highest arc, casting a shadow on the other three planets. She didn’t know why she had built it first, nor why she had chosen to clad it in dark mahogany. She wasn’t interested in aesthetics. It had seemed appropriate, so why not?
Amelia settled at her desk, opening one of her many notebooks. She felt a tingle in her chest, the flutter of a challenge waiting to be beaten. Working on the orrery was like trying to follow a rabbit through long grass, except that the rabbit was changing the landscape as it went. She could see its movements and occasionally glimpse a fluffy white tail. It was frustrating at times, but thrilling, too. A task just for her in a place of numbers and sums and puzzles. Somewhere she could hide where no one would get hurt.
Amelia bent over her notes, the sound of gears gentle and soothing. The malfunction, alarming as it had been, had also brought her something new, another glimpse of the trickster rabbit, another route through the long grass. Why had it sped up? What had caused it? How had the various mechanisms been able to stand it, albeit briefly? What would happen when she was ready to add the next planet?
She chewed on the end of her pencil. The paper waited, ready to be useful. Above her, the stars watched through the giant glass window in the domed, copper-plated roof, eager to see what she would uncover.
Amelia frowned. The possibilities were clear in her mind, but she couldn’t settle enough to concentrate on them. She spotted the problem. Barry was still in bed, his head resting on the pillow. She couldn’t work without him.
She padded back to the bed and poked Barry in his overstuffed belly. She didn’t have to worry that she would annoy him—he never got cross with her, no matter how absorbed she became in her work, nor what strange hours she kept, nor if she didn’t want to talk to him for hours or even days on end. He was, above all other things, her best friend.
Barry fixed her with mismatched, button eyes, his permanent smile telling her he didn’t mind being woken up. Grabbing his paw, she carried the stuffed bear back to her desk and sat him on the table top by her notebook.
Amelia was twelve years old, the kind of gangly that would one day be tall, with a heavy jaw, olive skin, and a thick mop of brown hair, all inherited from her father. The only thing she’d picked up from her mother—so the family joke went—was her know-it-all attitude. Amelia was also a genius, though she had no idea where that trait had come from, certainly neither of her parents.
And, though she didn’t know it, she was less than a year away from destroying the world