Abyss & Apex : Second Quarter 2012: Aurum

Aurum

by  Genevieve Valentine

 

Brandon liked to walk past his engines at night and hear them humming, even though they were not yet working ; the  first night the noise had frightened him – he had pushed too hard, he thought, he had tested the wires to the breaking point – but it was just the gold, singing for Regia.

Regia slept in the engine room, the only room big enough to hold her, behind an unfolded screen of wrought gold.

She had brought the screen herself from her hoard. When the Institute laborers pulled her wagon to the gangway and opened the lid, the screen was thrumming a major chord.

“For modesty,” she said to him, casting her eye to the Daedalus as though it was a place of dark repute. Her voice vibrated through the ground under his shoes.

He hadn’t argued with her, though he could not begin to fathom why she would ever wish to accompany him. Dragons disliked the unknown.

Then again, everyone knew dragons had some odd attachments. The Institute had warned him when he asked for a hoard contract that it would be a tricky business. He supposed that the gold she had lent him was, suddenly, more important than the rest of her hoard.

Regia was easily forty feet long, and her scales shimmered purple when they caught the light. Looking straight up, he couldn’t see where her sides curved up to her wing-folds, and even when she rested her head on the ground, bowing as they were introduced, her skull was taller than he was.

Her eyes were the color of smoke, and he saw himself reflected as through a looking-glass, head to boots.

He detested her.

He said, “A pleasure to have you along for the experiment.”

There was no other opinion to be voiced on the matter. He had contracted a great deal from her. It behooved him to be polite.

The Derkoma Institute had, surprisingly, only one gold fixture in it. It was a statue of a dragon standing over the figure of a man, atop a marble base that read, Nemo Nisi Per Amicitiam Cognoscitur, a memorial to the Draconian Covenant of 1844 that had resulted in the foundation of the Institute.

Without Friendship, Nothing is Understood.

The statue was placed dead center in the lobby rotunda, so visitors might circumvent it, marvel politely as they waited for their appointments, and be reminded of the majesty of those for whom the Institute advocated.

Brandon wondered if dragons had overtly declined to hand over enough gold to guild their champions’ lamp stands, or if the Institute had thought it better not to test their new-found brotherhood too soon.

Mr. Davis, a genial young man who said the word “dragon” as if it was the name of a sloop and not the armored beast in the lobby, guided Brandon through the maze of offices to a tidy desk.

“Of course,” Davis said as they went, “now more than ever, hoard gold is hard to come by; even the banks are finding it difficult to get loans. Dragons are a bit wary of people at the moment, unfortunately, and can’t say as I blame them. We’re more used to breaking our promises than they are to breaking theirs. It’s been a very bad time for them, learning about us.”

Brandon handed over his portfolio, and Mr. Davis flipped through the papers inside the leather binding.

At last he said, “It’s quite impossible. This is more than I can vouch for.”

It was an unexpected and terrifying answer.

“Have dragons suddenly run low on hoard gold?” Brandon asked. They’d had two thousand years to acquire the stuff; there had to be enough left somewhere for him. The committee had promised him the loan.

Mr. Davis had dropped the genial pretense, and narrowed his eyes across the desk. “Mr. Brandon, your needs are considerable. Surely the committee who recommended you to us was not aware of the amount you had in mind.”

“It’s all necessary,” Brandon argued. “This is no gilded ship. This is the conductor, the binding agent. Without it I have no experiment. It is a vital matter, sir. The promise of England rests on my success.”

Mr. Davis looked at the portfolio again. “Three years is a great span of time, Mr. Brandon.”

“The experiment may take less time, but I wanted to be careful in my estimate so I would not come overdue on the loan.”

“And the terms on your side would be?”

Brandon said, “Anything.”

The contract had specified two thousand pounds of gold, literally. The Daedalus must be entirely lined with it; gold was the only stuff ductile and strong enough to protect his engines from wear during the unfathomable flight.

The loan had come as a cargo of gold bars (stacked into a tower higher than his head), and had been melted and hammered down by the blacksmiths into sheets so thin that the world bled greenly through them if you held them to the light. Aurum, the Romans had called it, the metal that glowed, and made as its symbol a pale circle with a small black center: the sun; the always-waking eye; the encapsulated whole.

After a life of schooling and work that worshiped salt crystals and tempered glass and sharp iron gears, Brandon understood at last why the Romans had made gold the beginning and the end. The ship, cast into an everlasting summer twilight, had captivated him the first time he set foot inside the finished engine room. He stood motionless, breathing in, listening to the muted ticks and whirs of the oxygen pumps beating like hearts just beneath the gold skin.

Now the film of gold wrapped every lever and measure, every wire and dial. It covered the walls, the ceiling, and the floor, so that a single lamp hung on the wall could illuminate his longest passageway.

It was such a forgiving metal that sounds did not echo, and when Regia moved into the ship through the main hall, she left talon-prints behind her, as if she walked on sand.

“Why gold?” she had asked, after they had launched into the ether under the care of the automatic helmsman; after it was too late for an answer to matter.

That was the manner of dragons, Mr. Davis had told him: time slipped past them in a different way. Things mattered to them years after, or not at all, or they worried over problems that would never come and called them premonitions.

“The gold is for insulation,” Brandon said, “and for safety. Gold melts without growing brittle. If something happens to the ship during the journey, God preserve us, gold can be mended.”

Regia nodded, pressed the slender bones of her wings tightly against her spine as a dowager snaps her fan shut. “Does it hold?”

“I cannot know until the flight is attempted. In the ether and clouds it should have no trouble, but when we have broken the bonds of the heavens, I cannot say.”

He disliked admitting ignorance, and something like pity gleamed in her eyes.

“Flight is a tricky thing,” she said.

The gold walls nearest them struck a melancholy note; when she closed her eyes to listen, the milky membranes slid shut like curtains across the grey iris.

Mr. Davis, when he had presented the contract for Brandon’s approval, had made nothing of the clause that the dragon in question wished to accompany her hoard.

“A dragon is often willing to give over much more, if they are allowed some proximity to their treasure,” Mr. Davis assured him. “When the Pergamon brothers were building their new theatre, the dragon lived in residence in the mezzanine until the first quarter of the loan was repaid, and was safe at home again months before they opened. Dragons are very clean, you know. Inconvenient, but not unmanageable.”

“I do not like audiences,” said Brandon.

“Of course,” said Mr. Davis, with a cunning look, “and no one could understand your need for quiet scholarship more than I; but please consider, sir, that your needs are considerable, and the beast in question is very interested in the proposed implementation.”

“Is this my only choice?”

Davis said with a smile, “I’m sure you could line your ship in cotton.”

Brandon set his name beside the scorched talon-mark that read, in pointed scratch, Regia.

Strange dragon, he thought, to want to go so far from home. Curious beast.

Building the Daedalus had been the purpose of his inventing life. At Cambridge–no, as a boy, even–he had made a promise to break the bonds of earth, and he meant to do it. He had devoted his every hour at university to its purpose, its planning and build.

The Daedalus would take a week to launch itself into the ether and learn to filter the thinner air; when they returned (if God was willing), it would take another week to calibrate for Earth’s thick cloud-cover before it descended.

In between – if time still worked in the heavens, which no one could say – they would be gone so long as God alone might know.

(“No matter,” Regia said, when he told her, in an attempt to change her mind. “For such a thing as this, I will give some time.”

She should not have been interested in something that took her so far from her hoard. At night he lay awake and wondered what greed must have lashed her so tightly to these bars of gold; surely she had left more behind than they carried with them now. He could not make out dragons at all.)

In every principle, he hoped that function and beauty would reign together in the Daedalus. He had built it to seem like a fish of the sky, smooth and sleek, with fins for stability in the air, while there was air, and small portholes studding the hull to see the stars by. The automatic helmsman had been built to look good-natured, and even the gears and dials, ringed in gold, took on the air of a ballroom bas-relief. Only the sharp closeness of the moon gave away that they were not in some dragon’s cave or dowager’s country house.

“What do you eat?” he had asked, standing outside the ship. “I can provide -”

“I have provided for myself,” she had said, and rested one claw on her pale, distended stomach.

“Charming,” said Brandon, feeling dizzy.

In his cabin, after the launch, he came to himself. He was a man of science; he knew his distaste for them was because they had the speech of man in the shell of a lizard, and it was unnatural. Any snake could live off small prey. There was nothing inferior about it; it was the nature of the animal. A snake did what it had to.

They are like snakes, he wrote in his notebook. It was the first notation he had made in any book that was not regarding the Daedalus; he was in a unique position to make a study of dragons, if he chose.

That first night the gold sang, and he lay awake, listening to the melodies that hummed through the walls of a ship that seemed like a stranger.

She had a clever mind.

It surprised him. He had not known dragons were able to be clever about anything besides the getting and keeping of gold. But when he explained the engines she listened quietly, tail wrapped idly around the base of the automatic helm, and seemed to understand.

Once, as he described the engines that would propel them past the cloud barrier into the dark and empty night, she opened her mouth and flicked her tongue in the air amid a pinch of smoke, as though she laughed at him.

He asked, “What amuses you?”

She tilted her head. “You speak like a man well-acquainted with the sky.”

He bristled – had he not built aeroplanes? Had he not taken to the air in thirty contraptions that snapped apart in the air or on the ground again, nearly costing him his life? Had he not spent as much time in the air as any dragon?

But he had borrowed a great deal from her, and so he only said, “You are very kind.”

The gold sighed, and Regia’s wings shifted, the bones rattling against one another like a handful of wooden spoons. She looked out the window, where the clouds were skidding past.

Strange beast, he thought.

When she was alone, she spoke to her gold.

He tried not to listen – a gentleman did not eavesdrop – but the ship was not large, and her voice rolled over the ship like water.

The sounds were rock-low and ground against each other the same way, and when she spoke the gold burst into bright chords; when he rested his hand on the wall, it trembled joyfully under his palm.

He wondered what she was saying; he wished, for the first time, that he knew more about dragons than he did. He wished that he spoke their language; he wondered if, with her encouragement, the gold would be stronger than if he were making this dark trip alone.

The gratitude was strange, and he ate and worked and slept all that night under the scratching weight of it.

They had been traveling for weeks through the cloud level, gathering strength in the engines; a small chime in his quarters told him at last that the machine was ready to break the coil of air.

He had to run through the ship to the engine room, silent steps on the golden floor, to see that it was night.

And Regia was asleep.

He was loathe to wake her (there was the old joke about sleeping dragons), but the screen was pulled over the portholes, and if this was the beginning, they would need to see the horizons.

He stepped, gold-muffled, behind the screen to where she slept.

Regia’s scales had velvet lustre at the edges, like a butterfly wing, soft and rich and shining purple in the goldlight. When she sighed (in small puffs of sulfur), the walls echoed back in a soft chorus.

If it weren’t for the gold ceiling reflecting back, he would never have seen the knuckle-chain of her spine. He would never have seen the one wing, half-drifting in sleep, the membrane so thin that the veins shifted with every breath; so thin that even in gold’s dulled reflection he could see her scales through the thin skin.

Too thin for flight.

They had odd attachments, everyone at the Institute had told him. One never knew what they would cling to, what they would desire.

Nemo Nisi Per Amicitiam Cognoscitur.

The notebook was as he had left it.

They are like snakes; he had not added to it, and it sat stark along the top of the empty page.

He considered it a long while before he sanded it out, leaving the paper thin enough to see through.

Through the porthole, the stars inched past the black sky; the ether below them was glowing pale green, fainter as they pulled away from the last that Earth had to offer them.

The engines, with no air left to process, groaned awake, beginning to generate the energy they would need to make the first jump into the dark and unknown heavens.

He closed the book and moved through the singing halls to wake her.

She should remember her first flight.

_______________

Genevieve Valentine’s fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Journal of Mythic Arts, Fantasy, Apex, and others, and the anthologies Federations, The Living Dead 2, Running with the Pack, Teeth, and more.

Her nonfiction has appeared in Weird Tales, Lightspeed, Tor.com, and Fantasy, and she is the co-author of Geek Wisdom (out from Quirk Books).

Her first novel, Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, has won the 2012 Crawford Award and is nominated for the Nebula. You can learn more about the novel at the Circus Tresualti website.

Her appetite for bad movies is insatiable, a tragedy she tracks on her blog.

 

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